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.
Even before George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize for the truly astounding Lincoln in the Bardo, I wanted to read Tenth of December (2013), the short story collection that won him the inaugural Folio Prize. The 10 stories, set in a recognizable contemporary or near-future suburban America, feature a mixture of realist and science fiction scenarios and a gently satirical tone.
At times the narration seems to reflect a new form of human speech, almost like shorthand, with the characters only lapsing into old-fashioned garrulousness under the influence of specially designed pharmaceuticals. I found the language most amusing in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” narrated by a lower-middle-class dad who’s trying to keep up with the Joneses and please his daughters. “Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.”
However, notably absent from the entertaining definitions he drops in for posterity (Whac-a-Mole, in case future readers are unfamiliar: “Plastic mole emerges, you whack with hammer, he dies, falls, another emerges, you whack, kill?”) is one for the SGs. Only gradually do you realize, with some horror, that “Semplica girls,” who have left the developing world for a chance at a better life, are a trendy lawn ornament, strung along a wire through their brains. From this article, included as an introduction to the Bloomsbury paperback, I learned that this story arose from a dream Saunders had. That accounts for how matter-of-factly bizarre it is.
Although it runs a bit long, this story was one of my favorites, along with “Victory Lap,” about a geeky high schooler improbably saving a classmate from a sexual assault, and “Sticks,” which in under two pages captures a family’s entire decades-long dynamic. None of the rest were quite as memorable for me, so I’m not sure I’ll seek out more of Saunders’s stories. I just couldn’t resist the urge to read and review this book in time for the day in the title after I found it on clearance at my local Waterstones.
If you haven’t already come across it, let me commend to you the UK-based web magazine Shiny New Books. It’s been around for two years now and has just released Issue #10. Each installment is stuffed full of terrific reviews and features. I suggest setting aside a bit of time each day for a week or two, say a half-hour tea break, to browse what the site has to offer. It specifically highlights what’s been recently published or reprinted in the UK, so in some cases these will be books that are already available in North America; in others these will be sneak previews of books not yet published there. You’re sure to find plenty that appeals.
I’m proud to be part of the stellar (if I do say so myself) team of SNB reviewers. Somehow I just kept volunteering for things and ended up with – whoops! – a whole five pieces in this latest issue: four reviews (two fiction, one nonfiction, and one classic reprint) and an interview. Two of the novels were fantastic, among my best reads of the year so far, while the other two books were worthwhile, even very good in places. Here are tasters of my reviews; click on a title to read the whole thing – and then spend some good time browsing the site.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Twenty-two-year-old Tess arrives in New York City by car in June 2006. Two days later she interviews at a restaurant in Union Square and gets a job as a backwaiter and barista. Camaraderie makes the restaurant not just bearable but a kind of substitute home. Tess is most fascinated by two colleagues who stand apart from the crowd: Simone, the resident wine know-it-all, and bartender Jake. Try as she might, Tess can’t work out the dynamic between them. To mirror her one-year taste apprenticeship, the book is broken into four seasonal parts, headed by short sections in the second person or first-person plural. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing. It’s hard to believe that Danler is a debut author rather than a seasoned professional. It captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia. I’m willing to go out on a limb and call Sweetbitter my favorite novel of 2016.
I also interviewed Stephanie Danler over e-mail.
My Son, My Son by Howard Spring
My Son, My Son opens in working-class Manchester in the 1870s and stretches through the aftermath of World War I. Like a Dickensian urchin, William Essex escapes his humble situation thanks to a kind benefactor and becomes a writer. His best friend is Dermot O’Riorden, a fervid Irish Republican. William’s and Dermot’s are roughly parallel tracks. Their sons’ lives, however, are a different matter. Oliver Essex and Rory O’Riorden are born on the same day, and it’s clear at once that both fathers intend to live vicariously through their sons. My Son, My Son struck me as an unusual window onto World War I, a subject I’ve otherwise wearied of in fiction. A straight line could be drawn between Great Expectations, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, My Son, My Son, and The Goldfinch: all four feature a simultaneously sympathetic and enraging protagonist who overcomes family difficulties to dream of fame and fortune. No mere period or local interest piece, this is a book for the ages.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how Beatty got away with it. Not only did he get away with it, he won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel opens at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the narrator has been summoned to defend himself against a grievous but entirely true accusation: he has reinstituted slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California. All the old stereotypes of African Americans are here, many of them represented by Hominy Jenkins. This reminded me most of Ishmael Reed’s satires and, oddly enough, Julian Barnes’s England, England, which similarly attempts to distill an entire culture and history into a limited space and time. The plot is downright silly in places, but the shock value keeps you reading. Even so, after the incendiary humor of the first third, the satire wears a bit thin. I yearned for more of an introspective Bildungsroman, which there are indeed hints of.
The Abundance by Annie Dillard
Dillard was raised a Christian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but her writing expresses an open spirituality rather than any specific faith. For readers who are reasonably familiar with her work, the selection given here might be a little disappointing. Why reread 60 pages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought, when I have a copy of it up on the shelf? Rather than reading long, downright strange portions of For the Time Being and Teaching a Stone to Talk, why not go find whole copies to read (which might help with understanding them in context)? None of Dillard’s poetry or fiction has been included, and the most recent piece, “This Is the Life,” from Image magazine, is from 2002. I wish there could have been more fresh material as an enticement for existing fans. However, this will serve as a perfect introduction for readers who are new to Dillard’s work and want a taste of the different nonfiction genres she treats so eloquently and mysteriously.