Say what you will about the decomposing British class system, the follies of aristocrats have inspired some the finest comic scenes in Western literature. Few authors saw the excesses at closer range than Nancy Mitford, who drew on them for Love in a Cold Climate, a modern classic based in part on her storied and half-batty upper-class family. First published in 1949, this comedy of manners tells the story of the heiress Polly Montdore, an only child who flouts convention by marrying a middle-aged man who had been her mother’s lover. Mitford’s portrait of the young Polly sets the tone of a book that is witty and elegant without being aloof: “Polly was a withdrawn, formal little girl, who went through the day with the sense of ritual, the poise, the absolute submission to etiquette of a Spanish Infanta. You had to love her, she was so beautiful and friendly, but it was impossible to feel very intimate with her.”
June 18, 2009
June 4, 2009
A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South #4: Peter Taylor’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novel, ‘A Summons to Memphis’
A genteel Southern family stumbles after moving from one Tennessee city to another
A Summons to Memphis. By Peter Taylor. Vintage 224 pp., $14.95.
By Janice Harayda
Northerners tend to think of the South as more unified than it is. The former Confederate states may have similarities that reflect their legacy of slavery and defeat and their landscape and geography. But each city has its own character, and Dallas and Atlanta and New Orleans are as different as Detroit and Cleveland and Minneapolis.
Few novels show this better than Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for its haunting portrayal of the lasting effects of a well-born family’s move from one Tennessee city to another. The plot involves two middle-aged, unmarried sisters in Memphis who try to dragoon their younger brother into returning home from New York and helping them thwart their 81-year-old father’s impending remarriage.
But there is more to the story than whether their effort will succeed. Why is George Carver so determined, at his age, to remarry? Why have his daughters never wed? Why has their brother, Phillip, an editor and antique book collector, remained single, too? All of the answers relate to an incident that occurred during the Great Depression. Betrayed by a trusted adviser, George Carver suffered heavy financial losses and moved his brood from Nashville to Memphis – just over 200 miles but a distance that, for its disastrous effects, might have spanned a continent. The family chafed against unfamiliar roles and social codes, a clash between the old and new South, and lost its moorings.
Phillip Carver tells this story in a tone that is formal and restrained at times to the point of stiffness. This device reflects no lack of skill on the part of Taylor – one of the finest fiction writers of the late 20th century – but rather Phillip’s emotional reserve and detachment from life. The effect is chilling: A Summons to Memphis shows how an uprooting has reverberated over time and all but destroyed a clan that once was a model of Southern gentility. It shows, as Phillip puts it, how “the family in our sort of world and in our part of the country” had become so fragile “that even so slight a shift as from one Southern city to another” could destroy all that it needed to survive.
This is the fourth in a series of daily posts this week on Southern literature. Tomorrow, David C. Barnette’s tongue-in-cheek guide to unwritten Alabama social codes, How to Be a Mobilian.
June 3, 2009
May 29, 2009
A series of five daily posts, “A Yankee’s Favorite Books About the South,” will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews starting on Monday. It will review some of the best recent and classic books about the South as seen by a resident of New Jersey who has worked as a critic in New York and Cleveland. Parts of the series appeared in different form in the Mobile Press-Register.
A main character’s name often gives you the first clue to what a novel is “about,” especially when it’s also the title of the book. A good example turns up in Olive Kitteridge, the collection of linked short stories that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A just-picked olive is as bitter — and the color olive is as drab — as the title character of the book appears at first to be. The salt added during curing removes the bitterness just as love, the salt in this book, removes some of Olive’s. In Ireland a kitter is a left-handed person. And Olive is at least metaphorically left-handed: She’s out of sync with others in her coastal town in Maine. A surname database says of Kitter: “This is an Olde English or Anglo-Saxon pre 10th Century name which derives from the word ‘Cyta’ and is a nickname of the medieval period generally given to one of fairly violent attitudes.” Olive’s views of life are “fairly violent,” especially in the first story, when they are so angry they verge on caricature.
April 27, 2009
April 25, 2009
Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament
Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:
“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”
That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.
So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.
Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.
Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”
Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”
Published: February 2009
Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool. Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.
About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.
Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 20, 2009
These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:
Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.
April 11, 2009
Robinson, Updike or Roth Will Win the 2009 Pulitzer for Fiction, Statistical Analysis Shows — But Don’t Count on It
I’m on record as saying that the frontrunner for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction would seem to be Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, which I haven’t read. Morrison is the only Nobel Prize–winner in the hunt. And I think it’s going to be tough for the judges to pass over a laureate, although the National Book Critics Circle board did it in March.
But a research scientist and a book collector have reached a different conclusion by using regression analysis, a statistical technique for evaluating variables. The two say that the books most likely to win the 2009 fiction prize are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick, and Philip Roth’s Indignation. They’ve also identified the 12 other candidates that, based on their analysis, are most like to win, all listed in order at PPrize.com. You can read their 2008 predictions — and how they fared — on the same site. The Pulitzer Prizes honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction — and will be announced on Monday, April 20, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.