Thursday, May 9, 2013


Every now and then I go on an absolute binge of ice cream for the brain—those books that entertain but aren't necessarily intended for profound analysis or deep enlightenment.

Recently, I've been delving a lot into the joys of humorous memoirs and cozy fiction.  Since there's not always a huge amount to analyze or discuss in these books, but since they're great fun and some of them aren't widely known or written about, I thought I'd write just a little about them in case others are interested in exploring them too.  I might do this occasionally as a catch all for books that are of interest but don't require a full post all to themselves.

Here are a few examples from the past few weeks:

VERILY ANDERSON, The Flo Affair (1963)

Verily Anderson is the author of one of my favorite World War II memoirs, Spam Tomorrow (1956), her humorous (and sometimes harrowing) experiences with love, marriage, and childbirth in the midst of the Blitz, rationing, and other bleak realities of war.  This was followed by Beware of Children (1958), her humorous (and also sometimes harrowing) memoir of starting a children's vacation home with her husband in their house in the country.

I hadn't had much luck finding out details about Anderson's other books, but I recently found The Flo Affair for cheap at Awesome Books and couldn't resist.  I knew Anderson did several historical works in later years, so I figured, based on the title, that this was an account of some torrid, long-forgotten scandal.  In fact, it turned out to be a continuation of Anderson's humorous memoirs, focused largely around her and her five children's experiences with Flo, an elderly horse they adopted, who one summer has a late-life crisis and begins a series of hookups with a nearby stallion (so I guess it is torrid after all!). 

Verily Anderson

This memoir is perhaps a little "lighter" on content and a little less focused than the two earlier books, but lately I am apparently a sucker for light, humorous tales (as this entire post must show) and found it enjoyable and readable.  And it does also have its darker undercurrents.  Anderson mentions that her husband has died only six months earlier, leaving her with five fatherless children to raise.  Meanwhile, a similarly large family nearby is on the verge of starvation and homelessness due to the mother's propensity for installment shopping.  While the former is mentioned only briefly and the latter is largely played for laughs, these elements perhaps explain the less rollicking tone of Anderson's writing here.

But nevertheless there are some laugh out loud moments, such as this one when Anderson consults a local attorney about the costs demanded by the owner of the stallion with whom Flo has had her fling:

‘I mean’—I tried to allay his fears—‘there’s nothing we can’t discuss.’

‘No, of course.  But if it’s divorce,’ he said quickly, ‘I know of an excellent woman solicitor—’

‘Oh, no, it’s not divorce,’ I said, as though tossing aside such an improper suggestion.  I tried to think of some really legal-sounding expression to cover Flo’s troubles.  ‘It’s only rape and impoundment.’

And a little later, after another of their neighbors has threatened to shoot the family dog if it strays onto her property again, Anderson takes her son to try out for the choir at an exclusive boys' school.  While awaiting the outcome of her son's audition and pondering their trigger-happy neighbor, she has the following exchange:

A kindly parson, whose own little boy had just been safely returned to him, leant across an empty chair to say consolingly:

‘It is a strain, but over very soon.’

‘Do I look worried?’ I asked.

‘Very, but so, no doubt, did we.’

‘I wasn’t actually thinking about my son’—I smiled—‘I was just wondering whether my daughters might get shot tonight.’

The parson looked startled and edged away, evidently accepting the fact that this particular form of mental strain took parents in extreme ways.

Completely silly stuff, indeed, but perfect ice cream for the brain.

ELIZABETH CADELL, I Love a Lass (1956) & Out of the Rain (1987)

A couple of years ago at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Book Sale (around which I seem to build my life, judging from the number of times I mention it here), my partner Andy, as usual, diligently sifted through table after table of books in search of novels by my list of "high priority" writers.  This list is generally about six or eight of the more popular but inexplicably out-of-print women, like Elizabeth Cadell, D. E. Stevenson, Margery Sharp, Rumer Godden, and so on, which I know other savvy readers will snatch up in a moment.  It's kind of cruel to give Andy that list, really, because it's only rarely that he gets the pleasure of actually finding one.  But on this occasion, he happily came back from his searching with an Elizabeth Cadell—her very last novel, Out of the Rain—and in pristine condition, no less.

