Category: american writers

“Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far

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

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

SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE 

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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.

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

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

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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

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

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

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

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

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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

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

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

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

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Reading Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT’S JUNETEENTH!

 

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The Juneteenth Flag, created in 1997 by activists associated with the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.  On June 19, 1865, over two months after the surrender of the main Confederate army in Virginia, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned that they were freed.  This event has come to symbolize the effective end of slavery in the United States.

It’s very heartening to Janakay that 2020’s Juneteenth is being given such wide notice, much more, it appears to her, than in previous years.  In part, of course, this is due to its coinciding with one of those pivotal moments of social protest and, hopefully, social change.  In part — and this is perhaps saying the same thing in a different way — it’s due to the growing awareness among white Americans of a holiday that has been given little attention or prominence by white institutions or a white-dominated media.  Janakay is not proud of the fact, but she was largely unaware of Juneteenth until a few years ago.  But then, Janakay has spent most of her adult life unlearning the version of the American Civil War that she was taught as a child.  The mythology of the “lost cause” and its fantasy of a civil war fought over tariffs and states’ rights rather than freedom and human dignity had no room for a day commemorating the end of a horror that had tainted the country from its beginning.  Could it be that after a century and a half we in these (theoretically) United States are finally willing to lay aside our comforting blanket of false history and recognize the pain and injustice inflicted so long on so many of our fellow citizens?  To acknowledge that all of us are entitled to justice and to ensure that all of us actually receive it?

Well, enough of the soap box!  Let’s observe Juneteenth 2020 with one of Janakay’s favorite formats, the miscellany!

MISCELLANY FIRST:  A New Type of Equestrian Statue

Any fans of Kehinde Wiley out there?  Without being particularly knowledgeable about it, I’ve loved his work since I first saw it in one of my basic art history courses.  Wiley, of course, is best known for his official state portrait of a certain American political leader . . . .

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Born in South Central Lost Angeles, Wiley was the first African American artist to paint an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley is particularly known for his portraits of young urban Black men, clad in contemporary dress but posed in the manner of the elite of western culture while holding centuries-old symbols of status and power.  It’s a powerful way to bestow dignity and respect on a frequently marginalized group, as well as a slyly subversive comment on how western art has traditionally excluded or marginalized Blacks.

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Haarlem cloth merchant Willem van Heythuysen, painted in 1625 by Frans Hals.

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Wiley’s 2006 depiction of an equally stylish resident of a far different Harlem

Have any of you, dear readers, traveled through the eastern and/or southern United States?  If so, you will no doubt have noticed the multiplicity of monuments to various leaders and notables of the lost cause, not to mention the omnipresence of their names on streets, parks, buildings and military bases.  For those of you who have successfully avoided current news (congratulations on that, by the way), many of today’s protesters have demanded the removal of these glorifications of the U.S.’ slave-holding past.  Wiley’s elegant and powerful solution (a commission from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art) was the creation of a gigantic bronze equestrian statue that acknowledged the past while creating an image for the present:

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Kehinde Wiley’s “Rumors of War,” temporarily installed in New York City’s Times Square.  Inspired by an early 20th century statue of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, Wiley portrays a young African American male wearing dreads, torn jeans, sneakers and a hoodie.

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Another view, showing the full pose.

By sheer chance my visit last November to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (located in Richmond) coincided with the permanent installation of Wiley’s great statute in the plaza in front of the museum.  Although they’re not as detailed as I would wish, my photos do give some idea of the scope and scale of Wiley’s wonderful statue:

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Virginia has more memorials to the Confederacy than any other state in the union.  Wiley’s bronze is a direct response to the critical question of “who matters?”

 

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The human figures give some idea of the statue’s scale; it’s 27 feet (approximately 8.2 meters) high and weighs nearly thirty tons

“Rumors of War” stands only a few blocks away from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which contains five giant statues of Confederate leaders and is located almost directly across from the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy.  Well done, Kehinde!

MISCELLANY SECOND:  Remembrance

Have any of you, dear readers, seen “The New Yorker’s” June 22 cover?  The magazine has had some fabulous covers over the years, but this one by artist Kadir Nelson is something exceptional.  Titled “Say Their Names,” it’s a closeup examination of the violence inflicted upon black people in America.  The magazine’s website has an interactive feature that gives you factual information about each of the figures contained within George Floyd’s body, from Floyd himself to Medgar Evers (assassinated in 1963 by a member of the Ku Klux Klan) to Emmett Till (a fourteen year-old lynched in 1955) to “the Unnamed,” the enslaved people who were buried in unmarked graves.

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For a more all encompassing examination of slavery’s legacy in the U.S., the New York Times 1619 Project is an incredible source of information; it was timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.

MISCELLANY THIRD:  Hope

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Langston Hughes, a leading 20th century poet and one of the first African American writers to win mainstream acceptance.  This 1925 portrait by Winold Reiss is one of my favorites.  Don’t you love the way the poet’s dreams are portrayed in the background?

The poets always say it best.  What better way to end Juneteenth 2020 than with the hope that Hughes’ plea will, someday, be answered:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

(excerpt from “Let America Be America Again”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midweek Miscellany: Reading Roundup

 

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Does your book collection resemble this jumble as much as mine does?  The painting (“Odd Lot Cheap,” 1878) is the work of the late 19th century American artist William Harnett (1848-1892).  Although it’s been suggested that Harnett’s illusionistic paintings are devoid of inner meaning, don’t you find this one an implicit comment on the transience of all things, including our beloved books?

Although I’ve been blogging very little in this our year of the plague, I have (as I noted in my last post) been reading fairly steadily since 2020 rolled around.  Because there wasn’t a dud book in the bunch (isn’t it gratifying, dear reader, when one is on a streak of reading good books?) I thought I’d share a quick recap of some of the excellent works of fiction that have come my way in this year.  What I’m offering are quick impressionistic snapshots rather than in-depth reviews (Janakay is not by nature profound, and constant handwashing and unpacking make it so very difficult to concentrate right now).  In making my list I noticed the emergence of a monthly sort-of pattern to my reading.  One month was heavy on thrillers & science fiction while another tended towards “serious” novels; one month tilted to the classics and another to the contemporary, and every month included a comfort read, which generally coincided with a stressful key moment in my long-distance move!  Have you, dear reader, in your great journey through the universe of literature, noted any similar tendencies or patterns in your own seasonal reading?  Do you read classics when it’s cold and drippy outside or eagerly head towards light bubbly froth for those delightful days of  lying on the beach?  Or do you, like Janakay, indulge in counter-programing, saving all those serious literary chunksters for your lazy summer afternoons?  Well, enough with the philosophical musings and on to my list!

As befitting a month associated with endings and beginnings, my January reading contained both old and new, as well as one of Janakay’s own very special little rituals.   Are any of you, dear readers of mine, superstitious about books?  (If so, don’t be embarrassed — do share your little kink.  Janakay won’t tell!)  I’m quite superstititious myself, especially about the first book I start in any new year (books I’m finishing don’t count).  I regard my first new book in January as an omen for the upcoming year; if it’s a really good book, well, the gods have spoken, haven’t they?  They have promised I’ll have a great year of reading ahead of me!

