Only 89 years to go

The Promenade Deck on the British airship R101. See Slide Rule by Nevil Shute below.

I made really good progress in January against both my goal of reading 100 books for the year and of reading books only from my TBR for the A Century of Books Challenge. I would love it if I could keep this pace up for the year. There really is no reason I couldn’t, except for TV, the internet, and laziness. I read 12 books total, 11 of them counting towards ACOB.

A Son at the Front – Edith Wharton 
This Wharton is perhaps the most neglected Wharton I have come across. Although it is back in print, it is not one you are likely to find very easily (unless you want it on Kindle). John Campton, a successful American portrait artist living in France tries to keep his son George out of the war. Very much worth reading.

The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
Americans in Provence in the 1950s or so, a village dog, I feel like I should have loved this book. But there was something about the writing style that not only put me off the book but made the 118 pages seem like an eternity. Each of the chapters is its own little vignette that all just felt like they were trying to be amusing and charming.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
Given its title, not terribly surprising that this is one of Graham Greene’s thrillers. The agent in question, only identified as ‘D’, is in England to buy coal to support his side in his country’s civil war. Almost from the moment he lands in England he is hampered in his task by ‘L’ who wants to keep D from getting the contract for coal and get it for himself instead. I liked the story quite a bit for its 1930s setting and logistical detail, not to mention D’s ability to escape complicated and sometimes harrowing circumstances. I never did believe in the love interest Greene inserts into the tale. It seemed a little lazy and superficial. Like I said a good book, and I love some of Greene’s other books immensely, but this one just proved to me how much better Eric Ambler is at this kind of thing.

Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett 
I am a huge fan of Sherriff’s two very different books The Hopkin’s Manuscript and A Fortnight in September. Finding this novelization of Sherriff’s play of the same name was quite a surprise when I came across a few years ago. (I think it was at King Books in Detroit when I was on my Booktopia road trip with Savidge Reads.) It’s a good, if fairly standard World War I story, that was  well worth reading but didn’t knock my socks off.

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
Being a bit of a Paul Auster fan I was excited both by the fact that this is a dystopian novel and that I had an audio recording of it read by none other than Vanessa Redgrave. I was entranced right from the start. But then I realized the Redgrave recording was an (unmarked!) abridged version. What a tragedy. Her reading was marvelous. So I set the recording aside and picked up the actual book. I kind of loved it. It was sad and beautiful. Sometime in the near future, Anna Blume, trying to live through the insanely poor, hardscrabble, almost MadMax-like life in a volatile, unnamed city tells her tale through one long letter written to a friend who is elsewhere away from violence and chaos. Before I knew what was going on in the books, I thought it was set in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust.  It wasn’t, but it sure seems like Auster’s intentions were to write an allegory–or would it be a metaphor?–in any case I think he did. High marks for this one. If you think you may not like Auster, I think this shortish novel might be a good place to start. (Although now that I think of it there may have been one or two slang references to female anatomy that seemed a little jarring and unnecessary. But it is still a fantastic book.) 

The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
I’ve had several Dawn Powell novels for quite some time. I feel absolutely proud of myself for finally reading one of them. This one, published in 1929, takes place in rural Ohio and tells the story of Sophie who is a beauty who is torn between two men. That makes it sound superficial, which it isn’t. Powell really is a fine writer who must have shocked audiences when this was published. Aside from the period trappings it feels pretty modern.

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
This novel doesn’t have the same crazy writing style of the far more compelling The Well of Loneliness but it could have used more rigorous editing for sure. I can like some good old fashioned unfulfilled lives morphing into life long complacency, but I really wanted this one to have a happy ending.  It didn’t, maybe not tragic, but not happy. One has to put aside what could be perceived as child sexual predation–although I don’t think it got phsyical (if ever) until Joan is older. It seems less creepy in 1924 than it does today. Maybe. I love many of the reviews on Goodreads by people who enjoyed it more than I did.

Slide Rule – Nevil Shute 
I always knew that Nevil Shute had an engineering background, but until I read this memoir I didn’t realize just how involved he was in aviation prior to giving it up to focus full time on being an author. For instance he was an engineer for Britain’s air ship (aka blimp) program and intimately involved in its development. This was fascinating on so many levels, not the least of which was the fact that these early airship designs were really conceived of as ships with dining rooms, saloons, and cabins, etc. After that program was shut down, he co-founded an airplane manufacturing company Airspeed Ltd in 1931.  At first I thought it was going to be a tale of a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make airplanes, but it wasn’t. They produced numerous types of aircraft and it lasted for 20 years until it merged with de Havilland. Shute left the company sometime in the late 1930s and it made him enough money to not have to work for about 10 years if he had decided to. Although Slide Rule does cover Shute’s novel-writing efforts (which he did in his spare time), this really is a memoir of an engineer. I loved the book and was only disappointed that it didn’t chronicle the next 20 years of his life which was full of WWII, emigrating to Australia, and becoming one of the world’s best selling authors.

Passage of Arms  – Eric Ambler
I. Love. This. Book. Amblerian perfection. American couple steaming their way across the world stumble into an arms smuggling plot. One of the things I loved about the story was how we see the deal from inception to completion from some really disparate points of view. It starts in the jungle where a clerk who dreams of owning a bus transportation company comes a cross an abandoned rebel arms dump and he fashions a plan to sell the arms so that he can buy his first bus. Then we see the efforts of the middle man he has enlisted to try and sell them. And then come the American dupes. All told with ample amounts of glorious officefilaic and logistical detail. And did I mention a steam ship making ports of call in southeast Asia.

Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim 
I started off loving this book. Older, recent widower Everard, meets and consoles the much younger Lucy who has just lost her father. They fall in love and get married and he instantly becomes controlling and abusive. I don’t really agree that this is “darkly comic”. It think it is just plain tragedy and fairly superficially told at that. This is the book that has sealed the fate of von Arnim for me. I loved The Enchanted April, but her other books have left me bored or annoyed. So I got rid of the rest of her titles on my TBR.

To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
A Jewish mother and her son make their way back to her eastern European homeland as Nazism is on the rise. They unknowingly stumble into the mass deportation of Jews. Interesting and poignant in many ways, but overall, as a reading experience it was just okay.

ACOB progress

1921 – Vera – Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front – Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1954 – Slide Rule – Nevil Shute
1959 – Passage of Arms  – Eric Ambler
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher

Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld reruns. I’ve seen most episodes multiple times. But after a period of a few years of not seeing any episodes I now find them perhaps even funnier than before and on top  of that I now feel nostalgic for the 1990s. Seeing the group of four friends and all the socializing and informal pop-ins makes me hanker for my easy-breezy 20s. So when I saw the book at Politics and Prose, and not in the market for any new fiction given my ACOB goals, it seemed like this clearly enjoyable, easy-to-read, bit of fluff wouldn’t make much of a dent in my reading time. I was right on all counts. I enjoyed it for some of its behind the scenes gossip and much of it made me laugh out loud reminiscing about episodes and how they were received at the time they first aired. It was also interesting to read about how the show first came to be and how it almost didn’t survive it’s pilot episode. The second part of the book  kind of breaks down a bit and turns into a lot of disparate anecdotes that felt like the author was stretching for material. But still a very fun read. [I’m not counting this one toward ACOB because it was not part of my TBR and because there are too many other books from 2016 to from which to choose.]


10 thoughts on “Only 89 years to go

  1. Karen K. February 1, 2018 / 9:48 am

    Eleven books in January, impressive! I was barely able to make it through six. And I’m sorry you didn’t care for Elizabeth von Arnim. I am encouraged by A Son at the Front, I have several unread Whartons to read this year and fear I’ve read all the good ones already. Some of them have really fallen into obscurity.


  2. Annie D. February 1, 2018 / 10:18 am

    Excellent January! Thank you for the reviews. Inspired by you (and of course, Simon Thomas), I am doing my best to complete ACOB this year. I don’t have quite the backlog of TBR that you do, and I do use a Kindle, but I am trying not to purchase too many books to finish the task.

    I read eight books in January, five filling in ACOB years. I need to pick up the pace a little bit, but feeling pretty good.

    I’m going to try that Ambler book, btw.


  3. TravellinPenguin February 1, 2018 / 4:28 pm

    A wonderful start. The Seinfeld book sounds interesting too. I love the writing in that series. They just don’t produce shows that good anymore on tv. I only seem to immerse myself in BBC tv these days. Look forward to your next decade of books.


  4. Claire (The Captive Reader) February 1, 2018 / 11:14 pm

    Off to a great start! I borrowed Journey’s End (the play rather than novelization) from the library but am finding it very meh. Not bad but not worth continuing with either when I know there are other books out there from 1928 I’m more interested in. The Wharton, sticking to the WWI theme, sounds very interesting.


  5. helen February 2, 2018 / 4:03 am

    Dear Thomas, I have recently discovered your lovely blog and I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for listing your TBR for the simple reason that it makes me feel just a bit better about my own! :)

    I have also slightly stolen your idea of ACOB by every month reading one TBR from each decade until I tire of the project. Thank you for the inspiration.

    However, now you make me want to rush out and buy the Paul Auster novel, so I am not so pleased with you about that.


  6. lethe February 2, 2018 / 9:15 am

    I read that Elizabeth von Arnim had a very controlling husband, so Vera may have been autobiographical to some extent.


  7. Lisa February 3, 2018 / 8:04 am

    I found Nevil Shute’s autobiography so fascinating, even though he didn’t write about his novels. I had no idea he was involved with airships, about which I knew very little, other than the Hindenburg disaster.


  8. Susan in TX February 21, 2018 / 1:06 pm

    Wow, 11 years in January. I am impressed. Since the original Century Challenge remains unfinished for me (hanging head in shame), I decided to just track the publication dates of my reading as I go. So far (and this is almost the end of February), I’ve read from 10 years. And that’s with 18 books read. A lot of my reading has been from 2017 publications, which would’ve been unusual for me in years past. Within the last couple of years, I’ve been reading more recent publications – I blame Instagram. :) A lot of them have been good books, but there’s been a fair number of duds. I’m trying to read more from my own shelves this year (I know I say this every year, but so far, I’m actually doing better at it). I have so many good books waiting on my own shelves and I keep having “readers remorse” that I’m not getting to them. So, I’m putting the library mostly on hold for now. I’m not putting strict limits on purchasing, because that has a way of coming back to bite me, but as I’m enjoying my own shelves, I’m finding the temptation to acquire more is lessening – or at least morphing into a more discerned process.


  9. Richard Thorn May 1, 2018 / 4:20 am

    Those who commented on Slide Rule by Nevil Shute may be interested in my recent biography of the engineer/author. This covers the whole life and work of this fascinating individual.

    Title: Shute – The engineer who became a prince of storytellers
    Author: Richard Thorn
    Publisher: Matador, UK 2017
    ISBN 978 1788032 575

    Available from all the usual outlets


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