Category: Uncategorized

European Reading Challenge 2022

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The Journey begins!  After shadowing the tour in 2021, this year I’m officially signing up for the trip . . . .

Although I have a dismal completion rate, I adore book challenges!  There are few joys to compare with lovingly pawing through my stacks (and I really do have stacks.  And stacks) of unread books, searching for just the combination that will inspire me (for once) to finish whatever challenge it is that I’ve decided to undertake.  I think I basically love book challenges for the sense of possibility they offer, the lure that this will be the year I read Ulysses; or five 19th century classics by unfamiliar authors; or a pre-1970 novel that has an animal in the title!  Of course, my January exuberance is counter-balanced by my December  reality check, when I (again) sadly acknowledge that most of these wonderful accomplishments didn’t materialize (even so, however, I always discover at least a few great new books/authors).  But away with the pessimism because — it’s the beginning of January!  The possibilities are endless!  Reverting to my southern, down-home roots, I tell you, dear readers, that January, with its plethora of fresh, shiny new challenges, is a month when I’m in hog heaven!

One of my favorite challenges from last year was Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, which focuses on reading books by European writers or set in European countries.  Given my dismal completion rate for such things, I was sensibly doubtful about participating.  The Challenge looked so much fun, however, and was such a painless way to read more translated literature, I decided to go for it.  I had only discovered the challenge, however, very late in January and lingered just a bit too long over my selections.  Then, with my utter lack of technical ability, I was unable to satisfy Mr. Linky in time to sign up officially.  Quel désastre!  There was clearly only one solution — I would be a shadow participant!  Although I ultimately didn’t review any of my selections, I actually read quite a number of them and, most importantly, really enjoyed the experience.  After a few substitutions for my original choices and a false start or two (my apologies to Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronica, but the time just wasn’t ripe for you), I read eight books I selected specifically for this challenge.

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The very satisfying results of my shadow participation in last year’s European Reading Challenge.  Each of these authors was new to me and each novel offered something enjoyably different from the others.  What more could a bookish blogger reasonably ask?

After shadowing in 2021, I decided that in 2022 I’d do the real thing and officially sign up for this year’s Challenge (besides, I now have almost a month to outwit Mr. Linky!).  The Challenge simply requires participants to read books set in a European country or by a European writer; each book must be by a different writer and set in a different country.  It’s very flexible in that participants decide how many books they want to read, from Pensione Weekender (one qualifying book in 2022) to a Deluxe Entourage (five).  This year, as I did as a shadow participant, I will also observe a couple of my own idiosyncratic rules in choosing my selections.  Because my reading is so overwhelmingly slanted towards books originally written in English, I will choose novels by non-Anglophone writers set, where possible, in their native or adopted countries.  For the same reason I also won’t select any works by writers from the U.K. or Ireland; at least half of my reading comes from British and Irish writers, and for this Challenge I’d like to continue learning more about books from other European countries.  Because I’m full of January optimism, and given that last year I read eight books that met the Challenge’s requirements, I’ve decided in 2022 to sign up for the deluxe package!

One result from a year of massive self-indulgence in acquiring books is that I’ve managed, with very little effort, to compile a list of some very enticing possibilities.  This has been aided enormously by the fact that I’d already decided to participate in Annabookbel’s Reading Nordic Literature month; in effect, I’ve already had a lot of fun looking for reading possibilities from Scandinavia.  As the reading year develops, my precise itinerary may change, i.e., I may add or eliminate countries and/or books; what you see below is simply the rough pool from which I plan to draw my selections.  Although my goal is a minimum of five, I hope to read at least a few more.  Because Scandinavia is a very much anticipated part of my tour, I’m starting my European journey with:

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Since Annabel’s Nordic Lit month begins with Denmark, I decided to begin my European journey in Copenhagen, with Tove Ditlevsen, a new-to-me writer.  Originally published in three volumes, these autobiographical works were combined and published together around 2019.  I’m almost through Childhood, with Youth & Dependency yet to come.  Spoiler alert:  so far it’s wonderful!

After Denmark, I’m on to

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the rest of my Nordic journey.  Iceland (Land of Love & Ruins, top of the stack, deliberately blurry title on spine); Finland (Dark as My Heart); Norway (Novel 11, Book 18) and Sweden (My Brother).  Land of Love & Ruins, an autobiographical novel told in the form of journal entries, is a definite stylistic stretch for me.  As for Novel 11, I may end up replacing it with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will & Testament (dark family secret uncovered by a sibling struggle over property), which has long been on my TBR.  

It’s now time to head south for to visit the German speaking lands:

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Higher Ground & Broken Glass Park are both set in Germany, so I’ll have to choose one; I’m leaning towards Park because I very much liked the other Bronsky novel I’ve read (The Hottest Dishes In The Tartar Cuisine).  For Austria, I’m attracted to Thomas Bernard’s Extinction, a tale of an Austrian aristocrat who rejects his heritage but . . . it does look difficult & I may need a backup!  On A Day Like This, by the Swiss German writer Peter Stamm, almost made my list last year . . . .

It’s finally on to a very interesting tour through France, Belgium, Italy and Spain:

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Several new writers here for me!  I’ve read a little of France’s Patrick Modiano in the past and liked it, so his Invisible Ink (a mystery dealing with the illusion of memory) was a relatively easy choice.  For Italy, I was very tempted to choose Natalie Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon; because I’m somewhat familiar with her work and wanted to try something new, however, I decided to go with Domenico Starnone’s Trick (besides, there’s always women’s literature in translation month for Ginzburg!)  Did you know (I didn’t) that Madeleine Bourdouxhe worked for the Belgian resistance in WWII?  I very much look forward to her La Femme de Gilles, her tale of a love triangle set in 1930s Belgium.  I’m a little dubious about Winterlings, as it was an impulse selection; but its setting (northwestern Spain in the 1950s) sounded quite interesting.  Has anyone read it? 

If I’m not totally exhausted by this point, I may take brief side trip:

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I’ve had a copy of the great Hungarian writer Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy gathering dust on my shelves for several years now.  I won’t say I’ve totally ignored it; every year or two I read a few pages, scratch my head and decide that, next summer will be the perfect time to dive in!  You can imagine my delight when I discovered The Enchanted Night, Pushkin Press’s collection of Bánffy’s short stories.  At last, something that fits my attention span and is (I hope) an accessible introduction to Bánffy’s work.  Lana Bastašić is a contemporary Serbian writer whose debut novel, Catch The Rabbit, won the 2020 European Union Prize for Literature.  Having been in a few myself, I love stories about complicated friendships;  Bastašić’s tale of two semi-estranged childhood friends on a road trip through post-war Bosnia looks really interesting.

Well, that’s it for my 2022 trip through Europe.  Has anyone read any of my choices?  If so, please share your opinion!

Good-bye 2021!

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Most of the books I read last year are in this pile, which I’m currently attempting to sort out.  Do you like the (partially visible) painting?  It’s by American artist Jordan Buschur, who specializes in wonderful depictions of bookish art.

It’s that time of year again, isn’t it? Time to take stock of last year’s reads and to make those delightful reading plans for the coming months. As with so many other bloggers, last year was a difficult year for me. Not terrible, by any means, despite the pandemic, but — challenging. 2021 began with a house in disarray and my second move in ten months. It wound down with surgery last October; nothing serious, but I must admit recovery was slower than I had anticipated. Neither of these two events affected my reading very much, but as for the blogging — oh dear me! Frustrating really, as I read some marvelous things but couldn’t quite muster the concentration to do the reviewing. On both fronts, however, 2022 at least begins on a high note. Most of the boxes are unpacked (that is, if you ignore the garage), the books have (mostly) settled into their new resting places (although I’m already running short of shelf space — again!) and I’m whining (I believe the appropriate British term is “whinging”) about it but I’ve started back with the fitness routine. The pandemic, of course, is casting its hideously unwelcome shadow (particularly as I live in an area that’s partying like it’s 2019; needless to say the infection rate here is very high) but that’s life in the early 21st century.

