Archive for February, 2012

Excellent Women is my favorite Barbara Pym novel, published in 1952, and undoubtedly an underrated classic of the 20th century.

The characters in Barbara Pym’s novels tend to be sensibly-dressed women with strong ties to the church and depths of wit and whimsy.  Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Excellent Women, is no exception.  She is a 30ish spinster who works part-time for a Decayed Gentlewomen’s Society, and has plenty of leisure to observe her neighbors’ eccentricities.  Occasionally she causes a small tremor in society by questioning the customs of the excellent women whose social lives revolve around the church, and of whom she is one.

She asks at a church bazaar meeting, “Do we really need a cup of tea?”

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot…Did we really need a cup of tea?  I even said as much to Miss Stratham, and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea?’ she echoed.  ‘But Miss Lathbury…’  She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental.  It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.”

Small landslides in the mind are often caused by small things like cups of tea, and catalyzed by the advent of new neighbors or friends, who open up new perspectives.   Excellent Women begins remarkably like An Unsuitable Attachment (which I wrote about here), with an inquisitive woman’s witnessing her new neighbor’s moving into the flat below.  Later that day, while Mildred is (appropriately) scraping tea leaves into the trash, her new neighbor, Helena, an anthropologist, shows up at the dustbins with her garbage–and Mildred thinks this is an embarrassing way to meet. Then Helena, unembarrassed, who has been doing kinship studies in Africa, casually invites Mildred in and shows her furniture, Chippendale chairs, etc., which really belong to her husband (and it’s very much like Ianthe’s furniture in Unsuitable).

Barbara Pym

The two characters have little in common.  Helena is pretty and unconventional, while Mildred is sensible and mannerly.  But when Rocky Napier, Helena’s husband, a charming former naval Flag officer who entertained “dreary Wren officers in ill-fitting white uniforms” in Italy, returns to England and does househusbandly things while Helena works, he and Mildred become fast friends.

Mildred’s close view of the rocky Napier marriage makes marriage seem more accessible.  She knows that she is like one of Rocky’s Wren officers, but he treats her like an attractive woman, and naturally she has a crush on him.  Rather stoically, with deadpan humor, she has contented herself with a life of volunteering for the church and friendship with the Vicar and his groupies.  But soon she is more deeply involved with men than she has been before:  she also meets Everard Bone, an  anthropologist who inadvertently almost breaks up the Napiers’ marriage, and Mildred gradually begins to like him–though not like Rocky.

I would be happy to read Excellent Women forever and am disappointed that it ends after 256 pages. Well, not really disappointed, because this is the perfect length for a book.

Not all Pym’s books are the equals of this, but I of course am now also reading Jane and Prudence to prepare for The Barbara Pym of North America Society Conference in March (which I also wrote about yesterday, and which sadly I am not going to attend).

I’ve created an imaginary Barbara Pym Road Trip for myself.  If I were going to Boston for the conference, I would have to drive (which I don’t do) and do many Barbara Pym things along the way.  It might take me some days to get there.

Oriental Institute

1.  Stop in Chicago and do a little gentle indexing at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  Pym’s novels are crowded with indexers, librarians, and anthropologists who dabble in archaeology.  According to the website, the Institute is an “interdisciplinary research center whose goal is to integrate archaeological, textual, and art historical data to understand the development and functioning of the ancient civilizations of the Near East from the earliest Holocene through the Medieval period.”

Very Pymish stuff!  And maybe I can attend a lecture there.

2.  Stop in South Bend, Indiana, and attend a handbell concert at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame University.  Very Romish, but it will have to do, and anyway I’m Catholic.  The website says:  “In addition to their ministry on campus, the choir is invited to play for students in South Bend special education programs and senior citizens in the community.”

Sounds Pymish to me!

3.  Drink tea at the Anastasia Mansion & Tearoom in Erie, PA.  The tea will “include your choice of beverage then Soup, Muffin, Scone, four different Delectable Tea Sandwiches, most are hot from the oven. And there’s more!   Four incredible desserts!  Each month the menu items change to reflect  the changing seasons.”

Or drink it elsewhere!  I’m idly adding teahouses along my Google route to Boston.

4.  Drink inexpensive wine in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, or drink tea.  Then visit the Corning Glass Factory, because you can’t have too much Corning glass.

5.  Oh, and find a cafeteria somewhere in Massachusetts, because Pym’s characters eat in cafeterias.

There’s a lot of church, anthropology, and tea, but there are many other Pymish activities I’ve forgotten.  I’m sure you can do them at the conference.

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George Clooney in "The Descendants"

I’m obsessed with the Oscars, and checked in periodically Sunday night at an Oscars live blog to see if The Descendants had won anything.  It was one of only three films nominated I had seen.

Checking the updates, however, was almost less efficient than watching the show. Partly it was because I started checking too soon, but also I had to sift through newsy, gossipy paragraphs by Melena Ryzik and David Itzkoff broken up by tweets by A. O. Scott, Alec Baldwin, and David Carr.   The news-cum-Twitter-haiku structure was dismaying.  Luv ya,  A. O., Alec, & David, but the “Twitter feed” belongs on the side. Whatever editor decided to put it in the body of the posts is an enemy of information!

