Book Review: Miss Buncle Married by DE Stevenson (and a Persephone winner)


You must remember how I frothed over how much I loved Miss Buncle’s Book. I liked it so much I can’t believe I had the patience to wait for the second Buncle book to be shipped to me from Persephone in England.

So after all the anticipation what did I think?  I totally enjoyed it but, like many of you told me, it didn’t live up to the brilliance of the first. There was something so fresh and enjoyable about MBB that it isn’t too surprising that MBM couldn’t be as fresh because of the sheer fact that Stevenson uses the same central character. MBB was a real comic tour de France (as I like to say) while MBM was pretty much just amusing and sweet.

Perhaps it was because MBM wasn’t as strong that I was able to see what Simon mentioned in his comment to my MBB review. Stevenson’s writing isn’t all that good.  Not only does she trade in cliche but there is something kind of clumsy about her prose. I lost count of how many times Miss Buncle’s husband used “his smiling voice”. If I didn’t love the Miss Buncle brand as much as I do, I would have thrown the book across the room for such a crime.

These grievances aside, I would still recommend Miss Buncle Married for those who have read Miss Buncle’s Book.  But if you only plan on one Buncle, read the first.

And the winner of the Persephone giveaway is..,


Please send me an email with your address and I will pop A Fortnight in September in the mail for you.

Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey


I have a vague recollection of seeing bits and pieces of the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when I was a kid. I remember finding it more than a little disturbing. Having finally read the book, I am just lucky that I didn’t suffer nightmares after watching the film all those years ago. After finishing the book last week I decided to watch the movie again. As is usually the case, the book was much better than the film. Although, I should admit that my immense dislike of Jack Nicholson may have had more to do with why I didn’t really like the film.

It is easy to see why Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered a modern classic. Told from the point of view of a largely silent Native American who is assumed to be deaf and dumb, the novel chronicles a mental hospital in the late 1950s when a new patient arrives  in Nurse Mildred Ratched’s ward. Randle Patrick McMurphy arrives from a penitentiary work-farm ostensibly because he is mentally disturbed. The reader is left to wonder if he really is. It is suggested that he is pretending to get out of the hard work of the penitentiary and sees the hospital as a more pleasant alternative. For me one of the more poignant moments in the book is when McMurphy realizes that many of his fellow ward-mates are actually there voluntarily and could be discharged fairly easily and more or less at their own discretion. McMurphy on the other hand has been committed by the state of Oregon and is at the mercy of the hospital staff to decide whether he is sane or not. After learning this, McMurphy realizes that his disruptive behavior on the ward could relegate him to a lifetime in an insane asylum that would extend well beyond the terms of his criminal sentence.

McMurphy’s disruptive behavior is not entirely self-serving, he does manage to bring new life and perhaps even hope to some of the other patients. In the end though, his attempts to do so have consequences not entirely unforeseen. Although the book is based partly on Kesey’s experience in a Veteran’s Administration hospital, it is hard to know how realistic the staff’s intentionally sadistic behavior is. The Nurse Ratched character and the conditions on her ward epitomize much of what our society believes happened in state hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s. You would have to live under a rock to not know that emotional, physical, and sexual abuses have been uncovered in all kinds of institutional settings, but Nurse Ratched’s attitude and modus operandi suggests something more systemic than real life abuse cases would support. Interestingly enough I will have some opportunity to look into these issues as my work over the next few months includes taking oral histories of people who lived and worked in a large government run mental facility.

Bottom line: read the book, skip the movie.

Book Review: Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton


CJF Tunnicliffe from Green Tide by Richard Church

 The three books I have read since the August novella challenge ended have all been Persephone titles. As I mentioned previously, I needed an antidote to all of the novella angst and Persephone has done her magic. I was a bit worried I might read up all my remaining Persephones but then I picked up One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and realized my Persephone streak was over–at least temporarily.

I was drawn to Helen Ashton’s Bricks and Mortar by the engraving used in Persephone catalog(ue). Part of me was hoping the book was illustrated but alas, it is not. No matter, Bricks and Mortar stands on its own merit. Not exactly a great novel. I found more than a few things in the narrative that seemed a little amateurish, even to untrained eye. Some of  the plotting was a little too pat for me. Just count the corpses by the end of this book and you get my drift.

