2006: Books 40-49

40. Winner of the National Book Award, Jincey Willett

Winner of the National Book Award, is blurbed as “scabrously funny” and as a “sharp original satire.” I have to agree that the book is clever and bitingly witty – it tells the story of twin sisters, Dorcus and Abigail Mather, and of Abigail’s disastrous marriage – which led to murder (no spoilers – this is all in the first few pages). Dorcus, the dry and controlled librarian spinster to Abigail's fierce libido, tells the story and cuts down everything in her path. She has no patience for anyone’s pretensions and sees through everything. Her bit on the people who destroy library books alone is worth the price of admission – at least to a book worm. Both Dorcus and the book are hilarious – the New York Times Book Review said that Willett “writes for the joy for reading, not for the puffed up prize of having written” and while that is totally pretentious and New York Times-y, I agree that this book is reads like the kind of book the author wished someone had written, and since they hadn’t, she did it herself.

But I guess I am a softie, or perhaps the blurb-picker at Picador hadn’t actually read the book – because I think that beyond the humor is a story of a two women bound by love, and of Dorcus’ principles and all sorts of real things that distinguish Winner of the National Book Award, as funny as it is, from, say A Dirty Job. It is a satire, but it’s more, and that is part of what makes it so good. It’s frightening, and horrifying and brave and kind – and also a hoot. I look forward to more Willett.

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

*Yup – I am back on the commuting book train. Look forward to The Way of All Flesh, from my Modern Library shelf, coming soon to a book blog near you!

Posted by Carrie at 6:13 PM 

41. The Curate’s Wife, E. H. Young

Due to circumstances beyond my control (one computer has the flu, and the other has been commandeering by my husband’s exam season), I have not been able to blog for ages. I have, however, been reading up a storm, and have a bunch of catching up to do.

The Curate’s Wife is the sequel to Jenny Wren, which I read in March. The Curate’s Wife focuses on Jenny’s sister Dahlia and on her new husband Cecil after who she married knowing him for a short period of time. Cecil is madly in love with his new wife, while Dahlia is more unsure. The book contrasts their marriage with the marriage of the rector, Mr. Doubleday, as well as with Jenny’s various love affairs. It is an interesting book because it takes a hard look at what marriage is, and how two people who don’t really know each other can build a life together. In that way the book seems a little old fashioned. I wondered why Dahlia, who clearly did not love her husband (though she liked him quite a bit), agreed to marry him. Later, when she realizes that she may have made a mistake, it is heartbreaking to think of a young woman giving up so easily – a fact Dahlia herself realizes. On pg. 133 of the Virago edition:

“She was too young to be content with safety, after all. It had been the chief thing she wanted, and it was not enough. . . . She would be quite safe, she seemed doomed to be safe.” Sad – and a little alien. What twenty-year old girl today is looking for safety – and marries someone she has known for eight months to get it?

And yet, if you think on it broader the book does offer something for a modern reader. Many people get married, even today, without really knowing the other person – desiring security or being afraid of being single, or what have you. And many people end up like the Doubledays, hating each other after thirty years of marriage, because they never took the time to communicate. Even though the circumstances of Dahlia’s story are a little remote, the book itself wisely tackles questions of what makes a good marriage and how to work through the strangeness and really understand each other. I quite enjoyed it.

42. The Patron Saint of Liars, Anne Patchett

Jon's exams are finally done, which means that I can write again!* I read this book so long ago that I am just approximating the date that I finished it. Oh well.

I really, really enjoyed The Patron Saint of Liars. I read Patchett's Bel Canto last year and wasn't wowed by it, particularly the ending, which I found a little forced. Plus, I am miffed because we are going to Peru this fall, and in the Lonely Planet "books to read in Peru" section, they recommend Bel Canto. Which, yes, is set in Peru, but Patchett isn't a Peruvian or anything (and I know, because I read her totally awesome memoir Truth and Beauty), and it made me crazy that that (and The Bridge of San Luis Rey another book written by an American) was the best they could come up with. Not that that is even one tiny bit Anne Patchett's fault, but it made me mad.

