2005 Books

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

Oh wait! I meant to write about finally finishing a book. Right. Ok, during this slump I hadn't finished a book since Thanksgiving - almost a whole month. But happy days are hear again (sorry NYRB!), because I just finished a doozy!

No number, because the new list doesn't start until January.

What a book! I can't remember the last time I tore through a nineteenth century novel like I tore through this one. It was a shelf-sitter that was reading as my commuting book, but if I had known how good it was I would have read it years ago. The plot is absolutely ludacris, and requires total suspension of disbelief. Treasure! Coincidence! Princesses! A "I took a fake poison but am not really dead" plot totally robbed from Romeo and Juliet! Vengeance! Love! Wow!

Not only was the plot ridiculous, but its not very well written, either. This may, however, be the fault of the translation. I read the Signet edition which has an anonymous Edwardian translation, and I think that he cut some good stuff. Evidently there are fabulous French lesbians in the book, which were definitely not in my edition.

You'd think with these inherent flaws the book would be tiresome. Nevertheless, I loved it - the plot is rocking and the end is satisfying and the story is great. I recommend it heartily. I have to read the The Three Muskateers to my list.

So, have you read any Dumas? What did you think? Comment on implausibility, better translations, film version, the excised lesbians or what you will.

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal], Zoe Heller

New book! - This is the story of a teacher, Sheba, who has an affair with her sixteen-year old student. It is told by her friend and colleague, Barbara, and it becomes clear over the course of the novel that the real story is Barbara's a she lets out her own failings while ostensibly telling her friend's story. The book is well written, in the sense that its eminently readable. The tone is true - it seems like the voice of a middle aged history teacher, and although I was somewhat of a captive audience (reading the book on the airplane) I read it straight through. In addition, I find the notion of an unreliable narrator to be eminently interesting to play with. I can understand why the book got critical raves - it's just post modern and meta enough to get their attention, and Heller has the writing chops to back it up.

However, the book was ultimately unsatisfying to me. The first reason is that Barbara was so obviously bitter and warped and not working in Sheba's interests. It would have been more satisfying to gradually come to the conclusion that she was not telling the whole truth and was not up to any good than to be certain from the get go that she was sad and strange and pitiful. This leads to my second complaint - Barbara was written as a vindictive lonely spinster who craves any human companionship, and will go to any lengths to get someone to love her. She'll do anything for human companionship, no matter how pitiful it makes her. She'll push her way into any situation. She's the ultimate stereotype of the sad unmarried woman. She has even has a cat! This is such a miserable retrograde character and such a sexist image of a miserable lonely middle-aged woman that it robs the book of some of its power. Wouldn't Barbara be more interesting if she wasn't pitiful in this awfully old fashion retrograde way?

Ms. Heller is a good writer, and I enjoyed reading her book. Yet, in the end these two problems made it a disappointing tale. I look forward to what she does next. With minor tweaks she'd be unstoppable.

Books for Christmas, part 1

Because my husband Jon and I live in Washington (D.C.), and my parents live in Massachusetts and his parents live in New York and his brother lives in Washington (state), and we want to celebrate with everyone, we have ended up having a pretty lengthy Christmas celebration this year. Last weekend we went to Boston for Fake Christmas. Fake Christmas (as the name indicates) is when you celebrate part of Christmas beforehand, because you won't be together on real Christmas. Before I was married, my family used to celebrate Fake Christmas in Maine at my grandparents, because my grandmother wasn't really able to travel. Now that I am married, and we alternate spending the holidays between our two sets of parents, we celebrate Fake Christmas with my folks on the years that we are going to be with his parents on real Christmas. This year was a Fake Christmas year. Incidentally, I came up with the Fake Christmas moniker, and it amuses me more than I can say.

I got a few books from my family at Fake Christmas. I'm pretty hard to shop for in the book department, so these were more specialized books:

My Mom gave me three children's books. This might seem like a hint to get cracking with the grandkids (and maybe it was), but I collect young adult and children's books, so mostly it was just a lovely gift. Especially since they were three awesome books.

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog, Mo Willems - This is the sequel to my favorite book of 2005 that didn't make the countdown - Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!. If you haven't meant the pigeon yet, your life is not complete. The pigeon rocks.

Olivia, Ian Falconer - I love Olivia. She rules the world, as she should. Olivia is awesome.

Runny Babbit, Shel Silverstein - I have been a Shel fan since I was wee, and can recite great gobs of his poetry at the drop of a hat. I was pretty excited to get this book.

