Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes! At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit. And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe. For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck! Doctors! Needles! Nasty medicines! Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time. Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date. Ah, memory …) I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities. While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above. I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?) Seriously. I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things. As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans. In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read). And October? Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television. In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.
Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed. Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis. During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant). I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:
One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C. I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.
As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover. This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work). I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit! (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area. The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)
After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose. When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes. Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.
I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception. Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning. Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings.
The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.
Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.
After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing. Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:
Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home . . . .
About halfway through June I discovered the very amusing “Six In Six” Challenge sponsored by Jo at Book Jotter. Since I’ve posted so very little this year while reading more than I have in quite some time, I decided this was an excellent way to share at least a little of the many great books that have come my way in what is shaping up to be a banner year for reading. Besides, isn’t quantifying one’s journey almost as much fun as undertaking the trip in the first place?
The challenge is to pick six categories and, having done so, to list six books that you’ve read by the end of June within each chosen category (as I understand it, the selections should be posted by the end of July. Since I just wouldn’t be me if I actually posted on time, I’m shooting for August 1!) In addition to supplying a multitude of categories from which to choose, Jo has very cleverly left room for participants to exercise their creativity by adding something new. I’ve taken advantage of her leniency by adding two categories of my own, “Short Reads,” which is self-explanatory, and my “Shelf of Shame,” a list of six books that I’ve had on my shelves unread for over six years! Can you, dear readers, match my brave honesty? If so, please share in a comment!
SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE
As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well. As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary. Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:
Beryl Bainbridge (BB).Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me.This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world. Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to tryEvery Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic. Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we? Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height. Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me. Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read. If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader. This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.
Sylvia Townsend Warner. A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books. Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week. Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre. Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination. If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether. If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family. Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week. Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all. (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.)
Valerie Martin.A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!).I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life.Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?
Joe Abercrombie: No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A.Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available? And better? Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?)From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world. Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress. When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September.Guess what I’ll be doing then?).Readers, what can I say?That’s a lot of trilogies.If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.
Elizabeth Bowen.As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship.She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but . . . at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind).Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago. (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.)This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other. As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).
Anita Brookner.After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career.Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels.I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites.This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.
SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME
Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good. One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list). Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.
Aoko Matsuda. Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries. Humor! A feminist slant! A great translator (Polly Barton)! Great characters and clever plots! Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything. Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)
Amélie Nothomb. I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist. Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from. Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life. Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story. This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon. Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.
Magda Szabo. Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door. But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel. Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good. Absolutely not to be missed.
Jens Christian Grøndahl. Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year. I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal. Don’t ask why). You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage. I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.
Margarita Liberaki. Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose? Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience? Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences? If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel. Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.
Eileen Chang. Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries). If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer. Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong. I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics. Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.
SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST
As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot. Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):
Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel. Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer. Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name. Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print. Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well.
Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.
Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton. A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed. As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ. Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out. As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.
Paula Fox’s The God of Nightmares. This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years. This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings). I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.
Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment. I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’sThe Flint Anchor.
Jane Austen’sPersuasion. An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen? Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection. Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed? Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.
SIX SHORT READS
This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list.Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels.The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf. So far this year I’ve managed:
Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.” A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work. A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two. Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.
Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.” Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period. A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion. Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.
Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.” Another coming of age tale, with a twist. Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.
Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.” After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material. Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.
Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.” Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie! Adultery, guilt and blackmail! No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.
James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I’ve read it before, but what does that matter? A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life.
SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE
MY SHELF OF SHAME: SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM
As I indicated at the beginning of this post, I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books. The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:
Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader. In my possession, unread, since 1985. I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.
Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread). Not to worry, dear readers! I’ll get to all three. Sometime.
Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights: sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.
Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare. I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009. One day.
Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys. I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade. I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.
Esther Freud’s The Wild. Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed. It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge. I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it. At some point.
Are you sometimes surprised, dear reader, at what you actually discover when you start browsing among the peaks and vales of your very own TBR mountain? I’m not referring to that discarded tea cup that went missing a year ago, or the scrap of paper on which you’d written all the passwords to your various online accounts, or even (gasp! ) to the odd little bit of multi-legged organic life (you see, I hold nothing back). I’m referring, of course, to books! Notable books from yesteryear’s “best of” and prize lists! Sales books that were so attractively priced they demanded to be taken home! Serendipitous books rewarding an afternoon’s ramble in musty old secondhand shops and elbowing others at crowded library book sales! Impulse books (this category speaks for itself) and books acquired with an eye to impressing your visitors! Books that you were hot to read after a particularly glowing review by one of you naughty bloggers (names are unnecessary — you know who you are) but that you never actually read because you lost interest before your hard-to-locate copy arrived! “Mystery” books whose reasons for being on your shelves is now a conundrum that will never be solved! This “discovery phenomenon” (my own term, for lack of a better) no doubt mystifies organized readers but for book hoarders such as myself, well, let’s say it happens on a fairly regular basis. This was particularly true in 2020-2021, a period in which I’ve done a massive amount of packing, repacking, unpacking, shelving and reshelving of massive quantities of books. Since I’m past the point of embarrassment in this regard (I reached this milestone the first time I repurchased a replacement copy of a book I’d previously discarded), I’ve decided to share my discoveries in “Rescued from the Back Shelf” reviews, which I’ll post every now and then as the spirit moves me. On the theory that anything I’ve not touched in three years badly needs rescuing, I’ll limit these reviews to books that I haven’t read within three years of the time I acquired them.
As the needle-witted (I adore Georgette Heyer’s use of Regency slang) among you have no doubt concluded by now, my inaugural “Rescued from the Back Shelf” review is Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006. Although I can’t remember the exact details, I had certainly acquired a paperback copy of the novel no later than 2010. Doing so seemed a good idea at the time. Nunez, while not as famous as she subsequently became (she didn’t win a National Book Award until many years later), already possessed a substantial literary reputation. The novel’s reviews were good to excellent and the story seemed atmospheric and character-driven, two things that always heavily influence my reading choices. On the minus side, however, the novel centered on the 1960s counter culture and its aftermath, a period that’s never particularly attracted me as a setting (how many student radicals and drug trips can you read about in one life time?). I was also somewhat daunted by its length (almost four hundred pages) which meant a sizable time commitment; as well as several critics who thought the plot rambled a bit. The claim by at least one reviewer that Last stood “the American Dream” on its head didn’t help; since I’ve always been very resistant to novels about the American Dream (whatever that is), I was logically a little hesitant to embrace any topsy-turvy version of it. So you see, dear reader, the pros and cons for giving shelf room to this novel were rather evenly balanced. Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty at this point in time, a combination of impulse and greed most likely tipped the scales, i.e., my local Barnes & Noble had probably placed it on a “3 books for the price of 2” table, which was always located strategically near the check-out line.
In the years that Last subsequently sat on my book shelves, I’d occasionally consider actually reading it, but invariably other, newer and more attractive candidates for reading time claimed my attention (besides, after seven or eight years I thought Last was probably too dated to be anything more than a period piece). Since the book had been gathering dust for over a decade, it was a logical if heart-rending decision to get rid of it during last year’s ruthless, pre-move cull of my books. Of course, I only did so after I had put an electronic version on my kindle in case I had any second thoughts! As fate would have it, during one of those dreadful dry spells between books, I was recently marooned in a medical waiting room, frantically scrolling through my kindle searching for something, anything to read, saw Last for the umpteenth time on the menu and, in the same spirit in which I chose the name of my blog, thought “what the heck! I might as well read this since I’ve nothing better to do.” At this point in my narrative, commonsense suggests I should leave you dangling, dear readers, as an incentive for you to finish reading my post. I’m so enthusiastic about this book, however, that I want to share the good news immediately. The Last of Her Kind is a wonderful, absorbing, well written and very topical novel. It says much, and nothing good, about my literary judgment that it too me so long to get around to reading it.
The novel, which is divided into seven sections and spans a period of approximately thirty years, centers on the very different lives and the intense but uneasy relationship between Georgette George and Dooley Ann Drayton, two women who meet in the late 1960s when they are assigned as freshman roommates at Barnard College, an elite women’s school in New York City. The episodic structure of the novel reminded me in many respects of time lapse photography, as the considerable time lapses between sections produces what are almost snapshots of each woman’s life at a particular point in time. There are additional chronological shifts within each section, which give additional information about the characters, how each arrived at that particular juncture in her life and what’s going on in the world around her. This last is an important point; despite the heavy marketing emphasis on the relationship between the two women, anyone expecting this to be a straight “female friendship” read will be disappointed. Although I may be alone in this view, I regard Last as an almost sociological novel in the 19th century mold; like the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Trollope, Last says as much about contemporary society as it does about the exploits of its characters. Nunez tells her story retrospectively through the eyes of a middle-aged Georgette/George (at various times of her life she goes by either and her character is as mutable as her name). George is the primary point of view character and the first person narrator for most of the novel, which is an informal journal that George is compiling to be read, if at all, by her children after she’s gone (narrating events long after they occurred George freely admits that time may have altered or erased her memory of the facts). Although George is the story-teller, however, the story largely belongs to Ann, who quickly drops her given name “Dooley” for reasons I’ll explain below. While George’s consciousness shapes the narration, and determines what facts we do or don’t learn, it is Ann who propels the narration and it is the mystery of her character that keeps the reader hooked until the end.
The two first meet in the fall of 1968, “the year of Tet, the year of the highest number of American casualties in Vietnam,” of the Prague Spring, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the My Lai massacre and the bloody battle between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The youth revolt of the 1960s was well underway, at least at elite schools such as Barnard (it would be two years before the Ohio National Guard gunned down students at Kent State). Nunez does a wonderful job of conveying the dangerous and heady atmosphere of those times. There’s hardly a significant counter culture event of 1960s America that the novel misses, particularly in the first two and longest of its sections. Woodstock; Altamont; the music and drug scenes; the increasingly radical student political movement; free love and the clinics dispensing free birth control; the fashions; the first stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement; the growing student hostility towards police and parental authority — well, it’s all pretty much there in varying degrees. With a lesser writer this could have been a confused hodgepodge or a boring list of the era’s events (“Weather Underground? check. Acid trips? check. Student protests? Check. Visit to the free clinic?” I’m sure you get the idea). But this is Nunez, with the technical skill and observational powers to bring the era to life. Yes, the novel is stuffed with events, and dramatic ones at that, but the cities will soon be burning in this watershed era that reshaped many of the country’s cultural norms.
The story that begins in the Barnard College of 1968 subsequently expands to encompass much of the social upheaval of the contemporary American scene. In 1968, however, George and Ann are simply two new roommates meeting for the first time in a little room in the girls’ dorm. George (she’s George rather than Georgette during her college days) is a daughter of the underclass hailing from
Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows. Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb. * * * Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. * * * Statistically not a high crime area, but a world of everyday brutality: bar brawls, battered wives . . . acts of violent cruelty even among children. * * * The savage world of the North Country poor.
To complete this dismal picture, George’s father disappeared early (a blessing, really, as he was displaying far too much interest in his pubescent daughter’s physical development); her overworked mother vacillates between indifference and extreme physical violence; one battered sister runs away at the age of fourteen; an older brother returns from Viet Nam addicted to drugs and alcohol; and the two youngest siblings are farmed out to relatives when the family goes on welfare. George, in short, is only at college through luck, a scholarship and brains and does not possess the upperclass background of a typical Barnard girl.
Miss Dooley Ann Dalton of Connecticut, by contrast, is a golden child of the American aristocracy, gifted with money, lineage and great natural ability. For many generations her father’s family has owned and operated a surgical supply business and owns valuable medical patents as well; her mother’s family are even older and more distinguished if less financially successful (“Dooley” is a surname of her mother’s family, former owners of many southern plantations and their enslaved workers). While “Daddy” runs the family business and “Mummy” gives parties providing fodder for the local press, little Dooley Ann wins national essay contests, skips grades in school, writes a children’s book that will be illustrated by an artist friend of her family (and subsequently published) and is even cast as a bit player in a film, thanks to a famous movie director who’s another family friend (he has a summer house adjacent to her family’s on Martha’s Vineyard). She is also becoming slowing, steadily and irrevocably estranged from her family and her privileged background. Nunez is very skillful at depicting how that occurs; what sticks in my mind is a scene where Mummy uses role-playing to teach little Dooley the proper way to behave to the family’s servants (“Now let’s say you want to tell Retta [the family’s housekeeper] you’re having friends over after school and you’d like her to bake some brownies.”). Dooley, who doesn’t realize what’s going on, is heartbroken and humiliated when she gives orders to the family’s housekeeper in “Mummy’s voice” and sees the look of recognition in the woman’s eyes; Dooley “will never forgive herself for playing her mother, for not seeing through the game.” Long before she arrives at Barnard, Dooley has become “Ann” (using Dooley, a name associated with slave owners was “out of the question”) and is totally estranged from her parents, whom she now addresses as “Sophie” and “Turner.” Ann knows, despises and rejects every aspect of her parents’ world; she is “capable of loving only what was different from herself.” She sells her expensive new “college wardrobe” (selected by her mother and envied by George), gives the money to charity and embraces the radical politics then dominating the Barnard campus. Ann is regarded by her own class and race as a traitor, and is also rejected as an arrogant and ignorant outsider by Barnard’s Black students and the disadvantaged whom she tries to help. It is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout her life.
