Volunteering at my local mall’s free bookshop, I see all manner of outmoded books and cover designs. I seem to be in a blogging slump*, so to keep things ticking over, I’ve compiled a selection of amusing period covers and blurbs I’ve come across there and elsewhere. (I got the Iris Murdochs in a bargain bundle from Oxfam years ago and read them for Liz’s recent readalong; the L’Engle children’s novel, a university library book, was recommended by Buried in Print.)
I can’t imagine that making it into a blurb or book review today…
* More like a general life slump. January is tough for me: after all the cheer and socializing of the holidays, it’s back to the boring everyday and (often) to inescapably damp, cold weather. Many mornings it’s a struggle for me not to go back to bed after my husband leaves for work, and I’m more likely to leave assignments to the last minute. I was unsurprised to recall that today is called “Blue Monday,” while tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of my brother-in-law’s death from brain cancer.
At least it’s been sunny and frosty rather than gray and rainy for the last few days; I even managed to bundle up, don my wellies and spend half an hour reading with the cat on our garden bench this morning. (Our canalside garden is 1/3 flooded, but we’re on slightly higher ground so ours is nowhere near as bad as our neighbors’, which is a lake.)
In terms of books, I’m not particularly excited about at least half of the ones I’m reading. I’m sure I’ll get through them all eventually, but for now I’ve been bingeing on the few that appeal most. I’m working on a couple of thematic roundups (one on winter and another on love and marriage for Valentine’s Day), and will also report on a few recent releases I’ve enjoyed. I am finding, though, that with fewer review copies around, I have less direction and easily find a week or more passing before I think, “what can I blog about?!”
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.
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”
“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 later Murdoch – her sixteenth novel – and not one I knew anything about beforehand. In terms of atmosphere, characters and themes, it struck me as a cross between A Severed Head and The Nice and the Good. Like the former, it feels like a play with a few recurring sets: Hood House, where the Gavenders (Blaise, Harriet and David) live; their next-door neighbor Montague Small’s house; and the apartment where Blaise keeps his mistress, Emily McHugh, and their eight-year-old son Luca. A sizeable dramatis personae radiates out from the central love triangle: lodgers, neighbors, other family members, mutual friends and quite a few dogs.
Blaise is a psychoanalyst but considers himself a charlatan because he has no medical degree; he’s considering returning to his studies to rectify that. Harriet reminded me of Kate from The Nice and the Good: a cheerful, only mildly unfulfilled matriarch who is determined to choreograph much of what happens around her. (“She wanted simply to feel the controls firmly in her hands. She wanted to be the recognizer, the authorizer, the welcomer-in, the one who made things respectable and made them real by her cognizance of them.”) Their son David, 16, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite god and is often disgusted by fleshly reality. Montague writes successful but formulaic detective novels and is mourning his wife’s recent death.
I loved how on first introduction to most characters we hear about the dreams from which they’ve just awoken, involving mermaids, cats, dogs and a monster with a severed head. “Dreams are rather marvellous, aren’t they,” David remarks to Monty. “They can be beautiful in a special way like nothing else. Even awful things in dreams have style.” Scenes often open with dreams that feel so real to the characters that they could fool readers into belief.
Blaise knows he can’t sustain his double life, especially after Luca stows away in his car on a couple of occasions to see Hood House. When he confesses to Harriet via a letter, she seems to handle things very well. In fact, she almost glows with self-righteous pride over how reasonably she’s been responding. But both she and Emily end up resentful. Why should Blaise ‘win’ by keeping his wife and his mistress? “You must feel like the Sultan of Turkey,” Emily taunts him. “You’ve got us both. You’ve got away with it.” Here starts a lot of back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they that gets somewhat tedious. Throughout I noticed overlong sections of internal monologue and narrator commentary on relationships.
