Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stultifying English spinsterhood, science and art, and literary odds and ends (Books - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym)

I started with big plans for the new year and then what happened?  Two excuses have kept me away from writing here at bookeywookey.  The first has been the post-PhD job hunt, which is entailing a good deal of writing and research.  The second has been a case of sciatic nerve compression.  If you haven't had the pleasure, don't.  It's worse than it sounds, and completely took over my life for two weeks.  I haven't been reading as little as it seems, but it has been too painful to sit down and write anything about it.

Uncharacteristically, I think I'll do a little works-in-progress round-up instead of an essay-length write-ups. 

A repressed English "spinster" lives her life vicariously through her neighbors romances, marital squabbles, and trips abroad, and through some singular event is dragged into the drama of other peoples' lives and learns the costs of her isolation - any guesses for who wrote this one?  Sorry, Thomas, but I must have been in the wrong mood for Barbara Pym this January.  I finished it, but found Excellent Women (Plume, 1952/1978), which was hailed by critics for Austen-like wit, even called "high comedy," and "very funny," a crashing bore. It didn't drag a chuckle out of me. I found the heroine - Mildred Lathbury's - threshold for over-stimulation stultifying low, and her self-awareness stunningly absent in a way that made me want to scream - NO MORE TEA.

The voracious appetites, musical and otherwise, and polymatheic talents of Leonard Bernstein bounce off the page in a new collection edited by Nigel Simeone called The Leonard Bernstein Letters (Yale, 2013)- a terrific holiday gift from my in-laws.  His energy has been a welcome antidote to Pym's tea-sodden domestic travails.  He knew everyone: letters fly to and from Kousevitzky, Aaoron Copeland, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Judy Holiday, Bette Davis, Dmitri Mitropoulos...  I would have finished it weeks ago, but it is so energetic that I can't read it before going to sleep - it keeps me awake.

 Ian Buruma offers the events of 1945 as motivation for a new cultural and political character, for lack of a better word, that emerged after World War II. These forces being exultation, hunger, and revenge, there is a relentless violence and bleakness in Buruma's Year Zero.  100 pages in, the thread that I have been looking forward to, Buruma's story about his father, who was a prisoner of the Nazis in occupied Holland, has not yet been focal. I am interested to see how the personal merges with the international.

I completed Richard Powers's new book Orfeo.  Powers is one of my favorite authors.  His books always combine something scientific and something artistic to capture some aspect of our zeitgeist.  Talk about a writer made for bookeywookey.  Here his soup is one part experimental classical music and one part recombinant DNA, with a dash of terrorism.  It's beautifully written, and a more credible amalgamation than Generosity.  I may have even admired it more than The Echo Maker.   I plan to write about it at more length.

I also read my first James Purdy novel - Eustace Chisholm and the Works.  Purdy is a writer's writer, an American who wrote from the 1950s - 1980s.  His voice is distilled, sparse, and it combines the fantastical with the brutally real. He was gay, and although his books did not exclusively depict gay characters, he was most certainly a voice of society's outcasts. Nearly all of his novels are out of print, although a collection of his stories was recently published.  I hope its enthusiastic reception will precipitate the re-release of this underappreciated writer's novels.  I will give some exclusive space to this strong, singular reading experience, some time soon.

Lastly, Henry Holt and Co. were kind enough to send me an advance copy of The Book of Jonah  by Joshua Max Feldman.  I'm going to reserve judgment until I have had a chance to get deeper into this contemporary debut novel with biblical allusions.

I wish you happy reading this superbowl Sunday.

2 comments:

Thomas at My Porch said...

I love reading letters and Bernstein is someone I have always been fascinated with.

I've always thought the blurbs about Pym being hilarious were misleading. As much as I love her chuckles are as far as I get and Excellent Women is definitely one of her more serious works. I find her a bit like Brookner--although not half as depressing--it takes a while to really sink into work.

Maybe some other day will be more Pym positive for you.

Ted said...

Thomas - I think you would love this collection of letters historically, personally, musically fascinating.