Friday, February 25, 2011

Excellent Woman

In my ongoing quest to edit my bookshelves and make room for new books, I have been revisiting some of my favorite writers and treasured editions of their books.  One of my favorites is British novelist Barbara Pym.

Often compared to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym wrote novels of high comedy and shrewd insights into human nature.   I discovered her novels many years ago when I read "Excellent Women," her 1952 novel, and was immediately enchanted.  Here was an author who wrote with the humor, irony, and sharp insights into human nature of a twentieth-century Jane Austen.

Like Austen, she dealt with important issues filtered through the microcosm of a small, circumscribed world.  I have returned to "Excellent Women" many times over the years, finding pleasure and comfort in the funny, wise, and good-natured voice of its narrator Mildred Lathbury.

Barbara Pym

This book is about Mildred, one of those "excellent women" who fill up the pages of so many of Pym's books.  A clergyman's daughter and spinster in the England of the 1950's, Mildred describes her occupation as "part-time work at an organization for impoverished gentlewomen, a cause very near to my heart as I felt that I was just the kind of person who might one day become one."  Describing herself as mousy and plain, Mildred tells the reader, "Let me hasten to add that I am not at all like Jane Eyre, who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her."

Her closest friends are the vicar of her church and his sister, Julian and Winifred Mallory. Her peaceful existence is shaken when an estranged couple, handsome former naval officer, Rockingham Napier and his anthropologist wife, Helena, move in next door and draw Mildred into their world.  Another newcomer, Allegra Gray, an attractive widow, sets her cap for the vicar, whom everyone assumed Mildred would marry.  She also becomes involved with an anthropologist friend of the Napiers, Everard Bone.  The comedy that ensues, as well as Mildred's self-possession and astute observations of those around her, contribute to the success of this very funny novel.  One critic in 1977 called it one of "the funniest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past 75 years."

The six novels which many consider to be the canon of Barbara Pym's work are "Some Tame Gazelle," Excellent Women," "Jane and Prudence," "Less Than Angels," "A Glass of Blessings," and "No Fond Return of Love."  They were published between 1950 and 1961.  In them she creates a rich chronicle of human nature, as she depicts unassuming people engaged in the ordinary events of life -- jumble sales, meetings of the prehistoric society, tea with the vicar, lunchtime church services.  They are quiet novels which deal obliquely with large themes such as underlying loneliness and disappointment, the need for love, friendship, the value of community, and the beauty of the ordinary.

There are many comic moments, as when Mr. Bason, the housekeeper at the vicarage in "A Glass of Blessings," brags about occasionally "pinching" the vicar's priceless Faberge egg, taking it out of his apron and tossing it into the air.  We laugh with the narrator.  Pym's books transport us to a quaint world, London and the countryside of England in the 1950's, peopled by gentlewomen and gentlemen, curates, anthropologists, civil servants, and academics, a world which is distinctly recognizable as Barbara Pym's own.

I love the story of Barbara Pym's literary career because it has such a "comeback kid" quality to it.  In 1949 she sent a revised version of "Some Tame Gazelle" (which she had written much earlier) to the publisher Jonathan Cape.  It was accepted and was published in 1950 to good reviews.  Her career as a published writer was launched.  Six novels in all were published during the next thirteen years.  They won her critical praise and some financial success.  She developed a devoted circle of readers and admirers.  Then suddenly it all came to a standstill.

In 1963, Pym submitted "An Unsuitable Attachment" to her publisher and it was rejected as being out of step with the times.  She revised it and sent it to other publishers.  In all, twenty publishers refused to publish it.  She entered what she called her literary "wilderness."

During the next 14 years, despite "moments of gloom and pessimism when it seems as if nobody could ever like my kind of writing again..." she continued to write.  "The Sweet Dove Died" and "Quartet in Autumn" were written during this time.

