What are you reading? (Monday 25/52)

Monday.readingThe last week or so has been unexpectedly stressful, as a housemate has decided to try to get me evicted me in favor of some of her friends who are moving to town. Lovely.

Being a bit of a nester, even in rented spaces, the prospect is more than slightly daunting. And so. While I battle on the home front, I’ve been indulging in some lighter literary fare.

Here’s what I’ve been reading:

  • The P. G. Wodehouse Collection 

Wodehouse cures what ails ya. This collection contains Right Ho, Jeeves, a full-length novel about the mad love of Gussie Fink-Nottle (who studies newts) for Madeline Bassett (who unashamedly proposes that the stars are God’s daisy chain), Aunt Dahlia (who may have gotten into a bit of trouble betting in Cannes), Antoino (who is more than a little touchy about his cooking), Bertie (of course), and, ever and always, Jeeves.

In an attempt to raise poor Gussie’s courage (literally: he’s a teetotaler, and no man, according to Bertie, ever screwed his spirits to the sticking point without a liberal application of spirits) enough to propose to the drippy Angela, Bertie proceeds to get Gussie very, very drunk. Unfortunately, Gussie also has to present the prizes at the Market Snodsbury grammar school later that day. Stephen Fry, in the article “What ho! My hero, PG Wodehouse” talks about this scene, which is considered the highlight of the novel:

The masterly episode where Gussie Fink-Nottle -presents the prizes at Market Snodsbury grammar school is frequently included in collections of great comic literature and has often been described as the single funniest piece of sustained writing in the language. I would urge you, however, to head straight for a library or bookshop and get hold of the complete novel Right Ho, Jeeves, where you will encounter it fully in context and find that it leaps even more magnificently to life.

This collection also includes a bunch of short stories– “Deep Waters” and “Extricating Young Gussie” (rumpty-tiddley-umpty-ay!)

  • That Part Was True, Deboray McKinlay

I read this in one long, lovely gulp lying on a quilt on my roof on a sunny and windy Saturday morning. Quite delightful. Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it:

How rewarding to perch on the shoulder of a character Barbara Pym might have conjured — a late bloomer who possesses “brickish stoicism” and brews tea on an Aga. So when the British author Deborah McKinlay takes us to “the depths of the English countryside, in a house that was an advertisement for the English countryside,” we recognize that a Lively voice — à la Penelope, that is — will be reporting with wry detachment and affection.

“That Part Was True” is part epistolary, beginning with a fan letter sent by Eve Petworth to Jackson Cooper, a ­Robert-Parkeresque, best-selling American novelist. (His recurring protagonist is “a dry-witted sleuth with gourmet tastes and a talent for observation.”) Cooking earns a starring role in their correspondence; as it continues, he begins to think of her as “his food friend,” enjoying on paper “a chaste, if warm, thing based on a mutual interest.”

Poor Eve, a divorced romantic pessimist, suffers anxiety attacks, brought on by almost anything outside her four walls. Her daughter, Izzy, and Eve herself consider Eve to have been very bad at mothering. And now Izzy’s coming wedding introduces additional angst in the form of Simon, the long-estranged ex-husband and thrice-married father, who is making up for lost time and absent scruples.

Equal space is devoted to Jack, twice-divorced, sort of enjoying bachelorhood in the Hamptons. “For the past 15 years, women had been trying to please him. Not many had managed it.” Several now seem “gluey.” Especially skillfully rendered is his affair with a diffident New Yorker, Adrienne, a dispenser of unwanted editorial advice. Worse — she’s a vegetarian who hardly eats! Mineral water and a salad don’t keep good company with omnivore, gourmand Jack. Far-off Eve, on the other hand, is a safe, quixotic object of affection and a source of recipes.

McKinlay can dip into preciousness (“He detected on her ivory-headed notepaper the fine, fresh scent of herbs”). Yet almost every page offers delicious, offbeat descriptions. Izzy’s fiancé is “all dangly charm and winsome scruffiness.” His co-workers are “tidily polite.” A waiter describes offerings “with religious gravity.”

