In the High Peaks

Monday, August 29, 2022

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes and The 20 Books of Summer Finale

 I'd originally intended to put Julian Barnes's new book, Elizabeth Finch, on my list back in May. But the August release date was late enough that I figured I'd never get it from the library in time. But it worked out. The narrator meets the most enigmatic, charismatic, and life-changing teacher when he takes a Culture and Civilization course. The students are mostly in their late twenties, as is the narrator. His inner life is transformed, but is it the middle-aged Elizabeth Finch that transforms him, her ideas and strategies of inquiry into religious and philosophical controversies of the past three millenia, or his academic relationship with her? This is a fascinating "novel of ideas," as many critics have pointed out.  In the hands of another writer, I would have given this novel a pass, but I am an admirer of Julian Barnes and find his novels tremendously thought-provoking. If this one doesn't sound like the book for you, do try his novel The Sense of an Ending, his Man Booker Prize winner. It's one I'll reread again and again.

My final 20 Books of Summer List is as follows. I really enjoyed almost all of the books I read. Participating definitely made this a much more interesting summer than it would have been otherwise. I hope to do it again next year. I had to replace 7 books. Based on this experience and my practice since 2021, I can see that pre-planning what I read really works for me. I tend to balance the subjects and genres of what I read more than ever before, and think through ahead of time what I want to read. A nice bonus.

1.     All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami  (trans. fr. Japanese)  ck

2.     Outside by Ragnar Jonasson  (trans fr. Icelandic)  ck

3.     Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders by Kathryn Miles (NF) ck

4.     The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten  ck

5.     Ashton Hall by Lauren Belfer  ck

6.     This Time Tomorrow by Emma Straub  ck

7.     The Midcoast by Adam White  ck

8.     Flying Solo by Linda Holmes  Replaced by: The House across the Lake by Riley Sager  ck

9.     The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill  ck

10.  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  Replaced by The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley  ck

11.  Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark ck

12.  Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney  Replaced by Writers and Lovers by Lily King  ck

13.  The Wild Hunt by Emma Seckel  Replaced by  A History of Present Illness by Anna DeForest

14.  I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart (2021) Replaced by Rumer Godden: A Storyteller's Life by Alice Chisholm  ck

15.  The Disinvited Guest by Carol Goodman  ck

16.  The German Wife by Kelly Rimmer  Replaced by:  Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes ck

17.  Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum   Replaced by: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton  ck

18.  After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris by Helen Rappaport (NF) Replaced by: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells  ck

19.  The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards  (Lake District #4)  ck

      20.   In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden  ck (Classics Club Spin)


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

3 Books Finished, One to Go, & Onward to Fall Reading

 On this tropically rainy day, I spent much of it reading, and finished my 19th book, Writers and Lovers by Lily King (2020). Casey, a young woman of 30, has been immersed in writing her first novel for the past 6 years. This book follows her through the final year of writing after a move to Boston. King shows us all of Casey's life at age 30. Her life as a waitress in Harvard Square is miserable but lavishly entertaining, her squalid apartment, her relationships, one with a man her own age and one with a famous writer just emerging from the devastation of having lost his wife. The tone, the voice, everything about this book is vibrant, super-charged with vitality, despite Casey's angst. An excellent read! The Boston setting was loads of fun.

On a much more somber note, I devoured A History of Present Illness (18) by Anna DeForest. The unnamed narrator is a young medical student, and this novel is not linear. It is actually composed of anecdotes and scenes of her encounters with the unnamed, unwritten bible of the medical profession, all the parts which are the opposite of the axiom "First do no harm." Unsurprisingly, the author is a palliative care physician as well as a neurologist and this is her debut novel. It's short, but because it's plotless, I don't think it could be called a novella. It's impossible not to identify with the medical student's introduction to surgery, autopsies, cadaver class, and end-of-life care. DeForest highlights the least humane aspects of medicine. If you have any interest in recent medical fiction, I do recommend it. The handling of controversial medical topics is unique.

And I finally finished Rumer Godden: A Storyteller's Life (17) by Anne Chisholm (1999). Godden had a fascinating life, having lived in British colonial India until 1944-45, when she was 37, at which time she moved to England. She lived in the Bay of Bengal as a child, in what is now Bangladesh, Calcutta, and during WWII lived in Kashmir. (Actually not under British control at the time she lived there.) She later made many return trips, some of them for movies made from her books. She wrote voluminously--and couldn't resist writing children's books as well. I look forward to reading many more of her novels. 

Books I'm looking forward to in September:  I am a diehard fan of Ian McEwan, so Lessons is on my list. Since it's a hefty one, I'll probably buy it. Anne Cleeves has a new Vera Stanhope novel arriving on September 6, so I'll be reading that.  

