Summer Reading Wrap-Up: Mitchell, Genova, Paretsky, Nordstrom

September 12 is the last day for counting books towards our goals for the public library’s summer reading club. Maddie and I were aiming for 25 each. I’m not sure I’m going to get four more titles in by Sunday, what with classes starting and all. There’s hope: I’m currently reading the latest (and I guess the last, since it’s posthumous) in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and Parker’s books have very few words in them. I’m also about half way through a couple of others, including Reginald Hill’s latest and Isabel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet. Actually, I suppose there’s no reason I can’t count More All-of-a-Kind Family, which I reread a couple of days ago–so if I finish all three I have already started, I’ll make my quota!

I haven’t written detailed posts about all the books on my summer tally, so I thought I’d at least put a few thoughts together about some of them, if for no other reason than that I find I remember books much more clearly once I’ve written about them (plus, of course, if my memory dims, I can amble through the archives and perk it up).

One book that I read with interest and, for a while, some real enthusiasm is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But as I mentioned before, I hit first ‘An Orison of Somni-451’ and then ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ and my reading never recovered its momentum. Mitchell is clearly a brilliant and virtuosic writer, but after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them. The multiple genre trick is a risky one, I think, because after all, not all of us enjoy quite such a range of genres or styles, and this book rather insistently refuses to care about that. That kind of challenge to our reading habits may be good, and in fact for the first third of the book I found it invigorating to be wrenched out of one story into another, to adapt to the new style, and to puzzle over how the parts would ultimately interrelate. I’m fairly sure they do, but by the time I was finishing the book up, I wasn’t excited enough about it to figure out how or why.

I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice on a friend’s recommendation (you know who you are, you lurker!) and while I can’t really say I enjoyed it, since it was extremely depressing, it was certainly moving and probably important, too. I thought it read a bit too much like a case study, or a novelized reenactment, especially through the first few chapters in which a number of fairly technical issues of symptoms, diagnoses, and medications need to be covered. But as Alice’s disease progresses, the tactic of recounting the story from her point of view became increasingly effective and is handled with wise understatement. After I finished it, I was pretty anxious every time I couldn’t remember something! My excuses, after all, are always the same as Alice’s: I’m busy, I’m distracted, I’m juggling multiple demands and tasks most of the time…and I’m too young to be demented–aren’t I?

I read Sara Paretsky’s next-t0-latest V. I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, with interest (her most recent, Body Work, has just come out). I liked it quite a bit. A while back I wrote a bit pettishly that I wasn’t sure my interest in this series could be sustained any further, mostly because I found it too predictable that the villains are always corporate leaders or businessmen, or corrupt politicians. Though this continues to be the case, within variations, in Hardball, I’m inclined more favorably to Paretsky’s overtly political worldview these days. One factor is just the sheer amount of time I’ve spent on my mystery and detective fiction courses, and in prowling around looking for interesting books to assign for them. I appreciate that Paretsky has a worldview, that she uses her novels quite deliberately to explore it: an awful lot of mystery novels are formulaic but without the compensations of actual ideas. I hadn’t taught Paretsky in my lecture course until this past year, when I substituted Indemnity Only for Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as an example of feminist revisions of hardboiled conventions. (In my ‘Women and Detective Fiction” seminar, I’ve always done both, which allows from some productive comparative discussions.) Grafton’s book is much wittier, but Indemnity Only seems to me to have aged better in some important ways. For instance, Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Millhone, embodies a certain kind of liberal feminism that Grafton called ‘playing hardball with the boys’ (hey–I just noticed the correlation with Paretsky’s title–but I don’t think there’s any deliberate interplay there). Kinsey is strongly male-identified; she refuses to dress up (her indestructible black dress that she keeps balled up in the back of her car for emergency girlishness is a running gag in the series); she takes pleasure in pumping her own gas; and so on. I like her tomboyish character, her refusal to play nice–and in ‘A’ is for Alibi and many of the other books in the series, I think Grafton does a lot of smart things with Kinsey’s struggles to maintain her autonomy, especially in romantic relationships. But the books are only implicitly political, and then only at the individual level: Kinsey won’t put up with shit, from men or anyone else. Paretsky’s idea of feminism seems to me a more complicated one; she pays a lot of attention to systemic problems, connecting women’s efforts to achieve or use power to social structures that also disadvantage people because of race or class. She puts a lot of emphasis on women’s relationships as potentially empowering allegiances, but she also seems more positive about the potential for equity in romance, though she doesn’t pretend it comes easily. The crimes of her novels are always intricately related to this nexus of issues: in Indemnity Only, for instance, the central mystery turns on fraud and corruption among powerful men, but the climactic confrontation at the end is nearly fatal for Vic and her love interest, Ralph, because he has not been able to take her work seriously. Though Vic is very tough, she is also very feminine in some conventional ways: we had some lively discussions in my class in the winter about her emphasis on what she’s wearing, the overt pleasure she takes in nice clothes and in looking good, and about the relationship of this interest (which Kinsey Millhone vehemently rejects) to different ideas about feminism and femininity. I was a little peeved to learn V. I.’s cup size in Hardball: it figures (so to speak) that she’d be a 36C. So as far as that goes, she still conforms to certain standards of female beauty–but that’s OK, some of my best friends are curvy.

The last book I wanted to say something about is Dear Genius: The Collected Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. But you know what? It was such a great read, and has so many delicious quotable bits, that I think I’ll put that off for its own post (also, I really should be prepping class notes by now…).

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