Life Mask by Emma Donoghue took a while and I give it two stars, sadly. It's a long novel set in the 18th century, centering around three people who share a character trait of being indecisive and boring. Anne Damer is a an aristocrat and a sculptor; she's friends with Lord Derby who has for literally years had a chaste relationship with actress Eliza Farren who has risen from the lower classes to stardom on Drury Lane. Eliza is unwilling to make an arrangement with him while his ailing wife still lives. Anne and Eliza become friends but scurrilous rumors suggesting they are Sapphists threaten both their reputations.
The problem with the book isn't so much that it's long and boring, but that the characters aren't brought to life. Anne's thoughts and feelings are described more than the others. It's hard to see why Derby is so besotted with Eliza that he's willing to wait for her and why Anne is so drawn to her - we're told of her beauty and grace and Derby and Anne's delight in that, but beyond that she doesn't have any particular appeal. She's a comedy actress but doesn't come across as clever or funny, and her personality is vague - she says she's never felt love for anyone. She just goes through year after year of performances with a few thoughts about her fellow thespians, but there's no insight into how she prepares for a role or her feelings about acting. A character who's the center of admiration needs to sparkle. The backstage scenes are lifeless, and if Eliza is so appealing, why doesn't she have other stage door Johnnies?
Part of the plot is one of the character's lack of self knowledge, which accounts for some of the vagueness. This was mildly interesting to me in the sense of wondering in times when sodomy and Sapphism were judged harshly, how would would a person who realized they were drawn in that direction come to terms with it. But as a story, it was unsatisfying. There's much much more intrigue about various characters as the book winds along, but after a while I just didn't care.
Oh yeah they're based on real people, and the politics was interesting enough to make me go to Wikipedia for more background - so was Hugh Walpole - but that wasn't enough.
Now I've started The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey which I've had around for years. I don't know much about Richard III but in light of recent events, would like to learn more even if it's fiction.
I finished My Side, Ruth Gordon's second autobiography, and enjoyed it very much, again. What an interesting life. I was impressed by how hard she worked and how open to life she was. There's a section about worrying and wishing for more that I found very moving. I don't think I'll read her third one which I have but haven't read, because that one looks like mostly anecdotes.
But I did feel like reading another book I've had around, Jed Harris, The Curse of Genius by Martin Gottfried, because of his relationship with Ruth Gordon and their son, Jones Gordon. Skimmed it, but it was interesting.
If the name isn't familiar, he was a theater producer and director, the wonder boy of the late '20 with four consecutive hits. But his career faltered and flamed out, eventually. He was a mean SOB who took great pleasure and pride in being a mean SOB - tormenting playwrights with false promises about producing their plays, insulting and belittling actors. He directed Laurence Olivier in "The Green Bay Tree" and on opening night he whispered to Olivier waiting in the wings, "Good-bye, Larry. I hope I never see you again." Olivier got his revenge by basing his portrayal of Richard III on Harris' movements, expressions, and appearance. George S. Kaufman famously said that when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have somebody throw his ashes in Jed Harris's face.
It's interesting to wonder what attracted Ruth Gordon, a woman of huge kindness, sweetness, and kindness to him. Probably some of it was his intelligence, and vice versa. He was hugely successful and Ruth liked the finer things in life, and in 1928 he was at the top of his game and sexy. She had Jones with him because she was afraid it was her last chance to have a baby after several abortions. Ruth got smart and moved on, but there was no shortage of women who were willing to put up with him. At least two who were involved with him suicided and he was blamed.
He was hateful to Jones, too. When Jones was four years old his father told a friend, "That kid's no good." Later, as a young man, Jones lived with him and endured constant criticism and thrown ashtrays.
Anyway, this book is mostly a collection of anecdotes about Harris and I ended up enjoying it, while feeling sorry for anyone who ever tried to do business with him or be in any kind of relationship with him. What a monster. Of course he lived to be almost 80, the stinkers always do.
Now I'm reading Peter Pan because Ruth Gordon made her debut in it in 1915, and I've never read it though I saw the Mary Martin production several times and probably saw the Disney version. It's a bit twee for me, seems like it's more for nostalgic adults than children, but I like that there are truly scary parts.
After that I think I'm going to read Life Mask, a historical novel by Emma Donoghue. I didn't like her Slammerkin much but Room was one of the best books I've ever read.
Now reading My Side, Ruth Gordon's second memoir. This one's more of an autobiography, starting with her first real job as an actress in a road company doing one night stands and travelling by train, trying to learn how to act. Marriage to a fellow actor who helped her, finally roles where she knew what she was doing and proved she could act. Lots of abortions, train rides, love affairs, funny stories, other actors. Loving this.
I read this one on vacation, finished it on the plane coming home:
Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields, Simon Louvish. Five stars. A detailed biography that tries to get to the truth of all the stories Fields told about his origins, and to the man behind the persona he created. Louvish had access to voluminous scrapbooks that Fields kept of all his appearances and to family papers, and he did exhaustive research in to archives at the Library of Congress and other places to seek out old scripts for vaudeville skits, studio correspondence, etc., etc. There are a lot of transcripts of routines (some reviewers didn’t like this, which I found puzzling – surely if you’re reading this, you like Fields and get a kick out of these.) There are great portraits of Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, and others not well known today.
I hadn’t realized that Fields had such a long career as a juggler or that he’d traveled the world in that role for years before he became the comedian we recognize now. I liked it a lot and it was a perfect airplane and poolside book. The last part of Fields’ life wasn’t as well described as I would have liked but overall it was great. Apparently this was the go-to Fields biography for several years but now it’s been superseded by James Curtis’ W. C Fields. I’d like to read that one too.
Then I read this for the rest of the flight:
Swallow the Ocean, a Memoir, Laura M. Flynn. So-so memoir of growing up with a mother who was paranoid schizophrenic. Her father left and wasn’t able to get custody for several years. She does a good job of describing daily life with her mom and sisters, her mom’s many restrictions based on paranoid delusions, and the girls' ambivalence about wanting to get away and live with their dad. A running theme about a story the sisters make up about their dolls who are captives and the dolls' schemes to escape became a bit tiresome.
I had a lot of questions that didn't get answered: How did they learn to live "normal" lives where people have clean houses and don't have arbitrary restrictions on what they can eat? How has her childhood affected her life now - was she able to cast off much of the abuse, or does it haunt her? When her mother rammed her father's car after he got custody, did anyone press charges? (It didn't sound like it - why wasn't she prosecuted?) And finally, why do the girls still maintain contact with their mother? People I know who have relatives with this kind of intractable mental disease seem happy to have them out of their lives. I know it's complicated, but...
Not really "read" but enjoyed very much:
The Face in the Lens: Anonymous Photographs and Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers, Robert Flynn Johnson. Anonymous and strange photographs of the sort I collect at flea markets and estate sales so what's not to like? I liked the first one so much I ordered his other books of photos.
Mad forever; a new collection of the best from Mad magazine. A Christmas gift from my dear husband who knows my unhealthy love of MAD magazine. I have a hardbound anthology from 1958 that was my dad’s and didn’t know there were any others till he got me this one from 1959 and another from 1960. I've read all of it before, many times, but the drawings still have the power to make me laugh.
Actual book I'm reading right now: Myself Among Others, Ruth Gordon. Gordon’s acting career started in 1915 and lasted till her death in 1985. She was smart as a whip and a keen observer of all the interesting show people she met, and all her friends were as interesting as she is. This memoir (the first of three), is a collection of anecdotes about them. I first read some of it in Vogue in 1970 and have read it several times; I guess it’s a comfort read for me. I thought of it after finishing the Fields biography because it covers some of the same years though their careers didn’t intersect at all.
I just finished A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
by Rebecca Solnit. I ended up with two copies and thought it looked like a book wild_irises
would like, then I felt like reading it myself.
Her thesis is that after disasters, ordinary people quickly find ways to help each other and come together in new communities of hope and optimism, despite loss. Authorities and elites are certain that there will be riots and chaos and come in to rule with a heavy hand - for instance, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, communal kitchens were quickly set up and neighbors helped each other fight fires, while the authorities drove off amateur fire fighting attempts and caused more damage, and the police declared martial law and issued shoot to kill orders for anyone in the damaged area (including rescuers.) It's an interesting idea and she's done a lot of research to back it up.
This is one of those books that should have been a long New Yorker article. She describes various kinds of disasters and the grassroots efforts versus the government reactions with many examples. I skimmed the last half because it became too repetitive. However, it was edifying for me because I was unaware of the scope of the atrocities in the wake of Katrina.
