Tag: 20th century writers

Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow: a journey through mists and memory

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Has anyone read Jessica Au’s recent novel, Cold Enough For Snow?  If so, I’d be most interested in hearing your reaction . . . .

Are you one of those organized souls who draws up a plan of action and then actually follows it?  Or are you, like me, a child of spontaneity, someone who prefers to meet on an ad hoc basis whatever life throws her way?  Fear not, gentle reader, that I’m going to ramble off on a comparison of differing life philosophies; rather, I’m merely trying to explain to myself just how my review of Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Woods morphed into a post about Jessica Au’s Cold Enough For Snow!  Blame it on the publisher!

As I’ve probably remarked in the past, part of my bookish self-indulgence during the pandemic included a subscription to the New Classics Club run by New Direction press, which gives me a monthly “surprise” book selected by the editors from the latest additions to their catalogue.  February’s selection, Ms. Au’s Snow, arrived just as I was getting ready for a teeny little break from Gibbons’ charming but quite lengthy 1930s period piece.  Even before receiving my copy, however, I had noticed Au’s novel on the New Directions website and thought it sounded intriguing.  What could I do when fate literally placed in in my hands with last Friday’s mail?  Cold Enough For Snow is brief, really more a novella than a novel, clocking in at a mere ninety-five pages; I always prefer reading to writing, so wasn’t it quite natural to just skim a few pages while I took a break from Stella Gibbons?  It’s pretty clear where this is going, isn’t it?  After my experience with novels by Fleur Jaeggy and Dag Solstad, I suppose that I was a little naive in thinking that a skinny little novel would be more straightforward than one with a heftier page count, for I shortly discovered that Ms Au’s brief novel punches far above its weight.  In short, it’s been adieu, Nightingale Woods, at least for a few days while I gather my thoughts on this very interesting piece of avant-garde fiction.

This is my first encounter with Jessica Au, an Australian writer currently based in Melbourne.  Snow is her second novel; her debut, Cargo, was published by Picador in 2011 when Au was a mere twenty-five years old.  Snow won the Novel Prize, a biennial competition open to writers (published & unpublished) around the world; the prize recognizes works of literary fiction, written in English, “which explore and expand the possibilities of the form, and are innovative and imaginative in style.”  I thought it worth quoting from the Prize’s criteria, as it gives you quite an accurate idea of Au’s novel, which was selected from over 1500 entries.  Three international publishers, Fitzcarraldo Editions (U.K.), Giramondo Press (Australia) and New Directions (U.S.) jointly sponsor the competition, which gives a cash award ($10,000 U.S.) and ensures the simultaneous publication of the winning entry in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

The plot of Au’s novel is very simple.  It begins in the Tokyo airport, where a woman waits for her mother’s plane to arrive before the two begin a trip that she has carefully orchestrated through Japan.  Au never tells us the name of either character.  We quickly learn that the trip is important to the daughter “for reasons she could not yet name” and that her mother had initially refused to come, reluctantly succumbing only after being “pushed.”  The two no longer live in the same city; we learn later that the daughter in fact has never seen the apartment into which her mother has moved.  From the opening paragraphs Au requires the reader to be actively engaged in piecing together her story.  Au tells us that the mother’s suitcase seems “almost new,” even though the daughter remembers it from her childhood, when her mother had “brought it down for the few trips she’d made back to Hong Kong, like for when her father died, and then her brother.”  (page 2)  It is the reader who fleshes out the narrative by inferring that the mother has seldom traveled since her long-ago emigration from Hong Kong to a western country, where her daughters have grown up, and that she had few close relatives or ties strong enough to draw her back to Hong Kong.  This is a very simple example of Au’s subtle and ambiguous narrative technique.  As the novel progresses, the interactions between the mother and daughter become more opaque and the reader is given fewer, and much more subtle, clues as to their motivation and meaning.  Although Au’s style is a world apart from that of Henry James, I find her narrative technique to be reminiscent of James’ in his late novels.  For both these very different artists what is unsaid between the characters can be more important than what is verbalized; both writers require the reader to participate actively in their art.

