What I’ve been reading

I haven’t done much blogging about my own reading this month but I have been reading. Mostly fiction and books about reading.

Fiction read in May:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides:
The title refers to the senior thesis of Madeline, an English student at Brown in the early 1980’s. Madeline is one part of a love triangle that also includes Mitchell, a religion student interested in Christian mysticism and Leonard, a brilliant charismatic biology student suffering from bipolar disease. Leonard and Madeline struggle to form a life together after college while Mitchell travels the world trying to forget Madeline.

All the characters in this book are highly intellectual and well-read. On one hand, I enjoyed that about them. On the other, I wasn’t an English major so much of the discussion of literary criticism went way over my head. In the end I decided that this was a book that  I could have chosen to read more deeply and think about more. I’m not sure that I would have liked it more, in fact, I think I may have liked it less if I thought more about what the author was trying to say. But I found myself caught up in the story and in the writing and just simply enjoyed it.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
In 73 AD, 900 Jews held out against the Roman army for months in a mountain fortress called Masada. In the end, they all died except for two women and five children who survived. This is the story of those Jews and the survivors. For me, this one suffered from high expectations. Several people had told me what a great book this was and highly recommended it so I had big expectations that were not met. It is beautifully written and the true story is fascinating. However, as the author tells the story from the perspective of four different women she weaves in a lot of mysticism and supernatural elements. One of the main characters is a witch/natural healer/midwife/temple prostitute. It’s never entirely clear if she is truly a witch or just that she’s viewed as a witch. However, there is a highly superstitious element to the entire book.

I had two problems with this. One is that although I’m not really well versed enough in early Judaism to argue the point, I had a problem with the portrayal of most of the Jews having very little of a true faith in the God of the Torah (or Old Testament). From reading the Old Testament it is clear that the Jews did worship other gods (including Ashtoreth the goddess worshipped by the women here) and there were complicated political sects and people seeking power. However, the only group that she portrays as true believers are portrayed in a fairly negative light. And the worship of Ashtoreth is portrayed as somehow more “true” with no mention of some of the horrific practices like ritualistic infant sacrifice. Ashtoreth is the true feminine goddess repressed by the evil men and their male God.

The second problem I had was that I felt like the whole thing read like many other modern feminist writers I read in college. It was kind of boring. Patriarchal religion, bad. Woman goddess, good. Men, bad. Women, brave. There is also a lot more sex than you might expect in a novel about this subject, and the sex was fairly boring also because it was so unrealistic. It felt to me like as a reader I’d been there, done that.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I just finished this one yesterday and pretty much read the whole thing this weekend. Partially because it’s a quickish read, partially because the story pulled me in and I neglected other things. On one level, this is another memory-loss book. Alice falls in the gym and wakes up thinking she is 29 years old, newly married to a husband she adores and who adores her and pregnant with her first child. Soon she discovers that she is actually 40 years old, has three children and in the midst of a nasty divorce.  She has forgotten the last ten years of her life.

First, you have to suspend all medical reality to enjoy this book. Alice is completely fine other than her amnesia but more unbelievably, her family and friends know she is suffering from this quite significant memory loss but somehow act like it’s a minor issue that is going to get better. I decided just to ignore this and move on. The novel isn’t really about memory loss anyway, not in the same way that Before I go to Sleep is.

As the novel goes on, Alice realizes that she is a very different person than she was ten years ago. Because she still feels like the 29 year old Alice she doesn’t like the new Alice very much. In fact, on one level she is actively trying to avoid remembering the bad things that have happened to her. However, in the end when her memory comes back Alice realizes that she is who she is because of all those things that happened to her. She can’t change the memories anymore than she can change who she is. Her story is woven in with two side stories: one about her sister Elisabeth’s struggle with infertility and one about her grandmother Frannie. All three stories ultimately have at the heart of them the theme that you are made by all your memories: the bad and the good. We might wish to forget a horrible delivery but we would never want to forget the baby that we hold at the end of it.