The day I have to read a book review by Michiko Kakutani interspersed with tweets from Kelly Ripa and Janet Maslin, I’m canceling my subscription.

So I turned off my comments on my blog for a day in protest.  (I don’t have “Litter” or “Spacebook,” so it’s the best I could do.)  A blessed day without “social networking!”  I’m sure the friends and bloggers who comment here will understand why it was nice to have a day off from moderating spam.  And I’m not sure it’s really necessary to have comments on my blog anyway.  I never have much to say myself when I comment, though I do it to support the writers.

I feel the same about email, now that I read Google’s new privacy policy.  Do I do without email and googling altogether?

Since I wanted a quiet day, I spent it reading Barbara Pym.

Every spring I reread Pym because I want to attend the Barbara Pym Society of North America Conference at Harvard, March 16-18.  I never go, however, because it’s too far away.

Why can’t they have it at the University of Iowa, or in Omaha (the grandest city around here)?

This is the problem I have so often. :)

This year the program looks excellent, and the book of the year is Jane and Prudence.  There are talks on “Jane and Prudence:  A Study in Contrasts,” “Barbara Pym and the Comedy of Manners,” “Jane and Prudence and Barbara and Hazel: The Women Friends of Barbara Pym and How They Influenced Her Work,” and “You Never Know When You May Need Whiskey: Barbara Pym on Drinks and Drinking.”

Since I can’t attend the conference, I just read Pym.  I began yesterday by reading  An Unsuitable Attachment, a novel by Pym I’ve never read.

Published posthumously, it was rejected in 1963 when she submitted it to Cape, who had published six of her novels. Pym was upset and surprised by the rejection, as she said in a letter to Philip Larkin, who wrote the foreword to the UK edition.

It took her a while to get her confidence back.  She wasn’t rediscovered until 1977 when her novel Quartet in Autumn was published (shortlisted for the Booker).

An Unsuitable Attachment is not my favorite–please, please start with Excellent Women or Quartet in Autumn–but it is charming. What I love about Pym’s novels is the lack of drama, the quiet humor of the spinster heroines, and the ordinary but not mundane center of a life on the church, jumble sales, indexing, and romance with the vicar.

What a sane way to live!  I always mean to join the Episcopal church, and am really thinking about going this Sunday.

If I could go to the conference, I would be singing hymns on Friday night at the Church of the Advent.

In An Unsuitable Attachment, a small group of  neighbors connected by a church become friends and  go to Italy together.  (It’s a bit E. M. Forsterish.)  Sophia, the vicar’s wife, hopes that Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, will become romantically involved with her sister Penelope, a woman in her mid-twenties whom Rupert himself describes as “a pre-Raphaelite beatnik.”  Sophia herself is obsessed with her cat, Faustina, who is cared for luxuriously from time by time by her neighbors, the Pettigrews, a brother and sister who are a vet and vet’s assistant.

When Ianthe, a quiet, attractive librarian, moves into the neighborhood after her mother dies, she is inadvertently a catalyst for change as she suddenly becomes the object of intermittent desire of three men:  John, a handsome new employee at the library who falls in love with her, Mervyn Cantrell, her boss, a fussy librarian who admires her furniture, and Rupert, who occasionally thinks of Ianthe, though he also dates Penelope.

Ianthe is startled by the attention, having considered herself on the shelf.  She is preoccupied with her home:

It was sad coming back alone to an empty house, Ianthe thought, but how much worse if it had been a furnished room, like poor Miss Grimes.  Ianthe had always wanted a house of her own and as soon as she had shut the door behind her she forgot the lonely homecoming in the pleasure she still felt at seeing her furniture and possessions in the new setting.  Here were the Hepplewhite chairs and the Pembroke table, coveted by Mervyn Cantrell, portraits of her grandparents and of her father in cope and biretta, the corner cupboard with the lustre jugs collected by her mother, the old silky Bokhara rugs on the polished floor of the sitting room, the familiar books in the white-painted bookshelves, and the china ornaments she remembered from childhood.”

I do feel I have had this same exquisite experience of homecoming in my “spinster” days, though, like Ianthe,  I eventually felt the call of love.

On to another Pym book tomorrow.

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"Hotel Lobby" by Edward Hopper

I’ve neglected the culture this winter.  I’ve neglected new books.

I’ve had a happy winter with the classics, reading Virgil’s Aeneid in 12 days, Edith Wharton’s novels and Hermione Lee’s biography of her, and  perusing lesser-known novels by Monica Dickens, George Meredith, and Apuleius.

There isn’t a lot of time to read new books if you’re lost in the old or out-of-print.

But I’m aiming for one new book a week.

And I have two going at once, good in different ways.

EDWARD ST. AUBYN’S PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS.  There have been several long reviews of Edward St. Aubyn’s new novel, At Last, one by James Wood in The New Yorker, and two in The New York Times, one by  Francine Prose and the other by Michiko Kakutani.

It is the last in his series of autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose, and is said to be excellent.

But first I’m reading the other Patrick Melrose novels, which Picador has  published in one paperback volume: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk (shortlisted for the Booker in 2006).

