Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #13: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Rachel Samstat is a chef who’s been on TV, and a bemused but witty heroine/narrator. She finds out that her husband is having an affair…and she happens to be pregnant. From these simple beginnings emerges a frothy but sharp lemon cheesecake of a novel–light and creamy on top, infused with tartness, and grounded in the buttery biscuits of warmth and insight which evoked in me nods, smiles and sighs of recognition.

In Heartburn, divorce doesn’t lead to self-conscious self-discovery and life-changing experiences Eat Pray Love-style, or graphic sexual odyssey à la Fear of Flying. It’s a quieter, more humorous take on the muddles that people get themselves into, and the ways in which they survive heartbreak and separation. The book is set among the upper-middle-class, if such a designation is appropriate for American literature set in artistic New York and the political circles of Washington, but the emotional resonance of the novel, the pain and confusion of adultery and divorce and the split-second moments of clarity, as well as its commentary on the behaviour of the entitled male, is amusing and perhaps, to some extent, universal.

I’d recommend it if you like Julie and Julia (the book or the film), or Sex and the City (the series, not the films *brrr*). It’s a niche sort of book–less saccharine than some of the films she was involved in–the most acerbic bits and crackle from When Harry Met Sally come closest to the tone. Heartburn gains added interest because it was based on her second marriage and the fallout that followed, and it also contains recipes which look rather tasty.


(Note: I read this a while ago, so the details are a bit skimpy – do check out this great review of Heartburn by Loulamac.)

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #12: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown is at the edge of the “immer”, an outpost of the Bremen empire, and at the border between the Ariekei and the humans on the planet Arieka. It is clearly science fiction, verging towards dystopian science fiction, but it’s also about colonialism, about the alien and the other, and about words and signs and truth and lies and revolutions that change the meaning of all of these. Negotiating between the Ariekei, or Hosts, who are the aliens, and the mostly-human community are the Ambassadors, who we gradually find out are sets of doubled, identical beings who speak “Language” with two voices but one brain, the only form of communication that the aliens, who are alien to the point of not even breathing oxygen–or being physically or mentally capable of lying, of saying that something is not what it is but something else–can understand.

Drifting among the power structures, danger zones and levels of communication in Embassytown, is Avice, a girl who made an unusual contact with the alien race early in her life, and who becomes a Navigator in the “immer,” able to transport vessels in a nebulous, shifting space among the stars and planets that make up the universe. On one planet she finds Scile, a linguist obsessed with the Host alien language and way of communication, and brings him in her wake back to Arieka. Scile’s investigation and idealism happens to coincide with the appearance of an impossible Ambassador from Bremen, and the results are ultimately disturbing and destructive in moral and ethical as well as physical ways.

Embassytown is a trippy read. A lot of it makes more sense if you’re familiar with the sign and signified and other Derridean stuff, or if you’re used to reading or watching science fiction in which obscure or made-up words describe technology, environment and aliens. It takes a while to get into, but I was gripped when I finally did. Although the novel is more about ideas than people, there is some relatable emotion and experience, particularly as events unfold, but I found it hard to get a sense of Avice and the other characters as more than ciphers. I admired it and enjoyed it as an intellectual rather than emotional or escapist read, thinking about its allusions and structures (probably because I read it two days before I had to teach it) and I’m sure I missed a lot of what was going on. It’s a dark, weird, thought-provoking novel about big questions, without any easy answers.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #11: Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson

The gaps in Saving Mr Banks scream to be noticed — what happens between the sweet, imaginative, tremulous Ginty Goff, and Miss Travers, the crotchety, chic and red-lipsticked dame who holds the keys to something Walt Disney very much wants and refuses to release them for mere filthy lucre? While the film links Miss Travers to Ginty through (some might say excessive) flashbacks, a great deal must have occurred between the ages of 10 and 60, between the Australian drawl of Ginty and the clipped upper-middle-class accents of Miss Travers, between the blazing red dust of the Australian outback and the twee terraced house with the cherry tree outside it.

