Sunday, September 05, 2010

August Book Report

This past month, assisted by a week of vacation, I tackled three books that have been recommended to me numerous times, which left me feeling somewhat virtuous.

First up was The Glass Castle, the bestselling memoir by Jeanette Walls. This was a difficult book for me to read. Walls describes a childhood in which individualism and eccentricity cross over into abuse, neglect and chaos. Rex Walls' alcoholism and eccentricity caused him to lose job after job. Rose Mary Walls fancied herself an artist and although she was certified to teach, refused to do so most of the time -- even when her children were starving and clad in rags -- simply because she didn't want to. The Walls siblings were used to moving in the middle of the night, piling into whatever wreck of a car they had so Mom and Dad could avoid bill collectors, or a bench warrant.

You can already sense my frustration. There are heart-wrenching scenes: kids eating margarine because it's the only thing for dinner and they're starving; a mother who doesn't comfort or stand up for her daughter when a relative tries to sexually abuse her; a father who steals the money his teenage daughters bust their butts earning so he can buy booze; a little girl whose mother resists getting her eyeglasses because that would be mollycoddling weak eyes that should be working harder (the scene where Lori Walls gets her first pair of glasses, and walks around struck by the beauty of the objects she can now see made me want to cry).

But what frustrated me so much about these awful scenes were the needlessness of them all. Rex Walls needed to go to AA and dry out, but if he didn't, Rose Mary Walls was able to teach school and could have supported her children adequately, if not luxuriously, on a teacher's salary if she'd kept working. She had assets she could have sold to provide for her kids -- land in Texas, valuable jewelry -- but refused to for no good reason. The selfishness, the lack of maturity, the refusal to put one's own needs second behind that of one's little children, it all just infuriated me. I had to pick up and put this book down, since reading it in large portions was just too upsetting.

I can't say I enjoyed the book. Walls' childhood was fascinating in that it was so far removed from what most people experience, and I was left with tremendous admiration for her ability to stay focused on getting away from her family and creating her own life. I also admired Walls' generosity of spirit in that she writes her memoir in a matter-of-fact tone, without any whining or self-pity, no small feat given what she experienced. I can't decide if Walls just came to expect so little from her parents that they no longer had the ability to disappoint her, or if she consciously chose to trim her anger and other negative feelings from the book and deal with them privately.

After such a bleak story, I turned to some escapism. First up was The Bee's Kiss by Barbara Cleverly, another Joe Sandilands mystery set in 1920s London. Lots of nightclubs and flappers and British nobles and stiff martinis as Joe Sandilands -- back from India -- solves the murder of a pillar of society who is found dead in her hotel suite.

Bad Boy by Peter Robinson, is the latest entry in his Inspector Banks series of mysteries set in Yorkshire. In this installment, Inspector Banks is away on vacation when the action starts, and his able sidekick Annie Cabot gets to take over. While the case lacked some of the mystery and complexity of past Banks novels, it was still an enjoyable read if you like the characters. This was an Amazon Vine pick that I scored for free.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffennegger was the second book that was recommended to me. It's the story of Henry, a man who travels back and forth in time to different parts of his life. During each episode of time travel, the current Henry meets the Henry of whatever time he's traveled to. Much of the book revolves around Henry's love for his wife Clare. It took me a little while to get drawn into the story; the beginning is a bit jarring and the frequent chronological shifts were hard for me to get used to. Overall,I enjoyed the book more than I expected to, although it was a bit melodramatic and breathless at times. Several of the plot elements were a bit too clever by half, particularly Henry's death and several scenes involving his daughter. I probably would have liked the book more if I'd seen fewer gushing reviews of it. I wasn't terribly impressed with the quality of the writing: the strength of the book lies more in the originality of the plot rather than the skill of the writer.

Dark Mirror by Barry Maitland was another Kolla and Brock mystery set in London. Another enjoyable read for fans of that series.

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker was a book I happened upon and ended up enjoying a lot. The main character is the "chief" (only) police officer of a small rural French community. The village's first murder case is politically charged and complex. Part of the charm of the book was the backdrop of French country life and the unconventional hero Bruno. I will look for the sequel which came out this summer.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. The last book that has been recommended to me; I resisted because I am a bit leery of a lot of fantasy fiction -- so much of it seems like a bad Star Trek episode. This book appeared on Elvis's summer reading list as a possible choice, and after he enjoyed it, I decided to give it a go. I was knocked out by how much I enjoyed it. The story sounds odd -- an orphaned toddler is "adopted" by the residents of a graveyard -- but Gaiman's imagination and skill made this enjoyable and exciting reading. There is a certain timelessness to this book that I think will make it a classic. I might even pick up one of Gaiman's other novels....

Tell me what you're reading in the comments, or share some recommendations with me! I try to respond in the comments when people ask whether I've read something, and I do really enjoy hearing your suggestions.


Anonymous said...

I read The Time Traveler's Wife in 2 days and enjoyed it, but I agree with your assessment. The plot was gimicky but well-constructed, even if the writing was a little sub-par. Then again, blasting through a book in 2 days leaves one with only general impressions instead of genuine opinions, so take my agreement for what it's worth!

My favorite Gaiman book is Neverwhere, followed closely by Good Omens and Stardust. I highly recommend any of the audiobooks of his novels because he does them himself, and they are fabulous. It's a rare opportunity to hear characters as an author imagines them, and it's an added bonus that he's an excellent reader.

The best book I read all summer - and the only one I had to ration myself on - was Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde.

sharmylae said...

i think you might enjoy american gods by neil gaiman as well--it's about the people who came to america and brought their beliefs with them. it's a pretty good read.

he's one of my favourite authors, and signed my copy of the graveyard book once!

i also suggest his short stories (collected in fragile things and smoke and mirrors), those are some of my favourites.

