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Selections for February 2008

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The Uncommon Reader: A Novella by Alan Bennett (2007)

Strange as it may sound, sometimes the only appropriate description of a book is "delicious." At least, that's the only summing-up adjective I could think of when I finished Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, in which the main character is Queen Elizabeth, the reigning monarch of Great Britain. A bit bored with her life, and in the act of chasing her incorrigible corgis, Elizabeth finds herself outside Buckingham Palace and happens upon the traveling library that serves the reading needs of the Palace staff. Believing that Protocol (which she follows scrupulously) requires, in such a situation, that she check out a book, she picks one at random - a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett ("Didn't I make her a dame?" the Queen muses). Starting it that very evening, she finds it a bit of a slog. Nevertheless, Duty demands that she finish it. Rather than entrust returning the book to one of her servants (and eager to excuse herself from a boring meeting with her private secretary), she returns to the traveling library; then, of course, to avoid offending the helpful librarian, she feels she must select another book to take out. This time she makes a more fortunate choice: Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. Lo and behold: the pleasure she takes from Mitford's novel turns her into A Reader. With the assistance of Norman, a regular traveling library user (he's employed in the kitchen of the palace, but she soon promotes him to be her personal assistant), Elizabeth continues choosing and reading all sorts of books. Each one she reads leads to another, and another, and yet another; soon, reading takes precedence over all of the Queen's duties, giving her new food for thought and new matters to discuss at the state dinners she is forced to attend. This shocks and dismays her husband, Prince Philip, her dogs, and her private secretary (not to mention the world leaders seated next to her at the state dinners, who have no idea what to make of her literary allusions). It eventually precipitates a Royal Crisis, because, as the Queen soon discovers, when you love to read, that's how you want to spend all your time - forget Parliament, the marriage woes of your children, and your Duty to the Nation. Bennett's slim little book is a paean of praise for the joy of books and reading.

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The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild by Craig Childs (2007)

I have long been a huge fan of Craig Childs' nature writing, and I was delighted to discover his newest offering, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. This is a book to savor slowly, accompanying Childs one chapter at a time as he travels through the rain forest of Washington's Olympic Peninsula to the Arizona desert, from the mountains of Colorado to the rapids of the Colorado River, from Alaska to New Mexico, and sharing his experiences - vicariously, of course - with the various animals he meets along the way. (I have to say that for much of this book I was in a state of extreme anxiety on Childs' behalf, though he seems to have undertaken the - to me - daunting excursions described here with no more worry than I might feel, say, crossing a street against the light. At times I felt there needed to be a warning label on the book: "Author is a trained professional. Do not try this on your own." But then, I have never claimed to be an outdoorsy sort of gal and perhaps I was over-reacting.) There are sections on species ranging from the Great Blue Heron to the blue shark, as well as ravens, coyotes, camels, owls, and jaguars, among many others. If I had to choose my three favorite chapters, they would include the description of Childs' mostly futile attempts to get rid of the (uninvited) mice that insist on and persist in sharing his tipi in the snowy Colorado mountains; his tense stand-off with a mountain lion (even knowing, obviously, that the author survived didn't keep this part from being a heart-pounding experience for me); and his discussion of grizzly bears, which includes this marvelous description: "Most animals show themselves sparingly. The grizzly bear is six to eight hundred pounds of smugness. It has no need to hide. If it were a person, it would laugh loudly in quiet restaurants, boastfully wear the wrong clothes for special occasions, and probably play hockey." Pick the species you want to know more about, and read on.

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King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay (2007)

Although I was vaguely aware of the interconnectedness of the European royal families, I never really appreciated quite how close they actually were until I started Catrine Clay's eminently readable biography, King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War. Making excellent use of newly translated and recently discovered letters and other materials, Clay explores the events, both personal and public, that led up to World War I, focusing on the lives of the three cousins of her title: George, who became King of England; Nicky, destined to become Tsar of All the Russias after the death of his father, Alexander; and Wilhelm (known as William to his English relatives), who grew up to be the final Kaiser of Germany. To what extent did the characters of these three men lead inexorably to the war? Of what significance were other, more impersonal, factors? Did the very forms of government in their respective countries make war likely, if not inevitable? As Clay describes, despite the physical distances that separated the three boys as they were growing up, they developed close relationships with one another. They spent vacations together, "visited each other's homes, played together, celebrated each other's birthdays, danced with each other's sisters, and later attended each other's weddings. They were tied to one another by history, and history would tear them apart." She comes to the conclusion that "the relationships between the three, their personal likes and dislikes, did indeed contribute to the outbreak of hostilities." This is an excellent choice for both fans of biography and history.

