You know what I love, Internet?

Internet, I will tell you what I love.  I love stories set in Britain right before, during, between, and right after the World Wars.  I LOVE THEM.  Cf. The Little Stranger, The Shooting Party, The House at Riverton, Baltimore, Those Who Hunt the Night, Love Lessons, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Night Watch, etc.  If you say “Britain” and “World War” in your synopsis of a book, I tend to bump it way up on my reading list.  If you also say “aristocracy” and “disintegrating way of life”, I tend to put a hold on it at the library right that very second.  I just have this addiction.

It translates to film also.  My younger sister and I have discovered about ourselves that we have a crush on that haircut that people used to have, back in this day.  You know, like James McAvoy has in Atonement.  When somebody has a haircut like that, we both get all giggly and crushy, even when the somebody is a jerk like that submarine kid in that episode of Angel where he comes back for revenge and dangles Fred and Wesley and everyone by ropes in the main foyer.  And when they make films set in Britain around the Wars, people tend to have this haircut.  All slightly wavy and side-parted.

Apparently, Stephen Poliakoff knows this about me, and he cares.  Because Stephen Poliakoff is doing a film called 1939, in which, “on the eve of World War II, the formidable Keyes family tries to uphold their traditional way of life”.  I didn’t make that up.  Now unfortunately it stars Romola “Please forgive me for Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights” Garai – no, honey, I do not forgive you.  It contains Christopher Lee and Julie Christie and Jeremy Northam, three Legendary Actors in whom I am not deeply interested.

And then, then, then, Internet, it contains Bill Nighy, whom I absolutely adore, in everything, and it contains Charlie Cox, Tristan from Stardust.

And Internet darling, it contains David Tennant too.

David Tennant.  AND Charlie Cox.  AND Bill Nighy.  AND they are all in a film about an influential family just before World War II.  I feel like Stephen Poliakoff needs to come visit me so that I can give him a hug and make him gingerbread.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

I got The Little Stranger for my birthday!  And read it on the plane back home yesterday.  Not a good plane book; I should have read Changing Planes, which would have been much better, but by the time I thought of it, it was the last leg of the flight and I was trying to catch fifteen minutes of sleep so I wouldn’t die of exhaustion.  The Little Stranger would be a perfect dark-and-stormy-night type of book.  (Not that there’s any book I wouldn’t want to read at night all cozy with a thunderstorm outside – but some are more suited to it than others.)

The Little Stranger is about a Dr. Faraday who goes round to minister to a servant girl called Betty at The Hundreds, an old aristo house now peopled by its three remaining family members, Mrs. Ayres and her grown son and daughter Roderick and Caroline.  The Hundreds is coming down around them, and they are all doing their best to keep it up and running.  Dr. Faraday becomes more and more involved in their lives, while around them the house is delicately, gradually, driving them all mad.

You can see the influence of The Haunting of Hill House on this book, although it’s quite dissimilar to that.  I was mildly disappointed in the house’s tricks.  I felt like they didn’t always give you that spine prickle, particularly as the book was being narrated by a man who never saw any of these antics, but only heard about them afterwards.  However, the rest of the book, the characters and the things they all did, more than made up for it.  As is always the case in Sarah Waters’s books, the interactions between the characters are the best part of the book.  These are fully realized characters: you always want to see more of them, and the things they do are the things they would do (does that work, as a description?  I mean that even when they’re doing or saying unsympathetic or unexpected things, they continue to be who they always were).

This is a very British book – actually, I think, the most British of Sarah Waters’s books so far, the first book that it would really, really have surprised me to learn an American had written it.  I read a thing about British and American humor one time, how Americans like for their comedy shows to move from disorder to order, whereas British comedy shows tend to be of the sort where everything just goes spectacularly to hell (Fawlty Towers is a perfect example of this).  The Little Stranger is all about decay and breaking down – the house itself and its dying protests, the traditions of and belief in the aristocracy in Britain, the relationships of the family to each other and Dr. Faraday, and so forth.  Everything breaks down.  It’s sad, and Sarah Waters imbues the book with a sense of the inevitability of it all.

