Books: Reading on airplanes, reading in bed

by anneMoore on February 5, 2016

With two weekend trips that involved air travel and a week in bed with a respiratory flu, I read a lot.

Here goes: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a seamless memoir of a young neurosurgeon’s last year. Woven into his dire situation is the story of his life: a happy, active Arizona childhood, his quenchless thirst for literature and learning, his reasons to go into medicine, a repaired marriage, the decision to father a child. We are with him as he becomes a doctor — his mistakes, his triumphs — and with him as he becomes the patient. He is so alive on the page I still can’t picture him dead. shoppingThis is a book I will press into the hands of others. It’s perfect.

Because my father died from the long-term effect of blows to the head, I have an interest in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease to the brain found in football players, boxers, ice hockey players and others. There I was in the Phoenix airport with nothing to read, so I picked up Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas. (Will Smith stars in the movie.) Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, is a forensic pathologist working in a Pittsburgh morgue. He handles the images-1autopsy of a troubled young Hall of Fame football player: how did he end up like that? Omalu decides to study the player’s brain, and discovers CTE. This is the story of Omalu standing up to our country’s entrenched racism and the NFL. Cheesy storytelling, fascinating tale: I couldn’t put it down.

A summer friend pressed me to read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, saying it was the future of literature. Hmm. I will say it is a images-2minutely observed story of a mostly grueling life in the Midwest. As a neglected toddler, Lila is stolen from her family and raised by a vagabond named Doll. They traipse the country, working on farms, in homes, in hotels. When Doll stabs and kills a man that may be Lila’s father, the two are separated. Lila settles in a shack outside a small town in Iowa, and wanders into a church to stay dry. From there, life changes for the better. She and the minister marry (a sweet love), but Lila is forever outside society. She’s odd; she’s always dreaming and talking of moving on. I didn’t appreciate Robinson’s layered storytelling until later, when I picked up…

shopping-1Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, expecting a great read. Nope. A daughter and mother reunite in a New York City hospital room and share gossip from the rural town in Illinois from which Lucy escaped. It’s an airless read; I didn’t care about anyone back home and Lucy won’t reveal the why for the troubled marriage she’s in. She pines for her young daughters, but we don’t get a sense of how they live, the day to day life Lucy is missing. No one in this story is fleshed out. This book got (undeserved) rave reviews. Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge, the portrait of a difficult woman and the town she lives in; it’s among the best fiction I’ve ever read. Lucy Barton is a pale effort.

images-3From there I read Chicago authors, which I study for work. Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers is a sturdy and dark first novel, though I’m still not sure who was pulling the strings. The book is set on a group of mostly uninhabited islands off the coast of California. Its only residents are scientists studying the area’s wildlife. When a photographer arrives to live among them, menace follows: bullying, sexual assault, drowning, death by birds, slips that end in broken limbs. By accident, or by design? Geni vividly describes the islands’ landscape, its creatures, the scientists’ way of life. A rich and terrifying read.

shopping-2Finally, I savored Vessels: A Love Story, Daniel Raeburn’s Chicago-based memoir about loss and love and becoming an adult. Raeburn and his wife, a potter, suffer a miscarriage and then a stillborn child, whose absence informs their lives. They go on to have two girls and struggle with how to tell those girls about their first born, whose ashes are stored in a plugged vase that is sometimes in a closet, sometimes on a shelf. Raeburn gets right both the joy and exhaustion of raising children, the messy business of marriage. My only complaint: I wanted more, especially about his friends.

And now, for all you grammar nerds, a funny Valentine’s Day infographic  from Grammerly. Enjoy!

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Reading: A New Year’s Binge

by anneMoore on January 11, 2016

Happy New Year!

I’ve been on a book binge, and have good things to report.

imagesFirst, Mary Gaitskill’s wondrous novel, The Mare. Ginger is a failed painter, a recovered alcoholic, the survivor of abuse. Now married and living in the country, she yearns to be a mother. Husband Paul is a father, of a college-age daughter. They compromise, agreeing to foster a child during the summer through the Fresh Air Fund.

Velveteen is that child, 11 when the story begins. Though she has grown up in Brooklyn, she quickly proves herself a natural with horses. Quickly, too, Ginger deceives Velvet’s mother, who is certain Velvet will fall from a horse to her death.

