I was absolutely delighted that Back to the Classics, one of my very favorite challenges, has returned for another year (thank you very much for hosting, Karen!). Although my completion rate is beyond dismal (this is my fourth year to participate and I’ve yet to read and review even a fraction of my twelve Challenge books) I always have a lot of fun picking my categories and reading at least some of my selections. Last year, in fact, I did quite well in the reading portion of the Challenge, finishing ten of my twelve selections. And what about the reviewing? Well . . . . not so good. My reviews were . . . non existent! Nada! zilch! zero! What can I say, except that 2021 was not a good writing year for me? Circumstances change, however; new houses become not-so-new; boxes get unpacked; dusting tchotckes gets forgotten about (these days I just throw them in the closet and call it a done deal) and a new year appears, bringing with it new opportunities and great new books! So I’m back to the Challenges, adding the Classics Challenge to my 2022 European Reading Tour. Never say, dear readers, that I don’t set my goals high.
Since Karen has explained her Challenge much better than I’m able to, I won’t repeat the details. Essentially, participants select classic works that fit into a series of defined categories; for 20th century works the selection must be at least fifty years old (i.e., published before 1972). Initial selections are thankfully non-binding, an important point for fickle old me, as I’m pretty quick to move along from a book that isn’t right for me at a particular time. To compete in the Challenge, a participant must read and review his/her selections between the beginning and end of 2022.
In making my selections, I’ve added a few of my own, idiosyncratic requirements. In the last few years I’ve engaged in massive, massive book acquisition binges, partly from pandemic stress and partly because y’all, fellow bloggers, write such great book reviews that I’m always discovering another novel or novella I simply must read! Because my TBR is now one of the largest piles of books on earth, I’ve largely limited my selections to what’s already on my shelves. In addition to selecting books that I already own, I’ve also tilted my selections towards the British end of the scale because I’ve already planned to read so much translated literature this year and I read U.S. works as a matter of course (I don’t need a challenge for them) Since my neglected mountain of Persephone books has now been joined by several very interesting publications from the wonderful British Library Women Writers series, I’ve also tried to select books from these publishers as much as possible. Finally, although I adore re-reading, as much as possible for the most part I’ve avoided selecting books I’ve already read. Each reader has her own goals in participating in a Challenge; for me, it’s to read new things, or discover new writers whenever I can.
Without more blathering, here are my choice for this year’s categories:
1. 19TH CENTURY CLASSIC (i.e., published from 1800-1899):
I know, I know, I’m only at the first category and already I’m veering away from my “Read British” year. Zola just seemed so perfect for this category, however, I couldn’t resist! I love Trollope and Henry James, but I’ve read a great deal of their works; Edith Wharton (another favorite) published mostly in the early 1900s and, well, I’ve just been intending for years to read something by Zola. The big uncertainty that has kept me from doing so, however, has been just where do you start with such a prolific novelist? Luckily for me, this issue was resolved last summer when I stumbled across Bookertalk’s excellent Zola reviews. While I don’t aspire to read the complete Rougon-Macquart Cycle, I do hope at least to become acquainted with the families.
2. 20TH CENTURY CLASSIC (any book first published from 1900 to 1972):
Ah, dear readers, it’s January time, if only barely. Snowdrops! New beginnings! New Year’s resolutions by one and all (statistically, BTW, these are generally abandoned by January 17th or so). As I’ve observed from happily reading many very interesting January posts, most of you have already lined up your reading schedules and challenges for 2021, which we all devotedly hope will be much, much better than the annus horribilis we’ve just survived. Being as usual several weeks behind the curve, I’m finally deciding on my own goals for 2021. Primary among them is, once again, Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge. This is one of my very favorite bookish challenges; it was even the subject of my very first post when I started blogging a couple of years ago. The fact that I’ve not managed to complete the Classics Challenge in either of the two years in which I’ve participated is, admittedly, just a teeny bit discouraging. On the bright side, however (and if you’ve read my blog, you know that I’m determined these days to be an optimistic little ray of sunshine) I’ve had a great deal of fun with the Classics Challenges, which have prodded me into reading some wonderful books that I would have otherwise missed (thanks to the Challenge, for example, I finally completed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That HeldThem, one of my favorite books from last year). So, dear readers, this January I was torn — should I attempt once more to rise to the Classics Challenge? Or should I bow to realism and just let it go? My first impulse, I must admit, was the latter, as I felt spiritually a bit like this poor fellow:
It was not for nothing, however, that I’m the product of a red-blooded, all-American childhood (southern U.S. variety), stuffed from infancy with tales of “Little Engines That Could” and nursery jingles singing the praises of itsy-bitsy spiders who defied monsoons in order to climb those old water spouts time and again. Good old U.S.A. cultural norms, not to mention Janakay’s Mom, did not, in other words, produce a quitter! Moral fiber will out, dear friends, as once again I respond to the siren call of the Classics, a living example of hope triumphing over experience.
