2006: Books 30-39

30. The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright

I lied. More YA. Look, you spend the day reading cases about attorney-client privilege and tax law and then we can talk. This is last of the elusive Melendy books. In it, they move to from the city to a big old house in the country, and charming adventures ensue. Including, I might add, finding a hidden room with a secret, which is just about the best think that I can imagine happening, ever.

What makes the book somewhat interesting, is that it is set during World War II, and it's interesting to see what the American kids dealt with, compared to the British children in Theater Shoes. Yes, they deal with rationing, and how they don’t have a car (and need to get a horse) because there is so little metal around, and even how they can’t get their hands on books, because of lack of material. But there is no sense of want, and complete lack of stuff as there was in Britain. It would be fun to have kids read them in tandem, to teach them about the way the War affected every day people, beyond the drama of battles and such. Oh! What a pain of Mom I am going to be someday.

Date/Place Completed: 03/29/06, Washington.

31.  Betsy-Tacy and Tib , Maud Hart Lovelace

Ok, this is rock bottom. Usually I feign embarrassment about my juvenile tastes, but I am actually abashed about this one, because it was not just YA, but is written at like at fourth grade level. But it wasn’t on purpose!! Let me explain. This is one of a series of books about Betsy Ray, a young girl growing up in a small town in turn-of-century Minnesota. It goes from when she is very small to when she is a grown-up married lady. Like Anne for the U.S. Set. The books remind me of Meet Me in St. Louis, the book.

Here is the thing – I came to Betsy late in life. I never read them growing up, and when I read them as an adult, I started with Betsy’s freshman year in high school, and read the books to the end, when she got married. I never read the Betsy as a child books, so when I saw one for sale at the library sale, I thought I should grab it. Never let it be said that I am not a completist! However, what I did not realize is that the younger books are written at a younger reading level. Evidently you can grow along with Betsy! Well, who knew? Anne never pulled such shenanigans! Anyway, once I realized that this was a baby book, I realized I could read it no time and I did. But I am really, really ashamed, and I haven’t picked up an YA since. I am back to Nadine Gordimer, Charles Dickens and Gertrude Stein.

The book itself is cute. Let us speak no more of it.

Date/Place Completed: 03/31/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult

32. The Golden Ball and Other Stories, Agatha Christie

Have I fallen off the face of the earth, or what? Evidently (and this may surprise you) preparing for a trial is reeeally time consuming, and it kind of makes you hate your computer at the end of the day. However, it has not (yet) made me hate the printed page, so I have a whole bunch of books to write about. This one was a collection of Agatha Christie short stories that were gathered together and published in the 1970's (though the bulk of the stories seem to have been written much earlier than that). And you know, I have almost nothing to say about this book. If you like Christie, and are looking for a (very) fast read, the stories are fine. They are extremely simple, but mostly charming. If you can't figure out the "twist" before the end of 90% of them, than you are probably new to the world of Agatha Christie (and mystery fiction, for that matter), and if that is the case, can I suggest other books for you to read instead? In fact, let's do just that!

Here are some suggestions for awesome Agatha Christie books that are better than this story collection. I was a Poirot girl first, so I lean that way. Plus, the best iconic Christies tend to feature my boy Hercule. Here are a few to start with: Some obvious ones include Murder on the Orient Express; The Murder of Roger Ackroid; The Mysterious Affair at Styles; Death on the Nile; and The ABC Murders. If you want something less well known, but still cool, I suggest the The Hollow, which is quite devastating in its portrait of the cruelty of art.

Jane Marple is also pretty awesome - for her I recommend The Tuesday Club Murders,The Body in the Vicarage, or The Body in the Library, to start with. Or, you could just read And Then There Were None, which is damn creepy.

Yeah, read those, instead of The Golden Ball and Other Stories. Man, now I want to re-read them all.

Date/Place Completed: 03/31/06, Washington; Agatha Christie Project


I have reached my first flat out book failure of 2006. Oh sure, there are other books that I have started and left half-read in various spots about the house, but this is the first one that I am giving up on. I will not finish Getrude Stein’s Three Lives - my life is just too damn short.

