Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Title: Miss Pym Disposes
Author: Josephine Tey
Published in 1946

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Even Miss Pym—lecturer at an English women’s college—agreed that final exam week was a rather grisly time at school, with ordinarily pretty girls poring red-eyed over heavy tomes, and rising at 5:00 A.M. … but murder?

Miss Pym was a warm-hearted, blithe little lady who had read thirty-seven books on psychology, disagreed with them all, and written pages and pages of rebuttal. To her amazement, she became a “best-seller”.

Then Leys College, where she was a guest lecturer, became the scene of a peculiar and fatal “accident”, which Miss Pym suspected was a planned crime. Putting her psychological theories into practice, Miss Pym turned up some surprising conclusions…

When I started Miss Pym Disposes, I was thinking about The Cat Among the Pigeons. By the end, though, I was reminded of two entirely different Christie mysteries.

I’ve been really busy, so this slender book took me a much longer time to read than I expected. And not because it wasn’t good, because it was good. Quite good.

This is my fourth Tey – I’ve already read Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair & The Singing Sands. What a sadness it is that she died so young. I’m directly in the middle of her oevre – I’ve read four and have four left to read.

Miss Pym is not my favorite of the bunch – that honor goes to Brat Farrar. But there hasn’t been a Tey that I disliked, although I was least impressed by The Singing Sands. I’m going to have to give that one another chance, though, now that I’ve warmed to Tey so much more.

I really liked this one. The setting at the school was delightful, and the characters of the Seniors were drawn with perspicacity laced with generosity. Like another bookish friend, I loved Nut Tart. Tey captured that moment in life when school is ending and youth is moving onto, and into, its future. The anticipation, the desperation, the uncertainty, the sense of standing on a precipice.

Did Miss Pym do the right thing? That’s a question that remains. I tend to think not, because her decision absolved a character who is dangerously unbalanced. Perhaps if Tey had lived longer, a sequel would have required Miss Pym to reckon with the consequences of her decision.

I’m reminded of Hickory Dickory Dock, or even Crooked House, a little bit here. Who takes responsibility for the next victim. And the victim after that? Because if there’s one thing that Agatha Christie teaches us, it’s that a murderer who has gotten away with it doesn’t stop at one – especially when the murder is cold-bloodedly motivated by gain. And both of those books addressed, in their own fashion, the arrogance of the individual who decides, on behalf of the community, how to handle a murder, and a murderer.

Anyway, great read!

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published in 1990

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I bought a used copy from Abebooks because it’s on my Round 2 Classics Club list, and I’ve been meaning to reread it. I read it for the first time decades ago, around the time that it won the Booker Prize. I remember really loving it when I first read it, and I loved it even more this time around.

This book is everything I want in a piece of literary fiction. I love Victorian novels anyway – you’ll often find me reading Trollope or Gaskell or one of the Brontes or something by Wilkie Collins (less so Dickens because my relationship with Dickens is complicated) – so reading a book about a pair Victorian poets was already going to be something that would work really well for me.

I also love a well-done dual timeline, although that particular device has gotten to the point where it is sadly overused by people whose writing chops are inadequate to manage it. This one moves back and forth between the Christabel/Randolph Ash timeline and the present with Roland & Maud. I almost always like the historical timeline better, but Byatt’s character development is so good that I enjoyed the present timeline as much as the historical stuff.

Which brings me to the academic literary detective work. That is like some sort of catnip to me. I love it desperately and find it incredibly intriguing. Finding connections between authors, their works, other authors, mining for clues, that’s just so much fun. This book had that in spades.

I also have to just note how incredibly well-done this book is. It is replete with an entire, collateral, body of work of these two poets in what I would call the “evidentiary” portions of the book. The letters, the poems, wow. She spends very little time narrating the lives of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash and yet, through their letters and poems, they spring off the page in certain ways and yet remain ciphers in others. I absolutely loved this – it felt so real.

The book does start out a bit slow, but the second half is phenomenal. By the end, I couldn’t put it down. The final reveal wasn’t really a surprise – I’d been suspecting something along the lines of the ending for a good chunk of the book (and, of course, I have read it before, although my recollection was dimmed by the passage of time).

