Book Review: Lafcadio’s Adventures by Andre Gide

  

  
I think my reluctance to review this one stems from the fact that I don’t know enough about Gide, and I don’t remember enough about the other novels of his that I have read (and liked) to say anything meaningful. Back in the mists of time I used to get Andre Gide and Jean Genet mixed up. Both Frenchy homos with last names that begin with G. And now I learn, both apparently interested in motiveless crimes. (Although I think Genet falls more into the “isn’t being a criminal profound and fun and sexy” camp.)
The title, Lafcadio’s Adventures, is a bit misleading. Lafcadio does indeed have adventures but so do all the other characters. And they all seem to get equal time as well. One cranky old atheist converts after the virgin Mary comes to him in a dream and cures him of his rheumatoid arthritis only to have him unconvert later when his RA comes back. Another character is the lead in a con game to convince rich Catholics to hand over large sums of money to rescue the pope who is supposedly being held captive while a Freemason impostor pope sits in his place. And then there is the 47-year old virgin who goes off to Rome to try and help free the real pope. In Rome he loses his virginity and on a train between Rome and Naples loses his life. And then of course there is Lafcadio, a poor, 16-year old bastard who becomes unexpectedly wealthy when his real father kicks the bucket. No longer having to struggle to survive, it seems that boredom or curiosity leads him to commit a purely opportunistic and motiveless crime. He pushes the previously mentioned 47-year old no longer virgin character off the train.
If you read other reviews of this work you will understand how woefully I describe it. You will also note that I don’t begin to scratch the surface of the themes that run through the novel. I did have some deeper reactions to the book that I might have gone into if I weren’t so incapable of finding the energy to produce anything more than what you see here.
I quite enjoyed the writing and the setting and Gide’s ability to spin a bunch of great stories. If you want something a little historical, a little quirky, and rather dark with some humor, this might be one to look into.
   

Book Review: The Hopkins Manuscript by RC Sheriff

Grr!

I was 80% finished with a pretty good (and lengthy) review of the The Hopkins Manuscript when I lost my data. I did one of those too quick keystroke combos that highlighted all my text and then wrote over everything as I unknowingly went on to type another word. In a second poof, gone. And not a damn “undo” button in site.

Sigh.

I had been intrigued by The Hopkins Manuscript from the moment I looked at my first Persephone catalogue. But for some reason I didn’t order it when I chose my first twelve Persephones. I think I wanted everything in those first books to be jam and Jerusalem, and there didn’t seem like there would be much cozy in a dystopian novel about the end of the world. I realize now that I was wrong on a few counts. Not only is there a certain coziness to much of the book, but the cataclysm of the moon crashing into Earth takes, rather perfectly in many ways, the thematic place of World War II – something common to many other Persephone titles. Indeed the fact that The Hopkins Manuscript was published in 1939 means that Sheriff could have only been aware of the rumblings leading up to WWII. Yet much of this survival tale seems prescient, and the accompanying highs and lows of human nature depicted could just as easily be applied to the WWII experience in Britain.

As a member of the British Lunar Society, our hero, champion chicken breeder Edgar Hopkins, learns months ahead of the general population that the moon has slipped its moorings and is headed toward Earth with ever increasing speed. What follows in the months that Edgar must keep the secret is an interesting, if somewhat odd, exploration of Edgar coming to terms with his final seven months on Earth. I have been trying to figure out how to describe Edgar. The word ‘prig’ comes to mind. A retired bachelor drawn very much like the stereotypical female spinster. Generally capable and content but with a deep well of loneliness and much too worried about the small stuff in life. Jodie at Book Gazing does an excellent job summing up Edgar:

He is a man obsessed with niggles, who inflates the importance of the smallest insult or honour to incredible proportions. He is rather petty and although he sometimes realises how ridiculous his behaviour is after the fact, he always finds some way to justify his thoughts to himself. He will probably remind readers of the phrase ‘a bit of a stuffed shirt’ and is a harmless character, though sometimes his thoughts tip over into small, spiteful ideas that have a little too much righteous conviction behind them.

