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My experiment with reading only (or at least mainly) Europa Editions books til the end of the year might continue — after the last book I wasn’t so sure — because The Flight of the Maidens was the kind of terrific read I hoped for. Of course, I cheated because I knew if Jane Gardam wrote it, I’d love it. This is another book Gardam published quite some time ago but reissued. It’s set in 1946 and tells the story of the summer before three young women head to college — all having won scholarships, all set to leave their small Yorkshire town for a world they know little about, mainly because of the war.

Una Vane is the daughter of a widow who opened a hair salon in the house when she had to manage on her own. Una is off to Cambridge to study physics, but she wants to spend her summer trying to understand her relationship with Ray, who grew up in a poorer part of town and is now a railroad man dabbling in socialist politics. Hetty Fallows is off to a guesthouse in the Lakes District to try to read everything she thinks she hasn’t read before she goes off to college in London. Her father, a gentleman before WWI left him shocked, is a gravedigger and her mother is overbearing and flirts with both the vicar and Hetty’s first boyfriend. And Liselotte Klein, who grew up the foster child of Quakers, spends the summer before she starts at Cambridge piecing together her identity. She can’t recall much about Hamburg, and she knows nothing of how her Jewish family fared and whether any of the rest of them got out. She lands with a mysterious elderly couple in London and then with a distant aunt on the California coast, trying to understand her past so she can decide on her future.

The three friends — Una and Hetty since childhood, Liselotte since they all began to apply themselves to getting into college — go through the pangs of leaving school and starting adult life, along with the challenges of adapting to the postwar world.They have very different experiences but are all in flight, as Gardam imagines. As they struggle to reconcile what they know with what’s in the world and with the hopes they have for themselves and others have for them, the three girls teeter on the edge of womanhood with all the people they know rallying around them to one extent or another. The presence of these people, both dear to them and maddening, provides insights into all kinds of detail about England in the 1940s.

Gardam’s ability to bring people so fully to life, in such vivid detail, never fails to delight. Such vivid people and dialogue — more than many of her books, I could imagine this as a film. I hope it becomes one. Anyway, a terrific read about the end of childhood, the beginning of growing up, the challenge of recovering from war for those in it and near it, the carrying on so many people do when their lives aren’t full of great achievements but they hope their children’s will be. I’m sad that I seem to be all caught up on Gardam’s reissues now.

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At the Five Colleges Book Sale last April I got a Penguin Street Art edition of Armadillo by William Boyd. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Boyd nor read any of his work, but I was intrigued. I picked it up over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Dark humor, a bit of intrigue, a hero who wants to live and prosper as his own man yet is also deeply loyal, kind, and ethical — I devoured it.

Lorimer Black, said hero, is “a young man not much over thirty, tall — six feet plus and inch or two — with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.” That’s the opening sentence. Lorimer, we learn, was born Milomre Blocj, youngest of five in a family of Transnistrian Rom (gypsies) whose parents emigrated to Fulham during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, having landed there during previous upheavals in Eastern Europe.  After a formative and “life changing” experience (too hilarious to give away here) at a Scottish Univerisity, young Milo makes a fresh start in the insurance business as Lorimer Black, the name he legally gives himself.

The dead man we meet on page one is proprietor of a factory that had suffered a fire, and Lorimer, who works as a loss adjustor was there on behalf of his employer. Lorimer is a fascinating character, who buys fresh flowers for his flat (but hates carnations), is partial to very old helmets and takes fashion advice from his antiques dealer, is part of a sleep study conducted by a man in his building, is sweet to an old lady and her dog who live downstairs, is in a relationship of sorts with a woman who owns a scaffolding company, and a strong moral code that leads him to life changing actions. The minor characters are also fascinating and even those with cameos — a surly waitress at Lorimer’s favorite “caff,” or the misogynist anti-tax flower seller whose kiosk Lorimer frequents, for example — come fully to life.

Throughout the book, Boyd includes excerpts from Lorimer/Milo’s diary, The Book of Transfiguration, where he muses on everything from revelations from the Institute of Lucid Dreams (where his sleep is analyzed) to the history of insurance to Milo’s personal history to words, literature, mythology. These shed even more light on Lorimer/Milo’s character. Between this very interesting hero and the other fascinating characters, the detailed settings (you can see, smell, and hear Lorimer’s world as you read) and the intriguing, black humor-laced plot, I could not put this down. The writing, too, kept me fully engaged. Here’s an example: ” . . . he gazed across the road through the porthole of clarity he had smeared in the condensation.” It’s the kind of book that you can’t read at breakfast, because it’ll make you late for work. The kind you might get a sunburn reading because you’ll forget to reapply sunblock.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find William Boyd’s work but I want to read more of it. I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but I think that’s because I’ve found a lot of interesting things to read this summer!

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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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I picked up Linger Awhile at a favorite used bookstore, Book & Bar in Portsmouth.  I’d been meaning to read Russell Hoban for some time, after reading an article several years ago about how under appreciated he was as a novelist — like many people I knew him as the author of the Frances books for children. When I’m in a used bookstore I like to hunt around for things I can’t find easily in libraries, and his work qualifies.

