Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly
coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.
This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.
Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!
After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.
Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:
Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:
Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?
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.
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.
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.
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 . . . .
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!
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:
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 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.
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.
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?
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
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.
It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years. In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change. In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media. Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago. But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child. The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning. Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens? To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?
Well, enough of the soap box! Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!
MISCELLANY FIRST: A New Type of Equestrian Statue
Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there? Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses. Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .
Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power. It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.
Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States? If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases. For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past. Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:
By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum. Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:
“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy. Well done, Kehinde!
MISCELLANY SECOND: Remembrance
Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover? The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional. Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America. The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.
For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.
MISCELLANY THIRD: Hope
The poets always say it best. What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around. Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year. What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now). In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading. One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move! Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading? Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of lying on the beach? Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons? Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!
As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals. Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books? (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink. Janakay won’t tell!) I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count). I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they? They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!
To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat. Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?) This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess. I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices. I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.
From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them. I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed. How that Warner woman could dribble on! Had she no editor? Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly Willowes? Whatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome? Was Corner a history or was it a novel? Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored. Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust. Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate. And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken! In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier! Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment! Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel? The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended. Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty) ….
and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .
But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)
Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn. Any Rumer Godden readers out there? Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character. Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does. The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian. Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line. All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.
February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13. This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers. Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach. What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing! Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read? Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist? You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.” (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year. I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait). I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.
And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago. What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary. All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened. Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers! Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)
To a lesser extent, February was also short story month. Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof! They’re over! This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?). One of my rewards was re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now. Have any of you read it? If not, why are you wasting time on my blog? Click off instantly and read it now. Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.
If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads. I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin. Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy. Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days. If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal. For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited). I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers). As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:
In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare. As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel. Do any of you share my enthusiasm? After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago. I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?). I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March. Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?) Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor. Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere. What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey. I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read. The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good. Have any of you read Glass Hotel? Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter? If so, I’d love to hear your opinions. I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away. Do you read non-fiction? Play solitaire? Immediately go on to the next novel on your list? Do share your secret of survival!
After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King. Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try. Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men. Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees. I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list! (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.) Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist. If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader! This is your book! Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.
Well, that’s it for my round-up! What about yours? I’d love to compare lists!
Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you? She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year. Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge. Iadore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think? In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books! And this year, they’re all going to be read! What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?
And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read? Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy! Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!). No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading. I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea? After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way). For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding. A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities. For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others. And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily! Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list? Absolutely! But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020. The list, once made, sets the priorities!
In compiling my own list this month I’ve very much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices. It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title? Does a waterfall count?”). It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories. These cases raise the additional question of which category to use? Oh, such delightful dilemmas!
Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.
19th Century Classic: To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith! I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician! I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).
In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover. Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General. The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back. (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge: I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!) When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend! My choice was made!
20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970): Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work. In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read! This year, I will do better! My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).
Classic by a Woman Author: I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). 2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd! On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.
Classic in Translation: My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann. The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.
Classic by a POC: A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s. It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs. One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry. Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer. By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s. I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity. Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work. Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S. the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley, a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).
A Genre Classic: I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town. So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice. But which book? That’s a bit of a problem. Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore. (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?). I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply a series of repeating cycles or events. I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me! Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.
Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title: Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011. My bad!) As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high. Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic. Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!
Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)? She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, TheDoor. I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years. The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels. The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date. My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.
Classic with Nature in the Title: This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak. I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning? She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date! Shucky darn, that one’s out! I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet. I loved the Quartet (its treatment of the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it. My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.
Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title: Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family. With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine. I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.
Abandoned Classic: Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from! Most of Dickens! All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)! A Brontë or three (or four) — Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well! Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing? (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce. I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb. Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it). No! No! No! Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move! Allowances must be made! Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites. Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long). In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same. In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer). With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them. (P.S.: I’ve already started reading it! It’s wonderful!).
Classic Adaptation: This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices! I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time. Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not. Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.” I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.
Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post. As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!
Well, dear readers, here you are, well into the new year while Janakay is still piddling around with the old! Time just seemed to gallop away from me, there at the old year’s end, what with the “Big Book Sort,” the holidays and a (very) little recreational travel. One day it was early December and I rather unrealistically thought I might actually catch up with my 2019 Challenges; then I blinked and it was mid-January! No matter how many times this has happened to Janakay, she’s always surprised! I suppose it’s that child-like sense of wonder that keeps her going!
