- Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient (from the Editors of GRIT Magazine)
- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing; Original edition (April 10, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-1449409746
What the book is about (back-of-the-book blurb): Using lard in cooking dates at least as far back as the 1300s. It is prized by pastry chefs today, and it is an excellent cooking fat because it burns at a very high temperature and tends not to smoke as heavily as many other fats and oils do. Rediscovered along with other healthful animal fats in the 1990s, lard is once again embraced by chefs and enlightened health-care professionals and dietitians.
Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother’s Secret Ingredient offers you the opportunity to cook like your grandmother, while incorporating good animal fat into your diet once again. Lard is the key to the wonders that came from Grandma’s kitchen, and with lard, you can serve your family the 150 treats you enjoyed in your younger days when you visited your grandparents’ farm.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: Reading Lard was a real education for me! The cookbook – and its claim that lard is a “good” fat, intrigued me … but not enough to actually track down lard (or render my own — there are instructions for rendering lard from the “lard leaf” of pork) and make a recipe.
My first reaction, as I read the cover and opening pages, was, “Oh, this is how Gram used to cook – with lard, and scrapple and Crisco.” You see, I thought lard and Crisco were interchangeable (and, although it pained me to do so, I actually bought a tub of Crisco a few years ago, when I had finally tracked down my grandmother’s recipe for hermits — the results were spectacular).
Turns out – and had I given it any amount of thought, I would have realized – I was wrong. Lard is rendered pork fat; Crisco is hydrogenated vegetable oil (a quick list of ingredients from that tub in my pantry: soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils, mono and diglycerides, TBHQ and citric acid). Compare this to the ingredient in lard – pig fat.
The bulk of the book is, of course, recipes; over 150 recipes including vegetable and main dishes, but heavily leaning toward biscuits, breads, cakes, pies, and cookies. Lard is especially favored by bakers for enhanced flavor and texture. There has been a resurgence of lard use by bakers, foodies, and ‘back to the land’ supporters.
Why did I read it: I received Lard for review consideration. I did learn something about lard (and the benefits of cooking with it), but I’m not quite ready to take the plunge.
What else can I add: Lard would be a good fit for a more curious/daring cook, one who wants to make the base product at home, or one who would enjoy the walk down a culinary memory lane (crispy fried chicken, sweet potato fries, cinnamon rolls, flaky biscuits!). Purchase of the cookbook includes a one year subscription to GRIT magazine.
For more Weekend Cooking, visit Beth Fish Reads; you’ll find links to cookbook reviews, recipes from novels, kitchen tips and tricks, maybe even a food-centric movie review.
- The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 5, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-1594487019
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond — from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women – The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.
Where and when does it take place: The Chaperone opens in 1922, in Wichita, Kansas. Cora Carlisle (a character completely fabricated by the author) learns that an a woman in town is looking for a chaperone to accompany her 15-year-old daughter to New York for the summer, so that the daughter (Louise Brooks, an actual historic figure) can participate in an exclusive dance program. The vast majority of the book takes place over that summer, the remaining 15% or so show how those five weeks affected both characters throughout their lives (focusing on Cora).
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: I loved The Chaperone! The history and atmosphere of the period is well-articulated without being about the history. That is, Laura Moriarty incorporates prohibition, integration, changing values/mores, fashions, etc. into the novel seamlessly. Through Cora and Louise (who are about as opposite as two people can be!), we see the traditions and challenges facing many in the US at the time.
From the outset I didn’t like Louise – she had no respect for authority; maybe that’s the parent in me coming out . She was only fifteen the summer she and Cora went to New York, but wanted to be seen as an adult (and a ‘no-holds-barred’ adult at that!). Cora, on the other hand, was only in her mid-thirties, but acted uptight and uncomfortable – she was just no fun. Of course, I knew one (or both) women would change throughout the novel, and I was curious to find out what those changes were and how they happened..
It was Cora who went through the most dramatic transformation, through a reasonable and believable series of events; that, I suppose, is how we ended up with the title, The Chaperone! Cora has a personal reason for wanting to get to New York that summer, one that she shares only with her husband (who, in fact, encourages her). The response to Cora’s quest – and a series of coincidences and a letting down of her guard – begin to widen the crack in Cora’s armor.