At this point, gentle reader, I imagine that you’re asking yourself, “hasn’t this been done before? Two young protagonists from dissimilar backgrounds, learning from their differences and bonding over common experiences, providing a lesson to us all?” While the theme of ill-assorted companions is admittedly a common one in literature, it’s rare indeed to see it used so skillfully to expose the almost unbridgeable class divides in American culture. Nunez has an astonishing eye for class differences. For all her efforts to embrace and achieve a new order of society Ann is both clueless and condescending with respect to the lives of others who have grown up under far less privileged conditions. Although she treats George with kindness, for example, Ann seems to regard her as more of a “type” than an individual. Totally oblivious of the implications, she informs George early in their relationship that she had specifically requested a roommate “from a world as different as possible from her own” and was disappointed on finding that George wasn’t Black. George’s reaction, other than rage, is a resolve to keep her distance, answer questions with silence or lies and thus force Ann “to find someone else to play out her fantasies.” It never occurs to Ann that the material advantages rejected by herself could be desired by less fortunate others. With respect to George, Nunez’s eye for class is even more unerring. George has internalized the idea of failure and her first reaction to any challenge is that success is beyond her reach. An outstanding student who won a scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious schools, George literally becomes unable to speak in her classes because of “her fear of not belonging, of not speaking the same language as everyone else.”
For entirely different reasons, both women drop out of school at the end of their sophomore year. George goes to work as a secretary at a fashionable woman’s magazine and begins to work her way up the masthead. Ann moves into a communal apartment in Harlem and falls in love with an African-American poet and school teacher who’s also a former campus revolutionary. The fragile bridge that she and George have built over the chasm of class fails to hold and the two become completely estranged. One of the novel’s plot arcs is whether they will be able to reconnect and, if so, on what basis. As George later muses:
I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how much life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.
After that, dear reader, can there be any doubt on this issue? How this re-connection is accomplished, however, and the form that it takes, may very well be different from what you’d expect based on the novel’s beginnings.
My fear that the novel would prove too much of a period piece disappeared about halfway through, with the occurrence of an act of violence as topical as an account from this morning’s news. This act will drastically alter the lives of both women and expand the novel’s scope to include issues of racial justice, political activism and the morality of a penal system in which Lady Justice unfairly tilts the scales against certain offenders. The story of unequal friendship that began in the little college dorm room has morphed into a powerful examination of American society’s fault lines.
Despite the impression that I fear I’ve conveyed, Last is far from being an unrelentingly grim novel. George is a wry and cynical narrator with few illusions about her world, but who nevertheless views life with a sense of humor and a surprising amount of charity. I particularly enjoyed her stint at Visage, a woman’s magazine similar to the ones I devoured at a certain period in my life, replete with makeovers (“We thought Georgette’s long-haired waif look needed an update”), cosmetic tips, recipes for that “Candlelight Dinner for Two” and the occasional serious interview or poem by W.H. Auden. Even the novel’s darkest aspects are (with one exception) redeemed by humor and a sense of shared humanity.
As I noted near the beginning of this over-long ramble, the mystery (and power) of Ann’s personality provides much of the force and credibility in this powerful novel. Is Ann a crackpot or a secular saint? Do her good deeds actually benefit or harm others? Her rigidity and unwavering values undoubtedly damage herself and arguably others as well; her inability to imagine life through someone else’s eyes does much to wreck her friendship with George. Ann is a cause of discomfort and a source of irritation to many of those around her. Yet to a few (a former teacher; George; a defense attorney; a prison inmate serving a life sentence for a double murder) she’s an unforgettable figure whose touch has altered their lives. Although Nunez, like the good novelist she is, provides room for each reader to develop his own ideas on this point, she also gives plenty of hints in the form of literary allusions to guide any interpretation of Ann’s character. The novel is replete with references to The Great Gatsby, who, like Ann, stubornly clung to a perhaps mistaken idealism; Like Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, George both yearns after Ann’s idealism and serves as witness to Ann’s life. Another character in the novel compares Ann to Simone Weil and George herself sees a likeness between Ann and the Saint Teresa described by Eliot in her prelude to Middlemarch (although Nunez does not make this explicit, I also thought Ann was at least superficially similar to Middlemarch‘s Dorothea Brooks, the rich young lady who came to ill through her desire to do good in the world).
Like any lengthy novel with an episodic structure, particularly one dealing with multiple characters and several major themes, The Last of Her Kind can justly be criticized for sprawling a bit at times. Since I enjoyed the sprawl, I wasn’t unduly troubled by this feature. I was admittedly slightly impatient with the section concerning George’s runaway flower child sister who is seriously fixated on Mick Jagger, but even here I consoled myself with the hilarious (if a trifle too long) fan letter she writes to Sir Mick. My only serious criticism concerns the relatively short section that relates Ann’s affair with the main love of her life. Although it’s as well written as the rest of the novel, I thought the object of her affections (while psychologically believable) introduced an overly dramatic and unnecessary twist to the plot.
Although there’s a great deal more I could say about this work, I’ll take pity on myself as well as you and will conclude. If anyone’s read The Last of Her Kind, I’d love to hear your reaction.
Are you drawn to tales of English country house and theater life between the wars? Do you, like me, adore tales of dysfunctional families? Are you willing to forego a tight plot in favor of atmosphere, character and witty (frequently scathingly funny) dialogue? If your answer to these questions is “yes” dear reader, stop wasting your time on my post and immediately begin reading du Maurier’s The Parasites! Beware, however, if you expect a gothic-tinged mystery, need to identify with sympathetic and/or morally upright protagonists or require a tightly plotted, linear narrative in your fiction; if so you may well be happier with another book. Those who come to The Parasites with an open mind and a slightly cynical outlook will have the pleasure of enjoying a very fine novel. Those who come expecting another Rebecca or Jamaica Inn are bound to be disappointed unless they adjust their expectations, as Parasites is an outlier among du Maurier’s novels of suspense and historical fiction. Published in 1949, Parasites is a tale of “contemporary” life, albeit lived at a rather exalted level; although it has both a whiff of decadence and a touch of exotica, it contains no supernatural, mystery or suspense elements to speak of (well, maybe a teeny bit at the end) and its primary male romantic character resembles Noel Coward more than Maxim de Winter. That its popularity trails that of du Maurier’s better known works is due, I think, to the fact that The Parasites demonstrates a very different aspect of her genius, one that is less preferred by those many readers who more readily respond to the gothic, suspense and supernatural elements present in much of her other work.
I’ve hesitated to review The Parasites primarily because I read it last September and did not choose it specifically for Ali’s wonderful Daphne du Maurier reading week. But, really, is there a rule that reviews must be limited only to those books that have been completed within some arbitrary time period? Particularly when that book is as good as The Parasites? When I was recently mulling over which of DDM’s excellent novels to read for Ali’s event, I was unable to choose because nothing seemed quite right; every time I came close to making a selection The Parasites got in the way. Although I did mention The Parasites very favorably in my 2020 reading summary, my short blurb was a very inadequate acknowledgment of the very great pleasure the novel gave me in what was generally a rather dismal reading year. So — The Parasites it is! Since I’ve missed Ali’s DDM reading week (bad Janakay! never on time) please regard my tardy review as a homage to an event that I’ve enjoyed very much — the reviews I read have caused quite an addition to my TBR (I’ve deliberated refrained until now from reading Ali’s 2020 review of The Parasites but I’m clicking over to do so as soon as I finish this post).
