Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book review, on location

Here it is, the second of my Persephone buys; in fact, this is the one book I had gone to the store to buy, before I realized I'd be saving money by buying three (saving money!). Read the website description and you might get a sense for why I was eager to read this one; as I've mentioned before I have a special fondness for books about happy people. Greenery Street is, to sum it up in a nutshell, the story of a lovesick young couple, Ian and Felicity Foster, and the early days of their married life. Unlike, I suppose, most Persephone books this one was written by a man -- a point I shall return to shortly.

Greenery Street is based directly on the author's own experience of married life -- to such an extent that apparently Mrs Mackail was fairly embarrassed by it. (I should note that I am taking all my information on this side of the book from the Persephone preface by Rebecca Cohen.) Thus, it is not hard at all to identify the real-life 23 Greenery Street as 23 Walpole Street in Chelsea. Would you like to see pictures? Of course you would.

COTLB exclusive!
There she is, 23 Walpole/Greenery Street. You know who else lived in this house besides the newlywed Mackails? P.G. Wodehouse. Also the lady who wrote Mrs Miniver, but I don't care about her. Wodehouse. One of the attractions of the book is a chance to marvel at how standards have changed since the 1920s -- I won't reiterate the whole preface (go buy the book yerself!), but it is worth noting that the house is now split into flats. And they're almost certainly way too expensive for penniless newlyweds.

But some things haven't changed.
A picture began to form itself in Felicity's mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other.
Chelsea Hospital toward one end
I didn't realize I actually got a bus in this photo until I got home - go me!
Mackail describes the young wives standing out on the balconies looking for their husbands to come home, which I could picture perfectly as I scurried around taking photos, hoping I didn't look suspicious.

As a single person (a Single-American?), I thought the novel was cute but I could sense how it might have deeper resonance for married people. It might make a nice anniversary gift for a close friend, but I don't want to commit to that. I don't know anything about picking wedding/anniversary gifts, except for the words of wisdom from my father which I will treasure forever: "Think carefully before you give people knives because you don't want to be complicit in any stabbings."

I suppose what makes it special is that it's a fairly emotional novel about how great marriage is, by a man. If Greenery Street had been written by a woman, it would be entertaining but not much more than that. I don't feel like I'm giving it much of a pass on this count though. Where I am giving it a pass is in that it's so directly autobiographical. The preface makes a pretty irresistible case for the novel being an almost 1:1 account of its author's feelings, if not experiences. Usually I'm a little disappointed to discover that an author has based the events and/or characters of a novel on their own life. I won't lie; when I read that Barbara Pym had worked among anthropologists it took some of the shine off her choice of anthropologist characters in Excellent Women. I freely admit that this is irrational, and I do my best to discount it when weighing up my final analysis of a book, but it's my first reaction. Except with Mackail. Somehow reading about how deeply important his marriage was for him made me all the more interested in "Ian Foster".

Overall: well worth it, and not just because it was wanting this book that led me to find the Persephone store in the first place.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Number One Thing I Miss From America*

This guy. Right here. I think mine is currently in storage. I remember quite clearly when a college friend bought hers; "it changed my life," she said. I didn't give in until grad school, and even then it took me a couple of years, but behold, ye wire bookstand is indeed a life changing device. There are a lot of different types out there, but I like this one. Here's an intriguing Italian design that doesn't make the book hands-free, but rather supports a book while you lie in some awkward position. Awkward positions are the best for reading, so this seems to be filling a need.

Not really related, but that Italian bookstand reminds me of seeing bookstraps for sale at Feltrinelli's** in Rome ages and ages ago. Yeah, like actual bookstraps that you could use to be a cute book-toting old-fashioned schoolchild. I was always tempted to buy one and give it a try. Books may be old technology but their accessories are still pretty fun.

** I never realized until just now that the first syllable there is "Felt-" rather than "Fett-".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Meet my new favorite author, same as my old favorite author

Alternative post title: Judging Books by their Covers: Sometimes it Works Out

Here is a lovely book I bought at Daunt because it had an Orla Kiely print on the cover. Orla Kiely + arty reissue = catnip.