The book consists of three short stories/novellas about three women. The first, which I read in its entirety was titled “The Good Anna” and was about a German woman who lived her life as a servant to a number of wealthy Americans. It was ok – I thought that Stein was somewhat condescending to her character, since she kept repeating how “good” and “simple” she was, and the text was ridiculously repetitive, which I guess is Stein’s style, but overlooking that I could see how it was conscious effort to use a certain affected style to capture (what Stein perceived as) a simple life. It wasn’t my kind of story, by any stretch of the imagination, but I understood what she was trying to do, and I could appreciate it as the product of its time. As an early attempt at modernism it had academic interest, at least.

The second story is called “Melanctha.” It tells the tale of a young black woman trying to make her way in the world, and eventually (since I peeked at the ending) coming to no good. I could not finish this story. First of all, I found it to be uncomfortably racist. I have done some internet research on this point, and found this story should be lauded as one of the first books written by a white person that took a black character seriously as a human being, warts and all, and that Stein treats Melanctha with respect. That may be so, but I found the way she talked about black people in general to be so demeaning that I had a hard time turning the page. Maybe this was one of the first stories to take a black character serious, but it is clear that Stein thinks white people are superior. For example, one character is mixed race, and Stein says, “… she had white blood, and that made her see clear… Her white blood was strong in her and she had grit and endurance and a vital courage.” Yuck. On top of that, the whole center of the story is a long, difficult to follow between Melanctha and her quasi-boyfriend, Dr. Campbell. Extremely repetitive and difficult to follow, I tried forever to get through and I finally just gave up. I tried to read a few pages of the third story, “The Gentle Lena,” but I ran out of steam. Sorry, Getrude.

Sorry to go on at such length, but I hate giving up on books. I read this book forever – it was my commuting book and I do like to finish them, but after a week of listening to my ipod rather than reading, I decided that it was time to call it quits. Oh well -- at least I’ll have something to write about when I discuss the ten worst books of the year!

33. My Son's Story, Nadine Gordimer

My dear friend Carrie* lent me this book, which made me both elated (I love getting book recommendations!) and nervous (what if I didn't like it - especially since she reads the blog!). My fears were totally groundless though - the book is awesome. I had only heard of Gordimer in the context of a long New York Review of Books article about South African writers, which as you may intuit from my previous experiences with the NYRB, made me feel like I knew everything about her, and didn't need to actually read her work. Big mistake! (And worse, probably means I need to run out and grab me some Doris Lessing, too. No Coetzee, though - I read Disgrace and that was enough for me.)

Anway, My Son's Story takes place in South Africa, before the end of apartheid. It revolves around one black family and their experiences under that system. It starts with the son, Will, exiting a movie theater one day to find his father clearly out on a date with another woman (and a white one at that). From that point it details the family history both before and after this incident. Without giving too much away, what blew me away about the novel is how deftly it intertwines the personal and the political. Gordimer captures so clearly how, no matter what, no person who lived in this corrupt system - whether an activist (like his father) or not (like his mother) could escape its tentacles. What seems like two stories - the political activity and the personal betrayal, is really one story - because the two are inseparable. Sonny, the father, realizes at the end of the novel that, regarding his revolutionary-girlfriend, Hannah, the international activist, "[b]ut the centre of life wasn't there, with her, the centre of life was where the banalities are enacted - the fuss over births, marriages, family affairs with their survival rituals of food and clothing..." In this case it is true. You cannot have one life with your revolutionary girlfriend and protect your family from it - the center of life is with your family, and no matter what you do, it is all interconnected. And those who are happiest are those (like his mother and sister) who embrace that the personal and political must be the same, if one is to be a fulfilled person. Neither Sonny who tries to separate the two, nor Will, who rejects the political entirely are whole people - until the very last pages, when Will embraces his own political act in the only way he could.

This is also a book about fathers and sons, and how they wound each other, and need each other and resent each other and feed off each other, and that could be the subject of an honors thesis, not just a blog post, so I will leave it at that. Very interesting stuff. Go read My Son's Story - you will be rewarded.

