22 June 2005

T

TABER, GLADYS

    STILLMEADOW DAYBOOK (1955); STILLMEADOW                    SAMPLER (1959)


Both of these collections, culled from Gladys Taber's columns for a women's magazine in the 1950s, show what money can buy but without being so crass as to mention Money. The pieces are often tiresomely trite and repetitious, but Gladys Taber clearly has a good heart.

 She writes about Stillmeadow, the 40 acres in Connecticut where she and a woman friend lived.  They’re both widows but the families were friends before they were widowed. Their children are grown. 


The  ideas here  are stereotypical—and the author loves using “companion” as a verb. But what struck me most about her essays is the assumptions they rest on: an assumption of a life of ease and privilege that goes on and on without end. “Every yard now has a barbecue pit,” she trills. And, because they raise dogs as a hobby, she’ll say things like, “When we go away for a few days” [to a dog show]. They have a pond to swim in, a car, assorted ultra-dependable neighbors who do everything for them (handling the storms and screens, for instance)—whether these good souls are compensated isn’t made clear. They’ve had lessons in flower arranging. They entertain—and then they have all those ashtrays to empty. They have a dishwasher, washer, and dryer, thirty cocker spaniels, a grown daughter who readily comes over to care for the dogs when they’re away. 


Taber recalls that in her childhood the family doctor was her father’s best friend—and that her mother fed and entertained all her high school friends.


This may be the kind of life that some Americans now expect--and have.



May 1998
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TANCER, WILLIAM

     EVERYONE'S A CRITIC: WINNING CUSTOMERS IN A REVIEW-DRIVEN WORLD (2014)

Some books are readable mainly for the information they provide, and this book was like that.  For some time I've been wondering about the usefulness of consumer comments on Websites like Yelp and many online shopping sites.  I often read them and rely on them, but how trustworthy are they? Might they have been planted there to enhance sales or draw in clients/customers?

According to this book, yes, they might have been. But the chances are that they weren't, and the ones that are fakes are often easily spotted. The author describes ways of detecting fake reviews.

He makes the interesting point that in today's world, businesses are relying more and more on reviews. Whether this is good or bad has yet to be determined, but it's very different from yesterday's world.

In some instances--he uses Uber as an example--the effect seems extreme at times, as when Uber employees are held to ridiculously exacting standards in terms of providing timely service.

Tancer gives considerable attention to restaurant and hotel reviews, and the examples can be interesting as well as amusing.

8 May 2016
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TAYLOR, ELIZABETH


     A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR (1947)

The title of this quiet but absorbing novel seems to refer to a painting with that theme that is being done by one of the principal characters, Bertram, a retired Navy man who is a not-very-successful artist--nor, we are made to feel, is he an artist with much talent.

The harbor is part of a small English fishing village that has seen better days. Of the several characters, it may be Bertram who connects most to the other characters, and yet he is an outsider to the town--a newcomer and therefore a bit suspect. The local pub also serves to bring people together in this story. But there is also the paralyzed invalid Mrs. Bracey, a widow, who has her own view of the harbor and who takes in much information just from her vantage point within her four walls. Bossy and irrational, she is not a pleasant person. Her two daughters are part of a subplot involving a young man and his aunt, who is in domestic service.

The more important plot revolves around Robert, a doctor, and his wife Beth, a writer. Robert is involved in an affair with Beth's close friend (since their school days) and neighbor Tory, who is now divorced but has a son to look after. Prudence, the elder of the two daughters of Beth and Robert, who is 20 and in questionable health, becomes aware of her father's involvement with Tory. The denouement follows from this discovery of Prudence's.

The story is simple and straightforward, the characters few, but these are people who come to life and behave in ways consistent with our expectations of them. This isn't to say that the novel is predictable or trite. By no means is this a dull or routine story. The action is not thrilling or sensational. No shots are fired, no blood spilled, no bedrooms or bathrooms are spied on. Nor are any heartstrings pulled. No cheap tricks here. It is a satisfying, true-to-life tale, well told. Who could ask for more?

The author, who was English, was born in 1912 and died in 1975.

24 September 2003
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THEROUX, PAUL


Image result for Paul Theroux photo

      COLLECTED STORIES (1997)


This is a substantial collection of stories, written and published over several decades and set in various parts of the world, including London and Malaysia.  They are well worth reading.

2 October 1999
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TREVOR, WILLIAM


    THE SILENCE IN THE GARDEN (1988)

I can't say that this novel disappoints because I suspect that truly understanding it depends on seeing the layout of the text on the page.  Interspersed with the narrative are diary entries, set in italics, but listening to a recorded version I was often unaware of where the diary entries began and ended--a matter that is not the fault of the author, to be sure.

But even if I had had access to this information, the story is told in a glancing way. We are given glimpses of an event we don't yet know about, and we find out about it piecemeal as the story proceeds. This happened often enough to make me wish for a more straightforward narrative.

It can be irritating when an author teases the readers by telling about events in a "now-you-see-it-now-you-don't" style. However, in this particular story, spanning several decades, this dancing about in time has the effect of giving a picture of a place and time undergoing intense change.

We become immersed in the Irish community of Carriglas as we see the crumbling of the its dominant family, the Rollestons, and the shuffling and realigning of allegiances as time passes. Ultimately the rottenness at the core of the Rolleston establishment is exposed, perhaps most glaringly when Mrs. Moledy, the long-time mistress of John James, one of the sons, turns up drunk at the wedding of John James's sister Villana.  That Tom, the illegitimate son of the Rollestons' last butler, eventually becomes the focus of the story and apparently the head of the household is evidence of the enormity of the transformation that has taken place. 

The change from the gracious living that required servants to the far more relaxed, less fussy style from the mid-20th century on seems to have had considerable attention in recent decades, what with the two television series, Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, and The Silence in the Garden might be taken to be another chronicle of the downfall of the great houses in which an entire way of life was supported by a collection of servants and merchants whose business it was to produce items of fine quality to please the tastes of fine ladies and gentlemen.

But Trevor's story has the added dimension of the Irish "troubles." The conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics is always close to the surface in this story, even flaring up in violence. There is also the beautifully drawn character of Holy Mullihan, Tom's childhood associate, who is the quintessential overly devout Catholic, constantly lecturing Tom in priestly tones.

The Silence in the Garden seems a very appropriate title for a story detailing the decline of a way of life. A garden can't be maintained without leisure time, and the leisure class had the time to construct and maintain truly spectacular gardens in their day. But the day has passed, and there is silence. Their witty conversations, often carried on against the backdrop of their gardens, are no more.  That their way of life was a very costly one to sustain is undeniable, and it sounds as if Trevor might have been glad to see the aristocracy disintegrate and be replaced by the very kind of people it had so long depended on.

At the center of the story though often very much in the background is Sarah Pollexfen, who turns out not to be the omniscient narrator although for quite a while it looks as if she is. It is her experience, starting with a position as governess at Carriglass, that ties the strands of the story together.  Jane Eyre was a governess as well, and there is a governess at the center of the Henry James story, "The Turn of the Screw."  Perhaps Sarah Pollexfen is meant to represent another in a time-honored tradition of governesses with interesting experiences to relate.

22 March 2017

     FELICIA'S JOURNEY (1994)


I read this book some years ago but after seeing a film version of it, I reread it. 

Trevor has told a "fallen woman" story that could have been trite and soap-operatic but in his hands this narrative of a young woman in her late teens whose boy friend has got her pregnant is transformed. To be sure, she ends up fallen. But for  a long time the reader is more or less assuming that she's dead at the hands of the creepy Mr. Hilditch, a man so credibly evil that other villains pale by comparison.

The author has built up his story very skilfully, withholding or tiptoeing around one key bit of information--that Felicia has survived an ordeal no other such young woman has come through alive.

By the time we learn what has actually become of her, we are ready to share in her joy in being alive--in knowing what she has narrowly escaped.

She has paid a steep price: an abortion, the apparent loss of her family and her native land (Ireland), and the destruction of her illusions and dreams as her heart-breaking search for Johnny, the father of her child, proves futile.

The diligence of her search--which we witness in considerable detail--underscores the power of her dreams: for a home, a family, a loving husband, stability.

Although the story sounds a qualified triumphant note in its ending, it is still bleak in the extreme. It paints the seedy, cruel underworld inhabited by the indigent homeless in starkly realistic colors.

This masterfully crafted story has absolutely no "agenda." However, and I have no way of knowing if this was the author's intent, in spinning this story, Trevor has managed to call attention to the plight of many contemporary young women. Cast adrift with no support system backing them, they are highly vulnerable and sadly subject to forces beyond their control. Trevor finds little hope for their situation in an increasingly impersonal world.

In the character of Hilditch he gives us a man who has no memory of his heinous  murders of several young women.
Whether or not this variety of insanity exists in real life may be beside the point. For the purposes of this story it does exist, and we have Hilditch, quite successful in his food-related occupation and obsessed with fine dining, a bon vivant who enjoys the respect of everyone he knows, but he has a secret world involving young women who will probably not be very earnestly looked for if they go missing.

This is a riveting and terrifying tale.

6 July 2013

     CHEATING AT CANASTA (2007)

William Trevor's fiction always deserves a careful reading. Important details are packed into concise sentences and can easily slip past a reader whose attention is wandering.

This is a collection of his stories, and as usual they are beautifully constructed. He focuses his attention on a few characters in each one, often bleak people whose lives have gone astray in ways they could not have foreseen or prevented.

Some have made choices that were wrong, as in "Folie à deux," about two boys, now grown up, who once watched a beloved old dog drown instead of intervening.  Trevor doesn't point us to morals, however. He shows us how it was and gives us enough detail so we can make up our own minds about what happened and whether or not we care to stand in judgment.

Something tells me Trevor would prefer it if the reader withheld judgment and just appreciated the story for what it is--a story well told.

25 August 2010

    A BIT ON THE SIDE (2004)

William Trevor seems incapable of writing badly. 

The title story concerns an adulterous couple who separate after the woman divorces her husband without telling her lover about it until the divorce is final. At this point her lover begins to worry about what people will think of their affair, and to realize that she will always be his "bit on the side." 

Some of the other stories are much darker and bleaker. Trevor has a special gift for giving us characters on the margins of society, in surroundings that are seedy but not spectacularly sordid. He renders the ordinary and the humdrum but casts a special light on them as he applies his acute observations and perceptions.

