Sunday, June 28, 2009

Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin

32. Family Happiness
by Laurie Colwin
fiction, 1982
paperback, 270 pages
finished, 6/16/09

Family and happiness are wonderful words, yet this book often made me feel sad. When we first meet the Solo-Millers, they seem so happy. They eat together on Sundays, they celebrate major and minor holidays, they vacation together in Maine. They are comprised of an older mother and father, and their three adult children and their families.

In general, the Solo-Millers preferred the company of their fellow Solo-Millers to that of other mortals, and they gathered frequently.

If you are part of such a family, or know this kind of family, you are aware that there are stresses and strains beneath the 'perfect' exterior. There is often a controlling parent or grandparent who 'requires' attendance. And not only physical attendance, but emotional and lifestyle attendance. One is accepted if one toes the line, lives the life, accepts all the rules. Dora Solo-Miller has always done so. She is the only daughter, and the child who holds everything and everybody together. It has always been her role, and she doesn't realize that she hasn't been appreciated until she begins an extramarital relationship with a painter named Lincoln. In fact, symbolically, he is the only person who calls her by her real name, not her family nickname which is Polly.

There are family idiosyncracies, which from the outside may seem endearing or cute. The father has a food 'thing' whereby his food must be washed with soap and water. The mother never gets names right.

It was a family joke that Polly had married a lawyer named Henry [the name of her father and her brother] in order not to give her mother anything to screw up.

Again, this is symbolic. Not only does her husband have the same name, but she is living the same kind of life in which she was raised. 'Her' Henry isn't a bad man. He is kind, and good with the children, but he works long hours. Polly has great kids and a part-time career, though her mother 'won't' learn what it is her daughter does, and is critical of the time she spends away from home. The mother, Wendy, spent way more time away from her own children but because she was doing volunteer 'good works' she thinks of herself as the 'better' mother. It may be easy for us to judge Polly: to say how dare she have an affair; how dare she feel badly about her life when she truly does have everything. Her husband even tries hard to change his work habits to make their life happier.

Family Happiness explores an adultery that is not shown in books or movies. Polly's infidelity is a release, an escape, not only from her husband but from the family she grew up in. It isn't simply a physical relationship, but her first real friendship outside of her family. I have seen this kind of family in action, and I have observed that it is nearly impossible to change either the people or the situation. What often happens is that a member will move far away. They must move because there is no use in confrontation. The parents or the grandparents will not change. Ever. That's just how it is. The only hope is distance, or in Polly's case, an affair. The man she comes to love will never be a threat to her 'family happiness.' He loves her, but he is a loner who values his solitary, artistic life beyond everything else. He will never demand she leave her husband (and family) for him. And Polly would never do so, though she suffers greatly living two lives. He truly does care for her, and sees her in a way her family never will. He gives her back herself, in a manner of speaking. He shows her how she has been treated, how she has been taken for granted, and how she really is as a person.

I believe Laurie Colwin was a genius. Her death at 48 years old in 1992 is a great loss to those who knew her, and also to her readers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mrs Bale makes an appearance

The rather puzzled look on Mrs Bale's face is because she wonders why we in the northern part of the state are a little pocket of cool and cloudy whilst (her word - I'm not being pretentious here!) all around us have rain, rain, rain. My fellow New England bloggers are soggy with rain, yet we have actually had to water the plants a few times. We've had a couple rainfalls, but really nothing to write home about. The clouds have kept the grass nice and green. I harvested lots of spinach, and the peas and lettuce are growing beautifully. We've had enough sun and heat to get the zucchini (oops, courgettes!) and yellow beans popping out of the soil. The flowers are all putting on a great show, and honestly I have no complaints weather-wise. It has been quite a British spring which I love.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Today's picture/Strawberries and cream

Today's poem - Peonies by Mary Oliver

by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems

This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

and they open ---
pools of lace,
white and pink ---
and all day the black ants climb over them,

boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
craving the sweet sap,
taking it away

to their dark, underground cities ---
and all day
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,

the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and rise,
their red stems holding

all that dampness and recklessness
gladly and lightly,
and there it is again ---
beauty the brave, the exemplary,

blazing open.
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
and softly,
and exclaiming of their dearness,
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
their eagerness
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
nothing, forever?

The Winner of War on the Margins is Tara!

Tara, I'll mail it to you soon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Quote du jour/Mary Russell Mitford

It has pleased Providence to preserve to me my calmness of mind, clearness of intellect, my cheerfulness, and my enjoyment of little things.
Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Waterloo Sunset/Ray Davies

In honor of Ray Davies' 65th birthday (how is that possible?!), I offer this:

Quote du jour/Gertrude Jekyll

What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), On Gardening

Friday, June 19, 2009

Spring Color

Purple, purple everywhere

Baptisia australis (blue wild indigo)

Chive flowers





Aster, I think

Miss Kim Korean lilac

Bearded iris

Mountain Bluet, Perennial Cornflower, Centaurea montana

Except for here!


War on the Margins by Libby Cone

31. War on the Margins
by Libby Cone
fiction, 2009
paperback, 243 pages
finished, 6/13/09

I am so grateful to Maureen for sending me this book, and I would like to pass along the kindness by offering a giveaway. Please leave a comment on any post telling me that you would like the book, and a week from today, June 26, I will draw a winning name. I'll send it anywhere. Just two little things: one, it is an 'uncorrected proof' and two, there are a couple little love scenes if there are readers who don't like that sort of thing. :<) This is an important book. It deals with what happened to the people of Jersey when the British government gave up on the Channel Islands. They were:

deemed indefensible and were to be declared a 'demilitarised zone.' The Germans would be allowed to take over. Churchill had been convinced of the Islands' lack of strategic importance.

Can you imagine? You are a British citizen, living on British soil, and you are a captive of the enemy . We are so used to the newsreels of brave Londoners. How must these people have felt? There weren't any newsreels showing their endurance. There weren't even mentions of them in the news.

Not a word about the occupied Islands, though everyone yearned not to be forgotten. Which was worse: to flee into Underground tunnels most nights and sit in the damp as the bombs thudded down, or to see one's street overrun with German soldiers and vehicles, and the sunny beaches pockmarked with mines? To have to watch one's step, hold one's breath, keep a pleasant face so as not to upset the wrong person and end up in prison? To find you couldn't trust your local government?

The book is based on the author's thesis. She was encouraged to make it into a novel, so there are some parts which are true, such as lists of citizens, actual orders from the Germans, and two artists in the book who were real. The book's chapters alternate between newspaper reports, official proclamations, and stories of various people on the island. There is the slow, awful build-up of anti-Semitism as there was in every place the Germans occupied, including Germany itself. One day all Jewish people are to be declared 'foreigners.' Another day they cannot shop except for an hour a day. It escalates quietly and relentlessly. I could hardly bear it. There are unimaginable horrors. Food is a huge issue. The major nourishment comes from swedes (rutabagas) and potatoes, often shriveled and really inedible. Sometimes farmers leave items out for those in hiding, but more often the people eat what they have to, including rats. I don't know if I could do it. But I've never been put to the test, and pray I never am.

The author has put together a list of books about this subject.

Here is a little background I read online:

The Channel Islands are neither part of the European Union or the UK, however they are part of the British Isles, with the British Sovereign as their Head of State. The Bailiwick of Jersey comprises the largest island, Jersey, and its islets, while the Bailiwick of Guernsey includes Guernsey, Alderney, Herm and Sark. The Bailiwicks have their own parliaments and are proud of their autonomy, which was granted to them by King John in 1204. In many ways the culture of the islands is closer to Normandy than the United Kingdom.

And this:

Then, in 1939, this happy-go-lucky resort suddenly found itself the only British soil to be occupied by German forces during WWII. This incredibly harsh period of Channel Islands history can be seen in numerous, poignant sites, including the many highly visible German fortifications.


For nearly five years, Jersey was under German rule and, along with the rest of the Channel Islands, it was the only part of Great Britain to be occupied during World War II.

Nobody expected Hitler to invade the Channel Islands and Jersey was still being advertised as the perfect holiday destination just a week before the Occupation started on July 1st 1940, eight months after Britain declared war on Germany. The British Government had left the Islands unprotected a fact that was not made known to the German forces and so, not surprisingly, they bombed Jersey before invading.

Initially the Islands were used as a place for rest and relaxation for the troops but the occupiers soon set about Germanising the Islands - the language of the road signs was changed, cars had to drive on the right and schoolchildren were forced to learn German - which incensed the local population.

In such small Islands with no military capabilities of their own, it was impossible to organise a resistance movement, but the majority of Islanders fought back in their own way by refusing to co-operate with the regime.

The German authorities would not tolerate even small acts of defiance and anyone caught listening to radio broadcasts from London or painting V for victory symbols over German signs would be sent to prison. Greater offences, such as sending carrier pigeons with messages to England or even showing kindness to the slave labourers working in the Islands, were punishable by death.

