MAY 2022 READING ROUND UP

I’m still mulling over Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles.  As a friend remarked : if we’re still talking about the book, debating whether we enjoyed it, then surely it must be a good read?

After Towles universally beloved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, he had to produce a different rabbit out of his hat for book #3. Which he certainly did.  Reading Lincoln Highway I felt as if Towles was channelling a mixture of Mark Twain and O. Henry, both renowned American writers. Twain gave us the boyhood adventures of Huck Finn, and O. Henry gave us hundreds of stories based on Americans living in the late 1800s/early 1900s. His range of characters and themes was all encompassing, to say the least, and Towles assorted cast of disparate characters was strongly reminiscent of O Henry’s work. Then, for good measure, Towles tossed in a sort of Child’s Guide to Greek myth, notably the adventures of Ulysses, germane to the story but …. 

I’m aware my expectations led me astray. The title and the cover, and the era of the story (1940s America) gave rise to expectations  of a Jack Kerouac road-novel/bro adventure type story. Hence my confusion.

I’m still undecided. Yes, it was a rattling good yarn.  But, nonetheless: did I enjoy it or didn’t I?  Did you?

Here’s a king-size grumble: why do so many of Anne Tyler’s novels feature such useless, hapless characters, stumbling (usually unsuccessfully) through their ultra-ordinary, middle class American lives? The characters in   Noah’s Compass exasperated me beyond measure. Here’s a vow: no more AT novels for me.

On a happier note, I have nothing but praise for These Precious Days – Ann Patchett, an essay/memoir collection. Despite disparities  between us  in age, culture, and geography, AP  addresses universal themes such as  her daily life, family, friends, reading, life and death., which resonated with me. Oh: and shopping – or, rather, not shopping.   I ‘m smiling as I recall her essay on Snoopy (from the Charlie Brown comic strip) titled ‘To the Doghouse’ and found it heart warming that Snoopy is such a source of inspiration to her. I shall treasure, and re-read the book with  renewed pleasure.

FICTION

Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles. America in the 1940s, two brothers on a road trip that  leads  them east, instead of  their intended destination, westward. A mix of boys’ Own Adventures, Classical Mythology,  a diverse cast of characters – with a powerful, if somewhat abrupt, ending. Give it a try.

*The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid.  Cleverly structured, and elegantly written. The unusual first-person narrator addresses only his American guest? CIA assassin? in a quiet, courteous voice that contains an underlying menace – or does it?  An unpredictable storyline, with an ambiguous and challenging ending.  I can see why it reached the Booker Shortlist in 2007. A very good read indeed.  Recommended

**

The Ruin of Us – Keija Parssinen. Tradition, and life under the autocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, make for a compelling story, written by a Saudi expat. Polygamy rears its troublesome head, as does fundamentalism; human conflict abounds and there are no easy answers in a Saudi/American long standing marriage. Due to the authentic setting, an unusual read.

*The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted  – Robert Hillman . Hungarian Hannah Babel doggedly survives WWII in Europe:Auschwitz, death of three beloveds, and finally emigrates to Australia. Rural Australia in the early 1960s, lonely farmer Tom Hope, whose wife has joined a religious cult and taken her son Peter, who adores Tom. Worlds collide in a dramatic unfoldment, with plenty of flashbacks to Hannah’s survival in wartime. Not the light read I was expecting; I was mislead by the title. But well written, and an unusual setting.

Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler. Retrenched 60 yr old school teacher Liam stumbles through life in a fog, exacerbated by a head injury during a midnight robbery, which leaves him semi-amnesiac  and subsequently coupled with an equally unhappy, lost female … oh, I can’t go on. If you enjoy AT suggest you look up the publisher’s blurb for the novel. A big NO from me.

RE-READ:  Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. I’m a life-long fan of GH’s Regency historical romances, and periodically I indulge. Scheming mamas, flirtatious  minxes, virtuous heroines, rakish suitors, stern fathers, duels,  elopements  – candlelight, lace, jewels, the Georgian aristocracy in a comedy of manners – a delightful escape from  21st century Covid and climate change.

