Friday, January 01, 2010

Between Wars/Between Books

I often have three or four books "going" at a time. A book on CD in the car, a book on tape in the bedroom (for falling asleep), a book or articles for work (more than one when classes are in session), and a book for pleasure. I don't generally choose the CD or tape books with a lot of attention; mostly, I look for anything that's not a mystery or Brown-type conspiracy "thriller." (And in our local library, that leaves pretty slim pickings.)

I took a road trip to visit my sibling, which got me started on Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I picked it up at the library, which is where I get my CDs and tapes, because I vaguely remember reading something by Waugh in my first 20th century British novel class, the same semester I fell in love with Shakespeare (and out of love with 20th century novels). It wasn't the fault of the novels, really, but I had three outstanding instructors that semester (for Shakespeare, Chaucer, and a criticism class) and two sexist nits (for the 20th century British novel and the 20th century American novel). I'm not quite sure what the Waugh we read for the class was; compared to other things, it didn't impress me much.

Brideshead Revisited (so far, I'm about halfway through the CDs I guess) is narrated by a WWII army officer, Charles, who's training in England, and goes with his company (I think that's the military designation) on train to a new training area, which he recognizes as Brideshead, an estate. He reminisces about his first encounters at Brideshead, and that leads him back through his years at Oxford (starting about 1923), friendship with Sebastian Flyte (the younger son of the owners of Brideshead). I'm at the point where Charles has fallen out with Sebastian's mother (Lady Marchmain), is studying art in France, and has just learned that the alcoholic Sebastian has escaped along the way to a "cure" in Germany.

(I have to admit, though I've read enough about servants to get the idea, I still can't quite grasp the lifestyle Waugh depicts, of adults out galavanting at all hours, hunting, sitting around, touring through Europe for months at a time.)

Thus, the novel so far is mostly between the wars, with WWI coming back through Lady Marchmain's reminiscences and writing about her brothers, all of whom died in the war, and Lord Marchmain's decision to remain on the continent after WWI. It's framed on the other side by Charles being an officer, though seemingly less than effective, training during WWII.

For Christmas, my sib and sister in law gave me a couple books, including Barbara Kingsolver's new Lacuna. Lacuna is told mostly through the diaries and writings of Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican American growing up between the wars. It begins in 1929, and follows the narrator through living with his mother in Mexico, going to a boarding school in Washington, DC for a bit, and then back living in Mexico and (at least at the part I'm at now) living first with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's household (as a cook) and then working with Trotsky as a secretary. I'm about a third of the way through (it's 1939, so Trotsky hasn't been assassinated yet), so there's lots more to come.

But again, it's between the wars, influenced less openly by WWI so far, but through the Rivera and Trotsky involvement, deeply interested in the Bolshevik Revolution and fractures within socialist and communist movements. ***edited to add: There's also a section on the veterans "bonus" camps in DC in the 1932, when Great War vets were trying to get their promised bonus money for serving.***

As someone from the US (a USian?), I have to admit I know very little about Mexican history. I know a more British history (but not so much after 1660). Most of what I know about the period between the wars comes from Fred Astaire movies and books about the Great Depression. So I'm finding these two books interesting, not only for their very different takes on the period (upper class England and Europe vs working class Mexico) but also for the things that overlap, especially the interest in art (Charles is an artist, and the narrator of Lacuna works with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Each also depicts a wealthy household (or more) with servants, but from different angles.

Both books are also interested in how small moments can affect the world, chance meetings, a misplaced note, that sort of thing.

And finally, everyone in the books seems to have a lot of sex. (Hey, I'm a Shakespearean! I notice these things!)

So far, I'm enjoying both books. I liked Kingsolver's first couple of novels a lot; she seemed to have a light, feminist touch and a great sense of humor. This novel's a lot deeper and darker, but very well written. In a way, it feels sort of like some of Isabel Allende's works, in a sense of scale, and in another way, almost like Sandra Cisneros's ability to represent the borderland of Mexican and USian cultures and languages. The narrator's name is part of that. Early on he's "the boy," and then in the US school, Harry, and now Frida has given him the nickname "Insolito," which she shortens to "Soli." (Add accent marks.) I don't think Kingsolver's quite as easy with Spanish as Cisneros, but there's a sense of being in different languages and cultures that comes through pretty well.

Kingsolver is doing really interesting things here with the narrative through the diaries and other entries, and I'm really enjoying the way this text unfolds.

Here I am, reading my way into the new year. Happy New Years, all. I hope this one is better than the last for many people (because the last year, the last decade, have been miserable for much of the world).


  1. Happy New Year, Bardiac!

  2. I'm currently watching a repeat of the classic British TV series of Brideshead Revisited (starring Jeremy Irons as Charles and Castle Howard as Brideshead). I saw this first when I was in my early 20s and I didn't really appreciate the nuances (the talk back then was all about the scandalous novelty of showing a woman's naked breast on prime time TV!) Now, I'm picking up a lot more about the sense of loss - of the old world and of youth, innocence etc. - and of the disorienting changes to English society as a result of WWI. The TV series also did quite a bit with Lady Marchmain's Catholicism, but I'm not sure how true to the book that is.

    I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible, so I'll have to check out Lacuna.

  3. oh, kingsolver is an amazing writer. i was not much interested in a couple of her later books, but lacuna sounds very interesting.

  4. You make me want to read Lacuna...

    I've always thought one of the interesting parts of Brideshead Revisited is that Charles is an outsider, who desperately wants to be part of the Marchmain family and can't ever really be so.

  5. Nothing better than reading one's way anywhere! :)

    I have Brideshead on the DVR and keep meaning to watch it. Do you recommend the film? (If you've seen it?)

  6. Oh, I just finished Lacuna, and loved every minute of it... there were a few sections I went back to re-read two or three times just for the beauty of them. The narrative conceit gets even more interesting as Harrison's first-person voice gets stronger and his secretary gets involved in more of the telling of the story.

    I'm not giving anything away here, because you know Trotsky's going to get killed (and knowing that makes the narrator's time with him all the more poignant) but the scene of his death is one of the bits I kept going back to re-read.

    Hope you enjoy the rest! (can you tell this was far and away my favorite book of 2009?)

  7. My sister gave me Lacuna also, as a holiday present! I've skimmed your post on it (in case there were any spoilers) but I will come back and read it after I read the book....