Class, race, education, mobility, sexuality, adultery, athleticism: Gaitskill effortlessly explores these themes through these characters’ journeys. I loved every page.

images-1Next I read Daniel Alarcón’s novel At Night We Walk in Circles (2013). I’d discovered Alarcón through his short story A City of Clowns  in The New Yorker. (Read it.)

A native of Peru, Alarcón was raised in the American South. He writes fiction in English and nonfiction in Spanish. His fiction haunts, and describes a South American society that’s brutal, stagnant, absurd: the promise of a better life in the U.S. is a constant distraction and lure.

This novel is the journey of Nelson, a struggling actor who leaves his widowed mother and pregnant girlfriend to join a traveling troupe headed by a once imprisoned playwright. It’s an entrancing ride that, of course, does not end well.

images-2Lori Osltund’s After the Parade is a steady read about a middle-age man who leaves his older lover for a new life in San Francisco. That act causes Aaron to revisit his Midwest childhood, when his abusive father fell from a parade float to his death and later, as a teen, when his troubled mother abandoned him and the cafe she’d run. Other memories flood in: of a trip to a family friend whose brother is a tusk-toothed dwarf, of a kind fat girl whose family takes Aaron in after his mother flees.

ln San Francisco, Aaron befriends a private investigator who tracks down Aaron’s now elderly mother. His visit to her is heartbreaking.

images-3I can’t recall where I read about Lauren Francis-Sharma’s Til the Well Run Dries (2014) but I’m glad I picked it up. Set in Trinidad during the 1960s, it tells the story of a beautiful seamstress with a secret past and the police officer who loves her but won’t marry her. Moving, surprisingly violent, well told.

images-4I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline, the story of a divorced mother of young children who goes to Athens, Greece to teach a writing seminar. She befriends an older man on the flight over, also divorced, who tells her of his marriages. (Their outings are the most interesting parts of the book.) Others — friends, writers, editors, students — tell their stories; the narrator mostly records. There’s no plot, and it can be maddeningly dull; still, I found the thinking and talking about marriage intriguing.

images-5Finally, thanks to this wise and funny essay by Ed Tarkington that touches on, among other things, why we read and why we write, I bought his just published novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart. It’s Southern Gothic, and very good, about a boy, his older brother and girlfriend, their parents, their neighbors, ghosts real and imagined. I’m halfway through.

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2015: Dining, movies, books

by anneMoore on December 12, 2015

New to my Old Town neighborhood is The Blanchard, a French restaurant I return to again and again. Odd, because the menu is heavily skewed towards meat, and while I eat it, I’m more a fish and greens person. Four kinds of foie gras are served nightly (again, not my thing) but for me there’s a perfectly composed frisee aux lardons, moules marniers, steak frites, and a burger so thick the chef said he’d pay for our meal if my rail-thin sister could finish it. (She couldn’t.) Service is formal and typically excellent. I like the separate bar, too, a moody spot to start or end a meal. Word has it they’ll have outdoor seating this summer, which would liven the area’s under-used plaza.

IMG_2670Kudos to Restoration Hardware, the national retailer that brought new life to The Three Arts Club, a 1920s Gold Coast building in need of it. There’s four floors of merchandise, a roof deck, a central glass-domed dining room and bar that’s both elegant and casual. Limited menu and hours.

FullSizeRenderAnother Chicago highlight: the Chicago Athletic Association is dazzlyingly reborn as a hotel with eateries and varied spaces to drink, lounge, gaze, play.

 

Movies! I’d read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and wanted to see the film, though I wasn’t expecting to be so deeply moved. Seasickness, homesickness, despair, the head-to-toe joy of being loved, guidance, kindness, mean girls, the past, the future: I hung on every scene. Its happy ending seemed to speak for all imagesimmigrants.

I was indifferent about Spotlight but my friend Julie and I had a movie date and Carol was not yet playing in Chicago. Wow. I am so glad to have seen Spotlight on the big screen. Riveting. The sad but true story of The Boston Globe journalists whose investigative work uncovers a systemic pattern of Catholic Church hierarchy protecting pederast priests. Bravo to its ensemble of stars: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Terrence Slattery.

More and more I’m hopping on the el at the end of a work day and imagescatching an evening film at Gene Siskel Film Center. A Wim Wenders festival brought the usual and one I’d never seen, Kings of the Road, a black and white film from 1976 that’s both dreary and dreamy, as two men travel together through Eastern Germany repairing movie equipment.

