April 2021 Wrap-Up

With best intentions, it looks as though my New Year’s resolution to write something about every.single.book. has sort of come to its natural end. Oh well. It lasted for two months pretty solidly, which isn’t bad. I refuse to feel guilt or shame. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if constant churning-out of bookish content is really where I want my productivity to lie. It was a useful exercise for a while there, to bring my mind back into shape, but I already work for the book industry eight hours a day, five days a week. Do I really want my leisure hours to consist entirely of free publicity for that same industry? This ambivalence is partly reflected in the way my reading is shifting away from frontlist titles at the moment. We’ll see how this develops over the course of the year.

On to April, a pretty rich reading month in which I read eleven books! Three of these were proofs of new releases: Florence Gildea’s Lessons I Have Unlearned (a cheering and charming slim volume about mental health, eating disorders, and God; it would be difficult to read it from a non-Christian perspective, but as someone who wrestles with God’s existence and a brutally perfectionist self-image, I found it very resonant), Jon McGregor’s Lean Fall Stand (exactly as good as I wanted it to be, though a different animal, and slightly less technically accomplished, than Reservoir 13; it’s a novel in two chunks, really, the first chunk establishing as protagonist Robert “Doc” Wright, an experienced technician assisting scientists and photographers in Antarctica, the second following Doc’s progress after a stroke leaves him with aphasia, and filtered through the eyes of his wife, Anna; emotionally nuanced but sometimes perhaps a bit distant with its readers. Still, writing aphasia–a condition defined by a loss of control over language–is ambitious and difficult, and mostly McGregor does well there), and Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle (a strong contender for my book of the year so far, a dual-strand historical novel following Marian Graves, a 20th-century female pilot who disappears, like Earhart, on an attempt to complete a type of round-the-world flight known as a great circle, and Hadley Baxter, a “troubled Hollywood starlet” in the mould of Jennifer Lawrence or Kristin Stewart–she’s become famous by playing the female romantic lead in a franchise adapted from cod-fantasy YA novels, whose fans are portrayed as rabidly unable to tell the difference between fiction and reality–who feels compelled to play Marian in a new, and misleading, biopic, and to find out more about her actual life; Marian’s strand gets more pages, and it’s clear to me that Shipstead preferred writing her, but Hadley is never less convincing than Marian; it’s been months since I read a book that made me believe so deeply in the reality of its characters. The descriptive writing is also phemonenal. It might be a tad longer than strictly necessary, but not a single page made me feel I was wasting my time by reading it. It’s magnificent, and will, I hope, be much loved.)

Two were newly released reprints of older books, both from Penguin’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. The first, Incomparable World by SI Martin, is a sort of crime picaresque set in 1780s London amongst a community of Black soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution, having been promised freedom from slavery and a new life in England after the war’s end. Martin’s great on atmosphere, noise and muck and mess, the way poverty steals dignity, the necessity of living on the edge, but less good on clear plotting and character differentiation. Still, it’s funny and poignant and provides a much-needed fictional window into a historical experience that remains largely unexplored. The second was The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy, in which zaftig, irrepressible Gloria, and skinny, silent Merle become unlikely companions on an NHS mental health ward in the 1990s. Roy slyly forces us to question whether either of them is actually mad, or whether (as has been the case so often for women, especially poor women and/or women of colour) they’ve been sectioned largely for the convenience of people around them. Gloria sings constantly, talks loudly to everyone she sees, and is secretly grieving her female partner of many years, Josie, whose family’s homophobia has made it impossible for Gloria’s pain to be acknowledged; Merle is traumatized by childhood sexual abuse and a toxic current relationship; both make other people uncomfortable. Their growing friendship, and the journals they keep for the scrutiny of their doctors, reveal the essential unhelpfulness and fluidity of labels like “sane” and “insane”. It’s a genuinely joyful book, and the ending is perfect.

