The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

At the start of 1955, Mrs. Hawkins is a young and overweight editor who lives in a Kensington rooming house with assorted postwar types: a moderately rich girl who is trying her wings will inevitably fall pregnant, a devout old Polish seamstress, an Irish landlady, a hard-studying medical student. Her husband died in the war, and in point of fact they were scarcely married. By day, she is a skilled editor at a small but important publishing house which is hurtling toward bankruptcy. Everyone confides in the skilled and sexlessly unthreatening Mrs. Hawkens.

Then, one morning, Mrs. Hawkens decides it might be a good idea to lose weight. That changes everything. A skilled and lively portrait of a character whom everyone assumes to be uninteresting.

July 27, 2016 (permalink)

William Ritter

A skillful cadenza on Sherlock Holmes in which Watson is transmogrified into the adventurous, observant Abigail Rook. She has just arrived by ship, penniless, at New Fiddleham, one of America’s brand-new great cities, and needs a job. Jackaby, a private investigator who specializes in inexplicable and supernatural phenomena, needs an assistant, his previous assistant being, temporarily, waterfowl.

July 27, 2016 (permalink)

The Three Body Problem
Cixin Liu, Ken Liu, trans.

In this fascinating first-encounter novel from China, two despairing civilizations – one human, one from Trisolaris (which we call Alpha Centauri) – make radio contact. A novel about the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, and also about the politics of despair, this won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

June 29, 2016 (permalink)

A strange, suspenseful, but also lyrical story about the sophisticated and successful men who loved Molly, an extraordinary woman whose London funeral opens the story. Terrific and rare portraits of real people – a newspaperman and a composer – doing real work, bookended by plenty of incident. The best of McEwan.

July 19, 2016 (permalink)

Curtis Sittenfeld

A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by the author of the wonderful school story, Prep. The Bennetts live in a nice Tudor house in the Cincinnati suburbs. Bingley is an ER physician who recently starred in a reality TV series. Darcy is a neurosurgeon. Jane Bennett teaches yoga in New York, where her sister Lizzie is an up-and-coming magazine writer; both are nearing forty and their mother is very eager for grandchildren.

The surprising technical obstacle in this vivid (and in most ways very literal) retelling is Lydia, the younger sister who threatens to disgrace herself and her family by running away with the handsome and untrustworthy Mr. Wickham. There’s just no way to do that in modern dress, at least not romantically: who could be so unsuitable, what arrangement so unspeakable, that everyone would have to drop everything and fly to Chicago to track down the errant daughter? Sitttenfeld comes up with one answer, but it's a stretch. (In the wake of today’s news about Brexit and my recent immersion in the Mitford, I suppose eloping with a fascist, Trump-eter, or war criminal might serve, though even then Mrs. Bennett could forgive much as long as there was enough money in the family.)

Written in lots of tiny chapters, this may be a frothy book but it was a ton of fun.

June 24, 2016 (permalink)

Lord and Lady Redesdale had seven kids. The boy was popular and well-enough liked, and died in Burma during the war. The six daughters were a handful.

  1. was Nancy (Naunce), gorgeous and a terrific novelist and wrote equally terrific letters – and had a fatal tendency to fall for gay men.
  2. was Pamela (Woman), who had childhood polio, a brief, bad marriage, was gay, and lived a retired country life. She is the only one of the sisters who didn’t publish books, but she could write, too.
  3. was Diana (Honks), the beauty of her age. She was the model for one of the muses in the floor of the National Gallery, and much else beside. After another brief, bad marriage, she married Oswald Mosley, leading man of British Fascism.
  4. was Unity (Birdy or Boud), who shared a room with #5. They didn’t get along, and drew a chalk line down the middle of the room. Unity filled her side of the room with pictures of brave Fascists; her sister plastered her walls with Lenin and company. In the 30s, Unity went to Germany and fell deeply in love with Hitler, shooting herself when England declared war on Germany.
  5. was Jessica (Decca), who eloped with a communist, moved to California, and wrote important exposés and was a leader in the civil writes movement.
  6. was Deborah (Debo), who became the Duchess of Devonshire, invented the stately home industry, and remained on speaking terms with all six sisters throughout the course of her life.

They knew everyone worth knowing, pretty much. They seem to have had uniformly bad taste in men, but never let that stop them. They wrote a lot of letters, many of them brilliant.

Charlotte Mosley – Diana’s daughter in law – selects and edits these expertly. The correspondence is huge, so even selected letters leaves us with a brick. Every letter has wonderful footnotes that identify almost everyone mentioned – a task made nearly impossible by the sisters’ fondness for nicknames and private jokes. The Queen Mother, for example, is always “Cake,” apparently because, at a wedding in the 1930s, she was strikingly enthusiastic when told that the couple were going to cut the wedding cake.

June 18, 2016 (permalink)

Superb McEwan, with insightful and real prose that has impact but never calls attention to itself. A family court judge discovers that her own marriage is not quite as solid as she would like, as several of her cases escape from the court room to haunt her.

June 6, 2016 (permalink)

Second reading of this fascinating story about The Culture – a future civilization which has transcended routine scarcity, removing many sources of conflict and threatening to render narrative pointless. Further complicating the narrative problem is that the central character is a professional gamer, but since we’re talking about very advanced civilizations which have self-aware spaceships and such, the games can’t be described in much detail because they’re just too complex. Despite the challenges, this is superbly done.

June 17, 2016 (permalink)

This is a school story that doesn’t care about school or use school to any particular end beyond its unforgettable line: “for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” Even that is asserted, not argued. I suspect that this burlesque of the modern workplace carried a lot more punch in 1928, and though generations of screwball comedy have dulled its edge, this remains a pleasant romp.

June 1, 2016 (permalink)

I sought out this dual biography because I want to know how it came to pass that a gay man was in charge of such a large part of World War II, and how people managed with that. Montgomery’s homosexuality is something I’d always assumed was understood. It turns out to be a myth – at least, Caddice-Adams dismisses the notion when we finally get there, some 500 pages into the work. (I assume that I got this impression, for better or worse, from my mother. She knew a lot, and in the late 40s and early 50s she had interesting sources. She had no question at all, for example, that Eisenhower had an affair with Kay Summersby. Biographers now dismiss this, and I have know idea whether my mother knew this as an emotional truth or because someone told her, and for Mom that could have been anyone from the grocer to Summersby.)

Anyway, Montgomery was an interesting fellow who was so good at putting up a façade that he leaves his biographer with rather little to work with: there’s plenty of incident and lots of photo opportunities but not a lot of character. Perhaps Caddice-Adams’ best moment is at Normandy when he points out that, for the first day, the majority of the troops in France were British. It was the end of a long era: Britain’s last day as a superpower.

This book spends a lot of time on strategy and tactics, but doesn’t quite pin down whether Montgomery’s famous caution was a sensible response to his manpower problems, to the memory of the trenches, or to the complex political climate he inhabited. I wish, too, that I knew what Montgomery thought of Macarthur – not only in the Pacific War, but even more in Korea. Montgomery had his problems with Churchill (and separately with Clementine Churchill); I wonder what he made of the “old soldiers never die” speech.

June 2, 2016 (permalink)

A huge and brilliant volume, tightly focused on a fascinating and witty statesman and his inner circle. Manchester was a captivating writer, and when a stroke prevented him from finishing the work, Reid stepped in and ably emulated Manchester’s skill at working detail into a compelling narrative. It’s a big book – 1200 pages, or 53 hours in Clive Chafer’s able reading – but it always moves right along.

Churchill seldom bought anything and carried no money; people did that for him, even though he was not rich until his war memoirs made him so. He only took the tube one time in his ninety year life, most of it spent in London. He was often hilarious and always eloquent, and he managed to stuff a hell of a lot of work into a day.

May 27, 2016 (permalink)

Having revisited “Study In Pink”, the first episode of the Gattis & Moffat television series, I realized that I had not read A Study In Scarlet in a long time – perhaps not since high school. It’s an interesting mystery, introducing its unforgettable characters while offering fine in handling London. Conan Doyle is so adept at establishing the time and technology that the reader forgets this was not meant to be historical fiction. The long backstory in early Mormon Utah shows Conan Doyle’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses; it’s conventional melodrama, it’s sometimes stale and sometimes predictable, but it also keeps moving and gets us where we need to go.

It must have been something to meet Sherlock in the pages of The Strand, not knowing that this was going to be the Sherlock Holmes.

May 27, 2016 (permalink)

A fascinating and anecdotal account of the structure shared by many successful American musicals. Viertel draws on a vast range of theater but returns, time and again, to an interesting set: Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Carousel, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, and My Fair Lady. It’s fascinating to see how what seems to be a very rigid and specific form like the Bench Song -- the conditional love song that follows the rollicking number known as The Noise – shows up all over the place. Viertel believes that small changes in the placement or tempo of songs can make all the difference, and provides plenty of anecdotes about good shows and bad and how they came to be structured the way they are.

April 11, 2016 (permalink)

Filling holes, it’s easy to see why Austen is so widely beloved, and why Mansfield Park inspires admiration. Still, the conclusion is forcibly sentimental and it’s hard to understand why staging a comedy should threaten the ruin of a family’s reputation, especially when all the neighbors are taking part.

June 24, 2016 (permalink)

Howards End
E. M. Forster

Six years ago, I wrote:

Dearest Meg,
It isn’t going to be what we expected.

What a fine way to start a story. And what a fine story! It makes an interesting pairing with Galsworthy; The Man Of Property was published in 1906, four years before Howards End.

Visiting the lovely house of an English friend reminded me of Howards End; even if they don’t have a mystic wych-elm, their garden is long and lovely.

This is also an oddly unsentimental book, considering that it’s literally about sentiment, and it’s also oddly uninterested in men, considering that it’s the work of a gay man. There’s a lot going on here, in a quiet way, that repays rereading.

April 4, 2016 (permalink)