Books read in April

IMG_3030It’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!

22 thoughts on “Books read in April

  1. I am a huge Fitzgerald fan and was not a huge fan of Tender is the Night. I read it after reading Everybody was so Young. This is a non-fiction book at about Gerald and Sara Murphy who were contemporaries and friends with Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Picaso, the list goes on. Though the story of the Divers is based on Scott and Zelda’s romance the characters are physically modeled on Gerald and Sara. They were so offended when they read a manuscript of Tender is the Night it ended their friendship. Given your recent interest in the novels written by this crowd I would highly recommend Everybody was so Young. I think you would really enjoy it.

  2. I’m interested that your take on Option B was that you need to build stronger friendships. Having not read it, I have to say that most of the reviews of it I’ve seen have left me with a similar feeling. But also, I have a feeling that I will *never* have the kind of relationships that seemed to carry her through this rough patch, even if I worked harder at it. I am left with a sense of: so glad you’ve made it through this, but I don’t know if your advice is doable for a lot of people. Maybe this is overly simplistic, however.

    1. @omdg- I would believe that someone who is a top executive in a major corporation, and who was married to a CEO of another corporation, would just have a lot of people in her life. And I’m sure she was always very social — that’s the sort of person who does well in large organizations. So yes, the fact that she has 7 best girl friends from high school is probably unique, coming on top of all the other family friends she talks about. But I do think the rest of us can have a few people in our lives, if not as many.

  3. I have tried to read Tender Is The Night multiple times in multiple phases of my life and it just does not work for me at any time. So I’m with you there!

    You almost have me convinced on Death Comes for the Archbishop. My only Cather attempt was Song of the Lark, maybe 15 year ago, and I could not get into it.

  4. I never cared for Fitzgerald because I almost never like his characters. I don’t even like The Great Gatsby. I have an appreciation, but I didn’t enjoy his work. By the same token, I did not enjoy Wuthering Heights. (Made me a bit of a pariah in college as an English major) I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Eyre and anything written by George Eliot. Taught American Literature for the better part of a decade and have no desire to revisit many of those “spinach” authors.
    Recently reread The Handmaid’s Tale due to the resurgence of interest in it.
    Option B has been on my list, but while I loved Lean In, in parts, there were definite areas that were not relatable, and I fear this will be also.
    Have a few Anne Lamott books piling up for summer.

  5. If you’re willing to expand your Willa Cather reading to her short fiction, I can wholeheartedly recommend The Bohemian Girl. It is the free ebook I give to subscribers to my Tungsten Hippo mailing list right now, and I really, really liked it. Of course, I am fascinated by Cather’s description of Scandinavian settlers in the midwest, because those were my ancestors! But I think it would stand up even without that fascination. (I am assuming you’ve read My Antonia, which is what I think of as her most well-known book… if not, I highly recommend it, too!) If you want to read The Bohemian Girl and can’t find it, let me know. I’ll send you the ebook I made for the Tungsten Hippo subscribers. Continuing on the short fiction theme… Fitzgerald’s Head and Shoulders is a short story that has really stayed with me. That one is in my Love and Other Happy Endings anthology.
    Your comments on the Sandberg book are interesting. Friendship is hard when you’re in the “rush hour” years (I heard someone categorize the time when your kids are young and you’re working to build a career that way, and I like it). But I wonder if we’d find we have more good friends than we know if tragedy struck. I know that there are people I don’t see often (because of that “rush hour” thing) that I would really reach out to and try to help if something like a death of a spouse happened to them.

    1. I liked your instinct, Cloud, that you’d reach out to a friend who was in a similar situation to that of Sheryl Sandberg. Having experienced this myself, at Christmas 2015, I found that, yes, initially, my friends had that very same impulse. They were there to make endless cups of tea, and fill the freezer with ready meals, and take my youngest out for a few hours…. at first. Then it started tailing off. Now people have assumed that I’ve ‘got back to normal.’ I haven’t. So by all means reach out to friends when the s*** hits the fan… but remember that she’ll need you just as much when the tragedy has faded from everyone else’s mind but hers. That Sheryl Sandberg has written a book at all after only 2 years is incredible, given that grief does terrible things to your memory and perspective!

