Literary Fiction

Commentary to follow… but for now, if you’re wondering what I’m reading this summer vacation, here goes:

“Love in the Time of Cholera” By Gabriel Garcia-Marquez –  Started May 22, Finished July 2

“the girl who stopped swimming” by Joshilyn Jackson – started July 3, finished July 9

“American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld – started July 9, finished July 13

“A Short History of Women” by Kate Walbert, started July 13, finished July 16


OK, obviously I’m falling a bit behind here, and it’s appearing less and less like I will make it to 50 books before July 25. But I’m not giving up (entirely) yet! Especially because the small piece of good news is that I’m actually further behind in the posting than I am in the reading. But since the pressure of writing 3 long reviews is just going to drag this out further, I’m going to do a bit of consolidating here. Short commentary tied together with a nice theme…(if by “nice, I mean “guilty”). No, I did not set out to read three consecutive books about guilt/Jews, but once I finished them all– and had yet to post– the element tying it all together was glaringly obvious…


Jews & Guilt.1 “The Book Thief” By Markus Zusak (2005) 550 pages, Started March 16, finished March 27.

My friend Ruth lent me this one at the very beginning of the book project, but I was slightly daunted by the length… 500+ pages did not seem doable in one week. But a couple of people assured me it was a quick read (one voracious reader friend said she read it in one day!) so I was optimistic that this wouldn’t slow me down too much. And it didn’t– once I got into it, this novel was very absorbing: A German girl, Liesl, moves in with a foster family in 1940s Munich. The family is not Jewish– although they are far more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews than some of their neighbors. A friend of the family comes to hide in their basement, Liesl steals a lot of books, and the whole thing is narrated by Death. Not happy material, but like many young-adult novels, I found this one to be both fascinating and gripping. The narration-by-Death device took a little while to get used to, but this was a very, very worthwhile read. This book provides some interesting answers to the question about what regular German citizens were doing and thinking during the war. Yes, something like 90% of them were members of the Nazi party, but how did they feel about that? (For at least some of them, the short answer was: guilty.)

Plot_against_usaJews & Guilt.2 “The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth (2004) 391 pages, Started approx. April 1, finished April 25

I typically wouldn’t have jumped right from one WWII historical novel into another, but this one was for the Jewish Book Discussion series on Alternate Histories, and my goal was to read it by the group meeting on April 5 (alas, did not happen…) although by that point I was at least far enough along to join in the conversation. What if Charles Lindbergh ran against– and beat– FDR in 1940? Philip Roth tells this story from the perspective of 9 year old Philip Roth, and it is SCARY.  The first third or so of the book focuses on Roth’s family (complete with actual names of actual relatives) and their hometown of Newark NJ– and it is so evocative of real life that by the time things take a turn for the worse, I was already sucked in, completely convinced that this could all be true. It is precisely because this novel is so plausible (at least until the end, anyway) that it is completely terrifying. There’s also plenty of guilt here to go around, mainly having to do with the major sub-plot regarding the family and their neighbors. Despite this being a made-up story, there are many real-life elements worked into the plot (you probably already knew that Lindbergh was famous for being anti-semitic) so it’s also somewhat educational. When I finally finished it, I had a ton of questions and handily, the book has a long section at the back that answers a fair number of them. One last thought- I really did not like the ending. Unlike the rest of the book it felt contrived, and although I mostly liked the first three-quarters, I was also pretty glad to be done with it. There’s only so much energy I can devote to a horror-story version of 1940s America.


Jews & Guilt.3 “The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt” Edited by Ruth Andrew Ellenson (2005) 304 pages, started mid-April, finished May 1.

I broke my rule of finishing a book before starting another with this one– I needed a break from reading about World War II and my mom returned this to me at just the right moment– along with her recommendation: “You’re going to really like this”.  I’ve owned this book for a few years– a friend sent it to me when it came out, and unbeknownst to me until I started reading it, my husband actually knows the editor. (Yes, it is a small Jewish world indeed….) Not surprisingly, I loved this collection. Reading these essays was like having a series of wonderful conversations about family, dating, marriage, kids, work, etc. etc. with a bunch of really close girlfriends. (It actually made me miss a lot of my old (long-distance) friends, many of whom I don’t get to spend nearly enough time catching up with these days.) Some of the essays were heavy and intense, some were humorous, but I related in some ways to almost all of them. Especially the last one, by Susan Shapiro, whose essay on “Quitting Guilt”  felt it could have been a letter written directly to me. (Although I suspect I’m not the only person who feels that way when reading about learning to say No…)  I’ve read material by some of these women before (and the new-ish novel “Book of Dahlia, by one of the writers, Elisa Albert, is something I’ve been looking forward to reading for close to a year)  but now I have a whole new list of authors to look for.  It was fun to read this incredible group of Jewish Women writers all in one place and now, assisted by the detailed bio section at the end, I have some new additions to my list of what/who I want to be reading next.