The story focuses on the young archtitect Martin Lovell who falls in love with his soon to be wife Letty Stapleford in a pension in Rome. They have two kids, the outgoing, clever daugther Stacy and the clever, effete (and seemingly gay) son Aubrey. Letty hates Stacy but loves Aubrey. Martin loves Stacy and is bored by Aubrey. Those that survive get old and live happily ever after.

I make light of the plot because it was rather clumsy, but I still thoroughly enjoyed this novel. For the most part I cared about  the characters and I really appreciated the architect’s office setting and the bits of architectural description sprinkled throughout the book. I have worked with architects for about 15 years now (and always wanted to be one growing up) and am familiar with the general milieu, and I have to say that I don’t think an architect would cringe reading this book. You know, like a musician or a nun cringes watching “Sister Act”. The architecture bits were particularly fascinating to me because they chronicle the seep of modern design into architecture in pre-WWII England from a first hand perspective of 1932. That is, without the benefit of hindsight.

Overall not a brilliant book, but  I would still recommend it with these reservations.

Book Review: The New House by Lettice Cooper

For a couple of years I have been pronouncing Ms Cooper’s given name “Lettuce”. Then last weekend a friend suggested it might be “Le-teece”. What say you all? Anyone have a Lettice in the family? Even if my friend is right, I think I will still call her Lettuce.

Anyhoo, enough about salad greens. The New House is the story of thirty-something Rhoda Powell and her widowed mother who are about to downsize from the large family house to a smaller, more middle class dwelling to conserve their limited financial resources. The whole action of the book takes place over the course of just one day–moving day–with the narrative split into three sections, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening.

Although the surface action is all about the move, we learn so much more about all the characters through both their current thoughts and their memories of the past. Our heroine Rhoda is in a  bit of a rut, one that threatens to last the rest of her life. Having not yet married or gone into any career, everyone, including Rhoda herself, assumes that she will continue to live quietly and take care of her mother. But things start to rattle around in Rhoda’s mind and we begin to see a glimmer of hope that Rhoda may rebel against her fate.

Today, she thought is like a crack in my life. Things are coming up through the crack and if I don’t look at them, perhaps I shall never see them again. Ordinary life in the new house will begin tomorrow and grow over the crack and seal it up.

Thankfully Rhoda’s sister Delia stirs the pot a bit and it looks like Rhoda may break free. Or does she? As I said the action takes place over the course of a single day. One hopes for her future, but one also knows that the book is going to end before they all go to sleep that night. Will anything out of the ordinary happen or will Rhoda retreat to safety?

In the process we also learn about her mother and brother and aunt and others, each with their own dramas playing out over the course of the day. Her Aunt Ellen (her mother’s sister I think) is one of the more interesting characters to me. Never having married and having devoted her own youth to taking care of her mother, Aunt Ellen lives a lonely life in a boarding house. She finds much joy in the moving activities which give her the opportunity to be useful. She contrasts the bustle of a real house with her own boarding house existence and yearns to be able to keep house again. To not have everything taken care of by a landlady. This is something that never really occurred to me before. Not only does a boarding house/retirement home existence engender loneliness, but it also enforces a kind of domestic straight jacket on residents. Some people may indeed like that. leaving the work up to someone else, but I think I would be like Aunt Ellen and actually miss keeping house.

There is also a fair amount of socialist sentiment sprinkled here and there and the general juxtaposition of the pre-WWI class system with the realities of modern (1936) Britain. Those bits stuck out a bit, but they were short enough to never feel like a political tract.

I am not going to tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that I enjoyed reading it quite a lot. It doesn’t rise to the top of my favorite list, but it is very solidly in the middle, upper-half of my Persephone reads so far. It was a book that I enjoyed taking a little slowly, and I miss it now that I am done with it.

Book Review: Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson


Howdy-doody I loved this book. After all the seriousness of the Art of the Novella challenge I was desperately in need for a quick, light hearted read, and Miss Buncle filled the bill. And how.

I bought this book as part of my original Persephone order in 2009 but for some reason I have been avoiding it. I think it I was reserving it for a rainy day, but I think I was also worried that I may not like it as much as everyone else and I would be let down.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the story of Barbara Buncle who writes a novel in the hopes of making some money. Never having written a book, and having, as she notes frequently, no imagination, Miss Buncle largely transcribes the daily lives of the folks she knows in her small village of Silverstream. The second part of the novel (entitled Disturber of the Peace) is where reality is left behind as Miss Buncle takes her very real characters into uncharted waters. It doesn’t take long after publication for Disturber of the Peace to become a bestseller that sets the real village of Silverstream on its ear. And then some of the fictional parts of Miss Buncle’s book start to come true.

