First Four in a Row: Márai, Maupin, McEwan, McKay

I announced a few new TBR reading projects back in May 2020, including a Four in a Row Challenge (see the ‘rules’, such as they are, in my opening post). It only took me, um, nearly 11 months to complete a first set! The problem was that I kept changing my mind on which four to include and acquiring more that technically should go into the sequence, e.g. McCracken, McGregor; also, I stalled on the Maupin for ages. But here we are at last. Debbie, meanwhile, took up the challenge and ran with it, completing a set of four novels – also by M authors, clearly a numerous and tempting bunch – back in October. Here’s hers.

I’m on my way to completing a few more sets: I’ve read one G, one and a bit H, and I selected a group of four L. I’ve not chosen a nonfiction quartet yet, but that could be an interesting exercise: I file by author surname even within categories like science/nature and travel, so this could throw up interesting combinations of topics. Do feel free to join in this challenge if, like me, you could use a push to get through more of the books on your shelves.

 

Embers by Sándor Márai (1942)

[Translated from the Hungarian by Carol Brown Janeway]

My first work of Hungarian literature.* This was a random charity shop purchase, simply because I’m always trying to read more international literature and had enjoyed translations by Carol Brown Janeway before. In 1940, two old men are reunited for the first time in 41 years at a gloomy castle, where they will dine by candlelight and, over the course of a long conversation, face up to the secret that nearly destroyed their friendship. This is the residence of 75-year-old Henrik, usually referred to as “the General,” who lives alone apart from Nini, his 91-year-old wet nurse. His wife, Krisztina, died 33 years ago.

Henrik was 10 when he met Konrad at an academy school. They were soon the best of friends, but two things came between them: first was the difference in their backgrounds (“each forgave the other’s original sin: wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other”); second was their love for the same woman.

I appreciated the different setup to this one – a male friendship, just a few very old characters, the probing of the past through memory and dialogue – but it was so languid that I struggled to stay engaged with the plot.

*My next will be Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, another charity shop find.

Favourite lines:

“My homeland was a feeling, and that feeling was mortally wounded.”

“Life becomes bearable only when one has come to terms with who one is, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”

 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)

I’d picked this up from the free bookshop we used to have in the local mall (the source of my next two as well) and started it during Lockdown #1 because in The Novel Cure it is given as a prescription for Loneliness. Berthoud and Elderkin suggest it can make you feel like part of a gang of old friends, and it’s “as close to watching television as literature gets” due to the episodic format – the first four Tales books were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle.

How I love a perfect book and bookmark combination!

The titled chapters are each about three pages long, which made it an ideal bedside book – I would read a chapter per night before sleep. The issue with this piecemeal reading strategy, though, was that I never got to know any of the characters; because I’d often only pick up the book once a week or so, I forgot who people were and what was going on. That didn’t stop individual vignettes from being entertaining, but meant it didn’t all come together for me.

Maupin opens on Mary Ann Singleton, a 25-year-old secretary who goes to San Francisco on vacation and impulsively decides to stay. She rooms at Anna Madrigal’s place on Barbary Lane and meets a kooky assortment of folks, many of them gay – including her new best friend, Michael Tolliver, aka “Mouse.” There are parties and affairs, a pregnancy and a death, all told with a light touch and a clear love for the characters; dialogue predominates. While it’s very much of its time, it manages not to feel too dated overall. I can see why many have taken the series to heart, but don’t think I’ll go further with Maupin’s work.

Note: Long before I tried the book, I knew about it through one of my favourite Bookshop Band songs, “Cleveland,” which picks up on Mary Ann’s sense of displacement as she ponders whether she’d be better off back in Ohio after all. Selected lyrics:

Quaaludes and cocktails

A story book lane

A girl with three names

A place, post-Watergate

Freed from its bird cage

Where the unafraid parade

[…]

Perhaps, we should all

Go back to Cleveland

Where we know what’s around the bend

[…]

Citizens of Atlantis

The Madrigal Enchantress cries

And we decide, to stay and bide our time

On this far-out, far-flung peninsula.

