Monthly Archives: March 2011

Mystery Man

My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Mystery Man by Colin Bateman. It was a good discussion, as always, about a book that struck me as strange. The book didn’t quite come together for me, but it was very funny, at least in places, and kind of a puzzle to think about. What made it so odd was the fact that it’s written in first person from the point of view of a man who is mentally disturbed, to one degree or another. It’s a little hard to tell just what’s going on with him because, of course, he’s the narrator and we get no other perspective on the story. This made reading the book as uncomfortable as it was amusing.

The narrator is strange, paranoid, and often kind of nasty, although this is presented in a funny way. He lives in Belfast and owns a mystery book shop, and he’s the kind of guy who sells a customer a map when they ask for directions, even though he could easily point the way. He needs to make money after all. And there are scenes like this one:

So he gave me their number and said they were on the Newtownards Road and I thanked him for his time and still suitably enthused, or bored, I was about to phone them when the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you’re a moron.

It’s enough to make me wonder how in the world this guy (unnamed) ever keeps a bookstore open. His methods of drumming up business involve hosting events like Serial Killer Week, and inviting the famous author Brendan Coyle to teach creative writing classes. Coyle is a local author of literary fiction who “dabbles” in crime writing every now and then (and could be, as Emily points out, John Banville/Benjamin Black):

He is a vain, boorish snob, and sometimes I wonder why I ever bothered inviting him to teach a monthly creative writing class in No Alibis.

Then I remember that it’s because he does it for nothing and that I also sell a lot of books off the back of his visits. The only reason he does it for free is that I convinced him that he should be giving something back to ‘his’ people, and he was sucker enough to fall for it. I like to think that every minute he spends talking twaddle in No Alibis in one minute fewer spent trying to write crime, which is a blessing for us all.

The narrator turns into a detective when the real detective in the shop next door disappears. The missing detective’s customers wander over into the mystery bookshop hoping they can find some help there. The narrator is skeptical of their plaintive requests for help at first, but he soon gets caught up in the fun of solving cases, all of which he gives a name such as The Case of Mrs. Geary’s Leather Trousers or The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover. Eventually a really big case comes along, The Case of the Musical Jews (or, in earlier editions of the book, The Case of the Dancing Jews — Bateman changed details in later editions to make his story different from the real-life story of a woman named Helen Lewis).

The narrator needs to be pushed into taking on this big case, however. As a paranoiac, he is utterly afraid of just about everything, and he knows this case could be dangerous. It’s the woman who works across the street, Alison, the woman whom the narrator has had a crush on and has spied on for years, who is enthusiastic enough about taking on detective work to push the narrator into it. He keeps calling her his sidekick and getting upset when she takes too much initiative, but it seems pretty clear that she provides much of the brains and just about all of the energy and ambition of their operation. The two of them, along with the narrator’s assistant, Jeff, work together with varying degrees of competence and sanity until the case is solved.

Bateman’s sense of humor isn’t exactly mine, but still, there was an awful lot in this book that was funny, and the book seemed even funnier during the group discussion, as we retold the best stories and laughed over them. Hobgoblin loved this book and particularly the narrator, but for me, there was something about him that never quite came into focus. I wasn’t sure exactly how reliable he was, if at all, and if he’s completely unreliable, then where does that leave the reader? There weren’t many opportunities to see the narrator from other people’s perspectives in order to begin to figure him out, and there was a lot he never told us about himself. The book is very much a spoof of detective novels, which is part of the fun of it, but it was hard to tell whether it was merely a spoof, or whether there was something more serious going on at the same time.

I also had trouble believing the relationship between the narrator and Alison. He has had a crush on her forever, pretty much, and the story of how they meet is fun. But after that, there are a number of scenes where he treats her quite badly, and she is always ready to forgive and forget, unrealistically, worryingly so. But, again, I was unsure how seriously to take all this. Is the author mocking wildly unrealistic relationships in novels, or … not? I kept hoping for some answers to these questions and never really found them.

I wonder whether I would have had these problems had the author’s sense of humor been more like my own. We discussed in our group the possibility that Irish readers might find the book funnier and more coherent than American readers. Bateman seems to be writing for an Irish audience (which makes sense, of course) and does little to help readers from elsewhere along. Maybe it partly boils down to a matter of culture.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Wheels of Change

This weekend I had the pleasure of reading a book about women and cycling called Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a fast read, at only 96 pages with lots of pictures and not a lot of text; it’s aimed at a young adult market, but great for anybody interested in the subject.

