Tag Archives: Barbara Pym

My Summer So Far, In Reading

My summer has been crazy. I have been on the go so much I’ve hardly had time to think. I actually did the math, and in a span of exactly 30 days, I was in 9 distinct airports and took off and landed no less than 23 times. The novelization of my life might refer to this epic thirty-day-period as “Two Weddings and a Baby Shower”, with an afterword entitled “Four Time Zones Apart: Vacation and Work Travel With 24 Hours Between”.

But on the bright side, with all that airport and airplane time, I read six books!

Before the Air Travel Extravaganza, I was working on a post to let you all know ahead of time the reasons for my absence, but the post was scrapped, mostly because I was afraid that my real and actual joy at being able to do all of these things and go all of these places — for and with people I love — would be overshadowed by my melodramatic dread of the attendant exhaustion (and the huge life changes that each trip represented to me).

And I’m glad I scrapped it. “Kill your darlings” is what people who know say about writing, and in this case my darlings were allusions to Robert Frost poems. Thankfulness is a much better use of my time (when compared to melodramatic dread, not allusions to Robert Frost — poetry is never a waste of time).

Let’s talk instead about those six books: here’s what I read, in no particular order, and typically random!

nfrol_coverNo Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym. How I would have loved to have actually known Barbara Pym. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends, if only because I see something of myself in each one of her heroines, who one imagines must each have something of her in them, too. While this particular book of hers was not (in my opinion) quite at the same level as Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence, it still offered such little gems of perfect expression as “the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur.” For me, reading one of her books is like reading a long, storied letter from a friend with whom I entirely sympathize.

therook_coverThe Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. A woman wakes up in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead people, with no recollection of who she is. She soon discovers that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization in the British government tasked with keeping supernatural forces in check, and that she has extra-special supernatural powers of her own. If you’re not already intrigued, then my raving about wry writing (which reminded me of watching recent Doctor Who) probably won’t convince you to read this super-fun book (first in a planned series). A few hallmarks of a first novel were outweighed by the novel’s being refreshingly without so many of the characteristics that seem to plague so much of recent science fiction/fantasy: there was no annoying romantic triangle (or romance of any kind), and there WAS a confident heroine getting stuff done — on her own, to boot. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE.

deathofbees_coverThe Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, opens with Marnie’s confession: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Set in urban Glasgow, it’s the story of Marnie and Nelly just trying to get by keeping the secret of their parents’ deaths until Marnie’s next birthday, when she’ll be legally old enough to take care of Nelly herself. Keeping that secret proves harder and harder as neighbors, authorities, and their parents’ drug dealers start asking questions. This is not The Boxcar Children: there is a hefty bit of Glaswegian grit in this story. While it might not be quite urban fiction, it certainly had similar themes and content. Somehow it still managed sweetness, though — if you can get past the grit and you enjoy coming-of-age stories, this book may be for you.

tntysm_coverThe Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones. “Lives of quiet desperation” is what springs to mind when I think of this book. The story is told from multiple points of view: a young girl, a loner, finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret; a schoolteacher’s wild older sister has gone missing; an older man works in a local factory; each of their lives and the lives of others in their small Kentucky town will converge as the search for the missing sister escalates. Really more of a slow-burn character study than a true mystery or thriller, each of the characters was finely drawn and even sympathetic — but it doesn’t shy away from or understate their sadness and hopelessness, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I would probably never read it again.

habits_coverHabits of the House, by Fay Weldon. Fay Weldon was the author of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” — and because I love both period dramas and comedies of manners, I confess I had high hopes for this particular book. But I found it disappointing, and I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. At the end of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne and his family stand on the brink of total financial ruin. Their only hope is to secure a lucrative marriage for their son, who is only interested in keeping his mistress happy and his automobile in working order. Maybe I found it dissatisfying because almost every character was portrayed as having few (if any) redeeming virtues; and although I actually rather liked the American heiress the Dilberne family targeted, I could only picture a future of disappointment for her married to the future Earl of Dilberne. It is entirely possible, however, that I was just tired.

never_coverNever Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a date, by Katie Heaney. I decided to read this book after discovering the author’s contributions to The Hairpin, a series called Reading Between The Texts, in which Katie and her friends analyze text message conversations they’ve had with boys (it is seriously one of the funniest things on the Internets and if you’ve been single at all in this century you can probably relate to these conversations). I believe I can say unequivocally that if you enjoy those analyses, you’ll enjoy Ms. Heaney’s book. There were so many times reading the book I laughed out loud and felt like Ms. Heaney and I should be really good friends because we have so much in common, except she’s funnier.

