Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Baking him the world’s most complicated cake on Wednesday evening and taking Thursday off for a birthday outing to Salisbury for the Terry Pratchett exhibit at the town’s museum and the Christmas-decorated rooms at Mompesson House are my collective excuse for not writing up the last of November’s novellas until now.
For the most part I had a great time reading novellas last month. However, there were three I abandoned: Mornings in Mexico by D.H Lawrence (p. 11), whose random, repetitive observations lead to no bigger picture; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (p. 28), which is understated to the point of nothing really happening; and Jaguars and Electric Eels by Alexander von Humboldt (p. 6), which has that dry old style that’s hard to engage with. (I’ll plan to encounter snatches of his writing via Andrea Wulf’s biography instead.)
To my disappointment, I find I can’t make generalizations about the correlation between a book’s page count and its quality: a great book stands out no matter its length. But as Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son) said of his latest work, a set of four short novels, a novella should be “all killer, no filler.” Three of the five I review today definitely meet those criteria, impressing me with the literal and/or emotional ground covered.
Below are the novellas I didn’t manage to get to this past November. Perhaps they’ll hang around until next year, unless I get a burning urge to read one or more of them before then:
The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery
(translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Pierre Arthens, France’s most formidable food critic, is on his deathbed reliving his most memorable meals and searching for one elusive flavor to experience again before he dies. He’s proud of his accomplishments – “I have covered the entire range of culinary art, for I am an encyclopedic esthete who is always one dish ahead of the game” – and expresses no remorse for his affairs and his coldness as a father. This takes place in the same apartment building as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is in short first-person chapters narrated by various figures from Arthens’ life. His wife, his children and his doctor are expected, but we also hear from the building’s concierge, a homeless man he passed every day for ten years, and even a sculpture in his study. I liked Arthens’ grandiose style and the descriptions of over-the-top meals but, unlike the somewhat similar The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester, this doesn’t have much of a payoff.
A favorite passage:
“After decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, sauce, and oil in constant, knowingly orchestrated and meticulously cajoled excess, my trustiest right-hand men, Sir Liver and his associate Stomach, are doing marvelously well and it is my heart that is giving out.”
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
(translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman)
The main action is set between 1861 and 1874, as married French merchant Hervé Joncour makes four journeys to and from Japan to acquire silkworms. “This place, Japan, where precisely is it?” he asks before his first trip. “Just keep going. Right to the end of the world,” Baldabiou, the silk mill owner, replies. On his first journey, Joncour is instantly captivated by his Japanese advisor’s concubine, though they haven’t exchanged a single word, and from that moment on nothing in his life can make up for the lack of her. At first I found the book slightly repetitive and fable-like, but as it went on I grew more impressed with the seeds Baricco has planted that lead to a couple of major surprises. At the end I went back and reread a number of chapters to pick up on the clues. I’d had this book recommended from a variety of quarters, first by Karen Shepard when I interviewed her for Bookkaholic in 2013, so I’m glad I finally found a copy in a charity shop.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Hardwick’s 1979 work is composed of (autobiographical?) fragments about the people and places that make up a woman’s remembered past. Elizabeth shares a New York City apartment with a gay man; lovers come and go; she mourns for Billie Holiday; there are brief interludes in Amsterdam and other foreign destinations. She sends letters to “Dearest M.” and back home to Kentucky, where her mother raised nine children. (“My mother’s femaleness was absolute, ancient, and there was a peculiar, helpless assertiveness about it. … This fateful fertility kept her for most of her life under the dominion of nature.”) There’s some astonishingly good writing here, but as was the case for me with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, I couldn’t quite see how it was all meant to fit together.
Some favorite passages:
“The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic.”
“The bright morning sky that day had a rare and blue fluffiness, as if a vacuum cleaner had raced across the heavens as a weekly, clarifying duty.”
“On the battered calendar of the past, the back-glancing flow of numbers, I had imagined there would be felicitous notations of entrapments and escapes, days in the South with their insinuating feline accent, and nights in the East, showing a restlessness as beguiling as the winds of Aeolus. And myself there, marking the day with an I.”