Ireland is the usual setting, but it isn't a partisan version. It's just Ireland as it probably is.

9 March 2011

    THE STORY OF LUCY GAULT (2002)

William Trevor's masterful story-telling towers above most other authors'--and here it is again in this compelling novel.

The action spans many decades, starting in 1921 and proceeding up to the present. Lucy Gault is 9 years old when she runs away from her doting parents, who are preparing to move the family away from their traditional house because they have been threatened during the "troubles" in Ireland.

Why it never occurs to her parents or to anyone else that Lucy might have run away and be still alive somewhere is a possible weak point in the narrative, for they give her up for dead--and leave, to spend many years traveling in Europe and eventually settling in Italy though never apparently successfully communicating their whereabouts to the caretakers of their house.

These caretakers stand in for Lucy's parents from the time when she is found, injured badly enough to leave her with a limp.

How her life and her parents' lives spin themselves out over the years is the material of this novel. It is a sad tale of missed chances and failure of communication, beautifully told.

22 August 2009

    ELIZABETH ALONE (1973)

The story revolves around several women who are in a women's hospital ward together--all but one having hysterectomies. Lily Drucker has been ordered to stay in the hospital until her baby is born since she has had four prior miscarriages.

Elizabeth is 41, divorced and with three daughters. Her former husband becomes engaged to be remarried in the course of the story.  The others--a woman who keeps a boarding house for  devout church members, and Sylvie, who has had a hard life even at the age of 25--are gradually revealed to us, along with some of their family and friends.

And their "friends." By the novel's close it looks as if the story is meant to be a paean to women.  Most of the men whom we get to know in any detail turn out to be far less than these women deserve. Elizabeth's former husband pilfers a probably valuable trinket from her household in her absence and has been generally cold and indifferent to her and their daughters.

Their daughter Joanna, 17, has become enamored of Samuel, who is on drugs and pressing her to live in a commune without finishing her schooling.

Elizabeth's childhood friend, Henry, who hopes to marry her (and whom she admits--after his death--she probably would have married), is a drinker and a constant bumbler at everything he attempts.

Sylvie's Irish boyfriend isn't likely to turn out well in spite of having an uncle who is a priest. 

Lily's husband Kenneth seems hopelessly under his mother's control and inclined to ruin his chances by giving out more damaging information about himself than he needs to do.

Then we have Mr. Maloney, Carstairs and Darcy, and Sylvie's brother Mickey, who was in a gang that harassed homosexuals and is probably in prison.

The women, on the other hand, except for the over-controlling Mrs. Drucker, tend to be milder, less inclined to be duplicitous and manipulative, more attached to home and hearth. Above all, they are willing to trust men with whom they've become involved--and this trust is often their undoing. The ultimate in trust and forgiveness is Sylvie, but there is also Elizabeth, trusting her former husband and trusting her old friend Henry, and there is Lily, trusting her husband Kenneth, and there is Joanna, trusting Samuel, and, on the periphery, there is Pamela Vincent, trusting Elizabeth's former husband.

There are glimmers of hope here and there, but n the end, it is still "Elizabeth alone, " and Trevor seems to be saying that it almost has to be.

11 January  2012
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TRILLIN, CALVIN

    
        TOO SOON TO TELL (1995)

A collection of  highly amusing columns by humorist Calvin Trillin, written between 1990 and 1995, on such topics as politics, restaurants, the younger generation, telephone area codes, and the Chinese claim to the invention of golf.

7 August 1998

       FAMILY MAN (1998)

This short book is a collection of essays about Trillin's life with his wife and two daughters, spent in Greenwich Village, with summers in Nova Scotia. As usual, the author is very funny.

29 October 2004
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TROLLOPE, ANTHONY



    

     BARCHESTER TOWERS (1857)


This is perhaps Trollope's most-loved novel. Its characters are memorable: the delightful Eleanor Bold, daughter of the Reverend Harding; the horrid Reverend Mr. Obadiah Slope; and the formidable Mrs. Prowdy, wife of the Bishop--to name a few.

    THE CLAVERINGS (1867)

Harry Clavering, the protagonist of this novel, is the only son of the Reverend Henry Clavering. The question is which woman will end up with Harry--Lady Julia Brabazon, who has loved Harry since before she married Lord Ongar as a practical measure and who is widowed at 26--or Florence Burton, 19, the only unmarried daughter remaining in the Burton household, who is engaged to Harry?

Julia suffers for having initially married for money. By the end of the book she is widowed, deprived of the man she loves, feeling obliged not to use the money her late husband left her, and all but excluded from society, while the man she loves has spurned her (and her money) in favor of a prior commitment to another woman. That he never told Julia about his engagement even while he led her to believe he would marry her is treated as a bad fault on his part, but by the end this fault is forgotten, and he carries off all the trophies he needs: an unexpected inheritance—and the wife. Julia gets no man and is living with her morose widowed sister by the end.