To increase my chances that my January ritual will have a favorable outcome I tend to go with a classic when a new year rolls around or, gasp, even reread something I’ve loved in the past (Janakay regards this as a prudent precaution rather than a cheat.  Honestly, don’t we all load the dice, when we can?)   This year, however, I decided to gamble a bit on Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a modern fairy tale of two siblings, a wicked stepmother and the enchanted house they all longed to possess.  I really like Ann Patchett’s work (I think I’ve read almost all of her novels) and I’d had my eye on this one since I read the advance notices.  I’m happy to report that my gamble paid off; the novel was every bit as good as it was reported to be.

From contemporary I went to classic, spending the latter half of January with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.  I had tried many years ago to read Corner, but had given it up after less than fifty of its three hundred plus pages; to put it mildly I had been totally unimpressed.  How that Warner woman could dribble on!  Had she no editor?  Why was this book so different from her delightful Lolly WillowesWhatever was Warner up to in this yawn-inducing tome?  Was Corner a history or was it a novel?  Either way, it was BORING and Janakay loathes being bored.  Back on the shelf it went, to gather many layers of dust.  Given my strong negative reaction, I naturally selected Corner for the “Abandoned Classic” category in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  And — please note, dear readers, Janakay conceals nothing from you, no matter how embarrassing — her initial reaction to Warner’s novel was quite mistaken!  In fact, you might say that Janakay missed the boat on this one or, if you were being particularly unkind, conclude that she even fell off the pier!  Oh, my good gracious me, how the years can alter one’s judgment!  Even in my callow youth, however could I have abandoned this wonderful novel?  The Corner that Held Them really is a masterpiece and absolutely one of the best things Janakay has read in years — she was absolutely glued to the pages and bereft when the story ended.   Hopefully, I’ll be posting a review later on, before all the details have totally faded but . . . the weather is so very nice right now, Janakay’s new house has its very own hammock and there are a great many interesting new books to read (Janakay adores novelty)  ….

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I will absolutely, positively get around to writing my review . . . .

and, for particularly low energy days, an overwhelming temptation to browse in that most addictive of sources . . .

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This is an old edition of a very popular work.  Do you have a copy?

But, despite these considerable temptations, Janakay will heroically summon her energy and get busy writing a serious review! (at some point)

Before leaving January entirely, the month’s comfort read deserves a mention, being an early novel by Rumer Godden, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Any Rumer Godden readers out there?  Godden is one of Janakay’s favorites for those times when she’s in the mood for a well-written novel, an exotic setting and at least one psychologically interesting character.  Godden’s technique is traditional (which is fine with Janakay) and she can be surprisingly perceptive on issues of class and race, an important trait when writing about the British Raj, which Godden so very frequently does.  The Lady and the Unicorn centers on the three daughters of an Anglo-Indian family and their struggle to establish themselves in a world that regarded them as neither British nor Indian.  Although the novel’s strong supernatural element distracted a bit from Godden’s sharp social observations, the ghost story was fun and was skillfully incorporated into the main story line.  All in all, The Lady and the Unicorn was a great way to pass an afternoon and a welcome distraction from packing boxes.

 

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Maxi says “Finish packing those boxes or you’ll never get moved!”

February was a discovery month, bringing several new and wonderful novels in translation, thanks largely to Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 13.  This was especially gratifying as Janakay is just the teeniest bit parochial in her reading, mostly sticking as she does to anglophone writers.  Participating in Doce Bellezza’s challenge, however, demonstrated just how much Janakay has been missing in her rather narrow approach.  What treasures are contained in even the sketchiest sample of Japanese writing!  Looking for a terse and elegant story of doomed love, set in one of the most poetic and deeply atmospheric novels I’ve ever read?  Try Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country.  More into a contemporary tale of the ultimate non-conformist?  You couldn’t do better than Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a chronicle of the deeply weird life and times of a very contented employee in one of Tokyo’s many “Smile Marts.”  (I’d been intending to read this one for over a year.  I’m happy to report it was definitely worth the wait).  I also spent a few pleasant hours in which I finally got around to reading Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, which I had come to regard as a permanent resident on my TBR list; while a little sentimental for my taste it was definitely worth the time I spent reading it.

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A wonderful cover, n’est pas?  You can almost feel the cold.  This is one of  those rare cases in which the cover art so beautifully conveys the mood of the novel

 

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Another wonderful case of cover matching content!

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A fun read; rather western in style & approach but providing plenty of insight (IMO at least) into young Tokyo life

And then, of course, there was Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, another book I had tried but abandoned several years ago.  What a loss that would have been, never to have read it, especially since I had the added benefit of DB’s wonderful commentary.  All of these great novels deserve far more than my brief nods, and Janakay was fully intending to share her thoughts and opinions with you, but, well, life intervened.  Movers were a’ comin’ and she simply had to clean out her basement (a word of unsolicited advice, dear readers!  Never, ever go twenty-eight years without cleaning out your basement!)

To a lesser extent, February was also short story month.  Although I do respect the genre I ordinarily tend to avoid actually reading short stories, as I regard them as a bit of a tease — just when I’m getting interested, poof!  They’re over!  This year, however, I began seeking them out, as they seemed to lend themselves to my currently fractured attention span (so difficult to concentrate, don’t you find, with all this constant hand washing and disinfecting?).  One of my rewards was  re-discovering Daphne DuMaurier’s fantastic novella Don’t Look Now.  Have any of you read it?  If not, why are you wasting time on my blog?  Click off instantly and read it now.  Afterwards, settle in for a wonderfully creepy afternoon of watching Nicholas Roeg’s 1974 film version, with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland making their doomed way through a darkly beautiful and sinister Venice.

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If February was short stories & Japanese novels, March was packing boxes and saying good-byes; physically it was a long distance move and literature-wise a much quicker journey to some fun and distracting reads.  I was particularly happy to (finally) sample the work of the very talented sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin.  Behind the curve as usual I had totally missed her acclaimed Broken Earth series, so I was particularly happy to read The City We Became, the first book in a new trilogy.  Aside from being an unusual and gripping story, City’s view that cultural and ethnic diversity are necessary for our very survival made Janakay positively weep with gratitude, being such a refreshing respite from the jingoistic blather that seems so omnipresent these days.  If you’d prefer an interior journey through a dark and twisted psyche to humanity’s struggle against an alien threat, I can happily recommend Flynn Berry’s A Double Life, loosely based on Britain’s Lord Lucan murder scandal.  For a noir thriller with an interesting take on class, race and gender, check out Christopher Bollen’s A Beautiful Crime, an elegant tale of intrigue set mostly in Venice, (Janakay adores Venice, even though it’s been years and years since she visited).  I also dipped a toe into some grimly funny Scandinavian fare, with Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good (Janakay was looking for inspiration and did find it there, although — reluctantly — she draws the line at offing those annoying neighbors of hers).  As a bonus, it has an absolutely wonderful cover:

