2009/10

Here are a few reviews from 2009 and 2010 – a few have pages of their own – I’ll work on getting them all that way but …

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell – rating 9.5

 

Mr. Pettigrew’s Last Stand

by Helen Simonson
2010 /358 pages
narrated by Peter Altschuler 7h 2m
Rating  8.5
(listened in July 2010)

In the very recent past the wife of Major. Ernest Pettigrew passed away and now his brother is gone.  He’s  angry and a bit bitter in his grief,  but mostly,  now, he wants very badly to keep his brother’s gun,  the match to one he owns himself.   The guns are very beautiful,  very expensive and  were handed down by their father.

(And the major had “assumed” they were intended to be his – not too much unlike the empire which long “assumed” the colonies were to be theirs.

Meanwhile,  a recently widowed general store owner,  Mrs. Ali of  Pakistani descent although she was born in England,  befriends  the Major but his son Roger continues to cause him distress.  Everything is changing – there is no respect for tradition any more,  standards are gone.  The old village of  Edgecombe,  St. Mary , a microcosm of England (or the US),  is in transition and tensions are high.

But from the very first pages the reader knows that the Major and Mrs. Ali are perfect for each other.  They both love Kipling and other poets.  They  are of an age where they respect tradition and truly enjoy a good pot of tea.   But will love find a way in the bigoted little community in which they live ?  Read on.

The best part of this book is the humor –  caught by surprise,  I laughed out loud many times.  It comes down to being a cracking good satire seasoned with irony for good measure.  There are many,  many barbs thrown at community assumptions of every kind.   It would seem nothing is sacred for the Mr. Pettigrews of the world.

 *************

SACRED HEARTS
by Sarah Dunant
2009 -Audio – 15 hours
a 3/10

Another one I forgot, perhaps deliberately. I finished on 12/30. This historical fiction is about women in a convent in medieval Italy. They’re hungry for love, knowledge, God, power, etc. The last section, a note from the author on the historiocity of some parts was the best part.

************

THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE
Salman Rushdie-
finished 1/3/10-
pub. 2008 / 368 pages
rating – 9

I  read  this rich, luscious novel twice because it’s big, bad and baggy and I knew there was more to it than what I got the first time ‘round.

First,  what I enjoyed was that the language is totally in keeping with the setting and the character.  It’s  big, bold, purple, somewhat egotistical.   I’m trying to keep track of some themes, how people invent things,  lovers or God or political systems and they become real in some way.

Also, the history is fascinating – there’s a lot that’s historical but it’s so mixed in with what’s not that it’s hard to tell the difference –  not possible, perhaps – and that’s in total keeping with the theme.

There’s a lot in this book – so much that it lowered it a point – I think Rushdie tried to pack too much in there.

A sample of the lines that really touch my heart,  they make me smile and want to stretch out and love the world:

Chapter 3
“Perhaps this idea of self-as-community was what it meant to be a being in the world, any being; such a being being, after all, inevitably a being among other beings, a part of the beingness of all things.”

Chapter 4
“… you must say to her that it is precisely in the end that her victory will be apparent to everyone, for in the end none of the queens will exist any more than she does, while she will have had a lifetime of your love, and her fame will echo down the ages.  Thus, in reality, while it is true that she does not exist, it is also true to say that she is the one who lives.  If she did not, then over there, behind that high window, there would be nobody waiting for your return.” 

**************

TOO MUCH MONEY by Dominick Dunne
finished 1/9/10
2009 / 288 pages
rating – 4

Years ago I read a The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne and found it fairly entertaining.  It had a plot and some interesting characters but no particular themes or motifs,  no literary value.   But sometimes you just want a “kick back” book.

So although I’d seen some of his books on the shelves since then,  I wasn’t really interested enough to get one.   Then this Christmas season came “Too Much Money” sitting there in the airport newsstand and my interest piqued and when I got home I downloaded it from Audible.

Talk about a disappointment – at least at first – like the first 2/3rds?   It’s just little tid-bits about New York’s High Society and the rich and famous wanna-bes.  There’s a scratchy plot and some interesting characters but this isn’t the Dunne I was hoping for.

In this book Dunne writes himself in as Gus Bailey,  a writer just like Dunne.   But then something happened – I started liking a couple of the characters.  The marriage between Ruby and Elias Renthal is rather endearing.  The animosity between Lil and her very young and newly widowed stepmother Dodo becomes funny.   The death of Adele Harcourt brings a certain nostalgia.

What little plot there is concerns the Renthal’s attempt to rejoin “society” after Elias’  return from prison (“the facility”).   Other strands concern

Senator Kyle Cramdon’s lawsuit  (a barely disguised Gary Condit/Chondra Levy case) and   Perla Zacharias,  widow of Konstantine  (Edmond Safra and his widow Lily Watkins).  There’s a lot of dirt being thrown around in this book and the characters are not all that fictious.

I suppose this is Dunne’s way of saying goodbye to an era which is gone.  Edith Wharton wrote about it.  Louis Auchincloss wrote  about it – (although I haven’t read the latter.)   Much of Dunne’s work is taken from the real lives of the characters in New York society.   But Wharton’s New York is gone and now so is Dunne’s.

It’s not a good book – it’s pretty stupid overall.   The dialogue is lame and much of the narrative is repetitive.  But Dunne was real and he tells it like it is – boring or not.

*************************

GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss
finished 1/11/10
2009 / 255 pages
rating  5

This was a reread – I read  it the first time in 2004 and I wasn’t too impressed.   I guess there are a lot of literary allusions and thematic connections here but most of them zipped right over my head.   I think I just wasn’t all that interested – maybe I should have bought the book instead of listening because I guess there was some graphic interest.
The story of a young girl in search of her deceased father and an old man in search of his lost son are brought together by history and a book.   There’s a certain slim amount of suspense there.

**************

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY
John Steinbeck
finished 1/15/10
1962 / 288 pagesrating  7

I didn’t really think I was going to enjoy this book and for the first third or so it was pretty ho-hum although Steinbeck did keep me reading.   It’s the story of a cross-country trip he made in a camper with his dog,  Charley.  He was sick at the time but he really wanted to do this.

So he set out from New York in September of 1960, at the age of 58.  He crossed the wide northern country through Pennsylvania,  Ohio, dipped into Chicago, then off to   Wisconsin,  North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana,  Idaho,  and Oregon where he headed south through California and then across Arizona and New Mexico to Texas,  New Orleans and finally back home by Christmas.   He said he wanted to see the people,  the country,  and learn what it was about.  There was much more written about the first part of the journey than the last.   After Salinas, CA.  (his home town)  he was focusing on more specific events – Thanksgiving in Texas and the racism in New Orleans.

I think he found that it was all different,  that there were very few generalizations which could be made – but that always happens when you look at people close up.

I was very interested in the North Dakota and California parts.  The Texas part was  kind of funny and the New Orleans part was tragic.   Overall,  I think Steinbeck was getting to be a rather bitter old man.

It’s odd that I should read this on the long weekend of Martin Luther King Day.  I know that the girl in New Orleans was named Ruby Bridges and that was kind of heartening.

**********************************

THE STONE ANGEL by  Margaret Laurence
1964 – 308 pages
7.5

Hagar Shipley is an old cantankerous woman who lives with her son, Marvin and his wife, Doris.   It’s really her time to go to a home as Doris simply can’t care for Hagar any longer and Hagar is getting much worse physically and mentally,  becoming a danger to herself and possibly to others.  But Hagar refuses to go to the home and runs away.

This is the story of a woman in pain,  a lifetime of pain, and she expresses that pain through her pure-d bitchiness.  The name Hagar could be an allusion to the Biblical Hagar who was forced to flee from Abraham but it could also be an old “hag.”   The title refers to a small statue of an angel in a cemetery – rather symbolic in terms of the family status.

