Alibi V.16 No.9 • March 1-7, 2007 

Book Reviews


The Quintessential Gentleman: An Ironic, Sometimes Irreverent Guide to 21 st Century Manners<

Henry Russell
(Ulysses Press, paper, $12.95)

This witty and useful guide to a gentleman's etiquette runs the gamut from pickup basketball (don't call ticky-tack fouls) to ’do rags (if you're white, don't) to eating sushi (don't rub your sticks together). Long sections are devoted to eating and office life, with shorter chapters focusing on relations between the sexes, social events and, thank god, techniquette.

"It is a violation of etiquette to ring and not leave a message." Then, too: "Don't e-mail confidential material: Write a proper letter or arrange a meeting."

Much of what's contained herein amounts to common sense, but Russell's arch tone and occasional barbs at the barbarians makes it an amusing refresher course. If someone crashes your party, he notes, resist the temptation to say, "If I'd known you were coming ..." When it comes to engagement parties, "The only rule is gush! Gush regardless of what you really think of the tart or gigolo in question." At the gym, don't flex: "If a gentleman is attractive, he knows it without having to remind himself through constant reinforcement."

Amid the jokes and the jibes at Americans—Russell is unequivocal on wearing shorts: forbidden—the book provides helpful history and context. It also constantly reminds us that the purpose of etiquette is to make others more comfortable. So walk on the street side with a lady, but don't call attention to the fact you are doing so. If you're going for coffee, always offer to pick up something for your coworkers.

Likewise, "Do not ask lawyers, 'How can you defend someone if you know he's guilty?' and do not expect free-on-the-spot medical advice from doctors. Both professions would almost rather be asked how much they earn."

Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Characters and Horrible Blunders

Josephine Ross
Illustrated by Henrietta Webb
(Bloomsbury, paper, $14.95)

In the summer of 1814, Anna Austen approached her literary Aunt Jane asking for help with a novel set in contemporary Regency Society. The project came to nothing, but the lively correspondence which developed inspires Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners. Written as if for an aspiring socialite of that time, complete with advice not to speak of the slave trade and to learn the cotillion, it puts the great novelist's era in stark clarity.

A woman had strikingly less freedom compared with today. As Ross points out, a gentlewoman was not to attempt to bring friends of different ranks together; she could not call upon any gentleman; having refused one gentleman's invitation to dance, she wasn't permitted to accept another's.

She was also not encouraged to dwell on childbirth. After dinner, the ladies had to withdraw from the room so the men could "remain at table, to enjoy port and, it is generally assumed, conversation on such topics as sport, politics, and farming." With such rules of engagement, it's amazing that Austen could wrench such beautiful, endurable human stories out of her era. It's also clear why marriage was often such a painful institution: You didn't get a second try. Austen's novels were both a critique of this situation as well as a reflection of it.

As Ross writes, she "acknowledged society's codes and rules of precedence—even while laughing at them on many occasions." Yet she could be cutting. Upon seeing a well-known society adulteress in Bath, the "Authoress," as she is referred to throughout, wrote with a sniff: "She was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly & contentedly silly than anything else." Today, this floozy would wind up on Glamour's "Don't" page. Back then, she wound up in Miss Austen's bad graces. This book makes clear the latter is probably the worse fate.

Arlington Park

Rachel Cusk
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hardcover, $23)

This acidly funny novel chronicles the highs and lows of a handful of mothers across a single day in the (fictional) rain-sodden London suburb of Arlington Park. Some of the women work; others raise children. All struggle with the feeling that, bit by bit, their lives are being stolen from them.

"My husband, Benedict, murdered me," thinks Juliet, a schoolteacher constantly overshadowed by her husband’s work with underprivileged children. "He was very gentle about it; it didn’t really hurt at all. In fact, I hardly knew it was happening."

Like Cusk’s previous book The Lucky Ones, Arlington Park is an elliptically shaped novel. In each chapter we meet a different woman, before they all come together in a final dinner party scene that pays homage to the great spinner of dinner party scenes, Virginia Woolf.

In another writer’s hands this format would seem like a gimmick, but Cusk is so good at capturing the textures of domestic life one quickly forgets this book’s obvious structure. She grasps the mind-numbing hush of shopping malls, the self-loathing that arises from the detestation of what is essentially a cushy place. "Let me tell you this," says one woman to another. "There’s no bloody excuse for going to seed in Arlington Park!"

Cusk’s metaphors are also funny and accurate. Early in the novel, for instance, Juliet and her husband, Benedict, are at a dinner party. "(The host) and Benedict talked," Cusk writes, "and Louisa and Juliet fed on the scraps of the men’s conversation that fell to them."

The dreams and dilemmas of Cusk’s characters are hardly novel. The women she writes about have put on weight, worry about their children, agonize about their husbands’ aloofness and wonder where their youth went. But time and again the closely observed savagery of Cusk’s writing makes these elements feel fresh.

"After all, she’d had a nice little figure," thinks Christine, in whose house the final scene unfolds. "Somewhere inside her it was still there, straining to come out. When she thought of men it did a little dance." Angrily, stealthily, this elegant little book allows Christine and her compatriots to strut their stuff.