Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Magicians

88. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is a very bright teenager who lives in Brooklyn. He lives an ordinary life, in an ordinary house, with ordinary parents. He is entranced by a series of books by an Anglophile author about English children who move between this world and the magic world of Fillory. And he is bored with his own ordinary existence.

Then, on a day when he was to have had his entrance interview for Princeton, he finds himself instead on the grounds of Brakebills College, sitting an exam which will determine whether or not he will be admitted to that school of magic. Of course, he is, or we wouldn't have a book, now, would we?

The book is pretty much divided into several parts. The first, which is the bulk of the book, and, I think, the best, is set primarily at Brakebills. The students learn about making and controlling magic, and, as in all the best colleges, have a lot of exams to pass. Here they mature, learn their strengths and weaknesses, make friends (and lovers). In the brief section that follows, we find Quentin and his friends living and partying in New York City.

But they are restless, and when one of them finds a way into the world of Fillory, they go, and we enter the third part of the book, that without which a book about young people and magic would not be complete: the QUEST! (Dum dum dum dum!) Here, naturally, they meet a variety of creatures, human and non-, who variously help, hinder, harm, trick, save them, and whom they, in turn, help, hinder, harm, trick and save.

Although I found the ending of the book to be too abrupt and unsatisfying, in the main I really enjoyed it, particularly the characters and their relationships. How do you handle being different? Having to keep a secret? How do you manage going from being the most brilliant kid in class to being just another smart kid? How do you cope with being a magician?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Bauhaus to Our House

87. From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe

Nearly thirty years ago, Tom Wolfe put the architectural world in a tizzy when he published this essay attacking modern architecture.

Now, I'm not a big fan of glass & steel & concrete office buildings, but Wolfe is absolutely virulent on the subject. And therein lies the rub. He detests Bauhaus-inspired work so much that he has no perspective. He is guilty of the same pretentiousness and arrogance of which he accuses the architects whom he dislikes.

There is a great deal to be said against architects who prefer form over function, theory over practice. But any legitimate criticism is lost in this diatribe. Saying over and over again "it's ugly and I don't like the architects' politics" is not particularly persuasive.

A Rumpole Christmas

86. A Rumpole Christmas, by John Mortimer

Five short stories featuring Mortimer's beloved barrister, Horace Rumpole, his wife, Hilda (otherwise known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed), and various other characters who will be familiar to readers of this series or viewers of the Thames Television show. (Inded, the cover illustration of Rumpole is the image of Leo McKern, who played the role in that show.)

Hilda manages to get Rumpole out of London for the Christmas break, once actually to a slimming spa(!), but murder and blackmail and old familiar faces follow him wherever he goes.

Because these stories were all first published in various journals at various times, there is a slight repetition of background, but that is to be expected under the circumstances. They are as delightful as always. But who could have anticipated that Mortimer would kill off Honoria Glossop!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

On One's Best Behavior: Etiquette Past and Present

84. Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication, by Judith Martin

The subtitle of this book pretty much says it all: In which Miss Manners Explains the Proper Form and Choice of Technology for Messages Private, Professional and Public: When to Phone, When to Fax, When a Handwritten Note is Obligatory, a Form Letter Forbidden and a Chain Letter Out of the Question

I adore Judith Martin, particular when she is in her alter ego of Miss Manners. In this slim, yet meaty, volume, she takes up the question of communication in the age of cell phones and email. Really, people, it's not that difficult. Does the person really need to hear what you have to say, and, if so, right this minute? Do not expect them to drop everything to respond to you. Don't conduct business in the middle of a social engagement. The near-ubiquity of cellphones with the concomitant ability to be constantly in touch has, unfortunately, led some to believe that they should be constantly in touch.

In addition to the spoken word, Miss Manners discusses the written word. This encompasses not merely the question of the proper stationery and the proper salutation (my personal bugaboo, seen often in donor lists, is "Mr. John and Mrs. Jane Doe"), but the who, what and when of invitations, thank-you notes, announcements, condolences and the like. (No "and guest". As she rightly says, "Miss Manners is sorry if it is too much trouble to find out the actual names of the people you care enough about to invite to a formal occasion, but you must do it.")

With her usual style and wit, Miss Manners will help you navigate the really not so difficult waters of proper communication. (Q: "How do you get children to write thank-you letters?" A: "Well, how do you get children to do anything?")

And, for god's sake, if someone invites you to an event, no matter how casual, Rsvp!!!

85. The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining, (adapted by) Autumn Stephens

Victorian upper-class Entertaining, that is. What a delightful little book! I admit to a passion for old etiquette books, and what Miss Stephens has done is to take bits and pieces from various unidentified 19th-century sources and created a guide to dinner parties, country house gatherings, and the like. While few of us today have the leisure to pay formal calls, or have footmen to receive callers' cards on a silver tray, much of the advice given is still quite appropriate, even if couched in language that makes us smile. Would we not all agree that an overnight guest "should have a comfortable room . . . with bed linen that is fresh and well aired"? Or that "[w]e have no right to offend people with our manners or conversation"? Such simple rules of courtesy and consideration never go out of style, though details of how to dress and the accepted hours for meals may change.

