Wednesday, March 30, 2011

{review} the debt to pleasure

John Lanchester The Debt to Pleasure (1996)

The Debt to Pleasure: A Novel The Debt to Pleasure: A Novel. John Lanchester (Spanish Edition)

Arson is perhaps the most literal-minded of all violent crimes. Who has not, on passing some large public masterpiece of architecture, or glimpsing an exquisitely ordered and human domestic interior through a ground-floor window (the sheet music open on the piano, the steepling bookcases and expectant hearth), felt an uncomplicated urge to set fire to them?
You know that feeling when you think that you're the only person who hasn't read a certain book that your mates raved about? Well, that's The Debt to Pleasure, in my case. I can't believe I have left this wonderful book unread for so long. It contains everything I love in a book: France, crime, a sociopathic narrator who does a number of things that are forbidden to the reader by a lifetime of social mores... 

OK, it's only the end of March, but so far this is my favourite book of the year. 

In brief: the narrator of The Debt to Pleasure unfolds the story of his life as he travels from England to the South of France, via Brittany and the Loire. Every detail he gives us of his story adds to the impression that a most sinister purpose underlies every aspect of his journey. As he revisits Michelin starred restaurants and glorious chateaux, we become aware that under his carefully developed persona of the cynical, cultured epicurean lies a murderer most foul who deals with his feelings of jealousy, envy, malice, greed, fear - and even the attentions of minor annoying neighbours - with brutal and sanguine aplomb.
'You said once that peaches remind you of your brother,' my biographer remarked to me a while ago. I pretended not to be able to remember. The truth is that furry fruit does indeed remind me of my sibling, thanks to an unfortunate event that occurred when we were both small - a near-fatal case of poisoning that resulted when I, in an early stab at culinary experimentation, prepared a jam made out of peaches and also out of peach stones, the latter containing, it turns out, cyanogen, a stable compound that, when broken down through contact with certain enzymes (or when, for instance, pounded up using a pestle and mortar), produces the celebrated toxin cyanide... My brother's stomach upset, through acute - his fondness for peaches having already been noted - was (obviously) not fatal, though the médecin, a sombre man with the air of concelaed power and sadness belonging to an Angevin duke in bas-relief, had a worried forty-eight hours, as did my mother. No blame attached.
I think I made a note of something on almost every page of this deliciously cruel, wonderfully literate book.

The structure is interesting: the narrator takes a logorrhoeic delight in the sensuous pleasures of the best foods, and the novel is structured as seasonal menus (although the action takes place in a far more compressed time-span). The food aspects of the book made my mouth water the entire way through. The quality of the food writing (a genre so often so close to self-parodic that the line can be hard to draw!) reminded me of a wickedly perverted Elizabeth David narrative: "the rilettes agreeable fatty and the prunes convincingly plump-but-shrivelled, like scrotums." Similarly the travel narrative of the Englishman who is more French than the French is beyond pastiche.

Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this...: it's unique. I'm still in shock. But... France? Murders? Brilliant writing? Patrick Süskind's Perfume. The narrator of The Debt to Pleasure would sneer at this middle-brow book, of course.

Perfume Perfume

Monday, March 28, 2011

{review} spitfire women

Giles Whittell Spitfire Women of World War II (2007)

Spitfire Women of World War II. Giles Whittell

I recently caught the tail-end of a TV documentary based on this book and it reminded me that I had it on the TBR. 

This is a very readable history of some of the women who volunteered to join the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War in Britain. The ATA was responsible for the transporting of military aircraft around Britain to wherever they were needed: from factory to squadron, squadron to squadron, squadron to wreckers' yard. As able-bodied male flyers were needed in the RAF for fighter duty, the ATA was filled with the left-overs, gaining a reputation - deserved - for the eccentricity of its aviators: the one-armed, one-eyed and generally physically disqualified.
The other one-armed men were First Officer R. A. Corrie and the Honourable Charles Dutton, later Lord Sherborne, who was once interrupted by a woman pilot in the White Waltham common room arguing over which arm it was better for a pilot to be without. The answer was not clear, but Dutton did explain that he could take off in a Spitfire only with the control column clenched between his legs. And he could land only with the throttle pulled right back in advance. Every landing was effectively a forced one, with no second chances.
The other ATA source - ineligible for the RAF - was, of course, women. Almost all ATA flyers had flown prior to the war in a private capacity, and this is telling, since flying was not a poor (wo)man's game. Many of the ATA were high-living, wealthy, It-girls. Some were not, but had formidable pre-war reputations: Amy Johnson, for instance, the long-distance aviatrix whose gruesome death on ATA duty makes one realise the high level of personal courage required to fly aeroplanes in wartime in horrendous weather conditions and entirely without armaments and radios. Consider, too, the 'Mayfair Minx' Mona Friedlander who used to earn an incredible ten pounds an hour pre-war in the air: she towed targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice!

