Tag: British writers

Summer update: Butterflies, Books & Donuts

These are most, if not quite all, of the books I’ve read since mid-spring.  April and early May were definitely a walk on the lighter side, as I concentrated on C.J. Parker’s fantasies (highly recommended for the cynical at heart) and Mick Heron’s Slough House series (super! and there’s also an excellent mini-series you can watch afterwards).  By the end of May, I felt ready to tackle more challenging fare; I particular enjoyed Zola’s The Fortunes of the Rougons and Peter the Great’s African, a short collection of some of Pushkin’s more experimental prose.  For the rest of the summer, I’ve been flitting among a hodgepodge of whatever struck my fancy . . . .

Without intending to, it appears that I’ve taken quite an extended break from most things bookish.  It’s common for me to have breaks between my posts (sometimes quite lengthy ones), usually because I’m reluctant to stop reading long enough to write about whatever new book is currently holding my interest.  This break, however, differs from previous ones; the posting stopped last spring and so did many other bookish things that I ordinarily enjoy a great deal.  My favorite book blogs remained unread, as did book reviews and literary journals; even  — gasp! —  the exponential growth in the TBR pile slowed to a crawl.  In short, for a variety of reasons I spent some time last spring wandering in that bookless desert so unwillingly visited by many bloggers from time to time.

My drought began in April, when a long-anticipated surgery date finally arrived.  I was quite proud of my sang froid in the months leading up to the big event; there was nothing rare about the procedure; the odds were overwhelming that it would be both quick and relatively minor, just another day at the office so to speak, but . . . . when it’s your body and the time to start hacking away at it is actually staring you in the face . . . it’s a different situation, isn’t it?  Since my hacker of choice was in metropolitan Washington, D.C. while I now live in Florida, I also had a fairly lengthy stay away from home.  My little ordeal proved to be a best case scenario, which meant a quick in and out with the medical folks, followed by a very nice post-op recovery in one of my favorite cities, full of museums, bookstores and wonderful ethnic restaurants but . . . well, it wasn’t quite a vacation.  After that, it was home again, home again, and slowly having life flow back into its accustomed channels when — guess who had a breakthrough case of covid?  (I suspect I caught it at the gym; despite intense propaganda otherwise, don’t we all just instinctively know that exercise is inherently unhealthy?)  My case was mild by medical standards but it was unpleasant, as was the physical fatigue and emotional lassitude that followed.

By June, thankfully, I felt some energy beginning to stir and, even more welcome, my bookish mojo slowly, slowly returning but — summer was then in full swing . . . and there were . . . various non-bookish things I needed to do, both for practical reasons and as part of my personal “healing.”  (I know this sounds a bit New Agey, but fear not, dear readers!  There’ll be no discussion in this post of spiritual auras or wellness crystals.)  Because it’s been some time since I posted, however, I’m afraid I am going to ramble a bit, so please bear with me.  To ease your pain if you decide to do so, I’ve divided my lengthy post into sections, so that you may easily click into and out of whatever you find of interest. 

I.  SUMMER DOINGS

Doesn’t everyone love summer?  Even in my new home, where it’s always summer, more or less, there’s still a different feel to things this time of year.  Because there are fewer tourists, the traffic is lighter and favorite restaurants more accessible; because it’s hotter, there’s even more of an excuse to spend the afternoon on the lanai (Florida talk for a porch or patio) reading something interesting (under a good fan and with a tall glass of something nice & frosty, needless to say).  Aside from restaurants and books (surely two of the greatest of life’s many pleasures, n’est-ce pas?), my summer has included . . . .

Putting tropical things in pots & containers and placing them about the house;

Elephant Ear plants (genus Colocasia) were a fixture of my childhood in the southern U.S.  I must admit that as a child I thought them the most boring things going — what’s the point of a plant that doesn’t have flowers?  What a change in attitude a — ahem! few years — can bring about!  They’re now among my favorite plants (I’ve several pots of these things), as I love the illusion they create of a tropical rain forest.
Meet “Freddie,” the fern that threatens to swallow the house, the cats and Mr. J!   A native Florida species, Freddie is tough enough to survive  sun, floods & drought, not to mention my sporadic attention.  When my energy level is up to it, Freddie will be released back into the wild, i.e., planted permanently in a nice, shady spot next to his current location, as the two of us simply can’t go through another re-potting . . . .

