Once again (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I kept track of what I read this year; here is the full list. As always, my reading is limited each month by being able to find books I really want to read. Recommendations always welcome!
Chaos (2016) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Set entirely in Cambridge, MA. Much more personal detail in this one, about her relationships with Lucy, Benton, Dorothy (her sister), Marino — which I like. All the action takes place in a 24-hour period, though there are memories and reminders of the past; if you haven’t read others in the series, the plot — a young woman is killed while riding her bike in a park — and musings may be a bit difficult to follow. I enjoyed it.
Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997) by Tom Wessels. For permaculture group. A sort of identification guide for central New England landscapes, looking at the signs of disturbance — fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beaver activity, blowdowns from various kinds of storms — as a way to understand how the land has been used, how healthy it is, what kind of substrate underlies it, what woody and non-woody plants characterise it and why, etc. Interesting and relevant.
A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. For a bookgroup. Spoiler below. One of the better books I’ve read in recent years (including his first book, Rules of Civility, which wasn’t nearly as good, IMO). Briefly, the plot is that in June 1922, as the Bolsheviks take over Russia, Count Alexander Rostov (Sasha to his friends) becomes a ‘Former Person,’ sentenced to live his entire life in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow and threatened with death if he steps outside it. As the book jacket puts it nicely, “the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges relationships with the hotel’s other denizens,” including an earnest child called Nina who later has to leave her own child, Sophia, with the Count. The plot is simple, the book — moving among times and places; examining motives and intentions; and briefly but effectively considering such topics as the peppered moth of Manchester, the measurement of gravity, the movie Casablanca, bits of philosophy from Aristotle to Montaigne to Hobbes to Locke, etc. — is richly and elegantly complex.
The Trespasser (2016) by Tara French. Police procedural (most than most), crime fiction. A woman — dressed up, made up, “blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up …. [s]he looks like Dead Barbie” — is found dead in her home, obviously interrupted while preparing a cozy dinner for two there. Antoinette Conway, fairly new to the Murder Squad but already made wary and cynical by harsh hazing/sabotage, and her ready-to-please partner Steve Moran are given what looks like a simple domestic violence case. Excellent plot — much of it involving police work, suspect interviews, the delicate dealings within the team — with complex and interesting characters and relationships. Page-turner. Recommended.
Missing, Presumed (2016) by Susie Steiner. Crime fiction, another police procedural, set in Cambridgeshire, told in short chapters from multiple points of view, mainly Manon Bradshaw, the 39-yr-old single DS; Miriam Hind, the mother of the missing woman, Edith; and Davy Walker, Manon’s colleague on the police force; and also Helena, Edith’s best friend. The police don’t have many leads after Edith disappears from her house one night and weeks go by as they investigate various possibilities. Well-written, heavy focus on Manon’s singleness and her attempts to find a man, offshoots about children in need of social services, lots of drinking, shagging, girl talk. I liked it but it probably has more appeal for women.
Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medical Care (2015) by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. Extremely important book that I wish everyone would read. Welch — a Dartmouth medical school professor, internist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, and a medical researcher — looks at the beliefs physicians and patients have that lead them to make poor decisions concerning medical care and provides evidence to show why we are mistaken. He makes convincing arguments that risks can’t always be lowered and trying to do so creates risks of its own; trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing it; early diagnosis can (and usually does) needlessly turn people into patients; data overload can scare patients and distract doctors; action (vs. inaction) is not the reliably right choice; new interventions are typically not well tested and often end up being ineffective or even harmful; a fixation on preventing death diminishes life. If you have ever had CTs and MRIs that show nodules in organs, if you are considering surgery for lower back pain, if you are taking cholesterol lowering medication, if you are thinking about an ablation for a heart arrhythmia, if you are a woman at average risk of breast cancer getting yearly mammograms or a man at average risk of prostate cancer getting yearly prostate tests, if you are someone with a serious chronic disease trying to make decisions about what to do, if you are a well person who spends a lot of time worrying about your health — please read this book. And if you smoke, stop!