Even – or perhaps especially – the ending chapters of the book told me more about the lives of Cora and Louise after that summer. These are told more quickly; years, decades even, are summarized in such a way that the women’s highs (and lows) give us a full picture of who they each have become. This section reminded me a lot of the writing of Jane Smiley (yes, that’s a huge compliment, I believe!), both in style and in the theme of “public persona vs. personal truth.”
Reading The Chaperone has also made me curious about Louise Brooks, a silent film star of the mid-late 1920s; I may read her memoir, Lulu.
Why did I read it: This book was sent to me for review consideration. It was selected as USA Today’s #1 “Hot Fiction Pick” – I suspect we’ll be seeing it in a lot of totes at the beach this summer. The topic lends itself to book group discussion, for its many themes (I can’t enumerate them here, potential spoilers. Trust me.)
A favorite passage: This excerpt, beginning on page 36, is about books, and how Cora was always so careful about the image she projected to those around her:
She’d come prepared with her own reading, which she now took out of her bag. Perhaps she didn’t keep all sorts of books lying around her parlor, but she enjoyed a good story as much as anyone. For this trip, she’d brought a Ladies’ Home Journal and the new novel by Edith Wharton. Normally, she might have stuck with her preferred indulgence, something by Temple Bailey, who could be counted on to deliver satisfying tales of plucky heroines outwitting painted vamps and bringing wayward husbands back into the fold But for this trip, understanding that whatever title she chose would fall under the girl’s critical gaze, and would no doubt be reported back to Myra, Cora had gone to the bookstore and purchased The Age of Innocence, which, although it was written by a woman, had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and therefore seemed beyond reproach from even the worst kind of snob. It was also set in New York City, and though it was set in the previous century, Cora thought it would be interesting to read about the very place that they were headed, to picture long-dead characters walking the very streets that would soon be under her feet. She liked the story so far. And the historical details were lovely, all those carriages and sweeping gowns. Even as the train rumbled through open fields, and the air in the car grew warm with the rising sun, Cora turned the pages easily, feeling virtuous and smart.
I did mark several passages later in the novel, but I’m afraid I can’t share them without spoilers. Read the novel and discover them for yourself!
What else can I add: With the theme of “public persona vs. personal truth” I’m thinking specifically of Smiley’s Private Life (set during WWII), but see also Nichole Bernier’s hot-off-the-presses The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. which looks at this in a more contemporary (post 9/11) setting. The three are set in different periods of US history, but share a common theme of our actions being influenced by the political and social climate of the day, as well as that of the many faces we (especially women) may carry.
- How to Read New York: A Crash Course in Big Apple Architecture by Will Jones
- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Rizzoli (February 21, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0789324900
What the book is about (back-of-the-book blurb): Essential reading for both native New Yorkers and tourists alike, How to Read New York unveils the boundless diversity of Gotham’s architectural wonders. Covering every era of New York architecture—from what remains of the colonial days to the latest postmodern skyscraper—this unique guidebook illuminates the fascinating architectural and urban history of New York.
Organized chronologically and by architectural style, the book covers key highlights of the built environment from the Battery to Inwood. Many of the skyline’s most iconic buildings are included, along with many lesser-known buildings that are architecturally interesting. Charmingly illustrated with 430 line drawings and vintage engravings that bring old New York to life, the book concludes with a map section that suggests themed walking tours.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: I put this book on my “to be read” list as soon as it came into the bookshop in February. Its compact size (about 6 x 5 inches) makes it easy to tuck into a tote and take along to the Big Apple. It’s also fun for armchair travelers – each double-page spread lists the name of the building, year built, and architect. A full paragraph describes the building, sketches break out architectural highlights, and a large photo completes the write-up.
The books is subtly divided into section by style: classical and colonial, Rennaisance, early modernist, and modern and post-modern, with a one-page map of highlights for each. There’s a complete index, helpful glossary, and brief bios of prominent architects.
Check out this “fun fact” from the paragraph about the Flatiron Building (originally known as the Fuller Building):
Following the building’s opening, a new phenomenon came to light. The structure funneled wind upwards at its base and ladies’ dresses were apt to blow up if they were caught there at a blustery moment. The phrase “23 skiddo” (the building is on the corner at 23rd street) is said to have been coined by police officers posted to deter opportunist young men from loitering, waiting to catch a glimpse of naked thigh!
