Monday, September 15, 2008

Summer reading

A quick recap of what I read over the summer: I read a lot of Southern fiction. One book that stands out is Joe by Larry Brown. It's the story of dirt-poor Mississippi people. Grim, but Larry Brown can really write.

Handling Sin by Michael Malone. I had high hopes because it got universal five star reviews at Amazon, but I couldn't even finish it. It's the story of an uptight North Carolina insurance salesman who's sent on a wild and crazy quest by his zany old father. That sounds like it has possibilities, but the book was an endless stream of events that had little meaning other to inject more craziness into the story. I suspect Malone wrote it with the idea that it would be made into a movie. Actually, it would probably make a decent movie, but as a novel, it is not good.

Duel of Eagles by Jeff Long. This is nonfiction about the Alamo and the history leading up to it. I stopped reading about 150 pages in after realizing that every single person in the story was an utter scumbag and I didn't want to read about them anymore. I'm now trying again with Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie and William Barret Travis by William C. Davis. It's somewhat better, but not what you would call a light read.

I read two books about teaching: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and I'm Not Complaining, by Ruth Adam. Up the Down Staircase was a huge bestseller in its day, translated into several languages and made into a movie. I wasn't impressed. It touches on serious issues, but in a glib and superficial way. That whole “if I can touch just ONE child it will all be worth it” schtick is just tired. I suppose if I were actually a public high school teacher, I would have found the ridiculous memos from the office funnier.

I'm Not Complaining, on the other hand, is an utterly unsentimental novel about a teacher in a poor industrial town in northern England in the 1930s. I thought it was excellent, probably the best book I read all summer. The narrator's view of her school, the children, the town, is completely unclouded by idealism. She tells it like it is, and that, in our politically correct world, is very refreshing. Also part of the story is her relations with the other teachers. Modern readers might find her harsh. If she thinks her friend is behaving like a slut, she'll come out and say, “I think you're behaving like a trashy little slut.” Even I had a hard time understanding her scorn for the factory owner who tries to make life better for the children by providing parties and food. It's not that she doesn't care, it's just that she knows what she's up against. Highly recommended.

I just finished A Summons to Memphis, elegantly written by Peter Taylor. It's the story of how a family is damaged by being uprooted from Nashville and moving to Memphis, in the 1930s. The author was (perhaps still is) an English professor at the University of Virginia.

Now reading a Nero Wolfe mystery by Rex Stout, in addition to my book about the Alamo.


  1. I'm Not Complaining is going on My List!

    I am a fan of Peter Taylor, too. He died in the early 90's.

    Thanks so much for the post . . . love getting book recommendations . . .

  2. You read like I do--a real hodge-podge of genres and styles! I shall add I'm Not Complaining and Joe to my (very long) list. I'd heard of Joe and heard other good things.

  3. I think I might have to check out I'm Not Complaining as well. The only noteworthy book I read this summer was The Poisonwood Bible. I know I'm a few years behind, but it was a good book.