2019 was a big year for me as far as bookish matters are concerned. After literally years of thinking it would be fun to write about some of the great books I was reading, and to connect with others who shared my passions, I (finally) launched my blog and — gasp — participated in not one, but two Challenges! (the first was Karen’s “Back to the Classics” Challenge; the second was the TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader). Now, a year later, what do I think of the whole enterprise?
The blog itself has been rewarding, even if it’s been on life support at times; my “launch year” unfortunately coincided with a final, rather intensive year of academic work on my art history degree. As for the Challenges, well . . . . Janakay isn’t always into completion! It’s a kind of glass half–empty, glass half-full thing and, since Janakay has a naturally sunny disposition she regards both her Challenges as having been very worthwhile exercises. Even if the total number of reviews and books read were somewhat less than ideal, the Challenges ensured that reading in 2019 was quite stimulating and definitely more challenging than the previous year’s when, sad to say, I was in a bit of a science fiction-fantasy rut. Regrettably, however, around midyear my reviews fell far short of my reading; so much so that I didn’t see the point of a final linkup post for either my TBR or Classics Challenge. Because this is the month named for the god who gazes into the past as much as the future, however, and I haven’t posted in quite some time, I thought it would be interesting, at least to me (you, dear reader, can always click elsewhere for entertainment!) to do a sort of informal tally of the results of my Challenge participation.
I’ll begin with the “Back to the Classics Challenge,” as the books I selected were generally more of a stretch for me to complete than my TBR selections. The final sum of my posted reviews — five — was pretty bad. The number of books (eight) I read for the Challenge, however, wasn’t too horrible, particularly when I consider that the Challenge required me to read books from genres (such as translated literature) that I normally avoid because they’re too much work! Here’s my thumbnail tally by category:
19th century classic: For this category I rather ambitiously selected Henry James’ 1890 The Tragic Muse, written right before HJ’s disastrous stint as a playwright. Although Muse displays the realism so characteristic of 19th century literature in general, it’s also quite philosophical in a sense; James uses his characters to debate various opinions regarding the nature of dramatic art and the plot turns on the conflict between pursuing art and meeting the expectations and obligations imposed by society. One plot strand centers around Nick Dormer and his decision to pursue painting rather than the political career expected by his family, while the other revolves around Miriam Rooth, a fiercely dedicated actress who rejects a conventional life in favor of the stage. Since Muse is mid-period James, its syntax is much more manageable than HJ’s late masterpieces (Wings of the Dove, for example). As with any novel by HJ, one shouldn’t expect thrills and chills. Although Muse does have some extended discussions on the nature of art, particularly dramatic art (one senses that James is working through his ideas regarding his upcoming career switch), the major characters’ choices, along with their resulting complications, do create a bit of tension in the plot. Like the great artist he is, James creates complicated and subtle characters. While I found Nick a bit bland, James does wonderful female characters and Miriam is one of the great creations of 19th century English literature. How many novels of this era portray a strong and supremely gifted woman who navigates considerable practical obstacles and arranges her life to allow the full exercise of her talents? Miriam is not only unusual, she and her choices are fully believable. Although I liked this novel very much, it’s not one of HJ’s masterpieces and I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who only intended to read one or two of HJ’s novels. I obviously love James’ work and actually managed to review Muse in some (well, too much) detail; if you’re interested you may check out my post.
20th century classic: Decisions, decisions! So much to choose from! I finally settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends and Relations (another one of my rather rare reviews; you may find it here.) Friends is a deceptively brief but stylistically rather complex novel involving the secrets and shifting relationships of two very different sisters and their respective husbands. Although I found some of the novel’s characters rather two dimensional and its ultimate plot twist unnecessarily melodramatic, it also contained moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, as well as some wonderful comedy. A detailed and seemingly believable depiction of upper class English life between the wars is an added bonus. And, of course, the novel is beautifully written. Friends is definitely worth reading, if not quite equal to Bowen’s later work, such as The Last September or The Death of the Heart.
