2006: Books 50-59

50.  The Accidental, Ali Smith

The Accidental is a book with a lot of literary buzz in Britain. It is a finalist for the Whitbread Award and for the Booker. I had heard raves about it on Bookslut, too, so I decided to pick up a copy. I was, however, disappointed.*

I can understand why The Accidental is getting a lot of noise. Its a very "writerly" book and very good in that sense. It's written in a stream of consciousness type style, with every chapter representing the internal thoughts of one of the four main characters - Astrid, Magnus, Eve or Michael. Eve is a writer, Astrid and Magnus are her children, and Michael her husband/their stepfather. Smith is especially good at writing the teenagers - it seems that she has absolutely captured the exploration and angst that adolescents go through. The parents are less interesting, because they seem more cliched. Michael is a professor who sleeps with all his students, Eve a writer who is unhappy with her childhood. Both are characters we have seen before (seriously, literary fiction would lead you to believe that every professor sleeps with his student, which really was not the case at either of the institutes of higher learning in which I attended.). The children's voice was more fresh to me, and thus their chapters more interesting.

What really made me lose interest in the book, however, was the fact that nothing much happened. The plot, as promised by the book jacket, is that a mysterious stranger shows up at their summer house, and changes their lives forever. Could be promising, but in fact not much happens, and we are left unsure as to whether Amber, the stranger, ever really existed at all. The thing, is, I am not such a fan of artsy plotless writing exercise type books. I can get over that type of writing if there is an interesting story or interesting character (say, Mrs. Dalloway) to drag me along - which is why I enjoyed the children's chapters more than the adults'. This book didn't have enough other stuff for me to really enjoy it. I have been picking it up and putting it down since April - not a ringing endorsement for 306 page book with big print. I would say that if you like stream of consciousness/artsy writing you may enjoy this book. It is definitely well written in that style. If you prefer plot and characterization to writing skill, you may be left cold.

*And worse, when I went back to Bookslut and re-read the review I realized that if I had paid as much attention the site's reviews as I do to the blog, I would never have bought it, damn it. Bad memory + impulse book-buying = bad decisions by yours truly!!

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

51. The Happy Foreigner, Enid Bagnold

Another Virago classic, this one written by the author of National Velvet (a book I never read, since my YA reading was more slanted towards plucky orphans than girls with ponies). This is a book for adults, and is Bagnold's first book - she wrote it after she spent some time in France during and after World War One driving cars for the French Army. It is, surprise, surprise, about a young woman, who is living in France, as a driver for the French Army after World War One. As I said, I've never read anything else by Bagnold, but I was not so impressed by this book. It is of historical interest to me, because (as I have often stated here) I am quite interested in World War One, and it was interesting to learn what life was like in France right after the war ended.

The writing, however, is not so good. To be fair, it was Bagnold's first book, but it is very much the work of a young woman who thinks she is very very clever, and is quite, quite fond of herself. The focus of the book is not actually post-War France, but is on the adventures of Fanny, the Bagnold stand-in, and, more specifically, a brief love affair she has with a French officer. The thing that makes the book drag is that I found Fanny to be a totally unpleasant character. She treats the whole experience as a grand adventure, in which she can do whatever she wants, breaks all the rules - to the detriment of others, disdains the American and Russian soldiers, as well as the French civilians. The way she treats a woman who returns home to the house she has been billeted in is particularly disgraceful. The woman has returned home for the first time in years. Both of her sons were killed on the front, and her home has been occupied by soldiers for years. She shows up at her own home, and is understandably angry to find Fanny living with the remainder of her things. Fanny acts as if this poor woman is an unreasonable interloper and a miserable shrew, not a tragic figure.

It would be one thing if Bagnold was purposely writing the story of a narcissist, or even of a woman who is too young to really understand the horror and loss around her. Actually, that could be a really interesting story - the young English frivolity compared with the exhausted French. The problem with The Happy Foreigner is that (at least in my opinion), the reader is meant to admire brave Fanny, full of life and love and happiness. And I just can't believe that anyone, no matter how spunky, would be able to run around devastated Western France acting like that without getting smacked. I wanted to reach into the book and smack her myself. This one was a bust, I am afraid, unless you have a penchant for annoying women.

Date/Place Completed: 5/31/06, Washington.

