This book is a bit lighter than my usual fare, but I was absolutely charmed by it. If I lived in Edgcumbe-St.-Mary, I think I'd be in love with the major, too. It's the gentle tale of a widowed retired major who is grieving for his recently-deceased brother when friendship blooms with Mrs. Ali, the widow of a Pakistani shopkeeper. Friendship inevitably turns into stronger affection--but what will the members of the club say (let alone the major's son, a broker schmoozing his way up the corporate ladder)? And will the major ever succeed in reuniting a pair of Churchill shooters given to his father by a maharaja and divided between his sons at his death? Much of the novel centers on conflicts between the "older generation" values of the major and the new values of "progress." Mrs. Ali, too, has conflicts with her own beliefs and the traditional Islamic values of her husband's family. But all is not so serious--particulary due to Major Pettigrew's wonderful wit (which often goes over the heads of others) and some delightfully comic scenes.
This third book in Gardam's Old Filth trilogy is fun, yet not quite as good as the first two installments. Edward and Betty Feathers and Terry Veneering have passed on, and the story continues with the lesser characters in the series, most prominently Fiscal Smith and Dulcie, widow of Pastry Willie, the judge who was Betty's godfather. Much of the novel is flashback telling Terry Veneering's past as the son of an impoverished mother and an Odessan circus performer who ends up making it good. Recommended for fans of this series.
The biggest problem I had was the change in reader. Graeme Malcom, who read the first two installments, was perfect. Roger Watson makes the characters--especially the females--sound like caricatures.
Another lovely installment in the Old Filth trilogy, this one told from the point of view of Betty Macintosh Feathers, Old Filth's wife. Like Edward Feathers, Betty was raised in the far eastern parts of the British commonwealth, and she, too, had lost her parents at a young age. She understands his loneliness and the pleas that comes with his proposal: "Don't ever leave me." Yet almost as soon as she accepts, Betty has regrets--particularly when she meets Eddie's arch rival, Terry Veneering. But a promise is a promise . . .
This is the same story we heard in Old Filth, at least from the time that Betty meets Edward Feathers, but here we get her perspective. It's quite intriguing to see how Eddie's interpretation of events differs from the reality that Betty reveals, and to learn of secrets that apparently were never revealed. Like so many women of her day, Betty focused on fulfilling her wifely duties and appeared to lead a rather dull life focused on her tulips, dinner parties, and her husband's career. Gardam lets us see, however, that she has a vibrant inner life, full of secret memories, dreams, and loves. Her relationship with Harry, the Veneerings' young son, is one such secret. Unable to bear children, Betty becomes attached to Harry, a charming and clever boy whom Filth later says is "the only one she ever really loved."
The Man in the Wooden Hat serves as a reminder that even ordinary lives can be extraordinary.
I'm looking forward to the last book in the Old Filth series and will be seeking out more novels by Jane Gardam, whose writing is beautiful, original, amusing, and moving. And Graeme Malcolm is the perfect reader. (I just started the third book and am very disappointed in the new reader.)
If you are looking for one of those uplifting stories full of Irish resourcefulness, indomitability, and bleak humor, you had best look elsewhere. While 'The Spinning Heart' has a few bright moments, overall, it's what I'd call a downer. Ryan tells the story of an economically depressed small town through the distinctive voices of 21 of its inhabitants, each of whom is given a chapter of his or her own in which to comment on the neighbors and their business as well as recent events in the town, most notably the collapse of a local building company whose owner first wiped out his workers' pensions, the disappearance of a small child from a care center, and the arrest of the local golden boy, Bobby Mahon, for the murder of his father. Everyone has his or her own point of view, depending in large part upon their own history with the novel's major players, Bobby Mahon, Pokey Burke (the construction business owner), and Realtin (the single mother of the missing child). What they all have in common is an oppressive sadness, tinged with anger, and a prevailing sense that life is just not fair. Added to this, well, these just aren't very nice folks. Fathers mock their children (when they aren't beating them), bosses rip off their employees, husbands cheat on their wives (when they aren't beating them) and beat up the women they cheat with, children are fearful of their parents' constant quarreling, friends confess to being jealous of one another--well, you get the picture. Hence the "downer" label.
