Author: Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

Monday Miscellany: A Bouquet for You!

 

N-0796-00-000031-wpu
Jan van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, 1736-37

Doesn’t this look like the artist painted a “real” bouquet? Surprise!  He didn’t, at least not in the strict sense of the word.  I love Dutch art from 16th-17th centuries because it’s so sneaky — the reality portrayed in the paintings is illusory (also, the paintings are just fun!) Even a very wealthy person, much less an artist (even a successful one like van Huysum) couldn’t afford a bouquet like this — the flowers would simply be too expensive.  So artists painted imaginary bouquets, juxtaposing flowers that bloom at different times of the year, flowers the artists had never seen (these guys sometimes worked from prints or other paintings) or flowers that were so rare they could only be seen by visitng a specialized botanical garden, as van Huysum did on occasion (there was one in Haarlem).

It’s hard to see all the details (if you want to really zoom in on the digital image, go to the website of London’s National Gallery.  It’s worth the time), but do notice the butterflies flitting about among the blossoms, the droop in a few of the flowers and, oh yes the fly! (it’s the little brown speck on the left side of the ledge supporting the vase, above the bird’s nest and below the blue flowers; find the grapes and look slightly above and to their right).  A century before, these items would have been intended as a reminder that we, like the flowers and the butterflies, are emphemeral beings, and, like them, will soon disappear.  Van Huysum, however, was the last of the great Dutch flower painters and by his time these floral masterpieces were largely cherished for their sheer visual beauty rather than their moral message.  For any gardners wandering by my blog — how many different species of flowers can you count? (hint — there are at least twelve!)  And, while you’re enjoying the blossoms, notice those adorable little cupids in the relief on the terracotta vase!  And the fruit!  And the bird’s nest and ……………….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isabel Colegate’s “The Blackmailer:” What would YOU pay to have YOUR secrets kept?

250px-BlackmailUSWindowCardOndra

Has anyone out there read Isabel Colegate?  I don’t intend my question to be either cruel or facetious — I adore Isobel Colgate and think (I hope incorrectly — after all, I’m not a professional literary type and I base my opinion on absolutely nothing objective) that her work deserves more readers than it gets.  I’ve been a big Colegate fan since I first read her novel Winter’s Journey a number of years ago; I liked it so much I immediately bought copies of several of her other books with the idea that I’d work my way through the eight remaining novels that I hadn’t yet read.  These books have rested, peacefully, undisturbed and unread, on my shelves for quite some time now!  What can I say, except that life and more current writers intervened?

The 2019 Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate provided me with a dual incentive — I could not only discover whether I continued to regard Colegate’s writing so highly but I’d also dust off at least one pretty grungy bookshelf and the novels it contained.  After a great deal of thought (I love going through all my unread books) I decided to read Colegate’s debut nove, The Blackmailer (published in 1958), as my selection for the “Classics by a Woman Author” category.  I think I chose it over Colegate’s far better known novel, The Shooting Party, because I was intrigued by its title (I confess that I’ve also purchased books on the basis of their cover art!  I love book covers and have been known to purchase a second copy of a book simply because I liked the cover of a different edition!).  I also passed over, with some reluctance, Colegate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness, a well regarded non-fiction work in which she examines the value of solitude and the lives of certain individuals, ancient and modern, St. Anthony to Howard Hughes, who have chosen to live apart from others.  In other words, I took a gamble on choosing a much less well known and very early work.  You’ll have to read my post to the end (or skip to the last two paragraphs) to see whether I think my gamble paid off!

The Blackmailer is set in 1950s London and revolves around the relationship between Judith, the young widow of Anthony Lane, and Baldwin Reeves, an up-by-his bootstraps barrister who aspires to a political career, financial success and social acceptance by the landed gentry.  Judith’s deceased husband Anthony was not only handsome, intelligent and charming, but also endowed with fortune and birth, being the heir to an large estate and the son of a prominent family.  To top it off, Anthony was a renowned war hero, taken prisoner and executed by the enemy during the Korean War.  Could any mortal man possess more virtues?

