Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952)

Better than illicit sex. Honey on toast. Chocolate and beer.

Maybe not chocolate and beer.

Sweet is the unputdownable book in which sod all happens.

…life was like that for most of us – the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longings rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs of history and fiction.

Thriller writer Raymond Chandler said if you’re ever stuck on what happens next, get someone to walk in with a gun in their hand.

Well, Pym’s self-effacingly unattached protagonist Mildred Lathbury does it with a pot of tea.

But first, why Excellent [Women]? Try shrewd, modest, appreciative, funny.

Here she is on spaghetti, being late, eggs, and, of course, the nectar of the gods.

Perhaps long spaghetti is the kind of thing that ought to be eaten quite alone with nobody to watch one’s struggles. Surely many a romance must have been nipped in the bud by sitting opposite someone eating spaghetti?

She’s not wrong. Try it naked in front of a mirror. Not a good look.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she smiled, and I heard myself murmuring politely that I had arrived too early, as if it were really my fault that she was late.

So true. Like apologising when someone bumps into you, or drops one.

… I had a fresh egg to poach… delving for it in the bubbly water where the white separated from the yolk and waved about like a sea anemone.

Gripping stuff. 1952. Rationing. Egg. Fresh. Indulgent. Can make a day.

[with a distressed friend]… she stammered in a burst of tears. I was astonished that I could think of nothing to say, but wondered irrelevantly if I was to be caught with a teapot in my hand on every dramatic occasion.

Love the astonished there. Love the irrelevantly. Don’t wave it about like that Milly, it might go off.

The tea was made now and it was as strong as it had been weak on the day Helena left him. I wondered why it was that tea could vary so, even when one followed exactly the same method of making it. Could the emotional state of the maker have something to do with it?

Yep. It’s my Oolong, doctor.

Thanks for being here.

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As You Like It by William Shakespeare (1599)

Your favourite bit, aside from the boinging Cupid have mercy!, the clichéd all the world’s a stage, and that gloomy Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything?

Mine’s got to be the frisky rat-tat-tat of love-struck cross-dresser Rosalind’s quick-fire questions.

A little game I like to play in my Lilliputian upper storey is, if she was addressing me (Cupid have mercy!), what would be my one-word answer? If I was her bosom buddy (Cupid have mercy!) Celia, that is.

Let’s remind ourselves of that randy ramble.

[Rosalind to Celia after Celia said she bumped into Rosalind’s dreamboat, Orlando…]

Alas the day! What shall I do with my doublet and hose? What did he, when thou sawest him? What said he? How looked he? Wherein went he? What makes he here? Did he ask for me? Where remains he? How parted he with thee? And when shalt thou see him again? Answer me in one word.

Ten questions in fifty-seven words. Eight hes. Two hims. You can see her glaring, eyes like dinner plates. One wonders what’s on her mind, though, really.

I’m currently favouring, “Pardon.”

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Adrian Mole The Cappuccino Years by Sue Townsend (1999)

Jeepers, need nappies for this one.

With more great lines than the movie Scarface, this book is chronically funny. Do not eat peanuts while reading.

They say that great lines can make you fart with laughter.

Well.

Anyway, let’s focus on Ms Townsend’s particular talent in plying the three big no-gos of punctuation.

Writers tend to veer away from using italics, screamers [exclamation marks], and caps because they can blow up in your face. But the maestra Townsend knows how to wield them with alacrity.

Of the narrator protagonist Adrian Mole, The Daily Telegraph said, “As a twit he stands alone.”

I concur. The Cappuccino Years finds Mole still a total loser in his thirties. Burned out relationships. Burned out marriages. Burned out house. So…

Italics? Make ’em cringe-worthy.

‘Her glossy lips were open, showing Harpic-white teeth. Her eyes said bedroom.’

Lovely. Oh, go on, let’s have another.

‘The man is a sartorial disaster area. He is the Pompeii of menswear.’

Oh, no there I go again.

Screamers? Here are some deft ones, with some potent italicisation.

Christ, she’s a wanker’s dream! She’s a dislocated wrist! She’s duvet heaven!’

Hang on a sec, need to open a window.

Caps? Be brave, and lavish and slather.

[After a long and knee-slapping all-caps rant about being a father] ‘THIS IS NOT HOW I EXPECTED MY LIFE TO TURN OUT!’

And I say: THANK YOU, Sue Townsend!!

See, us amateurs shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near ’em.

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The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948)

Before settling down to read this white-knuckler, do the following.

Lock your doors and windows.

