Reading from Home Re-run: Marie’s Reading: “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield

Provincial Lady

Finally!  At long last!  I have found the perfect readalike for Bridget Jones’s Diary!  E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady keeps a diary, in which she relates the details of day-to-day life, housekeeping, child-rearing, and entertaining in 1920’s Devonshire.

With such anecdotes as:

Look for [young son] Robin and eventually find him with the cat, shut up into totally unventilated linen-cupboard, eating cheese which he says he found on the back stairs.

(Undoubtedly, a certain irony can be found in the fact that I have recently been appointed to new Guardians Committee, and am expected to visit Workhouse, etc., with particular reference to children’s quarters, in order that I may offer valuable suggestions on questions of hygiene and general welfare of inmates…Can only hope that fellow-members of the Committee will never be inspired to submit my own domestic arrangements to similar inspection.)

Who could resist?

Our Provincial Lady is wry and intelligent, but constantly feels inadequate to the demands of upper-middle-class life in her village.  She wrangles with and is completely intimidated by her Cook, a trip to France becomes a study in avoiding rip tides, shopping for a suitable flattering dress in the new style a momentous effort.  She loves her children more than is fashionable among the smart set, and she often tries in vain to find a bit of commonality with her fellow village ladies.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny all the way through, primarily because of the attention to detail.  The detail combined with the tone makes for a brilliantly relateable book, no matter what your background or era.

As I said, fans of Bridget Jones who want more of the same (albeit with a distinct “between-the-wars” flavor), you really must try this book.  Where Bridget had to navigate the turbulent seas of being a single 30ish woman in 1990’s London, the Provincial Lady swims in nearly identical waters in her village of the 1920’s.

You might also want to try P.G. Wodehouse, if Delafield’s work appeals to you.   Their sensibilities and humor are very, very similar.  Try any of his essays, or one of the Jeeves novels, to start.  I’d also suggest the work of the members of the Algonquin Round Table if you enjoy the sense of time and place, as well as the style of humor.  Try Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, and Dorothy Parker.

Finally, for those who want to travel even farther back in time with the comedy of day to day life and struggles, do try the brilliantly funny Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.  It is the diary of a “nobody”–an upright middle-class office clerk and family man of the 1890’s named Mr. Pooter.   He gets into fairly Bridget-Jones-esque scrapes, particularly with home decoration, dancing, and trying to get into the social column.

–Marie

Originally appeared on the blog on January 17, 2014.

Marie’s Reading: “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

magpieMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a clever and fun ode to old-fashioned mysteries, one that two other librarians here on staff beat me to.  I’m glad I finally read this!

Susan is an editor at a press in London that publishes the incredibly popular Atticus Pund mysteries.  She receives the latest manuscript, only to find it incomplete, the final chapters (and solution!) missing.  Soon after, the author Alan Conway apparently commits suicide.  Susan finds herself inside her own murder mystery as she quickly realizes that the details about Conway’s apparent suicide do not add up.

This is a mystery lover’s mystery–a commentary on the genre, chock-full of references, and a supremely well-constructed mystery all on its own.  Horowitz is a screenwriter for mysteries and his insider knowledge shines through right along with his affection.  As you’d expect from a screenwriter, the dialogue is great as is the pacing and the scene-setting.  There are lots of deftly handled moving parts here, and the ending is satisfying.

If you enjoy who-dunnits in the classic style, give this one a look!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “An Almost Perfect Christmas” by Nina Stibbe

Yeah, I know it’s only November.  Nope, I don’t care.  Because frankly:

Stibbe’s essays about Christmas are charming and funny, filled with affection for the general insanity of the festive season.  She talks about how, as a kid, she was obsessed with visiting Santa because she was convinced they might be her absent father.  There’s an essay devoted to her mother’s inability to roast a turkey that isn’t dry, despite decades of effort.

