Review: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England.  Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age.  Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village.  Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village.  Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines.  Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal.  Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.

The entire village is quite comfortable, actually.  Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party.  People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship.  This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.

Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters.  Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources.  His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:

There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing.  Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.  (p. 21)

But his talents are largely lost on his flock:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)

The minor characters are just as amusing.  There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables.  Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel.  Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.

The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.

Check out Heaven-Ali’s post for an equally complimentary view of Some Tame Gazelle.

Review: Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

Discovering a new author is so much fun, especially when they have published many books, and you know you have those to look forward to as well.  Such is the case with Angela Thirkell, and Pomfret Towers which is part of her 29-volume Barsetshire series.  I received this book from a Secret Santa, and was looking for fun, light reads over the holidays.  Pomfret Towers fit the bill completely.

The novel is set in Barsetshire, a fictional English county created by Anthony Trollope.  Where Trollope’s novels are set in the 1850-60s,  Thirkell’s take place in the first half of the twentieth century.  Pomfret Towers centers on a weekend house party for the young people of Barsetshire, hosted by the elderly Lord and Lady Pomfret.  For Alice Barton, it is her first house party and she’s scared to death: unsure of what to wear, how to conduct herself, and what to expect of servants.  Her first instinct is to excuse herself completely, but she is convinced to attend when she learns good friends Roddy & Susan Wicklow will be there, along with her brother Guy.  Once at Pomfret Towers, Alice meets a couple of young men who capture her interest, and the feelings seem to be mutual.  But Alice is an unlikely match for both, so one wonders throughout how all this will turn out.  Needless to say, over the course of the weekend there is much courting, and matchmaking by older members of the party, and Thirkell keeps the reader guessing about how people will pair off.  Because, of course, they do.

Thirkell delivers the romantic storyline with a strong dose of social satire, poking fun at certain character types.  Besides Lord Pomfret, who provides considerable much comedic value, she makes fun of authors, like this one:

Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. … When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours. (p. 3-4)

There are also annoying party guests, social climbers, and several all-around good people.  Mix them up with an interesting and funny story line, and you have a highly enjoyable novel.  I look forward to reading more of this series.

Review: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.

Review: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson

53 - Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a tribute to 19th-century Scotland.  First published in 1937, it was reissued in 2004 as Persephone Books #53, with the usual classic endpaper.  It’s a simple story, a comfort read, told by the elderly Mrs Memmary, caretaker of the once magnificent, now crumbling, Keepsfield estate owned by the Countess of Lochlule.  The setup involves a group of tourists who stumble upon Keepsfield, now available to let as a holiday home.  One of the women falls into conversation with Mrs Memmary, encouraging her to talk about the estate and the family that once lived there.  Mrs Memmary is somewhat reticent, but tells her about the day Rose, the current Countess, turned six.   The woman asks more questions, which leads Mrs Memmary to relate more chapters in Rose’s life.  The reader can imagine Mrs Memmary and the woman spending a couple of hours over a cup of tea, while the rest of the tourists explore the estate.

Lady Rose grew up in a very privileged environment, never wanting for material possessions but also, as was typical of wealthy society at the time, distant from her parents.  She sees Scotland as superior to England and, really, anyplace else, as does everyone around her:

“So I shall take your hand, child, and turn you to the sea — like this — and I shall say to you, read, and fill your mind with the wonderful history of Scotland; look, and fill your eyes with the glorious beauty of Scotland; dream, and fill your soul with the poetry and romance of Scotland; and let the love of your country be always in your heart, Lady Rose.”  (p. 51)

Rose attended an English boarding school and, at eighteen, made her debut and became engaged to a Scottish nobleman.  She fulfilled her duty as an heiress and wife, but here her story departs from the expected norm, and Rose turns out to be a surprisingly strong character.  She acts rather impulsively on her convictions, resulting in irrevocable change that, as these things do, has profound positive and negative consequences that make for interesting plot twists.  You will have to read to learn more.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is aptly described by Persephone Books as “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” with the simple prose I would associate with other fairy tales.  Each of Mrs Memmary’s flashbacks are introduced in a way that reminded me of old movies.  Can’t you just imagine this bit on screen?

So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time — more than seventy pages of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers.  (p.21)

This book didn’t exactly bowl me over, but it was an interesting representative of a literary period and a pleasant diversion.

Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

Last summer my husband Chris and I ran into someone we hadn’t seen in years, and spent considerable time chatting with her and her husband about books.  A few days later, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived in our mailbox.  Our friend recommended it especially to Chris because of its connection to Marcel Proust, one of Chris’ favorite authors.   After reading it he suggested I might like it as well.  And then he suggested again.  I read the blurb and was intrigued:

When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.  And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story …

Edmund de Waal inherited the netsuke collection from his great-uncle in 1994.  It was originally acquired by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, more than a century before.  The Ephrussi family left Odessa for Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and became wealthy financiers.  Very wealthy financiers, with palatial homes and fabulous art collections.  They moved among the rich and famous, and supported the artists of the period (Charles can be seen in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party).  But by the time de Waal was born in the 1960s, the netsukes were all that remained.  This memoir relates the family history, and de Waal’s self-discovery, a by-product of his research.

The netsuke had a unique appeal.  During their long history they were sometimes displayed prominently, and at other times relegated to less-used rooms.  But they were always displayed in a vitrine, for a special reason:

But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening.  And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (p. 66)

The Ephrussi family remained strong through the early 1900s, despite the growing antisemitism in both Paris and Vienna.  But Hitler’s arrival in Vienna changed everything.  Homes were searched, possessions seized in the  name of the Reich, and men arrested on trumped-up charges:

This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble and hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping yo back to your essential characters — wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back. (p. 251)

Needless to say, the war had a profound impact on the Ephrussi family.  For a while I was caught up in the human story and forgot all about the netsuke. I cried when they emerged from the war intact and de Waal revealed their story.  That’s a rare event for me, and a credit to de Waal’s ability to write a factual, engaging, and yes, “extraordinarily moving” memoir.  His ancestors came alive on the page, and so did de Waal, as he reflected on a project that distracted him from his livelihood for two years:   “I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.” *  (p. 173)  Never fear, Mr. de Waal, it was worth it.

* What’s not to like about a memoir with a Middlemarch reference?

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

Review: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

In Tipping the Velvet, author Sarah Waters tells the story of Nancy Astley, a young Victorian woman who leaves her seaside village and the family business for the footlights of London’s music halls.  But there’s a twist that makes this story unique:  Nancy begins her theatrical career as dresser for Kitty Butler, who performs dressed as a man.  Eventually Nancy becomes Nan King, and part of a popular double act with Kitty.  And Nan and Kitty fall in love.  Nan is comfortable with her new-found sexual identity (but at the cost of severed ties with her family).  Kitty, however, can’t admit it to anyone else, and ultimately not even to herself.  The resulting tension has long-term effects on both Nan and Kitty.

Over the course of the novel, Waters takes Nan from the music halls and mean streets of London up to the very highest levels of society.   Her message seems to be, “lesbians can be found in all walks of life, and they’re really just like everyone else.”  Waters’ description of love between women is refreshingly candid, and shown to be pretty much the same as heterosexual love.  She also skillfully handles the stigma and fear associated with homosexuality in the Victorian era.

These themes were probably enlightening to many readers when this book was published in 1998.  In 2012, I found it all a bit heavy-handed and predictable.  At certain points in the novel, Nan would find herself surrounded by a new community of people, made up of mostly women.  I knew almost immediately where Waters would take the story.  Unfortunately, it took Nan forever to discover the lesbians in her midst.  I also wasn’t terribly impressed with Nan, who seemed to discard people right and left if they were no longer convenient, and would later have sudden epiphanies about how much those people actually mean to her.

In the end, the book was mildly enjoyable and pretty good considering it was Waters’ debut novel.  However, I recommend Fingersmith as  a better example of her talents.

Review: Blaming, by Elizabeth Taylor

Amy and Nick are an average couple, happily married for years and looking forward to spending their later years together.  Unexpectedly, while on holiday, tragedy strikes and leaves Amy a widow.  Paralyzed by grief and confusion, Amy accepts help and support from Martha, another member of their holiday touring party.  Martha is an odd duck, someone Amy would never have befriended otherwise.  But after returning home she feels indebted to her, and Martha becomes a regular visitor in Amy’s home. Martha helps fill otherwise long and lonely days, and slowly Amy begins rebuilding her life.

