Tuesday, December 12, 2006

BOOKS: The Mama of All Reckonings

Ahhh. It was nice to be gone. It's even nicer to be back.

This was our first honest-to-god vacation in almost a year and a half, and it was worth the wait. Admittedly, we were only away for four days, but that's okay. I get BORED with understatedly luxurious five-star hotels. Also? Panoramic clifftop views of storm-ravaged seas? Ho-hum. And don't even get me started on the subject of magical fog-shrouded sunsets.*

Given the fact that the tub in our house is in a cramped, dark alcove, and given that our bathroom is lit with a godawful strip of flourescent tube lighting that would surely make
Thomas Edison regret his Great Light Bulb Project of '79 (don't judge me; we rent), it's easy to understand how I could've forgotten how much I love reading in the bath. Of the many highlights of our trip, spending an hour at a time reading in our massive ocean-view soaker tub might just top the list.

(Excuse me. I have to go sob in a corner for a while after writing that last paragraph. And did I tell you about the food? The only thing more awesome than the giant bathtub was the magnificent cuisine served in the restaurant attached to the hotel: award-winning fare that was, through the magic of room service -- a service that surely was designed especially for parents of, er, "spirited" toddlers who are unfit for the interiors of fine dining establishments -- delivered TO OUR ROOM. Let me tell you something, friends, and that something is this: there are few experiences in this life finer than playing a lightning round of rock-paper-scissors with your partner to see who has to jump out of the tub, race into a comically fluffy hotel robe, and then sign the room-service chit for your dinner of free-range grilled Cowichan Bay chicken breast and
coq au vin with garlic mashed potatoes, AND WINNING.)

When I started to write that last paragraph, I had a segue in mind for moving along to the next part of this post. I've since forgotten it. So let's call this a segue, shall we? Move it along, people. Nothing to see here.

I've got a lot of catching up to do with my book tally for the year. Again. On the plus side, I really like -- and in some cases love -- all the books I'm about to mention, so maybe you'll get some holiday gift-giving ideas here. So if you're procrastinating doing something else by reading this post, don't feel guilty -- you're doing research. Because that's the kind of good person you are.

The Four-Story Mistake
by Elizabeth Enright (#39)
I've written about my vast fondness for Elizabeth Enright's books for older kids, but it bears repeating. I am vastly fond of Elizabeth Enright's books for older kids. Despite the fact that her stories take place in the 1940s, there's something so accessible about the way Enright writes that it makes them almost timeless. Her characters are precocious, but never irritating. They love adventures and they have good senses of humour. In short, they're likeable kids doing things that kids like to do. In the case of
The Four-Story Mistake, these things include: learning to ride bikes, building treehouses, and putting on shows for each other.

None of this sounds like much, but then why is it that when I'm reading one of Enright's books, I find myself never wanting it to end? I can't say that about a lot of adult books I've read, that's for sure.

On Beauty
by Zadie Smith (#40)
Why didn't someone TELL me that
On Beauty is loosely based on Howard's End? I would've picked it up a lot sooner, I can tell you that. This is one of those books I thought I had totally pegged up front, solely based on its title (treacly) and on its author's name (romance novel-y). Unsurprisingly, my science was not tight.

Smith does a phenomenal job of reinventing the basic plot and character tenets of Howard's End within a modern setting (an ivy-league American university, to be specific), without being overly invested in these tenets. While
Howard's End is about class differences and struggles, On Beauty also adds the complexity of gender, race, and politics.

Now, I do have to confess that books like this tend to make me anxious. As soon as I realize that I'm reading a book that's loosely (or not so loosely) based on a book I consider a favourite, I get all caught up in looking for the parallels and fretting over the divergences, and it's easy to literally lose the plot, or to turn my reading experience into a hollow academic exercise. Fortunately, Smith is an astonishingly good storyteller -- given that this is only, what, her third novel? -- and I was mostly able to set aside my weird OCD reading habits. Mostly.

Tender Is the Night
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (#41)
It's hard when you like a book so much that you fear fucking up other people's perception of it with your clumsy words. This is how I feel about
Tender Is the Night, which is, if not my all-time favourite book, definitely on my top five list. It's not a perfect novel, by any stretch. The narrative is on the messy side, but the more I read this book, the more I realize that you need a bit of looseness (all right: sloppiness) to make room for the many breathtaking psychological insights Fitzgerald tosses away in single sentences, so casually that you could miss them if you weren't paying attention.

I've lost count of how often I've read this novel, but at a conservative guess I'd say probably eight or nine times. When I first read it, I was several years younger than the main characters, a wealthy (of course) couple named Nicole and Dick Diver. Now I'm several years older than Nicole and almost the same age as Dick, and knowing this does something to me. Something good, mostly... if you consider deep thoughts about mortality and wasted potential and failed relationships "good."

Promise me you'll read this book someday. It doesn't have to be now, and it doesn't even have to be next year. But some time when you're feeling soft and forgiving and gentle toward your fellow creatures -- or perhaps when you're feeling just the opposite -- give it a try. (Now that you've promised, you can't take it back. I'll find you.)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
by Bill Bryson (#42)
I'm a big fan of Bill Bryson's writing. I've read almost everything he's written, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he sometimes lacks the ability to know when he's gone on too long. This tendency, however, is nowhere in evidence in
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a childhood memoir as tight and captivating and charming as anything you'll ever read -- and possibly my new favourite Bryson book.

Bryson grew up in the 1950s in Des Moines, Iowa, because, as he says, "somebody had to." He tells a series of hilarious (and only slightly hyperbolic) stories about his escapades as a child and pre-teen, but just as interesting is how he uses these stories as a jumping-off point to talk about the '50s themselves, and how this decade shaped the largest population boom the western world has seen.

