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Posts Tagged ‘novel of manners’

We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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I’ve really enjoyed other books by Nick Hornby, and a patron recommended Funny Girl when he was returning it last week so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s set mainly in the 1960’s, although the end is in present times. It’s about a young woman, Barbara Parker, from Blackpool, who wants to be the next Lucille Ball. Barbara wants this so badly she is willing to leave her dad and her auntie Marie in Blackpool and go to London where she knows no one.

Hornby is respectful of Barbara’s ambition — in fact, one thing I really like about his books is that Hornby is respectful of all of his characters. Even the nakedly ambitious or the slightly mean-spirited or the completely irritating ones.  He has a a generosity of spirit towards all of them that is really endearing.

Back to Barbara, or Sophie as she is known in London. She is smart and funny and unvarnished and when she auditions for a comedy show on the BBC the writers, Tony and Bill, and the producer, Dennis, realize she’s brilliant and hatch plans for a series. But Funny Girl isn’t just about a happy young successful team and their smash hit show. Tony and Bill are gay, although Tony’s not sure if he is also attracted to women, especially after he marries one and is happy. Hornby writes about how dangerous it is to be gay in London in the 1960’s. And how society is changing swiftly but there are still people who use the word “courting” and are openly prejudiced. And how in the tumult of these changes, people mostly want what they always have.

In other words, in the framework of this funny novel about the birth of a modern sitcom in 1960’s London, Hornby talks about the ever changing, ever the same human condition. We struggle with our ambitions and hopes, and struggle to reconcile them with the ambitions and hopes of our family and friends. We hurt each other inadvertently or purposefully, we apologize and make amends or lurch off to do it again. We try to learn and be better people and be worthy of those who love us.

Hornby also notices that people have always thought the young were careless or unserious. In one scene Tony is trying to write a new show with Sophie’s friend Diane about a young woman making her way in London, and he asks ” What’s her problem?” Diane doesn’t understand his point, and he goes on to patiently explain that’s how scripts work — the characters have a problem that they work out. Diane, who is herself a young woman making her way in London, says “Yeah, but they’re all so depressing, those programs . . . . None of my friends want to watch them.” They go back and forth a bit and she tells him that only her parents and grandparents watch that kind of thing, and Tony’s appalled. It reminded me of modern conversations about which generations prefer which social media or online content.

Look for Funny Girl  if you’d like a historical novel of manners full of astute observations of human nature that has as much to say about our own world as the one it’s set in.

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The heroine of Everybody Rise, if you can call her that, is Evelyn Beegan, whose social climbing mother has done her very best to teach Evelyn to fit in with her prep school peers. When the book opens, Evelyn is 26, living in New York just before the Great Recession, and working for People Like Us, an exclusive social media site targeting the rich and well connected crowd she so desperately wants to belong to. She’s convinced if she can deliver the old money members PLU is looking for her life will be perfect. So she learns everything she can about Camilla Rutherford, the alpha girl of New York’s socialite scene, and her circle, pretends to be a part of their world, and begins to get invited to parties and benefits and even the committee organizing one of New York’s debutante balls. She can sense she’s “being seen” and is finally, happily — or so she thinks — one of “them” at last.

But weekends in the Hamptons, expensive tickets, designer clothes, “three-times-a-week blowouts” and “just the right toiletries” are massively expensive. Clifford writes, “The prices struck her as high at first, but she found that, freeingly, the more she spent, the less she cared.” Evelyn finagles money from her parents, stops opening her bills, and instead opens more credit card accounts. By the time her friend Charlotte tries to help her get organized, she’s $65,000 in debt on one card alone. And then her father is indicted for bribery and sued by the other partners in his litigation firm. Evelyn’s carefully curated life begins to fall apart. All the lies she told to seem privileged and respectable catch up with her. When she realizes her parents are about to lose everything and her father is going to prison, she makes one last stab at leveraging her “position” to try and save herself and her parents from disgrace.

I won’t give away what happens but I’ll say that if you think Evelyn sounds ridiculous, you’re not far wrong. It’s hard to like a victim of her own pretentions. And yet, readers know she’s going to learn from the error of her ways, like heroines of nineteenth century novels of manners. I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it. The greed and excess Clifford portrays is hard to take and the redemption seems half-hearted; I got the impression at the end of the book that given the chance, Evelyn would bag a banker and live the way she was trying to on her own.

Everybody Rise is an interesting, entertaining read but one that left me feeling slightly sick. I guess that’s because this novel is a socioeconomic horror story.

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I enjoy my weekly shift on the circulation desk, because I check in dozens of books and get a good sense of what my library community is reading. Recently I checked in a new book, The World Is a Wedding, and it looked so intriguing that I looked up The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, which is the first of Wendy Jones’ novels about Wilfred Price, undertaker and funeral director in Narberth, a village in Wales, in the 1920’s.  Narberth, Jones writes, is a “small, very tightly bound, ancient corner of the world.” Narberth, incidentally, is a real place.

