The only good thing about this sciatica business is that I'm only comfortable in a half-reclining position, which lends itself to lots of reading.
First I read Serena by Ron Rash, which I'm told is soon to be a major! motion! picture! starring the seemingly inseparable Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Here's the synopsis from the New Yorker:
Set in 1929, in the rugged mountains of North Carolina, Rash's novel is a tightly knit tale of industrial development, greed, and betrayal. George Pemberton and his new bride, Serena, maintain a close watch over a burgeoning logging empire, dealing with their workers while fighting off the efforts of environmental activists to expand the country's network of national parks. As the title character, a Depression-era Lady Macbeth wholly comfortable in the wilderness drives her husband to commit increasingly malevolent acts, he must also contend with the reemergence of a woman with whom he had an illegitimate child years earlier. Rash's evocative rendering of the blighted landscape and the tough characters who inhabit it recalls both John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, while the malignant character of Serena, who projects a stark unflinching certainty about her actions, propels his finely paced story.
There were also impressive blurbs all over the back from the likes of Anna Quindlen and Pat Conroy, and the book was a NYT "notable book" and a Post "best book of the year."
I liked it a lot, and I read it cover to cover without wanting to stop, but it was hardly one of the best books I've ever read. The place and time were conjured effectively, the characters were interesting (I especially enjoyed reading the dialog among the loggers), and the plot was gripping, but it's not the sort of book I'll ever think about again now that I've read it. So I recommend it as a good read but will stop short of calling it a must read.
Then came my book group assignment, Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. This novel imagines the story of the woman in Dorothea Lange's most famous photo, Migrant Mother (or, in any event, a similar woman), and the photographer who snapped the shot. It also weaves in the story of a modern-day professor of social history whose family owned the California orchards where many migrant workers worked during the Depression. The story is very moving and poignant without being sappy, and the characters felt very real to me—indeed, I would have liked to get to know them even better. There's both the actual story to consider—filled with themes of love and loss and hope—and the whole question of what a photo actually means, and who "owns" it. Do read this one, and suggest it to your book group if you're looking for a good discussion.
Finally, I read Longbourn by Jo Baker, which was a delight. Baker has rewritten/adapted Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the Bennet family servants. I was skeptical at first but swayed by the rave reviews, and I was not disappointed. The writing is terrific (some of it worthy of Austen herself!), the plot kept me going (even though I knew what would happen, since it pretty much mirrors P&P), and the details of life "belowstairs" were realistic and fascinating. I consider this novel both a tribute to Austen and a success on its own merits.