Bunny Lake is Missing, by Otto Preminger, was another black and white treat, from 1965. A thriller set in London, a mother reports her child missing, but increasingly it seems the child doesn’t exist. Laurence Olivier plays the detective. Dark and delicious.

More recently I saw The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the images-1Revolution, a 2015 documentary about the rise and fall of the Black Panther party fifty years ago. I learned a ton, loved the leather and big-hair fashions and understood clearly that complaints then are the same now: the Black Panthers sought the end of police brutality and murder of black people, decent housing, employment, education. Equality.

Books! I am pleased to make the acquaintance of Barbara Comyns (1907 -1992), an English writer whose Our Spoons Came from Woolworths reads like a 20th century Jane Eyre. I’d been reading the surgeon Atul Gawande’s work in the New Yorker for years; his Being Mortal is an important read for anyone (all of us?) concerned with dying well. I’m enjoying the work of newspaper columnists Meghan Daum and Neil Steinberg, both of whom think and write uncomfortable truths.

I am savoring Lauren Redniss’s Thunder & Lightning, a visual 61YqLvsFRgL._AC_SY75_CR,0,0,75,75_history of weather, and Titian Peale’s (1799 – 1885) Butterflies of North America, published for the first time.

More about books: during the Chicago Humanities Festival ‎it was interesting to hear from Booker Prize winner Marlon James that he had to throw out novel writing rules to images-2create A Brief History of Seven Killings. Work led me to the writing of Joe Meno, whose Marvel and a Wonder is one of my favorite reads of the year. Jeff Hobbs’ The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a masterpiece of nonfiction. Too, I liked Peter Nichols’ On the Rocks, a smart beach read set on Mallorca. I consumed Moby Dick the book (ahhhh, so satisfying) and Moby Dick the play. I was happy to see T. C. Boyle’s The Harder they Come make The New York Times Best Books list, a good one.

 

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Books: Big reads, small reads, must reads

by anneMoore on December 3, 2015

Easy travel to and from Santa Fe over Thanksgiving gave me unbroken time to read. Indeed, I was so consumed by Barbara Comyn’s Our Spoons Came from Woolworths that the return trip IMG_2823passed in a flash because I gobbled its 196 pages whole. First published in 1950 and recently reissued by New York Review of Books (thank you) Comyn’s tale starts with an author’s note: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.”

Sophia and Charles are 20 year old artists in love. They marry against his family’s wishes, which marks the start of their economic decline. Charles has a disdain for work — he only wants to paint — and Sophia loses her job at a commercial art studio just before she has their first child.

Sophia is the book’s narrator: she is a winning character, delighting in color, a pet newt and later a pet fox, the light and view in one of the many flats they occupy. In clear prose she describes the daily our_spoons_cover_image_1024x1024struggle to survive — to eat and stay warm — while living the bohemian life of parties and art shows. Wife, mother, lover, employee: Sophia fails at all because she’s married to a selfish man who doesn’t want children and is encouraged by his family not to work.

Sophia reminded me of Jane Eyre, or Cinderella, or a Mitford sister: witty, and highly observant of place, class, fate. Of looking from the outside to the place she had been or ought to be.

The fairy tale ending? It works.

No fairy tale endings in Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a must read on dying well. I’d read parts of it in The New Yorker but friends pressed me to read the whole. I’m glad I did. Gawande, a surgeon, learns the right questions to ask patients with terminal diseases, atul-beingmortal-cover3d1-319x479including his own father. “Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make…What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

A beautiful, important read.

Finally, a big fat book that kept me entertained for days: Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire. Yes, it’s too long and yes it’s overly written “foil-embossed frontals uncoupling from diadems…” begins one chapter, but heck, who can resist 900 plus pages of New York in the images-270s? I was a teenager there and then; Hallberg nails the ease and swagger and missteps and youthful know-it-all-ness of kids who made the city theirs. That’s just one thread of many in this behemoth, which sometimes reads like a tawdry Days of Our Lives: there’s an evil stepbrother, a philandering husband, a junkie brother, a rape-victim sister, a crippled detective, and so on…Somehow, it all works.

