Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Abide with the handmaid’s desire: recent reading

I totted up my reading for the year this morning and there were about eight books jostling for the ninth and tenth spots on my top ten reads of the year. So I’ve decided to leave it another week and see if I don’t stumble on something that can leapfrog these ‘good, but’ books.

Until then, here’s what I’ve been reading of late...

Abide with me by Elizabeth Strout (novel, audiobook)

Abide with MeStrout’s 2006 novel reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead: small town America in the 1950s, church ministers at their centre... But Abide with Me is colder, less lustrous. No doubt this is in part due to the contrast between Tyler Caskey’s New England Protestantism and John Ames’ Midwestern Congregationalism. In Strout’s next book, Olive Kitteridge, she finds a way to turn this bitterness into something compelling (see the title character; the novel in stories structure helps too), but Abide with Me is no Olive Kitteridge.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (novel, audiobook)

The Handmaid's TaleI spent the first half of this dystopian novel thinking: if this was really a dystopian novel something would be happening right now. Of course, the quid pro quo of a real dystopian novel (read: genre fiction) is less character development, less controlled writing (and less acclaim for its author). Things pick up eventually — we even get the staple of the genre: a long, thinly disguised information download to explain how things got so... dystopic. And hey, I wasn’t complaining. All up, I liked the book, but at this point in time I might have liked it more if the needle moved a notch or two back towards genre.

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (non-fiction, audiobook)

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the WorldThis is the second Pollan book I've listened to this year after A Place of My Own. This one delves into the history of the apple, the tulip, cannabis and the potato to tell the story of how humans have changed plants and how we might have actually been doing the plants’ bidding. There was plenty of interesting stuff (I didn’t know that all commercial apple varieties are grown from clones rather than from seed; I’d never heard of Tulipomania), though each section seemed to lose momentum three-quarters of the way in and the wheels were allowed to spin to fill the page-count or hammer home Pollan’s thesis. 

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