Still and all, I have to give Ryan the technical high marks he has earned. He has created 21 distinctive voices for his 21 characters, ranging from a little girl of about four or five to a number of elderly men and women. And while the town he creates is not one I'd willingly visit, he brings it sharply into view. These stories could veer off into multiple digressions; in fact, sometimes they do. But each returns to the main themes: the essential hopelessness wrought by the economic downturn and, despite their shared experiences, the emotional isolation of the townsfolk. Themes that are depressing, yes; but Ryan skillfully builds his plot around them.
On the title: some have speculated that the rusty, paint-chipped spinning heart set into the Mahon's gate represents the ongoing love these people have for one another in troubled times. I don't see that. For me, the heart spins as we would say "he's spinning his wheels"--it's furious, agitated, spinning, but it really doesn't move. This isn't Eliot's "still point in the turning world." It's stagnation: hearts skewered, stuck on anger and despair.
Wayne Farrell was an excellent reader. It's not easy to make each voice unique, especially since they all have Irish accents--but he manages to do just that.
Edward Feathers's story is full of insights into a familiar character type: the high achieving, emotionally repressed, stiff upper-lipped, superficially elegant, well-educated son of the pseudo-aristocracy that governed the former British colonies. Now a retired judge in his 80s whose wife has recently passed away, Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) struggles to find a mooring in a changing world, and along the way, comes to terms with his past.
Summed up, Feathers's childhood was shaped by a series of handings-off. His mother died following his birth, and, with barely a single glance, his father shuttled him off to live with Malaysian locals until he was 4-1/2, at which time he was ripped from the arms of the only caretaker he had ever known and sent to live in a foster home in Wales with two female cousins. This home was not, shall we say, the ideal situation for young children, but it met Feathers senior's criteria: it was cheap. When circumstances forced him to be moved yet again, young Eddie was whisked off to his father's old prep school--a place where, fortunately, he thrived academically and made his first real friend, Pat Ingleby. On holidays spent with the Inglebys (who were properly remunerated by his father), Eddie had his first taste of what family life might be like.
But, alas, World War II intervened, bringing with it a series of losses and tragedies. Almost 18, and just as he passed the Oxford entrance exams, Eddie's father decides he should join not the RAF but the ranks of England's child refugees, and, once again, he becomes a pawn in motion.
The above "life itinerary" barely scratches the surface of Gardam's thoroughly engaging story, a story that is alternately funny and heartbreaking. Nor does it do justice to the many unique and fascinating characters in Feathers's lie: his Scottish wife Betty; his judicial rival Veneering; cousins Babs and Claire (both as girls and as elderly women); Albert Loss, a fellow passenger on board a ship bound for Singapore; "Sir," the lovable prep school headmaster; and many others.
Read it or listen to it--you won't be sorry. Graeme Malcolm was the absolute perfect reader.
As for me, I'm off to start Gardam's follow-up novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which apparently focuses on Betty Feathers.
I should probably begin this review by stating that I am not a fan of fantasy, and this novel is a hybrid of fantasy and historical fiction. It takes place in Alaska in the 1920s. Jack and Mabel, an aging childless couple, are newly arrived homesteaders. It was Mabel's idea to move to the northwest: she had lost a baby years earlier and was finding it increasingly difficult to be around their extended families. Rather than finding the wilderness lonely, she cherished the solitude and is rather surprised to find herself befriending their nearest neighbors, the Bensons.
The book gives a pretty good portrait of the hard life of homesteaders . . . but then it takes off towards fantasy. One night, following a playful snowball fight, Jack and Mabel make a little girl out of snow. Mabel is touched by the beautiful face that Jack has carved, and she provides mittens and a scarf to finish their snow child. When Jack rises the next morning, the mittens and scarf are gone, and he thinks he sees a little girl with a red fox at the edge of the tree.
At this point, Ivey's novel becomes a riff on a Russian folk tale, one that Mabel remembers hearing as a child, and the reader--like Mabel and Jack--can't quite determine if the girl is a real child or some kind of mystical being. Signs point in both directions.
I started out liking the homesteading story, and the descriptions of the landscape were quite lovely. But after awhile, Mabel got on my nerves. I can't quite explain why, except that she seemed at times to be naïve, bordering on stupid. And several of the other characters--like Esther, the resourceful, hearty, trousers-wearing Mrs. Benson--seemed like stereotypes to me. Since I am not fond of fantasy, I found that element more irritating than charming. Put me in the camp of those who did not care for the ambiguous ending.