And lo, I was completely delighted by Excellent Women. Mildred Lathbury (what a name!) is an unmarried woman living in London in the late 1940s and standing on the verge of spinsterhood; the daughter of a vicar and a decided member of the churchgoing crowd, she's both satisfied and unsatisfied with life. Satisfied in that she rather likes the elements of her life and doesn't have any precise ideas about what she'd like better -- dissatisfied in that she hates to think that romance and excitement have definitely passed her by. The action of the novel comes when some very worldly people arrive in Miss Lathbury's little world and threaten to shake it all up.

Ok, that sounds like I've copied it out of Bland Book Descriptions Monthly but (a) it's accurate and (b) the real joy here is in the characters. Pym is marvelous. Her characters are so distinct, and their opinions and personalities are immediately recognizable. I found myself giggling at conversations that I could just hear. There's a scene where Mildred, discombobulated and upset, finds herself buying a lipstick called "Hawaiian Fire" to reassert her femininity in the face of spinsterhood. As she's choosing it and dealing with the saleswoman, she knows it's ridiculous and the wrong color and an embarrassing name and she just can't stop. I'm not describing this well, but it's such a great scene; and something I could totally relate to. Once I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner out to celebrate [something or other]. When I got to the restaurant, the specialty dish I had especially gone there to have wasn't on the menu anymore, so I ordered something else. Which turned out to be out of stock so I had to order something else. Whereas usually waiters are quick to suggest dessert, I had to flag down mine to take a dessert order, which she practically tried to talk me out of ("the portion is very small"). And then the whole thing cost waaaay more than I had anticipated.

Or how about the time(s) I decided to celebrate [something or other] with a mani-pedi and ended up having a utilitarian manicure in a color I wasn't crazy about? Yes indeed, nothing but the best. Poor harassed Mildred buying Hawaiian Fire lipstick is an image that is now close to my heart.

The ending threw me a little bit. It was such a charming, funny book; and one does not expect the unexpected when dealing with charming, funny books any more than with the Spanish Inquisition. I just assumed that things would sort of come together in a standard sort of chick lit way. You know what they say about the difference between Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies (or at least I think they say it: that the difference is that one ends in marriage and the other in death). And yet the book ends with Mildred poised to carry on as an Excellent Woman for the foreseeable future. I guess taken together with The Making of a Marchioness that makes two books in a row where I expected some kind of major change for the heroine that simply didn't come. Maybe my expectations have led me to overlook things -- that's happened before. But between the two I liked Excellent Women much much much much better. And certainly I won't use this as an opportunity to learn my lesson about expecting novels about women written by women to follow predictable plotlines. Pah!

I posted about this book on Facebook (back before Lent started and I was on Facebook all the time), and through the conversation discovered the international Barbara Pym Society. Oh yes! They have a website and lovely-sounding events on both sides of the Atlantic. I enjoyed reading about Pym's life and career there; she has a fascinating story. AND -- here's where the post title comes in -- they note that she's often compared to Trollope. Well then!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Literary Blog Hop: Finding the time

I've got a stack of three books waiting for posts to be written about them; but it's late, I've got a great big chunk of prayers yet to say tonight (short explanation: lent), and I've completely failed at posting anything so far this week -- so let's have another meme.

Literary Blog Hop

The question is... How do you find time to read, what's your reading style and where do you think reading literature should rank in society's priorities? 

My primary reading time is on the train. I have a short (ten minute) train ride from home to my primary archives, but I often end up waiting 10-20 minutes for that train, and as long as it's not raining and I'm not in a bad mood or something, that's enough time to be worth getting the book out. Trains into central locations tend to come more frequently, but then it's something like 20-30-40 minutes depending on the destination.

Reading on the train, particularly with a short commute, takes effort. You have to remember to bring a book with you, and the book has to be interesting enough to make you dig for it in your bag. I've posted here before that I know I hate a book when I find myself choosing to stare at the ads! I also sometimes read over coffee/tea in the afternoon or at lunch. 

This all sounds like I'm snatching bits of time here and there but it's actually more like these are the times that I give myself to read. Being "self-directed" means that technically, technically, I could just stay home tomorrow in my pajamas and blaze through a couple of novels. But that's not a helpful thought; so I tell myself that books are for odd bits of time like eating or commuting. (Although the combination of reading, drinking coffee/tea, and eating something is sort of my default weekend plan.) My current challenge isn't so much reading as my new skill of knitting, which I have to find some kind of rational timeslot for so that I don't just stay home in my pajamas all day practicing knitting!

