I’m happy to report that 2019 has started out with some excellent reads for me.
Instead of ending this post with my one DNF of the month, I’ll start with it. That way, we’ll end on a high note.
Links go to Goodreads. My shortlived experimentation with Amazon Associates is over.
DNF or Did Not Finish
There was one book I started and did not finish this month. An American Quilt: Unfolding A Story of Family and Slavery by Rachel May. This was my nonfiction book club’s read for January. It started out with great promise, but by page 70 I was wavering in my commitment. By page 130 I was contemplating throwing in the towel, which I hate to do when it comes to a book club book. That’s when Nina Revoyr’s novel, A Student of History, arrived in the mail and pushed all other books out of my head (more on that book coming up below). Sadly, An American Quilt just wasn’t well written enough to keep my attention. It is categorized as “creative nonfiction.” I think the author would have been better off writing about this 19th-century quilt and the people she discovered while researching it as a novel. I know, I know. That’s not the book she wrote. So then, as far as nonfiction goes, it was repetitious, overly simplistic in its judgments at times, and some of the connections she made were just too unbelievable for my history-loving brain. Most disappointing was the lack of detail about the actual quilt. All seven members of the book club gave it a thumb’s down. That said, if you think this book might be up your alley, let me know and I’ll mail it to the first person who expresses interest within the next week. This book came out in May 2018 from Pegasus Books. (Source: I bought a copy at R.J. Julia in Madison, CT.)
My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather was my first read of the year. This is the story of Myra Henshawe who gave up a fortune to marry for love and how that turns out for her in the long run. I’ve read it multiple times and this time was for the Willa Cather Book Club which met on the 17th. Everyone enjoyed it, although it wasn’t some reader’s favorite Cather to date because it doesn’t have Cather’s usual exquisite landscape descriptions. What this novel does have is an intense focus on one woman’s personality and life choices. It’s a fascinating read and one that leads to great discussions. It’s also short, which can be a plus if you’re looking for a quick read that packs a punch. (Source: I have at least three copies of this novel. Two hardcover first editions and one yucky old mass market paperback.)
The latest Classics Club Spin challenge was an epic fail for me. Or, rather, I failed epically. The deadline for this went whooshing by today. I had from November until January 31st to read The Odyssey by Homer, Emily Wilson’s exciting new translation (W.W. Norton). I started the book last year as a “slow read” project which I’ve learned is just not my cup of tea. Neither, I fear, is deadline driven reading. (Source: Bought a copy when it first came out in November 2017 at Wesleyan R.J. Julia Bookstore in Middletown, CT.)
I don’t feel bad about this “fail.” I have read The Odyssey before (the Lattimore translation) and Wilson’s translation is engaging. I’ve just decided to let myself bask in the joy of mood reading this year…meaning I won’t force myself to read a book at any particular time but will read what I feel like reading when I feel like reading.
Girls on the Line by Aimie K. Runyan. This was my first audiobook of the year. I started it in December and finished it in the early part of the month. It is 11 hours 45 minutes long and narrated by Kathleen Gati. It’s a story about a young woman during World War I who has been working in her hometown as an operator. She’s a college educated, progressive woman who butts heads with her Victorian era, class conscious mother. Her parents are not thrilled when she volunteers to be tested to work with the Army as an operator. Because she’s excellent at the work and speaks fluent French, she’s soon overseas working near the front line. The novel depicts many of the class divisions and gender expectations before the war and how those changed as a result of the war. The narrator’s performance was not very appealing, but I think she was perhaps trying to replicate the character’s precise way of speaking, which was a must for operators. This book came out in November 2018 from Lake Union Publishing and the audio is by Brilliance Audio. (Source: I purchased it via Audible.)
Mystery / Crime Fiction:
The Lost Man by Jane Harper. This is Harper’s third novel and it is FANTASTIC. I have a review coming out next week on Criminal Element that I’ll link/share when it posts. Harper’s first two novels, The Dry and Force of Nature, are part of a series featuring insurance investigator Aaron Falk. He’s a bit of a loner and the landscape is a significant aspect of Harper’s stories. In The Lost Man, she ratchets up her themes of emotional and social isolation and the landscape is excruciatingly part of the story. Yes, there’s a murder to be solved, but this is an excellent psychological and family drama. Coming to bookstores in the U.S. on February 5, 2019, from Knopf. (Source: I requested a review via Criminal Element.)
The River by Peter Heller. There’s a bit of a spoiler alert in the sentences that follow. This is a gripping wilderness adventure story about two college friends who take a canoe trip in the Canadian boundary waters. They are expert outdoorsmen, but things don’t go as planned. I can’t recall reading an adventure novel that also had so much emotional truth, depth, and openness. If you like outdoor/adventure novels or stories about friendship, definitely add this one to your list. Yes, there are references to the Big Two river stories: Deliverance and Heart of Darkness. Can any trip down a river not give a nod to either of those tales? No, and for good reason. (Note: read both if you haven’t already.) The River is intense and, yes **SPOILER ALERT** there is the threat of rape, but it doesn’t happen. Coming out March 5, 2019, from Knopf. (Source: I requested a review copy via NetGalley.)
A Student of History by Nina Revoyr. This was another fantastic read. On the afternoon this novel arrived on my doorstep, I was planning on finishing my book club book for our meeting later that evening (An American Quilt, from above). I opened the package and read the first page out of curiosity and then…kept reading. I never did finish my book club book but I did finish this novel the next day. It’s about a graduate student in the history department at USC who is struggling to write his dissertation. His girlfriend recently left him and he’s lying to his advisor to maintain his funding to pay the rent. When a friend recommends him for a position she’s leaving, which is transcribing the journals of an old lady who happens to be the granddaughter of one of the movers and shakers of early Los Angeles, he jumps at the chance for easy money. This elderly lady is white and of the 1% and our Nick Carraway-like hero is from a working-class background with a Japanese father and Polish mother. He gets swept up into the money and glamour of his new boss’s life and becomes enchanted by Fiona, a younger woman of the ultra-rich and connected set. He’s in way over his head, but like Nick in The Great Gatsby, you root for him nonetheless. Coming out on March 5, 2019, from Akashic Books. (Source: I requested a review copy from the publisher.)
I feel like the Reading Gods & Goddesses were smiling upon me this month. Even the DNF lead to an enthusiastic book club discussion.
How was your reading experience in January? Do tell!
Glad you had such a great reading month! I still didn’t get to My Mortal Enemy, but I intend to soon. (It’s good that it’s short, I have a short attention span lately.) I got on a roll with another favorite author instead, Jane Gardam – I reread three of her novels and wrote about one of them on the blog. So I found that a good way to spend the month as well.
Great month of reading Chris. Jealous you have read Peter Heller already. 2019 started off with CIRCE by Madeline Miller for me – loved it. Still going strong into Feb.