Category Archives: Books Worth Keeping

Plenty of books are worth reading once.
These selections are good enough that they deserve shelf space; to be remembered and referred to, and to cherish the prospect of one day experiencing them again.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

If Charles Dickens had been alive in 2002 – and if Charles Dickens were a woman who loves women, or at least an author who wished to appeal to such – this is the book that Charles Dickens might have written. Sarah Waters gives us the dark alleys and stinking gutters, the unrepentant thieves struggling to make a living off of others’ innocence, the crumbling leaky mansion inhabited by an anti-social misanthrope (this one happens to be a scholar of the era’s pornography, soft-core though it would be to us today) and a cast that would warm the heart of any theatrical agent nursing a deep roster of character actors.

The plot too, is Dickensian in its intricacy, incorporating old family lore, false identities, willful deception and several rapid transitions between the world of wealth and that of poverty – not to mention servitude, orphaning, incarceration and consignment to a madhouse. For the most part it all flows and compels, though there are places that would have benefitted from less conversation and more activity. Given that Waters has had significant success, I’d guess her fans will be more comfortable with the blend than I.   They may also forgive several infuriating passages where characters prolong the drama by refusing to speak the obvious, leading this reader to feel manipulated and the tale prolonged beyond its natural scale.

At the heart of the story is the relationship of Susan and Maud, intricately-tied despite being separated until their teens and unaware until the novel’s very end of what those ties really are. Their interaction is told in alternating first person sections and it is to Waters’ credit that there is never any question which of the two we are inhabiting. As to which of these women is laudable and which detestable, that is always in question, again to the author’s credit. Neither is a saint, yet both have been placed by others into situations that make their conduct, if not excusable, at least defensible in a novelistic context. Their love story is handled very carefully it seems, as if aiming for just enough clarity to satisfy readers who seek that aspect, but obliquely enough not to deter those who are indifferent to it. For anyone who brings along an attitude antagonistic to the image of two women in love with one another, the lack of a single admirable male character in this tale will perhaps suggest a reason to consider it more generously.

Getting back to the women, Mrs. Sucksby, the mother and mother-figure who is in one sense the instigator of all the angst, is in another sense as much a victim. Her final act of love and protectiveness seems modelled on that of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps another nod to the man who wrote that novel, as he might have this.

Thoughtful, empathetic; a rewarding and pleasurable read, though it would have been more so with a few tucks and darts in the right places.

(Fingersmith was adapted into a two part BBC movie, 2005)

Fran Kiss Stein – a Love Story, Jeanette Winterson

Winterson, whom I’ve encountered previously as a writer of contemporary fiction and memoir, here delves into history, of both the usual sort – events of the past – and the less usual – events yet to come. Her anchor is the artistic journey and personal tragedy of Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a social-activist author clearly ahead of her time. And of her daughter’s time as well, since the mother died in childbirth. That early loss shapes the younger woman’s mind and thoughts as she wanders in exile with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and his friend Lord Byron, and their entourage. The portions of the book narrated in Mary’s dreamlike musings are compelling and exciting, in some ways the most so of the novel.

That worthy story is interwoven with those of a transman doctor named Ry and Victor Stein, a scientist living in Manchester (where Winterson actually teaches…) as he attempts an advance in electronic intelligence which is every bit as audacious as the one in Shelley’s landmark novel, Frankenstein, or the New Prometheus.   This portion of the novel reads more like a sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner for the TED Talk crowd. Oh, and just for good measure, those ample threads are braided with that of a mysterious refugee who claims to be the doctor of Shelley’s novel – on the run to escape his own creation before being imprisoned as a madman – but seems in the end to be actually a figment of someone’s – or perhaps even everyone’s – imagination. Yes, this plot seems to require a lot of hyphenation, and I haven’t even mentioned the story line involving intelligent sex-bots and a lovely Mormon!

That somewhat confounding recipe, though, cooks up a hearty stock, which Winterson then seasons with flavors of gender and culture, of mysticism, humanism and dogmatism, of art, science, culture and anthropology, urbanism and – well, the list seems endless, as the fictional ingredients are embellished by the wider reputation and known-history of the actual characters she has re-imagined. Even as one reads, there comes the thought that this book will demand a second reading, just as any decent painting merits more than a single viewing. There is more here than first meets the eye, which has always been part of the fun with Winterson.