This morning I started Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields
, Simon Louvish. It has mixed reviews (people complaining because it has too much script dialog) so we'll see.
It was a big decision because tomorrow we're going to Hawaii for 10 days and I need books for the plane and beach. I'm also taking The monuments men : Allied heros, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history
by Robert M. Edsel and Broken Harbor
by Tana French and two more I forget.
Today I finished The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. One of the best books of the year for me.
A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy live in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. Well, from the wisdom of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to tell grownups my thoughts, so I'm thinking "just tell them you don't want to _______" or "why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???"
Still, even as time passes, he keeps doing stupid shit and not being honest with people who could help him. Despite all that, it's a terrific read with a lot of great characters. Hard to read because there's so much loss and sadness; his mother's death pretty much guts him and that's just a start. I got frustrated by the slow pace which was partly my fault for reading it a bit at a time instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. Near the end the pace suddenly picks up and I could barely put it down, and the ending was utterly satisfying.
I just want to note that I loved Boris, and that I really liked how she used the dog that he had in high school who's still alive years later to show how little time has actually passed despite so many things happening, and how terribly young he really is.
Burial Rites, Hanna Kent. Wow, what a great, evocative novel.
It's 1828 in Iceland. Three servants have been convicted of murdering of their master and another man, and condemned to death. Each has been sent to stay with a farm family to work as a servant until the details of their execution are settled.
Agnes Magnusdottir, older and more experienced in the world, is the one the others claim was the ringleader. She's assigned a priest to prepare her for her death.
This book is based on a real case. I gather that Agnes is kind of a Lizzie Borden figure in Iceland, in the sense that everybody's familiar with her. Some see her as purely wicked; others see more nuance. This book takes that stance. The author was an exchange student from Australia as a teen who learned about Agnes and got interested in her life. The story takes place over the months that Agnes stays on the farm, getting to know the priest and the farm family, helping with harvest and lambing, gradually telling her story to the priest and to us. It's very evocative of the hell of peasant life with all its hard work and misery. The weather, and ravens, are huge parts of the atmosphere, too. I couldn't put it down. Some mysteries are solved, others are not. Is Agnes a reliable narrator?
I had a few language quibbles: one character is named "Natan" and people are always remarking that he might as well have been named "Satan". But wouldn't they be speaking Icelandic? There are a couple of other things like this but not a problem.
Cockroaches, Jo Nesbo. Good mystery; a complicated plot with a lot of interesting characters. I'll be reading more of his books.
Innocent Blood, P. D. James. Reread. Psychological mystery about a young woman, adopted, who traces her parents and finds that they murdered a child. Her mother is about to released from prison and the daughter suggests they rent an apartment together for the months before she goes to Cambridge. There is more going on that she doesn’t know.
This is a great, suspenseful thriller but I have to say that the emotions of many of the characters are really weird and don't make a lot of sense. The ending, emotion-wise, was a mess that strained credulity, and I'm not talking about the sex. I didn't notice this the first time I read it. I ended up giving it 3 stars, down from 5 midway through.
Oh yeah there is also a carefully knit, meaningfully given sweater that is destroyed in a fit of anger, and this bothered me more than the child murder.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, Box Brown. A rather interesting graphic novel biography of the wrestler with acromegaly, with a lot of info about the mechanics of pro wrestling, some of which I knew, some I didn't. Andre wasn't a very nice guy, it seems, but he didn't have a great life because of his size and constant traveling for his job. He was one of a kind, that's for sure. It's not the kind of detailed art that I like but its rough style suited its subject.
The Redbreast, Jo Nesbo. A great, complicated mystery/thriller set in present day Norway, but the story has roots in WWII. I had to go to Wikipedia to read about what happened to Norway during that war: they were occupied by the Germans, and the Royal Family fled to England. Some Norwegians volunteered to fight for the Germans on the Eastern Front, or to work as nurses in their hospitals. After the war nine hundred of them were sentenced to jail as traitors.
Harry gets drawn into a mystery involving some of these people while doing surveillance tasks, and there's plenty more going on besides that. Betrayal, heartbreak, loss… all that and a fast paced mystery.
A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor. The objects are from the British Museum. I'm reading the essays at random. They're interesting little slices of history, many of regions I know nothing about. Very pleasant.
