2006: Books 120-129

120. The Boy Detective Fails, Joe Meno

This is a weird little book. It tells the story of a boy detective, an Encyclopedia Brown or a Joe Hardy, all grown up and trying to deal with his life as an adult. It takes place in a world filled with mysteries, and villains, and mustache factories, and buildings that just disappear. It is almost unbearably quirky and twee, but it is also deeply sad and poignant, as it charts the boy detective's attempt to build a life after he has been released from ten years in a psychiatric ward he entered due to suicide of his sister/partner, Caroline. The book is real in its emotion and fake/precious in its facts and it’s po-mo for sure. I started reading it, and put it down for about a month because it was feeling like a slog, and then picked it up and finished it, straight through. It is odd and unsettling and strange. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, because you’d need to have patience for this sort of writing, but in the end I am glad I read it.

Date/Place Completed: 11/22/06, Washington, D.C.

121. The Sound and The Fury, William Faulkner

This is the most difficult book I have read in a long time. I can’t think when the last time was that I read something that I found so difficult to parse – college, maybe? It was absolutely worth it, but it was quite a slog. The novel tells the story of the Compson family’s decay in the 1920’s South, from their proud pioneer and Confederate general ancestors to their modern degeneration. The story is told in four parts, the first being told by Benjy, the mentally challenged brother, the second by Quentin, the suicidally depressed brother, the third by Jason, the skinflint mean brother, and the fourth by an omniscient narrator. The writing style is very much in the modernist vein – all stream of consciousness and time shifting from sentence to sentence, even word to word, and the first two sections are extremely difficult to parse. But man, is this book worth it. There is just so much going on at every level – the failed South, the failed family, the repressed mother, the degenerate daughter. The gender issues, the racial issues, the family issues – plus just figuring out what exactly happened. You could write a thesis on Quentin alone – the obsession with his sister and his honor, the suicide. It is quite a book – I feel like I need to re-read it to really take it all in. Overpowering.

Modern Library Project

Date/Place Completed: 11/23/06, Washington, D.C.

122. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

As I may have mentioned previously, my copy of The Sound and the Fury also contains a copy of As I Lay Dying and I decided to power through and read them both. I’m really glad I did – I loved As I Lay Dying. It tells the story of the Bundren family. The mother, Addie is dying, and the father Anse, promises he will take her body to Jackson and bury her there. Despite the fact that he is a shiftless man, who has rarely led up to his promises, and despite the fact that a storm has blown out the bridge Anse and his family make the trip. The trip is disastrous and Anse and his sons and daughter suffer greatly on the way.

What a book. I mean, the Compsons and the Bundrens could have a gothic misery-off (you have a castrated mentally ill child? We have an illegitimate pregnancy! You have a suicide? We have a rotting corpse!), but the book is amazing in the way it makes the reader feel like you are living the lives of the characters, feeling their pain and disappointment. The sheer squalid misery of it all is just amazing. These two books were my first Faulkner, and I am pretty overwhelmed by it all. There is just so much to each book that the reader can’t really take it all in on the first read, but rather just let the words wash over you, so that you get the sense of it all, if not every detail. Exhausting but exhilarating.

Date/Place Completed: 11/24/06, Washington, D.C.; Modern Library Project

123. Full House, M.J. Farrell/Molly Keane*

Nothing to do with Uncle Jesse or Michelle Tanner, I'm afraid. This should have been a pretty good book. Set in a mansion on the coast of Ireland in 1930s, it is about a wealthy aristocratic family and its problems. These problems include a terribly selfish and domineering mother, a father who adores the mother at the expense of the happiness of his children, a son who has just returned from a madhouse, a daughter whose one chance at happiness is being destroyed by the mother’s terrible secret, and the main character, a family friend who has been in love with the father for years. That is good, juicy stuff, right? However, I found the actual book to be a little cold – I understand that the author didn’t want to go melodramatic with the already outrageous story, and she herself was a member of the Irish aristocracy, but the whole thing is so stiff upper lip-y that the great and juicy story read as dry. In fact, the most moving and engaging part was the story of the sad little governess who almost finds the courage for love. The Viragos are sort of hit or miss, and while this wasn’t a miss, this wasn’t a hit, either.

*Evidently this book was published under the name M.J. Farrell, but she later published more books (and was evidently reasonably famous, though I had never heard of her) under her real name, Molly Keane.

Date/Place Completed: 11/24/06, Washington, D.C.

