Category: reading recommendations

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: Back to School, Movies, Books & History (not in that order)

Those of you who check out my blog now and again may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since my last post.  Three weeks!  How can that be?  Where has all that time gone?  My fall semester classes officially begin tomorrow, but I’ve actually been at it for most of August, frantically working on the second part of a two semester project that I began last spring, on 16th century Italian portraits of children.  I’ve spent several months doing research and I’m now at the point where I simply MUST begin writing!  I’ve made outlines, collated notes, requested ten more books from the interlibrary loan department, read many interesting art history articles (some even tangentially related to my topic), went to the movies, went shopping for novels on Amazon, made banana bread, went to more movies, bought more novels, made cranberry bread, started this post  . . . . . wait! wait! Something’s wrong!  I simply must begin writing about Italian Renaissance portraits!  Oh well, I think I’ll do this post instead (then check out the movie schedule and catch up on some book blogs).

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Well, maybe my class rooms don’t look quite like this, but the idea’s the same . . .

MISCELLANY PART  I: BACK TO SCHOOL READING

Since this is Monday, my post will be a miscellany that’s more of a “mess–allany” than usual!  It’s in several parts, so if you get bored (now, honestly, how could that be? Please do realize I am being sarcastic here!) you won’t lose content by scrolling through the dull parts.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll begin with – – – reading!  Although I’ve done a tremendous amount of it this month, most of my reading has been very narrowly focused —- of the “I simply must begin writing my paper but first I’ll skim another article” type  — which is not to say it’s been dull (if I weren’t the type to find Renaissance Italy interesting, I wouldn’t have used August to read about it!)  I am stuffed, positively stuffed, with interesting factoids about the Italian Renaissance!  Did you know, for example, that families in 16th century Florence recorded their sons’ births in the family account books but often didn’t bother recording the daughters’?  That children of both genders were farmed out to wet nurses almost immediately after birth and only rejoined their biological families around the age of three or so (some even stayed with the nurse until age seven)?  That couples who wanted to conceive a son were advised to tie the guy’s left testicle with string and to eat lots of hot food (I’ll spare you the theory behind this)?  Did you know that some scholars estimate that half of the children born during this period died before their first birthday, and that half of these survivors died before age thirteen?  Although scholars only begin studying the history of “childhood” around 1960 or so,  they’ve produced some incredibly interesting and very accessible work since that time on families, marriage, childhood and women’s roles in Renaissance Italy.  If you’re up for non-fiction, some of these are definitely worth reading, such as  . . .

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Described (accurately) by one reviewer as an “elegant and accessible” survey of ideas about childhood in western culture … but … illustrations are in black and white!
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Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! Painting, furniture, clothing, interiors, sculpture, musical instruments! And, oh yeah, a highly readable text by one of the English-speaking world’s great Renaissance scholars . . .

As for my own particular Renaissance woman and her depictions of certain Renaissance kids (the topic of my paper and my excuse for all that reading about childhood and family life):

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Sofonisba Anguissola, the first generally acknowledged female artist of the Italian Renaissance (there have always been woman artists, they just haven’t been acknowledged).  Sofonisba painted this self-portrait when she was about twenty years old.

And — here’s the kids!

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Little Massimiliano Stampa, aged twelve or so and already the ruler of a small town in northern Italy.  I just discovered a few days ago that Massimiliano grew up to have ten children himself and ultimately renounced his title to become a monk!  His portrait was one of Sofonisba’s first commissions.

 

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Not a great deal is known about this painting, including the identity of the sitters.  Most likely they’re siblings from a rich Florentine family whom Sofonisba painted in the 1580s, towards the end of her career.

 

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San Diego’s Museum of Art, where this painting is now located, calls it  “Portrait of a Prince at the Spanish Court.”  Isn’t he adorable, in his little miniature hunting costume?  This was painted around 1562, when Sofonisba was a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II of Spain.  Again, lots of unknowns; the child’s identity is disputed and at least one major scholar thinks the painting is by someone other than Sofonisba.

 

MISCELLANY PART II: AUGUST MOVIES

Does anyone besides me like movies?  Although I’m really not addicted (honestly, I can go weeks and weeks without a hit), in times of stress they’re my go-to drug of choice, especially when combined with potato chips!  Like most sane people, I generally watch movies at home, but when piles and piles of (unread) Renaissance art books are staring at me, I resort to a conveniently located local theater, which specializes in current art house, repertory and foreign films (fortunately, it also has a great bonus program, which has come in really useful this month).  In August I hit the jackpot, so to speak — my local guys were celebrating the 1970s, one of my favorite periods for “old” American movies.

