Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Some Titles In Search of a Post? A Miscellaneous Collection . . .

Have any of you read Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road or seen the movie based on this wonderful 20-year correspondence between a New York writer and the London used-book store whose address gives the book its title? First published in 1970, a gem of wit and style and the possibility of connection forged across an ocean merely through the power of the written word. I don't know how I missed this through my reading life, but having come to it this late I intend to be a bit of an evangelist. . . I'm planning to order some copies to have on hand for gifts. But first I need to get my very own copy so that I might reread at leisure -- I read this in a library copy that I had to wait ages and ages for -- its popularity apparently continues. . .

I read that collection of letters back in the summer heat, in the same weeks that I read Kate Harris' Lands of Lost Borders: Adventures on the Silk RoadSince I'm so far behind here, I'll just tell you that I recommend this highly if you're at all interested in traveling vicariously -- across Western China, and then from Turkey across to the Himalayas?  by bicycle? through blistering heat and then bone-chilling cold (snow included)? often lacking the proper permissions and documentation? Harris writes brilliantly, not only about her travels themselves -- the geographies, cultures, peoples that she observes -- but also about the philosophical underpinnings of her worldview, of why she travels. Here's a review from The Globe and Mail, and here's a radio interview with Harris.

Some of you commented, at my last post, about having read Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and being most impressed by it. I agree -- the novel uses to great effect a narrative structure that often falls flat, the trick of having one generation succeed another over two or three hundred years. Annie Proulx did this with Barkskins and as much as I've loved her other writing, I thought the book ever so ponderous and it was hard for me to care for characters who walked across the (figurative) stage too quickly. Gyasi, though, a first-time novelist at that, deftly connects us to a character in each time period and ensures that the line between that character and those of other generations is tight enough and strong enough to keep us caring. The human lineage is the story here, genealogy having been so damaged through the violence of slavery. But while Gyasi works to illuminate the big story, the overall destruction, she never sacrifices a character to a cause, and although her characters must quickly give way to the next generation's, they are nevertheless given enough time to let us know and care about them. Recommended!

I picked up Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming from the bookshelf of the AirBnB we rented in Lyon back in May (see how far behind I am?!) . This is another debut novel, a mystery that was nominated for an Edgar for Best First Novel, and I would definitely read another by Scherm. The book is as much philosophical or psychological, in some ways (à la Ruth Rendell), as who-done-it (or, better, what did she do?), and asks some interesting questions about identity. Even better, it places these questions in the context of a fascinating world -- that of art and antiques restoration in Paris. Oh My!! Here's a brief review for you.

Joanna Cannon's The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a delightful mystery, set in one unseasonably hot summer in late '70s suburban England. Deliciously full of a neighbourhood's secrets, which two girls, on the threshhold of puberty, decide to investigate so as to find a disappeared wife. . . The mystery and the coming-of-age, that tension between innocence and experience, the girls' navigation between morality and religion and social righteousness and nastiness. . . Very enjoyable and thought-provoking to boot.

This barely gets me to the end of my summer reading and here we are halfway through fall. I will try my best to get back here soon, but you know how likely that is. Before I go, I'll just mention a few books I've read recently and happily recommend:  Michael Ondaatje's Warlight ; Miriam Toews' Women Talking; and Patrick DeWitt's French Exit; Tom Rachman's The Italian Teacher; and C. S. Anderson's The End of the Alphabet.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Mysteries and History and France and French. . .

The light reading continues. . .

I very much enjoyed both of Susie Steiner's Manon Bradshaw's mysteries, recommended by Sue at High Heels in the Wilderness. Don't you love her bookposts?! (and if you don't know about them, oooh, you have a lot of titles just waiting to be added to your To Be Read list).  Intriguing, well-plotted mysteries with interesting and likeable characters (a few very unlikeable ones as well -- I mean, they're murder mysteries). I love visiting England via the deftly drawn settings and I have a soft spot for Manon in all her impulsive and crusty vulnerability.

