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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Not many bookish thoughts today – mainly ramblings about the live music that has been making me happy recently.

I went to an amazing gig in Bristol on Friday night, which was especially exciting because the venue was a boat! It was my first time at the Thekla, which has been used as a music venue for years, and so I was looking forward to the experience of a gig on board a ship. It’s actually quite easy to forget that you’re on a boat as the Thekla is in the dock and you can’t feel any waves swaying it around, plus the gigs take place in the hold rather than on deck (wouldn’t that be great, though?!). Still, I liked the venue very much and I really enjoyed myself. The band I saw was Wild Flag, who are an American indie/rock band made up of musicians who used to be in Sleater-Kinney and various other bands.

I’d only listened to Wild Flag’s album a couple of times before going but their songs are instantly loveable and the atmosphere was great. It was the first time I’d been to a gig where the band took loads of photos of the audience, telling them to smile and then make various serious/funny/sexy faces. Luckily I wasn’t quite near enough to the front to be involved in this…

Most of the audience were going crazy and I did a lot of jumping around and dancing. I think the friend I went with (who absolutely loves music and introduces me to many of the recent bands I like and tells me about all the gigs that are on) was surprised by this, as I’m generally a quiet person who likes going to melancholy folk-ish gigs where the audience sit in appreciative silence. But I have a more rock side as well, so I’m really glad that I went to see Wild Flag.

Another thing that made me happy recently was getting a ticket to see Bonnie Prince Billy and Trembling Bells do a joint show in Oxford. This isn’t until May but I like having something exciting to look forward to. I’ve liked Bonnie Prince Billy for ages and have become a big fan of Trembling Bells recently too, so I’m really interested to hear their collaboration on the album that’s coming out soon. I’ve seen Trembling Bells twice before – the first time was the gig where I started to like them (my favourite songs are Willows of Carbeth and Baby Lay Your Burden Down, and I also love it when they perform beautiful a cappella duets, such as Seven Years a Teardrop). Then I saw them again last year at a gig they did with Mike Heron from the Incredible String Band, a folk/psychedelic band from the 1960s and 70s. This gig was wonderful because it brought old and new folk music together. I’d heard the Incredible String Band because my mum used to listen to them and she bought me a CD of their songs. I listened to it often and got to know their songs well (my favourite is October Song). It was really nice for me to hear their music performed live, with Trembling Bells joining in singing harmonies and playing as part of the band. Anyway, I am very excited about the gig with Bonnie Prince Billy in May because it’s a chance to see two acts I love performing together.

After seeing Wild Flag, I didn’t have many other plans for the weekend so I spent yesterday afternoon relaxing and reading with a nice cup of tea. I have a stack of books to read, including some authors I’ve enjoyed recently: a couple more Barbara Pyms (I’ve already finished Crampton Hodnet, which is very funny and set in Oxford to boot) and more J.D. Salinger, so I’ll be able to read the other Glass family stories very soon. It’s nice to spend a weekend just indulging myself in books!

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I picked up this book because I loved A Catcher in the Rye when I was a teenager and re-read it several times, but I hadn’t tried anything else by Salinger. Franny and Zooey is the story of the Glass family, seven brothers and sisters who were all prodigies as children and regular participants on a radio quiz show called ‘It’s a Wise Child’.

The book is actually divided into two separate stories, originally published two years apart. The first follows Franny’s visit to her boyfriend Lane at college, and the second, much longer, piece describes Franny’s return to the family apartment in New York where she has a kind of breakdown brought on by her obsession with a religious book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Her mother Bessie and her older brother Zooey are there, trying mostly unsuccessfully to help her and cheer her up, while the other siblings are constantly subjects of conversation and reminiscence, ‘stalking in and out of the plot with considerable frequency, like so many Banquo’s ghosts’, so that the reader learns quite a lot about their different characters and the Glass family history.  Rather strangely, the book is supposedly narrated by another brother, Buddy, who isn’t actually present for most of the book. Buddy has a witty and over-elaborate style of narration, semi-serious and semi-playful. He is a teacher who sometimes feels as if he hasn’t lived up to his childhood promise:

On especially black days I sometimes tell myself that if I’d loaded up with degrees when I was able, I might not now be teaching anything quite so collegiate and hopeless as Advanced Writing 24-A. But that’s probably bunk. The cards are stacked (quite properly, I imagine) against all professional aesthetes, and no doubt we all deserve the dark, wordy, academic deaths we all sooner or later die.

Although a short book, Franny and Zooey somehow feels very detailed and dense, and I felt as if the seven siblings, their past and present, were very fully imagined. I felt completely involved in this world of unusual characters, of a kind I’ve rarely read about before. Since reading this, I’ve found out that Salinger wrote several more stories about the Glass family, including Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenter, Seymour: an Introduction and For Esme: With Love and Squalor, all of which I now really want to read.

Franny and Zooey are interesting and both quite troubled people. The book explains how their early life as precocious children has affected them. As well as appearing on the quiz show, they were immersed in mysticism and Buddhism from an early age by their older brothers, Buddy and Seymour, which seems to have left them feeling quite different from most other people. They are both self-conscious and unable to feel comfortable with themselves because, as Zooey puts it:

those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that’s all… On top of everything else we’ve got ‘Wise Child’ complexes. We’ve never really gotten off the goddam air. Not one of us. We don’t talk, we hold forth. We don’t converse, we expound. At least I do.

Zooey, an actor, isn’t quite so badly off, but Franny is so critical of herself and other people that she is almost unable to do anything at all. While away at college, she has lost faith in all her professors, her fellow students and actors in her theatre company, seeing them all as predictable and fake.

I’m just so sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everyone that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting… I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of a splash.

She has become obsessed with the ‘Jesus prayer’ from her treasured book, repeating over and over again the words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner’.

Franny and Zooey is partly about mysticism, how other people try to persuade Franny away from her quest, and whether this spiritual way of life, the attempt to live without any ego, is wonderful or misguided, a symptom of her breakdown. The book is equally about an unusual family and the relationships between siblings. It’s a difficult book to describe as it’s mainly composed of conversations. The action that takes place is mainly in the change in Franny’s thoughts and feelings over the course of the book.

Some Tame Gazelle is Barbara Pym’s first novel (published in 1950) and I think it’s one of her best as it’s so funny and charming. I’d already read most of her other novels and enjoyed them very much, so I wasn’t surprised to finish this one in only a couple of days. Barbara Pym began writing it when she was 21, imagining herself and her older sister Hilary as ‘spinsters’ of fifty. This resulted in the wonderful creations of Miss Belinda and Miss Harriet Bede, two sisters who live together and are involved in their parish church, dutifully helping out with garden parties, village fetes and harvest festivals.

The sisters have quite different characters; Harriet is more outgoing, cheerful and fashionable, while Belinda is thoughtful, somewhat melancholy and modest, but they are very fond of one another despite their occasional misunderstandings. Although neither of them have ever married, they do have some romance in their lives. Harriet is devoted to the succession of young curates who are posted to the church, and is constantly offering them homemade jam and hand-knitted socks or inviting them round for dinner. Meanwhile, Ricardo, an Italian count who has somehow ended up in the village, regularly proposes marriage to Harriet but she always refuses him; somehow they remain the best of friends in spite of this. Belinda on the other hand has been in love with Archdeacon Hoccleve for thirty years but unfortunately for her he is married to the capable and bossy Agatha. The novel follows the relationships of all these characters as well as various eccentric visitors to the village: the two librarians, Mr Parnell and Mr Mold, and a bishop from Africa, Theodore Grote.

One of the comic aspects of this novel is the way that the women lavish so much attention on the clergy, for example always wondering whether they are eating enough. In fact food plays a large part in the novel (in a comical way) and it seems to be the main way that people show affection to one another, apart from knitting various items of clothing. At one point Belinda wants to knit the Archdeacon a jumper, but after thinking about everything that could go wrong with it and how ‘unsuitable’ it would be for her to give such a present to a married man, she concludes that ‘the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted’. This is one of the most realistic and humorous things about Barbara Pym’s writing, the small things that appear so important and take up so much mental energy.

One thing I liked about this book was the range of characters – there is a large cast but they are all well-developed and very comical. There are some lovely scenes where they are all brought together at a dinner party or wedding. Belinda is a very likeable character. Even though her self-effacing nature and lack of courage in expressing her feelings could be frustrating, this is only because I wanted her to be happy and for other people to realise that there is more to her than her image as a respectable, worthy spinster. It’s also interesting that it’s implied that she had a lucky escape by not marrying Henry (the Archdeacon) and that she’s been able to live quite a contented life alone, while her ongoing love for him has become ‘like a warm, comfortable garment, bedsocks, perhaps, or even woollen combinations; certainly something without glamour or romance’.

Henry himself is a very amusing character – handsome and distinguished, but essentially lazy and regularly trying to delegate his parish duties to other people so he can have a lie-in or wander alone in the churchyard brooding on higher matters: ‘he fancied himself to be rather like one of those eighteenth-century clergymen suffering from the spleen.’ At the same time, he is always complaining bad-temperedly about his heavy workload and blaming his wife for neglecting her domestic duties. Belinda is extremely loyal but even she recognises he has his faults.

I know Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen and I would especially recommend this novel to Jane Austen fans. Like an Austen novel, it concentrates on the romances and everyday life of a small community, it is full of entertaining observations and is very perceptive about people’s characters. There are some scenes that echo moments in Austen’s novels but I won’t give away the plot by telling you about them! Now I’m looking forward to finding the Pym novels I still have left to read.