Short Reads For A (Short) Road Trip

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A few of the more interesting things I read during my recent road trip.  Did I like them?  Well . . . .

Do you make New Year’s resolutions?  I do, every year; it’s a little ritual I follow, an annual triumph of hope over history.  This year I resolved to do the usual things:  lose weight; step up the exercise; no more eating potato chips (I even did the farewell ritual recommended by certain therapists: “I love you very much, fried salty things, but I can’t have you in my life anymore”).  I did, however, add a new one for 2022, i.e., to post a little more frequently on my blog.  There would be no more weeks (or even months), I resolved, when I read wonderful books but didn’t write a word about them!  No more holding back the good news from my fellow bloggers about the stunning new works of fiction I was discovering!  Weekly posts, it’s true, might be a little too restrictive, but surely I could manage twice a month?  I am proud to say, dear readers, that my resolution to increase my number of posts actually survived into February!  (By contrast, I’m totally embarrassed to tell you how soon after New Year’s Day I ate my first, utterly delicious potato chip and just how quickly I wolfed it down!)  At any rate, receiving some rather upsetting health news (unpleasant but highly treatable), combined with just a teeny bit of travel does give me an excuse for neglecting to post for the past few weeks.  The travel, while nothing exotic or international, alas, was a nice little interlude away from the palm trees and unrelenting sunshine of the U.S.’ gulf coast (Florida has earned its moniker of “the Sunshine State.”)  My trip was the usual, to Washington, D.C. and, also as usual, combined tedious errands and fun things.

Although I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do on these little jaunts, my trip reading included three wonderful, new-to-me writers.  I’ll discuss their respective works, short in page length but deep in content, in the first part of this post.  I’ll follow with a few travel photos and comments on the sight-seeing; this was quite satisfying, although I missed a few nice things I didn’t have time to see (I still haven’t made it to the Art Museum of the Americas, for example, or re-visited Baltimore’s stunning Matisse collection).  See how easy I make it for you to zero in on what interests you and skip what doesn’t?

A.  BOOKS

Because I’m drawn to tales about artists and/or the creative process generally, Aysegül Savas’ White on White has been on my radar since its publication last December.  How could I resist a novel with a title invoking, deliberately or not, Kazimir Malevich’s great Suprematist painting?  No matter the fact that I already had a copy of Savas’ well-received debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, which needless to say I haven’t yet read!  This one went (almost) to the top of the TBR pile.

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Clocking in at a mere 175 pages or so, White On White can be read in an afternoon.  Its story lingers, however, and the pleasures of Savas’ elegant prose demand a slow and thoughtful read. 

White’s ostensible plot is simple.  An unnamed graduate student narrator, the lucky recipient of a grant to finish researching and writing a dissertation on medieval sculpture, has taken up residence in an unidentified European city.  The narrator is also lucky (or not) in finding very nice and very affordable lodgings, an apartment belonging to an eminent medieval scholar who makes it available to researchers with the proviso that his wife Agnes, a well-known local painter, will occasionally use the upstairs studio.  Our narrator (I presumed a “she” although gender is never specified) diligently does her research; attentively observes the city that is temporarily home and becomes keenly interested in Agnes, who begins to spend more and more time in the upstairs studio.  The two settle into an increasingly intimate and claustrophobic relationship, one not always welcome to the narrator (after all, she does have all that research to finish and there’s pressure to begin writing as well).  Their roles are seemingly well-defined: the narrator listens and Agnes talks; the narrator receives and Agnes gives — gifts of food, of friendship and of an increasingly detailed portrayal of her marriage; her adult children; her former friends; the beautiful au pair who once worked for her family and her painting.  At the end, Savas leaves us questioning the nature of the narrator’s passivity as well as the reliability of Agnes’ revelations and the generosity that prompted her gifts.

Although short on action (a warning to dedicated plot hounds: you’ll need to go elsewhere), White on White is a novel of echos & resonances; of character and connections.  Just as the narrator studies the medieval consciousness that created the Gothic sculpture of her dissertation, so Agnes explains her art, “white paintings of the human figure * * *  with expressions like those seen * * * from the medieval period.”  The two are interested in the same period, but from the different perspectives of an academic interpreter and an artist-creator.  Is one way to be preferred over another?  At a very deep level the novel is also about change and mutability.  Characters and relationships shift and even a painting in the narrator’s apartment appears to mutate as the story progresses.  The novel’s structure, a double narration, is equally deceptive.  Is the unnamed graduate student who ostensibly relates the tale actually the narrator, or is it Agnes, who speaks to us directly at times and whose life provides the novel’s structure? Can either, neither or both be trusted?

As a former wanna-be medievalist and an adult student of art history, this novel pushed all my buttons.  Although I obviously loved it, however, it’s not without flaws.  How significant these are depends on your own personal preferences.  (I found the ending, for example, rather unsatisfying and a little melodramatic but neither fact detracted from my overall enjoyment.)  I’ve already mentioned that the novel isn’t heavy on plot; if this is of paramount importance to you, I’m afraid Savas’ character driven tale won’t be your best choice for an enjoyable afternoon.  Keep in mind as well that this is a very visual novel whose characters are closely associated with the arts; certain readers may feel that Savas’ descriptions of art and nature are too digressive.  I, on the other hand, was hooked in from the novel’s opening paragraphs (pages 1-2):

Mornings, the apartment expanded with light.  Light flitted across the walls and curtains, streaked the wooden floorboards, lay dappled on the sheets, as if a luminous brush had left its mark upon my awakening.

From my bed, I could see out onto the small, trellised balcony, lush with the thick foliage and purple flowers of a clematis climbing up a stone wall.  White geraniums lined the railing.  There was a single forged iron chair and a round table * * *

On the dressing table beneath a mirror stood a green ceramic bowl; in the hallway, the dark, rounded arms of the coatrack were bare.

Still, everything was marked with life, rich and varied.  Each room echoed a story of unknown proportion, appearing and disappearing out of focus.  The sparsity gave the place its character, so distinct and so fleeting.   

Gentle readers, I wanted to live in that apartment.  Do you think it’s the purple clematis?

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My first novel by Sarah Moss, Summerwater was a tale of almost unbearable tension.  Let’s hope, gentle readers, that we never experience similar vacations  . . .

