Fiction: The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis

Our November challenge book (although I finished it in January. Heh). A re-read for Dad, new to me.

This book is such a study in the group dynamic: the circle is so much more entertwined than any of them even know. All the males are in love with Rhiannon; all the females have at one time or another slept with Alan; the level of alcohol necessary to keep this group functioning is mind-blowing (they bring three CASES of scotch on a weekend trip!); most of the group is joined by their hatred of Alan and his return to Wales throws everyone off kilter. It’s got the Jane Austen socialness without the social class stuff. Also lots of old-fart commentary: “They’re selling what there now?!?”

So well-written. Amis never overexplains where people are or what they’re doing, he just puts you in the scene and lets you go. The way he dramatizes things is so well-done as well, all the affair stuff happens in such a subtle way, you’re never in the middle of a sex scene, you just realize it’s happened when the chapter starts with, say, someone tucking their blouse in

These marriages / friendships have just kept going on and on; when the one wife leaves, it’s done in such an understated way, and you find yourself wondering why they don’t ALL leave when so many of these relationships have gone sour. There’s that focus on being stuck in the working class = how can you get out of your life? You have all these bonds to other things–not just this person. Kind of like a rocket leaving earth, you need a lot of acceleration to get beyond that pull of inertia, gravity. Either you start to hate it so much that you don’t care where you go, or you meet someone / see something that’s enough to draw you out.

Thumbs up from both of us, so many different things to enjoy / explore here. (How Malcolm really is the Welsh poet Alan pretends to be; how Charlie can’t stand to be alone, several drinks in by 10 a.m., etc.)

Fiction: Sabbath’s Theater

Our October challenge book. A re-read for both of us.

GirlReaction: This is my all-time favorite Philip Roth book. So dark and yet so funny. But sadly I was way too swamped with school and couldn’t finish. I’ll re-read it this summer maybe. Hopefully. 🙂

DadReaction: Hilarious. This may be the funniest book i’ve ever read. I didn’t remember how sad it was–it’s savagely funny but there’s also a devastating sense of loss, raving self destruction and anger. His unreasonableness was just hilarious and unstoppable, in your face, even when people are trying to help him. A real exercise in self sabotage–anything even remotely good he will end up ruining. He’s also so self-aborbed that he defines people solely by how they relate to them and is always confused by their other attributes. The end is a real punch.

This books gets loose from some of the usual Roth tightness: a hymn to excess. Not just in the 60s “good excess” type way, but ruminating on how horrible excess can be when you’re trashing everything around you. You do forget the edge the book has–how harsh it is, even in its humor.

Fantasy: His Dark Materials (trilogy) by Philip Pullman.

The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife. Our August 2010 challenge book. Re-reads for both of us.


It was such a joy to re-read these. They’re all splendid novels in their own right, as well as building on each other in really great ways. Neither one of us could put them down. We were also both happy to find so much fresh about them–so many little things that we had forgotten and thus could enjoy anew–apparently we had left just the right amount of time between re-reads!
DadReaction: I couldn’t put it down. I loved the way he played off the three books, tacking a different tack each time, especially saving our world for the middle one.

GirlReaction: Yeah there were so many cool ideas in each one. I was surprised at how much I had forgotten in the third book.

DadReaction: Yeah those two angels–I had blanked those guys out completely and really forgotten about some of the supernatural stuff. Loved the witches. Lee Scoresby’s death is just so wild. It’s funny how fantasty can just take you down as bad as anything. Even when his rabbit daemon dies…OW. It’s like your dog dying. Or when Lyra leaves Pan on the Wharf? That was almost enough to make me pitch the book out the window!

GirlReaction: Ugh, those scenes were horrible. But how amazing is just the idea of the daemon? How perfect it seems, and how after reading them, you wish you had one, you wonder what yours would be, you think about that bit of yourself that the daemons represent.

DadReaction: Yeah like when she meets Will and he doesn’t have one…but then they switch worlds and he does. And there’s the the fact that you could actually have a conversation with the daemon, that other part of yourself. Also very cool how he works in the idea that they solidify their form later: as you become your real self. They’re something beneath who you think you might want to be, and it becomes a real partnership.

They’re really novels of curiosity: Lyra, Will, the Scientists, everybody experimenting and discovering. And how spooky were the parents? I really liked how complex they were: not just bad or good. They sort of act for good in the end, after letting loose all this mayhem. So much is the kids trying to understand them, and getting foiled by both of them really.