Anyway, The Patron Saint of Liars was great. It tells the story of Rose, a young woman who flees her young marriage, and moved to Kentucky, to a home for unwed mothers to give up the baby, and what happens to her in that place. And I just loved it - the characters seemed like real characters, their motivations understandable, and their actions real - and even better, not cliched. I kept worrying that a certain action was going to happen and was so pleased that Patchett trusted her characters (and herself) not to do the absolutely cliched thing. I was particularly impressed by the sense of place that the novel had - it was so grounded in the time period (mid-1960's), and locations (first California, then Kentucky). It just seemed absolutely real, and interesting. I don't know - it's not a book where so much happens, just a snapshot of some ordinary people's lives, but I enjoyed it so much. It is the kind of book that doesn't get the recognition of some of your big name young male writers (your Jonathan Safran Foers, say), but to me, this is a better kind of book than those flashy po-mo novels that get all the press. It actually reminded me of the Virago classics in that way - quiet books that speak truly of human experience. What I am saying is, I guess, that The Patron Saint of Liars really impressed and touched me, and now I want to read the rest of her books.

*Well, it actually means that I can't lamely blame him for my lack of blogging. Shame on me!

Date/Place Completed: 5/02/06, Washington.

43.  Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, David Von Drehle

I can't believe how long it had been since I read any non-fiction! New goal - more non-fiction than once every three months.

Triangle tells the story of the devastating 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York. Von Drehle (who writes for the Washington Post, my favorite newspaper), tells about the tragedy, but also puts the fire in its historical context - touching on issues ranging from the labor movement, immigration, anarchy, Tammany Hall, corrupt courts, and how FDR got his start in politics. It is well written and easy to follow. Surprisingly (at least to me, who had heard this fire referenced before, many times), his book contains the very first attempt to write down the names of the 146 people who died - or at least as well as is possible ninety years later. Evidentally, back then nobody cared to take such records.

I couldn't help, however, but to compare the book to Stewart O'Nan's The Circus Fire, which tells the story of the Hartford Circus fire in the mid-1940s. The books aren't really that similar - O'Nan just tells the story of the fire, without adding all the history, and Von Drehle is really more interested in using the fire to teach us a lesson about America at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately for Von Drehle, whose book is really quite good, O'Nan's book is awesome. O'Nan tale of the fire, and the people who survived it (or didn't) is so compelling, and the book is so moving, that even though the authors were doing different things, and even though I learned a lot from Von Drehle, the underlying sentiment I was left with was that maybe I should re-read The Circus Fire.

So, I guess what I am saying is that Triangle is pretty good, but if you are only going to read one non-fiction book about a tragic fire that claimed the lives of many Americans*, I would recommend The Circus Fire instead.

*And, you know, maybe you aren't going to read ANY book like that. Sounds damn depressing when I put it that way, no?

Date/Place Completed: 5/06/06, Washington.

44. Coraline, Neil Gaiman

Coraline is a weird little children's book written by Neil Gaiman, fantasy superstar. He wrote American Gods, and Anansi Boys, and Neverwhere, as well as the famous Sandman comic books, which I have only read two of, because I am too cheap to buy them, and they don't have them in the library. Anyway, Coraline is the story of a girl who lives with her parents in an old house. One day she opens a door she has never seen before, and goes into the other world, inside the walls. There she meets her Other Mother and Father, and Other versions of her neighbors. It sooms becomes clear that the Other Mother is an evil creature, and soon she needs to rescue her real parents, as well as the souls of children who the Other Mother has taken for her own.

