Category: 20th century writers

Short Reads For A (Short) Road Trip

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A few of the more interesting things I read during my recent road trip.  Did I like them?  Well . . . .

Do you make New Year’s resolutions?  I do, every year; it’s a little ritual I follow, an annual triumph of hope over history.  This year I resolved to do the usual things:  lose weight; step up the exercise; no more eating potato chips (I even did the farewell ritual recommended by certain therapists: “I love you very much, fried salty things, but I can’t have you in my life anymore”).  I did, however, add a new one for 2022, i.e., to post a little more frequently on my blog.  There would be no more weeks (or even months), I resolved, when I read wonderful books but didn’t write a word about them!  No more holding back the good news from my fellow bloggers about the stunning new works of fiction I was discovering!  Weekly posts, it’s true, might be a little too restrictive, but surely I could manage twice a month?  I am proud to say, dear readers, that my resolution to increase my number of posts actually survived into February!  (By contrast, I’m totally embarrassed to tell you how soon after New Year’s Day I ate my first, utterly delicious potato chip and just how quickly I wolfed it down!)  At any rate, receiving some rather upsetting health news (unpleasant but highly treatable), combined with just a teeny bit of travel does give me an excuse for neglecting to post for the past few weeks.  The travel, while nothing exotic or international, alas, was a nice little interlude away from the palm trees and unrelenting sunshine of the U.S.’ gulf coast (Florida has earned its moniker of “the Sunshine State.”)  My trip was the usual, to Washington, D.C. and, also as usual, combined tedious errands and fun things.

Although I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do on these little jaunts, my trip reading included three wonderful, new-to-me writers.  I’ll discuss their respective works, short in page length but deep in content, in the first part of this post.  I’ll follow with a few travel photos and comments on the sight-seeing; this was quite satisfying, although I missed a few nice things I didn’t have time to see (I still haven’t made it to the Art Museum of the Americas, for example, or re-visited Baltimore’s stunning Matisse collection).  See how easy I make it for you to zero in on what interests you and skip what doesn’t?

A.  BOOKS

Because I’m drawn to tales about artists and/or the creative process generally, Aysegül Savas’ White on White has been on my radar since its publication last December.  How could I resist a novel with a title invoking, deliberately or not, Kazimir Malevich’s great Suprematist painting?  No matter the fact that I already had a copy of Savas’ well-received debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, which needless to say I haven’t yet read!  This one went (almost) to the top of the TBR pile.

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Clocking in at a mere 175 pages or so, White On White can be read in an afternoon.  Its story lingers, however, and the pleasures of Savas’ elegant prose demand a slow and thoughtful read. 

White’s ostensible plot is simple.  An unnamed graduate student narrator, the lucky recipient of a grant to finish researching and writing a dissertation on medieval sculpture, has taken up residence in an unidentified European city.  The narrator is also lucky (or not) in finding very nice and very affordable lodgings, an apartment belonging to an eminent medieval scholar who makes it available to researchers with the proviso that his wife Agnes, a well-known local painter, will occasionally use the upstairs studio.  Our narrator (I presumed a “she” although gender is never specified) diligently does her research; attentively observes the city that is temporarily home and becomes keenly interested in Agnes, who begins to spend more and more time in the upstairs studio.  The two settle into an increasingly intimate and claustrophobic relationship, one not always welcome to the narrator (after all, she does have all that research to finish and there’s pressure to begin writing as well).  Their roles are seemingly well-defined: the narrator listens and Agnes talks; the narrator receives and Agnes gives — gifts of food, of friendship and of an increasingly detailed portrayal of her marriage; her adult children; her former friends; the beautiful au pair who once worked for her family and her painting.  At the end, Savas leaves us questioning the nature of the narrator’s passivity as well as the reliability of Agnes’ revelations and the generosity that prompted her gifts.

Although short on action (a warning to dedicated plot hounds: you’ll need to go elsewhere), White on White is a novel of echos & resonances; of character and connections.  Just as the narrator studies the medieval consciousness that created the Gothic sculpture of her dissertation, so Agnes explains her art, “white paintings of the human figure * * *  with expressions like those seen * * * from the medieval period.”  The two are interested in the same period, but from the different perspectives of an academic interpreter and an artist-creator.  Is one way to be preferred over another?  At a very deep level the novel is also about change and mutability.  Characters and relationships shift and even a painting in the narrator’s apartment appears to mutate as the story progresses.  The novel’s structure, a double narration, is equally deceptive.  Is the unnamed graduate student who ostensibly relates the tale actually the narrator, or is it Agnes, who speaks to us directly at times and whose life provides the novel’s structure? Can either, neither or both be trusted?

As a former wanna-be medievalist and an adult student of art history, this novel pushed all my buttons.  Although I obviously loved it, however, it’s not without flaws.  How significant these are depends on your own personal preferences.  (I found the ending, for example, rather unsatisfying and a little melodramatic but neither fact detracted from my overall enjoyment.)  I’ve already mentioned that the novel isn’t heavy on plot; if this is of paramount importance to you, I’m afraid Savas’ character driven tale won’t be your best choice for an enjoyable afternoon.  Keep in mind as well that this is a very visual novel whose characters are closely associated with the arts; certain readers may feel that Savas’ descriptions of art and nature are too digressive.  I, on the other hand, was hooked in from the novel’s opening paragraphs (pages 1-2):

Mornings, the apartment expanded with light.  Light flitted across the walls and curtains, streaked the wooden floorboards, lay dappled on the sheets, as if a luminous brush had left its mark upon my awakening.

From my bed, I could see out onto the small, trellised balcony, lush with the thick foliage and purple flowers of a clematis climbing up a stone wall.  White geraniums lined the railing.  There was a single forged iron chair and a round table * * *

On the dressing table beneath a mirror stood a green ceramic bowl; in the hallway, the dark, rounded arms of the coatrack were bare.

Still, everything was marked with life, rich and varied.  Each room echoed a story of unknown proportion, appearing and disappearing out of focus.  The sparsity gave the place its character, so distinct and so fleeting.   

Gentle readers, I wanted to live in that apartment.  Do you think it’s the purple clematis?

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My first novel by Sarah Moss, Summerwater was a tale of almost unbearable tension.  Let’s hope, gentle readers, that we never experience similar vacations  . . .

Turning to my second short read (second only in a chronological sense, that is), I’m happy to report I was equally satisfied in an entirely different way.  For some time now, I’ve been intending to check out the increasingly well-known British writer, Sarah Moss.  We all know, however, what paves that road to hell, don’t we?  But then, what are road trips for, if not to haul around a big pile of books, some of which you actually read?  I’m happy to report that after a year of gathering dust on the shelf, Summerwater received my long overdue attention.  It did not disappoint.

Summerwind takes place in a remote Scottish vacation park, located on a rather menacing loch; it begins before dawn and concludes late the following night.  The vacation cabins — some owned, others rented — are occupied by a motley assortment of families and couples whose outdoor activities have been frustrated by the torrential, unnatural, unceasing rain:

Although there’s no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is raining; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.

The rain, a character in its own right, reinforces the feeling of nature being out of joint.  Moss links the human and natural worlds by interspersing sections dealing with a fawn, an ant hive, a starving falcon and geological time with the sections centered on her human characters.  It’s a wonderful touch that lends a great deal of depth to her story.

