Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

It’s hard to begin reviewing this book without stopping to admire the small press that publishes it.  I am a huge fan of all small presses for keeping authors alive who might otherwise simply fade into obscurity and be all but forgotten.  Or, as in this author’s case, because she was forgotten, bringing them back to life to a new generation of readers who would otherwise never have known them.  So I hope if you’re reading this you’ll continue to the section below where I talk about Persephone Press.

But now: a word for Miss Pettigrew.  Poor Miss Pettigrew, a down on her luck middle-aged governess who can seem to do no right.  Until, of course, her employment agency sends her on a call not to a household of unruly children but to a nightclub singer who changes her life entirely in a mere 24 hours.  And just to believe for a moment that it is “never too late” is the sheer joy of this delightful book.  Never has a case of mistaken identity been so charming.  Cinderella, move over.  This book was made into a movie starring Frances McDormand who, in this reviewer’s opinion, can do no wrong.  While the movie is delightful the book is superior and it is a highly recommended read with a Sidecar in one hand and, dare I say it? A cigarette in the other.  Live. Live.  Live!

I can not say enough about my own adoration for Persephone Books.  Without them there are so many authors I never would have found. In their own words, from their Website: “Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

Winifred Watson believed in this book with all her heart but had some struggle finding a publisher for it.  It was published, finally, in 1938 and was received with great acclaim.  But in 1941 Winifred Watson stopped writing entirely to take care of her son.  She lived, quite quietly, in Newcastle for the rest of her life.

Still Alice

This is an extremely moving first novel which chronicles the sudden and swift descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in the life of Alice Howland, a fifty year old Harvard professor whose expertise is cognitive psychology and linguistics.  Because the character is, at first anyway, so self-aware of what is happening to her as the disease progresses it is absolutely chilling to read.  There were many moments when I wanted to put the book down, and yet I found I could not.  At times I felt as if I were about to witness a horrible accident and yet I could not turn my head away.  It was as if I was on a speeding train which I knew was destined to crash, and yet I could not get off at any of the scheduled stops.  What makes this so absolutely compelling is that the story is told not from a caretaker’s point of view, as we might expect, but from  the victim’s.  And because Lisa Genova, the author herself, has a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard she has the knowledge and skill to pull a feat like this off.  The language itself is very simple, which I found entirely appropriate given the subject, and I believe everyone should read this beautiful book.  Warning: will cause the onset of crying in all those except those with the very hardest of hearts.

“At some point, there would simply be no point. ”
― Lisa GenovaStill Alice

“But will I always love her? Does my love for her reside in my head or my heart? The scientist in her believed that emotion resulted from complex limbic brain circuitry that was for her, at this very moment, trapped in the trenches of a battle in which there would be no survivors. The mother in her believed that the love she had for her daughter was safe from the mayhem in her mind, because it lived in her heart.”
― Lisa GenovaStill Alice

Some sites you may want to visit on the important subject of Alzheimer’s disease are:

http://www.alzheimersreadingroom.com/

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers/AZ00009

http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp

The Talented Mr Ripley

You could, if you had known her anyway, fault Patricia Highsmith for many things but her writing is not one of them.  There is no one who understood the art of suspense better than her. More than two dozen film adaptations of her books have been made, some of them excellent, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951  “Strangers On A Train” and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. The books differ considerably from the films, particularly Ripley, but I must admit it is the film adaptation which first made me aware of the author.  In all, there are five Ripley novels, sometimes referred to by fans of Highsmith as the Ripliad.  Some are better than others, of course, but all are worth reading because her character is so completely fascinating.  He is the ultimate man with no conscience who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, including several murders which he can execute at the drop of a hat.  He has no morals whatsoever, but all the suave and charm and sexual ambiguity that a con artist needs to succeed,  He can tell a lie as easily as breathing and is a fascinating study in contradictions but is intensely likeable despite his many faults.  All five novels, or for that matter almost anything by Highsmith, are intensely readable and highly recommended.

“One situation – maybe one alone – could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.”
― Patricia Highsmith

New York Diaries 1609-2009

This is a fascinating history of a city as told through the Diaries of the famous, infamous, and average citizens of Manhattan from 1609-2009.  Because the entires are arranged day by day and I received this book at the end of 2011,  I keep it on my nightstand and each day I read all the letters (usually there are only two or three) for that day.  On and on and on I will go until the end of the year, so I can not yet claim to have finished this book but if the all the letters prove as interesting as the first few months I may even start again on January 1, 2013.  To look at a city over four centuries, day by day, through so many different eyes, is quite revealing.  If you are at all interested in what makes the heart of a great city beat, pick it up.

“I had a lot of dates but decided to stay home and dye my eyebrows.”

Andy Warhol, March 11, 1978

“The natives are very good people,  for when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows, and taking the arrows, they broke them in pieces, and threw them in the fire, etc..”

Henry Hudson, September 15, 1609

“During the night, New York was covered with snow.  Central Park is transformed.  The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks.  Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.”

