“Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym

To be honest, this book barely made it  on my to-read-shelf before I snatched it up after last weekend’s Persephone Book event. I can’t remember where I came to find this title but it must have been one of those weird clicks through the net one won’t ever be able to reconstruct. The beautiful cover of the Virago Modern Classics edition definitely served as an eye-catcher!Alexander McCall Smith wrote the introduction to ‘Excellent Women’ and in my opinion his writing style is a bit reminiscent of  Barbara Pym.

Barbary Pym (1913-1980)  is known to write about ordinary people, mostly middle-class women, and their thoughts and feelings. ‘Excellent Women’ is set it the post-war London of the 1950s but although the war hasn’t been over it is only mentioned ‘in the margins’, e.g. the still half-destroyed church where the lunch-time service the protagonist attends is held next to piles of rubble. Pym mostly focuses on people’s thoughts and inner developement and the use of the first-person-narrator in ‘Excellent Women’ assures that the reader is privy to Mildred’s most private thoughts and feelings and has a front-row seat to see how the disruption of her structured life opens new possibilities and a change of behaviour.

From the blurb:

“Mildred Lathbury is one of those excellent women who are often taken for granted. She is a godsend, ‘capable of dealing with most of the stock situations or even the great moments of life – birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoilt by bad weather’.”

I really enjoyed reading ‘Excellent Women’ although I found myself getting a bit annoyed with Mildred’s constant worrying about other people’s needs and going out of her way to manage their messes. But she can’t help it!

“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 also a clergyman’s daughter the one might really say that there is no hope for her” (p.1)

With the arrival of her new neighbours and other new acquaintances Mildred sometimes breaks out of her usual path and seems frustrated with the way people behave around her and her standard reactions to this.

‘Excellent Women’ describes the prominent roles a middle-class women in 1950s England (and this could be transferred to, say, 1950s Germany as well!) could assume: dutiful, married women leading a happy and fulfilled life or unmarried women, leading a life on the sidelines, observing but not really participating.

While Mildred is certainly an independent, capable woman, her surroundings try to find her a “suitable” husband and Mildred herself can’t help thinking about being married.

This is not a novel with happy marriages all around and certainly not a romance but rather a poignant social study of woman’s lives and roles. Nonetheless, it’s an incredible good book and a pleasure to read! I may have ordered a bunch of Barbara Pym’s other novels 😉

Persephone Reading Weekend – Good evening Mrs. Craven

I chose to read this collection of short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes before I even knew there would be a Persephone Reading event this weekend; I’m glad I found Verity’s blog just in time to take part!

So, a few words about ‘Good evening, Mrs. Craven’! I started by reading the preface (something I often skip) and Gregory LeStage’s insight into Mollie Panter-Downes background and the style in which she wrote these stories was  interesting and enlightening. Since I  had somewhat ambivalent experiences with short stories I was glad to see that the stories collected in this volume are very easy to read and ‘digest’ – something that seems to me is rarely the case with this genre.

My favourite story by far is ‘Mrs. Ramsey’s war’ because of the dry and sarcastic and sometimes very funny little comments Mrs. Ramsey thinks to herself while maintaining a pleasant façade towards her somewhat unwelcome house guests.

“… Mrs. Parmenter came in, carrying a bunch of snowdrops in one hand and a small vase in the other. ‘I just had to run out between the showers and get a few,’ she said. ‘ A room never looks like home without flowers, don’t you agree, dear?’ Mrs. Ramsey thought it would take the Chelsea Flower Show to make this one feel like home…”

Mrs. Ramsey is featured in two other stories (At least that’s how I read it) and both describe a meeting of a sewing circle at Mrs. Ramsey’s house. Here, too, Mrs. Ramsey’s dry observations made these two pieces a joy to read but above all both ‘Battle of the Greeks’ and ‘Literary Scandal at the Sewing party’ give a glimpse of everyday life far away from any fighting but nonetheless affected by the war.

All in all, I really liked Mollie Panter-Downes style and the fact that the stories deal with people and their lives and feelings. Her stories tell about personal tragedies, fears and conflicts that are very human and puts ordinary people  living in England in the center of the attention not the political dimensions and the violence of the war. Those are there, in the background, but the reader only experiences them through the eyes and emotions of the people.

On a side note: Just like Col Reads mentioned in her post, I bought ‘Good evening Mrs. Craven’ after watching ‘The King’s speech’ and I’m glad I chose this as my first Persephone Book!

Thanks to Cardigangirlverity and The Paperback Reader for hosting this event!

Miss Marple with a passion for poisons – Straight from the shelf Friday

It’s Friday again which means it’s time for ‘Straight from the shelf’ which can be taken literally because one of today’s featured books comes straight from my ‘Off the shelf’-challenge list. One down, 29 to go!

Apart from reviewing the book in this Friday’s edition I will talk a bit about German translations and English originals, book titles and cover designs.

‘The Weed that strings the Hangman’s bag’ ist the second novel in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. I came to read the first book (The sweetness at the bottom of the pie) because the cover of the German translation caught my eye while browsing a bookstore. Usually, I like the covers of the English originals better but the depiction of Flavia was quite noticeable in it’s slightly gaudy, gothic look.

There’s an interesting difference between the German and the original cover; the picture and design of the German translation puts it quite distinctly into the young adults / children’s section which is, in fact, where I stumbled about the first volume of this series. While the original book cover and design illustrates elements of the story as well as the German translation, the design is much more neutral and caters to a wider audience. I looked at two local bookstores with a reasonably big assortment of English books and found both titles in the general fiction or mystery & crime section.

Another difference lays in the choice of titles. The original titles ”The sweetness of the bottom of the pie’ and ‘The weed that strings the hangman’s bag’ stem from quotes – Sir Walter Raleigh for the second, William King for the first. Both German titles lose this connection for obvious reasons but again, the translated titles suggest a topic more suited for a younger audience.

This restriction to a smaller audience is a pity because – and with that I finally come to the real review – both books were a pleasure to read and the fact that the stories are told through the eyes and voice of 10-year-old protagonist Flavia de Luce doesn’t make this into a children’s book.

Both books have the makeup of a classical English whodunnit and are situated in an English village a few years after World War II. The de Luces are a family of four, with an often absentminded father who collects stamps and is overall painted as a stuffy widowed Englishman living in their ancestral home in a small village. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters and very interested in chemistry. She’s always thinking and talking about poisons and chemical reactions and puttering about a laboratory installed in the crumbling family manor by an ancestor. Her relationship with her older sisters is difficult and Flavia reacts to some of their verbal attacks with the use of some lower level poisons and other concoctions. While Flavia as a character is highly unrealistic her pragmatic and unorthodox views are entertaining and enable her to solve the central mystery of the murder.

The makeup of the novels is very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series with Flavia as a child’s version of Miss Marple. Both characters solve murder cases with the application of unorthodox methods and Flavia’s Inspector Hewitt shows the same grudging approval to her findings as Inspector Slack in Christie’s Miss Marple novels. Even Flavia’s speech about how she ‘solved the case’ and leaving the Inspector stumped seems to come straight out of a Agatha Christie whodunnit with both Miss Marple and Poirot indulging themselves in the same fashion.

Yes, Flavia has a striking resemblance to Miss Marple, if the old lady had had a passion for poison and had been known for zipping through the countryside on her trusty bicycle called ‘Gladis’.

Despite this not very creative construction, both books were an entertaining and funny read.Since Agatha Christie’s mysteries are among my favourite books the familiar setting and the similarities between Flavia and Miss Marple made for an interesting read. I’m looking forward to the third volume of the series!