My goodness it seems like forever since I’ve written a book post. I’ve been reading lots of books. Especially during the worst days of my winter malaise. Ha. But I’ve just not seemed to get round to writing about books.
Just before Christmas I finally read Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale. For someone who loves Margaret Atwood as much as I do, it’s scandalous that I’d never read it. My excuse was always that I don’t really like speculative fiction. I taught Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for many years and, as a teacher I loved the ideas and discussion that emanated from teaching that classic sci fi book to teenagers. My colleagues will chortle when they read that because I argued vociferously against our adopting it as the novel for our grade elevens. But as a reader, I hated Brave New World, resentfully slogging my way through it the summer before I had to teach it.
And yet, I adored Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Absolutely could not put it down. I read it when, as grade twelve teachers, we were researching current Canadian fiction that teenagers might like to read for their independent novel study. Teenagers love sci fi and speculative fiction as a rule. So I sighed and sacrificed most of my Christmas vacation that year to “duty reading.” Oh. My. I read Oryx and Crake in a couple of days, mostly while pedalling my exercise bike. In fact Hubby came downstairs on the second day when I disappeared with the book under my arm, ostensibly to work out, and told me that I’d better hurry up and finish the darned book before I passed out. He may have used a bit more colourful language than that.
So I ask you, when the only speculative fiction book I’ve ever loved as a reader was written by Margaret Atwood, why oh why did I not read The Handmaid’s Tale?
Anyway, as I said, I did finally read it. And I was blown away. And just like with Oryx and Crake, I couldn’t put it down. What a wonderful book. What an important book. And what a dunce I’d been for not reading it sooner. It’s nothing like the science fiction I loath. It’s extremely readable, entirely plausible, the characters real, and the setting all too familiar, in an alternative universe kind of way.
And the good thing about waiting is that I read the version which includes an introduction by Atwood herself. An introduction written in light of the passage of time since the book’s 1985 publication, and in light of the recent popular television show based on the book. She places the writing of the book in the context of history: 1984, when she lived in Berlin, when the Berlin Wall was very much a symbol of the time, and “the Soviet empire was still strongly in place and was not to crumble for another five years.” She places the ideas in the book in the context of our own time, when, as she says, “basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades and indeed the past centuries.”
So, yeah, The Handmaid’s Tale was a book for its time. But it’s also very much a book for our time, too. If you haven’t read it, you should. And if you read it when it came out, Atwood’s introduction alone makes the book worth reading again. I confess that I still haven’t read The Testaments, though. Why have I not read this book yet? I know, I know. Here we go again.
Another book that I’ve read recently that had me pinned to the sofa, or hurrying out to the kitchen to put on the kettle for a second pot of tea, is Elizabeth Strout’s follow up to her much beloved Olive Kitterage. I adored Olive Again, as I adored the first one. I just adore Olive, I guess. Lumbering, crusty, cantankerous, unpopular Olive. Tactless, but with an uncanny ability to get to the heart of things. And who, despite her many failings, we admire for her honesty and her compassion and her ability to get back up when life deals her a knock-out blow.
Strout’s novel, like her other books, is a series of linked stories which move forward jerkily. Sometimes months have passed between stories, sometimes years. And like her other books, Olive Again deals with small town life, with death, pain, humiliation, aging, and above all with resilience. Mostly Olive’s resilience, but also the resilience she inspires in others. I highly recommend it. But don’t take my word for it. Have a look at Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s review in the Guardian. Lucy is clearly a fellow Olive fan.
I’ve also been reading quite a few murder mysteries this winter. I can’t seem to read two serious books back to back anymore. Not that murder isn’t serious. But murder mysteries are my solution for many of life’s problems. A good mystery and a nice cup of tea.
I recently read A Double Life by Flynn Berry, a writer who was new to me. Frances of Materfamilias Writes listed this book on an IG post about what she was reading, so I gave it a try. Both Hubby and I read it. It’s the story of a father’s disappearance, “The first lord accused of murder in more than a century”, and a grown daughter’s obsession with finding him after more then twenty years.
The plot moves back and forth in time: to Claire’s childhood, memories of her father and mother and her father’s disappearance, further back to her parent’s courtship and marriage, and forward to the present and Claire’s attempts to infiltrate the lives of her father’s upper class friends, and maybe track him down. Finally. I found myself totally transfixed by Claire, her musings about her past, and her attempts to play detective. Hubby found the plot dragged a bit for him at the beginning. He’s not a “musings” kind of guy. But he was drawn in eventually, and says he really enjoyed the book. I think it’s safe to say that we both recommend A Double Life.
While I was sneezing and coughing this past couple of months, I’ve been continuing to work my way backwards through the alphabetical titles of Sue Grafton. I mentioned her books in my last updated, but reprised, book post in February. I used to read her Kinsey Millhone books years ago, but stopped for some reason. And when I picked them up again I couldn’t remember where I left off, so I decided to start at the end and work backwards. I’ve finished Y, W, X, V, and U. I think my favourite has been V is for Vengeance which I read in a day. Grafton isn’t as erudite or as clever as P.D. James or Reginald Hill, but she is a good writer. She crafts a decent plot and I like her characters. As I said in my last post, Grafton makes great sick-room reading. Satisfying, but not too challenging.
So that’s what I’ve been reading, folks. I’m in the middle of the latest Peter Grainger mystery On Eden Street. I loved his DC Smith books, and this is his latest installment, after DC has retired. I’m so enjoying it. I love it when you open a book and it feels as if you are visiting with a bunch of people you really like and know well. And there’s a good mystery too. Grainger’s books are only available on Kindle. If you haven’t had the pleasure, the first in the series is An Accidental Death.
While I’ve been casting about for something to read, I’ve been thinking lately about book shelves. And what our book shelves might say about us. I posed this question in my video this morning on Instagram. All those mystery stories where the detective gazes at the suspect’s or the victim’s bookshelves hoping to glean information about their psyche. What might my book shelves say about me?
I like Canadian writers, especially Maritime writers. So, I guess I’m a bit possessive about the land where I grew up. I love books about the people I know, and the places I love. Plus the whole “survival” theme of Canadian Lit appeals to me. I read mostly women writers. Maybe that’s because I admire smart women, wise women, women who can teach me through their stories how to live a better life. When I find a writer I love, I read him or her over and over. I’m impatient with writers I don’t like, and stick with those that I do. Does that make me unadventurous? Or discerning? I love a good murder. Fictional, of course. Do murder mysteries appeal to the logical, mathematical part of my brain? Or the part that really wants the world to be all tidy and nicely tucked up into bed by nightfall?
And I have a whole shelf of books on fashion, both fiction and nonfiction. But I guess we don’t need Inspector Morse to figure that one out, eh?
Now, the kettle has boiled and it’s time for me to go and finish my Peter Grainger book. And then I may read a new book that’s just come in for me at the library. Or I may settle down with the book I’m supposed to read for my book club. Maybe. I am terrible at reading books for book club lately. I don’t know what happened to me when I retired. Maybe thirty years of teaching English, and reading books that I had to read each summer, has put me off reading anything but exactly what I want, when I want. Maybe, at age almost sixty-four, I’m too old to worry about what I should and should not read.
So, what are you reading these days, my friends? What do you think your reading habits, and your bookshelves, say about you? Care to have a go at psychoanalyzing your shelves? Come on, we’re listening.
P.S. All the links to books in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a commission.
Linking up with Catherine at #ShareAllLinkup.