Bel Canto, books, Mirror Mirror, People of the Book, recommendations, Still Alice, The 19th Wife, The Fig Eater, The Lacuna, The Moor's Last Sigh, The Remains of the Day, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
Alisha, Lauren and I continue to meet every week, alternating between our three homes as we discuss literature over a beverage and a snack. We used to stick to tea and cookies, but in the interest of staying on theme with the book of the week, we’ve expanded to include rose wine and Scottish fudge (Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon), gin and tonics (The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins), crepes with jam and nutella (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr) and hot chocolate with Irish cream liqueur. (OK, so there wasn’t a book for that one, but we were cold.) The criteria for choosing a book remains the same: it has to be a novel that none of us has read before. This list is a continuation of the books we read in late 2014 and 2015.
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff
Our 23rd novel, selected from The Book Exchange. The store had just restocked a lot of fiction titles, so we had a more difficult time than usual picking a new book to read. We purchased three books, so we’re all set for a while. We noticed that there are a lot of books these days with ‘wife’ in the title: The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Zookeepers Wife, The Pilot’s Wife, The Upstairs Wife, The Silent Wife, The Paris Wife (which we read last year) The Tiger’s Wife, The Aviator’s Wife, The Doctor’s Wife…and it goes on. It made us wonder when we’d start seeing titles like “The Accountant’s Husband” or The “Astronaut’s Husband.” The 19th Wife had two running plots: a history of Mormonism following the famous ex-wife of Brigham Young (one wife of around 50), and a modern representation of a Mormon branch called ‘the Firsts’ who still adhere to polygamy. Of the two, we very much preferred the historical plot, which was intriguing and well laid-out. We found the characters and motives in the modern story unrealistic, and decided that the (significant) character Tom was only put in there as a safe place for the main character to leave his dog in the desert heat.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob
Our 22nd novel, chosen with the aid of our good friend, Mr. Google. It’s the first time this year that we’ve found a new book by browsing online, and we all said, “Good title.” When I called a local bookstore to see if they had it in stock, the comment from the employee was, “Good title.” A good title paved the way to a great book. We all loved it, and I’d put it in my Top Two out of all the books we’ve read together. In a nutshell it’s the story of a family who has moved from India to New Mexico. The plot is of course much more interesting and intricate, but whenever we tried to explain the plot in more detail to anyone, it came out all muddled and complicated. A fantastic read, highly recommend.
People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
Our 21st novel, picked out from my own bookshelf. We wanted to go with a book immediately at hand rather than wait a week to meet at the Book Exchange. I’d found this book in a Free Little Library in town and thought it looked interesting. And I know you shouldn’t judge books by the cover, but this one was lovely. The appearance of books actually had a huge part to play in our novel: It started in Sarajevo in the midst of the conflict in 1996, as a book restorer entered the war-torn country to preserve an especially rare and beautiful Jewish Haggadah (a book of scriptures). Her findings lead the reader through Europe in a journey across time, tracing the book back to its origins. As book lovers, we enjoyed learning about the techniques for creating and preserving books through the centuries, remarking ruefully that it’s unlikely that any conservationist would ever restore a book belonging to one of us in two hundred years.
The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields
Our 20th novel, picked out from the Book Exchange. This is the first time we’ll be reading a book in its entirety and then discussing it as a whole rather than meeting every week. I was in China for a month, so the plan was to select a book to read during that duration and then go over it when I returned home. I missed our weekly discussions. This is the second mystery we’ve read, and with our first mystery, The Girl on the Train, it was so much fun to exchange theories as the plot unfolded. I kept wanting to exchange theories. When we finally met, we’d all noticed similar things in the story, and I’m not sure whether it was the book itself that made those points obvious or if it’s because we’ve now read so many books together. There were a lot of unresolved issues. The author carefully and deliberately laid out several pieces of evidence to aid the reader in finding the killer, but then that evidence had nothing to do with the final outcome. On the whole, we enjoyed the book, especially the descriptions of how a detective would handle forensic evidence in 1910.
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
Our 19th novel, picked out from the Book Exchange. We had very specific needs for this book: it had to be quick reading, have almost exactly 300 pages, and the store needed to have three copies in stock. Bingo. None of us have seen the recent Oscar nominated film, but we thought it sounded like a good story and then we’ll watch the movie when we finish. Watching the film seems to be a recent trend, but out of our previous 18 novels, we only watched the film for two of them. (The Fault in Our Stars and The Remains of the Day) It could be argued that this was the most terrifying of the books we’ve read. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, and it was too easy to put ourselves or our loved ones into that role. While reading the book, I couldn’t understand why I’d written ‘peppermint’ on my grocery list. I didn’t need peppermint, and I racked my brains trying to think of what it was that I meant. I panicked and thought maybe I had early-onset Alzheimer’s, too…All of us disliked the husband in the book. It should come as no surprise that we preferred the book over the film.
