The Roundup: Books Read in March 2018

March was low-key eventful. I just celebrated my 40th birthday, and in the same week my husband and I traveled to Amsterdam for the first time. It was very nice, but windy and terribly cold. I also suffered a broken blood vessel in my right eye and had to put up with slightly horrified looks from people who peered too closely at me. Luckily, having a busted blood vessel in my eye didn’t affect my vision in anyway but I did seriously cut back on certain activities that may have caused it to happen in the first place, like staring down at a small, brightly-lit phone or Kindle screen watching Youtube vids well into the night. If this is the case, then I place the blame solely on Game Grumps.

The eye situation didn’t keep me from my more pleasurable reading activities, though I did do most of it during the daytime because my eyes don’t work so well to begin with and I’m paranoid.  Anywhoo, here are the books I read in March.

 

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken

In 1950, in the small seaside town of Brewsterville, librarian Peggy Cort meets a sweet and quietly inquisitive boy name James Carlson Sweatt. He’s eleven and his height already clocks in a 6’2. He becomes a regular face at the library where Peggy works and the two develop a close friendship. As the years pass, James continues to grow, as does Peggy’s feelings for him.

Peggy serves as narrator for this unusual and terrifically original love story. When she first meets young James, she’s twenty-five, cynical, practical, and very hard on herself. The first thing she says at the start of the book is, “I do not love mankind.” It is amended later, as she begins to speak of James, “I do not love mankind, but he was different.” Indeed, James is an intelligent and sensitive boy who suffers from gigantism. When she and James become friends, Peggy finds herself propelled into family sphere, and grows to care not only about him but those closest to him as well.

 

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Composed of eight short stories, Girl in Hyacinth Blue tells the tale of a fictional painting by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and its journey through the lives of those who acquire it. In reverse chronological order, the book traces the painting’s existence through its various owners, all of whom are captivated by it for different reasons. As a casual admirer of Vermeer’s work, I loved the way in which author Susan Vreeland imagined this ‘lost’ portrait of a girl sitting at a table by a window, and it calls to mind my visit to the Rijksmuseum and seeing this Vermeer painting.

The book is not the most riveting of reads; out of the eight chapters only two I found truly interesting and compelling. But if you enjoy historical fiction and art like I do, you’ll enjoy this gentle and moving story. Now, if you’re more of a Caravaggio nut (hello, hello!) and want something with a bit more mystery, then I highly recommend Doubting Thomas by Atle Naess. Written largely in the same manner as Vreeland’s book but with Caravaggio at its center.

 

Good Evening Mrs Craven & Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

‘Bout time I got down to business and get started on the Persephone collection I’ve been building since March 2017. My lovely mother-in-law gifted me Persephone book tokens last Christmas but I decided to hold off on any new books until I’ve read at least half of what I already have.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes is a collection of short stories written for The New Yorker between 1939 and 1945. British journalist Mollie Panter-Downes served as the publication’s London correspondent, and regularly contributed articles and fortnightly reports entitled “Letters from London” which gave American readers glimpses of daily life in London during wartime. Her short stories go a level deeper, delving into the more personal and mundane. Because MPD wrote these stories during the war years, there’s a remarkable authenticity to her characters and their situations. Presented in the order in which they were published in The New Yorker, the stories start out lighthearted and comic, but as the years progress and the war continues, the stories take on a more serious tone, with themes such as absence, loneliness and social upheaval at the center.

In the companion volume of short stories, Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, MPD focuses her attention largely on the dramatic shift of the British social classes after the end of WWII. In the title story, a once prominent middle-class family is dismayed when their long-time cook quits and moves into a room of her own. A wife is forced to put up with her husband’s aging parents once they’re too old to manage in a large house on their own. A couple must deal with their daughter’s decision to marry a young man from working class family. MPD examines how people take (or don’t) to change, whether it comes from society or within the family.

 

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman

In 1913, Adele Roux arrives in Paris with dreams of making it as a film actress, but winds up toiling away in the costume department of Pathe Studio. When an evening encounter with the dashing and brilliant Andre Durand develops into something more, Adele sees this as her ticket to stardom. She soon finds herself working in his home as a personal assistant to his wife, the reigning beauty of Paris’s silent movies, Terpsichore.

‘Sex, lies, and the Silent Cinema’ was my initial summation upon finishing this gorgeous and seductive book. I wanted something glamorous and a little sexy (teehee) to immerse myself in after last month’s decidedly not-so-glamorous and not-the-least-bit-sexy binge read and Petite Mort’s evocative cover had a lot of promise. Getting into it, I discovered Adele isn’t the most sympathetic of heroines; she’s ambitious, but naive, and has no qualms about sleeping her way to stardom. But her narrative is so fascinating and once she’s enmeshed in the lives of the Durands, you’re pretty much in the same boat. I could have done without a certain character’s backstory, as it didn’t add anything important to the plot and ruined the flow of Adele’s story.

 

The Rental Heart and other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

Where do I even begin with this? There’s so much to love about this surreal collection of re-imagined fables and fairytales. Some of them are rooted in the contemporary while others are drawn from the fantastic: a woman meticulously constructs a substitute lover out of pieces of paper while her husband is away on a rig, an adventuress braves a dangerous jungle to reach a legendary palace where an evil empress resides, a lady finds companionship in the arms of a coin-operated boy. Combined elements of fantasy, magic realism, and eroticism make this short story collection a compelling and sensuous read.

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