 

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Books: Big Reads, Best Reads

by anneMoore on November 23, 2015

My friend Jennifer Miller and I share a love of deep reading. Big long books that we read closely, over a week, so intimate they become part of us. Think Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, most Tom Wolfe, any Dickens’.

images-1We both loved Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and for the National Book Award, but won neither, which left us flummoxed. Here’s a book that made Jen weep for the first time since she read Anna Karenina. (I cry over Master Card “Priceless” commercials, so my tears mean little in this category.)

imagesYanagihara’s story is heartbreaking, but that’s not why we’re naming it to the first ever Milller-Moore Prize, for the best read of the year. It is worthy for breadth of story, well-drawn characters, seamless situations, unfussy writing. More than any other read this year we were besotted.

The story begins tamely, following four college friends, each ambitious in a different field, living in New York City. One is an architect, another an actor, a third is a painter and the fourth — the story’s main character — is an attorney with a crippled body and mind.

His is the story of the novel: how Jude St. Francis went from an abandoned infant to a successful lawyer. The reader learns of Jude’s harrowing youth — sex slave, hustler — but his friends, family, doctor, lovers do not, and puzzle over his self-destructive ways. (He’s a cutter, anorexic, failed suicide.)

Difficult reading, yes, but we’re invested in Jude. Can he love? Can he bear loss? Will he survive?

Once hooked by her characters there’s no giving them up. Bravo to our prize winner, Hanya Yanagihara.

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Chicago: Humanities Festival 2015

by anneMoore on November 2, 2015

The fall Chicago Humanities Festival, since 1989, brings thinkers, dreamers, doers, writers, artists, performers to our city for dozens of events that stretch for more than two weeks.

imagesWe are in the thick of it. The theme this time is “citizens” and so far I’ve heard about effective altruism from moral ethicist Peter Singer, extreme weather and social infrastructure from Erik Klinenberg, the 1978 Mideast peace agreement with author Lawrence Wright, the story of Lafayette and our nation’s founding fathers with funny girl Sarah Vowell, and Marlon James on Caribbean literature. He’s the Jamaican writer who recently won the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings.

images-1Some events are a chat: Lawrence Wright with radio host Mark Bazer, Marlon James with poet Roger Bonair-Agard. Others, like Singer and Klinenberg, are a university-style lecture. Vowell read from her work but cracked jokes while pointing out some things we forget: sure our country is fractured, but it’s not the Civil War. Obnoxious protestors? It’s a treasured right.

This weekend: Salman Rushdie, essayist Meghan Daum, writer Daniel Alarcon.

Tickets are typically $12; events are priceless. I’m put back in the place of a university student, lapping up wisdom, making connections, talking later with friends and family about issues raised. James talked about erasure “Mother England is not my lawrence_wright_headshotmother,” while Wright, chillingly, described the current situation in the Middle East as intractable and, in the near future, increasingly violent.

Events are held at museums, universities, concert halls all over the city and in Evanston, introducing me to old and new spaces, like the luminous Gratz Center at Fourth Presbyterian Church.

The CHF fall season continues through Nov. 8. Events are offered year round, but fall is the main event.

With bookstores in short supply, it’s a treat to pick up books at these events. (I always leave wanting more.) I’m reading Lawrence Wright’s “Thirteen Days in September,” fluid and smart, as with all IMG_2546his work. His nonfiction is an antidote to Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” a big piece of fiction I read last week that left me befuddled. Did I hate it? Love it? James Wood in the New Yorker was similarly dazzled and dismayed.

Happy fall: today it’s 72 and sunny in Chicago. Bliss.

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Books: Reading/dog grief

by anneMoore on October 16, 2015

I’m always reading but I don’t always have time to post a blog about what I’ve read. Travel, work, a massive head cold, my sweet dog’s last days on earth: life.

IMG_1172I lapped up Linda Rosenkrantz’ Talk in part because I’d always wanted to do what she achieved. Rosenkrantz recorded conversations with her friends over a year, transcribed those and created a dialogue-only novel. It’s set in 1965 (though it feels more contemporary) and is a record of three brainy Manhattanites’ summer in the then sleepy Hamptons. They drink too much, gossip, stay out too late, cook, sleep around, second-guess their love affairs. Recently reissued (thank you) as a classic by New York Talk_1024x1024-1Review of Books.