 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)

Although it’s good to see McEwan take on a female perspective – a rarer choice for him, though it has shown up in Atonement and On Chesil Beach – this is a lesser novel from him, only interesting insomuch as it combines elements from two of his previous works, The Child in Time (legislation around child welfare) and Enduring Love (a religious stalker). Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, has to decide whether 17-year-old Adam, a bright and musical young man with acute leukaemia, should be treated with blood transfusions despite his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ objection.


[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

She rules that the doctors should go ahead with the treatment. “He must be protected from his religion and from himself.” Adam, now better but adrift from the religion he was raised in, starts stalking Fiona and sending her letters and poems. Estranged from her husband, who wants her to condone his affair with a young colleague, and fond of Adam, Fiona spontaneously kisses the young man while traveling for work near Newcastle. But thereafter she ignores his communications, and when he doesn’t seek treatment for his recurring cancer and dies, she blames herself.

[END OF SPOILERS]


It’s worth noting that the AI in McEwan’s most recent full-length novel, Machines Like Me, is also named Adam, and in both books there’s uncertainty about whether the Adam character is supposed to be a child substitute.

 

The Birth House by Ami McKay (2006)

Dora is the only daughter to be born into the Rare family of Nova Scotia’s Scots Bay in five generations. At age 17, she becomes an apprentice to Marie Babineau, a Cajun midwife and healer who relies on ancient wisdom and appeals to the Virgin Mary to keep women safe and grant them what they want, whether that’s a baby or a miscarriage. As the 1910s advance and the men of the village start leaving for the war, the old ways represented by Miss B. and Dora come to be seen as a threat. Dr. Thomas wants women to take out motherhood insurance and commit to delivering their babies at the new Canning Maternity Home with the help of chloroform and forceps. “Why should you ladies continue to suffer, most notably the trials of childbirth, when there are safe, modern alternatives available to you?” he asks.

Encouraged into marriage at an early age, Dora has to put her vocation on hold to be a wife to Archer Bigelow, a drunkard with big plans for how he’s going to transform the area with windmills that generate electricity. Dora’s narration is interspersed with journal entries, letters, faux newspaper articles, what look like genuine period advertisements, and a glossary of herbal remedies – creating what McKay, in her Author’s Note, calls a “literary scrapbook.” I love epistolary formats, and there are so many interesting themes and appealing secondary characters here. Early obstetrics is not the only aspect of medicine included; there is also an exploration of “hysteria” and its treatment, and the Spanish flu makes a late appearance. Dora, away in Boston at the time, urges her friends from the Occasional Knitters’ Society to block the road to the Bay, make gauze masks, and wash their hands with hot water and soap.

There are a few places where the narrative is almost overwhelmed by all the (admittedly, fascinating) facts McKay, a debut author, turned up in her research, and where the science versus superstition dichotomy seems too simplistic, but for the most part this was just the sort of absorbing, atmospheric historical fiction that I like best. McKay took inspiration from her own home, an old birthing house in the Bay of Fundy.

25 responses

  1. Congrats on completing a set for the challenge – in this strange pandemic year (and change) anyone who even sets a reading challenge for themselves is to be applauded. And you’ve got more than one going! I did love that Phyllis Rose book you based your challenge on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought this challenge would be so easy, just pick any four books in a row from the shelf and read them! But I know you’ll understand that I found it tough to commit to a particular set, and then once I was into them I didn’t like them as much as I hoped to — only one was a keeper. But it’s still a good exercise in systematically working through my shelves. I hope I’ll have better luck with G, H, and L!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An intriguing quartet to have come up with, though with my backlog situation I can’t see myself reading these titles (or authors) any time soon. Hope you enjoy the Szerb—I’ve read a few of his titles in translations from Pushkin but not the one you mention (even if it’s probably his best known work); I’ve still to tackle his nonfiction The Queen’s Necklace.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The beauty of this challenge is that it’s simple, adaptable, and has few to no rules!