In her novels, Jones fills it with utterly engaging characters who are dealing with the deepest human emotions. Wilfred’s apprentice-master told him “no life without a wife,” and while on a picnic with the village doctor’s daughter, Grace, he finds himself proposing. He quickly realizes that’s not really what he wants. Determined to fix things, he tells her, but by then lots of people know. Meanwhile at a funeral he meets Flora and is overcome with a desire to know her better.

If this sounds pretty simple and “cozy,” it gets much deeper and even a little darker. By the end of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, I was deeply interested in what would happen to Wilfred, Grace, and Flora. Wilfred wants very much to do what’s right in life, and he struggles to know what that is — as anyone should, who gives it any thought. Flora is still haunted by the death of her first love in WWI, and she wants very much to live fully again after years of wearying grief, but isn’t sure, precisely, what happiness will mean for her.

Grace is thrust into the world from her sheltered girlhood not by her own actions, but as she’s acted upon,but she’s no damsel in distress. She wants to take charge of her own destiny — she just needs a little kindness, even if she isn’t sure how to accept it yet. Her story develops more fully in the second novel, The World Is a Wedding. In one scene she’s at the National Gallery in London and she comes across a Rembrandt, “Self-portrait of the Artist Aged 63.” She looks at it for some time and Jones writes, “Across centuries his acceptance soothed her: what he knew of the world reassured her. . . . She had waited a long time in this city to find someone who was this human and who had nothing they wanted her to be.” That’s a passage with staying power, one I’ll return to as I think about this book again.

Jones’ fine writing and thoughtful observation of human nature give the book depth. A host of finely drawn, fully developed minor characters give it life, from Mrs. Prout, the village fortune teller, to Grace’s cold and proud mother Mrs. Reece, to Wilfred’s “da,” the local gravedigger. Narberth is easy to picture too, in Jones’ capable hands. But I may not have to imagine it forever — Downton Abbey’s production team have optioned the books for a mini-series.

It had been some time since I’d read a Europa Edition book and I thoroughly enjoyed these two. This is absorbing, thoughtful fiction that examines what people mean to each other, and how humankind’s flawed communication skills and propensity to misunderstand, and to lie to themselves and each other, can wreak havoc. It’s also about the healing power of friendship, family, and love. Highly recommended — just don’t plan to do much else when you start these, because you may want to read them over a handful of days.

 

 

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I just finished Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy and was feeling bad about how much I enjoyed it. Which made me wonder, why on earth should certain books, films, etc. be considered “guilty pleasures?”

Fielding writes brilliant comedy. This is a smart book, full of trenchant and hilarious send-ups of contemporary life, which is really what Jane Austen did, or Jonathan Swift, or other writers of novels of manners or social satire. So why should I feel like my friends with fancy degrees or my fellow librarians or anyone really will snigger at my full-bodied praise for the glorious @JoneseyBJ?

Because she is glorious — Bridget Jones is now in her 50’s, widowed for several years (Mark Darcy, human rights lawyer extraordinaire and father of their two children died in Sudan), living quite comfortably (alas no longer in Holland Park, but in a house in London, with a part time nanny and a cleaner to help out), and trying to put her personal and professional lives back together while a) juggling the ridiculous number of activities her children have b) dealing with her food issues, i.e. desire to eat whole bags of shredded cheese when feeling down c) not feeling old d) losing her born-again virginity e) feeling like a crap mother, writer, and woman.

She deals with texting, tweeting, learning to date again, trying not to be late or seem crazy while on the school run, and trying to keep her children nit free, well nourished, organized, and well cared for, albeit fatherless. Her wonderful band of friends still “help” with all of this, and a few new ones appear on the scene as well. Bridget is still the awkward mess with a heart of gold that she was in the earlier books.

I think the thing Fielding captures best — cultural critiques and pointed commentary on the objectification of women aside, brilliant as they are — is that all too common awkwardness.  Haven’t we all felt it?

Who hasn’t been in a social situation and realized she tried to say something intelligent but garbled it a bit? Who hasn’t misread someone? Or compared another woman’s life to her own and felt terribly wanting, and also — whether we admit it or not — as if the right outfit might solve something, even if we know deep down that is utter rubbish? Who doesn’t vow regularly to embark on a plan of self-improvement that will actually solve everything, while ordering said outfit as plan B? Who, no matter how smart and feminist, doesn’t wish to recapture some of her younger self’s best features? Or feel like crap for some or all of the above?

Who doesn’t simultaneously love their friends and family and feel a little exasperated at filling a certain role in those familiar circles? Who doesn’t cherish that familiarity when push comes to shove? And who doesn’t know, really, it’s not so bad, as long as we have each other?

So forgo guilt and take pleasure in this funny, fun-to-read, and witty book. And then give yourself a break.

 

 

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