London



Photo of the Tate Gallery by Rob Brink used under a Creative Commons license.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips (Penguin, 2001).
After a respectably long and undistinguished career in accountancy, Mr. Phillips is told that he has been made redundant; his services are no longer needed.  Unable to quite come to grips with what has happened to him, he leaves his home as if on his way to the office but instead spends the day meandering through London, from Battersea Park to Trafalgar Square and on.  Early in that Monday, neither Mr. Phillips nor Mr. Phillips were working for me, either, but things turned around through the afternoon and the evening brought some measure of redemption.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Lanchester. Here is Chapter One. Merrick posted a favorite excerpt. Gabrielle Annan (NYRB) says Mr. Phillips drifts through a London so vividly and wittily evoked that it would make an engaging guide book to the places on his route. Tom Shone (Salon) says it is virtually plotless. Roz Shea calls it often funny and sometimes touching. Alex Good says it evokes cultural malaise. Jennifer Schuessler (The New York Times) calls it witty but disappointing. Nicholas Lezard (The Guardian) did not find it as hilarious as other critics. To rjk, it describes a progress through London that arguably resembles Mrs Dalloway’s. Shannon was enthralled. Philip Hensher (The Guardian) calls it always engaging and interesting. More Coffee Please doesn’t hate meetings. Daisy thought it was quite cool. Christina Patterson interviewed Lanchester for The Independent. Lanchester wrote in the Guardian about his inspiration for the book.

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Photo of Heathrow by Sheree Zielke used under a Creative Commons license.

Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport (Vintage, 2010).
The owners of the new Terminal 5  at Heathrow invited de Botton to spend a week at the airport as Writer-In-Residence. The result was this delightful little book — more of an essay, really, with lovely pictures by Richard Baker.  An ideal time to start reading it is about two hours before landing on a flight into Heathrow, or you wait another hour you might be able to finish it while standing in the passport control line, like I did.

The author’s site offers three excerpts. Here is his CV. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. Dan Milmo (The Guardian) reported on de Botton’s assignment. Check it out on Google Books, or here’s an excerpt in The Sunday Times. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says banality and sublimity circle in a perpetual holding pattern. Dan Hill enjoyed it hugely in a holding pattern above Sydney. Kerri Shadid says it has a magical touch of questioning human behavior and a poetic use of words. Donna Marchetti calls it a clever, quirky book. Geoff Nicholson says a few hours with de Botton is time well spent. Dwight Garner says it’s as intense as a volume of poems. Kirk LaPointe says it teems with beauty. Rob Verger (Boston Globe) says it isn’t always gripping. Karen calls it delightful, reflective and thought-provoking. Helen Gallagher says it explores the airport as a “non-place.” Jessica Holland (The Guardian) says it’s as perky as a stewardess. Frank Bures interviewed de Botton. Daniel Trilling interviewed him for the New Statesman. Watch this clip of him talking to The Daily Mail. Listen to him on NPR’s On Point. If Caleb Crain reviewed it, I haven’t seen any sign of the review.

Buy it at Half.com.

aground
Photo by Mike138 used under a Creative Commons license.

Bella Bathurst, The Wreckers (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
For centuries, inhabitants of Britain’s coasts have supplemented their livelihoods with the goods and material from shipwrecks. The march of technology — lighthouses, steel hulls, GPS — has made the seas safer, but far from safe, and wrecks still come ashore, though fewer coastal communities can rely on a steady flow of them. Bathurst’s book travels around England to the most dangerous locales for shipping: the Goodwin Sands, off Kent; Pentland Firth, off northeast Scotland; the Scilly Isles; the West Coast; the Thames, where man was a bigger threat than nature; Cornwall; and the East Coast. Bathurst also wrote a terrific book about Scottish lighthouses.

Google BookSearch gives you a preview, and the author offers this from the introduction. Pedro Caleja has an excerpt too. Kathryn Hughes (The Guardian) says it is, appropriately, a kind of shimmering net of possibility rather than a definitive documentary account. Michele Hewitson (New Zealand Herald) calls it a treasure. Bill Saunders (The Independent) says Bathurst has opened a magic casement on to a lost world on the edge of living memory. Michael Upchurch (Seattle Times) says it’s irresistable. Andro Linklater (The Spectator) cannot recommend it too highly. Philip Marsden (The Times) says is it more than a collection of fine yarns and colourful facts. John Schauble (The Age) calls Bathurst a competent journeyman storyteller. Sara Wheeler (The New York Times) says Bathurst an accomplished stylist. Puke Ariki’s reviewer says the book pares the romance from the business of ship-wrecking to reveal an ugly world of avarice and brutality. Piers Brendon (The Telegraph) says one doesn’t know how much of it to believe. Tim James says it is among the finest writing on Cornwall.  Jay Taber was enthralled by the detailed descriptions of the geologic and maritime factors that contributed to the colossal tonnage of flotsam and jetsam on the shores of Scotland, England, Cornwall, and Wales, not to mention the Orkneys and Hebrides. Peter Ross interviewed Bathurst for the Sunday Herald. You can listen to this interview with her on NPR.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Approaching Willesden Junction
Photo by LHOON used under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Frayn, Spies (Metropolitan Books, 2002).
A coming-of-age story set in London during World War II. Stephen Wheatley, an old man as he starts to recount things at the outset, was a young boy then, living on a block of new housing near a train station on the outskirts of town. As events unfold — and I am being vague about what happens to avoid giving things away — Stephen comes to understand that there are secrets behind the new facades on his street, and over in the rural tracts on the other side of the tracks. Frayn deftly, gradually unpacks these secrets.

