Where's the book?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chalk and cheese: #17 and 18

I love that old British expression, "as different as chalk and cheese." Apparently, it goes all the way back to the 14th century, although no one knows exactly why chalk and cheese were chosen as the two items used to express comparative differences. One theory says that it's just because they are snappy, alliterative words. Another says it's because some cheese can look like chalk on the outside, and vice versa, but oh! what a surprise you would get if you tried to bite into chalk, or write with cheese.

In any event, the next two books on my list were quite the chalk and cheese. The first, #17, was a short, silly, fluffy little novel named Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn. It actually is about exactly what it sounds like: a bored, slightly addled Queen Elizabeth II wanders out of Buckingham Palace and takes the train to Scotland. She's feeling somewhat under attack, unappreciated, and nostalgic, so she decides to go visit a place that will remind her of happier times: the former royal yacht Brittania, now moored near Edinburgh. There are other characters, a slight romance, a friendship between palace servants, but the whole thing is so fluffy and undercooked that it literally leaves your brain as you are reading it, like disappearing ink of the mind. I read it just a couple of weeks ago, and I can't even tell you the name of a single character, other than Elizabeth. Duh. I don't mind a good mindless read, but this is so mindless you can't get much benefit from the escapism. It's like empty calories that don't even taste good. 

Book #18 was the chalk, or the cheese, whichever one would be more substantial and nourishing. Let's say cheese. Going Clear:  Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (a Pulitzer Prize-winner) is one terrifying book. Scientology has always fascinated me, as well as exploring what is the difference between a religion and a cult -- and even whether or not all religions are cults at their core. But this book made the difference quite plain. Scientology is a cult. A scary, scary cult. Some of what the book reported is hard to believe, but Wright is a highly respected author, and everything he reports has been verified and re-verified. It left me feeling shocked and appalled. I am not surprised by people's willingness to forego skepticism, even to give over the reins of their own lives. I am more surprised what this organization has been able to get away with untouched by law for decades. Extortion, threats, kidnapping, bribery, physical and emotional torture...if Scientology were a foreign power they would be on the terrorist watch list. I vote we go the way of Greece and ban Scientology. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A woman in her prime, and a woman who is not

#16 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I read this book for the first time in my twenties, perhaps even while in college. But I remember it better than anything I read last year. Not so much because it's such a brilliant book (although it is) but because I had a memory then. Anything I heard or read in my first 30 years is lodged in the Velcro side of my brain, where things stick. Anything I heard or read in my last 15 years is housed in the Teflon portion of my brain, where things slide right out. The decade or so in between the Velcro Age and the Teflon Era is up for grabs.

Miss Brodie may have been in her prime, but clearly, I am not.

What did I remember from my first reading of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? I remembered the dramatic, charismatic Miss Brodie, and her girls, the "Brodie set," each of them famous for something: one for sex, one for her beauty, one for her temper, one for her tiny piggy eyes. I remembered the setting, Edinburgh in the early 1930s, and the two men Miss Brodie becomes involved with. But I didn't remember the book as being funny, which it is, and the amazing structure Spark builds, in which the future is revealed inside the present, and we know how things will unfold and where everyone will end up, but we don't know why.

Spark's precision of language is remarkable, and she manages to compress and reveal so much with so few words. She's like a surgeon, carving away all the fat and fluff, and leaving us with a powerful distillation of people, time, and place.

It's a wonderful read and also a great book to discuss. Book clubs everywhere, put this one on your list!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

#10 and more

So little time lately, to read, or to write. Been very busy with theater- going and -reviewing and -writing on (such excellent linguistic skills!) and a million other things. So quickly, quickly, the last several, trying to catch up.

#10. Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr. I had read about Huguette Clark's life and the two books recently written about her in the paper and wanted to read more, wanted to understand how one of the richest women in the world ended up living the last twenty years of her life in a small hospital room, estranged from her family, when there was really nothing wrong with her. It's a fascinating story, and not just her own tale. Her father was one of the richest, if not the richest man in America, richer than Rockefellers and Carnegies. He was a U.S. Senator who had to resign in disgrace. And he's certainly the richest man that no one ever heard of. His story and Huguette's were both little known and incredibly interesting, and the book is well written by journalist Dedman, with a few remembrances from her cousin Newell, who has little to say except that he talked to her on the phone occasionally for several years. Six transit gloria, I guess. 

#11. Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. I think this was the only Bronte book I had never read, and now my work is complete. An incredibly long book, and not very interesting. It meanders around the story of wealthy Shirley and poor orphan Caroline Helstone and mill owner Robert Moore. Much of the focus is on the nascent Luddite movement, which is interesting, but lengthy and repetitive descriptions of the countryside and long diversions into storms, festivals, local dances, etc., make it a slog. I usually have no trouble with 19th century classics, even the lengthiest and most long-winded, but this one was a challenge. A challenge I am proud to say I met!

#12. The Lost Estate by Henri Alain-Fournier. The only novel by Alain-Fournier, who died in World War I, The Lost Estate tells the story of a captivating young man who stumbles about a wedding in a mysterious house, falls in love, and spends years trying to find the house and the girl again. It reads like fairy tale, filled with mystery and a sense of something vanishing just as it's reached. A wonderful look at the longing and confusion of adolescence, the book has the reputation of being the Catcher in the Rye of France.

#13. The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. Strange author attribution, no? Price started out thinking he was going to write a potboiler and didn't want to do it under his real name, so he invented Harry Brandt. But the book ended up being more of a typical Price novel than he expected, and he was outed anyway, so both names appear on the cover, which seems pretty strange. It tells the story of a group of former "wild geese" -- enthusiastic young cops, and "the whites" are the ones that got away, their own Moby Dicks. It's a twisty story with too many turns and too many characters for my taste. I continually had to look back to remember which white went with which goose, and what had happened to them all over the years. And while I was looking back and figuring out, my attention just wandered away. Lush Life a much better Price, imho.

#14. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The reviews are right: it ain't no Gone Girl, despite how hard it's trying. I didn't gasp, I didn't startle. I did get bored. The narrator, a woman in her thirties who has lost everything--her husband, her job, her home--and spends most of her time riding the train and drinking, witnesses something out the window of said train that, she thinks, affects the investigation into a missing woman. But she is drunk or on her way there for most of the book, so the cops don't believe her, the husband of the missing woman doesn't believe her, and, frankly, I didn't care.

#15. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Pulitzer Prize-winner, and deserving of it. A beautifully written story set in Germany and France during the second world way, Light is the story of a young German soldier and a blind French girl. There's also a diamond, much machinery (the boy is something of a mechanical genius), a miniature city, a museum, a Nazi officer in search of said diamond, French resistance members, and more. A hard-to-put-down tale. 

Yeah, all caught up!