Ah, but there’s a secret, you see!  In the parlance of a bygone era, Anthony was actually a bit of a bounder — or is it a rotter or maybe pigeon-hearted?  (It’s so difficult for us Americans to get the slang right; I’d welcome a correction if anyone from the U.K. ventures by!)  It seems that while commanding his company in Korea, Anthony bungled a retreat order; thinking it was a command to advance, which he didn’t want to do because he might get wounded or killed, he kept it to himself.  By the time his mistake was discovered, Anthony and his men were in a hopeless position and were taken prisoner by the North Koreans.  As if that wasn’t enough, in the prisoner of war camp Anthony collaborated to the extent of betraying his men’s escape plan, getting one of them shot.  This being too much for even the famed stoicism of the British soldier, Anthony’s justly exasperated subordinates executed him by hanging after holding an informal trial among themselves (during the Vietnam war, American soldiers used the term “fragging” to describe their own version of this activity vis à vis their officers).  None of this is ever disclosed, however, and after the war Anthony Lane is regarded by the British public as a national hero (one of Colegate’s nice touches is her brief allusion, towards the end of her novel, to an “upcoming film project” about Anthony’s heroic life).  For anyone ready to attack me for spoilers, hold your fire — Colegate tells you all about Anthony and his disreputable military career in the first page or two.  Rather than being about Anthony, Colgate is interested in the effect of his “secret” on his survivors and how they handle the truth.  For Baldwin Reeves, you see, was Anthony’s second in command; and although he has remained silent he knows all about the bungled order, the betrayal and Anthony’s trial and execution by his men.

The novel begins a few years after Anthony’s death, when Judith has established herself as a partner in a (very) small publishing house; she’s successful, maintains close ties with her deceased husband’s mother and grandfather and is reasonably content with her life.  While ignorant of the true facts of Anthony’s death, Judith is an intelligent and pragmatic woman who is well aware that Anthony was not what others perceived him to be; although she loved him, her marriage (unbeknowst to others) was less than happy.  Reeves by contrast is scrambling to make ends meet; although he’s justly confident of his ultimate success, he’s in the early stages of getting there and he needs money.  He also has a lingering resentment of Anthony Lane, war hero and golden boy, who had everything — money, family, social position — that Reeves is struggling so hard to get for himself.  So far, so predictable, right?  Reeves approaches Judith, threatens to tell all and begins extorting money from her.  What isn’t predictable is where Colegate takes the story, setting up an intricate game of cat and mouse, where Judith and Reeves exchange roles as victim and each gets off on the power he or she has over the other.

I’ve made The Blackmailer sound terribly grim and serious but it isn’t at all — the dialogue is crisp and witty, it has some incredibly funny passages and Colegate has a wonderful knack for creating marvelous supporting characters (if you like dogs, the novel’s worth reading just for Bertie, Judith’s pet spaniel, whose personality is depicted as vividly as that of the human actors.  If you don’t, read it to enjoy Anthony’s hilarious old nightmare of a Nanny, or Feliks, Judith’s very funny friend, publishing partner and social climber extraordinaire).  As I hope I’ve made clear, The Blackmailer is primarily a book for those who enjoy dialogue and relationships; readers who demand a lot of action in their novels will most probably find it a bit dull.  Keep in mind, as well, that The Blackmailer is a debut effort and, although I was satisfied with Colegate’s depiction of Reeves and Judith, I did wish she’d given a bit more space to their inner psychology.  I have a few other quibbles not worth mentioning, none of which detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Because I don’t have a lot of time right now, I’m sticking mostly to Challenge books for my pleasure reading, so I’ve gone through a lot of mid-century British fiction in my recent postings (Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Bowen’s Friends and Relations and Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer; when you add to these my reading for my class in the 19th century English novel I really feel it’s time to return to my native land for a book or two.  Perhaps a gangster novel set in New Jersey?)  Of these, I believe The Blackmailer has aged the best, perhaps because the “secret” that propels the action — the falsity of a “war hero’s” glorious reputation — is one that a person of our own era might still wish to conceal.  There’s also something very modern about the psychological struggle between Reeves and Judith; she, as much as he, is intent on exerting power in their relationship. Add in the fact that the novel is extremely well written and contains a very rare portrayal of an independent woman, in the 1950s, who works at a real job and actually enjoys doing so and, well, I’d say you have a gem.

