Despite some feline roadblocks …. progress continues through The Tragic Muse

 

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Percy thinks I won’t notice that these are the wrong books ……..

So here we are, almost two weeks into our shiny new year!  Is everyone busy reading their challenges?  I’m in a lackadaisical kind of mood these days myself — not a bad mood but certainly not a high energy one.  I always think of mid-January as a time to re-group, to conserve resources after the excitement of the holidays; those extra minutes of daylight aren’t registering yet and spring seems far, far away.  Aside from an unwelcome bit of exercise this morning with a snow shovel, I’ve had a lovely day, wrapped up in a blanket, sipping the results of a new recipe for hot chocolate (it uses two different kinds of chocolate and real cream) and reading Henry James.  Oh, I did have a bit of a reading mishap — Percy has hidden my print volume of The Tragic Muse and substituted other James novels, thinking I’d never notice!  (Percy’s main interests are ornithological; as a literary philistine he thinks James’ novels are interchangeable.  They aren’t).  As a result, I’ve been following the adventures of Nick and Miriam by kindle clicking, rather than page turning.  Even so, it’s a wonderful read, with those long 19th century sentences and subtle, Jamesian delineations of thought and emotion.  It’s a slow read, very much suited to a slow time of year; it’s made even more leisurely by being punctuated every thirty minutes or so by dreamy interludes of staring into space (maybe I’ve been hanging with Percy too long).  Somehow, the day has just vanished.

Fortunately in light of my mental lassitude, following the novel’s action is not too difficult.  James’ plot is relatively straightforward (I defer to the experts on this point, but I wouldn’t read this novel for his plot, myself).  He follows two protagonists, Nick Dormer, an aristocratic young Englishman with a bright political future, and Miriam Rooth, a beautiful penniless young woman from a dubious background.  Nick is torn between painting and politics; although he’s elected as a member of the House of Commons in the early portions of the novel, he’s bored by the political life and only comes alive when he escapes to  his “horrid” (his fiancée’s  words, not mine) little studio to engage in his painting.  Everything in Nick’s life compels him to choose conventional, worldly success: his heritage and training; a promise to his dead father; an adored and adoring mother who has no doubts her boy belongs in Parliament; a beautiful, wealthy lover who will only marry a successful political guy; and a wealthy benefactor who won’t leave his money to an artistic loser.  James is interested in Nick’s choice between his passion for art and his world’s ideal of a successful life and of the personal sacrifices often required from those who persist in following a higher consciousness.  Spoiler alert here for those who demand suspense in reading an 1889 novel:  Nick rejects his political career to follow his art.  The decision costs him him his fiancée, a magnificent bequest from his benefactor and the regard of his family and friends.  Although James intimates that Nick has real talent, Nick also has little formal training and is beginning a career as a serious artist at a relatively late point in life.  Despite every inducement to turn his back on art, Nick becomes totally committed to being a painter, although his worldly success as an artist is (at least at this point in the novel) very much in doubt.

Miriam’s situation could not be more unlike Nick’s.  The daughter of a fantastical, ineffectual mother, Miriam’s businessman father is dead, and the modest income he provided his family is gone, leaving his daughter without worldly prospects or financial security.  Miriam and her mother eke out a paltry existence, moving from one European city to another, living in a succession of cheap boarding houses and pensiones, lingering in cafes to save money on fuel and frequently going without.  Miriam’s mother lives in the novels she reads (when she can get them.  Sound familiar, anyone?); Miriam lives in her imagination.  Surprisingly, she is neither dreamy nor indecisive.  James makes clear that Miriam is simply a born actress, so thoroughly consumed by her need to express herself through her art that nothing, but nothing, will deter her.  When we first meet Miriam in Paris in the opening pages of the novel she is an awkward, badly dressed (and remember, in James’ world manners and appearance matter) young girl.  Gabriel Nash, a English aesthete who will play a pivotal role in the novel, takes her up as an amusing divertissement.  Nash and Peter Sherringham, a young English diplomat who will also play an important part in James’ tale, enable Miriam to gain an audition with Madame Carre, a legendary French actress who serves as a type of acting coach/guide to a younger generation of thespians.  Madame Carre’s verdict, shared by Nash?  Miriam has no talent.  Miriam’s reaction?  She will be a great actress, opinions otherwise are irrelevant; she simply needs to learn her craft.  Despite generally agreeing with Madame Carre’s assessment, Sherringham thinks that, possibly, there may just be something to Miriam and almost on a whim provides her with the financial backing that allows her to perfect her dramatic skills.  As the novel progresses, so does Miriam’s talent and growing stature as an artist.  By the time Nick decides to chuck it all away for art, Miriam is experiencing her first success on the London stage.  Gabriel Nash is now a firm believer in her greatness (and, as an connoisseur and aesthete he’s well placed to spread the word) and Peter Sherringham?  Well, the discrete wisdom of the diplomat is on holiday!  Despite being the well-trained and rising young star of the Foreign Office, and knowing full well the career folly of his choice, Sherringham is hopelessly in love with Miriam; he’s even offered her marriage, providing she gives up the stage.