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book. I’m half inclined to just open it up at the beginning and read it again, so that I can savor the structure and the clues once more, now that I know where it is all headed. I probably won’t, but I am mentally penciling this book in for a reread in six months or so just for that reason.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnet

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Published in 1961

Plot summary from Goodreads: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

I read this as a buddy read in January, and it has stayed with me for a considerable time since I finished. It was really something of a tour de force, and I’m still certain that I missed a significant percentage of the plot, and even more of the literary, historical and linguistic allusions.

I really did enjoy this book, and will definitely read on in the series. Dunnett is a fearless writer – she didn’t hesitate to put her characters (all of them) through a series of trials, some of which were downright awful. She killed off one character of whom I was extremely fond. I was, and still am, shocked at the almost casual speed of that particular death.

Someone else mentioned the women characters and how wonderfully well-rounded they were. I totally agree. I loved Lady Sybilla, especially at the end.

Dunnett also very much respected the intellect of her readers (maybe sometimes too much, from my perspective, ha). She packed the book with nuggets for the discerning reader to find. I’m sure that I missed a lot of them. She also just takes off with the story and proceeds apace, reaching a breakneck speed toward the end, when the revelations and the action are flying.

The final reveal wasn’t particularly shocking to me – I think that she had set it up throughout the course of the book so that it was pretty natural. This was really a swashbuckling adventure, and not a mystery, so she wasn’t so much trying to palm the ace as keep it away from the characters view for a while.

Of all of the characters, Lymond remains the most unclear to me. I still don’t feel like I have a real handle on who he is – he played so many parts that he almost doesn’t have a true identity. He is infinitely iinteresting, and I’d like to get to know him better.

I’m not sure when I will get to the next book, but I will get to the next book. This book got all of the stars from me, and I suspect I would enjoy it just as much on reread.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Title: The Girls of Slender Means
Author: Muriel Spark
Published in 1963

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”

I’m pretty sure that I just don’t get Muriel Spark. This was my second book by her – the first being Loitering With Intent. I think that her acerbic wit is just a little too witty and a little too acerbic for me. I don’t even know what “comic-metaphysical entertainment” is, so I can’t comment on that characterization. This was my Classics Spin book.

The Girls of Slender Means is, itself, a slender book, but it operates on multiple levels. It’s told, in part, in flashbacks, but it wasn’t always clear when we were in flash back and when we were in present day. The ending was harrowing, but it also felt like it came out of nowhere. It’s an interesting slice of life of London during the war, and can be read for that alone. The deeper meanings eluded me, but I enjoyed it for what was on the surface.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

Title: Miss Buncle’s Book
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published 1934

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from fellow residents of her quaint English village, writing a revealing novel that features the townsfolk as characters. The smashing bestseller is published under the pseudonym John Smith, which is a good thing because villagers recognize the truth. But what really turns her world around is when events in real life start mimicking events in the book. Funny, charming, and insightful, this novel reveals what happens when people see themselves through someone else’s eyes.

I’ve read a few other D.E. Stevenson books, but this book takes the prize so far. No wonder it stands as one of Stevenson’s most beloved books out of a whole pile of beloved books.

We start with our protagonist and heroine, Barbara Buncle, a spinster a bit past her prime, worried about making ends meet. Like many women of her time, she has slipped into genteel poverty. She’s prohibited by custom from seeking gainful employment, her dividends have diminished to nearly nothing, and she isn’t sure how she is going to make it through the winter, prices for things like heat and food are so dear in 1934. She needs to come up with a scheme to supplement her meager income. She contemplates chickens, but ultimately decides that she will write a book and sell it to make a tiny bit of extra money.

So she writes, although, as she explains, she has no imagination, so she has no choice but to write what she knows. And what she knows is her village of Silverstream, which she (barely) camouflages by calling it “Copperfield,” and she knows the inhabitants of her village, whom she also (barely) camouflages by changing their names, so Dr. Walker becomes Dr. Rider, and Mrs. Bold becomes Mrs. Mildmay.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, as the case may be) Miss Buncle has an unerring eye for the human foible, and she gets deeply under the skin of the village inhabitants when the book becomes a runaway best seller. Mrs. Featherstone Hogg (aka Mrs. Horsley Down), a termagant who prides herself on her village status, gets a hold of the book and immediately recognizes the village, and herself and her chorus girl past, in its pages. Miss Buncle has published under a pseudonym, and the entire village is afire with trying to figure out who wrote the book. At the same time, the book seems to be having a queer effect on some of the villagers, and they start bursting out with interesting behavior all over the place.

There were several times that I laughed out loud as I was reading. D.E. Stevenson has written some lovely, lovely characters. Miss Buncle is a delight, as she, too, begins to act like her village counterpart, buying herself a new hat and a dress or two to swish deliciously around her ankles, and generally gaining confidence and abandoning her repressed, spinsterish attitudes. She is astonished at how much money she has made, and is forced to make up a generous uncle to explain her sudden affluence. The youthful granddaughter of one of her neighbors, Sally Carter, is delightful and drawn with both kindness and affection. The doctor and his wife, Sarah, are wonderful. And the publisher, Mr. Abbott, is very funny.

There are several follow-ups to Miss Buncle’s Book. The next in the series (spoiler alert) is Miss Buncle Married, which I have already ordered from Abe Books. I didn’t buy the lovely Persephone copy because it was around $20.00, so I bought a recent Sourcebooks reprint for $3.99 (with free shipping).

For this one, though, a friend sent me her gorgeous Persephone edition. I’ve actually never owned one of the traditional dove grey Persephones – they are hard to get a hold of in the U.S. I do have a few of their “classic” editions, which have the printed cover, and they are nice, but the traditional Persephones are just a pleasure to handle and read. The cover is buttery smooth, the end papers are gorgeous, and the printed paper has such a nice feel. Even though they are expensive, I might sign up for one of their book of the month clubs. I will treasure this one, and I imagine that it will become a book that I reread often as a comfort read.

TL/DR: I loved this book. It was simply delightful.

The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

Title: The Touchstone
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1900

The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella.

Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I first read The Age of Innocence on the heels of the Scorsese adaptation, starring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released back in 1993, and fell in love with the rich interior lives of her characters. After a more recent reread, I added The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and Glimpses of the Moon to my list.

One of my friends recently hosted a read-along of Wharton’s second published full-length novel, The House of Mirth. I didn’t participate in the read-along, but reading her posts, I realized that I wanted to get back to Wharton and finish off some more of her lesser works. The only major work that I haven’t already read is Ethan Frome, which has been on my TBR for years. Wharton, though, is one of those authors who can be read and reread endlessly. Her books increase in resonance and complexity on reread.

Years ago, when I was new to kindle, I bought one of those omnibus kindle editions that claims to be the “complete” works of Edith Wharton. It’s actually not – Wharton wrote far enough into the twentieth century that not all of her books are out of copyright, so some of her later novels/novellas are missing. In addition, as it turns out, I don’t really like reading omnibus editions. I like to be able to see where I am in the flow of book (beginning/middle/end) so that I can better understand where I am in the story. However, one of the benefits of the compilations is that I can access books that are otherwise fairly inaccessible. Some of Wharton’s late, forgotten novels, might be difficult to lay my hands on.

In any case, though, The Touchstone is long out of copyright, so it’s included in my compilation and that’s how I was able to read it. It was her first published novella, is around 125 pages long, and is the first of her stories set in “Old New York,” a location and era that she understood well. The book’s protagonist, Glennard, is a classic Wharton character – a young(ish) man, a bit on the fringes of the best old New York society, and a bit impoverished. He has fallen in love with Alexa Trent but doesn’t have enough money to marry. He has opportunities to invest, but lacks the money to take advantage of them.

As he’s reading a magazine one day, he sees that there has been an increasing interest in the letters of Mrs. Margaret Aubyn, an author with whom he carried on a long and very intimate correspondence. She was in love with him, he was not in love with her. Her story was a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Olenska, from The Age of Innocence – she had married unwisely, and was at least emotionally abused by her husband, whom she ultimately fled. Glennard sees an opportunity to make quite a bit of money by selling the letters for publication, and carries out a private sale. The letters are published in two volumes without an indication of who had received the letters, and are avidly read by his society circle, who are both titillated and condemnatory of the person who violated Mrs. Aubyn’s trust by publishing the letters.

There is a lot of depth to this short story. Glennard is initially uncomfortable about publishing the letters, and as he makes more money off of the breach of trust, his discomfort increases until it begins to destroy his marriage and his self-conception, both of which have been tainted by his decision to sell the letters. Both Glennard and Alexa are emotionally frozen and unable to work through the issues that arise – Glennard thinks that Alexa has figured out where his money comes from, but is unable to breach the subject with her because he is so ashamed and he is convinced that she will hate him if she knows. Alexa can tell that something is wrong, but isn’t aware what it is until she figures it out. We are pretty much only in Glennard’s head, so Alexa is the literary equivalent of a marble statue, which is pretty much how Glennard thinks of her. When Alexa receives her own copy of the book and reads the letters with great interest, the walls that Glennard has put up to shield himself from his own shame fall.

“He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out – he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.

The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us, we know but the boundaries that march with ours.”

As always, Wharton’s writing is utterly exquisite. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anyone who writes with such detailed lavishness about the interior emotional lives – stunted, repressed, shamed – of her characters. She is like one of those medieval monks who does illuminations of tiny corners and single letters. Her understanding of a specific type human nature is immense. She couldn’t write the stories that someone like Willa Cather writes – all huge skies and open spaces. Both writers, though, excelled at demonstrating the complexity of human beings – Cather’s outwardly simple characters were, in actuality, deeply complicated.

Which brings me to the rest of this post, where I transition to comparing Wharton and Cather, because I always think of them as counterpoints to one another. I must not be the only one to have made this connection – the well-known literary biographer Hermione Lee has written books about both women. Their bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but at the same time, I can’t help but relate them to one another.

Edith Wharton was born on 1/24/1862, Cather a little more than ten years later, on 12/7/1873. Wharton published her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, again approximately ten years later, in 1912. They won Pulitzers two years apart, Wharton first, for The Age of Innocence, in 1921, Cather for One of Ours in 1923. Wharton died on August 11, 1937 at age 75, Cather died ten years later, on April 24, 1947, at age 73.

I’ve intentionally decided to forgo reading challenges for next year, so that I can read whatever I want without regard to trying to check off boxes. When I first started blogging, I was a project reader, but I’ve fallen away from that in the last few years. Since I’ve got an open schedule, and a mind for a project, I’ve decided to do a Wharton/Cather project. Starting with The Touchstone, published in 1900, my general plan is to read the works of both women in the order in which they were published. Some of them will be rereads – I read a lot of Cather about four years ago, and I’ve held onto all of them. This rather front loads with Wharton, although a lot of those are quite short. It’s possible that I may jiggle the early order so that I can get to Cather’s work without reading 7 Wharton’s in a row. It also doesn’t include the short stories published by either woman, and I may just pick those up as the whim takes me.

In order:

1900: The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
1902: The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
1903: Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (novella)
1905: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1907: The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
1907: Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (novella)
1911: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novella)
1912: Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
1912: The Reef by Edith Wharton
1913: O Pioneer by Willa Cather
1913: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
1915: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1916: The Triumph of the Night by Edith Wharton
1916: The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (novella)
1917: Summer by Edith Wharton
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather
1918: The Marne by Edith Wharton
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1922: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
1923: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
1923: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924: Old New York by Edith Wharton (4 short stories)
1925: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
1925: A Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
1926: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
1927: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1927: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
1928: The Children by Edith Wharton
1929: Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
1931: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
1932: The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton
1935: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
1938: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (unfinished)
1940: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

As always, my reading projects are subject to change and are completely open-ended in terms of when (if) it will ever be finished.

The Lark by E. Nesbit

Title: The Lark
Author: E. Nesbit
Published in 1922

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It’s 1919, and Jane Quested and her cousin Lucilla are pulled suddenly from school by their guardian, who sets them up in a cottage on the fringes of London and informs them (by letter, since he’s already fled) that he’s gambled away their inheritance but is leaving them the house and £500 to carry on with. Lucilla is disheartened, but Jane is certain it will be a lark.

With the help of a handsome man, a classic example of a “capable woman”, and a war veteran with a green thumb, the two unflappable young women set up a market garden, which develops into a guest house, which develops into—well, you’ll have to read and see. It’s true they have some difficulties as businesswomen, not to mention with housekeeping, but this is ultimately a tale fully living up to its title.

Forgotten for decades, despite Nesbit’s fame as a children’s author, her final novel for adults, first published in 1922, is a delight that’s ripe for rediscovery. This new edition includes an introduction by Charlotte Moore.

Apparently E. Nesbit, of the Psammead, the Bastables and the Railway Children, also wrote at least a few books for adults (although this felt more YA, or even, shudder, NA, than anything else). Who knew?

This book is adorable. It had a distinct Anne of the Island vibe, which is my favorite of all of the Anne Shirley books, with the two main characters, Lucilla and Jane (cousins) being pulled out of school by their guardian because he has done a bunk with basically all of their money. All they have left is a house left to them by an aunt, and 500 pounds in the bank. As it’s 1919, and immediately post-WWI, this is actually a significant sum, but it’s still not the fortune they believed they had inherited.

“Everything that’s happening to us—yes, everything—is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.”

says Jane, & Lucilla falls in with Jane’s plans. The two young women move into the cottage, start a market garden, take in Pigs, or Paying Guests, meet a couple of young men, there are high jinks and failures and successes. It is unrealistic in the extreme – a riff on the “plucky orphan” fiction that is so popular with British authors, but it’s so charming that I just didn’t care. This is my last word. I. Just. Didn’t. Care.

There are hints of reality that intrude. Of the two young men, one, Mr. Dix, is a former POW who can’t find a job because England was doing a really terrible job of supporting it’s returning soldiers. Jane and Lucilla are confronted with the shocking reality of the prospects for these young men when they, on a whim, hire him as their gardener. And, there are references to the unconventionality of their behavior.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t actually end with Jane and Lucilla married, or even engaged. Jane is definitely coupled up, but isn’t ready to marry, and Lucilla’s prospects are even more obscure.

This is one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles that has been dug up and republished by Dean Street Press, and it’s available in both print and on kindle. Their kindle prices, in particular, are extremely reasonable. I think I paid $2.99 for my ebook copy. I’ve liked everything I’ve read from this imprint, and have several others available on my kindle. If you enjoy early-twentieth century British women writers who wrote light fiction, in the vein of D.E. Stevenson or Angela Thirkell, you might enjoy this.

Dead Men Don’t Ski by Patricia Moyes

Title: Dead Men Don’t Ski
Author: Patricia Moyes
Published in 1959

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “If you’re as hungry as I am for a really good whodunit, you will welcome the debut of Patricia Moyes,” wrote Anthony Boucher in The NewYork Times Book Review on the publication of this first Inspector Henry Tibbett mystery more than twenty years ago. The setting is the Italian Alps, where Henry Tibbett, on vacation from Scotland Yard, and his wife, Emmy, have settled in for some skiing. But their hopes for a holiday die when Henry uncovers an international smuggling ring involving some of the hotel guests. Then, a fellow guest who is alive when the ski lift leaves the top of the mountain is found dead when the lift touches bottom.

Henry Tibbett, Chief Superintendent of Scotland Yard, has for years delighted those who love a classic British detective story. A modest, self-effacing man, Tibbett possesses an almost uncanny “nose” for crime, and those who know him well realize that his gentlemanly demeanor masks a shrewd mind and a fearless spirit. When he teams up with his wife, Emmy, a cheerful but formidable woman, there isn’t a criminal anywhere who can rest secure.

I’ve been intending to try out the Inspector Henry Tibbett series by Patricia Moyes for years. I picked up a different one – The Coconut Crime – at my local UBS and read it earlier this year and never posted about it over here. I enjoyed Henry and his delightful wife, Emmy, but wasn’t in love with the book’s tropical setting. I decided to order the first book in the series – this one – from Abe Books and give it a second try.

I have a much more significant affinity to mysteries set in cold, snowy climates, so this was a hit with me. I really enjoyed everything about it. We’re introduced to Henry & Emmy in England, as they are getting ready to leave for a skiing holiday in Santa Chiara, a small town in the Italian Alps, and Henry’s boss at Scotland Yard asks him to do a little bit of sleuthing around for an international smuggling ring. The side characters are likable and well-drawn, both the international jet setters who spend their days in Santa Chiara skiing and their nights drinking, and the staff of the hotel, all of whom are more than they appear at first glance.

Things really get going when a corpse shows up on the downward side of the chair lift that operates between the luxury hotel where Henry and Emmy are staying and the town of Santa Chiara. The victim has been shot, and no one is upset that he’s dead because he’s a drug-running, smuggling, abusive criminal. Henry duly sleuthes around, Emmy does what Emmy does best, which is pay attention and get people talking, and everyone works on their ski technique.

It seems like no one really writes mysteries like this anymore. It’s not a cozy, and lacks the sometimes overly twee elements that I don’t like in a typical coffee shop/bookstore/cat cozy. It’s not a police procedure or gritty modern drama. The puzzle is at the forefront, but, also character development and interactions are important. I really enjoy the classic mystery format and am always on the lookout for this type of series.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Title: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Author: Carson McCullers
Date Published: 1940
Page: 359

Plot Summary: Carson McCullers’ prodigious first novel was published to instant acclaim when she was just twenty-three. Set in a small town in the middle of the deep South, it is the story of John Singer, a lonely deaf-mute, and a disparate group of people who are drawn towards his kind, sympathetic nature. The owner of the café where Singer eats every day, a young girl desperate to grow up, an angry drunkard, a frustrated black doctor: each pours their heart out to Singer, their silent confidant, and he in turn changes their disenchanted lives in ways they could never imagine.

Carson McCullers was 23 when she wrote The Heart is the Lonely Hunter, and already married to Reese McCullers. In 1934, she left home, in Columbus, Georgia, and went to New York City to study at Julliard, by herself, with $500.00 pinned to her underwear. She was 17 years old.

It’s hard, in 2019, with a 23 year old daughter of my own, to imagine anyone having the life experience to write The Heart is a Lonely Hunter at that age. Carson McCullers was, obviously, remarkable. She died young, 3 years younger than I am right now, her body worn down from illness and alcoholism. She wasn’t a prolific writer, leaving behind a small body of work: 4 novels and a dozen or so short stories, as her claim to immortality. But what a claim she makes.

There is research that demonstrates that reading, and especially reading literary fiction, improves the reader’s ability to empathize. Reading a book like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter makes that statement almost laughably obvious. Of course, reading fiction improves empathy. How could it not?

This book is painfully resonant. McCuller’s characters are so real that they nearly leap off the page. The center of the book is John Singer, a deaf-mute who, at the beginning of the book is living with his best friend, Antonopoulos, a fellow deaf-mute. Their lives are very simple – they rise, they go to work at their disparate employments, they meet after work and return home to dinner. Singer speaks with his hands, and talks all evening to his friend. Antonopoulos does not speak in return, and it’s never clear to anyone, including Singer, that he understands what he is being told. Singer is deeply, and non-sexually, committed to Antonopoulos. After a while, Antonopoulos begins acting out in town, and his cousin has him committed to a mental institution, which is the event that really starts the book.

Singer moves out of the apartment he shared with his friend because it is too painful for him to live there alone, and he moves to the home of Mick Kelly, a teenage girl who is, to me, the true heart of the book. He begins frequenting the New York Cafe, owned by Biff Banner. He meets Benedict Copeland, the black doctor in town, and Jake Blount, usually drunk and always scrappy. And he, somewhat inexplicably, becomes the sun around which all of these characters orbit.

