One-Minute Book Reviews

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2009

Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

The British edition of Barbara Pym's 'Jane and Prudence'

Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary people without “self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor,” the poet Philip Larkin said. That’s partly why her fiction remains so appealing 29 years after her death: Next to all the recent novels about freaks and vampires and aliens, her men and women look radically normal.

“I should have liked the kind of life where one ate food flavored with garlic, but it was not to be,” a woman says in Jane and Prudence (Moyer Bell, 222 pp., $12.95, paperback), the story of two Oxford graduates whose lives have diverged. In this novel and others, Pym’s characters often show a similar matter-of-factness about the limits of their lives, a refreshing contrast to the desperate striving found in so much contemporary fiction.

In Jane and Prudence, Jane Cleveland, a clergyman’s wife, believes she has found the ideal mate for her friend, Prudence Bates, who has overinvested emotionally in her married boss. The plot centers on whether her matchmaking will work. But the pleasures of the novel have as much to do with Pym’s shrewd observations on human nature as with suspense about the outcome. Noticing the attention Prudence squanders on her boss, Jane reflects:

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time … Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of those things — enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which.”

That “real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which” is the depth charge in the sentence, and it’s typical of Pym. Her novels are so calm thoughtful that they are often called “good books for bad days.” Amid the current torrent of bad days, couldn’t we all use more of those?

This is the last in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), Greater Expectations (Wednesday), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Thursday).

Tomorrow: A review of the new memoir, Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka, an author beloved by many 9-to-12-year-old boys. Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site on Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 1, 2008

Diary: Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

[This is the first in an occasional series of brief posts on books or authors whose work I can’t review at more length. The posts will be saved in the “Diary” category.]

A soggy morning in New Jersey. The chilly rain reminded me of a comment often made about the novels of Barbara Pym – they’re “good books for bad days.” They’re good books for good days, too.

Pym (1913–1980) had suffered more than her share of rejection until, in the 1970s, the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers to name the most underrated writer of the 20th century. After years of neglect by the British literary establishment, Pym was the only writer nominated by two of the authors, the poet Philip Larkin and the biographer David Cecil. Their praise, especially Larkin’s, sparked a revival of interest in her work that has abated slightly in the U.S. but has never disappeared.

I’ve read five or six of Pym’s quiet novels of English life and admire their modesty, intelligence and low-keyed irony. No writer would be less likely to give a book the sort of bombastic title — Everything Is Illuminated, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I Am America (And So Can You) — that is fashionable today. And each of her novels involves circumstances different enough to keep them from becoming repetitive despite their similarlarities of tone. Excellent Women is about a group of single women who, though young, are verging on what used to be called spinsterhood. Quartet in Autumn deals with the enmeshed lives of four friends, male and female, who are facing retirement. An Unsuitable Attachment explores the effects of a single woman’s attraction to a younger man. And The Sweet Dove Died is about the losses of middle age and beyond, especially menopause (though Pym is too discreet to use the word).

Where will I start when I return to Pym en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Pym? Excellent Women is among the wittiest of her novels, so I might begin there if I needed reliable diversion on a day when the weather was hoarding its comforts – a day, in other words, like today.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 23, 2007

D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

The latest in an occasional series of posts on books I didn’t finish and why I didn’t finish them

Title: Sons and Lovers

What it is: The second novel by the English novelist D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), best known for the much-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

How much I read: The foreword, first chapter and part of the second, about 50 pages in the edition I read (not shown at right).

Why I stopped reading: The Tribe couldn’t lock up the American League pennant in the fourth game, so I had to watch the fifth on Sunday night, when I had planned to read more of the book. Then life intervened and I couldn’t get back to the novel in time to finish it for a book group I was supposed to go to tonight. Good-bye, book group meeting.

Comments: The pages that I read involve the early married life of the Gertrude and Walter Morel, as mismatched as Emma and Charles Bovary. Gertrude — well-bred, intelligent, and endowed with a high moral sensibility — chafes against the limits of her life as the wife of a good-hearted coal miner of little income and less refinement. Some critics have said that Lawrence portrays women too harshly. But his treatment of Gertrude’s frustrations in these pages was poignant. Lawrence deals much more directly than many of his contemporaries with the frighteningly rapid loss of self that women of his day risked when they married.

Best line in what I read: On the married life of young Gertrude Morel: “She went indoors, wondering if things were going to alter. She was beginning to realize that they would not. She seemed so far away from her girlhood, she wondered if it were the same person walking heavily up the back garden at Bottoms, as had run so lightly on the breakwater at Sheerness, ten years earlier.

“ ‘What have I to do with it!’ she said to herself. ‘What have I do with all this. Even the child I am going to have! It doesn’t seem as if I were taken into account.’

“Sometimes life takes hold of one, carries the body along, takes hold of one’s history, and yet is not real, but leaves one’s self as it were slurred over.”

Worst line in what I read: “ … and on a newspaper spread out upon the hearth rug, a myriad of crescent-shaped curls …”

Furthermore: The Reader’s Catalog (Jason Epstein, 1989) gives this one-line summary of Sons and Lovers: “The talents of a sensitive young man are liberated from a coal-mining background by an intelligent but dominating mother.”

