Six Degrees: Ethan Frome to A Mother’s Reckoning

This month we began with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which was our buddy read for the short classics week of Novellas in November. I reread and reviewed it recently. (See Kate’s opening post.)

 

#1 When I posted an excerpt of my Ethan Frome review on Instagram, I got a comment from the publicist who was involved with the recent UK release of The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin, a modern update of Wharton’s plot. Here’s part of the blurb: “Life for Ethan and Zo used to be simple. Ethan co-founded a lucrative media start-up, and Zo was well on her way to becoming a successful filmmaker. Then they moved to a rural community for a little more tranquility—or so they thought. … Enter a houseguest who is young, fun, and not at all concerned with the real world, and Ethan is abruptly forced to question everything: his past, his future, his marriage, and what he values most.” I’m going to try to get hold of a review copy when the paperback comes out in February.

 

#2 One of my all-time favourite debut novels is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2012. It is also a contemporary reworking of an Edith Wharton novel, this time The Age of Innocence. Segal’s love triangle, set in a world I know very little about (the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London), stays true to the emotional content of the original: the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly 12 years. Now engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to become pillars of the community. Suddenly, their future is threatened by the return of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider.

 

#3 Also set in north London’s Jewish community is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Chani is the fifth of eight daughters in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Golders Green. The story begins and closes with Chani and Baruch’s wedding ceremony, and in between it loops back to detail their six-month courtship and highlight a few events from their family past. It’s a light-hearted, gossipy tale of interclass matchmaking in the Jane Austen vein.

 

#4 I learned more about Jewish beliefs and rituals via several memoirs, including Between Gods by Alison Pick. Her paternal grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Holocaust; she only found out that her father was Jewish through eavesdropping. In 2008 the author (a Toronto-based novelist and poet) decided to convert to Judaism. The book vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, covering a lot of other issues Pick was dealing with simultaneously, such as depression, preparation for marriage, pregnancy, and so on.

 

#5 One small element of Pick’s story was her decision to be tested for the BRCA gene because it’s common among Ashkenazi Jews. Tay-Sachs disease is usually found among Ashkenazi Jews, but because only her husband was Jewish, Emily Rapp never thought to be tested before she became pregnant with her son Ronan. Had she known she was also a carrier, things might have gone differently. The Still Point of the Turning World was written while her young son was still alive, but terminally ill.

 

#6 Another wrenching memoir of losing a son: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the Columbine school shooters. I was in high school myself at the time, and the event made a deep impression on me. Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is Klebold’s determination to reclaim Columbine as a murder–suicide and encourage mental health awareness; all author proceeds were donated to suicide prevention and mental health charities. There’s no real redemptive arc, though, no easy answers; just regrets. If something similar could happen to any family, no one is immune. And Columbine was only one of many major shootings. I finished this feeling spent, even desolate. Yet this is a vital book everyone should read.

 

So, I’ve gone from one unremittingly bleak book to another, via sex, religion and death. Nothing for cheerful holiday reading – or a polite dinner party conversation – here! All my selections were by women this month.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)

Next month’s starting point is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; I have a copy on the shelf and this would be a good excuse to read it!

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

December Reading Plans

Blogging, and especially hosting Novellas in November – which was a roaring success, for which I am grateful! – has felt like a full-time job at points over the past month.

It was a record-breaking month in terms of my reading total, and I also wrote 24 blog posts. What with all the novellas, a focus on nonfiction review books, and a few rereads, I was able to contribute to several challenges in addition to #NovNov, such as Nonfiction November, German Literature Month, and Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

November was extra stressful for me because of trying to buy a house, starting my McKitterick Prize judging, and my mother being in and out of hospital since September. I know I’m not the only one feeling burnt out after a busy month. I now need to focus on paid work so I can take my upcoming two weeks in the USA off.

So, for December’s reading, the plan is mostly to finish a good number of 2021 releases and review copies currently on the go. Here’s my planned set:

I will also likely slip in a few novella-length Christmas or winter books; my first is An Advent Calendar by Shena Mackay.

Meanwhile, the books keep coming in. This was my belated birthday and early Christmas haul from a holiday get-together with family over here:

I actually contemplated taking a complete break from blogging in December, but I still have a number of review copies I owe feedback on, as well as other ideas for themed posts that I want to fit in. Plus drawing up the Best-of lists and statistics is my favourite task of the blogging year, so I wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun. But I will definitely be scaling back this month, especially during our time in the States.

In other news, today it’s off to London for my first time since December 2019 (and only my second time on a train since then). We will have a nice chilly walk along the river from Richmond to Ham House and then grab a meal at a vegan diner before at last getting to go to our several-times-delayed Bell X1 gig at Union Chapel.

Lots of other good stuff coming up in the next week and a half, too, including a few Christmas concerts, a book club get-together, and the Barbellion Prize longlist, which is due out on the 13th.

 

Happy December reading!

#NonFicNov Catch-Up 2: Abbs, Hattrick, Powles, DAD Anthology, Santhouse

I’m sneaking in with five more review books on the final day of Nonfiction November, after a first catch-up earlier on in the month. Today I have a sprightly travel book based on the journeys of female writers and artists, a probing account of repeated chronic illness in the family, an anthology of essays showcasing the breadth of fatherhood experiences, a lyrical memoir-in-essays exploring racial identity, and a psychiatrist’s case studies of how the mind influences what the body feels. My apologies to the publishers for the brief responses.