Unsurprisingly, once things calmed down somewhat in my personal circumstances, my reading rebounded. Unlike 2020, when I seemed best able to concentrate on shorter works like novellas, this was the year I returned to novels, reading almost as many as I did before the pandemic. I don’t keep very complicated statistics (not that I dislike them, it’s just that I’m too lazy to keep track) but my informal list shows that in 2021 I finished almost double the number of novels I read in 2020. Approximately ten of these were old friends from the past (such as Henry James’ The Bostonians) that I was revisiting for a second or even third time. Although some of these were fairly short (if you’re being a bit picky about it, you might even term them “novellas”), they nevertheless packed quite a wallop and demanded slow and steady attention on my part. In this category, I’d include Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star and Fleur Jaeggy’s The Water Statues. Several, such as Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale (651 pages in my paperback Penguin edition) approached a Victorian tome in length. Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day was less physically substantial (a mere 400 Penguin pages) but a far more difficult read, as our Ms. Woolf struggled in this early work to develop the modernist novel while not being quite able to free herself from Mr. Bennett’s substantial (and very unwelcome) shadow. All of this is my own slightly pompous way of saying I counted each of these books as a “completed” novel, on the theory that the hefty page counts of some balanced the less substantial page counts of others.

Do you, like me, scan others’ yearly lists to see which novel was the very best one to that particular blogging friend?  I’m afraid my list is a bit of a dud in that respect.  Although I often pick something on impulse, or take a chance on a work that I’m not sure I’ll like, on the whole my reading selections are pretty targeted.  While this makes for a happy reading life, it does tend to produce a blandly positive list, particularly as I don’t like to write extremely negative reviews (there are several books in my life, such as Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, that took me years to appreciate).  Particularly as I didn’t review many books this year, I’m not going to pick out my top five, or ten or fifteen.  I do feel comfortable, however, briefly highlighting just a few of the works that impressed me, each for different reasons.  Please keep in mind that I’m excluding the novels that I posted on separately, such as Sigurd Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind or du Maurier’s The Parasites.

First Category:  The Novel That Surprised Me Most

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I included this little figurine in my photo, because it so accurately portrays my own trepidation at beginning Bennett’s novel for the third (or was it fourth?) time . . . .

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Old Wives a jinx book, although I’ve clearly struggled with it.  Do you have any inkling, my friends from the British Isles, how very difficult it can be for someone such as myself, when a writer begins his work with a detailed geographical description of a particular corner of England and then presupposes that you’re at least minimally acquainted with its character?  So, yes, there was a barrier here.  That was quickly surmounted, however, and I settled in to enjoy this wonderful novel.  Bennett recounts an absorbing tale of two sisters or is his actual subject the nature of time itself?  And who would have thought that Arnold Bennett would give such a exciting portrayal of a Paris under siege, or write such a vivid account of execution by guillotine, complete with sexual overtones?  If you like big, multi-character realistic novels á la 19th century, put this one near the top of your list.

Second Category: New to Me Contemporary Author

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I read this last October (some books just demand to be read around Halloween, don’t you think?).

Fagan uses her tale of a cursed Edinburgh tenement and its residents (which include the devil’s daughter herself, as well as the beat poet William Burroughs) to show an outsider’s history of Edinburgh over a ninety year period.  Brutal and brilliant, this combination of fairy tale and urban realism stayed with me for a long time and put Fagan on my “always check out her latest” list.

Third Category:  My Newly Discovered Classic

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Jean Stafford was one of my great discoveries last year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion (her best known novel) I finally read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  With a style reminiscent of Henry James in his less difficult moments, this family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s displays to the full Stafford’s ability to evoke character and atmosphere.  I’m amazed that Stafford’s work appears to be so little read these days.  Could it be that the fame of her first husband, the poet Robert Lowell, has over-shadowed her accomplishments or because she wrote only three novels?  Happily, NYRB Classics has re-printed her debut novel Boston Adventure, which is one of my “must reads” for 2022.

Fourth Category: Most Rewarding Re-Read

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I’ve returned several times to these three novels. This time around, it was to The Bostonians.

Have you ever had one of those horrible, walk-the-night cases of insomnia, where absolutely nothing will put you to sleep?  In such cases, I’ve found, nothing will do but a really great novel that will take your mind off the fact that, all too soon, you’ll have to be up with the dawn and minimally functional.  During my last such bout, I finally settled on James’ The Bostonians, with the idea that I’d read a chapter or two then move on to a more contemporary work.  Well, two days later I’d finished my third (or is it fourth?) re-read of James’ flawed but fascinating novel.  This time around, more strongly than ever, James’ exploration of a woman’s place in society and his examination of a brand of conservatism clinging to the past seemed especially timely.  If you’re hooked on appealing characters and storybook endings, I’m afraid you’ll need to look elsewhere.  That would be a shame, as you’d miss a psychologically acute study of this novel’s three protagonists, a vividly drawn supporting cast of secondary characters, and a wonderful portrayal of post-civil war Boston in all its intellectual glory. 

Fifth Category:  Shorter Works

I was very pleased that my 2021 reading continued to include quite a few of those shorter works that I had mostly ignored prior to the pandemic.  Although the five short story collections that I finished were all excellent, two deserve special mention:

0-3 Eileen Chang’s Love In A Fallen City and Aoko Matsuda’s Where The Wild Ladies Are really stood out for me among the short story collections I read in 2021.

Written and published in magazine form in the Shanghai of the 1940s, Chang’s stories were compiled and published in book form by NYRB Classics around 2010.  Don’t be misled by the title; Chang is concerned not with love but with the raw sexual warfare between men and women.  A young divorcee who has no illusions about the rich playboy with whom she becomes involved; an aging & unloved woman who spends most of her life getting those around her addicted to opium; a young girl who becomes a pawn in her scandalous aunt’s sexual maneuvers; the stories may be grim but they also effectively capture the tensions of a society in transition between old and new.  And did I mention they’re beautifully written?

Matsuda’s collection is emotionally at the other end of the spectrum.  Loosely inspired by Japanese fairy tales (no need to fear if you’re unfamiliar with them, as the collection includes a brief but helpful synopsis), Matsuda’s wildly inventive stories always manage to surprise.  As an added bonus, they’re frequently very funny as well.  I particularly enjoyed “Smartening Up,” in which a lovelorn young woman receives an unexpected visitor. 

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In addition to these I also read the remarkable quartet of novellas contained in Edith Wharton’s Old New York.  Although it’s impossible to choose among them, I think Turgenev’s First Love made the greatest impression simply because I’d not previously read any of his work. 

Sixth Category:  Greatest Discovery of The Year

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2021 was, for me, the year I really discovered literature in translation.  This particular pile includes many treasures, most of which were reviewed by other bloggers.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Iceland, a bittersweet story of a young writer struggling against the strictures of a traditionally patriarchal society, and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds, one of the most emotionally powerful novels I read last year.

Seventh Category: Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction

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The Bodiless Cat emerges from her cave and says, “Enough!  If you’re not going to discuss books about cats, it’s time to stop.”

Well, dear readers, I dare not disobey!  That’s it for 2021; now on to the New Year!

