What I Read in January 2016

February 1, 2016

belcantoAnn Patchett, Bel Canto. An opera with plenty of bel canto, may still end with all the singers in a bloody mess. I rather enjoyed this best-selling account of the hostages and the hostage-takers who form a common cause, but confess that I read it more as a fairy tale than as a plausible construction of events. The young terrorists are not ignorant and cruel but full of unrecognized talents. Would it were so. The ending had to be expected, but was painful nevertheless.

Ivan_Turgenev_8256Ivan Turgenev, Torrents of Spring. Since I read this short Russian classic on my Kindle I have no cover to show you. Instead I am providing. Turgenev’s benign and elderly visage. Thus he may appear, but he was young once and understands that a foolish young Russian land owner may sincerely and idealistically love an Italian confectioner’s daughter. The torrents of spring do not run comfortably in the usual streambeds. The love was real enough and so is the pain which comes after.

Winston Churchill, with Harry Hopkins slightly behind him, on the right

Winston Churchill, with Harry Hopkins slightly behind him, on the right

Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins. That’s who Harry Hopkins was to me — the shadowy figure in the background at all the big conferences and dealings during World War II. For many, he was not a figure to be trusted. This account of the relationship between Hopkins and Roosevelt was written by Sherwood in 1948, with the memories and emotions of the war still fresh. Sherwood worked as a speech writer for Roosevelt and with Hopkins. When Hopkins died, the family asked him to take over preparing the memoir Hopkins intended to write. It’s a paper brick — over 900 pages — and a very full account of the wartime years, with the text of many cables, memos and letters given in full. Because Sherwood was a professional writer it is also very readable. Not a cliff-hanger exactly, but all the pages and incidents are important to the story. They give us a picture we would not get otherwise of how Roosevelt and Hopkins interacted, with Hopkins acting as first assistant and principal doer of Roosevelt’s will.

wilderness

Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness. This novel, written by Macaulay shortly after the end of World War II is set in formerly-occupied France and in the ruins left by the London Blitz. The young people who come to maturity in a dangerous world learned to survive in ways their elders could not approve. I felt surprisingly detached about their situation, perhaps because Macaulay was mostly expressing her own grief at the changes the war had brought.

Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger. The “stranger” in this bitter tale is Satan. He is not the old and ugly Satanand menacing Satan you see here, but a seductive young man who charms the simple Austrians with his beauty and his tricks. Twain’s verbal humor does little to relieve a story in which mankind is an evil mistake in a creation which may or may not exist.guilt

Michael Connelly, The Gods of Guilt. The members of a jury are the gods of guilt for defense lawyer Mickey Haller, the “Lincoln lawyer” in this series set among the usual miscreants of Los Angeles. The plotting is a bit tricky in places, but Haller continues to interest me with his cynical surface in which a certain idealism occasionally leaks through. His half-brother, LA detective Harry Bosche, does not appear in this novel.

angelaAngela Carter, Wise Children. One of the bloggers I read has been praising Angela Carter, so I thought I would try one. This novel is an amusing account of several sets of related and theatrical twins. Nice tricky language here, but it wears a bit thin at the end.


What I Read in December 2015

January 1, 2016

Jeanstafford Stafford, Boston Adventure. Since I enjoyed Stafford’s later novels, I expected to like this one, her first. It was disappointing. Young woman, child of immigrant parents, realizes her dream of living with a spinster Boston Brahman and learning their ways. What she learns does not charm her; still, she persists. Nothing much happens, plotwise, which takes many pages and suggests that the young Stafford had read too much Henry James.

sistersMary Lovell, The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitf
ord Family.
There were six sisters, plus a brother. Two were popular writers — Nancy of Love in a Cold Climate and Jessica of The American Way of Death — and the rest did this and that, including falling in love with British Fascist Oswald Mosley or hanging out with Hitler before World War II or marrying a duke. I sometimes struggled to keep all the relationships and marriages and children and nicknames straight, but the family tree was a great help. I recommend this account of an unusually interesting family. Lovell gives us an even-handed appreciation of a diversity which was sometimes hard on its practitioners as well as the by-standers.

