Summer reads

At our summer place in Quebec, I can read for hours without interruption.

Recently there, I inhaled A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy, an author I read repeatedly. This one is not like his others because its heroine is not undone by men (i.e., Tess of the d’Urbervilles.) Paula Power, the only daughter of a railroad magnate, inherits Stancy Castle. The book’s opening pages reveal her spirit: about to be baptized in her father’s faith, she flees. You go, girl! This is Victorian England, so Paula can’t go far without a friend or protector. Still, she flirts with the architect she’s hired to modernize the castle and carelessly engages herself to the older Captain de Stancy in a quest to raise her status. De Stancy’s bastard son causes all kinds of trouble. More than once I thought, “how dastardly!”

This is not Hardy’s finest work. It’s repetitive and not well-rooted. (Paula decamps to the continent with a long lost uncle, who has his own ideas about Paula’s future.) Liner notes suggest that Hardy’s wife Emma wrote this one, as Hardy was ill. That said, I enjoyed this read, as well as Paula’s eventual fortitude and decisiveness. 

I look forward to new fiction by Dan Chaon, because I’ve loved his earlier novels, including You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply. His novels are coiled and odd and typically set in the Midwest. His latest, Sleep Walk suffers in the same way the Hardy did. It’s all over the place geographically. That’s the point: his main character is both hunted and rootless. Bill Bear (an alias, one of many) is the offspring of a cult leader and a girl who got away. Bear was born an itinerant. A rosier life suggests itself to him in the voice of a girl who may be his sperm-bank daughter. Set in the near future, these telephone exchanges between “father” and “daughter” are the heart of this tale. There’s also lots of action and violence and a spectacular betrayal. Maybe I’m mad at all white men (in government) but the ending struck me as skeevy fantasy.

I’m a longtime fan of Japapese literature, as I studied with Donald Keene at Columbia University. Woman Running in the Mountains, by Yuko Tshushima belongs in the pantheon. The book tells the story of Takika Osaka, who (shockingly) bears a child out of wedlock. Her father is a drunk who beats her; her mother urged her to abort and then suggests giving up the child for adoption. For Takika, the child is a triumph. The boy is hers alone: she made him. This is the story of a young woman in Tokyo and its mountainous outskirts becoming her full self, as a mother, daughter, sister, lover, worker. 

Tom Perrotta writes about the American suburbs like no other. Among his gems: Little Children, The Leftovers, Mrs. Fletcher. One of his first books, Election, became one of the funniest movies ever made, starring a young Reese Witherspoon running for school president and Matthew Broderick as the teacher who rigs the election against her. In his newest, Perrotta revisits the life of that student in Tracy Flick Can’t Win. Now an adult, Tracy hasn’t gone far: she’s a high school assistant principal. Surely she’ll be promoted with the principal’s retirement! Too bad for the reader that Tracy hasn’t changed. She’s cold and efficient and unloved. The secondary characters in this book — much like Election — are more interesting than Tracy. We root for them to fall in love, to free themselves from addiction.

Finally, I’m about one-third in to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. It’s slowly told, in the best way. A retired, widowed professor involves himself with African immigrants in Berlin. 

P.S. Ignore the critics. Jane Austen’s Persuasion on Netflix is a visual treat. It’s perfectly cast. The book can be tiresome. This film is a joy.

Happy summer, happy reading. 

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