After a lazy summer of reading too many things I was too embarrassed to blog about ( which may be another blog topic entirely) my brain is finally focussed again and just in time to pick up the new novel from A.M. Homes. Homes is a darkly funny writer, who always has a keen eye, and in this case she turns it on the modern American family which she dissects with almost surgical precision. It’s almost impossible to put this book down, which begins on Thanksgiving day and covers approximately a year of time in which we watch the lives of two brothers who have been at constant odds unravel spectacularly and unexpectedly . Like many family dramas this one is a noisy train wreck in startling slow motion. All the characters are eerily familiar and of course while some survive, some others do not and it is the gift of this writer that she brings her own sense of humor into what in other hands would be a book too bleak to contemplate. If all of this sounds entirely too dark for you, don’t worry. There is redemption here and like everything A.M. Homes writes about it unfolds beautifully in the hands of this skilled author.
I am probably just deluding myself that one day I won’t give in entirely to Pym love and join the Barbara Pym Society like every other obsessed Pym fan, especially if I continue to return to my favorite Pym novel Excellent Women. This small and very, very funny book, like her other works, focusses on the genteel but rather drab life of an English spinster, in this case one Mildred Lathbury, whose world seems to consist of jumble sales, long chats with the vicar, and the inevitably endless cups of tea. She is surrounded by friends, of a sort, and associates, all of whom seem to lead more exciting lives than her own and she observes them all closely, with a dark wit and a sharp sense of humor that is second to none. Much like the work of Jane Austen these books are certainly not plot heavy. In fact virtually nothing happens and yet somehow it is Pym’s greatest accomplishment to make this nothing seem like absolutely everything to her narrator, and reader. Mildred’s sharp eye is deeply ironic, and while life hasn’t handed her much she is never sad and seems only reasonably discontent. It is impossible to read this book and not root for her, and the countless other women she represents who stand teetering on the brink of spinsterhood with a teapot in one hand and a china cup in the other. Mildred Lathbury, we salute you!
Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was a moderately successful writer whose work fell out of favor in the early 1960’s for being out of step with the times. For sixteen years she continued to write in obscurity until one day in the 21st of January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her “the most underrated novelist of the century.” From that point on she rose to almost instant fame and recognition. She died at the early age of 66 of breast cancer.
“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”
― Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
I was happy to discover the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by Michael Pollan, and am making my way through all of them. I couldn’t resist picking up Reginald Arklell’s garden novel Old Herbaceous as my starting point as the title intrigued me. It tells the story of Bert Pinnegar, a shy orphan with one leg longer than the other who nonetheless works his way up from nothing to become the head gardener known as “Old Herbaceous” on a sprawling British country estate. The novel brings us from the Victorian era into the Edwardian, and covers two World Wars, and yet, with few exceptions, we rarely leave the garden. Bert brings it slowly to life and in return, like every garden, it gives him one. This is a simple and beautiful book, with moments of sly humor. Pull a chair up under your favorite tree and read it slowly. If you have ever loved, or dreamed of, a garden you’ll be glad you did. I promise, as you turn the pages you can even smell the soft country earth and the light scent of garden roses.
“Are you old enough, or wise enough to remember and appreciate those country gardens of the early ‘eighties? The moss rose under the kitchen window; the sweet williams, all of one homely pattern; the great cabbage roses and the musk that had not yet lost its scent. Mignonette flourished in the poor, gravelly soil under the holly tree; maidenhair fern carpeted the gray steps of the old summer house and lilies of the valley grew like weeds.”
Reginald Arkell — Old Herbaceous
For the first time in 35 years, the Pulitzer Prize judges did not award a work of fiction. This, despite that fact that three very good finalists were up for consideration. They were, the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.
Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee beat a hasty retreat with no explanation given. No doubt for the obvious reason that they could not string a sentence of explanation together themselves, or, for that matter, recognize a good sentence if it was presented to them. It’s quite sad, in this reader’s honest opinion, that when the average person reads fewer and fewer books every year the Pulitzer Prize committee seems to agree with the majority of the population which is constantly saying: “There is nothing worth reading”. Or, even worse, “It is not worth your time to read.”
But…perhaps I am too harsh? Maybe the Pulitzer judges were simply too busy. They were probably so terribly caught up in The Hunger Games trilogy that they simply did not have time to read these three excellent finalists.
Since they can’t seem to do their own job, does anyone mind terribly if I do it? This years Pulitzer Prize for fiction…no, wait, what am I thinking? Scratch that. Who cares about the Pulitzer now anyway? This years Persnickety Reader’s prize for fiction goes to The Pale King, by the late David Foster Wallace.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have had some kind of childhood without the books of Beverly Cleary, but I think it’s fair to say it might not have been much of one. And I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, Beezus and Ramona and all the other children and residents of Klickitat Street were sometimes more real to me than the world outside my own front door. From the introduction of Henry Huggins in 1950 Beverly Cleary has probably done more for children’s literature, or literature in general for that matter, than any other author. For the first time children could finally pick up her books and read about children just like themselves. And that’s no small accomplishment. So it’s no wonder that along the way Beverly Cleary has won three Newbery Awards. A National Medal of Arts. And The Library of Congress has named her a Living Legend. Today she is 96. Happy Birthday Beverly, from Henry, Ribsy, Beezus, Ramona, and me. As well as countless children around the world whose lives and hearts you touched.
“Quite often somebody will say, ‘What year do your books take place?’ and the only answer I can give is, in childhood.”
