Sunday, July 15, 2007

Summer Reading: Odds, ends, and the last of Harry

When I look at what I recommended last summer -- One Mississippi, by Mark Childress, out in paperback in September -- I feel a little chagrined that I'm not up on the new hardcovers this summer. Or just not yet. Certainly I have ordered the new, the final Harry Potter from my favorite independent bookstore, Skylight Books here in Los Feliz, but other than that, my reading seems to be catchup from the spring as well as from years past.

No matter. Here's what's on my shelf:

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock
Munro transmutes her family's history, which includes emigration to Canada from Scotland, into fiction in these linked pieces. Her ability to convey oodles of information in a single sentence is, at times in this book, almost overwhelming. You'll read, you'll ponder, you'll have to lie back in your chaise and recover.

Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance
Davis' short stories are untraditional yet not incomprehensible; in fact, she's able to take the simplest of ordinary experiences and make them frighteningly explicit in a few sentences; the story titled "Lonely" begins "No one is calling me. I can't check the answering machine because I have been here all this time," and wraps up in two more astute sentences. There are a few longer stories; all are full of a gentle laughter at humanity and deep understanding of how neuroses affect us all.

Maile Meloy, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter
Fortunately by the time I got around to reading these two books (Liars was Meloy's first novel), I forgot how they are connected. All I can say is, read them in the order I've listed them for the most enjoyable literary ride you'll have for a while. Meloy creates, in succession, two different worlds with the same characters, all of whom have intriguing, Catholicism-fueled, secrets. Given that Meloy's characters often face considerable challenges or complications, her writing is amazingly easy, almost light-hearted. (And yes, her brother Colin is in the Decembrists.)

Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Lewycka's story, as I read in the Guardian (follow the link, the essay is worth reading), is one to which I'm sympathetic and may eventually be empathetic: first novel when she was over the age of 50, nomination for the Booker Prize, translated into more than 20 languages. But the novel, while diverting, is not so well written or structured as one might wish. Two warring adult daughters deal with an aging widowed father who is being hoodwinked by a zaftig gold digger; there's a subplot involving the younger daughter and narrator's eventual discovery of what really happened back in the Old Country, but somehow it doesn't seem like enough. Possibly a good beach read, but rather predictable and less for it, although the tractor info is captivating.

John Gregory Dunne, True Confessions
No less a crankypants than the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani called this book "pitch perfect." The story of two brothers (maybe you've seen the movie with Robert deNiro and Robert Duvall, truly born to play siblings) in 1940s Los Angeles, this is a compelling and sordid tale of the Irish Catholic power structure and how little it has to give, both believers and nonbelievers. A great book.

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