Confessions of a Jane Smiley groupie

I’m a great fan of Jane Smiley. I came across her in the late 90s when I read Moo and was impressed by her ability to write about issues confronting contemporary humanity – in this case how agribusiness was impacting on academia – with a quick wit and a writer’s eye that can spot hypocrisy at a hundred paces.

I followed up with Good Faith in which good natured real estate agent, Joe Stratford, gets seduced by the rich pickings of the US property boom and becomes a wheeler dealer par excellence. I was hooked.

Cover of A thousand acresJane Smiley spoke at the Great Hall at the Arts Centre when she visited Christchurch to promote her 1998 historical novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and I was there in the front row. Smiley shows her range in this novel by writing about American history as competently as she does contemporary issues. And, I mustn’t forget to mention, Smiley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres.

Jane Smiley is an author to watch. She doesn’t flinch from the big themes and her penmanship would make many fellow authors want to throw down their laptops in a fit of chagrin and take up a nice, easy career in brain surgery.

When I was offered the opportunity to see her WORD Christchurch talk at the newly reopened Christchurch Art Gallery on Monday 9 May, I jumped at the chance. I’ll make sure I get there early and I get a spot in the front row again. I’m a Jane Smiley groupie and I’m not ashamed to shout it to the world!

Recent necrology, August-September 2014

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Frans Bruggen, 1934-2014
    Dutch conductor, recorder player and baroque flautist
  • Mary Cadogan, 1928-2014
    English author who wrote on popular and children’s fiction
  • Graham Joyce, 1954-2014
    British writer of speculative fiction
  • Bill Kerr, 1922-2014
    Australian actor and comedian
  • John Ritchie, 1921-2014
    Music educator, composer and conductor, ‘father’ of Christchurch music
  • Joan Rivers, 1937-2014
    American actress, comedian, writer and TV host
  • David St John Thomas, 1929-2014
    English publisher and writer who founded David & Charles publishing house
  • Eoin Young, 1939-2014
    New Zealand motoring journalist

Recent necrology, July 2014

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Cover of The Garner FilesCarlo Bergonzi, 1924-2014
    Opera singer whose glorious style, phrasing and tone made him the epitome of Italian vocal art
  • James Garner, 1928-2014
    Actor who breathed new life into the Western genre and excelled as the hero of the Rockford Files
  • Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014
    Masterly liberal South African novelist who chronicled her country’s journey from apartheid to troubled democracy
  • Cover of The ConservationistCharlie Haden, 1937-2014
    Double bass player who drew on his country music roots to master a bewildering range of jazz styles
  • Anthony Hobson, 1921-2014
    Bibliophile and scholar aesthete who won the admiration of Cyril Connolly
  • John Leach, 1931-2014
    Composer and cimbalom player who helped create the jarring ‘sound’ of the Cold War for The Ipcress File
  • Cover of What Is On Top?Ray Lonnen, 1940-2014
    Actor whose TV career spanned 50 years and who was best known for his role as an undercover agent in Ulster
  • Lorin Maazel, 1930-2014
    Conductor who ranged across the classical repertoire and became the first American and the first Jew in the postwar period to conduct at Bayreuth
  • Louis Zamperini, 1917-2014
    American Olympian and airman whose extraordinary tale of endurance after being shot down was the subject of the bestselling book Unbroken