Classic Tragic Novel: For this category, I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, but, alas, failed to post a review. I found this category quite interesting because it made me question the very definition of a “tragic” protagonist. Must s/he be Aristotle’s person of noble qualities, subject to adverse circumstances and brought low by an inner flaw? Or can our tragic protagonist be some poor schlub in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or a couple of rich, educated, culturally blind Americans who traipse around Algeria, carrying too much emotional baggage and descending into their own hell of utter darkness? If you answered my third question affirmatively, well, Sky is the very defintion of a tragic novel. Kit and Port Moresby, the couple in question, are the ultimate adventure tourists, scorning the mundane; Port is intent on seeking out the increasingly remote and isolated while Kit becomes more terrified as they leave “civilization” further and further behind. Neither Port nor Kit understands or is interested in understanding anything about the people or cultures they encounter, and both are totally unsympathetic characters; if you want warm and fuzzy, this is not your novel. The couple’s journey is bleak, the north African landscape is tortured and the prose is gorgeous, as Bowles describes a terrifying and empty universe in which civilization does not triumph. This novel is bleak, bleak, bleak. Janakay loved it and wants to read more Paul Bowles, but is afraid to; she has also vowed to travel exclusively with guided tour groups in the future. Sky has been my “jinx” book for ages; without the Classics Challenge it would have continued languishing unread and I would have missed a great read (many thanks, BooksandChocolate!).
Classic from a Place You’ve Lived: One of the more interesting places I’ve lived is New Orleans, Louisiana. From the abundance of myth, legend and literature associated with this oh-so-special city I picked The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a white, male, southern novelist I had successful avoided for most of my life. Percy was quite the flavor, back in the day; did you know The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award over such contenders as J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), William Maxwell (The Chateau) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (The Spinoza of Market Street)? Although Percy’s luster has faded a bit in subsequent years, Moviegoer continues to be regarded as one of the greatest U.S. novels of the 20th century; early last year The New Yorker made a persuasive argument that it continues to remain as relevant as ever.
The novel’s non-linear plot centers on the travails of Binx Bolling, a well-connected New Orleans stockbroker with a knack for making money, who occasionally (please forgive Janakay’s snark) attends an afternoon movie, which he finds more “real” than his quotidian routine. In addition to (occasionally) watching movies, making money and seducing his secretaries, Binx wanders around New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Chicago seeking god and spouting thinnly disguised existentialist philosophy. By novel’s end, Binx accepts reality, marries the neurotic rich girl and decides to attend medical school, which he will have no trouble getting into and which his family will pay for. Despite Percy’s skill with dialogue and description, his frequently lovely prose and his sincerity, Janakay did not like Moviegoer, which she considers enormously overrated (lots of guilt here! When I lived in New Orleans, I patronized a nice little bookshop that had a candid photo of Percy browsing its stacks and I heard, first hand, that he was a very nice guy!). Are any of you cyberspace wanderers familiar with Moviegoer? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I’m afraid my own cultural bias may be blinding me to the novel’s virtues (I’m highly resistant to the woes of privileged southern white boys). It’s worth noting that Moviegoer reflects the racial and sexual attitudes of its time and place, which have thankfully improved somewhat over the fifty-odd years since its publication. Also, before I forget — this is one of the novels I read but never got around to reviewing.
Very Long Classic: I’m afraid I totally bombed out in this category. I had originally intended to read Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy, an unsung classic from eastern Europe. Last July and fifty pages in, I realized this was not going to happen (at least not in this lifetime); I opted instead for a nature walk in Corkscrew Swamp, a wonderful nature preserve located in the western portion of Florida’s Everglades (boardwalks! birds! river otters! ghost orchids!) Of course, I could have switched selections, made Tragic Muse my “very long classic” and reviewed Jane Eyre or Great Expectations (both of which I re-read last spring) for my 19th century category. Oh, well …………………. those river otters at Corkscrew were wonderful!
Classic Comic Novel: Another bomb! I intended to read something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who’s a favorite author of mine (her humor is so very black and her dialogue is so very, very funny) but kept saving it as a treat. Then — it was December and I decided to read a couple of contemporary detective novels instead! (If you haven’t yet met detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, devout Buddhist cop and half-caste son of a Thai bar girl, stop now and read John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 immediately! Provided, that is, you’re not offended by an unflinching look at Bangkok’s sex trade). Remember what Janakay said about her addiction to non-completion?
