Time: A Decade of Walks

"Woman in the Garden," Jószef Rippl-Rónai

“Woman in the Garden,” Jószef Rippl-Rónai

I know my urban neighborhood by heart.  I walk it, I bicycle it.

I am outdoors.  I feel the cold air.  I trudge, I skim the pavement, I am bored or happy according to the weather.  It was brown and windy today and I sat on the steps of the Greek Orthodox church to adjust my hood.  I took off my gloves to pull my hood up over my hat, but it fell down too far over my face and made me claustrophobic, so I took it off again.

Tree-lined streets, Arts-and-Crafts bungalows, the meridians with flowers in the spring time (brown dirt or snow this time of year), the neighborhood grocery store, the good indie coffee houses, the hardware store, the health food store, and the library.

There have been a lot of changes in the neighborhood in the last 10 years.

The clock speeds up and the years pass rapidly some time after the age of 40.  Businesses come and go.  The bagel store has closed (weren’t you eating cinnamon bagel bites just yesterday?), a gym has closed, a used bookstore, a record store, an Italian restaurant, and an entire strip mall is empty except for the odd tattoo parlor and DUI counseling office.

Another gym has opened, a small indie bookstore, a cheese store, a candy store, a consignment shop, and a bar.

The neighborhood public library has been renovated. It is now a spacious building with a tower, fireplace, and comfortable chairs.  The old overcrowded library had buzzing fluourescent lights, few chairs, and not enough books.  Now there is room for books and people, too.  Old books have been brought out of storage and reshelved.  I am delighted to find such great browsing.

Then there’s nature.  Nature is the biggest consideration on walks, don’t you think?  There are some beautiful gardens in our neighborhood.  You can’t tell much this time of year, but that scraggy-looking brown wispy twiggy area is a wild flower garden in summer.  See those sycamore trees?   They’ve grown tall in just a few years.  They’re not my favorite, but a very smart buy for a family in need of shade in a treeless yard. See over there? In a few months the crab apple trees will be blooming.  You will walk down the street and the branches of flowers will brush you.

But nature has suffered in the last decade.  Many trees have fallen in devastating storms.  A neighbor’s tree split and crashed on to our roof, the bulk of it falling across the driveway.  A huge branch from our tree fell  across another neighbor’s driveway, extending from the garage in the back yard to the street. You see the wounded trees, the trees cut down, branches dragged to a truck, then the stumps, then the wood chips, then the holes where the trees were.

Future generations, beware of the weather.

The weather has changed in the Midwest. My hometown is a good gauge of climate change.  The Catholic church where my mother went her whole life, St. Patrick’s, was destroyed by a tornado in 2006.   Jackson Pollock’s  painting, “Mural,” had to be moved when the University of Iowa Art Museum was evacuated during the flood of 2008.  It went first to the Figge in Davenport, then to the Des Moines Art Center, and is now being restored at the Getty Museum in L.A.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

The Neal Smith trail on the Des Moines River was closed for a few years due to flooding in 2010.  It had to be repaved and the levees rebuilt.  Bridges on the Chichaqua Valley Trail were wiped out and were not rebuilt until last summer.

If I think about all the changes in my lifetime, it is too much to take in.  When too many businesses close, we worry that people will pack up and move to the suburbs.  When bookstores move to the internet, we are not able to browse and miss items we might have seen in physical stores.  When cities lose population and stores, we lose part of our culture.

We are also seeing a civilization in flux as the climate changes and storms and floods wreck our environment.  There will be rock concert benefits in New York, but not for the rest of us.

And so we cope by walking around the neighborhood.  Know your neighborhood, know the changes.

Barbara Pym & Unsuitable Fashions: I Go to the Joslyn Art Museum

some-tame-gazelle pymI read Barbara Pym on the way to Omaha.  It’s not a very long trip.  Bounce into the car at 9 a.m., open your copy of Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle,  and a few hours later you look up and find yourself in the city.

