I spent a great deal of time nursing a baby during February. Theoretically, this gives me time to read books on my Kindle app, and I did read a reasonable number, though I also keep scrolling around online a lot too. What can I say — I’ve felt in the mood for some effortless fun (if the word “fun” applies to headlines these days…), rather than the effortful variety. Here’s what I made it through last month:
The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying Winter, by Laura Vanderkam
Is it fair to include my own novel draft on the list? I did read it, cover to cover, in February…Charlie Martin’s life seems set: living in the small Indiana town immortalized in his grandfather’s famous novels, running the museum devoted to his grandfather’s legacy. But as he unearths family secrets, he begins to see the novels, and his own life, in an entirely different light.
Blue Flowers, by Carola Saavedra
This novel by a Brazilian author was recently translated into English. A newly divorced man starts receiving letters at his apartment from a mysterious woman addressed (allegedly) to the former tenant. As the man starts reading each of these letters, he becomes less and less engaged with reality. While the twist of an ending was interesting, the main character was hard to care about. And while I suspect that was intentional, I found it hard to get over (and the eroticism…hmm…maybe it lost something in translation…). On the plus side, the plot moves briskly, and the book is quite short, so if you’ve got “book in translation” on your reading challenge list for the year, this could be an option.
Celine, by Peter Heller
I mostly enjoyed this novel about an aging detective whose emphysema doesn’t keep her from tracking down clues about a famous photographer’s disappearance. Celine is a great character, but the main star of this book is the western scenery, mostly around Yellowstone as the leaves begin to change for fall. Gorgeous. I now want to rent an RV and listen to the wind in the aspens as they turn yellow. There were flaws — Celine’s sidekick husband is under-developed, and the CIA plot is kind of…lazy (it’s always the CIA!) — but mostly this is a swift-moving, engaging read. I was hoping to learn it was the first in a series of detective novels starring Celine but sadly it appears to be a stand-alone story.
Song of Two Worlds, by Alan Lightman
I read Einstein’s Dreams last year, and enjoyed it, so I wanted to read some other of Lightman’s work. This was a long-form poem, with a man asking questions about the universe (as in, the physics of it) as he hints at some personal tragedy. This was fine as far as these things go, though I’d put this in the category of books to read before going to bed or in the middle of the night that won’t keep you awake. Given the nursing situation described above I needed this type of book!
A Time to Build, by Yuval Levin
Many books have tried to pin down the causes of alienation in America. Levin, the founding editor of National Affairs, argues that America’s various institutions — churches, civic associations, unions, universities etc. — have become weak, and so no longer make people feel rooted. Increasingly, people view institutions as “platforms” to launch their own celebrity, rather than as “formative” places that mold them. The institutions that have remained the most formative tend to be the most admired (e.g. the military). There is something to this, though it could have been said quicker, and Levin occasionally takes his intellectual role a bit seriously. I think the best books on this topic have been the most reported ones, such as Tightrope, and Alienated America.
Microadventures, by Alastair Humphreys
I had high hopes for the concept of this book. Professional adventurer Humphreys would highlight a few short adventures that modern urban sorts (he lives near London) could do quickly. I’m always trying to get people to put more little adventures into life, and so this sounded intriguing. Alas, someone who bicycles around the globe sets a higher bar for adventure than most of us. Almost all of Humphreys’ microadventures involved going somewhere overnight and sleeping rough — like, not at an official campsite. In one case, he mentioned sleeping under an overpass and just…no. Fun to read about his journeys. Not so much for me or probably most other sane people.
I am currently reading Weather by Jenny Offill, so I will describe that in the March list!