May you live in interesting times. Whose blessing/curse was that? I don’t know, but it’s certainly been on my mind. We’re certainly in the midst of those interesting times. In my home, we’re among the luckiest. We have the privilege of standing to one side, not immediately affected in any important way. Our minor inconveniences pale alongside the ill, the poor, the people of color who have not and do not get a fair shot in our country. We moan, we share relevant posts aimed toward persuading those that see things far differently and surely only bolster the beliefs of those who already share our view of the world.
And we get on with the lives we’ve given. We tend to plumbing issues, replace aging appliances, look for safe diversions with a small and selective gathering of friends, read, exercise, and Zoom, Zoom, Zoom along. Often the living of daily life seems…somehow wrong when others are facing tremendous difficulty. And yet, we must and do live.
For me, it’s summertime, and the living is easy. I start each day with yoga as I’ve been doing every morning for five months today. I water my garden, respond to email and student work, putter at various things, and exercise again. Easy life, right? I know it.
Yet some moments seem daunting, particularly those when I do not want to do yoga or climb on the damn exercise bike. But I’m on a 400+ day streak of using at least 500 active calories per day to close the red circle on my watch, my longest stretch ever. And this is something I can do, a goal I can achieve, something to feel proud of, something that would cause disappointment with myself if I didn’t keep these dual streaks going.
I’ve heard some of my friends say they’ve had trouble reading in these interesting times. I confess I don’t understand such a dilemma as I continue to rely on stories to understand the human condition, to exercise my empathy muscles, and for pure and simple escape. Here are books that have taken up residence in my reading life lately.
In April and May, one of my book clubs did not meet. So they planned to discuss two books in June – My Antonia and The Dutch House. I read both quite quickly, and I confess that I relied on the film with Neil Patrick Harris to fully grasp what I missed in my quick skim of My Antonia. I admired Cather’s writing and the way she described the vast landscapes of the Great Plains. I had more difficulty with the characters in text format though and was glad to see actors bringing them to life in film.
The reverse seemed true for Patchett’s book. For me. I could not visualize the spectacular oddness of the title’s house nor the hold that it had on those who lived there. But the characters – equally odd and quirky – were real enough to touch if not to understand. I confess to getting quite impatient with the brother’s, sister’s, and step-mother’s obsession with the house, but they all seemed more believable than the all-forgiving mother. I can’t say I loved this book.
I don’t often read series, generally preferring a story that’s complete unto itself. But on the recommendation of a reliable reading friend, I took up Sara Donati’s Wilderness Series, and have been complaining that I can get little else done ever since. Part of the early draw was the 1792 setting in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, a mere four hours from my home. Elizabeth Middleton seemed an unlikely protagonist as an upper-class Englishwoman eager to jump into rustic life in a remote mountain village. I nearly set her down, impatient (again) with her missish ways, until she wisely chose to put those behind her in favor of marriage to the wilderness MacDreamy of the day, Nathaniel Bonner. Oh my, such a lusty, arduous life they embarked on. One crisis after another including pages upon pages of biting black flies that would have sent me back to England even if I had to give up Nathaniel…well, I became enthralled. And now I’m on book five of the series and I keep hoping that Elizabeth and Nathaniel and all their various offspring and connections will somehow catch a break. But an abduction to Scotland, conflicts among villagers and the indigenous peoples too many would not accept, and the War of 1812 along the Canadian border and beyond provide more perils than one might expect for frontier life of the times keep the Bonner family in constant travail. And, since it’s never too hard to read about someone else’s troubles, Donati keeps me enthralled enough to ignore a multitude of chores. The many hot sex scenes don’t hurt. Stay tuned till next time to see if books five and six live up to the first four. I’m guessing they will.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel was laced with sex too. A lot of it and most of it careless and lacking in meaning. But sex and theater life of 1930s New York City liberated flighty Vivian Morris to become a far more interesting person than she’d ever been had she followed the more conventional path of Vassar and marriage that her parents had mapped out for her. I couldn’t argue with her description of herself as ‘nineteen and an idiot’ in the opening lines of the book, but by the time she ends, I’d like to know her and hear all her stories. It’s a good read with one of the most unlikely – and chaste – love stories I’ve ever read.
When in need of pure escape, I won’t look further than Meg Cabot. I already liked pink-haired Bree before the hurricane hit. But when she teams up with hot Drew Hartwell to save and tend to pets that people left behind, I wanted Bree as my friend. I liked the capable life-long residents of Little Bridge Island too, devoted to island life despite the perils of the hurricane, aware and prepared, generous to the clueless. I might not gain life-shattering insights from Cabot, but she gives fun diversion every time.
Jessamyn Ward’s stories, on the other hand, are a window into a life that I need to understand and probably never will. There’s a great deal of despair in Sing Unburied Sing, some of which seems self-induced but is surely rooted in generations of horrendous injustice and mistreatment of blacks at the hands of whites. A kid should never have to deal with all that young Jojo does, not his drugged parents or their disregard of him and his toddler sister, not being dragged to the ground and handcuffed for reaching for reassurance of his grandfather’s presence, not being visited by ghostly prison visions too many men of color were subjected to. Having faced all that, will Jojo’s intelligence and courage let him surmount the still overwhelming obstacles to come? I surely hope so, but I can see how many in his position might not believe in such a possibility.
I’m not a fan of Nicholas Sparks. The Notebook struck me as all right but sappy; the film was better simply because of the stars in it. But anything of his I’ve read since left me flat. The Best of Me fit that flat description. The gist of the story felt oh so familiar with pages of backstory before the current tale emerged and what I thought was the tritest of endings. Nope, not a fan. And I wouldn’t have bothered except for it being a book club selection.
I didn’t love my other book club’s choice this month either. I didn’t resent it like I did Sparks, but nor did I love it and was surprised that so many of my friends did. The story was nice. Too nice, I thought, considering the subject which with better writing, I might have found compelling. Early in World War II, a young widow takes in two Jewish children, moves back to her hometown in Northern Ireland where others from the Kindertransport have also settled. The townspeople, Catholic and Protestant, welcome the Jews despite worries that one of them may be a German spy. Awfully nice. This is a series too, and my friends assure me that book two is ‘even better’ than book one. I think I’ll take their word for it.
Now this one was fun – a regency romance (far sexier than one might expect in Victorian England) laced with suffragette and women’s rights issues. It was unlikely, sure, that a rich and powerful Duke would defy his queen and support an act that allowed women to retain their property after marriage. It was even more unlikely that he’d want more than an arrangement with bluestocking Annabelle, one of the first women allowed into Oxford. But who cares about likely when there’s sex and an important cause to root for? Not me. I expected light and fluffy, and got that and a little more. In the end, Annabelle got her college education and her MRS. In a contemporary tale, the feminist in me might balk at such an end, but in her times, the life of ease as a rich Dutchess meant that Annabelle might be able to use that education for good as she never could scrimping by as a maid in her cousin’s household. And of course, the Duke was plenty sexy. There was that.
And that’s a summary of my recent life of ease where there’s plenty of time for books and more. See you again soon when I’ll surely have finished Donati’s Wilderness Series, There, There by Tommy Orange, and who knows what other literary treasures.
In the meantime, please stay well and take every precaution. As Pat Conroy ended his blogs (as reported in A Low-Country Heart which I undoubtedly forgot to report on in my own blog),