Category: My Blog Page 1 of 3

What I Do

Reading List for Second Quarter 2021

  1. The Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L’Engle 4
  2. SailingActs, by Linford Stutzman, NF 4+
  3. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren P 1947 5
  4. Morality for Beautiful Girls, by Alexander McCall Smith 3
  5. The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Gouge 3
  6. 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff (NF) 3+
  7. Nothing to Lose, by Lee Child 4
  8. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler 5
  9. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson 5
  10. The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck 5-
  11. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon 5
  12. The Big Knockover, by Dashiell Hammett 4
  13. The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler 5
  14. The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, by Alexander McCall Smith 2
  15. Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig 4
  16. The Hard Way, by Lee Child 5-
  17. A Long Road to Mercy, by David Balducci 3
  18. Midnight Library, by Matt Haig 5
  19. Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman 4
  20. Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly 3+
  21. The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan 4
  22. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons 4
  23. The Defense, by Vladimir Nabokov 3


Notes on some of these books

20. The Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L’Engle 4

Finished reading The Severed Wasp, a gruesome image, and I am not sure why L’Engle choose it for this delightful book. One definitely needs to read The Small Rain first, or this book is more difficult to follow, because the events of the first book are woven throughout the narrative of this book. Moreover, without TSR, this book might seem tedious. There is some suspense that begins to appear mid-way through, and it concerns the anonymous and hateful phone calls Madame Vignerous and a friend are receiving, and the trashing of her apartment one afternoon. Who did it? One also wonders if Kath-erine (Madame Vignerous) is going to fall in love again, and L’Engle’s development of the Emily character is nice. One defect in the writing is that she doesn’t write dialogue well, and often the dialogue often seems to be simply technique that allows L’Engle to reflect, think, muse, sermonize and different moral and ethical dilemmas. Placing these musings in the mouths of characters often seems forced and artificial. I was surprised that as an older, mature writer, this book would not read better than the first. The writing seemed the same to me. Still, both of these books gave me pleasure, weighty things to ponder and who can ask for more?

  1. All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren 5

Great book, and fully deserving of the Pulitzer it won in 1947. Strong similarities to the story of Louisiana’s Gov. Huey Long. Spoiler alert (don’t read on if you hope to read this book someday): I was not aware that Long was assassinated in 1935 by a doctor, al-though there’s some disagreement about whether the doctor did it, or whether Long died in the crossfire as bodyguards fired 60 bullets into the doctor’s body. So the plot, which is essentially the story of Willie Talos who became the govenor of an unnamed southern state, and aspired to the Senate (as Long did), and his sidekick, Jack Burden, an erstwhile reporter, student of history and more. Burden is the narrator in true noir fashion, and there are girls, dames, tom-catting around. Warren is superb writer. This is the first of his novels I’ve read, and by all accounts, his best.

I watched the 1949 adaptation of All the King’s Men. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949, and an Oscar to Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress, and Broderick Crawford for Best Actor. To date, it is the last film based on a Pulitzer Prize novel to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It’s fast-paced, but only 110 minutes long. The 2006 version, which bombed, was more than two hours. But I was shocked by the sudden ending. The movie does not, as the book does, uncover the motivation for Dr. Adam Stanton’s actions, nor does it reveal the voice behind the trigger, nor does it bring the narrator and his first love together, as does the book. I liked Warren’s ending much better. The film’s conclusion leaves the viewer with unresolved questions. Critics loved the film, however, and the ending is described by one as “fatalistically noir.” Crawford’s character is Willie Stark, which is the name in the original version of the book, but in Polk’s revised version released in early 2000s, (the one I just read) Warren’s name for the character, Willie Talos, is used.

  1. The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Gouge 3

I finished Elizabeth Gouge’s The Little White Horse, relegated to fantasy kid lit by those who classify such things. It is kid lit if the kid is at least 15 and is a girl. The little white horse, a unicorn, does not have much of a role in this, except to function as a Christ figure at the end of the book. The book begins slowly. Gouge describes every-thing the 13-year-old Maria Merryweather does and the places, people and rooms she visits. Her name is apt. There are references to the Virgin Mary and Maria’s emotional temperature is always set, it seems to “merry weather,” although she does have a bit of a temper. She is an orphan and is removed with her dog Wiggins to the manor estate of a cousin. Moonacre is a fantasy world in which sheep graze on green hills and lovely animals cavort in the woods. Magical beasts become her friends, such as Serena the hare, Wrolf the lion, et al. The Old Parson tells Maria the history of Moonacre, of wrongs committed, lovers jilted. The story picks up and in the end, lovers are married, an wicked band of evildoers in the forest turn to righteousness, and everyone lives, and eventually dies, in happiness. J.K. Rowling reportedly said that this book was her fav-orite as a child. Religious themes and imagery are strong, and Gouge writes several poems, including hymns, that are a part of the story of  this merry band of Maria’s friends. Yes, there is a Robin, by the way, perhaps intentionally. In Gouge’s story, it is not Maid Marian and Robin, but maid Maria and Robin and in both fictions, there’s conflict in the forest between a good and a wicked band of people. The book was published in 1946, but is set in England a century earlier in 1842.