This book was sheer delight. I loved the story and I loved the cast of characters. The villains were villainous without being over the top and the many sympathetic characters were so wonderfully drawn the book literally had me smiling while I read it.

Often I fantasize about books I like being filmed. But I must say, I don’t want Miss Buncle’s Book put on a screen large or small. I found the book so perfectly enjoyable and the characters so wonderful that I have no desire to see someone try and dramatize it. Granted I would watch the results if they did, but I really don’t want anything to compete with what I remember from my read.

In the land of My Porch hyperbole I have been known to wax rhapsodic about many a book, and in particular about many a Persephone. But Miss Buncle’s Book climbs right to the very top of my list of favorite Persephone titles. There are still a few titles jostling with Miss Buncle for supremacy (more serious affairs like Crompton’s Family Roundabout and Whipple’s many wonders) but Buncle has a levity that just can’t be beat.

And the best part is there are 39 other novels by DE Stevenson for me to find and explore.

If you own this one and haven’t yet read it (Darlene I am looking at you), it is time to take it off the shelf and get to it.

Book Review: The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin


Something about foodie memoirs makes me devour them almost as fast as I can devour a sheet cake or box of Little Debbies. Julia Child’s My Life in France, any of Ruth Reichl’s books, and now Jacques Pepin. I know what you are thinking, how dare I mention these food luminaries in the same paragraph as sheet cake and Little Debbie. I am nothing if not a man of contradictions. I am quite a good home cook and home baker and I have a pretty sophisticated palate. But darn if I don’t like me some low cost sugar and shortening. And did I ever tell you about the time I ate brownies out of the garbage? It was years before Miranda did it on Sex in the City.

But back to M Pepin. Unlike Julia Child, I didn’t really know any of Pepin’s story until I read this memoir. I am not even sure when I first became aware of him and I really didn’t know how he came to prominence. Now I do, and his story surprises me more than a little. He started out his apprenticeship at the age of 13 after pleading with his parents to let him leave school so he follow his passion for food. Since his restauranteur mother got him into the kitchen in the first place, it didn’t take too much to convince his parents. It is these early years of Pepin’s story that I most liked. After proving himself in various capacities, making his way around the kitchens of Lyon and then Paris Pepin is less than excited when he is drafted into the French military while that country was at war in Algeria. Instead of heading off to the war zone, Pepin ends up as chef to the Prime Minister of France.

Throughout the memoir are many wonderful descriptions of food and wine that can make the reader hungry.

The most surprising (and least interesting to me) parts of Pepin’s career happened after he came to America. Perhaps most startling to me was that fact that Pepin worked for years in the test kitchens at Howard Johnsons working with another French chef to improve the quality of the restaurant chain’s food. Apparently HoJo’s back in the day isn’t what we may think of it today. Still he did many other things cookbooks, consulting, teaching, TV, etc. Still quite interesting, I just found it less interesting than his earlier years in France.

If you like food writing you will probably like this one. I know I am going to try at least one of the recipes included. But, if you haven’t already, read Childs’ My Life in France or Ruth Reichl’s books instead.

Book Review Exiles in the Garden by Ward Just


Photographer Alec Malone does not follow his long-term Senator-father into politics and turns down the “opportunity” to be a war photographer in Vietnam. Is this something he will live to regret?

Alec’s Swiss-Czech wife Lucia isn’t sure Washington is the place for her. She takes comfort and finds intellectual stimulation in the company of her Eastern European emigre neighbors and their frequent garden parties (literally exiles in the garden). Will this be enough for her?

Alec’s 90-something Senator-father is beginning his final decline. Will Alec get closure?

Lucia has never me her long-dead father. Will Lucia get closure?

Ward Just is the master of writing smart novels about the world of politics and the world around politics. His characters are often near the very heart of power, and just as often they are the types who like to fix things behind the scenes. Of his books set in Washington, they all evoke a time when members of Congress didn’t fly home every weekend and actually set down roots in Washington.  Many politicians today still do set done roots, but are forced into pretending like they have, often disparaging Washington so that the folks back home don’t think they are out of touch with local rage.*

But Exiles in the Garden is little to do with U.S. domestic politics and much more to do with the alienation and displacement, and international and intranational conflict and violence. But it is also about Alec’s quest for…hmm for what? There is something about this book that makes it difficulty for me to see the connection between Alec’s issues and the whole exile angle. Perhaps there is not meant to be that much of a connection. But then to me it just feels a bit episodic. I thoroughly enjoyed the episodes, Ward Just is a wonderful author**, but I didn’t quite get how it was all supposed to hang together.