I also enjoyed, almost against my will, Ann Mah's The Lost Vintage which I picked up at the library because I so much enjoyed her Mastering the Art of French Eating. Her novel is a very elegant version of a classic romance, with the added intrigue of travel (France!), some exposure to the world of wine-making, wine-tasting, and wine-collecting. The book is structure daround a secret, a family history mired in the complex politics and moral dilemmas (and, bien sûr, the crimes against humanity) of Occupied France during WWII and of the decades-long, post-war repercussions, the rift ripped between those who collaborated and those who resisted.  Why was it "almost against my will" to read this book? Well, this combination of historical setting and genre always makes me uncomfortable, resistant to any resolutions the narrative finds, uneasy at any catharsis or entertainment value I draw from the sufferings of this period. I felt the same way about Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key. . . 

So I'd recommend The Lost Vintage if you don't share my discomfort (which I attribute primarily to twinned year-long courses in German History and German Literature!). It's well-written, credibly researched, effectively structured, and it reflects Mah's own considerable immersion in French culture.

One more title from my light reading, but this one I read in French, Georges Simenon's L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre. Apparently, it's been made into a movie several times. Has any of you seen one of these film renditions? or read the book, in whatever language? In it, Maigret returns to his boyhood home, so there's considerable parsing of his emotions. . . and the crime is unusual, the plot full of twists and intrigue with a thoroughly dramatic final section, high tension, an explosive and supposedly revelatory action, and then an odd sense of something a bit different than anti-climax, an acceptance, rather of not being sure, a disequilibrium.  . . .


As usual, I'd love to hear from you, whether you want to tell us your thoughts about either of the books I mention here, or about whatever you're currently reading. I've just finished Michael Ondaatje's Warlight and hope to post about it next week -- highly recommended! -- and I'm currently engrossed in Guillaume Musso's Un Appartement à Paris (also recommended if you read French; it doesn't seem to be translated into English yet, but I'm sure it won't be long -- so good!).



Friday, August 24, 2018

A Paris Memoir and The Teachings of Plants -- Gleanings from the Library

I ended my half-year reading round-up with Liam Callanan's Paris by the Book; between that title and the titles I mentioned in my last post, I've failed to record some fifteen or so books.  Too bad, because many of these deserve a recommendation. So let's see if I can catch up quickly as I post about my more recent reading.

I've just finished Sonia Choquette's Waking Up in Paris: Overcoming Darkness in the City of Light. If you're a fan or follower of Choquette and her work as a spiritual advisor, you will probably enjoy this as a narrative of re-making a life (in her case, after a painful divorce) by trusting one's intuition. I'll admit that Paris (or travel, at least) has always been my back-pocket plan for dealing with potential marital trauma -- anyone else think alike? Sure, I might have to rely overly on my charge card, but what's a little debt when the heart's breaking? (Okay, yeah, dangerous thinking. . . )

 Years ago, at the height of my Parisophilia, I loved Suzie Gershman's memoir, C'est la Vie, about moving to Paris after the death of her husband -- and honestly, I think it's the stronger of the two memoirs (I remember reading a passage from Gershman's memoir out loud to Pater through tears). But I'm a sucker for this genre and I enjoyed Choquette's iteration well enough. Five or ten years ago, I'd happily have paid for my own copy, hardback even. My recommendation for you now would probably be to borrow it from your library, as I did.

Catch-up Title for Today:
Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. This is such a rich and rewarding collection of essays by a Distinguished Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at SUNY who draws on her heritage as Potawatomi as well as on her commitments and concerns as a mother to show us ways that humanity can contribute positively to the environment, to a sustainable ecology. She does this by telling stories that entertain and illustrate and educate -- and reveal what plants can teach us. I posted a photo of the book on Instagram some time ago, along with a comment about the book (which, in turn, drew some interesting comments from others):  I was hooked by "the fascinating narratives of pecan propagation—do these trees synchronize their mast fruiting by talking to each other? Indigenous wisdom held this but was scoffed at by scientists who now are acknowledging possibilities that such conversation might happen on the winds or underground." 

