Eight is Enough

In the midst of preparing a manuscript that: A) is the culmination of nine months of research, and B) has a final draft deadline of 12/31/12, I am not very favorably inclined to try to come up with clever ways to string together (or even write) reviewlets for the eight books I have read so far this month.

So here they are in the order from the books I liked best to the books I liked least.

I wish I had this edition.

Crucial Conversations by May Sarton
Long married couple Reed and Poppy separate when Poppy realizes she has wasted too much of her life living for others. The collateral damage is much less their children then their closest friend Philip who has been like a third member of their marriage–but in a benign way, not in a Charles, Diana, Camilla way. Or at least it is largely benign for Reed and Poppy, perhaps less so for Philip who left much of his life undeveloped (perhaps a lot like Poppy) because of the satisfaction he got from his close friendships with Reed and Poppy.  In the Pantheon of Sarton books (all of which I love) I would put this in the high middle.

The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson
From the author of Miss Buncle’s Book. Need I say more? Well it is much less clever and more conventional than MBB, but I still loved it to pieces. Poor London actress inherits a mansion on a cliff overlooking the sea. Defies expectations by keeping the house and making her home there. Trusty, helpful servants. Trusty, helpful, and ultimately amorous soliciter. Ne’er do well former object of infatuation leaves protagonist with instant family. Ooops, I might have said too much. But honestly you can see this stuff coming down the pike from a very long way away. Loved it!

A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
It says a lot about the other books I am reviewing here that this ICB is so far up the list. There were moments of this book that I loved. And much of ICB’s writing–which is 99% dialogue–was funny and charming. And I am pretty sure I liked it better than the only other ICB I have read (Manservant and Maidservant) which I also enjoyed to a degree. But my overall thought when I finished was that perhaps after two of her novels I don’t have to read any more. I still have two others unread in my library, but I am not so sure I will get to them anytime soon.

Fisher shows us how she feels.

Postcards From the Edge by Carrie Fisher
I put this one on my Century of Books list for 1987, not only because I assumed it would be a quick, fun, read, but also because it seemed to really capture a slice of pop culture for the year in question. I was right on all accounts. It was a quick, fun, read. And it definitely felt a lot like 1987. A semi-autobiographical novel about a young Hollywood actress going through rehab and figuring out how to live sober. Who knew Princess Leia could write.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I liked many things about this coming of age/coming out story set against the looney backdrop of Jeanette’s Pentacostal evangelist mother. There were moments that were funny and uplifting and maddening. This book would have rated higher for me if it hadn’t contained a fantasy story within the story. That never sits too well with me. My eyes kind of glaze over.

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark
I love me some Muriel Spark, but I didn’t love this one. I liked the initial character introductions and had a soft spot for a few of them. But then it just became too much about spiritualist circles and fraudulent mediums. Even then I could have been kind of interested but I felt like Spark may have taken it all a bit too seriously despite the satire involved.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
I loved, loved, loved, Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum which I have read two or three times. When I first started The Name of the Rose, I thought I was going to like it in a similar fashion. I was wrong. I can see why many find this book wonderful, perhaps if I had been in a different mood I might have as well. Instead I kept thinking I would rather go back and re-read Foucault’s Pendulum.

The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela
The “greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution”, written in 1915, bored me to no end. It might have had to do with my complete ignorance of Mexican history, but I think it is more likely that I was just bored by the episodic nature of the book as well as the rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ kind of vibe it gave off. I might have also expected something of only 149 pages not to feel like it took me a year to finish.

Message to future Thomas

Since this is a message to the future me, I thought I would write it in the 2nd person.

This is what you thought of these two books:

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
You loved the cover as you love most of the covers issued by NYRB Classics. And you seemed to remember lots of other bloggers reading this one and generally praising it. Not one to jump on the band wagon you waited a considerable number of months, perhaps even a year or more to read it for yourself. (Putting it on your list for the A Century of Books challenge seemed to help assure that you might actually get around to it.)

