Thursday, May 22, 2008

FINISHED: a bunch of books

Taxonomy of Barnacles

I first read about The Taxonomy of Barnacles in the New York Times. Not in the Book Review, as one might imagine, but I read an interview with Galt Niederhoffer in the “Fashion and Style” section, in which she reveals her eccentric family, the basis of her first novel. Her family story was deliciously odd. I finally got around the purchasing the book when it was released in trade paper. Niederhoffer wows with a confident comedy of manners, as well as a nod to Charles Darwin and Shakespeare’s King Lear. The patriarch of the Barnacle family presents his six daughters with a challenge: produce a male heir, and win the family fortune. The others get nothing. The characters are richly drawn (two of the sisters have “befriended” twin brothers who live in their building). The setting—New York City—is delightfully rendered. This is for anyone looking for something that reads like Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Or you could wait for the movie.

The View from the Seventh Layer

Last April I read Kevin Brockmeier’s brilliant, bestselling novel The Brief History of the Dead. Before I even finished the book, I promised that I would read any future book that he wrote. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon his follow-up, hot off the press, at the library. The View from the Seventh Layer is a collection of thirteen stories, all of which have previously appeared in print. The very first story—“A Fable Ending in the Sound of a Thousand Parakeets”—knocked my socks off. It had all of the playful qualities of Brief History, as well as an ending with a big payoff. Many stories have a fantastical, surreal, speculative feel to them, which appeals to me. I found myself setting the book aside after reading many of the stories so they could linger, like a long finish on a fine wine. Another story, “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device,” is a clever Choose Your Own Adventure for adults. This is for anyone who liked early Jonathan Lethem, Judy Budnitz, or Borges. Can’t wait to read more Brockmeier.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Some time ago, in anticipation of the forthcoming move, my friend Caryl kindly loaned me her beautiful copy of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The idea was that I would read the book in time to see the movie. But as fate would have it, I didn’t manage to get past the first chapter. Just bad timing with other reading engagements. We went to the movie, and I loved it. Then I read the book, and I loved that too.

Written by Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew was first published in 1938. The novel is currently in print from Persephone Books, the super-cool British publisher that specializes in reviving lost twentieth-century classics, mostly written by women. Miss Pettigrew is sent by an employment agency to the wrong house. Instead of the governess job she was expecting, Miss Pettigrew finds herself thrust into a new role as social secretary to a nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse. And hijinks ensue. I loved Watson’s wit, humor, and carefree storytelling. Lighthearted line drawings make a charming package, immediately drawing the reader into the period and spirit of the novel.

I’m pleased to say that the movie stood alone quite nicely, and I was glad not to feel fierce loyalty to the novel. Amy Adams was spectacularly dramatic in the role of the Miss LaFosse, while Frances McDormand played Miss Pettigrew with great pathos. The movie follows the novel’s plot, adding a number of embellishments—most of which work, some of which are inexplicable (such as newspaper headlines of WW2's approach and air-raid drills, which I'm sure were meant to establish the time period, as if costuming were insufficient to the task).

I urge you to see the movie and read the book. Doesn’t matter in which order. Simply enjoy each on its merits.

No comments: