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The Current State of June’s Reading Plans

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(or as we might call it, FAILURE!)

It’s not that I haven’t managed to read much this month – on the contrary, I’ve got through two chunksters and a number of other volumes. What has gone slightly wrong is the planned reading – I never have responded well to literary commitments, but thought I might get by with just a monthly read of a Pym and likewise a Powell.

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

(pic courtesy bubblecow.net)

However, June has not been a success. I haven’t gone near a Pym and have only just begun this month’s Powell, “The Kindly Ones”. So dare I risk making plans for July? Well, yes. I should finish the Powell not too far into July, and then I hope to read another Kerouac (“The Dharma Bums” – a re-read), then one of the Pyms, then “Hotel du Lac” for Ali’s Brookner read-along and then the other Pym. Phew! Then I shall have a lie-down in a darkened room.

Watch this space to see how things pan out! 🙂

Virago Volumes: A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

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So we reach May – well, actually, nearly the end of May – and book five in the LibraryThing centenary read of Barbara Pym’s novels. This month’s book is “A Glass of Blessings” and I feel it’s fair to say it’s one I’ve had to struggle with a little.

Our narrator/heroine is Wilmet Forsyth. Wilmet is 30, married comfortably to Rodney and lives with him and his mother Sybil. Wilmet is unemployed, childless and mostly bored, and so occupies herself with church, shopping and seeing old friends, while Rodney works for the civil service. A chance reacquaintance with Piers, brother of her best friend Rowena, leads to flirtations and daydreams, all the while spiced up by the goings on of the various priests and parishioners around them. But disillusionment and some surprises lurk round the corner.

blessings

In many ways we are in familiar Pym territory – a parish plus its priests and excellent women; a middle class setting; several misfits and Pym’s trademark acid wit. However, I found one big obstacle at the start of this book and that was Wilmet herself. Self-centred, self-interested and complacent, she really is a very unpleasant character. Although she mellows, and recognises some of her faults by the end of the book, I almost stopped reading after the first chapter because of her appalling smugness, and the bland, ready acceptance of the fact that it was ok for her to have no children, no job, and nothing to do but swan around all day shopping and thinking how nicely turned out she was!

“I amused myself by observing these students, who seemed to be of all ages, until I came to the conclusion that people who went to evening classes were all more or less odd. It was unnatural to want to acquire knowledge after working hours. A tall bearded young man, whose string bag revealed a loaf of bread (the wrapped sliced kind), a tin of Nescafe and two books from a public library, filled me with a kind of sadness, as if his whole life had been revealed to me by these telling details.”

Patronising or what!

Her light-hearted flirting with Rowena’s husband Harry seemed actually heartless and hollow, especially when it turned out that Rowena knew about it – and although Wilmet blithely thought how wonderful it was that they were good friends and that this was all ok, I’m not sure it really was. Likewise, the passion she develops for Piers turns out to be groundless as he is quite happily settled in his flat with his friend Keith, and they presumably simply admire her as a poised, elegant woman and nothing else!

If the novel had only consisted of these characters I would have been bored very quickly, but fortunately it is saved by the excellent array of supporting characters. The various priests (Father Thames, Father Bode and Father Ransome) are funny, individual and all likeable in their own ways. Mr. Bason, who leaves the civil service to cook for the priests and somehow ends up in Cornwall running some kind of an antique shop, is a hoot. And Sybil, Wilmet’s mother-in-law, is a joy – she provides a counter voice all the way through, and is a strong, sensible woman who ends up pulling off one of the biggest surprises of the book. Then there is Mary Beamish, a classic “excellent woman”, looking after an ageing invalid mother and unsure of whether to pursue becoming a nun or marrying a priest! I liked Mary immensely, in a way that I couldn’t like Wilmet – in fact, Wilmet’s treatment of her at the beginning of the book is really unpleasant – and I was glad to see Mary in the end find her place in life. There were several appearances of characters from previous books: Archdeacon Hoccleve; Catherine Oliphant; Prudence Bates; and even Rocky from “Excellent Women”, who it transpires that Rowena and Wilmet had both been in love with when they were in the Wrens in Italy, and then went on to meet their husbands. And there is a devastating depiction of the horrors of suburban married life in the form of the cocktail party thrown by Rowena and Harry when Wilmet is visiting for the weekend, which had me wincing and laughing at the same time.

barbara-pym

I finished the book perhaps a little unsure of the point Pym was trying to make; and also wondering if she had deliberately made Wilmet so unlikeable for a purpose? It may be that she was trying to show Wilmet’s transformation from a self-centred woman into a slightly more rounded person, with more understanding and genuine feeling for the people around her. However, I’m not sure that that really came across strongly enough. As Piers points out to her:

“… there are others in the world – in fact quite a few million people outside the narrow select little circle that makes up Wilmet’s world.”

though he does go on to try to soften the blow a little:

“… I didn’t really mean to imply that you’re to blame for what you are .Some people are less capable of loving their fellow human beings than others… it isn’t necessarily their own fault.”