As most of you probably know (due to publicity about the recent film based on Sixsmith's book), this is the true story of a young Irish woman sent a to convent to give birth, and of the son who was taken away from her at the age of three--sold, in effect, to an American couple. Fifty years later, Philomena reveals her secret to her family and launches a search for the long-lost son that she has always felt has been looking for her.
In a New York Times interview about the film, Steve Coogan, who plays Sixsmith, says, "“We didn’t want to become overly involved in the life of Anthony Lee or Michael Hess. What appealed to me was the search for the son and the tragedy of not being able to see him grow up. That’s how Philomena experienced it; it was just out of reach, just beyond her.” This explains the main difference between the movie and the book, which focuses predominantly not on Philomena's search but on the successful but sad life of her son.
Anthony Lee was just three when he was adopted, as an afterthought, by the sister of an American bishop and her husband. The family, who had three boys of their own, had always wanted a daughter, but medical problems prevented them from trying again for one of their own. When she met Mary at Sean Ross Abbey, Marge was struck by the affectionate, dark-haired little boy who hovered over her like a protective brother. And so the two were adopted together. Like all of the young mothers at the abbey, Philomena Lee was forced to sign papers giving up all rights to her son and agreeing never to attempt to find or contact him.
It is the story of Anthony, renamed Michael Anthony Hess, that fills most of Sixsmith's pages: growing up in a strict Catholic family in the Midwest, trying to please an adoptive father who hadn't been too keen on his adoption in the first place and becoming an over-achiever as a result, struggling with his sexual identity, rising to a major post in the Reagan administration, and, always, being haunted by the memories of Ireland and the feeling that the mother he left behind was looking for him. Realizing the effect this loss has had on his life, especially on his ability to feel close to other people, Mike makes several visits to Sean Ross Abbey in hopes of learning more about his origins, but, following investigations into wrongdoing by the Irish government, the books are closed (or lost, transferred, or burned) forever.
The final chapters return to Philomena's encounter with Sixsmith and their efforts to locate Anthony, a journey that comes to a bittersweet end.
I have to agree with a reviewer who questioned the account of Michael Hess's emotions. Although Sixsmith did interview people who had known him well (including his sister Mary, former coworkers and lovers, and several friends), all of these people admit that Mike was a very private man who compartmentalized his life and rarely revealed anything personal to anyone. So while Sixsmith does a fine job of imagining what Mike may have been thinking or feeling, it came as rather a shock in the end to realize that the man himself had not been consulted in the writing of this book. (Yes, I do know why, but I'm trying to leave spoilers out of my review.) It also made me suspect that Sixsmith was promoting an agenda beyond telling Philomena's story and advocating for more open adoption laws.
But all this is in retrospect. Despite these concerns, Philomena is a moving and engaging story. Four stars here. I'm eager to see the movie version; although the emphasis shifts from Mike to his mother, that's to be expected when Judi Dench has been cast in the title role.
Whether you love him or hate him, you have to agree that Michael Moore is a man passionate about his beliefs who knows how to tell a good story. 'Here Comes Trouble' is an entertaining and engaging non-chronological memoir told through a series significant stories from Moore's life that help us to understand how he evolved into the committed, controversial filmmaker that we know today. If you are expecting a long political harangue, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Many of the stories focus on Moore's familial relationships, his friends, awkward adolescent moments, his spirituality, etc. I never knew, for example, that he attended seminary and planned to become a priest--until he was expelled for asking too many questions. Or that he campaigned for Richard Nixon.
Moore opens with a story that relates the backlash that followed his Oscar acceptance speech, from the young man who called him an a--hole as he walked offstage, to Glenn Beck's suggestion that killing him would feel pretty good, through a series of threats and actual attacks that caused him to hire a cadre of bodyguards--most of whom were tough former Navy Seals--to protect him and his family. Whatever you think of Moore's politics, you will (or should) be appalled by what he went through in a country that supposedly values free speech.
