My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
If you read a favorite author deeply enough, and if she’s written enough books, you will eventually hit a dud. These are dated essays which don’t hang together well. I already know about what Daum is trying to share here, through her other, better books and essay collections.
Vacation means books. (And being at home means books too, but vacation means backlogs of book reviews.)
If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now by Christopher Ingraham
Ingraham manages to write “how we traded the DC suburbs for a remote county in Minnesota” without a) making me hate him or any member of his family, b) talking down to, or dismissively around, any Minnesotan, or c) treating it all like some kind of miracle. That’s an achievement!
I’ll recap the plot here, because it is such a great story: Ingraham crunches data and writes gee-whiz pieces for WaPo. He finds some data about the most pleasant counties to live in across the US, in terms of geographic features, weather, and things like that. Since every county in the country is ranked, not only are some places best, but some are inevitably the “worst” places to live – where were those places? Well, bottom of the list turned out to be Red Lake County, Minnesota. After Ingraham points this out in his article, he gets some hate mail – Minnesota style, which means understated and not very vitriolic – and invitations to come out and see their “ugly” county for himself. Which he does. And he likes it.
And he moves there!
Very interesting to me on a personal level is that Ingraham contrasts Red Lake County not just with the Baltimore/DC area, but with other places he and his wife have lived as well – including my county in Vermont. And Vermont doesn’t come off very well. Vermonters aren’t as welcoming as the Minnesotans; the Ingrahams made some friends, but never felt part of a community like they do in Red Lake County. I believe it. We’re pretty standoffish round these parts.
“If there is one thing – one sole, solitary piece of information – that I can convey to you about rural America it’s this: rural America is not a nation apart. The people here are just as complex and fallible as people anywhere else. They consume the same media, cheer for the same sports teams, fight over the same political issues, and have the same dreams for their kids.” I like that.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener
It kept me reading. I liked the coy refusals to name any company, making us feel like we might be living in a similar but other world: the “social network everyone hated,” the “search engine,” the “litigious corporation based in Seattle.” At one point she not-name-drops my favorite blogger, “a libertarian economist” and describes him in a not altogether flattering light. I wrote to tell him about it, and he responded, yes, “the book is fiction in a number of respects.” She’s not the only one who can be coy. My interest waned a bit when I realized that nothing was really going to happen.
The Eating Instinct by Virginia Sole-Smith
Discusses all the different ways eating can sometimes be anything other than a simple, pleasurable, nourishing experience. The impetus for the book was the author’s baby born with a congenital heart defect, which required surgery and for her to be put on a feeding tube as an infant; Violet then refused to eat for many months, even after the tube should no longer have been needed. It was an arduous journey getting Violet to eat. This drove the author to examine other ways and reasons humans may not or can not do such a simple act as eating; she discusses babies with adverse reactions to milk, anorexics, severely “picky” adult eaters, people too poor to eat properly, and of course just plain women born and bred to this diet-crazy, thin-obsessed culture. It was absorbing. I’m not usually into “kid stuff,” but she told Violet’s story and the other baby/kid/parent stories in such a way that made even me interested.
Mansfield Park: an Annotated Edition
by Jane Austen, annotated by Harvard University Press
Even with the annotations, I was soon reminded why this is my least favorite Austen. Fanny is a pretty insipid character to spend this amount of time with. Book I is so great, though – the young people getting carried away with their theatricals, the Bertram sisters withering in their jealous vying for Crawford’s attentions, Rushworth just so wonderfully stupid and clueless, and all of it culminating with Sir Bertram’s unexpected return literally in the middle of all the ranting and strutting upon the stage. Ha! If only the rest of the book were as fun. After that climax, it would have been better if it had ended much more quickly. And all I can say about the Mary-Edmund romance is she must have had one damn fine pair of ****- the way she disparaged his chosen profession, her crassness, her obvious lack of any of the fine virtues he purports to hold so highly – it was very hard on the page to accept him being so smitten with her.
The annotations in these Harvard editions are great – not overly intrusive, as in other annotated classics I’ve read where they feel the need to define every other word. They occasionally veered off well into “who cares” territory, so I skipped some of them. I like when annotations shed direct light on the culture and customs that lie behind the brief or antiquated words of the author.
Milkman by Anna Burns
I was very glad to see this book end.
It’s dense, first-person, and rather stream-of-consciousness. One paragraph will frequently span a page. And the subject matter is tough – life in a Northern Ireland city under the IRA, or “renouncers” as they are strictly called here. As tough as the renouncers themselves are, the entire community serves as a kind of character itself, enforcing rules and behaviors on what seems every aspect of people’s existence. It was absolutely vicariously stultifying to read. While nobody is allowed to give their baby the wrong name, or be seen with the wrong person or live in the wrong district, the town seems perfectly willing to tolerate lunatics and murderers in their midst – not only the renouncers, but garden-variety nutjobs, too.
An extremely obtrusive gimmick of the story is that absolutely nobody is named by name. Everyone is referred to by shorthand nicknames, relationships, and birth order. This intensifies the feeling of the unimportance of the individual in the midst of a community where conformity is all-consuming.
There is plot, and there is character, so as a novel it was not as much of a slog as some modernist tomes. And there is catharsis – but what was perhaps most annoying, towards the end as the plot is winding down, you finally want to start breathing freely like the narrator; and suddenly, we zip back in time a couple of weeks with a pretty silly subplot. That just put me over the edge of dislike; I haven’t been so happy to finally reach the end of a book in some time.
And silly subplots there are, but it was usually hard to laugh at the humor, couched as it was in the middle of difficult subject matter, and a narrator having a nervous breakdown most of the time.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Two stories going on at once, and as usually happens, I liked one much more than the other. The protagonist of the modern-day story, Willa, is really a riot; a 50-something matriarch in a house that is literally falling apart. Every other line that comes out of her mind is funny. This story reminded me of The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver – in that case, the whole U.S. economy was falling apart; whereas Willa only has to deal with her own house and family. But the sarcastic middle-aged woman trying to keep it all together is common to both.
In the other thread, a house on the same lot (though, we find out, not actually the same house) is coincidentally also falling apart – but over a hundred years in the past. This story reminded me a bit of the Lydgate sub-story in Middlemarch – the ambitions of a man of science brought low by a pretty face. Unfortunately I found this story mostly tedious and exaggerated. The character of Mary Treat, the woman scientist, is intriguing; but the minor female characters (Polly, Selma) hit you over the head with caricature. And the conversations just go on forever.
Come to think of it, the conversations tend to drag in the modern-day story, too. The characters are a bit better (though I disliked how Tig was always implied to be in the right). And I really did look forward to getting back to their story – ceilings falling down; a tiny half-orphaned infant to tend to; and a hysterically funny, racist old father-in-law on life support. Kingsolver at her best.