Some of the 1930s-era content can seem naive given the rather breathtaking scientific leaps of the past 80 years, but this doesn’t really diminish the novel’s ability to draw the reader in. During the few days I was reading this book, there were times when I noticed something about the sun or the moon and thought of it in the context of the The Hopkins Manuscript before remembering that it was not really true. It is also the case that knowing the general plot (moon crashes into earth) does not diminish the book’s suspense in any way. There is so much to learn about how and when and why and what happens next that it is hard to put the book down until you know all.

The book is also filled with many poignant moments of individuals and society coming to terms with the end of the world. It really made me think a lot what I would do in the same situation. Different than knowing that I might die from a terminal illness, but the possibility that humankind may perish from Earth or the entire planet itself may disappear into a million little pieces. And appropriate for many of us, what does one choose to read with only limited time left? Edgar first finds out the world has seven months left. What do you do with your TBR pile when you put it in those terms? What about your final hours on earth? You are healthy, mind as good as it ever was. What do you choose then?

I went to my bookcase. My hands moved instinctively away from the classics – the heavy books of history and philosophy that have helped me through unhappy times in days gone by. Instinctively I went to an obscure, untidy row of books in the corner of the lowest shelf: the oldest friends in my library – the treasures of my boyhood.

For as much as most of us love to read, we probably have other things we would rather do, people we would want to spend time with. But assume for one minute that you have said your goodbyes and have chosen to be alone when the end came. Are you calm enough to read? Do you obsess over what the end might be like? Do you want to think about happy times? About regrets?  Let’s say you want to read. Do you choose and old favorite? Do you try something new? Will it be Jonathan Franzen or the Booker short list or something like that? Will it be the eternal truths of poetry? A picture book? People magazine?

It kind of boggles the mind doesn’t it? So tell me what you think. As the world comes to an end and you sit in your comfy chair just waiting, what would be the last book you choose to read? [1/7/11 update: After reading the comments on this post I realized that my question is not as grammatically clear as it should be. I makes it sound like “well that is the last book I would ever read…” Let’s try this instead: As the world comes to an end and you sit in your comfy chair just waiting, what would your first choice be for the last book you would ever read? Slightly better.]

(Let’s also pretend like you have made your peace with your god, so please no holy books…okay, you can say “The Bible” or similar, but then please follow it up with something else…you aren’t running for office after all…)

Book Review: Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

I am trying to think of a clever way to begin this review because I know it is one of Simon’s favorite books. But alas, no such creativity is at hand. Even worse is that I don’t have the energy to string together a bunch of observations into coherent paragraphs. So a bullet point review it will be:
  • I loved this book.
  • I have been trying to write a plot bullet for about 20 minutes now and can’t seem to get anything I like.  Nothing I come up with makes the book sound as charming as it is. It is the story of two families whose lives become more and more entangled as the offspring of each family become friends, lovers, spouses, and enemies.
  • One matriarch Mrs. Willoughby, rules with an iron glove. Extremely efficient, she instills fear and makes things happen. The other matriarch, Mrs. Fowler, is kinder and gentler She just kind of lets things happen, yet she too manages to make things happen.
  • The character I absolutely loved: Mrs. Fowler. Such a gentle soul but with a fire that she has kept tamed over the course of her married life. Even into her widowhood she still is of two minds, the independent thinking Millicent she was before she got married and Milly, the more passive woman she had to be once she got married. She is the grandmotherly figure you want to run to when something is wrong.
  • The character who I loathed: Belle. One could maybe choose Helen or Mrs. Willoughby for this distinction, but they are both pussycats compared to the atrociously petty, self-centered Belle. God I hated her. A bit of an archetype, she is the one you would hiss at when she came on screen if this book were a film. (I wish.)
  • To varying degrees we get to see the lives of each of the characters develop, fall apart, and eventually get mended. Through the joys and pains, everything comes full circle. Hence the name of the book.
  • I didn’t realize that  a Merry-Go-Round could be called a roundabout in the UK. (Oddly enough it wasn’t this book that first made me aware of it. It was actually the one I read just previous to this one, Little Boy Lost. In that book Hilary takes Jean to a circus where he rides a roundabout.)
  • The name Richmal Crompton alone should enticee one to pick up this book. In my head I always think of a sort of healthy breakfast cereal when I hear her given name.
  • One of the funnier characters in the book is Arnold Palmer, a handsome and vain novelist, who I think must be there so Crompton can poke a bit of fun at herself. He wrote forty-some novels, so did she. He talks about his proclivity to introduce too many characters in the opening chapter, so does she. I wonder if Crompton “casually” laid good press clippings around her study when she was expecting guests?
  • I really didn’t want this book to end. As far as Persephone goes, it ranks right up there with the best of the Whipples.
  • Wait, are you still here? Go read this book.