Turning to my second short read (second only in a chronological sense, that is), I’m happy to report I was equally satisfied in an entirely different way.  For some time now, I’ve been intending to check out the increasingly well-known British writer, Sarah Moss.  We all know, however, what paves that road to hell, don’t we?  But then, what are road trips for, if not to haul around a big pile of books, some of which you actually read?  I’m happy to report that after a year of gathering dust on the shelf, Summerwater received my long overdue attention.  It did not disappoint.

Summerwind takes place in a remote Scottish vacation park, located on a rather menacing loch; it begins before dawn and concludes late the following night.  The vacation cabins — some owned, others rented — are occupied by a motley assortment of families and couples whose outdoor activities have been frustrated by the torrential, unnatural, unceasing rain:

Although there’s no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is raining; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.

The rain, a character in its own right, reinforces the feeling of nature being out of joint.  Moss links the human and natural worlds by interspersing sections dealing with a fawn, an ant hive, a starving falcon and geological time with the sections centered on her human characters.  It’s a wonderful touch that lends a great deal of depth to her story.

Cut off from the outside world by the terrible weather and equally terrible internet access, the would-be vacationers become increasingly unmoored in their isolation.  Middle class and British (mostly Scottish, with one English couple in the mix), they are united in only one thing, i.e., their distaste and distrust of the “foreign” family occupying one of the cabins.  Variously described as Poles, Gypsies or Ukrainians, their music is loud, their manners uncouth and their ways are not the ways of their temporary neighbors.

It’s clear from the beginning of the story that something dreadful is going to occur; the suspense lies in what will it be, when will it happen and who will get the ax.  Will it be the obsessive runner who persists in her solitary and grueling runs despite her bad heart or the quietly resentful retired doctor who drives just a little too fast in his “boomer mobile”?  The kid who’s taken his kayak too far from land when the storm hits or his bored sister who slips away from her family to meet a stranger in the woods?  Or one of the many other characters in this ensemble cast?  By switching the point of view from one character to another, Moss gives the reader wonderfully realistic depictions of each (no one does teenagers better) while ratcheting up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.  About midway through the novel, I had to stop and read the end simply so I could relax enough to enjoy the rest of the story.  Highly recommended, except perhaps for the morbidly timid.

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Two works that I’ve recently read by Claire Keegan, a new personal favorite.  I’ve just added Walk the Blue Fields, one of her short story collections, to my Mount TBR.

The third in my most excellent trifecta of excellent fiction writers is Claire Keegan, whom I read for the first time earlier this month.  As even the most casual visitor to the bookish internet must know by now, Keegan’s Small Things Like These has been widely and very favorably reviewed on numerous blogs.  Although I was mildly curious about Keegan, whose work was unfamiliar to me, I initially had no intention of reading her novella; I’ve read a fair amount of reporting on Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries and didn’t feel I could emotionally handle the subject even in a work of fiction.  After reading the third (or was it fourth?) highly favorable review of Small Things, however, all written by bloggers whose opinions I respected, I decided to give it a go.  After all, I was curious.  Was it possible for any writer to be that good, for any short story/novella to be that morally perceptive or for any fictional character like its protagonist to be that sensitively portrayed in all his glorious, fallible humanity?  Well, yes.  It’s been many years since I’ve read William Trevor, my own personal god of the short story, but I’d rank Small Things as equal to the best of his work.

Since I’ve nothing new to add to the many fine reviews I’ve read of Small Things, however, I’ve decided to limit my comments to Foster, an earlier Keegan work.  Originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, Foster was later published in an expanded form by Faber and Faber (a most unusual step in the publishing world).  A simpler, less morally complicated tale than Small Things, it’s the story of a neglected child, temporarily abandoned by her family for the summer to grieving foster parents.  Despite the notorious difficulty of creating a believable child narrator, Keegan never gets a note wrong in her portrayal of her wary young girl narrator (her age is never specified, but she appears to be around eight years old).  In a beautiful, utterly realistic way that depends as much on what’s left out as on what is said, Keegan shows how the child slowly gains a sense of trust and belonging when she is given attention and nurturing in a home “where there is room and time to think.”  Although Foster lacks the moral complexity and drama of Small Things, I actually preferred its beautiful but utterly unsentimental depiction of human nature, the petty and malicious as well as the good.

I’ll conclude my short reads section with a word or two about Slightly Foxed, a quarterly periodical to which I’m mildly addicted.  If you’re on my side of the Atlantic, it is a bit of an indulgence, but it’s such a perfect way to pass the time between novels, while discovering some half-forgotten treasures from yesteryear, that I justify it as a birthday or Christmas gift, from Janakay to Janakay, so to speak.  The articles are short and beautifully written, often by well-known writers; and the format lends itself to dipping and skipping, so it’s perfect for short attention spans.   If any of you are current or former readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this pricey-but-worth-it gem.

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This recent jackpot issue had a number of articles on my favorites, including Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels; Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop & Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine.  Oh, and a Patricia Highsmith novel I haven’t yet read ….

B.  TRAVEL

Because Washington is such a city of museums, my first stop is almost always . . .

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Washington’s National Gallery of Art.  Not a great photo (drat that truck!), but it nevertheless conveys the scale & size of the entrance to the West Building, the original part of the museum.

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Whenever I visit the National Gallery, these two paintings by Giorgio Morandi are mandatory must-sees.  While I think they’re sublime, Mr. Janakay considers them a bit dull (but then, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?)

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This New York street scene (1902) by the American realist painter Robert Henri is one of Mr. J’s favorites.  I find it (yawn) somewhat interesting . . . .                            

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The National Gallery’s enormous blue chicken contemplates Washington’s skyline.  The Museum’s founder, a very serious robber baron & admirer of traditional European painting, would not have been amused  . . . .

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I can’t be in the D.C. area without a nature walk in one of my favorite spots. This lovely, if stark, photo is from Maryland’s Little Bennett Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Washington and a nice break from all those museums.  The photo was taken a few weeks ago; by now there’ll actually be a little green here and there.
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It’s equally vital to visit Politics & Prose, one of the leading independent bookstores in the U.S.

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Just a smidgen of P&P’s riches; most of the fiction is in an adjacent room.

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Since I had visited P&P only a few months before, my haul this time was relatively restrained. The two military histories (shudder) are Mr. Janakay’s selections.  He’s very picky about his nonfiction and seldom buys from a non-specialist source; I included them in the photo to give you an idea of the selections available in this marvelous bookstore.

