Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
(Crown, 2014, 400 pages)
Mabel Dagmar has never really felt like she belonged some place. After a shaky childhood, she decided to move across the country and go to college on the east coast. For most of her first year, her roommate Ev Winslow ignored her and continued to smoke in their room despite Mabel’s asthma protests. But after a family tragedy strikes the Winslow family, Ev start to befriend Mabel and invite her to stay at her family’s estate for the summer. As happy as Mabel is to finally feel as if she belongs somewhere, she is immediately pulled into the Winslow mystery and discovers family secrets that have kept the Winslow name intact. The more Mabel discovers, the less safe she feels around the family she so badly wanted to be a part of.
This is another family drama that was a little dark and sickly. The Winslows do not give off a good vibe when they start to arrive that summer and things only get creepy the longer Mabel stays. I liked Mabel’s character but it was sad to see just how much she’ll put up with so she can feel like part of a family, even a crazy family like this one. There were multiple times I just wanted to tell her to get out of there and to forget the whole thing. This was a good read to have in-between some stranger titles and I enjoyed Mabel’s character, even if I didn’t agree with all her decisions.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
(FSG Originals, 2014, 195 pages)
Eleven expeditions have been sent into Area X and none have been deemed a success. The twelfth expedition is about to begin and is made up of four females; the surveyor, the psychologist, the anthropologist, and the biologist. Their task is to explore Area X and to record all of their findings, sensible or not, into their given journals. They’re told to not use each other’s names and to try to keep personal feelings out of the mission. As soon as the groups enters Area X, they find unexplainable phenomena and quickly realize why the other missions failed so easily.
I had a hard time writing a summary to this read because I’m not exactly sure what happened. Things got weird really fast and if you weren’t paying attention then you could easily get lost. The biologist was the narrator and because of events that happened right at the beginning, she was a pretty unreliable narrator. I can’t be sure of really anything she said unless I read the remaining books in the series to compare the other narrator’s viewpoints. This was a quick read but I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series.
The Dinner by Herman Koch
(Hogarth, 2013, 304 pages)
Two brothers and their wives are set to have dinner in an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam. One brother is a prominent politician who is set to become the new prime minister. The other brother has had some setbacks in his life but is fairly certain he has a happy family. The group has gotten together to discuss their children, specifically their fifteen year old sons. As each new course goes by, the couples are slowly running out of ways to stall the inevitable conversation. Although it’s unclear how much each person knows about the topic up for discussion, the building tension between the parents is undeniable.
I definitely didn’t expect this book to be as dark as it was. All the characters in the book were unlikeable but it was how they shifted in my perspective that impressed me. At the beginning, I clearly liked one couple more than the other. But as the story went on, Koch slowly twisted the revelations on each character and the couple I didn’t like in the beginning became the lesser of two evils. It was an interesting read with a very dark ending that strangely left me ready to read more of his work.
You can also check out reviews of this title from Theresa and Julia.
Required Writing by Philip Larkin
(Faber and Faber, 1983, 315 pages)
This is a collection of occasional writings and interviews from the English poet Philip Larkin. It consists of autobiographical pieces, literary criticism, essays on poetry, professional addresses, and more. Much of Larkin’s poetry has a gloomy and resigned quality to it, and these brief essays and interviews, while eloquent and often very funny, have a similar glum practicality to them. As the name of the collection indicates, most were written to fulfill certain professional requirements or requests. Larkin was a writer who wrote poems for the love of language, form, and feeling, but never felt pressure to churn out literary products for the sake of being considered prodigious.
Larkin continually denigrates the idea of talking too much about poetry or coming up with theories about poetry. In his famous Paris Review interview, he claims that explaining how you write poetry is “like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife” (71). And yet, he goes on to make insightful comments about the nature of poetry: “The poet is really engaged in recreating the familiar, he’s not committed to introducing the unfamiliar.” Larkin’s attitude toward poetry is devoid of pretension. He explains in “The Pleasure Principle,” that the poet must continually keep in mind that poetry should be written for the pleasure of the reader, not for the self-aggrandizement of the academic/poet. This sort of attitude is what has made Larkin’s poetry so popular, and it is nice to read commentary on poetry that is so frank and accessible.