      I found Journey by Moonlight in a charity shop in Edinburgh — I was drawn to it by the cover, which features a photo of a white horse on a bridge at night.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do like the range of his writing, so I think I’ll like Journey by Moonlight: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/tag/antal-szerb/

        Like

  3. Gosh – I’ve read 3 out of 4! Embers was too sloooow. Tales of the City was fab-u-lous, read in much larger chunks (it first appeared in a newspaper, hence the short episodes), and I really enjoyed the McEwan, despite it not being of his best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our shelves coincided well 🙂 Agreed about Embers; for a short book it felt long. I think I missed my moment to get into Maupin’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was when they first came out in the UK that I read the Maupins.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I read the Maupins early on, I think when I lived in Birmingham before and borrowed from my best friend, but I’ve somehow never wanted to read the more recent updates. We started to watch the original TV series when it came back but it was soooo slooowwww … I see I commented on your original post and have indeed been reading through my TBR so I should pick an interesting four out at some stage!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Huh, that’s surprising that the show was slow given how snappy the chapters are.

      I would love for you to join in if you find an appealing 4 in a row 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As you might imagine, I was NOT a fan of The Children Act. There were such potentially interesting questions here about age, consent and belief and McEwan didn’t actually explore any of them, instead going off on a tangent about romantic obsession.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree: a very interesting premise that sort of fizzled out. Sometimes I wonder why I keep reading him 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have to give McEwan one thing: he’s SO readable. I think that’s the only reason I read any of his newer books.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is true! He could be a ‘gateway drug’ into literary fiction for many.

        Like

  6. Journey by Moonlight is one of the books I’m reading right now, but paused to fit in some 1936 books. I read More Tales of the City last year and loved it, so regretted having passed on the first without reading. There’s an updated version of the series on Netflix, tweaked so there are characters with a wider range of LGBTQ dilemmas. Very much a feel-good series. One of the main characters is played by Paul Gross, the Due South Mountie, now gorgeous with white hair, and Mrs Madrigal is played by Olympia Dukakis.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have two 1936 selections on the go as well. Journey by Moonlight will fit into one of the other challenges I created last year but haven’t made all that much progress on yet: “Journey through the Day with Books.”

      It sounds like a fun series. Occasionally I wish I had access to telly/Netflix…

      Like

  7. I am a big fan of the Tales of the City series. I read the first one in San Francisco about 25 years ago and I think that helped hook me. I found them to be quite slight, but very feelgood reads and they always cheered me up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good description. I think you found them at the right time and in the right place!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so glad you’ve finished your first set in this challenge. I was lucky and really liked all of the books in my ‘M’ challenge. I’m working on the last book to finish up a set from my ‘A’ shelf – they’ve all been pretty good so far. I’ve also just started a set from the ‘I-J-K’ shelf. I do so enjoy this concept!

    I remember quite liking The Birth House when I read it a few years ago. Of course, it has the added appeal to me of being set in Nova Scotia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great to hear that you’re doing well on your next set! I’ve loved having company. It’s a good excuse to get to some long-neglected books.

      I knew you and Naomi would be fans of this novel what with the local setting and the mention of the Halifax Explosion. I read The Virgin Cure some years ago and didn’t like it as much. I’m interested in her two medical memoirs, though.

      Like

  9. I’m so excited that your read The Birth House. I love that book!! After reading it, I made my husband come with me to Scots Bay to scope out the setting. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I envy you getting to visit the locations in person. The book was a lucky find from the free bookshop. All the way from Canada, and with deckle edge!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. You probably already guessed that, like Debbie and Naomi, I was going to say that it’s fun you stumbled onto this story. At the time it was first published, there were not quite so many novels that took this kind of slant and it seemed all the more wonderful for being such a woman-soaked story set in such an atmospheric place. I feel like her more recent books have felt a little more commercial, but when I keep that in mind, I enjoy the stories quite a bit. (I enjoyed the followup to The Virgin Cure more, but that could be as much due to my changing my expectations as to any difference in the story.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Birth House felt unique; The Virgin Cure I hardly remember, but do recall that it seemed more cliched. Her memoirs look right up my alley, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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