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In April, it was back to more serious, albeit still contemporary, fare.  As you may surmise from my most recent post, I’m a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel.  Do any of you share my enthusiasm?  After it became sadly evident that our current pandemic was not, suddenly, just going to “disappear” (and Janakay absolutely draws the line at injecting herself with bleach or swallowing light beams or whatever), I seriously considered re-reading Mandel’s Station Eleven, one of my highlight books from a few years ago.  I decided, however, that until we see how Covid-19 plays out, I  couldn’t emotionally handle Mandel’s story of a vicious, highly contagious disease that ended current civilization (isn’t it spooky, how great writers have their fingers on the zeitgeist?).   I settled instead on Mandel’s latest, The Glass Hotel, published at the end of March.  Somewhat to my surprise (Mandel’s incredibly talented, but how many great books can anyone, even Hilary Mantel, produce in one lifetime?)  Glass Hotel was very nearly as good as its immediate predecessor.  Admittedly, the novel has no feel-good characters (it’s based loosely on Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme), so if you want warm and fuzzy, you’ll need to look elsewhere.  What it does have is beautiful writing, a wonderfully complex structure that uses shifts in time and point of view to reinforce and enrich the story, and an utterly believable, complicated and heartbreaking cast of characters, all of whom are, morally, some shade of grey.  I was hooked in from the beginning and absolutely couldn’t put it down for the two days or so it took me to read.  The only downside was that I had to wait for its impact to fade a bit before I could start another novel, because I knew that nothing I could read would be anywhere nearly as good.  Have any of you read Glass Hotel?  Or any other Mandel novel, for that matter?  If so, I’d love to hear your opinions.   I’d also be interested in hearing how you handle that period of time after you’ve read a novel that just blows you away.  Do you read non-fiction?  Play solitaire?  Immediately go on to the next novel on your list?  Do share your secret of survival!

After a few days of absorbing Glass Hotel and letting its impact fade, I settled in to enjoy another contemporary novel, this time by Lily King.  Although I’d avoided reading Euphoria, King’s highly touted previous novel (I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), I was curious about her work and decided to give her latest novel, Writers and Lovers, a try.  Writers’ ostensible subject is the story of Casey, a thirty-something wannabe writer and part-time waitress; dealing with grief over her mother’s death, Casey struggles with her novel, works in a restaurant and becomes entangled with two very different men.  Writers‘ real subject (IMO at least, don’t know if the critics would agree) is the creative process and the demands that it places on its devotees.  I enjoyed the novel, without being overwhelmed by it; I was particularly taken with Casey’s criteria for determining a real bookstore and picked up several useful titles to add to my TBR list!  (Knut Hamsun’s Hunger; Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters and, what I’m far more likely to actually read, Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday.)  Prompted by an excellent review, I then sneaked in a quickie read of Camilla Bruce’s You Let Me In, a debut novel accurately described by The Guardian as a “smart, creepy fairy story” with a twist.  If you, like Janakay, love Gothic horror and ambivalent endings, not to mention nasty malevolent fairies with a taste for human blood (not to mention hearts), then waste no time, dear reader!  This is your book!  Janakay’s one regret is that she didn’t save it for Halloween.

Well, that’s it for my round-up!  What about yours?  I’d love to compare lists!

 

2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

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Although this young lady is working in a bookstore, her activity isn’t entirely dissimilar from ours when we compile our lists, is it?  Do you love this contemporary painting (“Old Books” by David Carson Taylor) as much as I do?

Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you?  She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year.  Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge.  I adore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think?  In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books!  And this year, they’re all going to be read!  What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?

And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read?  Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to  to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy!  Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!).  No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading.  I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea?  After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way).  For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding.  A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities.  For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others.  And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily!  Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list?  Absolutely!  But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020.  The list, once made, sets the priorities!

In compiling my own list this month I’ve very  much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices.  It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title?  Does a waterfall count?”).  It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories.  These cases raise the additional question of which category to use?  Oh, such delightful dilemmas!

Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.

19th Century Classic:  To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith!  I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician!  I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).

In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover.  Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General.  The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back.  (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge:  I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!)  When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend!  My choice was made!

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20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970):  Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett.  Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work.  In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read!  This year, I will do better!  My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).

 

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Classic by a Woman Author:  I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963).  2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd!  On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.

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Classic in Translation:  My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann.  The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.

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Classic by a POC:  A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s.  It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs.  One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry.  Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer.  By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s.  I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity.  Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work.  Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S.  the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley,  a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).

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A Genre Classic:  I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town.  So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice.  But which book?  That’s a bit of a problem.  Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore.  (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?).  I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply  a series of repeating cycles or events.  I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me!  Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.

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Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title:  Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time.  (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011.  My bad!)  As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high.  Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic.  Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!

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Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)?  She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, The Door.  I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years.  The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels.  The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date.  My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.

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Classic with Nature in the Title:  This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak.  I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning?  She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date!  Shucky darn, that one’s out!  I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet.  I loved the Quartet (its treatment of  the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it.  My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.

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Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title:  Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family.  With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine.  I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.

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Abandoned Classic:  Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from!  Most of Dickens!  All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)!  A Brontë or three (or four) —  Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well!  Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing?  (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce.  I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb.  Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it).  No! No! No!  Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move!  Allowances must be made!  Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites.  Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long).  In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same.  In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer).  With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them.  (P.S.:  I’ve already started reading it!  It’s wonderful!).

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Classic Adaptation:  This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices!  I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time.  Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not.  Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.”  I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.

Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post.  As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!

 

 

2019’s Reading Wrap-Up (or It’s Better Late than Never)

 

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New Year’s Eve in Dogville (1903) by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (a/k/a Kash Coolidge)

 

Well, dear readers, here you are, well into the new year while Janakay is still piddling around with the old!  Time just seemed to gallop away from me, there at the old year’s end, what with the “Big Book Sort,” the holidays and a (very) little recreational travel.  One day it was early December and I rather unrealistically thought I might actually catch up with my 2019 Challenges; then I blinked and it was mid-January!  No matter how many times this has happened to Janakay, she’s always surprised!  I suppose it’s that child-like sense of wonder that keeps her going!

2019 was a big year for me as far as bookish matters are concerned.  After literally years of thinking it would be fun to write about some of the great books I was reading, and to connect with others who shared my passions, I (finally) launched my blog and — gasp — participated in not one, but two Challenges! (the first was Karen’s “Back to the Classics” Challenge; the second was the TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader).  Now, a year later, what do I think of the whole enterprise?

The blog itself has been rewarding, even if it’s been on life support at times;  my “launch year” unfortunately coincided with a final, rather intensive year of academic work on my art history degree.  As for the Challenges, well . . . . Janakay isn’t always into completion!  It’s a kind of  glass half–empty, glass half-full thing and, since Janakay has a naturally sunny disposition she regards both her Challenges as having been very worthwhile exercises.  Even if the total number of reviews and books read were somewhat less than ideal, the Challenges ensured that reading in 2019 was quite stimulating and definitely more challenging than the previous year’s when, sad to say, I was in a bit of a science fiction-fantasy rut.  Regrettably, however, around midyear my reviews fell far short of my reading; so much so that I didn’t see the point of a final linkup post for either my TBR or Classics Challenge.  Because this is the month named for the god who gazes into the past as much as the future, however, and I haven’t posted in quite some time, I thought it would be interesting, at least to me (you, dear reader, can always click elsewhere for entertainment!) to do a sort of informal tally of the results of my Challenge participation.