Cut off from the outside world by the terrible weather and equally terrible internet access, the would-be vacationers become increasingly unmoored in their isolation.  Middle class and British (mostly Scottish, with one English couple in the mix), they are united in only one thing, i.e., their distaste and distrust of the “foreign” family occupying one of the cabins.  Variously described as Poles, Gypsies or Ukrainians, their music is loud, their manners uncouth and their ways are not the ways of their temporary neighbors.

It’s clear from the beginning of the story that something dreadful is going to occur; the suspense lies in what will it be, when will it happen and who will get the ax.  Will it be the obsessive runner who persists in her solitary and grueling runs despite her bad heart or the quietly resentful retired doctor who drives just a little too fast in his “boomer mobile”?  The kid who’s taken his kayak too far from land when the storm hits or his bored sister who slips away from her family to meet a stranger in the woods?  Or one of the many other characters in this ensemble cast?  By switching the point of view from one character to another, Moss gives the reader wonderfully realistic depictions of each (no one does teenagers better) while ratcheting up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.  About midway through the novel, I had to stop and read the end simply so I could relax enough to enjoy the rest of the story.  Highly recommended, except perhaps for the morbidly timid.

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Two works that I’ve recently read by Claire Keegan, a new personal favorite.  I’ve just added Walk the Blue Fields, one of her short story collections, to my Mount TBR.

The third in my most excellent trifecta of excellent fiction writers is Claire Keegan, whom I read for the first time earlier this month.  As even the most casual visitor to the bookish internet must know by now, Keegan’s Small Things Like These has been widely and very favorably reviewed on numerous blogs.  Although I was mildly curious about Keegan, whose work was unfamiliar to me, I initially had no intention of reading her novella; I’ve read a fair amount of reporting on Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries and didn’t feel I could emotionally handle the subject even in a work of fiction.  After reading the third (or was it fourth?) highly favorable review of Small Things, however, all written by bloggers whose opinions I respected, I decided to give it a go.  After all, I was curious.  Was it possible for any writer to be that good, for any short story/novella to be that morally perceptive or for any fictional character like its protagonist to be that sensitively portrayed in all his glorious, fallible humanity?  Well, yes.  It’s been many years since I’ve read William Trevor, my own personal god of the short story, but I’d rank Small Things as equal to the best of his work.

Since I’ve nothing new to add to the many fine reviews I’ve read of Small Things, however, I’ve decided to limit my comments to Foster, an earlier Keegan work.  Originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, Foster was later published in an expanded form by Faber and Faber (a most unusual step in the publishing world).  A simpler, less morally complicated tale than Small Things, it’s the story of a neglected child, temporarily abandoned by her family for the summer to grieving foster parents.  Despite the notorious difficulty of creating a believable child narrator, Keegan never gets a note wrong in her portrayal of her wary young girl narrator (her age is never specified, but she appears to be around eight years old).  In a beautiful, utterly realistic way that depends as much on what’s left out as on what is said, Keegan shows how the child slowly gains a sense of trust and belonging when she is given attention and nurturing in a home “where there is room and time to think.”  Although Foster lacks the moral complexity and drama of Small Things, I actually preferred its beautiful but utterly unsentimental depiction of human nature, the petty and malicious as well as the good.

I’ll conclude my short reads section with a word or two about Slightly Foxed, a quarterly periodical to which I’m mildly addicted.  If you’re on my side of the Atlantic, it is a bit of an indulgence, but it’s such a perfect way to pass the time between novels, while discovering some half-forgotten treasures from yesteryear, that I justify it as a birthday or Christmas gift, from Janakay to Janakay, so to speak.  The articles are short and beautifully written, often by well-known writers; and the format lends itself to dipping and skipping, so it’s perfect for short attention spans.   If any of you are current or former readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this pricey-but-worth-it gem.

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This recent jackpot issue had a number of articles on my favorites, including Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels; Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop & Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine.  Oh, and a Patricia Highsmith novel I haven’t yet read ….

B.  TRAVEL

Because Washington is such a city of museums, my first stop is almost always . . .

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Washington’s National Gallery of Art.  Not a great photo (drat that truck!), but it nevertheless conveys the scale & size of the entrance to the West Building, the original part of the museum.

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Whenever I visit the National Gallery, these two paintings by Giorgio Morandi are mandatory must-sees.  While I think they’re sublime, Mr. Janakay considers them a bit dull (but then, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?)

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This New York street scene (1902) by the American realist painter Robert Henri is one of Mr. J’s favorites.  I find it (yawn) somewhat interesting . . . .                            

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The National Gallery’s enormous blue chicken contemplates Washington’s skyline.  The Museum’s founder, a very serious robber baron & admirer of traditional European painting, would not have been amused  . . . .

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I can’t be in the D.C. area without a nature walk in one of my favorite spots. This lovely, if stark, photo is from Maryland’s Little Bennett Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Washington and a nice break from all those museums.  The photo was taken a few weeks ago; by now there’ll actually be a little green here and there.
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It’s equally vital to visit Politics & Prose, one of the leading independent bookstores in the U.S.

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Just a smidgen of P&P’s riches; most of the fiction is in an adjacent room.

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Since I had visited P&P only a few months before, my haul this time was relatively restrained. The two military histories (shudder) are Mr. Janakay’s selections.  He’s very picky about his nonfiction and seldom buys from a non-specialist source; I included them in the photo to give you an idea of the selections available in this marvelous bookstore.

For the last bit of sightseeing, it was back to a museum, albeit one I seldom have time to visit.  Nestled in the heart of Washington’s estate area, Hillwood Museum & Gardens remains something of an unexplored treasure for most tourists.  A former residence belonging to Marjorie Post, the sole heiress of the founder of what later became General Foods (jello, cereal or frozen veggies, anyone?), I think of Hillwood as an American equivalent to a British stately home, albeit one associated with oodles of dollars rather than aristocratic descent.  Hillwood is a treasure trove of French antiques and porcelain, as well as Russian imperial relics; Ms. Post was the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union when the Bolsheviks were happily trading Romanov bling for western currency.  If you don’t care for Fabergé eggs or the nuptial crowns worn by Russian princesses, Hillwood’s magnificent gardens provide a wonderful respite from the huge and bustling city that seems (but isn’t) a million miles away.

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One of Mr. J’s photos of Hillwood’s exterior.  Although I don’t often visit, I generally enjoy myself when I do; the museum’s contents are a feast for the eye, the cafe is quite good and the gardens are stunning at any time of the year.

After several days of unseasonably warm weather, the mercurial Washington climate decided that it was winter after all on the day of my Hillwood visit.  Although it was too rainy and cold to walk in the gardens, the greenhouses were open and the orchids were almost, if not quite, in full bloom.  Since I enjoy gaudy tropical flowers very much, I’ll leave you with several shots of blinding color, courtesy of Mr. J:

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After the excitement of the big city, it’s home again, where two of our resident aliens were getting ready to levitate up to their space ship:

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That it for now (and I’m still working on that review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood . . . .)

Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow: a journey through mists and memory

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Has anyone read Jessica Au’s recent novel, Cold Enough For Snow?  If so, I’d be most interested in hearing your reaction . . . .

Are you one of those organized souls who draws up a plan of action and then actually follows it?  Or are you, like me, a child of spontaneity, someone who prefers to meet on an ad hoc basis whatever life throws her way?  Fear not, gentle reader, that I’m going to ramble off on a comparison of differing life philosophies; rather, I’m merely trying to explain to myself just how my review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Woods morphed into a post about Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow!  Blame it on the publisher!

As I’ve probably remarked in the past, part of my bookish self-indulgence during the pandemic included a subscription to the New Classics Club run by New Direction press, which gives me a monthly “surprise” book selected by the editors from the latest additions to their catalogue.  February’s selection, Ms. Au’s Snow, arrived just as I was getting ready for a teeny little break from Gibbons’ charming but quite lengthy 1930s period piece.  Even before receiving my copy, however, I had noticed Au’s novel on the New Directions website and thought it sounded intriguing.  What could I do when fate literally placed in in my hands with last Friday’s mail?  Cold Enough For Snow is brief, really more a novella than a novel, clocking in at a mere ninety-five pages; I always prefer reading to writing, so wasn’t it quite natural to just skim a few pages while I took a break from Stella Gibbons?  It’s pretty clear where this is going, isn’t it?  After my experience with novels by Fleur Jaeggy and Dag Solstad, I suppose that I was a little naive in thinking that a skinny little novel would be more straightforward than one with a heftier page count, for I shortly discovered that Ms Au’s brief novel punches far above its weight.  In short, it’s been adieu, Nightingale Woods, at least for a few days while I gather my thoughts on this very interesting piece of avant-garde fiction.

This is my first encounter with Jessica Au, an Australian writer currently based in Melbourne.  Snow is her second novel; her debut, Cargo, was published by Picador in 2011 when Au was a mere twenty-five years old.  Snow won the Novel Prize, a biennial competition open to writers (published & unpublished) around the world; the prize recognizes works of literary fiction, written in English, “which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.”  I thought it worth quoting from the Prize’s criteria, as it gives you quite an accurate idea of Au’s novel, which was selected from over 1500 entries.  Three international publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.), Giramondo Press (Australia) and New Directions (U.S.) jointly sponsor the competition, which gives a cash award ($10,000 U.S.) and ensures the simultaneous publication of the winning entry in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

The plot of Au’s novel is very simple.  It begins in the Tokyo airport, where a woman waits for her mother’s plane to arrive before the two begin a trip that she has carefully orchestrated through Japan.  Au never tells us the name of either character.  We quickly learn that the trip is important to the daughter “for reasons she could not yet name” and that her mother had initially refused to come, reluctantly succumbing only after being “pushed.”  The two no longer live in the same city; we learn later that the daughter in fact has never seen the apartment into which her mother has moved.  From the opening paragraphs Au requires the reader to be actively engaged in piecing together her story.  Au tells us that the mother’s suitcase seems “almost new,” even though the daughter remembers it from her childhood, when her mother had “brought it down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like for when her father died, and then her brother.”  (page 2)  It is the reader who fleshes out the narrative by inferring that the mother has seldom traveled since her long-ago emigration from Hong Kong to a western country, where her daughters have grown up, and that she had few close relatives or ties strong enough to draw her back to Hong Kong.  This is a very simple example of Au’s subtle and ambiguous narrative technique.  As the novel progresses, the interactions between the mother and daughter become more opaque and the reader is given fewer, and much more subtle, clues as to their motivation and meaning.  Although Au’s style is a world apart from that of Henry James, I find her narrative technique to be reminiscent of James’ in his late novels.  For both these very different artists what is unsaid between the characters can be more important than what is verbalized; both writers require the reader to participate actively in their art.

One striking aspect of Snow is that the daughter narrates the entire novel, meaning that we see the characters’ interactions entirely from her point of view.  Conversations and the mother’s remarks are recounted solely by the daughter, who speaks directly to the reader:

I had chosen Japan because I had been there before, and although my mother had not, I thought she might be more at ease exploring another part of Asia.  And perhaps I felt this would put us on equal footing in some way, to both be made strangers.  I had decided on autumn, because it had always been our favorite season.  The gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful then; the late season, everything almost gone.  I had not anticipated that it might still be a time for typhoons.  Already * * *  it had been raining steadily since our arrival. 

In the days that follow their arrival in Tokyo the two visit museums, temples and art galleries that the daughter has chosen, stay at inns that the daughter has booked and eat at restaurants that the daughter has selected.  And all the time she is probing, probing for her mother’s reaction to what they are experiencing or to episodes from the past.  She clearly wants something from her interaction with her mother, but what and why is a mystery.  The rain, “a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October,” is omnipresent; almost as much of a character as the mother herself, it lends a haunting quality to a novel that is peopled with specters.  Weaving backwards and forwards in time, we learn about the narrator’s absent sister and her family; that dead uncle in Hong Kong; the past events that shaped the narrator’s personality; and Laurie, the narrator’s great love (is he her husband? I don’t think this is ever made clear) and her companion on her previous trip to Japan.  Sister, uncle, lover — physically absent, their presence haunts the narration.  Equally vivid are the absences.  The narrator’s father is never mentioned, nor is the reason for this particular trip at this particular time.

It’s possible to enjoy Snow on many levels.   At the most superficial, there is the sheer beauty of the language and the spare but gorgeous descriptions of the country through which the two women travel.  Au writes with great vividness about the physical aspect of the women’s trip — the museums they visit, the temples they see, the ordinary life that they observe around them.  Her unnamed narrator has an incredible feeling for art and the ability to convey what she is experiencing simply and elegantly.  Despite the distance created by keeping her characters nameless, Au’s story contains real emotion.  There was, here and there, a sentence that stabbed me to the heart, as when the narrator envisions the time when she and her sister will go to their mother’s apartment, the one she has never seen, “with the single task of sorting through a lifetime of possessions, packing everything away,” knowing that “whether out of too much, or too little sentiment,” she would keep nothing (page 78).  At another earlier point in the novel, the daughter actually seems to be remembering (page 5), rather than anticipating, a time when she and her sister “were cleaning everything out of” her mother’s flat, an obvious duty that we survivors perform for our dead.

And what of a deeper meaning, beyond these surface levels?  Each reader will no doubt draw different conclusions from this subtle and enigmatic story.  The novel certainly speaks at least in part to the nature of memory, of how the impressions and sensations that form identity may, or may not, be true or at least factually accurate.  In one of the novel’s most beautiful (if sentimental) sections the narrator recalls a story of her dead uncle in Hong Kong, of the great love affair he had as a young man, a story that was repeatedly told to her as a child.  When, years later and now an adult questioning her mother about it, her mother denies such a thing ever happened and her sister also has no memory of it.

Even more than the mysteries of memory, however, I think Au is telling us that it’s impossible to know another person through intellectual analysis or objective facts.  As a young woman the daughter was fiercely intellectual, consumed by “the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything.”  (page 29).  Her mother by contrast (page 57) believed that people were too “hungry to know everything,” mistakenly thinking they “could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner;” that understanding lessened no pain and that “the best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches.”  As their time together draws to a close, the daughter thinks that “the trip had not done what I wanted it to,” while her mother smiles “as if she were simply happy that we were in each other’s company, and to have no need for words.”  (page 88)  Perhaps Au is suggesting that this wordless contentment in each other’s company is enough; that in the end we will each remain a mystery to others.

Towards the close of the novel, after the two women have left Tokyo, an incident occurs that casts some doubt on my entire understanding of the daughter’s trip.  To discuss it further would be a bit of a spoiler (besides, you might not agree with me!) so I’ll say no more about it here.  I can’t resist remarking, however, that it very strongly reminded me of one aspect of A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a beautiful French novella (that also takes place in autumn) that was beautifully reviewed last summer by Jacquiwine.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, Cold Enough For Snow was published by New Directions, an independent publisher based in New York City that was founded in 1936 by a twenty-two year old James Laughlin, when he was told by Ezra Pound that his poetry was “hopeless,” and that he should finish Harvard and do something “useful” (publisher’s website).  New Directions publishes works in a variety of genres and from countries around the world; its list of authors includes Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges, William Carlos Williams and many others.  As an independent publisher, Au’s novel qualifies for Kaggsy’s and Lizzie’s 2022 #ReadIndies event.

