Monday, September 05, 2005

The Last of the Summer Reading

Summer isn’t officially over, but Labor Day definitely presages a shift in mood. Before I rush to read all the new fall releases, I wanted to do a run down of the novels I've read the past six weeks.

I find that I definitely gravitate toward women authors. While all books are stories about relationships and how they shift and evolve, I am drawn to tales of domestic life, to families who love and betray, to friendships that uplift or tear down.

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller. I have been a fan of Miller’s since The Good Mother and have read most of her books. This book, like many of her previous novels, is the story of a family wrenched apart by sexuality. The story features Mark, who works in the wine industry in Sonoma, and Eva, his first wife. They separate after an affair, and Eva eventually marries John, who dies early in the book from a freak car accident. Mark and Eva’s 15-year old daughter Daisy is devastated by her stepfather’s death and embarks on an illicit affair with one of her parents’ friends. The story examines how extended families support and undermine one another, and how people learn to love through loss. I enjoyed the book a lot, but felt disappointed by the end. There was no bang, only a whimper. Perhaps life is like that, not resolving itself in any dramatic fashion, but I wanted more of a blow up.

Good Family by Terry Gamble This has one of the best opening sentences I have ever read:

“In the years before our grandmother died, when my sister and I wore matching dresses, and the grown-ups, unburdened by conscience, drank gin and smoked; those years before planes made a mockery of distance, and physics a mockery of time; in the years before I knew what it was like to be regarded with hard, needy want, when my family still had its goodness, and I my innocence; in those years before Negroes were blacks, and soldiers went AWOL, and women were given their constrained, abridged liberties, we traveled to Michigan by train.”

In this book, filmmaker Maddie Addison returns to an island in Lake Michigan, where her family has had a summer home for five generations. Addison once loved to come here and play with her brothers and sisters and first cousins – until a summer 15 years earlier when her infant daughter died of SIDS in her crib. Maddie has to return because her mother is on her deathbed. Gamble does a wonderful job of creating a woman so haunted by the past she cannot deal with the present, and she creates wonderful, eccentric characters that keep the plot moving – even though not much happens.

Deadly Slipper by Michelle Wan – I picked up this book because it’s a mystery set in the Dordogne region in France, an area I visited on vacation two years ago. The story centers around Mara, a Canadian interior decorator living in France, who is tracking down her her twin sister, Bedie, who disappeared on a hike in the area 19 years earlier. Mara finds her sister’s camera in an antique shop and develops the film, only to find a series of photos of the orchids in the region and a strange pigeon coup. Mara enlists Julian, a specialist in orchids, to help her trace her sister’s footsteps. I picked up this book because it got good reviews. It began strongly, faltered in the middle, but Wan managed to make the ending gripping.

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Why are southern protagonists and their families always slightly kooky? Is this what people in the south really are like? I somehow doubt it. Jackson’s book has a set of crazy characters that act unbelievably. Arlene Fleet flees her hometown of Possett, Alabama for Chicago to not only escape small town life but to put a big distance between herself and a terrible secret. While in the north she meets a terrific man, Burr, but she refuses to tell her family about him because he is black. Of course she goes back home and of course her dreaded secret is not exactly what she imagined. There are funny bits throughout but the novel was too cutesy for my taste.

Swing by Rupert Holmes – My mother-in-law and her sister, New Jersey residents, told me about this mystery because it’s set in the Bay Area in the 1940s and prominently features my neighborhood landmark, the Claremont Hotel. The lead character is Ray Sherwoood, a talented saxophone player who stays perpetually on tour so he can forget the premature death of his daughter. While playing at the Claremont, he receives a message from a fellow musician and he travels to the 1940 World’s Fair on Treasure Island to meet her. While there, he observes a woman fall to her death from a carillon tower. Is it suicide or murder? Swing, written by Holmes, who has won numerous Tonys and such for his Broadway musical The Secret of Edwin Drood, is lightweight, amusing, and fun – a perfect summer read. It also has a CD of music referred to in the book – all orchestrated by Holmes.