Friday, February 01, 2008

January recap

Ack. What kind of book blogger am I? It's already the first of February and what have I told you about the books I read in January? Absolutely nothing. I keep waiting for the perfect time to do the perfect write-up, and that just isn't going to happen.

So we'll all have to make do with a pull quote and brief comment or two. Yes, the books deserve better, but that's why I'm so behind in the first place.


'You're always talking about God,' said Laura. 'What does he say about this? What about caring when a swallow falls?'

'He may care for each individual woodcock,' said Nikolia, 'but for the destruction of one system by another, that is part of his plan. There is such war between nations, between empires. And take heed of what this little war, this woodcock shoot, really is. Men who are threatened with a thousand perils go out with guns against birds who enjoy almost complete safety in the forest. Men, who at any moment may be displaced in the favour of God by another species. Have you never thought that may be the punishment our sinfulness brings upon us? Our system may be destroyed by another system, and perhaps it will be the system of our own sin.'

--Rebecca West The Birds Fall Down

Oh, how I loved this book. It has everything: wit and philosophy and terrorists and double agents and betrayal and Paris and a fabulous deathbed scene. I learned about the Hegelian dialect and Eastern Orthodox religion and Russian revolutionaries and tsarist loyalty. I could nitpick--a train ride goes on a tad too long, Laura's a bit too beautiful--but why bother? West's final completed novel shows her at her best.

It's a shame this book is out of print in the U.S.


"I know! Don't you think I know?" she cried, and you could hear the suffering and hatred in her voice. "But I don't love my husband. I love someone else. Leave us in peace! It's nobody else's business," she said with difficulty, and she ran away so quickly that I didn't have time to finish what I'd started to say. Such madness! When you're twenty, love is like a fever, it makes you almost delirious. When it's over you can hardly remember how it happened. . . Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise. . .

--Irene Nemirovsky, Fire in the Blood

A world traveller returns to his home base in France once his blood has cooled and serves as witness to the passions and betrayals of his extended family and neighbors. A fast, enjoyable read with a twist at the end, but not a story that I'll remember six months from now.


Sarah knew that life would go on for others even as it remained suspended for her. She had seen it happen before, the slow, cool shrinking back of friends when a person was thought to mourn too long, to fail at getting on with things. She could pretend when she had to, but nothing remained to be gotten on with. She got out of bed each morning with heavy reluctance, hating the look of her side rumpled and Charles's undisturbed. She took to lying flat in bed, pulling the covers up smooth over her outstretched form, then folding the top sheet over the edge before slipping out from underneath. Thus the bed was as good as made and the absence of Charles was less blatant before she even stood up. With that accomplished, she had sixteen hours to fill before unmaking her side of the bed once more.

--Kate Maloy, Every Last Cuckoo

Following her husband's death and a period of mourning, 75-year-old Sarah begins to build a new life for herself. Remembering the open door policy her parents had followed during the Great Depression, Sarah takes in those who need temporary lodging--an Israeli pacifist who's writing a book, homeless, abused mothers and children, disaffected teenagers, including her own granddaughter, who doesn't get along with her mother any more than Sarah does. Her life expands and becomes enriched, despite her losses.

I enjoyed this one and think it could be a big hit with reading groups. I'd've appreciated a section or two told from the perspective of another member of Sarah's family--my family would never have reacted the way hers did to events, but then, my family of birth is positively Karamazovian and Maloy appears to come from more civilized stock.

Apologists even seek to salvage some decency for the God character in this deplorable tale. Wasn't it good of God to spare Isaac's life at the last minute? In the unlikely event that any of my readers are persuaded by this obscene piece of special pleading, I refer them to another story of human sacrifice, which ended more unhappily. In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering 'whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return.' Jephthah did indeed defeat the Ammonites ('with a very great slaughter,' as is par for the course in the book of Judges) and he returned home victorious. Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and --alas--she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrified. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her. God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion.

--Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Not once in my fundie Baptist upbringing did I ever catch whiff of this tale. And we managed to skip Judges in my Old Testament lit class, too (not that my professor cared about anything but authorship anyway). A friend who did encounter Judges during college (he went to a Christian school) said the professor glossed over the whole sordid affair by telling the class that the moral was not to make foolish vows.

I think the moral is not to be born with XX chromosomes.


Unity, Debo and I were thrown much on our own resources. As a lost tribe, separated from its fellow men, gradually develops distinctive characteristics of language, behavior, outlook, so we developed idiosyncracies that would no doubt have made us seem a little eccentric to other children our age. Even for England, in those far-off days of the middle twenties, our was not exactly a conventional upbringing. Our accomplishments, hobbies and amusements took distinctly unusual forms. Thus, at an age when other children would be occupied with dolls, group sports, piano lessons or ballet, Debo spent silent hours in the chicken house learning to do an exact imitation of the look of pained concentration that comes over a hen's face when it is laying an egg, and each morning she methodically checked over and listed in a notebook the stillbirths reported in the vital statistics columns of the Times. I amused myself by giving my father daily Palsy Practice, which consisted of gently shaking his hand while he was drinking his tea: "In a few years, when you're really old, you'll probably have palsy. I must give you a little practice now, before you actually get it, so that you won't be dropping things all the time."

--Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels

While her older sisters Unity and Diana would become ardent fascists and friends of Hitler, aristocrat Jessica Mitford would grow up to marry her black sheep second cousin Esmond Romilly, a nephew of Winston Churchhill, become a communist, and actively support the civil rights movement in the United States. In Hons and Rebels, the first of her two memoirs, Mitford describes her very unusual upbringing and many of the odd characters that made up her family. It's a blast.


Stephen had been gaffer for a construction company in Canada with some accounting duties and responsibility for a lot of materials and transport. He built a bridge in Regina and went on from there. Getting married was one of those surprises, he said, when you're just a kid yourself, but his daughters were the saving of him (they taught him how to read), and the bridges were great. Then there was all that clear sky and the crisp winter when your hand might freeze to the girders and you couldn't feel a spanner except as a burn. He was in Ontario in 1934 with a job nearly done, each side of the span cantilevered out over the water and gaping. One night he walked out to where the road stopped and stepped over to the other side. Actually, the noose froze. It was the cold that did for him in the end.

--Anne Enright, The Wig My Father Wore

Stephen is an angel, sent to earth as all suicides are, to earn his wings by "setting despair to rights." He moves in with Grace, who works in television on the LoveQuiz show and has a father who wears a wig that cannot be ignored but must not be spoken of. Her father has been diminished by a series of strokes and rendered aphasiac and her mother is valiantly taking care of him and sometimes washing his wig.

Enright writes sentences that make me green with envy, and many times sentence appreciation is enough for me to become enthralled by a novel, but not in this case. Nothing added up to anything and I didn't enjoy the quiz show sections at all.


Three years after my mother's surgery, I returned home to spend the summer. I know that seems odd, since I wasn't exactly happy around her, but I wasn't very happy anywhere else, either. Sometimes people or problems get embedded in your head and you worry them like a dog with a bone. You feel that just one more visit, one more look, one more word, and you'll understand something that will enable you to slough off the bad feeling and get on with your life. I imagine that's why people stalk one another, bombard others with letters or phone calls, bash in windows, doors, heads. They want to understand. They need closure. They can't believe that the slight sour taste is all there is. Like the crazy monkey mother from the special I watched long ago, they think this baby will nurse if it's just shaken around a bit.

--R.M. Kinder, An Absolute Gentleman

Arthur Bloom hasn't published a novel since his grad school days and now, in his early fifties, he's revising what he hopes will be his second and hoping for the tenure track as he moves to a small midwestern town. He's not the type who makes friends, but he's hoping for acceptance.

Arthur Bloom is a serial killer. He has the requisite messed up childhood, an interest in deviant behavior in nature, and an unusual, but to him totally logical way of explaining away the side of himself that's so distasteful to others. He's no monster, he tells us right away; just a boring observer. Nothing's really his fault.

Arthur Bloom kept me up late at night. Kinder based his character on that of serial killer Robert Weeks, a man she'd dated and who she continued to visit in prison (she provides an aferward on writing Arthur Bloom). Jen Clair reviewed An Absolute Gentleman a couple weeks back and Bybee mentioned in comments that she knows the author from grad school. Even if you swore off true crime books years ago as I did, you'll want to grant yourself a pass to read this novel.


  1. Have you read Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow? It's quite good, and has an extended metaphor on Jephthah's daughter. From my religion student days, I have a book called Tales of Terror by Phyllis Trible that details exactly how rotten it is for four women in the Bible. This thought struck me again and again when I read Gilead and John Ames kept saying how God never did anything bad to a son in the Bible. Not so to the daughters.

  2. I read The Sparrow but I don't remember anything about Jephthah's daughter. I'll have to find my copy and take another look at it. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Let me add that I re-read Robinson's attack on Dawkins as soon as I'd finished The God Delusion and was sorely disappointed in her argument this time around. She distorted what he actually said, attempted to smear him as anti-Semitic, and ignored the story of Jephthah's daughter altogether. Her fiction is much more honest.

  3. Ooh, lucky me, I have a copy of The Birds Fall Down; I must get to it soon.

  4. You have a knack for capturing the essence of a book in just a few short lines. And there are several books here that sound interesting to me. Thanks for your reviews.

  5. What a wonderful line-up of reading, and so many books there I'd love to read myself. Particularly the Jessica Mitford as I could really do with a humourous family story at the moment.

  6. I've added When Birds Fall Down to my list. I'm glad you enjoyed An Absolute Gentleman! I thought Kinder did a great job with a tricky subject.

  7. Thank you, Framed.

    Litlove and JenClair, you'll love the Mitford and West (I think, I hope, my fingers are crossed that you will). And I was impressed by the Kinder. She could have been too close to the subject to make it work, but she distanced herself admirably.

  8. What a list! Whew. I will keepy an eye peeled for Rebecca West. There were a couple of old copies in my local used bookstore...

  9. Hey, I just bought THE GOD DELUSION on Friday! So far, it's been a pretty easy book to dig into and I hadn't even planned to start reading it until at least next month. Sigh. Happens all the time...

    girl detective, that's an interesting point on GILEAD, and one I'd never considered before. Thanks for pointing that out.

  10. Don't feel bad Susan, I feel like I talk about the books I'm reading so often that everyone must think I'm a bore! I take it the Rebecca West is the book you aluded to a while back about making your top ten list? I have to read her this year! I also want to read the Mitford, and I guess I'll have to try the Kinder as well--I keep looking at it at the library and then putting it back.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.