British Authors

I got sucked in anyway.

For the most part I managed to sidestep "Downton Abbey Fever," which has seemed widespread this past year.

I watched the first episode, and bits of subsequent episodes, but I could never really find the energy to dedicate subsequent Sunday nights to it.* (I prefer my Masterpiece Theatre viewing in one- and two-episode chunks, I find.) I also got a bit bored with it because its popularity has been a big and continuing story, and one that I linked to frequently whenever I blogged for the (aimed at librarians and readers' advisors) Reader's Advisor Online Blog.

DowntonBut of course I couldn't help myself when I saw that a companion guide, The World of Downton Abbey, had been written by Jessica Fellowes. It truly is a companion guide, hewing closely to the storylines of the program and referring to the characters as though they were real people. It does include beautiful photographs, and the chapters cover the topics of family life, society, change, life in service, style, house and estate, romance, war, and behind the scenes.

Although I'd hoped to find more historical information and context, the little there was was quite interesting. Consider this tidbit:

"While bells are now seen as a symbol of servitude, at the time the bell-boards came in, around the 1820s, they were hailed as an absolute liberation. Up until that point, the footmen had to sit on hard wooden chairs within earshot of the family--usually in the hall. They would get a message...find the maid, and then go back to their chair." (p. 20.)

Of course I read the whole thing. It was like candy; I just couldn't stop. It also gave me more of an urge to watch the series, but I'll have to find a whole lot more time to devote to it than I have now.

*Plus I found the main heroine, Mary, to be the most obnoxious leading lady ever, and her romantic interest, played by Dan Stevens, doesn't do anything for me character- or looks-wise. As Mr. CR would say, he's no Mr. Darcy. (The joke on Mr. CR is that Mr. Wentworth and Mr. Tilney both beat out Darcy as my favorite Austen men. Don't tell him--he thinks his "Oh Mr. Darcy..." shtick is very clever.)


Below stairs.

I blew through Margaret Powell's completely enjoyable 1968 memoir Below Stairs* in two nights.

BelowSupposedly one of the inspirations for the popular Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey (as well as the earlier popular series Upstairs, Downstairs), Powell tells the story of her years spent working "in service" for the upper class in pre-WWII Great Britain, first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook. The second oldest of seven children (she's philosophical about her mother's large family--"You see that was the only pleasure poor people could afford. It cost nothing--at least at the time when you were actually making the children. You could have babies forevermore. Nobody bothered about doctors. You had a midwife who came for almost next to nothing"), she was sent out to work when she was fourteen, first in a few random jobs and then at a laundry, until she started as a kitchen maid at age fifteen.

I enjoyed the hell out of every minute of reading this book. I'm not sorry, though, that it wasn't longer--it was just the perfect, 176-page, mindblowing, hilarious little account. I liked everything about it, especially the earthy bits. And to call this book earthy would be to vastly understate the term "earthy." Consider this tale, from one of the more untraditional households in which she worked:

"It this somewhat bizarre household I used to have to go and get my orders while Mrs. Bishop was in the bath. I was horrified at first because I'd never seen a nude figure, not even a woman, before. It was amazing, after a couple of weeks I got quite used to it, and I'd sit on the edge of the bath, while she used to tell me what she wanted.

One morning at ten o'clock I went to the bathroom. I'd got so used to going there I just used to knock and walk in without waiting for an answer. One this particular morning, to my horror, instead of seeing a very flat, nude, white body laying there, there was a huge, black, hairy one, standing up in the bath. It was an Italian. Well, it was the first time I'd ever seen a full-scale appendage in my life. And after having had a look at it I could quite see why Adam rushed to get a fig leaf! I would have too if I'd discovered I had an object like that! The Shock! It took me about a week to get over this thing." (p. 142.)

Now if that doesn't make you laugh out loud I give up. But rest assured Margaret's no prude--later on she's annoyed with a beau who won't take her into the pub because beers make her a bit amorous. The descriptions of work are also unbelievable.** It's one of those rare nonfiction books that truly transports you--check it out.

*Please note: this is another book Rick reviewed at RickLibrarian.

**And here I've been complaining because I don't have a dishwasher! I'm so spoiled.


Ah, those Victorians.

A few weeks back a friend and I went to see the new movie Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) is starring in, a horror movie titled The Woman in Black (based on novel by Susan Hill). It had been ages since I saw a movie in the theater, and I enjoyed it, even though it was so-so. But man, that Victorian age. Talk about an era made for ghost and horror stories: everyone's wearing black; pollution in London and England was terrible; and they made some of the world's creepiest wind-up toys, evidently.

MurderSo it was a pleasure to go to the library not long thereafter and find Kate Colquhoun's historical true crime thriller Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing waiting for me. It tells the story of the murder of a respectable City of London businessman, Thomas Briggs, the investigation of the crime, and the chase and apprehension of the prime suspect, a German expat named Franz Muller.

