Category: women writers

Short Reads For A (Short) Road Trip

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A few of the more interesting things I read during my recent road trip.  Did I like them?  Well . . . .

Do you make New Year’s resolutions?  I do, every year; it’s a little ritual I follow, an annual triumph of hope over history.  This year I resolved to do the usual things:  lose weight; step up the exercise; no more eating potato chips (I even did the farewell ritual recommended by certain therapists: “I love you very much, fried salty things, but I can’t have you in my life anymore”).  I did, however, add a new one for 2022, i.e., to post a little more frequently on my blog.  There would be no more weeks (or even months), I resolved, when I read wonderful books but didn’t write a word about them!  No more holding back the good news from my fellow bloggers about the stunning new works of fiction I was discovering!  Weekly posts, it’s true, might be a little too restrictive, but surely I could manage twice a month?  I am proud to say, dear readers, that my resolution to increase my number of posts actually survived into February!  (By contrast, I’m totally embarrassed to tell you how soon after New Year’s Day I ate my first, utterly delicious potato chip and just how quickly I wolfed it down!)  At any rate, receiving some rather upsetting health news (unpleasant but highly treatable), combined with just a teeny bit of travel does give me an excuse for neglecting to post for the past few weeks.  The travel, while nothing exotic or international, alas, was a nice little interlude away from the palm trees and unrelenting sunshine of the U.S.’ gulf coast (Florida has earned its moniker of “the Sunshine State.”)  My trip was the usual, to Washington, D.C. and, also as usual, combined tedious errands and fun things.

Although I didn’t read quite as much as I usually do on these little jaunts, my trip reading included three wonderful, new-to-me writers.  I’ll discuss their respective works, short in page length but deep in content, in the first part of this post.  I’ll follow with a few travel photos and comments on the sight-seeing; this was quite satisfying, although I missed a few nice things I didn’t have time to see (I still haven’t made it to the Art Museum of the Americas, for example, or re-visited Baltimore’s stunning Matisse collection).  See how easy I make it for you to zero in on what interests you and skip what doesn’t?

A.  BOOKS

Because I’m drawn to tales about artists and/or the creative process generally, Aysegül Savas’ White on White has been on my radar since its publication last December.  How could I resist a novel with a title invoking, deliberately or not, Kazimir Malevich’s great Suprematist painting?  No matter the fact that I already had a copy of Savas’ well-received debut novel, Walking on the Ceiling, which needless to say I haven’t yet read!  This one went (almost) to the top of the TBR pile.

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Clocking in at a mere 175 pages or so, White On White can be read in an afternoon.  Its story lingers, however, and the pleasures of Savas’ elegant prose demand a slow and thoughtful read. 

White’s ostensible plot is simple.  An unnamed graduate student narrator, the lucky recipient of a grant to finish researching and writing a dissertation on medieval sculpture, has taken up residence in an unidentified European city.  The narrator is also lucky (or not) in finding very nice and very affordable lodgings, an apartment belonging to an eminent medieval scholar who makes it available to researchers with the proviso that his wife Agnes, a well-known local painter, will occasionally use the upstairs studio.  Our narrator (I presumed a “she” although gender is never specified) diligently does her research; attentively observes the city that is temporarily home and becomes keenly interested in Agnes, who begins to spend more and more time in the upstairs studio.  The two settle into an increasingly intimate and claustrophobic relationship, one not always welcome to the narrator (after all, she does have all that research to finish and there’s pressure to begin writing as well).  Their roles are seemingly well-defined: the narrator listens and Agnes talks; the narrator receives and Agnes gives — gifts of food, of friendship and of an increasingly detailed portrayal of her marriage; her adult children; her former friends; the beautiful au pair who once worked for her family and her painting.  At the end, Savas leaves us questioning the nature of the narrator’s passivity as well as the reliability of Agnes’ revelations and the generosity that prompted her gifts.

Although short on action (a warning to dedicated plot hounds: you’ll need to go elsewhere), White on White is a novel of echos & resonances; of character and connections.  Just as the narrator studies the medieval consciousness that created the Gothic sculpture of her dissertation, so Agnes explains her art, “white paintings of the human figure * * *  with expressions like those seen * * * from the medieval period.”  The two are interested in the same period, but from the different perspectives of an academic interpreter and an artist-creator.  Is one way to be preferred over another?  At a very deep level the novel is also about change and mutability.  Characters and relationships shift and even a painting in the narrator’s apartment appears to mutate as the story progresses.  The novel’s structure, a double narration, is equally deceptive.  Is the unnamed graduate student who ostensibly relates the tale actually the narrator, or is it Agnes, who speaks to us directly at times and whose life provides the novel’s structure? Can either, neither or both be trusted?

As a former wanna-be medievalist and an adult student of art history, this novel pushed all my buttons.  Although I obviously loved it, however, it’s not without flaws.  How significant these are depends on your own personal preferences.  (I found the ending, for example, rather unsatisfying and a little melodramatic but neither fact detracted from my overall enjoyment.)  I’ve already mentioned that the novel isn’t heavy on plot; if this is of paramount importance to you, I’m afraid Savas’ character driven tale won’t be your best choice for an enjoyable afternoon.  Keep in mind as well that this is a very visual novel whose characters are closely associated with the arts; certain readers may feel that Savas’ descriptions of art and nature are too digressive.  I, on the other hand, was hooked in from the novel’s opening paragraphs (pages 1-2):

Mornings, the apartment expanded with light.  Light flitted across the walls and curtains, streaked the wooden floorboards, lay dappled on the sheets, as if a luminous brush had left its mark upon my awakening.

From my bed, I could see out onto the small, trellised balcony, lush with the thick foliage and purple flowers of a clematis climbing up a stone wall.  White geraniums lined the railing.  There was a single forged iron chair and a round table * * *

On the dressing table beneath a mirror stood a green ceramic bowl; in the hallway, the dark, rounded arms of the coatrack were bare.

Still, everything was marked with life, rich and varied.  Each room echoed a story of unknown proportion, appearing and disappearing out of focus.  The sparsity gave the place its character, so distinct and so fleeting.   

Gentle readers, I wanted to live in that apartment.  Do you think it’s the purple clematis?

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My first novel by Sarah Moss, Summerwater was a tale of almost unbearable tension.  Let’s hope, gentle readers, that we never experience similar vacations  . . .

Turning to my second short read (second only in a chronological sense, that is), I’m happy to report I was equally satisfied in an entirely different way.  For some time now, I’ve been intending to check out the increasingly well-known British writer, Sarah Moss.  We all know, however, what paves that road to hell, don’t we?  But then, what are road trips for, if not to haul around a big pile of books, some of which you actually read?  I’m happy to report that after a year of gathering dust on the shelf, Summerwater received my long overdue attention.  It did not disappoint.

Summerwind takes place in a remote Scottish vacation park, located on a rather menacing loch; it begins before dawn and concludes late the following night.  The vacation cabins — some owned, others rented — are occupied by a motley assortment of families and couples whose outdoor activities have been frustrated by the torrential, unnatural, unceasing rain:

Although there’s no distance between cloud and land, nowhere for rain to fall, it is raining; the sounds of water on leaves and bark, on roofs and stones, windows and cars, become as constant as the sounds of blood and air in your own body.

The rain, a character in its own right, reinforces the feeling of nature being out of joint.  Moss links the human and natural worlds by interspersing sections dealing with a fawn, an ant hive, a starving falcon and geological time with the sections centered on her human characters.  It’s a wonderful touch that lends a great deal of depth to her story.

Cut off from the outside world by the terrible weather and equally terrible internet access, the would-be vacationers become increasingly unmoored in their isolation.  Middle class and British (mostly Scottish, with one English couple in the mix), they are united in only one thing, i.e., their distaste and distrust of the “foreign” family occupying one of the cabins.  Variously described as Poles, Gypsies or Ukrainians, their music is loud, their manners uncouth and their ways are not the ways of their temporary neighbors.

It’s clear from the beginning of the story that something dreadful is going to occur; the suspense lies in what will it be, when will it happen and who will get the ax.  Will it be the obsessive runner who persists in her solitary and grueling runs despite her bad heart or the quietly resentful retired doctor who drives just a little too fast in his “boomer mobile”?  The kid who’s taken his kayak too far from land when the storm hits or his bored sister who slips away from her family to meet a stranger in the woods?  Or one of the many other characters in this ensemble cast?  By switching the point of view from one character to another, Moss gives the reader wonderfully realistic depictions of each (no one does teenagers better) while ratcheting up the suspense to an almost unbearable level.  About midway through the novel, I had to stop and read the end simply so I could relax enough to enjoy the rest of the story.  Highly recommended, except perhaps for the morbidly timid.

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Two works that I’ve recently read by Claire Keegan, a new personal favorite.  I’ve just added Walk the Blue Fields, one of her short story collections, to my Mount TBR.

The third in my most excellent trifecta of excellent fiction writers is Claire Keegan, whom I read for the first time earlier this month.  As even the most casual visitor to the bookish internet must know by now, Keegan’s Small Things Like These has been widely and very favorably reviewed on numerous blogs.  Although I was mildly curious about Keegan, whose work was unfamiliar to me, I initially had no intention of reading her novella; I’ve read a fair amount of reporting on Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries and didn’t feel I could emotionally handle the subject even in a work of fiction.  After reading the third (or was it fourth?) highly favorable review of Small Things, however, all written by bloggers whose opinions I respected, I decided to give it a go.  After all, I was curious.  Was it possible for any writer to be that good, for any short story/novella to be that morally perceptive or for any fictional character like its protagonist to be that sensitively portrayed in all his glorious, fallible humanity?  Well, yes.  It’s been many years since I’ve read William Trevor, my own personal god of the short story, but I’d rank Small Things as equal to the best of his work.

