It’s summer in Florida. It’s hot, steamy and the clouds are fantastic. It rains. Time to read. For the past two weeks I have been a happy woman, because–I have read some really good books, and have at least two more in reserve. I love when books pile up, or queue up in the virtual library or are in some way in my possession. I know they are there, ready to open.
So here are my summer picks–all fiction so far:
Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs made me happy. On page 29, these words jumped out at me: “At the doctor’s she had read an article about the fact that women over fifty began to obsess about mortality, and she knew this to be true.” Quindlen’s heroine, Rebecca, is an aging photographer who has moved from the west side of Manhattan to cheaper quarters upstate. In the middle of nowhere. No internet, no phone service. The novel takes her on a journey of self discovery, and it’s worth the ride, because Rebecca is a 60-year-old woman. True, she is slim, fit and has great hair, but she’s worried about money and noises in the attic, and her son, and her place in the world. “She was afraid she was going to live forever, impoverished, her career a footnote in a dissertation that no one even read.” Yep, that’s a lot of us, minus the footnote, which I keep typing as footnot, which sums up my spot in world nicely. And I do obsess about mortality. It’s a luxury, but I do. And then I read some more.
Next, I picked up Alice McDermott’s Someone. Another woman’s story, set in Brooklyn this time, and so different. While Rebecca is unmoored, McDermott’s heroine Marie is securely moored in an Irish Catholic neighborhood and family. I especially loved the scene in the novel when her mother, who is dying, keeps asking if she is “home.” Tending to her, Marie and her brother Gabe figure out she means Brooklyn, not Ireland. The thought of being in Ireland distresses their mother greatly. And when she says, “Show me,” Gabe picks her up and carries her down four stories into the street, telling her again, “Not home…Brooklyn.”
Both authors are wonderful writers and know how to tell a story. Their characters come alive, and the places they live come alive, be it a small town or an inner city block. It’s easy to slip into novels like these; you trust the authors not to abuse your investment. Jane Austen never abuses her readers either. I don’t need everyone to ride off in a carriage at the end, but I like fiction that goes somewhere and takes me with it. (I added Austen because I am that kind of woman and I have obsessions.)
Before these two books, I read Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Although I thought this book a slog at times, mainly because of the 1800s time frame, I appreciated the last four pages immensely, and even made a copy of them to keep. I loved Gilbert’s heroine’s last thoughts on life: “I believe that we are all transient. I believe that we are half-blind and full of errors. I believe that we understand very little, and what we do understand is mostly wrong. I believe that life cannot be survived–that is evident–but if one is lucky, life can be endured for quite a long while. If one is both lucky and stubborn, life can sometimes even be enjoyed.” Amen to that, and women who study moss.
And lest you think I read only white female authors, dead or alive, my absolute fall-down favorite book of the summer so far is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngosi Adichie. I am not the first one to sing the praises of this novel, but it deserves all the glowing reviews and prizes it gets. Want to feel what it’s like to be an immigrant? Want to know what it’s like to come to this country and attempt to negotiate its bizarre racial codes? To have Black hair? What it’s like to love and be loved? To leave home and to come back? Ifemelu, Adichie’s heroine leads us down these avenues fearlessly, and the reader and the characters are in this novel together. It’s that strong and beautiful. And funny, and sad and moving.
Now for the really good part. All these women have written other books, some of which I’ve already read, but some I haven’t. Goodie! Pile them up and put them in the queue. I’ll start one after I finish Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. A few months ago I read and loved her first novel Seating Arrangements, the unforgettable story of a WASP wedding. It’s ironic, Edith Wharton, and then some. Told from a mostly male point of view.
So, I’ve decided it all comes down to this: If ever someone asks me what I’m good at, I’m going to say. “I’m good at reading.” Including piling up books I’m going to read. It just may be one of the things that makes life worth living. But don’t quote me, I’m over 50 and obsessing.