*Yes, there are two Carries. Carries travel in packs.

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

34. Jenny Wren, E. H. Young

In the 1980's Penguin published a series called Virago Modern Classics. They are not "classics" in the sense of Dickens and Austen, but rather are reprintings of novels written by women in the 20's, 30's and 40's which had been largely forgotten by the 1980's. Persephone Books in London does a similar thing today. Anyways, being a fan of fiction from that era and of women's writing and somewhat of magpie, I have begun collecting the Virago books when I see them at used bookstores. They are easy to pick out, with their distinctive green bindings, and should be fun to read, since the criteria for inclusion is broad enough that the subject matter, style and tone will (hopefully) vary widely based on author. Jenny Wren was the first of my collection that I actually read, and I really enjoyed it.

Jenny Wren tells the story of Jenny and Dahlia Randall, two sisters negotiating their position in the world in a small British city (based on Brighton) in the 1920's. They are caught between two social classes - their father was a gentleman, and raised them to be ladies, but he has died, and they are now living with their lower-class mother, running a boarding house in the city. They were raised to be their father's children and have little in common with their mother, who doesn't speak or act like them -and yet, they are in her world, making their own living and trying to figure out what will happen to them. The back cover calls Jenny Wren a "scathing satire," but I disagree. Young is too kind to her characters to be scathing. Instead, (as the introduction said, so no credit to me for this one), Young's satire is like Austen's - critical, but still fond. Young hits class in England hard, and her characters (especially Jenny) are somewhat ridiculous in their hang-ups about class. It is absolutely maddening when Jenny overlooks the kind boarder who not only loves her but understands her (but works in the trades - even if it is the antique trade, so he understands fine things), for an obsession/fling with a young gentleman who: 1) she is ashamed to tell her family about; 2) she barely knows and 3) even she admits is young and foolish and with whom she would never have a true meeting of the minds. Jenny is so wrapped up in her own head and her feelings that I wanted to shake her. But Young's gift is that she makes every character - from foolish Jenny, to more practical Dahlia, to their mother, who never had a chance to know her children, but makes a true (if ultimately worthless) sacrifice to make her daughters happy - real people, with sympathetic and understandable motives. Even if we don't like a character, we understand them, and their actions arise from their personalities - like real people. For that reason alone the book rises above "scathing" satire, to a story of real people. Young mocks the class system, certainly, but she doesn't make her characters ridiculous. From the pinched spinster who owns the neighboring boarding house to the curate next door, who loves Dahlia despite himself, each character is given the dignity of real and realistic actions.

As you can see, I was impressed by this book. My only complaint was that the story was left unfinished - I had to go to Powell's and buy the sequel (luckily, Virago also reprinted that one) to find out what happened to the characters!

Date/Place Completed: 04/12/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Virago Modern Classic

35. The Vintner's Luck, Elizabeth Knox

I have mixed feelings about this one. I read it compulsively, practically in one day, couldn't put it down, etc.. But at the same time, I can't say that I really liked it, though I am having a hard time articulating exactly why. It tells the story of Sobran Jodeau, who on one day in 1808 meets a male angel, Xas and whose entire life is changed forever as a result. Xas takes an interest in Sobran, which turns into friendship, and then (much later) more. I hate to tell more of the plot, since the interest in the book is the page turning aspect, but, generally, the book details Sobran's life and his relationship with Xas. Knox tells a good story, and excellently captures the characters living in small town Burgundy in the nineteenth century. She makes the characters, the historical setting, and the relationships seem real and interesting. Knox is obviously a skilled writer. The non-angel plots of the book - the parts detailing Sobran's experiences with his insane wife, his brother and sons, his growing friendship with the local baroness - were well done. They were compelling and detailed and human.