The Parasites is the story of the Delaney family, particularly its younger members. Pappy is a world famous singer who’s generally believed to be based on du Maurier’s own flamboyant father, and Mama is an equally famous dancer, who strongly reminded me, at least, of Isadora Duncan. Their domestic ménage is completed by Niall, Maria and Celia, the three children they have produced in the course of their international careers. Although the outside world is baffled by the tangled Delaney relationships (Virago ed. at 11-12):
The truth was simple, once learnt and understood.
When Pappy was singing in Vienna, before the first war, he fell in love with a little Viennese actress who had no voice at all but was . . . very naughty and very lovely and everybody adored her . . . after they had been together a year Maria was born and the little Viennese actress died.
Meanwhile, Mama was dancing in London and Paris, already breaking away from the ballet in which she had been trained, and becoming that unique, unforgettable personality . . . who had no partner ever upon the dim-lit, eerie stage, but always danced alone. Someone was Niall’s father. A pianist . . . whom she permitted once to live with her in secret and make love to her for a few weeks only, and then sent away because someone told her that he had T.B. and it was catching.
And then they met in London, Pappy and Mama, when Pappy was singing at the Albert Hall, and Mama was dancing at Covent Garden. Their encounter was a thing of rapture that could only happen to those two, never to others . . . [t]hey … married, and the marriage brought ecstatic happiness to the pair of them, and possibly despair too . . . and it also brought Celia, the first legitimate offspring of both.
Although “the whole business” initially puzzles even the children, they quickly conclude that precise parentage “did not really matter very much because from the very beginning of time” each of them belonged to Pappy, Mama and each other (Virago, 11). The hermetically sealed domestic bubble of Pappy, Mama and the kids travels from one great European city to another. Pappy sings to popular acclaim, in a manner akin to a Pavarotti tour of the 1990s, and Mama “whose every movement was poetry” and ” every gesture a note in music” dances alone on her stage. While both fill every theater in whatever city they happen to visit, old Truda, Mama’s dresser, more or less minds the kids. These are the “dreadful Delaneys,” whom no one much likes and who routinely spread chaos and terror to hotel staff and theater management throughout the continent.
When the novel begins Pappy and Mama are long dead and Niall, Maria and Celia are adults pursuing their own careers and lives. Maria, now a celebrated actress, has made a “good” marriage to Charles, a conventional English squire whose main attraction is his wealth, social status and landed estate. Niall, too, is an artist, being a successful composer of popular tunes but without the application (and perhaps talent) to create “serious” music. Unlike her siblings, Celia has chosen to neglect her considerable artistic talent in favor of caring, first, for Pappy in his declining years, and later for Maria’s children, since Maria is more taken with her profession as actress than with the obligations of motherhood.
The Parasites’ opening scene occurs at Charles’ and Maria’s country house, where Maria, who maintains her own flat near the London theater scene, visits on weekends, almost always with Niall and Celia in tow. During the course of a “long, wet, Sunday afternoon” (Virago ed. at 1), with papers and gramophone cartons scattered on the floor and the little available light blocked by the “small, square panes” of the French windows, the usually stolid Charles directs an uncharacteristic outburst at Maria and her siblings (Virago ed.at 5):
[T]hat’s what you are, the three of you. Parasites. The whole bunch. You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you. You are doubly, triply parasitic; first because you’ve traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears; secondly, because you’ve none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy, which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or earth.
Charles’ accusation kicks off the “action” of the novel, such as it is, as the Delaneys, separately and in conjunction, ponder the merits of Charles’ accusation during the following days. As they do so in “real time,” the novel shifts chronologically between past and present to supply the reader with the backstory of the Delaney family, the siblings’ unusual childhood and chaotic adult lives and the dark, obsessive relationship between Niall and Maria (in her excellent introduction to the Virago edition Julie Myerson rather convincingly argues its similarities to that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).
Aside from its one-off position in the du Maurier oeuvre, there were several things about The Parasites that I found surprising. The most obvious was DDM’s sophisticated, almost experimental style. Aside from her very skillful use of chronological shifts in time and space that allow the reader to experience the story on several different levels, I was strongly impressed by DDM’s psychological acuity, both in how she developed her characters and the manner in which she demonstrated their psychology for the reader. I found it quite believable that three children of a similar age, thrown together by chance and living the isolated and peripatetic existence described in the novel, would have developed the intense psychological ties demonstrated by the adult Maria, Niall and Celia. Du Maurier’s deliberately ambiguous use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” is another example of her rather daring style. Although the point of view frequently shifts among the three Delaney siblings, the plural pronouns make it unclear which of the three is narrating the story at any given time. This ambiguity produces a subtlety disorienting effect, beginning with the novel’s opening sentence that it “was Charles who called us the parasites.” Is the narrator of this statement Maria, Niall or Celia? Or some “Delaney entity” composed of all three? The ambiguity regarding the narrator’s identity at any given moment reinforces for the reader the siblings’ shared identity and lack of psychological boundaries. As I think this over a bit more, it occurs to me that this stylistic device may be the equivalent of one of those ambiguous or “surprise” endings that sometimes occur in DDM’s suspense and mystery novels.
Glancing back over what I’ve typed, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that The Parasites is a very serious, unsmiling novel. Although it does have psychological depths (and some of which are quite dark) nothing could be further from the reality. The novel is replete with humor, often verging on social satire, which I immensely enjoyed. Du Maurier makes good use of her theatrical background to flesh out several of her characters, particularly the actress Maria; as I previously mentioned, Pappy is also generally viewed as being modeled on du Maurier’s own extremely colorful father. One of the funniest sections of the novel IMO was Chapter 16, which describes the wedding reception of Maria and her very proper husband Charles, as well as the subsequent visit of the entire Delaney clan (including the very young Niall’s much older French mistress) to Coldhammer, the estate of Charles’ rigid parents, Lord and Lady Wyndham (Virago ed. at 200-201):
Dynamic and robust, Pappy mixed well with kings and queens — especially those in exile — and Italian noblemen and French countesses, and the more Bohemian of what was termed London intelligentsia; but with the English ‘county’ — and the Wyndhams were essentially ‘county’ — Pappy seemed out of place. He was unaware of the fact. It was his family that suffered.
‘But of course we will come to Coldhammer,’ said Pappy. . . . ‘But I insist on sleeping in a four-poster bed. Can you produce one for me? I must sleep in a four-poster bed.’
* * * * *
‘The Queen Anne suite has a four-poster, she [Lady Wyndham] said, ‘but the rooms face north, over the drive. The view from the south is so much better, especially when our Prunus floribunda is in flower.’
Pappy laid a finger against his nose. Then he bent down to Lady Wyndham’s ear.
‘Keep your Prunus floribunda for others,’ he said in a loud whisper. ‘When I visit Coldhammer I expect only my hostess to be in flower.’
Lady Wyndham remained unmoved. Not a flicker of understanding passed across her features.
‘I am afraid you are no gardener,’ she said.
It only gets better from there. If you enjoy this type of humor at all, you simply must not miss Pappy’s arrival at Coldhammer (Virago ed. at 203) for a weekend house party, wearing a tie that is far too red (“I must have color . . . color is all”) and with an excess of luggage, including a suitcase packed with medicines, syringes and home remedies (“‘When I pack’, said Pappy, ‘I pack for all eternity.'” )
Others far more knowledgeable than I about du Maurier’s ouevre have said that the Delaney siblings represent three aspects of DDM’s personality. Be that as it may, the siblings do seem to embody different facets of the artistic process. Maria’s studied stage performances are motivated by fame and applause; the more introspective Niall cares little for either and composes his music almost instinctively; and Celia, whose ego demands she be indispensable to others, is an artist manqué who chooses not to develop her considerable artistic skills. I also think the novel contains interesting hints that du Maurier may be questioning the primacy society accords the artist. Charles’ outburst (quoted earlier) accusing the Delaney’s of parasitism, goes beyond the personal to also attack “the fool public who allow you to exist.” I don’t think this aspect of the novel is really developed but I do think it’s at least an interesting suggestion, particularly in view of the subsequent discussion in which Niall and Charles dispute the value of the performing arts (Virago ed. at 7).
Before my blogging days I was only marginally aware of du Maurier’s work. I had, of course, read Rebecca (several times, actually. It only gets better with each re-read, doesn’t it?) and My Cousin Rachel as well as various short stories here and there. About a year ago, however, I re-watched the movie version of “Don’t Look Now” (with Sutherland/Christie), which sparked a re-reading of the novella; after that I went on to additional shorter works as well as The Parasites. As frequently happens when a particular book or author gets on one’s radar, I also began noticing the many blog postings on du Maurier’s works before learning, late in the day, about Ali’s reading week. In the course of all this, I’ve gone from a rather condescending view (forgive me, dear readers — we have all had our blind spots) of du Maurier as a popular period novelist with perhaps one great book under her belt to regarding her as a vastly talented stylist with the rare ability to connect with readers at all levels of sophistication. Although I’m not sure which of her novels I’ll go to next (I am overdue for another re-read of Rebecca), I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s work.
While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing. As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.
First Miscellany: Travel and Books
I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring. Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area. Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.
Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well. When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self. Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate. The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on. Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president. Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog). On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones. An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19). It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic. “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!
In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!) Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea! Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip). From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start. I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip. Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction). It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.
In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:
SECOND MISCELLANY: Museums
To my great disappointment, most of Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three! One’s an “attributed to”). I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed). I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums. It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art. Sixty-nine Cezannes! Fifty-Nine Matisses! One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many). In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well. Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art. The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder. If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.
In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence. Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.
THIRD MISCELLANY: Nature
For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space. It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway. I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.
Enough for tonight! Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?
As many of you are aware, Cathy is currently hosting a twelve-month read-along of the works of Brian Moore, Belfast native, resident of both Canada and the U.S. and prolific author of over twenty-five novels in several genres. I really welcomed Cathy’s event, since Moore is one of those interesting writers who’s vaguely hovered in my literary consciousness for many years without ever quite taking shape. Wasn’t he Irish? No, he must be a Canadian historical writer because he wrote that Black Robe thing set in 17th century New France. At least he’s definitely Catholic! (Judging from my unread copy of his novella, Catholics. Dear Readers, I never miss a clue.) But wait — wasn’t Catholics actually a sci-fi novel, since it’s set in an alternate reality? Or are there really two Brian Moores, one a literary novelist and one a writer of Hollywood screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock and friends? As you can see, dear readers, Cathy’s read-along didn’t come a minute too soon for Janakay! And while I’m not excusing my ignorance about a very fine writer, my rather facetious questions demonstrate the chameleon nature of Moore’s talent as well as the impossibility of pigeonholing his work.
Each month the read-along features a single novel chosen as a good introduction to Moore’s fiction. Since I’ve never read anything by Moore, I wanted to read at least a couple of the featured books in order to form my own opinion about his output. Although I missed the first few months for various reasons, I was determined that at the very least I’d get to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, sitting unread on my shelves for almost a decade and widely considered one of Moore’s best works. My review, however, is running (very) late and comes at the very tail end of this month’s discussion; because it will be posted at the end of the month, numerous other fine reviews (including one by Cathy herself) precede it. Although the timing of my post made me hesitant to weigh in on a novel that’s been so thoroughly discussed, I finally decided to do so on a idiosyncratic “this is what interested me” basis and not to attempt a comprehensive overview or repeat too many details of the novel’s plot.
Being a believer that art frequently reflects in some manner the life of the artist who created it, one of the things I always find interesting is a writer’s biography. Rather than repeat the details of Cathy’s fine overview of Moore’s life and output, however, I begin this portion of my discussion by asking whether any of you have read Stet, Diana Athill’s wonderful memoir of her career as an editor at André Deutsche Ltd.? (Bear with me, dear readers, this will link up.)
Athill gives a very frank, very funny and very insightful account of working with some of the 20th century’s best known writers (Naipaul, Roth and Mailer for example) as well as with numerous other fine albeit less well known artists, including Moore himself. Athill’s account of her editorial and personal relationship with Moore (the friendship included Moore’s first wife, the Canadian journalist Jackie Sirois) was the first time I begin to be aware of Moore as something other than a name attached to several novels I had never bothered to read. Because I read Stet many years ago and had largely forgotten any of the specifics relating to Moore, I couldn’t resist revisiting Athill’s account after I (finally) finished Judith Hearne, the first Moore novel I’ve actually read.
I usually dislike (and normally avoid) long quotes, but Athill’s such a marvelous writer I’m making an exception in her case. As she recalls (pages 138-139 of my print copy, issued by NYRB Classics):
It was Mordecai [the Canadian writer Mordecai Richler] who first introduced me to Brian Moore in that he told me that this friend of his had written an exceptionally good book which we ought to go after; but I must not deprive André [André Deutsche] of his discovery of Judith Hearne. As André remembers it, he was given the book by Brian’s agent in New York on the last day of one of his — André’s — visits there; he read it on the plane on the way home and decided at once that he must publish it. I think it likely that he asked to see it, being alerted, as I had been, by Mordecai. But whether or not he asked for it, he certainly recognized its quality at once; and when he handed it over to me, it came to me as something I was already hoping to read, and its excellence was doubly pleasing to me because Brian was a friend of Mordecai’s. The two got to know each other in Paris and in Canada, where Mordecai was a native and Brian, an Ulsterman, had chosen to live in common — although the Moores moved to New York soon after we met.
Before Brian wrote Judith Hearne * * * when he was scrabbling about to keep a roof over his head, he had written several thrillers for publication as pocketbooks, under a pseudonym, which he said had been a useful apprenticeship in story-telling because it was a law of the genre that something must happen on every page. But however useful, it came nowhere near explaining Judith. With his first serious book Brian was already in full possession of his technical accomplishment, his astounding ability to put himself into other people’s shoes, and his particular view of life: a tragic view, but one that does not make a fuss about tragedy, accepting it as part of the fabric with which we all have to make do. He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book, and his considerable output was to include several more that were outstandingly good; but to my mind he never wrote anything more moving and more true than Judith Hearne.
When [Moore] came to London in 1955 * * * [h]e was a slightly surprising figure, but instantly likable: a small, fat, round-headed, sharp-nosed man resembling a robin, whose flat Ulster accent was the first of its kind I had heard. He was fat because he had an ulcer and the recommended treatment in those days was large quantities of milk, and also because Jackie was a wonderful cook. (Her ham, liberally injected with brandy before she baked it — she kept a medical syringe for the purpose — was to become one of my most poignant food memories.) When I asked him home to supper on that first visit he was careful to explain to me that he was devoted to his wife — a precaution which pleased me because it was sensible as well as slightly comic.
Once he [Moore] was sure I was harboring no romantic or predatory fancies, the way was open for a relaxed friendship, and for as long as I knew him and Jackie as a couple there seemed to be nothing we couldn’t talk about. They were both great gossips — and when I say great I mean great, because I am talking about gossip in its highest and purest form: a passionate interest lit by humour but above malice, in human behavior. We used often, of course, to talk about writing — his and other people’s, and, eventually mine — but much more often we would talk with glee, with awe, with amazement, with horror, with delight, about what people had done and why they had done it. And we munched up our own lives as greedily as we did everyone else’s.
Although Athill’s house published five of Moore’s books (beginning with Judith Hearne in 1955 and ending with TheEmperor of Ice Cream in 1966), neither the professional nor personal relationship between Athill and Moore was destined to last. For the details of their breakup, you can’t do better than to read Athill’s honest and generous account (pages 142-150).
Biography is all very well, I can hear you say, but this is a book blog and — what about the book itself? Hearne is what I’d consider a small canvas, interior novel; i.e., it has few characters, is strongly focused on the eponymous heroine and has a very, very simple plot. Moore sets his novel in his native Belfast in the 1950s and superbly portrays that city’s strongly traditional culture and its deep Roman Catholicism. It opens when Judith, an aging spinster who has come down in the world, is moving into the latest of a successive of shabby boardinghouses, each less genteel than the one before. Judith’s world values women almost entirely for their beauty, their material possessions and their activities as traditional wives and mothers; it barely tolerates unmarried women like Judith who have neither money nor good looks. During the course of the novel Judith primarily interacts with her landlady, Mrs. Henry Rice; Mrs. Rice’s monstrous son Bernard; James Madden, a fellow boarder and Mrs. Rice’s brother; a couple of priests and/or nuns; and the O’Neill family, whom Judith mistakenly regards as long-time friends from her youth. Madden, a sexual predator and conman newly returned from America, convinces himself that Judith has money, and cultivates her as an “investor” in his harebrained business scheme; Judith, desperate to grasp a last chance at marriage and a place in her world, in turn convinces herself that Madden wants her as a wife. Both are wrong, with tragic consequences for Judith, whose discovery of the truth causes her to give in to her alcoholism and to lose ultimately the little she had. Although Moore adopts the very interesting stylistic device of using a few short segments of the novel to narrate the viewpoints of a few secondary characters, his unrelenting focus remains on Judith Hearne and her inexorable downward spiral.
The astonishing technical ability noted by Athill is on display from the opening sentences of the novel, in which the “very first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt” and “the colored oleograph of the Sacred Heart.” Her aunt’s photograph, which goes on the mantel, and the Sacred Heart, placed on the wall at the head of her bed, tell us instantly everything important we need to know about Judith: she has come down in the world since her aunt’s days and she is guided by the dictates of her religion. Her notions of class and religion are the lodestars of her life, their symbols the talismans that establish her home. Moore ends his novel with a tragic repetition of the same scene, where Judith, now an inmate in a charity hospital that was also the scene of an earlier humiliation, unpacks the same two objects, which, she thinks to herself, make this “new place” her home. I differ a bit from Cathy’s fine review, which sees “a little seed of hope” in the ending in that Judith continues to make the best of an impossible and tragic situation. I’m afraid I do not. If you’re in doubt, however, I’d go with Cathy’s reading. Not only has she read the book twice to my once, but I also prefer her interpretation over mine, as otherwise Judith’s story in almost unbearable.
Since I’ve deliberately avoided reading most reviews until after I post this (I plan to start clicking away immediately thereafter), I don’t know if other readers felt that Moore threw them a curve ball with this novel (for those disinclined to sports and/or from countries other than the U.S. , this is a tricky pitch in which the baseball fools the batter by not taking a straight path). For the first half or so the novel reads like a straightforward, realistic rendition of a tragic life that is lived in an historically accurate time and place. As Judith begins her downward spiral, however, the novel becomes an existential quest in which Judith learns that romantic love, friendship and religion fail to provide any meaning to human existence or any comfort for some of those forced to endure it. Ultimately, the Judith Hearnes are alone in a world bereft of human comfort or religious succor.
There’s so very much to say about this novel — the unexpected humor; the beautiful economy of the style; the very great scene in which Judith concludes that that she’s been praying to “bread” rather than the consecrated body of Christ; any scene involving the monstrous Bernard — well, I could go on and on but that’s what a multiplicity of reviews is for, isn’t it? The only way to appreciate the richness of this brief novel is to read it and experience it for yourself.
Did I like this novel? No, I did not. Judith’s story and the universe in which she lived are both far too bleak for me; it was so tough emotionally to watch this lost soul disintegrate that I had to stop every chapter or two to give myself a break. Do I think it’s a masterpiece and am I glad I read it? Yes to both questions.
Not terribly relevant to Moore’s novel, but in writing this post it finally occurred to me that certain aspects of Judith’s character reminded me at least superficially of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois (“Streetcar Named Desire,” 1947 or thereabouts), the story of another formerly affluent woman who, unable to cope with the reality of her reduced circumstances and romantic disappointment, also ends up institutionalized. Of course, there’s the difference in nationality (Irish vs U.S.), lack of a religious element (very important to Moore) and genre (novel vs. play). As I said, superficial. Probably because I’ve just finished reading Elizabeth Taylor’s 1954 short story “Hester Lily,” I was also reminded of her very observant portrayal of Miss Despenser, an aging spinster driven half-mad by loneliness, living in drastically reduced circumstances and who, like Judith, turns to alcohol to ward off despair. Lastly, at least according to Colm Toíbín as quoted by the great Wiki, Moore’s novel takes from Joyce’s short story “Clay” (Dubliners) the idea of a lonely spinster of a certain age visiting a family, an event which both comforts and confounds her. If you have any thoughts on my rather superficial comparisons, or have some different ones to offer, please do share.
Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence! Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog. However did the blogosphere survive my absence? (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!) Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs. You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books. I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews. But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked. Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).
Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.
A. MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)
Have you ever moved, dear reader? I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go! I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay. If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode. After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”
B. Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read
Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading. After all, isn’t that what we’re all about? Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events. Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it? My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”). As my opening photo demonstrates, my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here). During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world. What can I say? You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer. Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:
Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:
Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust? If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:
Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time. Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color. Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus . . . exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner? Quelle horreur! Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.” Guess what, dear readers? The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!
There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions. It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of InSearch of Lost Time. After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two. After all, there are several different editions!
On a last Proustian note: The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907. Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed. The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.
What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J? Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery. Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.
If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end. I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.
The basic idea of the challenge is simply to read books by European writers or set in European countries. Although I was a bit doubtful about participating, which is only sensible given my dismal completion record for challenges, I nevertheless started sorting through the shelves to see if I had any books that would qualify. As it turns out, I had quite a few. I also had so much fun doing the sort I decided that, what the heck, I might as well go ahead and officially participate. After all, unless our reach exceeds our grasp, what’s a heaven for, right? (sorry about that paraphrase, Mr. Browning). Besides, this challenge allows me to decide my own level of participation. I can be anything from a Pensione Weekender (i.e., I read one qualifying book this year) to a Deluxe Entourage (I read five). Surely I can read at least one book set in Europe or written by a European, can’t I? At last, could I have found a Challenge I can meet?
In addition to the Challenge’s official criteria (time frame; definition of European country, etc.) I decided to observe a couple of rather idiosyncratic rules in choosing my own selections. Because I’m beginning to really enjoy translated literature, I decided to limit my selections to works by non-Anglophone writers and, if possible, to pick novels set in their native country. For similar reasons, I decided to avoid fiction by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to expand my horizons a bit.
With very little effort I compiled the most marvelous pile, so to speak:
Regarding my level of participation — why not aim for the stars? In other words, the Deluxe Entourage or bust! (everyone should be optimistic at the start of a trip, don’t you think? I can always adjust my route later to fit my budge, so to speak)! Although I’m presently unsure precisely where my journey will start, my very tentative itinerary is as follows:
2. Sweden (my Scandinavian journey continues)
3. Iceland (my journey zigzags to a more remote corner of Scandinavia):
4. France (time to head south)
5. Greece (my trip takes a Mediterranean twist)
6. Spain (I aim for the sixth star — perhaps out of reach, but then what are lists for?)
Well dear readers, that’s the itinerary so far. Please keep in mind, however, that I tend to be a spontaneous traveler and have frequently altered my destination depending on time, mood and opportunity.
Ah, dear readers, it’s January time, if only barely. Snowdrops! New beginnings! New Year’s resolutions by one and all (statistically, BTW, these are generally abandoned by January 17th or so). As I’ve observed from happily reading many very interesting January posts, most of you have already lined up your reading schedules and challenges for 2021, which we all devotedly hope will be much, much better than the annus horribilis we’ve just survived. Being as usual several weeks behind the curve, I’m finally deciding on my own goals for 2021. Primary among them is, once again, Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge. This is one of my very favorite bookish challenges; it was even the subject of my very first post when I started blogging a couple of years ago. The fact that I’ve not managed to complete the Classics Challenge in either of the two years in which I’ve participated is, admittedly, just a teeny bit discouraging. On the bright side, however (and if you’ve read my blog, you know that I’m determined these days to be an optimistic little ray of sunshine) I’ve had a great deal of fun with the Classics Challenges, which have prodded me into reading some wonderful books that I would have otherwise missed (thanks to the Challenge, for example, I finally completed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That HeldThem, one of my favorite books from last year). So, dear readers, this January I was torn — should I attempt once more to rise to the Classics Challenge? Or should I bow to realism and just let it go? My first impulse, I must admit, was the latter, as I felt spiritually a bit like this poor fellow:
It was not for nothing, however, that I’m the product of a red-blooded, all-American childhood (southern U.S. variety), stuffed from infancy with tales of “Little Engines That Could” and nursery jingles singing the praises of itsy-bitsy spiders who defied monsoons in order to climb those old water spouts time and again. Good old U.S.A. cultural norms, not to mention Janakay’s Mom, did not, in other words, produce a quitter! Moral fiber will out, dear friends, as once again I respond to the siren call of the Classics, a living example of hope triumphing over experience.
In contrast to 2020, when I had a fair amount of difficulty in choosing my selections, this year my list has practically made itself (having so many unread books from previous challenges has certainly been helpful in this regard). In relatively quick order I decided on various novels taken (mostly) from this wonderful pile:
If you’re interested, I’ve broken down my selections into the Challenge’s separate categories below, indicating at times my most likely alternate if my primary choice doesn’t work out.
19th century classic (published 1800-1899): Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton
After a rather unpromising introduction to his work, I eventually became a real devotee of Henry James’ fiction. Sadly I’ve neglected James for several years now, with the exception The Tragic Muse, which I reread in my first year of blogging as a result of that year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. What better time to amend this neglect of an old favorite than 2021? Since I’m not quite up to James’ late, very great masterpieces (it takes a lot of energy to tack The Golden Bowl or Wings of the Dove), I decided on The Spoils of Poynton. Published as a magazine serial in 1896 and republished in book form the following year, Poynton just makes it under the Challenge’s 1899 cutoff date for a 19th century classic. Although it’s generally considered a lesser work in the James canon, there’s plenty of content in this tale of the ruthless struggle between a possessive dowager and her hated daughter-in-law over the family’s art collection.
20th Century Classic (published 1900-1971): Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day
Although I’m entirely sure it’s my own fault, Virginia Woolf and I have never quite gotten on with each other. I’ve read a few of her essays and a novel or two (I actually liked Mrs. Dalloway) but . . . don’t we all have our little list of writers whom we admire without quite being enamored of them? Still, I’ve never felt that I gave dear Virginia a fighting chance to win my regard and I’ve always felt the poorer for it. In an effort to make amends, I thought I’d read one of her earlier novels, written when her modernist tendencies were just beginning to surface, as a way to ease myself into her work. If my Woolf jinx continues unabated, however, I’ll probably read something by Pamela Hansford Johnson, since Ali’s delightful review of Johnson’s The Last Resort (published in 1956) reminded me I had never read anything by this oh-so-interesting writer.