St. Aubyn’s style is stunning.  Every paragraph gleams cruelly and icily.  The structure of these short novels is so perfect that it is almost like reading one long seamless book. St. Aubyn is witty and brittle, like a Saki who has experimented with heroin.

Although I am convinced these are classics,  I may have to take a short hiatus after Book 3, because the subject matter of these books is shocking and horrifying, and inevitably evokes memories of trauma.

The life of the hero, Patrick Melrose, who grows up to be a drug addict, is shaped when his father rapes him at age five.   In the first novel, Never Mind, we meet his father, David Melrose,  a horrifying sadist, who, in one scene, forces his wife, Eleanor, to eat all the rotting figs on the ground after she complains of waste.  David tortures Eleanor and Patrick, scheming to keep them off-balance.    And we are in the consciousness of Patrick when he is raped.  I knew instinctively that this must have happened to St. Aubyn.  Sure enough, he has said these novels are autobiographical.

In this first novel, which takes place during a day and an evening at the Melroses’ French château, we see David mainly through the eyes of two friends and their girlfriends.  The men, who together represent the epitome of my idea of the ghastliness of the English public school system, don’t question the sadism behind David’s wit.  The women hate him.

Victor, a philosopher, and his American girlfriend, Ann, a journalist for the New York Times, eventually understand what is happening and leave.

It is Ann who keeps me reading, because she questions the system.

She felt she had been subtly perverted by slick and lazy English manners, the craving for the prophylactic of money, the terrible fear of being ‘a bore,’ and the boredom of the ways they relentlessly and narrowly evaded this fate.

“Above all it was Victor’s ambivalence towards these values that was wearing her down.  She could no longer tell whether he was working as a double agent, a serious writer pretending to the Folks on the Hill–of which the Melroses were only rather a tarnished example–that he was a devoted admirer of the effortless nullity of their lives.  Or perhaps he was a triple agent, pretending to her that he had not accepted the bribe of getting admitted to the periphery of their world.”

Appropriately, Ann is reading Goodbye to Berlin.

In Bad News, Patrick, now an adult and a drug addict, flies to New York to retrieve his father’s corpse.  He is happy that his father has died, but is so busy taking drugs that he hardly has time to feel.  At one point he tells us that he should have been running a multinational corporation, his skills are so honed in finding and taking drugs.  St. Aubyn makes this a comedy, but again it is a very wearing tragicomedy.  Patrick can’t reach his dealer, so he approaches strange dealers and almost gets killed, which seems funny to him.  In one long weekend of shooting up heroin, taking qualudes and speed, and riding in taxis, he spends $10,000.    He has plenty of money, unlike Chilly Willy, his dealer’s street employee, a kind of lower-class alter-ego of Patrick.

Perhaps the most upsetting thing is that Patrick now talks just like David.  The wit, the cruelty.  And he is horrified that he is becoming his father.

And, again, this is terrifying because it evokes memories of acquaintances who were addicted to drugs.  One minute they were happy and charming suburban mothers, and the next they descended into addiction, going from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions for Ativan or Ritalin (controlled substances), and when that failed, completely out of their minds, actually extracted something from the doctor’s dumpster to attempt blackmail  (and at this point we had to say good-bye, and pray that their family got them into rehab).

In the third novel, Some Hope, Patrick is off the drugs, and there is some hope.  He is able to articulate his trauma to a friend.

Very good books, but harrowing.  Two and a half to go.

JOSHILYN JACKSON’S A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY.  I am reading this “women’s novel” because of Jackson’s original voice and poetic, witty prose.  Twenty years ago I would have loved everything about this novel, but now, though I appreciate the pitch-perfect voices of the characters, I find the  plot slightly Lifetime movie unrealistic.  Big, a 45-year-old bank teller, lives with her 30-year-old daughter Liza, a former waitress who has had a stroke, and Liza’s teenage daughter Mosey.  Big and Liza never married:  Big had Liza when she was 15, Liza had Mosey when she was 15, and  Mosey is 15, but shows no sign of going to the bad. When Big has the willow tree cut down so she can put in a pool for Liza’s physical therapy, a box that belonged to Liza is dug up with the bones of a baby.  And the tree man calls the police.

How can Big keep Liza and Mosey safe?

It’s a very fast read.

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John Christopher

The science fiction writer John Christopher died on Feb. 3.

Jo Walton, whose excellent novel Among Others has been nominated for a Nebula Award, reread his Tripod trilogy,  The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, and wrote about it here.   (I myself still love these books; Walton is a little more critical.)

GALEN BECKETT.  The third book in Galen Beckett’s trilogy about witches and magicians, The Master of Heathcrest,  will be published in March.  You can read about it at his blog here.

The New York Times has devoted much space to a review of Pure by Julianna Baggott.   No idea if it’s any good, but it’s almost unheard of for science fiction to get a full-length review.  Then I read on and discovered it’s a YA dystopian novel.  Oh, God, do we need any more of those?    Well, the film rights have been sold.  Perhaps a full-length review of an adult SF novel would be a good idea.

Connie Willis, author of Blackout and All-Clear, will be the next recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award at the Nebula Awards.

