2020 Reading Roundup

Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly

The Books of 2020, or at least most of the ones I managed to finish (I do think I opted out of Daisy Johnson’s Fen after completing only about half of the stories, which I found a little too creepy and disturbing for my mood this year).

coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.

This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.

While I might quibble with the publisher’s description of this work as “bizarre,” I definitely agree with the “delightful” and “intriguing.” Despite a certain number of anachronisms, the mystery plotting was good and I loved its depiction of late Victorian Oxford.
Set in London rather than Oxford and not quite up to the level of Sarsen Place, this was nevertheless a very pleasant way to escape the rigors of 2020 . . . .

Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!

After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.

Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:

I almost discarded this during the great moving purge; fortunately I started reading the first few pages and changed my mind. Johnson is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows in this spare, beautiful mini-epic recounting the solitary life of one of those marginal people who built the American west.
Maeve Brennan is one of those names associated with The New Yorker; her sparse output is mostly associated with that periodical. This beautifully rendered story of the psychological struggle between an emotionally fragile young Irish girl and her unrelenting grandmother is a masterpiece.
After an unfortunate early encounter with My Antonia, I have tended to avoid Cather’s work. This wonderfully nuanced tale of a rich young girl who gave up a fortune to marry for love has made me reconsider that decision; I’ve begun lining up novels for a “reading Cather” project.

Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:

Mandel’s latest is almost as good as Station Eleven. Mandel uses the fallout from a disastrous Ponzi scheme to probe the many different paths individual lives can take as well as the responsibility we owe each other. The “glass” of the title refers to an actual structure in the novel; it also suggests the fragility of any one existence and how we so easily can step into another identity.
One of the few books I reviewed last year, Warner’s masterpiece is an absolutely stunning work. Under the guise of an historical novel, Warner uses her depiction of a fictitious medieval convent to ask deeper questions about the meaning of “community.” Although Corner demands a moderate commitment of time (it’s long), Warner’s beautiful writing and wit make the pages fly by.
Gainza’s novel narrowly beat out Warner’s for my most outstanding read of the year. Despite thinking about Optic Nerve a great deal, I didn’t review it, simply because it was so wonderful I didn’t feel I could do it justice! It’s a stunning piece of autofiction in which we see the protagonist’s life and character as they are reflected, and formed, by her interaction with art.
I did say “three” novels, didn’t I? Consider this intriguing novel an honorable mention! Parasites is a wonderfully readable, well-constructed story of three self-absorbed siblings, each the possessor of artistic talent that falls short of that of their famous parents. Quite different from the du Maurier novels I have previously read (Rebecca; My Cousin Rachel), Parasites is loaded with the atmosphere of the London theatrical world in the 1940s. And, oh yes, the novel is said to contain strong autobiographical elements . . . .

Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?

Midweek Miscellany: Margaret (Atwood, that is) and Me

Although a few of my Atwood books are still packed, this is most of my surviving Atwood stash (to my intense regret, I discarded several works during my great book purge last winter). Although I kept mostly novels, I do still have a book or two of poetry, a collection of Atwood’s non-fiction pieces and a somewhat dated literary study of her work.

If you spend any time at all in the bookish area of the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that November was Margaret Atwood reading month (#MARM). Although sheer disorganization prevented me from participating (I’m afraid I’m still much like my nine-year old self, who once showed up two days late to her little friend’s birthday party), Atwood is one of my very, very favorite writers and I did in some way want to demonstrate how much her work has meant to me. I can’t claim that I was a fan from the beginning of her career (I can be a bit slow about these things), as I only began reading her work with Life Before Man, which came after Atwood had published several other novels and a great deal of very highly regarded poetry. I also can’t say I was a die-hard Atwood fan from my first read. I liked the novel but . . . wasn’t it a bit too realistic in spots? Did I really like these characters? Wasn’t the tone just a bit too ironic at times? Reader, what can I say? I was very, very young at the time, salad days so to speak, blood like ice water and judgment as green as a head of lettuce. Even laboring under the weight of these disadvantages, however, I was drawn from the beginning to Atwood’s writing without quite having the savvy to understand why; although I had some reservations about my first Atwood novel, its characters lingered in my mind and I remembered certain scenes and phrases long after I finished reading. Without being fanatical about it, I began catching up on Atwood’s backlist and reading her new work pretty quickly after it came out. An added bonus in this respect was discovering a writer who actually published with such pleasing regularity, so there were many wonderful new things to read. (I adore Donna Tartt but . . . only one novel every decade or so? So very frustrating at times.)

And then, after several years of an every increasing appreciation of Atwood’s work, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I previously wrote about the experience and won’t repeat myself (click here if you’re interested); suffice it to say that I became the equivalent of a sports fan who dresses in her team’s jersey and shows up at games wearing a silly hat and chanting the star player’s name (imagine, if you can, my standing outside a small independent bookstore, chanting “Atwood! Atwood! rah, rah, rah!”) I had grown up on the fringes of an intensely fundamentalist and traditional culture; did time (and that’s exactly how it felt) in an almost exclusively male environment and was making my living working in another when Handmaid was published. I found Atwood’s ability to recognize certain trends that I had experienced at first hand, and to extrapolate those trends to their logical conclusion intensely real and very, very frightening. I went from a warm appreciation of Atwood’s work to rabid fandom, so to speak. On a chilly October evening a few years after my conversion, I took a great deal of trouble to be one of the lucky attendees who heard Atwood read from Cat’s Eye, her then-most-recent novel. Afterwards I and a couple of hundred other enthusiasts stood more or less patiently in line to have Atwood sign a copy of her work (since most of us were reading an Atwood novel while we waited, the patience part wasn’t too difficult). To grasp the personal significance of my attendance and participation at this event, dear reader, please understand that my actions on that oh-so-long ago October directly contravened principles that have guided my life, i.e., always avoid crowds, never stand in line and never, ever attend literary events on cold nights.

So — it’s fair to say that I love Atwood’s fiction and was delighted to learn of November’s Atwood event. I intended to honor the occasion by re-reading one of the early novels but became sidetracked when I started leafing through Dearly, published in the U.S. on November 10 and Atwood’s first book of poetry in almost a decade.

The latest addition to my Margaret Atwood stash . . . do you think the identifier (“Author of The Handmaid’s Tale”) could possibly be an advertising gimmick intended to draw in viewers of the hit cable series? Regardless, this is a beautiful book in every sense, with a great deal of content in its 120 odd pages

My taste in poetry was formed by the anthologies and collections that are the staple of the undergraduate English courses taught in U.S. universities, which is to say I prefer poems written before 1920, in rhyme and with meanings that are easy to grasp (one notable exception to my criteria is the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, although I do love his “Spring and Fall”). I have also read very little of Atwood’s poetry, particularly her early work (whose originality and emotional impact are considered superior by at least one critic) nor did I read Dearly with any great intensity, always so necessary with me to fully grasp this very difficult art. So please keep my limitations in mind and don’t hesitate to add your own opinions, comments and corrections to my own remarks.

Although I like most of the Dearly poems very much, do I sink myself beyond redemption, dear reader when I say that I think Atwood’s primarily talent is for her wonderful novels? What I love about Atwood is her wit, her intellect, her sharp observation of the world and its inhabitants, and her uncanny ability to make connections between people and ideas. This makes for interesting, and at times very pleasurable, poetry but it doesn’t quite deliver the emotional impact I look for in the very greatest of poems. In its review of Dearly, the Guardian called Atwood “an undeceived” poet and delicately suggests that a poet, at times, must indulge in a little merciful illusion. I’ve thought about this statement a great deal and while I don’t pretend to fully understand the Guardian’s oracular pronouncement, I sort of get what I think the reviewer meant. Dearly’s poems didn’t give me a transcendent or profound emotional experience (as I had, for example, the first time I read Philip Larkin’s “The Mower”) or cause me to lose myself in their sheer overwhelming gorgeousness of language and imagery (I’m thinking here of a seventeen year old me, reading Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”). Rather, they were perfect examples of that “undeceived” quality mentioned in the Guardian’s review. I’m going to digress a bit here by quoting some favorite lines from “February,” a poem in a previous Atwood collection (Morning In The Burned House), which I think perfectly conveys this aspect of her poetry:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black-fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched: if I am
he’ll think of something else. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas
purring like a washboard.

