I fell into this book sort of by accident. It started with reading a couple of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travel books which reminded me that I am fasci...moreI fell into this book sort of by accident. It started with reading a couple of the Patrick Leigh Fermor travel books which reminded me that I am fascinated by the period between 1890 and 1939, when we were wrenched (in my opinion) into the modern world -- and the period between WWI and WWII was the new world's childhood. I picked up Robert Graves' The Long Weekend, a social history of 1921-1939 which is a terrific, idiosyncratic read and then plunged into Bright Young People.
I am not a bit smarter for having read the book. This is the tale of the young, semi-monied 'smart set' whose parties were the stuff of society sections and scandal. They seem a perfect parallel for the Paris Hiltons and her tribe--not particularly useful, but taking up endless pages of copy. Taylor wrote the book recently (2004?)) and I have to wonder why. He tries hard to draw lessons from them without quite calling them dreadful examples, but the lessons are obvious and, in Taylor's hands, lead to no conclusions. Not counting the escapees like Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, they are the same lost, shallow or frittered lives that for some reason so enchant us in People Magazine or Star or Us --which I absolutely read every time I have my hair done. (Among my friends, it is legal to read them but illegal to buy them.) There is a better book in these stories--more bios would have made interesting reading. I think there may be a pungent, pertinent summation about our interest in the BYP--caught, embarrassed but fascinated by the excesses, sort of sorry we missed some of those type of parties and heartily hoping our kids missed them too.
I can't quite say I didn't like it, but it is now on the stack of books destined to be donated somewhere. (less)
This could be interesting: Niccolo Machiavelli, Caesar Borgia and Leonardo daVinci influencing one another in a riveting century I don't know all that...moreThis could be interesting: Niccolo Machiavelli, Caesar Borgia and Leonardo daVinci influencing one another in a riveting century I don't know all that much about. It misses the mark, and leaves the impression the brief book was tossed together to make a marketing deadline rather than a consideration of mutual impact. Borgia and Machiavelli both rise out of the pages as -- incomplete. Borgia is at times dashing, at times morally twisted, at times an enlightened conqueror. His death makes a riveting story. The sketch of the man and his life is the most complete of the three, and grounds enough for making the curious want to find other sources.
Machiavelli is portrayed as a keen psychologist, but the argument as to his success (while ti lasted) point largely to the result without much of a glimmer as to the process. He sounds as thought he would make a good and entertaining friend rather than the diabolical manipulator his name has come to represent. I can't recall if Strathern explicitly makes the point that Niccolo reminds us more of a modern man who has a century or so of awareness of social and psychological insight to rely on, rather than predating modern habits by four or five hundred years, but the reader has no trouble reaching that conclusion. But I will have to give Strathern credit for my wanting to know more about the man who thought that there may be rules of behavior based not on what people should do, but what they are likely to do.
Da Vinci's portrait is pure supposition, resting on a feather light armature. I agree with the 3/18/12 review by Superfluous Man that the author offers no basis for his suppositions as to Leonardo's character. Leonardo also comes across as feckless, a mind of genius so distracted by his own thoughts and digressions that he rarely finishes what he starts. It is suggested there is insufficient record of da Vinci to support any sort of reasonable biography and it is certain that this attempt doesn't get very far. Strathern's shot at it is so speculative and rather simple minded that the reader is likely to ignore him entirely. There is little to no sense of a dynamic between any of the characters but least of all with the broadest mind of all.
Ultimately the book failed for me because the premise of tri-party mutual influence was unconvincing. The strongest influence was Borgia as an exemplar for Machiavelli so had it been a dual biography, it might have been more successful. But I am grateful to know a bit more about his contemporaries and will look further. (less)
I am a little shocked at the lower average 'star' score on Goodreads for this little marvel. It is sly, ironic, funny, clever and eventually triggers...moreI am a little shocked at the lower average 'star' score on Goodreads for this little marvel. It is sly, ironic, funny, clever and eventually triggers a little deeper thought than a light handed novel might be expected to produce. This is a book about our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and it is nearly perfectly done.