You probably know nothing about Omaha.  It is actually a very nice city, as we discovered when we moved to this area.  Right now there is a wonderful exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, “Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum,” and if you don’t live in New York, as we don’t, it is a great opportunity to see modernist paintings  by Robert Henri, Georgia O’Keefe, John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Max Weber, Reginald Marsh, Gerald Murphy, William J. Glackens, John Steuart Curry, and Maurice Prendergast.

Robert Henri's portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum

I especially admired Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum of American art. Her husband thought her pants so outrageous that he refused to hang the painting in their mansion.

You may wonder what Gertrude’s unsuitable pants have to do with the novelist Barbara Pym.  She was nothing like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as you can see from the photo of Pym below.  While Gertrude, a wealthy sculptor and lover of modern art, lounged in a beautiful blue silk embroidered jacket and teal pajama pants, Barbara wears a down-to-earth print vest and skirt that no cat’s claws will pill.

Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

But Pym is obsessed with fashion in her books.

In life she was also besotted by fashion, according to many entries in A Very Private Eye:  An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym and edited by Hazel Holt and Hilary Pym.

In her witty, beautifully-crafted first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, the fiftysomething heroine, Belinda Bede, muses endlessly about clothes.  Belinda wears “suitable” dresses and sensible shoes, while her younger sister Harriet reads Vogue and insists that Miss Prior, the village seamstress, make her fashionable dresses with the latest sleeves.  The Bede sisters live next door to the vicarage, and since their lives revolve around the church, they are always planning what to wear to church functions:  garden parties, concerts, and lectures.

Pym SomeTameGazelle- open roadBut all is not perfect in this seemingly rather asexual world. Belinda is in love with the Archdeacon, her old boyfriend at Oxford, whom she lost to a snobbish medievalist, Agatha, now his suitable wife;  Harriet is obsessed with whoever the curate is of the moment, and entertains the very young Mr. Donne with meals of boiled chicken and pudding. Even Harriet’s quasi-romance is imperiled:  there is a possibility that Mr. Donne is in love with an older woman, a medievalist at Oxford.

Belinda has frequent clashes with Agatha.  When Belinda hangs green festoons around a stall for the vicarage garden party, Agatha takes them down and redoes them.  Agatha is threatened by her rival Belinda’s seemingly endless ability to listen to the Archdeacon quote poetry.

But back to clothes:  before the vicarage garden party, Belinda is sewing.  She knows she will wear a crepe de Chine dress and coatee with sensible shoes that are a little too heavy for the dress.  But what will the others wear?

“Agatha Hoccleve would of course wear a nice suitable dress, but nothing extreme or daring.  As the wife of an archdeacon she always had very good clothes, which seemed somehow to emphasize the fact that her father had been a bishop.  Then there was Edith Liversidge, who would look odd in the familiar old-fashioned grey costume, whose unfashionably narrow shoulders combined with Edith’s broad hips made her look rather like a lighthouse.  Her relation, Miss Aspinall, would wear a fluttering blue or grey dress with a great many scarves and draperies, and she would, as always, carry that mysterious little beaded bag without which she was never seen anywhere.”

Harriet, who wears high heels to the garden party, though Belinda wondered if they were comfortable, buys Vogue patterns a size or two too small so she can just squeeze into her tight-fitting clothes.  Sensible Belinda believes that she and Harriet should be beyond fashion at their age, but Harriet debates whether she should wear her white fur cape or a gold lame jacket to a church concert.  In the end she goes with the cape.  Unlike Belinda, Harriet has suitors:  an Italian count who lives in the village courts her.

Sewing and knitting are constant activities.  The women are always letting out seams, knitting pullovers, and darning sock. When Miss Prior, the seamstress, comes to the Bedes to sew clothes, chair covers, and bathroom curtains, you would expect her to be stylish, but “her dress was drab and dateless.”  Important though she is in village life, her status is surprisingly low.  Belinda wants to give her a good lunch, but Harriet insists on feeding Miss Prior cauliflower cheese and saving the meat for dinner for the curate, Mr. Dunne.  When the caterpillar cheese has a caterpillar in it, Belinda is even more embarrassed, and suggests that Miss Prior must get better meals at the Archdeacon’s.  But Miss Prior, giggling, confides that the food is terrible there.

This brilliant first novel, published in 1950, is utterly charming.   I very much enjoyed Pym’s descriptions of what people wear as well as who they all are, and, yes, this novel actually is Austen-ish, unlike many of the novels described so.

Barbara Pym Giveaway!

Pym_GlassBlessings-lowresWould anyone like a free e-book copy of Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings?

The publisher Open Road Media has offered to give away one free copy to a Mirabile Dictu reader.

She is one of my favorite writers:  she often wrote about intellectual women who love vicars too much.   And this year is the centenary of her birth.

Just leave a comment and I’ll draw a name out of the hat on Monday.

Here is the Open Road Media synopsis of A Glass of Blessings:

Barbara Pym’s early novel takes us into 1950s England, where life revolved around the village green and the local church—as seen through the funny, engaging, yearning eyes of a restless housewife.  Wilmet Forsyth is bored. Bored with the everyday routine of her provincial village life. Bored with teatimes filled with local gossip. Bored with her husband, Rodney, a military man who dotes on her. But on her thirty-third birthday, Wilmet’s conventional life takes a turn when she runs into the handsome brother of her close friend. Attractive and enigmatic, Piers Longridge is a mystery Wilmet is determined to solve. Rather than settling down, he lived in Portugal, then returned to England for a series of odd jobs. Driven by a fantasy of romance, the sheltered, naïve Englishwoman sets out to seduce Piers—only to discover that he isn’t the man she thinks he is. As cozy as sharing a cup of tea with an old friend, A Glass of Blessings explores timeless themes of sex, marriage, religion, and friendship while exposing our flaws and foibles with wit, compassion, and a generous helping of love.

Well, to one

Whom Do You Love? Ford Madox Ford or Christopher in Parade’s End?

"Do you write on a typewriter or computer or with a pen?"  Silly interview question

“Do you write on a computer, typewriter, or with a pen?”

Did you ever fall in love with a dead writer?

It’s best not to bother with living writers,  even though Michael Chabon is handsome,  Jonathan Lethem is brilliant, and Dave Eggers is a political saint.

I’ve only read their books.

But even if you have a great conversation at a reading about HOW MUCH YOU LOVE A WRITER’S BOOKS, remember: He or she is dazed on a book tour and barely knows what city he or she is in. He or she is desperately hoping for a drink because he or she has given a reading, a Q&A session, and two interviews. And don’t despair:  he or she only wrote that very short thing in your book because the line was awfully long.

Writers are just people, if  more brilliant than we are.  We once had to chauffeur a couple of them around to some readings I had volunteered to organize.  (PR is not my strong suit.)  They often wanted a drink after the reading, just like ordinary folks.  If my husband and I didn’t have a drink with them, I assume they watched TV in their room until their plane left the next morning.

Nice, friendly people.  But, you know, not romantic.

Not like Ford Madox Ford.

Now where did I get the idea that he’s romantic?

Ford Madox Ford:  Not cute, but probably sexy.

Ford Madox Ford: plain but probably sexy.

He’s not even handsome, but, yes, it’s that dazzling prose.

He’s dead, but oh, well…

I read in the Guardian about Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s World War I tetralogy, Parade’s End, for a miniseries in the UK.  And so I decided to reread the book.  I just finished the  first of the tetralogy, Some Do Not…

And I am in love with Ford, or the hero, Christopher Tietjens.

Christopher has complicated mores.  He takes back his beautiful wife, Sylvia, who has been living abroad with a lover, because of his tortuous sense of honor, though he is not even sure if Sylvia’s son is his.  Sylvia won’t divorce him because she is Catholic.  Christopher won’t have sex with her anymore.  The immoral Sylvia, one of those beautiful women who looks like an angel, tries to foil his burgeoning affair with a schoolteacher/suffragette.  Christopher, who comes back shell-shocked on leave, tries to decide what to do.

