I like this reading with the seasons lark. It’s a shame that my library hold on Ali Smith’s Autumn didn’t come in until well after it turned to winter here in England, but I was intrigued by the sound of her post-Brexit seasonal quartet. Then, as if one winter anthology wasn’t enough, I tried another – this time a broader range of literature, history and travel writing.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Smith is attempting a sort of state-of-the-nation novel in four parts. Her two main characters are Daniel Gluck, a centenarian dying at a care home, and his former next-door neighbor, Elisabeth Demand, in her early thirties and still figuring out her path in life. The present world Elisabeth and her mother navigate is a true-to-life post-Brexit bureaucratic nightmare where people are building walls and hurling racist epithets – “news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.” Mostly the book is composed of flashbacks to wordplay-filled conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel when he used to babysit for her, as well as dreams/hallucinations Daniel is having on his deathbed. But there’s also a lot of seemingly irrelevant material about pop artist Pauline Boty and Christine Keeler.
This was most likely written very quickly in response to current events, and while some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – the nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and the jokey dialogue – I think I would have preferred a more circumspect, compressed narrative. In places this was too repetitive, and the seasonal theme felt neither here nor there. I’ll listen out for what the other books are like, but doubt I’ll bother reading them. Aspects of this are very similar to Number 11 by Jonathan Coe (the state-of-Britain remit, even the single mother hoping to appear on a reality show), but I much preferred his take. [Gorgeous cover, though – David Hockney’s Early November Tunnel (2006).]
Winter: A Book for the Season, edited by Felicity Trotman
This seasonal anthology contains a nice mixture of poetry, nature and travel pieces, and excerpts from longer works of fiction. Some favorite pieces were W.H. Hudson on the town birds of Bath in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain on his determination to keep wearing his trademark white through the winter, a Hans Christian Andersen dialogue between a snowman who longs to be by the stove and the yard-dog that warns him away, and Richard Jefferies on those who go out to work on a winter morning. But I enjoyed the poetry the most. Trotman includes a wide range of celebrated poets, from Shakespeare and Keats to John Clare and Wordsworth. I particularly liked a more recent contribution from Carolyn King, “First Snow,” in which a cat imagines that a giant wallpaper stripper has produced the flakes.
All told, though, there are too many seventeenth-century and older pieces with archaic spellings, and a number of the history and travel extracts, in particular, feel overlong – with nearly 40 pages in total from Ernest Shackleton’s South. Especially given the thin pages and small type, this represents a tediously large chunk of the book. Shorter pieces increase the variety in an anthology and mean the book lends itself to being picked up and read a few stories at a time. This is one to keep on the coffee table each winter and dip into over several years rather than read straight through. (See my full review at The Bookbag.)
As it happens, I’ve now read five books titled Winter: besides the Wildlife Trusts anthology and the novel about Thomas Hardy, both of which I’ve already reviewed here, there’s also Rick Bass’s wonderful memoir of his first year in Montana and Adam Gopnik’s wide-ranging book about the season. But beyond those with the simple one-word title, there are a whole host of titles on my TBR containing the word “Winter”. Here’s the whole list!
Have you read any “Autumn” or “Winter” books this year?
Love, Sex, Death & Words: Surprising Tales from a Year in Literature was my bedside book for 2015. It’s composed of 366 daily entries compiled by John Sutherland, one of my favorite commentators on books, and Stephen Fender. Each entry zeroes in on an event from literary history corresponding to that calendar date. The events range enormously in terms of time period, setting and theme. Births, deaths, anniversaries, Nobel prizes awarded to authors you’ve never heard of, publication dates – this has it all.
A few of my favorite random pieces were: “12 July – The end of blasphemy” (the last successful blasphemy charge was made against a work of literature in 1977: a poem in Gay News that implied Jesus was homosexual and imagines a Roman soldier sodomizing his corpse); “20 August – England’s finest naturalist–novelist is buried” (introducing me to Richard Jefferies, about whom I knew next to nothing); “19 November – After a sound night’s sleep at the Willard Hotel, Washington, D.C., Julia Ward Howe wakes early in the dawn with the words of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in her head”; and “9 December – Peanuts gets its first of many outings on television.”
Bits of what I read here kept tying in with my reading and writing assignments over the course of the year. Several mini-essays about the Nobel Prize inspired me to write a BookBrowse backstory article about literary prizes named after people (such as Alfred Nobel). A piece about Alexander Pope’s relationship with his doctor, John Arbuthnot, struck me for its similarity to Jude’s friendship with Andy in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life – “Pope was of necessity closer to his physician than any other human being.”
There are also humorous little comments about the writing life dotted through, like “None but a blockhead, [Samuel] Johnson said, writes for anything but money.” I can feel better about my work ethic after reading about Edgar Wallace, creator of King Kong, who “hated the labor of actually writing” so much that between dictation sessions he brewed a pot of tea every half hour and smoked 80 cigarettes a day. I chuckled at this analogy: “Harold Bloom … is to literary criticism what Einstein was to physics” (for learned yet readable literary criticism, I’d take John Sutherland any day). And I even learned a new word: “pathographesis” is writing inspired by illness – one of my favorite autobiographical subgenres.
Like The Novel Cure, this would make an ideal gift for any bibliophile. Entries are only a page or a page and a half, so even the busiest literature lover will have time to fit them in. Over the course of a year, you’ll take away your own personalized cache of literary nuggets, and still get to keep the book on the shelf for future reference when birthdays and holidays get you thinking “now, what else happened on this day?”
Have you read any “daily devotional” type books for literature lovers? Let me know if there’s any you’d recommend.