Friday, November 29, 2013

"Quartet in Autumn" has an ugly cover, so no pictures for you

Fair warning: you should not read this book if you are having a "boo hoo, I'm going to die alone in a box under an overpass" moment. But otherwise you should definitely find a copy and read it. It's short.

I've only read three of Barbara Pym's books but I have a blog and no one can stop me from saying that Quartet in Autumn feels supremely Pymmian. The four main characters are all odd and unattractive; elderly people working admittedly useless and unskilled jobs, with very little apparently in their lives. The four don't really seem to have or want much of a relationship beyond their occupation of the same office, and when the two women retire not only is it uncertain what they will do with their time it is also unclear whether there is any relationship beyond the work relationship that can continue.

One of the threads in the book involves a well-meaning but frustrated social worker who finds visiting one of the retired women very unrewarding indeed. Lonely old dears might be cranky at first but they're truly grateful for the attention... eventually... right? The humor in Quartet in Autumn is less pronounced than in Excellent Women or Glass of Blessings but it's here, mostly making the point that sometimes a crusty exterior serves to hide an equally crusty interior.

There are a couple of other characteristically-Pym elements to this book. First, I think I commented in another Pym review that she portrays how badly plotted life can be, and here, instead of characters being pushed together by circumstances or discovering their feelings for one another, opportunities get hinted at and missed, and people are not particularly sorry for having stuck to the knowns. Secondly, the whole thing ends on a genuine, organic note of hope despite there not being much concrete foundation for it. I'm not an author (clearly) but I can see where it's easy to create a hopeful ending by, say, giving your character some cash or tickets to Paris or a new romantic interest. Pym gives her characters very little -- arguably in this book she takes away some of what the characters had in the beginning -- and yet she ends with new hope by allowing the characters a change in perspective. Or I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that the characters derive hope from a rediscovery of their own ability to choose. I'm thinking of this little Christian/Catholic book recommended by a friend, Interior Freedom, which discusses the idea that even if one is dissatisfied or unhappy with a situation, one can be at peace with it by freely choosing to endure it (obviously that's not a novel idea but this is the book I thought of off the bat). I wonder if that would be a better characterization of the way Pym's characters end up with a sense of a new beginning or if I'm refining it too much; it might fit with the Anglo-Catholic theme that runs through her books.

Quartet in Autumn is about old people and is mostly about how their problems are not easy to solve. It's not a sexy exciting book about sexy exciting people by any means. But they're not kidding on the back cover when they call it a masterpiece, and you'll be glad you read it. You'll also want to go open a retirement account, cultivate your relationships with your nieces and nephews, and otherwise figure out what you want life to be like when you're old.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Remember eBooks?

Oh, I know, you're probably thinking something like "eBooks are still a big deal, you dork, prissy articles about them get published all the dang time even though it's like almost 2014" but what I mean is remember when ebooks (and, eh, internal capitals) were like a thing in my life, and I had a Kindle and whatnot?

(If that's our standard, then remember blogs, those were a thing once upon a time and where did they goooo, is what you're thinking sarcastically (don't think I don't know) and I say to you

shameless Alice pandering
but also yeah, ok.)

BACK TO ME. So there I was sitting on the train the other day, fiddling with my phone and thinking about how I had Les Miserables in the Penguin Gorgeous Brick Edition sitting at home, when a lady got on the train with her Kindle and I had a wistful moment.

That was the nice thing about the Kindle, it made an excellent commuting companion because you didn't have to decide what to bring with you or whether or not your shoulder could stand it; it was just you and the text and a consistently dainty extra thing in your bag.

My Kindle is currently in my parents' basement after losing my page one time too many. Ultimately, I don't miss it that much. And I'm halfway through le brique and I've got a shelf of physical books I should get through, so, you know.

I do always like a good accessory, though, so here are some new e-reader cases from the British Library to ogle. They have a weird adhesive thing that sticks the device into the case (see it in action), and what they don't seem to have is any kind of closure dealie. But they have one that says "A Very Naughty Girl" on it so I guess you have to weigh it yourself.

especially about the way to end a post

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I'm not convinced anything in this post makes sense

I'm sitting here having something of an omg moment, because there are so many things in the world and in my life that I want to (help) accomplish and yet I do so very little and, hello, exhibit A, there are two emails I've been avoiding in my inbox for two weeks now. And that's reminded me of something I could do to avoid those for a wee bit longer.

Welcome to this blog post, about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.