For the last bit of sightseeing, it was back to a museum, albeit one I seldom have time to visit.  Nestled in the heart of Washington’s estate area, Hillwood Museum & Gardens remains something of an unexplored treasure for most tourists.  A former residence belonging to Marjorie Post, the sole heiress of the founder of what later became General Foods (jello, cereal or frozen veggies, anyone?), I think of Hillwood as an American equivalent to a British stately home, albeit one associated with oodles of dollars rather than aristocratic descent.  Hillwood is a treasure trove of French antiques and porcelain, as well as Russian imperial relics; Ms. Post was the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union when the Bolsheviks were happily trading Romanov bling for western currency.  If you don’t care for Fabergé eggs or the nuptial crowns worn by Russian princesses, Hillwood’s magnificent gardens provide a wonderful respite from the huge and bustling city that seems (but isn’t) a million miles away.

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One of Mr. J’s photos of Hillwood’s exterior.  Although I don’t often visit, I generally enjoy myself when I do; the museum’s contents are a feast for the eye, the cafe is quite good and the gardens are stunning at any time of the year.

After several days of unseasonably warm weather, the mercurial Washington climate decided that it was winter after all on the day of my Hillwood visit.  Although it was too rainy and cold to walk in the gardens, the greenhouses were open and the orchids were almost, if not quite, in full bloom.  Since I enjoy gaudy tropical flowers very much, I’ll leave you with several shots of blinding color, courtesy of Mr. J:

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After the excitement of the big city, it’s home again, where two of our resident aliens were getting ready to levitate up to their space ship:

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That it for now (and I’m still working on that review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood . . . .)

Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow: a journey through mists and memory

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Has anyone read Jessica Au’s recent novel, Cold Enough For Snow?  If so, I’d be most interested in hearing your reaction . . . .

Are you one of those organized souls who draws up a plan of action and then actually follows it?  Or are you, like me, a child of spontaneity, someone who prefers to meet on an ad hoc basis whatever life throws her way?  Fear not, gentle reader, that I’m going to ramble off on a comparison of differing life philosophies; rather, I’m merely trying to explain to myself just how my review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Woods morphed into a post about Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow!  Blame it on the publisher!

As I’ve probably remarked in the past, part of my bookish self-indulgence during the pandemic included a subscription to the New Classics Club run by New Direction press, which gives me a monthly “surprise” book selected by the editors from the latest additions to their catalogue.  February’s selection, Ms. Au’s Snow, arrived just as I was getting ready for a teeny little break from Gibbons’ charming but quite lengthy 1930s period piece.  Even before receiving my copy, however, I had noticed Au’s novel on the New Directions website and thought it sounded intriguing.  What could I do when fate literally placed in in my hands with last Friday’s mail?  Cold Enough For Snow is brief, really more a novella than a novel, clocking in at a mere ninety-five pages; I always prefer reading to writing, so wasn’t it quite natural to just skim a few pages while I took a break from Stella Gibbons?  It’s pretty clear where this is going, isn’t it?  After my experience with novels by Fleur Jaeggy and Dag Solstad, I suppose that I was a little naive in thinking that a skinny little novel would be more straightforward than one with a heftier page count, for I shortly discovered that Ms Au’s brief novel punches far above its weight.  In short, it’s been adieu, Nightingale Woods, at least for a few days while I gather my thoughts on this very interesting piece of avant-garde fiction.

This is my first encounter with Jessica Au, an Australian writer currently based in Melbourne.  Snow is her second novel; her debut, Cargo, was published by Picador in 2011 when Au was a mere twenty-five years old.  Snow won the Novel Prize, a biennial competition open to writers (published & unpublished) around the world; the prize recognizes works of literary fiction, written in English, “which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.”  I thought it worth quoting from the Prize’s criteria, as it gives you quite an accurate idea of Au’s novel, which was selected from over 1500 entries.  Three international publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.), Giramondo Press (Australia) and New Directions (U.S.) jointly sponsor the competition, which gives a cash award ($10,000 U.S.) and ensures the simultaneous publication of the winning entry in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

The plot of Au’s novel is very simple.  It begins in the Tokyo airport, where a woman waits for her mother’s plane to arrive before the two begin a trip that she has carefully orchestrated through Japan.  Au never tells us the name of either character.  We quickly learn that the trip is important to the daughter “for reasons she could not yet name” and that her mother had initially refused to come, reluctantly succumbing only after being “pushed.”  The two no longer live in the same city; we learn later that the daughter in fact has never seen the apartment into which her mother has moved.  From the opening paragraphs Au requires the reader to be actively engaged in piecing together her story.  Au tells us that the mother’s suitcase seems “almost new,” even though the daughter remembers it from her childhood, when her mother had “brought it down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like for when her father died, and then her brother.”  (page 2)  It is the reader who fleshes out the narrative by inferring that the mother has seldom traveled since her long-ago emigration from Hong Kong to a western country, where her daughters have grown up, and that she had few close relatives or ties strong enough to draw her back to Hong Kong.  This is a very simple example of Au’s subtle and ambiguous narrative technique.  As the novel progresses, the interactions between the mother and daughter become more opaque and the reader is given fewer, and much more subtle, clues as to their motivation and meaning.  Although Au’s style is a world apart from that of Henry James, I find her narrative technique to be reminiscent of James’ in his late novels.  For both these very different artists what is unsaid between the characters can be more important than what is verbalized; both writers require the reader to participate actively in their art.

One striking aspect of Snow is that the daughter narrates the entire novel, meaning that we see the characters’ interactions entirely from her point of view.  Conversations and the mother’s remarks are recounted solely by the daughter, who speaks directly to the reader:

I had chosen Japan because I had been there before, and although my mother had not, I thought she might be more at ease exploring another part of Asia.  And perhaps I felt this would put us on equal footing in some way, to both be made strangers.  I had decided on autumn, because it had always been our favorite season.  The gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful then; the late season, everything almost gone.  I had not anticipated that it might still be a time for typhoons.  Already * * *  it had been raining steadily since our arrival. 

In the days that follow their arrival in Tokyo the two visit museums, temples and art galleries that the daughter has chosen, stay at inns that the daughter has booked and eat at restaurants that the daughter has selected.  And all the time she is probing, probing for her mother’s reaction to what they are experiencing or to episodes from the past.  She clearly wants something from her interaction with her mother, but what and why is a mystery.  The rain, “a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October,” is omnipresent; almost as much of a character as the mother herself, it lends a haunting quality to a novel that is peopled with specters.  Weaving backwards and forwards in time, we learn about the narrator’s absent sister and her family; that dead uncle in Hong Kong; the past events that shaped the narrator’s personality; and Laurie, the narrator’s great love (is he her husband? I don’t think this is ever made clear) and her companion on her previous trip to Japan.  Sister, uncle, lover — physically absent, their presence haunts the narration.  Equally vivid are the absences.  The narrator’s father is never mentioned, nor is the reason for this particular trip at this particular time.

