December 15, 2008


Andrew Deacon

Congratulation on the review, Mark - and let me assure you that it's not only Americans who are puzzled by words like 'mardy' - they don't mean much just across the Irish Sea, either. You may remember I tipped this book - and backed it - to win the Booker, but it lost out. Hensher was going for the Victorian state-of-the -nation type novel and I think he pulled it off. As for the dialect, if you can read Hardy you can read Hensher. The food is more foreign than the language - truly the past is another country when it comes to canapes.


"Subtleties of class -- a common theme of much British fiction -- are also explored here in ways that Americans might have trouble decoding."

Uh, no. And what does the Atlantic Ocean have to do with it? One of the big problems with this sprawling novel is that Hensher doesn't understand the way people beneath a certain income level operate. Clearly has no expertise or curiosity in the marginalized. And the novel, as a result, suffers from its Tolstoyian excesses. (Hensher does understand people above a certain middle-class threshold. And I suppose that if you're looking for a safe suburban novel that makes you feel smug and elitist, you can do no better than Hensher. But Mike Leigh or Richard Yates, or, hell, even Jonathan Franzen, this clearly isn't.)

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."