Apparently, between Allora and Los Angeles, Travers fell in with various spiritual gurus, travelled the world, was a published journalist and poet, had a stint acting, and did a great deal more with her life than write about a stern governess and whimsical adventures that  she always insisted were not “children’s books”–and the people she knew, her triumphs and suffering, and her accomplishments and ambitions far exceed the brief list I have given as well.  She was, as everybody is, a person of contradictions, who tried to hide her past (including her name and nationality) but gave hints of it in her work, and wanted no biography but meticulously kept records and sold them to public archives. (Lawson uses this last as a justification for breaking Travers’s command to have no biography, which is a bit tenuous.) Suggestions of the author’s vulnerability and powers appear in Emma Thompson’s marvellous performance in the film, but unfortunately the gaps in the film don’t allow her to fulfil the full potential of the role and the story.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers (1999) goes a long way towards connecting the dots, but unfortunately–or perhaps inevitably–draws some of its lines out of conjecture and flights of fancy, trying to recreate Travers’s process and imagery–”she might have felt this” or “she probably remembered that.” Nevertheless, it’s a persuasively argued biography, with the evidence it produces going a long way towards sharpening a great deal of the sugar of Saving Mr Banks. I won’t spoil all the revelations, but I must say that if Disney did indeed use this biography as a basis for the film, it’s an extraordinary case of double-think at work; Travers’s experience with Disney did not end in a heartwarming scene of reconciliation between Walt and P. L., and she publicly criticised the film for the rest of her life. I recommend Mary Poppins, She Wrote to anyone who loves the books (not children, though!) and was left wanting by the film.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #10: The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I accidentally left The Corner That Held Them (Virago Modern Classics 2012) on a train, but fortunately only after I’d finished it. And I’m glad I did finish it because it would have been very hard to be cut off from it in the middle – not because so many important things happen, but because so many unimportant things flow so steadily in such a stream of gentle vitality that not reaching the end would be like a river dammed and ruined at its most limpid and beautiful.

Published in 1948, the story begins around 1153 when Brian de Retteville catches his wife Alianor in bed with her lover Giles. Giles is summarily and bloodily killed, as is the old woman who was supposed to stand guard. Alianor lives for another ten years, and when she dies de Retteville, in an excess of grief, founds a convent by the Waxle river, presumably somewhere in the fens and moors of East Anglia. From these beginnings of sex and murder springs the tale of a community of (theoretically) chaste and (theoretically) benevolent ladies, who must manage the lands belonging to their convent, maintain their religious ceremonies, and negotiate with various bishops and businessmen for funds and recognition. Meanwhile, the world between 1349 and 1382, when the bulk of the story takes place, is a dangerous and unstable site of conflicting religious theories, rebellious peasants, fraudulent friars and an occasional anxiety about the apocalypse which must surely loom very near. The nuns themselves reflect this turmoil – their superstition, jealousy, and worldly concerns are not expunged with holy water, and the various power struggles and secrets threaten to upset the entire convent and their relationship with God.

The Corner That Held Them is masterfully written. The narrator displays evenhanded insight – no one nun emerges as a heroine, no one man of God as a complete villain, and the various preoccupations of this community of women ranging from the very old to the barely pubescent are told in realistic detail – there are pustules and plagues as well as heavenly visions and vocations, worry about harvests and decay as well as the aspiration of building a new spire for the glory of God. Curiously for such subject matter God and religion are left shadowy; masses and prayers are such a matter of rote that little special attention is paid to them, which I think enhances the immersion of the reader into the novel – historical novels are often written with big signs pointing to “period detail” instead of it emerging naturally from the narrative. New philosophic and spiritual ideas of man’s place in the world and by extension women’s place in relation to man are woven skilfully into the mundane events of the rural community, and the hostility of peasants and Lollards is also made real. Overall, this is a great book; the nuns themselves become very real the further you read.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also wrote Lolly Willowes, which I reviewed here for CBR IV.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #09: Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone by Catriona McPherson

My review of Dandy Gilver and an Unsuitable Day for a Murder is available on Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone occurs a few years later, set in 1929 just before the stock market crash. Dandy Gilver is the wife of a country gentleman,  the mother of two teenage boys, and a detective in the partnership of Gilver & Osborne, which illustrious agency has aided in the solving of several murders as well as insurance scams and jewel robberies between books.

