This past month, assisted by a week of vacation, I tackled three books that have been recommended to me numerous times, which left me feeling somewhat virtuous.
First up was The Glass Castle, the bestselling memoir by Jeanette Walls. This was a difficult book for me to read. Walls describes a childhood in which individualism and eccentricity cross over into abuse, neglect and chaos. Rex Walls' alcoholism and eccentricity caused him to lose job after job. Rose Mary Walls fancied herself an artist and although she was certified to teach, refused to do so most of the time -- even when her children were starving and clad in rags -- simply because she didn't want to. The Walls siblings were used to moving in the middle of the night, piling into whatever wreck of a car they had so Mom and Dad could avoid bill collectors, or a bench warrant.
You can already sense my frustration. There are heart-wrenching scenes: kids eating margarine because it's the only thing for dinner and they're starving; a mother who doesn't comfort or stand up for her daughter when a relative tries to sexually abuse her; a father who steals the money his teenage daughters bust their butts earning so he can buy booze; a little girl whose mother resists getting her eyeglasses because that would be mollycoddling weak eyes that should be working harder (the scene where Lori Walls gets her first pair of glasses, and walks around struck by the beauty of the objects she can now see made me want to cry).
But what frustrated me so much about these awful scenes were the needlessness of them all. Rex Walls needed to go to AA and dry out, but if he didn't, Rose Mary Walls was able to teach school and could have supported her children adequately, if not luxuriously, on a teacher's salary if she'd kept working. She had assets she could have sold to provide for her kids -- land in Texas, valuable jewelry -- but refused to for no good reason. The selfishness, the lack of maturity, the refusal to put one's own needs second behind that of one's little children, it all just infuriated me. I had to pick up and put this book down, since reading it in large portions was just too upsetting.
I can't say I enjoyed the book. Walls' childhood was fascinating in that it was so far removed from what most people experience, and I was left with tremendous admiration for her ability to stay focused on getting away from her family and creating her own life. I also admired Walls' generosity of spirit in that she writes her memoir in a matter-of-fact tone, without any whining or self-pity, no small feat given what she experienced. I can't decide if Walls just came to expect so little from her parents that they no longer had the ability to disappoint her, or if she consciously chose to trim her anger and other negative feelings from the book and deal with them privately.
After such a bleak story, I turned to some escapism. First up was The Bee's Kiss by Barbara Cleverly, another Joe Sandilands mystery set in 1920s London. Lots of nightclubs and flappers and British nobles and stiff martinis as Joe Sandilands -- back from India -- solves the murder of a pillar of society who is found dead in her hotel suite.
Bad Boy by Peter Robinson, is the latest entry in his Inspector Banks series of mysteries set in Yorkshire. In this installment, Inspector Banks is away on vacation when the action starts, and his able sidekick Annie Cabot gets to take over. While the case lacked some of the mystery and complexity of past Banks novels, it was still an enjoyable read if you like the characters. This was an Amazon Vine pick that I scored for free.
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffennegger was the second book that was recommended to me. It's the story of Henry, a man who travels back and forth in time to different parts of his life. During each episode of time travel, the current Henry meets the Henry of whatever time he's traveled to. Much of the book revolves around Henry's love for his wife Clare. It took me a little while to get drawn into the story; the beginning is a bit jarring and the frequent chronological shifts were hard for me to get used to. Overall,I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, although it was a bit melodramatic and breathless at times. Several of the plot elements were a bit too clever by half, particularly Henry's death and several scenes involving his daughter. I probably would have liked the book more if I'd seen fewer gushing reviews of it. I wasn't terribly impressed with the quality of the writing: the strength of the book lies more in the originality of the plot rather than the skill of the writer.
Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland was another Kolla and Brock mystery set in London. Another enjoyable read for fans of that series.
Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker was a book I happened upon and ended up enjoying a lot. The main character is the "chief" (only) police officer of a small rural French community. The village's first murder case is politically charged and complex. Part of the charm of the book was the backdrop of French country life and the unconventional hero Bruno. I will look for the sequel which came out this summer.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The last book that has been recommended to me; I resisted because I am a bit leery of a lot of fantasy fiction -- so much of it seems like a bad Star Trek episode. This book appeared on Elvis's summer reading list as a possible choice, and after he enjoyed it, I decided to give it a go. I was knocked out by how much I enjoyed it. The story sounds odd -- an orphaned toddler is "adopted" by the residents of a graveyard -- but Gaiman's imagination and skill made this enjoyable and exciting reading. There is a certain timelessness to this book that I think will make it a classic. I might even pick up one of Gaiman's other novels....
Tell me what you're reading in the comments, or share some recommendations with me! I try to respond in the comments when people ask whether I've read something, and I do really enjoy hearing your suggestions.