Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Reading Robertson Davies Week: Fifth Business

I’m grateful to Lory (of The Emerald City Book Review) for hosting this past week’s Robertson Davies readalong, which was my excuse to finally try him for the first time. Of course, Canadians have long recognized what a treasure he is, but he’s less known elsewhere. I do remember that Erica Wagner, one of my literary heroes (an American in England; former books editor of the London Times, etc.), has expressed great admiration for his work.

I started with what I had to hand: Fifth Business (1970), the first volume of The Deptford Trilogy. In the theatre world, the title phrase refers to a bit player who yet has importance to the outcome of a drama, and that’s how the narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, thinks of himself. I was reminded right away of the opening of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” In the first line Ramsay introduces himself in relation to another person: “My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5.58 o’clock p.m. on 27 December 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.”

Specifically, he dodged a snowball meant for him – thrown by his frenemy, Percy Boyd Staunton – and it hit Mrs. Dempster, wife of the local Baptist minister, in the back of the head, knocking her over and 1) sending her into early labor with Paul, who also plays a major role in the book; and 2) permanently compromising her mental health. Surprisingly, given his tepid Protestant upbringing, Ramsay becomes a historian of Christian saints, and comes to consider Mrs. Dempster part of his personal pantheon for a few incidents he thinks of as miracles – not least his survival during First World War service. And this is despite Mrs. Dempster being caught in a situation that seriously compromises her standing in Deptford.

The novel is presented as a long, confessional letter Ramsay writes, on the occasion of his retirement, to the headmaster of the boys’ school where he taught history for 45 years. Staunton, later known simply as “Boy,” becomes a sugar magnate and politician; Paul becomes a world-renowned illusionist known by various stage names. Both Paul and Ramsay are obsessed with the unexplained and impossible, but where Paul manipulates appearances and fictionalizes the past, Ramsay looks for miracles. The Fool, the Saint and the Devil are generic characters we’re invited to ponder; perhaps they also have incarnations in the novel?

Fifth Business ends with a mysterious death, and though there are clues that seem to point to whodunit, the fact that the story segues straight into a second volume, with a third to come, indicates that it’s all more complicated than it might seem. I was so intrigued that, thanks to my omnibus edition, I carried right on with the first chapter of The Manticore (1972), which is also in the first person but this time narrated by Staunton’s son, David, from Switzerland. Freudian versus Jungian psychology promises to be a major dichotomy in this one, and I’m sure that the themes of the complexity of human desire, the search for truth and goodness, and the difficulty of seeing oneself and others clearly will crop up once again.

This was a very rewarding reading experience. I’d recommend Davies to those who enjoy novels of ideas, such as Iris Murdoch’s. I’ll carry on with at least the second volume of the trilogy for now, and I’ve also acquired the first volume of another, later trilogy to try.

My rating:

 

Some favorite lines:

“I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.”

“Forgive yourself for being a human creature, Ramezay. That is the beginning of wisdom; that is part of what is meant by the fear of God; and for you it is the only way to save your sanity.”

It’s also fascinating to see the contrast between how Ramsay sees himself, and how others do:

“it has been my luck to appear more literate than I really am, owing to a cadaverous and scowling cast of countenance, and a rather pedantic Scots voice”

vs.

“Good God, don’t you think the way you rootle in your ear with your little finger delights the boys? And the way you waggle your eyebrows … and those horrible Harris tweed suits you wear … And that disgusting trick of blowing your nose and looking into your handkerchief as if you expected to prophesy something from the mess. You look ten years older than your age.”

A Keeper of Records: What’s Worth Saving?

It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.

When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:

  • every book I read
  • every movie I saw
  • dreams, recounted in detail
  • money I found on the ground
  • items I bought or sold on eBay
  • gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
  • transactions made through my mail-order music club
  • all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing

Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.

What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.

Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a childif I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.

This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.

My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.

That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.

Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”

 

A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:

In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.

