Monday, October 28, 2013

Reading Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner is the latest in the string of authors I've read as a direct result of encountering them through other bloggers. Brookner doesn't seem to be quite as widely or loudly praised as, say, Barbara Pym or Muriel Spark, but over the years I've noticed at least a few quiet but ardent admirers of her work, of which there is an impressive amount to choose from. Although her most famous novel is Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize, Brookner has been prolific from the 1980s to the present. The first novel of hers that I picked up was A Friend From England, purely by chance of coming across a copy at a used book sale.

A Friend From England is told from the perspective of Rachel Kennedy, a Londoner in her early-thirties who is part owner of a bookshop. She befriends her accountant, Oscar, who had known Rachel's father, and is soon drawn into his family's circle. With no living relatives of her own, Rachel prides herself on being independent and progressive, yet she finds herself drawn to the conventional family dynamic that Oscar and his wife provide over the course of regular weekly visits. She's happy to be drawn into their world, yet finds herself at odds with Oscar's twenty-something daughter, whose perspective of marriage and family seems to be drastically different from Rachel's own.

A Friend from England is the kind of book that gradually engrosses the reader. Its action is subtle, with much of it occurring within Rachel's mind, but the character portraits are so richly drawn that I was completely captivated by the end of the book. Upon finishing I immediately wanted to read more of Bookner's work, so I headed to the library where I found Falling Slowly, in which we meet Beatrice and Miriam Sharpe, two middle aged sisters who have both faced disappointments in their lives. While Beatrice deals with hers by withdrawing from life and becoming more solitary, Miriam begins to act in uncharacteristic ways. Their relationship and their individual lives come to a turning point when Beatrice faces a health issue. Falling Slowly is another novel that builds up gradually. It gets off to an even slower start than A Friend From England does, and it stagnates in that slow pace for a longer time. I had to push myself to keep reading for much of it, but I did eventually hit a certain point where the development of the characters hit its full stride and made me eager to read on. 

After reading two of Brookner's novels practically back to back, I'm left feeling intrigued by her work, but in need of a change of pace from it in the immediate future. I like the way she dissects the unexpected inner lives of her characters. In some ways, they are very similar to the types of people Pym writes about, although her overall effect is much less cozy and more psychologically probing, as if she set out to give the Henry James treatment to some of Pym's "excellent women". Her sentences are certainly dense and long enough to rival those of James. Overall, I think her novels are best for when you're in the mood to get lost in rich language and characterization, but they can easily prove frustrating when you're in more of a mood to quickly move from one book to the next.

Have you read any of Anita Brookner's work? Do you have any recommendations for a novel of hers I should try the next time I'm in the mood for a slower-paced read?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Fancies

It's been ages since I've done a Friday Fancies post. I'm slowly but surely working my way back into the blogging routine, so without further ado, here are a few links of note that caught my eye recently.

(plus a gratuitous close up of Millie, because why not?)

In keeping with the canine theme, here's a look back at the PBS series Wishbone.

A new food blog on the horizon that looks promising.

A fantastic essay by Neil Gaiman about libraries and reading fiction.

And a sneak peek at a literary cameo that we can expect on Season 4 of Downton Abbey.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fall Festival

It seems like the fall festival season has been in full swing for the past few weekends. I recently went to the Batsto Village Country Living Fair, which is held at a state park in New Jersey's Pinelands regions. Although it features crafts, antiques, and food, you wouldn't know it from the pictures I took, which make it seem more like a 4H fair.

There was a beekeeping demonstration by an extremely nonchalant beekeeper.

A pot bellied pig attended the fair in a nice ride. 

(Overheard conversation:

Woman: "I hear they're very intelligent animals."

Man: "Well it is being pulled around in a wagon...")

And two adorable alpacas were on display at a stand selling handspun alpaca wool and hand knits.

I really think they may be the cutest animals in the world....

...aside from these two, of course:

Have you been to any fall festivals in your area?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Broccoli Grilled Cheese

It's been a while since I last blogged about cooking, but the arrival of the cooler fall weather has put me in the mood to get back in the kitchen and try out some new recipes. This one is less of a recipe and more of an impromptu creation that I made to replicate a broccoli and white cheddar panini that I tasted at a local bakery when I was in Maine this summer. To put it together I just sliced and caramelized some red onions in olive oil for about 15 minutes. While that was happening, I quickly steamed some broccoli to get the rawness out, then added them to the pan with the onions and sautéed them together for about 5 minutes. I layered the broccoli mixture on some bread with a few slices of white cheddar and pressed into a grilled cheese.

The combination is a bit out of the ordinary, but worth trying if you're in the mood for a new spin on grilled cheese. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar is one of the most bizarre, unsettling, fascinating books that I've read in a while. It opens with fifty-something Rachel Waring unexpectedly inheriting a far-off house that belonged to a long-lost aunt. Instead of selling the house for a profit like all of her acquaintances expect her to do, Rachel decides to move into it, abandoning the office job and dismal shared flat that are the trappings of her mundane life in London. Initially, Rachel seemed to have traits in common with a typical Barbara Pym character and I thought a similar kind of story was about to unfold. But then, almost as soon as she moves into her new house, Rachel begins acting in ways that make me see her less like a Pym-esque woman to more like a disturbed Amelia Bedelia meets Muriel Spark's Jane Brodie.

Throwing herself into her surroundings, Rachel sets out to see only the positive in her new town and neighbors, interpreting them at their most literal and taking an overly optimistic view of everyone and everything she encounters. At first, her upbeat attitude seems kind of admirable. Even when her actions garner ridicule from others, Rachel finds a certain bliss in her ignorance. She also finds bliss in a portrait of a man who lived in her house many years before. After some research at the library reveals him to be local figure of minor historical significance, Rachel develops an interest in him that quickly grows into an unhealthy obsession. She hangs his portrait over her mantel, has conversations with him, and writes a fictional account of his life. She comes to believe that in a past life, she herself was the woman he loved and lost. Things take an even more uncomfortable turn when she finally reveals her "relationship" with him to her new friends in town, a group who already seems to be suspiciously intent on taking advantage of Rachel's generosity towards them. Once they realize how far removed from reality she is, events spiral further down hill.

Although that all might sound like a fairly direct progression of a character going insane, Benatar doesn't present things quite as linearly as that. Rachel's moments of madness are interspersed with moments of humor and clarity, when her feelings are relatable and her thoughts even verge on being wise. This makes her descent into madness all the more uncomfortable. Wish Her Safe at Home is a very strange novel, but one that I would recommend if you're in the mood for something out of the ordinary.


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