Since I’ve nothing new to add to the many fine reviews I’ve read of Small Things, however, I’ve decided to limit my comments to Foster, an earlier Keegan work.  Originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, Foster was later published in an expanded form by Faber and Faber (a most unusual step in the publishing world).  A simpler, less morally complicated tale than Small Things, it’s the story of a neglected child, temporarily abandoned by her family for the summer to grieving foster parents.  Despite the notorious difficulty of creating a believable child narrator, Keegan never gets a note wrong in her portrayal of her wary young girl narrator (her age is never specified, but she appears to be around eight years old).  In a beautiful, utterly realistic way that depends as much on what’s left out as on what is said, Keegan shows how the child slowly gains a sense of trust and belonging when she is given attention and nurturing in a home “where there is room and time to think.”  Although Foster lacks the moral complexity and drama of Small Things, I actually preferred its beautiful but utterly unsentimental depiction of human nature, the petty and malicious as well as the good.

I’ll conclude my short reads section with a word or two about Slightly Foxed, a quarterly periodical to which I’m mildly addicted.  If you’re on my side of the Atlantic, it is a bit of an indulgence, but it’s such a perfect way to pass the time between novels, while discovering some half-forgotten treasures from yesteryear, that I justify it as a birthday or Christmas gift, from Janakay to Janakay, so to speak.  The articles are short and beautifully written, often by well-known writers; and the format lends itself to dipping and skipping, so it’s perfect for short attention spans.   If any of you are current or former readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this pricey-but-worth-it gem.

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This recent jackpot issue had a number of articles on my favorites, including Trollope’s Barsetshire Novels; Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop & Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine.  Oh, and a Patricia Highsmith novel I haven’t yet read ….

B.  TRAVEL

Because Washington is such a city of museums, my first stop is almost always . . .

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Washington’s National Gallery of Art.  Not a great photo (drat that truck!), but it nevertheless conveys the scale & size of the entrance to the West Building, the original part of the museum.

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Whenever I visit the National Gallery, these two paintings by Giorgio Morandi are mandatory must-sees.  While I think they’re sublime, Mr. Janakay considers them a bit dull (but then, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?)

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This New York street scene (1902) by the American realist painter Robert Henri is one of Mr. J’s favorites.  I find it (yawn) somewhat interesting . . . .                            

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The National Gallery’s enormous blue chicken contemplates Washington’s skyline.  The Museum’s founder, a very serious robber baron & admirer of traditional European painting, would not have been amused  . . . .

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I can’t be in the D.C. area without a nature walk in one of my favorite spots. This lovely, if stark, photo is from Maryland’s Little Bennett Regional Park, a short drive from downtown Washington and a nice break from all those museums.  The photo was taken a few weeks ago; by now there’ll actually be a little green here and there.
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It’s equally vital to visit Politics & Prose, one of the leading independent bookstores in the U.S.

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Just a smidgen of P&P’s riches; most of the fiction is in an adjacent room.

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Since I had visited P&P only a few months before, my haul this time was relatively restrained. The two military histories (shudder) are Mr. Janakay’s selections.  He’s very picky about his nonfiction and seldom buys from a non-specialist source; I included them in the photo to give you an idea of the selections available in this marvelous bookstore.

For the last bit of sightseeing, it was back to a museum, albeit one I seldom have time to visit.  Nestled in the heart of Washington’s estate area, Hillwood Museum & Gardens remains something of an unexplored treasure for most tourists.  A former residence belonging to Marjorie Post, the sole heiress of the founder of what later became General Foods (jello, cereal or frozen veggies, anyone?), I think of Hillwood as an American equivalent to a British stately home, albeit one associated with oodles of dollars rather than aristocratic descent.  Hillwood is a treasure trove of French antiques and porcelain, as well as Russian imperial relics; Ms. Post was the wife of the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union when the Bolsheviks were happily trading Romanov bling for western currency.  If you don’t care for Fabergé eggs or the nuptial crowns worn by Russian princesses, Hillwood’s magnificent gardens provide a wonderful respite from the huge and bustling city that seems (but isn’t) a million miles away.

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One of Mr. J’s photos of Hillwood’s exterior.  Although I don’t often visit, I generally enjoy myself when I do; the museum’s contents are a feast for the eye, the cafe is quite good and the gardens are stunning at any time of the year.

After several days of unseasonably warm weather, the mercurial Washington climate decided that it was winter after all on the day of my Hillwood visit.  Although it was too rainy and cold to walk in the gardens, the greenhouses were open and the orchids were almost, if not quite, in full bloom.  Since I enjoy gaudy tropical flowers very much, I’ll leave you with several shots of blinding color, courtesy of Mr. J:

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After the excitement of the big city, it’s home again, where two of our resident aliens were getting ready to levitate up to their space ship:

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That it for now (and I’m still working on that review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood . . . .)

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins: personal & national transitions

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My only previous experience with Icelandic writing was Auour Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  For #NordicFinds, however, I resisted the urge to return to the same writer because I wanted to try someone new.  Do I regret my decision?  Well, you’ll have to read my review to find out!

For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir.  I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders.  For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness!  Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers.  Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature  (2014).  It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English

Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader.  You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website).  After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month.  Gentle readers, I am on a streak!  Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?

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Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual.  Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy.  In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company).  Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.

Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad.  Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir.  The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008.  In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels.  And travels some more.  From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris.  The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small.  These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.”  (page 98)

I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s.  Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals.  Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me.  In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book.  Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops).  Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships.  Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):

Hveragerdi,
Woman-Of-The-House Day,
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?

Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.

Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty.  But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed.  I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up.  In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it.  It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you.  Then rise up.  Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature.  You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language.  What constitutes a family?  Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy?  If so, how can it be structured?  What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it?  How do we honor our history while moving to the future?  Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally.  If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you.  But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.

Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month.  Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City).   Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution.  Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries.  Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.

A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

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Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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Drifting Through A Dreamscape: Fleur Jaeggy’s “The Water Statues”

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Although this photo is unrelated to The Water Statues (it’s actually a shot of an underwater museum off the coast of Mexico) it captures perfectly the eerie, dreamlike atmosphere of Jaeggy’s novella.  (Uncredited photo taken from the website of the touring company Aquaworld).  

Although I prefer realistic fiction and am most comfortable with a style that at least nods to tradition, I do occasionally venture further afield.  After all, dear readers, we don’t want to read Anthony Trollope all the time, do we?  Or even dear Jane, as fond as we are of Lizzie’s adventures and Anne Elliot’s romantic travails?  When I do venture to sail in unfamiliar waters (I’m afraid the nature of the book I’m about to discuss has me thinking in aquatic metaphors), it’s a struggle for me to be open to work that is totally new, particularly if it’s written in a non-traditional style.  

My immersion in the blogging world, however, has slowly, slowly, expanded my reading horizons, albeit in inverse proportion to my bank account!  This was the year, for example, that I’ve almost become comfortable reading translated literature.  Having dipped my toe into non-anglophone waters and survived, I decided to take on the ultimate challenge:  a subscription to “the New Classics Club” sponsored by New Directions publishing.  Once I did so, strange, exciting & frequently disconcerting works of fiction began arriving in my mail box on a monthly basis.  This November, for example, brought me:

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Although new to me, those who are better read than I have long enjoyed Fleur Jaeggy’s fiction. New Directions has recently released this early work, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

For those who are interested in bio, Jaeggy was born in 1940 in Zurich, Switzerland, where she spent most of her early life.  Like many of her fellow nationals, Jaeggy is multi-lingual and grew up speaking French, German and Italian.  In her twenties she moved to Rome, where she became friends with the Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachman.  It was in Rome that she also met, and eventually married, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso.  Jaeggy, who writes exclusively in Italian, has continued to live in Italy, where she has bagged most of the country’s major literary prizes.  The Water Statues, originally published in 1980, is an early work; it was in 1989, with Sweet Days of Discipline (translated by Tim Parks) that Jaeggy became widely known.  New Directions has published English translations of these as well as others of Jaeggy’s novels, essays and story collections.  In addition to writing fiction, Jaeggy has also translated the work of Thomas de Quincy and Marcel Schwob into Italian.

All very interesting, I can hear you mutter, but — what about the book?  Who are the characters, what is the plot and, most importantly, what is your opinion of it?  Ah, dear readers, it’s easier to provide questions than to supply answers regarding this enigmatic little work, whose nature and meaning are as elusive as the element contained in its title.  Jaeggy’s novel (more properly novella) clocks in at a scant eight-nine pages of generously spaced text that, technically, could be read in an hour or two.  Its impact, however, is disproportionate to its word count.  Unlike my usual way of plowing through a work of fiction, I read this one very slowly, in small bits spread over several days and stopped frequently to re-read a phrase and to savor the atmosphere.  The impression it creates remains long after the last word is read.

For a variety of reasons, The Water Statues doesn’t lend itself to an analytical discussion.  For one thing, it concerns encounters rather than events and marks time in a circular or even random, rather than linear, fashion.  Essentially its “structure” is a seamless web in which one’s point of entry or exit doesn’t matter too much.  Stylistically, TWS struck me as a hybrid of poetry and prose (some of its short sections definitely call prose poems to mind) as well as a combination of a play — Jaeggy begins with a list of nine “Dramatis Personae” and there are a few sections that consist solely of dialogue — and, well, what isn’t a play. TWS’ viewpoint continually shifts among the characters, who sometimes address the reader directly; these shifts in view and narration heighten the malleable, fragmentary nature of the reality they are experiencing.  The inclusion among the named characters of an additional individual who is never identified but who sometimes narrates or gives his/her version of events further heightens the novella’s mysterious nature.  Who is this person and what are they doing in the story?