When Julia Brabazon wanted to give up her dead husband’s money and property except for a small income for her self-maintenance, she felt tainted by knowing she’d married for money without loving the man enough. Her other possible reasons for abhorring money are understandable, too, although they aren’t explicit in the novel: with money she attracted hangers-on who liked her money more than they liked her—Sophie Gordeloup, Count Pateroff, Archie Clavering, maybe even her beloved Harry—and she hated such motives even though, out of generosity, she clung to her money and estate for as long as she believed she could make Harry happy with them. The instant he vanished from her prospects, she was willing to give them all up—and, in effect, she did, declaring them worthless to her if she was to be all alone with her riches. She was willing to buy Harry if she had to.  Julia must have known that so long as she had money, she would always have reason to doubt the motives of persons who befriended her—but with no money to spare, she could be free of such doubts.

...There are subplots and unprincipled, duplicitous people who are up to no good in this novel, and it is absorbing reading.


2 February 1985
    
      DOCTOR THORNE (1858)

This is the third of  the six chronicles of Barsetshire. The plot centers around the honorable country doctor, Dr. Thorne, and his eligible niece, Mary.

I disliked the way Trollope almost had to end the story: with Sir Louis’s death and Mary Thorne’s unexpectedly becoming an heiress and in effect the owner of the entire property mortgaged away by the father of Frank, the man who wants to marry her but whose whole family has been objecting that he must “marry money.” Yes, she does marry Frank, and it suddenly ceases to matter that she has no “birth” to recommend her, and all of the persons who so cruelly snubbed her before and even chucked her out are suddenly being very nice to her.

I wouldn't have thought that Trollope could make this situation acceptable after having painted Mary in such glowing colors and made the De Corseys and Greshams so intolerable. But Trollope pulls it off. He must be one of the great realists of all time, for he does his string-pulling in such a cheerful, good-hearted way that you scarcely realize he must be laughing up his sleeve at the sort of greed that can inspire such total turnabouts in human behavior. It is as if he is fondly holding up a mirror to the world, laughing a trifle sardonically all the while and saying, “Look—here we are! Aren’t we absurd in our folly and in the transparency of our pretensions at being noble while actually being very grasping?”

Towards the end he alludes to the fable of the fox without a tail and says there is no fox anywhere on earth who wouldn’t be overjoyed at acquiring a tail, no matter how much he might have claimed to be perfectly happy without one.

Trollope exposes the emphasis on birth as a cloak disguising an emphasis on money. For all his seeming good nature and humor, there is considerable bitterness and cynicism in Trollope.

 28 February 1985

         THE LAST CHRONICLE OF BARSET (1867)

Josiah Crawley, the poor curate of Hogglestock, is accused of embezzling. Almost everyone in the small community believes him guilty even though he has always had an excellent reputation as an honest, scholarly, “worthy” man. 

Trollope remarks, as the Reverend Josiah Crawley is being unjustly accused, assumed to be guilty without proof, and stripped of  his job, with his entire family about to go under in disgrace, that the worst is always suspected of the poor.

13 March 1985

         PHINEAS FINN, THE IRISH MEMBER (1869)
   
In this novel it seems clear that Trollope may be an American democrat in the Tocquevillean sense. Maybe his mother’s travels in this country had their effect on him. He strikes some very hard blows at the British system of rank and privilege, undercutting his own “heroes” by exposing their self-deception and holding Parliament up to particular ridicule as an assemblage of men who are being kept busy doing nothing of any real consequence.

But Lady Glencora is the biggest surprise, compared with the televised version in "The Pallisers" series on PBS. Instead of coming across as the perfectly correct, kind, and efficient lady par excellence, she actually conceals behind the correctness a vicious ambition to climb to ever-greater heights on the social ladder, coupled with a desire to wield power over everyone with whom she comes into contact—to say nothing of a violent anti-Semitism. And on this topic: while Mme. Gerstler is shown to be calculating in her way, Trollope puts much of what he surely regards as truth into her mouth, and she is clearly the victim of a far shrewder and more damaging kind of calculation thanks to Lady Glencora and her anti-Semitism—and it’s also apparent that Lady Glencora’s anti-Semitism is just a convenient mechanism for her to use as an excuse to conceal her real motives for quashing Mme Gerstler’s possible marriage to the Duke of Omnium, which are to protect her own and her family’s right to the Duke’s legacy.


Then there is Lady Laura, and here Trollope takes a marriage apart, literally dissects it and leaves the pieces exposed for his readers to inspect in the glaring light of day. Lady Laura is surprising in her willingness to deceive her husband and to encourage her former lover, Phineas Finn, to keep visiting her in her husband’s absence—all of this in spite of mid-19th century respectability, which was far more severe than any we know now. Her husband is a cold, tyrannical man, to be sure, and his penchant for putting her and others through close interrogations, cross-questioning them on minute details of their behavior and motives, has to have been annoying.

This was a thought-provoking and absorbing story.

6 May 1985

           PHINEAS REDUX (1874)

This novel concerns two situations that show how easy it is for a woman to compromise her reputation even while she herself knows she is acting honorably….

One situation involves Mme Gerstler, a rich widow of about 30 who becomes friends with an aged Duke, a  powerful man who never married, declines to become his wife and yet freely goes to visit him in the last few years of his life and is even present at his deathbed, at his request, when many relatives are excluded. To many she would appear to have been the Duke’s final mistress—and yet she wasn’t. But she was willing to risk public censure for the sake of this friendship.