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
West was a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald; in fact, the story goes that when he died in a car accident at age 37, he had been rushing to Fitzgerald’s wake, and the friends were given adjoining rooms in a Los Angeles funeral home. Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (never given any other name) is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden, the unloved. Not surprisingly, the secondhand woes start to get him down (“his heart remained a congealed lump of icy fat”), and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. Indeed, I was startled by how explicit the language and sexual situations are; this doesn’t feel like a book from 1933. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference really struck me, and the last few chapters, in which a drastic change of life is proffered but then cruelly denied, are masterfully plotted. The 2014 Daunt Books reissue has been given a cartoon cover and a puff from Jonathan Lethem to emphasize how contemporary it feels.
Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
This was very nearly a one-sitting read for me: Clare gave me a copy at our Sunday Times Young Writer Award shadow panel decision meeting and I read all but a few pages on the train home from London. Famously, Matthew Weiner is the creator of Mad Men, but instead of 1960s stylishness this debut novella is full of all-too-believable creepiness and a crescendo of dubious decisions. Mark and Karen Breakstone have one beloved daughter, Heather. We follow them for years, getting little snapshots of a normal middle-class family. One summer, as their New York City apartment building is being renovated, the teenaged Heather catches the eye of a construction worker who has a criminal past – as we’ve learned through a parallel narrative about his life. I had no idea what I would conclude about this book until the last few pages; it was all going to be a matter of how Weiner brought things together. And he does so really satisfyingly, I think. It’s a subtle, Hitchcockian story, and that title is so sly: We never get the totality of anyone; we only see shards here and there – something the cover portrays very well – and make judgments we later have to rethink.
Have you read any of these novellas? Which one takes your fancy?
A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.
Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman
By Minoo Dinshaw
Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).
Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”
Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:
Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.
The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.
Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.
Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
The End of the Day
By Claire North
Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:
When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…
The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.
After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.
Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.
I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.
Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
So you think you’d like to run a bookshop? Here’s a book to tempt and deter you in equal measure. In 2001 Shaun Bythell acquired The Bookshop, the flagship bookstore in Wigtown, the Book Town in Galloway in the southwest of Scotland. Here he gives a one-year snapshot of life at the shop, from February 2014 to February 2015. At the start you can feel the winter chill in the old granite building, and as months pass you sense mounting excitement at preparations for the annual Book Festival (going on now) and the Scottish referendum. It’s a pleasure to spend a vicarious year at the shop. This would make a great bedside book for a bookish type to parcel out 5–10 pages at a time (another Christmas gift idea?).
Bythell frequently ventures out to buy book collections in auctions and from estates, and occasionally goes fishing with his father or friends. But mostly we see what daily life is like for a bookshop owner. He can’t afford full-time staff, so gets sporadic help from university-age gals; his most “reliable” part-timer is Nicky, a ski suit-wearing, Dumpster-diving Jehovah’s Witness who blithely ignores much of what he asks her to do.
Every entry opens and closes with statistics on the day’s takings and online orders. Profits range from £5 to £500 a day, rising in the summer and peaking around £1200 during the festival. Also listed is the number of customers who make purchases, which represents only one-fifth of daily footfall. Nowadays most bookstores sell online too, and The Bookshop reluctantly partners with Amazon as a marketplace seller. There’s also ABE and eBay; as a last-ditch option, some outfits take books in bulk, even if just to recycle them. Alongside online sales, it’s essential for bookstores to have sidelines. Bythell does video production and sells furniture, antiques and walking sticks carved by “Sandy, the tattooed pagan.”