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff                             3+

Finished Helene Hanff’s book, 84, Charing Cross Road, called a “novel” by some, for reasons about which I am not clear. Less than 100 pages, it consists of a series of letters between Hanff, a freelance writer in New York City and Frank Doel of Marks & Co booksellers in London, located at 84, Charing Cross Road. Hanff and Doel never meet. The letters cover a span of almost 20 years, 1949-1968 at which point Doel dies suddenly when his appendix bursts. Sometimes there are gaps of two or three years between the letters published in this little book. The correspondence is seeded with personal references but are primarily about the ordering and arrival of rare editions of Donne, or other antiquarian nuggets. Interesting, but hardly a novel, and its status as a “cult classic” baffles me.

So, because it is non-fiction, reading these letters is somewhat titillating, and had you known nothing about the book, you might wonder if “something” is going to develop between Hanff and Doel. But the discussion of books by the two booklovers is interesting to lovers of books and Hanff’s outspokenness and humor (she’s a Dodger’s fan back when the Dodgers were in Brooklyn), made this an easy read.

  1. The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck 5-

The publication of this book occasioned his Nobel Prize for Literature. It is an excellent book on many levels, unique approaches to point of view, excellent characterization on the protagonist, and overall writing.

But the ending simply did not ring true. Was he tired of writing? Did he want to finish this or not know how?

The protagonist reminds me of Tom Rath in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and also of Updike’s Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run! So I have read consecutively two books set roughly in the same period of American life, the postwar Fifties, affluence, racism and well-defined gender roles and both men and women wondering if there was more.

  1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon 5

Finished book and enjoyed it very much. Haddon never identifies the young protagonist as having Asperger’s or high-functioning autism, because he didn’t want the public to think this is about an autistic child who is a maths genius. He wanted it to be about a maths genius child who has special problems. I understand that he doesn’t want his book labeled as a book about an autistic kid, but his explanation is feeble and ingenuous. It’s a mystery and adventure book about a highly intelligent autistic kid. It was excellent.

  1. The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, by Alexander McCall Smith 2

Alexander McCall Smith’s book, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, is the eighth installemt of the self-styled “Isabel Dalhousie” mystery series. False advertising. There is little mystery here, and what mystery or plot there is, covers barely 20 pages if isolated of the 245 pages of text. The rest reads like the first draft of an essay on a potpourri of moral and ethical problems written by a third year philosophy student. I can’t imagine two philosophers conversing as Jane and Isabel do, or musing as do Isabel and her boyfriend, soon-to-be-husband, do. The dialogue is stilted and obviously a lame device for AMS to expostulate on just about everything under the sun. Very disappointed. Unlike his work with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, he fails here to be a storyteller. He relies on his reput-ation for the fabulously popular series set in Botswana, and thinks we’ll forgive him for a weak and poorly written manuscript of bad philosophy. Nope. I was expecting espresso in a demitasse; I got weak coffee in a styrofoam cup.

  1. Miss Burma, by Charmaine Craig 4

Excellent read. Was a thinly-veiled story of her mother’s life and that of her materal grandparents. Some reviewers didn’t see it as a novel. They have a point. Reading more about the book, I came to the conclusion that everything in the book is true as to what happened, but that not all details were included, like her mother getting a US education. I thought the ending was so abrupt as to be odd and upsetting. No hints as to what was coming next. And no afterward about her mother or grandparents. For this reason, I will probably score this a 4-star effort. But as one who has traveled in Burma and is already acquainted with some of its history, I enjoyed this novel. Also, the book is a reminder that the post-colonial period of independence for Burma, like that of many former colonies, has not been good, or better … thanks to clanish, tribal and internecine conflicts. The list of countries who are better off in a post-colonial period of self-government is very small.

  1. A Long Road to Mercy, by David Balducci 3

An interesting read but downgraded because he includes pages of conversation throughout the book that have absolutely nothing to do with the story, but rather, are only unnecessary details or background about characters. Devalued also because the storyline is not plausible: overthrowing the U.S., government? A nuclear bomb in a cave in the Grand Canyon? I couldn’t get past the ridi-culous plot.

