Tag Archives: nostalgia

October Releases by Rachel Mann, Sigrid Nunez and Ruth Janette Ruck

A calmer month for new releases after September’s bumper crop. I read a sophisticated mystery set at a theological college, a subtle novel about empathy and being a good friend, and a memoir of raising one of Britain’s first llamas.

 

The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann

Last year I dipped into Mann’s poetry (A Kingdom of Love) and literary criticism/devotional writing (In the Bleak Midwinter); this year I was delighted to be offered an early copy of her debut novel. The press materials are full of comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History; it’s certainly an apt point of reference for this mystery focusing on clever, Medieval-obsessed students training for the priesthood at a theological college outside Oxford.

It’s 1997 and Catherine Bolton is part of the first female intake at Littlemore College. She has striven to rid herself of a working-class accent and recently completed her PhD on Chaucer, but feels daunted by her new friends’ intelligence and old-money backgrounds: Ivo went to Eton, Charlie is an heiress, and so on. But Kitty’s most fascinated with Evie, who is bright, privileged and quick with a comeback – everything Kitty wishes she could be.

If you think of ordinands as pious and prudish, you’ll be scandalized by these six. They drink, smoke, curse and make crude jokes. In seminars with Professor Albertus Loewe, they make provocative mention of feminist theory and are tempted by his collection of rare books. Soon sex, death and literature get all mixed up as Kitty realizes that her friends’ devotion to the Medieval period goes as far as replicating dangerous rituals. We know from the first line that one of them ends up dead. But what might it have to do with the apocryphal text of the title?

I didn’t always feel the psychological groundwork was there to understand characters’ motivations, but I still found this to be a beguiling story, well plotted and drenched in elitism and lust. Mann explores a theology that is more about practice, about the body, than belief. Kitty’s retrospective blends regret and nostalgia: “We were the special ones, the shining ones,” and despite how wrong everything went, part of her wouldn’t change it for the world.

My thanks to publicist Hannah Hargrave for the proof copy for review. Published today by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.

 

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

A perfect follow-up to The Friend and very similar in some ways: again we have the disparate first-person musings of an unnamed narrator compelled to help a friend. In Nunez’s previous novel, the protagonist has to care for the dog of a man who recently killed himself; here she is called upon to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide. The novel opens in September 2017 in the unfamiliar town she’s come to for her friend’s cancer treatments. While there she goes to a talk by an older male author who believes human civilization is finished and people shouldn’t have children anymore. This prophet of doom is her ex.

His pessimism is echoed by the dying friend when she relapses. The narrator agrees to accompany her to a rental house where she will take a drug to die at a time of her choosing. “Lucy and Ethel Do Euthanasia,” the ex jokes. And there is a sort of slapstick joy early in this morbid adventure, with mishaps like forgetting the pills and flooding the bathroom.

As in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the voice is not solely or even primarily the narrator’s but Other: her friend speaking about her happy childhood and her estrangement from her daughter; a woman met at the gym; a paranoid neighbor; a recent short story; a documentary film. I felt there was too much recounting of a thriller plot, but in general this approach, paired with the absence of speech marks, reflects how the art we consume and the people we encounter become part of our own story. Curiosity about other lives fuels empathy.

With the wry energy of Jenny Offill’s Weather, this is a quiet novel that sneaks up to seize you by the heartstrings. “Women’s stories are often sad stories,” Nunez writes, but “no matter how sad, a beautifully told story lifts you up.” Like The Friend, which also ends just before The End, this presents love and literature as ways to bear “witness to the human condition.”

With thanks to Virago for the proof copy for review.

 

Along Came a Llama: Tales from a Welsh Hill Farm by Ruth Janette Ruck

Originally published in 1978 (now reissued with a foreword by John Lewis-Stempel), this is an enjoyably animal-stuffed memoir reminiscent of Gerald Durrell and especially Doreen Tovey. Ruck (d. 2006) and her family – which at times included her ill sister, her elderly mother and/or her sister-in-law – lived on a remote farm in the hills of North Wales. On a visit to Knaresborough Zoo, Ruck was taken with the llamas and fancied buying one to add to their menagerie of farm animals. It was as simple as asking the zoo director and then taking the young female back to Wales in a pony box. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK knew anything about llamas or the other camelids. No insurance company would cover their llama in transit; no one had specialist knowledge on feeding or breeding. Ruck had to do things the old-fashioned way, finding books and specialist scientific papers.

