The Girl Who Wasn’t There: Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach focuses on the impulses behind murder, and in The Girl Who Wasn’t There, defense lawyer Konrad Biegler faces a difficult case when he represents Sebastian von Eschburg. The novel begins with Sebastian’s childhood. It’s a familiar story of a wealthy family who went down the toilet when one generation made the money and the next spent it. The family mansion fell into disrepair. But it’s still a vast house, sitting on acreage.

Plaster flaked off the walls, the two side wings were not heated in winter, and moss grew on the rooftops. In spring and autumn metal buckets stood in the attic to catch the rain.

In this dismal environment the relics of treasures of various continents mingle with dead animal body parts–the remnants of the Eschburgs’ hunting expeditions. Sebastian is born at home when the car belonging to his parents won’t start. As a neglected, lonely child he’s ‘different,’ and sees his world through a wider range of colour spectrum. The human eye normally sees colours between 400-700 nanometers.

There had always been two worlds in Sebastian’s life. The retinas of his eyes perceived electromagnetic waves between 380 and 780 nanometers, his brain translated them into two hundred tones of colour, five hundred degrees of brightness and twenty different shades of white. He saw what other people saw, but in his mind the colours were different. They had no names because there weren’t enough words for them. His nanny’s hands were cyan and amber; his father’s skin was a pale greenish-blue. Only his mother had no colour at all. For a long time, Sebastian thought that she was made of water, and took on the shape that everyone knew when he went into her room. He admired the speed with which she had always successfully performed this transformation.

He loves the house but is sent off to boarding school at age ten. There are many names given to various psychological states, and no doubt there would be one to fit Sebastian. He’s a disturbed child and he becomes more disturbed after his father’s suicide. Eventually Sebastian becomes an acclaimed photographer, and his work, which questions reality, is controversial. He slides into porn (which is an interesting approach to the reality question) and violence. When Sebastian is accused of murder, there seems to be a natural path from his artistic material to the accusations against him.

The sections about Sebastian’s mother and his childhood are the strongest in the novel. In spite of an intriguing plot, this novel was a limp read. While I felt compassion for the lonely neglected child, Sebastian, as an adult, is not convincing and the whole murder/solution was too sketchy and contrived for this reader.

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Lommbock (2017)

Lommbock (2017)

“Clean urine. You can buy it on the internet.”

The German film, Lommbock, from director Christian Zübert, was an accidental find. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was so funny, I wanted to add this buddy movie to German Literature Month 2021. Yes, I know, this is hardly literature, but what the hell.

Stefan (Lucas Gregorowicz) is back in Germany in order to get the necessary paperwork for his upcoming wedding in Dubai to Yasemin (Melanie Winiger). He’s met at the airport by his lifelong, slacker friend, Kai (Moritz Bleibtreu). Kai, with blasé that flies in the face of Germany’s drug laws, brings Welcome Back drugs to the airport in a pizza box for Stefan, and Stefan, frantically eyeing the airport police, dumps the box, berating Kai in the process. This early scene sets the tone between the friends. At one point they were social equals, but now Stefan is expensively dressed and looks every inch a success. He’s a former lawyer, about to marry into an extremely wealthy family, and in the process of opening a bar in Dubai, while pothead Kai, who owns a run-down, abandoned Pizzeria is married to breadwinner Sabine (Mavie Hörbiger) and has a stepson Jonathan (Louis Hofmann). Sabine has clearly outgrown Kai, and Kai has adopted hybrid gangsta-hip lingo and is convinced he’s the only one who can get through to his increasingly alienated stepson.

The plan is for Stefan to stay, briefly, with Kai, take care of the paperwork and then fly back to Dubai. What could possibly go wrong???? Stefan and Kai are soon back to their old ways and Stefan must find excuses to tell his fiancée when it becomes necessary for him to wait out a clean urine test in order for him to return to Dubai. Kai and Stefan, team up when Jonathan gets in trouble and their misadventures include a hunt for marijuana, a pot van and an institutionalized stoner.

Some scenes involve Kai’s (he’s high) rifts of how breast implants explode at high altitudes. Kai has theories about everything in the universe. His confidence is in sharp contrast to Stefan’s almost constant worries, and this is made even funnier by the fact that Kai, given his failures in life, should be the insecure one. Given this confidence dynamic, it’s easy to see why Stefan so rapidly drops his responsible veneer once off the Dubai leash.