Then in 1977 Pym's literary fortune changed overnight.  In the January 21 issue of "The Times Literary Supplement," Barbara Pym was twice named (by Phillip Larkin and Lord David Cecil) as "the most underrated novelist of the century."  Her literary reputation was restored:  "Quartet in Autumn" was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  "The Sweet Dove Died" was published in 1978.  All of her novels were reprinted and in demand.
I think that Pym's novels continue to be loved by her many fans.  There is something about returning to her books that feels like visiting an old friend.  Perhaps we return for the enduring value expressed in so many of her books, the importance of staying connected to others.  As we are daily faced by the realities of our very complex world, there is a place for peaceful moments where we celebrate small ordinary experiences. Barbara Pym's novels can take us to that place of laughter, familiarity, and small comforts, experiences that are so satisfying to us as readers. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Art Night in Culver City

One of the works by Frohawk Two Feathers at Taylor De Cordoba

Last night we went to Culver City to see an amazing art exhibition at Taylor De Cordoba. It is always an exciting evening when the galleries in Culver City coordinate their openings on the same night and you can walk up and down La Cienega and Washington Boulevards visiting multiple galleries and see so much great art in one evening. 

But last night our destination was Taylor De Cordoba gallery where we were excited to see the latest exhibition of art work by one of my favorite artists Frohawk Two Feathers. This new series of mixed media, paintings, and drawings by the Los Angeles-based artist is called "Crocodile Company, Part 1.  La Guerre des Machettes Danceuses  (The War of The Dancing Machetes)."  I think he is one of the most exciting and original artists working today.

The artist tells a wartime narrative starring an imagined cast of fascinating characters.  It is the history of the "Frenglish Empire," a fictitious blending of 18th-century imperial England and France, and this show focuses on his reinterpretation of the Haitian War of Knives.  Taylor De Cordoba writes,  "Using two classic traditions of both painting and mapmaking, Two Feathers communicates a tragic, yet often humorous story that, through a slight of hand and bristle of the brush retell and reshape historical roles of race, class, and gender.  Originally trained in photography, the artist uses elaborately staged photographs of friends and family as the source material for the final portraits on view."

He is a master storyteller, spinning tales of colonialism, imperialism, and conquest with his entirely unique iconography.  He is known for his master narratives, vivid re-imaginings of imperial history, and playful revival of colonial portraiture.

As with his previous bodies of work, each series functions as a chapter in a never-ending tome.  Set in 1789 in the Caribbean, "The War of the Dancing Machetes" is a story of assassination, slavery and the fight for power.  Deadly clashes between the black ruling class and "The Crocodile Company" drive this story.  The artist loosely based this series on the actual "War of Knives" that was fought as a precursor to Haitian independence. 

This is his third solo show at Taylor De Cordoba and in it he continues to interpret the events surrounding Haiti's historical struggle for independence.  He fills his fictional world with imaginary characters such as soldiers, nobility, and other players in this historical drama.


For me this exhibition represents a maturity and growing talent in this very original artist who has created a fictitious world, as complex and fascinating as any one I can think of in the art world today.  For some reason it has always made me think of the fictitious world made up by  Emily and Charlotte Bronte in their youth, a figment of imagination so fully realized as to sustain their lonely lives.  There is something of that haunting and beautiful quality in Frohawk Two Feather's work that makes me think he has many, many more stories to tell us.  He is truly an original artist.

Don't miss this fascinating exhibition at Taylor De Cordoba.  It runs through March 26, 2011.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter Comforts

I live in Los Angeles and enjoy mostly temperate weather and beautiful sunny days much of the year.  We  have our rainy season and have gotten some unusually cold temperatures this winter.  But for the most part we have enviable weather. 
I grew up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut and went to college in Maine.  I do miss the seasons from that part of the world, with gorgeous crisp autumns, beautiful winter snow falls, and glorious spring weather.  And so when it's February in L.A. I tend to revert back to habits from those days on the east coast.  This is the time of year when I love to stay home and be cozy.

