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text 2019-03-22 11:31
Reading progress update: I've read 33%. I feel as if I'm becoming interred in the lives of these women
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

I'm beginning to see the method in Pym's light-touch writing style: it turns the authorial voice into a constant subliminal whisper, with each episode in a person's life dropping softly, like a handful of earth on a coffin, piling layer after layer of disappointment, self-denial, delusion and quiet unprotesting despair, until I feel interred in the lives of these women.


The two men don't interest me. They seem to me to be platitudinous, speaking only the ritual words that those of us with marginal social skills through the enforced proximity of working in a shared office.


This can be seen in the way the men in the responses of the men in the office to Letty's disclosure of unexpected and undesirable changes in her retirement plans and in her new landlord, a Nigerian priest in the Aladura Christian sect.

'It never rains but it pours," said Norman the next morning when Letty has told them in the office about the new development in her retirement plans. ‘First your friend getting married and now this –whatever next? There’ll be a third thing, just you wait.’ 


‘Yes, troubles do tend to come in threes, or so people say,’ Edwin remarked. There was of course an undeniable interest and even unadmitted pleasure in the contemplation of other people’s misfortunes, and for a moment Edwin basked in this, shaking his head and speculating on what the third disaster might be. 


‘Don’t tell us you’re getting married too,’ said Norman jauntily. ‘That might be the third thing.’ 


Letty had to smile, as she was meant to, at such a fantastic suggestion. ‘No chance of that,’ she said.

The hurt inflicted by the unthinking use of these boiler-plate phrases goes unobserved by the men using them. To some extent, the hurt is created by Letty, who can neither deafen herself to the negative implications of what has been said nor free herself from the pattern of ritual responses.


Letty, who I first thought of as independent and self-aware increasingly seems to me to be broken, not in a fractured by trauma way but more in the way of someone whose hands are swollen and callused through habitual misuse. Her manners constrain her perceived ability to act. Her expectations are meagre and vague yet she lacks the will actively to pursue them.


Part of Letty's passivity or paralysis may come from her inability to understand the course her life has taken. She asks herself:

How had it come about that she, an Englishwoman born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic, shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians?

The answer she gives herself denies her agency over her life in a way that she seems quite unaware of. She concludes:

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.

The way Letty thinks about her religious or spiritual life points to the heart of her inertia. When her new landlord asks her is she is a Christian lady:

Letty hesitated. Her first instinct had been to say ‘yes’, for of course one was a Christian lady, even if one would not have put it quite like that. How was she to explain to this vital, ebullient black man her own blend of Christianity –a grey, formal, respectable thing of measured observances and mild general undemanding kindness to all?

I was left thinking that her "grey, formal, respectable" life felt like a shroud that she has donned too early.


Then there is Marcia, whose damage is of the traumatic kind. I find being inside Marcia's head disturbing. She has a strong will. Her behaviour is disciplined, she reaches logical conclusions, takes responsibility for her life and yet she is trapped by fears and anxieties that shape everything she sees.


Marcia has an obsession with keeping a supply of canned goods in her house and having a collection of milk bottles set aside against some unspecified future disaster.


This hit me harder than it should. My mother was eight-years-old when the blitz destroyed large sections of her Liverpool. She lived through times when food was either not available or closely rationed and when baths were filled at night in case there was no running water in the morning. She was not Marcia but throughout her life, she had a cupboard full of canned foods and a chest freezer full of meals "just in case". Some things, usually the worst things, never leave you.


I find Marcia entirely believable and I really wish I didn't.

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text 2019-03-18 22:27
Reading progress update: I've read 30%. - what happened to these people?
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

Letty, the most vibrant of the bunch sees herself as an involuntary maiden, caught on a tide of history. She sees herself as part of a generation of women cheered by war of their opportunity to meet and marry, as if she’d missed a bus and was now doomed to walk.


Marcia is mentally ill, a condition either brought on by her mascectomy or worsened by it.


Edwin and Normam are so slightly drawn it’s hard to know who they are e c’est that they seem hollow men with low expectations that they still often fail to meet.


The flipping from head to head without resting in makes this a little like watching a reality TV show with the quartet of people like animals in a zoo with the author providing the narrative.

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text 2019-03-17 19:29
Reading progress update: I've read 15%.
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

I haven’t been able to spend the time I intend to on this bk this weekend so I’m only three chapters in.


its not fun.


I’m not enjoying the shifting points of view. Letty I understand.  The others are harder to empathize with. I get to spend relatively little time in their heads and, apart from the degradations of aging, I’m struggling to connect.


These seem to be dreary people living dream lives that will soon be over.


The experience of moving from “Ecellent Women” to “Quartet In Autumn” is like moving from “Pride And Préjudice” to “Mansfield Park”: disappointing 



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text 2019-03-16 05:37
Reading progress update: I've read 114 out of 304 pages.
Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life - Liz Kalaugher,Matin Durrani

This has been a slow read for me, through no fault of the book's, and in spite of my tortoise speed, I'm enjoying it.  It's not edge-of-your-seat stuff, exactly, and the humor... well, I've liked some of the jokes, but I couldn't help thinking at the beginning, 'the jokes feel like a British person trying to make American jokes'.  After a few more jokes falling flat, and the section that contained the dead giveaway reference to a cat as a "moggy", I flipped to the back flap for the author bios, and both are citizens of the realm.  Doesn't mean I'm right about the humor, but it does illustrate the disconnect I felt; few Americans can pull off the brilliant dryness of British humor, and at least in this case, for me, the authors struggle with pulling off the sassier style of humor we Yanks are known for.


I've just finished up reading about the Pond Skaters, and I am forever going to hear Pull! in my head now every time I see one whizzing across the surface of the water, with their tiny middle legs acting like oars.


I loved the section on the geckos.  While I understood on a basic level how they walked on ceilings before, the authors did a thoroughly complete job of explaining the phenomenon to me on the molecular scale.  All those tee tiny hairs...  And I love the irony of their inability to walk on dry teflon, but wet teflon is fine.  I also now desperately need to hear a tokay gecko bark.  None of this YouTube stuff; I want to hear a gecko bark in the wild.  


The Harlequin Shrimp is a badass.  If you haven't seen the YouTube video called True Facts, and you like your science irreverent (and often not suitable for children or work environments), I highly, highly recommend looking it up.  It's not only hilarious, but offers a great slow motion / freeze frame shot of the cavitation bubble that Harlequin shrimp produce when they punch things.


Totally irrelevant aside:  if I ever had a 'pet' Harlequin shrimp, I would name it Spot.  Because I can only imagine that the percentage of "Rocky", "Ali", "George Foreman", etc. shrimp would be in the 90th percentile.  Why zig when you can zag?  

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text 2019-03-15 17:05
Reading progress update: I've read 9%.
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym I started "Quartet in Autumn" today and already I can feel he kind of resonance that Wanda referred to in her review


I'm the same age as these and wondering what I do next.


As I followed Lettie to a hurried, solitary lunch in a restaurant crowded with other solitary people in a hurry, I felt a moment of recognition. I've done this often (although, as this isn't 70's England, I haven't eaten in places that serve "macaroni au gratin and chips"). I've never gotten the knack of connecting with people. My first instinct is to act as if I'm all alone in this crowded room. So I felt sympathy for this small incident in Lettie's day. Lettie is seated, eating her meal when a woman takes a seat at her table:


She looked up, perhaps about to venture a comment on price increases, pale, bluish eyes troubled about VAT . Then, discouraged by Letty’s lack of response, she lowered her glance, decided on macaroni au gratin with chips and a glass of water. The moment had passed. Letty picked up her bill and got up from the table. For all her apparent indifference she was not unaware of the situation.


Somebody had reached out towards her. They could have spoken and a link might have been forged between two solitary people. But the other woman, satisfying her first pangs of hunger, was now bent rather low over her macaroni au gratin. It was too late for any kind of gesture. Once again Letty had failed to make contact.


I know exactly what that failure feels like.


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