So I promised I wouldn't do a whole year at a time this time. So here's about five weeks worth of reading.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This was a collection of inter-related short stories, one of which I had read before in New Yorker. Confession: I don’t often really enjoy the fiction in the New Yorker. To me it’s usually “OK,” and sometimes “pretty good” and sometimes “what?” (I feel the same about the poetry.) The Jennifer Egan story I had read was of the “pretty good” variety. But put into a collection with other stories that relate somehow, it was much more enjoyable to me. I really like this kind of story cycle. The characters in this book are all sort of tangentially related to the punk music recording scene, or had been at one time. Interesting. Oh, and I need to give a warning—this was quite raunchy at times. Steer clear if you’re sensitive.
Nicholas Nickleby by you-know-who. Well, I’m also not a huge fan of Dickens. I listened to A Tale of Two Cities last year and The Mystery of Edwin Drood a few months ago, so I thought I’d give this audio a try. To sum up my feelings: you can tell when reading or listening to this one that Dickens was paid by the word. Sheesh! So many meanderings and sidetrips. It was quite exasperating. All in all, I think this one wasn’t worth the time. The one good thing about Dickens is you always know that it’s going to be a mostly happy ending.
Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I know some of you have raved about this book, so I hope I’m not offending you when I say that I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. There were some interesting moments, and I enjoyed it the way I enjoy Remains of the Day, only not to the same extent (by a long shot). I liked the interesting characters, and the moral of the story (and there was one, and it was not even subtle). But the forays into philosophy were rather dry and nothing very new or interesting, I thought. I found myself getting impatient with all those sections. If the author had kept to just character and plot and skipped all the philosophical stuff (or integrated it into action better), this could have been a breathtaking book.
Tinkers by Paul Harding. This was a very literary, semi-experimental (read: no arc) “novel” about two men, one who is the son of the other. There are some interesting musings and some interesting scenes, but they just don’t build a story. It reminded me, well, of my own shortcomings as a novelist, and then I laughed when I read that it is the author’s first novel—he is a writing teacher with an MFA from Iowa in poetry. I guess all of us poets struggle with that—making a STORY out of those great scenes and characters and telling details we imagine.
Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes by Albert Jack. I’ve been curious about this subject for years and finally got around to picking up something about it. Occasionally, I was disappointed at the lack of definitive history, but for the most part this was full of interesting stories about the background or possible origins of various nursery rhymes. There was also an interesting section in the back about famous songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “God Save the Queen.” Some of the more interesting things I learned:
“Baa baa black sheep” originally said, “And none for the little boy who lives down the lane,” and was a protest against a tax on wool that impoverished the shepherds who produced it in 1275.
“Hickory Dickory Dock” is about Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, who reigned ineffectually for one year (“clock struck one”).
The real “Humpty Dumpty” was not a person (or egg!) but a cannon used during the English civil war (1642-51).
“Little Jack Horner” is about Thomas Horner, the servant of the Abbot of Glastonbury. The Abbot, Richard Whyting tried to bribe the king to keep him from dissolving the Abbey. The bribe came in the form of some deeds of land in a pie. Horner was charged with delivering the pie, but he took one of the deeds out for himself before he delivered the pie (abt. 1535).
Old King Cole’s pipe and bowl were actually musical instruments, the bowl being a type of drum used by wandering minstrels.