Buckle Your Seat Belts For Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly

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I must say at the outset that I never intended to read, much less review, this book, at least not anytime soon.  There I was, dear readers, working diligently (well, sort of) on a review of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale, when I became consumed with restlessness.  After all, I hadn’t started a new book in almost two days!  Oh, the horrors of withdrawal from my favorite drug!  Writing a post was simply no substitute for the rush of a new reading selection, particularly when one has been mainlining for decades!  Perhaps I could work on my Bennett post while making do with a slow read of an Edith Wharton novella, at least until I finished with Old Wives Tale and I was free to choose a longer work.  Work before play, that’s always been my motto (except when it hasn’t).  Just a click or two on the internet, then back to Mr. Bennett . . . but . . . what’s this enticing new novel, a bestseller yet in France?  I don’t normally read bestsellers but this one is translated (by the well-known British translator Adriana Hunter) and doesn’t that elevate it a bit over usual entries on the New York Times’ bestseller list (I’m thinking here of an All American Christmas, a self-described heart warming collection of holiday memories from the Fox News staff, selling like hotcakes for five weeks now)?  I’ll download a sample and read only a few pages, just to get some idea of the thing and then it’s back to Bennett’s tale of Constance and Sophie . . . .  Well, dear readers, I think you can see where this is going.  The Anomaly is so engaging, I’m afraid poor Arnold B. never had a chance (but I will get to him! Spoiler alert for my upcoming post: The Old Wives Tale is a fabulous novel).

Perhaps if I were more familiar with contemporary French culture, and better read in French literature, I would have been less surprised by this wonderful novel.  For those who (like me) need to — ahem — brush up on the basics (all others may skip to the next paragraph), Le Tellier is a major figure in contemporary French intellectual life.  He’s one of those amazing individuals who are supremely good at many things, including writing, journalism and mathematics.  Offhand, I can’t think of any public figure comparable to Le Tellier in my own country (U.S.A.), particular when you throw in the fact that he’s also a food critic!  Le Tellier has written several novels; The Anomaly, which is his fourth, won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2020 and has sold over a million copies world-wide.  Have you ever, dear readers, come across a completely unfamiliar term, only to have it pop up again very soon afterwards?  The word I’m thinking of, in the context of my review, is “Oulipian,” which I first encountered quite recently in one of Kaggsy’s reviews.  Sparing you the click to Wiki, the adjective refers to a loose association of (mostly male) francophone writers and mathematicians who use constrained techniques to create their works, the idea being that the very rigidity of their chosen structure triggers ideas and inspirations.  Italo Calvino was a member of the group and Le Tellier is, among his other accomplishments, its fourth president.  Given this link, will it hardly surprise you to learn that Le Tellier ends The Anomaly with a calligram (that is also IMO a lipogram)!  If you need an explanation of these terms, dear readers, you must click for yourself; while I am indulgent, I’ll only coddle so much, as any more “background” will confirm that I’m hopelessly pedantic.

Has my background paragraph given you an impression of a drily witty, erudite work, full of Gallic “in” jokes incomprehensible to a less refined anglophone audience?  If so, I’ve done you a vast disservice.  The Anomaly was one of the most entertaining, thought provoking and funniest novels I’ve read in quite some time.  With a light touch and great psychological insight, Le Tellier welds a wild mix of genres (science fiction, thriller, love story, social satire, mystery) into a seamless whole, while dealing convincingly (and entertainingly) with subjects as diverse as a professional assassin’s business methods, a doomed love affair, probability analysis, and a child’s intense love for her pet frog.  All this, combined with a masterly ability to maintain suspense, to make me care about a surprisingly large number of his many characters and to leave me pondering, long after I’d finished, the issues he raised concerning the nature of reality, the existence (or not) of free will and the ability of individuals to adapt to a drastically changed reality.  C’est Magnifique!

If you’re still with me at this point, I can imagine your growing impatience.   “O.k., so you liked it,” I imagine you saying, “but cut the adjectives and just tell me something concrete about the story!”  Because Anomaly operates on so many levels, this is both an easy and impossible task.  At its simplest, it concerns a seemingly random group of very disparate characters and how they cope, or don’t, with a situation straight out of The Twilight Zone.  Le Tellier immediately plunges the reader into the very different stories of (among others) a merciless hired killer with a double life (when he’s not murdering people he runs a chain of vegetarian restaurants in Paris), a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful writer (quotes from his unexpected best seller, The anomaly, provide the novel’s epigraph and chapter headings), a closeted young singer from Nigeria who’s forced to conceal his homosexuality, and the six year old daughter of an American military family who’s blocking the memory of terrible events.  Le Tellier develops these narrative arcs bit by bit, switching both style (the assassin’s sections are noirish, for example, while the arc devoted to an unhappy love affair is far more meditative and philosophical) and points of view.  It’s a technique very reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (as I noted above, Calvino was also a member of the Oulipian group).  As the stories develop, so does the suspense.  In short order I was totally hooked on the mystery of what bound this seemingly random group together and why, as the novel progressed, they were being surveilled and/or apprehended by shadowy government agents.  All I will say of the plot is that the reader eventually learns these flawed but engaging (well, maybe not the hitman) characters were passengers on a Paris to New York flight that underwent one of those terrible, near-fatal episodes that provide nightmares for every nervous traveler.

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I absolutely couldn’t resist throwing this striking photo into my post!  Thankfully, it’s a stock image (unfortunately I don’t have the info to credit the photographer) rather than a personal photo . . . .

The explanation of what happened occurs about halfway through the novel (and I, at least, was in suspense all the way there).  After this, Le Tellier deals with the implications of this cataclysmic event for both his characters and society as a whole.  I had expected to be a little bored at this point but found that Anomaly’s “how” was every bit as interesting as its “what,” so to speak.  Not only does Le Tellier offer some fascinating philosophical as well as scientific explanations, he also never loses sight of the very personal way in which his characters attempt to cope with a drastically altered reality.

Le Tellier’s genre salad includes, as I previously mentioned, a bit of social satire.  This mainly manifests itself in his treatment of U.S. popular culture as well as the differences in how the French and U.S. governments deal with events.  At least one professional (U.S.) reviewer found this aspect of the novel condescending.  Although I did not (Le Tellier aimed his arrows at legitimate targets IMO), I did think this novel’s satire wasn’t quite as strong as its more psychological and philosophical aspects.

A few other odds and ends deserve mention before I end this overly long post.  Adriana Hunter’s translation is so lively and idiomatic it was difficult to believe that the novel wasn’t originally written in English.  Hunter is British and it seemed to me that she found that almost impossible spot between British and American English, but I’d be interested to discover whether any readers of the novel from the U.K. would share my opinion.  One particularly attractive aspect of Anomaly for us blogger types is its use of literary allusions, which add to its depth without detracting from the pace and flow of its  narrative (because I haven’t studied French and am poorly versed in French literature, I fear I missed many of these but even so I have an exciting list of references to track down).  Lastly, I kept my discussion of the novel’s plot to a minimum because I think that, especially with this novel, the less one knows in advance the better.  If you plan on reading Anomaly, I strongly advise caution in checking out its reviews in advance (the Washington Post reviewer, for example, gave away practically every plot twist in his otherwise insightful review.  I am deliberately not including a link).

It’s impossible to close this post without mentioning the novel’s literal ending.  Le Tellier finishes his work with a calligram shaped like a funnel into which words and letters disappear, leaving only “e   nd.”

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Le Tellier has declined to explain or supply the missing text, thereby compelling each reader to supply her own interpretation.  His is a very elegant — and Oulipian — suggestion that there is no one answer to the questions raised by his novel.

Continue reading “Buckle Your Seat Belts For Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly”

Monday Miscellany (Moving! Books! Nature!)