And then I fell in love with Ford’s slow, erotic description of the evolution of Christopher’s romance with Valentine Wannop, a suffragette.

He meets Valentine when she and a friend demonstrate for suffrage at a golf course where important men play.    Some of the men chase and try to assault her friend, and she runs over to Christopher and asks for help.

“I say,” she said, “Go and see they don’t hurt Gertie. I’ve lost her…”  She pointed back to the sandhills.  “There looked to be some beasts among them….”

Noises existed.  Sandbach, from beyond the low garden wall fifty yards away, was yelping, just like a dog: “Hi! Hi! Hi!” and gesticulating.  His little caddy, entangled with his golf-bag, was trying to scramble over the wall.  On top of the high sandhill stood the policeman:  he waved his hands like a windmill and shouted.  Beside him and behind, slowly rising, were the heads of the General, Macmaster, and their two boys.  Further along, in completion, were appearing the figures of Mr. Waterhouse, his two companions and their three boys.  The Minister was waving his driver and shouting.  They all shouted.”

Parade's EndChristopher drops his golf clubs and throws his kitbag between the policeman’s legs to stop him.  And then he apologizes, though the policeman, who was reluctant to pursue the woman anyway, knows he did it on purpose.

Valentine and Gertie could have gone to prison.  Christopher saved them.

Then for the rest of the book the attraction grows between Christopher and Valentine.

Christopher finally asks Valentine to be his mistress.  She’s been fantasizing forever.

There are actually some quite erotic parts, though not much happens.

The next two books are about his war experiences.

I probably have mixed up Ford Madox Ford with Christopher.  Do I love Ford or Christopher?

And while I am reading, tell me this: Whom do you love?

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

It is an astonishingly various and complex book, simplified in the folk land, which has remembered in its place the dramatic version in which Mrs. Stowe had no hand and which she saw, secretly, only once.”—Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel

uncle-toms-cabin-harriet-beecher-stowe-paperback-cover-artHarriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has a dicey reputation, though it was beloved in its day.  The anti-slavery blockbuster that helped promulgate Abolitionism and kick off the Civil War was praised by Abraham Lincoln and Dickens. When Stowe visited the White House, Lincoln said, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”  Although Dickens praised both the execution of the novel and its anti-slavery message, Stowe was too radical for him:  he told her that she went too far in her veneration of the African race.

Stowe, the daughter of an abolitionist minister, the sister of six ministers, and the wife of an abolitionist professor at a seminary, helped slaves escape to Canada via the underground railroad.  She wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1950, which  allowed runaway slaves in free states to be hunted, returned to their owners, or killed.

By the time I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the late 20th century,  Stowe was out of fashion.  In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Second Wave feminism, and other political movements, readers had trouble with the interpretation of radical Christianity.  Stowe’s portrait of Uncle Tom, a Christian slave who preaches against violence to his fellow slaves, was considered too simple:  he was too passive and sycophantic. (Readers forget that Tom radically advises the concubine slave Cassie to run away from the plantation with young Emmeline when Cassie says she will kill the sadistic plantation owner, Simon Legree.).  Readers often have trouble digesting ideas from another century,  and  their disapproval of Uncle Tom is very like the deprecation of the humble escaped slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The historical context for these characterizations must be analyzed, and so this accessible novel is not accessible to some.

harriet-beecher-stowe-three-novels-uncle-toms-cabin-hardcover-cover-artIf you can get past the discomfort, it is worth it.  On a second reading, I am enthralled by Stowe’s graceful prose, pitch-perfect dialogue, and passionate preaching of Abolitionism.  The perfection and power of this novel escaped me on a first reading:  was I too concerned about the image of black Americans to appreciate her style?  Sometimes the book seems dated–there are many authorial asides –but if you are a fan of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Stowe is Alcott for grown-ups.

Stowe’s fast-paced novel is a vivid and unflinching look at the horrors of slavery. The plot and characterization are equally vivid.  The novel begins with the sale of two slaves.  Although Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are Christians,  and treat their slaves like valued employees, Mr. Shelby  sells Uncle Tom and the house slave Eliza’s son Harry to pay off debts without telling Mrs. Shelby.  When she learns of the sale, she is appalled.