Please read Maureen's excellent review and her exciting update, and dovegreyreader's wonderful influential review, part of which is quoted on the back of War on the Margins.

And here is the website for the book. War on the Margins is available for pre-order here. It comes out on July 23.

Addendum: Heather just gave me a link to another review which is here.

Persephone titles on National Public Radio

Jessa Crispin recently wrote a review of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey on NPR. An excerpt is included.

There is another Persephone offering here; Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. Again the reviewer is Jessa Crispin, and she says:

we feel so close to the characters we can hear them breathing.

Both these books are high on my list for next year's purchases.

The NPR book site is a wonderful source of book information.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

It's The Little Things/Sonny and Cher

I think this is one of the best love songs ever. And my favorite by Sonny and Cher.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Two books by Reginald Hill

29. A Clubbable Woman - first in the Dalziel & Pascoe series
by Reginald Hill
mystery, 1970
paperback, 273 pages
finished, 5/23/09

30. An Advancement of Learning - second in the Dalziel & Pascoe series
by Reginald Hill
mystery, 1971
paperback, 288 pages
finished, 5/30/09

As they used to say on the Monty Python show, 'and now for something completely different!' After reading the wonderfully gentle and sweet Greenery Street, I leaped right into the first two in the Dalziel (pronouced De-al) and Pascoe series by Reginald Hill. His books have been, as they say, on my radar for literally years. It was reading Jen Clair's blog entries, here and here, that got me to finally buy the first two books.

In the first book we meet the two detectives. Andy Dalziel is older, fatter, and has learned his policework through doing it. Peter Pascoe is younger, trimmer, and college educated. You can imagine the encounters between the two, though right from the beginning the reader sees an inkling of mutual respect.

The mystery is that the wife of a member of the local rugby club is murdered in her home, in her tv chair. When her husband comes in the door, the chair's back is to him. He sees her hand on the floor, but assumes she has fallen asleep. He is a bit afraid of her, so doesn't disturb her. And, well, you guessed it. She wasn't asleep, but dead. There are a number of characters, any one of whom could have done it.

The second book takes place at a small college which has recently become co-ed after being a girls' school. At the time the book was written, I was a young girl in college; reading it now, I am closer to the age of Dalziel. I can see the various facets of the story from both vantage points, which made it very interesting. The premise of this one is that when a statue is being dug up, an old skeleton comes with it. Who is the dead person and how and why did that person die?

Hill is absolutely excellent in his details, both of places and people. The reader can see the locales, and also learns what makes the characters tick. I loved both of these mysteries, and look forward to more and more in this series. They are published by Felony & Mayhem, a press I've noted, here and here. I love how they include where a book comes in a long series. I've spent a fair bit of my reading life searching out this information.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Today's poem - Lingering in Happiness by Mary Oliver

Lingering in Happiness
by Mary Oliver
from Why I Wake Early

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear - but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole's tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

28. Greenery Street
by Denis Mackail
fiction, 1925
paperback, 372 pages
finished, 5/19/09

In these days of beautiful book covers, often with nostalgic old photos or evocative scenes, the Persephone books really stand out. I rather appreciate a book that doesn't try and influence me by the cover. A Persephone book lets the writer's words tell the story and I love that.

Another thing I simply adore about this publisher is the little extras. I have already mentioned the endpapers. The ones for Greenery Street are

taken from a 1925 design for a block printed cretonne by George H. Willis for
the Silver Studio
MoDA, Middlesex University

The preface to Greenery Street is just packed with tidbits about the author's life. Many of the biographical details may be familiar. His mother was the daughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the pre-Raphelite painter, and Georgina Macdonald, one of the famous 'circle of sisters.' He and his wife were friends with the A.A. Milnes, and with E.H. Shepard who illustrated the Pooh books and the cover of Greenery Street (included as a postcard). His sister was Angela Thirkell. However, it may come as a surprise that Denis Mackail and P.G. Wodehouse were friends. And that Mr. Wodehouse 'believed that Mackail wrote with an ease that he himself lacked, and respected his style and wit.' High praise from the man I believe is the master of writing! We also learn that much of Greenery Street is autobiographical, and there are two sequels which I hope Persephone will also bring back into print.

To quote a wise woman (my daughter!), 'dark and depressing doesn't mean artistic.' Sometimes warm, cheerful, and/or funny pieces of literature are looked upon as lightweight. Many people feel this is why P.G. Wodehouse doesn't get his due for the genius he is. Well, not this reader. I like a happy story, and this one certainly is.