And here are the finalists for this year’s Nebula Awards:

Nebula Award finalists

“Among Others,” Jo Walton (Tor) 
”Embassytown,” China Miéville (Macmillan UK; Del Rey; Subterranean Press) 
”Firebird,” Jack McDevitt (Ace Books)
”God’s War,” Kameron Hurley (Night Shade Books) 
”Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti,” Genevieve Valentine (Prime Books) 
”The Kingdom of Gods,” N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

“Kiss Me Twice,” Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2011) 
“Silently and Very Fast,” Catherynne M. Valente (WFSA Press; Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2011) 
“The Ice Owl,” Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2011) 
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” Kij Johnson (Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2011) 
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Ken Liu (Panverse Three, Panverse Publishing) 
“With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, November 2011)


“Fields of Gold,” Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse 4, Night Shade Books) 
“Ray of Light,” Brad R. Torgersen (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, December 2011) 
“Sauerkraut Station,” Ferrett Steinmetz (Giganotosaurus, November 2011) 
“Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com, June 2011) 
“The Migratory Pattern of Dancers,” Katherine Sparrow (Giganotosaurus, July 2011) 
“The Old Equations,” Jake Kerr (Lightspeed Magazine, July 2011) 
“What We Found,” Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, September/October 2011)

Short story

“Her Husband’s Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine, October 2011) 
“Mama, We are Zhenya, Your Son,” Tom Crosshill (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2011) 
“Movement,” Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 2011) 
“Shipbirth,” Aliette de Bodard (Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2011) 
“The Axiom of Choice,” David W. Goldman (New Haven Review, Winter 2011) 
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld Magazine, April 2011) 
“The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March/April 2011)

Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

“Attack the Block,” Joe Cornish (writer/director) (Optimum Releasing; Screen Gems) 
”Captain America: The First Avenger,” Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (writers), Joe Johnston (director) (Paramount)
”Doctor Who: ‘The Doctor’s Wife,'” Neil Gaiman (writer), Richard Clark (director) (BBC Wales) 
”Hugo,” John Logan (writer), Martin Scorsese (director) (Paramount) 
”Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen (writer/director) (Sony) 
”Source Code,” Ben Ripley (writer), Duncan Jones (director) (Summit) 
”The Adjustment Bureau,” George Nolfi (writer/director) (Universal)

Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

”Akata Witch,” Nnedi Okorafor (Viking Juvenile)
”Chime,” Franny Billingsley (Dial Books; Bloomsbury) 
”Daughter of Smoke and Bone,” Laini Taylor (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Hodder & Stoughton) 
”Everybody Sees the Ants,” A.S. King (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) 
”The Boy at the End of the World,” Greg van Eekhout (Bloomsbury Children’s Books) 
”The Freedom Maze,” Delia Sherman (Big Mouth House) 
”The Girl of Fire and Thorns,” Rae Carson (Greenwillow Books) 
”Ultraviolet,” R.J. Anderson (Orchard Books; Carolrhoda Bookss)

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Book Groups, Etc.

"The Book Group" (British TV series, 2002-2003)

The book group is a staple of popular culture.  In the last decade, we’ve seen book groups in films:  The Jane Austen Book Club, The Book Group (a British TV comedy-drama), and a web series called Book Club.

But, honestly, the book group craze didn’t start until the ’90s.  Oprah got her book club mojo in 1996.  The Good Morning America Book Club, The Today Show Book Club, and Kelly Ripa’s came later.  Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust guide didn’t emerge till 2003.

The ’80s was a slow time for the group.  We read and read and read, but not for groups.  We sometimes passed paperbacks around the teachers’ lounge, pored over John Updike’s essays in The New Yorker, and lined up at bookstores to have our books autographed by John Irving.  In those pre-internet days, we had to go to three bookstores on different sides of town to find copies of Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban or Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories.

Then midnight struck in 1990, and suddenly everybody was in a book group.

I was a member of two.  I  kept up with contemporary literature in a group well-run by a PR firm VP (love the initials!). People brought food but nobody ever ate.   The other group was erratic but more fun, led by a different person each time, and with a variety of different titles, not always new.  One month it might be Little Dorritt, the next Misery.  Oh, and they ate pastry.

Then there was a third group.  I knew some very charming people who were voted into this elite circle, and they seemed to regret it that I couldn’t get into the group.  They were, you know, museum trustees and law firm partners, and I didn’t know of their existence.  Sweet that they even thought of me, because I would never have heard of this book group otherwise, so wasn’t mourning over it. We surreptitiously recommended books back and forth, and I think they enjoyed discussing books my middle-class book group was reading.

Private and public groups can be equally good, but different.   Book groups at bookstores are excellent–bookstore employees are very enthusiastic leaders, though when they quit, the groups break up–and the sociable, albeit perhaps friendless, book lovers who attend are interesting.

Public library groups are more daunting.  The librarian group leaders tend to be very much by-the-book.  They read the questions out of the back pages of so-called book group books.  SNORE-E-E-E.  Don’t ask me why, but they’re always discussing Rosamund Pilcher, Lisa See, John Grisham, and Elizabeth Gilbert around here–oh, and Jennifer Egan made it, much to my surprise.  The types who attend this group are not readers of literary fiction, hence the scandalously low level of book choices.  Or is it the librarians?

