#CBR7 Review #91: A Very Private Eye by Barbara Pym

I decided to be a completist and read ALL the Barbara Pym. I’m typically not a stickler for reading an author’s diaries, letters, or miscellany (except for Jane Austen–that woman had a vicious streak in her, and I love every minute of it), but I felt like Pym would be an entertaining correspondent. I was not wrong.

A Very Private Eye is a compiled collection of Pym’s letters, diaries from 1933-1979, and other notebook excerpts that featured ideas for her novels. We read about her college years, friendships that lasted a lifetime, failed loves and love affairs, ideas that turned into novels, and the cultural climate in which she lived (particularly World War II). A huge chunk of Pym’s life was spent attempting to get published–after an initial burst of success with her first six novels, publishers continually declined her, saying that the public didn’t want to read her kind of novel. Her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy in 1971 set the stage for a decline in health that would lead to her death in 1980. Yet these last ten years of her life brought a new burst of productivity. Two contributors to the Times Literary Supplement cited her as one of the most under-rated authors of the twentieth century, leading to a renaissance in publication and a Booker prize nomination for Quartet in Autumn. The last months of her life were spent in pain from a resurgence in her cancer, but she furiously worked on getting her last submitted novel (A Few Green Leaves) ready for publication.

Her writing is hilarious, witty, and heartbreaking. The last portion shows darkness creeping into her life, even as she tried to maintain productive writing habits and get herself published somehow. It’s clear that Pym valued her novels and characters immensely. As a reader, I feel connected to her through this deep interest in writing and in people, and I am so glad the Barbara Pym experiment of 2015 was a success. I just have her collection Civil to Strangers and Jane and Prudence left to read!

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#CBR7 Review #90: Re Jane by Patricia Park

In recent years, I have looked less favorably upon Jane Eyre than when I first read it in high school. I think that is owing largely to being disillusioned with Mr. Rochester’s douchiness. But when The Chancellor told me that there was an adaptation featuring a half-Korean, half-American young woman, I was highly intrigued.

Re Jane is the story of orphan Jane Re, a young woman straddling several cultures. After graduating from a smallish college and being rejected for a job at Lowood, a financial institution, Jane feels stuck working at her uncle Sang’s grocery store. On a whim, she applies for an au pair job in Brooklyn, where she works for Beth Mazer and Ed Farley and their daughter Devon. Drawn to their intellectual academic environment, as well as Devon’s precocious affections, Jane finds herself settled in at their home. Until her attraction to Ed leads to a series of events that cause her to flee to Korea to try and find herself in another way. At some point, though, she has to decide who she is and where she will situate herself. The story of Jane’s self-actualization is thrilling and rewarding in ways that the original novel could not possibly hope to articulate in the 1830s.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. Park’s depiction of cross-cultural identities is poignant and pointed all at once. Jane is an interesting character, who, while occasionally suffering from indecision and bad choices, is thrilling to read about and root for. The descriptions of various cultures in a 9/11 era world is interesting and accurate–I was drawn into the backdrops that Park set for her characters, and I felt like the characters were real and flawed. I highly recommend it.

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#CBR7 Review #89: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I’ve heard a LOT about Junot Diaz and his works. Out of curiosity, I decided to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And I am super ambivalent about what I just read. Especially since a lot of parts reminded me of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents–but with an extra layer of self-loathing.

The novel is several stories surrounding the titular character, Oscar. He is a Dominican-American young man who is overweight and geeky, with interests in writing, science fiction, fantasy, and role-playing games. A stereotypical nerd. He is also a virgin and has this bad habit of falling in love with the wrong kind of woman. We hear about Oscar and his family through a series of interconnected narratives. The one that interested me the most was the family history of Oscar’s mom and grandparents who lived through (and suffered through) Trujillo’s dictatorship. If the novel had been about Trujillo and his effects upon the Dominican citizen and identity, I would have found it hugely interesting.

But you know how much I do not care for self-loathing. Oscar is FULL OF IT. Look, there are parts of him that are endearing and make me want to cheer for him. But The Big Bang Theory and countless romantic comedies have soured me on the “nice guy” and make me want to say, “DO YOU. Stop mooning over shallow women and live your life with joy and freedom.” Alas. No one listens to me. But it’s not that easy to dismiss Oscar, because the narrative takes a really, really dark turn that makes me feel guilty for feeling the way I do. And then that turn gets darker.

How do I feel in the end? I don’t know. I’m not sorry I read it, but I really don’t know what else to add.

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#CBR7 Review #88: Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn

Two different friends recommended Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters to me, so I decided to give it a try. Plus, while I have my booklist for my fall class set, I am interested in expanding my own knowledge base, particularly writers throughout Southern Asia.

Dogeaters is a hard-to-describe novel. It’s a series of vignettes set during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. There are aspiring film stars, junkies, powerful families and their wayward children, and many more individuals who give voice to the novel. The “heart” of the novel is Rio, a young girl who has big aspirations for herself. She watches films with her cousin Pucha, observes the chaos around her, and dreams of a life that will take her out of the Philippines and into the United States. The novel is gritty, nostalgic, wistful, and innocent, not shying away from the violence, destruction, and ravages that come with war and corruption.

