These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.
When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.
Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.
It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)
(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.
Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.
The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.
Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.
“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”
Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”
“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”
See also Susan’s review.
Four February–April releases: A quiet novel about the clash of religion and reason; a birdwatching odyssey in London; a folktale-inspired story of the undead descending on an Indian medical clinic; and a layman’s introduction to fetal development – you can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if any of these tempt you.
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler
Butler follows in Kent Haruf’s footsteps with this quiet story of ordinary Midwesterners facing a series of small crises. Lyle Hovde works at a local Wisconsin orchard but is more interested in spending time with Isaac, his five-year-old grandson. Lyle has been an atheist since he and Peg lost a child in infancy, making it all the more ironic that their adopted daughter, Shiloh, has recently turned extremely religious. She attends a large non-denominational church that meets in an old movie theatre and is engaged to Pastor Steven*, whose hardline opinions are at odds with his hipster persona.
Steven and Shiloh believe Isaac has a healing gift – perhaps he can even help Lyle’s old pal, Hoot, who’s just been diagnosed with advanced cancer? The main story line reminded me most of Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves (health and superstition collide) and Carolyn Parkhurst’s Harmony (the dangers of a charismatic leader). It’s all well and good to have faith in supernatural healing, but not if it means rejecting traditional medicine.
This is the epitome of a slow burner, though: things don’t really heat up until the final 35 pages, and there were a few chapters that could have been cut altogether. The female characters struck me as underdeveloped, but I did have a genuine warm feeling for Lyle. There are some memorable scenes, like Lyle’s heroic effort to save the orchard from an ice storm – a symbolic act that’s more about his desperation to save his grandson from toxic religion. But mostly this is a book to appreciate for the slow, predictable rhythms of a small-town life lived by the seasons.
[*So funny because that’s my brother-in-law’s name! I’ve also visited a Maryland church that meets in a former movie theatre. I was a part of somewhat extreme churches and youth groups in my growing-up years, but luckily nowhere that would have advocated foregoing traditional medicine in favor of faith healing. There were a few false notes here that told me Butler was writing about a world he wasn’t familiar with.]
A favorite passage:
“‘Silent Night’ in a darkened country chapel was, to Lyle, more powerful than any atomic bomb. He was incapable of singing it without feeling his eyes go misty, without feeling that his voice was but one link in a chain of voices connected over the generations and centuries, that line we sometimes call family. Or memory itself.”
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
The Parakeeting of London: An Adventure in Gonzo Ornithology by Nick Hunt
Rose-ringed parakeets were first recorded in London in the 1890s, but only in the last couple of decades have they started to seem ubiquitous. I remember seeing them clustered in treetops and flying overhead in various Surrey, Kent and Berkshire suburbs we’ve lived in. They’re even more noticeable in London’s parks and cemeteries. “When did they become as established as beards and artisan coffee?” Nick Hunt wonders about his home in Hackney. He and photographer Tim Mitchell set out to canvass public opinion about London’s parakeets and look into conspiracy theories about how they escaped (Henry VIII and Jimi Hendrix are rumored to have released them; the set of The African Queen is another purported origin) and became so successful an invasive species.
A surprising cross section of the population is aware of the birds, and opinionated about them. Language of “immigrants” versus “natives” comes up frequently in the interviews, providing an uncomfortable parallel to xenophobic reactions towards human movement – “people had a tendency to conflate the avian with the human, turning the ornithological into the political. Invading, colonizing, taking over.” This is a pleasant little book any Londoner or British birdwatcher in general would appreciate.
With thanks to Paradise Road for the free copy for review.
Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar
This short novel has an irresistible (cover and) setup: late one evening a surgeon in a rural Indian clinic gets a visit from a family of three: a teacher, his pregnant wife and their eight-year-old son. But there’s something different about this trio: they’re dead. They each bear hideous stab wounds from being set upon by bandits while walking home late from a fair. In the afterlife, an angel reluctantly granted them a second chance at life. If the surgeon can repair their gashes before daybreak, and as long as they stay within the village boundaries, their bodies will be revivified at dawn.