Personal memories intermingle with the more political: his mother's death, a favorite teacher, the pros and cons of attending a Catholic school, family vacations, his teenage crushes, an oddball neighbor ostracized for what Moore later recognized as his homosexuality. But one thing the connects all of the stories is Moore's penchant for asking questions--the habit that ultimately led him to become first the editor of a small liberal newspaper in Flint, Michigan, and later a documentary filmmaker. Why wouldn't his mother allow him to skip a grade, considering how bored he was in school? Why couldn't his Catholic grade school have a newspaper? Why was Boys' State accepting sponsorship from an organization that excluded African-Americans? How, in a state that outlawed abortion, could he help a close friend who had gotten pregnant? What options would he have if he was drafted? Why wasn't the president keeping his campaign promises? How was it that people he liked and respected were revealed to hold racist views? Was it right to honor the German war dead if among them were fallen Nazis? Why was the government sponsoring business seminars promoting job outsourcing?
If, like Moore and me, you grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s and remember the turmoil of the 1970s, you will find a lot to relate to here. (I was born in Detroit, grew up in the suburbs, and didn't leave Michigan until 1990, so many of Moore's recollections were personally familiar.) If you're younger, I can't think of a better introduction to those decades. Moore's stories are variously funny, surprising, moving, maddening, uplifting. Whether you're a fan or foe, 'Here Comes Trouble' will convince you that Michael Moore is a man who loves America, who strives to love and understand his fellow humans, and who deserves respect for living by his convictions.
I listened to the book on audio, read by Moore himself--a great choice, as no one else could have told his stories with quite the same effect.
This book certainly had its charms, and I can understand why it might have been a popular women's novel in its day (it was originally published in 1901). It tells the story of a refined but impoverished woman in her thirties, Miss Emily Fox-Seton, who scratches out a living by assisting her betters to shop wisely and plan parties while remaining obligingly in the background. Just as disaster seems about to befall (her kindly landlady and her daughter plan to give up the house where Emily rooms), wonder of wonders, she receives an unexpected marriage proposal that catapults her into the upper echelon of society. Lord Waldehurst has been won over by Emily's good taste and unprepossessing nature--undoubtedly the dream of many an aging spinster in 1901.
But, alas, it is at this point that the novel falls a bit short for the 21st-century reader. Emily's kindness and naiveté seem to know no bounds. She tries to befriend Alec Osbourne (who has been Lord Waldehurst's sole heir for the past 30 years or so) and his pregnant half-Indian wife, even coaxing her husband--who is about to leave for business in India--to allow her to furnish a house on the estate grounds for their use. It never enters her head that the Osbournes might see her as a potential threat to the property, money, and title that they hope to inherit, and she is hurt and confused by their often surly manners and Hortense's frequent angry outbursts. (When her trusty maid tells Emily that she fears that Amira, Hortense's ayah, is up to no good, Emily encourages her to read Uncle Tom's Cabin to improve her view of "the blacks.") Following several near-misses--accidents that would have been fatal--plus a confession from Hortense that she sometimes hates the now-pregnant Emily and that Alec wants to kill her, Emily feels that the best solution to her dilemma is to take Hortense's advice to "go away" to stay safe until her child is born. Emily's goodness is just too unbelievable; I started to agree with Alec's estimation that she was just "a big fool," and I wanted to smack her back into reality. And the Osbournes and Amira fall into caricatures of villains so evil that I expected even Hortense and Amira to be twirling long black moustachios.
I'm giving the book three stars as a period piece and an example of early 20th century women's novels, and perhaps with some bonus points for Persephone's quite lovely cover. Read it when you are in the mood for pure fluff.
I almost feel guilty giving this book only three and a half stars. Almost. It has been much honored with awards and much praised by reviewers both professional and non-professional, and its subject matter--the hard life of the poor living in one of Mumbai's airport slums--is certainly something of which the world should take more note. But for a number of reasons, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, while a worthy enough book, did not quite live up to my expectations.
The first reason has more, perhaps, to do with me than with Boo's book. I have a great interest in India, it's history and culture. I have read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, and seen so many documentaries on the subject that I didn't find much here that was new or surprising. Police and government corruption of all kinds; families killing sick or unwanted members; children digging through garbage in search of something to eat or to sell; supposedly 'free' clinics and doctors demanding bribes in return for treatment; neighbors stealing from and turning on one another; young women committing suicide rather than being forced into marriage or, once married, being burned to death in kitchen 'accidents'; children working at jobs we cannot imagine. It's awful, it's brutal. But it's the stuff on which a cadre of works about India are based, at least in part: City of Joy, Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire, A Fine Balance, The Death of Vishnu, documentaries like 'Born into Brothels' and National Geographic's 'The Real Slumdogs' and more.