The deadly measure of brimstone, with its associations of hellfire and witchcraft, is in fact the foul-tasting mineral waters of a spa in the tiny town of Moffat near the Scottish border, where people came during the Victorian era to “take the waters” and more recently to enjoy steamrooms and massages–and possibly other, more illicit–and as well as supernatural–goings on. What the comfortable and well-fed patrons don’t realise, however, is how desperate the owners of the spa are to make a profit. The doctor and manager of the spa are brother and sister, but have differing ideas of what to do with the place they inherited, and a patient was found dead under awkward circumstances… Dandy and Alec Osborne arrive into the town to solve a mystery, and Dandy’s family accompanies them to convalesce from pneumonia and whooping-cough. Soon even the family realises that something is rotten, quite apart from the sulphur in the drinking water.

Brimstone is a great read–the chemistry between Dandy and Alec crackles with familiarity and respect, the subplots are slightly unlikely but well-written and good fun, and seeing a maternal Dandy interact with her children–in previous novels away at boarding school or busy with estate managers brings a new dimension to the lady detective. I’ve really enjoyed the whole series of Dandy novels, and I hope there are more to come.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #08: Swan Song by Edmund Crispin

I am horribly, ridiculously behind, but now my thesis is winging its way to examiners, my last teaching before Christmas is almost done, I can read fiction guilt-free, and in theory I have time to post some more reviews. So here goes.

I like old-school detective stories, and I like Oxford, and I have liked detective stories set in Oxford, and I enjoy Lewis occasionally, but I did not enjoy Edmund Crispin’s Swan Song (1947) very much. Starring Gervais Fen, in a nebulous sort of way, the plot centres around an odious opera singer and the drama behind the scenes–when Edwin Shorthouse is found dead in a locked room after a conversation in which several people expressed murderous intent, could it possibly be suicide as the police suspect?

Gervais Fen is an academic, but it’s unclear, at least from this novel, in what field. He is considered witty, and has, as is right and proper, an ambivalent relationship with the more conventional forms of law and order, i.e. Inspector Mudge. He lacks much personality beyond the occasional quip and leap of logic. In this particular investigation, he is aided by Adam, also an opera singer, but of a pleasant, non-primadonna type, and his new wife Elizabeth, who writes about crime and is well read up on poisons. The action takes place in Oxford just after the war, which is indicated not only by street names and references to random colleges, but the use of the Bird and Baby, which Tolkien, Lewis and the Inklings called The Eagle and Child pub, and the occasional splash of local colour: ‘There goes C.S. Lewis,’ said Fen suddenly. ‘It must be Tuesday.’ And this may be overly persnickety, but if someone’s familiar enough with Oxford and its literary scene to call the Eagle and Child the Bird and Baby, they should know that C.S. Lewis usually went by “Jack.” 

Anyway. It’s a pleasant enough read, despite irritations, but it suffers in comparison with the Other Oxford detective novel – Fen seems a pale Wimsey, Elizabeth a non-descript Harriet Vane, the solution to the crime, although ingenious, contains both heavily signposted elements (“he was not to know that someone else knew where the revolver was” and that kind of thing) and elements that the reader, i.e. me, could see coming from miles off but do not become clear to the celebrated detective until the final denouement. Overall, disappointing, but passes the time. I might try another of his books at some point.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review 07: The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

I love the work P.G. Wodehouse, in particular the Jeeves and the Blandings books, not only because of the sublime–and sometimes surreal–silliness they involve, but also because, in his best works, of the language, the minute details of the precisely crafted contrasts between the sublime and the ridiculous, the sentimental and the absurd, the flights of sly wit and the pratfalls. Not all of Wodehouse’s books are equal in this respect; The Inimitable Jeeves is not one of the mightiest, but it’s still a jolly good romp, with bits of parody and mockery and a course of true love that runs through several inventive disasters involving pushing small boys off bridges and oranges being flung at opera stars.

The true love in question does not mainly involve the affable narrator Bertie Wooster, but rather his friend Richard “Bingo” Little, whose adventures the narrative loosely follows. Bertie does have a couple of narrow escapes from being set up by his Aunt Agatha, but Bingo’s follies are what bind the story together. His penchant for falling in love with waitresses, fervent socialists, opera singers and upper-class ladies provide amusement for the reader and frustration for his hapless friend Bertie, who always gets dragged into his scrapes, only to be rescued by his wise and wonderful man-servant Jeeves.