This is one I highly recommend -- it lays out a daunting situation, yes, but it offers hope that we might contribute to productive re-wilding of the planet -- and while I was pleased to be able to get a copy from the library (I waited and waited, having put it on hold months ago -- a long waiting list, this one's popular!), I find myself wishing I had my own copy to go back and reread, or to share with others. . . 




Saturday, August 18, 2018

Serious Summer Reading. . . and some Not So Serious

I've just finished reading Philippe Sands' East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes against Humanity." I'd come across a recommendation to this winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford Non-Fiction prize and added my name to the Vancouver Public Library's waitlist for it several months ago. When the VPL emailed to say the book was now available, I'll admit I might have winced, even grimaced, at the idea of reading it during weather more suited for lighter fare.

But as difficult as his subject matter is, Sands builds a compelling narrative about the gradual recognition in international law of "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."  His narrative's power owes much to the coincidence that the two men who introduced these crimes into international law -- Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, respectively --studied under the same professors, at the same university, in a Central European city called by various names: Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, or Lviv. Further coincidence, also woven into the narrative, is that the author's own grandfather was born in that same city. And the three men shared, also, the devastating loss of home and family as Jews living during the Third Reich.

The book begins in 2010 -- the author has been invited to give a lecture at Lviv University, and is told by an audience member that he should look to the city for clues to his own family's history. This unveiling of secrets long shrouded by his grandparents parallels his research into the lives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht and their (as much oppositional as complementary) efforts to have "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" recognized in international law. The "case study" that Sands constructs his narrative around is the case against Hans Frank as part of the Nuremberg Trials -- and Frank was the governor of the Third Reich conquered territory of Galicia, home to the families of Lauterpacht, of Lemkin, and of Sands' maternal grandfather.

This is such an important book, especially at this historical moment when we are again viewing dangerous incremental changes with horribly xenophobic notes being sounded. It's not easy to read -- particularly the passages when we hear directly from Frank and his co-defendants and when we read testimony from those who witnessed the evacuation and the murders of the Holocaust.

And yet, to repeat myself, it's compelling.  I spread the reading out over two weeks, taking a break in between with some lighter reading, but I never had to force myself back to it; rather, I felt drawn by the story Sands tells, the connections he makes between events and people and places.  I think it also helps that Sands has chosen to write in very short chapters, two or three pages generally -- the natural pauses sometimes pushed me forward into the next chapter, searching the solution to a mystery, and sometimes they offered me respite from witnessing horror.

The closest comparison I might make would be to Edward de Waal's  The Hare with the Amber Eyes, although de Waal's book focuses on the theft/appropriation of the Ephrussi family's wealth, properties, and -- especially -- its art, rather than wholesale destruction of a city's Jews, of a grandfather's family. . .

As for that lighter reading. . . .

Over the last month, I've spent hours plonked down next to a fan, with a mystery in hand. I've read three of Ruth Ware's mysteries: The Woman in Cabin 10; In a Dark, Dark Wood;  and The Lying Game. They're all well-written and tightly plotted enough to keep me sitting and turning pages, only getting up to stretch my legs and pour another glass of mint-lime infused water from the Glug-glug jug in the fridge. The protagonist in all three is a woman -- and I like her women, who are smart and flawed and resourceful. All young (do we need a contemporary Miss Marple on the writing scene? Or is there a Female Detective of a Certain Age mystery series I don't know about? And by "of a certain age," I'm probably hoping for something over 55, as the goalposts have shifted considerably for me -- 40-45 is "young" to me. . . .

I've more mysteries and other reading to tell you about as well, but I'll save that for later and click on "Publish" this Saturday morning.  Let me know if you've read any of these books and, as always, we can chat about books you've been reading as well. The mic's all yours now. . .


Sunday, July 22, 2018

2018 Reading -- Halfway Report

Here's my 2018 reading list, as it was at the halfway mark on June 30th. That we're now three weeks into the second half of the year testifies to my desire to augment the list with some quick comments about books that never got mentioned in a post. I've added a few of these comments and have links to the posts I did manage. . . .