What else can I add: I’m writing this post before I leave for a trip to New York for BookExpo America. I’m bringing How to Read New York along in my bag, for those fun times when Beth Fish Reads and I explore the city (I’m also bringing a compass, based on past experience and my terrible sense of direction!).
Rizzoli, the publisher, has a bookstore in Manhattan; maybe we can lose ourselves there! It’s listed on my companion blog, Spotlight on NYC Bookstores (which needs input – I’m soliciting Spotlight posts for NYC bookstores!).
- The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-0316185905
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.
In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.
As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she’d found. Will she pay any price to keep it?
Where and when does it take place: The Lifeboat takes place in 1914, on an Atlantic crossing from England to Boston. Most of the novel takes place aboard a lifeboat – which is overcrowded with passengers, and understocked with food and water.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: The Lifeboat is an intentionally slow paced psychological drama; I’ve been calling it “Twelve Angry Men in a Boat” in a nod to the film (I’m a fan of the 1957 version, starring Henry Fonda). The novel, like the film, plays on the tensions of disparate personalities cloistered together with a common goal. We see strong personalities, shifting allegiances, and the internal struggle of “common good” vs. “personal good.”
The protagonist, Grace Winter, is by her own admission (early on, in a diary entry), a calculating gold-digger. She’s an unreliable narrator, whose motives and truth may (or may not) be shielded from her husband, the other shipwreck survivors, and even the reader. I didn’t mind this ambiguity, as I understood that Grace tempered the entire narrative for her audience – those who were reading and presenting her diary as evidence for the defense in her trial on charges of murder.
The three weeks at sea that Grace describes are perhaps not as filled with physical drama as some readers would expect, but the psychological drama is high, especially when bits of Grace’s past (and present, during the trial) are woven into the narrative of the days following the sinking of the ocean liner.
Why did I read it: This book was sent to me for review consideration. Although I had hoped to read it before its publication date, I didn’t get to it until last month; in a funny coincidence, my roommate at #booktopiaVT was also reading The Lifeboat while we were in Manchester.
A few favorite passages: This excerpt, from the Prologue, really set the stage for me wondering whether Grace was telling the truth or not. Was she sane and telling the truth? sane and calculating? or, did she lose her mind during the ordeal at sea? (p. 6, ellipses are mine):
I don’t know who had the idea … that I should try to re-create the events of those twenty-one days and that the resulting “diary” might be entered as some kind of exonerating exhibit.
“In that case, we’d better present her as sane, or the whole thing will be discounted,” said Mr. Ligget tentatively, as if he were speaking out of turn.
“I suppose you’re right,” agreed Mr. Reichmann, stroking his long chin. “Let’s see what she comes up with before we decide.” They laughed and poked the air with their cigarettes and talked about me as if I weren’t there as we walked back to the courthouse where, along with two other women, named Hannah West and Ursula Grant, I was to stand trial for my life. I was twenty-two years old. I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.
What else can I add: Charlotte Rogan read a bit from The Lifeboat at a gathering of the New England Independent Booksellers Association. She said that the genesis for The Lifeboat was reading about a 19th century shipwreck case in one of her husband’s criminal law textbooks; she’s intrigued by moral dilemmas and the “lifeboat model of asset allocation.”
A number of discussion questions for The Lifeboat are on Charlotte Rogan’s website. Don’t read them until you’ve read the novel, though, as some may be leading “spoilers.”
photo credit Marion Ettlinger
Today’s Spotlight on Bookstores post is written by Jillian Medoff, author of Good Girls Gone Bad, Hunger Point, and her most recent novel - I Couldn’t Love You More.
I Couldn’t Love You More has garnered rave reviews from readers and media, including this knock-it-out-of-the-park blurb from Kirkus Reviews:
Medoff’s talent for characterization is evident in her latest novel, a richly layered tale about that complicated thing called family…Medoff’s fully realized novel beautifully explores the most important relationships we create: as parent, as sibling, as spouse.
