Bits (in the media) about books

August 31, 2008 at 6:30 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers)

The old saw “You can’t judge a book by its cover” has some truth to it – but what about judging a book by the blurbs on the back of that cover? Read “He Blurbed, She Blurbed,” by Rachel Donadio.

In an engaging piece in a recent issue of Literary Review, a critic and writer admits to ambivalent feelings about electronic books. Read “Can You Drop a Kindle in the Bath?” by Kathryn Hughes.

Finally, i am interested in books about business and finance, partly because my brother writes in that subject area, but also because I constantly struggle to understand the abstruse (for me, anyway) concepts basic to both fields of endeavor. Today’s Washington Post Business section features “Recommended Reading for Our Times” by Frank Ahrens. In this article, various individuals with experience in economics, finance, and business are asked to recommend titles that might further the understanding of the average non-expert reader. The result is a surprisingly eclectic list of books that includes – not once, but  twice! – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.


A brand new anthology I’m very much looking forward to getting is Minding the Store: Great Writing about Business from Tolstoy to Now, edited  by Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge, reviewed here by Ron Slate.

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Two splendid entertainments forthcoming – and one just arrived

August 28, 2008 at 9:00 pm (books, Film and television, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Uncategorized)

Every once in a while, I read a review that causes me to want the book now – not in a few days, not next week – but right this moment! Patrick Anderson’s review of True Crime: An American Anthology in Monday’s Washington Post had precisely that affect on me.

First I tried the library. True Crime was not on order yet, so I requested that it be purchased by the system. (For local library users: you can request that materials be purchased by the library by filling out this form on the library’s website.)

Then I tried Amazon, where the publication date of True Crime was given as September 18. Of course, the opportunity to pre-order was on offer – and at a hefty discount: $26.40, as opposed to the list price of $40.00.

But – sigh… – when I’m in this kind of acquisition fever, money ceases to figure in. So I thought to scheming little self, let’s have a look at the publisher’s site. And lo and behold, The Library of America had the book in stock and available for purchase immediately at the discount price of $32.00! Not only that, but they offered that Holy Grail of online book buyers, Free Shipping!! Well, no question but that I would spring for it – and so I have, Dear Reader, so I have. But I must confess: free shipping was too slow, so I opted to splurge on a UPS delivery – which pushed the price of the whole transaction up to just under $40.00. And so, True Crime: An American Anthology should be here in just a few days – and boy, will I be ready for it!


Now – where was I… Oh, yes – the second splendid entertainment is no less than the announcement of a planned sequel to the Masterpiece Mystery series Foyle’s War. It will be entitled, logically enough, Foyle’s Peace. Read it about it here.

Many of us feel that the series Foyle’s War was a class act of the first order, the best mystery series to come to us from Britain since the incomparable Inspector Morse. It was conceived by Anthony Horowitz. Take a look at this man’s credits – just incredible! We fans of Mystery! really owe him.


Finally, I just picked up my reserve copy of Game Over by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. Her Bill Slider series is one of my all time favorite procedurals. These books are wonderfully well written and constantly enlivened by Harrod-Eagles’ trademark wit. Lately, along with her loyal readers, she’s had to fight to get them published over here. So a big thank-you goes to Severn House, one of my favorite publishers.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

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The true meaning of our creed

August 28, 2008 at 1:30 am (Current affairs)

Tonight I find myself thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the “I Have a Dream” speech, which I remember watching on television in the year 1963.

In particular, I am thinking of one line:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'”

For those of us who came of age during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s, this is an especially amazing and gratifying moment. Whatever happens next, history has been made at the Democratic Convention tonight!

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From Serf to Diva to Countess: the stranger-than-fiction life journey of Praskovia Ivanovna Sheremeteva and her lover

August 26, 2008 at 2:17 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

The Pearl by Douglas Smith is a most unlikely love story set against the backdrop of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia. The rule of the Romanov tsars was absolute. The higher echelon of the nobility often possessed fabulous wealth and ruled over demesnes on which thousands of serfs labored.

Wikipedia defines serfdom as “…enforced labor of serfs on the fields of landowners, in return for protection and the right to work on their leased fields.” As an institution, it resembles to some degree the relationship of lord of the manor and peasant in medieval Europe – feudalism, in other words. In western Europe, this social order was weakened first, by the scourge of the Black Death in the mid-1300’s, and in subsequent years, by the Renaissance. Russia, however, was bypassed by both of these culturally seismic shifts. As a result, the waning years of the eighteenth century found it lumbering forward with glacial slowness, encumbered with an outmoded system of fiefdom more suited to life in the Middle Ages than to the thrust toward modernity being experienced by nations to the West.

in the late 1700’s, for a variety of complex reasons, certain Russian aristocrats built theaters on their vast estates. They then proceeded to tap into the vast pool of available serf labor in search of individuals who could perform in theatrical productions and operas. An amazing reservoir of talent, even genius, was brought to light in this manner. And in just this way a fabulously wealthy epicure, Count Nicholas Scheremetev, discovered the preternaturally gifted Praskovia Kovalyova – discovered her, and then fell in love with her.

Praskovia as Eliane in the opera "The Marriage of the Samnites"

Ii was by no means unheard of for a nobleman to take a serf woman as a lover or a mistress. What was completely unprecedented was for that same nobleman to take such a woman as his wife. This is precisely what Nicolas Schermetev was determined to do.

The Pearl centers on the extraordinary bond between Micholas and Praskovia. The reader can have no doubt concerning the depth of the Count’s devotion to the beautiful, delicate Praskovia. Douglas Smith sets this relationship in context by describing in detail the Russia of the late 18th century. We’re familiar with L.P. Hartley’s dictum concerning the past – that it is another country, where people do things differently. The Russia evoked in these pages seems more like another planet. It was a society governed by rigid protocol. The contrast between the fabulous – I almost want to say obscene- wealth of the aristocracy and the poverty and wretched living conditions of the serfs is shocking. These conditions were promulgated as being nothing less than God’s will. At the head of this ossified social order was the Tsar, a kind of Godhead himself (or herself, the ruler for much of that era being Catherine the Great).. By the next century, the seeds of revolution were already being sown. The only wonder is that it took so long to happen.

This book dragged in places. Smith goes into great detail concerning the strange phenomenon of serf theater. The lengthy narrative of Nicholas’s efforts to establish some sort of noble lineage for Praskovia became tedious. Finally, while a few passages might be described as lyrical, Smith’s prose rarely rises above what I would call workmanlike. In fairness to this author, this was a complex tale exhaustively researched and no doubt extremely difficult to assemble into a coherent whole.

In point of fact, Smith was able to locate the Count’s descendants, who were only to happy to assist him: “Kyra Cheremeteff, a direct descendant of Nicholas and Praskovia, responded with generosity to my inquiries.”

Despite its occasionally slow pace, The Pearl is a book with a compelling story to tell. I recommend it.

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The art of biography: life stories, and more

August 26, 2008 at 12:05 am (books)

I was recently asked to take part in a program of book talks about biographies. This got me thinking about just what books rightly fall into that category. I didn’t have to think twice about some selections. I knew, for instance, that I would enjoy booktalking Kate Williams’s England’s Mistress, the story of Emma Hamilton’s rise from penury to fame – some would say notoriety – and wealth; and Eve LaPlante’s empathetic biography of her pious Puritan ancestor Samuel Sewall, who was, for his sins, a Salem Witch Judge.

Of course, biographies such as those mentioned above are never only about one individual: they also, of necessity , treat of that person’s relationships with others. (One could not, for instance, talk about Emma Hamilton’s life without also discussing her lover, that renowned hero of the Napoleonic Wars Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.) In some cases, those “others” share equal importance in the narrative, in which case you have what A.S. Byatt has termed a “composite biography.” Some of the best nonfiction I’ve read in recent years falls into this category: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and Katie Roiphe’s deliciously gossipy Uncommon Arrangements are two examples.


And then there are the love stories. One that I especially cherish is A Venetian Affair by Andrea Di Robilant, an Italian journalist whose own distinguished lineage led him to unearth this compelling story. And then there is an astonishing story that’s come down to us from the Middle Ages: Heloise and Abelard, ably retold by James Burge.


Some of my favorite biographies serve to re-create the world inhabited by their subjects. One of Stephen Greenblatt’s aims in writing Will in the World was to demonstrate the way in which Shakespeare’s life and work were shaped by his environment. And so, in the pages of this book, the 16th century market town of Stratford-upon-Avon springs vividly and colorfully to life – not to mention the fascinating, often dangerous England beyond Stratford’s boundaries.