The book is divided into three parts: a description of the crime; the investigation of Muller (which included several detectives and witnesses following him across the ocean to America); and Muller's trial. I wouldn't say it's a great book--it dragged a bit in parts--but it was still sufficiently interesting to keep me reading until the end. And of course, who can say no to that good old Victorian atmosphere:

"The sun was low and swallows wheeled in the sky as the banker alighted from his omnibus to walk back through the City's stone warrens. Above him, the thin sliver of a bright new moon pulsed from between the clouds. The sounds of the metropolis had thinned. Passing under the great clock on the facade of Fenchurch Street Station and into the station with its modern vaulted roof, he nodded to the newsvendor. Eating his supper on a stool near the booking office, the ticket collector Thomas Fishbourne looked up as Briggs touched him on the shoulder and said goodnight. Alone, the old man mounted the stairs to the platforms, his empty black bag in one hand and his ivory-knobbed cane in the other." (p. 17.)

Rail travel! Stations called Fenchurch Street! Omnibuses! Old men carrying ivory-knobbed canes! It's the details that make this one interesting (I was going to say "fun" but that doesn't seem like the right word) and thought-provoking: imagine traveling on train cars that weren't connected to one another by doors and in which you had no way of alerting anyone to a problem (which is how early train cars in Britain were, evidently). Imagine a world before the telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean, when the detectives had no way to alert anyone in America that they needed someone apprehended as he got off a ship in New York. Wild stuff.


A memoir for the Anglophiles.

It hasn't been all doom and gloom around here as far as nonfiction reading is concerned. In the last few weeks there have been several bright spots in my reading, and one of them was Michael Frayn's memoir My Father's Fortune: A Life.

FraynFrayn is a British playwright and novelist, although I have never read any of his plays or novels. In fact, why I requested this book from the library on one of my regular browses through the new nonfiction releases in the catalog, I'll never know. I think I was aware he's British, and so, of course, I might be interested in his book.

Frayn recounts the life of his father, Tom Frayn, from birth to death. (Making this a blend of biography and memoir, although the majority of the book is told from Frayn's point of view as a child growing up in his father's household.) And he does a really nice job of showing how even the ordinary life of a British salesman and father, is anything but ordinary.

My favorite parts of the book actually came in the beginning, with Frayn describing his father's life as the beloved baby of the family, growing up among family members who were all either completely or almost completely deaf. The circumstances in which his father grew up certainly gave me pause:

 "My grandparents' house had four rooms, apart from the kitchen, and according to the 1901 census there were two other couples also living there. Presumably each of these couples occupied one of the rooms. So my grandparents and their four teenage children must have been living in the two remaining rooms. Two adults and four adolescents in two rooms--and all ten residents, presumably, sharing the kitchen...And now here's the new baby chucking his food under the table and screaming his lungs out, with his nappies being boiled on the copper...In the morning everyone trying to get their breakfast, and hot water for shaving, and their clothes pressed and ready for work.* All of them wanting the one lavatory, which at that time was presumably a privy in the back garden." (pp. 13-14.)

Really. Just PICTURE all that. It is a credit to Frayn's writing that he makes it easy to picture.

And the whole book is like that. It's a great picture of life in Great Britain, life in the lower middle class trying to cling to respectability, life as a child in England during World War II, and life as a family member in any number of relationships (as father, as son, as nephew, etc.). It's a great book, and I had to stop several times while I was reading it and just savor it. That, to me, is one of the marks of a very fine book indeed.

*Boiling nappies on the stove AND still having to press your clothes. Christ, I can barely make it in life even with disposable diapers and wrinkle-free shirts. People were made of sterner stuff then.


Still not over London.

I ate up Peter Ackroyd's London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets with a spoon.

LondonWell, not literally. But it was a slim little book that I enjoyed very much, about one of my very favorite cities in the world. Ackroyd relates short histories and anecdotes about the messy and historical business under London's streets: its sewers, buried rivers, water pipes, tunnels, and the Underground (to name just a few of his topics). At around 200 pages with generously spaced text, it was the perfect little morsel to get me through a couple of days when I couldn't find much else I wanted to read.

It's not perfect; it ends rather abruptly and it moves from subject to subject without much rhyme or reason, but if you're at all interested in urban planning, history, or London itself I think you'd find this book very interesting:

"The sewers of early medieval London were the streams and rivers that ran down to the Thames. Cess-pits, lined with brick or stone, were also in common use and were cleansed weekly or fortnightly by urban workers known as 'gong-fermers.' In 1326 one of them, 'Richard the Raker,' fell into his own cess-pit and suffocated 'monstrously in his own excrement.' The first pipes to carry waste, in an underground drainage system, were introduced to London in the thirteenth century during the reign of Henry III." (p. 80.)

Okay, that's not a pleasant image. But Ackroyd most definitely has painted an image. And that's what blows my mind about London, and other really old cities. 1326! Just imagine. I want to keep imagining--and that's why I'm going to look into another of Ackroyd's history books: London: A Biography.


Even the word "mooncup" makes me shudder.

MoneylessI honestly don't know why I read the entire book The Moneyless Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living, by Mark Boyle.

This entire "living frugal/living without money" genre is one that I never particularly enjoy, but yet I can't stop reading them anyway. I think subconsciously I'm looking for money-saving tips that don't have anything to do with extreme couponing. I already try to spend as little money as possible (I spent the entire summer babying my one pair of shorts along, sometimes hand-washing them, so they didn't develop big holes and I could make them last through the summer), but I do not like couponing.

Unfortunately this book was an extreme version of its kind. Boyle spent a year living in the UK with absolutely no money--living in a trailer, creating his own power/electricity, using a woodstove, biking or hitching anywhere he needed to go, and doing everything he could to get the word out about moneyless living. I guess it wasn't a boring read--I did make it through the whole thing--but I can't say I really enjoyed it. There's a lot of this sort of thing:

"...if I wanted bread, I was going to have to come up with a new solution. And I did. I decided that although I loved bread, it would have to be a treat. Instead, I would sprout the grains. This means sprinkling a layer of rye grains along a couple of stacked, perforated trays and rinsing them with water twice a day until they sprout. This only takes five minutes and so is much less effort, for more nutritional gain, than making bread. Although not quite so pleasing to taste and smell!" (p. 28.)

Oh brother. It's all I can do to get through the day even when I just buy my bread like a sucker.* Experiments like this are just too extreme for me, I'll admit it. But I have to give the guy credit for trying something a little different with his life, and for writing the book about it.

*I also wouldn't be much good as a moneyless woman. Here's what Boyle has to say on certain, ahem, feminine needs: "For coping with periods without money, there is an obvious solution that even I know about: a mooncup. This is a rubber cup, which the user inserts in her vagina to collect the menstrual flow. It's held in place over the cervix by suction." (p. 180.) At the risk of sounding twelve, I've got only two words in response to that idea: icky poo.


Finally, a readable book on reading.

Howards Susan Hill's memoir of a year spent reading, Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, was so great that I only allowed myself one chapter of it per day, to make it last. It was the book equivalent of a box of chocolate truffles.

Hill is a British author who specializes in ghost and detective stories (her novel The Woman In Black has been made into a film, starring Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, that will open in 2012), but she's clearly very widely read and seems to know or at least have met everyone who's anyone in the British publishing scene. In this memoir, she moves through her own house and bookshelves, explaining why she finds certain books the places she does, and the experiences she relives in revisiting and re-reading them.

Normally these books don't do a whole lot for me. But this one was so wonderful, so straightforward, so imbued with a love for books and reading that I found myself wanting to run right out and get everything she suggests. I also happen to agree with Ms. Hill on her attitude toward the printed book:

 "It ain't broke: the book, that is. I know because I just went round the house looking for something to read, and on the way I reassured myself that as the book ain't broke around here, I do not propose to fix it with an electronic reader. Yes, let's use the whole word. Let's tell it like it is. Electronic reader. Something monotonous-looking and made of plastic, is grey and has a screen...I will stick to paper and print and pages for reading books. If it ain't broke. Of course, someone wants to persuade us that it is so that they can sell us their device. 'Twas ever thus." (p. 76.)

Awesome.

But the real genius of her book is in her descriptions of the books she has read and loved: she makes you want to read each and every last one of them. I found a lot of great authors who I already love referenced (she's got a great Penelope Fitzgerald story), and Hill also introduced me to other writers I now want to read. And in addition to recommending specific authors, she also makes a grand case just for READING:

"But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I have the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA...

All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes." (p. 202.)

Awesome. Just awesome.


Can you spot the psychopaths among us?

As previously noted, I've been having a couple of good nonfiction weeks. I've had particular good luck with getting new books by authors I've enjoyed before.

Jon Ronson is one of my very favorite investigative writers (and a Brit to boot). Although the movie version of The Men Who Stare at Goats was awful, just awful (even with Ewan McGregor in it, and you'd better believe it hurts me to say that), Ronson's book, on which the movie was based, was weird, spectacular, and surprisingly dark underneath all its absurdity.*

Psychopath So when I saw that he was coming out with a book titled The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, I knew I would have to read it. The premise is simple: How can you tell when someone is a psychopath?

Ronson became interested in the subject in a roundabout sort of way: he was contacted by a scientist who (along with other scientists) was the target of some sort of hoax. When Ronson set out to investigate the hoax (which is just the sort of weird thing Ronson seems to happily get involved in, as a matter of course), he concluded it was perpetrated by someone with pscyhopathic tendencies. His very next step is to fall in with some Scientologists,** who lead him to a man in a mental hospital in Great Britain who swears he only acted crazy to get out of prison time, but now the psychiatrists have him pegged as a psychopath and won't let him out.

