Tag Archives: British

Best book you’ll read this summer has a quirky title

July 20, 2010

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Guernsey-cover

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,”

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A delightful read for any time of year, this New York Times #1 bestseller is a perfect summer treat now that it’s out in paperback.

The use of a string of letters to tell the story doesn’t even seem like a gimmick once Shaffer and Barrows pull you into this gem.

In the novel, Juliet Ashton is a journalist and author who finds herself intrigued by a request she receives in the mail from a resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between France and England.

The setting is just a year after the end of World War II. Guernsey’s inhabitants had endured four years of occupation by the forces of the Third Reich, and woven through the novel is their telling what life was like as British citizens under German military rule.

Telling the story – all through “the post,” at Brits call the mail – are the members of the book club with the odd name, as cleverly drawn a group of characters as have ever won over your heart.

Not to give away the story, but there’s a bit of romance involved, a bit of drama, some must-turn-the-page excitement, but in a genteel, well-mannered, earlier-generations sort of way.

In the Dial Press small paperback version I picked up, this wonderful story is told in just 274 pages.

A yardstick I’ve come to use as my standard for good reading is if I don’t want a book to end. Suffice it to say that 274 pages were hardly enough. What a great work of literature. — bz

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Quotes show comments in past were as nasty as today’s

September 20, 2009

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“Distory,”
by Robert Schnakenberg

Don’t believe the voices clamoring about our 21st-century society being exceptionally rude and willing to belittle others more virulently than ever.

“Distory” proves that people — especially some in high office — have been saying ugly things about the rest of God’s children for a good long time.
When Charles the Fifth led the Holy Roman Empire, he slammed an entire country: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”

Nineteenth-century Speaker of the U.S. House of Representative Thomas Reed blasted congressmen of his time with the cutting remark, “They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.”

And author Charles Dickens once called Henry VIII “a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England.”

The whole book is like that, a series of quotations by individuals who have taken the kidgloves off and vented about another.

Insults through the years

Because the quotes are organized into chapters of insults by and about a) Americans, b) Brits, c) military figures, d) other nations and e) miscellaneous, and because they are listed chronologically, “Distory” can claim to teach us a bit of history as well.

Robert Schnakenberg subtitles this St. Martin’s Press work “A Treasury of Historical Insults.”

“Treasury” might not be the choice of nouns that polite folks would have used. In fact, some of the remarks are clever and witty. Others plain mean and graceless.

But I found it valuable to read the American chapter from beginning to end. It was a refresher course in history — and a mostly witty one at that. I learned, too, what some of the great names in history felt about others of their time, perspectives that weren’t in my elementary or high school history books.
Guess about whom pamphleteer Tom Paine — the lauded author of “Common Sense” — called “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life”?

Would you believe George Washington?

John Quincy Adams termed Andrew Jackson “a barbarian who cannot write a sentence of grammar and can hardly spell his own name.”

General George McClellan called Abraham Lincoln “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”

Teddy Roosevelt said that William McKinley “has a chocolate eclair backbone.”

Press no shrinking violets

Media are often accused of being much more mean than their predecessors, but Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken was as nasty as they get when it comes to insults. He wrote this about Franklin D. Roosevelt:
“If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.”
Journalist Hunter S. Thompson at the end of the 20th century had a poison pen as well. Thompson on Richard Nixon:

“He was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad.”

And Gerald Ford said, “Jimmy Carter wants to speak loudly and carry a fly swatter.”

Brits: Masters of the ‘craft’

Our friends across the pond, of course, have made political insults a science. Politico John Bright in the 19th century said of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.”

Disraeli came back with this about the man who was both his predecessor and his successor, William Gladstone: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favorite quotations, however, are this clever bit of repartee between playwright George Bernard Shaw and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Shaw: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play, bring a friend — if you have one.” Churchill replied: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second — if there is one.” — bz
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From Shakespeare’s quill to our lips

February 25, 2008

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“Shakespeare: The World as Stage,”
by Bill Bryson

William Shakespeare’s birth was recorded in Latin, but he dies in English.

It’s a factoid that summarizes well the impact that playwright and poet Will Shakespeare had on his native tongue — and it’s been a lasting impact. More than 400 years later; English speakers around the globe use — without knowing their source — words and phrases created by the Bard of Avon.

If you’ve ever said, one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, be in a pickle, cold comfort, foul play, tower of strength, you’ve been quoting Shakespeare.

Bill Bryson points to a dozen or so words first found in Shakespeare, too, but he digs up little known facts about Shakespeare the man, not just the literary figure, to keep the interest of any reader, not just wordsmiths.

Bryson posits, for example, that Shakespeare exploited the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1586), leveraging renewed British patriotism to stage his history plays to the audiences of the day.

Those audiences were working people primarily, evidence that Will knew how to write for the masses. Although late 16th century laborers were poor, they found Shakespeare’s plays worth spending a pence or two to get into the Globe Theater for a “groundling” spot.

A couple times throughout the book there references to Shakespeare’s religion. Was he Catholic? Not enough evidence to say one way or the other, Bryson concludes, but what his research offers is insight into the anti-Catholic prejudice of the day.

Catholics were seen as such a threat to the government after the failed “Powder Treason” of 1604, where 36 barrels of gunpowder were found in a cellar beneath Westminster Palace and one Guy Fawkes waiting for the signeal to light the fuse. Bryson reports, “The reaction against Catholics was swift and decisive. They were barred from key professions and, for a time, not permitted to travel more than five miles from home. A law was even proposed to make them wear striking and preposterous hats, for ease of identification, but it was never enacted.”

There’s much, much more about who Shakespeare knew, who influenced his work, the royalty who supported him and his players, and plenty of investigation into the literary question that continues through the centuries: Did Shakespeare really write everything attributed to Shakespeare?

You aren’t likely to be interested in the details that Bryson goes into, but he’s such a good writer even those parts go quickly in this brief, 199-page book. Bryson makes even Will’s will interesting reading. — bz

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