Category: TBR Challenge

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


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?



Love & Fate in Tom Drury’s “The Driftless Area”


Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo?  Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery?  And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean?  It’s embarrassing to admit —  but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art.  Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.”  Oops!  My bad!  To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.”  At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013.  All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges!  Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room.  And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.

The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise.  The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin).  Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest.  I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem.  Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read.  And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives.  A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come.  Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.

One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes.  Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize.  On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not.  The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done).  Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level.  As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were.  In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.

Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious?  Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either.  The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds.  Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences.  One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover.  Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains.  Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way.  He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).

In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely.  Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you?  Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers?  Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange?  Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”?  If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it!  You’ll love this book as much as I did.

Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer


Is anyone out there in the mood for a period piece?  Want some star-crossed romance and 1930s Irish country life, combined with a frisson of menace from the imminent outbreak of war?  If so, head straight for Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer.  If this novel ultimately left me a little unsatisfied, I can honestly recommend it as a good read; it also contained sections that offered a bit more than a merely pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

The novel opens in the summer of 1939, literally days before Germany’s invasion of Poland and declarations of war by Britain and France.  Angèle Maury, a young French actress touring Ireland with some theater friends, impulsively decides to ditch the tour in order to pay an unannounced visit to her father’s family.  Angéle, you see, despite her Parisian upbringing and French mother, is also the daughter of Tom Kernahan, the black sheep son of a family of Irish Catholic landowners (slightly more on this below).  As we come to learn in bits and pieces, Tom was the middle of three Kernahan brothers, all of whom in their youth simultaneously fell in love with the beautiful Hannah O’Reilly, “a draper’s daughter from over her father’s bit of a shop.”  Tom initially won the romantic prize, to the chagrin of his older sibling.  The marriage didn’t come off,  however, and Tom permanently decamped to France, where he met and married Angéle’s actress mother.  According to a legend carefully cultivated by Hannah in subsequent years, it was she who broke the engagement, along with Tom’s heart; a few village residents, however, remember that it was Tom who did the jilting and left Hannah to his older brother with the words to walk away himself from a woman as lovely and as cold as “hollow ground steel.”  Needless to say, older brother ignored this very good advice and, when the story begins many years later with Angéle’s impulsive visit, the now-widowed Hannah is the mistress of Waterpark House, the Kernahan family home.  There she reigns absolutely over her small kingdom, fawned over by the local clergy, adored to the point of idolatry by her elder and favorite son Tom (named for his uncle), loved a bit more skeptically by daughter Jo and younger son Martin, and obeyed and feared by a small miscellany of poor relations and servants.  Hannah is not pleased to see Angéle, whose existence she has concealed from the rest of the family.  Her two sons do not share her opinion and the old love triangle repeats itself with minor variations.  Over the course of the next week (!!!) both Tom and Martin fall madly in love with Angéle (variously described as a “water nymph” or Gothic angel); Tom proposes marriage; Angéle accepts; Hannah moves to break up the love affair and protect her reign over Waterpark; and WWII begins.

My honest reaction to the first half of the novel was a big yawn, combined with the thought that this might be the wrong book for me at this particular time.  Keep in mind, however, that I’m not receptive to 1930s nostalgia and I have the kind of professional training that makes me ask uncomfortable questions, such as “would you really propose marriage to someone you met the day before yesterday?” and “why wouldn’t you run, absolutely just sprint, for the nearest train when you heard that proposal, instead of leaving your native country, renouncing your theatrical career and embracing a lifetime of Hannah as a mother-in-law?”  But then, as I said at the beginning of this post, The Last of Summer is a period piece, written in the early 1940s, and I am somewhat unfairly subjecting it to a viewpoint formed by a far different time and place.  Still, despite O’Brien’s considerable skill as a writer and her ability to create a convincing sense of atmosphere, I was seriously considering abandoning the novel for something just a bit more — cynical (Ivy Compton-Burnett, anyone?).