Amy’s son James and his wife Maggie repeatedly extend invitations to visit, but Amy is proud and doesn’t want to intrude (and, to be fair, James and Maggie have invited Amy more from a sense of duty than anything else).  Amy’s housekeeper / cook, Ernie Pounce, tries to please her through his efficient service, better-than-average culinary abilities, and fond memories of Nick.  And Gareth, her physician and long-time family friend, drops by often just to chat or have a meal.  But Martha makes herself such a presence in Amy’s life, that Amy is oblivious to care offered by relatives and close friends.   And yet, when Martha most needs Amy’s help and support, Amy fails her.

Blaming was Taylor’s last novel, published just months before her death.  It is a quiet, sad book, perhaps reflecting Taylor’s own mood at the time, since she knew she was dying of cancer.  It is moving in her typically understated way, and yet she also unleashed her brilliant wit in portrayals of Ernie, and Amy’s two grandchildren, lightening the mood at just the right moments. While Blaming is not as strong as some of Taylor’s early and mid-career novels, it is a fitting conclusion to her work.

Review: The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton died before completing The Buccaneers; her unfinished manuscript was published in 1938.  Author Marion Mainwaring worked from Wharton’s notes to publish a finished novel in 1993. The Buccaneers is a satirical look at society’s “marriage market” in the 1870s, seen through the eyes of five debutantes who, having been unsuccessful in American society, travel to London to spend a social season in pursuit of eligible, wealthy Englishmen.

In true Wharton fashion, the girls are initially successful, but their long-term prospects and happiness are far from certain.  The story eventually centers on Annabel St. George, the youngest and the one who makes the most promising match by marrying a duke.  Annabel is stifled by her dull husband and controlling mother-in-law, and is unable even to enjoy the benefits of wealth, since she is given very little spending money.  After finding mutual attraction with another man, Annabel must make difficult decisions about her future.

Yawn.  This is the stuff of dime-a-dozen romance novels.  The Buccaneers is less sophisticated than Wharton’s better-known works, like The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country.  The characters lack depth, the plot is too simple, and there are too many little sub-plots that drain energy from the novel.  I’m a huge Wharton fan, but I can’t recommend this one.

Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

This was my second attempt at reading this book (read about my first, failed attempt here).  I learned a valuable lesson:  always read a series in order.  Barchester Towers is the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. In The Warden, Trollope introduced Septimus Harding and Archdeacon Grantly, and established important plot points that continue developing in Barchester Towers.

When we last saw Mr. Harding, he was recently ousted from his position as Warden of a charitable hospital due to controversy over compensation and duties, and assumed a lesser role in a nearby church.  Now, a few years later, he is comfortably ensconced in his role and, it seems, semi-retired.  The appointment of a new bishop resurrects questions of the hospital warden, since the role was left vacant.  Bishop Proudie brings a different style to Barchester, being more “Low Church” than “High Church.”  But perhaps more importantly, he is ruled by his wife:

This lady is habitually authoritative to all, but to her poor husband she is despotic. Successful as has been his career in the eyes of the world, it would seem that in the eyes of his wife he is never right. All hope of defending himself has long passed from him; indeed he rarely even attempts self-justification, and is aware that submission produces the nearest approach to peace which his own house can ever attain.

Proudie is also heavily influenced by his chaplain, the creepy and slimy Obadiah Slope.  Both Slope and Mrs Proudie have strong views on who should be appointed Warden, and Slope is also angling to be appointed to the more senior position of Dean.  Slope and Mrs Proudie engage in a very amusing  battle for control of the diocese as the hapless bishop looks on.

But Barchester Towers is about much more than church politics.  In this second novel, Trollope further develops the Barsetshire area, introducing characters from all layers of society and skewering them with his excellent wit.  There’s also a romantic storyline, in which Harding’s widowed daughter Eleanor is courted by three different gentlemen, with everyone else conspiring to influence the outcome.  Trollope shows his hand early on, allowing the reader to enjoy these antics without worrying about Eleanor doing something stupid.  All’s well that ends well, for both Harding and his daughter, and Trollope’s summing up in the last chapter left me feeling very satisfied indeed.

Trollope’s writing is filled with detail, devoting an entire chapter to introducing a single character and going on at length about issues in the church which may need some research to fully appreciate.  Reading his work requires some investment of time and effort, but I’m now a complete convert and am looking forward to working my way through this delightful series.