In the middle 1800s, a Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer wrote three odd children's books: "The Countries of Europe Described," "Far Off, Part I: Asia...

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“The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World”
edited by Todd Pruzan
Bloomsbury, 198 pp., $19.95

In the middle 1800s, a Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer wrote three odd children’s books: “The Countries of Europe Described,” “Far Off, Part I: Asia and Australia Described,” and “Far Off, Part II: Africa and America Described.” The trilogy has been out of print for many decades, but recently writer-editor Todd Pruzan discovered a copy of “The Countries of Europe Described.” Now he has put together a sampling of Mrs. Mortimer’s observations, republished as “The Clumsiest People in Europe.”

One might think that the sort of person who seeks to educate children about other cultures would have traveled extensively, but Mrs. Mortimer left England only twice. She did, however, write 16 children’s books, including one about the Bible that sold a million copies. The books were matter-of-fact in tone, although not necessarily suited for modern audiences. One contained the line, “If a great box were to fall on your head, your head would be crushed.”

Her travel books reveal a more unpleasant side of her, far more jarring to modern sensibilities. She writes: “The Prussians are not fond of eating … They are content with bread and butter.” Or: “The Portuguese language is not as beautiful as the Spanish, it has more hissing sounds, and is spoken in harsh and squeaking tones.” And so she continues in describing people and places from New Zealand to New York.

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Pruzan, who writes for McSweeney’s and edits the design journal Print, found Mrs. Mortimer’s books while rummaging around in an old bookshop on Martha’s Vineyard. At first scornful and amused, he slowly became obsessed with Mrs. Mortimer, tracked down her life and story and decided to “rescue” her and her observations. He writes, “It finally dawned on me that the endurance of sweeping cultural stereotypes has a valuable place in our lives … because we find them useful.”

Mrs. Mortimer’s observations may provide insight into Victorian culture, but that’s the only value I can see in rehashing old prejudices. Pruzan offers some commentary and suggests an ironic reading of her generalizations. Yet, I suspect we have enough horrible modern stereotypes and narrow-minded opinions that drive people to despicable acts. No need to bring old ones back to light, too.

Reviewed by David B. Williams

“Alternate Beauty”
by Andrea Rains Waggener
Bantam, 371 pp., $14

After years of being shunned by Seattle’s elite society because of her obesity, Veronica Tremayne wakes up one morning and is the center of attention. The morning after a horrible day when she found out she would lose her job at a plus-size dress shop if she didn’t lose weight, she wakes up in a new reality where the more you weigh, the more society considers you a beauty.

At first she attempts to make sense of her new world: “I regarded the man’s fat face and thick neck. By this world’s standards, he was quite attractive. In my old reality, he would have been a loser. I was struggling to adapt to the perceptions in this world and let go of the ones from my old world … “

But as she becomes more and more popular with Seattle socialites, she allows herself to be treated as an object. When her boyfriend asks her to move into his apartment after two weeks of dating, her decision is more of a surprise to herself than an acceptance of a progressing relationship. She immediately feels dread when she says yes. Dread later turns into excitement, not because she is in a loving relationship, but because she will be living with a famous photographer. As Veronica becomes more and more accustomed to the positive attention that comes her way, she also falls into accepting superficiality as a way of life.

Veronica leaves her friends behind as she enters a world where she is idolized for her size. As she revels in the attention and flattery, she begins to lose weight without actively trying. As she loses weight, she becomes more and more unpopular and experiences the same prejudices she did as an overweight woman in our reality.

Washington Coast author Waggener throws her character into a reality that is hard to visualize. Characters repeatedly tell Veronica that she needs to eat more and that they are concerned that she’s lost weight. “Have you been ill?” is a common question asked by portly debutantes and concerned friends.

Waggener leads us through a few laugh-out-loud scenes that illustrate how infatuated our own society is with appearances, making “Alternate Beauty” a fun, light-hearted novel that throws a punch at the superficiality of our reality.

Reviewed by Rebecca Taylor

“Crawl Space”
by Edie Meidav
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 445 pp., $26

In her new novel, “Crawl Space,” California writer Edie Meidav puts a face on what philosopher Hannah Arendt famously called “the banality of evil.” The face she creates belongs to Emile Poulquet, a petty bureaucrat and Nazi collaborator during World War II. As a member of France’s Vichy government, Poulquet was responsible for sending his countrymen to hard labor and even death at German hands.

Poulquet, like so many of his fellows, seems less evil than unimaginative and resentful of his own insignificance. Introducing himself to us a half-century after the fact, when he is 84 and a pariah in his own land, he tells the story in his own voice, illuminating his shriveled soul as he justifies his life.

After decades as a fugitive, Poulquet has recently been caught and put on trial for his deeds. But almost as bad as this humiliation is the testimony provided by a witness, Arianne Fauret. She is the woman he has been obsessed with since childhood, and yet, taking the stand, she denies that the man on trial is actually Poulquet.

He cannot bear the anonymity to which she’s consigned him. Going on the lam, he returns to the scene of his crimes — a village in southeastern France called Finier — in order to confront Arianne. His return coincides, ironically, with a reunion of war refugees. To avoid detection, he links up with a ragtag band of young counter-culture types who welcome the octogenarian into their tribe.

This turn of events is no less jarring than the transformation of the cold, self-justifying bureaucrat that fills the first half of the book. As the plot hustles forward, the earlier, more compelling Poulquet is replaced by a new and gentler version, leaving confusion in its wake.

Reviewed by Ellen Emry Heltzel