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Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City (Directions) Hardcover – September 7, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
This latest entry in National Geographics series of famous writers on famous cities is like the British dish bubble and squeak: a hash of thrown together bits and pieces that might be tasty but isnt very filling. An avid reader, Quindlen (Living Out Loud, etc.) developed an acute case of literature-induced Anglophilia at an early age. As a precocious youngster, she was enchanted by the terrace houses, green squares and horse-drawn carriages of the written worlds of Daniel Defoe, William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens and Henry Jamess London. Later swept away by Virginia Woolf and the Mitford sisters, Quindlen doesnt actually visit London until her mid-40s while on a trip to promote one of her own books. Quindlens narrative essays, while thematic, lack enough specific locations to make them consistently interesting. While she comments on the extraordinary fact that one can still find ones way around London based on 18th-century literary plot points, she doesnt take explicit literary tours herself, leaving readers to wonder to what extent the expectations of a lifelong love affair with the London of her mental library are met. Instead, Quindlen shifts the focus away from herself and toward her experience of traveling with her 20-something writer son, comparing and contrasting their generational impressions of the city. Map not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Best-selling novelist and Newsweek columnist Quindlen has always been an "indefatigable" reader, and British novels set in London, "indisputably the capital of literature," have been a particular passion. Quindlen acquired a vivid impression of the city from absorbing Dickens, Eliot, Galsworthy, Doyle, Woolf, and Lessing, writers for whom London was as much a living character as their indelible protagonists. But she admits she was reluctant to travel there and obliterate the imagined with the actual. Finally, a book tour sends her to this fabled place, and she does revel in London's evocative complexity as she undertakes pilgrimages to literary landmarks. Deftly contrasting "the London frozen in the amber of great fiction" with today's city, Quindlen discerns the key lesson of English literature: the "unvarying nature both of social problems and personal dramas." The continuity that links, for instance, characters and predicaments in Monica Ali's Brick Lane (2003) to those in Dickens' works. A consistently enlightening and enjoyable writer, Quindlen presents a smart, bookish, wry, and stimulating portrait of the most literary of cities. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
This book reminds me of Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street in that it focuses on literary London, but like that book, Imagined London appeals on many levels. A visitor to London can use it as a walking tour guide, for example. Even those who will rarely or never visit the city will find the elegant writing and deft descriptions are to be treasured.
My only complaint about Imagined London is that it is far too short! Had it been two or even three times as long, I would still savor every word!
"London isn't real, it's just a fact. And if people understood that they'd pull the place down."
There was a certain poetic truth latent in this rantoid, but, after five or six repetitions, the tendentious truth was as dead as repeated wit can be.
If D. H. Lawrence can be tiresome on the the topic of London in five or six sentences, imagine how tiresome Anna Quindlen can be while she goes on for 162 pages about the place we get tired of when we get tired of life, namely by imposing the viewpoints of a white PC liberal new-age feminist American fan of (mostly) England's more insipid literature on this terrifying city.
Only for fans of Quindlen who might not mind her babblings about literary London, or rather her own PC selection of that subset of the city.
My dear Watson, The Case of the Missing Platform illustrates two pernicious problems:
1. Quindlen didn't visit the real London until she was a successful journalist in her 40's. Her first (and only?) visit was for a book tour of her own book. Quindlen is cute when she gets excited, but she comes off like a Dickens fangirl with a free tourist map.
2. Either Quindlen hasn't heard of Harry Potter or considers Harry Potter beneath her. How about a little 1984 action and a bit of V FOR VENDETTA? Where are Wooster & Jeeves? IMAGINED LONDON is entirely devoted to classics from a high school reading list (Dickens, Thackeray, the Bloomsbury group), and the book is peppered with insecure bragging as Quindlen namedrops the big books she voluntarily read at a young age. She seems to know that she's unqualified to write this book and compensates by telling irrelevant stories about how she once wrote papers using British diction.
Then Anna does stuff like wander into Covent Garden on accident, fail to recognize it, and then fail to note that the unrecognizability of Covent Garden is a really interesting piece of urban sociology. Like Times Square, Covent Garden used to be a STD vortex. MY FAIR LADY depicts the "flower seller" selling actual flowers, but don't tell me you don't know what ladyflower Eliza Dolittle was selling. Today's Covent Garden, in an astounding feat of urban renewal, is made of tourists and plastic. See also: Globe Theatre and the South Bank.
If I led a literary tour of London:
- I'd point out the tiny little garden by the Temple tube stop, which is where TWELFTH NIGHT premiered. In this garden, actors in Shakespeare's histories would have plucked a red rose of Lancaster from a living rose bush.
- We'd stop for lunch at The Moon Under Water, one of the chain of pubs named after George Orwell's fictitious perfect pub.
- I'd gesture at a Hotblack Desiato real estate placard and invoke THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.
- I'd point out a faded sign for a bomb shelter and remind everyone that this is why Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter were shipped out to the Professor's house in the country.
- I'd take the group to Westminster Cathedral for evensong; even for unbelievers, a house where worship has been offered every day for a thousand years has a certain power. Feel free to think about the boys singing in THE DARK IS RISING, though that scene actually takes place in a country church.
- After having a bit of a sit-down at evensong, we'd go be groundlings at the Globe, hooray!
- Lastly, I'd take them to the strip mall at Angel tube stop, nip into the Sainsbury's there for an assortment of chocolate and biscuits, and hand everyone a complimentary copy of NEVERWHERE at the end of the tour. To this day, I crack up just thinking about Islington.* Plus, NEVERWHERE features my favorite bridge (Blackfriars) and all my favorite place names (let's hear it for Elephant & Castle!**).
In conclusion, don't waste your time reading IMAGINED LONDON. For imagination and a deep-seated love of London, NEVERWHERE is a better place to spend your time.
* Tangent: Islington's local animal welfare group is SNIP: Society for Neutering Islington's Pussies.
** A pretty cool neighborhood: very untouristed, has many brown people, and the absolutely amazing Imperial War Museum is around the corner. Be sure to check out the John Singer Sargent painting of mustard gas.
Quindlen visits London (finally as an adult) and revisits much of what she's read while she's there. Heavy on Dickens, Waugh and Trollope, there is plenty here for everyone. I myself love Forster and Austen (both mentioned), and there is a smattering of Shakespeare, Maugham, James (PD and Henry), Eliot(both George and TS), Chaucer, Browning, Woolf...she covers many a haunt..you may not have read them all, but even if you haven't, you will be encouraged to after this travelogue.
Quindlen's ramblings about her most favorite literary city and telling and warm, even when the city is not so friendly itself. She is obviously quite fond of the place, and reading this gave me even more of a hankering to visit there. It also added a few authors and books to my TBR pile. Charming, quirky adn quick, this book also shows off the immense talent of Quindlen as author and journalist, able to really express a feeling in one short sentence. I love her use of unusual and archaic language, which in the writings of others might come off as pretentious or overly scholarly, but in Quindlen's work, seems natural and the vocabulary of a great reader. I truly admire that. Neat little book.