Then Eliza runs away with her son, and Mrs. Shelby makes it clear to two slaves assigned to help the tracker that she doesn’t want them to find Eliza.  They take the slave trader on a wild goose chase, but eventually find her on the border of Kentucky and Ohio.  There is a harrowing scene where Eliza escapes across the icy river, carrying her child, and jumping from ice cake to cake.  There is much drama after that as well, but at least the abolitionists are there to help.

Tom, though a husband and father, has not considered running away.  He believes it is his fate to be sold.  When a trader takes him down the Mississippi on a steamboat to Louisiana, an intelligent, compassionate rich little girl, Little Eva, becomes his companion.  She persuades her father, Saint-Clare, an outwardly languorous, extremely witty, but empathetic aristocrat, to buy Tom, and soon he is Saint-Clare’s trusted household manager.

But Stowe points out that slave ownership corrupts. Even kind slave owners don’t consider what will happen to the slaves after a sale or their death.  And when Saint-Clare dies, Tom is sold to a third owner, Simon Legree.

The torture scenes in this part of the book are so graphic I had to put the book aside from time to time. Tom amazingly helps the slaves cope–many have never heard of the Bible–and when he has a chance to escape, he doesn’t take it, because his work is among them.

He does, however, encourage Cassie, a brilliant quadroon slave who has been Simon’s mistress, and who has sometimes secretly ministered to the slaves when they have been beaten, to run away when she wildly plots his death.  She has been too afraid to run, seeing how they are tortured when they are found.

This is a great popular novel, and beyond that.  Stowe wrote it in serial form, and in book form it  sold 3,000 copies the first day and 300,000 copies the first year.

A classic!

The Challenge

I have inadvertently done the Europa Challenge.

This afternoon while I was reading blogs, I discovered the Europa Challenge blog.

I inadvertently did this challenge!

I inadvertently did this challenge.

Do you know what a Challenge is?

Here’s what you do.  You sign up at the sponsor blog.  Then you choose books to read from the challenge  “syllabus.”  And if you have a blog, you post your reviews, then post comments at the sponsor’s blog, then post links to your blog, and…

It’s confusing.

But I have always been amused, and if only the Japanese Literature challenge weren’t already over, I might have done it.

Guess what?  If I read two Europa books this year, I have completed the lowest level of the Europa Challenge.  And I have done it!  I wrote about Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter without knowing there was a Europa Challenge.

Crusoe's-Daughter jane gardamNow I have applied via email to see if I qualify for the Europa Challenge.  If so, I get to post their logo on my sidebar and my blog will be linked to theirs, along with  33 other blogs.

But, wait, I just read more carefully and learned,  “You may participate solely on your own blog, or post to this one. If you would like to become a contributor to this blog, please email the moderator.”

So I have officially done it.

Europa is the publisher of Elena Ferrante and Jane Gardam, two writers I love.  But whether I go on to a higher level will depend on what  I feel like reading this year.

Many readers are utterly loyal to small publishers, like Europa, Virago (an imprint of Little Brown), Persephone, or NYRB. I have read some remarkable books published by these excellent publishers, but I have also read some stinkers. Did I ever tell you about the ghastly translation of Dino Buzzati’s Poem Strip (NYRB), a graphic novel about Orpheus and Eurydice?  At least I’m hoping it was the translation.  I love Ovid’s version of the myth (Metamorphoses) and Virgil’s version (Georgics), but Poem Strip went promptly to the charity sale.

By the way, the Europa Challenge is not sponsored by Europa, but by two booksellers.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

Although I do love Europa, I am still baffled by “challenges.”  No one is sponsoring a Random House challenge, though it published one of my favorite books,  Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land.  And how about Henry Holt and Company, the publisher of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies?  Open Road Media has published several of Barbara Pym’s books as e-books:  should we add them to our challenges?

