Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon


I had to read Edith Wharton’s dead depressing novella Ethan Frome in high school and, like most of my English class, hated it.  That put me off Wharton until a few months ago, when (with some trepidation) I purchased and tried The Age of Innocence, which I absolutely loved.  Amazing how some time, a little growing up, and a different premise can change your opinion about an author!  So over winter break, I bought two more of her books at my local used bookstore, The Glimpses of the Moon and Summer.  The latter promises to be similar to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and I can’t wait to dive into it.  I’ve just finished the former and enjoyed it immensely.

I can’t say that I liked The Glimpses of the Moon (1922) quite as much as The Age of Innocence, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  It was a lighthearted and engaging romp, and only toward the end when some tension built did I feel any anxiety as a reader.  It was lighter and easier than Age of Innocence, but that also means it won’t stick with me in the same way.  Glimpses of the Moon has Wharton’s trademark wit, social satire, and romantic tragedy, but on less grand a scale.  It would be a great introduction to Wharton, if you or a friend have never read any of her novels and were looking for a recommendation that was less difficult, dark, and depressing than her more famous books.

Susy Branch and Nick Lansing move in a fashionable and affluent circle, but are poor themselves, meaning that they are perpetual hangers-on to their wealthier friends.  They’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, filled with beauty and excess, but don’t have the means to maintain it themselves.  So, when their unexpectedly deep friendship is threatened by the displeasure of one of Susy’s wealthy friends, who has her eye on Nick, the two hatch a plan: they’ll marry and spend a year mooching off their friends, who will undoubtedly offer large monetary gifts and houses to stay in.  A full year of honeymooning.  And their pact states that if either one meets someone who can advance them socially and financially, the other won’t stand in the way.  After all, in their society, it’s common enough for new engagements to be announced before the divorce is even finalized!  Susy and Nick plan to help each other for a while, then go their separate ways, always maneuvering up the social scale toward greater wealth and independence.

The trouble is, marriage changes a person, and Susy and Nick’s friendship is deep and real from the beginning.  They aren’t actually equipped to intersect their lives for a while and then break off to go in separate directions.  Their close contact and shared hopes and dreams changes them both, and they suddenly realize that the personal sacrifices required to stay in the good graces of their wealthy friends might be more than they can accept.  And yet, as Susy muses, perhaps “to attain moral freedom they must both be above material cares…” (177).  To make matters more complicated, each has a wealthy admirer, and a dissolution of Susy and Nick’s marriage would open the possibility that neither would have to worry about money again.  The book follows their struggles to decide who they will become, what they’re willing to do to achieve their goals, and what lifestyle they truly want.  Individually, they strive for a happiness as elusive as the moon they occasionally glimpse in their most contented moments together, always knowing but unable to admit that their future happiness depends on the other.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: The Constant Nymph; or, What is Music For?


The bestselling English novel of its decade, Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph (1924) sets out a love triangle between Lewis Dodd, a socially awkward and condescending composer, Florence Creighton, his aristocratic wife, and Tessa Sanger, the passionate and innocent young girl who has loved Lewis throughout her childhood.  I found it at my local public library’s bi-annual book sale, along with several other Viragos.  I brought it with me to while away the hours in airports and on planes, and didn’t expect to love it as much as I did!  I’ve already started recommending it to friends, and am pleasantly surprised that one of the first books I finished in the new year will likely make it onto my top ten list.

The first two sections of The Constant Nymph, before we get to the romantic tragedy part, reads like a combination of I Capture the Castle or Guard Your Daughters (no, really!) and anything by Elizabeth von Arnim.  It has the beautiful descriptions of nature found in any of Elizabeth von Arnim’s book, with the same understanding that one’s surroundings impact a person and can change her irrevocably.  And it has I Capture the Castle’s quirkiness.  The leading lady of this book, Tessa, is a middle child in “Sanger’s circus,” a raucous and disorderly family living in a nearly-inaccessible house in the Alps.