The pictures themselves were wonderful: pictures of cool old bicycles, of old advertisements for bikes and cycling gear, of women on their bikes, of the clothes women wore while riding. I’ve always wanted posters of women cyclists from back in the early days of cycling, although I haven’t yet collected any, and I saw tons of images in this book that would be perfect for the purpose.

The text, although short, is fascinating. It focuses on the last couple decades of the nineteenth century when the bicycle first became popular and when women began riding, often as a way to find more freedom and independence. Macy first discusses the invention of the bicycle, and then moves on to debates over the safety, propriety, and morality of women riding. Some writers applauded the new opportunities for exercise and freedom the bicycle offered women, while others worried about what women might get up to with that new freedom or whether they would bother to attend church anymore if they could be out cycling instead. Some tried to regulate and monitor women’s behavior on the bicycle, as did, for example, an article from the Omaha Daily Bee from 1895 with a list of “Don’ts for Women Wheelers.” Some “don’ts” from this list include:

  • Don’t be a fright.
  • Don’t carry a flask.
  • Don’t attempt a “century.”
  • Don’t say, “Feel my muscle.”
  • Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”
  • Don’t boast of your long rides.
  • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.
  • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.
  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”
  • Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”

If it weren’t for the rule about not going to church in your bicycle costume, I’d be tempted to break every one of these rules, just for the fun of it. But I really can’t go to church in a bicycle costume, at least not a modern-day “costume.” I’m not entirely sure what they mean by “Don’t be a fright,” either.

Macy has a chapter on clothes for cycling and how cycling influenced the movement toward more comfortable clothing for women. The was a debate about the acceptability and aesthetics of the above-mentioned bloomers, but there was such a strong backlash against them, they didn’t last long. Cycling did encourage shorter skirts and fewer layers of bulky undergarments, however.

My favorite section was the one on women racers. There were women from the 1880s and 1890s whose riding and racing puts me to shame — and they did it on heavy, clunky bikes and without spandex. Louise Armaindo, for example, rode 1,050 miles in six days, on a 1/8-mile track. Dora Reinhart rode 17,196 miles in one year, riding centuries for days in a row, including a stretch of 10 days and another of 20 when she rode a century every day. In 1894, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky rode much of the way around the world, setting off with no money and only two lessons in bicycle riding. Some women were fiercely competitive: Jane Yatman and Jane Lindsay battled to see who could ride the most miles in the least number of hours. Lindsay eventually won with an 800-mile ride done in 91 hours, 48 minutes.

It makes me hurt just to think about it. These women are an inspiration.

There’s so much that’s interesting in this book, but it only scratches the surface and I wish it were longer. But that’s my only complaint. If you’re at all interested in cycling and/or women’s history, I highly recommend it.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Nonfiction

Five Years!

March 17th was my five year blog anniversary! I never remember to celebrate the blog anniversary on the right date, if I remember to celebrate it at all, so it’s no surprise to me that I’m a few days late. But I did want to acknowledge the date this time around because five years seems … like a ridiculously long time. Have I really been blogging that long? It hardly feels like it. It seems like it was only yesterday that I started the blog as a way to fill the huge void left by a finished dissertation. Actually, at the time it didn’t feel like I began blogging for that reason — I thought I was beginning to blog because I loved what I saw other bloggers doing (particularly Stefanie, although I quickly fell in love with tons of other blogs). But looking back on it, it feels like too much of a coincidence to have finished the formal academic writing that a dissertation requires and to have started much more informal writing about books at precisely the same time. I remember thinking, oh, this will be so much fun — I can write anything! I don’t have to be formal! I can talk about myself! I don’t have to carefully back up my claims unless I feel like it! Wonderful!

And it has been great fun. I’ve written many times before about how blogging has changed my reading habits and changed my life — lots of new books, lots of new friends, a whole new way of being a bookish person — so I won’t get into all that again. I’m not sure I have anything new to say about how wonderful blogging has been, except that I mean it very much when I say I’m very glad I began blogging and I’m extremely grateful to all my readers and blog friends. Without you, five years of blogging — think of all those words! — wouldn’t be worth it. Thank you!