Linger Awhile is about an octogenarian Londoner (yes, the 2nd book in a row I’ve read with an octogenarian Londoner protagonist) named Irving Goodman who lusts after a Gene Autry cowgirl named Justine Trimble and engages Istvan Fallock, a sound engineer who brings in Chauncey Lim, proprietor of a photographic novelties shop, to help him bring her back to life from nothing but a video clip. On this wild premise, the novel grows and introduces a small circle of people impacted by Irv’s need for Justine.

Add a stoic Detective Inspector, a medical examiner who can’t explain why several saliva samples from different characters match, a parrot named Elijah who quotes spirituals and Hebrew scripture, a Kosher Chinese restaurant proprietress, and a live (as opposed to undead) love interest for Irv and you have a sci -fi vampire cowgirl murder mystery love story that is also quite funny. Linger Awhile is about what happens when men fall under the spell of pretty woman and will do anything to have her, but it’s also about life, love, and the human tendency to feel we are in control.

A rollicking, highly entertaining read, and a cautionary tale of living with the consequences of hubris.

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My dad and I share books and he brought me Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee  by Thomas J. Craughwell the last time he visited. It’s the story of how Jefferson’s slave, James Hemings, learned French cooking in Paris when Jefferson was sent to France in 1784 as an American envoy. Jefferson took James, who was Sally Heming’s older brother, along, promising that if he learned to cook like the French and agreed to teach a slave back at Monticello, then Jefferson would free him. The book also explores Jefferson’s love of food, gardening, and wine. It’s a quick read, with some interesting digressions, such as some brief observations of Jefferson from John and John Quincy Adams and a bit about Jefferson’s difficult relationship with Alexander Hamilton. The French revolution began when Jefferson was preparing to leave France, and those events appear in the book as well. There’s also a fascinating look at 18th century travel and details of Jefferson’s three month trip around the south of France and northern Italy.

But mainly, it’s about what Jefferson liked to eat and drink, what was superior about French cooking (for starters they cooked on stoves, rather than over hearths, and had better pots and utensils), and how Jefferson tried to improve American agriculture through what he learned abroad (bringing plants, seeds, techniques, and even a rice cleaning machine home). Craughwell credits Jefferson with introducing French cooking to America along with champagne, which wasn’t often consumed here. He and James also brought home macaroni and cheese, that all American food which was unknown here before Jefferson’s French sojourn.

Because not much is known about James Hemings, Craughwell can only speculate about how he felt and why he did not claim his freedom in France, where he could legally do so. Hemings’ altercations with his former French tutor in Paris, and later his tragic death in America, are also mostly a mystery. It’s sad that this man’s life was valued so little that he’s mostly a shadow in the historical record.

Another man who played a large role in the life of a historical figure and then was almost erased from history is Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s “munshi,” or teacher. Like James Hemings, he changed culinary history, as he introduced the Queen to curry. In fact writer Shrabani Basu was working on a book about curry when she learned of Abdul’s life, and she went on to write about him and his beloved royal pupil. I went to see the film adaptation of Victoria & Abdul a couple of weekends ago and that got me curious about how much of it was true, so I read the book. If you haven’t heard of the film or the story, Abdul Karim was a Muslim Indian clerk in Agra who was sent to London for the Queen’s golden jubilee and ended up becoming her teacher and friend. His elevation from simple servant to confidant who Queen Victoria bestowed with gifts, including homes at Windsor, Balmoral, and the Isle of Wight, caused so much conflict with Victoria’s household, family, and even some government ministers that she was physically ill from the stress of defending her friend.

The film compresses what was actually thirteen years of service into what appears to be a much shorter time. But it does depict the racism, bigotry, and classism of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his allies in the Queen’s household. Quick aside — the film is worth watching just to see Eddie Izzard being a racist jerk and Judi Dench having none of it. While Victoria, in her late sixties when she met Abdul, was curious and open to learning about his culture and religion, and mastered Urdu enough to write and speak it, her family and many of the government officials tasked with administrative powers over India were disdainful of India, couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between Muslim and Hindu servants, considered Abdul low born, and even questioned whether Victoria was of sound mind. Some wished him dead, others just wished he’d disappear, and several conspired to try to find dirt on him. The Queen dealt with it all, and stood by her friend.

She comes off better than Abdul in the book; he sometimes appears vain and he did ask for a lot of favors. But he also knew that he was suspected and looked down upon. Victoria interested me enough that I may seek out more books about her — Basu’s portrayal of her is that she recognized how prejudiced and selfish people close to her were and did what she wanted to the extent she could. Basu’s book also illuminated for me that even though Victoria was a very powerful woman, she lived in a man’s world, and many of the men around her did not credit her with being smart or worldly enough to know what was best.

Both books are entertaining; Victoria & Abdul seemed like it couldn’t done with some editing, as some information repeats. Neither takes long to read — I finished both in the last couple of days. If you like history and are interested in the stories beyond the headlines, either book is a good read. If you enjoy food history, both are interesting additions to that genre, although Victoria & Abdul is only marginally about food.

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I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

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