It’s possible to enjoy Snow on many levels.   At the most superficial, there is the sheer beauty of the language and the spare but gorgeous descriptions of the country through which the two women travel.  Au writes with great vividness about the physical aspect of the women’s trip — the museums they visit, the temples they see, the ordinary life that they observe around them.  Her unnamed narrator has an incredible feeling for art and the ability to convey what she is experiencing simply and elegantly.  Despite the distance created by keeping her characters nameless, Au’s story contains real emotion.  There was, here and there, a sentence that stabbed me to the heart, as when the narrator envisions the time when she and her sister will go to their mother’s apartment, the one she has never seen, “with the single task of sorting through a lifetime of possessions, packing everything away,” knowing that “whether out of too much, or too little sentiment,” she would keep nothing (page 78).  At another earlier point in the novel, the daughter actually seems to be remembering (page 5), rather than anticipating, a time when she and her sister “were cleaning everything out of” her mother’s flat, an obvious duty that we survivors perform for our dead.

And what of a deeper meaning, beyond these surface levels?  Each reader will no doubt draw different conclusions from this subtle and enigmatic story.  The novel certainly speaks at least in part to the nature of memory, of how the impressions and sensations that form identity may, or may not, be true or at least factually accurate.  In one of the novel’s most beautiful (if sentimental) sections the narrator recalls a story of her dead uncle in Hong Kong, of the great love affair he had as a young man, a story that was repeatedly told to her as a child.  When, years later and now an adult questioning her mother about it, her mother denies such a thing ever happened and her sister also has no memory of it.

Even more than the mysteries of memory, however, I think Au is telling us that it’s impossible to know another person through intellectual analysis or objective facts.  As a young woman the daughter was fiercely intellectual, consumed by “the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything.”  (page 29).  Her mother by contrast (page 57) believed that people were too “hungry to know everything,” mistakenly thinking they “could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner;” that understanding lessened no pain and that “the best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches.”  As their time together draws to a close, the daughter thinks that “the trip had not done what I wanted it to,” while her mother smiles “as if she were simply happy that we were in each other’s company, and to have no need for words.”  (page 88)  Perhaps Au is suggesting that this wordless contentment in each other’s company is enough; that in the end we will each remain a mystery to others.

Towards the close of the novel, after the two women have left Tokyo, an incident occurs that casts some doubt on my entire understanding of the daughter’s trip.  To discuss it further would be a bit of a spoiler (besides, you might not agree with me!) so I’ll say no more about it here.  I can’t resist remarking, however, that it very strongly reminded me of one aspect of A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a beautiful French novella (that also takes place in autumn) that was beautifully reviewed last summer by Jacquiwine.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, Cold Enough For Snow was published by New Directions, an independent publisher based in New York City that was founded in 1936 by a twenty-two year old James Laughlin, when he was told by Ezra Pound that his poetry was “hopeless,” and that he should finish Harvard and do something “useful” (publisher’s website).  New Directions publishes works in a variety of genres and from countries around the world; its list of authors includes Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges, William Carlos Williams and many others.  As an independent publisher, Au’s novel qualifies for Kaggsy’s and Lizzie’s 2022 #ReadIndies event.

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Finishing Off Scandinavia & Murder With Maud

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Have any of you yet met Maud?  Such a sweet old lady and perfectly safe . . . most of the time . . .

As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today:  a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist.  I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.

As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden.  If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out.  Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed)  they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge.  They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months.  Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction.  Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork.  One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies.  A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!

Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit.  If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).

The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic.  As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:

then, she came to me:  Maud.  She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies.  But inside she was quite special.  Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal!  Even . . . a murderer.  I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company.  But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”

Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation.  I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.

Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed.  This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together.  Maud’s habits are another connecting thread.  She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone.  When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone.  Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished.  Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.

Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in  “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories.  Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building.  As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:

I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy.  I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is.  I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell.  In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery.  At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging.  It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!

When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor.  What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home?  I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way.  The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining.  Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same.  Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two.  Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory.  Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good.  I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.

Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud.  As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month.  They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan.  Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.

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Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.

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The four additional books I completed for #NordicFinds, one each from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject.  As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other.  I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense.  By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events.  In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.

And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:

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After reading a few pages, I decided to postpone reading Smirnoff’s novel, set in Sweden, until later in the year. Not to worry! It’s part of my Reading Europe Challenge; I’ll finish when I’m next in a noirish mood!

So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks!  Now on to the next adventure:

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Percy wants to depart the frozen north for warmer climates  . . . .

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins: personal & national transitions

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My only previous experience with Icelandic writing was Auour Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  For #NordicFinds, however, I resisted the urge to return to the same writer because I wanted to try someone new.  Do I regret my decision?  Well, you’ll have to read my review to find out!

For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir.  I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders.  For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness!  Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers.  Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature  (2014).  It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English

Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader.  You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website).  After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month.  Gentle readers, I am on a streak!  Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?

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Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual.  Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy.  In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company).  Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.

Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad.  Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir.  The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008.  In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels.  And travels some more.  From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris.  The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small.  These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.”  (page 98)

I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s.  Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals.  Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me.  In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book.  Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops).  Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships.  Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):

Hveragerdi,
Woman-Of-The-House Day,
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?

Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.

Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty.  But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed.  I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up.  In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it.  It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you.  Then rise up.  Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature.  You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language.  What constitutes a family?  Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy?  If so, how can it be structured?  What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it?  How do we honor our history while moving to the future?  Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally.  If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you.  But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.

Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month.  Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City).   Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution.  Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries.  Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.

2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?

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Here’s the stack of my tentative choices for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. My little soldier figurine perfectly expresses my apprehension as I begin my FOURTH attempt to complete the  Challenge . . . .

I was absolutely delighted that Back to the Classics, one of my very favorite challenges, has returned for another year (thank you very much for hosting, Karen!).  Although my completion rate is beyond dismal (this is my fourth year to participate and I’ve yet to read and review even a fraction of my twelve Challenge books) I always have a lot of fun picking my categories and reading at least some of my selections.  Last year, in fact, I did quite well in the reading portion of the Challenge, finishing ten of my twelve selections.  And what about the reviewing?  Well . . . .  not so good.  My reviews were . . . non existent!  Nada! zilch! zero!  What can I say, except that 2021 was not a good writing year for me?  Circumstances change, however; new houses become not-so-new; boxes get unpacked; dusting tchotckes gets forgotten about (these days I just throw them in the closet and call it a done deal) and a new year appears, bringing with it new opportunities and great new books!  So I’m back to the Challenges, adding the Classics Challenge to my 2022 European Reading Tour.  Never say, dear readers, that I don’t set my goals high.

