Books You Can Skip and A Few to Keep

Although my inclination is to not publish reviews of books I did not like, I seem to have collected quite a few lately.  Just because I did not find these books compelling does not mean you won’t.  The first is by an author I follow and usually anticipate reading, the second is a classic with history painfully repeating itself in the present, and the third is from LibraryReads –  the site with picks from library staff nationwide.

The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

A group of women have regular meetings to reveal secrets and offer support to each other. Although reviewers have called the book uplifting, I found it disappointing and tiresome.  Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for angst and empathy.

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

This classic came to me by way of Libby, our library’s online service.  At first, I laughed at the ridiculous scenarios, until they came too close to current political reality.  Although Lewis was targeting the 1930s American government, I found a 2017 essay in the New York Times titled “Reading the Classic Novel That Predicted Trump.”  Sadly, history does repeat itself.

Nothing To See Here by Kevin Wilson

Liar, liar, pants on fire!  In Wilson’s book ten year old twins can spontaneously burst into fire, burning everything around them but not themselves.  Lillian is summoned by her former class mate Madison to act as their nursemaid, while Madison prepares her husband to become the next Secretary of State. Although the story line is outlandish, Wilson’s symbolism is hard to miss, and the snarky comments on parenting and politics are contemporary.  I read the whole book, wishing it would burst into flames.

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If you read all sixteen chapters of Walker’s information dense material, it may actually put you to sleep – as you are reading it.  The author gives you his permission:  “Please, feel free to ebb and flow into and out of consciousness during this entire book. I will take absolutely no offense. On the contrary, I would be delighted.”  Go straight to the Appendix – “Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep” with reminders you have probably read elsewhere: stick to a sleep schedule, exercise, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bed, and one I often apply – “If you find yourself still awake after staying in bed more than twenty minutes, get up and do {something}.”

 

Keeper Books:

Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse by John Lithgow

Best Christmas present ever,  Lithgow’s satirical poems are hilarious.  The targets include anyone connected to the American President, from Rudy Giulianio to Betsy DeVos, with Lithgow’s line drawings adding to the fun. In her review for the New York Journal of Books, Judith Reveal notes: “A prolific writer and award-winning actor, Lithgow has penned a laugh-out-loud picture of American politics at its worst. And yet, through the laughter comes a sense of despair.”  

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

Cartoonist and illustrator Charlie Mackesy’s children’s book for adults is probably one you should give as a present to someone. When I read about it, I gifted it to myself, and now am reluctant to part with it. One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Is your glass half empty or half full?” asked the mole. “I think I’m grateful to have a glass,” said the boy.  

Little Women – from book to movie

One of the three remaining sisters has a line in Greta Gerwig’s movie version of Little Women, saying Aunt March would probably roll over in her grave if she knew Jo had turned the old woman’s fine mansion into a school.  Another sister comments Aunt March would maybe only turn slightly, not completely roll over.  Maybe Louisa May Alcott’s dead body would also only make a slight turn at the changes made to her classic tale.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the many movie versions of Little Women, from Katherine Hepburn to June Allyson to Winona Ryder, the nonlinear story line and Saoirse Ronan as Jo in the 2019 film will not bother you with comparisons.  If you are a purist and don’t like modern versions of old stories (I always have trouble with the Hawaiian versions of Shakespeare and the Nutcracker), you can draw from your memory to connect the plot lines, as you wait breathlessly hoping those key elements and famous lines made the movie cut.  They did, and when you hear Jo holding Professor Bhaer’s hands in the rain, saying “They are not empty now,”  you will be relieved.

Despite the changes, Gerwig steadfastly retains the most important pieces of the novel, and despite my trepidation, I liked the movie.  At times. I almost thought Gerwig’s version was an improvement on the book as she refreshingly drew out the adult lives of the sisters.

