For a change of pace, I thought I’d stop talking about my own book and post some mini-reviews of books I’ve read lately. Some I loved. Others were, well, not my cup of tea.
Let’s start with four books I enjoyed.
These books were my cup of tea
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.
In 1977 William Least Heat-Moon lost his job and his marriage, and decided to pack his truck and drive across America on small country roads – depicted on maps as the “blue highways” that trickle off from the major expressways. In his travels he meets fascinating people, explores dwindling small towns and their human history, and considers what to do with the rest of his life. Although he identifies as Native American like his father, Heat-Moon resembles his white mother, so he frequently hears the unselfconscious racism that white people share with one another. The book is a satisfying meander through territory that is by now twice-vanished: the rural towns whose singularity was already being erased by television and superhighways; and the America of 1977, still reeling from the Vietnam War and the social upheaval of the 1960s.
Margot by Jillian Cantor.
What if Margot Frank, Anne Frank’s older sister, had survived the concentration camps? What if she tried to shed her past by moving to Philadelphia and creating a new identity for herself as a non-Jewish woman named Margie Franklin? This is the premise of Cantor’s compelling and haunting novel, which takes place in 1959 just as the movie version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” sweeps across America.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko.
This sprawling novel takes place in modern-day Ukraine and in the Ukraine of 60 years ago. The plot hinges on the friendship between two women in today’s Ukraine: a journalist who hosts a popular TV interview program, and a respected artist who is killed in a freak car accident. Their story develops with a parallel story about a woman freedom fighter during WWII, about whom the journalist is trying to make a documentary. The novel is a bit challenging to read – the plot swirls around in time and place (some of it taking place in dreams) – but well worth it for the revelations about life in Ukraine, explorations about how people absorb or fail to absorb seismic political and cultural shifts in one lifetime, and wise observations about human nature and friendship among women.
Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss.
A collection of essays about race, written by a white woman. The essays are brilliant, incisive, brave, and unpredictable, drawing surprising connections and provocative conclusions about everyday American life and the hidden and overt dynamics that bind us together and tear us apart.
Not my cup of tea
Here are two books that got lots of buzz and critical praise, but that I found disappointing.
Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.
A bold but naive young woman, known only by the city of her birth (Reno) moves to New York to be part of the cutting-edge art world in mid-1970s. What Reno loves is speed – as in skiing and riding motorcycles – and men. These two appetites get her involved with the black-sheep son of a rich Italian family that manufactures motorcycles, and ultimately in the radical politics of Italy. Despite the critical acclaim it received and the fact that on the surface this book should appeal to me strongly, I was only lukewarm about it. Reno’s passivity in her relationships with men got tiresome.
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwen.
I’ve tried and tried to like Ian McEwen, but to no avail. While I can appreciate the clarity and precision of his prose, it has always seems soulless to me. And when his novels reveal their startling plot twists at the end, you can practically hear the Law & Order “cha-chung” sound in the background. His depiction of the inner lives of women characters is particularly unconvincing, although that actually turned out to be a strength in this book. All that being said, Sweet Tooth does have some things to recommend it. The novel is about a young university graduate who almost accidentally finds herself working for MI5, the British Secret Service, after being groomed for the job by an older professor with whom she had an affair. Her undercover task is to find and encourage with grant money the right sort of young writers whose work will provide cultural and intellectual support for the anti-communist side of the Cold War. Set in the 1970s, the novel does an excellent job of portraying the atmosphere of Britain in decline, beset by terrorism, economic woes, cultural upheaval and self-inflicted political wounds.
So many books…
I just finished reading the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (my cup of tea!) and started Redeployment by Phil Kay. Among the many, many books on my teetering “to be read” pile is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
How do you handle the perpetual problem of so many books, so little time?