One of the most affecting passages comes near the end, as Mary considers the plight of Byron’s daughter, the mathematical prodigy, Ada Lovelace:

“And I recalled our locked-in days on Lake Geneva, impounded by rain, and Byron and Polidori explaining to me why the male principle is more active than the female principle.

Neither man seemed to consider that being refused an education, being legally the property of a male relative, whether father, husband or brother, having no rights to vote, and no money of her own once married, and being barred from every profession except governess or nurse, and refused every employment except mother wife or skivvy, and wearing a costume that makes walking or riding impossible, might limit the active principle of a female.”

For this reader, that passage embodies Winterson’s signature; a blend of anger, insight and empathy that shines light where light is needed.

(And yes, one assumes Winterson must appreciate the irony that Byron’s somewhat notorious daughter should share a surname with Linda Lovelace, a twentieth-century porn star of broad notoriety. One wonders in fact, if a young Linda Boreman was aware of Ada’s history of escapades and it was that which led her to adopt the surname for her artistic persona. Oh yes, and wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tracy Chevalier or Emma Donaghue were to write an account of the life of Ada Lovelace, who certainly deserves one? “Doctor Livingstone, I’m thinking this river extends farther to the interior than first it seemed…”).

Always worthwhile, Winterson has once again rewarded her readers quite amply.

The Relic Master, Christopher Buckely

Intended as a comic romp through the Europe of 1517, much of this novel feels rickety and theatrical, the characters and dialogue anachronistic enough to break the spell of the detailed settings and historical context Buckley has marshalled on their account. As much as those sorts of clashes have worked in films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or on paper in Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, here they fall flat. One liner note specifically references The Princess Bride, and it may well be that high bar for which the author has aimed and missed; not by a mile, but not by a hair, either.

What has been hit though, is the religious and monarchical context; corrupt institutions manipulating all beneath them to fill their coffers through taxes, conquest and the sale of indulgences, while nobles and clerics fill their palaces with costly religious relics whose absurdity appears to drive the author’s passion as much as anything else we read.   Protagonist Dismas – the Relic master of the title – is an intriguing construct, and a worthy reminder that the single-minded mercantile instincts which guide some of today’s less-enlightened entrepreneurs have existed far longer than our current business models and market segments. That Martin Luther would rebel against such tyranny and hypocrisy is entirely understandable and justified, though his unlikely protection by one of the oppressors comes across as a lucky accident of personalities – or the hand of Providence, perhaps?

For a novel clearly intended to entertain, there are moments of fun, from the bumbling of oafish mercenaries to the triumph of its rag-tag protagonists. Neither Dismas, though, nor Albrecht Durer (the historically-real artist who ends up helping in his scheme), nor even the lovely Magda, an escaped prostitute with a heart of gold (of course) are filled-out any more than we’d expect in an Ocean’s Eleven prequel. Which, come to think of it, is actually not a bad way to describe this piece, but with Medieval technology in place of the modern.

Erudite and critical enough to give the Roman Catholic Church some heartburn when Buckley makes the case for Luther’s protests and the power of the written word, this may perhaps find purpose as a vehicle to educate teen–aged boys about the roots of the Reformation.

Love to see how that goes over with the Harper Valley PTA!

The Places In Between, Rory Stewart

This remarkable journey – walking across most of Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. invasion – calls to mind the tales of early Brits who first introduced the folks back home to the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It makes clear the discrepancy between our brash intent to bestow democracy and pluralism upon the Afghan people, and those peoples’ ingrained sense of their own culture and values, which have been thousands of years in the making.

Stewart writes in a modest and fluid manner which underplays the risks of his journey; if not for his apparently-excellent language skills, he would almost certainly have been killed any number of times, so the book works as well as drama as it does as personal memoir.  It is also an effective rebuttal to the notion that any amount of outside ( read ‘U. S.’) force will mold these mountain dwellers to a Western-style pluralistic democratic society in any time frame acceptable to the political interests that have put us there.  His knowledge of the region’s culture and history (which, by the way, is longer than that of our own nation) reminds one that the residents have their own traditions to honor and continue.  They are not waiting around for us to remake them in our image, thank you very much.

Deserves to  become a classic of twentieth century exploration, and a critical puzzle-piece to the history of post 9-11 American adventurism .

