Crazy month in the world of reading! In big literary news, Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, hit the shelves. In big personal news, I turned 32. :P And in big, personal literary news, I read the most books in a month than I ever have since starting this newsletter! :D So we have lots to cover; let’s get down to business.
Another highlight of July; I spent a weekend at Rehoboth Beach, DE. It’s been a few years, but I used to go there all the time as a youngster. I’m embarrassed to report that never once, before this trip, did I go out of my way to peruse Browseabout Books. It’s a really cool indie bookstore right on the boardwalk; I mean, look at the design on their outer wall! Heaven.
Check out more of my book pics on Instagram!
So I meant to read five books this month, bookending with male authors, and a special, binge read of Go Set a Watchman. But thanks to the beach, and the general awesomeness to Anne Tyler, I ended up with seven. :O Not sure if and when I’ll attempt this pole vault again, or this wide diversity of genres. I covered science fiction, Jewish fiction, general fiction and YA! Not too shabby if I do say so myself.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
One aspect I really liked about the book that the movie wouldn’t have been able to support was the international focus. It’s interesting, the subtle differences between Sagan’s imagined late-90s vs the real one when the film was ultimately made. The film couldn’t make the story so wholly international because movies are on a budget and demand a tighter focus; easier to repurpose all of the issues brought up by the international crowd, and make it more about the U.S.’s political climate, and the press filling in all of the gaps. Surely the climate also changed in reality because there was no longer a Soviet Union with whom we were in direct competition, though Sagan’s hope for a project that could unite the world and bolster the economy were definitely aspirational. As was his imagined female US president. :p
I’m a little less thrilled with how Sagan approaches religion, though to be fair, many religious people see it like he does, this whole “one truth” business and everyone else being wrong in their faith. Maybe some Orthodox Jews, and surely others from the Abrahamic faiths, see the bible as a literal story handed down from Gd, but I find that to be way too limiting. I’m not going to waste my life arguing against the scientific fact that Moses couldn’t have parted the Red Sea. It doesn’t need to have physically happened for the story to have meaning for countless generations, and to stand as a metaphor for a complex and evolving reality. I was taught to believe that there is no “one truth,” but just as there is a diversity of people in the world there is a diversity of truths. This fits in well, in fact, with Sagan’s understanding of the cosmos–that we are just one small part of it, not the center of the universe, but we are still significant. The ending pages assure the reader of a more definitive answer, within the confines of mathematics, about the meaning of the universe, but religion, and “Gd,” or however you understand the totality of meaning, to my mind, speaks to what can’t be quantified. Science, it seems to me, is very much about the quantifiable, physical world, so I guess I’m still baffled by why so many of us consider these two disciplines to be locked in an eternal struggle. The universe, as we grow to understand it in the book, is a big place.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The general plot was a Bait and switch–Soffer put in some physical clues about the supposed relationship between Lorca and Victoria, only to snatch the rug out from under us in the third act. It felt a little contrived to me–sudden Intel that the real parties in question were dead. I think I was more on board for the tension between Lorca and her mother than for Victoria and her ghosts, but even there, it’s a bit convenient that the girl can only get the desired reaction from her mother by hurting herself in exactly the same way. As for Victoria finding out about Lorca’s self-harm, it would have been something, perhaps, for her to discover it organically through the cooking lessons, rather than have Blot spill the beans to her.
I liked the attention given to the Iraqi Jewish backstory; it would have been a good avenue to expand upon for more worldly texture, though Soffer’s use of food suffices to a degree. I was hoping this book might be like the Jewish version of Diana Abu-Jaber’s “Crescent,” but while the love of culinary was there, I feel like the heart of the characters was not.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The hubbub around the “new” and not so improved Atticus has perhaps overtaken the previous drama concerning whether Harper Lee wanted this book published in the first place. Sometimes it seems to come down to opinion–if you like the de-deified Atticus of this novel, then it’s merely natural character progression. If you don’t like him, he’s the product of an iffy first draft of Mockingbird, never meant to be published.
And I’m struggling with Atticus. I buy a lot of it. The fact that he felt compelled to give an honest defense to an obviously wronged client like Tom Robinson doesn’t mean he’d be in favor of desegregation 25 years later. One is about individuals and the other is about changing the institution of governance. Plenty of people, even William Faulkner, known for writing about the decay of southern society, were against the federal government imposing this sanction on the states. One thing Watchman asks us–and Jean Louise–to do is recognize there’s a wide variety of people against Brown vs the Board of Education–from the violent, fear-mongering racists like Willoughby to those like Atticus who want to keep the status quo because it’s the business of individuals, not some “machine” government. (The chat between Jean Louise and her uncle on state’s rights arguments seems particularly applicable to understanding the modern day).
But coming back to the novel, and character continuity…Jean Louise claims Atticus sees blacks as less then human, which in Watchman certainly seems to be true. He speaks of them as a collective; not yet mature enough to take part in government or even desegregated schooling without dragging the whole system down. But in Mockingbird he talks about how, at least in some cases, you can’t judge people as a collective; not all blacks, or whites, or etc, are rapists or thieves or etc. I can see Atticus joining the Klan to attend one meeting and see what these people are about, “stepping into their shoes,” but to buy into those reactionary, pseudo-science pamphlets about how blacks are biologically inferior? Surely the earlier character was too educated, and too temperate and thoughtful for that nonsense. I do wish there was a way to whittle off those edges of the Watchman rendition.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I appreciate the recurring theme of having to find ways to define yourself separately from your mother, and yet the only “present” time in the story seemed to revolve around these multigenerational stories in Detroit. I found it telling that Ginger herself didn’t reminisce over the fact that she was closest to her cousin Theresa in childhood–Helen did–and we learned almost nothing about the Phoenix family branch’s memories in that place until Amy went to Thailand. I think that’s what frustrated me, and made the world building less real.