Quick synopsis [no spoiler]: Miss Brodie is a teacher in a private Edinburgh girls' school. The six girls that become her 'set' are about 10 or 12 when they become her acolytes, but we follow them through school, as they leave her classroom but not her circle. Miss Brodie believes herself to be extraordinary -- bohemian and free thinking -- and raises 'her' girls to share that opinion. [Modern readers have to keep in mind that standards of acceptable behavior have changed since 1933.] While uncertainly somewhat unconventional, the reader decides if Brodie's self assessment is anywhere near true. The primary point of view is from Sandy, who Miss Brodie defines as 'insightful' Others are deemed 'knowledgeable about sex' or 'stupid' or 'enjoying sports a bit too much.' Miss B never changes her assessments as the girls grow up: it is your call whether she is right-- or if by labeling the girls, she influenced the outcome. The book is layered into 'flash forwards' -- you know early how the girls will turn out, and you even know that Miss Brodie will betrayed. You are told who the betrayer is, but your chore is to figure out the motive. The book is full of beautifully turned out personality assessments --nearly all a little snarky--none of the characters comes out the book completely unscathed.
What delighted me was the irony, humor and finely controlled structure. Spark sparkles (sorry-couldn't resist) at developing character sketches, giving you a full enough (if not detailed) portrait of the sexy one armed art teacher (who may not love Miss Brodie as singlemindedly as she believes), the shy music teacher (who might have truly loved her), and even the cardboard but funny and fairly inept headmistress. Spark catches dead-on the elastic, romantic, changing perceptions of sheltered girls as they grow up. Reviews make much of Brodie's distant admiration for Mussolini and Hitler but as the UK was a little hotbed of pre-WWII fascism (see Remains of the Day, anything about the Mitfords and any number of pre-war histories), it is not as shocking as it first seems to 21st century eyes. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie will stay relevant as long as people size one another up, encounter charismatic teachers and read.
Simon Evnine's review in Goodreads is the first one that made me re-think my view of the book.
My take was that Martell's goal was to view the Tudor w...moreSimon Evnine's review in Goodreads is the first one that made me re-think my view of the book.
My take was that Martell's goal was to view the Tudor world with modern eyes, with Cromwell being the modern man analogous to a corporate executive. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable and entirely pragmatic, unswayed by religious argument and far more concerned with power --for himself and for his master (Wolsey then Henry). His pragmatism in a time a concrete fear of Hell was as much a constant in international politics as the gain of power or loss of land sets him apart from his contemporaries.
The parsing issues --her manipulation of pronouns -- makes the reader focus harder, and seem mannered, rather than effective. There was not much reward for the increased effort the device calls for.
I didn't think that the other major characters were all that well developed, except for Ann Boleyn (nasty) and Thomas More (nastier, and redeemed only by his resolution). (The Man for All Seasons is disposed of rather thoroughly in Martell's view). Peripheral characters were delightful. Ann's father is a stick figure but funny as the shallow stand-in for entrenched aristocracy fulminating against everything in sight but his own ambition. He is echoed in the various courtiers with their vapid, thoughtless power. But she fleshes out Cromwell beautifully -- he is real, breathing, multi-faceted (to my eye, very modern) and complete. Perhaps Martell was less generous in fleshing out the other characters to make a counterpoint, but I would have enjoyed a more complete Henry.
I do agree with Simon Evnine and some other reviewers that there passages that rise above the body of the book --that tearing apart of the earth section he cites is particularly effective -- but I noticed it because it seemed rare, an evocative moment that doesn't parse with most of the text. I am a sucker for powerful prose. Cromwell's mourning for his dead wife produces some lovely moments, but I can't agree that the writing generally had the same sense of energy Simon enjoyed so much.