offshore

Penelope, Fitzgerald, Offshore. In this novella, a number of characters form a community of dwellers on converted barges anchored in the Thames. Interesting characters, interesting way of life, no resolutions offered or provided. Like flotsam, they drift together and then apart, and I could not quite hear what any of them were saying.
drspockJessica Mitford, The Trial of Dr. Spock. Dr. Spock was not alone; he had four other co-defendants to make up the “Boston Five” being tried for conspiring to aid and abet violations of the draft. All were opoosed to the VietNam war and sought to publicize their resistance by demonstrations, statements, petitions, press conferences, and the transmission of burned draft cards to the Department of Justice. Did they aid and abet? Yes, probably, but that is not what they were accused of. The charge was conspiracy and, based on the evidence the government presented, most of us were equally guilty at that time. It was clearly a political trial, meant to discourage resistance. This was Jessica Mitford’s first book after her better-known The American Way of Death. It is clear and skillfully organized and suggests to me that now, over 40 years later, little has changed.

No Name John McLenan

Wilkie Collins, No Name. Surely Wilkie Collins is due for a revival! I read No Name on a blogger’s recommendation because I had enjoyed The Moonstone so much. This one is even better, with an ingenious plot and more compelling characters. Two sisters, living comfortable lives with their well-off parents lose everything. They lose their parents, their inheritance and even their legitimacy, becoming persons with “no name” because their parents were not legally married. This is the Victorian era. One sister reconciles herself to her fate and to life as a governess. The other sister prepares to do battle against injustice and those who perpetrated it. Collins amazed me with his grasp of the unfairness of their situation. I also had the pleasure of meeting scheming Captain Wragge and his disorganized wife, two very entertaining almost-scoundrels. Collins knew his public, so all comes right in the end, but only after finding your way through a maze of plot and counter plot.

José Saramago, Skylight. This novel was an early effort by Saramago and skylightrejected for publication at the time he wrote it. It is very different in technique from his later and better-known works like Blindness. It has a grand-hotel type plot, with a narrative which shifts among the inhabitants of different units within a small apartment building. They know each other, but the interactions are actually rather minimal. Most married couples do not get along very well, in this building at least. The novel ends on a serious philosophic note, a direct discussion which I found less effective than the same themes in his later books.

4sistersAnnping Chin, Four Sisters of Hofrei: a history. Four sisters were born into a well-to-do family in the years before World War II. They came to adulthood during a period of great turbulence with the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the Mao era. The author has interviews, letters and diaries to draw on, but somehow the struggles of these young women to adjust to the rapid changes did not engage me as I had hoped. The time lines were confusing, as Chin took up each sister’s story in turn. They moved around a lot; maps would have helped.

Isaac Bashevis Sisingerslavenger, The Slave. The Cossacks come, Jews are slaughtered, but some escape and some are enslaved. Jacob becomes a slave in a mountain village where the almost-pagan inhabitants are poorer than the Jews. He clings to his faith despite all temptations. Life is hard, but it is even harder when he is redeemed, not to the life he lived before but to a maze of deceptions because he has now married and converted a peasant girl. This is not a romantic view of the Jewish traditions, but a novel which penetrates the contradictions of trying to be a good and pious person when the tradition itself denies your worth.

deadknowLaura Lippman, What the Dead Know. The dead knew much then, but they can’t know of now. Everything changes for those alive, but not for those who are dead. In this suspense novel Lippman weaves and unweaves a story of identity stolen and identity adopted. Two little girls disappeared thirty years ago. Today, someone survives, but who is she? As usual Lippman is very good at characterization and events happen mostly in Baltimore. (Not one of the Tess Monaghan series.)

