Archive for June, 2013

excellent women barbara pym folio front c 001Excellent Women by Barbara Pym ~ 1952. This edition: The Folio Society, 2005. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Illustrated by Debra McFarlane. 206 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

This is the second time around for this book. My first reading left me gently pleased but not much more; this reading was much more rewarding, and I found I fully appreciated every nuance, every delicious – and occasionally malicious – little scenario.

This absolutely beautiful Folio edition certainly added to the experience; my first reading was of a yellowing paperback. I wonder if eyestrain is starting to influence my reading enjoyment? I do notice type clarity (and lack thereof) and font size much more these last few years.

And I must confess I almost passed this one by – “I already have it in paperback and it wasn’t that wonderful” – but am so glad I went back and splurged on this much more aesthetically pleasing book. Every sense was indulged by it! The pussywillows picked out in silver tipped the scales and sealed the impulse buy. I’m a sucker for pussywillows; these stole my heart. (On such small things do my buying decisions sometimes rest!)

Barbara Pym. Read her, and then reread her. Second time around is the key, here, I think. (Much as one needs to do with Diana Wynne Jones.)

*****

At the rather young age of thirty-one, Mildred Lathbury, self-described “spinster” and “clergyman’s daughter” (both of these designations serving to explain her clear-eyed observations of other people’s lives, and her lack of sentiment about her own), is well on her way to becoming one of the titular “excellent women” so dutifully and frequently thanklessly keeping things on an even keel in the bleak post-World War II years. Surplus females of every age, in super-abundance at mid-century after the decimation of their generations’ crops of marriageable men in the two brutal cullings of the previous decades.

“They have nothing better to do,” shrug their “luckier” compatriots, “they might as well make themselves useful, and be grateful for the occupation…”

So they do. Make themselves useful, that is. Though, as Mildred so delicately observes, the gratitude frequently falls short on both sides of the equation.

excellent women barbara pym folio back c 001Read quickly, this is a rather depressing, non-eventful, bleakly dreary minor tale. Not much happens. Mildred gets new neighbours, watches as the vicar of her church is pursued and almost caught by a predacious widow, narrowly escapes being saddled with an unwanted flatmate, and is offhandedly wooed in a most unromantic way by an anthropologist looking for a meek but competent dogsbody to take on the tedious task of editing his notes.

But, oh! – her inner voice! She misses nothing at all, our Mildred, and her wry observations are a joy to read.

I’m going to stop right here. What with it being Barbara Pym’s centenary year, and with the book blogging world full of mostly fulsome praise and beautifully written, thoughtful book reviews of her work (though the occasional dissenting voice is heard from, mostly from mildly querulous folk wondering what all the fuss is about – I can’t say I’ve yet come across anything resembling a brutal denunciation of Miss Pym) anything I have to add to the conversation is rather superfluous, I feel.

I liked this book.  A whole lot. You might, too. My caveat: it might take more than one try.

Here are some excellent reviews, well worth reading. They include all of the excerpts I would have chosen myself.

Well done, all!

You’ve saved me much typing. Well, that, and also, more importantly, you’ve given me the great pleasure of reading your delightful posts. Thank you. A (fresh) wand of mimosa all round! (And a cup of China tea, if that be your desire. Unless you’d prefer a beer? Or a glass of wine, exciting or merely adequate?)

Excellent Women –  Review at The Captive Reader

Excellent Women – Review at Book Snob

Excellent Women – Review at The Indextrious Reader

And there are many more.

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antigua, penny, puce by Robert Graves 001Antigua, Penny, Puce by Robert Graves ~ 1936. This edition: Penguin, 1947. Paperback. 314 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10. Parts of this one – many parts! – were decidedly “10” in quality. I rated it lower only because the author ran a few sections just a bit harder than they could take; I did have to force myself onwards here and there. But it always got interesting again.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and found it playful, amusing and gloriously cynical in parts. Graves has his authorial knife keenly honed and digs it into such things as British prep and public schools, golf, the British upper classes in general (with the hearty sporting types coming in for the most blatant caricaturizations), and, for reasons known only to himself, Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I laughed out loud several times while reading; a thing I seldom do.

*****

This is an intricately structured, highly detailed, cleverly framed, humorous and yet deeply cautionary tale about sibling rivalry, and the dangers of pursuing familial tit for tat to extreme lengths. Robert Graves, already a well-established and very prolific writer of “serious” literature and poetry, apparently wrote this atypical farcical novel as a result of a bet that he couldn’t pull off a “modern” bestseller. Graves is, of course, probably best known now for his screen-adapted historical fictions I, Claudius and Claudius the God, among something like 150 other published works, most rather sober and scholarly examinations of the classical world, biography, historical fiction and poetry.