There’s a misperception, I think, that Murdoch wrote books in which not much happens, simply because her canvas can be small and domestically oriented. However, this is undoubtedly an eventful novel, including a Shocking Incident that Liz warned about. Foreshadowing had alerted me that someone was going to die, but it wasn’t who or how I thought. When it comes to it, Murdoch is utterly matter-of-fact: “[X] had perished”.
One of the pleasures of reading a Murdoch novel is seeing how she reworks the same sorts of situations and subjects. (Liz has written a terrific review set in the context of Murdoch’s whole body of work.) Here I enjoyed tracing the mother–son relationships – at least three of them, two of which are quite similar: smothering and almost erotic. Harriet later tries to subsume Luca into the family, too. I also looked out for the recurring Murdochian enchanter figure: first Blaise, for whom psychiatry is all about power, and then Harriet.
I hugely enjoyed the first 100 pages or more of the book, but engaged with it less and less as it went on. Ultimately, it falls somewhere in the middle for me among the Murdochs I’ve read. Here’s my ranking of the nine novels I’ve read so far, with links to my reviews:
Favorite: The Bell
The Sea, The Sea
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine
The Black Prince
Least favorite: An Accidental Rose
A favorite passage (this is Monty on the perils of working from home!): “If I had an ordinary job to do I’d have to get on with it. Being self-employed I can brood all day. It’s undignified and bad.”
This is the last of the Murdoch paperbacks I bought as a bargain bundle from Oxfam Books some years ago. I’ll leave it a while – perhaps a year – and then try some earlier Murdochs I’ve been tempted by during Liz’s Iris Murdoch readalong project, such as The Unicorn.
At about this time of year I try to read a handful of books with “love” in the title. I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine for the #IMReadalong, and I have one more “love” title towards the end of this post, but it turns out that my focus this year has been more on the kinds of love that tend to get ignored around Valentine’s Day – familial love for one’s ageing parents and grandparents.
Be With: Letters to a Carer by Mike Barnes (2018)
Mike Barnes, a Toronto poet and novelist, has been a primary caregiver for his mother, Mary, in the nine years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis disease. She grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and is now in her nineties; he’s in his sixties. A bipolar sufferer, Barnes has spent his own fair share of time in hospitals and on disability. He’s moved Mary between care homes four times as her condition has deteriorated. Though he laments her gradual loss of words and awareness of her family, he can still discern instances of her bravery and the beauty of life.
This book of fragments – memories and advice delivered via short letters – was written in between demanding caregiving tasks and is meant to be read in those same gaps. Dementia is one situation in which you should definitely throw money at a problem, Barnes counsels, to secure the best care you can, even round-the-clock nursing help. However, as the title suggests, nothing outweighs simply being there. Your presence, not chiefly to make decisions, but just to sit, listen and place a soothing hand on a forehead, is the greatest gift.
There are many excellent, pithy quotations in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:
“a retreat under fire”
“a passage of exquisite vulnerability”
By your loved one’s side is “Not where things are easy, or satisfactorily achieved, or achievable, or even necessarily pleasant. But where you ought to be, have to be, and are. It brings a peace.”
The goal is “Erring humanely”.
I can imagine this being an invaluable companion for caregivers, to be tucked into a pocket or purse and pulled out for a few moments of relief. On the theme of a parent’s dementia, I’d also recommend Paulette Bates Alden’s book of linked short stories, Unforgettable.
Out now from Myriad Editions. My thanks for the free copy for review.
The Smallest Things: On the enduring power of family: A memoir of tiny dramas by Nick Duerden (2019)
Journalist Nick Duerden always appreciated how his maternal grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, seemed so ordinary and unchanging. Every trip to see them in the Milan suburbs was, comfortingly, the same. He’d muddle along with his meager Italian, and they’d look after him in their usual clucking way. It was only as he reached middle age and realized that his grandparents were undeniably very old – his grandmother is 99 and in a care home at the time of writing – that he realized how lucky he was to still have them in his life and how unlikely it was that they’d be around for much longer.
