Sunday, October 08, 2017

September (and the first week of October) Retrospective

1) Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout - This is the final selection (well, for me, I didn't read them in order- just in the order the library could get them to me) from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. Ugh. I read comments on MMD's blog where people said they didn't like My Name is Lucy Barton because it was ick and dark and sad but that they did like this one. Well, I liked My Name is Lucy Barton okay because I thought it was somewhat redemptive. However, this is a collection of short stories from Lucy Barton's world, and the one short story with Lucy in it seemed to undo the redemptive nature of the first book! It would seem that Strout's take on mankind is that people are mostly gross and sad and depraved but oh well-- that for the most part it is what it is, but every now and then something good-ish happens and that means "anything is possible." To me, this was a hopeless book. And I can't do hopeless right now. And it seems that's where our culture is and has been in regard to art-- the books and the films that win prizes are largely depressing and overly realistic in the darkest way. Meanwhile, anything cheerful and redemptive has been sequestered to Hallmark Channel and chick lit booklists and therefore neglected by the most intelligent writers. Can good literature and film not also be happy? It can! We know it can! If no one else has proved it, Jane Austen certainly has. And Austen is uber popular! So can we please stop this dark, depressing trend in modern writing?!

2) To Wager Her Heart by Tamera Alexander - Well, I love me some cheesy historical fiction set in the South- especially Nashville. This is the last of the Belle Meade Plantation novels. And this is Christian chick lit for sure- not exactly what I am asking for in terms of smart, artful writing, but a relief to read after so many downers lately! It does always bug me a little that Alexander's heroines always have very modern sensibilities. They're light years ahead of their time in regard to feminism and civil rights in a heavy handed way. To me, this is almost judgmental (and certainly not empathetic) of the real life women who lived in the setting she is actually writing about because I don't think that they all were so removed from the culture and time they were living in-- nor are we today-- but that also doesn't mean that they were all hateful and ignorant and harsh as our modern perspective would sometimes have us interpret them. Anyway, I can see why, as a modern Southern woman, she wants to get it right for her heroines. And I'm excited that she's announced a new three book series set in Franklin, the first one being a Christmas book! It comes out next month, but I think I will wait to read it until Thanksgiving- something fun for the car ride to Michigan!

3) The Identicals by Elin Hilderbrand - This was my last summer reading selection from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide and I got it in just before Autumnal Equinox. Phew! ;) I generally don't like Hidlerbrand. It's been a frustrating discovery because I really enjoyed the first book I read of hers (The Blue Bistro). It wasn't perfect, but the beachy setting and the foodie descriptions won me over. What I have realized after reading several others by Hilderbrand is that I hate her characters. They're not lovable or even likable most of the time. But this book was a little better- the unlovable characters were becoming more lovable. It was redemptive, and I love redemptive stories. The story seemed a little unfinished- maybe she'll write more about Tabitha and Harper in the future? Incidentally, Tabitha and Harper are very unlike names for identical twins. The kind of person who names their daughter Tabitha does not seem like the same kind of person who names their daughter Harper. Right?

4) Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen - This was another book off the Modern Mrs. Darcy books about endearingly quirky families list. She has recommended this author at least one other time before. I read The Sugar Queen by Allen last year. I didn't actually even realize it was the same author until I started feeling the weird magical realism vibe and thought "hey, this reminds me of that other book." This one was set in the South without feeling like the South. But the author did, in fact, grow up in North Carolina, so I guess my South is just different from hers. To me, the South is deeply religious, and none of the characters in this book seemed to have a shred of religion. Well sure, we all worship something, and we all believe in something, but these characters were rather godless. That's not to say that they weren't likable. But they weren't familiar or relatable. Though I did appreciate that the elderly aunt needed to go to the store for some "Cokecola." But I'm getting to the point in my reading life where I am tired of things that seem hopeless, and even weary of hope coming from a false source. Often times, books will place hope in people changing or growing closer to friends or family- while they may not be cognitive of the Source of growth and of good friends and family, I am, and I can make the jump. But this book had its hope resting in a magical apple tree and in an "uptight" character throwing caution to the wind and shacking up. Nice. (Insert eye rolling emoji here). I guess "magic" just isn't really for me.

5) Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart - This was also off the MMD books about endearingly quirky families list. It was based on actual events that took place in New Jersey and New York in the nineteen teens. It was well done and I liked the author's style. And I liked the characters. But the story wasn't my favorite. It wasn't bad though- it was just a little slow. There are two more books about the main character in this one and I may give them a try down the road- the same good writing with the same "endearingly quirky" characters in a faster paced story could be pretty good.

6) Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley - This one is about a dog with cancer. So right away I'm like "no thanks." I hate animal books. I have always hated animal books. I don't want to get all emotional about a fictional animal- it makes me feel ridiculous and a little bit out of control. I always felt so embarrassed crying at Lassie movies as a kid. Also, our culture is deeply entrenched in its own out of control state over animals. As a mother, even as a former child, I find the idea of pets being called people's "babies" or "children" absurd and even offensive. People need to realize that pets aren't people. It's okay to love them- it's great to love them! But they aren't the same as a child. They just aren't. And when I started this book about a single man who considers his dog his baby, I kind of knew it wasn't going to be for me. But I have this dumb commitment to this list (the MMD books about endearingly quirky families) so I decided to stay with it, at least for a little while. In reading, I  was able to appreciate that people can learn so much from having a pet, the same way I have learned a lot from marriage and parenthood. So while pets aren't people, the connection to and love for one's pet is very special and very real (and I know this from loving my own pets as well).  I did read the whole book and I cried my eyes out when Lily died (of course she did- it's an animal book). There were some good insights and I liked the writing style; but, in the end, it's exactly what I thought, and didn't want, it to be. A final thought: the fact that a book about a guy and his dog makes a list of books about "families" is highly annoying to me- though not the book's fault, but more toward an ongoing issue I have with Modern Mrs. Darcy. 

7) Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis - Oh how I loved these movies when I was a kid! I am not sure if I could ever choose between Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell or Mame with Lucille Ball. I loved them both. And the book is exactly the same.  So I might recommend this to someone who hadn't seen the movie, but since the movie is such delight with all the vivid costumes and set designs and fun musical numbers, I'd rather see the movie. I think I'll have to watch it with my girls soon! 

8) Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson - This is the last from Modern Mrs. Darcy's 15 Books About Endearingly Quirky Families list! Hurray! Hurray! I'm officially done with MMD! But I did like this one. I didn't love the ending, but I have lowered my standards significantly in terms of what to expect when it comes to recommendations from this source. It is easy to tell from this month's retrospective that I was just ready to be done with this list and put Modern Mrs. Darcy officially behind me. Why have I wasted so much time listening to someone I don't know or really know anything about about what I should read? I'm so happy to be relieved of the idea that she may have a great recommendation for me that I absolutely can't miss. If it's really great, I'll hear about it some other way. This was a book about a bit of a Harper Lee type who has an eccentric (endearingly quirky) ten year old son. When the author finds herself swindled out of much of her fortune and needing to write something new for the first time in decades to keep her family fed, she has to rely on outside help to take care of her son. The book is written in the caretaker's voice from her perspective. 

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