Spider Man was roaming my street last night. This was the first time in the 5 Halloween's I have been in Knoxville, that I saw a trick-or-treater. It has been decades since I had strings of children coming to my door for candy, and truthfully I miss the excitement. Watching a small boy running down the street while his grandma followed discretely in the car brought joy to my heart, and was a welcome respite from piles of data and other mind-numbing tasks.
The brief respite reminded me that I have been absent here. It was not particularly intentional but it seems that the busy part of my brain has been occupied and the other part, the part that daydreams and overthinks and is more than willing to explore the various odd footpaths of my thoughts has been dormant. Even the pages of my journal have been reduced to mere reportage and simple lists of tasks and accomplishments. I do see that this is a necessary part of the flow of life, water rapidly churning over rocky shallows before settling once again into the deep pools. Yet I yearn for the depths.
As I wondered if I had anything to say here, it struck me that it has been some time since I have written anything about what I am, and am not, reading. Let's see if I can find anything to say, anything beyond the surfaces and lists of titles.
First of all, let's get the "not reading" category out of the way. In the last book post I stated that I was reading Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, but it proved to be an aborted attempt. It is not the book, which I love, but more the way I had decided to go about it. I tried reading it as part of a read-a-long, and attempted to pace the reading accordingly. This did not work for me. One problem was that the pacing and my own internal pacing did not align, but the bigger problem was that I couldn't actually engage with the book in the prescribed format. It would have worked had I read the book earlier, and come back to it for the paced discussions. But as a first-time reading, there were too many voices and thoughts interrupting my own interaction with the words and the story. I will return to the book once my head has cleared, and I can relate to it at my own pace. Or perhaps there are enough big tasks in my life right now, and I simply needed something I could escape into, not further analysis.
As an exercise in recovery from my frustrations over the above mentioned book, I engaged in a little light reading. I considered downloading Ann Patchett's new book, Commonwealth, to my kindle, as I had been somewhat disappointed in her novels since Bel Canto, and didn't think it would be something I would want to keep. In the end however I decided to put myself on the library list. I am currently down to about the 135th position in line, so it will be a while. As a sort of a consolation prize, I reread Patchett's first novel, The Patron Saint if Liars. It is a novel that I am happy to have reread but also a novel that I don't believe I will read again. Patchett has a deft hand in the portrayal of her main characters, all people with their own wounds, and yet people who aren't even sure of the nature of themselves or the how or why of their own struggles. This means that nothing is completely resolved in the novel, as indeed it often is not in life. Yet the book is satisfying in and of itself. The novel is told in three parts, told from the perspective of three lost souls: Rose, a woman of very flat emotional affect, who cannot create or maintain personal relationships , the man she marries in order to keep her child and stay at the home for unwed mothers, Son, another lost soul, who is really only looking for friendship and to be loved, and Cecelia, her daughter, a child who is both kept by her mother and yet simultaneously given away, because Rose wasn't really looking for a way to keep Cecelia but a way to stay in Habit KY, and Cecelia is part of the price she has to pay. Patchett is rather good at exploring the unsettled inner workings of her characters without really exposing easy answers, or revealing too much, much in the same way we are often simultaneously aware and blind to our own inner lives.
Kingdom of Shadows is the second of Alan Furst's WWII thrillers I have read, and although I enjoyed it, it was not as cohesive as I the first novel (Spies of Warsaw). I did rather like the main character, Morath, although he was rather sketchily drawn, perhaps the reason I liked him, as it was easy to project whatever qualities the reader desired onto him. The novel read more like a series of short stories than a novel, but I think this was well suited to the time of the story and its intent, in the shadowy expectation of coming war and the impulse and intent to protect oneself and one's own, of a kind of stubborn optimism which is not at all naïve, in fact accepts that failure may be imminent, but that there is no hope but to keep moving forward as best one can. I appreciated this sense of knowing and yet not knowing that pervaded this novel, and its exploration of the ambiguity that lies in wait along the fringes of life, although we may perhaps only be aware of it in times of stress. It is, after all, far easier to look at the world in black and white, and find oneself on the side of white, when in reality much is shadow and quicksand.
It did strike me as an odd coincidence that just as I finished a novel about the beginnings of WWII I should start a novel set during the beginnings of WWI. lthBut so it was. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, a rather light comedy of manners that takes place in England at the dawn of the aforementioned first World War. But where Furst was all shadow and the struggle to hold the line against impending doom, Simonson's book treads far more lightly. It was an enjoyable romp that, surprisingly, could be surprisingly thought-provoking. In fact, there were parts of the story in which I thought of young Lila and Lenu from My Brilliant Friend and other times when I could not help but think that the more everything changes, the more it stays the same, and that the issues facing these characters are not so far away from the issues in Ferrante's novel, or the United States today.
Three good novels, all of which can lead us to explore issues deeper than the stories themselves. It is my opinion that great novels are about something more than the story they are telling; that there is a story within the story, a hidden story that is often revealed only slowly. Although they don't quite make that transition, each of these novels begins to explore depths of meaning, skirts around the edges, and leads the astute reader to ponder the world beyond the edges of the story, but stops there, each in their own distinct way, reminding us that the world is unfinished.