In my search for positive things about winter (a short list), I’ll note one good thing–there’s more time for reading. Although it seems like I just finished Edmund De Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” last night I wrapped up “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall, all 599 pages of it.
My one-sentence assessment: This good book doesn’t live up to its immense potential.
“The Lonely Polygamist” is one of the American Library Association’s Notable Books for this year, from the fiction portion of the list. The premise is that Golden Richards, a man with four wives and 28 children, finds himself, essentially, lonely. He’s also in several kinds of mess, overseeing construction of a brothel in the next state (he tells the church and family that he’s working on a nursing home), becoming involved with the wife of his boss, and ignoring the simmering tension in his three homes.
Udall tells the story by alternating the focus between Golden, one of his sons, and his fourth wife.
Looking back on the novel, I observe three basic sections–the first introduces the people and their dilemmas, the second piles on the lack of love, respect, integrity, and compassion among the cast, and the third brings the story to some resolution. That second section was way too long. It became tiresome and felt hopeless. I don’t know why I plowed through it, since I’m a firm believer that no reader should feel compelled to soldier through an unrewarding book. Nevertheless, I did. And Udall did well with pulling the threads together.
I expected this to be a romp of a book, and certainly Udall creates incredible scenes that are drop-dead absurd or downright funny. The premise here is great–a lonely polygamist?! But Golden Richards seemed too much of a hangdog–he weighed down too many pages. What high hopes I had. If only that great idea hadn’t burned itself out so early, so far short of the 599th page.
It’s nonfiction, De Waal’s family’s own story of a collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines, that were purchased by a great-uncle in Paris in the 1870s, presented as a wedding gift to a young couple in 1899, and then very nearly lost when the Nazis took control of Vienna in 1938.
The story is much more than just the netsuke, it’s the story of a fabled Jewish banking family, the Ephrussi’s. They rose to prominence beginning with grain futures in the mid-1800s and rose to wealth and prominence, to have businesses in Odessa where they began, then Paris and Vienna also. De Waal looks back on their social prominence, the impact of their being Jewish, and how it all came crashing down with the Nazis. He creates a lovely braid of family memory, cultural life, and history. I felt such a sense of doom as the story approached the era of Hitler.
Looking back on what I will remember most from this book, three things come to mind. One is Charles Ephrussi, the young art collector, with an apartment jam-packed with Impressionist paintings and almost countless other art objects. De Waal contrasts that image of art-on-top-of-art with what we typically see in art museums now, one painting well-separated from another on a plain wall. The second, an image of the Ephrussi home in Vienna ransacked, priceless furniture dumped from one floor to another. Finally another is the return of the netsuke to an Ephrussi who makes his post-warhome in Tokyo, the collection restored to a lovely display case in the country where they were created.
What a great story. De Waal tells it well, though from time to time the pace seems to founder. De Waal, a ceramic artist, seems so practical and so down-to-earth in contrast to his wealthy ancestors. That alone provides a shot of energy at several turns.
I recommend this book generally, and especially to people who are interested in art, in history, or in collecting.
Over the weekend, the Reference and User Services Division, a division of the American Library Association, rocked my reading world by announcing the 2011 Notable Books list.
Several of these titles are already quite popular. When I checked for them in our catalog, I had to join a request list. But I was able to check out “The Lonely Polygamist” by Brady Udall from the fiction portion, and “Citizens of London” by Lynne Olson from the nonfiction.
The libraries seldom close for snow days, and didn’t close today, but what a perfect day it would be for sitting down with one of these, feet up, warmly wrapped up, coffee or cocoa nearby, with hours of reading ahead.
Last night I had a great time at Eastmont Towers, a retirement community here in Lincoln.
I’d been invited to talk about books, and so I chose to present six of my favorite books from recent years’ American Library Association Notable Books lists. From time to time when I’m asked to talk about books, I’ll review recent Notables lists and pull out those that seem most broadly appealing, and that I found especially rewarding. As a reader, I enjoy reviewing those titles, going back to mark an excerpt or two to sample the flavor of the book. As a librarian, I hope that I’ll persuade someone in the audience to try a new book…from the library.