As with Wendy Welch’s The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, I enjoyed the nitty-gritty details about acquiring and pricing books, especially the serendipitous moments of coming across real treasures, like a book signed by Sir Walter Scott and a 1679 edition of the Decameron with an interesting provenance. The book is also full of quirky customer behavior, the kind of stuff that fills The Bookshop’s Facebook feed. Bythell cultivates a curmudgeonly persona – he once shot a broken Kindle and mounted it on the bookshop wall – and maintains a tone that’s somewhere between George Orwell (excerpts from whose “Bookshop Memories” serve as monthly epigraphs) and Jen Campbell (Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops et al.). Here’s a few of the best encounters:
a whistling customer with a ponytail and what I can only assume was a hat he’d borrowed from a clown bought a copy of Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist, I suspect deliberately to undermine my faith in humanity and dampen my spirits further.
A man smelling of TCP [antiseptic] was the only customer in the shop for the first hour of opening, during which time I attempted to put out fresh stock. He had an uncanny ability to be standing in front of every shelf to which I needed access, regardless of the subject or where in the shop the relevant shelves were.
While I was repairing a broken shelf in the crime section, I overheard an elderly customer confusing E. L. James and M. R. James while discussing horror fiction with her friend. She is either going to be pleasantly surprised or deeply shocked when she gets home with the copy of Fifty Shades of Grey she bought.
I’ve been to Hay-on-Wye six times now but haven’t made it to Wigtown yet. It’s high on my bookish wish list. I had two additional reasons for wanting to read this particular book: I’d read Three Things You Need to Know about Rockets, a memoir by Bythell’s former partner, the American Jessica Fox (here known as “Anna”; in her book he’s “Ewan”), about coming to Scotland on a whim and falling in love with a bookshop owner; and I’m awfully fond of The Bookshop Band, a folky husband–wife musical duo who this year relocated from Bath to Wigtown. It was such fun to read about their first time playing in Wigtown and their stay as the inaugural guests/temporary store managers via The Open Book Airbnb project.I’ve written that the bookseller’s life is both appealing and daunting. When Bythell is lugging heavy boxes from a house clearance into his van and sorting through them only to find he’s acquired mostly rubbish, or when he comes across a browser who’s brazenly looking up books on Amazon on her laptop to see if she can get them cheaper, you wonder who’d do this for a living. But then there are times when he’s sitting by the fire with an excellent book recommended by a customer, or the town is bustling with festival events, or he’s watching spring come to rural Scotland, and you think: what could be better? In one of his last entries Bythell writes, “whatever is required to keep the ship afloat will be done. This life is infinitely preferable to working for someone else.” I wish him well, and hope to visit soon.
The Book Shop trivia:
- December is by far the quietest month. (“The few people who give second-hand books as gifts for Christmas are usually eccentric” – count me as one of them!)
- Railway books sell best.
- Terry Pratchett, John Buchan, P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson books are also perennial best sellers.
- You’ll be amazed at how many customers try to haggle over prices. It’s a shop, not a rummage sale, for goodness’ sake! I can’t imagine ever having the cheek to offer less than the advertised price.
The Diary of a Bookseller was released in the UK on September 28th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free review copy.
The houseguests have gone home, the Christmas tree is coming down tomorrow, and it’s darned cold. I’m feeling stuck in a rut in my career, the blog, and so many other areas of life. It’s hard not to think of 2017 as a huge stretch of emptiness with very few bright spots. All I want to do is sit around in my new fuzzy bathrobe and read under the cat. Luckily, I’ve had some great books to accompany me through the Christmas period and have finished five so far this year.
I thought I’d continue the habit of writing two-sentence reviews (or maybe no more than three), except when I’m writing proper full-length reviews on assignment or for blog tours or other websites. Granted, they’re usually long and multi-part sentences, and this isn’t actually a time-saving trick – as Blaise Pascal once said, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” – but it feels like good discipline.
