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.

Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan

McEwan still has the power to surprise; to anticipate what his reader will be thinking and make hay of it.

All through this I wondered at the reason behind his writing in Serena’s first person and what sort of personal whimsy or predilection might be behind it. That he (she ) wonders if there might be a hint of gender issues in Tom Haley’s writing (and persona) led me to wonder (not for the first time) just the same about McEwan. Then here she comes in the final epistle to toy again with the theme, but now from Tom’s point of view,and at the same time, reveal the he (McEwan) has, all the time, been writing in Tom’s persona as he (Tom) attempts to write from Serena’s point of view! Almost more fun in the diagram than in the execution, still, McEwan’s Serena is mostly credible ( and where not, one can grant that it is just Tom’s failure, not McEwan’s). Interesting and just kinky enough to add spice.

No masterpiece, but a fun spy story with more human insight and value then any but the best of its genre.

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

William Boyd secured my admiration with Any Human Heart, and this novel only ratchets that higher.  In a deceptively low-key manner, it tells nothing less than the full story of a human life, packed with incident and accident, the monumental and the mundane.  Zelig-like, Amory Clay’s story intersects with many events of the twentieth century,  so this is also an historical fiction – and at times a bit of a thriller – but mostly it is a wise and thoughtful examination of a (fictional) life well-lived.

Impressively, Boyd upped the ante on himself this time by taking on a female protagonist with, at least to this reader, great success. While Amory is not a ‘typical’ stereotyped woman of her era, she feels real and true to her gender, especially in his scenes of romance, sex and simple lustful arousal. One wonders at the research or consultation he may have employed to get there.

The novel employs another conceit as well: Clay is a lifelong photographer, and throughout the text Boyd has sprinkled in what are purported to be her photos, dated from 1928 to 1968.  Internet research reveals they are found-photos, mostly fitted to the narrative but a little bit the other way round as well.  In any case, they add another dimension and credibility, without feeling gimmicky. (Unlike some novels told all in correspondence, or with wild typographical explorations running up and down and sideways across nearly-blank pages).

A real inspiration, and a challenge to other authors to do anywhere near as well.

Wow!

Shakespeare’s Pub – A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn

This amusing blend of history and anecdote traces not just the George, but all the coaching inns of Southwick, down through the centuries. Brown, who has made a career of writing about British beers and the people who brew, serve and consume them, has an obvious love of his subject and that translates into an enjoyable read, even with an iconoclastic glass of wine in one’s hand.

Has a decent eye also, for how individual history reflects that of the surrounding economy and culture. One of his revelations concerns the effects which the invention and rapid spread of railroad trains had on a wide range of industries, from the freight wagon trade, to passenger-carrying stagecoaches, stables and liveries, lodges/hotels, the hop trade, ports and the very patterns of settlement geography. Not gradual change either, but rapid and accelerating, able to wipe out an industry in one lifetime. That some of the trades displaced had done similar violence to other, earlier ones, suggests poetic justice when the trains themselves are later displaced by automobile and truck traffic (on roadways which necessarily evolved almost beyond recognition from the muddy and undisciplined things they had once been – ‘imagine, needing to make actual rules for which side of the road to drive on! Imagine!’).  Which reflects nicely on our current fearless leader’s proposal to preserve the coal trade. Really?

Touching on literature, cuisine, habit and morality, Brown suggests that the history of the George is only tenuously concerned with its physical manifestation, examining the existential question, if you replace only one small piece at a time, but eventually have replaced every piece of any object, is it still the original object? A question he answers in the affirmative – as he must, for the book’s topic to have merit…

My favorite bit though, is when a George-lover asserts that the ghost of Same Weller (of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers), has been seen around the place, allowing Brown a wonderful riff on the mental contortions required first to believe in ghosts, then in the ghost of a fictional character who never lived in the first place, and then that said ghost would haunt not the pub which the author named as his character’s locale but the one which some readers like to think the author may have had in mind when he created his fictional location, despite giving it the not-at-all fictional name of another actual pub down the street!

I like the way this author’s mind works, and will be seeking out his other beery books. Not to mention seeking out The George one again, as soon as we return to London-town.

The Legend of Coulter H. Bryant, Alexandra Fuller

A legend in structure and voice, this bittersweet volume recounting the unfairly-short life of one Wyoming cowboy/oil-hand has the added virtue of being true.

Bittersweet it is, in how tightly Bryant’s great assets – humor, modesty, caring, headstrong eagerness – are tied to his less-practical qualities – impatience and impulsiveness, difficulty with book learning, and a general unwillingness to make careful preparation for anything, including his own continued existence.

Bittersweet too, in  how the admirable desire to make a living in the midst of rugged nature can evolve into reckless exploitation and endangerment.  How the joys and virtues of Wyoming (or any other near-frontier region)and its lifestyle are intertwined with its hardships and its dangers.  Which seems, after all, the real root theme of Fuller’s slightly-dramatized biography, and no doubt the reason this Africa-born-and-raised author has chosen to make such a state her home.

Fluid and entertaining, The Legend of Coulter H. Bryant is also deeply moving; and very nearly poetic at times.

An masterful piece of work on an eye-opening topic, to an admirable journalistic end.