I am quite curious about one reference, however. "It is in utmost poor taste for a gentleman . . . to carry a little poodle dog (a man's glory is his strength and manliness, not in aping silly girls)." They did that? (Apparently, they did. A bit of searching reveals that the quotation is from a book called Modern Manners and Social Forms, published in 1889.)

Which leads me to my one criticism. It would have been appropriate (and proper) for Miss Stephens to have identified her sources. While the books she drew from are undoubtedly long out of copyright, courtesy (both to the writer and to the reader who may wish to know more) should be a sufficient reason to give that information.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

How to Live with a Calculating Cat

83. How to Live with a Calculating Cat, by Eric Gurney

Is there any other kind? Those of us who share our homes with cats will recognize the behavior of Gurney's cats right away, from their finicky-ness as regards their food to the fact that they "are not likely to sleep in the basket which has been purchased specifically for this purpose."

We are also treated to a gallery of well-known calculating cats, such as the Cheshire Cat whose "real claim to fame . . . is that he was the first cat to admit quite cheerfully that he was mad."

An amusing, and accurate, account of life with cats, accompanied by clever drawings. I am particularly fond of this illustration which shows a rare instance of cat and dog cooperation. (The caption reads: "Teamwork makes the impossible simple.")

Deep Purple

82. Deep Purple, by Mayra Montero

Agustin Cabán, music critic for a San Juan newspaper, has just retired, and is writing his memoirs and sharing them with his editor. These memoirs consist primarily of his sexual encounters with musicians, and Montero writes of the connections her protagonist finds between music and sexual desire.

I had read other books of Ms. Montero's, Dancing to Almendra, and The Messenger, both of which I enjoyed and found intriguing. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Deep Purple. It's basically one sex act after another, and emotional content is lacking. I don't mind the descriptions of sex. I enjoy good pornography and I enjoy good writing about sex. But this wasn't either.

The Reverberator

81. The Reverberator, by Henry James

In our time, socialites, celebrities and people "famous for being famous" hire publicists and are content to have their private lives made fodder for the public press. Indeed, they are often complicit in the revelation of the most intimate details of their lives and seem to agree with the saying that "no publicity is bad publicity".

Henry James would be shocked. Simon Nowell-Smith points out in his introduction to my edition of this novel James' reaction to a public report of a private conversation between Julian Hawthorne and James Russell Lowell; he called it a "beastly and blackguardly betrayal". But he took an incident in which a young American who had been admitted into Venetian society wrote an account of that society for a New York newspaper, and was widely excoriated in Venice for so doing, and turned it into this charming novel.

The Dossons, father and two daughters, serious Delia and flighty Francie, are Americans in Paris. Coming over, they had made the acquaintance of George Flack, a journalist whose job is to find stories for an American 'society-paper'. He has attached himself to the Dossons, showing them Paris, while smoking Mr. Dosson's cigars, spending his money, and having a flirtation with Francie. He introduces her to the expatriate Impressionist portraitist, Charles Waterlow (possibly based on John Singer Sargent?) who begins to paint her portrait. During the sittings, she meets a young man, Gaston Probert, an American who had never been in America, having been born and raised in France, his father a "Gallomaniac", his sisters having married into French society (two into the nobility). Inevitably, Francie and Gaston fall in love, and, after her charm overcomes some familial objections of the Proberts, they become engaged.

All is going swimmingly, Francie is taken into the bosom of the Proberts, learning the ways of French society, until Gaston heads to the United States to take care of some business for his family, as well as for Mr. Dosson. While he is away, George Flack re-appears. One lesson Francie has not learned is that a young engaged woman does not go out alone with a young man who is not her betrothed. But she takes the view that Flack is an old acquaintance and what's the harm? The harm turns out to be that he, by judicious questioning and saying he merely wants to write about Waterlow's painting of her, sets her chattering about her fiancé's family, and the resultant newspaper story causes a storm. Francie still cannot quite understand the harm she has done. "I thought he would just speak about my being engaged and give a little account; so many people in America would be interested." What she doesn't grasp is that the Proberts do not want "people in America" (or France, for that matter) to be interested in their private lives.

The Reverberator was first written as a serial in early 1888, and published in book form shortly thereafter. James extensively revised it twenty years later, but my edition is that of the 1888 book. Nowell-Smith's introduction, which compares this and the later edition, shows that the revisions were not an improvement! The ease of language here, very different from James' later "tortuosity of expression", perfectly expresses the wide-eyed naïveté of Francie.