Novels about Patricia Highsmith and a prison production of The Tempest; a true-life account of opening a secondhand bookstore; a faux memoir setting ancestors’ memories in the context of twentieth-century history; and an exposé of the happiness movement in America: these five very different books are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
The Crime Writer
By Jill Dawson
Patricia Highsmith hated the term “crime writer”; she preferred to speak of her work as “suspense novels,” animated by the threat of danger. Dawson’s terrific pastiche is set in the early 1960s, when the nomadic Highsmith was living in a remote cottage in Suffolk, England. Beyond the barest biographical facts, though, Dawson has imagined the plot based on Highsmith’s own preoccupations: fear of a stalker, irksome poison-pen letters, imagining what it would be like to commit murder … and snails. In a combination of third- and first-person narration, she shows “Pat” succumbing to alcoholism and paranoia as she carries on affairs with Sam, a married woman, and Ginny, a young journalist who’s obsessed with her. You’re never quite sure as you’re reading what is actually happening in the world of the novel and what only occurs in Highsmith’s imagination; I’m sure that’s deliberate. This counts as one of the most gripping, compulsive books I’ve encountered this year.
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap
By Wendy Welch
Everyone told Wendy Welch and her husband that they were crazy when they decided to open a used bookstore in a small Appalachian Coalfields town in the middle of a recession. They lived above the shop and initially stocked it with their own library plus books picked up cheap at yard sales – though Welch later learned to be much more choosy about what they added to their inventory and to tailor their selections to the tastes of country readers. Essentially, they were making it all up as they went along, but eight years later they’re still a community fixture in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. (I’d love to visit someday.) For the most part that’s because they branched out to fill other roles: hosting cultural events, murder mystery evenings, a writing group, a crafting circle, and regular Quaker meetings. I appreciated the details about the nitty-gritty of running a bookstore (like a chapter on pricing) more than the customer interactions. A warm and fuzzy book-lover’s delight.
Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold
By Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood looks more like a good witch every year, and here she works her magic on The Tempest to produce the most satisfying volume of the Hogarth Shakespeare series yet. There’s a really clever play-within-the-play-within-the-play thing going on, and themes of imprisonment and performance resonate in multiple ways. It’s fun to see the disgraced Felix’s second act as a director of inmate plays at Fletcher Correctional – “I don’t care why you’re in here or what they say you’ve done: for this course the past is prologue.” Part V gets a little tedious/didactic as the cast hash out the characters’ afterlives, and at times (mainly the raps) you’re painfully aware that this is an old white lady trying to approximate how seasoned criminals might speak, but in general I thoroughly enjoyed this. Even though you see behind the scenes (e.g. my favorite chapter was about Felix wandering the streets of Toronto to buy props and costumes), you still get caught up in the magic. (See also Carolyn’s wonderful review at Rosemary and Reading Glasses.)
The Pursuit of Happiness: Why are we driving ourselves crazy and how can we stop?
By Ruth Whippman
I call this niche genre anti-self-help. (Two other great examples are Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich and Promise Land by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.) Whippman has a particularly interesting perspective as a British Jew who moved to California for her husband’s work. With sharp humor and natural British cynicism, she investigates various manifestations of the American obsession with happiness, including the cult-like Landmark Forum, Zappos shoes HQ, Facebook’s encouragement of shallow social interaction, and the positive psychology movement. I especially liked her visit to Mormons in Salt Lake City (the nation’s happiest group, it seems, but also the most highly medicated against depression), but the funniest chapter is on happiness-focused parenting. The basic message is that the happiness movement went wrong by making it a matter of personal responsibility, of mental and spiritual triumph over circumstances. It gives no easy answers, but it’s a very enjoyable book.
By Michael Chabon
Chabon’s seventh novel was inspired by his maternal grandfather’s deathbed confessions in 1989—or was it? A tongue-in-cheek author’s note refers to this as a “memoir,” and it’s narrated by “Mike Chabon,” but he and “Grandfather” (never named) are characters here in the same way that Jonathan Safran Foer and his ancestors are in Everything Is Illuminated. Space travel and explosives are Grandfather’s lifelong obsessions, but the chronology moves back and forth seemingly haphazardly, as if we are hearing this story exactly as it emerged. Chabon offers a rich meditation on how Jewishness and family secrets influence the creation of identity. With a seam of dark humor that brings to mind Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man…, Moonglow inventively fuses family history and fiction but leaves cracks for happiness and meaning to shine through. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.)
