This is the first year that Novellas in November ran as an official blogger challenge. Cathy and I have been bowled over by the level of response: as of the time of this writing, 30 bloggers have taken part, publishing a total of 89 posts. (I’ve collected all the links on this master post.) Thank you all for being so engaged and helping to spread the love of short books!
We’re already thinking about how to adapt things for next year if we host #NovNov again.
A few specific books were reviewed more than once: The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey, The Spare Room by Helen Garner, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
Three different novellas by Georges Simenon featured, and two by Hubert Mingarelli.
Other novellas discussed more than once were Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.
Aside from the above, here are other frequently mentioned authors who tend(ed) to write short books perfect for Novellas in November: James Baldwin, J.L. Carr, Penelope Fitzgerald, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, John Steinbeck, Nathanael West, and Jacqueline Woodson.
Along with Charco Press and Peirene Press, two more UK publishers whose books lend themselves to this challenge are And Other Stories and Fairlight Books. (If you have more ideas of authors and publishers, let me know and I’ll update these sections.)
And here’s my statistics for 2020:
Total number of novellas read this month: 16 (the same as 2019; vs. 26 in 2018)
Favorites: Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (nonfiction); La Symphonie Pastorale by André Gide & Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (in translation); The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris
What’s the best novella you read this month?
Novellas in November will be coming to a close on Monday and has been a great success in terms of blogger engagement. I’ve been adding review links to the master post nearly every day of the month, and I’m sure there are some I have missed. Although I still have a couple of novellas on the go, I don’t see myself finishing them this month, so I’m going to end with this set: three short classics to continue the week’s theme, two graphic novels, and a pair of nature/art/music/poetry books.
Something Special by Iris Murdoch (1957)
A Murdoch rarity, this appeared in a 1950s anthology and in an English-language textbook in Japan, but was not otherwise published in the author’s lifetime. I think it’s her only short story. I’m counting it as a novella because it was published as a stand-alone volume by Vintage Classics in 2000. Twenty-four-year-old Yvonne Geary doesn’t know precisely what she wants from life, but hopes there might be more for her than a conventional marriage to Sam, her beau. “Can’t I live my life as I please since it’s the only thing I have?” she asks her hen-pecking mother. “I can’t see him as something special and I won’t marry him if I can’t.” Maybe she’ll escape to England. But for now she’s off for a night on the town in Dublin with Sam, going from a rowdy pub to the quiet of a locked-up park. Sam may be dull, but he seems sensitive, solicitous and well-meaning. Yvonne’s feelings for him flip-flop over the course of the evening. I’ve noticed before that Murdoch is a bit funny about Jewishness, but this is still a brisk, bittersweet story in the direct lineage of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. (With striking black-and-white woodcut-style illustrations by Michael McCurdy.)
The Fairacre Festival by ‘Miss Read’ (1968)
I’m not sure why I’d never tried anything by ‘Miss Read’ (the pseudonym of Dora Jessie Saint, a teacher turned author who was based not far from me in Berkshire) until now. She wrote two series of quaint novels set in the fictional villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green; this is #7 in the Fairacre series. Miss Read, her narrator, is a schoolteacher who records her wry observations of all the local happenings. After an autumn storm damages the church roof, the parishioners are dismayed to learn the renovations could cost £2000. No amount of jumble sales, concerts and tea dances will raise that much. So they set their sights higher, to an Edinburgh-style festival with a light show and an appearance from a famous opera singer. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing now, is it? This was cozy, quaint fun, and if I wished it had been a full-length book, that means I’ll just have to begin at the beginning with 1955’s Village School.
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (1970)
Lise has her “glad rags” on – bright new clothes in clashing patterns that strangers can’t help commenting on. The 34-year-old single woman has worked in an accounting office for the last 16 years and is now off to the South (Italy?) for a long-awaited vacation. This will be no blissful holiday, though. Just 11 pages in, we get our first hint that things are going to go wrong, and in the opening line of Chapter 3 Spark gives the game away. Clearly, her intention is to subordinate what happens to why it happens, so the foreshadowing of the early chapters is twisted to ironic effect later on. Lise is an unappealing character, haughty and deceitful, and the strangers she meets on the flight and at the hotel, including a man obsessed with the macrobiotic diet, are little better. I felt I didn’t have enough time to change my mind about Lise before we’re asked to have pity. Of course, this is meant to be a black comedy, but it was a little abrasive for my taste. This was my third and probably last from Spark, as I haven’t particularly enjoyed any of her work; I do love this pithy description of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, though: “An entertaining tale of satanism in South London.”
Why Don’t You Write My Eulogy Now So I Can Correct It? A Mother’s Suggestions by Patricia Marx, illus. Roz Chast (2019)
I loved Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? and figured this would have the same witty approach to an elderly parent’s decline. Apart from a brief introduction to her mother (from Philadelphia, outspoken, worked as a guidance counselor and for her husband’s office supplies company), there is hardly any text; the rest is just illustrated one-liners, sayings her mother had or opinions she espoused. Many of these have to do with fashion no-nos, dinner party etiquette, grammar pedantry, avoiding the outdoors and exercise, and childrearing. “My mother never hesitates to say what other mothers would not even think to think. She calls it constructive criticism.” She reminds me of Bess Kalb’s grandmother in Nobody Will Tell You This but Me, an overall much funnier and more complete picture of an entertaining figure.
The Exciting World of Churchgoing by Dave Walker (2010)
A third set of Church Times comics, not as memorable as the original Dave Walker Guide to the Church. Once again, Walker pokes fun at bureaucracy, silly traditions, closed-mindedness, and the oddities of church buildings and parishioners’ habits. You really need to be familiar with the UK churchgoing scene, and specifically with Anglican churches, to get much out of the cartoons. I loved “According to legend, there is a lady who changes the teatowels in the church kitchen from time to time” and the “Infestations” spread that starts with bats and wasps and moves on to Charismatics. Most striking are two pages on church proceedings during swine flu – what was meant to be a joke doesn’t seem so funny now that it literally describes in-person services during COVID-19: “Shaking hands during the peace should be replaced by a friendly wave,” “Administration of anti-bacterial gel should take place,” etc.
The Lost Words: A Spell Book by Robert Macfarlane, illus. Jackie Morris (2017)
Macfarlane’s work has been hit or miss for me and I was suspicious of this project in general, thinking it would be twee or juvenile, but the beauty of the artwork and playful energy of the poems won me over. It’s common knowledge that this book arose as a response to news that many words to do with nature had been removed from the latest version of a junior dictionary published in the UK, to be replaced by technology vocabulary. Macfarlane spotlights these omitted words through acrostic poems alive with alliteration (“Fern’s first form is furled, / Each frond fast as a fiddle-head”), wordplay and internal rhymes. He peppers in questions, both rhetorical and literal-minded, and exclamations. Conker, Dandelion, Lark and Otter are highlights. Morris’s wildlife paintings are superb, with a Giotto-like gilt portrait facing each poem and two-page in situ tableaux in between.
The Lost Words Spell Songs (2019)
I followed up immediately with this companion book to the 14-track album a group of eight folk musicians made in response to The Lost Words. We were already fans of Kris Drever (mostly via Lau), Karine Polwart and Beth Porter (via the Bookshop Band), and became familiar with a few more of the artists (Kerry Andrew, Julie Fowlis and Rachel Newton) earlier this year through the online Folk on Foot festivals. This volume includes six additional poems, four of which directly inspired songs on the album, plus brief bios and words on the project from each artist (each portrayed by Morris as a relevant bird, with the musician serving as the “spirit human” for the bird) the complete lyrics with notes from whoever took the lead on a particular song, and short essays by Macfarlane, Morris (also an interview) and Polwart.
It was interesting to compare the different approaches to the project: five songs directly set Macfarlane’s poetry to music, two of them primarily in spoken word form; five are based on Macfarlane “extras,” like the new spells and the “charm against harm” he wrote during anti-tree felling campaigns like the one in Sheffield; a few are essentially pop songs based around major lines from Dandelion, Goldfinch and Lark (these plus “Selkie-Boy,” based on Grey Seal, ended up being my favorites); one is a traditional song from Seckou Keita’s native Senegal that also incorporates the bilingual Fowlis’s Gaelic to mourn the words that are lost with the past; and one is a final blessing song that weaves in bits from multiple spells. The artists all bring their individual styles, but the collaborations are strong, too.
Are you squeezing in any more novellas this month?
Do you like the sound of any of the ones I’ve read?
This month we’re starting with The Turn of the Screw, a Gothic horror novella about a governess and her charges – and one of only two Henry James novels I’ve read (the other is What Maisie Knew; I’ve gravitated towards the short, atypical ones, and even in those his style is barely readable). Most of my links are based on title words this time, along with a pair of cover images.
#1 On our trip to Hay-on-Wye last month, I was amused to see in a shop a book called One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw (2000) by Witold Rybczynski. A bit of a niche subject and nothing I can ever imagine myself reading, but it’s somehow pleasing to know that it exists.
#2 I’m keen to try Muriel Spark again with The Driver’s Seat (1970), a suspense novella with a seam of dark comedy. I remember reading a review of it on Heaven Ali’s blog and thinking that it sounded deliciously creepy. My plan is to get it out from the university library to read and review for Novellas in November.
#3 Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead was one of my favorite debut novels of 2012. An upper-middle-class family prepares for their heavily pregnant daughter’s wedding weekend on an island off Connecticut. Shipstead is great at capturing social interactions. There’s pathos plus humor here; I particularly liked the exploding whale carcass. I’m still waiting for her to come out with a worthy follow-up (2014’s Astonish Me was so-so).
#4 The cover lobsters take me to The Rosie Project (2013) by Graeme Simsion, the first and best book in his Don Tillman trilogy. A (probably autistic) Melbourne genetics professor, Don decides at age 39 that it is time to find a wife. He goes about it in a typically methodical manner, drawing up a 16-page questionnaire, but still falls in love with the ‘wrong’ woman.
#5 Earlier in the year I reviewed Cider with Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee as my classic of the month and a food-themed entry in my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a nostalgic, evocative look at a country childhood. The title comes from a late moment when Rosie Burdock tempts the adolescent Lee with alcoholic cider and kisses underneath a hay wagon.
#6 My current reread is The Cider House Rules (1985), one of my favorite John Irving novels. Homer Wells is the one kid at the St. Cloud’s, Maine orphanage who never got adopted. Instead, he assists the director, Dr. Wilbur Larch, and later runs a cider factory. Expect a review in a few weeks – this will count as my Doorstopper of the Month.
Going from spooky happenings to apple cider, my chain feels on-brand for October!
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best. Her introductory post is here.) Next month is a wildcard: start with a book you’ve ended a previous chain with.
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
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!
This was one of the catchphrases of long-time judge Randy Jackson on the reality TV show American Idol, which was my guilty pleasure viewing for a decade or more. The three recent books for which I provide short-ish reviews below have nothing much in common apart from the fact that I requested or accepted them from publishers and ended up feeling disappointed but like I still owed a review. You can consider them all .
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver
(Duckworth, March 22nd)
We’re in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, so friends are more important than ever. That’s the impetus for Kate Leaver’s jaunty, somewhat insubstantial book about modern friendship. She observes teen girls on the Tube and reflects on how we as primates still engage in social grooming – though language has replaced much of this more primitive bond-forming behavior. We experience a spike in our number of friends through adolescence and early adulthood, but friendships can fall by the wayside during our thirties as we enter long-term relationships and turn our attention to children and other responsibilities. Leaver argues that female friendships can amplify women’s voices and encourage us to embrace imperfection. She also surveys the bromance, mostly in its TV and film manifestations. There are plenty of pop culture references in the book; while I enjoy a Scrubs or Parks and Recreation scene or quotation as much as the next fan, the reliance on pop culture made the book feel lightweight.
Perhaps the most useful chapter was the one on online friendships (hi, book blogger friends!). We so often hear that these can’t replace IRL friendships, but Leaver sticks up for social media: it allows us to meet like-minded people, and is good for introverted and private people. Anything is better than isolation. The biggest problem I had with the book was the tone: Leaver is going for a Caitlin Moran vibe, and peppers in hip references to Taylor Swift, Lindsay Lohan and the like. But then she sometimes tries for more of a Mary Beard approach, yet doesn’t trust herself to competently talk about science, so renders it in matey, anti-intellectual language like “Robin [Dunbar, of Oxford University] did some fancy maths” (um, I think you mean “Dr. Dunbar”!) or “Let me hit you with a bit of research.”
“on some days, somewhere in our souls, we still count the number of social media connections as a measure of who we are”
“When you successfully recruit a new person into your friendship circle, you’re essentially confirming that you are a likable human being, worthy of someone’s time and emotional investment.”
You might choose to read instead: Kory Floyd’s The Loneliness Cure; Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty; Anna Quindlen’s essay “Girlfriends” from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.
Writer’s Luck: A Memoir: 1976–1991 by David Lodge
(Harvill Secker, January 11th)
David Lodge has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade. His first memoir, Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935–1975 (see my Nudge review), is a good standalone read, even for non-fans, for its insight into the social changes of post-war Britain. However, this volume makes the mistake of covering much less ground, in much more detail – thanks to better record-keeping at the peak of his career – and the result is really rather tedious. The book opens with the publication of How Far Can You Go? and carries through to the reception of Paradise News, with a warning that he cannot promise a third volume; he is now 83. Conferences, lecture tours, and travels are described in exhaustive detail. There’s also a slightly bitter edge to Lodge’s attempts to figure out why ventures flopped or novels got negative reviews (Small World, though Booker-shortlisted, was better received in America), though he concludes that his career was characterized by more good luck than bad.
I liked the account of meeting Muriel Spark in Italy, and valued the behind-the-scenes look at the contentious task of judging the 1989 Booker Prize, which went to Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Days. Especially enjoyable is a passage about getting hooked on saunas via trips to Finland and to Center Parcs, a chain of all-inclusive holiday activity camps in England. Oh how I laughed at his description of nude sauna-going in midlife (whether I was supposed to or not, I’m not sure): “The difference in pleasure between swimming wearing a costume of any kind and the sensation of swimming without one, the water coursing unimpeded round your loins as you move through it, cannot be exaggerated, and I first discovered it in Center Parcs.” I also cringed at the Lodges placing “our Down’s son” Christopher in a residential care home – I do hope thinking about disability has moved on since the mid-1980s.
Ultimately, I’m not sure Lodge has had an interesting enough life to warrant a several-volume project. He’s an almost reassuringly dull chap; “The fact is that I am constitutionally monogamous,” he admits at one point. Although it was fun for me to see the genesis of novels like Paradise News, I don’t think I’d have the stomach for reading any more about why Lodge thinks his star faded starting in the 1990s. However, I’ll keep this on the shelf to go back to for some context when I finally get around to rereading Small World and Nice Work.
“there has been a downside to the Prize Culture which the Booker engendered. It has warped the evaluation of new fiction by measuring success as if it were a competitive sport.”
You might choose to read instead: Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to Be Born or John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – overall the better autobiography of a working-class, bookish lad.
The Parentations by Kate Mayfield
(Point Blank [Oneworld], March 29th)
Sisters Constance and Verity Fitzgerald have been alive for over 200 years. A green pool in Iceland, first discovered in 1783, gives them “extended mortality” so long as they take the occasional two-week nap and only swallow two drops of the liquid at a time. In London in 2015, they eat a hearty stew by candlelight and wait for their boy to come. Then they try the churchyard: dead or alive, they are desperate to have him back. Meanwhile, Clovis Fowler is concealing extra phials of the elixir from her husband, their son and the maid. What’s going on here? We go back to Iceland in 1783 to see how the magic pool was first found, and then hop across to 1783 London to meet the sisters as children.
I read the first 67 pages, continued skimming to page 260, and then gave up. At well past the one-third point, the novel still hasn’t established basic connections. A book of nearly 500 pages has to hook the reader in sooner and more securely, not lull them with wordiness (case in point: on the first page of the first chapter, the adjective “macilent” – I looked it up and it means thin or lean, either of which would have been a far preferable word to use).
I could see faint echoes here of so many great books – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, A Discovery of Witches, Slade House, The Essex Serpent; works by Hannah Kent and Diane Setterfield, maybe even Matt Haig? I liked Mayfield’s memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter and had hoped for improvement with this debut novel. As it is, The Parentations has an interesting premise and lineage, but doesn’t deliver.
“His rage foments a decision. He will either take his place in the mounds of the dead, or he will find a good reason to stay alive.”
“Francis and Averil Lawless have impressed upon their daughters the concept of the consequences of a single moment, and there is no better teacher than the river’s majesty and its demand for respect for its waters, which can easily bring violence and ruin as well as wealth and peace.”
You might choose to read instead: Any of the literary fantasy novels listed above.
What books have disappointed or defeated you lately?
Below I’ve chosen my seven favorite nonfiction books published in 2017, followed by three older titles that I only recently discovered. Many of these books have already featured on the blog in some way over the course of the year. To keep it simple for myself as well as for all of you who are figuring out whether you’re interested in these books or not, I’m mostly limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
- Landslide: True Stories by Minna Zallman Proctor: This gorgeous set of autobiographical essays circles through some of the overarching themes of the author’s life: losing her mother, a composer; the importance Italy had for both of them; a love for the work of Muriel Spark; their loose connection to Judaism; and the relentless and arbitrary nature of time. Proctor provides a fine example of how to write a non-linear memoir that gets to the essence of what matters in life.
- My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin: From September 2014 to September 2015, Pogrebin celebrated all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, drawing thematic connections and looking for the resonance of religious rituals might have in her daily life. This bighearted, open-minded book strikes me as a perfect model for how any person of faith should engage with their tradition: not just offering lip service and grudgingly showing up to a few services a year, but knowing what you believe and practice, and why.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight against Alzheimer’s by Joseph Jebelli: With the world’s population aging, it is expected that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease. Research neurologist Joseph Jebelli gives a thorough survey of the history of Alzheimer’s and the development of our efforts to treat and even prevent it, but balances his research with a personal medical story any reader can relate to – his beloved grandfather, Abbas, succumbed to Alzheimer’s back in Iran in 2012. (See my full review for BookBrowse.)
- My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul: Whether she was hoarding castoffs from her bookstore job, obsessing about ticking off everything in the Norton Anthology, despairing that she’d run out of reading material in a remote yurt in China, or fretting that her new husband took a fundamentally different approach to the works of Thomas Mann, Paul (the editor of the New York Times Book Review) always looks beyond the books themselves to ask what they say about her. It’s just the sort of bibliomemoir I wish I had written.
- The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: Beautiful prose enhances this literary and philosophical approach to terminal cancer. Riggs was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and quotes from her ancestor’s essays as well as from Michel de Montaigne’s philosophy to put things into perspective; she’s an expert at capturing the moments that make life alternately euphoric and unbearable – and sometimes both at once.
- Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby: This is a vivid, compassionate set of stories culled from the author’s long career in heart surgery with the Grim Reaper looking on. I am not a little envious of all that Westaby has achieved: not just saving the occasional life despite his high-mortality field – as if that weren’t enough – but also pioneering various artificial heart solutions and a tracheal bypass tube that’s named after him.
And my nonfiction book of the year was:
1. The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale by James Atlas: I read this in August, planning to contrast it with Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, another biographer’s memoir, for the LARB. It would have been a brilliant article, believe me. But they didn’t bite, and by the time I approached the TLS they’d already arranged coverage of the books. Alas! Such is the life of a freelancer. Since then I’ve struggled to know what to say about Atlas’s book that would explain why I loved it so much that my paperback proof is riddled with Post-It flags. (It’s going to take more than a couple of sentences…)
Much more so than Tomalin, Atlas gave me a real sense of what it’s like to immerse yourself in another person’s life. He made it up as he went along: he was only 25 when he got the contract to write a biography of the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died a penniless alcoholic at age 52. Writing about the deceased was a whole different matter to engaging with a living figure, as Atlas did when he wrote his biography of Saul Bellow in the 1990s.
Atlas perceptively explores the connections between Schwartz and Bellow (Schwartz was the model for the protagonist of Bellow’s 1975 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift) and between Bellow and himself (a Chicago upbringing with Russian Jewish immigrant ancestors), but also sets his work in the context of centuries of biographical achievement – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson through master biographers like Richard Holmes, Leon Edel and Richard Ellmann (Atlas’s supervisor during his fellowship at Oxford) to recent controversial biographies of Robert Frost and Vladimir Nabokov.
This book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; Atlas also talks story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality, and ponders how we look for the patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even the footnotes are illuminating, and from the notes I learned about a whole raft of biographies and books on the biographer’s trade that I’d like to read. After I finished reading it I spent a few days dreamily wondering if I might write a biography some day. For anyone remotely interested in life writing, pick this up with my highest recommendation.
I’ll make it up to an even 10 with a few backlist titles I also loved:
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (2014): Carey gives a thorough picture of events from his personal and professional life, but the focus is always on his literary education: the books that have meant the most to him and the way his taste and academic specialties have developed over the years. Ultimately what this book conveys is the joy of being a lifelong reader.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold (1949): So many of Leopold’s musings ring true today: how we only appreciate wildlife if we can put an economic value on it, the troubles we get into when we eradicate predators and let prey animals run rampant, and the danger of being disconnected from the land that supplies our very life. And all this he delivers in stunning, incisive prose.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015): An exquisite interrogation of gender identity and an invaluable reminder that the supposed complications of making a queer family just boil down to your basic human experiences of birth, love and death. I preferred those passages where Nelson allows herself to string her fragments into more extended autobiographical meditations, like the brilliant final 20 pages interspersing her memories of giving birth to her son Iggy with an account of the deathbed vigil her partner (artist Harry Dodge) held for his mother; it had me breathless and in tears, on a plane of all places.
What were some of your top nonfiction reads of the year?
Tomorrow I’ll be posting my Library Checkout a few days early.
Next week’s planned posts:
26th: Doorstopper of the Month
27th: Top fiction of the year list
28th: Runners-up and other superlatives
29th: Early 2018 recommendations
30th: Final statistics on my 2017 reading
Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.
The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, W. Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.
Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.
As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?
You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.
Some favorite lines:
“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”
“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”
“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”
“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”
“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”
Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
With summer winding down, I decided it was time to read a couple of books with the word in the title to try to keep the season alive. These turned out to be charming, low-key English novels that I would recommend to fans of costume dramas. Both:
I knew very little about Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February when I picked it up in a charity shop. From the ads for the 2013 film adaptation with Dan Stevens, I had in mind that this was an obscure classic. It was actually published in 1995, but is inspired by real incidents spanning 1909 to 1949. It’s set among a group of Royal Academy-caliber artists in Lamorna, Cornwall, including Alfred Munnings, who went on to become the academy’s president.
The crisis comes when Munnings and Captain Gilbert Evans, a local land manager, fall for the same woman. A love triangle might not seem like a very original story idea, but I enjoyed this novel particularly for its Cornish setting (“From dawn to dusk it had rained non-stop, as only Cornwall can”; “The sea was slate grey and the sky streaky bacon”) and for the larger-than-life Munnings, who has a huge store of memorized poetry and is full of outspoken opinions. Two characters describe his contradictions thusly: “I can see he’s crude and loud and unpolished and Joey says he cuts his toenails at picnics but…”; “he’s one in a million, a breath of fresh air, and he’s frank and fearless, which is always a fine thing.” The title refers to the way that love can make any day feel like summer.
For more information on Munnings, see here.
For more information on Gilbert Evans, see here. (Beware the spoilers!)
From 1961, In a Summer Season was Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel. The ensemble cast is led by Kate Heron – newly remarried to Dermot, a man ten years her junior, after the death of her first husband – and made up of her family circle, a few members of the local community, and her best friend Dorothea’s widower and daughter, who return from living abroad about halfway through the book. Set in the London commuter belt, this is full of seemingly minor domestic dilemmas that together will completely overturn staid life before the end.
From Kate dyeing her hair yet being keen to avoid accusations of “mutton dressed as lamb” to her son Tom’s disgust at his grandfather’s ageing body, old age and wasting one’s time on trivialities are a twin paranoia here. The title is not only a literal note of when much of the action takes place, but also a metaphor for the fleeting nature of happiness (as well as life itself). Kate remembers pleasant days spent with her best friend and their young children: “It was a long summer’s afternoon and it stood for all the others now. There had been many. And she and Dorothea were together day after day. Their friendship was as light and warming as the summer’s air.”
So much happens in the last seven pages. I wished the book could have turned out differently, yet the conclusion effectively sews it all up, and all within a cozy 220 pages. If you enjoy writers like Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym, you must try Elizabeth Taylor. Her work is similarly built around wry, perceptive observations about relationships and ways of life. This was my fourth novel by her, and I’d call it my second favorite so far after Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.
(Secondhand books are such good value: These two charity shop paperbacks cost me less than 85 pence in total. Such a low total spend per hour of enjoyment!)
This month I also read The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt (discussed here along with a few other recent reads). Earlier in the year I reviewed Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, and last year I reviewed the Summer anthology from the Wildlife Trusts. “Summer” turns up fairly frequently in titles of books I’ve read or want to read, in fact. Here’s the whole list!