Here are the books I’ve been reading through the holidays—though not all of them, all the way through.
The Tiger’s Wife
I picked up The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. I didn’t know much about the book; I’d noticed it on a few best-sellers lists, and the book-jacket matter made it seem promising: a tale of mystery and history. The first few chapters were captivating—I read them coming home on the plane, a tough place to be captivated by anything. I was impressed with the beauty of the language and the strong evocation of place and mood as Natalia, the novel’s first-person narrator, described her visits to the zoo with her grandfather and the gradual crumbling of life in their city as war approached (but never quite arrived).
Then the story fell apart for me. I’ve grown impatient of novels that generate layers of narrative complexity merely to create a heightened sense of mystery. How could Natalia simultaneously claim to know little of her grandfather’s past and yet be able to mine the deep recesses of his life story, stretching back not only to his childhood but also to events before he was born and to events that happened to other people in his village? It was all a bit too mysterious for me, and I ceased caring what happened to anyone: Natalia in the war-torn Balkan landscape of the present (this was the most compelling narrative), or the tiger, the deaf-mute woman, the grandfather (in his many appearances in the past), or the deathless man.
Given the rave reviews Obreht has been receiving, I’m aware that something must be lacking in me, that I couldn’t warm up to Tiger’s Wife. And I know this sounds petty—but didn’t anyone else get irritated with how many times Obreht referred to the Balkan liquor rakija? She uses very few Balkan words, but rakija is on almost every page.
There it was, winking up at me as I struggled with Tiger’s Wife. I’d placed The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz, on my library holds list and was surprised when it came available right away: the book’s only been out since November 1. So I slipped back into my comfort zone: detective novels. Silk has been getting a lot of buzz because it’s the first Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the Conan Doyle estate.
Because I love Sherlock Holmes—I’ve read everything in the original “canon” (as a true Sherlockian would say) and a good deal more—I enjoyed the book. Its premise is that Watson, in his old age, is recording one more adventure, a mystery that couldn’t be publicized earlier because of its sensitive nature. Clever, because that’s a motif from the originals: escapades that can only be alluded to, but never told.
As with the original Conan Doyle stories, there’s creakiness from time to time, what with Watson’s digressions and editorializing. But, after all, Conan Doyle’s achievement was the creation of Holmes and Watson, not literary niceties. Do I have wonderful passages to quote, or plot twists to marvel at? No. Would I rank this above the Mary Russell series (my favorite re-imagining of Holmes)? No again. (I think Laurie R. King, author of the Russell series, is a better writer than Horowitz.) The point is, it felt like a Sherlock Holmes story, and that is enough.
The Weird Sisters
I found The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, on a recommended list from Amazon—I’d never heard of it. Doesn’t it sound great?
“There is no problem that a library card can’t solve.”
The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there. “See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much”.
But the sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from–one another, their small hometown, and themselves–might offer more than they ever expected.
I so very much wanted to like this book. But somehow it just didn’t work. Brown uses an authorial “we” to narrate the story—which seemed like an Alice Hoffman sort of touch, though I’m not sure she ever used it; it came off as pretentious rather than clever. I felt once-removed from the characters; there was a lot of exposition when there should have been dialogue, and when there were scenes, they often didn’t quite hit the right notes to move the story along (and subsequently more exposition). About halfway through, I flipped to the end to see how it all turned out for the sisters. (See, I really did want it all to work out for them, because I liked them….just not enough to keep reading about them.) I’d definitely consider reading something else by Brown, though, because she was almost there…
Alice I Have Been
I’m beginning my new year—and a project to read 55 books at age 55—with a book my sister gave me for my 55th birthday: Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin. She and my book-loving niece researched this book and thought it would be just the ticket for my tastes. Such thoughtful fellow readers! Alice is “part love story, part literary mystery,” so that sounds just about perfect. And Diana Gabaldon—author of the memorable Outlander series—shouts from the cover “This is magic!”
So, fare thee well, books of 2011. Hello 2012 reading!