Ok, I changed my mind. I know why I didn't like it and I am giving the plot away. Read on at your peril. The problem I had with the book was that the angel parts were so damn goofy. I mean it was all dramatic and poignant and mysterious. Forbidden love! Fallen angels! Cutting off of wings! It was like (very skilled) melodramatic fan fiction written by Goths - a better written Anne Rice, if you will. Every angel cliché, every tormented angst-ridden angle. I am embarrassed for me, that I read it and for Knox, that she wrote it. Her writing is good - it deserves better than the kind of plots you can find on the internet written by teenagers. Oh, I don't know - maybe its just because I like my fantasy goofy, with the poignant parts snuck in under the radar. I am sure that if I was twelve I would have thought this was the Most! Romantic! Book! Ever!, but I wish I could have read the story about the family and the murder and the crazy wife and the friendship with the baroness in 1808 France, and left Lucifer out of it entirely. There was enough there - we didn't really need the angel.

Date/Place Completed: 04/16/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction

36. Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, L. Frank Baum

Not the The Wizard of Oz, but one of the sequels. Bought at the big booksale, natch – I am still slowly working my way through the stuff I got there. Have you all ever read the Oz books? Because they are just plain odd. Baum was incredibly imaginative, and could dream up the most outlandish situations, for sure, but the books are a little bit crazy. Anyway, this one starts off in California, where earthquake causes Dorothy, her kitten, a boy named Zeb and a horse named Jim fall into the center of the earth. They land in a mysterious kingdom where they just happen to run into the Wizard (also there through earthquake related injuries). The five of them (since the animals can all talk in a fairy kingdom) have adventures and escape until they get stuck in a cave somewhere. Luckily, Ozma of Oz sees them her magic mirror and deus ex machinas them to Oz, where they have more adventures (including the trial of a kitten that contained very little habeus corpus), and then they all are sent back to Earth except for the Wizard who has reformed and stays. Look, it reads better than it sounds. What really makes these books enchanting is the weird creatures Baum dreams up and, even better, the fabulous illustrations by John R. Neill. I thought I hadn’t read this book before, until I saw an illustration of the Wizard cutting a plant person in half with a sword, which was so evocative that I remembered the entire thing!! I many not be an Oz head (and if you don’t believe such things exist you are luckily naïve in the ways of the internet), but they are good clean fun, and with the illustrations, enchanting.

Date/Place Completed: 04/16/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult; Re-Read

37. East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Wow! East of Eden is, by far, the best book I have read this year. My book club decided to read it, and I can’t say I was ecstatic – The Grapes of Wrath was not my favorite book.* That, combined with grim cover and extremely dry introduction in my edition (I do not know who David Wyatt is, but I am not a fan – how could he make such an interesting book seem so dull?), made me worried, especially when I realized last Monday that I had nine days to read six-hundred and two pages. I was concerned, but I should not have been, because I tore through that thing. East of Eden is a serious page turner!

The story is a retelling of the Cain and Abel myth through two sets of brothers – first Adam and Charlie, and then Adam’s sons, Cal and Aron. The initials alone indicate that things are going to be heavy-handed, but to my surprise, the book itself isn’t weighed down at all. Even though the structure of the book screams “tired 1930’s novel of ideas”, the actual characters are interesting enough that the writerly bits are easy to ignore. And there are some great characters – Steinbeck makes them seem real and different, and like real people. (I know, I sing that tune a lot, but I can forgive a lot from a book that has real characters.) The exception, perhaps is the wicked and evil Cathy – but even she might be seen as the real picture of a psychopath. And the ones you love, like Sam Hamilton, the wise poor man, they stick with you.

I loved Lee particularly – the notion of hiding under the disguise of pidgeon English, but turning out to be the one of the wisest, most educated men in the book. Or Abra, realizing that to be a real person (not just someone’s fantasy) she need to be with Cal, not Aron. Or Cal, whose emotion is so raw that he is almost painful to read about – I, like Will Hamilton “was near to embarrassment because of the nakedness.” I read the whole book with my fingers (metaphorically) over my eyes, worrying what that naked emotion would do to poor Cal. I’m not saying that I necessarily embrace the book’s philosophy (though one could do worse than timshel), but I loved the people who lived in, and I loved Steibeck’s treatment of them.