We get to know a whole cast of characters at this remote home – Albert Sanger himself, a brilliant but overlooked English composer, and his seven legitimate children, along with his current wife Linda and whichever musician friends happen to be staying with them at the moment.  The children live almost entirely ungoverned, which means that the two eldest are child-parents who valiantly take on the responsibility of maintaining what order can be achieved in the household.  All of the younger children are completely wild but totally devoted to their high standards for music.  Their conversations range from exasperating to unexpectedly insightful, and every one of them has a unique and strong personality.  Getting to know them was a delight, even the grasping and troublemaking Linda and her daughter Suzanne.

The book focuses on the nature of musical value, aligning artistry with disorder and demonstrating how it is killed by social conventions.  Disorder is linked with charm and the extraordinary; society equals order, which leads to sameness that is frigid and stifling.  Love is the first step towards civility, but civility as the Sanger circle understands it is antithetical to “normal” culture.  In brief, The Constant Nymph asks what music is for.  Is it for the enjoyment of other people, or is it a composer’s fulfilling of some greater, ineffable call?  The fundamental disconnect between these two ideas is perhaps the largest conflict between Lewis and Florence, as you can see in this conversation:

 “Amateurs,” said Lewis, pronouncing the word as if it made him a little ill, “have no business to have a level.  Is this Leyburn an amateur?”
“Don’t talk in that tone of voice about amateurs.  I’m one myself.  Yes, he is.  He sings very nicely too.  And he’s done a lot of splendid work bringing music to the people.”
“What’s he want to do that for?”
“My dear Lewis!  Why do you write music?”
“God knows!”
“Don’t you want to give pleasure to people?”
“No.”
“That’s a pose.”
“It’s not!  I swear it’s not.  I tell you this, Florence.  The sight of a lot of them listening to my work, or Sanger’s work, or anything decent, makes me sick.  I swear then I won’t write another note, if that’s what it’s for.”  (206-207)

Or this one:

[Florence:] “Your attitude is completely wrong.  You put the wrong things first.  Music, all art…what is it for?  What is its justification?  After all…”
“It’s not for anything.  It has no justification.  It…”
“It’s only part of the supreme art, the business of living beautifully.  You can’t put it on a pedestal above decency and humanity and civilization, as your precious Sanger seems to have done.  Human life is more important.”
“I know.  You want to use it like electric light.  You buy a new saucepan for your kitchen and a new picture for your silver sty.  I’ve seen it.  My father’s cultured.  He…”
“It’s a much abused word, and one is shy of using it.  But it means an important thing, which we can’t do without.”
“Can’t we?  I can!  By God I can!  Why do you suppose I ran away?  To get free of it.  Why do you think I loved Sanger?”

What’s fascinating to me is that these are some of the same issues with which all music historians and composers have to grapple.  These are the sorts of conversations I’ve had casually with my fellow grad students sitting around the fountain in the music department.  I never expected to find such a balanced treatment of them in a work of fiction!  This blog was started with the intention of puzzling out connections between my musicological work and the fiction I enjoy - well, here’s one!  This conflict over the purpose of music played a huge role in the development of 20th-century classical music and continues to be discussed by music scholars today.  It’s one that I’ve thought about and even written about.  Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote in undergrad and submitted as a writing sample for my grad school applications, entitled “The Composer’s Duty”: Practicality and Modernism in Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis in D.

Classical music of the twentieth century, of course, is not generally noted for its appeal to everyday people.  Modernism – the insatiable drive to create something new and exciting – had taken hold, resulting in extreme experimentation.  The 1950s saw the development of serial, aleatoric, and electronic music, and through these and other compositional styles, art music reached new heights of complexity.  Some composers became extremely self-centered, their audiences forgotten in the pursuit of self-expression.  American composer Milton Babbitt, for example, thought of music as a science, one rightfully unintelligible to the ignorant.  Thus, he concluded, the composer should be uncaring of the opinions of both performers and the public.  Babbitt said in his 1957 talk “The Composer as Specialist,” which was later published under the title “Who Cares If You Listen?”:

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.[1]

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Benjamin Britten had a very different philosophy.  He explained his objections to the so-called “retreat of twentieth-century composers into ivory towers” in a speech at the Aspen Institute:

On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings…Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions.  It is the easiest thing in the world to write a piece virtually or totally impossible to perform – but oddly enough that is not what I prefer to do; I prefer to study the conditions of performance and shape my music to them.[2]

The Constant Nymph immediately catapulted onto my favorites list before I even got to any of this intellectual musical philosophy.  It was truly lovely, and I highly recommend it (like I said, think a cross between I Capture the Castle and Elizabeth von Arnim!)  And happily, I have another of Margaret Kennedy’s novels waiting on my to-read shelf.


