Category Archives: Book Review

Read With Me: The Slaves of Solitude

The Slaves of Solitude written by Patrick Hamilton in 1947 was first on my list of must read titles from Mr. Baxter. He chose this book for me to read first because my final assignment in his class used the setting of the 40s and attempted to highlight the abrasive relationships of catty women. I say “attempted” because though the story represented my best efforts at the time, it can certainly be improved upon now.(Cover redesign by me. ©2011)

Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude is a quiet, subtle account of the life of an ordinary middle-aged woman taking refuge from the London Blitz in a small-town boarding house. Readers view all the happenings and events through the eyes of this woman, ironically named Miss Roach. The boarding house (called The Rosamund Tea Rooms even now, though tea has long since ceased to be served to passersby) hosts a plethora of fascinating characters including Miss Roach’s bitter nemesis: Mr. Thwaites. The story painstakingly reveals the torturous and verbally abusive relationship Miss Roach suffers with Mr. Thwaites.

Thames Lockdon had been “heaven”, then, with its dark, still nights, over which the sirens occasionally came yelling triumphantly forth, only to be gradually snubbed by the profound silence of the firmament, undisturbed even by the distant sound of guns and bombs, which followed. And she had been made a fuss of, then, a sort of heroine indeed, and given a fortnight’s holiday. And the town was “pretty”, and the food “very good”, and the people “very nice” – even Mr. Thwaites had seemed “very nice”.

But now, after more than a year of it, Mr. Thwaites was president in hell.

{page 8}

Miss Roach interacts with a “foreign woman” who causes her trouble, falls in love with a bumbling American solider and finds unlikely friends amongst the residents. Whenever I try to explain it to people I know, I fear that it comes off as depressing. It does have sad moments, but overall the story is much too fascinating to make you sad. It’s the kind of story that slowly reels you in with each gloriously worded paragraph, so much so that you don’t even realize how engaged you are until you try to take a break. What impresses me most about The Slaves of Solitude is the skillful sentence structure. Hamilton gleefully weaves the longest sentences ever to confront an unsuspecting reader, but in such a way that you plow straight through without being aware of the length until the end.

Though obscurely aware of this, his naïvety and freshness of belief remained unabated. Also, having the treacherous faculty, at certain intervals, of being able to hit the ball squarely off the middle of the club-head four or five times in succession, Mr. Prest would exhibit the curious caution (the caution of a madman) of packing up his clubs and going home only when such an interval had just occurred and remained unmarred by disaster, and thus enable himself during the rest of the day to embrace the pleasant belief that he had at last alighted upon the simple explanation of golf which had by the merest chance eluded him for so many years.

{page 81}

I read The Slaves of Solitude just a few months before moving into an apartment house myself. I like to think it prepared me a little for the adjustment. One of my favorite passages (which I cannot find now for the life of me) talks of homebody residents waiting for the wayfaring travelers to return at the end of each day. The simple gesture conveys a connection of camaraderie between the boarders despite their differences and idiosyncrasies. Now that I’m an apartment dweller myself, I unconsciously check off each of my neighbors as they return home from work at night. It’s comforting to know that everyone has made it back safely.

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Filed under Book Review, My Art, Read With Me

Read With Me

Last summer, in hot and furious pursuit of credits to graduate, I took a creative writing class. Instead of being excited for the learning ahead, I just hoped to get through it without ending up in tears trying to finish the assignments. My college memories consist of me hoping this at the start of every semester, often ending up sadly disappointed. This time though, I got darn lucky.

Mr. Baxter, the creative writing professor, turned out to be one of my all time favorite teachers. I liked him because he was young enough to remember how hard college is for those foolish enough to endure it. He understood we all had other homework and other commitments in addition to his course. Instead of taking these situations personally, he accepted them and asked for no justifications. He honestly couldn’t have cared less about the excuses. All he cared about was writing and literature. I hate that expression about someone’s “passion” for their work. It’s so often used to describe people not deserving of the title. But for this professor, it applies in spades.

As we made our way through the semester, he led discussions about the stories we read with infectious zeal. His intensity and focus on writing styles, sentence structure and phrasing completely changed the way I read and interpret writing.

