2006: Books 89-90

80. Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, Sidney Taylor

Another YA, though not so good as the last. This is the last of the "All-of-a-Kind" family books. They tell the story of a Jewish family growing up in turn of the century New York. The early books (which I remember more than this one - I may actually never have read it before), dealt a lot with Jewish life and with the family's slow upward mobility. I loved, loved them - it's where I first learned about Passover, and Yom Kippur, and about growing up at that time period, it was so so interesting to me as a child to learn about different cultures and ways of life, particularly when told in the context of five "stepping-stair" sisters. They charmed me to bits.

This book, however focuses on the oldest sister, and her decision whether or not to become a professional singer or to marry her sweetheart. Some of the same themes as Emily of Deep Valley, but somehow the feeling is different - like Ella has an either/or while Emily has both. Hard to pin down exactly why - it was more of a tonal thing, I guess. Furthermore, this book doesn't have the interesting cultural elements that the other books do, and the predictable love plot isn't enough to carry the book, in my opinion. Finally, (and this is petty) the title is a bust! Wouldn't Ella-of-a-kind-family be cuter (if more nonsensical)? Meh.

Date/Place Completed: 8/2/06, Washington

81. Borrowed Finery, Paula Fox

Paula Fox is a fiction and young adult author, and this is a memoir of her childhood. It is a remarkable book. I hadn't read any of her work before, but she is obviously one hell of a writer, and the book is a series of evocative snapshots of a neglected childhood. Fox was placed in an orphanage when she was born, because her mother, Elsie, did not want a child. Rescued by a family member, she was then placed with a minister in upstate New York, where she lived on an off for the first years of her life. She was reasonably happy and cared for there, but then her parents returned into her life, and for the rest of her childhood and teen years her life was one of being abandoned and neglected by her parents and other random guardians. The book culminates with Fox having a child (at about 18), and giving it up for adoption*. The book is remarkable, in that Fox is able to capture the way a child sees the world, so that we feel as if this is how it really was for young Paula. Furthermore, although her story is absolutely devastating, there is none of the self-pity that so often runs through memoirs, especially memoirs of terrible childhoods. Rather, Fox tells us what happened, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

Interestingly, the only issue I had arises from this thing that makes the book so special. Because we are told only why Paula knew then, I was left wanting to know more, to understand the why of it. What was her mother's issue? Why couldn't they have left her with the minister? How could she be so abandoned by all who claimed to love her? Of course, that is the point of the book - Paula didn't know, so how could we, but it makes me want to read a biography - or at least a newspaper article - about her, and learn more.

Date/Place Completed: 8/2/06, Boston

*This baby grew up to be Courtney Love's mother, who has herself written a well-received memoir, which I am going to seek out to try to get more of the story.

82. Jingo, Terry Pratchett

An island has risen in the middle of the sea, and both Ankh-Morpork and nation of Klatch have claimed ownership. Before anyone can think twice, the nations are on the brink of war, despite the fact that the island, Leshp, is nothing more than a pile of dirt. Sam Vimes is a policeman, and wants to be fight crime, not glorious enemies, but is pressed into service. He, and Carrot, and Angua and the rest are left needing to use their policeman skills to stop international war.

This is a great book. In fact, this may be the one I recommend to people who want to start reading Pratchett - this or Night Watch. My favorite Pratchetts, by far, are the Sam Vimes/Night Watch books, since they blend his silliness (evident in the Witches books) with the deeper themes in some of the one-offs, like Small Gods. This books is a commentary on war, and one that is particularly prescient given that it was written in 1997, but speaks to a lot of issues that are oh-so-current today.* when there is much, much more war. It has that way that the best Pratchetts do of being funny and poignant and clever and sweet. What I'm saying is, if you like Pratchett you will like this, and if you are inclined to try one, this would be a good one.**

Date/Place Completed: 8/8/06, Flying home to D.C.

*You know, with all the war and all.

**And if you don't like Pratchett, fie on you anway. :)

83. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Betty MacDonald

This was a comfort read (and an attempt to work my way through the box of books I bought this spring that is clogging up my den). I read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books many, many times growing up. This eponymous volume is the first in the series, which concerns Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a little old lady who lives alone, but who has a magical understanding of children, and comes up witn novel solutions to solve their little faults, and save their mothers from going crazy. For example, when Patsy decides to stop taking baths, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle offers up the Radish Cure, in which she is allowed to get dirtier and dirtier, until she is so dirty her mother is able to plant seeds in the dirt while she is sleeping. When the radishes show up on her arm, Patsy gets the message. This first book has cures that are moderately believable (if taken to extremes), while the later, better books have more of a ridiculous magical element to them. That having been said this was a perfectly charming read, and the series is a gem. They teach children how to behave properly without being even the slightest bit preachy, just fun and clever. Also, the illustrations are by Hilary Knight (who illustrated Eloise) and are a joy in themselves.