52.  Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Suskind

This is an odd little fable about a sociopath with a genius sense of smell. He is the world's greatest perfumer - he can smell things that no one else on earth can. Born odorless himself, he eventually turns to murder to capture other people's scents for his own. He is a singular creature, solely obsessed with scent. The book follows him from his birth in a French gutter throughout his life (any more detail would give the plot away, should you chose to read the book). The question, do you want to read it? It’s a grim and gristly story and I found myself wondering to what point all of this mayhem was directed. There is no question that has a lot of interesting elements. Even though this is translated from German (often a hint that the writing will be clunky), the prose is smooth and crisp, and the action is page turning. The sort of ridiculous ending makes sense, if we are to read the book (as I do) as a satire on European society (and perhaps, if we are generous, on civilization itself).* Suskind did a good job capturing the history (the book is set in the late 1700's), particularly how much everyone smelled, something we know is true, but rarely think about. Furthermore, I love murder mysteries (I just read a great book by Ruth Rendell - so watch this space!), even the ones with creepy serial killers.** I feel like this should have been my kind of book. And yet, I was left a little cold by the novel. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of the murder with the satire - mystery readers (and lawyers) like order and justice - even when the murder isn't satisfactorily caught, the novels are about bringing order and answers to chaos, while satire feeds on the ridiculous and sublime. It seemed like this was the first kind of book, and it turned out to be the second kind (or more precisely, it started as a life story, then became a murder mystery, then it became clear that it was satire all along). The shifts in tone were too much for me.

* If you do not read the book that way, then the book has a radical shift at the end from the deliciously creepy to the totally nonsensical. I think satire was the intent, though.

** Although, I prefer the ones where snooty Lady McRichington is found garroted in a locked room and everyone has a motive and an alibi.

Date/Place Completed: 5/31/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction.

53. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I read this book because it was a commuting book, knowing full well that I am not a big fan of dystopian fiction. Which is to say, I suspected, going in, that this would not be my favorite read of 2006. And, well, it wasn't. The book is extremely well written - Bradbury's prose is lyrical, and his descriptions sing. Furthermore, the way that books are preserved at the end is absolutely inspired - without giving the plot away, the image it created was an inspired one. But I just do not like to read about the future when everything is all grim and we have no rights. And you, the notion of a future where books are not allowed actually made me nervous - so much so that I tore through the book, so as to get to the end and not have to be reading it anymore.* But I freely admit that the fault was with me, not Bradbury. I just do not enjoy reading that kind of book.**

*This actually served me quite ill, because I was reading the book in the doctors office, and I finished while waiting for my appointment and had NOTHING to read. Damn, you dystopias!

** But seriously, with a few exceptions - like, say, the Bush administration - hasn't the general chart of human history been towards a brighter tomorrow? Why is everyone of the science fiction books set in the hellish future?? Why do I keep picking up these dystopian novels when they make me so crazy. Remind me this when I circle back to the A shelf, and start eyeing Oryx and Crake.

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

Categories: Fiction; commuting book

54.  Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, Jennifer Allison

Goofy YA again! Sad, I know, but it came highly recommended by Bookslut, and I needed to buy one more book to qualify for the supersaver shipping at Amazon.* It is a cute book about a young girl who spends her summer trying to be a (wait for it...) psychic detective. It's a nice piece of YA, with a few particularly compelling parts. One is Gilda herself who is a fabulous character - up for anything, willing to be weird, more obsessed with her future career that with boys, etc. The other is the way that Allison handles Gilda's father's death. She doesn't shy away from the pain and loss Gilda feels, but it isn't one of those emotionally manipulative tearjerker books either. Gilda's father has died, she needs to deal with that. It's nicely done, and I think that a young teenager who had experienced similar loss would appreciate the meaningful, yet matter of fact way this was addressed. As for the book itself, the central mystery (and subsequent emotional growth upon solving it) was simple but sweet. I'm not going to run out and purchase the sequel, but when I have young adults to push books on, I would suggest that they get to know Gilda. She is worth knowing.

*And does Amazon know its target market or what? I mean, I barely need any excuse to buy one more book, and the thought of FREE SHIPPING is always a good excuse. Even though the paid shipping would be less than the book. Seriously that is some good sales work, there.

Date/Place Completed: 6/06/06, Washington.

Categories: Fiction; Young Adult.

55.  13 Steps Down, Ruth Rendell

As you may have gathered from reading ye olde blogge, I am somewhat of a mystery fiend. I have slowed down a bit from my youth, in which I would land on a series, and then spend the next few weeks devouring everything the author had ever written, but I still love a good mystery, and there is no question that Rendell is one of the best mystery writers out there today. I first came to her work through her nom-de-plume, Barbara Vine. Under that name she writes books that are more suspense novels than traditional mysteries. They usually involve the gradual unraveling of a story from a character's past, often with a historical element. I particularly enjoyed (and would strongly recommend) Anna's Book*, A Dark-Adapted Eye, and The Chimney's Sweeper’s Boy. All three are great books - her other stuff is good too, but I have read and re-read each of these, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Most of her writing is done under the name Ruth Rendell, and these are more traditional mysteries. She has written a series about the police work of Inspector Wexford, and a number of stand alone crime novels. 13 Steps Down is one of the latter.