So here’s some mini-reviews of what I’ve been reading in late December and early January:
The Dark Flood Rises, Margaret Drabble
The “dark flood” is D.H. Lawrence’s metaphor for death, and here it corresponds to busy seventy-something Fran’s obsession with last words, obituaries and the search for the good death as many of her friends and acquaintances succumb – but also to literal flooding in the west of England and (dubious, this) to mass immigration of Asians and Africans into Europe. This is my favorite of the five Drabble books that I’ve read – it’s closest in style and tone to her sister A.S. Byatt as well as to Tessa Hadley, and the themes of old age and life’s randomness are strong – even though there seem to be too many characters and the Canary Islands subplot mostly feels like an unnecessary distraction. (Public library)
Hogfather, Terry Pratchett
In Discworld belief causes imagined beings to exist, so when a devious plot to control children’s minds results in a dearth of belief in the Hogfather, the Fat Man temporarily disappears and Death has to fill in for him on this Hogswatch night. I laughed aloud a few times while reading this clever Christmas parody, but I had a bit of trouble following the plot and grasping who all the characters were given that this was my first Discworld book; in general I’d say that Pratchett is another example of British humor that I don’t entirely appreciate (along with Monty Python and Douglas Adams) – he’s my husband’s favorite, but I doubt I’ll try another of his books. (Own copy)
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting
In a reprise of childhood holidays that inevitably headed northwest, Bunting takes a series of journeys around the Hebrides and weaves together her contemporary travels with the religion, folklore and history of this Scottish island chain, an often sad litany of the Gaels’ poverty and displacement that culminated with the brutal Clearances. Rather than giving an exhaustive survey, she chooses seven islands to focus on and tells stories of unexpected connections – Orwell’s stay on Jura, Lord Leverhulme’s (he of Port Sunlight and Unilever) purchase of Lewis, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s landing on Eriskay – as she asks how geography influences history and what it truly means to belong to a place. (Public library)
Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of a National Trust House, Mary Mackie
Mackie’s husband was Houseman and then Administrator at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk in the 1980s – live-in roles that demanded a wide range of skills and much more commitment than the usual 9 to 5 (when he borrowed a pedometer he learned that he walked 15 miles in the average day, without leaving the house!). Her memoir of their first year at Felbrigg proceeds chronologically, from the intense cleaning and renovations of the winter closed season through to the following Christmas’ festivities, and takes in along the way plenty of mishaps and visitor oddities. It will delight anyone who’d like a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a historic home. (Own copy)
The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir, Betsy Lerner
When life unexpectedly took the middle-aged Lerner back to her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, she spent several years sitting in on her mother’s weekly bridge games to learn more about these five Jewish octogenarians who have been friends for 50 years and despite their old-fashioned reserve have seen each other through the loss of careers, health, husbands and children. Although Lerner also took bridge lessons herself, this is less about the game and more about her ever-testy relationship with her mother (starting with her rebellious teenage years), the ageing process, and the ways that women of different generations relate to their family and friends. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that every mother and daughter should read this; I plan to shove it in my mother’s and sister’s hands the next time I’m in the States. (Own copy)
Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite
Guite chooses well-known poems (by Christina Rossetti, John Donne, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge et al.) as well as more obscure contemporary ones as daily devotional reading between the start of Advent and Epiphany; I especially liked his sonnet sequence in response to the seven “O Antiphons.” His commentary is learned and insightful, and even if at times I thought he goes into too much in-depth analysis rather than letting the poems speak for themselves, this remains a very good companion to the Christmas season for any poetry lover. (E-book from NetGalley)
I started too many books over Christmas and have sort of put six of them on hold – including Titus Groan, which I’m thinking of quitting (it takes over 50 pages for one servant to tell another that the master has had a son?!), and City on Fire, which is wonderful but dispiritingly long: even after two good sessions with it in the days after Christmas, I’ve barely made a dent.
However, the three books that I am actively reading I’m loving: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is an uproarious blend of time travel science fiction and Victorian pastiche (university library), Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a compulsive historical saga set in Korea (ARC from NetGalley), and the memoir Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear has been compared to H Is for Hawk in the way she turns to birdwatching to deal with depression (e-book from Edelweiss). I also will be unlikely to resist my e-galley of the latest Anne Lamott book, Hallelujah Anyway (forthcoming in April, ARC from Edelweiss), for much longer.
