The Sun King by Nancy Mitford (audio, narrated by Charlton Griffin)

April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Earlier this month I was invited by Trevor of the Mookse and the Gripes to be a guest on Episode 6 of his (and his brother Brian’s) monthly podcast.  The book under discussion:  The NYRB Classics edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.

To begin with – I am fascinated by the Mitfords.  Something you may have caught on to if you listened in on the podcast.  Six sisters, and none of them boring.  One was a brilliant writer; two Fascists; one a Communist (and muckraker-journalist); one married & divorced a scientist/millionaire playboy and then went on to live openly (and much more happily) with her female partner; and one became a duchess.  It does sound a bit like a twisted nursery rhyme. 

The Mitford are something of an industry in (and out of) the UK.  All six were beautiful, witty, fashionable and remarkably unpleasant based on what they reveal in their letters to each other.   And while I’d most likely have hated them if we’d ever met, from a distance they glimmer with a kind of faerie glamor.  They are the Kardashians of the London Blitz – only more intellectual and interesting.

Nancy Mitford, the eldest, was a talented novelist and (I learned upon reading this book) biographer.  Prior to The Sun King I’m embarrassed to admit to being familiar only with her novels and short stories.  The most famous are the Fanny Wincham née Logan stories – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred!  Fanny, who narrates, was based on a Mitford cousin.  In fact, any reader familiar with the Mitford’s will recognize several of the characters.  And, be warned, most readers quickly become familiar with the family history.  It’s difficult to avoid it.  The stories are packed with auto-biographical references, which in turn further contributes to the Mitford mystique – something I’ve read that the surviving sisters were very aware of.  There is an incestuous relationship between biography and fiction in everything Nancy wrote.  The fact is that nothing is ever quite as fascinating to a Mitford as a Mitford.

Vanity aside, the books are ridiculously entertaining.  I frequently recommend Nancy Mitford novels to friends who enjoy Jane Austen, BBC costume dramas and Wodehouse.

And now I can begin recommending the biographies as well.  The Sun King is written in the same irreverent tone with which the author approached her fiction.   “Scandalous” is an adjective that frequently comes to mind.  There is a definite tabloid quality in how she tells the stories of Louis XIV’s many mistresses, the fates of his children (legitimate and not) and the vying for the King’s favor amongst the nobles of the French court.  The wars fought during his reign, the Spanish throne (which was filled by Louis’ grandson, Philip V of Spain), the revocation of the Edict of of Nantes and the subsequent violent persecution of Protestants – all of this is secondary in importance to the scandals of Versailles.* 

Mitford often breezes past important historical events, focussing instead on witty little anecdotes and one liners that would make a Hollywood action scriptwriter drool.  For example, regarding the King’s frequent change of mistresses – “the Marquise de Maintenon, meeting the Marquise de Montespan on the Queen’s staircase, remarked in her dry way: ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’ ”

Sharp, witty, a little mean – these are Nancy Mitford hallmarks.  And she doesn’t disappoint here, delivering acidic observations starting on page one. “Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.”  

What makes this biography successful is the authorial voice – so recognizable to those of us who love the novels.  And let’s be honest, few people are going to pick up The Sun King strictly for the history (which even Philip Mansel in the introduction admits is sketchy in places). Much more thorough books exist on this subject.  But that doesn’t make what history it does discuss any less fascinating.  And, in the hands Mitford, any less entertaining.  Quite the opposite.

The audio edition of The Sun King, published by The NYRB Classics and narrated by Charlton Griffin is a wonderful listen.  The hours fly by, with Griffin using just the right tone and keeping with the overall gossipy feel of the author’s prose.  And I’m sure reading the print edition – on a lazy Sunday afternoon at home or poolside on vacation – would be just as enjoyable.  And added bonus:  The Sun King also works as a gateway to heavier, more scholarly tomes on the subject.  It’s a wonderful, relaxing way to pass a few hours.  And, when it’s done, you can’t help but think: how VERY Mitford it all was.

To listen to Trevor, Brian & my discussion of The Sun King follow the link to The Mookse & The Gripes Podcast, Episode 6.

Publisher:  The NYRB Classics, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 590 17491 3

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*In contrast to the girl’s school set up by Louis’ second wife, which Mitford devotes pages & pages to.

You & me. Playground. Recess. It’s a BookFight!

October 14, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is a pop-in post, fellow lovers of all things bookish!  In my constant search for the next great literary podcast I recently discovered Book Fight! hosted by Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister – who I swear must be twins separated at birth. Take a look at the evidence: both men are from Philadelphia (a welcome change from the NYC-centric world of lit we’ve all become accustomed to); both are editors at Barrelhouse magazine and professors at Temple University.  They’re also both writers.  It’s like they were destined to host a podcast together.  Which brings us to the premise of the show:

The Book Fight podcast is, in a nutshell, writers talking about books. Books we love. Books we hate. Books that inspire us, baffle us, infuriate us. These are the conversations writers have at the bar, which is to say they’re both unflinchiningly honest and open to tangents, misdirection, general silliness.

