The good folks at Penguin are making it possible for Rich Texts to offer a couple of titles to readers, Amanda Hodgkinson’s debut novel 22 BRITANNIA ROAD, a New York Times bestseller, “an unforgettable story about maternal love, overcoming hardship, and ultimately, acceptance – a tour de force that will pierce your heart” and RULES OF CIVILITY, by Amor Towles.
“Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.
The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.”
A footnote in Edgar Snow’s RED STAR OVER CHINA, brought an unsolved murder to author Paul French’s attention. The victim, who became the main subject of MIDNIGHT IN PEKING, was 20 year-old Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of former British Consul, linguist and scholar ETC Werner. Her hideously mutilated body was found near a fifteenth century watchtower, part of Peking’s Tartar Wall, a place the superstitious believed to be inhabited by fox spirits, malevolent ghost who preyed on mortals to “literally love them to death.” The time was 8 January 1937. The Japanese—dwarf bandits, in the Chinese parlance of the time– were about to invade the city. “Ever since the downfall of the Qing Dinasty in 1911, (Peking) had been at the mercy of one marauding warlord after another. Nominally China was ruled by the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, but the government competed for power with the warlords and their private armies…Peking and most of Northern China was a region in flux.”
On the surface, few people seemed better equipped to navigate China’s political turmoil than Pamela, whom Werner and his wife Gladys Nina adopted from the Portuguese Church orphanage. Blonde and gray eyed, Pamela seemed to be home among the foreign residents of the Legation Quarters that encompassed the embassies of Europe, America and Japan. Perfectly fluent in Mandarin, she seemed equally at home at Armour Factory Alley, a hutong—a narrow street—in Peking’s Tartar City, in the shadow of the Fox Tower, just outside the European compound. That is where she lived with her father in a traditional Chinese house. Her mother died when she was five years old and she grew up to be so self-reliant that her father did not hesitate to leave her on her own while he went on archaeological expeditions that took him as far as Mongolia. But in this story, not everything is what it seems.
That winter, Pamela had been on vacation from her boarding school in Tientsin. “She was enjoying herself…running around the city meeting old friends, dating and ice-skating, ans spending time with her father. She rode her bicycle everywhere although the Japanese “…had steadily encircled Peking… and established their base camp a matter of miles from the Forbidden City. Acts of provocation occurred daily…Japanese thugs for hire, known as ronin, openly brought opium and heroin into Peking through Manchuria. This was done with Tokyo’s connivance and it was part of the effort to sap Peking’s will. The ronin, their agents and political collaborators , peddled the subsidized narcotics from the Badlands. A cluster of dive bars, brothels and opium dens a stone’s throw from the base of the foreign powers in the Legation Quarter.”
In this setting, which French described so cinematically that one can see the century-old wisteria in the Werners’ courtyard and feel the plush coziness of the velvet curtains in the British Peking Club, worlds collide. East is East and West is West with all tension such arrangements entail. Sometimes the tension erupts into violent disputes. Sometimes, it remains muted, nearly invisible, such as the suffering White Russians fleeing the Soviets and that of Jews fleeing the Nazis, whom the upper crust white folks would rather not acknowledge. For the stateless and the poor posh clubs are universes away. Suicide is common among displaced Europeans and at first, unrecognizable Pamela seems to be just another casualty of geopolitics—except for the nature of her wounds. Those could never have been self-inflicted.
Two detectives set to find out her identity as well as where, why and exactly how her murderer or murderers drained hers blood before dumping her body by the Fox Tower,. Colonel Han Shih-ching of the Peking Police and Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, chief of police of the Tientsin British Concession race to find the killer before the Japanese march into the city. . It is an uneasy pairing. Dennis has no real mandate. He is,technically, an observer. For all that, suspects abound—Pamela’s eccentric and occasionally violent father, her Jewish boyfriend, her married Chinese suitor, a Portuguese-Chinese swain oddly named John O’Brien, an Irish no-goodnik. For all anyone knows, some remnant of the Righteous Fists of Harmony, the dreaded Boxers, killed the laowai—the foreign country person. “Whatever it was,” says Old Chang, the man who the found the body, “It wasn’t good.” The book, however, is excellent. French orchestrates the ungraceful dance of the two detectives in a way that it reflects the unease between people who neither know nor try to understand each other well enough to see beyond the surface. It makes for a great read, filled with twists turns and brilliant insights. I recommend it highly and I think that it will make will make terrific movie.
As the debate about genetic engineering and the presence of harmful chemicals in the food supply intensifies, erstwhile Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr, joins the ranks of those who prefer to grow their own organic veggies. Being a novice, he prepares himself by doing a fair amount of reading and by consulting experts. He documents the process in GROWING AT THE SPEED A LIFE: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF MY FIRST KITCHEN GARDEN. He organizes the information in clear, charmingly down home language, beginning with a confession about his previous lack of competence in horticultural matters, “Until this year, I never met a plant I could not kill. I was my very own herbicide.”
He goes on to share with the reader all the basics a beginner needs in order to become a successful food grower, starting with a need-to-know list adding with a hundred vegetable recipes and ending with an appeal to share the harvest. It is the interconnectedness of gardener and neighbors, the care not to do more damage to an ailing planet that lifts this modest book to a higher level, ”My kitchen garden is a metaphor for our community. The soil is a gathering place… All my adult life I’ve tried to sow a few good words to encourage my neighbors to eat together, to share good things, to find joy in their journeys.” I found Kerr’s writing modest, touching and inspiring. If I have any quibbles about his book is that I would have preferred it to include photos to illustrate each chapter. But that is small flaw that can be corrected next time he shares his gardening experience.