The final section of the film takes place in Dubai and these scenes are boldly original. I couldn’t stop laughing. Underneath the humour runs a strain of Stefan’s homesickness, the idea of staying true to oneself, and the lure of selling out for financial security. Stefan didn’t realise how much he missed Germany until he returned. And then there’s his relationship with Kai. It’s fraught with problems and yet there’s still a deep bond and synergy between the two men.

The back story of this pizzeria which was a front for Kai and Stefan selling marijuana as part of the pizza delivery is the story in the film Lammbock (2001)

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The Ivory Grin: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 4)

“The people you love are never the ones that love you.”

Ross Macdonald’s The Ivory Grin centres on a seemingly simple case of finding a young woman, but the case becomes more complicated as the bodies pile up. This tale of jealousy and revenge begins with private detective Lew Archer being hired by a middle-aged woman he dislikes. He finds her waiting for him outside of his office early one morning, and with just two sentences out of her mouth, Archer notes “she had begun to irritate me already.” She wears a “slack suit” with a blue mink stole and her hands are dripping with large diamonds. She alternates between “girlish vivacity and boyish earnestness” neither of which fit this hard-edged woman who is clearly used to being obeyed.

“Call me Una,” she said.

“Do you live in Los Angeles?”

“Not exactly. Where I live doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you what does if you want me to be blunt.”

“I couldn’t bear it if you weren’t.” Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. “You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me.”

I was in no mood to swop compliments. The ragged edge on her voice and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete.

Protective coloration.” I caught her glance and held it. “I meet a lot of different types.”

For one thing, Una, as she calls herself, spins Archer a tall tale about needing to find a former employee, a black girl called Lucy. In the first version Una tells Archer that Lucy stole some jewelry and she wants it back. When Archer doesn’t swallow that tale, the second story is that Lucy knows about Una’s “private affairs,” and Una wants to know what company Lucy keeps. Both stories reek, but Archer’s interest is aroused so he takes the case. But things don’t add up–Una knows where Lucy is, where she hangs out and even what she’s wearing.

She produced a crumpled bill and tossed it to me as if were an old piece of Kleenex and I were a wastebasket. I caught it. It was a hundred dollar bill, but I didn’t put it away.

Archer’s used to digging in the grubby lives of his clients, and so often doesn’t get the straight scope, but this woman is over the top: she won’t tell him her real name, and she won’t tell him where she lives. But the trump card that should end it all is that Archer doesn’t like this woman. At all. Archer drives to Bella City, the place where Lucy was spotted, and in hardly any time at all, he sees her. He follows her only to see her tossed from a boarding house, so when Lucy moves to a low-rent hotel, Archer takes the room next door.

The case, which seemed so quickly resolved, becomes complicated. Archer follows Lucy to the grubby practice of a local doctor, a doctor whose femme fatale wife doesn’t fit the image of a small-town doctor’s wife. Curiouser and curiouser, there’s a low-rent PI on Lucy’s tail who gets busy pumping the doctor’s nurse for info. Who is he working for? Turns out that Lucy is somehow involved in a kidnapping case, but Archer doesn’t understand what Lucy’s role was. When Archer finds Lucy with her throat cut, he’s committed to the case–not the client. Archer may be working for “Una” but as always his code of conduct defines his actions. This novel, written in Macdonald’s gritty, sardonic style, is about a tangled mess in which an elusive, opportunistic femme fatale leaves a trail of lovers, creating chaos and moving on. But the tale is also about the depths of human nature–how warped and corrupt people stain everyone they touch sometimes with fatal results.

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The Burgess Boys: Elizabeth Strout

You can leave Maine, but it doesn’t leave you.

The relationships between siblings, the reliability of memory, and mid-life marital problems form Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. The Burgess ‘Boys’ are actually middle-aged men, Jim and Bob Burgess, but there’s a sister too, Susan. Jim and Bob moved from Maine to New York and both brothers now live in Brooklyn. Susan remains in Shirley Falls, Maine, and while the brothers see each other a lot, they seldom see Susan. This may be due to geography, or a childhood trauma, but it’s also partly due to Jim and Bob’s reluctance to return to Maine. Also Susan is sour, and she’s become worse since her husband departed to Sweden, leaving her with her son, 19-year-old Zach.

Bob, the far sweeter brother, is divorced. His long-term girlfriend just dumped him, ostensibly because he’s too close to his ex, Pam, who is now remarried and also lives in New York. Jim, an extremely successful attorney is married to Helen. The three siblings are brought together in crisis mode when Zach tosses a pig’s head into a Shirley Falls Mosque. Facing prosecution, Jim and Bob become involved in the case, and by the time the book ends, everyone emerges into a new reality.

Jim has celebrity status thanks to successfully defending a popular singer on murder charges. This, however, was the pinnacle of his career, and he’s never quite hit that high note since. When the novel begins, Helen, his supportive wife deeply resents Jim’s involvement in his nephew’s case. She dislikes her “grim sister-in-law” and dislikes Maine. Underneath all these resentments and dislikes, is the unacknowledged feeling that she and Jim are drifting apart. Poor Helen–although her snobbery makes her a less sympathetic character.

Bob’s career is modest next to Jim’s but then again, 51-year-old Bob is a modest man. He is blighted by an accident which killed his father–an accident which he caused. This incident is a permanent cloud on every aspect of Bob’s life. And that isn’t helped AT ALL by the fact that Jim constantly belittles him, calling him “knucklehead,” “Slob-dog,” “cretinized bozo.” It’s all ‘supposed’ to be good fun, but it’s mean spirited especially when combined with all the other insults Jim throws Bob’s way. Then there’s Susan who loves Jim and thinks he’s the only one who can help her in the criminal case against Zach. She’s also nasty to Bob and doesn’t think he is capable doing anything correctly.

Bob is always in Jim’s shadow and asks himself:

What was this thing that Jimmy had? The intangible, compelling part of Jimmy?

Some people ooze confidence, and when Jimmy makes a confession, well two confessions, Bob’s world is rocked to its foundations. Jimmy, who has a cruel side, typically fails to grasp the emotional impact Bob feels. Jim seems to have a history of failing to understand how his actions impact others. That’s evident when he waltzes into Shirley Falls and manages to piss everyone off. There’s an influx of Somalis into Shirley Falls and they aren’t integrating well.

The novel is a touch on the sentimental side. I liked how the novel shows that siblings all have certain places carved on the family totem pole, and that while they share childhoods, they may not have quite the same recollections. Bob is scripted as the screw-up in childhood, and he grew into that role. He’s actually successful, but he still carries that figurative screw-up hat. I rather liked Susan in spite of her sour moods. We get a few scenes of Pam who is now living the life she thought she always wanted in high society New York, and yet she still craves the ever-loyal Bob’s company. Pam, a character we see in Oh, William, is a parasitologist and at one point Jim tells Bob that Pam is rather like a parasite herself:

She didn’t like her childhood, so she took yours. Then she got to New York and looked around and saw people had kids and she’d better get some too, and while she was at it she’d better get some money as well, because New York has a lot of that too.

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Happy Hour: Marlowe Granados

“You should always keep old friends happy because they know more about you than you’d like.”

Add Happy Hour from author Marlowe Granados to the sub-genre: New York novels. This episodic novel, in diary-form, covering just a few months, is written by 21-year-old Isa Epley who arrives in New York followed by her friend Gala Novek. It’s a chaotic beginning with the two young women moving in on the night their apartment neighbours decide to throw a party. In an informal arrangement, they rent the top apartment from another young woman who is spending the summer surfing. Gala and Isa survive by selling clothes on a market stall–that’s their day job, but life really begins at night in the bars, clubs and parties as these two young women coast through life. Making various contacts, and Gala has a particular talent for this, they tell everyone they meet that “we’re trying to find little jobs here and there.” Cash of course. And so they swim their way through various New York opportunities to make a little cash.

At one point they attend a talk with a “French economic theorist” who has written a best seller. They are out of their depth–it’s not the right crowd. Gala “tried to accommodate a dress code. Her version of business casual was a loose white linen suit with a sheer shirt underneath the jacket, buttoned so one could see her belly button.

During the talk, Gala asks Isa “Do you think they have a list of who’s in the One Percent?” which really cuts to the heart of the matter. They work on a movie set, fill seats in a new club to flesh out the crowd, attend parties with the rich and famous, attend castings, and with any luck food and drinks come with whatever gigs they pull.