I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!

As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.

I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?

As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.

 

Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?

 

How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?

Four Recent Review Books: Aidt, Brackenbury, Duclos & Zidrou

Four February–March releases: A shape-shifting bereavement memoir; a poet’s selected works, infused with nature and history; a novel set among expatriates in Shanghai; and a graphic novel about a romance at the watershed of age 60 – you can’t say I don’t read a variety of books! I’m particularly pleased that two of these four are in translation. All:

 

When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt

[Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman]

In March 2015 Aidt got a call telling her that her second of four sons, Carl Emil, was dead. The 25-year-old experienced drug-induced psychosis after taking some mushrooms that he and his friend had grown in their flat and, naked, jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window. In italicized sections she cycles back to the moment she was notified, each time adding on a few more harrowing details about Carl’s accident and the condition she found him in. The rest of the text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations from the patron saints of bereavement (C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion) and poets who lost children, such as Stéphane Mallarmé.

The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever. David Grossman, whose son died during his service in the Israeli army, does a similar thing in Falling Out of Time, which, although it is fiction, blends poetry and dialogue in an attempt to voice the unspeakable. Han Kang’s The White Book and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End are two other comparable precursors.

A representative passage:

“no language possible language died with my child could not be artistic could not be art did not want to be fucking art I vomit over art over syntax write like a child main clauses searching everything I write is a declaration I hate writing don’t want to write any more”


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

 

Gallop: Selected Poems by Alison Brackenbury

I first encountered Alison Brackenbury’s poetry through her reading as part of the 2017 “Nature Matters” conference in Cambridge. From four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, Brackenbury writes about history, nature, country life (especially horses, as you might guess from the title and cover) and everyday joys and regrets. A Collected/Selected Poems volume is often difficult to assess as a whole because there can be such a variety of style and content; while that is certainly true here in terms of the poems’ length and rhyme schemes, the tone and themes are broadly similar throughout. I connected most to her middle period. Her first and last lines are especially honed.

Highlights include “The Wood at Semmering” (“This is a dismal wood. We missed our train.”), “Half-day” (“Will she lift / Her face from cloth’s slow steam: will she find out / Ironing is duty; summer is a gift?”), “Hill Mist” (“I am too fond of mist, which is blind / without tenderness”), “On the Road” (the bravery of a roadkill squirrel), “Epigrams” (being in the sandwich generation), “The Card” (“Divorce comes close to death”), “Cycles” (“Would I go back?”), “The Jane Austen Reader” (“Welcome to the truth. Miss Bingley married Darcy”), “On the Aerial” (a starling’s many songs), and “Dickens: a daydream.”

A wee poem that’s perfect for this time of year. (I can see sparrows in a forsythia bush from my office window.)

Some favorite lines:

“we are love’s strange seabirds. We dive there, still.” (from “The Divers’ Death”)

“Ancestors are not in our blood, but our heads: / we make history.” (from “Robert Brackenbury”)


With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.

 

Besotted by Melissa Duclos

Sasha is soon to leave Shanghai, her departure hastened by the collapse of her relationship with Liz, whom she hired to work at her international school because she had no teaching experience or Chinese – and maybe because she signed her cover letter “Besottedly,” thinking it meant drunkenly. Even before Liz arrived, Sasha built romantic fantasies around her, thinking she’d show her the ropes and give her a spare room to live in. All went according to plan – the erstwhile straight Liz even ended up in Sasha’s bed – until it all fell apart.

The novel is set over one school year and shows the main characters exploring the expat community, which primarily involves going to happy hours. Liz starts language exchange sessions at Starbucks with a Chinese guy, Sam, and both women try to ignore the unwanted advances of their acquaintance Dorian, an architect. Little misunderstandings and betrayals go a long way towards rearranging these relationships, while delicate flashbacks fill in the women’s lives before China.

