Book Review: Coronation by Paul Gallico

For anyone that has seen my comments out in the blogosphere, I love Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris/Flowers for Mrs. Harris by Paul Gallico. It is one of my all time favorite books. I was much less charmed by Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, but still enjoyed it. When I saw this old, slightly damaged hardcover at Powell’s in Portland I couldn’t resist. I was hoping for a cozy, quick fictional account surrounding Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in June 1953. Indeed that is exactly what I got, but it was also a bit of a disappointment. Dedicated to his god-daughter, Coronation feels a little too much like a children’s book to make me truly happy. I think children’s books can sometimes be satisfying for adults but other times they can just seem a little too simple to really please an adult mind. (The beautifully illustrated Persephone edition of The Runaway was also disappointing in that way.) And as far as kids books go, I am not sure there are many kids today who would be terribly entertained by this story either. I am sure there are still kids who would be excited to see the Queen in her golden coach or to see the various military regiments on parade. But, *spoiler alert* what it would take to appease today’s children if their hopes were shattered would be nothing like the little crumbs that satisfied little Johnny and Gwendoline.

This paragraph is going to spill the pot of plot beans so get ready for spoilers. Coronation is the story of the Clagg family who have decided to trade in their annual two-week trip to the seaside in order to go to the coronation. Just picture that in 2010: a family of five giving up their only two weeks of vacation in exchange for one day–not even overnight–in London to see a coronation. They manage to get tickets to view the parade from inside a mansion at Hyde Park Corner that includes breakfast, lunch and champagne. Sounds wonderful right? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out they are screwed when the 25-guinea tickets only cost them 10. Never occurs to Pere Clagg that that might be too good to be true. And indeed it is. They show up and the address shown on the beautifully printed tickets turns out to be nothing but a bombed out vacant lot. Now this is where one starts hoping for, perhaps even expecting, a Gallico miracle. But alas it doesn’t really happen. By the time they realize the swindle it is too late to get close enough to the parade route to see anything. Did I mention it was raining most of the morning and they were all soaked through? Little Gwenny is ultimately satisfied by being hoisted up on policeman’s shoulders where she may have (but probably not) actually seen the Queen in her carriage. And then older brother Johnny, who knows all the regiments (domestic and foreign) that will be in the parade, is satisfied when a policeman hands him a regimental badge he found in the gutter. All it takes for Gran to be happy is the fact that she will be able to hold it over her son-in-law until the end of time. Mom’s day is saved when she is able to taste champagne for the first time on the train ride home, and Dad is pleased as punch when an article in one of the afternoon London papers mentions his name in a story about folks being swindled by fake ticket scams.

I know I was supposed to feel something different when I read this. I was supposed to be charmed at how a seeming disaster of a day was rescued by small gestures and simple pleasures. No doubt Gallico was out to teach cynics like me a lesson. But good god, it didn’t work for me. It just pissed me off. I wanted serious harm to come to the forgers–like these rat-bastards on the Internet who are hell bent on spreading viruses or swindling hapless users out of their life savings. Death to them all. Perhaps not the message Gallico wanted me to take away from Coronation.

Book Review: The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble


The action in The Radiant Way begins on New Year’s Eve 1979. A perfect moment to begin this novel that is all about the major cultural/economic/political shift that began in Britain at the end of the 1970s, in most cases due to, or at least coinciding with, the ascension of the Iron Lady to the right hand of God, err, I mean the position of British Prime Minister. I am not a scholar of late 20th century British politics but that won’t stop me from putting in my two cents (pence) worth.

But before I get to all of that I want to quote at length the opening passage of the book. I think Drabble brilliantly captures how this New Year’s Eve party, and indeed any party, no matter how homogeneous the guest list, is at best a collection of competing personal agenda and mundane practical concerns.