 

Windswept: Walking in the footsteps of remarkable women by Annabel Abbs

After a fall landed her in hospital with a cracked skull, Abbs couldn’t wait to roam again and vowed all her future holidays would be walking ones. What time she had for pleasure reading while raising children was devoted to travel books; looking at her stacks, she realized they were all by men. Her challenge to self was to find the women and recreate their journeys. I was drawn to this because I’d enjoyed Abbs’s novel about Frieda Lawrence and knew she was the subject of the first chapter here. During research for Frieda, Abbs omitted the Lawrences’ six-week honeymoon in the German mountains, so now she makes it a family cycling holiday, imitating Frieda’s experience by walking in a skirt and sunbathing nude. Other chapters follow Welsh painter Gwen John in Bordeaux, Nan Shepherd in Scotland, Georgia O’Keeffe in the American Southwest, and so on. Questions of risk and compulsion recur as Abbs asks how these women sought to achieve liberation. The interplay between biographical information and travel narrative is carefully controlled, but somehow this never quite came together for me in the way that, for instance, Sara Wheeler’s O My America! did.

(Two Roads, June 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Ill Feelings by Alice Hattrick

“My mother and I have symptoms of illness without any known cause,” Hattrick writes. When they showed signs of the ME/CFS their mother had suffered from since 1995, it was assumed there was imitation going on – that a “shared hysterical language” was fuelling their continued infirmity. It didn’t help that both looked well, so could pass as normal despite debilitating fatigue. Into their own family’s story, Hattrick weaves the lives and writings of chronically ill women such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning (see my review of Fiona Sampson’s biography, Two-Way Mirror), Alice James and Virginia Woolf. All these figures knew that what Hattrick calls “crip time” is different: more elastic; about survival rather than achievement.

The book searches desultorily for answers – could this have something to do with Giardiasis at age two? – but ultimately rests in mystery. ME/CFS patients rarely experience magical recovery, instead exhibiting repeated cycles of illness and being ‘well enough’. Hattrick also briefly considers long Covid as another form of postviral syndrome. My mother had fibromyalgia for years, so I’m always interested to read more about related illnesses. Earlier in the year I read Tracie White’s Waiting for Superman, and this also reminded me of Suzanne O’Sullivan’s books, though it’s literary and discursive rather than scientific.

(Fitzcarraldo Editions, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles

I loved Powles’s bite-size food memoir, Tiny Moons. She won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing for this work in progress, and I was eager to read more of her autobiographical essays. Watery metaphors are appropriate for a poet’s fluid narrative about moving between countries and identities. Powles grew up in a mixed-race household in New Zealand with a Malaysian Chinese mother and a white father, and now lives in London after time spent in Shanghai. Water has been her element ever since she learned to swim in a pool in Borneo, where her grandfather was a scholar of freshwater fish.

The book travels between hemispheres, seasons and languages, and once again food is a major point of reference. “I am the best at being alone when cooking and eating a soft-boiled egg,” she writes. Many of the essays are in short fragments – dated, numbered or titled. A foodstuff or water body (like the ponds at Hampstead Heath) might serve as a link: A kōwhai tree, on which the unofficial national flower of New Zealand grows, when encountered in London, collapses the miles between one home and another. Looking back months later (given I failed to take notes), this evades my grasp; it’s subtle, slippery but admirable.

(Canongate, August 2021.) With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

DAD: Untold Stories of Fatherhood, Love, Mental Health and Masculinity, edited by Elliott Rae

Music.Football.Fatherhood, a British equivalent of Mumsnet, brings dads together in conversation. These 20 essays by ordinary fathers run the gamut of parenting experiences: postnatal depression, divorce, single parenthood, a child with autism, and much more. We’re used to childbirth being talked about by women, but rarely by their partners, especially things like miscarriage, stillbirth and trauma. I’ve already written on Michael Johnson-Ellis’s essay on surrogacy; I also found particularly insightful R.P. Falconer’s piece on trying to be the best father he can be despite not having a particularly good role model in his own absent father, and Sam Draper’s on breaking the mould as a stay-at-home dad (“the bar for expectations regarding fathers is low, very low”) – I never understood how parental leave works in the UK before reading this. The book is full of genial and relatable stories and half or more of its authors are non-white. It could do with more rigorous editing to get the grammar and writing style up to the standard of traditionally published work, but even for someone like me who is not in the target audience it was an enjoyable set of everyday voices.

(Music.Football.Fatherhood, June 2021.) With thanks for the free copy for review. 

 

Head First: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of Mind and Body by Alastair Santhouse

Santhouse is a consultant psychiatrist at London’s Guy’s and Maudsley hospitals. This book was an interesting follow-up to Ill Feelings (above) in that the author draws an important distinction between illness as a subjective experience and disease as an objective medical reality. Like Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen does in Pain, Santhouse adopts a biopsychosocial approach: “to focus solely on the scientific and neglect he social aspects of illness is a mistake that we continue to make,” he says. Using a patchwork of anonymous case studies, he delves into topics like depression, altruism, obesity, self-diagnosis, medical mysteries, evidence-based medicine, and preparation for death. A discussion of CFS again echoes the Hattrick. He brings the picture up to date with a final chapter on Covid-19. I’ve read so many doctors’ memoirs that this one didn’t stand out for me at all, but those less familiar with the subject matter could find it a good introduction to some ins and outs of mind–body medicine.