Date/Place Completed: 8/9/06, Washington, D.C.

84. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Talk about a change of pace from my last read, hmmm? I bought this book in high school under the impression this was the sort of book I should read, and never actually got around to it, so when I came back around to the K's in my quest to read all the shelf-sitters, I figured it was time to step up and read the damn thing. I expected not to enjoy it, since The Unbearable Lightness of Being is definitely an Eastern European novel of ideas and, as you know, I am a plot girl. But when the ideas relate to the meaning of life, and the author is writing in Communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, the book is a little more interesting than the typical post-modern angry young white man books of ideas that usually bore me so.

The novel is a series of vignettes about Thomas, his wife Tereza, Thomas's lover Sabina, and her lover Franz, as they try to figure the meaning of their lives both within and out of the iron curtain. The author's voice is everywhere, talking about his characters in the third person, about why he wrote them the way he did, about philosophy and ideas, but at the same time, the experiences of the characters are real, and their emotions and motivations understandable. There was at least one part that I could not figure out (when Tereza goes to Petrin Hill and meets the executioners) unless it was a dream sequence, but that may be a feature of the translation, more than anything else. I don't know - on the one hand, I feel like this is exactly the sort of pretentious overly literary book that usually drives me mad, but on the other, having forced myself to read it, I feel like I have learned something about living under Communism, and about life - or at least the lives of some people - that I didn't know before. I guess the thing is, this the is the kind of book that people who are annoying say is their favorite book, but is, nonetheless, a decent read.

Date/Place Completed: 8/9/06, Washington, D.C.

85. A Girl Called Al, Constance C. Greene

And back again to the YA! I know, nothing says follow-up to deep novel about the meaning of life and love than a 127 page story about an overweight non-conformist girl called Al, and her new best friend, living in a New York City apartment building in the early 1970s. But re-reading this book was such a nostalgic flashback for me - it was like a literary madeleine. I took this book out of the Boxford Village library in about 1987 - same exact bright yellow Dell Yearling paperback with the mistake on the cover (Al is the one with red-hair, not the narrator) and typical 1960's line drawings. The details came back too - skating on the floor with rags, Al's cold and glamorous mother, the sad ending. Books, even slight young adult books like this, can be such time machines.

Date/Place Completed: 8/14/06, Washington, D.C.

86. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

I chose to read this as my commuting book because McCullers was one of the inhabitants of The February House, and I had never read any of her works. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a book with more atmosphere than story. It charts the life of a small city in the South, and four lonely characters who live there, each seeking something better in their lives, and each spilling their hearts to a deaf-mute who they think understands their sorrow. Not much happens in the book, really, or rather, the things that happen are not really the point. Plot points that would be the center of other novels (the loss of virginity, a suicide) are just part of the pattern of life in this small sad town.

Although the book clearly reads like a first novel (for who is young Mick Kelly, dreaming to be an artist, but Carson herself?), McCullers is so talented at capturing yearning and emptiness, that it is remarkable to think that she was only twenty when the book was written. It was a slow read for me, in the sense that it never really captured my attention and became unputdownable, but it is an interesting story about the ennui and sadness and emptiness of life for lost people in a small faded city. Perhaps it is not meant to be torn through, but rather read slowly, and languidly just like the life of the town itself.

Date/Place Completed: 8/16/06, Washington, D.C.; Modern Library Top 100

87. World of Wonders, Robertson Davies

This is the last book of Davies' Deptford Trilogy. It tells the story of Magnus Eisengram (ne Paul Dempster), the world famous magician who appeared in the first two books, and is central to the story of Boy Staunton (or at least his death). Here we find out how Paul became Magnus, and ultimately, what happened to Boy. It tells of life in a seedy travelling carnival, and with a troupe of British actors in the last of the old fashioned players and captures these varied worlds with wit and believable detail. If I didn't like World of Wonders quite as much as Fifth Business and The Manticore, it is not because it was any less well-written or imaginative than the first two books, but because I didn't like Magnus as much as Dunston Ramsey or David Staunton*, nor am I as interested in the subtext of his story (egoism, evil and art) as much as I was in history/living a full life and psychotherapy/fathers and son. All three books are excellent, and together they form an extraordinarily rich trilogy, in which all three books touch on all these themes and more, but I (slightly) prefered the first two. That having been said, the Deptford trilogy probably contains the three best novels I have read this year. I intend to read much more Davies and recommend you do the same.

