1) 1/12: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Yes, I know I'm late to the bandwagon on this one. Some of my interest in reading this one was because of the interest so many others had in it -- when I was teaching, I would try to stay relevant and read the books that were trending (I also watched American Idol then, as did many of my students). While I'm no longer in the classroom, I still find myself checking out popular titles, although if they don't interest me, I have no problem ignoring their existence (I'm looking at you, Stephanie Meyer).
This one was a pleasant surprise in its writing style, although perhaps it shouldn't have been. I knew the premise for the book, but not much about Elizabeth Gilbert, and I wrongly assumed it would be flighty and vacuous. She writes well, is intelligent, and her account of her year of seeking and self examination is easy to read. I read The Signature of All Things last year, which was a thoroughly researched piece of literary fiction (interesting to the end, but not on my must-read recommendation list), and that actually pushed me to finally check this one out.
2) 1/14: A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
I hadn't heard of Maeve Binchy's work before she passed in 2012, when a good friend mourned the loss of one of her favorite authors. I made note to read something of hers someday. I somewhat arbitrarily selected this work - I read a lot on my Kindle through Overdrive, and this one was immediately available, but it did not disappoint.
It was a refreshing jaunt through Ireland, as seen through several different characters, all of whom cross paths at a guest house as they struggle with finding acceptance. I'm a sucker for a book of short stories, all tied together by a common thread (you were exceptional at this, Olive Kitteridge - and I see Amazon calls short stories as I mentioned above 'linked tales').
It just so happens that this was Binchy's final work, published posthumously, but I don't anticipate it being the last one of hers that I read.
3) 1/23: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I make note of books that others recommend, and this one had the further bonus of having won the Pulitzer, so I put myself on a long waitlist to see what it was all about. It is not for the faint of heart, coming in at 774 pages, but it was a fast read for me. I love reading classics, the longer the better. The time and attention to character development is what gets me. This is a contemporary book, but the length allows Tartt to delve into several story lines and explore them at length. As I read this, it reminded me of a Dickensian book - the protagonist down on his luck, eventually finding redemption through relationships as he tries to make sense of his circumstances.
The characters haunted me. That is the best compliment I can pay; too often I read a book, but I can't fully enter it because something is off in the writing - maybe the dialogue is forced, maybe everyone runs together in my mind or the reactions to situations aren't natural. But this book has a protagonist who is put in some extreme situations (and makes so many poor decisions I just want to shake him), but the story is believable. One impulsive act can lead to another, poor choices can become destructive habits.
The entire book isn't all doom and gloom, but there's an underlying feeling of suspense throughout (not to the level of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but even when things are going well, there's still this pulse of his past coming to haunt him).
Theo tries to tie everything together at the end - the meaning of life, the role art plays, how love factors in. Hints of Ecclesiastes come in, with him feeling how meaningless life is. But he finds hope and meaning, and the last pages are some of the most poetic in the whole book. I found myself touched, highlighting them to remember.
4) 1/24: A Week in Summer by Maeve Binchy
I read this short story as a quick palate cleanser after the magnum opus I just finished. It fell flat with me. Binchy can write, and as I saw in the other book of hers, she can do short stories well, but this was too abrupt. It's 25 pages, but I felt like it either needed to be edited down to work better, or fleshed out more. As is, it was a disappointment.
Also, I chose this book thinking it was a companion to her work A Week in Winter, but it is a stand-alone, not tying in the guest house (that didn't factor into my 'meh' impression, but it's worth mentioning).
5) 1/28: The Awakening and Selected Short Stories by Kate Chopin
I knew nothing about The Awakening, other than it having a place in Americana (after reading, I wasn't surprised to learn that it met with criticism and has appeared on banned book lists over the years). I thought it was time to add a classic to the mix, so this book was the selection.
The title for the main story is apt. At the start of the book, we meet Edna Pontellier, a married woman and mother of two boys, going through the motions of life. The mood throughout is a relaxed, sleepy feel. We begin on Grand Isle, where the family retreats over the summers, and the lazy days stretch on when she returns to New Orleans.
Edna is detached from her life, feeling quite disconnected when she returns home. Her husband travels often, and she went from a docile wife and disinterested mother to being awakened to a longing to seriously weigh her passions and desires even when they run contrary to society's expectations.
"She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them. The year before they had spent part of the summer with their grandmother Pontellier in Iberville. Feeling secure regarding their happiness and welfare, she did not miss them except with an occasional intense longing. Their absence was a sort of relief, though she did not admit this, even to herself. It seemed to free her of a responsibility which she had blindly assumed and for which Fate had not fitted her."
It's a sobering read. It's not easy to find the freedom Edna seeks without sacrificing the attachments to her spouse and children. I believe there's often this understanding that while there are compromises within marriage and parenthood, they are deemed worthwhile because of what you gain in exchange. But Edna seems to have been pushed along, not having contemplated much of anything before, and when she starts to focus on herself, change doesn't happen without great cost.
There are several short stories to end the book. My favorite was "Silk Stockings" (I enjoyed reading an account of a hard-working, devoted mother coming into a little money, and while she had every intention of spending it wisely, she finds herself indulging in some overdue self-pampering).
Chopin isn't one for tying up loose ends into happy endings, but that need not be a reason to avoid her stories - I can appreciate a realistic ending. Although I do admit the repeated sadnesses and disappointments make me read into Chopin's perspective on life.