This week has been freakishly busy. Or maybe it’s just been so hot that every movement is exhausting—AK reminded me yesterday that I have a tendency to ignore my own physical discomfort while being profoundly affected by it. I’ll bake potatoes in 95-degree heat and wonder why I’m cranky.
Anyway, for one reason or another, I’ve been such a stress tornado that I’m wondering if I’ll ever have time to read for pleasure again. Past experience tells me I probably will. Who knows. But here’s what I read last month:
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: At one point, one of the main characters--a former history major named Edward--refutes the Great Man theory of history: He doesn't believe individuals chart its course. But this novella is the story of how history (post-war, pre-free love) can chart the course of individuals' lives (the individuals are two not quite naive, not quite worldly virgins on their wedding night). McEwan's prose is stately and British, almost 19th century-ish, which makes his graphic descriptions of sex all the more surprising and striking, perfectly capturing the confusion of an era and its characters. I really rooted for Edward and Florence; they are as complex as Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, but without the bitterness.
Falling Man by Don DeLillo: This book repeatedly grabbed me and repeatedly let me go. Sometimes it seemed like a sincere and profound meditation on the power of memory and faith, and the ways those things intersect. Other times it seemed fragmented in the coldest, dullest way. This is my ongoing, fraught relationship with DeLillo.
A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight: In this book even more than ever, Susan Straight creates a palette of physical details (hair, bone, ink, bodily fluids) that in turn create a world. In this case, it's French Louisiana in the early 1800s, where a young biracial slave uses her considerable wits to rise from powerlessness to relative freedom. I loved how she was something of a scientist in a time when science barely existed, always wondering about the natural world.
The novel reminded me a bit of Toni Morrison's A Mercy in terms of Straight's emphasis that other groups (women, gay men, Indians, quadroons, free people of color) suffer under slavery's many variations. A sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting, always visceral book.
Black Widow by Randy Wayne White: I was initially lured by the tropical descriptions and the NPR recommendation, but soon I was trying to decide which bugged me more: the superficially empowered damsels in distress (note to White: Having your ladies say things like, "I can take care of myself, dammit" before falling into the arms of your protagonist does not an enlightened novel make); the "damn"-laden dialogue; the evil blood-drinking hermaphrodite villain (again, having your protagonist murmur sympathetic statements about how nature produces all kinds of gender anomalies does not make this character okay); or Doc Ford's habit of rattling off random facts that make him sound more like an avid Wikipedia reader than the scientist he supposedly is. All that said, the plotting is competent and much of White's subject matter is pretty interesting. He might even have extended his research beyond Wikipedia. This is a silly novel, but not entirely un-amusing.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin: Sure, it sounds all scholarly (well, sort of scholarly--I guess anything with "secret world" in its subtitle can't be too high-minded), but this book is full of gossipy tidbits about the justices. Did you know that Souter doesn't use email? That Thomas is a sweetheart when he's not busy being a fascist? Jeffrey Toobin's smooth writing and emphasis on personal details kept me reading, but there really is an amazing story here of the court's political ebbs and flows and turning points, and the subtle, stately negotiation process behind them.