One striking aspect of Snow is that the daughter narrates the entire novel, meaning that we see the characters’ interactions entirely from her point of view.  Conversations and the mother’s remarks are recounted solely by the daughter, who speaks directly to the reader:

I had chosen Japan because I had been there before, and although my mother had not, I thought she might be more at ease exploring another part of Asia.  And perhaps I felt this would put us on equal footing in some way, to both be made strangers.  I had decided on autumn, because it had always been our favorite season.  The gardens and parks would be at their most beautiful then; the late season, everything almost gone.  I had not anticipated that it might still be a time for typhoons.  Already * * *  it had been raining steadily since our arrival. 

In the days that follow their arrival in Tokyo the two visit museums, temples and art galleries that the daughter has chosen, stay at inns that the daughter has booked and eat at restaurants that the daughter has selected.  And all the time she is probing, probing for her mother’s reaction to what they are experiencing or to episodes from the past.  She clearly wants something from her interaction with her mother, but what and why is a mystery.  The rain, “a light, fine rain, as can sometimes happen in Tokyo in October,” is omnipresent; almost as much of a character as the mother herself, it lends a haunting quality to a novel that is peopled with specters.  Weaving backwards and forwards in time, we learn about the narrator’s absent sister and her family; that dead uncle in Hong Kong; the past events that shaped the narrator’s personality; and Laurie, the narrator’s great love (is he her husband? I don’t think this is ever made clear) and her companion on her previous trip to Japan.  Sister, uncle, lover — physically absent, their presence haunts the narration.  Equally vivid are the absences.  The narrator’s father is never mentioned, nor is the reason for this particular trip at this particular time.

It’s possible to enjoy Snow on many levels.   At the most superficial, there is the sheer beauty of the language and the spare but gorgeous descriptions of the country through which the two women travel.  Au writes with great vividness about the physical aspect of the women’s trip — the museums they visit, the temples they see, the ordinary life that they observe around them.  Her unnamed narrator has an incredible feeling for art and the ability to convey what she is experiencing simply and elegantly.  Despite the distance created by keeping her characters nameless, Au’s story contains real emotion.  There was, here and there, a sentence that stabbed me to the heart, as when the narrator envisions the time when she and her sister will go to their mother’s apartment, the one she has never seen, “with the single task of sorting through a lifetime of possessions, packing everything away,” knowing that “whether out of too much, or too little sentiment,” she would keep nothing (page 78).  At another earlier point in the novel, the daughter actually seems to be remembering (page 5), rather than anticipating, a time when she and her sister “were cleaning everything out of” her mother’s flat, an obvious duty that we survivors perform for our dead.

And what of a deeper meaning, beyond these surface levels?  Each reader will no doubt draw different conclusions from this subtle and enigmatic story.  The novel certainly speaks at least in part to the nature of memory, of how the impressions and sensations that form identity may, or may not, be true or at least factually accurate.  In one of the novel’s most beautiful (if sentimental) sections the narrator recalls a story of her dead uncle in Hong Kong, of the great love affair he had as a young man, a story that was repeatedly told to her as a child.  When, years later and now an adult questioning her mother about it, her mother denies such a thing ever happened and her sister also has no memory of it.

Even more than the mysteries of memory, however, I think Au is telling us that it’s impossible to know another person through intellectual analysis or objective facts.  As a young woman the daughter was fiercely intellectual, consumed by “the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything.”  (page 29).  Her mother by contrast (page 57) believed that people were too “hungry to know everything,” mistakenly thinking they “could understand it all, as if enlightenment were just around the corner;” that understanding lessened no pain and that “the best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches.”  As their time together draws to a close, the daughter thinks that “the trip had not done what I wanted it to,” while her mother smiles “as if she were simply happy that we were in each other’s company, and to have no need for words.”  (page 88)  Perhaps Au is suggesting that this wordless contentment in each other’s company is enough; that in the end we will each remain a mystery to others.