I had forgotten that whole journey through the underworld–kind of like Dante in Hell. I did, however, remember that horrifying part where the teacher got lost in the other world. You know, I really hate abandonment stories, or stories where people can’t get home, so the first read that was really harrowing for me–like watching Alice in Wonderland. I was able to enjoy those people a lot more this time around because I knew she would get out of there.

GirlReaction: Oh and how cool are those animals with the wheels? Pullman has so many ideas around the edges of this story that could be entire fantasy worlds in and of themselves.

DadReaction: Yeah I also loved those little waspy spies!

Two thumbs way up. 🙂

Fiction: Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Our July 2010 challenge book. A re-read for both of us.

GirlReaction: I only got partway through before I had to set it aside (I was in the middle of summer classes) but of course Dad finished. My thoughts were really that I did not remember at all how hilariously funny some of the beginning is.

DadReaction: I can’t wait to read it again! To setout after the Pequod with crazy captain Ahab. You get bogged down a bit in the middle, with ALL the detail about how to actually kill whales, slice them up, et cetera…but at the end, you feel like you know what these guys do all the time.

There was a critic, Hugh Kenner maybe?, who had a quote about how all great American novels are really like instruction manuals. Hemingway: how to order a drink, what to look for in a bullfight, how to fish. Moby Dick: how to kill a whale.
But at the end, it really takes off. And the hunt when they actually spot Moby Dick, just sweeps you up.

GirlReaction: In one of my summer classes, there was a girl with the last name Melville, and EVERY WEEK during attendance, the professor would make some cracks about Moby Dick. Usually something along the lines of “They call it the greatest American novel. I don’t know if it’s the greatest, but it was really the first.” I wasn’t sure that was really true though.

DadReaction: You could probably call it the first American novel of stature.

Then we wandered off topic a bit and landed on the subject of Sir Walter Scott (thanks, I think, to Michelle’s blog post) and on to Last of the Mohicans by Fenimore Cooper, which while a romantic novel, and of less stature, was around before Melville.

DadReaction: The thing about Last of the Mohicans is people think of it along the lines of the movies. But the screenplay from the ’30s really streamlined a bad book with lots of idiot characters. The movies make him into more of a Hemingway-type hero.

And then somehow we came around again to Moby Dick and a bonus recommendation…

DadReaction: Did you ever read “The Great American Novel by Philip Roth? It’s about baseball, but based on Moby Dick (“Call me Smitty.” is the first line). There’s a pitcher named Gilgamesh who never loses a game, but then one day he throws a ball right at the ump’s throat. There’s a team in it called the Ruppert Mundys who have to play 163 away games. The league is so rift with problems that they just write it out of baseball history and all the towns that were in the league change their names. Hilarious.

Fiction: The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Re-read for me; new to Dad. Our June challenge book.

GirlReaction: I lovelovelove this book a completely crazypants amount. I read it shortly after I had moved to Chicago and there were so many great details from my new city in it, places I had been, places I needed to then seek out. For me, it’s incredibly romantic; but some of it may be related to being single for a very very long time–this idea of him being there, he’s off in another time, visiting a different you, but he exists, he is there, you just have to wait… It’s probably a selfish veneer but feels like there’s something very (sadly) (poignantly) romantic about that lonely yearning life.

Also I thought the (admittedly few) times you get to hear about Claire’s art were just FANTASTIC. I could picture her works so vividly. Why can’t someone make me wings? WHY!?! So amazing.

So yeah, I went completely ga-ga for this book and was sending it out as gifts to everyone I knew. Bought it for my parents the Christmas after I read it (maybe 2003?) and waited and waited for them to read it. Eventually Dad saw the movie. While most of my friends who had seen the book didn’t love the movie (Jenni said it was like watching the Cliff Notes), he said he liked it (well enough). Really liked the chemistry between McAdams and Bana–although he hasn’t had any particular urge to see it again.

I find it just as awesome to read the third, fourth…and 18th times around. I really still love it 100%.

DadReaction: Yeah. He did NOT like it. Thought it was an OK book about a relationship, liked some of the scenes, the monopoly game, little things like that. But just thought it was so weird overall. What a weird life for this woman and got to the point where he needed the story to straighten out (2/3 way through). Felt he didn’t need to read about Henry being 105 and Claire being 2 months old…said that every time he turned to the next chapter and read that parenthesis, he just wanted to throw the book across the room!!
He also felt like what if the 15 year old horny teenager Henry shows up when she’s 16. Why didn’t that ever happen? [Of course that can’t happen! When he’s 15 he doesn’t know she exists yet…] He couldn’t finish it. Too frustrated by the time / couldn’t go with the story anymore. Also didn’t like the drawn out stuff around her mom’s death.

SO…after Dad’s reaction to the book, I decided to try the movie. I couldn’t make it past the first 15 minutes!!

A) The movie makes it HIS story, which really takes away the whole point. Yes, in some ways, he is the more interesting or unusual character, but that’s part of the point, it’s not about him! it’s about being his wife, being the one that’s NOT that.

B) The movie makes the accident HIS FAULT!! Noooooooo. That’s just completely wrong. The accident is how he figures out his ability and it’s what saves him but it was NOT the cause. SOOOOO WRONG. And it’s SO irritating when stupid people connected with making movies out of good books make a BAD decision about something like that. How could they possibly think that was something that either 1) needed changing or 2) was a good idea to change? Increasing dramatic tension? Please. This story already has plenty of that. DISAPPROVE.

C) The casting of Gomez is just WRONG. I’m all for Ron Livingston in other roles but SO NOT HERE.

Verdict: I still love this book SO MUCH. Dad did NOT. He likes the movie OK. I could not even get through it. Disagreement reigns! 😉

Fiction: “Possession, by A.S. Byatt

Re-read. Our April challenge book.

Speaking of academia (as we were when reading Davies)…very dazzling. Funny and wicked about the academy and these kind of blighted lives; people that love literature and get trapped where they’re just drudges to this work–in this case especially, the woman with the index cards about the wife. Such a miserable life, inflicting misery on each other.

Really makes us laugh when the American woman sweeps in and creates all this sturm und drang–of course that’s how the Brits see us. We come in and just start breaking stuff!!

Maude = very well-written character. Interesting person with her own hurts and wounds, but a really good person. Always think it’s cool that they got together in a way.

The book itself is really a literary tour de force when you think about all the stuff Byatt wrote for it! Not just the book itself, but also Ash’s poetry, Christabel’s poetry, their letters, his wife’s diary, Sabine’s diary, various letters. Re-reading it though, we find ourselves skimming some parts. Artistically great, but do we need to read 8 pages of a Spenserian poem before moving on to the next chapter? Even in earlier readings, we remembered being kind of impatient at some parts–want to go on with the story. Didn’t need that much extra to see the ability–sometimes clogged the narrative flow. And the characters give you the exposition so you don’t need to have the whole thing.

Always knocked out by that connection with the mystical weirdness, the seance–when you realized she made him think the kid was dead. Very moving at the end–when you see he did get to meet the kid and realize the truth / and watching his wife thinking she’s hiding it from him. Byatt really projected you back into this other story–the modern story in a way was a happier one. This is one of those books that breaks my heart every time I read it.

Some scenes such a rush, and have a great mystery feel, as when Maude figures out the letters are hidden.

Verdict: still really good. So worth re-reading.

Fiction: The Fool’s Progress, by Edward Abbey

Re-read for Dad; new to me. Our May challenge book.

Total black comedy with incredibly (surprisingly) sad moments; you get to like the guy more than you ever though you could. The first chapter is just outright hilarious. Dad remembers hearing about Abbey at a reading once, picking that chapter, and apparently some women walked out. Personally, I feel you have to be able to enjoy well-written things (or even to apply this broader, well-done art in any genre) without imposing your filter. If you can never enjoy writing that doesn’t agree with your (for example) feminist viewpoints, you’re shutting out a huge portion of the world.

Abbey just reallys wrings out the in your face redneck stuff; takes a hard look at the mess a person can make of their life. He’s pretty hard on the guy for making dumb choices. But there’s always this underlying hopeful place–“maybe we’ll find a way to make it work” enthusiasm.

Dad has been going back and reading biographies of Abbey, trying to parse out which bits are autobioraphical and which aren’t–all the wild stories about Abbey and women stop the day he married his last wife. Both Abbey and the main character here are so involved with people: so much fun, so attractive, so adventurous, but (until the end) not a long-term guy.

Dad felt that on his second time reading it, some of it got a little tedious: got kinda tired of the trip, didn’t always enjoy the flashbacks–felt like they were always pulling you out of something you were enjoying (the current trip more engaging than the past memories).

A lot of individual scenes were so much fun. Love how he has all these horrifically failed relationships but also has friends pretty much everywhere he goes. Clearly this guy is bringing something to the table that makes keeping him around worthwhile.

For me, it’s reminisicent of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater–the dark, dark humor of it, a voice you’re not going to meet a lot in literature, a part of America that doesn’t get chronicled a lot.

Verdict: both enjoyed it a LOT.

Fiction: Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

Re-read. Our March challenge book.

Love reading novels as saturated in the world of academia as this one. Also adds something to the mix that there are people that weren’t quite in that world–Maria and her crazy gypsy relatives; Parlabane. Great mixture.