Duerden compares his small immediate family with his Spanish wife’s large extended one, and his uptight paternal grandparents with the more effusive set. There are also some family secrets still to uncover. I made the mistake of reading a previous nonfiction book of Duerden’s just the week before this one: Get Well Soon (2018), which has a long chapter about his grandparents that told me all I needed to know about them. That’s probably the main reason why this short book struck me as lightweight, though I did ultimately find it a touching tribute, especially to his grandmother. It could make a good Mother’s Day present.
Out today from Elliott & Thompson. My thanks for a proof copy for review.
Love Story by Erich Segal (1970)
This offbeat novella was a bestseller and a successful film. You surely know its most famous line: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” Oliver Barrett IV is a golden boy: his banker father and previous generations of the eminent Barrett family funded various buildings at Harvard, where Oliver is a hockey player in the late 1960s. Jenny Cavilleri, on the other hand, comes from a single-parent Italian-American family in New Jersey. She’s made it to Radcliffe as a harpsichordist, but her father is just a baker; she’d never be considered good enough for the likes of Oliver. But they meet at the Radcliffe library and, sure enough, fall for each other. She calls him “Preppie”; he calls her a bitch. They’re only partially joking. It may be true love against the odds, but it has an expiration date, as we know from the first line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?”
I wanted to like this more. There’s a pleasing lightness to the style, but because the whole book is from Oliver’s perspective, I felt like Jenny got short shrift: she’s the wise-cracking gal from the block, and then she’s the innocent victim in the hospital bed. Because this is only about 120 pages, there’s not much space in between for her character to be developed. I was somewhat appalled to learn about a 1977 sequel in which Oliver finds a new love.
(Segal’s daughter Francesca is also a novelist (The Innocents).)
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
Cat Poems: An enjoyable selection of verse about our feline friends, nicely varied in terms of the time period, original language of composition, and outlook on cats’ contradictory qualities. I was unaware that Angela Carter and Muriel Spark had ever written poetry. There are perhaps too many poems by Stevie Smith – six in total! – though I did enjoy their jokey rhymes.
Some favorite lines:
“Cat sentimentality is a human thing. Cats / are indifferent, their minds can’t comprehend / the concept ‘I shall die’, they just go on living.” (from “Sonnet: Cat Logic” by Gavin Ewart)
“For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.” (from “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart)
“These adorable things. When my life gives out, they’d eat me up in a second.” (from “I’ll Call Those Things My Cats” by Kim Hyesoon)
Cat Poems was published in the UK on October 4th. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
Even when it’s not a book specifically about cats, cats often turn up in my reading. Maybe it’s simply that I look out for them more since I became a cat owner several years ago. Here are some of the quotes, scenes or whole books featuring cats that I’ve come across this year.
Cats real and imaginary
Stranger on a Train by Jenni Diski: “I find myself astonished that a creature of another species, utterly different to me, honours me with its presence and trust by sitting on me and allowing me to stroke it. This mundane domestic moment is as enormous, I feel at such moments, as making contact across a universe with another intelligence. This creature with its own and other consciousness and I with mine can sit in silence and enjoy each other’s presence. … This is a perfectly everyday scene but sometimes it takes my breath away that another living thing has allowed me into its life.”
Certain American States by Catherine Lacey: “This cat wants to destroy beauty—I can tell. He is more than animal, he is evil, a plain enemy of the world. I wish him ill. I do. Almost daily I find a mess of feathers in the dirt. Some mornings there are whole bird carcasses left on my porch—eyes shocked open, brilliant blue wings, ripped and bloody. I have thought often of what it would take to kill a cat, quietly and quickly, with my bare hands. I have thought of this often. In fact I am thinking of it right now.” (from the story “Because You Have To”)
The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch: “Montrose was a large cocoa-coloured tabby animal with golden eyes, a square body, rectangular legs and an obstinate self-absorbed disposition, concerning whose intelligence fierce arguments raged among the children. Tests of Montrose’s sagacity were constantly being devised, but there was some uncertainty about the interpretation of the resultant data since the twins were always ready to return to first principles and discuss whether cooperation with the human race was a sign of intelligence at all. Montrose had one undoubted talent, which was that he could at will make his sleek hair stand up on end, and transform himself from a smooth stripey cube into a fluffy sphere. This was called ‘Montrose’s bird look’.”
Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: “They found it significant that I called my cat Felony. I argued that I had chosen her name for its euphonious qualities. She used to sink her incisors into the hell of my hand and pause a fraction of a millimeter from breaking the skin, staring at me until her eyes were reduced to sadistic yellow semibreves. She murdered without a qualm. She toyed with her victims, smiling broadly at their squeaks and death throes.
‘Why isn’t she a criminal?’ I asked. …
‘The difference is,’ said Mr Pringle, that we must assume your cat commits her crimes without mischievous discretion.’” (from the story “Escape Clauses”)
In Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Sunday Justice is the name of the courthouse cat. He sits grooming on the courtroom windowsill during the trial and comes in and curls up to sleep in the cell of a particular prisoner we’ve come to care about.
A recommended picture book
My Cat Looks Like My Dad by Thao Lam: I absolutely loved the papercut collage style of this kids’ book. The narrator explains all the ways in which the nerdy-cool 1970s-styled dad resembles the family cat, who is more like a sibling than a pet. “Family is what you make it.” There’s something of a twist ending, too. (Out on April 15, 2019.)
Later today I’m off to America for two weeks, but I’ll be scheduling plenty of posts, including the usual multi-part year-end run-down of my best reads, to go up while I’m away. Forgive me if I’m less responsive than usual to comments and to your own blogs!
“Wasn’t it Nabokov who said ‘It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies?’”
Butterflies, monks, students and teachers, prophets and saints: such is the cast of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s unusual and rewarding debut novel, Magdalena Mountain. It’s a golden autumn in the early 1970s as James Mead leaves Albuquerque on a Greyhound bus to travel to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will undertake a PhD in biology at Yale. He squats in a lab on campus to save money and, after some tension with his thesis advisor, decides to keep his head down, feeding the department’s giant cave roaches and becoming engrossed in the field journals written by one October Carson in 1969 during his travels out West.
Pyle presents nature as both beatific and harsh, a continuity of life that human events – like a car going over a cliff in the first chapter – barely disrupt. Occasional chapters check in on the woman who was in the car crash, Mary Glanville. Now suffering from amnesia, she believes she’s a famous figure from history. One day she escapes from her nursing home and hitchhikes into the Colorado mountains. In her weakened state she’s taken in by Attalus and Oberon, monks at a deconsecrated monastery devoted to the god Pan and the creeds of nature writers like John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Attalus, a compassionless misogynist, vehemently protests Mary’s presence in their community, but Oberon soon falls in love with her.
When James, disobeying his supervisor, lights out for Colorado for a summer of research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the stage is set for these major characters to collide on Magdalena Mountain, home to the distinctive, all-black Magdalena Alpine butterfly (Erebia magdalena). “Flight may appear weak, but adults are able to sail up and over huge boulders with the greatest of ease, eluding humans who desire a closer look. Flies in summer,” reads the description in my (Kaufman) field guide to North American butterflies. Intermittent segments of pure nature writing about Erebia’s life cycle – seven short chapters in total – establish the seasons and encourage a long view of local history, but somewhat slow down the novel’s tempo.
Pyle successfully pulls in so many different themes: academic infighting and the impulses of scientific researchers versus amateur collectors; environmentalism, especially through the threats that infestations, pesticides and off-road vehicles pose to the mountain landscape; activism, by way of the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons protests; and even sacred femininity and the myths surrounding Mary Magdalene. Mary Glanville’s name is a nice nod to history – Elinor Glanville was a seventeenth-century English collector who gave her name to the Glanville Fritillary – while Vladimir Nabokov, who was a keen lepidopterist as well as an academic and author, is mentioned several times for his real-life connections to the area.
