In her distinguished first novel, "The Pleasing Hour" (1999), Lily King showed her ability to tell a resonant and rich story about a young woman unable...
“The English Teacher”
by Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press,
242 pp., $24
In her distinguished first novel, “The Pleasing Hour” (1999), Lily King showed her ability to tell a resonant and rich story about a young woman unable to put into words her loss of innocence. That charming novel, set in France, set a high bar for King’s subsequent writing.
In her second novel, “The English Teacher,” King achieves that level of prose again, but without the brio and humor of a young American among the French. In “The English Teacher,” King’s main character is a 40-ish single mom and teacher, Vida Avery, held hostage by an experience that she has not fully confronted. More cannot be said about this without spoiling the reading experience, but astute readers will figure it out early on.
The lives of Vida and her son, Peter, are thrown into high relief when she accepts the marriage proposal of a widower with three children. The families don’t so much blend as separate within one house for reasons having to do with Vida’s hardened secret, which is perfectly rendered in its awkwardness as “no story she feels able to tell.”
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The author of “The English Teacher” will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; www.thirdplacebooks.com).
The author of “Julie & Julia” will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333;
Vida’s 10th-grade class on “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” Thomas Hardy’s 19th-century novel, is considered a legendary experience by students at the private academy where she teaches; Vida dislikes the hapless Tess so much that her students become Tess’ champions. As your English teacher might once have asked, How does King’s treatment of this novel within the novel illustrate her own character’s situation?
The naiveté and optimism of 15-year-old Peter in the most heartbreaking of scenes is portrayed in an admirably unobtrusive style. King’s prose throughout this fine novel is restrained and powerful, whether she is describing Vida’s paralyzed witness of her own life, or tangential class and in-group observations.
Reviewed by Wingate Packard
“Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen”
by Julie Powell
Little, Brown, 320 pp., $23.95
Julie Powell became a minor Internet celebrity in the past couple of years, as she undertook the “Julie/Julia Project” — feverishly distracting herself from her dead-end job and fertility challenges by deciding to make each and every recipe in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year. She kept a blog (still viewable at http://blogs.salon.com/0001399/), talking about the triumphs (Potage Parmentier) and trials (“lobster murder”) of her little experiment. Fans loved it.
Now comes the inevitable book, marketed, perhaps also inevitably, as the “next Bridget Jones/Helen Fielding/Sophie Kinsella” chick-lit confessional phenom. But while Powell’s clunky writing style has a certain raw, immediate charm on the Web, it’s just so wooden on the page that the book never really comes to life.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the premise. To re-create every single recipe in Child’s seminal cooking guide, and chronicle the saga, is a terrific idea. Even with the book’s shortcomings, one is reminded, deliciously, of the lush offerings in Child’s book — Tournedos Sautés aux Champignons (filets mignons sautéed with mushrooms), Fonds d’Artichauts à la Crème (artichokes in cream), Navarin Printanier (lamb stew with spring vegetables). Mmmm.
Unfortunately, Powell and her posse — her supportive husband, Eric, and assorted friends and food guinea pigs — just aren’t compelling on the page, and, ultimately, neither is Powell’s life or, sadly, her project. Powell’s devotion to Child is touching, and that Child died during the year of the project lends the book some poignancy. But in the end, Powell’s writing is not up to its own challenge. Better to buy a fresh copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” yourself and toast Child’s memory with a full-bodied red.
Reviewed by Anne Hurley
“Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People and the Environment”
by Jacques Leslie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pp., $25
This fascinating, if densely detailed, study of the struggle to erect — or not erect — dams highlights many of the issues that rose into view as a result of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. Namely, that the control of water is dangerous and expensive and that in some cases it’s easy to wonder why we try at all.
Leslie estimates that more than 70 percent of the 45,000 dams built around the world in recent years have done more harm than good. “Deep Water” profiles three people who have learned this the hard way. Medha Patkar is an activist who tries unsuccessfully to drown herself to protest the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam in India; Don Blackmore is a water project manager in Australia caught between the compelling needs to make a buck off the Murray River and to keep it unpolluted; Thayer Scudder is a World Bank consultant who has seen dams threaten various parts of Africa.
Leslie is a fine writer, and quite animated when bringing these figures to life. No other book presents this issue to a lay reader so thoroughly and so persuasively. In the end, Leslie is no fan of dams — they are “loaded weapons aimed down rivers,” he says — but he is in no hurry to dynamite them into rubble, either. Time, he purposes, will take care of that.
Reviewed by John Freeman