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Despite my abysmal completion rate, the Back to the Classics Challenge is one of my favorite bookish events.  Undeterred by experience, I’m participating for the fourth year in a row  . . . .

Since Karen has explained her Challenge much better than I’m able to, I won’t repeat the details.  Essentially, participants select classic works that fit into a series of defined categories; for 20th century works the selection must be at least fifty years old (i.e., published before 1972).  Initial selections are thankfully non-binding, an important point for fickle old me, as I’m pretty quick to move along from a book that isn’t right for me at a particular time.  To compete in the Challenge, a participant must read and review his/her selections between the beginning and end of 2022.

In making my selections, I’ve added a few of my own, idiosyncratic requirements.  In the last few years I’ve engaged in massive, massive book acquisition binges, partly from pandemic stress and partly because y’all, fellow bloggers, write such great book reviews that I’m always discovering another novel or novella I simply must read!  Because my TBR is now one of the largest piles of books on earth, I’ve largely limited my selections to what’s already on my shelves.  In addition to selecting books that I already own, I’ve also tilted my selections towards the British end of the scale because I’ve already planned to read so much translated literature this year and I read U.S. works as a matter of course (I don’t need a challenge for them)  Since my neglected mountain of Persephone books has now been joined by  several very interesting publications from the wonderful British Library Women Writers series, I’ve also tried to select books from these publishers as much as possible.  Finally, although I adore re-reading, as much as possible for the most part I’ve avoided selecting books I’ve already read.  Each reader has her own goals in participating in a Challenge; for me, it’s to read new things, or discover new writers whenever I can.

Without more blathering, here are my choice for this year’s categories:

1.  19TH CENTURY CLASSIC (i.e., published from 1800-1899):

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This is a book that I’d buy just for the cover, which features a detail from my favorite painting by Frédéric Bazille, one of the early Impressionists.  The painting (“Family Gathering,” c. 1867) normally lives at the Musée d’Orsay, which I’ve never visited.  I was lucky enough, however, to see it a few years ago at a Bazille exhibition held by Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery

I know, I know, I’m only at the first category and already I’m veering away from my “Read British” year.  Zola just seemed so perfect for this category, however, I couldn’t resist!  I love Trollope and Henry James, but I’ve read a great deal of their works; Edith Wharton (another favorite) published mostly in the early 1900s and, well, I’ve just been intending for years to read something by Zola.  The big uncertainty that has kept me from doing so, however, has been just where do you start with such a prolific novelist?  Luckily for me, this issue was resolved last summer when I stumbled across Bookertalk’s excellent Zola reviews. While I don’t aspire to read the complete Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I do hope at least to become acquainted with the families.

2.  20TH CENTURY CLASSIC (any book first published from 1900 to 1972):

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In the last few years, I’ve became an enormous fan of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Since this is the last one that I haven’t read (I’m afraid I’ve avoided it for fear that it might be just a little too depressing), the selection for this category was a no-brainer!  In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably read Jean Rhys’ Quartet or perhaps an early novel by Molly Keane.

3.  CLASSIC BY A WOMAN AUTHOR

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Stella Gibbons seems to be experiencing a bit of a Renaissance these days, so I thought I’d expand my horizon beyond her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  If this doesn’t work out, I may try Gibbons’ Enbury Heath or finally get around to reading something by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

4.  A CLASSIC IN TRANSLATION

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Last summer I read, but didn’t review, Keun’s Child of All Nations.  Although I liked it very much, I didn’t feel it was a fully representative work of this very interesting writer . . . .  2022 will be the year to find out whether my hunch is accurate!

5. A CLASSIC BY A BIPOC AUTHOR

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I came across Sam Selvon’s work some time ago but never managed to really read any of it.  Although there are some wonderful U.S. writers whose work falls in this category, I’ve picked Selvon’s The Housing Lark as it’s so perfectly in keeping with my 2022 “Read British” theme!  Alternates are Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions and/or Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy.

6.  MYSTERY/DETECTIVE/CRIME CLASSIC (includes True Crime) Continue reading “2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?”

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart: Helsinki Noir

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For a tale as dark as this Finnish mystery, I thought my gargoyle was a suitable accoutrement, n’est-ce pas?

At this point in my bookish journey through Scandinavia, I decided to read a piece of crime fiction.  Aside from the sheer pleasure of it, there’s good reason for including something a bit more on the popular side than my two previous selections (i.e., a trilogy of literary memoirs and a short but challenging piece of avant-garde fiction).  After all, since it emerged in the 1990s, Nordi noir has been a dominant presence in both film and crime fiction.  Although I did read some of the early authors (a fair amount of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and a Jo Nesbø or two), I drifted away and never quite drifted back.  There’s been a lot of bodies left in the snow since that time, so to speak, and the emergence of a correspondingly large number of new and exciting writers to tell their tales.  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to explore this unfamiliar territory by adding a noir or two to my lists for Annabel’s #NordicFinds month and the European Reading Challenge.

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After all, how can you take a literary journey through Scandinavia without including at least one tale of a brooding, angst-ridden protagonist who threads his/her way through murder and mayhem whilst musing dark existential thoughts?  Do you, dear readers, have any favorites from this genre?  If so, please share, as my TBR list always has room for more entries!

For my stopover in Finland, I chose Dark As My Heart, an early work by Antti Tuomainen, one of his country’s leading crime writers (Lola Rogers did the translation).  The story begins in 1993, where in a few brief pages we experience the murder of Sonja Kivi, alone in a car with her killer on a rainy October night.  Sonja is young (early thirties), attractive and, except for her thirteen-year-old son Aleksi, alone in the world.  As we subsequently learn as the story develops, she was employed by one of the many companies owned by Henrik Saarinen, a ruthless and wealthy Helsinki businessman with an eye for the ladies.  Because Sonja’s body is never found, the police regard hers as “a missing person” case.  The mystery of her disappearance is never solved and Aleksi goes into foster care.

