Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Novels about Patricia Highsmith and a prison production of The Tempest; a true-life account of opening a secondhand bookstore; a faux memoir setting ancestors’ memories in the context of twentieth-century history; and an exposé of the happiness movement in America: these five very different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.


The Crime Writer

By Jill Dawson

crime-writerPatricia Highsmith hated the term “crime writer”; she preferred to speak of her work as “suspense novels,” animated by the threat of danger. Dawson’s terrific pastiche is set in the early 1960s, when the nomadic Highsmith was living in a remote cottage in Suffolk, England. Beyond the barest biographical facts, though, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. In a combination of third- and first-person narration, she shows “Pat” succumbing to alcoholism and paranoia as she carries on affairs with Sam, a married woman, and Ginny, a young journalist who’s obsessed with her. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination; I’m sure that’s deliberate. This counts as one of the most gripping, compulsive books I’ve encountered this year.

 

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

By Wendy Welch

little-bookstoreEveryone told Wendy Welch and her husband that they were crazy when they decided to open a used bookstore in a small Appalachian Coalfields town in the middle of a recession. They lived above the shop and initially stocked it with their own library plus books picked up cheap at yard sales – though Welch later learned to be much more choosy about what they added to their inventory and to tailor their selections to the tastes of country readers. Essentially, they were making it all up as they went along, but eight years later they’re still a community fixture in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. (I’d love to visit someday.) For the most part that’s because they branched out to fill other roles: hosting cultural events, murder mystery evenings, a writing group, a crafting circle, and regular Quaker meetings. I appreciated the details about the nitty-gritty of running a bookstore (like a chapter on pricing) more than the customer interactions. A warm and fuzzy book-lover’s delight.

 

Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold

By Margaret Atwood

hag-seedMargaret Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways. It’s fun to see the disgraced Felix’s second act as a director of inmate plays at Fletcher Correctional – “I don’t care why you’re in here or what they say you’ve done: for this course the past is prologue.” Part V gets a little tedious/didactic as the cast hash out the characters’ afterlives, and at times (mainly the raps) you’re painfully aware that this is an old white lady trying to approximate how seasoned criminals might speak, but in general I thoroughly enjoyed this. Even though you see behind the scenes (e.g. my favorite chapter was about Felix wandering the streets of Toronto to buy props and costumes), you still get caught up in the magic. (See also Carolyn’s wonderful review at Rosemary and Reading Glasses.)

 

The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop?

By Ruth Whippman

pursuit-of-happinessI call this niche genre anti-self-help. (Two other great examples are Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich and Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.) Whippman has a particularly interesting perspective as a British Jew who moved to California for her husband’s work. With sharp humor and natural British cynicism, she investigates various manifestations of the American obsession with happiness, including the cult-like Landmark Forum, Zappos shoes HQ, Facebook’s encouragement of shallow social interaction, and the positive psychology movement. I especially liked her visit to Mormons in Salt Lake City (the nation’s happiest group, it seems, but also the most highly medicated against depression), but the funniest chapter is on happiness-focused parenting. The basic message is that the happiness movement went wrong by making it a matter of personal responsibility, of mental and spiritual triumph over circumstances. It gives no easy answers, but it’s a very enjoyable book.

 

Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

moonglowChabon’s seventh novel was inspired by his maternal grandfather’s deathbed confessions in 1989—or was it? A tongue-in-cheek author’s note refers to this as a “memoir,” and it’s narrated by “Mike Chabon,” but he and “Grandfather” (never named) are characters here in the same way that Jonathan Safran Foer and his ancestors are in Everything Is Illuminated. Space travel and explosives are Grandfather’s lifelong obsessions, but the chronology moves back and forth seemingly haphazardly, as if we are hearing this story exactly as it emerged. Chabon offers a rich meditation on how Jewishness and family secrets influence the creation of identity. With a seam of dark humor that brings to mind Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man…, Moonglow inventively fuses family history and fiction but leaves cracks for happiness and meaning to shine through. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

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8 thoughts on “Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

  1. All of these sound good! But the ones that jump out are The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (it sounds like she opened her bookstore the same way I’d like to open mine some day – with her own books – my excuse for collecting so many!), and The Pursuit of Happiness (sometimes I think that our pursuit of happiness is making us miserable – and I think it’s a lot worse now that we compare ourselves to everyone else on social media).

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    1. I do think you’d really enjoy both of those. Is opening a bookstore a serious goal of yours? I’d come visit 😉 I would say I’d like to do the same, but Welch points out that it’s not a matter of liking books as much as liking people, and I fear I’d fail in that respect.

      The Pursuit of Happiness has a whole chapter on social media and how we pretend to be much happier and more successful versions of ourselves on there. I found it very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I would love to open a used book store. And I think I’d be okay with the people if most of them were book people! I’ll let you know if it ever happens, so you can come visit. 🙂

        The whole social media phenomenon fascinates me (and depresses me, too). You’ve just made me want to read both of these books even more!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. They’re small-town fairly romantic, light novels that are about the community as well as the central characters. There’s a whole series and I read them all back in the day, i think she’s branched out into 20th century historicals about tailors and milliners now, too.

        Liked by 1 person

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