Published: 1913 (first edition)

Links: www.dh-lawrence.org.uk

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

 

www.janiceharayda.com

July 11, 2007

The 50 ‘Most Enjoyable’ Books of the 20th Century

A book full of ideas on what to read at the beach besides Tina Brown’s tales of Princess Diana and her prize-winning guinea pig

If you’re looking for a classic to read on vacation, you’ll find lots of ideas in John Carey’s Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books (Faber and Faber, $14, paperback), a collection of 50 reviews of some of its author’s favorite books. I wrote when I reviewed it in October:

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

To read the full review, click on this link: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/27/

I also love two other collections of essays on books, Noel Perrin’s A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, $19.95, paperback) and Michael Dirda’s Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments (Indiana University Press,$24.95), both elegantly written and full of wonderful ideas on what to read. And while Carey’s book can be hard to find, both of these are in stock on Amazon and elsewhere.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 29, 2006

Noel Coward’s Short Stories

Who knew that one of the 20th century’s most entertaining playwrights also wrote wonderful short stories?

Noël Coward: Collected Short Stories. By Noël Coward. Preface by Martin Tickner. Methuen, 629 pp., $17.95, paperback.

You’re in for a treat if you know Noël Coward only the English playwright who wrote sparkling comedies of sexual jealousy like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Coward also wrote wonderful short stories that, at their best, have the droll wit and brisk pacing of his finest plays. All 20 appear in this welcome collection, published to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1899.

Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that they have a clear beginning, middle and end, whether they take place in London or New York or the South Seas. This alone would set them apart from many recent stories that are so oblique that reading them tends to resemble code-breaking.

But there’s more to Coward’s tales than their solid yet graceful architecture. Poet and scholar Robert Phillips has noted correctly that Coward was a “master of the shifting point of view, and managed the difficult balance between comedy and tragedy.” Coward also wrote about a kind of glamour that has almost disappeared from literary fiction. And although his stories vary in length and effectiveness, together they reflect a uniquely theatrical sensibility, with many involving actors or others in show business.

Most of Coward’s stories were written in the mid-20th century, but an eerie freshness surfaces in some of their themes, such as the cost of living in age drunk on celebrities. In one the best stories, “What Mad Pursuit?”, an English novelist is besieged by his hosts on an American tour. In “A Richer Dust,” an actor moves to Hollywood, hoping to retain some privacy: “But during the last few years this has become increasingly difficult owing to the misguided encouragement of a new form of social parasite, the gossip columnist.” This “assault upon the credulity of an entire nation” confuses people: “It would not be so were the information given checked and counter-checked and based on solid truth, but unfortunately it seldom is; consequently anybody who has the faintest claim to celebrity is likely to have his character, motives and private and public actions cheerfully misrepresented to an entire continent.” You might never know he was talking about people with names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons instead of the editors of the National Enquirer or producers of Access Hollywood.

Best line: Many. One from “A Richer Dust”: “Adele was a conscientious young actress with good legs and little talent. In the farce she played the heroine’s best friend, who made a lot of pseudosophisticated wisecracks and was incapable of sitting down without crossing her legs ostentatiously and loosening her furs.”

Worst line: What’s the point of trying to pick the worst diamond at Tiffany’s?

Recommended if … you like stories by the masters Coward admired, such as O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.

Published: 2000 (Methuen paperback).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 27, 2006

John Carey Picks the 50 Most Enjoyable Books of the 20th Century

A witty guide for reading groups and others that focuses on books, not on whether to serve gin with The Great Gatsby

Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. By John Carey. Faber and Faber, 173 pp., $14, paperback.

Reading group guides are thick on the ground this year, and some offer strong opinions on almost everything except books — refreshments, meeting times, power plays among members. All the more reason, then, to savor Pure Pleasure, a collection of 50 witty and literate essays on modern classics. This is not a reading group guide in the usual sense. But any group would benefit from taking some of its suggestions, and not just because John Carey wouldn’t dream of telling you, as one recent guide does, that strawberries are the “go-to fruit” for book clubs.

Part of the charm of Pure Pleasure lies in the brevity and directness of its essays, which first appeared in the Sunday Times of London. Secure in his reputation as one of England’s most admired critics, Carey has neither the need nor the desire to wear his erudition like a top hat at a royal wedding. His method is to dive straight into what interests him most about a book and wrap up his review in about 800 words. Here are the first lines of his essay about John Updike’s A Rabbit Omnibus: “Updike’s Rabbit saga is often praised as a lifelike portrait of middle-America in the second half of the 20th century. This should give grave offense to middle-America.” And here is how he introduces Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled: “This is a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores.” Carey’s writing is never harder to understand than that, yet it is full of insights into works as different as The Great Gatsby, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Several aspects of Pure Pleasure might give pause to an American book group. Carey writes mainly about authors from Britain and Ireland with a scattering from France, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. Many of his choices reflect tastes that, however refined, have fallen from fashion. (How many people would today appreciate the wit of S. J. Perelman, famous for such lines as, “I’ve got Bright’s Disease, and he’s got mine”?) And Carey considers only five women: Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Stevie Smith, Muriel Spark and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

But you could argue that, for the same reasons, Pure Pleasure is an ideal complement to book group guides that take their cues from the current bestseller lists. Without ever saying so directly, this is a book that reminds us that long before Bridget Jones flirted with Daniel Cleaver by interoffice e-mail, Philip Larkin wrote: “In everyone there sleeps/A sense of life lived according to love.”

Best line: “The current vogue in university English departments is to reduce literature to politics — a way of engaging in the class war without actually risking income and politics.”

Worst line: On Elizabeth Bowen: “No writer has ever pursued people’s thoughts and feelings — or half-formed thoughts and half-recognized feelings — with such intricacy.” Take that, Shakespeare.

Recommended if … you like John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald better than Amy Tan and Jane Smiley, and George Orwell or Evelyn Waugh better than any of them.

Published: 2000

Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that the author and critic Noel Perrin for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 352 other followers

%d bloggers like this: