21 April 2014

Pushing these reviewlets out of the nest

The Affair by C.P. Snow
If you have any interest in the minutiae of the faculty hierarchy at Cambridge then C.P. Snow is the author for you. He does for academia what Anthony Trollope did for ecclesiastica. Not surprising then that he also wrote a biography of AT.  Most of Snow's fiction forms a series of interrelated books that focus on intellectuals at university and in government.  Both of the titles I have read, The Masters and The Affair were set at Cambridge, but the latter had a story line that was connected to Whitehall.  In The Affair, a young master is accused of academic fraud and the entire book is about the office politics of giving him a fair hearing. I like this milieu so I liked this book.

The Groves of Academe by Mary McCarthy
Although The Groves of Academe was published in 1951, eight years before The Affair, and it also deals with a kind of academic fraud, its themes and setting seem decades apart from Snow's old fashioned work. There are women on the faculty, students are part of the story, there is sex, language and manners are modern, and you don't even for a second expect anyone to be wearing a bowler. McCarthy's story focuses on a lecturer at a progressive school in the U.S. northeast whose contract is not going to be renewed. He gets the faculty on his side by lying about his wife's health and the reason for his dismissal. I almost stopped reading this when his lie was found out thinking the novel had nowhere to go after that. But it did. My second McCarthy novel, not as good as The Group but enjoyable. (And stay tuned, I have since read another of her novels which I am going to review for real in the coming days.)

Tove Jansson in 1956
Fair Play by Tove Jansson
A series of linked short stories about an artist and a writer in their 70s. If you have read The Summer Book you will be happy that the little, solitary island makes appearances in this collection. Jansson's work is atmospheric without being ambiguous. Each story is more of a vignette with each adding up to something akin to a novel. In general I like Jansson's work, some of which I find quite lovely, but overall I must say I just like her, not love her.

The Widow by Georges Simenon
Tati, a French widow with furry mole on her face invites a complete stranger to live with her to help with her small farm. Turns out Jean is not just a stranger but a convicted murder. She sleeps with him, she sleeps with the father of her dead husband, Jean sleeps with the dead husband's niece. A bit of farming, family jealousy and greed...it doesn't end well. I mean it ends well, a very good book, but not for the characters.

Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr
If you like food and/or Julia Child you will enjoy reading this bit of food history. Food writer (and novelist) M.F.K. Fisher's grandnephew writes about the fall of 1970 when Fisher, Child, and James Beard hang out in Provence. I like the insight into that delicious, somewhat cozy world, but Barr's thesis about that fall being some turning point for the protagonists as well as food culture in America doesn't seem very well supported.

MFK Fisher
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
The writer of The Devil in the White City looks at the life and work of the American Ambassador to Germany in the lead up to World War II. Interesting to have this bit of history filled in but I wasn't blown away by it. Perhaps his wife didn't play much role in any of the relevant events, but I really think the author could have given us a better taste of who she was. We certainly hear lots about the rather trampy daughter. There are times when I find narrative non-fiction a little more speculative than it should be--but I guess that is what makes it narrative non-fiction. So once I accept that the author is taking some poetic license, I don't want to feel like I am reading a recitation of facts. I think Larson could have used a better editor. Some scenes seemed to be included just because the information was available without concern to whether or not they were interesting or advanced the story.

A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron
Tea, 1917, short. Should have been a fun, quick read. Well it was quick, but it wasn't much fun and  was pretty predictable and one-dimensional.


  1. Dear Thomas,

    Thank you so much for your excellent reviews. I am fascinated by your knowledge and your diverse taste in books. I am glad to hear that you know C. P. Snow's novels. (his wife, Pamela Hansford Johnson is a favourite novelist (also an expert on Proust) of mine. The Affair (1960) and The Masters (1951) are both brilliant novels in his "Strangers and Brothers" series. You might have probably heard of another of his book which is my favourite, "In Their Wisdom" (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1974).

    I have tried reading his 'mystery' book, "The Malcontents" (1972) which is rather disappointing. Although it is even-toned and neatly constructed, the story is much too bland and a little too mechanical for my liking (perhaps the fault is to do with my own. When one reads mystery novels, one can't help but trying to see round what the author is trying to do or the effect or drama they are trying to produce with the most crackling pace...and as a result, it becomes "flat" (the word used by Georges Simenon when describing a commercial murder mystery novel) and it does not depend for its success on what Henry James called "solidity of specification" (a terminology which I discussed in my recent post).

    Wishing you the best possible week ahead.

    Best wishes, ASD

    1. Now you have me curious to read Pamela Hansford Johnson. I had never heard of her.

  2. I have a few reviews that just might more inclined to take the form of reviewlets too! Nice to catch up with what you've been reading -- I've only read the last one myself (so far) and would agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. Short and not so sweet.

    1. You should do reviewlets. Sometimes the thought of having to write a longer one is too daunting to overcome.

  3. First of all, that is THE best blog title! And I so enjoyed your 'reviewlets.' I have been writing a lot of short ones once a month, and it has mostly worked out well. I read Provence but haven't written about it yet. I adored it. I have three little books by Tove J. that I still haven't read.

    1. I am glad you liked the title, sometimes I think I amuse only myself. I would love to have been at all those tables and in all those kitchens in Provence, 1970.

  4. I want to read them all (except the last one).


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