Sunday, February 1, 2015

My January Reading

Well, 2015 started out strong on the reading front so I've decided to re-start my monthly summary of what I've been reading.  If I read something that really strikes me (and if I have the time) I'll blog about that book separately.  Although I enjoyed much of what I read this month, nothing hit me so strongly that I needed to drop everything and write about it.  Here's what I read:

1.  Kate Atkinson.

I've been wanting to read more Kate Atkinson ever since I read Life after Life last summer so I took the opportunity of my January "lull" in the workplace to do that.  I discovered through Helen at She Reads Novels that Akinson has written a series of "sorta" detective novels.  That seemed up my alley and a good way to ease back into reading.  In January I read  four of them:  Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog.   I think those are all she has written in her series so far.

I call them "sorta" detective novels because they aren't really detective novels in the true sense of the word.  They seem more like literary fiction that simply features a (somewhat reluctant) detective named Jackson Brodie.  Former military and retired police, Brodie is more than up to whatever life throws at him. And Brodie is very fallible and at times can seem somewhat incompetent.   In Case Histories he has set himself up as a private investigator and is approached to find missing persons and missing things.  By the end of that novel he is able to retire completely but the next few books find him dragged into situations that require him to solve crimes.  Atkinson seems just as much, if not more, interested in the other characters she creates as she is in Brodie and it usually takes a good 100 pages or so before she really gets us into a real plot. That was ok with me because plot is often the least important thing in a book to me.  I admit, though, that her habit of spending a lot of time in characters' minds rather than on their actions does get a little tiring at times. But just about the time that I'm starting wonder if anything is ever going to happen, something unexpected happens.   Case Histories is probably the weakest of the four novels and she gets better and better with each subsequent novel, probably because with each novel she strays further and further from the genre demands of detective fiction.

One of the things that I really liked about Life after Life  was Atkinson's "voice" as a novelist, especially her devastating but understated sense of humor.  That sense of humor is there in the Brodie books but less so in the first couple books than in the last two.  Finally, in Started Early, Took my Dog she seems to have hit her stride and that same voice really comes out.   One of my favorite lines was when she was describing Brodie's taste in books.  He wasn't much of a guy for fiction.  "What he had discovered was that the great novels of the world were about three things -- death, money and sex.  Occasionally a whale." 

On the whole I enjoyed this series and hopes she gives us more Jackson Brodie.  I plan to look up her other novels this year and work my way through them.

2.  Storm at the Edge of Time by Pamela F. Service.    This may seem an odd choice for me to read, as it is really a children's book.  I was drawn to it because the author has a background in archaeology and the story is set in the Orkney Islands, which I would like to visit some day.   Three children, all from three different time periods, are drawn to a stone circle on one of the Orkney Islands and end up coming together through some kind of magic.  They go on a quest through the time periods to find the three pieces of a broken magical staff that will save the world.   Part of the story takes place in the last days of the Vikings, part takes place in current time and part takes place in the 26th century.  As an adult I didn't find it particularly gripping but I think an 11 year old might like it.

3.  The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  My book club chose this book and I was glad because I've been wanting to read it. Wilkerson won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction a few years ago for this book.   She tells the story of black migration from the American South to the rest of the United States in the years from about 1915 through 1970.  Wilkerson primarily tells this long history by focusing on three individuals:  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

Ida Mae was born in Mississippi where her family picked cotton.  She moved up to industrial Chicago with her husband in the 1930's after a relative was beaten almost to death for a crime he didn't commit.  Ida Mae was an uneducated woman who was hard working and seemed to be genuinely good person.  George was from Florida where his people were fruit pickers.  He got part of a college education before his father stopped paying for it.  He moved New York in the 1940's when he was warned that he was going to by lynched for trying to gain more rights for the pickers.  George got a job as a baggage handler on the east coast train lines.  Robert Foster was born in Louisiana, became a doctor and moved to California in the 1950's because he thought there was more scope for him to succeed than there was in Louisiana.  He was married to a woman from an upper class black Atlanta family.  Robert eventually became the physician to Ray Charles.

The substance of the book is fascinating and thought provoking.  Be warned that it is long - my paperback version is over 600 pages (although the pages after p. 538 are acknowledgements, notes, index, etc.)  It took me a long time to get through, longer than I expected.  My one complaint (and the one reason I kept putting it down) is that it is written in language that,  to me, seemed to be at about the 6th grade level.  Certainly a high school student could easily read this book and understand it.  Most people would call it "accessible" and consider that a compliment.  I, on the other hand, found myself bored by the style.   For instance, here she is on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:  "On the other side of the Earth, at a harbor in Hawaii, a bomb exploded. It was at a naval base. Pearl Harbor.  People heard it on the radio, not knowing what it meant."

Almost all of the book is written in that style.  You could easily read this book out loud to a child of seven (if you didn't mind reading to your child about lynchings and racism) and they would understand what they were hearing.  Sometimes there will be interludes between the stories of Ida Mae, George and Bob that are written in normal, adult non-fiction style and I found myself flying through those parts.   Most people will not have a problem with this and will probably consider it a plus, but for me it was sometimes excruciating and I just had to put it down and read something else written at an adult level. Besides that, however, I'm glad I read it.

4.  Some Luck by Jane Smiley.  The first book in a planned trilogy, Jane Smiley is telling a family saga.  Interestingly, however, she doesn't tell it in an epic style.  There is no narrative arc, things just happen.  Every chapter is another year, beginning in 1920 and ending in 1953.  In some ways the family experiences everything that happened to the country in that time period and in other ways they just skirted the edges.  Within each chapter, the story is told in the third person, but shifting between the points of view of the various characters.  Often the point of view is that of a child ... which I, truthfully, found mostly boring.  But I liked the adult points of view, including the points of view of the adults who started out as children.  I can't honestly say that I loved this novel.  I love her writing style but I found the structure of the novel caused me difficulty engaging with the characters.  But I enjoyed it enough that I'll read the next two books.

5.  A Fine Summers Day by Charles Todd.  The next in the Inspector Rutledge series, Todd goes back in time to before the Great War, before Rutledge became a victim of PTSD.  I was doubtful about this, prequels often don't work.  There is no suspense because we know what comes next.  But this one does work.  The future doesn't really matter for the story itself and seeing Rutledge as he was before the War makes Rutledge after the War much sadder.  So far, the writing duo of Charles Todd, hasn't managed to create a woman character worthy of Rutledge but I wondered if maybe one of the female characters in this volume might come back later.  And no, I don't mean the vapid fiance, Jean who of course is back.

6.  The Children Act by Ian McEwan.  I admit to being a big Ian McEwan fan.  I like the way he strings sentences together and I usually like the settings of his novels.   This one is set in the legal community of London.  I spent some time in London during one trip wandering around near Lincoln's Inn and so I could picture some of the settings.  It's not a long novel and I flew through it.  Not my very favorite McEwan novel but I did enjoy it.

7.  Poetry of the First World War:  An Anthology edited by Tim Kendall.  I've been working my way through the poems in this anthology for three or four months and finally finished it.  My immediate take away was that it wasn't a surprise that, of the poets that survived the war, only Robert Graves really went on to great things.  My second thought was that I really don't like most of the WWI poets.  I was glad to find the Laurence Binyon poem, For the Fallen, from whence came the famous stanza: "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:  Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them."  I don't think I had ever read the entire poem before. But it ended up being symbolic of the entire set of poems.  Certain lines in some of the poems struck me, very few entire poems touched me.  I might, however, read some more Robert Graves.