Classic in Translation: The Challenge was just what I needed to get me reading some of those wonderful translations out there, particularly as I tend to confine myself to anglophone writers. Thanks to the NYRB Classics, I had several novels by Guy de Maupassant gathering dust on the shelf so I took this opportunity to read Like Death. Set in Belle Epoch Paris, it involves a simple but piquant situation: noted society painter Olivier Bertin is beginning to feel his age when the lovely young daughter of Anne de Gilleroy, his longtime mistress, appears in his life. The novel follows the growing realization of both Bertine and Anne that the former is subsuming his love for Anne into a passion for her daughter. Although I thought the story might work better as a novella than a full-length novel, it was psychologically quite acute and offered a wonderful look at the aristocratic Paris of the late 19th century. I did manage to review this one; follow the link if you want details.
Classic novella: I literally have hundreds of these in a very special, very neglected corner of a very large book case and hardly ever read one! 2019 and a Challenge — here I come! I really, really meant to read one in 2019 — one little afternoon in December would have done it — but Bangkok 8 was so exciting I simply had to follow it with Bankgok Tattoo, the second book in the series! And, after all, there’s always 2020 . . . . I did read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein last spring, which technically qualifies (it’s less than 250 pages) but just didn’t feel like writing about it! Janakay has to wait for inspiration!
Classic from the Americas: This was a category in which I did the reading but didn’t do a review, primarily because it took me so long to make my selection. After several months of dithering I finally settled on Zama, a 1956 novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto. Di Benedetto (died in 1986) was a contemporary of Borges and Cortázar who never achieved their international fame; Zama has only recently been translated into English and made readily available through the NYRB Classics. As the novel opens, it is circa 1790 and Don Diego de Zama, a midlevel functionary of the Spanish empire, is stuck in a dead end posting in what is now Asunción, Paraguay. Zama longs for everything he doesn’t have: the bright lights of Buenos Aires; promotion (as a Spaniard born in the colonies he faces considerable discrimination in this respect); the wife and children whom he’s too poor to have with him and for a remote, fantasy Europe that he has never seen. The novel falls into three chronological sections (1790, 1794 and 1799); in each period Zama faces, respectively, a serious sexual, financial and existential problem. In each period Zama over-analyzes and misinterprets his situation; essentially he’s so busy presenting his life to an imaginary audience he misses, or is unable to face, the reality in front of him. Zama’s tragedy, perhaps, is that he’s never quite able to lose himself in his fantasies; he retains a neurotic self-awareness that ensures he’s continually disappointed by the realities of his situation. It’s all very existential (Di Benedetto was a great admirer of Dostoevsky) and Janakay isn’t at all sure she grasped everything there was to grasp; in fact, after I finished Zama I was tempted to settle in for a re-read (it’s quite brief). Zama is a challenging, but very worthwhile novel. And, did I mention it’s quite funny at times?
Classic Play: I’ve been meaning to read Ben Johnson’s The Duchess of Malfi for years. I’m still meaning to! Another category where I dropped the ball.
Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia): Thanks to NYRB Classics, I had long possessed a copy of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf. This highly autobiographical account of life on the remnants of a Dutch spice plantation in Indonesia was one of my favorite reads of the year. Ostensibly the story of a young woman who returns to her grandmother’s garden to raise her child and grow old, the story moves backwards and forwards in time to encompass hundreds of beings, the living and dead, the supernatural and natural, to show in the most subtle way possible the interconnectedness of all things. I reviewed this novel in great detail in a prior post(I’m afraid I became a little carried away with the visuals, having just completed a couple of courses in Dutch art!); there’s a wonderful essay that explains the novel far better than does my review in Lost Classics (edited by Michael Ondaatje), a fascinating little book which is in itself worth tracking down.
Classic by a Woman Author:For this category I read and reviewed The Blackmailer, the first of a number of novels by Isabel Colegate, a wonderful English novelist who’s a favorite of mine. Blackmailer, which is set in the post-war London of the 1950s, is a surprisingly subtle look at the relationship between the blackmailer and his/her prey, and the intricate cat and mouse game in which they indulge. The novel offers crisp dialogue, a great depiction of post-war London’s publishing world and some wonderful supporting characters (including a hilarious old nightmare of a nanny and Bertie the spaniel, portrayed with great vividness and not an ounce of sentimentality). Perhaps best avoided by those demanding a great deal of action in their novels.