The other situation, explored in greater detail, involves Lady Laura, who appears in Phineas Finn. She marries a Mr. Kennedy even though she prefers Phineas, and she does so because she wants to bail her brother out of debt. She believes she will learn to love Mr. Kennedy, but he proves to be a cold person and a stern taskmaster with a suspicious nature. She often receives Phineas as a visitor over the years, with her husband not always around, but nobody ever regards the visits as improper at the time—and they are not, except insofar as any visit from an unattached man to a married woman in her husband’s absence would be considered improper. Eventually she tells Phineas of her intention to leave her husband. The conversation in no way presumes that Phineas is the cause of the separation. However, Mr. Kennedy later decides that she has “come under the influence” of Phineas Finn and tries to forbid him to visit her in Dresden, where she and her father have taken refuge, hoping to avoid any attempts by Mr. Kennedy to compel her to return to him. Mr. Kennedy argues that since he’s done nothing wrong, there is no reason on earth why his wife shouldn’t be forced to stay with him. When it is pointed out to him that she wasn’t happy as his wife, he explodes with the retort: “Who ever expects to be happy in this life? She’s asking too much if she thinks she has a right to be happy.” Then he writes a letter to a scroungy newspaper and makes these claims about Mr. Finn with the clear implication that Phineas and Lady Laura have been adulterous. 

Phineas prevents the publication of the article with a court injunction, but when he goes to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy takes a shot at him. The newspaper gets hold of this story and with some clever distortions manages to suggest that Phineas and Lady Laura have been carrying on an affair. And all of this is based on his occasional social visits (conversation only) to her. It is pointed out that a man  is known to be visiting a woman, anything at all might be happening during that visit.

After the shot fired at Phineas by Lady Laura's enraged husband, Phineas, who hadn’t consulted the police from a desire to do the gentlemanly thing by Lady Laura and keep her name out of it, is criticized on several fronts and even suspected of wrongdoing himself because he kept the whole matter so quiet. In other words, if a person is wronged, he is expected to raise a ruckus about it, and if the ruckus isn’t forthcoming, the person might easily be suspected of being more sinning than sinned against.


At one point Lady Laura says something like, “’You’re so suspicious—you’re worse than a Jew.’”  

Before giving up on Trollope here, maybe one has to know how to take him. What he puts into the mouths of his characters isn’t usually his viewpoint. In fact,  he is satirizing just about everybody and every English institution. This remark by Lady Laura seems meant to show a side of her character—a narrow, provincial, bigoted side, an empty-headed side—much as Archie Bunker’s bigoted remarks on “All in the Family” are meant to show us a side of his character that we aren’t meant to find endearing.

18 May 1985

         THE PRIME MINISTER (1876)

The Prime Minister is one of Trollope’s less satisfying books. It never gets off the ground, it verges on melodrama, and it drags.

2 July 1985

        THE SMALL HOUSE AT ALLINGTON (1864)

Here Trollope is showing his skill at undercutting his own characters, treating their faults and foibles with a clear, straightforward gaze but also with warmth. He exposes the shallowness and uselessness of much of the popular idea of romantic affection between two lovers. At times he comes close to saying that the amount of affection generated is often in direct proportion to what is to be gained economically from a particular match.

One of the chief characters, Lily Dale, loves a man who becomes engaged to her, but then he discards her in favor of a richer woman—and even when Lily’s heartbreak has had time to wear off and another man comes along wanting to marry her, and the first man is married to his chosen woman, Lily declares that she still loves the first man.

2 February 1985  

        THE WAY WE LIVE NOW  (1875)

This is Trollope’s longest novel, containing intricate subplots. It should be noted that the non-Jewish characters are just as contemptible as the Jewish ones here, and in fact, anti-Jewish bigotry incurs the author's particular scorn.

The story involves Melmotte, an unscrupulous swindler and financier, who, on the brink of being exposed, kills himself. There is an American railway scheme, and one of the most memorable characters is Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, a "rough" American from the West who is rumored to have shot a man in Oregon but who turns out to be a good soul.

Mr. Braggart, who is Jewish, is shown to be a far more decent person than the Christian woman he almost marries, and I enjoyed watching him ditch her in the end, when she so clearly regarded herself as above him all along.

21 January 2000
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TROLLOPE, JOANNA

         A SPANISH LOVER (1993)


Joanna Trollope has given us an absorbing novel about twin sisters who find that each has to differentiate herself from her twin even in their thirties. Lizzie is married with four children, and she and her husband have a successful business. Frances has never married, then suddenly decides to start a travel business. She goes to Spain as part of this business, meets a Spanish man and falls in love.

So far, it seems to be a standard soap-opera-level plot. But then the author introduces some complications. As Frances's life begins to get romantic and exciting, Lizzie's takes a downturn. The business goes into a slump, due partly to the family's burden of debt, and they lose their house.

Frances, meanwhile, runs into a snag with her lover, who is still married to a woman who would not dream of divorcing him. The lover declares that if Frances should get pregnant, everything will be over between the two of them. He firmly believes that once a woman becomes a mother, she loses all interest in the man.

Frances apparently refuses to believe this. She deceives her lover by tossing her birth control pills into the trash--and becomes pregnant.

