I didn’t manage a traditional classic this month: I stalled on Cider with Rosie and gave up on Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust after just 16 pages. Instead, I’m highlighting three books from Fiction Advocate’s new series about re-reading modern classics, “…Afterwords.” Their tagline is “Essential Readings of the New Canon,” and the concept is to have “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics.”
As Italo Calvino notes in his invaluable essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Harold Bloom agrees in The Western Canon: “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” But readers will also encounter books that strike such a chord with them that they become personal classics. Calvino exhorts readers that “during unenforced reading … you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book…‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”
For the Afterwords series, the three writers below have each chosen a modern classic that they can’t stop reading for all it has to say to their own situation and on humanity in general.
I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by Stephanie Reents (2018)
Blood Meridian must be one of the two or three bleakest books I’ve ever read. I was led to it by Bloom, who speaks about it as a, if not the, Great American Novel. It’s over 10 years since I’ve read it now, but I still remember some of the specific incidences of violence, like skewering babies and sodomizing corpses on a battlefield, as well as the overall feeling of nihilism: there’s no reason for the evil promulgated by characters like the Judge; it is simply a reality – perhaps the human condition.
Reents, who teaches English at the College of the Holy Cross, returns to Blood Meridian, a novel she has re-read compulsively over the years, to ask why it continues to have such a hold over her. Its third-person perspective is so distant that we never understand characters’ motivations or glimpse their inner lives, she notes; everyone seems like a pawn in a fated course. She usually shies away from violence and long descriptive passages; she has an uneasy relationship with the West, having moved away from Idaho to live on the East coast. So why should this detached, brutal Western based on the Glanton Gang’s Mexico/Texas killing spree have so captivated her? “Often, we most admire the books that we could never produce, the writing styles or intellects so different from our own that we aren’t even tempted to try imitating them,” she offers as explanation. “It’s a pure kind of admiration, unsullied by envy.” (I feel that way about Faulkner and Steinbeck.)
As part of her quest, Reents recreated some of the Gang’s desert route and traveled to the Texas State University library near Austin to look at McCarthy’s early drafts, notes and correspondence. She was intrigued to learn that the Kid was a more conventional POV character to start with, and McCarthy initially included more foreshadowing. By cutting all of it, he made it so that the book’s extreme violence comes out of nowhere. Reents also explores the historical basis for the story via General Samuel Chamberlain’s dubious memoir. Pondering the volatility of the human heart as she drives along the Mexican border, she ends on the nicely timely note of a threatened Trump-built wall. I doubt I could stomach reading Blood Meridian again (though I’ve read another two McCarthy novels since), but I enjoyed revisiting it with Reents as she finds herself “re-bewildered by its beauty and horror.”
A Little in Love with Everyone: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home by Genevieve Hudson (2018)
Alison Bechdel is one of Hudson’s queer heroes (along with James Baldwin, Tracy Chapman, and seven others), portrayed opposite the first page of each chapter in black and white drawings by Pace Taylor – the sort of people who gave her the courage to accept her lesbian identity after a conventional Alabama upbringing.
As portrayed in her landmark graphic memoir Fun Home, Bechdel was in college and finally coming to terms with her sexuality at the same time that she learned that her father was gay and her parents were about to divorce. Her father died in an accident just a few months later and, though he had many affairs, had never managed to live out his homosexuality openly. As Bechdel’s mother scoffed, “Your father tell the truth? Please!” By contrast, Hudson appreciates Bechdel so much because of her hard-won honesty: “In her work, Bechdel does the opposite of lying. She excavates the real. She dredges up the stuff of her life, embarrassing parts and all.”
Hudson looks at how people craft their own coming-out narratives, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized, in her experience. “Coming out was a tangible thing with tangible effects. For every friend who left my life, a new person arrived—usually someone with broader horizons, exciting stories, and a deviance that seemed sweet and sexy and sincere. After I came out, roaming the streets of Charleston in fat sunglasses and thin dresses, a group of beautiful lesbians appeared out of nowhere. … Everyone was a little in love with everyone.”