124. Myron, Gore Vidal

I read Myron because, as I discussed previously it was in my copy of Myra Breckinridge, and I have a really hard time not finishing a book once I start it (which only makes my Book Failures all the more upsetting). My number one thought in reading Myron is that I just might have been the only person this year to read this book. Well, maybe some queer literary theorists read Myron and argue its significance, but my word, what a weird little obscure book. The premise is that Myron Breckinridge falls into his tv screen, into a film called Siren of Babylon, and finds a strange netherworld of other people who have fallen into the film over the years. There, Myra reappears, and the book is a struggle between the two for supremacy, and the detailing of the odd life of those trapped in the film. It is po-mo, to say the least. There are a lot of fascinating parts to the book (the alternate universe stuff, the Hollywood stuff), but after two books I’m a little tired of Myra’s sexual hang-ups. This might be a product of the time it was written versus the time I read it – I grew up in an era where homosexuality and transvestitism is not quite as shocking as it was in 1968 and 1974, but my lord, enough already. We get it, Gore. I think that Myron is a messy book that doesn’t quite do what it sets out to, but a weirdly entertaining book nonetheless.

Date/Place Completed: 11/24/06, Washington, D.C.

125. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

I picked this book to be my next commuting book with some measure of trepidation, given my tendency to dislike dystopian fiction*, but there wasn’t much else to read on the shelf, and god forbide I break the weird commuting rule, right? And actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the book. I still don’t love dystopian fiction, but this one didn’t bother and upset me in the way that some others have. Possibly because it didn’t have that heavy-handed, “no more civil rights for you” aspect to it, focusing instead on the negative effect that science (particularly genetics research) could have on society. Which is not to say that I loved Oryx and Crake. As so many have said before me, the science in the book is a little outdated and hardly cutting edge, and the story of scientists ruining the world through hubris is hardly an original idea. However, the idea of the main character as the last human on earth (or *is* he?) trying to survive on what’s left of man’s possessions and technology was pretty compelling – the storytelling was a fascinating cross between examining the apocalypse and reading an outdoors survival story. I’ll never be the biggest fan of this sort of book, but Atwood is a talented writer, and in the end I enjoyed reading Oryx and Crake.

*Hee! If you read the entry I linked I totally told myself to ignore Oryx and Crake when I got to the A shelf. Way to pay attention one’s own advice, lady.

Date/Place Completed: 12/02/06, Cold Springs, NY

126. William, E.H. Young

William is one of the best Virago Modern Classics I’ve read so far. Written by the same author as Jenny Wren and The Curate’s Wife, it is a book in which not much really happens, but in which the author writes about human emotions and relationships in such a touching and realistic and engaging way that the book is a page turner. I have to say that of all the Virago Modern Classic authors I have read so far, E.H. Young is the one that I want to press on other people – especially other women. Why isn’t she more famous? Her books are just so well written and interesting.

Anyway, William is about a family living in 1920’s Radstowe (Young’s code name for Brighton), and the tizzy it is thrown into when one of the daughters leaves her husband for another man. But its really about family and about the relationships between family members and what it means to be happy as an adult, and what a good marriage is, and etc., etc. It is one of the few novels I have read that seriously examines a long-standing marriage and takes seriously what it means to be with someone for so long. It is hard to explain why this book is so wonderful – as I said, the plot is somewhat secondary – but it’s like being given a window into the life a real family and seeing how they interact. I loved this book. I need to get Young’s other novels, for sure.

Date/Place Completed: 12/06/06, Washington, D.C.

127. The Girl With the Silver Eyes, Willo Davis Roberts


This was one of my favorite books growing up (and one that burned up in the fire), so when I saw it at a used book sale I had to grab it. * It tells the story of Katie Welker, who is different from everyone else she knows. She is small, and serious and she has special powers – she can move things without touching them, she can read animals’ minds, etc. As much as she tried to hide it, people can tell that Katie is different, and they don’t like it. She was an outcast when she lived with her grandmother, and now that she is reunited with her mother, she is afraid that her secret will get her in trouble – especially when the mysterious Mr. C. comes around asking questions about her powers. The book tells the tale of how Katie finds out what made her different, finds others like her, and finds a way to be accepted for who she is. Which is a nice message for an eggheady bookworm to read – plus there is the whole awesome telekinetic powers thing, which is always awesome. I mean, I am named Carrie, after all…

*Although it had a different cover than the one I had growing up, which puts a little bit of a crimp in the nostalgia factor. The girl on my cover was much more like the one described in the text (neat and owlish) than the one on the new cover (sloppy and long haired). Boo, Apple Paperbacks.

Date/Place Completed: 12/08/06, Washington, D.C.