Hello there, dear readers, assuming there are any of you left after my months of silence!  Never one to overburden others with my written words (many, many years of turning out legal tootle on schedule finally induced me to take pity on myself and others in this respect), I was nevertheless shocked, positively shocked, to see that it’s been almost three months since I’ve posted anything on my moribund little blog.  However did the blogosphere survive my absence?  (Rest assured that my question here is satirical!)  Although I’ve not been posting I have spent the last few weeks catching up on my blog reading and have no doubt annoyed some of you very much indeed by leaving long, rambling comments on your blogs.  You may consider yourself revenged by the fact that your excellent reviews have caused me to add several new peaks to my own Mount TBR of unread books.  I’ve simply lacked the energy and concentration, however, to contribute to the online bookish discussion by writing my own reviews.  But all this is slowly, slowly changing, now that life is settling down and the boxes are (mostly) unpacked.  Because I’ve practically forgotten how to type, much less arrange my thoughts in a coherent structure, I thought I’d ease myself back into things through the forgiving medium of a “miscellany” rather than a formal book review (hopefully the latter will start trickling in during the next few weeks, as I’ve been reading some lovely things).

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A collection of most (not all) of the things I’ve read this year, beginning way, way back in January.  Although I enjoyed some more than others (surprise), there really isn’t a dud in the stack . . . more below!

Because the following sections are totally unrelated to each other, if you find one boring you aren’t missing a thing by scrolling down to the next.

A.   MOVING (of most interest to those having a sadistic turn of mind)

Have you ever moved, dear reader?  I don’t mean a student move, where you leave the plant at your mom’s, stuff the dirty undies (would one say “knickers” in the U.K. or is this term dated? If you’re British, please enlighten me here) in your backpack and — presto! — off you go!  I mean a real, honest-to-god move involving a houseful of furniture; several thousand books; three snarling, foul-tempered cats who were perfectly happy in their old home and a stressed out Mr. Janakay.  If you’ve done this, or something comparable, you can understand the trauma of my last twelve months, in which I’ve moved twice, the first a long-distance move to temporary quarters followed just recently by a move to my new and hopefully permanent home, thankfully located in the same city as my temporary abode.  After surviving these physical relocations, and living out of boxes and suitcases for almost fourteen months, I can truthfully say “never again, dear reader, never again!”

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A would-be deserter from the family unit, which is preparing to move from temporary to permanent quarters.  Not to worry, dear reader, Maxine reconsidered her escape plans and was scooped up and moved with her little feline frenemies!

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Percy says “you can move these stupid birds if you want, Janakay!  I’m not going anywhere!”  Unbeknownst to Percy the horrors of the cat carrier awaited him . . . .

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My new kitchen, three weeks before move-in date.  Not to worry, however, as R., the kitchen guy, assured me he’d return to finish up as soon as he completed his second quarantine period (R. has many relatives who love large family gatherings . . . . .  not the best strategy during a pandemic).  All did in fact go well, after move-in dates were adjusted a couple of times!

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My new home at last!  Surely those boxes will unpack themselves?

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Just when needed most, professional help arrives!

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A major reason for all this moving business:  new shelves!  Miles and . . .

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miles of new shelves!  And what do new shelves need, dear book bloggers?  If you have to ponder the answer you should definitely take up another hobby!

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Slowly, slowly, progress is made.  Fiction is generally arranged alphabetically by author’s last name but how to organize the art books?  Alphabetical by artist doesn’t quite work . . . .

Completion at last!  (Well, mostly. There are still a few boxes of unpacked books in the garage.)

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As we adjust to our new home, we’re each finding our favorite space.  Although Percy enjoys watching basketball in a mild kind of way, he’s far more interested in sitting under the TV than watching it when a boring old baseball game is in progress  . . . .

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As life settles down, we’re also beginning to indulge again in our favorite activities, which in Maxine’s case involves going off on a little toot now & again (the pink thing is stuffed with catnip, to which she is quite addicted).

Despite many fundamental differences among members of the household (we disagree, for example, on whether new rugs make the best claw sharpeners), we do agree on one thing: moving is totally exhausting and requires a really good recovery nap!

B.  Books Old and Books New; Books Read, Unread and (Maybe) Never to be Read

Despite the difficulties of the last two months or so, I did manage to keep reading.  After all, isn’t that what we’re all about?  Admittedly, there were disappointments; these primarily centered on my sheer inability to write any reviews for the Japanese Literature in Translation or Independent Publishers months despite reading a few books for both events.  Ah, well, that’s what next year is for, isn’t it?  My reading choices this year have been all over the place, or perhaps more accurately, more all over the plan than usual (if you’ve read my blog at all, you can see that my taste tends to be, ahem, “eclectic”).  As my opening photo demonstrates,  my little pile of completed books includes pop pulp (The Godfather, special 50th anniversary edition); a few classics (Henry James’ Spoils of Poynton and Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington); a little literature in translation (Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, for example) and a few fairly obscure offerings from an independent publisher or two, prompted by Kaggsy’s February event (Doon Arbus’ The Caretaker, published by New Directions, is a good example here).  During the worst of my move I spent a great deal of time with Joe Abercrombie, an inexplicable choice, no doubt, to those who don’t share my taste for his fantastical grimdark world.  What can I say?  You either like this stuff or you don’t and, honestly, it was light relief to turn from movers, boxes and home contractors with Covid-19 problems to the exploits of Glotka the torturer.  Although I generally enjoyed everything in my pile, some choices were particularly rewarding:

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My first book of the New Year, completed on January 4th.  Although I generally struggle a bit with short stories, Matsuda’s (translator Polly Barton) feminist, idiosyncratic and original treatments of Japanese folk tales deserved its glowing reviews.  Added bonus:  publisher is Soft Skull Press, a small indy publisher “at war with the obvious” since 1992 and located in New York City.

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Jean Stafford has been one of my great discoveries this year.  After years of dodging The Mountain Lion, her best known novel, I read The Catherine Wheel on a whim.  It’s a family drama set in the upper class New England of the 1930s and displays to the full Stafford’s elegant style, eye for character and ability to evoke atmosphere.  A proper review is coming (sometime) on this one.

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Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet was my first encounter with a surrealist literary work.  Although I was mildly apprehensive at first, I soon settled in for a wild adventure with a nonagenarian like no other, a cross-dressing abbess, the goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.  As subversive as it’s wildly funny, I hope to review it in the next few months.

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Despite some ambivalence about Elizabeth Bowen (there are times when she’s just a bit too refined for my taste), I’ve been slowly but steadily working my way through her novels.  Eva Trout, Bowen’s final novel published in 1970, turned out to be one of my favorites. Very, very funny in some spots, tragic in others and with some very heavy things to say about communication, or lack thereof, among its characters.  Put this one on your Elizabeth Bowen list.

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Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance was a trip down memory lane, as I first read it shortly after its publication in the late 1980s.  Jacquiwine has been doing some incredible reviews of Brookner’s novels, which prompted me to pull this old favorite down from its home on my new shelves.  Blanche Vernon, an excellent woman of a certain age, consoles herself with a little too much wine and lots of visits to London’s National Gallery after losing her husband to a much younger rival (pet name: “Mousey”).  I enjoyed Brookner’s elegant style and dry wit as much this time around as I did initially and can’t wait until Jacquiwine’s review!

Although I have (almost literally) tons of books I want to get through this year as a result of various challenges, I have two or three in particular that I’ve added to my 2021 list:

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I’ve been eagerly following Simon’s reviews of the British Library’s Women Writers series.  Although all the titles look great,  I’m particularly eager to try Rose Macauly’s Dangerous Ages.  On a different note entirely (remember!  I said my tastes were ecletic) is Damon Galgut’s The Promise, a family saga/fable set in contemporary South Africa.  I first “met” Galgut in 2010, when I read his haunting and beautiful novel, In A Strange Room, short listed for that year’s Booker.  Despite my good intentions, I have never managed to get back to his work.  As for Paula Fox, I’ve been intending to sample her novels for ages now and I’m resolved to begin this year with her highly acclaimed and best known work!

Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Proust?  If so, you absolutely owe it to yourself to at least spend an hour or so with:

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I’m sure I’m the last Proust fan on the planet to be aware of this book, which I happened upon while browsing on that internet platform we all love to hate. Pricey, but worth every penny, it’s a wonderful way to dip into and out of Proust’s great masterpiece.  I’ve paired it with Mr. Janakay’s great photo of a Blackburnian warbler, which I’ll miss seeing for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.  Why this particular pairing?  The Proust reminds me that even a plague year has some compensations . . . .

Visual art was very important to Proust (“My book is a painting”), which is readily apparent from the literally hundreds of artists and paintings discussed at various points by the many, many characters who appear, disappear and reappear in In Search of Lost Time.  Karpeles’ “visual companion” groups these many art works into chapters that correspond to Proust’s volumes; each entry has a brief introduction, a long quotation from the relevant passage in Proust and an illustration of the art, usually in color.  Did you know, for example, that Swann “had the nerve to try and make” the Duc de Guermantes buy a painting “of a bundle of asparagus  . . .  exactly like the ones” the Duc and his guest were having for dinner?  Quelle horreur!  Thanks to Karpeles, you can see (and compare) Manet’s rejected Bundle of Asparagus with the Duc’s preferred painting, a “little study by M. Vibert” of a “sleek prelate who’s making his little dog do tricks.”  Guess what, dear readers?  The Duc should have followed Swann’s advice!

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There’s a very good introduction, notes and an index listing the artists alphabetically and keyed to three different Proust editions.  It’s been many years since I’ve read Proust and I’d forgotten the wonders of In Search of Lost Time.  After a few hours of browsing Karpeles, however, I’m tempted to re-read at least a volume or two.  After all, there are several different editions!

On a last Proustian note:  The New Yorker recently did a very good piece on “Conjuring the Music of Proust’s Salons,” in which Alex Ross reviews two recent recordings paying homage to an actual concert organized by Proust on July 1, 1907.  Since Proust was as attuned to music as he was to literature and visual art, both recordings sound very interesting indeed.  The New Yorker has, alas, a pay wall, but if you haven’t clicked too much this month the article is available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/03/22/conjuring-the-music-of-prousts-salons.

C.  Nature

What’s a miscellany without a few nature photos, thanks to Mr. J?  Although I miss some of the parks and preserves that were reasonably accessible to my old home, my new one is located little more than a mile (about 1.5 km) from a nature preserve and some very lovely scenery.  Nothing dramatic, you understand, or particularly historic (if you crave history and/or dramatic scenery, you should pop over and read about some of Simon’s lovely excursions) but still — nice.

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The nature preserve’s boardwalk as viewed from the observation tower, the only high spot around in a very flat landscape! The basic circuit is around three miles (close to 5km) and there’s always something to see . . . .

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A view from the boardwalk, across the salt marsh. Unfortunately, the bird in the tree is too far away to make out, but I always see numerous ospreys and a variety of herons and egrets when doing the circuit; if I’m lucky, there’s the occasional kingfisher as well.

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If you look closely, you can see the large great blue heron standing in the water.

If you’ve read this far, dear readers, you  no doubt agree with me that it’s time for this particular miscellany to end.  I hope to post a real review later on in the week; until then au revoir.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them: Or how I became an STW addict

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Here’s a glimpse of my own little stash of STW titles (Mr. Fortune’s Maggot became separated from the rest of the horde and is still packed up somewhere)

Are any of you, dear readers, fans of Sylvia Townsend Warner?  If so, you must hasten immediately over to A Gallimaufry, where Helen is hosting (for at least the second year) a reading week in Warner’s honor.  In addition to some wonderful reviews of STW’s works, Helen has provided links to a great deal of Warner-related material (including a website maintained by the STW Society) as well as to prior posts and participants’ reviews.  Among this year’s offerings are reviews of STW’s letters and poetry as well as her biography of T.H. White.  Whether you’re a die-hard STW fan or a novice who’s simply interested in becoming a little more familiar with Warner’s work, it doesn’t get any better than this!

Altough I’ve yet to read much of her output (particularly the short stories), I’ve numbered Warner as one of my favorites since my long-ago days as an undergraduate student.  Browsing aimlessly in one of my home town’s few bookshops (I was most probably skipping class at the time), I happened by sheer chance to pick up a beautiful used copy of  Lolly Willowes:  Or the Loving Huntsman.  Although I had heard of neither author nor book, I decided to risk the purchase price because it looked interesting and hardback books were scarce in my life at the time.  It didn’t take long for me to become fascinated by Warner’s tale of an aging spinster who leaves behind her conventional London family to find friends in odd places and to carve out a life for herself in the process.  I was totally entranced; I had simply never encountered anything quite like Warner’s combination of sharp social observation, realistic depictions of nature and delicate fantasy, all heightened by the mythic overtones of Lolly’s nocturnal ramblings through the dark woods adjacent to the village of Great Mop.  Lolly Willowes remains one of my favorite books and I return to it every few years, when a certain mood strikes me; unlike Lolly, I don’t ditch home and hearth but I do spend a day or two immersing myself in that singular world that Warner creates in this wonderful novel.

After Lolly Willowes, I went on to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot; my edition was published with Warner’s The Salutation (a sort of related sequel) in one of those nice NYRB Classics editions.  I’m afraid poor Timothy Fortune never had much of a chance with me; I was seeking a second Lolly Willowes, which these short novels most definitely were not.  More satirical and far more overtly realistic than Lolly Willowes, but marked by the same sharp wit and beautiful writing, I found them enjoyable but vaguely unsatisfying.  After so many years, these works are perhaps ripe for a revisit; and what better time than Warner Week?  (As soon as I finish this post, I’m clicking over to see what Harriet Devine has to say about them in her newly posted review!)

Persisting in my search for a second Lolly, I next attempted The Corner That Held Them (considered by many to be Warner’s masterpiece), with disastrous results.  Total shame prevents me from repeating my initial reaction (recounting it once was embarrassing enough), but I will say that at the time the novel left me totally baffled.  Was it a historical romance of the frivolous (that opening scene was pretty sexy) or the serious type, á la Hilary Mantel (all those detailed descriptions of medieval convent life)?  Was it even a novel?  Was it some sort of weird, fictionalized history?  I simply couldn’t fathom how (or why) the author of my beloved Lolly Willowes could also have penned this strange, oversized work.  After far less than a hundred pages I was out of there and on to something else, something easier to categorize and quicker to read.  And that, dear reader, with the exception of an elfin tale here and there, ended my flirtation with STW for several years.

Ah, but the Loving Huntsman (to use Warnerian terminology) wasn’t done with me yet!  Several years ago, moved by an impulse that I couldn’t quite understand (o.k., o.k.; I had probably received the book as a monthly selection from the NYRB Classics Club!), I was compelled to try Warner’s Summer Will Show.  Primed for disappointment after my spectacular failure with The Corner That Held Them, I was spectacularly surprised.  For all the reasons that Helen so eloquently discusses, Summer Will Show is a wonderful tale of personal liberation and growth, of love and of intellectual engagement.  Displaying STW’s beautiful style, wit and observational skill, it is nevertheless quite different from the other STW novels that I had read to that point.

And that, dear reader, is one of the keys to understanding my STW addiction.  In some form or fashion, STW never fails to surprise, to thwart conventional expections.  Just when I feel I have a handle on her work she throws me a curve ball (Mr. Janakay has his own addiction to baseball and some of the terminology has rubbed off).  After finishing or attempting four of her novels, I had finally grasped a fundamental characteristic of Warner’s oeuvre, i.e., although consistently sharing her wonderful style and wit, Warner’s novels can be totally dissimilar in terms of tone or content.  Armed with this insight, dear reader, I was finally ready to appreciate . . .

