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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Pym’

Gags and Novelties

December 17, 2014 | by

Banana_Peel

Illustration: Max Ronnersjö

“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. ―Barbara Pym, Excellent Women

We have all experienced such “landslides of the mind”: moments that upend everything we thought we knew or believed, everything that made us feel secure. These are the moments when we grow up—or resolutely refuse to. They are the moments that define us. In my case, it was the moment, in middle school, when I saw someone actually slip on a banana peel.

If you’d asked me in the minutes—days—years before it happened, I would have scoffed at the very notion. I knew certain things as facts: The sky was blue. Everyone died. People slipping on banana peels were not funny. My certainty was so obvious as not to require conscious thought; and yet, in a sense, it underlay so many of my assumptions about comedy, sophistication, and human nature itself. 

As a child I was in the habit of listening to the 1918 Prokofiev opera Love for Three Oranges (dramatized for kids by the peerless Ann Rachlin), in which a prince has fallen into a melancholy from too much tragic poetry; the only cure is laughter. Yet all the most amusing clowns and jesters in the land fail to coax forth so much as a smile. It is only when the evil witch Fata Morgana falls over and exposes her underpants that the melancholy prince is roused to helpless mirth, and his life is saved. Read More »

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Angry Birds

December 2, 2014 | by

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From The Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1893.

Here’s a scene from Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women, in which the protagonist, Mildred Lathbury, meets Everard Bone’s eccentric mother.

I thought I had better revive the conversation which had lapsed, so I commented on the animals’ heads in the hall, saying what fine specimens they were.

“My husband shot them in India and Africa,” said Mrs. Bone, “but however many you shoot there still seem to be more.”

“Oh, yes, it would be a terrible thing if they became extinct,” I said. “I suppose they keep the rarer animals in game reserves now.”

“It’s not the animals so much as the birds,” said Mrs. Bone fiercely. “You will hardly believe this, but I was sitting in the window this afternoon and as it was a fine day I had it open at the bottom, when I felt something drop into my lap. And do you know what it was?” She turned and peered at me intently.

I said that I had no idea.

“Unpleasantness,” she said, almost triumphantly. Then lowering her voice she explained, “From a bird, you see. It had done something when I was actually sitting in my own drawing room.”

“How annoying,” I said, feeling mesmerized and unable even to laugh. 

I draw this to your attention because unpleasantness is a term that is sadly underused. I think of it often, usually in the context of that disgusting, grinning coil-of-feces emoji. (I will not dignify it by using its infantile moniker, as I was discouraged from babyish scatological terminology at an early age and cannot break the habit.) I mean, I don’t sit around being furious, or think about it at unrelated times, but people text with that thing all the time. Indeed, in a recent feature in a fashion magazine, I saw no fewer than two celebrities list this as their favorite, and most frequently used, emoji. (Even I will grudgingly concede that it is versatile, in its inscrutable, repulsive way.) 

To me, this is the unpleasantness emoji. This also applies to its animated iteration, which features circling flies. I know its history is an interesting window into tech development (read about it here, if you don’t find the juxtaposition with oral too off-putting) and I’m sure there are far more damning indications of the coarsening fiber of modern society. But it is a small, bad thing. And if I’m being completely honest, I’ve never really understood what it means.

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What We’re Loving (The Love Edition)

February 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Seyed Mostafa Zamani, via Flickr

“As usual, the love plot is the least convincing aspect of the book,” said my friend, handing me a crumbling, loved-to-death copy of Barbara Pym’s last novel, A Few Green Leaves. It is not clear to me which part my friend found unconvincing—the growing attraction between the meek, widowed rector Tom and the awkward anthropologist Emma, or the obstacles to their match. (E.g.: Tom’s dreary sister, a visit from Emma’s old flame Graham, or the Oxfordshire village full of aging gossips who have nothing better to do than monitor the hand-delivery of casseroles to local bachelors.) At any rate, I bought the whole thing, and I believed that Emma did, too. As Pym’s narrator observes, “Even the most cynical and sophisticated woman is not, at times, altogether out of sympathy with the ideas of the romantic novelist.” —Lorin Stein