As for reading style, I am definitely plot-driven. Blah blah blah description, whatever, let's get on with it. I don't remember when I realized this, but I was a little embarrassed. It seemed sort of... anti-intellectual or something. But it doesn't bother me (much) anymore; and I've started to correct some things I didn't like about my love-em-and-lose-em reading style -- for example, my aversion to ever re-reading things.

Reading as a hobby is a tricky thing, because reading is so important -- as a foundational skill, and also in terms of being exposed to ideas etc. -- and yet it is (or can be) a very solitary activity. Oh sure, book clubs and book blogs; I'm not saying it's completely isolating. But it does mean spending time alone, which not everyone wants to make a priority on a regular basis. Hobbies/interests can go in cycles; for a few years, maybe the bulk of your time and money goes to books, but then maybe it's concerts or crafts or video games or something. Maybe you get bored with the type of books you've been reading and get stuck for something new, and end up taking a break for a while. At least that's how I see it! The way I read now is nothing like when I was a kid, when I really did just spend all my time outside of school and drama club in my room reading (not an exaggeration) (warning: this is not a good way to develop social skills). I guess what I'm getting at is that I am sympathetic to people who "don't read much these days".

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Contractually obligated to at least pretend like this is a post about books

Hey! This totally is about a book! Here's a book right here:

I decided to take a knitting class. Yes, I know, how original, stop the presses, 26-year-old Female Decides to Learn to Knit. I'm sure Alice can dig up an Onion story. But hey, even though most of the things I like to do are solitary, it doesn't mean I don't want any social hobbies. And knitting is a good social hobby, with lots of groups built around it and plenty of chatter and helping and so on. I think of knitting as being something like running: a friend of mine moved to a new town to do a practicum, and in order to meet people straightaway, she joined a running group. Easy peasy. Similarly, if you were a knitter, it would be easy (I think) to find a knitting group anywhere you went. It's a handy thing to have in your personal toolkit, some sort of common interest like this, in addition to any sort of political, religious, or professional activities you could carry to a new place. (This might be me, as an army brat, thinking of social life in these terms; but I think it still works.)

So I counted up my pennies and invested in a big three-week class, with one two-hour session each week, hosted by a knitting store with a good reputation for a thriving social atmosphere. And rarely have I ever regarded money so well spent! Let's put it this way, in the immortal words of Bart Simpson, it is amazing how I managed to simultaneously suck and blow at knitting during the first class. I was laid low, my friends, I was laid mighty low. It was a lesson in humility that, although well-timed for the first week in Lent, was nevertheless pretty bitter.

By the end of the class, the (extremely patient, heroically positive) teacher had encouraged me under her breath to "get the book, my dear, get that book this week" in order to sort me out. She was referring to Knitty Gritty by Aneeta Patel -- pictured above, of course -- which the store had sold out of but she had recommended we find for ourselves if we wanted extra guidance. So, no longer under any delusions about my abilities, I went out that weekend and "got the book".

It's very accessible, and as the subtitle says, it's "for the absolute beginner". It also includes the following words of wisdom: "I'm sure that you are a bright, successful human being. But remember that you are now learning something completely new that might be totally outside of your previous experience. KNITTING DOES NOT COME NATURALLY!" -- ahhhh, yes indeed. Patel has written this book to be very clear and very basic, and has clearly drawn on a lot of experience teaching. As I fumbled through my practice, the pictures and instructions helped me remember what I had seen in class, and decode the bits that weren't making sense. I don't think I could actually teach myself to knit based solely on the book -- it's hard to figure out movements from 2D photos -- but it's a very useful companion to a live class.

Plus, the projects included are all very simple and very thoroughly explained. It's massively comforting, as something of a slow-learner beginner, to know that I can practice with these projects rather than having to cross my fingers and pick something "easy" from the wide world.

Here's the happy ending to this post: tonight was installment two of the knitting class trilogy, and it all just clicked! Weirdly enough, although I was a little rocky on the purl, the 1x1 rib was almost intuitive. It's starting to look good that when I finally crack, I'll be able to knit sweaters for my cat named Emily Dickinson.