I would recommend this one as a perfect summer read. It’s light enough (and happy in the end) that it would be great for reading poolside or at the beach. But it’s also well-written and explores some interesting ideas.

Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
I thoroughly enjoyed this first Bess Crawford mystery about a WWI nurse turned sleuth. I plan on reading more in this series this summer.

The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer.
Blech. An audiobook. Not much to say except that I only finished it because I hardly ever don’t finish a book. Still, 11 CD’s (!!!!) later I wished I hadn’t been so stubborn.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Young Adult, Audiobook.  I enjoyed this tale of star-crossed young love for the most part. Hazel is a terminally ill teenager with end stage thyroid cancer. She has been barely living on a medication that has prolonged her life beyond all expectations but with no hope of cure. She meets Augustus, a gorgeous osteosarcoma survivor at a cancer kids support group and well, you can guess the rest. I did really like both characters and thought the book should probably be required reading for anyone in medicine who deals with teenagers and might just have the tendency to be a little patronizing. I don’t have teenagers and I don’t read a lot of YA fiction but I found both characters to be fabulous, but a bit unbelievable. Either that or teenagers have gotten way more sophisticated and witty than when I was one. Which is entirely possible. I also always have a little bit of trouble taking teen romance novels seriously as an adult. I realize that makes me sound patronizing, and it’s not that I don’t think teenagers can’t feel strong emotion. It’s just that I identify so much more strongly with the adults in the novel than with the teenage angst and drama. Finally, as a Christian, the view of the big issues in this novel (why are we here? does life have meaning? what does it mean when we die?) was not my own.

Books about Reading read in May:

If you are a reader you will find something to like in The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore. Doubly so if you are a female reader. Each chapter looks at a particular character trait and the literary heroine that embodies it (Jo from Little Women and ambition for example). Blakemore takes this book to the next level by also researching and writing about the author’s life and asking what lessons we can learn from the author as well as her creation. I didn’t find anything particularly new here but it was enjoyable and a nice visit with a lot of old favorites. Blakemore is young though and at times her youth showed. There were several analogies using pop culture celebrities that I had never heard of or only vaguely understood the analogy. At forty, I’m not the most hip of readers but it still seemed to me that more universal examples could have been chosen. She also puts a little too much of herself into some of the essays and it becomes more about her than the heroine. Finally, some of her choices were ones I disagreed with, for example Colette/Claudine as an example of Indulgence which is primarily sexual indulgence. I would disagree with that as a character trait of an heroine. Still, overall it’s a fast and reasonably fun read. I especially liked that at the end of every chapter Blakemore includes “sister novels” a “if you liked this you might like this” kind of list.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs was one of my favorite books of the month, but I have little to say about it beyond that I really really liked it. If you like to read and like to think about reading and books, read this one.

With my boys I also read:
The Grey King by Susan Cooper
Half Magic by Edward Eager
and we finally finished By the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

On the deck for June:
 I’m currently reading three books, and enjoying them all but they are all slower reads. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Sparks (yes, another book on reading), The God Who Loves You by Peter Kreeft and The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford by Wendell Berry. John and I have been reading Tom Sawyer together (each of us on our own and then we discuss it).

The book stack on my dresser has several more memory related books: one novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogowa, and one non-fiction, In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel. I also have a few other books about books: Lit by Tony Reinke and Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick.

June is also the beginning of the pool season for us which for me means more distracted reading, so I’m probably going to be wanting something lighter. Maybe some more Bess Crawford mysteries.

How about you? What have you been reading?

5 thoughts on “What I’ve been reading

  1. I’m always amazed and impressed by how much you read, Alice! That’s wonderful! The Heroine’s Bookshelf sounds like one I’d enjoy, and I appreciate your mentioning the Alan Jacobs book. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages (I loved The Narnian), but I still haven’t read it. Maybe I should get Lit! off my TBR stack before I read another book about reading. 😉

  2. I love books on reading. I have “Reading in An Age of Distraction” on my Nook which I’ll read after this current round of library books, and “On Rereading” is in my shopping cart on Amazon.

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