Well, that’s all for tonight folks.  Despite certain soap opera aspects of the plot, James presents us with a serious meditation on what it is to be an artist, of the demands and sacrifices of practicing the arts and of the elements comprising the dramatic art (James was very interested in the theater and thought about this subject a great deal).  In this novel he has given us two contrasting protagonists — golden boy and poor, beautiful and underrated girl — who must choose whether, and how, each will practice his/her art.  Although there’s a certain commonality in the barriers each faces, there are also significant differences; while Nick is more constrained by expectations of family and society, Miriam’s primary obstacles are money and opportunity (I find it interesting, but unsurprising in view of the time in which he wrote that James doesn’t explicitly discuss the constraints of gender to any notable degree).  Choices have been made and, because this is James, consequences must be faced …..

Viewing not Verbalizing

For those who chance by, I know you’re all agog, positively breathless, with hearts pounding with suspense, to learn the latest developments in Henry James’ The Tragic Muse.  And, not to be a tease, a lot has happened since that opening luncheon in Paris and our first glimpse of the Dormer family.  Since we’ve met indecisive, artistic Nick and his ambitious mom (aka “Lady Agnes”) several key players have moved into position and the scene has shifted from Paris to England.  Miriam Rooth, the tragic muse of the title, has appeared center stage, in all her glorious egotism, indecisive Nick has made a (tentative) career decision, a bad influence has reared his tempting head, and so on.  And — guess what?  You’re going to have to wait to hear about it because my primarily activity this week is viewing not verbalizing!

Since I’m a lady of semi-leisure for the next week or so, I decided on a pilgrimage to visit the temple:

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Opps!  Wrong temple!  I mean this one …….

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Like all great temples, it has a fabulous interior …..

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….and lots of devotional objects of various types

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And when you tire of one pilgrimage site, there’s always another:

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with different objects of contemplation …..

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It’s all a question of whether you prefer this …

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or this…

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And now — for something completely different — even in winter there are reminders of spring:

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Hurray!

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Will my “vaulting ambition” overreach itself (like poor Macbeth’s) or will I prevail?

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These are Challenge “also rans” …

Buoyed by heady success — I’ve set up my first blog and made THREE posts; decided to participate in the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge; and read 150 pages in a Henry James novel (one of my challenge books) that I haven’t thought about for at least thirty years  — my ambition now knows no limits!  After so many, many accomplishments I gave myself a well-earned little break, which I’ve spent busily (and happily) clicking around on various websites, reading postings and book reviews and perusing end of year lists (don’t you love end of year lists?  For me, they’re one of the nicest things about early January.  If you like a somewhat British flavor to your reading, the Guardian’s book section has some pretty good ones for 2018, as well as a preview of  2019 releases).  In the course of my cyber wanderings I’ve discovered the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at roofbeamreader) which I can’t resist.  The idea underlying the challenge is elegant in its simplicity:  in the upcoming year read twelve books from your TBR pile.  The only requirement, as I understand it, is that each book must have been on your shelf or on your TBR list for at least one year (hence the book’s publication must predate January 1, 2018).  The challenge has a certain amount of, ahem, “slack” built into it, as you may also include two alternates to read if you just can’t make it through one or two of your twelve initial selections.  Although twelve (or even fourteen) books wouldn’t be missed from my mountain of neglected reads (see photo at beginning of post; this isn’t even a fraction of my unread books), even the longest journey must begin somewhere, right?  Since I generally read around 50-60 books even in a slow reading year, I decided I wouldn’t be totally foolhardy to take on two challenges provided I was careful to select TBR books that complemented my Back to the Classics reads, i.e., post-1900 novels that were relatively uncomplicated stylistically (I’m enjoying my Henry James but I certainly couldn’t finish twenty-four books written in his style in one year).  So–imagine a big blast of trumpets here, a Jeremiah Clark kind of thing (this music’s so great it’s worth enduring a few seconds of ads to hear it) and a couple of banners furling in the breeze (if you’re reading this, you do realize I’m joking, right?) to accompany the announcement of my favored fourteen:

0-1Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale.  Maugham is one of those writers, very popular back in the day, who’ve fallen out of favor in more recent times.  Contemporary readers in a certain mood may be missing something here, as Maugham tells great stories albeit in a pretty traditional way.  I became hooked on Maugham back in high school, when I read Of Human Bondage, his most famous novel.  A few years ago I noticed his work, or some of it, was being reissued and in some very attractive paperbacks, so I couldn’t be expected to resist, could I?  Of the four novels (all unread) on my shelf, I’ve selected this one, which I always meant to read.  The story is about a biographer who’s being pressured by a very proper widow (his subject’s second wife) to downplay the influence of wife number one from his account of a distinguished deceased.  Aside from curiosity about whether Maugham’s magic still works for me, I’ve always been interested in the nature of biography (a genre I tend to distrust) and the pressures experienced by a biographer, who frequently needs to combine accuracy with tact (for another fictional treatment on this theme, see Penelope Lively’s great novel, According to Mark.  I’ve actually read that one).

