Review: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Wilmet Forsyth is a bored housewife in 1950s England.  She and her husband Rodney have no children, and he takes her for granted, like part of the furniture.  So Wilmet looks for stimulation elsewhere, and finds it, in a way, in the life of her church.  Specifically, she takes a keen interest in the lives of three unmarried priests and their male housekeeper.  She also joins her mother-in-law in taking Portuguese lessons from Piers Longridge, the attractive brother of her friend Rowena.  This  is yet another idle activity: Wilmet has no need to learn the language, but it fills up otherwise empty time.  The only real excitement in her life comes when she finds herself the object of Piers’ attention, and Rowena’s husband Harry begins flirting with her.  Rodney is oblivious, which gives Wilmet considerable freedom, but dampens her excitement as well.

Readers experience the story through Wilmet’s narration, which is rather unfortunate since she is insufferable.  Pym makes this clear early on, when Wilmet says, “I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction.” (p. 5)  Later, when a church member is seriously ill, she hopes to make herself useful: “I suppose I had imagined myself busy in a practical way — cooking meals or running errands, even being what people call a tower of strength.” (p. 107)  Wilmet is completely serious, but this is typical Pym humor.  Her characters are always well-drawn, their foibles obvious and amusing.  I enjoyed her digs at Wilmet, and her portrayal of certain minor characters, such as the housekeeper Mr. Bason and Piers’ flatmate, Keith.

However, it was difficult for me to get over my dislike for WIlmet, and I didn’t care much about resolving the conflict that stemmed from her idle flirtations.  In the end, this was a respectable read but not my favorite Pym.


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.

Review: The Ant Heap, by Margit Kaffka

I knew nothing about Margit Kaffka until I picked up this book, which includes an extensive introduction describing  her life and career.  Kaffka was born in Hungary in 1880, and overcame extreme prejudice to establish a literary career.  She was educated in a convent, and became a feminist thinker long before the world at large knew of such things.  She was not afraid to take unpopular positions, and spoke out against World War I.  Her life was cut short by Spanish Influenza, and the world lost an important female voice.

With that background, I was keen to dive into The Ant Heap, a novella of life in a convent school.  This is not a story of piety and virtue; rather, Kaffka depicts the very human nature of nuns and priests.  There are flirtations, and inappropriate alliances.  And there’s ambition, especially after the convent’s Mother Superior passes away.

The Ant Heap was probably controversial when first published.  However, I found it boring and a little trite.  The characters were not well-developed and I felt no emotional attachment.  The language is very basic. Usually I can find at least one quote-worthy sentence, but not this time.  I am inclined to blame this on the translation.  And that’s a shame, because I can’t help feeling I’ve missed out on something.

Review: The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

This review could be subtitled, “In which I develop a fondness for Anthony Trollope.”  A couple of years ago I gave up on Barchester Towers, and while I had my reasons I never felt good about it.  This time I decided to start at the beginning of Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and I’m glad I did.

Septimus Harding is warden and precentor of Barchester Cathedral.  The Warden’s duties also include the care of twelve elderly gentlemen living in an almshouse associated with the cathedral.  Harding is getting on in years, and enjoys the stability and limited demands of his position.  He has a good relationship with the bishop:

The bishop and Mr. Harding loved each other warmly. They had grown old together, and had together spent many, many years in clerical pursuits and clerical conversation. When one of them was a bishop and the other only a minor canon they were even then much together; but since their children had married, and Mr. Harding had become warden and precentor, they were all in all to each other. I will not say that they managed the diocese between them, but they spent much time in discussing the man who did, and in forming little plans to mitigate his wrath against church delinquents, and soften his aspirations for church dominion.

But Harding is on more tenuous terms with the second in command, archdeacon Dr. Grantly who, incidentally, is also Harding’s son-in-law.  Dr. Grantly is rather full of himself, in an amusing way:

In the diocese of Barchester the Archdeacon of Barchester does the work. In that capacity he is diligent, authoritative, and, as his friends particularly boast, judicious. His great fault is an overbearing assurance of the virtues and claims of his order, and his great foible is an equally strong confidence in the dignity of his own manner and the eloquence of his own words.

There’s trouble afoot in Barchester, and it comes not so much from Grantly as from John Bold, a young attorney interested both in Harding’s younger daughter Elinor, and in making a name for himself.  His approach to the latter is to stir up controversy about management of church funds.  Specifically, he questions whether the original terms concerning the almshouse are still being adhered to.  Perhaps the church is keeping an unfair part of money that should rightfully go to the almshouse residents?

