Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Fancies

If you've been thinking that it's been too long since you've seen cute beagles on this blog, then you're in for a treat. Millie's current favorite toy seems to be a stuffed Mr. Bill doll that, just like the old time SNL character, says "Ohhhhhh Nooooooo" when you squeeze it. Earlier this week I snapped a picture of her snuggling with it during her pre-bedtime nap. A few days later, my mom sent me a picture of Olive taking an afternoon nap with her own Mr. Bill doll. (Note the missing mouth on hers. Who would think such a sweet face was capable of such mutilation?)

If you happen to be in a market for a dog toy, this one seems to be a favorite. Now for a few more links:

Apropos of the above, ten great dogs from literature.

The Algonquin Hotel in NYC has partnered with Simon & Schuster to create a literary themed hotel suite.... it turns out, that's not the only literary hotel in Manhattan.

And don't forget, after this weekend Google Reader will be a thing of the past. I've switched over to Bloglovin. If you have too, you can follow me there.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Warden

The Warden marks my first foray into the extensive body of work of Anthony Trollope. I'll admit that I chose this one to start with because it's the first installment of his Chronicles of Barsetshire series, rather than because it's plot sounded particularly compelling. In a nutshell (and a somewhat fuzzy nutshell at that, since I'm suffering from a summer cold at the moment!), it's a story about the ethical debate that erupts over the local monetary dealings of the Church of England. The specific controversy surrounds a hospital that serves as an almshouse for twelve elderly and destitute townsmen. It was originally endowed with money from a local clergyman's will, which stipulated a few pence per year be paid to each of hospital's twelve residents. In the ensuing years, however, the hospital's investments have grown substantially, bringing in hundreds of pounds per year as the salary the hospital's Warden, while its residents continue to receive their tiny stipend. This injustice is brought to light by a local young doctor (who also happens to be in love with the Warden's daughter, to further complicate matters) and a battle erupts between the church and the local townspeople, with Septimus Harding, the elderly, peace-loving Warden, caught in the middle.

I can't say that I loved this book, but I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging it was, especially in certain scenes in which two opposing characters were arguing about the issue at hand. There were a few passages in which I actually felt like I was on the edge of my seat as I raced through dialogue. I had to stop and remind myself that--wait a minute--these characters are actually discussing pretty dry points of church fiscal policy. Trollope's ability to pull off this story seems to boil down to his sense of satire, which he turns on each character equally. Things like the narrator's witty descriptive barbs and the names that he christens his characters with (Mr. Bold, Mr. Senitment), kept the book's theme from feeling too pedantic or preachy. 

Have you read any Trollope? Do you have any recommendations for his works outside of the Barchester series?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Revisiting Brideshead

After recently finishing Put Out More Flags, I decided it was the perfect time to go on a slight Evelyn Waugh kick and reread Brideshead Revisited. The two books showcase vastly different sides of Waugh's style. The former satirizes a group of upper class Brits who will seemingly go to any length to hold onto their comfortable lifestyles in the face of the changes of war. Brideshead also looks at a way of life whose disappearance was accelerated by the war, but it does so in a much more nostalgic, bittersweet way. It was apparently written very quickly during a period in which Waugh himself was abroad during World War II and pining for the England home that he used to know. I've read that in his later years, Waugh would cringe and dismiss the work as overly sentimental. His self-criticisms weren't widely shared, though, and Brideshead remains his most famous work.

Brideshead Revisited  is divided into three distinct sections. Sandwiching the main action of the story, the novel begins and ends with protagonist Charles Ryder, a middle-aged officer in the British army, arriving at a lavish country estate that has been requisitioned for his unit. The estate happens to be Brideshead, a house that he was intimately familiar with in his youth. The memories that the house evokes for Charles first take us back to his university days, when he first developed a friendship with Sebastian Flyte, the flamboyant and eccentric youngest son of the aristocratic owners of Brideshead. Each subsequent year of their friendship sees Sebastian take his heavy drinking habit to increasingly destructive levels, until ultimately he goes abroad and falls out of Charles's life. The novel then jumps to a time about a decade after that, when a chance encounter on a cruise ship leads to an ill-fated relationship between Charles and Sebastian's sister, Julia.

