Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer reading: Road trips and Americana

It's hard to believe that we are this deep into summer already. The kiddos will be back to school next month, football season will start, and this vague thing we call "summer reading" will be over. I'm not sure that I've found my quintessential book of the season. I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road right before my own road trip, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Toward the end, I found it a bit tiresome. It began to seem repetitive and aimless. I've never really identified with the Beat generation that much and I don't find Kerouac's style of writing to be that engaging over a long haul. I am, however, interested in the Beats as a response to World War II, and I think I might enjoy reading something that gives a little more context to the movement.

Much more to my taste was Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, in which Mead explores her relationship to George Eliot's novel over the years since she first read it. Eliot is my favorite author, and I understand how a book can seem to speak to you on a level that feels very personal and direct. I had a similar feeling about Daniel Deronda when I read it. There were things going on in my life that mirrored the struggles of some of the characters in the book, and Eliot's wise and sympathetic voice was comforting. She penetrated the complicated psychology of  people who are searching for identity and meaning and offered a large-hearted understanding of the misguided things we do in the attempt. Mead's book made me want to re-visit all of Eliot. I have saved Felix Holt as the only one of her works I haven't yet read. With what nerdly relish I contemplate reading an Eliot novel for the first time!

I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia! next. It received swooning reviews and was on everyone's "best" lists. About an alligator-wrestling family in the Ten Thousand Islands off Florida's Gulf Coast, it has an engaging young heroine, 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, and quirks aplenty. It's one of those books that in the end seemed less than the sum of its parts. The writing was great, the characters were likable, the setting was exotic, and yet I didn't love it. The tone of the ending didn't seem to match up with the rest of it somehow. It was actually pretty depressing. I do enjoy Russell's gift for dialogue. The sections about the oldest brother of the Bigtree clan and his struggle to fit in (or just survive) on the mainland were very funny to me.

I just finished Ian Frazier's Great Plains, which was published in 1994. Rambling around the Plains states, Frazier describes the landscape and the people he encountered while visiting historic sites, museums, ghost towns, and abandoned dwellings, offering a thoughtful exploration about what the Plains mean to the story of America. Along with more familiar episodes and characters like Crazy Horse, Bonnie and Clyde, the Clutter murders, and the Dust Bowl, Frazier tells some of the lesser known stories: about the last man lynched in Kansas, the African-American settlement of Nicodemus, and finding Sitting Bull's cabin. He is funny, conversational, and passionate.

I'm not sure what's next. I have a house full of books and library ebooks that are just a click away. What are you reading?