Confused? Don't be. It all makes sense, in a stranged sort of way, and before you know it, you're along with Ronson on a journey exploring what it means to be a psychopath, how psychopaths are identified, how they've been "treated" through the years, and whether or not most successful CEOs are, in fact, psychopaths. I enjoyed the whole thing, very much. Primarily just because I enjoy Jon Ronson. Consider his early ramble through the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic textbook/manual in which mental disorders are described):

"'I could really be on to something,' I thought. 'It really could be that many of our political and business leaders suffer from Antisocial or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and they do the harmful, exploitative things they do because of some mad striving for unlimited success and excessive admiration. Their mental disorders might rule our lives. This could be a really big story for me if I can think of a way to somehow prove it.'

I closed the manual.

'I wonder if I've got any of the 374 mental disorders,' I thought. I opened the manual again.

And I instantly diagnosed myself with twelve different ones." (p. 34.)

Tee hee. It's another good book from Ronson, ridiculous but with an undercurrent of the deadly serious and darkly disturbing.

*I don't believe I've read his first book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, or else I've forgotten it. I'll have to get that one soon.

**Evidently Scientologists do not believe in psychiatry, which is (again, in a roundabout way) how Ronson ended up talking with them.


International Anita Brookner Day: The Debut

Anita Brookner's novel The Debut pleased me very much.

Debut And that is the exact phrase I'm sticking with. I did not love this novel. It didn't really change my life. Although I will certainly read more Anita Brookner novels in the future, based on my experience of reading this one, I will not be running out to read everything she's written immediately (as I did with someone like, say, Helene Hanff). And there is something fittingly British, and even middle-aged, about the phrasing of "pleased me very much" that seems just right for this book.

It's a slim novel, at 192 pages, and, like its title, it was Brookner's fiction debut (the original British title was A Start in Life, which, here's a surprise considering my unconditional love for all things British, I think I prefer). It can be called an actual story in only the loosest possible sense: Ruth Weiss, looking back on her life from the vantage point of 40, explores how she came to learn that "her life had been ruined by literature."

The question I kept coming back to was, "But had it?" Or its corollary: "Shouldn't life be ashamed of itself, that it couldn't compare a little more favorably to literature?"

Brookner's protagonist Weiss relates her childhood spent loving books, watching the increasingly (but always quietly) volatile marriage between her parents deteriorate, and her young adulthood spent studying the works of Balzac in Paris. Along the way she tries to make friends, take lovers, explore the City of Light, and get out from under the thumbs of her completely selfish and childish parents (and their cook and servant, Mrs. Cutler, who only encourages their worst impulses).

But the story is not the story here. In fact, I can picture many readers, especially those more in tune with the pace of James Patterson and Lee Child-esque thrillers, becoming distinctly annoyed with the lack of action and overall story arc here. (When I worked in a bookstore, ages ago, my lovely boss loved Brookner's similarly languid novel Hotel du Lac, and I remember eavesdropping on his conversation with a friend who thought it was the biggest snoozefest ever.) So what pleased me about this book?

First and foremost, every now and then there is a line in it that sparkles. Absolutely sparkles. With truth and humor and resignation and all my other favorite human attributes. Lines like this, when Ruth asks a potential love interest to a meal at her house and is stressing out about what to cook for him:

"She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from. Her father, who could have told her this, had not." (p. 55.)

Oh, my god, it's brilliant. Centuries of annoying back-and-forth between the male and female sexes and how they do not and never will understand one another, distilled into one depressing sentence that is simultaneously exhilirating because it is steeped in truth. And how the encounter with this man ends is so, so perfect. Again, depressing as hell, and it will make you want to hit the man. But trust me. Those few chapters alone would make the whole book worthwhile, even if the rest of it wasn't.

Iabd The other fascinating thing to contemplate is how much of this novel came from life: Brookner herself has never married, and spent many years caring for her aging parents (as does Ruth Weiss). Does Brookner feel her life was ruined by literature? Or, because she didn't start publishing novels until she was in her fifties, does she feel literature reinvigorated her life? I wonder. And the wondering, combined with the fun of actually reading this novel, made this whole experience very satisfying. Anita Brookner's novel pleased me very much.

This post was written to participate in the International Anita Brookner Day challenge being hosted by Thomas at My Porch Blog.


Know anyone in the thea-tah?

If you do, have I got a book for them.

Dench I checked out Judi Dench's autobiography/memoir And Furthermore because I love Judi Dench. Although I have learned that there is a lot about Judi Dench I don't know--primarily, that she is a thea-tah actress of long standing, and only did television and film roles quite late in her career. I love her as an American does--for her performance on the BBC series As Time Goes By (not to mention as M in the latest James Bond movies)--not for her theater roles.

I enjoyed this book, although if you're looking for gossipy insights you're not going to find them here. She covers her As Time Goes By experiences in about four pages, and the death of her husband Michael in six. Quite simply, this seems to be a woman who just wants to get on with things and does so. And yet, she's got a lot of sparkle. I enjoyed this anecdote about when a director asked her to play Cleopatra in a play (when she was getting on in years):

"I was always anxious about playing her, because whenever I said I was going to play Cleopatra people used to openly laugh in my face. 'Cleopatra?' You? So I was really paranoid about it, and at the first rehearsal I said to Peter, 'Well, I hope you know what you are doing, setting out to direct Cleopatra with a menopausal dwarf.'" (p. 105.)

This is a woman with a sense of humor.

But most of all this is a book for people who are either serious actors or are enthralled with serious actors. Over the course of her career on (primarily) London's stage, she's played a wide variety of roles and worked with many well-known people, and those are the stories she tells. And she loves her life, you can tell, it's so refreshing:

"Well, I am doing the things I want to do now, so I don't want to retire. Actors are really remarkable people to be with. I like the company of other people, but I love the company of actors, and to be in a company...The whole idea of a group of people coming together and working to one end somehow is very appealing to me. It is the thing I have always wanted to do, and I am lucky enough to be doing it." (p. 240.)

As Lionel's father would have told Judi Dench's character in As Time Goes By: "Rock on."


A girl can dream, can't she?

If I had world enough and time, I would take the book London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World's Most Vibrant City (by Steve Roud) into a room with me, my fuzzy red throw blanket, and some coffee and bon-bons, and never come out. And I'd like to do this during a month like we're currently having: way too much snow and ridiculously cold.*

Lore Roud shares tidbits of history and legend from every nook and cranny in London--and I do mean every one. It's a thick book, with dense printing, organized so that each chapter covers a different borough and is further subdivided according to its stories, with headings like "Cock Lane, Smithfield." I read a bit of the first chapter ("Cock Lane is an inconspicuous, narrow thoroughfare, off Giltspur Street, Smithfield, which suddenly acquired international fame in 1762 when a house in the road became the scene of one of the best-known hauntings in London's history..."), but the sad fact of the matter is that I'm not going to have time to read the whole thing, and truthfully, it just reminds me I'm not IN London and therefore makes me sad.

But I have a plan! Not to put too much pressure on CRjr or anything, but I have this dream that during college he'll study abroad for a year--at Oxford! And while he does Mr. CR and I will move to London for six months, to be able to see him once in a while and to take an extended look around ourselves!! And then I can take this book along and have time to explore with it. Right? It'll totally happen, right?**

*Cold is one thing, but next week our forecasted highs are set to be several degrees below the normal LOWS for this time of year. And we've got so much snow (yes, yes, I know, still nothing compared to what the East coast has been getting this winter) that backing blindly out of our driveway between the monster drifts/snow piles on each side has become a suicide mission.

**I know it'll never happen. For one thing CRjr probably won't be able to afford college anywhere (have you seen how fast tuition is going up these days?), much less Oxford, and for another, he may grow up to find someplace like, say, France, more interesting than Great Britain.*** But I can still dream.

***This is the sort of thing I worry about, to keep myself from worrying about his health and peer pressure and other mundane crap like that.


Another Athill moment.

Was I successful in my plan to make you desire to read anything by Diana Athill?

If you'll remember, I've been reviewing (and loving) some of her books here. The last one I talked about was her work memoir, Stet: An Editor's Life, and I shared one long quote from it.

Well, there was another quote I liked, but the book had to go back to the library, and so I decided to type the quote in a draft post so I could keep it. So then I thought, why not just publish the draft, and you can get another little dose of Athill? The following quote came from near the end of Stet, when she's describing a recent visit to a publisher's office:

"I have just visited one: the first time in seven years that I have set foot in a publisher's office. It astonished me: how familiar it was, the way I knew what was happening behind its doors...and how much I loved it. 'It's still there!' I said to myself; and on the way home I saw that by 'it' I meant not only publishing of a kind I recognized, but something even more reassuring: being young. Old people don't want to mop and mow, but age has a blinkering effect, and their narrowed field of vision often contains things that are going from bad to worse; it is therefore consoling to be reminded that much exists outside that narrow field, just as it did when we were forty or thirty or twenty." (pp. 248-249.)

This year, I'd like Diana Athill to be my valentine. Happy VD* to you--now go hug a loved one or something else suitably sappy.

*I have never stopped being amused that this day shares initials with "venereal disease." That's just the super-mature way I roll.


All dressed up and nowhere to go.

I really, really enjoyed Alain de Botton's book A Week at the Airport.

Airport The book is based on such an enjoyably weird premise that I couldn't help but be charmed by it. De Botton, best known for his nonfiction books How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, and The Art of Travel, was invited by one of the owners of the newly refurbished Heathrow Airport* to hang around the airport and its connecting hotel for a week and write a book about the experience, as a sort of airport "writer in residence."