My dad gave me a goofy book called Bad Cats - Jon and I have been cat owners for five months now, and we have quickly become foolish cat people. Seriously, I have no hipster cred left at all. I made a picture of my kittens the backdrop on my work computer. I got it bad. So, I loved this book of cats looking both goofy and menacing.

Finally, my uncle gave me a really interesting book called Censored 2006: The Top 25 Censored Stories, edited by Peter Phillips - I haven't read it yet, but it looks pretty interesting. This is a book blog, not a political blog, and I will generally keep it that way, but let me just say that there are some pretty important stories that aren't getting a great deal of press. I will read this one, and report back.

So, I am pretty lucky in the book department, right? But wait! There's more!

Because we're flying out to Seattle on the 24th to spend the holiday with Jon's family, we decided it would be fun to do our own little Christmas before we left, just the two of use like the cute little still practically-newlyweds that we are. Because we are totally impatient and have no self control we ended up exchanging presents on Tuesday night. Whatever, it was awesome and totally fun. The best thing was that I got TWO Barnes and Noble Gift Certificates. One from Jon, and one from (wait for it) Marbury and Madison*. That's right! The cats. They even wrote their little cat names on the envelope.

So, on Wednesday we went book shopping. Here's what I got.

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle, Leslie Klinger ed. - I am obsessed with the beauty of these books. I got the first two volumes (i.e. the short stories) for my birthday and needed to complete my set.

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall

Snow, Orhan Pamuk

The Unexpurgated Beaton, Cecil Beaton, Hugo Vickers, ed.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin

Revenge: A Novel, Stephen Fry

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

Aren't I lucky? I can't wait to read them all! And, best of all, a little bird (though not, sadly, the pigeon) implied that I might be getting more books on real actual Christmas. I mean, has one girl ever been so spoiled??

*The cats are named Marbury and Madison because we are super law nerds. Don't judge us.

Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey, Karen Wilken, ed. 

This is odd little book is a collection of interviews given by Edward Gorey given over the course of his lifetime. I have been a Gorey fan since forever. I first became aware of his work in the fifth grade, with his fabulous covers of children's books such as the John Bellairs series. The Eyes of the Killer Robot cover particularly stays with me as being fabulously menacing. My next exposure was his Mystery! opening credits, and then his own books - both collected in the Amphegory books and in their original small book formats. I used to have a fabulous Gashleycrumb Tinies poster on my bedroom wall at home, which I adored. I, like so many others, am fascinated by his mysterious, macabre vaguely Edwardian art. When I saw this book of interviews I thought it would be interesting to know more about the man behind the artwork.

The format of the book led to a lot of repetitiveness. As I said, it contains transcriptions of numerous interviews from print, television and radio that Gorey gave over the course of his life. Because interviewers asked a lot of the same questions over and over again, by the end some of the interviews had lost a bit of freshness. Nevertheless, Gorey was a fascinating character, and learning about his life was pretty interesting. He lived alone his entire life - first in Manhattan, then on the Cape. He had a number of cats - he said that if he could change one thing about his family it would be "to live with cats who are a tad less loopy", a desire with which I think we all can sympathize. He used to attend every single performance of the New York City Ballet. He was an omnivorous consumer of culture - from the Tale of the Genji to The Golden Girls. He loved the Mapp and Lucia books, which made me feel hip, since I am wading through that series right now. Most importantly, he agreed with me that "N is for Neville, who died of ennui" was one of his best lines.

I don't know - it's a pretty interesting book, in that he was an eccentric, and his life was different and interesting. It didn't change or illuminate my opinion of his work in any way, though, which makes me wonder the point of it all. I am glad I read it but I divorce it from my enjoyment of his work. I don't know that I would recommend it - Gorey fans don't need it, and who else would care?

So, any Gorey lovers out there? What do you think of Figbash? Is there a better line than "N is for Neville who died of ennui"? Didn't think so!

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall

Over the past few years I have become a collector of children's and young adult literature. I am particularly interested in hardcover editions of books I loved when I was growing up, but I also am amassing a collection of paperback to supplement my collection of books I have had since I was young. My collection of original to me books was reduced when my parents house caught on fire, so I spend a lot of time replacing childhood favorites. I am also on the lookout for new books that have been published since my YA heyday. This year I was lead to:

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall - I found this book at through a review at Bookslut. It is the exact sort of book that I would have adored when I was growing up. It is the story of four sisters who go with their father on vacation to the Berkshires and the adventures they have while there. It reminds me of a modern version of Elizabeth Enright's Melendy family, or of Anastasia, or Edward Eager. I don't mean to suggest that book is old-fashioned, or twee - it is definitely a modern story, in the way the sisters interact, in the way the book deals with their mother's death, in the way that it depicts Rosalind's feelings for Cagney, or Mrs. Tifton's snobbery and aspirations for her son. But it manages to take modern topics and sensibility, and weave it into the kind of book that I loved growing up - the kind that is so engrossing that you can sink into and become part of its world. I loved, loved it and was thrilled that it won the National Book Award. I await more from Ms. Birdsall, and I hope that we get to meet the Penderwicks again.