Depraved Heart (2015) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. (Read out of order). Like the one that follows, this one is also set entirely in Cambridge, MA, in about a one-day period, and also focuses on Carrie Grethen, Lucy’s psychopathic former girlfriend, who two months earlier had tried to kill Scarpetta underwater with a spear as she was diving in the Bahamas. The plot starts with Scarpetta and Marino at the home of a woman who seems to have fallen and died while trying to change a lightbulb; as their perceptions of that scene shifts, Scarpetta is also watching a video on her phone, shot in 1997 when Lucy was at FBI school in Quantico. Scarpetta, made anxious by the video, rushes with Marino to Lucy and Janet’s mansion, to find the FBI there with a blanket search warrant. The fun never really ends for this family. Reading it now, in the early days of Trump’s administration, is spooky, because at the heart of the novel is something called data fiction, or completely false data and information planted in official places like FBI records, medical records, criminal records, airline reservation databases, etc., to create chaos and suffering.
The Lost Boy (2009/2016) by Camilla Läckberg, in the Fjällbacka (Sweden) series with Erica and Patrik. Sort of a police procedural — in the sense that the police solving crimes, and the character development of the officers, is central to the plot — but it’s even more of a creepy thriller. Multiple narratives are intertwined in alternating chapters; the one thing they all have in common is a heavy and usually not particularly happy focus on parents and their children (the last line of the liner jacket blurb asks “Is there anything a mother would not do to protect her child?”). There’s something for most everyone here: ghost stories about a small island, with a supporting 1870s flashback; domestic violence; bad childhoods; grandparents caring for kids; loss of a child and the grief that follows; adjustment to having infants; drugs, biker gangs, etc.
Stone Coffin (2011, 2016) by Kjell Eriksson. An Inspector Ann Lindell crime novel, set in Uppsala, Sweden. The novel starts with a brief glimpse of pharmaceuticals researcher Sven-Erik Cederen’s visit to the Dominican Republic, then switches to the hit-and-run deaths of his wife and their 6-year-old daughter in Sweden. Along the way, we’ve got animal rights’ protestors forcing a statement to be read on TV, a trip to Malaga, Spain, to work with detectives there on the case, and Ann, almost 40, considering whether and how to continue her relationship with Edvard, who is living on the isolated island of Gräsö. Eriksson’s writing and tone are always understated.
Crucifixion Creek (2014) by Barry Maitland, the first Harry Belltree crime novel (of three) set in Sydney, Australia. Harry is a homicide detective with a personal interest in the current case, which seems tied to the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife, Jenny, three years ago. Joining forces with reporter Kelly Pool, he gets involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Crows, as well as local politicians, lawyers, accountants, real estate developers, and others whose professional façades hide their degenerate hearts. Complex and engaging plot.
The Undesired: A Thriller (2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Two intertwined stories, one set at a juvenile detention home an hour outside of Reykjavik in 1974, the other set now, in Reykjavik, involving the death of a woman who falls out of a window, leaving her young daughter in the sole care of her ex-husband. Both stories are interesting but there are unresolved questions at the end, I thought.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Re-read, for a bookgroup. A book about teenage angst and alienation. I’m not sure whether it’s meant as a parody or not. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caufield comes from a wealthy NYC family and is now flunking out of his third prep school, not because he’s not smart enough but because, if we take him at his word, he can’t stand all the phony and mean people at this school and the other schools. Holden narrates the story, which he writes while in a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, which covers the week or so from the time he leaves his prep school (a few days before his expulsion would be enforced) after a fight with his roommate over a girl and heads to New York City, where he drinks a lot, sleeps little, and has disturbing and unsatisfying meetups and conversations with taxi drivers, an ex-girlfriend, a former teacher, a former prep school classmate, some women he dances with in a bar, a prostitute and her pimp, and finally, his beloved sister Phoebe. He’s a pathological liar with most people but less so with Phoebe. Other aspects of Holden’s life are told through an essay he writes about his late brother Allie, and some memories he shares with the reader, including about a classmate who jumps to his death after being bullied. Throughout his time in NYC, he is preoccupied with whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate in winter; people react oddly when he asks them. He is frequently depressed by what he sees, hears, and thinks, his thoughts seem to run in circles, and often he’s “not in the mood” to do things. He feels sorry for people frequently, gets a kick out of things that kids do and say, and he tells Phoebe that what he really wants to do in life is save children who are about to go off a cliff (the cliff of innocence?).
