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The Princess and the Major

May 5, 2010

A Princess of Roumania dust-jacket

Wayne writes: In February I wrote that I had been on a ‘Williams Reads’ panel to discuss the book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. Also on the panel was the writer Paul Park, who occasionally teaches at Williams College and is the son of Clara and David Park, retired Williams faculty (English and Physics) whom I have known for more than thirty years. I had not yet read any of Paul’s novels, and since Christina had picked up his ‘Roumania’ quartet (2005–2008) as each volume was published, I gave it a try. These books – A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, and The Hidden World – are children’s fantasy of a very dark variety, compelling but often nightmarishly disturbing. Some of the blurbs that compare them to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy aren’t far off the mark, though Pullman’s main actors are children throughout his three volumes, while Park’s are children who were once adults and in the course of the story grow up yet again. It’s too complicated a tale to explain in brief, having to do with alternate worlds, magic, time travel, cutthroat politics, brutality, and war. I’m glad that all four volumes had been published by the time I began the first, since they comprise one long work, and if I had read each as published I would have forgotten some of the story threads in the yearly intervals, as happened to me with the Pullman books.

When I was halfway through The Hidden World I began to feel that the work had become repetitious and its author wasn’t quite sure where it was going. Its conclusion seemed rushed and at loose ends. Park’s characters are all immensely intriguing, however, and I don’t regret the investment of time in reading the work complete. Also, I have a personal interest in the alternate reality in which Miranda, the titular princess of Roumania, ‘grew up’: a sleepy Massachusetts college town in the Berkshires, the very one where Christina and I live, actually named ‘Williamstown’ once or twice in the books – or rather, a sort-of Williamstown, with some of its features spot on and others slightly off, with buildings and roads not always quite where they should be, as if one were walking in a dream. In any case, it’s interesting to read a story while physically in its setting; I had much the same feeling on first reading John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids while in London.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand dust-jacket

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson (2010) is a very different sort of book, not the kind of story I usually read but one I’m glad to have come upon. I have a review in the New York Times to thank, as well as the author herself for posting part of the first chapter on her web site. Major Pettigrew is a retired British army officer who in suffering the loss of his brother becomes friends with Mrs. Ali, a widowed shopkeeper of Pakistani heritage. They share a love of literature and traditional values – ‘honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea’, to quote the jacket blurb – sadly lacking in the Major’s son and in other characters throughout the book, infected with bigotry and greed. Despite some unexpected violence and strained humor in its closing chapters, I found Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand to be very satisfying, mainly, I suppose, because the Major and I are both 20th-century men who often find the 21st too fast-paced and self-centered for its own good.

In recent non-fiction, I can recommend Sanderson: The Essence of English Decoration by Mary Schoeser (2010), an illustrated history of the English firm known for its wallpapers and fabrics. Sanderson own the Morris & Co. patterns and keeps some of them in production – we have curtains in Morris’s ‘Pomegranate’ (also known as ‘Fruit’) and intend to have some made in ‘Willow Boughs’ and ‘Honeysuckle II’.

Our town library had its annual book sale last month. I used to love library book sales, not knowing what one might find, and whatever one found it cost next to nothing. But now we have so many books already (if never enough!), and professional dealers tend to sweep up the better volumes in the first few minutes, so it’s always slim pickings. Nor, unfortunately, does our sale accept used record albums anymore; I sometimes found rarities in the LP bins, and still have a working turntable. Altogether, though, I did pretty well this year: five hardcover books for only six dollars total. Evidently a local Sherlockian gave up his collection, from which I got The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collected and introduced by Peter Haining, Sherlock Holmes and His Creator by Trevor H. Hall, I, Sherlock Holmes edited and annotated by Michael Harrison, and The Sherlock Holmes File by Michael Pointer, all but one in dust-jacket. I also bought a nice copy of the 1958 number (18) of the miscellany The Saturday Book, not bad for a dollar.

Images: Dust-jacket art by John Jude Palencar for A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park (yes, she does look like Angelina Jolie), and by J. Grenard for Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.

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