  1. Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman 4

The book was fun to read because the author is funny, clever with currect colloquialism and it read fast. Some interesting plot-lines, but nothing startling or unusual. Still, a good story, and entertainment. But GoodReads reviewers are all over the place, some appreciating Gelman’s writing and wit, and others not attracted at all. I thought she had a good style and excellent turns of phrases and good use of contemparary expressions.

  1. Scarecrow, by Michael Connelly 3+

Tech genius with mommy issues, rather killing mommy, kills women similar to mommy and stuffs them into a trunk. Reporter and female FBI agent with career issues solve the case.

  1. The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan 4

Evidently, the first of hero-on-the-run fugitive genre, a la the old TV show, “The Fugitive.” And, evidently it was a hit with the boys in the trenches during WW1 and so to readers of the first half of the 20th century, it must have been a very well-known thriller. I had never heard of it until I saw it on TIME’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century.

  1. Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons 4

This is a hilarious parody of the farm/rural romances popular in the early 1900s, and even Austen and Bronte’s do not escape Gibbon’s notice. Published in 1932, this is her best-known work, and although she wrote other novels, critics generally panned them. Perhaps, like Harper Lee, she had the misfortune of having a first novel be such a wildly popular hit. The mark was set so high, no following book could match it. Although the setting includes trains, planes and automobiles, Cold Comfort Farm seems stuck in the early 1800s. It is dirty, squalid and rustic. Its tenants include a mad woman in the attic or upper room, a rough and tumble farm hands, a hellfire and brimstone spouting preacher, and suitors for the heroine, Flora Poste, who’s determined to deliver the farm from decay and clean it up into the bright sunlight of respectability, if not profitability. Gibbons mocks the florid style of the popular farm romances of her day, including the insertion of asterisks to alert the reader that the following paragraph is particularly florid and over-wrought with description and passion. And although the opening paragraph notes that Flora had never learned how to earn a living, she is eminently successful with CCF, and in the end, her need to earn a living is obviated by getting her man, and in the end, I am sure they lived happily ever after. She did write a sequel, but it wasn’t well-received. I might read it nonetheless.

#bookstoread #greatfiction #booklist #tryreadingthisbook

How I Found Patricia Highsmith in Paris

I had never heard of Patricia Highsmith. But I saw her book Carol (first published in 1952 as The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan) on a bookshelf in Paris last week.

The bookshelf belonged to the host of the short term rental at which I was staying within the shadow of the Centre Pompidou. Thinking I might have some time to read this particular day, I put it in my backpack and left for the day.

When I returned to the flat late that same night, the door was ajar and I quickly discovered that a thief or thieves had ransacked the place, taking my laptop and iPad. After contacting the host, I trudged down Rue Beaubourg at midnight to a hotel to spend the night.

I had forgotten to take Carol and Patricia out of my backpack, so in a sense I had thieved along with the thieves.

I have since been reading Carol and find Highsmith’s writing quite remarkable. For me, it’s similar to “discovering” Carson McCullers – who wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter when she was 23, which was quickly followed by Reflections in a Golden Eye, later adapted for the screen in a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, directed by John Huston. I am similarly delighted to “discover” Highsmith.

Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train, made into a Hitchcock film (1951), and also The Talented Mr. Ripley (and several more Ripley novels) which was adapted for a 1999 film starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley, Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge Sherwood, Cate Blanchett as Meredith Logue, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie Miles.

Highsmith is sometimes considered a “lesbian” writer, or a writer of lesbian fiction, an epithet she disliked, and remarked that Carol was unlike other so-called lesbians of the era in that it had a relatively happy ending. No overdoses, murders, suicides or other traumas for the lesbian heroines. You can be a lesbian and also be happy.

I am only half way through Carol, and am enjoying it immensely. It, too, was made into a film only a few years ago, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and garnered six Oscar nominations.

I will be reading more Highsmith, for sure.


  1. The Patriot, by Pearl Buck  4+
  2. George Washington, by Paul Johnson, NF  5
  3. The Last Lion: Alone (Vol. 2), by William Manchester, NF 5
  4. Persuader, by Lee Child                                       4
  5. Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child               5
  6. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowery*
  7. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner P 1972                                                                                       3
  8. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammet 4
  9. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy                          2
  10. The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham 5
  11. Atonement, by Ian McEwan               3
  12. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart               5
  13. The Wife Upstairs, by Rachel Hawkins 5
  14. And Then She Was Gone, by Christopher Greyson 2
  15. A Burning, by Megha Majumdar 4
  16. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving             5
  17. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm,

1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid, NF                                        5

