You know, I really can't remember the last time I was able to read so much for pleasure... maybe during high school? This research block thing is suiting me just fine.
The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971) This novella deals with George Orr, a man whose dreams become reality, changing both past and present. I enjoyed it - the premise was unique and I found the novel intriguing. I actually read this a few weeks ago, and while I thought this was an interesting read, I don't know that it made much of an lasting impression on me, overall. A solid novella, but not one to which I'll be returning. (Of course, having been written over 30 years ago, the elements that now seem a bit trite could certainly have been ground-breaking; I'm not terribly familiar with the history of SF.) Oh, but! I almost forgot: this is the origin of a quotation I've known for years, without ever knowing the source, and which is even more poignant in context: "They said nothing of any importance. They washed up the dishes and went to bed. In bed, they made love. Love doesn't just sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new." (p. 153) I had heard the last line quoted, but I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of this declaration with the simple descriptors of any night at home with a partner.
Pope Joan (Donna Woolfolk Cross, 1996) I had read this sometime during late middle school/early high, and was pleased to run across it again. According to her back-of-the-book bio, Cross isn't originally a novelist, and it shows in the often predictable subplots. However, the main story is remarkable. Written as historical fiction but clearly well-researched, the basis of the book is the legend of Pope Joan: a woman who, sometime in the mid 800s, became Pope and reigned for two years. In her afterword, Cross provides evidence for the historical basis of the legend, which she believes to be true. The novel itself suffers from some idolization of the main character, reminding me a bit of Jean Auel's Ayla. (Joan is a master scholar, a priest, a physician, and singlehandedly responsible for re-introducing reason and logic to Rome. Et cetera.) But overall, the story is great and well-told, and if the point that Women Can Do Anything is a bit belabored, I'm kind of okay with that. I remember feeling the same way when I read this circa age 14 - I could see that this novel was written with a purpose and agenda in mind, but it was still an excellent story and an agenda I could get behind. Additionally, Cross has clearly done her research regarding quotidian life in 800s Europe, and while I am no expert on such things, there was nothing that rang false, and I thought she did a great job of putting you in that place and time with detail that was relevant and never seemed forced or gratuitous.
The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien, 1990). I had read Going After Cacciato in high school and always meant to look this up, so when it turned up of Barnes and Noble's sale table, I snagged a copy. I sailed through this, and probably read it too fast for proper appreciation, but I will definitely be re-reading. It is, at first glance, a collection of short stories written about the Vietnam war, but I think it is best described in Amazon.com's review: a "sly, almost hallucinatory book that is neither memoir nor novel nor collection of short stories but rather an artful combination of all three." There's an almost ... drunken feeling to the book, the consequence of an unreliable narrator who freely admits to his unreliability and, indeed, revels in it. Favorites among the group were "How to Write a True War Story," "Style," and "The Things They Carried." But the following passage, from "Stockings," caught my attention: not an original simile, perhaps, but I really enjoyed O'Brien's descriptive economy of speech, and since I seem to be quoting today:
"Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too, Dobbins was drawn toward sentimentality" (p117).
Traveling Light (Katrina Kittle, 2000). I read this book first during my sophomore year of college, I think, or possibly the spring of freshman year - my roommate Rachel, a native of a Dayton suburb, recommended it to me since the author is essentially from her hometown. After reading The Kindness of Strangers, I picked it up again. The novel is about Summer, a young woman who has moved back home to care for her brother Todd, who is dying of AIDS. On re-read, I actually didn't like Summer all that much - her existential angst is a bit less appealing now than when I was 19 - but all the characters are exquisitely drawn. It's another heart-wrencher, but this one is much less bleak than The Kindness of Strangers, and overall, it's a wonderfully crafted first novel. I enjoy Kittle's works, I think, because her artistry is not in her prose, but in her characters, who feel incredibly immediate and real. Her language is good and doesn't get in the way of her story at all, but ... I don't find myself quoting bits of her novels but rather thinking about her characters. And that maybe sounds like a criticism, but isn't - I enjoy that she can people her novels so effectively with layered and nuanced individuals; no character, no matter how peripheral, seems wasted or one-dimensional. She's an excellent story-teller, and I think this novel is a great example of that ability.