The protagonist, to the extent there is one, is Beeklam, the rich and eccentric collector of the statues that provide the novella with its title.  Early in the novella Beeklam relates how as a child he experienced the death of his mother Thelma.  After her death (pp 8-9):

He’d abandoned his newly widowed father to go and “buy statues,” he said, and it was as if he were joking.  From early childhood he’d been drawn to figurative imitations of grief and stillness; from childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him; statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and who start out from where they end.  The child looked at them: he inspected eyelids and napes, drawn into their definitive dimensions of seriousness, some molded by artists of renown, others by unknown workshops.  He had a name for each:  Roselind, Diane, Magdalena, Thelma, Gertrud.  Those statutes with their often amiable faces disclosed the things that dwell in things themselves, vitreous things.

After abandoning his father, Beeklam moves to Amsterdam, where he lives, “quite alone” with his statues in the basement of a villa close to the sea.  Because the villa’s basement extends “down to the water,” its gaps and cracks give (p 8):

a sense of the movement of the waves:  of a submerged world that he [Bleeklam] believed to be populated by other statues with feet (if they still had them) tied to stones; and whose knuckles of stone knocked on his walls.  No one shooed him away when he rested his head on the wall and waited — perhaps for the statues of water to return, or to summon him.  The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.

Although I don’t pretend to any expertise in interpreting these strange and beautiful images, it seems to me that Jaeggy is hinting that the wall between living and dead is thin and that we each long for some form of permanence in a shifting and unstable universe. In this respect, I think it’s significant that Beeklam calls one of his statues by his dead mother’s name. It’s also worth noting that Jaeggy dedicated TWS to her close friend Ingeborg Bachmann, who had died several years previously in a fire (at one point (p 22) Bleeklam remembers reading that “Water is a burnt body,” a line that further hints of themes of death and mortality.)

Emerging from his basement of statues, Beeklam wanders the streets of Amsterdam in the late spring twilight, accompanied by his servant Victor. The lives they observe at a distance and their sporadic encounters with others are their only human connections: fleeting encounters and detached observations, with no lasting effect or central meaning.

The second part of TWS concerns Katrina and Kaspar, who may, or may not, be Katrina’s father.  These “two loners” reluctantly share a pavilion on the grounds of a boarding school; “reticent in speech, they tolerate brief and stinting evening conversations” (p 44).  Images, phrases, characters and even some of Beeklam’s statues make a reappearance in this section of the novella, reinforcing its non-linear structure and the circularity of time.  As once character puts it (p 72), “One says goodbye to everything here; in places like these it’s as if all that is yet to happen were already in the past.”  

It’s impossible to quit this overly long review without briefly mentioning the beauty of Jaeggy’s language and images, all the more striking because her prose is so very economical.  Without wasting a word, or deploying any particularly lush or descriptive adjectives, Jaeggy has an unbelievable knack for creating images that stick in the mind long after her novella is finished.  A crow’s eyes are “two miniature swatches of velvet” (p 53); cabbage leaves dropped in a garden are transformed overnight into “green drawing rooms” teeming with snails (p 84); the child Beeklam has “a horror of anything hereditary, because whatever comes * * * by natural inheritance belongs to the dead” (p 38).  This particular combination of beauty and reticence is something new in my reading experience.

Have any of you, dear readers, explored Jaeggy’s fiction?  If so, what do you think of it?  Although TWS tested my limits a bit, I’m glad I read it and will definitely try more of this very interesting writer’s work (most probably I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories).  Would I recommend TWS to others?  It’s definitely not for those wedded to a traditional style and a linear plot, but for those willing to tolerate ambiguity and open to atmosphere it’s an immersive and rewarding work.                                                                                                 

“Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far

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

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

SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE 

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Six of my “repeaters,” as of June 30.  Although I don’t read each of these writers every year, I do tend to return to them at periodic intervals . . . .

As a reader I am both loyal and tenacious, i.e., when I find a writer I like, I’m automatically “in” for her next novel and will frequently start working on that writer’s backlist as well.  As a result, my yearly list almost always includes at least a few writers from prior years, although the particular combination of names may vary.  Six of this year’s repeaters (there have actually been more but hey — we’re doing a “six in six” roundup here!) include:   

Beryl Bainbridge (BB).  Although I’ve always enormously enjoyed BB’s work, I took a rather extended break from it after reading a novel or two that didn’t quite do it for me.  This year, however, Tony’s excellent review of BB’s The Bottle Factory Outing reminded me of just how much I enjoyed Bainbridge’s elegant prose and her unique view of the world.  Resisting the temptation to re-read an old favorite or two (since I’m big on re-reading, this was difficult) I opted to try Every Man for Himself, in which a very privileged young man (he’s a nephew of J.P. Morgan) thinks it’s a great idea to book a homeward voyage on the Titanic.  Well, we know how at least one part of the story is going to end, don’t we?   Bainbridge, being Bainbridge, however, never fails to throw her readers a curve ball or two and this particular luxury ship as a metaphor is a perfect vehicle for her gimlet gaze at Edwardian Society at its height.  Because I tend to avoid fiction (and movies ) invoking the Titanic (frequently too sentimental and/or melodramatic, don’t you think?) I was very skeptical the novel would work for me.  Another of my egregious literary misjudgments, I’m afraid, as it was a fabulous read.  If you share my phobia about things Titanic (Titanophobia?), fear not, gentle reader.  This coming-of-age tale conjoined with the sinking of a very large ship is Bainbridge at her best.

Sylvia Townsend Warner.  A favorite writer of mine, so much so that I actually summoned the energy last year to write a real review of one of her wonderful books.  Since that time I’ve been hoarding The Flint Anchor to read for Gallimaufry’s annual STW week.  Although Anchor is classified as historical fiction, it’s leagues above what’s included in this genre.  Warner’s combination of realism and imagination is equaled IMO only by Hilary Mantel’s; both writers have the ability to convince me that I’m reading an actual account of an era while at the same time enriching their stories with modern flashes of insight and imagination.  If you haven’t read Warner before I wouldn’t recommend that you begin with Anchor, which does start a bit slowly; if you need sympathetic characters with which you’re able to identify, I’d probably skip Warner altogether.  If you’re looking, however, for an unforgettable reading experience from a master of English prose, then head for this novel about a 19th century Norfolk merchant and his tyrannized family.  Despite my intense enjoyment of Flint Anchor, I didn’t manage a review for STW week.  Not to worry, gentle readers, as Gallimaufry’s excellent review says it all.  (Note to Gallimaufry: typepad frequently gives me technical problems, so I wasn’t able to leave any comments.) 

Valerie Martin.  A prolific and wonderfully skilled author that I’ve somewhat lost track of in recent years (if you haven’t read Property, put it on your TBR list immediately!).  I was happy to renew our acquaintance this year with Martin’s latest, I Give It To You, a wonderful novel involving a writer’s use, and sometimes misuse, of fiction to interpret another’s life.  Set in a beautifully described Tuscan countryside, with an interwoven plot strand involving Mussolini’s Italy, what’s not to like?

Joe Abercrombie:  No one does dark fantasy better than Joe A.  Why read George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones when Abercrombie’s novels are available?  And better?  Unlike Martin, Abercrombie does tight plots, has a wicked sense of humor and can actually finish a story line (is it obvious, dear reader, that I’m a disgruntled fan of George R.R.?)  From December 2020 to mid-February 2021, Abercrombie’s novels were calling my name; I totally immersed myself in his deliciously cynical world.  Abercrombie’s realpolitik, tricky plots and flawed characters were such a perfect escape from pandemic and moving-to-a-new-house stress.  When the dust cleared, shortly after my eyesight gave out, my total was two complete trilogies and the first two volumes of a third (last volume’s due out this September.  Guess what I’ll be doing then?).  Readers, what can I say?  That’s a lot of trilogies.  If you’d like to sample Abercrombie’s work on a less immersive basis, I’d recommend Best Served Cold, which can easily be read as a standalone novel.  

Elizabeth Bowen.  As I’ve noted before, Bowen is one of those writers with whom I have long had a problematical relationship.  She’s one of the greats, no doubt about it, and her prose can be absolutely gorgeous but  . . .  at times she’s just a bit too nuanced and elliptical for little old me, who dearly loves an unambiguous story told in a straightforward manner (yes, dear reader, some of us never quite leave our childhood behind).  Yet Bowen is one of those writers to whom I keep returning and I’ve slowly but steadily whittled away at her novels after discovering her work a decade or so ago.  (I think Hotel and A World of Love are the only ones I haven’t yet read.)  This year’s Bowen was Eva Trout, a wonderful novel involving a socially challenged and very rich young woman, a gun that goes off at a most unexpected time and the inability of humans in general to communicate anything important to each other.  As if Bowen’s wonderful prose and the very interesting questions she raises aren’t enough to make it one of the best things I’ve read this year, the novel is also very, very funny in spots (there’s a luncheon scene I’d rank with some of Saki’s finer sketches).

Anita Brookner.  After being a rabid (if one may use such a word in connection with such a genteel writer) fan for many years, I drifted away from Brookner’s work when she was slightly past mid-career.  Undeterred by my desertion, the wonderful Ms. B just kept turning out her elegant, psychologically insightful novels.  I hadn’t intended to read anything by Brookner this year, but Jacquiwine’s reviews of Brookner’s novels (she’s working her way through them in publication order) have been so much fun to read I was inspired last spring to re-read Misalliance, one of my favorites.  This time around, I enjoyed Brookner’s tale of the intelligent, lonely Blanche and her nemesis, a husband stealer named Mousey, every bit as much as before.  

SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE READ IN AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION AND SIX WRITERS WHO ARE NEW TO ME 

Until I started blogging, I really avoided translated literature for a variety of reasons, none of them good.  One of the great joys of the last year (and, face it, weren’t we all seizing on the teeniest little bit of joy in that awful pandemic year?) was letting go, or at least beginning to let go, of that irrational prejudice, with some very happy results as a reward (the only downside has been an exponential explosion in my TBR list).   Since I’m new to reading translated fiction, practically every translated novel that I read in the early part of this year (exception noted below) was by a writer who was new to me. Taking advantage of Jo’s invitation to be creative, I’ve decided to combine these two categories.  

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Several of these novels are thin, but mighty; their authors know how to pack a powerful punch into a minimum of pages.

Aoko Matsuda.  Placed at the bottom of my pile only for convenience (the other books stack up nicely on top of it), Matsuda was one of this year’s wonderful discoveries.  Humor!  A feminist slant!  A great translator (Polly Barton)!  Great characters and clever plots!  Matsuda’s collection of short stories inspired by Japanese folk & fairy tales has everything.  Although I read it back in January, thus beginning 2021 on a really high note, I’m afraid Abercrombie’s fantasy novels and my move to a new house got in the way of a proper review (I’m somewhat optimistic that I’ll manage this for #WIT month which begins, my heavens, can it really be tomorrow????)

Amélie Nothomb.  I’ve been intending for (literally) years to read something, anything by this very interesting French/Belgian/grew-up-in-Asia novelist.  Since she’s amazingly prolific (think Joyce Carol Oates) I had quite a lot to choose from.  Because I’m drawn to mother-daughter tales, I decided on Strike Your Heart, the story of an unloved daughter and the effects of that maternal deprivation on her life.  Since I’ve not read any of Nothomb’s previous work, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I must admit I was surprised by her terse style and the almost mythic nature of her story.  This short and disturbing novel (the mother’s psychological brutality in the opening pages made me mildly queasy) can be read in an afternoon.  Its effects, however, linger for quite some time afterward.  

Magda Szabo.  Including Szabo’s Katalin Street in this twofer category is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve previously read her wonderful novel The Door.  But, hey — this is my list and if adding it here causes any of you to read it I’m sure you’ll forgive me for you’ll be reading a marvelous novel.  Szabo’s tale of three interlocked Budapest families whose lives are torn apart by the German occupation of 1944 is quite different from The Door (aside from a more complex story arc, Szabo plays with a touch of magical realism by making one of her many characters a ghost) but is almost as good.  Absolutely not to be missed.

Jens Christian Grøndahl.  Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy was another great discovery from the earlier months of the year.  I must admit that a somewhat prurient curiosity drew me to this novel in which the narrator addresses her dead best friend, who just happens to have stolen the narrator’s husband (I’m addicted to tales of marital betrayal.  Don’t ask why).  You can imagine my surprise in finding a spare, poetic meditation on grief, friendship and marriage.  I absolutely loved this book and have now added to my TBR list everything of Grøndahl’s that’s been translated into English.

Margarita Liberaki.  Do you, dear readers, enjoy coming of age novels written in beautifully sensual prose?  Are interesting female characers and a sense of atmosphere high on your requirements for an ideal reading experience?  Are you less exacting with respect to plot and action sequences?  If so, Liberaki’s Three Summers, which charts the lives and relationships of three young sisters growing up in a suburb of Athens shortly before WWII, should be your next novel.  Regardless of the time and place in which you read it, Liberaki will instantly transport you to the Greek countryside of the mid-1940s, in which you’ll almost smell those red poppies and hear the bees in the garden.

Eileen Chang.  Languages as well as a universe of emotional difference separates Liberaki’s novel from the beautiful, brutal short stories contained in Love In a Fallen City (oddly, I think the two women are roughly contemporaries).  If you’re seeking gentle tales of romantic love, well, Chang is not your writer.  Despite the title, her stories are about anything but love; rather, they center on power, exploitation and raw sexual politics, all told against the exotic setting of mid-20th century Hong Kong.  I loved this collection of stories, originally published separately in the 1930s-1940s, and put together by NYRB Classics.  Next on my reading for Chang will be her Little Reunions, also an NYRB Classic.

SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST 

As I noted above, 2021 has been an exceptionally good year for me as far as my reading selections are concerned, with scarcely a dud among the lot.  Although it’s difficult to limit my choice to six (for one thing, I keep changing my mind) my current selection is as follows (those who bother to count will notice that I’ve sneaked in a seventh novel):  

Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel.  Another take on a love triangle, combined with a sensitively rendered portrait of childhood, told in beautiful prose by a marvelous, and marvelously underrated, American writer.  Stafford was a journalist and writer of short stories, with only three novels to her name.  Of these, only one, The Mountain Lion, seems to have remained continuously in print.  Thankfully, NYRB Classics has recently republished Stafford’s Boston Adventure (very high on my TBR list) and the Library of America has taken up her work as well. 

Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.

Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton.  A year without a Henry James novel is a sad year indeed.  As much as I adore James, one has to be realistic about one’s available time and attention span, so I chose a shorter work to squeeze in this spring, keeping in mind that “short” does not equate to simple when reading HJ.  Being a material girl myself, I was eager to see how this duel to death over the family heirlooms would play out.  As usual, HJ did not do the expected but then — that’s why he’s The Master.    

Paula Fox’s  The God of Nightmares.  This is the year that I’ve finally gotten to Paula Fox, a very interesting American writer whom I’ve been intending to read for years and years.  This novel of a young woman, her fading actress-aunt and their bohemian circle of friends in 1940s New Orleans is told beautifully and with a complete lack of sentimentality (always welcome in novels with New Orleans’ settings).  I am now an avid fan of Paula Fox and expect to read many more of her novels.    

Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind.  One of my “rescued from the back shelf” books; that it remained unread for so many years speaks very poorly of my judgment.  I loved this novel, for all the reasons I discussed in one of my few reviews this year.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Flint Anchor.

Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  An impulse choice, but can one ever go wrong with Austen?  Because I first read Persuasion at a particularly low point in my life, when facing the results of several very bad choices, this novel has a special place in my affection.  Don’t we all need to be reminded at times that a bad choice can be redeemed?  Aside from a wonderful heroine in Anne Elliot, Sir Walter is one of Austen’s great comic creations.  

SIX SHORT READS

This is one of my “invented” categories, i.e., it’s not on Jo’s “Six in Six” list.  Although I’ve never been a big reader of short stories or novellas, I found myself turning increasingly to both in 2020, when I (like many others) found it so difficult to concentrate on novels.  The willingness to try shorter works has carried over to 2021, when I’ve finally started to read some of those many Melville House and Penguin novellas that have been sitting, neglected, on the shelf.  So far this year I’ve managed:  

Willa Cather’s “Alexander’s Bridge.”  A very early work, with an uncharacteristically urban setting (Boston and London, no less), this is a satisfying if flawed introduction to Cather’s work.  A love triangle in which two strong and very interesting women are being strung along by the same guy, who can’t quite make up his mind between the two.  Considered by critics to be not among Cather’s best, it’s still very much worth reading.  

Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone.”  Not quite first rank Wharton IMO but still better than almost anything else written during that period.  A brilliant, famous woman bestows her love on an unworthy object, who ultimately betrays her trust in a particularly dishonorable fashion.  Wharton’s style and signature irony save this novella from being a tad sentimental and melodramatic.  

Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love.”  Another coming of age tale, with a twist.  Although I guessed the plot well in advance, this novella was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  It’s the first thing I’ve read by Turgernev; now I’m eager to read his Fathers and Sons.  

Joseph Conrad’s “The Duelist.”  After watching Ridley Scot’s great movie of the same name for the umpteenth time, I finally read the source material.  Although I’m not a big Conrad fan, this story of mad obsession, in which the irrational rancor of the duelists reflects the insanity of Napoleonic Europe, was a gripping and very satisfying read.

Stefan Zweig’s “Fear.”  Ah, the carnal lust lurking beneath the respectable facade of the Viennese bourgeoisie!  Adultery, guilt and blackmail!  No one does this type of thing better than Zweig.  

James Joyce’s “The Dead.”  I’ve read it before, but what does that matter?  A work to re-read, as many times as possible during one’s life. 

SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE

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MY SHELF OF SHAME:  SIX BOOKS THAT I’VE HAD FOR MORE THAN SIX YEARS WITHOUT READING THEM

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As I indicated at the beginning of this post,  I devised this category largely because I have so very many unread books.  The above, a mere bump on the iceberg, were chosen purely at random:

Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down: this one belonged to Mr. Janakay’s grandmother, who was quite a reader.  In my possession, unread, since 1985.  I love West’s novels, but just can’t seem to get to this one.

Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies:  In my possession since shortly after its publication in 2008 (note: I have the other two volumes of the trilogy as well, also unread).  Not to worry, dear readers!  I’ll get to all three.  Sometime.

Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights:  sitting on my shelf since 2015; I can’t understand why, as I’ve always wanted to read it.

Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare.  I’ve been dying to read this one since 2009.  One day.

Ursula Holden’s The Tin Toys.  I don’t know the precise date I acquired this, but it’s been warming the shelf for at least a decade.  I actually took it with me on a long overseas birding trip, but ended up reading several of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels instead.