Overall, due to the subject matter, I found it hard to maintain my interest. I had hoped for something along the lines of Tana Janowitz or Jay McInerney. Isa and Gala are two resilient young women who hustle to survive, and it’s very tenuous. They are young, and beautiful, but won’t be forever. A glamorous life is fine if you can afford it, but a poignant, tinsel effort if one cannot.

On the upside, I liked parts of it, when, for example, Isa wonders:

whether my memories should stay only mine, or have they ever been? Each time I tell someone a story over a watery pernod, it opens that someone to the possibility of the memory.

And

In the end I know I am passionate about glamour–because it is illusive, hard to define, yet identifiable.

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The Way We Die Now: Charles Willeford (1988)

“That’s my life’s ambition, to grow old and be a burden on someone.”

In The Way We Die Now, Hoke Moseley is back for the fourth and final (sob) novel. This is a phenomenal, hard-boiled crime series from Charles Willeford, and The Way We Die Now is the darkest, most violent and bleakest of the novels. Hoke’s world vision hasn’t improved with the years spent with Miami homicide. His career has spanned some incredible changes in Miami: gentrification of Miami neighbourhoods, inflation and the influx of Cuban refugees. But the changes have also been personal for Hoke: first a female partner, Alita Sanchez in the second novel, New Hope for the Dead. Then his ex-wife departs for California with her new husband and dumps Hoke’s two daughters on his doorstep. Professionally, affirmative action begins in the workplace and Hoke rolls with all the changes, but the hardest of all … laws about cigarette smoking.

The Way We Die Now finds Hoke still working cold cases. When the book opens, he’s chewing over the cold-case murder of a doctor. 3 years ago, the doctor’s garage door opener was stolen, and about a week after that, the doctor was shot as he exited his car. The murder seemed like a professional hit, and the case quickly grew cold. But the doctor’s widow married one of her husband’s partners, and that, to Hoke, seems to point towards motive. On the personal front, Hoke is still living with Alita Sanchez, her baby son, and his two daughters. Trouble arrives in the form of a convicted murderer who, thanks to a technicality, has been released after serving just a fraction of his sentence. The man, Donald Dutton, who was accused, tried and convicted of murdering his brother, swore to get even with Hoke, the homicide detective on the case. In the time that has passed since Donald’s conviction, Hoke hasn’t aged well. He’s lost most of his hair, all his teeth, and he has a paunch. Donald, on the other hand, is dashing and loaded. When Donald moves in across the street from Hoke, you know that revenge is brewing.

As with all Willeford novels, nothing is ever predictable, so what happens with Donald blindsides Hoke. Plus he’s too busy working homicide and going undercover as a favour to Major Brownley investigating missing Haitians who worked picking melons in a remote area. The novel begins with horrific violence which is then connected later to Hoke’s explosive undercover gig. Hoke discovers the hard way what happens when you are dropped in rural Florida with just a few dollars, tatty clothes, no gun and no teeth. As for what happens to Hoke, think those banjoes in Deliverance and you’d just about have it. Mention is made earlier in the tale about burglars who break into empty homes that are tented for termites and then drop like the cockroaches thanks to the poisonous fumes. This tidbit of valuable information seems random, but again it ties into Hoke’s undercover gig later.

In the earlier novels, Hoke had an anemic sex life, and at one point in The Way We Die Now, he’s offered a hand-job by a trailer park hooker. He turns down her offer. His reply: “If I wanted a hand job, I could do it myself. Women don’t do know how to do it right anyway” And somehow this mirrors Hoke’s narrow, meagre sex life which has declined and become increasingly difficult as the series continues. Hoke is an incredible creation: overweight, balding, no teeth and as we would say these days, a fashion victim, but he’s an excellent detective.

The humour in this dark, gritty novel comes partly from Hoke’s conviction that anti-smoking laws and fines in the workplace will never work. But since Charles Willeford died in 1988, at age 69, the year this novel was published, the anti smoking rifts were not meant to be funny. This is only in hindsight. But there’s other humour: Willeford twisted humour: I’ll call them Hokeisms: from yuppies, parenting, voting, marriage, and women. Also there’s the continuing saga of Hoke’s false teeth which he must part with due to his undercover gig. The trailer park hooker keeps a small coke-drinking handicapped child stuffed in a box in a cupboard inside her trailer. At one point, Hoke calls in a favour to have the child removed. Thank god, you think as a reader. But then Hoke follows the request with his opinion that the child is ruining his mother’s life. That’s a Hokeism for you. The World According to Hoke. … There are some loose ends in the novel, and yet there’s also the sense of an ending. Sadly this is the last we see of Hoke and his bleak outlook on life.