But they mostly learned about Ñusta (the Quechua word for princess) by spending time with her. At holidays they discovered her love of chocolate Easter eggs and cherry brandy. The cud-chewing creature sometimes gave clues to what else she’d been eating, as when she regurgitated plum stones. She didn’t particularly like being touched or trailed by an orphaned lamb, but followed Ruck around dutifully and would sit sociably in the living room. Life with animals often involves mild disasters: Ñusta jumps in a pool and locks Ruck’s husband in the loo, and the truck breaks down on the way to mate her with the male at Chester Zoo.

A vintage cover I found on Goodreads.

From spitting to shearing, there was a lot to get used to, but this account of the first three years of llama ownership emphasizes the delights of animal companionship. There were hardships in Ruck’s life, including multiple sclerosis and her sister’s death, but into the “austere but soul-rewarding life of a hill firm … like a catalyst or a touch of magic, the llama came along.” I was into llamas and alpacas well before the rest of the world – in high school I often visited a local llama farm, and I led a llama in a parade and an alpaca in a nativity play – so that was my primary reason for requesting this, but it’s just right for any animal lover.

With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Summery Classics by J. L. Carr and L. P. Hartley

“Do you remember what that summer was like? – how much more beautiful than any since?”

These two slightly under-the-radar classics made for perfect heatwave reading over the past couple of weeks: very English and very much of the historical periods that they evoke, they are nostalgic works remembering one summer when everything changed – or could have.

 

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)

Summer 1920, North Yorkshire. Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day, assumed to be the work of a medieval monk and long since whitewashed over. With nothing waiting for him back in London and no plans beyond this commission, he gives himself over to the daily rhythms of working, eating and sleeping – “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” This simple life is punctuated by occasional incidents like a Sunday school hayride and picnic, and filling in as a lay preacher at a nearby chapel. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, who is searching for the grave of their patroness’ ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget.

Though it barely exceeds 100 pages, this novella is full of surprises – about Moon, about the presumed identity and fate of the centuries-dead figures he and Birkin come to be obsessed with, and about the emotional connection that builds between Birkin and Reverend Keach’s wife, Alice. “It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies,” Birkin declares, but did he take his own advice? There is something achingly gorgeous about this not-quite-love story, as evanescent as ideal summer days. Carr writes in a foreword that he intended to write “a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” He indeed created something Hardyesque with this tragicomic rustic romance; I was also reminded of another very English classic I reviewed earlier in the year: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: The Offing by Benjamin Myers

 

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953)

Summer 1900, Norfolk. Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. Although the fatherless boy is keenly aware of the class difference between their families, in a year of learning to evade bullies he’s developed some confidence in his skills and pluck, fancying himself an amateur magician and gifted singer. Being useful makes him feel less like a charity case, so he eagerly agrees to act as “postman” for Marcus’s older sister, Marian, who exchanges frequent letters with their tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Marian, engaged to Hugh, a viscount and injured Boer War veteran, insists the correspondence is purely business-related, but Leo suspects he’s abetting trysts the family would disapprove of.

Leo is right on the cusp of adolescence, a moment of transition that mirrors the crossing into a new century. As he glories in the summer’s mounting heat, “a liberating power with its own laws,” and mentally goads the weather into hitting ever greater extremes, he pushes against the limits of his innocence, begging Ted to tell him about “spooning” (that is, the facts of life). The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals. And yet this is also a very funny novel: I loved Leo’s Franglais conversations with Marcus, and the confusion over mispronouncing “Hugh” as “you.” In places the tone even reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm.

Like A Month in the Country, this autobiographical story is an old man’s reminiscences, going back half a century in memory – but here Leo gets the chance to go back in person as well, seeing what has become of Brandham Hall and meeting one of the major players from that summer drama that branded him for life. I thought this masterfully done in every way: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches. You know from the famous first line onwards (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”) that this will juxtapose past and present – which, of course, has now become past and further past – in a powerful way, similar to Moon Tiger, my favorite fiction read of last year. I’ll be exploring more of Hartley’s work.

(Note: Although I am a firm advocate of DNFing if a book is not working for you, I would also like to put in a good word for trying a book again another time. Ironically, this had been a DNF for me last summer: I found the prologue, with all its talk of the zodiac, utterly dull. I had the same problem with Cold Comfort Farm, literally trying about three times to get through the prologue and failing. So, for both, I eventually let myself skip the prologue, read the whole novel, and then go back to the prologue. Worked a treat.)