Speaking from my own experience, these lines were written by a woman who understands with perfect and unsentimental clarity both the demands of the season and the nature of her feline companion.

Don’t tell Janakay, dear readers, but she doesn’t understand us at all . . .

Dearly itself, as I said in my caption, is literally a beautiful book, with wonderfully heavy, cream-colored pages that have a marvelous tactile quality. Beware, however, if you have any choice in your editions, which I discovered have different cover art and may differ in some other respects as well. My HarperCollins edition published in the U.S. features a spray of flowers that look like poppies done in muted blues and grey-greens, while the U.K.’s Chatto and Windus edition uses the work of noted British artist Kate MccGwire as the basis of its design, in which the author’s name and the work’s title are nestled among a great, swirling mass of blue and grey bird feathers. Although the cover art of the U.S. edition does give a nod to Atwood’s intense interest in the natural world, I’d go for the Chatto and Windus edition if you have any choice; the feather theme ties in far more directly to the poems (many mention or deal with birds), subtly suggests the uplifting nature of the poems and IMO at least is more visually appealing. Additionally, although Amazon’s U.K. website makes this difficult for me to determine with certainty, the fore pages of the U.K. edition appear to contain facsimiles of Atwood’s handwritten notes.

I took this image of the U.K. edition from the Amazon U.K. website; it’s quite a contrast to the more subdued cover art of my U.S. edition isn’t it?

This stuff about cover art and feathers (not to mention your cats) is all very well, you might say, but what about the contents? Atwood is eighty-one years old and many of the poems, unsurprisingly, reflect the experience of a long life and the passing of time. Atwood dedicates the work to “Graeme, in absentia,” her companion of over forty years who died shortly before the collection was published. Although the work as a whole doesn’t appear to have a common theme, it does contain certain broad subjects that are grouped into five untitled sections. The first begins with the very beautiful “Late Poems,” which introduces the general idea of loss and absence. Like “a letter sent by a sailor, that arrives after he’s drowned,” late poems “wash ashore like flotsam” after “the battle, the sunny day, the moonlit slipping into lust, the farewell kiss” have happened. In Atwood’s view, all poems are “late poems.” The second section deals mainly with various aspects of gender (my current favorite here is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift,” in which the doomed prophetess says “no” to “Mr. Musician God”). I particularly enjoyed the third section, which deals with what I can only call “strange creatures;” Atwood’s wit and irony are on full display in poems dealing with, among other things, zombies, aliens, sirens and werewolves. After this come poems about nature (including birds, whales, the arctic and wolves) and the frequently nasty things that happen there. The last section contains the poems about Graeme’s fading away (in his last years he was battling dementia) and death.

My current favorite poem from the entire collection (“Blackberries” is a close second) is “Feather:”

One by handfuls the feathers fell.
Windsheer, sun bleach, owlwar,
some killer with a shotgun,

who can tell?
But I found them here on the quasi-lawn–
I don’t know whose torn skin–

calligraphy of wrecked wings,
remains of a god that melted
too near the moon.

A high flyer once,
as we all were.
Every life is a failure

at the last hour,
the hour of dried blood.
But nothing, we like to think,

is wasted, so I picked up one plume from the slaughter
sharpened and split the quill,
hunted for ink,

and drew this poem
with you, dead bird.
With your spent flight,

with your fading panic,
with your eye spiraling down,
with your night.

I’ve gone on many nature walks and have seen these little piles of feathers and bones fairly often; I can’t say that my reactions went much deeper than a passing regret or sadness that soon disappeared. It takes a poet to imagine, and then transform, the panic and exhaustion of that slaughtered creature into the life and beauty of a poem.

Before I end this rather rambling post, a few additional things are worth noting. First is the presence of Atwood’s characteristic wit and sense of humor. While many of the poems are somber, many of the others are very, very funny (I defy anyone to read “Aliens” without a smile). On a more logistical level, the collection contains two poem cycles, “Plasticene Suite,” which deals with the environment and what we’ve done to it, and “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” written for the baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose own sister was murdered (music for this was composed by Jake Heggie). Lastly, and in contrast with my own choices, the collection’s most popular piece appears to be the title poem “Dearly.” The Guardian published a wonderful interview with Atwood, which contains a link to Atwood herself reading the poem; if you’re interested, it’s available here.

Because this posting is a “Miscellany,” I had initially thought I’d include some other, unrelated topics. I became so interested in Dearly, however, things got out a little out of hand and I’m afraid I’ve exceeded my own attention span, not to mention yours as well! So, perhaps a “Monday Miscellany”? Hmmmmmm . . . .

HAPPINESS IS . . .

As Mr. Janakay has occasionaly observed (admittedly somewhat to his peril), I do not possess a naturally sunny disposition. Unlike my more fortunate friends, I do not, alas, look for the silver lining purportedly possessed by even the stormiest cloud; think that it’s darkest just before the dawn; or consider a half-empty glass to be half-full. These days we live in are so very dark and dreadful, however, that I have decided to turn over a new leaf. Away with the doom and gloom! Up with the smiles and sunshine! For strictly pragmatic reasons, I have resolved to go from frowny to smiley face. Without some (perhaps irrational) optimism I see no way to survive the upcoming weeks, when I and my fellow Americans (of the U.S. variety) are clearly in for a very rough ride indeed. As part of my new program of sunshine & smiles, I’ve decided to compile a “Happiness List” of all the positive things that will keep me going in these stressful times. So — here goes!

FIRST HAPPINESS:

The certain knowledge that 2020 will be over in fifty-six days and approximately four hours (depending on when I manage to finish this post). To borrow words once uttered by her British majesty during her own dark year, 2020 has been one annus horribilis and can’t end soon enough!

Will it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that I also “officially” voted earlier this week for one other thing to end as well? (Janakay doesn’t mean to be a tease, but no more details — some forums (fora?) need to stay neutral.) With respect to the current political situation, what can one say, except:

I lifted this great photo from today’s edition of the Washington Post. It speaks volumes for the pitiful state of the times that this photo accompanied the daily weather report, for gosh sakes . . .

SECOND HAPPINESS:

Having many, many wonderful new books, many more than I could read in a lifetime, but, hey — since when has practicality been a factor in my book acquisition? I began this awful year traumatized with the need to do a massive cull of my bookshelves, which I managed after some hysterics and the moderate assistance of medically prescribed tranquilizers. After dismembering my little library, I dumped the surviving volumes onto a moving truck that carried them away to their temporary new home, an unused bedroom where they’re currently sharing space with some lamp shades and a table or two. I retained, unpacked, only the very minimum number of books necessary for survival — perhaps 200 volumes or so — and resolutely refused to unpack the others, as they’d be moving again in a few months. My heroic restraint created empty space in the bookcases for the first time in my adult life! Well, we know that old saw about nature abhorring a vacuum, don’t we? I’m actually too embarrassed to disclose all of my new acquisitions, which are, frankly, quite enormous (I handle my stress by acquiring books). In mitigation, I plead extenuating circumstances: I began collecting my new stash months ago (last April to be exact); the NYRB Classics had several great book sales this year and many of you write really great blogs with excellent reading recommendations that I couldn’t resist (I’m like Oscar Wilde in one way at least, being able to resist anything but temptation). Below is an incomplete but fairly representative sample of my new books:

My books aren’t usually this neatly stacked, but I’m trying to impress my readers!
I’ve been meaning to try Lispector for ages; with all this new “at home” time, perhaps this will be the year . .
This one is Kaggsy’s fault! After reading her September review of a Berridge novella (kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com), I had to try Berridge for myself. I really meant to post a review but — didn’t quite get around to it! I will say, however, that this slightly lurid cover image is rather misleading; clearly the publisher was marketing the novel as a Gothic romance, which it most certainly is not.
Another of my books that I’ve actually read! This was the monthly selection automatically sent out by the NYRB Classics Club, so it really doesn’t count against my total. These two novellas are a great introduction to Ginzburg, whom I had not previously read. I loved both novellas and now must get copies of Ginzburg’s other works as well.
Another September review, this time by Ali (heavenali.wordpress.com) led to this acquisition. Penelope Mortimer sounded so interesting this novel became a “must.”
This one I blame on Simon (at stuckinabook.com). I’ve been following his reviews of this great new series by the British Library (which he is curating) and just had to try one (ahem; actually three — notice the sticker — how could I refuse an offer like this?)
I’m reasonably fond of Henry Green (he’s so original that, at least for me, his work takes some getting used to) and haven’t read this one. When it was available on sale by NYRB Classics, there was only one thing to be done . . .
What’s a book binge that doesn’t include some art books? The art world has recently rediscovered Klint, a woman painter who was doing abstracts years and years before the big boys like Pollock. I find it very soothing to sit and look at pictures . . .
Another art book. I love landscapes but this book has lots of text and looks quite serious. It also has a limited number of pictures. Whatever was I thinking? Who reads an art book? Perhaps I’ll just place this one in a casual position on the coffee table, to impress my new neighbors when they drop by . . .
I don’t think Faulkner’s very fashionable these days and I’m not sure how many people actually read him. I loved Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and the few other novels I’ve sampled but . . . there’s no ignoring the fact they were written by a white southern male of the pre-civil rights era. In my opinion, Faulkner views his culture with a merciless and unflinching eye, although he is quite unable to escape its limitations. I’m eager to dip into this study, to see if Gorra shares my view . . .
Last but far from least, these two Gothic novels are a trip down memory lane. They were among the first Gothic romances I ever read, oh so very many years ago, very shortly after I read my first Victoria Holts. I was thrilled to rediscover these books a few weeks ago and will be interested to see how they hold up (so far, Sarsen Place is doing pretty well).
Maxi says, “Enough blathering about books, Janakay. Move on to the next item on your Happiness List!” There are times, dear reader, when Maxi is as wise as Confucious (and far more sly).

THIRD HAPPINESS

My third happiness is — gasp! new book shelves! Lots and lots of lovely, empty new shelves, just waiting to be filled when I finally complete my move.

Shelves in the living room . . .
Shelves in a bedroom . . .
Shelves on one side of the dining room and
Shelves on the other! And, of course, besides all the shelves, I still have all my old book cases.

Haven’t we all known the agony of triple stacking our beloved treasures, or even (horrors) boxing them away in one of those plastic slidey things that fit under the bed? Could it be that finally I will have enough space to alphabetize my fiction by authors’ last name and group my art books by artists? Reader, is it possible to have a greater happiness than this?

FOURTH (AND FINAL) HAPPINESS

Although I am definitely not an athletic type (turning the pages in my book, or clicking my kindle is quite enough exercise, thank you very much) I do find it absolutely necessary to touch nature at some level for at least some portion of time. In this respect, I’ve been lucky indeed; both my old home and my new have lots of green space.

Aren’t these Sandhill Cranes gorgeous, particularly with their red head stripe? There’s nothing to show you the scale, but these are big birds, standing 4 to 5 feet (approximately 152 cm). If you want to see them “live,” plan a trip to North America, where they’re primarily located. This little family group hangs close to my house and seeing them is always a major treat.
A classic river scene from a large state park about 20 minutes away from me by car. This photo was taken a few months ago, when it was unbelievably hot. Although I didn’t see any, it’s a very safe bet that this river has alligators!
Same state park, different habitat . . . those golden flowers were at their peak when this photo was made earlier in the year (note to self: I really must get a plant book to learn what I’m looking at!)
This is an older photo, from an Audubon sanctuary located about 100 miles (160 km) further south from my house. The weird spikey things are flowers and the orange things are butterflies. Aren’t they both marvelous?

Well, that’s it for my Happiness List. What’s on yours, dear reader? What’s keeping you afloat, so to speak, during these dark times?

Halloween Greetings! (and some spooky books for scary times)

How do you like this rather macabre scene? It’s the work of Frederic W. Glasier, whose extraordinary photos of early 20th century circus performers have recently undergone something of a re-discovery.

Are you, dear reader, a fan of Halloween?  It’s a holiday I remember very fondly from my childhood.  Decked out in a cardboard witch’s hat (costumes were much less elaborate back in the day), I’d join one of the packs of neighborhood kids and spend a few glorious hours going door to door, free of adult supervision, with a candy bag getting heavier at each stop.  The nighttime wandering was followed by the wonderful, if competitive, ritual of examining and comparing our somewhat grubby spoils and making trades.  Did the kid next door get more chocolate than I did?  Could I persuade one of my little buddies to swap his M&Ms for my green jelly beans (generally the answer was “no”)?  Ah, the memories!  A lifetime away from the candy haul, I retain a vestigial fondness for this holiday. So, on Halloween night my lights are always on, the candy bowl by the door filled with primo goodies (no green jelly beans at my house) and the bell is always answered, even when the little goblins and space invaders interrupt a chapter in whatever exciting new book I happen to be reading.  In short, Janakay has always honored the season!

This year, however, I am totally not into it.  Partly it’s my personal circumstances, which have included a long distance move from this:

Can’t you just imagine a forest witch stepping out from those trees at twilight, on this very witchy night of the year?

to this:

Despite the menacing angle of Mr. Janakay’s photo, I can’t quite see a hobgoblin emerging from behind one of these palm trees unless it’s wearing a big smile and offering a mimosa! Halloween just doesn’t seem to fit this climate . . .

Primarily, however, the sparkle and playfulness I’ve always associated with Halloween are totally overshadowed this year by the horrors of an ugly and divisive election, civil unrest created by social injustice and a pandemic that has already killed hundreds of thousands. Who can attend to imaginary terrors, when the real things are so frighteningly close at hand?

A news photo of demonstrators; the masks are visible symbols of the terrible disease that’s claimed so many lives (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
One of many polling places near my new residence, thankfully minus the motorcades decorated with banners and flags that seem omnipresent these days (the unfamiliar names you see on some of the signs belong to candidates for such entities as county commission and the mosquito control board, which also appear to be rather hotly contested this election cycle)

But in the midst of chaos and civic unrest, we readers always have our books, don’t we? As I noted last year, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we humans love to scare ourselves, as well as by our individual differences in what we each find personally terrifying. I’ve always tended, for example, to favor tales of the occult and supernatural rather than the thriller/slasher brand of horror; more Shirley Jackson and less Freddy Krueger, if that makes sense. And, while I don’t read huge quantities of horror fiction, I have accumulated over the years a clutch of “weird tales,” to use a 1930s term. Although most of my books are still packed and awaiting a home on their new shelves, a quick rummage through what’s available disclosed:

A small but fairly representative sample of my horror fiction, which demonstrates just how versatile the horror genre can be. It includes classics (Sheridan Le Fanu’s Best Ghost Stories and M.R. James); fantasy/sci-fi (Tanith Lee’s Dreams of Dark and Light); conventional mystery with an edge of the occult (Douglas Browne’s What Beckoning Ghost); popular mass market (the great and relatively unknown T.E.D. Klein) and the literary (Margo Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture & Hillary Mantel’s wonderful but under-appreciated Beyond Black).

Since I’ve been too enervated and apathetic this year to observe my little ritual of including something creepy and dark in my October reading, I thought I’d share some “horrible” reading from earlier in the year. These are three very different works, read at widely spaced intervals; while I enjoyed all three, I did so in varying degrees. In ascending order of appreciation, I’ll begin with:

Have you ever, dear reader, moved approximately four thousand books, seven rooms of furniture, a significant other and three very unhappy cats in the middle of a pandemic? Having (barely) survived the experience, being “swallow[ed] . . . whole” by a horror novel was a piece of cake. I spent a week in May soothing myself in Thomas’ debut novel, which follows the adventures of alienated teen Ines Murillo as she navigates her way through the elite corridors of Catherine House, not a college, exactly, although accredited as such; more (2-3)

a community of minds. A crucible of experimental, reformist liberal arts study. Research-and-development institute for the most radical new materials sciences. A postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League, and so terrifically endowed that tuition was free to any student lucky enough to be accepted. A tiny, pioneering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds; prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States. A school and an estate: a complex confection of architecture and design, a house — a magnificent house — miles off the highway, in black woods, behind a long iron gate.

