Sunday, September 03, 2017

Twelve Books on the Go?!

I finished two books in quick succession (a Taylor Caldwell novel and a juvenile biography of The Three Stooges) at the end of August, but during these first few days of September, I seem to be in one of those unfortunate cycles in which I can't finish anything and keep adding new reads. As of today, I have 12 books on the go. One dozen! I'm in various stages with each of them.  Some are barely begun, some are nearly finished, but I cannot seem to get the bookmark to move all the way to the end. Nothing qualifies as a DNF, partly because I'm interested in finishing and partly stubbornness.

Here are the twelve books currently languishing on my currently-reading shelf:

1. Washington: A Life. I've been working on this biography of our first president for nearly a year. It's not you, George. It's me. I cannot tell a lie. Also: I'm sorry, Ron Chernow! You know how I loved the hell out of Alexander Hamilton.

2. Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened By the Moon - Leonard S. Marcus. I really disliked the execution of the new Brown biography published earlier this year, so I bought this earlier bio in a fit of pique. After reading a few pages, I felt my annoyance and interest ebbing away. Since this is a real book, as opposed to a digital one, I want to finish it and move it along.

3. A Taste for War: A Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray - William C. Davis. Food. History. What's not to like? A Taste of War is a slim volume, but so far, it's stiff academic reading. Starchy, if I may use a food simile. I can't quit though because, well, food! Recipes! I've never quit on a food book. Never. This book will not be my Appomattox.

4. The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt. I am really ashamed of myself about this one. I got 150 pages in and I stalled. Could not read another word. The book went back onto my Pulitzer shelf where it sits, reproaching me. I must go on because, well, Pulitzer fiction!!!

5. Heads in Beds - Jacob Tomsky. I was enjoying this witty, insider look at the hospitality industry. The small, fat paperback copy fits nicely in my purse. I need to put in back in there for all those dull blank moments in which I'm stranded somewhere without a book.

6. Clockers - Richard Price. A rich, complex novel that reminds me very much of The Wire. Alternating chapters tell of drug dealers and the cops who work that beat. I got stalled when the POV shifted. I will return to Clockers; it's too good to set aside permanently.

7. A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles. I am almost through with this novel. I didn't love it the way I loved Towles' previous effort, Rules of Civility, but it's pretty good. I wish I hadn't gotten sidetracked.

8. Buried Child - Sam Shepherd. I am having to accustom myself, after many years, to reading in play form again. All those stage directions and blocky blocks of dialogue.

9. See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt. A novel based on the Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt relies heavily on atmosphere, and my nerves felt jangly after a while. Needed a break at the halfway mark.

10. The Cooler King - Patrick Bishop.  The true story of William Ash, the pilot who was "the greatest escaper" from WWII German POW camps. Steve McQueen's character in The Great Escape was based on Ash's experiences. I've only just started this book, but I can see that it's well-written and the style engaging.

11. Confederates in the Attic - Tony Horwitz. My son and I are both reading this book at the same time! I do love a good, impromptu mother/son book club.

12. Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis - Ed Sikov. A fun, gossipy read. I'm hoping that it will be a nice balance of discussion about Bette Davis's life and an intelligent examination of her film roles.

So there you have it. Someone please scold me and send me to my room with my books and strict orders not to come out until I've completed a few.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Revisiting a Childhood Favorite: Patricia's Secret

A couple of months ago, I reread an elementary school favorite, Patricia's Secret by Ruth Daggett Leinhauser, originally published in 1956. This book was one of the first "chapter books" I read. I was eight.

I found my copy again while cleaning out my mother's garage. I had to reread it to see why I loved it then and what it might mean to me now.

Easy to see why eight-year-old me loved Patricia's Secret. the story of a ten-year-old motherless girl whose Air Force officer father has finally come to pluck her from her helicopter maiden aunts in a small town in Iowa to live with him on a military base in California. Patricia hasn't seen her father since she was three, so she is, in effect, going off with a stranger. The secret of the title refers to her plan to be so naughty that her father will banish her back to Iowa.

The father is perfect. Handsome, patient, kind, nice. He reminded me so much of my own father, also a military man (non-comissioned). The military base setting was familiar and attractive. I thought Patricia was definitely wrong-headed, and when her father gave her the puppy for her birthday...oh my! Stop calling him "Father"! Call him "Daddy"! Can't you see that wistful look, you dimwit? I wanted to jump into the book and give Pat some much-needed counsel. It was pleasing to be smarter than a ten-year-old (she turns eleven during the course of the novel). The last chapter scared the crap out of me. I thought Patricia's father might be in peril. Imagine my relief when he comes up the walk. Sorry about the spoiler.