128. The Roosevelts: An American Saga, Peter Collier with David Horowitz

I was in the Hudson Valley over the first weekend in December, and one of the things we did was to visit Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park. Located about fifteen minutes by car from the Franklin Roosevelt home/Presidential Library, this was a farm that he gave to Eleanor so she could have her own space away from his over bearing mother and their often-contentious marriage. It is the only building owned by the National Park Service that preserves the memory of a First Lady (i.e. her home as distinct from her husband’s).* Eleanor is obviously a feminist icon, and the NPS video made me eager to know even more about her life (I can’t say the same for the lame tour, but that was hardly a shocker). They didn’t have any good Eleanor biographies (which seems odd, but whatever, NPS), so I grabbed this book, which tells the story of the entire Roosevelt clan, and focuses particularly on the clashes between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (i.e. the Teddy Roosevelts) and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (i.e. the Franklin Roosevelts). Eleanor was, of course, the nexus of the two clans and a Roosevelt twice over– her father Eliot was Teddy’s younger brother and she married Franklin, a distant cousin.

It was an interesting book, for sure. Very well written and accessible, and the author was adept at making the personalities jump on the page and making you know what kind of people these Roosevelts were. It’s a fabulous story – Teddy Roosevelt was a great Republican and Franklin a great (the greatest?) Democrat – and the two families veered between closeness and enmity, particularly Teddy’s son, TR Jr., who fancied himself to be the inheritor of the Roosevelt political mantle and resented the hell out of Franklin for taking what he saw to be his rightful spot in the limelight. You have the story of Teddy Roosevelt, a force of nature, and Franklin, the charmer who over came polio, and Eleanor, the great woman who was so emotionally damaged by her childhood that she could barely handle her personal life, and of all their fascinating and damaged children. It’s an unquestionably interesting story and a great read.

My peeve with the book was that the author was totally biased against the Hyde Park Roosevelts. Despite the fact that The New York Times book reviewer blurbs this book as an “evenhanded description of popular history” the book craps all over Franklin and Eleanor and their family and bows over backwards to heap praise on Teddy and his. I mean, it’s clear that Teddy and Edith were better parents than Franklin and Eleanor, but for all that Franklin Roosevelt’s children were troubled emotionally, it’s not like TR’s children were perfect either – Alice’s only child was the daughter of her lover, not her husband (and also, while she may have been a Washington institution, it’s pretty clear she was a stone cold bitch) and Kermit ended up committing suicide (as did one of his children). The author only covers the negative aspects of the lives of Franklin and Eleanor’s children, while treating TR’s children as complete (if occasionally flawed people).

The most ridiculous part of the whole thing comes in the prologue – I almost put down the book after reading this bit on Page 22 of the paperback edition, talking about Teddy’s oldest son at Franklin and Eleanor’s wedding:

“Young Ted, T.R.’s eldest boy, was the groom’s opposite, six years younger, but at eighteen already an apostle of his father’s vision of the Strenuous Life. He was small but sinewy, his face featuring a nose flattened in football and fistfights at Groton and Harvard, activities in which Franklin would later claim also to have engaged, although he hadn’t. Moreover, Ted would succeed socially, like his father, by being invited to join Harvard’s exclusive Porcellian Club, whose members had already rejected Franklin, causing him perhaps the greatest unhappiness of his life.”

This is the nastiest paragraph I have about ever read in an “evenhanded” work. Where to begin? First – do we really think that rejection from the Club made Franklin unhappier than say, losing his legs to polio (or I don’t know, Pearl Harbor?)? And second, bully for TR for making the football team and getting in fights. I guess he *is* a better man than FDR, who only was elected President four times, saved America from Depression, and won the Second World War. Give me a break. I liked this book, but ridiculously biased jabs like this kept it from being great.

* Well, until we get a Hillary Rodham Clinton Presidential Library someday…

Date/Place Completed: 12/10/06, Washington, D.C.; The U.S. Presidents Project 

129. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle


I didn’t really enjoy reading Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I appreciated that it was well written, and I understand why it won the Booker (well, I don’t know what it was up against, that year, but I see that it is an extremely accomplished book). Doyle wrote the entire book from the perspective of a ten year old boy (the eponymous Paddy Clarke) and he succeeds at his effort. It reads authentically – there are portions that took my breath away in the way it reminded me how weird and unfair it can be to be a kid. But while impressed with its virtuosity, I also found it annoying to read – there are no quotation marks, just em dashes, and the same language that adequately captures the way a child would perceive and relate a story is also what makes it boring. I mean, who wants to read a book written by a ten year old?

Ok, that’s a little unfair – the part about the break-up of his parents is well done, and says something interesting (especially about how kids deal with their parents problems) and the parts where Paddy thinks about his relationship with his brother Francis (aka Sinbad) is quite touching, especially when Doyle captures the simultaneous love and hate that children have for their siblings. The book has something interesting to say and does it in a new and different way. But why was it such a slog to get through??

Date/Place Completed: 12/12/06, Washington, D.C; Booker Prize Project 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017