Short month, not too many books. But a few! I’m currently working through The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs which, while interesting, isn’t exactly a quick read. More on that one in March. Here’s what I read in February.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
After the Georgia Flu kills off 99 percent of humanity, survivors band together to form new communities in a world beset by violence. Mandel makes this broad premise more readable by centering the narrative around an actor, Arthur Leander, who dies of a heart attack while performing King Lear in the days before the pandemic sweeps through civilization. Characters who knew him are later tied together, for better or for worse, as they struggle to survive. I had mixed feelings about this book. It was incredibly well-written. The plot was inventive and intricately constructed, down to the final showdown between the two characters with access to the Station Eleven comic book that gives this book its name. Post-pandemic life is envisioned in plausible detail; I’m not sure if events would play out that way, but they certainly could. I also realized, reading it, that I just don’t like dystopian books. I had to keep forcing myself to read for, say, a half hour, and then I let myself go do something else. I’m afraid this says more about me than the quality of the book, but there we go. If you like dystopian books, you will probably love this one.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I started reading this classic fantasy story with my older boys a few months ago, but we got bogged down, partly because of the pace, and partly because it’s pretty dark, (not unlike Station Eleven that way!). A band of dwarves and a hobbit go on a quest for treasure, which they know will involve a perilous journey and taking the treasure back from an ill-tempered dragon. Tolkien’s language is taut and enchanting, and the escapes are clever; on the other hand, the dwarves are almost eaten multiple times by goblins, giant spiders, etc. After all this violence, the end turns, somewhat unexpectedly, into more of a meditation on the fallen nature of man, as gaining treasure sometimes leads to worse outcomes than not having treasure. I’m glad I read The Hobbit, since it’s such a cultural touchpoint, but I probably wouldn’t re-read it. So readers can let me know if Lord of the Rings is more or less the same.
Alienated America, by Tim Carney
I enjoy Tim Carney’s writings in the Washington Examiner, and I follow him on Twitter. In this book, Carney, who writes gratefully about his own tight-knit community supporting him during a child’s illness, attempts to understand why, in certain places, Pres. Trump’s primary campaign announcement that “The American Dream is dead” was so appealing. He finds that the communities where Trump did best in the Republican primaries tended to be the ones with the lowest levels of civic engagement and — crucial to his thesis — the lowest rates of church attendance. He writes that alienation happens when people are cut off from the civic institutions that support families and help people live the good life. There are definitely places in America where civic engagement is high. They tend to be extremely wealthy or have very active religious communities. The latter is more accessible than real estate in Chevy Chase or Alexandria, which is why he thinks that increased secularization is problematic. It’s not because of any particular beliefs, but because of how people in tight-knit faith communities act toward each other and their neighbors. Carney is at his best when he’s actually reporting — visiting small towns, talking with people whose family members have died of overdoses, camping out as part of Occupy Wall Street, etc. I finished this book wishing for a bit more of those scenes, and a bit less of the sociology, which while interesting, got repetitive. I’d add this to Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West (which I read last month) if any readers are looking for a list of books by non-Trump supporting conservatives trying to understand what happened in 2016.
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I’d read this mostly charming children’s story, about an unhappy orphan who comes alive after discovering a secret garden on her uncle’s Yorkshire estate, many years ago. I found my old copy, complete with my name and 6th grade teacher’s name written inside the front cover! It’s a quick read, and a heartwarming tale, though it drags by about two-thirds in, when the major conflict is over, and the characters keep remarking (in somewhat hard-to-read Yorkshire dialect) about just how much everything has changed. Nonetheless, it was a good book to tear through on a weekend when the late February weather was just a bit warmer than usual, and a walk with the stroller through a nearby retirement community revealed many trees starting to bud. Gardens are indeed magical places. This (probably more so than The Hobbit) might be a good one to read aloud with kids.
What are you reading these days?