It’s that time again! I spent a week on vacation and had a few plane and train trips, which helped pad this list out. But also, my new novel reading habit has reminded me that I really like to read, and I read fast. As long as I know what I want to read next, I will devote the lion’s share of my leisure time to reading. April is not yet over, and I may finish another book this weekend, but if so, it will go on May’s list. What I read this month:
Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Technically I finished this on March 31st, but since I had posted my “Books read in March” list by then, I never wrote about it. This tale of Dick Diver, the psychiatrist, and his beautiful but mentally disturbed patient-turned-wife Nicole, and their glamorous friends, is pretty much just depressing all around. I have a hard time reading books where I don’t like any of the characters. At one point, they’re all having a gay time in some hotel rearranging the furniture and tormenting the waiters and I realized these were the kind of people I have never had any desire to be around. I finished the book, and Fitzgerald creates quite a world with the shifting questions of who is really mad and who is sane, but I think it is possible to recognize the literary genius of something without liking it. Given how highly praised this novel has been (on lists of the best novels of the 20th century), perhaps I should try it again. We shall see.
The Reef, by Edith Wharton
I guess I was in an eat-my-spinach phase during the first part of the month. The Reef is about an almost-40-something man who’s on his way to meet, and hopefully marry, a widow he wanted to marry before she met her first husband. Then, along the way, when the widow tells him not to come just now, he’s distracted by a young woman who needs his help. They have a brief affair, which isn’t a problem until he does make his way to the widow many months later, and the young woman turns out to be the widow’s governess. Even more complicated: this young governess becomes engaged to the widow’s son. Scandal! But despite the scandal, this novel moves sloooowly. I was counting pages, and getting annoyed with the main characters, especially the widow herself. I kind of feel like one might expect a nearly 40-year-old bachelor to have had romantic involvements prior to marriage, even if this was a hundred years ago. I have a few theories about this novel. One is that it was totally beyond my understanding. “The reef” implies an unseen world below the surface, and maybe the genius of this novel was below its obvious text. Certainly the ending, in which the widow meets the governess’s “fallen” sister is just bizarro. I read some commentary that suggested it was a very Henry James type novel, where the psychological states and the interactions of the characters are most important, not the plot. Or, perhaps what happened is that Wharton, bless her, was not the kind of literary genius who was only appreciated after her death. She was a best-selling novelist in her time. Demand for her work was huge. The Reef was serialized in a popular magazine of the day, and perhaps she felt like the money was good enough that she owed it to her readers to just crank something out.
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
More spinach. This collection of short stories has also landed on some lists of the best books of the 20th century, and Anderson strongly influenced writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But all of these stories about grotesque characters in the small town of Winesburg, Ohio, are depressing and bleak. George Willard, the young newspaper writer in the center of them, is somewhat interesting, but the thread holding it all together is loose. I read the stories, and they were well-constructed, but I don’t really want to read them again.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
This was the first book I read in April that I really enjoyed. There’s fishing, and 1920s Paris, and bullfights — described well enough so that I feel like I understand more of the sport — and the hapless Jake Barnes, who attracts beautiful women like Lady Brett Ashley, but was rendered impotent by an injury sustained in the war. He somewhat alternates between thinking this is funny, and that it really isn’t. For some reason, even though the characters have some of the same devil-may-care attitude as the Fitzgerald ones, I found this cast more likable. Now on to more Hemingway novels next month, I think.
Andy Catlett: Early Travels, by Wendell Berry
I saw this one at the library, and picked it up. I had read Jayber Crow last month, so I was familiar with the world of Port William, Kentucky. This entry into the series is about one young boy’s Christmas travels to visit his grandparents during 1943. Port William is being torn apart by a war far away, and Andy sees these changes through a child’s eyes, slowly coming to understand what is going on. I’m glad I read Jayber Crow first, since it’s a much more fully realized novel. I couldn’t see reading this independently of that, but Berry is a compelling writer, and Port William is a lovely place.
Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry
This was a more complete novel than Andy Catlett. Hannah has a tough upbringing, and while things look up when she marries into a functional family, she is plunged back into tragedy as her husband dies in World War II, leaving her with a young daughter to raise on her own. She remarries another veteran, and they raise two more children together on their farm, but none of the grown children want to take over the family business. I thought Berry did a good job getting into Hannah’s head (much more sympathetically than many male authors trying to write about women) and I found the moments where she compares her two marriages particularly poignant. She knows it isn’t entirely fair, as the first never got out of the honeymoon stage, and the second lasted 50 years, and yet she reaches her peace with how she can love these men both completely and in different ways.