At first you were charmed by the thought of middle agish (?) Rachel moving off to Bristol to start a new life after her aunt left her a big old house there. You were particularly taken with Rachel’s description of her work leaving “party” just before she moves. It had a kind of And Then We Came to the End kind of office vibe and introduced us to the notion that Rachel may be one of those people that is the butt of most of the office jokes. All going along great at this point. Quirky Rachel, exciting new adventure. Then Benatar ratchets things up a bit when it seems that Rachel longtime roommate may actually have thought that they were in a Lesbianic (albeit platonic) relationship. Then it is off to Bristol where it starts to become clear that Rachel might not be the most reliable of narrators. Not long after this she kind of keeps swimming and swimming to the deep end of the pool. Somewhere in there you started think of a Jane Gardam character with some seriously dark Muriel Spark thrown in to boot.

At first you worried that Rachel was going through her savings too fast and you wished that she would at least get a part time job to pay expenses. But when it became clear that she was headed for some sort of fantastic mental day of reckoning, you started to cheer her on in her spending. The mental climax would no doubt come when she reached the end of her economic tether.
And now, future Thomas, I must disappoint you. You waited too long to write about this book and the two week delay has rendered you unable to remember exactly how this finishes. You think it was mildly unresolved. Oh well, at least this way you won’t spoil the surprise for your readers.

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
You have a vague recollection of seeing part of the film adaptation of this book. You rented it decades ago when you couldn’t get enough of Merchant-Ivory films which all seemed to use book adaptation screenplays written by RPJ.  Not being full of Forster-esque tea sipping and such your youngish, untrained mind was bored. You decided to dust the book off (you didn’t intend the pun) when the year of its publication (1975) was one that you needed to fill for the A Century of Books challenge.

So when you picked up this Booker prize winning novel on your vacation in Maine, you were immediately drawn in–delighting in the fact that the cool Maine breezes were the antithesis of the heat and dust in book. For much of the book you couldn’t decide if you like the 1923 story line better or the 1975 story line better. You also kept wondering how anyone can live in such heat, especially in 1920s English clothing. Good lord, how about a sari or sarong.

You were intrigued by the possibility that women’s reproductive choices in the 1970s were in some ways less political than they are today and you wondered whether or not RPJ, who is Indian only by marriage, painted an accurate portrait of life in India in the 1920s and 1970s. But then you thought that that was kind of a dumb question because the sheer number of points of view (i.e., people) living in India, whether English or Indian, make words like accurate a little fraught.

In the end you enjoyed it and vowed to put Heat and Dust on your Netflix queue.

Nothing Lacking Here

…it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market…Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.

There is no denying that Anita Brookner found her fach and stuck to it. On my first read through all of her 24 novels, I often noted that I had a hard time telling one novel from another. But for some reason over the 14 years that it took me to read all of her novels, it always stuck in my head that the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac was one of my least favorite Brookners. Having now re-read it, I am at a loss to understand why I felt that way. Granted, plenty of you haven’t liked it, but I think that may have had more to do with a general dislike for Brookner rather than anything specific to Hotel du Lac. Although I class myself as a rabid Brookner fan, something intensifying as I re-read her catalogue, I can understand why she is not everyone’s cup of tea.

But for those of us who do like her…

Brookner sets Hotel du Lac is in an unnamed Swiss town along Lac Leman/Lake Geneva in the waning days of the fall shoulder season as the town and the hotel look to close up for the winter. Edith Hope is a romance novelist who has done something scandalous that forces her to escape London until the furor dies down. Being a woman of means, one has to wonder why Edith installs herself in a rather lackluster, grey location with “unemphatic” scenery and poor weather, instead of travelling to some other more pleasant, dynamic location. Perhaps it is because a more interesting destination wouldn’t have provided the proper penance and reflection her acquaintances in England felt she needed. And frankly it also wouldn’t have suited a Brookner character very well. They tend to thrive, if it can be called that, on quiet and gray. True, Edith isn’t a typical Brookner character in some respects. Indeed she takes several decisions, including the one that caused the scandal and the one that ends the book, that belie the usual inertia of a Brookner heroine. Still, in Hotel du Lac we have plenty of compulsive walking: “…she carried on [walking] until she thought it time to be allowed to stop.”