In the final week of the class, Mr. Baxter offered to create a reading list for anyone interested. I jumped at the chance and when I met with him to retrieve my final paper, he presented me with a two-page list of books. The selections are a mix of titles specifically tailored to my tastes (stories set in the 1940s!) and classics everyone should read. Each title is accompanied by a note, justifying it’s position on the list.

Long story short, I’ve only made it through one of the books on the list as yet, so I will be discussing each one as I finish it here. Anyone who would like to jump in and read one of the books along with me is most welcome. I’ll post the intro to each new book every other Saturday morning, allowing two weeks for reading in between.

The list:

The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton

Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell

Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward

The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams

The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence

The Group, Mary McCarthy

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

The Remains of the Day, Kazou Ishiguro

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy

Consider the Lobster & A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace

The plays of Martin McDonagh

The Thin Place, Kathryn Davis

The Short Stories of Shirley Jackson

Slaughterhouse Five, Galapagos & Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

The Sea, John Banville

“The Dead” from Dubliners, James Joyce

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

All right then. My post on The Slaves of Solitude will be up on Wednesday, July 27th. In the meantime, if you’d like to read along, inexpensive copies of the book can be found here. Don’t let that odd cover art fool you, either. The Slaves of Solitude has nothing to do with houses of ill repute.

Check out my Amazon aStore with all the books on the list here. There’s also a link for it in my menu at the top of the page.

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Book Review: The Red House Mystery

The Red House Mystery

By: A.A. Milne

Dover Edition Published 1998, First Publication 1922 by E.P. Dutton & Company

Perhaps you are a tad perplexed by that little paragraph of information up there. “A.A. Milne? Author of a mystery?” Yes, surprisingly enough, he was! Although, if you are a fan of his Winnie the Pooh stories, you won’t be surprised to hear what a splendid book this is.

The Red House Mystery is the perfect English Country mystery tale. Centering around the country estate of a pompous man who mysteriously disappears in suspicious circumstances, the story is fast paced and lively. Milne’s amateur detective, Antony Gillingham, becomes entangled in the happenings quite by accident. The “attractive gentleman” is likened to a grown-up Christopher Robin by Douglas Green in the Introduction of the Dover edition. He’s quite right, too. Antony is brilliantly smart, an impeccable gentleman and endlessly fascinating while still retaining his child-like awe of life.

Antony has a smashing sidekick named Bill Beverly, his “Watson,” if you will. There is a running dialogue between the two of them thinking of themselves as Holmes and Watson.  Antony and Bill are thrilled to be involved in the mysterious happenings and their excitement is barely containable when they find clues or new leads. The story is quite a fantasy – the kind of mystery all the lovers of detective stories wish they could find in real life. Lots of strange suspects and plenty of clues but not too much danger for our detecting team.

Sadly this is Milne’s only foray into the Mystery genre, even though it garnered him admission into the prestigious Detection Club in 1930. It seems he felt he had perfected his own version of the mystery story with this effort (a sentiment in which I am inclined to agree with him) and had no inclination to continue the characters in their own series.

As much as I delighted in reading the novel itself, I enjoyed Milne’s dedication at the beginning most of all:

TO JOHN VINE MILNE

My dear Father,

Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them. So, after all that you have done for me, the least I can do for you is write you one. Here it is: with more gratitude and affection than I can well put down here.

A.A.M

Truer words were rarely spoken, I think. I’ve found that fellow detective story aficionados are almost without exception “really nice people.” It’s as though that trait is a barometer of character. Of course there must be many nice people who happen to dislike detective stories, but the ones who do appreciate a good murder usually are rather keen folks.

Luckily for us, The Red House Mystery has had numerous re-printings and the paperback copies are available cheap on Amazon and Half.com. If you’re looking for one of the vintage hardcover copies, Ebay has some beauties.

I highly recommend it to all those “really nice people” out there. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Pip, pip cheerio friends!

(By the way, this novel seems to bear no resemblance to the 1947 film called The Red House with Edward G. Robinson. I hadn’t heard of it until I was searching online for bargain copies of the book, but now I’m quite intrigued about it. Anyone seen it?)

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Book Review: Bring on the Empty Horses

david and me cropped

Bring on the Empty Horses

By: David Niven

©1975 G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York

David Niven‘s 336 page collection of written sketches is a veritable goldmine of Hollywood tidbits:  A classic film fan’s dream text. It’s one of those books which takes over your life and forces you to read it cover to cover asap. Every task falls by the wayside in its path…David Niven’s tales come first.