(Attempting) to attract butterflies;

Although there’s not much blooming right now, most of these plants (including the tree) were chosen because they attract butterflies (the plants in the earthenware pots are a mix of native vegetation that provides nectar for adults and leaves for their caterpillars).  The keen-eyed among you may notice lots of weeds poking up through the bushes . . . .  Mr. J needs to get busy here!
After all our effort, we managed to attract ONE Monarch butterfly (although we did get a fair number of butterflies from other species).  Ironically, the Monarch preferred Mr. J’s shirt to the plants selected specifically to lure it!  Among the most beautiful of the North American butterflies, Monarchs have declined over 80% in the last decade or so; without drastic intervention, such as inclusion in the Endangered Species Act, they may well be headed for extinction.  I can’t bear to think of a world without Monarch butterflies . . . so I’d best hurry up and put out another pot of milkweed, a necessary element for a Monarch’s life cycle. 

Visiting the local farmers’ markets;

Summers are actually NOT the best season for farmers’ markets in my area of Florida; it’s just too hot.  Still, even the scaled down versions are fun, as there’s always something interesting to sample!

and, best of all, making serendipitous discoveries!

One of my great discoveries of the summer:  Farmhouse Donuts!  Unaware of the treasures contained within, I’d been passing by this old brick building for almost a year before checking it out.  What a wonderful surprise awaited me . . . .
This is only a small portion of the goodies offered by Farmhouse.  I usually opt for “the plain Jane,” i.e., an utterly delicious confection austerely enhanced by a simple sugar glaze.  I am, however, nerving myself to try my first “buttercup” (peanut butter, powdered sugar & a chocolate drizzle) and/or the “haystack” (toasted coconut, chocolate & caramel).  Or perhaps even designing my own treat, a nice option Farmhouse offers to its customers.
After selecting your gooey delight, there’s nothing like a nice rustic setting in which to devour it . . . .

So that’s the outline of my summer, more or less.  What about yours?  Am I alone in my passion for large green plants and gooey treats? 

II.   BOOKS

And, of course, my summer has included books. Always, there are books. Even though I checked out of the blogosphere last spring and pretty much stopped writing, I never stopped reading. As I noted in my caption to the first photo, during surgery & covid months I focused almost entirely on sheer entertainment and quick-paced stories. Any C.J. Parker or Mick Herron fans out there? Although the two write in wildly different genres — Parker does fantasy, albeit hard edged (more G.R.R. Martin than Tolkien, with nary an elf in sight) while Herron gives a unique twist to the espionage novel (think le Carré meets The Office, with moments of real heartbreak and some very pointed political satire, U.K. variety) — they are both very, very funny and know how to move their stories along. All in all, their novels were most satisfying reads during a difficult time.

By mid-May, however, I felt up to focusing on more serious fare, so it was on to my very first novel by Zola, an author who’s been haunting my reading selections for a few years now.  For several years running, my January resolution has been that “this year” will be the year that I finally read something by Zola!  But then, he wrote so very many novels, didn’t he?  Where does one begin?  And aren’t most of them extremely long?  Readers — this year I did it!  I took the plunge and I’m so very glad I did!  Zola rocks!

Somewhat at a loss as to where to start with Zola’s famed Rougon-Macquart cycle, I decided, logically, to begin at the beginning, i.e. with The Fortune of the Rougons, which chronicles the family’s origins and the Rougon branch’s rise to prominence.  Although the novel’s structure is a bit awkward (several chapters go by before crucial characters enter the tale and the various story arcs begin to intersect) and the mid-century French politics can be a trifle dull at times, these are minor flaws.  Zola’s writing is wonderfully evocative and his ability to create memorable characters is unequaled.  It will be a very long time before I forget Félicité Rougon, family matriarch and one of the great female characters of 19th century fiction.  Although I’d have to be reincarnated a few times to make it through all twenty novels in Zola’s cycle, I do plan on reading at least a few more from my stash during my present incarnation!

