This was a major year for looking back to the Great Depression for guidance, as well as for a buck-up dose of that era's shining-through, Shirley Temple spirit. Out of all of the '30s-themed books I read this year, my pick for the best nonfiction book is Kirsten Downey's biography of Frances Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal. Here's how Franklin Roosevelt's controversial choice for secretary of labor recalled the first meeting of FDR's Cabinet in 1933:
"I tried to have as much of a mask as possible. I wanted to give the impression of being a quiet, orderly woman who didn't buzz-buzz all the time. ... I knew that a lady interposing an idea into men's conversation is very unwelcome. ... You didn't butt in with bright ideas."
As Downey's compelling biography reveals, Perkins' strategy of reticence worked. She achieved many of her "bright ideas," like the minimum wage, work-hour limitations and the Social Security Act. Indeed, if Perkins had completely realized her vision, national health care would have long been an American reality.
Henry Ford, of course, was a bitter foe of FDR and his worker-friendly legislation. During the 1930s, Ford attempted to escape to an imagined pre-industrial golden age by pouring money and manpower into a Disneyland-type settlement in the Amazon called "Fordlandia." In a lively work of narrative history of the same title, historian Greg Grandin rediscovers this forgotten utopian town, the ruins of which still stand deep in the jungles of Brazil.
Grandin mentions that Fordlandia had a dance hall where only polkas and minuets were allowed, because Ford disapproved of the "sex dancing" that was sweeping America in the 1920s and '30s. In contrast, esteemed literary critic Morris Dickstein's cultural history of the 1930s, called Dancing in the Dark, is fascinated with Busby Berkeley's "sex dancing" extravaganzas. Dickstein also investigates the deeper meanings of art deco industrial design, gangster movies, the photographs of Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke White, and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck.
Finally, the work of nonfiction I reviewed this year that garnered the most listener response had nothing to do with the Great Depression; Happens Every Day by novice writer Isabel Gillies is a disarming memoir that focuses on the collapse of her marriage to a poetry professor at Oberlin — a school, Gillies cheekily tells us, where all the students "play an instrument well" and "know how to address [transgendered people]."
Any year in which I stumble on a terrific new mystery series is a bull market year for me; this past summer, a wise independent bookseller recommended that I read the Moe Prager mysteries set in Brooklyn and starring a Jewish former police detective. The atmospheric Prager series is written by Reed Farrel Coleman, who just may be the only mystery writer licensed to drive trucks filled with hazardous materials like nuclear waste.
Speaking of nuclear Armageddon, my nominee for this year's best work of literary fiction, Zoe Heller's acerbic novel of ideas, The Believers, merrily decimates the world its characters once inhabited. The Believers explores what happens when a zealous, William Kunstler-type superstar lawyer dies and his children drift into various other political and religious orthodoxies. Heller has no patience for what she calls the phenomenon of "relatability" in fiction: Her characters aren't particularly likeable; instead, they rivet our attention with their wit, smarts and bad behavior.
Other fiction standouts were the incomparable Lorrie Moore's seductive tale A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, about a young Irish woman who immigrates to New York in the 1950s and works at a department store; and The Man in the Wooden Hat by British master Jane Gardam. This nuanced story of a long marriage is a companion piece to her best-known work, Old Filth.
Last, but definitely not least, there's Jess Walter's superb farce, The Financial Lives of the Poets. His anti-hero is a middle-aged former journalist whose wife is on the verge of an affair and whose house is a week away from foreclosure. Unable to sleep one night, this sad sack goes out to a 7-Eleven to buy milk for his kids' cereal; there, he falls in with a gang of teenage drug dealers and hatches a desperate plan for restoring his financial solvency. It's not exactly a Frank Capra plot, but the screwball sensibility of Walter's novel is very much an updated take on those dark Depression comedies. Here's to looking ahead to better times and many more terrific books.
Maureen Corrigan's Complete List: The Best Books Of 2009
(click the book titles below or the book covers at left to read an excerpt)
- The Believers, by Zoe Heller, hardcover, 352 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99
- Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, hardcover, 262 pages, Scribner, list price: $25
- A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore, hardcover, 336 pages, Knopf, list price: $25.95
- The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam, paperback, 240 pages, Europa, list price: $15
- The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter, hardcover, 304 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99
- Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story, by Isabel Gillies, hardcover, 272 pages, Scribner, list price: $25
- The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR'S Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, by Kirstin Downey, hardcover, 480 pages, Nan A. Talese, list price: $35
- Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin, hardcover, 432 pages, Metropolitan, list price $27.50
- Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, by Morris Dickstein, hardcover, 624 pags, W.W. Norton & Co., list price: $29.95
- "Moe Prager" mysteries, by Reed Farrel Coleman, paperback
She's the best contemporary British writer you probably haven't heard of; that's how I identify Jane Gardam to those readers, and particularly those Anglophiles, who ask me for recommendations. There are many reasons to sing Gardam's praises, among them: her off-the-beaten track subjects; her outwardly polished, inwardly muddled characters; and her roller-coaster tone that speeds from twee to tragic in a paragraph.
But the latest occasion to celebrate Gardam is that, at the age of 81, she's just added another superb novel to her canon. It's called, The Man in the Wooden Hat and it's a companion work to what many Gardam groupies consider her masterpiece, her 12th novel, Old Filth.
"Filth" is a musty British acronym that stands for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." It was applied, unkindly, to describe public-school educated Brits who scurried to the far corners of the empire to make fortunes and careers they would otherwise have been shut out of in the mother country. The "Old Filth" of Gardam's 2004 novel is Sir Edward Feathers, a distinguished barrister who was born to English parents in Malaya, and later became what was known as a "Raj orphan" when he was sent back alone to England as a child for his education.
Given that early experience of separation, Feathers is, to put it mildly, an introvert. Send him on a solitary walk in his wellies followed by a tumbler of whiskey, and he seems to be miserably contented. The only steady connection in his life was his wife, Betty, who in Old Filth has died of a heart attack while planting tulip bulbs. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Betty's retrospective story of their marriage, and she's every bit Sir Edward's equal in terms of her enigmatic emotions and her tart worldview.
Betty and Edward meet in Hong Kong after World War II. The only child of British parents who died in a Japanese internment camp, Betty is primed to accept Edward's rather stiff proposal. She confesses to a girlfriend, however, that she's not sure she loves Edward, that she foolishly, wants "the moon." Here's what Betty's girlfriend says in reply:
You should want the moon. Don't do it ... Don't go for a forty-watt bulb just because it looks pretty. You'll get stuck with it when it goes out. You are so loyal, and you'll soldier on in the dark for ever afterwards.
In a sense, the bulk of the novel is a nuanced exploration of whether or not Betty's girlfriend was right. The Feathers' marriage has its blips of passion and its long drowsy seasons of companionability. But infidelity and loss and bitter mutual dismay also mark the union.
The overriding sadness of Betty's life is that, because of an early hysterectomy, she can't have children. This is emotional territory that Gardam has visited before, most dramatically in her amazing 1991 novel in letters, The Queen of the Tambourine. There's a scene in that novel in which the prematurely menopausal heroine visits her doctor, and he chirpily asks how she's doing. "Things drying up nicely?" he says. It's a tossed-off remark that I think captures the oddness of Gardam's signature tone — at once witty, yet grotesque.
Together, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat compose a vivid diptych of a marriage. You don't have to read Old Filth first, though you'll enjoy the plot surprises in this latest novel more if you do.
Both novels, along with other gems from Gardam's backlist, are published in paperback in this country by Europa Editions, a small press founded just five years ago that has been doing the Lord's work in terms of introducing European literary novels, many of them in translation, to an American readership. Europa's sleeper hit last year was French writer Muriel Barbery's wry novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I wouldn't be surprised if The Man in the Wooden Hat sweeps up still more accolades for Europa and for the quietly renowned Gardam.
And so, a few hours later, into the sea dropped the great red yo-yo sun and darkness painted out the waters of the bay at Aberdeen Harbour. Then lights began to show, first the pricking lights under the ramparts they stood on, then more nebulous lights from boats knocking together where the fishermen lived in houses on stilts, then the lights of moving boats fanning white on black across the bay and then across far away bays and coastlines of the archipelago; lights of ferries, coloured lights of invisible villages and way over to the south dim lights staining the darkness of Hong Kong itself.
Edward Feathers and Betty Macintosh stood side by side, looking out and a drum began to beat. Voices rose in a screech, like a sun-set chorus of raucous birds. Cantonese and half a dozen dialects. The crashing of pots and pans, clattering pandemonium. Blue smoke rose up from the boats to the terrace of the hotel and there was a blasting smell of hot fish. Behind the couple standing looking out, waiters were beginning to spread tablecloths and napkins, setting down saucers with floating lights and flowers. The last suggestion of a sun departed and the sky was speckled with a hundred million stars.
"Edward? Teddie — yes. Thank you. Yes. I will and I will and I will, but could you say something?"
Some of the older waiters would respond to Elisabeth's voice in the slow English of before the war. It was beginning to sound old world. Proud, unflinching, Colonial. Yet the girl did not conform to it. She was bare-legged, in open-toed sandals with clean but unpainted toe-nails. She was wearing a cotton dress she had had for years and hadn't thought about changing to meet her future husband. The time in the Shanghai detention centre had arrested her looks rather than matured her and she would still have been recognised by her old first-eleven hockey team. Edward looked down at the top of her curly head, rather the colour of his own. "Chestnut", they call it. Conker-colour. Red. Our children are bound to have red hair. Red hair fascinates and frightens the Chinese. They'll have to go home to England if we settle here. If we can have —
She said, "Edward? Please? I'm sorry I've taken so long, but I never change my mind." At last then he embraced her.
