2006: Books 60 - 69

60.  An Episode of Sparrows, Rumer Godden

I've been reading a lot of books written by goofy English ladies lately, and I am getting tired of them. This was a commuting book, one I originally bought, because a lot of women on Chicklit talked a great deal about how great Godden was, and how hard her books are to find. So when I found one, I thought, why not? Especially, because I had read one of her children's books when I was young about a family of dolls, and I loved it. Totally charming. But this book, while also charming, struck me as false and as a little twee. It tells the story of two children who, in the deprivations of post-War Britain (World War II, that is), scrimp and pinch to grow a garden in an abandoned patch of Earth. Even though they have nothing, they learn about beauty. Even though they are poor, they love beauty. Etc. It's not a totally original story, is what I am saying. The little stories are cute, and the character who wants to own a fine restaurant is a somewhat inspired character, as is the quiet older lady who secretly watches all. It just that the story didn't tell me anything that I hadn't read before in any other of these quiet English lady stories. Enough. I need something hard-boiled, I think! Bring on the Mickey Spillane!!

Date/Place Completed: 6/27/06, Washington

61. The Golden Arrow, Mary Webb

My gosh - it has been so long since I blogged, and I am so, so far behind on my books - I have at least eight read books to get through to get up to date. Accordingly, the following updates will be relatively brief, at least until I catch up. Luckily, this book was a total dog, so I don't have much to say. I was reading this Virago Modern Classic at the same time I read the previous Rumer Godden book, and as I indicated in the last post, I got a little overwhelmed by twee Brits. This one was particularly grim. It is set in Shropshire and concerns the lives and loves of a peasant family that lived there - with all that implies. You got it, clumsily rendered accents, sex obsessed women, dark religious types, and, of course, a wise peasant with the kind of natural understanding that those who live in jaded society can never really understand. I could barely get through it without puking. I would have given up, when, halfway through the book, it totally hit me - this is exactly the type of book (if, indeed not the very exact book) that Stella Gibbons is mocking in Cold Comfort Farm*. I love Cold Comfort Farm so, so much that it forced me through The Golden Arrow, just so I could appreciate all the cliched cheesy elements that Gibbons skewers so well. And so, I suggest that you run out and read Cold Comfort Farm, and then, if you don't get the jokes, or if you have the desire to, say, write an English paper about Gibbons' influences, then you can read The Golden Arrow.

Date/Place Completed: 6/28/06**, Washington

* If you don't know this book, I promise, if I ever get through these books, that will be my next "Favorite Book" post.

** Also, its been so long since I read these, the dates are more estimates than true records. I definitely read them all before today, though.

62. In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Alexander McCall Smith

If you don't already know, this is part of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, which concerns Precious Ramotswe, a traditionally built lady who runs a private detective agency in Botswana. The books aren't really traditional detective stories - there are no murders or international spies here. Rather, Mme Ramotswe solves small (and occasionally larger) problems that come her way, using her common sense, and inherent goodness to figure out things for people. To be honest, I am slightly ambivalent about these books. I absolutely love reading them. They are soothing, and moral, and lovely. They speak so well of Botswana and her people, and I love to read a book that portrays Africa and Africans as happy successful people, even with the problems that exist there. The characters are lovely - Mme Makutsi (her assistant), Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni (her husband), and of course Mme Ramotswe herself all charm. I just love reading these books, and In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, which involved Mme Makutsi finding love, and Mme Ramotswe solving a number of problems and taking on a new assistant, was just a peach to read. The books are so sweet and kind and soothing and fun.

But, they are written by a white man. And they are a little simplistic in their portrayal of Africans as good, simple, traditional people. It makes me a little uncomfortable. If it was written by an actual "traditional" African person*, maybe it would sit a little better. I mean, the books are flattering in their portrayal of Africa and Africans, and Mme Ramotswe is absolutely an empowered and empowering character. I just worry that the books skirt the "noble savage" line a bit. I will continue to read them and enjoy them - and recommend them whole heartedly, but I become a little uncomfortable if I parse it too deeply. I guess I should just read them, and not sweat it so much. You should too - you just cannot read them and not love Mme Ramotswe and her world.

*Although, Smith did live in Zimbabwe, so who knows.

