I spent the last week at a cottage in Northern Ontario doing four things: sleeping, eating, swimming and reading. I suppose I should say five, as I also drank my share of wine. I relaxed. I luxuriated. I was eaten by horse flies. I felt – and was – totally privileged. I made my way through five summer reads, and four were pretty well fantastic. One was… not.
Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep
It’s five books ago now, and so my memory of the novel is already fading (see why this blog had to come into being?), but I do remember enjoying The Big Sleep because I liked the detective – Marlowe – principally because of his self-reflexive uncertainty about his decisions and actions. I can’t say I was particularly fond of the representation of women in the novel, but (if my reading in the mystery category so far is to be any indication) perhaps women in mystery novels are destined to be somewhat flighty and ridiculous (or in the case of Miss Marple, utterly without sexual discrimination so as to be mistaken for a man). The mystery Marolwe must solve is particularly engrossing because it doesn’t begin as the mystery we think he’s meant to solve, and so the crime unfolds gradually, along with the clues, in an intricate and engrossing weave. Yeah, I wrote that sentence.
Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
One of the opening sequences in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate involves Calpurnia (our twelve-something protagonist) writing a letter to the editor of the Texas paper to complain that the weather report in the paper (this being 1899, weather reports arrive by newspaper) gives the temperature in the sun, and not, as she might like, in the shade. She tells the editor that the temperature in the shade would be more accurate to most of the citizen’s experience of the outdoors, and that the lower number might boost town moral. The newspaper, alert to a good suggestion, changes their reporting to give both the temperature in the sun and in the shade.
I describe this sequence in detail because I think it aptly captures the tremendous strength of Kelly’s novel in using plot events to unfold and develop character, setting and theme. Calpurnia’s character steadily “evolves” (as we might hope from the title) but not in any melodramatic Bella sense of her pensive stares or deliberate conversations about her own changes, but rather through subtle interactions and actions. The time and place of the novel is, too, richly described and felt, though not through any cumbersome description, but through the interaction between place and character.
Not to mention the book does a masterful job of concluding without “settling” everything, while still allowing the reader a sense of content and closure.
Oh! And Calpurnia is just a fantastic character.
Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared
It feels like something of a disservice to Echlin’s novel to lump it in here among five other books, because the novel is exceptional in every way. It’s epigraph reads “tell others,” and the whole novel urges readers to take seriously (for N.) their collective responsibility to read/hear the stories of others and to act whenever and wherever injustice is done. Far from heavy handed in this moral, the novel beautifully (really, really, I try not to overuse this word so that in the rare instances – like right now – that it applies it might have weight…) exposes the changes wrought by love and the sacrifices one might be willing to make. It struggles to make clear to the reader how much bigger a person can be than their physical bodies, how far their reach, how tremendous their power. I found it affecting, troubling and for those reasons, rewarding. I urge you to read this one, and not because I feel impelled to “tell others,” but because this is one of the books that shakes you. Shakes!
Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkaud
I had a slow start with The Bartimaeus Trilogy (of which The Amulet is book one), no doubt because I read it directly on the heels of The Disappeared and felt (rightly or wrongly) that it was too silly, to weightless to be read. Happily I kept reading and allowed The Amulet to be what it is: an engaging, whimsical, (but not frivolous!) exploration of magicians in a modern/fantasy world. I say, “not frivolous,” because the book makes some tentative gestures toward considering how the obligations we owe to one another shape relationships – how every relationship might better be considered in terms of debts owed, paid, and pending. But that said, it’s really something of a romp of magic, spells and incantations. I won’t compare it to other magical stories that cannot be named, but some might.
Mohsin Hamid Moth Smoke
Too bad the holiday had to end with Moth Smoke, a book that ought to be good, but falls flat. A playful use of multiple narrative voices is intended – I think – to let the mystery that structures the plot play out with attention to how narrative biases shape interpretations, but the uniformity in the “different” narrative voices made these attempts to offer unique perspectives on the same event read as a failure in a creative writing class assignment. Which is not to say the whole book was terrible – just it’s organizing principle… The apparent protagonist does experience changes – made less compelling by their attribution to drug use and not to a fundamental shift in character, and the attention to the inequities produced and underpinning class stratification was refreshing.
So there. 4/5 on the summer reads = a pretty great cottage week.