Classics and Doorstoppers of the Month

April was something of a lackluster case for my two monthly challenges: two slightly disappointing books were partially read (and partially skimmed), and two more that promise to be more enjoyable were not finished in time to review in full.

 

Classics

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)

When Hazel Motes, newly released from the Army, arrives back in Tennessee, his priorities are to get a car and to get laid. In contrast to his preacher grandfather, “a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger,” he founds “The Church Without Christ.” Heaven, hell and sin are meaningless concepts for Haze; “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” he declares. But his vociferousness belies his professed indifference. He’s particularly invested in exposing Asa Hawkes, a preacher who vowed to blind himself, but things get complicated when Haze is seduced by Hawkes’s 15-year-old illegitimate daughter, Sabbath – and when his groupie, eighteen-year-old Enoch Emery, steals a shrunken head from the local museum and decides it’s just the new Jesus this anti-religion needs. O’Connor is known for her very violent and very Catholic vision of life. In a preface she refers to this, her debut, as a comic novel, but I found it bizarre and unpleasant and only skimmed the final two-thirds after reading the first 55 pages.

 

In progress: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959) – I love to read ‘on location’ when I can, so this was a perfect book to start during a weekend when I visited Stroud, Gloucestershire for the first time.* Lee was born in Stroud and grew up there and in the neighboring village of Slad. I’m on page 65 and it’s been a wonderfully evocative look at a country childhood. The voice reminds me slightly of Gerald Durrell’s in his autobiographical trilogy.

 

*We spent one night in Stroud on our way home from a short holiday in Devon so that I could see The Bookshop Band and member Beth Porter’s other band, Marshes (formerly Beth Porter and The Availables) live at the Prince Albert pub. It was a terrific night of new songs and old favorites. I also got to pick up my copy of the new Marshes album, When the Lights Are Bright, which I supported via an Indiegogo campaign, directly from Beth.

 

Doorstoppers

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas (2017)

Joan Ashby’s short story collection won a National Book Award when she was 21 and was a bestseller for a year; her second book, a linked story collection, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In contravention of her childhood promise to devote herself to her art, she marries Martin Manning, an eye surgeon, and is soon a mother of two stuck in the Virginia suburbs. Two weeks before Daniel’s birth, she trashes a complete novel. Apart from a series of “Rare Babies” stories that never circulate outside the family, she doesn’t return to writing until both boys are in full-time schooling. When younger son Eric quits school at 13 to start a computer programming business, she shoves an entire novel in a box in the garage and forgets about it.

I chose this for April based on the Easter-y title (it’s a stretch, I know!).

Queasy feelings of regret over birthing parasitic children – Daniel turns out to be a fellow writer (of sorts) whose decisions sap Joan’s strength – fuel the strong Part I, which reminded me somewhat of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in that the protagonist is trying, and mostly failing, to reconcile the different parts of her identity. However, this debut novel is indulgently long, and I lost interest by Part III, in which Joan travels to Dharamshala, India to reassess her relationships and career. I skimmed most of the last 200 pages, and also skipped pretty much all of the multi-page excerpts from Joan’s fiction. At a certain point it became hard to sympathize with Joan’s decisions, and the narration grew overblown (“arc of tragedy,” “tortured irony,” etc.) [Read instead: Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin]

Page count: 523

 

In progress: Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly, a 613-page historical novel in verse narrated by a semi-literate servant from Stroud, then a cloth mill town. I’d already committed to read it for a Nudge/New Books magazine review, having had my interest redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize, but it was another perfect choice for a weekend that involved a visit to that part of Gloucestershire. Once you’re in the zone, and so long as you can guarantee no distractions, this is actually a pretty quick read. I easily got through the first 75 pages in a couple of days.

My Stroud-themed reading.

 


Next month’s plan: As a doorstopper Annabel and I are going to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (636 pages, or roughly 20 pages a day for the whole month of May). Join us if you like! I’m undecided about a classic, but might choose between George Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Emile Zola.

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21 thoughts on “Classics and Doorstoppers of the Month

  1. Thank you for reminding me! I will rescue my copy of the Chabon from my shelf forthwith and get stuck in! I’m also planning to read Marlon James’ new one for a fantasy reading month if I can – two doorstoppers in one month! Whatever next?

    I just couldn’t get into the Wolas – a rare DNF after about 30 pages for me. I will look up the Olga Grushin you mentioned though as I loved her book The Concert Ticket, and I have the Dream Life of Sukhanov on my shelves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apart from the excerpts from Joan’s writing, I did really enjoy the first 300 or so pages of the Wolas. But when you’re talking about a book of that length, there’s a lot still to wade through!

      I thought I might make things easy for myself by reading 20 pages of Chabon per day and starting a Twitter thread where I write just one tweet’s worth of reactions to it per day. Then at the end of the month I can piece those together with a bit of commentary instead of having to write something from scratch (especially as I’m in America for the last 13 days of the month). I’ll see if anybody else is interested in joining us.

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  2. Am so impressed by your frequent posting; as a reader this is great! Cider With Rosie was one of those books – we were forced to read it at school. It is actually really good, probably wasted on me and my 13 year old fellow hooligans at the comprehensive. You make me feel less bad about returning Joan Ashby to the library last year unread – just never got round to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll be interested in what you make of Kavalier and Clay: it was one of our first reads when I joined my first book group many years ago now … and I couldn’t, couldn’t plough through it. Your review may help me decide whether to give it a second chance.

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    1. I would never choose a book much longer than 300 pages for a book club read! In every book club I’ve been a part of, the members struggle to get through even 200 pages a month, and there will always be someone who hasn’t finished (or even started).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That was my first Murdoch, probably around 10 years ago, and remains one of my few favourites. It would certainly work for either category and is due for a re-read one of these days — probably not as soon as next month, though.

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  4. I agree Wise Blood is freaky, and I’ve never thought it’s a funny book either. It was the first book I read where I realized I could disagree with the author’s view of the world and still admire the book, though–it did a real number on me when I was sixteen, although I don’t think I realized that at the time. My brother is currently reading Kavalier and Clay and really enjoying it.

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  5. I love reading on location, too. Which is partly why I moved to this city. *laughs* That’s the thing to do when travel isn’t in the cards, right? 🙂 Hopefully you have been enjoying your choices for May more than (some of) your choices for April?

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