Reading was pretty damn good this month. I split my beach reading time between a couple books and some magazines and I’ve reached the point where I literally can’t calm my mind enough to fall asleep if I don’t read at least a few pages from a real book (my husband just loves this new quirk of mine…).
This wasn’t what I was expecting — it was much darker and harsher. I though it would be a light, breezy beach read about families living the good life on one of those islands off the East Coast — like Martha’s Vineyard or something. Instead, it was about “hard people” living hard lives on an island that was mostly filled with blue collar workers — the kind of place that doesn’t give you many opportunities to leave or improve your circumstances. And rather than a straightforward novel with a linear narrative, it was a collection of short stories mostly about several generations of a spread-out family (there’s a family tree in the beginning of the book). Most chapters are heartbreaking in some way and some were really hard to read (and I don’t know much about this, but I think a couple would be triggering for some). Then two chapters towards the end took a weird turn and I wasn’t thrilled with their resolutions.
But the writing was beautiful and gripping — I was hooked from page one when I read this description:
She’s a fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy, all of her trembling as she does, and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to fall and squish me.
I mean, isn’t that great?
I wouldn’t recommend this to everybody, but if you like really awesome prose and can handle some harsh realities, go for it. And since each chapter is its own little story, it both reads quickly and is easy to pick up and put down.
I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.
I bought this and got it signed by Chris Guillebeau last year and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. I’ve felt like I’ve been either drifting or just treading water a lot lately and I had a feeling–or at least a hope–that this would help.
And it really did.
I read this over the course of four or five days, mostly while at the beach in Tahoe, and by the time I was almost done, I kept putting the book down and digging through my beach bag for a notebook (yes, I bring a notebook to the beach — of course) to jot down ideas. Some could become quests, or might just be personal challenges or projects, but others were just thoughts about the direction of my blog or business or other pursuits.
The title (obviously transposing “the pursuit of happiness”) suggests that it is the pursuit towards a goal that brings us happiness, not necessarily the achievements or acquisitions we strive for. Chris calls these “quests” and I remember when he was still working on his (visiting every country in the world before he turned 35 — spoiler alert, he did it), he wrote on his blog about how much he genuinely enjoyed the act of travel hacking — collecting rewards miles, finding cheap fares, planning crazy-complicated itineraries, tracking down visas. Even though he was always working towards an end goal and anticipating visiting his final country, he got a lot of enjoyment out of everything involved in working towards that goal. This book describes that and features dozens of other people with their own “quests,” which vary from walking across the United States to taking a vow of silence and refusing to drive or ride in motorized transportation to living in a tree to protest logging. Some seemed completely insane and some made me think “yeah, okay, I could do something similar.”
The psychology/neuroscience nerd in me would’ve liked to maybe see more interviews with “experts” about the intrinsic joy of working towards a goal vs. achieving it, but this isn’t meant to be that kind of book. Chris is much more focused on getting readers to take action and find their own quest, and he does that by 1) providing tons of examples to follow or get inspired by and 2) realistically laying out the framework for conceiving, planning, pursuing, and achieving a quest.
I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I picked this up — just thought oh, fun Austen read — and I was both impressed and underwhelmed. It’s really two stories, or a book-within-a-book. What I thought would be the main narrative takes place present day (or close enough — I think this was published in 2012 or so), where Samantha (Sam), who was unable to complete her Ph.D thesis on Austen, buys an old book in a shop in England and finds a previously-unknown letter from Jane Austen hidden inside. The letter leads her to a country estate where she believes one of Jane’s manuscripts went missing — a manuscript never mentioned in any of the surviving letters or accounts we have of Jane and her writing. She finds the manuscript, with the help of the man who recently inherited the estate, and then most of the rest of the book is the “missing Austen manuscript,” with occasional interludes of the “present-day.”
With me so far?
So here’s the thing. I very unexpectedly LOVED the “missing” manuscript. It’s been several years since I actually read any of Austen’s work (now I want to re-read all her novels, by the way), so I wasn’t being super picky about “oh, she wouldn’t have written” or “that’s totally unrealistic.” The author did herself some favors by having Jane “write” the manuscript when she was still rather young, so any weaknesses in it can be explained by saying it’s an early, unpolished work. She also worked in elements found in many of Austen’s other novels, so while it was pretty predictable, it still had me eagerly turning the pages and really excited to read it — like, when I put it down for the night in the middle of the manuscript part, I couldn’t wait until I could read more the next night. And it was satisfyingly predictable — I was smiling the entire time I read the last few pages of that section.
But the main narrative…which wasn’t really the “main” narrative because it was…maybe a third of the total book? If that? Eh. Most of it was basically a lecture on Austen told in stilted, awkward dialogue. Then a very quick run of rising action to the horribly predictable climax that was not very satisfying…I think because the characterization felt rushed and forced. By contrast, I felt like I really got to know “Austen’s” characters and was completely smitten with them.
Bottom line? If you’re a fan of Austen, read it for the “missing” manuscript. But don’t expect much from the other narrative.
What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?