In contrast to 2020, when I had a fair amount of difficulty in choosing my selections, this year my list has practically made itself (having so many unread books from previous challenges has certainly been helpful in this regard). In relatively quick order I decided on various novels taken (mostly) from this wonderful pile:
If you’re interested, I’ve broken down my selections into the Challenge’s separate categories below, indicating at times my most likely alternate if my primary choice doesn’t work out.
19th century classic (published 1800-1899): Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton
After a rather unpromising introduction to his work, I eventually became a real devotee of Henry James’ fiction. Sadly I’ve neglected James for several years now, with the exception The Tragic Muse, which I reread in my first year of blogging as a result of that year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. What better time to amend this neglect of an old favorite than 2021? Since I’m not quite up to James’ late, very great masterpieces (it takes a lot of energy to tack The Golden Bowl or Wings of the Dove), I decided on The Spoils of Poynton. Published as a magazine serial in 1896 and republished in book form the following year, Poynton just makes it under the Challenge’s 1899 cutoff date for a 19th century classic. Although it’s generally considered a lesser work in the James canon, there’s plenty of content in this tale of the ruthless struggle between a possessive dowager and her hated daughter-in-law over the family’s art collection.
20th Century Classic (published 1900-1971): Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day
Although I’m entirely sure it’s my own fault, Virginia Woolf and I have never quite gotten on with each other. I’ve read a few of her essays and a novel or two (I actually liked Mrs. Dalloway) but . . . don’t we all have our little list of writers whom we admire without quite being enamored of them? Still, I’ve never felt that I gave dear Virginia a fighting chance to win my regard and I’ve always felt the poorer for it. In an effort to make amends, I thought I’d read one of her earlier novels, written when her modernist tendencies were just beginning to surface, as a way to ease myself into her work. If my Woolf jinx continues unabated, however, I’ll probably read something by Pamela Hansford Johnson, since Ali’s delightful review of Johnson’s The Last Resort (published in 1956) reminded me I had never read anything by this oh-so-interesting writer.
Classic by a Woman Author: Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel
Any Jean Stafford readers out there? I must admit Ms. Stafford was one of those writers who was little more than a vaguely familiar name to me; I was aware that she was once married to someone famous (poet Robert Lowell as it turns out); that she was primarily a short story writer; and that her best known novel was The Mountain Lion, a coming of age tale that I have previously had no desire to read. My rather dismissive attitude changed last month when I discovered a collection of Stafford’s novels while browsing in one of my area’s few open and accessible bookstores (everyone masked and socially distancing, of course, but there’s a reason why my area has a very high infection rate). I decided on The Catherine Wheel (it was a close call between that and Stafford’s Boston Adventure), largely because I loved the name (never say, dear readers, that I choose my books for less than profound reasons). I began reading it a few days ago and I’m already hooked — Stafford is a marvelous writer! I plan on dipping into her short stories at some point (she won a Pulitzer Prize for her Collected Stories in 1970). Can The Mountain Lion be next?
Classic in Translation: Magda Szabo’s Katalin Street(originally published in 1969), appearing on my list for the second year in a row
Classic by BIPOC Author: Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City
In selecting something for this category, it was difficult to ignore the richness of African-American fiction, not to mention my several unread novels by the great Toni Morrison, but . . . . Thanks to the NYRB Classics Club I’ve had a couple of novels by Eileen Chang gathering dust on my shelf. Both look extremely interesting and I’ve been dying to give at least one of them a try; perhaps this year’s Challenge will provide the impetus to get me going. How could I resist a title as romantic as Love in a Fallen City? This collection of stories was translated into English and published by NYRB Classics only in 2006; because the stories were originally published in Hong Kong & China in the 1940s, however, they fall within the Challenge’s time parameters.