*****

Oliver Price and his younger sister Jane grow up together in an atmosphere of stereotypical English upper-middle-class respectability. Their father is a country vicar who hobnobs on equal terms and with a strong element of rivalry with his wealthy neighbour, Sir Reginald Whitebillet. Their mother, the daughter of a marquess, was cast off by her family for marrying the Castle chaplain, and through her there are connections to the aristocratic Babrahams. These details are important; both the Whitebillet and Babraham connections figure crucially in the saga of the siblings a few years later on.

Oliver, at the age of twelve, is the proud curator of a stamp collection while Jane, a year younger, yearns to participate in her brother’s hobby. Through maternal machinations on behalf of Jane and a set of rather devious circumstances – the mother of the family exhibits a strongly manipulative technique which her daughter fully inherits –  Jane attains a half-interest in the collection, and proceeds to contribute a number of rare and unusual items to the album, including a one-of issue of a purple-brown (“puce”) Antiguan one-penny stamp, the only surviving example of a lot which has gone to the bottom of the sea in a ship wreck.

Aha! That’s the explanation of the rather odd title. Antigua, penny, puce. It’s the description of a postage stamp! I did not grasp this until I started reading, at which point it became as clear as day.

Time marches on, and Oliver and Jane grow up and go their separate ways, with varying degrees of success.

With the assistance of her childhood friend Edith Whitebillet – a scientific prodigy – and her own single-focus ambition, Jane has become first a highly successful actress and then the brilliantly manipulative proprietor of a theatrical company known as Jane Palfrey Amalgamated, consisting of actors whom she has groomed and renamed to each fill a very defined character with a strong appeal to public sentiment of one sort or another.

Oliver has gone through his school career and on to Oxford aiming for and just falling short of his desired goals in every aspect of his endeavours. He only makes the Second Eleven in football, misses the scholarships he aims for, and generally places as an also-ran in everything he does. Now he’s deeply involved in writing his first novel, which he has stellar plans for, but samples we are given  of his prose style make it very clear that in this too Oliver will be less than successful.

Oliver is by nature rather pompous and quickly belligerent; his clever sister runs rings around him now as she did in their younger days. First as a joke engineered to raise his ire so she could examine closely his mannerisms when taunted – one of her stage characters is based on her blustery and rather laughable brother – Jane reminds Oliver of her half-ownership of that childhood stamp collection, and announces her intention of coming to take away every second stamp. Oliver’s subsequent tantrum swings Jane over from merely joking to deadly serious about this intention.

Much devious work on both sides now goes on, as Jane and Oliver are well-matched in their desires to not let the other get the better in any sort of confrontation. A series of wins, losses and draws ensues, with the titular Antiguan stamp as the catalyst of their many explosive altercations.

Robert Graves was nothing if not a well-prepared author. His attention to detail was legendary, and even in this “light” novel he includes a plethora of background information on every subject he touches upon. This article, from a website dedicated to his work, details the research and process of writing Antigua, Penny, Puce. Absolutely fascinating!

As well as being a well researched author, Graves has a strong sense of humour and a very readable, deeply satirical way with words. He examines the real world, translates it into a fictional one, and rather maliciously – though never mean-spiritedly – probes and lays bare the absurdities he finds.

Good stuff.

Little Raven says it well; she approves, too.

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Welsh Poppy, Minter Gardens

Welsh Poppy, Minter Gardens

Minter Gardens, May 29, 2013

Minter Gardens, May 29, 2013

The coolest water feature ever - the "water wall" at Minter Gardens.

The coolest water feature ever – the “water wall” at Minter Gardens.

 

Clematis, holly, grass, rock - Minter Gardens.

Clematis, holly, grass, rock – Minter Gardens.

Gunnera detail, Minter Gardens.

Gunnera detail, Minter Gardens.

 

Bridal Veil Falls, near Chilliwack, B.C.

Bridal Veil Falls, near Chilliwack, B.C.

Water power, natural sculpture at the foot of Bridal Falls.

Water power, natural sculpture at the foot of Bridal Falls.

Maidenhair fern, B.C. coastal forest.

Maidenhair fern, B.C. coastal forest.

B.C.'s provincial flower, Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii.

B.C.’s provincial flower, Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii.

Pacific Dogwood in fir forest, near Alexandra Bridge, Fraser Canyon. May 29, 2013.

Pacific Dogwood in fir forest, near Alexandra Bridge, Fraser Canyon. May 29, 2013.

These dogwood flowers are big, as you can see by my hand holding the branch.

These dogwood flowers are big, as you can see by my hand holding the branch.

Pictures from our recent excursion to the lower mainland. We took time out on our final day to botanize and tourist our way home. Didn’t take too many pictures, but these are a sampling of what we saw in our travels.

Beautiful British Columbia – the clichéd phrase is so very true!

