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Seating Arrangements

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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Monday night I wrote about Christopher Benfey’s Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival, which I was a third of the way into. As I continued to read it (finishing early yesterday morning), I found story after story that tempted me to write about it again. But if I did so, I would just tell Benfey’s stories, and he does a better job. So do yourself a favor and read the book.

One example. I had mentioned that Benfey’s paternal grandfather was a lawyer and supreme court justice in Germany, and that although Jewish, he had converted to Lutheranism. And I had mentioned the family of Benfey’s paternal grandmother, also converts, who ran the largest publishing company in Europe. Later in the book, Benfey tells the tale of a trip the grandmother’s parents made to Mexico in 1937, meeting the grandmother’s sister and her husband. (The sister and husband happen to be the famous artists Anni and Josef Albers, central to several of the book’s tales, including a visit by Benfey to the site in western North Carolina of their one-time home, Black Mountain College.)

Riding first-class on the Orinoco, Benfey’s great-grandmother makes note of the third-class passengers down below, some fleeing Spain and its civil war. She’s saddened by their plight and by recent news of the bombing of Guernica, but disgusted as well by their appearance. Two years later—well, you can guess. Themselves now refugees, they are once again aboard the Orinoco, down below this time. That they make it out of Europe is something of a miracle. I just now found this article at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website that devotes its last paragraph to the sailing they were part of. They were lucky to get to Cuba.

Meanwhile, I’m on to the next book, one I would have missed had I not seen a link to an article in Salon on “overlooked books of 2012.” Each of fifteen book reviewers was asked to choose one. I don’t know that “overlooked” accurately characterizes some choices. For instance, Jenny Hendrix recommends Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, mention of which I seem to be stumbling over everywhere I turn. I downloaded the free opening portion a few weeks ago and have had it since as the next book in my queue, though I seem to keep finding books that displace it. It’s reviewed in today’s Sunday NYT book review section. And it got one of the New Yorker briefly noted reviews last month.

Then there’s Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which won the same trifecta: a listing in Slate as one of 2012’s overlooked books, a review in the NYT, and a brief note in the New Yorker. The New Yorker note must not have made an impression on me. (It was the first of four in the August 27 issue. The subject of the fourth was Christoph Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune The review made enough of an impression that I read the book within weeks.) And I don’t remember seeing the NYT review. Thank you, then, to Doree Shafrir and Salon for realizing that I had overlooked the book. Her description:

On the Nantucket-like island of Waskeke, the Van Meter family—upstanding banker father Winn, his wife, Biddy, and their two daughters—is preparing, at their summer home, for eldest daughter Daphne’s wedding. But beneath the surface of this WASPy idyll is a wickedly clever tragicomedy of manners that unfolds with the plotting of a juicy mystery and the sharp eye of someone only too aware the subtle, seemingly pointless class distinctions within the 1 percent. Maggie Shipstead’s novel was my literary beach read of the summer, but it seems wholly appropriate to tote around in any season, and perhaps now that the Gone Girl hype has died down (that ending! Seriously?), Seating Arrangements will get the attention it deserves.

How could I resist? I love Nantucket, after all. On finishing Benfey’s book yesterday, I downloaded the free opening section of Seating Arrangements. A few pages later, I bought it. I’m now just past the one-third point.

Let me tell you, you don’t want Shipstead observing you. She doesn’t miss a glance, a gesture, a jerk of the leg. Her characters are laid bare. And what a fascinating group they are. She’s funny too. I’ve broken into laughter several times. The New Yorker review speaks of her “keen-eyed rendering.” Exactly.

The New Yorker also describes the book as her “satirical debut novel, set on a fictional island reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.” Not that it matters to the enjoyment of the book, but there’s no ambiguity here. Waskeke is Nantucket. The Quaker history. Whalers. A lighthouse where the ferry makes its turn into the harbor. A character in salmon pants; another in red pants with embroidered whales. A lighthouse that has to be moved because of an eroding cliff, said lighthouse being white with a broad red stripe around the middle and a black painted dome and balcony. Might it look like this?

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket

Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket

Yup, we’re on Nantucket. With a cast (and caste) that Gail and I never hang out with on our annual visits. Fascinating folk. The book is great fun.

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