0-5Alice Greenway, White Ghost Girls.  The story of two young American sisters living in Hong Kong while their war correspondent father is in Vietnam, this debut novel won the Los Angeles Times award for First Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.  I bought it shortly after it was published in 2000 and in the years since then have admired its artistic cover and those neat foldover interior flap things several times, without reading a word of the novel.  Could 2019 actually be the year I venture into the book’s interior?

 

 

0-4Kate O’Brien, The Last of Summer.  Set in Ireland in 1939, this Virago Modern Classic centers on a type of homecoming for French actress Angèle Maury, who returns to her dead father’s Irish birthplace in search of her roots.  I love Virago books (their little half-eaten apple logo is just so cool) but unfortunately I tend to buy more of them than I read.  Virago first published this one in 1990; I’ve had my copy for at least a decade.  (Sidenote: if you look at this book on Amazon, ignore its three star rating.  The one negative review comes from a moron who got his titles confused and didn’t realize he had posted his review in the wrong place.  His two-star rating unfairly lowers the book’s average).

 

0-2Fernanda Eberstadt, Low Tide.  A debut novel, first published in 1985; I’ve had my second-hand copy for at least five years.  A tale of two decadent, privileged and perverse young people (their names,  Jem and Jezebel, sort of clue you in on this), set in New York, Oxford, London and Mexico — well, you know by now how susceptible I am, so how could I resist a contemporary novel with a character named Jezebel?  My plan was to start with Eberstadt’s first novel before moving on to her next book, which is the one I really wanted to read!  I’m sticking to my plan; novel number two, called Rat (its eponymous protagonist is described a “bold rousing heroine for our times”) will just have to wait.

 

 

 

0-1Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow.  After reading Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, I went on a real Esther Freud kick; this ended when I became absorbed with reading about her famous artist father Lucien and his various dysfunctional families and looking at his very compelling work.  As a result, I never got around to reading Summer, a multi-generational tale that weaves through time to tell the story of a present-day Jewish family living in London and their ancestral estate in East Prussia, which was lost after WWII.  This was first published in 1999 (I’ve had my copy since 2011) and has as many frequent flyer miles as I do; as it’s accompanied me on many, many trips over the years as a backup read.  Despite good intentions, however, I’ve just never gotten around to it.

 

0L.J. Davis, A Meaningful Life.  A would-be novelist ditches his deadly dull job as editor of a plumbing magazine to seek redemption in real estate; the result is described as a black comedy with touches of Patricia Highsmith.   This was first published in the 1970s and reissued as a NYRB classic in 2009, with a beautiful cover and heavy, acid free paper.  Obviously, I’ve been more into the book’s aesthetics than in actually reading it, but I vow that 2019 is the year this will change!

 

 

0-1Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph.  This is another Virago modern classic (told you I was better at buying than reading them) and Kennedy’s best known work; wildly popular in the 1920s, it fell out of print until rescued by Virago in the 1980s (I’ve had my copy for a number of years).  The story centers on a love triangle involving the young daughter of a disreputable expatriate English composer (she’s the “nymph” of the title), her beautiful older cousin and a talented young composer who’s involved with both women.

 

 

0Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library.  I’ve read Hollinghurst’s two most recent novels (The Sparsholt Affair & The Stranger’s Child) and liked both well enough to acquire most of his backlist.  Guess how many of these I’ve read?  If you answer “zero,” you’d be correct.  The Swimming Pool Library’s tale of gay life before AIDs may or may not be dated (I’m optimistic I’ll find out in 2019) but regardless of topicality Hollinghurst is a beautiful and sensitive stylist who should be worth any effort involved in reading the novel.  This is Hollinghurst’s debut novel (published in 1989); I can’t believe I’ve had my (unread) copy since 2011!

 

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Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding.  For years, I’ve been dying to read this tale of a neurotic graduate student who goes off the rails when her identical twin gets married, but I somehow never got around to it (I use this phrase so much I should probably have an acronym.  SNGATI, maybe?)  My copy is one of those gorgeous NYRB classic reissues, which I’ve had for several years.

 

 

 

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Tom Drury, The Driftless Area.  The “driftless area” of the title is the American midwest, the scene of what the reviews describe as a “neonoir heist drama.”  I’m not quite sure how I ended up with this book, which I’ve had since 2013; I probably saw it was a New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and thought it might be an interesting change of pace.  I SNGATI (“somehow never got around to it”), which explains its presence on this list.

 

 

 

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Anne Peile, Repeat It Today with Tears.  Peile is a British writer whose first (and, to my knowledge, only) novel appeared in 2011, which is when I bought my copy.  This tale of a forbidden sexual relationship received a very favorable review in The Guardian, which described it as a “beautiful book,” filled with “evocative” writing and “strong and beguiling” characters.  I have my fingers crossed that I wasn’t led astray.

