The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

My roommate does not really own or even buy books. When she moved in and I offered her a bookcase, she said she just needed two shelves. We both read a great deal; she just tends to read magazines, journals, or newspapers. The point of all this is that on a recent trip to London, she bought me a book, which was a big deal for her. It is one of her favorites and I found it to be quite charming.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (daughter of lyricist Tim Rice) is told from the perspective of Penelope Wallace, an eighteen-year-old girl in 1950s London. Having grown up during the war, she finds herself part of a generation struggling to be young while they still can, listening to music their parents can't stand, falling in love with singers that embody their youths, and indulging in anything that might have once been rationed.

Penelope's family lives at Milton Magna, a medieval ancestral home that is crumbling around their ears and they can ill afford it. Penelope's father died in the war, leaving his very young widow with two young children and the weight of the house's crushing debt. Talitha, a once famed beauty and still devastatingly pretty, is only thirty-five, but rattles away in the house with only her children for comfort as she worries about their poverty. Penelope herself is rather tall and not quite as lovely as her mother (who is constantly being mistaken for her sister when they go out shopping together). Penelope's brother attends boarding school, returning home once in a while to fill the house with music from records that his mother dislikes.

The book starts with an uncharacteristically impulsive decision on the part of Penelope. While waiting for a bus, a pretty girl in a striking green coat announces that she'd like to split a taxi and Penelope takes her up on it. This is how Penelope meets Charlotte Ferris, a vivacious girl who designs her own clothes and shares Penelope's love of American singer Johnnie Ray. Charlotte whisks Penelope off to tea with her eccentric Aunt Clare (who evidently knew Penelope's family once, though Penelope cannot get her mother to say anything on the matter) and the girls become fast friends. Penelope also is introduced to Aunt Clare's son, Harry Delancey, a magician with different colored eyes. All kinds of things can happen to young women in London, particularly when Johnnie Ray is scheduled to come to town and some newcomer named Elvis Prestley is just starting to create a new sound. In exchange for impossible-to-acquire Johnnie Ray tickets, Harry convinces Penelope to attend the engagement party of his old girlfriend and pose as Harry's new girlfriend so he can inspire enough jealousy in the old girlfriend to win her back. Through Charlotte and Harry, Penelope is introduced to a more social world of smart parties and society types beyond the oppressive walls of Magna while still she and her family struggle with their bond to the stately home.

If you enjoyed I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, then you'll find a kindred novel here, though perhaps this is less concerned with the pains of growing up in quite the same ways. There's a bit more poignancy to Smith's novel, but The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is still quite lovely in its own right. Rice paints an interesting picture of post-war American-English relations, particularly emphasizing the importance of music. The emergence of Elvis Prestley becomes a key moment in the life of Penelope's brother, who has his own musical aspirations. I found the mindset of the younger generation of characters (meaning Penelope, Charlotte, and so forth) to be quite interesting: these young people who grew up during the war and can hardly imagine a world without it, resulting in a somewhat skewed perspective that is attempting to right itself. Items like a new department store dress are incredibly precious and wonderful, which might seem trite, are actually poignant and lovely in a story that isn't beating you over the head with themes of poverty or the Depression.

The characters are charming, though perhaps too many crucial encounters depend on chance. While I found the general plot to be a bit predictable (once all the main players are accounted for, as a few people are introduced a bit late), I was not disappointed a bit. Charlotte and Penelope are very different kinds of girls, though their friendship (despite its odd origin) is believable as they both find something fascinating about the other. It's also pleasant to see a post-war friendship depicted, even in young people, where one of them doesn't do something terrible to the other, as I feel is so often the case in books or films about this period. Someone always seems to be stealing a boyfriend or telling a lie that results in painful loss... it was refreshing to not have such out-of-place drama here, and instead, we're simply dealing with relationships between people. And Rice is certainly more concerned with those relationships, often at the cost of setting descriptions. I should have liked to hear more about London at the time, but then, she has invested all her location description energy in Magna. This looming and historic estate is lovingly presented, evoking both its majesty and decay. The idea of a poor family living in an English estate is not a new concept, nor is the fact that it is such an albatross around the neck of the Wallace family, but Rice is compelling in her portrait of the family's complicated relationship with such a home.

Ultimately, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a very charming novel with some minor flaws that can be easily forgiven. This would be a perfect novel for an afternoon where you might find yourself house-bound due to inclement weather (and be sure to have a cup of tea handy). I'm quite grateful to my roommate for introducing me to Eva Rice and even if there's only one copy of the novel in our apartment, at least I know it's one we're both pleased to see on the shelf.



Somewhere between my beginning Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis and my book club discussion of it (which started about two minutes after I finished reading), the following happened, roughly in this order:

  • About twenty pages in, I feared that it was the most misogynist book I had ever picked up.
  • I mentioned this to my significant other and he took the book from me, opening it at random, and read, "Then I tried to rape her again." He balked and returned the book to me, commenting that he'd be interested in hearing the reaction from my all-female book club.
  • Despite my frequent discomfort, I became aware that there was some utterly beautiful writing in this book.
  • I figured out what the twist at the end of the book would be.
  • Martin Amis writes himself into the book and, surprised by this, I ditched my previous assumption as to how things would turn out and just went along with things for a while.
  • I lost count of the instances of exploitation, physical violence, intended violence, or verbal abuse toward women. But I also realized that the book wasn't misogynist at all. (And even if it had been, I had forgotten that no one beats John Updike for the title of most misogynist writer ever.)
  • Whatever his faults, one had to admit that the narrator was unflinchingly honest.
  • I returned to support my previous prediction of what the ending would be, despite the author being a character in his own novel.
  • I became aware that I was actually feeling sorry for the main character, somewhere around his futile attempts at reform.
  • I snickered at a very self-aware section that talked about the rush of finishing a book.
  • The twist ending sets in, as I predicted.
  • I finished the book.
  • While discussing the book with my book club, I realized that I actually really had enjoyed it.

Money is a first person narrative, told from the perspective of John Self, a director on the verge of making his first major film after creating a name for himself by directing commercials that generally featured busty women in hot pants. He is a hedonist the likes of which you may have never encountered; he seems to live on prostitutes and pornography. Weighing sixteen stone, he consumes copious amounts of fast food and is always either drunk or hungover. He lives in London but makes frequent trips out to New York, where he has started to collaborate with Fielding Goodney, a young film producer, who insists that John should actually be spending more money. Also living in New York is Martina Twain, a "friend" of John's and the most normal person in the narrative. She's married and while John certainly wants her, you don't sense the same kind of filthy thoughts directed her as he seems to direct towards every other woman. Back in London, John has an unfaithful girlfriend named Selina who he knows is only interested in the money and potential security he can provide, though as John repeatedly gives into her demands, one can see that Selina clearly has most of the power in this relationship. John's father, Barry Self, is also in London (his mother died when John was young), though they don't have a fantastic relationship. Barry once invoiced John for the costs of his upbringing, which came to a little under nineteen thousand pounds; John wrote him a check for twenty.

