Book Review (well not really): The Pilgrim Hawk

The Pilgrim Hawk
Glenway Wescott

This was the fourth and final novella I was to read for the November Novella Challenge. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I must say I am not a huge fan of novellas. I finished this one last night right before midnight, so I finished the challenge, but I didn’t enjoy it like I thought I would. The good thing is all of the titles were in my TBR so I didn’t buy anything especially for this.

Despite being a very short 108 pages, I really struggled with The Pilgrim Hawk. There is nothing I can think of to write that is even remotely enlightening or interesting. So I will let the New York Review of Books (who published this edition) stand in for my review. It doesn’t mean I agree with their review, it just means I don’t care enough about the book to write my own. You might be interested to note on the NYRB link that Christopher Isherwood, an author I quite like, gave it a fulsome blurb.

Out of the four I read for the challenge I liked Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the best. Strachey’s Cheeful Weather for a Wedding and Fitzgerald’s Bookshop are tied for second place. Both were interesting and had their moments, but didn’t necessarily satisfy. The Pilgrim Hawk comes in a distant fourth.

November Novella Challenge: 4 down, 0 to go.

Book Review: My Latest Grievance

My Latest Grievance
Elinor Lipman

If you are looking for interesting, smart, well-written, popular fiction Elinor Lipman is an author you need to know. Although her books tend to be quick, fun reads with likeable characters, they are by no means without substance. My Latest Grievance is narrated by Frederica Hatch, a precocious teenager who has grown up in a dormitory at a women’s college just outside of Boston, where her parents are professors and live-in houseparents. The professors Hatch have always treated their daughter like a mini-adult, so very little is kept from Frederica’s ears and she, in turn, is quick to insert herself into any conversation. The result is amusing.

The action centers on Frederica’s discovery that her father had been married before he was married to her mother and the subsequent arrival on campus of said ex-wife. Needless to say the arrival of Laura Lee causes a bit of a domestic stir in the Hatch family and sets into motion a string of events that changes everything. Despite a few tragedies, moral and otherwise, along the way, the tone of My Latest Grievance is always light and mostly humorous.

Being the third Lipman novel that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, I feel like you could probably pick up any of her books and enjoy them. No doubt some may be better than others, but my guess is they are probably all worth a read. Especially if you are looking for something fast and fun.

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her latest novel The Year of the Flood (and her other works like it). Some might be hard pressed to understand the difference, but perhaps the distinction may be that Atwood speculates about the future based on our current trajectory rather than making up a new universe out of whole cloth. Not having read much science fiction over the years, I am not going to weigh in too much on this one. Suffice it to say that Atwood calls it speculative fiction. And since she is a goddess among us, I will defer to her wishes.

All of the speculative oddities included in The Year of the Flood seem less crazy not only because one can see the roots of the idea in what is happening in the present, but also because Atwood is a master prose writer and draws the reader effortlessly into this world. She doesn’t hammer these ideas home, she gently, in bits and pieces, introduces the reader to this dystopian future. Like all of Atwood’s novels, the characters are interesting and nuanced and don’t necessarily need the setting to make them so.

This story of survival, in the most trying of ecological and societal circumstances, is at times as whimsical as it is an overwhelmingly sad prediction of our future. A religious sect interested in bringing the biblical peaceable kingdom to fruition on earth attempts to get the lion and lamb to lay down together by genetically engineering “liobams”. The thought being that these lion/lamb hybrids would make such peace possible. However, as Atwood notes in the novel, the results were less than vegetarian. But this is only the tip of the iceberg (which don’t seem to exist in the future). In The Year of the Flood Atwood creates a complete world full of creatures and circumstances that are fascinating and yet seem entirely plausible after a few chapters.

This brings me to another aspect of Atwood’s great talent/skill. In addition to her writing ability, she knows so much about so many subjects or at least does the research to make it seem like she does. Like other great writers she is adept at weaving in deep layers of religious, mythological, psychological, philosophical, scientific, and cultural references. She also doesn’t shy away from sex, drugs, and violence, and writes about them in a way that makes you forget that she just entered her eighth decade.