Several years after it was originally published, Penguin reissued The Blackmailer in an omnibus volume with two other of Colgate’s early novels, A Man of Power and The Great Occasion (you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2 or less; although it’s delightful to get such a bargain, it’s sad that work of such quality appears to be so little read or valued).  Although it will have to wait for a month of two, I look forward eagerly to reading them both.  Who knows, maybe I’ll continue to keep the dust off the shelf holding my Colgate novels . . . . . .

 

 

Monday Miscellany: Did you notice that April is …. National Poetry Month?

767px-Carl_Spitzweg_-_Der_arme_Poet_(Neue_Pinakothek)
“The Poor Poet” (1839), an amusing look at the poet’s life by the German artist Carl Spitzweg. Surrounded by books, wrapped in a blanket for warmth and with an umbrella to ward off leaks, the poet in his hovel pursues his art ……notice that he’s using his fingers to count the meter!

I know, I know — theoretically, we all love, love, love poetry!  We love it so much, in fact, that we never read it!  Or am I judging everyone by myself (I think psychologists call this phenomenon  “projection”!).  I pretty much skip reviews of modern poetry collections and become positively indignant when the NY Times Book Review devotes an entire issue (once a year, I believe) to poetry; I immediately click away to something else if my internet journey takes me, by mistake, to a poetry site, and yet ….. it wasn’t always so.  When I was a kid, I loved poetry, read tons of it and can still recite bits and pieces of my favorites by heart.  I even composed quite a bit of bad poetry myself, teenagey angst-filled stuff handwritten in a grubby little notebook, which was thankfully lost in one of my many moves (there were some advantages to living in a pre-computer age — no backup files!).  Admittedly, my taste (not to mention my work product) was pretty pedestrian but it was heartfelt; poetry meant something to me and I thought it should matter to everyone else.  But then, in my mid-twenties, I just stopped reading and (thankfully) writing the stuff.

I think several factors led me away from poetry.  Foremost, as it usually is, was “life itself” — things got busy, there were jobs and husbands to get and lose, journeys to take and places to visit, degrees to earn — well, I’m sure you get the picture.  As I got older, I took to reading different kinds of literature, switching from non-fiction and poetry to a heavy diet of contemporary and classical fiction.  Then, most poetry is hard; it needs to be read with care and attention (no skimming!), with the meaning slowly teased out over time and from repeated readings; quite simply, I think I just didn’t have the intellectual energy to deal with it.  Last, but far from least, when I tried venturing back into poetry at various points over the years, it seemed as though poetry had moved on and that contemporary poets were writing in a language I literally didn’t understand and didn’t much like.

So — where do I stand now vis à vis this oldest of all the arts?  In the last few years, I have begun to realize how much poorer my reading life is without at least a little poetry in it.  Very, very tentatively I’ve returned to reading a few old favorites and I’ve actually dipped a toe into modern waters and tried the work of a few new poets (Jane Hirshfield is a favorite.  If things aren’t going quite your way, try her “Three-Legged Blues.”  If that doesn’t give you a little perspective on the doldrums, you probably need some serious professional help).  I pay at least token homage to poetry:  every April, I buy a book of poetry; I still give shelf space to the remnants of my poetry collection and I keep a skinny little file of poems that catch my eye now and again.  And, this year, I’m writing this blog post!  For ideas far more creative than mine on how to make your life a little more poetic, check out these suggestions from the Academy of American Poets.

Are there any other former poetry addicts out there who’ve gone cold turkey, in a way similar to me?  Or better yet, or there any avid poetry readers who’d share their thoughts on what poetry means to you or how you’ve incorporated poetry into your life?

71fsT7H5n+L._AC_UL436_
I try to get one of these every year; I seldom read them (and never manage to do so daily) but I have found a few things I like in them ….
51JhpW+k68L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
Another excellent, albeit seldom read, resident on my poetry shelf!

 

 

81UlU8t94eL._AC_UL436_
I love anthologies — their contents are like delicious little hors d’oeuvres for the mind!

 

 

Somerset Maugham’s Cakes & Ale: What details would you exclude from YOUR biography?

51I2GJLJRtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_
Selina Hastings’ highly regarded biography of Somerset Maugham.
51vp-2GLq7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_
One of my choices for the 2019 TBR Challenge, which also happens to be one of Maugham’s most highly regarded novels. The cover, which I found quite appealing, actually relates only loosely to Maugham’s novel!

