I continued my streak of intense reading this month. Following a query from my husband, who was somewhat incredulous about the number of books I’ve read, I studied my time logs to see how I am making time. It is not that I am working less, or doing any less of the kid-transporting and the like. Instead, I am allocating a higher proportion of my existing leisure time to book reading. The Economists and other magazines are, alas, stacking up unread, as are the newspapers. The New York Times fell off my frequently visited websites list on my phone. I generally have about 90 minutes on weekdays to read if I read during the hour before bed, and then half an hour somewhere else (while the kids are watching TV or some such). On weekends, I usually do an hour during nap, and maybe 2 hours at night or elsewhere through the day. This adds up to 13.5 hours a week. I can read swiftly — about 50-60 pages an hour — so 13.5 hours is 675-810 pages a week. That’s like one 300-page book and two 250-page books — as long as I keep a solid “To Be Read” list going.
Here are my reports on books read in March. Technically, March is not quite over, but I don’t think I will finish Tender is the Night before midnight tomorrow, so it will go on the April list.
The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough
McCullough is a very popular historian, and this biography of Orville and Wilbur Wright is short and swift. Heavier-than-air flight experienced quite a breakthrough between 1900-1916, if you think about it, from being thought impossible and the stuff of quacks to being used strategically in warfare. Much like the 4-minute mile, no one did it, and then quickly everyone was doing it, though it is pretty clear that the Wrights were the first. I had read about the 1903 flight, but the later test flights in Europe and Ohio were all new to me. Like A Clearing in the Distance (reviewed last month) this is a good portrait of America at a very specific point in time.
Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett
I confess that I do not understand what the author was going for in this novel narrated by a slightly ornery young woman living in a rural part of Ireland. While the prose is spirited and luminous in places, there is no plot, and the narrator does not change in any appreciable way. It could have been interesting as a set of Walden sorts of non-fiction autobiographical essays, but as a novel, not so much. If anyone else has deeper insights into this one — especially given that it was written up so glowingly in various magazines I read — I welcome enlightenment.
The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran
I had read this slim book before, but coming into graduation season, I thought I would pick it up again. While there’s also little in the way of plot in this one (it is presented as poetic essays from a prophet sharing his wisdom with a town he is leaving), the upside is that there are dozens of incredibly quotable lines. One favorite: “What is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill? Seek him always with hours to live.”
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Oh, this book. Newland Archer, a rich young dandy, represents New York society in the late 1800s, as it is slowly unraveling. He marries the right woman but loves another. Neither he nor she can do much about that without becoming people they don’t wish to be. I had read this years ago, but this time picked up more on Archer’s growing fury with society’s hypocrisy. Ellen’s relatives don’t want her to get a divorce from her far-away husband, because that would be public. Instead, as the lawyer points out, he’s there and she’s here, so what’s the problem? The idea is that she can have affairs as she wishes, it’s only if she wants to get married again that people get upset. New York is richly described, and the characters believably drawn. This one sticks with you (or at least it did with me) for a bit.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I had read this one too, as I’m sure everyone does for school. But again, it had been a while. Like Age of Innocence, this is about New York in a specific time, the roaring twenties with people who party hard and don’t actually care much for each other. Gatsby wants Daisy, and he wants to go back to the past and have now what he couldn’t when he first met her, but he wants more from her than she can give, and it leads to his undoing. The Great Gatsby has some of literature’s most brilliant lines (“Her voice is full of money”) though I was somewhat startled in the re-reading about how short it is. A lot is missing from Gatsby’s life that could have created more tension, and I was struck — reading it after The Age of Innocence — that Wharton created more of an intensity with her New York novel, if Fitzgerald creates some pleasurable economy. Much like tasting wine flights, literature is affected by what you read in close sequence. Also, Fitzgerald is a Princeton boy and he makes fun of Yale. I enjoyed that.
A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline
Christina Olson is the woman in Andrew Wyeth’s haunting painting, Christina’s World. Kline researched the life of this proud, intense woman with debilitating mobility impairments who spent her whole life in rural Maine, and created a story for what led to the moment when she is pictured on the field, reaching toward that old house (she’s actually crawling, which is how she was getting around at the point when Wyeth painted his masterpiece). Olson had a tough life, and the descriptions of Maine are elegant in places, though the plot dragged a bit in the middle. The story skips around in time, and you know that Olson winds up living with her brother, so it’s pretty clear the love interest Kline devotes huge chunks of real estate to isn’t going to work out. So I wound up skimming parts of that. But I can say this: reading this right after Wharton and Fitzgerald, I still found it decent. So there’s that.
Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins
I decided I needed some poetry for a palate cleanser after all those novels. Collins, a former poet laureate of the US, is very accessible, and there are some great lines in his poems that induce smiles. I can’t say I was much moved by any of them, though perhaps that’s not the point. One poem in this collection talks about how people want to tie up poems and torture them to get the meaning out, but Collins is perfectly happy if people water ski over his poems, or fumble in the dark for the light switch with them. Different images entirely.
How the Hell Did This Happen? by P.J. O’Rourke
The first books on the 2016 election are starting to come out. O’Rourke is caustically funny, which made these essays (many of which covered the Republican primary) good for a quick read on the absurdity of it all.
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher
I picked this one up because it was getting a lot of attention on various political websites I skim in my non-book-reading time. Dreher argues that America is a “post-Christian” society, and that orthodox Christians (which seems not to include squishy Presbyterians of my ilk) need to recognize that mainstream American culture is not welcoming to them. In particular, he believes that the widespread acceptance of gay marriage has indicated a tipping point. So the communities Dreher is addressing should withdraw and create their own independent societies, much like the Benedictine monks did as Rome crumbled around them. Homeschool your kids, start your own businesses, live in tight-knit communities centered on your places of worship. I guess the best thing I can say here is that I am not the target market for this book. I think tight-knit communities are great (if these intentional religious ones can go very wrong). My biggest head scratching moment in this book is when Dreher makes the reasonable point that we all need to spend less time glued to our phones. He talks about meeting his great friend pundit Andrew Sullivan for coffee, a bit after Sullivan left the internet in 2015, and seeing how great and relaxed he looked. Sullivan is one of the founding fathers of the push for gay marriage. Dreher does not mention this. Did the topic come up? Inquiring minds want to know!
Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
I read My Antonia last month. So this month I went through the rest of Cather’s “prairie trilogy.” Thea Kronborg is one of seven children, born in a small Colorado town, where the railway and harsh winters come to define life. She is musical, and destined for great things, but keeps needing to move on from people who can help her for a while, but eventually serve to limit her. Close to epic in scope, this book has some nice writerly touches. We leave Thea at the height of her opera singing fame in New York and end with an epilogue from the perspective of her Aunt Tillie back in Colorado, who manages to work into every conversation that her niece gets a thousand dollars a night for her appearances. It is a masterful way to close the loop.
O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
I realized, afterwards, that I read the prairie trilogy backwards. This book, about farm owner Alexandra Bergson, was Cather’s first entry into this three book set about strong women of the American west. The writing is less sure on this one vs. Song of the Lark. O Pioneers! aims to be epic, but comes across as a bit too short to justify the sweep. The moralizing is also a bit much; the two characters pondering adultery of course have to die violent deaths in their illicit embrace. There were some good lines; Carl, after his years of wandering, tells Alexandra that “freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere.” And Cather’s writing definitely gets better as the books go on. I find this particularly comforting from a writer’s perspective.
Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr
Long before All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr won a prestigious writing fellowship that came with a very modest stipend ($1300/month) and a slightly-more-exciting year-long lease on an apartment in Rome. He got news of winning this fellowship the same day his wife, Shauna, gave birth to twins. A few months later, the four of them packed up and moved to Italy, and he kept a diary, which became this book. Certainly, a writer of Doerr’s talents creates compelling descriptions of Rome. Between this and Under the Tuscan Sun (read last month) I am hankering for a trip. He also writes tenderly of his little boys. But there were other aspects of this book that reminded me of a particular pet peeve of mine: the acknowledgement sections in books by male writers (always) where they apologize for all those missed dinners, and thank their wives for taking care of everything so they could write. Doerr notes on the twins’ first birthday that in the past year, Shauna “had put the boys down for 1,460 naps. She did something close to four tons of laundry. I folded maybe four pounds of that.” At one point she winds up hospitalized for exhaustion; meanwhile, he seems to spend a lot of his time at the office procrastinating by reading Pliny the Elder. Hmmm. Though I will acknowledge that perhaps my sour feelings on reading this are just jealousy that other family members might treat writing as a very very serious job to the point where one is automatically excused from laundry folding.
Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry
Modern Mrs. Darcy put this on her list of books she’d read over and over again. She lives in Kentucky, and Berry is one of Kentucky’s most celebrated writers, but you don’t have to live in those hills and hollers to enjoy this one. Berry paints Port William as a complete world. The lonely Jayber Crow becomes the town barber, and slowly finds himself folded into community life, sustained by his lifelong, unrequited love for the tragic Mattie Chatham. Berry’s anti-war commentary is a bit much (any young man you care about winds up sent off to war and coming home in a body box) and the moralizing about modern progress gets to be a bit much too (of course the guy with the tractor is the villain). But the descriptions of the land and community are gorgeous nonetheless. What is perhaps most surprising about Jayber Crow is that it was written in 2000. It reads much more like Wharton and Cather than more modern fiction. I may read Hannah Coulter (another book in the Port William series) soon.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
This is Hemingway’s posthumous memoir of 1920s Paris, when he was very young, very poor, and very happy, at least in his telling. He and his first wife Hadley, and baby son Bumby, try to make a go of it off his writings and the occasional victory at the track. By far the most interesting stories are those involving other literary lights of the day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Scott”) whose alcoholism, neuroticism, and disintegrating marriage to Zelda are written about with much foreshadowed doom. Of course, Hemingway writes slyly of his own impending woes; he ends with a feint at his own unfaithfulness to Hadley, written half in the third person. After reading this, I ordered some Hemingway novels I haven’t read, now knowing what he was thinking at the time.