Category Archives: 05. A Century of Women

Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Levant TrilogyFortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1981
Genre: fiction
Pages: 548
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

It’s the spring of 1941 and the German army’s eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city’s bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines.

Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning’s magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband.

As is often the case, while I meant to read this second omnibus on the immediate heels of finishing the first, I didn’t. I needed a bit of a break from Harriet and, especially, Guy Pringle. It took me several months to pull this chunkster off my NYRB shelf.

I am so glad I did. When I last left Harriet and Guy, they had managed to publicly shame a quartet (or so) of deeply self-centered jerks into allowing a much larger group of refugees to board their ships for Egypt. This set of three books begins with Harriet and Guy in Cairo. Guy is still bound to employment with The Institute, but there is no one there to oversee him.

The three books in this omnibus are The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978, and The Sum of Things, published in 1981. Harriet and her marriage remain a narrative focus, but Manning adds a second POV character, Simon Boulderstone, a young English soldier who arrives in Egypt at the beginning of The Danger Tree. I really loved his contribution to the story, which brought verisimilitude as well as an emotional anchor to the trilogy.

The title of the first book is a reference to the mango tree which grows outside of the room where Harriet and Guy are living in Cairo. I struggled with Guy in The Balkan Trilogy. That did not change throughout these three books. I know that the entire six book cycle is based, at least in part, on the author’s experience as a young married woman during the war. How she did not punch her husband in the face will remain a mystery for all eternity.

Because Guy is worse, here. He is self-centered and pompous, barely giving his wife a thought from time to time. He has a grotesquely overblown sense of his own importance. When Harriet tries to make him understand that he shouldn’t treat her like shit, his response is basically that she is “a part of him” and he can treat himself like shit if he wants. He constantly puts her last. She should have shoved him out of a window and gone home. There were a few times that I had to rage quit and walk away.

But, even for all of this, I loved this book. It was a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I am already planning to reread it in a few years or so.

I want to close this with the Coda that Manning put at the end of the final book:

Two more years were to pass before the war ended. Then, at last, peace, precarious peace, came down upon the world and the survivors could go home. Like the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy, they had now to tidy up the ruins of war and in their hearts bury the noble dead.

I wonder what happened to Simon and Harriet and Guy. Did they return to England and find work in peacetime? Did the Pringle’s marriage survive peace as it survived war? Did Guy ever pull his head out of his ass and figure out how to be a decent human being?

These are questions that will never be answered.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

by Marilynne Robinson
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: March 1, 1980
Genre: fiction
Pages: 219
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.

Marilynne Robinson has been on my TBR list for decades, at least. When I was putting together my second Classics Club list, I dithered between Housekeeping, her debut novel, and Gilead, her unconnected follow-up. I ultimately settled on Housekeeping. I had little background on the book, and even fewer expectations, when I started.

This book is so beautifully written that the sadness is almost lost in the gorgeous prose. I gather from my research that Robinson was previously on the faculty at University of Iowa, and was part of the well-regarded Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Housekeeping is the story of a family – told from the perspective of Ruth – that has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. It begins with the death of Ruth’s grandfather in a spectacular train derailment into Fingerbone Lake off of the long railway bridge into the town of Fingerbone, where he and his wife, Sylvia, live in the home he built. Fingerbone is never situated on a map, but seems to correspond to Sandpoint, Idaho.

The timeframe is also not clearly identified – it feels like it is set in the 1940’s or 1950’s, but that may simply have been because the narrator, Ruthie, isn’t particularly interested in the trappings of modernity. Published in 1980, It seems likely that Ruthie would have been slightly older than I was, so she was probably born in around 1960, which would mean it is occurring in the 1970’s.

Aside from the beautiful writing, it is hard to say that I “liked” this novel. The tone is melancholy and almost elegiac. The actions of most of the women in the book who preceded Ruthie are inexplicable at best, indicative of serious mental health issues. Her mother, Helen, abandons her two girls, Ruthie and Lucille, to their grandmother and commits suicide by driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The lake looms large over the family, a reminder of tragedy that is inescapable.

Helen’s older sister, Molly, developed a religious fervor and disappears into China, presumably as a missionary. After Helen’s death, the girls are raised by their grandmother until her death.

After Sylvia dies, the youngest sister, Sylvie, returns to Fingerbone after being essentially a drifter for the years since she has left, and ends up as the caregiver for Ruth and Lucille, a job for which she is poorly equipped. The townspeople ignore the neglect and oddness of the behavior of the three until Lucille decides that she has had enough of the squalor and strangeness of their living situation and leaves to live with a teacher. This seems to breach the code of silence that the three of them have operating within and provides a glimpse to the rest of the community about how things really are in the old, crumbling house within an orchard inhabited by the strange aunt and her two odd school-aged nieces.

The title of the book comes from Sylvie’s increasingly frenetic behavior to try to stave off the removal of Ruthie from her car. Her “housekeeping” before intervention consisted of piling up newspapers and cans in what was previously the parlor of the home:

The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobsebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she consider accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Ruth speaks of the conditions in which she is living with no insight to their strangeness. Ultimately, the actions of the Sheriff and well-meaning townspeople lead to far reaching consequences, Sylvie’s attempts to align Ruth’s living conditions with the expectations of the community being inadequate to stop the proceedings that have already  begun.

In the same way I’m not sure how I feel about the book, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.

2023 Reading Plans and Updates

This time of year, I always get excited, thinking about a brand new reading year in the offing, and I start making plans for what I want to tackle in the new year. 2023 isn’t an exception to that rule – in fact, because I am retiring on 9/30, I’m extra excited about the possibility of more reading time at the end of the year.

I still have several ongoing projects that I am working on, and will continue with next year:

With respect to my A Century of Women project, I made a lot of progress early in 2022 and then sort of fizzled out towards the end of the year. I have been struggling with 1900 through 1919 because I haven’t been enthusiastic about the books that I have found for that part of the challenge. I decided to change up the challenge, and, instead of starting in 1900, to start in 1920 and read through 2019. This should open up my book choices a lot and enable me to put this particular project to bed – probably not in 2023, but maybe in 2024, which would be great. I have a follow up project – A Century of Crime – that I have been waiting to start until the finish line is in sight.

I also decided to do the Back to the Classics Challenge this year.

Again, I did really well on this one early in the year. There are a total of 12 prompts, and I have read for & posted about 8 of them. There is 1 more that I can finish off with books I’ve already read. I finished Jane Eyre, which will work for 19th Century Classic. That leaves me with 3 unread. I’m satisfied with that. I think I’m going to pass on this challenge for next year, because I have some other plans.

I also have an ongoing Classics Club project that I largely ignored in 2022. I’d really like to make some progress on this project. I read a few of the books on it, but never got around to writing up a post, so that’s probably going to be something I work on during January. The books are: Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and Lolly Willows by Sylvia Townsend Warner, all three of which I loved. I DNF’d Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, which is odd because I usually love her, so I may give that one another try. If it continues to not work for me, I’ll read a different Gaskell. I also started, but lost interest in, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. I’m also going to give that one another chance because I didn’t get very far into it, but if it’s not for me, I’m taking Murdoch off the list and adding someone else. Life is too short.

My new projects for next year are:

All of the Agatha Christie mysteries for 2023 (in my GR group) were published in the 1940’s, so I decided to focus on that decade next year. It was a really good decade for mystery publishing, and I’m looking forward to reading a lot of different mystery styles by different vintage authors, both men and women. My library has a lot of the American Mystery Classics reprints, many of which were published during this decade, and there are a number of reprints from BLCC and DSP that are from the ’40s. As a part of this project, I may also watch some film adaptations from the books I read. This will give me a jump start on my Century of Crime project – I expect I will fill in the entire decade by the end of the year.

Because I am planning to focus on mysteries published in the 1940’s, I think it’s time to start this project in earnest.

My final challenge for 2023 is a short story challenge.

My other project for next year is to try to finish the Deal Me In Challenge, which is a short story challenge that I have tried to complete several times and have consistently failed. The basic challenge structure is to assign each card in a deck of cards a different short story, and then draw a card each week to select that week’s story. I will have a separate master post that sets out the stories I have assigned to each card. I have some really great anthologies that I will be reading out of:

  • Deep Waters: Murder on the Waves: a BLCC anthology edited by Martin Edwards (assigned to Clubs)
  • The Collected Stories of Willa Cather by Willa Cather (assigned to Hearts)
  • The Persephone Book of Short Stories, Volume 1: a Persephone anthology edited by Susan Glaspell (assigned to Spades)
  • Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: an anthology of vintage crime stories written by women, edited by Sarah Weinman (assigned to Diamonds)

The only suit that I haven’t managed to assign at this point is Spades, because the Persephone anthology hasn’t arrived and I can’t find a list of stories anywhere on the internet. My copy isn’t going to be here for a few weeks, but my library has a copy that I can check out to start the project. I am really happy with the anthologies I have chosen for this challenge, so I’m hopeful I can finish it!

There are some other, smaller items I have in my general reading plans – more Maigret, more Inspector Alleyn, catch up on a few series, finish all of Willa Cather’s published works (only 1 novel left, and that short story collection!) read more Dorothy Whipple, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Pym & Stella Gibbons.





Emily Fox-Seton by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Making of a MarchionessThe Making of a Marchioness
by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Emily Fox-Seton #
Publication Date: January 1, 1901
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 308
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

First published in 1901 as The Making of a Marchioness followed by its sequel The Methods of Lady Walderhurst, the two novels were combined into Emily Fox-Seton who is the two works' primary character. The story follows thirty-something Emily who lives alone, humbly and happily, in a tiny apartment and on a meager income. She is the one that everyone counts on but no one goes out of their way to accommodate. Her fortune changes, however, and the second half chronicles her adaptation to her new life and the dangers that arise from those who stand to lose most from her new circumstances.

Let me begin by saying that A Little Princess, even more than The Secret Garden, is a beloved book of my childhood. I was surprised to find out, then, that Hodgson Burnett had actually also written adult fiction. A few years ago, I read The Shuttle, which I really enjoyed, and which is a novel about an American heiress who marries an English aristocrat, who turns out to be an abusive asshole. I may actually have to reread it, given how much I enjoyed this one.

I selected this book for my 1901 entry in A Century of Women for two reasons – my public library had the Persephone edition available for me to check out and those early years are the hardest ones for me to fill. I really love reading Persephone editions; the books are so well-constructed, the paper is a bit on the thicker and creamier side than the average paperback and the covers are sturdy. They fit so well in my hand.

I ended up just loving this book, and will be on the lookout for a copy to add to my personal library. It reminded me of something that Elizabeth Von Arnim might have written, although Hodgson Burnett doesn’t have the bite that von Arnim often adds to her books. Emily Fox-Seton is a lovely character, and spending time with her was soothing. The book contains both of the Emily Fox-Seton books: the first book, that is really more of a novella, called The Making of the Marchioness, and then the sequel, which is longer, called The Methods of Lady Walderhurst. I liked Part I, the Cinderella story, a bit more than Part II, which is what happened after Cinderella marries her prince, if her prince had been 50 years old and quite set in his ways. Part II is a bit on the gothic melodramatic side, but I’m not opposed to a little melodrama between friends.


Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

by Elizabeth von Arnim
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: fiction
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people's too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under.'

Since her mother's death Jennifer has devoted years of her life to her father, managing the family home and acting as his secretary. After the sudden announcement that he has taken a new wife, Jennifer, at 33, seizes the opportunity to lead an independent life. Quickly she secures the lease of Rose Cottage and turns her attention to her own needs and interests.

Published in 1931, Father explores the concept of spinsterhood in a time when the financial and social status of single women were often dependent on male family members. While Jennifer is desperate to experience life on her own terms within her reduced financial means, her neighbour Alice is pre-occupied with ensuring her position as head of her brother's household is never challenged.