 


What I Read in November 2015

December 1, 2015

abroadDaniel Shealy, ed., Little Women Abroad: The Alcott Sisters’ Letters from Europe, 1870-1871. After Louisa May Alcott made an impressive amount of money from Little Women and An Old Fashioned Girl, she treated herself and sister May (Amy in Little Women) to a year-long tour in Europe. This collection of the letters written home to friends and family record all the delights, as well as some frustrations, of such a trip. Not only are the letters fully annotated to explain references to people and events, but they are accompanied by many of May’s sketches made during the trip. These were new to me and strong evidence of her development as an artist.

Portion of one of May's sketches

Portion of one of May’s sketches

matriarchG. B. Stern, The Matriarch. Wonderful old-fashioned novel (1924) about a large and (usually) prosperous Jewish family with generations of members and in-laws in Vienna, Paris and London. The “matriarch” in London tries to oversee all. She spends and she dictates and she connives and they fight and all have a glorious time. Near the end of the novel, the action slows somewhat and the matriarch’s will is replaced by the decisions of the youngest generation. Be aware: this novel incorporates the stereotypes of the day about Jews and their appearance and behavior. It is done lovingly, but is it done and is an accurate reflection of the attitudes of that time.

ordinaryShirley Jackson, Just an Ordinary Day. This collection of Shirley Jackson’s short stories has two sources: 1) stories published in magazines but not previously available, 2) unpublished pieces found after her death. Some are humorously exasperated vignettes of family life and some are those with the knife chill of an ending to what was otherwise “just an ordinary day.” I like both and like Jackson’s ability to give us both. She could effectively present unexpected evil because she also appreciated the good in the most ordinary of lives.

lovedchina

Simon Winchester, The Man Who Loved China. You knew the Chinese invented gunpowder, right? And then used it for fireworks. They also invented paper and printing and the compass and suspension bridges, and much, much more, all documented by Joseph Needham in the many volumes of Science and Civilization in China. As the cover text of my edition says, this is

The fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom.

It was also entertaining to read, as Winchester intermingled the life story of this gifted and eccentric English academic with his travels and discoveries in China.

lafargeOliver LaFarge, Laughing Boy. Written in the 1920s but set in a slightly earlier time, this novel depicts life through the eyes of a traditional Navajo man, Laughing Boy. It is a time of change, when many Indians are corrupted by the white man and his whiskey and the effect of the Indian boarding schools on young people taken from their culture. One of those young people was Slim Girl, whom Laughing Boy loves and who tries to return to her people. The story is sad, but the reality was sadder still. James Rosenzweig at his Following Pulitzer blog rates the book very highly: https://followingpulitzer.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/1930-laughing-boy-by-oliver-la-farge/

 

 

 


What I Read in October 2015

November 1, 2015

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927. Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to brysonParis, non stop. Babe Ruth hit over 60 home runs. Calvin Coolidge refused to run again. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. (If they didn’t do what they were accused of, they certainly were anarchists and many people thought they deserved to die.) Bryson mixes fact with commentary in a mix that keeps you reading. What will  happen next? What did the public think about it at the time? Do we understand it any better now?

Irensuitefrane Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise. Namirovsky wrote the first two parts of a planned suite of five pieces in occupied France, in the early years of World War II. Her world  and her writing stopped in July of 1942 when she was taken to Auschwitz and gassed. The novel is moving both for what it is and what it could have been. Part I dramatizes the refugee flight from Paris, some of it reminiscent of scenes from Zola’s Le Debacle. Part II was more moving for me: life in a village occupied by German soldiers. Many feel that it is only realism to accommodate and survive while others are unwilling to do so. All suffer and hope for a better day, including the occupiers.