I did go current, however, at least at the beginning, by kicking off August with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”  Has anyone else seen it? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly as I’m not a Tarantino fan (I generally think he’s a bit over-rated, and his movies normally are far too bloody for me).  In a sense, I liked this one despite myself, but it was good! (although it is pretty violent).  Anyway, August movie month had what I considered an auspicious beginning:

 

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I followed this current release with lots and lots of repertory, seeing, in no particular order:

“You Only Live Twice” (1975):  Didn’t date well and don’t bother, unless you really, really want to see Sean Connery masquerading as a Japanese fisherman, complete with skin makeup (don’t ask).  I didn’t and left halfway through, as life is short.

“The French Connection” (1971):  I wasn’t a fan when I first saw this, oh so many years past, but it’s held up surprisingly well.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968):  A heist movie totally devoid of suspense; even Steve McQueen couldn’t save it.  High point was Faye Dunaway in a lavender hat (she was lovely).

“Chinatown” (1975):  One of the all time greats; saw this one twice!  Who could forget that closing scene?

“Nashville” (1975):  I love Altman’s movies and this is one of his best.  Surprisingly (and depressingly) still relevant to our sad political times.

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971):  another Altman (told you I love his movies).  Saw it twice this month, once solo and once with Mr. Janakay (it was necessary for his cultural development!).

“Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970):  Carrie Snodgress won a Golden Globe (and was nominated for an Oscar) for her work in this comedy-drama.  She is good (makes you wonder what her career might have been had she never met Neil Young) and, despite being a bit of a period piece, the movie still works.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971):  How could I have forgotten how great this was?  Cloris Leachman deserved three oscars!

Does my list include anyone else’s favorites?  Or not-favorites, as the case may be?  Any recommendations?  (I still have lots of Renaissance art to get through, so movie going in the near future is a distinct possibility.)  Has anyone seen “The Farewell”?  If so, please share your opinion, as I’m dying to see whether Awkwafina lives up to her reviews!

MISCELLANY PART III: FUN READ

Humanity has perished, victim of a zombie plague; all that’s left are the animals.  The tale is (mostly) narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who’s spent his life with his beloved Big Jim, a junk-food eating, beer-drinking redneck, and Dennis, a slobbery but good natured bloodhound.  Aside from being hysterically funny (yes, it is!), there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple little story.  Take my word for it, this is NOT just another post-apocalypse zombie novel (and if you don’t believe me, check it out on NPR).

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MISCELLANY PART IV:  THE 1619 PROJECT

You may or may be aware that in August 1619 a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans landed in the British colony of Virginia.  The unfortunates aboard were sold to the colonists and “American” history (at least, of the United States variety) was off and running.  To mark the 400th anniversary of this momentous event the New York Times compiled its 1619 Project, which explores the history of slavery (a history that was certainly never taught in any school I attended) and the way in which it’s affected every aspect of life in these sort-of-United States.  The Project uses historical objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a starting point for its scholarly essays and journalistic pieces, and interspaces its factual material with poems and short stories by noted black artists.  Not to be missed; here’s the link to get started.

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A photo from the 1619 Project, showing prisoners from the Ferguson prison (for young men ages 17 to 21) in Huntsville, Texas.  This is 1968 and they’re still picking cotton.

MISCELLANY PART V: CONCLUSION

Did I mention that I have a paper to write on “Changing Concepts of Renaissance Childhood: Three Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola”?  (note: title is subject to change)  Clearly, it’s time to call in someone who’ll keep me focused  . . .

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He-who-must-be-Obeyed says “follow my example and get back to work!”