Another thing I loved (and this is my issue, so indulge me) is how the book captures the fact that World War One was awful, even in America. We tend to think of the Americans rushing in and saving the day, or, more precisely, in my “raised by a Canadian” case, at least not suffering and truly understanding the futility they way the British (and Commonwealth) and French did. Not so, says Steinbeck (pg. 572 of the Penguin paperback edition):

“[P]eople also turned inwards to their private joys and tragedies to escape the pervading fear and despondency. Isn’t strange that today we have forgotten this? We remember World War I as a quick victory, with flags and bands, marching and horseplay and returning soldiers, fights in the barroom with the goddamn Limeys who thought they won the war. How quickly we forget that in that winter Ludendorff could not be beaten and that many people were preparing in their mind and spirits for a lost war.”

Gosh, I just can’t think of the last time I took a book and underlined passages because they seemed interesting or true to me. I have become an unabashed East of Eden fan girl! One more quote – one seems to me to sum up America in a way that is as true today as it was when the book was published in 1952. Lee, of course, Pg. 570:

“We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and breeds of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful – we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. we are mundate and materialistic – do you know any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or language of our culture? That’s who we are Cal – all of us.”

Go out and read East of Eden and tell me what you think!

*Particularly the end, with Rose-of-Sharon and the hobo. Sorry for not being enlightened, but yuck.

Date/Place Completed: 04/22/06, Washington.

38. The Canning Season, Polly Hovath

I bought this book because it was on sale at the bookstore downstairs in my building, and was the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. When I started it, I feared it was going to be one of those really odd children's books, the kind that wins awards, because grown-ups like it, but is too unsettling for actual children (such as, in my humble opinion, Tuck Everlasting, which I am sorry but is the creepiest damn book around - and I like Natalie Babbit). The book concerns Ratchett, whose mother clearly does not care for her, and who sends her to live with her ancient great-aunts in the middle of nowhere, Maine. The quirkiness seemed too forced - the bears, and the phone that you can't call out on, and the no meals - not to mention the fact that the great-aunts' mother had committed suicide by decapitating herself. It felt bizarre and uncomfortable - like Ellen Raskin's Figgs and Phantoms, another book about a truly weird family that I'm not sure I quite got.

And yet - something changed halfway through, and by the end, I found the book to be funny, and heartwarming and the quirkiness to serve a greater message - that we need love wherever it comes from and no matter how odd the source. I don't know if it was the introduction of Harper (another teenager dumped on the great aunts), who is angry but clever and winning (where Ratchett is quiet and withdrawn), or the couple of good jokes that Hovath threw in, or what, but I am left recommending the book whole-heartedly. Just realize that you might need a couple of chapters to get into it - don't give up before Harper.

Date/Place Completed: 04/23/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult

39. A Dirty Job, Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job is the story of Charlie, a Beta Male who inadvertently finds himself tasked with the job of collecting lost souls - that's right, Charlie has become Death. The book is written by Christopher Moore, who wrote Lamb, the lost gospel of Jesus' best friend, Biff. While I loved, loved, Lamb, A Dirty Job was a disappointment. First of all, I think I am done with the concept of an actual anthropomorphized Death. While A Dirty Job didn't rip off Terry Pratchett's DEATH quite as much I had expected upon hearing the concept, I still think that the idea isn't terribly original. Second, I found the book to be a little too frenetic for my tastes. A humor novel doesn't necessarily have to run at 100 miles per hour - this book wanted to stuff too many ideas into too small a space, and it just wore me out. There was so much going on - a funny book could have been written about Charlie being a Beta Male - or about Charlie being Death - the end of the world on top of that was too much, and the last quarter of the book was stuffed with new characters, big action scenes, and big revelations that I didn't really have time to enjoy. The ending felt particularly flat, and unearned, at least to me.

I liked Lamb so much that I am willing to give Moore another try, but maybe the very sensitive nature of the material in Lamb (it was, after all, a humorous novel about Jesus), reined him in a bit. You might think Death would do the same, but not so much. A disappointment, particularly given my high hopes.

Date/Place Completed: 04/24/06, Washington.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017