*RE-READ: State of Wonder – Ann Patchett. I can’t resist an Ann Patchett she’s such a wonderful writer. A Medical research team deep in the Amazon jungle, a dead team member; a miracle drug, but above all the seething tropical jungle and its people. A magnificent read; possibly AP’s masterpiece.

NON-FICTION

These Precious Days – Ann Patchett. A collection of essays and memoir, mirroring contemporary life in the USA, but with enough common human experience that should resonate with any reader. Entertaining, thought provoking, funny – a wonderful reading experience.

  • * Indicates a Library loan from Cape Town Public Libraries

APRIL 2022 READING ROUND-UP

Officially I neither read nor enjoy crime, but this is not strictly true. I do enjoy the antics of Richard Osman’s feisty, geriatric amateur detectives in the Thursday Murder Club: chatty Joyce, brainy Ibrahim, slightly thuggish Ron and lastly, brilliant, mysterious former spy,  Elizabeth who leads  the intrepid band. Yes,  there are bodies and bullets, but no gratuitous gore and yucky details. There’s plenty of time for grandkids, homebakes, romance, fascinating personal history background – Elizabeth has an ex-husband? And former lovers? My word! Startling news!  As  the plot briskly unfolds taking in, en passant, stolen diamonds, international crime, the American Mafia, underground vaults …. You really get your money’s-worth with The Man Who Died Twice.

The Forest of Wool  and Steel – Natsu Miyashita  provided a complete contrast to the above jolly romp. It’s a short, Japanese novel set in the arcane and subtle world of piano tuning.  Seventeen year old Tomura embarks on his training, under the tutelage of three master tuners. He’s beset by doubts about his abilities. That’s about it, really, not much happens, but Tomura slowly matures, learns his craft,  and finds his purpose in life. The novel has mystical overtones. All I can say is: its very Japanese. If you’re looking for something different to read, try this one.

Another nature themed read was Lanny by Max Porter, who reshapes the centuries old Green Man folkloric myth into the modern Dead Papa Toothwort who is tuned into an unusual, fey boy called Lanny. The results are magical, scary, enchanting,  nail-biting; I can’t say more without  releasing a spoiler. But what I can say is I’m glad I finally read the novel which first hit the spotlight in the 2019 Booker Longlist. I resisted reading it at the time,  because I avoid books based on …. Drat, another spoiler hovering over us. Suffice to say, it was worth the wait. I enjoyed the format of short, personalized sections , while the multi-person chorus in Part 2 was a brilliant device to reflect an entire village during a crisis. You will have to read it for yourself.

FICTION

The Man Who Died Twice – Richard Osman. Bk 2 Thursday Murder Club Mystery series.Four geriatric sleuths , assisted by various partners in crime,  conquer the baddies & get the loot. Jolly good read, can’t wait for #3 in the series to appear.

The Forest of Wool  and Steel – Natsu Miyashita , translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Music lovers will enjoy the story of an apprentice piano tuner. Unusual. *

Lanny – Max Porter. Nature is not always benign, and nor are small English country Villages. An intriguing, dark, magical story that kept me turning the pages. A contender for my Book of the Year in December.  Highly recommended.  *

The Woman of the Stone Sea – Meg Vandermerwe. A fascinating blend of Xhosa myth combined with the life, love and losses of  Hendrik, a down to earth fisherman living on the Cape West Coast. A flavourful, memorable and unusual novel. Recommended. *

Being Lily – Qarnita Loxton. Chick Lit, set in Cape Town. A light, relaxing read.

The Hill Bachelors – William Trevor. Short stories by an acclaimed writer. The Irish  stories tended to be  opaque – not to my taste. *

NON-FICTION

Leap In – A Woman, Some Waves, and the Will to Swim – Alexandra Heminsley. Part memoir, part How-To Manual, shows the writer’s struggle to re-learn how to swim, conquer her fears, and – inter-alia, cope with unsuccessful IVF treatment. Deeply personal, but also  an informative tour of the world of open water swimming. Recommended. *

*  Indicates loans from the Cape Town Library system