In the years that follow, Aleksi structures his life around one thing, and one thing only — solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance.  He ages out of foster care (unlike the U.S. system, the Finnish version seems relatively benevolent), declines college in favor of becoming a skilled carpenter and, all the time, he’s seeking the answer to his mother’s fate.  Aleksi keeps his human contacts to a minimum, ultimately sacrificing even his relationship with a woman he genuinely loves to his quest for justice for his dead mother.  Aleksi is the very epitome of a noir anti-hero; we see the story through his first-person narrative and we learn the facts as he learns them.  In 2003, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, a second woman who bears a strong physical resemblance to Sonja is found murdered.  She, too, was an employee of Henrik Saarinen.  Her killer is never found and the police refuse to listen to Aleksi’s claim that the murder is linked to his mother’s disappearance.

Fast forward to 2013 and Aleksi, now in his early thirties, is convinced that Henrik Saarinen is his mother’s killer.  Without disclosing his identity, he goes to work on the Saarinen estate outside Helsinki and sets out to unmask and confront Henrik.  The bulk of the novel occurs in this time period and centers on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Aleksi and Henrik, who clearly knows more than Aleksi gives him credit for knowing.  A cast of secondary players support and complicate the plot, most notably Amanda, Saarinen’s beautiful daughter (doesn’t every good noir need a beautiful heiress?) and Ketomaa, the retired policeman who investigated the disappearance of Aleksi’s mother and who has never given up on the case.  Needless to say, digging into the Saarinen family secrets is both difficult and dangerous; as he becomes more involved with the Saarinen family Aleksi’s emotional defenses begin to crumble.

Although I’ve recounted the essentials of the plot in a chronological way, this novel is quite structurally complex, with the action moving back and forth among 1993, 2003 & 2013; Tuomainen uses this device very skillfully to dole out information and maintain suspense.  Despite finding some of the secondary characters a bit two dimensional, Aleksi himself was a believable and compelling narrator.  The novel conveys a good sense of place, both of Helsinki itself and of Kalmela Manor, Henrik Saarinen’s secluded country estate.  The language is terse, as befits a good noir, but with a streak of poetry here and there, as displayed in this passage where Aleksi describes his early impression of the estate:

I closed the door of the manor house and stood on the veranda.  Two plump-breasted crows sat on the roof, utterly still.  Against the grey sky they were like those black silhouettes cut from cardboard that people used to buy at amusement parks and hang on the wall to show others something that they already knew — what the people memorialised looked like in profile.  Autumn wrapped the land in its groping embrace.  I listened to the movement of the gusting wind through the tall spruce trees and the birches that bordered the yard.  The air was thin and fresh, with a hint of sap in it, a sweet smell. 

As much a psychological drama as a straight mystery, Dark As My Heart also raised issues regarding obsession, vengeance and the need sometimes to forget the past and move on with life.  I spent a very enjoyable afternoon or two trying to guess who did it and why; that I couldn’t do so speaks volumes for the writer’s skill!  With a caveat that none of the characters are warm and fuzzy, I’d definitely recommend Dark to readers with a taste for Scandi noir, damaged protagonists and mysteries with an ambiguous edge.

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning

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Novel 11 is one of those skinny works that pack a disproportionate wallop.  Skillfully translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad, my copy came from New Directions press, which has also published three other novels with similar themes written by Solstad in the 1990s.

Have you ever finished a novel with a sigh of mingled relief and bafflement (“whatever that was about I’m so very glad that it’s over); puzzled over what you had read for the last day or so; bored your companions enormously by recounting various bits and pieces (well, Mr. J was pretty bored but the cats seemed o.k. with the monologue); found yourself laughing at something you passed over at first and, finally, realized that you’d just finished one of the strangest small masterpieces that was ever likely to come your way?  And all this in less than forty-eight hours?  An odd reaction, to be sure, but then, this is a very odd book, at least for readers like myself who are unfamiliar with Solstad’s work.  If you’ve read any of it, please share your own reactions.  Don’t be shy!  Are you a fan, who’s devoured everything translated into your own language (or — and I’m in awe if this is the case — were you able to read it in the original Norwegian?).  Or were you more in the “one and I’m done” category?

Before going further, I need to point out that I owe my discovery of this very interesting writer to my participation in two fun reading events:  Annabel’s #NordicFinds Reading Month and the 2022 European Reading Challenge.  Although I already had a copy of Novel 11 as part of my subscription to the New Classics series offered by New Directions press, I’m afraid it would have languished in the TBR pile (probably near the bottom) had I not had an incentive to actually read it.  Isn’t self-discipline wonderful?  I’ve always wished I had some!

Continue reading “Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning”

A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

* * *

Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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ERC 2022

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European Reading Challenge 2022

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The Journey begins!  After shadowing the tour in 2021, this year I’m officially signing up for the trip . . . .

Although I have a dismal completion rate, I adore book challenges!  There are few joys to compare with lovingly pawing through my stacks (and I really do have stacks.  And stacks) of unread books, searching for just the combination that will inspire me (for once) to finish whatever challenge it is that I’ve decided to undertake.  I think I basically love book challenges for the sense of possibility they offer, the lure that this will be the year I read Ulysses; or five 19th century classics by unfamiliar authors; or a pre-1970 novel that has an animal in the title!  Of course, my January exuberance is counter-balanced by my December  reality check, when I (again) sadly acknowledge that most of these wonderful accomplishments didn’t materialize (even so, however, I always discover at least a few great new books/authors).  But away with the pessimism because — it’s the beginning of January!  The possibilities are endless!  Reverting to my southern, down-home roots, I tell you, dear readers, that January, with its plethora of fresh, shiny new challenges, is a month when I’m in hog heaven!

One of my favorite challenges from last year was Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which focuses on reading books by European writers or set in European countries.  Given my dismal completion rate for such things, I was sensibly doubtful about participating.  The Challenge looked so much fun, however, and was such a painless way to read more translated literature, I decided to go for it.  I had only discovered the challenge, however, very late in January and lingered just a bit too long over my selections.  Then, with my utter lack of technical ability, I was unable to satisfy Mr. Linky in time to sign up officially.  Quel désastre!  There was clearly only one solution — I would be a shadow participant!  Although I ultimately didn’t review any of my selections, I actually read quite a number of them and, most importantly, really enjoyed the experience.  After a few substitutions for my original choices and a false start or two (my apologies to Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronica, but the time just wasn’t ripe for you), I read eight books I selected specifically for this challenge.