At this point the reader may strongly suspect that we're in for a sugary-sweet happy ending: crusty Spanish lover turns out to be all warm and fuzzy about kids and embraces fatherhood and Frances forever after.

But Joanna Trollope is a better writer than that. She refuses to tie up all of the loose ends neatly.

She writes gracefully, and is particularly skilful in portraying the actions and speech of her child characters.

27 August 2006

        THE BEST OF FRIENDS (1995)

Two married couples find their lives intertwined in new ways after one of the husbands (Fergus)  declares his intention to move out on his wife and daughter, Gina and Sophie, who is 14.  Gina has known the other husband (Lawrence) since they were in their teens, and they decide that they have always loved each other and want to be together from now on.  Gina, who used to live in France and enjoyed being there, wants to return to France, with or without her daughter Sophie, who it turns out won't go.

The only person in this foursome who doesn't show a willingness to change situations is Lawrence's wife, Hilary, the mother of three teenaged boys.  Sophie,  distraught about so much upheaval in her life, jumps into a brief fling with George, the oldest of the three boys. On top of her other worries, she is  concerned about a possible pregnancy.

There is also Gina's grandmother, Vi, who is 80 and who serves as a voice of reason when others are coming apart at the seams.

How these situations are resolved makes for an absorbing story, well told. Some of Joanna Trollope's characters are a bit undifferentiated from one another, however. The three boys seem interchangeable except for their age differences. Similarly, the two husbands, Lawrence and Fergus, don't seem so very different from one another. But the other characters stand on their own, speaking with their unique voices.

Without pointing a moral, the author has succeeded in showing how often some of us are willing to pursue our own idea of happiness while failing to think about the harm we're inflicting on others in the process.

16 November 2011

         THE BRASS DOLPHIN (1997)

This pleasant but somewhat predictable short novel by Joanna Trollope (who also writes as Caroline Harvey), a direct descendant of novelist Anthony Trollope, held my interest from start to finish. I say "pleasant" although the story makes no attempt at prettifying the effects of World War II on Malta. The characters suffer some catastrophic changes in their lives, and the author is no romantic about war and its turmoil. She could have seen war as a great leveller of class differences, but she doesn't.

The central character is Lila, a young English woman who finds herself transported--with her indigent artist father--to Malta, more or less by necessity, in 1938. The ensuing events involve the Second World War to a considerable extent. In the seven years that elapse while the novel's action unfolds, Lila encounters three possible lovers, two of them aristocrats. The economic gap between the nobility and herself is all but unbridgeable, but the author isn't content with this easy way out of the problem of finding a suitable partner for Lila. She raises more complex issues, and this is where the novel takes a surprising turn--when Lila makes some startling discoveries about Anton, the lover for whom she has waited for seven years. It would be spoiling the story to reveal any more of its plot. But there are almost no unlikable characters on this stage. They shine with a goodness that harks back to the radiance of many of Anthony Trollope's characters.

The author ties up the loose ends in the concluding part so that all characters have been taken care of, money has fallen fortuitously into the hands of those who most need it, and the result is a satisfying sense of a story well told by a thoughtful and conscientious writer.

20 September 2002

       OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN (1998)


This novel has quite a few characters whose lives have become intertwined by the passage of time and the effects of divorce, death, and remarriage.

Tom's wife died years ago, and his two children by that marriage, now in their 20s, are still struggling with their attempts to enshrine their dead mother in their memories--an effort that, on the daughter Dale's part, will turn out to be out of control.

Tom has married again--to Josie, who has just left the marriage with their son Rufus (8), for Matthew. Matthew, in turn, comes from a marriage to Nadine and has three children who are determined to dislike Josie.  Tom soon hooks up with Elizabeth Brown, who immediately has to deal with Rufus and Tom's two grown children.

Most of these people are pliable and agreeable enough to want the new arrangements to work. The fly in the ointment is primarily Nadine--and to a lesser extent Tom's daughter Dale, both of whom are revealed as troubled by inner demons.

Clearly, these are people for whom money isn't a problem. They buy houses without a thought. When Rufus asks his new stepmother Elizabeth if he could have a new red rug for his room, her reply is "I don't see why not." Bingo! The red rug materializes.

The way in which the children are cajoled into accepting the changes in their lives isn't the point of the story, but the cajoling is going on, at least in the background. Josie, whose big problem is Matthew's oldest child, Becky, and who has forbidden smoking, buys Becky some cigarettes and gives them to her without being asked to do so, for instance--but at this point Becky's prior life with her mother Nadine has just been disclosed as a living hell, with Becky wanting to assume far more responsibility for her mother than any 15-year-old should have to bear. Still...isn't Josie more or less telling Becky that from now on anything Becky wants is OK, even cigarettes?

This is a thoughtful book.  Most of the characters are infused with a fundamental kindness and warm-heartedness.  This satisfying story never takes a wrong turn or strikes a false note.  One child occasionally says things that seem wise beyond his years, but that is a minor complaint.

The story sheds light on the difficulties involved in blending families that are being reshuffled after divorce or remarriage or both. Those difficulties are extreme.  Joanna Trollope has done the world a service by pointing out in specific detail some of the situations that arise. More than that, she's told an absorbing story well.

