Merry Hall – Beverley Nichols (1951)

WARNING: GRUMPY REVIEW AHEAD. Nichols’ fans may want to avert their eyes. :-}

As sometimes occurs, I’ve been reading but the actual titles haven’t really been lending themselves to a great deal of critical thinking and higher-level commentary as do some others. <jk> That (combined with a limited amount of time) means that every now and then, you’ll have a survey-type post of recent reads. This, my friend, is one of those times. 

Let’s begin with the pretty-awful-terrible reading experience of Beverley Nichol’s “Merry Hall”. Published in 1951, this is a collection of magazine columns (I think) written by Nichols when he bought a rundown mansion out in the English countryside. Others have read this (and his other titles) and reported it as charming and funny, so that is what I was rather expecting. However, it was not to be. (And it was not to be by a really long shot. A miles-long shot, in fact.) 

It started off ok. Nichols had some glimpses of charm here and there, but as the book progressed (along with the refurbishing of the house and the garden), I found him to be quite an awful person. He was such a snob and was riddled with class awareness giving the impression that he was above everyone else (especially the workers from the village who actually did most of the heavy lifting in this renovation). He was also uncomfortably racist in how he described the people who surrounded him and don’t even get me started on his attitude to women… 

I know. I know… It was published in 1951 so wouldn’t these classist/racist/misogynistic attitudes have been more accepted during that time? I considered that line of thought, but then remembered that there were other authors who also were writing and publishing during those years who didn’t have that same approach to the other humans on earth.

Think of E.B. White, for example. He didn’t view the world in those terms at all, so I don’t think it really holds that you should excuse Nichols for his narrow-minded attitude to others as “part of that time”. My argument is that IF these attitudes were part of that time, then wouldn’t everybody have a trace of them somewhere in their writing (if they published their work then)? And “everybody” doesn’t.

And therein lies the rub. I think that other people may have the right idea (that previous well-established attitudes and beliefs fall out of favor over time), but to me, I just don’t agree that Nichols was just being a product of the 40s and 50s. I think he was actually just being a selfish twittish snob who had too much money, not enough education and not enough to do. 

So, despite the fact that LOADS of other people out in bloggerland love Nichols, I’m afraid I’m going to have to agree to disagree on that. He had some good descriptions of his garden and the plants, but GRR. I just couldn’t stomach the rest of the book so ended up with a DNF. I hope the Nichols fans can forgive me.  

(See my next post for the next reading review. Very different from Nichols!)

Vacationland – John Hodgman

Bought upon a recommendation from the trusty “What’s Nonfiction?” blog, I bought this book without knowing much about it or the author. However, tastes align between what I like and the choices of What’s Nonfiction, so it came into my grubby little mitts. And then I read it, and thought “meh”.

So I put it away and even put it into the pile to take to the library, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d missed something in my first read, so I rescued it from the library-donation pile and started to read it again. This time, I got it and it was a completely different read than the first time. (Why is that? Who knows? May have been in the wrong mood or stressed out a bit (start of the semester) or…or…)

However, I am so glad that I pulled it out for another read as this time, it was super. The vagaries of the human mind (or perhaps it’s only my human mind!) To the read itself:

I knew it was essays of a personal nature from Hodgman and I knew that he was a contributor to The Daily Show on TV, but apart from that, I knew nada, but I don’t think this was detrimental to the second read. (I’m just going to chalk up the first read experience to poor star alignment or similar.)

In a series of really well-written essays, Hodgman relates some of his experiences when he inherits/buys his parents’ old house in rural Massachusetts and then when his family decide to buy a third house in Maine. (I know – Hodgman is well aware of how privileged he is (re: income and circumstances) and accepts the name for his humor as branded by a friend: “privilege comedy”… Despite this, the essays that he writes are memories that are sensitive and personal, while also being funny tinged with a little oddity here and there.

It’s rather as though I’d happen to meet a friend of a friend at a coffee shop, and in the course of a fairly normal conversation with this person, he is relating these memories as they come up. He is a very relatable person (despite his acknowledged privilege) and when I had turned that last page, I was saddened as I didn’t really want the conversation to come to an end.

His descriptions of the house, his neighbors and friends and what he gets up to when he’s in the area vary from quite typical to the rather strange to the plain just funny. (I’m particularly thinking of the time he and a friend are making their cairns in a stream one sunny afternoon, but there are more instances of humor than just that one…)

Honestly, the best way that I could describe this read for you would be to say that I wish I could actually know Hodgman to really meet up in a coffee shop with him and some friends. He’s an intelligent and good writer who knows how to tell a good story.

Interestingly (and Hodgman must have known this when he titled this book), Vacationland (already one of the official slogans for Maine) is also the title of an independent “gay-themed” (Wikipedia) movie about two high school boys who have a crush on each other but have difficulties due to the town wherein they live. (Absolutely nothing to do with this book or Hodgman, but just an interesting piece of trivia.)

Loved it and I’m very glad that I went back for a second read. I think you’d like it as well.