(Atlantic Books, July 2021.) With thanks to the publicist for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Novellas in November Wrap-Up

Last year, our first of hosting Novellas in November as an official blogger challenge, we had 89 posts by 30 bloggers. This year, Cathy and I have been simply blown away by the level of participation: as of this afternoon, our count is that 49 bloggers have taken part, publishing just over 200 posts and covering over 270 books. We’ve done our best to keep up with the posts, which we’ve each been collecting as links on the opening master post. (Here’s mine.)

Thank you all for being so engaged with #NovNov, including with the buddy reads we tried out for the first time this year. We’re already thinking about changes we might implement for next year.

A special mention goes to Simon of Stuck in a Book for being such a star supporter and managing to review a novella on most days of the month.

Our most reviewed books of the month included new releases (The Fell by Sarah Moss, Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, Assembly by Natasha Brown, and The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery), our four buddy reads, and The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.

Some authors who were reviewed more than once (highlighting different works) were Margaret Atwood, Henry James, Elizabeth Jolley, Amos Oz, George Simenon, and Muriel Spark.

Of course, novellas are great to read the whole year round and not just in November, but we hope this has been a good excuse to pick up some short books and appreciate how much can be achieved with such a limited number of pages. If we missed any of your coverage, let us know and we will gladly add it in to the master list.

See you next year!

Love Your Library, November 2021

It’s the second month of the new Love Your Library feature.

I’d like to start out by thanking all those who have taken part since last month’s post:

Adrian shared lovely stories about the libraries he’s used in Ireland, from childhood onwards.

Laila, Lori and Margaret highlighted their recent loans and reads.

Laura sent a photo of her shiny new library copy of Sally Rooney’s latest novel.

Finally, Marcie contributed this TikTok video of her library stacks!

  

As for my recent library experiences…

 

A stand-out read:

The Performance by Claire Thomas: What a terrific setup: three women are in a Melbourne theatre watching a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Margot is a veteran professor whose husband is developing dementia. Ivy is a new mother whose wealth hardly makes up for the devastating losses of her earlier life. Summer is a mixed-race usher concerned about her girlfriend during the fires rampaging outside the city. In rotating close third person sections, Thomas takes us into these characters’ inner worlds, contrasting their personal worries with wider issues of women’s and indigenous people’s rights and the environmental crisis, as well as with the increasingly claustrophobic scene on stage. In “The Interval,” written as a script, the main characters interact with each other, with the “forced intimacy between strangers” creating opportunities for chance meetings and fateful decisions.

 

Doorstoppers: A problem

Aware that I’m heading to the States for Christmas on the 14th of December (only a couple of weeks from now!), I’ve started culling my library stacks, returning any books that I’m not super-keen to read before the end of the year. A few I’ll borrow another time, but most I decided weren’t actually for me, even if raved about elsewhere.

I mentioned in a post last week that I’ve had a hard time finding the concentration for doorstoppers lately, which is ironic giving how many high-profile ones there have been this year – or even just this autumn. (For example, seven of BookPage’s top 20 fiction releases of 2021 are over 450 pages.) I gave up twice on Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, swiftly abandoned Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (a silly bookish attempt at something like Cloud Atlas), didn’t have time to attempt Tenderness by Alison Macleod and The Magician by Colm Tóibín, and recently returned The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard unread.

Why so many chunky reads this year, and this season in particular? I’ve wondered if it has had something to do with the lockdown mentality – for authors or readers, or both. It can be awfully cozy, especially as winter advances (in this hemisphere), to sink into a big book. But I find that I’m always looking for an excuse to not engage with a doorstopper.

 

I generally enjoy the scope, detail and moral commentary of Jonathan Franzen’s novels; his previous two, Freedom and Purity, which also numbered 500+ pages, were fantastic. But Crossroads wasn’t happening for me, at least not right now. I only got to page 23 on this attempt. The Chicago setting was promising, and I’m there for the doubt and hypocrisy of church-bound characters. But with text this dense, it feels like it takes SO MANY WORDS to convey just one scene or conversation. I was finding the prose a little obnoxious, too, e.g.

Of Santa the Hildebrandts had always said, Bah, humbug. And yet somehow, long past the age of understanding that presents don’t just buy and wrap themselves, he’d accepted their sudden annual appearance as, if not a miraculous provision, then a phenomenon like his bladder filling with urine, part of the normal course of things. How had he not grasped at nine a truth so obvious to him at ten? The epistemological disjunction was absolute.

Problems here: How many extra words do you need to say “He stopped believing in Santa at age 10”? When is the phrase “epistemological disjunction” ever anything other than showing off? And why did micturition present itself as an apt metaphor?

But anyway, I’ve hardly given this a fair shake yet. I daresay I’ll read it another time; it’ll be my eighth book by Franzen.

 


Do share a link to your own post in the comments, and feel free to use the above image. I’ve co-opted a hashtag that is already popular on Twitter and Instagram: #LoveYourLibrary.

Here’s a reminder of my ideas of what you might choose to post (this list will stay up on the project page):

  • Photos or a list of your latest library book haul
  • An account of a visit to a new-to-you library
  • Full-length or mini reviews of some recent library reads
  • A description of a particular feature of your local library
  • A screenshot of the state of play of your online account
  • An opinion piece about library policies (e.g. Covid procedures or fines amnesties)
  • A write-up of a library event you attended, such as an author reading or book club.

If it’s related to libraries, I want to hear about it!

Seven Final Novellas: Crumley, Morris, Rapp Black; Hunter, Johnson, Josipovici, Otsuka (#NovNov)

We’ll be wrapping up Novellas in November and giving final statistics on Tuesday. Today, I have mini reviews of another seven novellas I’ve been working on, some of them for the whole month. I’ll start with some short nonfiction and then move on to the fiction.