Hawaiiana: The Best of Hawaiian Design, Mark Blackburn. It's a book of values for collectors. I don't care about that but I love looking at pictures of old travel brochures with Hawaiian maidens, Hawaiian shirts, souvenirs, pineapple shaped ukuleles, etc.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. A David Copperfield-ish story of a young man whose happy life in New York City with his mother is shattered when she's killed in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum. It's rather slow moving and somewhat frustrating because he can't express himself very well and doesn't confide in adults who might help him. From my perspective of 59, I've forgotten what it was like to be 15 and unable to talk to grownups, so I'm thinking "Use your words! Just tell them you don't want to _______" or "Why don't you get in touch with _______ for crying out loud???" The slow pacing is partly my fault for reading it thirty minutes at a time during exercise instead of sitting down for a good long read, as it deserves. There are so many great characters. I'm enjoying it despite my gripes.
Now I Remember: A Holiday History of Britain, Ronald Hamilton. Brief histories of the rulers of Britain. I'm learning a lot about the Medieval ones that I don't know much about.
I'm still reading the last 4; I don't usually have so many books going at once.
Faithful Place, Tana French. A novel posing as a mystery, very absorbing, dark, haunting. Sad, sad, sad, about broken people, broken families, what might have been. Disturbing for me because of horrible, horrible family stuff that I was lucky to miss but can barely stand to read about. I guessed the killer right away but had no understanding of the nuances of motivation until the very end when they were horribly made clear.
One of the best books of my reading year, although I wish I could stop thinking about the characters and their fates. I read a lot of mysteries and true crime and almost never am touched by them. Perhaps because for me the saddest thing is the haunted feeling of what might have been, and if only. This one hit me hard.
Now reading Hawaii The Big Island Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook, Andrew Doughty, because we're going there in January. I have a Maui guidebook by the same author and can barely stand his stupid jokes, smug bragging ("we're the ONLY guidebook that will tell you the truth about...", and opinions (things he raves about sound awful to me, things he dismisses are things I've enjoyed.) But despite that it has tons of maps and useful stuff.
After that I may read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent which I just got at Goodwill.
Fairyland : a memoir of my father, Alysia Abbot. I really enjoyed this. I lived in San Francisco during the years she describes and liked the way she anchors the story on Haight Street, and shows its changes by describing businesses that came and went. More than that, it's a beautiful account of growing up with a gay dad who may have done some irresponsible things but who loved her, completely and unconditionally. She does a good job of showing how her adoration of him as a little kid turned to self consciousness as she became a teen and wished he wasn't so, well, gay. And how despite his love, she did long for a mother and found surrogates. I was glad when she went off to her own adventures at college and could feel her ambivalence about having to come home and care for him as he was dying.
Now I'm reading Faithful Place by Tana French. Gripping so far.
The Fault In Our Stars, John Green.
I can't say how well this book portrays teenagers with cancer because I'm not one, but a friend whose niece did have cancer really liked it and said he got it right. It really felt like he did - the guilt that Hazel, the 17 year old narrator, feels about that pain her death is going to cause her parents; her parents' smothering and hovering; her wise-beyond-her-years cynical attitude.
I liked it; both Hazel and Augustus are utterly charming and dear (and yet feel realistic because Augustus reminds me of my godson) and it's a sweet story. I was glad it was more than that, too, with some twists and turns and suspense.
The one thing I didn't like, ironically, was Augustus' feelings for Hazel. To instantly fall into a crush and after what, three or four get-togethers, want to do a life-changing thing for her - it's certainly romantic, but for me that's not love. They don't even know each other well enough to really be in love. It was almost like Twilight though not as creepy because at least Hazel is smart and interesting in ways Bella can only dream of. But at this point in the story, Augustus doesn't even know her well enough to know how smart, etc., she is.
I think you have to know somebody for a while and see them at their worst - these two don't even have any fights, for god's sake. Maybe this is a YA convention I'm not used to. Hazel's doubts and slow realization of her feelings felt more right. So the ending wasn't the glorious climax for me that I suppose it was for other people. That's okay, I found plenty to like. But I don't think I'll bother re-reading this and a friend's son wants it, so that works out fine.
Now I'm reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, and I'm really enjoying it. Been a while since I read a history book.