A Kiss Before Dying

The most recent choice for my mystery book group was Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (Hobgoblin’s choice, in fact), and what a great book it was to discuss. Levin is an author I would happily read more of. The novel is hard to write about, though, because not only are there fun twists and turns of the plot that I don’t want to describe because it would give too much away, but even to describe the structure of the novel and to talk about issues like point of view risks giving too much away. I’ll just say about the beginning of the novel that it reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley in the way it creates a strong sense of dread: we are in the mind of a killer and are so close to him that we can’t help — or I couldn’t help — identifying with him, which is an uncomfortable situation to find oneself in. I found myself rooting for him and then berating myself for doing so, and then feeling horribly anxious about whether he  — and I couldn’t help but feel that it was I — would get away with it.

But there is so much else to think and talk about as well. It was published in 1953, and World War II hangs over it in important ways, as does post-war economic issues and the idea of the American dream. The portrayal of the women characters is fascinating, as is the rather cavalier way Levin treats mystery genre conventions. The book boasts one of the most compelling unconventional detectives I’ve read in a while, but I can’t tell you who it is because that gives away more than I’d like. The very fact that I don’t want to write about who the detective is tells you something about the wonderful strangeness of this novel.

If you decide to read this, I’d recommend picking it up without reading anything about it beforehand. Just plunge in. It’s a real treat.

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Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap

I listened to Meg Wolitzer’s 2008 novel The Ten-Year Nap on audio and liked it a whole lot. This is my second Wolitzer novel (after last year’s The Interestings), and I think she’s so good! The ten-year nap of the title is the main character Amy’s ten years spent as a stay-at-home wife and mother. She now feels pressure to go out into the world and “do something”: volunteer, get a job, something besides “stay at home.” She worries about people asking her what she does all day. She knows she does a whole lot, but people in careers are always skeptical. Amy is the main character, but there are so many other lives Wolitzer tracks: other mothers, many of whom have chosen not to work outside the home and some who have. She also tells the stories of women’s lives from earlier generations, in some cases stories of the mothers of her main present-action characters and in other cases, stories of famous women and what influenced their careers and decisions about family. Wolitzer is going for a broad view of women, feminism, and family, tracking how things have changed from the early days of modern feminism in the 1960s and 70s up until the early 21st century — what women have gained and what they haven’t. It’s very much an issue novel in the sense that it’s clear what Wolitzer set out to do, but the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and the satire is so sharp and funny that the issues don’t get in the way of the fiction. Anyone who has tried to balance work and family life will appreciate this. The book made me feel, on a personal level, SO HAPPY to have a job, and also SO HAPPY to have a lot of time at home with my son and SO LUCKY to have the husband I do. Wolitzer does a great job of showing just how complex it is to sort out one’s life as a modern mother, while at the same time recognizing that these are very privileged problems to face.

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An Untamed State

Some brief thoughts on An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay: Gay seems to be the star of the literary world right now, which is cool; I follow her on twitter and have enjoyed her tweets and her online essays for a while now. I’m looking forward to reading her essay collection Bad Feminist when I can. As for the novel, I had mixed feelings about it. This hardly ever happens, but I ended up appreciating the second half more than the first. I don’t want to get too deeply into it and say too much about the plot, but I thought the second half of the novel headed into territory that is newer than what happened in the first. The first half of the novel is pretty hard to take; before you pick this one up, if you are thinking about it, be prepared for some graphic sexual violence. But the story Gay tells is powerful and it brings up interesting issues about parent/child relationships and marriage and power. However, part of my mixed feelings came from feeling unimpressed by the writing, which was plain and occasionally awkward. It’s plain in a way that drew attention to itself, oddly, rather than being plain in order to disappear in service of the plot, which is what the writing in the best plot-driven novels can do. So while I found the novel emotionally moving at times, I didn’t fall in love.

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I’ve written a blog post!

Hi everyone. I hope you are enjoying your summer immensely. I’ve been supervising a lot of this:

Cormac and Finn

And cracking up at this sort of thing:

Cormac 18 months

And introducing Cormac to new adventures:

Cormac bicycle

And generally feeling very busy.

And what have I been reading lately? Well, I wrote a review of Vanessa Blakeslee’s short story collection Train Shots, which you can find here. Also:

  • Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her, which was satisfying long and great.
  • Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was a reread for me, although my first read was decades ago, so it was practically new. I loved it. Both the Christies I’ve read in the last few years have been fabulous.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, which I liked very much. It felt very … shall we say … loosely structured, but still, the story was good and the commentary on American and Nigerian cultures interesting.
  • Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Glamorous Ghost, a Perry Mason novel which was just okay, kind of formulaic.
  • Iris Owens’s After Claude, which was darkly, satirically funny and sad at the same time.
  • Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonder World, a memoir about surfing and Moby Dick. I liked it, even though those aren’t subjects I’m particularly interested in. Hocking makes them interesting.
  • Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road on audio, which was devastating. In a good way.

I hope your summer has been full of good books too!

