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:
San 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Coco 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
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)