A lot of my reading and listening this month has come from the library. I’m throwing it into a round-up post because I don’t have a lot to say about any of these books.
Ann Cleeves, Raven Black
First in a Shetland-Islands set mystery series, featuring Jimmy Perez, himself a native of Fair Isle. This was more of a thriller and darker than I expected (not sure why the setting translated in my mind as “cozy”–some sweater association?), with well-developed characters and a twisty plot. I thought Cleeves did an especially good job of exploring what it’s like to live in a small isolated community, from a variety of perspectives–from a teen new to the islands to a long-time resident who has become a pariah. I don’t know if it’s accurate, but it’s plausible. I will definitely read more of this series.
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps, read by Robert Powell
I first read Buchan when I was home with the chicken pox for two weeks in my last year of high school. My mom gave me one of his books because her dad had given it to her when she had mono around the same age. Then I found more on the shelves at our summer cabin (a collection I now have). So I have a long emotional connection with this book. I still enjoy rereading him for the escapist adventure, although this Guardian digested classic read hilariously pokes every hole in the plot. But there’s no getting around the fact that my fave is problematic–racist, anti-Semitic, imperialist–and that’s clearer to me on every reread. I still mostly enjoyed this, but I don’t know how much longer that can be true.
Adite Banerjie, The Indian Tycoon’s Marriage Deal
This is part of Mills & Boon’s Indian Author Collection, and perhaps I semi-consciously chose it to balance the Buchan. Although Mills & Boon is a British export whose guidelines are being adopted/adapted by those Indian writers, so I’m not quite sure how that works…. In any case, I enjoyed this. Banerjie effectively deploys familiar OTT M&B tropes (the wealthy businessman, the dominating father [his], the revenge plot [hers, in a nice switch], the marriage of convenience). This reminded me a bit of Sonali Dev’s Bollywood Affair in its effective blending of category romance tropes with Indian culture. I rarely find contemporary marriage of convenience plots convincing, for instance, but in a culture where arranged marriage, at least in some form, is still common it seemed more plausible that Krish would make his own arrangement as a way of resisting his father. The book isn’t perfect: the pacing seemed off, and in particular there needed to be more time watching Krish and Maya fall in love, rather than just in desire. The few scenes where they got to know and like each other were good, and I enjoyed the way they bonded over a shared professional interest that was also personally important to each of them. Category romance’s wild plots need solid grounding in real emotion to be really successful; this didn’t quite pull it off. It was still an entertaining read, though, and made me want to check out more of these authors.
Claire Harman, Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, read by Wanda McCaddon
Rohan has a great review of this that I largely agree with. This is lively and enjoyable, even the parts that were familiar to me already. Harman is interesting on the different uses to which Austen has been put, from the comforting conservatism readers in the trenches of WWI found in her books (and her nephew’s memoir of her) to the sexed up, romanticized Austen of recent films of her books and life. I thought Harman was sometimes too accepting of the idea of Austen’s work as offering a comforting vision of a “timeless,” idyllic England. Her argument about timelessness is interesting–Harman suggests that because Austen reworked many of her manuscripts over years, even decades, she deliberately unmoored her stories from a specific time period so they wouldn’t date. I don’t entirely buy this (Persuasion, for instance, is carefully dated), and I think it keeps Harman from exploring how we often deliberately unmoor Austen from her own period and its concerns and attitudes in order to popularize her stories today. I liked this, but I wanted it to dig deeper at times. I’d recommend it to romance-readers who enjoy Austen in any form.
Gretchen Reynolds, The First Twenty Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer, read by Karen Solus
I guess I read enough on this topic (including Reynolds in The New York Times) that a lot in this book wasn’t surprising to me: exercise is good for your physical health, your brain, your mood. That made it a great audiobook choice. I was interested enough to keep going, but wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to devote scarce reading time to this book. I did decide to add a few things to my own habits–or try to–after reading this. I have no desire to live to 100, but genetics suggest I have a good chance of living into my 90s, and I’d like those years to be as healthy as possible. I appreciated Reynolds’ focus on health and well-being–and athletic performance, for those who are interested–over weight loss, though she does talk some about that. Sometimes big assumptions are made on the basis of small studies (often of college-aged males), but she does try to focus on things that are relatively settled science. I would have liked more acknowledgement of people who can’t exercise, or not in the standard ways she discusses–for instance, because of a disability–but I guess that’s outside the scope of the book. I wish, too, that she’d pointed out exercise isn’t magic. You can do all the “right” things and still get sick.
As a note: the narrators of both Harman’s and Reynolds’s books did accents for some of the people the authors quote. I understand the desire to mark off voices and words that are not the author’s, but generally the text did that fine. And the accents were a Bad Idea, often very stereotypical (McCaddon doing an Indian blogger and Solus’ assumptions about how someone with an Asian name who works at Harvard or Stanford might speak were cringeworthy). Just don’t do it. If you were reading the book to yourself, you wouldn’t do accents in your head when reading these passages, would you?
Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
This slim volume on Manguso’s diary-keeping is really a meditation on views of time. Parts I found predictable–having a child changes your relationship to time and mortality? Really?–but I also copied several passages into my own journal. She goes from needing to record everything so she won’t forget, so her life won’t be lost when she’s not there to remember, to seeing herself as part of the ongoingness of life, which she imagines as a light passing from one person to the next. The moments of any individual life matter less than the ongoing of life in general–just as we can’t really capture our lives by focusing on a few moments and ignoring the “nothing” around them that is just as much the stuff of life and time. The “End” of the title means, I think, both purpose and the end of Manguso’s obsession with recording everything; she still keeps a diary, but not in the same way.
One of my favorite passages was this one on marriage, which she contrasts with a dating relationship that often has a clear beginning and ending:
What interested me [now she is married] was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.
Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.
I remember as a newly-wed feeling that sense of ongoingness, of time suddenly opening out ahead of me. No one hard moment in my relationship mattered as much, because I felt I had so many more moments in which to do better.