When life is busy, tiring, frustrating, hectic, or just too much, I turn to fiction. August was like that. August was fiction month.
With the exception of one volume of short stories, I read novels in August. The stories were by Caitlin Macy, whose novel, Mrs. I read in July. Macy is an astute observer of a certain subset of the culture, of the striving, competitive, intellectual aspirational class, at least in its east-coast variation. She captures the striving, the uncertainty, that combination of need, drive, and guilt, the petty jealousy of it as well. Some of the stories resonated deeply with me, others not so much, but I could see how they lead to the novel, a novel which in a way was a series of linked short stories.
When I was at my mom's I read the first three volumes of the Leafy Hollow Mysteries by Rickie Blair. One of my tasks was to connect mom's nook to her new wireless network so she could read again, and the first novel in the series, From Garden to Grave, was the first book she downloaded. As she read and laughed she mentioned that I should read it, and so I did. It was a free offering on my kindle as well, and there was something nice about reading together. But I read much faster, and although the novel was well enough written, it was not deep or difficult, and the characters are a bit simple and over the top. I read the first two novels that afternoon, and enjoyed them, the way one enjoys a piece of cake, as a lovely wonderful, too sweet, but still enjoyable treat. The next afternoon we were in the emergency room, and after I browsed through my stack of shelter magazines I downloaded the third volume, A Branch Too Far. It was interesting, light, silly and entertaining, just what I needed to rest my nerves and wandering thoughts.
I had another book with me that afternoon in the ER, but didn't feel able to settle into it. I might have wished I had Andrew Sean Greer's Less, which was a light, charming book, sweet and humorous but packing a fair amount of wisdom in its soft and gentle exploration of the mishaps in the adventures of one Arthur Less. It is the kind of book I could read again when I needed a bit of cheering. I could read it again because I am simply the kind of reader who picks up books again and again, but also because it is the kind of book I love, a meandering exploration of character. Obviously not for those who are looking for a fast-paced, plot driven novel.
Instead I had Phil Rickman's second novel in the Merrily Watkins series with me. I had read the first one, The Wine of Angels, early in the month and loved it. This is not high fiction, and a fair portion of the characters and settings are not deeply explored, but I loved the self-doubting main character, Merrily Watkins, a fairly newly minted Episcopal priest, posted as the new vicar in a small town in Herefordshire, in the west of England, and soon to become a deliverance minister (not yet, not in the first book). It is an interesting mix of things, a gentle study of the currents and whims of Episcopalians and the church, about the way we struggle with the pressures of modernity and tradition on many levels, and in many ways, and a murder mystery with a hint of the occult, but mostly here it is an exploration of intuition and the unexplained, those borderlands between what we can touch and what we don't understand, and the ways we try to explain them. I like the way the book explores the thin spaces of spirituality, as well as Merrily's struggle with these places and her own intuition, the battle between intellect and spirituality, between science, superstition, and faith. I think the series looks promising; I'd like to grow with these characters, but again, this is not a novel for those who want action, or those who want their answers served in black and white.
Which leaves me with the two "big" novels. I'll start with The Tin Drum, which I had never read, but which I had also assumed I would read since childhood. My father had a copy and he encouraged me to read it more than once. Having read it now, I think I am happy that I didn't read it in my teens as there is so much I would not have understood. I am not convinced that I understand it now, but it is not a difficult novel to read. It is often laugh-out loud funny, but it is also deeply sarcastic and often very uncomfortable. I completely believe that it might be considered one of the great novels of the 20th century, in any language, and I am glad to have finally read it. I have a harder time telling you what I think about it because nothing I can say captures the complexity and power of the book and its wonderfully allegorical story. What does keep popping into my mind, and I admit that this comparison may be a bit on the shallow side, is a line from Caitlin Macy's Mrs.:
The truth was, people didn't want to go back in time to stop Hitler, they wanted to scoop up Manhattan real estate on the crazy cheap, see Dylan in a café, maybe.
But Macy writes a much softer version, more attuned to our naive America sensibilities, where we don't really want to believe that humans are basically crass self-interested beings, or at least we want to pretend like we don't believe that. The truth is that most people, most of us, are more concerned with our own immediate needs and wants than the grand issues of the world; most of us in crisis think only of what we need to protect for ourselves. We grow outraged from the safety of our own security, we will fight if the fight doesn't inconvenience us, or endanger us too much. The truth is that at some level we all want to be Oskar Matzerath, eternally 3 years old, eternally getting what we want and making the world pay for not giving it to us. But eventually we learn that 3 year-olds are not taken seriously and we adapt, eventually we are forced to grow up, as Oskar decides to grow up, even though it almost kills him. The process of growing up does that, it destroys some part of our essential self, and we too have humps, scars, burdens, deep buried secrets that deform us. If we survive we might also find art, find beauty, but no matter what course we take, the blind cook, death, awaits us all. This is a powerful, even beautiful novel, it is also simultaneously a fun and a brutal read. I will read it again.
It strikes me that the books I will save and read again can be either light and silly, or profound and enlightening, difficult even. I make no apologies for that, we are each of us a complex blending of the self we were born to be and the experiences and cultures that have shaped us. Perhaps that is why people's collections can be so interesting, but often it is the why that makes them interesting more than the what.
One book I will not read again is The Water Cure. I emoted about it extensively here. It is beautifully written, and as a first novel, it is absolutely stunning. I will look for Sophie Mackintosh's next novel. But as powerful as the novel was, I felt let down by it in the end. I felt deceived and used, subjected to a promise, an emotional wrenching even, without closure, or any further understanding or empathetic growth. I went in to it expecting to love it and instead the novel left me with overwhelming sadness and no recompense.
This was not because the book was sad, or even that there were no happy answers. I have just finished reading Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, which I got from the local library. I expected to dislike this book. I had not intended to read it until it appeared on the Booker list. And yet, although it is unquestioningly bleak, I did not find it depressing. I loved it. I loved the voices of the characters, I don't particularly want to meet them, become besties, but Kushner's writing was successful in building empathy, in bringing outrage and understanding and some insight into lives that are totally different from the lives of most of the readers of this book, different from the lives most of us can even imagine. I was touched, outraged, sad. Yes probably manipulated as well, but mostly I felt like I was beginning to see something differently than I had been able to see it before. Yes Romy Hall's life is bleak. The terrible truth was that it was always bleak, the lives of most of the characters in this novel were bleak and imprisoned before they even committed a crime, and this is what I think Kushner portrays so successfully. But I would also be naive to think that some of my perceptions of this book were not partially shaped by my having just finished reading both Mackintosh and Grass,
What I don't understand, and perhaps there is no need, is why some books make me feel inspired, touched, enlightened even, while those same books might bore a friend to tears, or make another feel manipulated, as I felt manipulated by The Water Cure. There are books among my all-time favorites that are abhorred by friends, and vice-versa. I am intrigued by this, by the complex multi-faceted ways we experience and are shaped by the world, and by the ways the world speaks to us. Increasingly it is the discussions about the ways things affect us, or do not, that I find interesting. I am reminded that CS Lewis said something along the lines of "there are no good or bad books, only good and bad readers". I don't have the book with me in the apartment, so I am not certain of the quote, but I generally agree, at least to a point. I admire anyone who can write a book and get it published. I'm not even sure I see being a bad reader as a particular criticism. We are all bad readers at times. We all bring biases and expectations into everything we do. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we may not be the right reader for a book, but that doesn't mean that there aren't people who love that book, whose lives are changed. Reading is a relationship. Writing, be it a letter, a blog, or a book, is also about relationship. Would that we could all learn to share our opinions, explore our differences, and find even new respect in the world. Books can help us open doors. Let's keep them open.