You know sometimes when you’re out and you get a meal – say a burger – and it’s really very good, better than most burgers, in fact. But the problem is that it’s good enough to remind you of the BEST. BURGER. EVER. – and that’s when you realize that your current very good burger maybe doesn’t seem all that great because it’s just lost a (perhaps unfair) battle of comparison.
That’s the way it’s been with a couple of books I’ve read recently.
Good Burgers: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
Each of these books explores the last, lingering pieces of the English upper crust in a world where they are rapidly becoming an anachronism. Old Filth has been one of the finest books that I’ve read in recent years and describes the life of a famous judge (nicknamed Filth for Failed In London, try Hong Kong). Filth is one of the great modern characters – a man of honor, principle and tradition who as a widower contemplates the “success” of his life, his marriage to his wife Betty, his accelerating old-age, and his place in the world. Gardam’s deceptively light prose is packed with heart-tugging (and occasionally heart-breaking) emotion and causes each of us to examine our own lives even as we are drawn along by his.
The title character in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is similar to Filth, except that his background is India (not China) and his service military (not judicial). Pettigrew, also a widower, is rocked by the death of his brother, which leaves him feeling very alone in the world. During this time, he becomes attracted to the Indian proprietor of a local market and their budding romance (which is very very proper and chaste) is a scandal in both sub-cultures. More direct and contemporary in its plot than Filth, Last Stand is a wonderful story of civility, late-in-life love, family, and culture clash, which I imagine could be made into a smashing film. And I highly recommend it – just not as much as Filth. Four stars.
In The Man in the Wooden Hat, Jane Gardam returns to the Filthverse and recounts the same time and many of the same events as the original, though this time the tale is told from the perspective of Betty, Filth’s wife of many decades. As you can imagine, I was very excited to see “the other half” of the story. And you know what? I shouldn’t have. Gardam writes with the same lyrical style, but paints a picture of a frustrated and often self-absorbed woman. The book didn’t have the same emotional punch as the original, maybe because I already “knew” the story and maybe because I found myself not liking Betty all that much thinking “You don’t deserve Filth!” I will admit that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this book, even long after I finished it, so that’s something. I’m not sure that I’ve made peace with it yet. Three stars.
Good burger: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Living in a “typical” family of stressed parents and somewhat disillusioned children, nine year old Rose discovers that she can “taste” the emotions that a cook was feeling when she eats their food. At first, she is freaked out by this discovery and throughout we see Rose’s world through the lens of this “affliction”. During the course of the story, we see Rose grow from child to teen to young adult as she navigates the implosion of her family, the disappearance of her brother, her first puppy love, and her attempts to make her place in the world.
Lemon Cake is a sparsely-written introspection of life, family and the self and is at times moving as Rose seeks to cope with her isolation, her differentness. The magical realism elements are played out carefully and judiciously to good effect, never overwhelming the story, but integrating well within it. I enjoyed it. A solid three stars.
But here’s the but. Lemon Cake is not The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. In this latter book, a man (Tim) is afflicted with an unknown disorder in which he is compelled to walk until he drops (literally). Ferris’ prose is masterful in a way that Bender’s is not and his description of the effects on Tim, his family, and their relationships is powerful, uncompromising and heartbreaking. In comparison, Lemon Cake feels a bit calculatedly optimistic – a world in which we can overcome our issues — whereas The Unnamed unflinchingly reminds us that bad things happen to good people and sometimes there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.