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Our 18th novel, picked out from the Book Exchange. I’ve seen this book pop up on a lot of ‘most influential lists,’ so I’ve been wanting to read it for a while. For me, this book’s main fault is that it had a tough act to follow. Bel Canto was such an impressionable book that its successor paled in comparison. The Remains of the Day is well written, with believable, flawed characters. Mr. Stevens digressed to a wide variety of topics in a way that was both charming and exasperating. Alisha and I are both avid Downton Abbey fans, and we thought the title character was very much like the butler in the show, Mr. Carson. If I were to use one word to describe the book, it would be ‘subtle.’ For our final meeting we watched the 1993 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. For the most part, we thought the movie stayed true to the book, but we agreed that without reading the book first we might have found the film difficult to follow. It’s that subtlety, you see.
Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
Our 17th novel, picked out from the Book Exchange. Wow. What a book. I read the first line and announced that I loved it, already. We typically read about 100 pages per week, so we finished this book in three segments. While I’ve been tempted to go beyond the assigned pages for several of our other novels, this was the first time I seriously considered breaking our ‘no reading ahead’ agreement. It wasn’t even that I wanted to find out what happened, but that I didn’t want to leave the characters behind. I wasn’t even a third of the way through before I declared that it was unquestionably my favorite of the 17 books we’ve read so far. My husband watched in amusement as I paced the apartment in restless desperation, grieving that the book had ended. The characters will stay with me for a long time – indeed I haven’t been able to think of much else. One of the first things I did after finishing was go out and buy an opera CD. Bel Canto is lush, melodic, passionate, breathtaking, gorgeous and inspiring. You can’t help but feel the music soaring within and around you.
Mirror Mirror, by Gregory Maguire
Our 16th novel, picked out from the Book Exchange. It’s such a convenient way to make a decision that I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes our method for choosing all future books. I haven’t read any of Mr. Maguire’s novels, but we’re familiar with his famous book-turned-musical, Wicked, which I very much enjoyed. I wasn’t five pages in before I was already laughing and reading bits out loud to my husband. Mirror Mirror is a re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale, and it was a fun mixture of humor, surrealism, and the truly bizarre. One scene in particular made us raise our eyebrows and make a face. “Whyyyyy?? we moaned. Lauren said that there were so many times when she wanted to argue with the gaping holes in the plot and point out that nothing made any sense, but that she had to make peace with it and just accept the story for what it was: a fairy tale. On the whole, it was a fun book to read as a group, and the more plot holes we found, the more enjoyment we got in discussing them.
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
Our 15th novel, chosen from The Book Exchange along with The Moor’s Last Sigh. It was too difficult to choose just one book, and it did make it easier to have the next book ready to go even though I always enjoy the discussion that accompanies our search for the next novel. The Lacuna brought us to a new country, with a whirlwind of famous faces and events. We watched Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky in their daily lives, while the hybrid American-Mexican protagonist found his place between two very different worlds. The structure of the book was quite unique and very well-written. There were a few sections that lulled for all of us, but we finished with great interest and enthusiasm. I brought in some art books with Frida Kahlo’s work for our last meeting, and it was fascinating to see how Ms. Kingsolver wove Kahlo’s paintings into the heart of the story.
The Moor’s Last Sigh, by Salman Rushdie
Our 14th novel, chosen as we browsed the shelves of The Book Exchange. We weren’t too overwhelmed with choices, as we were restricted to choosing a book with at least three copies, and to my surprise we only made one pass-through in the literature section before making our selection. Our new book takes place in post-imperialist India. At our first meeting, all of us said that this book reminded us of One Hundred Years of Solitude: 1. It’s a family saga with fantastical realism, and 2. everyone’s crazy. Of the two we did prefer this one. Mr. Rushdie has a brilliant knack for word play, and he threw in subtle references from all kinds of literature and culture, including: The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Looney Tunes, Madame Butterfly and The Bible. The book was a whirlwind of exotic characters, dancing language, religious and political strife, family curses, elephants, power struggles, betrayal, love and art.