The book interweaves a number of stories and characters - the main two being Gwendolyn Chawcer, an elderly lady who lives in a crumbling mansion in Notting Hill and her tenant, Mix Cellini. Gwendolyn has lived her whole life in the house, with few life experiences, beyond a brief flirtation with a doctor when she was a young woman (which came to naught). She is fabulously crotchety Miss Havisham type character, who does nothing but lounge around her house, re-reading Victorian novels. Cellini is a type that Rendell has written about before in a number of her novels - a single minded criminal, with a fixation on a few things. To my mind, it’s a sociopathic type, and every time I read one of her books with this creepy kind of character, I am let down. It's not that Rendell doesn't creepily convince me that that is the way that creepy psychopaths think, its just that I find it dull to read about a character with no inner life, beyond their narrow area of fixation. In Mix's case, it's a famous serial killer from the 1950's, and a supermodel named Nerissa. Over the course of the novel, we chart Mix's life spiraling out of control and how it affects others, leading, ultimately, to murder. It is a clever novel, for sure, as all the threads come together to the inevitable end. There is no question Rendell can write, and I read that thing from cover to cover (though granted, I was on an airplane, so I was a captive audience). It's not my favorite of hers, since as I said, I am not so interested in her sociopaths**, and its one of those mysteries where you spend more time worrying about what will happen (and hoping that certain characters make it out ok) than who dunnit. I prefer whodunits, but, that being said, I will certainly be reading more Rendell. She is a great writer who crafts clever but still emotionally resonant mysteries - especially the ones that don't concern psychopaths. So, I guess what I am saying is run out and read some Rendell - but read different Rendell - or even better, read Vine!

* FYI, Amazon refers to it as Asta's Book, so if you are looking to read it - which you totally should - be aware.

** Seriously, it is like the same character, over and over again. I like Rendell a lot, but I am bored of this character. I am even too bored to write out all the books that these boring psychopaths can be found in!

Date/Place Completed: 6/08/06, circling over Boston, late to Dad's graduation!; Ruth Rendell’s project

56.  Fifth Business, Robertson Davies

I am ridiculously busy at work (thus my bloggish silence), but I noticed, when briefly at home last night, that I had not yet written about Fifth Business. And since I loved, loved this book, I feel I must steal some precious seconds to write about it, before my memory of fades too much. Not that it could ever escape completely, because (as I said) I loved this book. I didn't know much about Davies, only that he was a famous Canadian author, and I bought this book used thinking that I should be exploring my Canadian heritage.* And I was totally wowed by the book. It is the story of Dunston Ramsey, or rather, a story told by Dunston Ramsey. Dunston comes to realize over the course of the novel that he has lived his life as a Fifth Business - a term, which derives from the opera, meaning to a supporting character , who, while he has no opposite of the other sex (being neither the hero nor heroine, villain nor rival), and is essential to the plot, for he often knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when all seems lost, or may even be the cause of someone's death. This is the role Dunston plays in his life, and the role he plays in the novel. For while Dunston is a compelling narrator, and a kind, honest and self-knowing man, his part in the story (and, perhaps, in life) is to tie together two disparate men, both of whom, like Dunston, got their start in the small town of Deptford, Ontario. One man is Percy "Boyd" Staunton, who becomes a famous business man - an almost Gatsby-esque type. The other is Paul Dempster, who runs away from home, joins the circus, and reappears as a famous magician. The two are linked through Paul's mother, a tragic figure whose life has taken on an almost religious significance for Dunston.

I don't even know if I can explain why I loved this book so much. It was a well-told story about compelling characters, and was well crafted, too (both in the way the plot worked and in the writing). Most of all, I loved it because it was one of those books that you start reading, and you just sink into it's world. I felt like I knew Deptford, and Dunston, and all the peripheral characters, too. I was so interested in the people in the book, that the plot sort of caught me by surprise at the end - as did the fact that the end was near - a real change from, say Fahrenheit 451, where I was counting down the pages. It was like reading a comfort read - but for the very first time.** And best of all, Fifth Business is the first book in a trilogy! I hope that I like the other two as much as this one. And I secretly hope to learn (as the last few sentences sort of hinted at) that at the end of his life Dunston managed to become the hero of his own story.

