Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen 2020

I've been an absolutely abysmal blogger this year (assuming I get this posted by New Year's Eve, it will be my 36th post of the year—my most sluggish year ever, and a far cry from the 90-odd of my first two years blogging), but as most things have been abysmal this year, I guess I can't be too hard on myself.

Work since March has been steadily hectic, which slowed me down a bit. I work in a legal office that represents social workers in child dependency cases, and sad to say the stresses and strains of 2020 are readily apparent to us—though on a happier note, I can hardly lose sight of how lucky Andy and I are in view of the suffering others are going through. Sure, our planned trip to Portugal and Spain in October went kaput, and sure we are missing a more active social life and getting a little stir crazy now and then, but we are healthy and employed and have the luxury of working from home part of the time. Plus, I have a very high tolerance for staying home and reading, though perhaps I never thought I'd have quite so much of it as I've had this year!

Oddly (or not), the pandemic seems to have inspired me to get back to some more experimental literary fiction this year, in addition to my more blog-centric reading. I discovered the brilliant Mexican novelist SERGIO PITOL, for example, whom those of you who enjoy literature about literature should certainly sample. And MARIA GAINZA's Optic Nerve, which was on several year-end "10 best" lists around this time last year, was similarly addictive for me. In my misspent youth, I was addicted for years to Latin American literature, inspired by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Donoso, so I'm happy to have updated my reference points a bit this year. Along those lines, I should also mention EDGARDO COZARINSKY, whose understated and deceptively simple stories in The Bride from Odessa were a high point. Cozarinsky is Argentine but of Ukrainian ancestry, and writes brilliantly about both his own family history and his efforts to recover the past. We urgently need more of his fiction translated.

In slightly more blog-relevant areas, I re-read, for the first time in over a decade, one of my all-time favorites, VIRGINIA WOOLF's To the Lighthouse, and while I know she's considered a behemoth of difficulty and elitism, I can't recommend a peaceful, leisurely reading of her masterpiece enough—its revelations about childhood events and perceptions and the hold they keep over us as adults are well worth the effort. This in turn led me, a mere 24 years after it first fruitlessly graced my TBR shelves, HERMIONE LEE's breathtaking bio of Woolf. Wow. The voluminousness of Woolf's writings—fiction, essays, memoirs, letters, diaries—can be overwhelming, but Lee seems to have memorized it all, and uses it elegantly to give one the next best thing to sitting in a room with Woolf herself. The best bio I've read. And still keeping, in part, to a Woolfian theme, FRANCESCA WADE's Square Haunting (2020) (what?! I actually read a book published this year?!), about the liberating role Bloomsbury (the neighborhood, not the literary/artistic movement) played in the lives of Woolf, Dorothy L. Sayers, H.D. and the less-widely-known but no less fascinating Jane Harrison, Hope Mirrlees, and Eileen Power, was revealing and page-turning. (And Power is on my TBR list now for her largely forgotten historical work, Medieval English Nunneries, which—how things link up!—provided inspiration for both Woolf and Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner That Held Them).

But enough digression. What you really want is the dozen, right? And although I read a few more non-blog-related books than usual this year, I still had considerable difficulty narrowing my favorites down to 12, with the result that I'm cheating a couple of times (as usual) in mentioning additional titles as well.  Here goes!


12) MARY LE BAS, Castle Walk (1934)

It's annoying that I didn't get round to a proper review of the debut novel by Le Bas, after expressing some disappointment with her followup (and final novel), Second Thoughts (1935), here. Castle Walk, streets ahead of its successor, follows two sisters who make a sort of wager—one will stay demurely and morally at home and try to make her way while living with their mother and stepfather, while the other will head off to London and make her way, as immorally as necessary, by hook or by crook. Unsurprisingly, all ends happily. A thoroughly charming read.


11) DOROTHY CLEWES, Summer Cloud (1951)

I wrote about three grownup novels by Clewes, who is much better known as a children's author, and it was tough choosing between this one and The Blossom on the Bough (1949), but ultimately this compelling story of ordinary people in the postwar years won out. I said it was like a cross between D. E. Stevenson and Dorothy Whipple, and that's pretty high praise.


10) EMMA SMITH, No Way of Telling (1972)

One of the first books I reviewed in 2020, but one which still lingers in my memory. A wonderful book for those who enjoy winter stories—marketed as a children's book, but really as effective for adults, it's vivid and beautifully characterized and ends up as quite an effective thriller as well.


9) MARGERY SHARP, Fanfare for Tin Trumpets (1932)

I'd darn well better mention the inimitable Margery Sharp here, since Dean Street Press and I are releasing six of her best novels in the next few days! I had read most of her books before this year, but she was a shoo-in for this list for either The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948), her cheerful novel of the immediate postwar, or this one, both finished just after the first of the year. I opted to include Fanfare here because it's such a delightfully frivolous, joyful, funny bit of froth that it's perfect for our troubled times.


8) SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR, The Rainbow Through the Rain (1950)

Another shameful omission in my reviewing this year, this novel by the wife of novelist John Buchan (see below as well) was a highlight. It's a perfectly delightful village story, set more or less from the beginning to the end of World War II in Dash-shire, Tweedsmuir's imaginary county not too far from London but far enough to be out of the direct path of bombs. My inadequate notes about it highlight that it strikingly portrays something that should be obvious to us but isn't always—that in a pre-cell phone, pre-internet period, one would have spent much of the war with an aching, low-level anxiety for all of your friends and loved ones in dangerous areas.


7) EDITH TEMPLETON, Summer in the Country (1950)

Surely one of the only times I've been called upon to compare one of "my" authors, writing a sharp, funny social comedy about eccentric village in Bohemia, with the likes of Dostoevsky. But it also evoked Barbara Pym, making it one of the most unique reads you'll ever come across. The story of an impoverished family of landowners and how they cope with the potential collapse of their daughter's marriage to a wealthy businessmen, upon whose wealth the family is completely dependent, it's rather more "red in tooth and claw" than the standard village story, and all the more irresistible for that.


6) WINIFRED PECK, The Skies Are Falling (1936)

My Fairy Godmother inspired me to return to my long-time favorite Peck by making it possible for me to read this extraordinarily hard-to-find treasure. It has all the charms that would be apparent in Bewildering Cares in a few years' time, and in House-Bound a couple of years after that. I then plunged ahead and read Facing South (1950), which I've had on my TBR shelves for a couple of years, and finally acquired (at perhaps the largest price I've ever paid for a book) A Garden Enclosed (1941), which I've long coveted. Neither live up to Skies, but both have their charms. Hopefully I'll get round to writing more about all three…


5) SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR, Cousin Harriet (1957)

This one—along with Tweedsmuir's two subsequent novels, Dashbury Park (1959) and A Stone in the Pool (1961), which together form a loose trilogy set in Victorian years in Tweedsmuir's fictional county of Dash-shire—I will be reviewing here soon. (I can promise this because I've already drafted it.) Having read Rainbow, mentioned above, I was inspired to go back and re-read this one, which I read and enjoyed before I started blogging. On a second reading, I absolutely loved it. My review begins: "If Jane Austen had ever thought to write a novel about an unmarried mother, it would surely have looked much like Susan Tweedsmuir's Cousin Harriet." Now who could resist that?


4) MAUD BATCHELOR, The Woman of the House (1934)

Next up are two of my proudest discoveries of 2020. A chance eBay search led me to the first, this delightful Provincial Lady-esque diary of a rather posh London lady and her five precocious and irresistibly nicknamed children—Soup-plates, Binkie, Toodles, Patch, and, well, Dorcas (whose name suits her so perfectly that she was never given a nickname). Not often as laugh-out-loud funny as E. M. Delafield, The Woman of the House has a charm and a delicious sang-froid of its own.


3) ELENA SHAYNE, Everyday (1935)

And then, the most fascinating discovery of the year (and I nearly placed it at #1 for that reason alone)—this diary/novel also owes something to Delafield, but takes her inspiration into completely unique territory. A lively and unconventional young woman records the events of one year, but the result is rather more intriguing than it sounds. My review made some speculations about Shayne, but brilliant researcher Elizabeth Crawford took it much further in the ensuing weeks, not only identifying Shayne, her aunt, and their village, but actually making contact with Shayne's daughter and other relations and locating a delightful photo of Shayne and her husband along the way. Check out Elizabeth's post about her research here.


2) MOLLY CLAVERING, Susan Settles Down (1936)

1) MOLLY CLAVERING, Touch Not the Nettle (1939)

And finally, 2020 has been the year of many things—mostly bad—but it was also, for me, the year of reading more Molly Clavering than I ever expected to be able to, thanks to the generous Grant Hurlock and his astonishing library. This friend and neighbour of D. E. Stevenson has become a favorite on her own merits. It all started with Susan Settles Down, a very very lucky eBay find I reviewed back in February. In May, I read and reviewed Because of Sam (1954) here, but since then I've also read (and failed to review) Dear Hugo (1955) as well as Clavering's other three novels of the 1930s (published under the name B. Mollett)—Yoked with a Lamb (1938), Love Comes Home (1938), and Touch Not the Nettle (1939). All delightful—funny, rustic, earthy Scottish romances that are as bracing as a dash of Glenfiddich—and all as rare as finding a diamond in your tea. But the most exciting part was that the last of these turned out to be a sequel to Susan Settles Down—I was as giddy as a schoolgirl when I came across it and got to spend a few more hours with familiar friends from the earlier book. Clavering is a charmer.

And that's it from me! What were your favorite reads of the year?

Oh and Happy New Year!

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