Queen Lucia, E.F. Benson 

This is the first of the Make Way for Lucia series, a collection of books written in the 1920s about Lucia, a middle aged English woman who rules those around her with an iron fist. Lucia is pretentious, selfish and scheming. She is one-hundred percent self centered. She is completely fake. She is also a hoot. The books absolutely skewer the small town life and the social scene therein, with all its artificial ups and downs, and its unceasing concern with each others business. In this book Lucia rules the town, with her friend Georgie as her second in command. All is well, until the famous opera singer Olga Bracely, who effortlessly (and indeed, unintentionally) unseats La Lucia and steals her thunder and Georgie to boot! All is well in the end - but the voyage is the whole point.

It reminds me a bit of Wodehouse, if the whole thing was from Aunt Agatha's perspective - though Lucia is not meant to be sympathetic, as Bertie certainly is. I look forward to reading the rest of the saga!!

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson - 

I read this smallish chapter book out loud to Jon in spirit of the holidays. It's the story of what happens when the worst kids in town get involved with the church's Christmas pageant. It is extremely funny, but is also pretty moving, so I recommend it highly. A nice Christmastime story.

I am off for two weeks vacation. I may blog from the road, but if not I will have lots to say when I get back, since one of my vacation goals is to read up a storm. Plus, on January 1, my new reading list will officially begin. Enjoy the rest of 2005, and I'll be back in 2006!

Currently Reading: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain; The Odd Woman, George Gissing.

I'm back!!

I had a wonderful vacation to the West Coast! We spent the holidays with my in-laws in Seattle, and then headed South, flying out of San Francisco thirteen days later. En route we saw sea lions, floods, the New Year, cheese-making and the only other reigning Queen of Booklandia (more on that later), and we hit a number of great bookstores. I came back with so many books that we had to send some home via U.S. Mail and I read so much that it will take a week of blogging to get up to date. What I am saying is, it was a very successful trip.

Here are the books I got and bookstores I went to on West Coast road trip.

For Christmas, my parents-in-law gave me the very thoughtful and relevant gift of A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester - the story of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the perfect thing to read on my California adventure. Perhaps even more cool was the fact that they gave me gift certificates to two historic bookstores on our trip, so that I could go and pick out my own stuff at these great locations. For me, that was the perfect Christmas gift!

First off they gave me a gift certificate to Powells!! Powells, located in Portland, Oregon, is one of the largest bookstores in the world. It carries tons of new and used books of all varieties. I was already very familiar with their excellent website, but had never been to the store. Powells is a book fiend's Mecca, let me tell you. In order to contain my bibliomania, I focused on the children's and YA section, trying to find hardcovers and first additions for my collection, as well as paperback copies of books that I loved that are otherwise out of print. I got:

In Hardcover

A House Like A Lotus, Madeline L'Engle

An Acceptable Time, Madeline L'Engle

The Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeline L'Engle

A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett

The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery, Vol. 1 - which I had been looking for forever, so this was a real find!

In Paperback

Return to Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright

Spiderweb For Two, Elizabeth Enright

The Second Mrs. Giaconda E.L. Konigsberg

I think that's it - these were the books that I send back by U.S. Mail, so I may have to edit the list when I get my box in the mail. I went a little crazy at Powells, and tried, with mild success to rein myself in on the rest of the trip.

My second gift certificate was to that fabulous Beat hangout, The City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Although I probably should have bought some Ginsberg or Kerouac, I instead purchased:

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll, Jean Nathan

The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman

We also hit two other cool bookstores in San Francisco. Well, technically one bookstore and one pirate store. The bookstore was Green Apple books. Its somewhat off the tourist track, but totally worth it. There too, I focused on YA lit and got:

Roller Skates, Ruth Sawyer

Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett

Finally, the pirate store. As you may know, 826 Valencia is a center to encourage literacy and writing among the neighborhood youth run by McSweeney's magazine. There is a store there and the proceeds go to support the center. It is a pirate store, but they also carry some McSweeney's books. So, while there I got:

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things that Aren't Scary..., Stories by Neil Gaiman et al. (I edited the title, a bit, for space)

An eyepatch.

As you can see, a pretty darn good haul. Next up, the books I read while away, and the official start of the 2006 book list!! Can't you just taste the excitement??