BY MIDSUMMER Singer had visitors more often than any other person in the house. From his room in the evening there was nearly always the sound of a voice. After dinner at the New York Café he bathed and dressed himself in one of his cool wash suits and as a rule did not go out again. The room was cool and pleasant. He had an icebox in the closet where he kept bottles of cold beer and fruit drinks. He was never busy or in a hurry. And always he met his guests at the door with a welcome smile.

We never do find out very much about Singer – his interior life is largely closed to the reader. We know that he visits his friend, Antonopoulos, in the institution and those visits give us just the smallest glimpse into Singer. But, he really serves as the catalyst for us to learn about the interior lives of the other characters.

McCuller’s portrayal of the black community in this small town in Georgia was astonishing. When I was digging around on the internet after finishing the book, still in the throes of the emotional weight of the story, I found quotes by James Baldwin and Richard Wright, author of Native Son, who said, of McCullers that she had the ability to “embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.”

Dr. Copeland says:

“‘My people were brought from the great plains, and the dark, green jungles,’ he said once to Mr. Singer. ‘On the long chained journeys to the coast they died by the thousands. Only the strong survived. Chained in the foul ships that brought them here they died again. Only the hardy Negroes with will could live. Beaten and chained and sold on the block, the least of these strong ones perished again. And finally through the bitter years the strongest of my people are still here. Their sons and daughters, their grandsons and great-grandsons.’”

Mick Kelly is Scout Finch, if Atticus had been an out-of-work watch repairman with too many children and not nearly enough money, and if Scout had been a musician. Mick is the character who broke my heart into one million pieces, with the futility of her love of music and the chains of her birth circumstances tightening around her as the novel progresses. She is Thea Kronberg, from The Song of the Lark, without wings to lift her. There are no happy endings here, as she submits gracelessly to her fate, working at Woolworths, saying goodbye to her dreams, for the $10.00 a week that will help her feed her family.

And then we have Jake Blount, the drunken communist with a dark past.

“And the reason I think like I do is this: We live in the richest country in the world. There’s plenty and to spare for no man, woman, or child to be in want. And in addition to this our country was founded on what should have been a great, true principle—the freedom, equality, and rights of each individual. Huh! And what has come of that start? There are corporations worth billions of dollars—and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get to eat.”

This book was written during the grimmest part of the Great Depression, and yet the more things change, the more things stay the same. Like all of the very best fiction, it shows the reader things that are true in the way that only fiction can be true. I think that I could read this book a hundred times and I would get something different out of it with each reading.

Love is like a white rabbit?

Title: Excellent Women
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1952

Plot summary from Goodreads: Mildred Lathbury is one of those ‘excellent women’ who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather’. As such, she often gets herself embroiled in other people’s lives – especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially as Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood, has a soft spot for dashing young Rockingham Napier. This is Barbara Pym’s world at its funniest and most touching.

This review does contain some mild spoilers, although this is not a book that is particularly suspenseful, nor does it rely on a mystery to move the plot forward.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

And so we meet Mildred Lathbury, the first person narrator of Excellent Women, Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952. The book opens with the arrival of a new resident in Mildred’s building – Helena Napier, whose husband, Rockingham, has not returned from Italy, where he was stationed with the Navy. Helena is a type of woman that is almost completely foreign to Mildred – an anthropologist with little interest in her marriage, and less interest in housekeeping, cooking or church, the things that Mildred understands the best.

I loved Mildred – she is a bit bewildered by her new neighbors, but is also unapologetically interested in the oddness of their lives. She is a sheltered gentlewoman who, over the course of Excellent Women, allows a talent for mild rebellion to emerge. Her attitude is generally one of rueful irony, and there are times that she is positively funny. She, rather than Helena, might have been the anthropologist, but the object of her study is the doings of post-war Brits, especially her neighbors.

In addition to the Napiers, Everard Bone, one of Helena’s colleagues, ends up insinuating himself into Mildred’s life. There is much scandal around Helena’s relationship with Everard, and Mildred finds herself in the middle of it. One of my favorite moments in the book occurs when Everard, lurking about waiting for her to leave work, persuades her to go for a drink with him.