The result is a slim narrative divided into the sections of Approach, Departures, Airside, and Arrivals; and containing fantastic photographs by Richard Baker.** De Botton describes the airport, shares the stories of travelers and airport workers he interviewed, and muses a bit on the nature of travel and transience in our modern world. As always, his text is just a little bit full of itself ("The mighty steel bracing of the airport's ceiling recalled the scaffolding of the great nineteenth-century railway stations, and evoked the sense of awe--suggested in paintings such as Monet's Gare Saint-Lazare--that must have been experienced by the first crowds to step inside these light-filled, iron-limbed halls pullulating with strangers, buildings that enabled a person to sense viscerally, rather than just grasp intellectually, the vastness and diversity of humanity"), but his text isn't what I really enjoy de Botton for. I really just enjoy his ideas and the way his prose is a little bit ridiculous but still does a great job of making you feel you're in the situation he's describing.

So yeah, I liked it. Mainly I liked it because just looking at it made me remember the few airports I've had the good luck to visit,*** and the excitement I felt at being there and going on trips. I'll never forget Mr. CR's and my first morning in London--we got off the plane at Heathrow and stumbled our way, exhausted, to the attached Underground station to King's Cross, where we were going to have to catch a train for our five-hour ride to Edinburgh (on pretty much no sleep, mind you). Before we got on the subway we popped up to a surface exit where we could use the restroom, and London was waking up, with the sky just lightening, traffic starting to move, a bit of a brisk nip in the fall air, and airport and Underground workers taking a smoke break. It was all so different and sensually overpowering and I felt so untethered, what with being off my home continent and all. And I felt ALL of that again when I read this book. Fantastic.

*in London, England, another reason I was destined to like this book. And: it's only 107 pages long. Sweet!

**I love his photography, and it makes the book so much more enjoyable. Tons more adult nonfiction books should include pictures or photographs.

***I LOVE airports. I'd feel differently about them if I had to travel for a living, but once I had to kill like five hours by myself in the Detroit airport, and rarely have I had such fun.


My latest love affair.

It's official: I'm in love with Diana Athill.

Now, I know there's a slight age difference (she's in her nineties, although I rather suspect she might be more young at heart than I am) and that historically I have favored boys over girls as dating partners. However: I would be willing to make an exception for Diana Athill, if she would have me.*

Stet I just finished her memoir Stet: An Editor's Life, and it's awesome. It's exactly what she promises in the subtitle; she describes her work as a longtime editor with the publishing firm Andre Deutsch Limited**, and concludes with several chapters about specific writers with whom she worked.

The first part of the book, in which she describes her life and work, were my favorites. I particularly enjoyed learning how she just sort of stumbled into her job, primarily through her friendship with Andre Deutsch. And the rest of her work chapters tick merrily along through her career milestones, from their early days with just a few authors, to their huge success with Peter Benchley's novel Jaws (and books by V.S. Naipaul, early Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, and John Updike), to the buyout of the firm.

After finishing the first part of the book, I thought I might not finish the rest, as Athill's concluding chapters are more in-depth considerations of some of the authors with whom she worked. This would be fine, but most of the writers she references are not ones with whom I'm familiar: Mordecai Richler, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, and Molly Keane (I'm familiar with V.S. Naipaul, but have never read any of his novels). But I found I just couldn't bear to return the book to the library without reading the whole thing, and I'm glad I did, because in the last chapter I found this:

"The chief difference, it seems to me, between the person who is lucky enough to possess the ability to create--whether with words or sound or pigment or wood or whatever--and those who haven't got it, is that the former react to experience directly and each in his own way, while the latter are less ready to trust their own responses and often prefer to make use of those generally agreed to be acceptable by their friends and relations." (p. 244.)

I found that really interesting. I can see why this woman was a good editor. Plus, look at that picture of her on the cover. Doesn't she just look like a woman who knows how to have a good time? If you love writing, books, words, etc., do give this memoir a try.

*This might also be awkward to arrange with Mr. CR and CRjr in the picture. And also, Ms. Athill states early on in this book that she first fell in love with the gardener's boy, Denis, when she was four. So I'm pretty sure she wouldn't be interested. I can dream.

**The lovely people who brought you Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road.


Citizen Reader's Holiday Gift Guide: Bellfield Hall (fiction!)

Now, you know me. If you're going to go out and buy a book as a gift for someone, you know I'd prefer it if you bought them nonfiction. But, even I will admit that some people just want fiction. Fair enough.

Bellfield One of my favorite novels of the year was Anna Dean's Bellfield Hall, which I read when I was going through a particularly Anglophile phase (I think the BBC production of Emma had just finished up on PBS or something). I'll leave it up to Melissa at the Running with Books blog to describe the plot (as she does it better than I could) but rest assured that this Regency-era mystery is an engaging read with a delightful main character, Miss Dido Kent, who manages to be both a believably drawn eighteenth-century woman and a somewhat feisty dame.*

So who might like this book?

Anyone who loves Jane Austen but is out of Jane Austen books to read.

Anglophiles of any sort.

Mystery readers who enjoy British settings or historical mysteries. Another great series for those readers who prefer Victorian times is Charles Finch's Inspector Lennox series, starting with A Beautiful Blue Death. VERY British, very Victorian--you could almost believe you were sitting in London while you read them.