Esther Freud’s The Wild.  Again, no precise date of acquisition, but this one’s looking pretty foxed.  It was published in 2000, and I’m guessing I acquired it in 2011, when I first discovered Freud’s novels and went on a massive Esther Freud binge.  I love her work, so I’ll definitely read it.  At some point.  

 

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All this unread stuff is just too, too depressing; Maxi’s had enough of this “Six in Six” business!  She’s probably right.  It’s time, dear readers, to follow her example . . . .

Rescued from the Back Shelf: Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind

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I’ve had a copy of this book for over a decade without once reading a single word it contains.  About time for a rescue mission, wouldn’t you say?

Are you sometimes surprised, dear reader, at what you actually discover when you start browsing among the peaks and vales of your very own TBR mountain?  I’m not referring to that discarded tea cup that went missing a year ago, or the scrap of paper on which you’d written all the passwords to your various online accounts, or even (gasp! ) to the odd little bit of multi-legged organic life (you see, I hold nothing back).  I’m referring, of course, to books!  Notable books from yesteryear’s “best of” and prize lists!  Sales books that were so attractively priced they demanded to be taken home!  Serendipitous books rewarding an afternoon’s ramble in musty old secondhand shops and elbowing others at crowded library book sales!  Impulse books (this category speaks for itself) and books acquired with an eye to impressing your visitors!  Books that you were hot to read after a particularly glowing review by one of you naughty bloggers (names are unnecessary — you know who you are) but that you never actually read because you lost interest before your hard-to-locate copy arrived!  “Mystery” books whose reasons for being on your shelves is now a conundrum that will never be solved!  This “discovery phenomenon” (my own term, for lack of a better) no doubt mystifies organized readers but for book hoarders such as myself, well, let’s say it happens on a fairly regular basis.  This was particularly true in 2020-2021, a period in which I’ve done a massive amount of  packing, repacking, unpacking, shelving and reshelving of massive quantities of books.  Since I’m past the point of embarrassment in this regard (I reached this milestone the first time I repurchased a replacement copy of a book I’d previously discarded), I’ve decided to share my discoveries in “Rescued from the Back Shelf” reviews, which I’ll post every now and then as the spirit moves me.  On the theory that anything I’ve not touched in three years badly needs rescuing, I’ll limit these reviews to books that I haven’t read within three years of the time I acquired them.

As the needle-witted (I adore Georgette Heyer’s use of Regency slang) among you have no doubt concluded by now, my inaugural “Rescued from the Back Shelf” review is Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, which was first published in 2006.  Although I can’t remember the exact details, I had certainly acquired a paperback copy of the novel no later than 2010.  Doing so seemed a good idea at the time.  Nunez, while not as famous as she subsequently became (she didn’t win a National Book Award until many years later), already possessed a substantial literary reputation.  The novel’s reviews were good to excellent and the story seemed atmospheric and character-driven, two things that always heavily influence my reading choices.  On the minus side, however, the novel centered on the 1960s counter culture and its aftermath, a period that’s never particularly attracted me as a setting (how many student radicals and drug trips can you read about in one life time?).  I was also somewhat daunted by its length (almost four hundred pages) which meant a sizable time commitment; as well as several critics who thought the plot rambled a bit.  The claim by at least one reviewer that Last stood “the American Dream” on its head didn’t help; since I’ve always been very resistant to novels about the American Dream (whatever that is), I was logically a little hesitant to embrace any topsy-turvy version of it.  So you see, dear reader, the pros and cons for giving shelf room to this novel were rather evenly balanced.  Although it’s impossible to say with any certainty at this point in time, a combination of impulse and greed most likely tipped the scales, i.e., my local Barnes & Noble had probably placed it on a “3 books for the price of 2” table, which was always located strategically near the check-out line.

In the years that Last subsequently sat on my book shelves, I’d occasionally consider actually reading it, but invariably other, newer and more attractive candidates for reading time claimed my attention (besides, after seven or eight years I thought Last was probably too dated to be anything more than a period piece).  Since the book had been gathering dust for over a decade, it was a logical if heart-rending decision to get rid of it during last year’s ruthless, pre-move cull of my books.  Of course, I only did so after I had put an electronic version on my kindle in case I had any second thoughts!  As fate would have it, during one of those dreadful dry spells between books, I was recently marooned in a medical waiting room, frantically scrolling through my kindle searching for something, anything to read, saw Last for the umpteenth time on the menu and, in the same spirit in which I chose the name of my blog, thought “what the heck!  I might as well read this since I’ve nothing better to do.”  At this point in my narrative, commonsense suggests I should leave you dangling, dear readers, as an incentive for you to finish reading my post.  I’m so enthusiastic about this book, however, that I want to share the good news immediately.  The Last of Her Kind is a wonderful, absorbing, well written and very topical novel.  It says much, and nothing good, about my literary judgment that it too me so long to get around to reading it.

The novel, which is divided into seven sections and spans a period of approximately thirty years, centers on the very different lives and the intense but uneasy relationship between Georgette George and Dooley Ann Drayton, two women who meet in the late 1960s when they are assigned as freshman roommates at Barnard College, an elite women’s school in New York City.  The episodic structure of the novel reminded me in many respects of time lapse photography, as the considerable time lapses between sections produces what are almost snapshots of each woman’s life at a particular point in time.  There are additional chronological shifts within each section, which give additional information about the characters, how each arrived at that particular juncture in her life and what’s going on in the world around her.  This last is an important point; despite the heavy marketing emphasis on the relationship between the two women, anyone expecting this to be a straight “female friendship” read will be disappointed.  Although I may be alone in this view, I regard Last as an almost sociological novel in the 19th century mold; like the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Trollope, Last says as much about contemporary society as it does about the exploits of its characters.  Nunez tells her story retrospectively through the eyes of a middle-aged Georgette/George (at various times of her life she goes by either and her character is as mutable as her name).  George is the primary point of view character and the first person narrator for most of the novel, which is an informal journal that George is compiling to be read, if at all, by her children after she’s gone (narrating events long after they occurred George freely admits that time may have altered or erased her memory of the facts).  Although George is the story-teller, however, the story largely belongs to Ann, who quickly drops her given name “Dooley” for reasons I’ll explain below.  While George’s consciousness shapes the narration, and determines what facts we do or don’t learn, it is Ann who propels the narration and it is the mystery of her character that keeps the reader hooked until the end.

The two first meet in the fall of 1968, “the year of Tet, the year of the highest number of American casualties in Vietnam,” of the Prague Spring, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the My Lai massacre and the bloody battle between police and demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The youth revolt of the 1960s was well underway, at least at elite schools such as Barnard (it would be two years before the Ohio National Guard gunned down students at Kent State).  Nunez does a wonderful job of conveying the dangerous and heady atmosphere of those times.  There’s hardly a significant counter culture event of 1960s America that the novel misses, particularly in the first two and longest of its sections.  Woodstock; Altamont; the music and drug scenes; the increasingly radical student political movement; free love and the clinics dispensing free birth control; the fashions; the first stirrings of the Women’s Liberation movement; the growing student hostility towards police and parental authority — well, it’s all pretty much there in varying degrees.  With a lesser writer this could have been a confused hodgepodge or a boring list of the era’s events  (“Weather Underground?  check.  Acid trips?  check.  Student protests?  Check.  Visit to the free clinic?”  I’m sure you get the idea).  But this is Nunez, with the technical skill and observational powers to bring the era to life.  Yes, the novel is stuffed with events, and dramatic ones at that, but the cities will soon be burning in this watershed era that reshaped many of the country’s cultural norms.

The story that begins in the Barnard College of 1968 subsequently expands to encompass much of the social upheaval of the contemporary American scene.  In 1968, however, George and Ann are simply two new roommates meeting for the first time in a little room in the girls’ dorm.  George (she’s George rather than Georgette during her college days) is a daughter of the underclass hailing from

Upstate:  a small town way up north, near the Canadian border.  Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year. Oh, those days before the globe had warmed, what winters we had then, what snows.  Drifts halfway up the telephone poles, buried fences, buried cars, roofs caving in under all that weight.  Moneyless.  A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars.  People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb. * * * Whole families drank themselves to disgrace, to criminal mischief, to early death. * * * Statistically not a high crime area, but a world of everyday brutality:  bar brawls, battered wives . . . acts of violent cruelty even among children. * * *  The savage world of the North Country poor.

To complete this dismal picture, George’s father disappeared early (a blessing, really, as he was displaying far too much interest in  his pubescent daughter’s physical development); her overworked mother vacillates between indifference and extreme physical violence; one battered sister runs away at the age of fourteen; an older brother returns from Viet Nam addicted to drugs and alcohol; and the two youngest siblings are farmed out to relatives when the family goes on welfare.  George, in short, is only at college through luck, a scholarship and brains and does not possess the upperclass background of a typical Barnard girl.