Filed under Blogging

Artists in Uniform

Although I haven’t picked it up in a while because of limited reading time, I’ve been enjoying Mary McCarthy’s collection of essays On the Contrary. It has a lot of essays that are new to me, and a couple that I’ve read before and loved, one of which is “Artists in Uniform.” The essay tells the story of McCarthy meeting and striking up a conversation with a man, the Colonel, on a train journey across the U.S. The two of them have been sitting in a car with a few other people, and because the Colonel is a man who tends to get what he wants, everyone expects that McCarthy will have lunch with him, even though he never actually asked her. But McCarthy hears the Colonel making anti-Semitic remarks, and she decides she will refuse lunch. She argues with him and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for his offensive comments, and although she eventually gives in and does have lunch with him, she keeps on arguing with him the entire time.

What makes the essay enjoyable is the way McCarthy describes their intellectual battle. The Colonel insists that there must be some personal reason McCarthy is so adamant about her anti-anti-Semitism; he can’t wrap his mind around the possibility that someone would have such a view just because it’s the right view to have. McCarthy believes what she does because it’s the right thing to believe, but the truth of the matter is that her grandmother was Jewish. She realizes she can’t let the Colonel know this, or he will dismiss her beliefs as personally motivated. So the two of them go at it: he keeps asking her questions trying to figure out what her personal connection to the Jews is, and she keeps trying to use reason and logic with him.

She sees that she’s much smarter than he is, and, given that it’s Mary McCarthy here, there’s no reason to doubt her. She’s aware of what’s going on in his head, all the twists and turns of his thinking, as he tries to figure her out. At the same time, she describes her own weaknesses and mistakes:

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t have lunch with anybody who feels that way about the Jews.” The colonel put down his attache case and scratched the back of his lean neck. “Oh, come now,” he repeated, with a look of amusement. “You’re not Jewish, are you?” “No,” I said quickly. “Well, then …” said the colonel, spreading his hands in a gesture of bafflement. I saw that he was truly surprised and slightly hurt by my criticism, and this made me feel wretchedly embarrassed and even apologetic, on my side, as though I had called attention to some physical defect in him, of which he himself was unconscious. “But I might have been,” I stammered. “You had no way of knowing. You oughtn’t to talk like that.” I recognized, too late, that I was strangely reducing the whole matter to a question of etiquette: “Don’t start anti-Semitic talk before making sure there are no Jews present.” “Oh, hell,” said the colonel, easily. “I can tell a Jew.” “No, you can’t,” I retorted, thinking of my Jewish grandmother, for by Nazi criteria I was Jewish. “Of course I can,” he insisted. “So can you.” … All at once the colonel halted, as though struck with a thought. “What are you, anyway?” he said meditatively, regarding my dark hair, green blouse, and pink earrings. Inside myself, I began to laugh. “Oh,” I said gaily, playing out the trump I had been saving. “I’m Irish, like you, Colonel.” “How did you know?” he said amazedly. I laughed aloud. “I can tell an Irishman,” I taunted.

McCarthy, despite having given in on the matter of lunch and despite making some minor tactical errors along the way (such as assuming the Colonel is religious, when he is not), is in control of the situation. She is watching the Colonel trying to catch her out and failing again and again.

She is in control, that is, until all the sudden she’s not. I won’t give away the essay’s ending, but the encounter does not conclude in the way McCarthy wanted it to. Her hopes of converting this man into a more enlightened way of thinking completely disappear. What the essay ends up being about, finally, is McCarthy’s own pride — pride in her intellect and in her ability to reason people into good behavior. Intellect will only get you so far, after all. If the Colonel doesn’t want to believe something, he won’t, and no amount of arguing will change his mind.

That dynamic captures what I like about McCarthy: she’s wickedly smart, but she’s not afraid to make herself look a little foolish. That, I think, is often what the best personal essayists do.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

Weekend report and book list

I had a lovely weekend chock full of bike racing, but the downside is that I didn’t have much time to read. Oh, well. Much as I’d love to have more hours in the day (or to need less sleep), that’s not the case, and sadly I can’t do everything, so now and then something has to go. Reading is never something I set aside for long, as I start to get antsy and to feel scattered if I don’t read at least a little. I’m going to try to squeeze in an hour or two tonight, if I don’t fall asleep first.

I rode in two bike races, one on Saturday and one today. The Saturday race took place in Coxsackie, New York (where do they get these names??), a two hour drive from home. The race was divided into only three fields, which means women rode with men, which means I didn’t have much hope of placing well. Some women are fast enough to keep up with the guys, but I’m not quite there yet. Or rather, I’m faster than some of the guys, but not all 75 or so of them out there yesterday. The race was seven laps, 42 miles total. I stayed with the pack for the first lap and a half, and then dropped off the back after taking a corner badly and slowing down too much. After that, I rode with a handful of other people up until the very last lap when I left one rider behind, another left me behind, and I was by myself for the last six miles. Let me tell you, those six miles were long. But I got a fabulously good workout in, with my heart rate pretty much as high as I can possibly hold it for over two hours. That’s serious work.

