Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
My own paper books! Really! Not exclusively; I still find Kindle books easiest to read during lunches and on the cross trainer. Still, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made towards my summer resolution of reading my own books. In August I’ll have to get to grips with some of those doorstoppers I’ve been meaning to pick up. Below I give brief write-ups of what I’ve gotten through lately and recall how these books came into my collection to start with.
June by Gerbrand Bakker: It seemed to make sense to read this during the month of June. I loved Bakker’s The Twin, but struggled to connect with this one. The first chapter and the last three (starting with “June”) are the best – I felt that the core 1969 material about the Queen’s visit and the family’s tragedy would make for a great short story or novella, but the bulk of the novel is languid contemporary moping about the ongoing effects on the Kaans. It took me forever to figure out who all the characters were and keep them straight (brothers Jan and Johan, for instance), and the way the perspective drifts from one to another doesn’t help with that. Matriarch Anna, with her habit of going up and lying in the hayloft when life gets to be too much for her, was my favorite character.
[Bought in a local charity shop for 20 pence.]
Uncommon Ground by Dominick Tyler: This is like a photographic companion to Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Journeying around Britain, Tyler illustrates different geographical features, many of them known by archaic or folksy names. Some are just record shots, while others are true works of art. I especially liked the more whimsical terms: “Monkey’s birthday” for simultaneous rain and sunshine, and “Witches’ knickers” for plastic scraps waving from a tree or fence.
[I won a copy in a Guardian giveaway.]
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: The author was vacationing with her family at a national park on the southeast coast of her native Sri Lanka in December 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, killing her parents, husband, and two sons. Job-like, Deraniyagala gives shape to her grief and lovingly remembers a family life now gone forever as she tours her childhood home in Colombo and her London house. It’s not until over six years later that she feels “I can rest … with the impossible truth of my loss, which I have to compress often and misshape, just so I can bear it—so I can cook or teach or floss my teeth.” This is a wonderful tribute to everyone she lost. Her husband and sons, especially, come through clearly as individuals you feel that you know. Although it’s not a focus of the memoir, Sri Lanka’s natural beauty and food culture struck me – this would be an appealing place to visit.
[Borrowed from a friend in America.]
Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer: This is a book about D.H. Lawrence in the same way that Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is a film of The Orchid Thief. In other words, it’s not particularly about Lawrence at all; it’s just as much, if not more, about Geoff Dyer – his laziness, his procrastination, his curmudgeonly attitude, his futile search for the perfect places to read Lawrence’s works and write about Lawrence, his failure to feel the proper reverence at Lawrence sites, and so on. While I can certainly sympathize with Dyer’s wry comments about his work habits (“I hate doing anything in life that requires an effort”; “better reading than writing”; “all things in which I am interested … [are] a source of stress and anxiety”), I liked best the parts of the book where he actually writes about Lawrence. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[Bought – I think in the Hay Cinema Bookshop – for £2.99.]
The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg: I was surprised how much I loved this. On the face of it it’s a fairly conventional dysfunctional family novel à la Jonathan Franzen, set among a Jewish family in Chicago. The main drama is provided by the mother, Edie, who seems to be slowly eating herself to death: she gorges herself on snacks and fast food several times a day even though she’s facing a third major surgery for diabetes. Her husband, Richard, ditched her in her time of need, leaving their adult children to pick up the slack. Every character is fully rounded (pun intended?) and the family interactions feel perfectly true to life. This isn’t really an ‘issues’ book, yet it deals with obesity in a much more subtle and compassionate way than Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[In last year’s Christmas stocking, from the Waynesboro, Pennsylvania Dollar Tree.]
The Republic of Love by Carol Shields: Not one of my favorites from Shields, but still enjoyable and reminiscent of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. Her chapters alternate between the perspectives of radio disc jockey Tom Avery and folklorist Fay McLeod, two Winnipeg lonely hearts who each have their share of broken relationships behind them. It’s clear they’re going to meet and fall in love, but Shields is careful to interrogate myths of love at first sight and happily ever after. I especially liked the surprising interconnectedness of everyone in Winnipeg, the subplot about Fay’s parents’ marriage, and the habit of recording minor characters’ monologues. My major points of criticism would be that Tom sometimes feels like a caricature and I wasn’t entirely sure what the mermaid material was meant to achieve. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[In poor condition, so free from the Oxfam bookshop where I volunteered in Romsey in 2007–8.]
Not That Kind of Girl: A Memoir by Carlene Bauer: Lena Dunham forever rendered this memoir obscure by stealing the title. I read it because I adored Bauer’s debut novel, Frances and Bernard. This could accurately be described as a spiritual memoir, and I think will probably appeal most to readers who grew up in a restrictive religious setting. A bookish, introspective adolescent, Bauer was troubled by how her church and Christian school denied the validity of secular art, including the indie rock she loved and the literature she lost herself in. All the same, Christian notions of purity and purpose stuck with her throughout her college days in Baltimore and then when she was trying to make it in publishing in New York City. This book resonated with my experience in many ways. What Bauer does best is to capture a fleeting mindset and its evolution into a broader way of thinking. (Expanded review on Goodreads.)
[Bought cheap on Amazon USA to qualify for super saver shipping.]
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann: “Whenever things were frightening, it was a good idea to measure them.” This is a delightful historical picaresque about two late-eighteenth-century German scientists: Alexander von Humboldt, who valiantly explored South America and the Russian steppes, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, a misanthropic mathematician whose true genius wasn’t fully realized in his surveying and astronomical work. Both difficult in their own way, the men represent different models for how to do science: an adventurous one who goes on journeys of discovery, and one who stays at home looking at what’s right under his nose. I especially loved Gauss’s hot-air balloon ride and Humboldt’s attempt to summit a mountain. The lack of speech marks somehow adds to the dry wit.
[Purchased via a donation to the Book-Cycle of Exeter.]