I did a bit better with my TBR than with my Classics challenge, completing ten of the twelve books I selected from my enormous TBR pile. Alas, however, I only reviewed four. Regardless of numbers, however, the Challenge really motivated me actually to read some of those very interesting books I’ve been accumulating all these years and was, more importantly, a lot of fun (I’m very sorry to see that the Challenge won’t be offered in 2020). The real standouts for me were Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area, a wonderful noir thriller with supernatural elements, which I reviewed, and Ester Freud’s Summer at Gaglow, which I did not. My real regret is that, once again, I’ve evaded Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which has been on my TBR list for years!
Regarding my choice of illustrations — have you ever wondered where those nauseatingly cute paintings of anthropomorphic dogs playing poker and so on came from? For better or worse, we owe them to Kash Coolidge, a graphic artist who created them as part of an advertising campaign in the early part of the 20th century. In the illustration I choose, the canines all look like they’re having a doggedly good time on New Year’s Eve, don’t they?
Have you found, dear reader, that there has come a time in your life when you’re forced to cull your beloved treasures? Have you ever realized that it’s time to say “adieu” to your yellowing edition of Catcher in the Rye, once read so eagerly but untouched since age fifteen, or your grubby copy of Catch 22, replete with (traumatic) memories of boot camp and bearing an almost illegible name tag and serial number? That perhaps you don’t need all three copies of Wings of the Dove, acquired because each has a different cover illustation, or that your ten Georgette Heyer novels are now available (and easier to read) on kindle and no longer need shelf room?
Propelled by the possibility of a long-distance move, Janakay is now in that time of reevaluation and has spent a harrowing few weeks deciding who (so to speak) lives and dies in her book collection. Fortunately, as you can see from my photo, I have not been without assistance!
If you’ve visited my blog in the past, when I did occasionally manage to stay somewhat current, I’m sure by now you understand why I haven’t been posting for — my goodness, gracious me — can it be almost five weeks now? No posts since Halloween? Of course, I haven’t been sorting books for the entire last five weeks — there were some minor academic matters to wrap up, some lovely light reading to do (Louis Auchincloss is always good for this) and movies to see (if you’re a Scorsese fan you can’t miss “The Irishman;” “Parasite” is great and “Knives Out” isn’t bad but I’d advise you to skip “The Lighthouse”). Also, after I decided to at least consider a move, I fell into a period of near-catatonia, triggered by the very notion of discarding any of my beloved book collection (at the risk of sounding heartless, I can say that I’ve experienced the death of blood relations — well, some of them anyway — with less emotion!)
But amusements and psychological trauma aside, the past month or so has seen a great deal of bookish exertion on my part, with rivers of books (so to speak) flowing up and down my house’s too many stairs. I did (briefly) consider keeping everything, but quickly discarded that notion — there are just too many multiple copies and books that I no longer need (do those twenty odd books on Vermeer, Rubens and van Dyck deserve shelf room, now that I’ve finished my class work on Baroque art?); that I’ve read and enjoyed but don’t plan on revisiting (Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, for example, a fabulous novel but not one on my re-read list ) or that I’ve outgrown along with the hobby or activity that prompted their acquisition.
It’s been an emotional process, no doubt about it, saying good-bye to certain old friends, many of which are associated with very specific periods in my life (yes, I did read that copy of Catch 22 when I was not otherwise occupied in surviving boot camp and that battered old copy of Alice in Wonderland is still sticky with the adhesive tape a nine-year-old me used to repair it). There’s also the angst involved in acknowledging that most of my unread books will stay unread, at least by me, and facing up to the lost opportunities for pleasure and enrichment those books represent, of accepting that one is a finite creature who will spend her allotted time to read with other companions. And, of course, there’s always a certain chagrin in facing one’s mistakes . . . the “why did I buy that book” combined with the “why ever haven’t I gotten rid of it before now” moments! Have any of you ever faced such moments of truth or had to confront such bookish vulnerabilities? If so, how did you handle it?
