My book group reconstituted itself a few months ago after a hiatus prompted by serious illness, family problems, the acute burdens of employment and unemployment and a number of other upheavals among us. When we reunited it was with some new members, and our first meeting was largely spent getting to know one another and catching up. Essential to that, of course, was what each of us had been reading lately.
“Olive Kitteridge,” Anne mentioned. “It was just wonderful.” Eilisha’s eyes lit up: “Oh, yes!” Linda had adored it, too. And they were off – celebrating a shared delight at Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of connected short stories and at the gratifications of shared delight, newly discovered.
One of the purposes of this column, which is approaching its first anniversary, is to re-create some of that pleasure – with the emphasis on sharing. NPR has a feature called “You Must Read This,” which these days has sounded a bit too pushy to my neurotic ear: No, I mustn’t. And get off my case. Lately I’ve tended to get a little uptight even when the most dear and trusted friend insists on lending me a book she’s just finished because she just knows I’ll just love it. Chances are I will. But I’m already in the middle of two other books and that’s yet another one joining the mountain of reading I don’t have time to get to and you wouldn’t believe all the crap I have to do today let alone this week and this month and for how many years can I keep this unread book before you start to hate me?
So, no pressure! But I’d like to share some of the reading that kept The Chronicle’s Book Fare columnist sane and fundamentally optimistic during a tough stretch.
Now, I don’t read in search of lessons, inspiring examples, reality checks. While “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” might be good medicine in reminding us that a) Nazi occupation will trump most of life’s hardships and b) human affection can ease pain, those are two big duhs and if you’re looking for something therapeutic, try prescription drugs. I liked this book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a) for its epistolary structure and b) because I’ve never been to Guernsey.
When I fall into a good book, what catches me is the reappearance of proof that another mind and body out there can create a world convincing enough to let me live there for a while instead of the real one, and that if this can still happen, it’s worth it to keep turning the pages.
In fact, most of what I enjoyed this past year – and in most years, if I think of it – was way short on uplift and way long on grim. That must be why Annie Proulx is such a favorite. Is anyone better at reminding us of the essential pointlessness of existence, that suffering is usually solitary and almost never redemptive? Plus, she’s great at using words and phrases that send you happily to the dictionary. (Ever heard of a “gambling snap?”)
But the best story in “Fine Just The Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3” is, while dark, laugh-out-loud funny from the very first sentence: Satan, who has a secretary named Duane Fork, returns from an interior design expo in Milan with a burning desire to redecorate Hell.
Dexter resident Travis Holland set his marvel of a first novel, “The Archivist’s Story,” in late-1930s Stalinist Moscow: bleak, bleak, bleak. What keeps Pavel Dubrov going? A compulsion to protect the purloined pages of Isaac Babel’s final manuscripts from destruction.
Everything’s Better in Sweden, Right?
And there was Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy. Murder, violence against women, abuse of power, corporate and political corruption. Yum, yum, yum. For the nine of you out there who haven’t read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” here’s some counterintuitive but really smart advice from my husband: See the movie first, then read the book. Truly – knowing the ending doesn’t dim the pleasure of the read, and the films are fun enough but can’t possibly contain the novels’ complexities; in a sense, the film is a briefing for the broader story. And the fine casting of the Swedish films (“Dragon” and “Fire” are out and “Hornet” is on the way) won’t pollute your imagination.
But what to say about the stingingly misplaced apostrophe in the title of the third volume? We probably shouldn’t go there. But it’s a safe guess that the last working copy editor on the planet was fired by Knopf right before publication.
A number of reviewers noted the similarities between the oddly resourceful Lisbeth Salander and another Swedish literary heroine who refuses to be pushed around. But most of those reviewers clearly hadn’t read the Pippi Longstocking books and depicted her at best as a harmless juvenile delinquent with uncommon strength (and her very own horse). Still, they led me to re-visit, for the kazillionth time and the pure pleasure of it, the Pippi trilogy: “Pippi Longstocking,” “Pippi Goes On Board” and “Pippi in the South Seas.”
Those of us who have envied and adored Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Efraim’s Daughter Longstocking, daughter of Captain Efraim Longstocking, formerly Terror of the Sea and Now a Cannibal King, need no reminding that a better role model doesn’t exist.
At the thoroughly excellent age of 9, Pippi lives by herself in a big old house with a suitcase full of gold pieces and does precisely as she pleases, day after day. In what can be interpreted as either the guilelessness of childhood or superbly instructive displays of masterful passive aggression, she lets officious grown-ups know where to stick their unwelcome concern (and, as often as not, with no hard feelings on either side). Astrid Lindgren and her translators gave Pippi the comic timing of Groucho Marx and the sensibility of the loving and generous Harpo. She’s a magnificent wiseass, a gloriously gifted liar and her own boss.
Musts to Avoid
I’d here I’d like to offer my version of “You Must Not Read This.” Three things I avoided during the past year:
1. Books about the death of books. The subject is either depressing or absurd. And the fact that the publishing industry keeps putting out books about the death of books is depressingly absurd. No exceptions. (And while you’re at it, please shut up about Kindle.) This is not to say that the digital library lacks essentials: AnnArborChronicle.com, for your local news; Doonesbury for your daily laugh; and Mark Trail for your recommended daily allowance of animal-based melodrama.
2. Vampire books aimed at teenage girls. The exception to this? If you’re a teenage girl (which can be depressing and/or absurd) and vampire books are all you’ll read (depressing and absurd). Absolutely no exception for mothers of teenage girls (ditto and ditto on both counts).
3. Dystopian novels. We all lead busy, busy lives. And every morning we roll out of bed to confront the increasingly absurd and depressing 21st century. So reading about horrifyingly screwed-up worlds is, at the very least, an inefficient use of time. One exception: “In A Perfect World,” by Chelsea resident Laura Kasischke. The heroine, Jiselle, possesses irresistibly comforting decency and pluck – and her teenage stepdaughter is a hoot. And I haven’t read the dystopian vampire novel “The Passage,” by Justin Cronin, but this one sounds like it might be fun. Apparently, any hope for a humane future depends on a 6-year-old girl – a rational and cheering prospect, no?
The last time our book group got together it was to discuss “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. The language (translated from French) is beautiful, but some of us lost patience early on with the whiny protagonists. Paloma is a 12-year-old whose exquisite contempt for the boneheads and phonies who constitute her family and her neighbors in an elegant Parisian apartment building is secretly shared by Renee, the concierge and stealth intellectual, until a new resident shows them how to cut humanity – themselves, most importantly – a break.
“Olive Kitteridge” – whose title character is by no stretch whiny – came up in our discussion of “Hedgehog.” Won by the rapture displayed by my fellow clubbers, I started the book and have too been swept away. So far Olive is mostly a real bitch, but I anticipate that by the end I will have been persuaded to cut her a break.
On the nonfiction front, I’m tackling “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Among the cool tidbits to surface so far: “[T]he Afghan city of Kandahar is called by a disguised version of the name which Alexander and his admirers gave to a scatter of cities across his conquests: Alexandria.” (Kandahar. Alexandria. Try them out on the tongue. Yes sirree.) And believe it or not: About 100 years after the birth of Christ, a steam engine was invented in Alexandria, Egypt – and used as a toy! When the bully British showed up some 1,600 years later with some of those (only way bigger), you can’t help but imagine at least a few hugely frustrated Egyptians. Sounds a little like an Annie Proulx story, doesn’t it?
The sucker is 1,161 pages long in hardcover and I’m on 47, so check this space a year from now. I’ll let you know how it turns out, with spoiler alerts.
About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and would rather talk about books than almost anything else, especially at her book club gatherings.