There were a couple of narrative decisions here that didn’t entirely work for me: Sasha narrates the whole book, even scenes she isn’t present for; and there is persistent personification of abstractions like Loneliness and Love. But the descriptions of the city and of expat life are terrific, and the wistful picture of a romance that starts off sweet but soon sours is convincing.

A favorite passage:

“Shanghai had found its own identity since then: a glittering capitalist heart, hardened into a diamond and barely hidden beneath its drab, brown communist cloak. … Constantly under construction, Shanghai was a place to reinvent yourself.”


Full disclosure: Melissa and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine, and are Facebook friends. She sent me a free proof copy for review.

 

Blossoms in Autumn by Zidrou and Aimée de Jongh

[Translated from the French by Matt Madden]

The French-language title, translated literally, is The Programmed Obsolescence of Our Feelings. (Talk about highfalutin!) Both that and the English title defy the notion that we become less capable of true love and growth the older we are – as will be dramatized through the story of a later-life romance between the two main characters. Ulysses Varennes, a 59-year-old widower who retired early from his career as a mover, hates books (gasp!) because moving boxes of them ruined his back (he even refuses to read them!). Mediterranea Solenza, coming up on 62, was a nude model in her prime and is now a cheesemaker. At the book’s opening she has just laid her mother to rest, and her affair with Ulysses serves as a chance at a new life that somehow counterbalances the loss.

We come to understand these characters through the sadness of their past but also through their hopeful future, both encompassed by the metaphor of a Homeric journey (Ulysses, get it?). Indeed, the book takes an unusual turn I never would have expected; if it beggars belief, it is at least touching. Zidrou is a Belgian comics writer and Aimée de Jongh is a Dutch-born illustrator. She portrays these ageing bodies sensitively but realistically, retreating into an appropriately impressionistic style for the spreads that show their actual lovemaking. In a nice touch, the first two words and last two words of the book are exactly the same.


With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

 

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

March’s Doorstopper: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)

I’m squeaking in here on the 31st with the doorstopper I’ve been reading all month. I started Cutting for Stone in an odd situation on the 1st: We’d attempted to go to France that morning but were foiled by a fatal engine failure en route to the ferry terminal, so were riding in the cab of a recovery vehicle that was taking us and our car home. My poor husband sat beside the driver, trying to make laddish small talk about cars, while I wedged myself by the window and got lost in the early pages of Indian-American doctor Abraham Verghese’s saga of twins Marion and Shiva, born of an unlikely union between an Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English surgeon, Thomas Stone, at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa in 1954.

What with the flashbacks and the traumatic labor, it takes narrator Marion over 100 pages to get born. That might seem like a Tristram Shandy degree of circumlocution, but there was nary a moment when my interest flagged during this book’s 50-year journey with a medical family starting in a country I knew nothing about. I was reminded of Midnight’s Children, in that the twin brothers are born loosely conjoined at the head and ever after have a somewhat mystical connection, understanding each other’s thoughts even when they’re continents apart.

When Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies in childbirth and Stone absconds, the twins are raised by the hospital’s blunt obstetrician, Hema, and her husband, a surgeon named Ghosh. Both brothers follow their adoptive parents into medicine and gain knowledge of genitourinary matters. We observe a vasectomy, a breech birth, a C-section, and the aftermath of female genital mutilation. While Marion relocates to an inner-city New York hospital, Shiva stays in Ethiopia and becomes a world expert on vaginal fistulas. The novel I kept thinking about was The Cider House Rules, which is primarily about orphans and obstetrics, and I was smugly confirmed by finding Verghese’s thanks to his friend John Irving in the acknowledgments.

Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background, with Verghese giving a bystander’s view of the military coup against the Emperor and the rise of the Eritrean liberation movement. Like Marion, the author is an Indian doctor who came of age in Ethiopia, a country he describes as a “juxtaposition of culture and brutality, this molding of the new out of the crucible of primeval mud.” Marion’s experiences in New York City and Boston then add on the immigrant’s perspective on life in the West in the 1980s onwards.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink predicted long ago that I’d love this, and she was right. Of course I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures, such as an early live-donor liver transplant (this was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2009), but that wasn’t all that made Cutting for Stone such a winner for me. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories in which coincidences abound (“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not”), minor characters have heroic roles to play, and humor and tragedy balance each other out, if ever so narrowly. (Besides Irving, think of books like The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.) What I’m saying, as I strive to finish this inadequate review in the last hour of the last day of the month, is that this was just my sort of thing, and I hope I’ve convinced you that it might be yours, too.


Favorite lines:

Hema: “The Hippocratic oath is if you are sitting in London and drinking tea. No such oaths here in the jungle. I know my obligations.”

“Doubt is a first cousin to faith”

“A childhood at Missing imparted lessons about resilience, about fortitude, and about the fragility of life. I knew better than most children how little separate the world of health from that of disease, living flesh from the icy touch of the dead, the solid ground from treacherous bog.”


Page count: 667

My rating:

 

Next month: Since Easter falls in April and I’ve been wanting to read it for ages anyway, I’ve picked out The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas to start tomorrow.

Reading Ireland Month 2019: Jess Kidd and Jane Urquhart

Last month I picked out this exchange from East of Eden by John Steinbeck:

“But the Irish are said to be a happy people, full of jokes.”

“They’re not. They’re a dark people with a gift for suffering way past their deserving. It’s said that without whisky to soak and soften the world, they’d kill themselves. But they tell jokes because it’s expected of them.”

There’s something about that mixture of darkness and humor, isn’t there? I also find that Irish art (music as well as literature) has a lot of heart. I only read two Ireland-related historical novels this month, but they both have that soulful blend of light and somber. Both:

 

 

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (2019)

In the autumn of 1863 Bridie Devine, female detective extraordinaire, is tasked with finding the six-year-old daughter of a baronet. Problem is, this missing girl is no ordinary child, and collectors of medical curiosities and circus masters alike are interested in acquiring her.

In its early chapters this delightful Victorian pastiche reminded me of a cross between Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that comparison played out pretty well in the remainder. Kidd paints a convincingly gritty picture of Dickensian London, focusing on an underworld of criminals and circus freaks: when Bridie first arrived in London from Dublin, she worked as an assistant to a resurrectionist; her maid is a 7-foot-tall bearded lady; and her would-be love interest, if only death didn’t separate them, is the ghost of a heavily tattooed boxer.

Medicine (surgery – before and after anesthesia) and mythology (mermaids and selkies) are intriguing subplots woven through, such that this is likely to appeal to fans of The Way of All Flesh and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Kidd’s prose is spry and amusing, particularly in her compact descriptions of people (but also in her more expansive musings on the dirty, bustling city): “a joyless string of a woman, thin and pristine with a halibut pout,” “In Dr Prudhoe’s countenance, refinement meets rogue,” and “People are no more than punctuation from above.”

I’ll definitely go back and read Kidd’s two previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. I didn’t even realize she was Irish, so I’m grateful to Cathy for making me aware of that in her preview of upcoming Irish fiction. [Trigger warnings: violence against women and animals.] (Out from Canongate on April 4th.)

 

Away by Jane Urquhart (1993)

I was enraptured from the first line: “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” – starting with Mary, who falls in love with a sailor who washes up on the Irish coast in the 1840s amid the cabbages, silver teapots and whiskey barrels of a shipwreck and dies in her arms. Due to her continued communion with the dead man, people speak of her being “away with the fairies,” even after she marries the local schoolteacher, Brian O’Malley.

