The other books I read in September were pretty solidly in the three-star category. That third star, sitting in the middle between "it was really good" and "I hated it" should be bigger. It covers so much territory. I feel so differently about each book I mark three stars: some I admired overall but just had a few too many flaws to make it to four stars. Some were quite problematic but had some shining moments that bumped them up past two stars. I feel like a decimal system is needed just for that "meh" middle grading.
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. I'd promised the blogosphere last month I was going to read this, and I did. I didn't love it as much as I thought, perhaps because my expectations were very high. So many people have praised this book to the sky. James McBride's mother's story is indeed remarkable, almost unbelievable—she was a Polish Jewish immigrant who was raised in the deep South by a horribly abusive father and a loving but weak, physically disabled mother. She went on to marry two black men (her first husband died of cancer) and raise a total of twelve biracial children, mostly by herself, in very rough circumstances in New York City. They never even knew she was a Jew till McBride forced the story out of her—before he was born, she converted to Christianity and founded a Baptist church with his father, her first husband. And that storytelling is great, it speaks for itself ... what bothered me was how much I felt McBride left out, probably because he was protecting her and his siblings. The book was an homage to his mother, almost a eulogy, though she was alive when he wrote it—and really, she "wrote" nearly half of it by granting him recorded interviews. But on the whole, the memoir is not very reflective, and McBride's own voice felt hidden, or flattened. I recently read his award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, a book written in a wry, humorous, spunky voice. That voice was totally missing from this memoir, which felt more journalistic. Still an interesting read, but not quite what I expected.
Next I read The Painter, by Peter Heller. What I liked best about this novel is the setting: it's all in the Rocky Mountains, and about half of it is set in Santa Fe, a place I called home for 12 years. Heller really knows the area. He even made a reference to the "stick teepees" found in the mountains there, big structures fashioned of aspen poles; nobody seems to know who made them. The novel itself is a mashup of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway, or at least it tries to be. It's got the murder-in-the-southwest aspect of the former, and the aggressive, unapologetic masculinity of the latter. But the women of the novel are a real problem. On page 2, we get this description: “She is twenty-eight. An age of drama. She reminds me of a chicken in the way she is top-heavy, looks like she should topple over. I mean her trim body is small enough to support breasts the size of tangerines and she is grapefruit.” That is just ... terrible. He compares her to poultry, and her boobs to citrus fruits. She is a tiny-but-bodacious babe throwing herself at the beardy burly protagonist who is decades her senior. Because that's likely. Gak. This sort of thing happens a lot, and every time I considered throwing the book across the room. But it was a library book, and one mustn't damage federal property, right? I could have just politely returned it unfinished but I loved Heller's first novel, The Dog Stars, very much. So I persisted till the end, and some good bits almost made up for the fruit-boobs.
That's my Coffeehouse Contribution for September. I look forward to hopping over to all the other reviews, links to which can be found here at our host The Armchair Squid's site.
Here's to a bookish October: may all your next reads be wonderful.