 

Nonfiction:

Barn Owl by Jim Crumley (2014)

[63 pages]

I reviewed Kingfisher and Otter, two other titles from Crumley’s “Encounters in the Wild” series for the publisher Saraband, earlier in the month. Barn Owl follows the same pattern, traveling the Scottish islands in search of close encounters (with badgers and ospreys, too) but also stretching back to a childhood memory from 1950s Dundee, when there was an owl-occupied derelict farmstead a quarter-mile from his home. This is a lovely little full-circle narrative in that the book closes with “the barn owl, unlike all other night-flying owls, is the one that we can see in the dark … its inarguable beauty is layered with mystery, and …all of us have a place in our hearts and minds for mysterious beauty. I have known that to be an essential truth since I was about eight years old.” (Public library)

 

Conundrum by Jan Morris (1974)

[148 pages]

A reread of a book that transformed my understanding of gender back in 2006. Morris (d. 2020) was a trans pioneer. Her concise memoir opens “I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Sitting under the family piano, little James knew it, but it took many years – a journalist’s career, including the scoop of the first summiting of Mount Everest in 1953; marriage and five children; and nearly two decades of hormone therapy – before a sex reassignment surgery in Morocco in 1972 physically confirmed it. I was struck this time by Morris’s feeling of having been a spy in all-male circles and taking advantage of that privilege while she could. She speculates that her travel books arose from “incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.” The focus is more on her unchanging soul than on her body, so this is not a sexual tell-all. She paints hers as a spiritual quest toward true identity and there is only joy at new life rather than regret at time wasted in the ‘wrong’ one. (Public library)

 

Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg by Emily Rapp Black (2021)

[145 pages]

This was my third memoir by the author; I reviewed The Still Point of the Turning World and Sanctuary earlier in the year. Like Sinéad Gleeson does in Constellations, Rapp Black turns to Frida Kahlo as a role model for “translating … pain into art.” Polio, a streetcar accident, 32 operations, failed pregnancies and an amputated leg – Kahlo endured much suffering. It was this last particular that especially drew Rapp Black (who has had a prosthetic leg since early childhood) to her. On a visit to Kahlo’s Mexico City home, she can hardly bear the intimacy of seeing Kahlo’s prostheses and corsets. They plunge her back into her own memories: of passing as normal despite a disability, having an eating disorder, losing her son Ronan to Tay-Sachs disease, and starting over with a new marriage and baby. Rapp Black weaves this all together artfully as well as effectively, but for someone like me who is already conversant with her story, there wasn’t quite enough in the way of new material.

With thanks to Notting Hill Editions for the free e-copy for review.

  

Fiction:

These first two ended up having a major arc in common: desperate preservation of key family relationships against the backdrop of a believably falling-apart near-future world.

 

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017)

[127 pages]

A woman, her partner (R), and their baby son flee a flooded London in search of a place of safety, traveling by car and boat and camping with friends and fellow refugees. “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along,” she says. Her baby, Z, tethers her to the corporeal world. What actually happens? Well, on the one hand it’s very familiar if you’ve read any dystopian fiction; on the other hand it is vague because characters only designated by initials are hard to keep straight and the text is in one- or two-sentence or -paragraph chunks punctuated by asterisks (and dull observations): “Often, I am unsure whether something is a bird or a leaf. *** Z likes to eat butter in chunks. *** We are overrun by mice.” etc. It’s touching how Z’s early milestones structure the book, but for the most part the style meant this wasn’t my cup of tea. (Secondhand purchase)

 

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (2021)

[For novella only: 182 pages?]

Pick this up right away if you loved Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections. After “the unraveling,” Da’Naisha and fellow escapees from racial violence in Charlottesville – including her former and current boyfriends, the one Black and the other white; and her ailing grandmother, MaViolet – shelter at Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia estate. At first they stay by the visitor’s center, but as weeks pass and they fear a siege, they retreat to the mansion itself. Da’Naisha, our narrator, becomes the de facto leader of the motley crew, spearheading a trip out for supplies. She harbors two major secrets, one about her heritage and one about her future. Although this is a bit too similar to Parable of the Sower, against which I judge just about any dystopian fiction, the setting and timeliness can’t be beat. I read the U.S. ebook edition, which includes five short stories that also explore race issues and employ the first person plural and second person to good effect; “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” encapsulated my whole autumn mood. (Read via Edelweiss)

 

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici (2018)

[101 pages]

After reviewing Josipovici’s 100 Days earlier in the month, I wanted to get a taste of his fiction. The protagonist is a translator who has lived in London, Paris and now rural Wales. He’s been married twice but, whatever his living situation, he’s always prized the solitude and routine he needs for his work. Passages from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and Joachim du Bellay’s poetry – in the original language, sometimes but not always translated for us – drift through the novella, which also prioritizes the sort of repeated phrases that constitute a long-cohabitating couple’s domestic vocabulary. References to cemeteries and to du Bellay’s Regrets are hints of something hasn’t isn’t being revealed to us up front. I think I worked out what it was. Clever and interesting, but I’d like a bit more grounding detail. A favorite line: “for one’s life not living up to expectation there is no excuse, except for the paltry one that this is true of everybody’s life.” (University library)

 

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka (2002)

[145 pages]

Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese mail order brides in early 1900s San Francisco, was one of my first encounters with the first person plural, which I’ve come to love. It also serves as a prequel to this, her debut novel. In Berkeley, California in 1942, a Japanese man is arrested as a potential enemy combatant. His wife, son and daughter are given just a matter of days to pack their things and evacuate to an internment camp in the desert. Otsuka takes us along on the train journey and to the camp, where small moments rather than climactic ones reveal the children’s sadness and the injustice of what they’re missing out on. I most enjoyed the last section, when they all return to their home after over three years away and start to piece life back together. I’d already read a few novels featuring Japanese internment (e.g. The Japanese Lover and Snow Falling on Cedars) but, more than that, Otsuka’s writing is a tad too subtle for me. (Secondhand purchase)

 

In total, I read 29 novellas this November – a new record for me! I didn’t set out to read the equivalent of nearly one per day, but it happened to pan out like that. Some of my selections were very short indeed, at under 100 pages; multiple volumes of Garfield comics also helped. Three were 5-star reads: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy plus two rereads, Conundrum by Jan Morris (above) and our classics buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

 

I also had a couple of DNFs:

Gone by Michael Blencowe: (45 pages) I made a second attempt on this essay collection about extinct species this month. Maybe I’ve just read too much around the topic recently. (Review copy)

Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner: (50 pages) I loved the idea of a novella about a neurosurgeon, but mostly this concerns Nick’s fatness and his family members’ various dysfunctions. (New purchase)

The Blind Assassin Reread for #MARM, and Other Doorstoppers

It’s the fourth annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM), hosted by Canadian blogger extraordinaire Marcie of Buried in Print. In previous years, I’ve read Surfacing and The Edible Woman, The Robber Bride and Moral Disorder, and Wilderness Tips. This year Laila at Big Reading Life and I did a buddy reread of The Blind Assassin, which was historically my favourite Atwood novel. I’d picked up a free paperback the last time I was at The Book Thing of Baltimore. Below are some quick thoughts based on what I shared with Laila as I was reading.

 

The Blind Assassin (2000)

Winner of the Booker Prize and Hammett Prize; shortlisted for the Orange Prize

I must have first read this about 13 years ago. The only thing I remembered before I started my reread was that there is a science fiction book-within-the-book. I couldn’t recall anything else about the setup before I read in the blurb about the suspicious circumstances of Laura’s death in 1945. Indeed, the opening line, which deserves to be famous, is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

I always love novels about sisters, and Iris is a terrific narrator. Now a cantankerous elderly woman, she takes us back through her family history: her father’s button factory and his clashes with organizing workers, her mother’s early death, and her enduring relationship with their housekeeper, Reenie. Iris and Laura met a young man named Alex Thomas, a war orphan with radical views, at the factory’s Labour Day picnic, and it was clear early on that Laura was smitten, while Iris went on to marry Richard Griffen, a nouveau riche industrialist.

Interspersed with Iris’s recollections are newspaper articles that give a sense that the Chase family might be cursed, and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, Laura’s posthumously published novel. Daring for its time in terms of both explicit content and literary form (e.g., no speech marks), it has a storyline rather similar to 1984, with an upper-crust woman having trysts with a working-class man in his squalid lodgings. During their time snatched together, he also tells her a story inspired by the pulp sci-fi of the time. I was less engaged by the story-within-the-story(-within-the-story) this time around compared to Iris’s current life and flashbacks.

In the back of my mind, I had a vague notion that there was a twist coming, and in my impatience to see if I was right I ended up skimming much of the second half of the novel. My hunch was proven correct, but I was disappointed with myself that I wasn’t able to enjoy the journey more a second time around. Overall, this didn’t wow me on a reread, but then again, I am less dazzled by literary “tricks” these days. At the sentence level, however, the writing was fantastic, including descriptions of places, seasons and characters’ psychology. It’s intriguing to think about whether we can ever truly know Laura given Iris’s guardianship of her literary legacy.

If you haven’t read this before, find a time when you can give it your full attention and sink right in. It’s so wise on family secrets and the workings of memory and celebrity, and the weaving in of storylines in preparation for the big reveal is masterful.

Some favourite passages:

“What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves – our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies.”

“Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it. Impossible, of course.”

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

What to read for #MARM next year, I wonder??

 


In general, I have been struggling mightily with doorstoppers this year. I just don’t seem to have the necessary concentration, so Novellas in November has been a boon. I’ve been battling with Ruth Ozeki’s latest novel for months, and another attempted buddy read of 460 pages has also gone by the wayside. I’ll write a bit more on this for #LoveYourLibrary on Monday, including a couple of recent DNFs. The Blind Assassin was only my third successful doorstopper of the year so far. After The Absolute Book, the other one was:

 

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

In Towles’ third novel – a big, old-fashioned dose of Americana – brothers and pals set out from Nebraska on road and rail adventures to find a fortune in 1950s New York. The book features some fantastic characters. Precocious Billy steals every scene he appears in. Duchess is a delightfully flamboyant bounder, peppering his speech with malapropisms and Shakespeare quotes. However, Emmett is a dull protagonist, and it’s disappointing that Sally, one of just two main female characters, plays such a minor role. A danger with an episodic narrative is that random events and encounters pile up but don’t do much to further the plot. At nearly 200 pages in, I realized little of consequence had happened yet. A long road, then, with some ups and downs along the way, but Towles’ fans will certainly want to sign up for the ride.

See my full review for BookBrowse; see also my related article on Studebaker cars.

With thanks to Hutchinson for the free copy for review.

