A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Twenty-One Books that Shaped Me

I've been ridiculously remiss in these last few months of the year about migrating reviews over here from LibraryThing and even missed out an edition of Packing for a Reading Retreat. I'm working on a Reading Retreat post for tomorrow, but in the meantime, I give you the twenty-one books that have most shaped my life. This post is based on a meme that floated around Facebook and LibraryThing a few weeks back, and is divided into two halves: the eleven books that have most stayed with me (ten positive influences and one negative one) and the ten books with which I did not connect. For each book, I give a brief explanation of why I included it in the list.

Eleven Books that Have Been Important to Me

1.) The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
My dad read LotR (and The Hobbit) to me when I was very small (five or six). It's probably the first mythology of any kind that ever meant anything to me and was certainly my first introduction to "grown-up" fiction in any sense. I have many memories of being read to at a young age (and of having my own books), but the nightly LotR reading probably instilled in me the idea that curling up with a good book is one of the Best Things.

2.) The Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
These were read to me (Mom, this time) so many times and I read them myself so many times that the events within them became a permanent part of my mental furniture.

4.) Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
Probably the first book that I felt proprietary toward. I loved it, I read it over and over, I carried it around in my pocket, I had parts memorized. When I discovered that a nice hardcover edition on my grandfather's shelves was abridged OMG, I started (but did not complete) a comparative study between the abridged version and the complete text, making notes about how the abridgement altered the meaning of the book. I was about eleven. What a snot I must have been.

5.) Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
This was required reading at some point in middle school (sixth grade? seventh grade?), and I hated it. I could tell it was going somewhere awful, I couldn't escape being taken there with it, it traumatized me, and it made me feel trapped, scared, and depressed. That was the first time a book had ever made me feel that way (and it was one of the few times school ever made me feel that way, too). It may be the only book I have ever truly resented being made to read, and just the thought of the stupid thing still makes me feel a little sick to this day.

6.) Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Aside from just loving the story (which I did), this one is important because it was probably the first "classic" I read entirely of my own choosing and with no prompting from anyone else. I didn't struggle to read it, but it did require more "work" to get through than most things I read on my own at that age (about fifteen). For a kid who'd been reading way above her grade level for always, discovering that leisure reading could still be fun if it was also challenging was probably really important.

7.) Various Robert Heinlein books, including Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil
Heinlein gets a lot of flak for the way he wrote women (I don't disagree now that his female characters are problematic), but in my late teens his female characters who were smart and beautiful and unabashedly sexual (not sexy but sexual) were like a revelation to me.

8.) The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
A required text for a creative writing class in undergrad. Forever shaped the way I think about writing, reading, life, and what they're all for.

9.) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Romances can have substance! They can be worth reading after you already know who gets together with whom! I have much more complicated feelings (still positive) about P&P now, but that was the revelation then, some time in college.

10.) The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
In the summer between the two years of my masters program, I devoured HP 1-5 (all there was at the time). And rediscovered that reading can be pure, unadulterated fun. Thank heavens.

11.) A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I would sooner give up any other ritual at Christmas (or any other time of year) than I would my annual reading of this brilliant little piece. Puts me in the perfect mood for Christmas, always, and straightens me out with the world and with myself (if necessary). An annual spiritual balm for me since high school.

Ten Books with which I Didn't Connect

1.) The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
I wanted to maneuver Holden Caulfield off a bridge even when I was his age.

2.) The Scarlett Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Could never work up any sympathy for (or interest in) any of the unlikeable characters mooning around in SL.

3.) Ulysses, James Joyce
What a brilliant writer Joyce was (The Dead, be still my heart). And what an amazing feat Ulysses is. But I could never warm to it. What a wretched reading experience it was (twice).

4.) Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
I always (I've read it at least three times) feel mired down in an impenetrable jungle of unintelligible murky images when I read Heart of Darkness.

5.) The Russians
I have not yet given up! I am determined to read at least one mammoth Russian novel before I die. I've tried Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, and Doctor Zhivago. I just can't get into them. I have read some shorter works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich--three times! like Heart of Darkness, it was perpetually assigned to me throughout high school, undergrad, and grad school--Fathers and Sons, The Overcoat, some Chekov).

6.) The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
Die faster, Little Nell. Lord.

7.) The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Like The Scarlett Letter, my chief problem with GoW was that I couldn't muster up any sympathy for the characters. That's a lot of ridin' around in the back of an old truck with the fambly if you don't care a lick for anyone.  And don't even get me started on the everlovin' turtle.

8.) The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
The allegory drives me nuts, and I just never warmed to the world. I wonder if there's a division between Tolkien and Lewis fans--like if you love Tolkien you're less likely to love Lewis.

9.) Animal Farm, George Orwell
I have heard some people describe this as the only book they had to read for school that they loved. Not me, boy. I found it both disturbing and tedious, which might be the worst combo ever.

