Review: Miss Mapp, by E.F. Benson

Miss Mapp is the second in E. F. Benson‘s Mapp & Lucia series, satirizing early 20th century provincial English village life.  In this volume we meet Elizabeth Mapp, a notable busybody in the town of Tilling, who spends an inordinate amount of time spying on and gossiping about her neighbors, and using the information she acquires to get the better of her fellow villagers and manipulate events to her advantage.  Miss Mapp’s house is ideally situated for this purpose; from her windows she can see nearly all comings and goings.  She enjoys her reputation as one who knows all, and skillfully covers up when she does not.

As in Queen Lucia, the first book in the series, Miss Mapp does not have an over-arching plot or conflict.  Rather, the novel is a collection of amusing, character-driven vignettes taking place over a period of months.  Miss Mapp is keenly interested in the activities of two mature single men in the town: Major Flint and Captain Puffin.  She has observed they both keep late hours.  The men claim to be hard at work on personal projects, but the reader knows better.  There’s also a running gag about two women wearing the same dress to a party, and their attempts to rectify the situation.  Sometimes Miss Mapp gets the upper hand, but she often makes mistakes — from poorly played bridge hands to more egregious errors in judgement — and must suffer the consequences.

I picked up this book because I was in the mood for something light and fun, and it did not disappoint.  E. F. Benson has a way with words that keeps me smiling from beginning to end.  I’m looking forward to future volumes in this series, and the inevitable meeting of Miss Mapp and Queen Lucia.

Review: Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Queen Lucia is the first in a series of six novels satirizing a slice of 1920s English society (which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book recently christened, “Bright Middle-Aged Things”).  Mrs Lucas is the self-appointed “queen” of Riseholme, a sleepy village somewhere near London.  Her speech is littered with Italian phrases, inspiring the nickname Lucia.  She prides herself on staying au courant with all the local gossip, cementing her dominant social position in Riseholme.  Lucia is an amusing character in her own right, and Benson populates Riseholme with an extensive supporting cast.  Mrs Quantock gets caught up in every cultural fad (first yoga, and later spiritualism).  Olga Bracely, an opera singer, takes up residence in Riseholme and threatens to disturb the social order.  Lucia’s dear friend Georgie simultaneously worships Lucia and works to subvert her power.  And there are many more …

In lieu of a complete story arc, the novel meanders through a series of vignettes intended to both define the social order and amuse the reader.  Each one is a comedy of manners where situations and people are not as they seem, misunderstandings abound, and someone gets their comeuppance. Benson’s Riseholme came to life, and  Reading Queen Lucia I was transported to a time when people communicated by letter several times each day, servants were largely invisible until they decided to (shock!) marry one another, and formal dinner parties with music and tableaux were routine entertainment.  It was all quite cozy and fun.

Some readers criticize these books, and the characters, for being shallow and mean-spirited.  But it’s satire — it’s meant to be biting, and the humor makes you stop and think about how ridiculous and self-important people can be.  If you’re looking for light amusement, this is just the ticket.

Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is commonly read in secondary school, but I missed out, and the upcoming film release was just the inspiration I needed to finally read it.  That, and a husband who read it about a month ago, and really wanted to discuss it.

The story is short, and seemingly straightforward.  Jay Gatsby is a wealthy man known for throwing huge, lavish parties on his Long Island estate.  His next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, narrates the story and views Gatsby with a sort of detached awe.

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited — they went there.  They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. (p. 41)

Nick’s friends, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, are also new to Gatsby’s parties, but not new to wealth, being part of old, established Long Island “aristocracy.”  Gatsby himself maintains an aura of mystery.  No one knows much about his past, and speculation abounds: he’s a bootlegger, he killed a man, he served in the war, he went to Oxford … or perhaps not.  But he’s clearly “new money,” and Daisy and Gatsby have a shared past which becomes a central conflict in the novel.

The Great Gatsby is a tightly written work of only 180 pages.  Fitzgerald quickly immerses the reader in 1920s society, infuses his characters with a certain emotional desperation, and uses them to portray everything he felt was wrong with America during this period, especially greed and the quest for wealth.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, but to a great extent they are simply vessels for Fitzgerald’s message.  And despite being short on both character development and setting, Gatsby still feels complete, with a strong plot and thought-provoking themes.  I’m looking forward to the film to see how these themes are brought to life.

Addendum:  Claire @ Word by Word published a superb review of The Great Gatsby a day after mine.  Read it now! 

Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s sequel, or more accurately companion, to Oryx and Crake.  Both novels are set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world, where Atwood shows what might happen to our society if we continue the destructive behaviors she believes are destroying our planet.  Where Oryx and Crake told the story through the eyes of two men, The Year of the Flood centers on two women, Toby and Ren, survivors of a devastating “waterless flood.”  The women met as members of God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist sect.  Through flashback Atwood covers the 20 years leading up to the flood.  She describes in detail day-to-day life with God’s Gardeners: their leaders, rituals, and hymns.  Atwood’s world is also populated with genetically engineered animals, unusual food, and corporations who claim to be doing good in the world while actually wreaking havoc.

The book got off to a slow start, as Atwood meticulously built her world.  But about halfway through, the pace suddenly accelerated.  Characters’ lives intertwined, including some key figures from Oryx and Crake.  The catastrophic nature of the flood left people stranded and alone, foraging for food while remaining ever on guard against predators.  Were there any “good guys” left, or would this all end in a Hunger Games-style fight to the death?  Will the planet survive?

The story was both suspenseful and thought-provoking.  And while I would probably agree with Atwood on several points, I found her treatment heavy-handed.  This was especially true of the God’s Gardeners.  I loved their self-sufficiency and animal rights activism, but the homilies and hymns in each chapter were a bit much.  Still, I’m looking forward to the third book in this trilogy, MaddAdam, which is scheduled for publication in August.

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: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a Victorian novel about ordinary people in provincial England.  In writing it, George Eliot defied the traditions and expectations of her time by exploring real issues and allowing “bad things” to happen to her characters.  As in real life, misfortune and unhappiness are common.

Central to the story is Dorothea Brooke, who early on marries the intellectual Edward Casaubon.  But she is disappointed in marriage:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

As Dorothea struggles to find happiness, two other couples are forging their way: Dr. Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.  Will they marry or won’t they?  And if they do, will they be happy?  Middlemarch is quite unpredictable in this regard.  And Eliot uses these couples, and the large cast of characters surrounding them, to explore how seemingly isolated events can ripple out to affect a broader population in ways large and small:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

Along the way Eliot adds liberal doses of humor and irony:

But we all know the wag’s definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.

I read Middlemarch over a period of several months, which required frequent consultation with my notes to keep the characters and plot lines straight in my mind.  I was most impressed with the women of Middlemarch.  I started out thinking Dorothea was a bit of milquetoast, but came to like her a lot.  She had a strong social conscience which both trapped her into marriage and provided her path to long-term happiness.  Rosamond Vincy, however, lowered in my estimation with each turn of the page.  And then out of nowhere Rosamond’s aunt, Mrs. Bulstrode, rose up and showed herself to be an amazingly strong woman.  Where the typical woman of this period was meek and obedient, Harriet Bulstrode stood up to the most serious social pressure she and her husband had ever faced:

But this imperfectly taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her–now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.

Well, I could go on.  Eliot covers a lot of ground in 880 pages, and it’s filled with memorable moments and brilliant writing.  Sure, I could have finished several shorter books in the time it took to read this one, but I have no regrets.

Review: The Crowded Street, by Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby was such an advanced, groundbreaking voice for women in the 1930s.  In The Crowded Street, her second novel and one of her most successful, Holtby gives us Muriel Hammond: smart but shy, unable to attract male attention and overly concerned about “doing the right thing” in the eyes of her parents.  Early on, Muriel’s academic ambitions are thwarted by the headmistress at school:

Then, with a kindliness that Muriel found consoling even though it sounded the death knell to her hopes, Mrs. Hancock explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn.  Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers, and professors (these latter being evidently a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’ (p. 29)

On leaving school, Muriel returns home out of some sense of obligation to her mother, who invests considerable time and effort in finding her a suitable match.  Muriel has feelings for Godfrey Neale, a local landowner, but he seems to always be just beyond her reach.  Muriel’s younger sister Connie, tired of the stifling home environment, strikes out on her own to work on a farm but her independent life is far from trouble-free.  As Muriel reaches her mid-twenties, popular opinion has it she will never marry.  She fears becoming like her spinster Aunt Beatrice, who paints a bleak picture:

‘But even more for your own sake, dear. You will marry, I am sure. Marriage is the — the crown and joy of woman’s life — what we were born for — to have a husband and children, and a little home of your own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But — it’s all right while you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance — and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who really wants you — and you hate to stay too long in a house in case somebody else should want to come — and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry.’ (p. 223)

