Author: Zadie Smith
Title: Swing Time
Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
Previously read by the same author: White Teeth
An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women. First, there’s her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated. Second, there’s Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance. Finally, there’s Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator’s life filling in details of these relationships. Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable. One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.
A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy. Similarly, the narrator’s mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character. Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and “wildness” but Tracey keeps defying all of that. I find that I enjoy Smith’s writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about. The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn’t make it enjoyable to read.
Recommended books: Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
Author: Bruce Holsinger
Title: A Burnable Book
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014)
This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II. The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue. The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details. Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving. Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.
Recommended books: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Plague Tales by Ann Benson, and Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard
The lo-fi punk band from London DIRTYGIRL offers “Transition,” a track with a tight power pop sound and vocals reminiscent of early Liz Phair. It’s off their Junk Food EP released in October, and made known to my by The Sounds in My Head podcast.
Author: Tom Holt
Title: Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard
Publication Info: London : Orbit, 2006.
This is the third in a series of J.W. Wells stories where the hapless Paul Carpenter finds himself forced to work in a company that’s really a front for the magic business of a bunch of goblins. In this adventure he has to deal with the lack of love in his life, pointless errands for his boss, dying several times, a parallel universe made of custard, bovine divinity, and setting reality straight several times over. The plot and twists are overly complicated but that’s part of the fun. The humor in this book is sharp and while the book may be overly long, I enjoyed catching up with Paul and company.
This week’s song is “Moaning Lisa Smile” by the London band Wolf Alice from their debut album My Love Is Cool. The sound is reminiscent of early 90s indie pop, but the video is straight out of the 80s. Neither of which is a bad thing.
London hip-hop and spoken word artists Kate Tempest provides this week’s track “Circles.”
The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge are annual family tradition. My first Revels experience was in Washington in 1996. After moving to the Boston area, the Cambridge Revels were an annual event from 2001-2006. We missed the show in 2007 due to a newborn, and in 2008 due to a blizzard, but have been regular attendees since 2009 (that same year I actually sang in the chorus!). So, I calculate that I’ve seen 13 different Christmas Revels performances. Each year is delightful and surprising in its own way.*
This year’s Revels is set in Victorian England, with music halls and the Crystal Palace playing center stage. The first act shows two teams of buskers competing on the streets of a Northern England town as the Crystal Palace manager Harry Colcord and composer Arthur Sullivan seek an alternate performer after a cancellation. In the usual Revels’ way, everything comes together as the buskers join forces to create a performance of music, tricks, and a “panto” of Cinderella. The second act is treated as a command performance at the Crystal Palace (complete with life-size wooden cutouts of the royal family in the mezzanine).
Highlights of the show:
- comic busking performances by Marge Dunn, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell
- singing a round of “Row the Boat, Whittington”
- David Coffin’s solos on “It Was My Father’s Custom” and on the melodic “Christmas Bells at Sea”
- the sing-a-long and acting out of “When Father Papered the Parlour”
- the “Panto” of Cinderella, which while not a true Panto (oh no it isn’t!), we did get to shout “Don’t touch Billy’s eggs” several times
- And of course, the Revels traditions of “Lord of the Dance” (and dancing out into the lobby), “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” Unfortunately, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” was conspicuously absence in this year’s performance.
There are five more performances from December 26-28, so if you’re in or near Cambridge, get a ticket and go!
* I also recently discovered that the Revels website has a list detailing the theme of every performance from 1971 to present. Now I need to discover time travel technology so I can go back in time and see each and every one.
Title: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Release Date: 1971
Director: Robert Stevenson
Production Co: Walt Disney Productions
Country: United States
Genre: Adventure | Fantasy | Family | Musicals | Animation
Set in Second World War England, three children have been evacuated to the countryside (oddly to a town overlooking the Channel) to stay with Miss Price (Angela Lansbury), a witch-in-training. Along the way on their magical adventures they pick up the con-man Professor Browne played by David Tomlinson. The movie is more of a series of loosely-connected set pieces than a story. Some of them go on too long, like the dance number on Portobello Road, although it is interesting to see the many faces of the British Commonwealth represented in a cheerful wartime London. Better are the mixed live action and animation sequences with fish dancing in an undersea ballroom and a raucous soccer game among wild animals. The conclusion features some whimsical special effects that stand up well after forty years as military uniforms and armor are magically brought to life to defend Britain against a German incursion. It’s a fun, entertaining bagatelle of a movie. My kids enjoyed it for sure.
The London-based “post-industrial” duo makes electronic noise you can dance to on the track “Turn It Up” from their eponymous debut album. These instructions are easy to follow.
How are you getting your groove on this week?