In exchange for all this beneficence, students surrender their cell phones, forgo contact with the outside world (including their families) and spend three years secluded on Catherine’s grounds. Does it surprise you, dear reader, to learn that dark deeds are afoot and that Ines, who spends most of her days drinking and — well, engaged in intimate encounters — may be destined for a dark fate? Unfortunately these things were pretty obvious less than halfway through the novel, but Thomas can write and has a real gift for creating an imaginative and disturbing world that’s inhabited by fairly interesting characters (although Ines was admittedly a little tedious at times). If you forget the over the top comparisons to Donna Tart’s Secret History or Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (some reviewers never know when to stop, do they?), love novels heavy on atmosphere and don’t mind if you can guess the plot twists, Catherine House is a very enjoyable way to spend a day or two (it clocks in at around 300 pages) and would make a great Halloween read.

A step up from Catherine House, in terms of originality and impact, is

I became interested in Schweblin after reading several very enthusiastic reviews of Little Eyes, her latest novel translated from Spanish into English; I wanted to try Schweblin’s work but didn’t feel up to tackling a full-length novel (her short story collection Mouthful of Birds was off limits because I can’t handle anything involving graphic violence to animals). More a novella than a novel proper (it has 150 pages of very, very large type), Fever Dreams seemed the most accessible introduction to Schweblin’s work. (I actually read this in August, for Spanish Literature month, but never got around to writing a review).

It’s fortunate that Fever Dreams is so brief, because it’s almost impossible to put down once you begin reading it, with its combination of doom, horror and mystery. It’s a tightly structured work, told mostly in conversational questions and answers between Amanda, a young woman who lies dying in a remote, rural hospital, and David, the mysterious child who is not Amanda’s son and whose questions, editings and probings create an almost unbearable level of suspense for both Amanda and the reader. David, you see, is interested in nothing beyond the “worms” or “something very much like worms, and the exact moment” when they first “touch your body.” When Amanda’s account deviates into non-essentials, David reminds her that “there is very little time;” when Amanda doubts the accuracy and reality of her memories, David assures her that her nightmare is indeed real. For all its brevity, Fever Dreams is technically quite complex, as it explains the Amanda and David story arc, set in the present, by means of a dialogue between Amanda and Carla, David’s mother, set in the past. Part environmental disaster, part folk horror and all nightmare, Fever Dreams is an incredible accomplishment. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Granta had recently named Schweblin as one of its top young Spanish language writers or that her subsequent novel was long-listed for the 2020 Man Booker International Prize.

The third (and scariest) of my three scary reads is “The Fly Paper,” a short story by Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, that Elizabeth Taylor, the nice British lady whose reputation has undergone something of a Renaissance in recent times. In the years since I’ve first encountered Taylor (I’ve read almost all of her novels and have begun working on her short stories) my own opinion of her work has shifted significantly, from condescension to true admiration. The surface of Taylor’s deceptively cozy, middle class world can conceal some pretty dark stuff, which is nowhere more evident than in “Fly Paper.” The story concerns Sylvia, a plain and sullen child of eleven with “greasy hair fastened back by a pink plastic slide.” The unmusical Sylvia lives with her grandmother, who won’t let her eat sweets and insists on a weekly music lesson, a torment for the child who’s bullied by her exasperated teacher. Sylvia has received all the usual warnings against speaking to strangers, so she’s duly alarmed when, on her weekly bus ride to her music lesson, a strange man strikes up a conversation and tries to buy her an ice. Her fears are assuaged, however, by a motherly woman who intervenes and invites her to tea. About midway through the story, my flash of where Taylor might be taking me almost literally made me ill and I had to stop reading for a bit. Perhaps I was over reacting, perhaps I was having a bad day, perhaps Taylor was simply a brilliant writer who knew, instinctively or otherwise, that horror is heightened when it’s combined, oh so simply, with the perfectly observed quotidian details of an ordinary day.

“The Fly Paper” was reprinted in this collection of Taylor’s stories published by NYRB Classics, which includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble.

Well, folks, that’s it for this Halloween! It’s time to take a page from Maxi’s book and call it a night.

Maxi says, “A pox on all your electoral factions. Let me sleep.”

Spanish Lit Month: Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves

 

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One of my consolations in this strange and troubling year is discovering the pleasures of translated fiction.  My pre-blog reading life (as I’ve noted before) was largely confined to the anglophone world, with a mild tilt towards British authors thanks to my devotion to The Guardian’s book section.  Oh, I did read a translated novel here and there over the years, but when I did so it was almost always something from a European country; my two categories were either works that made a huge splash on my side of the Atlantic (Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny and Herman Koch’s The Dinner spring to mind) or one of those big, sprawling 19th century chunksters that so impress one’s colleagues during those stimulating Monday morning conversations around the water cooler.  (“Did I happen to mention that I read War and Peace last weekend?  Tolstoy has such a penetrating view of history, don’t you think?”)  I very rarely read any contemporary fiction in translation and I almost never read anything, contemporary or classical, from a non-European country.

My, how things did change, once I started traveling through the blogosphere!  It didn’t take long for me to see the riches I had been missing and to add a great many new titles to my ever expanding TBR mountain (thank you very much, dear Kaggsy, for your excellent recommendations!)  And then, there was the fun of discovering new publishers, such as the Pushkin Press, the Fitzcarraldo and the Europa Editions (if any of you dear readers have other publisher recommendations, do please share).  After dipping my toe into non-western waters last winter thanks to Dolce Bellezza Japanese Literature Challenge, I decided the time was ripe for a mild exploration of a few more translated works.

And what better time to start my adventure than in August, which is both Spanish literature and Women in Translation (WIT) month?  In honor of both occasions, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading several works that fit into either category, with at least two novels (Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dreams and Maria Graina’s The Optic Nerve) that fit both.  In addition to the thrill of discovering these new (to me) writers, I’m very much looking forward to reading all the great reviews that are currently popping up on some of my favorite blogs.  Hopefully I’ll be sharing a few of my own thoughts on my discoveries in the upcoming weeks as well.

Because I’ve traveled fairly extensively in certain parts of Latin America (but have never, alas, visited Spain), I rather arbitrarily decided to focus on the former area in selecting my translated-from-Spanish novel.  I also wanted to read a very contemporary writer who’s currently publishing rather than an established giant of the canon such as Borges, Llosa or Marquez.  Earlier this summer I became interested in Andrés Neuman, an Argentinian novelist with strong ties to Spain, when I read a recent Guardian review of Fractures, his latest novel translated into English.  In keeping with my general ignorance of international literature, I was amazed to discover just how much Neuman has written (he has over twenty works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt), the wide range of his talent (Neuman is a poet and essayist as well as a novelist) and just how highly he’s regarded by those who should know (Roberto Bolaño, no less, proclaimed that 21st century literature would belong to this guy and as if that wasn’t enough, Granta included him in Volume 113, its selection of the best young Spanish language writers).  Despite this renown, however, only three of Neuman’s novels have currently been translated into English.  A copy of the earliest of these, The Traveler of the Century, wasn’t readily available to me; between the two that were, I decided to begin with Talking To Ourselves based largely on whim (also, I must confess, I loved the cover photo, despite the insertion of  those stupid conversation “balloons”).