Harding is shattered by this accusation.  Not so much because it comes from a potential future son-in-law, but because of his care and concern for the men in the almshouse.  He cannot bear the thought of cheating them out of income.  Grantly, of course, takes an opposing view and does all in his power to keep funds for the church.  The matter becomes a public scandal, and then things get really interesting, as Harding and Grantly deal with the situation, and each try to outmaneuver the other.

Along the way Trollope relentlessly satirizes the church, with its endless bureaucracy and politics, as well as the newspapers which fan the flames of scandal.  I’m sure some of this was lost on me, but I got enough to enjoy it.  Mostly, however, I just loved Septimus Harding, an example if there ever was one of the meek inheriting the earth.  Yes, he had a cushy job and no real desire to work harder, but at the same time he was a man of principles and willing to stand up for them in a time of crisis.

Now I’m looking forward to having another go at Barchester Towers!

Review: Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded monasteries across England, Ireland, and Wales.  This was not without controversy and resistance.  Dissolution imagines a possible scenario involving murder and corruption.  Matthew Shardlake is sent to investigate the brutal murder of a king’s commissioner at a monastery on the south coast of England.  Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, are invested with the authority to interview anyone they choose, examine the monastery’s financial records, and move pretty much without let or hindrance to identify the murderer.  They soon learn almost everyone has a motive, but at the same time almost everyone has an alibi.

It turns out the commissioner wasn’t the first person to be murdered there, and soon there are still more bodies.  What’s an investigator to do?  Matthew Shardlake is shrewd, with superb analytical skills, and quickly forms a hypothesis.  At this point, the reader can glance at the number of pages remaining and be fairly certain Matthew is not on the right track, but even as one theory is proven wrong another forms.  The situation is more complex than simply knocking off someone sent to shut down the abbey.  A long history of rivalry, corruption and “cooking the books” adds to the intrigue, resulting in a rich, layered mystery.

I enjoyed this novel’s historical setting.  C. J. Sansom brought a dark side of Tudor England to life, especially the environment of fear and control.  Matthew Shardlake and Mark Poer were simply functionaries with a job to do.  But their investigation also challenged them to face the beliefs and systems that made them who they are, and each resolved that conflict in his own way.  This is the first book in a series, and I will definitely be back for more.

Review: When we Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson

I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad.  This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise.  Things start with a bang when the Rubins’ eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding.  Our first impression of Leo’s family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.

Leo’s mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone.  She’s worked hard all her life, but she’s good at what she does, and knows it.  Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins’ image as the family that has it all.  This is all the more important since her book is about to be published.  When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.

Claudia’s husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself.  Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren.  Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence.  All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia.  She’s formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her.  But this also causes a lot of sneaking around.  Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can’t find the right time to tell Claudia.  Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support.  And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.

So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it’s served with a generous helping of humor.  Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character’s life, something else would happen to make me laugh.  Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable.  On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others.  But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family.  As each character’s story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I’d come to know so well.  We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won’t soon forget it.

Review: The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

In my early teens we studied Greek and Roman mythology in school.  I vividly remember the point when I first thought, “so why are these stories ‘myths,’ and the Bible is ‘truth’?”  That was my first step on a path of theological inquiry, which sounds more advanced than it was.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been involved in some form of “organized religion,” but have not blindly followed the doctrine laid before me.  Instead I’ve gravitated toward faith communities that appreciate and encourage continuous revelation and discovery.

And so I found myself reading The God Delusion, which takes the “Bible as myth” argument one step further, seeking to prove that there is, in fact, no God.  If we have labelled ancient Greek & Roman stories as mythology, and discarded those gods, why do so many of us believe in God?

Dawkins also used scientific arguments to uphold Darwin’s theory of evolution and refute intelligent design and the concept of a “designer.”  I had no trouble with this; I tend to come out in favor of science in most situations.  Then how is it that I have professed belief in God, when there is no scientific basis for this belief?

Dawkins then discussed how religion has been used in ways that harm others:

Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness — its deliberate and cultivated pandering to humanity’s natural tendency to favour in-groups and shun out-groups — would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world.

It’s in the history books, and it’s happening today:  Christians against Muslims, Muslims against Christians, some Christians against other types of Christians, you name it.  In what way is this good for society?  And why does religion play such a super-ordinate role in so many people’s lives?

