Books I’ve Read – April 2012

The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse

(***** of five)

See, the thing is, what I mean to say, this might be one of the most amusing old tales I’ve been subject to in a long time. I’ve read Wodehouse before, though, what? But this one is probably my favorite. It give a person a bit of joy, a tickle to the old melon, what have you.

I really can’t go on like that for long. It’s relatively exhausting, which makes me appreciate Wodehouse’s wit all the more.

Being from the Jeeves collection of stories ‘The Code of the Woosters’ is about the relatively affable Bertie Wooster and his inimitable manservant, Jeeves. This time around Bertie and Jeeves are off to Totleigh Towers, homestead of a one Sir Watkyn Bassett, where there’s a bit of trouble between Bertie’s old school chum, Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett. Add in a much desired silver cow creamer, the conniving Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, curate Harold “Stinker” Pinker, would be dictator Roderick Spode, Stiffy’s diabolical dog Bartholomew, and a stolen police helmet and it’s plain that things can get very complicated, very fast, and very comically.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

(** of five)

I have never been so relieved to finish a book. It wasn’t that I disliked it… it was that it just wasn’t that good. I picked this up at a thrift store because it was called ‘The Eyre Affair’, and I’m a rather enormous Bronte fan. I didn’t figure that it could go so wrong so long as Jane was involved. It’s cover description also; “Filled with clever wordplay, literary allusions and biliowit, ‘The Eyre Affair’ combines elements of Monty Python, Harry Potter, Stephen Hawking and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But it ts quirky charm is all its own” as quoted by the esteemed Wall Street Journal, seemed beyond the pale. How could I not enjoy something that brings to mind all those things which I LOVE? Well, this managed. I slugged through the first two hundred pages only looking forward to the next because it would mean I was one page closer to never having the think about these annoying characters again.

Thursday Next lives in an alternate 1985. The Crimean War never ended, time portals open randomly, cloned Dodos are a popular pet, and literature is taken VERY seriously. Next works for the LiteraTec, level 27 of the SpecialOps. We don’t know what most of the levels do but as the saying goes; if you want to be in SpecOps, act a little weird. For reasons that aren’t explained she’s sick of LiteraTec and wants to advance so when a higher up asks for her help in capturing her former professor and master criminal, Acheron Hades (yes, yes that’s his name and if that weren’t bad enough his brother is named Styx) she jumps at the chance. But one failed attempt after another to bring the criminal to bay is the bulk of the rest of the story. In the course she moves back to Swindon, has a terribly predictable back and forth with her ex-fiance, Landen Park-Laine, and finds a little respite nestled in the pages of Bronte’s seminal work.

Everything about this novel screamed “clever” and “interesting” to me. It was not. I know that this book spawned a series about Thursday Next but I can’t understand who is reading them. She sucks. I mean, she’s seriously boring, smug, and blase. I could not stand her. And her relations with other people was so glazed over that I couldn’t get any sort of connection to anyone else either. The whole thing was a mess. I read somewhere that Fforde couldn’t find a publisher for quite some time, accruing rejection slip after rejection slip. I think the information was meant to be given in a “Haha, look what they missed” sort of way but really, I can’t blame them. The fact of the matter is; while Mr. Fforde had some really interesting ideas and created a rich world, the writing is just not that good.

Barmy in Wonderland – P.G. Wodehouse

(**** of five)

To give less than four stars to anything P.G. Wodehouse has ever written seems relatively preposterous. That being said, this is not his best work. It’s good, to be sure, and often hilarious but it’s no Jeeves or Blandings.

‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is about Cyril ‘Barmy’ Fotheringay-Phipps, an oft mentioned member of the Drones Club, Dover Street, London. It was good to see more of Barmy, truly. This adventure takes young Fotheringay-Phipps to New York City where he becomes involved in the production of a truly terrible play called Sacrifice. Barmy, as his name may suggest, has well intentions, but is hardly the brightest crayon in the box, and he’s certainly out of his depths navigating Broadway. Luckily he has by his side Eileen ‘Dinty’ Moore, seasoned producer’s secretary, who easily steals Barmy’s affections.