Garden of Lamentations (2017) by Deborah Crombie, #17 in the Kincaid/James series set in London. Much of this book is set around Duncan and Gemma’s home in Notting Hill. Gemma is investigating the case of a young nanny found murdered in the gated communal garden of a posh Notting Hill housing development, while Kincaid, after his former boss is brutally attacked moments after a clandestine meeting with Kincaid, is following through on his suspicions about corruption in the police force dating back 20 or more years. Complex plotting, which frankly lost my interest a few times as one too many names was introduced. I have read the previous book, of which this is a sort of continuation, but it had been a while and I didn’t remember exactly what happened; the events of the past (involving Angus Craig, Ryan Marsh, and others) are alluded to but not really stated clearly until page 300! Not her best effort, IMO.
The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. A book I have tried to read before without luck, but I finally got through it this time (for a bookgroup)! A sort of fantastical, dreamworld book — blurring the line between what’s real and false, what’s imagined and actual — apparently about life under Stalin and choices authoritarian leaders make believing (perhaps) that they are for the good of the state, but also a Faustian book about good and evil, the bargains we make in our lives, how to evaluate what we envision or sense when it seems impossible, etc. Woland (the devil) and his retinue — consisting of Koroviev aka Fagott, wearer of checks and a pince-nez, an illusionist, “former choirmaster,” and nominal translator for Woland; Behemoth, a large black who likes firearms and who can transform himself into human shape for a short time; and Azazello, a short broad-shouldered man with flaming red hair, a fang, a wall-eye, wearing a bowler hat — come to Moscow and wreak havoc, particularly among members of the Variety Theatre, with decapitations, lots of arson, black magic, abductions, counterfeiting. It’s one of those books that reminds me of a lot of other books I’ve read, especially Alice in Wonderland (with things turning into other things — like the Russian money turning into bottle labels and illegal foreign currency; things and people appearing and disappearing suddenly and impossibly; secret doors; grinning cats; people turning into pigs (the Duchess in AiW, Margarita’s downstairs neighbour in M&M); the imperious and nonsensical authority of the Red Queen; Alice‘s confusion and dismay and wanting things to make sense; and so on), and also The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a little of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and the Pontius Pilate story reminded me of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. The Master of the title is the author of a novel (within the novel) about Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed and the guilt he holds because of that decision; Margarita is his married lover. I’m not sure why this novel is such a favourite of so many. Chapter by chapter annotations are online.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohllben. Read for my permaculture discussion group. Thirty-six short chapters about trees, with a focus on central Germany (and beeches) but nevertheless applicable to Europe as a whole, to North America (which is mentioned from time to time), and perhaps to other places. Wohllben — a forester who now runs an “environmentally friendly woodland” — is a tree sympathizer, cheerleader, and supporter. Sometimes his purple prose concerning trees’ feelings and body parts is scientifically suspect — as when he talks about pruning as “actually more like a massacre” and girdling as a brutal slow death; when he speaks of trees as having nerves, brains, and blood, and says that they “analyze” information; when he tells us that it’s “really painful” for a tree when chunks of its bark are pulled off or its roots are snipped; when he talks about trees’ alarm calls and their screams; and so on — but he also explains clearly and simply how trees communicate and share resources with other trees and defend against predators, how transpiration works, how trees reproduce and avoid inbreeding, how they age, what happens when they are wounded, how tree species adapt to climate and terrain (become specialists) over time, how trees interact with soil microbes, how various birds, insects, and other plants use trees, etc. His main case is that, for various reasons including how comparatively slowly trees grow and act, we maintain a false moral barrier between animals and plants, which, if we understood plants, and especially trees, better, we would realise is in error.
Death and the Maiden (2011/2012) by Frank Tallis, 6th in the crime series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer, and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve the murder of an opera diva in Mahler’s opera house. I read the other five in 2012 but missed this one. Set in 1903, already the menacing shadow of incipient Jewish persecution hangs over the city and the novel, as Vienna’s powerful and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger is front and center. (Lueger, like Mahler and Freud, was a real person; he established the Austrian Christian Social Party, kept Jews from serving in his administration, and Hitler viewed him as an inspiration.) Meanwhile, Liebermann makes the moves on his heretofore friend, Amelia, who is more than ready for him to act.
The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery. For a bookgroup. Loved it. Well-written book that’s packed with information and yet flows like a narrative. We get to know the individual personalities of four octopuses who have lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, learn a bit about scuba diving and observing octopuses in the wild, get a play-by-play account of two octopuses mating, and learn a lot about the intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, and individuality of octopuses. Recommended.
Heart of a Dog (1987, but written in 1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov. For a bookgroup. Satire. Much shorter than Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, for which I was thankful, but just as unaffecting for me. The back of the book advertises it as “hilarious” and “brilliantly inventive,” but I didn’t find it either particularly, though at times it was amusing; this 123-page book felt to me like a simple conceit dressed up as a novel: Two scientists transplant the pituitary gland and testes of a small-time criminal into a hapless stray dog, resulting in an ugly man who’s lecherous, vulgar, proletariat, a poor dresser, an alcoholic, a glutton … and who still likes to chase cats.
The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016) by Fouad Laroui (transl. Emma Ramadan). For a bookgroup. Loved it … resonated for me in many places, and it’s very funny. The book is only 130 pp long, a series of short stories that sometimes verge on philosophical meditations about — and explorations of the nuances of — feeling foreign, displaced, dislocated, an outsider, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The stories are somewhat connected by allusions, characters’ names, settings (a couple of stories are told in a coffee shop, the Cafe de l’Univers). Laroui is Moroccan and most of the stories are set there, with two in the Netherlands, one in Brussels. “Born Nowhere” really made me laugh, as did “The Invention of Dry Swimming.” “What Was Not Said in Brussels” felt so true, the way random phrases insert themselves in our brains and sometimes direct our thoughts.
The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein. Re-read, for permaculture group. Good intro to the basics — principles, soil and mulch, seed starting and seed saving, fruit guilds, perennial and other vegetables, fruits and nuts, mushrooms — with lots of photos, sidebars, and illustrations.
A Glass of Blessings (1958) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. It’s hard to beat Pym for a certain kind of fiction: British cozy (but not mystery), insightful as to human psychology and motivation, brimming with observations about the nuance of relationships that look simple. In this one, Wilmet Forsyth is a woman of leisure in her 30s whose marriage, without children, is somewhat staid and settled; her husband gives her cash on her birthdays and is indifferent to what she does with her days. As she goes about her prescribed life of church-going, doing good works (but not nearly as earnestly or often as some of her friends, for which she feels guilty), and shopping, she imagines minor dalliances with a friend’s brother and her best friend’s husband. My favourite character is her mother-in-law, Sybil, who lives with them and who sees Wilmet as a complete individual despite her marriage to Sybil’s son; Sybil doesn’t seem to expect Wilmet to be anyone other than who she is (and never laments her lack of grandchildren).
No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. I loved that this one references Wilmet and Rodney and Piers and Keith from A Glass of Blessings (pp. 191-193), visiting a church that the main characters in this book, middle-aged unmarried women (and temporary housemates) Dulcie and Viola, are visiting. Pym was post-modern before post-modern was cool. This book is quite funny, because both Viola and Dulcie, free-lance researchers by profession who meet at a literary conference, are a bit obsessed with literary journal editor Aylwin Forbes, for reasons the reader really can’t understand other than his good looks; his unsuitable-by-all-accounts wife Marjorie is divorcing him, and he seems a rather weak and typical fellow, dodging devoted “suitable” women right and left as he falls in “love” with girls half his age and younger. Dulcie and Viola use their research skills and curiosity to track him down in various places, and they also track down Marjorie, her mother, his mother, and his celibate vicar brother, surreptitiously visiting their homes, churches, the bed & breakfast in Tavistock run by his mother, the family cemetery, and so on.
Bilgewater (1976) by Jane Gardam. Unfortunately, I read the Europa (2016) edition, which had at least 10 glaring typos that detracted and distracted from the story. I really liked Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, but this story, about a 16-year-old girl — intellectually precocious but socially stunted, and naive, isolated, used to the company of eccentric adults, now coming into her own — was not terribly engaging for me.