Talking to Ourselves is one of those novels whose brevity is disproportionate to its impact.  Clocking in at a mere 160 pages or so, it can be finished in an afternoon, but its reverberations continue long after you’ve read the last word.  I found myself puzzling for days over various aspects of the story and finding new layers of (possible) meaning in various incidents or characters.  I don’t want to suggest that Talking is a difficult read — it isn’t; there isn’t much external action and the number of characters is primarily limited to the eternal triangle of man, woman and child.  Rather, like the great artist he is, Neuman works on many levels and leaves it up to to the reader to decide how deeply he or she wants to delve.

The novel opens with a quarrel between Mario and his wife Elena; Mario, it seems, wants to borrow his brother’s truck and take Lito, the couple’s ten year old son, on a road trip to deliver an unspecified cargo to a small, remote town far from the family home in Buenos Aires.  Lito is very excited at the propect of this long-promised treat while Elena is very much opposed.  We shortly learn that Mario is dying (almost certainly from cancer, although the cause is never specified); when the novel opens his disease is in (temporary) remission and he desperately wants to create a lasting memory for Lito to cherish after his father’s death.  Mario and Lito embark on their journey while Elena, who remains behind, commences her own very different odyssey.

Lito, Mario and Elena each tell the unfolding story through his or her point of view (POV).  This limited view point not only keeps the reader guessing but also deepens our understanding of certain incidents.  Lito, for example, thinks his father reacts rudely to a “magician” they encounter on their road trip; Mario’s puzzling actions become clear later on when he narrates his own section and indicates his opinion that the “magician” is most probably a pedophile who’s hitting on his son.  The shifting POV also imparts suspense into what might otherwise be a rather claustrophobic domestic drama by allowing the reader access to information Elena and Mario withhold from each other and from Lito (both parents, for example, lie to their son about the extent and nature of Mario’s illness and death).

Although Mario does the dying (he is, so to speak, the novel’s guest of honor), the novel really belongs to Elena, an academic manqué whose lack of conviction and desire to get married led her to abandon graduate study.  Far more intellectual than Mario, Elena attempts to understand her grief by reading and reflecting on great works of literature.  We know her thoughts through her journal entries, as we know Mario’s from the recordings he makes (after his death, these will ultimately be given to Lito) and Lito’s through his texts and stream of consciousness narration (it’s a mark of Neuman’s skill that he makes each character communicate in a way that reflects his or her personality).  As Elena looks to literature to make sense of herself and her disintegrating world, the novel interweaves her thoughts about what she is reading with actual quotes from the works themselves.  As Elena explains:

When a book tells me something I was trying to say, I feel the right to appropriate its words, as if they had once belonged to me and I was taking them back.

“She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow,” I was startled to read in a short story by Lorrie Moore, sometimes I do the same, using my photophobia as an excuse, so that Lito won’t see my eyes.  “From where will her own strength come?  From some philosophy?  From some frigid little philosophy?” Actually, I don’t get my strength from reading, but I do understand my weakness.

Although Neuman overdoes this device a bit, it’s a very interesting stream of consciousness technique that gives a real sense of immediacy to Elena’s reading (the novel contains a bibliography listing the works that Elena cites, which range from César Aira and Margaret Atwood to Hebe Uhart and Justo Navarro).

A major portion of Elena’s journal entries deal with a clandestine affair that begins shortly after Mario and Lito depart on their road trip.  Despite feeling increasingly guilty about her actions, Elena responds to her husband’s approaching death by engaging in an intense, very physical affair that has heavy sadomasochistic overtones.  As Elena explains (Talking at 44-45) in her journal, the physical and psychological pain she gives, and receives, from this affair resurrects and awakens her; she and her lover (who is experiencing a loss of his own) “cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here.”  I’m less morally repulsed than somewhat unconvinced by Elena’s actions, which strike me as a bit contrived (I found myself thinking that this novel was written by a man, after all, but then perhaps I’m being naive).  It’s perhaps significant, perhaps not, that Elena’s lover is the one important character we see only from the outside; he alone has no voice.  Although this may simply emphasize his relative unimportance vis-à-vis the bond between Elena and the dying Mario, for me at least his silence and the opacity of his emotions and motives  increased my inclination to regard him as a rather artificial plot device.

Unsurprisingly for such a short novel, there’s a dearth of secondary characters.  Elena’s parents and older sister, and Mario’s brothers, make brief, fleeting appearances or are referred to in passing.  When they do appear, however, Neuman can bring them alive with a line or two.  My favorite of these is Elena’s older sister.  Never given a proper name, she quarrels with Elena and leaves her house in a huff after she learns of Elena’s affair; polite, dignified and insufferable, she informs Elena of her departure by text message.  A subsequent exchange between the sisters conveys the essence of many sibling relationships:

Do you need money?  my sister asked in that responsible tone my dad admires so much.  No, I pretended, why do you ask?  No reason, she replied, how much do you need?  When I said the amount I felt odd, grateful, younger.

I’m afraid that my bare summary may leave you with the  impression that the novel is melodramatic and emotionally bleak.  If so, I’ve done a severe disservice to Neuman’s skill and subtlety.  Talking is surprisingly funny in spots, an effect Neuman achieves in part by making Lito the narrator for part of the road trip with his father.  I usually become pretty wary when a child protagonist appears, as all too often s/he is either too cute, unrealistically precocious or both.  In Lito, however, Neuman finds the realistic (and very funny) balance between the awareness and the innocence of a ten year old, as this exchange between Lito and his father (Talking at 32) makes clear:

I send a text from Dad’s phone:

hi ma hw r u? we r awsm! saw ++s of grt plcs 2day dt worry dad nt drvg fst  🙂  xxxs luv u

Mom replies:

Thank you my darling for your delicious message.  Your mom is fine but she misses you loads.  Be careful climbing in and out of Pedro [the truck].  I went swimming today.  You are my angel, kiss Daddy for me.

Mom doesn’t know how to use the phone, I laugh.  What do you mean?  Dad says, she uses it every day.  And she had one before you were born * * * Sure I say, but she doesn’t know.  Her messages always have twenty or thirty letters too many.  It’s more expensive.  And she wastes about a hundred letters.  * * *  And you, I go on, don’t know how to use it either.  Oh, heck, pardon me, he says, why?  Let’s see, I say, where in the menu do you find the games?  That’s unfair, he complains.  Ask me about something I might have a use for.  Okay, okay, I say.  How do you copy your contacts list?  He doesn’t say anything.  You see?  I say.  Then I raise my arms and whoop like I’ve just scored a goal.

Continue reading “Spanish Lit Month: Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves”

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them: Or how I became an STW addict

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Here’s a glimpse of my own little stash of STW titles (Mr. Fortune’s Maggot became separated from the rest of the horde and is still packed up somewhere)

Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Sylvia Townsend Warner?  If so, you must hasten immediately over to A Gallimaufry, where Helen is hosting (for at least the second year) a reading week in Warner’s honor.  In addition to some wonderful reviews of STW’s works, Helen has provided links to a great deal of Warner-related material (including a website maintained by the STW Society) as well as to prior posts and participants’ reviews.  Among this year’s offerings are reviews of STW’s letters and poetry as well as her biography of T.H. White.  Whether you’re a die-hard STW fan or a novice who’s simply interested in becoming a little more familiar with Warner’s work, it doesn’t get any better than this!

Altough I’ve yet to read much of her output (particularly the short stories), I’ve numbered Warner as one of my favorites since my long-ago days as an undergraduate student.  Browsing aimlessly in one of my home town’s few bookshops (I was most probably skipping class at the time), I happened by sheer chance to pick up a beautiful used copy of  Lolly Willowes:  Or the Loving Huntsman.  Although I had heard of neither author nor book, I decided to risk the purchase price because it looked interesting and hardback books were scarce in my life at the time.  It didn’t take long for me to become fascinated by Warner’s tale of an aging spinster who leaves behind her conventional London family to find friends in odd places and to carve out a life for herself in the process.  I was totally entranced; I had simply never encountered anything quite like Warner’s combination of sharp social observation, realistic depictions of nature and delicate fantasy, all heightened by the mythic overtones of Lolly’s nocturnal ramblings through the dark woods adjacent to the village of Great Mop.  Lolly Willowes remains one of my favorite books and I return to it every few years, when a certain mood strikes me; unlike Lolly, I don’t ditch home and hearth but I do spend a day or two immersing myself in that singular world that Warner creates in this wonderful novel.

