Book Review: The Photograph

The Photograph
Penelope Lively

This review might be a little on the short side. As much as I like Lively, I am a little ambivalent about The Photograph. Not to say I didn’t like it. I just expected more. The plot is pretty clever and can be summed up fairly easily. Glyn finds a picture of his deceased wife Kath that suggests that she had an affair with her sister Elaine’s husband Nick. Glyn confronts Elaine, Elaine confronts Nick, etc. Not wanting to give away any of the twists and turns I think I will leave it at that.

The Photograph is an enjoyable, easy read. The characters are believable and have interesting jobs that provide interesting context (landscape designer, publisher, historian), but the twists and turns of the relationships themselves—while understandably fascinating to others—was not all that interesting to me. And if I went into great detail about the book (and included some spoilers) I could detail the ways in which I don’t think some of the events and characters portrayed ring true. And there are even a few things that happen that explain why this book carry’s the “Today’s Book Club” seal. (For those that don’t know or remember this was the Today Show’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of Oprah’s book club. And we aren’t talking about Oprah’s better choices either…plus it was on morning TV with Katie Couric. In other words this is not a badge of honor.)

If you are only going to give Penelope Lively’s fiction one shot, read Consequences instead. Far more interesting and compelling. If you plan to read everything she as written because she is a wonderful writer (which she is), or you are looking for something to read on a plane, The Photograph is still worth the time.

Book (cover) Review: Persuasion

Jane Austen

With so much written about her over the years, how does one “review” Jane Austen. One doesn’t. At least this one doesn’t. Although I find reading Jane Austen enjoyable, and I completely understand the literary and sociological merit of her work, I tend to like the Jane Austen films better than the books. (Please, no hate mail.)

So you will get no substance out me on Persuasion. It is actually one of my favorite JA flicks. But the one from 1995. I am not so sure how I feel about the version from 2007, I seem to remember the plot of it was skewed differntly than the ’95 version. Now that I have read the text, I want to see both of them side by side and make my determination not only about which one I like, but which one is closer to the text. I have them queued up on Netflix, so I should be able to blog about that in the near future.

What I really want to talk about is the cover of the edition I read. I picked it up at that English bookstore I went to in Den Haag. As far as I know, we don’t have these Penguin Popular Classics editions in the US. I was totally drawn to their simple, GREEN covers. But when I tried to photograph it, it came out very bright greeny yellow. I thought it was something to do with my camera skills. So this morning I tried to scan the cover and the same thing happened to the color. So I headed off to the Interwebs to see if I could find a good representation of the color of the cover. And I did, BUT, I also came across many, many, many other pictures that suffer from the same yellowing problem that I had.

It is like vampires not showing up in mirrors. Have the scientists in the Penguin laboratory discovered a way to make their covers not appear correctly in photos? Also, I love the fact that they are using recycled pulp, but it doesn’t make the tactile experience very pleasant.  UPDATE: I just noticed that even The Book Depository wasn’t able to get images with the proper color covers.

See if you can guess which of these images is mine.

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the Soldier
Rebecca West

At 185 pages, and with a really big font and really big margins, this one definitely falls into the novella category. But what a crackerjack little novella it is. Written in 1918, the essence of the plot is about Captain Chris Baldry, a WWI soldier who returns to England with post-traumatic stress disorder that leaves him with amnesia. He remembers Margaret, a love interest from 15 years previously, but doesn’t remember Kitty, his wife of 10 years. The fact that Margaret is of a lower class than his own, and perhaps more importantly, than his wife’s, is an added twist that really seems to drive the Kitty mad.

I think some of the class material is a little heavy handed and even some of the plotting is a little clumsy at times, but I really enjoyed this book. It was one that I found myself reading while walking down the street and riding in elevators because I didn’t want to put it down when I arrived at work. Which is a bit of a shame in some ways. There are moments in the book that compel one to want to read on, but much of the book is also rather atmospheric and would have benefited from more relaxed and sustained reading sessions. The final chapter makes for a pretty fabulous, but not necessarily happy, ending.