Miss Dooley Ann Dalton of Connecticut, by contrast, is a golden child of the American aristocracy, gifted with money, lineage and great natural ability.  For many generations her father’s family has owned and operated a surgical supply business and owns valuable medical patents as well; her mother’s family are even older and more distinguished if less financially successful (“Dooley” is a surname of her mother’s family, former owners of many southern plantations and their enslaved workers).  While “Daddy” runs the family business and “Mummy” gives parties providing fodder for the local press, little Dooley Ann wins national essay contests, skips grades in school, writes a children’s book that will be illustrated by an artist friend of her family (and subsequently published) and is even cast as a bit player in a film, thanks to a famous movie director who’s another family friend (he has a summer house adjacent to her family’s on Martha’s Vineyard).  She is also becoming slowing, steadily and irrevocably estranged from her family and her privileged background.  Nunez is very skillful at depicting how that occurs; what sticks in my mind is a scene where Mummy uses role-playing to teach little Dooley the proper way to behave to the family’s servants (“Now let’s say you want to tell Retta [the family’s housekeeper] you’re having friends over after school and you’d like her to bake some brownies.”).  Dooley, who doesn’t realize what’s going on, is heartbroken and humiliated when she gives orders to the family’s housekeeper in “Mummy’s voice” and sees the look of recognition in the woman’s eyes; Dooley “will never forgive herself for playing her mother, for not seeing through the game.”  Long before she arrives at Barnard, Dooley has become “Ann” (using Dooley, a name associated with slave owners was “out of the question”) and is totally estranged from her parents, whom she now addresses as “Sophie” and “Turner.”  Ann knows, despises and rejects every aspect of her parents’ world; she is “capable of loving only what was different from herself.”  She sells her expensive new “college wardrobe” (selected by her mother and envied by George), gives the money to charity and embraces the radical politics then dominating the Barnard campus.  Ann is regarded by her own class and race as a traitor, and is also rejected as an arrogant and ignorant outsider by Barnard’s Black students and the disadvantaged whom she tries to help.  It is a pattern that will repeat itself throughout her life.

At this point, gentle reader, I imagine that you’re asking yourself, “hasn’t this been done before? Two young protagonists from dissimilar backgrounds, learning from their differences and bonding over common experiences, providing a lesson to us all?”  While the theme of ill-assorted companions is admittedly a common one in literature, it’s rare indeed to see it used so skillfully to expose the almost unbridgeable class divides in American culture.  Nunez has an astonishing eye for class differences.  For all her efforts to embrace and achieve a new order of society Ann is both clueless and condescending with respect to the lives of others who have grown up under far less privileged conditions.  Although she treats George with kindness, for example, Ann seems to regard her as more of a “type” than an individual.  Totally oblivious of the implications, she informs George early in their relationship that she had specifically requested a roommate “from a world as different as possible from her own” and was disappointed on finding that George wasn’t Black.  George’s reaction, other than rage, is a resolve to keep her distance, answer questions with silence or lies and thus force Ann “to find someone else to play out her fantasies.”  It never occurs to Ann that the material advantages rejected by herself could be desired by less fortunate others.  With respect to George, Nunez’s eye for class is even more unerring.  George has internalized the idea of failure and her first reaction to any challenge is that success is beyond her reach.  An outstanding student who won a scholarship to one of the country’s most prestigious schools, George literally becomes unable to speak in her classes because of “her fear of not belonging, of not speaking the same language as everyone else.”

For entirely different reasons, both women drop out of school at the end of their sophomore year.  George goes to work as a secretary at a fashionable woman’s magazine and begins to work her way up the masthead.  Ann moves into a communal apartment in Harlem and falls in love with an African-American poet and school teacher who’s also a former campus revolutionary.  The fragile bridge that she and George have built over the chasm of class fails to hold and the two become completely estranged.  One of the novel’s plot arcs is whether they will be able to reconnect and, if so, on what basis.  As George later muses:

I believe you have to reach a certain age before you understand how much life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.

After that, dear reader, can there be any doubt on this issue?  How this re-connection is accomplished, however, and the form that it takes, may very well be different from what you’d expect based on the novel’s beginnings.

My fear that the novel would prove too much of a period piece disappeared about halfway through, with the occurrence of an act of violence as topical as an account from this morning’s news.  This act will drastically alter the lives of both women and expand the novel’s scope to include issues of racial justice, political activism and the morality of a penal system in which Lady Justice unfairly tilts the scales against certain offenders.  The story of unequal friendship that began in the little college dorm room has morphed into a powerful examination of American society’s fault lines.

Despite the impression that I fear I’ve conveyed, Last is far from being an unrelentingly grim novel.  George is a wry and cynical narrator with few illusions about her world, but who nevertheless views life with a sense of humor and a surprising amount of charity.  I particularly enjoyed her stint at Visage, a woman’s magazine similar to the ones I devoured at a certain period in my life, replete with makeovers (“We thought Georgette’s long-haired waif look needed an update”), cosmetic tips, recipes for that “Candlelight Dinner for Two” and the occasional serious interview or poem by W.H. Auden.  Even the novel’s darkest aspects are (with one exception) redeemed by humor and a sense of shared humanity.

As I noted near the beginning of this over-long ramble, the mystery (and power) of Ann’s personality provides much of the force and credibility in this powerful novel.  Is Ann a crackpot or a secular saint?  Do her good deeds actually benefit or harm others?  Her rigidity and unwavering values undoubtedly damage herself and arguably others as well; her inability to imagine life through someone else’s eyes does much to wreck her friendship with George.  Ann is a cause of discomfort and a source of irritation to many of those around her.  Yet to a few (a former teacher; George;  a defense attorney; a prison inmate serving a life sentence for a double murder) she’s an unforgettable figure whose touch has altered their lives.  Although Nunez, like the good novelist she is, provides room for each reader to develop his own ideas on this point, she also gives plenty of hints in the form of literary allusions to guide any interpretation of Ann’s character.  The novel is replete with references to The Great Gatsby, who, like Ann, stubornly clung to a perhaps mistaken idealism; Like Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, George both yearns after Ann’s idealism and serves as witness to Ann’s life.  Another character in the novel compares Ann to Simone Weil and George herself sees a likeness between Ann and the Saint Teresa described by Eliot in her prelude to Middlemarch (although Nunez does not make this explicit, I also thought Ann was at least superficially similar to Middlemarch‘s Dorothea Brooks, the rich young lady who came to ill through her desire to do good in the world).

Like any lengthy novel with an episodic structure, particularly one dealing with multiple characters and several major themes, The Last of Her Kind can justly be criticized for sprawling a bit at times.  Since I enjoyed the sprawl, I wasn’t unduly troubled by this feature.  I was admittedly slightly impatient with the section concerning George’s runaway flower child sister who is seriously fixated on Mick Jagger, but even here I consoled myself with the hilarious (if a trifle too long) fan letter she writes to Sir Mick.  My only serious criticism concerns the relatively short section that relates Ann’s affair with the main love of her life.  Although it’s as well written as the rest of the novel, I thought the object of her affections (while psychologically believable) introduced an overly dramatic and unnecessary twist to the plot.

Although there’s a great deal more I could say about this work, I’ll take pity on myself as well as you and will conclude.  If anyone’s read The Last of Her Kind, I’d love to hear your reaction.

Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites (DDM reading week late entry)

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Are you drawn to tales of English country house and theater life between the wars?  Do you, like me, adore tales of dysfunctional families?  Are you willing to forego a tight plot in favor of atmosphere, character and witty (frequently scathingly funny) dialogue?  If your answer to these questions is “yes” dear reader, stop wasting your time on my post and immediately begin reading du Maurier’s The Parasites!  Beware, however, if you expect a gothic-tinged mystery, need to identify with sympathetic and/or morally upright protagonists or require a tightly plotted, linear narrative in your fiction; if so you may well be happier with another book.  Those who come to The Parasites with an open mind and a slightly cynical outlook will have the pleasure of enjoying a very fine novel.  Those who come expecting another Rebecca or Jamaica Inn are bound to be disappointed unless they adjust their expectations, as Parasites is an outlier among du Maurier’s novels of suspense and historical fiction.  Published in 1949, Parasites is a tale of “contemporary” life, albeit lived at a rather exalted level; although it has both a whiff of decadence and a touch of exotica, it contains no supernatural, mystery or suspense elements to speak of (well, maybe a teeny bit at the end) and its primary male romantic character resembles Noel Coward more than Maxim de Winter.  That its popularity trails that of du Maurier’s better known works is due, I think, to the fact that The Parasites demonstrates a very different aspect of her genius, one that is less preferred by those many readers who more readily respond to the gothic, suspense and supernatural elements present in much of her other work.

I’ve hesitated to review The Parasites primarily because I read it last September and did not choose it specifically for Ali’s wonderful Daphne du Maurier reading week.  But, really, is there a rule that reviews must be limited only to those books that have been completed within some arbitrary time period?  Particularly when that book is as good as The Parasites?  When I was recently mulling over which of DDM’s excellent novels to read for Ali’s event, I was unable to choose because nothing seemed quite right; every time I came close to making a selection The Parasites got in the way.  Although I did mention The Parasites very favorably in my 2020 reading summary, my short blurb was a very inadequate acknowledgment of the very great pleasure the novel gave me in what was generally a rather dismal reading year.  So — The Parasites it is!  Since I’ve missed Ali’s DDM reading week (bad Janakay! never on time) please regard my tardy review as a homage to an event that I’ve enjoyed very much — the reviews I read have caused quite an addition to my TBR  (I’ve deliberated refrained until now from reading Ali’s 2020 review of The Parasites but I’m clicking over to do so as soon as I finish this post).

The Parasites is the story of the Delaney family, particularly its younger members.  Pappy is a world famous singer who’s generally believed to be based on du Maurier’s own flamboyant father, and Mama is an equally famous dancer, who strongly reminded me, at least, of Isadora Duncan.  Their domestic ménage is completed by Niall, Maria and Celia, the three children they have produced in the course of their international careers.  Although the outside world is baffled by the tangled Delaney relationships (Virago ed. at 11-12):

The truth was simple, once learnt and understood.

When Pappy was singing in Vienna, before the first war, he fell in love with a little Viennese actress who had no voice at all but was . . .  very naughty and very lovely and everybody adored her . . . after they had been together a year Maria was born and the little Viennese actress died.