Maureen Dunlop of the ATA on the cover of Picture Post, Sept. 1944. 

These women were astoundingly brave, entirely belying the ATA's nickname of the "Always Terrified Airwomen".
Ferrying aircraft around well-defended Britain was, bizarrely, one of the most lethal activities on offer to either men or women in this war. Nearly one in ten of the ATA’s women pilots died. None of them ever fired a shot in anger because they flew unarmed, so they were sitting ducks should the Luftwaffe happen on them. They could also be shot at by friendly ack-ack units, ensnared by barrage balloons and, at any moment, ambushed by the weather. They flew without radio, and this was tightrope-walking without a safety net: no weather ‘actuals’, no check calls to the nearest RAF or met station, no radio beam to home in on.
This group of highly motivated, intelligent, hard-partying, privately funded airwomen - and some of the only women to earn the same wage as their male counterparts - still had a lot to prove. There was much inter-service jealousy about their abilities (and their pay).
Rosemary Rees explained briskly to one of them after joining the women’s Class V elite in 1943: 'I remember having quite an argument with a Wing Commander about an [Avro] York I was collecting,' she wrote. 'He said it was so heavy compared with my five foot three and seven stone weight. I pointed out that I was not proposing to attempt to carry it after all, but on the contrary to make it carry me.'
As one critic wrote:

But the trouble is that so many of them insist on wanting to do jobs which they are quite incapable of doing. The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly, or who wants to nose round as an Air Raid Warden and yet can't cook her husband's dinner.
And there was also a fair amount of discord within their own ranks as abrasive personalities were forced to rub up against each other in an enforced team in which each thought herself the Queen Bee. This was further exacerbated when they were joined by a corps of American volunteers. Even their leaders didn't see eye to eye.

My favourite aviatrix was Mary de Bunsen who managed to get into the ATA despite her medical history of a polio-weakened leg, lousy eyesight and a hole in her heart. Other sparkling personalities were Diana Barnato Walker, the first woman to fly a Spitfire to Europe and, post-war, the first British woman to go supersonic. 

Initially the ATA women were confined to flying lesser aircraft. But they proved themselves (interestingly, "the 'wastage rate' of female pilots was fewer than one in ten, twice as economical as the men") and eventually were able to fly the ultimate flying machine of the war, the Spitfire, and the huge multi-engined bombers. 

Joan Hughes of the ATA next to a Short Stirling bomber. 
Source: daily mail.

As a gauge of just how astonishing this achievement was, Whittell notes: 
Statistically, it was unusual for a woman in wartime Britain to set out to fly fighters and bombers and succeed. One hundred and seventeen British women managed it, or about one in every 200,000.
Ironically, the Spitfire turned out to be "the perfect lady's aeroplane" with its narrow cockpit and light controls. 

Whittell is very good at describing flying-related terms in layperson's language - this book never overwhelms with technicalities. It is a well-written book about a group of extraordinary women - "young, hopeful and ridiculously brave": 
Apart from a week’s rest at Cliveden hospital after a crash that almost killed her, [Lettice] Curtis flew continuously from July 1940 to September 1945; thirteen days on, two off, for sixty-two consecutive months. In that time she ferried nearly 1,500 aircraft including 331 four-engined bombers.
There is a real sense of personal despondency about the post-war fates of these remarkable women, defined, as Whittell has it, by their "toughness". Few were able to make the transition to peacetime flying owing to the huge numbers of demobbed male pilots. For many it seemed that the war was the only time they truly lived. Some, however, maintained their hair-raising standards:
Joan Hughes, the second woman cleared to fly four-engined aircraft, received an MBE after the war – and an acquittal in 1968 from the Buckinghamshire Quarter Sessions at Aylesbury, after facing seven charges there of endangering people and property while flying under a motorway bridge during the filming of Thunderbirds.

Rating: 8/10.
Incidentally, I read this on my Kindle but I also own a paper copy. There are no images in the Kindle copy. This is my dilemma: the Kindle is great for non-fiction since one can make copious highlights and notes. The Kindle is lousy for non-fiction as the editions generally lack images. Grrr.

If you liked this... The ATA women actually flew, unlike their sworn foes in the WAAF. As someone brought up on 'Worrals of the WAAF' (by Capt. W. E. Johns, the author of the 'Biggles' series), this came as something of a shock, and I want to find out more.