If I don’t get on with Chang, my alternate choice for this category is
Classic by a New-To-You Author: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (pub. 1908)
Although I’m hardly versed in Virginia Woolf’s critical writings, I do recall that she had a rather low opinion of her very prolific contemporary Arnold Bennett, whose works of realistic fiction were wildly popular among the reading public of the time (if you’re interested, Woolf’s very critical essay discussing Bennett’s work, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” is available online). Since I’m quite fond of big, sprawling realistic novels, chock full of details about their protagonists’ daily lives, I’ve always thought I’d give Bennett a try. The Old Wives Tale, considered one of Bennett’s best novels, is a natural choice, particularly since it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for a good many years. I was also attracted by Bennett’s concept of showing the contrasting lives of two very different sisters, who began life in the same small provincial town in the English Midlands. Besides, if I read Bennett’s chief critic this year, it’s only fair that I also give the target of her criticism a whirl, n’est-ce pas?
New-To-You Classic by a Favorite Author: Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout
I’ve been a little hesitant in the past to claim Elizabeth Bowen as one of my very favorite authors; as I’ve pointed out before, she can be a little rarefied at times for my tastes. Since I’ve read eight of Bowen’s ten novels, however, I suppose it’s time for a little self-honesty, which requires me to admit that, yes, she is definitely one of my “go to” writers!
Classic about an Animal or with an Animal in the Title: Theodore Storm’s The Rider On A White Horse
One of the bright spots in my rather lackluster 2020 reading was discovering the works of Theodor Fontane, the late 19th century novelist who doesn’t seem to be as widely read outside his native Germany as he perhaps should be. Although I failed to review either Effie Briest or On Tangled Paths, I very much enjoyed them both and was left with a desire to explore more 19th century German writing. This collection of short works by a major 19th century German writer seems an ideal way to do so.
Children’s Classic: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass
Through some quirk of individual taste, the fantastical, upside down world of Through the Looking Glass appealed to me more as a child than the equally fantastical world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Perhaps I liked the poetry better (it’s hard to beat “The Jabberwocky,” especially with Tenniel’s illustrations); perhaps it was the motif of the chess game or the powerful suggestion at the end that reality may not be what one thinks, that Alice herself may be nothing but a figment in someone else’s dream. Isn’t it amazing how we let kids read such subversive stuff? This won’t be my first re-read of this childhood classic, but it will be the first in many, many years. If the mood takes me, I may get all intellectual about it and check out some scholarly exegesis or other (I’m sure the chess game has been the subject of far too many dissertations) but I primarily intend to see if the magic still holds.
Humorous or Satirical Classic: Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington (pub. 1912)
I was all set to go with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (pub. 1938) as my entry in this category; for several years now I’ve felt it was a book that I really ought to have read by now (that “ought,” dear readers, is precisely why Scoop remains unread on my shelves. Such is perversity). Fortunately, I remembered — Saki! Although I’ve read and (immensely) enjoyed his short stories (have you read “The Open Window”? If not, go and do so immediately!) I’ve never attempted The Unbearable Bassington, his only novel. In the unlikely event that Bassington doesn’t work for me this year, well, it will be on to
Travel or Adventure Classic (fiction or non-fiction): something by Patrick Leigh Fermor
For one reason or another I’ve generally avoided reading travel literature, although when I’ve done so I’ve generally enjoyed it. Even I, however, am aware that Fermor is one of the genre’s greats. In settling on my choice for this category I was delighted to discover Fermor’s 1957 work, A Time To Keep Silent, recounting his journeys to some of Europe’s most ancient monasteries, as I’ve been interested in monasticism and the contemplative life since I first read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk many years ago. A close runner-up for this category is Fermor’s The Traveler’s Tree, an account of his travels through the Caribbean Islands in the late 1940s (one of my dream trips is to Trinidad although, alas, I may have missed my chance of ever visiting its famed Asa Wright Nature center).