Author: Ian MacEwan
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2005)
Books Read By Same Author: Atonement
MacEwan’s novel follows a seemingly ordinary day in the life of a London neurosurgeon as he goes about his tasks and ruminates analytically on his life and work. It’s interesting how seemingly major things (like a car crash) are detailed with less intensity than the seemingly mundane (a game of squash). Towards the end of the novel things come together too neatly with a dramatic twist that I think undercuts the more interesting stream-of-conciousness aspects of the early part of the novel. Still an interesting read with a good focus on developing character and internal monologue.
“What a stroke of luck, that the woman he loves is also his wife.”
Recommended books: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
Author: Connie Willis
Title: All Clear
Publication Info: New York : Spectra, 2010.
Previous Works By Same Author:
As noted in my review of Blackout
this book is less of a sequel and more of a direct continuation of one lengthy work about three time travelers studying life in England in the early years of World War II. Both books are part of a larger series of loosely connected works by Connie Willis about a future Oxford University where graduate students in history are able to study the past by traveling through time via a mechanism known as the net. I enjoy Willis’ approach to time travel fiction and particularly am impressed with her well-researched and detailed descriptions of contemporary life.
The three main characters Polly, Eileen, and Michael finally met up toward the conclusion of Blackout and now begin working together to find a way to an open drop in the net that will return them to Oxford. The mysterious characters of the previous book turn out to not be so mysterious after all and are woven fairly well into the narrative, although through unlikely coincidences that approach the edge of plausibility. And yes, they do get out of the past (well, sort of) but the conclusion is satisfyingly unexpected.
I did find the greatest flaw of both of these novels is that a character will come up with an idea, will then discuss the same idea, and then carry out the idea which created a lot of unnecessary repetition (especially since every attempt to return to the future is a flop). If Willis could have tightened up the novel and created more tension if she did more showing and less telling, perhaps even condensing the story to one volume. Still I found these lengthy tomes to be mesmerizing and read straight through to find out what would happen next, so it’s still an engaging work with a great attention to detail.
Author: Connie Willis
Previous Works By Same Author:
Connie Willis is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors and I particularly enjoy her take on time travel fiction in works such as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog so I eagerly sought out this book once I learned of it. This book like the two previous I mentioned is set in a future Oxford where graduate students in history study the past by traveling through time through a device known as the net. Blackout shares some of the supporting characters of the earlier novels but focuses on three young historians studying England in the early days of the second World War. Polly, the main protagonist of the novel, is an experienced time traveling historian observing people in shelters during the London Blitz. Eileen is a new historian spending time working with children evacuated to the countryside. Michael is hoping to learn about heroism by visiting various battles including the evacuation of Dunkirk.
<Spoilers Begin Here> All three historians find themselves unexpectedly trapped in their time. Furthermore, they find themselves participating in major historical events and seemingly affecting their outcome, something that the time travel theory of the net says should be impossible. The main conflict of the novel becomes whether Polly, Eileen, and Michael can find a way out of the past which means first they must find one another. <Spoilers End Here>
I find the best part of this novel is that it captures the everyday life of English people during the War in great detail, almost as if Willis were a time traveler herself shedding light on the ordinary life of the past. Willis’ thorough research and attention to detail carries the novel through even at times when the plot and dialogue are a little flat. There are other characters introduced in the novel who are seemingly dropped although their resolution is made clear when I realized that the next book All Clear is not so much a sequel as a direct continuation of a lengthy work.
This novel begins when a woman from a wealthy family and a poor artist meet, fall in love, and marry with parental disapproval in 1930s London. What follows is a narrative of three generations of women in the family today. It’s a lyrical text that seems oddly plotless, just kind of multi-generational vignettes. In fact the title is an interesting choice. All fiction in a sense is about consequences – a protagonist makes a choice and then must respond to the consequences. Yet this book seems to be less about consequences than your typical novel. Anyhow, it’s a short book but it took me forever to complete, so I think that says something.
Author: Audrey Niffeneger
Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, 2009.
Previously read by same author: The Time Traveler’s Wife
As she used and refined elements of time travel mythology to create The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffeneger uses the ghost story as a means of telling a human story of relationships, identity, and loss. The characters of this story are trapped in some way – literally in some cases – but mostly trapped in relationships or trapped in their own past. Elspeth, the ghost of the story, is trapped in her former apartment near Highgate Cemetery in London. The gist of the novel is that Elspeth wills the apartment to her twin nieces whom she’s not seen since their infancy on the condition that the twins reside in the apartment for one year before selling and that they not allow her sister Edie (also a twin) to enter the apartment. The tightly connected sisters Julia and Valentina start to see their relationship erode under Elspeth’s ghostly watch as well as befriending their neighbors Robert (Elspeth’s grieving life partner) and Martin (a man so overcome by OCD that he cannot leave his house).