The weather yesterday was awful; this incessant wintry-mix business has got to stop. It has me thinking about Russian poems set during the siege of Leningrad, and last night my brain produced one of the most incredible jump shots since 2001: A Space Odyssey—from Boris Pasternak to Guns N’ Roses. The former has a poem that begins “February. Get ink and weep! / To write and write of February / like bursting into sobs, with thundering / slush burning in black spring.” Naturally, that led to “So never mind the darkness / We still can find a way / ’Cause nothin’ lasts forever / Even cold November rain.” The latter seems somehow right today—it’s a song, after all, about the vagaries of love. In fact, the classic Guns N’ Roses catalogue is brimming with Valentine’s Day–appropriate songs: charged lyrics for lovers (“Said, woman, take it slow / And it’ll work itself out fine / All we need is just a little patience”) and the lovelorn (“To think the one you love / could hurt you now / Is a little hard to believe / But everybody darlin’ sometimes / Bites the hand that feeds”). —Nicole Rudick

Some advice: Run, do not walk, to your love’s home. Take her by the hand and recite this Restoration-era poem about premature ejaculation: “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” by John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a legendary libertine who slept his way around the Royal Court and succumbed, at age thirty-three, to venereal disease. Here, in words as lewd and depraved as anything uttered in 2014, he recounts one of his less inspiring performances. Making love, he can’t quite contain himself, and “In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er, / Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.” His lady unsatisfied, he finds himself unable to get it up again, and lambasts his errant penis. “Worst part of me, and henceforth hated most, / Through all the town a common fucking-post.” If that doesn’t make her swoon, gents, nothing will. —Dan Piepenbring

When Dan asked us to recommend love-themed staff picks, I was all set to talk about one of my favorite films, the 1945 Powell-Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going! Then I saw it described by Vanity Fair as “a cult among poetic bluestockings” and my enthusiasm dimmed somewhat. But it deserves whatever following it has—incidentally, Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese are in the cult, too—and I can’t think of a more romantic movie than this tale of a willful young woman stranded in the Scottish Hebrides. (When I describe it like that, I can see why the poetic bluestockings are so excited, but don’t let that put you off!) —Sadie Stein Read More »

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A Week in Culture: Happy Menocal, Artist

March 26, 2013 | by

Day1_Fantasias_

DAY ONE

1 A.M. Go to bed with Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, a book about the work habits of famous artists, writers, philosophers, musicians, etc. Resolve to have a regimented, productive day tomorrow. All these people seem to subsist on coffee and alcohol and amphetamines. I feel like a toddler with my juice and crackers and noodles. 

7:45 A.M. Begin work on a little ad that’s due today for Stubbs & Wootton—fancy slippers made in Spain. It’s for a promotion they’re doing during the Ides of March. Someone at the company started the e-mail chain for the ad with the subject line “Eyes of March,” and I kinda want to do the visual about that. Decide instead to just paint Caesar, wearing the slippers, looking warily over his shoulder. I google “man sitting on column” because I want Caesar to be sitting on a crumbled stump of a column, and find this devil dog

My husband and I puzzle over where our two thousand terrible black umbrellas have gone, as now it’s raining and we have only one. He doesn’t bring it up this morning, but most times when we’re on the subject John likes to note that the pebbled plastic hook on the common street umbrella reminds him of that embalming tool they used in ancient Egypt to take your brain out through your nose. Read More »

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Literary Dinners; Crumbling Apartments

January 6, 2012 | by

I’ve been dreaming of hosting a cozy winter dinner party based on a famous meal from literature. What famous feasts are the most completely described? Id like to be able to re-create the menu, the atmosphere, and the attire, if possible.

There are probably a few people in the world more interested in this question than I—but, I’d reckon, a very few. As long as we’re being frank here, you may as well know that I belong to a literary potluck society in which we do monthly themed dinners. (We have yet to venture into the realm of costume.)

Laurie Colwin once wrote a whole essay on books containing good food; she singled out the early novels of Iris Murdoch, the Barbara Pym canon, and Anna Karenina. Inasmuch as I own and have used the Barbara Pym Cookbook, I can’t really agree that any of these vivid descriptions would make for very satisfying dinner parties (or, in the case of czarist Russia, a very relaxing one for the cook).

