June 2005 Books

June 6, 2005
That Distant Land by Wendell Berry

This is a set of dense stories about a fictional town in Kentucky called Port William, spanning from 1908 to 1986. They chart the slow change and eventual loss of the farm lifestyle…and more importantly (and devastatingly, according to several of the characters), “country” values…in such a way that I felt actual deep grief as the stories progress through time, as the wars kill farmers and children grow up and move to cities. I kept rooting for the one family that still plows with horses into the sixties. I thought a lot about my mom growing up on a dairy farm and going to a one-room school while I was reading, too. These stories taught me a lot about physical work and the complexity of living off the land and on the land; there were many long paragraphs about working tobacco rows or hitching mules to the wagons that are like nothing about any sort of work I’ve read before. Also, most of the protagonists were male and it was pretty interesting to live briefly in that very male world and look at women from the outside. I especially liked “A Consent.” I liked the story of how Tol Proudfoot and Miss Minnie got together so much that I went back and read it again after I finished the book on the bus this morning. I am a sucker for anything, it would seem, about a cake auction.

June 7, 2005
The Task Of This Translator by Todd Hasak-Lowy

An excellent set of stories by an author whose last name rivals only that of Zuravleff. These stories are twisty and turny and involve a lot of long long sentences. Most of them start out to be about one thing and turn out to be about something completely different. A lot of stuff is like that, I notice.

June 9, 2005
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck

This was a little jerkily written for me…there wasn’t much of a narrative, I guess, and I didn’t get much sense of who any of the characters were. First they’re in Paris! And there’s a little gray horse named Mathilde! And then they go to Paraguay and Franco becomes the dictator and he builds Ella a pink palace. And then there’s a war. And then everyone dies. Other characters make appearances and do strange or enlightening things but I couldn’t get a sense of the whole very well. I couldn’t even really understand the context of the story, which was a little troubling.

June 16, 2005
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Your basic girl-meets-girl, girl-loves-girl, girl-betrays-girl, other-girl-betrays-girl, girl-goes-into-madhouse, girl-escapes-madhouse-and-lives-happily-ever-ever-after-with-other-girl-and-inherits-a-large-fortune-to-boot story, set in Victorian England and full of twists and turns that I found very surprising. It’s been nice to have a pretty absorbing book to read while I’ve been unpacking and moving furniture…it was on the top of a stack of books that I just reached into, and I’m very glad I did.

June 18, 2005
A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

I can’t help think of the movie when I read this…also plucked from the top of one of my boxes of books before I unpacked them at the new house…but I have to say it is excellently and strangely written. Lucy Honeychurch is very hard to describe and I can’t always tell if E.M. Forster likes her very much. She’s not an ingénue, she’s not a girl next door, she’s not a heroine. She’s recognizable even if she isn’t describable, though, and as such I dig her. And of course it’s always nice to reminisce about that scene in the movie with the naked British men running around the pond, all a-bobble. My second re-read of the year, too.

June 20, 2005
The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Oh, I loved this book. I’ve read a couple of her short story collections by now and I was so happy to see one of the characters mentioned in passing in Ship Fever show up in this one. The story is very dense and chewy, like the pemmican they take on the doomed sledge trip. I was interested in the details of the artic voyage, but what really grabbed me about the first part of the book were the struggles for power and authority on the ship amongst the various officers. The second and third parts seemed a little more patched together; I felt like I had a lot of questions about stuff that happened in Part II: what did the Esquimaux really think about Zeke? What happened really to bring Annie and Tom to Philadelphia? Why did Lavinia end up marrying Zeke? And then in Part III, everything seems to fall together so easily, in stark contrast to Part I, when, damn, those Artic explorers can’t get a break. I felt a little breathless as I was reading the last fifty or sixty pages. Also, apropos of nothing, I loved the character of Alexandra very much; there is something about the stifled “lady naturalist,” in her plain hair style and gray cotton dress, that I just really like. She reminded me, for some reason, of Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, even though they are written very differently. Or something. Anyway, even though this was a little uneven at times, I was as drawn into the world of the story as completely as I have been with Andrea Barrett’s other works that I’ve read so far, and I was sad the book ended when it did, in that I wanted to keep living in the story, wanted to know more about the fate of every single one of the characters.

June 25, 2005
Drop City by T.C. Boyle

This ended weakly, I thought, but the first half of the story, before Drop City relocates to Alaska, is pretty great. And I like how Sess and Pamela get together too. I thought a lot about my parents while I was reading this, imagining them in their twenties in the late sixties, thinking about my cousin Dee’s describing meeting my mom for the first time: dressed completely in pink and purple, with green suede knee-high boots. The reception the freak bus receives when they pull up in Boynton, Alaska, made me wonder what it was like when my parents and their friends moved up to rural Canada…something very similar, I think. Anyway, this was a pretty good picture of what the sixties were like for some people, and very un-annoyingly written, I am happy to report. I sort of hate sixties’ rhetoric but this was well done and well told…until the last third of the book when all of a sudden people were freezing to death and panning for gold and shooting bears at random. It felt rushed and arbitrary, I thought. Also I didn’t see what the point of the Lester/Sky Dog thread was because it wasn’t ever developed very well and I didn’t see why it was even there. Also, apropos of nothing, all I have to say is that if I were a hippie chick at the commune and responsible for cooking and cleaning for a bunch of annoying hippie “cats’’ who did nothing but smoke and play Frisbee all day and was also expected to have sex with any and/or all of them at their discretion, I might elect to return to the fascist state and the government teat after all. I mean, really. Peace and love, indeed.

June 27, 2005
The Quality of Life Report by Meghan Daum

Urk! When I start enumerating all the things I hate about a book while I’m still reading it, I know it’s a bad sign. So with this book, which, I have figured out, I didn’t like much because its flaws– oorly constructed characters, lack of a plot (in a bad way), futile attempt at false irony, and just general pointlessness—are flaws I see in my own writing. So, yes. Moving on.

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