Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Stack ~ August 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune, July.


I don't know what was going on with August, but apparently it involved reading...a lot.

Nonfiction
I've been reading a lot of essay collections, gathering material for a project I'm working on. Here are August's selections (from the bottom of the stack):

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer. These short essays were written, I believe, as a column for the New York Times in the late 70s. I haven't read Kingston's fiction, but there's something wonderful that happens when a novelist writes from real life. These brief meditations on everyday things, like buying a house, washing dishes, watching her son surf, are wry and full of heart with not a word wasted.

Camille Dungy, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Do you ever read an author's work and wish she was your best friend? Or at least that you could sit down over tea and talk about all the things? That's how I felt while reading Dungy's smart, sprawling, insightful essays. I especially appreciated one that takes place on a visit to Maine, in which Dungy recounts this state's outsized role in the Civil War--Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Brunswick when she penned Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joshua Chamberlain, also of Brunswick, accepted the the Confederate Army's surrender in 1865, Maine sent more soldiers to the war, on a per-capita basis, than any other state in the Union, and Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first VP, came from Maine. This makes the dumbasses who fly Confederate (traitor) flags around here not only ignorant of geography, but also of history. No surprise.

Annick Smith, Homestead. A lovely collection that covers the years Smith and her husband homesteaded in Montana with their four sons, her husband's early death, the history of ranchers, mountain men, and other Montana characters, fly fishing, and conservation.

Janisse Ray, Wild Card Quilt. A memoir-in-essays about the author moving back to her family home in southern Georgia as an adult and trying to build community there. I find where I live (1/3 old hippies, 1/3 new hippies, 1/3 rednecks) stiflingly conservative, so I can't imagine trying to navigate life in the Deep South, but Ray manages to do it, digging deep to find like-minded people and building coalitions to save the local school, clean up the local river, and preserve a parcel of old growth long-leaf pine. Even when her son moves away to be with his dad in Vermont (where there are "fewer rules" compared to this place where there's "not enough imagination," according to the  insightful nine-year-old), Ray stays and struggles to reclaim her family property and grandmother's home from decay and find people who share her values. 

Jill Sisson Quinn, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan. In the essays in this collection, Quinn braids together the threads of her childhood in rural Maryland, her current home in Wisconsin, and different aspects of the natural world or family history, always questing to find her bearings in her new home's landscape of glacial-flattened plains when her internal compass is calibrated to stream-carved valleys of her childhood.

Fiction
I received a big load of mysteries in the mail at the beginning of the month and pretty much devoured them.

Jenn McKinlay, Better Late than Never. I did not like this book. I know writing a book is hard and I should only say nice things, but this author has published more than 20 books and is a NYT bestseller, so I think she can take it. She spends a lot of time moving her characters around the page (she picked up her purse, she walked across the room, she turned the doorknob, she opened the door, she left the room). Speaking of characters, there were way too many to keep track of. And, I suppose this is a pitfall of series, there was a lot of ink spilled in service of building the main character's relationships with other characters and moving forward various peoples' life stories irrespective of the plot. Also, the inciting incident was not interesting and the characters' reactions to it disproportionate. I didn't like it. Or rather, it was not to my taste.

Julia Buckley, A Dark and Stormy Murder. This one was much better--still frivolous, but more entertaining. There was an actual dead body at the start, which helps. And though it was a set-up for a series, it didn't feel clunky in that regard. The premise is totally unbelievable, but I was willing to let that slide and go along for the ride. Also, the author hat-tips Mary Stewart, which automatically endeared her to me.

Robin Page, Death at Daisy's Folly. This is another by the author(s) I've written about before herehere and here, which include the Beatrix Potter mysteries (though Potter does not appear in this one). Like the others, it's a cozy who-done-it of the old style, taking place around the turn of the 20th century and involving a few real-life characters of the time (including the king, before he was king, and the eponymous Daisy). The suspense is mild, the thrill minimal, but the writing is good and the story compelling, and the main character charming, so it was a pleasant book to escape into.

Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight. The classic Mary Stewart setup: an exotic location, a heroine who is not a complete ingenue but who is at loose ends, a couple of potential love interests a dark, foreboding mystery, and a plethora of suspects. This one involves a lot more dead bodies than the usual Mary Stewart, and is more of the locked-room type setup than usual. It takes place at a remote hotel in the Scottish Highlands (having recently read The Living Mountain, I felt like I'd been there before myself), and is filled with Stewart's usual flair for the descriptive details of a landscape. My only complaint, which applies  to at least two of my literary heroes (this is going to be a spoiler, but since the book is ~65 years old, I don't feel bad), is the trope of the surly, almost mean, verging on abusive, character turning out to be the hero. Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters uses this trope a LOT. Let's just say it hasn't aged well. 

What have you been reading?

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