1. Sara Blaedel, Only One Life (trans. Erik J. Macki and Tara F. Chace
2. Jacqueline Park, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi
3. Elly Griffiths, The House at Sea's End
4. Aurélie Valognes, Mémé dans les Orties
5. Donato Carrisi, The Whisperer (trans. Shaun Whiteside)
6. Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
7. Isabel Vincent, Dinner with Edward.  Charming memoir about Vincent's friendship with an elderly widow still grieving deeply for his wife. Much of the friendship -- which sustained both Vincent through a marriage break-up and adjustment to life in a new city and Edward through his mourning -- was built around the weekly dinners he would cook for her.  Wisdom wrapped in the sustenance of good food. . .
8. Peter Robinson, Sleeping in the Ground
9. Lee Child, The Midnight Line
10. Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind
11. Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News
12. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
13. Val McDermid, Insidious Intent
14. Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope
15. Edward St. Aubyn, Mother's Milk
16. Peter May, Extraordinary People
17. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
18. Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (translator, Alexander O. Smith)
19. Ali Smith, Winter
20. Sara Baume, A Line Made by Walking
21. Gary Paul Nabhan, Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy-- I haven't finished this one yet -- I've been reading it aloud to Paul on road trips or as he cooks dinner.
22. Bernard McLaverty, A Midwinter Break
23. Thomas Perry, A String of Beads I love this mystery series featuring Jane Whitfield, who draws deeply on her Seneca heritage to help worthy candidates "disappear" into new lives. She does something a bit different in this last novel which I recommend -- but first, if you haven't, consider starting with the first in the series, Vanishing Act
24. Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty Paul brought this home from the library, and I enjoyed it as a quick read which, while light and entertaining, managed to plumb some depths about marriage and parenthood and the tough tug a mother faces in order to sustain a career or to continue as an artist. . .
25. Georges Simenon, Maigret et la Vielle Dame But she was so sweet, that dear old woman. . . hmmmm. Some lovely, nostalgic-but-not-too French-beach-towns here, Maigret remembering his youth. . .
26. Carol Matthews, Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage
27. Elly Griffiths, A Room Full of Bones, a Ruth Galloway mystery
28. Edward St. Aubyn, At Last Last in the Patrick Melrose series, set at the funeral of Melrose's mother, and there's a fairly satisfying -- redemptive, even? -- ending to the series -- which we might have expected or hoped for, given that the narrative throughout mirrored St. Aubyn's personal life fairly closely and the writer is, after all, writing past the trauma. . .
29. Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant Chast's graphic memoir about caring for difficult, colourful, creative and brilliant parents in all their cranky and eccentric infirmity and memory loss. . . at huge expense to her family life and her work. . .
30. Elizabeth George, The Punishment She Deserves I always enjoy a Havers focus in these Lynley novels, and this one is very good. She's forced into close supervision by the Inspector with whom her protector Linley has a history, and this adds an interesting tension to the plot. Plus the notion of Havers tap-dancing? Really, you need to read this if you're up to date on your Elizabeth George mysteries, or start at the beginning of the series (lucky you!) if you're not.
31. Leila Slimane, Chanson Douce Okay, I was quickly skeptical when I started reading this -- published and on best-seller lists in English as The Perfect Nanny. I knew the book being packaged as thriller of the Gone Girl sort had won the Prix Goncourt, but besides the sensational packaging, the first chapter or so seemed to me to be pointing a finger at the guilt of career women who consign their children to others' care. But it's so much more than this, a real indictment of a social divide that allows both fathers and mothers alike to blur the line between family and employee, ignoring the real costs of the relationship, generally paid by the employee. . . Absolutely thought-provoking and compelling.
32. Michael Connelly, Two Kinds of Truth (a Harry Bosch mystery) I'm a Harry Bosch fan from way back, but not so much interested in his "Lincoln Lawyer" series -- this novel brings the half-brothers together and it was okay, but I'm finding Bosch a bit flat these days, to be honest.  Much less development of, and focus on, his troubled personality, his knowledge of music, his relationship with his daughter than in the earlier books, and I guess character's always what draws me into a mystery.