 

P.S.  The old-timey school room shown at the beginning of my post is an 1871 painting by Winslow Homer, called, appropriately, “The Old School Room.”  You can see it at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Prizes and Baltimore Reading

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Just kidding — I’m sure the winner of the Man Booker prize receives something far less glittery (i.e., literary glory and a cash award roughly equivalent to $62,000)

Do any of you out there “do” book prizes, i.e., follow the various competitions, note the winners, and even sometimes (gasp!) read the nominees?  If so, yesterday was a significant one on your calendar, as the long list for 2019’s Man Booker prize (self-described as “fiction at its finest”) was announced.  As you may know from previous posts of mine, my reading choices tilt mildly toward British authors, mainly because I get so many of my recommendations from The Guardian’s excellent book section.  In line with this slight preference, I tend to follow the nominees for, and the ultimate winner of, the Booker; more so than, say, the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, which are the big literary events in the U.S. or even the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which honors “fiction written by women.  For everyone” (my bad! The  2019 winner was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, now a fresh entry on my TBR list).    The extent of my “involvement” varies by year; a few times I’ve read all thirteen nominees before the prize was awarded in October; I usually read at least the short list of six finalists (announced in September); in a really bad year I may read just two or three of the nominated books.

Following the Booker process has become one of my beloved summer rituals, from the July announcement of the long list (all thirteen nominees), to September’s short list of six, to October’s big enchilada, when the winner is announced.  It’s a fun little activity that ties in nicely with my love of lists and reading projects, as well as a very pleasant way of staying somewhat current with contemporary literary fiction, particularly that of non-U.S. writers (by reading the Booker nominees I’ve discovered some great writers I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered).  Do you have any literary contests or rituals to which you are similarly attached?  Or do you just generally ignore the whole literary contest thing, feeling that artistic competition is inappropriate or that the nominated books generally don’t interest you very much?

As much as I’ve enjoyed my pleasant little summer ritual, however, in the last year or so it has taken a back seat to other activities.  Dominating everything else for the past two years has been my course work for an undergraduate degree in art history (I refer to it alternatively as my “vanity” degree or “my second childhood folly” as I have no sane reason for being an undergraduate at this point in my life); this has required, oh, ever so much non-fiction reading which has soaked up my spare time like a sponge.  In addition to this limitation, my reading choices this past year have returned somewhat to the classics, leaving me a bit less interested in contemporary writers.  Last year I read only three of the nominated books (in addition to getting about half-way through two others) and never quite got around to reading the actual winner (Anna Burns’ The Milkman).  This year —- gasp! — I even forgot that yesterday was the big day for announcing the long list (in some years, I’ve been online at the big moment because I want to see the list as quickly as possible, get a jump on obtaining copies of the more obscure works and draw up my rough reading schedule.  Janakay, dear readers, can be obsessive about her hobbies!)

Before I roll out the list, do keep two things in mind if you’re not familiar with the Booker rules (if you’re British and/or know the rules, please forgive me if I get something wrong).  For much of its history,  the competition was open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and Commonwealth countries (plus South Africa and Zimbabwe); a rules change in 2014, however, opened the contest to writers from the U.S. (this change has been quite controversial in the British literary world).  Additionally, a book may be eligible for consideration provided that it is published by September 30 of the relevant year; the judges have read all the novels included in the July long list because they get advance copies, but ordinary folk have to wait  (also, if you don’t live in the U.K. you may have to wait for your country’s publication date unless you’re willing to do an international order).  This can at times be very frustrating if you’re obsessive about completeness (believe me, I know).   Keeping this in mind, along with an imaginary drum roll, here’s the long list:

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Margaret Atwood:  The Testaments (the eagerly awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale; set 15 years afterwards and follows the lives of three women of Gilead.  It will be “out” on September 10.  Remember what I said about the judges’ advance copies?)

Salman Rushdie:  Quichotte (inspired by Don Quixote; a tale of an aging salesman who falls in love with a TV star and travels across America to win her hand; U.K. publication in August; remember! Judges get advance copies)

Elif Shafak:  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (dark tale of sexual violence set in Istanbul; told through eyes of dying prostitue; in “real life” the author herself is currently under attack by the Turkish goverment)

John Lanchester:  The Wall (a dystopian novel set on an unnamed island isolated from the rest of the world by a concrete barrier; the New York Times liked it and thought few readers would “stop until they reach the final page”)

Valeria Luiselli:  Lost Children Archive (a re-telling of the American road novel; compares a family journey south from New York to a journey north undertaken by child migrants)

Oyinkan Braithwaite:  My Sister, the Serial Killer (about two siblings in Lagos, one a nurse and the other with an unusual way of dealing with her boyfriends; described by the NYT as a “bombshell of a book” dealing with sibling bonds and female survival)

Lucy Ellmann:  Ducks, Newburyport (tale of an angst-ridden Ohio homemaker; described by The Guardian as “Anne Tyler meets Gertrude Stein”)

Kevin Barry:  Night Boat to Tangier (two aging Irish gangsters exchange banter as they keep vigil at the Algeciras ferry terminal in Spain; The Guardian loved it).