Halfway through this book I thought this was a brilliant novel balancing the intertwining tales of these five characters with the mystery of Elspeth’s afterlife. And then a twist in the story* breaks the narrative tension and makes the novel more pedestrian, in my opinion. Another twist** pushes the boundaries of the absurd and really broke the suspension of disbelief for me. A revelation late in the novel*** and the conclusion† are utterly predictable and disappointing (see footnotes for spoilers). Ultimately, Her Fearful Symmetry is entertaining enough but fails to deliver on its strong start. I think Niffeneger could’ve done much better with a promising premise.
As a side note, the parts about Highgate Cemetery are really fascinating. I find it interesting both because I live near an historic cemetery and because of the insights into the lives and motivations of preservationists and tour guides.
Recommended books: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
* Elspeth learns to communicate with Valentina, Julia, and Robert through Ouija boards and controlling their hands to write notes.
** Elspeth learns to tear out the souls of living beings and then place them back in their presumably dead bodies.
*** Elspeth is the twins’ real mother.
† Elspeth removes Valentina’s soul but puts herself into Valentina’s body.
Long ago when I was in high school I read and enjoyed Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute, an attempt to reconstruct William Shakespeare’s life and times as a celebrated dramatist. Thus I was attracted to this similarly themed book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl. This book is built upon one scrap of the public record which includes a rare instance of Shakespeare’s signature which is upon a deposition in a court case regarding a bride’s dowry. That dowry is unpaid by Christopher Mountjoy who with his wife Mary are French immigrants living in London and manufacturing head-dresses for women. Mountjoy also rents out rooms in his home and thus is Shakespeare’s landlord as Shakespeare takes a room to live in while working in the theaters of London.
From this court record, Nicholl extrapolates details about Shakespeare’s life in London around the time that he turned forty. He builds his case on public records, written experiences of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the plays and poems of Shakespeare himself and lots and lots of speculation. It is at times fascinating, tantalizing, and just down right irritating, but mostly fascinating. We learn a lot about what houses were like in the Mountjoy’s Cripplegate neighborhood, the trade of “tire-making”, 17th-century marriage practices, the immigrant experience, and the solitary and bawdy aspects of working in the the theater. Nicholls also speculates about Shakespeare’s atypical positive view of foriegners in his plays as well as the attention to detail in apparrell that may have been influenced by Shakespeare’s association with the Mountjoys.
If you’re interested in learning about the life of Shakespeare you’re probably going to be disappointed by this book, but on the other hand you will get a healthy dose of “his times” which is not a bad thing. Nicholls is both detailed and imaginative and always lively in his writing even at the times where the details may grow tedious.
Author Nicholl, Charles.
Title The lodger Shakespeare [sound recording] : his life on Silver Street / Charles Nicholl.
Publication Info. Old Saybrook, CT : Tantor Audio, 2008.
Description 8 sound discs (9 hrs.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
Volume III of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, The System of the World (2004), begins with Book Six “Solomon’s Gold.” This book picks up where the very first book, Quicksilver, left off with Daniel Waterhouse returning to England. Waterhouse immediately finds himself in the midst of intrigue including attempted assasinations by an Infernal Device, counterfeit coinage, and various missions for Leibniz, Duchess Sophia, and Isaac Newton. All around him rumors swirl about Queen Anne’s succesor. Will it be the Hanovers supported by the Whigs or the Jacobite restoration of the Stuarts?
While this is primarily Daniel Waterhouse’s story, the book ends with a cliffhanger as Jack Shaftoe, aka Jack the Coiner, attempts an audacious (and comical) heist at the Tower of London. I like how Daniel Waterhouse comes into his own in this book. He’s still plagued by doubts but shows resourcefulness and leadership. In an interesting reflection on fear he wonders if everyone else is as afraid as him. This novel also really uses London as a character with Waterhouse visiting the various historic (and not-so-historic) haunts of the city. The London map in the flyleaf is a vital part of this book and I enjoyed following Daniel around town.
Author Stephenson, Neal.
Title The system of the world / Neal Stephenson.
Publication Info. New York : William Morrow, c2004.
Edition 1st ed.
Description xv, 892 p. ; 25 cm.
I don’t know what it is with me and Charles Dickens. I read a book by Dickens and while my eyes scan the words and my fingers turn the pages, my brain comprehends nothing. In the eyes and out the ears! In college I was assigned to read Hard Times for two different classes, and I never finished it either time. This may not sound unusual for your typical college student, but I was a geeky college student who read every book cover-to-cover.