  1. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith     4+
  2. The Small Rain, by Madelaine L’Engle 4

*Did not finish

P=Pulitzer + year

B=Booker + year


  1. The Patriot, by Pearl Buck 4+

Enjoyed it very much. Buck is an underappreciated writer of the 20th century, and she was prolific. I had not realized the extent of her literary corpus. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938). She also garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This book covers roughly 12 years after the death of Sun Yat-sen and the collapse of the Republic to about 1938, a period in which communists and Chiang Kai-chek’s revolutionists realized that for the time being, they needed to focus on resisting the Japanese. The history is fascinating, and yet the story line is strong and viable. Buck’s knowledge of China and Japan (she lived in Japan for at least a year) is, of course, extensive. The book was published in 1939. I was not happy with the ending. Seemed abrupt; felt like there was more to the story than she had time to tell.


  1. The Last Lion: Alone (Vol. 2), by William Manchester, NF 5

A harrowing tale of a nation with their head in the sand for a decade (1930s), no doubt a reaction to the horrors of the Great War, a memory only 15 years old. Germany could have been stopped in its tracks on numerous occasions. But France and England temporized. They could not believe that what they’d just experienced 20 years earlier was about to thrust upon them again, and by the same agressor. Neville Chamberlain, an accountant and administrator, not the right person for this time in England’s history. Fortunately, there was such a man, and fortunately, England turned to him. It was almost too late. Wonderful book, and I shall now order the last in the three-volume set.


  1. Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner 3

The enjoyment level was mild, three stars. I lost interest while they were in Mexico, and some of the longer letters failed to grab me. There are two story lines. The first is the story of the aging and para-lyzed Stanford professor of history. He is researching the story of his grandparents, especially his grandmother. And that is the second storyline. One problem is that the fictional charater of this woman, Susan Burling Ward, is based on a real woman and the letters in the novel are letters that the real historical woman wrote. This resulted in some unfortunate misunderstandings, and lawsuits I believe. I did very much like the metaphor of “angle of repose.” I am going to quote from the Wikipedia article on it:

The angle of repose, or critical angle of repose, of a granular material is the steepest angle of descent or dip relative to the horizontal plane to which a material can be piled without slumping. At this angle, the material on the slope face is on the verge of sliding. The angle of repose can range from 0° to 90°. The morphology of the material affects the angle of repose; smooth, rounded sand grains cannot be piled as steeply as can rough, interlocking sands. The angle of repose can also be affected by additions of solvents. If a small amount of water is able to bridge the gaps between particles, electrostatic attraction of the water to mineral surfaces will increase the angle of repose, and related quantities such as the soil strength.

When bulk granular materials are poured onto a horizontal surface, a conical pile will form. The internal angle between the surface of the pile and the horizontal surface is known as the angle of repose and is related to the density, surface area and shapes of the particles, and the coefficient of friction of the material. Material with a low angle of repose forms flatter piles than material with a high angle of repose.

The term has a related usage in mechanics, where it refers to the maximum angle at which an object can rest on an inclined plane without sliding down.


Stegner uses this in the novel because his protagonist’s grandfather was an engineer. But it is also a metaphor for the marriage. It had a very high angle of repose, and the secret to the stability of the marr-iage is that they had discovered their angle of repose and come to terms with it. It was as it was. They were apart as long as 18 months at a time. It’s possible that they never experienced romantic love with each other. But they found their resting place.

There are many who could not be satisfied with simply finding the point at which everything comes crashing down. But, I found it a helpful illustration of that toward which a successful marriage is pointed. A point where you know intuitively what the other wants, where you shoulder responsibilities without being told and without fussing about what the other person is doing. It is a repose that doesn’t intrude, that knows when silence is needed or when speaking up is required. So I liked that, and I underlined several passages that spoke to me. But on the whole: 3 stars.


  1. The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy   2

I had a marg and a cigar and finished reading The Moviegoer, a book which was not at all what I thought it would be, and for which I did not care one bit. This is two in a row that perhaps succeed brilliantly as literary works of art, but fail miserably as stories worth reading. This one, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, has a thin, red thread of a storyline stitched through the novel, which, if culled and placed together in a linear way would occupy a mere handcloth of narrative. Instead, what we have here is a patchwork quilt of a novel in which the storyline is so light as to be almost invisible. Percy is often funny, but this first person stream of consciouness is too Falk-nerian or Jocycean. And perhaps the book, (which incidentally, is not about somebody who goes to the movies), is in fact, about the protagonist’s search for God and meaning, but the reader has to care. I absolutely didn’t care if Binx Bolling found God, Kate, or Sharon. … Percy didn’t make me interested in anything Bolling was saying. Most of the novel is a detour. Think of a map of Old Jerusalem. That’s how this book reads. This was Percy’s debut novel and it won a Pulitzer Prize, as did Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Draw your own conclusions.