Judging from the number of interesting books and films about various kinds of groups, book groups et al, the group is here to stay.

Here is a list of novels about book groups and other clubs, but I’ve only read two, so don’t hold me to it.

The Jane Austen Book Club

1.  The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  Everyone knows this one, right?  A group of five women and one man get together to discuss Jane Austen’s six novels.  And they learn each other’s stories.

Personally I’ve tried to read this three times, and I haven’t gotten through it.  But I saw the movie.

2.  The Memoir Club by Laura Kalpakian.  Six women take a continuing education class on writing memoirs, and then begin to meet privately as a group.  We learn all the members’ secret stories.

I love Kalpakian’s novels.  This isn’t her best, but it’s good.

3.  Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer.  Wolitzer is an excellent popular writer, and I keep meaning to read this.  Here is an excerpt from the description at Amazon:

“Summer in the Hamptons means crowded beaches during the day and lavish parties in the evening, but Angela Graves, a retired English professor, prefers the company of Gabriel García Márquez and Charlotte Brontë. Her only steady social contacts are with the women in the reading groups she leads, among them, is wealthy Lissy Snyder, a beautiful newlywed who hosts the twice-monthly meetings of the Page Turners and takes pains to hide a reading disability and her emotional neediness. Hamptons local Michelle Cutty, Lissy’s housecleaner, eavesdrops on the group’s discussions–of books and gossip–when she’s not snooping through Lissy’s closets. “

4.  The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood.  Mary Baxter’s child dies, and she joins a knitting circle.  The women teach her different stitches, and she learns their stories.

I love Ann Hood.  This is being made into an HBO movie.

5.  The Book Club by Mary Alice Monroe.  According to Library Journal, five diverse women in a Chicago book group struggle with life issues.   Haven’t read it.

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Edith Wharton

Reading Edith Wharton is such a pleasure.  Long ago I read most, or at least many, of her books, and there was a period when I thought she was the greatest American writer.  Although I was young,  I may not have been wrong.  After neglecting her for many years–I’m more an anglophile than a reader of American literature–I am rereading her and amazed at her skill and intelligence.

She writes better than anyone I’ve read in a long time.

I’m rereading her because of her 150th birthday.  What a great way to call attention to Wharton!  And really it is just as great an occasion as Dickens’s bicentenary.

If people would just read Wharton…

I can’t stop reading her.

I finished The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s most famous book, which won the Pulitzer in 1921.  It is a beautiful, complex novel, descriptive of houses, dinners, and furniture as well as mores, wherein love leads to unhappiness.  It is not a tragedy like The House of Mirth:  I can’t read about extreme agony 24 hours a day.   But The Age of Innocence describes manners, customs, and hypocritical morals that cause much anguish, because they are deemed more important than feelings.

It all has to do with what people think.  What people think–what people with old money think in Old New York in the 1870s–is more important than emotional intergrity.  So when Newland Archer, a sensitive lawyer, and the unconventional Madame Olenska, the cousin of Archer’s fiancée, May, fall in love, it is too complicated to act on, in both their views.  Ellen Olenska, who has left her European husband, wants a divorce, and she can imagine a future with Archer.  But the uptight Archer, confused, thinks divorce would be a mistake–and shoots himself in the foot thus when he later falls in love with her.   Although finally Archer is ready to break his engagement with May, he proves his own worst enemy, giving her opportunities to thwart him, so that he can’t marry Ellen.  May, the winner of an archery contest,  is compared throughout the novel to Diana, and seems singularly unsexy.  She and society control Archer:  they shoot him and Ellen with their lethal arrows–not the arrows of Cupid.

Finally, near the end  of the novel, Wharton comments directly on society.  She shows us both Archer’s cowardice–which has been great throughout the novel–and the changes in morals.  Thirty years later, Archer, widowed, looks back  and realizes there would have been no agonizing conflict in the 20th century.  He would have married Ellen.

And there is hope for the future.  His son does not face similar conflict over marrying someone outside his class.

The culture has changed in the 21st century–but perhaps not that much.

According to statistics, fewer marry.  More families are broken.

In my generation, we DID divorce.  Then the next marriage worked.  I know many, many people who have been happily married on their second try.

Edith Wharton would have approved.

What would she have thought of the looser, unmarried drifting of families today (if indeed this culture exists, as the stats say)?  Changing partners is a great struggle, if the stats are indeed true.

But Wharton seems matchlessly modern.  And she probably would have accepted the culture.

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH MOVIE.  I watched the film The House of Mirth, starring Gillian Anderson (Lily), Eric Stoltz (Selden), Elizabeth McGovern (Carry Fisher), and Laura Linney (as a very scary Bertha).  It is very good.  One criticism?  The character Gerty Farish is cut out of the story.

Gerty is a very important character:  a young woman who lives in her own flat, not a participant in aristocratic New York society, but of upper-middle-class origins, and the cousin of Selden, whom Lily loves but doesn’t consider seriously because he isn’t rich.  Gerty does not need the luxuries Lily needs.  She also is a philanthropist:  she tries to provide decent housing and amenities for working girls out on their luck.

