Books I read this week: the rest of December

Since it’s the last day of the year, I’d better catch up on the last books I read in December.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers, and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fairis a collection of articles from Vanity Fair written between 1914 and 1936. They’re on a variety of subjects by a variety of people- a number of which were members of the Algonquin Round Table, which was why I picked it up. Not all of the pieces were overwhelmingly interesting, but what did spark my interest was the consideration of the word “modern” and its ramifications. Also of interest were the articles looking at women’s place in society.

Woman’s historical position does not invite critical analysis. The fact is that men have not been treating her very fairly. We very chivalrously called our wife our ‘better half’ but always regarded her as inferior and kept her in strict subordination. – Hyman Strunksy

Perhaps, some day, he will let the world know to how many of the checks, sent by women in payment of their income tax, was attached one of those spevially printed little blanks, which the suffragists have circulated so widely, reading, ‘I pay this tax under protest, in obedience to a law in the making of which I had no voice.’ – Ann O’Hahan

 

and then there’s the poetry.

Suicide’s Note

The calm,

Cool face of the river

Asked me for a kiss

-Langston Hughes

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse: A Flavia de Luce Story by Alan Bradley doesn’t count as a book, it’s only 27 pages long, but it’s a lovely little mystery story featuring one of my very favorite detectives.

Satan Came to Eden: A Survivor’s Account of the “Galapagos Affair”by Dore Strauch is fascinating. It’s the account of a couple who left Germany in the years before WW2 and went to the Galapagos island of Floreana. They wanted solitude, and that’s what they got- they were the only human inhabitants of the inhospitable island. They worked hard to create a home, and the beginning of the book is so interesting as you watch them do battle with the elements. But other humans move to the island, and before long there’s a situation reminiscent of an Agatha Christie novel, with a self-entitled baroness moving onto the island with her two lovers and unsettling everything. The baroness and one of her men disappear (others say that they left for Tahiti), and Strauch has pretty compelling evidence that they were murdered (they didn’t see any boats, one of the Baroness’ prize possessions is left behind). Life continues and Strauch’s companion (they were never married) also dies, and she decides to leave the island.

The book is a fascinating look at a period of time where living in true isolation was possible, when millionaires were traveling around the world in yachts for years at a time, and there were still areas of the world to colonize. It’s also interesting to watch how even then, the media was sensationalizing things to sell papers- German and other European papers got wind of the scandal from visiting boats and blew everything out of proportion.

But it may also be that in a wild place like Floreana, the primitive character in each person comes out more strongly than elsewhere, so that everybody shows his own true face- a rare sight in this world, and rather disconcerting.

Floreana: A Woman’s Pilgrimage to the Galapagosby Margret Wittmer is about the same events, written by another of the women on the island. Her account of what happened is so different from Strauch’s that it’s clear that someone is lying. But this book is about far more than just the murder mystery. Where Strauch was on the island for about 4 years, Wittmer and her family came to the island intending to stay for two years (for their son’s health) and ended up staying for life. This book covers most of Margret Wittmer’s life- of which the scandalous years only make up a small portion. So this book ends up being more about homesteading on an isolated island, dealing with the government of Ecuador (who own the islands), worrying about the war (they were German, and could have been deported or interred as enemies), and raising children away from civilization. It’s a really fascinating life, and I really enjoyed it.

Meat, coffee, sugar, salt and everything that went onto the table was obtained and prepared only by our own labors. I sometimes reflected how much everything is taken for granted in civilization, how little people think about the mass of work and worry and effort, of mistakes and setbacks that go into the food that they buy in shops and put on the breakfast table.

I’ll Give You the Sunby Jandy Nelson is a devastating, wonderful book. It’s about twins, Noah and Jude, who are extremely close at 13, and who by 16 are barely speaking. The story is told in two timelines- Noah’s perspective at 13, and Jude’s perspective at 16. When the book begins, the walls between the two siblings have already begun to rise- Noah finds himself attracted to the new boy at school, while Jude worries that her art doesn’t measure up to her brother’s. While they love each other desperately, they compete in everything, including their parents’ love. Major, life changing events happen over three years, and while both siblings are think that the secrets they are keeping are at the heart of everything, they’re both missing major parts of the story.

The voices in this book are so raw, so beautiful. The pain and grief and anger are so honest, so real. There is an abundance of the magical thinking so inherent in teenagers, but also elements of magical realism that give the story a glittery, ethereal feel. The language is gorgeous- two or three times I literally burst into tears because the sentences were so beautiful.  (I know, I know. But I did.)

This is a young adult book, and because of that I’ll add the caution that it’s definitely one to be discussed if you give it to a teenager. Jude’s loss of virginity at age 14 is complicated and problematic (to her, not just from my moral stand point) and it would be a great opportunity to discuss issues of consent, age, etc.  The ultimate conclusion of this story point is the one weak link in the book in my opinion. But the rest of the story is so lovely.

