Category: 20th century writers

“Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far

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 

0-10
Six of my “repeaters,” as of June 30.  Although I don’t read each of these writers every year, I do tend to return to them at periodic intervals . . . .

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 try Every 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.  

0-11
Several of these novels are thin, but mighty; their authors know how to pack a powerful punch into a minimum of pages.

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’s The Flint Anchor.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  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

0-6

0-4

0-5

0-7

0-8

0-3

MY SHELF OF SHAME:  SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM

0-12

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.  

 

0-1
All this unread stuff is just too, too depressing; Maxi’s had enough of this “Six in Six” business!  She’s probably right.  It’s time, dear readers, to follow her example . . . .

Rescued from the Back Shelf: Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind

9781429944977
I’ve had a copy of this book for over a decade without once reading a single word it contains.  About time for a rescue mission, wouldn’t you say?

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.

Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

0-25
Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

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:

0-27
Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.

0-26
My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!

0-22
The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!

0-21
I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)

0-24
Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

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.

0-9
The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.

0-10
Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.

0-20
Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.

0-14
An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

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.

0-1
This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.

0-3
Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!

0-5
One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 

0-4
Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.

0-8
A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?

Reading Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

0
I purchased my copy of Judith Hearne in the summer of 2010.  I finally got around to reading it last week, prompted by Cathy’s Brian Moore read-along.

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.)

0-1
Editor Athill’s account of her personal & professional relationship with Brian Moore was a wonderful sidenote to reading Judith Hearne . . . nothing to do with Moore, but don’t you absolutely adore this cover photo of Athill?

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 The Emperor 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.

 

Monday Miscellany (Moving! Books! Nature!)

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).

0-1
A collection of most (not all) of the things I’ve read this year, beginning way, way back in January.  Although I enjoyed some more than others (surprise), there really isn’t a dud in the stack . . . more below!

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!”

0-20
A would-be deserter from the family unit, which is preparing to move from temporary to permanent quarters.  Not to worry, dear reader, Maxine reconsidered her escape plans and was scooped up and moved with her little feline frenemies!

0-21
Percy says “you can move these stupid birds if you want, Janakay!  I’m not going anywhere!”  Unbeknownst to Percy the horrors of the cat carrier awaited him . . . .

0-22
My new kitchen, three weeks before move-in date.  Not to worry, however, as R., the kitchen guy, assured me he’d return to finish up as soon as he completed his second quarantine period (R. has many relatives who love large family gatherings . . . . .  not the best strategy during a pandemic).  All did in fact go well, after move-in dates were adjusted a couple of times!

0-17
My new home at last!  Surely those boxes will unpack themselves?

0-1
Just when needed most, professional help arrives!

0-5
A major reason for all this moving business:  new shelves!  Miles and . . .

0-8
miles of new shelves!  And what do new shelves need, dear book bloggers?  If you have to ponder the answer you should definitely take up another hobby!

Unknown
Slowly, slowly, progress is made.  Fiction is generally arranged alphabetically by author’s last name but how to organize the art books?  Alphabetical by artist doesn’t quite work . . . .

Completion at last!  (Well, mostly. There are still a few boxes of unpacked books in the garage.)

0-13
As we adjust to our new home, we’re each finding our favorite space.  Although Percy enjoys watching basketball in a mild kind of way, he’s far more interested in sitting under the TV than watching it when a boring old baseball game is in progress  . . . .

0-2
As life settles down, we’re also beginning to indulge again in our favorite activities, which in Maxine’s case involves going off on a little toot now & again (the pink thing is stuffed with catnip, to which she is quite addicted).

Despite many fundamental differences among members of the household (we disagree, for example, on whether new rugs make the best claw sharpeners), we do agree on one thing: moving is totally exhausting and requires a really good recovery nap!

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:

0-17
My first book of the New Year, completed on January 4th.  Although I generally struggle a bit with short stories, Matsuda’s (translator Polly Barton) feminist, idiosyncratic and original treatments of Japanese folk tales deserved its glowing reviews.  Added bonus:  publisher is Soft Skull Press, a small indy publisher “at war with the obvious” since 1992 and located in New York City.

0-18
Jean Stafford has been one of my great discoveries this year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion, her best known novel, I read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  It’s a family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s and displays to the full Stafford’s elegant style, eye for character and ability to evoke atmosphere.  A proper review is coming (sometime) on this one.

0-20
Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet was my first encounter with a surrealist literary work.  Although I was mildly apprehensive at first, I soon settled in for a wild adventure with a nonagenarian like no other, a cross-dressing abbess, the goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.  As subversive as it’s wildly funny, I hope to review it in the next few months.

0-2
Despite some ambivalence about Elizabeth Bowen (there are times when she’s just a bit too refined for my taste), I’ve been slowly but steadily working my way through her novels.  Eva Trout, Bowen’s final novel published in 1970, turned out to be one of my favorites. Very, very funny in some spots, tragic in others and with some very heavy things to say about communication, or lack thereof, among its characters.  Put this one on your Elizabeth Bowen list.