Next I spent a good many days savoring Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Here’s the story: Pip Tyler is a college graduate with a boatload of debt, working for a fraud, living in an Oakland squat. She’s been raised almost off-grid by a difficult mother who won’t tell Pip where she came from. Pip is a smart, wry young woman, but she doesn’t know who she is. That’s the engine of the plot. Franzen’s cast of characters span the human spectrum: a 23754479murderer, his teenage accomplice, an heiress and the college boy she seduces, investigative journalists, a disabled writer, a schizophrenic house mate. It will take all 563 pages to unite Pip with her father, with rich detours along the way.

Not my favorite Franzen (that would be Freedom) but very satisfying.

For a work assignment I needed to read Ron Balson’s Saving Sophie, a global thriller that starts with a brazen heist in downtown Chicago. It’s not my kind of read but it held my interest: its bad guys are convincing and there’s 9781250065858never a dull moment. Too, I liked his descriptions of Chicago.

To soften the blow of losing our intrepid Cassady (when he was good he was very very good, and when he was bad, well, it was legendary) our niece Lucy brought us the beautifully composed graphic memoir Plum Dog, by Emma Chichester Clark. It’s a London-based diary told from the point of view of a whoosell (whippet/Jack Russell/poodle.) Every page is a delight: funny, real 9780553447941and wonderfully illustrated.

I’ve been reading Meghan Daum’s essays and book reviews (The New Yorker, The Atlantic) in anticipation of her Nov. 7 talk during the Chicago Humanities Festival. She’s an uncomfortable truth teller: “People who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family. This is technically true, though it was just my brother and me and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hillary Clinton 9781250052933in Vogue.”

Finally, Chicago Ideas Week. The offerings can overwhelm. A thoughtful publicist (thank you Katie Keidan) curated a list of four she thought I’d enjoy. I chose “What Would Shakespeare Tweet?” Four speakers: a cochlear-implant surgeon/30 million words advocate, a lexicographer (what a job!), a linguist/journalist, a word-tone researcher and finally, the inventor of Dathrocki, a language in Game of Thrones. Ahhh: nerd heaven.

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Books: Reading Chicago

by anneMoore on September 7, 2015

I curate the literature listings in Crain’s Chicago Business quarterly Guide to Culture. I feature visits by blockbuster authors, the U.S. poet laureate, scientists, historians. For this list I am always on the lookout for Chicago-based authors.

This season I am newly and happily acquainted with three local writers.

voiceover_artist_cover_alban_fischerI read Dave Reidy’s The Voice Over Artist, a first novel set mostly in Chicago, about two brothers, the mother they lose, the father they abide, their professions (one is an improvisor, the other a voice over artist) and, most convincingly, the women in their lives.

One of the brothers, who stutters, made himself mute as a child and much of this story is Simon’s struggle to speak confidently and, eventually, professionally. The improv sections read true — Reidy credits the stage work of my friend David Pasquesi and T.J. Jagodowski — as do the tangled affairs of secondary characters.

To be published in November, it’s an impressive debut.

imagesNext I read two works by Joe Meno. Office Girl is a bittersweet tale of Chicago hipsters. Odile makes age-appropriate poor decisions (an affair with a married man, hand jobs in the office broom closet) while Jack, whose wife has left him, records sounds. “The sound of her empty gray pillow…the sound of Monday, February 2…the sound of the traffic light making its alterations overhead…” Precious? Yes, but Jack and Odile are smart and delightful as they fall in and out of love. These are fully drawn characters making their way to who they’ll become.

images-1Meno’s Marvel and A Wonder, newly published, is more my kind of read. It’s long, engaging and beautifully written, like Faulkner but also its own thing. (That is, I didn’t set it down to read Faulkner, as I do when I (try to) read Cormac McCarthy.) Meno’s story is set in Indiana, on a failing chicken farm. There, its aging owner lives with, and tries to understand, his mixed-race teenage grandson, who has been left behind by his drug-addict mother. When a white race horse comes into their possession, the story takes off, violently.

Meno told me he wrote the book as an homage to his father in law and men of that generation, men who could make and fix things with their hands. It’s a wholly satisfying read, one that will go on my Literature of the Midwest shelf, beside John Williams’ Stoner, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

images-2Finally, I read Vu Tran’s Dragonfish. (Tran teaches writing at The University of Chicago.) This is being hawked as crime fiction — and there is plenty of violence — but it reads more like a journey of discovery by a white cop unraveling the mystery of his former wife Suzy, a Vietnamese immigrant. It’s a well plotted, enchanting read — though I’m still not sure what she was running from, or to. Loved the duffel full of cash as endnote.