Classic by a Woman Author: Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel
Any Jean Stafford readers out there? I must admit Ms. Stafford was one of those writers who was little more than a vaguely familiar name to me; I was aware that she was once married to someone famous (poet Robert Lowell as it turns out); that she was primarily a short story writer; and that her best known novel was The Mountain Lion, a coming of age tale that I have previously had no desire to read. My rather dismissive attitude changed last month when I discovered a collection of Stafford’s novels while browsing in one of my area’s few open and accessible bookstores (everyone masked and socially distancing, of course, but there’s a reason why my area has a very high infection rate). I decided on The Catherine Wheel (it was a close call between that and Stafford’s Boston Adventure), largely because I loved the name (never say, dear readers, that I choose my books for less than profound reasons). I began reading it a few days ago and I’m already hooked — Stafford is a marvelous writer! I plan on dipping into her short stories at some point (she won a Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970). Can The Mountain Lion be next?
Classic in Translation: Magda Szabo’s Katalin Street(originally published in 1969), appearing on my list for the second year in a row
Classic by BIPOC Author: Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City
In selecting something for this category, it was difficult to ignore the richness of African-American fiction, not to mention my several unread novels by the great Toni Morrison, but . . . . Thanks to the NYRB Classics Club I’ve had a couple of novels by Eileen Chang gathering dust on my shelf. Both look extremely interesting and I’ve been dying to give at least one of them a try; perhaps this year’s Challenge will provide the impetus to get me going. How could I resist a title as romantic as Love in a Fallen City? This collection of stories was translated into English and published by NYRB Classics only in 2006; because the stories were originally published in Hong Kong & China in the 1940s, however, they fall within the Challenge’s time parameters.
If I don’t get on with Chang, my alternate choice for this category is
Classic by a New-To-You Author: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (pub. 1908)
Although I’m hardly versed in Virginia Woolf’s critical writings, I do recall that she had a rather low opinion of her very prolific contemporary Arnold Bennett, whose works of realistic fiction were wildly popular among the reading public of the time (if you’re interested, Woolf’s very critical essay discussing Bennett’s work, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” is available online). Since I’m quite fond of big, sprawling realistic novels, chock full of details about their protagonists’ daily lives, I’ve always thought I’d give Bennett a try. The Old Wives Tale, considered one of Bennett’s best novels, is a natural choice, particularly since it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for a good many years. I was also attracted by Bennett’s concept of showing the contrasting lives of two very different sisters, who began life in the same small provincial town in the English Midlands. Besides, if I read Bennett’s chief critic this year, it’s only fair that I also give the target of her criticism a whirl, n’est-ce pas?
New-To-You Classic by a Favorite Author: Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout
I’ve been a little hesitant in the past to claim Elizabeth Bowen as one of my very favorite authors; as I’ve pointed out before, she can be a little rarefied at times for my tastes. Since I’ve read eight of Bowen’s ten novels, however, I suppose it’s time for a little self-honesty, which requires me to admit that, yes, she is definitely one of my “go to” writers!
Classic about an Animal or with an Animal in the Title: Theodore Storm’s The Rider On A White Horse
One of the bright spots in my rather lackluster 2020 reading was discovering the works of Theodor Fontane, the late 19th century novelist who doesn’t seem to be as widely read outside his native Germany as he perhaps should be. Although I failed to review either Effie Briest or On Tangled Paths, I very much enjoyed them both and was left with a desire to explore more 19th century German writing. This collection of short works by a major 19th century German writer seems an ideal way to do so.
Children’s Classic: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass
Through some quirk of individual taste, the fantastical, upside down world of Through the Looking Glass appealed to me more as a child than the equally fantastical world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps I liked the poetry better (it’s hard to beat “The Jabberwocky,” especially with Tenniel’s illustrations); perhaps it was the motif of the chess game or the powerful suggestion at the end that reality may not be what one thinks, that Alice herself may be nothing but a figment in someone else’s dream. Isn’t it amazing how we let kids read such subversive stuff? This won’t be my first re-read of this childhood classic, but it will be the first in many, many years. If the mood takes me, I may get all intellectual about it and check out some scholarly exegesis or other (I’m sure the chess game has been the subject of far too many dissertations) but I primarily intend to see if the magic still holds.
Humorous or Satirical Classic: Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington (pub. 1912)
I was all set to go with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (pub. 1938) as my entry in this category; for several years now I’ve felt it was a book that I really ought to have read by now (that “ought,” dear readers, is precisely why Scoop remains unread on my shelves. Such is perversity). Fortunately, I remembered — Saki! Although I’ve read and (immensely) enjoyed his short stories (have you read “The Open Window”? If not, go and do so immediately!) I’ve never attempted The Unbearable Bassington, his only novel. In the unlikely event that Bassington doesn’t work for me this year, well, it will be on to
Travel or Adventure Classic (fiction or non-fiction): something by Patrick Leigh Fermor
For one reason or another I’ve generally avoided reading travel literature, although when I’ve done so I’ve generally enjoyed it. Even I, however, am aware that Fermor is one of the genre’s greats. In settling on my choice for this category I was delighted to discover Fermor’s 1957 work, A Time To Keep Silent, recounting his journeys to some of Europe’s most ancient monasteries, as I’ve been interested in monasticism and the contemplative life since I first read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk many years ago. A close runner-up for this category is Fermor’s The Traveler’s Tree, an account of his travels through the Caribbean Islands in the late 1940s (one of my dream trips is to Trinidad although, alas, I may have missed my chance of ever visiting its famed Asa Wright Nature center).
Classic Play: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
My first impulse for this category was to choose Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, which has seemingly become a permanent resident on my TBR list (I failed to read it for at least one prior challenge). I soon realized, however, that I really wanted to re-read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. I’ve always been fascinated by this story and the questions it raises; do we choose our own lives or do we each, like poor Oedipus, have our own place “where three roads meet” in which we unknowingly walk the path that fate has decreed? As with any of the Greek and Roman classics, the choice of translation is key. I’ve chosen a modern version by the highly regarded Robert Fagles; Penguin has conveniently published all three plays of the cycle (i.e., Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus) in one volume, accompanied by excellent notes and introductions by the English classicist Bernard Knox. If I get really energetic, I may read the whole cycle in order (I’ve never read Oedipus at Colonus) or, since I’m fond of modern interpretations of classical works, take a peak at
Well, dear readers, that’s that (and don’t you agree with Maxi that “that” is quite enough?) for my 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you’ve read any of this stuff (or if you haven’t), please don’t hesitate to share your reactions!
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
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.
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:
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:
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?