That's not to say that we shouldn't care; but it gets frustrating to read about these problems over and over without knowing what exactly one can do about them. Eighty years ago, it was easy to blame all the corruption and poverty and prejudice on the usurping British; once they were gone, the Hindus blamed it on the Muslims, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Sikhs, Christians, and others got caught in the crossfire. So who or what is to blame today, in an increasingly wealthy India, and how can the ongoing problems of unbelievable poverty be solved? As another LT reviewer points out, Boo seems to want us to do something--but what? In the end, she wants us to be uplifted by the undaunted hope of some of Anawadi's young inhabitants. But it's hard to imagine that hope being sustained in a world where the police beat innocent children wrongfully accused of crimes and take bribes to stop the beatings; where a father pours a pot of boiling lentils on a sick child for whom he can't afford medical treatment; where a woman lights herself on fire, hoping to survive and blame it on her neighbors in hope of both petty revenge and financial restitution; where a boy drinks rat poison because he believes his future holds nothing but either being killed by gang members who know that he witnessed a murder or being beaten to death by the police who questioned him about that murder and covered it up; where a woman starts an organization to make small business loans to other poor women, then takes the funds to buy herself jewelry.
To some extent, I felt that Boo was piling on the horrors so thickly that it was difficult to stay focused on the main individuals whose stories she was telling. At other times, the stories were so familiar that I felt I was reading fiction. The narrative jumps around quite a bit, from character to character and back and forth in time, and with the large number of persons involved, it is easy to get lost and blur them all together. And that also makes it hard to stay focused on or empathize strongly with any one character. This is a problem, because what, I think, Boo hopes to achieve is to put a face on each of the suffering poor, not to lump them into the anonymous 'teeming masses'.
So overall, would I recommend this book? Despite the comments above, yes, perhaps especially to those who haven't read, seen or heard much about the lives of India's slum dwellers. It's hard for Americans and others in more generally prosperous countries to imagine their world, but knowing about it does make one grateful for what we have.
And leaves us wishing we knew what we could do to help them to help themselves.
Toibin's collection of biographical literary essays focuses on the relationships between writers and their parents and the effects these relationships had upon their work. There's something here for everyone--which is both the book's strength and its weakness. While I read them all, this is the kind of collection from which a reader might best pick and choose. For me, the most intriguing essays were those on Jane Austen, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Roddy Doyle, writers whose work I already enjoy. (Sorry to say, however, that Yeats comes off as somewhat of an idiot tyrant; in a second essay, Toibin devotes equal time to George, Yeats's much ill-treated wife.)
With the exception of the section on Hart Crane, about whom I knew little but who led a particularly sad, brief life dominated by a snobbish, overbearing mother, I was less interested in Toibin's essays on writers whose work I either haven't read or don't particularly care for, among them Samuel Beckett, Sebastian Barry, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Cheever. The effect of Toibin's essays on Mann and Cheever confirmed that I will probably never want to read their works; both come off as nasty, cruel human beings whose families suffered their worst abuse. I learned nothing that I didn't already know from the essay on Tennessee Williams, but it would probably be interesting to someone who came to it fresh.
Toibin includes two essays on James Baldwin. The first, "James Baldwin and the 'American Confusion,'" provides an interesting discussion of the writer's place in U.S. literature, despite his ex-patriot status. In the second, Toibin compares the works of Baldwin and Barack Obama, both "Men without Fathers." I felt that he strained a bit too much to be haut courant in his effort to show Obama channeling Baldwin's prose style.
Toibin is a sensitive reader who arrives at some brilliant insights, and he has unearthed intriguing tidbits about each author's life that make the essays more enjoyable than straight literary criticism might have been. Still, like me, most readers will probably find the collection rather uneven. (I thought the essay on Borges was never going to end, and it seemed quite repetitive.) To be best appreciated at its best, go at New Ways to Kill Your Mother like a box of fine chocolates: savor them one at a time. You'll find some of those darn jellies in the bunch, but there are enough caramels and cherry cordials to make it worth your while.
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