2006: Books 1-9

1. Revenge, Stephen Fry:

Finally, after a month of blogging, my first book that counts for my 2006 list! This is an appropriate book to start my year with, because it mirrors the very first book I blogged about. Revenge is a modern re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo. It is very well done, because Fry manages to take the elements of Dumas’ novel that take the most suspension of disbelief and make them believable in a modern setting. It’s a clever twist on an old story – with updated methods of revenge, and a clever twist on the old characters (With puns! The character of the Count’s finance is changed from Mercedes to Portia – hee!). It’s suspenseful as well, a major feat considering that I not only knew the ending but had just read the original a month ago.

While the book does an excellent job in making the story more plausible than Dumas’ version, the modern retelling also highlights the central problem with the book. That is, that while revenge is satisfying to read about, it is not a particularly healthy way to live one's life or the best way to solve problems. While Dumas unreservedly encourages the reader to root for the Count’s plan, Fry’s tale is much more morally ambiguous. His “Count” (here named Ned) has everything a man could want – riches, smarts and fame. Is what happened to him early on that bad, that he should ruin these lesser mens’ lives? Particularly since his early experience is what led him to have these great things? Fry stacks the deck a bit toward ambiguity, in his story three of the four men upon whom revenge is sought were not really seeking to ruin Ned’s life – just to humiliate him a bit, and it all went miserably wrong. In the Dumas original, all the men were seriously trying to ruin Dantes, so it was more satisfying when they were destroyed. Here, Fry presses harder on the question of whether Ned’s cause is a worthy one. Leaving the reader with a clever, action packed book that asks some serious questions about life. What more could you want?

On a side note, Fry, a British author, is probably best known as an actor. He’s been in many, many movies, and is probably best known, in America, at least, as Jeeves in the most recent adaptations of Wodehouse novels (which are absolutely awesome). I’ve read two of his other books, which while more strictly comedic, are fun, too.

Date/Place Completed: 01/02/2006, Inverness, CA

2. A Crack in the Edge of the World, Simon Winchester:

This was the perfect book for me to read on my vacation. Like so many of us, I love to read about the places I am traveling to while I am there, and this time I forgot to pack a California book. So, when my lovely parents-in-law gave me a copy of this book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake I was psyched. I read the book as we were wending our way towards the City – perfect timing, because much of the book concerned the geologic causes of the earthquake, and discussed the very areas we had driven through – the Sikayou Mountains, Point Reyes National Park, and the edge of the San Andreas Fault. It was pretty remarkable to realize that as we were sitting in our peaceful lodge, listening to the rainfall, we were also sitting on one of the most geologically active places in the United Stated. Wicked.

The book was excellent. I had read Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and hadn’t been that impressed – I felt that while the story was inherently interesting, the writing didn’t impress. This book, on the other hand was fascinating. Like The Children’s Blizzard a lot of the book contained scientific background on earthquakes, and why they will, inevitably, happen in San Francisco. Unlike that book, I was rapt by his scientific prose. I didn’t skim at all, and learned a ton. In addition, he had all the great stuff that I love about history, society at the time, and the stories of the people who lived through the earthquake.

The only downside was that throughout our time in the city Jon had to listen to me pontificate about 1906 and what happened in each part of the city, and what would happen when the “Big One” came. In the Market? “You know, this is all fill – it’ll be under water when the Big One comes.” On the Bay Bridge? “You know, the Golden Gate would be safer if the Big One came.” So, I learned that I am way too impressionable, but the book is excellent and I recommend it, even if you are going to be in San Francisco!

Date/Place Completed: 01/03/2006, Inverness, CA

3. Roller Skates, Ruth Sawyer:

To explain why I recently re-read Roller Skates, it is necessary to delve into my sometime strange reading habits. I have already mentioned the young adult books from my parents’ house that got burnt up in the fire. Prior to the blaze, I had been in the middle of carrying out one of my strange reading projects. To put it simply, one day I came home from law school, and decided to: 1) alphabetize all the young adult books in the guest room (at least 300 hundred books) and then 2) read them all, in alphabetical-by-author order. Since most of the books in the room were either ones that, as a child, I had determined were too boring to read, or books that my younger siblings had added to the pile, it meant that I ended up reading many books for the first time – and finding lots of great books I had overlooked because they had boring covers, or bad blurbs on the back. I got pretty far, too, until they all burnt up (or, more precisely were totally destroyed by smoke damage).

Which leads me to Roller Skates. This was definitely one of the books that I had disdained as a child because of the dull cover/title. I was not a particularly athletic child, and had no interest in Roller Skating. The cover showed a drawing of a girl on, you guessed it – Roller Skates. No thanks, I said.