 

 

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth.  Despite its acclaim as a masterpiece, I’ve never been able to get on with this book, nor (with apologies to all those Gardam fans out there) with this author in general.  Still, the overwhelming consensus of this book’s high quality has 0-11made me pretty stubborn about giving it another try.  Old Filth (“Filth” is an acronym for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”) is the tale of the emotionally repressed barrister Sir Edward Feathers, a “raj” orphan born in Malaya and sent back to Britain by his parents to be given a proper English upbringing.  Feathers is an eighty-year old widower when the novel opens, living alone in England; his story is told in a series of reminiscences and flashbacks and encompasses much of the Empire’s 20th century history in the Far East.  Old Filth is the first volume of a trilogy; the second (The Man in the Wooden Hat) is told from the point of view of Betty, Old Filth’s wife and the concluding volume (Last Friends) centers their mutual story on Terence Veneering, Old Filth’s professional rival and Betty’s lover.  The entire trilogy sounds very intriguing and I’m hoping that my 2019 attempt to read at least the first volume will “take!”

 

ALTERNATES:  Although I’m rationally (I hope) optimistic about reading my list (many of the entries were chosen with “readability” in mind) I’m not totally blind to experience.  Since my path is strewn with unfinished projects I’m quite relieved at being able to add the two alternates the TBR Pile Challenge allows.  These are:

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Pagan Kennedy, Spinsters.  I don’t know much about this author except that she has a great name and, according to Wiki, was “a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement.”  This book appealed to me because it has a great visually appealing cover (see how totally honest I’m being) and its tale of two middle-aged and sheltered sisters taking a road trip in the America of the 1960s sounded intriguing, to say the least.

 

 

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Linda Grant, We Had It So Good.  I’ve read one previous novel by Linda Grant (Upstairs at the Party) and while not overwhelmed, I liked it well enough  to try another.  I’ve had this novel since it was published in 2011 without once reading more than the opening paragraph.  The opening sounded just fine (and was interesting even), but this novel has always lost out to other, more compelling (at the time) books.  Grant is a skilled writer, however, and the story sounds interesting, recounting as it does the life and times of an American-English couple and their extended circle of friends, who come of age in the 1970s.  Although I had a few doubts about its selection, the book’s inclusion as an alternate was settled when Pooh-Bear approved my choice (Pooh-Bear is only her ordinary name; she has a fancier one that I’m withholding for security’s sake; only Pooh-Bear herself, of course, knows her secret name.  I apologize to any T.S. Eliot fans.)

Well, this is my list — which I’m finalizing much later than most participants but still in time to meet the TBR Pile Challenge’s January 15 deadline.  If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of my picks.  Now it’s time for me to get back to reading!

 

January beginnings: Henry James & The Tragic Muse

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Do you have any superstitions about the first book you begin in the new year?  I freely admit that I do, but then I’ve been known to go around the block to avoid a black cat.  I don’t usually make a big thing about selecting my first January book unless I finish one book on New Year’s Eve and I’m beginning a second book precisely on New Year’s Day.  This is a sort of “when Saturn returns to New York” kind of thing that doesn’t happen very often (every twenty-nine years, to be precise.  Sara Gran’s novel of that name, by the way, is a fun light read that’s perfect for an afternoon’s diversion). When it does I take it seriously!  By this point, I’m sure you can imagine what happened this year — at ten minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I finished my first glass of champagne along with Elizabeth Savage’s Last Night at the Ritz (see my previous post, if you want a little info about the novel).  As a result, my first decision of the new year was “what do I read next?”  Since my choice could affect for good or ill my reading decisions for the next twelve months (I’m only half kidding), I really gave it some thought.

Fortunately, I had the Classics Challenge to help me out.  Realistically, I need to get started early on my challenge books to have any hope of success; once I resume classes near the end of the month (I’m doing a post-baccalaureate degree in art history, known less formally as “an old person’s program”) I’ll have much less time and energy for the more difficult reads on my list.  I’ve been a worshipper at the shrine of Henry James since my early 30s, when an undemanding job and a steady if small income gave me the leisure to explore his work.  Although I skipped all the essays and most of his short stories, I did manage several of the novellas and all of the novels, including this one. Over the many years since then, I’ve believed that period of immersion in James’ work automatically gave me the right to claim devoted fan status.  It was a bit of a shock when compiling my books for the Classics Challenge to realize that it has been a very, very long time since I’ve actually read any of James’ novels, which I have nicely arranged and prominently displayed on several bookshelves (you have to look pretty close to see the dust!)

