Maine Reading Round-Up.

Like I wrote on Monday, I got myself through almost eight books last week.  It was great — slinking around the boathouse, my quilt trailing behind me like a patchwork wedding dress, a book held directly in front of my face.  I purposely packed a mix of guilty pleasures and “literature,” though I’ll happily confess it was an uneven ratio.

The Time Traveler's WifeI started the week off with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; the novel is the story of Henry, a librarian who has unwillingly and unpredictably traveled through time since he was a small boy, and his wife Clare, an artist who has known Henry since he materialized in front of her when she was six.  Interestingly, the Henry Clare first meets is in his forties; when the pair meet as adults living in Chicago, he has no idea who she is, though Clare has fourteen years of his friendship and love under her belt.  Niffenegger alternates between both characters’ points of view, helpfully listing the date in the present, Clare and Henry’s ages during that time, the date in the past that Henry travels to, and the couple’s respective ages then.  You see, Henry always finds himself back at the important moments in his life; almost all of those moments revolve around Clare.

It’s an enviably fascinating story that Niffenegger creates, but I kept on throwing the book down and complaining to Keith that the level of writing didn’t come close to matching the elegance of the concept.  Clare and Henry’s first-person narratives are so similar that I found it difficult to tell them apart, and the novel’s dialogue was frustratingly forced.  At one point, for example, characters actually lecture on The Music You Must Listen To In Order To Appreciate Punk, listing pivotal bands from the 1970s; it is incredibly preachy and awkward to read, and feels as though it is lifted directly off of the back of a compilation album.  Flaws notwithstanding, I kept turning pages, eager to learn what was going to happen next — something every writer I know dreams of  in their readers.  In that sense, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a complete success.

A month or so ago, I had read a short article in the New York Times about author Maeve Binchy‘s cottage on the Irish coast.  When I was in high school, I went through a Binchy phase, checking copies of her novels out of the library and devouring them.  It’s been years since then, and I hadn’t given Ms. Binchy a second thought until the Times piece, which reminded me of how much I used to enjoy reading about life in 1940s, 50s and 60s Britain.  So back to the library I went, picking up Silver Wedding, Echoes and Light A Penny Candle; I read them back-to-back.  Their plots are similar, but only in the sense that each focuses on Irish families.

In Silver Wedding, Binchy allocates a chapter per character; she uses this space to tell their sides of the story, which circles around a couple’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.  Regardless of whether the tale is told by their wayward daughter, the chic maid of honor, the priest who officiated the cermony or the couple themselves, Binchy gives her each of her characters a richly-colored history.

EchoesEchoes is set in the fictional seaside town of Castlebay, where Clare O’Brien  — yes, that’s two Clares in one week — struggles to make her family understand why she wants a better life than one resigned to running a shabby grocery store.  Her only way out is via studying and scholarships, so after years of hard work and the aid of her progressive schoolteacher, Clare escapes to university in Dublin.  There she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, and soon falls in love.  Trouble is, he’s the son of the town doctor, and his snobbish mother has never liked Clare; she likes our heroine even less  once she gets pregnant.  This being both Ireland and the 1950s, Clare and the doctor’s son marry, which leads to even more troubles, the least of which is post-partum depression and infedility.

Unlike Silver Wedding and Echoes, I had read Light a Penny Candle years and years ago; still, I found myself surprised and engrossed in its pages.  It’s World War II; to avoid the trauma of bombings and shortages, Londoner Violet White sends her adolescent daughter to live in the Irish countryside with Maureen O’Connor, an old friend.  Soon Elizabeth White and Aisling O’Connor become the best of friends, and their lives forever bound to both London and the village of Kilgarret.  As they grow older, they together face the drama of boyfriends, sex, and family.

Now that I think about it, Binchy’s bibliography has got to be without a doubt my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but let’s get one thing clear: her books are not even remotely trashy, no matter how scandalous I’ve made their plots sound.  They are written far too earnestly for that.

The Wednesday WarsI’ve got the weakest weak spot for adolescent fiction.  My love of Lois Lowry is well-documented, and I think I’ll be reading books geared towards young adults well into my sixties, especially if writers like Gary D. Schmidt keep on producing work like The Wednesday Wars.

