28 February 2013
Three fantastic books and one dud
It has been awhile since I got lost in a page-turner. I read plenty of enjoyable books but not many of them reach true page-turner status. Recently I came across three of them almost in a row. I will start with the dud.
Young Torless by Robert Musil
This slender book filled a niche in my Century of Reading list, and let me just say, if it were not for that list, I would not have finished it. Violent and surprisingly homoerotic for 1906, Young Torless is schoolboy bullying, torture, and rape masquerading as philosophical exegesis. I found it tedious and disturbing.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
I have avoided this book since it was published in 1999 because of both its size and a feeling that it might be too mathematical for me. I probably made the right decision fourteen years ago, but the older, more mature Thomas can handle, even appreciate, a little math and science in his fiction. It is a truly fascinating book from so many perspectives. Many characters, one storyline in WWII and one in the tech frenzy of the late 1990s. (From today's vantage point the bits from the 1990s feel just as much like historical fiction as the WWII parts.) I thought this was a great mix of detail, character, and plot and it achieved page-turner status, something, given the aforementioned biases, I didn't expect. Definitely worth a go. I think if you apply the Nancy Pearl 50-page rule, you aren't likely to set it aside. I would even hazard to say that you could apply a 25-page rule with the same result.
Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins
This one comes close to Miss Buncle status for me. An absolutely delightful idea for a book that reminded me in a tiny way of the George Glass episode of The Brady Bunch where Jan is tired of everyone thinking she is a lonely loser so she makes up a boyfriend. That is exactly what Patricia Brent does, except it is 1918 London, not 1970s California. And like Frank Baker's Miss Hargreaves, Patricia's lie becomes real--although without the supernatural elements of the Baker--and many complications ensue. This out of print (I think) gem has Persephone written all over it. If you find a copy snap it up. I was lucky enough to get mine from British expat Roz who some of you know.
Martin Eden by Jack London
This is not your grandfather's Jack London. No hints of White Fang or To Build a Fire in this one. This might be my favorite book so far for 2013. I loved it, couldn't put it down, and continue to think of it. Our hero Martin Eden is a rough and tumble working class sailor from the San Francisco Bay area who is introduced into a middle class family and falls in love with books and middle class daughter Ruth. It is a bit of a literary Pygmalion story. Bibliophiles will love watching Martin discover the world of reading and learning in general, and his efforts to become a writer. Published in 1909, it is also a fascinating look at the publishing trade around that time.
So often in books that chronicle young men making their way in the world they run to drink, gambling, loose women, or some combination of the three. And while those elements make for what many people consider a good story, I am someone who likes to read about people working hard, sticking to the straight and narrow, and avoiding bad things. The fantastic thing about this book is that although there are complications along the way, the crisis is left until very late in the book and is far more interesting than the more commonly depicted problems of drink and debt and such. London is definitely saying something about class in Martin Eden but it never feels heavy handed.
Other things to love about Martin Eden include the 1909 snapshot of the Bay area as well as Hawaii and other locales described, as well as the way that London is able to describe the erotic heat between Martin and Ruth without ever really writing anything erotic.
I loved, loved, loved this book. Not to compare everything to our beloved Persephone Books, but I feel like if they went back in time and asked Jack London to write something for them to publish, this is the book he would have written. Go find it!