Meanwhile, in post-holiday charity shopping I scored six books for £1.90: one’s been tucked away as a present for later in the year; the Ozeki I’ve already read, but it’s a favorite so I’m glad to own it; and the rest are new to me. I look forward to trying Han Kang; Anne Tyler is a reliable choice for a cozy read; and the Hobbs sounds like a wonderful Victorian-set novel.
All in all, I seem to be starting my year in books as I mean to go on: reading a ton; making sure I review most or all of the books, even if I write just a few sentences; maintaining a balance between my own books, library books, and recent or advance NetGalley/Edelweiss reads; and failing to restrain myself from buying more.
Now if I could just work on my general attitude…
How’s the reading year starting off for you?
Ruth Padel is one of my favorite poets, so I jumped at the chance to read her new book-length holiday poem, Tidings: A Christmas Journey. Set across one Christmas Eve and Christmas day and narrated by Charoum, the Angel of Silence, the poem switches between Holly, a seven-year-old girl excited for Christmas, and Robin, a forty-four-year-old homeless man who follows a fox to a Crisis Centre. Here he gets a hot meal and some human kindness to make up for the usual bleakness of the holidays:
Christmas is the salt mine.
Salt in the wound, a nothing-time.
I was loved once. Who by? Can’t remember.
I especially liked the fragments that juxtapose this contemporary London story with centuries of history:
Up here the evening glides over golden moss
on the flat-top tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft
Pagan Christmas fizzes and teems with ghosts,
midwinter fires, mummers and waites, Yule
logs and mistletoe.
The poem also journeys to Jerusalem and Rome to survey a whole world of Christmas traditions, then and now.
It’s a lovely little volume, with the red, black and white theme offset by touches of gold. The illustrations are gorgeous, but the story line disappointed me: starting with the character names, it all felt rather clichéd. Padel has treated urban foxes much more successfully in her collection The Soho Leopard, and apart from a very few instances – like the above quotes – the verse struck me as largely undistinguished, even awkward (like the out-of-place clinical vocabulary in “Love, / and the lack of it, can change the limbic brain”). This means that, for me, this book fails to earn a place as a Christmas classic I’ll reread year after year.
Tidings was published in the UK by Chatto & Windus on November 3rd. My thanks to Cat Mitchell of Random House for the free review copy.
Other Christmassy Reading
This year I’m resuming my place in Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite’s selection of religious-slanted poems to read from the start of Advent through Epiphany. For those who want to explore the history and interpretation of Christmas, I can recommend The First Christmas by the late Marcus Borg, one of my favorite progressive theologians.
As I have for the past several years, I’ll dip into The Ecco Book of Christmas Stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. My favorites are by Truman Capote, John Cheever, Jane Gardam and Jeanette Winterson (who has a brand-new, full-length Christmas story collection out this year). I’ll also sample some Russian classics via A Very Russian Christmas, which has short stories from Tolstoy, Chekhov and more.
In addition, I have Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas and The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas out from the library, which should make for some very cozy reading under the cat. I’ll browse the numerous Christmas-themed poems in U.A. Fanthorpe’s Collected Poems, another library book. And I may even deign to try Hogfather, one from my husband’s beloved Discworld series by the late Terry Pratchett.
[See also this wonderful list of Christmas reading suggestions from Heaven Ali.]
Are you reading anything special this Christmas season?
I always used to be more of a dog person than a cat person, even though we had both while I was growing up, but now I’m a dedicated cat owner and have tried out some related reading. You’ll notice I don’t rate any of these five books about cats particularly highly, whereas there have been a number of dog books I’ve given 4 stars (Dog Years by Mark Doty, Ordinary Dogs by Eileen Battersby, A Dog’s Life by Peter Mayle; even books that aren’t necessarily about dogs but reference life with them, like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck). What’s with that? Maybe dog lovers don’t have to worry so much about striking a balance between a pet’s standoffishness and affection. Maybe dogs play a larger role in everyday human life and leave a more gaping hole when they shuffle off the canine coil. Still, I enjoyed aspects of or specific passages from each of the following.