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Finishing Off Scandinavia & Murder With Maud

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Have any of you yet met Maud?  Such a sweet old lady and perfectly safe . . . most of the time . . .

As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today:  a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist.  I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.

As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden.  If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out.  Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed)  they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge.  They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months.  Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction.  Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork.  One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies.  A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!

Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit.  If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).

The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic.  As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:

then, she came to me:  Maud.  She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies.  But inside she was quite special.  Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal!  Even . . . a murderer.  I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company.  But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”

Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation.  I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.

Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed.  This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together.  Maud’s habits are another connecting thread.  She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone.  When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone.  Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished.  Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.

Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in  “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories.  Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building.  As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:

I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy.  I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is.  I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell.  In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery.  At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging.  It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!

When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor.  What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home?  I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way.  The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining.  Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same.  Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two.  Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory.  Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good.  I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.

Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud.  As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month.  They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan.  Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.

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Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.

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The four additional books I completed for #NordicFinds, one each from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject.  As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other.  I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense.  By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events.  In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.

And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:

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After reading a few pages, I decided to postpone reading Smirnoff’s novel, set in Sweden, until later in the year. Not to worry! It’s part of my Reading Europe Challenge; I’ll finish when I’m next in a noirish mood!

So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks!  Now on to the next adventure:

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Percy wants to depart the frozen north for warmer climates  . . . .

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins: personal & national transitions

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My only previous experience with Icelandic writing was Auour Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  For #NordicFinds, however, I resisted the urge to return to the same writer because I wanted to try someone new.  Do I regret my decision?  Well, you’ll have to read my review to find out!

For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir.  I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders.  For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness!  Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers.  Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature  (2014).  It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English

Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader.  You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website).  After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month.  Gentle readers, I am on a streak!  Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?

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Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual.  Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy.  In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company).  Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.

Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad.  Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir.  The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008.  In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels.  And travels some more.  From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris.  The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small.  These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.”  (page 98)

I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s.  Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals.  Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me.  In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book.  Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops).  Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships.  Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):

Hveragerdi,
Woman-Of-The-House Day,
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?

Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.

Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty.  But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed.  I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up.  In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it.  It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you.  Then rise up.  Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature.  You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language.  What constitutes a family?  Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy?  If so, how can it be structured?  What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it?  How do we honor our history while moving to the future?  Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally.  If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you.  But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.

Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month.  Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City).   Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution.  Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries.  Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart: Helsinki Noir

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For a tale as dark as this Finnish mystery, I thought my gargoyle was a suitable accoutrement, n’est-ce pas?

At this point in my bookish journey through Scandinavia, I decided to read a piece of crime fiction.  Aside from the sheer pleasure of it, there’s good reason for including something a bit more on the popular side than my two previous selections (i.e., a trilogy of literary memoirs and a short but challenging piece of avant-garde fiction).  After all, since it emerged in the 1990s, Nordi noir has been a dominant presence in both film and crime fiction.  Although I did read some of the early authors (a fair amount of Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and a Jo Nesbø or two), I drifted away and never quite drifted back.  There’s been a lot of bodies left in the snow since that time, so to speak, and the emergence of a correspondingly large number of new and exciting writers to tell their tales.  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to explore this unfamiliar territory by adding a noir or two to my lists for Annabel’s #NordicFinds month and the European Reading Challenge.

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After all, how can you take a literary journey through Scandinavia without including at least one tale of a brooding, angst-ridden protagonist who threads his/her way through murder and mayhem whilst musing dark existential thoughts?  Do you, dear readers, have any favorites from this genre?  If so, please share, as my TBR list always has room for more entries!

For my stopover in Finland, I chose Dark As My Heart, an early work by Antti Tuomainen, one of his country’s leading crime writers (Lola Rogers did the translation).  The story begins in 1993, where in a few brief pages we experience the murder of Sonja Kivi, alone in a car with her killer on a rainy October night.  Sonja is young (early thirties), attractive and, except for her thirteen-year-old son Aleksi, alone in the world.  As we subsequently learn as the story develops, she was employed by one of the many companies owned by Henrik Saarinen, a ruthless and wealthy Helsinki businessman with an eye for the ladies.  Because Sonja’s body is never found, the police regard hers as “a missing person” case.  The mystery of her disappearance is never solved and Aleksi goes into foster care.

In the years that follow, Aleksi structures his life around one thing, and one thing only — solving the mystery of his mother’s disappearance.  He ages out of foster care (unlike the U.S. system, the Finnish version seems relatively benevolent), declines college in favor of becoming a skilled carpenter and, all the time, he’s seeking the answer to his mother’s fate.  Aleksi keeps his human contacts to a minimum, ultimately sacrificing even his relationship with a woman he genuinely loves to his quest for justice for his dead mother.  Aleksi is the very epitome of a noir anti-hero; we see the story through his first-person narrative and we learn the facts as he learns them.  In 2003, ten years after his mother’s disappearance, a second woman who bears a strong physical resemblance to Sonja is found murdered.  She, too, was an employee of Henrik Saarinen.  Her killer is never found and the police refuse to listen to Aleksi’s claim that the murder is linked to his mother’s disappearance.

Fast forward to 2013 and Aleksi, now in his early thirties, is convinced that Henrik Saarinen is his mother’s killer.  Without disclosing his identity, he goes to work on the Saarinen estate outside Helsinki and sets out to unmask and confront Henrik.  The bulk of the novel occurs in this time period and centers on the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between Aleksi and Henrik, who clearly knows more than Aleksi gives him credit for knowing.  A cast of secondary players support and complicate the plot, most notably Amanda, Saarinen’s beautiful daughter (doesn’t every good noir need a beautiful heiress?) and Ketomaa, the retired policeman who investigated the disappearance of Aleksi’s mother and who has never given up on the case.  Needless to say, digging into the Saarinen family secrets is both difficult and dangerous; as he becomes more involved with the Saarinen family Aleksi’s emotional defenses begin to crumble.

Although I’ve recounted the essentials of the plot in a chronological way, this novel is quite structurally complex, with the action moving back and forth among 1993, 2003 & 2013; Tuomainen uses this device very skillfully to dole out information and maintain suspense.  Despite finding some of the secondary characters a bit two dimensional, Aleksi himself was a believable and compelling narrator.  The novel conveys a good sense of place, both of Helsinki itself and of Kalmela Manor, Henrik Saarinen’s secluded country estate.  The language is terse, as befits a good noir, but with a streak of poetry here and there, as displayed in this passage where Aleksi describes his early impression of the estate:

I closed the door of the manor house and stood on the veranda.  Two plump-breasted crows sat on the roof, utterly still.  Against the grey sky they were like those black silhouettes cut from cardboard that people used to buy at amusement parks and hang on the wall to show others something that they already knew — what the people memorialised looked like in profile.  Autumn wrapped the land in its groping embrace.  I listened to the movement of the gusting wind through the tall spruce trees and the birches that bordered the yard.  The air was thin and fresh, with a hint of sap in it, a sweet smell. 

As much a psychological drama as a straight mystery, Dark As My Heart also raised issues regarding obsession, vengeance and the need sometimes to forget the past and move on with life.  I spent a very enjoyable afternoon or two trying to guess who did it and why; that I couldn’t do so speaks volumes for the writer’s skill!  With a caveat that none of the characters are warm and fuzzy, I’d definitely recommend Dark to readers with a taste for Scandi noir, damaged protagonists and mysteries with an ambiguous edge.