Book Review: The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

  

I just found out thanks to the Google that the Carlyles’ home on Cheyne Row in Chelsea is actually open to the public. The bad news is it appears to close for the season at the end of October so I won’t be able to visit it while I am in London. That is a bummer because the house is easily the third main character in Thea Holme’s social historical look at the life of Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s life in their Chelsea home from 1834 to Jane’s death in 1866. Turns out Thea Holme’s husband Stanford was the curator of the house museum and they actually lived in the house in the 1960s. Not surprising then that she decided to write this book.

I started reading The Carlyles at Home during the readathon, but all the descriptions of home improvements kept my mind wandering to all the things that we needed to do to our place. I also couldn’t really read it before going to sleep either for that same reason.

There is lots of domestic minutiae for those of us that like that sort of thing. The Carlyles at Home is a primer on daily life in the mid-19th century. Almost a behind the scenes look at all those costume dramas we love to read and watch. Food (limited selection, always leading to indigestion), gardening (Jane liked flowers, Carlyle like fruits), home improvement (seemed to be constantly making changes to their home), finances (misers with unsteady but overall decent income), and servants (always hard to find and keep).

I love books that deal with incomes and expenditures and this one includes a whole chapter on money. I had to do a little online research to understand the difference between pounds, shillings, and pennies. After so many years of not really understanding it is nice to finally know that there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. And that a price of 1/7/6 would mean that something cost a pound, seven shillings and 6 pennies. But don’t try and convert those pennies into modern pennies because the old pennies were  not of equal value to the new pennies that were ushered in upon decimalization in 1971.

And speaking of money. Remember how annoyed I was by the fact that the Provincial Lady was not very organized or good with money? Well Jane Carlyle would be just the person to put her in her place. She is the personification of competence in domestic housekeeping. And Jane’s skills and abilities went well beyond what most women were allowed to do at the time. She was an executive ahead of her time.

After reading The Carlyles at Home, I am even more interested in reading Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives which looks at the married lives of five Victorian couples including the Carlyles. I am curious to read a less romanticized view of the couple. For Thomas Carlyle just seemed like a bit of a baby and a bully. He was constantly complaining, and it was Jane’s lot to make everything perfect for him. A pretty impossible task.

One of the more amusing stories about Jane was the crisis she faced at the prospect at having to attend an aristocratic ball décolletée. The fashion at the time was that even the most modest of ladies during the day would bare their shoulders and (ahem) bosoms by night. For 49-year old Jane this proved to be almost too much. She was fairly forced into it by Carlyle who declared that true propriety required conforming to the fashion of others. (That is some message for all you parents trying to get your children to dress with some sense of modesty.) In the end Jane became entranced by how well she looked in the dress once she saw herself in it in the candlelight.
  
This is social history that doesn’t necessarily feel like non-fiction. You will find lots of quotes interspersed but you won’t find any citations so it doesn’t really have an academic feel.

This book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand the daily life of a middle class Victorian couple or anyone who likes reading about domestic details. Or both.
  

Book Review: The Provincial Lady in London by E.M. Delafield

    

Illustrations by Arthur Watts

For me the Provincial Lady books are true cozy, comfort reads. And I am a fan of the two that I have read thus far. But a large part of the humor found in these books comes out of the disheveled nature of the Provincial Lady’s lifestyle. And it is that very thing that tends to aggravate my mild OCD. I constantly want to fix her life. I want to balance her checkbook, prioritize her housekeeping tasks, manage her social calendar, and show her a million and one ways she can economize.