Wodehouse pokes fun at the clichés of the light romance genre:

There is none like her, none. Bertie, do you believe in love at first sight? You do believe in love at first sight, don’t you, Bertie, old man? Directly I saw her she seemed to draw me like a magnet. I seemed to forget everything. We two were alone in a world of music and sunshine. I joined her. I got into conversation. She is a Miss Braythwayt, Bertie – Daphne Braythwayt. Directly our eyes met, I realized that what I had imagined to be my love for Honoria Glossop had been a mere passing whim. (70)

By contrast, Bertie’s own romantic situation in this chapter is dire; said Honoria Glossop (I love Wodehouse’s character names) is trying to improve Bertie as a complicated plot to attach her to Bingo has led her to believe that Bertie proposed to her:

I gave one of those hollow, mirthless laughs, and went downstairs to join Honoria. I had an appointment with her in the drawing-room. She was going to read Ruskin to me. (71)

The chapter ends here; the understatement of this brief passage is telling. Bingo does not end up with Daphne Braythwayt, by the way. This all occurs about a fifth of the way through. But it’s Jeeves’s schemes that are the real marvel, and the interaction between Bertie and his faithful “gentleman’s personal gentleman”, particularly when it is strained by Bertie’s insistence on loud waistcoats and purple socks, remains enjoyable even as it becomes a familiar pattern.

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #06: Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

If you don’t know Zennor is a tiny, sleepy, village on the West Coast of Cornwall, Zennor in Darkness sounds like some sort of epic fantasy thriller, involving armies wielding sword and shield and horned battle-helmet, magicians with lots of consonants in their names, a couple of fire-breathing creatures, and a hero who saves the world and gets the girl. Dunmore’s beautiful, shadowy, slippery novel is anything but epic, however–although there is a war; it’s in the trenches in France and under the seas around the coast of England–which is why the lights are out.

Claire Coyne is something of a misfit in the village–her mother’s family and her cousins are fishermen and farmers, and her father Francis is from the impoverished gentry near London. She’s an artist trying to do more than illustrate her father’s work on nature. Although she loves the land, she’s unsure about her relationship with it and her family. Her favourite cousin, John William, is fighting in France, but comes home on a brief leave with shell-shock. David Herbert Lawrence is broke, attempting to escape his scandalised public and publishers and return to nature in a tiny farmhouse near Zennor, ekeing out a meager living from the land with his German wife Frieda, a cousin of Manfred von Richthoven, the Red Baron. Cornwall is a hotbed of wary patriotism and parochialism, which swiftly becomes paranoia as the news from the Front gets worse and censorship and propaganda spread. Then tragedy strikes, and Claire, her family, and the Lawrences are involved in its aftermath…

Told from multiple perspectives, Dunmore’s novel nevertheless moves as a coherent whole. A sense of unreliability is gradually introduced–and although we become irritated with the blinkers of suspicion and xenophobia some characters seem determined to wear, they remain logical, and an uneasy sense that the conclusions they jump to might be right lingers. D.H. Lawrence and his wife are drawn sympathetically, as are the young people living in the shadow of the war and trying to snatch something to hold close before the wreckage. The paranoia of the country people and the rumours they spread, and feed, almost becomes another character in the novel, so deftly it is evoked, and the sense of danger to anyone with a different language–whether it’s German like Frieda’s or the Northern accents of Lawrence, or the slightly more upper-class inflections of Clare and her father, seems sadly real. There are moments of light and humour, and achingly sensual moments of love, but overall, this is a story fractured by shadows and unreliable in its contours.

(Penguin, 1993, 2007)

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #05 The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons

41ddEIIgujL__AA160_Reading The Matchmaker (1950, set just after WWII) is like sitting by a fire-side on a wintry day – it’s beautiful to see the flames and the shadows they cast, it’s warm and comfortable, overlaid with a sense of smugness that one is indoors rather than battling the elements, but occasionally there’s a shower of sparks that wakes you from your indolence and makes you remember that fire can be dangerous, and occasionally it’s just too hot and soporific and you find yourself drifting off with eyes itchy from the smoke.

