And here are the other titles,
One, Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, which I've heard that various readers found disappointing, but which completely engaged me. The long line of the narrative, which begins at the first hint of an affair, when both married partners have young children, and which follows the fallout from that affair, particularly as it concerns the children, who grow up as step-siblings separated by a significant geographical distance, thrown together during vacations and left far too often to their own devices. There's a central trauma which is only gradually revealed, the mystery of its causation and of the guilt around that, the consequences spun out across so many lives, demand our attention until the end. Meanwhile, we watch the parents, mainly in the background, move into new marriages which do, or do not, dissolve, and we see them age, need care. . . .
I'm always intrigued by descriptions of childhood, and Patchett's are observant and convincing, not at all sentimental. The humanity of the writing also pleased me, the way all the characters are exposed for their flaws but are also shown as worthy in other ways. And there's some thought-provoking commentary about writing itself, or story-telling, at least, about where inspiration comes from and the ethics of appropriating stories. . . And above all, what is family? what is a commonwealth? community? What are we, each to our other, our connected others? I'd read this book again and be well repaid, I suspect, and I recommend it to you. If you'd like to be convinced by a much more comprehensive review, here's one.
Oh, and once upon a time, I resolved to include in these posts a brief mention of the format in which I read each book. I read Commonwealth and the two other books in this post as e-books borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library. What a wonderful gift that service is!
So onto Book Two, Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata . This novel is beautiful and painful and, ultimately, redemptive (i.e. don't be deterred by that "painful" because. . . well, no spoilers, but....). I read it shortly after reading Lauren Collins' When in French, and I immediately recognised the constraining rectitude she described experiencing in Switzerland where The Gustav Sonata is set, although Tremain's novel begins decades earlier. The protagonist is born into a poverty resented bitterly by his mother, who blames "the Jews" for his father's death during World War II and her descent from the bliss she had briefly experienced as a young bride (although, in fact, the marriage was doomed long before husband's death).
Gustav learns very early to marshal his emotions, to expect little, to adjust quickly to disappointment, but he can't help but revel in the friendship he develops with a classmate, the son of wealthy Jewish parents who place high hopes in Anton's musical precocity, grooming him for a career as a concert pianist. Gustav becomes both the parents' confidant and Anton's admiring audience, but he also registers Anton's growing discomfort with the pressures of performance, which leads eventually to Anton rejecting performance in favour of composition. Meanwhile, Gustav realises a dream of his own, is careful to cultivate a separate life, but it's increasingly obvious that he's in love with Anton, and that he is going to be hurt. To tell you much more than that would be to spoil your own discovery, but I will say that much more important than the plot is the description of the social environment that governs the two children, then teens, then men's choices, such that their lives, while in many ways ripe with possibilities, feel startlingly claustrophobic.
Until. . . . but I'll leave that for you to discover. There are some beautiful character sketches in the novel, Gustav's father, for example, in his moral confusion. The grieving widower who visits Gustav's hotel in part because he can assuage his loneliness by playing cards with Gustav at bedtime. The woman who was Gustav's father's mistress. . . Another novel I could enjoy re-reading. And again, if you'd like a more comprehensive review, here's one
And finally, book Three, which is not a novel but a Cultural History of Trails. A cultural history, that is, if we assign "culture" to very simple, odd, and early life-forms whose fossils point to the trails they traced. I'd say that Robert Moor's On Trails: An Exploration makes such an assignment, and he also argues for the culture of ants and of elephants, among other creatures, made manifest through the trails they make and the trails they follow. I suppose I could more carefully say of that part of the book that it's a Natural History, and then I could tell you that Moor combines a natural history with a cultural history. But what fascinates me about the work he does is that he holds up trails -- the Appalachian Trail as the main path leading us through the chapters, offering a cohesive structure -- as an example of both Nature and Culture. Instinct (or simple random trial) leads an individual to an action, to placing feet in a direction, but it's the repetition that makes a trail, and that repetition has to do with community and culture. Moor explains it all much better than I'm suggesting in this brief summary, and he also provides an engaging account of the (fairly recent, relatively) history of hiking, of developing trails and paths throughout what was once considered "wilderness" by settlers in the United States (Moor's primary concern, although he wends his way to Canada's East Coast). Sierra magazine called this "the best outdoors book of ," but I'd say it transcends that genre, in an intriguingly different way than did, say, Cheryl Strayed's Wild. . . .Let me know if you read it, will you? (As with the two novels, please...)
Oh, and by the way, On Trails reads well with: Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways.
Over to you. Comments welcome, either on the books I've written about here or about any that you're reading and would like to recommend.