04 October 2008

September Book Report

September was a month of finishing up for me, reading-wise. I read all but one of the books on the lists I'd created for my remaining online reading challenges, even though some of them had already ended officially.

The first book I completed was The Keepers of the House, by Shirley Ann Grau. This was my final selection in the Southern Reading Challenge. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, and it deals with the scandal that ensues when a wealthy man's secret family of children born from his relationship with a black woman becomes known in the small Southern town where his family has lived for generations, and where his own daughter was raised in the same house with her half-siblings. The mixed-race children are eventually sent to schools in the North, and financed by the father, but never acknowledged by him as his own. When his one acknowledged daughter marries a man with political aspirations, the secret is exposed.

I really wanted to like this book, but I just didn't. I think it was due to the fact that I just couldn't bring myself to care that much about any of the characters. They were very well written, and Grau's descriptive powers are excellent, but even though I finished the book, it was mainly to just see if it got any better towards the end, and for me it didn't. I'm glad I read it, to find an author who was unfamiliar to me, and I think that in 1965, it would have been pretty groundbreaking. For me right now, it seemed awfully staged.

Next up, Shopgirl, by Steve Martin, for the Novella Challenge. I am a big Steve Martin fan as far as his comedy goes, and a couple of years ago, I saw a local production of his play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile , which I truly enjoyed. So I decided that I should give this novella a try. I knew that a film had been made of it, but I didn't see it, so I really didn't have much of an idea what to expect.

The main characters in the book are Mirabelle, Ray, and Jeremy. Mirabelle, an artist at heart, works at the glove counter at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills. Ray is an older, divorced man, who sees her there one day, and becomes totally enamored of her. Jeremy is around Mirabelle's age, and they are friends who at the beginning of the book, mainly get together to have sex when the mood strikes them.

The story deals primarily with the relationship of Mirabelle and Ray, and though neither one of them were awful, neither of them were people whom I found particularly appealing. Mirabelle never really gelled as a person to me, she was too much of a character who seemed to float through life, collecting experiences, but not necessarily taking much from them to make it seem that they mattered that much. Ray was a little more complex, in that we learn a little bit more about his feelings, the conflicts he faces emotionally through his relationship with such a young girl, and how his feelings change by the end of the book. Jeremy starts out as a slacker type, but by the end has changed considerably, and decides to pursue a mature relationship with Mirabelle.

My opinion - OK. Not great, not terrible.

The last two September books were also for the Novella Challenge. The first, No One Writes to the Colonel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was probably the one I found the most challenging to read. It tells the story of a colonel and his wife, now both older, who are waiting to hear about the colonel's pension, and are barely scraping by in the meantime. Though not completely destitute, they have to be very careful with their food and what money they have. Each time the mail boat arrives, the colonel goes to meet it, hoping it will bring news of his pension, so that they can stop worrying about how to make ends meet.

These are my favorite lines in the entire novella, in the second paragraph on the first page:

"For nearly sixty years - since the end of the last civil war - the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was one of the few things which arrived."

Like all of Garcia Marquez's works that I have read, this one appealed to me very much. I think his ability to so perfectly capture place and time are what makes him one of the best, as far as I'm concerned. Also, the characters are always complex yet simple, and I never feel that I am being manipulated by the author to like the characters just because he may. They are presented as the saying goes, warts and all. This story, like so many others, does not end with everything tied up neatly in a bow, but it is rewarding nonetheless. I think that for a person to be responsible for translating a work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez into English, they must have a really developed sense of language and nuance, because reading his work makes you feel like you are being let in on some special story, some secret, that not everyone else can know.

Lastly, I read Daisy Miller, by Henry James, also for the Novella Challenge. This was my first exposure to Henry James, and I was curious, since I have always heard that he was difficult to read. In college, I was exposed to his brother William James, through several philosophy classes, and I found him to be a pretty interesting person.

I enjoyed Daisy Miller, as I will admit to liking stories about the time period when it takes place, when young men and women from America made their grand tours of Europe, and had new and exciting experiences. I can't say that Daisy was one of my favorite literary characters, because she seemed exceptionally shallow to me, but then again, the novella was so short, there was hardly time to know any of the characters except on the surface. I have no idea if this is what James intended for the reader, but I could see how it might leave some feeling as if they didn't get enough story.

All in all, a varied group of books for the month. There is still one title for the Novella Challenge left for me to read, though the official end date was September 15, but I'll read it anyway. (It's a book I was hoping go get to on my own anyway.) Part of me hopes I'll find some new reading challenges to expose me to some more new people, places, and books, but I'm also looking forward to just going back to reading something, just because - you know?


KSD said...

"Shopgirl" the book is much better than "Shopgirl" the film --- if that helps you at all.

Funny that you, whom I consider a very savvy reader, would not be taken with a Pulitzer winner. Wonder what the committee saw in the book?

trish said...

I agree with KSD about Shopgirl the book being better than Shopgirl the film.

Steve Martin wrote another novella called The Pleasure of My Company. I didn't like it as much as Shopgirl, but I liked Shopgirl more than you did. :-)

Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

I really like Steve Martin. Just looking at him makes me laugh. He was so funny in Trains, Planes and Automobiles!

I'm impressed you were able to read two books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez back to back. I think his writing is beautiful but a bit too heavy for me. He's right though. October finally does arrive every year!

teabird said...

I'm a disciple of Henry James - I know I'm rare, that most people don't like his sentence structure or convoluted style. I adore it. Why don't you try the Bostonians next? Feminism, spiritualism, a new view of Boston - it's an excellent next-step if you don't want to read the quintessential Portrait of a Lady...

Knitterary said...

I thought Daisy Miller was mostly annoying. Washington Square and The Bostonians are more entertaining. I also liked The Golden Bowl, but it was a bit of a slog.

Carrie K said...

I enjoy Henry James myself but have always loathed Daisy Miller for the horribly shallow reason that the Cybil Shepherd version of it pre empted the Three Musketeers once. Clearly a reason to shun the novel.

The Keepers of the House sounds like a message book.

____Maggie said...

Congrats for finishing the Southern Reading Challenge! Hope to see you next summer! :D

Melissa said...

Thanks for joining my challenge... I'm looking forward to seeing what you (and everyone else!) read.