So my list began and ended with an author I should like to call a friend. What about you? Has your summer been as out-of-control crazy as mine? What have you been reading?

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This Year in Reading 2013

I’m probably not the only book blogger who ends up reading many more books than she actually blogs about, at least I hope I’m not. Most often it’s because I don’t always anything to say that I think the Internet wants to read after I finish a book. Partly because of that, and partly because I thought it would be fun, I thought I might wrap up this year in reading in the perennial tradition of the internet and the end of the year: with a best-of list.

Best Discoveries:

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I am always looking for authors whose writing style echoes Mary Stewart, and this year, I found someone who actually comes really close! Susanna Kearsley writes delightful books: history, mystery, and romance combine with light paranormal elements to make for really enjoyable reading. I started with The Shadowy Horses (my favorite so far), and I still daydream about Eyemouth, Scotland. If light paranormal elements (clairvoyance, etc.) aren’t your cup of tea, you might try Every Secret Thing, which was published under a pseudonym (Emma Cole) – every bit as good as her other books, but without the fantastical elements that may not be to everyone’s taste.

cover image via Goodreads

cover image via Goodreads

I’ve yet to outgrow my liking for books where the right girl meets the right guy and then after going through a few requisite troubles and misunderstandings, they’re well on their way to the proverbial happy-ever-after. There are times when, frankly, nothing else will do but that sort of story, but it’s harder than you might think to find a story like that that isn’t plagued by shoddy writing or besmirched by either the trappings of the romance novel (“bodice ripping”) or extensive bad language, or both. Which is why, when I discovered Hester Browne’s books this year, I was overjoyed. I started with The Runaway Princess, but Swept Off Her Feet is my favorite so far.

Best Reads of the Year:

jane_prudence

via Goodreads

Jane and Prudence, by Barbara Pym. Oh, how I love Barbara Pym! I’m not sure anyone does social satire better than she does. Who else delivers us such gems like this one, about an awkward social visit: “She had been feeling that things were pretty desperate if one found oneself talking about and almost quoting Matthew Arnold to comparative strangers, though anything was better than having to pretend you had winter and summer curtains when you had just curtains.” Jane and Prudence is another example of Barbara Pym at her best. I loved it fiercely.

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins. I wrote about this book months ago, but I’m still thinking about it, and it was truly some of the finest writing and characterization I’ve read all year. Highly recommended, in spite of its bleakness.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. I’ve also already written about this one, and recently, but…have you read it yet? You should really read it.

Best Surprise: Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey. This was my best – and biggest – surprise read of the year, because it wasn’t a book I thought I’d enjoy as much as I did, and I certainly didn’t expect to connect with or care about the characters as much as I did.

Greatest Reading Feat: Middlemarch. Enough said.

Best generally bookish thing(s): Joss Whedon’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing tops the list, followed closely by Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Henry V in the BBC’s Hollow Crown miniseries. If you didn’t see it when it aired on PBS in the US, well, stream it on Amazon as instantly as possible. Both of these were too good to miss.

So tell me: what tops your list of best books and/or best general bookishness for 2013?

I love presents. And Jane Austen.

With only twenty-three shopping days left until my birthday, I thought I would just make the world aware that the (quite beautiful) turquoise and gold ring which belonged to Jane Austen is going up for auction at Sotheby’s (guide price between 20 and 30 thousand pounds). Upon discovering this last Friday, I did the natural thing: I called my mother to tell her about it.

Seeing this ring and reading about it reminded me of something that Barbara Pym is quoted as saying, after a visit to Jane Austen’s family home.

I put my hand down on Jane’s desk and bring it up covered with dust. Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me! One would have imagined the devoted female custodian going round with her duster at least every other day.

And also Harper Lee:

…in other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama…

Exactly.

In lieu of the real thing, plagued as I am with inherited ancestral practicality, exact reproductions would be perfectly acceptable to me, just in case anyone was wondering.