John Self has an idea for a movie, which he originally calls Good Money (though eventually this becomes Bad Money and the obvious significance of this should not be lost on you). He and Goodney are looking to procure a writer for the script and four solid actors, though three of the four have basically been locked down and only the fourth is up for minor discussion by the time the book starts. First we have Lorne Guyland, whose career is waning, though he is unaware that. Slated to play the father, Lorne is constantly suggesting "improvements" to the script, which often feature explicit nudity and sex and the ultimate triumph of his character. Lorne repeatedly takes off his clothing when having conversations with John to make a point. Cast as Lorne's wife is Caduta Massi, who might be childless in real life (and thus seems to compensate for this by surrounding herself with family and children) but she is a strong motherly figure. She refuses to perform any nude scenes or any sex scenes with Lorne... and loathes all scenes with Lorne in general. Sexy Butch Beausoleil will play the younger waitress sleeping with both father and son, but refuses to do any menial chores; she agrees with Lorne that there should be explicit sex, but wants to emphasize that as the young woman, she is giving herself to an old man out of pity. And then Spunk Davis (whose name is intentionally awkward) is the questionable fourth; an intense Christian who doesn't smoke, drink, believe in violence, or have sex, with only one film to his credit. Two of John Self's duties are to try and convince Spunk to change his name and to be okay with a father-son fight. Goodney has also settled on a writer, who produces an excellent script that threatens to ruin the entire film with its incisive honesty into the characters/actors portraying the characters, which doesn't fly with actors who each want to be seen as a shining hero. Oh, and there's also this "Frank the Phone" character, an unknown someone who calls John when he's at his lowest moments and berates him for his behavior.

The majority of the novel is spent in drunken binges, reflections on handjobs, and John's careening between interactions with the people above (which are often drunken and sometimes sexual in nature). The surprise guest (as I mentioned before) is the character of Martin Amis, who appears as a writer that John occasionally sees around his London neighborhood and eventually John speaks to him at a pub. Amis comes into play when John tries to "save" the script by having Amis re-write it to appease the actors. At this point, John's life seems to be working itself out: Selina leaves him after becoming pregnant with Martina's husband's child, Martina kicks her husband out, and John essentially moves in with Martina, resulting in an interesting companionship where John can't seem to perform now that he actually "has" Martina. Of course, it doesn't last.

So why did I actually enjoy this novel? Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that just wasn't up my alley. I would never actually want to know these people or have anything to do with them, but that's the beauty of reading about them in a novel... when you've had your fill, you can set the book down. Of course, with this one, you don't want to set it down; despite the content, it's hard to refute that Martin Amis is quite the wordsmith. I don't know that I've ever encountered a writer who can make me laugh while simultaneously cringing to the same degree as Amis. I certainly don't like John Self as a person, for he's an incredibly unsavory character, but I can't help but be pulled in by his narrative. He's riding the wave of his success, completely binging on cigarettes, women, alcohol, porn and whatever else he can get ahold of. Money is at the root of almost every single interaction and Self appears to be the only one who cannot see that he's in for one heck of a crash should the money dry up. Such satire generally aims to bring about some reformation in the main character, but with the subtitle like "A Suicide Note" and with John's general grasp of the world, it is hard to hope for any true reform... which aids in the creation of an atmosphere of such tragedy and devastation while everything is still terribly funny. Self is only bringing all of this upon... well... himself.

Martin Amis, as you may well know, is the son of writer Kingsley Amis, who famously took little notice of his son's work. Evidently he once complained of his son's writing that all he's doing is, "Breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, [and:] drawing attention to himself." Martin Amis attended many schools (and like John Self, he was familiar with both England and New Jersey), but ultimately he graduated from my college at Oxford University, Exeter College. He has been cited as "the Bad Boy" of English fiction (mostly because of his chosen topics for his novels), but I prefer the description the NY Times has used, which says Amis is simply at the forefront of "the new unpleasantness" style.

His comic talent lies simply in describing things as they are in the postmodern world and he is firmly rooted to this time period, describing it for all the energy and chaos it embodies. It might not be an obvious comparison, but it's actually somewhat clear to me that he found Jane Austen to be an influence upon his work, given the unflinching honesty and biting wit that he uses to describe characters. Perhaps that's why I ultimately found this to be quite an impressive novel. Of course, the fantastic sentence construction, shockingly beautiful prose and great comedic insight had to help.

I might not recommend this novel to the squeamish (and indeed, I'm not sure I'd ever actually *give* this novel to anyone, because I'm not sure what kind of message that would send), but if you're able to move beyond the unpleasantness, it's quite a compelling read. Would I wish to live in this world of selfishness, manipulation, and obscenity? Heavens no. But will I be reading more Martin Amis in the future? Fuck yeah.


