Tag Archives: Britain

*** Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

In Mothering Sunday, an aging novelist remembers a Sunday when she was in her early twenties, working as a house servant and about to lose her aristocratic lover. The story unfolds slowly, capturing not just the events of the day, but the heroine’s entire life as well as her thoughts and feelings as she moves through that unforgettable day. A delightful story full of shadows and complicated relationships.

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** Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies is an erudite review of how weather figures in the work of British artists. (English artists? That’s what the title says but she makes reference to Wales; how can a non-Brit figure it out?)

So we start, with Roman-time orders for some nice woolens. Poor Romans, they must have felt cold, and damp, in Britain… We plow through Chaucer, and Ms. Harris insist we read it in the original language. Maybe a footnote would suffice? We peek at toes being warmed on a fire in medieval illustrations. I liked the art better than the literature, both because the illustrations are perfect and because much is lacking in my knowledge of British literature. A treat for literary Anglophiles, and an interesting read for everyone else.

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*** The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain is an idiosyncratic journey through Great Britain — but the journey is just an excuse to talk about the author’s beloved country of adoption. His musings on the delightful ways of the Brits, the exquisite landscapes, and the right history of the place are most enjoyable. He also inserts many rants about subjects as varied as fast-food restaurants employees, dismal urban planning, poor spelling, and the general boorishness of the hoi polloi — some rants are funny but others go on a little too long, or repeat themselves a bit too much. I preferred the softer bits.

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*** Their Promised Land by Ian Buruma

In Their Promised Land: My Grandparents In Love And War, the author tells the story of his grandparents through his own memories but mostly the letters that they wrote to each other, and they wrote many since they were unlucky enough to live through two world wars, during which they were separated. Both grandparents are second-generation German Jews living in Britain in a very comfortable manner but they still have to contend with antisemitic discrimination that makes it difficult for him to find a position as a physician, for instance. The story is a love story, between Win and Bernard for sure, but also for the family they built together against the background of the wars. (Much better than All The Light We Cannot See!)

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* A Strange Business by James Hamilton


A Strange Business: Art, Culture, and Commerce in Nineteenth Century London talks about the artists, their patrons, and all the craftsmen and business people that made the practice and commerce of art possible in the United Kingdom during the 19th century. The author starts off with a painfully assembled foursome, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Turner, and Faraday, but does not seem to do much with them (although they obviously make repeated appearances in the various chapters of the book, which focus on various aspects of the art business). He also has some difficulty showing that what happened in London art circles at that time was any more than the normal benefits of wealth in making it possible for artists to thrive. There are a few interesting comments, such as when he points out that both artists and the nouveaux-riches who so wanted to appear cultured often came from the same, unhealthy backgrounds. But otherwise I found the book a little dry, full of dull correspondence and bills for various works of art and art supplies.

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** 1/2 The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres


The Dust That Falls from Dreams is the story of three well-to-do families throughout WWI.  It is carefully arranged, with modern young women who want to free themselves from tradition (and find it much easier to do that under the peculiar circumstances of the war), brave young Americans, and a daredevil French pilot who loves his mother – and I found the combination of the tidily contrived plot and the sadly familiar WWI stories  a bit of a bore. That said, the author manages to create vivid characters, in particular a devoted father hiding under an apparently businesslike  entrepreneur, and supplies abundant witticisms served by the daughters to her mother about the changing times.

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*** Emma by Jane Austen


So I said I would read the original Emma, and I did. I even managed to read a big part of it while flying to the UK, to put me in the mood, as it were. And I’m happy to report that the original is wonderful. It’s not entirely clear to me why we 21st-century denizens can find the lives of idle upperclass 19th-century folks so fascinating, but we do get caught up in the grave decision of who should open the ball, not to mention who should marry whom…

Emma, the main character, is a spirited and occasionally misguided young woman — but after all, she is only 20! But she may not be the most interesting character. Her father, a timid, worried misanthrope, frets during the entire story. Miss Bates is an accomplished (and mocked) motormouth, and we get to eavesdrop on her perfectly rendered prattle. And Mrs Elton, a self-centered snob, provides a counterpoint of unending jabbering, but with a queen-bee venom. Delicious, despite the various racist commentaries and the obviously dated views of young women’s opportunities. Today, Emma would be embarking on a powerful career instead of being chided by Mr. Knightley in prelude to marrying him. I just gave away the end but you knew it already, right?

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