New Year’s Eve, and the end of a decade. A portentous moment, for those who pay attention to portents. Guests were invited for nine. Some are already on their way, travelling towards Harley Street from outlying districts, from Oxford and Tonbridge and Wantage, worried already about the drive home. Others are dining, on the cautious assumption that a nine-o’clock party might not provide adequate food. Some are uncertainly eating a sandwich or slice of toast, in front of mirrors women try on dresses, men select ties. As it is a night of many parties, the more social, the more gregarious, the more invited of the guests are wondering whether to go to Harley Street first, or whether to arrive there later, after sampling other offerings. A few are wondering whether to go at all, whether the festive season has not after all been too tiring, whether a night in slippers in front of the television with a bowl of soup might not be a wiser choice than the doubtful prospect of a crowded room. Most of them will go: the communal celebration draws them, they need to gather together to bid farewell to the 1970s, they need to reinforce their own expectations by witnessing those of others, by observing who is in, who is out, who is up, who is down. They need one another. Liz and Charles Headleand have invited them, and obediently, expectantly, they will go, dragging along their tired flat feet, their aching heads, their over-fed bellies and complaining livers, their exhausted opinions, their weary small talk, their professional and personal deformities, their doubts and enmities, their blurring vision and thickening ankles, in the hope of a miracle, in the hope of a midnight transformation, in the hope of a new self, a new, redeemed decade.

And so the party, and the 1980s begin for successful psychiatrist Liz Headleand. The complex associations evident during the party and one bombshell are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will happen with Liz and her family and friends in the first half of the Thatcher 80s.

If you haven’t read Drabble, I would call her books intelligent and intellectual chick-lit. I shouldn’t do so because I neither want to narrow her reach nor offend Drabble (or chick-lit) lovers. But I had to ask myself if it was even appropriate to think in terms of the author’s gender and what that might mean for the characterization of the novel. Would I refer to a novel by a man as “intelligent and intellectual dick-lit”? Well, I think I would, or should actually. I think Philip Roth definitely writes smart dick-lit, and Sophie’s Choice I would also count as intelligent dick-lit. (Of course this is also the reason I prefer Drabble to Roth. I much prefer the female point of view in literature.) In any case Take Margaret Atwood, subtract the dystopia and add in a healthy dose of Iris Murdoch and I think you start to get the idea. Then again, the Thatcher/Reagan 80s are considered by many to be dystopic so maybe Drabble’s story is closer to Atwood than I thought.

In 1980, at the tender age of 11, my knowledge of Britain was fairly non-existent. And for many years after that consisted mainly of an obsession for the Princess of Wales and the Royal Family. But any self-respecting history major is hardly allowed to get a degree without knowing a little more about Britain than that. Even so my knowledge of late 20th century British history could be is limited to a very nebulous, oversimplified summary: In the 1970s nothing was working, everything was gloomy, Labour and labour were hamstringing the country and the economy. In the 1980s everyone but the rich and the climbers were gloomy, socialism became a dirty word as the poor got poorer and Maggie realized that warcraft was the only stagecraft she really need worry about (Take that, Argentina!). In the 1990s a kinder, gentler John Major got the country prepped for a Tony Blair’s Third Way and the dawning of a new millennium. The Radiant Way doesn’t necessarily contradict my oversimplifications, but it does add nuance to them that was personally enlightening.

Aside from the political and social history themes that run through The Radiant Way, the book focuses mainly on Liz and her friends Alix and Esther from her days at Cambridge.  These are the parts of the book I like most. Each of them go through a crisis or two as the friendship among the three of them continue to ebb and flow as they have for 20-some years.

If you are looking for your first Drabble, I highly recommend Seven Sisters. If you know and like Drabble you won’t be disappointed.

Book Review: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim


The Enchanted April

Elizabeth Von Arnim

I remember seeing the trailer for the film adaptation of this book when it first came out in 1992. It looked right up my alley. A period film of the English in Italy, had echoes of “A Room With A View”.  But for some reason over the last 18 years I never bothered to see it.  And then recently I came across a nice used copy of the NYRB edition and thought the time had come to give The Enchanted April a whirl.

The story begins with Lotty Wilkins having a miserable February day in rainy London. She notices an advertisement for an Italian house (castle) rental in the Times with the heading: “For Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine”. She becomes obsessed with the idea of spending a sunny April in Italy and manages to convince Rose, a woman from her club and church, whom she hardly knows, to split the cost of the rental. To save money the two decide to advertise for others to share the castle and end up with Mrs. Fisher a older widow who had a childhood filled with Ruskin and Carlyle and Robert Browning (literally, her father knew all these “great men”) and just wants to spend her time at the castle being left alone to “remember” better times. And with Lady Caroline Dester a 28-year old beauty who also wants nothing more than to be left alone.

So off they go to Italy where indeed the sun is shining and everything is more beautiful then they had imagined. It isn’t long before Lotty’s infectious enthusiasm melts Rose’s defenses and while it takes a little longer, eventually does the same for Lady Caroline and Mrs. Fisher. She credits the house and Italy with transformative powers, but it is clear that Lotty has just as much to do with the transformations as the house.