The Dollhouse (2016) by Fiona Davis. For a bookgroup. Debut novel. Rather run-of-the-mill “women’s novel” (focus on relationships among women and romances with men), told in alternating chapters, of a young woman (Darby) who came to New York City from Ohio to study at the Katherine Gibbs’ secretarial school in 1952, boarding at the Barbizon Hotel along with other wanna-be secretaries and models, and of a journalist (Rose) in her 30s living now in the same building. There is some intrigue concerning jazz clubs, a Korean spice store, the hotel maid, and Darby herself. All in all, a pleasant, undemanding read that gives a little flavour of 1950s New York.
The Wonder (2016) by Emma Donoghue, for a bookgroup, a novel set in the Irish countryside in the late 1850s (several years after the potato famine ended) about an English nurse, Lib Wright (trained by Florence Nightingale), who is brought to a small Irish village on a 2-week temporary assignment to observe — along with another nurse, a nun — what appears to be a miracle: an 11-year-old girl who is said to have survived for four months without food. It’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction. The most interesting aspect of it for me is Lib’s ambivalence about interfering to change a situation that she has been hired only to observe and report upon. When she feels a conflict between obeying her contract to the community to be a detached observer and obeying her conscious as she becomes attached to her patient, how does she resolve it? In that way, the book explores a deep question; in other ways, it’s somewhat formulaic and the ending much too pat and fantastic.
The Chalk Pit (2017) by Elly Griffiths, ninth in the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway series. Bones found in Norwich’s tunnels and homeless people being stabbed to death converge in a ludicrous plot. If you can overlook that, the storyline of Ruth’s relationship with DCI Harry Nelson advances a bit, and there are some funny lines in the book. Cozy, but a bit inane this time.
Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, for a bookgroup. Six short stories, all more or less contemporary, on themes of self-worth, status-seeking, shame, blame; the difference between how people present themselves and what they’re really thinking; the dichotomy between what we think and what we do; how we elevate and then degrade ourselves (and others) in seconds in our minds. Most of the characters are pathetic to some degree (weak, self-absorbed, unattractive physically, anxiety-ridden, callous and cruel, desirous of power and status, vengeful), living demeaning lives, trapped in dysfunctional relationships — and yet sometimes it seems there’s more worth there than meets the eye. Someone else has said that in each story, ”defective characters are trying to operate outside their comfort zones.” The tone is grim and sordid mixed with relentlessly optimistic dreams of grandeur. I enjoyed them.
The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo. For a bookgroup. Historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century (1900 or so), about a family with deep dark secrets and four boys (three Braithewaite brothers plus a friend, aged 13 to 18 or 19) with dreams of glory, love, adventure. They begin a 3-month journey in a schooner from Maine to Cuba as relatively naive and protected boys and end it much more worldly-wise, wearier, and still unaware of the Braithewaite family secrets, which great-granddaughter Sybil, living in Arizona in the 1990s, tries to piece together from scrapbooks, letters, the ship’s log. Fascinating and definitely worth the read.
The Second Deadly Sin (2012./2013 transl) by Åsa Larsson, crime fiction set in northern Sweden, featuring Rebecka Martinsson and Kister Ericksson. Complex and engaging plot, with two alternating and related stories, one set in Kiruna today, the other in Kiruna in 1914, concerning multiple deaths in the same family, spanning several generations. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the author’s choice to put Rebecka in the situation she did in the last action scene angered me and seemed totally unnecessary.
My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), first of the four Neapolitan novels. I could not get into it for 2/3 of the book, but by the end, I wanted to read the next one in the series. Story of two girls and their impoverished, rivalrous, close-knit Naples community in the 1950s, as Lena and Lila grow up together from about age 8 to age 18, as friends, as competitors, and as models for each other in school, in love, in life. What finally won me over was the writing and plotting; as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, “The most beautiful part of the story is the way it is told: in a simple, anecdotal way without any intention of moving towards any climax.”
