The only good thing about three snow days in a row? Plenty of time to read. Here are three books that made me less grumpy.
One Summer, America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. I got a wide-eyed up-front feel for what was going on in America in the 1920s, the summer of 1927 in particular. The season was plumb full of unusual news stories, but Bryson re-tells them in his rambling, digressive, meticulously researched way.
First, there was Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, then Babe Ruth’s home run spree, Calvin Coolidge’s laconic presidency, elaborate schemes to prohibit Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti’s murder trial and the exploits of Al Capone and other unsavory characters. The first Ford Model A slid off the production line in Dearborn, MI. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney danced around the ring at Chicago’s Soldier Field to determine who the real champion would be.
Bryson’s book is, as usual, carefully researched. (Where does this man find the time to do this? I’ll bet he hires a team to do it for him). It’s peppered with big round numbers – “11,700 people died in 1927 alone from imbibing drink poisoned by the government.” It’s loaded with statistics – “the J.L. Hudson Company of Detroit in 1927 opened the world’s tallest department store, at more than 20 stories, and Cleveland saw the topping out of the 52-story Union Terminal Building, the second-tallest building in the world.” It delves into the more private lives of heroes-of-the-day – “Whenever Babe Ruth was missing from his usual haunts, he could be found in a movie theater sitting in a middle seat near the front, his broad face a picture of pride and delight as he watched a six-reel film called Babe Comes Home, starring himself and the Swedish actress Anna Q. Nilsson.” It offers insider information –“The film was by all accounts dreadful” and unsavory truths – “Henry Ford devoted much of his life to humiliating his son, Edsel. Although he had appointed Edsel president of the company in 1919 . . . he belittled his son in front of others and countermanded his orders.”
I loved this book. As I’ve said before, I’d pay good money just to read Bill Bryson’s grocery list. He is a master of engaging prose, accurate research, interesting details and wry observations. ★★★★out of four stars.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Ever since The Joy Luck Club was published in 1989, I have loved Amy Tan’s fiction. The Joy Luck Club was brilliant; The Kitchen God’s Wife was a spellbinding sequel; The Hundred Secret Senses was good, The Bonesetter’s Daughter was kind of good; Saving Fish from Drowning – not so good. Does anybody else see what's happening here?
I think Tan has exhausted her subject matter, which is always the same: Chinese history, Chinese-Americans and the love-hate relationships between mothers and daughters of all nationalities. The Valley of Amazement, alas, was neither amazing nor did it delve into new subject matter. It was long, wandering, repetitive. Tan told – instead of showed – what every character was thinking and why. The plot in some places zipped along; in other places crawled painfully forward.
And for some reason, the story was told backwards. First Violet tells of her starved-for-love-and-attention childhood as the daughter of a courtesan in Shanghai. She tells how she was sold and trained to please her customers, wealthy respectable men. She describes her clients, her loves, her betrayals, her “marriage,” motherhood and widowhood. Then, inexplicably, Tan tells Violet’s mother’s story -- a childhood without affection, her resulting rebellion, an unplanned pregnancy (Violet) and a slow boat to Shanghai with her lover.
I’m convinced that after some authors write a couple of really successful best-sellers, nobody dares edit his or her subsequent writings. For sure, it happened to Joyce Carol Oates. She's good at finding new subject matter, but she writes and writes and repeats and retells and gets more and more redundant within each subsequent book. Nobody has the nerve to tell her to edit, for God’s sake. Pare the story down to essentials. Just the good stuff. Oates, who is certainly a wonderful writer, cranks out one monstrous tome after another, year after year.
Now (even though it took her eight years to write The Valley of Amazement) it’s happening with Amy Tan and I want to tell her, politely and respectfully, to write a tightly plotted novel about – oh, say, the mafia; or an luxury ocean liner that sinks on its maiden voyage in the northern Atlantic; or a serial killer who stalks Chinese-American women with unbound feet in Fargo, N.D.
To tell the truth, The Valley of Amazement is only worth ★★ out of four stars, but because of Tan’s reputation and my admiration for her skill, I’ll give it ★★★ out of four.
The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg. How do I classify Fannie Flagg’s books. Humor? Exaggeration? Romance? Mystery? Southern Fiction? Feminist? All of the above and more.
Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, is a happily married 59-year-old woman who has finally paired off her three daughters with over-the-top spectacular weddings. She is looking forward to her husband’s retirement and their golden years together. Truly a Southern Belle, appearances are important to Sookie – impeccable manners, proper dress, her prized collection of silver flatware that’s been passed down for generations (and which must never be divvied up), family legends and the material trappings of gracious Southern living. Point Clear is small enough that everybody knows – or speculates about -- what everybody else is up to.
Sookie is a devoted wife and mother, but tends to overreact, never venturing too far from her stash of smelling salts. She jumps to conclusions and imagines farfetched consequences from the most mundane events. She also has an 88-year-old overbearing narcissistic drama queen of a mother who intimidates and micromanages the whole family.
One day, Sookie opens a letter addressed to her mother and it changes her life.
It would be a spoiler if I disclosed why the novel then alternates between Sookie’s overdramatized predicament and the lives of a Polish family in Wisconsin who owned a filling station in the 1940s.
But I couldn’t stop reading.
At first, I thought Flagg’s story was too fluffy for my taste, but I quickly got caught up in it and couldn’t stop reading. It’s a quick read with some interwoven history about women pilots in World War II. They were unsung heroines for sure. I thought this book was going to be a dud, but it turned into two days of enjoyment rated ★★★ (out of four) stars.