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1994)

Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm has the mixed blessing of being among the very few books that have been made into equally good films. But, even if you've seen the movie (with Kate Beckinsale and Rufus Sewell among the stellar cast of actors), don't let that deter you from reading the book (which, however good the movie, still has something more to offer) - it's quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the last century. When Flora Poste is orphaned at the age of twenty, leaving her an income of a paltry hundred pounds a year on which to survive, she accepts the invitation of her relatives, the Starkadders, to come live with them at Cold Comfort, their dilapidated, perennially failing farm in Sussex, located just outside the town of Howling. There she discovers one extremely peculiar family. Aunt Ada Doom has pretty much refused to come out of her bedroom for almost seven decades, ever since the day that she saw "something nasty in the woodshed." And Aunt Ada Doom's children and grandchildren are equally eccentric. Flora's cousin Judith is depressed (well, who wouldn't be, in such a situation?), while Amos, Judith's husband, ignores the farm in favor of the hell-and-damnation preaching he does for the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Amos and Judith's sons and daughter, Seth, Reuben, and Elfine, have their own quirks. Then there's Adam, the handyman, who uses a twig to wash the dishes and dotes on the cows he cares for, whose names happen to be Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless. Once Flora gets the lay of the land, so to speak, she decides that she could manage her relatives' lives better than they've been doing themselves - and she takes it upon herself to do so. The story of how she succeeds - or not - in clearing Cold Comfort Farm of the gloominess and foreboding that envelops it (and whether we ever learn what it was that Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed all those years ago) makes for a most entertaining novel.

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The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman (2007)

Few write about politics and economics better than Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, and twice-weekly op-ed columnist for The New York Times. His new book, The Conscience of a Liberal (the title is obviously intended to evoke Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative, one of the founding documents of the modern conservative movement) is a sweeping history and analysis of the political economy of the United States over the last 100 years, or so. He divides this history into three periods. The first he calls the "Long Gilded Age," from the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s to the coming of the New Deal in the 1930s, which he describes as "a period defined above all by persistently high levels of economic inequality," and (during the 1920s, in particular) characterized by "political polarization.between the dominant right and the embattled left." The second he calls "The Great Compression," the period following the New Deal and World War II, during which America became an essentially middle-class society. The rich had lost ground, the poor had benefited from the great boom in wages that began during wartime, and "there was a striking sense of economic commonality: Most people in America lived recognizably similar and remarkably decent material lives." Furthermore, "the equability of our economy was matched by moderation in our politics" (think the Eisenhower years here). The final period, beginning with the economic crisis of the 1970's (remember "stagflation"?) and culminating in the Bush administration, he calls "The Great Divergence," a time during which a small minority has gotten richer (much, much richer) and the middle class, at best, treads water, returning America to a New Gilded Age of income inequality (and, not coincidentally, in Krugman's view, bitter partisan politics). The central question that Krugman asks is what explains this historical arc in income inequality? And, specifically, is the conservative or the liberal analysis of this phenomenon the more valid one? This is an important book, especially during this political season. And don't be intimidated by the subject matter. Krugman's prose is lucid, his arguments easily accessible, and, believe it or not, this is (especially for the political junkies among us) a real page-turner.

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The Alphabet From A to Y With Bonus Letter, Z! by Steve Martin and Roz Chast (2007)

It goes without saying that the attraction of alphabet books is not that they're filled with suspense about how they'll end - count on it, the last letter will always be "Z." And it's not that they're filled with distinctive characters - the letters may look and sound different, but beneath the surface, they're all just letters. That's what makes alphabet books such a challenge for writers and illustrators. And the fun of such books is to see the inventiveness with which they meet that challenge (especially with regard to that pesky letter "X"!). The Alphabet from A to Y with Bonus Letter Z! marks an inspired collaboration between comedian Steve Martin and illustrator Roz Chast (best known for her longtime and frequent contributions to The New Yorker. For each letter, there's a rhymed couplet, filled with examples of the letter, and a charmingly humorous color drawing to complement the text. "M," for example is this: "Maniacal Marvin munched many a macaroon, / Making his middle a mini hot air balloon," and Chast's illustration is of grinning Marvin, floating next to many hot air balloons (all sporting words that begin with the letter "M"). And that most challenging letter, "X"? Here it is: "Ambidextrous Alex was actually axed / For waxing, then faxing, his boss's new slacks."

