You know what they say about being late, don’t you? That it’s better than “never”? I’m certainly putting that adage to the test, dear readers, by offering a September/October update as November is breathing down my neck. I’m starting off slowly here, as the next few paragraphs are about non-bookish matters, accompanied by a few of Mr. Janakay’s photographs. If you’re not interested, just skim on by to the portion of the post where I briefly discuss a novel or two.
That delightfully ambiguous word “interesting” best describes my September, which was quite “interesting” in ways both good and bad. The “good interesting” occurred early in the month, when I traveled internationally for the first time since the pandemic. I’m a nervous traveler at the best of times (in my defense, I’ve been on many trips that have gone spectacularly awry) and I had halfway talked myself into staying home but — the fees were paid, the refund period was past, the cat sitter was booked so — off I, Mr. J and Mr. J’s camera went to the Asturias region of northern Spain, to hook up with a birding tour. What can I say, dear readers, except that my misgivings were totally misplaced and that my trip, so dreaded in advance, was absolutely wonderful? Lovely scenery, fascinating 9th century churches (none of that newfangled Gothic & Romanesque architecture) nestled in mountain valleys, wonderful food, and pretty good birds. Not to mention the sheer wonder of viewing paleolithic wall paintings in a cave complex that sheltered humans as early as 33,000 years ago. Since I don’t want to burden you with a travelogue, I’ll limit myself to perhaps my favorite of Mr. J’s photos:
Oh, well, just one more, again courtesy of Mr. J:
Like all good things, my trip ended and it was home again, home again, to the (U.S.) Florida coast, with the biggest concern being unpacking the bags, doing the laundry and coaxing our feline masters back into a good mood (well, as good as it gets with cats. That is to say — not very). As I was doing the laundry, only half listening to the news in the trance state I use to get through such tasks, I did notice some weather person droning on about a hurricane causing considerable damage in Cuba but — hey, Florida’s gulf coast hasn’t had a major storm in . . . . Oh, dear. Times do change, don’t they, particularly in our era of heavy carbon emissions!
Have you ever, dear readers, prepared a house to weather a hurricane? If so, you have a good idea of the physical and psychological strain of our day and a half before my county’s mandatory evacuation order kicked in and we departed for higher ground. (Unlike many of my neighbors who stayed put, I ran. This was my first real hurricane & I wasn’t taking any chances.) Everything outside that could be moved — patio furniture, plants, flower pots, tools, you name it — went inside (my living room became a combination jungle and storage shed). We did that anxious last minute check, before you lock the front door, departing for — who knows what and for how long? Roof was new, nothing to do; ditto for lanai cage (these are screen & metal structures that cover an outdoor living area, useful for keeping slithery things with scales from becoming part of the household); windows have double panes, so no need (probably) to board them up (too late anyway to get plywood). That pile of bricks, remnants of a summer project, stacked in the driveway? The mental image of each one flying through the air in a 90 mph (144 kmh) wind gave me the energy to make the (considerable) effort to move them into the garage!
Finally, all was done that could be done; Hurricane Ian was projected to make landfall about 10 miles (16 km) from my front door; time to leave and hope for the best. Mr. J and I scuttled away, accompanied by three furious cats and several hurriedly assembled bags of books (some of which are in my first photo). In one of those twists of fate that work well for you and very ill for others, Hurricane Ian shifted course and ultimately made landfall further south, resulting in a far milder impact on my area than the devastation experienced by Naples or Ft. Myers. My area did take considerable damage, mostly from wind rather than water. My beloved butterfly tree was uprooted, along with a few other things, and the yard was a mess (did you know that hurricane winds literally strip all the leaves from deciduous trees?) but my house survived unscathed. My neighborhood itself experienced no flooding and, unlike many others, only relatively brief outages of power and internet. My relatives a little further south, where Ian first made landfall, weren’t so lucky. While I was sitting in a nice dry hotel room, albeit one with no electricity (thanks to the storm), they were clearing out attic space “just in case” the rising storm surge made it into their house (thankfully the waters stopped just short of the door, but they & their neighbors are still cleaning up flood damage). So that was my “bad interesting” September!