A welcome trend in recent years has been what I would call the short form biography. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to delve into someone’s life, only to be daunted by the 800-plus page tome (probably with minuscule print) lying heavily before me. The chief innovator in this area has been the Penguin Press, with their Penguin Lives series. Each entry is about 250 pages in length. What has been especially notable about these books is the deliberate pairing of author and subject: theologian Martin E. Marty writing about Martin Luther; historian John Keegan on Winston Churchill, and so forth.

Now there’s a new series of short biographical sketches, all of which issue from the pen of that prolific polymath,, Peter Ackroyd. I just read his Newton and greatly enjoyed it. Others in the series that have appeared so far are Chaucer and J.M.W. Turner.



Before writing Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow ( a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and oh, yes, my brother) published Giants of Enterprise. This eminently readable volume profiles “Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built.” The subjects, each covered in discreet chapters of about sixty or seventy pages in length, are Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson Sr., Charles Revson, Sam Walton, and Robert Noyce.


One biography has haunted me since I first read it in the late 1960’s, shortly after its publication in this country: Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat.

Still in print – many thanks, Grove Atlantic!

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Realms of Gold: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul

August 24, 2008 at 1:12 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington)) ()

This past Friday, a friend and I had a most extraordinary experience: we visited the above named exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

The works on display date from 4500 BC to 200 AD. The story of their discovery, and recovery, is at least as astonishing as the objects themselves. It is a tale of wanton destruction, danger, incredible luck – and equally incredible courage.

Here are some of the wonders you can behold there:

[This painted glass beaker dates from the first century AD. Restorers pieced the fragments of the original onto the surface of a clear glass facsimile.]


And finally, there’s the gorgeous gold crown featured on the cover of the sumptuously illustrated catalog. The diadem dates from between the years 25 and 50 AD, and can be disassembled for easy packing (sounds oddly modern, doesn’t it?).

The exhibit is organized chronologically and is centered on findings from four different archaeological expeditions. (My thanks to Suite 101 for this clarification. Click here for the complete article.) I strongly recommend watching the film “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures” – the long version shown in the auditorium downstairs, not just the shorter one that runs in a continuous loop within the exhibit itself. The narrator is Khaled Hosseini, who chronicled the suffering and loss in his native country so poignantly in The Kite Runner. [Khaled Hosseini]

Many of us remember the destruction of the giant Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley in 2001. The National Museum itself was bombed and looted in the 1990’s. To my mind, there are few depredations as unforgivable as the deliberate effort to obliterate a people’s cultural patrimony. The Buddhas are lost to us forever, but the National Museum has risen, Phoenix-like, from its ashes. Its motto is “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.”

“Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul” has been organized in conjunction with The National Geographic Society and several other institutions. It remains at the National Gallery until September 7. See it if you possibly can.

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The beauteous Valley of the Hudson River, with a brief digression on the subject of chicken love

August 19, 2008 at 10:31 pm (Art, books, Travel)

I’m not sure whether I’ve read this novella before, but I knew I wanted to take it with me on our trip to the Hudson River Valley. We visited this region five years ago and knew we wanted to return. We were going to be nearby, anyway, attending a reception and luncheon being given for the newlyweds.

Okay – any excuse to post a picture of these two splendid people will do, I admit it! Now – where was I…

Oh yes! the beautiful Hudson River Valley.

On our last visit, we stayed in the eastern side of the river, the better to visit some of the famous estates there. Of course went to Hyde Park and the Vanderbilt mansion. Both were fascinating, but we particularly liked Boscobel, a jewel of a place with a spectacular setting.


In preparing for this first excursion to the area, we’d been reading about a newly opened art museum south of Rhinebeck, where we would be staying. Dia Beacon had only been open for a couple of months when we went to see it, but the word was already out. The day was lovely; a festive mood prevailed.

Dia Beacon’s collection is housed in a disused factory built in 1929 for Nabisco. It has a great location – right on the river. The art itself is modern and in many instances, outsized. It tests what you define as art, but wherever you come down regarding that issue, the experience of being there was uncommonly exhilarating.

Here are some of the artists whose work is currently housed at Dia Beacon:

Bernd and Hilla Bacher

**********************************  Louse Bourgeois

John Chamberlain

*********************************** Richard Serra

Michael Heizer


On this recent trip, we stayed on the western side of the Hudson, in a lovely bed and breakfast in the village of Cornwall.

Our chief sightseeing activity consisted of a tour of West Point, which was only about a fifteen minute drive from the Inn. This  was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but it proved  very worthwhile. West Point has a beautiful campus and a fascinating history. Many notable Americans have resided and/or matriculated there since the founding of the Academy in 1802. Check out this exhaustive list of graduates on Wickipedia. And while you’re at it, take a look at the list of those who enrolled but never graduated. Some of the names will surprise you!

Neither Ron nor I come from military families, but we now feel connected to the traditions of this proud institution.

Meanwhile, back at the Inn, we discovered that we were next door to a farm. This being the case, we thought it only polite to stroll over and make the acquaintance of the local poultry.

We immediately bonded with these comely creatures. In fact, the rooster hopped up on a fence and did the cock-a-doodle-do bit right in our faces – not once but twice! One felt very welcome indeed.

I was reminded of a chapter in Haven Kimmel’s delightful memoir A Girl Named Zippy in which she sings a hymn of praise to her pet chicken Speckles, and to chicken love in general – an emotion, she assures us, that can only be appreciated by initiates like herself.

(I was likewise put in mind of Any Duncan’s wildly inventive story “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse.”)

Meanwhile, there’s more to come on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

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Four fantastic (bookloving) friends – and Yours Truly

August 17, 2008 at 10:48 pm (Book clubs, books)

Friday night, the Literary Ladies met to decide on the titles we want to read as a group in the coming year. Five of us were able to make this meeting, and frankly, it’s just as well. What a riot of good reads came to light – when will I get to all these gems! And let me tell you – these women are such terrific book talkers, I kept wanting to reach across the table and shout: “Here – Gimme that!”

As one who of late has had a frustrating time finding likable – or even readable – new fiction (excepting mysteries), I also breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness – there is some hope after all!

Here are some of the tempting morsels that were dangled before me:

In addition, it was wisely suggested that for one of our meetings, we each read a title by Penelope Lively. Hey, no problem – I’ve already read several and am more than happy to read more. The Photograph is terrific, and probably the best known, but I can also recommend Heat Wave, Passing On, and Making It Up. Spiderweb was likewise very good but featured a disturbing scene involving a dog – read with caution, therefore. (Lively won the Booker Prize in 1987 for Moon Tiger. This title is not currently owned by the library, a situation we hope to remedy soon!)

These were my suggestions: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Best American Short Stories 2007, Best American Magazine Writing 2007, The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, and Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe. Among them, only Netherland has a 2008 copyright date.

A fellow mystery lover noted that our favorite genre was not represented. We then suggested Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell – or another title by Rendell or Barbara Vine (her pseudonym). I think the Vine novel I would pick is The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, with its devastating depiction of a disastrous marriage. Many of us had already read Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know; we agreed that this would be a great book to discuss, with its local references and compelling storyline. I personally would love to do The Careful Use of Compliments, the fourth entry in Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. But I worry about asking folks to jump in at number four  – particularly since this is a series that I would normally suggest reading in sequence.

Before we got to the books, our gracious hostess plied us with delicious food. As it turned out, we had much to discuss, so it was a while before we got down to the business at hand. But once we did get to it – well, this was world class book chat!

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Cricket in the new world: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

August 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm (Book review, books)

Just as I was starting to feel a little bit caught up on my reading, this year’s Man Booker Prize long list came out.


But what luck –  Netherland, a book I had just about finished, is on that list! Such fortuitous happenstances mean a lot to compulsive readers like me.  So – one down, twelve to go? In all honesty, probably not.

Meanwhile, what did I actually think of Netherland? I enjoyed this story of a young Dutchman’s sojourn in New York a great deal. Hans van den Broek has come to New York via London, where he had met and married Rachel. They then move to New York in order to pursue their careers; once there, Rachel gives birth to their son Jake.

Problems arise in their marriage, and Rachel and Hans decide on a trial separation, with Rachel returning to London and taking Jake with her. Their arrangement provides for Hans to fly back to see his wife and son every other weekend. Nevertheless, it’s still a separation. With great economy of expression, Joseph O’Neill conveys the tremendous pain Hans experiences as a result of this new. bound-to-be-unsatisfactory domestic arrangement. One feels that like so many first time parents, Hans has been ambushed by the force of his love for Jake. The separation – temporary though it may be – devastates him.