I have read several books by von Armin since I fortuitously picked up old green-cover Virago edition of The Enchanted April many years ago and fell in love with it. I read Elizabeth and her German Garden and The Solitary Summer several years later and loved them, too – albeit not quite so much as The Enchanted April, which has made it into that quite limited pantheon of books I have read more than 3 times.

I had never heard of this book until I saw it was reissued by the British Library in their British Library Women Writers series. Since I love their BLCC series, and since it was completely free through the Kindle Unlimited Library, I decided to read it on a whim.

I am even more convinced that The Enchanted April, written in 1922 is her fictional masterpiece. This one was written in 1931, and it was delightful in a lot of the same ways. I could hear echoes of Lottie in the character of Jennifer, and her rapid evolution from indenture to freedom.

I’ve realized that there are few tropes that are as immediately appealing to me as “unmarried/spinster woman who has sublimated her entire existence to caregiving for other people breaks free.” This was what I loved about All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, and, as well, Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Women whose entire lives have been dominated by other people because they are surplus, they don’t have husbands or homes of their own (or they do have husbands or homes, but because of social pressures are still expected not to possess a shred of individuality or personal ambition), suddenly decides that they just aren’t going to put up with that anymore – this is something I love to read about. And if they can annoy the shit out of the people who have taken them for granted and expected them to forgo all freedom or individuality, all the better from my perspective.

So, the first 3/4 of the book really revolved around this theme. But the ending, whoa? I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or be completely appalled by what happened to the titular father. Von Arnim has a dark side, for sure.

Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Balkan TrilogyFortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 924
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming, and complex masterpiece in which Olivia Manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life. Manning’s focus is not the battlefield but the café and kitchen, the bedroom and street, the fabric of the everyday world that has been irrevocably changed by war, yet remains unchanged.

At the heart of the trilogy are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, who arrive in Bucharest—the so-called Paris of the East—in the fall of 1939, just weeks after the German invasion of Poland. Guy, an Englishman teaching at the university, is as wantonly gregarious as his wife is introverted, and Harriet is shocked to discover that she must share her adored husband with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Other surprises follow: Romania joins the Axis, and before long German soldiers overrun the capital. The Pringles flee south to Greece, part of a group of refugees made up of White Russians, journalists, con artists, and dignitaries. In Athens, however, the couple will face a new challenge of their own, as great in its way as the still-expanding theater of war.

This was a chunkster of a book – an omnibus of the first three books of Olivia Manning’s cycle of WWII books based upon her own war experiences: The Great Fortune, published in 1960, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, and Friends and Heroes, published in 1965. I’m assigning it to the year 1960 in my A Century of Women project, but it was a massive and impressive undertaking. The remaining six books, which are collected as Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy, also published by NYRB, consists of: The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978 and The Sum of Things, published 1981. I’m going to assign The Levant Trilogy, once I finish it, to year 1981.

I have a pronounced affection for books set on huge stages but involving ordinary people – such as Doctor Zhivago or the series I just finished, the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Reading of sweeping events through the perspective of completely unimportant characters is, for me, the most enjoyable way for me to dig into history. WWII literature is having a moment – it seems like every other new release I see is a piece of historical fiction about WWII, often with a woman as the central character, and usually with a gorgeous cover but a plot description that leaves me cold.

Initially, I was on the fence about this group of books – I hesitate to call them a “series” because what they really seem to be is a single sustained narrative that has been broken, for convenience, into multiple books. Each book does have a narrative structure, and the last two books end with a flight or evacuation. I think that the first book, for me, was the most difficult because I hadn’t yet become engaged. Over the course of the three books, that changed completely. By the end of the third book, Guy and Harriet are in desperate flight from Athens, barely ahead of the Germans (apparently) and I was reading as fast as I could, even knowing that (obviously, given that there are three more books) they survived.

There are elements of this story that I simply do not understand. I do not understand why England is sending English teachers to war torn countries and then leaving them there. I do not understand the point of people putting on lectures about literature and philosophy while the citizens of Greece are literally starving. I do not understand why so many able-bodied young men (and women, for that matter) were, apparently, paid to engage in what certainly appears to be, in retrospect, self-indulgent colonial nonsense rather than useful work to support the war effort, even if they weren’t going to be fighting on the front lines.