 

 

Room, Emma Donoghue

Room sets off on a Movie-of-the-Week premise – five-year old Jack has lived his entire life in a single room, victim along with his mom (Ma) of a tabloid kidnapping/imprisonment – and takes it farther, into Ellie Wiesel territory; human-kind’s capacity for adaptation, the saving power of love and the forces shaping one’s perception and world view. In doing so, it goes way beyond genre and expectation, offering insights relevant well-beyond the tiny population who’ve suffered any similar fates. Donoghue’s hand is, for the most part, light, as we sense Ma’s desperate coping mechanisms only thru Jack’s child-centric perceptions.  Donoghue allows us to feel the desperation of their escape attempt (the least believable element, until the Opra-esque TV interview which follows it) and the awkwardness of reunion with others after 7 years in their own little world. The novel’s intent at brevity is evident in some after-escape segments, but all in all that is a blessing, as Jack’s first-person voice can be a bit tiresome.

The final beats reinforce the author’s strongest theme – that for Jack their tiny  room was not a prison, but home, and in some ways a bit of a paradise: Ma all to himself 24/7/365, safe and filled with all he had ever known – and nearly all he ever wanted.  By making it his only world, Ma protected her baby, but at the same time, prevented him from understanding his true fate, and so from growing beyond its four, very limiting, walls

A useful analogy, and a keeper of a tale.

The Way of the World, David Franklin

Browsing a Vegas Goodwill shop for some throw-away layers to wear at the cold early-morning start of a marathon, decided to pick up a lightweight travel–read as well, and this slim volume peeped out from among the shelves and shelves of generic cops and lovers. In 239 highly-readable pages Franklin traces human-kind’s progression from purely survival-driven tribalism to today’s globe-girdling, technology-dependent, relatively-rational and somewhat-open-minded civilization, postulating 8 major steps that got us here:

Becoming Human; Inventing Civilization; Developing a Conscience; Seeking a Lasting Peace; Achieving Rationality; Uniting the Planet; Releasing Nature’s Energies; and Ruling Ourselves

Echoing others who have called the Twentieth ‘The American Century,’ he presents a case that the USA’s eminence is due not to any inherent moral superiority but simply to the lucky accidents that allow it to embody humanity’s most progressive (most progressive to date, he might caution) traits and achievements. With that as back ground, he then speculates on what the next century might hold for our blue, white, green and brown orb. Nearly twenty years in on that adventure now, it is interesting to note that Franklin wrote here in 1998 of the threat posed by the most-radical factions in Islamic cultures (and fundamentalism in general), rightly characterizing it as a rejection of rationalism; a willful step backward on our communal journey. Clear evidence, if any were needed, against those who imply that those forces only became visible on 9/11, and a prescient analysis of our current big picture.

Most striking of Franklin’s observations are those which connect over the centuries – ancient Greek thoughts and actions which seem eerily apt descriptions of contemporary ones; and Rome’s struggle to survive, which appears so similar to some scenarios of our own system’s woes. Of course this author is not the first to make such connections, as he himself points out.

Ultimately optimistic in its view of a species whose intelligence has, for six thousand years, led to the gradual but unmistakable improvement of most persons’ lives, this is also a cautionary tale – progress is neither continual nor assured. But, the record suggests that it is possible, and should we continue to avoid self-destruction, any periods of stagnation or back-sliding are likely to be followed by eras of further progress.

A comforting outlook that extends past any one moment of circumstance; the very exemplar of why History is worth studying.

Unlike the second-hand hoodie I purchased that morning and tossed onto a pile near the start line outside St. George, this book is staying on my shelf.

Vexation Lullaby, Justin Tussing

Wonderful surprise; a rock-n-roll novel that feels true and real while transcending its setting and subject to reveal real thought and humanity, rising beyond the stereotypes and neuroses.

As much as I enjoyed the dissolute rock-star Jimmy Cross – skillfully complexified by Tussing – and the protagonist Peter Silver, it is the exploration of obsessive fan Arthur Pennyman (‘Everyman’?) which jolts this out of genre, as he gains a love interest and a life. Or perhaps it is really the women – Arthur’s Rosslyn, Peter’s Maya and Jimmy’s Judith – who humanize the men and the novel. In any case, it is the relationships and dynamics that surprise and reward here, not the drunken debauchery, which comes across mostly as habit and self-medication rather than joyful or even truly sordid.

A human and humane story set in a milieu not typically known for either, spun out with a sure hand, even down to Pennyman’s obsession with footnoting.

(Footnote – I look forward to checking out ‘The Best People in the World’ Tussing’s earlier novel, which is listed as winner of a Ken Kesey Award)