Simone De Beauvoir, February 4, 1947

Charlotte’s Web

Blogging about E. B. White on National Grammar Day put his all time classic Charlotte’s Web into my head and now I find I can not get it out.  This is one of the very first books I remember reading, and I can tell you exactly when and where I was when I received it.  Christmas morning, 18 degrees below zero, a new pair of pajamas, a fire in the grate and a brand new book by someone I had never heard of before in my then very short life.  Little did I know when I cracked the spine what awaited me.  Life.  Death.  Friendship.  And everything in between explained in the gentle tones of a talking spider hanging by E. B. White’s imaginary thread.  Needless to say I reread this classic this week and I can only say it stands the test of time.  Do not see the movie.  Do not buy the audio book.  Sit down and turn the pages slowly, stopping to linger over the beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams and open your mind and heart.  You will be rewarded.  I promise.  It is some book.

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
― E.B. WhiteCharlotte’s Web

“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
― E.B. WhiteCharlotte’s Web

“Trust me, Wilbur. People are very gullible. They’ll believe anything they see in print.”
― E.B. WhiteCharlotte’s Web

3 Mysteries You Need To Solve

To craft a great mystery is truly an art. Those authors who can skillfully lead us astray while all the while they dangle the solution in front of our very eyes are few and far between.  These three authors are among my favorites although their detectives could not be more different.  A pompous but brilliant Belgian refugee.  A hard-boiled private eye with the tenacity of a bulldog. And an extremely wealthy Oxford graduate and British Lord.  Yet despite these differences they all have one thing in common.  They are a pleasure to match wits with and they succeed brilliantly where even the most careful reader is bound to fail.

“The impossible cannot have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.”
― Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.”
― Dashiell HammettThe Maltese Falcon

“Even idiots occasionally speak the truth accidentally.”
― Dorothy L. SayersWhose Body?

Mapp & Lucia

There are six books in this series which chronicle the lives of two maliciously comic social climbers, Emmeline (Lucia) Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp.  The settings are the small English villages in the 1920′s and 30′s where seemingly no one has anything to do but spy on and gossip about one another all the day long.  The first three books introduce us to the characters singly.  The first, Queen Lucia, takes place in the village of Riseholme where, in her own head anyway, Lucia reigns supreme.  In the second book, we meet Miss Mapp in her home village of Tilling where without question she has no rival.  At long last, in the fourth book — Mapp & Lucia — they meet for the first time when the widowed Lucia moves to Tilling and the two worthy adversaries begin to battle head to head. Loathsome, but loveable, their razor-sharp tongues and keen wits know no bounds.  There is quite a supporting cast, all the characters you would expect to find in English village life, who are picked up and moved around by Mapp and Lucia like pawns on a chessboard.  No one is likeable, kind, or shows even the smallest shred of compassion.  They are brutal, and spiteful, and to be honest, the worst kind of mean.  And yet, I find myself reaching for this book every few years because, inexplicably,I have found that if I do not, I rather miss them.

“The hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the time which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other.”
― E.F. BensonQueen Lucia

The Passage

In the not so very distant post apocalyptic future — where vampires are actually soulless, blood sucking creatures who hunt and kill and not brooding models who are busy romancing their high school sweethearts — a rag-tag group of survivors struggles to save what’s left of humanity from a military experiment which has gone horribly wrong.  Sound intriguing?  I admit, a “can’t put it down” absolute “page-turner” is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Something where I get so swept up in the action and the characters that I stop thinking critically and just submit to the ride.  And this book is just that.  I hardly need to add soon to be a major motion picture but it’s obvious from page one that fate is its sad future.  Warning: this is book one in a trilogy.  So as hefty as it is, don’t expect resolution here.  And be prepared for the wait.

“It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.”
Justin Cronin, The Passage

The Elements of Style

If language has a holiday, does that mean today we can stop fussing over how we say what we have to say? Well, today is National Grammar Day and for my part I can only hope the name alone is enough to cause bloggers, texters, and twitterers to stop in their tracks since, sadly, as our methods of communications change, the very idea of “rules” for language have fallen by the wayside.  With this in mind, today is probably an excellent opportunity to pause and consider the simple, but brilliant, book by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White which has been the standard “how to” for over fifty years.  Fear not, it isn’t a dry manual of rules and regulations.  It is an eloquently simple book.  Pick it up and put it out and have it on hand.  Consult it as you might a much-loved cookbook.  There’s even a recent edition with illustrations by the great Maira Kalman to help you along.  Note to self: Blog Maira Kalman.  She is a genius.

“A schoolchild should be taught grammar–for the same reason that a medical student should study anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and speak and write any damn way he pleases.”
― E.B. WhiteWritings from the New Yorker 1927-1976

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

The Cat In The Hat maintains a strict triple meter and contains 236 distinct words.  

Only one word, “another”, is more than two syllables. 

I’m a day late, but I couldn’t let another minute go by without pausing to send best wishes to the memory of the author who probably did as much or more than anyone in this country to make children fall in love with reading.  Given the other books that children were expected to read at the time, this one really is pretty amazing.  If you honestly haven’t read it, and I can’t imagine anyone hasn’t, you might want to take a minute and sit down and see once and for all what all the fuss is about.

And with that, I’ll let the Dr. speak for himself.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true.

There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
― Dr. SeussHappy Birthday to You!