Monday, June 24, 2013

Books That Sparkle

"There are books I go to when I don't want any more of the place I'm somehow stuck in and I long for a lighter and brighter world...They make me feel I've just had a drink of a particularly sparkling Champagne."
-- Mary Gordon

I have a wonderful address book called "The Reading Woman" that I bought at the Frick Museum in New York. It is illustrated with lovely paintings of women reading and filled with quotes by writers. One of my favorite quotes is the one above.

It is true -- there are books that sparkle, books that take us to a lighter and brighter world. We read them and are taken away, transported to a place of witty conversation, well-dressed people, candle-lit rooms, beautiful flowers, glistening silver, china teapots, dialogue sprinkled with bons mots, humorous mishaps, and enterprising heroines searching for love and a place in the world. These books feature dashing detectives, bungling aristocrats, glamorous characters, bright young women and ordinary people who have the ability to see the beauty in everyday life. We are swept away by their stories as well as the settings of their stories. The characters go on elegant picnics, create beautiful environments out of run-down houses and gardens, meet friends over afternoon tea, write letters and diaries in cozy libraries, solve mysteries over sherry in the drawing room, and fall in love under an ancient elm tree. Romance, mystery, intrigue, and comedy are the subjects.

Here are some books that have the power to sweep us away into a lighter and brighter world.


The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse
 The aristocrat Bertie Wooster would be lost without the guidance of his brilliant valet Jeeves. The mishaps Bertie encounters in this book are endless, as are the laughs. This may be the perfect escapist book!

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Comedy and romance set in the ancestral home of an eccentric British family. The heroine longs to escape to a more glamorous life and her adventures take her to Paris. The ending is surprising and poignant.

Pride and and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The ultimate in romantic, happy endings

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
 English women find love and lose their inhibitions in Italy, written by one of the masters --E.M. Forster. He called it his "merry and bright" book.

  Do you remember how funny this play is?

Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
The dashing detective Lord Peter Wimsey is in love with the mystery writer Harriet Vane. Together they solve a crime set at Harriet's alma mater Oxford University

A middle-class housewife living in the English countryside keeps a diary recounting her mundane life with her family and servants. It turns out she has literary aspirations and a witty sense of humor.

Merry Hall, Down The Garden Path and other books by Beverley Nichols
The debonair bachelor Nichols buys a run-down estate in the English countryside and sets about restoring the garden to its former glory. These books are laugh-out-loud funny.

Mapp and Lucia series of novels by E.F. Benson
Comic novels by Benson about the social rivalry between two women -- Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (Lucia) -- in a country village. The question is, who will be queen?

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Mildred Lathbury, a spinster and clergyman's daughter living in London in the 1950's, narrates this very funny story of her peaceful life being shaken up by her new and glamorous neighbors. Barbara Pym at her best!

 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Even though tragedy and disillusion occur, when Charles Ryder falls in love with Sebastian Flyte and his glamorous family, we also fall under their spell.

 To the North by Elizabeth Bowen
A serious book about two young women who are lost -- one is an orphan and the other a widow -- finding their way together in London and searching for a meaningful life, as well as a home. Evocative descriptions of houses and furnishings that envelop and comfort, at least for a while...

And more recent books:

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
 Diane Johnson's comedy of manners about American expats living in Paris

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman
A modern re-imagining of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. If you love cookbooks, English literature, love stories and Jane Austen, this is the book for you. It combines contemporary themes with old-fashioned storytelling.   

Any Human Heart by William Boyd
A romantic and sweeping saga of a book, this novel tells the story of the fictional character Logan Mountstuart, who during the course of his life is a writer, spy, and art dealer. It reads like a social and cultural history of the twentieth-century. Anglophiles will love it.

 Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Two young women meet a handsome banker in Greenwich village. They enter his glittering social world and their lives change. With echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote, this book is such a good read!

I had fun coming up with this list and revisiting some of my favorite books. Can you think of any others?