*If you can't tell (Diana Athill, Julia Child, Miss Dido Kent), I really enjoy feisty dames.


On a real Diana Athill roll.

After reading Diana Athill's fantastic 1962 memoir Instead of a Letter: A Memoir, I decided I would go back and re-read her memoir Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir (which I had read at one point, but couldn't much remember, except thinking at the time that Athill was a spicy old broad whose honesty I really enjoyed).

Athill2 I don't know that I enjoyed Somewhere Towards the End as much this time around. Whether this was because I wasn't in the right mood, or because I felt Instead of a Letter was so much more interesting, I'm not sure. But don't get me wrong: I still liked it. (So did RickLibrarian; you can read his review here.)

Athill wrote this memoir as she was heading into her nineties, and it's a somewhat free-associative tour through her love lives, personal relationships, work, and the aging process. I remain convinced that this is a woman I wish I could meet: unlike many who are described as "straight-shooters," I think Athill might actually be a genuine straight-shooter. Consider:

"Dwindling energy is one of the most boring things about being old. From time to time you get a day when it seems to be restored, and you can't help feeling that you are 'back to normal,' but it never lasts." (p. 132.)

I just like her matter-of-fact way of speaking. And, of course, Athill spent a lifetime and a career reading and working with books, so she has many interesting things to say on those subjects as well. Here was my favorite:

"I think that underneath, or alongside, a reader's conscious response to a text, whatever is needy in him is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need." (p. 49.)

That is awesome. Not sure which of Athill's other memoirs I'll read next, but I'll keep you posted.


Anglophiles, take note.

Any good Anglophile worth their salt should be reading Diana Athill's memoirs.

Athill A while back I read and loved her recent memoir, Somewhere Towards the End: A Memoir, about, well, her coming end (she wrote the book while in her nineties), so when I saw a new title by her, Instead of a Letter: A Memoir, in my library catalog, I snapped it up.

Turns out this one was originally published in 1962, but you'd never know that from reading it--unbelievably, it's not dated in any way. It's a coming-of-age memoir; Athill describes her very British childhood (growing up on a country estate, Beckton, even though her parents had no money), her love affair with a family friend named Paul, her years at Oxford, the break-up of her relationship with Paul, her civil work during World War II, and her accidental plunge into the career for which she was destined (book editor).

The country estate and Oxford* alone should make Anglophiles take notice, but outside of those stories, this is a fantastically interesting narrative, although Athill is self-deprecating in the extreme. This was another one where I didn't bother bookmarking good parts, because the whole thing was so enjoyable.** Although, not always enjoyable in a frothy way--more in a "holy shit, that's exactly the way I feel" way:

"Common sense forbade me to consider myself old while still in my twenties, but I felt old, and once past my thirtieth birthday I began to accept the feeling as rational. Most of my thirties were overshadowed, when I allowed myself to notice it, not only by my forties but by my old age: by a sense that there was nothing ahead but old age, by an awareness of the disabilities of old age, a shrinking when I watched an old person stepping carefully, painfully on to the curb of a pavement..."

The paragraph gets more hopeful after that, I promise. But that is a feeling I've had a MILLION times.

*Speaking of Oxford, if you're not watching the Inspector Lewis mysteries on Masterpiece Mystery, you're missing out. Every time they show London or Oxford I get a little homesick, which is awkward, considering I'm not from there.

**Although not always easy to read. Readers should take note: unlike most politicians who act like they are, Athill actually IS a straight shooter; she speaks frankly of her interest in sex as a young woman, as well as an abortion she has. She's not explicit or anything, but I just thought you should know.


Quick reviews of books I haven't read.

Now that's the kind of expertise you visit Citizen Reader for, isn't it?

Hay Through no fault of my own, I'm coming up against all sorts of library due dates for books that I really wanted to read, but which I have to return before I get the chance. The first such book is Angela Miller's Hay Fever: How Chasing a Dream on a Vermont Farm Changed My Life. I did read the first few chapters of this one, which seems to be a completely typical "driven city person tackles life on farm" narrative. Miller is a literary agent who still works several days a week in New York City, but who has also been moonlighting as a farmer and goat cheese maker on her Vermont farm for the last several years. The writing was okay but nothing special (it's actually co-written with another author, Ralph Gardner Jr., which isn't often a very good sign) and I must admit that I'm getting a little weary of the "back to the land" genre. I was particularly annoyed by this title because I don't understand how a woman past the age of sixty could have the energy to commute four hours back and forth to NYC once a week, be a high-powered literary agent, and also farm on the side. Where do these people get all the drive?

I was also annoyed by this, on the jacket's front flap copy: "Angela Miller and her husband set their sites on a charming nineteenth-century farm in Vermont." I know that's not the author's fault, but still...hacky. I will not be getting this one back.

