Paperbacks of the year: Part 3

Bryson’s book contends that this was the year his native land came into its own, dominating the world stage with its politicians, its newspaper industry, its wealth, and its film stars

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The Independent Culture

One Summer America 1927 by Bill Bryson (Black Swan £8.99)

It’s an ingenious, if risky, premise to propose to tell the story of a single season in a single year that will somehow illuminate the character of a nation. Other years have their own popularity – 1922 as the “year of modernism” perhaps, or 1963 as the year “sex began” (according to Philip Larkin, anyway). But narrowing it down to a summer seems quite absurd. Until you see the evidence Bryson has accumulated, framed by Lindbergh’s astonishing flight, and you understand the irresistibility, and the success, of his project.

America was nearing the end of the “Roaring Twenties” boom in this year, but some of its glitter clung on, in murder cases such as that of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, charged with the “sash weight” murder of Snyder’s husband. (“The papers strove hard to portray [her] as an evil temptress … but by 1927, Ruth Snyder was 36 years old, plump, haggard and worn.”) New York had just overtaken London as the world’s largest city, and the Mississippi flood meant huge migration northwards for many people, especially blacks in the South, and their presence in the increasingly stylish Bronx helped change the character of that area for decades to come.

Anarchists such as Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, such novelists as Upton Sinclair reflected the new political mood, and “Babe” Ruth became the greatest baseball star. Bryson’s book contends that this was the year his native land came into its own, dominating the world stage with its politicians, its newspaper industry, its wealth, and its film stars. After this year, no one else could compete against Ford’s industry, or Hollywood’s technological advancement. It’s an appealing view of history: we all love a “eureka” moment, lending events much necessary romance. But 1927 hardly needs that romantic help; it’s a year of fabulous and extraordinary enough stories as it is.

*****

Firefly by Janette Jenkins (Vintage £7.99)

I loved Jenkins’s portrayal of the last heated, rather troubled days of Noël Coward, holed up in his island paradise in Jamaica and reflecting on the decline of his reputation, especially virulent now in the wake of the success of the theatre’s new Angry Young Men. The final days of great or notorious individuals are always tempting to imagine, though, and Jenkins does a superb and humane job, pitting Coward against his servant, Patrice – who has deluded ideas of the kind of life he could lead back in England if only Coward will give him the necessary reference – and the guests who still visit. It’s a portrait of a man who doesn’t necessarily regret the choices he has made in his life, and still retains a meaty appetite for fame, seeing through completely those fey and pretty young men who used to suck up to him all those years ago. Jenkins’s prose is thoughtful and sensitive, without ever being patronising or sentimental, and her depiction of Coward’s final stage performance, which was a disaster, is particularly insightful.

*****

Oh My America! Second acts in a New World By Sara Wheeler (Vintage £10.99)

We think far too rarely of women from the past getting “second acts” in their lives, but Wheeler’s excellent history of women such as Fanny Trollope, the mother of the more famous Anthony, or the actress Fanny Kemble, happily proves us wrong. The women in this volume chose not just to embark on new careers after their marriages broke down or their personal lives failed, they even exchanged continents, leaving Europe behind for the New World. “Re-invention” is the watchword of this volume. All the women found America a challenge in different ways, but their stories are never less than inspiring and Wheeler’s sympathy for them, and for their handling of dark times, is always justified. A necessary read.

*****

Flora by Gail Godwin (Bloomsbury £8.99)

This quiet but powerful story of an isolated and lonely young girl who ends up causing great harm seems to have been overlooked a little, which is a tremendous shame, as it packs a punch. Ten-year-old Helen is left in the care of her older cousin Flora, who seems an ideal carer but has an angelic, trusting nature that borders on simplicity. When a young man enters the picture, the tension between the two girls is heightened, with Flora’s naivety playing off against Helen’s jealous, but wiser and more realistic personality. How much we coat those who have gone before us in saintly colours is part of the question this intriguing and involving novel asks, as it also poses questions about death and how we should cope with loss.

*****

Feral:  Rewilding the land, sea and human life by George Monbiot (Penguin £8.99)

The vocabulary alone that Monbiot uses is beguiling enough, never mind his argument that we need “wildness” in our lives, both emotionally and practically. A large part of his argument is about reintroducing certain wild animals back into the countryside, including wolves. Wolves are far more scared of us than we are of them, he says, even though that might not convince many of us, especially given the fairy tales we’ve grown up with. There’s a great appeal in reading about those who are prepared to live with native tribesmen or shoot rapids when we’re not asked to do it ourselves. But Monbiot’s case for repairing flood-damaged land, for instance, also seems eminently sensible and not “wild” at all.

*****

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