Go here to read an essay on Barbara Pym in the New York Times. This month is the centenary of her birth and Pym's fans are celebrating the occasion.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Love Story: Chapter Three

 Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Midnight

I am a huge fan of the films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. They were made in 1995 and 2004 by director Richard Linklater and featured the actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. In the first film  Before Sunrise, a young American man Jesse and a young French woman Celine (played by Hawke and Delpy) meet on a train from Budapest and decide to get off together in Vienna and spend the night walking and talking and falling in love. (Didn't we all take that trip to Europe in our twenties?) After a magical night, they make a plan to meet in six months at the same train station. The second film Before Sunset, takes place nine years later when Jessie is in Paris on a book tour signing copies of the best-selling novel he has written about that night in Vienna. Celine finds him at the book signing and they spend an evening together walking the streets of Paris and once again, as in Vienna, talking about everything. The talking (and there is a lot of it) is the key ingredient that makes these films so special; the conversations are where the magic happens. I won't tell you anymore, but some film critics say the ending is one of the best and most romantic of any film. I agree.

Before Midnight is the third film in this romantic trilogy and it has opened in the theaters. Almost two decades have passed since Jesse and Celine's first meeting on that train bound for Vienna. As with any long term romance, this one is showing some wear and tear. If you haven't seen the film, go right away. I loved it. Like the other two films, it has witty and smart dialogue woven through a love story, though at times a rocky one, and this time it is set in Greece. The unique feature of the trilogy format -- three films made over the course of almost twenty years -- allows us to follow this couple from their twenties (they were so young and cute!) to their forties and discover how their romance has fared. If you haven't seen the previous two films, watch them first. You are in for a treat. After you have seen these, go to the theater to see Before Midnight to find out what has happened to this couple in the seven years that have passed since that night in Paris. This movie is a gem. I've actually seen it twice!

By the way, the dialogue in all three films is so natural that many people assume that it is improvised. However, the actors are actually working from a script. Go here to learn more about how these films were made.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer Bookshelf

Image source

What are you reading? Have you found a book this summer that you can't put down? My current summer read has transported me to the royal court of sixteenth-century England. I am immersed in the world of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Hillary Mantel's brilliant book Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, brings this world alive in such a vivid way that you feel you are there. This book is a hard one to get out of your head; it seeps into your mind and you may find yourself dreaming about it. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. You are walking the streets of London with Cromwell as he strategizes how to satisfy the King's whims, visits the King's first wife Katherine in prison, and carefully negotiates with the current Queen, Anne Boleyn. You are there as he meets with the Seymour family to negotiate a possible marriage and watch the demeanor of the demure Jane Seymour, knowing that the King has his eyes on her for his next wife. And all the while, Cromwell is trying to learn from the mistakes of those who went before him, those who died because they did not make the King's desires a reality. He is doing his best to be indispensable to the King so that he will survive. 

I love that Hilary Mantel has created a living and breathing world for the reader. Sixteenth-century England comes to life in this book and we feel as if we understand it for the first time. It is historical fiction that has the feel of an engrossing novel. The story begins in the autumn of 1535...

"The king had left Whitehall the week of Thomas More's death, a miserable dripping week in July, the hoof prints of the royal entourage sinking deep into the mud as they tacked their way across to Windsor. Since then the progress has taken in a swathe of the western counties; the Cromwell aides, having finished up the king's business at the London end, met up with the royal train in mid-August. The king and his companions sleep sound in new houses of rosy brick, in old houses whose fortifications have crumbed away or been pulled down, and in fantasy castles like toys, castles never capable of fortification, with walls a cannonball would punch in as if they were paper. England has enjoyed fifty years of peace. This is the Tudors' covenant; peace is what they offer. Every household strives to put forward its best show for the king, and we've seen some panic-stricken plastering these last weeks, some speedy stonework, as his hosts hurry to display the Tudor rose beside their own devices. They search out and obliterate any trace of Katherine, the queen that was, smashing with hammers the pomegranates of Aragon, their splitting segments and their squashed and flying seeds. Instead -- if there is no time for carving -- the falcon of Anne Boleyn is crudely painted up on hatchments."