With their young son, Liam, they join the first wave of emigration to Canada during the Potato Famine, funded by their landlords, the Sedgewick brothers of Puffin Court (amateur naturalist Osbert and poet Granville). No sooner have the O’Malleys settled and had their second child, Eileen, than Mary disappears. As she grows, Eileen takes after her mother, mystically attuned to portents and prone to flightiness, while Liam is a happily rooted Great Lakes farmer. Like Mary, Eileen has her own forbidden romance, with a political revolutionary who dances like a dream.

I’ve been underwhelmed by other Urquhart novels, Sanctuary Line and The Whirlpool, but here she gets it just right, wrapping her unfailingly gorgeous language around an absorbing plot – which is what I felt was lacking in the others. The Ireland and Canada settings are equally strong, and the spirit of Ireland – the people, the stories, the folk music – is kept alive abroad. I recommend this to readers of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Hannah Kent.

Some favorite lines:

Osbert says of Mary: “There’s this light in her, you see, and it must not be put out.”

“When summer was finished the family was visited by a series of overstated seasons. In September, they awakened after night frosts to a woods awash with floating gold leaves and a sky frantic with migrating birds – sometimes so great in number that they covered completely with their shadows the acre of light and air that Brian had managed to create.”

“There are five hundred and forty different kinds of weather out there, and I respect every one of them. White squalls, green fogs, black ice, and the dreaded yellow cyclone, just to mention a few.”

 

It’s my second time participating in Reading Ireland Month, run each March by Cathy of 746 Books and Niall of Raging Fluff.

 

Did you manage to read any Irish literature this month?

Doorstopper(s) of the Month: Julia Glass (& Umberto Eco)

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)

When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.

Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.

One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.

My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.

All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.

Page count: 560

My rating:

 

I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.

A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”

My rating:

Blog Tour: Literary Landscapes, edited by John Sutherland

The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.

Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.

One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).

The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.

 


Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

35 Years, 35 Favorite Books

I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.

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  1. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  2. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
  3. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  6. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  9. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  10. Possession by A.S. Byatt
  11. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
  12. Sixpence House by Paul Collins
  13. A History of God by Karen Armstrong
  14. Conundrum by Jan Morris
  15. The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
  16. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  17. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
  18. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
  19. Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
  20. Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
  21. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  22. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
  23. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  24. Caribou Island by David Vann
  25. To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
  26. We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
  27. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
  28. Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
  29. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
  30. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  31. Want Not by Jonathan Miles
  32. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
  33. F by Daniel Kehlmann
  34. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
  35. March by Geraldine Brooks

Are any of these among your favorites, too?

The Life of Madame Tussaud: Little by Edward Carey

There is a state between life and death: it’s called the waxworks.

Apparently the 4th was Super Thursday: 544 books were published in the UK as part of the autumn rush leading up to Christmas. I’ve read just one of those multitudinous releases so far, but what a corker it was. Little is Edward Carey’s deliciously macabre novel about Madame Tussaud, who starts life as Anne Marie Grosholtz in Switzerland in 1761 and loses both parents by the age of six. Known as Marie, she soon picks up the nickname “Little” at the studio where she helps Dr. Philip Curtius make wax anatomical models. When the indebted Curtius flees to Paris, Marie goes with him as his servant. Along with their landlady, a tailor’s widow named Charlotte Picot, and her son Edmond, they form a makeshift family and a successful business, making wax heads and then dressing them in wigs and clothes to create whole figures of (in)famous citizens to display in their new quarters, a former monkey house.

In the years to come Marie occupies an uncomfortable in-between position: she’s treated like a servant but never paid, and though she’s fond of Curtius and falls in love with Edmond she’s made to understand that she’s not their equal. However, her fortunes change when Princess Élisabeth, on an unannounced visit to the Cabinet of Dr. Curtius, is impressed with Marie’s art and anatomy skills and invites her to be her sculpture tutor at Versailles. Marie and the young royal make wax models of local peasants’ ailments so they can pray for them. By the time Marie returns to the monkey house, the Revolution is in full swing and there’s widespread hunger not just for wax heads in cabinets, but for real decapitated ones. It will take cunning and luck for Marie and her odd little family to survive the years of upheaval.

