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.

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