Deborah Levy:  The Man Who Saw Everything (U.K. publication is in August; remember! Booker judges get advance copies).

Bernardine Evaristo:  Girl, Woman, Other (a verse novel raising questions of race and gender through interconnected stories of a group of British women of color)

Chigozie Obioma: An Orchestra of Minorities (based partly on a true story and partly on Homer’s Odyssey; it’s set in modern Nigeria & uses a love story to examine issues of class, male rage and static social mobility )

Max Porter:  Lanny (described as a “rich, twisted, gloriously cacophonous novel of village life;” plot involves a missing five year old and a sinister character rooted in English folklore)

Jeanette Winterson:  Frankisstein (described by The Guardian as a “playful reanimation” of Mary Shelley’s classic)

Do you have any thoughts on the books and writers up for the prize?  If so, please share! Although I’m somewhat familiar with a few of the writers (I’ve read previous novels by Lanchester, Levy, Barry, Rushdie & Obioma), this is the first time in many years that I haven’t read a single one of the nominated works.  I love Atwood (and anything associated with her) but despite this I hadn’t included even Testaments on my own little list of books I’d like to read in 2019 (check it out if you’re interested!  The only criterion for inclusion was — I just wanted to read it! If you really, really enjoy lists you may want to check a Goodreads list of the books that readers thought merited the award or nominate your own favorite novel for The Guardian’s 2019 “Not The Booker Award” (grand prize is a coffee mug rather than $62,000)).  Quite honestly, I was a bit unenthused about this year’s long list, but perhaps that’s due to its including so many novels dealing with current world crises, as I’m in a bit of an escape mode right now (also, I have some distressing and potentially tragic academic deadlines to meet in the next couple of months, so can’t get too engrossed with new novels!).  Do you feel differently right now about socially relevant books or do you think that now more than ever it’s critical for fiction and literation to focus on social, environmental and economic issues?

Because I do tend to natter on, as certain characters in my beloved old novels say, I’ll keep the Baltimore portion of my post brief.  The Guardian has a wonderful reoccurring feature (honestly, I don’t work for The Guardian, I just read its book section on a daily basis) called “The Top Ten Books” about a variety of topics (past lists have ranged from “top ten queer rural books,” to works about Burma, the river Thames, cults and houseguests.  Utterly addictive!)  This week’s “Top Ten” is about Baltimore, a wonderful old east coast (U.S.) city that has a rich history, great art and fabulous writers.  I’m very fond of Baltimore, which I visit pretty frequently and feel somewhat protective about, as I don’t think many people realize how much the city has to offer.  Laura Lipman, one of the best thriller writers around, has strong ties to Baltimore and compiled this week’s list, which includes works by Frederick Douglass (an enslaved child in rural Maryland, he learned to read and write only after he was sent to Baltimore); Ta-Nehisi Coates (who grew up there);  Madison Smart Bell (a Baltimore resident who formerly ran the creative writing program at a local college); film maker John Waters (another Baltimore resident); and Anne Tyler (whose Accidental Tourist is a “classic Baltimore novel”).  And, of course, you can read Lipman herself, who gives many of her superb novels a Baltimore setting.

Monday Miscellany: One Barrier Island, Eight Books and Exciting News for Austen Lovers

If  you’re a visitor to my blog, you may have noticed that my postings have been a little, ahem, erratic in the last month or so.  What I have posted has perhaps been more visual and nature oriented than literary or bookish, which isn’t to say that my interests have shifted.  As much as I love my nature viewing and museum visiting (I’ve at least two very nice regional museums to share with you, so watch out!) my life remains centered on books and the printed word, as it has been since I learned to read around the usual age of six or so.  While I’ve been nature viewing, I’ve also been reading as much as ever (perhaps even more so) but — I hide nothing from you, dear reader — Janakay is just a teensy-weensy bit lazy!  And it’s so much easier to read the wonderful books than to organize my thoughts and string them together in coherent sentences!  Although I’m actually on track as far as the reading goes to meet my two challenges (Roofbeam Reader’s TBR, and Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics), I’m woefully behind in writing and posting the reviews of all that I’ve read.  Monday is “Miscellany Day,” however, so I’m doing a hodgepodge of related topics; because the relationship is a rather loose one, feel free to skip around!

My first Miscellany is —  Anna Maria, a barrier island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, and its nearby areas (I’m just back from a visit and sorting through photos).

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This certainly isn’t the tourist board’s presentation of Florida, is it?  I love summer visits to the Gulf Coast, partially for the opportunity to see drama such as this.
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A favorite activity for many visitors is simply watching the sunset, which can be truly spectacular.
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These large pink birds are Roseate Spoonbills, which are generally not seen in large numbers. Finding this little flock on an early morning walk at a nearby nature preserve was quite a treat; catching the reflections made the view even better.
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Anna Maria’s Rod & Reel Pier, a community gathering spot.  Do you see the line waiting to get into the yellow building, which is a restaurant?  If you look closely, you can see everyone is facing in the same direction because they’re watching a couple of dolphins hunt fish.  EVERYONE goes to dinner at the Rod & Reel Pier!
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A roosting tree, loaded with White Ibises waking up for the day . . . . .
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In keeping with my interest in food, I couldn’t resist a shot of Minnie’s Beach Cafe!  You’d never guess it was in a small shopping center would you?  Anna Maria frequently throws visitors this kind of curve ball!

While I was visiting Anna Maria, I did lots and lots of reading, which brings me to my second Miscellany:  books that I started, stopped or finished during my time there:

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One of my TBR Challenge books, which I FINALLY finished!  An absolutely stunning read by Esther Freud, a British novelist I like very much.  I honestly can’t understand why it took me EIGHT years to get around to this book.
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One of my Back to Classics selections (category: novel from a place where you’ve lived) and my first novel by Walker Percy. I’m still mulling over my rather complicated reaction . . . .
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A debut novel, sitting on my shelf since 2012.  Can you guess it’s part of my TBR Challenge?  A truly searing tale of a transgressive relationship, not for the faint of heart.
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Harrison’s beautifully written but intensely troubling memoir; a non-fictional treatment of a relationship similar to that depicted in Peile’s novel.
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Although I love science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m not reading many these days.  This tale of operatives Red and Blue, locked in a centuries old struggle through time, is a wild mix of genres rendered in beautifully poetic language.
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One of my TBR challenge books, reprinted in a beautiful new edition as part of the NYRB Classics series.  A blackly funny look at Cassandra’s descent to chaos at her twin sister’s wedding, with some serious thoughts about sibling bonds and “unconventional” life styles (my review will come, eventually!)
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Bánffy’s “They Were Counted” was my “very long classic” Challenge read.  One chapter in and I know I’m in trouble — I need Plan B!  I will not be reading this book in 2019!
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Some times (and a stressful travel day is one) NO ONE but Georgette Heyer will do! This one isn’t my favorite of her regency romances (that honor probably goes to “These Old Shades”) but it’s still wonderful!

And since I’m doing books, make sure your visit to Anna Maria includes a side excursion to nearby St. Petersburg (the drive is lovely) and the wonderful:

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Are you surprised to learn that I’ve added to my TBR pile?

My third and final miscellany: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, the novel left unfinished at her death.  Has anyone read this?  Or, unlike myself, realized the importance in Austen’s fiction of seaside resorts and beach villages?  Today’s Guardian has a wonderful article discussing Austen’s use of seaside resorts — a key scene in Persuasion occurs in Lime Regis; Lydia Bennet elopes from Brighton and Austen herself may have enjoyed a seaside romance.  The article suggests that in Sanditon, Austen may have written the first seaside novel; at any rate, she certainly anticipated “what the seaside has come to represent in later modern fiction,” such as Chopin’s The Awakening, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Banville’s The Sea.   

The exciting news?  Sanditon is being adapted for an eight part series on ITV, which will air this autumn! Thoughts anyone, about Anna Maria Island, Sanditon or any of my other reads?

Summer Reading: The Beauty of Lists

Do you ever have nights when the internet is calling your name, in a voice not to be denied?  When you just can’t stop clicking, going from website to website?  When it happens to me, it’s a bit akin to Odysseus and the sirens, except that I don’t have the magic ear plugs or whatever to protect me, so I just keep clicking away.  I can’t explain the phenomenon but I’ve noticed (oddly enough) that it always seems to occur when I’m facing a day filled with tasks I don’t want to do or appointments I don’t want to keep!