One of my favorites was the essay about the Christmas tree.   Stibbe bought a very scraggly little tree one year, much to the disappointment of her children.  Stibbe’s observational humor is wonderful, as is her ability to choose the perfect illustrative details and make such excellent characterizations.  It’s a charming essay and a love letter to a little Charlie Brown tree.

My other favorite was about family Christmases at her childhood home as an adult.  Stibbe describes how she and her grown siblings would all come back to their mother and stepfather’s house for the holiday, falling immediately into familiar lines and routines–particularly the traditional trip to the pub.  And somehow, these imperfect visits seem to be the most Christmassy.

Those who enjoy the holidays might want to pick this up–it’s chock-full of very useful and funny advice about gift-giving (gift cards are not Christmas), about the annual Christmas letter (balance the good and the bad so you don’t come off as whiny or bragging), and about how to be both guest and host (special attention given to heating).  Charming and fun and full of cheer, particularly for those of us who simply cannot wait another six weeks.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Lanny” by Max Porter

LannyA mythical creature, Dead Papa Toothwort, awakens in an English village, and is looking for a specific boy in town.  A boy named Lanny.

Lanny is a special kind of kid, one his parents don’t really understand.  He’s artistic and in his own head a lot, and is altogether what you might call “an old soul.”  Dead Papa Toothwort is drawn to his energy.  When Lanny disappears, it might or might not be Toothwort’s doing.

Dead Papa Toothwort’s sections are my favorites of the novel (Lanny’s mother and father and a local artist are the other narrators).  He’s a part of the land, so he can be anything and anywhere–in a bird, in a tree, tiny and sitting on a post, just under the asphalt of the road, etc.  In one section, he goes to the village hall to look at the pictures of him that local children have drawn, as they’ve done for centuries.  Dead Papa Toothwort is disgusted and disappointed that he’s depicted in this age like a green horror movie killer–he preferred it when he was drawn as a creature made entirely of ivy.

That sense of disconnect from the land, history, and one another runs through this story.  Stylistically impressive and very atmospheric, haunting and mysterious. Porter’s style is incredibly elegant.  The sense of otherworldliness is strong, particularly in the final third of the book, which is a hallucinatory sort of play that reveals exactly what became of Lanny.

If you liked The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro or The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, give this one a look!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Bitter Orange” by Claire Fuller

91Qzwi5HkMLThere’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller.  In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.  The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go.  The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!

Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England.  That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture.  A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers.  Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.

Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends.  Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances.  And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush.  I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something.  You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.

The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension.  You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details.  It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.

Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich.  She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative.  There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.

If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look!  The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Under the Harrow” by Flynn Berry

harrowHere’s a sentence that I’ve overused in the past year: “Girl on the Train fans, this one’s for you!”

This one’s creepier and darker than Girl on the Train, though.  Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is the intricate and atmospheric story of Nora and Rachel, two sisters with a close but fraught relationship.  One night, on a visit to Rachel’s house in the countryside, Nora finds that her sister has been brutally murdered.  Nora is determined to uncover her sister’s killer, and this determination quickly turns to obsession.  By the time Nora’s behavior leads to suspicion falling on her, you’re not sure at all whether you can believe what she’s been telling you this whole time.

Nora, our narrator, is extremely unreliable, and you don’t know whether to root for her, dislike her, pity her, or a combination of the three by about two-thirds into the book.  By that point you’re not so sure about her sister, Rachel, either.

Berry doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of gore.  She evokes an atmosphere of constant cold and rain and unease.  It’s a wonderfully tense mystery, with a huge psychological element.  The narration, as I said, is skillfully done, and Nora pulls you in even as you’re not sure if you’re getting wrong-footed with her or by her.

Rosamund Lupton’s haunting thriller Sister would be the perfect readalike for Under the Harrow.  In that one, Beatrice attempts to solve her younger sister’s mysterious disappearance, and ends up uncovering more than she bargained for.  The classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier might also be a good choice, if you like uncertain narrators and heavy atmosphere.

–Marie