Will a culinary correspondence (“Mutton is good with plums”) be enough to fan a flame? I worried that invitations to rendezvous in Paris were premature and unearned or, as Eve’s housekeeper warns, “dodgy.” But mercifully, Jack and Eve think so too. Jack wishes “he hadn’t said that stuff to Eve; it sounded pretentious in the daylight.”

Whereas some weak-kneed (literally: her anxiety attacks result in dead faints) characters might test our patience, we’re always on Eve’s side. She’s self-aware, her own best critic, in search of coping mechanisms and peace.

Will these pen pals actually meet in a cafe on the Left Bank? McKinlay teases us, allowing them to correspond with a bit more ardor than their nonacquaintance warrants. If we occasionally wince at Jack baring his soul, going poetic, and with Eve responding in kind (“When it had all gone — my buoyant roundness and openness to joy — when it had been stripped away, I tried to forget everything”), we understand that distance and semi-anonymity are making them brave.

I won’t say where their missives lead, but I will applaud the sensible outcome. This is England, after all, and we trust that Mrs. Petworth won’t do anything rash.

And that’s me. Anything great you’ve been reading? Please share!


The bookstores of New York

The New Yorker commissioned cartoonist Bob Eckstein to draw his favorite bookstores. Love these.

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Read the article here.

And I love this quote:

“For the last several days I’ve had the sudden and general urge to buy a new book. I’ve stopped off at a few bookstores around the city, and while I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of books in that time, I have not found the one book that will satisfy my urge. It’s not as if I don’t have anything to read; there’s a tower of perfectly good unread books next to my bed, not to mention the shelves of books in the living room I’ve been meaning to reread. I find myself, maddeningly, hungry for the next one, as yet unknown. I no longer try to analyze this hunger; I capitulated long ago to the book lust that’s afflicted me most of my life. I know enough about the course of the disease to know I’ll discover something soon.”
― Lewis BuzbeeThe Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History

Lydia, the tattooed lady

Full disclosure: I have no tattoos, but I’m fascinated by them. In an alternate reality, I have full sleeves (to go along with my pink hair and motorcycle). (In this alternate reality, I may also be an angsty loft-dweller in a garage band, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Anyway. Tattoos. Love ’em in theory, but (for me) they’re the type of thing that need to be done impulsively, and my over-thinking-ness doesn’t really allow for such impulsivity. So I admire from a distance.

Or, as with these, up close. Just wow.

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These figurines are created by artist Jessica Harrison, whose show is currently on display at Galerie L.J. in Paris. I’m sure they cost the very earth, but I can’t help imagining how great one would look, enlivening the inevitably staid china cabinet.

The title is from a song made popular by Groucho Marx; Dinah Lord sings it in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

More about Jessica Harrison here, here, and here.

Complete (and hilarious!) lyrics to “Lydia, the tattooed lady” here.

Flower Fashions: Studio Saint-Ex and Grace Ciao

Last week, I reread Ania Szado’s Studio Saint-Ex, the plot of which centers around the launch of a fashion label in war-time New York. Mignonne Lachapelle collaborates with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wife to create a line based on The Little Prince. The central piece of the line is a dress based on the prince’s rose:

But what lifted the dress beyond stunning, making it unforgettable, was the shimmering red rose that dominated its front.

Consuelo walked the length of the parlor, back and forth.With each step, the rose moved as though bending to the wind or arching to hear a loved one’s voice. She swiveled her hips and the rose sashayed with her. She was the rose, through and through, bright and shiny-eyed, glowing with beauty and pride.

But even had I not just finished this book, I would have found these amazing.

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Grace Ciao’s illustrations are created entirely from flower petals. She says she was inspired to begin this project when she noticed that a rose that had been given to her was fading–she wanted to find a way to preserve the fading beauty.

See more on her blog or Instagram account.

What are you reading? (Monday 24/52)


I’ve been reading about New York lately: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, now The Golem and the Jinni, and Studio Saint-Ex. 

