Tag: 20th century writers

2020 Reading Roundup

Isn’t it a relief, dear readers, to have 2020 behind us? Unlike so many in this year of the plague, my personal situation was relatively benign (I had tons of great books, good internet access & my near and dear remained healthy) but even we lucky ones can agree that it’s quite the relief to have 2020 in the rearview mirror. One of the more pleasant annual rituals for a book blogger is the annual summary of books read and enjoyed (or not); it’s especially pleasant this year, where there’s sometimes been little else to enjoy other than books. Being, as usual, just a tiny bit behind the curve in looking over the past year (if you’ve read my blog in the past you may recall that I was several weeks late for Margaret Atwood month), my tally is accordingly

The Books of 2020, or at least most of the ones I managed to finish (I do think I opted out of Daisy Johnson’s Fen after completing only about half of the stories, which I found a little too creepy and disturbing for my mood this year).

coming somewhat after most of the others. This is partly because I didn’t post very much this year and didn’t formally review many books. The pandemic and a long-distance move took their toll; for much of the year my brain was in a state analogous to the slumber mode of a bad computer, making it almost impossible to read anything very long or demanding. I’m not a big numbers cruncher, especially when it comes to books, but I do keep an informal tally and I was shocked to discover that I had read large portions of, and subsequently abandoned, over eleven books. I’ve never been adverse to abandoning or postponing books that didn’t work for me at a particular moment but I’m certainly not quick to do so, especially when, as here, I was actually reading some pretty good things. It was a very odd experience — about halfway through one of the Abandoned Eleven, it was “Bing! I’m done” and off I’d go to another book, which usually met the same fate (if my binger went off in a particularly intriguing work, such as Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, I’d skim the end. Sometimes I wouldn’t bother.) What can I say, dear readers? This was the year I just couldn’t focus.

This was also the year when I received several visits from the Ghost of Books Past (envision, dear readers, a bookish version of Dickens’ famous spectre, only in my case toting bags of gaudy mass market paperbacks and brandishing bookish gift cards — I believe these are called “book tokens” in the U.K.), who insisted that I re-visit various reading adventures of yesteryear. This apparition first appeared in September (here in the U.S., we start commercializing Christmas pretty early). Immediately after I finished John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samara (BTW many thanks, Dolce Bellezza, for that read-along, otherwise Samara would still be adorning Mount TBR) I became absolutely fixated on locating and re-reading books that I hadn’t thought about for literally decades. Seemingly out of the blue (but we know whose doing it was, right?) I suddenly remembered enough information to locate and obtain a yellowing, mass market paperback of Gwendoline Butler’s Sarsen Place, a novel I had read decades ago, as well as a copy of The Vesey Inheritance, another read by Butler from days gone by. Sarsen Place, now sadly out of print, was worth the effort. The Vesey Inheritance was slightly less so but still a fun read.

While I might quibble with the publisher’s description of this work as “bizarre,” I definitely agree with the “delightful” and “intriguing.” Despite a certain number of anachronisms, the mystery plotting was good and I loved its depiction of late Victorian Oxford.
Set in London rather than Oxford and not quite up to the level of Sarsen Place, this was nevertheless a very pleasant way to escape the rigors of 2020 . . . .

Through sheer force of will I resisted the compulsion to spend October re-reading my ten favorite Georgette Heyer novels (it helped that I already knew several of them by heart), but ah, the Ghost of Books Past was far from done with me. The high school I attended several lifetimes ago had a sort of hit or miss library, mostly dull old classics (Tolstoy isn’t terribly interesting to most fifteen year olds) and the librarian had the maddening habit of only ordering one or two books from a series. At that time in my life I had particularly enjoyed one such incomplete series; I won’t identify it except to say it didn’t concern the adventures of either Trixie Belden or Bomba the Jungle Boy. But my school library had only two books from the series, and odd numbered ones at that, so I never learned either the beginning or end of the saga! Imagine the frustration and grief of my little teenybopper self! It was high time, the Ghost whispered, to atone for The Wrong of Reading Only A Few Books From A Series! Heeding my supernatural warning, I started obsessively locating and reading the entire series, seven books total, following the adventures of the main guy, his brother (who pops up around the third book) and then, for gosh sakes, the main guy’s nephew, who’s born somewhere around book five and who carries the saga forward to a new century and a new place (this author clearly knew how to hook a kid in). Ah, dear readers, the joys of completion, all the sweeter for being so long delayed!