Today was the local race, and after the two+ hours of yesterday, 45 minutes at top speed seemed awfully short. As I wrote last week, my weakness is positioning myself close to the front of the pack, as opposed to the very back, and I did better this week staying in the right place. I was a little too far back heading into the final sprint, but I passed some people right at the very end and ended up getting 15th place. To put that in context, there were probably 35-40 riders out there. Considering that I was entirely off the back last week, that’s not too bad.

But now on to my book list. Litlove recently listed her “Top 10 Books I Absolutely Had to Have — But Still Haven’t Read.” That sounds like the perfect meme for me, especially at a time when I’m not reading as much as I’d like. After I make the list, it’s off to pick up a book and head for the couch.

  1. What comes to mind immediately is essay collections, especially Zadie Smith’s Changing my Mind. I got this last fall and thought I would dive in immediately. Yeah, still waiting.
  2. I’m also collecting essays about essays, or books that discuss the essay from a theoretical standpoint. Collecting, not reading. They include The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay by Carl Klaus, Reading Essays: An Invitation by Douglas Atkins, and Truth in Nonfiction by David Lazar.
  3. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2. I read the first volume several years ago, and thought it made great before-bed reading. I could read only a page or two and still feel as though I’d gotten something out of it. But I haven’t gotten any farther.
  4. George Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody. Remember a while back when somebody described bloggers as “Pooterish” (main character in the novel) and some bloggers claimed the title proudly? I said I wanted to read the source, so I got the book.
  5. Colette, Cheri and The Last of Cheri. I’ve needed to read Colette forever! And maybe I will this year, since she’s on the the official TBR list for 2011 (on the right).
  6. I have a whole collection of Romantic biographies I had to have but have yet to read. I have gotten to Richard Holmes’s very long biography of Coleridge, but I still need to read Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Francis Wilson, Shelley: The Pursuit by Richard Holmes, The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge by Adam Sisman, and Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself, by Ann Wroe. Oh, and I really want Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics.
  7. Another whole collection, this time of David Foster Wallace books, including Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion: Stories, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, and Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. Not to mention David Lipsky’s book on Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
  8. Rebecca West novels, including The Birds Fall Down, Cousin Rosamund, and This Real Night. I also really want The Return of the Solder, but perhaps I should resist for now?
  9. Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams. Somehow I became convinced a while back that I would like her and had to have one of her books.
  10. Letter collections including the letters of Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, and John Keats.

Some day I will read all of these, I swear!


Filed under Books, Cycling

Seeing Ian Rankin

Both Hobgoblin and I follow crime-novelist Ian Rankin on Twitter (here) and when he tweeted that he would be doing a book tour in the U.S., we both said, let’s go! So yesterday we drove up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to hear him speak. (He’s also appearing today in New York City, but Hobgoblin has an evening class so we couldn’t make that talk.) The event took place at Porter Square Books, just a mile or so from the center of Cambridge and the Harvard campus. I’d been there once to visit a friend a while back, but it had been a while, so Hobgoblin and I decided to arrive early and spend some time exploring. We found, of course, the bookstores, or some of them: Raven Used Books, Harvard Book Store, and the Globe Corner Bookstore, a travel bookshop. All of them were fabulous, as was the main location for the evening, Porter Square books. It’s so marvelous to be able to show up some place, start walking down the street and find bookstores immediately.

After browsing to our heart’s content and getting dinner at a local Irish pub, we staked out our places for the talk. Careful observation and a little hovering got us what we wanted: front-row seats. I heard at one point that they were expecting maybe 60 people, although I think more showed up, so it was nice to be in the front row of six or so people just a few feet away from the microphone.

I expected it to be mostly a reading with some Q&A afterward, but after his introduction, Rankin launched into the story of how he came to write the series he’s known for, the Rebus books, and from there he talked for almost an hour. He did read something, but that took maybe five minutes tops. He was clearly more interested in talking to us. And what a fun talker he is! He told us funny stories about getting in trouble after writing about his family’s embarrassing secrets and making them locally famous, and also about getting taken in for questioning when the plot of his first novel too-closely matched a recent crime. He was, he said, the main suspect for a while, which came as a huge surprise, as he had never heard about the crime on the local news. He has a great sense of humor, and he had us laughing the whole time.

