The books I’ve read in the past month were set in a variety of locales.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels around Texas in the 1870s, buying newspapers when he can and stopping in small towns to invite people to pay a dime each to hear him reading aloud “The News of the World.” He’s 71 years old and has been through a lot in his life, but he’s still able to take care of himself–and the ten-year-old girl who suddenly becomes his responsibility. Johanna was captured by Kiowa raiders when she was six and was adopted into their tribe, but now she’s been rescued by the Army and needs to be returned to her relatives 400 miles away. Captain Kidd is headed that direction and takes on the job.
This road-trip novel combines the familiar “they learned more about each other and formed a lifelong bond” story with vivid depiction of a particular world on Earth: the scenery, technology, and multiple cultures of Texas just after the Civil War are brought to life, along with insights into the experiences of American Indian captives returned to white society and into an old man’s perspective on social roles and morality. I liked it a lot!
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Returning to live in his native United States after two decades in England–where he became fond of hiking–Bill Bryson discovered that he was living near the Appalachian Trail, a path that traverses more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. As he started planning to hike the AT, his boyhood friend Stephen Katz volunteered to come with him. It seemed like a terrible idea because of Katz’s poor physical condition and occasional spells of bad attitude . . . but it worked out sort of okay. They ended up skipping some sections of the trail and stopping early, but they hiked a total of 870 miles, more than enough to get a feel for the trail and the wilderness.
The book gives lots of detail about the AT experience in general, specific places on the trail and near the trail, and the trail’s history. It has some very funny moments, but it’s mostly kind of a meditation on wilderness and hiking and America in general and the kinds of people who decide to hike the AT.
After his big hike, Bryson continued to take brief day hikes on his local section of AT, much like I hike in my forested city parks, and he describes an experience that is very familiar to me:
Most of the time I am sunk in thought, but at some point on each walk there comes a moment when I look up and notice, with a kind of first-time astonishment, the amazing complex delicacy of the woods, the casual ease with which elemental things come together to form a composition that is–whatever the season, wherever I put my besotted gaze–perfect.
Get out of the car! There’s a lot to see.
Master of the Moor by Ruth Rendell
Stephen is 29, married, working for his father in the family furniture-restoration business, but his real love is the moor alongside their British village. He takes long walks on the moor and writes a weekly column about it for the local newspaper. Then one morning, he finds a corpse on the moor, and to his surprise the police immediately suspect him of the murder.
Meanwhile, Stephen’s wife Lyn wants a kitten for her birthday, and the man running the pet shop makes her suddenly aware of what’s missing from her marriage. Stephen’s father is clinging to him, dominating his life, yet also vulnerable to serious depressive episodes, leaving very little space for Stephen’s own feelings about his mother, who left them for another man when Stephen was little but is now back in town.
Stephen feels so disrespected by the police that when he finds some important clues on the moor, he keeps this information to himself and explores further. Will he meet the murderer? Is he an unreliable narrator? It all turns out most unexpectedly!
Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes
My 4-year-old Lydia loved The Moffats, the first book in this series about four siblings growing up in fictional Cranbury, Connecticut, in the 1910s. Her big brother Nicholas also enjoyed it at about the same age, so I read him the entire series. Oddly, on rereading this one, I found that I remembered the first chapter and the last two, but the stories in between were all new to me! It was fun to discover it all over again.
Rufus is 8 years old for most of the book, but the first chapter is a flashback to the story of how he learned to write his name in order to get himself a library card when he was 4. Even then, he was allowed to ride his tricycle a few blocks by himself. He has a lot of independence, compared to kids a century later, and that allows him to have interesting adventures and be helpful to his family.
My favorite thing about this and the other Moffat books is the narration of children’s reasoning and perceptions. For example:
Rufus always went into the library the same way. He climbed the stairs, encircled the light on the granite arm of the steps, and marched into the library.
Rufus stepped carefully on the strips of rubber matting that led to the desk. This matting looked like dirty licorice. But it wasn’t licorice. He knew because once when Sylvie had brought him here when he was scarcely more than three, he had tasted a torn corner of it. It was not good to eat.
Children a century ago weren’t so different, in their world of oil lamps and icemen and penny candy. The Moffats’ experiences feel familiar, and their ability to enjoy simple objects and think of creative games is inspiring. Rufus’s life is filled with adventures: investigating an invisible piano player, identifying a mysterious animal hiding in a new sewer pipe, finding coins trapped under ice on a sidewalk, growing his own beans, taking a cardboard boy to an amusement park, selling popcorn balls, trying to learn ventriloquism. Lydia and I both enjoyed this book.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
I love the movie and have seen it about eight times. It is an excellent adaptation of this book, in that it brings nearly all of the good scenes vividly to life, and it cuts out most of the annoying interjections by the author, substituting a modified version of the real-world story that frames the fairy tale. The movie’s frame story is charming and provides just enough commentary on our expectations of fairy tales to enhance our experience of the main story. The book’s frame story is about how William Goldman “never read” the original The Princess Bride yet eventually edited it down to the condensed edition you have here, plus a lot of stuff about his childhood and his career and his wife, so he blathers on for 36 pages before he starts the main story, and then every so often he interrupts the story to tell you about some stuff he cut out–basically the opposite of what a good abridger would do, and all the more irritating since this is fake abridging. Just write the damn book!!
That said, I enjoyed reading the fairy tale and appreciated some details that weren’t in the movie, especially the full backstory of Inigo Montoya. But because I’m familiar with the story and was so irritated with the frame story, it’s taken me months to get through the book!
I eventually realized that part of the reason I was hating Goldman’s opening narration so much was that some aspects of it reminded me of Crazy by William Peter Blatty (reviewed here). If you have to choose between only two books, Crazy and The Princess Bride, read The Princess Bride. But if you’re choosing between the book and movie versions of The Princess Bride, honestly, I’d go with the movie.
P.S. Daniel read a book this month that he’d never read before, and when he was telling me about it I suggested that he write a review . . . but he pointed out that someone else had already reviewed it in a humorously scathing style: Here is Alex’s review of Friday by Robert Heinlein.