Tag: women 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 . . . .)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins: personal & national transitions

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My only previous experience with Icelandic writing was Auour Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Miss Iceland, which I read last year and absolutely loved.  For #NordicFinds, however, I resisted the urge to return to the same writer because I wanted to try someone new.  Do I regret my decision?  Well, you’ll have to read my review to find out!

For the last leg of my Nordic journey I’m again reading slightly outside my comfort zone, having just finished Land of Love and Ruins (tr. Philip Roughton) by the Icelandic author and activist Oddny Eir.  I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Iceland (I lived on a treeless, arctic island myself for a brief period, albeit one on the other side of the world), drawn at first by its history and culture, and later by its great natural wonders.  For Annabel’s #NordicFinds month, which gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge my interest, I wanted to read a contemporary work addressing current issues, so no Halldór Laxness!  Because I had just read a Scandi-Noir by the Finnish writer Antti Tuomainen (and have another lined up for my stopover in Sweden) I also decided to avoid mysteries and thrillers.  Land of Love and Ruins seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  Eir’s debut novel, written in the form of journal or diary entries, has won both the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize (2012) and the EU Prize for Literature  (2014).  It is the only one of her works to date that has been translated into English

Before launching into more details about my very interesting selection, I should note that I read Love and Ruins (LAR) not only for Annabel’s #NordicFinds Month but also for the European Reading Challenge sponsored by Rose City Reader.  You can imagine my delight when I realized LAR also tied into the #ReadIndies Month sponsored by Kaggsy and Lizzy, as it’s published by Restless Books, “an independent, nonprofit publisher” (quote taken from publisher’s website).  After years of being totally hopeless at choosing books that meet the criteria for multiple challenges and events, I have now managed to do so for the second time in a month.  Gentle readers, I am on a streak!  Recommendations for lottery numbers, anyone?

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Given the strongly autobiographical tilt of her work, knowing a little about Eir’s life is a bit more helpful than usual.  Something of a renaissance woman, Eir was born in Iceland in 1972, and educated there and at the Sorbonne, where she received an advanced degree in political philosophy.  In addition to writing poetry, essays and four novels (including Love and Ruins), Eir is known for her environmental activism and has also worked at various times as a museum lecturer, a promoter of art events and a gallerist (according to Wiki, she and her archaeologist brother currently run a publishing company).  Prominently mentioned in all of Eir’s biographical information is her work as a lyricist for the pop star Bjórk on two of the latter’s albums; the keen-eyed among you may have noticed in the photo beginning my post that the front cover of Love and Ruins displays Björk’s endorsement.

Love and Ruins (LAR), as I previously mentioned, is the journal of an ostensibly unnamed young woman returning to Iceland after some time abroad.  Although its publisher refers to LAR as an “autobiographical novel” rather than a memoir, it was hard for me to shake the impression that I was reading an actual journal rather than even a lightly fictionalized account; for this reason and for sheer convenience, I’m going to refer to the first person narrator simply as Eir.  The journal begins on notes of personal and national uncertainty — returning home, Eir is tentatively beginning a new romantic relationship against the backdrop of Iceland’s economic crisis created by the collapse of its banking system in 2008.  In the course of this quasi-novel, Eir spends time with her birth family, especially her archaeologist brother (nickname “Owlie”); details her developing relationship with her new lover, an ornithologist she refers to as “Birdy;” and travels.  And travels some more.  From one apartment or house in Reykjavik to another; from Reykjavik to outlying villages, towns and historic spots around Iceland; to and around England (primarily the Lake District but also London, Manchester & Worsley); and to Basel, Strasbourg and Paris.  The numerous house moves and journeys, which are largely undetailed, are merely triggers for Eir’s personal memories or the framework on which she hangs her thoughts on questions large and small.  These range, for example, from questioning the nature of family structures, to proposing sustainable ways to adapt old traditions to a changing environment, to wondering whether the neighbor she observes shopping at the same time every day is buying all that popcorn for herself “or for everyone else back at her retirement home.”  (page 98)