Worrals on the Warpath (1943).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

{weekend words}

The Major's wife and the daughter's been to Europe, and my wife tells me since they got back they make tea there every afternoon about five o'clock, and drink it. Seems to me it would go against a person's stomach, just before supper like that, and anyway tea isn't fit for much--not unless you're sick or something. My wife says Ambersons don't make lettuce salad the way other people do; they don't chop it up with sugar and vinegar at all. They pour olive oil on it with their vinegar, and they have it separate--not along with the rest of the meal. And they eat these olives, too: green things they are, something like a hard plum, but a friend of mine told me they tasted a good deal like a bad hickory-nut. My wife says she's going to buy some; you got to eat nine and then you get to like 'em, she says. Well, I wouldn't eat nine bad hickory-nuts to get to like them, and I'm going to let these olives alone. Kind of a woman's dish, anyway, I suspect...
 Booth Tarkington (1918)
The Magnificent Ambersons

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

{review} the magnificent ambersons

Booth Tarkington The Magnificent Ambersons (1918)

And in his reverie he saw like a pageant before him the magnificence of the Ambersons--its passing, and the passing of the Ambersons themselves. They had been slowly engulfed without knowing how to prevent it, and almost without knowing what was happening to them.
The Magnificent Ambersons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Orson Welles adapted it into (and directed) the 1942 movie of the same name (imdb). The novel has a wonderful and quite unmistakable American voice (as one might hope from a Pulitzer winner). 

The story involves the slow demise of a wealthy American family, the Ambersons, and in particular the actions of the grandson and heir to the once great fortune. George Amberson Minafer is the son of Isabel Amberson and the nondescript Wilbur Minafer. From boyhood, George is spoiled rotten by his mother and grandfather and grows up with the knowledge that he is to be the master of all he surveys. He has no plans but to be a gentleman. However, the world is changing quickly at the end of the nineteenth century and the Ambersons are out of step with the new world of automobiles, factories and expanding cityscapes which swallow their semi-rural suburban paradise in an unnamed Midland city (likely inspired by Indianapolis according to everyone's friend wikipedia). George is aware only of his own needs and desires and has been riding for a fall from boyhood. Everyone he meets swears that he must eventually get his comeuppance. He is certainly a horrid little boy: "there was added to the prestige of his gilded position that diabolical glamour which must inevitably attend a boy who has told a minister to go to hell."

George's father dies and he is taken aback when a parental friend from the past courts his mother. He is obsessed with maintaining the good family name and aghast that this upstart - the sympathetic Eugene who is to make a fortune with 'horseless carriages' - should couple his name with that of the Ambersons. 
He saw little essential difference between thirty-eight and eighty-eight, and his mother was to him not a woman but wholly a mother. He had no perception of her other than as an adjunct to himself, his mother; nor could he imagine her thinking or doing anything--falling in love, walking with a friend, or reading a book-- as a woman, and not as his mother.
But George is also in love with Eugene's beautiful daughter Lucy. When George intervenes in his mother's courtship, tragedy is not far away, and he has to learn a number of difficult lessons - including losing everything - in the gaining of his promised comeuppance. he saw her, thus close at hand, and coming nearer, a regret that was dumfounding took possession of him. For the first time he had the sense of having lost something of overwhelming importance.
I loved The Magnificent Ambersons. The narrator's voice is so striking (Orson Welles took this role in the film) and the verbal pictures of the passing of time in the Midland town ("For, as the town grew, it grew dirty with an incredible completeness.") are vivid and lively:
...the "aesthetic movement" had reached thus far from London, and terrible things were being done to honest old furniture. Maidens sawed what-nots in two, and gilded the remains. They took the rockers from rocking-chairs and gilded the inadequate legs; they gilded the easels that supported the crayon portraits of their deceased uncles. In the new spirit of art they sold old clocks for new, and threw wax flowers and wax fruit, and the protecting glass domes, out upon the trash-heap. They filled vases with peacock feathers, or cattails, or sumac, or sunflowers, and set the vases upon mantelpieces and marble- topped tables. They embroidered daisies (which they called "marguerites") and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon plush screens and upon heavy cushions, then strewed these cushions upon floors where fathers fell over them in the dark. In the teeth of sinful oratory, the daughters went on embroidering: they embroidered daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and owls and peacock feathers upon "throws" which they had the courage to drape upon horsehair sofas; they painted owls and daisies and sunflowers and sumac and cat-tails and peacock feathers upon tambourines. They hung Chinese umbrellas of paper to the chandeliers; they nailed paper fans to the walls. They "studied" painting on china, these girls; they sang Tosti's new songs; they sometimes still practiced the old, genteel habit of lady-fainting, and were most charming of all when they drove forth, three or four in a basket phaeton, on a spring morning.
The characters in The Magnificent Amberson are marvellously drawn. I love George's lovelorn aunt Fanny who sets him off on the path to disaster. And George's characterisation is spot-on. He is stubborn as a mule even when he dimly perceives that he may have been wrong:
He would not have altered what had been done: he was satisfied with all that--satisfied that it was right, and that his own course was right.
A quintessential American classic.

Rating: 10/10
I read this on my Kindle, free from (a really useful and well-organised site). It was a Project Gutenberg text originally.

Worst drink ever? "'Please let me have a few drops of aromatic spirits of ammonia in a glass of water,' she said, with the utmost composure."
If you liked this... hmmm. American voices? I'm going to take the plunge and read Henry James' What Maisie Knew (1897).

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