I got through a number of books when I went down to Sussex at the start of the month. Two of these were e-copies of backlist sci fi classics that I snaffled in a buying spree at Gollancz’s 99 p sale (Paul McAuley’s Fairyland, which also counts towards my Clarke Award challenge as it won in 1996; heavy on the cyber-punk and biotech but posing fascinating questions about sentience and authority over life, although its curious structure lets it down by deflating tension every time we move location; and M John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which Harrison himself has described as “the crappiest of my novels”, a kind of anti-space opera in which the half-alien protagonist is defined by his passivity and indifference in the face of a potentially world-ending weapon that only he can unlock; I don’t regret reading it, but I’m pleased to hear that he gets better). One was a backlist title gifted to me by my partner (The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger, a reexamination of the life of Lady Virginia Courtauld and her husband Stephen–yes, that Courtauld. They lived in Rhodesia because Ginie’s history was too scandalous to keep them in England, which is portrayed as unbearably stuffy and repressed, probably quite accurately; a part of me struggles with being asked to sympathize too heavily with a wealthy white woman for being socially ostracized for being vocally anti-racist, but then, as Treger makes clear, being a “race traitor” in Rhodesia in the 1950s could get you shot.) Two were old copies of books found at my grandmother’s house (A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym, which I wrote about at greater length earlier this month, and A History of Harting by Rev. H.D. Gordon, a private-press reprint of a local history of my grandmother’s area originally published in the late 19th century. Absolutely fascinating explanation of topography and human settlement in that part of the world going right back to the Iron Age, when there was a hill fort, and with some exciting, lurid stories of murder, smuggling and land grabs in later centuries. Obviously of very niche interest, but I loved it).

Finally, one of April’s reads was part of a new-paperback buying spree at BookBar on Blackstock Road: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which uses imagination, empathy and analysis to re-present the lives of Black women in American cities in the early part of the 20th century, whose experiments in sexuality, family structure, and earning a living anticipated the 1960s revolution in white social and sexual structures by decades. (There are still four books from this spree I have yet to delve into, but I’m pleased to have read one relatively quickly, instead of leaving the whole pile to languish, as so often happens.)

In terms of reading resolutions, I feel this month was fairly diverse: a number of books by authors of colour, a number of books by or about queer individuals, a respectable sprinkling of nonfiction, some experimental and some “standard”. A good genre spread too: some sci fi, some historical fiction, some contemporary fiction. Though not a whole lot of the latter; this plus the release of the Women’s Prize shortlist yesterday (of which I have read one) makes it clearer than ever that my reading interests are not necessarily making it easy to prioritize frontlist books. Further stagnation on the Great Unread, though. It’s difficult to make room for everything, especially because I really need to start pushing Barbellion Prize contenders to the fore. (I probably won’t discuss those in future reading wrap-ups, apart from acknowledging how many of them I’ve read in a given month. I’m not sure why, but it seems the done thing to keep official prize panel reading to oneself.)

In May, I am going to try not to buy any books. I have my proof pile, my physical-purchases pile, my Gollancz e-purchases (currently reading Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, not totally sure about it), the Great Unread, Barbellion Prize submissions… There’s plenty to be getting on with. (I’m also reading, chapter by chapter and at long last, The Silmarillion, which defeated me utterly as a Lord of the Rings-obsessed ten-year-old but which I think I’m finally coming to at the right time. After each chapter, I’m listening to the corresponding episode of the Prancing Pony podcast, which is a chapter-by-chapter deep dive into Tolkien’s work hosted by two very funny, earnest, passionate Americans. I love it. I so rarely fly my true High Fantasy Freak Flag, but consider it hoisted.)

Also: beer gardens and outdoor dining are back! I had a falafel burger and two glasses of wine at a cafe with my best friend last night, then came back home and promptly fell asleep, like an overstimulated toddler. Happy days.


A Glass of Blessings

Having spent the last two-ish weeks more or less on break over Easter, reading quite a lot (six books in twelve days) and writing about absolutely none of it, I’m attempting to get back on the horse with a little bit of commentary (hardly a review or a critical essay) on Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings, which I picked up on a whim at my grandmother’s house (yes, technically I shouldn’t have been there; she’s double-vaccinated, recently widowed, and lonely, I’m single-vaccinated and basically a hermit, we both accepted the risks).

Really, the best way to think of A Glass of Blessings is as a 20th-century Anglo-Catholic version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Like Emma, Wilmet Forsyth is comfortably well off, reasonably clever, and more than a touch bored. (Unlike Emma, she’s already married, to a civil servant named Rodney whom she met under significantly more dashing circumstances when they were both stationed in Italy during the war. One of the recurring themes is a vague, not entirely negative acknowledgment of how much more respectable and staid their lives, and the lives of their old friends, have become, a sense that nothing else can really measure up but an equal sense that perhaps they’ve simply lost the first energies of youth in a way that would always have happened, war or not.) Wilmet’s boredom leads her to take an increasingly active interest in the life of her local parish church, St Luke’s (Rodney does not attend), and to be drawn towards the three priests there as well as her friend Rowena’s rather enigmatic but good-looking brother, Piers. Wilmet’s prejudices, arrogance and blind spots–like Emma’s–lead her to entirely erroneous conclusions about most of these men, as well as about the spotlessly good and pious Mary Beamish, whose friendship she initially discounts but who later proves to be rather more switched-on, and more valuable as a friend, than previously judged. I should add that Wilmet is never drawn as a horrible person or even an unpleasant one–her problem is comfortable certainty, not cruelty, and a certain ability to bend facts to suit her subconsciously desired interpretation–and she is often the vessel for Pym’s brilliant, sometimes off-the-wall observational capacities, which tell just as much against her as against whoever she’s discussing:

Were the invitations always for Father Thames and never for mild dumpy little Father Bode, with his round spectacled face and slightly common voice, who always seemed to be the sub-deacon at High Mass and who had once read the wrong lesson at a carol service? I was sure that Father Bode was equally worthy of eating smoked salmon and grouse or whatever luncheon the hostesses might care to provide. Then it occurred to me that he might well be the kind of person who would prefer tinned salmon, though I was ashamed of the unworthy thought for I knew him to be a good man.

A Glass of Blessings, p. 7

It won’t take the 21st-century reader very long to determine that Piers, far from being secretly and moodily in love with Wilmet, is gay, and that the roommate he takes such pains to avoid discussing is in fact his lover, Keith (who is not only a man but has a detectable Leicester accent, which is possibly more of a transgression). I was both surprised and impressed by the way Piers’s sexuality seems simply to be accepted by all of the main characters; it is never openly discussed, but neither is he socially shunned once Wilmet works it out, and even her husband Rodney seems both to comprehend the situation and to find the two men’s company more amusing than problematic. Perhaps the acceptance is possible precisely because what Piers and Keith are to each other is never spoken aloud, just made obvious through the intimacy of their living situation. I’m not certain how to feel about the portrayal of Keith, who is depicted as a rather motherly figure (though the younger partner of the couple): an excellent interior decorator, tidier, cook and host. He’s clearly meant to stand as a contrast to Piers, who was miserable and an alcoholic before Keith’s influence entered his life, but is it too stereotypical for a gay character? The novel was written in 1958, which makes it interesting that Pym attempts it at all. I do think she succeeds in making Keith a person, as she makes almost all of her characters; his portrayal certainly doesn’t appear offensive, or stigmatizing.

The first few chapters are taken up with finding a new housekeeper for the clergy house, where two of the priests lodge together, and through Wilmet’s intervention, the successful applicant is in fact a man, a Mr. Bason. He is also a talented cook and admirer of beautiful things (in fact something of a kleptomaniac regarding the latter), also queer-coded, and also clearly lower-middle-class at best. Wilmet and her friends, of a different social standing, have no such apparent hunger for beauty or practical ability to create it (though Wilmet does allow as to how she has a talent for flower arranging). A taste for life’s finer things, Pym seems to suggest, is a quality reserved for people who do not know for sure that they can have such things. The difference between Bason and Keith is that the former is a snob, out of a terror of social exclusion, and Keith is not a snob at all; instead he is almost an innocent, remarking wistfully that Wilmet must see lots of trees where she lives. Pym may notice everything, but she is never unwilling to allow sympathy for her characters. She never lets the reader despise them or feel scorn for them, although we may find them dislikable, embarrassing, or pompous, which is why her novels seem to me to have more heart than the phrase “English high comedy”–certainly applicable here–would suggest.

The best character, after Wilmet herself, however, must be her mother-in-law Sybil, who is neither a tyrannical harridan nor an overbearing smotherer. Sybil is cheerfully atheistic, fond of her son and her daughter-in-law (who both live in her house) but by no means entirely occupied with home life. She immerses herself in shopping, lunches, and academic lectures, which is how she comes into contact with the dry but gentle and kind-hearted Professor Root, who becomes a fixture of the Forsyth’s family life. It is apparent to the reader much earlier than it is to Wilmet that Professor Root and Sybil are romantically involved, and the sweet gentility with which these two older people go about courting each other and, finally, deciding to get married, feels like a little cherry to enjoy on top of the delights of the main characters’ doings. The fact that Wilmet is oblivious to it only makes it more delicious.

This is my third Pym novel–I read Excellent Women in 2014 and Quartet In Autumn in 2010, according to my book journal–and I think I’ve finally reached the age where one starts to actually appreciate her. (Quartet in Autumn depressed me, perhaps unsurprisingly since I was eighteen at the time, and I don’t think I fully comprehended Excellent Women; looking back, I read it during a month of extreme upheaval during which I had three different addresses, so frankly it’s a miracle I remember any of it at all.) Where should I venture next in her back catalogue?

A Glass of Blessings was first published in 1958; my edition is a Penguin paperback from 1983, many of the yellowing pages of which have come entirely unglued from the spine and are simply shoved loose between the covers. A very nice contemporary edition is available in the UK from Little, Brown.