blueflower

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower. This is an unusual and engaging novel, a recreation of the life and romance of Fritz von Hardenberg, who became the poet Novalis. Engaged in philosophy and also aspiring to a remunerative career, he also engaged himself to Sophie. She was 12 when they met, 13 when they were betrothed, and 15 when she died. She was his “Guardian Spirit”. How do you qualify for such a role? You don’t; instead you are chosen by one who has a need for such a spirit. The book is full of wonderful dialog and the characters of two large families who almost become united by marriage.

pinkDorothy Hughes, Ride the Pink Horse. Described as an example of “terror” from the tough-guy era I found this novel to be a better example of a psychological study of the tough-guy mind itself. A thug from the streets of Chicago seeks his payoff at fiesta time in Santa Fe. The pink horse is a feature of the carousel and anyone may ride who has the money. Our tough guy fails to understand fiesta and, worst of all, he fails to understand himself.

bullhamptonAnthony Trollope, The Vicar of Bullhampton. This novel is middling good Trollope, with its several plots lines braided together in the village of Bullhampton and the activities of its Vicar. The vicar is a righteous man but somewhat prone to irritated, even angry, response to those who just don’t get it. My feminist spirit was irritated, even angered, by Trollope’s gingerly handling of the daughter of the honest miller, a fallen woman who has gone astray in some unspecified sexual away. She seems to have had little pleasure from it and moans too much about how bad she is. Maybe at that time her response would have been so, but Trollope didn’t need to apologize for her quite so much.

calebGeraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. In this historical novel, Brooks imagines the story behind the first graduation of an Indian student from Harvard. Caleb crossed over from native American life to an education preparing him to be a Puritan divine, including Latin, Greek and Hebrew. We do not see the world through his eyes, however. This is also the story of Bethia, the  young girl who befriends Caleb in boyhood. They do, in fact, befriend each other and he expanded her world view every bit as much as she did his. I found the book moving, but not entirely persuasive.

goodwynLawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn’s account of the late 19th century agrarian populist movement reminds me of the many ways in which history can be reported and interpreted. The failure of populism to achieve its goals was a failure of American democracy, in Goodwin’s view. This failure was caused by the same powerful forces which control political responses today. Control is by obvious means — subversion of the voting process, denial of credit, misleading stories in the press — but most effectively by social assumptions and setting the limits of public discussion.

ngaiomarshNgaio Marsh, When in Rome. If you are Inspector Alleyn, when in Rome you collaborate with the highest levels of the Italian police to trace drug dealers and identify murderers. The local atmosphere of churches and excavated temples is effective and the usual suspects are interrogated in a most gentlemanly way. Marsh has some good-natured fun too, mostly at the expense of the  conventional foibles of English tourists and Italian bureaucrats.

The-Pastors-Wife

Elizabeth von Arnim, The Pastor’s Wife. This novel by the author of Elizabeth and Her German Garden is not about religion. The pastor is a German Lutheran whose only interest is the effect of manure on crops and the wife is an English bishop’s daughter who is delighted to get away from home. Neither understands the other, not in the beginning and not after 10 years of marriage. It is a witty and sad story with plenty of accurate hits on both German and English social idiosyncrasies.

luckyKingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. Somehow I missed this humorous academic novel from the 1950s the first time around. Now I find it disappointing. The joke of the drinking and its effects becomes wearisome and academia could be any mismanaged work environment — and there are plenty of those. David Lodge, Mary McCarthy, Philip Roth and Alison Lurie have all done it better.


What I Read in September 2015

September 30, 2015

Thblueeyesomas Hardy, A Pair of Blue Eyes. This is an early Hardy novel, written as a serial before Far from the Madding Crowd. Hardy is at his best when he give us a cast of local characters whose speech and interactions he gets just right. The book is disappointing, however, with its incredibly stupid and naive heroine, the deception of the pig-headed lover theme (reminiscent of Tess, but less effective), and its contrived ending.