Can’t imagine what the director or screenwriter was thinking of to cut her out…  We need the generous Gerty for contrast with the narcissistic Lily, and to show the life she could have chosen, even if it might not have been quite what she wanted.

The acting in this movie is great, I absolutely loved it, but it’s not quite The Age of Mirth.

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BIKING.  It’s a lovely day, and I bicycled all afternoon.  Do you want to hear how I coasted a mile downhill and then tried to plot a route back so that I would not have to go up a single hill?  Well, it could almost be done.  I went five or six or seven miles out of my way.  There were a few slopes.  Two were almost hills, I suppose.  But I beat my husband home (barely) and was there when he got home from work to fry up our tofu-potato scramble before sunset (the witching hour).

 TECHNO-STUFF.  At the coffeehouse on my bicycling break, everybody was on laptops and tablets.  I can only suppose they were reading book reviews and building their TBR lists.

Do I Want One of These?

If I were still a reporter, I would have interviewed them about the techno-stuff they were doing on e-things.  But I didn’t have a little reporter’s notebook, and I didn’t want them to think the person in the bike helmet was mad. After all, I’m trying to encourage bicycling in our society, not make people think I’m insane.  And, besides, I had a book, not my e-things, and felt self-conscious.

At home I did my techno-stuff and added some books to my TBR list today, even if those at the coffeehouse did not.

 1.  Romesh Gunesekera’s  The Prisoner of Paradise.  Gunesekera  grew up in Sri Lanka and lives in London.  His novel Reef was a finalist for the Booker Prize in 1994. Bernardine Evaristo, in her review in the Guardian,praises his new historical novel. Set on the island of Mauritius in 1825, it is told through the unique perspective of the 19-year-old  protagonist, Lucy, who is outraged by the economy that under British rule mistreats imported Indian convicts and indentured laborers, even though they have outlawed slavery.

This one is not published in the U.S. yet, but it’s on the TBR.

2.  Gillespie and I by Jane Harris.  Carolyn See is one of my favorite novelists, and used to be a regular reviewer for The Washington Post.  She never overstates the case, so I was quite happy to see her back with a good review of a novel I intend to read when my TBR list becomes a little less daunting.

See writes:  “In this novel, the person held universally in contempt is an unattractive spinster named Harriet Baxter, but she is blithely clueless in this regard. If asked, she’d probably describe herself as a model of self-knowledge, humbly aware of her shortcomings. She knows that she’s not comely (she says so several times). She knows that as a single woman, she’s not particularly welcome in any social situation. And she knows that her considerable wealth can get on people’s nerves. She counters all this with a welter of good deeds; she gives the reader to understand that she’s an indispensable friend.

“In fact, she’s a monster.”

3.  Random Jottings writes about Dodie Smith’s four volumes of autobiography.  I love Smith, the author of I Capture the Castle and The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  But Random Jottings has more good news:  three of her novels are coming back in print, The New Moon with the Old, The Town in Bloom, and It Ends with Revelations.  (I’ve read all three of these and loved them, but loved The New Moon the best.)

So I’ll have to read the autobiographies.  Once the TBR list shrinks…

A BIBLIOPHILE’S SONG.   Here is a great song  for book lovers by the Canadian folk-pop group, Moxy Fruvous, “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors.”

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AN “UNCONNECTED” WALK WITH ME.  I’m not much of a walker. I’m a bicyclist.  But this time of year I walk.

First, go to the supermarket and get dried fruit, or whatever you want, and then walk to the library.

If it starts to rain, that’s okay.

And then my iPod dies.  And you know what?  That’s okay.

For one thing, it hasn’t allowed me to listen to anything except R.E.M. in six months.  It doles out one Rolling Stones song occasionally on shuffle:  “Sympathy for the Devil.”

My iPod has determined what I can listen to.

So the iPod dies, and suddenly I am unconnected. I am calm.  There is no music.  There is no audiobook.  It’s rain and the occasional bird.

We weren’t always connected.   We didn’t have personal computers till the ’90s, cell phones till the zips (well, I still don’t have one), and  e-books till lately.

There really wasn’t much to do, so we’d walk or bicycle and then come home invigorated.

Well, we still do that.

We’d write on our typewriters.  And, God, we wrote better in those days.

Why is that person on his phone in the car?  It’s sad, isn’t it?

And what the hell do we really need with iPads?

As for the e-readers… they’re recharging right now.

Turn it all off and time slows down.

WALKS IN EDITH WHARTON’S NOVELS.  In Edith Wharton’s novels, walks are important.  Characters walk for exercise.  They walk for entertainment.

And if you’re staying at a country house, you take a walk.

Walks can be sexy.

Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart in "The House of Mirth"

In The House of Mirth, on a Sunday at the Trenors’ house, Bellomont, Lily Bart has declared she will go to church.  She doesn’t usually go to church at Bellomont, but she must impress the callow wealthy Mr. Gryce, whom she wants to marry, that she is traditional.  She says primly that she is sorry the omnibus often drives away empty to church, without even the Trenors’ daughters.