One aspect of the story I found disappointing was her depiction of gender roles. Atwood’s future contains all kinds of advances in science but it doesn’t seem to include any evolution of male/female roles and attitudes. It is possible that this was a conscious choice on her part. Maybe she thinks the future doesn’t look bright for gender equality, or perhaps in this dystopian world where physical survival is paramount and weapons are hard to come by, gender roles devolve to something a little more Neanderthal. But I got the feeling that at least some of it suggests that Atwood’s personal outlook on gender–which doesn’t seem to grasp that men frequent spas–is stuck somewhere in the past.

There is definitely an environmental message here. About global warming, genetic engineering, the promise and danger of technology, and the effects they all will have on life as we currently know it. At no time does it come across as a political tract, unless you are one of those folks who believe we can do whatever we want to the planet and not suffer any consequences. If that is you, you will hate this book. As depressing as Atwood’s future world is, it kind of helps me cope with the stress of feeling powerless to do much about the enviro-political greed and stupidity we must deal with these days. Of course it is a fatalistic kind of relief. As in, won’t the planet be a better place without us? And personally, the idea that death means donating oneself “to the matrix of life” is quite comforting to me.

Finally, some of you are going to ask if you need to read Oryx and Crake first. The answer is no. It might enhance certain aspects of the book as some of the characters do reappear, but the book is fabulous enough to stand on its own.

Other views (if you have reviewed it, let me know and I will link):
Boston Bibliophile
Shelf Love
Books – Sliced and Diced
Savidge Reads
The Mookse and the Gripes (This reviewer hated it so much I wasn’t sure we read the same book.)

Book Review: The Queen of the Tambourine

The Queen of the Tambourine
Jane Gardam

Even though I read this book before I read The Year of the Flood, I wrote the review of TYOTF before this one, and I don’t appear to have much steam left.

Winner of the Whitbred Prize for Best Novel of the Year,  The Queen of the Tambourine is a funny and poignant book about Eliza Peabody, a housewife whose sense of reality isn’t what it should be. The entire book is written as a series of letters to her friend Joan. I don’t want to go into my love/hate relationship with epistolary novels again. Suffice it to say this one starts off very well in that regard, with each of the letters seeming very believable, but they eventually stray into pretty conventional narrative posing as letters.

I enjoyed this book, it was humorous and kind of satirical, but with the right amount of sentiment never far from center. Sympathetic and villainous characters, twists and turns, tension and resolution, etc. The whole nine yards as it were.

This is the kind of book that is good to pick up if you run across it somewhere. But, even though I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone to go hunt it down.


I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Woke up this morning at about 8:30, and grabbed it off of my nightstand as soon as I could see clearly enough to read. Didn’t put it down until I finished. As I if I needed more proof of Atwood’s genius. What an amazing book. I will review it sometime this week hopefully.

Trying not to finish an author’s back catalog too quickly

The reading room
Jayne Dyer, 2007

My recent read of another novel by Nevil Shute got me thinking about authors whose novels I like so much I worry about running out of their work. For those that have passed on already the dilemma is already clearly delineated. For those authors still among the living, there are wishes for a long, long life and speedy, speedy writing.

This is slightly different than favorite authors. For instance I love Hermann Hesse, but I doubt I will ever read The Glass Bead Game. I will, however, read every work of fiction by these authors (if I haven’t already):

Margaret Atwood
Elizabeth Bowen
Anita Brookner

Willa Cather

Margaret Drabble
Timothy Findley
EM Forster
Ward Just
Sinclair Lewis
Penelope Lively
W. Somerset Maugham
Ian McEwan
Cheryl Mendelson
Iris Murdoch
Anne Patchett
Barbara Pym
Muriel Spark
Carol Shields
Nevil Shute
Anthony Trollope (I don’t think I will live that long.)
Edith Wharton

I am sure I have forgotten some.

Thank god some of these authors wrote (or are still writing) a lot. I have sadly finished Forster and Shields and neither are around to write more. And there are others like Brookner and Atwood who I have almost caught up to their output. And then others whose work I am rationing so as not to finish too quickly.

Who are yours?

Book Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Julia Strachey

(Aside: Don’t you love this portrait of Julia Strachey by fellow Bloomsbury-ite Dora Carrington? And the cover painting “Girl Reading” by Harold Knight shown below is also pretty darn fabulous.)

It is a good thing I included this title in my November Novella Challenge, because I have been having a hard time deciding which of my fabulous first twelve Persephones I should read first. One would think diving into that stack wouldn’t really be an issue, but the existential angst over which to read first was killing me. Then again, who am I kidding, now I just have existential angst over which to read second.