In many ways Hotel du Lac is a treatise on the roles of women in society—at least as Brookner saw them in the early 1980s. It may not cleave to the tenets of traditional feminism, but it most definitely can be read as a gentle, quietly satirical screed against those social conventions that keep women playing to type and being defined solely by their relationships with men. We’ve all met Mrs. Pusey:

On those rare occasions when Mrs. Pusey was sitting alone, Edith had observed her in all sorts of attention-catching ploys, creating a small locus of busyness that inevitably invited someone to come to her aid.

Then there is Mrs. Pusey’s daughter Jennifer, outfitted like a queen (pink harem pants and an off the shoulder blouse—oh the 1980s) who serves as a kind of lady-in-waiting to her mother, while they both wait for the day when a suitable gentleman—someone interested in being the third in their mother/daughter sandwich—comes along to marry Jennifer. And then there is Monica, an eating-disordered woman about to be abandoned by a husband desirious of an heir that she is unable to produce. And Edith’s friend Penelope back in London who insists that a man is needed to legitimize Edith’s existence. Even Edith’s romance novel readers, the tortoises, all waiting for the world to turn upside down and reward the slow and the meek.

Many times I reduce Brookner’s characters to caricatures of people who find it impossible to do anything about their lives. I don’t think Edith is that same kind of character. But I do think that the decision she makes at the end of the book–the right decision no doubt–may put her on a trajectory to be one of those people. I think that few of us are truly victims of circumstance. Instead we are victims of our own decisions. As I approached 40 I made some decisions that I thought would keep me from a certain kind of professional future. Now, five years later, I realize that despite having a bit of an enjoyable whirl and liking what I do at the moment, I am back on the professional trajectory that I thought I left for good at 38. The difference is my place on the trajectory is much less secure than it was back then. I could blame it on the bad economy and the short sidedness of the Tea Party, but in the end I made the decisions that led me to this place. I think Edith is rightly changing her trajectory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up where she started.

Charles and Camilla, I mean The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

I feel like Virago has really been coming through for me lately. It makes me want to stick to a steady diet of green spines. When I read the synopsis for The Tortoise and the Hare I was pretty sure of which characters I was going to root for. The plot centers on Evelyn, a 52-year barrister who takes an interest in his 50-year old tweedy neighbor Blanche at the expense of his beautiful younger wife Imogen. As uncharitable as it may sound, I was all set to be happy for Evelyn and Blanche for finding an age-appropriate relationship, thinking that Imogen must no doubt be some vapid, flighty, money grubbing, shrew. Instead I found myself furious at Evelyn and Blanche and all I could think of was the Charles – Diana – Camilla tragedy.

Was Imogen/Diana the perfect mate for Evelyn/Charles? No, but it was no fault of her own and it was unfair for Evelyn to expect Imogen to be someone she wasn’t. Was she profligate with his money? No. Did she vamp around with other men? No. Did she provide the requisite son? Yes. Being older and more experienced, should Evelyn have known himself and his desires better before choosing a mate? Yes. Should Blanche/Camilla have stayed the hell away from a married man? Yes.

And the worst part is that Evelyn and Blanche never get their comeuppance. I found that part the most frustrating thing about the book. Evelyn was so awful to Imogen I thought for sure at some point there would be some coal in stocking. There is a ray of hope for Imogen in the end, but it didn’t keep me from wanting some pain for Evelyn and horsey Blanche. Even with this frustration, I really enjoyed this book and found it emotionally compelling.

