Tag: women writers

“Six In Six”: My 2021 Reading So Far

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

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

SIX AUTHORS I HAVE READ BEFORE 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIX BOOKS I’VE ENJOYED THE MOST 

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

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

Elizabeth Bowen’s Eva Trout.

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

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

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

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Flint Anchor.

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

SIX SHORT READS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIX BOOK COVERS THAT I LOVE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 Reading Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!