Lily had hinted to Mr. Gryce that this neglect of religious observances was repugnant to her early traditions, and that during her visits to Bellomont she regularly accompanied Mildred and Hilda to church.”

But Lily is more interested in walking with the charming Lawrence Selden than going to church.  In fact, she wonders if Lawrence has come to Bellomont deliberately to see her, or his old mistress, Bertha Dorset.

So she heads for the library, where he is talking to Bertha. Lily asks if the omnibus left without her.  She says:

“Ah, then I shall have to walk; I promised Hilda and Muriel to go to church with them.  It’s too late to walk there, you say?  Well, I shall have the credit of trying, at any rate–and the advantage of escaping part of the service.  I’m not so sorry for myself, after all!”

Selden leaves the library to pursue Lily on her walk, and her long afternoon walk with Selden is perfect.  Most of Chapter V and Chapter VI are devoted to the walk.

But she makes a lifelong enemy of Bertha.  And she also alienates Mr. Gryce, who marries someone else.

Although she and Selden have so much in common, are both witty, attractive, charming, and sensual, the desire for money dominates her actions.  He isn’t rich enough.

Actually, he has plenty of money.  But not enough for the worldly Lily.

Yet this walk determines the course of her life.  She thinks she wants to marry, but she doesn’t want to marry.  Time and again, she wrecks her own schemes for marrying rich men.  There is a certain moral level beneath which she will not fall.  And so we know that Lily is better than she seems.

Her later walks in the novel are much, much less happy than this one perfect walk.

In Chapter XV of The Age of Innocence, the walk is also important.  Newland Archer takes a walk with Madame Olenska, his fiancée’s cousin, after he tracks her down determinedly at the van der Luydens’ country villa where she is staying.

Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Madame Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) in "The Age of Innocence."

Archer’s walk with Ellen Olenska is the reverse of Lily’s walk with Selden in The House of Mirth.  Lily never makes it to church–the walk “to church” is just flirtation–but Archer meets Ellen walking back from church.  And the very fact that she went to church tells us something about Ellen.  She has depths that Lily didn’t have, and doesn’t have to impress people.  And she doesn’t need to plot her flirtations.  She is straightforward.

It seems she is walking briskly, hoping to avoid another suitor, the rich, debauched Julius Beaufort, who wants to make her his mistress.

She says to Archer,

“Shall we walk on?  I’m so cold after the sermon.  And what does it matter, now that you’re here to protect me?”

And then they have a race. There is a playfulness about Ellen.

They notice the old Poltroon’s house is open, because  Mrs. van der Luyden (who never takes walks–saying something about her sex life?) had opened it up so they could see it after church.  Archer builds up the fire, and Ellen tells him she lives in the moment when she is happy.  He walks away from the fire to avoid temptation, because he is so attracted.  They do some hand-holding.

Their happiness interrupted by Beaufort.

In Chapter XVI, Archer takes another walk. Afraid of his sexual feelings for Ellen, He travels to St. Augustine, where his fiancée May is staying, and walks with her.  She resists sex and his urging to move the wedding date up.

So there are walks and walks.

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Stella Benson’s Living Alone, published in 1919, is a very short, whimsical novel, and I am writing about it before I have finished because I am so amused.

One day during World War I a young witch in London suddenly invades a committee meeting on War Savings.  The charitable members of the committee (mostly ladies) spend their time trying to persuade the poor to save money.  They are fascinated when the stranger appears out of nowhere and ducks under a table.

“I stole this bun,” she explained frankly.  “There is an uninterned German baker after me.”

“And why did you steal it?” asked Miss Ford, pronouncing the H in “why” with a haughty and terrifying sound of suction.

The stranger sighed.  “Because I couldn’t afford to buy it.”

Stella Benson

Her explanation that she had no money because she had contributed it all to War Bonds makes them blanch.  But all are affected by this whimsical character, who turns out to be a witch sometimes called Angela (she tries various names before settling on this one), and when she leaves her broomstick behind, Sarah Brown, a sickly young committee member with no life, returns it to her on Mitten Island.  When the witch invites her to stay there, in a house called Living Alone, for people who have gotten sick of living alone in poverty, her life changes and her attitude toward her work.

Sarah, who collects information on the Naughty Poor from and for “charitable spies,”  loves office supplies.  She is fond of recording the information, whatever it might be, on little cards, only because she loves pencil and paper.

There are people to whom a ream of virgin paper is an inspiration, who find the first sharpening of a pencil the most lovable of all labors, who see something almost holy in the dedication of green and red penholders to their appropriate inks, in whose ears and before whose eyes the alphabet is like a poem or a prayer.”

She suddenly realizes she cannot continue to do this work after experiencing the true charity of the witch.

There are also fairies and a dragon.

I am enjoying this very much. I love witch books.

And so I have collected a few other witch titles  to go along with this post.


1.  Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner  The spinster Lolly Willowes spends 20 years living with her brother’s family after her father dies, and one day after World War I can no longer take it.  She moves to the rural village of Great Mop. It’s not the traditional village it seems:  witches frolic and free Lolly from convention.

