The recommendation to read Laurie Frankel’s This Is How It Always Is came with a caveat: don’t ready anything about the book, not even the description on the book jacket, just start reading it. So, this is precisely how I proceeded, and having since gone back and read all these previously banned descriptions, I’m glad I avoided them. I don’t think they gave too much away, but I think they framed the story in a way that I wouldn’t have wanted to accept going into it. This post will more than likely contain spoilers, so if you too want to go into the book with a completely clean slate, now is the time to jump off this post, read the book, and pop back in to see how you felt about the book and its imposed framework.
Eden Collinsworth’s book, Behaving Badly, somehow made it onto my radar, i.e. my library holds list, and while I’m hard pressed to recall the prompt to read it, I enjoyed its company. Behaving Badly felt like a philosophical tour of, or perhaps a decent introduction to, morality as it applies to relationships, money, business, sex, and technology. While Collinsworth leaves her initial question regarding how we determine morals in the context of morally questionable politicians, corporations, etc. largely open ended, I appreciated that the book remained curious and exploratory. It was neither too heavy, nor too light, and if nothing else the referenced materials listed in the back of the book provide an excellent springboard for future, more substantive, reading.
As someone whose professional life exists in the almighty digital world, reading Doree Shafrir’s Startup felt a little too familiar. While I’ve never worked for a bona fide startup, I have dabbled in the agency world where terms like “gamification” and “market disrupter” were part of the daily buzz. If a company has to heavily promote a certain culture of free food, alcoholic beverages, and a jeans-inclusive dress code, I’ve learned to run the other way. There’s a reason these places have to promote their perks so heavily. When you get a call at 10 o’clock on a Friday night from a client with outrageous expectations, you will happily trade the jeans and the beer for, say, boundaries and a personal life.
In preparation for reading Sarah Shoemaker’s Mr. Rochester, I did my due diligence and put in the time to reread Jane Eyre. I honestly wasn’t expecting to get as much out of it as I did, and as someone who has been reluctant to reread in the past in the name of an ever growing wishlist of new things to explore, I severely underestimated the wealth to be found in studying a familiar story. I was more capable of picking up on nuances and subtleties that would have otherwise been lost on me if I hadn’t had a loose recollection of where the story was going, and I felt like I heard Bronte’s voice more strongly than I did in my first pass. I also realized how little of the actual story I did, in fact, remember, so it wasn’t nearly as repetitive as I had anticipated.
After taking a week to reread Jane Eyre, I immediately dove into Sarah Shoemaker’s soon to be released (May 9th) book Mr. Rochester. As the title implies, Mr. Rochester aims to give voice to Jane’s difficult, and notably ugly, love interest, Edward Rochester. Mr. Rochester takes us through Edward’s childhood, from boarding school as a young boy, through an apprenticeship with a mill owner, to the West Indies, and then back to England and through the time period we are already familiar with in Jane Eyre. This historical span felt quite ambitious, and as I had just read Jane Eyre itself, the most pressing question seemed to be how well Mr. Rochester succeeded in creating a viable voice for Mr. Rochester, and furthermore how Shoemaker’s imagined history enhanced Mr. Rochester’s story.
Every once in a blue moon you stumble upon a book that is so absorbing, so rich, you feel its aftershock long after you put it down. Life feels a little deeper, a little more illuminated, and your bar for exceptional writing is raised a few notches. Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles was one of these experiences for me. The Explosion Chronicles is a satirical history of Explosion, a burgeoning municipality, written by a not so fictional chronicler named Yan Lianke, who documents Explosion’s growth from village to metropolis. The story is both big and small; Explosion’s history is sweeping, but the novel itself is full of fascinating moments, illustrated by a force that feels mythical in its ability to pull in the natural world. Flowers bloom or die in response to events, weather is subject to persuasion. Explosion’s rapid growth lies at the hands of the Kong family, namely its second oldest son, Kong Mingliang, who will stop at nothing to see Explosion rise to its urban peak.
Subtitle: An Introduction to Talking Cats and Moody Plants
Earlier this week I started reading Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles, and I have been captivated with it from the get-go. At first I was a little nervous, as the book promised to be a sweeping history of Explosion, the book’s fictional town (or city, or metropolis, depending on where you are in the story), and it took a little while to become acclimated with the Kong family, namely to learn and distinguish between the four Kong brothers, whose names took a little time to become familiar to this Western reader. As I recently abandoned a book for greener pastures (thank heavens), I started to tease out my own reading themes. In describing the book to Mr. Brain I said something like “It’s a generational novel with some really great magical realism elements,” to which Mr. Brain replied, “Sounds right up your alley.”
In my experiences with physical endeavors (running and yoga), the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years is that being able to plow through anything is not the ultimate sign of development or maturity, it’s knowing when to pull back. I’m not sure why I’ve been so hesitant to apply this truth to my reading life as well. There’s always a certain guilt, or maybe just a disappointment, when you pick up a book, especially one that’s been lauded far and wide, and you know you’re going to struggle to stay with it. You don’t connect with the narrator, the style feels too laborious. It reminds you too much of something else you recently read and you’re not in the mood for another book that deals with X, employs the same plot device, etc., etc. Still, we hang in there convinced that we just need to get through those introductory 50 pages to really start to love something.
What if? In a fantastic exploration of the implications of a single kiss, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth asks us to consider how our lives become inextricably connected by one event, one relationship, or how this singular event fans out into decades worth of history in a way that makes it impossible to tease out individual threads. Commonwealth tells the story of the Cousins and Keatings families, and the events that unfold as a result of Bert Cousins crashing baby Fanny Keating’s christening party with a bottle of gin. He peripherally knows her father, and attends the event only as a way to avoid his own small children and wife. The gin is an unlikely gift for a christening, a last minute grab on the way out the door, but it is the vehicle that allows Bert to kiss Franny’s mother, Beverly, and kicks off a relationship that forever alters both families. Beverly leaves Fix Keating, her first husband, to marry Bert, and then Bert and Beverly relocate from California to Bert’s native Virginia. There are six children between both families; Caroline and Franny (Frances) Keating, and Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie Cousins.
There are few stories you have the pleasure to experience that you could inhabit indefinitely, and A Gentleman in Moscow was one of these all-encompassing literary worlds for me. The language, the structure of the book, where do I begin? A Gentleman in Moscow tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in 1920’s Russia for writing a subversive poem, or subversive as deemed by his prosecutors. He is confined to life in the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the center of Moscow, though he must give up his previously occupied ritzy suite for more cramped quarters on the hotel’s upper floor. Still, this fate seems better than death or banishment, and aside from the limitations of the hotel itself, life for the Count carries on in some semblance of normalcy. Within the Metropol he is free to do as he pleases. He dines at the hotel’s restaurants, makes use of any of its services (barbershop, seamstress), and is also free to interact with other hotel guests without limitations. While we don’t leave the hotel either, we get snippets of the larger Russian climate as it comes through the Metropol via an expanding cast of characters.