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Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”

For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.

William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,

While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:

This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.

This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?

Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:

As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.

Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.

“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that I even wondered this.

And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.

“You messed around?” I asked.

“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”

“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”

He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.” “You were doing her then?”

“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”

Indeed.

The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.

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Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: Steven Petrow

“Throw it in the fuck it bucket.”

I almost passed this book over as the synopsis sounded…. well… judgey. After finishing Steven Petrow’s Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I’m Old, I’m glad that I read listened to this audiobook. It is amusing but more than that, it made me think. The author starts with, as the title suggests, a list of things he swears he will NOT do when he is old, and this was generated by watching his parents age and grow ill. After the death of his parents, he reread his list and realized that the motivations behind the list were complex. He added that he sees “more clearly now that I meant the list to serve as a pointed reminder to me to make different choices when I eventually crossed the threshold into my senior, sunset or silver years.” The short chapters are infused with humour, anecdote, and then backed up with facts and figures.

My attention was almost immediately pulled into the author’s quest to understand aging and its challenges when he asks at age 63 “am I old?” So he begins asking friends on Facebook ‘when are we old?’ The answers were varied–some amusing, some poignant. Physical limitations were mentioned a lot, and I suspect that those markers were significant for those who define themselves by their physical ability. I wonder if this cohort will have a harder time aging–I suspect so. I was, then, interested to hear that “old is not synonymous with ill, disabled or even injured.” Researchers state that the old-age “threshold” in America is 71 for men and 74 for women, and that “our true age” contains many factors, including how happy we are.

In one chapter, “I Won’t Colour My Hair,” Steven Petrow describes his “unfortunate adventure in hair colouring.” After spending 100s of $ trying to fix a bad dye job, Petrow still ended up looking like a “trashy secretary from Staten Island.” It gets guts to publicly point out one’s mistakes, laugh about it, and move on. Other chapters include discussing habits that “mark” us as “geriatric” and “Elder Abuse of Technology“–phrases and habits that scream: “Old Person On the Loose Online.” (OPOTLO)

Another chapter, “I Won’t Lie About My Age–Even on Dating Apps” discusses the author’s experience with online dating. After separating from his husband, the author Joined Tinder, Match and OKCupid and here he learned that many people lied about their age while admitting he “used to be one of those people who shaved a few years, or more, off their true age. either to avoid appearing like a dinosaur or to improve their odds of finding a match online.” He joined in with the “fudging” but then was outed by his Wikipedia page. It’s funny, but not surprising, to hear how age cheaters on dating sites are prolific and that users screen for age-cheaters by lie-detecting questions, such as “where were you when…?” Petrow describes how an age-fibber created a “cheat sheet.” It’s really hilarious and sounds like so much work. Too much work.

Another chapter discusses sexuality. Petrow had testicular cancer in his 20s and so had to confront sexual difficulties early. Discussing sexual issues segues into the idea of how we all too often obsess on our health/issues/illness as we age in the chapter called “I Won’t Join the Organ Recital.” Recently, in line at the pharmacy, I noticed a few older customers, strangers, discussing their colonoscopies much to the disgust of a few thirty somethings also waiting–a trapped and horrified audience. This is a perfect example of exactly what the author means by talking, sometimes exhaustively, about health issues, which, let’s face it, younger generations must find boring and embarrassing. Hoarding, driving, falling, hearing loss, personal cleanliness, grumpiness all come up for discussion.

Ultimately this is an extremely positive, life-affirming book. One chapter that stuck with me is: “I Won’t Stop Enjoying Myself,” for its great outlook. This book has a target audience, and while most of the content can be applied to all of us–some things are considerations for those who have the extra funds to apply to life (wardrobe, assisted living, reconsidering employment options). This is not a criticism of the book–just an observation. I’m also going to add that some of this is easier said than done. It’s one thing to be old but still be able to go sit in the garden and smell the roses–literally or figuratively, but quite another to keep up one’s spirits if you’re the 90 something wheelchair bound lady with oxygen in her nose who’s parked in the doctor’s office by her family who will “send someone to pick her up” tout suite (and yes, I just observed this to my horror). Finally Steven Petrow kept me entertained and engaged. I’d already started Swedish Death Cleaning (without knowing the term) and I’d already committed to embracing and enjoying my old age. But then some of us have a high happiness set point, and some of us don’t. In other words, some of us are destined to be old misery guts/ratbags. You know who you are. … Obviously the author is NOT one of those people: he’s a fan of Mel Brooks and stresses the importance of laughter. So here’s to enjoying ourselves: After all, we’re only old once.

