The Colony

 The Colony by Audrey Magee

A remote island off the western coast of Ireland, is, in the turbulent summer of 1979, set in the old ways and fearful of change. There, Mairead, a beautiful young widow who lost her husband to the sea, lives with her son, James, James' grandmother and great-grandmother.  

Regular breaks in the narrative report news items of violence related to the "troubles" happening on the mainland. At first they seem unrelated to the islanders, but eventually the killings creep into their conversations and though they aren't directly involved, you worry about James. His mother urges him "Stay away from that, James."

With summer come two visitors to the Island. Mr. Lloyd is an artist, here to paint the cliffs and the people of the island in hopes of reviving his flagging career. J.P. is a liguist in the fifth and final year of his study of the Gaelic language and its decline. The two men take an instant dislike to each other, Mr. Lloyd frustrated that he will not have the quiet and solitude he expected, and J.P. angry that Lloyd's presence has the islanders speaking English, the language of the colonizers.

The locals are suspicious of the artist, not knowing what he wants of them or what his work will say to the world about them, and when Mairead begins posing for him, their unease only increases. Her sneaking out of J.P.'s room in the mornings is one more reason to want both visitors gone. 

When Lloyd discovers that James has artistic talent, he invites the boy to accompany him to London to exhibit some of his art with Lloyds. Eager for a life beyond the island, James creates pieces to exhibit but begins to suspect Lloyd of copying some of James' ideas for his own work. Lloyd, realizing James is a better artist than he is and will outshine him in London, decides he can't allow that to happen. 

You get to know the characters from the changing points of view and the access the author gives us to their thoughts. A sense of melancholy infuses every part of the story, but I wouldn't say it weighs it down. It creates an atmosphere of forboding that keeps you wondering, almost worrying, how this is going to end. As the reports from the mainland become more intense, so things on the island build to an unsettling conclusion. 

Alice Adams

 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

Alice Adams, tired of being a poor nobody (...not really poor, just less rich than her friends), has set her hopes on the high life. She and her grasping mother hope Alice will raise the Adams' standing in society by marrying a rich somebody. Her only other option would be to enroll in the dreaded local business college to learn a marketable skill. She is horrified at the very thought.

At a party she meets Arthur Russel, who takes an immediate interest and courts her throughout the summer. Their time together is spent on the Adams' front porch because Alice doesn't want him to see the inside of the shabby house or to meet her father who is not as well-to-do as Alice has let on. She has let on a lot of things. 

Eventually the mother insists on Arthur coming to dinner, which turns out to be one of the most awkward, disasterous social occasions ever. It was painful to read. Every illusion Alice and her mother have so carefully built comes crashing down. Arthur sees who they really are and comes to visit Alice one more time, both of them understanding it will be the last. 

Alice's mother blames her husband, Virgil, and guilts him into going into business for himself to increase his income and make his children's lives easier. But to do that he has to steal a formula from his long-time boss, who, of course, eventually finds out and is not amused. Meanwhile Alice's brother, Walter, working for the same company as his father, robs his employer and takes off, leaving Virgil responsible for that debt as well as his own theft. 

In a wonderful, if unlikely, turn of events, the boss forgives Virgil and offers to buy his business, making it possible for Virgil to pay Walter's debt and avoid prison. Even better, he gives Virgil his old job back with a raise in pay. Isn't fiction great?  

Alice, her illusions of grandeur shattered, faces up to real life and finds it not so bad after all. She decides to enroll in the business school so she can get a job to help support the family. The ending is fairly positive, lessons learned and all that, for everyone but Walter. He and the money are still missing.

Unfortunately none of the characters were very relatable, or even likeable really. They are more caricatures than real people so it was hard to make any emotional connection with them. I've read several other Tarkington books and found the same thing in all of them, and yet there's something about them I like. I enjoy his writing and the era he's writing in and about, and the situations he puts his characters into and seeing how they respond to them makes for good stories. I guess the bottom line is I find them pleasant reading, realistic or not.  

Alice Adams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, is available to read free of charge at Gutenberg Press here:

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter/Greenlights

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter by Edward Streeter

Mr. Baxter, an affluent business man living in New York City, is at a loss to understand why otherwise sensible people all lose their minds at Christmas. Every year he and Mrs. Baxter decide they will be reasonable and do things more simply this Christmas, and every year as the day approaches they forget  their good intentions and go overboard again. Mrs. B. succumbs joyfully, happily planning, shopping, and wrapping. Mr. B. sighs and grumbles.  