The story is relatively farcical and one that we’ve all seen a bunch of times. Rather like the plot of musical comedies of the time. That doesn’t make it bad, not at all, but often predictable. I did thoroughly enjoy it, the characters were amusing and the plotlines sometimes laugh out loud funny. Barmy’s initial meeting with Dinty had been chuckling aloud.

The Monsters of Templeton – Lauren Groff 

(**** of five)

This book was wonderful. It took me a little while to get into because there was a lot of information from a lot of different sources from a very twisted family tree coming at me. But once all that was worked through it was well worth it. There is a family tree, several in fact, included, but I wouldn’t recommend looking searching it out due to spoilers.

This is, at heart, the tale of Willie Upton, last descendant of the founding family of Templeton. Templeton is not so loosely based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, New York. Templeton, so I gather, is actually the name of a fictionalized Cooperstown as written by it’s famous son James Fenimore Cooper, great American author known pridominately for his Leatherstocking novels, including ‘Last of the Mohicans’. Sound confusing? I haven’t even gotten started yet. Willie limps home in trouble and dejected after a disastrous affair with a married professor. And it’s then that her mother decides to impart of her a small fact about her conception; she wasn’t, as she believed, conceived of one of three hippies living on a commune in San Francisco, but rather the daughter of a local man. She’s only given one clue, that he claimed an illegitimate connection to the Temple family as well, and a whole lot of research to do. From there she mucks through several generations of Temples trying to find a son or daughter not previously claimed. We get first hand accounts by five of six people, always coming back to Willie in the end. This book is part familial drama, part history, and part mystery. And it was probably one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read.

And then there’s the Templeton monster. On the day Willie arrives home the body of a monster is found floating in Lake Glimmerglass. Glimmey he’s called and has been rumored for generations. The monster weaves it’s way through the tale at random points and allowing the audiences a bit of disbelief. Because, and this may or may not be a fault of the novel, because it’s so closely based on Cooperstown history I really wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. For example, the founder, Marmaduke Temple was kind of a huge ass, I have no idea if this holds true for his real life counterpart William Cooper. I wouldn’t want to pass hasty judgement on the man and somehow Glimmey helps me to remember that. This is a work of fiction, but with reality weaved to delicately into it’s fabric it can be a bit tricky. It certainly makes me want to research Cooperstown a bit and that’s more thought than I’ve ever given the town.

The format was unusual, but it was endlessly fascinating. When I first picked up this book it was because the cover and short description caught my attention. At first I was afraid it wasn’t going to live up to it’s potential, but in the end it was clear this book deserves its accolades.

Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen – P.G. Wodehouse

(**** of five)

I’ve done a lot of reading P.G. Wodehouse lately, because sometimes it’s just necessary to get lost in the hilarious world of a fun, engaging, and good book. Nothing in Wodehouse seems completely real; the plots are over the top, the reactions unrealistic, and the conclusions that are immediately, and erroneously, drawn are absurd. In other words, everything is simply wonderful.

‘Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen’ is a Jeeves novel centering around Bertie Wooster and his trusty man, Jeeves. This time Bertie has awoken to some mysterious red spots on his chest and when his doctor suggests a relaxing turn in the country Bertie up and heads out to Maiden Eggesford where his Aunt Dahlia is staying with some friends, the Briscoes. Coincidentally, also in residence in the sleepy Somerset village (where Bertie believes the mean age is approximately one hundred years old) are Pop Cook, his daughter Vanessa (one of Bertie’s many ex-fiancees and current fiancee to old friend Orlo Porter), and guest Major Plank (who once believed Wooster to be the notorious criminal Alpine Joe [it’s a long story]). The conflict arrives in two race horses; the Briscoe’s Simla and the Cook’s Potato Chip, both entered into the local race and both equally matched. When it comes out that Potato Chip is unusually attached to a particular cat it seems like everyone in town has a motive to steal it and it’s no surprise when Bertie finds himself in the middle of it from many sides.

I would be remiss to give anything Wodehouse writes less than four stars, and certainly this deserves them. However, having read a lot of his books lately it did seem, at parts, like a rehashing of old stories. In every one there is something that needs stealing, Bertie is pressed from several sides to procure the item to no mutual advantage, and he’s at constant risk of entering matrimony with someone he doesn’t care for. Now, there’s no problem with this, but I do wish I had waited a little longer between this and, say, ‘The Code of the Woosters’, which is clearly superior.