Towards the close of the novel, after the two women have left Tokyo, an incident occurs that casts some doubt on my entire understanding of the daughter’s trip.  To discuss it further would be a bit of a spoiler (besides, you might not agree with me!) so I’ll say no more about it here.  I can’t resist remarking, however, that it very strongly reminded me of one aspect of A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, a beautiful French novella (that also takes place in autumn) that was beautifully reviewed last summer by Jacquiwine.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, Cold Enough For Snow was published by New Directions, an independent publisher based in New York City that was founded in 1936 by a twenty-two year old James Laughlin, when he was told by Ezra Pound that his poetry was “hopeless,” and that he should finish Harvard and do something “useful” (publisher’s website).  New Directions publishes works in a variety of genres and from countries around the world; its list of authors includes Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Jorge Luis Borges, William Carlos Williams and many others.  As an independent publisher, Au’s novel qualifies for Kaggsy’s and Lizzie’s 2022 #ReadIndies event.

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Finishing Off Scandinavia & Murder With Maud

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Have any of you yet met Maud?  Such a sweet old lady and perfectly safe . . . most of the time . . .

As my post’s heading indicates, I’m covering two topics today:  a brief recap of my Nordic reads for January (I did read a few other things but didn’t bother posting about them) and a series of murderously entertaining short stories featuring Maud, a most unusual protagonist.  I’ll be covering these in reverse order, so if you’re interested in one but not the other, you may want to skip.

As #NordicFinds month draws to a close, I find that I can’t quite leave Scandinavia without saying a word or two about Maud, an octogenarian resident of Gothenburg, Sweden.  If you like twisty tales laced with black humor and mayhem, well, she’s definitely worth checking out.  Because I actually read these books last fall (Up To No Good was a re-read to refresh my memory before indulging in Must Not be Crossed)  they aren’t eligible for my Reading Europe Challenge.  They do, however, fit nicely into the #NordicFinds and #ReadIndies months.  Although I read them last year, I couldn’t resist including them on the final lap of this year’s Scandi-journey, particularly as I haven’t previously reviewed them and they provide such a perfect finish for my idiosyncratic little survey of contemporary Scandinavian fiction.  Aside from their content, which provided me with some very happy reading hours, you can see that both books are handsome little volumes, with interesting artwork.  One has a brief but interesting afterword by the author, the other two recipes, one naughty and one nice, for gingerbread cookies.  A word to the wise — if you’re allergic to nuts, don’t eat any of Maud’s baked goods!

Both these little volumes (Marlaine Delargy tr.) are short story collections by the Swedish crime writer Helene Tursten, perhaps best known for her franchise detective Irene Huss, a detective inspector in Gothenburg’s Special Crimes Unit.  If you’re a fan of Irene Huss or Embla Nyström (the protagonist in another Tursten series) you’ll be pleased to learn that both make most entertaining appearances in a few of these stories (first and most notably in “The Antique Dealer’s Death” from Up To No Good).

The collection of stories featuring Maud was born when Tursten, facing a deadline for a Christmas story for one of Sweden’s largest publications, began to panic.  As she explains in her afterword to Up To No Good:

then, she came to me:  Maud.  She was 88 years old and looked like most old grannies.  But inside she was quite special.  Her age was a perfect disguise for a criminal!  Even . . . a murderer.  I wrote the first story, “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmas,” in just three hours, and I enjoyed every minute of her company.  But let’s just say I would not like to have her for a neighbor or a relative!”

Although Tursten knows Maud best, I think she’s a little hard on her creation.  I’d feel perfectly safe living next door as long as I minded my own business, didn’t make too much noise (particularly at Christmas) and kept my animals under control.

Although the books are independent of each other and the stories are still quite enjoyable if you skip around (my usual method for reading a collection), you’ll get the most out of them by beginning with Up To No Good and reading the stories in the given order, as Tursten discloses Maud’s character and background in bits and pieces as the stories proceed.  This slow reveal is in fact a very clever and effective way of tying the collections together.  Maud’s habits are another connecting thread.  She loves to travel & has been “virtually all over the world” (Up To No Good, page 44); is an avid surfer of the net (she considers her laptop, which she ripped off from a Silver Surfers IT course, “indispensable”) and really, really likes to be left alone.  When Maud was eighteen her father died of a sudden heart attack and her once wealthy family discovered the money was gone.  Although Maud’s widowed mother was forced to sell the apartment building that was the sole remaining asset, a clause in the contract gave her and her two daughters the right to live rent free in the nicest set of rooms as long as they wished.  Seventy years later mother and sister are dead, the building is now an ultra fashionable address and Maud, to the frustration of the housing board (its lawsuit to dislodge her was unsuccessful), continues to enjoy her rent free life style.