So what changed my opinion, after that big yawn around page 107?  What countered my inability to suspend belief and go with the narrative flow of eternal love at a moment’s notice?  Quite simply, O’Brien gave an absolutely penetrating psychological profile of a minor character that riveted my attention, followed by an equally acute and insightful analysis of Hannah.  It was also around the halfway point, after Tom announces his engagement, that O’Brien ratcheted up the conflict between Hannah and Angéle, which provides the dramatic focus of the novel.  The novel’s introduction, written by Eavan Boland, points out that Hannah provides the “glint of the scalpel” in this otherwise lush, romantic story (remember her lover’s description of Hannah as “hollow ground steel?); unlike Boland, I don’t ascribe any great symbolism to Hannah’s role in the story, but she does give it tension and strength.  In addition to her psychological insight, O’Brien provides an unsentimental view of  puritanical, small town Ireland, where a child derides Angéle for wearing lipstick and the powers of the small community silently unite to impede what they regard as an unsuitable match.  Many of the minor characters were quite skillfully drawn and in Jo, the Kernahan daughter, O’Brien gives an unusually positive view of a highly intelligent woman with a strong and unsentimental religious vocation.  Lastly, I was attracted by the fact that O’Brien’s characters are from a reasonably  affluent, Irish Catholic landowning class rather than the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry who are the subjects of other novels I have read from this period, such as those by Molly Keane.

I’ve had this novel for years and, finally, read it as part of my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge.  In her introduction to the novel (which was published as a Virago Modern Classic), Boland delicately intimates that, while The Last of Summer is not among O’Brien’s best work (that honor belongs, apparently, to Mary Lavalle and The Land of Spices), it was written in the “best phase of her work.”  For a very good review of the novel, I’d recommend you click over to Danielle’s more positive assessment at A Work in Progress.  While I obviously had some reservations about the novel, for the right reader in the right mood it could be a wonderful treat; even for grouchy old me in a bad mood it was a pleasant diversion.  And to that key question, “would you read another book by Kate O’Brien?” I’d answer “yes.”  Just not any time soon.

In the brief life of my blog I’ve had a lot of fun selecting the visuals to accompany my postings.  This one, however, was problematical — nothing quite popped into my mind with respect to this novel, until I thought “Irish country house.”  How do you like what I came up with?  But — I cheated!  While I love the image, which I think embodies the mood of the novel, it bears no relationship whatsoever to the Waterpark described by O’Brien:

It was a plain, large house, washed with cream paint that was dilapidated.  Its face was late Georgian “squireen,” smooth and blank.  Five big windows across the first floor; four similar windows and a wide doorway below ….

In other words, the Kernahan family manse looked more like this:


So, what do you say?  Do you prefer the accuracy of the “late Georgian squireen” or the poetic license of my ivy covered manor house?





My TBR Pile Just Became a Little Lighter …


Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a skinny little novel (scarcely more than a novella) that has taken me almost seventeen (!!!!) years to read.  If I hadn’t decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, in fact, it might have languished on the shelf for another decade, or never have been read at all, which would be a shame.  For all its brevity, Greenway’s beautifully written novel packs quite a punch.  Despite my great delay in getting to it (I always meant to read it!) I am happy to have selected it as my first 2019 TBR Challenge read!

Greenway’s novel could be categorized in a number of equally accurate ways.  Ghost Girls is a debut novel and, like many such, is also a coming of age tale.  Most reviewers stopped there.  In my mind, however, this tale of an expatriate American family living in Hong Kong also falls into the “innocent Americans abroad in a dangerous world” category, a variation on the well-beloved 19th century trope of naive Americans entrapped by an older & exotic culture.  On a very mundane level, Ghost Girls also concerns a dysfunctional family (dysfunctional family novels are one of my favorite literary sub-genres).  Its Hong Kong setting, described in lovely, lyrical prose, also places the novel in that group of books that you might pick up for an afternoon’s mini-vacation in an exotic locale.  The novel is also a study, brief but concentrated, of loss and memory.  Finally, although I don’t think Greenway intended it as such, her novel is a bit of a period piece.  Its action takes place in 1967, when America’s adventure in Vietnam was at its tragic height and Mao’s Red Guards are fomenting unrest in Hong Kong in a process that will eventually see the end of British rule over the crown colony.  Both these political events determine the lives of Greenway’s characters and her depiction of them adds a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere.

It is the summer of 1967 and the news is filled with images of the war that is raging in southeast Asia.  The family’s father is a photographer for Time Magazine, assigned to cover the war.  While he works on assignment in Vietnam, his wife Marianne and his two daughters, Frankie and Kate, live in Hong Kong where they await his occasional visits from the war zone.  It’s one of the novel’s ironies that Hong Kong, chosen as a safe refuge from war, is itself descending into intense street violence brought about by clashes between police and communist demonstrators.  During her husband’s absence Marianne uses the charms and comforts of the colony’s British elite (Sunday luncheon, anyone, or perhaps tea?) to barricade herself against the violence and her fear; an artist, she also immerses herself in painting charming water colors of an idyllic, imaginary China that never existed.  Twelve year old Kate and her older sister Frankie are left largely to Ah Bing, the family’s Chinese nanny and house keeper; they are her gwaimui, or white ghost girls (on occasion, she also refers to them as houh hoi, or “little whores.”  Marianne is oblivious.)  The combination of an unreachable mother, and a father becoming increasingly addicted to the lure of Vietnam and the adrenaline of war, mean the two girls essentially navigate adolescence and the street dangers created by political turmoil on their own.