What was good about the books was that it was deliciously creepy and actually dark. I like (and kids like, which is more important) children's books that don't pull any punches. I loved the character of the cat who gave her advice (while still retaining its essential cat-ness - I loved the fact that the Other Mother hated cats because she couldn't tame them). The illustrations helped set the atmosphere of a delicious wierdness. I also liked Coraline herself, because she was prickly, and she was smart, and she solved the problem and saved the day, and she didn't need to be rescued (indeed, she did the rescuing.) Woman power, y'all. Now, a quote on the back of book said that "this book will nudge Alice in Wonderland out of its niche at last." That may be going too far - but Coraline is a nice creepy read.

Date/Place Completed: 5/07/06, Washington.

45. The Color of Magic, Terry Pratchett

So, you who read the blog know that my recent favorite comfort read is Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. They're funny, they're short, I can read them quickly, and they are smarter than they seem, so I usually end up having thought a little bit about something more important that the fluorescent orange cover with a broomstick (or troll, or DEATH, or what have you) would imply. The Color of Magic is the very first Discworld book. I had been warned (by, um, the internet, since NO ONE I know reads these but me!) that the very first books were not so good. Or rather, they are a nice satire of a very particular sort of fantasy novel, and if you have read these novel you will be all "oh ha ha but my this is sharp and biting!", but if you are like me and read these despite the fantasy, rather than because if it, you will feel resoundingly meh about the whole thing. Which is exactly how I felt. I am so glad I didn't give into my normal tendencies to read series in order, because if I had started with this one I would never have read another, and there would be no Sam Vimes, or Granny Weatherwax, or Angua in my life, and I would be sadder for it. Which is a long way of saying that this book was super dull, and I only finished it because I was a completist, and thus far I never need to see Ridicully again. That having been said, the Luggage (a suitcase made of sapient pearwood that will cut a bitch, if you aren't careful) is sort of awesome, and I can't believe they actually got flung off the Disc. And, I will probably eventually read the other, early boring books, but not until I have read every other cool one.

Date/Place Completed: 5/11/06, Washington.

46. The Little Company, Eleanor Dark

This is a sort of odd book. It's another Virago Modern Classic, set in Australia in 1941, and published in 1945. Because of that (or, I don't know, because that is what the author cared about, I guess) it is a novel of ideas, dragged down by its ideas. The main character is an author named Gilbert Massey. He's a World War One vet, author and father of three who, at the time the story starts feels weighted down by the stress of the world - he's disgusted by how it's falling apart, how complacent everyone seems, and how little the war has learned since 1919. His malaise has caused him to have years of writer's block, and to dabble in Socialism, a notion in which he is encouraged by his sister and brother (one a leftist, one a radical). Furthermore, his marriage to the uninspired Phyllis has become a shell. He questions everything, she purposely lives with her head in the sand and they have grown further and further apart.

I can't say that I loved this book. I think Dark is an excellent writer, and I became very interested in the personal lives of the characters especially Gilbert's daughter Prue (falling in love with an American serviceman while her parent's empty marriage disintegrates) and his sister Marty (writing a novel of ideas and living with her Liberal - i.e. more moderate - husband). I couldn't get enough of Phyllis - she is depicted as both tragic and monstrously small minded. An absolutely accurate portrait of a limited kind of woman who certainly still exists.

The characters were fascinating - it was the ideas that wore me down. It was just so dreary and obvious, and I found myself skimming sections that talked about how bad the world was and how perhaps Socialism was the answer. I guess that Dark was herself left-leaning, and suffered the consequences, and I understand that things looked particularly grim at the time she wrote the book. But it stinks of the worst of heavy-handed propagandist fiction - I wanted to get back to the family that had been stunted emotionally by its conventionality. In fact, Dark makes her point through her characters - she doesn't need the boring political passages to reinforce her ideas. It would have been a more engaging and cleverer book without them.

It was pretty cool to read about Australia's home front though. I do enjoy these obscure Virago books for the snapshot of life ago, if nothing else!