What a fool I was! As I saw, when I read it for the first time (at the ripe old age of about 23) and as I saw on my recent re-read, this is an absolutely charming book. Set in 1890’s New York, it tells the story of Lucinda, a society child who has a year-long adventure when her parents go abroad for her mother’s health, and she is allowed to stay with her teachers at their boarding house (rather than her snobby Aunt Emily and her “four docile ladylike daughters”). Lucinda, who is absolutely lovely and charming and Anne-like, takes this opportunity to explore her world and meet people from all social stratas, including a cab-driver, a policeman and a fruit vendor’s son. She makes friends of all sorts, she learns about life outside of the Social Register, and we benefit from her experiences through their charming re-tellings. Totally deserving of the Newbury Medal – which it won in 1937, and as fresh today as it was then. I am so glad that I ran across a copy in Green Apple books – and even more pleased that it was the same copy, “boring” cover* and all, that I owned before.

Date/Place Completed: 01/04/2006, San-Francisco, CA

*Actually, the cover is quite lovely. Done by the books’ illustrator, it shows Lucinda, on her roller skates, with her little sailor hat, exploring the world. The version of the Italian vendor in the background is perhaps a little non-PC, but the illustrator was Italian himself, so perhaps we should chalk it up to different times…

4.  Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett:

Another YA purchase from Green Apple books, and to be honest, a disappointment. This is a new-ish book, published in 2004, and while I had never read it before, I had high hopes. I had read reviews that said it was clever, it has expert illustrations by Brett Helquist (Lemony Snicket’s illustrator), and the inside flap lead me to believe it was a puzzle tale in the same vein as The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.* Chasing Vermeer is not a terrible book, but it didn’t live up to my expectations.

It tells the story of two outcast sixth graders, Petra and Calder, who come together and ultimately solve a mystery about a missing Vermeer painting. I loved the characters – the leads seemed like real, nerdy, slightly unpopular students, and the supporting characters were ok, if a bit clichéd from earlier books. Also, the writing had some beautifully lyrical passages that I really enjoyed. The fault I had was with the mystery. Half of the book seemed like a solvable puzzle, with clues for the reader (even clues built into the illustrations). The other half turned on mystical coincidences and psychic connections. In short – the book seemed to want to have it both ways, and thus, left me unsatisfied. The psychic mystical parts were actually quite nice – dreamy and philosophical, but they didn’t mesh with the everyday realness of the characters. The mystery, once solved was not an “Aha!”, but rather a “huh?” – a cobbled together explanation that was unsatisfying. Too many red herrings, not enough clues, and unsolvable, I think, if one wasn’t getting secret psychic messages. I would read another book by Ms. Balliett – she has a real gift for characterization and a way with words, but I would hope that next time she is more sharp in her thematics and plotting.

Date/Place Completed: 01/05/2006, San-Francisco, CA

*On a side note, The Westing Game is one of the great books ever written. If you haven’t read it, you have deprived yourself of one of life’s great rewards, particularly if you have a fondness for puzzles, mysteries and clever, clever books.

5. The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright, Jean Nathan:

Wow – this is a weird book. Not, despite the title, a young adult book, but rather the biography of a woman who wrote a number of bizarre children’s books between 1957 to 1981, the most famous of which was called The Lonely Doll. I wasn’t familiar with her children’s books when I was young, but I glanced at The Lonely Doll when I bought this paperback. It tells the story, all through posed, black and white photographs, of Edith, a little doll who lives alone in a fabulous apartment. She is miserably living all alone until two bears move in with her. One day, Edith and the small bear get into a great deal of trouble, and Edith is afraid that the bears will leave forever. They do not, but Edith is spanked, in a particularly disturbing photo. Evidently, at the time these books were published they were much acclaimed and loved, but nowdays they just seem bizarre and Freudian.

It turns out that there is a reason that the books are so odd. The author, Dare Wright, lived a bizarrely sad life. Her parents divorced when she was young. She stayed with her mother and her brother went to live with her father. She never saw her father again, and didn’t see her brother for twenty years. Dare grew up to be beautiful (she worked as an actress and a model before she became a professional photographer), but she was eternally childish. She never married, but had odd relationships with many men. She seemed to be afraid of sex, and of growing up. She had an extremely unhealthy co-dependant relationship with her mother (down to taking naked photographs of each other!) and was obsessed with her brother. She ended up alone, living like Miss Havisham in a grim apartment, and died indigent, in a state hospital. Her books seem to all be attempts to rewrite her own sad story and make it a happy one.