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
Hagar Shipley has earned the right to be curmudgeonly. Now 90 years old, she has already lived with her son Marvin and his wife Doris for 17 years when they spring a surprise on her: they want to sell the house and move somewhere smaller, and they mean to send her to Silver Threads nursing home. What with a recent fall, gallbladder issues and pesky constipation, the old woman’s health is getting to be more than Doris can handle at home. But don’t expect Hagar to give in without a fight.
This is one of those novels where the first-person voice draws you in immediately. “I am rampant with memory,” Hagar says, and as the book proceeds she keeps lapsing back, seemingly involuntarily, into her past. While in a doctor’s waiting room or in the derelict house by the coast where she runs away to escape the threat of the nursing home, she loses the drift of the present and in her growing confusion relives episodes from earlier life.
Many of these are melancholy: her mother’s early death and her difficult relationship with her father, an arrogant, self-made shopkeeper (“Both of us were blunt as bludgeons. We hadn’t a scrap of subtlety between us”); her volatile marriage to Bram, a common fellow considered unworthy of her (“Twenty-four years, in all, were scoured away like sand-banks under the spate of our wrangle and bicker”); and the untimely deaths of both a brother and a son.
The stone angel of the title is the monument on Hagar’s mother’s grave, but it is also an almost oxymoronic description for our protagonist herself. “The night my son died I was transformed to stone and never wept at all,” she remembers. Hagar is harsh-tongued and bitter, always looking for someone or something to blame. Yet she recognizes these tendencies in herself and sometimes overcomes her stubbornness enough to backtrack and apologize. What wisdom she has is hard won through suffering, but she’s still standing. “She’s a holy terror,” son Marvin describes her later in the novel: another paradox.
Originally from 1964, The Stone Angel was reprinted in the UK in September as part of the Apollo Classics series. It’s the first in Laurence’s Manawaka sequence of five novels, set in a fictional town based on her hometown in Manitoba, Canada. It could be argued that this novel paved the way for any number of recent books narrated by or about the elderly and telling of their surprise late-life adventures: everything from Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared to Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. I was also reminded of Jane Smiley’s Midwest novels, and wondered if Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries was possibly intended as an homage.
I loved spending time in Hagar’s company, whether she’s marveling at how age has crept up on her—
I feel that if I were to walk carefully up to my room, approach the mirror softly, take it by surprise, I would see there again that Hagar with the shining hair, the dark-maned colt off to the training ring
trying to picture life going on without her—
Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no one like me in this world.
or simply describing a spring day—
The poplar bluffs had budded with sticky leaves, and the frogs had come back to the sloughs and sang like choruses of angels with sore throats, and the marsh marigolds were opening like shavings of sun on the brown river where the tadpoles danced and the blood-suckers lay slimy and low, waiting for the boys’ feet.
It was a delight to experience this classic of Canadian literature.
(The Apollo imprint will be publishing the second Manawaka book, A Jest of God, in March.)
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus/Apollo for the free copy for review.
It occurred to me that I’ve read three novels with “November” in the title. They’re extremely different from each other: one’s a melancholy 1930s American classic; one’s a quirky Icelandic road trip; and the last is a darker entry in a beloved Scandinavian children’s series. All are interesting books, though, and worth reading if you’re in the right mood.
Now in November by Josephine Johnson
(Reviewed here in full back in May.)
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November, which won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help with hard labor, seems like the only thing that might break the agricultural cycle of futile hope and disappointment. Marget quickly falls in love with him, but it takes her a while to realize that her two sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change, but as drought settles in, things only get worse. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, folksy metaphors, and philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where the tragic story might lead.
Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
This is a whimsical, feminist road trip novel. The unnamed narrator is a translator based in Reykjavík. When her best friend slips on an icy sidewalk and breaks her arm, it falls to the narrator to care for the friend’s deaf-mute four-year-old son, Tumi. Leaving behind romantic troubles and boosted by not one but two lottery wins, she and the boy set off on a snowy voyage around Iceland’s Ring Road, with plenty of madcap adventures ahead. The plot is rather scattered and uneven, with uproarious mishaps followed by tedious passages. However, in this kooky fictional world where “nothing is as it should be any more,” where butterflies are still flying in November, the narrator’s tragicomic travels should still strike a chord. Recommended for fans of zany Scandinavian fiction such as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, or Doppler by Erlend Loe. (See my full review at For Books’ Sake.)
Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson
Jansson said that after the Second World War she was depressed and wanted to write about something naïve and innocent. She wrote the first book of the Moomins series in 1945, about a family of hippo-like white trolls. But the Moomins do not appear in this book at all. It is November, the days are closing in, and no one knows where they have gone and when they might come back. A series of visitors journey to Moominvalley and find the house empty, cold and strange; these interlopers try to make their own merriment with a picnic and a party, but it all falls flat. The book felt unique to me for its Scandinavian qualities: the strange sprite-like creatures, woodland settings and short winter days, and the slight air of depression. As with the best children’s fiction, there is much here to entertain adults. Perhaps the most fun aspect of the book is Jansson’s original black and white line drawings of her peculiarly loveable creations.
Favorite passage: “The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude, for you have had foresight.”
[On my TBR: November Storm by Robert Oldshue, a recent short story collection.]
Have you read these or any other “November” books?
It’s a risky business, adapting a well-loved book into a film. I’m always curious to see how a screenwriter and director will pull it off. The BBC generally does an admirable job with the classics, but contemporary book adaptations can be hit or miss. I’ve racked my brain to think of cases where the movie was much better than the book or vice versa, but to my surprise I’ve found that I can only think of a handful of examples. Most of the time I think the film and book are of about equal merit, whether that’s pretty good or excellent.
Watch the Movie Instead:
Birdsong [Sebastian Faulks] – Eddie Redmayne, anyone? The book is a slog, but the television miniseries is lovely.
One Day [David Nicholls] – Excellent casting (though Rafe Spall nearly steals the show). Feels less formulaic and mawkish than the novel.
Father of the Bride and its sequel [Edward Streeter] – The late 1940s/early 1950s books that served as very loose source material are hopelessly dated.
This Is Where I Leave You [Jonathan Tropper] – Again, perfect casting. Less raunchy and more good-natured than the book.
Read the Book Instead:
Possession [A.S. Byatt] – This is one of my favorite novels of all time. It has a richness of prose and style (letters, poems, etc.) that simply cannot be captured on film. Plus Aaron Eckhart couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag.
Everything Is Illuminated [Jonathan Safran Foer] – The movie’s not bad, but if you want to get a hint of Foer’s virtuosic talent you need to read the novel he wrote at 25.
A Prayer for Owen Meany [John Irving] – The film version, Simon Birch, was so mediocre that Irving wouldn’t let his character’s name be associated with it.
It’s Pretty Much Even:
Decent book and movie: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Help, The Hours, Memoirs of a Geisha, Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day
Terrific book and movie: The Fault in Our Stars, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (Swedish language), The Orchid Thief / Adaptation (both great but in very different ways!), Tamara Drewe (based on a graphic novel, which itself is based on Far From the Madding Crowd)
If I’m interested in a story, my preference is always to watch the movie before I read the book. If you do it the other way round, you’re likely to be disappointed with the adaptation. Alas, this means that the actors’ and actresses’ faces will be ineradicably linked with the characters in your head when you try to read the book. I consider this a small disadvantage. Reading the book after you’ve already enjoyed the storyline on screen means you get to go deeper with the characters and the plot, since subplots are often eliminated in movie versions.
So although I’ve seen the films, I’m still keen to read Half of a Yellow Sun and The Kite Runner. I’m eager to both see and read The English Patient and The Shipping News (which would be my first by Proulx). All four of these I own in paperback. I’m also curious about two war novels being adapted this year, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds. There’s every chance I’d like these better as movies than I did as books.
As to books I’m interested in seeing on the big screen, the first one that comes to mind is Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. It might also be interesting to see how the larger-than-life feminist heroines of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World and Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon would translate for cinema. Can you think of any others?