After reading/skimming seven books from a Young Adult series (comparatively well written but, let’s face it, with rather immature characters), I could feel the Ghost beginning to fade. In late November and December I really intended to make a final push to read a few more books from my “Back to the Classics Challenge;” I really did, but the past wasn’t yet past, so to speak. Are any of you, dear readers, fans of grimdark, described by N.K. Jemison as fantasy’s equivalent to sci-fi’s dystopia sub-genre? If so, you’ll understand why, when Logen Ninefingers (aka “the Bloody Nine”) summoned me for a re-read, I hastened to obey. In a bit of severe counter-programing to the holiday season, I spent half of December re-reading Joe Abercrombie’s magnificent First Law Trilogy (the Guardian has referred to Abercrombie’s work as “delightfully twisted and evil” and it’s been proclaimed by no less than Forbes as “fantasy at its finest”). Less pompous and far funnier than Martin’s Game of Thrones, and much more attuned to human frailty than Tolkien, Abercrombie’s realpolitik, double dealing and dark humor seemed perfectly attuned to this horrible year. If you liked GOT you’d probably like the First Law Trilogy, provided you aren’t adverse to (very) naughty language and more graphic depictions of the old ultraviolence than you’d find even in Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. Don’t judge me too harshly, dear readers, we all have our moods; sometimes one longs to attend a jumble sale with Pym’s excellent women and at others simply to wander the Circle of the World with the Bloody Nine. Say one thing for Abercrombie’s morally ambiguous characters, say they’re most compelling.

Although I spent the last half of 2020 more or less successfully escaping the present, my reading year did in fact include some forward momentum. Two very bright spots indeed were my increased respect for shorter fiction and a growing interest in translated literature. Prior to this year, I had only occasionally read short fiction and then largely on the theory that it was “good for me,” a type of literary equivalent of “eat your broccoli.” I’ve noticed, however, that my fragmented attention span seems fairly widespread this year and that many of my fellow bloggers as well as myself have taken to reading short stories and novellas. Among several outstanding novellas that came my way, the following three, very different works particularly stand out:

I almost discarded this during the great moving purge; fortunately I started reading the first few pages and changed my mind. Johnson is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows in this spare, beautiful mini-epic recounting the solitary life of one of those marginal people who built the American west.
Maeve Brennan is one of those names associated with The New Yorker; her sparse output is mostly associated with that periodical. This beautifully rendered story of the psychological struggle between an emotionally fragile young Irish girl and her unrelenting grandmother is a masterpiece.
After an unfortunate early encounter with My Antonia, I have tended to avoid Cather’s work. This wonderfully nuanced tale of a rich young girl who gave up a fortune to marry for love has made me reconsider that decision; I’ve begun lining up novels for a “reading Cather” project.

Ah, I hear the murmur through cyber space, did she read no novels during 2020? I did, actually, and although there were far fewer in number than in prior years, they included some wonderful works. In ascending order, the three that have stayed with me the longest are:

Mandel’s latest is almost as good as Station Eleven. Mandel uses the fallout from a disastrous Ponzi scheme to probe the many different paths individual lives can take as well as the responsibility we owe each other. The “glass” of the title refers to an actual structure in the novel; it also suggests the fragility of any one existence and how we so easily can step into another identity.
One of the few books I reviewed last year, Warner’s masterpiece is an absolutely stunning work. Under the guise of an historical novel, Warner uses her depiction of a fictitious medieval convent to ask deeper questions about the meaning of “community.” Although Corner demands a moderate commitment of time (it’s long), Warner’s beautiful writing and wit make the pages fly by.
Gainza’s novel narrowly beat out Warner’s for my most outstanding read of the year. Despite thinking about Optic Nerve a great deal, I didn’t review it, simply because it was so wonderful I didn’t feel I could do it justice! It’s a stunning piece of autofiction in which we see the protagonist’s life and character as they are reflected, and formed, by her interaction with art.
I did say “three” novels, didn’t I? Consider this intriguing novel an honorable mention! Parasites is a wonderfully readable, well-constructed story of three self-absorbed siblings, each the possessor of artistic talent that falls short of that of their famous parents. Quite different from the du Maurier novels I have previously read (Rebecca; My Cousin Rachel), Parasites is loaded with the atmosphere of the London theatrical world in the 1940s. And, oh yes, the novel is said to contain strong autobiographical elements . . . .

Well, dear readers, that’s pretty much it for my 2020 reading year. How did yours go? Anyone else out there, haunted by comfort reads and cursed with fragmented attention spans?

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

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

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

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

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

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