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Checking In

Hello! In my last post, way back in February, I mentioned that posting would be light, and here I am, back again in May. This spring has been very busy, with lots of classes to teach, a toddler to chase after, and a house to sell. As it turns out, our house hasn’t sold, but we have found a tenant to rent it, and we have also found the house we’d like to buy. We should be moving in a week or two, although the actual moving date remains maddeningly elusive. Does the house-buying process ever go smoothly? I’m thinking that it doesn’t.

At any rate, I’ve squeezed in reading when I can. I’m not reading very fast these days, but that’s okay; at least I’m reading steadily. Two of the highlights of the last couple months have been Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The first is an essay collection that has been a surprise best seller, because when are essay collections ever best sellers? But this one is worth the hype I think. I only wish more essay collections got this much hype, because there are others that are equally worth it. But something about Jamison’s book is striking a chord with readers right now. What I liked most in the essays is the combination of sharp intellect and emotional wisdom. Jamison does what great essayists do: grapples with ideas and experiences and lets us see the results on the page. She writes about herself, but she doesn’t write only about herself. Her range of topics is broad, but the essays are thematically connected and feel like a coherent whole. She is a good guide to experience.

The other book, Dept. of Speculation, is a short novel about domestic subjects — motherhood, marriage — and also about trying to create art. What makes it distinctive is its style and its voice: it’s written in a fragmentary way so that while the pieces all fit together into a story (of sorts), the short sections jump from topic to topic, idea to idea, so we are left to piece it all together. It’s not that this is hard work, though. I loved the main character’s puzzled, struggling, combative attitude toward the world around her. Her observations about new motherhood are so true as to be almost painful for this new mother to read. I checked this book out of the library, but I need to get my own copy so I can reread it. (I also plan to spend some time with this list of books that influenced Offill’s writing.)

And now I’m off to read a little Trollope (Can You Forgive Her?) before bedtime. I hope all of you have fabulous books to read as well!

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Reading Round-Up, 2/4/2014

First of all, let me say that posting around here will be light for the foreseeable future. And I apologize for dropping out of the blogging world as far as commenting goes. But the usual busyness — job, baby, life stuff — has been made more complicated by the fact that we are now trying to sell our house. This has required ungodly amounts of cleaning and also putting many of my books into storage, in the name of making our house look less cluttered. We have emptied the house of five large bookcases. It’s painful not to have those books around, although having gotten those books temporarily out of the way will make moving day decidedly less painful. But I have no idea when moving day will be — our house could be on the market another week, another month, another year, no idea — and I don’t like not having my books right here. Um, okay, I have lots of books left, it’s not like I’m living in a bookless house, but just the other day I wanted to reread the opening pages of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and I couldn’t! Frustrating.

So, here is some recent reading:

  • James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which is part of the Tournament of Books. Actually, most of the books I’ve read in the last few weeks have been part of the tournament. I liked this book, although I didn’t fall in love. The opening sections were enthralling as I read about life in Kansas in the 1850s. McBride captures the wildness and danger of it so well. He also creates a wonderful character in John Brown. I thought the book needed some more editing, though, and it felt too long. But his language is amazing, and he deals with some interesting gender and race issues with his main character.
  • Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. This was a strange reading experience. The book is very long and very plotty, and neither of these attributes is something I really enjoy. But I liked this book. The way the plot unfurls is mesmerizing. Catton has such perfect control over her material that following the plot twists and turns was satisfying. And over time, she creates memorable characters whose lives and fates I came to care about. She also does a brilliant job of capturing the world of the gold rush in 1860s New Zealand. I’m not sure I would ever want to reread this book, though. It’s beautiful, brilliant, moving — but is it a truly great book? I’m not sure.
  • Margaret Millar’s Beast In View. This was my choice for the most recent meeting of my mystery book group. I liked it, although I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t like it more. But it really was good — tightly constructed, chillingly atmospheric and creepy. The psychologizing felt a little too easy to me, which I think was my main problem with it. But Millar was great at keeping the plot going at a good pace and making you feel uneasy and unsettled in the way good thrillers do.
  • Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. This book could easily be a novella. But the large margins and abundant white space that make this book 220 pages serve a good function: the writing has a spare quality to it that invites you to slow down and reread and linger over the language. It’s about a boy growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, dealing with sexual abuse by an older neighborhood boy and also becoming more and more aware of the depredations done to the landscape around him by miners. The book is dark, but also beautifully written and moving. Very good.
  • Lastly, I just finished Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. It was good, not at all surprising in terms of the plot, but with two good main characters. I liked Eleanor very much. This was entertaining, fun, difficult to put down.

I’m in the middle of reading Maggie Nelson’s book Jane: A Murder. It’s part poetry, part bits of journals, books and newspapers. It tells the story of the murder of Nelson’s aunt who died when she was 23, before Nelson was born. The book is Nelson’s attempts to understand and respond to what happened to her aunt and how it affected her own life.

I also plan on picking up Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things and maybe also Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division. So, lots of good reading going on around here, in spite of the busyness.

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Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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