Tuesday, August 25, 2015

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 -- Playing Catch-Up Here with a Grab-Bag of Books for you

I've been reading, yes, but I've also been packing and trying to get the house organized to leave it for almost two months and visiting the kids before we leave and meeting with the housesitter and on and on. There are posts I wanted to write here, and I suppose I've procrastinated in writing them because some of the books I want to tell you about are so wonderful that they deserve more time than I have.

So I'm going to let myself right off the hook, and simply list the titles here, maybe adding a few enthusiastic words, and perhaps even promising to come back later and add in some quotations I think I'd like to copy out (for you and for me).  Our plane flies out next week, but I'm going to head to the city this weekend and stock up on family visits and grandkid snuggles. If I find time, I'll come back later to tell you what I've loaded up on my Kobo for reading on planes and trains and in hotels and rented houses. Meanwhile, though, with apologies, here are my recent reads, a very disparate bunch indeed:

Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is a wonderfully satisfying book to savour, as I did, over many months. Dipping in and out, I marvelled at, and was delighted by, MacFarlane's easy erudition, which always enhances rather than obscures the landscapes he walks through. His descriptions are rich and precise and brilliantly evocative so that I want to set out with a pack myself. And he links words, shaped by tongues, collectively throughout a long cultural history, with paths over the earth, shaped by feet, collectively throughout a long cultural geo-history. Really magnificent, and I now want to read everything else he's written. The sections on poet Edward Thomas and the painter Eric Ravilious, the chapter on walking through Palestine, the tense description of walking across tidal sands under threat of obliterating fog . . . wonderful stuff. Highly, highly recommended.
Paths are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making. It's hard to make a footpath on your own.

Serendipitously, I read Robert MacFarlane's chapters (on my Kobo, which I deeply regret, and will have to remedy by picking up a hard copy) in between chapters from Sara Maitland's Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales. Maitland also gets us out into our old ways, hers taking us into the forests of Britain and linking these forests, the intersection they represent of nature and culture, with the fairytales of northern Europe. And the book is as magical as Maitland's subject matter. Particularly appealing are the rewritten fairy and/or folk tales she offers at the end of each forest's chapter, demonstrating brilliantly how alive these old stories still are, how connections can still be made between the oral culture that told those tales and our own culture, moving from print into the ether as we may be. . .
And the book also complements Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk in some ways, particularly the adventuring into contemporary forests which hold the old at their heart, a memory of use according to class, the question of ownership of the commons, and so on.

Are you sensing how much I'm holding back here? How much I want to tell you about these two? I hope you get a chance to pick up a copy, perhaps at your library. I wouldn't say that either of these is a quick read -- I've taken many months picking them up and putting them down, enjoying a chapter here and there.  But I can say emphatically that they will stir your imagination and entertain and educate.

Much lighter fare: Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop.  I must admit I was skeptical for the first chapter or so, but this one won me over. It ties a grand love story together with an adventurous road trip from Paris to the south of France and a fascinating conceit which playfully posits bookseller as healer. A book you'll enjoy and then want to lend to friends!

Also light reading. The Absent One, the second novel in Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q mysteries featuring Detective Carl Moerk and his intriguing and often amusing sidekick, cleaner-turned-assistant Ahmad. Honestly, I found the plot in this stretched credulity, but I so much enjoyed meeting Moerk and Ahmad in the first novel (The Keeper of Lost Causes) that I'm willing to extend considerable latitude. Character development and some ongoing narrative connections from Keeper hold my interest, and I'll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Now I realize that I also have to at least mention Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I really want to come back to tell you more about this surgeon's important -- and, I hope, game-changing -- critique of North American medicine's approach to illness and death. I would try to connect what Paul and I have experienced as our parents moved, each of them, through cancer to death, two of them suffering cognitive decline along the way, my parents being fortunate in having significant autonomy, at home, right until their last week, his being not quite as fortunate but still managing to avoid getting caught up in the horrid cycles of surgery and intubation and chemical regimes that Gawande, a surgeon, comes to deplore. This book is sobering but also inspiring, realistic, honest, and, finally, hopeful, particularly in the many case studies Gawande offers, testifying to the good endings that are possible if we learn to admit and accept the inevitability of death. Honestly, I think this is must reading for anyone with an elderly or ill loved one -- or, say, anyone who thinks s/he might become ill or might someday die. So yes, I mean everyone!

And before I'm done, one last novel I must give short shrift to as well: A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson's tour de force companion to the splendid Life after Life. All I will say about this, for now, is that it has a deliciously sly narrator who will have you thumbing your way back to make connections between repeated images or words or phrases -- or between different characters' perceptions or memories of a scene. Atkinson delights me in the way she stretches the stylistic possibilities while never allowing story-telling or character development to lag. And she draws her setting so well -- England, across the 20th and into the 21st century, in a particular social class. Once elevated, drifting gently toward a muddling middle. . . .