The most interesting part of the talk was hearing about his writing process. He said that he usually gets to the end of the first draft without knowing who the murderer is. He sometimes doesn’t know who the murderer is even after the second draft. He said that he becomes like a detective himself, trying to piece together the evidence to discover the most logical conclusion. I find this method amazing — what if he were to discover that there really is no solution and the evidence doesn’t add up to anything? But he said that’s never happened to him. It sounds like a hugely risky way to write a novel, but I like the idea of the author as detective, searching for the solution just as the detective does and the reader later will, rather than the other possible model of the author as God, presiding over a world with all the answers already at hand. He said he doesn’t see the point in writing a novel where the solution is already worked out. What’s the point of that? He writes to find out what the solution is. He said that the one time he wrote an outline of an entire novel complete with the mystery solved, he never went on to write the book itself, because he found the prospect boring. It was a good story, he said, and too bad to lose it, but what would be the point of doing anything more?

I’ve read only one Rankin novel, The Falls, but I enjoyed it very much and I’d like to read more. Getting to see Rankin in person has made me that much more eager to pick up some of his other books.


Filed under Books

E.F. Benson’s Mrs. Ames

Mrs. Ames is the second book by E.F. Benson that I’ve read; a couple years ago I read his Queen Lucia and enjoyed it quite a lot (I received Mrs. Ames through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program). Mrs. Ames, published in 1912, covers much the same territory as Queen Lucia, published 8 years later. Both books are about small-town English life among the leisured classes. They are about gossip, dinner parties, and social rivalry. Neither book delves into anything terribly deep, dramatic, or tragic. In both books Benson shows affection for his pampered, petty characters, while at the same time making it clear just how absurd they are.

Queen Lucia is about Lucia’s struggle to maintain her control over the local social scene, and Mrs. Ames finds herself doing the exact same thing. The threat to Mrs. Ames takes a while to emerge, but it turns out to be Mrs. Evans, the doctor’s wife, who is relatively new to town. She has ideas for entertainments — masked costume parties! — that the town has never seen before. She also, more ominously, begins to spend more and more time with Mr. Ames, and the two of them begin a flirtation. It is entirely innocent to begin with, but over the course of the book grows increasingly serious.

Mrs. Ames sees what is going on and does her best to win her husband’s attention back, although, at the same time, she begins to wonder just how happy she is in her marriage. Her attempts to win back her husband’s affections provide some of the book’s uncomfortable comedy: she tries a wrinkle cream and colors her hair to get rid of the gray, but, sadly, her husband doesn’t notice and the women think she looks odd and see right through her attempts to regain youthfulness. It’s kind of pathetic, and yet perfectly understandable and sad.

In an effort to regain her place at the center of society that Mrs. Evans took away with her costume party, Mrs. Ames takes up the cause of women’s suffrage. Here’s where the book gets particularly interesting, and where the comic tone wavers a bit. Mrs. Ames began not caring at all about votes for women, only wanting to make a splash and force people to choose sides, but over time she finds she is genuinely concerned. The suffragist movement speaks to her vague feelings of dissatisfaction with her life and her marriage, and she sees that having greater independence and political involvement could bring a new meaning to life.

This part of the story climaxes in a scene where Mrs. Ames is forced to choose between, on the one hand, her loyalty to her husband and the codes of politeness she has spent her whole life blindly following, and, on the other, her new-found belief in votes for women. Her husband has invited a local politician to dinner, the very same man, unfortunately, that the suffragist group has decided to heckle during his speech later that day.

How Mrs. Ames resolves this dilemma and whether her unhappiness and her husband’s love affair will rip apart the social order provide the drama for the rest of the novel. I enjoyed the book very much, although it’s the book’s unevenness of tone that, strangely, made me like it: I found it fascinating that Benson was willing to take the story in a darker direction than anything in Queen Lucia, even if it disrupted the tone of light comedy established earlier in the book. The novel’s portrayal of women’s fight for the vote is mixed, but Benson does write some moving passages about Mrs. Ames’s self-awakening, and he is far from dismissive of her unhappiness. So, while this may not be a brilliant novel, it’s an entertaining, funny one that offers much that’s serious to think about.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Bike Racing!