[1] Milton Babbitt, in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2008), 484.
[2] Benjamin Britten, in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 478.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Much good news!

Oh relief, oh delight!  The lost book has been found, and the new book has arrived!


Well, I feel rather foolish.  I looked everywhere in my home for this missing book, I thought.  My last memory had been dumping it and other assorted things (keys, wallet, phone, library book for class) out of the bag I'd taken to campus on Friday on my bed, and from then...nothing.  I checked all the logical places (my books-in-progress stack on my nightstand, under the bed, among stacks of course books...) and then illogical places (I literally went through every stack of folded and put-away clothes in case I'd accidentally grabbed when I put away laundry that I'd folded on the bed).  And then, I finally thought to check the little drawer in my nightstand, which holds lotions and other miscellaneous toiletries.  There was no reason for it to be there, yet it was!  Yay, and don't I feel silly for my distress.

The second bit of good news arrived in the mail today:

  
 
Les Miserables, I affectionately dub you "the brick" because you are by far the longest book I own, and because you are distinctly brick-shaped.  I think if you had enough of these editions, you really could construct a house built on a foundation of epic French drama.  This unabridged version has 1,463 pages.


Just so you can see the difference between Panter-Downes' novel of reasonable length (184 pages) and Hugo's masterpiece!

The case of the missing book

I'm one of those people who has a really hard time dealing when things aren't the way they're supposed to be.  Late last night I discovered that one of the books I've been reading has gone missing - Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day - and I've been mildly distressed ever since.  My apartment isn't that big, but I can't find the book anywhere, nor can I locate it anywhere in my music department.  I even called the coffee shop in which I'd spent a little time last Friday, in case the book had fallen out of my bag.  This marks the third time a book of mine has just disappeared (the first was The Penderwicks, last spring, and the second was one of my copies of the Book of Common Prayer, perhaps lost in the move from St. Louis to Durham).  I mean, it's just a missing fiction book, it's not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it really bothers me because I ordered it specially and because I was in the middle of reading it and now can't finish.  And because books shouldn't just go missing; they should always be right where they belong so that I can find them.  Maybe it'll turn up, but in the meantime I'm brooding a little.

Does anyone else have this problem of mysteriously vanishing books?  Have you ever lost anything you were in the middle of, or anything you were really attached to?  Please say it's not just me who loses books!

And here's a somewhat selfish question - does anyone have a copy of One Fine Day that they no longer want, and would be willing to trade it to me in exchange for another Virago?  I have several that I'd be willing to swap.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Baking and Books: Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffles

Whew, this semester has really started off with a bang!  I don't mind it being somewhat front-loaded; hopefully that'll make the end of the semester a little easier.  But it does mean that I'm awfully busy right now.  On top of regular homework, I'm currently writing two presentations and beginning my analysis for a music theory video presentation.  All of these are topics I'm extremely interested in, so I've enjoyed all this prep work.  However, it does mean that I've had very little time for myself, and when I do have some spare reading time, I've found it difficult to get immersed in denser books.  I'm in the middle of both Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day, but I needed something a little easier and so now I've begun Edith Wharton's Glimpses of the Moon.  I can hardly believe this is by the author of Ethan Frome!  I had to read that novella in high school English class, and thought it dreadfully depressing.  Glimpses of the Moon, on the other hand, is a gloriously fast-paced and energetic romp.  Utterly delightful, though with its fair share of Wharton-esque romantic tragedy.


