The good, the bad, the best-selling for August
I've become a bit of a curmudgeon lately, reviewing most books I read tepidly, and only occasionally sharing one that I truly love. This month's selections (the ones I'm reviewing, not all that I read) are a mixed bag, with one I truly loved, one I liked and two I tolerated enough to read all the way through. So, to make your reading a little easier, I'll start with the one I really loved this month.
By Richard Powers
I’ll admit it: big books frighten me. Although I count many thick tomes among my favorite books of all time (Guns, Germs, and Steel —528 pages; The Tangled Wing—543 pages), I always approach a big book with some trepidation. Will my limited patience and attention span keep me from finishing it?
This is probably why it has taken me two years to finally break open The Overstory, a book that came out in 2018 and that I’ve had on my shelves since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. And, indeed, it did take me nearly half a month to get through it. But when I finished the last page, I cried. Not because the ending was particularly sad, but because I was sorry I had reached the end. Its message is profound, and it made an indelible impression on me that I can’t shake.
Powers employs in this novel a structure that works remarkably well, considering I’ve never seen it used before (I’m sure some of our readers have, and I’d love to hear about such books). He starts the novel with eight chapters he places under the heading “Roots,” in which he introduces us to seven individuals and one couple, who are totally unrelated except that at some point, they notice or study or fall in love with a tree or trees in general. This is a book about trees, but it’s also a book about people’s relationships with trees, and humankind’s dependence on trees and the environments that trees sustain.
For me, the most compelling character is Patricia Westerford, who studies trees and brings to us an understanding of them that gives the book its power of persuasion. A differently talented child, one with hearing and speech problems, she becomes a successful scientist, discovers how trees communicate, is roundly criticized for that observance, falls into obscurity, and then rises again at the end of the book to deliver a profoundly disturbing message the world does not want to hear. I rarely ask my husband to read the books I review, but I insisted he read the chapter than introduces her, and since then, when we go hiking, there’s always a reason to bring up something we learned in reading it.
Much of the novel describes the efforts of a cadre of environmentalists who try to save ancient trees in the Western U.S. This diverse assortment of activists provide much of the plot of the last two sections of the book, as we watch their involvement with the government, loggers and the forests themselves determine their fate—each as seemingly inescapable as the next. And along side their stories are those of non-activists whose own reaction to the forests and untethered nature bring hope that the activists fail to deliver.
I know it’s a lot to ask. It’s a big book. It comes together somewhat slowly from the individual stories to a well-shaped whole. But read it. Please.
The Last Thing He Told Me
By Laura Dave
There was a time, I believe, when most Law & Order episodes and many, many crime novels were about the same kind of perpetrator who is responsible for the mystery at the center of this novel—the specifics of that “bad guy” I won’t reveal here. Does it make you uncomfortable that I withhold the core truth of this novel? That I make you wade through 300 pages of a painfully obsequious protagonist’s repetitive musings over a stepdaughter who clearly hates her to find out why Hannah’s husband disappeared? But wait you must, if you decide to dip into this novel. The reveal is withheld so long that it comes as both a relief and a disappointment. “Oh, that?” was my reaction.
A Reese Witherspoon Book Club choice, apparently heading for a Hello Sunshine movie production, The Last Thing He Told Me has received nearly universal praise. It has been credited as one of the year’s books that has helped boost print sales in the U.S. It has 31,000+ reviews on Amazon, most of them 5-star. But I wasn’t as impressed as those reviewers. Perhaps my displeasure was in the details: for example, the lame description of a stock market fraud that seemed to be written by someone who has absolutely no understanding of accounting or IPOs; or the reference to Bevo, the University of Texas mascot, as a “steer bull.” (You’re one or the other, Laura, never both.)
I may also have liked this book more if I were the mother of a teenage daughter and could understand why an adult would put up with the youngster’s attitude. Here, the stepdaughter’s disdain for the woman who is trying to protect her borders on abuse. Hannah tries to get 16-year-old Bailey to tolerate her—at least—(and her musings about it get to be repetitive) but the brat misbehaves right up to the final paragraphs. Are teens all like that these days? Are some of them? Paint me grateful to not know! On the other hand, Hannah’s trouble in deciding how to feel about the husband she thought she knew seems real and believable. She loves the man but doesn’t know if she should.
As well reviewed as this book has been, it probably isn’t necessary to relay the outline of the plot, but here it is in brief. Hannah’s much loved husband disappears and leaves her with no explanation and with a plea to protect his daughter. He worked at a company that perpetrated some kind of investor fraud involving inflated revenue. She tries to find him. Bailey’s memory of times with her father is helpful, although that help is given begrudgingly. In the end, the answer to the puzzle of the man’s disappearance is a bit fantastical and hard to swallow and makes the page-turner a bit of a letdown. Hannah’s ability to handle the powerful man responsible is incredible, as in unbelievable, not as in fantastic. If she were that smart and that savvy, I would have expected her to have displayed some of that brilliance earlier. Instead, she makes misstep after misstep and seems woefully naïve.
If you want to read what everyone else is reading and raving about, this is the book for you. Its sales are likely to continue to top Amazon’s charts for a very long time.
The Paper Palace
By Miranda Cowley Heller
Another Reese Witherspoon-anointed novel, The Paper Palace largely pleases and in some minor ways disappoints. Reading it is an immersive experience—one definition perhaps of a good summer read. The plot is developed over multiple time periods, interspersed in a way to make the most of its impact on the protagonist, and handled masterfully. Although the reader is thrown back and forth in time, Heller never loses us. The author’s descriptions of place and time are mesmerizing; her prose never falters.
About both a love affair nurtured in a privileged, upper-class childhood in the back woods of Cape Cod, and about sexual abuse and incest, the story’s main line follows Elle’s need to decide whether to stay with her wonderful, loving, sexy, handsome and successful husband, or to leave him for her childhood love.
The novel is suffused with character-building interiority that brings the protagonist Elle to life, and her mother is vividly incarnated in dialogue and behavior, but the author does a lesser job of creating real male characters around her. Her husband’s cluelessness seems a little odd, given how perfect he is in all other aspects; and her childhood love’s willingness to leave a wonderful marriage himself is little explored. However, the story is sufficiently driven by Elle’s conundrum, and although her quandary is all about the men, it doesn’t require us to know them like we know her.
In spite of this, I’ll have to admit that I found her final decision hard to understand, which may say more about my lower-middle-class, Midwest upbringing than the about the novel’s successful denouement.
April in Paris
By John J. Healey
What’s not to like here?
An aging white guy, a bit of a snob (okay, a lot of a snob), who inherited millions through no effort of his own, flies back and forth between Europe and the U.S. (the Hamptons included, of course) in private jets, owns two large residences but lives in luxury hotels, (can you imagine this guy’s carbon footprint?), pisses off his academic colleagues with his intolerance, lusts after a woman decades his junior, eats extravagant meals, and drinks expensive Champagne and wine at every meal? Okay. Not much there pull you in? Well, he does adopt a rescue puppy. And at one point, while ogling the young woman of his passion, whose perfect little body is clad in a tiny bikini, he does admit to getting a little soft around the middle. Not that it limits his sex appeal, apparently.
At the core of this novel, the protagonist finds out about a murder that took place in the house in the Bronx where his family lived at one time, and he is curious about who did it. But rather than do some actual sleuthing to find out, he solves the mystery by quoting at length boring, staid, publicly available trial transcripts and revealing a deus ex machina confessional letter—delivered in two parts for no obvious reason other than to stretch out the “suspense.”
So why did I finish reading this book? And why, when I profess not to review books I dislike, am I reviewing this one? It’s not because the “whodunnit” is compelling. To be honest, I didn’t care much for it. Its protagonist just isn’t the kind of person I can identify with—or even abide. I’d avoid him like a bad bottle of wine. But it is summer, and despite the flaccid plot, the prose isn’t bad.