A Giveaway of Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter, A Short Review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, & Three Literary Links

The Very Dead of Winter Mary Hocking 657931The blogger Heaven Ali has done the improbable:  in a one-woman e-mail campaign, she persuaded Bello Pan to reissue Mary Hocking’s out-of-print novels.    Next week, Bello will publish Hocking’s first 12 books in e-book form. I have enjoyed four of Hocking’s absorbing novels, which are vaguely reminiscent of the work of Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Jane Howard.  (Here is a link to my post about Hocking’s Good Daughters and A Particular Place. )

In the spirit of revival, I am giving away a copy of Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter.   If you would like it, leave a comment or write to me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

The giveaway is only open to Americans or Canadians. (Sorry, the postage rates are just too high to send to Europe!)

A BRIEF REVIEW of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton

I recently read and loved Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, a gorgeous, lyrical novel about a complicated mother-daughter relationship.  The narrator, Lucy Barton, escaped a harrowing, impoverished childhood through a college education.   She reinvented herself as a wife, mother, and writer in New York.

strout my name is lucy barton 9781400067695_custom-3102f059730b66633fef44e3287ef91337c0495f-s400-c85The book opens with Lucy’s reminiscence of a hospitalization many years ago.  She teeters on the brink between life and death after a routine appendectomy. “No one could isolate any bacteria or figure out what had gone wrong.  No one ever did.”

She looks out the window:  Life  passes her by outside the hospital.

It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women–my age–in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze.  I thought how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that–I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

Unexpectedly, Lucy’s mother shows up and stays with her in the hospital for a week.  They have had little to do with each other since Lucy left home.   They were so poor when she was growing up in a small town in Illinois that they lived in her uncle’s unheated garage. Her  parents could not afford a babysitter:  they locked her in a truck for hours while they worked on a farm.  She screamed for hours when she saw a snake was curled up on the seat.

This reconciliation with her mother is necessary to her recovery from the operation.  And  she manages to write a novel about this relationship.

Love it, loved it, loved it! This is the first I’ve read by Strout, and I look forward to her other novels.


Here are three links to outstanding literary articles.  There are so many good ones!

1. Sarah Lyall’s excellent interview with Elizabeth Strout at The New York Times inspired me to read My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lyall begins by  quoting the narrator Lucy’s writing teacher, who tells her students not to blur the line between life and fiction and that it’s not her job “to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.”

Lyall explains,

She’s speaking to her own fictional audience, and possibly to us, too. But who knows which voice reflects whose view in the deceptively simple but many-layered world of “Lucy Barton”? On the surface, the story is about a woman trying to recover from an illness and make peace with her mother. But, like all of Ms. Strout’s generous-hearted, deeply insightful novels, it is really about a great deal more: a terribly troubled past, a present that is slowly imploding, the yawning spaces between even the closest of people, our frequent inability to see what’s in front of us.

I loved the book!  One of the best I’ve read this year.

2. Bronte fans will be intrigued by Samantha Ellis’s eloquent review at the TLS of  Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which has been shortlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. In this review, Ellis also writes about Lutz’s  book about post-mortem Victoriana, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture.

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3 Michael Dirda entertains us with a review of Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up: You Could Look It Up:  The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia at The Washington Post.

Late for Heaven Ali’s Mary Hocking Week: In Which I Read Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter

The Very Dead of Winter Mary Hocking 657931I missed Heaven Ali’s Mary Hocking Reading Week, June 1-7.

Due to disorganized calendar-keeping.  I galloped through Hocking’s short novel, The Very Dead of Winter, and am posting a week late.

I do like Hocking, and I read three of her novels in 2013, A Particular Place, Good Daughters, and An Irrelevant Woman.  I wrote here::

Mary Hocking’s irresistible novels have been compared to Barbara Pym’s.

Is she like Barbara Pym? Well, no. I find her sharp, gracefully-written fiction more like the tart novels of Penelope Lively crossed with the family sagas of Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Very Dead of Winter was a slow starter for me, and at first I thought, Oh dear, I can’t read this.  Hang on:  it gets better.  I was very moved by the powerful ending.

In the very dead of winter,  Florence and her daughter Anita arrive to spend Christmas in a cottage in the woods owned by Florence’s hippieish sister, Anita.  (Some think she is a witch.)  Florence’s husband Konrad is dying, and he is already installed in an upstairs room.  Their son, Nicholas, a world traveler and explorer, has also arrived.  There is a mystery about a wooden sculpture in Konrad’s room:   soon it becomes clear that Konrad has a closer relationship to Sophia than anyone knew.

And so they are a tense family group.

Florence is flamboyant and insensitive.  She can’t face it that Konrad is dying, and barely goes into his room.  The care of Konrad falls between Sophia and Anita, who loved her father much more than she loves her mother.

Mary Hocking

Mary Hocking

Because of her flair for dramatics (she belongs to the drama club at home), Florence insists on giving a huge Christmas party in a blizzard.  Despite Anita’s warnings about salmonella,  she makes a huge batch of eggnog and poisons the neighbors  A few escape, those she deemed worthy of whisky.  Florence loudly tells people how much she hated Konrad’s paintings, their violence, and the loud colors.  A handsome middle-aged neighbor, Thomas, asks her if Konrad wasn’t known for his colors?  She is gobsmacked.  Could Konrad have exhibited his paintings without her?

Restless Anita is deeply unhappy with her life.  She is an educational psychologist with a handsome boyfriend who lectures on education.  On his way to the cottage, he gets stuck in the blizzard, and leaving his car behind is  run over by a sleigh.  She isn’t surprised that a widow is taking very good care of him.