Yesterday I got a craving to make something delicious, and remembered a recipe for chocolate peanut butter truffles I'd recently found through one of the baking blogs I follow.  And I had a great excuse to make them, as well - friends had invited us to dinner and hadn't given us any specific instructions regarding what to bring.  They were a huge success!  Quite delicious, and fairly easy to make, because they only include three ingredients: chocolate (I used a mix of milk and semi-sweet chocolate), peanut butter, and cream cheese.  Here's a closer-up photo:


Let me note that if we owned a melon baller, these would have been a snap.  We don't, so I spent many minutes trying to figure out how to get the right shape.  Measuring spoons, metal spoons, plastic spoons, tin foil, and plastic wrap all failed, so I finally just dug in there and shaped spheres with my (clean) hands.  Which explains the odd shapes and irregular sizes...though I assure you this didn't interfere at all with their general yumminess!  I coated half in powdered sugar and half in cocoa powder.  And happily, we still have a few left over from the dinner party, so we can still enjoy a truffle or two today!

You can find the recipe here.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Free books don't count as buying books!

Technically, these don't count as cheating!  A ban on book-buying says nothing about books you're given for free!  (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!)  And even my husband agrees that as academics, we can't pass up the opportunity when a professor gives away his or her library.

I happened to walk into the divinity school library today just as two carts full of free books were released into the wild.  It was kind of a mad free-for-all.  There were quite a number of us crowding around (very politely, as is typical for divinity school students), trying to see titles, and grabbing any that looked interesting for further inspection.  Somebody (a div school professor?) had just retired and offered up all of these books to new homes.  I saw somebody walk off with three identical copies of Dante's Divine Comedy, and a lot of others were very excited by historical theological works.  For my own part, I found myself profoundly grateful to be the only music historian who regularly hangs around the divinity school.  All of these music books were passed over, and I was thrilled to find them.  Several are classic textbooks in my field, and will join my others as useful resources when I begin teaching music history survey courses.  The book on humanism and the Italian Renaissance is by one of the great musicological giants, out of print and impossible to find, and will be a perfect accompaniment to the class I'm currently taking on Monteverdi's madrigals!  Two of these will be gifts for family members.  And the one I'm really intrigued by is Real Presences.  I pulled it off the cart thinking it would be about transubstantiation or conflicts in Eucharistic theology, but it isn't.  Instead, it's about God's presence in artistic creation - the same theme I'll be studying all semester in my Theology and Music class.

In addition to these fabulous musicology texts, there was also some fiction, and it would seem as if I was the only reader of classic literature in the group of eager bookish students, because I had no competition for these:

I've never read any of these authors, but have wanted to for quite some time now.  Of course, to my trained eye, Penguin and Oxford editions leap off any shelf to my attention!  It's crazy that I'm a scholar of English religious culture and have never read Ivanhoe (I even quoted from it in a ninth-grade research project for the National History Day competition on cultural exchange following the Norman Conquest).  Flaubert's Sentimental Education is supposed to be his masterpiece, even over Madame Bovary.  I wonder if I should read that one first?  And I've been dying to read Trollope ever since seeing so many book bloggers rave.  I was absolutely delighted to find the first two books of his Barchester series, as well as a stand-alone novel.  Interestingly, based on my book-collecting habits in the last year or so, this entire stack is comprised of novels by men.  I suppose as a feminist intent on gender equality, this is a good thing!

So then I had to figure out how to carry all of these for the rest of the day...  Between stacks of library books for research and occasional finds like these, my arm muscles are going to get buff!

Many thanks to whomever it was who gave so many wonderful books away.  They'll be extraordinarily useful to a new generation of scholars!

Monday, January 14, 2013

New Viragos, and a book-buying ban

Oops.  Turns out there's a used bookstore about half a block away from the music department.  And they're one of those great stores that separates out classics from general fiction!  I'd say this will be problematic, but the truth is, I really enjoy used bookstores.  The occasional, judiciously-chosen afternoon there will probably be a great source of relaxation and recharging over the next few years of grad school.  Last week, I spent a wonderful hour or so browsing both sections, and then had to decide what to buy from a stack of ten or so books I'd pulled from the shelves.