So Hans finds himself living a bachelor’s existence, without actually being single. He has no desire to play the field, in the sense usually implied by that expression. But the weekends without Rachel and Jake are very lonely. And there is one kind of playing field that does interest him: a cricket pitch. Where to find such a thing in New York? Well, it turns out that tournament cricket is played on, of all places, Staten Island.

Hans has been directed to this location by a new acquaintance, Chuck Ramkissoon. Originally from Trinidad, Chuck has plans for the creation of a cricket club in New York City. Following this venture – which he is certain will be a success –  he plans to go national. These are grand plans; all Chuck’s plans are grand. Some might even call them grandiose. But not Hans. He falls right in with Chuck’s schemes.

Chuck Ramkissoon is the kind of person that most of us encounter at one point or another in our lives. He is charismatic in the extreme, a real talker with tremendous powers of persuasion. And all the while such an individual is sending these exhortations your way, he is charming the socks off you. He surrounds you with warmth; you feel all but engulfed by his outsize personality. Accordingly, Hans proceeds to fall under Chuck’s spell. We he readers are left to speculate as to what  the outcome of this association will ultimately be.

Chuck and Hans both have vivid memories of radically different childhoods. Chuck’s stories of his boyhood in Trinidad are exotic and sometimes hair-raising. Hans’s recollections are softer and filled with a poignant sense of sadness and loss.

Upon the death of his mother, Hans returns to the Holland of his childhood:

“I stood at the window, waiting for the next arrival of light. The lighthouse had been mesmeric to my boy self. He was an only child and it must be said that at night he habitually stood at his bedroom window alone; but my recollection of watching the light travel out of Scheveningen contained the figure of my mother at my side, helping me to look out into the dark. She answered my questions. The sea was the North Sea. It was filled with ships queuing for entry to Rotterdam. Rotterdam was the biggest port in the world. The breakwaters were perpendicular to the beach and stopped the beach from being washed away. The jellyfish in the water might sting you. The blue of the jellyfish was the color indigo. Seven particular stars made the outline of a plow. When you died, you went to sleep.

What a vivid image the author conjures of a boy and his quietly devoted mother together in his darkened bedroom!

Some time later, Hans arrives  at this rueful bit of wisdom concerning his mother and his old playmates:

“An ancient discovery was now mine to make: to leave is to take nothing less than a mortal action. The suspicion came to me for the first time that they were figues of my dreaming, like the loved dead: my mother and all these vanished boys.

There is much writing of astonishing beauty in Netherland.  There are also numerous passages like the above, where you stop and look up in order to reflect on the profundity of what you’ve just read. These are the qualities that make great fiction memorable. I read Madame Bovary decades ago, but I’ve  never forgotten Flaubert’s wry observation concerning Emma; namely, that she had made the appalling discovery that adulery could be just as banal as marriage!

Two reservations: first, time is very fluid in this novel. I found myself confused sometimes about exactly when a scene or conversation was taking place. My other reservation has to do with pacing. Netherland’s second half stalled to a degree – at least, for this reader, it did. And I know why: it was the overabundance of cricket lore. For one thing, I could have used a glossary. For the other – well, I’m not much of a sports buff, and it was hard for me to empathize with Hans’s zeal for cricket.

That said, I still recommend Netherland. Joseph O’Neill’s eloquent tale of lost souls in New York, trying to make sense of their lives and even, if possible, to find real happiness, is going to stay with me for a long time.

[Joseph O’Neill]

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Six gifted Englishwomen

August 9, 2008 at 1:12 am (Anglophilia, books)

In today’s Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley begins his Second Reading feature thus:

“In the two decades between 1912 and 1933, six Englishwomen were born who went on to become exceptionally gifted and accomplished writers of sophisticated, surpassingly civilized novels.

The authors he’s referring to are Isabel Colegate, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Penelope Lively, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Anita Brookner.

The article is specifically about The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. This novel was made into a memorable film featuring some of Britain’s finest actors: James Mason (in his last role), Dorothy Tutin, Edward Fox, Sir John Gielgud, Robert Hardy, and Gordon Jackson (whom many of us remember fondly as Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs).