To say that Waugh was Britain's version of F. Scott Fitzgerald would be a largely inaccurate analogy. I will draw one comparison between them, though, which is to say that both wrote imperfect novels that manage to perfectly capture feelings of nostalgia for very specific times and places that are drifting away from their characters, even while they are in the midst of living in them. In my mind, some of the most glaring imperfections of Brideshead are that the novel feels imbalanced, with the first half outshining the second, and that Waugh often tries to juggle too many elements, which results in somewhat awkward resolutions for certain themes and characters he introduces into the novel. I'd be forced to elaborate on these complaints if I had to dissect Waugh's writing from a critical point of view. Luckily, I don't have to, and I can continue to enjoying his work for the same reasons that I enjoy Fitzgerald's- for the broad ideas of nostalgia and memory that their novels evoke.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday Fancies

The common theme among the links I have to share is that they made my To Read list grow a little longer this week. They also gave me a case of book envy. I'm currently reading The Warden by Trollope, and though I'm more or less enjoying it so far, I can't help but wish I were reading a couple of these instead.

(image via here--basically the 1946 version of me)

Not only did this article about Olivia Manning make me thrilled to see her getting more attention, but it has me itching to read the new biography that's out.

James Joyce's love of food--maybe I'll finally get around to reading Ulysses now that I know it's just an elaborate cautionary tale against eating alone in pubs.

I'll have to read Lauren Graham's novel before the TV series comes out.

NYRB just reissued The Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. I only know him from my beloved Frances books, so I'm interested to try some of his adult fiction.

And last, but not least, a brief video about the legacy of Barbara Pym (of course I'm still eager to keep working my way through her novels).

What books are you most looking forward to reading lately?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Friday Fancies

This week, I've really been enjoying all of the posts related to Barbara Pym Reading week. I think it's been one of the best author-specific reading weeks that I've seen around the blog world. Not only have I learned a few new things about Pym, but I've discovered some great new blogs that will add some fresh blood to my current online reading routine. If you're at all interested in Pym, I'd highly recommend visiting My Porch and Fig & Thistle a fascinating roundup of posts (two of my personal favorites are this look at the cover designs of Pym's novels and this in-depth article that pays tribute to Pym (and features some great vintage photos of her).

Here are some other, non-Pymsian things that caught my eye this week:

What Jane Saw is an online gallery that allows you to virtually walk in Jane Austen's shoes by recreating an 1813 art exhibit that she attended at the British Museum.

A tooth necklace.

A roundup of bookish products that were featured at BEA this year.

And a New York Times article in which a selection of prominent authors reminisce about their memorable summer reading experiences.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Crampton Hodnet

Writing about Barbara Pym's novels seems to get a little harder with each additional one that I read, at least in terms of avoiding repetitive gushing over the funny yet realistic characters and cozy atmospheres that pervade so much of her writing. Since Crampton Hodnet, one of Pym's earlier novels, has all of those common Pymsian (or is it Pymish?) elements, I'll try to highlight its more unique qualities, the foremost of which is its slightly darker, more melancholy air. Pym's novels often deal with the little moments of ordinary life, and the mishaps, misunderstandings, and minor romantic intrigues that arise from them. The personal dramas in Crampton Hodnet don't necessarily have satisfactory endings: the spinster doesn't marry the eligible bachelor who comes to town and the pretty twenty-year-old girl doesn't end up with the aristocratic Oxford undergrad. Even the story lines that do turn out well seem to take a rockier path to get there, as seen by the middle-aged poetry professor who makes a bungled attempt at running away with an attractive young student before returning to his wife. Although there are similar escapades in some of Pym's other novels, they're generally portrayed through the lens of  good-natured humor. The affair in Crampton Hodnet comes closer to being an instance of truly destructive adultery than anything else I've read from Pym so far. This slightly less positive point of view didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel, but actually added some interesting layers to the work, especially when you consider its position in Pym's writing timeline, written in her earlier years when you might assume she would be more inclined to adopt a youthfully optimistic tone. It may be an indication that Pym was still refining her writing style with this novel, playing around to find the perfect balance of humor, characterization and plot that are so apparent in later novels like Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence.

Speaking of Jane and Prudence, Crampton Hodnet centers around two characters who make supporting appearances as neighbors in that novel, the elderly Miss Doggett and her spinster companion Miss Morrow.  I've written before about how Pym has her characters make cameos in novels other than their own. What she does in here isn't quite the same thing, particularly where Miss Morrow is concerned. The Miss Morrows of Crampton Hodnet and Jane and Prudence are the same in name and situation only. In Jane and Prudence, Miss Morrow is obviously dissatisfied with her job as a companion to Miss Doggett and, through a series of closely calculated machinations, surprises everyone by ending up engaged to one of the more sought-after bachelors in the novel. In Crampton Hodnet, she is a different version of herself, more meek and resigned to Miss Doggett's bossiness, but also more inclined to take pleasure in the small moments of everyday life. And while she also receives unexpected attentions from an eligible bachelor, her reactions to him make her seem like a more nuanced and sympathetic character than her alter-novel counterpart.