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning

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Novel 11 is one of those skinny works that pack a disproportionate wallop.  Skillfully translated into English by Sverre Lyngstad, my copy came from New Directions press, which has also published three other novels with similar themes written by Solstad in the 1990s.

Have you ever finished a novel with a sigh of mingled relief and bafflement (“whatever that was about I’m so very glad that it’s over); puzzled over what you had read for the last day or so; bored your companions enormously by recounting various bits and pieces (well, Mr. J was pretty bored but the cats seemed o.k. with the monologue); found yourself laughing at something you passed over at first and, finally, realized that you’d just finished one of the strangest small masterpieces that was ever likely to come your way?  And all this in less than forty-eight hours?  An odd reaction, to be sure, but then, this is a very odd book, at least for readers like myself who are unfamiliar with Solstad’s work.  If you’ve read any of it, please share your own reactions.  Don’t be shy!  Are you a fan, who’s devoured everything translated into your own language (or — and I’m in awe if this is the case — were you able to read it in the original Norwegian?).  Or were you more in the “one and I’m done” category?

Before going further, I need to point out that I owe my discovery of this very interesting writer to my participation in two fun reading events:  Annabel’s #NordicFinds Reading Month and the 2022 European Reading Challenge.  Although I already had a copy of Novel 11 as part of my subscription to the New Classics series offered by New Directions press, I’m afraid it would have languished in the TBR pile (probably near the bottom) had I not had an incentive to actually read it.  Isn’t self-discipline wonderful?  I’ve always wished I had some!

Continue reading “Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18: Everyman’s Quest For Meaning”

A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

* * *

Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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ERC 2022

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There and Back Again (with books and art along the way)

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Home again, with the spoils of travel. The bag on the right is filled with contemporary fiction from Politics & Prose, a wonderful independent book store in Washington, D.C. The box on the left contains my treasures from Second Story Books, a rare & used book dealer whose warehouse is located in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland (SSB has a more polished retail outlet in downtown D.C.)

Now that Spanish Lit Month is winding down, and Women’s Lit in Translation Month is gearing up, I really should get busy on those reviews.  After all, I want to be ready for Simon and Kaggsy’s 1976 Club, don’t I?  Wait!!!  Are these events already over?  Are you saying it’s not August?  What happened to August?  And September?  It can’t possibly be October, can it, with November beginning tomorrow?  Oh, Halloween horrors!  Have I been in a time warp or something?

Well, the answer to my non-rhetorical question is — yes!  At the best of times, it’s difficult to stay focused down here in the U.S. of A.’s semi-tropics, a land of palm trees, sunshine and delightful concoctions embellished with little pink umbrellas and chunks of tropical fruit.  And these, dear readers, have not been the best of times for your scribe.  For several months I’d been staring at a surgery date, elective stuff, nothing too serious and certainly not life-threatening, but still . . . . Yuck!  Doctors!  Needles!  Nasty medicines!  Like the consummate ex-professional that I sometimes pretend to be, however, I decided to make productive use of both my pre- and post-surgery time.  Never waste a minute, that’s my motto! (which explains those wonderfully invigorating filing days, driving around urban Washington at 11:45 P.M. in search of a post office where I could date stamp my brief, thereby proving it was “filed” on its due date.  Ah, memory …)  I made a neat little grid of my putative late summer and early autumn activities.  While waiting for my surgery date (which didn’t worry me at all; not one little bit) I’d catch up on writing reviews and participate in a limited way in the blogging events I mentioned above.  I’d do my medical thing, or, rather, have it done to me, then use my recovery period to finish reading my various Challenge books; complete my zoom art history classes; and (finally) get started on that intensive Spanish review I’d been contemplating for some time (nothing like getting a grip on something other than the present tense, is there?)  Seriously.  I really, honestly thought I’d be doing all these things.  As I listen to the sounds of your gentle laughter, vibrating through cyber space, I’ll draw a merciful curtain over these severely delusional plans.  In reality I spent August and September sitting on my nice, shady lanai reading escapist lit of some type or other (Elizabeth Hand, anyone? bHer Cass Neary series is a great & very creepy read).  And October?  Well, I passed much of October sleeping, taking extra strength tylenol and watching some seriously good television.  In my more intellectual moments I also dipped into and out of various bookish blogs, since it’s a well established fact that it’s much, much easier to read & comment on other people’s posts than to write one’s own reviews.

Aside from the fact that I’ve now almost recovered, October did offer a bright spot in the form of a return trip to Washington, D.C. (my doctor’s located there), which happens to be an area where I’d lived for many years and that I still love in many respects. Although I visited Washington late last spring, severe covid restrictions were still the order of the day and most of the museums remained closed.  Since the area’s vaccination rates were up, and many attractions were now reopening, I decided to arrive a few days early to enjoy the sights and sample some ethnic fare (although not the rival of many cities, D.C. does have a wide variety of ethnic cuisines; it seems to get a new one every time there’s a new world crisis.  During this visit, I noticed that one of the Maryland suburbs now has an Uyghur restaurant).  I hate to pack, so I usually just throw a few things in a bag:

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Oops!  Guess I really shouldn’t have packed the cat!  Doesn’t Maxine look like a type of avant-garde, live action sweater?  Not to worry, however, I DID evict her from her new napping spot before zipping the bag . . . .

One of my very first stops when I’m in the Washington area is always Second Story Books’ warehouse, located in Rockville, Maryland, just a stone’s throw from downtown D.C.  I’ve written about Second Story before (because I’ve visited many times) but its wonders never pall.    

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This photo gives only a faint idea of the store’s huge size. Notice the “All Books 50% Off” sign.  That’s half off Second Story’s marked down prices!  A little lolly goes a long way at Second Story Books!  And — they’ll even throw in a box or a bag, depending on the size of the purchase!
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Luckily, the interior is organized by subject.  Fiction has its own very large section, semi-organized by authors’ last names.  On my last visit, I never made it past the letter “H.”  This time I’m determined to be more disciplined!

As you can see, a trip to SSB’s warehouse is akin to a treasure hunt, as you never know just what you’ll discover; naturally, some visits are more fruitful than others, depending on turnover.  This time I hit the jackpot (hence the overflowing box in my first photo) as I found numerous novels by Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner and Louis Begley (an American writer I’ve been fond of in the past), along with some unexpected things such as works by Laurie Colwin (brought to my attention by Jacquiwine’s recent & excellent review of her work).  I was a little disappointed not to find much by Louis Auchincloss, one of my favorite authors when I’m in the mood for a traditional, well-written tale of life among my country’s elite but — there’s always the next visit!  (A note to those who may be visiting D.C. but staying closer to downtown, Second Story also has a store inside the city proper, in a very lovely and walkable area.  The setting is more genteel and the selection is great but IMO prices are a bit higher.)

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A small portion of my riches from SSB’s warehouse. The fellow on the left seems to be having second thoughts about being part of the shield wall at Hastings, doesn’t he?
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Although they were rather scarce, I also found a few Virago Modern Classics.  Ivy Litvinov, an English writer who married into the upper reaches of Soviet society, looks very interesting, as does this (previously unknown to me) work by Miles Franklin.

After rooting around Second Story Books for several blissful hours, the following day it was off to D.C.’s great independent bookstore, Politics & Prose.  When I first moved to Washington in the mid-1980s, there were a great many wonderful small bookstores catering to a variety of tastes.  Although many of these have disappeared, Politics & Prose seems to be thriving.

