Friday, July 21, 2023

Country Matters by Michael Korda

I think I read one or two of Michael Korda's books about his life in book publishing during the '90s, when I thought I was going to have a long and illustrious career there myself. And I bought this 2001 book, with that vague memory in mind, about a decade ago.

Country Matters - I don't think Korda means the Hamlet dirty pun, at least not in any serious way - is the story of how Korda, then the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, and his horsey ex-model wife bought a big old house in rural Duchess County, New York way back about 1979, and the next twenty years of their various activities (and, as is traditional in books about big old houses, the expenses of such) in and around that pile.

So this is older than maybe I expected, a story of the '80s and '90s, set a few miles down the road from where (Vassar College in Poughkeepsie) I spent the back half of the '80s myself. Now, my circles at college and Korda's as a publishing magnate and rural landowner did not intersect at all, but a few references were unexpectedly familiar.

This is pretty much exactly the book you think it will be, written well by a professional, following the long rut worn by a thousand other urban professionals who moved out to the country, poured lots of money into various structures, and came to respect and appreciate the colorful, skillful characters who lived in that weird new land.

Korda and his wife had horses, so that's one distinctive thing that most buy-a-rural-house accounts don't include. In fact, she spent these years competing in various horse events, eventually hosting one such annual event on their land. And they kept pigs - mostly as pets, and those pigs appear early only to disappear for most of the narrative, since, unless your name is Clarence and you live in Blandings Castle, there's not much to say about pigs. (At least, nothing that is not already in Whipple.)

Otherwise, you know the drill. Everything is expensive, everything is complicated. Taciturn men in working clothes can fix anything, enjoy hunting a lot more than Our Hero, and have unshakeable opinions about technical matters (weather, construction, landscaping) which almost always turn out to be correct. Once you've lived in a place for a few years, you also start to complain that things are always getting worse - more traffic, more outsiders coming in to buy up houses and ruin the character of the place, and so on.

Country Matters is pleasant, especially since it's set in and near places I've known all my life. But it's a minor entry in a minor genre at best, and I doubt anyone has thought of it in at least a decade, even Korda himself.

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