Monday, August 24, 2009

Book reviews

I've been on a run of good books lately.

In Pale Battalions by Paul Goddard. This novel, set mostly during World War I is chock full of dark secrets and skeletons in the family closet. One Amazon reviewer described it as "overwrought," a fair assessment. It could almost be an Oprah book, but the writing is good enough to stop any eye rolling that might happen if someone less skilled had written this story.

Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. This novel rotates viewpoints between twelve people who experience World War II in different ways, from a young French-Jewish girl who gets involved in the Resistance, to a female WASP pilot, to an American writer of cheesy romance stories. It's really well done, particularly the story of the Resistance girl, and her younger sister, who is transported to safety in Detroit. I'd had a vague notion that Marge Piercy wrote the sort of made-for-the-masses bestsellers that I abhor, but maybe I confused her with someone else. I could see this book being a best-seller, but there's enough depth to satisfy the discerning reader.

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. Superb travel writing. Newby abruptly gave up his career in the fashion industry, in England in the 1950s, and went off on a mad hike through the mountains of Afghanistan, after taking a four-day hiking course in Wales. Funny stuff, although Newby, unlike Bill Bryson and other popular travel writers of today, does not load his prose with funny commentary or metaphors. He describes his adventures--an appalling transaction with a Persian car mechanic, being detained for manslaughter somewhere in Armenia, the irritating qualities of the Nuristani tribes he encounters--with a spareness that leaves the reader to decide if the incident is supposed to be funny or tragic. I would love to travel in that part of the world--every account I've read about Afghanistan has made it seem compelling and gorgeous, but, obviously, it's not a tourist destination these days. Maybe within my lifetime. Also, this book has the best last line I've ever read, anywhere.

My Search for Warren Harding by Robert Plunkett. I'm still reading this one, but by the time I'd got to page seventy and I'd laughed out loud at least three times, so it deserves special mention. Remember Warren Harding? The US president held up to American school children as our most corrupt, due to something called the "Teapot Dome?" (Whatever that was.) Warren Harding had a mistress with whom he fathered a child, and this book is about a young scholar from New York who rents the alleged mistress's pool house in Hollywood and dates her granddaughter in an attempt to dig up the dirt so he can write a book about her. Funny stuff.

Published in 1983 and set some time between 1977 and that year, it's charmingly dated. There's one scene where the protagonist puts together a bag of fake garbage, and later, an LA cop empties the whole bag before his eyes. My twenty-first century sensibilities were agog at this scene. First of all, the garbage bag: a brown paper grocery bag! Doesn't he know those things are like gold? Then, the garbage itself: glass bottles, a cardboard cookie box, a newspaper, a pornographic magazine. The protagonist is mortified when the cop exposes his Bound and Gagged magazine (he claims he found it in a telephone booth) but the modern reader sees the porn as a lesser sin compared to putting recyclables in the trash. And in California no less! Is there no limit to this man's depravity? I bet he doesn't even eat free-range eggs.

I don't know how My Search for Warren Harding ends yet (although a probable conclusion is pretty obvious) what matters is what happens to the guy, (one Elliott Weiner) along the way. This book has catapulted itself into a place among the books I reread when I need cheering up.


  1. Wow. You've been busy. I am totally checking out 3 of these books--your reviews ROCK.

  2. I always enjoy your book reviews. How do you hear about/select your books? I'm always curious how people find such interesting things to read that I've never heard of before.

  3. bythlbs, a few years ago, I made up a massive book list from the book "Book Lust" by Nancy Pearl, and I've been adding to it as I see references to interesting books or as people recommend things to me. I learned about "My Search for Warren Harding" because it's mentioned in another book about books: "So Many Books, So Little Time" --can't remember the author.

  4. I'll have to check those out. Thanks!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.