2.  The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge.  This lyrical novel, set during the English Civil War, is a historical saga of Royalists and Parliamentarians, ordinary people in the new Puritan regime divided by politics and religion.   The characters include Froniga, half gypsy, with a reputation for being a witch, Yoben, a Royalist tinker who took refuge among the gypsies long ago for mysterious reasons, Francis, an itinerant painter; and a Parliamentarian family with twin children.

I love the writing and love the book.

3.  The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  This Newbery winner about a girl and a widow accused of witchcraft in 1687 was one of my favorites when I was growing up.  I’d love to reread it.

4.  Wicked by Gregory Maguire.  Well, of course you know this one.  The Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, is good and not evil, while Dorothy is bad. It’s The Wizard of Oz with animal rights.

5.  The Crucible by Arthur Miller.  Play about the Salem witch trials, an allegory of McCarthyism.

6.  The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.  A light novel that I couldn’t put down!  Harvard grad Connie discovers a key and scrap of paper in her grandmother’s cottage that lead to a book of spells…and…

7.  Corrag by Susan Fletcher.  Fletcher’s lyrical narrative is divided into two parts: short letters from Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite sent to Scotland to investigate the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe; and his long interviews with Corrag, a young woman accused of witchcraft, through a fascinating first-person chronicle of her short life.  Fascinating and beautifully written.

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fiction is always a treat, and although I am not fond of short stories, I make an exception for Jhabvala’s.  When I heard she had a new collection of short stories, A Lovesong for India:  Tales from East and West,  I immediately found a copy.  I have spent a week savoring these exquisite stories, many as richly developed as her novels and as perfectly crafted as the work of Henry James.

Jhabvala, who has written 20 books, won the Booker Prize for her novel Heat and Dust and two Academy Awards for best adapted screenplay for Merchant-Ivory films, A Room with a View and Howards End.   Born in Germany of Polish parents, she and her family fled the Nazis in 1939 to England, where she learned English, earned a master’s in English, and married an Indian architect. After they raised their family in India, she divided her time between New York, London, and India.  She is a U.S. citizen.

Ruh Prawer Jhabvala

Much of her fiction is set in India, but several of these stories are set in the U.S. The collection is divided into three parts, “India,” “Mostly Arts and Entertainment,” and “The Last Decades.”

In “Innocence,” my favorite story, there is a kind of double narrative:   the narrator’s memories run parallel to a novel written by her Indian friend Dinesh, in which he calls himself “D” and her “Elisabeth.”  In India, while she studied  with a “woman saint,” she lodged in the small house  of Mr. and Mrs. Mathotra, “a middle-aged childless couple who looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife.”  Her fellow lodger, Dinesh, who worked at All India Radio,  despised her spiritual quest, and informed her that her ideas of India were those of 19th-century German professors.   But when she wants to have a more down-to-earth conversation, he only reluctantly fills her in on the background of their landlords, who sometimes talk mysteriously about their “problems.”  It seems they embarked on a misguided venture regarding gold speculations, for which Sahib went to jail.  But “Elisabeth” and “D” are fond of their landlords, and when they need money, they suggest that the couple take in a third lodger, Kay, a rich, beautiful Indian wastrel who whiles away her time seductively combing her hair. This third lodger is the catalyst of marital jealousy  and violence, and the strong feelings of the married couple come as a surprise.

Many of the stories are about older people’s entanglements and obsessions with beautiful young people who are in some ways lost souls.  In “Talent,” a gifted singer, Ellie, takes advantage of her agent, Magda, claiming she has no place to live and moving in.  But Magda’s composer cousin, Robert, is the real mark: Ellie is  interested in starring in Robert’s next musical.  This manipulative young woman worms her way into Ellie’s family with a series of lies, and hurts Magda.  But in the end only the genius of Ellie and Robert matters.

In “Pagans,” the widowed Brigitte, “large-limbed and golden as a pagan goddess,” forms a rewarding nonsexual; friendship with a young Indian man, Shoki.  He has written a screenplay, but is really valued for his beauty and manners.  When Brigitte’s sister Frances comes to L.A. to persuade her to move to New York, the charming Shoki changes her attitude and spirit. But in the end it is the beautiful people who matter.

Perhaps the most perfectly-crafted story in the collection is “At the End of the Century.”  Celia, a psychotherapist, becomes obsessed with the pregnancy of her younger half-sister Lily.  Lily, a guileless young woman who cannot take care of herself, wanders around New York with a blank sketchbook and eventually marries a poet, who does not live with her; she continues to live with Celia.  We soon become aware that Celia’s fears about Lily’s pregnancy are real, but events unfold astonishingly in this unconventional love story.

The title story, “A Lovesong for India,” is my least favorite.  So often this happens in collections of stories:  the title story seems weak and I cannot fathom why they chose it.  In this rather slow story, TC and his English wife, Diana, live in India, and are very comfortable so long as he is in the provinces.  As he rises in the Civil Service, he is eventually transferred to New Delhi, where he works in a position he dislikes.  their son, a teenage delinquent, grows up to be an unscrupulous businessman.  And in the end it is the son’s crimes that, paradoxically, bring honor to TC and happiness to this couple.

This is a stunning book.  Jhabvala should win the National Book Award.  Isn’t it about time she won?  But I always think this about my favorite authors.

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