This is not a criticism of Dickens. It’s not him, it’s me. To make it worse, all my book-reading friends love Dickens. The love his language, they love his descriptions, they love his brilliant satire and witty humor, they love the funny names that tell you something about the character. I just don’t get any of it. It makes me sad
Reading Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens didn’t help my Dickens Problem. It is a book of great girth with approximately 50,000 characters, give or take a thousand. The main story is about an endless Chancery law case and an orphan who discovers her mother and people falling in love and getting married and some skullduggery and silly people and a murder! Side-stories offer vignettes of people ranging from the aristocracy to the most destistute so that the novel sums up the entirety of life in mid-Nineteenth century London. I had to peak at Cliff Notes to get that much.
Obviously, I didn’t pick this book for myself, it’s the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club selection for June (& July). The worst part is that I won’t even be able to attend the meeting.
Anyhow, Dickens’ fans can have it against me in the comments. I deserve it!
On 2 March 1998, I went home. Sort of.
I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.
Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.
My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.
This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.
On the first of March 1998, I made a rail journey across London to the borough of Greenwich. I had one day left on my Britrail pass so I figured I may as well use it. Part of the adventure was a transfer at Clapham Junction which claims to be the busiest station in Britain and seems to have a gazillion tracks so I’ll believe that claim.
In Greenwich, I straddled the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. I strolled through the timely exhibits but the coolest thing I saw there was a camera obscura which projected an image of Greenwich onto a white table. I thought it was a photograph at first until I saw the cars and boats moving. I also visited the National Maritime Museum where I learned an awful lot about Admiral Lord Nelson. I also admired, but did not board the Cutty Sark clipper (which I wrote about previously), which is in dry dock in Greenwich.
I’d not enjoyed any nightlife since Liverpool, and it would not happen in London either. I passed by many intriguing pubs but was turned off by the crowds of suit & tie wearing patrons who looked like they were discussing stock prices. Really, the Big City was intimidating me. On Saturday night I attempted to go to a night club but when I saw all the hip, attractive young people in the queue I turned around and went home.
For my last night abroad, I wanted to do something and selected from the Time Out listings a early Sunday, relaxed chill-out club night in Brixton. I took the Tube to Brixton with Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” in my head. But I couldn’t find the club. I mean, I found the street, but the street number of the club just plain didn’t exist! So I ended up wandering aimlessly again, taking the tube to Piccadilly Circus where I gazed at neon and played a couple of games in a big arcade. Kind of a bum last night.
The Otter and I at Greenwich Mean Time.
After exhausting myself the previous day, I started of 28 February 1998 rather slowly. I did some laundry even though I would be returning home in a couple of days because I wanted to have something nice to wear to the theatre. After checking my email at an internet cafe and taking care of some other housekeeping, I went to Leicester Square and purchased tickets for two shows: a 5 pm matinée of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap followed immediately by J.B. Priestely’s An Inspector Calls.
I had time in the afternoon for one museum and I narrowed it down to The Tate Gallery (which was just one museum at the time) or The British Museum. The Tate won a coin-flip, but I allowed history and prestige to reverse my decision (it was also closer to the theatre district). On the downside The British Museum was undergoing heavy renovation, a rude clerk in the shop falsely accused me of stealing, and after a while I got really tired of looking at lots of broken statues. But the British Museum has a lot going for it. I saw pieces of the Parthenon, items from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and the well-preserved corpse of the Lindow Man. I also had to hold myself back when I saw people touching the Rosetta Stone!!!! I mean its the most awesome relic in the world and stupid people were just rubbing their grubby fingers on it.
Back in Leceister Square, I took in some busker performances. One juggler was looking for volunteers from the audience and since I’d read that public humiliation was a good way to meet people, I stepped up. Basically, his act was to tie one leg behind his back clamber up on top of a suitcase balanced on a stool and juggle. My job was to hold the suitcase and act as the ladder for his one-legged climb up, something he told the audience would be very painful for me. The act went off without a hitch, and afterwards two gals from North Carolina congratulated me on my busking debut. That was about it though. I told them I was going to see The Mousetrap, they told me they were going to see Shopping and Fucking, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation.
The Mousetrap is kind of a silly play, but since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York (The Fantasticks), I figured I had to see the world’s longest-running play period. I was at performance number 18838. An Inspector Calls was more of a social commentary than a thriller, and one of the leading women looked strikingly like my friend Krista (unfortunately this was the understudy so I have no idea who the actress is or if Krista was moonlighting). Oddly, both plays have a person pretending to be a police inspector as an important plot device.
The busking juggler in Leceister Square who gave me a supporting role (literally) in his act.