Brinsectsian Kiteley, Still Life with Insects. This novel is structured on an interesting concept: one man’s records of collecting beetles over the years. Each entry in his journal is associated with a place and with his relationship with his wife, sons, and fellow workers. The writing is insightful, but failed to engage me as the author probably intended. Perhaps I craved more people and fewer bugs.

sacred

Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion. My edition of this classic suffers from the author’s obtuse language or from an inept translator. The ideas draw me. What is a sacred time, a sacred space, what is the original nature of “religious man”? Eliade proceeds by telling us what ancient and primitive myths and monuments meant to their human creators. His conclusions are more speculative than he admits and the language suffers from unnecessary Latinisms and awkward terms such as cosmiciation and homologized.

Nanblessingcy Mitford, The Blessing. That’s “the blessing” on the cover of Mitford’s entertaining depiction of a marriage between a proper English woman and a very French Frenchman. Money is not the problem, but culture and differing interpretations of fidelity certainly are. The couple are blessed with a son they must raise as a French boy or an English boy or a bit of both. This book is great fun and just when the joke is wearing a bit thin, Mitford has the good sense to supply a happy ending.

forever

Beryl Bainbridge, Forever England. This is not the patriotic paean the title suggests, but Bainbridge’s account of the lives and prospects of six families in the 1980’s England of Margaret Thatcher. Three are in the North and three are in the South; their stories are intermixed with Bainbridge’s own memories of growing up in — and leaving — Liverpool in the North. Family loyalties remain strong but jobs have disappeared and neighborhoods are disintegrating. Some of the cultural and local references puzzled me, but the picture is clear: people are just trying to stay afloat in a sea of change.

Laura Lippman, Life Sentences. Although set in Baltimore, this low-key mysentencesstery is not one of the popular Tess Monaghan series. A successful writer of memoirs sets out to write about real people she knew in childhood — and what happened to them. She encounters inconsistent memories and unexpected perceptions. Overly complex plot with too many characters and a rather choppy narrative structure make this less satisfying than Lippman’s other books.

zouroudi

Anne Zouroudi, The Messenger of Athens. I picked up this offbeat mystery because of the setting on a Greek island. The author plays, not too successfully, with the concept of a mysterious stranger who investigates a death and promises justice for a wronged woman. Is investigator Hermes a god in disguise? Does he achieve justice or revenge? The concept does not work and the setting is more depressing than magical.

lulu

Diane Johnson, Lulu in Marrakesh. My expectations were high because I enjoyed Johnson’s other novels which delivered shrewd and humorous social comedy, mostly regarding the French and their ways. Lulu goes to Marrakesh as a spy, but I never believed for a minute that any serious agency would employ such an incompetent undercover agent. It is not clear whether Lulu’s reactions to the realities of women’s lives in Morocco are meant to be amusing or just plain sad. They are certainly naive.

genova

Lisa Genova, Left Neglected. The author of Still Alice, Genova uses the novel form to set out the plight of brain-injured sufferer of Left Neglect, the failure of the right side of the brain to perceive signals from the left. Half a picture exists or half a line of print. Only your right leg knows where it is. The characters used to dramatize this situation are mostly convincing. The story is a compelling one and made me realize how fortunate I am to experience both sides of the whole world.

christie

Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None. I picked up this classic Christie (also known as Ten Little Indians) because I recently saw a dramatic production of the ten people isolated on an island and picked off one by one by an unknown executioner. Christie’s narrative techniques of short sentences and paragraphs with action on every page keep you involved in the mystery. The ending of the stage production — obviously changed  — was more satisfactory than the message-in-a-bottle ending of the book.

Molly Ivins, Letters to The Nation. Molly Ivinivenss, political writer without peer, provided a series of “Letters to the Nation”, mostly about that animal-that-must-be-explained, the Texas politician. Here is the collection for your delight. About George W. Bush:

You can go along for long periods thinkin’ to yourself, “Don’t agree with him about dog, but he seems like an amiable fellow.” And then he says something that sort of makes your teeth hurt.