A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking by Jacob Bacharach (2018)
I made the mistake of not taking any notes on, or even marking out any favorite passages in, this, so all I can tell you is that for me it was the most powerful of the three I’ve tried from the series. The author re-examines Didion’s work in the light of his own encounter with loss – his brother’s death from a drug overdose – and ponders why it has become such a watershed in bereavement literature. Didion really is the patron saint of grief thanks to her two memoirs, Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – after she was widowed she also lost her only daughter – even though she writes with a sort of intellectual detachment; you have to intuit the emotion between the lines. Bacharach smartly weaves his family story with a literate discussion of Didion’s narratives and cultural position to make a snappy and inviting book you could easily read in one sitting.
Indeed, all of the Afterwords books are 120–160-page, small-format paperbacks that would handily slip into a pocket or purse.
My thanks to the publisher for the free copies for review.
The other titles in the series are An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom by Jonathan Russell Clark (on 2666 by Roberto Bolaño), New Uses for Failure by Adam Colman (on 10:04 by Ben Lerner, and Bizarro Worlds by Stacie Williams (on The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem).
Next month’s plan: The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa will be my classic to get me in the mood for traveling to Italy for the first week of July.
Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
2017 hasn’t even begun and already I’m overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of new books to be released. This is by no means a full picture of what’s coming out next year; it’s only 30 titles that I happen to have heard about and/or know I want to seek out. The descriptions are taken from the publisher blurbs on Goodreads, NetGalley or Edelweiss. Some of these I already have access to in galley form; others I’ll be doing my darndest to get hold of! (Within categories, titles are in alphabetical order by author rather than by publication date.)
English Animals by Laura Kaye (for the blog tour) [Jan. 12, Little, Brown UK]: “When Mirka [from Slovakia] gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her.”
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (for BookBrowse) [Feb. 7, Grand Central]: “Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in [the] early 1900s. … [A] sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history.”
No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Watts Powell (for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) [Apr. 4, Ecco]: “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South: a powerful first novel about an extended African-American family and their colliding visions of the American Dream.”
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti (for The Bookbag) [Mar. 28, Tinder Press]: “A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel … Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.”
NOVELS (all by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past)
Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett [June 15, W&N]: “Cass Wheeler [is] a British singer-songwriter, hugely successful since the early 70s … Her task is to choose 16 songs from among the hundreds she has written … for a uniquely personal Greatest Hits record”
The Idiot by Elif Batuman [Mar. 14, Penguin]: “1995: Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, arrives for her freshman year at Harvard. … With superlative emotional and intellectual sensitivity, mordant wit, and pitch-perfect style, Batuman dramatizes the uncertainty of life on the cusp of adulthood.”
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler [Mar. 7, Ecco]: “Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. … [A] sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity”
New Boy by Tracy Chevalier [May 16, Hogarth]: “The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers.”
Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro [June 6, St. Martin’s]: “It is the summer of 1992 and a gypsy moth invasion blankets Avalon Island. … The Gypsy Moth Summer is about love, gaps in understanding, and the struggle to connect: within families; among friends; between neighbors and entire generations.” – Plus, get a load of that gorgeous cover!
Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin [June 6, Bloomsbury USA]: “Grief Cottage is the best sort of ghost story, but it is far more than that—an investigation of grief, remorse, and the memories that haunt us. The power and beauty of this artful novel wash over the reader like the waves on a South Carolina beach.”
The Evening Road by Laird Hunt [Feb. 7, Little, Brown & Co.]: “Reminiscent of the works of Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones and Marilynne Robinson, The Evening Road is the story of two remarkable women on the move through an America riven by fear and hatred, and eager to flee the secrets they have left behind.”
The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal [May 4, Chatto & Windus]: “In a Victorian terraced house, in north-west London, two families have united in imperfect harmony. … This is a moving and powerful novel about the modern family: about starting over; about love, guilt, and generosity; about building something beautiful amid the mess and complexity of what came before.” – Sounds like Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth…
The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion [Feb. 9, Penguin]: “The Best of Adam Sharp is about growing old and feeling young, about happy times and sad memories, about staying together and drifting apart, but most of all, it’s about how the music we make together creates the soundtrack that shapes our lives.” – Sounds a lot like the Barnett!
