Three fantastic books and one dud


It has been awhile since I got lost in a page-turner. I read plenty of enjoyable books but not many of them reach true page-turner status. Recently I came across three of them almost in a row. I will start with the dud.

Young Torless by Robert Musil
This slender book filled a niche in my Century of Reading list, and let me just say, if it were not for that list, I would not have finished it. Violent and surprisingly homoerotic for 1906, Young Torless is schoolboy bullying, torture, and rape masquerading as philosophical exegesis. I found it tedious and disturbing.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
I have avoided this book since it was published in 1999 because of both its size and a feeling that it might be too mathematical for me. I probably made the right decision fourteen years ago, but the older, more mature Thomas can handle, even appreciate, a little math and science in his fiction. It is a truly fascinating book from so many perspectives. Many characters, one storyline in WWII and one in the tech frenzy of the late 1990s. (From today’s vantage point the bits from the 1990s feel just as much like historical fiction as the WWII parts.) I thought this was a great mix of detail, character, and plot and it achieved page-turner status, something, given the aforementioned biases, I didn’t expect. Definitely worth a go. I think if you apply the Nancy Pearl 50-page rule, you aren’t likely to set it aside. I would even hazard to say that you could apply a 25-page rule with the same result.

Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins
This one comes close to Miss Buncle status for me. An absolutely delightful idea for a book that reminded me in a tiny way of the George Glass episode of The Brady Bunch where Jan is tired of everyone thinking she is a lonely loser so she makes up a boyfriend. That is exactly what Patricia Brent does, except it is 1918 London, not 1970s California. And like Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves, Patricia’s lie becomes real–although without the supernatural elements of the Baker–and many complications ensue. This out of print (I think) gem has Persephone written all over it.  If you find a copy snap it up. I was lucky enough to get mine from British expat Roz who some of you know.

Martin Eden by Jack London
This is not your grandfather’s Jack London. No hints of White Fang or To Build a Fire in this one. This might be my favorite book so far for 2013. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and continue to think of it. Our hero Martin Eden is a rough and tumble working class sailor from the San Francisco Bay area who is introduced into a middle class family and falls in love with books and middle class daughter Ruth. It is a bit of a literary Pygmalion story. Bibliophiles will love watching Martin discover the world of reading and learning in general, and his efforts to become a writer. Published in 1909, it is also a fascinating look at the publishing trade around that time.

So often in books that chronicle young men making their way in the world they run to drink, gambling, loose women, or some combination of the three. And while those elements make for what many people consider a good story, I am someone who likes to read about people working hard, sticking to the straight and narrow, and avoiding bad things. The fantastic thing about this book is that although there are complications along the way, the crisis is left until very late in the book and is far more interesting than the more commonly depicted problems of drink and debt and such. London is definitely saying something about class in Martin Eden but it never feels heavy handed.

Other things to love about Martin Eden include the 1909 snapshot of the Bay area as well as Hawaii and other locales described, as well as the way that London is able to describe the erotic heat between Martin and Ruth without ever really writing anything erotic.

I loved, loved, loved this book. Not to compare everything to our beloved Persephone Books, but I feel like if they went back in time and asked Jack London to write something for them to publish, this is the book he would have written. Go find it!

15 thoughts on “Three fantastic books and one dud

  1. penandpencilgirls February 28, 2013 / 1:05 pm

    Ok I'm sure I'd love the Jenkins and the London. Wonderful recommendations Thomas. And as icing on the cake they're available for free on Kindle so big thank you!


  2. C.B. James February 28, 2013 / 1:20 pm

    I was nervous that Mr. London might be the dud since I've recently become a huge fan of The Call of the wild. I'm glad to hear such a strong recommendation for Martin Eden, which I have not read as yet.

    Plus, isn't he one handsome guy?


  3. Tiffany Norris February 28, 2013 / 3:19 pm

    I had to read Cryptonomicon for a class and was so hesitant at first, but I loved it. It's not even one of my favorite genres, and I still couldn't put it down. Glad you enjoyed it!


  4. Susan in TX February 28, 2013 / 4:15 pm

    Sold! I'm off to look for them. I was just going to look for the Jenkins and London, but then Tiffany seconded you (I wasn't sure about the math/science), so all three will now go in the wishlist and onto the Half Price “hunting list.” You should get paid commissions on the books you sell… :)


  5. Amy Rea February 28, 2013 / 5:08 pm

    Have you read Wolf: the Lives of Jack London? His life is as fascinating as anything he wrote.


  6. Cath February 28, 2013 / 7:16 pm

    Just grabbed Martin Eden free for my Kindle. Thanks for the rec!


  7. Mystica March 1, 2013 / 12:33 am

    I'd love the Jenkins one! sounds idyllic.


  8. vicki (skiourophile) March 1, 2013 / 5:01 am

    Off to download Patricia Brent, Spinster (see, e-readers can't be all that bad if they let one read something otherwise impossible to find, and for free). Thanks for the recommendation!


  9. Ted March 1, 2013 / 8:23 am

    You have sold me on Martin Eden.


  10. StuckInABook March 1, 2013 / 7:06 pm

    Did someone mention Miss Hargreaves?! I *felt* it, across the ether…

    This is one of the few times I've wished I had an ereader…


  11. Melwyk March 1, 2013 / 10:35 pm

    Great recommendations…like many others, I've been hesitant to pick up the enormous Cryptonomicon. Good to know it passes the Nancy Pearl rule! The London & Jenkins are also new to me and you make them sound irresistible as well. Adding to my list…….


  12. Thomas at My Porch March 2, 2013 / 6:51 pm

    Donna: I definitely think both are right up your alley.

    CB: He was a looker. I have liked everything I have read by him. I was just surprised that this one wasn't more of an adventure novel.

    Tiffany: It is always nice when a book takes one by surprise.

    Susan: Good thing you relented on Cryptonomicon because it will be the easiest to find for sure. The London might not be too difficult, the Jenkins is likely to be scarce.

    Amy: I haven't, and I know very little about him so that is something I would be interested in.

    Mystica: It is a fun read.

    Vicki: E-readers sure do make sharing out of print books a lot more fun.

    Ted: Good. You will like it.

    Simon: I thought you might pick up on that. I wouldn't be surprised if you stumbled on a copy somewhere.

    Melwyk: I find the NP rule very helpful.


  13. Michelle Ann March 8, 2013 / 5:32 am

    Thanks for the recommendations Thomas. A warning to your other readers though – I ordered 'Martin Eden' from Amazon, and have had to return it as it was a very poor quality scanned 'print on demand' type book with minute print, no borders and the chapters all bunched together. Most paper copies now seem to be these scanned versions. I will now order a Penguin version to be on the safe side!


  14. Thomas at My Porch March 10, 2013 / 10:53 am

    Michelle Ann: I can totally empathize with you. I got a really horrid print on demand version of Zuleika Dobson. A travesty. Glad you are enthusiastic about Martin Eden. I can't wait to hear what you think.


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