If you’re a visitor to my blog, you may have noticed that my postings have been a little, ahem, erratic in the last month or so. What I have posted has perhaps been more visual and nature oriented than literary or bookish, which isn’t to say that my interests have shifted. As much as I love my nature viewing and museum visiting (I’ve at least two very nice regional museums to share with you, so watch out!) my life remains centered on books and the printed word, as it has been since I learned to read around the usual age of six or so. While I’ve been nature viewing, I’ve also been reading as much as ever (perhaps even more so) but — I hide nothing from you, dear reader — Janakay is just a teensy-weensy bit lazy! And it’s so much easier to read the wonderful books than to organize my thoughts and string them together in coherent sentences! Although I’m actually on track as far as the reading goes to meet my two challenges (Roofbeam Reader’s TBR, and Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics), I’m woefully behind in writing and posting the reviews of all that I’ve read. Monday is “Miscellany Day,” however, so I’m doing a hodgepodge of related topics; because the relationship is a rather loose one, feel free to skip around!
My first Miscellany is — Anna Maria, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, and its nearby areas (I’m just back from a visit and sorting through photos).
While I was visiting Anna Maria, I did lots and lots of reading, which brings me to my second Miscellany: books that I started, stopped or finished during my time there:
And since I’m doing books, make sure your visit to Anna Maria includes a side excursion to nearby St. Petersburg (the drive is lovely) and the wonderful:
Are you surprised to learn that I’ve added to my TBR pile?
My third and final miscellany: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death. Has anyone read this? Or, unlike myself, realized the importance in Austen’s fiction of seaside resorts and beach villages? Today’s Guardian has a wonderful article discussing Austen’s use of seaside resorts — a key scene in Persuasion occurs in Lime Regis; Lydia Bennet elopes from Brighton and Austen herself may have enjoyed a seaside romance. The article suggests that in Sanditon, Austen may have written the first seaside novel; at any rate, she certainly anticipated “what the seaside has come to represent in later modern fiction,” such as Chopin’s TheAwakening, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Banville’s The Sea.
The exciting news? Sanditon is being adapted for an eight part series on ITV, which will air this autumn! Thoughts anyone, about Anna Maria Island, Sanditon or any of my other reads?
Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo? Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery? And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean? It’s embarrassing to admit — but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art. Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.” Oops! My bad! To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.” At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013. All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges! Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room. And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.
The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise. The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin). Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest. I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem. Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read. And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives. A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come. Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.
One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes. Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize. On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not. The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done). Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level. As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were. In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.
Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious? Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either. The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds. Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences. One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover. Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains. Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way. He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).
In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely. Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you? Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers? Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange? Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”? If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it! You’ll love this book as much as I did.
Have any of you cyberspace wanderers read Somerset Maugham? If so, I’d love to know your opinion of his work. Maugham is a writer who, to me, is full of contradictions. Incredibly popular in the first half of the 20th century — his biographer states that during his lifetime Maugham was the most famous writer in the world — today he is little read and many of his novels are now out of print. Despite his enormous successes (his work was frequently adapted for TV and movies, he once had four London theater productions running at once and every novel seemed to be a best seller), Maugham himself was quite modest about his talents. The literary critics of his day mostly shared Maugham’s opinion on this point; one flatly described his output as “second rate” and without exception the literary establishment preferred the more experimental works of Maugham’s contemporaries such as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Wolf.
And yet ….. could so many readers be that wrong? Wolf and Conrad are fabulous artists, truly among the greats writing in English but ….. don’t you think there is (or should be) a place in the pantheon for someone with a knack for telling an interesting story really, really well, particularly if it has a well done twist or an exotic setting, as Maugham’s novels frequently do? Nor can Maugham’s talents be totally disregarded; his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, regularly pops up on any list of the 20th century’s greatest novels. Even by my late teens and early twenties, however, Maugham’s literary star was fading fairly rapidly. Nevertheless his novels were still easily available and I, being, as usual a bit behind the curve went through quite a Maugham phase. I loved his short stories, went through several of the novels in rapid succession and did multiple re-reads of Of Human Bondage, which I regarded as one of the most moving and profound novels that had come my way (remember, I was very young and quite uncritical). And then — well, I just drifted away to newer, trendier writers, all the while retaining fond memories of Maugham’s works. A few years ago I noticed that at least some of the novels were being reprinted, with these really neat covers (see the beginning of my post!) and I decided I owed it to myself to re-stock my book stash with these neat new editions of my old favorite’s works. And then — the books just sat there, catching dust, while I somehow never quite got around to reading them. When I decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, well, a Maugham novel was a natural choice, wasn’t it? As I explained in a previous post, participating in the Challenge just seemed a perfect time to see if the old Maugham magic still worked for me.
