Paperback reviews: One Summer: America 1927, The Listener, Noble Endeavours, Under Your Skin, Mystery and Manners

 

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The Independent Culture

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

The 1920s are the Jazz Age, the era of The Great Gatsby, flappers, champagne, and general merriment all round, the last laugh before the Depression hits and the Second World War. They’re the times of technological miracles, of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Ford’s mass motorisation of America, and the moment talkies arrived on the silver screen.

But something else was happening under all that glamour, and Bryson makes a decent enough fist at telling the stories of Prohibition, and those who died from it as well as those who profited by it. He tells of the Ku Klux Klan’s rise during this era and its scandalous fall; of the Italian immigrant “anarchists” Sacco and Vanzetti, accused and found guilty of murders when there was no evidence to say they were even present at the time; of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray’s trysts in the Waldorf Astoria just before they bumped off Snyder’s husband in the Sash Weight Murder, a case that gripped America during the summer of 1927.

Historians of the left view the 1920s as a decade of continued suppression of the labour movement, a time of deep suspicion, when J Edgar Hoover started homing in on immigrants, and Calvin Coolidge basically let money-men run the country. Bryson acknowledges all of that, which means his entertaining overview of the period is creditably up-to-date, but he is more personally mesmerised by Lindbergh’s achievements and “Babe” Ruth, a baseball player whose name and sporting success will probably be utterly unknown to most British readers. These two men frame this era for him, and it’s their personal failings (Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism and fascist leanings, Ruth’s alcoholism and promiscuity) as much as their achievements that combine to reflect of the glory and the gutter that together characterise this troubled decade.

****

The Listener by Tove Jansson (Sort Of Books £8.99)

The short story is enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment, which perhaps helps to explain why the work of the Swedish writer Jansson, who died in 2001, is also gaining more ground. In a reversal of those post-modernists whose language is difficult but whose message is essentially simple, Jansson harks back to a previous era where the words are simple but the message less so. Her opening story, about spinster Aunt Gerda, in whom relatives and friends confide their secret thoughts and wishes, or just spiteful gossip about others, is partly about the way old age robs us of our most valued faculties (Gerda can no longer remember whose story belongs to whom, and so she devises a map that will aid her). In “A Love Story”, a tourist in Venice is captivated by a sculpture of a woman’s buttocks. In “Proposal for a Preface”, a woman cannot get to sleep. There’s a lot of snow, and a lot of inside/outside contrasts, and a sense of a world bigger than the one in our heads. Thought-provoking, then, but in the best way.

****

Noble Endeavours by Miranda Seymour (Simon and Schuster£8.99)

This history of Germany and Britain is marred by a constant conflation of “England” and “Britain” to the point where it’s almost impossible to know what Seymour means when she uses these terms. It’s a frustrating slippage and an important one. Do Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the same historical relationship with Germany? Seymour mixes the high-born, which means that we get a great deal about Victoria and Albert and the Kaiser, with the less “noble”, which includes writers such as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Marx only gets a brief mention, Engels slightly more, which is a curious omission, when they were surely a crucial example of the impact German thinking could have on Britain.

****

Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant (Mulholland Books £6.99)

This is perhaps a slightly harsh rating for a thriller whose prose isn’t offensive but rather perfectly competent. What fatally damages it is its predictability and its implausibility. Gaby is the presenter of a daytime TV programme who comes across the body of a young Polish woman while out jogging in the park. With some speed, we learn not only that her marriage is in trouble, but that she’s the number one suspect because the dead woman paid for a pizza with Gaby’s card. Oh, and the dead woman just happened to look like her, too. What could possibly be the connection? This belongs to the rather predictable “domestic noir” genre, and it’s not helping to improve it.

**

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor Edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Faber £12.99)

“To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.” O’Connor was probably the queen of the “small country” or the “region”, as she understood perfectly what it was to come from a part of the world that wasn’t the mainstream. She lived in Georgia, not New York; she was religious during the era of free love; she was thoughtful when the slickness of Madison Avenue was the order of the day. These essays are about what makes for good writing, but they’re not trying to give advice so much as present O’Connor’s experiences as a writer, although try as she might, sometimes she just can’t help herself giving out a few nuggets of wisdom.

***

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