Monday, June 27, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (2011)

A lovely but haunting, horrific passage: "the reprisal killings for which the Nazis became infamous, where on some sunny afternoon in a village in France a dozen men and women would be whisked from their homes and shops, stood before a wall, and shot. No preamble, no good-byes; just birdsong and blood."

Larson writes like a television show - much build up, lots of cliffhangers. I wish the Nazis had been more evil - they were almost portrayed as kind of menacing yet blowharding - perhaps that's what they felt like in the early 30s. Kind of a threat, but also kind of full of hot air. The subtitle: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. The love part, yes (that Martha Dodd was a minx); the American Family part, yes. The terror party - I don't know. I know it was terrifying and scary and horrifying, but I just didn't feel like Larsen did a very good job of portraying that. Maybe that's a longer book than he wanted to write. It seems to have got great reviews, and I certainly enjoyed it - I kept on reading right to the very end, and was never bored. But I think I wanted a bit more terror and drama. (the night of the long knives was pretty dramatic though).

A Voice from Old New York by Louis Auchincloss (2010)

I'm not sure what you would call this book - a memoir? It's not really an autobiography. Perhaps "reflections" is a better term.

He was an interesting guy. He really did straddle several generations of New York - he caugh the very tail end of the glittery world of the Vanderbilts and Astors of the late 19th century on up through the vulgar riche of the 80s and 90s.

I know that by the time I finished, I definitely wanted more!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tranformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (2010).

I tried to read The Tranformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (2010). I only got so far.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wait for Me by Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire (2010)

I read Wait for Me by Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire (2010), her memoirs. It's the first book I've read by the DoD (she's written several others, but I can't tell if they are autobiographical or not). I'm curious as to whether the DoD's surname is still Mitford or Cavendish? Does she, did she use Mitford to cash in on her far more famous name (I'm guessing yes).

I was a bit disappointed in Wait for Me ; coming so soon after the DofD's sister Nancy's books, I was hoping for some Mitford scoop. It has some scoop, but not nearly enough. It's less of a memoir in parts and more of an engagements diary, full of names and places, but not much character. I guess when you are in your 90s and you've lead such a life and met so many famous people, you can write any damn kind of book you want.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford (1960)

I finished Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford (1960) but I was disappointed.  The sense of sharp melancholy and bitter humor that infected The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate was missing in Don't Tell Alfred.  The first two, written 15 plus years before, were fierce, biting almost comedies of manners, hilarious and humorous then unexpectedly lachrymose.  Don't Tell Alfred has a definitely feel of farce, much more episodic.  The setting (France in the 1960s,) seems more specific than the settings of the first two (English society in tt he early part of the 20th century) and even though both are written as contemporary pieces, the "Loves" have weathered the tests of literary time much better than "Alfred."  It was fun seeing some of the characters from the first two, and hearing about others.  But I just couldn't shake the feeling that Don't Tell Alfred was like dripping drops of various colors into a whirlpool; taken separately, each drop was beautiful, but mixed up together, pretty dull at the end.

There was one particular line I read aloud for laughs, only because it was a vivid description of me:  "Presently I heard his footfall over my head.  When David was a child Uncle Matthew used to say he walked like two men carrying a ladder."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford (1960)

I am reading Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford (1960), which I haven't found as interesting or engaging as the previous two Mitford novels I read. Because it's part of a series (although I hesitate to call it that;maybe a trilogy?), I feel like I have to finish it (which I always, always detest). I didn't realize that Alfred was written to early in the 60's - I thought it was from the later 60's. Fanny's sons seem very "hippy-ish" to me, especially the son David who is into Eastern philosophy - very Beatles. I was thinking that at least in part Mitford is telling the story from a greatest generation look at the boomer generation as it was happening; but because the novel was written so early, I'm not so sure. Maybe?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (2011)

I loved this book Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (2011), first of all because I love Hawaiian history, but there is so damn little of it published (at least readably published; I'm sure there are plenty of scholarly tomes). I first read James Michener's Hawaii in high school (it's full of sex and it even has a gay!) and I fell in love with Hawaiian history from the start. I'm probably the only person on earth who would visit Hawaii for the history, not the beaches (Sarah Vowell was probably another one). I kept reading Unfamiliar Fishes trying to match Michener's characters to the actual people; I wondered if Vowell had read the book. I wondered too "Why Hawaii?" but I never really got that answer out of the book.