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Conveniently located near a metro stop, P&P is absolutely not to be missed for book loving visitors to D.C.!  Stocking literary fiction, the latest best sellers and offerings from indy presses, P&P also makes major efforts to recognize BIPOC voices as well.

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A small portion of P&P’s interior . . . the coffee house is downstairs.

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My treasures from P&P:  Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads; Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories; Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (a replacement copy for an old read); Kathryn Davis and Evelio Rosero from, respectively, the always interesting Grey Wolf and New Directions publishers and last, but far from least, Drifts and The Talented Miss Farwell, a couple of fun, impulse purchases.

I can never totally skip the museums when I’m in D.C. and this trip was no exception.  Thankfully, most museums have reopened and while the number of visitors seemed a little down to me, life is returning.  Nothing’s sadder than an art museum with no visitors to look at the paintings. 

A street view of the National Galley (courtesy of Mr. Janakay), my favorite museum in the entire universe!  Although I always visited occasionally when I worked a couple of blocks away, I really began to haunt the place after I began my second career as an art history student.  Only a quick visit this time, a single afternoon, to say “hello” to some of my old favorites . . . .
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If you’re lucky enough to have access to some of Europe’s great museums, well, you can see a Leonardo.  If you’re in the Americas (north or south) your one shot is this oil portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci, acquired by the NGA from Liechtenstein’s royal family in the mid-1960s . . . rumor has it that the royal sellers needed some extra cash for a son’s wedding!
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I love this fantastical, demon-haunted landscape (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) painted by an anonymous artist of the 16th century.
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Mr.Janakay, on the other hand, favors the rationality and drama of Rembrandt’s The Mill (painted in the 1650’s).

The following day it was off to the Phillips Collection, which bills itself as “America’s first museum of modern art.” The Phillips began life in the 1920s as the private art collection of Duncan Phillips, who had access to one of America’s great steel fortunes. Working from an eclectic definition of “modern” (his collection contains an El Greco), Phillips used his impeccable taste and private fortune to build an amazing, not-to-be missed collection.

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The Phillips Collection is still housed in part in the original brownstone, which is located in one of the most scenic parts of the city . . . .

Between one thing and another, it had been some time since my last visit to the Phillips. I was a little disappointed to see that much of the collection had been temporarily rearranged to accommodate some new exhibitions but — not to worry! Everything was still on view, even if located in an unfamiliar spot.

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Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the favorite painting of all who visit.  I’m not much of a Renoir fan, but even grumpy old me agrees it’s quite the masterpiece.  Its new, temporary space somewhat dampens its impact but even so it packs quite a wallop!

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Part of the original brownstone, the music room is still used for chamber music concerts (it was the site of Glenn Gould’s American debut in 1955).  If you look hard, you can just see Renoir’s Boating Party in the left rear of the room (usually it’s upstairs in the new annex, with an entire wall to itself).

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One of my personal favorites in a museum filled with great art, Franz Marc’s Deer in the Forest I.  It was painted in 1913, when Marc was at the height of his powers.  Killed at Verdun in 1916, Marc was later denounced by the Nazi regime as one of the so-called “degenerate” artists.

After so much art, and so many books, it was time for a little nature viewing.  Before the yucky medical stuff, I did have a couple of wonderful afternoons in the Maryland countryside, checking out a few of my old birding spots:

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This spot in Montgomery County Maryland is always lovely, but I’ve never seen it looking so gorgeous.  One of Mr. J’s very best nature shots IMO! 

Finally, after a few days of recovery, it was time to return home  . . . . 

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I know I’m home when I see my own little palm tree . . .  
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My, Pooh Bear’s certainly been busy while I’ve been away . . . . wonder which one of these she liked best?

“Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far

About halfway through June I discovered the very amusing “Six In Six” Challenge sponsored by Jo at Book Jotter.  Since I’ve posted so very little this year while reading more than I have in quite some time, I decided this was an excellent way to share at least a little of the many great books that have come my way in what is shaping up to be a banner year for reading.  Besides, isn’t quantifying one’s journey almost as much fun as undertaking the trip in the first place?  

The challenge is to pick six categories and, having done so, to list six books that you’ve read by the end of June within each chosen category (as I understand it, the selections should be posted by the end of July.  Since I just wouldn’t be me if I actually posted on time, I’m shooting for August 1!)  In addition to supplying a multitude of categories from which to choose, Jo has very cleverly left room for participants to exercise their creativity by adding something new.  I’ve taken advantage of her leniency by adding two categories of my own, “Short Reads,” which is self-explanatory, and my “Shelf of Shame,” a list of six books that I’ve had on my shelves unread for over six years!  Can you, dear readers, match my brave honesty?  If so, please share in a comment! 

SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE 

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

As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well.  As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary.  Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:   

Beryl Bainbridge (BB).  Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me.  This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world.  Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to try Every Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic.  Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we?   Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height.  Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me.  Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read.  If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader.  This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.

Sylvia Townsend Warner.  A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books.  Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week.  Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre.  Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination.  If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether.  If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family.  Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week.  Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all.  (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.) 

Valerie Martin.  A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!).  I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life.  Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?

Joe Abercrombie:  No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A.  Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available?  And better?  Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?)  From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world.  Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress.  When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September.  Guess what I’ll be doing then?).  Readers, what can I say?  That’s a lot of trilogies.  If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.  

Elizabeth Bowen.  As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship.  She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but  . . .  at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind).  Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago.  (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.)  This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other.  As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).

Anita Brookner.  After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career.  Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels.  I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites.  This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.  

SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME 

Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good.  One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list).   Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.  

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

Aoko Matsuda.  Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries.  Humor!  A feminist slant!  A great translator (Polly Barton)!  Great characters and clever plots!  Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything.  Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)

Amélie Nothomb.  I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist.  Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from.  Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life.  Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story.  This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon.  Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.  

Magda Szabo.  Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door.  But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel.  Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good.  Absolutely not to be missed.

Jens Christian Grøndahl.  Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year.  I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal.  Don’t ask why).  You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage.  I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.

Margarita Liberaki.  Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose?  Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience?  Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences?  If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel.  Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.

Eileen Chang.  Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries).  If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer.  Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong.  I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics.  Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.

SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST 

As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot.  Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):  

Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel.  Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer.  Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name.  Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print.  Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well. 

Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.

Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton.  A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed.  As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ.  Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out.  As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.    

Paula Fox’s  The God of Nightmares.  This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years.  This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings).  I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.    

Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind.  One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment.  I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Flint Anchor.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen?  Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection.  Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed?  Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.  

SIX SHORT READS

This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list.  Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels.  The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf.  So far this year I’ve managed:  

Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.”  A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work.  A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two.  Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.  

Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.”  Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period.  A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion.  Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.  

Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.”  Another coming of age tale, with a twist.  Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.  

Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.”  After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material.  Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.

Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.”  Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie!  Adultery, guilt and blackmail!  No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.  

James Joyce’s “The Dead.”  I’ve read it before, but what does that matter?  A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life. 

SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE

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

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As I indicated at the beginning of this post,  I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books.  The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:

Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader.  In my possession, unread, since 1985.  I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies:  In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread).  Not to worry, dear readers!  I’ll get to all three.  Sometime.

Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights:  sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009.  One day.

Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys.  I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade.  I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.

Esther Freud’s The Wild.  Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed.  It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge.  I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it.  At some point.  