In the novel, a family in suburban Atlanta is torn apart when a shocking chain of events ends in a split-second decision that may place the ‘value’ of one child above another. This decision of course, has the potential to change the dynamic of the family forever.
Curious about what happens, how the family was led to this point? Read I Couldn’t Love You More, then keep in touch with Jillian Medoff via Facebook and Twitter. She’s eager to meet with book groups in person or via video chat; this can be arranged via her publicist.
Read on to learn about Jillian’s yoyo-like relationship with Barnes and Noble. Fortunately, it ends on a high note!
My Love-Hate-Love Affair with Barnes & Noble
As a long-time resident of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I’ll probably be exiled from New York for selecting big, boxy Barnes & Noble as my most special bookstore. Maybe I’d be forgiven if I was talking about one rogue location that offers a safe haven for working writers, but I’m not. I want to honor the entire Barnes & Noble chain.
Falling in Love
Like many novelists, my relationship with Barnes & Noble spans decades. I first became aware of the name “Barnes & Noble” in the 1980’s when I was a student at Barnard. Back then, B&N was just a scrappy college bookstore, so I wasn’t terribly interested; rather, the store didn’t leave much of an impression. It was where I bought textbooks, my favorite Columbia t-shirt (a worn and faded black crew neck), novels to read after exams, and stationary supplies (calendars, maybe? Maps? Who remembers?). In the years that followed, as I went to work and to graduate school where I wrote my first novel, Barnes & Noble continued to expand, acquiring new locations, launching a website, and gaining clout and prestige. By the late 1990’s Barnes & Noble had become the biggest bookseller on the block. The one-time scrappy college store had changed, but I had changed too.
My first novel, Hunger Point, was published to great fanfare in 1997. Back then, B&N stores were everywhere, and as a rising literary star, Barnes & Noble was an integral part of my book tour. Along with readings at locations in several cities along the east coast, I also signed books at three stores in New York: by myself at the Astor Place location and as part of group readings at the 23rd street and Lincoln Center locations. (None of these locations exist anymore, but that’s part of the story, too.)
Over the years, Barnes & Noble has been criticized for contributing to the decline of local and independent bookstores. This may be true. But as a first-time novelist, what could be better than seeing your picture in the window and your brand-new hardcover stacked fifty copies high? The stores were well-stocked and well-lit. Most had cafes with coffee and muffins. Who cared if the coffee was weak and the muffins dry? I was living on 24th street, ten blocks from the multi-story Union Square location. With its enormous music section (now gone), vast selection of stationary supplies (fifty different kinds of journals!), and floors and floors of books, the 14th street store became my go-to after-dinner destination. I spent hours strolling through the aisles, picking out cards, and moving all the copies of Hunger Point from the 4th floor Fiction section to the 1st Floor tables. I was young, a newly minted novelist, and in love with Barnes & Noble. And then things took a turn…
The Difficult Years
By the time my second novel, Good Girls Gone Bad came out in 2002, Barnes & Noble and I were at odds. The company, now gargantuan and overextended, was fighting wars on all fronts (the rise of amazn.com and the e-book explosion, falling profits, a new CEO, vicious and expensive lawsuits). These internal management issues were compounded by lousy customer service policies, particularly for authors, particularly for authors whose second novels weren’t getting the same wide reception as their first. Despite Hunger Point’s success, Barnes & Noble wasn’t interested in promoting Good Girls. Several locations had closed (see above), and I wasn’t asked to appear at any that remained. I was now living in Brooklyn, so after much cajoling, I was finally offered a night: Sunday, November 3rd at the 7th Avenue store in Park Slope. But I this invitation came with a caveat: I could not have any other author events in Brooklyn.
My second book experience was nothing like my first. Having spent five years working on a novel that the largest retailer in the world wouldn’t actively promote left me defeated and frustrated. Money was tight, and my publisher would only pay for a very limited time in the coveted front-of-the-floor tables. I was eight months pregnant, still working a day job, and didn’t have the time or resources to go from store to store around the country, moving Good Girls from the Fiction section in the back to the front tables. Barnes & Noble, I decided, was everything people claimed: obnoxious, indifferent to writers, and dismissive of communities, especially local business. But what could I do? I was an author with a failing novel. I needed Barnes & Noble even if Barnes & Noble no longer needed me. Stuck in a no-win situation, I watched my book tank. And yet, I did have one small moment of vindication: My daughter, Mollie, arrived two weeks early. I went into labor on a blustery morning in November, and was forced to cancel my one and only Barnes & Noble event.