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
As a cat-loving freelance writer who aspires to read more literature in translation, I thought from the blurb that this book could not be more perfect for me. I bought it in a charity shop one afternoon and started reading right away. It’s only 140 pages, so I finished within 24 hours, but felt at a distance from the story the whole time. Part of it might be the translation – the translator’s notes at the end explain some useful context about the late 1980s setting, but also conflate the narrator and the author in such a way that the book seems like an artless memoir rather than a novella. But the more basic problem for me is that there’s simply not enough about the cat. There’s plenty of architectural detail about the guesthouse the narrator and his wife rent on the grounds of a mansion, plenty of economic detail about the housing market…but the cat just doesn’t make enough of an impression. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this has been such a bestseller. Quite the disappointment.
The Fur Person by May Sarton
I’m a huge fan of May Sarton’s journals – in which various cats play supporting roles – so for a while I’d been hoping to come across a copy of this little novelty book from 1957, a childish fable about a tomcat who transforms from a malnourished Cat-About-Town to a spoiled Gentleman Cat. Luckily I managed to find a copy of this one plus the Lessing (see below) in the Nature section at Book Thing of Baltimore. In a preface to the 1978 edition Sarton reveals that Tom Jones was, indeed, a real cat, a stray she and her partner Judy Matlack adopted when they lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wonderful coincidence: when they were on sabbatical in the early 1950s, they sublet the place to the Nabokovs, who looked after Tom while they were away!
I found this a bit lightweight overall, and the whole idea of a ‘fur person’ is a little strange – don’t we love cats precisely because they’re not people? Still, I enjoyed the proud cat’s Ten Commandments (e.g. “II. A Gentleman Cat allows no constraint of his person … III. A Gentleman Cat does not mew except in extremity”) and spotted my own domestic situation in this description: “while she [‘Gentle Voice’ = Judy] was away the other housekeeper [= Sarton] was sometimes quite absent-minded and even forgot his lunch once or twice because she sat for hours and hours in front of a typewriter, tapping out messages with her fingers.” The black-and-white illustrations by David Canright are a highlight.
Particularly Cats…And Rufus by Doris Lessing
A book about cats that I would almost hesitate to recommend to cat lovers: it contains many a scene of kitty carnage, as well as some unenlightened resistance to spaying and neutering. Lessing grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe that was at one point overrun with about 40 cats. Her mother went away, expecting her father to have ‘taken care of them’ by the time she got back. He tried chloroform to start with, but it was too slow and ineffective; in the end he rounded them all up in a room and got out his WWI revolver. And that’s not the end of it; even into her adulthood in England Lessing balked at taking female cats in for surgery so would find occasionally herself saddled with unwanted litters of kittens that they decided had to be drowned. It’s really a remarkably unsentimental record of her dealings with cats.
That’s not to say there weren’t some cats she willingly and lovingly kept as pets, particularly a pair of rival females known simply as “black cat” and “grey cat,” and later a stray named Rufus who adopted her. But even with cherished felines she comes across as tough: “Anyway, she had to be killed and I decided that to keep cats in London was a mistake” or “I smacked grey cat” for bullying the black one. The very fact of not giving the pair names certainly quashes any notion of her as some cuddly cat lady. All the same, she was a dutiful nurse when black cat and Rufus fell ill. The book ends on a repentant note: “Knowing cats, a lifetime of cats, what is left is a sediment of sorrow quite different from that due to humans: compounded of pain for their helplessness, of guilt on behalf of us all.”
My favorite thing about the book is the watercolor illustrations by James McMullan.
The Unadulterated Cat: A Campaign for Real Cats by Terry Pratchett
Like Douglas Adams or Monty Python, Terry Pratchett is, alas, a representative of the kind of British humor I just don’t get. But I rather enjoyed this small novelty book (bought for my husband for Christmas) all the same. For Pratchett, a “Real” cat is a non-pampered, tough-as-nails outdoor creature that hunts and generally does its own thing but also knows how to wrap its human servants around its paws. I like his idea of “cat chess” as a neighborhood-wide feline game of strategy, moving between carefully selected vantage points to keep an eye on the whole road yet avoid confrontation with other cats. It’s certainly true on our street. And this is quite a good summary of what cats do and why we put up with them:
What other animal gets fed, not because it’s useful, or guards the house, or sings, but because when it does get fed it looks pleased? And purrs. The purr is very important. It’s the purr that makes up for the Things Under the Bed, the occasional pungency, the 4 a.m. yowl.