Book Review: Look at Me by Anita Brookner


I haven’t read any Anita Brookner since last year’s rather successful International Anita Brookner Day. Having finished all of Brookner’s 24 novels, my intention is to re-read all of them in chronological order. Last year for IABD, I knocked off her first two novels The Debut (A Start in Life) and Providence. As much as I have liked all of Brookner’s novels on the first go, I found last year when I re-read those first two, that I liked them even more on a second read. Now with her third novel, Look at Me, I find myself of the same disposition. In fact, I think that Brookner’s novels which can seem superficially similar, have a depth that really makes them worth a second read–and frankly, I can imagine going back to them again and again for the rest of my life. This is especially comforting since, the once prolific Brookner (at one point a novel a year for about 20 years) seems to have slowed down considerably.

Frances Hinton, who hates being called Fanny, is always called Fanny. She works in a medical research library and like many other Brookner heroines, is miserably comfortable with her routine. That is until Dr. Nick Fraser and his wife Alix decide to make her a part of their social life.

If I moved in with them I would be delivered from the silence of Sundays, and all those terrible public holidays – Christmas, Easter – when I could never, ever, find an adequate means of using up all the available time.

Unlike many other Brookner heroines, Fanny comes to life as a result of this friendship and even starts seeing a doctor, James, who makes her happy.

Although I am naturally pale, I could feel the blood warm in my cheeks. I drew no conclusion from this, and my instinct was correct. I was not falling in love. Nor was there any likelihood that I might. But I was being protected, and that was something that I had not experienced for as long as I could remember. I was coming first with someone, as I had not done for some sad months past, and in my heart of hearts for longer, much longer.

Fanny’s benign desire for someone to finally pay attention to her is ultimately overtaken by Alix’s much less benign, somewhat pathological need to have everyone looking at her instead. Alix uses Fanny for her own amusement and doesn’t seem to mind the results. Fanny reflects on her relationship with Alix:

I was an audience and an admirer; I relieved some of her frustration; I shared her esteem for her own superiority; and I was loyal and well-behaved and totally uncritical. Yet she found me dull, intrinsically dull, simply because I was loyal and well-behaved and uncritical.

And it is Alix’s need to be at the center of attention that makes her more of a taker than a giver. Alix may have introduced Fanny to James, and enjoyed watching their relationship develop. But when she thinks she is being denied all the details of the results of her matchmaking, or worse, when she realizes that Fanny isn’t letting the relationship with James go where Alix thinks it should go, she begins to drive a wedge between Fanny and James. In many ways there is nothing unusual about this story, I think we have all been subjected to the cruel selfishness of so-called friends, and we have all been jilted in romantic relationships. But for Fanny the situation is life changing in a way that she struggles against. She sees her life going in a direction that seems inevitable despite her efforts to alter course.

I could have been different, I think. Once I had great confidence, great cheerfulness; I did not question my purpose or the purpose of others. All that had gone, and I had done my best to replace it. I had become diligent instead of spontaneous; I had become an observer when I saw that I was not allowed to participate. I had refused to be pitiable. I had never once said, Look at me. Now, it seemed I must make one more effort, one more attempt to prove myself viable. And if I succeeded, I might be granted one more opportunity to do it all over again. I did not dare to think what would happen if I failed.

Does she fail? If you have every read Brookner, you probably know the answer to that.

Bits and Bobs (the struggling woman edition)

I tried to find a picture of the Queen Mum looking mean
but they really don’t exist. This was the best I could
come up with. But I thought the unwritten rule is that one
doesn’t take photos of the Royal Family eating.

[3/19/12 Update: Boy, did I forget to proofread this. It should be better now.]