I’ll begin with the “Back to the Classics Challenge,” as the books I selected were generally more of a stretch for me to complete than my TBR selections.  The final sum of my posted reviews — five — was pretty bad.  The number of books (eight) I read for the Challenge, however, wasn’t too horrible, particularly when I consider that the Challenge required me to read books from genres (such as translated literature) that I normally avoid because they’re too much work!  Here’s my thumbnail tally by category:

19th century classic:  For this category I rather ambitiously selected Henry James’ 1890 The Tragic Muse, written right before HJ’s disastrous stint as a playwright.  Although Muse displays the realism so characteristic of 19th century literature in general, it’s also quite philosophical in a sense; James uses his characters to debate various opinions regarding the nature of dramatic art and the plot turns on the conflict between pursuing art and meeting the expectations and obligations imposed by society.  One plot strand centers around Nick Dormer and his decision to pursue painting rather than the political career expected by his family, while the other revolves around Miriam Rooth, a fiercely dedicated actress who rejects a conventional life in favor of the stage.  Since Muse is mid-period James, its syntax is much more manageable than HJ’s late masterpieces (Wings of the Dove, for example).  As with any novel by HJ, one shouldn’t expect thrills and chills.  Although Muse does have some extended discussions on the nature of art, particularly dramatic art (one senses that James is working through his ideas regarding his upcoming career switch), the major characters’ choices, along with their resulting complications, do create a bit of tension in the plot.  Like the great artist he is, James creates complicated and subtle characters.  While I found Nick a bit bland, James does wonderful female characters and Miriam is one of the great creations of 19th century English literature.  How many novels of this era portray a strong and supremely gifted woman who navigates considerable practical obstacles and arranges her life to allow the full exercise of her talents?  Miriam is not only unusual, she and her choices are fully believable.  Although I liked this novel very much, it’s not one of HJ’s masterpieces and I’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who only intended to read one or two of HJ’s novels.  I obviously love James’ work and actually managed to review Muse in some (well, too much) detail; if you’re interested you may check out my post.

20th century classic:  Decisions, decisions!  So much to choose from!  I finally settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s debut novel, Friends and Relations (another one of my rather rare reviews; you may find it here.)  Friends is a deceptively brief but stylistically rather complex novel involving the secrets and shifting relationships of two very different sisters and their respective husbands.  Although I found some of the novel’s characters rather two dimensional and its ultimate plot twist unnecessarily melodramatic, it also contained moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, as well as some wonderful comedy.  A detailed and seemingly believable depiction of upper class English life between the wars is an added bonus.  And, of course, the novel is beautifully written.  Friends is definitely worth reading, if not quite equal to Bowen’s later work, such as The Last September or The Death of the Heart.

Classic Tragic Novel:  For this category, I read Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, published in 1949, but, alas, failed to post a review.  I found this category quite interesting because it made me question the very definition of a “tragic” protagonist.  Must s/he be Aristotle’s person of noble qualities, subject to adverse circumstances and brought low by an inner flaw?  Or can our tragic protagonist be some poor schlub in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Or a couple of rich, educated, culturally blind Americans who traipse around Algeria, carrying too much emotional baggage and descending into their own hell of utter darkness?  If you answered my third question affirmatively, well, Sky is the very defintion of a tragic novel.  Kit and Port Moresby, the couple in question, are the ultimate adventure tourists, scorning the mundane; Port is intent on seeking out the increasingly remote and isolated while Kit becomes more terrified as they leave “civilization” further and further behind.  Neither Port nor Kit understands or is interested in understanding anything about the people or cultures they encounter, and both are totally unsympathetic characters; if you want warm and fuzzy, this is not your novel.  The couple’s journey is bleak, the north African landscape is tortured and the prose is gorgeous, as Bowles describes a terrifying and empty universe in which civilization does not triumph.  This novel is bleak, bleak, bleak.  Janakay loved it and wants to read more Paul Bowles, but is afraid to; she has also vowed to travel exclusively with guided tour groups in the future.  Sky has been my “jinx” book for ages; without the Classics Challenge it would have continued languishing unread and I would have missed a great read (many thanks, BooksandChocolate!).

Classic from a Place You’ve Lived:  One of the more interesting places I’ve lived is New Orleans, Louisiana.  From the abundance of myth, legend and literature associated with this oh-so-special city I picked The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, a white, male, southern novelist I had successful avoided for most of my life.  Percy was quite the flavor, back in the day; did you know The Moviegoer won the 1962 National Book Award over such contenders as J.D. Salinger (Franny and Zooey), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), William Maxwell (The Chateau) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (The Spinoza of Market Street)?  Although Percy’s luster has faded a bit in subsequent years, Moviegoer continues to be regarded as one of the greatest U.S. novels of the 20th century; early last year The New Yorker made a persuasive argument that it continues to remain as relevant as ever.

The novel’s non-linear plot centers on the travails of Binx Bolling, a well-connected New Orleans stockbroker with a knack for making money, who occasionally (please forgive Janakay’s snark) attends an afternoon movie, which he finds more “real” than his quotidian routine.  In addition to (occasionally) watching movies, making money and seducing his secretaries, Binx wanders around New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and Chicago seeking god and spouting thinnly disguised existentialist philosophy.  By novel’s end, Binx accepts reality, marries the neurotic rich girl and decides to attend medical school, which he will have no trouble getting into and which his family will pay for.  Despite Percy’s skill with dialogue and description, his frequently lovely prose and his sincerity, Janakay did not like Moviegoer, which she considers enormously overrated (lots of guilt here!  When I lived in New Orleans, I patronized a nice little bookshop that had a candid photo of Percy browsing its stacks and I heard, first hand, that he was a very nice guy!).  Are any of you cyberspace wanderers familiar with Moviegoer?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I’m afraid my own cultural bias may be blinding me to the novel’s virtues (I’m highly resistant to the woes of privileged southern white boys).  It’s worth noting that Moviegoer reflects the racial and sexual attitudes of its time and place, which have thankfully improved somewhat over the fifty-odd years since its publication.  Also, before I forget — this is one of the novels I read but never got around to reviewing.

Very Long Classic:  I’m afraid I totally bombed out in this category.  I had originally intended to read Miklòs Bánfly’s They Were Counted, volume I of his Transylvanian Trilogy, an unsung classic from eastern Europe.  Last July and fifty pages in, I realized this was not going to happen (at least not in this lifetime); I opted instead for a nature walk in Corkscrew Swamp, a wonderful nature preserve located in the western portion of Florida’s Everglades (boardwalks! birds! river otters! ghost orchids!)  Of course, I could have switched selections, made Tragic Muse my “very long classic” and reviewed Jane Eyre or Great Expectations (both of which I re-read last spring) for my 19th century category.  Oh, well …………………. those river otters at Corkscrew were wonderful!

Classic Comic Novel:  Another bomb!  I intended to read something by Ivy Compton-Burnett, who’s a favorite author of mine (her humor is so very black and her dialogue is so very, very funny) but kept saving it as a treat.  Then — it was December and I decided to read a couple of contemporary detective novels instead!  (If you haven’t yet met detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, devout Buddhist cop and half-caste son of a Thai bar girl, stop now and read John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 immediately!  Provided, that is, you’re not offended by an unflinching look at Bangkok’s sex trade).  Remember what Janakay said about her addiction to non-completion?

