2006: Books 79-80

70. The Phoenix and the Carpet, E. Nesbit

The Phoenix and the Carpet is one of a series of books Nesbit wrote around the turn of the century, detailing the marvelous, magical adventures of four English children. I missed this series when I was young, though I had read other Nesbit books - and who didn't cry buckets over the BBC's adaptation The Railway Children? Oh, my god, when Bobbie talks about her Daddy? I am welling up! What a softy!

I regret missing these books when I was younger, because they are lovely and magical and clever and fun, but mostly because the four children, Cyril, Robert, Jane and Anthea (and, of course the baby, the Lamb) are absolutely charming in a diffident Edwardian way. I love them - the way they talk, the way they solve problems, the wishes they make, the way their treat their mother, the whole shebang. This is the exact world that was lost when the War came - the golden time with starched linen and lawn tennis and honor and stiff upper lips. My goodness - I don't want to follow this thought through much further, because if I think about the Squirrel in the trenches I will just lose it.

Whoa, this is becoming an emotional post! The books aren't sad, they are awesome. Read them! Read them to your children! Then go read Edward Eager, who wrote books in the fifties that were influenced by Nesbit! Be happy!

Date/Place Completed: 7/20/06, Washington

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult.

71. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington

This is a fantastic book until the very end, when it sort of falls apart. It's the story of the Amberson family, the richest family in a small city in the Midwest at the turn of the century. Spending money like water, the Ambersons rule the town, pure and simple. However, George Amberson, the sole grandson of the family is a spoiled and arrogent youth, who lives like an aristocrat, not realizing that the future is with the industrialists and businessmen. George intends to be a gentleman, not realizing that that way of life, and the Amberson fortune is disappearing. His downfall is pitiful, but he is such a self-centered cad that the modern reader can't pity him.

The part of the story that tracks George's downfall (and tracks it with the changes in the city) is absolutely compelling. Tarkington has a way with character and dialogue, and the ultimate snobbish act of George's life is a page turner- like something out of Wharton (which is high praise from me*). However, the story ends with a tacked on redemption that is completely out of character as George is written, and highly sentimental to boot. All of a sudden George is found to have finer feelings and a sense of honor that he had not evidenced for the previous two hundred pages. I don't know if this is a product of the time it was written**, but it's a disappointment that keeps The Magnificent Ambersons from being a great book. However, it is still a good one - I tore through it in a day or two, and it kept my attention at the gym, which is always a promising sign. I would recommend it.

*Barring Ethan Frome, of course. That book just sucks.

**The Magnificent Ambersons won the 1918 Pulitzer Prize.

Date/Place Completed: 7/21/06, Washington; Modern Library Top 100

72. The Gentlewomen, Laura Talbot

Another Virago Modern Classic, and an improvement on the last, for sure. It tells the story of Miss Roona Bolby, who works as a governess for Lord and Lady Rushford's children. Miss Bolby has nothing in her life but her faith that she is a gentlewoman - a Bolby. She was born in India, her sister married a Sir, she can sing like an angel, and her life is absolutely empty. She is extremely unpleasant too - so wrapped up in desperately securing her place in the world that she loses any chance to make it better. She is a miserable character, and it is to Talbot's credit as a writer that she is able to make the reader see how sad Miss Bolby's life is, while still keeping our distaste for Bolby herself.

One of the most interesting things about the book, that I didn't even really notice until I started writing about it, is that the title of the book is The Gentlewomen, not the gentlewoman. The story is so much concerned with Miss Bolby and her snobbish ways - but when you consider the title, it seems clear that Talbot, was really commenting on the larger picture - with everyone in the story and their class issues. From Miss Pickford, the daffy secretary who is also a "gentlewoman" but doesn't hold on to it so tightly, to brash Lady Archie who does what she pleases, everyone in the story is concerned in some way with the class issues of post-War Britain.

I was wary when I picked the book up - the back cover made Miss Bolby's life seem like the book would just be awfully depressing - like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. This book isn't like that - it's lighter, and more a comment on society than how dreadful life can be, largely because Miss Bolby's misery is largely of her own making. I actually quite enjoyed it.

Date/Place Completed: 7/23/06, Washington

73. Becoming Justice Blackmun, Linda Greenhouse

This very interesting book fell into my life is an odd way. Jon is working this summer for a large law firm, and we were invited to a party at a partner's house two Saturdays ago. We decided to go (even though I have not gone to one summer associate single event at my own large law firm this year) and I am glad we did, because the firm brought Linda Greenhouse into speak about her book! And we each got a copy - autographed, too, as long as you were willing to stand in line (or were fast enough to scoot to the front!). Her talk was brief, but was interesting enough that I immediately started to read. Couldn't have come a better time, since I was bemoaning my lack of reading material on the way over. Serendipity!

Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times since 1978.* Justice Blackmun, who died in 1999, was a life long pack-rat. When he died, donated his papers to the Library of Congress, with the condition that the papers not be made publicly available for five years after his death. However, since he was on the Court for so long, and covered so many important cases, in fact he was the author Roe v. Wade, the family and the Library were afraid that there would be a mad rush when the time was up. Accordingly, they let Greenhouse into the papers six months early to write a series of articles for the Times, and to break any "news" the papers might hold. Greenhouse won the Pulitzer Prize for these articles, and later expanded them to the book.

The book is great. It's not a strict biography, since the source material is essentially the papers, but Greenhouse captures Blackmun's life, his career, his relationship with Chief Justice Burger (they went from childhood best friends to courtroom enemies), and most of all, how he went from being a conservative Nixon appointee to the most liberal member of the court. Greenhouse's theory (well supported by her book), is the changed was caused by the act of writing Roe and even more so, dealing with its effects. You don't need to be an attorney to enjoy the book (although getting more information on cases you studied is always fun) - any one interested in modern American politics and history will enjoy Becoming Justice Blackmun. And secretly, in my heart, it gives one a little hope! Maybe someday we will see a Becoming Justice Roberts?? Alito seems like too much to ask...

*i.e. for this author's entire life! She may not be an attorney, but I bet she knows a hell of lot more about the law than I do!

Date/Place Completed: 7/27/06, Washington

74. Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

I am quite fond of Greene, so Stamboul Train was an easy choice for a commuting book from the "G" shelf, particularly since this was the novel that "established his reputation," at least according to the biographical information in the front of my Penguin Twentieth Century Classic version. I was disappointed, at first, finding the book much slower going than other Greene books I had read and enjoyed. However, by the end of the book, which details the lives of a number of passengers traveling from Ostend to Constantinople on the Orient Express, I was quite taken with it. Each chapter is set at a different station on the trip, and each introduces a new character, and by the end we have seen political turmoil, personal intrigue, and ethical issues - all the components of a Greene novel. It's not a perfect book, by any means. For one thing there is a troubling anti-Semitism about the book - even though the Jewish main character is a sympathetic character, is treated as the other. I hadn't noticed any prejudice in other Greene novels, so this was both surprising and unfortunate. Because of this, and the slow start this is not my favorite Graham Greene novel, but it was an interesting read.

Date/Place Completed: 7/28/06, Washington

75. No Signpost in the Sea, Vita Sackville-West

A slight book (only 155 pages!), but an emotionally true one. I had never read anything by Vita Sackville-West, and knew little about her but her complicated emotional life. I didn't really know what to expect, when I picked up this Virago Modern Classic. It tells the story of an eminent journalist, Edmund Carr, who learns that he has only a short time to live. He leaves his job, and takes passage on a cruise ship, because the woman he secretly loves, Laura, is on that trip. The book details the journey, as Carr gets to know Laura, and himself, better. The book tells the story of how he finds meaning in his life as he tries to conceal his love from Laura. It is so, so sad. Not because he is terminally ill - that is glossed over in typical British stiff upper lip fashion. What is so heartbreaking is how Edmund hides his feelings from Laura. It just hit me that his life, despite his awakening, is ultimately cold and alone at the end, because he is too afraid to speak up. Yikes. I don't know if its because my man has been out of town, but the book depressed the hell out of me.* What a sad, cold, stunted life he had.

Yet, it's a beautiful book. Not only does Sackville-West capture this character is so few pages, with such spare prose, but the descriptions of the trip, and the sea, and the world is charming and evocative and lovely, so much that the sadness isn't overwhelming, just poignant, and thought provoking. I'm not saying it's the greatest book ever, but I would read more Sackville-West. And I would really, love to read a book about her scandalous life!

Date/Place Completed: 7/25/06*, Washington

* How Holden Caufield of me!!

