30 June 2010
The Enchanted April
Elizabeth Von Arnim
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.
28 June 2010
I seem to have so many great ideas for blog posts running through my head these days, but the "new" house is really taking its toll on my free time. Between dealing with unpacking, cleaning, dying AC units, and just general moving mayhem, I haven't had a whole lot of time or energy to put pen to paper as it were.
But I thought I would give you some idea of the nicer things that are a part of my new routine up here in the wilds of Chevy Chase, DC.
Even though we just moved about four miles north of our previous home near Dupont Circle the difference is amazing. Our new neighborhood is so peaceful with nothing much other than lots and lots of song birds to break the quiet. It has been a marvel to watch and listen to the birds in our leafy, breezy back yard. My particular favorite is the Gray Catbird who seems to greet us every time we walk out back. He is a pretty little fellow with a beautiful song repertoire. (I didn't take this lovely picture, it is from a website for Bayberry Beach in New York.)
I have written here before about buskers and how magical they can be (and how maniacal they can be). One evening this week at my new Metro stop as I road the long, long escalator out of the station, I heard this wonderful music emanating from above. At the top of the escalator was a woman playing an acoustic guitar and singing. She was like Tracy Chapman, but her voice was stronger than Chapman's and seemed much more versatile. Would she sound good on a record? I am not sure, possibly, but in that setting she was wonderful and sang with such passion, it was a real performance. Thankfully I had about ten minutes to stand and listen. Five dollars didn't seem like much to give for what she gave me. Hopefully I will see her again.
The same evening I heard the great busker, a woman near me on the bus was reading Anita Brookner's Lewis Percy. Now I have toyed with the idea of posting what I see people reading on my commute like Karen does at Bookish NYC, but she does it so well, I have refrained from being a sad copycat. But it isn't every day one sees someone reading my beloved Anita Brookner. In fact, I am not sure I have ever seen anyone reading Anita Brookner. I took advantage of the opportunity to chat with her about Brookner. I took this to be a good omen for my new life. If even one person in my new neighborhood is reading AB, it makes up for the thousands on the Metro reading those Steig Larsson books that I have been avoiding because of their ubiquity. I guess it is the contrarian in me.
So, until we get a little more settled, the posts will be fewer than I would like. But at least in all the chaos there are lots of little things to be happy about.
22 June 2010
I have long been a fan of Sinclair Lewis. The first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, his books are quintessentially American. And despite their superficially red, white and blue trappings, even the most upbeat of his novels expose some part of American society that those with jingoistic tendencies would prefer not to examine. If you haven’t read any Lewis you should start with one of his biggies like Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, or Arrowsmith, but beyond these there are others like Dodsworth, The Prodigal Parents, Cass Timberlane and some 20 others that may not be as well known but are worth investigation. And then there is Kingsblood Royal.
Written in 1947 toward the end of his life, Kingsblood Royal, despite its over the top melodrama, still manages to stir the blood in 2010. Knowing nothing about the contents of the book, my copy is an old hardcover with no dust jacket to give it away, I was lulled into a false sense of what was to come. It starts off with some trenchant humor typical of Lewis.