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson:

This is an excellent book. Atkinson's Case Histories was the last book I read for my 2005 list and was so good I almost put it in my top ten. Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the story of one British family, told from the perspective of Ruby, its youngest member. Ruby's tale is intertwined with lengthy "footnotes" that tell the stories of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, winding back through until, at the end, you have the whole story of the family, from about 1870 to 1970, as well as a snapshot of twentieth-century British life. Atkinson's prose makes the story seem real and the character's motivations sympathetic and understandable. I was particularly touched by the World War One sections concerning Ruby's grandmother and her experiences during the War. The Great War is a subject that tends to always bring a lump to my throat, but Atkinson's version really touched me.

If I had one complaint, it would be that there is a "twist" in the book that, while deftly done, seemed somewhat pointless. Without giving anything away, I will say that the story of Ruby and her family was interesting enough without that extra angle. Nevertheless, I would recommend the book heartily, and I look forward to reading more Atkinson.

Date/Place Completed:12/26/2005, Redmond Washington

The Second Mrs. Giaconda, E.L. Konisberg:

This was one of my purchases at Powell’s, and I could not resist. I have loved E.L. Konisberg’s books since I was young, and owned and frequently re-read copies of most of them. This one, however, I had only ever borrowed from the library, so when I saw a discounted copy (paperback, alas!), I grabbed it.

It is a piece of historical fiction, telling the story of Salai, who was Leonardo Da Vinci’s rascally apprentice, and of their relationship with the Duke of Milan’s plain wife, Beatrice. It is the story of friendship, and of wisdom and of loss, and in the end, it posits a suggestion of the mystery of the Mona Lisa. Like all of her books, it has that precise, wise and all-knowing tone that makes you think of the world is a slightly different way.

Date/Place Completed: 12/28/2005, Portland, OR

The Children's Blizzard, David Laskin:

I have come to realize that, while most of what I read is fiction, that one of my favorite kind of books are non-fiction stories that are written like novels, particularly stories about unknown or underreported events in American history. I'm fascinated by books such as Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire, the story of the 1942 Hartford Circus fire and Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven about the fringe extremist Mormon groups. This book was along those lines, and I gobbled it up.

It tells the story of a freak blizzard that hit the Midwest in 1888, coming on so cold and so hard that it killed hundreds of people who got caught outside on the prairie and, because visibility was so bad and the winds were so hard, were unable to make it back to their homes. Many people died only feet from their door, literally unable to see their hands before their faces. It was called the “Children’s Blizzard” because so many of the dead were children who got lost on their way home from school.

The story is unbeatable. The book is pretty good. It spends a lot of pages detailing the science of the blizzard and why that particular storm hit so hard. I found these sections slightly difficult to follow, which may have more to do with my limited interest in meteorology than Mr. Laskin’s writing ability, but it made the reading a bit of a slog. However, I found the parts about the impact of the blizzard on the prairie towns, and on how people did (and more often did not) survive the storm to be fascinating. He describes the storm so that you feel like you’ve lived through it, and the book made me understand in a way that that few other books have not, how hard and tenuous life was for these Dakota and Nebraska homesteaders and immigrants.

Date/Place Completed: 12/29/2005, Cannon Beach, OR

Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Mystery, Elizabeth Enright:

Another Powell’s book. This is a book that I loved growing up, and read a number of times. Unfortunately, my copy got destroyed in the Great Christmas Fire of 2002. My parents house caught fire on Christmas Eve, 2002 when a blizzard caused us to lose power and then candle left burning exploded and caused the fire. No one was hurt, and damage was pretty minimal, but one of the few losses was a massive collection of Young Adult books belonging to me, my brother and sister, that were kept in the guest room. My very very favorite books were spared, as I had taken them away with me, but the fire took place right before I became serious about collecting Children’s and YA literature, so a lot of great stuff was lost. Therefore, while I primarily am looking to buy hardcovers and first editions on my book-buying expeditions, I also make a habit of replacing the books that I lost. This was one such book.

It is the last of four books about the Melendy family, four (later five) siblings living in New York (and the surrounding countryside) in the 1940’s. The books are absolutely enchanting – the kind of books that I used (and still do) sink into and live for a brief period in the book’s world. The Penderwicks reminded me of the Melendys. This book takes place after the three oldest siblings have gone off to school, and the two youngest are left at home, bereft. However a letter arrives, which send them off on a puzzle-solving treasure hunt, and adventures ensue. Re-reading it was like re-finding an old friend. Loved, loved it.

Date/Place Completed: 12/30/2005, Grants Pass

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017