2006: Books 109-100

100. Trooper to the Southern Cross, Angela Thirkell


This is the 100th book I read this year! Too bad it wasn’t that great. To give you a sense of how dull this book was, let me tell you that I started it on July 25. Even with two weeks off in Peru, it is clear that it wasn’t may top priority…

This is the story of an Australian World War One officer, and his hellacious trip home from England on a troop ship that had been sabotaged by the Germans and filled with angry enlisted men (including a gang of prisoners on the lower decks). All hell breaks loose, and Major Bowen tells the tale. Thirkell (who I guess is some sort of twee British novelist) does a pretty good job capturing the Australian voice (enough that she tricked the Australian press), but the story itself was boring. A detailed version of a long boat trip is just as boring as a long boat trip itself, and even World War One, my pet subject, wasn’t enough to make me finish the book in more than three months. A thumbs down, especially for the 100th book this year.

Date/Place Completed: 9/24/06, Washington, D.C.


101. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer


This is a very well-written memoir, telling the story of JR Moehringer, a fatherless boy who grew up on Manhasset, New York, and fell in love with the local bar because it provided him the fathers he lacked. Another book about fathers and sons, I know, but this one is very evocative of an uptight young man’s search for what it means to be a man. I must say I enjoyed the part about his troubled childhood more than the part where he was floundering in the bar, drinking too much and losing his ambition. Though the first clearly lead to the second, like my experience with The Moviegoer the uptight type-A-er in me finds it stressful to read about a person just letting their life fall apart. My issues, I know. Still, Moehringer tells quite a story about a figuring out who he is, and how he got there, and how the bar helped him and hurt him and made him who he was.

Date/Place Completed: 9/29/06, Washington, D.C.


102. Emotionally Weird, Kate Atkinson

]


I loved Atkinson’s Case Histories (which I read in January, but can’t figure out how to link too, sorry!), so when I was grasping for something to read I thought this would be perfect. This isn’t quite as good as Case Histories or Behind the Scenes at the Museum, largely because its much more goofy and meta than those two books. Effie and her mother Nora are telling each other the stories of their lives, and each story is told with a different typeface, and a very intrusive narrator, and the whole thing is a riff on the nature of story telling, at the expense of the characters. Plus, I am getting tired of frenetic books where people run around trying to get things done but nothing actually gets done, especially in a shabby academic setting. It was enjoyable, but with the literary tricks and the circular plot, it was also a little exhausting. That being said, I will definitely read the new Atkinson – she is a great writer, and even this book, which wasn’t my favorite, was damn entertaining.

Date/Place Completed: 10/01/06, Washington, D.C.


103. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls


Another memoir, and another very well written book. Walls’s story is almost unbelievable – she grew up in abject poverty drifting around the country with her parents, brother and two sisters. The crazy part (and the part that makes this such an interesting book) is that the poverty was largely avoidable – or would have been if her parents could have been bothered to avoid it. Her father was a charming, bright, alcoholic, whose belligerence and fondness for drink meant that he could rarely hold down a job, and whose big dreams meant that he rarely wanted to work for the man anyway – bad enough, but her mother, who was a trained and certified teacher – just preferred not to go to work. Even when the family was starving, with no heat, she would stay home and paint. If she did have a job, her children would have to drag her out of bed and plead with her to go, and the mother would complain that it wasn’t fair and that she didn’t want to have a job. Honestly, the actions of these parents reads like child abuse – which in a sense it was, and the book is remarkable as it blandly tells of their appalling circumstances, while still explaining the love that Walls had for her parents. It is absolutely fascinating to read about all that she overcame to be where she is (a reporter and gossip columnist), and the most remarkable thing is how matter of fact she is about the whole thing. Its not perfect – she glosses over somethings, particularly at the end when she is talking about her adulthood – but in all it’s a remarkable memoir.

Date/Place Completed: 10/04/06, Washington, D.C.


104. What’s Bred in the Bone, Robertson Davies


What’s Bred in the Bone follows the same pattern as the other Davies books I have read (and loved), in that it tells the story of a man’s life and weaves a psychological aspect into it, so that we better understand that man. Here the man is Francis Cornish, artist and spy. The storyteller is his daemon, telling the tale to a guardian angel, so the story runs a bit along metaphysical lines, but it is still a clipping tale of one man’s life. My one complaint about the book it is that it focuses at great length on Cornish’s childhood and young adult years, and then quickly sums up the end of his life with a few pages and the assurance that he will be known as a great man. I understand where Davies is going with the great man thing (to explain why he will be considered great is to give away the plot, which is the fun of the book), but I thought it was too abrupt and the book a wee bit too front loaded. This book is the second of a loosely joined trilogy (like the Deptford trilogy), so it’s possible that I’ll be more satisfied when I read the other two books. So I guess I’ll have to seek the others out – not much of a punishment for this Davies fan!

Date/Place Completed: 10/16/06, Washington, D.C.


105. Mary Lavelle, Kate O’Brien


Mary Lavelle tells the story of a young woman who leaves 1920’s Ireland, and her fiancé to spend a year a “miss” in Spain (basically, an au pair). What starts out as a gap year between living at home and marriage changes her life entirely, as she finds out about the richness of life, and ultimately about true (if doomed) love. I have mixed feelings about the book – it does a nice job capturing Mary’s inner conflicts, and the way that life abroad can really open a mind (particularly a some what closed one). And I am a sucker for a doomed love story, even if what makes it doomed is old-fashioned Catholic morality that isn’t too relevant in my modern life. However, Mary herself is not entirely interesting enough to carry the tale. She is so small minded and banal when we first meet her, that one remains unconvinced that her horizons would really expand in this way – particularly since her singular characteristic seems to be her extraordinary beauty. She is really the most boring of the novel’s characters – more boring than her charming yet intellectually fierce charge, Milagros, her lesbian admirer Agatha, or her admirer from afar (and employer) Juan. The story is interesting, but Mary is not quite interesting enough.

Date/Place Completed: 10/17/06, Washington, D.C.


106. The Beatrice Letters and 107. The End, Lemony Snicket

]


These are the last two books in the Series of Unfortunate Events, and I must say that I was disappointed by the outcome. I understand that “Snicket” is trying to show us that life has not clear answers, and that everything is not wrapped up with a nice bow, and I know that the readers were warned from the first page that the ending was not happy, but I feel like Daniel Handler (the real author) promised more than he produced with this series. There were so many great, unanswered questions and clever riddles, and so few were answered in anyway. When I read The Slippery Slope and The Grim Grotto, I loved the series for being witty, literate and having a mystery to it. These last two were literate and witty, but the mysteries promised in the first twelve books (13 if you count The Unauthorized Autobiography) weren’t lived up to in The End. It just seems like the story got away from Lemony Snicket*. I just hope Harry Potter isn’t similarly disappointing when it all ends!

*Unless there are actually more books to follow, but then I feel duped by the marketing, so that isn’t much better.

Date/Place Completed: 10/18/06, Washington, D.C.


108. On Beauty, Zadie Smith


On Beauty is our book club’s November book, and I can’t say I went into it too enthused, since our last few choices have either been disappointing or bland . Furthermore, I had read White Teeth and hadn’t loved it (the beginning was awesome, the end sort of ridiculous). However, I really enjoyed On Beauty.

It tells the story of the Belsey family, who live in the small college town of Wellington, just outside of Boston. Father Howard is a professor in a mid-life crisis, mother Kiki is trying to rebuild her life after Howard’s affair had shattered her, and the three children, Jerome, Zora and Levi, are just trying to figure out their lives as intellectuals, as adults, as biracial children in America. Furthermore, the whole book is a loving homage to Howard’s End, as it plays with the same themes, and uses some similar incidents (the stolen umbrella becomes a cd player, the gift of a house becomes the gift of a painting). Plus, the story is really the story of Howard Belsey’s end (and hopefully his rebeginning, though the book doesn’t promise that he’ll pull it together). This might have been too precious (a la The Jane Austen Book Club), if not for the fact that Smith is such a gifted writer. All of her characters are real people with understandable (if not always appealing) motives, all of which will be really interesting to discuss at book club, so clever us.

I’ll leave you with a quote I particularly enjoyed:

“In January, at the first formal of the year, the tremendous will-power of Wellington’s female students is revealed. Unfortunately for the young women, this demonstration of pure will is accredited to ‘femininity’ – that most passive of virtues – and, as a result, does not contribute to their Grade Point Average. It is unfair. Why are there no awards for the girl who starves herself through the Christmas period – refusing all sweetmeats, roasts and liqueurs offered to her – so that she might appear at the January formal in a backless dress and toeless shoes, although the temperature is near to freezing and the snow is heavy upon the ground? . . . They all looked like princesses – but what steel must lurk within!” (On Beauty paperback edition, pg. 341)

How perfectly Smith captures the willpower, and the ridiculousness, and the tragedy of being a young woman in college.

Date/Place Completed: 10/24/06, Washington, D.C.


109. The Enchanted April , Elizabeth von Arnim


I know that I had read this book before. I clearly remember the cover of the copy I used to have (power blue, a tie-in to the movie that came out in the mid-1990’s). I also remember thinking that it was deadly dull. I don’t know if it’s just because my tastes have matured, or if it’s that some of the other Virago books have been really deadly dull,* but I found this book absolutely charming on re-read. The tale is absolutely slight – four women rent a villa in Italy for the month of April, and the charm of the place warms their hearts and opens their lives, fixes their marriages, finds them love, etc. I mean, it is not the world’s most sophisticated story, but it is told with loads of charm and loveliness, and it was a great book to read on a cold and windy October day. I recommend it for days you are feeling blue, and wishing you were sitting in a field of flowers in belle Italia.

*Don’t take this the wrong way. Others have been awesome, which is why I am continuing to collect them when I can and to read them.

Date/Place Completed: 10/24/06, Washington, D.C.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017