THE PORTYGEE by Joseph Crosby Lincoln

[I came upon a list of One Hundred Best Sellers of the Last One Hundred Years, so because I am down to my last 3,000 books on my TBR list, it was only natural that I go see what they were.  Understand, these are not necessarily the BEST books of each year, but the BEST SELLERS of each year.  Well, dang if a bunch didn’t seem like possibilities, so I snagged some, and you will be thrilled to know that these early years, from 1918 are most of them on Project Gutenberg FOR FREE!  I do so love free.  Oh, yeah.  If you would like to take a look at that list for yourself, it is here.]

Written in 1920, and set in a fictional Cape Cod, the story is about a former sea captain, now head of a thriving lumber and hardware business on Cape Cod, and his long suffering wife, whose only child, a daughter, ran off and married a Spanish opera singer, very handsome, and very famous.  Their first child  of the young couple died, and the daughter died at the birth of their second, a son.

The sea captain disowned the daughter, when she ran off, but the mother got him to agree to her visiting them without the son-in-law, but she would not come without her husband.  When she died, the opera singer hired nurses, and when old enough, had the boy enrolled in a very good boarding school in New York State.

When the boy was 17, his father was killed in an auto accident.  It turned out he left the boy nothing but debts, and a friend arranged for the kid to go live with his grandparents, whom he had never seen, on Cape Cod.  His grandfather insisted on referring to him and his father as ‘the Portygee (Portuguese), a group who were abundant in the area at the time.  In fact, he called all foreigners of any nationality portygees.  The boy was arrogant, and as expected, he and the old man butted heads while he grew up, grew in love a couple of times, because a poet, writer, and war hero in WWI in France.  A satisfying coming-of-age tale, set in the age we now think of as ‘simpler’.  I have come to believe that very few ages were actually ‘simpler’, just different.  Without indoor plumbing.

Nothing new in the plot to be agog and atwitter about, but a fine read nevertheless.  Of course it was,  that’s why it made the best seller list for that year.  I enjoyed myself immensely, seeing as how I didn’t have to tax my brain all that much on it.  Sometimes, that’s all we ask out of our entertainment … entertainment.

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THE RIVER’S END by James Oliver Curwood

I came upon a list of One Hundred Best Sellers of the Last One Hundred Years, so because I am down to my last 3,000 books on my TBR list, it was only natural that see what they were.  Understand, these are not necessarily the BEST books of each year, but the BEST SELLERS of each year.  Well, dang if a bunch didn’t seem like possibilities, so I snagged some, and you will be thrilled to know that these early years, from 1918 are most of them on Project Gutenberg FOR FREE!  I do so love free.  Oh, yeah.  If you would like to take a look at that list for yourself, it is here.

So here’s one of the first I have read.  It is by a guy named Curwood, who, it turns out, was a prolific writer of wilderness adventure stories, and an avid environmentalist.  Some of his books were even made into movies as late as the nineties!

The plot to this one I lifted whole from a reviewer named Tweety, who has my undying love because I didn’t have to come up with the plot myself.  hahaha

John Keith has been hunted like a fox for the last three years by a man named Derwent Conniston, a Monty hunter. Three long years of cold, starvation and abject misery. He camped with Eskimos who were themselves in dire straits and was only stopped from going mad by being caught by Conniston.

In the weeks that follow however, Keith and Conniston bond in a friendship stronger than death. The two have more in common than just being the same age minus a few weeks, they look enough alike to be twins. Conniston has a frostbitten lung and a short time to live so Keith ‘dies’ and a ‘new’ Conniston is born. But Conniston dies before he manages to utter one final important message about his past, and Keith must bluff his way either to a new life or the hangman.

A great many complications come up, Keith fools most, but can he pull the wool over the discerning eyes of Shan Toug? And whatever will he do when Conniston’s sister shows up? Worse, blackmail, murder and a sinister plot unfold from Shan Toug’s kimono. A sweet love story is also part of the plot, but what does one do when the girl believes you are her brother? And will she want a murderer?

It is not a particularly original plot, even for 1919 when it was published, but it was certainly a fun read.  I have a couple more of his books, which I intend to read, seeing as how this one was a great antidote for the dreariness of Edgar Sawtelle.

THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE by David wroblewski

I was about a quarter into this book when I realized it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  I stopped reading her recommended books years and years ago when it began to dawn on me that every last damn one of them was dark, sad, unhappy, depressing and a bunch of other descriptions like that.  I don’t like depressing books.  I am a PollyAnna gamboling down the daisy-filled hillsides in the warm sunlight of spring kind of girl.