Date/Place Completed: 6/30/06, Washington

63. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

I think I am probably the last person on earth to have read this book, but just in case I am not, let me recommend it to you wholeheartedly. I don't want to give too much away - my one disappointment in reading the book was that I had heard too much about it before I had read it, and while I loved the book, I think I would have been even emotionally affected by the ending than I already was (in the sense, that I figured out what was going on too early) if I hadn't known so much about the story in advance.*

What I will say is how much I enjoyed the way the book was written. There is a futuristic element to the story, but unlike the post-apocalyptic novels that freak me out so much, Never Let Me Go tells of a future that is far from perfect, but is generally a recognizable society to our own. Which to me, seems to be more believable than most science fiction** - as far as I can see the track of human history is not one of disaster but rather, a general trend towards progress that hasn't always taken paid much attention to the darker side of our advancements. Things have gotten better, and continue to, but that comes with a price. In addition, I like the ways he tells his stories that address larger societal issues. Rather than be didactic (like all those 1930's Virago novels I've been reading) the novel tells the story of a young woman's life, and like his The Remains of the Day the novel uses the inner life of a character to slowly expand a larger, more complicated story.

There is so much to say about this book, but to give any more would be to say too much. Do yourself a favor and read this book. I cannot imagine that you would ever be sorry for that.

*On the other hand, the book was heartbreaking even knowing what I knew, so perhaps if you are a wimp you would like to know more. If so, I recommed our dear friend google.

** At least that which I have read.

Date/Place Completed: 7/2/06, Washington

64. The Magician's Assistant, Ann Patchett

Another fabulous book - I had such luck on my Fourth of July reading. I love, love Patchett's work - she is so my literary idol, in that she is an extremely talented literary writer who tells great, compelling stories. Compared with the young Turk overly-meta hipster doofs who get so much press, Patchett is just out there writing fabulous novels. Love her.

The Magician's Assistant is the story of Sabine, a former magician's assistant. Her magician husband, Parsifal, has just died, and she learns after twenty years of companionship that the family he claimed were all long dead is actually alive and well in Nebraska. Wrecked with her loss, she meets them, learns Parsifal's secrets, and finds a new way to live her life. It is all so loving and rich and wise, and it is awesome and I loved, loved it. The details of grief are so real, and the secrets unfolds in a way to make the unimaginable understandable. I am just sad that I only have one Patchett left to read (well, except for the ones she hasn't written yet!)

Date/Place Completed: 7/5/06, Washington

65. The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler

My book club decided we needed something a little lighter for the next month, and after we talked for fifteen minutes about how much we loved Austen (my favorite is Persuasion, P. likes Emma, the rest leaned towards Pride and Prejudice), it struck us that this might be the perfect choice! Even if it is perhaps a wee cliched for a book club to read.

Anyway, its a fun, fast read. Its no East of Eden (sigh, will anything ever be?), but it's a nice book to read. It concerns a book club (five woman and one man) who start a book club that will read only the works of Austen. It tells the story of their lives, through their book club meetings and the conversations they have about the books. One cute aspect is that each chapter deals with a different Austen book, and the action of each chapter tracks, in some way, the plot of the book being discussed. So, in the Emma chapter there is a matchmaker, and in The Pride and Prejudice chapter has a proud couple sniping at each other. It's clever, its cute, it's a super, super fast read.

On the other hand, it's a pretty thin book. The characters drift between being realized and being sort of thin. Their actions are sometimes realistic and sometimes mysterious - why did Allegra take her girlfriend back? What is the deal with Bernadette? Who was narrating, anyway? Now, this might be a clever pastiche of Austen as well, but I've read most Austen, and I didn't quite catch it. And anyway, I don't read Austen and feel like there are plot holes and thin characterization even if sometimes there are. I guess my final judgment is that Fowler is not Austen, but the book is pretty cute, anyway.

On a completely unrelated note, did you notice that my comments got spammed?? As Michelle Tanner would say, how rude!

Date/Place Completed: 7/9/06, Washington

66. The Mating Season, P. G. Wodehouse

Oh, Bertie! This is a typical Jeeves and Wooster novel, with love affairs, complications, Gussie Finknottle, obstreperous policemen, and dreadful aunts. Here, Bertie must go to King's Deverall on the command of his aunt Agatha, but ends up having to pretent to be Gussie, in order to preserve Gussie's relationship with Madeline Bassett (to protect Madeline from wanting to marry Bertie)! But then Gussie arrives pretending to be Bertie, and falls in love with Corky Pirbright and Corky's brother Catsmeat pretends to be Bertie's manservant, and things get muddled. In the end, Jeeves saves the day (as he does) and after Esmond Haddock stands up to his nine aunts, Bertie even finds the strength to face Aunt Agatha. So really, it is a heroic tale.