Police (2013) by Jo Nesbø, 10th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway (Oslo and other locations). Briefly, someone seems to be killing cops who were involved with unsolved cases. There are serial (gruesome, as usual) murders and multiple murderers, making for a complex, twisting, surprising plot. Enthralling but like all of Nesbø’s novels, not for the faint of heart.
Deadfall (2017) by Linda Fairstein, in the Asst. DA Alex Cooper series, set in New York (mostly uptown and the Bronx). Sort of a spoiler but it’s revealed on the second page: District Attorney Paul Battaglia, Alex’s boss, dies in her arms on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after being shot. The feds wonder if Alex lured him to the killing spot, so she’s under serious and hostile scrutiny by the U.S. attorneys as they investigate his murder. Meanwhile, NYPD detectives Mike and Mercer, along with Alex, follow their own lines of investigation, which lead to the Bronx Zoo, the St. Hubertus Society (which Justice Antonin Scalia belonged to), Animals Without Borders, and a quick trip to a Montana big game hunting ranch.
Two Nights (2017) by Kathy Reichs, a stand-alone (or perhaps start of a new series) NOT in the Brennan series. There’s no forensic talk in this fast-paced thriller. Sunday (Sunnie) Night is a recluse of a woman who lives (with a feral squirrel) on an island off of Sullivan Island in SC, reachable only by boat. A former police officer and military veteran who saw action in Afghanistan, Night has deep psychological (and physical) scars and a small arsenal of Glocks and other assault artillery, though her sarcasm may be her most deadly weapon and her wariness her best defense. She’s asked to find a missing girl and the four perpetrators who killed the girl’s mother and brother in a terrorist bombing, which takes her to Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. I wasn’t sure if I’d continue for the first 30 pages or so but then got into it.
The Thirst (2017) by Jo Nesbø, 11th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway, following immediately on the plot of Police, though taking place three years later. The vampirist is back, meeting women at bars through Tinder and then ambushing in their homes and killing them in gruesome ways. A vampirist expert is called in. Meanwhile, Rakel is having headaches and gets checked out at the hospital.
Walking on My Grave (2017) by Carolyn Hart, in the Death on Demand/Annie Darling series set on (fictional) Broward’s Rock Island, SC. These aren’t very good and I haven’t read any in a while but sometimes you just feel like a cozy, involving mostly rich people, set on an island, and this is the series for that time. The six or seven future heirs of Ves Roundtree’s considerable fortune all need money now and some resent her continued existence. How far will one of them, driven by greed, fear, or desperation, go? Meanwhile, Henny, Emma Clyde, and Laurel are all writing chapbooks about, respectively, classic crimes, the wisdom of her crime fiction detectives, and “merry musings” on life; these comprise the final pages of the book.
The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), second of the four Neapolitan novels. Lena continue her memoir, telling her story of growing into her 20s, her sexual coming of age (particularly one summer vacation), her time at university in Pisa, and she tells Lila’s story of marriage, adultery, having a child, continuing her tumultuous life. The two women grow apart, come together, grow apart, come together, grow apart.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), third of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set as much in Florence as in Naples. Here, with the women in their 20s and 30s, Elena marries, has children, publishes a book that is provocative and makes her a bit famous and then struggles with her writing and in her marriage. Meanwhile, Lila works in a meat factory and lives with another man, Enzo, in a low-rent district, raising her son. Eventually both Lila and Enzo work as programmers for IBM. Both women become involved in the politics of the time, and this book focuses on social activism, feminism, socialism, the rights of the worker. As in book two, Elena and Lila move uncomfortably and ambivalently in and out of each other’s lives, often not seeing or speaking with each other for months. As Elena has expressed before, she comes again to the realisation that “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”
The Maytrees (2007) by Annie Dillard. A hard book to get into. It’s a novel of a couple and their life together and apart, set mostly in post-war Provincetown, Cape Cod. Lou, not much of a talker, and Toby Maytree, a poet — who thinks a lot about how various kinds of natural light represent Aristotelean or Platonic thought, — meet and marry, have a son, make friends among their bohemian artist and fisherman neighbours (characterised early on as “social thinkers”), and care for each other and their friends in ordinary and remarkable ways. They are both big readers and laughers. The writing is often uber-poetic, spare yet awkwardly descriptive, as if trying hard to pack the array of short sentences to the brim with unheard-of word combinations, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense at times, even on an emotional level. I stopped reading about halfway through and read another book, coming back to this one afterward. I appreciated the focus on “the meaning of life” and how love manifests itself over a lifetime and among many relationships, but I didn’t actually care about any of the characters, whose self-containment was admirable but distancing. Lou is described as “throughout her life … ironic and strict with her thoughts.” She is described, when they are courting, as having “no agitation in her even gaze. …. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular.”
