I feel like this month I achieved a breakthrough as a reader. I tackled a few long and extremely challenging books, and found that I could stick with a narrative for a while. I spent a lot of time reading, but I didn’t spend all my time reading. By using small bits of time, coupled with larger chunks (2-year-old’s nap, an hour before bed), I could get through some substantial stuff. I feel like reading fairly all-consuming books helped stretch time. It seems like ages ago that I was reading Grant’s memoirs during my epic (yet only one day) trip to Nashville, but it was less than a month ago. Here’s what I read:
Embattled Rebel, by James McPherson
After reading Team of Rivals last month, I wanted to know more about what was going on in the South during (and really, before) the Civil War. While this book had some interesting parts, it was more of a military history: which generals did what, and why it pleased or displeased Jefferson Davis, who is the central character. The reader learns how Davis dealt with bread riots in Richmond, but less about how the bread riots started. I’m still looking for a good write-up of what people were thinking in the Confederacy from, say, 1840-1861.
The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
I found this book (well, books — it was originally sold as a 2-volume set) shockingly readable. Grant recounts the various battles he and other generals fought. Since this was my third book in a row on the Civil War, I was getting to know the chronology pretty well, but Grant offered a lot of first hand insight. Like at Shiloh, he recalls that he could walk across the fields on dead bodies without stepping on the ground. It’s not an emotional book, but some images are pretty shocking. I wish he’d written more about his personal life, or his presidency, but he was dying as he wrote it, and so he got down the war stuff, probably figuring (accurately) that people would most care about that. I learned a lot about the Mexican war — a topic that really never got covered in my U.S. history classes. Grant proposes that the Mexican war led inexorably to the Civil War; the territory acquired in a not-terribly-ethical manner of conquest then created its own tension over what would be slave states and what would be free.
The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni
As part of my research into business parables, I read this perennial bestseller on what makes teams work, and what makes teams fail. There are good touches, like making the new CEO who dives into a troubled company a woman who’s got a military background (plus a stint as a high school teacher pre-MBA). Other than that, the characters are what they are, though I’m realizing that’s usually not what people care about with their parables. One key take-away is that people shouldn’t strive for conflict-free teams. They should strive for teams where conflict is constructive. There are very few things that everyone will agree on, so a lack of conflict is a sign of disengagement, not that all is great.
The Getaway Car, by Ann Patchett
The bestselling novelist talks about her early writing career, and how she got into the profession. This was a short (less than 45 minutes) read, but with some fun insights. Now that she points it out, a lot of her novels do center around a group of people thrown together under strange circumstances. She freely notes that she was taken by such a story early on, and has been re-writing it ever since.
Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset
This 1124-page Nobel Prize-winning epic was originally published as 3 books (so do I get credit for 3 books on my list??) Kristin is a headstrong woman living in medieval Norway. She and her bad boy husband Erlend raise 7 sons, and encounter various hardships and triumphs. Against the backdrop of a society in the throes of change, this is also a very personal look at one woman’s life. We see how she is often torn between her father and her husband, how she hopes to keep her children close while learning she cannot control them, and her suffering over loving a man who often brings her great grief (he’s the quintessential “rebel” if you subscribe to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies rubric). There are parts that read like a Harlequin romance novel, and one gets a little tired of Kristin’s anguish at times, and yet the characters feel real. Norway is breathtakingly described. According to various commentaries I’ve read, Undset was stunningly accurate in her depictions of medieval life, and yet she never beats you over the head with her research. If you’re looking to tackle a 1000+ page book, I’d recommend trying this one out, with the understanding that you’ll be living in medieval Norway until you’re done.
[A sociology book I’m reviewing for a major publication— more on this one when the review is published]
The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather
Since I’d read so many other books by Willa Cather, I picked this one up at the library. An aging professor has built a successful research career, and raised two daughters, and seen them successfully married, and yet he starts rebelling against his current life, particularly as he recounts one daughter’s late fiance, a man he respected and hoped she would marry. Cather weaves in the tale of this Tom Outland, who lived in the southwest (because all Cather books seem to meander there eventually!), and discovered many Indian artifacts, and how he became part of the family’s life, and how things would be different if he had lived. It was OK, definitely not my favorite Cather book. I did have a thought, while I was in the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a Georgia O’Keefe painting, that she also always drifted back to the southwest in her art. They were somewhat of contemporaries. I wonder if anyone has written anything linking the two of them.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
As with Kristin Lavransdatter, this was originally published as 3 books (when it was first released in Japan). Bound together, it’s another doorstopper, though I read it on the Kindle app, so weight wasn’t an issue. Two narratives — of Aomame, a young female assassin who kills men who batter women, and Tengo, a young male writer who doctors a strange manuscript and unearths many secrets — slowly wind together in a dystopian world Aomame names 1Q84. Multiple Murakami fans have told me this is not his best work. There were sloppy, repetitive parts, heavy-handed literary references, bizarrely graphic sex scenes, plus a lot of thoughts attributed to women that I’m not sure any woman has ever said or thought. That said, the narrative was compelling enough that I kept reading, wondering if maybe there was a world out there with two moons hanging over the 1984 Tokyo sky. One of the plot lines in this book is that Tengo has re-written a 17-year-old’s compelling novella (“Air Chrysalis”) to turn a decent plot into something polished. I found myself wondering if Murakami was making a sly meta reference to that in writing a book with a compelling narrative that could have used a good editor to polish it a bit more. But that’s a bit too clever by half, isn’t it?
The Founding Fish, by John McPhee
This was something of a palate cleanser after Murakami, going from the fantastical to the absolutely factual, from the sweeping to the specific. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee has spent decades shad-fishing as a hobby, and this book explores the fish, its environment, the species’ shots at survival, and the people who fish for it, including McPhee himself. I live in shad country here close to the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, and while some parts of the book felt like I was wading in deep water, I enjoyed reading about the history of Lower Merion Township and Valley Forge, albeit only the parts that relate to fishing.
If you’ve read any of these books, I welcome your thoughts. I also would love to hear what you’ve read recently that you think is worth a read (or not!)