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Category Archive for 'England'

A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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Peter Turner, who befriended Hollywood Oscar winner Gloria Grahame in 1979, was then a twenty-seven-year-old budding actor in England, and Grahame was fifty-five, a four times married American actress who had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1952 for “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Their twenty-eight-year age difference became irrelevant as they came to know each other and Turner found he was able to keep Grahame on an even keel and able to inspire her to perform her acting duties. The two traveled and explored New York, a place new to Turner, a resident of Liverpool, as Grahame showed him the places to go and the things to do there. When, after two years, she suddenly ended all contact with him, refusing to explain anything or answer any of his messages by phone or mail, he was forced to go on with his life, his relationship with Grahame just a memory. As the novel opens, Turner is suddenly contacted by Grahame months later about getting together, and he soon discovers that she broke off her relationship with him and ended all contact because she was seriously ill and did not want to be a burden. Now, however, he realizes that she needs help – and quickly. A physician is recommending that she seek hospitalization, but she is adamantly opposed to it. Instead she wants to move in with his large family in Liverpool and stay with them until she feels better. Book has been reprinted to coincide with the release of a film of the same name, starring Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jamie Bell.

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British author Andrew Miller creates a unique novel, one which breaks all the “rules” of structure, character, and plot but still manages to engage and involve the reader. In The Crossing, Miller maintains the clean prose and stunning descriptions for which he has always been noted, but here he accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of keeping the main character herself a mystery for the entire novel, a person with seemingly no personality or observable feelings for other people and no commitment to those around her, a “heroine” who is in no way heroic. Following a serious accident to Maud Stamp, main character, while she and Tim Rathbone are both working to restore a boat, as members of the university sailing club, Tim brings Maud to her apartment. In this first part, a domestic drama, Maud and Tim eventually set up housekeeping in a small house near his parents, and she remains committed to her job doing medical research out of town while he works on a concerto at home. Years pass, and gradual changes occur in their lives. Then a horrific accident upsets their world. Maud’s response is to take the boat which she and Tim have restored, a Nicholson 32, and set out to sea. This middle part of the novel is an exciting adventure story of Maud against nature as she battles huge storms at sea while heading south in the Atlantic from England, emulating a heroine, Nicolette Milnes Walker. She eventually lands somewhere in South America and is found by orphan children living in a kind of religious commune, adding a symbolic element to the novel which introduces some feelings to Maud. The conclusion may leave readers thinking about all the possible meanings of the ending.

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If you think that the machinations, the rumor-mongering, and the outright lies we have seen in the latest election cycle in the United States is as bad as it gets, take a look at journalist John Preston’s latest book of non-fiction about a scandal in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Subtitled “Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament,” Preston’s thoroughly researched and dramatically presented study of MP Jeremy Thorpe and his small coterie of friends and family, both in and out of government, gives new meaning to the idea of political egotism, at the same time that it illustrates a British sense of reserve and a respect for privacy that has now vanished from the press and our own twenty-first century lives. At a time in which there was no internet, no reality TV, and no desire to destroy lives in order to sell newspapers with stories based solely on rumor, Jeremy Thorpe’s crimes would not come to a head and result in a trial until seventeen years had elapsed from his first contact with Norman Scott. Scott claims to have been a victim of rape by Thorpe when he was twenty, followed by several years of homosexual contact, both of which were against the law in the UK in 1960 when the relationship began. NIneteen years would pass before Scott would be vindicated. During that time Jeremy Thorpe came close to being named Prime Minister.

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I have to admit that when I read the premise of this novel, I cringed, thinking that it sounded too “cute”- even effete – to be taken seriously; author Ian McEwan relates this entire novel from the point of view of an unborn baby, nine months in the womb. Describing his “living room” with its cramped quarters within his mother Trudy’s belly, the unborn child points out that he has a surprising amount of control over his life, that he can overhear every conversation involving his mother, that he can participate in every physical act involving her, and that he likes his father, John, a poet, even though his mother has left him for a new lover, his father’s younger brother Claude. In the first pages of the novel, the baby tells us that his mother and Claude are planning a “dreadful event,” but the reader is not told the details of what that event is until after the author has described their characters and laid the groundwork for the action, something to do with “poison.” From this scenario within the first forty pages of the book, all the complications evolve for the remainder of the novel. McEwan’s descriptions, often hilarious, keep the reader completely involved, despite the obvious ironies and absurdities, as the baby-narrator develops a plan for revenge on his uncle and his mother – not for their plans to poison his father but for their betrayal in wanting the baby “placed” after its birth. A light-handed parody of Hamlet which stands on its own as a modern comedy with a tour de force ending.

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