I especially loved the last book. Harriet and Guy are absurdly young, and the events through which they are living are immense and sweeping. Their marriage is struggling under the weight of their immaturity and the extraordinariness of their war experience. War is also clarifying the characters of the various other  individuals – the brave are demonstrating even greater bravery, and the weak and venal, well let’s just say that they have utterly surpassed even the least charitable expectations that I had of them. Not everyone behaves heroically during times of great danger, and those who are entitled and self-centered and craven don’t even bother to hide those qualities when their comfort is on the line.

I had enough foresight to pick up The Levant Trilogy as part of a recent NYRB purchase – it’s sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting for me to crack it open this evening after work.


West With The Night by Beryl Markham

West With the NightWest With the Night
by Beryl Markham
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1942
Genre: memoir
Pages: 306
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

The classic memoir of Africa, aviation, and adventure—the inspiration for Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and “a bloody wonderful book” (Ernest Hemingway).

Beryl Markham’s life story is a true epic. Not only did she set records and break barriers as a pilot, she shattered societal expectations, threw herself into torrid love affairs, survived desperate crash landings—and chronicled everything. A contemporary of Karen Blixen (better known as Isak Dinesen, the author of Out of Africa), Markham left an enduring memoir that soars with astounding candor and shimmering insights.

A rebel from a young age, the British-born Markham was raised in Kenya’s unforgiving farmlands. She trained as a bush pilot at a time when most Africans had never seen a plane. In 1936, she accepted the ultimate challenge: to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, a feat that fellow female aviator Amelia Earhart had completed in reverse just a few years before. Markham’s successes and her failures—and her deep, lifelong love of the “soul of Africa”—are all told here with wrenching honesty and agile wit.

I read this book many years ago, and remember really enjoying it. When I decided (recently) to buckle down and try to finish my A Century of Women project, I started working on a potential book list for my remaining years. When I searched for books written in 1942, this one popped up (along with Five Little Pigs, which is my favorite Christie mystery) – it’s #12 on the Goodreads list of “Most Popular Books Published in 1942.”

It was even better the second time because Beryl Markham was an incredibly interesting woman, and a magnificent writer.

So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa — and as many books about it as you could read in a leisurely lifetime.

Markham was born in England as Beryl Clutterbuck – I don’t actually know how she became Markham, probably she married – this memoir doesn’t talk at all about husbands (although there were three of them), and it is clear that she has three great loves: Africa, horses and flight. Men don’t seem to figure much in her emotional life, except as companions, friends, and equals. Women figure even less. While this makes the memoir, possibly, less complete, it really feels to me like those are things that she didn’t feel mattered enough to include here. She wanted to write about adventure, she wanted to write about Africa, and she wanted to write about flying. Who she slept with was orders of magnitude less interesting to her, and ultimately, to me as well.

Markham was raised in Kenya, on a farm where she lived with her father after her mother died. She lived one of those lives that is filled with adventure – she feels bigger than life. After her father lost the farm in Njoro, she is forced to leave it and goes to Nairobi to train racehorses.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep — leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it. I have learned this, but like everyone, I learned it late. I left the farm at Njoro almost the slowest way, and I never saw it again.

She gets some success as a trainer, but ultimately abandons horses for flight.

Three hundred and fifty miles can be no distance in a plane, or it can be from where you are to the end of the earth. It depends on so many things. If it is night, it depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you, if you fly alone — not only on your ability to steer your course or to keep your altitude, but upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky. Some of those things take root and are with you long after the flight itself is a memory, but, if your course was over any part of Africa, even the memory will remain strong.

I haven’t read Paula McLain’s historical fiction treatment of her life, Circling the Sun, which has a lovely cover, but doesn’t really appeal to me. The Mary Lovell biography, Straight on Till Morning, on the other hand, does appeal to me and I have put a library hold on it.