33. Susan Hill, From the Heart.  I love Hill's Simon Serrailler series and when I spotted this at the library, I thought I'd give it a try. More "literary" than her mysteries, it's a slim novel that examines the quiet life of a young woman trying to build a life around her love of literature and teaching in a time and place when the options for a lesbian were to keep that sexuality firmly hidden. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, yet gentle, poignant. . .
34. Anna Quindlen, Miller's Valley Bedside or even beach reading that nonetheless explores some social (and political/environmental) issues that deserve attention. I've always liked the way Quindlen, a former journalist, can do this.
35. Danielle Postel-Vinay, Home Sweet Maison: The French Art of Making a Home I had to return this to the library before I finished it, but I enjoyed skimming it. As much as I admire the French lifestyle, I found the strict definitions of each room's function and decor -- at least as described by this American woman who married a French man and is raising a family with him in France -- more interesting, sometimes even amusing, than aspirational. I can see how this domestic architecture structures a way of life that leads to the satisfactions I note in that country, but I value our own freer arrangements for contemporary daily life. And there's unquestionably a huge influence, in that architecture, of class and of gender. . . .Bourgeois Patriarchy, I'm looking at you ;-)
36. Andrew Battershill, Pillow Okay, this is a stylish and interesting -- hip? -- take on the mystery genre. A parody in which the convoluted panoply of criminals chasing some ancient coins all bear names of French Surrealists. The humour is constant, quick, and clever in this heist-gone-wrong narrative; the misdirected hopes and flailing optimism of the ex-boxer protagonist did endear him to me, somehow, weirdly. . . Finally, I think it was a bit too clever for what I want out of a mystery, but I couldn't help but admire it, and you might too.
37. Elly Griffiths,  A Dying Fall Yes, this is the year I decided to read all the Ruth Galloway!
38. Edna O'Brien, The Little Red Chairs Such a moving book, horrifying, loving, hopeful, daunting. . . the outward ripples of war and its horrors. The setting in a small Irish village and its surrounding countryside is beautifully wrought -- O'Brien's a master, of course -- and she was 85 when she wrote this, so all that experience! -- But also the portraits of immigrant life in London. And the main character's groping her way back to some kind of sanity after an unimaginably brutal experience (although O'Brien's writing makes imagine it, and then pulls us back to sanity as well). The book deserves so much more than this disjointed paragraph, but here's a review that will better tell you why you should, or might want to, read it.
39. Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead
40. Elizabeth Berg, Talk Before Sleep, I'd forgotten about Elizabeth Berg, but enjoyed a few of her books way back when I'd take them home to read -- "hand-selling research" in my bookstore days. This e-book caught my eye when I checked into the library online while travelling and it made a nice change from mystery novels (a break from what archaeologist Ruth Galloway was up to!) as a piece of light reading still substantive enough to engage. Indeed, if you're too close to the death of a beloved friend, you might find too much substance here, but I loved the gentle treatment of a close friendship between two women in their 30s/early 40s, the way their respectively changing marital status influenced and was influenced by that friendship. The constant movement between sorrow and humour -- some of the latter wry and contained, some of it goofily explosive. The protectiveness, the anger, the care -- not just between the narrator and her dying friend but within a tight sorority of strong women. .
41. Elly Griffiths, The Ghost Fields What can I say? We were travelling, and I needed something to read, and Ruth Galloway (not to mention Nelson and Cathbad and the little girl Ruth conceives in the first book in the series who grows to school-age by the last I've read . . . I've got one more of this to read -- at the library right now waiting for me to pick up -- and I must say I've really enjoyed getting to know Ruth and her friends, co-workers, lovers, daughter. . . . I think you might as well, although you might agree with me that her regular proximity to danger is perhaps becoming a bit strained. . .
42. Elly Griffiths, The Woman in Blue
43. Elly Griffiths, The Chalk Pit
44. Liam Callanan, Paris by the Book

