So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Harding's Luck. Edith Nesbit

Are Edith Nesbit's novels where J. K. Rowling got the idea for her Harry Potter series in which magical witches and wizards live secretly among normal humdrum people (muggles)? It was Nesbit, who wrote 60 children's novels, that first started writing about everyday English children discovering magical people, charms, and spells in their midst. One of the founding members of the Fabian Society, Nesbit was famous in her time for her Socialist beliefs and friends. However, presently it is her children's books that are her enduring legacy.

Harding's Luck is the second of a pair of novels about Dickie Harding a young orphan in 1906 London who uses a crutch because his left leg doesn't work. When his father died he left Dickie an old toy that was to bring him luck, but as the story opens there is little luck or joy in the child's life.

Nesbit's Socialist beliefs are strongly represented in her portrayal of Dickie's poverty. She describes life for the poor of the time as follows. "...All the green trees are gone, and good work is gone, and people do bad work for just so much as will keep together their worn bodies and desolate souls. And sometimes they starve to death." She also portrays a society strictly divided by class in which Dickie is poor but has noble blood which elevates him above those around him.

The magic of the story is a spell involving the toy his father gave him that puts him in contact with a trio of magical moles called Mouldiwarps and a nursemaid witch. This group transport him back 300 years to the time of King James I where he is Richard Arden, a young boy of noble family who has two healthy legs. He travels back and forth between his London and that of James I with the help of the Mouldiwarps. In the process he saves the Arden family's fortune and has to decide between his present-day London and that of 300 years ago.

Nesbit is a wonderful storyteller and the plot is full of detail and adventure that make it a delight to read. Her use of the street language of the time makes this a difficult book for young readers of today, but adults who like children's literature will find it a delightful glimpse of English life. H. R. Millar's 16 original drawings help bring the tale to life. This Books of Wonder edition suffers from bad proofreading. I found over a dozen misspellings that should have been caught in the editing process. Although this is one of a two volume series, it can be read alone with no problem.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

To Play the Fool. Laurie R. King

To Play the Fool is the second of a series of mystery novels by Laurie King that feature the San Francisco homicide detective Kate Martinelli. The first book, A Grave Talent, was an Edgar Award winner.

This book picks up about a year after the first, and finds Martinelli and her partner Al Hawken investigating the death of a homeless man in Golden Gate Park. There are no witnesses or evidence, but an enigmatic old man called Brother Erasmus who speaks only in quotations becomes a prime suspect. Quickly the story changes from a homicide investigation to an attempt to find out about the mysterious Erasmus, who is either a saintly fool or mentally ill.

Laurie King is in her element as the scholarly street person quotes from the Bible and Shakespeare to answer all questions, leaving the two worldly detectives to puzzle over his meaning. Either he killed the man, or he knows who did. They must find a way to make him talk in a way that will make sense to the legal system to solve the crime.

As with A Grave Talent, King creates wonderfully complex characters that draw the reader into the story. Also her plot is sufficiently complex to keep you guessing. I fell in love with the kindly Brother Erasmus and the people who were drawn to him. A delightful story that is well told.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue. Robert Klein

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue is Robert Klein's memoirs of growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s. Born in 1942, Klein writes affectionately of the basic influences of his youth during the years 1951 to 1966. Each chapter begins with a picture of Klein during the period discussed.

His parents were children of immigrant Jews who were "careful, cautious, wary people" and passed on their concerns to Klein and his sister. His bedroom was a Castro convertable ottoman in the living room of their small 6th floor apartment.

The first four chapters cover his life in junior high and high school in the Bronx. Having grown up in the Bronx myself during this time, I found these very well written and full of delightful details.

The next five chapters are about his life at Alfred University in rural upstate New York. Here he confronts anti-Semitism and develops a love of acting and comedy. He also works summers in the Catskill Mountain resorts made famous in the movie Dirty Dancing. He is no Patrick Swayze, and his amorous nature is mostly unfulfilled.

The last six chapters tell the story of his breaking into show business. His first success in Chicago's Second City and his friendship with Rodney Dangerfield are highlights of this section.

One of the recurring themes of the work is his sexual relations over time. Beginning with his losing his virginity to a 112th Street prostitute, Klein reminisces about the women in his life and the sexual and sometimes loving relations he had with them. Although he is not very graphic in his descriptions, this male oriented portrayal of sex in the 50s and early 60s may seem insensitive by modern standards. Yet it is his very honesty at representing the male attitudes of the time that makes this aspect of the book especially interesting. He says he writes "not to titillate but to communicate the excitement that sex held for me and its importance in my life." This was a time of great changes in sexual attitudes and his depictions of his and his friends' sexual interests over these 16 years shows how radical the change was.

All in all this is a wonderful memoir of New York life in the 1950s. It is also an insightful portrayal of college life at the time, especially in an era when Jews were still being discriminated against in fraternities and other aspects of academia. Lastly, Klein does a great job of describing his beginning career as an actor. How he learned his craft, the problems he faced, and the people he knew are all well represented.