Tag Archives: Jonathan Raban

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Wonderful books are coming at me from every direction, it seems. Once again I have the amazing librarians at the VPL to thank for putting Seating Arrangements where I would be sure to spy it and add it to my heap of books. I’m actually going to download this as well, the writing is that good. And I have it on hand so I can provide a few quotes to prove just how fun this book is.

When I wrote about Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, I noted a trend in literature coming from the UK. There is a similar yet distinct vein in American writing as well, of which I am equally fond. The best examples are, in my opinion, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving and Curtis Sittenfeld.  Again, it’s the relatively common-sense expository style that I like. These writers however, are more explicit in their examinations of social mores than are the English.  (Both include details of food and clothing which I love.)

Seating Arrangements deals largely with social striving, the futility of endlessly climbing a ladder which has no end:

“These people, this pervasive clique, this Establishment to which Winn had attached himself and his family, seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity.” p. 75

“Years had to pass before Dominique could see the strain they placed on themselves or, rather, what their grand goal was. They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. That was what Dominique could not understand: why devote so much energy to imitating a system that was supposed to be defunct? Any hereditary aristocracy was stupid, and Americans didn’t even have rules for theirs, not really. Lots of the kids Dominique knew at Deerfield came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy, half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of impostors. But, she supposed, people who believe themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.” p. 78

Dominique is a Coptic Christian Egyptian who attended private school and later Princeton with the protagonist’s daughters. She provides the outside voice who makes cool observations of the others. The protagonist, Winn, seems at first like a classic East Coast patrician. But as the novel progresses the fragile construct that Winn lives by is slowly eroded as the reader – and Winn himself – discovers just how tenuous his grip on his social status really is. You have to feel pity for Winn as he seems obsessed with a golf club which refuses to admit him. He keeps casting about for reasons and he descends into pitiable gestures, flailings at those he imagines are responsible. His shallow yearnings inspire contempt and pity, and his weak attraction to his daughter’s friend makes it even worse. Meanwhile one of his daughters is hugely pregnant and about to be married, and the other is suffering from rejection and an abortion. The first daughter has completely bought into the faux-aristocratic lifestyle; his second makes bitter observations about the uselessness of all the striving:

“The club, she thought, was an institution that existed for little purpose other than to select its members. Once you were in, then what?” p. 70

“People shuffled the order of love, marriage, and baby carriage all the time, but not people who had grown up under the contiguous roofs of Winn Van Meter, Deerfield, and Princeton.” p. 260

Livia also makes some amusing observations: while being prepped for her abortion, she notices, “an apparatus the size and shape of a small water cooler covered with a quilted, strawberry-printed sort of tea cozy. Was there some booth at a craft fair that sold cheerful, handmade accessories for abortionists?” p. 263

Winn’s concern for his status far outweighs his concern for his daughters and his wife and he seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents and tensions that surround him as guests and family gather for his daughter’s wedding, whilst he simultaneously becomes more and more hysterical about the perceived snub of the golf club. He gives a disastrous toast in which he compares marriage to death: “What else is there to do? You can’t date forever. We don’t want to be alone. We marry, and we live out our lives. Then…well, marriage, even a happy marriage like my own and like I’m sure yours will be, Daphne, is a precursor to death. If you never leave your partner and you’re faithful, marriage has the same kind of finality. there is nothing else.” Awesome. Immediately afterward his new son-in-law explains to the gathering that Winn was knocked off his bicycle earlier and is under the influence of painkillers. And Winn, in the grip of despair at being barred from the holiest of holies, is just getting started. I’m going to stop here before I give it all away.

I find it interesting, the desire – and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Americans – for a kind of caste system in which one is at the peak or at least in sight of the peak. I think it’s significant that the two biggest commercial vendors of this fictional aristocratic image are both immigrants or children of immigrants – Ralph Lauren, formerly Lifshitz, and Martha Stewart, formerly Kostyra. There have been enough wealthy Americans aping British aristocracy for them to be able to re-create, visually, a lifestyle that never really existed. (Jonathan Raban writes about the Ralph Lifshitz/Lauren phenomenon in his book Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.)

