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  • I read a lot, and I have a lot of opinions, so I can't believe I haven't made a list like this before. If you are even a little bit like me or you want to get a peek into my psyche (you probs don't), these are the books to read.
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Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Mitford’

The pursuit of Nancy Mitford

Posted on November 18th, 2010 by annakjarzab

This book changed my life.

I’m serious. I have a really cool job, the result of which is that I get to meet awesome authors of fabulous books like Stephanie Perkins, who wrote Anna and the French Kiss, which comes out on December 2 (just two and a half weeks from now!) and which you should totally go buy and read immediately because it is awesome. Anyway, Steph and I got to spend some time together last Thursday afternoon, and we were talking about our influences and I mentioned Nancy Mitford. First of all, Steph gets so many bonus points for knowing who I was even talking about, because you say “Nancy Mitford” these days and you get a blank stare from most people. Anyway, I told her that if I could write a book that was anywhere near as good as Love in a Cold Climate, I could retire and die a happy woman.

This is not an exaggeration. I discovered Nancy Mitford in college, I think, although I feel as though I’ve been reading her my whole life. The thing about Nancy Mitfords novels is that they are so incredibly hilarious that you can miss how incredibly sad they are. I just started to realize that a year or two ago, after five or so readings of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Nobody creates characters like Nancy does, and you could make the argument that she cheated because she based all the amazing people in her books on the amazing (for better or for worse) people in her life–her friends and family. But the thing about Nancy (do you like how I’m writing about her like we’re friends? So familiar!) is that she’s also a pitch perfect writer, with amazing comedic timing, a flair for the ridiculous, and the ability to control her ridiculous, which is very important if your work is going to veer in the direction of the absurd. There is so much to learn from writers like Nancy Mitford.

Anyway, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate have been available in that bind up linked above for a long time, but Random House’s Vintage imprint is now putting some of her other back list into print as well! Look at these pretty new covers:

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Thanks to Alexa for the heads up on these! So I’ve read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate like six times each, and I’ve read Don’t Tell Alfred once. All the books have the same narrator, a girl named Fanny who’s super normal and almost boring, but is related to a fantastic group of crazy people who are crazy. Don’t Tell Alfred, though, is told from Fanny’s perspective when she’s in her fifties; it was published in 1960, and by then Nancy Mitford, much like her bff Evelyn Waugh, had soured a bit. Her work was way more cynical, and Don’t Tell Alfred suffers from that. I’ve never read Wigs on the Green or The Blessing, though. None of them feature Fanny or the Radletts (that I know of), but I don’t care–I’m excited to read them anyway.

AND I found out that Chris Adrian has a new book coming out in April 2011; it sounds batshit insane, so that’s wonderful. Things are looking up. Now, if only I knew someone at FSG who could get me an ARC…

3 favorite books

Posted on November 6th, 2008 by Anna Jarzab

I get these weird emails from Barnes & Noble all the time, and I say “weird” because they’re not necessarily spam, since they have the name and contact information of the woman who is sending them, so ostensibly I could pick up the phone and dial her number and talk to a real live person about how annoying it is to get these emails, and she would probably sympathize with me and say how annoying it is to have to send them out, but hey, it’s a bad economy, she has a job, she’s not going to rock the boat too much, which I get. But they’re not addressed to me personally, either, so in that way they’re sort of like spam. But I can’t unsubscribe from them, so in that way it’s not like spam, but I really wish it was actually spam so I could unsubscribe.

But anyway, my point was that I got this email telling me about Barnes & Noble’s Guest Books feature on their website, in which famous authors (and random famous other people, like Jamie Lee Curtis) pick their three favorite books. It’s like an iTunes Celebrity Playlist (which, BTW, if I get to make one of those one day it will be the total nadir of my fame), but for books! I like how Augusten Burroughs chose Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos, which I’ve been slowly making my way through for about a year now, in a probably misguided but earnest attempt to “teach myself physics.”

As for myself, not that you were asking, if I were a B&N Guest Books featured author, these are the books I would put on my list:

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Nancy Mitford’s
The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (two novels with the same characters that have been packaged together for a long time and thus constitute one book according to my arbitrary definitions of “book”) are hands-down the funniest novels I’ve ever read. My friend Abby refers to them as a “warm cup of tea,” and no offense to her but I see in these books not only charming domestic humor but also Mitford’s sly, sharp wit applied to the subject of the very human ache for place and self in the world, and for the independence and means to define these for ourselves.

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Nobody writes passion like Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. Every time I read this book, I feel more akin to Jane, more invested in her journey, more outraged at her misfortunes, more relieved at her triumphs. The first time I read Jane Eyre, in high school, I thought her orphanhood and her abuse at the hands of her supposed family were unfortunate, but I found her moralizing tiresome and, in my self-centered youth (only about ten years younger than my current self-centered youth) I couldn’t see the significance of her later life’s battles and convictions. Jane Eyre is a wild, raving book dressed up as a corseted Victorian morality tale (the moderate, pious girl prevails over both her suffering and the libertine behavior of her heart’s true love, who is humbled for his sins before he can deserve her), which is all part of its particular genius.

14993847As for contemporary novels, Douglas Coupland is my go-to. I love Hey Nostradamus! so much that I used a quote from it–“It is indeed a mistake to confuse children with angels”–as an epigraph for All Unquiet Things (well, hopefully, as I haven’t gotten permission yet or anything). Every time I read this book it breaks my heart anew, and each story (the novel is narrated by four different people) is both increasingly sad, increasingly fascinating, and increasingly beautiful (sorry Cheryl, turns out your untimely death is the least heartbreaking of all the tearjerkers that rippled outward from it, which I guess makes sense). If there was some contest where the prize was getting to ask one living writer any question about any work of hers or his, I would ask Douglas Coupland “What happened to Jason?” without hesitation. Despite how incredibly sad this book can be, it can also be amusing, and it is unrelentingly realistic, only slightly confusing upon the first read, and smart as hell.

“Welcome to Brideshead, Mr. Ryder.”

Posted on August 4th, 2008 by Anna Jarzab

On Saturday, Abby, Cambria and I got into a discussion about why men don’t like Sarah Jessica Parker while women tend to love her over margaritas and fries at Dallas BBQ, which eventually segued into a discussion about why men don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman. I said basically what Sadie said in the above linked Jezebel article, that it’s because what men are attracted to (boobs, ass, Jessica Alba basically) is not what women necessarily aspire to be. Women (and not all women, of course, but all the women I know at least, which is many) want to be beautiful and composed; Paltrow and Kidman and to an extent Parker are all very statuesque, ladylike, and some might say cold. I swear to God this is relevant.

How I feel about Gwyneth Paltrow is how I feel about Brideshead Revisited. It is a beautiful novel, statuesque, refined and amazingly constructed, but, ultimately, a bit cold. This is not your cozy, funny Jane Austen, or your hilarious Nancy Mitford (a great, great friend of Evelyn Waugh’s, whose book, The Pursuit of Love, Abby called, “A warm cup of tea”), or even the sort of blazing, epic romance found in Atonement. This is a sculpture of a book, with a majestic beauty not unlike the house referenced in the title. Its characters are all fairly unlikeable while remaining sympathetic, not a small feat, and its hero is more inconsolably lonely at the end than he was in the beginning, still resistant, although weakly, to the sort of deep faith that drove him from everyone he ever really loved.

I saw the new film version of Brideshead Revisited on Saturday, after the aforementioned margaritas, and though I have not seen the BBC miniseries and thus cannot compare them, I thought Julian Jerrold, who also directed my beloved Becoming Jane, did an excellent job of communicating this beautiful coldness on screen. The lighting is pitch perfect, and while they take the relationship between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte a bit farther than I would given the source material, the acting is spot-on, creating a strong, shadowy connection between all of the characters. Matthew Goode, who I had heretofor only seen in The Lookout (where he was the victim of an American accent, cliche characterization, and having to play opposite the amazing Joseph Gordon Levitt), was AMAZING as Charles Ryder. Emma Thompson, despite being great as Lady Marchmain, was distractingly Emma Thompson, I never really like Sebastian much so while I appreciate Ben Whishaw I wasn’t particularly affected by his performance, and Hayley Atwell (who is not the same person as Michelle Monahan, despite Cambria’s insistence to the contrary) was very impressive as the guilt-ridden Julia Flyte, but Matthew Goode was the obvious star of the film, and his portrayal of Charles Ryder is the one that sticks in your mind when you leave the theater.

I thought Jerrold’s choices with the film were really interesting. Catholicism plays a large part in the novel, as the entire aristocratic Flyte family (Mother Lady Marchmain, sons Bridey and Sebastian, daughters Julia and Cordelia) are Catholic, born and raised, with varying levels of devotion and observance, while their father, the likeably wicked Lord Marchmain, has fallen away from the church that he adopted in order to marry Lady Marchmain and is living in sin with his Italian mistress in Venice. Charles Ryder, the man whose memoirs we are experiencing, is neither aristocratic nor religious–he is atheist, although at first he seems not to have given it much thought in the past, but as time goes by, as his life becomes more and more entangled with that of the Flytes, he becomes more and more resistant to the pull of the faith he feels is destroying his friends. The author, Evelyn Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, wrote the book specifically to combat the widely held opinion that the religious, especially staunch Catholics in a laxadasically Anglican England, were ridiculous people whose deeply held faiths were easily shaken and disproven by the brilliant insight of nonbelievers. He meant it to be an exploration of the ways in which God’s Grace can operate in a group of diverse but interconnected people, not a condemnation of the Church or religion or the faithful.

This is not to say that Waugh’s book presents religion in an altogether positive light. But I think what Waugh is trying to do is show what a struggle it is to remain moral and faithful in the face of overwhelming desire and despair, and how sometimes it can appear to cause outrageous suffering. I don’t think Charles misunderstands Lady Marchmain–she is manipulating people by invoking God, and in many ways she fails to comprehend that the trappings of religion and the convictions of religion are not the same (as when she convinces Julia to marry recent Catholic convert Rex Mottram, when Julia is clearly in love with Charles). HOWEVER, what Jerrold’s film seems to miss (and here I am fully willing to admit that I have missed it in this adaptation, that the failing might lie in my interpretation) is that, at the end, all of the characters who began the novel in varying degrees of religious certainty have come full circle to appreciate the operation of divine Grace in their lives, that they are not defeated by Charles’ agnostic pragmatism and that he, instead, is changed by their considered submission to the will of God. I cannot decide if the way Jerrold decided to end the film was a determination to be as subtle with Charles’ conversion to the faith as Waugh was, the differences being caused by medium, or if he was deliberately leaving it ambiguous so that purists could not be angry and he could retain this sense that Charles will never believe for those who would be bothered by an admission of faith from him.

(The only other thing that I thought was missing was a strong impression of how connected Charles is to Brideshead. In the book, he imprints himself on the place, painting those pictures for Lady Marchmain. It makes Julia’s accusation that Charles isn’t so much in love with her as with the idea of living at Brideshead with her carry so much more weight if you are aware of just how much he loves the place. But that’s a minor quibble–as Abby said, I’m willing to just assume that, having read the book.)

Nevertheless, the movie was completely engrossing, the acting was great, the shots were amazing, the costuming was stunning, and the story was perfectly wrought within the smaller framework of a two hour film. I would definitely recommend it if it is ever widely released.