 

Have any of you cyberspace wanderers read Somerset Maugham?  If so, I’d love to know your opinion of his work.  Maugham is a writer who, to me, is full of contradictions.  Incredibly popular in the first half of the 20th century — his biographer states that during his lifetime Maugham was the most famous writer in the world  — today he is little read and many of his novels are now out of print.  Despite his enormous successes (his work was frequently adapted for TV and movies, he once had four London theater productions running at once and every novel seemed to be a best seller), Maugham himself was quite modest about his talents.  The literary critics of his day mostly shared Maugham’s opinion on this point; one flatly described his output as “second rate” and without exception the literary establishment preferred the more experimental works of Maugham’s contemporaries such as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Wolf.

And yet ….. could so many readers be that wrong?  Wolf and Conrad are fabulous artists, truly among the greats writing in English but ….. don’t you think there is (or should be) a place in the pantheon for someone with a knack for telling an interesting story really, really well, particularly if it has a well done twist or an exotic setting, as Maugham’s novels frequently do?  Nor can Maugham’s talents be totally disregarded; his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, regularly pops up on any list of the 20th century’s greatest novels.  Even by my late teens and early twenties, however, Maugham’s literary star was fading fairly rapidly.  Nevertheless his novels were still easily available and I, being, as usual a bit behind the curve went through quite a Maugham phase.  I loved his short stories, went through several of the novels in rapid succession and did multiple re-reads of Of Human Bondage, which I regarded as one of the most moving and profound novels that had come my way (remember, I was very young and quite uncritical).  And then — well, I just drifted away to newer, trendier writers, all the while retaining fond memories of Maugham’s works.  A few years ago I noticed that at least some of the novels were being reprinted, with these really neat covers (see the beginning of my post!) and I decided I owed it to myself to re-stock my book stash with these neat new editions of my old favorite’s works.  And then — the books just sat there, catching dust, while I somehow never quite got around to reading them.  When I decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, well, a Maugham novel was a natural choice, wasn’t it?  As I explained in a previous post, participating in the Challenge just seemed a perfect time to see if the old Maugham magic still worked for me.

For my literary experiment, I selected Cakes and Ale, which I had never read, rather than Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Age, or The Moon and Sixpence, which I had.  I wanted to read something new and that was regarded as one of Maugham’s better novels.  The story revolves around issues associated with posthumous fame, literary reputation and how survivors shape (and frequently distort) the narrative of their loved ones’ lives.  The novel opens with the death of Edward Driffield, one of the last of the great Victorian novelists.  Driffield’s very proper widow (and second wife) has devoted herself to polishing the rough edges off her working class husband and to cultivating a carefully edited version of a great man of letters.  Now that Driffield is dead, she has no intention of relinquishing her efforts and has hired a sycophantic novelist acquaintance to write a carefully crafted version of the great man’s life.  A prime area for revision, in her opinion, concerns Driffield’s early life with Rosie, the beautiful, free spirited barmaid who was his first wife and the inspiration of his greatest novels.

Maugham gives you the story in flashbacks through the recollections of his narrator, who as a young boy knew Driffield as a penniless and unrespected writer, with a habit of skipping out on his rent.  The narrator is also a great admirer (and eventual lover, among many) of the warm-hearted, shrewd and captivating Rosie; when she absconds to New York with her chosen favorite among her pack of admirers the narrator is almost as  heart-broken as Driffield himself.  Needless to say, the second Mrs. Driffield has no intention of publicizing these events and will go to considerable trouble to suppress them from her edited version of the great man’s life.  