The servant Betty provides an epitaph to the whole thing when she says “It wasn’t fair, was it, what happened to them?”  I loved this.  It wasn’t fair.  They didn’t deserve it.  They didn’t deserve the poltergeist, and they didn’t deserve to be the ones on whom the burden of holding up the British aristocracy fell.

And what a gorgeous last sentence it has!

And as soon as I closed it, I started to whine inside my head about when is she going to write her next book, I really want to read her next book.  But you know, she just wrote one, so it’ll probably be a few years yet before her next one after this shows up.  Here are other views:

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A Garden Carried in the Pocket

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The House at Riverton, Kate Morton

I am not able to steer myself away from books that deal with the dying aristocracy in Britain before and during and after the World Wars.  Or just books set in Britain before and during and after the World Wars (recently before and recently after, obviously; otherwise that would comprehend the whole of British history).  I love them.  I love books set in Britain in this time period even more than I love books set in the Victorian times.  At least more reliably – there are some books with Victorian settings that are shocking tedious crap.

The House at Riverton is all about a woman called Grace who was a lady’s maid back in the day and is now in an old folks’ home talking to a film-maker about her history at Riverton; particularly, about the suicide of a young poet in front of the two Hartford sisters.  Hannah, the older girl, has yearned for freedom all her life, while Emmeline, the younger, wants to marry and settle down.

The House at Riverton isn’t the best book of its kind imaginable.  Although it’s clear that Hannah finds herself trapped, this book doesn’t do a fantastic job of creating sympathy for her.  Taken out of context, some of the things she does are really unsympathetic, but it would have been fine if we’d really had a vivid sense of the way she’s trapped by her times.  Not so much with that.  Sarah Waters does it more better in Fingersmith.  As well, some of the big reveals were predictable, and some of the plot devices strained credulity.

This is a guilty pleasure.  I devoured it at Costa, on the Tube, on benches on the South Bank, and in bed before I went to sleep.  Until about five-sixths of the way through, at which point, for some reason, the writing became madly choppy.  I couldn’t enjoy the book anymore!  Because the writing got so choppy!  It was all things like this:

She’d never felt such rushing freedom.  She turned her face towards the night sky; closed her eyes, felt the kiss of cold air on her warm lids, warm cheeks.  She opened them again, looked for Robbie as they went.  Longed to dance with him.  Be held by him.

Then he started to call out and she was worried someone on the embankment might hear.  Might come to their aid.  Might contact someone.  The police, or worse.

Seriously, there was so much of this, it was ridiculous.

That’s fine once or twice, but it was happening every second paragraph towards the end of the book.  I don’t know it suddenly got like this, when it wasn’t doing that for the majority of the book.  I didn’t like it.  This is why God made editors.  I know this book is long – did the writer and/or editor just get tired of making the effort as the book went on?  Seriously, the writing was way better in the beginning.

Anyway, I can definitely see this book progressing to the status of comfort book, and I look forward to reading her second book, The Forgotten Garden, assuming it ever, ever gets in at the library.

Other views:
Jen at A Garden Carried in the Pocket
Tara at Books & Cooks
SmallWorld Reads
Wendy at Caribousmom
Tiny Little Reading Room
A Striped Armchair
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Books and Movies
S. Krishna’s Books
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Thoughts of Joy
Belle of the Books
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
BooksPlease

The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate

I read about this over at Imani’s blog – I miss Imani!  Where did she go?? – and today curled up in my comfy old papasan chair to read it.  The Shooting Party is set shortly before the start of World War I, with a large group of British aristocrats and their spouses getting all together to shoot at Lord Randolph Nettleby’s estate.  With World War I looming on the horizon, the reader is all too aware that they are gathering together to participate in a way of life that is passing and will soon be dying away entirely.