Mr. Blingham, and may he fry in his own cooking-oil, was assistant treasurer of the Flaver-Saver Company. He was driving from New York to Winnipeg, accompanied by Mrs. Blingham and their horrible daughter. As they were New Yorkers, only a business trip could have dragged them into this wilderness, and they found everything west of Pennsylvania contemptible. They laughed at Chicago for daring to have skyscrapers and at Madison for pretending to have a university, and they stopped the car and shrieked when they entered Minnesota and saw a billboard advertising “Ten Thousand Lakes.”Although we never hear about the Blinghams beyond the first few pages, Lewis continues to paint the picture of the fictitious Grand Republic, Minnesota and to describe the everyday Joe kind of personality of our hero, thirty-one year old, war-wounded Captain Neil Kingsblood:
And here were his own not-very-numerous books. The set of Kipling, the set of O. Henry, the set of Sherlock Holmes, a history of banking, and the bound volumes of the National Geographic Magazine, with Beasley on tennis and Morrison on golf. Among these solid wares, pushed back on a shelf, was a volume of Emily Dickinson, which a girl, whose name and texture he had now forgotten, had given to him in college, and sometimes Neil picked at it and wondered.It isn’t long though, before we start to sense a much darker underbelly to this tale than what the opening pages has lead us to believe. Essentially Kingsblood is a book about race. The book, with a bit of a sledgehammer lets it be known that the great Middlewest of America is not the tolerant northern bastion most of us would like to believe. And after some time (Let this serve as your SPOILER alert) Neil Kingsblood finds out that he is 1/64th Negro. After shock and anger and confusion, he begins to try and understand what his racial “impurity” means to him and his life. What follows is less a voyage of discovery and more of a baptism by fire. Although it is overly dramatic in places, its essence rings true even today. On the one hand I felt how different the outcome would be today, but I also couldn’t help but realize how far we have yet to go when it comes to race relations in the United States.
Kingsblood could be fairly grouped with Lewis’ earlier novel It Can’t Happen Here (and perhaps others) that have a decidedly political point of view. As I have mentioned before on My Porch, I wasn’t able to get into It Can’t Happen Here. Something about the story of a fascist becoming U.S. president wasn’t sitting right with me. Probably because after eight years of the Bush Administration forwarding Dick Cheney’s power-grabbing policy of the unitary executive, and the irony of the whack-a-doo far right calling President Obama the next incarnation of Hitler I just couldn’t stomach it. But both these books, and indeed his less political and more popular books represent what I think is best about Lewis’ and my home state of Minnesota. The Minnesota I remember was by no means free of prejudice or hate, but on the whole seemed like a much balanced and fair place than it has become in recent years. It is the populist, grange movement, farmer/labor Democratic Minnesota. The one that produced the likes of Hubert Humphrey and his rousing civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention. The same speech that pushed the racist Dixiecrats into the welcoming arms of the Republicans, once the party of Lincoln. With words like these, one wonders if Humphrey read Kingsblood Royal before giving this speech:
To those who say, my friends, to those who say, that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years too late! To those who say, this civil rights program is an infringement on states' rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!The bright sunshine of human rights indeed. It is alternately gratifying and galling to read a book such as this with our first African American President sitting in the White House. Have whatever policy or ideology difference you want with President Obama, but to deny that race has not played a role in the venom and hatred spewed toward him by the aforementioned whack-a-doos is to be as clueless as the nut jobs who inspired Lewis to write Kingsblood Royal in 1947.
Here is Lewis’ birthplace in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
And here is his house when he lived in DC. This was news to me, not only that he lived in DC, but that this house was right around the corner from the apartment John and I lived from 2002 to 2005. And, oddly enough is right next door to a house (the yellow one) that Tallulah Bankhead lived in (or was it Mae West?).
21 June 2010
I have had a sheet of this wrapping paper on the wall of my work cube for some months now and something occurred to me recently.
The titles and authors on the spines of these early Penguins run vertically up the spine rather than down the spine. I have a whole library of books, and with the exception of one Russian/English copy of Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis that I found in Prague, none of them have the titles going up rather than down.
Were all the early Penguins like this? When did they change? Who can enlighten me?
(Sorry for the poor image quality.)
20 June 2010
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')
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.
17 June 2010
Even though I am sitting around waiting for various contractors to do their various jobs around the house, it is hard to not enjoy the day. Beautiful weather, lovely breezes, birds singing their little hearts out. And a quiet minute or two to attend to my blogging life.
A few weeks ago I was in Minnesota for my nephew's high school graduation. While there my sister and I managed to pop into Half Price Books in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul. I probably wouldn't have made my way to this particular bookstore since my normal gravitational pull when I am in the Twin Cities is toward Minneapolis. But my friend Steve happens to work there so I thought I would check it out. And I did manage to find a few things that made browsing quite fun. And although my suitcase was already dangerously heavy I couldn't pass up to opportunity to take a few things home with me.
