One Day by David Nicholls (Vintage Books, 2009)
This novel comes packaged with two full pages of glowing reviews from professional reviewers, but I didn’t actually enjoy it that much. It’s the love story of a young British man and woman, and their adventures over the fifteen years after they meet at university. Each chapter takes place on the same date (July 15) of the year, but you don’t find out until the end why this date is chosen. The novel is probably most meaningful for British readers in their forties because they would be able to relate to the events and experiences the main characters go through on their way to finally being a couple.
Us by David Nicholls (HarperCollins, 2014)
Based on the book jacket describing a failing marriage, I was worried that this novel was going to be too emotional and melodramatic for my taste. But the male protagonist had a self-deprecating sense of humor that kept the drama at a respectable distance. The basic plot involves a couple taking a month-long tour of Europe with their son the summer before he starts college. The structure of the novel, at least for the first half, consists of alternating chapters describing how the couple met, married, and raised the son, and their present day adventures in various cities in Europe. The wife and son are both artists, but the husband is a biochemist. The differences in personality between husband and wife and between husband and son are the cause of most of their problems. Yet, it all works out all right in the end.
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (HarperCollins, 2014)
Hot off the New Books shelf by the author of the 2012 bestseller Canada, this is a novel about a newly retired man living in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. As you might guess, the main character’s name is Frank. In this book he is indeed himself, whether anyone wants him to be or not. Mostly he is not so bad, though a bit burned out by the sorrows of life. In fact he has a surprising amount of optimism. Nothing really happens in this book except everyday life and Frank’s keen observations of it. It is almost more a painting than a story.
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
Continuing with my plan to read all of Sarah Vowell’s works, this week I read one of her earliest books, Take the Cannoli. It is actually my favorite of the four I’ve read so far. Like The Partly Cloudy Patriot, it is a collection of essays about random topics which the book jacket calls Americana. This one is less about politics, and more about growing up in America. Vowell writes about a few things that are familiar to me (marching band, gospel music, college, cannoli) and many that are not (Chelsea House, Frank Sinatra’s career, The Godfather, gunsmithing). She has a very distinct writing voice, very casual and funny yet full of hearbreaking insights.
A few weeks ago when it was too snowy to go to the library, I re-read my paperback copy of The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead Books, 2008). This entertaining history of the Puritans by Sarah Vowell of NPR’s This American Life is definitely worth a read if you like history. It occurred to me that perhaps Sarah Vowell had written other books. As it turns out, she has. So I got a couple of them out of the library, and review them below.
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead Books, 2011)
This is Vowell’s latest book, a history of Hawaii and how it got to be a state. She is a devout Democrat and proud liberal (though from a conservative Montana family, oddly) so her take on this may be not the conventional one. But it was fascinating to learn about Hawaii from her perspective. Vowell visits every place she writes about, giving her historical narratives a personal feel. According to Vowell, Hawaii was conquered by the Americans in order to acquire a naval base at Pearl Harbor, with no regard for the rights of the native Hawaiians and their independent monarchy. The perceived needs of capitalists also figure largely in the story.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
This is one of Vowell’s first books, a collection of essays about American politics. She writes about Theodore Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and George Bush, Thanksgiving, political campaigns, Canada, various previous jobs, growing up in Montana with her twin sister, and living in New York City as an adult. Vowell loves to travel to national parks and historic sites all over the country, even ones you’ve never heard of, to experience history first-hand. She is a great narrator with the informal voice of a close friend. I have never heard her on This American Life but she must be good.