Reading List 2011 (9/255)

Getting there, slowly but surely!

  • What We Eat When We Eat Alone, Deborah Madison
  • She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror, ed. Gerri Leen
  • Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain
  • Mr. Chartwell, Rebecca Hunt
  • The White People, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Dawn of a To-Morrow, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Emily Fox-Seton, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Esmeralda, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • A Fair Barbarian, Frances Hodgson Burnett

tl;dr – Mildred Pierce is my favorite Cain, and it should be yours too; Hunt’s novel will haunt you; Burnett grows up; Leen collects some great stories and a few duds; Madison does second-rate things with a first-rate topic.

Why is Mildred Pierce such a perfect novel? The titular character kicks out her no-good husband, starts a successful restaurant, marries a decaying upper-class Angelino, and ends up losing everything she cares about. It’s a beautiful portrait of a woman who loves work, and a gripping look at how twisted love can be, and a perfectly crafted tragic tale with a villain you can’t believe is real. It’s a short read, too, so you’ve got no excuse not to try it.

Mr. Chartwell personifies Churchill’s “black dog” of depression – and follows what happens when he takes a room to let in the household of a recent widow. His relationships with Churchill and Esther, the widow, are priceless. Churchill, accustomed to depression, resists; Esther, unused to it, finds herself slowly ceding ground to the monster in her house. Ignore the not-that-interesting romantic subplot; the glory of this book is its black humor, and the snickering horror you’ll feel at the things Mr. Chartwell does to those he pursues. The conceit is a simple one, but Hunt carries it through effectively, and Mr. Chartwell is a giggling, groaning, slurping, dribbling figure who will stay with you.

Burnett continues to surprise me with her adult novels. Of this batch, Emily Fox-Seton was by far my favorite. It’s a (mostly) light-hearted parody of the aristocratic romance novel, that nonetheless has its own emotional center and charm. Emily Fox-Seton works as a companion to a rather selfish, elderly, aristocratic woman; like many of Burnett’s  heroines, she’s kind and gentle, but she’s also dull and plain and her most characteristic trait is that she’s remarkably well-organized. At a weekend house party, she meets the most eligible noble bachelor of the decade, and, well, I’m sure you can figure out where it goes from there. The second half of the novel goes a bit gothic, with a murder attempt and a contested inheritance, but Burnett still puts forward the radical notion that plain good sense is worth quite a lot. I also loved her portrayal of two unromantic people in love.

I really wanted Leen’s anthology to be awesome. I spent thirteen years studying the Bible intensively, and finally, here it is – my payoff! I was a bit disappointed, but I think the problem here was my high expectations, not any fault in the book. Of the nine stories in the book, two were genuinely excellent – a retelling of the Ruth story, in which her determination to stay with her mother-in-law is a curse, and a sci-fi tale in which prophecy has been co-opted by corporations and bears a terrible price. Both stories stood well on their own, but my expert knowledge enhanced my appreciation of them. Of the rest, most were solid, but there were a couple of duds (an incoherent David story, an only-interesting-for-the-squick Lovecraftian Jonah). Still, worth reading overall.

Finally, What We Eat When We Eat Alone had some great recipes, but I wanted the essays on various aspects of eating alone to be, well, better. For example, Madison falls back on gender stereotypes (men like meat! women like cottage cheese!) for much of the book, which could have been redeemed if she’d said something interesting about gendered expectations around food preparation or, well, something other than repeating stereotypes. Buy this as a recipe book with some entertaining commentary, not as a book of essays with some recipes attached.

Happy reading!

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