Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Dance to the Music of Time: The First Movement (66% of It)

Garrison Keillor‘s Writer’s Almanac mentioned Anthony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time in December and I was intrigued. How could I pass up a book Evelyn Waugh compared to Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time? Waugh says Powell’s 12 volume masterpiece is “dry, cool, humorous, elablorately and accurately constructed and quintessentially English. It is more realistic than A Recherche du Temps Perdu, [trans. In Search of Lost Time], to which it is often compared and much funnier.”

So far I’ve read the first two novels, A Question of Upbringing and A Buyer’s Market. Set in the 1920s, A Question of Upbringing introduces readers to Nicholas Jenkins, the narrator. He’s attending boarding school with the churlish, bothersome Kenneth Widmerpool, and the “cooler kids” Stringman and Templer, with whom he hangs out conniving pranks, and sharing a jaded view of their teachers and peers. After graduation, Jenkins is sent to France for six weeks to polish his language skills and whom should he run into but Widmerpool. Finally, the novel concludes with Jenkins at university attending a tea at a unctuous social climbing professor’s rooms. Here he meets Mark Members, JG Quiggin, Bill Truscott, who’re sure to factor into the rest of the story. I was surprised at how little time university would play in a 12 volume work.

Here’s a sample insight:

Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become.” (A Question of Upbringing, p. 229)

In A Buyer’s Market, Jenkins has finished his education and is living in London. Though work is the topic of many conversations and status is determined by one’s employment to a degree, the emphasis is on debutante balls, loves and faux loves, and friendships that are ill-advised, dead, or comatose.

The strength of these novels isn’t what happens, but how Jenkins thinks about events, relationships, and perceptions. That’s where the power and the humor come into play. The descriptions are trenchant and witty. As I read them, I envy Powell’s talent and skill. Ah, to write so well.

The book does center on the upper crust of England and that’s not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, but if you like Downton Abbey, I think you’ll like this.

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in British Lit, classic, contemporary


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From the Writer’s Almanac

The New Yorker

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On this date in 1952, William Shawn (books by this author) took up the reins of The New Yorker, after the death of his predecessor and the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross. Ross, a lifelong heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer of the windpipe the previous summer. In December, Ross went up to Boston for a surgery to remove his right lung and died of heart failure on the operating table. William Shawn edited the magazine for 35 years thereafter. Shawn guided the magazine toward a more serious tone. He was quiet, and gentle, but on this point and many others, he was firm. He wanted The New Yorker to reflect a “new awareness” among its writers and readers. In the 1960s, Dorothy Parker criticized the magazine’s utter lack of humor, and Shawn himself later expressed some regret that he hadn’t had many humorists on staff, but in 1975, New York Times book critic John Leonard said, “Shawn changed The New Yorker from a smarty-pants parish tip sheet into a journal that altered our experience instead of just posturing in front of it.”


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Posted by on January 21, 2012 in American Lit


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My Ántonia

I just finished Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (accent on the first syllable please) and am basking in that satisfied feeling that a masterful story, well told offers. H.L. Mencken once wrote, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” Yep, I have to agree.

Cather excels with her descriptions and plotting. The characters are well drawn and true to life. While I read, I felt I was getting the “straight dope” on prairie life, on how immigrants really thought and fared. I felt I gained a deeper understanding of the period than any history book I’ve read so far can provide.

Jim Burden is the narrator, who leads readers through the stories of the people, townsfolk and country farmers, in Nebraska in the late 19th and early 20th century. These are all people a modern suburbanite like me finds easy to overlook. But through Jim’s eyes, I see their depth and complexities. Throughout the story, I was surprised by events and glad that Cather never stooped to make her characters amble down a well worn path.

This novel would be an excellent choice as a companion to a history unit on the pioneers.


Posted by on January 16, 2012 in American Lit, classic


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The Honorable Picnic

Donald Richie led me to this delightful comic novel by Thomas Raucat that ends with a surprise, a surprise that’s shocking. It’s the story of an outing for a not so dignified foreign guest who’s attempt at seduction of a Japanese beauty goes awry as his Japanese associates, hotel manager, train station manager and a geisha all offer him hospitality and try to read his mind. Each chapter has a different narrator whose perceptions and misperceptions delight or baffle readers depending on how well you know Japanese culture.

It’s a funny glimpse into the insights of people who try to understand each other and never will.

The Japanese have become more international in their worldview, but as a Japanophile who lived in Nara for 3 years, I believe this was an accurate snapshot of Japan around the 1920s.

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Posted by on January 5, 2012 in fiction


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