If you asked my mum I spent the entire cottage week reading and avoiding conversations about weddings, houses and jobs. To be fair I *did* avoid those conversations, but I didn’t spend the *entire* week reading. I also played a lot of hearts, chess, ticket to ride and euchre; made dinner; paddled a canoe and cuddled my nephews (though the photographic evidence suggests I did a fair bit of this cuddling while also reading).
I should probably blog each book individually, but instead I’ll give you the highlights reel. Thanks to those who made suggestions in advance of cottage week, most of the reads here are terrific and well worth seeking out. So, in the order that I read them (and so with descending memory of what they’re about):
The Cat’s Table – Michael Ondaatje
Basic Plot: Young boy sent on his own on a three week sea voyage; meets other kids; woven passages of how the boat trip does (and does not) influence his later life. Highlights: Ondaatje does so much well here – sweet slices of poetry, characterization, atmosphere and mood. It’s a novel that takes a “small” story (a slice of one man’s life; a trip) and makes it resonate with large themes and a wide audience. Gripes/Grievances: The climax didn’t feel sufficient, not an anti-climax, but a sort of “oh, that’s it?” and a wish that it was more. Overall: Beautifully written; not my favourite plot.
Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward
Basic Plot: Never a good sign that I had to flip through the book to remember what it was about. But then it all comes back: poor family in the lead up to Hurricane Katrina; the kids in the family are (on the surface) trying to raise pit-bull puppies (to sell; to fight) and trying to conceal a pregnancy; the father in the family tries to prepare the house/kids for the coming storm. Highlights: The scenes during the storm itself are gripping, tense and well written. Gripes/grievances: The plot reads a bit “out of time and place” in that its hard to imagine (though maybe this is the point?) this family existing. But they do and their suffering reads as real and poignant. Overall: I could have done with less time obsessing over the puppies.
Tenth of December – George Saunders
Loathe as I am to admit it: this collection moved me. Like my experience of all short story collections, I struggle to recall exact plots of the stories (though the story of the experimental drug testing and the other about the human garden gnomes linger), the overall impression of the collection is fresh: fresh narrative voices, images, plots and characters. The whole thing reads like a genius writer from the future has arrived in our present to share how writing will be: imaginative, funny, poignant and challenging. I know I’m late to the bandwagon (and that I’m hardly credible when it comes to recommending short story collections): but go get this one. It’s really, really great.
The Good Lord Bird – James McBride
Basic Plot: Henry Shackledford (Henrietta aka “Onion”) narrates his history disguised as a girl in the company of abolitionist John Brown as he (Brown) campaigns for the end of slavery. Highlights: I suppose it was getting a sense of this aspect of American history – the raid on Harpers Ferry contributing to the beginning of the Civil War. Gripes: I just didn’t like Henrietta/Henry. At all. I found the character to be annoying, so my patience with the plot stretched. On the plot it was ploddingly paced, overburdened with description and scenes that didn’t add to character. Hard to pinpoint larger thematic questions: just seemed to be a straight-up retelling of history. Overall: It’s rare that I don’t like something N. recommends, but this one fell a bit flat. Sorry, N.
Defending Jacob – William Landy
It’s probably a rule that you can’t go to the cottage without reading at least one pulp mystery novel. And so I did. I intended to read the first in the series by Mo Hayder (on the suggestion of A.), but couldn’t get a copy from the library (I’m now halfway through a copy – stay tuned!), so settled for this one brought to the cottage by mum. Basic Plot: District Attorney’s son is the prime suspect in the murder of another teenager. DA has to defend his son. Highlights: Pages turned quickly. Gripes: The ending – promised by the front cover to “chill and thrill” was… disappointing. Not that I saw it coming (surprise!) but that it wasn’t a satisfying outcome to the moral questions the plot tried to ask (a much, much better answer to these questions can be found in the brilliant *We Need to Talk About Kevin*). Overall: I’m enjoying the Mo Hayder so much more. But if you’re stuck on a plane, or holding a sleeping nephew, it does make the time go by quickly.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman
I love the way Neil Gaiman writes about the importance of reading and libraries. I love the idea of loving Neil Gaiman. And I did like The Ocean at the End of the Lane well enough because I love reading about other people who forget all of the things that they ought to remember. But I just don’t *swoon* the way others seem to over this book. Anyway, Basic Plot: boy returns to childhood home and remembers magical/fantastical experience when otherwordly things wreak havoc, saved by neighbour girl, has remembered/forgotten the experience before. Highlights: I have a terrible memory; it’s comforting to be reminded that our memories alone can be tricked with, played with and held in other places by other people. Gripes: Slow getting going. I worried about the kitten.
So there it is. The cottage week is done for 2014. I’m now returned to conversations on weddings, houses and jobs. Routines of work, play and reading in the bath with wine. I’m still very open to book suggestions – though be warned that the next six weeks rival that time I moved across the country, started a new job, ran a marathon and co-chaired a conference all at once. So send me gentle reading suggestions. Or free books. Or hugs.