After Lolly Willowes, I went on to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot; my edition was published with Warner’s The Salutation (a sort of related sequel) in one of those nice NYRB Classics editions.  I’m afraid poor Timothy Fortune never had much of a chance with me; I was seeking a second Lolly Willowes, which these short novels most definitely were not.  More satirical and far more overtly realistic than Lolly Willowes, but marked by the same sharp wit and beautiful writing, I found them enjoyable but vaguely unsatisfying.  After so many years, these works are perhaps ripe for a revisit; and what better time than Warner Week?  (As soon as I finish this post, I’m clicking over to see what Harriet Devine has to say about them in her newly posted review!)

Persisting in my search for a second Lolly, I next attempted The Corner That Held Them (considered by many to be Warner’s masterpiece), with disastrous results.  Total shame prevents me from repeating my initial reaction (recounting it once was embarrassing enough), but I will say that at the time the novel left me totally baffled.  Was it a historical romance of the frivolous (that opening scene was pretty sexy) or the serious type, á la Hilary Mantel (all those detailed descriptions of medieval convent life)?  Was it even a novel?  Was it some sort of weird, fictionalized history?  I simply couldn’t fathom how (or why) the author of my beloved Lolly Willowes could also have penned this strange, oversized work.  After far less than a hundred pages I was out of there and on to something else, something easier to categorize and quicker to read.  And that, dear reader, with the exception of an elfin tale here and there, ended my flirtation with STW for several years.

Ah, but the Loving Huntsman (to use Warnerian terminology) wasn’t done with me yet!  Several years ago, moved by an impulse that I couldn’t quite understand (o.k., o.k.; I had probably received the book as a monthly selection from the NYRB Classics Club!), I was compelled to try Warner’s Summer Will Show.  Primed for disappointment after my spectacular failure with The Corner That Held Them, I was spectacularly surprised.  For all the reasons that Helen so eloquently discusses, Summer Will Show is a wonderful tale of personal liberation and growth, of love and of intellectual engagement.  Displaying STW’s beautiful style, wit and observational skill, it is nevertheless quite different from the other STW novels that I had read to that point.

And that, dear reader, is one of the keys to understanding my STW addiction.  In some form or fashion, STW never fails to surprise, to thwart conventional expections.  Just when I feel I have a handle on her work she throws me a curve ball (Mr. Janakay has his own addiction to baseball and some of the terminology has rubbed off).  After finishing or attempting four of her novels, I had finally grasped a fundamental characteristic of Warner’s oeuvre, i.e., although consistently sharing her wonderful style and wit, Warner’s novels can be totally dissimilar in terms of tone or content.  Armed with this insight, dear reader, I was finally ready to appreciate . . .

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Not being one of your self-starter types, I needed a goad to begin my second (or was it third?) attempt.  This came last January, when I decided to participate in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate), as Corner was a natural fit for my “abandoned classic” category.

There’s an amusing anecdote, one of Mark Twain’s I do believe, to the effect that when he was nineteen he considered his father a fool but when he became twenty-one he was amazed at how much the old man had learned.  The anecdote springs to mind in connection with Corner because it rather accurately reflects my own changed opinion of Warner’s marvelous novel.  Even in my very callow youth (and I really must admit that I wasn’t that young when I attempted my first read) how could I have so misjudged this masterpiece?  The second time around I was hooked and mainlining right from page one and spent a wonderful week or so in late January, totally lost in the universe Warner created.  Have any of you watched Bladerunner, with its AI replicants who were “more real than real”?  Although the comparison jars a bit, it pretty accurately describes how I experienced the small corner of the medieval universe Warner creates.  In this I found her skill to be comparable to the great 19th century realists, whose fictional universes are so skillfully constructed that we readers are deceived into thinking them snapshots of reality when of course they are no such thing.  As Claire Harmon observes in her introduction, Warner’s novel is one of “contrived realism,” so skillfully done that it seems more historical that fictional.

But enough of my enthusing — it’s time for my formal review!  And here, I must admit that I may check up short.  Corner is long (almost four hundred pages); extends over fifty or so years; has numerous characters; employs multiple view points; and doesn’t center around any one, prominent event.  Because I read it six months ago, moreover, I’ve forgotten some of the details.  Aside from the fact that I’d welcome your opinion of the novel, please correct any factoids I happen to misstate.

At its simplest level Corner recounts the lives of the nuns in the small convent of Oby, built in the mid-14th century on a rise of land located in the marsh country of eastern England.  If, like me, you’re familiar with religious life primarily from reading Hulme’s The Nun’s Story (great movie BTW) or Godden’s In This House of Brede, well, you need to forget both.  Warner’s nuns are very worldly nuns (with respect to at least one of them, I found myself thinking of the very worldly prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) or at least concerned with mundane matters; they do their religious duties, of course, but are more prone to discuss the design of the new altar hangings they’re embroidering or the details of the bishop’s next visit than more overtly spiritual matters.  This preoccupation reflects the reality of a tough medieval world, politically and spiritually dominated by men, that Oby’s nun’s must navigate in order to survive.  Warner is intrigued with the bread and butter issues of convent life, with how the nuns sustain themselves, how they keep their accounts and what those accounts record.  Oby is a small convent and its economic base is precarious; STW never lets you forget how thin is the line separating its survival from its ruin.  That altar cloth, for example, is a major financial investment that the convent intends to gift to the hostile bishop who’s causing it problems.  Warner uses these quotidian realities of convent life to establish an absolutely convincing reality.

Because Corner spans four odd decades or so, it necessarily teems with characters.  Novices enter Oby, take their vows or not, live their lives there as nuns and die and are buried.  One prioress succeeds another, ditto for the bishops controlling the convent’s fate.  The village that supports Oby’s economic existence sees a similar turnover of personnel; an honest and efficient bailiff dies and is replaced by a nephew; the bailiff’s widow moves on to another man.  As in life, so as in literature — some of these characters are sympathetic, some aren’t.  If you’re the type of reader who demands a central character, particularly one with whom you can identify, then this book isn’t for you.  The closest thing to a dominant POV here is probably that of Ralph Kello, the vagrant clerk who comes to Oby by chance and remains there for the rest of his life, masquerading as a priest.  Events in the great world outside Oby include the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but the reader experiences them only tangentially, in the same way that they are experienced by Oby’s inhabitants.  More important than either for the convent is the great task of erecting a steeple for its chapel, a project that consumes its resources and dominates the tenure of at least one of its prioresses.  The action never strays very far from Oby and, as Harman points out in her introduction, the narrative is as meandering as the marshy stream that Oby abuts.

Warner’s slyly irreverent and subversive wit is everywhere present in the novel.  She begins, for example, by describing the adulterous act that will ultimately lead to the foundation of Oby, a nunnery commemorating the soul of the adulterous wife who narrowly escapes being murdered by her husband (her lover wasn’t so lucky).  Ralph Kello, Oby’s “priest,” arrives at the convent after a night of carousing that leaves him too drunk to understand that it has been stricken by the plague; he remains there for the rest of his life, ministering quite adequately to the nuns’ spiritual needs.  And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the life of the spirit, the raison d’être of the nuns’ existence, and the necessity of feeding and clothing the body, which preoccupies much of their daily existence.  What could be more ironic than the necessity of the banal to support the life of the spirit?

And then, of course, there’s Warner’s spare, elegant, breathtakingly beautiful language (pages 15-17):

In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.
* * *
Though there had been pestilences often enough before, there had never been, they said, such a pestilence as this.  It traveled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon * * * All across Europe it had come, and now it would traverse England, and nothing could stop it, wherever there were men living it would seek them out, and turn back, as a wolf does, to snap at the man it had passed by.