The cast of characters in this famous episode of history -- the King, his wives and families, his court,  the Boleyn and Seymour families, the ambassadors, clerics, courtiers --  are all richly imagined and live as we've never seen them before. The central character Thomas Cromwell is at the heart of everything and the person we get to know most intimately. His household and its inhabitants are depicted as a vibrant and flourishing little world of its own with Cromwell as the master who knows every detail of its daily workings. The abilities that make him indispensable as Secretary to the King are the same ones he applies to running his estate. His past life and the journey that brought him to his present position of power are all laid out. As Hilary Mantel reminds us in the "Author's Note," this book is not about Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell and how this crucial period of time might have looked from his point of view. His personality and inner life are given a sparkling realness in Mantel's book. We feel that we know this man.

Image source

By the way, I just got back from New York (more about that later!) where I visited the Frick Museum  and made a beeline for the portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More by Hans Holbein that hang side by side. I have seen them before but realized this time I would view them with new eyes. With Hillary Mantel's narrative fresh in my mind, I gazed at Thomas Cromwell and could see the intensity and ruthlessness of the man captured in this painting. I had the chills thinking about how instrumental he was in changing the course of English history.

You may have thought nothing new could be said on this topic, but in "Bring Up The Bodies" Hillary Mantel has breathed fresh life into the story and made it come to life like nothing else has before. We all know where the events are heading, but it's so delicious to be along for the ride as it is told by a master storyteller.

What a book! I can't put it down.

What are you reading?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Celebrating Barbara Pym

Photo via here

Many people have been paying tribute to Barbara Pym this week. In fact, it has been declared Barbara Pym Reading Week and people are writing about their favorite Barbara Pym book. This makes me very happy because I love her books. You might ask why this tribute, perhaps after you first ask: who is she? Well, the tributes are happening because this week is the occasion of her 100th birthday. She was born on June 2, 1913. And as to the question of "who is she?" --  this seems to be Barbara Pym's lot in literary history. She is always being rediscovered. I wonder if you have heard of her.

I was fortunate to discover her novels in my twenties after graduating from college and I have been returning to them ever since. My favorite is Excellent Women. The narrator and heroine of the book is Mildred Lathbury, a spinster and clergyman's daughter living in London in the 1950's. She works part-time at an organization for impoverished gentlewomen, which is, as she says, " a cause very near to my heart as I felt I was just the kind of person who might one day become one." The rest of her time is filled with church activities and time with friends. Her peaceful existence is shaken up when a glamorous couple moves in next door. The book is filled with humor and wise observations about life. It is the book I reread more than any other, especially when I need cheering up. Barbara Pym is a treasure and one of the best writers that most people don't know about.

You might ask, why is that? Maybe it's because she fell under the radar for many years. Barbara Pym's career as a writer was filled with ups and downs. You might call her the original "comeback kid." Born in Oswestry, Shropshire (near the border of England and Wales) in 1913, she lived with her mother, father and sister in a small English village and had a happy childhood. Like Jane Austen, to whom she is often compared, her life was a quiet one. Her mother was the organist at the parish church and she grew up in the company of vicars, curates, and organists. She was educated at St. Hilda's College at Oxford University and later served in the Women's Royal Naval Service during World War II. She worked for most of her life at the International African Institute in London, surrounded by anthropologists. It was a peaceful life but one that she observed with a shrewd eye and a keen sense of humor. She used much of it for her novels, finding inspiration for her stories and characters.

In 1949 she sent a manuscript of her first book Some Tame Gazelle to the publisher Jonathan Cape. It was accepted and published in 1950 to good reviews. Her career was launched. Six novels would follow during the next thirteen years. They are considered the canon of her work and include Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings and No Fond Return of Love. Like Jane Austen, she wrote comedies of manners about the people that she knew. She depicted unassuming people engaged in the ordinary events of life -- jumble sales, the village fete, meetings of the prehistoric society, tea with the vicar, and lunchtime church services.

They take us back to a quaint world of London and the English countryside in the 1950's, peopled by gentlewomen, curates, anthropologists, civil servants and academics. They are quiet novels filled with humor (often the laugh-out-loud kind or, at the very least, eliciting a smile) and serious issues as well -- unrequited love, the need for friendship, the value of community, and the beauty of the ordinary. And, of course, endless pots of tea. One of my favorite passages in "Excellent Women" tells how the heroine Mildred Lathbury moved to London and chose her neighborhood and church after the death of her parents:

"I could just see the church spire through the trees in the square. Now, when they were leafless, it looked beautiful, springing up among the peeling stucco fronts of the houses, prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me.