― Beverly Cleary
It’s hard to begin reviewing this book without stopping to admire the small press that publishes it. I am a huge fan of all small presses for keeping authors alive who might otherwise simply fade into obscurity and be all but forgotten. Or, as in this author’s case, because she was forgotten, bringing them back to life to a new generation of readers who would otherwise never have known them. So I hope if you’re reading this you’ll continue to the section below where I talk about Persephone Press.
But now: a word for Miss Pettigrew. Poor Miss Pettigrew, a down on her luck middle-aged governess who can seem to do no right. Until, of course, her employment agency sends her on a call not to a household of unruly children but to a nightclub singer who changes her life entirely in a mere 24 hours. And just to believe for a moment that it is “never too late” is the sheer joy of this delightful book. Never has a case of mistaken identity been so charming. Cinderella, move over. This book was made into a movie starring Frances McDormand who, in this reviewer’s opinion, can do no wrong. While the movie is delightful the book is superior and it is a highly recommended read with a Sidecar in one hand and, dare I say it? A cigarette in the other. Live. Live. Live!
I can not say enough about my own adoration for Persephone Books. Without them there are so many authors I never would have found. In their own words, from their Website: “Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”
Winifred Watson believed in this book with all her heart but had some struggle finding a publisher for it. It was published, finally, in 1938 and was received with great acclaim. But in 1941 Winifred Watson stopped writing entirely to take care of her son. She lived, quite quietly, in Newcastle for the rest of her life.
This is an extremely moving first novel which chronicles the sudden and swift descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in the life of Alice Howland, a fifty year old Harvard professor whose expertise is cognitive psychology and linguistics. Because the character is, at first anyway, so self-aware of what is happening to her as the disease progresses it is absolutely chilling to read. There were many moments when I wanted to put the book down, and yet I found I could not. At times I felt as if I were about to witness a horrible accident and yet I could not turn my head away. It was as if I was on a speeding train which I knew was destined to crash, and yet I could not get off at any of the scheduled stops. What makes this so absolutely compelling is that the story is told not from a caretaker’s point of view, as we might expect, but from the victim’s. And because Lisa Genova, the author herself, has a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard she has the knowledge and skill to pull a feat like this off. The language itself is very simple, which I found entirely appropriate given the subject, and I believe everyone should read this beautiful book. Warning: will cause the onset of crying in all those except those with the very hardest of hearts.
“But will I always love her? Does my love for her reside in my head or my heart? The scientist in her believed that emotion resulted from complex limbic brain circuitry that was for her, at this very moment, trapped in the trenches of a battle in which there would be no survivors. The mother in her believed that the love she had for her daughter was safe from the mayhem in her mind, because it lived in her heart.”
― Lisa Genova, Still Alice
Some sites you may want to visit on the important subject of Alzheimer’s disease are:
You could, if you had known her anyway, fault Patricia Highsmith for many things but her writing is not one of them. There is no one who understood the art of suspense better than her. More than two dozen film adaptations of her books have been made, some of them excellent, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 “Strangers On A Train” and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley”. The books differ considerably from the films, particularly Ripley, but I must admit it is the film adaptation which first made me aware of the author. In all, there are five Ripley novels, sometimes referred to by fans of Highsmith as the Ripliad. Some are better than others, of course, but all are worth reading because her character is so completely fascinating. He is the ultimate man with no conscience who will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, including several murders which he can execute at the drop of a hat. He has no morals whatsoever, but all the suave and charm and sexual ambiguity that a con artist needs to succeed, He can tell a lie as easily as breathing and is a fascinating study in contradictions but is intensely likeable despite his many faults. All five novels, or for that matter almost anything by Highsmith, are intensely readable and highly recommended.
“One situation – maybe one alone – could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.”
― Patricia Highsmith
This is a fascinating history of a city as told through the Diaries of the famous, infamous, and average citizens of Manhattan from 1609-2009. Because the entires are arranged day by day and I received this book at the end of 2011, I keep it on my nightstand and each day I read all the letters (usually there are only two or three) for that day. On and on and on I will go until the end of the year, so I can not yet claim to have finished this book but if the all the letters prove as interesting as the first few months I may even start again on January 1, 2013. To look at a city over four centuries, day by day, through so many different eyes, is quite revealing. If you are at all interested in what makes the heart of a great city beat, pick it up.
“I had a lot of dates but decided to stay home and dye my eyebrows.”
Andy Warhol, March 11, 1978
“The natives are very good people, for when they saw that I would not remain, they supposed that I was afraid of their bows, and taking the arrows, they broke them in pieces, and threw them in the fire, etc..”
Henry Hudson, September 15, 1609
“During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.”
Simone De Beauvoir, February 4, 1947
Blogging about E. B. White on National Grammar Day put his all time classic Charlotte’s Web into my head and now I find I can not get it out. This is one of the very first books I remember reading, and I can tell you exactly when and where I was when I received it. Christmas morning, 18 degrees below zero, a new pair of pajamas, a fire in the grate and a brand new book by someone I had never heard of before in my then very short life. Little did I know when I cracked the spine what awaited me. Life. Death. Friendship. And everything in between explained in the gentle tones of a talking spider hanging by E. B. White’s imaginary thread. Needless to say I reread this classic this week and I can only say it stands the test of time. Do not see the movie. Do not buy the audio book. Sit down and turn the pages slowly, stopping to linger over the beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams and open your mind and heart. You will be rewarded. I promise. It is some book.
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”
― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
“Wilbur never forgot Charlotte. Although he loved her children and grandchildren dearly, none of the new spiders ever quite took her place in his heart. She was in a class by herself. It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
― E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web