 

Anything by Atwood, or any doorstoppers, on your pile recently?

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (#NovNov Classics Week Buddy Read)

For the short classics week of Novellas in November, our buddy read is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911). You can download the book for free from Project Gutenberg here if you’d still like to join in.

Did you have to read Ethan Frome in school? For American readers, it’s likely that it was an assigned text in high school English. I didn’t happen to read it during my school days, but caught up in 2006 or 2008, I think, and was impressed with this condensed tragedy and the ambiance of a harsh New England winter. It struck me even more on a reread as a flawless parable of a man imprisoned by circumstance and punished for wanting more.

I had forgotten that the novella is presented as a part-imagined reconstruction of the sad events of Ethan Frome’s earlier life. A quarter-century later, the unnamed narrator is in Wharton’s fictional Starkfield, Massachusetts on business, and hears the bare bones of Ethan’s story from various villagers before meeting the man himself. Ethan, who owns a struggling sawmill, picks up extra money from odd jobs. He agrees to chauffeur the narrator to engineering projects in his sleigh, and can’t conceal his jealousy at a technical career full of travel – a reminder of what could have been had he been able to continue his own scientific studies. A blizzard forces the narrator to stay overnight in Ethan’s home, and the step over the threshold sends readers back in time to when Ethan was a young man of 28.

 

*There are SPOILERS in the following.*


Ethan’s household contains two very different women: his invalid wife, Zeena, eight years his elder; and her cousin, Mattie Silver, who serves as her companion and housekeeper. Mattie is dreamy and scatter-brained – not the practical sort you’d want in a carer role, but she had nowhere else to go after her parents’ death. She has become the light of Ethan’s life. By contrast, Zeena is shrewish, selfish, lazy and gluttonous. Wharton portrays her as either pretending or exaggerating about her chronic illness. Zeena has noticed that Ethan has taken extra pains with his appearance in the year since Mattie came to live with them, and conspires to get rid of Mattie by getting a new doctor to ‘prescribe’ her a full-time servant.

The plot turns on an amusing prop, “Aunt Philura Maple’s pickle-dish.” While Zeena is away for her consultation with Dr. Buck, Ethan and Mattie get one evening alone together. Mattie lays the table nicely with Zeena’s best dishes from the china cabinet, but at the end of their meal the naughty cat gets onto the table and knocks the red glass pickle dish to the floor, where it smashes. Before Ethan can obtain glue to repair it in secret, Zeena notices and acts as if this never-used dish was her most prized possession. She and Ethan are both to have what they most love taken away from them – but at least Ethan’s is a human being.

I had remembered that Ethan fell in love with a cousin (though I thought it was his cousin) and that there is a dramatic sledding accident. What I did not remember, however, was that the crash is deliberate: knowing they can never act on their love for each other, Mattie begs Ethan to steer them straight into the elm tree mentioned twice earlier. He dutifully does so. I thought I recalled that Mattie dies, while he has to live out his grief ever more. I was gearing myself up to rail against the lingering Victorian mores of the time that required the would-be sexually transgressing female to face the greatest penalty. Instead, in the last handful of pages, Wharton delivers a surprise. When the narrator enters the Frome household, he meets two women. One is chair-bound and sour; the other, tall and capable, bustles about getting dinner ready. The big reveal, and horrible irony, is that the disabled woman is Mattie, made bitter by suffering, while Zeena rose to the challenges of caregiving.

Ethan is a Job-like figure who lost everything that mattered most to him, including his hopes for the future. Unlike the biblical character, though, he finds no later reward. “Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with, ever since the very first helping,” as one of the villagers tells the narrator. “He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!” the narrator observes. This man of sorrow is somehow still admirable: he and Zeena did the right thing in taking Mattie in again, and even when at his most desperate Ethan refused to swindle his customers to fund an escape with Mattie. In the end, Mattie’s situation is almost the hardest to bear: she only ever represented sweetness and love, and has the toughest lot. In some world literature, e.g. the Russian masters, suicide might be rendered noble, but here its attempt warrants punishment.

{END OF SPOILERS.}

 

I can see why some readers, especially if encountering this in a classroom setting, would be turned off by the bleak picture of how the universe works. But I love me a good classical tragedy, and admired this one for its neat construction, its clever use of foreshadowing and dread, its exploration of ironies, and its use of a rustic New England setting – so much more accessible than Wharton’s usual New York City high society. The cozy wintry atmosphere of Little Women cedes to something darker and more oppressive; “Guess he’s been in Starkfield too many winters,” a neighbor observes of Ethan. I could see a straight line from Jude the Obscure through Ethan Frome to The Great Gatsby: three stories of an ordinary, poor man who pays the price for grasping for more. I reread this in two sittings yesterday morning and it felt to me like a perfect example of how literature can encapsulate the human condition.

(Secondhand purchase) [181 pages]

 

My original rating (c. 2008):

My rating now:

 

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books), using the hashtag #NovNov. We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts.

New Networks for Nature 2021 Conference in Bath

Hard to believe, but this past weekend was my seventh time attending the New Networks for Nature conference. It was held in Bath on this occasion, after a number of years in Stamford plus once each in Cambridge, York, and online (last year, of course). I happen to have written about it in most other years (2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020), and this year’s programme was so brilliant it would be a shame not to commemorate it. The weekend in Bath started off in a wonderful way: I was finally able to meet Susan of A life in books in person. We talked blogs and book prizes (and Covid and cats) over hot drinks by the Abbey square, and I even got her to sign my copy of her book, the Bloomsbury Essential Guide for Reading Groups.