"We must get back," he said, and on the ferry again across the harbour they sat close together but not touching on a slatted seat. Nearby sat a fat young Englishman who was being stroked and sighed over by a Chinese girl with a yearning face. She was plump and pale gazing up at him, whispering to him, kissing him all the time below the ear. He flicked at the ear now and then as if there were a fly about, but he was smiling. The ferry chugged and splashed. The Englishman looked proud and content. "She's a great cook, too," he called in their direction. "She can do a great mashed potato. It's not all that rice."
At Kowloon-side Edward and Elisabeth walked a foot or so apart to his hotel, climbed the marble steps and passed through the flashing glass doors. Inside among the marble columns and the lilies and the fountains Edward lifted a finger towards the reception desk and his room-key was brought across to him.
"There's a party now."
"Now. Here. It's tomorrow's judge. It's going to be a long case and he's a benevolent old stick. He likes to kick off with a party. Both sides invited. Leaders, juniors, wives, girl-friends, fiancees. And courtesans for flavour."
"Must we go?"
"Yes. I don't much want to, but you don't refuse."
When he looked down at her she saw how happy he was.
"Have I time to change?"
"No. It will have begun. We'll just show our faces. Your clothes are fine. I have something for you to wear as it happens. I'll go up and get myself a jacket and I'll bring it down."
"Shall I come up to the room with you?"
The new easy, happy Edward faltered. "No. I don't think they care for that here. I'll be back in ten minutes. I'll order you some tea."
"It's a strange betrothal," Betty told the lily-leaf-shaped tray, the shallow cup, the tiny piece of Battenburg cake and the cress sandwich so small that a breeze from the fountains might blow it away. A trio behind her was playing Mozart. Two Chinese, one Japanese, very expert and scornful. She remembered how people in England used to say that no Oriental would ever play Mozart. Just like at school when they used to say that there would never be Japanese pilots because they were all half-blind behind dark glasses. She was all at once overcome by the idiotic nature of mankind and began to laugh. "God must feel like me," she thought, "Oh, I love Hong Kong. Could we live here? Could Edward?"
Here he came now, washed and shaved in a clean shirt and linen jacket, loping over from the lift, smiling like a boy ("I'm going to be with this person all my life!") and he dropped a little cloth bag into her lap and she took out from it the most magnificent string of pearls.
"Yours," he said. "They're old. Someone gave them to me when I was sixteen in the war. Just in time. She died a few minutes later. She was lying next to me under a lifeboat on deck. We were limping home up the Irish Sea — everybody sick and dying. She was very old. Raj spinster. Whiskery. Brave. Type that's gone. She said, 'One day you can give them to your sweetheart.'"
She thought "He's not cold at all." Then "Oh, OH!! The pearls are wonderful. But they're not what matters."
"There's a condition, Elisabeth."
"About the pearls?"
"Certainly not. They are yours for ever. You are my sweetheart. But this marriage, our marriage."
"Hush," she said, "People are listening. Later."
"No — NOW," he roared out in the way he did, like other cured stammerers; and several heads turned. "This marriage is a big thing. I don't believe in divorce."
"You're talking about divorce before you're proposed."
Mozart behind them sang out, "Aha! Bravo! Goodbye!" And the trio stood up and bowed.
"Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That's the condition. I've been left all my life. From being a baby I've been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I'm unusual there. And it's supposed to have given us all backbone."
"Well I know all that. I was one too. My parents suffered."
"It will all be forgotten soon. What our parents did for an ideology. And there's no doubt we were mostly damaged even though we became endurers."
("May I take your tray, Madam?")
"It did not destroy me but it has made me bloody unsure."
"I will never leave you, Edward."
"I'll never mention any of this again." His words began to stumble. "Been left all my life. Ages couldn't speak. Albert Ross the saviour. So sorry. Came through. Bar a test. Must meet Ross. Bad at sharing feelings."
"Which, dear Eddie, if I may say so, must be why you haven't yet proposed to me."
"I thought I had — "
"No. It would help." (She was happy though.)
"Marry me, Elisabeth. Never leave me. I'll never ask again. But never leave me."
"I'll never leave you, Edward."
A waiter swam by and this time scooped up her tray though she called out "Oh, no!" "Bugger," she thought, "I've had nothing all day but that rice at Amy's." Then "I shouldn't be thinking of cake."
In the lift on the way up to the judge's party, her bare toes inside the sandals crunching the sand of Aberdeen Harbour, she thought, "Well, now I know. It won't be romantic but who wants that? It won't be passion, but better without, probably. And there will be children. And he's remarkable and I'll grow to love him very much. There's nothing about him that's un-lovable."
They stood together now at the far end of the corridor where the judge had his suite. They could see the open doors, gold and white, the noise of the party inside rose in a subdued roar. Edwards said "Unclutch those pearls. I want to put them around your neck." He took them, heavy and creamy, into both hands and held them to his face. "They still smell of the sea." She said, "Oh, ridiculous," and laughed, and he at last kissed her very gravely in full view of the distant waiters round the door. She saw that his eyes brimmed with tears.
"Why, the dear old thing," she thought.
From The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. Published by Europa Editions. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.