I really liked this book. More specifically I was in awe of and delighted by it. From about halfway through I tried to put together my reaction and here's the best I came up with: say you're visiting an art museum for the first time. You're on vacation, or it's Sunday, or whatever, and it was free, so you're sort of drifting merrily through the galleries. Pictures pictures pictures: landscapes, ladies, naked ladies, landscapes, Dutch interiors, shoopdedoo. And then as you're casting your eye lazily across one wall, a picture jumps out at you. This, you think, this is the real thing. I've looked at all these other pictures that are superficially doing the same stuff: but this one works. This is the piece of art all those other paintings are trying to be.

You know you like my pretentious analogies, don't lie
I haven't read many (any?) other books about Jewish-Americans or golems or comic books or whatnot but somehow this book felt like it got something that other books I've read missed. It just clicked for me in a way I wouldn't necessarily have predicted. And it was darn entertaining too. I don't think it's changed my life or anything, and maybe I won't remember it at all in a few years, but man! It hit me the right way this time.

So lemme tell you a little story about this book. I bought it for £2 used with the express intention of getting rid of it when I was done. I actually finished it when I was staying in a hotel, and when I saw a bookshelf in the lobby with miscellaneous books on it, I got super excited about this perfect chance to pass the book on, indirectly, to someone else. So excited that I got rid of the book before I'd made any notes about favorite passages or copied out any quotes.

*~*~so genius~*~*

But, to cycle back around to the start of this post, I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was the character of Josef Kavalier. Of all the characters, he was the one I was most interested in (and really, he's the main character, so that's good). During the Second World War, he gains a sort of notoriety among his fellow soldiers because he never opens his mail, and when someone confronts him about it he (I think, see above) responds that... he just didn't open it. He couldn't quite deal with it, so he didn't. So, uh, I don't think it says anything good about me and my psyche that I do that sometimes too, but it was a detail that I liked.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Frenchy Frenchy French

I know this is annoying and pretentious, but here's me having read a best-seller and my major takeaway is, Golly, what does it Say about Us as a Society that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was so popular?


I disliked the two main characters. One is a concierge in a hoity-toity building; plain and from a humble background, she has taught herself a lot about culture, philosophy, literature, music, but feels compelled to hide it under a stereotypical "stupid old woman" surface for the comfort of her wealthy employers. The other is a young teenager, also highly intelligent, who hides her brilliance in order to be left alone by her vapid, elitist family and peers. They're both really bitter about leading lives of deception, and scornful of the people they're deceiving. This all seems pretty pointless to me. At least the concierge is pursuing her interests though. The teenager is planning to commit suicide and burn down her flat in a big Gesture, and is keeping notebooks of profound thoughts to leave behind her in the meantime. So, massively selfish as well.

The back of my edition has a quote from the Guardian: "Resistance is futile... You might as well buy it before someone recommends it for your book group. Its charm will make you say yes." Ignoring that half-hearted last sentence, that's a pretty hilariously lackluster endorsement, and sums up my expectation going in and my reaction after the fact. I guess book club members identify with bitter geniuses who feel compelled to hide their brilliance; and not only do they identify with them, they find them "charming". Well, they are French.

Believe it or not, I didn't actually hate this book. It's not bad, it's just... meh. It is extremely French in its obsession with the "oughts" of social position and particularly with the idea that great culture only belongs to one kind of person. Lordy, the French. I did find it blazingly predictable that Japanese culture is held out as pure, beautiful, and generally perfect. Sadly, this stereotype is not in any way subverted. Save us, Japan!

It's dangerous to write a book in which your characters are supposed to be super-intelligent and having profound thoughts about culture on every page, but actually this one pulls it off. There were several points where I did, truly, feel enriched by the observations of these characters. For example, here is the teenager on grammar:
Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty... when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language... I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility.
And the concierge on "Dido's Lament" by Purcell:
In my opinion, the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth. It is beyond beautiful, it is sublime, because of the incredibly dense succession of sounds, as if each were linked to the next by an invisible force and, while each one remains distinct, they all melt into one another, at the edge of the human voice, verging on an animal cry. But there is a beauty in these sounds that no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds.
I liked this book if for no other reason than that it reminded me to go listen to this piece again; and if people have discovered various works of art or music because of this book then it deserves every copy it sold.

One more:
To those who have not understood that the enchantment of language comes from such nuances, I shall address the following prayer: beware of commas.
The ending I found shocking and predictable all at once, and while I never did come to like the characters, I think I came around to something like sympathy, so there's that. All in all, I think this is a book worth reading if the opportunity comes around. And if my (hypothetical) book club picked it, I wouldn't decide to be "out of town" for the relevant dates.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Insanity! No, really: prepare the padded room

Lady Audley's Secret: it's no Woman in White.

Penguin knows that we cannot resist Coralie Bickford-Smith's beautiful clothbound designs, and so they've introduced (in the UK anyway; have these made to America yet? can't remember) the Penguin English Library. The fiends. I mean, look at this cover:


These are paperback editions with a slightly rubbery matte finish, and very reasonably priced; this one is £6. I noticed that this series started with the usual suspects, Austen, Dickens, etc, and you can tell it's been successful because they're digging pretty deeply into the classics catalog now. Coralie Bickford-Smith: cover design crack. (Side note: I was relieved when I saw her name credited on the back of these volumes; at first I was concerned that Penguin had genuinely ripped themselves off, so I'm glad that it's rather a case of a good designer getting more work.)

This was not an especially notable book; it takes far sterner insaner stuff than this to impress a veteran of Alice's Woman in White Readalong.

memmmmries
There are a couple of notable things about it, though. I did like Robert Audley, who's a sort of lovable layabout who nevertheless gets sucked into Mysterious Doings when he can't just let his friend's mysterious disappearance go. It's a sort of Code-of-the-Woosters thing. Braddon doesn't recognize the good thing she has here though, and like a true killjoy Victorian sensationalist, she seems to think we'll actually dislike Audley for being a nominal barrister who doesn't really care about making a legal career but is happy to lounge around leading a mildly dissolute, unstriving bachelor life. In the final analysis, Audley is only an embryonic awesome character; Braddon sort of leads him through a conversion to being serious-minded and diligent and booooo-ring.

Granted, it's been many, many weeks since I finished this book and therefore stopped actively thinking about it, but is it even slightly possible to see Audley as a predecessor for Bertie Wooster? Maybe through several other literary degrees of separation that I can't think of? Alternatively, I'm reading the fully developed awesomeness of a character like Bertie onto the unlikely-hero lead of a fairly unpretentious popular thriller. (Yeah, okay, I'm seeing it.) Still.

Audley is embryonically awesome in another way: he's clearly (that is, clumsily) presented as a man qualified to become, for the purposes of the story, the Detective. As someone with legal training, Audley knows about evidence and reasoning and so can investigate the case. In our modern post-post-post-conventional genre world, Audley could carry a whole series of increasingly tenuous mystery novels. Dame Crawley's Enigma. Viscountess Grande's Private Affair. Comtesse L'Enfant's Confidence (the foreign installment). Princess Edwina's Riddle: The Stunning Conclusion of the Robert Audley Chronicles.

As I flip through my dogeared pages, I'm reminded that there's a lot of entertaining wackiness in this book of both the intentional and unintentional variety. For instance, I'm pretty sure Braddon's having a larf when she puts this reflection into Robert Audley's mouth (or brain) (you get it):
The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don't know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arcs, Queen Elizabeths and Catharine the Seconds, and they riot in battle and murder and clamour and desperation. [sic] If they can't agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they'll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups.
Suddenly I don't really care to give this blog post an ending. My first sentence stands as my final verdict.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

I wrote this whole post about two long novels and now I have to come up with a title?! It just never ends

Once upon a time a million years ago, Alice and I were at a bookstore where I was buying a volume or two of Trollope, and she asked me something to the effect of "should I try this author." (I know, I ought to cherish every word from her mouth but it was a long time ago and I can't remember how it was phrased.)

Trollope is an author I enjoy but generally do not recommend. I can appreciate that people could very much not like him and be entirely right. I can pass over his political chapters without letting them get me down, and his ludicrous bourgeois-ness is a bit endearing to me; but I know that these things would be poison to others, and probably they're right. But I like him, so I read his books.

V. comfortable

The Small House at Allington is the exception I would make. I do think Small House at Allington is worth anyone's time. It's a very unusual plot, almost your standard Victorian-novel love story turned inside out. (Note that I will be discussing the plot and its outcomes below.)

Lily Dale is the heroine, and she gets jilted. Her engagement to Adolphus Crosbie almost starts the novel, and then Trollope tells how Crosbie's head gets turned, how he is lured away from Lily, and follows his pride and ambition into marital ruin. Lily's childhood friend John, who has always been in love with her but is something of a late-bloomer*, goes after Crosbie and avenges her. Everyone rallies around Lily and her very public humiliation.

But here's the thing that strikes me: the novel does not end with a wedding for Lily. John has stepped up and become the knight in shining armor, but he does not get the girl. I thought this was just breathtakingly unexpected.

John, rejected, counseled by a neighbor

It doesn't end there, though: in the next novel (and last of the series), John becomes even more of a hero, and Lily sees Crosbie (now widowed) and refuses his return. And yet the novel (and series) ends with Lily rejecting John yet again. Trollope tells us Lily will probably always be an old maid (nice of him to give the romantics an out). Once again: astonishing. I wouldn't be able, as an author, to resist putting John and Lily together. Lily is a really lively, likable person (she shades into being annoyingly perky, very lifelike), and John has clearly grown up so much. But Trollope shows quite masterfully the way particular circumstances can prevent a match that's perfect on paper from being possible.

I've read that Trollope wanted his novels to reflect the "unevenness" of real life, and in Lily's story I think he really knocks it out of the park. The introduction in my edition of Last Chronicle of Barset made me angry on this point:
The suggestion that Lily will not marry John because she is frightened of sex seems so obvious to us...
Dumbass! (ahem.) This is on a par with saying that if a woman won't go out with you she must be a lesbian. Although Lily can see how much John has matured, she stills remembers him as her awkward childhood friend. He's "like a brother" as she herself says many times. And in spite of Victorian novels' assertions that one kind of affection can transform into another easily enough, in this case it can't, very understandably. On top of this, John himself and every one of their relatives and mutual friends pesters Lily directly and indirectly, constantly, about what a great match it would be. Lily isn't puffed up with pride, but she isn't passive and submissive enough to go along with this when her heart isn't in it. Moreover, she's never really given a chance to change the way she feels because she's constantly having to give a decision and/or ward off well-meaning advisors. Meanwhile, while John is a good guy by this point in his life, he still is hanging around with dubious people and, as I said, being something of a pest. So to boil down Lily's fate to a fear of sex is just ridiculous. Aaaaaand it kind of says a lot about you if that's your "obvious" interpretation, Mr Introduction Writer.

Cat gif break
There's a lot else in these two hefty novels besides John and Lily, and I enjoyed all that stuff too for the most part; but this particular storyline I thought was especially noteworthy, particularly since Trollope seems, very often, to be just writing to entertain.


*the word Trollope uses is hobbledehoy. If you want to see the word hobbledehoy used over and over and over read this book.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Let's have a book on a Saturday; why not

Who can resist a Persephone book? Not me, obviously. In my jetlagged state I bought myself a handful of books (yes I know), including this one: High Wages, by Dorothy Whipple.

The inside cover is the important cover
If you've looked into Persephone Books at all, you'll quickly realize that Dorothy Whipple is a kind of crown jewel of their lineup. A female author popular in her own day but overlooked more recently, she and her work are great examples of the value of republishing the kind of titles Persephone does.

Although I have previously fallen victim to Proserpinian charms, I had not bought anything by Dorothy Whipple, so when I decided that, yes, I definitely needed something grey-covered right now, I thought it was as good a time as any to give her a spin.

High Wages is a great read: entertaining, interesting, and not entirely predictable. It's a story about an ambitious and hard-working young woman who gets some -- but not all -- of the things she wants. The romantic side of the story is in some ways a little bland and unconventional -- one romantic interest is the posh and popular Golden Boy of the town, the other is bookish and sensitive -- but the way it plays out is, I thought, not conventional at all. This is not a book that ends with an unambiguous romantic triumph by any means.

Jane, the main character, is a shop girl with a particular genius for women's clothes, so the story follows her from working in a well-established shop for an insecure and stubbornly old-fashioned businessman to opening her own shop, filled with modern ready-made clothing. There's a lot that's interesting here, in relation to the history of women's clothing as well as women's work (more on this note below). By the end of the novel, though, Jane is questioning the way her life has been devoted to women's clothes: is this all so important, really? Granted, she has a lot else on her mind by then to make her feel a little weary, and she doesn't suddenly become some sort of anti-fashion radical or anything (thank goodness), but I thought this little note of ambivalence was great. It's just an example of how Whipple is able to portray a thoughtful character, not to mention the way people change their thinking over time in subtle and sometimes imperceptible ways.

This is an unmistakably feminist novel which succeeds nevertheless in not beating the reader over the head with feminism (a point which is nicely made in the introduction). Whipple is maybe a touch more subtle than Winifred Holtby but both authors successfully show rather than tell what's wrong. Jane is not only mistreated by her employer, but she encounters some really gross salesmen when she sets up on her own. Just as in another novel you might be really angry along with the main character when someone insults her, here you can just feel the ickyness of some of the situations Jane gets into.

My only minor complaint was that the writing seemed a little "simple" and straightforward at times, like being told a bedtime story. But then I read it when I was jetlagged so maybe it was just my ability to process language that was simplified...

Overall, it was a very enjoyable book and absolutely cram-packed with period detail, some more intentional than others. If you want a good representation of some of the new ideas about love and sex between the wars, here you go. This is another one for my theoretical list of books that could be assigned to a class.

Oh crap, there's only one image in this post. Uh, uh, uh.... Amy, help me!