Davies is really funny about the academic stuff–and then the mystical stuff is his own spice. Very much a social comedy, like Trollope or someone; reading this right after reading Gatsby (with that veneer that social class matters), you do kind of live and die with Maria and those people, they become important to you. Maria’s so smart that when she gets pulled back into the gypsy world she’s pissed off.

Thinking about wacko Parlabane’s ability to just be in and around academia even though he’s so beyond the range of it; is it still like that? (Academics more tolerant of nutters in their midst?)

All the art stuff is so vivid that you’re picturing those drawings in your head, Davies really brings that stuff to life. (And in the third book of this trilogy, they do an opera that makes you believe that this thing exists. Same is true of Francis’ paintings in book 2.)

In this first book, Francis is like one of those planets exerting all this force, everything sort of orbiting around him, this figure you can’t quite picture.

Davies is more than a clever writer–very wise.

Verdict: Very enthusiastic double thumbs-up, both in previous reads and now.

Fiction: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Re-read. Our February challenge book.

Dad comments that he always enjoys it when he’s reading it, but later he never remembers what it was about: a year from now he’ll think: “What was the plot of the Great Gatsby? I know it’s in the ’20s…” My friend Cathy loves this book…but she always teaches it to her high schoolers every year–the plot would definitely stay in your memory if you were doing that! 🙂

It’s well written, nice voice, really easy to pick up and read, has a nice conversational tone, Nick is really likable. But doesn’t necessarily take you somewhere. Similar to Austen it has that veneer of society being worthwhile. Very cool tone to it.

Easy to forget the hollowness in Gatsby–it’s so much all show. All the characters are so shallow, see, for example, Gatsby putting up a huge facade to chase this really childish illusion of the perfect romance, the kind of thing you believe when you’re 12. Everybody’s living a fake life, cruising along as if, if they keep moving, nothing’s going to catch with up them. Even Nick’s psuedo relationship with the tennis player. She’s a real slippery character.

Dad remembered the movie from 40 years ago – just a clunker. Robert Redford played Gatbsy, Sam Waterston played Nick – it was a huge flop.

A very Midwestern exchange:
Me: I found all the MN stuff really surprising. didn’t remember that at all.
Dad: The Great Gatsby is like War & Peace to Minnesotans. Once heard a professor at a conference in Minnesota being asked how wonderful it was and he gave a very careful answer: “Well, you know it’s one of those essential works of a period where, in America, you just can’t approach the ’20s without reading the Great Gatsby” i.e., worth reading for its picture of a time and place, but not putting it up with the great novels.

Verdict: Thumbs up for an enjoyable easy read, but would not appear on our Greatest Hits list.

Fiction: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Re-read. Our January challenge book.

Having both seen the movie and, while agreeing that it is a decent action flick, both agreeing that it really wasn’t our Sherlock Holmes, it seemed like a good time to go back for a re-read, this being the very first SH book (and ACD wasn’t even sure he was going to continue with Holmes–this could have been the only one!!).

Interesting to go back and read — we all come to it knowing the character already, whether through RDJ or Basil Rathbone, or memories of other stories… Fun watching Holmes and Watson bond on the page in front of you. Always think back on these as “Holmes stories” but in re-reading, really realize how much of the OTHER story you get here: the Westward expansion story, the spooky cult aspect of the Mormon setting, the hero who becomes an anti-hero–he becomes such a different person, an unstoppable avenger, and his heartbreak defines the rest of his life. You’re almost sad when Holmes catches him; the people he murdered deserved it!!

Full of dark sharp bitter elements, this is not a POP book. The hero goes down. In memory, you often soften Holmes a bit; you meet him here again as acerbic, rougher, dismissive (of Watson, among others), boxing. Watson always comes off a bit of a bumbler in the Rathbone films–really he’s “normal” right? He’s the “us” or “you” in these stories.

As with other Holmes’ stories, the everpresent suggestion of a ghost / pushed aside by Holmes who is always the one pointing out the physical evidence. Thought this was a weakness of the RDJ film as well–seemed like Holmes was falling for the mystical a bit too much.

According to an article in the Smithsonian (awhile back), Holmes was partly based on a doctor ACD knew and the bohemian / nonconformist aspect was based on Oscar Wilde (note that Dorian Gray and Study in Scarlet were put out by the same publisher). Holyroyd thinks the actor Henry Irving was one of influences for the illustrations of Holmes (haunted police courts, played lurid characters on stage).

Favorite new (to me) expression I had to ask Dad to define: “sere and yellow” = late autumn (here, of life).

Verdict: thumbs up from both Girl and Dad.