At first I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters.  Lord Randolph has gathered together a fairly large group of people, and this is a fairly short book.  I think if I’d been able to get them sorted out a little sooner, I would have been able to settle into enjoying the book sooner as well.  Apart from that, though, The Shooting Party was excellent.  It portrays with delicate clarity the ways in which this system of the aristocracy and their values has already been broken down.  Spouses are unfaithful to each other, and people don’t abide by the rules of hunting.  The way of life they are trying to preserve is on its way out even before the War comes along and disrupts everything.

In particular, I liked the character of Cornelius Cardew, who comes along and tries to convince the peasants of their rights, and the gentry that shooting animals is wrong.  He’s a muddled sort of character, and there’s something tragic about him, because he’s fighting battles that the War will make irrelevant in a few months.  I also loved the characters of the gamekeeper, Glass, and his son Dan.  Lord Randolph wants to fund Dan’s education, possibly even up to the university level, and Glass is reluctant to let him go because he knows it will put himself and his son in completely different places.  At the end he decides to let him go; and it’s revealed at the end that while Lord Randolph’s son Marcus is killed in the War, Dan survives.  It’s just such a strong reiteration of the ways that the War equalized people who would otherwise have been irrevocably segregated.

(Not to suggest that class doesn’t matter in Britain anymore, because my God, does it ever.)

The Shooting Party was a lovely book.  I recommend it.  Here’s what it’s making me think about: Is it worth mourning a class system that was based on heredity rather than merit?  Is it worth mourning the increasing irrelevance of the gentry when some of them were genuinely good people, trying to do what they perceived as their duty?  Or, of course, I’m American, and the whole “gentry” thing isn’t so much of an issue over here – are the gentry as irrelevant nowadays as they seem to me, all the way across the pond?

P.S. Some of them were very crazy.  Oscar Wilde’s useless boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas, had an ancestor that cooked a servant boy, roasted him on a spit, and ate him all up.  It’s true.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is more like it.

  

I read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when I was in England.  I don’t remember why – maybe it was that phase in my life where I was getting book recommendations from book prize lists.  Book prize books are often not good books for me (see Darkmans).  However, I really liked Never Let Me Go, and I really liked this one too.

The beginning: The Remains of the Day (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is all about a butler called Stevens who has been in service for many years, and has gone on a trip to visit an old friend (she sounds unhappy in her marriage), and as he travels, he is remembering his life.  This sounds a bit boring but it really isn’t once it gets going.

The end (spoilers sort of? but not like this is a big revelation so much as something you gradually become aware of): It turns out that Stevens’s previous employer was a Nazi sympathizer and proponent of the appeasement policy in the years leading up to World War II. Stevens is not great at handling the cognitive dissonance this engenders.

The whole: I love the way Kazuo Ishiguro writes (love his name too).  The narrators are carrying along narrating, and everything’s fine, and then there occurs a jarring note–some incident or anecdote that seems a bit weird.  And you’re thinking, Huh.  That was weird, but things keep going along, so you aren’t too fussed about it.  And then when you’ve mostly forgotten about it, there occurs another jarring note, and another one, until you are quite, quite certain that there is something not very nice going on.  Then at the exact moment when you have become completely positive that something is up, that is the exact moment at which it (more or less) snaps into focus.

In this case the not-nice things are related to Stevens’s previous employer’s political affiliations.  Again, I swear to you, not as boring as I’ve just made it sound; it’s all about the emotional resonance for Stevens, realizing he’s given his life and all his loyalty to someone who was doing bad things (albeit with good intentions).

At the same time, and with the same theme, you’re seeing flashbacks of Stevens’s relationship with one of his previous coworkers, Miss Kenton – the same lady he is going on a trip to visit in the present day.  This is all along the same themes as the business with his employer: the way that he ignores himself for the sake of his professionalism.

Major props, can I just say, to Ishiguro for managing to make this book so absorbing, when the action is essentially emotional rather than actually actiony.  It’s books like these that make me carry on picking things up that people say “don’t have much in the way of plot” – I think they’ll be like this.  Not a lot happens in The Remains of the Day, but I still couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through on Monday evening.  It’s funny and sad and evocative and emotionally resonant, and it made me want to go get the rest of Ishiguro’s books and read them.