I went through my own fascination with the Tudor period some time back and kept wondering if readers who weren't already familiar with the time would follow it in Martell's telling. It was the truly history changing impact of an egocentric king at a time when the Roman Church, for the first time in centuries, is losing its monopoly on belief. In that world, disagreement with the prevailing camp could be fatal--and who knew who would prevail? Martell does a good job of translating that cataclysmic change into an intimate view, but I kept wanting a little more. (less)
It's summer. In my neighborhood anyway, summer is when your brain melts. While I am no where near a beach, beach reading is high on my list right now,...moreIt's summer. In my neighborhood anyway, summer is when your brain melts. While I am no where near a beach, beach reading is high on my list right now, and the Peter Diamond series mysteries work just fine. This heavyweight detective lives in Bath (England) and as my son went to Bristol (and I did not) it has extra interest. These are classic mysteries, fairly clued, a comfortable, irascible hero, well written. The attraction is Peter Diamond's relationships, as his dislikes any superior on principal. Occasionally there is mild suspense, but your nails will not be bitten. A generous sprinkling of red herrings, with a soupcon of British humor. Nothing strenuous here, just a comfortable way to while away an evening. (less)
This is a primer for reading -- and starting to understand -- literature. Experienced readers will be bored but for parents/grandparents of a high sch...moreThis is a primer for reading -- and starting to understand -- literature. Experienced readers will be bored but for parents/grandparents of a high school kid who likes to read, or who is headed to college, all of the fundamentals are here. The wise child will appreciate the gift. The tone is light enough to be accessible (and Foster deserves rich kudos for avoiding the academic pitfalls of teaching English Lit)and the lessons clear. The lesson, of course, is that literature is not just plot- a lesson (after reading a lot of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads) that a few folks are still waiting to learn. (less)
Writers of a series of mysteries have a terrific challenge. Maintaining plotting and character, developing depth without disappointing the faithful re...moreWriters of a series of mysteries have a terrific challenge. Maintaining plotting and character, developing depth without disappointing the faithful readership is a burden. I've been disappointed before: even the sainted Agatha Christie repeated her plots, Elizabeth George deteriorated as the Lynley series progressed, Donna Leon lost her way with her charming detective Brunetti (the books became polemics), and even the Camilleri's latest Montalbano offering isn't quite up to his usual excellence. My personal 'never fail' serial writers are Reginald Hill and Magadalen Nabb. Both authors have died (Mr. Hill very recently), so I am confident in saying, minor nitpicking aside, they maintained their skill and mastery throughout.
I really have my fingers crossed for Colin Cotterill. I'm 4 books down so far(have to go back for the two I missed ). He has been taking huge chances - and pulling it off!
He has invented a terrific protagonist in Dr. Siri, but it is the rest of the recurring characters where he has done something I don't recall seeing before--he makes them so human that you wonder for a while if you still like them at all--and then redeems the relationship without forgiving or 'curing' the faults. Amazing! (I am working hard to avoid spoilers here.) Imagine that! He takes a character you quite like and makes them less admirable, and convinces you to mostly, if not quite fully, forgive them. His characters don't just have idiosyncrasies, they have character flaws. And this in a series whose tone is light.
Oh yes, the tone/theme thing. Cotterill lives in Southeast Asia and clearly part of his purpose is to reveal to ignorant westerners (me)something of the history and culture of his adopted region--but there is no exposition here, no preaching. His hero is a communist, and the tension and disappointment between his ideals and the results of the communist revolution is obvious. But Dr. Siri doesn't abandon ideals -- he just laughs at the foibles of human nature that prevent human ideals from becoming realized. Aimed at a western audience, we find ourselves rooting for a commie whose wry acceptance of paradox is comforting and reassuring. Amazing.
