Thursday, August 25, 2011

Books and Things

Life has been a bit busy, so I haven't posted for a while now. The garden seems to be starting to recover from the massive Midwestern heat wave, but it's still touch and go depending on how much rain we get. In fact, we probably won't know until next year how much damage was suffered by major shrubs and perennials because they can look okay after a heat wave but be weakened and then killed if the winter is tough. Not very many spectacular blooms right now to lure me outside in the heat with the camera ...

We have gone to a few jazz gigs lately, but we are trying to save money on cover charges and have had some health issues to deal with. However, we are looking very forward to hearing Desafinado again this coming Saturday at the Iron Post. I will try to remember to bring the camera and to post soon afterward.

My dear husband David is turning seventy years old a week from tomorrow and I'm planning a little getogether with some cake and friends to mark the occasion.

Things are moving along with Beaded Jewelry by Susan. We've have two Etsy sales lately ... hurray! Also, in September and October there will be some fundraising events at Provena Hospital with earrings from my collection, especially a lot of charming pink ones to support the Women's Center for breast cancer. In addition, Sara (of LetUsGetDirtyForYou) and her mom are selling my jewelry at the Urbana farmer's market on Saturdays, and Sara has just designed some great new business cards, signs, and banners to promote sales.

So much for a general update. Now ... about books. I can't say enough good things about a terrific novel I just finished called Next to Love by Ellen Feldman. I hadn't read her before, but have already requested an earlier novel of hers from the library. Next to Love is set in the period from 1944 to 1964 in a small town in Massachusetts. Babe, Millie, and Grace have been friends since kindergarten, all marry boys going off to fight in World War II, and continue close relationships with each other throughout their adult lives, despite various complications. This is my mother's generation of women, who grew up in hard times, lived through the fear and excitement of the war years, dealt with the horrifying consequences of the war itself and the amazing changes that the postwar years brought, and helped create the society that is most familiar to my generation of early baby boomers. Each character (and the town as a whole) serves as a window into the events and social changes of the era. The prose is handled beautifully, the narrative is clear and compelling, and the emotions are rendered heartbreakingly vivid. There is a lot of fiction coming out these days about World War II and the postwar years ... now that this generation is disappearing ... and it's a subject that is fascinating to me. Despite being a work of fiction, this novel fills in many day-to-day details of the life of the time and is faithful to historical events as well. Highly recommended.

Also recently read 22 Britannica Road by Amanda Hodgkinson. This is a story set in England about Polish immigrants after the war, with flashbacks to the characters' wartime experiences. Here is another author I had not read before and, again, an excellent depiction of a complicated and interesting period of history. These literary fiction novels about the era aren't just historical fiction per se because they touch on universal themes that transcend the era as well.

I didn't get a review out on it, but don't miss Ann Patchett's newest masterpiece, State of Wonder. It is totally compelling, thought-provoking, and profound ... as was her earlier Bel Canto. This one is set in the depths of the Amazon jungle and touches on many important contemporary themes, medical issues, and ethical questions. It's also exciting!

Of course, I never mention the novels I start and don't finish. I used to feel obligated to read a book all the way through even if I wasn't really engaged or impressed. Now that I'm "older," I no longer feel the same obligation. There are just too many great novels still waiting for me (I hope) to waste time on one that just isn't for me (which doesn't mean someone else might not enjoy it, of course).

However, I have to mention a specific disappointment--Robert Olen Butler's latest novel, A Small Hotel. I was introduced to him in his Pulitzer-prize-winning short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Then I went on to read all his novels written before that, mainly set in Vietnam during the war. The writing was superb and the content was profound. Then he stopped writing about Vietnam and tackled other contexts. That's fine ... a writer needs to write new novels rather than reworking the same material too much. But unfortunately the newer works were more and more superficial and lacking distinction. Finally, this recent novel is really a total comedown in my humble opinion. It is shallow and melodramatic. The characters are two-dimensional and completely self-absorbed. The descriptions of New Orleans, Mardi Gras, and the two hotels (which are NOT small at all) are so much on the surface as to be almost gratuitous. Well, enough said. Not all of my favorite authors please me all the time, but this was too bad and I will be cautious about him in the future.

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