Buy, Borrow, Bypass

I’ve been all over the map, lately, in terms of what I’ve been reading and that’s A-Ok with me. I find that the more diverse my reading, the more interesting connections I make between seemingly disparate figures and events. For instance, as you’ll see below, I recently read a novel about WWI and am in the middle of reading a Coco Chanel biography. At first you might think “what do they have to do with each other?” Well- a whole lot, actually. Chanel was becoming très chic in Paris at the height of the war and…you get the idea. So without further ado, I give you four books to consider for your TBR pile:

boyleSan Miguel by T. C. Boyle

I had never read T. C. Boyle before, and I happened to pick up this book at my local B&N just by chance. And what a nice surprise it was! San Miguel is a novel of historical fiction based on the lives of three women brought by their husbands or fathers to San Miguel Island, off the coast of California, around the turn of the 20th century (my time-period of choice!). Both the Waters family in the 1880s and the Lester family in the 1930s confront the desolation, loneliness, and isolation of the island and their own emotional and physical struggles. And yet, despite the island’s physical isolation, the outside world, with its wars, depressions, and technological progress, always lingers just over the horizon. The slow pace of the novel draws you in until you feel like the rhythm of San Miguel Island is the rhythm of your own life. Time seems to slow down, and that is ok, because we all need a break from this crazy, fast-paced modern life of ours, right? RIGHT.

Verdict: Buy, because you’ll probably want to re-read it. It’s that kind of book.

baxterThe Apartment by Greg Baxter

“Um, wow.” That was my reaction when I reached the last page of this, Baxter’s second, novel (it’s quite slim- under 200 pages). As with San Miguel, I had never heard of Baxter or this novel, but in my quest to read more contemporary fiction, I stumbled upon it and thought, why not? It could have easily been called “A Day in the Life of an Iraq War Veteran in Europe.” And yet, it’s about much more than that, of course. The unnamed narrator has left the U. S. and his previous life as a Navy man and then private contractor. He has come to an unnamed European city in search of a new life, one that allows him to keep memories of war and death and loneliness at bay. During this 24-hour period, he walks around with a woman who is native to the city and who helps him look for an apartment. This story is told in the first-person and, much like Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, walks the line between straight narrative and stream-of-consciousness. The writing is masterful and the tone is tightly controlled, rarely wavering, as if the narrator is making an effort to keep himself together. Does The Apartment make me want to read more Baxter? You BET it does. Therefore…

Verdict: Buy. Period.

spellerThe First of July by Elizabeth Speller

MORE war? you ask. Well, I was recently on a WWI-novel kick, and I was intrigued by the promise of a novel written near 100 years after the conflict began. But…I was disappointed. Basically, the novel follows four soldiers (two British, two French) and their brief interactions before, during, and immediately after the devastating Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Their very different backgrounds, experiences, ages, and passions make it hmmm-worthy when they randomly encounter each other on the streets of Paris or on the battlefield. But for reasons that are not at all clear, only one of the characters speaks in the first-person in the chapters dedicated to him; the others are all third-person narratives funneled through each focal character’s mind. Whatever. The war scenes are predictably bloody and horrifying…predictably. It was like watching a documentary of the war and wanting to turn your eyes away at the particularly gruesome parts. Nothing about the language or pacing were exceptional.

Verdict: Bypass and read Willa Cather’s One of Ours instead.

chaneyCoco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney

And out of nowhere, here comes a biography of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel JUST BECAUSE. I had been browsing the history section of the B&N a while ago and came across this 400-page-volume and for some reason thought “must. have. that. book.” Maybe it was because I had so wanted to be a fashion designer when I was a kid. Maybe it’s because I love reading about successful, mysterious, famous women who create beautiful things. Maybe it’s just because I love saying “Coco” and she was French. Whatever the reason, I’m halfway through and it’s pretty interesting. Nothing revolutionary, though- like many biographies, it begins as far back in the Chanel family as the author could get, and then methodically moves forward through Coco’s life. What this biography does offer that others on the same subject do not is a more in-depth understanding of Chanel’s most important relationships and the early development of her hat and clothing business. Chaney discovered previously-unknown letters written by Chanel’s lover Arthur Capel, and used the memoirs of Chanel’s friends and acquaintances to find references to the couturier, who was notoriously secretive about her origins. A quick and interesting read about a vibrant, creative designer.

Verdict: Borrow, cause it’s nothing that groundbreakingly fantastic. But if you’re interested in fashion, famous businesswomen, or France during the early years of the 20th century, you’ll have a grand old time reading it.

(first posted on Book Riot 1/20/14)

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