#CBR7 Review #60: The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge

I’ve read some of David Lodge’s literary criticism but never any of his novels. My undergrad advisor had recommended The British Museum Is Falling Down as a twentieth-century novel that is really funny. And truly, in my field, funny is not always so easy to find. I was more than happy to give it a shot, but excited to see that it’s also a novel about academia.

The novel focuses on Adam Appleby, a doctoral student and a devout Catholic, who is afraid that his wife Barbara is pregnant for the fourth time. The story takes place in a day, which seems to be a nod towards both Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. Here, Adam rides his decrepit old scooter to the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he is supposed to begin work on his doctoral thesis. He has to truck ALL his notes and books with him, for fear that he will not have the right one when he needs it, and thus his day’s work would be moot (all I could think when I read that was, “Brother, I have BEEN THERE.”). He encounters his colleague Camel, has several telephone conversations with Barbara, goes to a meeting of Catholics to debate contraceptives, and meets the niece of a minor Catholic writer in an attempt to acquire unpublished manuscripts to earn his way into academic acclaim and, thus, a job.

As an examination of cultural Catholicism, it’s pretty incisive. Adam’s declaration that literature is all about sex and not about children, whereas life is the reverse, is quite spot-on. The problems of marriage and sex that ensue from a no-artificial-birth control policy come alive and demonstrate how dogma is enacted and questioned today.

As a satire of academia, it could not be better. I *howled* with laughter at the episode during the fire drill, in which the woman weepingly urges the firefighter to take her manuscript, because she cannot lose her doctoral dissertation. Seriously, I have BEEN THERE. Writing a dissertation makes you crazy. Unproductivity makes you burn with guilt. Everything is agony. Lodge gives piercing insight into a highly self-conscious time of intellectual life and makes it all-too-real.

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#CBR7 Review #59: The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson

After thoroughly exciting myself with The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, I decided that it was time to read Emma Thompson’s companion novel. I did not realize that she’d written two other novels prior to The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit. So, once I get done with this current library stack, I will have to read the other two novels.

The Spectacular Tale is an adventure–or rather, misadventure–of young Peter and young Benjamin. They are sent off to go run an errand, but old Mrs. Rabbit warns them NOT TO GO TO THE VILLAGE. A fair is happening, and you know what kinds of bad people are at the fair (which makes me think Old Mrs. Rabbit has read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust–all sorts of mischief happened at the fair there). Of course, Peter devises a very clever route so that they *have* to go through the village to reach their destination. And then, by misfortune, he is accidentally won as a toy by a VERY DEMANDING little girl named Flossie. It’s up to Benjamin to sort out the problem and save the day in this little misadventure.

Thompson is one of my favorites of all time, and I am delighted she retains much of the puckish wit of Ms. Potter. The illustrations are truly delightful, and so is the story. At one point, I cackled out loud, and The Chancellor told me, very indulgently, I am a dork. Truly I am. But when it comes to Peter Rabbit, my love knows no bounds. I am delighted to see a new set of stories–I hope a new generation gets to fall in love with him, too.

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#CBR7 Review #58: The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Back in 2004, I discovered Television Without Pity. I read recaps of ER religiously and especially enjoyed the snark and Luca Kovach lust from Heathen. A few years later, when doing a little digging on the site, I discovered that Heathen, really, Heather, had started a fashion blog with fellow TWoP recapper, Jessica, called Go Fug Yourself. That was in 2006. I scooted over to the site, and have been a fan ever since. While I don’t read The Fug Girls’ posts as religiously as I used to in college, I *always* make time for the figure skating recaps and the Royals recaps. Those are the best (well, besides Britney’s Letters of Truth, J-Lo’s invocations of “Hola, lovers!” and Kanye’s All-cap rants). I read their young adult novels, Spoiled and Messy, and I’ve been waiting to see how The Royal We would stack up.