The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of the adult Kate, who is remembering the events of her family’s last summer together.  It is clear from the opening page that something terrible will happen to Frankie; the novel’s suspense lies in learning the precise form the catastrophe will assume and how it will occur.  As with any first person account, the reader has to judge for herself the reliability of the narrator, a point that Kate herself raises rather obliquely midway through the novel.  Greenway uses beautiful, lyrical prose to contrast the innocence of late childhood with the growing menace surrounding Kate and Frankie.  When the act occurs that sets in motion the novel’s horrifying climax, we see it as twelve year old Kate sees it, half comprehending, half not.

Greenway is particularly good at family dynamics.  Kate and Frankie are studies in contrasts.  Frankie is voluptuous and rebellious; as the older sister she is bigger, stronger and faster; she is also more emotionally needy and feels she must come first in any situation. Kate is younger; more boyish; quieter and observant; it is Kate who sees the fractures in the family’s relationships and feels responsible for mending them.  Despite their differences, the sisters have a close relationship but one that begins to fray over the course of that fateful summer.  Although it is hardly the dominant strain in the novel, Greenway skillfully depicts the struggle each girl wages with the other and with their mother for the father’s attention on the rare occasions when he is physically with his family.

A note about the artwork, for the visually minded out there.  The artist is George Chinnery, who was active in the second quarter of the 19th century and spent much of his life along what was then called the “China Coast.” Chinnery, a contemporary of the far more famous J.M.W. Turner, was the only western painter resident in south China during this period. Because Chinnery spent only a limited amount of time in Hong Kong itself, the painting actually portrays a panoramic view of Macau, at the time a more important city located about 40 miles to the southwest.  At one point in the novel, Kate attempts to understand her emotionally aloof and distant mother by examining her mother’s art.  Kate describes her mother’s paintings as “nostalgic, suggestive” of a nineteenth century Hong Kong, similar to “the playful sketches of George Chinnery’s depictions” of “the faded charm of nearby Macau.”  While I may have cheated a bit by using a 19th century painting of Macau to illustrate a 20th century novel set in Hong Kong, Greenway gives me some support for doing so!

Although I wasn’t quite as taken with this novel as many reviewers (I think it was long-listed for the Orange Prize, or some such) it was definitely worth reading on both stylistic and substantive grounds.  I’d especially recommend it for readers who enjoy beautiful lyrical language, atmosphere and exotic settings in their novels.

Will my “vaulting ambition” overreach itself (like poor Macbeth’s) or will I prevail?

These are Challenge “also rans” …

Buoyed by heady success — I’ve set up my first blog and made THREE posts; decided to participate in the Back to the Classics 2019 Challenge; and read 150 pages in a Henry James novel (one of my challenge books) that I haven’t thought about for at least thirty years  — my ambition now knows no limits!  After so many, many accomplishments I gave myself a well-earned little break, which I’ve spent busily (and happily) clicking around on various websites, reading postings and book reviews and perusing end of year lists (don’t you love end of year lists?  For me, they’re one of the nicest things about early January.  If you like a somewhat British flavor to your reading, the Guardian’s book section has some pretty good ones for 2018, as well as a preview of  2019 releases).  In the course of my cyber wanderings I’ve discovered the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Adam at roofbeamreader) which I can’t resist.  The idea underlying the challenge is elegant in its simplicity:  in the upcoming year read twelve books from your TBR pile.  The only requirement, as I understand it, is that each book must have been on your shelf or on your TBR list for at least one year (hence the book’s publication must predate January 1, 2018).  The challenge has a certain amount of, ahem, “slack” built into it, as you may also include two alternates to read if you just can’t make it through one or two of your twelve initial selections.  Although twelve (or even fourteen) books wouldn’t be missed from my mountain of neglected reads (see photo at beginning of post; this isn’t even a fraction of my unread books), even the longest journey must begin somewhere, right?  Since I generally read around 50-60 books even in a slow reading year, I decided I wouldn’t be totally foolhardy to take on two challenges provided I was careful to select TBR books that complemented my Back to the Classics reads, i.e., post-1900 novels that were relatively uncomplicated stylistically (I’m enjoying my Henry James but I certainly couldn’t finish twenty-four books written in his style in one year).  So–imagine a big blast of trumpets here, a Jeremiah Clark kind of thing (this music’s so great it’s worth enduring a few seconds of ads to hear it) and a couple of banners furling in the breeze (if you’re reading this, you do realize I’m joking, right?) to accompany the announcement of my favored fourteen:

0-1Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale.  Maugham is one of those writers, very popular back in the day, who’ve fallen out of favor in more recent times.  Contemporary readers in a certain mood may be missing something here, as Maugham tells great stories albeit in a pretty traditional way.  I became hooked on Maugham back in high school, when I read Of Human Bondage, his most famous novel.  A few years ago I noticed his work, or some of it, was being reissued and in some very attractive paperbacks, so I couldn’t be expected to resist, could I?  Of the four novels (all unread) on my shelf, I’ve selected this one, which I always meant to read.  The story is about a biographer who’s being pressured by a very proper widow (his subject’s second wife) to downplay the influence of wife number one from his account of a distinguished deceased.  Aside from curiosity about whether Maugham’s magic still works for me, I’ve always been interested in the nature of biography (a genre I tend to distrust) and the pressures experienced by a biographer, who frequently needs to combine accuracy with tact (for another fictional treatment on this theme, see Penelope Lively’s great novel, According to Mark.  I’ve actually read that one).  (For my review, follow the magic link!)

0-5Alice Greenway, White Ghost Girls.  The story of two young American sisters living in Hong Kong while their war correspondent father is in Vietnam, this debut novel won the Los Angeles Times award for First Fiction and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.  I bought it shortly after it was published in 2000 and in the years since then have admired its artistic cover and those neat foldover interior flap things several times, without reading a word of the novel.  Could 2019 actually be the year I venture into the book’s interior? [ Yes! My review may be found at  ]



0-4Kate O’Brien, The Last of Summer.  Set in Ireland in 1939, this Virago Modern Classic centers on a type of homecoming for French actress Angèle Maury, who returns to her dead father’s Irish birthplace in search of her roots.  I love Virago books (their little half-eaten apple logo is just so cool) but unfortunately I tend to buy more of them than I read.  Virago first published this one in 1990; I’ve had my copy for at least a decade.  (Sidenote: if you look at this book on Amazon, ignore its three star rating.  The one negative review comes from a moron who got his titles confused and didn’t realize he had posted his review in the wrong place.  His two-star rating unfairly lowers the book’s average).  [ For my review, see ]


0-2Fernanda Eberstadt, Low Tide.  A debut novel, first published in 1985; I’ve had my second-hand copy for at least five years.  A tale of two decadent, privileged and perverse young people (their names,  Jem and Jezebel, sort of clue you in on this), set in New York, Oxford, London and Mexico — well, you know by now how susceptible I am, so how could I resist a contemporary novel with a character named Jezebel?  My plan was to start with Eberstadt’s first novel before moving on to her next book, which is the one I really wanted to read!  I’m sticking to my plan; novel number two, called Rat (its eponymous protagonist is described a “bold rousing heroine for our times”) will just have to wait.




0-1Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow.  After reading Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical novel Hideous Kinky, I went on a real Esther Freud kick; this ended when I became absorbed with reading about her famous artist father Lucien and his various dysfunctional families and looking at his very compelling work.  As a result, I never got around to reading Summer, a multi-generational tale that weaves through time to tell the story of a present-day Jewish family living in London and their ancestral estate in East Prussia, which was lost after WWII.  This was first published in 1999 (I’ve had my copy since 2011) and has as many frequent flyer miles as I do; as it’s accompanied me on many, many trips over the years as a backup read.  Despite good intentions, however, I’ve just never gotten around to it.


0L.J. Davis, A Meaningful Life.  A would-be novelist ditches his deadly dull job as editor of a plumbing magazine to seek redemption in real estate; the result is described as a black comedy with touches of Patricia Highsmith.   This was first published in the 1970s and reissued as a NYRB classic in 2009, with a beautiful cover and heavy, acid free paper.  Obviously, I’ve been more into the book’s aesthetics than in actually reading it, but I vow that 2019 is the year this will change!



0-1Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph.  This is another Virago modern classic (told you I was better at buying than reading them) and Kennedy’s best known work; wildly popular in the 1920s, it fell out of print until rescued by Virago in the 1980s (I’ve had my copy for a number of years).  The story centers on a love triangle involving the young daughter of a disreputable expatriate English composer (she’s the “nymph” of the title), her beautiful older cousin and a talented young composer who’s involved with both women.



0Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming Pool Library.  I’ve read Hollinghurst’s two most recent novels (The Sparsholt Affair & The Stranger’s Child) and liked both well enough to acquire most of his backlist.  Guess how many of these I’ve read?  If you answer “zero,” you’d be correct.  The Swimming Pool Library’s tale of gay life before AIDs may or may not be dated (I’m optimistic I’ll find out in 2019) but regardless of topicality Hollinghurst is a beautiful and sensitive stylist who should be worth any effort involved in reading the novel.  This is Hollinghurst’s debut novel (published in 1989); I can’t believe I’ve had my (unread) copy since 2011!



Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding.  For years, I’ve been dying to read this tale of a neurotic graduate student who goes off the rails when her identical twin gets married, but I somehow never got around to it (I use this phrase so much I should probably have an acronym.  SNGATI, maybe?)  My copy is one of those gorgeous NYRB classic reissues, which I’ve had for several years.





Tom Drury, The Driftless Area.  The “driftless area” of the title is the American midwest, the scene of what the reviews describe as a “neonoir heist drama.”  I’m not quite sure how I ended up with this book, which I’ve had since 2013; I probably saw it was a New York Times’ Editors’ Choice and thought it might be an interesting change of pace.  I SNGATI (“somehow never got around to it”), which explains its presence on this list.  [see my review at    }





Anne Peile, Repeat It Today with Tears.  Peile is a British writer whose first (and, to my knowledge, only) novel appeared in 2011, which is when I bought my copy.  This tale of a forbidden sexual relationship received a very favorable review in The Guardian, which described it as a “beautiful book,” filled with “evocative” writing and “strong and beguiling” characters.  I have my fingers crossed that I wasn’t led astray.




Jane Gardam, Old Filth.  Despite its acclaim as a masterpiece, I’ve never been able to get on with this book, nor (with apologies to all those Gardam fans out there) with this author in general.  Still, the overwhelming consensus of this book’s high quality has 0-11made me pretty stubborn about giving it another try.  Old Filth (“Filth” is an acronym for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”) is the tale of the emotionally repressed barrister Sir Edward Feathers, a “raj” orphan born in Malaya and sent back to Britain by his parents to be given a proper English upbringing.  Feathers is an eighty-year old widower when the novel opens, living alone in England; his story is told in a series of reminiscences and flashbacks and encompasses much of the Empire’s 20th century history in the Far East.  Old Filth is the first volume of a trilogy; the second (The Man in the Wooden Hat) is told from the point of view of Betty, Old Filth’s wife and the concluding volume (Last Friends) centers their mutual story on Terence Veneering, Old Filth’s professional rival and Betty’s lover.  The entire trilogy sounds very intriguing and I’m hoping that my 2019 attempt to read at least the first volume will “take!”


ALTERNATES:  Although I’m rationally (I hope) optimistic about reading my list (many of the entries were chosen with “readability” in mind) I’m not totally blind to experience.  Since my path is strewn with unfinished projects I’m quite relieved at being able to add the two alternates the TBR Pile Challenge allows.  These are:


Pagan Kennedy, Spinsters.  I don’t know much about this author except that she has a great name and, according to Wiki, was “a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement.”  This book appealed to me because it has a great visually appealing cover (see how totally honest I’m being) and its tale of two middle-aged and sheltered sisters taking a road trip in the America of the 1960s sounded intriguing, to say the least.




Linda Grant, We Had It So Good.  I’ve read one previous novel by Linda Grant (Upstairs at the Party) and while not overwhelmed, I liked it well enough  to try another.  I’ve had this novel since it was published in 2011 without once reading more than the opening paragraph.  The opening sounded just fine (and was interesting even), but this novel has always lost out to other, more compelling (at the time) books.  Grant is a skilled writer, however, and the story sounds interesting, recounting as it does the life and times of an American-English couple and their extended circle of friends, who come of age in the 1970s.  Although I had a few doubts about its selection, the book’s inclusion as an alternate was settled when Pooh-Bear approved my choice (Pooh-Bear is only her ordinary name; she has a fancier one that I’m withholding for security’s sake; only Pooh-Bear herself, of course, knows her secret name.  I apologize to any T.S. Eliot fans.)

Well, this is my list — which I’m finalizing much later than most participants but still in time to meet the TBR Pile Challenge’s January 15 deadline.  If you happen by, I’d welcome your thoughts on any of my picks.  Now it’s time for me to get back to reading!