I liked Cheerful Weather for the Wedding less than Simon at Stuck In A Book, but I liked it more than Nicola at Vintage Reads. And I felt a bit like Bride of the Book God when she writes:

The word that kept on springing to mind as I read this was brittle; not a criticism as such, but the story struck me as being one of those bright and witty pieces produced by many in the twenties and thirties, some of which were much more successful than others.

Frankly, in my mind the bride probably looked about as happy on her wedding day as dear old Julia Strachey does in her portrait.

This novella is only 118 pages but it took me until about page 60 before I started to really feel the rhythm of the book and get over my urge to quit reading it. I know that makes it sound pretty dire, and it isn’t as bad as that by any means. I actually think I would enjoy the first 60 pages much more now that I have finished the whole thing. It is kind of like the brilliant TV series Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I only truly appreciated the first season after I finished the second season and the finale show. I agree with Simon that the humor in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is funny and charming—especially the green socks thread (no pun intended). I think I was just worried that I hadn’t really caught on to an actual story by page 60. But then after page 60 when one finally starts to feel like something is happening, it all starts to fall in place and feel right.

I think it is also the kind of book that would benefit from a real face-to-face book club discussion. A little back and forth banter with others who had read it would help put it into perspective for me. It was worth reading, but perhaps an inauspicious place to start my Persephone experience.

UPDATE: Apparently I was channeling Paperback Reader’s May review of this book when I compared Simon’s review to Nicola’s.

November Novella Challenge: 3 down, 1 to go.

Book Review: Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Pied Piper
Nevil Shute

For those of you who have never read a book by Nevil Shute, now is the time. No special anniversary that I know of, it’s just that you are missing out on a really great storyteller. I attach some qualifications to this recommendation, but nothing that even comes close to diminishing my enthusiasm for his work. Some of Shute’s novels use some appallingly dated racist language, but I chalk that up to the era in which they were written, and I have my fingers crossed that the man himself wasn’t actually racist. There is also a certain corniness to some of Shute’s dialog. It sometimes sounds like it comes straight from one of those fast talking, black and white films from the 1940s. And his novels tend to be the kind where if every line doesn’t move the plot forward, your foreshadowing alarm should go off. Although there is usually a romance of some kind that is part of the mix, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that his books are shot full of testosterone-laden adventures. But interesting and suspenseful enough to enthrall even someone like me who likes a lot of “old lady” books.

Pied Piper is the story of John Howard, a retired Englishman who is on holiday in France at the outbreak of World War II. Reluctantly agreeing to take two small English children back to England with him, Howard ends up finding it increasingly difficult to make his way home with the Nazis rolling into France with much more speed than anyone anticipated. During the journey home Howard comes across five more children that need his help escaping France. Since the story unfurls as a flashback, I won’t be giving anything away by mentioning that Howard makes it back to safety. I won’t say whether or not his young charges were as lucky–but have you ever seen a movie with a child character whose stupidity ends up getting folks in trouble? ‘Nuff said about that. The fact that book was published in 1942, long before the end of the war, gives one a different perspective on the tale as well. With the war not yet won, personal heroism (and more than a tinge of Commonwealthism/nationalism) have to take the place of a larger WWII victory narrative.

There is always enough non-fiction in a Shute novel that most of them have me racing to the Internet or some reference material to investigate further some aspect of the story. Pied Piper is no exception. As I made my way through this page turner, I pulled out my big map of France to follow Howard’s progress, which made the story all the more exciting.

Shute was born in England in 1899, worked as an aeronautical engineer, and, upset over the direction England was headed, emigrated to Australia with his family in 1950 and died in 1960. Although I have enjoyed other Nevil Shute novels, it was the recent reissue of four of his books in these great Vintage Classics’ covers (available in the UK) that made me pick up Pied Piper. Vintage has other Shute titles available without the cool covers, but I think many of his 23 novels are out of print. But they can be fun quarry while book hunting at garage sales, charity shops, and secondhand bookstores.

Other Shute books I have read include:

On the Beach (1957)
This was the first Shute I ever read. I was in high school and sobbed like a baby for the last 30 pages. I could barely read it through the tears. Atomic war has wreaked havoc on the northern hemisphere. Shute chronicles life in Melbourne as they wait for the radioactive fallout to reach them. Also made into a good movie with the young (and very handsome) Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame.

Times Square at Night, c. 1955* by Bedrich Grunzweig
(*I love the image on this postcard and the fact that On the Beach is on the marquee makes it even more special to me. But I just realized that the estimated date of the photograph on the card is wrong. On the Beach was published in 1957, and the film came out in 1959, so it couldn’t date from ’55.)

In the Wet (1953)
This is probably my favorite Shute because of the subject matter. Another “flashback” novel (this time to 1980!), it tells the story of a biracial Australian airman who finds himself in very interesting circumstances. As England trends towards socialism the royal family face the possibility of exile. But the Commonwealth comes to the rescue! The Australians and Canadians agree to build and operate a two-craft fleet of super cool De Havilland jets, for the sole use of the royals. The fleet is soon put into use to shuttle the Queen and her consort to various Commonwealth countries around the world as they escape from England until things settle down a bit. I loved this book because of the hardware component (I am a sucker for airplanes) but also for its Royal fantasy element—in the same way I liked Alan Bennett’s alternate universe in The Uncommon Reader.

Ordeal (1938 – or What Happened to the Corbetts in the UK):
Also hugely enjoyable. How one family survives when Southampton is bombed and sickness and disease are causing all kinds of shortages and quarantines. The Corbetts live on their little sailboat, skirting the coast of England trying to stay outside the quarantined areas and survive.

A Town Like Alice (1950):
Aside from Pied Piper, this was the most recent Shute I have read. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favorites even though it is one of Shute’s most popular. A couple meets while prisoners of the Japanese in Southeast Asia during World War II. They meet later in Australia where the heroine is determined to create a successful community in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Pastoral (1944):
I enjoyed this one but I don’t remember too much about it. Life and love in and around an aerodrome in southern England during World War II.

Nancy Pearl, in More Book Lust (a follow-up to the much more fantastic Book Lust) says that Nevil Shute is “too good to miss”. And she is right.

Homage to the Women Unbound Challenge

I won’t be participating (at least not officially) in the Women Unbound Challenge being hosted by Aarti at BookLust, Care at Care’s Online Bookclub and Eva at A Striped Armchair. I am trying to limit any book challenge participation in the next year to books that I already own. I have lots of books by and about women, but I didn’t feel like I had the right ones to really do the challenge justice. Over the years I have read a fair amount of what would be considered women’s studies texts, both fiction and non-fiction, that range from profound and enlightening to unsophisticated and solipsistic. And although, my TBR pile is full of books by and about women, just finding eight books that only sort of fit the bill just didn’t seem right to me.

From about the age of 13 all the way through my undergraduate days, my friends were almost exclusively female—a direct result of not being like the other boys. I was always a little ashamed and embarrassed that all my friends were girls. It wasn’t until I started college that I realized how ridiculous and wrong it was to be ashamed of my fabulous female friends. This was the end of the oppressively retrograde Reagan 80s and the women in my social sphere were decidedly feminist and had a huge influence on my personal and academic world view. (I remember plowing through The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood and feeling more than a little affinity with the protagonist.) In the years since then I have never really lost that sensibility and it has definitely influenced my reading.

As I looked through my TBR pile, I was hoping to find eight appropriate books so I could achieve the “suffragette” level in the challenge. (The word suffragette always makes me think of my trip to the Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, NY where Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848.) I found many books that would probably work for the challenge, but not having read them there was no way of knowing for sure. I was worried that many of them might fall into the category of being by a woman, but not being terribly relevant, or even antithetical, to the spirit of the challenge. Plus, in my mind Women’s Studies taken as a whole should be inclusive in terms of race and ethnicity. And I gotta admit, my TBR pile right now is pretty darn white.