As I’ve mentioned before, what makes New Networks for Nature special is the interdisciplinary approach: artists, poets, musicians, activists, academics and conservationists attend and speak. The audience, let alone the speakers’ roster, is a who’s who of familiar names and faces from the UK nature writing world. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. The conference planners make ongoing efforts to diversify the programme: this year there were several all-female panels and seven BIPOC appeared on stage. It was a hybrid event in two senses: people could live-stream from home if not comfortable attending in person, and a few speakers appeared on the screen from locations as far-flung as India and New Zealand.

Exploring the Kennet & Avon canal (which also runs behind our house) one lunchtime. Photo by Chris Foster.

I hadn’t had much time to peruse the programme before the conference began. Without exception, the sessions surpassed my expectations. The opening event on the Friday evening was, fittingly, about the question of inclusivity. Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down; Anita Roy, part of the Transition Town Wellington movement and co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and Light; and David Lindo, known as “The Urban Birder,” had a discussion with Seb Choudhury about access to ‘the countryside’, which they agreed is perhaps an unhelpful term that discourages people from going out and experiencing the wildlife on their doorstep.

Saturday opened with a panel on art and environmental awareness. Harriet Mead welds sculptures out of found objects, Rachel Taylor is a scientist who makes birds out of glass, and Sarah Gillespie is a landscape painter whose prints of moths are so lifelike you’d swear they’re photographs. Gillespie spoke for all of them when she said that attention breaks down the dualism between self and other, creating an exchange of energies, with the artist serving as the watchman. These observations appeared to hold true for nature writing as well.

Scientists and writers alike commented on plastics in the environment and species migration. Did you know that 500,000 tons of plastic food packaging is created in the UK per year? Or that dolphins form allyships and have a culture? In the afternoon we met three teenage climate activists who have been involved in school strikes, COP26 protests, and volunteering to cultivate green spaces. Their public speaking ability was phenomenal. A final session of the day was with Julian Hector, head of the BBC Natural History Unit. He showed clips from some of the most famous nature documentaries made during his tenure and polled the room about how they feel about the use of music for emotional manipulation.

 

 

Eurasian Curlew, photographed by Andreas Trepte, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

Speaking of music, the highlight of the conference came about due to the unlikely friendship between Mary Colwell, writer and curlew conservation activist, and singer/songwriter David Gray, who met her after he donated to one of her campaigns and has since gone along on one of her fundraising walks, narrated and scored a short documentary on curlews (you can watch it here), and contributed a song to a forthcoming RSPB-funded album inspired by curlews. We had the absolute treat of attending his first public performance in over two years on the Saturday evening at St Swithin’s Church, a venue that holds perhaps 200 people – versus next year he’ll be filling 20,000-seat stadiums for his White Ladder 20th anniversary tour.

This was carefully billed as an evening in conversation with David Gray rather than a gig, but in the end we got seven songs performed live at the church piano, as opposed to the three originally planned, so I call that a win! Other song excerpts were played over the sound system: “Let the Truth Sting” from his ‘angry young man’ phase, “Accumulates” as an anti-consumerism screed, and “Gulls” (based on an obscure Belgian poem) and “The Sapling” to illustrate how nature imagery enters into his lyrics.

Raised in Pembrokeshire, Gray loved going out on a fishing boat with his neighbours and seeing the seabirds massing around Skomer Island. He said he doesn’t think he’s ever gotten over those childhood experiences, and now he welcomes every sighting of a barn owl near his home in Norfolk (and encouraged us all to start gluing ourselves to roads). One of the songs he performed was indeed “The White Owl,” from Skellig, released early this year. Subtler than some of his albums, it was mostly recorded in a live setup and is built around simple, almost chant-like repeats and harmonies. That incantatory beauty was evident on another song he played live, “No False Gods,” which I didn’t realize has at its core a line from a Nan Shepherd poem: “We are love’s body or we are undone.”

Gray finished the official programme with his unreleased curlew song, “The Arc,” but came back for an encore of “Birds of the High Arctic,” “All that We Asked For” and “Sail Away” – this last to great cheers of recognition. He couldn’t figure out how to finish it after the whistling so just gave a few last plinks and then a hearty laugh as he returned to the stage to answer questions. We were impressed with his eloquence, sense of humour and BIG voice, especially on “Ain’t No Love” (from what has been our favourite of his albums, 2005’s Life in Slow Motion) – I got the feeling he barely needed a microphone to fill the whole church.

 

Sunday morning opened, appropriately, with a panel on nature and spirituality, featuring Satish Kumar, an octogenarian peace pilgrim to nuclear sites; Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland; and Nick Mayhew-Smith, who’s travelled to places of Celtic spirituality around the British Isles, such as hermits’ caves. Kumar led us in a meditation on gratitude and belonging, and suggested that we are all connected, and all spiritual, because we all share the same breath. He described the world’s religions as many tributaries of the same river.

Perhaps my favourite session of all was on the role of nature in weird and Gothic literature. Authors Maggie Gee and Laura Jean McKay (both appearing via video link), and Ruth Padel, a New Networks stalwart, conversed with Bath Spa professor Richard Kerridge. Gee has been writing about climate change in her novels for nearly 40 years; she said the challenge is to make the language fresh again and connect with readers subliminally and emotionally, without preaching or lecturing. She called The Red Children, coming out in March, a future fairy tale, comic and hopeful, and read from the beginning, including a raven’s speech.