Each episode starts with a particular book, chosen either by one of us (Tom or Mike) or by our guest, though you don’t need to read the books to enjoy the show. We promise not to spoil anything too serious, plot-wise, and the books themselves generally serve as jumping-off points for larger discussions about writing and reading: craft issues, the ins and outs of publishing, the contemporary lit scene, such as it is.

Episode 18 featured a discussion with author Stewart O’Nan about Theodore Weesner’s disturbing 1980’s novel The True Detective.  I won’t give anything away about the book itself, but the show was a great mix of honest criticism, goofy stories and advice on writing.  A look through past episodes shows more of the same.  The two hosts have a strong commitment to good writing.  Which means BookFight! features a lot of discussions on older books.  I’ve been downloading past shows and find they’re fresh and topical and everything I want to listen to on my morning commute.  So I recommend checking BookFight! out.

On a less violent note – ALTA, The American Literary Translators Association had their annual conference in Rochester, NY last weekend.  I couldn’t attend, but the Translationista has a great write-up of the panel sponsored by the PEN Translation Committee and  about a project they’ve been putting together to make life easier for reviewers and bloggers who aren’t feeling qualified to discuss the translator’s contribution to a translated text.  It’s interesting stuff.

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The Review: Quick Link Round-Up

June 18, 2012 § 4 Comments

I hope to have a review posted for Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets within the next day or so.  In the meantime, here’s a round-up of the items that caught my eye last week.

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Audio)

June 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that.  Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge.   If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback –  then this is probably the novel for you.

Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter.  It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers.  A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s.  Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore.  Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.  While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).

When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk.  Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of  Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings.  Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life.  Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not.  Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie.  Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.

Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940.  Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered.  It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.

It’s not without its flaws.  Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is  Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component.  To my mind not far enough.  The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German.   Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period).  The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz.  While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me.  I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris.  Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored.  I agree.  The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).

While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting.  Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic.  They don’t make sense.  It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience.  As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative.  As I’ve already said:  I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read.  But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time:  11 hours, 12 minutes

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The Review: Book-ish News You May Have Missed

December 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Reading can be a solitary habit and I’m in an interactive kind of mood today.  With that in mind –  here’s a set of links to things that require some giving & receiving.  Enjoy!

    • The Readers Podcast, hosted by the UK litbloggers Savidge Reads and GavReads, is compiling a long list for The International Readers Book Awards 2011.  Due to some technical difficulties with the website they’ve decided to extend the deadline until Tuesday, December 20th.  ANYONE IN THE WORLD can nominate a book (that’s been published in 2011 in hardback or paperback format) and there are multiple categories to choose from.   Including:  Best Character, Best Opening Line, Best First Novel and, of course, Best Book of the Year.  Follow the link to fill out the longlisted nomination form.  And I strongly encourage you to download an episode of The Readers while you’re there (they’re on iTunes as well).
    • Kimbofo of Reading Matters has designated January 2012  Australian Literature Month – complete with a challenge.  The rules are simple:  read an Australian book and celebrate the writers from the land down under (and NO!  New Zealand books do NOT count!  I’m still blushing over that faux pas).  If you blog – not a requirement – Kim has created a set of 5 badges to use in your posts.  Each one features a different Australian native animal.  And, finally, if you’re unsure what to read I recommend visiting Lisa at ANZ Litlovers.  I guarantee she’ll set you on the right track.
    • Closet political junkie?  Levi Asher over at Litkicks has been hosting an ongoing discussion about the Occupy and Tea Party Movements.  Whichever side of the debate you fall on – or if you find yourself performing a balancing act on razor-wire between the two – you’ll be welcomed.  Your opinions (as long as you keep it polite) will be heard.  And let’s be honest. That’s more than most of us got over Thanksgiving dinner with family.
    • Speaking of politics:  it seems that there’s a new Republican front-runner!  Lori at TNBBC is hosting a giveaway of TAFT 2012, a novel by Jason Heller published by Quirk Books.  Follow the link to learn about the book, view the trailer and to enter to win the fantastic prize pack that includes a campaign pin and poster!  (I’m such a geek).  5 winners, U.S. residents only and the opportunity to join a group discussion with the author on GoodReads in January.  All entries need to be in by December 21st.
    • If we’re handing out points for creativity:  Quirk seems to be ahead of the curve in keeping print books relevant in the wake of the e-book revolution.  How do they do it?  By making the physical object as unique and desirable as the text it contains.  Case in point:  their upcoming January release The Thorn And the Blossom:  A Two-Sided Love Story by Theodora Goss.

This novel is beautifully illustrated, comes with a slipcover and without a spine.  It’s what is known as an accordion book.  In Goss’ incarnation each side opens up to the same story told from a different perspective, each perspective containing new revelations.  (A shame this wasn’t out in time for the holiday because it would make the perfect stocking stuffer).  Watch this space for my upcoming review.

    • And last, but not least, check out this tweet from last week:

Are you as excited about a new Toni Morrison book as I am???

Please feel free to use the comments to post any contests, challenges, awards and exchanges that you’re hosting, taking part in or just geeking-out on.  ‘Tis the season for sharing!

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