The quirky set of hangers-on at the monastery reminded me of an Iris Murdoch setup (thinking mostly of The Bell), while the passion for science and activism brought to mind two other excellent environmentally minded novels published this year, The Overstory and Unsheltered. Indeed, Mary preaches at one point, “Seek your shelter in nature … In love lies the only real shelter there is.” If you’re interested in the Powers and/or Kingsolver, I would commend Pyle’s book to you as well: it’s offbeat, dreamy yet fervent, with intriguing characters and elegant nature-infused language. One of my favorite descriptive scraps, so simple but so apt, was “a peeled peach of a moon.” I’m grateful to have had a chance to read this, and I will be seeking out Pyle’s nature writing, too.
Magdalena Mountain was published in August 2018. My thanks to the good folk of Counterpoint Press (based in Berkeley, California) for sending a free copy for review.
Iris Murdoch’s eleventh novel starts with a bang: civil servant Joseph Radeechy has shot himself at the office, leaving Octavian Gray and Richard Biranne to deal with the fallout. The incident delays Octavian’s departure for idyllic Dorset, where he and his wife Kate live in community with various hangers-on: Mary Clothier and her son Pierce; Biranne’s ex, Paula, and their twins; and the Grays’ daughter, Barbara, whenever she’s home from her Swiss boarding school. I loved the initial introduction to a household so full of joyful bustle, the witty dialogue of children and servants, and a memorable dog and cat. It’s a hot summer and there are games and jaunts down to the rocky beach and an abandoned graveyard.
Gradually the focus shifts to would-be judge John Ducane, the legal advisor to Octavian’s department. Like the narrator of A Severed Head, he’s just breaking off an affair with a younger woman. He’s decided he’s in love with Kate, with whom he shares an occasional kiss. Octavian knows all about this and finds it amusing – I thought of him and Kate as the Oberon and Titania of their enchanted pastoral world, presiding in lordly yet playful ways over the other mortals’ romantic entanglements. (“Midsummer madness,” John remarks at one point.) Again as in A Severed Head, it seems everyone’s infatuated with everyone else, in different ways and at different times. A distinction is often drawn between loving and being in love – the two do not always coexist.
Ducane helps the department look into Radeechy’s death in hopes of avoiding a public enquiry. It seems the man was involved in some bizarre stuff – witchcraft with prostitutes? – and was being blackmailed for it. However, the city and country divide is stark, and so the investigation never overpowers the more low-key interpersonal intrigues down in Dorset. There are lots of important though secondary characters in this ensemble cast – so many that I struggled to pay attention to all of them (Uncle Theo?). Of these I’ll just give a special mention to Holocaust survivor Willy Kost. Thankfully, there’s a much more positive vision of Judaism here than in A Severed Head or The Italian Girl.
Liz has written a wonderful summary of the novel and its themes, set in the context of the Murdoch novels that have come before. I especially noted and liked the duplicated moments, such as two scenes of women jealously observing other mistresses; the instances of dramatic irony; and the sequences composed mostly of dialogue (e.g., Chapter 40). There’s a gripping scene where three characters are stuck in a sea cave due to a rising tide, and the book ends on what seems to be a sighting of a flying saucer. You also have to love the late lion-and-lamb moment of Montrose the cat and Mingo the dog curling up in a basket together.
I kept looking back to the title and asking myself who is really ‘good’ here and what the real value of being ‘nice’ is. Murdoch pardons Radeechy’s peculiar behavior as “minor evil” at most, while Willy’s experience in Dachau is surely the clearest example of human evil at work.
“Ducane’s so nice – ” / “He’s so good – ”
“The point is that nothing matters except loving what is good. Not to look at evil but to look at good.”
Meanwhile, there are brief mentions of goodness as a state of mind or a matter of personality:
“in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible”
“I think being good is just a matter of temperament in the end. Yes, we shall all be so happy and good too. Oh, how utterly marvellous it is to be me!”
