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A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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Happy New Year, bookconscious readers. Over the holidays I picked out a couple of books from my long term “to read” list and checked them out of the library. Nothing on two week loan (new books), nothing too challenging (no Tolstoy), just good reads I could dip into when I had a few minutes.

The first was The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy by Mark Logue and Peter Conrad. Mark is the son of Antony Logue, who was Lionel Logue’s youngest son. Lionel Logue was the speech therapist portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in the film The King’s Speech. In the book, Mark Logue explains that although he was born long after his grandfather died, he had grown up with photos of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in his home, but had never really thought about why.

After public interest in Logue resulted in a BBC documentary and then filmmaker Iain Canning  planned to produce the famous recent film about Logue’s role in helping King George VI overcome his stutter, Mark Logue began to wonder about his grandfather’s life and explored family papers. He tracked down parts of the archive that were missing from his own father’s collection and with Peter Conrad, wrote this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lionel Logue was a gentle, kind, compassionate man whose work helped speech therapy become a respected profession.  I also enjoyed learning about his wife Myrtle and their family, and about the royal family. I was impressed that Logue never tried to exploit his royal connection or profit from it.  And as always, I’m impressed by the spirit of the British during WWII and their national effort to “keep calm and carry on” during the war. Also I admired Logue’s “life learning” approach to speech therapy — much of what he practiced he’d learned by experience as an elocution teacher and orator, and from his understanding of the psychological importance of confidence.

The book does clear up some things the film muddied a bit. For example, by the time he became king, the Duke of York (as he was known prior to his brother’s abdication) had been working with Logue for ten years. He first sought his help before his father, King George V, sent him on a royal tour to Australia, where he had to give an important speech at a time when Australians were questioning their place in the empire.  The improvement in his speaking was so dramatic and swift that the trip was a huge success, but he continued to work with Logue, faithfully doing the exercises he prescribed and working on the wording of speeches.

A period passed where he saw Logue less but then before the coronation, they began steady work again, with Logue helping with the many war speeches, including the key speech portrayed in the film version, and spending most Christmases helping the king prepare for this annual broadcast.

If you want a light historical read and a really heart-warming human interest story, I’d recommend The King’s Speech.

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