My reading in recent weeks has been quite the mixed bag, which seems in accordance with the spirit of summer. For instance, I’ve just finished Train Dreams, an unusual and haunting little novella by Denis Johnson. Set on the edge of the American frontier at the beginning of the 20th century, it tells by snatches the story of a man whose life is defined by the loss of his wife and baby daughter, but also by the place and the era through which he lives. The writing is simple but quietly powerful, and the book is both dreamy and shocking, meditative and ecstatic. There’s the sublime; and now, the ridiculous. I’ve also just finished Unusual Uses for Olive Oil, the most recent addition to Alexander McCall Smith’s series of “Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment Novels.” Gently satirizing German academia, many other German things and some English ones as well, this book is elegantly written and hysterically funny, if largely pointless. It features Herr Dr. Dr. von Igelfeld ruining his latest matrimonial prospect and falling off a mountain, all while wearing a series of unfortunate outfits and dressing up his disasters in as much professorial dignity as he can muster. Read on for other editors’ suggestions for your own mixed bag.
Fiction Co-Editor Suzanne Kamata writes, “At first, Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser seems like a series of vignettes, each set in a different country. In addition to the central characters, Australian Laura and Sri Lankan Ravi, there is a large supporting cast; there are many settings covering many years, but few sustained scenes. Those who prefer well-plotted books with plenty of action will probably not enjoy this novel, but for aficionados of beautiful writing, vivid details and arresting turns of phrase, this may well be a perfect choice. As the title implies, de Kretser raises a number of interesting questions about the nature of travel, and the short chapters ultimately accumulate to form a satisfying and deeply moving whole. This novel is both devastating and beautiful.”
Meanwhile, Creative Non-Fiction Editor Kate Haas has been traveling back to childhood: “I confess: I’m re-reading Daddy-Long-Legs, Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel about an orphan sent to college by a mysterious benefactor. I adored this book as a girl, and even though I see now how contrived the plot is, I can’t help loving it still. Judy Abbot is an endearing and irreverent heroine, thrilled to have escaped the dreary John Grier Home and delighted with the new – if bewildering – world of an East Coast girls’ school. Required to send monthly accounts of her educational progress to the Trustee who has arranged for her education – a gentleman who prefers to remain anonymous – Judy pens long, funny descriptions of college to ‘Daddy-Long-Legs,’ confiding her failures (Latin) and triumphs (publication in the literary journal). Through these letters we witness the coming of age of a thoughtful, talented young woman.”
Kristina Riggle, Fiction Co-Editor, is relishing a different sort of female life story: “I’ve just begun Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. I’m obsessed lately with ‘bio fic,’ the fictionalized renderings of real lives; I devoured The Paris Wife, a novel about the first Mrs. Hemingway. Z begins with Zelda in 1940, then jumps back in time to 1918, and I’m already fascinated to see the contrast between the narrative voices. I can’t wait to continue on Zelda’s journey through the years.”
Heidi Scrimgeour, Literary Reflections Assistant Editor, suggests The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. “I picked it up in the supermarket on a whim when my husband was going out of town for 10 days and I thought I might need something to get me through! I was gripped from the very first sentence, but have since discovered that I came late to the party; there was a bidding war between publishers over this debut novel, which became a New York Times bestseller and has repeatedly been voted one of the best books of the year. It’s about ‘the slowing,’ when the rotation of the earth inexplicably slows down so that days and nights grow longer and, gradually, gravity and the environment are affected. It’s narrated by 11-year-old Julia. Although I’m only a couple of chapters in, I’m already obsessed with this book — torn between stealing away from my kids and other commitments in order to savor a few pages, and not wanting to read it at all for fear of finishing it too soon.”