Laurence structured the tale alternating between life in the present, with Hagar ready for the home, and her memories of marriage and children.  It reminded me quite a lot of  The Madonnas of Leningrad in which a woman with Alzheimer’s runs away remembering much of her life is untold even to her children.  It also reminded me a bit of  The Secret Scripture where an old woman’s life is hidden in her memories which may or may not be what happened ,  as well as Water For Elephants where an old man in a nursing home remembers his life in the circus.

All this does not mean the book is a repeat of any of those – old age and memories are just becoming more common as themes these days –  interesting to note that The Stone Angel was published in 1964.

****************************

MOURNING GLORY: The Will of the French Revolution by Marie-Héléne Huet
1997 – 223 pages
rating – 10

A slim volume packed with a substantial amount of thought-provoking insight into the thinking of Robespierre and his contemporaries. Although it’s more a series of essays on various issues, there is a certain amount of chronological ordering to the book which shows the development of these ideas from Rousseau to Saint-Just.

The title is from the period toward the end, as the cemeteries were filled and the blood still ran. No one knew what to do with the recent heroes – were they a part of the past to be forgotten? And then there was the reaction.

How Fiction Works
by James Wood
finished 8/23/09
US – 2009 – 288 pages
rating 8

A brief, very entertaining and informative book.  The best chapters are “Consciousness,”  (the pov of the intimate third person),  “Language,”  ( metaphors)  and “Truth, Convention, Realism.”   Wood has organized his work into 10 sections (2 of which deal with Flaubert) within which he has short numbered sections.   It’s easy to read parts of and pick up again.

“Realism is a genre (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction making.”  (Wood is discussing Rick Moody’s style here.)

***************

The best (and worst) of my reading of 2009

Fiction:
Eugene Onegin  by Pushkin  10
Can You Forgive Her?  by Trollope  10
Madame Bovary by  Flaubert  10
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara 9.5
The Virgin in the Forest by Byatt 9.5
Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz 9.5
Three Famous Short Novels by William Faulkner 9.5
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez  9.5
2666 by Robert Bolaño – 9.5
The Elegance of the Hedgehog  by Barbery  9
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson 9

** Also ran:
Lush Life by Richard Price  8.5
Tinkers by Paul Harding  8.5
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill 8.5
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon 8.5

** Non-fiction:
Eden’s Outcasts: Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson
(bio) 10
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearne Goodwin  10
What I Think I Did by Larry Woiwode (memoir) 9.5
The Prince by Macchiavali 9.5
Columbine by Dave Cullen  9
Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement by Sally
McMillen 9
The Bitter Road to Freedom by William Hitchcock  8.5
Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan
8.5
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers  8.5
The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester 8.5

** Also ran:
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (non-fic) 8
The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher by Kate Summerscale (non-fic) 8

** Totally disappointing but I finished (I wouldn’t bother finishing a
book I felt was going to get a rating of less than 3.)

Davy by Edgar Pangborn –  3
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – 3
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk  3
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant  3

LISTENING/AUDIBLE (on iPod)

I listened to about 50 books in 2009 and these were the best (the
number is on a scale of 10):

Non-fiction:
Descartes’ Bones – Russell Shorto  8.5
Zeitoun – Dave Eggers  8
Outliers –  Malcolm Gladwell  9
Columbine –  Dave Cullen   9

Fiction
A Case of Exploding Mangoes  – Mohammed Harif  8
Nocturnes – Kazuo Ishiguro   8
2666 – Robert Bolaño  10
The Help – Katherine Stockett   7
Tea Time For the Traditionally Built – Alexander McCall Smith  8
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner  10
The Death of Ivan Illych – Leo Tolstoy 9
The Shadow Catcher – Marianne Wiggins  8
Lush Life – Richard Powers  9


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