**Looks like I got my dates a wee bit off! All the more reason to get caught up on my backlog, no?

76. The Story of The Treasure Seekers, E. Nesbit

E. Nesbit's real name was Edith Nesbit. She was a famous socialist and Fabian and started writing when her husband's business failed and he began to devote all of his attention to the cause. Nesbit was a true believer, but I couldn't help but think of her when reading The Story of the Treasure Seekers. It concerns the Bastable children, whose mother has died and whose father has fallen ill, and then on hard times. The silver has been hocked and the children are staying home from school, and they realize they need to take matters into their own hands - they become treasure seekers. They try everything to make their fortune - they sell poetry, dig for treasure, even "rescue" a wealthy gentleman.* In the end, however, it is their own charity that earns them their future. They take in a wealthy relative, thinking he is a poor Indian, and offer him a feast, spending their last dime (or shilling, they are British) to do so. He is so charmed that he takes them in - funding their father's business and bringing them to live in his mansion.

Ok, it's a little bit of a cheesy happy ending, but it keeps the stiff upper lip tone that makes Nesbit's so charming. I am particularly charmed by the narrator, Oswald, who tries to hide that its him, but can't help but brag about his own cleverness and exploits. Such a hoot!!

Date/Place Completed: 7/28/06, Washington

*From their own danger, unfortunately. They were a little fuzzy on the ethics.

77. Unless, Carol Sheilds

Unless is the story of Reta Summers, an author and translator. She lives a perfectly happy life in the suburbs of Toronto with her husband and children, until the day that her oldest daughter, Norah, decides to drop out of college and become a street person, sitting on a corner in the city with a sign bearing the word GOODNESS around her neck. She will not talk to anyone in her family, will not explain what has happened to make her do this, and it is breaking Reta's heart.

I enjoyed Unless. It did fall into that Margaret Atwood/Alice Munro thing* where women complain about how feminism has let them down in a way that is quite alien to me, and it got it little tiresome when Reta spent so much of her time chalking her unhappiness and uncertainty up to the fact that she was a woman, but I am going to chalk that up to the generation gap and enjoy the book despite this aspect. For example, I quite enjoyed what she had to say about families - she captured so well the way that parents try to deal with their children's inexplicable decisions. The ending is, perhaps, a little forced, but Reta's inner life is captured so believably, that I enjoyed the book despite the stretch at the end.

Date/Place Completed: 7/29/06, Washington

* Sheilds is also Canadian. Is there all this sexism in Canada that we Americans are unaware of? Or is it just that more Canadian women are published, so we hear about it more (i.e. there is less sexism in Canada?)

78. The Manticore, Robertson Davies

What a great book! This is the second in Davies' Deptford Trilogy, the sequel to Fifth Business, another book I loved.* This book picks up after Boy Staunton's death (the end of the last book), but instead of being told from the perspective of Dunston Ramsey, is written from the point of view of his son, David Staunton. He is a famous lawyer, but is also a wastrel, whose entire life has been destroyed by being his famous father's son. After Boy's death, he has a breakdown. He flies himself to Zurich to get psychotherapy, and the book details his attempts to work through that. It's absolutely fascinating to watch the character go through therapy, and come to terms with who he really is, and why he has lived his life the way he has. Davies crafts an absolutely believable character, and has written one of the most compelling versions of psychotherapy I have ever read. He takes it seriously, and it helps David, but it isn't a miracle cure-all, just an attempt by a man to come to terms with himself. And its about fathers and sons, an always fascinating topic (especially for daughters, right?). My goodness, if you aren't reading these books you should be.

Date/Place Completed: 7/31/06, Washington 

* BTW, if the third book in the trilogy, World of Wonders is as excellent, I am totally cheating on my years top ten list and counting the Deptford trilogy as a whole book. Sneaky!! But, for reals, these are some great books. Davies is like Irving, but without all the bears, and wrestling and quirky stuff. 

79. Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace

You should be forewarned that I am going through somewhat of a comfort reading phase, and as such, the amount of YA on this blog will surge a bit. C'est la vie.

That having been said, this was a new book for me. As I mentioned previously, I came to the Betsy-Tacy books late in life, and this book is a sort of spin-off of those. It is set in the same town, and Betsy even makes a cameo, but (as the title suggests) it tells the story of Emily. Although Emily was one of the top scholars in her class, she isn't going to college like the other girls. She is an orphan who lives with her grandfather, and she can't leave him - nor does he understand a world where women go away for more education. Emily must make her own life and to educate herself, which she ultimately does, coming to self-awareness in the process. What is absolutely awesome about this book is that its set at the turn of the century. It's so great to read about women all going off to college, and the necessity for education and self-fulfillment, not in the 1960's (or even today!) but way back then. The story takes Emily's ambition absolutely seriously (even if there is a tacked on romance!). My only complaint, in fact, is that the cover of my copy makes Emily look about twelve - I was surprised when I read it to realize it was really about a girl becoming a woman.

Date/Place Completed: 8/1/06, Washington

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017