And finally, I noticed one other unique feature of Crampton Hodnet that sets is apart from Pym's other works: the author photo on the back cover of my edition. The common author photo of her holding her cat is so familiar, that it was a nice change to see a different version of her, sitting here with this unknown gentleman:

Who is he? And, more importantly, is that some knitting he's holding?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Curry for Beginners

This is probably an obvious statement coming form someone who has a book blog, but I'm a sucker for stories of all kinds. No matter how small, the littlest snippet of a life other than my own can set my imagination going. I noticed a recent example of this during the wine tasting at the vineyard I visited on Cape Cod. The woman who ran the tasting did a really good job of creating a little story to go along with each wine. Beyond just describing their flavors, she talked about how she drinks each particular wines, such as a certain red that she said was best sipped during dinner preparation and then lingered over until dessert. My favorite wine of the tasting was a vignoles, a new discovery for me that was described as being the perfect wine to take to a Thai restaurant or drink along with takeout curry. All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that I've been in the mood for curry ever since then, and so, in an attempt to recreate the little story of the wine, made a homemade curry dish for the first time.

I chose a recipe for a three veggie curry from the Pretty Delicious cookbook, tweaking it slightly to use quinoa instead of the brown rice it called for. The combination of carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, and chickpeas almost made it verge on being a hearty winter dish, but a touch honey lightened it up with a hint of sweetness. It might not be much to look at, but the end result was pretty delicious, proving that the cookbook does indeed live up to its name. It was only after I have finished enjoying it that I realized  I had made a beginner's curry mistake: I didn't run the oven vent fan while I was cooking, which left the smell of curry lingering in my apartment for days. I even woke up in the middle of the night a couple of times smelling curry. After extensively burning multiple candles, the air finally cleared, but left me thinking that curried dishes might be best left to takeout from now on.

Do you cook with curry? Do you have any tricks for containing its smell?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Put Out More Flags

Although I’ve read a fair number of Evelyn Waugh novels over the years and can recall enjoying them all, I don’t remember very many details about them. Their plots, characters, and themes have blurred together into one fuzzy picture, dominated by Brideshead Revisited. After I recently snagged a used copy of Put Out More Flags , I discovered that I already had an unread copy sitting on my shelf. But all turned out for the best since the vintage orange Penguin edition prompted me to immediately start on a novel that would have probably languished on the bookcase for another year or two, which has in turn led me to rediscover the joys of reading Waugh.

Put Out More Flags revolves a group of recurring Waugh characters who previously appear in some of his earlier novels like Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies (the latter of which I've read but, of course, have no recollection of). At the center of this group is Basil Seal, who's something of a cross between a black sheep and a scoundrel. Throughout his life, he's gotten himself into trouble through various schemes and scams, and has been grudgingly tolerated by his upper class friends. When England officially declares war on Germany during WWII, Basil's mother, sister, and mistress all view the impending conflict as his chance to finally make a mark on the world. Basil, of course, takes a slightly different view, and sets about finding a way to due his part in support of England with as little work, and as minimal risk, as possible.

I typically associate Waugh's writing with the elegiac qualities of Brideshead, but Put Out More Flags is very much a farce. Satirizing World War II could potentially be rocky territory, but Waugh pulls it off through his gorgeous language that's punctuated by razor-sharp turns of phrase. He pokes fun at the aristocracy's reaction to the war, particularly during the periods of endless waiting and training that occurred during its early months. While Basil's shady dealings are the most obvious satirical elements, there are also smaller moments that highlight the simultaneous absurdity and poignancy of other minor characters' actions, such as Basil's sister's attempts to help home front efforts by conserving heat in her home. She deals with the chilly temperatures by moving her writing desk out to her greenhouse, where the heat is running at full blast to preserve rare citrus trees. The surface-level farce of this detail points out how out-of-touch the upper classes are if they view the use of a luxurious greenhouse as a form of sacrifice. A deeper meaning can be read below the surface, though. In a time of such uncertainty, the preservation of the citrus trees can be seen as an attempt to preserve elements of Britain that were in danger of being wiped out by the war. Though cloaked in biting humor, these kind of subtle themes hint at the nostalgic themes he would go on to write about in Brideshead


Related Posts with Thumbnails