Over the last couple of weeks, I have read four books: Stacey Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, Erin McKean's The Secret Lives of Dresses, Laura Kasischke's In a Perfect World (link is to a podcast), and Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog.
Quick notes about each of these:
I read Cleopatra solely because it was the book picked by my book club this time around. I had no interest in the period, the people involved, or the general topic. I know this marks me as an uneducated hick, but there you are. The book is carefully researched, written in a lively fashion with careful notes about what is known, what is hinted at, and what is merely speculated. If you are interested in the period, the people, and/or the general topic, this book is very much worth your time. I found it tedious, but I know that much of that feeling probably had more to do with everything that was going on around me in real life, and that this was "assigned" reading.
My "reward" for getting through that book was The Secret Lives of Dresses. As a long-time fan of Erin's "A Dress a Day" blog about dresses, fabrics, and patterns, I was eager to read this novel. It is essentially a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who is figuring out who she is and what really matters in her life. The story is told in the context of her grandmother's collection of vintage dresses, and the stories they hold. The novel moved along at a nice pace, the characters were well developed, and the story line was believable. I will be giving copies of this book to various nieces and friends.
I followed up with something very different. In a Perfect World takes place in the middle of an apocalypse. When I was nine, I sneak-read my father's copy of Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and that was the first of many apocalyptic novels I have read. A novel that has been persistent in my brain is Earth Abides, about a measles outbreak. Of course, in high school I read Nevil Shute's On the Beach, and I have read various comet-hitting-the-earth books, etc. (There is a certain strangeness in my character.) So, I came to this book with these big novels with their sprawling casts of characters, some omniscient view of the big picture, and a sense of closure and hope at the end. This is not one of those novels. This is a novel about a new stepmother trying to feel her way into an uncomfortable role at a moment when the world is coming apart. Laura writes sparingly, with a lot of information indicated between the lines. She gives the reader enough information to see the world from the point of view of the main character, but all of the things that character doesn't know, the reader doesn't know either. I loved this book, and I didn't want it to end. I so much wanted to stay with these people and keep on living inside their lives that I actually couldn't sleep after finishing the book because I kept spinning out various scenarios for the next several chapters, and even when I slept I dreamt of this book and its characters. Read this book. Period.
Right now I am near the end of another novel by Connie Willis. I can't believe I didn't hear of her until I was almost 50. If you like reading novels about time travel, just pick up her books. Sigh. If I weren't sitting here right now, I'd have finished the book.