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(For a look inside the book, go to https://www.book2look.com/book/H8skBPiuJ9.)

The grimy picture of eighteenth-century Paris reminded me of Pure by Andrew Miller, and I often thought of Dickens as I was reading. Little starts off most like David Copperfield: a first-person “I am born”-style account with each chapter headed by a pithy summary. The characters have exaggerated physical features and recurring verbal tics, and there is an unmistakable message that whether a royal or a lowly servant we are all the same inside. Of course, as that pivotal July 14th approaches, the Dickensian echo is more along the lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

I think the novel would benefit from a more suggestive title and could stand to be a bit shorter, but it’s still a delightful piece of historical fiction and another hit from Gallic Books, responsible for two of my other favorite reads of the year so far, Salt Creek and The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Part of the joy of reading it is encountering Carey’s slightly grotesque black-and-white illustrations, dozens of which appear through the text; you can see a few more of them on the postcards that accompanied my review copy.

In fact, I’ll sheepishly admit that before I read this I had Edward Carey confused for Edward Gorey, who was known for his ghoulish black-and-white drawings. Carey, an English playwright and novelist whose previous books include the Iremonger Trilogy, is married to Elizabeth McCracken and teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. After university he worked as a steward at Madame Tussaud’s in London, which is how he first came across her story. It’s an unforgettable one.

My rating:

 

With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Painful but Necessary: Culling Books, Etc.

I’ve been somewhat cagey about the purpose for my trip back to the States. Yes, it was about helping my parents move, but the backstory to that is that they’re divorcing after 44 years of marriage and so their home of 13 years, one of three family homes I’ve known, is being sold. It was pretty overwhelming to see all the stacks of stuff in the garage. I was reminded of these jolting lines from Nausheen Eusuf’s lush poem about her late parents’ house, “Musée des Beaux Morts”: “Well, there you have it, folks, the crap / one collects over a lifetime.”

 

On the 7th I moved my mom into her new retirement community, and in my two brief spells back at the house I was busy dealing with the many, many boxes I’ve stored there for years. In the weeks leading up to my trip I’d looked into shipping everything back across the ocean, but the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars and just wasn’t worth it. Although my dad is renting a storage unit, so I’m able to leave a fair bit behind with him, I knew that a lot still had to go. Even (or maybe especially) books.

Had I had more time at my disposal, I might have looked into eBay and other ways to maximize profits, but with just a few weeks and limited time in the house itself, I had to go for the quickest and easiest options. I’m a pretty sentimental person, but I tried to approach the process rationally to minimize my emotional overload. I spent about 24 hours going through all of my boxes of books, plus the hundreds of books and DVDs my parents had set aside for sale, and figuring out the best way to dispose of everything. Maybe these steps will help you prepare for a future move.

The Great Book Sort-Out in progress.

When culling books, I asked myself:

  • Do I have duplicate copies? This was often the case for works by Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. I kept the most readable copy and put the others aside for sale.
  • Have I read it and rated it 3 stars or below? I don’t need to keep the Ayn Rand paperback just to prove to myself that I got through all 1000+ pages. If I’m not going to reread Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, better to put it in the local Little Free Library so someone else can enjoy it for the first time.
  • Can I see myself referring to this again? My college philosophy textbook had good explanations and examples, but I can access pithy statements of philosophers’ beliefs on the Internet instead. I’d like to keep up conversational French, sure, but I doubt I’ll ever open up a handbook of unusual verb conjugations.
  • Am I really going to read this? I used to amass classics with the best intention of inhaling them and becoming some mythically well-read person, but many have hung around for up to two decades without making it onto my reading stack. So it was farewell to everything by Joseph Fielding and Sinclair Lewis; to obscure titles by D.H. Lawrence and Anthony Trollope; and to impossible dreams like Don Quixote. If I have a change of heart in the future, these are the kinds of books I can find in a university library or download from Project Gutenberg.