The writing itself is the best out of any star book I’ve ever read.  The gorgeous language flows off the page while jokes are effortlessly and hilariously woven throughout. If you’re in need of a sophisticated, fun read to curl up with, look no further my friends – it’s here.

Among the scores of fascinating stories related in this book are vivid descriptions of Hollywood’s most famous (but, now, sadly extinct) restaurants and cafés. This book was a huge source of inspiration for me when I was working on my Trip to Hollywood project. I started looking up to see if I could find photos of these amazing places, and along the way I found the logos, which for a graphic designer, is even more thrilling than the photos. I could in no way do justice to Mr. Niven’s writings in a summary, so here are some of the restaurant description excerpts:

brown derby map

Shortly after this interlude Flynn took me to lunch with Barrymore at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills. This restaurant was designed so that everyone could see everyone else; the tables were set at a series of semicircular brown leather banquettes, the backs of which fitted uncomfortably into one’s lumbar region. The waitresses, all would-be actresses, wore very short bell-shaped and highly starched skirts and spent much time dropping and provocatively retrieving forks and spoons before the tables of producers and directors. Barrymore caused quite a stir when he entered, and he boomingly table-hopped his way to our corner.

Chapter 6 – Errol, page 111

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lucey's 2lucey's

“Lucey’s,” he said to his chauffeur.

When he entered the small grottolike restaurant opposite Paramount Studios, it took a few seconds for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom.

The dim lighting was not accidental. Lucey’s was the favorite rendezvous of the starlets and young actors from the nearby studios, the Italian food was inexpensive, the steaks were good, and the kidneys grilled in their own natural cradle of fat were delicious…

…The restaurant was filling up, and the discreet little alcoves around the main floor became nests of opportunity; at the exposed tables in the center, out-of-towners sat, taking their time over long drinks and trying to spot celebrities in the smoke-filled gloom.

Chapter 3 – Our Little Girl (Part 1), pages 63-64

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romanoff's

Restaurateur Mike prospered during World War II, and by 1945 he was firmly established at the owner-manager of the highly lucrative Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills. The imperial R was emblazoned on the front door. When he branched out into an even larger and more elaborate establishment, his loyal staff and clients and the imperial R made the move with him.

Chapter 8 – “The Emperor,” page 142

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Other attractions in Bring on the Empty Horses include the continuing adventures of Hedda and Louella (Chapter 4). David Niven reveals how much power these two lunatics actually had, and what they were willing to do to maintain it. I was amazed when I found out how many stars lived in fear of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. I have never been able to understand how either of them managed to become such famous, important figures, but according to our friend DN, they were both utterly ruthless, willing to throw anyone and everyone under the bus for their own personal gain. They were the heads of spy rings even 007 would have envied, and were in possession of every scrap of gossip as soon as it happened. Thank heaven they are safely gone, because a world with them in it sounds like a nightmare.

And last, but most certainly not least, we have Missie. DN devotes two whole chapters to the strange life of Missie, a famous Hollywood star who remains nameless because of the shocking nature of the stories DN shares about her. She is described as follows:

Her face, which was snub-nosed and pretty, was saved from being unremarkable by a pair of huge gray eyes. It was topped by a cloud of golden hair and had the great good fortune to be strategically placed above the most beautiful body in Hollywood.

She has cat-like eyes and was given her first screen appearance in a solo number in a Busby Berkeley musical. She has recently given birth to her daughter, Sharon when we first meet her.

I was racking my brains for a candidate and finally ended up guessing Lana Turner (even though her looks were far from “unremarkable”).  But, then I did some research and found that the general consensus seems to be that Missie is Vivien Leigh. All the red herrings were DN’s effort to confuse everyone as to her true identity.

This is but a tiny sampling of the wealth of classic film goodness awaiting you in Bring on the Empty Horses. You have no excuse for not obtaining your own copy, either, because Amazon has an extensive listing of used copies ranging in price from $.90 to $92. A price to fit everyone’s pocketbook. I obtained my lovely hardcover copy for a mere $5 in an antique shop. So, what are you waiting for? Get reading!

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