10.) Slaughter House Five, Kurt Vonnegut
It's supposed to be funny, right? I don't get it. 

Book Review: Farthing, Jo Walton

Farthing posits an alternate history in which Britain negotiates a "Peace with Honour" with Hitler in 1941. By 1949 when the novel takes place, Hitler had overrun Europe, Nazi death camps still operate, the US (where Lindbergh is president) had closed its borders, and antisemitism runs rampant in Britain. The story is told from the point of view of Lucy Kahn, the daughter of a powerful aristocratic family with whom she has fallen out of favor because of her recent marriage to a Jewish banker, and from the point of view of a Scotland Yard detective who is called to Lucy's family's estate to investigate the murder of a political heavy-weight who was staying there for the weekend. The novel works much like a cozy murder mystery, with investigations into the murder forming the backbone of the story. And that format makes this history even more sinister than it already seems at first glance. Because so much of the story reads like a gentle murder story in which nothing too terribly awful will happen, the little details of the way the world works in the alternate history are all the more sharp and shocking and terrifying.

While I enjoyed Farthing a lot (it's written just wonderfully, and Walton handles her characters, setting, and plot deftly), the book did feel a bit uneven. It eventually becomes clear that things are even a lot worse than they appear in this version of Britain, and the book goes from interestingly sinister to downright chilling in the last few chapters. That move was appropriate, and, indeed, it felt the like the book was building toward it all along. But the transition still seemed a little rushed, and the novel ultimately felt not wholly in balance because of it. I'm also still puzzling over Walton's choice to make so many of her characters here secretly gay. Of the major players (easily a dozen), at least five turn out to be Also Gay, by which I mean they are introduced as having a certain bearing on the story (such as being a major figure in the politics of Britain) and then a while later we find out that they are also gay (or bi) (with the fact of their sexuality rarely having anything to do with the plot). I am always happy to see people who historically have often been elided from fiction better represented on the page, but the way Walton kept sliding this fact in about many of her characters led me to suspect that the fact of their sexuality was going be become very important either thematically or in the plot. And it never did.  Curious. Perhaps it will become clear in the second book in the series, which I am excited to read.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Book Review: Mrs Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn

What a strange but wonderful little book.  Set nowishly, Mrs Queen Takes the Train follows Queen Elizabeth through a day when she's feeling a little down and decides the solution is to visit some of her favorite things (yep, like the song). She starts with a little wander to the Royal Mews but ends up straying further afield to a cheese shop in London that sells to the Palace and then all the way to Edinburgh to visit the decommissioned royal yacht, Britannia. Naturally, this causes a bit of a panic among her staff, who scramble to find her and to keep the news of The Queen's going "walkabout" away from the press.  The novel is really the story of her staff (a young woman who works in the Mews, a young man from the cheese shop, a young vet currently serving as her equerry, one of the Palace senior butlers, her dresser, and one of her ladies in waiting) as much as it is the story of The Queen's Day Out. And somehow Kuhn manages to pull it all together and tell a satisfying story, one that does justice to all of his characters.

The novel is not perfect, however. The question (brought up repeatedly) of whether The Queen hasn't gone just a little peculiar is never really resolved. (Though the suggestion that she might be depressed is handled well.) It's clear in the end that The Queen knows what she's about and feels a renewed sense of how she can serve her country through her position, but one never fully understands whether The Queen has come round to her senses or was simply more sensible than everyone else all along. And the failure to answer that question rankles a bit, especially since this is a novel about a real person, still living. Is Kuhn making some sort of statement about The (real) Queen? Is it even possible to read the book without assuming he is, given his subject matter? If he is, what was the statement? If he's not, what does that mean? You write a novel about a sitting monarch, you can't pretend you haven't written a novel about a sitting monarch. What do you mean by it, Will? You can't escape the question by not answering it, dang it.  (I had pretty much the same problem with Allan Bennett's wonderful The Uncommon Reader--brilliant novella, but it doesn't fully account for itself, somehow.) So there's that little niggle twitching away the whole time one's reading, and it can't help but detract a bit from the experience. But the novel manages to be lovely anyway, so.

My only other quibble is Kuhn's use of pictures. Every so often, the text includes a black and white reproduction of a real photograph--sometimes of The Queen, sometimes of people she knew or places referenced in the story.  Why?  I ask you. Why? It doesn't rise to an experiment with form, but neither does it sit comfortably in the tradition of illustrated classics or the like. It seems only to underline the fact that the novel is about a Real Person, which, honestly, who could have missed that?

These complaints aside, this was one fun, engaging, satisfying read. (I can imagine myself just flipping through and rereading some bits just for the joy of returning to them--especially the scenes with Luke, the equerry, who should have his own book.) It will almost surely be in my top five reads for the year. Recommended.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.