Each of these essays are enjoyable in their own way, but it is in the reviews of jazz albums that Larkin seems to enjoy himself the most. Larkin was passionate about jazz, and these reviews are written without any sense of “requirement” about them. I particularly loved Larkin’s reflections on finding time to write even while pursuing an entirely different career (he was a university librarian). It is interesting to see how his “day job” not only informed his poetry (he wrote some wonderful poems about work), but also how his practical orientation toward work also carried over into his attitudes about poetry. These essays are very fun, and the Paris Review interview in particular may be the best literary interview you will ever read – both because of its insight and its humor.
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
(Random House, 2006, 304 pages)
Novels that portray devoutly religious people and religious faith in a way that is both sympathetic and realistic are not terribly common. It seems that many authors have a hard time understanding, or at least articulating, how religious belief and a clear-eyed view of the difficulties and ugliness of life can coexist. Strout seems to understand, and she articulates this understanding beautifully. In part, this is because there is nothing sentimental about her depiction of what faith really is. She accurately and humorously portrays the foibles, pettiness, and downright cruelty of religious people without ever hinting that faith can be reduced to these shortcomings.
Strout tells the story of a young Congregational minister in 1950s Maine. His wife died one year ago, and Tyler Caskey is struggling to cope with his responsibilities to his congregation and to his two young daughters. Tyler had previously experienced his faith as a continuous sense of the presence of God. In the wake of his wife’s premature death, this immediacy is gone. As his sorrow deepens and he grows more and more distracted, his congregation slowly begins to lose patience with their formerly caring and attentive pastor. Tyler’s descent into despair somehow unveils the quiet despairs of his parishioners.
There is nothing terribly dramatic about any one of the plot points in this novel, yet Strout is able to imbue the rather mundane elements of life and relationships in a small town with a sense of drama and urgency. She believably and sympathetically portrays both the attractions and the disappointments of pastoral ministry. Tyler is continually meditating on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it seems that Strout’s reflection on such a sincere and profound theologian has manifested itself in a character whose faith is complex enough to make his a compelling character.
You can also read Julia’s review of this title.
In Plain Sight by Lorena McCourtney
(Fleming H. Revell, 2005, 311 pages)
In Plain Sight by Lorena McCourtney is the second book in the Ivy Malone Mystery series. I recently reviewed the first book in the series, Invisible, and decided to read this book to tie up the loose ends left over from the first book. In this book, Ivy Malone has gone into hiding from the family in the first book who is out for revenge. However, Ivy is unable to keep a low profile. Ivy discovers the dead body of wealthy divorcee, Leslie Marcone, who had recently hired and fired Ivy from a housekeeping job.
Ivy’s mutant curiosity gene kicks in as she tries to discover Leslie’s murderer. There are plenty of suspects to go around. There is Leslie’s ex-husband, her ex-business partners, her neighbor, and her lover to name a few. In Plain Sight also has its quirky characters which include a 260 pound dog named Baby.
Like Invisible, In Plain Sight is a light, Christian fiction novel. It appears that there are only four novels in the Ivy Malone Mystery series. I’m not sure that there will be any more since the last one was written in 2006. If you like humorous murder mysteries, you might want to add In Plain Sight to your reading list.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
(Orion, 2009, 352 pages)
This is Where I Leave You is the first title up for discussion in the Between the Covers book club. The film version is about to be released in theaters and I’m excited to see it – I definitely think the book will translate well to the big screen, plus there’s a pretty impressive cast. Tropper’s novel revolves around the Foxman family after they’re brought together to sit shiva when the family patriarch dies. The majority of the novel revolves around Judd Foxman as he tries to figure out where his life is going. His father has died, he and his family don’t really work well when forced to spend time together, and he just caught his wife cheating on him with his boss.
The book is set over a period of seven days (the time frame for sitting shiva) and we learn a lot about the Foxman family as a whole. Parts of this book had me laughing to myself and I was always eager to pick it up and continue from where I’d left off. I can’t wait for the book club discussion. 🙂