But, like any Wodehouse I would suggest picking it up if you find a copy because this book is delightful. And in the end it may be clear that aunts aren’t gentlemen, but you can’t blame them really, very few people in Wodehouse truly are.

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

(**** of five)

This book reminded me of several things. The first was, of course, ITV’s popular costume drama Downton Abbey. So much so, in fact, that I found myself checking the publication date and wondering whether Julian Fellowes perused Kate Morton’s pages and found inspiration there. But then, as a fan of Downton, I don’t consider this a bad thing. Both stories concern a manor house on the English country side. Both delve into both the upstairs and downstairs aspects. Both contain young women who are politically minded, against the wishes of their fathers. Both have secretarial classes taken in secret. Both focus on what happens to the property and title of a family with no male heirs. And, both ultimately deal with World War I and it’s aftermath. But it also sort of reminded me of another book I read recently; ‘The Thirteenth Tale’. Both are relative literary mysteries that involve houses and setting a character and span entire lives telling their convoluted tales. I loved both books.

‘The House at Riverton’ is narrated and is somewhat about Grace Bradley. At age 98 she receives a letter from a film maker wanting to make a movie about an event at Riverton that changed the family forever. At a party in the twenties a young poet committed suicide and the two daughters of the house never spoke again. The truth of the story is far more complicated and Grace is the only one alive who knows it. But any story must be started at the beginning.

Grace goes to Riverton when she’s fourteen years old as a housemaid. Her mother, a bitter woman with hardly a kind word throughout the entirety of the novel, worked there in her youth but left when she got into trouble and Grace was born. Grace finds life at Riverton satisfactory but is captivated when grandchildren David, Hannah, and Emmeline Hartford come for the summer season. She’s particularly taken with Hannah, the suffragette in miniature who makes political statements in seemingly innocent Bible plays, but also with the tripod that’s created by the three children. As time moves on and war comes to the world Grace finds that the dynamic of Riverton is changed considerably. The children have grown, David has joined the army against his father’s wishes, and not long after the family suffers several deaths. Soon second son, Frederick, the children’s father, is the master of the house and Hannah has agreed to marry, taking Grace with her as ladies maid to London. I could really go on with the plot of this book forever. It had many twists and turns and covered a vast amount of time, nearly cradle to tomb, of the main character. Traveling from the sleepy town on Saffron Green to bustling London it becomes clear that secrets, betrayal, and unhappiness are not bound by property lines.

It was clear that Grace was the protagonist of this book, but I found the more compelling character to be Hannah Hartford. As a young girl she longs for adventure but then looks for it in all the wrong places when she grows. Her story is all but heartbreaking. Grace’s story, as well as the story of the rest of the servants and her mother, prove that having nothing leaves only a few choices should one tow the conventional line (though we do see that, as time moves on, Grace is able to school herself and eventually become an archaeologist). Hannah’s shows that a woman of her time and social status had as few options. Early on Hannah makes it clear that she wants to work and takes secretarial classes at a school in town. She studies shorthand until she knows it backwards and forwards preparing for the step. But when the time comes to seek out a job her sister balks at the idea of her working, her father expressly forbids it, and she finds that, in fact, no one will employ her, not because of lack of skill but because they don’t want to incur the annoyance of her connected family. She’s essentially tricked into marriage and when she finds another source of adventure the results destroy not only herself, but her whole family. She felt like the richest character to me, the roundest story, and possibly the intended main character. We see her through Grace’s eyes (which perhaps only endears her) but it’s Hannah we care about.

This is a meandering story that makes it feel a bit longer than it’s approximate 450 pages. But that’s not really a bad thing. I was so swept up in the characters, setting, and story that I didn’t mind that it look me about a week to finish. It existed in a world all of it’s own, perfectly realized by prose that never turned purple. I cared about everything and even when secrets were revealed that could easily have been surmised it felt satisfying instead of insipid. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes the early part of the twentieth century, literary mysteries, or just good books in general.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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2 Responses to Books I’ve Read – April 2012

  1. Emma says:

    “The Eyre Affair” does sound intriguing from all the praise on the front cover. Does it actually have hints of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

    • Lindsay says:

      No, not really no. There are a few snarky comments thrown in here and there but I wouldn’t say anything like Buffy.

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