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1948)

Turn on all the lights. Ready a candle in case of power cut. Remember matches.

Pour a brandy. Make it two.

Hell, three.

Oh, and have a wee.

What’s the big deal? Well, it kind of creeps up on you and lulls you into a false sense of security.

Then upsides your head, leaving you shaken and shocked.

There’s a lovely start.

The morning of the June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

Ah, sigh, can you feel that breeze on your face?

And sneaky, brilliant, Ms Jackson is casting clues from the start.

People are cheerful, smiling, jovial. Everything seems so routine. Old Man Warner even says, Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery.

Yep indeedy, most of the towns and villages have been holding one every year for many, many years.

Ho-hum, and so this one carries on in its customary way and you don’t notice the insidious change of tone or tempo.

Until it’s too late.

The old frog in the saucepan trick.

And when you’re done and have caught your breath and apologised to the neighbours for your screams, sit back and marvel at the story-telling.

And perhaps don’t look in the glass for a while after. So you don’t see the horror lingering palely there.

Good luck.

Thanks for being here.

PS read it again and play pick up the clues. x

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The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1609)

Your favourite bit, aside from the clichéd I cried to dream again and brave new world that has such people in’t?

Mine’s got to be Caliban’s few words while basted on booze or, as he lovingly calls it, celestial liquor.

What tickles is the characteristic hallmarks of the drunk as he tries to give the also carted Stephano and Trinculo instructions on how to polish off Prospero [Caliban’s boss].

He’s truly bowsered. Or, as the irksome and obsequious Ariel puts the state, red-hot with drinking.

It’s all here. The frowning. The determined imperative. The repetition of idea. The aggression. You don’t have to see the play to see him swaying, lurching, finger-pointing.

So, having just told them both that he’ll take them to Prospero where thou mayst knock a nail in his head, he expands on the theme.

(Why is knock a nail in his head so funny here? Why. Perhaps because it’s such an absurdly violent and premeditated (given the tools needed) thing to do, uttered by an inebriate who can hardly stand up. Perhaps it’s the euphony and alliteration in those first three syllables that make it sound such a casual and easy task.)

And so he goes on,

‘I the afternoon to sleep: there thou must brain him,

Having first seized his books; or with a log

Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake…

New verb for me there: to paunch is to disembowel (an animal). I guess that figures, glancing down.

Or cut his wezand with a knife…

Now, ouch.

I don’t know either, nor does the dictionary. But I do know that I’d like my wezand intact. Whatever, wherever, it is.

Just as it is.

Must’ve been one helluver hangover.

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Lewis Carroll An Illustrated Biography by Derek Hudson (1954)

Loosen your clothing and keep the airways free for this one.

In October 1950, Reverend G Edward Charlesworth was having his Croft Rectory in Yorkshire renovated.

When they pulled up the floor in what used to be Charles Dodgson’s [Lewis Carroll’s] nursery on the second storey, they came across a child’s secret stash of little bits and pieces.

Here are three of the treasures they pulled out. Make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Brandy balloon in reach.

One left shoe.

Holy cats.

Remember the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking-Glass?

And now if e’er by chance I put

My fingers into glue

Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot

Into a left-hand shoe…

Oh, Lordy. Fetch the smelling salts.

One white glove.

Lawks.

Remember the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, splendidly dressed, with a pair of white kid gloves in one hand and a large fan in the other?

Then he drops them. Alice picks them up and forgets about them until she finds, oddly, that she’s wearing one after she’s shrunk.

I can’t remember what happened to them after that, but do recall him looking for them, muttering, “Oh my dear paws! Oh my fur and whiskers! She’ll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!

I think one of the meanie queenie’s favourite punishments was to cut off someone’s whiskers. (Didn’t she threaten the Dormouse with as much in court later?)

Then the White Rabbit tells her to go to his house and get him some more gloves and she does and drinks that potion and gets bigger and bigger and bigger and stuck. Or something.

One thimble.

Mercy. Back in a sec, running a cold bath.

Remember, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the prize-giving after that absurd Caucus-race and Alice gives them all a comfit and there isn’t one left for her?

“But she must have a prize herself, you know,” said the Mouse.

“Of course,” the Dodo replied very gravely. “What else have you got in your pocket?” he went on, turning to Alice.

“Only a thimble,” said Alice sadly.

“Hand it over here,” said the Dodo.

They they all crowded round her once more while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying “We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble;” and, when it had finished this short speech they all cheered.

Doorbell. That’ll be my therapist.

Thanks for being here.

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(Illustration by John Tenniel.)

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