 I put hydrangeas and roses in one of my favorite vases

I work through my stack of books from Christmas

I spend more time writing  

I love to bake and recently made these Pumpkin Cupcakes with Maple Frosting from "The Barefoot Contessa"

I want to make these Brownies from the February issue of "Bon Appetit"

I am getting the garden ready for Spring.  It will be on a garden tour in May.  The pressure is on! 

We just cut back the roses and mulched everything.  I am dreaming about Spring and Summer blossoms, but am also enjoying the bare bones look of everything right now.

I am learning how to needlepoint so I can make this pillow that I got in England.  It is a reproduction of a pillow designed by Vanessa Bell and the original is in Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, England, where the Bloomsbury Group spent so much of their time.

 The canvas for the pillow  

This is the Garden Room at Charleston with the original pillow

And I am learning how to play Bridge!


Looking forward to enjoying this winter and all the pleasures that can be found in the heart of the home.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weekend Bookshelf

We all know how good it feels to read a book that we can't put down and to actually feel sad to see it come to an end. I want to share with you three fabulous books, all coming of age novels, that I have recently discovered.  These books have at their center young protagonists, unguided and bewildered, searching for their place and some understanding in a seemingly incomprehensible world.


The first one is "A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore.  This coming of age novel is about a year in the life of a quirky young woman Tassie Keltjin who lives in the Midwest.  She goes away to college and gets a part time job as a nanny for a glamorous and mysterious couple who have adopted a baby.  Her job begins before the baby has been adopted and she accompanies the parents to interviews with potential birth mothers.  The heroine's sunny disposition and clever observations set a tone for the book that belies the devastating and powerful events that occur later on.  She is a bright and chipper girl with an underlying loneliness that she struggles with and that shapes her reactions to the surprising tragedies that occur.  Her relationship with her younger brother is beautifully drawn by the author.  This book is powerful as it deals with racism, post 9/11 (she starts college in September, 2001), the ordeal of adoption, and deep secrets.  It has a comic, smart tone, and as such I felt blindsided by the events towards the end.  I was really moved by the story, loved the main character Tassie, and was very impressed by the excellent writing.


The second book I recently read and enjoyed is "Invisible" by Paul Auster.  This novel is about as far from the Midwest atmosphere of Moore's book as you can get.  It takes place in New York, Paris, and a remote island in the Caribbean. It is a series of intertwined love stories with a young man, Adam Walker, at the center of them all.  It begins in 1967 when Adam is a second year student at Columbia University in New York. It too is a coming of age novel, and it also involves the protagonist getting mixed up in the lives of some sophisticated, glamorous, and in this case sinister older people.  We follow Adam from his youth until late in his life.
The story is told in four interlocking parts, by three different narrators.  There are questions of what is true and what is not, and we are definitely in the territory of the memoirist's subjective truth.  We learn about Adam's relationship with Rudolf Born, a professor at Columbia and Born's lover Margot.  Violent events occur that take Adam to Paris with a quest for revenge.  In Paris  Adam has a love affair with the mysterious Margot.  Another woman Adam loves is his sister Gwyn.  The story of this relationship  is one of the most powerful parts of the book.  And here is another similarity with "A Gate at the Stairs," the closeness between two siblings who are aligned because of distant and dysfunctional parents.
The surprises that come from the narrative structure -- questions arise regarding the reliability of Adam's memory -- contribute to the compelling and sinuous nature of this fabulous book.  
And please can we talk about the last two pages and what they mean?


And finally I am about 150 pages into "The Invisible Bridge" by Julie Orringer.   The central character is Andras Levi, a promising student of architecture who leaves his native Hungary to study in Paris in 1937, until his scholarship is revoked when anti-Jewish laws go into effect.  So far I am loving the skillful way the author has evoked the world of Hungary and Paris in the late 1930's.  This is another young character and his coming of age story, though here we know we are in in Europe right before WWII and the Holocaust.  The book has a sweeping, epic feel to it and I have a sense that I will be swept right along with it.