Excellent Women

 

I am probably just deluding myself that one day I won’t give in entirely to Pym love and join the Barbara Pym Society like every other obsessed Pym fan, especially if I continue to return to my favorite Pym novel Excellent Women.  This small and very, very funny book, like her other works, focusses on the genteel but rather drab life of an English spinster, in this case one Mildred Lathbury, whose world seems to consist of jumble sales, long chats with the vicar, and the inevitably endless cups of tea.  She is surrounded by friends, of a sort, and associates, all of whom seem to lead more exciting lives than her own and she observes them all closely, with  a dark wit and a sharp sense of humor that is second to none.  Much like the work of Jane Austen these books are certainly not plot heavy.  In fact virtually nothing happens and yet somehow it is Pym’s greatest accomplishment to make this nothing seem like absolutely everything to her narrator, and reader.  Mildred’s sharp eye is deeply ironic, and while life hasn’t handed her much she is never sad and seems only reasonably discontent.  It is impossible to read this book and not root for her, and the countless other women she represents who stand teetering on the brink of spinsterhood with a teapot in one hand and a china cup in the other.  Mildred Lathbury, we salute you!

Barbara Pym (1913-1980) was a moderately successful writer whose work fell out of favor in the early 1960’s for being out of step with the times.  For sixteen years she continued to write in obscurity until one day in the 21st of January 1977 issue of the Times Literary Supplement both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil named her “the most underrated novelist of the century.”  From that point on she rose to almost instant fame and recognition.  She died at the early age of 66 of breast cancer.

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realise that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.”
― Barbara PymExcellent Women

Bossypants – 5 Reasons To Love Tina Fey

First let me say that I am funny.  No.  Really.  I am.  I am funny.  Ok, well, maybe not funny funny, but funny in that dark, dry, omg did he/she really say that kind of way.  But, sadly, I am not — I repeat NOT — Tina Fey funny.  And perhaps no one is.  Which, of course, is what makes Tina Fey so…well…funny.  And so, without further ado, here are 5 Reasons to love Tina Fey.  Which you can later prove by running out and buying your edition of Bossypants.  And reading it.  Preferably alone, so no one will see you snort milk through your nose or change your Depends.

1. Tina Fey knows you can not “have it all” and has accepted it.

“There was no prolonged stretch of time in sight when it would just be the baby and me.  And then I sobbed in my office for ten minutes.  The same ten minutes that magazines urge me to use for sit-ups and triceps dips, I used for sobbing.  Of course I’m not supposed to admit that there is a tri-annual torrential sobbing in my office, because it’s bad for the feminist cause.  It makes it harder for women to be taken seriously in the workplace. It makes it harder for other working moms to justify their choice.  But I have friends who stay home with their kids and they also have a tri-annual sob, so I think we should call it even.  I think we should be kind to one another about it.  I think we should agree to blame the children.”

2. Tina Fey knows where she stands.

“My only other request was this: I never wanted to appear in a “two shot” with Mrs. Palin.  I mean, she really is taller and better looking than I am, and we would literally be wearing the same outfit.  I’d already been made to stand next to Jennifer Aniston and Salma Hayek on camera in my life; a gal can only take so much.  And honestly, I knew that if that picture existed, it would be what they show on the Emmys someday when I die…”

3. Tina Fey has perspective.

“If you retain nothing else, always remember the most important Rule of Beauty.

‘Who cares?’ “

4. Tina Fey knows how to get what she wants. And works for it.

“If I was really ambitious, I would get a Whopper Jr. at Burger King and then walk to McDonald’s to get the fries.  The shake could be from anywhere.”

5. Tina Fey had a worse, and funnier, childhood than you.

I shoved the box in my closet, where it haunted me daily. There might as well have been a guy dressed like Freddy Krueger in there for the amount of anxiety it gave me.  Every time I reached in the closet to grab a Sunday school dress or my colonial-lady Halloween costume that I sometimes relaxed in after school — ‘Modessssss,’ it hissed at me.  ‘Modessssssis coming for you.’ “

Obviously I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  Thankfully, Tina Fey does.  Read Bossypants.  That is an order.