“Women are quite impossible to understand sometimes.”
I pondered over this remark for a while, asking myself what it was going to lead up to, and then wondered why had been so stupid as not to realise that he wanted to say something about Helena Napier…

And, he does want to say something about Helena Napier, who has been behaving most indiscreetly, indeed. The two of them have been seen by their colleagues, at a time when they should not have been together.

“I suppose you would not want to marry Helena even if she were free. I mean, divorced would be against your principles.”
“Naturally”, he said stiffly. And I don’t love her anyway.”
“Oh, poor Helena. I think she may love you,” I said rashly.
“I’m sure she does,” said Everard in what seemed to be a satisfied tone. “She has told me so,”
“Oh, no! Not without encouragement! Do women declare themselves like that?”
“Oh, yes. It is not so very unusual.”
“But what did you tell her?”
“I told her that it was quite impossible that I should love her.”
“You must have been rather startled,”I said, “Unless you had expected it, and perhaps you had if it can happen. But it must have been like having something like a large white rabbit thrust into your arms and not knowing what to do with it.”

So, on the one hand, we have the Napiers, whose relationship and marital breakdown causes much upset in her home, and then on the other hand, we have Allegra Gray, who moves in with her vicar, Julian Malory and his sister Winifred, and immediately makes a play for Julian. Mildred, as a single woman, is accepted as the person who is going to deal with the fall out from this arrangement: is Allegra going to marry Julian? Is Winifred going to have to move out?

I loved Mildred’s reaction when Winifred shows up at her house, hair disarranged and somewhat wild, wearing no hat or coat and sodden bedroom slippers, and asks if she can move in – poor Mildred sees all of her independence disappearing before her very eyes as Winifred explains that she has disliked Allegra since Lady Farmer’s lilies ended up on the floor.

“Oh, but, Mildred, I hoped I could come and live with you,” said Winifred with appalling simplicity.
For a moment I was too taken aback to say anything and I knew that I must think carefully before I answered.”

Reading Excellent Women, I was reminded of Jane Austen, and especially of Anne Elliott after she turned down Captain Wentworth. Mildred is fighting against a culture that wants to deny her value because she is an unmarried gentlewoman – and therefore her emotional and physical labor are available to her community with or without her consent. Contrast Mildred with school headmistress Sarah Burton from South Riding, a book I read in December 2018, published decades earlier in 1936, who says of herself.

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

But although Mildred is a much gentler person, must more quiescent and willing to accept societal boundaries, she’s not a pushover. It’s frustrating to her that everyone believes that she is crushed by Julian getting engaged to Allegra Gray, because they assume she wanted him for herself. But she didn’t and she doesn’t, and she can’t protest because they will assume she is lying to protect her pride. And her relationship with Everard, it seems, is to be one of friendship, once Rockingham and Helena Napier make up their silly quarrel and reunite. He has asked her to help him in his work, and she has acquiesced – this may lead to marriage or it may not.

I just don’t get the feeling, at the end of the book, that she wants to marry anyone – and she’s decided that on her own.

She says of herself:

And then another picture came into my mind. Julian Malory, standing by the electric fire, wearing his speckled mackintosh, holding a couple of ping-pong bats and quoting a not very appropriate bit of Keats. He might need to be protected from the women who were going to live in his house. So, what with my duty there and the work I was going to do for Everard, it seemed as if I might be going to have what Helena called “a full life” after all.

I hope so, Mildred. I hope you got everything you wanted, and then some. Not every woman needs to be married to find purpose. Not even in 1952.

I’m also going to link to an article from 2013, the centenary of Barbara Pym’s birth, written by Philip Hensher that talks about Barbara Pym and her career. She wrote a total of 13 books, divided into two distinct periods. Excellent Women is from her first period, and then her publisher dropped her in 1962. She wasn’t able to find a publisher again until Philip Larkin helped her to resurrect her career in 1977. Link to the article here.