*Tangent time -- The whole Canada thing is sort of weird for me, in the following sense. Canada, like America, is a nation of immigrants unless you happen to be a Native American (er, Canadian)/First People/American (Canadian) Indian. My dad, and his ancestors going back are/were Canadian. In fact, I once participated in a smug little presentation about stereotypes in a college class about immigration (in the geography department) with a whole "guess which one of us is a first generation American" bit. And I think that some of my experiences are colored by that - the way I think about World War One, was, for sure, shaped by the fact that my great-grandfather was a veteran. I certainly have a fondness in my heart for the Canadian anthem, poutine and other things Canadian. However, being Canadian isn't really a heritage, like being Irish or Italian or what have you, right? I mean, I am as American as apple pie, deep down. The Fourth of July is my favorite holiday - majored in American history - would never, ever leave the country no matter how much I hated the administration and it's politics. And I can't say that my the fact that my dad was born in Quebec rather than Massachusetts has shaped me too deeply. I mean I didn't say that my experiences were coloured or anything. Hmmm. I will have to ponder on that more, probably someplace other than a poor little book blog entry on Robertson Davies.

** Not to suggest that the book is simple, or not of literary merit. It's just that there are some books that when I read them are so comforting and easy and engrossing, and this book was like that.

Date/Place Completed: 6/09/06, hovering in the air over Washington, at ridiculously early o'clock on my way back from Boston.***

***As you can see, I get a lot of reading done when I fly. Thank goodness there is some upside to air travel, because lately my air trips have largely consisted of hovering and being delayed.

Second Book Failure!

Second official book failure of 2006! This jettison caused me much less angst than the Stein book did. Again, this was a commuting book. I had reasonably high hope for this book, since I have read three Graves books before (and read each at least twice, actually): I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and Good-bye to All That!. And actually, I also read a non-fiction book he co-authored, The Long Weekend, a social history of Britain between the wars. All of which is why I expected I would enjoy this one, when I picked it up used somewhere. But I guess there is a reason why Homer's Daughter wasn't made into a famous PBS/BBC documentary, because this one is a dog.

I should have seen it coming, because, as it turns out, the idea for the book came to Graves from my old friend Samuel Butler, who evidently* argued in The Way of All Flesh that The Odyssey was actually written by a woman. Graves became enamored of the idea and expanded it into a story about the authoress's life as a Greek princess living on what is now Sicily. Could be intriguing, right? Unfortunately, the whole thing (or at least the first 50 pages, which is as far as I got) reads less like a kicky tale of female authorship, or even a re-telling of the Penelope myth, but rather is a clunky version of "look how much I know about Ancient Greece!" I'm talking description of palaces, of political systems, mythology, etc., all written in a tone that may be absolutely authentic in tracking the way that ancient Greek reads, but is absolutely awful to read. I just don't get it - I Claudius is somewhat similar, with the whole capturing what ancient civilization was like thing, but I really enjoyed it, while this one killed me. So much so that I decided I would rather be reading something else. Sorry, Robert - I'll take your angsty war experiences, and your Clau-clau-claudiuses, but no ancient Greece for me.

*I must say that I have no memory of this fact, though I am trying to suppress the whole Butler experience.

57. March, Geraldine Brooks

This was July's book club choice - and it was my suggestion, so I hope to find that people liked it. I thought March would be fun for our group because, as a group of chattery reading women, I figured that we were the types of girls who had read Little Women growing up. Plus, it had just won the Pulitzer Prize, which I thought gave it some measure of critical authenticity. I guess that the group agreed, because we picked March for our next read. Still, how stressful to be the follow-up to East of Eden! Poor Ms. Brooks! How can you ever compete?*

The book consists of an imagining of the life story of Mr. March, the father in Little Women. As you may remember, Little Women opens with the girls sitting around a Christmas fire, wishing they had a more festive holiday planned, both because of their own (relative) poverty, and because their father has gone off to fight in the Civil War (well, to act as a chaplain). March tells the story of what Mr. March was doing while his family was at home, creating a story of his time as a soldier, his early life as a peddler, his interactions with the men, the Southerners (white and black), and ultimately his being injured, which brings Marmee to the story, and later, leads to his coming home.