Classic Play: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
My first impulse for this category was to choose Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, which has seemingly become a permanent resident on my TBR list (I failed to read it for at least one prior challenge). I soon realized, however, that I really wanted to re-read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. I’ve always been fascinated by this story and the questions it raises; do we choose our own lives or do we each, like poor Oedipus, have our own place “where three roads meet” in which we unknowingly walk the path that fate has decreed? As with any of the Greek and Roman classics, the choice of translation is key. I’ve chosen a modern version by the highly regarded Robert Fagles; Penguin has conveniently published all three plays of the cycle (i.e., Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus) in one volume, accompanied by excellent notes and introductions by the English classicist Bernard Knox. If I get really energetic, I may read the whole cycle in order (I’ve never read Oedipus at Colonus) or, since I’m fond of modern interpretations of classical works, take a peak at
Well, dear readers, that’s that (and don’t you agree with Maxi that “that” is quite enough?) for my 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you’ve read any of this stuff (or if you haven’t), please don’t hesitate to share your reactions!
Janakay loves a bookish challenge, don’t you? She was incredibly excited to learn (several weeks after the rest of the world, but then, Janakay has always moved at her own pace!) that Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge would be offered again this year. Undeterred by last year’s results (being just a teensy bit better at reading novels than writing reviews, I, alas, didn’t complete quite all of my challenge books), I immediately began the happy task of compiling a book list for the 2020 Classics Challenge. Iadore lists in general; they’re fun to make and give such a sense of accomplishment, don’t you think? In fact, Janakay was so satisfied with her list that she had to remind herself to stop basking in the glory of her accomplishment and to begin actually reading all those lovely books! And this year, they’re all going to be read! What’s a Challenge for, if not to set one’s expectations sky high?
And of all the lists on all the subjects in the universe, what list could possibly be better than a list of books that one intends to read? Making the list is a perfect excuse to leave the dishes in the sink (not that I need an excuse for this, exactly, but I’m sure you understand what I mean) to do what I like best, which is to to “ooh” and “ah” over all my wonderful unread treasures (there was one downside to this, as it did set off my dust allergy! Despite my “big sort,” some of my treasures haven’t been ooh’ed and ah’ed over in quite some time!). No matter how many times January rolls around I always find it a time of wonderful possibilities, particularly when it comes to reading. I think what makes a January book list particularly exciting is that it embodies in a very special way the hope that this year I’ll meet a wonderful new author, or find that rare book I’ll add to my “I’ll read it again” list (told you! I love lists!) or even simply pick up a new idea or new way of looking at a familiar subject, literary or not (Have any of you read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea? After I finished it, I could never think about Jane Eyre in quite the same way). For all its fun, however, compiling my Challenge list was also demanding. A book list bears a dual aspect (so fitting for a month named for a god who has two faces) as it both embodies and limits possibilities. For each book I placed on my list, I rejected two or three others. And Janakay just hates rejecting books, even temporarily! Will I read some of the novels that didn’t make my 2020 list? Absolutely! But it’s far less likely that I’ll do so, particularly in 2020. The list, once made, sets the priorities!
In compiling my own list this month I’ve very much enjoyed peeking just a bit at the 2020 Challenge lists of some of my bookish friends and admiring many of their oh-so-enticing and ingenious choices. It’s been particularly fun this year, since many of the Classic Challenge’s categories are in the nature of open-ended and imaginative prompts, which require some effort to satisfy (“Hmmm, what can I read that has nature in the title? Does a waterfall count?”). It was quite interesting to discover (as Silvia noted in her own list) that so many titles actually fit multiple categories. These cases raise the additional question of which category to use? Oh, such delightful dilemmas!
Without any more blather (please feel free to skip the first two paragraphs of this post; Janakay doesn’t mind!) here are my choices for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.
19th Century Classic: To my surprise, this was one of my toughest categories to fill this year, due to a combination of a picky, impossible-to-please mood and the desire to read someone other than Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen, Hardy, Brontes (any and all), James, Gissing, Gaskell and Meredith! I considered reading Disraeli’s Sybille, which the Guardian lists as one the great novels in English, but these days I just don’t want to read anything associated with a politician! I finally settled on Emily Eden’s Semi-Detached House (1859); my copy is a Virago Modern Edition that also contains Eden’s other well-known novel, The Semi-Attached Couple (depending on time and interest, I may read this as well).