Naturally, I bought it—a Cadell is a Cadell, after all—but I admit that I was ambivalent about it and kept it on a lower shelf of my to-read bookcase for the past two years.  I was afraid that, seeing as Cadell's "prime" seemed to be in the 1950s and 1960s, the book would be only a pale imitation of wonderful, sparkling, witty, comfy-cozy novels like The Lark Shall Sing (1955), The Yellow Brick Road (1960), or Mixed Marriage (1964).  And I was afraid that, like many writers, Cadell in later life might have become too stuck in her formula, her inspiration gone, and might just have been rehashing standard plot lines and standard characters.

Well, that's a long introduction for very little payoff, but at this spring's book sale (which I've already written about at length—of course, seeing as how it's so central to my life…), I stumbled on another Cadell, I Love a Lass, from the very heart of her prime.  I couldn't resist diving right into it one weekend soon after, and it was over before I knew it.  I think I finished it by Sunday morning and wished it was twice as long.

It's hard to put my finger on what exactly makes an Elizabeth Cadell novel work so well despite the merest frolic of a plot, the shallowest of character development, the most obvious of love stories, and the simplest of prose.  Yet, somehow they are completely addictive—even while I find most "romance" novelists, about whom the same things could be said, tedious to the point of slumber. 

I Love a Lass is about two friends spending their holidays in France, whose plans are disrupted by a transportation strike.  They end up in a French village with an eccentric and stingy Comtesse, her would-be-playboy nephew, the young English girl the nephew has tried and failed to marry for her money, and the Comtesse's lovely neighbor.  The two men fall in love with the wrong girls, fall in love with the right girls, and solve everyone's problems in a rollicking, humorous, and fast-paced way.  And I can't even say I'm embarrassed that I absolutely ate it up.

So much so, in fact, that I couldn't resist pulling that lovely pristine copy of Out of the Rain off its lower shelf, dusting it off, and diving right in.  And you know, although it's true that, 31 years after I Love a Lass, Cadell was indeed still following the same kind of formula, it actually still worked surprisingly well.

Elizabeth Cadell
The novel must have seemed a complete anachronism when it was published in 1987, because—thankfully—Cadell made little effort to update her plots to fit the times.  (I think of Agatha Christie as an example of how awkward and tedious a great writer can be when she feels pressured to write about more "topical" issues—just thinking of those mysteries with delinquent youths or international drug rings at their centers can make me shudder for brilliant Dame Agatha.) 

In Out of the Rain, Edward Netherford, a London attorney without any emotional attachments, goes to York in pursuit of the stepmother of his clients, who is refusing to give up the Impressionist paintings her husband left to them.  He plans to stay at a hotel owned by a school friend of his, but a fire at the hotel drives him to a bed and breakfast owned by a charming young mother of three along with her mother and grandfather.  The rest is predictable enough.  You can see the romance coming a mile off, the plot developments are obvious, but it's all done charmingly and lightly and the pages turn themselves.  The humor is perhaps a bit more muted than in Cadell's earlier works, but it definitely still counts as ice cream for the brain.

As a result, I was inspired to pick up two more Cadells for cheap from Awesome Books—The Fox from His Lair (1965) and Home for the Wedding (1971).  I'm sure you'll hear more about those here in the future.

BARBARA PYM, A Glass of Blessings (1958)

Early this year, I started gradually working my way chronologically through all of Barbara Pym's novels.  A Glass of Blessings was one of the ones I hadn't read before, so it was particularly fun to finally get around to it.  Since so many people—scholars and bloggers alike—have already written so much about Pym's works, this entry is really just an excuse to share a few of my favorite quotes.

My favorite characteristic of Pym's writing, and one at which she is an incomparable master, is what I might call her "as if" strategy, wherein she creates campy, absurdist images to elaborate, usually, on a character's expression or intonation or other mode of behavior.  Here's an example that made me laugh out loud:

I also noticed two well-dressed middle-aged women with a young girl, whom I remembered having seen in church sometimes.  Near them stood a thin woman with purple hair and a surprised expression, as if she had not expected that it would turn out to be quite that colour.

Later on, Rowena, the narrator, looks through a catalogue and sees a photo of one of her acquaintances who is a model:

It seemed as if he might have stood there patiently while some busy woman knitted the jacket on to him.

Of course, it's not always literally an "as if."  Sometimes it's just a miniature flight of fancy the narrator engages in:

‘…the old people don’t like fish,’ I heard Mary Beamish saying.  ‘It’s funny, really, Mother is just the same.  She seems to need meat, and yet you’d think that somebody over seventy—’ she gave her bright little smile and made a helpless gesture with her hands.  I imagined old Mrs. Beamish crouching greedily over a great steak or taking up a chop bone in her fingers, all to give her strength to batten on her daughter with her tiresome demands.

These wonderfully absurd images, exaggerating whatever little foibles or insecurities are being encountered, are ridiculously hilarious to me.  Andy probably hates it when I read Barbara Pym, periodically giggling like a mad scientist beside him.  For good measure, here's one more of the passages I giggled at,  as two clergymen tell Rowena about their need for a housekeeper and cook:

‘…We can just about boil an egg between us!’

I saw them at the stove, anxiously watching the bubbling water; then, watches in hand, lowering the eggs into the saucepan.  I wondered if they would know what to do if they cracked.  I never did myself.

Barbara Pym

By the way, for whatever reason, this technique is so 
common among my gay friends and acquaintances that I found myself wondering if 1) Pym had influenced whole generations of gay men to the extent that they've absorbed her humor, or 2) if Pym swiped her ironic strategies from the various gay friends and acquaintances she seems to have had.  Seems like a dissertation waiting to happen (if in fact some enterprising grad student hasn't already written it)!

And along those lines, I wonder if there's any relevance in the following statement:

“Apparently a friend of Dorothy’s—that’s his sister’s name—always joins them…”

Surely Barbara Pym, with her numerous gay friends, must have known the meaning of “friend of Dorothy,” long used—in darker, more secretive days such as those in which Pym was writing—as a code to indicate someone who is gay or lesbian.  (Stemming, apparently, from "The Wizard of Oz" and Judy Garland's large gay fan base?)  It's not very meaningful here one way or the other, as the friend of Dorothy doesn't ever actually appear, but perhaps that makes it even more likely that Pym just tossed it in superfluously as an inside joke for the friends of Dorothy in her life?

Also, fans of Pym know that in most of her books she drops in a mention or two of characters from her other novels.  In A Glass of Blessings, we learn that Rowena and her friend Wilmet were WRNS in Italy during World War II and were infatuated with Rocky Napier from Excellent Women (1952).  They mention that he has remained with his wife despite their troubled marriage in the earlier novel and the two now have a child.  Later on, we also learn that Prudence Bates from Jane and Prudence (1953) has been engaged to a Member of Parliament but (typically) broke off the engagement.


  1. What a joy to find someone lauding Elizabeth Cadell. I am always slightly ashamed of how much I enjoy her because, like you, I can't quite work out what it is that she has that other authors of her type of novels clearly lack.

    But I still grab any that I can get hold of at a reasonable price - have you noticed how some of them go up for sale at quite extraordinary prices? I am left wondering whether anyone actually buys them for that amount of money.

    I'd forgotten about Verily Anderson - I shall go and seek her out again. Sadly I have never really got on with Barbara Pym and again, I can't quite work out why. On the face of it I should enjoy her very much, but I don't. Pity.

    1. Yes, Cadell is still probably my favorite rainy day read. She really is incomparable. When I read a Maysie Greig a while back, I found similarities to Cadell, but completely without the latter's charm and personality. What she does looks so simple, but it obviously isn't.

      Have you read Anderson's Spam Tomorrow? So much fun. I think Pym has a darker, more cynical edge to her coziness that doesn't necessarily work for all moods. I've been having trouble engaging with her lately, though I'm sure eventually I'll pick her up again.


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