Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. Boo spent three years reporting on the lives of residents of a Mumbai slum, and the result is impressively detailed but didn't move me and reads too much like fiction sometimes (not the events, but the writing style). I feel like there are better books about poverty out there, although I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly why I sometimes had to force myself to pick this up again.
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. This is Byatt's contribution to the "Myths" series, in which writers get to basically riff on any myth they want (Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson's Weight, etc). I was initially very excited that Byatt was doing the Norse gods, but the end result was... disappointing. Instead of "psychoanalyzing the gods", as she disdainfully says in her afterword that all the other authors have done, Byatt merely re-tells the myths of the Norse gods with the minor framing device of a girl (named only "the thin child") reading the stories during WWII. The main character of the book, if we go by page space, is the Midgard's serpent, who is portrayed in a way that made me have to go re-read Susan Cooper's Greenwitch, because Cooper did it better. The wolves - and wolves in Norse mythology are crucial - are given short shrift and that shrift is written, well, sloppily. Say what you like about Byatt, she doesn't do sloppy, but here she just seemed to have slapped a large dog-shaped space on the page and gotten back to her ten-page list of fish that the Midgard's serpent eats.
The framing device should have worked for me, it really should have. I was a thin child bent over my giant book of Norse mythology, after all. (We didn't read our D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths to pieces, as we did the Greek, but we loved it too.) But there was nothing of the vast physicality of those myths in Byatt's re-telling. None of the epic, astonishing cold you could see in the pictures; no hot blood when Fenris bites off Tyr's hand; and no sex. Byatt tries to write about Loki without writing about sex or sex appeal, which as you can imagine doesn't work, and she has to leave out all the goddesses except Frigg in the Baldur story. And Byatt has her thin child coming up with all these incredibly adult ideas about Christianity based on her readings, which didn't ring true. A kid doesn't read those myths to thoughtfully compare them to the Bible: she reads them because they are awesome and make her feel powerful. Also because wolves.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. I really liked this. It's a shameless riff on Heart of Darkness: the protagonist is a pharmacologist sent into the Amazon by the company she works for to find out what's going on with the miracle drug supposedly being harvested / manufactured there, and the Kurtz figure is the female scientist heading up the drug effort. Patchett clearly has fun with re-tooling Conrad and the post-colonial attitude towards indigenous people, while creating her own story that's interesting in its own right. I was a little concerned going into this, since I loved Bel Canto and then was severely disappointed by The Magician's Assistant. Fortunately this was much more like the former than the latter.
In other news, it's summer. I'm trying to be good-natured about this, and relish delicious salads and the sea roses in my yard and that one day when a tanktop and capris is a perfectly comfortable outfit, as opposed to what you are sweating through. But summer is a rough time for me appearance- (and therefore confidence-) wise. Summer reminds me that my genetics really don't think I should be outside unless it's fifty degrees and misty.
Some people, at the three o'clock post-barbecue mark, just become a little more bronzed along their cheekbones; I turn beet-red and my pores produce Scottish-chip-shop-caliber grease. My upper chest always gets sunburned early in the season, usually in the car so I have a nice seatbelt tan line, and it stays red and blotchy until December. My upper arms break out in pimples and heat rash. My legs refuse to take a tan: I'll be outside all day, in shorts, in sun so fierce that my neck is blistering despite 100-SPF sunscreen and a hat, and at the end of the day my legs remain so white they look green. It's utterly bizarre. From the waist up I am more sensitive to sun than a German vampire, and from the waist down apparently my skin generates some sort of natural sunblock more powerful than anything created by science. Just another one of my fearful asymmetries.
My, that was whiny. I do enjoy some aspects of summer, and last year advanced so far in my tolerance of it as to actually purchase a bikini top (not a whole bikini; pants-wise I will never wear anything more revealing than board shorts in public, and you can't make me), although some of that had to do with a friend texting me prior to my beach-house visit, "What would you think of a very handsome, scruffy, old-fashioned boat-builder who also sings in a band?" I remember wondering whether the boats were old-fashioned or the gentleman was, and figuring that either way this called for the astonishing decision to let someone other than my oncologist or a tattoo artist see my torso. That decision seems to have worked out.
Summer: maybe not all bad? Ugh, who am I kidding. The other morning, struggling to find a work outfit, I patted the sweaters in my closet and said, "I miss you already." But there will be days with ocean breezes, and trips to the dog beach, and ginger beer. Before I know it I'll be shoveling snow again.