Was the Queen Mum cold hearted, or a hypocrite?  
I knew that would get your attention.  Am I about to trash the Queen Mum? No. At worst I am ambivalent about her, but I did wonder as I read Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary by Ruby Ferguson if the QM suffered from a little cognitive dissonance when it comes to marrying for love. In Ferguson’s 1937 novel, the heroine marries for love and ends up old and impoverished. Now, the Queen Mum is said to have been a great admirer of this book. So why did she love this book? Was she clueless to the fact that her life-long grudge against the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson was similar to the class-induced opprobrium Lady Rose faced? Or, more sinisterly, did she relish the comeuppance Lady Rose got for marrying below her? If either of these is true I tend to think it is more the former than the latter. Or was she so caught up in this romantic paean to Scottish life that she couldn’t think clearly?

I don’t really feel strongly enough to care one way or the other, but it was on my mind the entire time I was reading Lady Rose. And for the record I really enjoyed the book. Highly recommended for Persephone fans.

Why those ungrateful…
My second struggling woman for the week is Patricia Lindsay (née Crispin) the heroine of Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan. We follow Patricia as she gets her own lesson in marrying beneath her. She sacrifices much for her insecure husband and her ungrateful children. In a town and gown story as old as the academy itself, Patricia’s eldest gets the newsagent’s daughter preggers and marries her much to his mother’s horror. Patricia’s distaste over the marriage is not dissimilar to her mother’s, but Cannan does such a good job describing the mock gentility of the newsagent’s wife and daughter that it was hard not to chuckle at the characterization and sympathize with Patricia. Does that make me a snob? Yes, but so be it. I know I would have trouble if my (non-existent) son married a woman with all the crass, intellectual idiocy of Sarah Palin–albeit in this case non-political idiocy. The second son falls in love with his friend Peter, I mean with his friend Peter’s love of the Oxford Movement. This makes his high church, only on Sundays mother openly hostile. And then the daughter…what does she do that is so wrong…I don’t remember. Was it that she loved cars more than horses?

Thankfully we see Patricia at middle age (my age) seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.  Another Persephone I thoroughly enjoyed.

This story had very little to do with spoons
I think my third struggling woman for the week struggled more than the other two combined. In Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, artist Sophia Fairclough her artist husband Charles marry young, and (surprise) against the wishes of his family. Unlike her marginally talented husband, Sophia takes work so she can keep them fed and housed, a task that becomes harder when she has a baby. There is much about Sophia’s fertility that I would like to talk about but that would be too spoilery. But I will say that it makes me even more crazy that Rick Santorum and idiots on the far right are talking about contraceptives these days as if we were about to enter the dark ages again.

One of the great things about this book is that you never quite know where it is headed. The only constant is that one keeps hoping for Sophia’s day in the sun. Whether or not she makes it is something you will have to find out for yourselves. I highly recommend this (and the other other Barbara Comyns book I have read The Skin Chairs).

Struggling is not just for women
My struggle these days has been to find time for blog reading and blog writing. Happily my work has my brain occupied such that I don’t have as much mental stamina for appreciating the blog world as I had when my work didn’t engage me so. I fear I have turned into a once a week kind of guy. Hopefully that will just make you all fonder of me rather than make you forget about me. I do know that I have too many blogs in my feed reader and the sheer number of unread posts makes me not want to look at anything. So today I am going to do a huge cull and only keep around those that regularly interest me. I might try and sequester the ones that only marginally interest me into a separate folder, but if the result is that the unread posts for those still show up in my total of unread posts–thus triggering my OCD–I might have to give them the boot altogether.

Struggling through the Century?
No. Even though I have only read 14 of 100 books for the A Century of Books challenge, I am kind of enjoying paying closer attention to when books were published. For a while I even entertained reading my TBR pile in chronological order. I was reading the oldest, then then newest, then the oldest, then the newest, etc. But then I bumped into Women in Love and that took away my desire for chronological symmetry. I still might try and finish “that bastard book” (to paraphrase Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman, one of the best movies of all time) D.H. Lawrence, but it is going to be a slog. I also updated my Century list today with books from my larger TBR pile (i.e., outside the nightstand).