There isn't much of a plot, but it's great fun seeing the holidays through Mr. Baxter's slightly jaded eyes. He's not a curmudgeon exactly, just a bit more down-to-earth than Mrs. Baxter thinks is necessary. They remind me of tv couples from the 1950s - darling this and darling that, then completely ignoring whatever the other is saying. It's very entertaining. 

I searched for a paper copy without finding one at any kind of sensible price, but then stumbled onto, a remarkable site where there are all sorts of old books available to read free. I'm not terribly keen on reading from a computer screen - too hard on the eyes - but on an old tablet that isn't good for much else it wasn't too bad at all. If you haven't checked out the archive, you can do that here: internet archive.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

This one had the look of a scrapbook with its pictures of post-it's and lists and Mr. McConaughey's pithy sayings throughout. I can't say I enjoyed the format but some of his story is interesting.  

Parnassus on Wheels

 Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

The delightful tale of Helen McGill, who, tired of keeping house for her older brother, Andrew, buys a book wagon called Parnassus, and takes to driving about the countryside selling books. The previous owner, Ralph Mifflin, rides with her for a few days, showing her the ropes and giving her the first opportunity she's had in years to talk about something other than farm life.  

When Andrew finds out what she's done, he goes to the police and  accuses Mr. Mifflin of defrauding Helen. Ralph ends up in jail, Helen is furious with Andrew and now has to convince the authorities it's all a misunderstanding.   

The beating heart of this book is Helen McGill, an endearing soul, full of practical wisdom and eager to see the positive in everyone. It's not a long story but it's memorable, funny and sweet, and pleasingly scattered with literary references. 

I listened to an audio version narrated by a Wanda McCadden, who did it so well that it felt like she was sitting at my kitchen table telling the story to me personally. I seldom recommend audio over the printed word, but I have to this time. If you can find this one (I got it through Chirp) do try it. It's pure joy. 

The Bostonians

 The Bostonians by Henry James

Olive Chancellor, a feminist of independent means, invites her southern cousin Basil Ransom to visit her in Boston. They attend a party where young Verena Tarrant is introduced as a speaker for women's rights. Both Olive and Ransom are immediately drawn to her, Olive as someone to mentor in the cause and Ransom on a more personal level. 

Olive and Ransom quickly become enemies, she urging Verena to understand that marriage would be a betrayal of her committment to the cause, he intent on making her see that a life of speaking such "foolishness" would be the ruination of a woman meant (as all women are, in his thinking) to be a wife spending her talents on pleasing her husband. 

Spoiler alert...

In the early part of the book I thought Ransom and Verena could be good for each other, that he might begin to support her work and she could be with him and still serve the interests of women. I didn't dislike him until close to the end, when I was finally convinced that he simply wanted to own her. Which is pretty much the same thing Olive wanted - to own Verena and control everything she did, thought, and felt. 

I was frustrated with both of them, and not only them. Verena seemed throughout most of the book to know her own mind, but as Ransom wore her down with his persistence she became little more than his puppet. She let herself be led away into a life she didn't want. Even then I held out some hope for them, but the closing sentence ruined that. I won't tell you what it said, just that it almost made me throw the book across the room. 

Almost. But you see, it's Henry James. I love Henry James. I don't always care so much what he does to his characters, so long as he does it in such beautiful writing. His language is exquisite, even when there's an excess of it, as there generally is. He talks and talks and talks, and his characters talk, and talk, and talk - and I am mesmerized. He reels me in as Ransom does Verena, and though I hate her capitulation, I'm just fine with mine. 

Something Rotten

 Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

Book 4 in the Thursday Next series sees Thursday and her two year old son, Friday, leaving BookWorld to return home to the real world, accompanied by none other than Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. The Prince is on a break to reflect upon why everyone considers him "a ditherer", while Thursday's intentions are to have her eradicated husband uneradicated, get back her job as Literary Detective at SpecOps., find childcare, protect the President from his appointed death six days from now, make sure the the local croquet team wins the Superhoop thereby preventing the apocalypse, avoid the assasin trying to kill her, and stop Yorrick Kaine, a character escaped from BookWorld, from taking over the world and being worshipped as God. 

That list should make it clear how completely ridiculous and wonderful these books are. Wonder-full. Lunatic things happen and you just go along with it all as if it's perfectly normal. There's not been a boring moment in any of them. I don't know how from the great depths of his imagination he comes up with this stuff, but that imagination should be declared a national treasure and protected so he can write books 9 to at least 100. Eight is not going to be enough.