I don’t know if you’re like me, but I need to have books to read on vacation. For the plane (how do people not read on the plane?), for at-the-pool, for bed time, etc. I’m a fan of the “beach read” but for our recent belated spring break trip to Hawaii (first time, very exciting), it seemed a little early for the beach read, plus I had a big pile of TBR books on my bedstand. So this is what I brought with me (mostly because they were in paperback):
The Book of Salt: A Novel, by Monique Truong
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown.
And as it turned out, they were each, in their own particular way, lovely vacation reads. Not mindless, easy reads – each had its puzzles and complex language and serious themes. But entertaining nonetheless, as well as having that je ne sais quoi that keeps you thinking about a book when you’re not reading it.
I started with The Book of Salt, lent to me by a writing group friend, who knew that I like historical fiction. This debut (published 2004) novel is a first person narrative written from the point of view of Binh, the Vietnamese live-in chef employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris in the 1930s. Ranging back and forth from his life as a young man working in the Governor-General’s kitchen in Saigon, where scandal led him to flee to the sea and eventually to Paris, to his current work for his “Mesdames” in their home in Paris, still haunted by the harsh voice of his “Old Man”, we experience with Binh the humiliations and stolen pleasures of the servant class. His tales of food are mouth watering and precise. The stories he tells of his past and present passions and the prices paid for them are languid, imagistic and a puzzle that we gradually see come together over the course of the book.
Requiring some patience and a willingness to not always know exactly whom we are hearing about, as well as bits of the languages of French and Vietnamese, this is not a book to rip through. It is a book to savor, to let wash over you. And then you’ll want to go and eat some really good (hopefully French) cooking.
Next was A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’d been meaning to read this one for a while, but had somehow gotten in into my head that this was some sort of police drama. And then, when I started in and read that it was about the music business, I almost put it down again. Although I love music, I am one of those (perhaps few) people who are simply unable to retain information about music. Popular or no, I cannot tell you who is singing what and what the words are. And when I try, I always embarrass myself by saying something like, “Is that the Beatles?” to be met by a sneering, “Noooo, the Monkees!”
Anyway, fortunately, I kept reading. This is one wacky book, structurally speaking. It does start out with characters working in the music business, and seems to be about Sasha, who has a kleptomania problem, and the man she used to work for, Bernie, who is at the end of a career of successfully discovering bands. But the book is not so much interested in the music business itself, as in these people, and other people that crossed their paths, and might cross them again, in the past and the future. And other people in their lives, that the original characters might not know at all. Until they do.
With each new chapter, a character met or mentioned in the previous chapter takes center stage. The book is in third person, but it’s almost as if it starts anew each time, in the middle of some story of this new person’s life. This book, too, takes patience and a willingness to not know everything (perhaps even more so). Often, as we re-glimpse characters in others’ chapters, in past or future, their stories start to come together and make sense. The downside of this is that there’s not really one person to follow (though Bernie and Sasha do remain somewhat central). The upside is that if you don’t much like a character (and some are kinda nasty) you won’t spend too much time with them, and the story takes wonderfully unexpected turns. Especially in the dystopian future chapter, where there’s a strong take on where we’re headed. And I especially enjoyed the chapter done in Power Point slides. The Twin Towers and other dark themes are present in the book, especially the darker sides of human nature. But there’s enough humor and just oddness to keep it from bogging down.
Finally, The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown. I had seen a woman reading it by the pool. She was a naysayer: “too hard to get into,” she said, “all that Shakespeare.” Not sure why I listened, as I spent my early adulthood steeped in Shakespeare, but I did, and left it to last. I actually found it to be the closest to a “beach read” of my odd collection. Three very different sisters, brought back to their childhood home ostensibly by their mother’s fight with breast cancer, but in reality due to their own trials. The first line of the book is afterall, “We came home because we were failures.” (1) These Shakespearean named sisters have indeed screwed up, and their paths home as well as the challenges they are forced to face are the backbone of the book.
I love a good family relationship book myself and this one satisfied for the most part. The one thing that bothered me in this one was the use of first person plural sprinkled throughout the book. I think I get why the author chose to use it. In the Q&A at the back she says, “…one of the ideas I wanted to raise is that we carry our families of origin with us always…no matter how we may feel about them now, they are part of us.”(363) The trouble is, I got this theme from the events and conversations in the book. The use of a semi-omniscient (I know, oxymoron – but that’s how it was used) “we” voice only took me out of the story. I would think, “Well, who is WE? What does WE know? Is WE in the future?” I didn’t get the payoff from it; instead it was a distraction. My only other quibble with the book was the fact that the male love interests were all sensible and sensitive, making the sisters seem all that more neurotic.
That said, I did connect with the sisters and the plot was complicated enough that I wasn’t sure where things would go, and compelling enough to keep me reading. The character that really resonated with me was Bean. I, too, grew up in a college town, with a professor dad who was at the top of his field. Bean says, “We’d inherited our father’s genius to squander it on food service and academic peripateticism and librarianship?” It wasn’t until I left this environment where all my friends were academically minded over achievers (we had a dozen valedictorians and twice as many salutatorians – and this was way before the era of grade inflation) that I experienced a different world. So I love the way Brown articulates the expectation that all of the sisters have to do something special. As their mother says, “I don’t know what we did to give you the idea that you had to be some master in your field by the time you were thirty.” (341) And I loved Cordy’s realization regarding how she feels about their home town, “what it meant to hate Barnwell so deeply that she couldn’t help but return to it.” (295). And I have to admit that I had my “fuckup” moments in my early adulthood where, like Bean, “the thousand ways she’d violated things she cared about felt not just amoral but like a cruel middle finger to everything good she had been given in the world.” (333).
Though I had my struggles with the book, I think that overall, Brown has done a great job of delivering a lovely sisterly tale, where we can empathize with these characters who have the courage to “change the story we tell ourselves about it [our past], and by doing that, we can change the future.” (337)