Paralkar draws on dreams, folktales and superstition, and the descriptions of medical procedures are vivid, as you would expect given the author’s work as a research physician at the University of Pennsylvania. The double meaning of the word “theatre” in the title encompasses the operating theatre and the dramatic spectacle that is taking place in this clinic. But somehow I never got invested in any of these characters and what might happen to them; the précis is more exciting than the narrative as a whole.
A favorite passage:
“Apart from the whispering of the dead in the corridor, the silence was almost deliberate – as if the crickets had been bribed and the dogs strangled. The village at the base of the hillock was perfectly still, its houses like polyps erupting from the soil. The rising moon had dusted them all with white talc. They appeared to have receded in the hours after sunset, abandoning the clinic to its unnatural deeds.”
With thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.
The Making of You: A Journey from Cell to Human by Katharina Vestre
A sprightly layman’s guide to genetics and embryology, written by Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oslo Department of Biosciences. Addressed in the second person, as the title suggests, the book traces your development from the sperm Leeuwenhoek studied under a microscope up to labor and delivery. Vestre looks at all the major organs and the five senses and discusses what can go wrong along with the normal quirks of the body.
I learned all kinds of bizarre facts. For instance, did you know that sperm have a sense of smell? And that until the 1960s pregnancy tests involved the death of a mouse or rabbit? Who knew that babies can remember flavors and sounds experienced in utero?
Vestre compares human development with other creatures’, including fruit flies (with whom we share half of our DNA), fish and alligators (which have various ways of determining gender), and other primates (why is it that they stay covered in fur and we don’t?). The charming style is aimed at the curious reader; I rarely felt that things were being dumbed down. Most chapters open with a fetal illustration by the author’s sister. I’m passing this on to a pregnant friend who will enjoy marveling at everything that’s happening inside her.
A representative passage:
“This may not sound terribly impressive; I promised you dramatic changes, and all that’s happened is that a round plate has become a triple-decker cell sandwich. But you’re already infinitely more interesting than the raspberry you were a short while ago. These cells are no longer confused, needy newcomers with no idea where they are or what they’re supposed to do. They have completed a rough division of labour. The cells on the top layer will form, among other things, skin, hair, nails, eye lenses, nerves and your brain. From the bottom layer you’ll get intestines, liver, trachea and lungs. And the middle layer will become your bones, muscles, heart and blood vessels.”
With thanks to Wellcome Collection/Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
As the members of a small Midwestern town go about their daily business, it’s impossible to forget that a tornado is on its way. We begin with Rose, an ornery woman who, especially after the death of her soldier son Lance shook the town, has kept herself to herself. Perry Brown repeatedly proposes buying her farm so that he can expand his own operation, but she spurns all offers. Estranged from her stepsister Stella, Rose only has her dog Fergus for company. Short meteorological and historical overviews serve as tense interludes, moving from the general to the particular and providing brief transitions between character portraits.
The successive chapters are simultaneous, interlocking stories that all take place in the immediate run-up to the storm touching down. We meet Scottie Dunleavy, an odd fellow who runs a shoe repair shop and leaves secret messages on the soles of people’s footwear. From Louise Logan, a gossipy bank teller, we learn how Rose and Stella fell out; through the eyes of Perry’s wife Nina we see just how tenuous Rose’s solitary existence has become.
After cycling through the perspectives of eight main characters, the book returns to the past in Part II, which starts with the meeting and marriage of Stella’s mother and Rose’s father and moves forward to the near present. The chapters turn choppier as the news of Lance’s death approaches. “Everyone shrank” after the loss of this hometown boy, Walsh writes; like the tornado, his death is an inescapable reality the narrative keeps moving towards.
I love small-town tales where you get to know all the neighbors and their secrets. Twister called to mind for me works by Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, with Rose also somewhat reminiscent of Hagar in Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel. Casualties by Elizabeth Marro is another readalike, focusing on a bereaved mother and her soldier son’s backstory.
Twister was a novel I read slowly, just 10 or 15 pages at a sitting, to savor Walsh’s prose. It’s not a book to race through for the plot but one to linger over as you appreciate the delicacy of the characterization and the electric descriptions of the impending storm:
“If all warnings fail, here is what to look for: the sky turns green, greenish black, brackish. Hail falls. There is a sound that some liken to a freight train, a jet engine, a thousand souped-up Buicks drag racing across a sky. Debris falls from on high—frogs, playing cards, plywood, mud, rock.”