A postscript, dear readers: here’s a link that illustrates the need for adult and child literacy programs, via my friends at Grammarly,

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Reading Pythonga: Part 2

by anneMoore on August 16, 2015

Do we save “big reads” for summer? More and more, I do. There’s more unbroken time, whether its outside on a cushy chaise in my Chicago backyard or on the dock/at the beach/in the boat at Lac IMG_1623Pythonga. Why more time? Simpler summer food at home and, at Pythonga, all meals come from the club. (Thank you, kitchen staff!)

Earlier this summer I swallowed whole Melville’s Moby Dick while I was in Pythonga. What a read! Exhausting, exhilarating.

More recently I brought Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with me, a book I’d read when I was 14 and didn’t remember.

imagesFourteen? Who assigned that? The Scarlet Letter gives us a tasty triangle in Puritan New England: a woman won’t name the father of her child borne out of wedlock, the returned husband won’t claim her or the child, the town’s minister falls ill from his guilt — and is “cared for” by the husband, who is a healer.

It’s not an easy read, because Hawthorne’s language is dense, but there’s an immediate urgency — how will this play out? — as well as delightful descriptions of the willful child. Hester Prynne’s transformation from victim to feminist makes for a deeply satisfying read.

images-1Next, I picked up Peter Nichols’ The Rocks, set on the sunny island of Mallorca. Its start is irresistible: two former lovers, in their 80s, run into each other on the road. They squabble, tussle, and fall into the sea together. Their paired deaths sets the story in motion, backwards 60 years through the life of the resort she runs and the farm he tends, the children they raise, various lovers. What terrible thing drove them apart? By the end we learn the brutal truth. A smart, engaging family saga.

images-2Finally, because I’d seen it listed among the best American books chosen by international writers, I took up a slender volume by E.L. Doctrow, Sweet Land Stories. I’m glad I did. There are five and each will stay with me for a long time: they’re intimate portraits of darkly misguided Americans. We meet a stylish murderess who’s always one step ahead of the law, a couple that comes to love each other after kidnapping a baby, a cuckolded husband left behind in a religious cult. Flawless.

Happy summer. It ain’t over.

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Books: Go Set a Watchman

by anneMoore on July 23, 2015

I’ve written earlier about reading on a device: sure it’s great for travel (endless titles, one gadget!) but holding a book in hand, in a public place, creates the opportunity for conversation.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanEarlier this week I was on a city bus midday, going to a doctor’s appointment. I was finishing Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the controversial early work sequel to her famous To Kill a Mockingbird.

The man across from me, a tourist from New Orleans, asked if it were good, worth reading. Yes, I said, to spend time with the grown Scout and for the time capsule of a Southern town in the mid-1950’s. Too, there are passages of great beauty. The ugly racism promoted by Scout’s father, aunt and uncle and her boyfriend is difficult to read, but made clear: these characters don’t want their way of life to change. They want racially separate schools and they want no blacks to hold office. It is cringe-worthy reading. (The older woman beside me on the bus had read the book, and said that was how it was in the South then. She added, pointing to my book, that she’d read it on a device and wished she’d bought a physical copy, for her shelves.)

Here’s the story: In her late 20’s Scout comes home to Maycomb, Alabama to visit her aging father Atticus. Brother Jem is dead, young, from the same bum heart that felled their mother. Atticus suffers from arthritis, but otherwise seems much the same man he was in Mockingbird: warm and wise. Henry, a poor boy taken in by Atticus, is now an attorney; he wants to marry Scout. Remember tomboy Scout? She’s no different here, fretting that, if she were to marry, she wouldn’t know how to wear a hat and she’d drop the babies. When Scout follows her father to a town council meeting, she is stunned — and falls ill — to learn that those she loves most are racist.

The next day Scout wakes to her new world. “On any other day she would have stood barefoot on the wet grass listening to the mockingbirds’ early service; she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty renewing itself with every sunrise and going ungazed at by half the world. She would have walked beneath yellow-ringed pines rising to a brilliant eastern sky, and her sense would have succumbed to the joy of the morning.”

Is this a great book? No. (If you haven’t read Mockingbird, it will bewilder.) It’s mostly a sweet, funny coming-of-age story, with flashbacks to school days with Jem, Dill, and young Henry. This is a book that should be read for that story, but also for its setting, at a time when intelligent, educated people actively favored segregation.

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