Although most of my reading at one point was heavily tilted towards the 19th century, for several years now I’ve concentrated mostly on contemporary fiction.  Picking up James and settling in for an extended read has required an adjustment.  Am I the only one who feels a certain dislocation in turning from works of the present to those of the past?  I tend to read quickly and, quite honestly, I skim on a pretty frequent basis (especially if bloodshed is involved).  I wouldn’t dream of doing either, with a novel from James’ late period (say, Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl) but I had selected his Tragic Muse because I remembered it as being a fairly straightforward narrative from James’ mid-period, before his style developed into the baroque complexity of compound clause upon compound clause which makes his late novels such a challenge.  Well, my memory was correct but — while this may be relatively unadorned James it is nevertheless a serious 19th century novel, published in serial form over a period of months for an audience that expected to savor every word (and that wasn’t distracted by checking email every thirty seconds and who probably had “staff” to do the grocery shopping and feed the cats).  Several times I almost had to stop, slow down and take a deep breath; I did have to re-read the first few pages before my mind started the process of becoming accustomed to the pace of James’ writing and the ornate vocabulary and expressions he employs.  Although I haven’t seen any discussion of this phenomenon, I find that for me the mental agility required to switch gears, slow down and savor the reading process itself is a very valuable side benefit of reading 19th century works.

Although it’s early days yet, with The Tragic Muse, I’m already in Paris, where I’ve met Nick Dormer and his ambitious and conventional mother.  Nick is there to look at the art, Nick’s mother is there to pressure him into following the paternal footsteps by entering Parliament and forgetting his foolish desire to be a painter.  Julia Dallow, who’s going to immensely complicate Nick’s career choice, will shortly enter the scene and Miriam Rooth, whose aspirations to be a great actress equal Nick’s desire to paint, has just walked on and off the stage, so to speak.  In short, this novel is James’ meditation on the demands of art and how these do, or do not, accommodate themselves to the practicalities of “ordinary” life; Nick and Miriam are his case studies for the effect of family and society on the aspirations and accomplishments of the would-be artist.

In doing a little research for this post, I discovered the painting I inserted at the beginning.  It’s a portrait of the great Rachel, the French actress who was said to be the model for James’ Miriam.  The artist is Jean-Léon Gérôme, who has chosen to depict her as the Muse of Tragedy.  Although Gérôme exemplifies the type of painter the Impressionists loathed (the loathing was mutual.  Gerome was a vociferous critic of their work) he was extremely popular in his day if much less so in ours.  I personally find his paintings, in small doses, to be a lot of fun and I love, love, love this one.

If you happen to chance by, expect periodic reports about Nick, Julia and Miriam.  I suspect I’ll be following their progress for much of the coming year!

 

 

 

 

Beginnings require endings ….

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Do you get all introspective on New Year’s Eve or are you a “go out with the crowds and party” type?  Or, like most of us, a little of both?  Since I’m home working on this post, I guess my choice for this year at least is obvious!  Even in my more extroverted periods, however, I’ve always tried to make the end of the year a time for an informal taking stock, for reflecting and for remembering, even if it’s only for a few minutes here and there.  Since I’m incapable of sustained thought for more than a few minutes at a time, I stretch this out over a fairly long period, mentally marking out a few weeks, usually mid-December through early January, depending on how busy I am, to make an effort to remember and reflect here and there.  You can do this any time of year, of course, but it works best for me at the calendar’s end, the time of darkness and hope, of ends and beginnings.  As you can see from the photo of my New Year’s Eve outing, I love including nature in this process.  When one’s in a certain mood, there’s nothing to match the brooding and poetic melancholy of a winter’s day.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll confine my end of the year reflections to books.  I just finished looking at my “books read” list for 2018; when I become a bit more technologically adept (and have more time) I’ll add it to the blog.  I know we all say numbers don’t matter, but then — don’t we all count how many books we’ve read in a particular year?  In 2018 I completed about 51 books (I say “about” because I skimmed two very long books and compromised by counting them as one; similarly I squashed two lengthy, related novellas together for a single “count” and I’m about five pages from finishing my last book for 2018).  This is fewer than I usually read; also my list this year is much lighter in content and less challenging than in certain years past.  I’m a pretty ecletic reader, although these days I read far fewer non-fiction books and 19th century novels; my list includes literary fiction, a classic or two, historical fiction, mystery/thrillers and lots of fantasy & sci-fi (I grew up reading sci-fi & fantasy paperbacks poached from my dad’s collection and loved Asimov and Heinlein as much as I did classical mythology).

I took a bit of a trip down memory lane in 2018, re-reading several books that I first encountered in my teens and twenties, primarily to see how I’d react to them now.  These included Richard Powell’s Whom the Gods Would Destroy (a re-telling of the Tojan War; the book is now out of print but available in electronic format) and Judith Rossner’s His Little Women (Anyone remember Judith Rossner?  In this particular novel she “updated” Alcott’s Little Women to modern day Hollywood; Rossner’s little women are the daughters of an overbearing Hollywood producer); many years ago I thoroughly enjoyed both works.  A third re-read was Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived at the Castle, which I hadn’t much liked when I encountered it in my twenties, immediately after devouring Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.  My 2018 verdict on these reads of yesteryear?  If you’re a Trojan War buff with a thing for Cassandra, you might check out Powell.  Make time for Jackson; if Castle isn’t her masterpiece it’s close and skip Rossner unless you’re a serious masochist (at the risk of losing your good opinion, on my re-read I actually did enjoy the first 40 percent of the novel but found everything after Jo –oops! I meant “Nell” — grows up to be a pretty tough slog).