Dominique: “As a member of an unpopular minority in her home country, secular though she and her parents were, she thought she should be outraged by WASPy illusions of grandeur and birthright, their smugness, the nepotistic power they wielded. But the worst she could summon was a bleak, mild pity, and more often, she felt a bleak, mild amusement. Her sense was that the Van Meters had to throw more elbows than some to keep their status, and at times she caught herself feeling sorry for them.” p. 79

I suppose there are lots of people who need to feel better than other people, albeit for equally silly qualities or achievements. When I lived in England I kept meeting people who behaved in a very superior manner towards others, but when you talked to them to try to find out exactly how excellent they were and why, it would essentially boil down to the fact that they were born to a family that had pretensions to some kind of social loftiness. They would often have no great skills, or interesting work, or even a university degree. I would have settled for “idle philosopher” but most of them didn’t seem to think, even. They didn’t read, they didn’t engage in the world, yet they considered themselves a cut above everyone else. It all came down to being born. Talk about confusing luck with virtue. I always thought that was very sad – there must be immense depths of insecurity for someone to clutch onto this ephemeral idea of superiority. If you know anything at all about English history, or even if you’ve read Edward Rutherfurd’s London or similar books, you know that titles and aristocracy could be happened upon accidentally, or even bought. Charles II was an impoverished king who sold titles left and right to anybody who had the ready cash. Even in Downtown Abbey, Lord Grantham has married an American woman whose fortune has enabled him to remain Lord Grantham. The rest of the family condescends to Cora, but without her money – her American money – they wouldn’t have a silver pot to P in. In Australia, we discovered that if you want to make an Australian bristle, bring up convict ships. I guess the First Fleet, though it has a cachet of its own, is not exactly the same as the Mayflower. Even the Mayflower – in Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent he describes the passengers of the Mayflower as being woefully unequipped and too incompetent to survive life in the New World. There must be something to be proud of in there but I’m not sure what it is.

In my own family, people periodically mention the fact that my great-grandfather entertained the Prince of Wales when HRH came to Canada in the 1920s. I always think, So what? HRH’s train happened to stop in Lethbridge, Alberta, a community that consisted of maybe 20 Doukhobors and then Pete and Margaret Smith, who had come north to Canada leaving behind their Mormon roots in Utah so that they could have a drink in peace. The train had to stop somewhere and Lethbridge was convenient. I picture the royal equerry choosing activities for HRH and pondering: a tour of a Doukhobor farm, or a night with the area’s bon vivant? Tough choice! I don’t drink but even I would choose to hang out with Granddad Pete over touring a pig farm. Of course, I have actually toured a Doukhobor farm on a family visit so I know of which I speak – being a city kid, I found that the farm produced aromas that I found, um, strong, so I was holding my hand to my face. One of our Doukhobor hostesses, a lady in a starched apron and wire-rimmed glasses, frowned at me and flicked my hand away from my face, like I was going to offend the pigs. I retaliated by lifting my t-shirt over my nose and glaring at her over the collar.

So, “entertaining royalty”, though it sounds good, just means that Granddad could party and there was nobody else available who spoke English and not Russian. Dubious distinction at best! Why do we have such a weakness for our little pedigrees? What does it all actually mean? In the New World, not a whole lot, and that should really apply to the Old World as well. Remember the French Revolution? How long did it take for Napoleon to resurrect all that noble fawning? In Communist countries, party officials become puffed-up elites clad in Louis Vuitton bought with kickback money. Drug dealers use their ill-gotten loot to gain admittance for their children to private schools in attempts to achieve respectability, like the Corleones. Climbing, climbing, always climbing, trying to forget from whence we really came.

Anyway, enough about me. Seating Arrangements pokes fun at this phenomenon more eloquently than I can, it’s hilarious, and the writing is wonderful. And Ms. Shipstead was born in 1983! She’s so young but has such a grip on the language. Kudos to her. There were no mistakes in grammar or usage which was a a relief, although this is often the failing of editors and copyeditors. (In this week’s edition of Maclean’s magazine (Canadian news magazine) someone wrote, “a lower-wrung staffer” – italics mine. I winced when I read it.)

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Milestone Books in My Life

A shot of the fiction bookcase

My mother taught me to read when I was very young, about 2 1/2. I remember her reading to me books like The Wind in the Willows and she filled the house with books of all kinds and just let me loose. She gave me the gift of reading for which I thank her still. I can still recall important discoveries in my reading life:

Age 7: Discovered The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in my parents’ bookshelf and after that it was open season on their books.

Age 8: Read Anne of Green Gables whilst on vacation in Hawaii. Did not understand most of the biblical and classical quotes, but added new words like “perquisites”to my vocabulary.

Age 8: Started reading my mother’s cookbooks, most notably the Time/Life series that focused on food of different regions, like Italy, China, France, etc. and also Creative Cooking, published by Reader’s Digest, that had recipes, organized by month, but also contained, enthrallingly, pages and pages of ingredients with illustrations.

This was my bible from when I was about 8 years old until I was in my teens.

Two pages on cheese, with pictures and a legend so you could get a description of each cheese. A page on fruit, with a drawing of forced rhubarb next to regular rhubarb. My mother was a foodie before the term “foodie” existed; she’s also a dietician. She started teaching me how to cook when I was 8 and I’ve been a full-on cook ever since.

Age 10: Read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings and to this day I re-read TLOTR about once every two years. When the movie came out I was one of those critical people pointing out the differences between book and movie. In my head, only, of course.

Age 12: Read a friend’s older sibling’s copy of The Exorcist in one afternoon. Was frightened for more than a year.

Age 12: Found Emil and the Piggy Beast by Astrid Lindgren in the school library, brought it home, read it to my little sister and we howled. I still read her stuff I find funny so that we can laugh together. She wants me to read Fifty Shades of Grey so we can mock it, shrieking with laughter, but I just don’t have that kind of time any more. Well, maybe I will. I’m just so morally opposed to this kind of thing: badly-written books getting so much attention? Sequels? Feh. (Plus, I went through all the porn stuff with Anne Rice about 20 years ago. Been there, read that.) (tangent alert) It’s like all the reality shows where people willingly expose their shallowness and vulgarity. These people are damaging our culture and should not be encouraged. I refuse to watch, even though a friend of mine knows someone on Real Housewives of Vancouver and wants me to watch it. Nope. Can’t.

Age 13: Read Stephen King’s Christine in one sitting, have been a fan ever since. My tastes have changed a bit since then but I still like his writing, particularly the Dark Tower series, some of his Richard Bachman stories like The Shawshank Redemption, It, The Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, Duma Key…The Stand and the Talisman also.

Age 14: Discovered in my parents’ bookshelf: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, James Herriott’s Vet books, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. That was a happy reading summer even if I was a bit mystified by Margaret Atwood. Edible Woman was ok but then I read Surfacing and was like, What? But I adore The Robber Bride and Lady Oracle.

Age 16: Gone with the Wind – read it in one afternoon, had stunning headache afterwards. Rented the movie (Betamax!); my mom taught me the word “schmaltz.”

Age 16: Read my mother’s copy of Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux. Have been a fan of his writing, travel writing in general, and also books about China, ever since. I discovered Jonathan Raban and Dervla Murphy at about this time too.

Age 17: Read Robertson Davies for the first time. Magic.

Age 17: Discovered Anaïs Nin in mother’s bookshelf. Yikes.

Age 17: An ex-boyfriend gave me a copy of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road because he knew I’d love it and he was right. I still love him a bit just for that. He’s also the one who introduced me to movies like This is Spinal Tap. I still adore Helene Hanff. And the Spinal Tap guys.

Age 18: Read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, swiftly moved on to Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. I was setting the stage for my discovery of Han Suyin later in my twenties.

Age 18: Picked up Pride and Prejudice in the library and found out that Jane Austen is hilarious! Who knew. She’s still one of my favourite writers. She opened the door to classics for me.

Age 18: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first book that made me cry. And I love his turn of phrase: “Grandmother possessed those essential qualities that made the inappropriate gesture work: those being facetiousness and sarcasm.” (that’s off the top of my head, I don’t have it in front of me so mistakes are because it’s from memory)

Age 19: Mom gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and I realized I’d have to wait for the movie to find out what the hell happened. I’m a very fast reader so when prose gets, say, lyrical, I don’t usually pause to parse it. I enjoy poetic prose when it enhances my understanding of the novel as a whole – Margaret Atwood excels at this – but I’m not good when the whole thing is all poetic. This is my failing and maybe one day I’ll self-improve and get into Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marques and other authors my mother’s always going on about. Our tastes in literature overlap but do not completely jive.

Age 20: Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth – consumed on a red-eye flight from Toronto where I was visiting my boyfriend. Red-eyed, indeed. This book sparked an interest in English history that I indulge to this day. I went on to more historical fiction, with Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory, and then into non-fiction writers like Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser. I still love all these authors. And I am a total know-it-all when it comes to English history, which is something worse than totally useless in the restaurant business and the side effect is that historical TV shows like The Tudors drive me insane. Justin’s banned it because of all the ranting afterwards.

Age 22: Discovered M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing. I still love How to Cook a Wolf. I adore this type of cookbook; lots of writing with some recipes in there too. Laurie Colwin, Colman Andrews, Mark Kurlansky, Ruth Reichl, A.A. Gill, and Robert L. Wolke. My heroes.

Age 24: A friend recommended Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There and I discovered that you can’t read anything really funny before you go to sleep because it’s too stimulating. I was up all night, giggling. I lent it to my dad for a flight to Hong Kong, but had to confiscate it because he put in earplugs, then started reading and was laughing so loud he was disturbing everybody else in business class. I absolutely love all of Bryson’s writing and his memoir of growing up in the ’50s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is one of my all-time favourites.

Age 25: Michael Crichton’s Travels has been an important book for me. Here was a Harvard-medical-school-educated, science-oriented, extremely critical and analytical thinker – and the last third of this book details his explorations of the paranormal world. I know! Right? He learns to read auras, dispel entities….it’s incredible and really opened my mind. A bit, anyway. One day I’ll post about the ghost in the Washington Athletic Club.

Age 26: Han Suyin’s memoirs about her life and her relationship with China as a half-Asian, half-Belgian intellectual who fled her marriage to a Kuomintang general to become a doctor in the UK. And then had the sense not to return to live in Communist China. A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. Amazing. She is a genius and totally my guru and also half-Asian like me so we’re practically sisters. See, I’m gushing. I have to admit, nowadays her writing seems a bit turgid and pedantic, but she’s still my hero.

Age 30: Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories – amazing, wonderful, hilarious.

Age 30: Jared Diamond. I read Guns, Germs and Steel on vacation on the east coast of Oahu. Wow. Need I say more? Collapse is even better.

Age 31: Christopher Moore. When I run out of reading material I go get Bloodsucking Fiends or Fluke and have a giggle for myself.

Age 31: Augusten Burroughs, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell….worship the wit, the honesty, the courage, the funniness.

Age 36: Charles Clover, The End of the Line, Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder. And similar books on sustainability. After this series of reading, sustainability became a big goal at Hapa; we joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Oceanwise program in 2010, which, as a Japanese restaurant, was tough to do and we’re definitely alone in our genre.

Age 37+: Discovered more fabulous fun authors: Laurie Notaro, Jen Lancaster, Diablo Cody….the memoirists, they rock my world. I like people who have a small streak of nastiness as opposed to those who are perfectly happy and positive all the time. Where do those people come from? I think they’re hiding something.

I’m stopping there….that’s the short list because I’m worried about this post getting too long. Also we’re getting close to my present age. One more! Last year I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. OK, I’m stopping there.


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