If you’re still reading, I can sense your impatience (I do rattle on, don’t I?) through the ether; whenever will I start discussing the the only thing we all (passionately) care about, i.e., books! So enough of birding trips and hurricanes and on to the book piles! To begin with the question posed in my first photograph, i.e., just how many of those books did I manage to read? Well . . . not many, and TBH, not really during the hurricane itself. In my defense, dear readers, it IS difficult to read in a strange hotel room, located in a building with no electricity, and one, moreover, whose walls are shaking in gale force winds (I wasted valuable reading time gazing out the window, wondering how many of those palm trees were going to be snapped in two!) Still, I did manage a page or two of Bernhardt’s Extinction between gusts, and dipped into Cavafy (one of my favorite poets) a bit. Not much more than that, I’m afraid, for the last few days of September and early October, which was a rather exhausting “clean up the damage” time.
Before nature interfered, however, I did manage to get through four or five books in September, albeit things on the lighter side, for the most part, and read primarily during my trip in the earlier part of the month. The standout among these was The Weekend, by the Australian author Charlotte Wood, which I found via a (highly deserved) glowing recommendation from Cathy at 746books (thanks, Cathy! I would have missed this one otherwise). In Weekend, three women who have known each other for the better part of their lifetimes come together for a few days to tidy up the belongings and clear out a beach house belonging to their recently deceased friend, the fourth member of their group. During the course of their weekend, the reader learns their back stories and sees their complicated and sometimes problematical relationship with each other; among many other things the novel’s an interesting portrayal of group dynamics, of how survivors adjust (or don’t) to the loss of a vital member of their set.
Although there are some outstanding novels of female friendship floating around the bookish world (Simon has an interesting discussion of a few at stuckinabook), I can’t think of any that focus on women in the latter stages of their life and few that display Wood’s psychological acuity and realism. As with any halfway realistic novel revolving around characters of a certain age, Weekend does have some bleak moments. These are balanced, however, by a wonderful sense that despite their looming mortality these three won’t go gently, that they will continue to struggle, to enjoy, to face difficulties and that their lives still contain possibilities, even if their choices must be recalibrated. Wood is a very skillful writer and keen observer; her setting, a trendy Australian beach town, is lovely (and for this U.S. reader enticingly exotic) and there are some very, very funny moments. While I do have a few minor quibbles (there’s some rather obvious symbolism and, perhaps, an overly dramatic situation or two) these are very minor blemishes on a really great read. If you love character driven novels and aren’t very demanding vis-á-vis action sequences (no shootouts or high speed car chases in this one, I’m afraid) you may very well want to give The Weekend a try.
In addition to The Weekend, I spent what could have been a tedious airport layover pleasantly absorbed in Evgenia Citkowitz’s The Shades, thanks to a recommendation from Tony’s Book World:
Since I adore horror fiction (the “Shirley Jackson Haunting of Hill House variety,” not the “chop up the body parts” kind) I quickly downloaded Lauren Owen’s Small Angels for a travel read as soon as I read the New York Times’ very favorable review. The novel was well written, atmospheric and employed some of my favorite horror tropes, i.e., the ancestral curse, the magical forest and stubborn village folk in deep denial regarding their complicity in the evil surrounding them. Action is sparked when Chloe, an outsider to the village & unaware of its history, decides to hold her wedding at Small Angels, a deserted chapel closely tied to the evil haunting the forest. Using multiple points of view, Owens gives a neat spin to the traditional ghost story, creating some strong female characters along the way. So I liked this novel, didn’t I? Well . . . yes and no. The first half really held me enthralled as I soaked in that wonderful spooky atmosphere and teased out the story line. When the action moved into contemporary times, however (Chloe’s perilous wedding; the sibling tension between her village boyfriend & his sister, the modern love stories, etc), my interest diminished, my reading speed picked up and I was quite content for the whole thing to end. Still, unless you share my perhaps unrealistic & overly stringent expectations for horror fiction (after all, there’s only one Shirley Jackson), this could be quite a satisfying read, as the days darken and the spirits return for their visits!
