Posts Tagged ‘Excellent Women’
December 2, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
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.
February 17, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
Because of my school’s academic structure, I pack up my possessions and move every two to three months, ricocheting between school, home, and New York. In fact, I’m leaving the city this weekend. This kind of transience can be refreshing, but it is also disorienting, and it can make life feel fragmented or compartmentalized. If you could recommend reading material that addresses the issue of the transitory lifestyle, it might make the journey a little easier.
Whether you’re looking for seekers (The Razor’s Edge), free spirits (On the Road), ramblers (the Little House books) or the Picaresque (Tristram Shandy) there’s no shortage of literary traveling companions. Keep in mind that unstable, constantly-relocating parents also make for memorable childhoods, so the memoir section is rife with tales of itinerant life!
What is the funniest book ever written?
I don’t feel this is a question one person can answer definitively for all sorts of obvious reasons, although I will say NOT The Ginger Man, since all sorts of people, mostly men, are wont to go into ecstasies about its alleged hilarity. But then, lots of the reputedly uproarious classics have left me cold, so what do I know?
You don’t need me to list the “great comic novels” for you—Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Lucky Jim … the list goes on. I feel like the “right” answer to this question is something like Ulysses, but I’d be lying if I said it had me in stitches. (Although Mark Twain genuinely has.) Several in the canon get resounding plaudits from my colleagues here: Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are considered comedy classics for a reason.
Says Lorin, “The Tetherballs of Bougainvillea made me laugh longest. London Fields made me laugh hardest (Marmaduke: projectile tears of laughter). Home Land made me laugh loudest. Mark Twain’s sketches and the Jeeves books make me laugh most reliably.”
Deirdre adds that Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask should not be ignored.
As for me, I’ve mentioned it before, but After Claude was the last book to actually make me laugh out loud. I love Scoop, and early parts of The Pursuit of Love. (Although I find Waugh and Mitford’s correspondence funnier than either.) E.F. Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” series has moments of absolute hilarity. Pictures from an Institution should be in there, surely.
Disclaimer: I find certain scenes in Excellent Women genuinely funny, but Lorin said that he didn’t laugh once, so.
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February 3, 2012 | by Lorin Stein
The Downton Abbey craze has led to a plethora of recommendations for books on the World War I era of Britain. I’m interested in this era for the States. What good novels are out there about this time frame, preferably set in New England?
A few near misses: Ethan Frome (1911) begins in 1910 in rural Massachusetts, but the main action occurs in the 1890s. Main Street (1921) describes a small town during the war years, but it's set in Minnesota. Sadie’s favorite Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Understood Betsy (1916) is set in Vermont—but it’s for children. Our Town is of course a play. Spoon River Anthology is set in Illinois and is, of course, a book of poems ... but if you want New England life in the early twentieth century, I can’t help recommending the Tilbury poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, e.g., Children of the Night (1921), which includes the sonnet “Rueben Bright”:
Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.
And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.
Closer to the bull’s-eye: The Late George Apley (1938) or Point of No Return (1949), both by John P. Marquand. The former traces the decline of a Boston Brahmin family between the Civil War and the Depression. The latter concerns a Don Draper–ish New York banker, Charles Gray, who has tried to bury his humble beginnings in Clyde, Massachusetts. The past—i.e., the twenties—catches up with Charles in the person of Malcolm Bryant, a sociologist who published a study of Clyde. Point of No Return may be set a little late, but it’s funny and evocative and pure pleasure to read.
Previous advice columns have addressed the question of good movie adaptations of novels. What I’m wondering is, what books have you wished would be translated into film?
Sadie writes: I feel a certain kind of nerd (and I’m describing myself) devotes an undue amount of time to pondering these questions. I have never understood, for instance, why Georgette Heyer novels (specifically The Grand Sophy) have never gotten the miniseries treatment—I mean, Netflix tells me that there are dozens of lurid Catherine Cookson adaptations, but the infinitely more clever, subtle, and (I daresay) historically accurate Heyer has generated nary a one? (Okay, that’s an exaggeration—a vigilant fan site tells me that there has been a spoof of The Reluctant Widow and a German adaptation of Arabella.)
It is a favored pastime among Barbara Pym fans to ponder wholly inappropriate casting choices for adaptations of Excellent Women. I am not exempt from this practice.
Others I’d personally like to see: The Secret History; the entire Betsy-Tacy canon (also, by necessity, a miniseries. Very high-budget); The Little Stranger; The True Deceiver (in my fantasy world, Bergman adapts this); The Sea, The Sea (I see Ian McKellan in the lead); The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll; The Art of Fielding. Some of these, obviously, are more likely than others. Read More »
January 6, 2012 | by The Paris Review
“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