Throughout the story there are wonderful moments of light humor. Not roll on the floor kind of humor but genuinely funny moments that make one chuckle in delight. Perhaps my favorite instance is the struggle between Rose and Mrs. Fisher for dominance of the over the tea pot and who is serving whom. Over the course of the book each of the women are rescued from their personal despair by letting go of their ingrained old notions of themselves and their relationships and embracing a new attitude.

I really enjoyed reading this charming book, the same can’t be said for the film, which I watched almost immediately after finishing the novel. There was some good casting–Miranda Richardson as Rose and Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fisher–but the other two weren’t so great. The actor portraying Lotty way overplayed her character’s quirkiness. I think given the reserve of the other characters her words alone would have been shocking, she didn’t need to make everything sound like an over excited twelve year old. And the actor who played Lady Caroline, well, she had the wrong color hair and wasn’t the knock down beauty the book promised. But even these miscastings could have been overlooked if they hadn’t taken a few liberties with the plot that in my opinion dumbed down the story in a way that seemed unnecessary. And they used way too many fake flowers to make the gardens seem over the top beautiful. Merchant-Ivory never would have made that mistake.

So, a hearty “yes” to the book, and a hearty “maybe if you are bored” to the film.

Book Reivew: Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

UPDATE: D’oh! Simon at Stuck in a Book just pointed out I mixed up my Penelopes. This is Lively not Fitzgerald! Headings have been corrected to rectify this error. (Probably because I just read a PF book…I’m just sayin’)

Heat Wave
Penelope Lively

It is appropriate that I should be writing about Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave since our A/C is still non-functioning and the weather is starting to get hot. Then again, a heat wave in England is probably still more pleasant than a typical summer day here in DC where 90 degree weather and 80% humidity are the rule not the exception. This is probably why I failed to feel, or believe in the heat as Lively describes it. Not that her powers of description are lacking, quite the opposite in fact, it is just that I know better when it comes to English summers. I have lived through a couple of heat waves in England and they just don’t compare in the same way that all my whining about the heat in DC would be laughable for someone living through a summer in Southeast Asia.

But back to Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave. The gist of the plot has copy-editor Pauline spending her summer in a two-family cottage in the English countryside. Her daughter Teresa and her husband and baby are staying in the cottage next door. As the bucolic summer starts to turn hot Teresa’s marriage begins to run into trouble. Pauline observes the tension through the lenses of her own failed marriage some decades earlier.

As in most of her books Lively does a wonderful job writing about home and family in a way that is comfortable, and, I hate to say it, cozy despite the emotional strife she invariably inserts. In Heat Wave Lively paints a picture nothing short of bucolic. Although she tries to poke holes in our romantic notions of country life, as I will write about shortly, I still couldn’t keep myself from thinking of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ aurally iconic “The Lark Ascending”. To me this is tone painting at its finest. Even without visual images to go along with it, I defy you not to be transported to some idyllic countryside setting while listening to this piece. This is only an excerpt of the piece and will leave you wanting to hear more. Hit the play button while you read the rest of this review…or better yet go get a recording of The Lark Ascending, go lay on the grass or in a field or somewhere outside and listen to it on your headphones. The perfect blend of nature and art.

Meanwhile, back to this book review. Lively builds dramatic tension by using the expanding heat wave as background for expanding personal tensions. She also reinforces the notion that most things, once you scratch the surface are rarely what they seem. That underneath every pleasant surface is a complex and often contradictory set of factors that belie superficial observation. Thus her bucolic country cottage is surrounded by meaning apparent to those willing to look beyond what they see.

Pauline sometimes thinks of the people who have lived at World’s End before her. The real inhabitants – those who lived here seriously, because they had to. She sees stunted people with skins ripened by dirt and weather. Most of these people would have been old at fifty-five – at her age – keeling over, heading for heir hole in the turf, worked quite literally into the ground. They would have looked rather differently upon the silver gleam of winter sunshine on ploughlands, upon the billowing gold of an August cornfield. All very fine for us, thinks Pauline – playing at Marie Antoinette, soothing the troubled soul with contemplation of nature. Time was, this place was for real.

