Archive for December, 2009

I just read Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold, but I’m not really sure what I think of it.  It seems to be another of those quirky introspective books about the break-up of a marriage from the man’s point of view (reminiscent of both Netherland and Enduring Love).  This book has much less action than the other two, but also has some memorable scenes and intelligent insights into human behavior, as in the scene when the narrator, Michael, is standing outside under an overhanging balcony:

…shutting myself out of the house in order to consider the possibility that my life with Rebecca was unsustainable, a thought that was like a small, panicked pet I wasn’t allowed to keep indoors and hence was forced to exercise outside, where it ran crazily up and down the front steps in the dark..

Shortly thereafter, the balcony falls off the house, a symbol perhaps of the crumbling relationship between Michael and Rebecca.  When the surveyor, a normal-seeming man of about the same age as Michael, comes to assess the damage, Michael has an epiphany about his own life:

When I saw him standing on the doorstep amid the rubble and the broken railings I understood how dangerous my life had become.  Crystal fruit bowls (thrown at him by Rebecca) did not come flying trhough the air at Ed Reynolds.  Balconies did not fall on him from above. 

 The Hansburys are entertaining, and so, also are Rebecca’s parents, Rick and Ali.  Somehow, the previous generation seem more vibrant and alive than their pallid, whining offspring.  In the end, for both families, the reality created by the parents is more compelling than that of the children who return to the fold (also a clever reference to sheep, who make up a part of the story), abandoning their fragile, tentative pathways, their lives to which they had never fully committed.  Michael alone has not that luxury and is left on the outside looking in.  This is a smart and entertaining book, but it all seems rather muffled.  It’s hard to feel connected to the characters, perhaps because Michael himself is so disconnected.  I do like her writing, I’m just not that excited about it.


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Finally got back to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It was okay. All the characters were just a little too quaint and exotic – like some of those Southern novels that just try too hard to show you how eccentric everyone is.  What was interesting to me was the underlying, rather grim story of Guernsey during the war.  England apparently just pulled out, not wanting to waste resources on defending the Channel Islands.  The hardship of the occupation – lack of food, curfews, the children being sent away before the Germans came – is alluded to throughout the book, but the tone is light and anecdotal.  That’s okay; it makes an enjoyable story, just not a great one. The literary part, where each person in the Society talks about a book that they read and liked, is interesting – I am intrigued to read more Charles Lamb and Seneca. I was annoyed by the character who read and disliked Marcus Aurelius, that was not well-done or well thought out. I felt it was just thrown in to add a colorful episode and did a diservice to a great philosopher. Such opinions were not earned. I also liked the mention of Anne Bronte (more on this topic to follow).  The story of Elizabeth was barely told, but that was the most gripping part of the book, the part that ‘got me by the throat’, so to speak.  Learning more about the islands was interesting – prior to this, I had heard of Jersey because of Lily Langtree (the “Jersey Lily”) and I knew that Victor Hugo had lived in self-imposed exile on one of the Channel Islands, but that was pretty much it. So, my opinion is mixed – I think the book is fairly charming and likeable, but leaves one with that sickly feeling of having overindulged in something sweet.

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I happened to pick up The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (another bad book title involving pie; how weird is that?) on a 1 week loan from the library and easily finished it in a day and a half.  This debut novel by Alan Bradley has garnered attention by winning a crime writing award, and, I think, for the winning character of his 11-year old sleuth, Flavia de Luce.  The plain green binding of the book, without a glossy plastic cover, adds to a certain timeless feel of the writing and helps bring you back to the setting of 1950’s Britain. It felt to me like a library book from my childhood (in the fifties as it happens), and I was surprised to find that this is not a reissue of a forgotten classic, but has a 2009 copyright. I was also surprised to find that Bradley is not British at all, but Canadian.  He certainly infuses his book with a striking sense of time and place – a small village in postwar Britain – and describes childhood as it used to be in the days of benign neglect, before the over involved, slightly-crazed parents of our generation (self included).  Flavia’s dysfunctional family is half the fun of the book: the distant father; the disparaging older sisters; the missing, apparently deceased, mother.  It reminds one a bit of Dodie Smith’s 1948 classic (also an entertaining film), I Capture the Castle. I was also reminded me not a little of Oliver Sach’s memoir of his childhood, Uncle Tungsten, Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.  In this engaging story, Sach’s shows us his own childhood, mostly during the war years, interwoven with the history of science and imbued throughout with his love of science, metals and chemistry.  He, like Flavia, had his own lab and experimented freely, sometimes causing explosions which, I seem to recall, caused very little disruption in the family routine (both of his parents were doctors).  They both make heroes of eminent chemists from the past; when in a tight spot, Flavia often asks herself what Madame Lavoisier would do in her place.  In short, Bradley captures that passion that was so moving in Sach’s memoir (I always loathed chemistry in school – the smells, the dry lectures, the incomprehensible symbols and stupid experiments – but Sach’s chapter on the Periodic Table is sheer poetry).  Flavia is always figuring out what chemical compounds lie behind smells, foods, causes of death – poison is, after all, her speciality. Speciality fascinates the generalist—those who dabble, who wander wide but shallow, envy the ones who dig deep – Glory be …to all trades, their gear, tackle and trim.  There is the genius of this book, not in the plot, which is clunky at best; even the characters are a little too, too; even the setting too quaint, but the love of chemistry elevates it all to a different level.  I certainly wouldn’t say as the book blurb declares, that “it is an enthralling mystery, a piercing depiction of class and society.”  No, not that, but something better, in its way, something true.  And, there is alos just an old fashioned enjoyment of telling a story replete with details of rooms, weather, towns, faces, all the stuff of a story that must be there.  I could wish for Bradley an editor to help with the plot – little things niggle such as Mary’s odd about-face in leading Flavia up to the room at the inn where she finds important clues, why did it take Flavia so long to remember the steps when at the bottom of the pit, etc. – however, the father, Flavia, the Inspector, Dogger are all wonderful characters, and I will be following Flavia’s further adventures with gusto.

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