Herewith my reviews of the 4 most recent books I have read.
ABIDE WITH ME
By Elizabeth Strout
When I saw that Elizabeth Strout had a new novel, I got it right away. I had loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE, her first work. ABIDE WITH ME bears some similarities to the earlier work—New England setting, a variety of characters interacting in situations, characters seen from both positive and negative perspectives.
It differed in that ABIDE WITH ME is a continuous story in traditional novel form. We meet Tyler Caskey, a newly minted seminary graduate who goes to his first church. He is also newly married to Lauren, who has led a charmed and pampered childhood. What seems like an idyllic setting with a fairy tale couple slowly deepens and is complicated by relationships. As the story progresses we begin to see the various characters with their flaws.
The people who live in West Annett have lives that are filled with small issues that seem to them to loom large. In addition to their own daily problems, the times (the novel is set at the end of the 1950s) make them fearful. For example, one family is building a bomb shelter in preparation for Russia dropping a bomb.
As the first part of the book comes to a close, we learn that Tyler’s wife who was suffering from cancer has died. She leaves Tyler with two young daughters.
As the second part of the novel begins, we see the cracks in the facades of various characters. The revelations help carry the plot of the novel forward.
Ultimately, this is Tyler’s story. He turns again and again to the words of the old hymn for solace:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
The conclusion of the novel provides a sweet connection to the words of the hymn, in a very satisfying conclusion to the many threads of the story.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
By André Aciman
Rarely do I finish a book with an intake of breath and something close to a sob. But CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is one such book.
André Aciman's CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is a story of finding one's identity; it is a story about the journey from youth to adulthood; and it is a story of desire. But above all it is a story of love--found, lived, lost, and remembered.
If we are fortunate, we have in our lifetimes one of those heart gripping loves--the memories of which stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Such is the focus of this novel. It tells the story of a summer love affair between Elio, a 17-year-old boy living in Italy in his family's villa, and Oliver, a 24 year old U.S. graduate student who spends a summer at the villa as an intern to Elio's father who is a professor of classics.
Elio and Oliver eventually have a passionate love affair. But when the summer ends the inevitable question is whether they will be together again. That option is unlikely, given the social mores of the 1980s when the novel takes place. Oh, of course there were gay romances then, but societally such were mostly subterranean.
So they part. Elio, whose story we continue to follow, is bereft. He aches with longing to see Oliver again. After 20 years, they do reunite. The question that hangs between them is whether they will/can resume their love affair.
I will let the answer to that question for the reader to discern.
The ending of the novel left me with an aching emptiness--all captured in two words Oliver speaks "Cor cordium."
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE
By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
This has to be the scariest book I have read in a long time. And it’s non-fiction. It is so scary that I had to put it aside from time to time—just to let my psyche recover…which, to tell the truth, it hasn’t.
But I persevered and finally finished the book. The book is full of analyses of various democracies over time that have been under assault. Some failed, other faltered. In some instances countries even recovered. But, of course, the impetus for this book is the current political scene in the United States. So the book becomes part cautionary account and seer into the future. It also gives suggestions as to how we might recover.
The current president did not cause this assault on democracy, but much of what is happening in our body politic is greatly fueled by the behavior particularly of Republicans. The authors lay out three possible “futures for a post-Trump America.” First, there could be a swift recovery brought the collapse of the Trump presidency—for whatever reasons: defeat in reelection, resignation, impeachment. But that alone would not help democracy recovery.
A second possible future could occur if the political leadership is unchanged, if the Republicans control the presidency as well as both houses of Congress. Such control could embolden Republicans to expand their efforts to assure a white electoral majority. Examples they give are “large-scale deportation, immigration restrictions, the purging of voter rolls, and the adoption of strict voter ID laws.” Any such steps would be “profoundly antidemocratic.”
A natural response to such increasing restrictions might be resistance—which would in turn be suppressed thereby reinforcing the effort to maintain the restrictions. All one needs to do is look at modern day Russia—an example of extreme suppression of political dissent.