The second reason I loved the book was Sarah Vowell's writing style. Kick ass! She'll be chugging along all serious, and then boom - throw in a cutting aside or some drag queen-esque comment. "A missionary preaching the first sermon in an archipelago pretty much has to quote that verse" (a previously mentioned verse from Isaiah. "Otherwise, it would be like a Bon Jovi concert without Livin' On A Prayer" BAM. "If I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it." KA-BLAM. On the "Macedonian Call" found in Acts 16:9: "For Americans, Acts 16:9 is the high fructose corn syrup of Bible verses -- an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange." KA-BLOOIE.

My first Sarah Vowell will definitely not be my last!

Monday, June 6, 2011

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart

I read 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart (2011) and came away incredibly pleased - there is nothing better than a book you longed to read ending up being worth it. So many books about the Civil War seem to be incredibly neutral and discount slavery as the main reason behind the war - Goodheart does neither (this is not a book for southern apologists, that's for sure). Too often, the South is romanticized to the point where the North comes across as cowardly not without cause. Adam Goodheart's North is full of just as many brave, romantic souls as the South (the Germans of the St. Louis come instantly to mind), ready to die for their country. This was a magnificent book, and Goodheart loving details what it was like during those first few months of 1861 sitting on the dangerous edge of the sword of civil war. I certainly didn't feel like this was the same old story - Goodheart had new things to say, in an interesting way.

An Elegy for Amelia Johnson by Andrew Rostan, Dave Veleza and Kate Kasenow (2010)

I read An Elegy for Amelia Johnson by Andrew Rostan, Dave Veleza and Kate Kasenow (2010) which was incredibly sad. Sad novels - graphic or otherwise - are not my cup of tea; I usually class these kinds of books in to the Oprah category. That (somewhat bitchily) said, the story was interesting, the characters were literarily interesting and literally well drawn. I loved the cool, hip, hipster (although isn't hipster a BAD word now?) renderings of the characters, very reminiscent of Betty and Veronica, Archie and Jughead all grown up and cool (with cool haircuts and clothes). I was reminded a bit of manga as well - certainly the two goofy productions assistants were direct descendants of the various manga secondary characters included for comic relief (or just included to have wide eyed loud epiphanies that move the plot along). A pretty cool read overall.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love In A Cold Climate (1949) by Nancy Mitford

Nancy Mitford, where have you been my whole life? I was familiar with the Mitford family, having read several biographies of the sisters (and their incredibly handsome brother), but this was my first foray into Nancy Mitford's fiction. It's sizzling hot - wittier than thou, full of Mitford inside jokes, and also skewers all sorts of sacred cows of the 1930s (and sacred people as well). Because I knew a smattering of Mitfordiana, I kept trying to figure out who was who.

The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love In A Cold Climate (1949) are together in this volume. Of the two, I think I liked Love slightly better (it had a gayer than the gayest gay in it), but Pursuit had more memorable quotes which I discussed previously ("thin edge of the wedge"). It was interesting to hear the characters discussing World War I and World War II, especially since World War II had just ended with the publication of the Pursuit. "It's rather sad," says Linda. "To belong, as we do, to a lost generation. I'm sure in history the two wars will count as one war, and that we shall be squashed out of it altogether, and people will forget we ever existed. " "It may become a sort of literary curiosity," says Uncle Davey. Seventy years later, we know that this hasn't come to pass (lost generation has become the greatest generation). "I don't want to be a literary curiosity," Linda says on the next page. "I should like to have been a living part of a really great generation." That's exactly what happened.

Love In A Cold Climate was far more interesting and better written (I'm reading the third, Don't Tell Alfred, right now, and I still think Love is the best book). When Fanny goes to stay at the Montdores again after a long absence, she pithily boils down the change from the Victorians and Edwardians to the swinging Georgian 20s:
"In the old days I used to sally forth, sponge in hand, to the nursery bathroom which was down a terrifying twisting staircase, and i could still remember how cold it used to be outside, in the passages, though there was always a blazing fire in my room. But now the central heating had been brought up to date and the temperature everywhere was that of a hot-house. The fire which flickered away beneath the spires and towers of the chimney-piece was merely for show, and no longer had to be lighted at 7 a.m. before one was awake by a little maid scuffling about like a mouse. The age of luxury was ended and that of comfort had begun."
Watching Downton Abbey, with its portrait (albeit an addictive bubbly soap-dishy one) of grand high Edwardian luxe pre-World War I and then reading this line, I understood instantly the difference between luxury and comfort.

I loved the gay heir, I was surprised he appeared in a book written so long ago - how risque was his appearance back then? He's certainly sympathetic - I never felt like Nancy Mitford was mocking him any more than anyone else (skewering everyone equally). Was he stereotypical? Probably. But certainly recognizable. And likable too.

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