      1. @Karen – I am so sorry for your loss. I think everyone has their own time line, and no one can know what theirs will be until they go through it. I think the one constructive take-away I hope I remember from Sandberg should I face some sudden shock is that the initial grief will not feel quite as strong forever. It will always be there, but won’t feel quite the same at some point in the future (whenever that might be). It’s something she writes that she would have had a hard time believing in the beginning but it was a hopeful thought to cling through in the worst of it.

  6. I love your reading list because its SO different from mine. Are you doing a theme of 20th century American authors? I tend to read contemporary fiction, as do most of my “bookish” bloggers & friends, but I’m tempted to check some of these out (not Tender is the Night), but definitely Cather and Berry.
    I definitely will not be reading the Sandberg book (the crying that’ll ensue!) but your point about friendships is quite interesting and probably worth some discussion/thought!

    1. @Ana- there’s no real theme. It’s kind of what strikes my fancy, and then moving through authors I’ve enjoyed and reading their other works, and works by writers they admired and all that. I haven’t been having as much success with the contemporary stuff — well, other than Wendell Berry, who reads like he was writing in 1930 even though the books came out in 2000 or so.

  7. Thx for reading update. Like you, I also keep on track my running (so far 80 miles this month) and reading (about 10 books), mostly listening via audible while running and commuting Last night, I just finished Option B as it officially out 3 days ago. I had the same thoughts on friendship. Moving around from Asia, Europe and settle in US, I don’t have many friends to ask help, vice versa. Having two little kids make things even harder. In April, I bought kindle books for my 4th grade (9yo) daughter “Auggie & Me” written by R J Palacio (author of “Wonder”) and read it together. I liked it more than adult book. Highly recommend.

  8. Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady–my favorite of her books. I’ll look for A Bohemian Girl–always happy for suggestions.

    I liked Hannah Coulter so much that I wonder if any other Berry books could give me as much pleasure.

    I read too many mysteries but had the fun this week of hearing Walter Mosley speak and answer questions at our local library because his first Easy Rawlins mystery Devil in a Blue Dress was chosen as the One Book for Michiana this spring.

  9. I think I read a ton of the Wharton/Cather in HS-Age of Innocence was one of my favorites!

    Fitzgerald, in general, never seems to write redeemable characters. I love his writing and his style (last paragraph in Gatsby utterly transfixed me when I was young), and the whole fantasy of irresponsible 20 somethings being irresponsible. But, I end up hating every character he creates.

    Have you read any PG Wodehouse? The Jeeves and Wooster series is one of my favorites-all 1920s foppish aristocracy, but incredibly funny and actually says quite a bit about social class. Another favorite is Evelyn Waugh, which is more of a biting satire, but still written so well!

  10. I became a fan of Sheryl Sandberg after reading her book, Lean In. I can’t wait to get a copy of Option B. Your book review is interesting that’s why I’m getting it!

  11. Sort of intrigued about Sanberg’s Option B book as well, although I didn’t really enjoy reading Lean In. Just wasn’t nuanced enough. Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, now that really paints a picture.

  12. Laura, If I were going to read one Wendell Barry book, which would you recommend. He is perennially on my “to read” list but I have never taken the plunge. Would also ask you the same question about Willa Cather. I have enjoyed seeing your “what i’ve read” lists!

    1. @Sally- I started with Jayber Crow, and I think that was a good one. I think some of the others (Andy Catlett for instance) felt far more derivative, like you’d need to already know and care about the characters to get into it. But Jayber Crow was a complete novel.

      As for Cather – hmm. If you want to feel accomplished, you could read the whole prairie trilogy (O Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia). However, just know that O pioneers isn’t all that great. She definitely got better.

      I’d say Death Comes for the Archbishop is classic Cather, and is great on its own. So could just do that one.

  13. I always love reading through your book posts. It’s so great to see what you’re into and now I’m excited to read Death Comes for the Archbishop, as I loved My Antonia.

    If you like Wendell Berry, you might also like Marilynne Robinson. Have you read any of her? Gilead is amazing, and I recently read Home and just loved it.

    I also blog a lot about books, and here is a recent post about some titles I just finished:

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