  1. The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham   5

This book is perhaps his best book, although Of Human Bondage ranks high. Strong story combined with excellent writing, ingenious devic-es, good characters. He frequently addresses the reader, and he him-self is a character in the book. Early on he writes: “I want to be read and I think I am justified in doing what I can to make my book readable” ¾ a sentiment clearly not shared by Malcolm Lowry or Walker Percy.


  1. Atonement, by Ian McEwan   3

I didn’t enjoy it much. Similar complaint: too little story, too much essaying. I did not want to read about three soldiers tramping their way to Dunkirk during World War 2. Didn’t seem to be relevant to the story line as thin as it was. And the title boldly seems to announce the theme, yet I don’t think there was any atonement whatso-ever¾only guilt, anger, remorse. Perhaps Penance would have been an apter title.


  1. Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart 5

I finished Shuggie Bain and enjoyed it, although it is a sad, sad book, and I believe it is highly autobiographical. It describes the life of a little boy and covers his life for a 10-year period. He’s clearly aware that he’s not like other boys, and the reader knows that he’s a kid who’se gay but doesn’t understand what gay is. He’s tormented by other students and often misses school. But the bigger problem in his life is his alcoholic mother and a father who’s abusive and leaves the family. But, although everyone else leaves his mother, in-cluding his sister and older halt-brother, he stays with her, taking care of her when she’s in a drunken condition which is most of the time. This book would make a great Academy Award film, but it is so sad that if moviegoers read the book first they would not want to watch the film. But, a clever director and a good script could result in a good ending, because when the book closes, Shuggie is with Leanne, also young, about Shuggie’s age, and they become friends because she’s a lesbian, she understands Shuggie and they connect with each other, and she also has no father and an alcoholic mother.


  1. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 by William Manchester and Paul Reid, NF        5

Read more than 900 pages of the 1100 page tome. I stopped after the Allies gained Berlin, Hitler dead, and so on. As I said, at this point I was past page 900, and Manchester/Reid covered the last 20 years of Churchill’s life in a mere 200 pages. I may come back to it someday, but probably not.

The book, indeed, the entire trilogy was fabulous and I highly recommend it. And it neatly described the disintegration of Britain’s empire and the rise of both the Soviet Union, but especially the Unit-ed States as the preeminent world power. I was amused by Roosevelt and Churchill’s troubles with de Gaulle, and also with the relation-ship between R and C after they finally entered the war. I had not been aware of the tension between the Pacific theater and the Euro-pean theater. When the U.S. first entered the war, Churchill didn’t know if Roosevelt would go to war against Germany or against Japan. In the end it was both. I was also surprised how long it took the US to ramp up and start providing some actual help. I also did not realize how effective the Axis U-boat campaign in the Atlantic had been and for how long. The importance of decoding Axis com-munications was again reinforced. Amazing stuff. Excellent read.


  1. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith             4+

An English family, fallen on hard times, have a 40-rent lease on a falling down castle, where the live in abject poverty, waiting for their mad genius of a father to replicate the brilliance of an earlier work, Jacob Wrestling, the success of which had him touring in the United States. That was 12 years ago, and after a three month stint in prison for attacking a man, and the death of his wife and the children’s mother, he’s not the same man. The novel is redolent (by design) of Austen and the Bronte sisters. But the ending, while not a sobbingly sad one, was not the Bronte or Austen ending I was hoping for, analogies which Dodie Smith herself uses in the book. But, that said, it was a delightful story with some hilarious scenes. In the ends Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator, fails to capture the heart of the one she loves, and she rejects the one who loves her, so no one is happy except Neil and sister Rose who surprise everyone in the end. The father’s writing project seems goofy and hopelessly made up.


  1. The Small Rain, by Madelaine L’Engle 4

Enjoyed it a lot. The ending was not entirely satisfying. Although she salted the last chapter with hints, the unstated or unspoken outcome was by no means certain. One reason for this is because perhaps she herself didn’t know. She may not have planned to write a sequel I shall now read the sequel, The Suspended Wasp, written about 30 years ago and 30 years after TSR. TSR is well-written, a Bildungsroman that offers an impressive display of L’Engle’s knowledge of the Shakespearan corpus for one so young and a first novel, but of course she was an aspiring actress in NY as well as an aspiring writer, and writing in time prevailed. Her protagonist, Katherine Forrester is 12-19 years old from beginning to end, and L’Engle perhaps attributes to her more wisdom that one would expect of an adolescent.