I'm still crushing on the father, but for different reasons. He is a little bit too good to be true, and his perfect grammar makes for somewhat stilted conversational prose. I still love the military base setting, and all the adults on Officer's Row that do their best to make Patricia feel at home. Patricia's "naughtiness" seems funny now as well as her efforts to adjust and it's obvious that her father fully sees her homesickness and confusion about the startling change. The aunts in Iowa hover so much, they seem almost like modern parents. Now, like then, I couldn't imagine why Patricia would prefer life with them to her new adventure. As for the last chapter, I could see clearly as an adult that it was set up to showcase Patricia's dramatic change of heart.

This double-vision exercise was fun. I'll have to find a copy of my very first novel, Ginnie and the New Girl and try it again.

My brother and me, about the time I read Patricia's Secret

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

All Around My Reading Week

Eeyore and me.

Last week was all over the bookworm place. I had the sweetest book hangover that I did not want to get over; revisited a lifelong favorite; stalled and stumbled around in a novel that I read a long time ago, according to my 1990s book journal; meandered into a sequel without reading the prequel; flung myself with abandon into a new and promisingly scrumptious read; and flung (with a curse) a 1950s classic(???) as far as I could without getting myself thrown out of the county library.

No, it didn't all happen in this order. Yes, I am fond of the word "flung".

Sweetest book hangover:
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I loved this book so hard that I both audiobooked and printed-paged it. Can't remember exactly what I said in my last blog post, but double that. I'm in awe: How did Towles convey through prose, the satiny, silvery effect of old movies while making 1938 feel as immediate as 2017? New York! Walker Evans! The days are just packed; I have tons of new things to feel obsessive about.

A lifelong favorite:
Recently, I bought the 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I don't recall when I first read this book. Sixth grade? Seventh grade? I remember the mod-looking cover where the greasers are looking tough (and tuff), slouching and leaning nonchalantly on one another's shoulders. Not a big fan of the movie when it finally came out. Tom Cruise as Two-Bit? Noooooo. What struck me during this reread? I didn't remember the fever pitch of emotion that permeates the novel. Sandy, Sodapop's girlfriend is sent away to live with her grandmother when she turns up pregnant -- that went right over my head during my first few readings. DX gas stations! Full service! Times have changed. I felt much more empathy for Darry, Ponyboy's oldest brother, who is trying to keep the family together since their parents were killed in a car wreck. Otherwise, everything was the same: Cherry Valance still annoyed me, Johnny and Dally broke my heart, Two-Bit made me laugh, and Ponyboy? He digs okay.

Stalled and stumbled around:
 I started Clockers by Richard Price a few weeks ago, but I'm having trouble getting into it. The novel seemed familiar, so I rummaged back through my first book journal, and there it was, one of the first books of 1994. Not ready to give up on it yet -- the cadences of the novel are jumpy and jerky, much like its urban setting, and I can't settle in, but I will. It's good.

Flung myself with abandon:
After Rules of Civility, I became a one-track bookworm. Happily, Amor Towles published Rules back in 2011, which means that enough time had elapsed for him to craft another treasure, which I promptly found: A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) takes place in Russia, 1922. Count Alexander Rostov has written a poem that has put the Bolsheviks' noses out of joint. Instead of execution, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. I've only just started this novel, and I want to be put on house arrest with lots of coffee and sandwiches and chocolate while I read uninterrupted. So far, no luck on that part. Oh, come on, world! I've been a bad, bad girl!

Meandered into a sequel:
For my audiobook, I'm listening to Everybody's Fool by Richard Russo. At first, I was having some trouble getting into the story and feeling as if I should have read Nobody's Fool first. This is not my first outing with Russo. I read The Risk Pool, which didn't excite me, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, which I did like. Russo is like the male Anne Tyler: quirky characters, strange situations against the backdrop of everyday life and the bigger questions about life, love, suffering and death. I'm on disc 4 and finally settling in. Hell, I may go on a Richard Russo binge read.

Flung with a curse:
I haven't flung a book since I hurled Atlas Shrugged out of a window back in 2005 in Korea! The projectile in question this time was Marjorie Morningstar, a 1955 novel by Herman Wouk. For a few days after, all I could say was: "Umm, no. Hell no." The book may be a brilliant snapshot of New York in the early 1930s, but Herman Wouk is a bit tone-deaf, writing from the female point of view. When the male characters are given voice, they're just cringe-y. Milton Schwartz needs to be hung out on the line with Angel Clare. I thought this book might be a classic, finely aged like wine or cheese, but it's aged badly -- more like dairy or vegetables. I cursed and flung and I'll never be sorry.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Missing May? Missing June?

