Sunday, June 30, 2013

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay ~ book review

In the 1920s, Bryn Mawr classmates Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough ventured abroad to England and France. In 1942, they regaled the world with stories from this prolonged visit by collaborating to write memoir/travelogue Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

I very much enjoyed the authors’ colorful descriptions and humorous observations. They poked fun at their own mistakes, innocence, and language, culture, and fashion gaffes. Some incidents, like Emily’s throwing a deck chair to a drowning man, are laugh-out-loud funny. Three of my favorite descriptions are:
“I was tall and moved like a McCormick reaper.”
“We looked like a pair of igloos out for a stroll.”
“I had tried camouflaging my face with slathers of foundation cream and half the contents of a box of face powder. The effect was that of someone who had been ducking for apples in a paper-hanger’s bucket.”
Between goofy incidents, funny metaphors and similes, and clever, vivid language, I found myself laughing a lot while reading this book. Whether these women found humor, or humor found them, I am not sure. Either way, the book is light-hearted.

The book holds some historical interest as well. What was it like crossing the ocean on a steamship? How did ships avoid icebergs in dense fog? What was it like depending upon a porter to move mountains of trunks and luggage and garment bags? Once in Europe, the girls traveled mostly by train, but I got to learn of various 1920s conveyances such as “open Daimler” and “tally-ho” and “torp├ędo.” The girls also had a broad classical education in those days, as their conversations were peppered with mythical, literary, and artistic references. Not too many 19-year-olds today would liken a sight to a “Stygian tunnel” or Macbeth seeing Banquo’s ghost, or Millet’s “The Angelus.”

References that didn’t fascinate me so much were to stage actors of the day. Skinner’s father was a famous actor, so she traveled in that milieu. I don’t recall recognizing any entertainer’s name she mentions in the book. The girls had a number of personal experiences with Cornelia’s family’s connections. Also, Cornelia and Emily describe in some detail fashions and their wardrobes for different events. Except where their clothing added to the humor of a story, I wasn’t so interested in those descriptions, but that’s just me.

I was charmed by the authors’ innocence and emotional honesty. As impressively educated as they were, as resourceful as they were to study French while in France, and as proud of their first independent adventure as they were—they were still girls. For example, when the ship stopped briefly in Cherbourg, “Emily put her head down on the rail and cried again because the French were turning out just as she thought they would.” Another example was when measles-ridden Cornelia admitted she just wanted her mother. And in their fear of abandonment in the Rouen cathedral bell tower, they concocted such an elaborately frightful worst-case scenario—including imagining tossing bits of clothing from the deserted tower so that passers-by finding sweaters floating down would look up and see the girls stranded in the tower, but instead the clothing would catch on gargoyles and never reach the ground—that they scared themselves into rushing down and out of the cathedral so fast, their exit created enough wind to blow out the votive candles.

Parts of this European adventure took me back to my own European “firsts,” reminding me of pensions with shared bathrooms down the hall, the wonder of standing where Charlemagne stood, and the leisure of wandering. I loved that the day before Cornelia and Emily left Paris, they visited their favorite places; and what they chose was sweet. The book ends with the statement that both authors have been back to Europe since, but this was the trip when “Our hearts were young and gay and we were leaving a part of them forever in Paris.”   

Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves

In need of a pick-me-up? Pick up any P.G. Wodehouse story about Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves. I dare you to frown even once as you frolic in English countryside with the likes of Stiffy Byng, Gussie Fink-Nottle, and Stinker Pinker, the local curate. Just reading their names brings a smile to my face.

If you’ve read (or seen on TV) any of the ten or more Jeeves & Wooster stories, you know that ingenious Jeeves must rescue scatterbrained Wooster from awkward pickles. In Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, Bertie must be rescued from a series of pickles, including repeatedly being mistaken for a thief and being threatened with an unwanted betrothal to the demanding daughter of the very man who detests him most, ex-magistrate Sir Watkyn Bassett. Hilarity ensues.

I could picture the silliness of most of the scenes, and my favorite was one in which Bertie and Watkyn bump into each other in the hallway in the middle of the night. “ I felt my way along the wall I collided with what turned out to be a grandfather clock, for the existence of which I had not budgeted, and it toppled over with a sound like the delivery of several tons of coal through the roof of a conservatory. Glass crashed, pulleys and things parted from their moorings, and as I stood trying to separate my heart from the front teeth in which it had become entangled, the lights flashed on and I beheld Sir Watkyn Bassett.” Moments later both men leap onto a large chest to avoid being bitten by a dog. Wodehouse unfolds this scene over seven pages with perfect pacing, droll observations, and funny dialog. Not to mention Watkyn’s dressing gown of yellow frogs on bright purple fabric.

Wodehouse’s clever wordplay, colorful descriptions, and understated British humor always delight me.

Review of Elsewhere

ElsewhereIn Elsewhere, Richard Russo recounts a lifetime of episodes showcasing his mother’s fears. By the end of her life, a sky-high stack of such episodes teetered perilously in life’s breezes. That the tremulous tower never toppled is due to decades of her devoted son’s solicitude.  A life story such as Jean Russo’s could have become tiresome if told by a less masterful storyteller than her son. Though Jean’s myriad anxieties permeate the family stories of origins and travels and troubles, Richard tells the stories interestingly, mixing vivid memories with insightful observations about character and relationships.

Besides his mother’s eccentricities, another thread throughout the stories is her delusions that any place else would be better than where she was. Hence, the book’s title, Elsewhere. The book also looks at the legacy of the leather-tanning industry in Russo’s home town, Gloversville, New York.

Despite the stressful subject, I was always eager to pick up the book again for the next stories. And I hope Richard Russo writes a sequel, because I think Elsewhere leaves unanswered questions. He begins asking questions such as, “How could I have failed to see in myself the very traits I’d so confidently assigned to her?” [p. 161] But he doesn’t satisfactorily answer them. And he probes psychological underpinnings of his mother’s anxieties and suspects his own behaviors were enabling. But as his hindsight lengthens, an author as observant and sensitive as Russo will no doubt have more self-reflections to share. And I’d buy that Who am I? book, too. I might even like that better than this book, which is more of a Who was my mother? memoir.