While she is pulling apart from her boyfriend, Nicholas is falling for one of Sophia’s neighbors, Frances, a beautiful young woman who takes care of Thomas and his grandson, Andrew.  Thomas’s son committed suicide, and his wife Margery died.  Frances feels obligated to stay.

Does this seem unnecessarily complicated?

It doesn’t become clear immediately why we need to know so many characters, but they are tied together by Sophia and Konrad.

This is not Hocking’s best book.  Would I have gotten past the first tangled pages if I hadn’t read three other of her books?  No.  But it is very good, if you stick it out to the end.

Here are links to Heaven Ali’s four recent Mary Hocking Week blog entries.  She has read much Hocking, and there are other entries about her as well.





Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters & A Particular Place

Good Daughters by Mary HockingMary Hocking’s irresistible novels have been compared to Barbara Pym’s.

Is she like Barbara Pym?  Well, no. I find her sharp, gracefully-written fiction more like the tart novels of Penelope Lively crossed with the family sagas of Elizabeth Jane Howard.

Last week I jotted notes about Hocking’s An Irrelevant Woman, a poignant novel about a middle-aged woman’s mental breakdown.  I have since read two other novels by Hocking: Good Daughters (1984), a family saga about three sisters growing up in London in the 1930s; and A Particular Place (1989), a novel about a new Anglican vicar’s effect on the inhabitants of a small market town.

In the plot-driven family saga, Good Daughters, which is the first novel of a trilogy, much of the narrative is related through the consciousness of Alice, age 12.  Alice’s ingenuous voice reflects the impossibility of her understanding  the world beyond the domestic realm.

It begins:

In later years, Alice heard people talk as if those who grew up during the period between the two wars had lived their youth beneath the shadow of the swastika.  But it had not seemed like that at the time.

Although in her childhood older people talked of the war that was just finished, and then, some ten years later, began to talk of the war which was to come, no shadow seemed to touch her until she was sixteen.

Absorbed by school and friendships, the three Fairley sisters, Louise, Alice, and Claire, ignore their father Stanley’s preoccupation with world events.  Stanley, a dramatically devout Methodist who has moved his family from Sussex to be a headmaster at a boys’ school in Acton (he wants to work with the disadvantaged), is obsessed with newspapers:  finding the Daily Herald on his doorstep instead of the News Chronicle can ruin his day. His level-headed wife, Judith, frequently expresses annoyance at his pomposity and theatricality.  It is her practicality that holds the family together:  the girls go to her for support, not to pious Stanley.

Alice, the middle child, is a mediocre student but an excellent writer; she is torn between devotion to her parents and loyalty to her rebellious friends.  She is proud of her “burgeoning” maturity  (she likes the word “burgeoning”) and has learned to keep secrets, unlike her eight-year-old sister, Claire, who blurts out everything.  Still, it makes Alice’s “tummy hurt” when she must censor reports of her activities.  She feels guilty about her misadventures with her careless, confident best friend, Daphne: when Alice sneaks out in the middle of the night to search for secret passages at Daphne’s house, the two giggling girls open a trap door in the kitchen that turns out not to hide a secret chamber: soot pours out all over the floor.  In the morning, Daphne’s parents call the police, thinking someone broke in.

Alice is also utterly loyal to her 17-year-old sister, Louise, who feels no compulsion to tell her parents everything:  when Louise tries out for a play at the coed St. Bartholomew’s Dramatic Society, she tells her parents she auditioned for the school play (they attend a girls’ school).  She orders her sisters not to tell.

There’s no need to say anything to Mummy and Daddy about it until I know if I’ve got the part.”  It was all too much, and Alice had one of her tummy upsets that night.

Of course, Claire tells.

In her year of acting in the theater and capturing the attention of three boys, Louise pursues the most handsome of them, Guy, an aspiring actor with blatant sexuality.  She finally compels her parents to realize she does not want to go to the university.

Gradually the coming of the second world war affects the Fairleys:  a tragedy occurs in the Russian Jewish family next door.

This is a perspicuous, moving, immensely entertaining  book, not great, but good.  I cannot wait to read the second book, which spans 1939 to the late forties.

aparticular-place Mary HockingHocking’s A Particular Place is a sharp, almost perfect novel, with an ecclesiastical core.  It centers on a new Anglican vicar’s effect on the inhabitants of a small market town.  His impact is partly religious, but also, quite surprisingly, romantic. When  most of the characters meet at a candlelit Holy Saturday Vigil at St. HIlary’s, they are certainly not looking for love.

Charles, an agnostic, brittle, lonely teacher, is curious about the new vicar; sharp-tongued Hester, a children’s book writer who is  sympathetic to her imperfect neighbors though she prefers to be alone, attends because Michael is her nephew; Valentine, Michael’s wife, an ironic, whimsical beauty whose avocation is amateur theatricals, can think of places she’d rather be than St. Hilary’s; and Norah Kendall, an outspoken feminist nurse, is sincerely interested in the church, but perhaps attends also because her husband visits only on weekends and their marriage isn’t working out.

As the parishioners move from the graveyard up the stairs of the church, Norah falls.  The fall foreshadows a love affair and a tragedy.

Close by, with no warning, someone fell.  Charles Venables, stepping from his shelter, found himself a member of a concerned group.  The vicar hurried up.  ‘Oh dear, what have we, a casualty already?’  Irritation only just concealed at this disaster striking before the performance had got under way.

What happens when one falls in love?  Married love, new love, deliriously happy love, lost love, grief over being too old to love. Hocking explores all love.   As many of the characters come to terms with love, choosing to act or not to act on their feelings, their lives are characterized by happiness or grief.    At the center, Hocking’s novel is deeply moral.  None of these characters is truly malevolent; none sets out casually to destroy relationships.  It is a witty, sensitive, never mawkish, novel, the best I’ve read by Hocking.