Tuesday, February 01, 2011

January 2011: Reading & Reviewing, Part 1

Books read in January: 12

Total number of pages: 3,768

The Best of Everything - Rona Jaffe. I read this for the Reading Madly challenge. Three young women -- Caroline, April and Gregg -- go to New York City to live, work and fall in love. The latter is usually with disastrous results, since most of the men in the novel are white-collar shits. Caroline, who works her way up in a publishing company, seems to be the model for secretary-turned-ad copywriter Peggy Olson in Mad Men. What struck me about this book is how well-written and nicely edited it is. Most of the chapters are on the short side and episodic, so you can parcel The Best of Everything out to yourself in delectable slices or gobble it down whole, like I did. I'd love to cap this one off with a viewing of the 1959 movie.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain. I made sure that my internal culture clock was moved back to 1840s Missouri before I started this novel because I didn't want to be distracted by the liberal use of the N-word. In spite of this preparation, I still had a few nasty optical speed bumps. (I should say shoals rather than speed bumps, since the setting is the Mississippi River.) Aside from that, it was a great read -- most of the time. I was surprised at how much Huck and Holden Caulfield sound alike, for Huck has a bit of a depressive streak. Books don't usually make me cry, but I have to admit that I had something in my eye when Jim related his memory about his little daughter, Elizabeth. Then there were those last chapters at Tom Sawyer's relatives' farm! Mr. Clemens, I love you to bits, but what the hell? No spoilers, but I wanted to take Aunt Sally's thimble and crack it upside your gorgeous white head. Chapter The Last has some trouble spots as well, but it fits the previous action much better and restores to the ending that wonderful feeling of the river. I'll be scratching my head about that one part for a long time, though. Next summer, I'm planning a trip to Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up. I've never been there. People tell me that it's a huge tourist trap, but a tourist trap connected to literature suits me right down to the ground.

Hitch-22 - Christopher Hitchens. I had a little trouble keeping up with his discussions about various political situations in different countries, but I enjoyed reading his portraits of his mother and father, his friends, including Martin Amis, Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Salman Rushdie, his first trip to the United States, his eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and the relatively late-in-life bombshell discovery that his mother's family was Jewish. This is a solid, well-crafted memoir.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth - Jeff Kinney. There's so much I love about this series: 1. The graphic novel aspect 2. It looks like a kid's diary, right down to the laborious-looking printing and the lined paper. 3. Greg's mother's name is Susan. 4. Rodrick's band is called "Loaded Diaper", which they spell in Motley Crue fashion. 5. Manny, the littlest Heffley boy is drawn about as big as a flea. 6. That grubby middle school feeling is captured perfectly. 7. Greg's hapless friend Rowley, who is first afraid he'll "catch puberty" then is elated when he starts sporting a huge Cyclopsian zit on his forehead. 8. Greg is so often oblivious in that cusp-of-adolescence way. 9. Greg reminds me a little bit of Doug Funnie. I really miss that show. 10. There's always a potentially fun event that the adults manage to turn into a cluster, like the talent show in the first book and the "Lock-in" in this book.

Loving Frank - Nancy Horan. I shied away reading this book for a long time because I thought it had the reek of chick-lit on it. Then I resisted it anew after reading T.C. Boyle's The Women because it covered similar ground and I was sure it wouldn't be as creative or audacious as Boyle's book. After spotting a copy at my friend Leigh's apartment, I finally decided to go for it. There is a little bit of overlap, and the storytelling is much more straightforward, but it has its own way of grabbing the reader's attention. My impression about chick-lit was wrong. The focus of the book is on Mamah Borthwick Cheney, Frank Lloyd Wright's mistress. Her giddiness at the beginning of their affair was predictable and annoying, but there's a gradual sea-change and readers see an intelligent portrayal of a complex woman who has an enormous capacity for self-delusion and we can feel and sympathize with Mamah's sharp shocks as she slowly emerges from her cloud. If this novel is filmed, it will take a talented and subtle actress to pull this off. I nominate Molly Parker, who played Alma Garrett in Deadwood. Ultimately, I recommend that people read both Loving Frank and The Women, in that order -- you get kind of a Mobius strip effect as a bonus.

The Piano Tuner - Daniel Mason. Although it's technically very well-written, I couldn't warm up to this novel about a piano tuner, Edgar Drake, who is mysteriously summoned to Burma in 1886 for the express purpose of tuning an Erard grand piano. The pacing is decidedly 19th century, which I admire Mason for pulling off, but the long journey to the mysterious Dr. Anthony Carroll seems to take forever and the book starts to feel like the Burma edition of Lonely Planet. Once Edgar and Dr. Carroll meet, there is some mystery about the man, but there's not as much tension as one would expect because it's all jumbled up with Edgar's rhapsodizing about what a paradise Dr. Carroll lives in and we're back to Lonely Planet. There's also a lovely and mysterious Burmese woman who smells like spices and speaks perfect English and touches Edgar's hand fairly often and gets him all feverish...or was that the malaria? Finally, Things Happen in about the last 20 pages, but it's all rushed and confusing. I struggled with this book for 6 weeks and felt as if my effort had not been repaid in kind. Even so, I feel a little guilty for not liking the book better, since a couple of people in BOOKLEAVES thought it was wonderful. If you liked the gauzy quality of The English Patient and the journey-into-the-jungle aspect of Heart of Darkness and your preferred reading is travelogues, then you'll enjoy The Piano Tuner.

6 reviews down, 6 to go.


Anna said...

The Ugly Truth was my daughter's favorite book from last year. My husband took her to the bookstore after school on the day it was released, and she finished it just a couple of hours later. I read one book in the series (aloud to her when she was sick) and thought it was pretty funny.

Unruly Reader said...

"The Best of Everything" sounds great -- I love the Peggy Olson prototype stuff. Very intriguing.

I agree -- the last few chapters of Huck Finn have a really weird disconnect. (I also confess that when I read it in high school, I loved those chapters best.)

Susan said...

12 books read! You beat me. I read 10! which is utterly amazing for me. I haven't read any Diary of Wimpy Kid yet, and had no idea they were in graphic novel form either. I'll have to check our library. I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so long ago that I can only remember the tone of the book, not even what happened in it! lol! You read some interesting books in Jan, booktwin.

Lesley said...

Glad to hear you liked Loving Frank and that the two books are different enough to both be enjoyed. I had steered clear of The Women because of the fear that since I'd read and liked one, I wouldn't the other.

Unruly Reader said...

Thank you! (hollered nice and loud) I just finished "The Best of Everything" and loved it. Can't believe how much it seems to have inspired both Mad Men and Sex and the City. So glad you read it and wrote good things.