So instead of being an official participant in the Women Unbound Challenge I pulled together a list of four literary pairs that may or may not turn out to be appropriate for the challenge. Each of the four pairs is based on a biographical work of a female author, each of whom, I think blazed some trails for women writers. And then I paired each bio with a work of fiction by the same author. In most cases the works of fiction aren’t necessarily the best representations of the author’s feminist proclivities. And in the case of Barbara Pym, her feminist proclivities are still up for debate. But, hey, it’s what I have in my TBR. In any case, here are my four literary pairings:

Willa Cather (pictured)
Non-Fiction: Willa Cather, The Emerging Voice by Sharon O’Brien
Fiction: Collected Stories

Fanny Trollope
Non-Fiction: The Life, Manners, And Travels of Fanny Trollope by Johanna Johnston
Fiction: Widow Barnaby

Edith Wharton
Non-Fiction: A Backward Glance (autobiography)
Fiction: The Glimpse of the Moon

Barbara Pym
Non-Fiction: A Lot to Ask, A Life of Barbara Pym by Hazel Holt
Fiction: Excellent Women

So what do you think? Is this a worthy list for shadowing the Women Unbound Challenge?

Book Review: Old Books in the Old World

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad
Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine B. Stern

Imagine transatlantic crossings on the Holland America Line, spending a month and half each summer digging through antiquarian books in the capitals and countryside of Europe, buying hundreds of old books to ship back to the United States to resell for a profit. My own interests in books do not run to the antiquarian side of things, but given the chance I would gladly immerse myself in such excursions. Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern were business partners, friends, and companions for 60 years. Beginning in 1942 the pair became partners in their rare book firm in New York and spent a chunk of their summers traveling to Europe to buy stock. Both were Columbia University educated literary scholars, and considered themselves literary sleuths. In addition to writing five books on the antiquarian book trade, their achievements include a major discovery about Louisa May Alcott. The following passage is taken from a wonderful tribute to Stern at

Miss Stern was enormously proud of the fact that she and her dear friend, business partner, and companion “literary sleuth,” Leona Rostenberg, helped bring to light Louisa May Alcott’s unknown tales of intrigue, murder, adultery, suicide — and as Miss Stern put it, “thuggism, feminism, hashish, and transvestitism” to boot.

“One of our greatest thrills,” Miss Stern wrote in 1997, “was our discovery of the double literary life of America’s best-loved writer of juvenile fiction. The revelation that the author of Little Women was also the author of clandestine sensational shockers was our blood-and-thunder story.”

The reminiscences in Old Books in the Old World are taken from Rostenberg and Stern’s diary entries from their book buying trips to Europe between 1947 to 1957. After most entries the authors include retrospective epilogues that provide perspective on their experiences as well as dishing the details on where some of their book finds ended up and how much they sold them for.

I love books of all kinds. But the world of antiquarian books is one that I doubt I will ever enter so I don’t know much about it. Old Books in the Old World gives a wonderful glimpse of what goes on in that world. These are seriously old books on seriously old topics. Sixteenth and Seventeenth century manuscripts, books, pamphlets and other ephemera on politics, science, history, geography, religion, philosophy and other topics written in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and other languages. Rostenberg and Stern knew what they were doing but often bought things on a hunch, not really knowing what they had in their hands until they get it back to the U.S. to study it and figure out where it fit into the antiquarian universe.

Until I read Old Books in the Old World I never really wondered where universities and libraries got their rare book collections. Not the ancient universities of Europe, those probably grew organically over hundreds of years, but some of the more “recent” universities in the New World like Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. And institutions like the Newberry, Folger, and Library of Congress. And in some cases, books that they bought and overseas and shipped back to New York were eventually sent back across the Atlantic where they found homes at places like the British Museum and the University of Basel.

Besides the tales of treasure hunting for good deals and great books (which of us aren’t drawn to that?), Rostenberg and Stern also give a fantastic firsthand account of post-war Europe. Traveling through England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Austria they provide many details of everyday life that are so often missing from World War II histories. I knew about rationing and food shortages in Britain following the war but didn’t realize that a piece of bread could be considered one of the courses in a three course meal at even the nicer restaurants in London. Or another instance where Rostenberg refuses to sit at a table of Germans at an antiquarian conference in Austria. It is hard to imagine what those relationships would have been like so soon after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Throughout their travels between 1947 and 1957 the duo also heard firsthand accounts of how some of their bookseller friends, Jewish and otherwise managed to survive the war. And with each bookbuying trip they see improvements as England and Europe eventually return to normalcy. They also see the prices of books rise as antiquarian treasures become harder and harder to find.

Old Books in the Old World would be great for anyone with even a passing interest in the antiquarian book trade or for someone interested in a little post-war social history or gossipy European travelogue.