Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reading Round-Up

With the season coming to an end, I've had more time to read. Sadly, there are lots of books that just aren't that interesting or memorable (or, even worse, are poorly written). On the plus side, it does make finding a book that engages me all the more enjoyable. Read on for three quite different books that have recently captured my attention.

 In "The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos," Dominic Smith creates a story in which a painting links three lives on three continents over three centuries.The fictional Sarah de Vos is one of the few female members of the Guild of St. Luke in 17th century Amsterdam, a union of sorts whose ranks included Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. (The ways in which the Guild regulated its members' artistic lives plays an important role in Sarah's story.)  De Vos' best known painting, "At the Edge of the Wood," has been in Marty de Groot's family for many generations. During a charity event at the de Groot home in 1957, the painting is switched out for an expert forgery painted by art student Ellie Shipley. De Groot's search for the original painting leads to an interesting relationship between the collector and the forger. Their paths cross again in the year 2000 when Shipley, now a well-known art historian and curator, mounts an exhibit of Dutch Golden Age art at a gallery in Australia. Smith deftly alternates among characters, eras and settings as he builds a story that's both engrossing and satisfying.

"Florence Gordon" by Brian Morton had me from its opening page. "Florence Gorden was trying to write a memoir, but she had two strikes against her: she was old and she was an intellectual...Maybe it was three strikes, because not only was she an intellectual, she was a feminist...If you're an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill..."  And while I wouldn't characterize Florence as strident or shrill, she is definitely blunt. A well-known essayist, she's perfectly happy in her own life, thank you very much, and isn't thrilled about the overtures her friends and family are making to get her out more into the world. They throw a surprise birthday party for her at a restaurant, telling her, "We wanted to get you out of your apartment so you could have some fun."  "I was having fun, Florence thought. I was having fun sitting in my apartment and trying to understand our life, our collective life. I was having fun trying to make the sentences come right. I was having fun trying to keep a little moment in time alive."  When she goes to the ladies' room, she contemplates climbing out a window but decides it would be too undignified. Instead, she goes back to her friends and family, tells them she has work to do at home, and leaves them to the festivities. As you can probably gather, Florence is a challenge. But her family and friends keep at it, both for her sake and their own.  I loved Florence's spirit and often found myself laughing at her crotchety nature while appreciating her desire to lead her life in her own way. A quick fun read that's perfect for a lazy summer afternoon. 

I'll tell you upfront:  reading "The Son" by Philipp Meyer is a commitment. The paperback version weighs in at 592 pages. The audio book (which was my version of choice) goes on for 18 hours. In this age of tweet-length attention spans, an author has to be at the top of his game to hold a reader's interest for that long. Happily, Meyer is a terrific storyteller. "The Son" relays the saga of five generations of the Texas McCullough family through the eyes of family patriarch Eli McCullough (aka the "Colonel"), Eli's son and family conscience Peter, and Eli's great-granddaughter and oil baroness Jeannie. As a child, Eli was captured in a raid by a band of Comanches. The sheer brutality of the wild west gave me pause, as did the way Eli became part of the Comanches' world. While Eli eventually returns to "civilization," he never wholly transitions back to the white man's world.  Jeannie is an equally fascinating character, a strong and capable woman in a man's world at a time when most girls were worried about their coming out parties. Peter's hand-wringing, though warranted, becomes a bit tedious over time. His perspective brings balance to the story, though, and his role as chronicler of the family's exploits during the early 20th century bridges the gap between Eli's and Jeannie's lives. "The Son" pulled me immediately into its rough and tumble world, and there was never any question that I would see the tale through to its conclusion. I'm far from alone in enjoying this book. It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (but lost out to the even heftier "Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt). 

Let me know what's on your own bookshelf.  I'm always looking for my next favorite read.

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