Wednesday, September 2, 2009

August Books

This was my indulgence for the month, an orgy (can it be an orgy with only two?) of my favorite Gothic novelist from the long-ago days of my adolescence. Her writing is not perfect, and the style is somewhat dated, but Holt was a master of the 19th-century strong-willed woman falling in love with the arrogant and mysterious man who has secrets that come between them. Really, that's pretty much the plot of every one of her novels, but I don't care. They make me feel young and romantic and instilled in me a great desire to wake up one morning on a windswept moor or a wild coastline or in turn of the last century London. Now I'll put these away for my daughter to read in a few years.

Stephen King's son is following dad's footsteps as a horror writer. This collection of short stories covered lots of paranormal ground, from the title ghost to a new meaning for the word "bubble boy" to a disturbed child who makes creepy labyrinths in the basement. Intriguing is the best word I can come up with--some of the stories I'm pretty sure I didn't get, but I was fascinated by the twists and turns of Hill's imagination.

A COOK'S TOUR/Anthony Bourdain/A-
The sequel to KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, an account of his first trips around the world filming NO RESERVATIONS. It's like his previous book--profane, funny, lots of drinking but even more food, from three-star restaurants to open-air kitchens that he had to drive through armies to get to. Recommended for fans of Bourdain.

THE KEEP/Jennifer Egan/D
I didn't give this book an F for two reasons: first, because I did finish it and second, because it had some good ideas and decent setting. But the rest was a mess of literary pretension that would only have worked if I cared. And I didn't. So skip this novel, in spite of its enticing cover and the promise of dark secrets in an old castle . . . the story plays second fiddle to the language and ideas and that will never work for me.

Picked up the afternoon I saw the film JULIE AND JULIA (based on the book I read a couple years ago). This is a brief but satisfying biography of Julia Child, from her childhood in California to her work with the OSS during WWII to her marriage and introduction to cooking in France. For someone who does not cook, I seem to be having an affair with cooks and their lifestyles recently.

I'm waiting for lightning to strike, as it surely must for my presumption in giving a less than perfect grade to a Pulitzer Prize winning novel. But it just didn't do much for me. It was sweet enough, this episodic biography of a woman's life in the 20th century. But after the first chapter, which details Daisy's tragic birth to a woman who didn't realize she was pregnant, I just couldn't summon up the energy to care that much. Apparently I am too simple for the likes of literary Pulitzer Prize winners (except that I loved, loved, loved ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner . . . so maybe I should do a post pondering the differences.)

A charming and original mystery introducing 11-year-old Flavia and her eccentric family in 1950s Britain. First a dead raven is found on their doorstep, prompting her father to lock himself in his study. Second, a man is found dead in the cucumber patch. Third, Flavia's father is arrested. What comes next is Flavia's determined attempts to find out what happened and protect her inexpressive but necessary father from prison. The voice carries this story with a whimsy that gave me pleasure and I'm looking forward to the next in the series.

The second mystery featuring Madeleine Dare, a 1980s twenty-something caught in a recession and recovering from being brought up by parents who mixed debutante society and hippie freedom. Maddy is working at a school for troubled teens when she gets caught in a tragic double-suicide that she thinks was actually murder. The director of the school is either tremendously clever or frighteningly deluded, his deputy is having a nervous breakdown, the students are revolting and the teachers are a mix of automatons and rebels. I didn't like this one quite as well as the first (A FIELD OF DARKNESS), being a little put off my Maddy's strident personal and political opinions, but I will read the third whenever it appears.

Written fifty years ago, a beautiful memoir by the son of a Basque shepherd who came to Nevada in his late teens and is finally going home to the Pyrenees after decades away. I keep coming back to that word beautiful because I can't think of a better one to describe this story of immigrants and the West and loneliness and homecomings. Highly recommended.

Taylor is the author of one of my favorite mystery trilogies: THE ROTH TRILOGY. This one was different and a little bloodier, but still wonderfully written and compelling. In 1930s London, Lydia Langstone leaves her husband and ends up sharing her father's rooms at Bleeding Heart Square. There's a mysterious man watching the house, an uncomfortably powerful and reticent landlord, an owner who vanished four years ago, the rise of Oswald Mosley and the British Fascists, and a string of packages containing bloody hearts. But the intricate story never comes apart, for Taylor weaves together storylines like a master and managed to surprise me in the very last chapter.

The first and most acclaimed of Maya Angelou's autobiographies. Written forty years ago, it was something new in the field, a personal history that used fictional techniques like dialogue and scenes and unity of theme. But mostly, it's a powerful story of growing up poor, black, and female in the years before and during WWII. Angelou creates the people of her childhood lovingly and powerfully, especially her brother, Bailey, and her grandmother, Annie Henderson. One I think every adult should read sometime in their life.

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