It was also intriguing to learn a little more about Polish immigrants. I’m used to stories where “the old country” remains permanent through relatives that still live there and occasional trips back, but here it was all about memories and food. I appreciated, too, how these ties obviously became more lax with each generation, but Pietrzyk always found subtle, believable ways to tie them back to their heritage.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I like the idea, but I think it was a bit too on the nose. It’s also John Green’s style, it seems, to have teenagers talk as though they’re on an episode of “Dawson’s Creek.” I certainly don’t doubt that they’d be thinking about these things, especially with the advent of college on the horizon, but Margo’s disappearance made confronting these issues a bit convenient.
I also almost wish that the story were told from Lacey’s point of view, because she had more of an actual relationship with Margo, but I do get that the point was that Q and Margo had long idealized each other, and were tied together by the discovery of the body when they were kids. Still, if we were in Lacey’s head, maybe I, too, would see Margo as more of a person and less of an idea. I think the ironic trap that this books falls into is that although we are supposed to realize that Margo is a person rather than a stereotype, we don’t really find out that much about her true motivations, triggers and history in the narrative. I almost felt bad for her parents–I mean who should have to deal with their kid running off all the time–but the rest of the characters seemed to dismiss them as narcissistic. If we saw more of Margo’s life with them, then maybe I could get on board with that, but I think it stands to reason that she’s being a bit selfish. To be fair, her friends do call her out on that.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Junior and Denny in particular could be a bit contemptuous, though of course the narrative fleshed out their stories so they and their relationships weren’t quite one dimensional. Jeanine and Amanda had an intriguing sisterly relationship in the midst of their parents’ troubles of growing old. Stem’s origin story could have skewed into the melodramatic but it didn’t, and it ended with a nice, understated coming to terms with his brother, Denny. I also liked the relationship between Abby and her daughter-in-law Nora; that it was frustrating for the matriarch but that she also struggled with that, and although Nora was religious and slightly eccentric in her ways, she wasn’t an evangelizer. Though her in-laws were also annoyed by her magnanimous graciousness.
The house itself was as much a member of the family as anything, and the two main story arcs revolved around Junior and Linnie Mae moving in, and then their son, Red, ultimately moving out in old age. Tyler’s descriptions really shone here, and she wove a nice tapestry of the house as a stand-in for the Whitshank’s desires of upward mobility, success and comfort (or in Denny’s case, entrapment, perhaps). It also was a stand in for residential and commercial life in Baltimore–at least for white people, because Tyler touched correctly on the deep segregation between Baltimore neighborhoods. The novel did a good job of making a time and place come to life behind a fully realized cast of characters. Maybe there could have been something more universally transcendent, if the story had had a tighter focus, but overall it was a thoughtfully engaging read.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More broadly, we have the theme of families and their general mystery–no one member thinks and feels the same about their relationships and history as any other. I can see why this book in particular is so beloved–supposedly Tyler’s favorite, the last time she was asked. It handles these issues most succinctly, in ten chapters that really read more like connected short stories, given the years that pass by and the third person narrators who change. They even have subheadings. I’m particularly taken with “This Really Happened,” from the POV of Cody’s then-14-year-old son. It could have–and perhaps does, slightly–graze into over emphasizing the theme in bright, street sign letters (about the stories people tell and how they belt a more complicated reality), but overall I found it enjoyable.
Each chapter/story was relatively self-contained, and yet the main characters continued with a lifelong progression. In “Dr. Tull Is Not A Toy,” Jenny reflects on ridding herself of a childhood seriousness, but now she seems flippant and amused when confronting her stepson’s problems. It was some deft work by Tyler with dialogue and characterization. But I suppose the character who had me the most baffled was Pearl. Perhaps I need to read the beginning of the book again, as narrated by her, before we get a more abusive account from two of her children. Ezra, too, is so mild-mannered that it can be difficult to get where he’s coming from, even when he’s the POV. The title, and his Restaurant, surely convey his character’s motivations with the most subtlety and grace. Tyler’s work with the overall family structure, and in describing details of a shifting Baltimore setting, are masterful as well.
Basically I held even this month, adding a book to my Goodreads TBR for everyone I subtracted. Sometimes they came from my amazon wishlist, and sometimes they came from my mood at the moment. There is just. Too much. To read. Should be my catch phrase here. :P
- Added from the Amazon wish list: The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman; little Jewish immigrant girl surviving the early 20th century Lower East Side. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman; chronicles the life of a young adult male character in the early 21st century. Believe by Sarah Aronson; young adult novel dealing with the aftermath of a girl whose family was killed in a suicide bombing.
- My Father Is An Angry Storm Cloud: Collected Stories by Melissa Reddish. Keeping tabs on the fiction pursuits of talented folks from my alma mater! Added to my TBR several months ago; Mother Box and Other Tales by Sarah Blackman.
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Been hearing this book getting buzzed about, and I couldn’t take it any longer! Multi-ethnic family and tragic drama? I’m so there. :P
- Added to the amazon wish list: The Jewish Book Council posted a summer list of published books; I added three. They include Shelter Us by Laura Nicole Diamond about a female friendship; Orphan #8by Kim van Alkemade, an early 20th century immigrant story but with a dark twist; and The Girl From The Garden by Parnaz Foroutan, concerning a Persian Jewish family in the early 20th century.
As today is the boy wizard’s birthday, there’s only one meme I can include here. :P To that end, here are my reviews of the books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thanks so much for reading my lengthened newsletter here. :P To end on a reading-appropriate quote from Albus Dumbledore: Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on Earth should that mean that it is not real?