Meanwhile, Mama was dancing in London and Paris, already breaking away from the ballet in which she had been trained, and becoming that unique, unforgettable personality . . . who had no partner ever upon the dim-lit, eerie stage, but always danced alone.  Someone was Niall’s father.  A pianist . . . whom she permitted once to live with her in secret and make love to her for a few weeks only, and then sent away because someone told her that he had T.B. and it was catching.

And then they met in London, Pappy and Mama, when Pappy was singing at the Albert Hall, and Mama was dancing at Covent Garden.  Their encounter was a thing of rapture that could only happen to those two, never to others . . . [t]hey … married, and the marriage brought ecstatic happiness to the pair of them, and possibly despair too . . . and it also brought Celia, the first legitimate offspring of both.

Although “the whole business” initially puzzles even the children, they quickly conclude that precise parentage “did not really matter very much because from the very beginning of time” each of them belonged to Pappy, Mama and each other (Virago, 11).  The hermetically sealed domestic bubble of Pappy, Mama and the kids travels from one great European city to another.  Pappy sings to popular acclaim, in a manner akin to a Pavarotti tour of the 1990s, and Mama “whose every movement was poetry” and  ” every gesture a note in music” dances alone on her stage.  While both fill every theater in whatever city they happen to visit, old Truda, Mama’s dresser, more or less minds the kids.  These are the “dreadful Delaneys,” whom no one much likes and who routinely spread chaos and terror to hotel staff and theater management throughout the continent.

When the novel begins Pappy and Mama are long dead and Niall, Maria and Celia are adults pursuing their own careers and lives.  Maria, now a celebrated actress, has made a “good” marriage to Charles, a conventional English squire whose main attraction is his wealth, social status and landed estate.  Niall, too, is an artist, being a successful composer of popular tunes but without the application (and perhaps talent) to create “serious” music.  Unlike her siblings, Celia has chosen to neglect her considerable artistic talent in favor of caring, first, for Pappy in his declining years, and later for Maria’s children, since Maria is more taken with her profession as actress than with the obligations of motherhood.

The Parasites’ opening scene occurs at Charles’ and Maria’s country house, where Maria, who maintains her own flat near the London theater scene, visits on weekends, almost always with Niall and Celia in tow.  During the course of a “long, wet, Sunday afternoon” (Virago ed. at 1), with papers and gramophone cartons scattered on the floor and the little available light blocked by the “small, square panes” of the French windows, the usually stolid Charles directs an uncharacteristic outburst at Maria and her siblings (Virago ed.at 5):

[T]hat’s what you are, the three of you.  Parasites.  The whole bunch.  You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you.  You are doubly, triply parasitic; first because you’ve traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears; secondly, because you’ve none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy, which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or earth.

Charles’ accusation kicks off the “action” of the novel, such as it is, as the Delaneys, separately and in conjunction, ponder the merits of Charles’ accusation during the following days.  As they do so in “real time,” the novel shifts chronologically between past and present to supply the reader with the backstory of the Delaney family, the siblings’ unusual childhood and chaotic adult lives and the dark, obsessive relationship between Niall and Maria (in her excellent introduction to the Virago edition Julie Myerson rather convincingly argues its similarities to that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights).

Aside from its one-off position in the du Maurier oeuvre, there were several things about The Parasites that I found surprising.  The most obvious was DDM’s sophisticated, almost experimental style.  Aside from her very skillful use of chronological shifts in time and space that allow the reader to experience the story on several different levels, I was strongly impressed by DDM’s psychological acuity, both in how she developed her characters and the manner in which she demonstrated their psychology for the reader.  I found it quite believable that three children of a similar age, thrown together by chance and living the isolated and peripatetic existence described in the novel, would have developed the intense psychological ties demonstrated  by the adult Maria, Niall and Celia.  Du Maurier’s deliberately ambiguous use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” is another example of her rather daring style.  Although the point of view frequently shifts among the three Delaney siblings, the plural pronouns make it unclear which of the three is narrating the story at any given time.  This ambiguity produces a  subtlety disorienting effect, beginning with the novel’s opening sentence that it “was Charles who called us the parasites.”  Is the narrator of this statement Maria, Niall or Celia?  Or some “Delaney entity” composed of all three?  The ambiguity regarding the narrator’s identity at any given moment reinforces for the reader the siblings’ shared identity and lack of psychological boundaries.  As I think this over a bit more, it occurs to me that this stylistic device may be the equivalent of one of those ambiguous or “surprise” endings that sometimes occur in DDM’s suspense and mystery novels.

Glancing back over what I’ve typed, I’m afraid I’ve given the impression that The Parasites is a very serious, unsmiling novel.  Although it does have psychological depths (and some of which are quite dark) nothing could be further from the reality.  The novel is replete with humor, often verging on social satire, which I immensely enjoyed.  Du Maurier makes good use of her theatrical background to flesh out several of her characters, particularly the actress Maria; as I previously mentioned, Pappy is also generally viewed as being modeled on du Maurier’s own extremely colorful father.  One of the funniest sections of the novel IMO was Chapter 16, which describes the wedding reception of Maria and her very proper husband Charles, as well as the subsequent visit of the entire Delaney clan (including the very young Niall’s much older French mistress) to Coldhammer, the estate of Charles’ rigid parents, Lord and Lady Wyndham (Virago ed. at 200-201):

Dynamic and robust, Pappy mixed well with kings and queens — especially those in exile — and Italian noblemen and French countesses, and the more Bohemian of what was termed London intelligentsia; but with the English ‘county’ — and the Wyndhams were essentially ‘county’ — Pappy seemed out of place.  He was unaware of the fact.  It was his family that suffered.

‘But of course we will come to Coldhammer,’ said Pappy. . . . ‘But I insist on sleeping in a four-poster bed. Can you produce one for me?  I must sleep in a four-poster bed.’

*                   *               *              *               *

‘The Queen Anne suite has a four-poster, she [Lady Wyndham] said, ‘but the rooms face north, over the drive.  The view from the south is so much better, especially when our Prunus floribunda is in flower.’

Pappy laid a finger against his nose.  Then he bent down to Lady Wyndham’s ear.

‘Keep your Prunus floribunda for others,’ he said in a loud whisper.  ‘When I visit Coldhammer I expect only my hostess to be in flower.’

Lady Wyndham remained unmoved.  Not a flicker of understanding passed across her features.

‘I am afraid you are no gardener,’ she said.

It only gets better from there.  If you enjoy this type of humor at all, you simply must not miss Pappy’s arrival at Coldhammer (Virago ed. at 203) for a weekend house party, wearing a tie that is far too red (“I must have color . . .  color is all”) and with an excess of luggage, including a suitcase packed with medicines, syringes and home remedies (“‘When I pack’, said Pappy, ‘I pack for all eternity.'” )

Others far more knowledgeable than I about du Maurier’s ouevre have said that the Delaney siblings represent three aspects of DDM’s personality.  Be that as it may, the siblings do seem to embody different facets of the artistic process.  Maria’s studied stage performances are motivated by fame and applause; the more introspective Niall cares little for either and composes his music almost instinctively; and Celia, whose ego demands she be indispensable to others, is an artist manqué who chooses not to develop her considerable artistic skills.  I also think the novel contains interesting hints that du Maurier may be questioning the primacy society accords the artist.  Charles’ outburst (quoted earlier) accusing the Delaney’s of parasitism, goes beyond the personal to also attack “the fool public who allow you to exist.”  I don’t think this aspect of the novel is really developed but I do think it’s at least an interesting suggestion, particularly in view of the subsequent discussion in which Niall and Charles dispute the value of the performing arts (Virago ed. at 7).

Before my blogging days I was only marginally aware of du Maurier’s work.  I had, of course, read Rebecca (several times, actually.  It only gets better with each re-read, doesn’t it?) and My Cousin Rachel as well as various short stories here and there.  About a year ago, however, I re-watched the movie version of “Don’t Look Now” (with Sutherland/Christie), which sparked a re-reading of the novella; after that I went on to additional shorter works as well as The Parasites.  As frequently happens when a particular book or author gets on one’s radar, I also began noticing the many blog postings on du Maurier’s works before learning, late in the day, about Ali’s reading week.  In the course of all this, I’ve gone from a rather condescending view (forgive me, dear readers — we have all had our blind spots) of du Maurier as a popular period novelist with perhaps one great book under her belt to regarding her as a vastly talented stylist with the rare ability to connect with readers at all levels of sophistication.  Although I’m not sure which of her novels I’ll go to next (I am overdue for another re-read of Rebecca),  I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s work.

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

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

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

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Midweek Miscellany: Margaret (Atwood, that is) and Me

Although a few of my Atwood books are still packed, this is most of my surviving Atwood stash (to my intense regret, I discarded several works during my great book purge last winter). Although I kept mostly novels, I do still have a book or two of poetry, a collection of Atwood’s non-fiction pieces and a somewhat dated literary study of her work.