Down The Garden Path

I’m just going to admit it.  I am a huge fan of Beverley Nichols.  Whenever winter wanes and I begin to venture out into the spongy soil I think of the Jazz Age playboy turned gardener, a cigarette in one hand, cocktail shaker in the other, walking down the rows of the chalky and sullen soil he turned into a bit of paradise in Huntingdonshire in the 1930’s.  Surely, I think, if he could make a garden out of a stubborn piece of earth I ought to be able to grow a row of veg and a flower or two.  And if I can’t, I always have his acid wit to turn to in the gardening memoirs he wrote and that is enough to comfort and amuse me.

For those who don’t know, and I don’t know why many would, Beverley Nichols was a popular British author of plays, mysteries, poems and children’s books when he bought and began to renovate a home and garden in the village of Glatton.  He sat down to write about it and in virtually no time produced what is referred to as the Always Trilogy, which is composed of the three books featured here.  That anyone could write about a garden with such wit and irony is a constant source of enjoyment and as the trilogy progresses we move from the garden to his home to the village and all its many colorful inhabitants.

A Thatched Roof is the second book in the trilogy.  The books have been in almost constant print since their publication but these new editions from the Timber Press are very worth tracking down.  If you can’t find them anywhere else, you can certainly find them at http://www.timberpress.com.

It’s always sad to come to the end of a series but don’t despair.  Nichols produced a second trilogy between 1951-1956 about his renovation of a Georgian Manor house that is absolutely hilarious.

My prediction?  If you become as addicted as I am you will soon find your shelves filling with these fine editions.

“Do you not realize that the whole thing is miraculous? It is exactly as though you were to cut off your wife’s leg, stick it in the lawn, and be greeted on the following day by an entirely new woman, sprung from the leg, advancing across the lawn to meet you.

Surely, you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower-pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower-pot a day later.”

— Beverley Nichols 1898-1983

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

It’s hard to begin reviewing this book without stopping to admire the small press that publishes it.  I am a huge fan of all small presses for keeping authors alive who might otherwise simply fade into obscurity and be all but forgotten.  Or, as in this author’s case, because she was forgotten, bringing them back to life to a new generation of readers who would otherwise never have known them.  So I hope if you’re reading this you’ll continue to the section below where I talk about Persephone Press.

But now: a word for Miss Pettigrew.  Poor Miss Pettigrew, a down on her luck middle-aged governess who can seem to do no right.  Until, of course, her employment agency sends her on a call not to a household of unruly children but to a nightclub singer who changes her life entirely in a mere 24 hours.  And just to believe for a moment that it is “never too late” is the sheer joy of this delightful book.  Never has a case of mistaken identity been so charming.  Cinderella, move over.  This book was made into a movie starring Frances McDormand who, in this reviewer’s opinion, can do no wrong.  While the movie is delightful the book is superior and it is a highly recommended read with a Sidecar in one hand and, dare I say it? A cigarette in the other.  Live. Live.  Live!

I can not say enough about my own adoration for Persephone Books.  Without them there are so many authors I never would have found. In their own words, from their Website: “Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial. The books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget.”

Winifred Watson believed in this book with all her heart but had some struggle finding a publisher for it.  It was published, finally, in 1938 and was received with great acclaim.  But in 1941 Winifred Watson stopped writing entirely to take care of her son.  She lived, quite quietly, in Newcastle for the rest of her life.

Mapp & Lucia

There are six books in this series which chronicle the lives of two maliciously comic social climbers, Emmeline (Lucia) Lucas and Elizabeth Mapp.  The settings are the small English villages in the 1920’s and 30’s where seemingly no one has anything to do but spy on and gossip about one another all the day long.  The first three books introduce us to the characters singly.  The first, Queen Lucia, takes place in the village of Riseholme where, in her own head anyway, Lucia reigns supreme.  In the second book, we meet Miss Mapp in her home village of Tilling where without question she has no rival.  At long last, in the fourth book — Mapp & Lucia — they meet for the first time when the widowed Lucia moves to Tilling and the two worthy adversaries begin to battle head to head. Loathsome, but loveable, their razor-sharp tongues and keen wits know no bounds.  There is quite a supporting cast, all the characters you would expect to find in English village life, who are picked up and moved around by Mapp and Lucia like pawns on a chessboard.  No one is likeable, kind, or shows even the smallest shred of compassion.  They are brutal, and spiteful, and to be honest, the worst kind of mean.  And yet, I find myself reaching for this book every few years because, inexplicably,I have found that if I do not, I rather miss them.

“The hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the time which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other.”
― E.F. BensonQueen Lucia