After Zola I felt another round of fatigue setting in, so it was time for a return to the light side.  Some time ago I read and (enormously) enjoyed Margery Sharp’s Rhododendron Pie.  Since I had a few other of her novels in the stash of Middlebrow books awaiting my attention, I selected one, almost at random, as a palette cleanser before moving on to something “more substantial” (I know this sounds terribly pompous.  Forgive please; this was before I realized that, in her own sphere, Margery Sharp is unequaled)  Several days, and three novels later, I was still marveling at how very good Sharp is, within the parameters she set for herself.  Her dialogue is crisp and believable, and her eye for her society and its foibles keen but compassionate.  I think she’s particularly good at dealing with class differences (admittedly, a reader from the U.K. would be a better judge of this than I); she’s very light handed on this topic but also quite realistic.  In The Nutmeg Tree, the favorite of my three summer reads, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, with its description of “Julia, by marriage Mrs. Packett, by courtesy Mrs. Macdermott,” sequestered in her bath and surrounded by her most prized possessions, holding her creditors at bay as they banged on the bathroom door.  Julia, a good-time girl fallen on hard times (Mr. Macdermott has decamped for parts unknown when the novel opens), has various more-or-less believable adventures, all recounted in a very amusing manner.  Running through the comedy, however, is a real vein of emotion as Julia attempts to forge a relationship with the daughter she abandoned as a child.  Harlequin House and The Foolish Gentlewoman, if not quite up to Nutmeg Tree IMO, fit my then current mood perfectly, being equally fun and well-written.  I think of all three novels as very much in a P.G. Wodehouse vein, but with a streak of social realism that the latter (IMO at least) doesn’t possess.  (As a side note for those interested in such things, Nutmeg Tree is published by Open Road, while Harlequin House and Foolish Gentlewoman are part of Dean Street Press’ Furrowed Middlebrow series.)

Although Percy can’t quite decide which of these Margery Sharp novels is his favorite, his paw indicates that (like me) he’s inclined to favor The Nutmeg Tree.

After my delightful little detour with Margery S., I felt the need for a big door stopper of a novel, something on the serious side and lengthy enough to keep me occupied for several days.  What better choice than David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet?  Although my enthusiasm has waned a bit in recent years (I have some reservations about his recent science fiction), I’ve been a huge Mitchell fan since his wonderful Cloud Atlas.  So puzzling then, that I’ve had this copy of Thousand Autumns since its 2010 publication, without once even reading the first chapter.  My delay in reading this novel is even more inexplicable given that I’m quite interested in the time and place about which Mitchell writes (the Dutch mercantile empire and its trading activities in the Far East during the early 19th century).  Past time, then, to open that cover and read the first chapter!

Although it took a little effort for me to get into this tale of an upright young clerk, employed by the Dutch East India Company in Tokugawa-era Japan, Autumns turned out to be a marvelous read.  More structurally straightforward than some of Mitchell’s previous novels, it still displays his characteristic ability to create compelling characters (aside from Jacob himself, the Japanese midwife Orito is reason enough to read the book), his humor and his ear for dialogue.  Autumns is a major commitment of time, but worth it if you’re in the mood for beautifully written historical fiction. 

Isn’t it wonderful, dear readers, when fate places an unexpectedly wonderful book in your hands?  This delightful event occurred to me, when I received April’s selection from the NYRB’s Classics Club.

Unfamiliar with Pushkin’s work, I was initially reluctant to make his acquaintance by reading pieces dubbed  “experiments in prose” . . . .

Since I had never read anything by Pushkin, this ordinarily would have gone to the bottom of the TBR stack; prose “experiments” not sounding very promising to this Russian literature novice.  Because I was still in a bit of a dead zone (i.e., I wanted to read and didn’t much care what) I decided, however, to give it a go, based largely on that very intriguing title.  The collection includes four of Pushkin’s short pieces, along with an essay by one of the translators (Robert Chandler), “suggestions for further reading” and excellent notes.  What a wonderful discovery this book turned out to be!  Although I loved all four selections, I particularly enjoyed the eponymous first piece (part of an unfinished novel), which portrayed a changing Russian society through the eyes of Peter the Great’s African godson (and former slave), a character closely modeled on Abram Gannibal, Pushkin’s own maternal great-grandfather.  The remaining pieces in the collection, almost as satisfying, included a clever parody of historical writing (“The Village of Goriukhino”), an adventure story (“Dubrovsky”) and the strange and beautiful “Egyptian Nights,” in which Pushkin used a mixture of prose and poetry to question the place of art (and artists) in an increasingly commercialized society.  Contrary to my fear my that the collection would be too esoteric for someone such as me, I found it an ideal introduction to Pushkin’s work.  If any of you wanderers of the web have read the NYRB collection, or any of the individual works it contains, I’d be very interested to hear your views on the subject.  (As a side note, a recent New York Review contains a very interesting piece by Jennifer Wilson regarding Pushkin’s views about his African heritage.  I’m not sure of the Review’s free click policy, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s definitely worth a try.  https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2022/08/18/the-first-russian-peter-the-greats-african-pushkin/ )

Although it’s impossible at this point to discuss all the books I enjoyed this summer (I do hope in the following months to review at the very least the ones included in my Back to the Classics and European Reading Challenges), I’d like to list a few that stood out for various reasons.

This slender novel, published by New Directions Press, was easily my most challenging read of the summer.  Thuân takes you into the mind of her narrator, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris; known to her French contemporaries as Madame Âu, the narrator herself never shares her identity with you.  In 160 pages, written without chapter or paragraph breaks, you enter the narrator’s memories of her youth in communist Hanoi & her university days in the former Soviet Union; in a tale-within-a-tale you read the narrator’s draft of a short story she’s currently writing and, eventually, you enter her fantasies of reuniting with the husband who abandoned her and their new-born son twelve years before.  Beautifully translated (by Nguyen An Ly), it’s claustrophobic, hallucinatory, fascinating and maddening, all at the same time.  It’s also not to be missed if you’re up for challenge
A few years ago I read Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations and enjoyed it a great deal; so much so I supplied myself with several additional Keun novels.  I finally got around to reading After Midnight, one of her best known, and was not disappointed.  Keun was a first hand witness to the Nazi regime and her choice to use Sanna, a sharply observant but naive young girl, as the narrator of her novel, ratchets up the horror.
I love books about books and, when I venture out of straight fiction, tend to read them.  Because Castillo discusses “reading” in a broad sense (she includes signage, movies & TV, as well as books themselves), in many respects this is more of a collection of essays on, generally, how we “read” our cultural surroundings.  Fierce, opinionated and passionate, with no use for the traditional literary canon, Castillo isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.  While not always agreeing, I found many of her views to be a valuable correction to my own very traditional education.  If you’re interested in Joan Didion, Castillo’s devastating analysis of the latter’s fiction is alone worth the price of admission.
Longlisted for the Booker, Trust appears to be generating a bit of a buzz.  Set in a New York that Edith Wharton might have recognized (but only if she could have envisioned Lily Bart or the Countess Olenska being interested in the stock market), the novel’s clever structure continually forces a reader to question the very basic assumptions of the story.  Ultimately (IMO at least) Trust asks us to question who is remembered by history and who is written out of the historical record. 
Does anyone still doubt that Elizabeth Taylor is one of the 20th century greats?  If so, they should read Mrs. Palfrey.  It’s one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, and so heart-breaking I put off finishing it for weeks . . . .
Although I’ve read little poetry for a great many years now, this summer I found that I needed it again in my life.  I’ve focused mainly on Emily Dickinson, a poet who’s taken me a life time to appreciate.  Slowly, slowly, slowly, with lots of help from Helen Vendler, I’ve been working my way through Dickinson’s odd rhythms, elliptical thoughts and breathtaking images . . . .

III.  BOOKISH ODDS & ENDS

Over the past few months I’ve been keeping a list of interesting bookish topics that I might, or might not, get around to investigating.  It’s all very haphazard, and not terribly current; if you’re interested in such things, you’ve probably already found most of these items for yourself.  On the off chance it might be helpful, however . . . here goes!

Are you a fan of Jean Rhys?  If so, you may want to check out The New Yorker’s “The Many Confrontations of Jean Rhys,” a wonderful overview of Rhys’ life and literary output (be warned!  After reading it, I felt a reading project coming on . . . .) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/07/11/the-many-confrontations-of-jean-rhys-miranda-seymour-i-used-to-live-here-once

Looking for an interesting book column, one that includes the old and the new; the highbrow and the low and everything in-between?  Check out Molly Young’s “Read Like The Wind” pieces.  It’s a New York Times’ subscription only service, but you should be able to get a freebie or two.  Here’s a representative sample, which includes a biography of a legendary art dealer and an Elizabether von Arnim novel that I hadn’t previously heard of.

Curious about the great Australian writer Gerald Murnane?  It’s back to The New Yorker and, hopefully, another free click if you’re a non-subscriber.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/01/the-reclusive-giant-of-australian-letters

Did you know that it’s the 100th birthday of the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant?  There a nice episode offered by the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel.  Check it out!  https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-77-writers-and-company/clip/15929224-mavis-gallant-celebrating-centenary-masterful-canadian-short-story

Are you an arm chair traveler?  If so, check out the New York Times series in which various writers recommend the books they believe help you to get to know their favorite cites.  So far I’ve only read Leïla Slimani’s “Read Your Way Through Paris” (it was great BTW) but the others (which to date include Cairo, Berlin, Stockholm, Newfoundland, Reykjavik & Lisbon) look equally enticing.

My apologies for my New Yorker fixation, but it’s offering some really good stuff these days.  High on my list for this afternoon’s reading is its account of Ivan Turgenev and his composition of Fathers and Sons, a book that his Russian contemporaries loved to hate.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/05/liberals-radicals-and-the-making-of-a-literary-masterpiece-ivan-turgenevs-fathers-and-children-slater-translation

IV. IN CLOSING (AND AREN”T YOU GLAD?) 

At this point in my blathering, I traditionally close with a cute cat photo (I have several I’m dying to inflict on the internet).  Because Mr. J has been experimenting with his super-duper, deluxe new camera, however, I thought I’d share a couple of his recent photos.  These were taken at one of the many little ponds that dot my neighborhood, where we recently spotted . . .

this Osprey.  I love Ospreys, although I probably wouldn’t if I were a fish (Ospreys are commonly known as “fish hawks” for obvious reasons).  This one looks ready to go mano a mano with Mr. J, who’s fortunately at a safe distance.

Warning: this next photo isn’t for the faint of heart . . . .

Well, we all have our favorite food item, don’t we?  I love sushi, myself.  I can’t imagine that this big old fish came from the tiny little pond near my house; since Ospreys have a reversible claw that allows them to carry their dinner over fairly long distances, it’s probably from a nearby river.

Well, that’s it for now, for anyone who happened to hang with me this long. Next week I’m off for my first big trip since the pandemic, a jaunt involving hiking shoes, binoculars and, hopefully, some birds. I won’t be posting again for a bit, but I’m dying to start reading the blogs again (I’ve peeked a little already & see that y’all have been reading some great stuff while I’ve been eating donuts) and will begin doing so, just as soon as I finish reading that article on Turgenev!

Short Reads For A (Short) Road Trip

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

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

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

A.  BOOKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B.  TRAVEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?

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Here’s the stack of my tentative choices for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge. My little soldier figurine perfectly expresses my apprehension as I begin my FOURTH attempt to complete the  Challenge . . . .

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.

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Despite my abysmal completion rate, the Back to the Classics Challenge is one of my favorite bookish events.  Undeterred by experience, I’m participating for the fourth year in a row  . . . .

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):

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This is a book that I’d buy just for the cover, which features a detail from my favorite painting by Frédéric Bazille, one of the early Impressionists.  The painting (“Family Gathering,” c. 1867) normally lives at the Musée d’Orsay, which I’ve never visited.  I was lucky enough, however, to see it a few years ago at a Bazille exhibition held by Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery

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):

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In the last few years, I’ve became an enormous fan of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Since this is the last one that I haven’t read (I’m afraid I’ve avoided it for fear that it might be just a little too depressing), the selection for this category was a no-brainer!  In the unlikely event that it doesn’t work out, I’ll probably read Jean Rhys’ Quartet or perhaps an early novel by Molly Keane.

3.  CLASSIC BY A WOMAN AUTHOR

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Stella Gibbons seems to be experiencing a bit of a Renaissance these days, so I thought I’d expand my horizon beyond her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm.  If this doesn’t work out, I may try Gibbons’ Enbury Heath or finally get around to reading something by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

4.  A CLASSIC IN TRANSLATION

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Last summer I read, but didn’t review, Keun’s Child of All Nations.  Although I liked it very much, I didn’t feel it was a fully representative work of this very interesting writer . . . .  2022 will be the year to find out whether my hunch is accurate!

5. A CLASSIC BY A BIPOC AUTHOR

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I came across Sam Selvon’s work some time ago but never managed to really read any of it.  Although there are some wonderful U.S. writers whose work falls in this category, I’ve picked Selvon’s The Housing Lark as it’s so perfectly in keeping with my 2022 “Read British” theme!  Alternates are Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions and/or Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy.

6.  MYSTERY/DETECTIVE/CRIME CLASSIC (includes True Crime) Continue reading “2022’s Back to The Classics Challenge: Will the Fourth Time Be The Charm?”

“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 . . . .

Once Again, I Attempt the Classics!

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 Held Them, 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:

Oh no! I read only six of my Challenge books last year and wrote just one review . . . .

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: 

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Most, but not all, my Challenge books are in this pile; as my books and I are presently living in separate spaces, I can’t quite locate everything.

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

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This is an image of the paperback copy that I can’t quite locate these days . . . .

 

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but not to fear — I can always use my Library of America edition (I have all of dear Henry’s novels in this format, on acid free paper so that they will endure as long as I do).

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

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The keen-eyed among you will notice that I have two editions of the same novel.  Not that I’m compulsive or anything, but they do have different introductions, not to mention those very different covers.  How could I possibly choose between them?  The artwork and quality of the notes will most probably be the tie breaker!  

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?  

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My newly acquired Jean Stafford collection. I’m about halfway through The Catherine Wheel and am thoroughly bemused as to why this wonderful writer isn’t more widely known.

Classic in Translation:  Magda Szabo’s Katalin Street (originally published in 1969), appearing on my list for the second year in a row

I first became aware of Magda Szabo a few years ago, when I read the NYRB’s edition of her newly translated novel The Door, the story of the complex relationship between two very different women.  As I wasn’t very interested in translated literature at the time, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it.  Since this made me determined to read Szabo’s other translated works as time and energy allowed, her Katalin Street was a natural for last year’s Challenge list.  I really, really intended to read it last December but . . . I’m afraid Logen Nine-Fingers jumped out of Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy trilogy and murdered my time!  Katalin Street was a natural for the “Classic in Translation” category in this year’s Challenge (besides, it has wonderful cover art).  

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Perhaps 2021 will be the year I finally read this . . . .

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.  

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Isn’t this cover art gorgeous? I’m afraid the art work alone would have dictated my choice.  Are you, dear readers, detecting a theme underlying a few of my choices?  

If I don’t get on with Chang, my alternate choice for this category is

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Dorothy West was a well-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance, along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen.  Although this novel (published in 1948) was a critical success, it found few readers and subsequently West devoted herself to editing and journalism.  West’s work was “re-discovered” and The Living is Easy was brought back into print in the 1980s   The renewed attention resulted in a second novel, The Wedding, completed when West was in her 80s, as well as a collection of short stories.  

Classic by a New-To-You Author:  Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (pub. 1908)

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Could Virginia Woolf be right about this novelist? By the end of  this year, perhaps I’ll be able to form my own opinion . . . .

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

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Another title on my 2020 Challenge list that I regret not getting around to last year.  2021, however, will be the year I finish it!

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

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This NYRB edition includes Storm’s famous novella, as well as seven of Storm’s short stories 

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

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My much cherished and battered copy of the Alice books (the grubby tape was my childish attempt at repairs).  This volume has traveled to Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; Florida; Texas; Tennessee; Louisiana; Alabama and Adak, Alaska and its journeys may not yet be over  . . . . .

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)

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I honestly can’t think why I haven’t yet read this, as I enjoy Saki’s work very much.  But then, that’s what Challenges are for, aren’t they?  To shake us, if only a little, out of our reading ruts?  

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

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Travel or Adventure Classic (fiction or non-fiction): something by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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This work is very high on my list for the travel/adventure category . . .

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

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My (very) small Sophocles collection. Burial at Thebes, the second book in the stack, is Sheamus Heaney’s version of Antigone.

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 

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One of Cannogate’s modern retellings of classical myths, this one by English novelist/psychoanalyst Sally Vickers. Recognize Dr. Freud on the cover?

 

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Maxine says “That’s more than enough, Janakay!  You’re putting us all to sleep . . . . “

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!

2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

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Although this young lady is working in a bookstore, her activity isn’t entirely dissimilar from ours when we compile our lists, is it?  Do you love this contemporary painting (“Old Books” by David Carson Taylor) as much as I do?

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.  I adore 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!

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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!).

 

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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, The Door.  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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“Friends & Relations”: Are yours like Elizabeth Bowen’s?

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Or are they like this?

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Or more like this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family relationships, even the best of them, can be unsettling, can’t they?  Some families go for the “let’s share everything and do a group hug approach,” while others ignore (frequently for years)  that huge emotional elephant in the middle of the room that is dominating their lives.  Still others steer a midway course between disclosure and concealment that still, inevitably, leads to disaster.  In short, isn’t it amazing how very difficult, not to say problematical, family life and friendships can become?  These observations are particularly fitting  for my review of Elizabeth Bowen’s Friends & Relations, as Bowen is a novelist with whom I’ve had a long and unsettling, not to say problematical relationship.  Since I have a weakness for subtle, skilled, mid-20th century female British novelists, Bowen has been on my radar, and heavily represented on my bookshelves, for quite some time.  And yet …. my reaction to her work is, quite frequently, “hmmm, I’m not really sure that she merits her rep (glowing assestments from Harold Bloom, no less) and I’m really not sure that I liked what I just read.”  And yet, there’s undeniably something there, as far as I’m concerned; Bowen published ten novels and this makes the seventh one that I’ve read!  Moreover, when I decided to participate in the 2019 Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K. at Books and Chocolate my only question about Bowen was “which novel will I read and what category will I put it in?”  I ultimately selected Friends & Relations, published in 1931 and one of Bowen’s very early works of fiction, to satisfy the Challenge’s 20th Century Classic category.