In the same way, Lively uses Teresa’s husband Maurice to further poke holes in the surface story. A scholar of cultural history, Maurice is spending the summer refining his book on tourism and making frequent weekend visits to tourist attractions. While most of us understand that there is a kind of sliding scale of touristic honesty—the difference say between a guided tour of York Minster on one end of the spectrum, with the time machine ride at JORVIK Viking Centre at the other. But which of us isn’t susceptible to the enjoyment of ersatz reality on some level? Do we think about the conceits required to enjoy those experiences? Raise your hand if you have never purchased a bar of soap, pot of honey, or other such memento not even remotely related to the site visited. Pauline is on the case:

Worsham is doing good business. Raking it in. Each of these visitors will spend something, presumably, if only on refreshments and a postcard. Quite a few will fall for a pot of allegedly home-made chutney, or framed assemblage of dried flowers, or a patchwork cushion. Acquisition is one of the purposes of a day out, after all – the acquisition of new sights bolstered by something a bit more tangible. And Worsham has centuries of marketing experience – it has been a trading centre all its life, though traditionally for more essential commodities than dried flowers.

Lively’s deconstruction of these tourist outings and other elements of her daily life feel interestingly dated to me. Published in 1996, the cynicism in Heat Wave feels very much of its time. Perhaps it is just my own personal experience in the 1990s. As a graduate student in American Studies in the middle of the decade, it was hard not to have a hyper-critical eye trained on the details of daily life. But it also seems like the decade was rejecting the la-la land of the Reagan ‘80s as it rushed to embrace the tech bubble of the ‘90s and the heady march toward Y2K. Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t the ‘90s the decade where we all became so fascinated with the recent past? With an attitude that said “we are enjoying this, but only ironically” we embraced swing dancing, Rhino Records started re-releasing nostalgic music collections by the score, TVLand came into existence filling cable TV with Mary Tyler Moore Mondays and enough Brady Bunch and I Dream of Jeanie to put us all in a time travel coma. Wasn’t this the same period when twenty-somethings started to carry lunchboxes and wearing t-shirts with Sesame Street characters? But we did it all with a wink and a nudge that said that we knew better. In many ways I feel like the cultural assessments in Heat Wave are indicative of the kind of critical reckoning that many of us had in the mid-90’s that eventually led to the “who cares, we know it is lame but are enjoying it anyway” late-90s and beyond. Lively’s criticism seems part of the trajectory of cultural criticism that eventually led some of us the “post” world. That is, the world where we got so tired of our own cynicism that we became post-everything: post-feminist, post-gay, post-racial. What else could explain how former warriors of the political correct movement turn into rabid fans of Family Guy like myself and so many of my college cohort?

But I digress…Heat Wave is not as non-fictiony or complicated as all that. It is, I am happy to say, typical Lively. In fact, I would put it down as my second favorite Lively. Not as good as Consequences but better than The Photograph and Moon Tiger.

Book Review: Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

Human Voices
Penelope Fitzgerald

In Human Voices I found a different Penelope Fitzgerald than the one I am used to. I guess having only previously read two other Fitzgerald novels I don’t qualify as an expert, but this one feels very different than The Gate of Angels or The Bookshop. There is something much more straightforward about Human Voices than the others. It feels less oblique, more tangible. More accessible.

Drawn from Fitzgerald’s own work experience, Human Voices takes place in the halls of Broadcasting House (the BBC’s London headquarters) during World War II. Like the other Fitzgeralds I have read, this is a novel of details with just a gentle arc of a plot. Things happen – some very dramatic indeed – and there is a certain peak to the plot, but overall this isn’t one of those narratives that builds and builds towards one inexorable, unavoidable climax. Instead the reader is treated to the stories of various BBC employees whose lives become increasingly interrelated. As the air raids and war effort in general escalate, the lines between work and personal lives become blurred as the intensity of both mirrors the intensity of war.

What is amazing about Human Voices is Fitzgerald’s ability to give dimension to so many characters in only 143 pages. There are certainly plenty of minor characters – not everyone gets equal treatment – but at no point did I feel like there wasn’t a whole character beneath the surface even when the character was not explicitly fleshed out.

And through it all Fitzgerald manages to convey a sense that the “stiff upper lip” had plenty of soul and emotion behind it. She captures the spirit of the blitz without turning any of it into caricature. This is a must read for anyone interested in wartime London, providing further dimension to a place and time with a seemingly endless supply of unique and extraordinary stories.