Because I can see people’s souls sometimes when I draw them, I know the following: Mom has a massive sunflower for a soul so big that there’s hardly any room in her for organs. Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire.

Everytime Grandma S. read Jude’s and my palms, she’d tell us that we have enough jealousy in our lines to ruin our lives ten times over. I know she’s right about this. When I draw Jude and me with see-through skin, there are always rattlesnakes in our bellies. I only have a few. Jude had seventeen at last count.

I sneak a glance at Jude. I can tell she’s crumpled up in a corner of herself, just like I do in emergencies. There’s a crawlspace in me that no one can get to, no matter what. I had no idea she had one too.

A Long Spoonby Jonathan L. Howard is another short story. It takes place in Howard’s Johannes Cabal mythos, and in this story, Cabal has summoned a spider demon to accompany him to Hell to ask a long dead sorcerer a question. It’s reminiscent of John Constantine in Hellblazer, and I highly enjoyed it.

Annabel Schemeby Robin Sloan is a gorgeous little novella. Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, one of my favorite books of all time. Annabel Scheme is a private investigator with an unusual assistant, in an unusual world. It’s similar to ours, but a massive computer company figured out how to make quantum computers, which caused problems, and there are demons, and ghosts in the machine, and electric detectives, and it’s all a gorgeous mix of technology and the occult and you really should just read it.

Sometimes you settle for a profession. Sometimes you reach for a profession. And sometimes, Miss Nineteen, you create a profession where none existed before.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales / With an Introduction by Lemony Snicketby Chris Van Allsburg is based on The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which was one of my favorite books when I was younger. The Mysteries is a book of strange illustrations, with one sentence on the opposite page. The idea was that a man had brought these illustrations with the captions, and promised to come back with the stories that went with them, but never did. So as a reader, you were supposed to come up with your own stories. I love that book so much. My stories were always super creepy, while my friends’ stories were happier.

This book is a collection of  stories that go with those pictures, written by some excellent children’s (and not) authors. The stories are strong, and most tend toward the creepy side that I saw as a kid. My favorite of the stories is The Third Floor Bedroom by Kate DiCamillo, about a girl sent to live with her aunt while her brother is off at war.

My wishes for you: Last night, the moon was very low in the sky. It gave off a strange light that made the wallpaper birds seem to flap their wings. Take that and turn it into a wish for yourself, Martin.

Aunt Hazel listened to me with her mouth hanging open, as if I were speaking words she had been waiting all her life to hear. I have never been listened to that way. It’s an absolute shame that what I said didn’t make any sense.

 

Other strong contenders, A Strange Day in July by Sherman Alexie, The Seven Chairs by Lois Lowry, and The House on Maple Street by Stephen King, who pulls off the near impossible by taking on the story of the house taking off like a rocket and making it completely plausible.

Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980sby Lori Mejewski and Jonathan Bernstein is a fascinating look at the stories behind some of the most memorable New Wave songs of the 80s. I loved most of these songs as a teenager, but I never knew much about the bands behind the songs. We didn’t have MTV until late in the game, so the only place I got to hear music was the radio or 1 hour a week on TV when CMC, the California Music Channel, came on. Contrary to its name it was only an hour of music videos, not a whole channel of them. So it wasn’t until much later that I put together that the same groups played a lot of the songs that I loved. (Those groups being: OMD, Erasure, Tears for Fears, Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, and later Depeche Mode.) This book is a lot of fun, it’s got gossip and drama, but also some really interesting music history and theory.

Broadly speaking, the artists who came up through this period took their influences from the same pool of musical predecessors. Yet there is no doubt that if all the members of those bands gathered together, opinions about the merits of those performeres would vary enormously. That said, I am supremely confident that there would be one exception: We would unanimously agree upon David Bowie being the common pivotal influence on all of our collective musical styles.- Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran

No wonder I love New Wave.

In America, new wave was an umbrella the size of a circus tent. It was a Tower of Babel populated by American bands who wanted to be British, British bands who wanted to be German, and German bands who wanted to be robots.

It’s really a fun, light read, and if you love music from that time period, I highly recommend it.

And that’s it for this year. I really don’t think I’ll finish another book by midnight tonight (although I suppose it’s possible) so that puts my year total at 111 books read. 55 were written by women, 54 by men (2 were complilations.)  I started 9 that I didn’t finish, and am still in the middle of The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Over the year, I read 33,551 pages, not counting the pages in books I stopped reading.

I already posted my favorite books of the year– though I would add I’ll Give You The Sun to that list.

Feel free to comment with your favorite books of the year, I’d love to hear them.

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