Tidying the village

Church of the Holy Cross, Sarratt, Herts

‘Miss Read’, 37 novels set in 3 fictional Cotswold villages (Fairacre, Thrush Green, and Caxley). Titles include Storm in the Village (1958), The Market Square (1966), and Return to Thrush Green (1978). Also Time Remembered (1986).

One of my followers has recently suggested that I post more frequently to this blog, and since I aim to please, I’ve moved this one forward.

‘Miss Read’ is the pen name of Dora Saint (1913-2012), who took up writing after a brief tenure as village schoolmistress in the 1930s. The influence of Jane Austen, whom she quotes in an epigraph: “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on” (News from Thrush Green, 1970) is obvious, as is that of Barbara Pym. But reading Time Remembered, Miss Read’s brief memoir of the few years she spent in a small village in Kent, makes even clearer the influence of her own childhood on her writing. At the age of 8, her family moved from London to a quiet village, where young Dora thrived. Her love of nature began during these years, and she describes the setting as “blissful,” where her “physical well-being … flourished.”

Descriptions in her novels of natural life abound, with dawns and sunsets, winter storms and summer droughts,  birds and animals in hedgerows, fields and gardens. I often found myself searching online for photos of trees, birds, flowers and plants, such as toothwort and silverweed.

At the center of each novel is a problem the villagers must solve: Who is this new “distinguished bachelor” who has moved into the corner house on the green that has been empty for so long? How will the school teacher deal with pressures to modernize instructional practice? Whom should the recently widowed rector marry? What should be planned for the village fête? And will the stubbornly proud architect who designed housing for the elderly accept the error in his plan and make the entry steps safer for the residents?

I’ve read nearly all the novels set in Thrush Green, set in years that range from the late 1940s into the early 1980s. Miss Read makes a few references to national and cultural events, such as post-war rationing, loud rock ‘n roll and drugs, and the decimalization of the British pound in the early 1970s, but for the most part her villagers’ lives are insulated from the world at large. War in the Falklands? Of no importance compared to how Ella Bembridge will cope when Dimity Dean, her long-time companion, gets married. New Prime Minister taking on the IRA? Can’t worry about that, with the manse burnt to a pile of ashes and the rector needing a new home.

After reading nearly 20 of Miss Read’s novels, I’m still unsure of how I feel about them. There are village regulars — the rector and his wife, the school mistress and her assistant, that distinguished bachelor, the architect and his family, the writer and her husband (who is also her publisher) — who appear in every novel.  Miss Read’s plots are idyllic escapism, paeans to life set in the lovely albeit unsteady Eden of a small town. Friends may argue, love may suffer indignities, the aged may grow more feeble and confused, but there’s always that comforting cup of tea with a few biscuits by the fire in the evening (or sometimes it’s a glass of sherry with some friends) that seems to heal all wounds. She peppers the stage with curmudgeonly men and women (Ella Bembridge suffers no fools, and the “gloomy sexton” Mr. Piggott is never happy unless he has something to complain about). These grouches often fire the flames of dissent — yet all ends happily, even for the crankiest sorts. There are a couple of robberies, but the worst crime any villager commits is running over a dog (who survives).

I must point out: in Miss Read’s villages live no people of color, and only one novel features an unmarried protagonist who remains happily that way to the end of the tale (she has to fend off suitors to do so). Two sets of women live together, but they are only “best of friends”. Please! We’ll have no lesbian couples (nor gay men, for that matter). After finishing several of these books, I found myself wanting to take over the writing: “Wouldn’t it be great if a UFO landed at this point and, thinking it an alien weapon, dematerialized the ridiculous statue on the village green?” or “If I were writing this, I’d add a serial murderer who targets old ladies.” or “What if that distinguished bachelor fell in love with Mr. Piggot?”

And yet, if you handed me a new Miss Read book, I’d happily devour it. Go figure.

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Library books

San Antonio’s Carnegie Library. Source: Univ of Houston Digital Library

The Library Card (Jerry Spinelli, 1997), The Uncommon Reader (Alan Bennett, 2007) and In the House of the Seven Librarians (Ellen Klages, 2012)

These three novellas underscore not just the power of books to change lives, but the role that libraries (and bookmobiles, in the case of Bennett’s work) play in this process. Each contains elements of magical realism, either as alternative history or as unseen forces delivering library cards, food, and even a baby.

I’ll start with Spinelli’s The Library Card, a set of short stories about troubled adolescents finding solace and safety, perhaps even redemption, in libraries. The four characters — whose names are the story titles: Mongoose, Brenda, Sonseray, and April Mendez — find themselves in possession of a blue card that won’t let them go. Throw it away, tear it up, give it to someone else: no matter what they do, the card keeps coming back to them for as long as they need it. Even though it’s blank, they somehow know it’s a library card, and eventually enter a library to use it. Mongoose, who’s friend Weasel is dragging him into a life of petty crime (shoplifting, truancy, vandalism), goes into a library to find out what kind of insect he had just spray-painted while graffiti-ing a tree. He finds himself

… facing a counter with a lady behind it. When the lady looked up and saw him coming, she smiled as if she knew him. Was he supposed to know her? He walked up to the counter and showed her the card. He felt silly showing a blank card. “You collecting tickets?” he said.

She took the card. She looked at it, then into his eyes. The silly feeling vanished. “No,” she said, “this is not to let you in. It’s to let a book out.”

I love that last line, as if books were living things needing to be uncaged. That first book breaks open Mongoose’s curiosity about the natural world, and as he learns more, he grows away from Weasel’s bad influence. Not all Spinelli’s stories end so happily, but for each of the protagonists, a mysterious library card appears in time to get them to needed respite.

The Uncommon Reader, an alternative history exploring how a new reading habit might affect a royal dynasty, starts out with a bookmobile arriving at Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth’s corgis drag her there, and, to be polite, she borrows a book. Before long, she’s reading in the royal carriage on the way to the opening of Parliament, with Prince Philip fuming next to her and Sir Kevin, her private secretary, planning subversive acts to break her of this inconvenient practice. Even her attitude to her “job” is changing. When she expresses regret about not knowing more about the writers she’s met in the past, Sir Kevin replies, “But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?”

‘Of course,’ said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’

Eventually (and making things worse for those around her), the Queen begins keeping a journal. At one point, she find herself

putting more and more of her thoughts on paper, so that her notebooks multiplied and widened in scope. ‘One recipe for happiness is to have no sense of entitlement.’ To this she added a star and noted at the bottom of the page: ‘This is not a lesson I have ever been in a position to learn.’

‘I was giving the CH once, I think it was to Anthony Powell, and we were discussing bad behaviour. Notably well-behaved himself and even conventional, he remarked that being a writer didn’t excuse one from being a human being. Whereas (one didn’t say this) being Queen does. I have to seem like a human being all the time, but I seldom have to be one. I have people to do that for me.’

Imagine — a world leader gaining insight about herself, just by reading. Of course it’s quite obvious what Bennett is doing here. This is not a spoof of the British Royal Family, but instead an argument for the importance of reading in the life of the mind. Everyone has a mind, but not everyone uses theirs as they should. For some, it may be too late for this treatment to have any effect, but in QEII’s case, her royal training (noblesse oblige, in spades) forces her to commit, in good faith, to finishing that first book, which in turn leads to the next one, and so on and so on, until Ta Da! we have a mindful wearer of the Crown.

And finally, I give you Klages’ lovely paean to libraries, especially those built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie: the Carnegie Libraries (2500 of them, in the US, UK and other countries across the world, between 1883 and 1929). In the House of the Seven Librarians begins with the library board (“men in suits, serious men, men of money”) voting to close the old Carnegie Library and move all services to the new and very modern (microfiche! floppy disks!) one. The librarians at the old building watched the modernizing and boxing and discarding and eventual move and then, when it was all over:

Quietly, without a fuss (they were librarians, after all), while the town looked toward the future, they bought supplies: loose tea and English biscuits, packets of Bird’s pudding and cans of beef-barley soup. They rearranged some of the shelves, brought in a few comfortable armchairs, nice china and teapots, a couch, towels for the shower, and some small braided rugs.

Then they locked the door behind them.

All is well and the ladies complete their daily chores, cataloguing and shelving new books as they arrive, like manna from the gods of reading — and then one day an infant is left at the library’s front door. What follows is a charming tale of how these seven women introduce the child, Dinsy, to the joys of life in a library. Information, knowledge, entertainment — all at one’s fingertips. After reading Klages’ novella, I was happy to find this profile of a family that had lived at my local library, one of the many Carnegie Libraries still operating.

So, the lesson here: take yourself to your local library, browse through the shelves and stacks, and find a few books that, to quote Mame Dennis, “will open doors for you, doors you never dreamed existed.”

Photo source: Carnegie Library, San Antonio, Texas – Front. [1900-1924]. Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. University of Houston Digital Library. Web. June 18, 2018. https://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/p15195coll16/item/555/show/553.

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Yep, that about sums up retirement + summer.



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Bad Girls

Norman Rockwell, The Young Lady with a Shiner (1953), Wadsworth Atheneum

E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), We Were Liars (2014), Genuine Fraud (2017)

When Jane Austen created Emma Woodhouse, she noted that here was a character “whom no one but myself will much like”. Austen must have enjoyed making Emma a shallow and spoiled young woman who must learn a difficult lesson about herself, yet the mostly positive reviews, including one by Sir Walter Scott, probably surprised her. E. Lockhart, who started her publishing career with picture books published under her real name, Emily Jenkins, has given us three novels that feature young women dealing with the hand dealt them by family and fate. As with Emma, we may find ourselves not liking any of them, for each is a “bad girl,” and thus the theme for today’s post.

Frankie Landau-Banks, the eponymous heroine of the 2008 novel hereinafter referred to as TDHOFL-B, attends a private school that has recently gone co-ed. In its all-male past, the students created a secret club, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds (thus the dog’s image in the wax seal on the cover), a group devoted to school-wide pranks. Frankie learns about the stubbornly-all-male club through her boyfriend and yearns to be a member.

Impossible of course. We all know too well that, as the number of undiversified domains shrinks, members protect the surviving groups with ardor and an “almost fanatical devotion to” their rituals.¹ Frankie, no longer satisfied to sit admiringly and girlishly on the sidelines, secretly becomes the mastermind behind the Basset Hounds’ pranks. These grow more and more intricate, the Hounds more and more excited to learn what the next one will be, and Frankie more and more frustrated that the Hounds believe only a male could be so clever and devious.

The outcome of all this — Frankie’s discovery and punishment — doesn’t lessen the impact of Lockhart’s story. How does a woman make herself heard and seen in a man’s world? How much anger and frustration lie behind every girl’s effort to excel in a sport or science? How many women, dismissed by male peers, find themselves resorting to underhanded methods in order to play a role in larger events?

On to Cadence Eastman, the heroine of We Were Liars. It’s summer, when the entire family — grandfather, three daughters, and various grandchildren and dogs — gather at their private island. Cadence is recovering from an illness that has left her with amnesia hiding events from the most recent several months. Helping her are two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, the son of one aunt’s partner. As Cadence processes her gradually returning memories, her mother and aunts deal with their fragile father who must make decisions about their island property after the death of his wife.

Grandfather + three daughters + property disputes — we’re in for a retelling of King Lear, but this time with a grandchild as the protagonist.² The novel has funny moments, but it is not a comedy. Arguments over who should be living in which of the four houses (Lockhart’s publisher has provided us with a map of the island as well as a family tree, both helpful in keeping the three families straight) tinge the adult conversations. The four oldest children (Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat) do their best to escape the bickering. Their decision about how to end the arguments brings about the horrifying events that led to Cadence’s amnesia. Unlike TDHOFL-B, in Liars there is no feminist angle of frustrated intelligence in a person seen only as ornamental. Instead, Lockhart gives us a group of teens disgusted by the bitter anger the adults closest to them can’t hide — the three sisters’ envy and resentment building over many summers spent on the island. We can admire Frankie’s display of intelligence in the pranks she plans — harmless, although often expensive to put right — but when Cadence, with the other Liars, makes her move, we know things will not turn out well.

And then there’s Jule, the protagonist of Genuine Fraud, and the baddest girl of Lockhart’s oeuvre. The novel’s epigraph, “For anyone who has been taught that good equals small and silent, here is my heart with all its ugly tangles and splendid fury,” gives a hint. When we figure out that Lockhart has thrown the story’s structure on its head and is telling it backwards, we have to reverse the epigraph’s equation: small and silent doesn’t equal good.

At the start, Jule is on the run, and we’re relieved to find she has ducked the agent who is hunting her. We don’t know yet why she’s in trouble, but our sympathy goes out to her — it’s clear from the beginning that she is smart, that she has overcome a deprived and abused childhood, that she’ll never forgive the way older males have treated her, and that she is unwilling to take less than what she believes she deserves.

With Fraud, we’re back once again in the world of feminist anger, but quite different from what we saw in TDHOFL-B. Frankie is fifteen, with a wealthy family and all the privilege that entails, and a boyfriend who, although unwilling to accept her intelligence, at least treats her kindly. In contrast, nothing for the older Jule comes easy, and she finds inspiration in the fictional struggles of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist (and also in Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde). Most of Jule’s anger is directed at men (according to her, “Men still walk around like the USA is a big cake store and all the cake is for them.”), but women get their share of that anger.

When I started this novel, a statement from Lockhart that I now can’t quote accurately ran through my head: something about expecting readers to toss the book across the room before finishing it (a modern version of Austen’s heroine whom no one would much like?). There were points when I did want to heave Fraud aside, but I didn’t. At the end, after all of Jule’s masks were torn off, I couldn’t help admiring how Lockhart had vested me in Jule’s fate. Described as a “suspense novel” and “thriller”, Fraud fulfills its promises, and leaves me wondering if Jule is the endgame of the #MeToo moment. If so, not just men will have much to fear.


¹Quotation is from Monty Python’s skit, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”. See it on YouTube here.

²In Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) Larry (Lear) is a farmer falling into senility, told from the viewpoint of Ginny (Goneril), his troubled daughter. Her sister Caroline (Cordelia) is a greedy lawyer.

Posted in Mystery, Review, Violence in YA lit, YA Lit | Tagged | 5 Comments

Still here

Grand Canyon National Park

It’s been more than two months since my last post — an unintended break due to nothing but sheer laziness, concomitant with retirement: no deadlines!

But, actually, I do have a deadline. Nothing looming precipitously, but I have a biggie coming up in the fall: a joint project with a blogging pal about which you’ll hear more as the time draws near.

Revising Kenning Stars, the sequel to Kenning Magic, also took a break, but at last I’m back at it, with a June 30th deadline for this go-round.

Meanwhile, I need to get back into the posting habit, especially since I’ve been quite busy reading. Here’s a preview of what’s on the way:

  • 3 YA novels by E Lockhart
  • Fairacre, Thrush Green, Caxley village novels by ‘Miss Read’
  • George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Thomas Love Peacock and Sylvia Townsend Warner

Let’s see how long this spurt of writing energy lasts!

Posted in Am reading, Am writing | 8 Comments

The universe sends me a message

Nebra Sky Disk, from APOD (https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap180319.html)

And I try not to ignore it.

This was yesterday’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. Beautiful, yes. Historically fascinating, indeed. Appealing, without a doubt. And meaningful to me because this object makes an appearance in my current work-in-progress, on which I’ve done little work lately because …

Well, to be honest, it’s because I’m no longer teaching (Ah, retirement!), and I have no required work to avoid by writing. Weird, eh?

Writing has replaced teaching, and it’s now what I avoid doing, in nearly all forms, including this blog. But most importantly, including Kenning Stars, my sequel to Kenning Magic. My apartment is clean, the list of needed repairs and household projects is getting shorter, and I’ve read an unbelievable number of books since January 1st — nearly 25.

Then this lovely image pops up on my computer (make APOD your home page, dear readers, and you, too, will get daily astronomy-related images). It’s the fire I needed, so thank you, Universe, and APOD in particular.

Thus this post, and today a revising goal of 20 pages. It’s time.


Posted in Am writing, Fantasy, Kenning Stars, YA Lit | 11 Comments


Atrium, British Museum, 2014

I’ll take my own turn at expressing appreciation for Ursula K LeGuin’s books simply by quoting a few passages. Her intelligence and craft are clear, but what astounds me now as I race through her books (again) is her prescience.

To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination

Only one thing in the world can resist an evil-hearted man. And that is another man. In our shame is our glory. Only our spirit, which is capable of evil, is capable of overcoming it.

Ged to Arren, in The Farthest Shore (1973)

On the fruitless comparison of rates of technological innovation across cultures: “Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going.” (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969)

And finally, also from The Left Hand of Darkness, where LeGuin’s hero, Genli Ai, writes that patriotism doesn’t draw on love of country or even love of home, but rather on fear of the “other”:

If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

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