Still much of the novel is autobiographical, yet this doesn’t interfere with the narrative. One can read more online about this. I’ve read nothing of L’Engle including the work that brought her international acclaim, A Wrinkle in Time.

THE WIFE UPSTAIRS, by Rachel Hawkins

When I first saw the title, and without knowing anything about the book, I was immediately reminded of Jane Eyre, and Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife imprisoned in a third floor attic room. Then, I opened to a page prior to Part I, and there’s a quote from Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, an excellent read. I thought that was interesting. Then, I turned the page and Part I is titled, JANE.

This confirmed it. The Wife Upstairs is a contemporary mystery story that in some way mirrors the outlines of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, but set in Alabama, not England; from English Gothic to Southern Gothic

Jane is a dog-walker for wealthy clients in Thornfield Estates, an exclusive neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. She is not at all like Brontë’s Jane. Although she was an orphan, she’s profane, scheming, irreligious. One day, she is almost run over by a young man in a sports car. His name is Eddie Rochester. We learn that his wife has been missing along with his wife’s best friend, for more than six months. His wife’s name is Bea neé Mason; her first name used to be Bertha. And the similarities mount.


Jane / Jane

John Rivers / St. John Rivers (both involved in religious work)

Blanche Ingraham / Blanche Ingram

Eddie Rochester / Edward Rochester

Bea (Bertha) Mason Rochester / Bertha Mason Rochester

Helen Burns / Helen Burns

Thornfield Estates / Thornfield Hall

And more …

I should have paid more attention to the characters and their JE link and it would have helped me to foresee some of what happens in the novel’s denouement. Of course, there’s a fire. But a twist that happens and which I could have foreseen, I didn’t.

“Reader, I married him” becomes, “Reader, I fucked him,” — which I thought was crass, and again illustrated that Hawkin’s Jane is not at all like Brontë’s Jane.

Still, The Wife Upstairs is a page turner, and for those who love Jane Eyre, it is doubly interesting, even approaching clever.

By the way, another “don’t miss” new book is Shuggie Bain, the 2020 winner of the Booker, by Douglas Stuart. I will try to get a review posted soon.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Finished reading The Moviegoer, a book which was not at all what I thought it would be, and for which I did not care one bit. This is two in a row that perhaps succeed brilliantly as literary works of art, but fail miserably as stories worth reading. This one, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, has a thin, thread of a storyline stitched through the novel, which, if culled and placed together in a linear way would occupy a mere handcloth of narrative. Instead, what we have here is a patchwork quilt of a novel in which the storyline is so light as to be almost invisible. Percy is often funny, but this first person stream of consciousness is too Falknerian or Jocycean. And perhaps the book, which is not about somebody who goes to the movies, is about the protagonist’s search for God and meaning, but the reader has to care. I absolutely didn’t care if Binx Bolling found God, found meaning … Percy didn’t make me interested in anything Bolling was saying. Most of the novel is a detour. Think of a map of Old Jerusalem. That’s how this book reads. This was Percy’s debut novel and it won a Pulitzer Prize, as did Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Draw your own conclusions.

FOURTH QUARTER 2020: Suggestions from What I Read

Super Good Read: 5 Stars

  1. The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, by William Manchester (NF)
  2. Shining Through, by Susan Isaac
  3. Die Trying, by Lee Child
  4. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck
  5. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
  6. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Also Very Good: 4 Stars

  1. Unnatural Death, by Dorothy Sayers
  2. The Affair, by Lee Child
  3. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult
  4. Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
  5. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie
  6. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell
  7. Tripwire, by Lee Child
  8. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Selected Notes

  1. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

Although the story is set in the 2000s, the novel is about the Holocaust and the possible discovery of a Nazi living (still living!) in, of all places, a little village in New Hampshire where’s he been for years and years, married, and a German teacher for 40 years. But the novel is also a story within a story within a story, like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The small story is the story that Minka writes. She is the girl in concentration camps who is now the grandmother of the novel’s protagonist. It’s a story about the undead, and brothers and monsters who don’t seem monsters, and I think Picoult uses it as an allegory for the protagonist’s moral and ethical dilemmas concerning how evil people can do good things, living ordinary banal lives after committing unspeakable atrocities against human beings.

The second story is the story of Minka, the girl/grandmother whose story takes up most of Part II if not all of it.

And the third, largest story, is the broad canvas of the novel itself involving Sage Singer, 25 (who has sisters Pepper and Saffron) who loves to bake and works the midnight shift as a baker. She is a loner, has a scar from a car accident in which her mother died, is in a relationship with a married man. Another male appears in the story however, Leo, who works in a division of the FBI who still tracks Nazis. So the question is: is this man Sage has come to know a Nazi, and if so, how can it be proved, and so on. There’s a nice twist at the end, and Picoult provides a satisfying conclusion.