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Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller (2005)

Sue Miller hit the bestseller list with her first novel, The Good Mother, and has been steadily publishing well-reviewed and enjoyable fiction ever since. But I believe her best book - ever - is Lost in the Forest. In it she tells a story of twin losses - the loss of love and the loss of innocence. When Eva's husband (and Daisy's stepfather) dies, the family he leaves behind is sent into a tailspin, culminating with teenage Daisy falling into a sexual relationship with the husband of her mother's best friend. What Miller does so well is craft each character with such precision that each one simply steps off the page and into your life. One of the ways she accomplishes this is to tell the story from multiple points of view, including those of Daisy's mother, Eva, of her father, Mark, and of Daisy herself, torn with sorrow at her stepfather's death, still angry at the divorce of her parents many years before, and both frightened and fascinated by her unhealthy introduction to sex. Miller handles a difficult subject with deep compassion.

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Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan (2007)

With each new work of fiction, Stewart O'Nan has shown himself to be a graceful, insightful writer. His novels range widely, from historicals (The Circus Fire and A Prayer for the Dying) to those limning contemporary relationships (Snow Angels and The Good Wife). In his tenth novel, Last Night at the Lobster, O'Nan introduces us to Manny DeLeon, the manager of a Red Lobster restaurant in a run-down New Britain, Connecticut shopping mall. It's four days before Christmas, there's a prediction of two feet of snow, and that evening will be the restaurant's last. The corporate owners are closing it, and moving a few of the employees (including Manny) to an Olive Garden in the next town over. Meanwhile, Manny and his dwindling crew (several of whom are going to be out of work at the end of the day) have to be ready to serve whoever comes in the door. As the day progresses, the prediction of snow comes true, customers are few and far between, and some of the employees (even those not due to be let go at the end of the day) begin deserting the restaurant. Nevertheless, Manny tries to keep morale up and the service good. In this brief (less than 150 pages) novel, O'Nan brings Manny vividly to life: honest, diligent, and thoroughly committed to his job (just the sort of fellow any boss would be pleased to employ), though leavened with a few faults, of course, since no one's perfect. He's cheated on his girlfriend with one of the waitresses (though it's over), and he can't seem to really commit to her, even though the waitress is out of his life, but all in all, he's a straight-up guy. There aren't a lot of novels with perfectly decent heroes and even fewer with perfectly decent working class heroes: in this quiet novel that packs a punch, Stewart O'Nan has created one for the ages in Manny DeLeon.

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I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1999)

American readers probably know the British writer Dodie Smith best - if they know her at all - as the author of the book The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which was made into the popular 1961 Disney animated film. (As good as the movie is - and who can forget Cruella de Vil - the book offers its own particular pleasures.) In I Capture the Castle, first published in 1948, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain begins her account of her family's life in a dilapidated castle with these lines: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." And write she does, all about her unpredictable, often irascible father, who published one critically acclaimed novel many years ago but developed a terrible writer's block and has been unable to produce anything since; her step-mother, Topaz, an artist's model who loves to commune with nature sans clothing; her beautiful older sister, Rose, who dreams of escaping from the family's poverty; her younger brother, Thomas, who together with Cassandra schemes to get their father back to writing; and Stephen, the orphan (son of their deceased housekeeper) raised by the Mortmains. But when an American family with two handsome, unattached sons moves into the estate next door, life for each of the Mortmains, as well as for Stephen, changes in dramatic ways. Cassandra continues writing, through heartache and happiness, giving us a book that's perfect for any woman with even a scintilla of romance in her heart, from the age of 12 to 112.

