Finishing Up Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy

golden ageI stayed up late this holiday weekend finishing up Golden Age, the last book of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy. It’s a sign that I liked the book and that I was involved in the book, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I feel myself dissatisfied with it. Like I said in my review of the previous book, there were too many characters (sounds like a silly criticism, but I’ll explain more) and the plot felt a little too much like Forrest Gump. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief over three books when this admittedly sprawling family is somehow connected to so many key events/themes (Vietnam, the Middle East, 9/11, the financial crisis, climate change/disruption).

First, it’s been over a year since I read book 2 and it took me quite a bit of time to get family relationships and character names down. Smiley has said that the trilogy is really one big book, and there’s no way to jump into this book without having read the previous ones. Even having read the earlier books, I would have appreciated a color-coded genealogical chart: it would have been clearer than the detailed family tree in the book. Even when I felt more comfortable with my recollection about the characters’ lives in earlier books, the pacing of the story (each chapter covers one year) meant that Smiley had to skip over some characters for years at a time in order to stick to her structure.

Another note on characters: I’m still not enamored of her focus on the antiheroes in the Langdon family, Frank and his son Michael. I have a low tolerance for jerks, even if one of the points of the story was to show the effect of jerks on the people around them. But there were plenty of non-jerky characters, and several of their death-scenes hit me hard

Plot-wise, I was also disappointed because the environmentalist message that’s so explicit at the end of the book after being an undercurrent in the rest of the series just felt odd. Mixing a family saga with muckraking felt discordant here. I would have loved just a straight-up muckraking piece instead. It was a story about generations of Iowa farmers: she could have scrapped lots of other plots for the environmentalist ones!

Anyway, the trilogy is an interesting set of books with some elements that nagged at me.

I reviewed the rest of the trilogy here:

  1. Some Luck
  2. Early Warning

I bought my copy of the book.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

draining lakeI think I’ve missed a review or two of the Erlendur series, but I love it a great deal, The Draining Lake being no exception. The book starts with an odd premise, the draining lake of the title. A human skeleton that is murdered and tied to a Russian radio device appears as the lake drains. While a theory about why the lake is draining appears pretty early in the book, the mystery of the skeleton is a much more involving plot, and it involves East Germany, spies, and university students during the height of the Cold War.

I’m not always a fan of books that shift between the past and present, but I was so wrapped up in the backstory (political and personal), and so impressed that the switches between the past and the present felt organic instead of a forced structure that I didn’t mind. Not only is the paranoia in East Germany rendered very vividly, there are just terribly heartbreaking elements threaded throughout the story. I was very impressed with this book.

On the police-procedural-in-Iceland front, I was glad that every main detective had a big non-work plot going. Erlendur’s romantic and family relationships keep moving along (or at least moving in circles), Elinborg launches a successful cook book, and we actually see Oli’s personal life in glimpses.

I read this book while watching early episodes of The Americans, and while I love spy stuff, I realize that I can’t double up on it or my dreams take a very strange turn.Or maybe I just don’t expect my stress dreams to involve spying.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder

Vintage Books, 2010

Originally published as Kleifarvatn, 2004

I bought my copy of the book.

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

brutal tellingI didn’t love this 5th installment in the Three Pines/ Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. It’s a story about a murder where the suspect is one of the village residents and he or she remains so. There is a bit of an open ending (appealing a conviction or sentence), but that’s not a real surprise to me.

This book felt longer than the other installments. Certain things started annoying me. 1. Penny uses a lot of sentence fragments. A lot; 2. The artists that populate the slightly mythical village of Three Pines and its environs are almost all genius level artists. And Gamache is a genius level detective, which would be okay if the narrator or various characters didn’t continually remind us of the fact. It’s okay to make Three Pines a less-than-realistic place (it has an awfully high body count, for one thing) populated with regular folks or regular artists; 3. The puzzle element of the mystery felt off to me. I’m not usually into puzzles: it’s just not something I’ve ever read a lot of. Was it an homage to some other book or to some other device that I just missed?