I’ll close with Hemingway’s words about the memoir:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. It really is a bloody wonderful book.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Breathing LessonsBreathing Lessons
by Anne Tyler
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: August 12, 1988
Genre: fiction
Pages: 338
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Breathing Lessons is the wonderfully moving and surprising story of Ira and Maggie Moran. She's impetuous, harum-scarum, easygoing; he's competent, patient, seemingly infallible. They've been married for 28 years. Now, as they drive from their home in Baltimore to the funeral of Maggie's best friend's husband, Anne Tyler shows us all there is to know about a marriage - the expectations, the disappointments, the way children can create storms in a family, the way a wife and husband can fall in love all over again, the way nothing really changes. Anne Tyler's funny, unpredictable and endearing characterizations make Breathing Lessons truly entertaining.

It took me a long time to read this rather quick book, and I’m still on the fence about it. I started it, read the first section (from Maggie’s perspective) and then started the second section (from Ira’s perspective) and then quit for about a week, and then picked it back up against because I was running out of time and finished it quickly. I think that I have previously read Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, although I’m not entirely sure that I’m right about that. I’ll be finding out soon, as I checked it out of the library as well.

I mostly picked this up because Liz from Adventures in reading . . . is a fan – so much so that she reread all of Tyler’s books last year. Anne Tyler won the Pulitzer for this book.

Breathing Lessons is set all in one day, but takes place over the entire 28 years that Maggie and Ira have been married, with the story of their marriage and lives told through discursions from each of their perspectives, and flashbacks to earlier events. At the beginning of the book, Maggie and Ira are getting ready to set off in their car for the funeral of a friend from when they were young. Maggie is picking up the car from having some work done on it, and, tuned to a call-in radio show she hears a caller she believes to be her former daughter-in-law calling in to talk about her decision to marry again, this time for security, as her first marriage, for love, has not worked out.

These two events take up the entire book – first, the funeral, which turns out to be one of the oddest funerals in the history of fiction, and then Maggie attempting, and ultimately persuading, Ira to stop by Fiona’s house (the ex-daughter-in-law) to attempt to effectuate a hail-Mary reconciliation between Fiona and Jesse, their son, and to see the 7 year old granddaughter from whom they are estranged. Maggie and Ira have two children: the feckless musician, Jesse, and the organized, capable Daisy. Maggie and Ira are driving Daisy to college the day after the funeral, and this fact, while not overplayed by Tyler, is the central piece of background information that, I think, informs the entire book.

As I said above, I’m on the fence about this book. On the one hand, Maggie and Ira both drove me completely bonkers, Maggie more than Ira. And, viewed as a piece of ethnography on the American marriage in the 20th century, I would not say that we are doing well at all. On the other hand, as a nearly empty-nester myself, I related to Maggie. While she is incredibly annoying, with her seeming incapacity to tell the truth to herself, much less the other people around her, she is also warm, caring and shit-scared of being alone with her marriage, without her kids to focus on. I don’t mean that she’s afraid of Ira – it’s clear that there is no abuse in their marriage, although I’m not sure how well suited they are one to one another. But Maggie is the sort of person who requires the role of caregiver, and she’s just about run out of time on that front – her oldest, her son, has moved out and her youngest, her daughter, is leaving her behind as well. Ira is capable and grounded and does not need Maggie to try to fix his life.

I know something about what this feels like, and my heart went out to Maggie as she scrambled around desperately, trying to get her granddaughter back into her life so that she could take on a caregiving role for that little girl. This all goes completely awry, because of Maggie’s habit of, to put it charitably, stretching the truth about other people to try to smooth over the rough spots in their relationships. She’s completely delusional about it in her desperation – she tries to convince Ira that they should propose having Leroy live with them so she can attend school in their neighborhood; Ira, befuddled by all of this tries to bring her back to reality. Reality is not a place that Maggie particularly enjoys, although it is coming for her hard.

By the end of the book, she’s left with only her marriage, and Ira. I can’t help but wonder what will happen next.

Project Management at the Mid-Year

I started out really strong on my reading projects at the beginning of the year, but have sort of faded. This is a pretty common phenomenon for me – January brings lots of vigor and optimism, and then I lose focus after a few months. I’ve made solid progress on two major projects/challenges, though, and reviewing it will, hopefully, give me a shot of energy to keep moving forward!