My 2018 list also included two memoirs,  and one autobiography, genres that I have successfully avoided until now.  My reaction to these works was mixed.  Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air was everything it was cracked up to be — a moving, unsentimental look at how a brilliant, driven personality dealt with something that couldn’t be dealt with (Kalanithi died from cancer at age 37, just as he was completing his residency in neurosurgery).  J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy was — well — I’d have to write a separate post to explain my complicated reaction to J.D.’s hillbilly to tech mogul odyssey.  I’ll let it go for now by saying there was much in it I admired and identified with and much that I found intensely troubling.  My autobiographical read was Benvenuto Cellini’s My Life, which honesty compels me to disclose was required reading for a course in Renaissance art.  Although I found it tough going at times, I’m very glad I persevered and would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the Renaissance, the artistic process or colorful personalities (Cellini was a great artist who was also a self-confessed murderer of at least three people).

Although I felt my 2018 reading list was a bit blah, the year did contain some surprises and unexpected pleasures.  These did not always coincide with critical acclaim.  Two new authors who I thought did live up to their hype were Tommy Orange and Lisa Halliday.  I wouldn’t normally have read Orange’s There, There (it struck me as a bit too grim) but at some point I just surrendered to the buzz and pieced it in between classes; his tale of urban Indians, set in Oakland, and written with great skill, blew me away.  It also gave me a renewed sense of a certain side of American history which I’m all too prone to forget.  Orange is now on my radar, which means I’ll definitely read his second book whenever that should appear.  My reaction to Halliday’s Asymmetry was a bit more measured.  She’s an impressive talent and Asymmetry’s cleverly done; the “Madness” section centering on a young Iraqi-American detained by immigration officials at Heathrow was chilling, but my enjoyment of the whole was less than my admiration of its parts.  Daisy Johnson was another emerging light this year, with her debut novel Everything Under.  I found it an odd and interesting book, beautifully written; the complex time shifts were skillfully handled and the characters’ complicated relationships rendered quite believable, no mean feat for such a fantastical story.  Although I was less wowed by her novel than were the critics it’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in stories with an underpinning in Greek mythology.   My 2018 reaction to Michael Ondaatje, a long acknowledged literary lion, was unreservedly positive.  To date I haven’t read much of his work (I missed The English Patient) but that may change after Warlight, which I absolutely adored.  As far as I’m concerned Warlight had it all: wonderful writing, strong atmosphere (I’m a sucker for atmosphere & setting), a good plot and interesting characters.  Another veteran writer, Alan Hollinghurst, turned out a good if not great read in The Sparsholt Affair — I was definitely surprised when it didn’t make the Booker long list and thought that perhaps it should have.

On a less lofty plane, perhaps, I found several books in 2018 (not all of them published that year) that were very well written and fun to read but didn’t seem to make any “best of their year” lists.  Did anyone read Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble?  Since I like novels about tight little groups and how they do, or don’t cope with each other (Donna Tart’s Secret History is a fav of mine) and I also like string quartets, I was destined to love Gabel’s novel about four young classical musicians and how they develop as people and artists over a period of years.  Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere, one of my favorite reads of 2018, was a well written and absorbing story that wove back and forwards in time to tell the stories of a number of characters loosely associated with Newport, Rhode Island over a period of two centuries.  Think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas in an American setting (well — sort of).  Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders was a light, enjoyable tale of a family of psychics; the plot was tightly woven, if a bit over the top, and the book as a whole funny and absorbing, with a slight underpining of melancholy.  For those of a slightly more Gothic turn of mind, I’d highly recommend Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, with its wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of snowy evenings in Prague or the stifling heat of a tropical Manila and its tale of the doomed Melmoth, destined to walk the earth until the day of Judgment.

It wouldn’t be a time of bookish reflection, would it, without noting the books that were abandoned, as well as completed?  I’m a firm believer that abandoning a book reflects less on a book’s quality than it does on one’s own readiness to read it.  With that standard in mind, 2018 was a year in which I wasn’t ready to read  several critically acclaimed novels.  Most notable, perhaps, was Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, which I stopped reading about three-quarters of the way through (I must admit — I did skip to read the end!)  It was my first novel by Wolitzer and in many of the ways lived up to its hype, but for some reason it just didn’t hold my interest.  Perhaps it was just too topical, in these days of the me too movement.  Why read a novel when you can read the news?  Another discarded read was Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room.  About two hours after reading a chunk and thinking “this is really quite good,” I put the novel aside and haven’t returned yet.  A third discard was Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, much hyped across the pond (a debut novel, long listed for the Booker), less glowingly received by our very own New York Times.  Halfway through and in the middle of the action, I just thought “I’ve had enough” and that was that for City.  Three good (City) to very good (Mars Room) novels, freely acknowledged as such by me and others, that I will probably never finish.  What can I say, except that the Book Gods are fickle?