Today my clicking compulsion centered on summer reading lists, which abound this time of year.  I adore lists of summer reading recommendations!  Although I don’t really change my reading selections by the season, it’s always fun to see what other people are reading, or what they think you should be reading; I’m a bit lazy and checking out lists of reading recommendations is also an easy way for me to stay somewhat current with new books, as many summer reading lists heavily feature newly published work.  Since I’d hate to keep the fruit of my “labor” to myself, I’m listing the lists my clicking has uncovered!

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This 18th century fellow is, I believe, actually doing a tax tally. I like to think, however, that he’s doing a booklist!

I rely pretty heavily for my reading recommendations on the book section contained in The Guardian.  Although it can be a little frustrating when there’s a lag in the U.S. edition (I’ve sometimes waited for months before a particular title becamse available in the U.S.), the Guardian covers numerous U.S. as well as U.K. authors and its reviews are truly excellent.  For 2019 it’s published an excellent “Summer Reading Guide,” with a hundred recommended fiction and non-fiction titles.  The guide lists relatively recent books, covers a wide variety of genres (such as “Modern Life” and “Page Turners,”which are thoughtfully listed with the title) and encompasses non-fiction as well as fiction.  I found some interesting fiction recommendations here, of books I had either forgotten (Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher) or didn’t know about, such as Halle Butler’s The New Me.  The Guardian doesn’t have a pay wall (an increasingly rare occurrence), so no problem with access.  I really love The Guardian’s book section.

The New York Times has also compiled a Summer List of seventy-five titles from a similarly wide variety of genres such as “Thrillers,” “Travel,” “Crime,” Horror,” “Outdoors” and so on.  Unlike The Guardian’s more traditional format, the Times’ list is more of an interactive affair, so more clicking is required.  Also unlike The Guardian, the Times has a paywall, so if you’ve exceeded your monthly quota of free clicks, you may have to wait until next month to see the list.

The Washington Post has given a slightly different twist to its summer recommendations, coming up with “100 Books for the Ages.”   Want to know what to read when you’re 43 years old?  Why, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, of course!  Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is for the 24 year olds, while Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex is recommended for the age 30 set.  O.k., o.k., I know it’s gimmicky but it is kind of fun!  And it’s quite encouraging to see Herman Wouk’s Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author recommended for the centenarians among us.  The Post has also a more conventional “20 Books to Read This Summer,” which is a bit heavy (for my taste) on non-fiction, such as Steven Gillon’s biography of John F. Kennedy Jr. (The Reluctant Prince) and Evan Thomas’ bio of Sandra Day O’Connor (First).  Although pretty conventional, the fiction choices are of all the latest & trendiest, so you’ll be well able to impress the other lawyers when you’re standing around the water cooler.  And there is one piece of exciting news:  Colson Whitehead has a new novel, The Nickel Boys, which will be available on July 16th.   The Washington Post, like the NY Times, has a paywall; if you’ve only one free click left I’d go for “100 Books for the Ages.”

Bustle’s “30 New Books Coming Out in June 2019 To Look Forward To Reading This Summer” is worth a glance.  Each title has a brief descriptive paragraph, which is a nice feature.  The article also contains internal links to additional recommendations for different genres such as graphic novels and rom-coms.

Just as a reminder that tastes differ, and that mine differ quite a bit from the terminally esoteric, I usually check out the seasonal reading recommendations from contributors to the Times Literary Supplement.  Each contributor offers a chatty little paragraph discussing his or her reading choices, which can be particularly interesting if you have a thing for a particular contributor, such as the great classicist Mary Beard.  On a somewhat less elevated level, the New Yorker’s writers have compiled a “What We’re Reading This Summer” feature, which, as you might expect, covers a select but quite broad range of fiction, memoir, and non-fiction.  Both publications are picky about subscriptions so your access ability may be limited if you’re a non-subscriber who browses them on a frequent basis.

To find some recommendations that offer different perspectives on race and gender, NPR’s Code Switch Book Club has some interesting selections drawn from its listeners’ recommendations.   These include Kwame Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity and Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha at Last, a modern take on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in Toronto’s Muslim community.

Well, I could keep going but I’m sure you’ll agree that enough is enough, at least from me!  Do you have any great lists or recommendations you’d like to share?  If so, I’d love to see them.

Oh — before I forget — the painting at the beginning of this post is called The Tax Collector and is by Tibout Regters, an 18th century Dutch artist.