For anyone interested in the world of old-school politics and its air of noble expedience and corruption you really can’t go wrong with Ward Just. I just wouldn’t start with this one.

*On a  little side note–although it is related– I need to rant for one second. Back in the 2008 presidential elections Sarah Palin often made comments about how she would bring more small town America to Washington. She often used comments like these to bait her base by taking a poke at the East Coast, politicians, and intellectuals. (Amazing how politicians like to act like they aren’t politicians.) My thought then, and my thought now, is that Congress has hundreds of members from small towns across America. In fact Congress is nothing if not dripping with small town baseball, mom, apple pie, etc. I think that part of the problem in Congress and Washington in general is that too much time, effort, and legislation goes into protecting, not small town values (hard work, honesty, etc.), but rather those less noble parochial concerns that may be good for a specific Congressional district but aren’t good for the country as a whole.

**A former journalist with the Washington Post, Just is usually pretty accurate with his details, but I ran into a few that made me wonder if he is slacking off a bit these days.  The first thing that made me wonder was that he wrote about tour buses at the Treasury building. This doesn’t ring true unless they did make stops there at one time or it was to drop folks off for the nearby White House. But you just don’t hear about or see tourists making a beeline for the Treasury. The Bureau of Engraving at the other end of 14th Street, maybe. But Treasury?  Still, I was able to over look this. There may be something I don’t know. But then he writes about a character’s radical parents who live on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota who “were forever plotting the overthrow of the government in Minneapolis…” You don’t have to be a Minnesotan to know that the seat of the state government is in St. Paul, not Minneapolis. And someone as poltically astute as Just should know that unless you are talking about municipal policy, Minneapolis is about business not politics. It seems like a small point, but such a basic mistake kind of makes one wonder what else he might be getting wrong. This is not something I expect from Just.

Book Review: The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark


I wish I had this edition.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor…[A]t least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.

It’s kind of funny that Muriel Spark, from the vantage point of 1963, regarded 1945 as “long ago”. I suppose it says a lot about how much the state of the nation changed from the immediate aftermath of World War II to the swinging sixties. This must have been especially true for the women who lived at the May of Teck Club. Would it even still have existed in 1963? From its rules of governance:

The May of Teck Club exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.

Many of the women who live at the club, while they may hold a job in London, are clearly biding their time (and playing the field) until they get married. Like a school or any other physically close community, the women self-segregate according to their inclinations and aspirations. At The May of Teck Club the segregation plays out floor by floor.

[On the third floor] there seemed to have congregated, by instinctive consent, most of the celibates, the old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster’s life, and those who would one day do so but had not yet discerned the fact for themselves.

I find the last phrase particularly humorous. It’s kind of the same for young gays. Many of us sought out like-minded individuals without really knowing what we were seeking out or why.

I have a long standing penchant for the work of Muriel Spark, and the subject of this one is clearly something I appreciate, but when I first picked this up I read to about page 50 (of 141) before realizing that I hadn’t really taken any of it in. For some reason I was distracted and wasn’t really paying attention. When I picked it up some weeks later I was tempted to just continue on where I left off. Instead I went back and started from the beginning. All the main points of the narrative were familiar to me, but the amount of important, interesting, and funny detail that I had missed on the first go around was astonishing. One of the things that went completely over my head the first time was the frequency of the narrative shifts. There is nothing confusing about these shifts, I was just distracted.

As for the book itself. It is typical Spark. That is to say it is brilliant. Spark is the master of finding the subversive side and in many cases even the dark underbelly, of some of the most conventional characters and situations. I know there is a growing fan club of Spark fans out there. You really ought to add yourself to the ranks.

Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett


Regular readers will know that I rarely read and review current fiction. I have a strong contrarian streak that makes me shy away from anything getting too much attention. Yet with all of the online hoopla about Ann Patchett’s latest book I find myself in the “me too” crowd. Back in late 2000 my friend Earl handed me a copy of Bel Canto. Since Earl and I were music buddies, he rightly guessed that I would enjoy Patchett’s drama with a world-class soprano as protagonist. Once I finished Bel Canto, I went out and found all of Patchett’s other books and enjoyed them all to varying degrees.

There are two things that impress me about Patchett. The first is that I love her prose style. It is intelligent but very accessible. And it always feels right to me. Nothing seems forced. In contrast, I once listened to a radio interview with Patchett and found her to be pretentious in a way that her writing is not. (I still enjoyed the interview, but found her a little stagey–like she was playing the role of author. I think it may have been too many years hanging out with her friends from the Iowa Writing Workshop.)

The other thing that really impresses me about Patchett is her ability to write about worlds that she doesn’t inhabit. Although I love a book with a struggling writer, I am impressed by authors who steer clear of that formulation. And Patchett does it in spades. Her lastest creation is a group of drug researchers along the Amazon. There were moments in their travels up the river that made me think of Heart of Darkness, but I think that comparison doesn’t extend too deeply beyond the superficial similarity of a journey up a river into a jungle.

Having adequately sung the praises of Ms Patchett, I must say that State of Wonder didn’t feel as well thought out as her other novels. There were many provactive things that made me think (in a good, what does this say about humanity kind of way), but there were also moments that challenged me to maintain my suspension of disbelief. In no way do I think it a bad book, for me there were parts that didn’t hang together.

One paragraph of spoilers: Marina’s medical mistake was horrific, both physically and psychologically. How do doctors deal with their unavoidable mistakes? That is a head trip I am glad I don’t have to deal with. Didn’t it rip your heart out when Marina handed Easter over to the tribe? It shouldn’t have, he was misappropriated by Dr. Swenson in the first place, and naturally belonged among his tribe. And the genuine affection and the aspirations of both Anders and Marina for Easter were mired in first world paternalism as Dr. Swenson points out. But…yet…it just killed me when she handed him over. Not that he necessarily shunted off to his doom, but the incomprehension and loss that the deaf boy must have felt at that moment just killed me. And what does it say that Easter’s life is up for grabs as long as it saves Anders?

No more spoilers.

This would make a great book club book for reasons that are clear in my spoilers paragraph. So for those of you that haven’t read it, maybe it is time you did. Or if this one doesn’t sound like your thing, you really should go find some Patchett and read it.

Book Review: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (the Brookner Edition)


The Reichl Challenge: Do a Google image search and try
to find a picture of her without the infectious smile.
She makes me happy.

A few weeks ago I was a little restless and didn’t really feel like reading any of the books I had going at the time. Actually I didn’t really feel like reading at all, but it was too early to go to bed. As I sat in the library pondering what to do I pulled my copy of Garlic and Sapphires off the shelf and thought I would just read a bit here and there. But as with all of Ruth Reichl’s writing, once I started I couldn’t stop even though I had read it before.

Reichl seamlessly and wonderfully interwines food writing with stories from her life. Her three major books: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires, are all really the story of her fascinating life, her relationships, and her career in food. In Garlic and Sapphires Reichl recounts moving from LA to New York to be the restaurant critic for the New York Times. And the restaurant critic at the New York Times is indeed a powerful and important personage to the people of the city that never sleeps.

Despite growing up in New York, over the years Reichl had developed a west coast spirit, first in northern California and then Los Angeles, that had the New York establishment a bit scandalized that this outsider should have such an important position. But Reichl shaking things up in the New York restaurant scene is only part of the story. In order to remain incognito, the distinctive looking Reichl needs to resort to all kinds of disguises which turn out to be psyhologically therapuetic in many cases. That is until she begins to forget who she is. And finally, and most importantly, Reichl writes about food. And she does it so well it is hard not to feel the joy. In fact, although her life story is not just wine and roses, Reichl has such a joy for life that she is one of those celebrities I would most love to hang out with.

Which brings me to the Brookner connection. Reichl is the anti-Brookner in so many ways you could wonder at the cognitive dissonence caused by my love for both. Reichl squeezes every drop out of life in a way that it is hard to imagine a Brookner character doing. And on the food front, Reichl’s writing is the antidote to all of the bad, sad food portrayed in Brookner’s novels.  As Peta Mayer notes in her brilliant 10 Things to Expect list, Brookner’s characters tend to be mildly anorexic. And given the type of fare they eat, I don’t blame them.

So if you are looking for something sunny and joyous yet still entirely grounded in the trials and tribulations of the real world and at the same time being smart and well written and full of gloriouos food, then you must check out Ruth Reichl. But if you can, starte with her first book Tender at the Bone. You are going to want to read them all…and in order.