Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reading in England

Or - what I read before, during and after a recent trip to the University of Bath in England. Leaving the U.S. behind, I finished Pawley’s Island: a low country tale by Dorothea Benton Frank, a comforting “woman’s book” about a bereaved lawyer who takes refuge on the South Carolina island to escape the tragic memories of her life. The book is formulaic but soothing, passing the time agreeably and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that it ends happily with all loose ends tied together nicely. The main character in the book is Pawley’s Island itself which comes off as a great place for r&r. If you like this one, try the Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd.

Then, having studied up on my destinations of Wells and Bath, I scanned through Watching the English by Kate Fox and True Brits by J.R. Daeschner to try to get a sense of Englishness. The first, an anthropologist’s field study of her countrymen gives insight into important cultural traditions such as talking about the weather, being polite, being reserved, pub talk, being self-deprecating and, most of all, being very funny - funnier than people from any other country on earth she says in a rare unbiased moment. True Brit describes events which reinforce the stereotype of the British tolerance or even love for eccentrics. For example the annual cheese rolling event in Cheddar Gorge which was banned at one point because of the dangers inherent in hurling oneself down a very steep, rocky hillside in pursuit of a hurtling wheel of cheddar cheese.
Next, I reread the appropriate portions of ex-patriot (American author) Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. I recommend the whole book and all his others too, if you like humor. While I was there, the Guardian ran an excerpt from Bryson’s new book, the Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir. Bryson has lived and worked as a journalist in the UK for over twenty years and seems to be popular over there judging by the piece in the Guardian. His description of growing up in the 1950’s in the American Midwest must seem like a window into American culture for non-Americans.
Then I bought a book by my favorite Scottish author even though reading about the Celts to the north wasn’t strictly on the syllabus. Alexander McCall Smith’s Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, the second in his Sunday Philosophy Club series featuring the fictional ethicist Isabel Dalhousie of the University of Edinburgh (not fictional of course.) The mystery for Isabel this time was to find out if the recipient of a new heart was experiencing “cellular memory” when he repeatdly dreamed of a menacing face which he felt might have been involved in the death of his heart donor. Isabel’s woolgathering musings are every bit as entertaining as McCall Smith’s other great female character, Precious Ramotswe of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series.
Then I read Hotel du Lac by Anita Bruckner which was about an English author who exiles herself to a remote Swiss hotel in the off season to escape a scandal of her own making. What I didn’t do is reread Hardy (of the West Country) who is terrific - if you feel strong enough to read something depressing, like when you are a teenager and like to wallow in that kind of thing, but the countryside, replete with cows, sheep and scudding clouds, seemed like a postcard and not a place where Tess would wander around in a cloud of hopeless yearning. But that’s just my opinion now – I loved Hardy when I was a gloomy teenager.

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