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Well that was a rather full ten days or so. “Busy” is an understatement. No matter, it’s all been positive stuff, but I am more than ready for a bit of down time today.

I came back from my trip to the lower mainland with an embarrassingly large load of books. Premium hunting grounds were Chilliwack’s The Book Man  and Hope’s Pages . Gloriously eclectic selections; wonderfully friendly and helpful staff. A true pleasure to visit both of these! And the nurseries we stopped at were pretty marvelous, too. I restrained myself there, I’m proud to announce! Only three plants were acquired, among the dozens I coveted.

Without further ado, here’s a list of some of my literary finds, in no particular order:

  • Morley, Christopher – Where the Blue Begins (Because I’m curious about Morley’s work aside from The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels.)
  • Bloom, Ursula – The Quiet Village
  • Taylor, Elizabeth – At Mrs. Lippincote’s (Just finished it this morning. Very good.)
  • Dickens, Monica – Enchantment (Read this in the hotel room one night. One of Dickens’ last novels. Awkward here and there, but definitely readable; reminded me strongly of The Listeners.)
  • Dickens, Monica – The Landlord’s Daughter (And I do believe this almost completes my Monica Dickens adult fiction collection.)
  • Dickens, Monica – The Room Upstairs (A 2nd copy for me, but this one an early hardcover in a nice dj, to replace the tattered paperback I already own.)
  • Dickens, Monica – Flowers on the Grass (Another 2nd copy, but I couldn’t resist the handsome though worn dj. My 1st copy is jacket-less, bent, and more than well-read.)
  • Burnett, Frances Hodgson – T. Tembarom
  • Innes, Dorothy Hammond – What Lands are These? (Because I read and loved her husband’s Harvest of Journeys many years ago; this is something of a companion memoir.)
  • Innes, Hammond – The Land God Gave to Cain
  • Stegner, Wallace – Wolf Willow (Because I was deeply moved by a recent reading of All the Little Live Things, and want to explore this most intriguing author.)
  • Stevenson, D.E. – The House of the Deer
  • Stevenson, D.E. – The Young Clementina (Let’s just say the prices of these last two averaged each other out. 🙂 Darling spouse, if you’re reading this, please don’t inquire!)
  • de la Roche, Mazo – Ringing the Changes (Just because. One for the Canadiana crowd, and because the open-it-up-and-read-a-page test was highly successful.)
  • Powning, Beth – The Hatbox Letters (I vaguely recall this one getting some discussion, though I can’t remember if it was pro or con. I thought perhaps I should add some contemporary fiction to the stack of vintage novels.)
  • Holborn, Hannah – Fierce (Contemporary Canadian.)
  • Hodge, Jane Aiken. The Private World of Georgette Heyer
  • Cran, Marion – The Bedside Marion Cran (It was in the gardening section, looked interesting, and read well when sampled. I have no idea who Marion Cran is/was; one to explore, perhaps.)
  • Young, Andrew – A Prospect of Flowers (A much annotated book about wildflowers, first published in 1945. One for the working bookshelf, and of course for the pleasure of reading it.)
  • Bowen, Elizabeth – The Little Girls
  • Graves, Robert – Antigua, Penny, Puce (Opened it up, read a few pages, and had a hard time tearing myself away. A novel written in 1936, which I’ve never heard of before, though I’m familiar with Graves through his iconic Claudius novels.)
  • Mansfield, Katherine – In a German Pension
  • Macaulay, Rose – Crewe Train
  • Patterson, R.M. – Trail to the Interior (In a pristine first edition, a peace-offering to my long-suffering, book-inundated spouse, who enjoys Patterson and does not yet have this one.)
  • Treneer, Anne – Schoolhouse in the Wind (Found this in the back room of Pages bookstore in Hope, among the “collectibles.” Memoir of Cornwall, published in 1944.)
  • Powell, Anthony – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (Who could resist that title? A two-dollar paperback, so hardly an expensive gamble!)
  • Corbett, Elizabeth – A Nice Long Evening
  • Hoban, Russell – Turtle Diary
  • Eden, Dorothy – Waiting for Willa
  • Oppenheim, E. Phillips – Ask Miss Mott (To add to my prized though seldom-read collection of vintage Oppenheim thrillers. I think “dated” describes these well, but I have my weaknesses…)
  • Bromfield, Louis – Mrs. Parkington
  • Leith-Ross, Sylvia – Beyond the Niger
  • Sharp, Margery – Brittania Mews (Something like a 4th copy – I’m not really sensible when it comes to my beloved Margery Sharp – but this one has a handsome dust jacket. “I’m not really a collector, because I read everything I buy,” I said to the owner at Pages. “You’re buying a book for the dust jacket,” he replied. “Face it, you’re a collector!”)

So, a few evenings of reading!

Did I find any prizes? Anything here you’ve read and loved? Or perhaps despised?

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