I’ve been a big fan of Emily St. John Mandel’s work since reading Station Eleven several years ago. Her next novel, The Glass Hotel, was (IMO at least) even better. (If you’ve read either or both of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.) It goes without saying that I took the unusual (for me) step of pre-ordering her latest, as soon as I learned it was coming out last spring:
Like the two novels that immediately preceded it, Tranquility involves multiple story arcs and weaves backwards and forwards in time. What is the link between a British aristocrat, exiled in 1917 by his family to the Canadian wilderness; a contemporary teenager with a video cam; and a 23rd century writer born and reared in one of the lunar colonies, who’s flogging her latest book during a visit to earth? Two centuries after the writer’s time, an investigator named after a character in one of the writer’s books attempts to put the puzzle together, adding yet another layer to Mandel’s complex structure. Mandel deftly uses the tools of speculative fiction to focus on the real subject of the novel (IMO at least), i.e., the seemingly random events that link lives and the patterns that connect human existence over the centuries. All this is done in Mandel’s beautifully lyrical prose and with the added bonus of cameos from a couple of the characters I first met in The Glass Hotel (although these appearances add a sparkle, you need not have read Hotel beforehand to enjoy Tranquility). Although I enjoyed Tranquility a great deal, I was just the teeniest bit disappointed, for no reason that I’m able to articulate very clearly. Perhaps it was because that, like many novels told from a multiple point of view, some plot strands are inevitably more to one’s taste than others. In this case I found many of the events involving the investigator less than compelling; also I felt that, to some extent Mandel was repeating many of the themes from her previous work.
The remainder of my September reading was devoted to Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction (tr. David McClintock), one of my selections for 2022’s European Reading Challenge.
Extinction purports to be a first person account by one Franz-Josef Murau, an expatriate Austrian aristocrat living in Rome in self-imposed exile from his family. Clocking in at 326 pages in my edition (Vintage International), it was a bit long but, really, how much time can it take to read 326 pages when you’d rather read than go out to dinner with your group and there’s a long plane ride home? I assure you, dear readers, that it can actually take quite a bit of time when those three hundred odd pages (no paragraph breaks, mind you!) are an impassioned rant about Austria’s Nazi past; the evils of the Catholic church; opera; German literature (Murau/Bernhard hates Goethe); the corruption of human civilization by the invention of photography; and the fact that Murau’s sisters as young women purposely ruined his green socks by darning them with red wool (or was it the other way around? must check my notes). Oh, and those sisters “hopped” about a lot as children, which was very, very annoying to Murau! Extinction, in short, was a fascinating, exhausting and challenging read; and one that I didn’t actually finish until early October, after I’d completed clearing out the hurricane damage in my yard (I believe the U.K. term for this area is “garden”). Because I haven’t given up all hope of doing some real reviews this year, particularly of my Challenge books, I’ll reserve my thoughts about Extinction, particularly as it provided me with a great deal to think about.
Since I always seem to take forever to post anything (good heavens! Is the first of November actually next week?), I thought I’d give just a quick little glimpse of what I’ve been reading in October:
After a bumpy start, October’s been a pretty good reading month in which I’ve mainly concentrated on finishing a few more Challenge books. I finally got around to Diana Athill’s short story collection, Midsummer Night In The Workhouse (Persephone ed.), part of my Classics Challenge. I also made a bit more progress on my Reading Europe Challenge books, finishing Alina Bronsky’s debut novel, Broken Glass Park; Peter Stamm’s On A Day Like This; and Domenico Starnone’s Trick (with a great intro by Jhumpa Lahiri). Hopefully at least one or two will end up getting a real review in the next two months.
I usually regard these round-up posts as great opportunities to inflict a couple of cute cat photos on any long-suffering readers who’ve hung with me this far. Today, however, I thought I’d do something a little different, by showing you some nice photos (thanks again, my beloved Mr. J) of a Painted Bunting, a shy little bird that’s one of the most colorful North American songbirds imaginable. Although Painted Buntings are plentiful right now, as they winter in Florida, they like to hide and they’re hard to see. Luckily for us, there’s a nice nature reserve (located close to our thankfully undamaged home) where the local chapter of the Audubon Society maintains a blind and bird feeders the birds find most attractive:
That’s all for now (and aren’t you glad?); I’m off to check out what everyone’s been reading.