And just for fun, he tosses in a lumpy transvestite fortune teller, a fatalistic sense that magic exists, and some quick, hilarious side characters to populate this full world. (less)
Helen is a long time and dear friend to Nicola, the spirited, sparkling woman with a joie de vie and a history o...moreNot your usual Dying of Cancer book --
Helen is a long time and dear friend to Nicola, the spirited, sparkling woman with a joie de vie and a history of a nearly dazzling ability to live every moment to the max. This is a large part of her charm to Helen who willingly and happily agrees to host Nicola during a three week long visit. Nicola is being treated for cancer, and western medicine has not cured her. Helen thoughtfully prepares the spare room so its details will welcome a cherished guest. The room is not prepared for a woman who cannot control her body's functions. Helen is not prepared for a woman who is dying but who seeks, through sheer will --intellect be damned -- to stay alive. The women are in their sixties, and Helen has lead a slightly more conventional life than Nicola who sounds for all the world like one of the nicer hippies who has never left her faithfulness to the cause of perpetual innocence. She embraces life and people with enthusiasm. The treatment Nicola undergoes while under Helen's care is "alternative" and probably quackery. Nicola is focused only on trying to get well, unable or unwilling to see the effects her illness has on her caregivers. The cancer is killing her painfully but Nicola chooses denial with the face of cheerful, forced stoicism. Not not wishing to be a burden, Nicola does not acknowledge the fact that the burden to Helen is the heavy labor of caring for her and, much more, the inability to achieve an intimacy with her friend who denies her own death. Helen wants to offer comfort and Nicola will only accept a cure. The guest is completely self absorbed for the very best of reasons, and it may crush the friendship.
When I finished the book, I double checked to see if it was fiction. The protagonist is an author named Helen who is in her sixties. The book is spare and short. Garner describes her emotions without a full analysis of why she feels as she does about her friend. That chore is left to the reader. When a stoic suffers, she (or he) tries to hide the inescapable suffering and, in this case, hide the fact that death is in the room. This forces Helen to live with the lie. It also means that Helen cannot share her own feelings about her friend's death, or provide anything more than physical comfort. There are a lot of 'dying from cancer' books that ultimately celebrate the opportunity for the the dying to share the essentials with their friends or family: honesty, love, admissions, memories. Garner takes on the other point of view: the dying may not wish to allow the opportunity to share their remaining time. In Nicola's case, she is so grimly set on not dying that there is no room for Helen in that fight except as a caregiver. Nicola has become selfish. She wants the care she needs from a friend without wanting the friend at all. Nicola is willing to give money and thanks. She has no strength left to give anything of herself.
There is tremendous truth in this book without an ounce of sugar or ornament. If you have a friend who will not divulge their fears or regrets, do you in fact have a true friend or simply a companion? When out of a sense of good manners, you cannot or do not admit to failures or mistakes or disappointments, can you you say you have a genuine connection? The lesson of mutual need has been taught in any number of books, but this is the first I can recall where the downside of 'a stiff upper lip' is explored. In real life, the one without background music, what is love and friendship? Would you have reacted as Helen did? Could you offer unrequited caring? Were the circumstances less dramatic--if there were no cancer--would Nicola's withholding be acceptable? These sound like book club questions, I know, but this little gem explores areas where few of us care to go, but probably should. It is far more than a 'dying from cancer' book.
Oh, yes, and the writing. I generally prefer understated, clean prose, with an organic invisible structure--Garner meets all of those tests, writing wonderfully.
Why not one more star? The book is truly excellent--that missing star is just my quirk. (less)
I read this because I love Three Men in A Boat to Say Nothing of the Dog (Jerome K. Jerome). 'Three Men' had me gasping and wheezing throughout in pur...moreI read this because I love Three Men in A Boat to Say Nothing of the Dog (Jerome K. Jerome). 'Three Men' had me gasping and wheezing throughout in pure antic joy. So I picked up Diary of a Nobody. It is a satire of middle class (or lower middle class) life that attempts to be clever and perceptive. It fails. Leaden and predictable, the satire is too broad to be clever, and writing itself mundane. I could probably do a little research to see if it was written before or after Je4rome's masterpiece, but I just don't care enough to take the time. Grossman may have been in the same literary school as Jerome, but he flunked. (less)