Classic in Translation:  The Challenge was just what I needed to get me reading some of those wonderful translations out there, particularly as I tend to confine myself to anglophone writers.  Thanks to the NYRB Classics, I had several novels by Guy de Maupassant gathering dust on the shelf so I took this opportunity to read Like Death.  Set in Belle Epoch Paris, it involves a simple but piquant situation:  noted society painter Olivier Bertin is beginning to feel his age when the lovely young daughter of Anne de Gilleroy, his longtime mistress, appears in his life.  The novel follows the growing realization of both Bertine and Anne that the former is subsuming his love for Anne into a passion for her daughter.  Although I thought the story might work better as a novella than a full-length novel, it was psychologically quite acute and offered a wonderful look at the aristocratic Paris of the late 19th century.  I did manage to review this one; follow the link if you want details.

Classic novella:  I literally have hundreds of these in a very special, very neglected corner of a very large book case and hardly ever read one!  2019 and a Challenge — here I come!  I really, really meant to read one in 2019 — one little afternoon in December would have done it — but Bangkok 8 was so exciting I simply had to follow it with Bankgok Tattoo, the second book in the series!  And, after all, there’s always 2020 . . . .  I did read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein last spring, which technically qualifies (it’s less than 250 pages) but just didn’t feel like writing about it!  Janakay has to wait for inspiration!

Classic from the Americas:  This was a category in which I did the reading but didn’t do a review, primarily because it took me so long to make my selection.  After several months of dithering I finally settled on Zama, a 1956 novel by the Argentinian writer Antonio Di Benedetto.  Di Benedetto (died in 1986) was a contemporary of Borges and Cortázar who never achieved their international fame; Zama has only recently been translated into English and made readily available through the NYRB Classics.  As the novel opens, it is circa 1790 and Don Diego de Zama, a midlevel functionary of the Spanish empire, is stuck in a dead end posting in what is now Asunción, Paraguay.  Zama longs for everything he doesn’t have:  the bright lights of Buenos Aires; promotion (as a Spaniard born in the colonies he faces considerable discrimination in this respect); the wife and children whom he’s too poor to have with him and for a remote, fantasy Europe that he has never seen.  The novel falls into three chronological sections (1790, 1794 and 1799); in each period Zama faces, respectively, a serious sexual, financial and existential problem.  In each period Zama over-analyzes and misinterprets his situation; essentially he’s so busy presenting his life to an imaginary audience he misses, or is unable to face, the reality in front of him.  Zama’s tragedy, perhaps, is that he’s never quite able to lose himself in his fantasies; he retains a neurotic self-awareness that ensures he’s continually disappointed by the realities of his situation.  It’s all very existential (Di Benedetto was a great admirer of Dostoevsky) and Janakay isn’t at all sure she grasped everything there was to grasp; in fact, after I finished Zama I was tempted to settle in for a re-read (it’s quite brief).  Zama is a challenging, but very worthwhile novel.  And, did I mention it’s quite funny at times?

Classic Play:  I’ve been meaning to read Ben Johnson’s The Duchess of Malfi  for years.  I’m still meaning to!  Another category where I dropped the ball.

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (including Australia):  Thanks to NYRB Classics, I had long possessed a copy of Maria Dermôut’s The Ten Thousand Things (1955) sitting unread on my shelf.  This highly autobiographical account of life on the remnants of a Dutch spice plantation in Indonesia was one of my favorite reads of the year.  Ostensibly the story of a young woman who returns to her grandmother’s garden to raise her child and grow old, the story moves backwards and forwards in time to encompass hundreds of beings, the living and dead, the supernatural and natural, to show in the most subtle way possible the interconnectedness of all things.  I reviewed this novel in great detail in a prior post(I’m afraid I became a little carried away with the visuals, having just completed a couple of courses in Dutch art!); there’s a wonderful essay that explains the novel far better than does my review in Lost Classics (edited by Michael Ondaatje), a fascinating little book which is in itself worth tracking down.

Classic by a Woman Author:  For this category I read and reviewed The Blackmailer, the first of a number of novels by Isabel Colegate, a wonderful English novelist who’s a favorite of mine.  Blackmailer, which is set in the post-war London of the 1950s, is a surprisingly subtle look at the relationship between the blackmailer and his/her prey, and the intricate cat and mouse game in which they indulge.  The novel offers crisp dialogue, a great depiction of post-war London’s publishing world and some wonderful supporting characters (including a hilarious old nightmare of a nanny and Bertie the spaniel, portrayed with great vividness and not an ounce of sentimentality).  Perhaps best avoided by those demanding a great deal of action in their novels.

I did a bit better with my TBR than with my Classics challenge, completing ten of the twelve books I selected from my enormous TBR pile.  Alas, however, I only reviewed four.  Regardless of numbers, however, the Challenge really motivated me actually to read some of those very interesting books I’ve been accumulating all these years and was, more importantly, a lot of fun (I’m very sorry to see that the Challenge won’t be offered in 2020).  The real standouts for me were Tom Drury’s The Driftless Area, a wonderful noir thriller with supernatural elements, which I reviewed, and Ester Freud’s Summer at Gaglow, which I did not.  My real regret is that, once again, I’ve evaded Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, which has been on my TBR list for years!

Regarding my choice of illustrations — have you ever wondered where those nauseatingly cute paintings of anthropomorphic dogs playing poker and so on came from?  For better or worse, we owe them to Kash Coolidge, a graphic artist who created them as part of an advertising campaign in the early part of the 20th century.  In the illustration I choose, the canines all look like they’re having a doggedly good time on New Year’s Eve, don’t they?

 

 

Halloween Miscellany! Scary Reads and Pop Culture!

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Isn’t this print wonderfully creepy and compelling? I’m a big fan of Gustave Doré; this is one of his illustrators for Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”

Greetings to all you denizens of the internet, on this dark and ghastly time of year!  Do you celebrate the Day, complete with your “sexy witch” costume or Freddy Kruger mask, lawn bestrown with cobwebs, plastic skeletons and those huge truly yucky fake spiders that are so unfortunately popular with Janakay’s neighbors?

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Janakay is severely arachnophobic and doesn’t like walking past certain houses in her neighborhood during Halloween week! Needless to say, these folks did NOT consult HER about their Halloween decorations . . .

In my neck of the woods (North American, mid-Atlantic suburban) Halloween decorations have become increasingly common.  They range from folks who clearly regard Halloween as a very, very important milestone in their shopping and celebratory life . . .

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In dawn’s early light, those giant spiders are rather unpleasantly realistic!

to those of a minimalist bent who nevertheless want to mark the occasion . . . .

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The pumpkin face didn’t come out well in this photo — it’s actually pretty sinister, even if the “ghost” hanging on the porch is a bit laid back!

to the oh so tasteful, who actually changed the permanent outdoor light fixtures (on the left of the gate and the right of the porch) to match their purple Halloween lights!

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A bit blurry (Halloween night here is appropriately rainy and stormy) but you get the idea  . . .

And — the neighborhood’s pièce de résistance!