Rachel R. said...

Gaiman is probably my favorite modern author - the previous commnenter listed the exact three books I would recommend next, except I'd go Stardust, Neverwhere, Good Omens. Stardust is just an absolutely beautiful, lyrical fairy tale, Neverwhere is a great urban fantasy story (and if you've ever been to London, or even read much about it, it's an extra treat) and Good Omens is the funniest book about the apocalypse you will ever read (and co-written by the best comic fantasy writer out there).

Carol said...

Thanks for the Gaiman suggestions. I was wondering what would be a good one to try next....

17th stitch said...

Neil Gaiman is also one of my favorite authors! I prefer his graphic novels (Sandman, 1602) to his grown-up novels, although everything he writes is very very good. Take a peek at "Blueberry Girl" in the bookstore the next time you get a chance (children's section.)

If you liked Gaiman, you might like Robin McKinley (Sunshine, Pegasus) or Patricia McKillip (Alphabet of Thorn, Omnia in Shadow.) I'm so grateful to you for your monthly book reviews - I made up most of my summer reading list based on your recommendations!

StephCat said...

Another vote for American Gods! and if you do end up liking it, I'd recommend trying Tim Powers -- totally NOT bad Star Trek :^)

Zardra said...

I was going to leave a comment about Gaiman's other books, but it looks like I've been completely beaten to the punch. :)

The wonderful thing about Gaiman is that while he's fantasy, he's not big swords and elves fantasy, he's more fairytale epic fantasy. And he has a great sense of humor.

I have yet to read anything bad by him.

Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head, I'd recommend:
"The Help " by Kathryn Stockett;
The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill;
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Scaffer

Thanks for sharing your book reviews.

Carol said...

I have heard about the Stockett book but not the second; alas, I started reading the Guernsey..... and HATED it. Had to stop about 40 or 50 pages in because I hated it so much. Sigh. I'm such a contrarian.

Unknown said...

The Glass Palace (forgot author's name) - about Burma and SE India late 19th century through WWII (with a little bit about the present). Really good and a ton I did not know about the region.

The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer - in hardback now (or Kindle). About Hungarian Jews pre and during WWII, in Paris and Hungary. Fantastic, a very individual perspective on the war and its effects on very ordinary families.

Potato Peel Society - I actually thought it improved the further you got into it - good WWII details and story, better than I expected it to be.

I know (from previous reviews) you like mysteries - have you read the Campion books? They are being reprinted by Felony & Mayhem imprint. Also, the Laurie R. King Sherlock Holmes pastiche - starting with "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" - highly recommend the series.

Thanks for the suggestions! I'm going to look for "Bruno" tomorrow.
Pam R (Allison K's friend)

Ali P said...

Dude, Star Trek is sci fi, not fantasy!
I very much enjoy a good bit of fantasy writing but haven't much patience for sci-fi. For some seriously gripping high fantasy try George R. R. Martin's "A Game Of Thrones". Its the first book of his Song Of Ice And Fire series and the best of the 4 books so far (there are still more books to come btw and HBO will have a series based on it next year called Game Of Thrones). I have re-read this series several times.
I have avoided "TT'sW" because it seemed trite and too...melodramatic? I may yet give it a go.

Anonymous said...

Just finished "A Basque History of the World" by Mark Kurlansky.. absolutely fascinating, although that could be the History Geek talking!

Working on "The Angel's Game" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Romantic, tragic, creepy, lush... yeah, I'm in love!

anj said...

Thanks for your rec's. I am actually reading Half Broke Horses by Walls now. I read Glass Castles a long time ago. I realy was haunted by that book and I liked the way she wrote things straight from the hip. Half Broke Horses has the same tone.

For a mystery I liked Baking Cakes in Kigali (I listened to it on audiobook) It had the same feeling I get from No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

For a YA novel I recommend Hunger Games (and their sequels) and 2 YA steampunks: Boneshaker and Leviathan.

Mary Lou said...

the Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
The Ice Princess Camilla Lackland

Two recent mysteries I enjoyed.

Kris said...

To counter The Glass Castle, I recommend "The Ditchdigger's Daughters". Another true life story of unbelievable parenting but the polar opposite. My son had to read it as a pre-HS freshman summer read and passed it to me. I was blown away by what the parents managed to accomplish with so little. The father in particular was an amazingly selfless man, who made me feel like one big slacker, such was his drive and love for his daughters. The postscript about his adopted son was very thought-provoking, too.

rosesmama said...

I'm way down on the list but I'm hoping you get this far. We read The New Policeman by Kate Thompson this summer, a YA novel about modern Ireland with a fair bit of mythology and a *lot* of fiddle tunes thrown in. I'm reading it again and trying to pick out the tunes on the mandolin. This is completely not necessary to enjoy the story, but it is well worth the second read, as the plot is clever and twisty.

Jodi said...

I was hesitant to read The Glass Castle, but once I did, I was so impressed by Walls' resourcefulness and generosity of spirit. It's a tough read, but the resiliency of humans in it is amazing. Walls doesn't let her parents off the hook, but she also doesn't lapse into self-indulgent whatnot.

Have you read The Hunger Games yet? I second Mary Lou's recommendation of The Little Stranger. I'm actually rereading Sherlock Holmes again right now.

Carol said...

I did read "The Little Stranger" and liked it. V. gothic. "Hunger Games" is another book that has been recommended to me by so many people but I'm a bit leery of the topic -- I'm squeamish. Also I generally am not crazy about dystopian stuff, although there've been exceptions. I think it's more that I find them too scary.