Some Recent Reading
by Sarah Lyall
Part Memoir, Part Documentary
You might like this book if: You are interested in British culture or you enjoy books that examine other cultures in relation to American ideals.
NYTimes reporter Sarah Lyall married an Englishman and moved to London in the mid-nineties. Since then, she's faithfully written down her close-range observations of her adopted country. The result is this book. I first heard about it when a friend and I made a pilgrimage to Politics and Prose in D.C. and we found copies for lovely low prices. As a regular partaker of any kind of British-accented entertainment I can get my hands on, I was in. I immediately got a kick out of the cover, which shows Queen Elizabeth as, what else, a tea bag. Ha!
It was a quick read and even though it is about a whole other country, I didn't even need my dictionary. Lyall's look at Britain comes through decidedly American eyes, with the tone of a sort of conspiratorial, whispered conversation with her fellow Americans where she says, repeatedly, "I love the British, but yes, they really are like that." This bothered me at first and I wondered at her emphasis on the mockable and ridiculous, but in the end, I think she makes it pretty clear that to British folks, we Americans are just as odd and stereotypical (and mockable and ridiculous). We each have a distinct culture and way about us, and it's okay. The parts I didn't like run more toward personal taste and interest, and had mostly to do with swearing, drinking and sex. The parts I did like were laugh-out-loud funny, including whole chapters about Cricket, food and weather, and of course finding out about the British love of hedgehogs. Another highlight for me was her revelation that "there are so many badger-support groups that it was deemed necessary to create an umbrella organization, the National Federation of Badger Groups, now known as the Badger Trust, to coordinate all the disparate badger-related activity." For some odd reason, I just like knowing that.
Overall, I think the author feels genuine affection for the UK and its people, but in the end I'm not sure she communicates it fully. While for the most part I enjoyed the book, I feel like she stopped short in each of her chapters, leaving the focus on the odd and inscrutable behavior (or what she deems so to an American reader) and forgetting to remind the reader of the best parts of British culture. Maybe, as the title implies, she just assumes that we're all Anglophiles and she doesn't need to explain that part.
Various Classic Christmas Stories:
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens-This one totally deserves its classic status. If you only know the various movies, read the book. The masterful language, the skilled imagining of the darkly magical journey of Scrooge, the sharp criticism of social injustice, and the glorious lesson of redemption and rebirth make this worth a read every single year.
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry-What a lovely, romantic, powerful tale. It never grows old for me. It is dated firmly in the turn of the century in terms of images and setting, but that is the time when modern language and usage was really evolving and it was refreshing for me to see how current and sharp the writing really is. This will get anyone thinking about generosity, selflessness and what it means to really cherish the people we love.
- Two by Henry van Dyke:
- The Mansion-I had never read The Mansion but it was mentioned by a leader of my church so I was curious. It is a story about a man who considers himself the very best of men, virtuous, above reproach and generous, as long as the cause is deemed worthy. He has a dream experience that teaches him otherwise and I found it quite powerful and touching. Like all the others here, it is definitely rooted in the Christian religious tradition, but the message is important for anyone. Once again, in spite of the age of the story, I found it absolutely universal in its message.
- The Other Wise Man-This one is pretty well-known and has been made into a TV movie called The Fourth Wise Man. It is the story of another Magi who missed the rendezvous with the the famous 3 after the star was sighted. As he searches for the baby Jesus, he has to make decisions along the way about what really matters-finding the King he wants to worship or helping the people in need that he encounters in his travels. I think the story of the birth of Jesus is universal enough that this is accessible to anyone, and the message is similar to all the other stories that are associated with the Christmas season, which is that charitable and loving action is more important than professing belief. What matters in the end is how we treat each other-that is how anyone can tell what we believe and value.
I hope you're finding some time in your schedule to read or listen to some good stories. I listened to all the Christmas stories as audiobooks while I wrapped gifts or cleaned or whatever, and it was a delightful way to bring in the spirit of the season. It's been weeks since I've been able to focus long enough to get all the way through a book, so I'm feeling rather triumphant right now.