“Warm air rushes ecstatic through the center, pulling and turning, forcing cold air out and down in waves, feeding the dance. Cold coils, pulling inward, more of it and stronger until the warm air snuffs out, the funnel choked, thinning and lifting away. It stretches into a long ribbon, harmless now, twirling across the sky.”
I’d never heard of this 1935 Pulitzer Prize winner before I saw a large display of titles from publisher Head of Zeus’s new imprint, Apollo, at Foyles bookshop in London the night of the Diana Athill event. Apollo, which launched with eight titles in April, aims to bring lesser-known classics out of obscurity: by making “great forgotten works of fiction available to a new generation of readers,” it intends to “challenge the established canon and surprise readers.” I’ll be reviewing Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son for Shiny New Books soon, and I’m tempted by the Eudora Welty and Christina Stead titles. Rounding out the list are two novels set in Eastern Europe, a Sardinian novel in translation, and an underrated Western.
Missouri-born Johnson was just 24 years old when she published Now in November. The novel is narrated by the middle Haldmarne daughter, Marget, looking back at a grueling decade on the family farm. She recognizes how unsuited her father, Arnold, was to farming: “He hadn’t the resignation that a farmer has to have – that resignation which knows how little use to hope or hate.” The remaining members of this female-dominated household are mother Willa, older sister Kerrin and younger sister Merle. Half-feral Kerrin is a creature apart. She’s always doing something unpredictable, like demonstrating knife-throwing to disastrous effect or taking over as the local schoolteacher, a job she’s not at all right for.
The arrival of Grant Koven, a neighbor in his thirties hired to help Arnold 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 sisters are smitten too. They all keep hoping their fortunes will change:
‘This year will have to be different,’ I thought. ‘We’ve scrabbled and prayed too long for it to end as the others have.’ The debt was still like a bottomless swamp unfilled, where we had gone year after year, throwing in hours of heat and the wrenching on stony land, only to see them swallowed up and then to creep back and begin again.
Yet as drought settles in, things only get worse. The fear of losing everything becomes a collective obsession; a sense of insecurity pervades the community. The Ramseys, black tenant farmers with nine children, are evicted. Milk producers go on strike and have to give the stuff away before it sours. Nature is indifferent and neither is there a benevolent God at work: when the Haldmarnes go to church, they are refused communion as non-members.
Marget skips around in time to pinpoint the central moments of their struggle, her often fragmentary thoughts joined by ellipses – a style that seemed to me ahead of its time:
if anything could fortify me against whatever was to come […] it would have to be the small and eternal things – the whip-poor-wills’ long liquid howling near the cave… the shape of young mules against the ridge, moving lighter than bucks across the pasture… things like the chorus of cicadas, and the ponds stained red in evenings.
Michael Schmidt, the critic who selected the first eight Apollo books, likens Now in November to the work of two very different female writers: Marilynne Robinson and Emily Brontë. What I think he is emphasizing with those comparisons is the sense of isolation and the feeling that struggle is writ large on the landscape. The Haldmarne sisters certainly wander the nearby hills like the Brontë sisters did the Yorkshire moors.
As points of reference I would also add Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (resurrected by NYRB Classics in 2014), which also give timeless weight to the female experience of Midwest farming. Like the Smiley, Now in November stars a trio of sisters and makes conscious allusions to King Lear. Kerrin reads the play and thinks of their father as Lear, while Marget quotes it as a prophecy that the worst is yet to come: “I remembered the awful words in Lear: ‘The worst is not so long as we can say “This is the worst.”’ Already this year, I’d cried, This is enough! uncounted times, and the end had never come.”
Johnson lived to age 80 and published another 11 books, but nothing ever lived up to the success of her first. This is an atmospheric and strangely haunting novel. The plot is simple enough, but the writing elevates it into something special. The plaintive tone, the folksy metaphors, and the philosophical earnestness all kept me eagerly traveling along with Marget to see where this tragic story might lead. Apollo has done the literary world a great favor in bringing this lost classic to light.
With thanks to Blake Brooks at Head of Zeus for the free copy.