Victoria Glendinning’s introduction written in 1980 is rather un-illuminating. John thought it sounded like an uninspired term paper. Are introductions even necessary to most books? In some cases they helpfully explain context that enhances the main event (i.e., the narrative itself). But in many cases they seem rather gratuitous. A way to throw a few dollars, or in this case pounds, to a writer or academic. Not that I am opposed to that, but at least make them good. And more importantly, if an introduction or preface doesn’t help put things in context then make it an afterword instead. Don’t tell me what to think about a book before I read it. Tell me what I thought of it after I have read it (he said, tongue firmly in cheek). What do you think? Are introductions a gratuitous waste of trees?

Book Review: A Lively Life

Oleander, Jacaranda
Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is a novelist of prodigious talent. She won the Booker Prize in 1987 for her novel Moon Tiger (which I haven’t read, but it is in my TBR pile). Oleander, Jacaranda is a short memoir of her childhood in Egypt and eventually England. Born of English parents in Cairo in 1933, Lively lived in Egypt until the final year of World War II when she was sent back to England to live, shuttling between her maternal and paternal grandmothers until she was sent off to boarding school.

Like most children, young Penelope is more open to the experiences of the environment she lives in than are the adults in her life. The narrative contains its share of fond memories typical to a childhood memoir, but the typical childhood bit only goes so far in this particular autobiography. The subtitle of the book “A Childhood Perceived” aptly describes Lively’s approach to her material. Threaded between snippets of insect hunting and comic tales of her nanny’s attempts to home school her, Lively confronts and analyzes the impact her adult intellectual filter has on her memories. Some of it is pretty straightforward like the adult knowledge of sanitation versus her childhood desire to join local children playing in a stream. At other times Lively’s focus is more academic. Some of her observations considering childhood perceptions are offered in the abstract, and others are directly related to her own situation “growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by the signals of another.” With an emotionally absent mother and an often physically absent father Lively’s Englishness is enforced by her zealously patriotic British nanny.

Lucy’s patriotism was absolute and implacable. There was English, and there was other. To be English was to be among the chosen and saved; to be other was simply to be other. There were gradations of other. American or Australian was other but within shouting distance, as it were. French, Italian, Greek were becoming unreachable; everything else was outer space. Within the unrelenting xenophobia there was a stern creed of tolerance and respect for alien practices, especially religious practice. I knew that it was offensive to stare when Muslims were at prayer, that mosques must be entered with the same reverence as Cairo’s Church of England cathedral. The world of other was different, and hence of no great interest [to adults], but you accorded it a perfect right to carry on as it did.

The blurb on the back of the book describes this as a bittersweet memoir, and there was plenty in Lively’s childhood that could fall into the bitter category. But Oleander, Jacaranda is also an interesting, sometimes sweet and sometimes humorous story. It is a contrast of cultures and attitudes that are foreign not just because of the geographical juxtaposition of an English child in Egypt, but also because it captures a moment time that I find fascinating. A good read for Lively fans, WWII English childhood fans, and Egypt fans.

(P.S.: Lively’s description of a return visit in 1988 has cured me of my interest in finding Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. According to her, barely a shred of the physical setting of the Alexandria Quartet survives. Not that she has much affection for Durrell’s work, but that is beside the point.)

Book Review: Home to Roost at 37,000 Feet

Home to Roost
Deborah Devonshire

Last week while we were enjoying ourselves discovering The Hague, I stumbled across an English language bookshop. But it wasn’t merely an English language bookshop, it was really an English bookshop full stop. I didn’t see any American editions of anything. Everywhere I turned there were editions of books I have only seen on British based book blogs–books that are for the most part unavailable in the United States. When I saw the bright blue Bloomsbury Group edition of Miss Hargreaves I couldn’t say no. The same was true for the lavender Bloomsbury Group edition of The Brontes Went to Woolworths. Although I have heard much about both of these books on various blogs, perhaps most notably on Stuck in a Book, I had made no attempt to order either of them. But seeing them sitting on a table right in front of me I couldn’t resist. And right next to these two little beauties was Deborah Devonshire’s Home to Roost. And it turned out to be perfect reading for the plane ride back to DC. I read it cover to cover somewhere over the Atlantic.