Ultimately what it came down to is that this book wasn’t as pacy or twisty as I tend to like the most, and the fact that I’m well into the series made it feel a little stale to me. That’s not to say I totally didn’t enjoy it, but I felt myself prickling about certain things that I usually don’t mind.

Source: I bought my copy of the book.

The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman

end of miraclesNext up in my heavy-themed reading is The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman. It feels a bit like a case history as novel. Starkman is a psychiatrist who studied phantom pregnancies, and this book deals with that subject in part. The story centers on Margo, in the midst of fertility treatments, who requires psychiatric care. The narrative arc is the arc of her mental health, and it’s fascinating and enlightening and incredibly sad in parts. This book is full of expertise.

It’s refreshing to read a book that’s not about someone in publishing or the restaurant/catering world. Margo works in hospital administration, which is a step removed from being a patient, which she becomes throughout the book, and it’s handled interestingly– how to be on the two sides of the hospital.

A psychiatrist writing about a character is not something I’ve read often, if ever. She feels real, which is not what I feel when I read some women-in-crisis books. Also, I’m glad Starkman doesn’t do the overused-slight-epiphany twist that I’m tired of in lots of more literary novels. I was delighted by this book, despite the sadness of the story: it didn’t feel like a book I’ve read before.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

nestI was curious about this book because I like funny books and I like family sagas. I was expecting something funny about a family dealing with an inheritance, the Nest of the title, and the book delivered on the funny parts, but overall it abandoned the comedy and silliness, which I wasn’t expecting.

The Nest focuses on the adult siblings of the Plumb family. Leo Plumb is a writer and founder of a media conglomerate. He and his siblings live in or near New York, and their lives center on the money they stand to inherit on their sister’s 40th birthday.

First, you have to be able to be charmed by Leo, the internet millionaire who spectacularly self-destructs at the beginning of the book at a family wedding. Sweeney didn’t get me to be charmed for him, so that was strike one for me.

Second, I felt like there were a few good set-pieces in the book (every family gathering had a bit of ridiculousness), but I never felt the action ramping up. It could have been a true farce of a book with siblings acting truly manic, but it never quite got there. Taking it to an even more absurd height would have worked for me. Instead, there’s emotional heft at the very end after not much of that. It’s hard to read a section asking me to sympathize with a few characters when I’ve just finished a book where the characters were all so wrapped up in themselves. They hardly empathized with each other, which got me into the mode of not empathizing with them either.

I was expecting something funnier, based on the cover copy and what I’d read about the book elsewhere.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Ecco, March 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Highly Recommended: Missing by Karin Alvtegen

missingMissing is one of my favorite reads of the year so far. I picked it up on Saturday morning and finished it in less than a day, which shows that I was hooked from the start. It’s a condensed psychological thriller with an incredibly sympathetic main character, it’s critical of Swedish society, and it’s very well-paced: good stuff all around.

Sibylla is a 32-year-old homeless woman who is wanted for murder, and the story not only takes place in the present while she hides from the police and tries to clear her name: it also covers her devastating upbringing in a small, rural town in a family with money but not much else that led to her homelessness. The book begins with her plan to get a free night in a nice hotel, but she wakes up the next morning to find out that her benefactor for the evening was found murdered in the hotel. She is the prime suspect, and she goes on the run.

I’ve read quite a few wrongly-accused-character-on-the-run books, but this one feels different than, say, Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. Sibylla’s travels are more circumscribed than some of the longer chase books I’ve read, so the story feels more specific. The story is shorter and the pacing is really good. My only complaint about the book is that there are a few sections in the real killer’s mind, which is never my favorite trick in a book.

This book impressed me more than the only other Alvtegen book I’ve read, Shame, which I don’t remember too well now. I will be seeking out more of her books right away.

Missing by Karin Alvtegen, translated by Anna Paterson

Felony & Mayhem Press, 2009

Originally published as Saknad, 2000

I bought my copy of the book.