Summer Reading Update: Some Hits, More Misses

I’m up to six books in my quest to reach thirty this summer. I can’t say I’m off to a very good start. Of these, two were awful, two mediocre, and two were very good. I’ll quickly survey them all here, but I plan to give the best two their own proper posts.

The two awful ones were Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat and Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown. The Parker was a real and unpleasant surprise. I wrote recently about my long-standing fondness for this series and mentioned my interest in rereading some of the earlier ones. I don’t think I had ever read The Judas Goat before. If it had been the first time I ever met Spenser, our beautiful friendship would never have developed: I’m morally certain I would not have read another one in the series. I didn’t like the writing style, which seemed arch and insincere; I didn’t like Spenser, who seemed similarly arch and insincere, gratuitously violent, and also (to my surprise) sexist. To be sure, there are shades of the moral scrupulosity that I associate with him, but not enough. Most of all, I didn’t like Hawk–or, more accurately, I didn’t like the way Hawk is characterized here or the way he and Spenser interact. You can see a glimmer of the wry astute humor that infuses their zippy repartee in the later books, but I had the feeling that Parker hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Plus Hawk kept on calling Spenser “babe,” which I found affected and annoying. The plot was not bad, and it is rare and therefore interesting to have Spenser abroad, but it was only loyalty that kept me reading to the end.

A Rose for the Crown was awful in different ways: it’s historical fiction of the thinnest variety, with tedious faux-antique dialogue, laborious exposition, and lots of forced emotion. I turned every page but by about half-way through I was skimming because I couldn’t bear to put in the effort to read every word. I figure I can count it as “read” for my summer tally because I also skimmed Reay Tannahill’s The Seventh Son, which was equally dreadful. Between them, calculating generously, you have something approximating the substance of a whole book. Honestly, I try to be open-minded in my reading, but I can’t understand the popularity of books of this type: who could not find the transparency of their efforts to be dramatic and affecting, not to mention the alternation between ploddingly pedestrian prose and a kind of loosely imagined old-fashioned idiom kind of insulting after a while? Compare something like The Children’s Book or Wolf Hall–or Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian or Romola: historical fiction can be so much more, and need not neglect originality of style or thought in order to tell a compelling story and animate our imaginings of the past. But I suppose they are no different from other fiction that has no aspiration to ideas, much less to art.

Maisie Dobbs is in the “mediocre” category. Perhaps it was a mistake to read it at a time when I have been reading a lot of much better writing about Britain during the wars. I would call it “Vera Brittain Lite, with a smattering of Dorothy Sayers (but absent her intellectual range).” How’s that for a cumbersome tag line? There’s nothing wrong with Winspear’s careful evocation of either WWI or its social and psychological after-effects, except that she is not a particularly good stylist (a lot of the novel seemed to be, again, striving after effects, rather than earning them) and so many of the notes she plays are so obvious if you already know anything about the context. Maisie is a reasonably interesting character, and reasonably well-drawn: one structural aspect of the book that surprised me was the amount of time spent going back over Maisie’s childhood and development. I wondered, in fact, if Winspear really wanted to write a “real” novel about someone growing up with these kinds of “Upstairs-Downstairs” issues, but thought it would be easier, either to write or to market, if this story were packaged as part of a detective novel. The detective plot is almost peripheral, and as the specific problem under investigation comes into focus, we are left sort of outside it, not knowing the steps Maisie has taken, for instance, to uncover it. I thought it was interesting that the case did connect the ostensible crime to the more complicated question of war and the damage it does–but there are far more original and compelling literary explorations of this (Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for instance). Maisie’s intense relationship with Maurice was not made compelling to me; it felt formulaic, perhaps because it reminded me too much of Cordelia’s relationship with Bernie in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (which is a much better, more surprising, more literary mystery). So for me the book was just OK, but it had enough interesting aspects that I’m willing to read at least one more in the series, to see if they get better. I just hope Winspear got better editing later on. The book opens with a dangling modifier, for crying out loud (how does an editor at a major publishing house not flag and fix this?),  it is full of clichés (“Maisie felt a strong stab of emotion”), and it seems overwritten, as if the author doesn’t think we’ll get it, or if we do, that we won’t feel what she is anxious for us to feel (“a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealized dream”; “a feeling of anticipation and joy welled up inside her as she realized how very lonely it had been working without Maurice”; etc.).

Finally, also mediocre was Marjorie Harris’s Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style. I picked this up from the library because a friend recommended it to me enthusiastically, and I can see why she enjoyed the chatty style and the lifestyle advice, which is sensible and pleasantly concerned to differentiate “frugal” from “cheap.” Being thrifty, Harris argues, is about deciding what you really need, as opposed to what you merely want, and then focusing your efforts and controlling your finances so that these are the things you have. When I tell you that her list of “must-haves” is “delicious organic food, decent wine and candles,” you’ll understand that this is not in fact a book about things you really need in that you could not physically survive without them. That’s fine: we all understand that the real necessities include a roof over our heads, food on the table (organic or not), and so forth. Although there is some discussion in this book about how to understand and stretch your resources to make sure you can have these basics, it’s really more of an argument against foolish consumerism among those who have enough wealth to spend foolishly but might repent–by squandering it and ending up in debt, for instance. I like the idea of identifying priorities and being wary of the immediate but impermanent gratification of purchases that have no lasting value (not economic, again, as this is not really her focus, but value as in making your life better in the ways you really want it to be good). My own list would not include candles, but books, certainly, and music. So her advice for the “frugal fashionista” or the “frugal foodie” was not of much interest, but the general discussion of thrift was, as well as the repeated emphasis on putting your time and money where your heart is–including room for things you love and cherish for their beauty or other special qualities, for example, provided you do not do so at the expense of actual necessities. So far, fine, but the book is not really very well written (“she immediately turned [the fabric] into a suit for my brother and dresses for my baby sister and I” [emphasis ADDED]????–again, how is it that an editor did not flag and fix this?–and there’s trouble with modifiers again, here, too), it gets pretty repetitive, and some of the examples of “thrift” go a little too far towards justified self-indulgence. Great retro cover, though.

What a relief it was to turn to Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, and to discover the gently painful delights of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–about both of which, more later.

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Summer Reading 2014

Rohan:
1. Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
2. Dorothy Dunnett, King Hereafter
3. Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
4. Elizabeth George, Just One Evil Act
5. Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolo Rising
6. Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
7. Zoe Ferraris, Finding Nouf
8. Georgette Heyer, Friday's Child
9. Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
10. Charlotte Bronte, Villette
11. Sue Grafton, W is for Wasted
In progress: Tremain, Music and Silence

Maddie:
1. Judy Blume, Forever
2. Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars, an original mystery
3. John Green, Paper Towns
4. Judy Blume, Then Again Maybe I Won't
5. Sarah Dessen, Dreamland
In progress: Wilson, Diamond

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