Deborah Devonshire, born one of the six (in)famous Mitford sisters, otherwise known as the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire has intrigued me since the earliest days of my Anglophilia. I remember reading years ago the story of how she and her husband, the 11th Duke, had to get really smart and creative to save their magnificent house Chatsworth from ending up on the auction block to pay off huge death duties. Most things that I have read about her over the years had kind of a behind the scenes quality that I love. When I visit a stately house like Chatsworth I am less interested in the grand history, art, and decoration than I am in the behind the scenes workings of such a large estate. Call it the Upstairs, Downstairs Syndrome. So it was with that in mind that I picked up Home to Roost. I wasn’t expecting gossip mind you, but a peek behind the official curtain was what I hoped for. There was a bit of that but surprisingly the parts of the book that I found most interesting weren’t about the house at all. They were the chapters about Devonshire’s relationship with the Kennedys and her eye witness account of the inauguration of President Kennedy as well as his funeral two years later. I suppose it was behind the scenes after all, but more about where I live (Washington, DC) than about Chatsworth. Similarly her memories of the “Treasure Houses of Britain” exhibition at the National Gallery here in Washington was pretty interesting. I have a vague recollection of this exhibit despite the fact that I was in high school in Minnesota at the time. Reading Devonshire’s account of it I am really disappointed I didn’t get to see it.

Overall I enjoyed reading the book but I found parts of it slightly annoying as well. Some of the chapters seem to be nothing but a list of words that once upon a time meant one thing and now mean something else. There is nothing interesting, enlightening, or even new about this kind of comparison. If I had remembered Simon’s review at Stuck in a Book, I would have known that he had similar feelings. In fact, he does such a good job identifying what doesn’t work about the book that I am going to let him have the final words:

Too often the articles are simply catalogues of complaints, snarking at anti-hunting people, townfolk, American vocabulary, the government – anything any grumpy old lady might moan about. I’m sorry to sound a bit cruel, but there is no fury like a booklover scorned. Some of the essays had the sparks of humour I’d hoped for – when she is writing about tiaras, for example, and book signing. And none of the collection is unreadable – it’s just the tone is consistently grumpy and demonstrating an inability to see the world from anyone else’s perspective.

Bookmark Giveaway

I picked up some very cool magnetic bookmarks when I was at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp which I blogged about below. I have all I need for my own use so I have 6 to give away. They are about half the length of a regular book mark, but they fold over the top of the page and adhere through the page with magnets.

Three will be given to first time commenters. Three will be given to repeat commenters. Just let me know in the comments if you are interested and whether or not you are a first time commenter (just in case I don’t remember everyone). Comments must be made by Monday, October 19, 2009.

n.b.: My photography skills are lacking. We have a very good camera so I can’t blame it, but that Jane Austen edition is actually a bright green–not yellow.

More travel pictures soon. How about another stack of books…

You may recall, before we took off out of town I went book browsing/shopping with my friend Benjy who was visiting from Atlanta. I got quite a cheap haul of books from Books for America, a charity shop here in DC before lunch that day.  After lunch we went out to deepest suburban Maryland to the Daedalus Warehouse Store. I have blogged about Daedalus before. They are probably the biggest wholesaler and online retailer of remainder books in the English speaking world. If you have ever shopped a bargain table at a bookstore, you have probably touched a book that has been distributed by Daedalus.

So this is the haul I made that afternoon. You can see there are lots of great things here. There is a book buying moratorium coming up, but not yet…

Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope
I love Anthony Trollope. We will see what I think of his dear old mother Frances.

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox
I was lying if I didn’t admit that I was drawn to this by its fabulous Penguin cover. But I also bought it because my knowledge of the Classical world is woefully inadequate despite my undergraduate degree in history.

My Own Cape Cod by Gladys Taber
I had never heard of Gladys Taber until I came across her name on Nan’s fabulous blog, Letters from a Hill Farm. And since I yearn to move north and love the northeast, this book of Taber’s reflections of the Cape seems right up my alley.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman
Lipman writes great, easy-to-read novels that border on chick-lit, but smart chick-lit. I have also read The Inn on Lake Devine and Ladies Man.