Those of us born after 1970 take for granted the richly textured way in which our writerly peers have remembered and recalled so much of the ephemeral pop-culture flotsam (and also jetsom) of our childhood and teenage years.
Douglas Coupland has made an entire career out of it. But does this level of comic, self-deprecating navel-gazing exist for previous generations? I dunno. Give this book to your parents and ask them. Let me know what they say.

The Friends of Meager Fortune
by David Adams Richards (#43)
David Adams Richards has been called Canada's finest living writer. He's been called a national treasure. He's even been compared to
Shakespeare, and I believe it was a reputable critic who did the latter, and not Richards's mom.

I'm not so sure that I'm ready to dethrone
Margaret Atwood, but I liked this book a fair bit, and I'll 'fess up that I got so caught up in the plot that I pretty much chewed off the tips of my fingers. The Friends of Meager Fortune is a semi-historical novel that takes place in the villages and logging camps of the Miramichi region in New Brunswick. It's written in a terse, severe way -- which isn't usually my thing, but it works in this novel -- that hearkens to Richards's self-professed literary idols: Tolstoy, Hardy, Dostoyevsky.

So consider this review your Amazon relational database. "Customers who liked this book also liked
Dickens and Eliot!"

The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers
by E. Nesbit (#44-46)
Argh. I'm tired! The ol' CTS is troubling my poor beleagured tendons. Suffice to say that if you like kids' books and you haven't read anything by E. Nesbit, you've been missing out on the godmother of contemporary children's storytelling. It's not too late for you, though! Hie thee to a library or bookstore. Thank me later.

*The previous 33 words are all lies.


Anne-Marie said...

i didn't even get pas tthe part where you describe the bathtub - you HAVE to tell me where you were - Wickanninish?

.....alright..... I'll get back to reading your post now....

Matthew E said...

Elizabeth Enright is one of my favourites. The Four-Story Mistake is her most famous one in that series (for some reason), but I like the next one, Then There Were Five, even better. (For those who don't know them: there are four books about this particular family of kids. The first one is The Saturdays and the final one is Spiderweb For Two. Enright's other important books are Thimble Summer, Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away.)

Anonymous said...

I love your writing! It makes your book recommendations even more compelling. (I too love room service--with or without toddlers.)

I'm rethinking Tender Is The Night based on your review. Plus, now I have some more titles on my Must Read list. (Hello, Zadie Smith. It's been a while.)

Anonymous said...

I read the books by Elizabeth Enright when I was a kid, but I couldn't ever remember the book titles or the author- just that four-story mistake of a house and some of the kids' adventures. Thank you so much for jogging my memory!

(And I'm glad you had a wonderful vacation to boot!)


Anonymous said...

So, I started On Beuaty earlier this year, and could not finish it because I couldn't stand to read her version of American slang (what's that word, for writing the way people talk? Either way, it drove me insane. It's dumb, and it's sad, that this is my reading handicap, but such is life. Maybe I'll make it my new year's resolution to read it. That, and Huckleberry Finn. (Like I said, sad, but debilitating.)

Anonymous said...

So what would you recommend reading first? Howard's End or on Beauty? I mean, if you've never read Howard's End, will that take away from On Beauty? Also, do you think someone (i.e. me) not entirely enamored of White Teeth would enjoy On Beauty? Because I keep hearing good things about it and the plot summaries sound interesting, but I found White Teeth to be only so-so. Thus, I remain hesitant.

Anonymous said...

exxie, I might leap in on your query just because I was going to comment in that direction anyway. I haven't read Howard's End in about 15 years and therefore it's only a vague memory - though I plan on re-reading it now - and I didn't find that took away from On Beauty at all. And I too was only so-so on White Teeth, but enjoyed On Beauty considerably more.

I also love Tender is the Night, and will have to go back to it again for the fourth or fifth time now that you've planted the thought in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Uli! The fact that you similarly weren't blown away by White Teeth gives me reason to put more stock in your opinion of On Beauty. Perhaps I'll pick it up if I see it in one of my used bookstore searches.

Tammy said...

Heheh, Anne-Marie. Yup, it was the Wickaninnish (sp? I can never write it without having the word in front of me), and it was awesome! Stupidly expensive, of course, but given how seldom we seem to take vacations these days, we figured why not.

Matthew, I've read all the books in the Melendy series and I love Then There Were Five the most, too. I don't have a copy, because I foolishly got rid of all my childhood books when I was a callow teeanager, and despite the fact that I've been re-collecting my favourites for years, Then There Were Five had been out of print for a few years. It's been re-released, thank god (albeit with cover art I have dubious feelings about), but I have yet to get my mitts on a copy.

Exxie, I've never read anything else by Smith, but my friend Libby, who loaned On Beauty to me and raved about it, said that White Teeth was only meh as far as she's concerned, and I trust her taste. As for which to read first... well, I still have to say that Howard's End is my favourite of the two, so I'd actually urge you to read On Beauty first, so you can enjoy it for what it is, without it having to come up short by comparison.

Thanks for the props and good wishes, all! You guys regularly make my day. :)

Anne-Marie said...

You know I spent too many years in the Tourism industry when I can recognize a hotel by the description of the bathtubs - aren't they dee-lish??!!! Lucky buggers, you deserve it.

Graham Jones said...

Thanks for the tips....I'm hopeless. I never know what to read next.

Anonymous said...

On Beauty was one of my favourite books of the year; unlike solaana I actually found Smith's dialogue very believable, almost refreshingly so. I haven't read Howard's End yet, but it's on my list for January.

One question: dethrone Margaret Atwood from what position? (Further proof, I suppose, that my tastes are quite different from many people's; I find Atwood's fiction to be barely above the level of a high school creative writing course.)