So, the great question — after so many years away from Maugham’s work, did the magic hold?  Well, yes and no.  Maugham is quite a story-teller and knows how to throw the reader a curve ball that, while consistent with the story, adds a bit of interest and excitement.  In what is perhaps a disturbing example of my own arrested development, I also found that I enjoyed Maugham’s tone of detached, slightly ironic cynicism almost as much now as did when I was much, much younger.  And, although Maugham doesn’t offer any penetrating psychological insights into his characters, making them a tad two-dimensional, Rosie is a great creation — funny, shrewd and full of life.  Maugham’s musings on literary fame (which work would survive time, which wouldn’t) made the novel drag a bit at times; also, Maugham’s contemporaries no doubt enjoyed his thinly veiled portrayals of some of his fellow novelists much more than I did (Driffield, for example, is apparently based loosely on Thomas Hardy; Driffield’s sycophantic biographer on Horace Walpole, the details of whose career I had to gleam from Wiki).  Maugham’s treatment of an issue that interests me greatly — the biographer’s art of emphasizing certain aspects of his subject’s life, while downplaying others, and the factors dictating his/her choices — is, shall I say, pretty superficial (for a far more perceptive fictional treatment of these issues, read Penelope Lively’s fantastic novel, According to Mark).  Nevertheless, C&A was a quick, fun read that offered a fair amount of entertainment for a minimal amount of effort.  Will I continue my trip down the somewhat overgrown, semi-deserted Maugham highway?  Yes, but the journey isn’t a high priority right now.

Finally a brief word or two about Maugham’s life, which in many respects is as interesting and exotic as the best of his novels.  He had a disastrous and unloving childhood, worked in intelligence during WWII, traveled extensively (and exotically), lived lavishly and juggled a manipulative and neurotic wife with several male lovers.  He was, in short, a biographer’s dream and Selina Hastings does his life justice.  If you’re interested and don’t have time for her biography, I’d recommend the New Yorker’s very good discussion of Maugham’s life and literary reputation.

Monday Miscellany: architecture & art in unexpected places (with a little history on the side!)

0-29
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberllin College, Oberlin, Ohio. Cass Gilbert, a leading American architect, designed the gorgeous Renaissance style building in 1917.

A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity.  I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure.  And — it’s easy to do!  Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida?  Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!)  Traveling to or near Pittsburgh?  You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer.  Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans?  If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city.  Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama?  Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.

It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay).  Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:

51PdPvdnJHL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

51jvbILWWjL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio.  Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination.  As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy,  in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain.  As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one!  Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:

0-4
Sofonisba Anguissola’s Double Portrait of a Boy and Girl, most probably siblings, from the wealthy Attavanti Family of Florence.  Sofonisba painted this portrait around 1580, using the relatively uncommon tondo or round format.

Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art.  The latter includes works by  Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more!  Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior.  Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon.  Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:

0-31
The Allen Memorial Museum’s main rotunda. The individual galleries open from this space and there’s more space for rotating exhibits upstairs (behind the square windows over the arches).
0-3
The Allen Museum’s wonderful ceiling and chandelier.  You can also catch a glimpse of the upstairs exhibitions through the square windows on either side of the circular chandelier.

When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes.  Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!)  The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement.  It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom.  Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?

 

0-4.jpeg

51guC-hQCpL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_
A popular and well written history recounting an episode in 1858, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the residents of Oberlin defied the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law requiring them to return escapees to bondage in the slave states.
61HE7QKyt3L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_
Colson Whitehead’s novel won both the Pulitzer and National Book Awards and was nominated for Britain’s Man Booker Prize.  Drawing on magical realism, Colson depicted the underground railroad as a literal physical structure used by escaping slaves.  Despite the fantasy aspects, Whitehead’s depiction of slavery’s horrors was, alas, all too real.

Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.

0-19
Baldwin Cottage, designed by Weary and Kramer. Probably not everybody’s idea of a “cottage” . . . .

 

0-16
Finney Chapel, also designed by Gilbert and located on Professor Street — a perfect address for a college campus!

 

0-12
Bosworth Hall, designed by Cass Gilbert

Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.

0-1.jpeg

IMG_1131
One of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s rare Usonian houses, a residential design he developed in the 1930s.

Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:

A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two.  Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….

0-28
A wonderful bookstore, full of charm and character; so different from those faceless mall-type stores or online offerings.  Although mainly specializing in second-hand books of all types, it also offers prints, paintings and interesting “objects,” utilitarian and otherwise!

Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….

1014080_1081370225237360_7660118282351952004_n

photo0jpg
Bead Paradise — wonderful selection AND it has more than beads!

… and FOOD!  Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..

0-23
True to its name, Aladdin serves fabulous Middle Eastern food!

 

0-24
I wasn’t able to hang around for dinner or lunch, but the breakfast was great! Local produce, with lots of vegetarian and vegan options.

 

0-25
Saturday morning BEFORE the rush. An hour later and the place was packed!

In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Friends & Relations”: Are yours like Elizabeth Bowen’s?

0
Or are they like this?
a96687_a451_bellestarr
Or more like this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family relationships, even the best of them, can be unsettling, can’t they?  Some families go for the “let’s share everything and do a group hug approach,” while others ignore (frequently for years)  that huge emotional elephant in the middle of the room that is dominating their lives.  Still others steer a midway course between disclosure and concealment that still, inevitably, leads to disaster.  In short, isn’t it amazing how very difficult, not to say problematical, family life and friendships can become?  These observations are particularly fitting  for my review of Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends & Relations, as Bowen is a novelist with whom I’ve had a long and unsettling, not to say problematical relationship.  Since I have a weakness for subtle, skilled, mid-20th century female British novelists, Bowen has been on my radar, and heavily represented on my bookshelves, for quite some time.  And yet …. my reaction to her work is, quite frequently, “hmmm, I’m not really sure that she merits her rep (glowing assestments from Harold Bloom, no less) and I’m really not sure that I liked what I just read.”  And yet, there’s undeniably something there, as far as I’m concerned; Bowen published ten novels and this makes the seventh one that I’ve read!  Moreover, when I decided to participate in the 2019 Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate my only question about Bowen was “which novel will I read and what category will I put it in?”  I ultimately selected Friends & Relations, published in 1931 and one of Bowen’s very early works of fiction, to satisfy the Challenge’s 20th Century Classic category.

Bowen, who was pretty upper crust herself (being an Anglo Irish aristocrat with an inherited ancestral home in Ireland) drew the “friends and relations” of her title from four upper class English families in the decade or two before the second World War.  In a brief 160 odd pages of masterly prose Bowen shows you in some detail the orderly, elegant structure of her characters’ lives.  The novel opens (in a section titled “Edward and Rodney”) with the wedding of pretty, conventional Laurel Studdart to Edward Tilney, followed shortly afterwards by the engagement of her younger, more introverted sister Janet to Rodney Meggatt, an even better match as Rodney’s the heir to a landed estate.  “The Fine Week,” the novel’s second section, covers a brief period that occurs roughly ten years after the sisters’ weddings.  At this time both couples have settled into the easy domestic routine of their time and class — servants (mostly off stage and doing the heavy lifting), kids (one for Janet, two for Laurel), life in the country (Janet and Rodney), a London routine (Laurel and Edward, who works in a government ministry) — all amid friends and connections from two other English families much like themselves.  Included among the latter is Lady Elfrida, Edward’s slightly disreputable mother, Considine Meggatt, Rodney’s uncle and Lady Elfrida’s former lover, and Theodora Thirdman, a family “friend” who’s one of Bowen’s great comic creations.  It is Theodora’s insatiable taste for drama and her monstrous narcissism  (hopefully, none of your friends and relations include anyone like her.  If they do, you’re in trouble) that leads to the seemingly trivial act disrupting the careful structure of the others’ lives.  The resulting consequences, which occur on a single day, are covered in the novel’s third section (“Wednesday”).  The novel’s plot, setting and characters are all very “Downton Abbey with a bit of a twist” and, if you care for that sort of thing (I do, to some extent, particularly when it’s as well written as this) reason enough to read this novel.

Reading Friends for its plot and character, however, largely misses its point.  Bowen is a greatt stylist and her novel’s complexity (and, for all its brevity, this novel is very complex) lies in its style.  Very gradually and elliptically, so gradually and elliptically that I wasn’t sure at first that I was drawing the right inferences (it turns out that I was),  Bowen reveals the emotinal secret that governs her couples’ lives.  The subtlety of Bowen’s prose, her time shifts, her elliptical and sometime incomplete dialogue, place definite demands on the reader, who sometimes has to use the prose to infer key information rather than being told it directly.  To be blunt, this is not a novel to skim quickly while eating dinner and watching TV; it requires attention, care and, at times, a re-read of certain key passages.  A subplot of the novel involving Lady Elfrida bears mentioning, as her ladyship’s very public sexual escapades have reverberated in the following generation, contributing to her son Edward’s rather uptight and priggish nature and at one point threatening Janet’s marriage to Rodney.  Whether Bowen intends the reader to draw a moral from this is unclear; I didn’t myself and don’t feel I lost anything by failing to do so.

