Tag Archives: social study

Rules of Civility – Amor Towles – 9/10

“One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.”

This is one novel I wish I’d listened to in audiobook – and I may try to get it in audio just so that I can. Towles has chosen to set his social study in carefree late 1930s Manhattan, choosing as his heroine a witty, smart, ahead of her time daughter of a Russian immigrant, Katya (now Katey) Kontent. Katey lives in Mrs Martingale’s boarding house with Evey Ross, and the two of them go out for New Year’s Eve on 1937 and befriend Tinker Grey, a young socialite banker. An awkward double romance develops but when Evey is disabled in a winter accident, Tinker throws his lot in with her. Katey moves on through New York society but every road seems to lead her back to Tinker eventually.

Towles has chosen to frame his story through the perspective of Katey as an older woman, reminded of the escapades of her youth by a photographic exhibition she attends with her husband. The first person narrative is slightly limiting, but by having Katey as the sensible one and Evey as the one whom trouble follows, we do of course get an interesting story. And this is an era with which I am entirely unacquainted! Most of my reading is set in pre-1900 or 1960+. The glamour and optimism of the late 30s in the USA, Manhattan before cell phones and yellow taxis and fear of terrorism, even the immigrant experience of the USA (it’s only really in Daughter of Fortune and Snow Falling on Cedars that I have run across it before) – all are new to me in literature and they were wonderful.

One of the things I love about reading on the Kindle is how easy it is to highlight passages and then come back to them when I am writing the review. Towles has a beautiful writing style, using words and phrases like “fabdabulous”, “the wine was older than me” and “a burgeoning taste for flawlessness”. Some of the ones I marked as I went through Rules of Civility:

On starting on page 104 of a Hemingway novel:

“Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way”

Other quotes:

“He felt elaborately around the bag until he brought out a cinnamon donut perched upright on his fingertips. Which, as it turns out, is all it takes to secure a place in my affections.”

“It’s terrific, I admitted. But I can’t help thinking how much better it would look on you, given the color of your hair. If I may be so bold, Miss Kontent, the color of my hair is available to you on the second floor.”

“At peace with the notion that he would join them soon enough in that circle of Elysium reserved for plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon” possibly my favourite book quote ever.

Well worth the read. Get your hands on a copy if you can, and even better if it’s in audio!

Other reviews: NPR, Just William’s Luck, Jennifer at Literate Housewife, Nicole at Linus’ Blanket; USA Today

Additional info:
This was supplied by the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin Group USA, read on Kindle. The hardback has 352 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

Flowers for Mrs Harris – Paul Gallico – 8/10

“To the gallant and indispensable daily ladies  who, year in, year out, tidy up the British Isles, this book is lovingly dedicated”

I’m not much of a novella reader (although maybe I should change that, because I have very much enjoyed my few experiences thus far), but Flowers for Mrs Harris posed a perfect lunchtime read for the first day of my holiday.

Mrs Harris (or ‘Arris, as she would pronounce it) is a London charwoman who, upon spying two Dior gowns in the wardrobe of one of her clients, finds herself struck down by the desire to own one herself. She scrimps and saves and gets herself to Paris and to the door of Christian Dior. Her mission to own the dress gets her into no end of trouble once she gets there.

This is a very sweet little novella, with just enough seriousness to stop it being twee. The issues with customs, accommodation, lack of French, imperious shop staff and other customers threaten to strike down Mrs Harris’ dreams – but she will not be denied. The ending is somehow awful and wonderful and perplexing all at once – as Jane, to whose review I have linked below, said – “the very thing that the word “bittersweet” was created to describe”.

Mrs Harris is a wonderful character, and I am looking forward to reading more about her in the other 3 books in the series. She is hard-working, honest (while she might fib, she would never tell a lie) and can’t help but see the best in people. In such a simple story, about how dreams can come true, she is refreshingly down to earth (I loved the episode where she rides roughshod over French elegance and manners and convinces two people to act on their hearts’ desire rather than be constrained by The Rules).

“The one and only time that Mrs Harris had ever faced the camera lens was upon the occasion of her wedding to Mr Harris and then she had the stout arm of that stout plumber to support her during the ordeal.”

“Two of Mrs Butterfield’s chins quivered at the impact of this revelation.”

“Mrs Harris felt as eager and excited as a child and mentally apostrophized herself”

A delicious romp through Sixties Paris through the eyes of a most unconventional narrator.

Reviews by other bloggers: Jane at Fleur Fisher, Elaine at Random Jottings, Rachel at Book Snob.

Additional info:
This was a personal copy, purchased in Notting Hill.
Publisher: Penguin, paperback, 128 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris – 10/10

Then We Came To The Endis written for everyone who has ever calculated the psychological effect of taking lunch an hour later on Fridays, so that the end of the week is that much closer upon returning from lunch. For those who have established countdowns in hours until they have reached the number of hours necessary for a qualification/promotion/escape. For those who have put sticky tape over the trackball of a colleague’s old-fashioned computer mouse in order to provide the office with entertainment for a few minutes.

Joshua Ferris encapsulates the tedium of daily life in a faceless, soulless corporation, rivalry with colleagues, the pervading fear when lay-offs are rumoured, loyalty born of affection to a terrifying boss and the importance of the right kind of tea. His office workers are obsessive, arrogant, insane, depressive, tortured by tragedy, incompetent, orthographically challenged and aloof. There is no plot – the characters render it unnecessary.

My only criticism is that it has not aged well – the lay-offs are in late 2001, after 9/11 and the dotcom bust, but seem anachronistic given the financial chaos in 2008-09.

Reviews by other bloggers: Of Books and Bicycles

10. Hard Times – Charles Dickens – 1/10

I hope not all Dickens is like this. If it
is, this is going to be a long project, as I keep reading anything other than
the next one!

The tale
of the Gradgrinds
– father, a schoolmaster with a very rigid idea of
how children ought to be raised, free of fancy and full of “ologisms”, a mother
racked with nerves, a daughter Louisa, who comes to doubt the prosaic quality
of her life, Thomas, a lost and petulant gambler, and the adopted daughter
Sissy Jupe, whose father abandoned her to their circus colleagues and who was
subsequently taken in by the Gradgrind family – had some semblance of a plot,
but not much of one.

The majority of page-space was occupied
with long and convoluted character descriptions, often highly entertaining, but
all the book’s characters are caricatures. Dickens gives us too many
opportunities to mock, and the humour rapidly wears thin. One might say that
this is a book of redemption – all characters have come to see the error of
their ways by the end – but the constant cynicism and ridicule leaves a bitter
taste. There was also a superfluity of allusions to contemporary matters, which
meant I spent the first twenty pages leaving back and forth to the notes and
then giving up, after which I clearly missed at least a third of the jokes.

Please let not all Dickens be like this.

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