It is also a must for anyone interested in the inner workings of the BEEB before television came along. Fitzgerald subtly and masterfully makes the setting as integral to the story as the characters. For me one of the hallmarks of a truly great author is her ability to convey information about time, place and setting without drawing attention to any of them. In

Book Review: Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope

Widow Barnaby
Fanny Trollope
From what I understand, Fanny Trollope made Widow Barnaby into something of a franchise. The widow, who is a bit of an archetype of the brash, sometimes vulgar, and always clueless social climber, apparently features in other of Mrs. Trollope’s novels (although sitting here in jury duty right now, I can’t really confirm that). I assume it is for this reason alone that the novel is actually called Widow Barnaby. In sentiment, sympathy, and even narrative focus the novel would more aptly be called Agnes Willoughby after our anti-heroine’s orphaned niece. In these two characters we have the classic set-up between the wicked, controlling aunt and the virtuous, obedient niece. Throw in a pious, spinster of a great aunt, a few pretenders and charlatans and more than one possibile Mr. D’Arcys and you start to get the feel of this particular story.

There are very few instances in this 542-page book where one feels even a pang of sympathy for the extravagant Widow Barnaby and her clumsy machinations to marry her way into higher society and live beyond her means. Of course the converse is true of the beautiful, level-headed and studious Agnes who has the singing voice of an angel. As much as I enjoyed the book, it is a little hard to understand while you are reading it why Trollope made Widow Barnaby the focus of the book. She is definitely a humorous character at times and one can understand how her travails could provide fodder for multiple books, but the whole arc of the story so clearly focuses on Agnes that I kept checking the cover to see if the title had somehow changed. And the widow is not so fantastically humorous and wicked that one starts rooting for her despite her nefarious ways. It would take a far more cynical mind than my own to turn against the lovely Agnes.

Which brings up another question: would it have been too much of a stretch to ask for an ugly heroine? Or maybe one without talent? I mean this Agnes really is the total package. You know she is going to come up smelling of roses. Still, there are enough twists and turns to keep one wondering just what is going to happen. And, at least for my taste, Agnes and her virtues never become cloying or annoying.  Just don’t expect this one to challenge your world view.

Not having previously read anything by the great Anthony Trollope’s mother I wasn’t sure what to expect. One area where Mrs. Trollope does not disappoint and certainly foreshadows some of her son’s work is in her seemingly endless references to money. If there are two themes in period British literature that I can’t get enough of, it is housekeeping details (this includes cleaning, trousseau-gathering, travel arrangements, letter writing, tea making and consuming, etc.) and money talk. He has 400 a year, she has 5,000 a year, he has 15,000 a year…bills to be paid, fortunes to be amassed and spent and bequeathed. I must admit though I much prefer the parsimonious over the profligate. In life and art I like the savers over the spenders.

Book Review: Old Filth by Jane Gardam


Old Filth
Jane Gardam

According to the New York Times Book Review, “Old Filth belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters.” Not being a Dickens aficionado I am not sure how true this rings, but it seems more true than not. Sir Edward Feathers is Old Filth. A legend in British legal circles, Filth is an acronym for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”. Of course to my eyes that would be “Old Filthk”, but that wouldn’t be as entertaining would it.

The book Old Filth follows our hero as an 80-year old widower looking back on his colorful life and his attempt to make sense of his current state of being. His mother died days after his birth, his emotionally troubled father abandons the infant Edward to the native Malays that live on his estate. At age five Edward is sent off to learn English before being sent to Wales to live in a foster home with two other empire-orphan cousins. Then there is school, the War, Oxford (or was it Cambridge? Oops), the Bar, Hong Kong, back to the UK, etc. Told with a fair amount of narrative and temporal shifts, the story is nonetheless fairly easy to follow and often delightful.

Old Filth is full of quiet adventure. The trappings and situations in real life would certainly be an adventure for most anyone, but they aren’t played as such. No swashbuckling, edge of your seat kind of thing. Rather, Gardam focuses on the emotional side of things and the inner workings of Old Filth’s increasingly introspective and searching mind. Along with much that is amusing is a thoughtful, poignant life story with more than a few twists and turns. One twist in particular, perhaps the climax of the book, will surprise even though it has been hinted at here and there.

My only real challenge with Old Filth is that it could have been a much longer book. Following the earlier Dickens comparison, one could easily imagine this in a different time being serialized and stretched to Dickensian or Trollopian lengths. I wouldn’t say any of the characters are one dimensional. In fact most of them, even the bit characters, show enough texture that it leaves you wanting to know more about them. Gardam could have spun this one into a much longer tale if she had wished. But then again, that may have flattened the arc of her narrative too much and made Old Filth something she never meant it too be. This one is definitely worth a read.