Scribbling the Cat, Alexandra Fuller

This author continues to impress both for the  boldness of the people about whom she writes, and for the conscience with which she records and expresses lives lived on the edge of what most mainstream readers and writers would consider to be the modern world.  From her own raggedly individualistic and idiosyncratic family to the Wyoming roughnecks of The Legend of Coulter H. Bryant, to this tale of an African ex-soldier on the cusp of regret and despair, she reminds that civilization is neither uniformly progressed nor equitably shared.  Along the way we are amused, thrilled, at times appalled and always captivated by the variety and beauty of lives lived less carefully than our grade-school teachers taught us we should do.

As in her two family memoirs, Africa is a central character here, her raw beauty, blood-smeared history and sometimes-fatally-high demands treated with love and respect.  One is left with a great desire to see  the place for oneself – note ‘see’ rather than ‘experience;’  Fuller is all too successful at exposing the faults and folly of those who hope to observe this land casually or in safety, and the risks one must accept in order to even begin to get to know this continent or its people.

There is, in this travelogue of a road trip (an expanded meaning for that expression, to be sure!) with the soldier identified as ‘K’ more than a little revelation of the author as well. Clearly Fuller was struggling to understand and accept her then-current existence as a married mother in safe, comfortable Wyoming.  As with Hemingway and so many others, the total immersion and sensory overload of life in the midst of conflict or on the edge of subsistence appears to beckon and fulfill in ways the workaday cannot.   It is no surprise then, to find in a Wikipedia search that another of Fuller’s volumes, Leaving Before the Rains Come, chronicles the disintegration of her marriage some time after the journey described in ‘Scribbling…’ (That title, by the way, is one of the multitude of euphemisms K and his fellow combatants use for the act of killing.)

A book to keep on the shelf, and an author to pursue.  Expect I’ll soon be reading the remaining 2 of her six volumes to date.

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

A great fan of Kate Atkinson’s fiction, I put off trying this volume because its blurb sounded rather a domestic-family-history sort of thing, not my favorite subject matter.  The first few chapters did little to dispel that, but the super-hooky opening scene had already fulfilled its function and I kept on, to find about 10% of the way in that the story suddenly became more intriguing when Ursula died and her life began again, the first of many such re-sets.

Between those jumps, the narrative superficially resembles a classic British novel of woman’s place and yearnings, but as subsequent incarnations multiply with varying consistency, both character and reader become conscious of something more; the insidious impact which even a small amount of future-sight might have on one’s actions, reactions and dreams.  By the end of this substantial tale (a long-ish read in the beginning and end, though the middle portions hold the attention very well and overall one is sad to leave its world), both are armed with enough information to anticipate and dread events in roughly equal measure.

Testament to the effectiveness with which Atkinson parcels out information to the reader and her character, is that we discover and wonder at her situation in much the same way she does.  This manipulative skill was already apparent in her earlier Case Histories, but is here even more integral to the ideas being explored and the craft being applied.

Another point of appreciation is the degree to which Ursula’s life and tale are not ruled by romance.  Yes there are scenes of her first encounters with boys (informed by her lack of intimate education, these feel both historically accurate and quite amusing) and later affairs, but this is no Bronte or Austin creation, desperately seeking the right man to validate and support her. What really guides Ursula is the desire to craft a unique place and impact in the world that reflects her personality and abilities – a compass too often granted to male protagonists and not their female counterparts.

As always, it is conclusion that makes a story truly successful or not. Here the most dramatic act is unsettled – we are not allowed to see how it plays out – except that once we think a bit, we do know, both by our own experience outside the novel and by the coda-like scenes which follow it.  As much as we enjoy the return of one of her favorite relatives, he would not have been missing in the first place if her plan had succeeded as intended, so…

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and deeply satisfying work, reflecting and engendering serious thought about family, literature, destiny, philosophy and the very nature of existence.   Oh, and much less ponderous than that last makes it sound…

Worthy of a re-read, though unlike Ursula I do not find my time multiplying endlessly. And besides, there is a subsequent volume, A God in Ruins, picking up on another character from Ursula’s lives.

So much to look forward to!

 

Founding Brothers – The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph J. Ellis

A thoroughly engaging recap of several first-string players’ roles in our nation’s early innings.  Structured around six key incidents (The Duel, The Dinner, The Silence, The Farewell, The Collaborators and the Friendship) this relatively slim volume provides a compelling picture of the interpersonal conflicts among what we today recall so monolithically as our Founding Fathers.  Profoundly divided and conflicted, as Ellis dramatically illustrates by starting out with The Duel between Hamilton and Burr and elucidating it’s root causes, it is their very differences that gave us a system which has managed to accommodate our nation’s more profound conflicts for longer than any other republic ever has.

This is neither puff piece nor hatchet job; Ellis admits flaws in even his favorites (Washington foremost, with Adams as runner-up) and virtues in those he has pegged down (Jefferson, Franklin).  Only Aaron Burr is completely dissed, as selfishly opportunistic and without values (a modern parallel comes to mind…).  The penultimate impression is as the author clearly intends: gratitude that these men (and one woman, Abigail Adams, presented as wise, tolerant and far more worldly than members of her sex were given credit for in that time) happened along at such a moment.

Clearly they alone did not create the historic circumstances for independence, many others contributed to both causes and effects, but these eight (Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, the two Adams’s, Madison, Franklin and Washington) played crucial roles.  Over 200 years later, still we live in their shadow and their debt.

A book well-deserving of its Pulitzer.