SHORT STORIES (also by authors I’ve enjoyed in the past)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: [May 2, Little, Brown & Co.]: “Full of the keenly observed, mordant wit that characterizes his beloved, award-winning novels, the stories in The Dinner Party are about people searching for answers in the aftermath of life’s emotional fissures”
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley [May 16, Harper]: “Hadley has proven herself to be the champion of revealing the hidden depths in the deceptively simple. In these short stories it’s the ordinary things that turn out to be most extraordinary: the history of a length of fabric or a forgotten jacket.”
NOVELS BY AUTHORS NEW TO ME
A Separation by Katie Kitamura [Feb. 7, Riverhead Books]: “A mesmerizing, psychologically taut novel about a marriage’s end and the secrets we all carry.”
Hame by Annalena McAfee (Mrs. Ian McEwan) [Feb. 9, Harvill Secker]: “Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.”
Poetry Can Save Your Life: A Memoir by Jill Bialosky [June 13, Atria]: “[A]n unconventional coming-of-age memoir organized around the 43 remarkable poems that gave her insight, courage, compassion, and a sense of connection at pivotal moments in her life.”
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford [May 2, Harper Collins]: “Ford brings his trademark candor, wit, and empathetic storytelling to the most intimate of landscapes: that of his love for two people who remain a mystery. Mining poignant details of his life in the American South during some iconic periods of the 20th century, Between Them illuminates the writer’s past as well as his beliefs on memory, relationships, and self-knowledge.”
The Mighty Franks: A Family Memoir by Michael Frank [May 16, Farrar, Straus and Giroux]: “A psychologically acute memoir about an unusual and eccentric Hollywood family.”
Sick: A Life of Lyme, Love, Illness, and Addiction by Porochista Khakpour [Aug. 8, Harper Perennial]: “In the tradition of Brain on Fire and The Empathy Exams, an honest, beautifully rendered memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery that details author Porochista Khakpour’s struggles with late-stage Lyme disease.”
A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life by Lauren Marks [May 2, Simon & Schuster]: “Lauren Marks was twenty-seven, touring a show in Scotland with her friends, when an aneurysm ruptured in her brain and left her fighting for her life. … [A]n Oliver Sacks-like case study of a brain slowly piecing itself back together”
Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick [May 2, Pantheon]: “Fresh, intimate, and radiantly meditative, Homing Instincts is the story of one woman’s ‘coming of age’ as a first-time parent on her family’s rural Ohio farm.”
My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin [Mar. 14, Fig Tree Books]: “Although she grew up following some holiday rituals, Pogrebin realized how little she knew about their foundational purpose and contemporary relevance; she wanted to understand what had kept these holidays alive and vibrant, some for thousands of years. Her curiosity led her to embark on an entire year of intensive research, observation, and writing about the milestones on the religious calendar.”
Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977–2002) by David Sedaris [May 30, Little, Brown & Co.]: “[F]or the first time in print: selections from the diaries that are the source of his remarkable autobiographical essays.”
How to Make a French Family: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Faux Pas by Samantha Vérant [Apr. 4, Sourcebooks]: “When Samantha is given a second chance at love at the age of forty, she moves to southwestern France, thinking she’s prepared for her new role in life as an instant American wife and stepmom. It turns out, though, that making a French family takes more than just good intentions and a quick lesson in croissant-baking.”
NONFICTION: poetry, biography, essays, travel
Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta [Mar. 21, Roost Books]: “The twenty-five inspiring poems in this book—from such poets as Marge Piercy, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield—are accompanied by seventy-five recipes that bring the richness of words to life in our kitchen, on our plate, and through our palate.”
Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt [May 16, Little, Brown & Co.]: “A charming story of Mozart and his pet starling, along with a natural history of the bird.”
More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers by Jonathan Lethem [Mar. 14, Melville House]: “[C]ollects more than a decade of Lethem’s finest writing on writing, with new and previously unpublished material, including: impassioned appeals for forgotten writers and overlooked books, razor-sharp essays, and personal accounts of his most extraordinary literary encounters and discoveries.”
The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack [Feb. 14, W.W. Norton]: “American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—and their 4 million people—are often forgotten, even by most Americans. … When Doug Mack realized just how little he knew about the territories, he set off on a globe-hopping quest covering more than 30,000 miles to see them all.”