A third possible future, which the authors think is more likely, is increasing polarization. The authors particularly emphasize “departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare…democracy without solid guardrails.”
Perhaps, now you see why I paused several times in reading this book. And perhaps you also understand why I call it scary. BUT—we cannot change the threatening outcome of what is happening today by being uninformed.
Fittingly, as I was reading the book, I used as my book mark one that had come from the ACLU—it had printed the text of the original Bill of Rights which included amendments 1 through 10, and the additional amendments that directly relate to citizenship and voting rights. A most fitting book mark—and a constant reminder that what we have in the United States is precious, fragile, and once destroyed very difficult if not impossible to regain.
IN PRAISE OF DIFFICULT WOMEN: Life lessons from 29 Heroines who Dared to Break the Rules
By Karen Karbo
While I don't think of myself as a "difficult woman" I certainly respect those women throughout history who have been considered "difficult." That label is presumably applied to a woman who refuses to use the social norms as the only measure of her worth.
So I looked forward to reading this book. The first few profiles were interesting. A few of the women were "new" to me, but most of them I had previously read about. As the book continued, I began to become increasingly annoyed with the author's approach. There was in some of her portrayals a strong wiff of gossip column writing. In other words--the primary focus of each portrayal was an assessment by Karbo of what these women did that made them difficult. A few examples were genuine--things the women did that were norm-breaking. But other details were just titillating.
Here's where my interest in the book began to fade. I read a book such as this to learn something, not to be enthralled with a particular writer's adulation of historic figures. Even the author's language lent itself to a breezy gossipy kind of assessment.
Some examples--in describing Gloria Steinem: "Just because Bunnies served horny businessmen highballs and medium-rare steaks didn't mean they were good with being felt up." This was in discussing Gloria Steinem's having "been a Bunny" for a short time. Karbo does refute the common belief that Steinem worked as a bunny; in fact, she was doing undercover research for an expose she wrote. For me, the flippant presentation of information such as that combined with the quote above robs the passage of the import it is intended to convey.
Here's another example--this in the chapter on Amy Poehler. "Even difficult women who are stubborn, brave, outspoken and won't take no for an answer tend to let this kind of thing go. Men, however, do not let this sort of thing go. That's why there are bar fights and the situation in the Middle East." WHY? Why undo the impact of the initial sentence with a trite comparison?
Then there are the footnotes and attributions. Usually footnotes indicate a source for the statement to which the foonote is attached. Not so here. The footnotes are too often a clever, or witty comment (at least an attempt) on the information just given. Why? On at least one occasion a detail was outright in error. The statement in the chapter on Billie Jean King was that “in June 1972, the Supreme Court passed Title IX” Um, sorry—the Supreme Court never “passes’ a law. It may rule of the constitutionality of a law, but that’s not same as “passing” it.
Go ahead and read it if you want. But remember it's not an indepth study of some important women of our times. It's more like a Liz Smith column.
Hope all is well with you and your summer is going well!
Thank you for sharing your reading pile. I am reading "Upheaval" by Jared Diamond which seems complementary to a book on your list "How Democracies Die". Diamond looks at 7 countries which dealt with National crisis (Germany, Finland, Chile, Indonesia, Australia are the ones I have finished so far). Yet to read the US part. Another book I am thoroughly enjoying is "Grant" by Chernow. Gives me a great perspective on Civil war and Reconstruction.
I had not read ABIDE WITH ME but I do plan to read her new novel about Olive Kitteridge that will be published in October. I was quite disappointed with MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. So much so that I did not read her next novel, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. I know that many people loved Lucy Barton but I felt rather cheated, perhaps because I had enjoyed her other books so much. I welcome the opportunity to follow Olive once again. It is a rare book that makes one love the book even when you are not so fond of the main character, but I really loved OLIVE KITTERIDGE the book. I'm ready to give Strout another chance.
I haven't read the others, but I did find CALL ME BY YOUR NAME fascinating. I do enjoy your reviews.
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