It's an interesting idea - as I have written before, I am always interested in stories that reimagine other classic works of literature. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed with March. I loved Brooks' writing. I think she did an excellent job telling the story of a Civil War soldier - particularly the story of a man who joined up for a glorious cause, but is slowly disillusioned by war and how ugly it is; how no one can stay pure in that situation. Conversely, she wraps the story back around a complex issue - although Mr. March is broken by the war, she doesn't act as if his idealism was wrong - she firmly establishes the horror that was slavery, and the rightness of ending it - even if the war itself was hell.

However, I don't think what she wrote was worthy of Little Women. Not that it is the greatest literary classic, but it’s a book that is read and loved by millions of women. And while March is very well written (probably better than Alcott, honestly), I don't think that the Little Women aspect is necessary to Brooks' story. What I mean is, I didn't feel that she loved, or even respected the book. Nor do I think that March really illuminates Little Women in anyway. It doesn't make me see the text in a new way, like, say Wide Sargasso Sea does to Jane Eyre. I don't think that Brooks really cares about Little Women the book (in fact, she indicates in her conclusion that she doesn't care for Marmee), and I feel like her book is less a fresh way to think about a classic, than a publicity hook for her Civil War novel. I just hated the way that she made the fictional back story she created for Mr. March overshadow his love for his family, and the last line, I thought, ran particularly false. I couldn't believe that he would be so cavalier to his little women. The disconnect between him and his family, while a great idea for a war novel, just wasn't true to the text of the original. I don't know - I'm no crazy Little Woman fiend (as we all know, I am an Anne of Green Gables girl), but I just was unhappy with what Brooks did with Alcott's book.

*Sorry to be repetitive, but I really loved East of Eden!

Date/Place Completed: 6/17/06, Washington

58. Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett

I know that you* are all bored by Pratchett, but I am going to wear you down, and you are going start reading his books out of desperation, and then I will FINALLY have someone to talk about these books with. Oh yes, I am filled with the trickery and the master plans - you didn't know?

Anyway, this book is both a mediation on the power of stories, and a spoof of fairy tales and intercontinental travel. It stars the fabulous witches, Granny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and poor put-upon Magrat. Magrat has become a fairy godmother, and the three need to travel to Genua (hence the travel spoof) and stop the beautiful maiden from marrying the handsome prince. I will say that while I (almost) always enjoy reading Pratchett, Witches Abroad made me laugh out loud in a few spots.** This book is a hoot, and the witches are awesome, and I really enjoyed it. He does a nice job tweaking fairy tale conventions without being all crazy zany over-the-top drama camp-y about it. I don't have much more to say about this book - it was funny and I enjoyed it and I recommend it to you.

*The mythical "you" that read this blog, hee!

** Which I rarely do. Maybe because I read so fast, or maybe I'm just a humorless pill, but I don't usually laugh out loud when I read, so I really appreciate it when it happens!

Date/Place Completed: 6/19/06, Washington

59. Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III, Flora Fraser

I was drawn to Princesses because I am trying to read more non-fiction, and because, as a I have discussed before*, I love to read biographies of snooty aristocratic families, particularly families of sisters. This is the ultimately family of sisters - the six daughters of George III of England, of madness/American Revolution fame. It is an inherently interesting story to read about how these six women lived, in such times, with such a family. Furthermore, the book is ridden with scandal! The princes were notoriously dissapated, and at least one princess had an illegitimate child (and the rumor was that her own brother was the father - though Fraser says that was unlikely). Furthermore, although George III had 15(!) children, barely any of his children were married, and when he died, there was a mad scramble among the by then elderly princes to have a child to be heir. This eventually led to Queen Victoria, who I have a lot more respect for after reading this book. Oh sure, we think of Victorian times as being full of repression and stuffiness, but given how poorly the Hanoverians were thought of by the English, its pretty freaking amazing how Victoria managed to save the reputation of monarchy. Good show, I say!

But, even though the book was interesting, I was disappointed. Fraser merely acts as a reporter, and her writing story actually makes an interesting story dull, and a little sad. She doesn't explore the interesting issue - such as why a loving family had so few grandchildren, or why the King did not do more to arrange dynastic marriages for his children, and she certainly doesn't do enough with the scandal! I mean, hello, the Princess of England had an illegitimate child!! In 1789 (or so)!! That is mind-blowingly interesting history, and she barely touches it. Bad show, Flora. I don't know if it was because she needed royal approval for access to letters, or if she is just a dullard, but I was disappointed by Princesses. It was good, but it could have been awesome.

*See my discussion of the Cecil Beaton Diaries**

**Or, upon review, maybe not. Anyway, I like to read snooty biographies. Not much of a story upon reflection.

Date/Place Completed: 6/25/06, Washington

Categories: Non-Fiction.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017