I’m afraid I’ve made this great novel sound very dull (the fear of doing so has largely held me back from discussing it) when nothing could be further from its reality.  The best way I can think of to say it is that Corner is a singular masterpiece that places singular demands on the reader.  We all, of course, have to find our own way to appreciate works such as this.  The approach that worked for me was to simply let the novel wash over me, without attempting to remember, with any great exactness, the individual characters; to regard the “Corner” itself as the protagonist, to see the novel as the story, almost, of a hive or a collective, with individuals having only very transient and minor roles.  I’d be most interested to hear how others have navigated this very great and very eccentric work.

As for my STW addiction — well, after Summer Will Show, I’m afraid I’m hopelessly hooked.  Luckily I have at least two novels and a wealth of short stories in store  . . . .

 

 

 

IT’S JUNETEENTH!

 

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The Juneteenth Flag, created in 1997 by activists associated with the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.  On June 19, 1865, over two months after the surrender of the main Confederate army in Virginia, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned that they were freed.  This event has come to symbolize the effective end of slavery in the United States.

It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years.  In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change.  In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media.  Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago.  But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child.  The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning.  Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens?  To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?

Well, enough of the soap box!  Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!

MISCELLANY FIRST:  A New Type of Equestrian Statue

Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there?  Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses.  Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .

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Born in South Central Lost Angeles, Wiley was the first African American artist to paint an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power.  It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.

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Haarlem cloth merchant Willem van Heythuysen, painted in 1625 by Frans Hals.

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Wiley’s 2006 depiction of an equally stylish resident of a far different Harlem

Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States?  If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases.  For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past.  Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:

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Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War,” temporarily installed in New York City’s Times Square.  Inspired by an early 20th century statue of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, Wiley portrays a young African American male wearing dreads, torn jeans, sneakers and a hoodie.

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Another view, showing the full pose.

By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum.  Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:

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Virginia has more memorials to the Confederacy than any other state in the union.  Wiley’s bronze is a direct response to the critical question of “who matters?”

 

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The human figures give some idea of the statue’s scale; it’s 27 feet (approximately 8.2 meters) high and weighs nearly thirty tons

“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy.  Well done, Kehinde!

MISCELLANY SECOND:  Remembrance

Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover?  The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional.  Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America.  The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.

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For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.

MISCELLANY THIRD:  Hope

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Langston Hughes, a leading 20th century poet and one of the first African American writers to win mainstream acceptance.  This 1925 portrait by Winold Reiss is one of my favorites.  Don’t you love the way the poet’s dreams are portrayed in the background?

The poets always say it best.  What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

(excerpt from “Let America Be America Again”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Miscellany: Reading Roundup

 

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Does your book collection resemble this jumble as much as mine does?  The painting (“Odd Lot Cheap,” 1878) is the work of the late 19th century American artist William Harnett (1848-1892).  Although it’s been suggested that Harnett’s illusionistic paintings are devoid of inner meaning, don’t you find this one an implicit comment on the transience of all things, including our beloved books?

Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around.  Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year.  What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now).  In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading.  One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move!  Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading?  Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of  lying on the beach?  Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons?  Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!

As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals.   Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books?  (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink.  Janakay won’t tell!)  I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count).  I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they?  They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!

To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat.  Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?)   This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess.  I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices.  I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.

From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.  I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed.  How that Warner woman could dribble on!  Had she no editor?  Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly WillowesWhatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome?  Was Corner a history or was it a novel?  Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored.  Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust.  Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken!  In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier!  Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment!  Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel?  The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended.   Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty)  ….

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I will absolutely, positively get around to writing my review . . . .

and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .

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This is an old edition of a very popular work.  Do you have a copy?

But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)

Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Any Rumer Godden readers out there?  Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character.  Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does.  The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian.  Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line.  All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.

 

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Maxi says “Finish packing those boxes or you’ll never get moved!”

February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13.  This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers.  Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach.  What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing!  Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read?  Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country.  More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist?  You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.”  (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year.  I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait).  I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.

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A wonderful cover, n’est pas?  You can almost feel the cold.  This is one of  those rare cases in which the cover art so beautifully conveys the mood of the novel

 

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Another wonderful case of cover matching content!

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A fun read; rather western in style & approach but providing plenty of insight (IMO at least) into young Tokyo life

And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago.  What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary.  All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened.  Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers!  Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)

To a lesser extent, February was also short story month.  Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof!  They’re over!  This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?).  One of my rewards was  re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now.  Have any of you read it?  If not, why are you wasting time on my blog?  Click off instantly and read it now.  Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.

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If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads.  I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin.  Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy.  Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days.  If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal.  For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited).  I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers).  As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:

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In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare.  As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel.  Do any of you share my enthusiasm?  After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago.  I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I  couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?).   I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March.  Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?)  Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor.  Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere.  What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey.  I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read.  The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good.  Have any of you read Glass Hotel?  Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter?  If so, I’d love to hear your opinions.   I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away.  Do you read non-fiction?  Play solitaire?  Immediately go on to the next novel on your list?  Do share your secret of survival!

After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King.  Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try.  Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men.  Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees.  I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list!  (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.)  Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist.  If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader!  This is your book!  Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.

Well, that’s it for my round-up!  What about yours?  I’d love to compare lists!

 

April Is For Poetry

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Doesn’t this attractive young lady look like she’s having fun, sunbathing on her fluffy white cloud while strewing flowers of inspiration on the world below?  She’s the Muse of Poetry, as depicted by French artist Henri LeRolle (1848-1949) and April is her very special month!

Well, hello again, dear readers!  After many months of silence, or near silence, I’m finally taking a stab at inserting (or, should I say “inflicting”) a new post on my almost moribund blog.  It’s requiring a bit more of an effort than usual, given the enormous and frightening changes in the world since my last post in January.  Then I had two major preoccupations, one being the very pleasant task of choosing my books for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, the other the not-very-enjoyable labor of planning and executing a long-distance move (a task that proved almost, but not quite, too much for Janakay!).  In those halcyon, pre-pandemic days, Covid-19 was barely a shadow on the horizon.  Now it appears to dominate my life.  When I’m not washing my hands or sanitizing hard surfaces with whatever disinfectant’s at hand, or enjoying those very entertaining bird videos with the cats (Birds of Australia is a particular favorite at our house), I spend far too much time reading news accounts and statistics relating to this terrible disease.  Covid-19, dear readers, has given Janakay some (very) minor and unwelcome insights into life during those medieval plague years that were the subject of several of her college history courses.  Except, of course, medieval plague sufferers lacked both Purell and the internet (how would we all survive without both?)

And yet, however imperfectly, life goes on in this year of the plague.  Because it is “insufficient,” however, merely to survive (if, like me, you adore Emily St. John Mandel’s work, you’ll recognize that I’m lifting this line from her great Station Eleven, which in turn borrowed the idea from a Star Trek episode!) literature and art accrue even more value amidst the horrors of our chaotic times.  To survive in any meaningful sense of the word in these difficult days one must read!  Although I’ve not been sharing my thoughts online, I have been reading steadily, in the time between packing boxes and moving furniture; my reward has been discovering a number of remarkable classic and contemporary novels.  Hopefully I’ll be giving you at least some general reactions shortly but only after I finish unpacking the dishes!

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I’m absolutely positive those kitchen dishes are in there somewhere!  Maxi knows where, but is too sleepy to bother telling!

If you’ve visited my blog in the past, you are aware that I love novels, which are almost always the subject when I write about bookish things.  As I’ve posted before, I’m a little ambivalent about poetry (short stories, too, but for different reasons).  Although poetry was very important to me at one time in my life, it’s a difficult and demanding art form that requires time, attention and insight, which for many years were in short supply for anything other than Janakay’s job (kitty kibble is expensive and hungry cats can be positively savage!).  Although I don’t focus on poetry these days, I honor the art and do still attempt to save a little time for reading it.  I also attempt, in a mild sort of way, to venture beyond my youthful favorites, which included lots of poems about Corinnas and Lucastas gathering rosebuds and knights riding to many-towered Camelot and so on (Janakay obviously adored Cavalier Poets and the Victorians.  How could you not?  Their stuff all rhymed and was usually easy to understand.  “Ah, youth,” as one of my old fav poets might have sighed).  My efforts these days don’t amount to much; I read a poem now and then, usually something in a traditional mode and, occasionally, check out The Guardian’s weekly poetry column (for me it’s a great resource for finding unfamiliar work.  A bonus feature is Carol Rumens’ commentary, which always accompanies her weekly selection).  