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Not being one of your self-starter types, I needed a goad to begin my second (or was it third?) attempt.  This came last January, when I decided to participate in the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate), as Corner was a natural fit for my “abandoned classic” category.

There’s an amusing anecdote, one of Mark Twain’s I do believe, to the effect that when he was nineteen he considered his father a fool but when he became twenty-one he was amazed at how much the old man had learned.  The anecdote springs to mind in connection with Corner because it rather accurately reflects my own changed opinion of Warner’s marvelous novel.  Even in my very callow youth (and I really must admit that I wasn’t that young when I attempted my first read) how could I have so misjudged this masterpiece?  The second time around I was hooked and mainlining right from page one and spent a wonderful week or so in late January, totally lost in the universe Warner created.  Have any of you watched Bladerunner, with its AI replicants who were “more real than real”?  Although the comparison jars a bit, it pretty accurately describes how I experienced the small corner of the medieval universe Warner creates.  In this I found her skill to be comparable to the great 19th century realists, whose fictional universes are so skillfully constructed that we readers are deceived into thinking them snapshots of reality when of course they are no such thing.  As Claire Harmon observes in her introduction, Warner’s novel is one of “contrived realism,” so skillfully done that it seems more historical that fictional.

But enough of my enthusing — it’s time for my formal review!  And here, I must admit that I may check up short.  Corner is long (almost four hundred pages); extends over fifty or so years; has numerous characters; employs multiple view points; and doesn’t center around any one, prominent event.  Because I read it six months ago, moreover, I’ve forgotten some of the details.  Aside from the fact that I’d welcome your opinion of the novel, please correct any factoids I happen to misstate.

At its simplest level Corner recounts the lives of the nuns in the small convent of Oby, built in the mid-14th century on a rise of land located in the marsh country of eastern England.  If, like me, you’re familiar with religious life primarily from reading Hulme’s The Nun’s Story (great movie BTW) or Godden’s In This House of Brede, well, you need to forget both.  Warner’s nuns are very worldly nuns (with respect to at least one of them, I found myself thinking of the very worldly prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) or at least concerned with mundane matters; they do their religious duties, of course, but are more prone to discuss the design of the new altar hangings they’re embroidering or the details of the bishop’s next visit than more overtly spiritual matters.  This preoccupation reflects the reality of a tough medieval world, politically and spiritually dominated by men, that Oby’s nun’s must navigate in order to survive.  Warner is intrigued with the bread and butter issues of convent life, with how the nuns sustain themselves, how they keep their accounts and what those accounts record.  Oby is a small convent and its economic base is precarious; STW never lets you forget how thin is the line separating its survival from its ruin.  That altar cloth, for example, is a major financial investment that the convent intends to gift to the hostile bishop who’s causing it problems.  Warner uses these quotidian realities of convent life to establish an absolutely convincing reality.

Because Corner spans four odd decades or so, it necessarily teems with characters.  Novices enter Oby, take their vows or not, live their lives there as nuns and die and are buried.  One prioress succeeds another, ditto for the bishops controlling the convent’s fate.  The village that supports Oby’s economic existence sees a similar turnover of personnel; an honest and efficient bailiff dies and is replaced by a nephew; the bailiff’s widow moves on to another man.  As in life, so as in literature — some of these characters are sympathetic, some aren’t.  If you’re the type of reader who demands a central character, particularly one with whom you can identify, then this book isn’t for you.  The closest thing to a dominant POV here is probably that of Ralph Kello, the vagrant clerk who comes to Oby by chance and remains there for the rest of his life, masquerading as a priest.  Events in the great world outside Oby include the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but the reader experiences them only tangentially, in the same way that they are experienced by Oby’s inhabitants.  More important than either for the convent is the great task of erecting a steeple for its chapel, a project that consumes its resources and dominates the tenure of at least one of its prioresses.  The action never strays very far from Oby and, as Harman points out in her introduction, the narrative is as meandering as the marshy stream that Oby abuts.

Warner’s slyly irreverent and subversive wit is everywhere present in the novel.  She begins, for example, by describing the adulterous act that will ultimately lead to the foundation of Oby, a nunnery commemorating the soul of the adulterous wife who narrowly escapes being murdered by her husband (her lover wasn’t so lucky).  Ralph Kello, Oby’s “priest,” arrives at the convent after a night of carousing that leaves him too drunk to understand that it has been stricken by the plague; he remains there for the rest of his life, ministering quite adequately to the nuns’ spiritual needs.  And then, of course, there’s the contrast between the life of the spirit, the raison d’être of the nuns’ existence, and the necessity of feeding and clothing the body, which preoccupies much of their daily existence.  What could be more ironic than the necessity of the banal to support the life of the spirit?

And then, of course, there’s Warner’s spare, elegant, breathtakingly beautiful language (pages 15-17):

In 1349 the Black Death came to Oby.
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Though there had been pestilences often enough before, there had never been, they said, such a pestilence as this.  It traveled faster than a horse, it swooped like a falcon * * * All across Europe it had come, and now it would traverse England, and nothing could stop it, wherever there were men living it would seek them out, and turn back, as a wolf does, to snap at the man it had passed by.

I’m afraid I’ve made this great novel sound very dull (the fear of doing so has largely held me back from discussing it) when nothing could be further from its reality.  The best way I can think of to say it is that Corner is a singular masterpiece that places singular demands on the reader.  We all, of course, have to find our own way to appreciate works such as this.  The approach that worked for me was to simply let the novel wash over me, without attempting to remember, with any great exactness, the individual characters; to regard the “Corner” itself as the protagonist, to see the novel as the story, almost, of a hive or a collective, with individuals having only very transient and minor roles.  I’d be most interested to hear how others have navigated this very great and very eccentric work.

As for my STW addiction — well, after Summer Will Show, I’m afraid I’m hopelessly hooked.  Luckily I have at least two novels and a wealth of short stories in store  . . . .

 

 

 

Isabel Colegate’s “The Blackmailer:” What would YOU pay to have YOUR secrets kept?

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Has anyone out there read Isabel Colegate?  I don’t intend my question to be either cruel or facetious — I adore Isobel Colgate and think (I hope incorrectly — after all, I’m not a professional literary type and I base my opinion on absolutely nothing objective) that her work deserves more readers than it gets.  I’ve been a big Colegate fan since I first read her novel Winter’s Journey a number of years ago; I liked it so much I immediately bought copies of several of her other books with the idea that I’d work my way through the eight remaining novels that I hadn’t yet read.  These books have rested, peacefully, undisturbed and unread, on my shelves for quite some time now!  What can I say, except that life and more current writers intervened?

The 2019 Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate provided me with a dual incentive — I could not only discover whether I continued to regard Colegate’s writing so highly but I’d also dust off at least one pretty grungy bookshelf and the novels it contained.  After a great deal of thought (I love going through all my unread books) I decided to read Colegate’s debut nove, The Blackmailer (published in 1958), as my selection for the “Classics by a Woman Author” category.  I think I chose it over Colegate’s far better known novel, The Shooting Party, because I was intrigued by its title (I confess that I’ve also purchased books on the basis of their cover art!  I love book covers and have been known to purchase a second copy of a book simply because I liked the cover of a different edition!).  I also passed over, with some reluctance, Colegate’s A Pelican in the Wilderness, a well regarded non-fiction work in which she examines the value of solitude and the lives of certain individuals, ancient and modern, St. Anthony to Howard Hughes, who have chosen to live apart from others.  In other words, I took a gamble on choosing a much less well known and very early work.  You’ll have to read my post to the end (or skip to the last two paragraphs) to see whether I think my gamble paid off!