And once my mind starts to overwhelm my willing suspension of disbelief, all hell breaks loose. Once I give in to organizing her world I start to question her life choices, and then I end up feeling a little exasperated. Not surprisingly given the title, in this volume the Provincial Lady goes to London. She rents a flat for herself so she can work on her next book, which she never seems to get around to. Caught up in way too many seemingly unpleasant social situations, she doesn’t ever seem to get around to writing anything. And in that sentence is a world of hurt for someone with a brain like mine.

  1. She needs to set a writing schedule to ensure she has time to maintain her professional commitments.
  2. She needs to realize that a more effective work schedule would allow her to earn the money she needs to cover her costs.
  3. She needs to stop being a social suppliant. By taking control of her social life and saying no in the right way and at the right times she would not only preserve more time for her work and things she would prefer to do, but she would also gain a bit of the upper hand–especially since her successful book has increased her social value. A few declined invitations would only add to her social allure, and over time increase her demand allowing her to pick and choose the social occasions that she might actually enjoy.
  4. Did she really think that busy, distracting, expensive, London was the place to write?

Do you see how pernicious my mind is? The whole point of these Provincial Lady books is to delight in the ditzy chaos of her life. And I do delight in them, but I am also rewriting the script of her life as I chuckle.

And what’s up with her marriage? They seem about as happy together as two strangers waiting for the same bus.

Although my mind works overtime reading these books, I do actually enjoy them. One thing Delafield does particularly brilliantly is the way in which she manages to make the books feel like real diaries. As I have noted in the past:

The diary entries brilliantly capture the episodic, shorthanded cadence so typical of how one thinks about things. Not always in lovely complete sentences, but short bursts of thought, like thousands of brain synapses firing directly onto the page. There is much that made me chuckle in this book. And of course I love a good bit of domestic detail and this book does not disappoint on that account.

   

Book Review: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

       
Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Nevil Shute. He is a fantastic storyteller whose penchant for manly man adventures is balanced by his penchant for including strong female characters. Despite the fact that British born Shute only spent the last 10 years of his life living in Australia, his many books with Australian themes or settings place him in many minds in the pantheon of Australian writers. A somewhat forgotten or overlooked writer since his death in 1960, Shute has been getting a bit of attention in the blogsphere in recent years thanks to Vintage Classics reissuing four of his novels with fantastic new covers. And most recently the Riverside Readers book group read his nuclear Armageddon blockbuster On the Beach. You can see what Simon, Polly, Sakura, and Kim thought about that book on their blogs.

Since I find Shute’s novels to be unputdownable, I thought reading one of them would be a great choice for last weekend’s 24-hour readathon. So I picked up Requiem for a Wren which was the only Shute on my shelves that I hadn’t read. In it, we find Alan Duncan returning home to his parents’ farm in Australia after spending several post-WW II years in London. Right off the bat he, and the reader, are informed that his parents’ parlourmaid has just killed herself. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling some of the mysteries that swirl through the book. There were many aspects of this story that I found compelling and the novel drew me in as quickly as I expected, but overall I was disappointed with Requiem for a Wren. It felt like the more compelling outer story was, in the end, just a shell for Shute’s interest in writing about WW II which took up the majority of the literary real estate and comprised the inner, story within a story. Shute often frames his novels this way and it usually doesn’t give me any pause whatsoever. But in the case of Requiem I just don’t think I was in the mood for the shift.

Oddly enough, one of Shute’s biggest failings is one of the things I love about his work. As I have noted previously, and as Kim notes in her review of On the Beach, Shute’s writing cannot be called elegant. In Kim’s words:

Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.

He certainly takes a similar approach in Requiem. The writing can be corny sometimes and feel a bit like a 1940s film with everyone talking in a rapid, clipped manner where every word is focused on moving the storyline forward. It can make for some one dimensional characters. But the odd thing is, I love this about Shute’s book.