In closing (and if anyone has lasted this long, I just bet you’re breathing a sigh of relief!), I really must comment on Elizabeth Savage’s Last Night at the Ritz.  Aside from its title, which ties in well with my mood of endings and reflection, Last Night also happens to be my last read of 2018 (I’ll finish it after I sign off, along with my very much anticipated glass of champagne!).   Long out of print, it was resuscitated as part of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries series for Amazon, where it has generally received a series of three star reviews (for those residents of the outer planets who have never purchased from Amazon, a five star review is the highest).  Last Night is a wonderful book, for the right reader and the right frame of mind; which is to say it should be avoided by teetotalers (Savage’s characters drink more than Mad Men), those who can’t stomach privileged, upper class protagonists and readers who want no part of a by-gone era whose social mores don’t correspond to our own.  The story is told in the first person, by a nameless female narrator who’s back in Boston and having a celebratory night with her college roommate from thirty years before; the two women are joined by the roommate’s husband and the (married) narrator’s ex-lover.  Although the time frame is confined to a single evening, Savage uses flashbacks, interior monologues and reminiscenses to very convincingly depict a lifetime of complicated relationships.  At the end of the evening, you really understand the title and appreciate that there’s more to the brash, breezy narrator than you first suppose.  As an added bonus, both women are fairly erudite readers and the novel is replete with references to books.  It’s also a treasure trove of quotable lines.  My own favorite?  “It is very dangerous to get caught without something to read.”

And on that note — good-night and happy New Year!  May you never be caught, in 2019 or ever, without something to read!

 

 

My First Blog Post

I love books and reading in all their manifestations — book reviews, book discussions, book recommendations and, of course, the actual books themselves.  As part of the bookish process, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time, and gotten a great deal of pleasure and useful information, from all those wonderful book blogs available on the internet (thank you so much, Danielle, for your A Work in Progress).  For several years now I’ve considered joining the bookish discussion, but taking a lesson from the Ents have been slow to rush into things (I believe my New Year’s Resolution for 2010 was to have my own blog up and running by the end of the year!).  Now, finally, I’m taking the plunge and I already feel a rush of adrenaline from the decision.  Let’s face it — even the most devoted reader experiences a bit of a lag at times; becomes paralyzed and anxious at the multiplicity of choices out there (so many, many new books and so many, many growing piles of unread volumes on the floor); commences one novel after another without finishing anything; and greets even the most exciting work of new fiction with a yawn.  In the last year, I’ve done an increasing amount of required reading for my art history courses; while I’ve enjoyed this reading immensely it’s inevitably affected the time and energy I have available for non-art history topics.  So, while (with apologies to Mr. Melville) a “dark and drizzling” November isn’t exactly permeating my reading, my book life could definitely use some jazzing up.  Hence, my infant blog.

Along with my first blog post comes my first acceptance of a bookish challenge!  The spark that got this book blog project up and going came last Friday, when I stumbled on the 2019 Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate (here’s where to get more information and sign up).  After reading the challenge, I spent a wonderful, exciting day thinking of books for the various categories and then realized — “hey!  I need somewhere to post my reviews!  Why not finally complete that 2010 New Year’s Resolution and set up a blog?”  I already had my blog name picked out (I told you — I’ve been thinking about this for a long time), so, aside from a technical glitch or two, I’m up and running even if the website is a bit unadorned.

Now, back to that challenge.  As I understand the rules, my selections have to be works published and/or written before 1969 that I must commence and complete reading between January 1 and December 31, 2019.  With no more ado, here are my tentative selections:

  1. 19th century classic (between 1800-1899):  Henry James, The Tragic Muse (published 1890).  Many years ago, thanks to a small but steady income and an undemanding job, I went through a major Henry James phase.  Most of the novels I read during that time, including this one, are now far distant blurs in my overflowing memory bin.  I’ve been thinking of revisiting James for some time, however, and this novel seems a good place to start, as it meets the challenge’s time parameters and, as I recall, is quite a bit more straightforward than, say, James’ The Golden Bowl.
  2. 20th century classic (1900 to 1969):  The choice here is a toughie, as I have a real weakness for mid-century female writers, many of whom receive far less than their due in readership & critical acclaim.  After a lot of delightful soul searching, I’ve decided to go with Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends & Relations (published in 1931).  I’ve read several Bowen novels and, while she’s not my ultimate favorite, I find her work interesting.  Besides, I’ve been meaning to read this one for ages and already have a copy.  Close runner up was Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (1962); hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze it in anyway, either on its own or as a backup to several other categories.
  3. Classic by a woman author:  I’ve selected an early work by Isabel Colegate, either The Blackmailer (1958), A Man of Power (1960) or The Great Occasion (1962).  I’ve loved Colegate since I read Winter Journey and always meant to explore her work a little more.  Although The Shooting Party is far and away Colegate’s best known novel (I believe it was even made into a movie) I’ve never been able to get past the descriptions of all those slaughtered animals (and, yes, I know there’s a parallel to the coming Great War, but still ….)
  4. Classic in Translation:  an easy one.  I’ve never read a novel by Guy de Maupassant despite having several on my shelf.  My choice?  Maupassant’s Like Death (published 1889).
  5. Classic comic novel:  She’s not one of your comforting laughs, but if you have a taste for elegant, elliptical, sometimes difficult dialogue and black humor, it’s hard to beat Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I haven’t read her in years (and never made it through all the novels) so here’s hoping 2019 is my “return to Ivy year.”  I’ll most probably re-read A Father and his Fate (1957) or read Manservant and Maidservant (1947) for the first time.
  6. Classic tragic novel:  This category really made me start thinking about what is a tragic novel, really?  A narrative that just has a sad ending?  Or must it, like classical drama, also have grand and noble characters, brought low by some internal flaw?  Well, whatever the definition — my choice in this category is Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (1949).  The characters are pretty shallow according to various reviews but the end should be dismal enough to satisfy anyone.  The Classics Challenge is a good prompt to read Bowles, who is one of those writers I’ve never quite gotten around to.  If he’s just too, too not my thing, I’ll probably read The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene, a second writer that I’ve never really gotten around to.
  7. Very long classic:  If you eliminate the Russians, which I do right now (I’ve waded through a few of the obvious Russian classics and just can’t do re-reads of them at this point in my life), I’m somewhat at a loss.  I’ve decided to attempt a book I purchased several years back in a fit of overwhelming intellectual ambition:  Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy.  Published originally in the 1930s and weighing in at 620 odd pages, it meets the Challenge’s criteria (the fact that I’ll be reading a modern translation is, as I understand them, allowable under the rules).
  8. Classic novella (less than 250 pages):  I had hoped to satisfy this category by reading J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, a work that’s been on my TBR list for a long, long time.  Alas, its 1980 publication date makes it ineligible for the Challenge.  Not to worry, however, as the world and my shelves overflow with unread possibilities, many of them in those adorable, brightly colored covers used by the Melville House publishing company (as one critic said, those covers make “you just want to own them all”!).  I’m torn between Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesa (1892), Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone (1900) and Heinrich von Kleist’s The Duel (1810, this being one of five novellas on the theme of dueling, re-printed and conveniently sold as a package by Melville House).  I’ll probably go with The Beach at Falesa but I really love Wharton and The Duel has a great opening …….. and there’s always Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge at San Luis Rey (1928), which I’ve been meaning to read for ages …..
  9. Classic from the Americas (includes the Caribbean):  I’ve done a fair amount of eco-tourist travel in Central and South America and have long been ashamed of how little I know of the culture and literature of those regions (on the other hand, I have seen lots of birds and animals!).  Because one of my long held goals has been to remedy that defect, I want to read something by a non-English author, set in a non-English speaking country.  This should be an easy category to make a selection from (there are so many great novelists writing in Spanish, French and Portuguese) but for me it isn’t — I don’t want to just read (or, more accurately, attempt) a standard classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and most of the other works I know about (I’ve long wanted to try Roberto Bolaño, for example) are too recent to meet the Challenge’s criteria.  Right now, I’m leaving this category blank until I do more research.
  10. Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia):  I just happen to have the NYRB edition of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf and taking up space on my TBR list!  The author is a Dutch woman born on Java, which is the setting of this semi-autobiographical novel.  Since I’ve just finished a course on the 17th century art of the Dutch empire, the time period when the Dutch established their hegemony over the Spice Islands of the East Indies, this selection was a no-brainer.
  11. Classic from a place you’ve lived or by a local author:  Although I’ve now been stationary for a good many years, in my younger days I lived in quite a few different locales, albeit all within the U.S.  One of the more interesting was New Orleans, in its pre-Katrina days in the mid-1980s.  There’s a lot of literature to choose from involving New Orleans.  My first pick would be Sheila Bosworth, a New Orleans writer with a strong sense of place and a lyrical style; she wrote only two novels back in the 1980s, both set in New Orleans and both of which I read sandwiched between novels during my Henry James binge.  Alas, her work is too recent for the Challenge, being published in the early 1980s.  Of the works I’m interested in, this leaves Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Walker Percy’s The Movie Goer (1961).  Since I’ve always been curious about Percy’s work (he seems to have dropped somewhat out of the spotlight in recent decades) and I’ve read the other two (albeit long ago), The Moviegoer it is.  I remember Capote’s Other Voices very fondly, however; I was very young when I read it and it was so haunted, so decadent, so beautifully written ….. it would be interesting to measure my reaction to it now.  Depending on my reaction to Percy, I may switch my selection.
  12. Classic play:  I didn’t hesitate on this one — my choice is John Webster’s bloody revenge tradegy of 1612, The Duchess of Malfi.  Without actually reading any or seeing it performed, I’ve been fascinated by Jacobean drama since oh so many years ago when I skipped classes for a couple of days to read P.D. Jame’s Skull Beneath the Skin (P.D.’s title is also from Webster).  In that wonderful detective novel, the actress-murder victim is done away with while preparing for her starring role in Webster’s Duchess.  Besides, who can resist lines like “Cover her face.  Mine Eyes dazzle.  She died young”?

Well, that’s pretty much it, both for my Challenge selections and for my first post.  If you happen across my blog, tune in!