(Spell-Check approves of “Dickensian” but balks at “Trollopian”. For those of us who prefer Anthony over Charles, this is a grave injustice.)

Book Review: Providence by Anita Brookner


Anita Brookner

I thought I knew Anita Brookner. Before reading Providence I had read all but 3 of her 24 novels and was fairly confident in the knowledge of what I would find when opening any given Brookner. Without exception her novels are somewhat thin volumes with direct, spare language that focus more on internal thoughts than any external action. Her characters are usually financially secure, upper middle class, academically inclined loners, often without the need of work, who seem to drift from one emotional disappointment to another. Or more accurately, who drift around a single emotional disappointment for 200 or so pages. Her characters never really quite experience tragedy, but the entire arc of their lives could usually and fairly be characterized as tragic.

Describing her work as predictable and depressing could give one the idea that I don’t like Brookner’s work, which isn’t the case at all. And there are some who may think I overstate the case or am entirely off base. I know I am certainly oversimplifying, but to me, after reading 21 of her novels over the course of the past 15 years, I have never really thought much differently than what I describe here. Brilliant, powerful books, but also brilliantly and beautifully depressing. I often describe Brookner’s characters as people who never act but are rather acted upon. Usually solitary women who suffer from almost crippling emotional intertia. Joy or happiness are not words I would apply to Brookner’s work.

So I was more than a little surprised in this, Brookner’s second novel, to discover a world that seemed to me to be very different than any other Brookner I have read. All the emotional paralysis and sad, lonely characters are in place, but in Providence Brookner has created a character who actually attempts to make something happen in her life. Kitty Maule is a scholar of the Romantic period and is profoundly, and mostly unrequitedly, in love with a colleague and she is determined to seal the deal.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand that despite Kitty actively trying to shape her future and develop some outward momentum, her emotional momentum doesn’t really keep up. Little of the external realities seem to impact her internal reality. So maybe this Brookner, at least at a fundamental level, is not really so different after all. But the details of Kitty’s daily life certainly feel different than most of Brookner’s other sad protagonists. At least in this one I’m wasn’t silently yelling at the character to take the bull by the horns. Well, at least not as much as usual.

Reading this, you might think that I don’t really like this (or any other) Brookner character, but there are at least two things that really make me enjoy them. The first is that I like reading about their solitary existence because it appeals to the OCD loner in me. Despite all their angst, their worlds are quite tidy and well ordered. But orderly lives can be lonely lives. The overweening need for peace and quiet and unruffled feathers can often lead to a detachment from others that is ultimately not terribly fulfilling. So the part of me that isn’t basking in the peace of solitude of a Brooknerian life is standing on a proverbial table shouting at the characters to engage life before it is too late. I think I love them because they are cautionary tales for my own life. A “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of thing.

I have no doubt that if Anita Brookner were to read this “review” she would probably sue me for malpractice. I am sure she didn’t write these brilliant, wonderfully nuanced books to have them reduced to “she writes about sad people”. But, there it is. I love her anyway. I guess when you are famous you don’t get to choose your fans.

(And speaking of sacrilegious literary exegesis, I read one analysis of this novel in a book called Understanding Anita Brookner by Cheryl Alexander Malcolm. I know that my analysis might be crap, but I sure didn’t agree with Ms. Malcolm’s take that the whole thing was just about Kitty trying to fit in and be English.)

So tell me, why you haven’t read any Anita Brookner yet? You will either love her or hate her, but you need to find out sometime.

Book Review: Short Fiction by Ward Just

Honor, Power, Riches, Fame, and the Love of Women
Ward Just

As much as I loved Persephone Reading Week, I must admit that by the end of it I was really craving a little testosterone. And as Anglophile as my reading tastes may be, I was also in the mood for something a little closer to home. In Ward Just I found the perfect antithesis to my week of reading all things Persephone. Once a reporter for the Washington Post, Just writes brilliant fiction centering in one way or another on politics and power. Sometimes his characters are actually politicians; sometimes they are the power or the brains behind the politician. Or sometimes they are the “fixers” out there who often clandestinely and unofficially shape politics, foreign policy, and even the contours of armed conflict.

Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women is a collection of short fiction written by Just in the 1970s that includes two novella and four thematically related short stories. The title novella is about a Hill staffer who marries the boss’ daughter and ends up as his Congressman-father-in-law’s successor in the House of Representatives. But his ascent into power is, in many ways, just background for his personal battle between his loves and his ambitions.

Three of the four short stories deal with the experience of journalists making their living in war torn Indochina, while the fourth is a spy story of sorts. The final novella called Cease-fire tells the story of a man whose job is to work behind the scenes to help keep fragile cease-fires in place. But it also follows him into an unexpected and uncharacteristic love affair that changes his world.

In all of these short works, and indeed in all of his novels, Ward Just describes worlds that can be at once totally shocking and surprising to those of us not in the often messy corridors of power, but also so mundane in the day-to-day details that it all seems incredibly realistic and plausible. And I suppose cynical. There is never anything in his work that seems over the top or too Hollywood. These aren’t shoot ‘em up kind of books.

Just is one of those writers who does what he does so well that my limited descriptive abilities don’t begin to do him justice. Let me just crib what librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl has to say about him, after all she was the one who turned me onto Just in the first place.

Too few readers of fiction know the novels of Ward Just, which is a real shame, since he is a master craftsman, unafraid to tackle deep and difficult topics. In many ways he seems to be the American Graham Greene, concerned always with the morality of human behavior. His novels are thoughtful, beautifully written, and often bleak bleak bleak. I sometimes think that Just never met a happy ending he liked.

Book Review: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail



Greenery Street
Denis Mackail

In high school I had a dream one night where I was in some city that was unknown to me. I woke up feeling like this was the place I needed to be. There was something about the physical setting of the dream that just gave me a groove. I could never quite put my finger on what it was that made that particular dreamscape so special. Years later after I moved to Washington, DC, I realized that DC, or something very much like it, was the city in my dream a decade earlier. A dense but picturesque walkable neighborhoods filled with old brick buildings, pockets of green space with statuary and monuments tucked everywhere, and lots of vibrant street life. Although there are plenty of reasons to complain about DC, from an aesthetic and urban design perspective this really is the embodiment of that nebulous and lovely image that was tucked somewhere in my brain all those years.

Well, Felicity Hamilton has a similarly nebulous and lovely image in her head.

A picture began to form itself in Felicity’s mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first-floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other. Sometimes it was so clear that she could almost read the name on the corner lamp-post; sometimes it faded to a blur or the view-point changed so that only one house was visible. Neat little area railings, a brightly painted front door with a shining brass knocker. It opened and showed a narrow passage-hall, lighted by a window on the turn of the stairs; and in that window there came the green light of sunshine filtered through leaves. ‘That’s the house we’re going to live in,’ she said to herself. ‘But where did I see it?’ Where could she have been going when a momentary glimpse from a taxi had shown her that passage-hall and that window? And why had she forgotten all about it at the time, only to find it lodged so obstinately in her memory now?

As luck would have it, Felicity does finally find Greenery Street again, and she and her fiancé Ian Foster manage to find a place of their own there to move into after they are married. It would be wrong to say that Greenery Street is the background for the story of this young couple’s new life together. The street itself, is as much a character as they are. Just as we learn about Ian and Felicity’s personalities and foibles, so too do we learn about the foibles and personality of the street itself. With little exception the street is home to young couples making their way and their new lives together. Staying in Greenery Street just long enough for the first baby or two to come along and require a move to more spacious accommodations.

It would be equally wrong, however, to say that the book is actually about Greenery Street. It certainly plays a central role, but there is plenty going on in the life of the newly married Fosters to keep one’s attention. Money, housekeeping, families, the ups and downs of a couple getting to know each other; although the circumstances may be very different, the themes are somewhat universal. More than once I saw elements of my own marriage (and our house hunting for that matter) illuminated in Greenery Street. Thankfully, I believe that modes of interpersonal communication have improved immensely since the 1920s so that many frustrating situations can be avoided, but some of the same relationship pitfalls seem unavoidable 90 years later.

Although some of the situations and challenges seem a little twee and of a time and class foreign to most of us, the story is still relatable and quite a lot of fun. Mackail’s narrative style is eclectic at times and his voice is sometimes front and center. Like a narrator holding a large story book relating the action to the audience just before the scene dissolves to depict the action at hand with the narrator fading from the screen. It is a playful omniscience that allows the street to become a character, and I found it, and the book itself, charming and humorous.