I faced a number of barriers in reading this novel, some due to my own idiosyncrasies and some to Eir’s.  Just as I’ve never been a big reader of memoirs and autobiographies (not to mention letter collections), I’ve also largely avoided diaries or journals.  Given my prejudice towards the format, it’s obvious that a work of fiction written in the form of a journal was going to be challenging for me.  In keeping with its journalistic structure, LAR moved rapidly from thought to thought, incident to incident, place to place, with few transitions or explanations, leaving me a little behind at times or at least wishing for a few notes beyond the scant four-page glossary provided at the end of the book.  Eir is obviously a poet and writes with a poet’s sensibility; this can be very beautiful but also a little confusing at times, especially when combined with her penchant for assigning nicknames of animal or ornithological origin to practically everyone in her account (in London, for example, Eir (page 166) goes “to say hello to a porcupine, sharpening its snout in doubts” before visiting the bookshops).  Because Eir is interested in how Icelandic traditions can provide a model for a new, environmentally sustainable life she delves into the history of her own family, particularly her grandmother’s; while a pilgrimage to the areas in which they lived and the land they had farmed provided a lovely structure for raising questions about Iceland’s transition from an agrarian culture to a tourist playground, I became lost at times in the welter of Eir’s family relationships.  Eir begins each short section of her novel with a heading that is some combination of the Old Icelandic and Church Calendars, a geographic location or indication of the section’s content; for example (page 105):

Hveragerdi,
Woman-Of-The-House Day,
Start of Góa or is it Skerpla?

Being mildly obsessive-compulsive, I experienced a certain amount of stress trying to determine the exact dates of particular “journal” entries and with trying to impose a chronological structure on Eir’s observations and memories.

Between one thing and another, I seriously considered abandoning Love and Ruins somewhere between pages forty and fifty.  But then, gentle readers, I just — relaxed.  I began to enjoy the humor, whimsy and sometimes history in the chapter headings; and realized it didn’t matter very much if I confused her friends Eyowl & the squirrel or got the grandmothers mixed up.  In short, I simply started to listen to what Eir had to say and to appreciate the frequently beautiful way in which she said it.  It’s hard to select one example from among the many contained in the novel, but I found the following (page 52) to be profoundly moving, although I’m not at all conventionally religious:

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth restore you.  Then rise up.  Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to the dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with help from the laws of nature.  You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up, or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Love and Ruins is a physically small book containing big themes, reflected upon by an original mind and expressed in intuitive and poetic language.  What constitutes a family?  Is it possible to be in a loving relationship while maintaining one’s personal autonomy?  If so, how can it be structured?  What happens when a country no longer can sustain growth or the earth support the burdens we humans place on it?  How do we honor our history while moving to the future?  Although Eir raises these questions in the context of an Iceland in transition, they apply universally.  If you are a reader who needs a conventional plot and/or character development, or demands clear and unambiguous answers to profound questions, then you should look elsewhere, Love and Ruins is not the book for you.  But if you’re willing to bend a little bit with the details and go where the current carries you, it has much to offer.

Before departing, I should say a bit about the publisher, since I also read Love and Ruins in conjunction with #ReadIndies month.  Restless Books is a U.S. independent publisher physically located in Gowanus, Brooklyn (a borough of New York City).   Beginning in 2013 as a digital only publisher of international literature, by 2014 Restless Books had expanded into print by partnering with Simon & Schuster for international distribution.  Dedicated to publishing work that speaks across “linguistic and cultural borders,” its publications include practically every genre from an equally wide array of countries.  Although I wasn’t consciously aware of Restless Books before this year, I was a little surprised to discover I actually have a couple of their other publications among my towering stack of unread books.

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?”

A Life In Three Acts: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy

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Thanks to Annabel’s #NordicFINDS month and its focus on Scandinavian literature, this wonderful memoir by the Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen actually moved from my TBR to my “Completed in 2022” list.  Described by her fellow Dane Dorthe Nors as “the Billie Holiday of poetry, accessible, complex and simple all at the same time,” Ditlevsen was a skilled and incredibly poetic writer.  Her story of her tumultuous life made for a fascinating week of reading (the Nors quote is taken from the Paris Review’s Dec 9, 2020 article, “Re-Covered: A Danish Genius of Madness). 

Are you a reader (avid or otherwise) of memoirs and autobiographies?  I must admit that I seldom choose a book from this category, an omission that’s all the more puzzling because when I have done so it’s turned out to be something remarkable.  My lucky streak continues with Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy, a sometimes brutal, frequently poetic and always beautifully written account of her life from early childhood until roughly the age of thirty-five.  If you love great books (and I doubt you’d be interested in book blogging if you didn’t), then you owe it to yourself to put this one near the top of your TBR pile.

The anglophone world has had a rather troubled relationship with Ditlevsen’s work.  Childhood, Youth and Dependency, the three volumes that make up The Copenhagen Trilogy were initially published separately in Denmark; Childhood and Youth in 1967, followed four years later by Dependency (only a few years before Ditlevsen’s suicide in 1976).  All three, however, were generally unavailable to English readers for many years.  After Tiina Nunnally translated Childhood and Youth for a 1985 U.S. edition  (Seal Press) that subsequently went out of print, it was almost a half-century after its 1971 publication before Dependency was translated by Michael Favala Goldman in 2019.  In one of those “strokes of genius” that sometimes occur (Goldman’s words, not mine), Penguin for the first time published all three memoirs together in one volume as The Copenhagen Trilogy.

This rather convoluted publishing history may account for what I considered a fairly obvious difference in emotional tone between Nunnally’s translations (more poetic) and Goldman’s work (more terse and melodramatic).  This is hardly surprising, with two translators working separately and thirty years apart.  Then again, Nunnally’s work concerned Ditlevsen’s outwardly uneventful childhood and early life while Goldman’s Dependency was focused on her adult years.  These were melodramatic by anyone’s standards, including as they did her marriages (four; number three to a psychotic doctor); children (one the adopted daughter of a husband’s girlfriend & two biological); professional and commercial success (extensive); surreptitious abortions (two); and drug addiction (life-threatening and life-long).  The issue for a reader, of course, is whether this tonal difference between the translators detracts from the volume as a whole, especially when its components are read in quick succession.  For me the answer is “no.”  If any of you have a different impression, however, please do weigh in on this point.

Many of you no doubt know the basics of Ditlevsen’s background.  Born in 1917 to a family that we would now describe as the “working poor,” she spent her childhood and early youth in Vesterbro, a grim and semi-dangerous suburb of Copenhagen.  Ditlevsen’s parents were an ill-assorted pair whose differences made for a stormy domestic atmosphere throughout her childhood.  Her father Ditlev was a frequently unemployed laborer with strongly socialist views; her mother Alfrida, ten years his junior, was a self-absorbed, vain and sometimes cruel woman who was the center of her young daughter’s almost obsessive attention.  The parents’ attention, interest and love were vested in Ditlevsen’s older brother, whom they intended to become a skilled tradesman, the peak of accomplishment for a working-class boy in 1920s Denmark.  The parental goal for Ditlevsen herself was far less lofty:  she was to leave school at age 14, contribute most of her wages to the family’s support, not get pregnant and, oh joy, ultimately marry a stable, hardworking guy with a trade and without a drinking habit.

Although Ditlevsen is an elegantly terse writer, three volumes of memoirs inevitably encompass a lot of details.  In clicking around the internet for background on her life and career, I noticed that reviewers generally seem most drawn to Dependency, the volume in which Ditlevsen describes (among other things) her harrowing descent into opioid addiction (actively encouraged and abetted by her physician husband) and her subsequent stint in a drug rehabilitation center.  And there is no doubt at all that much of this volume makes for a gripping, if at times rather stomach churning, read.

Perhaps it’s a sign of perversity that, for all my love of drama, I preferred Childhood, a quieter, more poetic volume that portrays the beginnings of the traits that formed Ditlevsen’s character, i.e., her emotional aloofness and self-containment, her approach to relationships and her fierce determination to become a writer.  It was passages such as these that reminded me that Ditlevsen was first and foremost a poet (Farrar, Straus, Giroux edition, 1-6):

In the morning there was hope.  It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of the Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.  My father had left for work and my brother was in school.  So my mother was alone, even though I was there, and if I was absolutely still and didn’t say a word, the remote calm in her inscrutable heart would last until the morning had grown old and she had to go out to do the shopping in Istedgade like ordinary housewives.

