Thursday, August 23, 2012

More Summer Book Reports

When I go on vacation I take a whole box of books.  It helps that my parents drive up to the cabin in advance with a large vehicle and I can send the box with them.  I save books throughout the year, thinking "oh, I'll read that on vacation."  Even now that I regularly read on my iPad, I couldn't imagine not having a box of books to read.  And of course I don't get through all of them.  I live in fear, however, of running out of books on vacation.  At one time there was a fairly good little bookstore in Fort Frances Ontario.  If it rained and we went "into town" I could pick up a book.  But it closed long ago.  So it is important to come prepared.

I think, however, that the iPad experience this year caused me to put fewer "real" books aside for vacation.  As the date approached when the box was due at my parents I started to worry that I didn't have enough books.  So I made a trip to my local book store and picked up a couple to throw in.  I ended reading them both.

The first was Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  Truthfully, I think it was the cover art that attracted me.  It was a photograph of an elegant woman on an outdoor chaise lounge with a man in evening clothes sitting on a chair in front of her with his back to us, cocktails on the table next to them.  The cover said it was about Manhattan during the Depression.  It started, however, in the 1960's at an art exhibition where an artist was exhibiting photographs he took during the Depression.   The novel is told in the first person (mostly) and the narrator and I got off to a bad start.

The narrator, who isn't immediately identified, is describing the 1960's:

So all of us were drunk to some degree. We launched ourselves into the evening like satellites and orbited the City two miles above the Earth, powered by failing foreign currencies and finely filtered spirits. We shouted over the dinner tables and slipped away into empty rooms with each other's spouses, carousing with all the enthusiasm and indiscretions of Greek gods.  And in the morning, we woke at 6:30 on the dot, clearheaded and optimistic, ready to resume our places behind the stainless steel desks at the helm of the world.
The narrator then, a few paragraphs later, mentions Val, a man who the narrator calls sweetheart.  Ok, I thought. A gay couple in the 1960's.  Ok.  But then it turns out the narrator is a woman.  Wait.  A Woman?  I went back and read the first few pages again wanting to see why I had assumed it was a man.   Perhaps because no woman in the 1960's would have said that "we" woke at 6:30 ready to resume "our" places at the desks at the helm of the world.   This was the 1960's!   Women weren't at the helm of the world! Or at least not enough of them to be a "we".

From that point on I became obsessed with instances where I thought the (male) author screwed up the voice of the female narrator.  It didn't happen often but it did occasionally and it really pretty much ruined the whole experience for me. 

The other book I picked up at the last minute was Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (not that Elizabeth Taylor, the other one - the author).  I had never read any of Ms. Taylor's novels before but had heard good things about them so I thought I would give this one a whirl.  I quite enjoyed it.  Mrs. Palfrey is an elderly widow who moves into a hotel for elderly people - one of those residence hotels that used to exist everywhere.  It is actually a sad story but not maudlin.  I enjoyed Taylor's style which is spare but still descriptive.

From the window she could see - could see only -- a white brick wall down which dirty rain slithered, and a cast-iron fire-escape, which was rather graceful.  She tried to see that it was graceful.  The outlook - especially on this darkening afternoon -- was daunting; but the backs of hotels, which are kept for indigent ladies, can't be expected to provide a view, she knew.  The best is kept for honeymooners, though God alone knew why they should require it. 
I will definitely read more Elizabeth Taylor.

Finally, I started The Absolutist by John Boyne before I left on vacation and I finished during my layover.  It is another World War One novel and I think in finishing this one, I have them out of my system now.  At this point I was pretty sure I had read everything about the Great War and couldn't be surprised.   Again you have a damaged man who has returned from the War. Seen that before.  He seems haunted by another character that you eventually learned was shot by a firing squad for refusing to fight.  Seen that before.  Soon it becomes clear that the returning character is not just a former soldier, he's a gay former soldier.  Seen that before too.  But in the end Boyne did manage an ending that I had not predicted and explored a little bit of the human psyche that I hadn't seen explored in other novels.  So on the whole it was a good reading experience.