Date/Place Completed: 5/13/06, Washington.

47. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

This is a true story about me reading The Way of All Flesh. Remember how I once mentioned that I nerdily read my commuting books in the elevator on the way home (for the whole two minute trip)? Well, I was reading this book on my way down one evening when an older man that I didn’t know turned to me and asked what I was reading (Modern Library version, so the cover is blank, you dig?). I smiled uncomfortably (I may be a book nerd, but I do recognize that it’s a little odd to read in the elevator when you only work on the thirteenth floor), and repeated the title. At which point the stranger asked, “Oh, is it erotic?” And I was totally speechless, turned bright red, and mumbled something like, “Oh no, no its about Victorian hypocrisy, furthest thing actually, etc.” until we reached the lobby. But seriously, that was an inappropriate question, right?* I don’t know if the guy was a client or a partner (he was definitely one or the other, since he was an older gentleman in a suit), so I couldn’t really say what I wanted to, which was something like “Excuse me?” or, you know, “Screw you, pal.” But either the guy was totally clueless, and tripped over his tongue, or he was totally boorish, and trying to make me uncomfortable. Which he succeeded at, at least for a bit. But you know, I quickly regained my composure, and, you know, women still get to be lawyers and work in law firms and have power, no matter what gross guys in the elevator say. So it’s more an interesting story than anything else.

Certainly that anecdote is more interesting than, say, The Way of All Flesh. The story is supposed to be a scathing indictment of Victorianism, so much so that the author (who was famous in his lifetime for his satires and treatises) didn’t publish it in his lifetime. I am certain that at the time it was published that it spoke truths that had not been heard before, particularly about Victorian morality and parenting. The thing is, nowdays, the Victorians haven’t only been indicted, they’ve been tried and found guilty. We all think of them as stern, repressed, phony, over authoritative, etc. Lytton Strachey did his job well – we no longer really believe in Eminent Victorians. So that part of The Way of All Flesh no longer really shocks.

Which leaves the story itself, a bildungsroman telling the story of Ernest Potifax. His tale includes bad overbearing parents, tough times at school, and a mistaken attempt to be a clergyman. There is an absolutely ridiculous passage where he is wrongfully arrested for sexual assault and spent six months in jail (I absolutely could not understand the charges – he seems to have been arrested for going into a woman’s room). Broke, he marries poorly, and then is saved when it turns out his wife was already married and he can jettison her (his children aren’t so lucky – he farms them out and doesn’t really give them a second thought). At twenty-eight he inherits a fortune (the reader knew this was coming, Ernest did not), and then retires into a life of quiet travel, research and writing. Perhaps the tale sounds interesting in the describing, but not so much in the reading. The reason is, I think, that Ernest is inherently uninteresting. He is the proverbial wet noodle. The narrator – Ernest’s godfather, and guardian of his fortune (and burlesque author!) is much more interesting – and, actually he is the one who does most of the scathing and indicting. I wish I’d read his story! As it is, Ernest flounders from one mistake to another, trying on different philosophies and experiences, and finally, decides to retire from public life entirely and write his books. Hardly a triumphant choice. The point is, without the scandal of the critique of the times, the plot was sort of dull. Well written, but dull.

*And seriously, who reads an erotic book at work??

Date/Place Completed: 05/19/06, Washington,  Modern Library Project

48. Was, Geoff Ryman

This was, by far, one of the best books I have read this year. It is basically a mediation on life through the lens of The Wizard Of Oz. The novel consists of a number of intertwined stories, all centered in some way on the Oz phenomenon. The story touches on Jonathan, an actor dying of AIDS who has loved the Oz story since he was a child. It touches on Judy Garland, her life, and the making of the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Most movingly, it also posits the existence of an actual girl, named Dorothy Gael, who lived in middle of nowhere Kansas during the late nineteenth century. Accordingly to this (actually totally made up) version of the story, Baum briefly acted as a substitute teacher, where he met Dorothy, and was so touched by her life (which, as imagined by Ryman is pretty tragic and grim), that he created the life she should have had. The whole book is fascinating - Ryman is particularly apt at capturing the various voices and points of view that people it, but the section where Baum meets Gael is absolutely remarkable, and totally heartbreaking. I was reading it on the airplane and I was crying like a fool.