0-21
Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance was a trip down memory lane, as I first read it shortly after its publication in the late 1980s.  Jacquiwine has been doing some incredible reviews of Brookner’s novels, which prompted me to pull this old favorite down from its home on my new shelves.  Blanche Vernon, an excellent woman of a certain age, consoles herself with a little too much wine and lots of visits to London’s National Gallery after losing her husband to a much younger rival (pet name: “Mousey”).  I enjoyed Brookner’s elegant style and dry wit as much this time around as I did initially and can’t wait until Jacquiwine’s review!

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:

0-23
I’ve been eagerly following Simon’s reviews of the British Library’s Women Writers series.  Although all the titles look great,  I’m particularly eager to try Rose Macauly’s Dangerous Ages.  On a different note entirely (remember!  I said my tastes were ecletic) is Damon Galgut’s The Promise, a family saga/fable set in contemporary South Africa.  I first “met” Galgut in 2010, when I read his haunting and beautiful novel, In A Strange Room, short listed for that year’s Booker.  Despite my good intentions, I have never managed to get back to his work.  As for Paula Fox, I’ve been intending to sample her novels for ages now and I’m resolved to begin this year with her highly acclaimed and best known work!

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:

0-26
I’m sure I’m the last Proust fan on the planet to be aware of this book, which I happened upon while browsing on that internet platform we all love to hate. Pricey, but worth every penny, it’s a wonderful way to dip into and out of Proust’s great masterpiece.  I’ve paired it with Mr. Janakay’s great photo of a Blackburnian warbler, which I’ll miss seeing for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.  Why this particular pairing?  The Proust reminds me that even a plague year has some compensations . . . .

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!

0

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 In Search 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.

C.  Nature

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.

0-6
The nature preserve’s boardwalk as viewed from the observation tower, the only high spot around in a very flat landscape! The basic circuit is around three miles (close to 5km) and there’s always something to see . . . .

0-7
A view from the boardwalk, across the salt marsh. Unfortunately, the bird in the tree is too far away to make out, but I always see numerous ospreys and a variety of herons and egrets when doing the circuit; if I’m lucky, there’s the occasional kingfisher as well.

0-10
If you look closely, you can see the large great blue heron standing in the water.

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 2021 European Reading Challenge: How Far Will My Journey Go?

Early this year and purely by chance, I discovered Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge.

ERC 2021

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:

0-1
I actually have several other works in translation that I can’t quite locate (blame my upcoming move) . . . .

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:

  1.  Norway:

0-2
The blurb compares the author to the U.S.’s Anne Tyler, IMO high praise indeed.  I’m always interested in family relationships and this story of the ramifications created when a seventy-year old couple decide to divorce promises to provide some interesting dynamics.  Although the novel is set in Italy, its original language and characters are Norwegian; I therefore consider this the first stop in the Scandinavian leg of my trip . . . .

2.  Denmark:

0-6
I continue in Scandinavia, with this tale of Anna, an elderly widow whose husband has recently died.  Anna addresses her thoughts to her long-dead best friend, who just happened to be the first wife of Anna’s deceased husband.  Translated from Danish by the author.

2.  Sweden (my Scandinavian journey continues)

0-1
Set in a small Swedish village in the midst of winter, I’ve had this story of an unlikely friendship between two very different women sitting on my shelves for a very long time indeed.  My trip through Scandinavia seems the ideal time to finally read it.

3.  Iceland (my journey zigzags to a more remote corner of Scandinavia):

41wC8alpH7L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_
The title of this one pretty much explains the setting, doesn’t it?  I’m very much looking forward to this tale of a young woman in 1960s Reykjavik who’s determined to carve out a career as a writer.  One of my earliest acquisitions from Pushkin Press, the author is one of Iceland’s best known writers.

4.  France (time to head south)

0-4
I’ve long been intending to sample Nothomb’s work and what better place to start than with this tale of a young woman and her relationships with mother, mentor and friend?  Born in Japan to Belgian parents, Nothomb lives in Paris and writes in French; so I consider her novel to be the glamorous French stop on my trip!

5.  Greece (my trip takes a Mediterranean twist)

0-12
Liberaki’s Three Summers comes to me by way of a great NYRB book sale (I’m afraid I’ve been overindulging in those during our awful year of the plague).  Set in the countryside near Athens before WWII, it’s a coming of age tale of three sisters, told mostly from the youngest’s point of view.

6.  Spain (I aim for the sixth star — perhaps out of reach, but then what are lists for?)

0-10
Described on the blurb as Spain’s Catcher in the Rye, this autobiographical novel is set in Barcelona in the years following Spain’s terrible civil war (1936-1939).  Since I know little about Spain’s modern history, I’m particularly looking forward to reading this.

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.

2020 Reading Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAPPINESS IS . . .

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

FIRST HAPPINESS:

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

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

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

SECOND HAPPINESS:

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

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

THIRD HAPPINESS

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

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

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

FOURTH (AND FINAL) HAPPINESS

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

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

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

Spanish Lit Month: Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves

 

IMG_2583

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I send a text from Dad’s phone:

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

Mom replies:

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

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

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