Most stories from the early 20th century would tackle this problem Jane Austen style, with the perfect man appearing on the scene to rescue the young woman and offer her a life of security, if not happiness.  But Holtby has other ideas, ultimately giving Muriel the strength to forge her own path, one that is not exactly what her mother had in mind but is thankfully vastly different from Aunt Beatrice’s experience.  Between The Crowded Street and her masterpiece, South Riding, Holtby showed early twentieth century women a new path, with new options, and paved the way for social change.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Second Movement, by Anthony Powell

The “second movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time is a collection of three novellas:  At Lady Molly’s, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, and The Kindly Ones.  Set in England during the years just before World War II, this dance includes many characters familiar to readers of the first movement.  The protagonist, Nick Jenkins, is now an established writer working for a film company.  In At Lady Molly’s, Anthony Powell sets the stage by introducing readers to several new characters who will figure prominently in Nick’s life.   They include the Tolland family (several brothers & sisters, and their stepmother), and Chips Lovell, a professional colleague whose literary role is to introduce Nick to other people and situations.  Social themes are introduced as well,  particularly political developments in Germany, and society’s preoccupation with psychoanalysis during this time period.

While the first novella has a seemingly endless cast, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant focuses on Nick, his new wife, and their close friends the Morelands.  But the dance continues, with familiar characters moving in and out of their lives, including Nick’s school friends Widmerpool, Templer, and Stringham.  Finally in The Kindly Ones, Powell begins in Nick’s childhood, providing a complete “back story” on certain characters and lending new context to their role in the dance.

There is very little “action” in these novels.  Instead, there are a myriad of social situations where the dialogue moves the action along.  For example, one character will tell a story about another, and in this way we learn of marriages, affairs, deaths, and so on.  One of the intriguing aspects of this series is the way Powell conveys the passing of time.  It’s such a critical element, and yet is only expressed indirectly. Months and years are never mentioned, and rarely do we know someone’s age.  We get a sense of elapsed time primarily through historical or cultural cues (i.e.; the Abdication), and only occasionally by specific mention (i.e.; “several years passed …”).

I also love Powell’s turns of phrase, like this bit:

She was immaculately free from any of the traditional blemishes of a mother-in-law; agreeable always; entertaining; even, in her own way, affectionate; but always a little alarming: an elegant, deeply experienced bird — perhaps a bird of prey — ready to sweep down and attack from the frozen mountain peaks upon which she preferred herself to live apart.

And, at the close of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, this powerful paragraph:

I thought of his recent remark about the Ghost Railway.  He loved these almost as much as he loved mechanical pianos. Once, at least, we had been on a Ghost Railway together at some fun fair or on a seaside pier; slowly climbing sheer gradients, sweeping with frenzied speed into inky depths, turning blind corners from which black, gibbering bogeys leapt to attack, rushing headlong towards iron-studded doors, threatened by imminent collision, fingered by spectral hands, moving at last with dreadful, ever increasing momentum towards a shape that lay across the line.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a unique work, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

Previous Reviews:

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement, by Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of British men as they move from school to university to adulthood.  The story begins in the 1920s when the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is at boarding school with his friends Stringham and Templer.  Their school days are coming to an end; will they go up to university or go directly to work?  As they contemplate their next phase of life, they also spend countless hours mocking other students — especially a boy named Widmerpool — and playing pranks on their  house master.

The “first movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time consists of three novellas spanning just over a decade: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World.  Jenkins and his friends come of age, finding their adult footing and struggling with love and loss.  Several other characters move in and out of their lives, like partners in a dance.  A woman appears initially as one man’s girlfriend, later as the wife of a second man, and still later as a third man’s lover.  Other characters have recurring roles in the dance, taking the floor every so often and then fading into the background.   As Jenkins muses in the second book:

I certainly did not expect that scattered elements of Mrs. Andriadis’s party would recur so comparatively soon in my life … their commitment was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of what I have already compared with a ritual dance.

The dance metaphor works very well in this book.  The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet.  And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel.  Yet every so often Powell sums things up with powerful prose, like this paragraph towards the end of A Question of Upbringing:

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period.  This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. … A new epoch was opening: in a sense this night was the final remnant of life at school.

A Dance to the Music of Time is very British, and very evocative of the period between the wars.  Every time I sat down to read, I was instantly transported into that world, while simultaneously reflecting on the “dance” representing my life.  While this “first movement” was more than 700 pages long, I never tired of it and was sad to say good-bye to characters who have inhabited my imagination for over a week.  I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.