 

My first port of call for reselling books was Bookscouter.com (the closest equivalents in the UK are WeBuyBooks and Ziffit). This is an American site that compares buyback offers from 30 secondhand booksellers. There’s a minimum number of books / minimum value you have to meet before you can complete a trade-in. You print off a free shipping label and then drop off the box at your nearest UPS depot or arrange for a free USPS pickup. I ended up sending boxes to Powell’s Books, TextbookRush and Sellbackyourbook and making nearly a dollar per book. Powell’s bought about 18 of my paperback fiction titles, while the other two sites took a bizarre selection of around 30 books each.

Some books that were in rather poor condition or laughably outdated got shunted directly into piles for the Little Free Library or a Salvation Army donation. Many of my mom’s older Christian living books and my dad’s diet and fitness books I sorted into categories to be sold by the box in an online auction after the house sells.

The final set of books awaiting sale.

All this still left about 18 boxes worth of rejects. For the non-antiquarian material I first tried 2nd & Charles, a new and secondhand bookstore chain that offers cash or store credit on select books. I planned to take the rest, including the antiquarian stuff, to an Abebooks seller in my mom’s new town, but I never managed to connect with him. So, the remaining boxes went to Wonder Book and Video, a multi-branch store I worked for during my final year of college. The great thing about them (though maybe not so great when you work there and have to sort through boxes full of dross) is that they accept absolutely everything when they make a cash offer. Although I felt silly selling back lots of literary titles I bought there over the years, at a massive loss, it was certainly an efficient way of offloading unwanted books.

 

As to everything else…

  • I sent off 42.5 pounds (19.3 kilograms) of electronic waste to GreenDisk for recycling. That’s 75 VHS tapes, 63 CDs, 38 cassette tapes, 11 DVDs, five floppy disks, two dead cables, and one dead cell phone I saved from landfill, even if I did have to pay for the privilege.
  • I donated all but a few of my jigsaw puzzles to my mom’s retirement community.
  • I gave my mom my remaining framed artworks to display at her new place.
  • I gave some children’s books, stuffed animals, games and craft supplies away to my nieces and nephews or friends’ kids.
  • I let my step-nephew (if that’s a word) take whatever he wanted from my coin collection, and then sold that and most of my stamp collection back to a coin store.
  • Most of my other collections – miniature tea sets, unicorn figurines, classic film memorabilia – all went onto the auction pile.
  • My remaining furniture, a gorgeous rolltop desk plus a few bookcases, will also be part of the auction.
  • You can tell I was in a mood to scale back: I finally agreed to throw out two pairs of worn-out shoes with holes in them, long after my mother had started nagging me about them.

 

Mementos and schoolwork have been the most difficult items for me to decide what to do with. Ultimately, I ran out of time and had to store most of the boxes as they were. But with the few that I did start to go through I tried to get in a habit of appreciating, photographing and then disposing. So I kept a handful of favorite essays and drawings, but threw out my retainers, recycled the science fair projects, and put the hand-knit baby clothes on the auction pile. (My mom kept the craziest things, like 12 inches of my hair from a major haircut I had in seventh grade – this I threw out at the edge of the woods for something to nest with.)

 

 

All this work and somehow I was still left with 29 smallish boxes to store with my dad’s stuff. Fourteen of these are full of books, with another four boxes of books stored in my mom’s spare room closet to select reading material from on future visits. So to an extent I’ve just put off the really hard work of culling until some years down the road – unless we ever move to the States, of course, in which case the intense downsizing would start over here.

At any rate, in the end it’s all just stuff. What I’m really mourning, I know, is not what I had to get rid of, or even the house, but the end of our happy family life there. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to that, or to my hometown. I’ve got the photos and the memories, and those will have to suffice.

 

Have you had to face a mountain of stuff recently? What are your strategies for getting rid of books and everything else?