Perhaps there is a Graham Joyce challenge somewhere, a Hilary Mantel one, or a Barbara Pym challenge.

I think these “challenges” are sweet, but I do better with online book groups.  There is more discussion.

Meanwhile, I am looking for interesting  blogs to add to my blogroll, so please let me know your favorites.

What to Read When You’re Sick: Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter & Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good

vintage sick woman with book

I was much sicker than this!  Why is her hair so tidy?

Shivering, sweating, sinuses bursting, aching joints.

I felt very ill, sitting in bed under five blankets, balancing Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura on top of a Latin dictionary propped on my knees.   If you think this inappropriate reading for the sickroom, you are  right. I wore two turtlenecks, two sweaters, a hoodie, corduroys, and two pairs of socks, but even so my Lucretius-covered knees were shaking with cold.

Some people go to the doctor when they’re sick.

I didn’t have flu.  Nothing respiratory, no fever. It wasn’t the kind of sickness you get antibiotics for.

I checked the CDC for outbreaks of mysterious viruses.  Nope.

Perhaps I should have read this while I was sick!

Perhaps I should have read this while I was sick!

Although I avoid pills whenever possible, I took an extra Advil on the second day for the joint pain.  Not an overdose, but not what I normally approve of.  Then I sent my family out for cold/flu medicine.

It wasn’t actually a cold/flu, but the cold/flu medication made me feel human again.

There was nothing for me to do for a few days except to nap and read.  One thing about being sick:  you can get some reading done.


1.  Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter.  I discovered Jane Gardam’s The Queen of Tambourine in a bookstore on a seaside vacation.  This poignant, comic epistolary novel about a woman who becomes obsessed with a neighbor was both sweet and shattering.

Crusoe's-Daughter jane gardamCrusoe’s Daughter, however, might have been more suitable for an island vacation.  It is narrated by Polly Flint, a woman whose life is determined from girlhood by her love of Robinson Crusoe.  Polly tells the story of her life, from age six in 1904 to age 86 in 1984.  And there is usually a subtext from Defoe.

When Polly’s father, Captain Flint, drops her off in 1904 at the yellow house to live with her two old-fashioned aunts, Polly doesn’t know what to expect:   her life while her father has been at sea has been dominated by a muddle of paid guardians, the most memorable of whom was a fat woman who often fell down drunk and spent her alcoholic days under the kitchen table.  Polly, who had nothing else to do, played under the table.

But now, like Robinson Crusoe, Polly is shipwrecked at the friendly yellow house, on a marsh, near the sea and the iron works, which eventually encroach upon the marsh.  Just as Robinson Crusoe’s landscape defined him, the landscape of the yellow house begins to mean everything to Polly.  She creates a life here on this island of a house of genteel women.  Aunt Frances is kind, Aunt Mary is remote and religious, and their mysterious live-in friend, Mrs. Wood in her knitted green suit, teaches Polly languages.  The servants are important, too:  impertinent Charlotte tells Polly the facts of life and equips her with rags for her period; after she leaves, Alice, a much friendlier and more sensible person, becomes Polly’s  good friend and equal.  She helps steer Polly’s career out of the mud.

Robinson CrusoeThe discovery of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe leads to Polly’s critical identification of herself with his character and heroism.  She has principles; she is not just an obedient girl. Polly does the accepted thing to a point–she goes to church with her aunts, but she refuses to be Confirmed. Your own book may not be Robinson Crusoe–it may be Jane Eyre, or David Copperfield–but nonetheless Gardam shows us how a book can shape a life.

At the yellow house, Polly’s future doesn’t matter much to Aunt Frances and Aunt Mary, both spinsters, who believe life will happen to Polly or not.  But after Aunt Frances marries the vicar and goes off to be a missionary, life at the yellow house changes Aunt Mary seems to have  a nervous breakdown and decides to go on a religious retreat.   And Polly goes to visit Mr. Thwaite, a Dickensian elderly gentleman and family friend, and his sister, Miss Celia,  a patron of the arts.