It’s just after the Second World War in a Britain of rationing and deprivation. Alda’s husband is stationed in Germany, and she’s living in the Sussex country-side in a small cottage with her three children, her few neighbours decent enough people but eccentric to varying degrees. The farmer living down the road has a tightly wound wife, two home-sick Italian prisoners of war working on his land, and then is assigned a Land Girl named Sylvia who dreams of being an actress and dyes her hair. Of these simple enough characters Gibbons builds a story that mostly enchants and occasionally irritates, lit with occasionally acidic but mostly empathetic insight into human nature and appreciation of landscape. Alda is the titular matchmaker, secure in her thirteen-year marriage with a comfortable sense of being able to manage grown-ups (with the best of intentions) as well as she does her children (who are given their own characters rather than relegated to scenery). Yet people somehow manage slip beyond her plans and forge their own destinies – a grand term, perhaps, for the small sphere of love and country-matters and farm-work that The Matchmaker revolves around, but the characters’ choices matter to themselves and therefore to the reader. Well, me.

The few mis-steps, I think, that The Matchmaker takes (and I’m assuming the novel in general will appeal to people who like English novels set in the country-side which proceed at a leisurely pace) are in the frequency of its descriptions of nature in bloom or in shadow, as seasonally appropriate, and in the descriptions of the deep soulful link some characters have with the earth – Gibbons veers perilously close to the sort of thing she satirises so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm at times. Her treatment of class and nationality, as well as her assignation of traits such as melancholy or artistic sensitivity to heredity, can also seem somewhat stereotypical to the modern reader. While Gibbons shows a decided preference for middle-class upwards, she does compare the aristocracy to highly-bred dogs at some point. The Italians are peasants driven by emotion rather than intellect and the Land Girl is working-class and has a confused notion of socialism, for instance, while one character’s lover is well-bred but fickle and brittle.

It must be remembered that the novel was written six decades ago, however, and there is much to enjoy in its warmth and humour, as well as the poignancy that pervades some scenes of remembering and confusion.

See my blog entry for a quotation from the novel.

Gibbons, Stella. The Matchmaker. London: Vintage Classics, 2011. (1950).

Funkyfacecat’s #CBR5 Review #04 Penelope by Rebecca Harrington

HarvardPenelope O’Shaugnessy is a freshman at Harvard. Unlike most of the people she comes into contact with, she has no particular academic, financial or family standing. So far this could go in the direction of either Legally Blonde or The Secret History. Thankfully, it does neither. While Penelope is not interested either in obssessive networking or obsessive studying , her efforts to find a place for herself are hampered by both the exclusivity of the various cliques, and her own bafflement as to why they are important. This sense of dislocation is the result of result of naïveté rather than taking a stand against pretension and entitlement; Penelope’s point of view, honed by the works of Noel Coward and Hercule Poirot films, would be overly whimsical were it not grounded in genuine anxiety.

Penelope is written in a strangely formal style that actually begins to suit both the novel and its heroine; the author rarely uses contractions, and the chapters are titled things like “In Which Penelope Reaches the Zenith of Her Literary Ambitions” that somehow reminded me of The Royal Tenenbaums as well as the more light-hearted Dickensian novel. Penelope is a Wes Anderson-type heroine, I think–she plans out interesting factoids and personal anecdotes to quote at people, and she gets inveigled into situations of increasing complication. She’s complex and well-portrayed–we enjoy Penelope’s uniqueness until we start to wonder what exactly lies beneath it, to what extent do Penelope’s quirks replace assertiveness and agency and why?

I’ve made this sound like a somewhat sombre coming-of-age tale, but despite its more aching moments, it’s really not–Penelope is delightful, the skewering of university and particularly freshman pretensions is immediately recognizable and highly amusing to anyone with any experience of an academic environment, and the problems of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood are dealt with in a way that relishes the absurdity as well as the sweetness of all the awkwardness involved.

Harrington, Rebecca. Penelope. London: Virago Press, 2013. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 2012.

For a couple of quotations from the book, see the review on my blog.