This year has been all over the place as far as riding is concerned. I rode steadily for the first few weeks of the year, and then really awful weather hit, and I stopped riding entirely for almost four weeks. Then I started, then I stopped, and now I’ve started again. And today was my first race! No, I was not really prepared for it. I’m in the worst shape for March that I’ve been in in a long time. But the race went okay anyway. It was 20 laps long, and the pack stayed together most of the way. I stayed with the rest of the riders until lap 18, and then I dropped back a bit climbing the short hill on the course, and I couldn’t catch back on. I finished, but I did the last two laps on my own.

I know I could have done better if I had ridden smarter. Bike racing is just as much about tactics and positioning as it is about fitness, and I’m not good at all at tactics and positioning. So when my fitness is just so-so, I’m kind of screwed. I spent most of the race at or near the back of the pack, which puts me in danger of getting dropped, especially on the hill, where lack of fitness really shows. If I had been closer to the front of the pack, slowing down on the hill wouldn’t have mattered as much because I would still have been with the rest of the riders and wouldn’t have had to catch up. It’s having to catch up that’s a problem.

The thing is, I dislike racing enough that I’m not motivated to work on tactics and positioning. I had three teammates to ride with today, and one other woman who is sort of an honorary teammate, plus a bunch of other women from other teams that I am acquaintances with, and all that is fun. The social aspect is the real reason to race, I think — that, along with gaining fitness. I don’t do it because I’m driven to win. So … I stay at the back of the pack. Whatever.

I am excited about getting strong again, though. The real, real reason to race is to get strong so that I can do fast group rides. For me, that’s where the fun lies: riding the cupcake loop, the Lake Waramaug loop, the ridiculous 150-mile Massachusetts loop, and doing these rides with friends. There’s little that’s more fun than riding fast with a bunch of friends, full of adrenaline, laughing and joking, enjoying the Connecticut countryside. I’m hoping for a lot of rides like that this year.

Here’s a picture of my teammates and I at the start line shortly before the race started. I’m second from the right.


Filed under Cycling

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is already fading a bit from memory, since immediately after it I read Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson, and the two books have some major similarities. They are both about English village life, they are both examples of the novel of manners, and they are both extremely readable with charming and gently ironic narrative voices. More on Mrs. Ames later.

Simonson’s book tells the story of Major Pettigrew and his friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman who owns a shop in town. It’s the type of small town society we’ve all heard about if not lived in ourselves, where everybody knows everybody’s business and the life of the town revolves around social events and gossip. Being a novel of English small town life, it’s very much about class and also about race. As Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali begin to spend more time together, the gossip begins and some ugly attitudes emerge.

The novel is also about family dynamics. As the story begins, Major Pettigrew has just lost his brother Bertie; once the funeral is over, it’s time to start thinking about what will happen to Bertie’s antique Churchill gun, one of a matched pair, the other of which the Major owns. It’s no surprise to learn that while the Major’s father clearly wished the pair to be reunited upon the death of one of the brothers, the new widow is reluctant to give the valuable weapon up. Conflicts ensue.

The story is a pleasurable one; Simonson handles the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali very well, and she brings her characters together in entertainingly dramatic scenes. What I enjoyed most, though, is the narrative voice. Simonson is excellent at creating an understated, quiet, but nonetheless very funny satirical tone. The Major’s son Roger is particularly ridiculous: he is obsessed with appearances and social climbing and he and his American girlfriend (yes, the Americans in this book are the horrible clueless Americans of the stereotype) are self-absorbed, rude, and generally awful. For example, in this passage Roger asks the Major whether he will vouch for him as he and his girlfriend try to rent a cottage. Roger says:

“The issue is the widowed Mrs. Augerspier. She wants to sell the cottage to the ‘right’ people. I need you to come with us and be your most distinguished and charming self.”

“So you would like me to come and kiss the hand of the poor widow like some continental gigolo until she is confused into accepting your meager offer for a property that probably represents her entire nest egg?” asked the Major.

“Exactly,” said Roger. “Is Thursday at two good for you?”

Simonson is also particularly good at handling the issues of race and colonialism that underlie the story. The Major is a little out of his depth as he meets Mrs. Ali’s extended family, but his politeness gets him through his encounters with an unfamiliar culture. Mrs. Ali shows grace and patience as she deals with the clueless and rude townspeople who don’t quite manage to acknowledge her as a real person with thoughts and feelings. Simonson deals with the colonialism issue partly by having the Major and Mrs. Ali read Kipling together. As they discuss him, they delicately touch on the colonial legacy that shaped both of their lives:

“I used to consider myself a bit of a Kipling enthusiast,” said the Major. “I’m afraid he’s rather an unfashionable choice these days, isn’t he?”

