Snapshot: my reading life today


Just finished: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This one took me a little while to get into, but I ended up enjoying it very much! The plot sounds like a thriller: Deep in South America, an opera performance in the Vice President’s house becomes a hostage situation when terrorists swarm in through the air ducts during the encore. But despite this alarming premise, this is actually a slow-moving, character-driven kind of novel. I don’t mean any of those things in a negative way; the characters are interesting and endearing, and the interactions between the hostages (most of whom do not speak a common language) and between the terrorists and the hostages are surprising, touching, and sometimes funny. After the leisurely pace of most of the book, I thought the ending was startlingly abrupt, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Currently reading: I literally just finished Bel Canto last night, so I haven’t picked up another title yet. I’m torn on what direction to go next- I need some motivation around my house, so I’m thinking about rereading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But I also have a pretty large stack of fiction waiting for me by my favorite chair (see photo above), ranging from a Maisie Dobbs mystery to the more serious The Kitchen House to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I feel super ambivalent about reading this at all- haven’t made up my mind yet.).  So, we’ll see. I’ll have this question settled by later in the day, though!

On the Kindle: I’m totally out of the habit of reading digital books, which is partly great because I’m on a crusade to be on my phone less. But it’s also frustrating, because I keep buying ebooks on sale that I really do want to read! So I have kind of a large queue building up. I recently started The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, and it IS interesting and accessible. But it’s not the kind of story that keeps pulling me back like a magnet, so it’s slow going.

On Audio: I’m listening to Sense and Sensibility, and, ya’ll: Marianne is about to kill this one for me. She drives me CRAZY, and Willoughby isn’t even on the scene yet.

Recent and Notable: Earlier this fall I read The End of the Affair. I started it on Audible because Colin Firth was the narrator. But I couldn’t follow the plot (my problem, not Colin’s), so I switched to a hard copy that I’d picked up for pennies at a used book sale. This book was interesting, but not at all what I thought I was getting into! Yes, it’s about an affair between a man (the narrator) and a woman (his married neighbor). But it’s just as much about the friendship that develops between the narrator and the the woman’s husband years after the affair concludes. And even more than either of those, it’s kind of a heavy Catholic-conversion story (I didn’t see that coming). So, as a whole, this was interesting, but not very emotionally engaging or satisfying for me.

Quotable: 

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” -Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Any recommendations about what I should bump to the top of my reading list? What are YOU reading right now?

 

Morningside Heights (Cheryl Mendelson)

In a word: charming

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An artsy New York City neighborhood. A cast of characters: a husband and wife trying to maintain their standard of living as their family grows and expenses rise. Their friend, a socially awkward biologist in need of a career breakthrough. Their other friend, a successful scholar and writer worried she’s missed her chance for marriage and children. A neighborhood priest, good-intentioned but full of his own doubts.

Mostly this book just pulls back the curtain and lets you watch these people as they go about their lives. There’s a plot, of sorts, but it’s only a gentle velvet rope, nudging the meandering story along toward the inevitable happy ending.

Although this is a modern novel about liberal, urban characters, this book has an old-fashioned feel. The writing is pleasant and un-ironic, without any harshness or snark. The characters are funny and quirky, but portrayed sympathetically and gently. At the center of the story is the character Anne Braithwaite, who personifies the novel itself with her sometimes naive, but ultimately vindicated optimism.

Throughout the novel, you’ll encounter clever characterization and wry cultural commentary. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, written from the perspective of one of the many minor characters populating the novel:

Jonathan had few romantic aspirations. He only wished that in the ordinary cyclical course of things life would turn more Victorian, with the bachelorhood or spinsterhood of anyone over the age of thirty accepted as a permanent state unless or until the spinster or bachelor chose to surprise the world and take a mate. As things were, people who were unmated but middle-aged, or nearly so, were still in the game. There was no repose, no ease available to someone like him, who would always have ended up a bachelor. Women who had turned forty, as Jonathan himself had, were always looking him up and down as if he were some prime pig, trying to gauge his marital potential and hoping for an invitation to the movies, insisting that he carry the ball in some unduly prolonged version of the mating game. Dating and getting fixed up, dieting, people over fifty still sucking in their stomachs and wearing come-on clothes–it was all insanity. It had been far better when women past their twenties were simply not marriageable, and left men like him alone.

Reading plot-driven books is like hopping on a roller coaster or a race car; this is much more like people watching from a cafe table on a busy New York street.* But if you’re a reader who finds a leisurely pace appealing, grab a cup of coffee and snuggle up with this one.

(I realize that sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe is more Paris than New York City, but work with me here. Just imagine that such an opportunity exists, complete with the ability to hear the inner thoughts of the colorful cast of characters who chance to pass by.)

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

In a word: Refreshing

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I didn’t love everything about this book. I’ll start with that, because I want your last thoughts of this book to be the good ones.

  1. Character-driven. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But it does mean that no matter how much I enjoy a book while I’m reading it, I have to make myself keep picking it up to read all the way to the end–especially if I’m reading a more fast-paced book at the same time.
  2. Mystical qualities of settings and symbols. Again, this is not always a deal-breaker, but in this case it did not enhance the story for me.
  3. Precocious child characters. I’m realizing this is a pretty constant literary pet peeve of mine. And the little five year old girl, Josephine, was nicknamed Jose´, which I just couldn’t get over.

Despite these three tiny complaints (and all matters of preference, not legitimate criticism), I am glad that I read this book, and I’ll probably read the other two in the series. First of all, the writing was delightful, as you already know from the commonplace post. I actually kept a stack of sticky notes in the front cover of the book because I ended up wanting to mark a passage almost every time I picked up the book (and it was a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t make pencil marks or fold down corners!).

Other than the aforementioned precocious twins, the characters were likable and often surprisingly complex. My favorite character was Nadine, because her theme was one that is crucial in real life but that basically never shows up in books or movies: It is possible to talk back to your feelings, do the right thing even if you don’t want to, and still find happily ever after.

It seems like a truth universally acknowledged by every storyteller that once you fall in love with someone (this can happen in mere seconds), then that person has a claim to your heart that can never be revoked or overruled. It doesn’t matter if twenty years go by, if one or both of you marry other people, if you discover that the other person is actually an ogre, or if you have otherwise incompatible values and lifestyles.

It’s very important to my personal happiness that this “truth” is not actually true, and so I found Nadine’s story particularly inspiring. She was in love with someone who was not her husband. In any other story, this would have meant the end of her marriage. But, no! Nadine discovered that feelings can be reasoned with, and she turns her back on the affair, releases her lover to find happiness elsewhere, and ultimately, she finds contentment and peace in duty and faithfulness. Similarly, she thinks of herself as ill-suited to motherhood. And, yes, she does hire some good help. But she also learns to embrace her family and her home, and to find joy in living the life that she has been given.

You are not a slave to your feelings.
You are not limited by your natural temperament and weaknesses.
People can change and grow.
Joy and fulfillment can be found on the other side of duty and commitment.

These are themes worth celebrating!