 


What I Read in August 2015

August 31, 2015

autogodJulius Lester, The Autobiography of God. Rabbi Rebecca reads his autobiography and meets God face-to-face. She challenges him about evil in the world, just as Julius Lester challenges us and our theological conventions in this stimulating novel.

bighouseGeorge Howe Colt, The Big House. The big house was a summer house on Cape Cod, the seasonal center for a large Boston clan, who found themselvs with more family than money as the generations moved along. This offers us an absorbing picture of what tradition can mean. A diagram of the many cousins would have helped.

keillor

Garison Keillor, We Are Still Married. And he is still the voice of Lake Wobegon in this rich mixture of stories, sketches and poems.

WillardUphaus

Willard Uphaus, Commitment. Uphaus, a peace activist and director of a summer camp in New Hampshire went to prison for a year in 1960 rather than give the names of his guests to investigators. He spent his 70th birthday in jail. Was it worth it? He explains.

fallingwoman

Pat Murphy, Falling Woman. A female archaeologist exploring a Mayan site is joined by her daughter — and by a shadowy priestess from the past. Who is crazy here? With good realities of excavation and character and an admixture of appropriate fantasy, Murphy suggests an answer.

tylerAnne Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread. I enjoy Tyler’s novels of family life in Baltimore. Her voice continues in my head long after I close the book. This is a rare gift in an author, not explainable. With George Eliot, for example, the characters resonate but not the voice. With Dickens, it’s the other way around. This one is middling good Tyler. Her admirers should read it and those who don’t know her work should start with The Accidental Tourist.

lamott

Anne Lamott, All New People. Coming of age novel, set in California where everything in changing — ticky tacky houses, parents’ marriages, youthful friendships, time and troubles.

quietGraham Greene, The Quiet American. A rereading of this classic novel of foreigners in Viet Nam brought some new reactions this time. The beautiful Vietnamese woman seems a cardboard figure now. Can anyone get it right in this unfortunate country?

alcott

Myerson & Shealy, eds., The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Here we have the complete journals, so far as they can be reconstructed from various sources. Like most of us, Alcott enjoyed her life when it worked out as she wanted, felt down when illness took away her pleasures and her ability to work.

lightM. L. Stedman, The Light between Oceans. Janus, a lighthouse named in honor of the god who looks both forwards and back, is the setting for a story of love and loss. Affecting, but at times contrived and improbable, a baby is lost and then found, loved and then lost.

lovesong

Julius Lester, Lovesong. Lester, a successful black writer, often seen as a civil rights activist converted to Judaism in mid life. It was an expression of who he was, not a contradiction. Others did not see it that way. In this memoir, he explains.

 


Six Plus +

August 24, 2015

six

How long have I been blogging here? I looked back at old posts and find that I started in 2009, more or less. I had been posting some comments at an earlier group site but became dissatisfied with it, so started Silver Season/Silver Threads. In March and April of 2009 I pasted in my reading lists from the earlier site and started blogging here. I also transferred silver reference material from a previous website. That was over six years ago.

Every month I open a draft post and enter each book as I complete the reading. My earlier ambition to post a longer comment on each book faded rather quickly, but for a long time I posted perhaps eight times a month, then six and, more recently about four. I’m reading about as much as ever, but talking about it less. This month I celebrated my 84th birthday. Yes, celebrated, because if you can live this long and and be reasonably compos mentis, it is an occasion to celebrate. Still,  I think it is time to mostly retire. I expect to continue to post monthly reading reports — they are a convenient way to look back and see what I have read. I’ll continue with family posts at my other blog greiderclan.wordpress.com. If there is something I really want to say, I may say it here, but don’t expect too much.

It has been my great pleasure to meet other book lovers here and at other blogs. Look out! If I am currently reading your blog, I may have more energy now to comment at length. Meanwhile. you can still stop by once a month to see what I have been reading.


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