In all candor, dear readers (and Janakay is usually candid, despite her former profession as an attorney), I was attracted to this novel because of its author, one of those fascinating and influential 19th century women whom we (or at least I) are always surprised to discover. Born into a politically active family of Whig aristocrats, Eden was a prominent political hostess and in 1835 accompanied her brother to India, where for several years he served as Governor-General. The diaries she kept during these years inspired Susannah Moore’s One Last Look, a great contemporary novel I read a few years back. (Side note & utterly irrelevant to the Classics Challenge: I love Susannah Moore and would really recommend her when you, dear reader, want something “modern”!) When I discovered my yellowing copy of Eden’s own novels in a box retrieved last week from my basement, I felt (quite irrationally, I’ll admit) like I was encountering an old friend! My choice was made!
20th Century Classic (originally published between 1900 and 1970): Something by Ivy Compton-Burnett. Although I haven’t visited dear Ivy, metaphorically, in quite some time, I love her work. In fact, I placed her on my 2019 Classics Challenge list, saved her for December as a special little treat and my own personal antidote to the fake cheer of the holiday season (Ms Compton-Burnett is not a writer you turn to for cheer, fake or otherwise) then ran out of time and missed my read! This year, I will do better! My current candidates are Manservant and Maidservant (1947); A House & its Head (1935); or Pastors and Masters (probably this one!).
Classic by a Woman Author: I appear to be the only person in the blogosphere who hasn’t read Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). 2020 will be the year Janakay joins the crowd! On the (extremely) off chance that I can’t get into it, I’ll probably substitue Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate for my novel in this category.
Classic in Translation: My acquaintance with German literature is slight, being mostly limited to a few novels by Thomas Mann. The Classics Challenge is a perfect opportunity to finally get around to Theodor Fontane’s Effie Briest (pub. 1895), languishing unread on my shelves since 2010.
Classic by a POC: A couple of years ago, I audited a course on the Harlem Renaissance, that flowering of African-American art, literature and culture that occurred in New York City’s Harlem in the 1920s. It was a wonderful introduction to a group of artists and intellectuals who were long denied the recognition that should have been theirs. One of the most interesting of these figures to me was Nella Larsen, the biracial daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a father of mixed African and European ancestry. Larsen, who trained as a nurse, published two novels and was regarded by her contemporaries as a talented writer. By the early 1930s, however, she disappeared from the literary scene and her work was out of print until a revival of interest in the late 1990s. I read and admired her second novel, Passing, as part of my course work, finding it a fascinating study of racial and sexual identity. Despite my good intentions, however, I never got around to reading Quicksand, her earlier and more autobiographical work. Thanks to the Classics Challenge, 2020 will be my year! (P.S. the book cover below is based on a very beautiful painting by Archibald Motley, a major artist of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary of Larsen’s).
A Genre Classic: I grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy, which I lumped in with fairy tales, mythology and novels about life outside my small southern town. So . . . picking a book from this genre was a natural choice. But which book? That’s a bit of a problem. Although I’m quite fond of much of the early stuff, I’ll be the first to admit that its language, style and character development are less appealing to me than in days of yore. (I still love the cover art, however, particularly when it involves aliens or space babes! Does that make Janakay sexist?). I finally settled on Walter M. Miller’s 1959 A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was discussed in an undergraduate “History in Science Fiction” class, which I took many years ago; it was cited as the very embodiment of the cyclical theory of history, i.e., the notion that history is simply a series of repeating cycles or events. I can’t even remember whether I actually read Canticle at the time; if so, it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression on me! Still, it’s considered a foundational work in the field and I’m now curious to see and share my current opinion of it.
Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title: Despite a plethora of possibilities, I instantly settled on Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout (pub. 1968), which I’ve wanted to read for quite some time. (I’ve had a copy, unread, since 2011. My bad!) As I’ve noted before, I have a very ambivalent attitude towards Bowen’s fiction, which at times is a bit too rarefied for me; when I want rarefied, I generally head for Henry James if my energy level is high. Bowen, however, is a beautiful stylist, can be very funny at times, and convincingly portrays mid-20th century upper class English life, a world I find incredibly exotic. Besides, at this point I’ve read seven of her ten novels, and I have to complete my list!