4 November 2012


       FRIDAY NIGHTS (2008)

An older retired woman, Eleanor, who used to work in social services, is lonely and reaches out to a number of women in the neighborhood, assembling them for regular Friday night get-togethers.  As might have been predicted, the guests, who are all considerably younger than Eleanor, are moving on to other situations--leaving Eleanor sadly reconciled to the way life is.

As the story unfolds, we get to know the women and their husbands and boy friends and children. Trollope is particularly adept in her portrayal of children--the things they do and say.

A new element is introduced into this setting when Paula, a single mom to all intents and purposes, is swept off her feet by Jackson, a man who seems too good to be true. It soon turns out that he has been full of promise but hasn't been able to deliver--though he has captivated several women with his aloof reticent self-confidence.  His appearance on the scene,  however brief, permanently alters the dynamics of Eleanor's social group.

Another new element comes into the picture shortly after the advent of Jackson--in the form of another man, Derek, who also seems almost too good to be true as a companion for Lindsay, a widowed single mom. Derek isn't shown in nearly as much detail as Jackson. It is as if he's been tossed into the cast to balance the scales.

Trollope has a sharp eye for the interactions among people in today's world, especially in scenes such as an exchange between one of the women who is buying a bouquet of freesias and a surly floral shopkeeper. Time and again Trollope gets these exchanges just right.

Sometimes there is evidence of sloppy writing ("clothes to be leisured in" was particularly grating) but Joanna Trollope--judging from this book--strikes me as a writer who towers over most others on the scene.

30 November 2010

       MARRYING THE MISTRESS (2000)

In this novel about a 62-year-old judge who has had a mistress young enough to be his daughter for seven years,  Joanna Trollope may have cluttered the stage with too many characters. The novel seems to be doing too much.

In spanning three generations and expecting the reader to be interested enough to follow the strands of the story for the characters in all three, the author hasn't fleshed out her characters fully enough.  Simon Stockdale often seems like a younger version of his father, Guy, for instance.

The reader can probably see very plainly that when Simon allows his mother to dictate that he will oversee her finances in connection with her upcoming divorce from Guy, Simon has made a serious mistake. But it takes almost the entire novel for Simon to realize this.

The novel has its weaknesses, but in her attention to detail and her excellent pacing of the narrative, Joanna Trollope sustains the reader's interest throughout. Or at least she sustained this reader's interest.

A carping footnote: Sometimes there are signs of sloppy writing:  those kind of men.

21 December 2010

         DAUGHTERS-IN-LAW (2011)


Joanna Trollope scores again with this story about three daughters-in-law--married to the three sons of Rachel and Antony Brinkley. One problem is that Rachel is too involved in her sons' lives, too fond of Grandmotherhood as an ideal.

Ralph is the most troubling son since has chucked a good job in Singapore and has a tendency to drink too much--and has married Petra, a rootless waif who happened to have a genuine artistic talent so pronounced that Antony--a bird artist--took her under his wing.

The Brinkley family has adopted Petra and been kind to her, and now she and Ralph have two small boys, a three-year-old and a baby under the age of a year.

By happenstance Petra meets Steve, a caretaker at a wildlife preserve, and when Ralph is overcome by his sense of a need to support his family and takes a job in remote London, Petra balks and refuses to move away from the sea, which she loves.  Regarding Ralph as having betrayed everything she believed they as a couple stood for--a wilder and more carefree life, free of the shackles of corporate regulation--she is attracted to Steve and opts to spend time with him. One of Steve's strong points is that he is exceptionally skilful with the children and likes them.

When the family members perceive this impasse and realize that they are about to witness the disintegration of Ralph and Petra's marriage, some major reshuffling occurs, and it is mostly because the other two daughters-in-law are willing to take some initiative that the reshuffling is as successful as it is.

Ralph is persuaded to give up his ideas of wresting custody of the children from Petra, and Petra comes up with a compromise that will enable them to save their marriage.

This is a story about strong-willed people coming into conflict with one another.  In an interview Joanna Trollope has stated that she likes to portray strong women, and she has certainly shown them here--there is the quiet strength of Sigird, the Swedish daughter-in-law, and the obstinacy of Rachel, as well as the surprising strength shown by Petra.

The author has also stated that she didn't intend for Steve to be seen as evil, and I would say that she succeeded here as well.  Steve is used to women who are at his beck and call, and he has a temper.  Joanna Trollope says that to have made him evil would have been unrealistic. She allows as how there are truly evil people in the world--but most of us are just shades of gray.

Trollope's characters have a compassion and delicacy that are rare in modern fiction.  And they are interesting and often humorous.

8 January 2013

_______________________

TRUSS, LYNNE

        TALK TO THE HAND: THE UTTER BLOODY RUDENESS             OF THE WORLD, OR SIX GOOD REASONS TO STAY               HOME AND BOLT THE DOOR (2005)

This short book by the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (which I regret to say I haven't read) has much to say.  It is frankly a rant, but there are at least a few people still around who think that manners have a very valuable social function--and that we have abandoned them at our peril.

Lynne Truss is talking about the UK but her remarks are just as valid for the US--and quite possibly some other areas of the world as well.  She is particularly disturbed by the overuse of the F word in recent years, as in the snarled "Fuck off!" so often directed at a person who is perceived as annoying.