Peter Camenzind by Hermann Hesse
I read a lot of Hesse in high school, Narcissus and Goldmund was a particular favorite, but I am not sure if I ever read this title.

Letters from London by Julian Barnes
Even before I read (and liked) Arthur and George by Barnes I thought his essays on London seemed like something that would appeal to me.

Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Bennett has written many things that I love, including one of my favorite books of all time The Uncommon Reader. Bennett has a way of making everything sound interesting to me. So this memoir with diary excerpts and essays should be quite enjoyable.

Turn Magic Wheel
A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
Don’t know anything about Powell so these two were a roll of the dice.

The Little Girls
Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
I have really liked other books by Bowen.

Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book Buying Abroad by Rostenberg and Stern
This one speaks for itself.

Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan
I love Walt Whitman’s work, my paperback of Leaves of Grass is quite tattered from use, but I don’t really know much about his life.

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her by A.N. Wilson
I have an academic bio of Murdoch that I haven’t really been able to get through. It is a little dry. I was thinking this might be a more interesting read about one of my favorite authors.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
This one kind of speaks for itself as well.

Have you read any of these, or do you have them in your TBR pile?

A note on book (over)buying.
I have really been pigging out lately when it comes to books. In addition to this haul and the one from Books for America, I found an English bookshop in The Hague where I picked up a few titles which I will blog about soon. I went to the Book Depository website and ordered a bunch of books that I have been coveting for some time now. And finally, I placed an order with Persephone Books which I really can’t wait to get.  After all of that and my already huge TBR pile, I will not be buying books for some time now. I want to say I am on a book buying moratorium for the next year, but that might be setting myself up for failure. But I do need to stop for a while. I will keep you posted.

Book Review: Arthur and George

Arthur and George
Julian Barnes

I’ve had this one sitting in the TBR pile for quite some time now. I even picked it up a few times and tried to get into it without much success. Then I overheard a rather dimissive conversation about the book at book club. Plus, years ago I had a so-so experience with Barnes’ History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. I had read the first couple of chapters–which I loved–but then got bored to the point where I didn’t even finish the book. Still, when I was deciding what books to pack for our recent jaunt to Belgium and the Netherlands Arthur and George was one of the few titles I had that was in a mass market edition that I wouldn’t mind leaving behind on our travels once (if) I finished it.
Much to my surprise I actually ended up really enjoying this book. The Arthur of the title refers to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series, and George refers to Georbe Edalji, an Englishman with a Scottish mother and an Parsee (Indian) father. The novel begins with the narratives of the two men independently described in alternating chapters until their stories eventually come together. Based on historical fact, Edalji, having been unjustly accused and incarcerated for animal mutilation, appeals to Conan Doyle for help in clearing his name. Channeling Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle is able to poke enough holes in the case and is able to get enough attention in the media to eventually get Edalji’s name cleared…kind of.
There is much about this book that is appealing and at times it is a real page turner. It is essentially a fascinating whodunit with hints of Sherlock Holmes set in a time when criminal investigation techniques, forensic science, and courtroom procedure made justice much more an idea than a reality. If this case were to happen today Edalji would have been able to prove his innocence even with an underpaid, overworked public defender. The characters are compelling and likeable, the circumstances of the crime for which Edalji was imprisioned are interesting and quirky, and the book has just the right amount of period detail. One aspect of the book that bored me a bit was some of the focus on Conan Doyle’s interest in the paranormal. I am a complete skeptic about such things (as is Barnes perhaps?) and I am not sure it was really necessary to include all of the details about mediums and seances. I not sure if Barnes was attempting to work out some meta-narrative or he just included it as part of Conan Doyle’s real life interests and foibles. Either way I could have done with less of it.

You can read some blog reviews here at The Mookse and Gripes, here at the view from chesil beach, and here at Jabberwock, or the one from the New York Times here.

Of Road Trips and May Sarton

In the summer of 2008 my husband and I took a wonderful road trip up through the Northeast. Normally our travels mean we get on a plane and go explore some other part of the US or the world. And while the Northeast feels decidedly different than DC and the mid-Atlantic region, it is close enough that we were able to skip the flight and car rental formula in favor of packing up our car and hitting the open road. Having our own vehicle and not being beholden to any schedule or airline luggage restrictions meant we really did have the freedom to do what we pleased. For me this meant stopping in every secondhand bookstore we came across. After two weeks traveling through the Finger Lakes, Adirondacks, and Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts, rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, and a final stop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania we arrived back in DC with about 75 more books than when we left.