I fear I’ve made Friends & Relations sound terribly serious, haven’t I?  If so, I’ve done both Bowen and her novel a disservice.  Although it’s a bit too bittersweet to be a comedy, Bowen’s dialogue and descriptions can be very, very funny; morevoer, Lady Elfrida and especially Theodora are wonderful, comedic characters.  Although I didn’t think that Janet in particular was fully fleshed out and Rodney was never more to me than a cipher,  Bowen has moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, such as her description towards the end of the novel of Laurel and Janet’s aging parents:

They did not miss their daughters but they regretted them.  After dinner, pulling round arm-chairs to the fire, with backs to the empty room, she played patience, with the board over her knee; he finished a detective story a night.  If he died first, she would stay on here for the grandchildren; if she died first the house would be given up.  Once or twice in an evening their eyes met.

Would I recommend this novel? Definitely, with a few caveats.  Don’t be misled by its brevity and expect to read it quickly; have patience;  focus on its style and language and be tolerant of its rather pedestrian plot and the conventions of upperclass British life between the wars.  Friends & Relations is an early novel, considered by many to be unrepresentative of Bowen’s best work.  For this reason, I recommend, if you’ve never read Bowen or you only intend to read one of her ten books, that you begin with, or read, a different work, perhaps The Last September,  The Death of the Heart (my own favorite so far) or, if you want an atmospheric WWII “London in the Blitz” setting, The Heat of the Day.  Do I like Bowen’s work myself or do I merely appreciate her ability as a writer?  Do I think her glowing reputation is deserved?  So very, very difficult to decide the precise nature of my  problematical relationship with this writer ….. I think I’ll make up my mind after I read Eva Trout  …………. or perhaps The Hotel ……

Monday Miscellany — it’s Cherry Blossom Time!

unnamed-2
Last Saturday at the Tidal Basin, when the cherry blossoms were a little short of peak bloom. They’re still gorgeous, aren’t they?
After a bit of thought, I’ve decided to make Monday on the blog “Miscellany Day,” i.e., a time to feature whatever interests me at the moment, whether it’s a painting, photo, movie, travel experience, short story or even — a BOOK!  Since it’s spring, and, around here, that means cherry blossoms, I thought that I’d make the subject of my first “Monday Miscellany” my recent excursion to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry trees.  The blossoms don’t last very long — making them a perfect symbol of spring and of human existence — so if you want to see them you can’t delay.  This is the first time in many years that I’ve gone to the trouble — and believe me, it does involve a little planning, as cherry blossoms mean crowds, as well as spring — but worth it, don’t you think?
unnamed-10
Cherry blossoms up close and personal — the closer you get, the more spectacular they are!
unnamed-7
See the small figure in pink, sitting on the edge of the basin? Some people know how to dress to honor the occasion!
unnamed-9
Shortly after dawn, on a cloudy day, so the light wasn’t great. Still, the reflection of the Washington Monument made getting up early worthwhile, don’t you think?
unnamed-6
What’s a blog post without a little history? Although it’s difficult to read, this plaque commemorates the 1912 gift of the original cherry trees, made by the mayor of Tokyo to the people of the United States.   At least two of the original trees remain …
unnamed-5
Two of the many, many photographers attracted to the Japanese lantern, another gift from Japan made in the 1950s.  Lighting the lantern, which is over 300 years old, marks the official opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival.  It’s  located on the little plaza opposite the bronze memorial plaque.
unnamed-4
The educationally minded can even attend a “blossom talk,” if they are so inclined. The flowing waterfall on the poster refers to the FDR Memorial, which is right next door to the trees
unnamed-8
The Tidal Basis has at least two different species of cherry trees; as you can see, some of them are more white than pink. From a distance, the white ones create a cloud-like effect.

Although I seldom read poetry any more, cherry trees and spring always bring me back to one of my very favorite poems, from A. E. Houseman’s Shropshire Lad:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

And, speaking of nature’s beauty, I’ll end with my last image from the Tidal Basin, which perfectly expresses my own view:
unnamed-3