The alliteratively-named Holling Hoodhood dreads Wednesday afternoons; it’s when the rest of his seventh-grade classmates get excused from school early to attend either CCD or Hebrew lessons.  The only lonely Presbyterian in his grade, Holling spends Wednesdays alone with his teacher, Mrs. Baker, who he is convinced hates him.  Indeed, Mrs. Baker is an imposing enough figure, and after she tries fruitlessly to pawn Holling off to a colleague, she resigns to actually, well, teaching.  The path Holling and Mrs. Baker take together isn’t a conventional one — sure, it’s paved with Shakespeare, but it’s also bricked with rats, surfaced with the Yankees (Holling lives on Long Island), and cobblestoned with the Vietnam War (it is the 60s).

Schmidt is clever with his narrative, confidently writing Holling’s thoughts and observations in a way which is both poignant and funny.  And I mean funny — there were times where I sat alone outside on the swing overlooking the cove, laughing my head off, much to the gulls’ confusion.

When it comes to books, I don’t discriminate between genres; I’ll read pretty much anything.  It doesn’t even need to be particularly well-written, though clearly that is ideal.  Sometimes, a compelling story holds more weight than the writing…  not that I’m saying quality of writing isn’t important.  It’s just that there are times where a plot can be so gripping that graceful syntax is secondary.

The Name of the WindThis isn’t the case at all in Patrick Rothfuss‘s The Name of the Wind, which is book one of his Kingkiller Chronicle series.  The story — that of a legendary musician/magician living under an assumed identity, and the past that has caused him to go into hiding — defines the phrase “page-turner.”  At one point during the week, I stayed up until well past three in the morning as too many exciting things were happening in the book, all preventing me from putting it down.

Rothfuss structures the novel interestingly.  The protagonist, Kvothe, is making a living as the proprietor of a backwoods inn; a traveling scribe realizes who the innkeeper is and convinces Kvothe to tell his story.  Kvothe complies, and so the book’s chapters then swing in and out of the present and past.  Obviously, Rothfuss isn’t the first author to pivot a plot through time, but what he does so cleanly is steadily build tension in both Kvothe’s first-person retelling of his own history and the third-person narratives that anchor that which takes place in the present — which is why you too will have a hard time taking a break from it.  Honestly, I can’t heap enough praise on this book, despite its terrible cover art.  If I can’t convince you to give it a whirl, maybe Publishers Weekly will; it listed The Name of the Wind as one of the best books of 2007.

Unaccustomed EarthMy friend Ben turned me on to Jhumpa Lahiri, though it took me a not inconsiderable amount of time to finally read The Namesake.  I still, embarassingly, cannot say the same of Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology of stories, Interpreter of Maladies (though I will say vehemently that I put in a request at my library ages ago).  I did, however, get my hands on Lahiri’s most recently published book, Unaccustomed Earth.

Like Interpreter of Maladies before it, Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of stories; there are eight of them here, the final three of which are intertwined.  Is that trio the most memorable of the bunch because of it, because of their connection?  My answer to that, even if Lahiri gives the reader more pages to better understand the cardinal characters, is not necessarily.  Equally noteworthy is the smitten grad student infatuated with his new housemate, the daughter trying to reconnect with her widowed father, and the young girl remembering her parents’ circle of friends.

What’s fascinating to me is that while Lahiri tackles similar topics in her works — assimilation, Westernization, the push/pull of tradition — she does so in such a way that instead of seeming redundant, she gives her themes even more depth by expounding upon them.  It is as if Lahiri is gently awakening the reader by tenderly opening the curtains of each window in a house, until the entire building is flooded with a brilliant light.

So there you have it, the seven books I completed while in Maine.  The eighth, which I started in the boathouse’s bed and finished on the bus in Cambridge, was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  It’s widely and rightly considered to be a modern classic, as Robinson’s deft prose tells the tale of the elderly Reverend John Ames as he painstakingly begins a journal of his life to pass down to his young son.  Robinson fully immerses the reader in Ames’s thoughts, slowing the pace to reflect that of an aging, rural preacher.  Gilead isn’t a fast read, but each page — each word — is worth your time.