Figuring it all out

Dear Reader:

I’m happy to say that I’m returned from my last trip this year and looking forward to two and a half months at home.  I plan to take at least a couple weeks off.  And to do a lot of dog walking, cross country skiing, reading, cooking, blogging, and some knitting (need to add to my winter socks).  I’m at a career stage where I’m traveling about once a month for work – sometimes more – and I’m starting to realize that it takes its toll.  I plan to say no more often (this can be hard because my travel invites for work are often received from a treasured colleague whom I want to support), pass opportunities on to others more frequently, and get less caught up in the status of having a heavy travel schedule, particularly for international travel.  I do have three to four international trips planned in the first half of 2012, but I’m going to try to avoid taking on more than that.

I had a lovely trip down to southern Illinois this week.  I had not been there before.  Southern Illinois is wedged between Kentucky and Missouri.  It has a “shallow” South culture and remarkable topography for the Midwest (in other words, some hills).  And forests.

#104 Family Album by Penelope Lively (kindle)

Family album --lively

I think I’ve read Lively before – maybe Moon Tiger but I haven’t been able to remember the flavor of her work except that she is British, contemporary, and writes the sort of female-oriented, relationship-focused, thoughtful and literary books I enjoy.  I bought this book awhile ago and started it without getting pulled into it successfully enough to finish.  I’d say I was about 1/4 of the way through it when I set it aside.  I thought I got it a couple years ago when I got my first kindle (dx), but it looks like it was published in 2010, so it could not have been that long ago.

When I came back to it – partly in the spirit of trying to finish up and clean out some of the 29 incomplete books from my “good reading” folder on my kindle, at first I picked up where I left off.  But I still wasn’t getting pulled into the story.  So, I forced myself to go back to the beginning.  This was a tough choice because I was in the mode of fast completion, rather than enjoyable, high quality, immersive reading experience.  I’ve blogged about too many books to which I didn’t give a fair chance by reading them in a disjointed fashion.  But I did go back to the beginning.  I’m glad I did because I had a different impression of the book after doing so.  It was worth re-reading that 1/4.

Family Album is about a nine person family (I’m not sure we ever learn their last name): two parents, one au pair who came years ago and stayed, and six children who live in Allersmead.  Allersmead is a large, rickety, Edwardian house.

The book starts with one of the grown children, Gina, coming back for a brief visit with a serious boyfriend.  From Gina’s point of view, Allersmead is a place that swallows you up in unpleasant ways and she is eager to get out as quickly as possible.  On the other hand, Phillip, her boyfriend, finds the family fascinating and enjoyable.

The book moves back and forth in time and is told from the perspective of all of the nine people, at least at some point.  It is not the sort of book that repeats events from different points of view, rather a book where you get to hear directly from everyone and perhaps a few of them provide their perspectives or memories on major and minor events and the tenor of the family.  At the heart of the story are Alison, the mother of this large brood, and something of a mystery or, perhaps better said, major event that is not talked about by the whole family, but rather something everyone comes to realize occurred.  The event both binds and pushes apart the family.  In many ways, the family is both remarkable and unremarkable.  Few families have au pairs who become permanent members, absorbed into the brood as it were.

Many of the grown children have the same mild revulsion for Allersmead.  This is a bit puzzling as Alison is never presented as overbearing and Charles (the father) is really just mentally absent (in other words, he is distant, more involved in and focused on the books he writes than the overally family).  I really have to say the revulsion is never fully explained and is somewhat puzzling given how everyone is presented (and I say this as someone who is all for putting distance between yourself and toxic family members).

I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t love it.  Perhaps this is partly based upon the fact that I don’t find family and children all that fascinating for its own sake.  I’m probably not the biggest fan of non-linear narrative, although this book does a good job of it.  It did grow on me, particularly toward the end when we hear more from Alison.  I think part of what left me a bit less compelled than I would have liked is the fact that so few people in the book are really sympathetic.  The children are all pretty self-involved, as is Charles the father.  Ingrid, the au pair, is not very sympathetic.  The only person who comes off well is Alison and even she is guilty of basically cramming the kids down her husband’s throat.

You could say that we all have flaws and we all are fairly self-involved….  Yes, true.  But Lively doesn’t paint particularly compelling pictures of all these people in the album.  Yes, it is the story of a family.  But not one I liked very much or found inherently all that interesting.

#32 Firewall by Henning Mankell (hard copy)

Ahhh, my last Mankell for awhile – I don’t own anymore.  Perhaps I’ll get some of the remaining Wallander books through my library eventually.  Maybe I’m jaded? Tired from a lot of travel?  Cranky?  But I’m a bit glad to put Wallander aside for awhile.

I’ve talked many times about Mankell’s strong social justice themes.  This book is about 2/3 of the way through the Wallander series and he does an interesting thing with this theme.  He takes it to its extreme conclusion and turns it on its head.  In the interest of protecting plot points, I won’t say too much about this except that the justice theme is (broadly) world poverty.  But this is not a book that gives us a lot of information about the theme.  Just what happens when people go to extremes and self-justify actions with massive impacts.

By and large, I did get pulled through this story in a satisfying manner – I picked up the book a few days ago and finished it today, reading it a lot on planes and such.  I confess to skimming the last few chapters – by then the story was clear, we had all the pieces, and it was just a matter of who would and wouldn’t survive.  As the title suggests, computers, security, and international networks are at the heart of the book.  I haven’t tried to figure out the sequence of when this book was published in Swedish as compared to when Stieg Larsson wrote his “Girl” series (I think this book came first, but I’m not 100% sure) but, in some ways, the plot has some similarity to those books.  Mainly just in terms of hacking into international networks…

Its a good book and I continue to like Mankell and plan to continue to read him, but it wasn’t my favorite Wallander.  But I’m willing to allow as this might be more about me than Mankell’s writing in this book.

Wrap-up and Open Letter

I’m not sure where I’m going next in my reading – I think I’ll move into #48 S.J. Watson’s Before I go to sleep – I’m not sure I’m in the mood for more serious literature, but I also seem to be a bit off mysteries (this book is a mystery) so we’ll see.

I’ve been wanting to add my passel of Open Letter Press books (the U of Rochester Press that focuses on translating excellent, untranslated literature) to my reading list.  I’ve had trouble getting into these books (I subscribed to them last year and have a bunch), but am hoping that blogging about them will help.  They tend to be a bit modern and experimental for my taste.  So, here they are:

105) The Conquerer by Jan Kjaerstad

106) Vilnius Poker by Richardas Gavelis

107) The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca

108) The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel)  by Macedonio Fernandez

109) The Sailor from Gilbraltar by Marguerite Duras

110) The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra

111) The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

112) Gasoline by Quim Monzo

113) Aracoeli by Elsa Morante

114) Klausen by Andreas Maker

115) Ergo by Jakov Lind

116) To Hell with Cronje by Ingrid Winterbach

117) Nobody’s Home by Dubravka Ugresic

118) The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer

119) Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda

120) A Thousand Peaceful Cities by Jerzy Pilch

121) The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov

Happy Reading!  Ruby

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