A Tearful Reunion
The past decade has been hard, and humbling, for Barnes & Noble. It’s also been hard, and humbling, for me. And while it took a lot of effort on both our parts, Barnes & Noble and I have made our way back to each other—mostly because of my daughter. Despite my last-minute 2002 cancellation, B& N forgave me, and over time, I forgave B&N. In fact, for the past ten years, the 7th Avenue Park Slope location has become Mollie’s second home. I can’t count how many afternoons I spent with her as an infant, then a toddler, and now a big kid, sitting on the little stage in the children’s section, reading—and not buying—book after book after book. I’ve met friends in the café for coffee (not as weak anymore now that it’s Starbucks) and muffins (still dry, sadly). And now, after ten years of rejections, I’ll finally be promoting a third novel, I Couldn’t Love You More. Thankfully, Barnes & Noble likes the book, and has ordered multiple copies. Although I won’t be reading at the 7th Avenue store, (authors can appear at B&N only if that reading will be their sole event in New York City, or if they’re a well-known celebrity, which God knows I’m not), I still love Barnes& Noble, and I believe in its own way, Barnes & Noble still loves me. Everyone knows that for any long-term relationship to work, you have to accept your partner’s foibles, however maddening they may be.
- The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Unbridled Books (May 15, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-1609530792
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Disgraced and fired from his newspaper job, a young man returns to the Florida town of his youth to begin searching for a daughter he has only recently learned may exist and who may be at considerable risk.
Where and when does it take place: The Lola Quartet takes place in 2009. The timing is important – after 9/11, after the economic collapse of the late 2000s. Most of the novel is set in Sebastian, a sprawling town on the east coast of Florida. This is the town in which Gavin Sasaki was raised, where he attended high school and played in “The Lola Quartet” with Jack, Taylor, and Sasha. Other scenes take place in Utah, South Carolina, and Manhattan.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: What starts out as a story about a guy wallowing in self-pity and making poor decisions turns into a bigger story about the poor decisions we all make — and leaves us thinking about the “connectedness” we have to each other and to the world around us, while at the same time wondering what we might have done when faced with similarly difficult circumstances.
Gavin Sasaki can’t wait to leave the heat and humidity of Florida behind him when he finishes high school. His girlfriend, a year younger than Gavin, has disappeared at the end of his senior year, but he gives that barely a passing thought. Anna had had a troubled past; she’s probably run away again.
Fast forward ten years to when Gavin is in trouble. His heady years of j-school and writing for a second-string newspaper come to a halt as his personal and professional life deteriorate. Returning to Florida to stay with his sister Eilo for a while, Gavin soons learns something that will set him on a quest to track down Anna and get the answers to what happened to her all those years ago.
In the process, he uncovers much more than he expected; The Lola Quartet is a “literary thriller” – striking prose that kept me on the edge of my seat.
Why did I read it: This book was sent to me for review consideration. I’ve read each of Emily St. John Mandel’s novels, and have appreciated them all – I never know what to expect with her writing (there is no “formula”) and she has a particular way of capturing the innocence and vulnerability of children.
A few favorite passages: I liked this one simply because of its reference to books (p. 191):
Sasha was raised on stories of brave children entering magical countries. Narnia was behind the coats in a wardrobe. Alice fell down the rabbit hole.
And from the same page, a line which could be a theme for the novel:
“Once you step into the underworld it’s hard to come out again,”
This refers to suburban sprawl, the supposed anonymity granted there, and nods to the concerns about humans pushing animals out of their habitats (p. 157):
… it had occurred to Gavin that what he thought of as wilderness might just be a band of wildly lush greenery with another suburb approaching undetected from the other side, like two teams of miners tunneling toward one another under the earth.