If one is tired of reading stories about the Holocaust, then this book isn’t for you. I was surprised that it has not been made into a movie. But there are so many good Holocaust movies, I am not sure people would flock to the theaters to see it, and at any rate, many theaters these days are closed.

  1. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie

His sixth novel, and not his finest. I appreciated the book as a literary masterpiece, but it was so riddled with esoterica and arcane references that it all got in the way of a good story. The Orpheus and Eurydice template was interesting as were the cultural references of the time period, late 1950s through 1990, and the intersections of East and West, et cetera. But, it was exhausting.

  1. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell

Finished Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, published in 1932 and a few years later turned into a movie directed by John Ford. Some of Caldwell’s novels were banned, and I can see why: A 12-year girl married off, a 16-year-old boy “rubbing and hugging” a 35-year-old woman preacher, Bessie, a widow, or the other way around. She was doing the rubbing and hugging. Everybody sleeping in the same bed. Abject poverty. Conditions in the early days of the Great De-pression especially in the South were on a par with the Third and Fourth World. I can picture what Caldwell describes because I have seen it in Egypt, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other parts of southeast Asia.

  1. Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

Five stars for Shining Through, although it is slow going at the beginning. Chapters are long, and things didn’t pick up for me until Chap-ter 4. It’s 1940, and in Europe the war is well under way. The heroine of the story is Linda Voss who speaks German as well as English, and she has some Jewish blood in her. She’s a 30-something secretary who worships her Adonis of a boss, a lawyer named John Berryman. But he’s married to the daughter of a highly placed attorney/spy in what came to be known as the OSS, the preducsor to the CIA. Then his wife leaves him, and the story begins to pick up. Linda and her boss begin a torrid affair, she gets pregnant, they married, she miscarries, they stay married but it is loveless, and then the ex-wife shows up, and when there’s an opportunity to replace a spy inside Germany itself, right in Berlin, she takes it. She is there for almost two years, and her intel is important, but one day there’s a disaster, and she has to get out. By now, there’s only 20 pages left in the book, and some of the last minute developments I had seen coming for some time. But, riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps not riveting, but well worth the read.

However, Hollywood turned it into a movie which turned out to be a disaster. The cast included Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, John Guilgud, etc. The problem was that 75 percent of Isaac’s book was not in the film. For example, no John Berryman. No Nan Leland Berryman, no Gladys, etc. The skeleton of the book was there, but the flesh they hung on the bones made the film an entirely different story. It received Razzie Awards for worst film of 1992, Worst Actor, Worst Actress, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Michael Douglas would have been fine as John Berryman, but not Edward Leland, and Melanie Griffith was miscast as Linda Voss. The needed someone very sportive and active like perhaps Demi Moore (I am trying to think of the 80s), or perhaps Geena Davis, or Linda Carter (Wonder Woman). Whoever was in charge of casting should have been drummed out of Hollywood.

  1. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck

This was a pleasure to read and anyone who has lived in China would appreciate it. It is set in the 1940s when China was torn with civil strife. But this is not a war novel. Instead it is a study of the ancient conflict that arises when traditional ways collide with immoveable political and ciultural forces. Buck does this neatly by beginning her story with a Chinese family in New York. The parents are Chinese, but the children are American-born and thus American citizens. A series of events takes the children back to China, through Shanghai and then to Peking. And still later, they return to their ancestral home. The ending is not dramatic but quite ordinary and mundane as befitting perhaps the life the protagonist has chosen. This is not Buck’s most well-known book, but one of her best. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than The Good Earth.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I began reading as a skeptic, wondering how a plot could be sustained for 400 pages, and initially, my fears seemed to be confirmed. But there is, in fact, a story, and the last quarter especially becomes intriguing. But that said, the writing itself is erudite, clever, masterful. I loved the allusions, the quirky expressions, the develop-ment of a wide cast of different characters. I appreciated the way he ages the Count (at 30 he can do 30 stretches in the morning; at 60 he can do 5). I wish Nina could have been reintroduced, but that might have been too sentimental. The ending surprised me, but it was satisfying. I had hoped for a different denouement. And I loved the relationship the count and the actress Anna developed. This novel, set in Moscow from 1922 well into the 1950s was interesting because I became politically aware in the 1950s and remember NK well. Excellent read, and I would love to see a TV or film adaptation. There are many humorous incidents that would make good television.