  • The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

An immigrant tale that combines elements of Jewish and Arab folk mythology, The Golem and the Jinni tells the story of two supernatural creatures who arrive separately in New York in 1899. One is a golem, created out of clay to be her master’s wife—but he dies at sea, leaving her disoriented and overwhelmed as their ship arrives in New York Harbor. The other is a jinni, a being of fire, trapped for a thousand years in a copper flask before a tinsmith in Manhattan’s Little Syria releases him.

Each unknown to the other, the Golem and the Jinni explore the strange and altogether human city. Chava, as a kind old rabbi names her, is beset by the desires and wishes of others, which she can feel tugging at her. Ahmad, christened by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, is aggravated by human dullness. Both must work to create places for themselves in this new world, and develop tentative relationships with the people who surround them.

And then, one cold and windy night, their paths happen to meet. From the author’s website, here.

I love the intertwining settings and mythologies of the alternating stories. The New York immigrant communities are fascinating, full of rituals and relationships. The Jinni’s memories paint an arid and beautiful desert, intricate and devastating. And perhaps most interesting, to me, at least:  the golem is created, and so she constantly puzzles over the nature of humanity. Should the other be judged by thoughts or actions? To whom do we owe responsibility? At what point does what one’s nature requires infringe on another’s rights?

  •  Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado

Against the backdrop of WWII Manhattan’s glittering French expat community and emerging fashion scene, STUDIO SAINT-EX sets Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—and his work-in-progress, THE LITTLE PRINCE—within a tempestuous triangle that pits the love and ambition of 22-year-old designer Mig Lachapelle against the passions and seductions of Saint-Ex’s fiery estranged wife. From the author’s website, here.

I don’t particularly care for that review, here are a few better:

Studio Saint-Ex is like an ocean undertow: I fell in and could not get out except by gorging on the story as it pulled me toward the final sentence. -Lawrence Hill

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado is an elegantly alluring and poignant love story. Nuanced, written with intimacy and immediacy, it’s a fascinating account of the evolution of the classic children’s novel The Little Prince framed by the complex relationships of the French writer/war hero Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, his formidably manipulative and fiercely sensual Latin wife, and the young, talented Canadian fashion designer who captivates them both. Spare and beautifully-crafted, the novel vividly evokes the world of fashion design and the French ex-pat community in New York during WWII. In a word: magnifique!–Sandra Gulland

The perspectives in this novel are fascinating. The story is told in retrospect as Mignonne and Consuelo are both trying to get to Expo 67 in Montreal. As they sit in their respective airports, anticipating their first meeting in decades, they each recall the tumultuous year when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was stranded in New York, unable to get clearance to return to an occupied France.

In 1942, Mignonne is struggling to launch a design career in an industry crippled by war-time restrictions on fabric and accessories and a world reeling from the horrors of war. Consuelo, Antoine’s frequently estranged wife, descends on New York to rekindle their tempestuous relationship and take her place at the side of the fêted Saint-Ex.

Currently Reading: 

I’m currently in the midst of a West Wing/ knitting marathon, so I haven’t yet started another book. And I’m not quite sure which way I’m hopping yet–I’m considering a reread of Glen Duncan’s Werewolf books. There’s a connection to be made between the golem’s outsider perspective on humanity and Jake Marlowe’s observations: both are concerned what it means to have a nature at odds with personal and accepted moralities and, more fundamentally, with what it means to be human.

If not that, then perhaps Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. I’ve been fascinated by her since reading the truly excellent Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay–Savage Beauty–is also excellent.) I don’t know if it’s the train-wreck quality of the dramatics of the Fitzgerald relationship, or the way she seems to embody so clearly a  stereotype (the muse of the great man, the aspiring artist, the mad woman [or the accusation of such], or what… but looking forward to this. Maybe this week, maybe not.

Then again, I’ve been considering a reread of Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler books, a really excellent series of novels that center on the heroine of the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. In the fashion of Holmes and Watson, Adler, and her companion Penelope, investigate and have adventures in late 19th century London and Europe.

Such good choices on the horizon.

And that’s me–what have you been reading lately?