Rebel Angels

So, remember how I said I wouldn't continue reading this series unless I stumbled upon a used copy of the next books? Well, I found one of Rebel Angels, the second in the series by Libba Bray, and I also had an afternoon where all I wanted was something easy to read that I could finish quickly. This fit the bill.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I liked the second novel any more than the first. I actually preferred the first, because this seemed to fall victim to the usual muddled second novel problems.

It is shortly before Christmas at Spence, a finishing school for girls in England, and everyone is getting ready to return to their homes for the holidays. Gemma is scheduled to head to London for Christmas with her grandmother, father, and brother; Felicity will also be in London with her father the Admiral and her mother, who is hosting the most popular ball of the Christmas season; and poor, orphaned Ann will be staying at Spence with the servants. It's been nearly two months since the girls learned about the Order, visited the Realms, and had their terrible encounter with Circe. This resulted in the death of their friend Pippa, who chose to remain in the Realms rather than face a loveless marriage and continue keeping her epilepsy a secret. While Felicity, Gemma and Ann miss her dearly, Gemma is unwilling to enter the Realms again for fear of what she'll find there, after having smashed the stones that kept the magic from flowing freely. It is only after a visit from Kartik (the young Indian man ordered to watch Gemma in the last novel by his own sect, the Rakshana) where he urges her to enter the Realms again to bind the magic in the Temple that Gemma and her friends attempt to return. Of course, what Gemma doesn't know is that Kartik has been ordered to help her find the Temple, bind the magic to the Rakshana instead of the Order, and then kill her. Kartik has mixed feelings on this last bit, seeing as he seems as conflictingly smitten with Gemma as she is with him.

Rather than separate the girls for the course of the narrative (which takes place entirely during the Christmas break), Felicity uncharacteristically invites Ann home with her for the holidays with the plan of spreading the rumor that Ann is really descended from Russian royalty. Before Gemma even makes it home from the train station, she meets Simon, a young aristocrat of good breeding. He's rumored to have a bit of a reputation as a ladies' man, but he seems rather open in his courtship of her. There are a number of other details that all come into play in terms of the narrative: Gemma's brother is desperately trying to break their father's addiction to laudanum (and later, opium) while home from his duties as a doctor at Bethlam Bedlam insane asylum; Gemma learns of a girl at Bethlam who might also have access to the Realms and know where to find the temple; there's concern over a new teacher at Spence who might know more than she lets on; Gemma meets up once again with Miss Moore, their old art teacher from Spence who lost her job as a result of Gemma and her friends; Felicity's family has taken on a new ward which irritates Felicity, though perhaps not for entirely selfish reasons; and while it might be nice to see Pippa again, Gemma is uncertain whether Pippa can be trusted, as souls in the Realms who do not cross over are usually corrupted. Of all these, the last is the most interesting, as Bray seems to have no problem turning beautiful Pippa into a rather terrifying creature before the book is over.

So as you can see, there's a lot of balls in the air and Bray tries her best to keep them all going. I found that there were a few too many scenes that didn't seem that necessary. One of which involved Gemma dressing up as a boy to pull her father out of an opium den. Perhaps the most irritating scene of all, though, took place at a ball when Simon persuades Gemma and her friends into trying absinthe... which unsurprisingly has a bad effect on Gemma, who already sees visions of ghostly things without any aid from substances. Exactly why we needed a scene where she starts screaming and Simon tries to calm her down, under the belief that she's screaming because of his rather forward behavior, I do not know. Nor do I know why Simon seems totally fine with her afterward, as I would imagine he'd be a little put off. Ultimately, however, I suppose the worst sin is that despite being a fantasy novel, I found that once again, I simply didn't find myself captivated by the Realms. All the fantasy and magic seemed too vague and not quite interesting for me. Ann is annoying, Felicity is a bit too brazen (though really, she's the one I mind least), and Gemma still doesn't seem like she's a heroine who is capable of bringing any kind of resolution to the Realms and the Order. She's not terribly bright and I still can't imagine her as being a proper redhead. And as if that wouldn't make her stand out enough, she has the whole childhood in India thing going for her and she still manages to be this shrinking violet. Ugh.

