Book #1 was Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature's Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress. This is an anthology of Jane Austen fan-fiction, and while I am a big Jane Austen fan, I have to admit that I tired of the book before I was finished. When I read imitations of Jane, or spinoffs, or sequels, or whatever, they mostly remind me of how well Jane wrote, and how nobody else can quite do what she did. These stories were entertaining, for the most part, and I'll probably keep picking up Jane Austen fan-fiction even though it never quite satisfies me. (See Book #3, below, for example.)
Book #2 was Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi. I had read this before but it had been a long time. This time I read it on my Kindle. This book is about reading, and about the fact that our responses to what we read have as much to do with who we are and where we are in our lives as with the books themselves. Nafisi and her students read and live simultaneously, as all of us do, and the Iranian revolution they are suffering through informs how they process literature. As Nafisi is getting ready to leave Tehran, she tells a friend, "You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place...like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place." Here's another conversation with the same friend:
"I said to him that I wanted to write a book in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me - to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, Right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you'll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees. You don't think this is the same Austen you read with Dr. French - it was Dr. French, wasn't it? Do you? This is the Austen you read here, in a place where the film censor is nearly blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women. I said, When I write all that, perhaps I will become more generous, less angry."(By the way, I really prefer authors to use quotation marks.) Of course, as I read this I thought about the person I was the last time I read it. That time I loved it, and this time I mostly felt sad at all the seemingly pointless, painfully absurd suffering in the lives of ordinary Iranians.
Book #3 was more Jane Austen fan-fiction, this time by one of my favorite writers, P.D. James. Death Comes to Pemberley is the story of a murder which takes place near Pemberley, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Darcy. It contains such delights as a letter from Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which reads in part: "Mr. Pegworthy said that were I a man and had taken to the law, I would have been an ornament to the English bar - but I am needed here. If I went to all the people who would benefit from my advice I would never be at home." Oh, Lady Catherine, I know. It's a curse. Some Austen characters from other books make appearances, too, but I'll leave you to find them for yourself. Earlier I linked to a good review of this book, and here it is again. I read this on my Kindle.
When I was in the US in February, I saw a new Elizabeth George book. When I was researching it, I found out that there had been another George book in between the last one I'd read and this new one I was just discovering. Book #4 was that in-between book, This Body of Death. Inspector Lynley is grieving the loss of his wife a couple of books ago, and while I am so sad for him, I don't think this excuses his huge lapse of judgement in this one. Really, Inspector? While this book kept me reading, I didn't enjoy it as much as previous Inspector Lynley stories. Book #5 was the next one in the series, Believing the Lie. I thought there was way too much going on in this novel, to a point that almost became comical. I was wondering what else could possibly be introduced. But I did very much enjoy an element that I always like in George's fiction, the many types of relationships, loving and not-so-loving, which she portrays so beautifully. Her characters are individuals, in all their messiness, not stereotypes. I read both of these on my Kindle.
Book #6 was Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life, by Shauna Niequist. Last year I read Niequist's more recent book, Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way. I liked that one better; Niequist has found her own voice and Bittersweet reads less like she is channeling Anne Lamott (admittedly a far less profane Lamott, who cooks a lot better). That said, I did very much enjoy this book, made up of essays about Niequist's own life. There were lots of passages I wanted to read aloud, and will reread. I read this on my Kindle, too. (I didn't fully realize until I was writing this post how much of my reading I have been doing on my Kindle lately.)
Book #7 took me back to Iran. Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, by Alison Wearing, is a travel book. While the book jacket (yes! I read this one in actual book format!) told me that Wearing was "traveling with a male friend, in the guise of a couple on their honeymoon," she makes us wait until page 114 before she reveals the true nature of their relationship. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to tell you what it is, but if you want to wait until page 114 to find out, skip to the next book.) Ian is Alison's gay roommate from Canada. He likes to travel too, and they have spent many hours planning this trip. She would really rather be by herself, since she finds traveling a solitary pursuit, but knows she won't be very safe as a woman traveling alone in Iran, so agrees to take Ian along. I was quite interested to know more about how they interacted, but Wearing doesn't tell us much. Here's the paragraph where she finally spills the beans about the "honeymoon":
"I have a confession to make. Ian isn't my husband. We aren't even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-law's document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don't ask and of those who do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn't have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I reached Iran, his brother's marriage had collapsed."Alison and Ian's fake marriage kind of collapses, too - she seems to find him more and more irritating as the book goes on. But she is fascinating on Iran, and especially on what it feels like to be a western woman forced to be covered at all times. At first, covering seems to be a bit of an adventure, like a disguise, but she can't help feeling more and more oppressed by the limitations imposed on her because she is a woman. But she also finds, when she gets back to more western values, that she can't fully accept them any more either. Here she writes about watching a music video on satellite television in an expat's home:
"Shocked, horrified, mesmerized, hypnotised. By the women on the television. Stick figures prancing around in their underwear humping the air. It's a music video. I ca-ca-ca-can't believe how...it's not just the clothes or the lack of clothes or the grinding or the gyrating....It's the look on their faces. I had forgotten how women look when they spend their lives trying to be sexy. I had forgotten how lonely it looks. How painful it is to watch."But some of Wearing's most evocative passages are about home, her home: Canada. Here she is placing a long-distance call to her mother.
"She'll be outside, it will be evening - no, around noon. August, so fresh corn on the cob that will leave baby teeth marks in the butter. Thick slabs of tomatoes from the garden, sleeveless dresses and hair that's still damp from the pond. She'll be eating outside. Corn, tomatoes and a huge green salad with dressing that gives you garlic breath for days. Outside on the back porch, where she can see the hill, the sunflowers, the blue jays bossing the chickadees around. Surrounded by dogs: Sox, Alex, Sebastian, Mugs, who will be seated around her like parliament members - she is, after all, the speaker of the house - and the cats, Figleaf and Foliage, perched on the trellis like tightrope walkers or lying next to the dogs, ready to pounce on the first tail that dares to move. Having dinner. If there's a breeze, the poplars will shimmer like stalks of crepe paper - ssshhhhhhhh - telling the earth to be quiet. The air will smell of...I'm not sure. I close my eyes and try to imagine it. Can't. I smell this telephone, the last thirty people that shouted into it, the smell of dirt and sweat and cramped quarters made of metal and rubber and glass."I also loved the description of Alison and Ian reading their mail when they finally make it to the Canadian consulate. I recommend this book. Like many travel books, it shows how people are not like the stereotypes we see on the news, and although it's several years old - published in 2000 - it is very much worth reading. (Whew, see how much easier it is to write about a book when you read a paper copy? I just can't mark passages as easily on my Kindle, since my usual method is ripping up tiny shreds of paper and putting them everywhere that I like a quote.)
Book #8 was Al Capone Shines My Shoes, by Gennifer Choldenko. I read this because my son begged me to; he loved it. I liked it fine, though not as much as the first book, Al Capone Does My Shirts, which I reviewed here.
So, that's it, almost the end of April and only eight books. I'm in the middle of several, so I hope there will be more reading updates before too long.