Here a bio of Frayn and here is Wikipedia’s entry on him. Nicholas Wroe profiled Frayn in 1999 for The Guardian. Google BookSearch gives a preview. Claire Armistead interviewed Frayn for The Guardian. Here are reviews, but be careful — they may give away too much.  The Complete Review says it’s hard to be truly enthusiastic about the book.  They also gather lots of links.  Robert Weibezahl says Frayn is a master of the literary slight of hand.  Kevin Holtsberry says Frayn creates tension well. Henrietta Ghattas says the novel paints a dreamlike world. Phillip Tomasso III was reminded of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) sees a classic English theme. Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times) says the clockwork mechanism of the plot fails to engage. Jennifer Schuessler (The New York Times) says some of the most beautiful passages evoke the landscape of the town. Adam Mars-Jones (The Observer) sees innocence with a vengeance. Alan in Belfast found it quite an irritating book. Eli Weintraub calls it a sensory delight. Christopher Caldwell and Erik Tarloff read it together at Slate. Anne calls it wonderful.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Kitchen window with pumpkin
Photo by annafdd used under a Creative Commons license.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth (Random House, 2000).
Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal served together in the British Army in World War II; both then started families in North London. Archie married a Jamaican, escaped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they have a daughter, Irie. Samad, a Bangladeshi, marries Alsana, who mothers twin sons, Millat and Magid. Smith’s novel is the story of the two families, picked up in the 1970s and carried forward. Smith paints a panorama, not a snapshot, and she has thought about race, class, sex, and other Big Issues, though she writes with a light touch. Call it an immigrant novel or a postcolonial novel if you will. The action ranges from Jamaica to Bengal, but always revolves around North London.

Here is Smith’s bio on Wikipedia. Maria Russo (Salon) profiles Smith. The publisher posts this interview and this excerpt. PBS posts this interview. Here’s an interview with Kathleen O’Grady of Concordia in Montreal. Or listen to this interview on NPR. At The Believer, Smith talked with Ian McEwan. Liam Sullivan calls it epic and ambitious but flawed. Bonnie (BlogCritics) calls it a whirlwind exploration of immigration and multiculturalism. Dan Schneider says it’s a horrendously bad book. Another who didn’t like it is lurgee. Travis Mamone says it lives up to the hype. Eithne Farry, a Jehovah’s Witness, says it has undeniable bite. Ben Welch (Flak Magazine) calls a thick, sweeping novel in the grand tradition of the epic (there’s that word again). Daneet Steffens (Entertainment Weekly) calls it a comic, canny, sprawling tale. Bob Graham (San Francisco Chronicle) wonders what the title means. Amy likes how Smith uses imagery of teeth. Maria Russo (Salon) says Smith’s London is a place that makes you marvel. Eileen Frost says it’s perfectly wonderful and often funny. Hari Kunzru talks about Willesden, where the novel is set. Nat JM says the novel breathes London. James Johnson read it in Haiti. Horace Jeffrey Hodges passes along an anecdote about the possible inspiration for Iqbal. Here is Google BookSearch on a reader guide by Claire Squires. And, finally, Laila Lalami says no one needs another review of it.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Thierry Henry
Photo by atomicShed used under a Creative Commons license.

Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch (Riverhead Books, 1998).
In 1968, when Hornby turned 11, his parents separated, and his father first took him to an Arsenal match. (Arsenal is a North London soccer team, now one of the top teams in England’s top league.) Somehow — the psychologically minded might propose that Hornby found security in the sport as it eluded him at home, but who cares? — he became a devoted fan of the team. Fever Pitch is the story of Hornby’s fandom, his commitment to Arsenal over the years since then. For North Americans, his book is a window into English football, at once like professional sports here but also quite English. (While Hornby worked on the 2005 Farrelly Brothers film adaptation starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, please don’t judge the book by that movie.)

Here is Wikipedia’s entry on Hornby, and The Guardian‘s primer on him. Here is Hornby’s web site, and here is his blog. Marshal Zeringue posts an excerpt. Chris Wesseling posts a passage he likes. Sean Smith (ESPN.com) reviews it. Christopher Clarey (The New York Times) calls it entertaining. Kim Newsome (ESPN.com) calls it the novel for the thinking sports fan, even though it isn’t a novel. Orin Judd starts with some preening about soccer. Ryan recommends it to sports fans. S. says don’t bother if you’re not a fan. Cynthia Joyce interviewed Hornby for Salon in 1996. And here’s a fan site with quite a few links.

Buy it at Amazon.com.