By the end of the book, Rowena and Harry seem to just slip out of the story, presumably Harry’s flirtation with Wilmet having come to an end; Piers and Keith, Sybil and Arnold, plus Mary and Marius have settled down; and Wilmet and Rodney, having confessed their silly flirtations, buy a flat and are brought closer together. Are we to think, then, that finding a mate and making a go of it are the only options? Piers and Keith certainly seem to form a normal sort of domestic couple, although the glimpse the pampered Wilmet gets of the modern world of coffee bars is very far from her normal surroundings. Unlike her other books, Pym appears to be lauding the married state, albeit with a cynical enough eye to see that the handsome Marius Ransome is marrying the mousey Mary Beamish from any number of motives, including the fact that she has plenty of money and will be the perfect vicar’s wife!

“…I found myself wondering whether Marius would not find it all rather too exhausting. But perhaps with a good wife and a comfortable home, not forgetting the embarrassment of old Mrs. Beamish’s money, he would struggle through somehow.”

This wasn’t a bad book – I doubt Pym could write such a thing as her prose and wit are excellent – but I found it difficult to get past Wilmet’s character and it was an interest in the subsidiary characters that kept me going until the end, and not in the main protagonist. Enjoyable but flawed would probably be my summing up!

 

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(As a postscript, I should say that I’ve continued thinking about this book since finishing it and writing my review, and I found myself recognising several other themes hidden in there: the glamour that must have attached to Rodney and Harry when the two Wrens met them during the war, and the inevitable change in their relationships when returning to peacetime and ordinary life; the pointless state of middle class women with literally nothing to do but fritter away their lives in a little gilded cage, remote from reality; the capacity in human beings for self delusion. Pym always has plenty to say about life and living, but I’m now even more frustrated about the fact that the unloveable character of Wilmet gets so much in the way!!)

Treats from Leicester!

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We were lucky enough to have a visit from Middle Child this weekend, coming home from Leicester to check up on OH’s recovery, and that of course was the main treat!

However, she was lovely enough to bring me home some wonderful green Viragos she had picked up for my collection (I have raved about the Leicester charity shops before – it’s a close competition between here and there for the best!)

leics

I was *very* pleased with these lovelies as you can imagine, as they’re not titles that turn up every day and they are in pretty good nick apart from a little fading on one and sticker damage on another – thanks, Middle Child!

We had a lovely girly shop on Saturday too and I found a few more treasures locally:

renaultThese came from a charity shop which prices its books as 2 for ÂŁ1, so having found the Renault I had to get something else and the Dinesen seemed the ideal choice (and a Virago for 50p is not to be sneezed at!)

gibbonsThese two and the following came from the British Heart Foundation charity shop – slightly more expensive at ÂŁ2 each but if I bought them online they’d cost more than that and the actually condition of online books is often so variable.

This, of course, is essential for the Pym read-along so I was happy to pick it up.

Finally this:

zweigA very sweet little Pushkin Press Stefan Zweig book I don’t have.

Enough reading matter to keep me going for ages – and to make the tbr mountain even more unstable……. :s

Reading Plans and Challenges for 2013

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I should confess up front that I’ve never really been one to plan ahead with my reading. I’ve always read on a whim, whatever my reading mojo feels it must read – and in fact if I feel I *should* read something it often puts me off. However, since starting to blog about books I have started to focus a little and plan my forthcoming reads a tiny bit – and I have often managed to stick to the plans! I greatly admire those who can decide what they’re going to read for the next month (or indeed the next 12 months) and then stay on track.

Having said that, I am going to set myself a few goals for 2013:

1. Read more books from the TBR – and conversely try to purchase a few less…

2. Heavenali and lots of other lovely LibraryThing VMC group members are having a Barbara Pym readalong for 2013 and so I shall be joining in and reading a Pym a month – as the books I have by Pym are on the TBR this will help with goal 1!

3. Simon at Stuck in a Book is having a group read of Julia Strachey’s “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” in January – as I have already read this book once, I shall join in and this will help with goal 4:

4. Heavenali is hosting a month of re-reading in January – which I think is an admirable thing to do because as she rightly points out, “That first experience of a book can’t be entirely re-created, but it can be enhanced.”  I won’t commit completely to re-reading only, but I shall re-read as many titles as I can fit in alongside my new reading.

5. I have started to collect Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” sequence, aiming to get a set in lovely vintage orange Penguin. As there are 12 books, I’ve decided to commit to reading one a month. They are, after all, slim volumes and I think I should be able to manage this – and it is less intimidating than sitting down to read all 12 in one session!

So, to specific books for January:

gazelle

Some Tame Gazelle – the first of the Barbara Pym titles

powell
A Question of Upbringing – the first of the Anthony Powells

cheerful
Cheerful Weather for the Wedding – I have this lovely Penguin version

happy m
Happy Moscow – a new translation by Robert Chandler which is therefore a re-read (as I read the previous translation from the library) and a new read!

ivan denis
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich – another dual purpose book as this is also a new translation

Other possibles on the soon-to-be-read-hopefully pile are in the picture below – whether I get to them or get distracted is another matter, especially as there are all the Christmas and birthday books to think of. I think I need a month off work to catch up……

jan possibles

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