I thought the novel was interesting, but sometimes uneven and sometimes difficult to understand. There were some moments where I was not sure who was doing the speaking, and other points where the switch in narrative voice felt disjointed. But I am not sorry I read the book, and I would recommend it to someone who was interested in reading more about Filipino literature, history, and culture. But be warned: it’s not the easiest or most enjoyable book to read. There is a section in which a dog dies very gruesomely, which is profoundly traumatizing. I mean, with a title like Dogeaters, I should have expected some nonsense like this, but I don’t approve, nonetheless.

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#CBR7 Review #87: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Apparently, the last novel of Pym’s I have to read was also the first novel she published in the UK. I basically have jumped around her “canon” and am now reading the first novel last. I was interested to see how her first novel would shape her career, and it’s filled with what would be considered her “trademark” in her novels.

Some Tame Gazelle focuses on Belinda and Harriet, two fifty-something sisters who live together, unmarried. Belinda has languished in love–the object of 30 years’ unrequited love is the married Archdeacon of the church. His wife Agatha is sour and prickly, and the marriage is unhappy. Meanwhile, Harriet is flirty and enjoys the attentions of younger curates, all while turning down regular marriage proposals from the Italian count who lives close by. Then, a Bishop who has been stationed in Africa returns for a furlough, and the quiet village is shaken up.

The plot is fairly simple, but the comic moments are absolutely hysterical. My favorite was when Harriet (twice) hid a girdle she was reworking when male callers came into the parlor. Rather than tucking it somewhere sensible, she hid it in their couch. Oops. Good times. While this is not my absolute favorite, I can see where Pym’s style began to take shape and understand the depths of human nature in which she was interested in exploring. If you would like to start reading Barbara Pym, this is actually not a half-bad place to start. It’s full of comic characters, scenes, and dialogue that make her a delight to read.

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#CBR7 Review #86: Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

I’m winding down to the last Pym novels in my library stack (and that she wrote) and feeling sort of melancholy that I can’t read her again for the first time. Ah, well. It’s the danger of binge-reading a new favorite author. I’m just glad I get to share her here on CBR (and hooray to those of you who are reading her!!!)

Pym tackles anthropologists and academics again in Less Than Angels. Here, a love triangle emerges between Tom, a dissertating anthropologist, Catherine, a journalist and his longtime “housemate” (we assume live-in girlfriend, though such a term did not really exist in Pym’s time), and Deirdre, a 19-year-old anthropology student. The workings of life, of love, and of academic achievements all fall under her scalpel. The novel takes a dark turn towards the end, for which I was unprepared. It’s not unpleasant, however, and it makes the title even more poignant. To suggest that humankind is “less than angels” implies that our faults and failings do not make us “greater than,” but rather “part of.” And it’s this “part of” that Pym revels in. Her female characters are well-shaped by their own desires and ambitions, just as they stand out in contrast to social expectations for them.

While this novel was not my favorite at first, this “dark turn” to which I vaguely allude shapes the plot and propels it forward. It makes the novel less about tea and more about the frailty of our human existence. Plus, you know how much I love a good joke about trying to finish a dissertation. When Catherine and Tom talk about his struggles to finish his dissertation, I kept nodding and saying, “Oh, buddy. Been there.”

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#CBR7 Review #85: No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

Yay! More Barbara Pym! Aren’t you all excited? [on a serious note, this was a delightful experiment, and I am *so* glad I was determined to “collect” her]

This time, the “excellent woman” makes a reappearance and Dulcie Mainwaring (don’t you love the name?) is the protagonist. Shortly after her engagement ends, Dulcie attends an academic conference. There, she meets the wary and reserved Viola Dace, and becomes tangentially acquainted with scholar and presenter Aylwin Forbes. We learn that Viola had once had an affair with Forbes, and that Dulcie is well-intentioned but always meddling in other people’s affairs, particularly where living, eating, and matchmaking are concerned. The parody of academia is absolutely spot-on (especially Pym’s remarks about academic conferences, of which I have attended my fair share and can attest that her picture is all too true). Dulcie’s niece Laurel moves to London, and then the stage is set for a romantic showdown with lots of twists and turns amongst the characters. Who will prevail? And who is doomed to unrequited love?

Something that always strikes me about Pym is the way she uses single women as a character type to establish and then deconstruct social stereotypes. In the mid-twentieth-century, women were seen as useful to men, but the novel shows the limits and frustrations of being a glorified secretary when one possessed an actual degree. The male academics relied heavily on their female assistants and then promptly ignored their contributions (aside from a perfunctory acknowledgment). It’s an incisive glimpse at a woman’s role in society, and while Pym is deceptively gentle, her wit focuses on a stifling system that she herself longed to change.

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