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The very satisfying results of my shadow participation in last year’s European Reading Challenge.  Each of these authors was new to me and each novel offered something enjoyably different from the others.  What more could a bookish blogger reasonably ask?

After shadowing in 2021, I decided that in 2022 I’d do the real thing and officially sign up for this year’s Challenge (besides, I now have almost a month to outwit Mr. Linky!).  The Challenge simply requires participants to read books set in a European country or by a European writer; each book must be by a different writer and set in a different country.  It’s very flexible in that participants decide how many books they want to read, from Pensione Weekender (one qualifying book in 2022) to a Deluxe Entourage (five).  This year, as I did as a shadow participant, I will also observe a couple of my own idiosyncratic rules in choosing my selections.  Because my reading is so overwhelmingly slanted towards books originally written in English, I will choose novels by non-Anglophone writers set, where possible, in their native or adopted countries.  For the same reason I also won’t select any works by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to continue learning more about books from other European countries.  Because I’m full of January optimism, and given that last year I read eight books that met the Challenge’s requirements, I’ve decided in 2022 to sign up for the deluxe package!

One result from a year of massive self-indulgence in acquiring books is that I’ve managed, with very little effort, to compile a list of some very enticing possibilities.  This has been aided enormously by the fact that I’d already decided to participate in Annabookbel’s Reading Nordic Literature month; in effect, I’ve already had a lot of fun looking for reading possibilities from Scandinavia.  As the reading year develops, my precise itinerary may change, i.e., I may add or eliminate countries and/or books; what you see below is simply the rough pool from which I plan to draw my selections.  Although my goal is a minimum of five, I hope to read at least a few more.  Because Scandinavia is a very much anticipated part of my tour, I’m starting my European journey with:

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Since Annabel’s Nordic Lit month begins with Denmark, I decided to begin my European journey in Copenhagen, with Tove Ditlevsen, a new-to-me writer.  Originally published in three volumes, these autobiographical works were combined and published together around 2019.  I’m almost through Childhood, with Youth & Dependency yet to come.  Spoiler alert:  so far it’s wonderful!

After Denmark, I’m on to

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the rest of my Nordic journey.  Iceland (Land of Love & Ruins, top of the stack, deliberately blurry title on spine); Finland (Dark as My Heart); Norway (Novel 11, Book 18) and Sweden (My Brother).  Land of Love & Ruins, an autobiographical novel told in the form of journal entries, is a definite stylistic stretch for me.  As for Novel 11, I may end up replacing it with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will & Testament (dark family secret uncovered by a sibling struggle over property), which has long been on my TBR.  

It’s now time to head south for to visit the German speaking lands:

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Higher Ground & Broken Glass Park are both set in Germany, so I’ll have to choose one; I’m leaning towards Park because I very much liked the other Bronsky novel I’ve read (The Hottest Dishes In The Tartar Cuisine).  For Austria, I’m attracted to Thomas Bernard’s Extinction, a tale of an Austrian aristocrat who rejects his heritage but . . . it does look difficult & I may need a backup!  On A Day Like This, by the Swiss German writer Peter Stamm, almost made my list last year . . . .

It’s finally on to a very interesting tour through France, Belgium, Italy and Spain:

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Several new writers here for me!  I’ve read a little of France’s Patrick Modiano in the past and liked it, so his Invisible Ink (a mystery dealing with the illusion of memory) was a relatively easy choice.  For Italy, I was very tempted to choose Natalie Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon; because I’m somewhat familiar with her work and wanted to try something new, however, I decided to go with Domenico Starnone’s Trick (besides, there’s always women’s literature in translation month for Ginzburg!)  Did you know (I didn’t) that Madeleine Bourdouxhe worked for the Belgian resistance in WWII?  I very much look forward to her La Femme de Gilles, her tale of a love triangle set in 1930s Belgium.  I’m a little dubious about Winterlings, as it was an impulse selection; but its setting (northwestern Spain in the 1950s) sounded quite interesting.  Has anyone read it? 

If I’m not totally exhausted by this point, I may take brief side trip:

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I’ve had a copy of the great Hungarian writer Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy gathering dust on my shelves for several years now.  I won’t say I’ve totally ignored it; every year or two I read a few pages, scratch my head and decide that, next summer will be the perfect time to dive in!  You can imagine my delight when I discovered The Enchanted Night, Pushkin Press’s collection of Bánffy’s short stories.  At last, something that fits my attention span and is (I hope) an accessible introduction to Bánffy’s work.  Lana Bastašić is a contemporary Serbian writer whose debut novel, Catch The Rabbit, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature.  Having been in a few myself, I love stories about complicated friendships;  Bastašić’s tale of two semi-estranged childhood friends on a road trip through post-war Bosnia looks really interesting.

Well, that’s it for my 2022 trip through Europe.  Has anyone read any of my choices?  If so, please share your opinion!

Good-bye 2021!

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Most of the books I read last year are in this pile, which I’m currently attempting to sort out.  Do you like the (partially visible) painting?  It’s by American artist Jordan Buschur, who specializes in wonderful depictions of bookish art.

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Time to take stock of last year’s reads and to make those delightful reading plans for the coming months. As with so many other bloggers, last year was a difficult year for me. Not terrible, by any means, despite the pandemic, but — challenging. 2021 began with a house in disarray and my second move in ten months. It wound down with surgery last October; nothing serious, but I must admit recovery was slower than I had anticipated. Neither of these two events affected my reading very much, but as for the blogging — oh dear me! Frustrating really, as I read some marvelous things but couldn’t quite muster the concentration to do the reviewing. On both fronts, however, 2022 at least begins on a high note. Most of the boxes are unpacked (that is, if you ignore the garage), the books have (mostly) settled into their new resting places (although I’m already running short of shelf space — again!) and I’m whining (I believe the appropriate British term is “whinging”) about it but I’ve started back with the fitness routine. The pandemic, of course, is casting its hideously unwelcome shadow (particularly as I live in an area that’s partying like it’s 2019; needless to say the infection rate here is very high) but that’s life in the early 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, once things calmed down somewhat in my personal circumstances, my reading rebounded. Unlike 2020, when I seemed best able to concentrate on shorter works like novellas, this was the year I returned to novels, reading almost as many as I did before the pandemic. I don’t keep very complicated statistics (not that I dislike them, it’s just that I’m too lazy to keep track) but my informal list shows that in 2021 I finished almost double the number of novels I read in 2020. Approximately ten of these were old friends from the past (such as Henry James’ The Bostonians) that I was revisiting for a second or even third time. Although some of these were fairly short (if you’re being a bit picky about it, you might even term them “novellas”), they nevertheless packed quite a wallop and demanded slow and steady attention on my part. In this category, I’d include Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star and Fleur Jaeggy’s The Water Statues. Several, such as Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale (651 pages in my paperback Penguin edition) approached a Victorian tome in length. Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day was less physically substantial (a mere 400 Penguin pages) but a far more difficult read, as our Ms. Woolf struggled in this early work to develop the modernist novel while not being quite able to free herself from Mr. Bennett’s substantial (and very unwelcome) shadow. All of this is my own slightly pompous way of saying I counted each of these books as a “completed” novel, on the theory that the hefty page counts of some balanced the less substantial page counts of others.