A Century of Women

According to my analytics, I’ve read 17 books for this challenge, and written 13 reviews. The books I’ve reviewed for this project, so far this year, are:

  1. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (1965)
  2. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)
  3. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor (1931)
  4. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville West (1930)
  5. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple (1939)
  6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (1926)
  7. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (1977)
  8. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1933)
  9. Jubilee by Margaret Walker (1966)
  10. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns (1985)
  11. Firestorm by Nevada Barr (1996)
  12. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James (1972)
  13. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple (1949)

I decided at the beginning of the year to focus my attention on two decades – the 30’s and the 60’s, since I had a good start in both of them. This was wildly successful, and allowed me to completely fill the 30’s, and fill the 60’s with the exception of 1960. For the second half of the year, I am going to focus on the 40’s – I only need 1942 and 1947 to complete that decade – and the 50’s – I need to read books for 1953, 1954, 1956 and 1958. If I complete those two decades, I will have finished 1930 through 1969 by the end of the year. I really need to sprinkle in some books from the beginning of the century, though, since those will be the hardest for me to fill and I don’t want to just leave it to the end.

Back to the Classics 2022

I have finished 7 out of 12 categories so far:

  1. 19th Century Classic: open;
  2. 20th Century Classic: The Priory by Dorothy Whipple;
  3. Classic by a woman author: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather;
  4. Classic in translation: Maigret and the Minister by Georges Simenon is waiting for a review;
  5. Classic by a BIPOC author: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  6. Mystery/detective/crime classic: A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
  7. Classic short story collection: open
  8. Pre-1800 classic: open
  9. Non-fiction: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
  10. Longest on your TBR: open
  11. Set in a place I’d like to visit: open
  12. Wild card: Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

This leaves me with a couple of categories that are pretty easy to fill, but also with the two that will be hardest for me: pre-1800 classic and short story collection. The first is hard because I don’t enjoy reading books published pre-1800; the second because I struggle with short stories. This is solid progress, though, so I’m pleased with it.

The also have a second round of The Classics Club going, but I’ve done so poorly on it so far that I’m just going to ignore it for now.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper TreeThe Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1985
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 173
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Bella Winter has hit a low. Homeless and jobless, she is the mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured by the scar she acquired in a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella has found not only a job but a vocation; not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns’s novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the happiness of others?

This is the second book by Barbara Comyns that I have read – the first was Our Spoons Were From Woolworths, which I read back in January, 2019. Like that one, this was a very unique book. Comyns is not a cozy writer, even if some of her writing is very beautiful. Her books are disturbing, and sometimes harrowing, with characters whose mental health is often tenuous at best.

The Juniper Tree is a retelling of one of the most terrible and terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales (also called The Juniper Tree), which involved monstrous step-mothers, child abuse, decapitation and cannibalism. It is noteworthy for the following poem:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The book begins with the meeting of the main character, Bella Winter, who is at a low financial ebb, and a wealthy couple named Bernard and Gertrude. Bella is unmarried, and has a toddler-aged daughter named Tommy. She becomes enmeshed with Bernard and Gertrude, who are childless, and begins a job in an antique shop. Things seem to be headed in a positive direction.

As Bella grows closer to Bernard and Gertrude, their lives becomes more and more idealized to her. She takes the place of beloved daughter of the home, especially where Gertrude is concerned. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, though, things start to fall apart. The juniper tree, a part of a thicket that is an especially important section of Gertrude’s garden, takes on increasing significance.

If you are familiar with the fairy tale, the trajectory of the book will not surprise, but I don’t want to spoil it for readers who aren’t. Suffice to say that there are significant losses ahead, and, as well, Bella’s mental health becomes more fragile until it breaks completely. The end of this book is quite different from that in the fairy tale, and, thankfully, Comyn’s skips the cannibalism element.

I read the NYRB print edition, which I checked out of my local library. These books are very well made, and are a pleasure to read. The Juniper Tree definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it well-worth reading.