She is also worried about skateboarders and the dangers they present to pedestrians, mobile phones and the elimination of privacy--as well as the rude ways in which they are now used, and about an increasing tendency toward regarding other people as merely in one's way.

It comes down to a greater emphasis on the self  than has ever before occurred in human history--and modern technology has aided this self-absorption to the point where it is almost the order of the day.

Bravo to this author for going to the trouble of speaking out against these trends.  She has written a helpful, informative, and  funny book.

23 May 2010
_____________________________

TWAIN, MARK
--see CLEMENS, SAMUEL L.
_______________________

TYLER, ANNE

          DIGGING TO AMERICA (2006)


Anne Tyler's husband was an Iranian, and this fact probably explains how this novel happens to have an Iranian-American family at its center. It contains a wealth of cultural knowledge about Iranians.

A "typical" American family, the Donaldsons, meet the Iranian family at the airport when both are waiting to welcome the arrival of their Korean-born adopted babies, both girls. Bitsy Donaldson, an aggressively politically correct mom with a tendency to be very controlling, sees many advantages in keeping this acquaintance alive and turning it into a lasting friendship, and so we follow the two families for the next five years--long enough for the Donaldsons to have adopted a second Korean daughter.

The story may be too full of the various relatives of the two families who are also very much on the scene--so much so that it is often difficult to keep track of who is who.

As the story is unfolding, the author manages to skewer American mothers who insist on having everything their way, even when it's wrongheaded, as when Bitsy decides that the younger daughter must give up her pacifier--and stages a party where over 40 balloons, each attached to one of the child's many pacifiers, are launched into the sky, and the event is topped off with a handsome gift for the child.

Though not very deep and quite possibly "just" a woman's novel, this story was absorbing and well told. The character of Maryam, the Iranian Sami's mother and a widow, is delineated carefully and understandingly, and it is her story that ultimately takes center stage.

22 February 2009



       EARTHLY POSSESSIONS (1977)

I liked this novel considerably more than I've liked other novels by this author that I've read. It is told in the first person by Charlotte, who (like the author herself) was born in 1941. The novel bounces back and forth between the present--1976--when Charlotte, all set to leave her husband, gets abducted at gunpoint during a bank robbery by a young man--and the past leading up to this event.

Charlotte has married "the boy next door," who happens to be one of four boys, and eventually his three brothers are also occupying Charlotte's household, with her husband having been "called" to the ministry of a small evangelical Christian church.

She has two children--a daughter and, later, an adopted boy. The children are given very sketchy treatment as assorted adults crowd into the household--not just the three brothers but also a couple of "strays" who have been given a permanent home in the preacher's house.

Against this background there is the young man, who--somewhat unbelievably--manages to hold Charlotte hostage while he steals a car and travels to Florida, where he picks up his girl friend, pregnant with their baby, from a home for unwed mothers.

There is enjoyable witty dialogue in this story, and it was an absorbing story. The author should be praised for not allowing the story to take the predictable turn--Charlotte does not climb into bed with the young abductor. In fact, the book is refreshingly free of explicit sex scenes, which have become tiresome in fiction these days--and seem all too often of being merely a means for authors to show off their worldly experience to readers who may have had some lingering doubts about it.

7 January 2009

        CELESTIAL NAVIGATION (1974)

A novel spanning the years between 1960 and 1973, during which Jeremy, an abstracted artist and mama's boy of 38, inherits his mother’s boarding house, and marries one of the boarders, a separated woman of 22 with a four-year-old daughter, after the man for whom she left her husband returns to his wife and her own husband refuses to grant her a divorce. Jeremy and Mary then produce five more children.

When the absent-minded Jeremy forgets that they are about to be married belatedly, Mary moves out with the children, borrowing a cabin belonging to Bryan, Jeremy’s agent. Mary and the six children manage in this somewhat rustic milieu--with considerable help from Bryan--and eventually Jeremy turns up (months later), begging Mary to return. Two years later she still has not gone back, and Jeremy is still in the boarding house with his roomers.

The point of this book may be that a woman who tries to demonstrate that men are unnecessary in her life cycle of bearing and raising children is egotistical and cruel.

20 November 1999

        MORGAN'S PASSING (1980)


The author didn't seem to know just what she wanted to do with these characters: Morgan, the protagonist, starts as a Walter Mitty-like man who is fond of impromptu disguises and impersonations but who ends up middle-aged and remarried, after fathering seven daughters by his first wife. The household also includes Morgan's mother and sister and dog.


Morgan becomes fascinated with the young puppeteer couple whose baby he delivers by impersonating a "doctor in the house," and he eventually marries this baby's mother while Leon, the father, pursues worldly success, surprisingly. The child, Gina, is rather cavalierly given up by her mother and Morgan because Leon will supposedly provide a "better" (= more prosperous) environment for her.

This book is all wrong--not just morally but also in terms of the internal consistency of its characters.

28 October 1999

        LADDER OF YEARS (1995)

A doctor's wife abruptly walks away from her husband and children and makes a new life in another town, getting a job as housekeeper for a divorced man with a son. Years pass, but ultimately Delia returns to her original family (surprise!). The ending is frustrating because the divorced man and his son, about both of whom we have learned to care, are left dangling, with no explanation given.

22 July 1998

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