God The second book in question is Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter. I only read the Introduction of this one, but I totally want to get it back and read it someday. I think Prothero's a good writer about religion; knowledgeable and open and not necessarily connected to any one dogma; I particularly enjoyed his earlier title Religious Literacy. And I like no-nonsense paragraphs like this one:

"Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another. As my colleague Adam Seligman has argued, the notion of religious tolerance assumes differences, since there is no need to tolerate a religion that is essentially the same as your own. We pretend these differences are trivial because it makes us feel safer, or more moral. But pretending that the world's religions are the same does not make our world safer. Like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." (p. 4.) Awesome.

The last book that has to go back is a novel, David Nicholls's One Day, a new novel by the British author of the novel A Question of Attraction (which I really enjoyed, and which was made into an equally enjoyable movie, titled Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy). I really wanted to read this one, and now I'm just not in the mood for its love story, told over the course of twenty years. Perhaps some other time.


Listening, learning, living.

Or loving, laughing, whatever.

Either we are eating more around here, or just finding ways to dirty more dishes, because lately it seems like I spend a lot of my time washing dishes. Normally I don't mind this, as washing dishes is the sole household chore I don't actively hate (I think because it's connected with food; outside of food preparation and service purposes, I just don't understand the appeal of "clean," and never have) and I usually have a book on tape to keep me company. The last such book (after the travesties that were The Age of Innocence and The Historian) was Thomas Hardy's classic The Mayor of Casterbridge, and man, do I love old Thomas Hardy. I can thumbnail the plot: young man gets drunk at county fair and tries to sell off wife and child as a joke, but another man takes him up on the offer. Years later, wife and child return to the area after the death of the man who "bought" her, to see how the first man is getting on. Quite well, it turns out: he's the mayor of Casterbridge and a merchant of some repute. Soon after their arrival and reunion, however, the mayor's fortunes start to take a turn for the worse, and various community kerfuffles and tragedies ensue. The plots are really not the point of Thomas Hardy's novels; his characters and his turn of phrases are. Consider this zinger, when he's describing a run-down part of town:

"It was the hiding-place of those who were in distress, and in debt, and trouble of every kind. Farm-labourers and other peasants, who combined a little poaching with their farming, and a little brawling and bibbing with their poaching, found themselves sooner or later in Mixen Lane. Rural mechanics too idle to mechanize, rural servants too rebellious to serve, drifted or were forced into Mixen Lane."

It made for good listening, but when it was done, I found I was without a book on tape, but still had dirty dishes. I went looking for NPR but I couldn't find it on the FM tuner (or they were playing classical music on the regular station) so I switched over to AM and spent most of the last week listening to conservative talk radio. Oh, my. That WAS educational. I normally hit the times when either Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity were talking, and of course the burning story of the week was Arizona's new immigration law. I know NOTHING about Arizona's immigration law, and I can't say I'm much further ahead after listening to radio programs about it. But I will say this: forget Limbaugh. He's just out there, and the more his callers were out there, the more he liked them. But Hannity? Hannity's dangerous. Hannity almost makes sense, and if he was your sole source for the news, I'm sure he'd make total sense.

It was an education (combined with a fascinating article about Sarah Palin in last week's New York Magazine); I did a lot of thinking about politics last week. Suffice it to say that this week I got Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the D'urbervilles from the library on tape, and can retreat to that. Thank goodness for Thomas Hardy.


I need to remember to read this when I'm retired and have months to kill.

There are detailed biographies, and there are detailed biographies, and then there is Jenny Uglow's biography Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories.

Gaskell I really love Elizabeth Gaskell. (And reading her books too--not just watching the BBC versions of North and South and Cranford, although that's how my interest was piqued.) And a friend of mine is a very big fan of Jenny Uglow's writing. So I thought this would be a very happy marriage of interesting subject and recommended writer.

But I just can't do it. I made it all the way to page 27, and I have to admit that I am not going to get any further (for now) and take it back to the library. In all fairness, twenty-seven pages of this biography are equal to at least fifty pages in a less strenuously researched one. Consider:

"The whole 'Holland clan,' as their friends called them, played a part in Elizabeth's early years. Her uncle Peter Holland, an irascible, humorous man, who limped from a leg injured in a fall from a gig, was the local doctor. He lived in Church House at the other end of town and when Elizabeth was small, she travelled in his dog-cart on his rounds in the country practice--much as George Eliot, nine years younger, was to travel with her land-agent father. His practice flourished, and his apprentices (like those of Mr. Gibson in Wives and Daughters) lodged in Church House with his large family. His first wife, Mary Willetts, who died in 1803, was a niece of Josiah Wedgwood, and Peter, linked to the wider Unitarian network, was an influential figure, more involved with political and mercantile life than the term 'local doctor' implies." (p. 16.)

There is a lot going on in that paragraph. I can find no faults with Uglow's research or writing--both are very skillfully done--but I simply do not have the time right now to finish a biography in which every page is that dense, and there are more than 600 said pages. So, like I said: someday, when I am retired, and have the weeks and months to give this book that it deserves, I'll be back for it.