Here are a few other ideas to get you started: The Master and Margarita (for more manageable Russian cuisine—and think of the costume opportunities!). If you fancy something Dickensian, see any of the gluttonous Joe’s numerous meals in The Pickwick Papers. If you really want to take the guesswork out of it, Heartburn comes complete with recipes. Proust is a no-brainer—if Proust can ever be called a no-brainer. If your interest runs to tea, root out Enid Blyton. And at the end of the day, does any book in the world have better food than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy?

If you don’t feel like going the fictional route, there is always the food memoir. Nowadays, you’re spoiled for choice. Or (ration-bound Pym aside) consider the subgenre of cookbooks authored by enthusiastic writers: two whose quality is rivaled by their own idiosyncrasies are Roald Dahl's Cookbook and The Tasha Tudor Cookbook.

Whatever you decide, please drop a line and let me know—the group and I are always looking for ideas.

What do you think about movie adaptations of books? Are there any instances where you think the film actually improved on a particular story, or do you find that adaptations for the most part dont do justice to the original text?

Of course there are terrific adaptations. The Godfather, after all, made a thriller into a baroque masterpiece. We could list successful adaptations all day—I hope you will, in comments—but just a few that I like: The 39 Steps, The Dead, Persuasion, The Remains of the Day, High Fidelity, The Leopard, and, most recently, the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which manages to cover a lot of ground with enviable economy.

I recently moved into a crumbling three-bedroom in Bushwick, with peeling hand-painted green wallpaper in the cramped and poorly lit stairwell. The front door’s peephole, the tin cover of which unmoors itself at night and clatters to the ground, overlooks a dismal and gloomy green landing, where I can easily envision a seedy groping or muffled strangling taking place. My own room is separated from the living room by an old-fashioned sliding parlor door about the size and weight of a Prius. The bathroom window opens into a murky blue chute, which smells like laundry and cigarettes and exhales a strange warmth. What books should I read here?

Reading’s the easy part—sounds like your pad is made for it. What you should watch, and posthaste, is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t.

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Staff Picks: ‘Excellent Women,’ David Lynch Remixes

January 6, 2012 | by

“Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea ... 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 realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind.” Barbara Pym specialized in just such tiny landslides. Thanks to Sadie, over Christmas I read her 1952 novel Excellent Women, about the romantic tribulations of a self-professed spinster in postwar London. You can practically taste the PG Tips. —Lorin Stein

I spent most of the holidays battling a cold and so sought out purely pleasurable reading in Jeff Smith’s comic fantasy epic, Bone. I love feeling so submerged in a book that you can’t possibly tear yourself away; everything else is forgotten. —Nicole Rudick

I recently received this collection of Russian criminal tattoos as a gift. Knowing how to decipher these intricately coded designs could come in handy to anyone who feels they may, at some point, end up incarcerated indefinitely in the former Soviet Union. —Emma del Valle

Zola Jesus finally lets someone remix her music, and it’s David Lynch, remaking “In Your Nature.” —Natalie Jacoby

All the lonely winter souls should brave the cold and venture to Film Forum for the Robert Bresson retrospective. No other director so clearly captures humanity’s elegiac graces. As Jonathan Rosenbaum laments, “In spite of its importance, his work may have difficulty surviving, because most of it doesn’t ‘translate’ to video.” Starts today in glorious 35mm! —Josh Anderson

The comments section of the New York Times’ review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a study in human nature (or something). For every actual review, there’s someone panning it on principle because they love the Alec Guinness version or the Le Carré novel and have no intention of seeing a remake (1 star); people who haven’t seen it but think it looks good (5 stars); and one guy who fell asleep ten minutes in (1 star). I, for one, recommend it highly: even if you’re a staunch devotee of the 1979 miniseries, you’ll find a lot to love. (And it’s worth it for the Julio Iglesias rendition of “La Mer” alone. Why is this not available for download anywhere?) —Sadie Stein

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