Do you, like me, scan others’ yearly lists to see which novel was the very best one to that particular blogging friend?  I’m afraid my list is a bit of a dud in that respect.  Although I often pick something on impulse, or take a chance on a work that I’m not sure I’ll like, on the whole my reading selections are pretty targeted.  While this makes for a happy reading life, it does tend to produce a blandly positive list, particularly as I don’t like to write extremely negative reviews (there are several books in my life, such as Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, that took me years to appreciate).  Particularly as I didn’t review many books this year, I’m not going to pick out my top five, or ten or fifteen.  I do feel comfortable, however, briefly highlighting just a few of the works that impressed me, each for different reasons.  Please keep in mind that I’m excluding the novels that I posted on separately, such as Sigurd Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind or du Maurier’s The Parasites.

First Category:  The Novel That Surprised Me Most

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I included this little figurine in my photo, because it so accurately portrays my own trepidation at beginning Bennett’s novel for the third (or was it fourth?) time . . . .

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Old Wives a jinx book, although I’ve clearly struggled with it.  Do you have any inkling, my friends from the British Isles, how very difficult it can be for someone such as myself, when a writer begins his work with a detailed geographical description of a particular corner of England and then presupposes that you’re at least minimally acquainted with its character?  So, yes, there was a barrier here.  That was quickly surmounted, however, and I settled in to enjoy this wonderful novel.  Bennett recounts an absorbing tale of two sisters or is his actual subject the nature of time itself?  And who would have thought that Arnold Bennett would give such a exciting portrayal of a Paris under siege, or write such a vivid account of execution by guillotine, complete with sexual overtones?  If you like big, multi-character realistic novels á la 19th century, put this one near the top of your list.

Second Category: New to Me Contemporary Author

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I read this last October (some books just demand to be read around Halloween, don’t you think?).

Fagan uses her tale of a cursed Edinburgh tenement and its residents (which include the devil’s daughter herself, as well as the beat poet William Burroughs) to show an outsider’s history of Edinburgh over a ninety year period.  Brutal and brilliant, this combination of fairy tale and urban realism stayed with me for a long time and put Fagan on my “always check out her latest” list.

Third Category:  My Newly Discovered Classic

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Jean Stafford was one of my great discoveries last year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion (her best known novel) I finally read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  With a style reminiscent of Henry James in his less difficult moments, this family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s displays to the full Stafford’s ability to evoke character and atmosphere.  I’m amazed that Stafford’s work appears to be so little read these days.  Could it be that the fame of her first husband, the poet Robert Lowell, has over-shadowed her accomplishments or because she wrote only three novels?  Happily, NYRB Classics has re-printed her debut novel Boston Adventure, which is one of my “must reads” for 2022.

Fourth Category: Most Rewarding Re-Read

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I’ve returned several times to these three novels. This time around, it was to The Bostonians.

Have you ever had one of those horrible, walk-the-night cases of insomnia, where absolutely nothing will put you to sleep?  In such cases, I’ve found, nothing will do but a really great novel that will take your mind off the fact that, all too soon, you’ll have to be up with the dawn and minimally functional.  During my last such bout, I finally settled on James’ The Bostonians, with the idea that I’d read a chapter or two then move on to a more contemporary work.  Well, two days later I’d finished my third (or is it fourth?) re-read of James’ flawed but fascinating novel.  This time around, more strongly than ever, James’ exploration of a woman’s place in society and his examination of a brand of conservatism clinging to the past seemed especially timely.  If you’re hooked on appealing characters and storybook endings, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere.  That would be a shame, as you’d miss a psychologically acute study of this novel’s three protagonists, a vividly drawn supporting cast of secondary characters, and a wonderful portrayal of post-civil war Boston in all its intellectual glory. 

Fifth Category:  Shorter Works

I was very pleased that my 2021 reading continued to include quite a few of those shorter works that I had mostly ignored prior to the pandemic.  Although the five short story collections that I finished were all excellent, two deserve special mention:

0-3 Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City and Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are really stood out for me among the short story collections I read in 2021.

Written and published in magazine form in the Shanghai of the 1940s, Chang’s stories were compiled and published in book form by NYRB Classics around 2010.  Don’t be misled by the title; Chang is concerned not with love but with the raw sexual warfare between men and women.  A young divorcee who has no illusions about the rich playboy with whom she becomes involved; an aging & unloved woman who spends most of her life getting those around her addicted to opium; a young girl who becomes a pawn in her scandalous aunt’s sexual maneuvers; the stories may be grim but they also effectively capture the tensions of a society in transition between old and new.  And did I mention they’re beautifully written?

Matsuda’s collection is emotionally at the other end of the spectrum.  Loosely inspired by Japanese fairy tales (no need to fear if you’re unfamiliar with them, as the collection includes a brief but helpful synopsis), Matsuda’s wildly inventive stories always manage to surprise.  As an added bonus, they’re frequently very funny as well.  I particularly enjoyed “Smartening Up,” in which a lovelorn young woman receives an unexpected visitor. 

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In addition to these I also read the remarkable quartet of novellas contained in Edith Wharton’s Old New York.  Although it’s impossible to choose among them, I think Turgenev’s First Love made the greatest impression simply because I’d not previously read any of his work. 

Sixth Category:  Greatest Discovery of The Year

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2021 was, for me, the year I really discovered literature in translation.  This particular pile includes many treasures, most of which were reviewed by other bloggers.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Iceland, a bittersweet story of a young writer struggling against the strictures of a traditionally patriarchal society, and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds, one of the most emotionally powerful novels I read last year.

Seventh Category: Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction

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The Bodiless Cat emerges from her cave and says, “Enough!  If you’re not going to discuss books about cats, it’s time to stop.”

Well, dear readers, I dare not disobey!  That’s it for 2021; now on to the New Year!