“You mean not popular among us, the angry former natives”? she asked with an arch of one eyebrow.

“No, of course not …” said the Major, not feeling equipped to respond to such a direct remark …

“I did give [Kipling] up for many decades,” she said. “He seemed such a part of those who refuse to reconsider what the Empire meant. But as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It’s so hard to maintain that rigor of youth, isn’t it?”

“I applaud your logic,” said the Major, swallowing any urge to defend the Empire his father had proudly served. “Personally, I have no patience with all this analyzing of writers’ politics. “The man wrote some thirty-five books — let them analyze the prose.”

The Major and Mrs. Ali are such charming characters. I’ll confess that I got some of the minor ones confused now and then, but the Major and Mrs. Ali are wonderful company to keep while reading a novel. There is much to admire and enjoy in this book, particularly if a quiet love story and a book about small town conflicts appeals to you. Simonson does an excellent job with her material.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live

I think I’m going to be behind in my usual blog business — responding to comments, reading other people’s blogs — for a while, but thank goodness spring break is coming up next week. I will be back in the swing of things very soon.

In the meantime, I’d like to point out my review of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to Live: or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which is over at the Quarterly Conversation. The short version of my review: I liked it very much. If you’d like to read more, the review is here.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

The bad and the good

I almost decided to write a little post about needing a blog break for a week or so, but then I decided that maybe I wouldn’t. My spring break begins in just another few days, so maybe I can make it that far without having to go to such extreme measures. It’s just that last week was a particularly bad one. My mother became seriously ill, and while she’s doing well, I’m worried about her. This weekend I drove up to the Rochester area to visit my parents and help out a bit, and I was glad to help, but this is my first serious brush with my parents’ mortality, and I do not like it one bit. Not at all. But my mother is recovering and will soon be well again, so that’s good.

So instead of taking a blog break, I thought I’d cheer myself up by writing about some things I’m really enthusiastic about these days. Distraction can work wonderfully, can’t it? I spent part of my drive this weekend listening to podcasts, and I have to say I love them. A few months ago, I read this article from The New York Review of Books about all the excellent radio available these days, and I finally got myself over to iTunes to figure out how to download shows. Since then, I’ve heard tons of author interviews on shows like The Leonard Lopate Show and The Brian Lehrer Show both on WNYC, and Radio Open Source where the host talks to his guests for almost an hour. I just heard an amazing interview on this show with Andre Dubus III, whose book Townie I will be reading soon. I’ve also recently heard interviews with Jaimy Gordon, Rana Dasgupta, and Lydia Davis. Also Joseph O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Aminatta Forna, Zadie Smith, Maxine Hong Kingston, Adam Gopnik, and Carlos Fuentes (most of this list comes from The Leonard Lopate Show). It’s so fun to learn a little bit about new books and authors this way.

I also listen to This American Life, where the stories are almost always fascinating, and Fresh Air, which I listen to whenever Terry Gross has interesting guests. Also Studio 360 now and then, and Radiolab. Some of these shows I listened to on the radio in the old fashioned way, but only when the timing was right, which was rare. Now I listen to them whenever I want, most often in the car on my way to work.

The downside to this is that I’ve stopped listening to audiobooks, which is what I used to do during my commute, when I wasn’t listening to music or the news. Commute time is turning out to be precious time, although I don’t want it to be any longer than it is. But there are more things to do with it than I realized. I may go back to audiobooks at some point, but for now, I’m too eager to keep up with my podcasts.

And on to another enthusiasm: have I mentioned how much I love Twitter? For a while I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to use it, but, no surprise, I’ve begun to follow mostly bookish people, whether it’s fellow bloggers, authors, booksellers, or publishers. It’s been so much fun to carry on conversations about books with bloggers, of whom there are too many to list, but you can see who I’m following here. Twitter is also a good source of information on new books from publishers. Their feeds are all about marketing, of course, but it’s marketing news I’d like to hear, and there are often interesting people behind the feeds.

And then there are authors who tweet. My favorite is Colson Whitehead, whose tweets are often hilarious. There’s also Margaret Atwood, Ian Rankin, and Sara Paretsky. Pepys is also on twitter, or at least someone posts bits from his diary now and then. Also, Rosanne Cash’s tweets are awesome; she tweeted about the Super Bowl and the Oscars in the style of Jane Austen, and the results were delightful. And then sometimes super fun things happen like when I tweeted about how much I liked Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution, and she tweeted me back saying thank you!