Dawkins articulated his points well and his analysis was quite thorough.  He made sense to me in many places and was a bit “out there” in others.  And he completely lost me in the last chapter when he discussed quantum mechanics.  Early in this book, Dawkins described a spectrum of belief from 1 (“strong theist”) to 7 (“strong atheist”).  Your place on this continuum will greatly influence what you take away from this book.  In my case, I found it very thought-provoking and enjoyed the mental and spiritual challenges presented by Dawkins’ ideas.

Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Dr. Hanna Heath is an Australian book conservator, sought after for her unique ability to preserve antique books.  When this book opens in 1996, Hanna has been called in to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 500-year-old Jewish text, and one of the oldest of its kind.   The Haggadah originated in Spain, and traveled through Italy and Germany before arriving in Bosnia.  Tucked into the ancient pages are evidence of its long journey:  tiny fragments of butterfly wing, a strand of hair, etc.  Intrigued, Hanna decides to analyze these fragments and bring the Haggadah’s history to life.

Hanna’s modern-day analysis is interspersed with chapters working backwards to the Haggadah’s origins.  While Hanna can only make inferences based on chemical analysis, author Geraldine Brooks imagines characters and situations that explain the butterfly wing, the hair fiber, and creation of the Haggadah itself.  She takes us to Nazi Germany, 16th-century Venice, and 15th-century Spain, painting a vivid portrait of Jewish persecution.  Each act of oppression and violence takes the Haggadah to a new country and ultimately to its final home.   While this is based in fact, it is largely fiction (Brooks’ Afterword clearly explains all of this).

Meanwhile in the present time, Hanna has a contentious and complicated relationship with her mother, and develops feelings for a Bosnian man involved in the Haggadah conservation.  The romance was insufficiently developed, and didn’t seem credible, and the denouement was a bit rushed.  Still, I enjoyed reading the interconnected history of something I knew very little about.

Review: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

After thirteen-year-old Cole Vining lost both parents in a flu pandemic, he was taken in by Wyatt and Tracy, a young evangelical couple living in Salvation City.  Cole’s family had only recently moved from Chicago to southern Indiana when the pandemic hit. Cole had been sick, but survived, although he suffered some memory loss.  Since he had no other family, he was placed in an orphanage with scores of children who suffered a similar fate.  Pastor Wyatt (PW) and Tracy, unable to have children of their own, felt called by God to provide for an orphan.

Salvation City is an evangelical community that sprung up around the church.  Their fundamentalist beliefs and values are foreign to Cole, whose family did not practice religion.  Prayer is a regular part of life, and he is home-schooled by Tracy whose own education did not adequately prepare her for this role.  But he is well cared for, even loved.  As Cole recovers, his memory also returns and the reader learns more about his parents, their awful deaths, and the social and economic havoc resulting from the pandemic.  Cole also begins to see PW and Tracy in a new light, as human beings with all the usual flaws.  He is then faced with situations that cause him to question the prevailing values in Salvation City, his own beliefs, and what he wants from life.

While Cole’s personal drama was interesting, I found descriptions of the pandemic most realistic and disturbing.  In the abstract, it’s easy to assume that if a real pandemic struck everything would work out.  But in this book, medical supplies ran out, food was scarce, and healthcare professionals simply couldn’t keep up.  Some people died because of the flu’s severity, but many more died simply because they were unable to receive care.  People who failed to take preventive measures early were most likely to suffer.  I was struck by just how probable it all was.  And one day while I was reading this book, my husband coughed and I nearly panicked, thinking he might be afflicted.  The book felt that real.

While something about Cole’s story fell a bit flat at the end, this was a chilling story that will stay with me for a while.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 7

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I couldn’t get into this book, no matter how hard I tried.  I’m not even sure what to say in a review!

The book opens with a middle-aged man, Julian Treslove, getting mugged one night after a dinner with his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik.  Sam and Libor are recently widowed; Julian has gone from one woman to the next, leaving the detritus of relationships — including two now-grown children — in his wake.  Sam and Libor are Jews, which fascinates Julian.  As he recovers from the shock of being mugged, his fascination turns into an obsession.  He attempts to “become Jewish,” although in more of a cultural than religious sense.

At first, I thought perhaps I just didn’t understand the Jewish cultural references.  And I really didn’t like the characters.  Then I read a review that gave me hope, saying the second half of the book was better.  I persevered.  And it was better, but not enough to salvage it for me.  It was a very “talky” book, with endless conversation about both big ideas and minutiae.  I found the chapters devoted to Libor the most moving, as he mourned the recent loss of his wife.  But Sam was a stuffy prat, and Julian was a selfish jerk.

I normally enjoy Booker Prize winners.  But not this one.