For my literary experiment, I selected Cakes and Ale, which I had never read, rather than Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Age, or The Moon and Sixpence, which I had. I wanted to read something new and that was regarded as one of Maugham’s better novels. The story revolves around issues associated with posthumous fame, literary reputation and how survivors shape (and frequently distort) the narrative of their loved ones’ lives. The novel opens with the death of Edward Driffield, one of the last of the great Victorian novelists. Driffield’s very proper widow (and second wife) has devoted herself to polishing the rough edges off her working class husband and to cultivating a carefully edited version of a great man of letters. Now that Driffield is dead, she has no intention of relinquishing her efforts and has hired a sycophantic novelist acquaintance to write a carefully crafted version of the great man’s life. A prime area for revision, in her opinion, concerns Driffield’s early life with Rosie, the beautiful, free spirited barmaid who was his first wife and the inspiration of his greatest novels.
Maugham gives you the story in flashbacks through the recollections of his narrator, who as a young boy knew Driffield as a penniless and unrespected writer, with a habit of skipping out on his rent. The narrator is also a great admirer (and eventual lover, among many) of the warm-hearted, shrewd and captivating Rosie; when she absconds to New York with her chosen favorite among her pack of admirers the narrator is almost as heart-broken as Driffield himself. Needless to say, the second Mrs. Driffield has no intention of publicizing these events and will go to considerable trouble to suppress them from her edited version of the great man’s life.
So, the great question — after so many years away from Maugham’s work, did the magic hold? Well, yes and no. Maugham is quite a story-teller and knows how to throw the reader a curve ball that, while consistent with the story, adds a bit of interest and excitement. In what is perhaps a disturbing example of my own arrested development, I also found that I enjoyed Maugham’s tone of detached, slightly ironic cynicism almost as much now as did when I was much, much younger. And, although Maugham doesn’t offer any penetrating psychological insights into his characters, making them a tad two-dimensional, Rosie is a great creation — funny, shrewd and full of life. Maugham’s musings on literary fame (which work would survive time, which wouldn’t) made the novel drag a bit at times; also, Maugham’s contemporaries no doubt enjoyed his thinly veiled portrayals of some of his fellow novelists much more than I did (Driffield, for example, is apparently based loosely on Thomas Hardy; Driffield’s sycophantic biographer on Horace Walpole, the details of whose career I had to gleam from Wiki). Maugham’s treatment of an issue that interests me greatly — the biographer’s art of emphasizing certain aspects of his subject’s life, while downplaying others, and the factors dictating his/her choices — is, shall I say, pretty superficial (for a far more perceptive fictional treatment of these issues, read Penelope Lively’s fantastic novel, According to Mark). Nevertheless, C&A was a quick, fun read that offered a fair amount of entertainment for a minimal amount of effort. Will I continue my trip down the somewhat overgrown, semi-deserted Maugham highway? Yes, but the journey isn’t a high priority right now.
Finally a brief word or two about Maugham’s life, which in many respects is as interesting and exotic as the best of his novels. He had a disastrous and unloving childhood, worked in intelligence during WWII, traveled extensively (and exotically), lived lavishly and juggled a manipulative and neurotic wife with several male lovers. He was, in short, a biographer’s dream and Selina Hastings does his life justice. If you’re interested and don’t have time for her biography, I’d recommend the New Yorker’s very good discussion of Maugham’s life and literary reputation.