Miss Celia’s house seems like a lunatic asylum to Polly.  She meets some eccentric artists and writers who might be Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooks, or at least very like them.  Some of the scenes and characters in Andrew Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child also remind me a bit of Thwaite and Miss Celia’s sexually confused guests.

The more Polly sees, the more she  realizes the mores at the yellow house has been too restricted.

She writes to Aunt Frances,

The trouble, Aunt Frances, is perhaps that I am a girl.  Had I been a boy–your sister’s baby boy, some solid stubborn boy perhaps called Jack or Harry–how would you have done then?  You would have sent me away to school, and please, oh please forgive me for saying so, Aunt Frances, but the money would have been found.  It would have been a Christian sort of school like Rossall or Repton and you would all have prayed and prayed for me that I would become a priest.  But because I am a girl, Aunt Frances, I was to be stood in a vacuum.  I was to be left in the bell jar of Oversands.  Nothing in the world is ever to happen to me.  Since I hae met these people here at Thwaite I have begun to see what I have missed.

So a new stage of education begins for Polly.  Paul Treece, a poet of confused sexual identity, courts her, but even though she doesn’t understand his sexuality, she knows that something is wrong. She falls in love instead with an intense young Jewish man whose father owns the iron works.  She assumes they will marry someday, despite the Jewish problem.

But the aunts die, and Mrs. Wood has a stroke.  World War I intervenes.  Men go to war and some don’t come back.  Polly and Alice live together for years and get by, and at the lowest point, Polly becomes an alcoholic who works on a long scholarly study of Robinson Crusoe for years.

The form of the novel is a wonderful mix of traditional narrative, letters, and even a dialogue between Polly and Crusoe.  The language is razor-sharp, the characters are quirky yet sympathetic, and she is never sentimental.

The critically acclaimed Gardam has won the Whitbread Prize twice (The Queen of Tambourine and The Hollow Land), won The Prix Baudelaire (God on the Rocks), been a finalist for the Booker Prize (God on the Rocks ), and a finalist for the Orange Prize (Old Filth).

hornby how to be goodNick Hornby’s How to Be Good Nick Hornby needs no introduction.  He is one of my favorite writers, and I named his Juliet, Naked one of my favorite books of 2012.  At my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal, I also raved about his new book, More Baths Less Talking, a collection of his columns from The Believer.

He is another award winner:  the E. M. Forster Award in 1999, the W. H. Smith Award for How to be Good, and the William Hill Sports Award of the Year for Fever Pitch.

I very enjoyed How to Be Good.

After only a few pages, my impressionable reader’s psyche became hopelessly entwined with that of the narrator, Katie Carr, a burned-out doctor who is married with two children, and lives in an expensive house in Holloway.  But she is not happy.  Her sarcastic husband is driving her crazy, she is annoyed at work when she can’t help some of the older chronic patients with their problems, and her friend Becca doesn’t listen when she tries to talk about her depression.   And so she finds herself having an affair, spending the night in Leeds with a man called Stephen.

Katie is a good person, and she doesn’t feel comfortable having an affair.  But we see that David is a mess.  He has a column for the local paper, “The Angriest Man in Holloway.”  And he never has a kind word to say about anyone.  Katie doesn’t read his column.

The last one I could bear to read was a diatribe against old people who have travelled on buses:  Why did they never have their money ready?  Why couldn’t they use the seats set aside for them in the front of the bus?

There is a very funny three-page rant (or maybe more; I was reading an e-book, so who knows?) about all the people and things David and a misanthropic friend hate.

And then the worst happens.  He is converted to do-goodism by a man called GoodNews, a healer who developed his healing gift while taking ecstasy at a club.  He cures David’s back problems and their daughter Molly’s eczema with his healing hands.

David gives away one of their computers and some toys to a battered women’s shelter, their son becomes a thief and the daughter a prig, and he invites GoodNews to live with them.

Hornby’s writing is deft and seamless, the witty dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the story is extremely fast-faced.  Like all of his books, there is a lot of depression underlying the humor.

Both Gardam’s and Hornby’s books are two of my favorite of the year.