I’ve not read The Shooting Party, though I will certainly make it my business to do so now. (Oh dear – another volume to set atop the groaning pile!) I can recommend, though, Winter Journey, also by Colegate. I read the book some years ago and I remember loving its evocation of rural Britain. I believe one of the characters was a composer.


I am more familiar with three of the other writers. Penelope Lively is probably the best known. Several years ago, she scored “a very palpable hit” with The Photograph. a luminous, achingly sad novel about love, marriage and regret. I led a book discussion on this title, and it was the easiest thing I ever did. I began by asking, “So – what do you think?” The discussion took off from there, with no further prompting required. I love it when that happens!

I had another experience in connection with this book that I would have to say was, for me, unique. I read The Photograph in 2003, the year it came out in this country. The following year, a nonfiction title, May and Amy, fell into my hands. In this work, I was amazed to encounter a character from real life, Amy Gaskell, whose resemblance to the fictional Kath in The Photograph was uncanny.

The subtitle of May and Amy is “a true story of family, forbidden love, and the secret lives of May Gaskell, her daughter Amy, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones.” In graceful, evocative prose, author, Josceline Dimbleby tells the story of a journey to the heart of creativity and art as she brings us inside the world of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his circle. This book, in which a sense of mystery and poignancy is pervasive, grew out of research that Dimbleby was conducting on her own family’s history: she herself is a direct descendant of the Gaskells.

So what does all this have to do with the Lively novel? In that work, Kath is a restless spirit to whom people are invariably drawn. She is possessed of an indefinable sadness that seems to pervade her very spirit and to exist side by side with her warmth and beauty. She weds a man who is her opposite in temperament and proceeds to live a life almost entirely outside the bonds of conventional marriage. Well, guess what? All of the above is likewise true of Amy Gaskell. There’s more – but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that it struck me as a classic case of life imitating art….

My idea of a potentially excellent book discussion would be to read both these books and talk about them together.


Anita Brookner has long been one of my favorite writers. I always think of her as the anti-Grisham, or the anti-James Patterson, because her novels are so intensely about character and often feature very little in the way of plot. They are seemingly still pools of great depth. My favorites are Latecomers, Visitors, Bay of Angels, Rules of Engagement, Leaving Home, and of course the Booker Prize winning Hotel Du Lac.

The precision of Brookner’s prose puts me in mind of a pointillist painting. As it happens, she is also an expert in art history. While studying at Britain’s famed Courtauld Institute in the 1950’s, she was taught, and greatly influenced, by a highly esteemed art historian who, in the fullness of time, would achieve a fame – rather, infamy – of a markedly different sort than that of his literary protegee. This was Anthony Blunt, who was unmasked in 1963 as “the fourth man” in the notorious spy ring that had its origins at Cambridge University. (Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy played crucial parts in that unmasking. Connections upon connections!)

[Anita Brookner]


As for Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000: she is the kind of writer that I always worry will slip into postmortem obscurity.

(I have a similar worry regarding Robertson Davies, who died in 1995 at the age of 82. When I finished The Cunning Man, I remember thinking, thank God that novels like this are still being written!)

I enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize winner, Offshore, but what I really love is her historical novels. The Beginning of Spring is about prosperous merchant families living in Moscow, in the years just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Can there be anything more poignant than watching happy people going about their lives, all the while not knowing that their world is about to be blown to bits? Fitzgerald’s sees deep into the souls of these Muscovites (and an Englishman who lives and works among them).

Many consider The Blue Flower to be Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. It consists of a fictionalized account of the life of the German Romantic poet Friedrich von Hardenburg, better known by his pen name, Novalis. Born in 1772, Novalis barely lived into the next century, dying in 1801. His was the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, and Fitzgerald brings this turbulent period to life in a way that I can only describe as astonishing. Much of her success in doing so, I think, is due to her use of a strangely antiquated prose style. At any rate, for me this is the gold standard of historical fiction, right up there with Mary Renault, Robert Graves, and Marguerite Yourcenour.

Penelope Fitzgerlad was born into one of those inordinately gifted families that the British seem to specialize in producing. She tells the fascinating story of her father and her three uncles in a collective biography called The Knox Brothers. In addition to introducing us to some truly memorable individuals, the book paints a vivid, highly engaging portrait of England in the first half of the twentieth century. Fellow Anglophiles, this one’s  for you!

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