Oh Cluny

Isn’t it often the case that one never has enough time to properly scour a used bookstore?  Sure, there may be enough time for a good, satisfying browse, but how often is there enough time to really go looking for the needles in the haystack?  Last August in Maine when we spent two weeks on Islesboro I had all the time in the world to really comb through the fine used bookstore on the rather small island. When we first visited the store I did all my usual checks for my favorite authors and didn’t really come up with much that was interesting. In fact, at first browse I was quite disappointed. Here was a wonderful bookshop in an old one room school building filled to the ceiling with mainly hardcover used books and they didn’t seem to have anything that I wanted.  But given the fact that we were (happily) captive on the island I realized I had time to really make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. So, with nothing to hurry me along and no other distractions save the beauty of the island, I actually took the time to look at every single spine in the shop.

Over the course of a couple of different browsing sessions I managed to come up with a pretty tall stack of books that I found interesting or unique, and quite a bit more non-fiction than I would typically find.

In that stack were two novels by Margery Sharp, an author I had never heard of. (As it turns out, in addition to her 26 novels for adults, she also wrote 14 for children, including The Rescuers.)  In any case, I must admit that the first one that I came across went into my purchase pile because of the cover. How could any anglophile, urban planner, historic preservationist pass up this cover?

I was actually a bit worried that the book might be nothing but pap, and the price was closer to antiquarian than used, but I couldn’t resist the cover art. And then I noticed “Author of Cluny Brown” at the bottom which immediately made me think that Britannia Mews may be a lesser book than the obviously popular Cluny Brown. And it just so happened that they had a copy of Cluny Brown on the shelf as well. So, with my OCD kicking in, I thought I really should start with Cluny Brown and see if I liked it. But how could I pass up the Britannia Mews cover even if Cluny did come first?  And I really shouldn’t buy both, they were about $30 a piece, what if I didn’t like Margery Sharp? But then I worried that if I only bought one and found out I loved Margery Sharp, wouldn’t I be annoyed that I only bought one of these pretty first editions?

I am happy to say that now that I have read Cluny Brown, I am glad I bought both and am wondering how to get my hands on the rest of Sharp’s novels. Based on the cover, and the fact that I had never heard of Sharp, I was thinking it might be some enjoyable, mindless, 1940s chick-lit. But it is pretty clear from early on that Sharp has a few edges. Cluny Brown is a young woman of about 19 whose parents died when she was young and has been living with her Uncle Arn, a genteel plumber who never knows quite what to do with Cluny and her potentially dangerous naivete. He worries that Cluny doesn’t know her place in life, having committed the class crime of going to tea at the Ritz. It doesn’t matter to Uncle Arn that she paid for the experience with her own money. After an episode where Arn finds her (innocently) emerging from the bathroom of a bachelor client he decides he needs to save Cluny from herself and sends her out of London to go into “good service” in Devon.

What follows is a bit of an upstairs, downstairs tale. But Cluny and her irascible high spirits would never survive in the starchy world of Gosford Park, or Upstairs, Downstairs (or even the rather lame, poorly written world of Downton Abbey) if not for the fact that domestic help was pretty hard to come by after in the years between the wars. The housekeeper, Mrs. Maile, overlooks many a transgression, knowing that replacing Cluny might be more trouble than it is worth. One knows from the start that Cluny is going to end up in clover by the end of the book (in fact her real name is Clover), and though one can, and does, guess at two or three outcomes, the final result is not what one expects. So surprising to me was the final twist that I feel a bit of a spoiler for even mentioning it.
Cluny Brown has Persephone written all over it. Cozy and fun, but with a definite feminist outlook. Now I can’t wait until the TBR Double Dare is over so I can read Britannia Mews. And maybe this summer’s trip to Maine will yield a few more Sharps for my library.