There were two churches in the district, but I had chosen St. Mary's rather than All Souls'...I gave All Souls' a try; indeed I went there for two Sundays, but when I returned to St. Mary's, Father Mallory stopped me after Mass one morning and said how glad he was to see me again. He and his sister had been quite worried; they feared I might have been ill. After that I had not left St. Mary's again, and Julian Mallory and his sister Winifred had become my friends.

I sometimes thought how strange it was that I should have managed to make a life for myself in London so very much like the life I had lived in a country rectory when my parents were alive. But then so many parts of London have a peculiarly village or parochial atmosphere that perhaps it is only a question of choosing one's parish and fitting in."

But the primary ingredient in Barbara Pym's books that keeps me coming back for more is the humor and her insights into the comic moments of life. For example, in "A Glass of Blessings," Mr. Bason, the housekeeper at the vicarage, brags about occasionally "pinching" the vicar's priceless Faberge egg, taking it out of his apron and tossing it into the air. In "Excellent Women," after an acquaintance pokes fun at the heroine Mildred Lathbury for happening to be outside her front door when her new neighbors move in, she thinks, "I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people's business, and if she is also a clergyman's daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her." And later when her new friends need her advice, she muses, "I was so astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand for every dramatic occasion."

During the fifties and early sixties, Barbara Pym's career flourished. But then, after winning critical praise and financial success with the six novels, she was astonished to discover that it was over. In 1963, she submitted the manuscript for her book An Unsuitable Attachment to Jonathan Cape who rejected it as being out of step with the times. After all, this was the sixties. She revised it and sent it to twenty other publishers, all of whom rejected it as well. She then entered the period of time she called her "literary wilderness." She continued to write several more books during the next 14 years, but was unable to get any of them published.

Then in 1977, Pym's literary fortune changed overnight. "The Times Literary Supplement" polled a group of well-respected writers asking them to name the most underrated writer of the 20th-century. Both Phillip Larkin and Lord David Cecil picked Barbara Pym. She was the only writer named twice. Her reputation was restored, people began to look at her books again, and the ones she had been working on were published right away. One of them, Quartet in Autumn, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. All of her novels were reprinted and in demand. They are all still in print to this day and her books continue to be loved by her fans.

But perhaps the main reason that many people are still unaware of Barbara Pym is the topic of her books. They are not stories of high drama or great action. The characters are ordinary people you might not notice if you passed them on the street. Instead, her books are about finding beauty in the small moments of life, the extraordinary in the everyday, the comedy of life as it plays out in the small and circumscribed world of her novels, and universal truths about human nature that always ring true. We smile, we nod, we are happy to be in the company of a cozy friend, one who is "caught with a teapot in (her) hand for every dramatic situation in life."  

Do you have a favorite Barbara Pym novel?

If you want to join in on the fun, go here to participate in the Barbara Pym Reading Week. You can also go to The Barbara Pym Society website to find out about other celebrations of her 100th birthday, including events at Harvard and Oxford Universities.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Beginning Over Again

"And so with the sunshine and the great burst of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again in the summer."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

Ah, the freshness and beauty of summer! The sounds and smells are intoxicating. Here are a few images that capture the sweet and hopeful feeling of the season. 

Stunning bougainvillea 

Dinners on the patio

Peonies and drinks outside
(by Teryl Designs)

Lush hydrangeas 

Strawberries and strawberry pots 

Fresh cut flowers from the garden

Impulse buying 

Beautiful freesias

Photo via here
Romantic movies -- Before Midnight stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke and is set in Greece

Kumquat martinis made from all those kumquats you don't know what to do with

Ripe peaches

Photo via here
A new cookbook that captures the goodness of summer

Spending every possible moment outside

And not missing a sunset

It's the simple pleasures that make summer so delicious.

Here is the recipe for Kumquat Martinis.

All photos (unless noted) by Sunday Taylor