Now that I have dissed both Shute’s prose writing  in general and the narrative structure of Requiem specifically, you may be thinking that I wouldn’t recommend this book. Not quite. As I have said I love Shute’s quirky prose and many of you would be happy to overlook it in favor of compelling story telling. And the story within a story structure of this particular novel wasn’t problematic, I just wasn’t in the mood for the inner story–I wanted more of the outer story. The only thing that should stop you from reading this book is reading another Shute novel. If you go back to this link, you can get a sense of which of his other novels you would find interesting. But if Requiem is the only Shute at hand, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Book Review (with preface): The Position by Meg Wolitzer

  


(This is not the edition I have.
I just liked it better)

 Preface on Labeling Fiction
I would love to come up with a short phrase that would adequately describe this kind of novel. Categorization is not always helpful when describing fiction. It can unfairly pigeon-hole a book or an author’s entire body of work. Or it can knock a book off of someones TBR because it falls into a category that a potential read thinks she doesn’t enjoy. Still, despite the pitfalls I want to find a phrase or label that would sum up this genre.

In the past I have referred to it as “smart chick-lit” but I never felt comfortable with that. Chick-lit limits the scope of Wolitzer’s novels and audience too much. Not wanting to get into WW III over my oversimplification, but I think true chick-lit is strictly of the boy meets girl, complications ensue, variety of novel. And none of the three Wolitzer novels I have thus far read fall into that category. I know there have been conversations out in the blogosphere about gender and fiction recently. Teresa at Shelf Love explored it well, but wasn’t necessarily interested in slapping a title on this kind of fiction.

Maybe it would be helpful if I described what I think this category of book is all about. Usually written by a woman but not always. Focus tends to be about relationships. And it is definitely commercial rather than literary fiction. Teresa teases that out in her post: commercial fiction, no matter how well written deals with issues at the surface and doesn’t make the reader look too deep to find meaning. It always uses a light touch, and I think, more often than not, uses humor or at least makes you chuckle once or twice.

So: relationship-oriented, commercial fiction, often with a splash of humor that may or may not be written by a woman. Oh, and they are usually a easy to read. Hmm. That doesn’t really get me closer to my pithy descriptive phrase does it?

Let me try another tack. Which authors do I think fall into this, as yet, un-describable category?

Mary Gordon
Nick Hornby (I wouldn’t have thought of him, but Teresa was right to include him.)
Wally Lamb
Elinor Lipman
Armistad Maupin
Claire Messud (She tries to write literary fiction, but I think she fails.)
Marge Piercy
Joanna Trollope
Meg Wolitzer

No doubt, even among the authors I have read, there are many others than I list here. And there are some who sit on the line that could be included depending on how much you squinted.

Still no closer to having a label for this kind of fiction. Maybe I should talk about The Position.

The Review
The spoiler-free way to sum up this plot. In 1975, Roz and Paul Mellow write a sex manual the becomes a wild success making them celebrities and sexual gurus. The book is full of illustrations of the husband and wife in various sexual positions including the one they invent: “Electric Forgiveness”. What makes all this more interesting and complicated than it sounds is that the suburban couple have four children ranging in age from about 6 to 15 at the time the book is published. And they find the book. And it changes them.

The action doesn’t stay in the 1970s for long. It flashes forward to present day (roughly 2003) quite quickly. Not surprisingly, almost 30 years later, the kids and the parents have issues. To say the least. After the initial chapter, Wolitzer tells the tales of what has become of each of the six Mellows, allowing plenty of space for each character to reveal him- or herself. She includes plenty of humor and drama and characters who are, for the most part, entirely believable. Wolitzer is not as successful in intertwining into all this the post-9/11, traumatic midpoint of George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. One can easily overlook these bits that feel tacked on. But I am less forgiving of the fact that a gay Republican character, even when having a crisis of faith about the direction of the party, doesn’t even mention the incredibly divisive and hate-filled, anti-gay Republican agenda which was at its most venomous leading up to the 2004 elections.

Quibbles aside, The Position, as with all fiction in this category, was an easy and enjoyable read, and really helped my page count during the 24-hour readathon this weekend. If you haven’t tried Wolitzer yet, I like her novel The Wife the best.

Which authors do you think fall into this category? And what should we call it?