 

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

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

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

Are you sometimes surprised, dear reader, at what you actually discover when you start browsing among the peaks and vales of your very own TBR mountain?  I’m not referring to that discarded tea cup that went missing a year ago, or the scrap of paper on which you’d written all the passwords to your various online accounts, or even (gasp! ) to the odd little bit of multi-legged organic life (you see, I hold nothing back).  I’m referring, of course, to books!  Notable books from yesteryear’s “best of” and prize lists!  Sales books that were so attractively priced they demanded to be taken home!  Serendipitous books rewarding an afternoon’s ramble in musty old secondhand shops and elbowing others at crowded library book sales!  Impulse books (this category speaks for itself) and books acquired with an eye to impressing your visitors!  Books that you were hot to read after a particularly glowing review by one of you naughty bloggers (names are unnecessary — you know who you are) but that you never actually read because you lost interest before your hard-to-locate copy arrived!  “Mystery” books whose reasons for being on your shelves is now a conundrum that will never be solved!  This “discovery phenomenon” (my own term, for lack of a better) no doubt mystifies organized readers but for book hoarders such as myself, well, let’s say it happens on a fairly regular basis.  This was particularly true in 2020-2021, a period in which I’ve done a massive amount of  packing, repacking, unpacking, shelving and reshelving of massive quantities of books.  Since I’m past the point of embarrassment in this regard (I reached this milestone the first time I repurchased a replacement copy of a book I’d previously discarded), I’ve decided to share my discoveries in “Rescued from the Back Shelf” reviews, which I’ll post every now and then as the spirit moves me.  On the theory that anything I’ve not touched in three years badly needs rescuing, I’ll limit these reviews to books that I haven’t read within three years of the time I acquired them.

As the needle-witted (I adore Georgette Heyer’s use of Regency slang) among you have no doubt concluded by now, my inaugural “Rescued from the Back Shelf” review is Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006.  Although I can’t remember the exact details, I had certainly acquired a paperback copy of the novel no later than 2010.  Doing so seemed a good idea at the time.  Nunez, while not as famous as she subsequently became (she didn’t win a National Book Award until many years later), already possessed a substantial literary reputation.  The novel’s reviews were good to excellent and the story seemed atmospheric and character-driven, two things that always heavily influence my reading choices.  On the minus side, however, the novel centered on the 1960s counter culture and its aftermath, a period that’s never particularly attracted me as a setting (how many student radicals and drug trips can you read about in one life time?).  I was also somewhat daunted by its length (almost four hundred pages) which meant a sizable time commitment; as well as several critics who thought the plot rambled a bit.  The claim by at least one reviewer that Last stood “the American Dream” on its head didn’t help; since I’ve always been very resistant to novels about the American Dream (whatever that is), I was logically a little hesitant to embrace any topsy-turvy version of it.  So you see, dear reader, the pros and cons for giving shelf room to this novel were rather evenly balanced.  Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty at this point in time, a combination of impulse and greed most likely tipped the scales, i.e., my local Barnes & Noble had probably placed it on a “3 books for the price of 2” table, which was always located strategically near the check-out line.

In the years that Last subsequently sat on my book shelves, I’d occasionally consider actually reading it, but invariably other, newer and more attractive candidates for reading time claimed my attention (besides, after seven or eight years I thought Last was probably too dated to be anything more than a period piece).  Since the book had been gathering dust for over a decade, it was a logical if heart-rending decision to get rid of it during last year’s ruthless, pre-move cull of my books.  Of course, I only did so after I had put an electronic version on my kindle in case I had any second thoughts!  As fate would have it, during one of those dreadful dry spells between books, I was recently marooned in a medical waiting room, frantically scrolling through my kindle searching for something, anything to read, saw Last for the umpteenth time on the menu and, in the same spirit in which I chose the name of my blog, thought “what the heck!  I might as well read this since I’ve nothing better to do.”  At this point in my narrative, commonsense suggests I should leave you dangling, dear readers, as an incentive for you to finish reading my post.  I’m so enthusiastic about this book, however, that I want to share the good news immediately.  The Last of Her Kind is a wonderful, absorbing, well written and very topical novel.  It says much, and nothing good, about my literary judgment that it too me so long to get around to reading it.

The novel, which is divided into seven sections and spans a period of approximately thirty years, centers on the very different lives and the intense but uneasy relationship between Georgette George and Dooley Ann Drayton, two women who meet in the late 1960s when they are assigned as freshman roommates at Barnard College, an elite women’s school in New York City.  The episodic structure of the novel reminded me in many respects of time lapse photography, as the considerable time lapses between sections produces what are almost snapshots of each woman’s life at a particular point in time.  There are additional chronological shifts within each section, which give additional information about the characters, how each arrived at that particular juncture in her life and what’s going on in the world around her.  This last is an important point; despite the heavy marketing emphasis on the relationship between the two women, anyone expecting this to be a straight “female friendship” read will be disappointed.  Although I may be alone in this view, I regard Last as an almost sociological novel in the 19th century mold; like the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Trollope, Last says as much about contemporary society as it does about the exploits of its characters.  Nunez tells her story retrospectively through the eyes of a middle-aged Georgette/George (at various times of her life she goes by either and her character is as mutable as her name).  George is the primary point of view character and the first person narrator for most of the novel, which is an informal journal that George is compiling to be read, if at all, by her children after she’s gone (narrating events long after they occurred George freely admits that time may have altered or erased her memory of the facts).  Although George is the story-teller, however, the story largely belongs to Ann, who quickly drops her given name “Dooley” for reasons I’ll explain below.  While George’s consciousness shapes the narration, and determines what facts we do or don’t learn, it is Ann who propels the narration and it is the mystery of her character that keeps the reader hooked until the end.

The two first meet in the fall of 1968, “the year of Tet, the year of the highest number of American casualties in Vietnam,” of the Prague Spring, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the My Lai massacre and the bloody battle between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The youth revolt of the 1960s was well underway, at least at elite schools such as Barnard (it would be two years before the Ohio National Guard gunned down students at Kent State).  Nunez does a wonderful job of conveying the dangerous and heady atmosphere of those times.  There’s hardly a significant counter culture event of 1960s America that the novel misses, particularly in the first two and longest of its sections.  Woodstock; Altamont; the music and drug scenes; the increasingly radical student political movement; free love and the clinics dispensing free birth control; the fashions; the first stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement; the growing student hostility towards police and parental authority — well, it’s all pretty much there in varying degrees.  With a lesser writer this could have been a confused hodgepodge or a boring list of the era’s events  (“Weather Underground?  check.  Acid trips?  check.  Student protests?  Check.  Visit to the free clinic?”  I’m sure you get the idea).  But this is Nunez, with the technical skill and observational powers to bring the era to life.  Yes, the novel is stuffed with events, and dramatic ones at that, but the cities will soon be burning in this watershed era that reshaped many of the country’s cultural norms.

The story that begins in the Barnard College of 1968 subsequently expands to encompass much of the social upheaval of the contemporary American scene.  In 1968, however, George and Ann are simply two new roommates meeting for the first time in a little room in the girls’ dorm.  George (she’s George rather than Georgette during her college days) is a daughter of the underclass hailing from

Upstate:  a small town way up north, near the Canadian border.  Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows.  Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight.  Moneyless.  A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars.  People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb. * * * Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. * * * Statistically not a high crime area, but a world of everyday brutality:  bar brawls, battered wives . . . acts of violent cruelty even among children. * * *  The savage world of the North Country poor.