Maud’s unusual living arrangement is at the center of the plot in  “An Elderly Lady Has Accommodations Problems,” the first of Up To No Good’s five stories.  Life has been peaceful for Maud until the advent of Jasmine Schimmerhof, celebrity child of famous parents (the subjects of Jasmine’s tell-all bestseller), a would-be sculptor and the latest new tenant in Maud’s building.  As Jasmine explains in her blog, Me, Jasmine:

I despise sovereignty and the patriarchy.  I have grown up under that kind of oppression, and I know how terrible it is.  I want to give the finger to all oppressors and tell them to go to hell.  In October, I will be putting on an exhibition at the Hell Gallery.  At the moment I am working on Phallus, Hanging.  It’s going to be a kick in the balls for all those bastard men!

When Jasmine begins a sustained campaign to woo Maud and win the seemingly senile old lady’s good will, Maud becomes suspicious and turns to the internet to discover that Jasmine is rather unwisely hinting on her blog that she may soon be moving into a much larger apartment that currently belongs to an elderly neighbor.  What’s that elderly lady to do, except protect her home?  I won’t say anything more, except to note that Maud helps the patriarchy to strike back in a most unusual way.  The book’s other four stories, in which Maud deals most efficiently with noisy neighbors, a thieving antique dealer and a gold-digging soft porn actress with designs on Maud’s former finance (Maud retains fond memories despite being jilted when her family went broke) are equally entertaining.  Who could imagine that murder could be so funny?

An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed follows a similar format but is not quite more of the same.  Deciding that it’s best to clear out of Gothenburg for a bit after the antique dealer, Maud embarks on a luxury safari to South Africa, financed by the sale of a family heirloom or two.  Tursten skillfully uses the exotic setting to broaden the stories, and to deepen and soften Maud’s character as we learn more of her backstory.  Although I enjoyed Must Not Be Crossed and would definitely recommend it for an enjoyable afternoon of reading, I preferred Up To No Good.  I suspect it doesn’t speak well for my character that I prefer my murders undiluted by humanitarian impulses.

Midnight approaches here in Gulf Coast Florida and that’s enough of Maud.  As I noted above, these books are part of my Scandinavian journey, undertaken as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds month.  They are also eligible for Lizzy & Kaggsy’s #ReadIndies month, as they are published by Soho Press, an independent publisher located in Manhattan.  Soho Crime specializes in atmospheric international fiction and has an impressive backlist of authors.

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Proceeding to the second part of my post, I’d like to do a wrap-up of the books I read for #NordicFinds.

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The four additional books I completed for #NordicFinds, one each from Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

In participating in the read-along, I tried very hard to push my boundaries by reading books that were, to varying degrees, outside my comfort zone either because of genre (memoirs, for example), style or subject.  As a result, I think my journey through Scandinavia was enlivened by books that were quite different from each other.  I also chose books written by authors from the countries where the books were set, rather than books by English speakers about the various countries, if that makes any sense.  By a happy coincidence, #NordicFinds overlapped with the beginning of the Reading Europe Challenge and #ReadIndies, so most of my books were twofers and a couple, oh happy day, qualified for all three events.  In addition to Tursten’s Elderly Lady collections, my choices included:

Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, a beautifully written and intense set of memoirs by the noted Danish writer;

Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18, a piece of avant-garde fiction from Norway in which a very ordinary man experiences an existential crisis and decides that he, rather than chance, will control his fate;

Antti Tuomainen’s Dark As My Heart, where the king of Helsinki Noir tells the dark story of a decades long search for justice;

Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins, a genre-defying, autobiographical novel set in Iceland and mixing philosophy, eroticism, history, archaeology and bird watching.

And then, of course, there’s the one that got (temporarily) away:

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After reading a few pages, I decided to postpone reading Smirnoff’s novel, set in Sweden, until later in the year. Not to worry! It’s part of my Reading Europe Challenge; I’ll finish when I’m next in a noirish mood!

So that’s it for Scandinavia, folks!  Now on to the next adventure:

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Percy wants to depart the frozen north for warmer climates  . . . .

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.

European Reading Challenge 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Denmark, I’m on to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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.