Sleeping in the Ground (2017) by Peter Robinson, in the Banks/ Cabbot series, set in Eastvale and surrounds (Yorkshire). On the same day that Alan Banks attends the funeral of his first true love, Emily, several members of a wedding party are shot and killed or critically wounded by a sniper. Lots of twists and turns as the detectives — newbie Gerry Masterson is featured in this one — trace relationships backwards to find the motive for the killings. Very readable but not as engaging as some.
The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), last of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set almost entirely in Naples. Elena is with Nino, and she becomes pregnant with their daughter, Imma, while Lila becomes pregnant with Enzo with their daughter Tina. At Lila’s urging and for other reasons, Elena moves back to Naples, where the women live one floor apart. The years pass, the children grow, Elena has writing successes and failures, Lila struggles with some illnesses and her dissolving boundaries feeling, and at one point there is a crisis that forever affects Lila’s outlook and actions. When the book ends, the women are 60ish, their children grown, their lives still somewhat unsettled.
The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) by Eudora Welty. For a bookgroup. I read this short novel (180 pp but in big type with large margins) in about 2 hours. The plot is that Laurel’s father, Judge Clinton McKelva (age 71), undergoes eye surgery, dies soon thereafter in hospital (in New Orleans) as he is recovering, and Laurel (in her late 40s?) and her graceless, jealous, narcissistic step-mother of one year, Fay (also in her 40s), go home to the family house in small-town Mississippi, where friends and family await, to have the funeral and sort through things. It all takes place in about a week, with a little bit of flashback, mainly to Laurel’s brief marriage to Phil (he dies in the war), the Judge’s first marriage to Becky (Laurel’s mother), and Becky’s early life in West Virginia and the deaths of her parents (Laurel’s grandparents). It’s the tone or attitude of the book that just escapes me. Fay and Laurel are counterpoints to each other in some way, some of the women in town are like a Greek chorus, and the book seems to explore the realms and limits of empathy and compassion. My favourite line is spoken by one of Fay’s relatives, a man who has spent most of his visit in the yard, who tells Laurel that “You got a lot of fat squirrels going to waste here.” The moral seems to be that “any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”
Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, for a bookgroup. A complex, long novel about Fanny Price, one of nine children of a disorganised “slattern” and an unmannered alcoholic, who goes to live with her wealthier aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and their four children when she is ten years old. Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is 16 when Fanny comes to live with his family, is empathetic and kind and takes a particular interest in Fanny when he sees how miserable she is. He teaches her manners, honour, kindness, etc., and she in turn falls in love with him, but she can’t ever let that be known to anyone. Five years later, wealthy, agreeable Henry Crawford falls in love with Fanny and wants to marry her; she wants none of it, seeing him as shallow and not very honorable, having observed him trifling with both her female cousins’ affections. Still he perseveres, enjoying the challenge. Meanwhile, Edmund has fallen for Crawford’s sister, Mary, who is also a bit superficial and who, though she has feelings for him, is not happy that he has no inheritance and wants to be a lowly clergyman. The novel is nuanced, and though it’s written of the kind of society that doesn’t exist (at least in most places) anymore, many of the themes and truths are universal and timeless.
The Scarred Woman (2017) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dept. Q novel (#7), set in Copenhagen, Carl Mørck. A bunch of cases, some cold and some not, come together, sending Carl and Assad investigating young women being hit by cars, another young woman shot, two beating deaths, and the death of their colleague Rose’s father. Complex and engrossing. I really like this series.