  1. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Story is set in Victorian England, about 1890 and onward, and is the account of two people in love, but then one leaves the relationship and the other falls apart. Destitute, Nan King works the streets, and is rescued by a domineering person who keeps her for sexual plea-sure. This relationship too comes to a disastrous conclusion, and the girl, once again down and out finds, by chance, someone she’d known previously, and in fact  was supposed to meet—and didn’t. Her new friend is an activist in the socialist moment in England. [Spoiler alert] Although she encounters her first love in the final pages of the novel, she rejects the intreaties to return, and instead stays with her current lover, and the reader for once sighs, because she’s made a wise choice.

All of the parties involved are women. This is Les Lit, and there are some steamy sexual scenes. I learned some new words, for sure. But this is so well written, so very interesting that you can’t stop read-ing. You know there are sexual theme from the title of the book, that the first line of the novel has oysters in it, that the protagonist occupation as a girl was bearding and preparing oysters, that her first lover is “Kitty” and so on. This, apparently has been made into a mini-series by the BBC, but I don’t know how the producers get around the sex scenes. Perhaps they’re just suggested.

  1. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Excellent. Written in the no nonsense, no fluff style of those early detective novels, a la Christie et al. In this book, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother George is accused of murdering his sister’s (and Peter’s as well) neerdowell fiancé. The title is goofy. Taken from Hebrews 12:1, where the King James has it: “a cloud of witnesses.” The meaning of title implies that the characters in the novels are the clouds, i.e. nebulous, etheral and transitory things who witness or provide testimony. She could have done better. Second Wimsey novel, and in this one, he still more rambunctious than the later laconic persona Sayers develops for him.

THIRD QUARTER 2020: Suggestions from What I Read

Follow me on

Super good reads: 5 Stars

52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain

53. Socrates, by Paul Johnson (NF)

55. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
56. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (NF)
58. The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
61. 1776, by David McCullough (NF)
62. Leonardo, by Frank Zöllner (NF)
64. The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver
65. The Rim of the Prairie, by Bess Streeter Aldrich
66. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
67. The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga
68. Monet, by Christoph Heinrich
69. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
76. Lord Peter Views the Body, by Dorothy Sayers

Also very good: 4 stars
52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain
54. Echo Burning, by Lee Child
57. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
70. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
73. Love Among the Ruins, by Robert Clark
79. Inferno, by Dan Brown

Selected Notes:

52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories includes “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” (the story that launched Twain’s career) and several other short stories such as “The 1,000,000 Bank-Note,” “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” This latter one explored the folly of

Mr. White’s Confession

After reading, Love Among the Ruins, I decided to try another of Robert Clark’s novels, this time Mr. White’s Confession. Now, having read two of his novels, I probably won’t read more until I’ve been in such a happy, joyous state of mind and until our culture has become a magical and wondrous state of Arcadian optimism and civil cooperation, that my therapist tells me that I need a reality check; some-one who can dampen my enthusiasm and remind me of the dark days in which evil happens, killers are not apprehended and law enforcement is corrupt. Then, I will pick up Clark again. I enjoyed this novel immensely — at first. The premise is interesting. There are some bad guys (crooked cops), and there is a protagonist whom I’m sure will be proven innocent. So, I’m confident the killer of two beautiful models and aspiring actresses will be caught, that the eccentric Mr. White will be exonerated and that good will triumph over evil. Then, as the book moved into the second half, I got the feeling that this would not happen, that Clark would need to remind us of what we already know: that the world is a manifestly dark place where corruption exists, where good does not always win out and where hopes and dreams often crumble to dust under the weight of bad luck or bad choices.

3 stars

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis

Since I had come to a new section of The Last Lion by William Manchester, I interrupted my reading of it to read a murder mystery by Cara Black, Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis. This book is about the fifth or sixth book in a series featuring Aimée Leduc, a private detective in Paris. In this story, a baby is left in her care, a woman pleads for help, a couple of people are murdered and it’s tied to an eco-group trying to stop the signing of an accord between the government and an oil company that would pollute the North Sea. The group is set up, and there are bombings, dark operatives, corrupt CEOs, a blond killer, book-sellers, Polish aristocrats, hit men, and a homeless woman who talks to her long-lost daughter, Paulette, who was put on a train for Auschwitz in 1942. In fact, there are a lot of characters, including her business partner, a dwarf, René. The whole thing was dense, with the specific gravity of lead, and fast — careening toward a conclusion, difficult to see signposts along the way since the reader is suffering from whiplash. This is one case in which the movie will no doubt be better than the book.

2 stars. Find this review and all my reviews on Goodreads.

Page 1 of 3

Copyright 2021 Timothy Merrill