During our overnight stay in Woodstock, Vermont we came across one of the nicest little bookshops on the whole trip. Pleasant Street Books is in a converted barn behind one of the houses that line the main street through town. It was a great place to spend a rainy afternoon. It had a really nice balance between antiquarian books and good secondhand reading copies and had a friendly, helpful proprietor behind the desk. While we were there I came across a stack of books by May Sarton. I knew the name, and had a vague notion that she was someone I should read, but I didn’t know anything about her. I am not sure why I was initially drawn to these old Norton paperbacks stacked on the floor in front of the shelves. When I started to look through them I noticed they had all been owned by the same person and was intrigued by the notion that whoever Susie was, she liked Sarton well enough to own eight of her books. The descriptions on the back of the books indicated that Sarton had been a bit of a local, having lived for many years in neighboring New Hampshire. It seemed fitting that our Northeast road trip should be commemorated with the purchase of some native literature.

Back in June, Art Durkee over at Dragoncave posted a lovely entry about his pilgrimage to Nelson, New Hampshire to see Sarton’s grave. He has some very striking pictures of Sarton’s milieu that so nourished her over the years.

Among the pile of Sarton were some of her novels and a few of her published journals. I started off by reading The Small Room a novel from 1961 about an academic and administrative crisis at a New England girls college. The second one I read was Kinds of Love, a novel about a long married couple, their friends and family and their relationships in a small New England town. I liked both books quite a bit, although I think The Small Room appealed to me more. It has been about a year since I read them, but I remember them having a kind of cozy but somewhat austere New England setting where nature and the seasons, and small town life are as important as any of characters in defining the books. Later I moved on to a few of her journals beginning with Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea. I liked those two immensely but will talk about them in context of my most recent Sarton read.

May Sarton was born in 1912 in Belgium but was raised in the United States where she died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 83. Based on her tombstone, Sarton considered herself, above all, a poet. Indeed she published sixteen volumes of poetry but she also published eleven works of autobiographical non-fiction and journals, nineteen novels, and two children’s books.

Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton
It is unlike me to read things out of order, but so far I have been skipping around a bit among her autobiographical non-fiction. At first I could put it down to not owning all the necessary volumes to read them in order, but that doesn’t explain why I picked up Plant Dreaming Deep last week, instead of her first autobiographical volume. I can blame that on Wilkie Collins. After reading his fantastic novel The Woman in White, I needed something that was the exact opposite in style and content. Something based more firmly in real life. I needed to sweep up and clear away all of the Victorian drama and intrigue that was littering my psyche. I immediately thought of Sarton as the right tool for the job, and I skipped over her first volume of memoir because its detail was too much about dates and places and events. After so much plot, I wanted something that was pure description.

Plant Dreaming Deep was the perfect solution. It describes Sarton’s first home purchase in 1958 at the age of 46, her process of turning the house and 36 acres into her sanctuary, and her daily life and the people who became her neighbors and friends. This is the volume that begins to tell the tale of Sarton’s life in Nelson, New Hampsire and it was wonderful. This is essentially a poet writing about domestic chores and the joy and pain involved in her daily life. Like two other of her journals that I have read, Journal of Solitude and The House by the Sea, Plant Dreaming Deep is a throwback to a time when the hum of an electric typewriter was considered noisy. She had books, and wood fires, and her garden, and a mailbox full of letters and cards, and friends who came to visit her, and all kinds of other things that makes me want to live in the past. But she also had to deal with drought, black flies, and woodchucks. And among the peace and quiet, as we learn in later journal volumes, she also suffered from debilitating bouts of depression.

With black and white photos sprinkled here and there, Sarton’s journals are perfect for people who love writing, reading, and gardening, or anyone who fantasizes about living a quiet life in a beautiful setting.

Where would you like to transplant yourself, and what do you want to do when you get there?