Classic with a Place in the Title: Has anyone read the Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo (1917-2007)? She was largely unknown in the U.S. until a few years ago, when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) reissued her great novel, TheDoor. I read it on a whim and it blew me away; I thought it was easily one of the best things I had read in years. The Door‘s success (France’s Prix Femina Étrabger; one of the New York Time’s 10 best books of 2015) has led to other NYRB reissues of Katalin Street as well as several other Szabo novels. The tale of three Budapest families during WWII, Katalin Street was originally published in Hungarian in 1969; it just squeaks in under the Classics Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date. My alternative selection (which I may read instead) is Glenway Wescott’s 1945 Apartment in Athens, another NYRB reissue.
Classic with Nature in the Title: This category had me stumped for a day or so; then the titles starting flooding through my mind, so to speak. I was all set to go with Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest (has anyone read Olivia Manning? She’s a wonderful novelist who IMO is sadly neglected) until I checked its publication date — 1974, four years over the Challenge’s 1970 cutoff date! Shucky darn, that one’s out! I finally settled on The Alien Sky (1953), an early novel by Paul Scott, the author of the Raj Quartet. I loved the Quartet (its treatment of the human and political consequences of British colonialism rivals J.G. Farrell’s) and am very curious to see how a stand alone work compares to it. My alternative, if Alien Sky disappoints, is Stella Gibbon’s Nightingale Wood or Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.
Classic about a Family or with Family Members in the Title: Although my compulsion to re-read Jane Austen is gaining momentum by the day, I firmly rejected Mansfield Park in favor of Daphne du Mauier’s Parasites, a semi-autobiographical tale of three slacker siblings from a notable theatrical family. With its lack of gothic and romantic trappings, I don’t think it’s very representative of du Maurier’s better known works, which is fine. I’m fascinated by tales of dysfunctional families (like Tolstoy said, they’re all different; it’s the happy folks who are boring) and I’ve been intending to read this one for many, many years.
Abandoned Classic: Janakay was so excited to see this category because it gives her so very much to choose from! Most of Dickens! All of Hardy (except for Tess, which wasn’t so bad)! A Brontë or three (or four) — Janakay’s last attempt at Shirley didn’t go well! Should she risk drowning (again) in Ms Woolf’s Waves or getting stomped for the third or fourth time by that nasty moocow thing? (my apologies to you lovers of Joyce. I concede his greatness but even his Portrait of the Artist is a mountain I’ve yet to climb. Don’t even mention Ulysses! Janakay would rather not think about it). No! No! No! Janakay just can’t read any of those things this year — she has to pack boxes and move! Allowances must be made! Luckily, I finally remembered Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of those erudite and interesting British women novelists who always turn up on my list of favorites. Many years ago, I attempted The Corner that Held Them (1948), considered by many to be Warner’s greatest novel; I was quite disappointed in it, however, and gave up the slog about halfway through (it’s long). In retrospect, I think my disappointment was due to timing; I attempted Corner immediately after reading Lolly Willowes and on some level expected the former to be largely the same. In the years since my initial disappointment, however, I’ve read Warner’s Summer Will Show (a tremendous novel); Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (so delightfully malicious! Janakay loved it) and several of her short stories and no longer expect a Warner novel to be a repetition of anything, including an earlier Warner novel (STW is an original writer). With my expectations tempered and under control, I’m now ready to re-evaluate The Corner that Held Them. (P.S.: I’ve already started reading it! It’s wonderful!).
Classic Adaptation: This is a difficult category simply because there are so many great choices! I opted against several tempting ones (Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier; Forster’s Passage to India) in favor of something by Richard Yates, a writer I’ve been intending to sample for quite some time. Published in 1962, Revolutionary Road meets the Challenge’s pre-1970 cutoff date, which Easter Parade does not. Road was also adapted for a 2008 film directed by Sam Mendes that reunited Leonard DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates, all of whom starred in the movie “Titanic.” I missed the film, so it will be fun to compare my initial impressions of it after reading the original source material.
Well, dear readers, that’s it for my post. As you can see, I have an exciting year of Challenge reading ahead of me!
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.