Janakay, however, doesn’t want to be a weepy rain cloud here and mire us all in gloom, doom and desolation. Honesty compels me to admit that the sorting out process does have a positive aspect. In the broadest sense, I had to answer some very basic questions concerning why I read, as well as why I’d bother to have my very own personal library. What purpose does it serve? Home decor? Self-improvement? Laziness? (It’s easier to let the books breed in corners than adopt them out to good homes.) The desire to impress the neighbors with my two different translations of Rembrance of Things Past? None of the above?
Along the same lines, I necessarily had to formulate some standards (much harder to do than you might suppose) in order to decide what to keep or to discard. Should I, for example, toss classics by great writers such as Dostoevsky and Dickens (neither are big favorites of mine) to leave space for beloved fun reads by Georgette Heyer or Joe Abercrombie? (If you haven’t met Logan Nine-Fingers, you should. He’s one of the great anti-heroes of fantasy literature.) Should I keep a book I might read at some unspecified time if it means discarding something I’ve read and loved, but which is now out of print or otherwise unavailable? Is it better to keep an author’s “best” novel that I’ve read or her most obscure, which I haven’t?
Yes, dear reader, I’ve had a month of heavy thinking about basic aspects of reading and retaining books, activities that have occupied most of my energy since I first grasped that those little black squiggles on white paper actually meant something. On a lighter note, it’s been a lot of fun to read or skim big chunks of things I hadn’t thought about in years and to research authors as I’ve made my decisions (electronic availability for discards was an important factor). And, shameful though it is to admit, there’s also a Christmas morning element to the process, as I discovered some great stuff that I had totally forgotten about (that light green blob at the back of a shelf turned out to be a(n unopened) box set of Penguin Modern novellas!)
So how does Linda Grant, a British writer I admire more than I’ve read (some of her books were rather difficult “keep or toss” decisions) come into all this? In the middle of my winnowing process I was lucky enough to stumble across her essay, “I Murdered My Library,” published as a kindle single and worth every penny of its $2.99 (U.S.) price. Around 2013 Grant was forced to downsize her huge personal library (the product of a lifetime of reading) when she moved into a relatively small flat. All my emotions and thoughts — the grief, the guilt, the difficulty of choosing, the (yes) relief at imposing some type of order on an overwhelming number of physical objects — are there, expressed far, far more eloquently that I ever could. These are interspaced with Grant’s love of literature and reading, her thoughts on independent book stores and the effect of e-books on conventional print, and a great deal of humor and wry acceptance of the fact that we, as readers, are as finite as the texts that we love. Grant’s essay is a treasure for anyone who likes to read about books; if you’re downsizing or reevaluating your own book stash, it’s a necessity. I was so impressed by it, in short, I immediately moved two of Grant’s unread novels from my “discard” to my “keep” pile! (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of my action!).
After recounting her “crime” of book homicide, Grant ends her essay with the cry of “What have I done?” Since it’s time for me to sign off, I’ll end my little tale by showing you a visual of my very recent response to my own act of murder . . . . .
What’s that old saw, about the “more things change, the more they remain the same?”
Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year! Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?
In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common. They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .
to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .
to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!
And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!
Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood! Now we have the adorably traditional:
The “traditional with a twist”:
And — the Topical:
Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it? Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude? Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween? This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!
PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL. THOUGHTS, ANYONE?
I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you? Ha! Tricked you! With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything! And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there? And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety. In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale. In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating? Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying? I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas? If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!) Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:
Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written. I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them. Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers. It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k. Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.
Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire. Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be. This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris. Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read). Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good. Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.
H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories: H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work. In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful). I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions. My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”
Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla: another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously). My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?” Then I had nightmares for a week. A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.
Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby: devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu. I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?
Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really. If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post. They’re all great). For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Stephen King’s The Shining: I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice. Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material. Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.
William Blatty’s The Exorcist. I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review. About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary. In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!
Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy): have any of you read this very interesting writer? She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans! I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing. Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.
Marisha Pessl’s Night Film. This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award. The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director. I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.
My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it. Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?
PART THIRD: MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)
My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there. A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it? It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark. What better time than Halloween? It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death. I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read! The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.
Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels? O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot! A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times. I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004. I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read. I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for. Night Countryis a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains. Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck. The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of HillHouse type read. And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.
O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale. It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop. Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self. The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.
As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read. It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe. Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really? The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives. It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting — I found the story. If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time. If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.
If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford. I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here. It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.” The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels. All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves. I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not. It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.