The late great Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles

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The Small House at Allington: Anthony Trollope

Back to Barsetshire for the 5th novel in the 6 book series: The Small House at Allington. From the plot description, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book as much as the others in the series, but this book, while it has one subplot that’s rather sad, is also full of humour. Plus some characters get their just desserts, and that’s always satisfying. The theme of marriage dominates here, and there are many aspects to the subject: young women compromising men into marriage, a toxic marriage between two combatants, a man who thinks he’s been cheated by the absence of a dowry he expected, and a couple of old bachelors who have managed to avoid marriage.

At the centre of the novel are two sisters: Lily and Bell Dale. They are the daughters of Mary Dale, a widow whose husband died and left her with little means of support. She has accepted the ‘small house’ at Allington from Squire Christopher Dale, her dead husband’s brother, who lives at the big house. Squire Dale did not approve of his younger brother’s marriage to Mary Dale, and while he loves his nieces and allows the widow and her daughter to live on his bounty, there is no love lost between the squire and his widowed sister-in-law. Squire Dale is unmarried and his nephew Bernard will eventually inherit his uncle’s estate. Squire Dale hopes that Bernard will marry Bell, his favourite niece.

Bernard brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie, to stay at Allington, and while the Dale sisters at first make gentle fun of Crosbie, even thinking he gives himself “airs,” he all too soon wins Lily’s heart. Crosbie proposes to Lily assuming that she will receive some sort of dowry from her uncle. Crosbie, playfully nicknamed “Adonis” by the two Dale sisters, is a bit of a dandy. He earns 800 pounds a year and while he lives well on that amount as a bachelor, it’s insufficient income to support a wife–at least not without significant sacrifices: such as Crosbie’s clubs and clothes, and Crosbie, a self-worshipping creature, winces at the idea of any self-deprivation. Getting cold feet, Crosbie asks the Squire flatly if Lily is to receive a dowry, and when he discovers that she will not, Crosbie feels that he’s been tricked, or deceived somehow into making a proposal. His ‘love’ for Lily is overshadowed by his resentment, and he immediately starts backpedaling. He accepts an invitation to de Courcy Castle and there, feeling resentment about the lack of Lily’s dowry, he’s lured into the snares of Lady de Courcy and one of her unmarried daughters. …

Continuing on the theme of the turbulent layers of matrimony, John Eames, another young man who loves Lily, has become embroiled with his landlady’s wily daughter, Amelia Roper, while fellow lodger Cradell has foolishly fallen into the snares of Mrs Lupex, a conniving married woman who also lives at the boarding house. Mrs. Lupex is married to a drunkard, but there are indications that he’s been driven to drink. The prompt for Mr. Lupex’s vice is of little importance as both Mr and Mrs Lupex are trouble and are only too happy to drag others into the drama of their marital torture chamber.

On the subject of marital torture chambers, mention must be made of the ghastly Earl de Courcy. Before Trollope gives us a peek at the de Courcys’ miserable marriage, Lady de Courcy is not a sympathetic character at all. She manipulates and mistreats Crosbie (not that we mind that much) and pokes fun at Lily Dale (a low blow). Lady de Courcy is seen primarily as a snob who rides high on local society when in reality the de Courcys are an awful family–one might even say trashy. Lord de Courcy is a nasty old man, a tyrant, who insists that he has an audience with his wife every morning. These conferences, which are ostensibly to discuss the household, were “almost too much for her,” as her spouse shouts and gnashes his teeth. She tells her daughter that sometimes she is “going mad” while she listens to his tirades. Here he is exploding about his son, George.

“How long is George going to remain here with that woman?” he asked.

“I’m sure she is very harmless,” pleaded the countess.

“I always think when I see her that I’m sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How can he put up with it! But I don’t suppose he cares for anything.”

“It has made him very steady.”

“And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I’ll tell you what it is–I won’t have it. He’s better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife’s than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won’t have it. D’ye hear?” he shouted at her.