Bowen, who was pretty upper crust herself (being an Anglo Irish aristocrat with an inherited ancestral home in Ireland) drew the “friends and relations” of her title from four upper class English families in the decade or two before the second World War.  In a brief 160 odd pages of masterly prose Bowen shows you in some detail the orderly, elegant structure of her characters’ lives.  The novel opens (in a section titled “Edward and Rodney”) with the wedding of pretty, conventional Laurel Studdart to Edward Tilney, followed shortly afterwards by the engagement of her younger, more introverted sister Janet to Rodney Meggatt, an even better match as Rodney’s the heir to a landed estate.  “The Fine Week,” the novel’s second section, covers a brief period that occurs roughly ten years after the sisters’ weddings.  At this time both couples have settled into the easy domestic routine of their time and class — servants (mostly off stage and doing the heavy lifting), kids (one for Janet, two for Laurel), life in the country (Janet and Rodney), a London routine (Laurel and Edward, who works in a government ministry) — all amid friends and connections from two other English families much like themselves.  Included among the latter is Lady Elfrida, Edward’s slightly disreputable mother, Considine Meggatt, Rodney’s uncle and Lady Elfrida’s former lover, and Theodora Thirdman, a family “friend” who’s one of Bowen’s great comic creations.  It is Theodora’s insatiable taste for drama and her monstrous narcissism  (hopefully, none of your friends and relations include anyone like her.  If they do, you’re in trouble) that leads to the seemingly trivial act disrupting the careful structure of the others’ lives.  The resulting consequences, which occur on a single day, are covered in the novel’s third section (“Wednesday”).  The novel’s plot, setting and characters are all very “Downton Abbey with a bit of a twist” and, if you care for that sort of thing (I do, to some extent, particularly when it’s as well written as this) reason enough to read this novel.

Reading Friends for its plot and character, however, largely misses its point.  Bowen is a greatt stylist and her novel’s complexity (and, for all its brevity, this novel is very complex) lies in its style.  Very gradually and elliptically, so gradually and elliptically that I wasn’t sure at first that I was drawing the right inferences (it turns out that I was),  Bowen reveals the emotinal secret that governs her couples’ lives.  The subtlety of Bowen’s prose, her time shifts, her elliptical and sometime incomplete dialogue, place definite demands on the reader, who sometimes has to use the prose to infer key information rather than being told it directly.  To be blunt, this is not a novel to skim quickly while eating dinner and watching TV; it requires attention, care and, at times, a re-read of certain key passages.  A subplot of the novel involving Lady Elfrida bears mentioning, as her ladyship’s very public sexual escapades have reverberated in the following generation, contributing to her son Edward’s rather uptight and priggish nature and at one point threatening Janet’s marriage to Rodney.  Whether Bowen intends the reader to draw a moral from this is unclear; I didn’t myself and don’t feel I lost anything by failing to do so.

I fear I’ve made Friends & Relations sound terribly serious, haven’t I?  If so, I’ve done both Bowen and her novel a disservice.  Although it’s a bit too bittersweet to be a comedy, Bowen’s dialogue and descriptions can be very, very funny; morevoer, Lady Elfrida and especially Theodora are wonderful, comedic characters.  Although I didn’t think that Janet in particular was fully fleshed out and Rodney was never more to me than a cipher,  Bowen has moments of real emotional insight and tenderness, such as her description towards the end of the novel of Laurel and Janet’s aging parents:

They did not miss their daughters but they regretted them.  After dinner, pulling round arm-chairs to the fire, with backs to the empty room, she played patience, with the board over her knee; he finished a detective story a night.  If he died first, she would stay on here for the grandchildren; if she died first the house would be given up.  Once or twice in an evening their eyes met.

Would I recommend this novel? Definitely, with a few caveats.  Don’t be misled by its brevity and expect to read it quickly; have patience;  focus on its style and language and be tolerant of its rather pedestrian plot and the conventions of upperclass British life between the wars.  Friends & Relations is an early novel, considered by many to be unrepresentative of Bowen’s best work.  For this reason, I recommend, if you’ve never read Bowen or you only intend to read one of her ten books, that you begin with, or read, a different work, perhaps The Last September,  The Death of the Heart (my own favorite so far) or, if you want an atmospheric WWII “London in the Blitz” setting, The Heat of the Day.  Do I like Bowen’s work myself or do I merely appreciate her ability as a writer?  Do I think her glowing reputation is deserved?  So very, very difficult to decide the precise nature of my  problematical relationship with this writer ….. I think I’ll make up my mind after I read Eva Trout  …………. or perhaps The Hotel ……