Reading List by Jennie for April through June
An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew by Annejet Van Der Zijl
I can’t remember if this was recommended somewhere or if I just found it while perusing historical biographies on Amazon, but I know I was initially intrigued by what I read of its subject. I was interested enough to buy the book, anyway.
Allene Tew was born into fairly unprepossessing circumstances in rural upstate New York. She went on to make an excellent (first) marriage (helped along by a pregnancy that anticipated the wedding). Objectively, Allene’s life was potentially fascinating: five marriages, Gilded Age wealth and Depression-era poverty (not poverty-poverty, but rich-people-poverty). Hobnobbing with princes (and marrying one) in Europe. She endured a lot of heartache as well; her three children died young and she lost the one husband she seemed to actually love prematurely.
So it’s weird that the book read as so curiously lifeless to me. I don’t know if it had to do with the fact that the author is Dutch and the book was originally written in Dutch and then translated to English. I just know that while it didn’t seem like an especially short book, before I knew it Allene was 30 and I didn’t feel like I knew much about her or had a feel for her as a person. For a subject born less than 150 years ago, I expect more contemporaneous accounts, interesting anecdotes, and the like. For me this was a rather dull book about an interesting woman. My grade was a C.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
As someone who really liked Gone Girl (even the controversial ending!), I had always meant to go back and read Flynn’s earlier books. I picked this, her first book, up recently and read it without even knowing that it was shortly to become an HBO limited series. Good timing! Anyway, Sharp Objects is beautifully written in a rather overwrought Southern Gothic style (is southern Missouri far enough south to be Southern Gothic?). Camille Preaker, a troubled reporter working for a minor newspaper in Chicago, is sent by her editor back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on the murder of a little girl the year before and the recent disappearance of a second girl.
Camille has to confront her very messed-up upbringing and current demons (alcoholism and a commitment to self-mutilation that felt as over-the-top as many of the other elements in the story). Her mother is controlling and creepy, and her younger half-sister Amma is a Lolita on the streets of Wind Gap and mommy’s little angel at home. Suspects abound and the resolution, while unexpected, made sense in the context of the story. But it kind of didn’t bear close scrutiny (as was true of other elements in the book, and plenty of elements in Gone Girl, actually). Sharp Objects was super-readable, though and Camille was sympathetic (to me, at least, even if I winced at some of her choices). My grade was an A-.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
After finding Sharp Objects so compelling, I immediately picked up this, Flynn’s second novel. After finishing it, I noted in my book log, “I wish I hadn’t read it”, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book that, like Flynn’s other novels, was a compelling read with sharp prose. Dark Places was so, well, dark and dingy and tragic and ugly and sad that I can’t really recommend it. (Unless you like dark, dingy, tragic, ugly and sad, that is. No judgment.)
The story takes place on two different tracks – one present day, and one about 25 years before. In the present, Libby Day is in her early 30s and has never worked; she lives off the largesse of people who remember her as “little Libby Day”, the brave survivor of a notorious crime in which her brother murdered her mother and two sisters. Libby’s donations are drying up, though, and so when she’s offered some easy money for appearing at a gathering of true crime buffs (many of whom, it turns out, think her brother is innocent, and blame Libby for her childhood testimony against him), she accepts. Libby ends up delving into the mystery of what really happened in their family’s dilapidated farmhouse decades before; first it’s the money that compels her (Ben Day’s supporters are willing to pay for information that they think only Libby can get). But she eventually is driven by her own need to know the truth.
The flashback story details the days before the murders, from the perspectives of Libby’s mother Patty and from Ben himself. These are the darkest parts of the book; you know something terrible is going to happen, and a mounting sense of dread accompanies this knowledge. Even aside from that, the details of the lives of the Day family are pretty damn depressing. Both Patty and Ben’s lives start to spin out of control in those last days, and it is truly unpleasant to read about.
I gave this book a C in my book log, but I’m ambivalent about the grade. Dark Places is really compelling, so I think I’ll raise my grade to a B-, with the caveat that I don’t recommend it unless you very much like dark reads.
She Was the Quiet One by Michele Campbell
Yet another of my Amazon First Reads; I chose it because I’m obviously on a suspense fiction kick. Twins Rose and Bel are orphaned at 15; their father died when they were young and their mother has recently passed from cancer. They are sent to live with their wealthy paternal grandmother, who ships them off to a prestigious boarding school. The change in circumstances is welcomed by Rose but not Bel. We know from the prologue that one of them ends up dead; the mystery is which sister (and did the other one kill her?).
Rose and Bel are very different: Rose is studious and a bit of a goody-goody; Bel is more rebellious and “fast” (to use an old phrase) as well as more sensitive and artistic. Fractures appear in the sibling relationship almost immediately in the new school. Mean girls and teachers who may or may not be good influences push them further apart..
She Was the Quiet One started out rough for me; the writing and especially the dialogue felt stilted and unrealistic. I did get into the story as it went along, and so in spite of the predictable resolution to the mystery (the most obvious person did it for the most obvious reason; the only question left was which twin was dead), I gave this a B-.