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To paraphrase that eminent stylist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Halloween here is “a dark and stormy night!”  Great for ghostly atmosphere but lousy for photos! Still, squint hard and you can see the red thing on the right is a dragon!  With movable wings!  What will they think of next?

Just as Halloween decorations are becoming more common and elaborate, Halloween costumes have taken a giant leap forward from the cardboard witches’ hats and superman masks of my childhood!  Now we have the adorably traditional:

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Grandma is really rocking this one!

The “traditional with a twist”:

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Jon Snow White!

And — the Topical:

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This company also offers a “Miss Impeachment” costume (includes a tiara, beauty queen sash and a whistle blower necklace) as well as a sexy “Beyond Burger” getup, complete with a headband bearing the label “Plant Based!”

Well, it’s all certainly very interesting, isn’t it?  Do you follow the lead of these festive folks or do you (like Janakay on a bad year) pretend the day just isn’t happening, as you close the blinds, turn on the TV and ignore the trick or treaters ringing your door bell so you can eat all the best candy yourself in blessed solitude?  Do you have your very own Halloween rituals involving none of the above or do you perhaps hail from a country or follow a tradition that doesn’t acknowledge Halloween?  This space is all about sharing, so — please share with the rest of us how, or even if, you mark the day!

PART SECOND: SCARY READS IN GENERAL.  THOUGHTS, ANYONE?

I bet you never thought I’d get around to the books, did you?  Ha!  Tricked you!  With Jankay, it’s always about the books; no matter how meandering the path, it always comes back to the books; books underlie everything!  And there are such wonderful books associated with this time of year, aren’t there?  And don’t we all have our favorite reads? My own preferred brand of horror tends towards the classic, away from gore and slasher (so very, very unsubtle, don’t you think?) towards the “oh my god, something moved in the corner of my eye” variety.  In other words, away from the Freddy Kruger/Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more towards the Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House end of the horror scale.   In fact, isn’t the whole horror phenomenon fascinating?  Why is it that we humans love so much to scare ourselves and isn’t it interesting how we all vary in what we regard as particularly horrifying?  I was actually settling in to spend some happy hours researching this topic when I realized that I’d be posting this on Christmas if I didn’t wrap it up (speaking of which, have you seen Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas?  If not, stop reading this instance and go watch!)  Without further ado, here’s a few selections from my short list of creepy reads; these are just things I thought of, fairly quickly and are listed in no particular order:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula: All the ornate Victorian prose can’t obscure one of the scariest stories every written.  I re-read it every now and then and it scares me almost as much as it did when I was fifteen years old, alone for the weekend and very unwisely deciding to try this old 19th century thing.

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.  Some houses are indeed born evil and some writers were born to tell us about them.  Truly one of the most terrifying tales ever conceived, written by an author of breathtaking talent working at the height of her powers.  It would be a shame not to read the book but if you’re in a visual mood Netflix did a recent series that’s sort of o.k.  Far better IMO is the 1963 black and white movie, starring Claire Bloom and Julie Harris.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire.  Anne Rice has built up such a fan base and churned out so much over-written drivel over her long career (my apologies to any fans out there, but we are sharing our honest opinions aren’t we?) that it’s easy to forget just how very good she can be.  This is my favorite Anne Rice novel, an incredibly atmospheric take on the vampire mythos, set in French colonial New Orleans and 19th century Paris.  Erotic, baroque, stomach churning and beautiful, it isn’t easy to forget (the Theatre des Vampires, where vampires feed on victims for the audience’s amusement, is as horrifying as anything I’ve ever read).  Rice’s The Witching Hour, a tale of two centuries of the Mayfair Witch family and its attendant demon Lasher, ranging from its origin in medieval Scotland to its dark doings in contemporary San Francisco & New Orleans, is also pretty good.  Word of advice: avoid the numerous sequels and spinoffs of both novels.

H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories:  H.P. has fallen out of favor these days because he is, let’s face it, a racist, a fact that’s painfully obvious when you start examining his work.  In this area and with this writer, I agree with Victor LaValle (an award winning African American horror writer) that you can reject Lovecraft’s views while still appreciating his work (if you’re new to Lovecraft, the NY Times’ recent review of his annotated works is pretty useful).  I think Lovecraft is at his best when writing short stories, which he mostly sets in a frightening cosmos in which humanity is largely irrelevant to the ancient and terrifying gods who are attempting to reenter the human dimensions.  My own personal favorites among Lovecraft’s stories are “Pickman’s Model;” “The Dunwich Horror;” “The Thing On the Door Step;” and “The Rats in the Walls.”

Additional “dark writings” I’ve enjoyed (and still periodically re-read), without experiencing quite the visceral feelings evoked by Jackson, Lovecraft and Stoker:

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla:  another vampire tale (I’m particularly fond of vampires, obviously).  My immediate reaction after reading this for the first time was –“what’s the big deal?”  Then I had nightmares for a week.  A classic, whether you give it the psychological interpretation or not.

Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby:  devil worship for our era and a very shrewd commentary on a certain 20th century milieu.  I’ve never read the sequel — why tamper with perfection?

Edgar Allan Poe: anything, really.  If you go for his long poem “The Raven,” try to find Doré’s illustrations (I included one at the beginning of the post.  They’re all great).  For sheer horror, my pick is his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Stephen King’s The Shining:  I’m ordinarily not a big Stephen King fan, but I’ve read this one twice.  Despite the re-read, however, this is one of the rare cases where I prefer the film (a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece) to its source material.  Although I didn’t much care for King’s sequel, Doctor Sleep, nothing will keep me away from seeing the film, which will be released November 8th.

William Blatty’s The Exorcist.  I loved it when I read it; a second re-read about twenty years ago left me a bit cold so it’s ripe for a third review.  About the movie there’s no doubt at all — it’s really, really scary.  In fact Mr. Janakay and I are having our own little Halloween celebration tonight (too bad for the trick or treaters who come by after 7 PM!) by watching the director’s cut at our nearby cinema art house!

Poppy Z. Brite’s 1990’s work (she later ventured into dark comedy):  have any of you read this very interesting writer?  She’s so, so southern Gothic and so off-beat; naturally enough she’s a resident of New Orleans!  I have to admit I literally couldn’t read Exquisite Corpse, a novel centering on a homosexual, necrophiliac, cannibalistic serial killer (even for something that could be interpreted as a political metaphor, I do set some limits), but I found her early novels, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood, atmospheric (she’s got the lost, southern hippy thing down pat) atmospheric and absorbing.  Poppy’s appeal is no doubt a bit limited, but if you’re into over the top, you may find her worth checking out.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.  This one barely made my cut, as it’s more of a mystery-thriller than a proper horror novel but still — it was nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award.  The book begins with a suicide and continues with an investigation into the dark and violent work of a reclusive horror film director.  I’m a sucker for novels implying that our perceived “reality” rests on dark and unperceived secrets; I also found the interactive aspects of the story, which drive some readers nuts, wildly inventive and interesting.

My list, as I said at the beginning, is short and I’d love to expand it.  Do you have any dark reads you’d like to share?