It’s just so much fun. It can be a time suck, but it’s a great way to get news, keep in touch with people and learn about new things. I use Facebook, but Twitter is much cooler.

Okay, that makes me feel better!


Filed under Books, Life

Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution

I’ve had very good luck with nonfiction so far this year, including Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, and now Deb Olin Unferth’s book Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. I loved every moment of this all-too-short book (a very fast 200 pages). It’s exactly what a memoir should be: entertaining, thoughtful, smart, funny, self-reflective, and even self-critical, with exactly the right kind of self-absorption, the kind that manages to say interesting things about the writer but also about a whole lot more. It tells the story of how during her freshman year in college in the 1980s Unferth met and fell in love with George, an unusual young man, a Christian with counter-cultural leanings. The two of them dropped out of school to go to Central America and join the revolutions fomenting there.

The book is extremely well-written. I’ve been trying to put into words exactly what I like about its style, and it’s been hard. Somehow Unferth manages to say a lot more than just what’s on the page. Her sentences are short and simple, with hardly a word wasted. She’s great at moving towards a larger meaning, hinting at it, and then leaving you to take the final leap. I usually prefer a more maximalist, wordy style, but this version of minimalism worked for me because it managed to say more than it seemed to. The book is written in short chapters, sometimes only a page long, each telling a story or vignette or exploring an idea. It holds together as a coherent whole, but the short chapters give it a fractured feeling that somehow makes everything more believable. It’s not a seamless narrative, but instead the chapters offer glimpses of or angles into the story. It’s a method that doesn’t promise to fit everything together neatly, because such a thing is impossible.

The story is not told in chronological order. In fact, she starts by telling us the ending, how she and her boyfriend returned from their travels in Central America and all she wanted to do was go to McDonald’s. Then, in chapter 2, she tells the whole story in just a few lines. The next 199 pages or so merely fill in the details:

My boyfriend and I went to join the revolution.

We couldn’t find the first revolution.

The second revolution hired us on and then let us go.

We went to the other revolutions in the area — there were several — but every one we came to let us hang around for a few weeks and then made us leave.

We ran out of money and at last we came home.

I was eighteen. That’s the whole story.

From there, the narrative moves back to the beginning of the trip in Mexico, when Unferth and her boyfriend find themselves in a shantytown outside Mexico City and panic when they get lost. From there, there is steady progress through the various countries they visited, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, to give the story some narrative momentum, but interspersed among these present-action sections are flashbacks to Unferth’s college days when she first met George and converted to Christianity, and also to her younger years with her family. The narrative also moves forward now and then to tell about what happened after the trip was over, about the difficulty she had readjusting to life in the U.S. and about what happened to her relationship with George. All this back and forth movement works. There’s the potential for it to be confusing, but it never is, except in the way our memories can sometimes be confusing; instead, the structure evokes the sense of what it is like for Unferth to look back on that time of her life, to remember all the details and think about their larger significance.

Let me close by giving you a short chapter in its entirety to give you a sense of her style:

Years later I heard that the Sandinistas referred to us as Sandalistas, not Internacionalistas. We wore Birkenstocks, right? A bunch of hippies, ha, ha. I don’t recall hearing that during the revolution, only after. I believe the Nicaraguans called us Sandalistas behind our backs.

That’s okay. I can take (or be) a joke.

In fact I did wear sandals. I brought on the trip my smartest pair, not Birkenstocks, but a strappy affair. It turned out the revolution was going to involve a lot of walking. A week into Mexico my feet were blistered and my sandals were broken. I bought a new pair for five dollars and I wore those until they broke too. I bought another pair and another. Finally George said I couldn’t keep buying new pairs. I had to make the pair I had last. At that point I had a pair that cost about three dollars. The sandals stretched after a few days and fell off my feet as I walked. I took some string and tied them to my feet. When the string broke, I tied knots in it and tied my sandals back on and kept walking until the soles wore through to the ground. Why didn’t I bring a pair of damn Birkenstocks? I thought. But I’d wanted to look nice, you know, cute for the revolution.

This passage captures so much: Unferth’s mildly ironic, bemused attitude toward herself, her total misunderstanding as an 18-year-old of what she was in for on this trip, her boyfriend’s controlling tendencies, and the way we get a double-perspective on the book’s events: both the eighteen-year-old view and the older woman’s commentary on that view.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction