Thursday, August 27, 2015

Odd Girl Out

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard was my fun book to fall back on while reading John Evelyn's diary.  I can't adequately describe EJH's writing style.  There's an economy of words, an elegance and simplicity that makes every sentence a joy to read.  EJH was also particularly talented at describing the comical inner dilemmas that we all deal with every day.

Odd Girl Out is about Arabella Dawick, a poor little rich girl, who arrives as a guest at the house of her step-brother Edmund Cornhill, and his wife Anne.  The Cornhills appear to have a blissful marriage.  They have a lovely house, plenty of money; they treat each other with consideration and love.  And of course Arabella's entrance into their lives disrupts everything--in the predicable way but also in an unexpected way.  The conclusion of this novel is uncomfortable, as it touches on aspects of human nature that we'd prefer to pretend don't exist.

I'm not sure what to make of Arabella.  She's unwanted by her mother, seen as an inconvenience or else abused by her various step fathers; all she wants is to be loved and to belong somewhere. So she's a sympathetic character and yet she leaves chaos in her wake, albeit unintentionally.  A side-plot in the novel illustrates just how much chaos.  Clara, Arabella's mother, tells Edmund before the visit, "Don't let her exploit you."

One of the things that EJH excels at, and which makes her novels so much fun to read, is her talent for portraying the super rich: their expressions, mannerisms, habits, and fashions.  In Odd Girl Out, Arabella's mother Clara is technically a princess, as her latest husband happens to be a prince.  She flits from Switzerland to Paris to Cannes, leading the life that some of us (myself included) see as glamorous and fun.  It is certainly entertaining to read about Clara, but Howard skillfully portrays how boring and empty such a life can be.

I know that a lot of the books that I write about are not ones that will appeal to many people, but Odd Girl Out is one that I think most of you would enjoy.  It's the thinking person's chick lit.  Definitely pick it up if you're looking for something to read.

Monday, August 24, 2015


My bike got a flat tire last week, so on Friday, I rode the trolley home from work. It happened to be UVA move-in weekend, so the traffic was worse than usual.  The trolley, when it arrived, was crowded so I stood in the aisle and held onto one of the poles.  There were a few seats here and there, but I didn't want to go pushing through the crowd to get to them.  One man patted the empty seat next to him and leered at me.  I ignored him, but this caught the attention of another man who was sitting on one of the benches in the front.  He told me I could sit next to him.  I politely said that I preferred to stand.  The man appeared to be drunk (possibly) or otherwise unstable and the other man on the bench reeked of cigarette smoke. I didn't want to squeeze in between them.  I'm sure I'm not the only woman who assesses empty bus seats for harassment and groping potential before sitting down.

The man said, "Oh, I see.  You're a racist." He got out of his seat and moved across the aisle, making an elaborate show, for the benefit of the other passengers, of vacating his seat for the racist woman.  I continued to stand.  The man started pointing me out to the other people on the bus.  "See her?  She's a racist. She won't sit next to me."  He kept up muttering for most of the interminable ride through the congested move-in traffic.  We eventually reached downtown and I fled the trolley and walked home.

Here's the thing: you don't owe strangers anything. There is an expectation in civil society that an unwanted offer is responded to with a simple "no thank you."  That's common courtesy, but no one should ever be under any obligation to engage with strangers.  You don't have to smile just because some asshole tells you to.  You don't have to give someone your name just because they ask.  You don't have to converse with someone just because they want to converse with you and you don't have to sit with someone who makes you uncomfortable.

In polite society, there are tacit rules about boundaries between strangers: don't make eye contact on the subway, etc.  When someone crosses those boundaries and you refuse to engage, you're not a bitch and you're not racist.  The person crossing the boundary is imposing on you and you do not have to appease someone who is imposing on you.

I don't mean to sound like a victim blamer here, but I think sometimes women end up in uncomfortable or dangerous situations because they are fearful of being perceived as rude or racist.  I was publicly accused of racism and as deeply unpleasant as that was,  I'm glad I didn't sit next to that man. It would have spared me the racism  accusation, but at what cost?  Would the obnoxious questions have started?  What's your name?  Do you live around here?  Where do you work? And sure, you can give a fake name and say you're in town for the day from Duluth, but the more you lie, the more flustered you get and the more power he has.  Don't engage with a bully because you've been trained since birth to be "nice."  You do not have to be nice.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Diary of John Evelyn

John Evelyn (1651)

I have spent the last few weeks reading The Diary of John Evelyn, which I added to my list after reading Virginia Woolf's comments on it in The Common Reader.  I also included this book in my list for the fifty classics project.

John Evelyn (1620-1706) lived through some very exciting times in British history.  His diary begins at the beginning:

I was born at Wotten, in the county of Surrey, about twenty minutes past two in the morning being on Tuesday the 31st and last day of October, 1620.

He then passes quickly over his childhood and jumps to the 1640s, when, upon completing his education, he traveled extensively in France and Italy.  I particularly liked his accounts of Rome--he was there during Bernini's lifetime, which is quite exciting.  He described some of the places that we both have visited, such as Chiesa del Gesu and San Carlo alle Quattro Fontante and it was astonishing to realize that they have hardly changed during all this time.  Evelyn's view of St. Cecilia's is exactly as I remember it.  He also mentions a street of "cheeze" shops that had a disagreeable smell, and I was taken back to the little street of cheese shops in Trastevere that did truly smell awful, though the cheese was nice.

He made his leisurely way back to England, stopping to see every curiosity and site worthy of note along the way.  Before arriving home, he married twelve-year old Mary Browne. After the wedding, he left her with her parents to mature for four more years before embarking on married life.

Once settled, Evelyn never left England again.  He and his wife had eight children, of whom only three reached adulthood.  After the restoration of Charles II to the throne, he was given numerous responsibilities by the court and lived an active life until the age of 85, when he died after what seems to have been a relatively brief "indisposition."

When you've read over 1,000 pages of someone's diary, you feel like you know him.  By the time I finished these volumes, I'd grown to like John Evelyn.  He was a true Renaissance man: brimming with intellectual curiosity and with interests ranging from medicine to gardening to art and architecture.  He was one of the founders of the Royal Society, published several books, and was acquainted with many of the worthies of his era, such as Sir Christopher Wren and Samuel Pepys.  He also lived through and commented on some of the more dramatic incidents in English history: the execution of King Charles I, the restoration of King Charles II, the troublesome reign of King James II, and the Glorious Revolution, in which he was overthrown by William and Mary.  He made it clear that he was disgusted with Cromwell, but otherwise was reserved when expressing opinions.  In once instance, when it was said that the Earl of Essex committed suicide in the tower of London, Evelyn notes that the so-called self-inflicted razor wound to the neck sliced through the Earl's vertebrae, and that the Earl's fingertips had razor cuts and states that these observances prompted "reflections."

Evelyn appears to have been an affectionate father.  He doesn't mention his children very much in his diary, except when they died, at which times he was clearly devastated.  He took pains about his children's education, including his daughters'.  It's hard to get a sense of what his marriage was like. Evelyn was nearly twenty years older than his wife and hardly mentions her, except to say that he took her here or there.  The diary gives the impression that they lived separate lives, but that might be totally inaccurate.  He was disgusted with the animal cruelty that passed as entertainment, and in general seems to have been morally upright, but not rigidly intolerant, although also somewhat humorless.

John Evelyn in his sixties

Although the diary is lengthy (three 500-page volumes) it's relatively quick and easy to read.  In my opinion, the English language was at its finest in the 1600's.  It has a simplicity and elegance of expression without the pretension that crept into it in the 1700's.  The diary would be of interest to anyone who is interested in the 1600's in England.