Despite all this, we know perfectly well that I'll finish the series, but I wish that I could hope for something better than the first two novels. Ah well.


The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is a rich and incredibly sensuous story about books, love, and the equations that make up our lives.

Philip Masryk is a brilliant mathematician/investment consultant who often finds himself scribbling mathematical formulas to represent the interactions and events around him. While he finds this to generally be a helpful way of viewing the world, people often become variables that are hard to predict. He's been married twice and has two ex-step-children, in whose lives he still plays a very minor role, but the only constant in his life has been his friend and lover, a book-binder named Irma Arcuri. The book opens as Philip is notified of her disappearance and the fact that she has bequeathed to him her collection of 351 books, all of which she had bound herself and a few of which she has written. No one seems to believe that Irma is actually dead, simply that she has chosen to disappear from her life and perhaps embark on some other adventure, but Philip wants to find her and believes that the secret to doing so lies within his newly inherited library.

Philip's search spans literature and continents, though many of his revelations are found within the people that make up Philip's life. The narrative goes back and forth in time, concerned not only with Philip and Irma's relationship but with Philip and Irma's individual relationships with others... such as Philip's two ex-wives, his best friend, Philip's two ex-step-children, and perhaps even a woman Philip meets in a bar after Irma has already disappeared. Philip, who has not read much of anything contained within Irma's library, selects which book to read next in a very calculated manner, believing that Irma has planned this.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is clearly an homage to literature and the role it plays in our lives. Bajo chooses a very intriguing mix of titles to highlight here (including Borges, Cervantes, Camus, Sebald, and others), and makes things all the more interesting when Philip realizes that in re-binding these books, Irma may have made adjustments to the text within, too. In addition to presenting something that treats books as precious touchstones in our lives, Bajo has also captured the sensual experience surrounding literature and the intimacy of sharing stories with another. This is a very sexual book and Bajo doesn't shy away from dealing with sex quite directly. I never found it to be too ridiculous, though... just quite prevalent. (It was so very sensual, in fact, that even though I usually pass books along to my mother, I told her that this was unsuitable for parents and if she wanted a copy, she'd have to go and get one herself. My significant other, however, has already been told to move this up to the top of his list.)

For a true book lover, it's hard to not find something deeply seductive about the allure of books. And when you add a beautiful and sexy woman into the mix... well... let's just say that I would have crumbled just as easily as any other of Irma's conquests. There are some truly beautiful passages and ideas being expressed... in addition to the steamy sex scenes mentioned above. There were a few flaws within the narrative and I'm not entirely sure that the ending left me satisfied, but as I believe this is Bajo's first novel, I consider myself quite impressed. Selections from Philip's reading have the habit of flowing into the text without too much notation, so the reader must keep on his or her toes to understand just which writer is responsible for what he/she is reading. There were moments when it came to Philip's relationship with his ex-step-children where I wasn't convinced of the storyline's necessity, or at least of its prominence, but nothing too severe. The only thing that truly irked me with this book was the fact that nearly all of the characters in the novel are runners... and Philip seems to run so often that I was convinced his heart would burst. Is it possible for someone to run that often every day and still stand? Let alone participate in all those sex scenes? Sure, he was raised by steeplechaser parents, but even so! I felt like quite a sedentary creature as Philip sprinted through towns in multiple countries, no matter his occasional complaints about getting older. It seemed excessive.

On the whole, I loved this novel -- when you find yourself as a reader being seduced by the main characters, it's hard not to connect with it. If you're looking for a luscious read and you're up to being challenged by a twisting and turning storyline, then I sincerely recommend a comfy chair beside a fire, a glass of wine, and this novel. You'll find it to be a pleasurable experience.