August 09, 2007


Matthew Tiffany

That's a great opening. My wife has been trying to get me to read Fitzgerald for a while. This looks like a good place to start.


Thank you for this reminder. I, too, missed the Fitzgerald boat when it first sailed through - perhaps it was all those matchy/matchy covers that drove me nuts - but I always wondered what I might have missed.

christian bauman

Mark: congrats on finding Ms Penelope. She's amazing. DO NOT MISS "Offshore" and "At Freddy's".


Damn, you know I missed the same boat and I've always felt badly about it. I keep promising to rectify said circumstance.
Thanks for reminding me of it.


'The Blue Flower' is the kind of novel that sticks in your head and can't be moved. It too begins with a memorable image.
Above all, it is the best lesson I know in how to use historical research - ie tell the reader nothing, show him glimpses that prove you know your background inside out.


She's a fantastic writer who packs more into a few pages than just about anyone else. I've always thought that her best-known books--all the ones TEV mentions, really--are her worst, which still makes them great.

Sycorax Pine

I too read "The Bookshop" this year and found it to be a marvel of dense complexity - and I was glad to be surprised into enjoyment of it, since I had found "The Blue Flower" (my only previous experience with her work) to be soporific. I will be interested to hear what you think of it!


A friend of mine loaned me "The Blue Flower" some months back, but I have not yet managed to get to it. Perhaps it's time.

Jessica Francis Kane

Hi, Mark. I've enjoyed your blog for a long time. I'm moved to write today because I so love Penelope Fitzgerald's work. I press her novels on everyone. Don't miss The Beginning of Spring. It is a stunning, hysterical blend of the English and Russian sensibilities.


I love her work. I had read a couple of her novels, and I am glad to discover in these other comments a few new titles to try.

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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."