As it turns out, The Royal We is glorified Kate Middleton fanfiction, and I am delighted by it. Since it is an unashamed nod to the Royals, there really is no spoiler to say that this chronicles the winding love story of the prince and his commoner bride. Rebecca (Bex) Porter is an average American college student who decides to enter the exchange program at Oxford. She accidentally winds up in the same house as Prince Nicholas and his group of friends and quickly becomes friends with the group. Of course, after a series of non-meet-cutes, she and Nick become friends and, of course, lovers. What follows is a long journey to deciding whether or not their relationship can actually work. It’s a funny, frothy, heartfelt story that makes you consider what it would *really* be like to date someone whose destiny has already been decided at birth.

I personally enjoyed this novel immensely. The cast of characters (minus Bex’s attention-grubbing sister, Lacey) was a delight all-around. My personal favorite was one Lady Beatrix Larcmont-Kent-Smyth (also known as Bollocks, for her initials). She was complex and mysterious and layered and so delightfully stuffy and proper that it felt like the best combination of the Dowager Countess and Carson from Downton Abbey. In the best way, of course.

This novel was fizzy and fun, but had real moments of heartbreak and family trouble that made the whole thing seem…human, I suppose. I hope there’s a sequel in the works. Or a spin-off with Prince Freddie. I mean, who else is going to give us some more of our favorite Ginger Gigolo?

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#CBR7 Review #57: The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

Some of the popular perceptions of Barbara Pym, from the selected academic criticism I’ve read, are that she’s fusty and outdated, or that she is very chaste. Apparently, none of these academics read The Sweet Dove Died, because sexuality is a HUGE aspect of this novel of manners. In so many ways.

Leonora Eyre is a woman of middle-age (we assume), who decides to attend an antique auction and bid on a book herself, much to the dismay of the highly proper antique owner Humphrey, and his twenty-something nephew, James. The three strike up an acquaintance, and a very confusing love triangle ensues: Humphrey is in love with Leonora, Leonora is in love with James, and James…well, James has some sexual sorting out to do. He’s very fond of Leonora, but then very-modern and age-appropriate Phoebe enters the picture. And then, a mischief-making American named James upsets the whole apple cart.

I won’t say more than that, because it’s a delicious farce. And Pym is very contemporary about how sexuality functions in contemporary society. In fact, her veiled remarks on same-sex relationships are fascinating. The way society has this knowing-but-not-knowing about homosexuality is mirrored effectively in the novel and makes me reconsider the way sexuality was viewed after World War II. Plus, the way sexuality was viewed as more fluid than fixed also seems kind of radical, but if you think about the history of sexuality, it makes sense. I had no idea I’d be thinking about same-sex relationships in a Barbara Pym novel, but I’m delighted at the same time. This is going straight into a syllabus, as soon as I get the chance to teach it.
If you like mid-century British novels, I would urge you to give this one a shot. It’s a lot more scandalous than Pym’s other more prim-sounding novels, and it makes some interesting comments on homosexuality that you would not expect from someone like Pym. It’s also a jolly good time.

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#CBR7 Review #56: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I requested pretty much the rest of Barbara Pym’s novels from the library, so I’ll be reading a lot of Pym this next month. Hooray! I find her novel of manners to be biting and clever, peopled by characters who are complex and perplexing. It’s a dream.

Quartet in Autumn is darker than normal, but I find it highly interesting and frank in its portrayal of retirement and end-of-life issues. The novel centers on four people (hence, the quartet): Edwin, a Christian man and widower; Norman, a single man in a “bedsit,” which I believe is a studio or bedroom-only apartment; Marcia, who has undergone a mastectomy; and Letty, a woman who is single and trying to maintain a cheerful attitude. All four are connected by their work together in an office, but also by loneliness. When Letty and Marcia retire, a chain of events is set in motion that cause all four to question their relationships and their place in the world.

As I said, this is a lot darker than the other Pym novels I read, but it’s really important in its treatment of retirement and life change. If I was to teach a twentieth-century British novel class, I would pair this with Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, which deals with the same issues in a more comedic tone, but nevertheless portrays end-of-life issues as crucial to consider. If you’ve never read Barbara Pym, I wouldn’t necessarily start here, but don’t skip out on it at all! I think it’s one of her more poignant works. But after I’ve gone through the canon, I will probably reassess this statement.

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#CBR7 Review #55: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

When famous Australian author Colleen McCullough died this year, I was saddened on behalf of her fans. It’s always a grief to lose an author you are fond of. And her obituary was cruel and mean, focusing on appearance instead of accomplishment. So I decided to read The Thorn Birds out of solidarity–for feminism.

So it pains me to say that for me, the novel was very much a mixed bag. There are definitely aspects I liked and aspects I did.not.like.at.all. The aspects I did not care for comprised such a huge chunk of the novel, that I was left feeling regretful and disappointed.

First, a summary. The Thorn Birds is a family saga taking place in desert Australia and Europe. When Paddy and Fiona Cleary move their family to Paddy’s sister’s ranch in Drogheda, their lives seismically shift without knowing it. The only daughter, Meggie, becomes the novel’s protagonist, and her coming-of-age and hopeless love story with a priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart, forms the conflict and main plot. The novel spans three generations and illustrates the ravages of time and pride in a family.

I liked the setting. I haven’t read a lot of Australian literature, and this novel takes us to places I have never been, either in real life or my mind, so that was very interesting.

I did not like the romance. When a 28-year-old priest is in love with a nine-year-old girl, I can only think of the creepy priest scandals we’ve been seeing in the last ten years. Or Mary Kay LeTourneau. Ergh. I felt bad that Meggie had such a poor sexual exucation that led to the choices made and some of the drama surrounding her relationships, but I felt no sympathy for her and Ralph as a whole. Which meant there was A LOT OF EYEROLLING throughout two-thirds of the novel.

I will not be watching the mini-series.

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#CBR7 Review #54: The Complete Tales by Beatrix Potter

My parents owned the entire Beatrix Potter collection in a series of wee, precious books that I pored over as a child. My aunt somehow magically found a whole collection of gorgeous Peter Rabbit stuffed animals, which she then doled out to my sister and me over a series of Christmases and birthdays. I have Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. My sister owns Benjamin Bunny, Tom Kitten, and Squirrel (she adorably referred to him as Skerl) Nutkin. A few weeks back, CBR posted a giveaway contest featuring Emma Thompson’s contribution to the canon, which amped my nostalgia. So I decided to go for a collective re-read.

It’s ten times as fun to read Peter Rabbit stories as a dirty-minded adult.

Potter’s collection includes 23 tales of various woodland or farmland animals in the English countryside. Whatever you do, read the books with her original drawings. They are gorgeous watercolors, and there is nothing like them. There is the tale of Peter Rabbit, a gluttonous bunny who eats too much out of Mr. MacGregor’s garden and almost gets himself killed. There’s the devilishly naughty Squirrel Nutkin who is as red as a cherry (emphasis Potter’s, no, for realz) and sings the child’s version of ribald songs, and gets his tail cut off by Old Brown the owl. This sentence made me guffaw like a total fool: “The squirrels filled their little sacks with nuts.” Apparently, I’m twelve. But seriously, that would make the best gay squirrel porn ever, amirite?

Squirrel Nutkin

But I haven’t even gotten to my favorite: “The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.” Tom Kitten naughtily wanders off to the roof and then in trying to get back, accidentally falls into the lair of one very large rat, Mr. Samuel Whiskers. Whiskers orders his wife, Anna Maria, to make him a kitten dumpling roly poly pudding for his dinner, in which there are hijinks of complaining about smuts, whether to use breadcrumbs or butter and dough, and the intervention of a Scottish terrier. No, really. It’s macabre and weird, and darkly hilarious at once.

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The film adaptation plays it up, because Samuel says, very campily, “Anna Maria! Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling rrrrroly poly pudding for my dinnah.” My sister and I said that many, many times. It made a lasting impression.

The drawings really make the tales come alive, and I am so glad I went down memory lane again. I highly recommend you do the same.

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