Recent necrology, June 2014

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Cover of Best Poems on the UndergroundGerard Benson, 1931-2014
    Poet who brought Hardy and Milton, Auden and Yeats to the London Underground
  • Patsy Byrne, 1933-2014
    Actress with the RSC who later played the dim-witted Nursie in Blackadder
  • Felix Dennis, 1947-2014
    Hedonistic publisher behind Oz and The Week who dreamed of being a great poet but found his true forte was making money
  • James Douglas-Home, 1952-2014
    Racehorse trainer and writer who castigated the new Ascot racecourse as one of the ‘world’s worst dumps’
  • Cover of Night Night Spot!Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 1933-2014
    Spanish-born conductor of German parentage who blended Teutonic precision with Iberian sensuality
  • Peter Matthiessen, 1927-2014
    Author, naturalist and reluctant CIA agent who gave up espionage to champion a different kind of wild life in his bestseller The snow leopard
  • Rik Mayall, 1958-2014
    Anarchic comedian who took on the British Establishment in The young ones, and The new statesman
  • Josephine Pullein-Thompson, 1924-2014
    Author whose pony club novels thrilled a generation of girls with the jolly adventures of the gymkhana set
  • Cover of Regal Records Live in New OrleansJimmy Scott, 1925-2014
    Jazz singer who was later in Twin Peaks
  • Horace Silver, 1928-2014
    Jazz pianist and composer behind Latin and hard-bop tunes that became post-war standards
  • Eli Wallach, 1915-2014
    Masterly and versatile actor of stage and screen who particularly delighted in playing villains
  • Bobby Womack, 1944-2014
    ‘Soul survivor’ of an astonishingly lurid lifestyle who fused passionate gospel and dulcet crooning

Recent necrology, May 2014

Some well-known people who have died recently

  • Cover of I Know Why The Caged Bird SingsMaya Angelou, 1928-2014
    American poet, novelist and civil rights activist
  • Jack Brabham, 1926-2014
    Driver with an engineering flair who was the first man to win the Formula 1 title in a car of his own making
  • Lorraine Cohen, 1943-2014
    Woman at the centre of an infamous international drug case
  • Don Donovan, 1933-2014
    New Zealand writer and illustrator
  • Radu Florescu, 1925-2014
    Romanian historian who claimed Bram Stoker based Count Dracula on real-life Vlad the Impaler
  • Cover of A Daughter's TaleH. R. Giger, 1940-2014
    Swiss artist who brought his hellish, eroticised creatures to Hollywood, winning an Oscar for Alien
  • Antony Hopkins, 1921-2014
    Composer and conductor whose infectious enthusiasm animated his BBC broadcasts for four decades
  • Robert Masters, 1917-2014
    Violinist who played at the Coronation, taught Nigel Kennedy and created Yehudi Menuhin’s orchestra
  • Barbara Murray, 1929-2014
    Actress from the Rank Charm School who starred in Passport to Pimlico
  • Mary Soames, 1922-2014
    Last of Churchill’s children, who acted as ADC to her father and wrote an acclaimed life of her mother
  • Cover of Mary Stewart's Merlin TrilogyMary Stewart, 1916-2014
    Author of romantic thrillers who wrote for love not money, and had an intuitive feel for the past
  • Philip Sugden, 1947-2014.
    Historian who brought a new, much-needed scholastic rigour to Jack the Ripper’s crimes
  • Joe Wilder, 1922-2014
    Trumpeter noted for the beauty of his tone who played with Count Basie and the New York Philharmonic

Dead Dames – Barbara Pym 1913-1980

Vicars, curates, white elephant stalls and afternoon tea…..Barbara Pym’s novels are replete with dog collars, jumble and domestic details but they are also so very much more. Anne Tyler credits Pym with capturing ‘the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life’, and like Jane Austen, Barbara Pym delivers the everyday minutiae of small lives while simultaneously revealing concealed darkness and miseries.

Barbara wrote steadily throughout her life but there were two quite distinct periods to her published writing career. Her first novels came out between 1950-1961 and her last between 1977-1986 (several were published posthumously).

“The wilderness” years between 1961-1977 were when she went unpublished, An unsuitable attachment was rejected by her publisher Jonathan Cape for being too old fashioned and tame. Salvation came in in 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement asked critics to name the most underated authors of the last 75 years,  Pym’s name popped up twice with both poet Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil citing her.

Now in vogue, publishers were eager to publish Pym. Quartet in autumn, short-listed for the Booker prize, and The sweet dove died came out in 1977 and 1978 and her previous novels were re-printed and introduced to an American readership. Tragically Barbara Pym died of cancer on January 11th 1980 leaving her legacy of several quietly but brilliantly observed novels.