In all these years, I have never missed so much time blogging. Nothing to do but jump back in and tell you what I'm reading and not reading currently:

Rules of Civility - Amor Towles. Novel.  This book follows the changing fortunes of Katey Kontent during the year of 1938. This is so gorgeous and rich. I'm audiobooking, and can hardly stop listening. One chapter calls for another. Towles is a master of atmosphere. THE master! Christmas is several months away, but I want to go ahead and put in my order for a time machine to take me back to New York in the late 1930s. Meanwhile, I'm happily enjoying Rules of Civility. I could eat it with a spoon; it's that good. Let there be a movie!

Clockers - Richard Price. Novel. I read this book when it was new, but it didn't knock my socks off the way it is now. Alternate chapters explore the lives of drug dealers in (fictional) Dempsey, New Jersey, and the police that are trying to catch them red-handed. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that The Wire owes everything to Clockers.

The DNF files: I recently bailed on The Road to Jonestown, a biography of cult leader Jim Jones by Jeff Guinn. The writing was crisp, the research impeccable, but Jim Jones made my skin crawl. I bet that I would have the same reaction to another book by Guinn about Charles Manson.  My failure to engage with The Road to Jonestown led me to start something new in my book journal. I now duly enter the books that made me cry uncle. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

In Which I Went to Lone Jack

Lone Jack MO.  This was important -- bucket list important -- and I kept putting it off for years.

Lone Jack, a town a few miles outside of Kansas City, was the site of an 1862 Civil War battle. One of the most famous characters in fiction lost his eye there: Rooster Cogburn from True Grit.

I haven't been having very much fun lately, but for one afternoon, I got to take a literary vacation of sorts.

Friday, April 14, 2017

My Bookshelf's Back

O my bookshelf. I'll never let you go again. 

Friday, April 07, 2017

2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Check Out My Prediction

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is something I look forward to every year. Since there are no nominations announced in advance, I dizzy myself with speculation: Will the committee go with a crowd-pleaser, or go delightfully obscure? A book that takes place on American soil or in another country? The possibilities are endless. I usually get it wrong, but I don't mind. A new book will soon be nestled on my Pulitzer Fiction shelf.

Here's my prediction for this year:

So far, this has been my favorite read of 2017.  This is the latest novel I'm pestering people to read:

It's 1917. After their hapless father dies, or goes to "the heavenly table" as he terms it, three brothers, Cane, Cob, and Chimney Jewett decide to ditch their downtrodden life and try their luck as bank robbers. They've been inspired by a beat-up dime novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket and although they know it by heart, they still refer to it while they're on the lam.  This is the starting point for their encounters with what seems like hundreds of other characters, including Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, who have a son, Eddie, who may or may not have joined the Army to fight in the Great Germany? Where's Germany? What's this war supposed to be about?

I don't know how Donald Ray Pollock kept this huge cast of characters and their crossings and interactions straight. Maybe a flow chart? A timeline? And what of his writing? He has a distinctive voice, but he also reminds me of the two Mac Daddies (Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy). McMurtry because of the journey, and legend-building and the influences of the past, and the past and present bumping up against one another. McCarthy because of well, the journey again, and the sudden, sickening, ugly violence that pops up with increasing regularity. But Pollock is funny as well, and not above the occasional stupid joke. There's also a feel of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, but a cheerful Faulker or O'Connor. Finally, I was reminded time and again as I read of Canadian author Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, which makes me think of Steinbeck, and yes, this is what fiction should do to you -- make you feel connected and woke. (Part of me wants to correct that to awakened.)

I finished this novel in early March, and I'm already ready for a re-read. Maybe audio this time. Read/Listen with me so we can talk about it. A LOT.

Did I mention how cinematic The Heavenly Table feels? I don't know if it could work on the big screen because there are so many characters, but if it does become a movie, I am there. I will even pay full price and forget to stand just so under the light in the ticket line so that my gray hair is shown to best advantage. Maybe a miniseries? That would work for me.

So that's my Pulitzer Fiction Wishful Prediction. I think my chances are pretty good this year. We'll know on Monday.

Many thanks to my friend Mary for bringing not only The Heavenly Table but Donald Ray Pollock to my attention.