Bittersweet (True North Book 1) by Sarina Bowen
I got this from the Daily Deals; on the one hand, it was by Sarina Bowen (thumbs up), on the other hand, it was set on a farm (thumbs down), on a third hand that somehow appeared, it was free (three thumbs up!). I’m so glad I took a chance in spite of the bucolic setting (generally not my thing).
Griff and Audrey hooked up a couple of times in college. They meet again when she’s working for an evil-empire-restaurant-consortium in Boston and is sent to Vermont to try to source produce from local farmers at rock-bottom prices. Griff had to take over his family’s apple orchard after college due to his father’s untimely death. The two clash immediately as Griff takes exception to the insulting prices Audrey is tasked with offering.
I wasn’t sure about this book for about the first quarter; there was a juxtaposition of the competent Griff and the ditzy and out-of-her-element Audrey that I didn’t like. But the more we see of Audrey the more her strengths and virtues come into focus. As Griff started appreciating her as a person, and not just lusting after her (though he does plenty of that), I started to like him, as well.
Somehow Bittersweet ended up sneaking up on me and being a book that I really liked quite a lot (I even really loved the setting!) My grade was an A-.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was my second Agatha Christie (after And Then There Were None) and my first introduction to Hercule Poirot. The little Belgian was indeed very entertaining and amusing, though his remarkable powers of observation were part of the problem, such as it was, that I had with the book.
A rich older lady is murdered by poison in her manor home. Who did it: her younger husband, suspected of being a fortune hunter? Her stepson, who may have recently argued with her? Or one of the several other people lounging about the manor home in the days after World War I?
So far I think my issue with Christie is that many of the stylistic conventions of murder mysteries that she created or at least popularized are familiar to me through her imitators. So the detective who is impossibly clever feels a tiny bit trite, even if Poirot is the original impossibly-clever-detective (or was that Sherlock Holmes?). The twisty turny plot that relies of people acting in particular ways at very specific intervals feels done to death (no pun intended), not fresh and new.
None of this is Christie’s fault, of course. The Mysterious Affair at Styles was entertaining enough. The identity of the murderer felt a bit anticlimactic, though I understand that the “how” was supposed to be the real payoff. I did like Hercule Poirot. My grade was a straight B.
North Of Normal: A Memoir Of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both by Cea Sunrise Person
Occasionally I’m in the mood for a non-fiction subgenre I like to call, “Memoirs of My Effed-Up Childhood.” (Note: sometimes this subgenre overlaps with another favorite, “Fundamentalist Mormons and Their Weird Ways.”) The Glass Castle is sort of the touchstone example of the genre in the past decade or so.
Cea is born to a teenage mother from an unconventional family. Her grandfather, Papa Dick, has various ideas about free love and drug use that he imparts upon his children, all of whom end up getting in way over their heads at a fairly young age. Papa Dick’s solution is to move his family out into the Canadian wilderness, and so they go: father, mother, three teenage daughters and baby granddaughter (the one son of the family shows up intermittently, whenever he can get someone to spring him from the mental institution).
Of course, they aren’t prepared for all that “living off the land” entails, but they somehow manage to make it work, with occasional disasters (they’re bailed out a few times by the local Indian tribe).
Person doesn’t actually spend her whole childhood in the wilderness, though what follows is not necessarily better: her mother clinging to one man or another, dragging Cea along with little concern for conventional stability (a home, school, enough food to eat). She breaks free as a teenager and manages to build a career for herself as a model, but her search for a real home isn’t easily satisfied.
North of Normal was fairly engrossing; I liked how Cea’s initial worshipping of her grandfather came around to a recognition that he was a very flawed narcissist. At times Person comes off a bit full of herself, but considering the people she came from a sense of superiority doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted. This was a B- for me.
Calypso by David Sedaris
After being disappointed by Sedaris’ last book, the collection of old diary entries Theft by Finding, I was happy to read this, a more conventional return to form. This was a funny and poignant collection of pieces focusing on the suicide of his sister Tiffany and his relationship with his nonagenarian father, among other themes. Sedaris makes me laugh as few others can, as when he reacts to being told that a psychic has said that Tiffany is “working on herself” in the afterlife:
“You have to work on yourself after you’re dead?” I asked. It seemed a bit much, like having to continue a diet or your participation in AA. I thought that death let you off the hook when it came to certain things, that it somehow purified you.
I feel like Sedaris has gotten more serious in his later books, or perhaps a bit more sincere? He’s still the same weirdo that keeps his lipoma in a freezer with the intention of feeding it to a hundred-plus year old tortoise that resides near his vacation home. (He’s thwarted by the tortoise’s passing. Also: yuck.) But he writes frankly about his mother’s alcoholism and the poignancy of his father’s diminished condition. His recounting of his last meeting with Tiffany (they were estranged for some time before her death) was a gut punch for me. My grade for Calypso was an A-.