My biggest gesture of support for my former love usually comes in April, designated “National Poetry Month” by these squabbling, competing and currently very disunited States of America.  Every April I make a point of actually buying a book of poetry; while I don’t have any rules about what I select, I do try to make it a work of a contemporary poet, or at least a poet who’s unfamiliar to me (this includes almost everyone writing poetry after 1900 or so).  My choice this year was Nina Maclaughlin’s Wake, Siren 

 

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Honestly, isn’t this the greatest cover ever?  The critters surrounding the siren’s face represent the fate of the book’s various heroines.

in which Maclaughlin reimagines the stories of several mythical heroines taken from 

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Metamorphoses, the great narrative poem written by the Latin poet Ovid in the first century CE.  Any lovers of Ovid out there, or just anyone who likes good stories?  As the name indicates, Ovid describes an unstable universe in which the world and its creatures constantly shift and transform from one shape or substance into another.   Chaos morphs into an orderly universe of form and matter; a golden age transforms into one of silver or bronze; male shifts to female and vice versa; humans transform into animals or plants or constellations  — well, you get the drift.  Many of Ovid’s stories involve human women or nymphs (lesser female divinities associated with nature) who happen to catch a god’s attention, almost always with disasterous results.  The women in Ovid don’t get many happy endings, unless you count being changed into a bear, a spider or a laurel tree as such.

In a very clever metamorphosis of her own, Nina Maclaughlin transforms the traditional stories recounted by Ovid by taking thirty of Ovid’s female characters and transposing them to a modern setting.  Maclaughlin’s women wear jeans, do yoga, go to music festivals and talk to their therapists using language familiar to Janakay from her days as a seaman apprentice (the narrator in “Agave,” for instances, tells her visitor that “there’s some beer in the fridge” and describes — sanitized version — King Pentheus of Thebes as “this asshole jock, this clean-cut rapey beef-brained” guy).  Most importantly, they tell their own stories in a series of monologues of varying length, speaking not in verse but in a type of flowing prose-poetry.  Maclaughlin’s approach adds depth and richness to Ovid’s tales and while you may not always agree with her take on the characters (who knows? Maybe Pentheus has some fans out there!) it frequently makes you rethink what’s going on in the stories.  Considering that these tales have been retold in verse, prose and music for over two millenia, this is a considerable accomplishment.

Maclaughlin’s format (like Ovid’s) is very conducive to reading in small dips and nibbles, which is very congenial to my currently fractured span of attention (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?).  It also has the advantage of letting you skip around, from short monologue (Nyctimene, two pages) to long (Tiresias, twelve pages), from happy (Pomona) to sad (Callisto).  My favorite piece so far (I’ve been dipping in and out for several days now) is Maclaughlin’s retelling of the Orpheus myth, the ancient and popular story of a divine musician who descends to Hades, charms the very dead with his song and almost, but not quite, retrieves his beloved wife, killed by a serpent’s bite on their wedding day.  In Maclaughlin’s version, Eurydice is the neglected daughter of a rock legend with music in her blood and a great deal of talent of her own.  After several unsuccessful and demeaning relationships that reinforce her low self-esteem, she hooks up with “O.,” a world famous singer who adds physical to psychological abuse in his attempts to silence her own song.  Realizing on her wedding day that she can’t go through with it, Eurydice flees to the Cobra Club, a raunchy honky-tonk located in a basement and run by HayDaze and his relunctant wife Penny, who goes away every summer on tour (the club’s sign features a red snake, naturally, and Eurydice and her friends joke when they go there that they’ve been “bitten by the serpent.”)  O. follows and, using his music to charm and bewitch, almost leads Eurydice to the top of the stairs and out of the club.  One final act of cruelty, however,  gives Eurydice the impetus to free herself from his spell and, with relief, return to her refuge, the club where everyone goes eventually and which always has room for one more (even at the sold-out shows).  Rather than being gimmicky, Maclaughlin’s clever inversion of the myth’s plot and visual elements makes the ancient story as relevant to us as it was to Ovid’s original readers.  It also makes for a lively, amusing and horrifying piece of work.  (For another great take on the Orpheus myth, try Carol Ann Duffy’s “Eurydice,” from her wonderful poetry collection The World’s Wife.)

So, do I recommend Wake, Siren?  Oh yes but . . . with a few teeny caveats.  Although Janakay adores giving a new spin to old material and is very fond of a feminist slant, she is aware that not every reader shares her taste for this sort of thing.  If, unlike her, you prefer your mythology straight, Maclaughlin’s book is obviously not for you (in that case, you might check out the edition of Ovid pictured above.  Stanley Lombardo’s translation is great, there’s a wonderful introductory essay discussing the themes underlying Ovid’s work and some helpful additional features, such as a glossary of names and a table grouping the myths into various categories).  There’s also the question of language, which is very uninhibited.  Again, this is fine with Janakay (any naughty word she didn’t hear in the navy turned up when her college Latin class translated Petronius’ Satyricon) but if it’s an issue for you, well, there are plenty of other sources to choose from. Oh — before I forget — it isn’t necessary to know the traditional form of the myth to enjoy Maclaughlin’s version, but it’s fun if you have the time and energy to read the two in tandem.

Well, that’s it for tonight, dear readers.  Stay healthy, keep washing those hands and if you’ve time to honor the muse in her special month by reading a poem or two, share any particular treasures you may find!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

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Although this young lady is working in a bookstore, her activity isn’t entirely dissimilar from ours when we compile our lists, is it?  Do you love this contemporary painting (“Old Books” by David Carson Taylor) as much as I do?

Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you?  She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year.  Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge.  I adore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think?  In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books!  And this year, they’re all going to be read!  What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?

And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read?  Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to  to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy!  Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!).  No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading.  I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea?  After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way).  For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding.  A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities.  For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others.  And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily!  Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list?  Absolutely!  But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020.  The list, once made, sets the priorities!

In compiling my own list this month I’ve very  much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices.  It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title?  Does a waterfall count?”).  It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories.  These cases raise the additional question of which category to use?  Oh, such delightful dilemmas!

Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

19th Century Classic:  To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith!  I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician!  I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).

In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover.  Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General.  The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back.  (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge:  I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!)  When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend!  My choice was made!

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20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970):  Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett.  Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work.  In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read!  This year, I will do better!  My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).

 

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Classic by a Woman Author:  I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963).  2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd!  On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.

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Classic in Translation:  My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann.  The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.

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Classic by a POC:  A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s.  It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs.  One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry.  Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer.  By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s.  I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity.  Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work.  Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S.  the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley,  a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).

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A Genre Classic:  I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town.  So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice.  But which book?  That’s a bit of a problem.  Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore.  (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?).  I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply  a series of repeating cycles or events.  I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me!  Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.

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Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title:  Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time.  (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011.  My bad!)  As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high.  Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic.  Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!

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Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)?  She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, The Door.  I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years.  The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels.  The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date.  My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.

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Classic with Nature in the Title:  This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak.  I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning?  She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date!  Shucky darn, that one’s out!  I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet.  I loved the Quartet (its treatment of  the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it.  My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.

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Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title:  Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family.  With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine.  I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.

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Abandoned Classic:  Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from!  Most of Dickens!  All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)!  A Brontë or three (or four) —  Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well!  Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing?  (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce.  I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb.  Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it).  No! No! No!  Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move!  Allowances must be made!  Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites.  Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long).  In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same.  In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer).  With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them.  (P.S.:  I’ve already started reading it!  It’s wonderful!).

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Classic Adaptation:  This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices!  I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time.  Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not.  Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.”  I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.

Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post.  As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!