On my trip to Bath long ago, someone on my tour asked who was Jane Austen, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some had never heard of Louisa May Alcott or Little Women, but certainly none among you, dear readers.  If you were completely oblivious to the classic, Gerwig’s movie version would provide enough sound material to give you the flavor and theme of the story about four sisters in the nineteenth century but might be a problem if you were trying to see the movie instead of reading the book for a discussion or a book report.  Wouldn’t it be fun to include this classic in a book club, comparing notes from book to movie?   Marissa Martinelli gives a detailed comparison of book to movie, character by character, in Slate.

If you are fan of PBS’s Grantchester, you might recognize Mr. Brook (John Norton) as the minister detective from the first series.  Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame plays Meg, and other familiar faces will nudge you but you may not be able to quite place them – Chris Cooper as Mr. Lawrence and Tracy Letts as the publisher – and, of course, there is Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

The book recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and its characters still have a universal appeal.  Many readers identify with Jo, the feisty writer, tomboy, adventurer, or maybe many just wish to have her gumption.  As for me, I like Amy best.

Should you see the movie? Yes.  Should you read the book (again)? Yes.  Do you need to know the book to enjoy the movie?  No.

Dunbar – King Lear As Media Mogul

51xZlUBbLOL._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_ Greed, betrayal, lust, murder, sibling rivalry, and jealousy – St. Aubyn’s Dunbar shows how Shakespeare is still relevant. Edward St. Aubyn’s Hogarth Shakespeare update of King Lear channels today’s headlines, with the wealthy children salivating at their chance to control the money of their paternal media mogul.  If you remember your Shakespeare, one good soul tries to rise above the fray, but Florence has no more luck reining in her two sisters than Cordelia had with Regan and Goneril in King Lear.

This is a tragedy with the expectation of dead bodies littering the stage at the end, but St. Aubyn manages to create hope that the billionaire mogul who had been imprisoned in an isolated sanitarium while his two daughters conspire in a company takeover, will prevail.  The eighty year old’s escape into the snowy hills has traces of the St. Aubyn witty banter, sustaining the delusion, and when Florence comes to the rescue in a helicopter and later in her Gulfstream jet, it seems all will be well.   If you don’t remember your reading of Lear, I won’t spoil your anticipation, but St. Aubyn manages to make the ending realistic in today’s terms.

Of all the Hogarth translations into contemporary settings, this is my favorite.  St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of privilege in his Patrick Melrose novels across five novels, one a Man Booker finalist, and I can think of no one better to expose the painful flaws of  the wealthy, including frustrated power and familial resentment.  Rupert Murdoch – beware.

It would be fun to dissect St. Aubyn’s version of an old, powerful man losing everything and match it to Shakespeare’s play, but, if you only read the novel as is, St. Aubyn makes a sad tale enjoyable.

In Honor of Poldark’s Aunt Agatha

Unknown-1   Spoiler Alert:  If you have not yet seen the final episode of Poldark, the eighteenth century saga set in Cornwall, you probably want to stop reading now.

Despite the rugged terrain with wild rides along the sea and rivalries among the families, one steady character, reportedly about to celebrate her 100th birthday, challenges the evil doers and maintains her upright moral code despite the corruption around her.  Sadly, Aunt Agatha finally has her heart broken when the cold calculating George Warleggan cancels her birthday party.  Of course, the stalwart Aunt Agatha has her revenge before she takes her last breath.

In the Masterpiece Studio Podcast interview of Catherine Blakiston, the actress playing Aunt Agatha, she mentions she was gifted the tarot cards she often shuffled on scene as she predicted dire consequences for others, and the book Aunt Agatha continually read around the fire – Tristram Shandy.

Hepburn7_logLaurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, with its first of nine volumes published in 1759, begins with its hero about to be born and becomes so sidetracked by digressions that the story ends shortly after his birth, but not before introducing a vivid group of eccentric and farcical characters in a comic tour de force.  Tristram Shandy was a bestseller of its time and Sterne is recognized as one of the forerunners of psychological fiction.

I’ve never read it, so in honor of Aunt Agatha, I’ve downloaded the classic for free from Project Gutenberg – all 760 pages.

Related Information:

 

Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.