But so far, so OK, so I continued.  And I was right.  It was fine for about three-quarters of the book, and then darkness fell, evil ensued, the black heart of human nature appeared, and I was sorry I started the darn thing.

It is about a family in northern Wisconsin, I think, who were the third generation of dog breeders, with an extensive kennel, who only sold extremely well-trained dogs of about 18 months or two years.  Their first child was stillborn, but the second was healthy. Although it turned out that he could not speak.  He could hear, but not speak, and so the family developed their own DIY version of sign language.

After many years, the father’s estranged brother returns to the small town, and works for a bit with the family, but the old rancor between the brothers re-emerges and he leaves to go live in town and work for the vet.

When the boy was a young teen, or so, the father has a brain aneurysm while working in the barn kennel, and dies.  The mother and boy do their best to continue on the business but it is a hard go, and eventually the brother starts showing up to help out, and the two adults come to have a relationship, which of course, the young boy strongly resents.

At one point, the vet appears at the top of the stairs to the second floor of the barn where the boy is working with the dog training, but the boy has some kind of weird vision and flies to attack the old man, who stumbles backward and falls down the stairs, breaking his neck and dying.  The mother tells the kid to run away, which he does, and hence follows a long involved telling of his trek with three of his dogs, breaking and entering vacation homes to steal food.  He eventually meets an old bachelor who takes him in, and the boy decides he must go home.

Not telling you the rest but it is ugly.

This book received the First Novel Prize (2008), Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction (2009), Sakura Medal Nominee for High School Book (2010), Indies Choice Book Award for Best Author Discovery (2009), Puddly Award for Fiction (2009)The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize Nominee (2008).  It’s been called the reanimation of “Hamlet.”  I guess there really are only seven basic plots in the world.  Well, it was beautifully written, yada yada yada, but golly gee whilikers I sure did miss the daisies on the hillsides.

Alas, poor Yorick.

 

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J. L. Carr

A soldier is freshly back from the killing fields of WWI, suffering badly from what was then called shell shock and what we now refer to as PTSD. His wife has left him, and with his art degree and his art restoration skills, he takes an ill-paying job in the north country of England to restore a painted-over mural in a remote tiny chapel.  He is to receive a pittance for the job, but can live in the bell tower, and receives food from various members of the small community.

This was just the sweetest book.  Descriptions of the bucolic peace, the eccentric and charming characters who live there, produce a work with not exactly much of a plot, but yet a story that is just chock full of life.

There is the head of the church and his young wife, who live in the church’s manse, a huge, creepy, dark place.  There are the Ellerbys, dad who is the station master, his nurturing wife, and the daughter and son.  They are Wesleyans, and do not attend the church where our protagonist, Tom, is laboring.  The characters seemed fully formed, although never discussed in much depth, such was the cleverness of the writing.

There is the gravedigger and grounds keeper, a taciturn sort, and Moon, who is an archaeologist endeavoring to find the grave of an ancient ancestor of the patron of the church.  He knows where those bones are, but has dug a hole with a tent over it to while away the summer hours until such time as he is to leave for other efforts, at which time he plans to miraculously locate the remains.

Tom and Moon become friends of the moment, Tom develops a fancy for the wife of the churchman, but realizes that it is not to be, that neither he nor she are ready for such a folly.

He finishes uncovering the painting, which is of a painting done 500 years ago, a typical doom theme, with sinners falling into hell, and the saintly arising to the heavens.

He regains his sanity and his inner peace while doing his work and interacting with the village inhabitants, packs up his tools, and goes home to London to his wife who know wants him back.

There was no great drama.  No great mystery. No great action of much of anything,  but simply a soothing book.  Loved it.

AS SHE CLIMBED ACROSS THE TABLE by Jonathan Lethem

You know, sometimes a book just tickles your funnybone. Is that two words?  Funny bone?  Well, whatever.  What. Ever.

Not sure just what the genre is, but it is about a particle physics scientist, a young woman, working with a university physics team, and and her boyfriend, an anthropologist at the same university.  The physics team has just created a void … a hole in the universe, which they have named Lack.  Well, this void has preferences.  It will accept certain items into its nothingness, but not others.  Alice fall out of love with the boyfriend, and into love with Lack, whose preference is not for her.

All kinds of folks, scientists and non-scientists alike try feeding items into Lack.  But the one thing it definitely doesn’t want is Alice.

The distinguished Italian scientists predicts that Lack will eventually close, he can see the signs already.  He also claims to have solved the riddle of Lack.  He says that

Cnsciousness creates reality.  Only when there is a mind to consider the world is there a world.  There’s no world where there isn’t a mentality to consider a world.  An example: there are subatomic particles as far as we are willing to look.  We create them.  Consciousness writes reality, in any direction it looks — past, future, big, small.  Wherever we look, we find reality forming in response.

