My Christmastime reading program typically goes like this:
- Weigh down my luggage with a large hardcover volume of literary fiction.
- Receive as gifts two or more large hardcover volumes of popular nonfiction.
- Perch in an armchair surrounded by my well-reviewed books, signaling to all present my seriousness as a reader, and as a person.
- Read only garbage paperbacks I find in the guest room.
This year was no exception.
"The Princess Diaries" by Meg Cabot
TPD moves along at a good clip, and can be read in its entirety in the time one might spend, say, dealing with the defecatory consequences of a few large holiday meals. This is its greatest virtue. Aside from general YA badness, my main complaint was a problem common to many epistolary novels and faux journals: the protagonist inexplicably stops at the height of any action to whip out her pen and write down her thoughts, thwarting any hard-earned suspension of disbelief. The copy of TPD I read belongs to my nine-year-old niece, so I was mildly surprised by the frequency with which it included things like alcohol and the phrase “vagina lips.”
"These Happy Golden Years" by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I had never read any of the Little House books before, though I was familiar with the broad contours of the stories. THGY is pleasant enough. Laura is fifteen, and has just started as the new schoolteacher in a nearby settlement. It’s tough at first: Some of her students are older than she is, and though the school is only twelve miles from home, travel is so difficult that she must board with a closer family, the mother of which is a knife-wielding manic-depressive. Laura can only see her family every other month, until she begins to be courted by Almanzo Wilder, who comes in his sleigh each weekend to take her home. Their slow-growing affection was far more romantic than all the dances and kisses and genitals TPD had to offer. And the details of frontier life are useful if you’d like to be reminded how weak and soft you’ve become. Plus, I love the name Almanzo Wilder. He sounds like a journeyman NBA power forward. Probably was the sixth man on a Pitino-era Kentucky squad, then came into his own on a stint in the Italian league before finally getting the call from the Nuggets. I also enjoyed the use of the adjective “boughten.”
"The Sunday Philosophy Club" by Alexander McCall Smith
The cover declares “An Isabel Dalhousie Mystery.” This is a lie. A more accurate claim would be “An Isabel Dalhousie ‘Mystery’ For People Who Hate Mysteries,” or perhaps “An Isabel Dalhousie Some Things Happen, Barely.” Yes, someone dies in the opening pages, and eventually the circumstances of this death are explained, but it is less a “whodunit?” than a “hasanythingbeendun?” The book is only 247 pages, but it’s not until page 57 that someone finally suggests the death might be suspicious. Even then, it’s not until page 87 that Ms. Dalhousie begins investigating in earnest. She eventually “discovers” the person responsible for the death only because he voluntarily presents himself at her house, and the climax is so lazy and ridiculous that it manages to be both sudden and boring.
What actually fills the pages is an array of digressions, pointless asides, and rants. Ms. Dalhousie finds herself seated next to a table of young people at a restaurant; the reader gets more than a page of her reasons for disliking them. As part of her job editing a philosophical journal, Ms. Dalhousie must index an issue, a job that she herself complains is difficult and boring; the reader is nonetheless treated to a full-page account of the task. Ms. Dalhousie attends a concert, where she is simply horrified to discover the music includes a work by Stockhausen; could she not have turned her keen investigative powers to reading the program before she bought a ticket? I assume Isabel Dalhousie is meant to be perceived as a somewhat finicky middle-aged woman: intelligent, opinionated and prone to speaking her mind, no matter the consequences. In fact, she is a sour old bitch. Her main pastimes are pontificating about art, fretting about how much better everything used to be, silently judging the clothes / homes / accents of everyone she meets, and openly judging the clothes / homes / accents of everyone she meets. I exaggerate: She also drinks coffee and does crossword puzzles. Sometimes, she combines drinking coffee with being judgmental, as when she congratulates herself for her attempts to choke down a cup of instant (gasp!) coffee prepared for her by the grieving roommate of the deceased, whom she has visited uninvited. What magnanimity.
I began reading TSPC mostly because of the title, which struck me as exactly the sort of title SCH both mocked and employed in HIBAFN. (Also, because Alexander McCall Smith appears on the back cover leaning against a tuba.) At last, a real mystery: Why is the book called “The Sunday Philosophy Club” when NO SUCH CLUB EXISTS ANYWHERE IN ITS PAGES? We learn nothing about this supposed club, other than that Ms. Dalhousie disbanded it years ago. Basically everything about this book is a bait-and-switch. Even the tuba. The author’s bio says that he actually plays the bassoon.
I have a terrible premonition that I will find myself reading the sequel this time next year.
Hope everyone has a great 2012!