Please ignore the ugly bedspread. (Comfort Inn near the airport.)
The Provincial Lady in London was my favorite find since it is in the same edition as my copy of The Provincial Lady's Diary.
I have already read and reviewed Fitzgerald's Human Voices, which I liked a lot. A couple of NYRB editions including Clark Clifford's Body by Kenneth Fearing whose The Big Clock I really liked...you get the idea.
I don't know much about the J.B. Priestly book but the cover art and the little illustration on the inside made it hard to pass up.
15 June 2010
Before you scroll down to read my brilliant insights into Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices, I just thought I would let you all into my 3D world for a moment. I am a little overwhelmed at the moment trying to settle into a new house. Not only is there all the unpacking, but there are also more than a few contractors running around sorting out things like floors, hot water, and electrical panels. This would be stress enough along with work and a million other things that need seeing to at the moment. But it appears that we have well and truly entered into the life of homeowners with our unpredictable pile of bricks that we can now officially call a Money Pit. When your electrician calls you at work to tell you that your air conditioning system has gone belly up just as we enter into the stinking hot, humid slog of a DC summer, you can really only laugh. Long, loud, hysterical laughs that are in direct proportion to the amount of money it will take to fix the situation.
But alas, you don't all come here looking for sob stories--unless someone wrote them into a fabulous novel--so I will truncate my "poor me" diatribe. The bottom line is that once we get past this bit we will have a wonderful place to call home. One with lots of birds and butterflies (seriously) and a whole room I like to call my library. Plus I have some great pictures of northern California and all kinds of other fun posts in store. It is just going to take me longer to post about them.
(No that isn 't our new house, and no, we don't live in Newhouse. It just seemed apt.)
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
11 June 2010
10 June 2010
Back on May 30th, Simon at Stuck In A Book tagged me to choose a picture that sums up my taste in reading. With moving and travelling and everything else going on right now it has taken me much longer than I would have thought to complete this assignment.
The biggest challenge is that the picture was NOT to include images of books or a character from an adaptation. That made it hard. I was all set to find some picture of a cosy library or a beautiful still from the Merchant-Ivory adaptations of A Room With a View, Howard's End, or Maurice. But that would have been cheating.
And then I was thinking that Simon's picture was apt for me as well. But to copy him would have been the ultimate cop out.
I still had the whole notion of tea and England on my brain, which indeed does sum up a lot of of what I like.
And my recent read of Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope reminded me how much I like domestic and housekeeping details in novels. (Although Widow Barnaby doesn't really go into "downstairs" details.)
Or anything to do with academia or the Church of England...
And all of that reminded me of how much I love a good old fashioned pastoral landscape, whether it is in England...
or the U.S. (this lovely Grant Wood painting sums up much about my taste in U.S. fiction)...
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that any picture that could sum up my reading tastes would have to be old, cosy, and as much as I love the pastoral, it would have to be urban. And not being able to narrow it down, I did manage to limit myself to only three. And in my book, rain seems to equal cosy--maybe it is the thought of being inside reading. For some reason reading doesn't remind me of sunny days and blue skies. No doubt this is a subject for my therapist. So these then, best sum up my reading interests:
And to a lesser extent, Paris
09 June 2010
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.
06 June 2010
I have been having a good time on the road but I haven't had much time on the Internet since the 28th. I look forward to getting back to DC to catch up with all my blogger friends and to post a few things. I recently finished Widow Barnaby by Fanny Trollope and About Alice by Calvin Trillin. Reviews to come soon.
We had a great time in Northern California over Memorial Day weekend and this weekend I had a great time in Minnesota with relatives.
So, until I get back to blogging for real, I thought I would leave you with this lovely image of one of the many wetlands in my natal land of Minnesota.