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Lost Geography: A Novel by Charlotte Bacon (2002)

Lost Geography, by Charlotte Bacon, is a luminous first novel that fans of Alice Munro and Carol Shields will certainly enjoy. It tells the story of four generations of women (Margaret, Hilda, Danielle, and Sophie), and how each is both shaped by and, at the same time, transcends, her family history. The book begins with Margaret, growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan; succeeding generations move on to Toronto, France, and finally, Manhattan. As the stories of these four women unfold, readers get a feel for the distances everyone must travel as we each make our way through our lives, and how the geography of family and place shapes our decisions, by both expanding and limiting the choices available to us. Here's a scene that occurs when Hilda is helping her daughter, Danielle, get ready to move to France: "'All I've done is travel,' Hilda said. Later, Danielle would see that Hilda equated travel with survival. That she'd endured some difficult circumstances and wound up with work, a daughter, enough money, a satisfactory life. All that journeys meant to her were adaptations to difficulty. She understood, however that change of scene could mean something less fraught to other people." Bacon does an especially nice job of exploring the unsaid in relationships - those roiling, hidden feelings that lie beneath a seemingly placid surface.

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Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon

Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines, translated and with an introduction by Luc Sante, is a collection of over a thousand brief items that Fénéon published anonymously in the French newspaper Le Matin, in 1906. Starting with longer news accounts of often inconsequential events that appealed, for whatever reason, to his sense of oddness - tales of death, love, hate, humor, and despair - Fénéon distilled each one down to its essence, and in the process demonstrates how a distinct sense of time, place, and feeling could be evoked in the briefest of stories. I was struck by the extent to which each of Fénéon's distillations did actually feel like a story (if not quite a novel) to me, one that was compelling enough to both engage me and leave me wanting to know more. I suspect that most American readers coming upon this book (like myself) won't know anything about the author, and will therefore find Luc Sante's introduction very useful. He describes Fénéon as a critical genius (he brought the artist Georges Seurat to the public's attention and was the first French publisher of James Joyce's work) and a mover and shaker in the history of modernism. To appreciate Fénéon's work, simply open this treasure trove at random and just begin reading. Along the way you'll find such exquisite three line gems as these:

"Finding his daughter, 19, insufficiently austere, Jallat, watchmaker of Saint-Étienne, killed her. It is true that he has 11 children left."

"On the riverbank at Saint-Cloud were found the saber and uniform of Baudet, the soldier who disappeared the 11th. Murder, suicide, or hoax?"

"Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train."

"As M. Poulbot, a teacher in Ile-Saint-Denis, rang the signal to return to class, the bell dropped, nearly scalping him."

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An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters From Westerbork by Etty Hillesum (1996)

An Interrupted Life, the Diaries of Etty Hillesum takes us into the inner world of a unique and complex woman as she confronts the issues and circumstances of World War II and the Holocaust. Often compared to the better-known diary of Anne Frank, Etty's diaries are those of a mature young woman, and provide a more complex perspective than that of the adolescent, albeit precocious, Anne. Though their perspectives are very different, the two writers do share a common theme: the importance of - the possibility of - maintaining one's humanity in the face of an inhumane world. In 1941, Etty, a 27-year-old Jewish woman living in Amsterdam, began an unconventional form of analysis with a well-regarded Jungian psycho-chirologist which included palm readings, wrestling matches, and deep spiritual inquiry. As part of her treatment, her analyst, Julius Spier, requested that she (already an aspiring writer) keep a journal recording her daily activities, thoughts, and dreams. The result is two years of obsessively kept, militantly honest and unabashedly intimate writing, tracking Etty's transformation from a suicidal, emotionally chaotic, sexually volatile young woman into a deeply reflective, spiritually aware person whose humanist social philosophy carries overtones of both Eastern and Western religions. Etty was a controversial figure in her day and continues to be in ours. She was not a resistance fighter; she refused go into hiding. Instead, Etty attempted to find a third response, one that emphasized present consciousness and personal responsibility. In some of her last letters, written to friends in Amsterdam from the transit camp Westerbork where she was held before being shipped to her death in Auschwitz at age 29, Etty reflects upon the system of destruction in which she is caught up. "We must mobilize our inner forces," she says. "If you cannot help us, oh God, then we must find a way to help you."