yiddishwater-for-elephants“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” Michael Chabon (2007) 411 pages, started January 22, abandoned February 14

“Water for Elephants” Sara Gruen (2007); 335 pages- Started February 14, finished February 20.

I suppose when working (or um, attempting to work) on a project like this, its an important thing to know when to cut your losses. And that is exactly what I had to do last week. I actually like Michael Chabon just fine, and started one of his recent works for a book group that was going to meet on Feb 8. But I should have known better. A few years ago I read “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and it took me no less than 6 months. On again, off again, until finally I mustered the time and determination needed to complete the novel. Although I ultimately liked it, I just cannot read Chabon quickly. And after weeks of reading just a few pages at a time of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (and a week after the book discussion, after which I became newly determined…) I decided to call it quits. I thought that the writing was good– although I don’t always see what the fuss is about with Chabon– but his ability to create a scene, and in this case, an entire alternate universe– is incredible. No doubt he is talented, and most of the fellow-readers in my book group enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll pick it up again after the completion of this experiment…  but for now, I just had to stop before it completely derailed my goal.

Speaking of which, even without the Chabon problem, things aren’t going all that great on the 50-books project. The distraction of a new season of TV is not helping matters (American Idol, Lost and Big Love seem to be taking up a disproportionate amount of time these days) but I refuse to give up. The novel “Water for Elephants” had been on my list since before the summer, and I had a feeling it was going to be what I needed to get back on track. And it was terrific. A quick read, but well-told and compelling. An old man reflects on his time spent in the circus during the depression, and tells the tale of wild adventures while traveling with the Benzini Brothers Spectaular Show on Earth. This novel is a gripping love-story, and fascinating, well-researched look at life “on a show”. The life he describes– and this novel itself– is often exciting but also very sad. Anything told from the perspective of a ninety-three year old is guaranteed to make me cry, but I’m pleased to report that I remained strong; the waterworks didn’t kick in until the last few pages. (Compare this with my recent viewing of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, which had me in tears for at least the last third of the film; even weeks later just thinking about that movie and I start to well up…)

One last thought… I have purposely tried to select books that skip around from genre to genre, but as I catalog all the books I’ve read, it is quickly becoming obvious how connected they all are. Completely by accident, the two novels I’ve read most recently are depression-era coming-of-age tales. Strange coincidence, no? Actually not– most people probably wouldn’t categorize “Water for Elephants” anywhere near “To Kill a Mockingbord”, but when you read them back to back, certain similarities start to emerge. There was a great line in the MFK Fisher book that I read a few weeks ago about how when you become newly aware of something/someone, you start noticing references to that thing or person everywhere. And so it is with many of the books I’ve covered so far– little bits of one keep reminding me of the others.

mockingbird1“To Kill a Mockingbird” Harper Lee (1960); 284 pages.

Started January 5,  finished January 20.

It is almost embarassing that I hadn’t already read this. Especially because I live in Alabama, know relatives of Harper Lee, and have had a paperback copy of this novel accompany me on at least half a dozen trips in the past 8 years. But something else always jumped ahead in the queue. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time. So I started…. and got sidetracked by a bunch of projects, including planning a big inauguration day party. But when Josh went to DC I was able to read until 1 am without getting in reprimanded, and in two nights, I read three-quarters of the book. I’m betting you already know what this is about… a brave girl and her brother come of age in small-town, depression-era Alabama. They witness their brilliant and good-hearted lawyer father (the famous Atticus Finch) defend a black man accused of attempted rape. It is a grim picture indeed of race relations in the south. (And alas, I can attest that even almost 50 years after the book was published, things are still from perfect here.) I didn’t purposely complete the novel on Jan 20, but it did feet good to finish it, then go turn on the news, and know that Harper Lee was watching too.

guernseyliterary“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008); 274 pages.

