Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Tales of Two Cities

Love and age in New York and London.

By Lisa C. Hickman, Leonard Gill and Susan Ellis

FEBRUARY 9, 1998: 

A Lover’s Almanac

By Maureen Howard
Viking, 270 pp., $24.95

For those seeking a unique Valentine’s gift for the exceptionally literary, Maureen Howard’s new novel, A Lover’s Almanac, will do nicely. And as a bonus, Howard provides a sneak preview of the millennium – a time, if the design of her novel is indicative, fraught with details, minutiae, and an overabundance of information.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac serves as this contemporary novel’s model, complete with sketches, poems about the months (March was Emily Dickinson’s favorite), and weather predictions. There are also quiet tidbits concerning zodiac signs and famous quotations and hearty passages providing glimpses of historical, literary, and religious figures: Saint Agnes, for example, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Edgar Burroughs, Thomas Jefferson. Binding these novelistic fancies together is a lovely story about Artie Freeman and Louise Moffett, a talented young New York couple who are hopelessly – and painfully – in love.

The novel has a splendid first chapter. It is 3 a.m. and officially the “Year of Our Lord 2000.” Louise totters about her Manhattan apartment (a converted warehouse suitable for her paintings) in stiletto heels and little else. Her New Year’s Eve party, with its Fifties theme to issue in the millennium and with guests appearing in the appropriate retro attire, has just ended with Artie’s drunken marriage proposal and a brawl. Louise’s disconsolate conclusion is that the “clown,” Artie, has broken her heart (“Artie’s affliction is lightness”), and their breakup holds throughout much of the ensuing narrative.

A cold and snow-covered New Year’s Day greets Artie. Hung over and despairing, his phone calls to Louise go unanswered: “I’m sorry,” his message goes. “It’s a sorry world, Louise. Louise, I know you’re there. Have mercy.”

Besieged by such calls, Louise looks out her window onto the party’s remnants and watches “a woman tug at a miniature dog sniffing the stiletto heels, then pick up the smoky-blue dress bought at Second Hand Rose, hold the stiff silk to her large body. Silk of such quality Louise had placed the dress above the slush, set its swinging skirt with care on a hydrant, now her last sight of it swept away with the yelping dog down Broadway, taffeta snapping like a flag in the wind, her false colors receding. And believes she is well rid of it, the loveliest dress she’ll ever own.”

Such prose passages are gifts to keep the reader (“tolerant reader” Howard addresses us) progressing through what many may find bothersome and extraneous. But wonderful secondary characters embellish Louise and Artie’s story of separation and redemption. Suffering to the point of malnourishment, they finally reunite, in a relationship cemented by realism. A Lover’s Almanac begs for a tolerant reader, though not without rewards.

– Lisa C. Hickman


Visitors

By Anita Brookner
Random House, 242 pp., $23

The simple facts of Anita Brookner’s 17th novel, Visitors, are these: A widow in her 70s, Dorothea May, alone in a contemporary London suburb, agrees reluctantly to a houseguest, a young man come to England to act as best man for his friend David and David’s bride-to-be, Ann. Ann is the granddaughter of Kitty, overbearing cousin of Dorothea’s late husband, and the daughter of Kitty’s son Gerald, who’s abandoned them both. Kitty and her husband are putting up the money for the wedding, and Ann, outspoken, unkempt, poor, is sometimes, sometimes not, putting up with them.

This being Anita Brookner, who has based a long line of excellent novels on such subtle distinctions, the subsurface facts are also these: Ann, unhappy child and unhappier adult, doesn’t really know what she wants or to whom she may in time feel a need to turn. Gerald, the grown and alienated son, is more abandoned than abandoning. And Ann, considerate, intelligent, introspective, and content to live out her measured days as she has lived out her measured life, has her contentment upset not by that houseguest but by quietly going about her own disquieting refiltering of the past.

All of this could easily be boring (and if not boring, then depressing, and if neither, then nothing new) but for Brookner’s customary brilliance and careful delving into what is, even for her, a barer-than-usual bare-bones plot.

The freedom and expectations of youth (“that alien race”) are the topics here – in addition to such crowd-pleasing favorites as physical decline, loneliness, loss, and the closing freedom and expectations of old age. But is there a better writer today to take on these topics as they relate to a certain population (Londoners) and to a certain class of Londoner (upper-middle)? Henry James is usually hauled in as the model for Brookner’s microscopic method. Unlike James, however, you won’t need a machete to clear through Brookner’s syntax – only a willingness as reader to slow down and, like it or not, recognize oneself in these pages too.

– Leonard Gill

Remaking the World Adventures in Engineering

By Henry Petroski
Knopf, 212 pp., $24

The word “adventures” in the subtitle of Henry Petroski’s Remaking the World – a collection of his American Scientist essays – is sometimes a misnomer. While many of his essays detail the daring of some long-ago engineer (like the creation of the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal), some bring up theoretical points (why is it that the minute you buy software it’s obsolete?), while others delineate matters of happenstance (how engineers effectively were shut out by the Nobel prizes when Nobel himself was an engineer) or trace the history of a piece of jargon (the origins of “back of the envelope”). The span of his subject matter ultimately results in a book that sways from being a page-turner to being a chore.

You may be able to chalk up the latter charge to the fact that Petroski is a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. There’s a definite pattern to his work of going back and back some more, wading through minutiae, to find the very first evidence of an engineering idea, or he’ll simply overexplain the idea – both of which can make for tedious reading. Worse still, he takes on some subjects that only about .000000001 of the population could possibly care about. Take, for instance, his essay titled “In Context.” Here Petroski discusses at length his theories behind the results of a recent survey of 1950s civil-engineering students at Duke that revealed fond memories of a particular history professor.

Remaking the World does pick up when Petroski delivers those adventures he promised. In “The Ferris Wheel,” he shows how the Eiffel Tower begat the Ferris wheel. As the story goes, officials involved in the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in 1893 in Chicago were determined to outdo the Eiffel Tower, for America’s pride was at stake. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. came up with his wheel, and while the rest is history, the original wheel fell on hard times immediately after its huge success at the exposition and was dynamited in 1906. In “The Great Eastern,” the author recounts how Isambard Brunel staked his reputation on an enormous ship, the Great Eastern, that was so large it had to be launched sideways. On the fateful day, after careful planning, the ship was released from its massive mooring chains, after which it moved just 4 feet before grinding to a halt.

It’s these sorts of tales that make Remaking the World worthwhile. As for the boring parts, consider them a design flaw. – Susan Ellis


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