Shadows on the Rock, by Willa Cather
The setting is Quebec in 1697, where young Cecile Auclair lives with her father, the town apothecary. This French colony is so isolated that the ships from Europe can only land between July and October (British ships could make it back and forth from NYC year round at that point, for comparison). But Cecile loves her rough home, which is breeding a new type of free person than those living in the crumbling old cities of Europe. Cather describes cold, colorful, and faithful Quebec and the characters gorgeously in this lesser known work of hers. Highly recommended.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
Possibly Cather’s most famous work, this book chronicles the adventures of the young bishop Jean Marie Latour, sent from France to help rebuild the Catholic church in territory newly annexed (in the mid-1800s) into the United States. Traveling by mule through storms and hostile territory, he wins people to hope and faith, one small victory at a time. Cather’s descriptions make you want to visit the Southwest, and the plot flows easy enough that I really enjoyed reading this one too.
A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry
So I was on a Berry kick, and wanted something easy to read on my plane flight home from Hawaii. I’d rank this one under Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter, but the tales of World War II era Port William are still entertaining, the scope expansive, and the writing smooth as can be.
Nathan Coulter, by Wendell Berry
See above. This one was at least set in a different era. It is Port William in the Great Depression, told by Nathan Coulter long before he met Hannah, before he and his brother Tom fought in World War II, where Tom would die and Nathan would see action that would change him forever. This book had a bit of a Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn aspect in its tales of motherless boys misbehaving and figuring out the hypocrisies and limitations of their elders, limitations that the tragedy of the human condition meant they could never overcome.
A non-fiction book about sociology/politics – [The next entry on this list is a book I read to review for the Wall Street Journal next month — and hence I can’t write about here]
Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen
As with Option B (reviewed below) I picked this up because I saw it mentioned so many places. The reviews described Shattered as a juicy inside look at Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. The authors did all their interviews on background, and promised not to publish anything until after the election. Such “juice” is as it is; I’m not enough of a politico to really care if Jennifer Palmieri and Robby Mook liked each other or not. To me, the more interesting aspect was the tragic arc of the decisions the Clinton camp made for the primary that wound up undermining the general election. She and Mook learned the lessons from the Obama 2008 campaign, and counted every Democratic delegate to win the nomination as efficiently as possible. The media narratives of Bernie ascendency missed the fact that at almost no point after the first few primaries could he have caught her. However, the quest to efficiently land the most Democratic delegates meant Clinton spent almost zero time campaigning in white working class areas — which wound up being the ones that cost her the presidency. While the authors were a wee bit repetitive with their thesis (in short, HRC followed the data to the wrong conclusions, and made bad decisions about her server and speeches to banks), there were nice small details. The man recruited to play Trump as Clinton prepared for the debate purposely went for the crazy sometimes. Like what if, instead of a pre-debate handshake, Trump tried to kiss her on the cheek? With an opponent like that, she had to be prepared for anything. It seems she was, but preparation wasn’t what people in certain key districts were looking for.
Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton
This read easier than The Reef. Wharton’s satirical novel features an heiress who wants to stamp out all emotion and suffering through her sheer productivity, and yet winds up seeing her son’s marriage crumble, and her second husband have an affair with her son’s very jazz age wife. I’ll just leave you with my favorite quote about the main character, Pauline Manford: “An hour is too long for meditation—an hour is too long for anything. Now that she had one to herself, for the first time in years, she didn’t in the least know what to do with it. That was something which no one had ever thought of teaching her; and the sense of being surrounded by a sudden void, into which she could reach out on all sides without touching an engagement or an obligation, produced in her a sort of mental dizziness. She had taken plenty of rest-cures, of course; all one’s friends did. But during a rest-cure one was always busy resting; every minute was crammed with passive activities; one never had this queer sense of inoccupation, never had to face an absolutely featureless expanse of time. It made her feel as if the world had rushed by and forgotten her. An hour—why, there was no way of measuring the length of an empty hour! It stretched away into infinity like the endless road in a nightmare; it gaped before her like the slippery sides of an abyss. Nervously she began to wonder what she could do to fill it .” I suspect this nervousness accounts for at least half of the times we unlock our iPhones.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
I have mixed feelings about this book that Sandberg wrote after her husband Dave Goldberg’s sudden death of a heart condition at age 47. The moments of Sandberg describing her love for her husband and her grief are heart-wrenching. I felt myself tensing and tearing up as she described getting off the plane from Mexico, walking into her house and having to tell her son and daughter that something terrible happened: Daddy died. I cannot imagine having that conversation, and yet as she’d note, she couldn’t imagine having it either. But then she had to not just imagine it but do it. I envy Sandberg’s tight net of friends that helped her pull through tragedy, and reading this book reminded me that I really need to do more to build more time for friendships into my life. The trouble is that these profound moments are mixed with paragraphs that read like the worst health articles in women’s magazines (“Physiologically, laughter reduces our heart rate and relaxes our muscles…”), and public policy paragraphs that I stopped reading because they got so repetitive. What I guess I mean is that this book would have been better as pure memoir than as attempting to put forth a big idea. But the memoir parts that do exist are compelling.
Currently on the “To Be Read” list — This Side of Paradise, and possibly a long book such as Team of Rivals, plus some Hemingway. I’m running low on Cather and Wharton novels!