If you spend any time at all in the bookish area of the blogosphere, it cannot have escaped your attention that November was Margaret Atwood reading month (#MARM). Although sheer disorganization prevented me from participating (I’m afraid I’m still much like my nine-year old self, who once showed up two days late to her little friend’s birthday party), Atwood is one of my very, very favorite writers and I did in some way want to demonstrate how much her work has meant to me. I can’t claim that I was a fan from the beginning of her career (I can be a bit slow about these things), as I only began reading her work with Life Before Man, which came after Atwood had published several other novels and a great deal of very highly regarded poetry. I also can’t say I was a die-hard Atwood fan from my first read. I liked the novel but . . . wasn’t it a bit too realistic in spots? Did I really like these characters? Wasn’t the tone just a bit too ironic at times? Reader, what can I say? I was very, very young at the time, salad days so to speak, blood like ice water and judgment as green as a head of lettuce. Even laboring under the weight of these disadvantages, however, I was drawn from the beginning to Atwood’s writing without quite having the savvy to understand why; although I had some reservations about my first Atwood novel, its characters lingered in my mind and I remembered certain scenes and phrases long after I finished reading. Without being fanatical about it, I began catching up on Atwood’s backlist and reading her new work pretty quickly after it came out. An added bonus in this respect was discovering a writer who actually published with such pleasing regularity, so there were many wonderful new things to read. (I adore Donna Tartt but . . . only one novel every decade or so? So very frustrating at times.)

And then, after several years of an every increasing appreciation of Atwood’s work, I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I previously wrote about the experience and won’t repeat myself (click here if you’re interested); suffice it to say that I became the equivalent of a sports fan who dresses in her team’s jersey and shows up at games wearing a silly hat and chanting the star player’s name (imagine, if you can, my standing outside a small independent bookstore, chanting “Atwood! Atwood! rah, rah, rah!”) I had grown up on the fringes of an intensely fundamentalist and traditional culture; did time (and that’s exactly how it felt) in an almost exclusively male environment and was making my living working in another when Handmaid was published. I found Atwood’s ability to recognize certain trends that I had experienced at first hand, and to extrapolate those trends to their logical conclusion intensely real and very, very frightening. I went from a warm appreciation of Atwood’s work to rabid fandom, so to speak. On a chilly October evening a few years after my conversion, I took a great deal of trouble to be one of the lucky attendees who heard Atwood read from Cat’s Eye, her then-most-recent novel. Afterwards I and a couple of hundred other enthusiasts stood more or less patiently in line to have Atwood sign a copy of her work (since most of us were reading an Atwood novel while we waited, the patience part wasn’t too difficult). To grasp the personal significance of my attendance and participation at this event, dear reader, please understand that my actions on that oh-so-long ago October directly contravened principles that have guided my life, i.e., always avoid crowds, never stand in line and never, ever attend literary events on cold nights.

So — it’s fair to say that I love Atwood’s fiction and was delighted to learn of November’s Atwood event. I intended to honor the occasion by re-reading one of the early novels but became sidetracked when I started leafing through Dearly, published in the U.S. on November 10 and Atwood’s first book of poetry in almost a decade.

The latest addition to my Margaret Atwood stash . . . do you think the identifier (“Author of The Handmaid’s Tale”) could possibly be an advertising gimmick intended to draw in viewers of the hit cable series? Regardless, this is a beautiful book in every sense, with a great deal of content in its 120 odd pages

My taste in poetry was formed by the anthologies and collections that are the staple of the undergraduate English courses taught in U.S. universities, which is to say I prefer poems written before 1920, in rhyme and with meanings that are easy to grasp (one notable exception to my criteria is the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins, although I do love his “Spring and Fall”). I have also read very little of Atwood’s poetry, particularly her early work (whose originality and emotional impact are considered superior by at least one critic) nor did I read Dearly with any great intensity, always so necessary with me to fully grasp this very difficult art. So please keep my limitations in mind and don’t hesitate to add your own opinions, comments and corrections to my own remarks.

Although I like most of the Dearly poems very much, do I sink myself beyond redemption, dear reader when I say that I think Atwood’s primarily talent is for her wonderful novels? What I love about Atwood is her wit, her intellect, her sharp observation of the world and its inhabitants, and her uncanny ability to make connections between people and ideas. This makes for interesting, and at times very pleasurable, poetry but it doesn’t quite deliver the emotional impact I look for in the very greatest of poems. In its review of Dearly, the Guardian called Atwood “an undeceived” poet and delicately suggests that a poet, at times, must indulge in a little merciful illusion. I’ve thought about this statement a great deal and while I don’t pretend to fully understand the Guardian’s oracular pronouncement, I sort of get what I think the reviewer meant. Dearly’s poems didn’t give me a transcendent or profound emotional experience (as I had, for example, the first time I read Philip Larkin’s “The Mower”) or cause me to lose myself in their sheer overwhelming gorgeousness of language and imagery (I’m thinking here of a seventeen year old me, reading Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”). Rather, they were perfect examples of that “undeceived” quality mentioned in the Guardian’s review. I’m going to digress a bit here by quoting some favorite lines from “February,” a poem in a previous Atwood collection (Morning In The Burned House), which I think perfectly conveys this aspect of her poetry:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey. In the pewter mornings, the cat,
a black-fur sausage with yellow
Houdini eyes, jumps up on the bed and tries
to get onto my head. It’s his
way of telling whether or not I’m dead.
If I’m not, he wants to be scratched: if I am
he’ll think of something else. He settles
on my chest, breathing his breath
of burped-up meat and musty sofas
purring like a washboard.

Speaking from my own experience, these lines were written by a woman who understands with perfect and unsentimental clarity both the demands of the season and the nature of her feline companion.

Don’t tell Janakay, dear readers, but she doesn’t understand us at all . . .

Dearly itself, as I said in my caption, is literally a beautiful book, with wonderfully heavy, cream-colored pages that have a marvelous tactile quality. Beware, however, if you have any choice in your editions, which I discovered have different cover art and may differ in some other respects as well. My HarperCollins edition published in the U.S. features a spray of flowers that look like poppies done in muted blues and grey-greens, while the U.K.’s Chatto and Windus edition uses the work of noted British artist Kate MccGwire as the basis of its design, in which the author’s name and the work’s title are nestled among a great, swirling mass of blue and grey bird feathers. Although the cover art of the U.S. edition does give a nod to Atwood’s intense interest in the natural world, I’d go for the Chatto and Windus edition if you have any choice; the feather theme ties in far more directly to the poems (many mention or deal with birds), subtly suggests the uplifting nature of the poems and IMO at least is more visually appealing. Additionally, although Amazon’s U.K. website makes this difficult for me to determine with certainty, the fore pages of the U.K. edition appear to contain facsimiles of Atwood’s handwritten notes.

I took this image of the U.K. edition from the Amazon U.K. website; it’s quite a contrast to the more subdued cover art of my U.S. edition isn’t it?

This stuff about cover art and feathers (not to mention your cats) is all very well, you might say, but what about the contents? Atwood is eighty-one years old and many of the poems, unsurprisingly, reflect the experience of a long life and the passing of time. Atwood dedicates the work to “Graeme, in absentia,” her companion of over forty years who died shortly before the collection was published. Although the work as a whole doesn’t appear to have a common theme, it does contain certain broad subjects that are grouped into five untitled sections. The first begins with the very beautiful “Late Poems,” which introduces the general idea of loss and absence. Like “a letter sent by a sailor, that arrives after he’s drowned,” late poems “wash ashore like flotsam” after “the battle, the sunny day, the moonlit slipping into lust, the farewell kiss” have happened. In Atwood’s view, all poems are “late poems.” The second section deals mainly with various aspects of gender (my current favorite here is “Cassandra Considers Declining the Gift,” in which the doomed prophetess says “no” to “Mr. Musician God”). I particularly enjoyed the third section, which deals with what I can only call “strange creatures;” Atwood’s wit and irony are on full display in poems dealing with, among other things, zombies, aliens, sirens and werewolves. After this come poems about nature (including birds, whales, the arctic and wolves) and the frequently nasty things that happen there. The last section contains the poems about Graeme’s fading away (in his last years he was battling dementia) and death.

My current favorite poem from the entire collection (“Blackberries” is a close second) is “Feather:”

One by handfuls the feathers fell.
Windsheer, sun bleach, owlwar,
some killer with a shotgun,

who can tell?
But I found them here on the quasi-lawn–
I don’t know whose torn skin–

calligraphy of wrecked wings,
remains of a god that melted
too near the moon.

A high flyer once,
as we all were.
Every life is a failure

at the last hour,
the hour of dried blood.
But nothing, we like to think,

is wasted, so I picked up one plume from the slaughter
sharpened and split the quill,
hunted for ink,

and drew this poem
with you, dead bird.
With your spent flight,

with your fading panic,
with your eye spiraling down,
with your night.

I’ve gone on many nature walks and have seen these little piles of feathers and bones fairly often; I can’t say that my reactions went much deeper than a passing regret or sadness that soon disappeared. It takes a poet to imagine, and then transform, the panic and exhaustion of that slaughtered creature into the life and beauty of a poem.

Before I end this rather rambling post, a few additional things are worth noting. First is the presence of Atwood’s characteristic wit and sense of humor. While many of the poems are somber, many of the others are very, very funny (I defy anyone to read “Aliens” without a smile). On a more logistical level, the collection contains two poem cycles, “Plasticene Suite,” which deals with the environment and what we’ve done to it, and “Songs for Murdered Sisters,” written for the baritone Joshua Hopkins, whose own sister was murdered (music for this was composed by Jake Heggie). Lastly, and in contrast with my own choices, the collection’s most popular piece appears to be the title poem “Dearly.” The Guardian published a wonderful interview with Atwood, which contains a link to Atwood herself reading the poem; if you’re interested, it’s available here.

Because this posting is a “Miscellany,” I had initially thought I’d include some other, unrelated topics. I became so interested in Dearly, however, things got out a little out of hand and I’m afraid I’ve exceeded my own attention span, not to mention yours as well! So, perhaps a “Monday Miscellany”? Hmmmmmm . . . .