What a great group! I recognized several people with whom I’d worked before on library or literacy projects. While one or two people may have checked out from time to time (it happens in every crowd!), I appreciated their engagement, their interest, and their follow-up questions.
When I talk about books, I emphasize how much we get from talking to each other about books (or the newspaper or magazines or blogs….). I point out the role that our libraries play in promoting the community conversation about reading. I always hope that these presentations lead to conversations based on books and reading. My goal for the Eastmont group was that within the week, they’d each start a conversation that began, “I’ve got to tell you about something I just read….”
And even though it isn’t about books specificially, here’s the Big Question that I’ve inserted into my presentations recently–Why Are Some People Engaged? Its corrollary is–What Can the Library Do to Promote Engagement in Lincoln and Lancaster County? Behind my questions is my belief that it’s better to be engaged than disengaged. Better for people, better for communities. There’s been interesting research that links reading to other forms of civic engagement. Our Eastmont group didn’t come to any hard-and-fast conclusions last night. We did agree, though, that being among people who are engaged, and having even just one person invite you to participate, likely makes a person more likely to engage.
Even in this time of great change in the technology of reading, I’m committed to the human connection, the human engagement, that reading creates. Our time together at Eastmont demonstrated how people come together through reading. That’s some great energy. Let’s tap it.
As many of you know, each year I read most of the books on the American Library Association Notable Books List. The list is typically announced in January–about 25 books including fiction and nonfiction, with a couple of poetry added in. I do the reading, and then in October, November, and December, I give presentations around and about, describing this year’s books. The books tend to be fairly literary and serious, although each year’s list has a few gems even for a reader looking for something frivolous or easy or funny.
In my reading calendar around September, I get to the Notable titles that I have put off reading, usually because they’ve struck me as likely downers, or too thick and slow, or too serious (which for me is often the same as thick and slow).
So, here it is, late September, and I finally picked up Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood.” It’s a sequel to her earlier, “Oryx and Crake.” I put it off because I knew it was set in a dystopian future, and since I’ve read Margaret Atwood before, I know that when she writes about hopeless…well, it’s hopeless.
I got up early and finished it this morning before going to work, I was that taken with the story. It’s set in a future where chaos and corporations reign, where pharmaceutical research creates crazy animals, plagues, and sexual explosion, and where bodies are dumped for scavengers to process. The story itself revolves around a group of people called The Gardeners who nurture rooftop gardens, who’ve created a religious world based on nature and vegetarianism.
As the story opens, it seems that only a few people have survived a plague. Two of them are former Gardeners. Their stories of survival eventually wend them back to The Gardeners. Through flashbacks, Atwood shows us the back story on two women, Ren and Toby. They work their way through the wreck of the world that remains, not trusting the health or intentions of other people, watching their supplies run low, and being forced out of the places that offer refuge.
I tend to think that most novels set in other times are really about our present, and I believe that of “The Year of the Flood.” Atwood writes a ripping good story, but the questions she raises are of our time. How are we taking care of the world? What DO we worship? What will be the outcome of scientific advances that are mostly about money? What price will people pay to be attractive? Where does materialism get us? Those are addressed even as the reader soldiers on, hoping that Toby and Ren survive to create a new life among their old friends.
I wasn’t ready for the ending. I turned the final page, expecting another chapter.
I’ll recommend this to people who appreciate good writing–Atwood places people carefully, and she uses dialogue so well, allowing people to reveal much about themselves as they seem to describe others. Toby and Ren are imperfect characters, yet I found myself caring what happened to them. In the plain old-fashioned sense, I wanted to know how the story ended.
I’ll probably also recommend this to people who are concerned about the environment, since that is a major aspect of this book.
And I’ll recommend it to people who say that they don’t care for dystopian novels or science fiction or books set in the future…I would have said that, too, but I enjoyed “The Year of the Flood” immensely.