Started reading December 21, finished reading December 24.

This is a terrific book. Thanks to blog reader Rose for recommending it.

Do not be deterred by the title (the potato thing has very little to do with the book) or the fact that that the whole thing is in the form of correspondence. It sounds a bit hokey and I thought I’d get tired of the format in about five minutes, but I didn’t at all– in fact I tore through this book in just a few sittings. I do love historical fiction– I always get completely swept up in the story, and enjoy learning about some time/place that ordinarily I wouldn’t be thinking much about. In this case: 1946 Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. The book is almost entirely comprised of the letters of Juliet Ashton, Londoner and author of a humorous newspaper column during the war. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, resident of Guernsey, and they strike up a friendship. She’s intriugued by him, his literary group (that would be the society in the title), and the island, which was was occupied by the Germans and subsequently cut off from the rest of the world for five years during the war.

The writing is great– Juliet is a terrific character, very charming and believable– and the plot moves along nicely. The literary society of the title is actually a theme throughout the whole book, and there is much discussion about the Guernsey book club and how it–really, the excuse for comraderie– helped keep them going during the war. My only complaint is that I thought it all ended a bit abruptly, but that may have been because I read the entire second half in one sitting. I still recommend this novel completely– so if you read it, let me know what you think, especially about the ending.

“The Secret Life of Bees” By Sue Monk Kidd (2002); 302 pages

Started reading October 19, finished reading October 25.

This book has been sitting on my bedside table for close to a year, but last week our friend Isa was here, babysitting for Ben. She had brought this book with her and mentioned that the movie was coming out this week. I admit it: hearing that a book is being released as a movie was enough motivation for me to push the book ahead in the queue and read it next. But a good suggestion from Isa, because as she promised, it was a fast read and really good, too.

Many of you who are in book clubs or who read a lot of current fiction have probably gotten to this one already. If you haven’t, you should. And if you read it years ago, it’s not a bad idea to pick it up again this week. You may already know it’s a coming-of-age story about a 14-year-old white girl who finds herself living with a trio of black sisters in 1964 South Carolina. Reading this book – with its horrifying but accurate (I imagine, anyway) descriptions of 1960s race relations, all I could think about was the fact that less that 45 years ago, African-Americans could barely register to vote, and here I am about to cast my vote for the man who should be (and hopefully will be) our first black president. There are about a million reasons why I love Barack Obama that have nothing to do with race, but as I read this book–even as I enjoyed the parts that had less to do about race, and there were plenty of them– I pretty much could not stop thinking about the election. This book made me really, really excited to be a part of history*.

(*See a somewhat related blog post here. You’ll see where I got that last line from.)

“Morality Tale” By Sylvia Brownrigg (2008) 224 pages

Started reading Sept 15, Finished reading Sept 24.

The fact that this book took me nine days to read is totally misleading. First of all, I have gotten completely swept up in Voter Registration madness (Not registered? Go! Go! and have been falling a bit behind on everything. By the time I collapse into bed at midnight, I am lucky to get in 10 minutes of reading before falling asleep. Which brings me to the second issue- if I had had one continuous chunk of, say, 3 hours, I am pretty sure I would have finished this book in one sitting. But alas, I didn’t. It took me 7 nights of 10 minutes here and there, and then two nights of “I am not turning off this light until this book is done, damnit, I don’t care if it is 1 am.” (by the way- guess who did care that it was 1 am. I’ll give you a hint. His name rhymes with “Nosh”.)

Anyway. Good novel. So good that I broke my own rule of reading two modern, literary novels in back-to-back weeks, just because Elizabeth said “You are going to LOVE this”. (OK, admittedly the fact that she read it on two days was persuasive, too. Always looking for the fast read, I am….) Whats it about? An affair that isn’t quite an affair. And its all very, very convincing. (How could Sylvia Brownrigg have been able to write this and not almost had an affarir herself? Well, I don’t know if she did or didn’t, but my bet is on yes. Or, yes, almost, in this case.) And written in an unusual but still very-readable style. Have you ever heard of a book where you don’t know the names of the main characters? And the places are described completely realistically but never mentioned by name? It’s all very specific and true, and yet anonymous at the same time. Anyway, new novel, new author (to me, anyway– I see that she’s written other books but I hadn’t heard of her before), but all highly recommended.

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