Date/Place Completed: 8/18/06, Washington, D.C.

*Seriously, he is a jerk. His ego is unbearable, and the bit he pulls on poor Rollo Ingestree soured the second half of the book for me. Which was probably purposeful on the part of the author, but still.

Posting Haitus (8/29/07)

I am going on vacation for the next two weeks in the land of no email. I will be reading, for sure, so I will have lots to update when I get back, although the nature of the trip required me to pack less books than I normally would, because I will be hiking and carrying all my things. Accordingly, I am bringing War and Peace along, figuring it is long enough that I will definitely not run out of things to read!

See you in September!

88. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women who Created Her, Melanie Rehak

I'm back! I didn't quite get to War and Peace but I did do some reading on vacation. The first book I read was Girl Sleuth, which tells the story of the history of Nancy Drew and the two women who invented her. Not "Carolyn Keene" as we young readers thought, but rather Harriet Stratmeyer Adams, the owner of the Nancy Drew syndicate, and Mildred Wirt Benson, the first and primary Nancy Drew ghostwriter. The book tells of these two women, ahead of their times as full-time working women, and at odds with each other over how Nancy should be written. It talks of the Nancy Drew phenomenon, and how (despite the fact that the books are somewhat formulaic) Nancy is a heroine to young women - someone who gets things done and solves the crime. It also explains (and this was new to me!) that there are two versions of the books, and that the yellow-spined covers that to me are the archetypal Nancy Drews are actually the second editions, cleaned (thankfully) of racism and (not-so-thankfully) of a lot of good action and feminism.

This was an interesting read. Like many of the non-fiction books I most enjoy, it captures a small part of social history and puts it in context, while also spilling some good dirt. The fact that it was about Nancy Drew, who I myself read (my favorites were The Clue in the Crumbling Wall and The Mysterious Mannequin) only made it more interesting. Rehak is not the world's greatest writer - there was a little too much historical context that really felt like filler i.e. "it was 1939, war was looming in Europe, FDR was the U.S. president" - but her analysis of the Nancy Drew phenomenon, and the relationships between Harriet, Mildred and Nancy herself is sound and believeable. I would recommend this book, particularly if you were ever a Nancy fan.

Date/Place Completed: 8/20/06, Flying over Central America

89. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa

Before I left for my trip for Peru I wanted to get some relevant reading material to bring along. The Lonely Planet was less than helpful, as it recommended Bel Canto and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, both of which I had read before, and neither of which was written by a Peruvian (though both a great books, I must admit). Some internet detecting informed me that Vargas Llosa is "Peru's foremost writer" (a claim reasserted by my Penguin copy of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), so the day before my vacation I went to Barnes and Noble to see what I could find. This seemed like the lightest option - published by Penguin, not about dictators, and labelled "A bedazzelment of entertainment" by Time Magazine. How could I go wrong?

I couldn't! Despite my initial hesitation,* I really really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of Varguitas, a young scholar who works at a local radio station and falls in love with his older Aunt (well, his Aunt by marriage's sister) Julia. Every other chapter intersperses their love story with stories relating to the radio seriels that Varguitas' employer has recently put on the air. Written by the famed Bolivian screenwriter Pedro Camacho, these tales have become the hit of Peru. The stories (which range in subject matter, but are all racy and shocking) capture the heart and glamour of Peruvian life and society, while the main love story is a much more realistic comedy of manners set in 1950's Peru. The same family members that eat up Camacho's seriels with a spoon, no matter how outlandish, are outraged by the rather pedestrian scandal of Varguitas and Julia.

I particularly enjoyed reading the novel while visiting Peru, as it touched upon many of the things I was learning about the country - from the streets of Lima to the habit of eating cuy**, little details were illuminated that I would have otherwise not have caught. However, a trip to Peru is not at all a requisite of enjoying the book, which was a pretty great regardless - it's funny, and entertaining and pokes a nice finger into hypocracy, and the meaning of art and young love.

* I hesitated because the back cover informed that reality was going to merge with fantasy and, despite three tries, I have as yet not made it past the first page of Love in the Time of Cholera and am wary of magical realism perpetrated by South American authors.

**Guinea Pig - it's a delicacy in Peru, though I had to decline. If you want to see pictures of a cuy farm, check out web.mac.com/jonflynn, and root around for the picture we took. It was pretty crazy.

Date/Place Completed: 8/30/06, the Tambopata Lodg

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017