The Blackmailer is set in 1950s London and revolves around the relationship between Judith, the young widow of Anthony Lane, and Baldwin Reeves, an up-by-his bootstraps barrister who aspires to a political career, financial success and social acceptance by the landed gentry.  Judith’s deceased husband Anthony was not only handsome, intelligent and charming, but also endowed with fortune and birth, being the heir to an large estate and the son of a prominent family.  To top it off, Anthony was a renowned war hero, taken prisoner and executed by the enemy during the Korean War.  Could any mortal man possess more virtues?

Ah, but there’s a secret, you see!  In the parlance of a bygone era, Anthony was actually a bit of a bounder — or is it a rotter or maybe pigeon-hearted?  (It’s so difficult for us Americans to get the slang right; I’d welcome a correction if anyone from the U.K. ventures by!)  It seems that while commanding his company in Korea, Anthony bungled a retreat order; thinking it was a command to advance, which he didn’t want to do because he might get wounded or killed, he kept it to himself.  By the time his mistake was discovered, Anthony and his men were in a hopeless position and were taken prisoner by the North Koreans.  As if that wasn’t enough, in the prisoner of war camp Anthony collaborated to the extent of betraying his men’s escape plan, getting one of them shot.  This being too much for even the famed stoicism of the British soldier, Anthony’s justly exasperated subordinates executed him by hanging after holding an informal trial among themselves (during the Vietnam war, American soldiers used the term “fragging” to describe their own version of this activity vis à vis their officers).  None of this is ever disclosed, however, and after the war Anthony Lane is regarded by the British public as a national hero (one of Colegate’s nice touches is her brief allusion, towards the end of her novel, to an “upcoming film project” about Anthony’s heroic life).  For anyone ready to attack me for spoilers, hold your fire — Colegate tells you all about Anthony and his disreputable military career in the first page or two.  Rather than being about Anthony, Colgate is interested in the effect of his “secret” on his survivors and how they handle the truth.  For Baldwin Reeves, you see, was Anthony’s second in command; and although he has remained silent he knows all about the bungled order, the betrayal and Anthony’s trial and execution by his men.

The novel begins a few years after Anthony’s death, when Judith has established herself as a partner in a (very) small publishing house; she’s successful, maintains close ties with her deceased husband’s mother and grandfather and is reasonably content with her life.  While ignorant of the true facts of Anthony’s death, Judith is an intelligent and pragmatic woman who is well aware that Anthony was not what others perceived him to be; although she loved him, her marriage (unbeknowst to others) was less than happy.  Reeves by contrast is scrambling to make ends meet; although he’s justly confident of his ultimate success, he’s in the early stages of getting there and he needs money.  He also has a lingering resentment of Anthony Lane, war hero and golden boy, who had everything — money, family, social position — that Reeves is struggling so hard to get for himself.  So far, so predictable, right?  Reeves approaches Judith, threatens to tell all and begins extorting money from her.  What isn’t predictable is where Colegate takes the story, setting up an intricate game of cat and mouse, where Judith and Reeves exchange roles as victim and each gets off on the power he or she has over the other.

I’ve made The Blackmailer sound terribly grim and serious but it isn’t at all — the dialogue is crisp and witty, it has some incredibly funny passages and Colegate has a wonderful knack for creating marvelous supporting characters (if you like dogs, the novel’s worth reading just for Bertie, Judith’s pet spaniel, whose personality is depicted as vividly as that of the human actors.  If you don’t, read it to enjoy Anthony’s hilarious old nightmare of a Nanny, or Feliks, Judith’s very funny friend, publishing partner and social climber extraordinaire).  As I hope I’ve made clear, The Blackmailer is primarily a book for those who enjoy dialogue and relationships; readers who demand a lot of action in their novels will most probably find it a bit dull.  Keep in mind, as well, that The Blackmailer is a debut effort and, although I was satisfied with Colegate’s depiction of Reeves and Judith, I did wish she’d given a bit more space to their inner psychology.  I have a few other quibbles not worth mentioning, none of which detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

Because I don’t have a lot of time right now, I’m sticking mostly to Challenge books for my pleasure reading, so I’ve gone through a lot of mid-century British fiction in my recent postings (Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Bowen’s Friends and Relations and Kate O’Brien’s The Last of Summer; when you add to these my reading for my class in the 19th century English novel I really feel it’s time to return to my native land for a book or two.  Perhaps a gangster novel set in New Jersey?)  Of these, I believe The Blackmailer has aged the best, perhaps because the “secret” that propels the action — the falsity of a “war hero’s” glorious reputation — is one that a person of our own era might still wish to conceal.  There’s also something very modern about the psychological struggle between Reeves and Judith; she, as much as he, is intent on exerting power in their relationship. Add in the fact that the novel is extremely well written and contains a very rare portrayal of an independent woman, in the 1950s, who works at a real job and actually enjoys doing so and, well, I’d say you have a gem.

Several years after it was originally published, Penguin reissued The Blackmailer in an omnibus volume with two other of Colgate’s early novels, A Man of Power and The Great Occasion (you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for $2 or less; although it’s delightful to get such a bargain, it’s sad that work of such quality appears to be so little read or valued).  Although it will have to wait for a month of two, I look forward eagerly to reading them both.  Who knows, maybe I’ll continue to keep the dust off the shelf holding my Colgate novels . . . . . .

 

 

If it’s Saturday …..Then it’s Museum Day (at least sometimes)

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The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

I have a question for any of you wanderers of the web who may happen by my little space — do you like museums?  I realize that the automatic answer is usually a “yes” but with fingers crossed — we think we ought to like museums, just as we think we ought to like classical music, paintings and serious books.  Meanwhile, of course, we all spend far more time with movies, pop music and those wonderful paperbacks that promise a rollicking good time, especially when consumed with a nice glass of something white & dry, or a morsel or two of something dark and gooey!  The point I’m trying to make is that, while I (and perhaps some of you) may appreciate museums, along with other indicia of high culture, my enjoyment is a bit constrained and artificial; two hours max and I’m out of there!  Well, if you, too, share this limitation (and even if you don’t), I’d really recommend a visit to the Walters.  It’s a museum and it’s FUN!  Don’t be fooled by that forbidding exterior — there are wonders within.  Paintings!  Mummies!  Sculpture!  Stuffed alligators!  Shells!  Bugs (stuffed ones)!  Jewelry!  Chinese vases!  More stuffed things!  And — the staff is really, really nice and — admission is free.  It is, in short, a Baltimore treasure and not to be missed (especially the Chamber of Wonders).  I won’t bore you with blathering about the collection — that’s what websites are for — but here’s a brief sample of what’s on view:

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The Chamber of Wonders (or part of it): there are marvelous things in the cabinets!

 

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A brief glimpse of the Chamber of Wonders: to the 18th century, the alligator was an exotic beast from a mysterious new world. If you were lucky enough to have a stuffed one, well, you flaunted it!

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Isn’t that skull in the lower left wonderful? Memento Mori, y’all!

 

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This is a rare depiction of an what an actual 17th century Chamber of Wonders in the Spanish Netherlands would have looked like.  Note the sunflower in the bouquet on the left; a recent arrival from the New World, it was incredibly exotic!

 

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A portion of the Walters’ interior courtyard. If you’re really lucky, there could be a concert on the ground level during your visit!

 

My one criticism of the Walters is its lack of a cafe (there is a very nice snack bar, when art becomes too much, but sometimes you just want more).  But — Little Italy is reasonably close!  And there’s nothing like ending a day of culture with a nice plate of pasta ……………………..

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Bookish Thoughts for the Valentine Season ….Novels that go together!