Lottery – Patricia Wood (2007)

This was a random FoL book sale pick and from just reading the back-cover blurb, it seemed like it had the potential to be a good read. So I chose it. Then it sat on the shelf for about two or three years until the other day, when I pulled it down and read it. I still had very little idea what to expect during the read itself, but you know what? I was surprised. It was a good one.

It’s a novel and a fast-reading one at that. It’s not fast-reading because it’s written in a simple manner – it’s simply fast-reading because I ended up really caring about the main characters and how their lives ended up, and when I turned that last page, it was a read where you emit a sigh of satisfaction as you close the cover.

So – what’s it about? It’s a novel that follows some of the life of Perry J. L. Randall (the “L” stands for “lucky”) who is a developmentally-challenged man who wins the Washington State Lottery when he is thirty. What happens to him after this life-changing event is the narrative arc of this story. However, kudos to Patricia Wood for not choosing the simple “Forest Gump” way out of the story though. It’s definitely a thoughtful read.

Perry is independent in his own way, as much as he can be. He was raised by his grandma and when she died, he was at a loss. A job at a marine supplies company saves the day for him and provides him not only with meaningful work but also a support team of friends and colleagues who will look out for him. Things really get interesting when Perry wins the lottery ($12M)…

It’s not a mind-shattering read, but if you’re looking for a fairly uncomplicated (without crossing over into “too simple”) read with believable characters about whom you’ll think when you’re not even reading the book, you’ll like this novel.

Wood is (was?) actually a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii who was studying disability rights, and so she is well-versed in how to include a developmentally-challenged protagonist in a respectful and inclusive way (even to the point of writing it from Perry’s own POV and in his own style). I enjoyed it and it was a good reminder that there are still good people out in the world.

For a random read off the shelf, this was a solid effort. I enjoyed it. Plus – another one off the TBR…

(Another random fact: Wood’s own father actually won his state’s lottery in real life.)

A different kind of reading…

Last weekend was a longer break than typical since it was Labor Day, which typically signals for many people, that summer is over. (Not by temperatures since around here, we’re still in the 90s during the day, but in terms of the monthly calendar.) Seeing as we didn’t have a lot scheduled, I planned to do some shopping (shoes :-}) and a lot of reading.

(Outcome was successful, although I’m truly dreadful at buying shoes. We’ll see how this pair work out for me! But come on – leopard-skin Keds? How can you go far wrong with those? I’m trying to be on-trend this autumn (for the first time in ages), and apparently, fake leopard is very in. 🙂 )

To the reading: The Superhero had to work on Monday which meant a quiet day in our house (apart from Nova Dog barking at all those people who have the gall to walk by our house without a hall pass). I happened to clean out the magazine rack and in doing so, was reminded of two mags which I’ve had for more-than-enough time to read them. Yesterday was that day. (See pic above for deets.)

The first was a special issue from the New Yorker with a bunch of true crime stories that they had culled from years of earlier issues, and that included the old chestnut from Truman Capote (the first installment of “In Cold Blood”). I haven’t read this since my freshman year in college when I was fresh off the boat from England, so didn’t really remember much of it, but it was such a good read that now I’m interested in reading the entire book by Capote. It was the one of the earliest examples of narrative nonfiction (or longform nonfiction) and I’m pretty sure that I didn’t appreciate it for what it was when I read it back then. Now it’s on the list for the next visit to the library.

Other true crime stories were spread over the last forty years of the twentieth century but I wasn’t really familiar with the crimes they mentioned. Still – overall, a pretty good read. Glad I’ve read it, glad it’s off the pile, but one day later, pretty forgettable. :-}

The other mag that I had pulled from this pile was from a writing conference I attended last year about writing narrative nonfiction. This journal was put out by the sponsoring university and included the year’s best writing (as chosen by judges from the conference). A good selection of pretty diverse nonfiction, but as above, one day later, I can’t really remember any of the individual stories. (I am now worrying whether this says a lot about me as a reader! Maybe I need to start being a lot more intentional when I read!!)

I enjoyed this taste of nonfiction essays and learned a lot about how to structure a similar one should I end up writing something along these same lines. It was a good change of pace from longer reads and fit my Monkey Mind of the other day! Plus – off the pile and out of the house.

Win-win.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010)

Subtitle: A Biography of Cancer. 

I’d noticed that my recent reads were rather slacking on the diversity side of things, so wanting to address that along with maintaining with my push to read more TBR, this nonfiction read was put into the sights. Wow. Mukherjee can write (as evidenced by the oodles of literary prizes and recognitions that have been piled onto this book). 

Like many others, I’ve had a brush or two up against cancer and when a recent visit to my dermatologist led to a diagnosis of melanoma for a recalcitrant mole, I wanted to learn a bit more about this disease. What better way to do that than learn from the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction winner? 

Now, I must admit that this wasn’t the easiest read in the whole world – not because the idea of cancer is scary, but because I am not that well versed in molecular chemistry and there are quite a few chapters that talk about cancer cells and how they work. 