Source: Ex-library copy bought from Lambeth Library when I worked in London

My rating:

A contemporary readalike: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Am I a (Book) Hoarder?

When I was a kid my parents and sister deemed me a pack rat, and over the years I’ve been a collector of many different things: stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, fossils, feathers, anything featuring puffins or llamas, and so on. At this point my only active collection is of books, but the others are all still in evidence in my old closet. I had a few good reasons to contemplate my belongings recently: first, I read a book about decluttering; then, on my recent trip back to the States, I helped my sister pack as she prepares to move out of her home of 12 years, and co-hosted a yard sale at my parents’ house to get rid of some of ye olde stuff.


Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub

Schaub faces the possibility that she has inherited a family tendency to hoarding and tackles her house’s clutter-filled “Hell Room.” From one February to the next she enlisted her daughters’ help sorting things into piles and came up with a regular route of consignment shops, thrift stores, and libraries where she could drop off carloads of donations. Bigger projects included a photo book of 100 of her daughter’s artworks and a rag rug incorporating many beloved articles of clothing.

I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details of how this family organized and got rid of things because I like big tidying projects and putting everything in its rightful place, whether that be the recycling bin, a crate in the attic, or a charity bag. But what I most appreciated was how sensitive Schaub is to all the issues that can be tied up with our stuff, especially OCD, nostalgia, and indecision. “Although Marie Kondo disapproves, I’m not about to stop collecting my own life,” she writes. “It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.” 


Helping Out

My sister is very much of the Marie Kondo school of de-cluttering. She strives for minimalism in her décor, and is constantly going back through her sons’ clothes and toys to see what she can get rid of. All the same, 12 years of living in the same house has spelled a lot of accumulation. As she did her last-minute wedding preparations in early August, I was let loose on the packing and soon got all the easy stuff – like books and decorations – boxed up. But I quickly became overwhelmed by what remained, such as the boys’ toy room, DIY supplies, and stacks upon stacks of framed art and photographs plus photo albums.

Nephew #2 “helps” with packing.

As I was packing I couldn’t keep myself from peeking into the albums and tearfully marvelling that the whole life she built with her first husband – who died of brain cancer in January 2015 – is over. Death is so simple and final, right? Yet even these many months later I have a hard time getting my head around how the huge personality and web of connections that was my brother-in-law could be gone. And this even though I couldn’t be happier that my sister has found love again and gained two terrific step-kids.

When she and her husband move into their new-build home later in the year and get all this stuff back out of storage, she’s going to have quite the job sorting through everything and deciding what of her old life to keep on display, or keep at all. How to honor the years that are gone without having them intrude on the new family that she’s made?


Making It Personal

Mementoes, including travel souvenirs and special cards and letters I’ve received, are particularly hard for me to cull. There are four or five sizable boxes full of mementoes in my closet in the States, and another couple in our attic here. Getting rid of correspondence just feels wrong to me; I’ve probably rarely deleted a personal e-mail in the last 20 years. It’s like I need that physical proof of the relationships and events that have meant the most to me.

I’m much less sentimental when it comes to most other objects. The yard sale my mom and I had last weekend was a great opportunity to get rid of things that had been sitting around for a decade or more and were just never going to join me in the UK, including lamps, cushions, a clock, a CD player, a jewelry box, a formal dress, a shoe rack, and various figurines and framed prints. I only made $37, and a lot remained to be picked up the Salvation Army (including a whole box of VHS films I found at the bottom of the closet), but it was good to shed some stuff – and I at least earned enough to cover my book and maple syrup shopping on this trip!

Now, even though there are 25–30 (smallish) boxes of books remaining in that closet, I can definitively say that I’m not as much of a book hoarder as I once was – back in high school, say. On this trip I went back through all of the boxes to consolidate them and pulled out another 50+ books to give away or resell on a future visit. I looked back with fondness through three boxes of books from my childhood, but then promptly handed them over to my mom to share with my nephews or give away, as she chooses.

Back in the UK, I keep on top of my book collection by considering carefully every time I read a book whether I want to keep it: Is it a favorite? Will I read it again, refer to it or lend it to others? If not, I might give it away to a friend, check the resale prices on Amazon, WeBuyBooks or Ziffit, or donate it to a charity shop. This keeps the review copies from piling up, and means that my shelves are always full but generally not overfull.


Are you brutal or sentimental when it comes to books and other possessions? When’s the last time you had a big clear-out?