I mostly read fiction in May and doing so made me very happy.
I did read two nonfiction books. One was wonderful, and will be saved to be read again and again, the other, for me at least, is best forgotten. The good book? That would be The Dream of God by Verna Dozier. The subject is theological, basically working from Dozier's premise that institutional Christianity has emphasized worshiping Jesus rather than following Jesus. It is a short book, and it is not difficult reading in the sense that is not particularly academic, but it is difficult because it is thought-provoking, because the author addresses difficult questions, questions that are worth exploring, not just in terms of institutional life but in terms of individual life and action. She explores the problems we have as humans, as creatures who live communally and need structure, but also as creatures with souls, as people of faith, and I personally don't care what your faith is. She asks us what it means to be a person of faith, what it means to be a person of belief and to live that belief, to live the truth of one's soul, as opposed to building a structure and letting the structure define the life rather than aide it.
But I am still feeling a little tired and overwhelmed and I can't really begin to discuss Verna Dozier with any confidence. I can say, however, that I did not like David Yaffe's Reckless Daughter. Actually the book was fine. Yaffe is a good writer, and I think he sees himself as a Mitchell fan-boy, but the book comes across inconsistently, as if the author is struggling with his own lilac-hued view of his subject. I can admit that I read the book because I like Joni Mitchell's music, and that I believe she probably is brilliant. I can admit that I have no problem with the idea that people who are brilliant or geniuses are often very imperfect in other ways, and may in fact even be unlikeable. None of us is perfect after all. And, although it may not be true, I am willing to grant leeway to people of great brilliance, as if the excessive light takes its toll in other ways, leaving great failings. That does not, to me at least, make the genius of the work less amazing, merely human. Having said all that, I still struggled with this book. It wasn't the tell-all information about Joni Mitchell, the fact that she comes across as incredibly self-absorbed, arrogant, fragile, self-righteous and incredibly twee, that bothered me. I would expect that all that informed her genius, her ability to put emotion into songs. What bothered me was that somehow I didn't feel drawn into understanding the subject any better as a human, I merely grew increasingly annoyed with the author and the book itself. Just me, but it was not my book.
Ali Smith, Winter. A favorite. In case you missed it, I wrote about it here.
Ali Smith, Autumn. Reread after reading Winter. Mentioned in the link above, and here as well, although I didn't write much about this book the first time around.
Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness and Dear Life. I am not, by nature, really a short-story reader. I tend to prefer to lose myself in long novels. Short-stories always seem exactly that, too short. These stories were brilliant however, and the author captures some essential aspect of each character in each story. Together they reveal a lot about human nature, and I am glad I read them. I remain unconverted to the form.
Salman Rushdie, Grimus. Rushdie's first novel is rather fantastical, a jumble of science fiction, folk-tales, and fantasy, and I can see that it would not appeal to everyone. It is ambitious. Based on a Sufi poem, the novel explores what it means to be human and how we seek to find or reconcile our desires with our search for identity and meaning in life. I think at times the story gets overwhelmed. Rushdie manages his stories more smoothly in later novels, but I loved Grimus anyway, not perhaps despite its flaws, but because of its flaws. Perhaps because it is so abstract in a way, metaphorical and difficult, I am drawn into the story as if into its own space, another world, but one that reflects, although only partially, our own struggles in this one.
Xhenet Aliu, Brass. Really this was an incredibly good novel. It is not the kind of thing I am normally drawn to, and yet I am very happy I read it. Aiiu tells the story of two women, mother and daughter, in alternating voices, and she pulls this off beautifully. Elsie's story is told in first person. Her daughter's story is told in second person, a voice I often find incredibly difficult to be drawn into, but it fits here. Luljeta, is still young, is struggling with her own life, with the tremendous chip she carries on her shoulder, and the second person voice fits with her personality and personal struggles. Elsie and Luljeta are very different people as young girls and the voices fit them and reveal them each in their own way. This is one of the strengths of the book, and the way that Aliu can tell a story that draws the reader into those small, sometimes dark places, that haunt people, even good people, or perhaps especially good people, and threaten to pull them down. But the voices are also interesting, as each story takes place at a certain turning point in the teenage life of each character. In that sense, one might think that Luljeta's voice, being the more recent, would be the first-person voice, and Elsie, looking back on her life, would be telling the story in second person. But that is not what Aliu is doing here, and by telling Elsie's story in the present-tense voice of her youth, she effectively sets a stage, and renders the story with a depth and poignancy that echoes through both lives. Highly recommended.