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Posts Tagged ‘Natasha Solomons’

Many of Book Jam readers and many of our friends are suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal pains.  While unfortunately we can’t write and film any new installments for you, what we can do is to suggest Edwardian tales to tide people over until the cast of this popular BBC series returns. We have looked high and low and started many books that were well… just bad.  Then, we thought of a few gems.   Ta Ta and Tally ho! Keep Calm and Carry On. Or perhaps in this instance we should say Keep Calm and Read On!  (And, yes historians among you, some of the tales we selected do not cleanly fit in the definition of Edwardian – “covering the reign of King Edward the VII, 1901 to 1910” – but we hope you will allow us some poetic license, so to speak.)

 The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (2002) – My search for a good British Edwardian novel meant the other Lisa of this blog and our town’s superb children’s librarian both put this book in my hands.  While I sometimes disagree with their individual recommendations, when they both say “you must read this book”, I trust that wholeheartedly.  And they were right – I love this book.  You would think authors would have run out of ways to tell WWI and WWII stories by now; and then, a book like this proves you wrong.  Its slimness masks profound musings on writing, love and life.  Pick it up and enjoy your time in the gardens of a British estate just as it has been repurposed as a garden for the war effort.  You will meet the young British women/girls sent there to tend the estate, and a group of Canadians soldiers truly just hanging around waiting to be sent to battle. ~ Lisa Christie   

Now, a few more words about The Lost Garden from Lisa Cadow, as she has more to say:  Humphrey’s other job as a poet really shows in this small masterpiece about World War II. For those going through Downton Abbey withdrawal, this might be the perfect book for you. It’s set at an English country estate that has been given over to the war effort. And, its main character, horticulturist Gwen, is there to help the Women’s Land Army  plant potatoes for the people of England. Her time there becomes about much more than potatoes, and the reader is led to hidden gardens, into the world of the great British manor in its heyday, through an encyclopedia of roses, and on a journey of self-discovery.

9780452297647The House at Tyneford  by Natasha Solomons (2011). I read this book several years back but still remember the strong impressions it left me of life in an English Manor House on the eve of World War II. The hustle and bustle of preparing for weekend guests, silver polishing, and the daily setting of the table is really brought to life, as are the politics and complexity of the relationships, both “upstairs and downstairs”, in the house. The House at Tyneford also examines the effect back-to-back world wars had on both the British economy and psyche.  This is the story of nineteen year old Elise Landau who is forced to leave Vienna and her beloved family to escape the persecution of Jews at the outset of the second World War. Though she is educated and her parents are well-to-do, she has no other choice but to relocate as a parlor maid in the English countryside. Thus begins a tale of change, challenge, heartbreak as the reader watches Elise tap into inner strengths and resiliency she never knew she had.  A wonderful read.   Note: We reviewed another one of Solomon’s excellent books on the Book Jam, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English which also examines British class issues but many decades later. ~Lisa Cadow

The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear (2003 to 2012) – We have posted about Maisie before And, while we both feel the last book was a bit overwrought, overall this series is satisfying and delivers unique looks at WWI England. The main character, Maisie is a former front line nurse attempting to support herself as an unmarried woman after the war ends. As a former “downstairs” maid to a wealthy family she is determined not to return to serving a house and finds unique work as a detective of sorts.  To find our earlier reviews of Ms. Winspear’s work, put “Maisie Dobbs” in the search block of The Book Jam Blog (located in the upper right hand side). ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie

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We’ve been thinking a lot lately about life  stages and who we become based on the roles we assume over the years: student, traveler, immigrant, refugee, employee, employer, single person, partner, mother, wife, mom of teens (an entirely different mom), person out of work, person searching for work, friend, friend to someone who is sick.  You get the picture.

And, as always, we turned to literature for deeper understanding.

In doing so, we found a cluster of books that center around the theme of reinventing oneself as a result of living in a certain place, mostly focused on the immigrant experience.  Our selections include two pieces of fiction: How to Become An American Housewife and  Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, as well as a book of interviews turned essays, Londoners, by Craig Taylor.

Read on to discover the connections. Pick up actual copies of the books to learn what it feels like to become someone new.

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons (2010). This is a fantastic novel. The story starts out in 1953 with German immigrant Jack Rosenblum deciding to leave behind the successful life he has created in London to build a world-class golf course in the countryside. Except for the fact that he’s never played golf, knows nothing about life in the country, and hasn’t told his wife of his plans, it sounds like a good idea. Jack desperately wants to become a proper Englishman – he’s been trying to figure it out ever since moving to England before World War II – and this seems just the way. I loved Solomon’s prose, her inclusion of food and recipes in the novel, and her gentle, insightful writing style that doesn’t shy away from addressing serious topics such as antisemitism, prejudice, and grief.  There is also the very funny “List of Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman” that Jack has been compiling since immigrating. Will he ever complete it or will he fit in by being himself? This book was an international bestseller after being published in 2010. It’s another one of those How did I miss this? titles. Fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand , this book is for you!~ Lisa Cadow

How to Become An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2011). Funnily enough, this book is also organized around a list of instructions, these ones in a book explaining to Japanese war brides how to assimilate, to cook spaghetti and meat balls, and to be a good housewife in 1950’s America. Main character Shoko turns to this book for guidance when she moves to California as the bride of an American soldier and starts her life over. The story begins with an older, very sick Shoko remembering her life and aching for her American-born daughter to understand more about her history. I really enjoyed this take on the immigrant experience (actually written by the daughter of a Japanese woman) and was transported to some unexpected places: to what it meant to be a Japanese “untouchable,” what it was like to live through a nuclear holocaust, and to grow up during wartime in a struggling, Asian nation with very different customs. And, it’s always interesting to see one’s own culture mirrored back through new, foreign eyes. It is about mothers and daughters, lost love, family feuds, and leaving everything behind to sail into the unknown and start over.  ~ Lisa Cadow

Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now – as told by those who love it hate it live it left it and long for it  by Craig Taylor (2012). OK, as someone who truly LOVES London, I admit the first set of interviews collected by Mr. Taylor really depressed me. Most of those interviewed spoke about why they left London, or how awful London is for those who live there, or why you should never live there.  However, I then rethought my own life as a dweller in many big US cities, and remembered how hard city life often is and I understood.  So, I chose to keep reading and was amply rewarded when I arrived at the next section in this collection.  These interviewees include a woman writing about being chosen as the voice of the London Underground – the one who says “mind the gap” and announces train delays and other important bits of information, and a cab driver speaking about “The Knowledge”  – a test Cabbies must pass before receiving their license. Subsequent sections include a hackney driver, a city planner, a dominatrix, a rapper, the lost property manager for London’s transport system, a hedge fund manager, homeless folks, a member of the Queen’s Guard to name a few.  Get this book and read it in one sitting if you can. Alternatively, parcel out the views of London living piece by piece and savor each perspective.  You will learn a lot about Londoners – and about living. ~ Lisa Christie

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