What else can I add: I did submit an IndieNext recommendation for The Lola Quartet, as follows:
“How far would you go for someone you love?” asks The Lola Quartet. That “someone” might be a lover, child, sibling, friend, or a pill – or other thrill – that substitutes for human love. In her careful, suspense-building novel, Emily St. John Mandel explores this question as she follows the unexpected turns and criss-crossing paths members of a high school jazz group have taken over the past decade. She shows us that answer is unknowable, until we’re faced with making the ultimate sacrifice. Mandel will have every reading wondering, “what would I have done?”
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- Hardcover: 176 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (October 5, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-0307957122
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself … But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.
This is novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting; it has stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication.
Where and when does it take place: “School is where it all began…” says the narrator of The Sense of an Ending. “School” is a 1960s high school in central London to which the pack of four boys travel each day. There were three in their tight unit initially, then Adrian Finn joined the school and their group of friends.
After we get to know the characters (especially Adrian, Tony, and Tony’s girlfriend – Veronica), the novel moves ahead to university days, then middle age.
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: This is a novel that I had avoided (for a bit, anyway) because of all the hoopla surrounding it. The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and has been a steady seller at the bookshop, raved about by the manager and others who had read it. I wanted to read and enjoy/judge it on its own merits, rather than being caught up in the crowd mentality. Well, I’m very glad that I finally took an afternoon to read it!
This is a deceptively slim novel – 163 pages packed with what is truly a masterpiece of words, sly plot, and character. I love that the book is written in the first person; we’re privy to the thoughts of Tony Webster, as he muses about life, makes discoveries, and tries to make sense of what is happening around him.
Tony’s relationship with Adrian is fairly brief, but intense. There’s a bit of hero-worship when Adrian joins the school and their little clique of boys. Adrian is super smart, questions everything, and has a philosophical answer to anything that’s asked of him. He dares to contradict or engage their professors in a gentlemanly debate, but it’s done in a respectful way, and the professors, too, admire and respect him.
The bulk of the novel takes place after the boys have left high school, but the groundwork for the rest of the novel is laid there, as Julian Barnes constructs these relationships and personalities. Honestly, the less you know about the actual plot going into the book, the more you’ll take from it, as you discover his clever ways.
Why did I read it: See above I was compelled to read it, and am so glad that I went into it with blinders on to the many press citations and potential spoilers that are out there.
A few favorite passages: So many! I have about a dozen Post-it flags sticking out from the pages! I’ve chosen three to share here that don’t reflect on the plot at all, except to show the types of things that occupy Tony’s mind as the novel plays out.
School-boy musings (p. 16); note the lauding reference to Adrian at the end:
This was another of our fears; that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual agains society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature [note the lowercase l here] – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional, and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time. That’s what Phil Dixon had told us anyway. And the only person … whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.
Musings on middle age and where life has taken him (p. 70):
So when time delivered me all too quickly into middle age, and I began looking back over how my life had unfolded, and considering the paths not taken, those lulling, undermining what-ifs, I never found myself imagining – not even for worse, let alone for better – how things would have been … And I never regretted my years … Try as I could – which wasn’t very hard – I rarely ended up fantasising [yes, British spelling] a markedly different life from the one that has been mine. I don’t think this is complacency; it’s more likely a lack of imagination, or ambition, or something. I suppose the truth is that, yes, I’m not odd enough not to have done the things I’ve ended up doing with my life.
Tony questions “character” of himself and others, and whether it continues to grow (change? improve?) over time (p. 139):
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.
What else can I add: The back-of-the-book-blurb indicates that the novel “begs to be read in a single sitting.” What it doesn’t tell you is that you’ll then want to take another afternoon to re-read it and find beautiful language and structure that you may have missed the first time around.
A few photos from last Monday – this was Patriots’ Day in the state of Massachusetts … also known as the day the Boston Marathon is run.
In the rest of the country, it’s much like any other day.
But, around here, it’s a state holiday (banks, schools closed), and it’s not unusual to see people dressed in Revolutionary War era dress, including these soldiers who marched down the street in front of the bookshop.
Rumor has it that they were pacing as they waited for the Pulitzer Prize winners to be announced; when no fiction winner was determined, our booksellers handsold their favorites.
Later in the parade (and further down the timeline), Louisa May Alcott (aka, Jan Turnquist, director of the Orchard House) marched down Main Street, where one forward-thinking parade-goer wore this pithy bit of wisdom on her tee shirt.