Reality is unwilling to fully exist without an observer. If consciousness is required to confirm the new reality, you have to provide the consciousness too.  You can’t make just a whole new universe full of reality, without making the commitment to look at it.

So, the upshot is that Lack is a void with consciousness that wants to make a reality and so it uses the stuff that the folks are tossing into the void to create another world, or dimension, if you will.

Our boy tries to enter the void …. and OMG … is successful and ends up in a strange world comprised of all the junk and items that people had tossed into Lack.  He returns to the entry point, and pops back to the lab, to find it is still not his original world, but that of some blind guys who entered Lack, and he is now in their blind world.  He tries again and ends up in the void, as the void.

It is a pretty interesting concept, and reads way better than this pitiful plot description does.

It is a bit about science and physics, a bit about love and romance and how fragile that can be, a bit about tweaking academia,  and a bit about ‘how far can I go with this concept?’.   Really a fun read.

JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT by Antal Szerb

This is considered a classic of the thirties, written in 1937 by one of the major Hungarian writers of the twentieth century.  He was a formidable scholar, and wrote a number of non fiction works which are still considered important in the field today.  He was from a Jewish family, who had converted to catholicism.  During the Second World War, he was given numerous chances to escape antisemitic persecution (as late as 1944), but he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, a Pirandellian fantasy about a king staging a coup against himself, then having to impersonate himself, (Oliver VII,) was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no ‘Jewish’ work could have been printed at the time.  Szerb was deported to a concentration camp late in 1944, and was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43.

Journey by Moonlight was translated from the Hungarian by the renowned and award-winning Len Rix.

Well, I loved this book. If you have read any Iris Murdoch, then you know the sense of the romantic/ironic/searching undertone which pervades her books, and you will find it is part and parcel of Szerb’s work as well.  Here’s the basic story line:

 Mihály has dreamed of Italy all his life. When he finally travels there, on his honeymoon with Erszi, he soon abandons his new wife in order to find himself, haunted by old friends from his turbulent teenage days: beautiful, kind Tamas, brash and wicked Janos, and the sexless yet unforgettable Eva. Journeying from Venice to Ravenna, Florence and Rome, Mihály loses himself in Venetian back alleys and in the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside, driven by an irresistible desire to resurrect his lost youth among Hungary’s Bright Young Things, and knowing that he must soon decide whether to return to the ambiguous promise of a placid adult life, or allow himself to be seduced into a life of scandalous adventure.

Szerb has a stunning talent for description, and I found myself fully immersed in 30’s Italy, in the Italy of my imagination.  The characters are strange and dreamlike,  none that we feel we might actually meet in Real Life.  They are not exactly larger than life, but rather different from life, from another dimension, perhaps.   The journey is one every young person takes, if only in their head, one of exploration, searching for redemption for unknown sins and a clear path for the way to Life.

Great book.

FALL ON YOUR KNEES by Ann-Marie MacDonald

“They are the Pipers of Cape Breton Island — a family steeped in lies and unspoken truths that reach out from the past, forever mindful of the tragic secret that could shatter the family to its foundations. Chronicling five generations of this eccentric clan, Fall on Your Knees follows four remarkable sisters whose lives are filled with driving ambition, inescapable family bonds, and forbidden love. Their experiences will take them from their stormswept homeland, across the battlefields of World War I, to the freedom and independence of Jazz-era New York City.”

The above is official.  Not much of a description, is it.

It is about a family, about race and  racism, about The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, about loyalty, and about lots and lots of drama. What a great book.  Tome.  A great tome.  It is huge, 508 pages.

Here’s the outline:  it starts with the dad, a young piano tuner, who meets 13 year old Materia, pianist extraordinaire, one of a number of children of a prosperous Lebonese family living in Cape Breton, when he is called in to tune their piano.  Materia falls in love with him, and runs away with him the following year to marry.  She is pregnant with their first child, Kathleen, who turns out to be a vocal prodigy.

Materia becomes a little crazy, ok maybe a lot crazy, and is befriended by the wife of the Jewish butcher.  Eventually she has several other children, all girls, when Kathleen is a preteen.  The story follows their lives, and honey, let me tell you, it is drama city!  Whoo ee.  And let me tell you, you will not believe who does what to whom.

It is a saga, sure enough, and what a read.  The proverbial page-turner.  I loved this book.  LOVED this book.

It is MacDonald’s first novel.  She is  a Canadian playwright, novelist, actor and broadcast journalist.  What talent.  I have MacDonald’s The Way The Crow Flies,  which is even more of a door stop at 848 pages.  Think I will read a few other genres before I start in on that one.