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Hey, I know — Valentine’s Day was ages ago (well, yesterday!) but I sort of forgot about it because I became all engrossed in thinking about a notion that I, at least, found interesting.  So much so that I actually didn’t get around to writing anything in time for the big day itself.  But since “better late than never” is part of my credo (I’d be dead by now, if it weren’t, or at least homeless), along with “you might as well” do whatever it is you were going to do, I decided to persevere with my thought, which is simply that certain books, written by different authors, from very different eras, go together.  Or, to put it in fancier language, they engage in a dialogue, they ask and answer each other’s questions, one calls and the other responds.

This thought popped up (and whenever a thought does so, I cherish it) during my class on the 19th century novel, where we’re currently following the adventures of Jane and the brooding, Byronic Rochester.  [Do I need a “spoiler alert” here?  If you haven’t read Jane Eyre and you value suspense, well, proceed at your own risk!]  We’re at the point in the novel where horrible, bestial, degenerate Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” is about to appear and rain on Jane’s parade.  Because Bertha, despite her importance to the novel, never speaks, she’s defined largely through the words of Jane and Rochester, who are hardly disinterested parties.

In pondering Monday’s assignment to find a key passage reflecting Bertha’s importance to the novel (I should actually be doing that right now, rather than this, but this is more fun!) I found myself asking, “how fair is it that Bertha is voiceless?”  This question led me to remember Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a wonderful book I read many years ago.  Rhys was, like the unfortunate Bertha, of European descent; born on a Carribbean Island, she, like Bertha, only came to England as an young woman.  Taking umbrage at Bronte’s depiction of Bertha as “mad, bad and embruted” Rhys wrote a novel narrating Bertha’s side of the story, from her childhood as Antoinette Cosway, to her arranged marriage to Edward Rochester, who re-christens her “Bertha” and appropriates her money, and, ultimately, to her imprisonment by him in the attic of Thornfield Hall.  Bronte’s Bertha is voiceless because Rochester has stripped her first of her name and then of her identity; she is mad because she lives in a culture that literally drives women insane.  Because Bronte’s novel is such a great classic of the 19th century, it elicited Rhys’ equally great (in my opinion) counter narrative/response in the 20th.  After Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre could never be read the same way again.  For a far better discussion than mine of both novels, click on this great short piece from the BBC, published on the 50th anniversary of Rhys’ work.

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This?

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Or this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or Both? My choice!

Well, every writer can’t be as effective as Jean Rhys, can she?  But this whole line of thought did give me an excuse to continue evading Monday’s homework (and Tuesday’s for that matter) by attempting to come up with other, similar “pairings.”  The idea of companion works seems particularly appropriate, doesn’t it, in this Valentine season of double happiness, or happiness doubled or paired or whatever?  To be clear, I’m not referring to a novel which simply uses the same characters as a prior novel, or merely expands in an unoriginal way on situations or themes that were previously explored without offering any new insights (I would, for example, exclude the many variations on Austen’s novels that are currently flooding Amazon).  Rather, I’m thinking of works that essentially spin the original story around by requiring us to visualize a familiar story in a new way.   After much (painful) thought, I came up with Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, in which the eponymous heroine is a young maid who experiences in her own way the transformation of R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyl into Mr. Hyde, and Grendel, where John Gardner re-casts the epic Beowulf from the point of view of the lonely, savage, ruthless heart-breaking monster.  While neither has quite the impact of Wide Sargasso Sea, which is in a league of its own, they are both wonderful novels that will alter the way you experience the previous works to which they respond.

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Pop quiz time (I’m thinking in student mode these days) — name some more pairings!  Since I’ve had the benefit of reading the BBC piece I linked to above, I’ll make it easy by listing a few pairs, with the disclaimer that I’ve not read these particular “re-inventions:”

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Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, in which the convict Magwitch gives his version of  the events in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

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J.M. Coetzee, Foe, in which the tale of Robinson Crusoe is reinvented/reimagined through the story of a female castaway.

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Ronald Frame, Havisham.  Dicken’s Great Expectations again but focusing on the psychological background of Miss Havisham.

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Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife, in which the author builds on a brief passage from Moby Dick to create her own saga.

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Geraldine Brooks, March; Little Woman re-envisioned from the point of view of the absent father.

Well, this is my list!  Did I miss anyone’s favorite, or, if you happen by and have any additions, please share!

What I’ve been Doing In My Spare Time …

I’ve realized with dismay that it’s been several days since I posted anything on my beloved new book blog!  How have y’all survived out there, without my insightful musings on various literary works, my exegesis on Henry James or my moving narration of the struggles and triumphs of meeting the TBR or Back to the Classics challenges?  (To any who happen by, you do realize I’m joking, right?)  Anyway, I’ve been busy with the books shown below.

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To translate the visual into the verbal, spring semester started about ten days ago and I’m taking courses!  The Tintoretto book is actually a catalog for a major exhibition on that artist opening (“god willin’ and the government don’t shut down”) in March at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; I’m reading it in conjunction with an incredible course in Renaissance Venetian Art.  The novels (Frankenstein; Middlemarch; Great Expectations; Jane Eyre and Dr Jekyll) are required for my course in the 19th century English novel, which I signed up for on a whim and which has turned out to be wonderful!  We finished Frankenstein last week (I’m thinking of doing a review) and are well into Jane Eyre; Great Expectations is next.  I’d read several of the novels, but all many years ago and quite honestly didn’t really like some of them; it’s amazing, so many years later, to find that I’m having an altogether different reaction to these works.  The two remaining books about Renaissance art relate to my desperate attempt to settle on a topic for a major research project (I have some ideas, but have a very long way to go on this!).  Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to — how about y’all?  Reading anything good these days?

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Short Stories, anyone?

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“The story to me is like an eye drop for the mind. It doesn’t offer a resolution to life’s muddiness, but it offers a moment of clarity.” Yiyun Li

Does anyone like short stories, I mean, really like them?  I know that many of us (or at least me) say that we do, but then do we ever actually read them?  I’m always going to, I really mean to; year after year one of my major resolutions has been to read just one itty, bitty story a week and every year, the result is the same — I read, say, three.  Or in a good year, maybe four.  I’ve tried everything, every rationalization, every form of persuasion to up my total — “oh, just read whatever The New Yorker is publishing this week, it’s an easy way to stay current with new talent;” “pick some critically acclaimed collection by a prestige writer; that way you can blather and impress your literary friends;” “go on, pull out a ‘Best of the Year’ collection cluttering the shelves, it’s a quick way to get a little dusting done,” “it’ll be easier to read stories around a theme — Christmas, ghosts, Halloween, family relationships, whatever;” or, at a really low point, “just read one of the damn things and then go bake some cookies ….”  Well, anyway, I’m sure you get the idea.  Despite all this clever self-psychology, with a very few exceptions (Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress; William Trevor’s After Rain) I always go for a novel rather than a short story or a story collection.  I think at bottom the short story leaves me a little dissatisfied; just as I feel that I’m getting underway — poof!  It’s gone.  I also think the short story requires the ability to stop, savor, relish, luxuriate in what you’ve just read, all of which is antithetical to my habit of reading quickly to cover a lot of ground.  Yet still I persist in my annual goal, because the short story is, as far more knowledgeable people than I have said, a great art form.

Well, my failure to appreciate the short story is about to change!  The Guardian has just published the most wonderful list, “Bite Sized: 50 great short stories, chosen by Hilary Mantel, George Saunders and more.”  It’s a great mixture of classic, contemporary, famous writers (Alice Munroe, William Trevor and so on) and writers who may very well be famous but who are unfamiliar to me (Ilse Aichinger; Jo Ann Beard; Gina Beeriault); some stories were originally published in English; some are translations; there are a few obvious selections (Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and some wonderful contemporary stuff (“We Didn’t Like Him” by Akhil Sharma).  The great feature of the list is that each entry has a wonderful little paragraph explaining why that particular story is on the list.  It’s so exciting!  I must read them all!  Perhaps one a week for the next year?