* * *

Beautiful, untouchable, lonely, and full of secret thoughts I would never know.  Behind her on the flowered wallpaper, the tatters pasted together by my father with brown tape, hung a picture of a woman staring out the window.  On the floor behind her was a cradle with a little child.  Below the picture it said, ‘Woman awaiting her husband home from the sea.’  Sometimes my mother would suddenly catch sight of me and follow my glance up to the picture I found so tender and sad.  But my mother burst out laughing and it sounded like dozens of paper bags filled with air exploding all at once.  My heart pounded with anguish and sorrow because the silence in the world was now broken, but I laughed with her because my mother expected me to, and because I was seized with the same cruel mirth as she was.

* * *

It was my own fault, though, because if I hadn’t looked at the picture, she wouldn’t have noticed me.  Then she would have stayed sitting there with calmly folded hands and harsh, beautiful eyes fixed on the no-man’s-land between us.  And my heart could have still whispered ‘Mother’ for a long time and known that in a mysterious way she heard it.  I would have left her alone for a long time so that without words she would have said my name and know we were connected with each other.  Then something like love would have filled the whole world . . ..

Ultimately Tuve uses words to escape her indifferent mother’s hold on her heart:

When these light waves of words streamed through me, I knew that my mother couldn’t do anything else to me because she had stopped being important to me.  My mother knew it, too, and her eyes would fill with cold hostility.  She never hit me when my soul was moved in this way, but she didn’t talk to me either.  From then on, until the following morning, it was only our bodies that were close to each other.

Childhood ends when fourteen-year-old Tuve finishes middle school (this is the end of Ditlevsen’s formal education) and begins working at a series of menial jobs, with the bulk of her wages going to her family.

Like many second volumes, Youth suffers a bit from being the bridge from the beginning of the story to its dramatic conclusion.  Nevertheless, it is still a gripping read as well as surprisingly funny in spots.  It begins as Ditlevsen describes her brief stints as a highly unskilled maid (she doesn’t know how to use a vacuum cleaner and ultimately sweeps its contents under the living room rug); a worker in a medical supply company (she mostly packs boxes and is fired when she impersonates the prime minister giving a pro union speech); and a bored office worker with nothing much to do except watch her colleagues flirt.  And, all the time, she’s writing, writing, writing and always looking for the opportunity to have her work read and noticed.  By the conclusion of Youth, Ditlevsen holds her first published book of poetry in her hands and is maneuvering to marry the much older editor who’s given the twenty-something poet her big break.  Ditlevsen’s professional trajectory occurs against the backdrop of the darkening political situation in Europe.  Nazi Germany is on the move, Hitler is invading Austria and Denmark’s invasion and occupation are on the horizon.  Ditlevsen’s reaction?  In an endearingly human touch (to me at least), she’s primarily concerned about whether the war will interfere with her book’s publication date and or interupt her maneuvers to ensnare the hapless editor.

In the hope of finishing this post within my lifetime, I’ll try to keep my overview of Dependency brief (remember, however, that in many ways its events are the most dramatic and well-known of Ditlevsen’s life).  It opens with Ditlevsen married to her editor (their union proves highly unsatisfactory) and well on her way to phenomenal literary success.  It ends with Ditlevsen, now on her fourth marriage, struggling to control her addiction after surviving the six-month hell of a drug rehabilitation program.  One of our current self-help gurus would end a comparable story with a charming picture of herself wrapped in serenity and meditating on her hard-won wisdom.  It’s a measure of Ditlevsen’s cool objectivity and self-knowledge that her words as she ends her account of her life are:

I started writing again, and whenever reality got under my skin, I bought a bottle of red wine and shared it with Victor [her fourth husband].  I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window.  It will never disappear completely for as long as I live.

As was evident from my opening words, I was incredibly impressed and emotionally moved by Ditlevsen’s account of her life.  The only thing more amazing than its impact is the fact that it took over a half century for a work of such power to reach an English-speaking audience.  But then, we bloggers know why we dedicate August to acknowledging and celebrating translated work authored by women, don’t we?

In closing, one question and a few odds and ends for the interested.  As with any memoir or autobiography, I think it’s necessary to question the extent to which its facts are “objectively” accurate.  Although I kept this question in mind when reading, my scanty knowledge of Ditlevsen’s life and work prevented me from addressing the issue in this review.  Please don’t be shy about adding anything on this point, or, indeed, any other aspect of my review.  Turning to the wealth of Ditlevsen material suddenly available online, I thought the Paris Review article I cited under my opening photo contained a very good discussion of Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy.  The New Yorker has a similarly interesting interview with David Favala Goldman, Dependency’s translator, as well as his translation of a Ditlevsen short story to be published in a collection coming out in March 2022.  (The New Yorker has tightened its pay wall in recent years, but I think a casual reader can still get a few free monthly clicks.)  If you have twenty-five minutes or so to spare and you’re into the visual aspects of things, you can click over to YouTube and view a “Walk Around Tove Ditlevsen’s Vesterbro,” which gives an overview of the author’s life against the physical surroundings of her childhood and youth.