Greenery Street is a metaphor for the first year of marriage. We are told right at the start that young couples move to this lovely London street (based on the author's own home on Walpole Street) after they get married, thinking it will be their forever home. But once the children come along, those perfect rooms begin to feel cramped and crowded, and the family moves on. It is quite shocking to a reader in 2009 to hear that a five-story house was too small for a family with two children, but 'of course' there had to be room for the servants!

The young couple are Ian and Felicity Foster. We follow them as they meet, become engaged, and then move into their first home as young marrieds. Some of the facts of their lives are the same as what a couple face even now - managing money, coping with neighbors, learning to live with another person. There is such a sweetness in the details of their new life together, their love of one another, and their joint love of their new home. Not everything is perfect, of course, but it is interesting to see how they handle various concerns.

P.G. Wodehouse wrote to the author as he began reading Greenery Street:

It's so good that it makes one feel that it's the only possible way of writing a book, to take an ordinary couple and just tell the reader all about them. It's the sort of book one wishes would go on forever.

And honestly, I cannot say anything further or more eloquently than this. Buy it or borrow it, but please do read it. Your heart will be lightened and your spirits lifted as you move through the pages of this wonderful, wonderful book. You may read another review here. If anyone else has written about it, please let me know, and I'll add the link to your post.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Stroll/June 7

I haven't taken a weekly stroll through the garden in too long. Today will be a good chance to catch up with what is going on in my little corner of the world. First off - all the raised beds are completed and in place. I showed you photos of the first four, and here are the remaining four.

Yellow beans - we've divided the bed into thirds, and will plant more seeds in 10 day intervals
A tomato plant given to Tom by a friend, cucumbers in the middle, and some cosmos we started under lights
Sweet peas (left) and peas
Zephyr summer squash
And now for the flower gardens. Not too much is in bloom right now. The lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley have just gone by. The iris, aquilegia, lupines, and poppy have budded.

The first spiderwort (remember Henry Mitchell's correct pronunciation!)
Oregano, a perennial I just planted last year - I might transplant it into the vegetable garden now that we've got the raised beds.

The crabapple still has beautiful flowers. I love the pink with the smooth gray of the branches
Pansies and pot are a gift from Tom's mom
Centaurea montana known as Mountain Bluet, Perennial Cornflower, or Perennial Bachelor's Button

Please do visit Aisling, and see who else is taking a stroll this day.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Movie before book

The traditional lament of readers is that a movie never quite captures a book. I will be watching along, and say right out loud, 'that wasn't in the book!' Many times we choose not to see a visual adaptation because we want our own imaginations to prevail, and not be tainted by actors or representations. Yet, I've just had the opposite happen to me. You may recall that I was pretty thrilled by the movie, Revolutionary Road. My friend Les most kindly sent me her copy of the book. She wasn't wild about it at all, but I was still eager to read it while the movie was fresh in my mind. I was sure I'd enjoy a more complex view of the characters which a book offers. And so I began. A small criticism I did have about the movie was it started abruptly without the viewer really knowing what was going on. The book begins with the same scene, but with more explanation of the situation. I thought, good, good, this is what I was hoping for. And then two little sentences jumped right off the page. But let me set the scene first. The couple, Frank and April Wheeler, are having a powerful argument. In the movie, he raises his fist to her, but hits the car instead. In the book, the same event occurs, but in the midst of the fight she says, 'do you think I've forgotten the time you hit me in the face because I said I wouldn't forgive you? Oh, I've always known I had to be your conscience and your guts - and your punching bag.' And then the scene happens when Frank hits the car.

And I closed the book. I didn't want to know Richard Yates' Frank Wheeler. Leonardo portrayed a different man, a man I liked and respected a fair bit. He was not a wife-beater, and that's that.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Today's poem - Another Spring by Christina Georgina Rossetti

Another Spring
by Christina Georgina Rossetti
If I might see another Spring,
I’d not plant summer flowers and wait:
I’d have my crocuses at once,
My leafless pink mezereons,
My chill-veined snowdrops, choicer yet
My white or azure-violet,
Leaf-nested primrose; anything
To blow at once, not late.

If I might see another Spring,
I’d listen to the daylight birds
That build their nests and pair and sing,
Nor wait for mateless nightingale;
I’d listen to the lusty herds,
The ewes with lambs as white as snow,
I’d find out music in the hail
And all the winds that blow.

If I might see another Spring—
Oh stinging comment on my past
That all my past results in “if”—
If I might see another Spring
I’d laugh to-day, to-day is brief;
I would not wait for anything:
I’d use to-day that cannot last,
Be glad to-day and sing.