Nota Bene: Last week, when I said “Tomorrow” in the teaser I meant,
of course,”Some Indeterminate Time in the Relatively Near Future.”
I don’t have a car, so I have lots of time to read.
Those facts might seem totally unconnected, but in reality, they are intertwined truths. What I love most about public transportation–and I’m crazy like that, I love it–is that ultimately, it’s not down time. You’re not trapped driving, and like the Londoners I see, it’s also prime time to play Candy Crush, yell at your family on the phone, or read a book. I also have a fairly hefty commute to get my daughter to school, which offers me sometimes close to two hours a day of reading time.
So, here’s a short list of just a few of the books I’ve read since I arrived in the UK last fall, all stories based in, based around, or decidedly connected to London. These are all great books to read while sitting on the upper deck of a London bus, no matter where you may be going.
The Sweep: 15th/16th Century to Contemporary Britain: Shakespeare’s Local by Pete Brown
I wrote about this one in one my occasional “Reading List” updates, but honestly, it’s one of the best, most accessible books about London I’ve ever read. Plus, it’s about a pub. Plus, it’s written by Pete Brown who is the product of a great nation that awards a “Beer Writer of the Year,” and Pete Brown has been a worthy victor. And lastly, it addresses the cult of Shakespeare (though the book may not even be aware of this,) in that our obsession with fantasizing about Shakespeare’s life and times often make us miss better stories that are true and fresh for the taking.
17th Century: Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain
Tremain also wrote Restoration, so you could start with that, as Merivel is a follow-up. Ultimately though, Merivel is a very specific story about getting old and watching what you perceive as grandeur fade, but it’s hard not to feel connected to a story that’s about how to keep faith in something–anything–as the world changes every single second around you no matter what kind of person you fancy yourself to be.
18th Century: Lady Worsley’s Whim by Hallie Rubenhold
Oh God, the Georgians are so hot right now. Seriously. The Georgians Revealed at the British Library has been a hit, and it’s a fascinating afternoon, but Lady Worsley’s Whim takes a scandal and the personal stories of the people behind it and uses that as a tool to reveal the world of the Georgian upper crust (and the demimonde.) Rubenhold’s way of telling is certainly more revealing than a wall full of architectural renderings if you’re interested in people, rather than monuments. Plus, if you think tabloid manufacture of celebrities is new–big news: it’s not.
Fading Victorians: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
This is the one to read on the bus on your way to visit Highgate Cemetery, or perhaps to read after a visit to the Cemetery while sampling each of Highgate’s fantastic pubs. Chevalier wrote Girl With a Pearl Earring, and she gives similar treatment here to the last gasps of Victorian London–using the cemetery as the backdrop for a story about sex and death and the changing role of women. Plus, awesomely, at the beginning of the book, a family lives where I do now, and they are DELIGHTED to be moving up in the world up the hill to Highgate, rather than wallowing down here in Islington.
Contemporary Britain: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
The review linked to above calls the writer out for “bad English fakery,” but I give the writer more credit (and forgiveness,) as the book is an attempt to show how complicated (and rare) true cross-cultural understanding can be. As an expat myself, the story of a young Chinese girl in London to learn English and then falling in some kind of love and trying to sort out her strange reality spoke to me. Though she didn’t think the novel was perfect either, Ursula K Le Guin liked it too: “It succeeds in luring the western reader into an alien way of thinking: a trick only novels can pull off, and indeed one of their finest tricks.”
Made-Up Britain: The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger
This is steampunk meets Jeeves and Wooster, written by a feminist. If you like the supernatural, cephalopod automatons, treacle tarts and lady adventurers, let me introduce you to Gail Carriger.
I guess if there’s any conclusion to the list, it’s that new places can be lonely. Novels can help.
(I can’t take credit for the title of the post. Well played Mr. Rudd and Ms. Poehler.)