I know it’s not the exactly the middle of May, but I’m hoping you all can cut me some slack. I’m on a hamster wheel of hurry-up-and-wait regarding our move to Michigan and so have to write when I can find time to disengage my analytical brain and tap into my creative mind. I used to be able to activate both at once, but those days are long gone.
Anyway, here are some bit and bobs reviews of my May reading so far. There have been highs and lows so for those of you with overloaded To-Be-Read lists I can help lighten the load…but I may also add to your reading choices.
Few regions do crazy-family fiction better than the American South. Oh, New England has it its eccentric aunts and grandparents, but they tend to be reclusive and not as much fun. The South embraces their crazy, almost reveling in it and nowhere is it clearer than Snowden Wright’s debut novel, American Pop. The novel expansively covers four generations of a Mississippi family that introduced the world’s first soda pop to the American people. Oh, Coca-Cola and Pepsi came along later, but for decades there was no other cola than PanCola.
PanCola began when Houghton Forster wanted to impress Annabelle Teague and created the fizzy drink for her in his father’s drugstore. From their it and the family’s fortunes spread like wildfire. Wright chronicles the lives of all the Forsters, from Houghton down to his grandson, Nick, who ends up inheriting the company when Houghton dies. Along the way there is as much drama and shenanigans as you’d expect in a novel spanning World War I to the 1970s. By-and-large American Pop is a good family saga, but all the tall tales and exploits get to be a bit much. There’s no character development which would be fine if this were a shorter, lighter read, but I was left feeling a bit cheated—Wright introduces a lot of great characters, but never gives them room to grow. Plus, this is one of the jumpiest timelines I’ve ever read, with few signposts to indicate a shift, which is jarring. In the end it kills some of the fizz, leaving American Pop flat. Good but not great reading.
The Spectators is Jennifer duBois’ take on a trash talk show host who finds his personal life thrust into the spotlight after a shooting at a high school reveals the killers were big fans of the show. I hoped she’d explore aspects of this hot button topic, but by 30% of the way through the novel I was so mired down in extraneous, overblown writing that I gave up. The novel is split into two narratives—one, a gay man who knew the host back in the 70s and two, a young woman who is the show’s current publicist.
I love learning new words, but when they obscure the meaning and slow the pace of the story then they’re as unwelcome as bad writing. Two examples: triskelion and QED—which is Latin, for hell’s sake! Or sentences like: “the height of the buildings presents social excruciations heretofore unimaginable”. Seriously, what does that even mean?
It may be meant as a counterpoint to the lowbrow nature of shock talk TV, but this overly formal prose, with an almost academic tone is clunky and feels a bit condescending. It doesn’t pull the reader in, but pushes them away. I really liked DuBois’ last novel, Cartwheel, so this is a disappointing outcome for a book I was ready to love.
Because there is so little written info about women in the 16th century (even famous women) Alison Weir has to use some creative license in this series about Henry VIIIs wives. In the previous books it feels more like connecting the dots from existing points to reach a conclusion, but in Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait she goes further and imagines an entire storyline to explain the cryptic clues history left behind. Namely that Henry, after his first night with Anna, said he could not ‘lay’ with her. He later alluded to issues that he could not reveal because they would stain her honor—surprising tact from a man who had no problem going all in on the fake news that Anne Boleyn slept with her brother. And just to make sure you understand the full measure of hypocrisy in Henry’s worldview: he also didn’t find Anna pretty enough. This from a man who was morbidly obese, balding, and had a seeping wound on his leg that smelled.
Weir uses these historical remarks to suppose that Anna was not a virgin. From there she goes fully fictional and creates a teenage suitor who misled the innocent Anna into sex and that she had borne a child from this act. It’s a stretch and feels a bit sensationalist and unnecessary. The fact that Anna was the only woman to survive marriage to the serial killer king is intriguing enough. Somehow, despite his humiliation of her she managed to not only stay in his good graces, but to profit from her marriage while Henry was alive. All while only in her mid-twenties, with no education, and with only a basic understanding of English. The pretend lover aspect is all right, but the political intrigue, insidious maneuverings in the English court and Anna’s ability to keep her head (literally) are the best parts of the novel.
I started these mini-reviews off in the fictional South so what better place to end than in the real South? Southern Lady Code is a witty series of essays by Helen Ellis about all the things that make proper women in the South so much fun. As you know, I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but Ellis makes the pages fly by while introducing readers to the myriad of euphemisms used in the South to discuss things that ought not to be talked about in polite society. As in: a “pregnancy risk” is code for making out in your bathing suit.
Ellis regales readers by inserting her mother into her mind every time she wants to do something that would not stand up to the accepted code. It’s particularly effective because her mother uses her full name—bringing on full PTSD symptoms to any grown woman who ever fell afoul of their mother’s standards growing up. Use of your full name is never a good thing.
Overall, the book is light and fun reading. Whether it is strictly about Southern etiquette is debatable. A number of essays deal with topics that are still funny but not necessarily regional. One, in particular, is about Ellis trying to get into cannabis culture.
My husband has no interest in pot but gets a kick out of the fact that I’m trying to introduce it into my life like vegetables and tennis.
It’s this kind of mindset that’s easy to love. These are relatable essays about life for middle-aged women now and Ellis is down-to-earth and funny. Southern Lady Code is a welcome way to while away an afternoon no matter where you’re from.