There you go -- I must admit I'm inordinately pleased with myself for adding these few notes to the bare-bones reading listt of what I've read so far this year. Yay, me! I hope my "cheap and cheerful" comments might guide you to pluck a title or two for your summer reading  -- let me know if that happens, and perhaps tell us where you're reading these days (some of you, I imagine, might be curled up in an armchair, perhaps by a fire, cozy against the New Zealand or Australian winter outside. Many of you, though, are trying to find some shade or a breeze to cool down, and perhaps there are a few splashes of saltwater rippling the pages of that paperback. . .

Of course we're all eager to compare reading notes, so if you have recommendations, do spill. . . .And in case you haven't already seen it, Sue has another book post up at High Heels in the Wilderness. I think that might be where I first learned of Elly Griffiths' books and I've made a few must-read notes from her latest suggestions.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Random Reading: Plant Life and Paris Romance

I'm going to post these excerpts from "my other blog" here because they're about books and I think I'd like to keep that material together here rather than just including a link. Hope you don't mind the duplication.

I'm reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. The subtitle is Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and the book offers brilliant narratives of plant life based on all the science you could hope for from a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY. Fascinating stuff about the ways that pecan trees manage to synchronize their irregular fruiting, about the marriage of algae and fungi that is lichen, about the surprising discovery that some plants -- sweetgrass is her prime example -- do better for being harvested. . . But it's the book's rich spirituality that keeps me turning pages, the "indigenous wisdom" she draws from to lament what's been lost, yes, but also to point to harmonious ways of being in the world, ways that humans can (and do!) play a positive ecological role. Ways that helping Nature (and admitting that we're part of it) helps us. . . .

 So much of what I've been reading in her essays over the last week resonated even more forcefully yesterday as my husband and I watched Leave No Trace, a beautiful, moving, and powerful film directed by Debra Granik (who last brought us A Winter's Bone).  Superb acting by a new sure-to-be-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster, but the implicit commentary about home and homelessness in America is given a rich emotional weight, arouses (in me, at least) such a nostalgia, an atavistic longing for a "natural" home in the world. . . The forests of the Pacific Northwest might read differently to me, as they did to Paul last evening, because we have spent some time in them, although we haven't camped for decades. But the contrast between the world that humanity, our indigenous selves, was once born into, and what we've made of it. . .  That's me, though. The film's nowhere near as heavy or preachy as those last sentences might suggest, and I highly recommend you see it -- and the lush gravity of the forest scenes really deserve a big screen and good sound system.


And for a lighter read, a perfect summer book (although I'd also enjoy curling up with this in an armchair some rainy fall day. . . 
 Liam Callanan's Paris by the Book.  Love, romance, Paris, a mysterious disappearance, Paris, a 40-something mother re-building her life by managing a(n English language) bookshop in Paris, a 30-something gallant courting said mother, two adolescent daughters who quickly acquire texting/SMS skills in a second language, numerous well-drawn and quirky characters, and um, did I mention Paris?! The book is satisfyingly but not ponderously rife with literary and filmic allusions -- fans of Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline books and of Pascal Lamorisse's brilliant film The Red Balloon will be pleased.


I know! Two posts in less than a week. (and there's another in the pipeline. . . )

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Liminal Fictions -- George Saunders' Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter


Almost two months since I last published here,  and before that I began this post. At first, I only got as far as drafting a title and importing the photo below. 

A few days later, I added a few paragraphs: The photo's taken from Ali Smith's Winter -- which I managed to borrow, in hardcover print format, from the library. I'd like to have my own copy (along with her earlier Autumn, which I said a very few words about in this post; scroll down to the bottom of the list) because this is definitely one of those books that demands to be reread.

We're confronted with this head from the novel's opening, if I remember correctly (it's been too long and I don't have a copy here to double-check) -- a stone head, it seems, that floats along wordlessly beside one of the novel's protagonists. I appreciate that we're not flinging the term "magical realism" around as constantly and ubiquitously and promiscuously as we were ten or fifteen years ago -- but let's just say that the Britain this protagonist occupies might be a bit more porous to other realities than the reader perhaps expects.

It takes a while to sort what's going on, and then, again if I remember correctly, we dip quickly into different times and places with this protagonist, before shifting to the perspective of another. I felt off-balance for the first third to half of the novel, but enjoyably so, working to puzzle out possible connections. Characters who I was inclined to dislike revealed themselves to be sympathetic or at least more interesting than I'd expected. Indeed, given the novel's work as political allegory or commentary, it's a tribute to Smith's deft pen that the characters lift so convincingly off the page. Especially since, as James Wood points out in this New Yorker review,  both Autumn and Winter must have been written very quickly (he calls them "political pop-up books."

Short shrift, I shamefacedly admit, for a book that deserves much more of my attention. but I'm determined to finish this post today or tomorrow, and I've got one more book to mention. . . You might like to have a peek at fellow blogger Mardel's much more sustained review.

And when you've done that, I'll tell you quickly that before I read Smith's Winter, I read George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, which is another book I will have to own in hard copy.  So many passages I'd love to underline, to copy out, even, but I'd borrowed this one from the library from the Fast Reads shelf. It deserves savouring rather than fast reading. . .

For one thing, it takes a while to get a sense of the terrain. The novel comprises many substantive excerpts from a number of historical sources; at the outset, these describe a grand reception President Lincoln and the First Lady gave on an evening when their eleven-year-old son was suffering from typhoid fever -- epistolary excerpts and passages from biographies or from newspaper articles published at the time switch gradually from covering the reception to describing the boy's illness -- doctor's report and nurse's and servants' -- then describing the child's worsening, his eventual death, his parents' grief. But the reader is left to assemble the narrative from the material provided. . .

Which would be challenge enough, although manageable, without the short fictional narratives interwoven among these historical texts. These sketches, we gradually realize, are of the ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery to which Lincoln's son has been brought. I've lived this long without knowing that "the Bardo" is, in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of consciousness between life and death (there are other states of consciousness that are also "bardos," as I understand it, but for the purpose of understanding Saunders' experimental novel, I think this works).

The novel's organizing conceit is that Lincoln's son cannot bear to abandon his father to his obvious grief, but the spirits who inhabit the cemetery with him know that he risks being horribly trapped, both physically and spiritually, in this in-between space filled with grotesque characters--whose narratives are being gabbled about discordantly. The collective effort necessary to push the child out of this world and into a better space is worth following. What struck me most, though, were the  passages in which one character in particular celebrates the myriad concrete beauties, large and small, that make human life in the world worth the pain he suffered in living it -- and in leaving it.

I do wish I could offer you examples of these passages, and if I had my own copy, I would. (In fact, I'm thinking I might try to check the book out again and add a passage or two here when I do -- some of them are so beautiful and against some of the atrocities we're contemplating daily, in the news, they offer tiny arguments for sustaining hope, for finding worth in the everyday.)

But perhaps you've read it yourself, and could share your own favourite passage. . .

Short shrift again, but if you're not ready to dive into the novel yet, you might check out Hari Kunzru's review in The Guardian.

These two marvellous novels are the 17th and the 19th on my list of books read in 2018. Halfway through the year, I had listed 44 books (a whole slew of mysteries pushed the count up while we were travelling).  Simple arithmetic declares that I'm 25 books behind -- yikes! It's pretty obvious that I'm not keeping up with my original intention of writing a bit about each book I read, and I'm seriously wondering if it's worth maintaining this blog separately. I could, instead, just post updates on my reading over on Materfamilias Writes, but I've rarely found the book conversation there to be as convivial as it can be here. We're a much, much smaller group here, but we're all engaged readers, and I've really enjoyed our exchanges. It's pretty obvious, though, that I'm not doing enough to feed this blog and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do much more.

Thoughts? Either about the two books I've discussed here, or about whether or not I should keep the blog going, desultory and occasional as the posts seem to be, or whether my writing about books would be better placed over on my other blog. (And prepare to be shocked: There will be TWO posts here in one week -- I'm going to post my Halfway-through-the-year list in a day or two, so we can compare notes. I might even manage another post next week to tell you about some really great stuff I've been reading lately. We'll see. . . )