December 2019 Reading: Winesburg, Ohio; Cape May; Conversations With Friends; The Green Road; All My Puny Sorrows; Disobedience; Hope: A Tragedy; Late in the Day

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)

This book really belongs with ‘Small Town November,’ and it contrasts nicely with Flagg’s novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, which was my last November read. In many ways it is the total opposite of Flagg’s book, prioritising depth over entertainment, with no hint of frivolity. Subtitled ‘A Group of Tales of Small-Town Ohio Life’, it does read more like a collection of short stories which hang together than a novel, though the central recurring character of George Willard, the young reporter, links the book together.

Characters recurr and are explained in greater depth each time they appear, which builds up a picture of the inhabitants of Winesburg in a realistic, nuanced way. The plot is hard to pin down, which adds to the realism of small town life. The sombre, unassuming tone took me a while to get used to, especially after the unbridled exuberance of Flagg’s novel, but this book quietly grew on me, and I found myself quite moved by it in the end.

Cape May by Chip Cheek (2019)

I bought this book after hearing the author talking on a podcast about how he was writing a different, more ‘serious’ novel, but this love story kept distracting him, and finally he gave in and wrote the story that was calling out to him. Set in the 1950’s, a young couple, Henry and Effie, go to Cape May for their honeymoon. It is out of season, and the vibrant place of Effie’s childhood memories is shuttered and somewhat bleak; they almost decide to cut their two week trip short, but then they meet Clara and her glamorous acquaintances and get sucked into their world.

This book is a booze-soaked, sexy, slightly over-the-top interlude from real life, filled with debauched parties, sexual exploration and many, many cocktails. I enjoyed the book as a guilty pleasure, even as I found the young protagonists’ transformation from shy virgins to sexually liberated hedonists in a couple of weeks a little far-fetched. Probably best read on a beach rather than in the midst of a British winter, but fun and glitzy in a Gatsby-ish way nonetheless.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney (2017)

This was one of a couple of books I read this month which, while I can admire the great skill of the writer, is, unfortunately, not my cup of tea. The narrator, Frances, has recently broken up with her girlfriend, Bobbi, although they still perform spoken word poetry as a duo. They are on their summer holidays from Trinity College, Dublin, and stumble into the world of the older, more sophisticated couple, Melissa and Nick (echoes of Cape May here). Frances startles herself by entering into an affair with Nick, though she despairs at the cliche of being ‘the other woman’.

The book is dripping with irony, and the characters are both intelligent and interrogative, questioning everyone and everything around them. The self-delusion of the protagonist plays out nicely, and the writing is confident and sophisticated. However, much as I objectively bow to Rooney’s talent and her creation of something that seems new, exciting and different, I found myself unmoved.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015)

A family saga with a difference, this novel is told from a third person perspective, moving between the members of the Madigan family: matriarch Rosaleen, and her four children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna. The plot centres around a Christmas reunion which threatens to be their last in the family home in west Clare, Ireland. The book dips in and out of their lives, from moments in Hanna’s childhood to Dan in 1990’s New York, to Emmet’s life as an aid worker in Mali. In doing this, Enright seems to me to have hit upon something very true about the way that family works, and how the separate lives that its adult members lead never quite come together when they are briefly reunited. The return to childhood that we feel when among our nearest and (possibly) dearest is cleverly exploited here, and it was a poignant read for me at this time of year!

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014)

This brave and beautiful novel is narrated by Yoli, whose main struggle (among many) in her adult life is to keep her suicidal sister, Elfrieda, alive. Flashing back to their upbringing in a Canadian Mennonite community and forward to Elf’s time in a psychiatric hospital, the novel manages to be both comic and tragic. Both sisters are fantastic characters; Elf is a famous concert pianist, who feels she has a ‘glass piano’ inside her which may break at any time. Yoli is, on the surface, far more chaotic and far less successful, but she is a fierce and admirable woman in ways she doesn’t even seem to realise, and a pleasure to have as a narrator.

The plot in itself is actually fairly slight: Yoli wonders whether she is wrong in her desire to prevent her sister from the death she craves, and even considers assisting her in her attempts as her friends and family anxiously attend Elf in hospital. However, the book crackles along with an exuberant, open-hearted energy, and handles its sensitive subject matter in a way which is honest, compassionate and, often, very funny.

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (2006)

‘Funny’ is not a word I would use to describe this next novel. While Alderman’s book, set in the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Hendon, provided me with an insight into a community I knew nothing about, the story was not one that will stay with me. Ronit, who has escaped her Orthodox upbringing and now lives in New York, where she is free to embrace her bisexuality, returns to Hendon upon the death of her Rabbi father, to find that his touted successor, her cousin Dovid, is married to a woman with whom Ronit once had a brief relationship. Dovid was, to me, a slightly more interesting character than Ronit, but neither of them really caught my attention, and Alderman’s long descriptions of Jewish customs and scripture seemed heavy-handed at times.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2012)

A very different kind of Jewish book, Auslander’s novel is a delightfully satirical and surprising story of a man who discovers that an aged Anne Frank is living in the attic of his newly purchased American farm house (as one reviewer wrote, imagine the agent pitch on that one). Solomon Kugel, the protagonist/anti-hero of the novel, has moved his family to the rural town of Stockton precisely because he is trying to escape the oppressive weight of history, and Stockton is “famous for nothing.” Kugel’s mother, much to his wife’s chagrin, has moved in with them – she is a hilarious character, who imagines she is a Holocaust survivor despite being born in Brooklyn in 1946.

Kugel himself is a fantastic creation – he carries around a notebook to write down possible ‘last words’, swears profusely, and has the kind of terrible luck that leaves you eagerly anticipating his next misadventure. The discovery of ‘Anne Frank’, now an impossibly old and rather disgusting crone secretly living in his attic, is an absurdly brilliant notion – it is hard to convey how Auslander manages to create so much black humour from this situation, so just read the book and enjoy.

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)

I’d hoped to finish my 2019 reading on a high, but sadly this was the third book this month to fall into the “very well written, but not for me” category. Three characters, Christine, Lydia and Alex, who have been friends for thirty years, are thrown into chaos by the death of Lydia’s husband, Zach, the cornerstone of their group. Hadley is an insightful and skilled writer, and the book is very clever, but I just couldn’t get under the skin of any of her characters. Their lives are relentlessly middle-class, full of gallery openings, restoring old buildings, trips to Venice and so on, and to me it all felt a bit self-indulgent. I just couldn’t empathise with any of them – similar to Rooney’s book, the intellect-over-emotion mood just wasn’t my bag.

I’ve got my first reading list for 2020 ready, but am always keen for further suggestions – let me know your best reads of 2019 in the comments, please!

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