This connected with McKay’s The Animals in That Country, from which she read the passage where Jean realizes she can hear the lab mice talking to her. McKay said speculative fiction has been edging ever closer to reality in recent years; she recently realized she was reading Ling Ma’s zombie novel Severance as a guide to surviving the pandemic. In her opinion, novels are to open doors and ask questions – the opposite of what politicians do. Padel added that attention can be an antidote to eco-grief, with art a framework for creating resolution.

Longer sessions were punctuated with readings (from On Gallows Down and Samantha Walton’s Everybody Needs Beauty), performances (Merlyn Driver, who grew up without electricity and not going to school on Orkney, proposed the curlew album to the RSPB and played his song “Simmer Dim”) or short films – one on the plastic pollution encountered by a stand-up paddle boarder travelling the length of the Severn river and another on the regenerative farming a young couple are doing in Spain at Wild Finca.

The closest we came to a debate over the weekend was with the final session on ecotourism. Representing the pro side was Ian Redmond, who works with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. The $1500 fee that each group of tourists pays to be taken into the reserve goes directly to conserving their habitat. But to get there people burn carbon flying long distances, and Nick Acheson finds that unconscionable. After 20 years as a wildlife guide to the amazing animals of Madagascar and South America, he’s vowed never to fly again. He stays close to home in Norfolk and travels by bike. His statistics were arresting and his argumentation hard to counter. Think hard about your motivation, he challenged. If you truly want to help local people and wildlife, donate money instead. The white saviour mentality is a danger here, too.

 


Much food for thought, then, though always in the back of the mind is the knowledge that (as some speakers did say aloud) this event preaches to the choir. How to reach those who haven’t fallen in love with the natural world, or haven’t woken up to the climate crisis? Those questions remain, but each year we have NNN to recharge the batteries.

Next time the conference will be back to York for the first weekend of November, with a tagline of “Survive, Thrive, Revive.” I’m looking forward to it already!

 

Would any of the conference’s themes or events have interested you?

Six Short Cat Books for #NovNov: Muriel Barbery, Garfield and More

Reviews of books about cats have been a regular element on my blog over the years, though not for quite a while. I happen to have amassed a number of illustrated novelty cat books recently, all of them under 150 pages, so Novellas in November is my excuse to feature them together. All six were enjoyable and a nice break from heavier reads on my stacks: .

 

The Writer’s Cats by Muriel Barbery; illus. Maria Guitart (2020; 2021)

[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson; 80 pages]

I could have included this in a translated literature post, but decided to go by theme instead; I also considered reviewing it during nonfiction week as I thought it was a brief memoir. As it turns out, it’s a whimsical tale I’d be more likely to classify under fiction. Barbery has four Chartreux cats – two pairs of siblings: Ocha and Mizu, and Kirin and Petrus. Kirin, one of the younger pair, narrates the book, giving the cats’ view of the writer (and the musician she lives with). They diagnose her as being afflicted with restlessness, doubt and denial, and decide to learn to read so that they can act as literary advisors and comment on her work in progress. Naturally, they’d like to receive royalties for this service. “Yes, we are – in all modesty – decorative, protective deities watching over her rigid little aesthetic world”. Barbery is a Japanophile, so Guitart’s illustrations mix Japanese minimalism with Parisian chic and use as a palette the grey and orange colouring of the cats themselves. This was cute! (Also reviewed by Annabel and Davida.) A favourite illustration:

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

 

Four Garfield comics anthologies by Jim Davis:

Two’s Company (#5, 1984), We Love You Too (#10, 1985), Here We Go Again (#11, 1986), Flying High (#16, 1988)

[Each: 128 pages]

When these came into our temporary Little Free Library at the end of the summer I snapped them up, remembering happy times reading the syndicated comic in the Washington Post and watching the animated TV show on weekends growing up. I could even hear the actor who voices Garfield in my head on some lines.

In a sense, if you’ve read one of these volumes you’ve read them all, because the same sorts of set pieces repeat. Garfield’s gluttony and laziness know no bounds, so in between naps, he’ll snatch lasagnes and whatever other people food he can get. He’ll mock owner Jon, bait Odie the dog, ignore the mice in the house, terrorize Nermal the cute kitten, and flirt with Arlene. For the most part, the plots don’t leave the house, though in Two’s Company Jon and Garfield fly to Hawaii on vacation.

Garfield was the original grumpy cat, with smugness the only other emotion you’ll regularly see on his face. His ways will remind you of your own feline acquaintances (except he also drinks coffee and hates Mondays). The sense of humour is sarcasm par excellence. A favourite page from Flying High:

 

The Calculating Cat Returns by Nancy Prevo; illus. Eric Gurney (1978)

[138 pages]

A tongue-in-cheek book mostly composed of black-and-white cartoons. The “calculating cat” is a bit like Terry Pratchett’s “real cat” from The Unadulterated Cat, but comes in a few varieties (or “CAT-egories,” as they’re called here): Pampered Cats, Working Cats, and Tramp cats. My cat was apparently the third type, living on the streets, for a short time, though you’d never know it to look at him now. During his 10th summer he tried working as a hunter, but quickly retired. He’s now solidly of the pampered class.

There are chapters here on playtime, eating habits, sleep, travel, and mating (not something many of us cat owners have to worry about these days). This remains reasonably undated because cats don’t change; it’s the human fashions that evolve and would look different in a book published today. (Free bookshop)

A favourite drawing:

 

Any cat (or dog) books among your recent reading?