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy as part of Annabel’s #NordicFinds reading month ; as the first stop on my 2022 European Reading Challenge and as a pre-1972 non-fiction work for the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge (I plan to post my list for this challenge later this week).  In other words, it’s a trifecta!  Don’t you just love it when that happens?

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ERC 2022

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European Reading Challenge 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Denmark, I’m on to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drifting Through A Dreamscape: Fleur Jaeggy’s “The Water Statues”

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Although this photo is unrelated to The Water Statues (it’s actually a shot of an underwater museum off the coast of Mexico) it captures perfectly the eerie, dreamlike atmosphere of Jaeggy’s novella.  (Uncredited photo taken from the website of the touring company Aquaworld).  

Although I prefer realistic fiction and am most comfortable with a style that at least nods to tradition, I do occasionally venture further afield.  After all, dear readers, we don’t want to read Anthony Trollope all the time, do we?  Or even dear Jane, as fond as we are of Lizzie’s adventures and Anne Elliot’s romantic travails?  When I do venture to sail in unfamiliar waters (I’m afraid the nature of the book I’m about to discuss has me thinking in aquatic metaphors), it’s a struggle for me to be open to work that is totally new, particularly if it’s written in a non-traditional style.  

My immersion in the blogging world, however, has slowly, slowly, expanded my reading horizons, albeit in inverse proportion to my bank account!  This was the year, for example, that I’ve almost become comfortable reading translated literature.  Having dipped my toe into non-anglophone waters and survived, I decided to take on the ultimate challenge:  a subscription to “the New Classics Club” sponsored by New Directions publishing.  Once I did so, strange, exciting & frequently disconcerting works of fiction began arriving in my mail box on a monthly basis.  This November, for example, brought me:

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Although new to me, those who are better read than I have long enjoyed Fleur Jaeggy’s fiction. New Directions has recently released this early work, translated from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff.

For those who are interested in bio, Jaeggy was born in 1940 in Zurich, Switzerland, where she spent most of her early life.  Like many of her fellow nationals, Jaeggy is multi-lingual and grew up speaking French, German and Italian.  In her twenties she moved to Rome, where she became friends with the Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachman.  It was in Rome that she also met, and eventually married, the Italian writer and publisher Roberto Calasso.  Jaeggy, who writes exclusively in Italian, has continued to live in Italy, where she has bagged most of the country’s major literary prizes.  The Water Statues, originally published in 1980, is an early work; it was in 1989, with Sweet Days of Discipline (translated by Tim Parks) that Jaeggy became widely known.  New Directions has published English translations of these as well as others of Jaeggy’s novels, essays and story collections.  In addition to writing fiction, Jaeggy has also translated the work of Thomas de Quincy and Marcel Schwob into Italian.

All very interesting, I can hear you mutter, but — what about the book?  Who are the characters, what is the plot and, most importantly, what is your opinion of it?  Ah, dear readers, it’s easier to provide questions than to supply answers regarding this enigmatic little work, whose nature and meaning are as elusive as the element contained in its title.  Jaeggy’s novel (more properly novella) clocks in at a scant eight-nine pages of generously spaced text that, technically, could be read in an hour or two.  Its impact, however, is disproportionate to its word count.  Unlike my usual way of plowing through a work of fiction, I read this one very slowly, in small bits spread over several days and stopped frequently to re-read a phrase and to savor the atmosphere.  The impression it creates remains long after the last word is read.

