One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

August 22, 2007

‘Looking for Class,’ Bruce Feiler’s Memoir of Cambridge University

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction,Travel — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:13 am
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The host of a popular PBS series remembers his jolly good time in graduate school

Bruce Feiler earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University before becoming the host of the popular PBS series Walking the Bible. He recalls his studies into the engaging memoir, Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge (Harper Perennial, $13.95, paperback), which explores the clash between tradition and modernity at England’s second-oldest university in the early 1990s. (Oxford has little role in the book except as the other half of the pair of school known as “Oxbridge.”) At Cambridge Feiler ate doner kebabs, rowed in a boat race, went to the May Ball and spoke for the “yea” side in a Cambridge Union debate about whether it was “better to be young, free, and American” than British. He’s generally less acerbic than Bill Bryson and tends to view English idiosyncracies with wry affection instead of scorn. But Feiler still made people laugh at the Cambridge Union debate by asking a question that suggests the tone of his memoir: Was it true, he asked, “that the Brits keep a stiff upper lip in order to hide their teeth”?

Furthermore: Ever wonder how I choose some of these books? In this case, a young Scottish friend of mine got into Cambridge last week after acing four exams, one in something called, mystifyingly, “further maths.” I read this book and enjoyed it a few years ago and thought about it again after the good news arrived.

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle Please visit for information about her comic novels The Accidental Bride and Manhattan on the Rocks.

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