Okay, that's it! I've not said anything about Karl Ove Knausgaard's A Death in the Family, but I'm currently reading his A Man in Love, and I suspect that I'll eventually write more about the overall series, My Struggle. Not that there isn't enough written about this staggeringly impressive work all over the Internet --  check out this review essay in The New Yorker if you're interested.


  1. I'm reading A Man In Love now, too. I started with Boyhood Island because it was available from the library and then circled back to the beginning. I might be seeing the adult Karl Ove differently because I know something about his childhood. What part memoir I wonder and what part fiction? I'm interested in hearing (reading!) what you have to say about it all.

    Have a wonderful holiday Mater! I look forward to any reports you send us as I will be following in your Paris and Rome footsteps in about 8 weeks. (I will also be in Venice. Dottoressa, I will wave at you across the sea!)

  2. Frances, I am so curious about books you are going to read,can't wait to hear :-)Thank you, Georgia,lucky you! I am now in Zagreb,far from sea ,but,who knows, I may be in northern Adriatic for a weekend in september,so,I'll wave back :-) Venice,Rome......wow,I envy you both,in a good sense,I have a part of my heart in Italy! Have a wonderful holidays!I will go to London in october
    Ladies,I'm a bit afraid of Knausgaard,is it too depressive? I'm in no mood for black holes just now. And after a Goldfinch with a rollercoaster of emotions.Pages of deep,deep sorrow after his mothers death - I was so overwhelmed.
    Today is released 4th book in Millenium series written by David Lagerkrantz.I'm sure that I will read Knausgaard eventually,as well as Atal Gawande,but not now. I'm looking for spirit lifting literature.Maybe Nina George or Atkinson. The Scandinavian writers are very good and interesting,but usually morbid. I like Camilla Lackberg and Jo Nesbo ( but I am now taking some break from him :-),read too many books ,he was even in Zagreb)
    In the meantime I read a croatian writer Julijana Matanovic,her nostalgic novels "In the beginning and in the end there was coffee".
    Looking forward for next posts

  3. Georgia: I suspect it would change your impression considerably, given the little that I've read about Boyhood Island, which must generate considerable sympathy for Knausgaard/his protagonist (himself?). I am going to abandon A Man in Love until we get back -- it's just too much to carry in our limited luggage, and I wouldn't be willing to leave it behind when I finish it. So Karl Ove will just have to wait.
    Thanks for the holiday wishes -- I'll try to be a good scout for you! ;-) envious of your Venice plans -- one day I'll get there.

    Dottoressa: I don't find Knausgaard depressing, but it's not light reading and it could, I'm sure, trigger depression given some of the circumstances he writes about. I think you'd enjoy the narrator's "essays" -- so much of the novel is philosophical. And there's much to admire and to figure out about the writer's style, the way he moves in and out of a scene to different times and places.
    I've loaded the Kobo with a few mysteries and right now, I've taken a break from Karl Ove with a mystery, set in Italy during Red Brigade years -- it's by Timothy Williams, called Converging Parallels.
    Are you going to read the 4th book of Millenium? I'm not sure -- will wait for the reviews, I guess. So many writers -- I don't know that your Croatian Matanovic is available in translation. I'll have to check.

  4. Thank you,as I said,I would read it eventually,but now,with a lot to work and "empty nest syndrom" :-) in very near future , I'll go light and semi-light.
    Owing to different translation I didn't realize that I actually read The absent one. Although I liked the first one in Q series,especially main characters,I did't like "the absent one" ( but I plan to continue with him ),as well as the third Millenium book,so,I'm not sure,too,about the forth Millenium.But,who knows,it may be better.
    I preordered new Robert Galbraith aka J. K. Rowling book (mid October)
    I did't find Matanovic in translation,only German one in paperbook
    Never read anything from Timothy Williams
    Enjoy your reading and travel

  5. Dear Frances and Georgia,owing to your suggestions I could't resist and am reading Min Kamp. I like it very much ( more when you decide to write about it) ,it is great in many ways,contemplative, and I wonder did some of the critics have read it at all. No,it is not depressive,it is life in its jin and jang perspective,whole,but not in a zen state,static and dynamic in the same time,peace and chaos,moving and impassive,in and out.....
    Have beautiful holidays!

  6. Dottoressa, so glad you went ahead with Knausgaard. I wS deterred for a long time by many of the reviews as well but ended up finding it so very engaging, so full of thought, of life, indeed, as you describe so well. It's certainly not light reading but not, to me at least, depressing (although sometimes I find him/his narrator very annoying)