For a variety of reasons, The Water Statues doesn’t lend itself to an analytical discussion.  For one thing, it concerns encounters rather than events and marks time in a circular or even random, rather than linear, fashion.  Essentially its “structure” is a seamless web in which one’s point of entry or exit doesn’t matter too much.  Stylistically, TWS struck me as a hybrid of poetry and prose (some of its short sections definitely call prose poems to mind) as well as a combination of a play — Jaeggy begins with a list of nine “Dramatis Personae” and there are a few sections that consist solely of dialogue — and, well, what isn’t a play. TWS’ viewpoint continually shifts among the characters, who sometimes address the reader directly; these shifts in view and narration heighten the malleable, fragmentary nature of the reality they are experiencing.  The inclusion among the named characters of an additional individual who is never identified but who sometimes narrates or gives his/her version of events further heightens the novella’s mysterious nature.  Who is this person and what are they doing in the story?

The protagonist, to the extent there is one, is Beeklam, the rich and eccentric collector of the statues that provide the novella with its title.  Early in the novella Beeklam relates how as a child he experienced the death of his mother Thelma.  After her death (pp 8-9):

He’d abandoned his newly widowed father to go and “buy statues,” he said, and it was as if he were joking.  From early childhood he’d been drawn to figurative imitations of grief and stillness; from childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him; statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and who start out from where they end.  The child looked at them: he inspected eyelids and napes, drawn into their definitive dimensions of seriousness, some molded by artists of renown, others by unknown workshops.  He had a name for each:  Roselind, Diane, Magdalena, Thelma, Gertrud.  Those statutes with their often amiable faces disclosed the things that dwell in things themselves, vitreous things.

After abandoning his father, Beeklam moves to Amsterdam, where he lives, “quite alone” with his statues in the basement of a villa close to the sea.  Because the villa’s basement extends “down to the water,” its gaps and cracks give (p 8):

a sense of the movement of the waves:  of a submerged world that he [Bleeklam] believed to be populated by other statues with feet (if they still had them) tied to stones; and whose knuckles of stone knocked on his walls.  No one shooed him away when he rested his head on the wall and waited — perhaps for the statues of water to return, or to summon him.  The child now wished to live as though he’d drowned.

Although I don’t pretend to any expertise in interpreting these strange and beautiful images, it seems to me that Jaeggy is hinting that the wall between living and dead is thin and that we each long for some form of permanence in a shifting and unstable universe. In this respect, I think it’s significant that Beeklam calls one of his statues by his dead mother’s name. It’s also worth noting that Jaeggy dedicated TWS to her close friend Ingeborg Bachmann, who had died several years previously in a fire (at one point (p 22) Bleeklam remembers reading that “Water is a burnt body,” a line that further hints of themes of death and mortality.)

Emerging from his basement of statues, Beeklam wanders the streets of Amsterdam in the late spring twilight, accompanied by his servant Victor. The lives they observe at a distance and their sporadic encounters with others are their only human connections: fleeting encounters and detached observations, with no lasting effect or central meaning.

The second part of TWS concerns Katrina and Kaspar, who may, or may not, be Katrina’s father.  These “two loners” reluctantly share a pavilion on the grounds of a boarding school; “reticent in speech, they tolerate brief and stinting evening conversations” (p 44).  Images, phrases, characters and even some of Beeklam’s statues make a reappearance in this section of the novella, reinforcing its non-linear structure and the circularity of time.  As once character puts it (p 72), “One says goodbye to everything here; in places like these it’s as if all that is yet to happen were already in the past.”  

It’s impossible to quit this overly long review without briefly mentioning the beauty of Jaeggy’s language and images, all the more striking because her prose is so very economical.  Without wasting a word, or deploying any particularly lush or descriptive adjectives, Jaeggy has an unbelievable knack for creating images that stick in the mind long after her novella is finished.  A crow’s eyes are “two miniature swatches of velvet” (p 53); cabbage leaves dropped in a garden are transformed overnight into “green drawing rooms” teeming with snails (p 84); the child Beeklam has “a horror of anything hereditary, because whatever comes * * * by natural inheritance belongs to the dead” (p 38).  This particular combination of beauty and reticence is something new in my reading experience.

Have any of you, dear readers, explored Jaeggy’s fiction?  If so, what do you think of it?  Although TWS tested my limits a bit, I’m glad I read it and will definitely try more of this very interesting writer’s work (most probably I Am the Brother of XX, a collection of short stories).  Would I recommend TWS to others?  It’s definitely not for those wedded to a traditional style and a linear plot, but for those willing to tolerate ambiguity and open to atmosphere it’s an immersive and rewarding work.                                                                                                 

“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.