The trouble with only reading books you actually own is that you feel greater incentive to purchase more books to expand your options.  I'm a little short on personal funds for the rest of the month due to my book-buying earlier in January, and I don't want to stress my husband by adding to my new bookshelf too quickly, so I limited myself to only two.  Sadly, I had to put both Anne and Charlotte Bronte back, as well as a couple other Viragos and a few other works of fiction.  I have a whole year before I need a new Bronte novel for next winter break, and if possible, I would like to find new Penguin editions so my whole set matches (rather than the old Penguin editions at this store...they were lovely and in great shape, but significantly smaller and shorter than my copies of Jane Eyre and Villette).

I was so incredibly excited to find these two, though!




















I've been meaning to read some of Delafield's other fiction ever since flying through her Provincial Lady diaries last spring.  I find her unique mix of humor and expose on the tragedy of women's situations and limited choices in the early 20th century to be utterly engaging and thoughtfully compelling.  And after recently finishing Kennedy's The Constant Nymph, an instant favorite, I looked into her other novels and particularly wanted to read The Ladies of Lyndon.  I decided that this tale of an upper-class family in Edwardian England would fill my hunger for more fiction along the lines of Downton Abbey.  I couldn't believe it was there, or that I spotted it - I was quickly scanning the shelves, mostly looking for green covers and, of course, this is one of the more easily-missed black American editions.  I saw it, calmly snatched it, and inwardly did a little dance.  Have you experienced this kind of book-buying serendipity?  It doesn't happen often for me!

I've also just ordered the 1400-page unabridged Signet edition of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.  I've loved this musical since I was a child.  I saw it on stage in London, and probably listened to my complete symphonic soundtrack about a million times growing up.  I would have been willing to state that it was the musical I knew best - and I'm a real musical theater junkie - but when I saw the film a few days ago, I was utterly blown away by the theological symbolism that I had never once picked up on.  I had no idea what this musical was really about.  Thus the film was an overwhelming and often tearful experience for me.  The friends we were with assured me that all that Christian imagery and allegory is present in the novel, so it's high time I read it.  And I prefer to own really huge, door-stopping novels rather than checking them out of a library, so I can take my time with them, unpressured by library deadlines.

But THAT IS IT!  I'm now on a self-imposed book-buying ban that will extend through the end of February (the same length as my read-only-books-I-own project), with the possible exception of my conference trip to Connecticut.  Checking out a used bookstore has become a staple of any travel of mine.  Here in Durham, the trick is going to be avoiding walking into bookstores for the next month and a half.  They're joyous places, but it's hard to walk out without claiming something wonderful for your very own.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Baking and Books: Cinnamon Swirl Bread

I'm afraid I can't remember where I got this recipe, so much as I'd like to, I can't give credit where it's due.  I've been making this bread for a couple of years now, since before I was married.  I'd make a loaf of quickbread each Sunday and eat a slice of it and a scrambled egg for breakfast every day that week.  It was good, but got a little monotonous.  I'm completely spoiled now, of course; my husband makes breakfast and has a much wider repertoire!  I still like to pull out my old quickbread recipes now and then - they're excellent for breakfast, snacks, and even dessert.

I ordered a copy of Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day after reading Rachel's and Claire's glowing reviews.  It's marvelous, of course, though I'm finding it to be slower reading than I was expecting.  It's structured more as a series of vignettes than plotted.  The novel has such delicious language that I've been reading slowly to savor it, and often re-read paragraphs to make sure I've sucked all the marrow from them.  It's a short book, but not one I'll speed through.

Anyway, here's the recipe.  The original called for 40 minutes in the oven, but it's always taken me at least an hour (and I speak from experience; I've made this in three different ovens now).  Enjoy!

Cinnamon Swirl Bread



Ingredients:
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Lightly grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan. In a small bowl, mix together 1/3 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon; set aside.

In large bowl combine flour, baking powder, salt and remaining 1 cup sugar. Combine egg, milk, and oil; add to flour mixture. Stir until just moistened.

Pour half of the batter into pan. Sprinkle with half the reserved cinnamon/sugar mixture. Repeat with remaining batter and cinnamon/sugar mixture. Draw a knife through batter to marble.

