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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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September’s Mindful Reader column is up on the Concord Monitor** website. Check out my review of Cascade, by Maryanne O’HaraRise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

This weekend I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  — a very fun romp. The book combines the social wit of Jane Austen with the eccentricity of Alan Bradley (author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries), a dash of Julian Fellowes, and a bit of wild stagecraft Shakespeare could love. In fact, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan pining for season three, this might be a quirky distraction.

The book opens at a crumbling great house, Sterne, in 1912, on the morning of Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her mother is preoccupied with her stepfather Edward’s trip to Manchester, where he plans to ask an unpleasant business acquaintance for a loan to save Sterne. As the day unfolds there is a visit from a potential suitor, John, a self-made man who Emerald doesn’t really want but who has plenty of money. A telegram from her childhood best friend, Patience, whose mother has come down with influenza. And news of a terrible train crash on a branch line nearby, resulting in the uninvited guests, who the Torringtons must take in after their ordeal.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, and Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, are dismayed to find a man they once knew has crashed Emerald’s party, claiming to be the sole first class passenger among the train wreck victims. Everyone can see there is some sort of secret among these three. Meanwhile the eccentric little sister, Imogen, known as Smudge, takes advantage of the chaos to smuggle the family pony, Lady, into her room to sit for a portrait.

Emerald finds herself strangely drawn to her best friend’s brother Ernest, a medical student who has escorted his sister to Sterne in place of his mother, and Clovis finds that Patience, who he used to find annoying, is actually not anymore. As the party takes stranger and stranger turns. The finely dressed guests and hosts (except for Charlotte, who retires to her boudoir to sulk) end up serving the carefully prepared multi-course birthday feast to the train passengers.  They sit in their spoiled finery making a meal of the bits and pieces. And the strange “gentleman” entices them into a humiliating party game.

In the frenzy of emotion and tension that follows, all of the twists of the day resolve themselves and in Shakespearean fashion, many matches are made. The pony is led back downstairs. And in the morning, once the mess is cleared and the uninvited guests are gone (and their nature made clear), Edward returns with news of a strange turn of the family’s affairs.

If I’m being unspecific it’s to save you, dear readers, from a series of spoiled surprises. The Uninvited Guests is such a delightful literary romp that I don’t want to ruin the fun.  Just imagine an Edwardian house party with “dark surprises” as the jacket blurb surmises, plenty of social satire, and a rather arch look at human nature.

 

** Text if you can’t find it online:

Finding balance

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O’Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O’Hara didn’t really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.

Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to ”have it all” as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.

Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.

And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.

Her postcard series about Cascade’s possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa’s land with Jacob’s truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.

In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose – stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.

 O’Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.

Short fiction and a poem / play

I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.

Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.

The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler’s rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.

Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life’s emotional and psychological turbulence.

Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison’s death row.

Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a ”horn incident report,” and another in which Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.

Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father’s advice, ”Stick up for the little guy, bud.” Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s ”absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill’s note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that ”Let’s Talk” could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication – the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations – in one scene on a park bench.

With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.

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