Five Good Books

Five reviews of books I loved: The Casual Vacancy, Steve Jobs, The Beginner's Goodby, Some Assembly Required and The Unlikely Pilgrimige of Harold Fry.


My fifth grade teacher, Miss Schmidt (Parcells, 1950, before it was a Junior High School), put The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett in my hands and said, "I think you're a good enough reader to try this."

I've been hooked on reading for pleasure ever since.

Fiction is my preference, but I also choose some nonfiction and biography and certain kinds of mysteries. When I was younger, I felt a self-imposed pressure to finish every novel I  started, whether I liked it or not. I slogged through some awful  stuff.

Now that I’m in my seventh reading-for-pleasure decade, any book that hasn’t grabbed me by the lapels by page 50 or so gets tossed over my shoulder. I don’t have time to waste. I’m not getting any younger.

I read lots of  terrific books in 2012. Here are five of the best:

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. I rate this as a first-class Page-Turner. J.K. Rowling creates the English town of Pagford and peoples it with a cast of deeply flawed unlovable characters.

I tried to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
way back when the Harry Potter series was gaining momentum. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I understand Harry’s appeal to young readers, but I
didn’t waste time finishing that book.

The town of Pagford wouldn’t let me leave.

Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town’s parish council, dies unexpectedly and sets off a race for the vacant council seat. The election campaign eventually involves some two dozen citizens, all with hang-ups, prejudices, petty grievances and family conflicts. Everyone is  introduced in the first 50 pages or so.

I had to make a list of the characters on my bookmark, just to keep them straight. I often do this while reading a big fat Russian novel like Anna  Karenina. Most of Rowling’s characters have nicknames too, just like those Russians. This makes keeping track of their exploits even more challenging.

Pagford residents  include Barry Fairbrother’s wife Mary; Howard and Shirley Mollison; Howard’s business partner’s widow, Maureen; Miles and Samantha Mollison (Miles is Howard and Shirley’s son); Ruth and Simon Price; their son Andrew Price (nickname: Arf); Colin (nickname: Cubby) and Tessa Wall; their son Stuart Wall (nickname: Fats); Kay Bawden; Kay’s daughter Gaia; Kay’s significant other (hmmmm . . . this is debatable), Gavin; Dr. Parminder and Dr.Vikram Jawanda; the Jawanda’s daughter, Sukhvinder;  Krystal  Weedon; Krystal’s mother Terri; and Krystal’s little brother, Robbie. Whew.

The plot is intricately woven and gets more and more tangled as the story progresses. Howard is a big boasting blowhard; Simon is a wife/child abuser; Gavin wants to break up with Kay; Kay is a social worker whose case includes Krystal and Terri and Robbie; Dr. Vikram is drop-dead gorgeous. And so on.

The kids --  all teenagers with hormones ricocheting off the walls like ping-pong balls -- are disdainful of their parents.

It’s a terrific book with interlocking, twisting plot lines and a drop-your-jaw conclusion. Use a  blank piece of paper for a bookmark and keep a pencil handy. It’s worth it. Four out of four stars.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I was curious about Steve Jobs, and I thought this biography would be one of those
where I skipped whole chapters when the author got too technical.

But no.

First off, I never knew Jobs was so uh -- bipolar.  I knew he was innovative, daring, perhaps a genius. But apparently he threw tantrums, insulted people, screamed obscene things at underlings and co-workers, took credit for things he didn’t do, changed his mind overnight, and treated all but a few trusted
friends like dirt.

He was an inventor, a perfectionist, a vegan, a believer in holistic medicine, a visionary.  He didn’t wear deodorant, in spite of the fact that friends repeatedly told him he should. This boggled me.

But  he came up with some damn good ideas. Isaacson's biography shows how Apple moved forward and didn’t stagnate under his watch. Three  out of four stars.

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler.Tyler has written nearly two dozen novels. I’ve read them all. The   Beginner’s Goodbye did not disappoint.

Aaron and Dorothy, two physically and emotionally stunted people, meet and marry. Aaron has a crippled right arm and leg. Dorothy is short, dumpy, and abrupt.

They hide their inner selves and true feelings not only from the outside world, but from each other.

Dorothy dies when a tree falls on their house (I thought this rather bizarre. I could have dreamed up a better demise for her) and Aaron misses her so much, he imagines she comes back to talk to him. Four out of four stars.

Some Assembly Required  by Anne Lamott is practically a day-by-day account of her first grandson Jax’s
first year of life. I loved the details and descriptions and notes about babies and grandmothering and mothering and ordinary life in a weird family. Let’s face it, everybody’s family is weird. I got the impression early in this book that Lamott wanted to control other people’s lives. Jax’s existence intensifies this lamentable trait. She often had to stop and repeat, slowly, to herself: “Oh. Yeah. It’s their baby.”

At first, she’s not thrilled that her son, who is not yet 20, and his girlfriend, who is barely into her 20s, are going to have a baby. They do not marry. In fact, they can barely get along with each other. Lamott worries about what a baby will do for their relationship.

It’s tough sledding for the parents and  new grandma, too. Lamott writes beautifully, with a large unfetterd spotlight on every parent’s and grandparent’s greatest dilemma --– how to hold close, how to let go, and how to know  which is the best choice. Three out of four stars.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry  by Rachel Joyce. I loved this book. I love books by British authors about plain, ordinary people who are stuck in a rut. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is one. The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise  by Julia Stuart is another.

Harold Fry is Ordinary Man to a T. Casper Milquetoast. He lives a regimented, orderly life according to rules and routines ingrained habits. He barely realizes how bored-to-death he is. He’s married to Maureen, who is just as rigid and just as bored. She’s critical of everything Harold does, even the way he butters his toast. Together, they’re miserable .

Harold gets a letter from an old friend telling him she’s dying. He writes back. On the way to post the letter, he walks past the mailbox, past the next mailbox, and the next. He decides to walk the full length of England –some 600 miles -- to visit his old friend before she dies.

The  journey changes him; changes his wife; changes the people who hear about what he’s doing. There are two surprises toward the end and both are believable. Four out of four stars.

In one of my next blog postings, I’ll describe a few not-so-great books I read this year. (OK  I lied about not finishing a book that didn’t grab me by page 50.)  Sometimes I’m kind of  hooked by page 50, but left dangling at the end. I suppose that's  a metaphor for life.

I’ll  write about it. For this and previous blog posts go to margiereinssmith.weebly.com

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