Bake in preheated oven for approximately an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Best served warm from the oven or briefly warmed in a microwave or toaster oven.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: That's How It Was


Maureen Duffy’s That’s How It Was (1962) was the first book I finished in 2013!  I sort of feel like it should be heralded with a little more fanfare, due to this privileged position, but the truth is that I’m left feeling somewhat ambivalent about this book.  When I flew out to St. Louis for a few days, I brought Villette, which I was about 100 pages into at the time, but knowing that I don’t usually prefer heavy reading in small type while traveling, I also grabbed two Viragos as alternatives.  I ended up finishing one and starting the other, and poor Villette remained untouched (how’s that for symbolism about lonely Lucy Snowe?)

That’s How It Was is the largely autobiographical bildungsroman about Patricia Mahoney, called Paddy after her father.  She is the illegitimate daughter of Louey, an impoverished and working-class woman fighting tuberculosis.  The novel focuses on their relationship within the context of World War II, the tuberculosis epidemic, and England’s growing push for easier access to higher education for the working class.  Duffy lived through all of this herself, and some of the details she tosses in make Paddy’s world extremely vivid.  For example, Paddy’s schoolteacher’s description of the participation of women and children in the way effort:

“Now children, we can’t all be soldiers and fight for our country but we can all help the war effort in our own little ways.  You can help by being economical.  You see my little blue sandals.  I’ve had them for eight years and they’ve still got years of wear in them, because I clean them every day.  Now that’s one way you can all do your bit, by cleaning your shoes every day.  The country can’t afford to waste new shoes on lazy boys and girls, when she has to find boots for her soldiers.”  (58-59)

We’re supposed to idealize the close relationship between Paddy and her mother, which often is quite loving and generous, as when Paddy begins carrying her ill mother on the handlebars of her bicycle because otherwise Louey wouldn’t be able to leave the house, but it usually struck me as a clinging and unhealthy bond.  Louey depends on her daughter too much, frequently reminding Paddy, “You’re all I’ve got.”  The problem is that Paddy isn’t all Louey’s got – Louey remarries partway into the novel and ought to be able to rely a bit on her husband and stepchildren instead of placing all responsibility on her daughter, who is struggling to achieve her own aspirations for higher education.  Paddy finds herself torn between her literary ambition and her love for and duty toward her mother, and a crush on a female teacher leaves Paddy feeling devastated that she may be abandoning her mother.

Duffy’s writing was passable, I suppose, but I didn’t love it.  I especially disliked the first few chapters in which Paddy narrated her mother’s childhood.  Things picked up a bit when Paddy began relating her own story.  Duffy is a playwright by trade, and this was unhappily discernible in the novel.  She writes like a playwright – dialogue is snappy and subtextual, and anything not specifically dialogue is delivered as internal monologue.  Prose is sparse and dismal, though considering the subject matter, it would be awfully inappropriate to have cheerful language in such a harsh context.  She attempts to push symbols too obviously and too far – for example, the unicorn Paddy gives her mother as a gift is quite clearly symbolic of their struggle to survive and Duffy’s idea that this effort made them stronger in the end:

“Open it!”

She unwrapped the little box, tuppence in Woolworth’s, and took off the lid.  Inside, bedded down in cotton wool, was a little blue plastic unicorn that had cost me a whole sixpence.  Gently she picked it out and stood it on the locker.  It toppled over at once.

“He’s like me, a bit wobbly on his pins.”  Patiently, she stood him up again.  This time he stayed.

“There!”

I sighed with relief.  “Do you like it?  Is it alright?”

“It’s fine.  I shall be able to look at him and think of you.  I think I’ll lean him against the clock-face – he seems a bit tired.”

“But he does stand up, doesn’t he?”

“Oh yes.  He stands very well.”

That little unicorn toppled from every available flat surface for years, until he finally broke his leg.  It was mended with sticky paper and after that he stood up steady as a rock.  (81)

This book was more educational for me than enjoyable, I think.  I certainly learned a lot about the experience of the working class in a difficult period in history, and grew to like Paddy for her indefatigable spirit.  Aesthetically, I didn’t find the book’s prose or situations appealing, but that drove home the weightiness of the difficulties Paddy (and by extension, Duffy herself) overcame, and the story she’s trying to tell wouldn’t have worked without them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: Excellent Women


You’ve got to be careful with Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) because it’s one of those un-put-downable books that holds a risk of making you severely antisocial, your only social interaction being the embarrassed explanations that inevitably follow loud outbursts of laughter.  I started this book on the drive over to my husband’s aunt’s house; we went to visit them for a few days after Christmas.  Once there, I found it remarkably hard to concentrate my attention on visiting, because every time there was a lull in conversation, I wanted to get back to my book.  In retrospect, it probably should have stayed in the car, to help me resist temptation!

Mildred Lathbury is one of those “excellent women,” an unmarried spinster expected to observe and meddle in the lives of her friends and neighbors (as indeed she does, to the betterment of her London community).  Mildred is one of the most capable women I’ve ever come across, and I think that if she ever found a man she wanted, she’d be able to snag him as a husband immediately, despite Mildred’s occasionally self-deprecating comments such as this: “It was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up” (170).  I love how Mildred’s first response when comforting someone is always to make a cup of tea, and then how she worries that she’s becoming branded as the person who always makes cups of tea.

The wit and charm of Pym’s social satire earned her the distinction of being called a twentieth-century Jane Austen (according to the blurb on the front cover).  The book was touching, hugely engaging, and often uproariously funny, and with its focus on Anglicanism and anthropology, seemed crafted just for me!

Mildred’s life revolves around the life of the church.  As she put it, “It is only a question of choosing one’s parish and fitting into it…” (11).  She attends Office services almost every day, and most of her friends are a part of her church community, including the vicar and his sister, and many of the women who volunteer on church committees.  The book is full of church jokes, which as an Anglican I found absolutely delightful.  Specifically, I’m Anglo-Catholic, so this particular passage made me about die laughing from its absolute rightness:

We moved from place to place with reverence and admiration while our guide explained the history and meaning of this or that in a kind patient voice.

“I don’t suppose any of you are Catholics,” he said smoothly, “so you may not understand about Our Lady.”

I saw the Anglo-Catholic ladies gather more closely together, as if to distinguish themselves from the rest of the group.  They seemed to be whispering indignantly among themselves and one looked almost as if she were about to protest.  But in the end, perhaps remembering their manners or the difficulty of arguing with a Roman, they calmed down and listened patiently with the rest of us.  (196)

When it comes to the anthropology side of the book, Mildred’s new neighbor is an anthropologist and thus Mildred begins her association with a few anthropologists, even attending the reading of her neighbor’s anthropology conference paper.  And yet, she never really understands anthropology or anthropologists at all!  This kind of tangential association, which leaves one able to talk seemingly intelligently about the subject without ever really having any firm grasp, is just what I have after several years of dating and then marrying a man with a degree in anthropology!

My favorite characteristic of the book is its realism.  In the end, Mildred has been involved in a lot of drama, but not very much has actually happened to her.  The novel outlines her daily life.  She buys flowers and laments the purchase a day later when the flowers begin to wilt.  She runs into acquaintances unexpectedly and struggles through awkward conversation.  And there is a lot of talk of brewing and drinking tea!  Perhaps the freshest and most unexpected aspect of Pym’s writing is her rejection of Chekhov’s law, which states that anything brought into a story early must become important later on.  Real life isn’t like that, and Excellent Women isn’t either.  Topics are brought up in conversation or experience that are unexplained and then left – Mrs. Jessop for one.  Who is this woman, and why should she ring to apologize to Mrs. Bone?  It’s a mystery to Mildred and it’s so refreshing that Pym left it a mystery to readers.  Excellent Women is a mere snapshot of a life that keeps on living after the book is finished.

My first introduction to Barbara Pym was an unqualified success!  I highly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t read it, and will eagerly anticipate reading more of her novels – though that will have to wait until I’m back to reading from the library.  Does anyone have a suggestion as to which of her many books I should read next?