Yes, of course, I hear. I was only thinking you wouldn’t wish me to turn them out –just as her confinement is coming on.”

I know what that means. Then they’d never go. I won’t have it; and if you don’t tell them I will.

The de Courcys create the idea of the power of hierarchy within relationships: Crosbie could lord it over Lily Dale and act as though he’s doing her a favour by agreeing to marriage, but the de Courcys act as though Crosbie’s lucky to share their oxygen. In other words, some characters are nice when subordinate and they have to be pleasant but then they are nasty when off leash. Lady de Courcy treats Crosbie like some sort of peasant go-fer whenever she gets a chance, but then she stands there and takes it when her husband rails at her daily just for fun. Gazebee is in awe of the de Courcys, his in-laws, and yet when it’s his job to reel Crosbie into the family web, he relishes the role, and Crosbie, who used to look down on Gazebee, finds that he’s lower on the de Courcy ladder than even Gazebee.

Crosbie, leaning on the questionable models of Lothario, Don Juan, and Lovelace, abandons Lily in favour of an alliance with the de Courcys. He erroneously thinks he’s made the better bargain but all too soon finds that he is firmly on the “grindstone of his matrimonial settlement.” Serves him right. While some characters dive to the lowest depths of their characters, others rise: Squire Dale learns some painful lessons, and Johnny Eames has his heart broken but grows up in the process. And the de Guests, who are bystanders on the sidelines of others’ lives, become involved in the fallout of Crosbie’s scandalous behaviour, but in their case, it turns out to be a fortuitous arrangement. The de Guests, Bernard’s relations, are not particularly interesting characters–in fact Trollope tells us that Lady de Guest is a “tedious, dull, virtuous old woman” and yet she has a heart. Her brother, the Earl de Guest, has great sympathy for Lily and considers Crosbie to be a blackguard. The initially uninteresting de Guests rise in the reader’s estimation while the de Courcys plummet.

I was a little annoyed with Lily after she is jilted. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to heal. But then I decided that perhaps she’s a little mad. Her behavior rings alarm bells in spite of her outward serenity (or even because of it?). There’s also a subplot concerning Plantagenet Palliser and Griselda Dumbello which is a segue into the Palliser series. Towards the end of the book, the Battle of the Manure which involves Hopkins the loyal, territorial, irascible, gardener is very funny, and his character emphasizes the good, true, steady side of life.

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The Fortnight in September: R.C. Sherriff (1931)

R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September lingered for too long on my TBR list, and now there’s a rerelease of this gentle, classic tale. This wonderful story follows the annual two-week holiday of the Stevens family: 20-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick,10-year-old Ernie and their parents. Mr and Mrs Stevens took their honeymoon in Bognor Regis 20 years earlier, and they return here every year for their annual holiday. They even stay at the same guesthouse, Seaview. The first few chapters set the stage for the night before the holiday–it’s a prequel of sorts. It’s packed full of planning rituals which are repeated, faithfully, every year. Mr. Stevens is a creature of habit. Everything must be ‘just so,’ and perhaps this explains why the holiday destination never varies.

They had often talked of a change–of Brighton, Bexhill–even Lowestoft–but Bognor always won in the end.

It’s Mary’s job to deliver the canary to neighbour, Mrs Haykin. It’s a dreaded task as poor Mrs Haykin, who has no social life, is pathetically eager to take care of the canary as:

the Stevenses holiday had become Mrs. Haykin’s holiday: she lived every moment of it from her little house in Corunna Road. Soon she would watch them pass on their way to the station. She would not settle to her morning’s work until she had seen their train go by and satisfied herself that they had had ample time to catch it. She always hoped one of them might wave from the window.

Over the course of twenty years, Seaview hasn’t changed–except that it’s steadily become shabbier.

The Stevenses had not definitely noticed anything amiss in Seaview in the years that followed. Mrs Huggett remained as flustered, as tremblingly anxious to please as ever. Molly seemed on the go all day–and yet—-there was just something different: some little thing each year. few years back the bath plug had broken from its chain: it had never been recaptured, and lay each year in freedom at the bottom of the bath. Year by year the sheets grew more cottony and frail: and Mr Stevens, happenings one night to have a sharp toenail, slit his top sheet down the centre, and enlarged it accidentally with his foot each night as he got into bed.

Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.

Review copy

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