Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Synopsis: Raskolnikov is going through something major. In the midst of his melancholia (?) / funk (?) / morbid obsession (?) he convinces himself that murdering an unlovable old pawnbroker is justifiable. But can he live with himself?
Let me just say you can’t really discuss a major work like this, at least not in the same way I’ll discuss and dismiss the books below. All I’ll say is that I’m glad I tackled it, despite dreading it; that it read easier and I brought more to the story than when I first read it at 18; and that it made me think all over again about this ten-year old murder committed by one of my Great Books classmates. How do any of us pry apart pathology and sin and fatal philosophy? How do any of us determine culpability? And yet, of course, we must. (The translation I read this time, though it had a cover that freaked out the kids, probably also helped make this reading less impenetrable.)
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Synopsis: New to the Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family are not new to difficult frontier living. But an unremitting series of severe blizzards will test them, and their community, in ways they never imagined.
As it was for most of you, 2020 was our own personal long winter, summed up hilariously (and with lots of profanity, be warned) in this piece from McSweeney’s. Reading The Long Winter aloud to my kids during our stir-crazy months of isolation helped us keep perspective, but naturally wasn’t an entirely delightful experience, not funny like some of our favorite read-alouds, which is probably why it took us long past wintertime to finish, but profitable nonetheless. As a bonus, it also made me deeply glad all over again we didn’t take that position in the Midwest.
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Synopsis: Claire Waverley is the contented if somewhat aloof spinster of her small North Carolina town, where her popular catering, featuring edible flowers from her grandmother’s garden, earns her a reputation as more than a little magical. She’s the Waverley sister who stayed, but soon she’ll have to contend with the arrival of her little sister Sydney in “the year where everything changed.”
There is a particular category of books I really enjoy but rarely come across. Like romantic comedy films, too often the books I pick up thinking they might fit this elusive designation are too frothy or frivolous or explicit. Garden Spells might gain entry into the category, though — the “light and bright and sparkling” woman’s fiction (?) / literary fiction (?) — the sort of thing you want to read when you have a cold and plan to read for hours and hours. (Marisa de los Santos, and particularly her Love Walked In are the gold standard for what I’m talking about.) I listened to this as an audiobook and it lit up the time I spent hand-washing dishes at our Airbnb. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s baking and gardening and sisterhood and romance and a little frisson of magic and just undemanding.
The Light Invisible by Robert Hugh Benson
Synopsis: An old priest relates to the narrator, a young priest, a series of visions and spiritual experiences from his life.
Last month I loved None Other Gods and this was my other RHB haul. And this one I…nothinged. It was OK. Very short, with some spiritual insight but many parts that felt heavy-handed. Unfortunately the vision that stands out most vividly to me a few weeks after reading is a part I hated, about the spiritual consolation of the death of a child. I couldn’t help thinking that in the ranks of Plotless Books About Old Clergymen Reflecting On Their Lives, this was no Gilead.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Synopsis: In the world of high-prestige butlers, Stevens has dedicated his life to a dying profession, sacrificing love, self-knowledge, everything to his trade. (Stevens is such a professional that we never even learn his first name.) But over the course of a long drive across a countryside where servants are leaving big houses, as Stevens himself grows old, he must confront his choices and weigh whether they were the right ones.
A beautiful, fairly shattering exploration of how we actually think, remember, and understand our lives, and especially vivid after we’ve all thought about upstairs-downstairs dynamics through the prism of Downton Abbey. Sobering, even when it’s funny, and always lovely.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Synopsis: Think King Lear, but pitch it among a successful Midwestern farm dynasty.
Oh gosh, I guess I liked this, but it was brutal! King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare, so I snatched this from a pile of books my grandmother-in-law was giving away and didn’t really think about what “modern adaptation of Lear” would mean, but even Pippin knows about Shakespearean tragedies: EVERYBODY DIES. My GIL Judy didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic, but I did, at least at first, and as the book is told from Goneril’s perspective, this definitely fell into “of the devil’s party” territory. I thought the application of the old plot to Smiley’s setting worked well without feeling forced to perfectly correspond, and was pleasantly surprised to find the critique of industrial agriculture running throughout.
First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
Synopsis: More Waverleys! It’s ten years since the events of Garden Spells and here we follow the angst currently surrounding Claire, Sydney, and Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay.
Did we need more Waverleys? Not necessarily. Is the plot, as in Garden Spells, a not especially satisfying afterthought? Yes. Is the characterization of the small town charming? Sure. Was it fun? Yes. Bonus points for a sympathetic not-quite villain and the unconventional teen love story. Boo for a very deus-ex-machina adoption storyline.
Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience by Amanda Hope Haley
I don’t know whether it was reading First Frost and A Thousand Acres, both of which feature infertility plots, or answering so many questions about our family size while we were back home this month, or just coming up on the due date again of our lost little one, but I finally felt ready to read this little book, loaned to me years ago by a friend who’d struggled with infertility so I could better understand another friend’s struggle (who I’m pleased to say now has a toddler and a second baby on the way). While a lot of this I couldn’t relate to — written from a Protestant perspective, it left all fertility technology on the table — and because I do, in fact, have three living children, it did help me to understand what God could be doing in the lives of all of us with fewer children than we’d hoped for.