And my goodness, is it funny. Like all Wodehouse, it leaves you in stitches with the wordplay and ridiculousness, and most of all with the Wooster-isms. There isn't much more to say about Wodehouse - the reading is the experience. I know that all my readers (being the literate sophisticates that you are) have read Wodehouse, but just in case this one missed you, I recommend it!

Date/Place Completed: 7/11/06, Washington

67. Blue Shoes and Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith

So, despite my underlying issues with this series, I have to say that I really enjoyed Blue Shoes and Happiness. Here, Mme Ramotswe is dealing with a number of issues at once: a local doctor may be acting unethically, a nearby game reserve is under a shadow, and dealing with Mme Makutsi's problems - her new fiance is acting strangely (perhaps because she is a feminist?), and her new blue shoes pinch her feet! On top of it all, Mme Ramotswe is considering abandoning her traditional shape and going on a diet! It sounds silly and trite, perhaps, but Smith manages to tell his simple stories and touch on deeper issues - here, the idea that the happiness we really want is not in the things we buy, but the people we love. And does it in such a cheery, lovely way. You know, I think I've missed a few of this series, and now I want to go back and read them. I still feel a little weird about Smith, but there is no question that the books are sweetly intentioned, and a joy to read.

Date/Place Completed: 7/11/06, Washington

Categories: Fiction.

68. The Drowning Tree, Carol Goodman

I read a review of Goodman's new book, called The Ghost Orchid that was so glowing that I ran out to buy it immediately, since I had read a previous books she wrote called The Lake of Dead Languages and remembered really liking it.* I couldn't find The Ghost Orchid at my local mega-chain - and I looked twice - so in anticipation of an upcoming trip I decided to buy The Drowning Tree instead. It was, however, a disappointment.

Goodman writes literary thriller/mystery type books, the kind where a woman solves a deep mystery from the past, usually with a literary or artistic flair, often including a set of diaries, or letters that illuminate a long dead heroine. She may even find out that the secret ties to her own past, while she falls in love with a hunky artist/author/policeman who helped her solve the thing. I am teasing a bit, but only because I love books like that. What book nerd wouldn't? Possession is the ur-example of this genre (the awesomely written Booker-prizing winning version), and is one of my favorite, favorite books. The Drowning Tree is a much lesser version.

It starts out strongly enough. It is the story of Juno McKay, a glass restorer who dropped out of college because she got pregnant, only to have her young husband go insane and leave her alone to raise their child. Fifteen years later her best friend from college comes back, gives a mysterious lecture tying a famous stained glass window at the college with the insane asylum where Juno's (now-ex) husband has been living, and a deep secret. When the friend is found dead three days later, Juno is thrown into a mystery where the past seems to be encroaching on the present. Sounds right on track, right? The beginning is pretty great, and Goodman is a pretty good writer is terms of characterization and atmosphere. Where it falls apart is the plotting. The ending is so hackneyed (more like an episode of Murder She Wrote than a clever literary thriller) that I actually scoffed out loud. The answer to the myster is just stupid, and makes no sense, and fails to tie the threads together. Such a disappointment. Nevertheless, Goodman is a good enough writer that I would read another one of her books - I just would be prepared to read it for the characters, not the plot.

*Although thinking about it right now, I can not remember one single thing about the plot of that book, which might have been a sign.

Date/Place Completed: 7/13/06, Washington

69. February House, Sherill Tippen

This is a great, gossipy, but still well-written read. It tells the story of "February House," a house in 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn that served for a few years in early 1940 as a literary commune for the likes of Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and even Gypsy Rose Lee. They bonded together in an attempt to be a light in the darkness, fighting in their own way against the darkness in Europe, and, of course, to save a little money in an expensive city. They lived and worked and celebrated together, writing some of their most famous works, including The Member of the Wedding, and some of Auden's greatest poems, but after a year, they had drifted away from each other.

This is my absolute favorite kind of non-fiction book, one that tells the story of some little piece of history that I knew nothing about, and tells it in an informative and engaging way. That the story is about the lives and loves of authors and artists is just a boon. I am particularly fond of Auden, and it was interesting to hear about his life and love - particularly his difficult struggle with how best to respond to the war in Europe, and the accusations of shirking he was facing back home. His attempt to come to his own understanding of his moral obligations was absolutely fascinating. Also interesting, I must admit, was his dramatic and tragic relationship with his life-long love, Chester Kallman. Similar stories are told about the others, until the end we get a portrait of both the individual artists, life in the house, and a snapshot of what it meant to be an artist in America in the years immediately prior to World War II. Loved it!

Date/Place Completed: 7/19/06, Washington

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017