PART THIRD:  MY 2019 HALLOWEEN READ(S)

My own little Halloween tradition (it actually relates more to autumn in general, than to Halloween per se) is to read something a little dark, a little eerie; something that reminds me that the universe encompasses more than we ordinarily see or perceive; that perhaps our “reality” isn’t the only reality out there.  A bit mystical, I know, but then rationality, while explaining much, doesn’t quite cover it all, does it?  It always seems appropriate to me, as the darkness literally closes in with the year’s waning, to read something a little dark.  What better time than Halloween?  It’s a time to forget the cute costumes and the fake spiders and remember that every culture I can think of had some ritual for celebrating the harvest, the time of bounty before nature’s (temporary) death.  I didn’t have a lot of time this year, but in my energetic and continuing effort to evade the art work of the Italian Renaissance I decided I absolutely was not going to forego my Halloween read!  The deciding factor here was a really odd compulsion to return to a novel I first read many years ago, The Night Country by the American writer Stewart O’Nan.

Have any of you read or reviewed O’Nan’s novels?  O’Nan appears to be one of those writers who’s hard to classify because he seems able to write about very diverse subjects in an equally convincingly way and — he’s written a lot!  A quick trip to Wiki discloses that in 1996 O’Nan was named by Granta as one of “America’s Best Young Novelists” and he’s been very respectfully reviewed by such publications as the New York Times.  I’ve always meant to read O’Nan’s novels (I’ve a couple languishing now on the shelf) but, sad to say, the only one I’ve gotten around to is Night Country, which I first read shortly after it was published in 2004.  I was drawn to Night Country because — you guessed it — it’s a ghost story and I was looking for a dark read.  I both got, and didn’t get, what I was looking for.  Night Country is a ghost story, but it’s a haunting without the chains.  Along with its supernatural elements, it’s also a beautifully written (and occasionally very funny) tale of disappointment and regret; a realistic slice of life in a small town and of bad choices and bad luck.  The whole thing was a bit too subtle for me and very much not what I was looking for at the time, i.e., a second Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House type read.  And yet, it stayed with me, and this year just seemed to pop into my mind, along with the return of rain, falling leaves and the chill of dark mornings.

O’Nan sets his novel in the small Connecticut town of Avondale.  It is Halloween night and his three protagonists are the ghosts of three teenagers who died the previous Halloween, victims of a terrible car crash resulting from a high speed pursuit by a local traffic cop.  Two teenagers survived the crash — Tim who can’t forgive himself for having lived when his girlfriend and buddies did not, and Kyle, a once arrogant bad boy reduced by severe brain damage to a shell of his former self.  The three ghosts have their own agenda, which plays out in the course of the novel as we see the effect of the tragedy on the cop, Kyle’s Mother (her proper name is never given) and a community that is still coming to terms with its grief.

As one of its contemporary reviews noted, Night Country, despite its “goblin-like atmosphere,” is a chilling, rather than a scary, read.  It’s a wonderful depiction of a closely knit and prosperous community, where all appears safe.  Or, this disquieting novel asks, is it safe, really?  The woods surrounding Avondale are mighty dark and mysterious, its creeks and marshlands are dangerous and one chance act can affect the beautifully ordered rationality of many lives.  It was amazing how much I liked this book the second time around, how beautiful, subtle and — haunting —  I found the story.  If, like me in 2004, you’re looking for a purely traditional and scary read, best avoid Night Country, particularly as it’s a quiet book that requires patience and time.  If, on the other hand, you enjoy a Ray Bradbury type mix of the strange and the quotidian, Night Country just might be your next great autumn read.

If you’ve the patience, bear with me for one more paragraph and I’ll mention a very creepy book indeed, a fantastical (and fantastic) mixture of horror, fantasy and fairy tale called Follow Me To Ground, a debut novel by Sue Rainesford.  I found this one through a review in The Guardian, which described it far better than I can here.  It’s a dark, unnerving story of Ada and her father, non-humans who live and work their healing magic on nearby villagers, whom they refer to as “Cures.”  The Cures are grateful but wary (their perspective is given from time to time, in brief shifts away from Ada’s); the setting is realistic with overtones of myth (everyone, including Ada, is terrified of Sister Eel Lake, the home of carnivorous serpents) and the tale can be read on a number of levels.  All goes well, however, until Ada begins a sexual relationship with a human Cure of whom her father disapproves.  I know what you’re thinking but trust me — Romeo and Juliet this is not.  It’s a pretty brief novel (slightly less than 200 pages) and a perfect quick read for those dark autumn nights when the rain is beating against the window.

PART FOURTH: FUN LINKS

The Guardian’s List of Ten Books About Cemeteries (I may check out a couple of these!)

“I was so scared I took it back to the library: the books that scare horror authors” (amusing note: Anne Rice was too frightened to finish Dracula!)

“I didn’t sleep well for months:” the films that terrified The Guardian’s writers as kids

And, just to prove that I occasionally read something other than The Guardian’s take on books, “Globetrotting:” the New York Times sneak preview of books coming out in 2019 from around the world

 

 

 

Monday Miscellany: Books, Birds, Movie(s) and Art, In Whatever Order You Choose

Well, dear readers, since I’ve now reached page eleven of my paper on Renaissance child portraiture, I’ve decided to break from the 16th century for (imagine a drum roll here) — Monday Miscellany!  This week’s miscellany will be more of a miscellaneous mess than it usually is, as the unofficial deadline for my paper is next Friday (that scream you just heard, dear readers, is Janakay having a weensy little panic attack.  Not to worry! I’m doing some deep breathing, so I’m much better now).  Because this post is largely a quick stream of consciousness, with its various parts having absolutely nothing in common with each other, feel even freer than usual to click hither and yon.  To suit my current mood, which is a visual mood, I’ll begin with photos and a quick trip down memory lane:

MISCELLANY FIRST:  BIRDS!

Back when Janakay and Mr. Janakay were busily, if not happily, employed turning out thousands (well, maybe hundreds) of pages of legal tootle, those breaks away from the law books and the bustle were made as frequently and exotically as possible.  If you want remote, exotic and sometimes (very) uncomfortable travel, then you were born to go on a professional bird tour (don’t dare ask Janakay about her camping experience on that mountainside in central Peru.  She might tell you, complete with scatological details!)  Here are a few colorful little mementos of trips past, thanks to Mr. Janakay’s awesome photographic skills (Janakay herself is far too lazy to carry that big old camera lens):

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A Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, from Ecuador.  A common bird in the rain forest of the lower Andes, one of its most endearing characteristics (aside from its color) is its habit of traveling in flocks.  If you see one, it’s usually in the midst of a group of equally colorful little friends!

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The big red one is a Scarlet Ibis, from Venezuela.  This species is widespread in South America and the Caribbean, not rare at all and who cares?  They’re living proof that beauty doesn’t depend on rarity!  P.S.  Standing behind our colorful friend is a Cocoi Heron, the South American equivalent of Europe’s Grey Heron and North America’s Great Blue.

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A Crimson-rumped Toucanet, small but breath-taking, particularly when he has the taste to roost in an interesting bit of foliage.   The unusual tree compensates for the fact that you can’t see the bright red patch on this guy’s tail because he’s facing the wrong way.  This particular toucanet lived in Ecuador.