Death in the White Mountains: Hiking Fatalities and How To Avoid Being One (2017) by Julie Boardman. Non-fiction details of 219 deaths from 1849-2016 of hikers, ice- and rock climbers, and backcountry skiers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sections on death by hypothermia (body temperature going too low), falling, avalanche, drowning, lighting and other freak accidents, hyperthermia (overheating), murder, and also from natural causes (mostly heart attacks), as well as a few accounts of lost hikers who have never been found. There’s some info about every death and longer stories about a handful in each category, some conclusions about common mistakes that lead to injury or death (e.g., not heeding weather reports, not turning back when weather worsens, not packing enough clothing or other items, hiking or climbing alone), plus warnings and suggestions about how to avoid dying in these ways when hiking, climbing, or skiing in the White Mountains or any wild place.
The Mistletoe Murders (2016) by P.D. James, four short stories. The first, third, and last are set at Christmas time and rather Agatha Christie-ish. The last two star detective Adam Dalgliesh. The second one (“A Very Commonplace Murder”) is quite different from the others, not at Christmas, no Dalgliesh nor any detective, rather sordid. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” the third one, Dalgliesh investigates a murder that took place on Christmas Eve, over 50+ years ago. I read them all in about 1-1/2 hours.
Dead Woman Walking (2017) by Sharon Bolton. Crime fiction/thriller. Fairly gripping throughout, quite gory and deeply unsettling at the start. Police detective Jessica and her sister, Isabel, a nun, go on a balloon ride with others in the north of England for Isabel’s 40th birthday. Mayhem ensues, entangling one sister in the black market organ market.
Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) by Jill McGown. I read this in the early 1990s but it was a nice re-read before Christmas. It’s in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England (Suffolk area). Lloyd and Judy have their own issues, which pale in comparison to those of the Wheeler family — George, the non-believing vicar; Marian, his controlling wife; Joanna, their protected daughter; and Graham, Joanna’s frustrated husband. On Christmas Eve, things come to a head in the Wheeler household and then the lies and misdirection begin. A nice romp.
The Other Woman (1992) by Jill McGown, in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England. Complex crime novel with names/characters I could never keep straight. Well-written, and I think the convoluted plot hangs together, but it didn’t compel me.
The Witches’ Tree (2017) by M.C Beaton, in the Agatha Raisin series, set some place in England (fictional Sumpton Harcourt). Pretty awful. The writing is clunky, the plot — involving witches, sex, money — convoluted and dumb, and the editing atrocious (lines repeated from one paragraph to the next, improper punctuation, and the last name of key characters in the cover flap doesn’t match their surname in the book!
Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937; 2016) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a classic crime novel republished recently. The story starts on a train but soon moves to a recently deserted manor home in the country where a disparate group of people (who have left the stalled train in a snowstorm to try to reach another station) finds shelter … and more. Part creepy ghost story, part traditional murder mystery, the novel is set at Christmas, with blinding heavy snow all around a well-provisioned house — food, fires, beds — and a cast of characters animated by complex motives and desires.
The Devil’s Wedding Ring (2015, transl. 2017) by Vidar Sundstøl, a crime novel set in Telemark, Norway, involving a 13th-century stave church and pagan midsummer rites, and spanning 30 years, from the time a folklore researcher disappears on Midsummer Eve in 1985 to the disappearance of a woman researching the same rituals in 2015 and the apparent suicide of a former policeman, who had been a colleague of Max Fjellanger, now a private investigator living in Florida. Fjellanger returns to Norway to attend his friend’s funeral, suspicious that he didn’t die by his own hand. He soon partners with quirky, insightful librarian and single mother Tirill Vesterli, and together they investigate, becoming convinced an ancient ritual is behind the violence. OK but not all that engaging.
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-¼ Years Old (a novel by Hendrik Groen, 2014/2017). Groen, an “inmate” in an Amsterdam old age home, colludes with several other oldies to form the Old But Not Dead Club dedicated to keeping life lively and worth living; the club members plan interesting outings and meals for each other, look in on each other, and resist the unexplained rules and regulations of the institution where they live. Eventually, since most of the members are over age 80, illness and infirmity cast a dark shadow over the lighter aspects of living in community. Written with a light touch, but sometimes darkly humourous, the novel references many real and difficult issues of growing old.