Jean Nathan came upon this story when one day, out of the blue, The Lonely Doll popped in her head. When she tried to find more about the book, she fell into Dare’s story. The tale she tells is strange, sad, and moving. The book is interwoven with many of Dare’s own photographs, which are also melancholy and odd. This book records the story of a sad and fascinating life, and if you are inclined toward such stories, I highly recommend it.

Date/Place Completed: 01/06/2006, in the air, flying over the United States

6. A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett:

This is technically a young adult book (and yes, I do read grown-up books, I just went on a bit of a YA tear after my Powell’s extravaganza), but the only reason for so labeling it is that the main character is a teenager. It is hard to explain how great this book is if you haven’t read any Pratchett, but, then again, why haven’t you read any Pratchett? His books about the Discworld started out a pun-filled parodies of fantasy novels, and have evolved into satires on our modern world that usually leave me with more profound thinking to do afterward that most “serious fiction.” A Hat Full of Sky is a sequel to The Wee Free Men and is about Tiffany Aching’s apprenticeship as a witch, far from her home on the chalk country. It’s also about being true to yourself, whoever you are and accepting the good of yourself with the bad, and trusting your instincts. But it isn’t hokey, or preachy, just true. And funny as hell – I will never stop laughing at the Wee Free Men.

So, go out and read some Pratchett, by gum! Start with the Wee Free Men, even if they are “kids books”, and then bust out the rest of the Discworld. You won’t regret it.

Date/Place Completed: 01/06/2006, in the air, flying over the United States

7. Return To Gone-Away, Elizabeth Enright:

Gosh, for a big fancy legal professional, I have sure read a lot of children’s books lately, hmmm? Darn you Powells! Darn you to heck! I go out and buy these books to collect and then I end up putting all my serious grown-up reading aside until I am thoroughly soaked in nostalgia.

Anyway, this is by the same author as Spiderweb for Two, but seems to be set in the ‘50’s rather than the ‘40’s. It is a sequel to a book called Gone-Away Lake which tells the story of some children who come across a collection of abandoned summer homes in the woods (since the lake the houses used to be on had disappeared), and two lovely old people who make their homes there. Return To Gone-Away is about how the children’s parents buy one of the old homes and fix it up. The books basically tells the tale of the children exploring their new-old home and learning its secrets. I loved these books growing up, since living in an old home filled with mysterious antiques and hidden treasures was just about my number-one dream. Of course, now that I actually live in an old home we have found more peeling plaster and drafty windows than attics full of antiques and safes full of jewels, but I keep the dream alive.

Date/Place Completed: 01/09/2006, at home in Washington, D.C.

8. The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman:

This is a bit of a tough one to describe. Basically, John Hodgman, a professional writer, has written an almanac detailing the areas of his expertise, which include “matters historical, matters literary, matters cryptozoological, hobo matters, food, drink & cheese (a kind of food), squirrels & lobsters & eels, haircuts, utopia, what will happen in the future, and a host of other subjects.” It also contains “a reasonable number of tables and figures.” It is the funniest book I have read in ages – Hodgman has a perfect sense for nonsense, and a killer deadpan tone. If you have any patience for goofiness, you must read this book. Not a word of it is true, except by accident, and almost every page will make you laugh.

Date/Place Completed: 01/09/2006, Washington D.C.

Edited to Add: Hodgmania is sweeping the world! John Hodgman was on The Daily Show tonight as an Iran expert, and was just as funny as the book!!

9. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain:

I was disappointed in this book. I had heard great things about it, including how scandalous it was. I had envisioned a scathing expose of the restaurant industry and all the disgusting things you didn’t want to know. Instead, it was just the story of Anthony Bourdain and how gross and miserable his life was at one point, and what a hard-core chef he was. He did do some scandalous things – he had some serious addiction problems, and runs his kitchens like some kind of version of machismo hell, but he concedes that other chefs who are even more successful don’t do all those ridiculous things. He gives some tips about what not to order at restaurants, and how to make your home cooking more fancy, and tells some really disgusting stories about places he worked, but nothing he said would make me change any of my dining habits. Except make me even more guilty about using jarred garlic to cook with than I already am (Oh! The Shame!).

Also, the book was all over the ice – it didn’t really have any real narrative flow, just read like a collection of columns (which maybe it was?) I don’t know – it was an ok book. I enjoyed reading it, but it was just less than I had expected. It did make me hungry, and want to go to Les Halles, so it wasn’t a complete loss, I guess.

Had anyone read it? What did you think?

Date/Place Completed: 01/12/2006, Washington D.C.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017