Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction

April 10, 2016 at 8:18 pm (Book review, books)


(Asterisk denotes a potentially good book club choice.)

*The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin  9780345528698

I thought I would heartily dislike this book, and for the first few pages, I did. The “Swans” were driving me crazy – what a frivolous, irritating, useless bunch of women! And as for their friend Truman Capote – he struck me as repulsive, but that didn’t surprise me.

Had I not been reading Swans for a book club, I would most likely have tossed it aside. But I persisted – I’m very fond of the folks in this particular group – and gradually the novel grabbed me and refused to let go.  Swans is actually the depiction of a particular time and place: New York City in its mid-twentieth century heyday, a playground for the rich and famous. Women like Gloria Guinness, Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith, Pamela Churchill, and above all Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, were ornaments of their class. They appeared at all the right places and wore the latest, most expensive designer fashions. Nothing more was expected or required of them.

But add Truman Capote to their gossipy clique and a combustible element inevitably takes hold – and grows, slowly but surely.

Has any remnant of this society persisted into this century? Have a look at the Evening Hours page in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, and draw your own conclusions.

Babe Paley embodied the sort of grown-up glamour that nowadays seems like the artifact of another civilization.

Babe Paley embodied the sort of grown-up glamour that nowadays seems like the artifact of another civilization.

Babe Paley with her children. One could be forgiven for forgetting that she had any, so little do they figure in her daily life.

Babe Paley with her children. One could be forgiven for forgetting that she had any, so little do they seem to figure in her daily life.

Babe Paley and her husband Bill, powerhouse behind the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

Babe Paley and her husband Bill, powerhouse behind the newly formed Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966

Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, recently married

Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, recently married

Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe

Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe

Capote with the ball's guest of honor, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post

Capote with the ball’s guest of honor, Katharine Graham of the Washington Post

(Since my parents lived part of every year in Manhattan during this time period, Swans gradually took on added meaning for me. Several of the venues mentioned, especially the 21 Club, are places to which my father took us. If memory serves, we were there once at Christmas to witness a special annual event:

I was also reminded of my impulsive visit to Bergdorf’s in midtown Manhattan in April of 2008. I blew in to this impossibly high end establishment on my way to the Museum of Modern Art. My son was  to be married in two months, and I need some accessories for the occasion. So I thought I could pick up a few things…This (mis)adventure is chronicled in the post Gotham Diary. )

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason  41ocsZlZ-DL._AC_UL320_SR192,320_

A sort of early twentieth century take on Fielding’s Tom Jones. Unapologetically bawdy and an absolute delight!

Or, as Oprah Winfrey proclaims, “This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.”


*The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham  5fce4f00a2451dcd302c7af476e063b2

Written in 1925 and amazingly readable. A terrific story of a spoiled young woman’s coming of age.

A great idea for a book club is to read this book and then watch the 2006 movie starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. It’s an excellent film that hews fairly closely to the novel but also makes some interesting changes in the plot line.

I first read The Painted Veil when Selena Hastings’s 2010 biography of Maugham launched me into an most gratifying program of reading the works of this master storyteller. And just now I’m reading a thriller by Philip Kerr in which Maugham himself figures as a character – most gratifying! 51Js0dKpUCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_


*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson  6643090

A remarkably accomplished work for a first novel, this unabashed but not overly sentimental love story is set in the English countryside, where some of us spend much of our time imagining ourselves to be.


The Corduroy Mansions Trilogy by Alexander McCall Smith:

Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends  20101008-104821-pic-3201594 dogcold


Unfortunately, I started on the second volume rather than the first. But I can tell you for sure that numbers two and three are utterly captivating. I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives; most especially that of Freddie de la Haye, a most engaging (not to mention courageous and resourceful) canine.

*The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger  51qFj1ItXoL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

Once again, a book club selection that I did not expect to like but did. It’s a love story that’s both modern and timeless, similar in that sense to Major Pettigrew, cited above. Warm-hearted and gracefully written.

The following are titles I’ve reviewed previously in this space. I’ve provided links to the relevant posts:

*Life After Life by Kate Atkinson  BOOK-blog427

I should not have liked this novel. I’m always insisting that I like my stories related in a chronological manner. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc., it’s good enough for me. No experimental narrative time lines – please!

Well, what can I say. This one of the most non-linear narratives I’ve ever encountered. Somehow Atkinson’s storytelling method adapts itself perfectly to her subject: the political chaos of Western Europe in the first half of the  twentieth century, as  exemplified in the life – or possible lives – of one woman.

I was riveted.
Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates    149283740

Four deliciously creepy novellas from a master of the genre.

*The Children Act by Ian McEwan  TheChildrenAct

McEwan here depicts a moral dilemma of the most dire nature. The suspense grows naturally from the agonizing situation, one in which all parties, even those in fiercest opposition, are trying to do the right thing.

A tour de force by a writer who turns them out regularly

*Sparta by Roxana Robinson  sparta-rroxana

As a depiction of the trials of a returning soldier, this novel was both convincing and compassionate.

The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis  18774911

Among the two or three most brilliantly uncanny historical novels I’ve ever read. Based on an actual incident in which a man long absent from his home in rural France returns to claim his patrimony – and his wife. Made into an equally brilliant film titled The Return of Martin Guerre:


Next up: nonfiction and crime fiction

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