On hold now at the library is Julian Barnes's (another favorite author) Elizabeth Finch and Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the new Nobel Prizewinner. #20 will be one of these two.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Two Reads: The Half Life of Valery K and Fellowship Point

I loved reading The Half Life of Valery K by English novelist Natasha Pulley. It’s definitely one of my top 5 reads of this year, and one of my top 2 books of this Twenty Books of Summer. It’s categorized as a work of historical fiction, which makes sense given that the setting is mainly in 1963 and 1957 in the Soviet Union. It is based on fact as reviews will tell you, but loosely. The science of radiation is factual, and was skillfully interwoven with the plot. Overall, this novel had strong science fiction overtones, which I found captivating. Goodreads rating is 4.3, and what is most unusual about that is 49 percent of reviewers gave it 5 stars. Fascinating characters that I came to love (Valery K has such a droll, understated sense of humor), and a riveting story of survival. Be prepared—it is an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. Without hesitation, this was a 5-star read for me, my 15th book read this summer.

     Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark may be long (576 pages), but I found it an excellent way to spend lots of time. Two women in their early 80s, who have spent summers on Fellowship Point, Maine, since their childhoods reflect back on their lives and deal with current dramas that enter their lives. Family relationships, romantic loves, high drama that is revealed from the distant past, and the Point itself, which they hope to preserve against their family’s wishes, all figure here. Don’t let the number of pages daunt you, the font is good-sized and there’s comfortable leading between the lines.

     Currently reading Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life by Anne Chisholm and have nearly finished. That will be my 17th read. So two weeks from today is September 1st and I need to read three more books. Some of the books I was hoping to read are still on order at the library, so I’ll have to rummage around here to see what I find. Will I make it by September 1st? I’d like to.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Classics Club Spin!

     Rumer Godden devoted five years to writing In This House of Brede, a story of life in Brede Abbey, a fictional, though based on fact, Benedictine monastery. Prior to writing, Godden spent years researching and thinking about writing it. Published in 1968, it is considered to be the most complex and contemplative of all Godden’s books, and many monastic critics have deemed it to be the most accurate depiction of the monastic life in fiction.

     Godden was drawn to a Benedictine monastery, Stanbrook Abbey, which at that time was located in Worcestershire (today it's in Yorkshire). Her interest in the Benedictines began with her friendship with a woman affiliated with the order. Over the years, the women of the order gave her unprecedented access to their religious celebrations and to contact with individual members.  

     As Godden learned more about the religious life at Stanbrook, she became disturbed by how inaccurately she portrayed the religious lives of the nuns and the convent in Black Narcissus (1939), her first best-selling book. (By the way, I was fascinated to learn that this book had dismal sales in the UK, but was a huge best-seller in the U.S.)

     Godden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1968, the same year that In This House of Brede was published.

     I was astonished by just how much I appreciated and enjoyed this novel. I was so sorry to leave the characters and Brede Abbey when I turned the last page and felt bereft for several days after. What most impressed me was the way Godden created such human characters, especially considering that most women in the religious life, in monasteries and convents, are so stereotyped by society and in literature. But in Brede, each character is a distinct, complex individual, each with strengths and faults, who participates in a monastic society that is also extraordinarly complex.

     I was raised a Roman Catholic, though I am no longer observant. Yet I appreciated the way Godden made the liturgical seasons, feast days, and the passing of the religious calendar as beautiful. The setting is endlessly fascinating as well, because of the Abbey’s centuries-long history and the beautiful grounds and gardens. Reading this book made me feel that I was a member of this Benedictine monastery. I was there. I could breathe there. And I learned so much.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Overloaded with Books for the Last Four Weeks of 20 Books

 Today was my day for shopping and the library. I picked up EIGHT books on hold for me. I am desperate to read them all! From a reading perspective only, I am glad that we are sweltering in the mid-80s with dewpoints that are sky-high. That means we are forced to stay indoors with the air-conditioning. I do actually hate being cooped up in summer, but with fantastic books, especially the ones I have on hand, I don't care. 

Gosh--I've started Fellowship Point by Alice Elliott Dark, which is very good. (I purchased this one.) I'm also reading a bio of Rumer Godden, which I was motivated to do after finishing In This House of Brede. (So many questions about Godden's amazing life in India and England and Kashmir.)

But then all these wonderful books tumbled out of my book bag today when I got home. The first I'm reading is The Half Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley. The research Pulley did for this new book amazes me. Set in the Soviet Union, and highly acclaimed. Please follow the link. I don't have access to the book bag at the moment, but I will post on the rest of my Library Loot very soon.

AND SIGH! I finished The Disinvited Guest by Carol Goodman as my 14th read for the 20 Books of Summer, and it was, for me, just mediocre. I've read several of Goodman's books, of which there are many, including her debut of years ago, The Lake of Dead Languages. I like her characterizations. I like her writing. But this one, an "And Then There Were None" tale, set on a very remote northern Maine island, was just not up to par, due to a flaw with the plotting, I believe. Oh, well. I've read lots of great books this summer, so it's okay, I suppose, that this one was a disappointment.