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This serious looking fellow is a Feruginous Pygmy-owl; these are pretty wide-spread in the neotropics (this one is Venezuelan).  The photo makes him look deceptively large; as the name denotes, these are tiny little owls.  I also saw one in Texas, at a place called the King Ranch, but they’re rare in the U.S. and usually quite difficult to see.

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An Orange-breasted Fruiteater, from Ecuador.  Unfortunately, he just wouldn’t turn around . . . . so you don’t get the full effect of the orange.

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A Yellow-headed Caracara from Venezuela.  The U.S. has a different species of caracara, mostly in Texas.  They’re nice, but Venezuela’s is prettier, at least IMO!

And, the rarest of them all — the Kagu!  One of the most endangered birds on the planet, the Kagu lives in a small patch of preserved habitat on New Caledonia, a Pacific island (located about 750 miles or 1,210 km east of Australia) that is still affiliated with France (New Caledonia was a French territory that, I believe, rejected independence in a fairly recent vote).

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Isn’t he gorgeous?  That silvery gray color has earned this species the soubriquet “the ghost of the forest.”  Since Kagus can’t fly and live on an island, they were really out of luck when people, cats, dogs and pigs moved in.  They’re hanging on, thanks to major conservation efforts, but the entire species now numbers less than a thousand birds.

MISCELLANY SECOND: DONNA TARTT:  BOOK vs MOVIE

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Does anyone out there besides myself adore Donna Tartt’s novels?  I came late to the DT bandwagon and probably would never have read The Secret History, her first novel, had I been left to my own devices, as I had somehow gotten the impression that it was one of those sensationalist, potboiler, best-seller things.  Well, fortunately, I wasn’t — left to my own devices, that is — I had an incredibly persistent literary-minded friend who talked me into trying it.  Ten pages in and I’m a fan of Tartt and all her works!  For life!  I have totally drunk the Kool Aid (if you don’t understand this metaphor, it’s just as well).  Where has this woman been my entire reading life?  When is her next book coming out and how do I survive until it does?  Can I join her fan club?  I’m exaggerating, but not by much!

To be fair, Secret History is a bit of a sensationalist potboiler (and it did sell off the charts) but oh, my stars and whiskers, good gracious me — can that woman write!  Throw in the fact that the plot concerns a group of oddball misfits who are studying classics at an elite New England school (I studied Latin and classics, among other things, at a much more plebian state university in the New England area, so I could identify.  I and my fellow Latin students were weird!  But harmless!) and I don’t mind admitting that I was not only hooked but mainlining!  Unfortunately for those (like myself) who have addictive personalities, Tartt is not a prolific novelist.  I had to wait over a decade for her second novel, The Little Friend.  Was the wait worth it?  Weeeeell …….. sort of; not really; maybe. The incredible way with words and literary skill were as great as ever but the narrative, for me at least, was a flop.  Still — that brilliant writing, the creepy sense of atmosphere, the characters  . . . .

Another long (very long) wait and then comes — The Goldfinch!  The New York Times’ assessment (a “smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind”) was an vast understatement, in my opinion.  I was powerless before a novel named for one of my favorite paintings, particularly one with the message that “art may addict, but art also saves us from ‘the ungainly sadness of creatures pushing and struggling to live.'”  This is one long book — almost 800 pages  — and while I read it I lived in Tartt’s world and not my own.  I only wish I could read it again, for the first time, but we don’t get the same gift twice, do we?  Given my reaction to the book, you can imagine my excitement when I learned last winter that a movie was coming out in September!  Dread (“this book can’t be filmed”) warred with excitement (“I don’t care — I have to see what they do with Boris!”) and neither won.  With trepidation mixed with longing and seasoned with hope (forgive my purplish prose, dear reader, but I was très excited) I marked the opening day on my calendar with a very large red “X” and started counting down the days until the movie came to a theater near me.

You can imagine my dismay when, a week or so before the opening day, the very negative reviews started rolling in.  Strictly for the birds (so clever, the New York Times).  A movie that “lies as flat as a painting.”  (Oh, those critics! so entertaining!)  The Washington Post critic, not to be outdone by her colleagues, didn’t like the movie either but couldn’t come up with anything clever to say; she had to settle on being offended by its “unmistakable air of unexamined privilege” and the WASPY sounding names of several of the characters (the novel is partly set in New York City’s Upper East Side, for gosh sakes!  Of course the characters are privileged! Do we need to examine the socio-politico basis for it?)  Oh, and she couldn’t sympathize with the main character, whom she found to be self-pitying (in case you can’t tell, I have severe reservations about WaPo’s movie critic, whom I’ve been stuck with reading for years).   Perhaps I am being just a little unfair; no one, but no one, had a kind word to say about Goldfinch: the Movie.  Critical opinion was so unanimous that the movie was an awful waste of time that even I, much as I loved the story, almost decided to skip the movie.

Last Friday, however, flush with the triumph of finishing page eight of my draft (did I mention I have a paper due this week? Oh, I did!) I made my way to the nearest art house theater that served alcohol and settled in for two hours and thirty minutes of “fabulous book into lousy movie” disappointment.  And — I wasn’t disappointed!  Was the movie as good as the novel?  Of course not; it never is!  Did it have faults?  Oh yes — it was definitely a bit slow at times, and there were certainly things I didn’t like (some of the casting; the fragmented narrative) but on the whole I thought it was, actually, pretty good.  And definitely worth seeing despite the flaws.  But then, what do I know, compared to all the professional critics who panned it?  My reaction was possibly due to a case of reverse expectations, i.e., the reviews were so very bad, my expectations were so very low, that anything short of a disaster would have made me happy.  Perhaps I simply liked the novel so much that I’d put up with anything, just to see the characters on a screen in front of me.  A mystery inside an enigma, to misquote a great man.

Have any of you, dear readers, seen the movie? If so, I’d really like to hear your reaction.  Has anyone read The Goldfinch, or either of Tartt’s other two novels?  Ditto! (and it’s o.k. if you’re not a fan!  Despite my DT worship I can understand how others might be less smitten by her art.  How very boring it would be, if we all liked the same things, wouldn’t it?)  It’s almost a truism to say we’re always disappointed when a favorite book is made into a movie — what’s been your experience?  Mine is usually “I hate, hate, hate the movie,” which is why I’m so interested in the fact that this time my reaction was actually quite different.  The only comparable situation I can think of personally was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; a complex and wonderful novel made into a sort of C+ movie that I sort of C+ liked!  Any thoughts?

MISCELLANY THIRD: ART

Any René Magritte fans out there? (as I recall, Silvia likes his work!).  I don’t know much about 20th century art but it’s hard to resist Magritte.  Don’t we all need to have our world view shifted just a little at times?  Magritte is very, very good at that!  This painting is titled, for no particular reason that I know of, Sixteenth of September, which just happens to be today’s date (from where I’m typing at least).  I’d like to say I thought of the painting myself, but truth compels me to give credit where it’s due — the New York Times’ daily cooking newsletter!  Thrown in gratis, along with a recipe for meatloaf with carmelized cabbage!  (If you’re interested, the newsletter also recommended Lara Prescott’s debut thriller, The Secrets We Keep.  Has anyone read it yet?)

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Rene Magritte’s “Sixteenth of September,” painted in 1956.

Enjoy!