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Hi. Just wanted to stop by and say thank you to everyone who sent on their well wishes, and to those who submitted their guest reviews and enabled me to have my husband back long enough to get re-married. We had a lovely day, and he’s already back at the reviews…guess the honeymoon is over! ;) With love, Mrs Stephanie.
‘It’s not for us to provide the cement for unworkable relationships, Marjorie,’ cautioned Richard Adler, the director of the Wellbeck Centre where she worked, once casually with smiles and apologetic nods, and once more formally when a brief note had been scribbled to her on one of the Centre’s pistachio-green correspondence cards. Marjorie had shrugged all this off, of course. Beside, she liked cement – its dark, powdery ooze, its scent. And you had to remember, all marriages were bizarre places, rife with signs and codes and unimaginable sharp practice where the more insane aspects human nature flourished, were endured, tolerated, overlooked, sought out and sometimes even admired. You did not need to be a genius to see that people were more unhinged in their behaviour with the very person to whom they were closest. It was the most natural thing in the world.
Very excited about this evening. Once I post this I am running out the door to attend this evening’s Zombies vs. Unicorns event at Kinkuniya Sydney. Margo Lanagan and Garth Nix are representing Team Unicorn, so my loyalties are assured.
Today’s book was a present from Stephanie. She literally judged the book by its cover. Strangely her method has proved the old maxim somewhat inaccurate – so far her choices have proven quite good.
Marjorie is a volunteer marriage counsellor who enjoys her role. She sees it as defending the institution of marriage itself. The couples who come to her find a patient listener and advisor, but the subject of separation is simply not tolerated. Marjorie’s devotion to marriage is spurred on by the early death of her own husband Hugh. Her seventeen year old daughter May has recently left home and the downstairs lodger Frank is nursing a curious infatuation with her, which only serves to increase her anxiety. Adding to her confusion a popular soap star happens to be her doppelganger, causing people to stop her in the street and ask her for her autograph.
As it happens, her clients are increasingly coming to resent her steadfast belief in the sanctity of marriage, cruelly speculating as to the nature of her own ‘missing’, husband. Marjorie’s calm increasingly unravels with every obstacle, forcing her to question everything she has come to believe in.
What I really enjoyed about the book was the richness of the language. It reads in a naturally descriptive manner, the small details of people’s clothing, or appearance lovingly polished. Marjorie’s mental digressions are also winningly captured. The overall tone of the novel is thoughtful and questioning, a honest reflection on the personal insecurities that people must endure.
The endless cavalcade of clients with their casual cruelty and barbed comments are also well described. The Braintrees in particular are trapped in an endless loop of passive aggression and finely tuned marital discord (is that a mixed metaphor?….meh, train’s in twenty minutes).
Susie Boyt‘s writing is full of winning observations, studied humour and captures the incessant fretting of an emotionally strained character.
Warm, lively in its perspective on personal reflections and rich. Sweetly enjoyable.
He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:
“Only God knows how much I loved you.”
Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.
Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.
The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?
For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.
She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.
Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.
When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.
The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.
This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.
“You really don’t remember, do you?” Margaret asked, as he was leaving. She looked wistful. “I’ve always wondered if you don’t listen to begin with, or if you listen and then forget because whatever it is doesn’t interest you. I suppose it amounts to the same thing. You know your mind.” She said this without the chill Uncas might have expected. There was a kind of resigned wonder. As though she were used to it, but it still puzzled her after all these years.
I remember the first time I was invited to a faculty party. It was an odd experience. After four years of college on some level I still saw my professors as teachers. The near parental authority I had assigned to them they had no interest in though. They were looking at a class of undergraduates, most of whom went on to further study and seeing future peers, perhaps even rivals. It was a distinction that was entirely lost on me. I got my degree and then emigrated to Scotland looking for work. It was only in later years when I met some of those same professors at social functions that I realized the formal relationship I had imagined was just that – entirely imaginary.
Uncas Metcalf is the opposite of what I have described as a professor. An overly formal man who corrects everyone’s grammar before he can stop himself, even complete strangers, or mild acquaintances. Even his own children he views as curiously intransigent students, who have not taken his lessons to heart.
Of his three children he has a particularly troubled relationship with his daughter Fauna, who has moved back to the neighbourhood with her husband and family looking for work in the small college town of Sparta. Uncas has difficulty understanding what to him seem like wild mood swings and an unusual sense of humour. His wife Margaret and he enjoy quiet, inoffensive banter, conducting themselves through catchphrases and Jimmy Durante quotes that have grown old with them.
Then one day Uncas discovers his bicycle has been stolen. Putting it down to a local prank he tries to put the incident out of his mind, certain it will eventually reappear. Bewildered by the experience he wanders into a bagel shop and meets the daughter of a friend, Hanna. In his confusion he decides to buy a bag of bagels from his grandchildren. Then he receives a call that Margaret had an accident at a book sale and injured her leg.
The Metcalf family has to reorganise itself to provide proper care and attention to Margaret during her convalescence. She, however, insists that things should proceed as normal, even planning the annual family Christmas party. Uncas on a whim employs Hanna and her close friend Alex, whom he out of propriety insists on calling Alexandra, to care for his wife during the day. In Alex he finds a kindred soul of sorts. Both of them seem to regret a life not lived to the full, disappointed in romance and lacking confidence.
Then Uncas’s bicycle reappears in a children’s playground. Alex accompanies him to collect it, only to discover a threatening note attached. Someone from his past stole his bike to get his attention. Uncas becomes increasingly alarmed as he realizes he is being followed. His pursuer knows him very well. Uncas unfortunately knows no one having long ago retreated from the society of humans into his study of botany. His relationships with his family and colleagues are based on habit, ritual. Alex is the first person to actually cause him to speak his mind. He fears it is already too late after a lifetime of saying nothing.
The playfulness of Uncas and Margaret hides an emptiness in their marriage that unbeknownst to him, his children are aware of. Why else would Fauna place a more sinister spin on her mother’s nickname for him – “Lord Reticent Taciturn”. What is admirable about Osborne’s book is its quiet assurance, the slow building of tension within small town Sparta, the intrigues and jealousies of college society that appear so dry later in life.
The comical moral rectitude of Uncas, that spans from how one conducts their personal life to correct grammar disguises a life not lived, an embittered perspective on life masked with a genteel smile. Set in the 80s, Uncas for example has a really hard time with the slang word ‘sucked’.
Sad, bittersweet and tender, a very nice surprise. It was not what I was expecting.
What’s this!? A comic strip! Pish, posh, we’ll have not of that vulgar fare here. This is a literary blog, not playtime at kindergarten… Well sorry to disappoint you folks, but I reads what I wants and seeing as my local library happened to have a copy of Matt Groening’s classic strip, I felt I had to have a go. Anyone looking for a debate as to the comparative merits of the ‘fourth art’ versus literature, you’re in the wrong gaff.
So a quick history lesson. The legend goes that Groening was to attend a meeting with James L. Brooks in 1985, who wanted to develop his underground comic Life in Hell into a cartoon and include it as a recurring feature in The Tracey Ullman Show for the Fox Network. Instead, when Groening arrived, he pitched The Simpsons, which he had furiously scribbled down in order to avoid losing creative control over his strip. Life in Hell had been running in one form or another since 1977 and had become something of a shibboleth for cool connoisseurs of underground culture. Brooks had been gunning for it since he received a copy of the comic in 1982. Groening’s desire to protect the strip has since been described as another example of his rebellious nature and need to buck authority.
Your mileage may vary on this point and if you’re curious to hear more about the origins of The Simpsons and Groening’s rise to cultural icon, I would recommend John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored , Unauthorised History.
Love is Hell is a collection of individual ‘Hell’, strips relating to relationships, marriage and childbirth. Its central character is a rabbit named Binky, who stands, lives and dies from one strip to the next. There is no ongoing storyline, this is more a series of comedic sketches, notable for their sarcastic humour and careful insistence on liberal values. Any sexism is self-aware, ironic sexism, which is ok! I took the book to be a more cuddly, American take on the ‘alternative comedy’ trend that was all the rage in the UK during the same period.
The art is simplistic and sketchy, but the Groening blueprint that would later be seen in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama is present and accounted for. Female characters are denoted by bows in their hair and pearl necklaces. Large male characters have a simian lower jaw, while everyone has bauble-like eyes. There’s even a one-eared rabbit character who may have inspired Bart Simpson (I swear to god I didn’t do it). However, the comic’s success is down to Groening’s sly wit. Scribbled into the margins are knowing comments and asides. Binky’s dour, grumpy nature is depicted with a winning degree of self-awareness. Popular notions of love and marital bliss are tackled to the ground before getting a firm kicking. The sarcasm does not overwhelm the material and Groening’s cute drawings sweeten the acidity of his barbs.
In short, it’s pretty damn funny. The Simpsons has moved on from these simple origins and largely abandoned the broad strokes and quixotic realism of Groening for more timely satire (which as the years pass, becomes more dated). Life in Hell may not be as memorable as Calvin and Hobbes, but deserves attention for being more than just a footnote in the development of The Simpsons media behemoth.
Just remember –
Love is a perky elf dancing a merry little jig and then suddenly he turns on you with a miniature machine – gun.