Before I left Vancouver, I'd hurried through a big fat book I'd been looking forward to, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, Honestly, I wanted to love this (because, Annie Proulx) but I found it simply too obviously tendentious. Indeed, occasionally I would read some interesting anecdote about one of the many characters parading down the centuries of this historical survey of America's capitalist exploitation of its forests and wonder why the writer had bothered. The characters were so obviously working to convey a message to the reader that any attempt to flesh them out a bit more seemed wasted. Such a brilliant writer and there were numerous passages that exemplified that, but there was also heavy-handed delivery of information to readers that made me despair about the value of fiction.
Dissenting opinions? I'd love to hear them, but you'll have a tough job convincing me. . .
Also, in the last few weeks before I left, I was trying to finish Elena Ferrante's La Figlia Oscura, which I'd optimistically taken out of the library - in Italian! the English translation out with some other borrower at the time. I only managed about 40 pages of this (in Italian) before I had to return it to the library after I'd exhausted the three renewal periods allowed -- painstaking translation, so slow and with so much recourse to Google translator for words I don't know, but still, satisfying. Interesting for me to see how similar the tone is to that of Ferrante's narrator in My Brilliant Friend, and there are some sentences/paragraphs that the latter novel repeats very closely -- the mother, for example, who wants to impress on her daughter a fear of the sea; the narrating mother who feels immensely liberated from her young-adult daughters' extended absence after their move to the US.
I also had to return Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost to the library before I was done with it, but what I read was enough to reset some of my attitudes to traveling. Or better, perhaps, it reinforced attitudes I'd allowed to drop back into latency. A must-read, though, that already has inspired me to think about relinquishing the tight hold on my iPhone and the access to Google maps, getting lost in moderate ways, at least, not just in travel, but perhaps in more of life as well. Much food for thought, and I'll definitely return to this one.
Then for the plane, and for those nights back in the hotel room in Rome, on my own, a couple of good mystery novels: You might remember that I'm still lucky enough to be working my way through Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries, learning about Venice as I do, planning to visit someday. The latest title for me was Fatal Remedies which further develops the rich relationship between Brunetti and his academic, feminist, firebrand of a wife. No complacency in their marriage, but love and much keeping each other on their toes. In this volume, she makes him furious, but by the end, they come around to see each other's point of view. So many mystery novels present detectives unable to sustain relationships; it's intriguing to consider the possibility it might be otherwise.
But Jussi Adler-Olsen's Detective Carl Morck is one who doesn't do so well with personal relationships. A Conspiracy of Faith is the 3rd in the Scandinavian Department Q mysteries, and while the serial killer phenomenon might be getting tired, overdone, to many, farfetched even -- and I don't mean Adler-Olsen's, particularly, but the concept in general -- the character development is strong here. This is particularly so between Morck and his mysterious Syrian assistant Assad, but also with the, er, erratic clerical/administrative staff in the department. Apparently, three novels in this series have been made into film. Has anyone seen these? (I should add that if you're looking for a "cosy," these are not your mystery novels. Plenty of graphic violence, some gruesome, some grotesque, but this is oddly mixed with the comic. Dark humour abounds.
After sinking into the weird escape that mystery novels are for me (I can't understand why I would want to escape to such a universe, but perhaps the satisfaction of puzzles being solved?), I generally try to redeem myself by reading something more "worthwhile," something with more substantive content. This time, I turned to a memoir recommended by a friend which I was thrilled to find available as an e-book through the Vancouver Public Library -- even better, I was allowed to access the book despite being out of the country. Yes, there is the downside that I won't have my own copy of a book I suspect I'll want to go back to, but the ease of downloading -- for free! -- such high-quality reading while travelling is an absolute boon.
Okay, then, who's the author? what's the title? Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom. So good, this memoir of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist/feminist Faludi about her rapprochement, as she moves into her middle years, with her father after his astonishing transition, via surgery at an advanced age to Stefanie, a woman (he fakes documentation to be able to do this -- in fact, as the memoir details, his life is marked, perhaps even directed, by his skill at faking),. Almost as astonishing is that after having survived the Holocaust as a Budapest Jew (and, by the way, having rescued his parents by impersonating a Nazi soldier -- at barely 18!!), her father chooses to live his last several decades there. So much about this memoir that illuminates so many dark corners -- the ugly persistence of anti-Semitism in Hungary; the strange struggle between Hungarian nationality and Jewish identity in her father; the troubled history of sex-change operations and the Trans community's historical struggle with strict gender binaries, its worrisome (for Faludi) understanding of what it means to be a woman. Fascinating, fascinating memoir -- highly recommended! I could write so much more about this book, and if you're in a book club, it would fuel a marvelous discussion. Seriously, grab this one! (and if you don't believe me, or you'd like a longer review that my quick-and-dirty, read this
And then I turned back to the mystery genre. Well, how could I resist? The VPL emailed to tell me a book I'd put a Hold on was now available: Carol O'Connell, Blind Sight, the just-released latest title in a series I love. If you don't know this series featuring Kathleen Mallory, a New York detective with a traumatic childhood and an arguably sociopathic personality, you're in for a treat. Not too much is added here to our knowledge of Mallory, except that we see glimpses of rare empathy, with children not surprisingly. And there's a young blind boy in a predicament which, if you're old enough, might recall Audrey Hepburn's role in Wait Until Dark. Amped up exponentially by the age factor! You'll see. . .
So there you have it. What I've been reading while I wasn't re-reading and posting about Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. What about you? Especially if you're a reader who's felt excluded by my current focus on the ReadAlong, here's a chance to chime in and tell us what books are stacked by your nightstand (or on your desk or on your kitchen table or in your purse, or perhaps all of the above!). And if you've been ReadingAlong with us, but cheating on the side, you can 'fess up now as well. And I'll get back to Ferrante next post.