I love books that play with other famous stories (I always said that if I ever was an English professor that would be the class I'd teach - read Hamlet and then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea - although I don't really like Jean Rhys, etc.), and Was manages to be meta and human at the same time. Furthermore, he used the story to mediate really seriously on the nature of home and what it means to be home and feel safe. And how we always seek for home over our lives - something I have been grappling with recently myself. In sum, this is a great book. I just loved it.

Date/Place Completed: 5/21/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction

49. The Winter Queen, Boris Akunin

I picked up this book somewhat randomly at the used bookstore (it was my buy four get one free book), and grabbed to read since I have circled back to the A's in my commuting book cycle. The Winter Queen tells the story of Erast Fandorin, a low level clerk in Czarist (1876) Russia, who starts out as a functionary in a police office, but over the course of the novel becomes engaged in a murder case that turns into an international conspiracy, and he learns the skills of a real detective. It is the first book in a series that is extremely popular in Russia, and has recently (well since 2004) been translated into English. Wow, I am full of parentheticals today.

Anyway, at first I was really, really into this book. I'm interested in Russia generally, and that time period in particular (if you want to read a great book about Russian cultural history, may I suggest Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes? It is a long, but absolutely fascinating dissection of what Russian culture is all about - particularly in the pre-Soviet era. I wish that there were more books like it that I could read about other countries - I learned so many interested things), and I am a mystery hound. The book is well written, and the character of Fandorin compelling, as he makes his transformation from naïve clerk to self confident detective. Because Fandorin is new to the detective game the reader has fun figuring out not to trust people a little bit before he does - but because the author is clever with red herrings, the answer isn't completely obvious. I was absolutely ready to call this one of the best reads I'd had in a while and to go out and get the rest of the series. And then, the book just lost steam for me.

I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but I realized that near the end the book changed from a mystery story to a suspense story. I prefer a simple murder to a world-wide conspiracy. By the time I got to the cliff-hanger ending (which I don't really think was earned emotionally, but that's common to the genre - they can't all be Peter and Harriet, with their compelling love stories, can they?), I was over the whole thing. Maybe I'll eventually read another in the series, but I'm in no rush to do so. Disappointing, because I love the notion of the tsarist detective, but in the end the books didn't deliver, at least for me.

Date/Place Completed: 5/29/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book


 I am a little late in reporting, since our first meeting was almost two weeks ago, but I wanted to let you know how much fun I had at the very first meeting of my very first book club. As I had never joined book club before, I didn't know what to expect, but I should have known that a collection of thinkers gathered together by my friend Michelle and her friend Erin would be a stellar group, and it was. We didn'’t spend all of the time discussing Love Medicine, because collectively, we weren't that impressed. In fact, in the spirit of book clubbing, I need to admit something to my readers/reader*/empty internet. I didn't really like Love Medicine as much as I implied above. Here’'s the thing - I did think that it was extremely clever, and I was very impressed with the way Erdrich weaved Western and non-Western storytelling together. The problem was that because of the way the stories were told, I had a hard time caring about any of the characters. Once I got interested in them, she moved on to someone else. However, I was afraid that after going on and on about the non-Western storytelling, I would look um, non-culturally sensitive if I said that the method of storytelling left me a little cold. Pitiful, I know. Anyway, my book group generally agreed with that take on the book, and have liberated me to spill my guts, and fess up. I feel so free! Literature discussion and group therapy all in one, how can you go wrong?

Next we are meeting at my house, and we are reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I have just started it and am enjoying it quite a bit.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017