That last quote is a glimpse into Kate’s thoughts: so unrealistically optimistic you have to wonder whether Murdoch is making fun of her. And yet Kate is one of the most stable and contented characters.
This falls about in the middle of the pack for me in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed Murdoch’s novels. There’s a lot going on, perhaps too much, and the reader’s sympathy is spread thin across so many characters. Still, it’s summery, light-hearted fare that manages to also hint at deeper ethical questions.
Here’s my ranking of the eight I’ve read so far:
Favorite: The Bell
The Sea, The Sea
A Severed Head
The Nice and the Good
The Black Prince
The Italian Girl
Least favorite: An Accidental Rose
I’m Murdoch-ed out for the time being, but I’ll keep an eye on Liz’s ongoing Iris Murdoch readalong project to see if there are other novels I’ll try to find secondhand in the future (at least The Unicorn, I think). Join in for one or more!
Have you read this or anything else by Iris Murdoch?
I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
- The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
- A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
- The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
- The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
- What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
- Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
- The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
- Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
- Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]
That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.
Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.
Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”
If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.
Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.
In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.
Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.
This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”
I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.
So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.
I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.
What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?
A perfect heatwave read, Claire Fuller’s third novel tells the suspenseful story of the profligate summer of 1969 spent at a dilapidated English country house. Frances Jellico, who seems to be on her deathbed in a care home, recalls for the chaplain, her friend Victor Wylde, the August 20 years ago when she stayed at Lyntons, a neoclassical mansion in Hampshire, to report on the garden architecture for the new American owner, a Mr. Liebermann. Frances was an awkward 39-year-old at that time; having spent 10 years caring for her ill mother up to her recent death, she’d never had a romantic relationship or even a real friendship. So when she got to Lyntons and met Peter Robertson, who was to survey the house and its fittings, and his girlfriend Cara Calace, a melodramatic Anglo-Irish woman who tried to pass as Italian, Frances instantly latched on to their attractively hedonistic lifestyle and felt, for the first time, as if she had people who cared about her and genuinely liked her.
I was a relative latecomer to Fuller’s work, but Swimming Lessons turned out to be one of my favorite novels of last year and I quickly caught up on her debut, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015), which won the Desmond Elliott Prize. If you’re familiar with her first novel you’ll know she’s a master of the unreliable narrator, and here there are two: Frances herself, but also Cara, who tells Frances about her past in Ireland in long monologues that start to beggar belief. Peter warns Frances that Cara is a fantasist, but Frances wants to accept her new friend’s superstition-laced stories. She’s more than half in love with both Peter and Cara. As the trio have lavish picnics on the house’s grounds and ransack the forgotten on-site museum for furniture for their bedrooms and clothes to play dress-up in, the foreshadowing makes you wonder how long it will be before this dissolute interlude shades into tragedy.
Bitter Orange reminded me most of the lowering Gothic feel of books by Daphne du Maurier and Iris Murdoch (especially The Italian Girl, but there’s also a mention of a fish’s severed head, and a couple of times Frances says she feels as if she’s in a play), but I’d also recommend it to readers who’ve enjoyed recent work by Emma Donoghue, Tessa Hadley, Sarah Perry and Sarah Waters. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Fuller’s two previous books: it feels a bit less original, and the symbolism of the orange tree and the various animal appearances is rather heavy-handed. But the characters and atmosphere are top-notch. It’s an absorbing, satisfying novel to swallow down in big gulps on a few of these hot summer days.
“It seemed threatening now, the empty rooms and dusty spaces sinister, when so recently I had thought it beautiful. I couldn’t help but believe it was playing tricks on me, trying to send me mad or drive me away.”
“I had thought I would like living life to the maximum, I had thought I would enjoy being unconstrained and reckless, but I learned that it is terrifying to look into the abyss.”
Bitter Orange is released today, August 2nd, by Fig Tree (Penguin) in the UK. [It will come out on October 9th from Tin House in the USA and House of Anansi in Canada.] My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.