So there were some patches in this book that were a little above my paygrade and science knowledge, but Mukherjee does an excellent (and patient) job of explaining this really complex topic in a way that a non-science person can follow without too much trouble, and I would argue that this is what won him all the awards. 

He makes the world of cancer approachable for a lot of people, and when a life-threatening subject such as cancer enters a patient’s world, the more you can understand something, the less scary it will be. 

As the subtitle reports, this is a “biography” of cancer and Mukherjee has organized this massive subject into a logical and well-organized read. It’s a solid mix of personal (Mukherjee is a practicing oncologist) and the professional, and sources range from patients dealing with the diagnosis to researchers in labs across the world furthering their understanding of cancer, but however (and wherever) the author travels, he makes sure to include you as the reader and allows you to follow his trails. It’s a really impressive achievement to be able to reach both the science reader and the lay reader at the same time without alienating one or the other. 

At the end of this, I have to say that I have only admiration for all the players involved in this world: the cancer itself is an amazing disease – even more amazing once you learn how it adapts and reacts to any attempts to control it. I was going to say that cancer is almost a living entity, but then thought about it again, and of course, it is a living entity (thus this book has the perfect subtitle: a biography). It’s adaptable, it’s ever-evolving, it learns from its environment… Is it curable? I don’t know if it is, but if anything, this read brings a renewed spotlight on the importance of cancer prevention. That’s where the focus will need to be for future generations. 

So, not the easiest read in the entire world, technically speaking, but a fantastic journey. 

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins (2005)

Trying to be a little more focused on reading from the TBR, I pulled off this title which, interestingly, was another reread for me*, and covers one year in the life of four composite college women who had pledged to be in one of the bigger sororities at a fairly typical American university.

I work on a university campus for my real job and I am usually surrounded by 36,000 undergraduates, a large group of whom are firmly entrenched in the Greek system of sororities and fraternities. My personal experience of these social groups is limited, at best, but I was still curious about how life might be for those who choose (and then are chosen!) to enter into this different world.

Additionally, Rush is just in the process of happening this week and so quite a few of the students who have arrived already are here for that process. Being a curious cat (with only having vague memories of the early read), I dove in.

Robbins has the chops of a serious journalist (with the pubs to prove it in her background), and her titles tend to be that of the immersive journalism where she actually takes part in whatever she is writing about – the “I did this for a year and here is what happened” type of writing.  

Robbins took this project on when she was still young enough to pass for a sorority girl/college student and so this book is from the POV of an anthropology/ sociology approach. However, it’s not academic by any means (despite its topic) but to be fair, doesn’t really claim otherwise. Her embedded approach meant that she was able to experience some of the sorority world without any filters and this gave a useful veneer of authenticity to the work.

For this project, Robbins trails a small group of four students who were selected for one particular sorority (again a composite identity) so it’s got quite an addictive “fly on the wall” feel about it, but the book has a few patches when it veers away from the journalist POV and into (pretty annoying) assumptions about what happened: “she must have felt x at this point” and making up pieces of imagined dialogue about various situations.

Technically speaking, she’s a good writer, and she has sifted through what must have been a lot of material to put this volume together to end up with an enjoyable read, but the areas where Robbins assumes actions/motivations for the individuals in the story were a little annoying, so I’m wondering why she started to write in that fashion.

Curiously, this writing approach (where she assumed that her subjects were feeling this or that) doesn’t crop up until the last third of the book when it’s Spring Break in the college calendar, so perhaps Robbins was faced with writing fatigue. (I can only imagine what’s it like to spend a year with a sorority when you’re older than their general membership. I would expect nerves were more-than-fraying at this point of the year after that amount of close proximity.)

By the end of the book, Robbins draws some general conclusions about the sorority experience overall, mostly negative and in opposition to what the sorority national orgs claim, but she had wisely kept her opinions out of her writing before this epilogue.

I know that sororities and fraternities are a big tradition across college campuses throughout the U.S. (especially here in Texas), but I could never understand their appeal – not when I was an actual undergrad on campus and not now. They seem to be anachronistic on the campuses of today, and yet every semester, I know that quite a few of my students are either in that selection process or in charge of that for someone else.

It’s definitely not something that I was ever drawn to and I have my doubts about how useful the system is in the modern age for our newest graduates, but it’s a critical part of the college experience for some students (and for their parents). This was an interesting read and now I’m curious to find out a little more about they operate on our campus. (I’m particularly curious about how segregated the groups are…) :-}

  • It might only be interesting to me, but I’m not typically a big rereader. I think I was a little brain-dead from teaching summer school and wanted to find a fairly guaranteed good and non-complicated end-of-summer read.

August 2019 Reading Review

Had a good month of reading in August, the last month of the summer (for some of us). It was a mix of leisurely enjoy-the-last-few-days of break combined with the getting-ready-for-student crush, but overall pretty fun.

Here’s what I read last month:

Plans for September? Get back into the swing of things for teaching this semester, continue to read from the TBR pile, prepare for the annual FoL Library Sale (woo hoo!), and just be.