To complete this dismal picture, George’s father disappeared early (a blessing, really, as he was displaying far too much interest in  his pubescent daughter’s physical development); her overworked mother vacillates between indifference and extreme physical violence; one battered sister runs away at the age of fourteen; an older brother returns from Viet Nam addicted to drugs and alcohol; and the two youngest siblings are farmed out to relatives when the family goes on welfare.  George, in short, is only at college through luck, a scholarship and brains and does not possess the upperclass background of a typical Barnard girl.

Miss Dooley Ann Dalton of Connecticut, by contrast, is a golden child of the American aristocracy, gifted with money, lineage and great natural ability.  For many generations her father’s family has owned and operated a surgical supply business and owns valuable medical patents as well; her mother’s family are even older and more distinguished if less financially successful (“Dooley” is a surname of her mother’s family, former owners of many southern plantations and their enslaved workers).  While “Daddy” runs the family business and “Mummy” gives parties providing fodder for the local press, little Dooley Ann wins national essay contests, skips grades in school, writes a children’s book that will be illustrated by an artist friend of her family (and subsequently published) and is even cast as a bit player in a film, thanks to a famous movie director who’s another family friend (he has a summer house adjacent to her family’s on Martha’s Vineyard).  She is also becoming slowing, steadily and irrevocably estranged from her family and her privileged background.  Nunez is very skillful at depicting how that occurs; what sticks in my mind is a scene where Mummy uses role-playing to teach little Dooley the proper way to behave to the family’s servants (“Now let’s say you want to tell Retta [the family’s housekeeper] you’re having friends over after school and you’d like her to bake some brownies.”).  Dooley, who doesn’t realize what’s going on, is heartbroken and humiliated when she gives orders to the family’s housekeeper in “Mummy’s voice” and sees the look of recognition in the woman’s eyes; Dooley “will never forgive herself for playing her mother, for not seeing through the game.”  Long before she arrives at Barnard, Dooley has become “Ann” (using Dooley, a name associated with slave owners was “out of the question”) and is totally estranged from her parents, whom she now addresses as “Sophie” and “Turner.”  Ann knows, despises and rejects every aspect of her parents’ world; she is “capable of loving only what was different from herself.”  She sells her expensive new “college wardrobe” (selected by her mother and envied by George), gives the money to charity and embraces the radical politics then dominating the Barnard campus.  Ann is regarded by her own class and race as a traitor, and is also rejected as an arrogant and ignorant outsider by Barnard’s Black students and the disadvantaged whom she tries to help.  It is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout her life.

At this point, gentle reader, I imagine that you’re asking yourself, “hasn’t this been done before? Two young protagonists from dissimilar backgrounds, learning from their differences and bonding over common experiences, providing a lesson to us all?”  While the theme of ill-assorted companions is admittedly a common one in literature, it’s rare indeed to see it used so skillfully to expose the almost unbridgeable class divides in American culture.  Nunez has an astonishing eye for class differences.  For all her efforts to embrace and achieve a new order of society Ann is both clueless and condescending with respect to the lives of others who have grown up under far less privileged conditions.  Although she treats George with kindness, for example, Ann seems to regard her as more of a “type” than an individual.  Totally oblivious of the implications, she informs George early in their relationship that she had specifically requested a roommate “from a world as different as possible from her own” and was disappointed on finding that George wasn’t Black.  George’s reaction, other than rage, is a resolve to keep her distance, answer questions with silence or lies and thus force Ann “to find someone else to play out her fantasies.”  It never occurs to Ann that the material advantages rejected by herself could be desired by less fortunate others.  With respect to George, Nunez’s eye for class is even more unerring.  George has internalized the idea of failure and her first reaction to any challenge is that success is beyond her reach.  An outstanding student who won a scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious schools, George literally becomes unable to speak in her classes because of “her fear of not belonging, of not speaking the same language as everyone else.”

For entirely different reasons, both women drop out of school at the end of their sophomore year.  George goes to work as a secretary at a fashionable woman’s magazine and begins to work her way up the masthead.  Ann moves into a communal apartment in Harlem and falls in love with an African-American poet and school teacher who’s also a former campus revolutionary.  The fragile bridge that she and George have built over the chasm of class fails to hold and the two become completely estranged.  One of the novel’s plot arcs is whether they will be able to reconnect and, if so, on what basis.  As George later muses:

I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how much life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.

After that, dear reader, can there be any doubt on this issue?  How this re-connection is accomplished, however, and the form that it takes, may very well be different from what you’d expect based on the novel’s beginnings.

My fear that the novel would prove too much of a period piece disappeared about halfway through, with the occurrence of an act of violence as topical as an account from this morning’s news.  This act will drastically alter the lives of both women and expand the novel’s scope to include issues of racial justice, political activism and the morality of a penal system in which Lady Justice unfairly tilts the scales against certain offenders.  The story of unequal friendship that began in the little college dorm room has morphed into a powerful examination of American society’s fault lines.

Despite the impression that I fear I’ve conveyed, Last is far from being an unrelentingly grim novel.  George is a wry and cynical narrator with few illusions about her world, but who nevertheless views life with a sense of humor and a surprising amount of charity.  I particularly enjoyed her stint at Visage, a woman’s magazine similar to the ones I devoured at a certain period in my life, replete with makeovers (“We thought Georgette’s long-haired waif look needed an update”), cosmetic tips, recipes for that “Candlelight Dinner for Two” and the occasional serious interview or poem by W.H. Auden.  Even the novel’s darkest aspects are (with one exception) redeemed by humor and a sense of shared humanity.

As I noted near the beginning of this over-long ramble, the mystery (and power) of Ann’s personality provides much of the force and credibility in this powerful novel.  Is Ann a crackpot or a secular saint?  Do her good deeds actually benefit or harm others?  Her rigidity and unwavering values undoubtedly damage herself and arguably others as well; her inability to imagine life through someone else’s eyes does much to wreck her friendship with George.  Ann is a cause of discomfort and a source of irritation to many of those around her.  Yet to a few (a former teacher; George;  a defense attorney; a prison inmate serving a life sentence for a double murder) she’s an unforgettable figure whose touch has altered their lives.  Although Nunez, like the good novelist she is, provides room for each reader to develop his own ideas on this point, she also gives plenty of hints in the form of literary allusions to guide any interpretation of Ann’s character.  The novel is replete with references to The Great Gatsby, who, like Ann, stubornly clung to a perhaps mistaken idealism; Like Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, George both yearns after Ann’s idealism and serves as witness to Ann’s life.  Another character in the novel compares Ann to Simone Weil and George herself sees a likeness between Ann and the Saint Teresa described by Eliot in her prelude to Middlemarch (although Nunez does not make this explicit, I also thought Ann was at least superficially similar to Middlemarch‘s Dorothea Brooks, the rich young lady who came to ill through her desire to do good in the world).

Like any lengthy novel with an episodic structure, particularly one dealing with multiple characters and several major themes, The Last of Her Kind can justly be criticized for sprawling a bit at times.  Since I enjoyed the sprawl, I wasn’t unduly troubled by this feature.  I was admittedly slightly impatient with the section concerning George’s runaway flower child sister who is seriously fixated on Mick Jagger, but even here I consoled myself with the hilarious (if a trifle too long) fan letter she writes to Sir Mick.  My only serious criticism concerns the relatively short section that relates Ann’s affair with the main love of her life.  Although it’s as well written as the rest of the novel, I thought the object of her affections (while psychologically believable) introduced an overly dramatic and unnecessary twist to the plot.

Although there’s a great deal more I could say about this work, I’ll take pity on myself as well as you and will conclude.  If anyone’s read The Last of Her Kind, I’d love to hear your reaction.