Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not Very Satisfying, But the Best I Can Do

I apologize for the long hiatus.  Part of it can be blamed on sheer laziness, part on the cold weather (my computer is in a very drafty room), and part on the dearth of finishable books lately.  The tendency I have to take out books that all have a similar theme has been alarming of late; just last week I had three books all dealing with a female protagonist dying slowly of tuberculosis.  I finished none of them.  Life's too short, and consumption is a rather nauseating thing to read about in great detail.  Another odd theme was that of communists in the 1930's.  This could have been interesting, but both books were rife with expletive, which no doubt the raffish young reds used in excess, but this kind of verisimilitude I can live without.

Because of a good book shortage, I found myself going back to my old favorites, and raiding some of the selections my children have taken out in the past weeks.  Bleak House is always a treat to reread -- there's certainly enough of it, at a million pages or so.  I've also been dipping into several Dorothy Sayers mysteries. She never disappoints.  I also reread The Night Journey, a children's book by Kathryn Lasky that I read multiple times growing up.  It tells the story of Sashie's escape from Tsarist Russia -- but when the story is being told, Sashie is Nana Sashie, the great-grandmother of Rache, who is the very modern protagonist. It's beautifully written and has lovely, haunting illustrations.

I did finish Syrie James' The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen.  There seem to be two genres of book dealing with Austen -- books about people who read Austen, and books trying to be or remodel Austen.  I seldom bother with the latter, disliking zombies or copycats.  The former can occasionally be very successful, like The Jane Austen Book Club.  James' book pretends to be the former, but really is the latter.  A librarian (who is really a frustrated English scholar) finds a lost letter from Austen in which she refers to a manuscript.  After a very quick search, the manuscript, The Stanhopes, is found.  Most of the remainder of the book is the text of the manuscript, and may I say that it is simply dreadful?  Any Austen lover would be very patient and forbearing not to toss the book across the room.  And in the end the frustrated scholar becomes a scholar once again, dumps her present boyfriend for the guy who finds the manuscript, and everyone lives happily and richly ever after.  I have no words to waste for the travesty that is The Stanhopes.

I've been spending some time reading a prolific mystery writer, Aaron Elkins.  His main character, Gideon Oliver, is also known as The Skeleton Doctor, as he is an anthropology professor who studies bones.  These are fun and light -- I guessed the ending of every one I read before the fifth chapter, and the characters are boilerplate -- and they are the perfect pick for some fairly brainless beach reading. You should be so lucky to be reading on a beach this time of year.

Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes, was a bit of an unexpected hit with me.  The theme of the book (which I won't give away) is fairly grim.  However, the characters are wonderful and simply walk out of the pages fully formed.  The story doesn't really develop in the way I'd expected, and I didn't know what to think once I'd finished it, but I do feel it's worth trying.

I've read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.  They are both excellent books, and I can recommend them wholeheartedly, but it helps if you don't know much about that period in history.  If you do, they can seem frustratingly slow-moving.  It's a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell, who rises to power during the reign of Henry VIII.  Bring Up the Bodies continues Wolf Hall; it's intended to be a trilogy so look out for a third book sometime late this year.

Nonfiction is my usual fallback, but even that has been humdrum lately.  I've always admired Oliver Sacks, and enjoyed The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars, but his newest, Hallucinations, didn't make the grade for me.  The earlier books were engaging and seemed to draw the reader into the personal stories of the subjects and their odd misfortunes; this new book is interesting, but is very technical and not as compelling for the lay reader.

One fascinating nonfiction read from this week is A Disposition to be Rich.  By Geoffrey C. Ward, it is the story of his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward.  The scandal of his time, Ferd Ward ran a Ponzi scheme which ruined, among others, ex-President Ulysses S. Grant.  Apparently without a conscience of any kind, Ferd ran rings around those close to him, and was the ultimate confidence man.  This is beautifully written, and more fascinating than fiction.

I'll end this post with plea -- can some of you recommend something compelling?  Something I can read happily, of some literary value, but not so much that no one can understand it?  Post in the comments, please!

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