On Cats by Charles Bukowski
“In my next life I want to be a cat. To sleep 20 hours a day and wait to be fed. To sit around licking my ass.” I’d never read anything else by Bukowski, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from this book, which is mostly composed of previously unpublished poems and short prose pieces about the author’s multiple cats. The tone is an odd mixture of gruff and sentimental. Make no mistake: his cats were all Real cats, in line with the Pratchett model. A white Manx cat, for instance, had been shot, run over, and had his tail cut off. Another was named Butch Van Gogh Artaud Bukowski. You wouldn’t mess with a cat with a macho name like that, would you? My favorite passage is from “War Surplus,” about an exchange he and his wife had with a store clerk:
“what will the cats do if there is an explosion?”
“lady, cats are different than we are, they are of a lower order.”
“I think cats are better than we are,” I said.
the clerk looked at me. “we don’t have gas masks for cats.”
Is there a terrific cat book out there that I haven’t read yet? I do hope so! Please add your suggestions in the comments.
I like a spot of competition. Whether watching Olympic figure skating, playing board games like Scrabble and Boggle, entering a low-key Oscars pool, or rooting for my favorites in American Idol seasons and Miss America pageants, I’ve always loved trying to pick the best. This means that literary prizes are hugely exciting for me, and I follow the races closely.
I’m particularly devoted to the Man Booker Prize. I was delighted to see Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on the recent longlist (catch up on it here), a truly interesting set of books, diverse in terms of their genres and authors’ nationalities and nicely balanced between male and female writers (6:7). I’ve read four of the longlisted titles so far:
- The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma (full review in May 2015 issue of Third Way): From a young Nigerian debut novelist comes a haunting tale of sibling rivalry and revenge. With sectarian riots afoot, the four oldest Agwu boys decide to make money by skipping school and fishing in the Omi-Ala River. Things get more complicated when Abulu, the local madman, issues a prophecy that seems bound to divide the brothers. The first quarter of the novel, especially, is drenched in foreshadowing (not always subtle, nor do the plot turns often rise above the predictable). Rich with prophecy and allusions, this owes much to biblical narratives and tragedies from Shakespeare to Chinua Achebe.
- Lila, Marilynne Robinson – reviewed at For Books’ Sake
- A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler – also reviewed at For Books’ Sake
- A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara – reviewed at Shiny New Books
Beyond the Booker, here are some of the other prizes I follow throughout the year, listed in vague chronological order:
- The Not the Booker Prize run by the Guardian. On this year’s shortlist is Shame by Melanie Finn, a book I loved when I reviewed it for Third Way’s April 2015 issue. It’s a powerful story of regret and the search for redemption. Though it has elements of a straightforward psychological thriller, the daring structure and moral complexities are more akin to Graham Greene. In alternating chapters, Pilgrim Jones contrasts flashbacks to her car accident and the subsequent investigation back in Switzerland with her present-tense African odyssey. This is Conrad’s Africa, a continent characterized by darkness and suffering. The question of culpability remains murky, yet the possibility of salvation shines through. [Voting will take place in October.]
- The Guardian First Book Award (open to both fiction and nonfiction): the shortlist will be announced this Friday, August 14th. One entry, Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume, has already been chosen by readers, and the other nine are selected from publishers’ submissions. [Winner announced in late November.]
- The Dylan Thomas Prize for young writers (under 39) went to Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour last year. [Longlist in September, shortlist in October and winner announced in November.]
- The Costa Book Awards give separate prizes for fiction, debut fiction, biography, poetry, and children’s books, and also choose one overall winner. [Category shortlists in late November, category winners in early January and overall winner on January 26, 2016.]
- The Folio Prize, only two years old, considers any work of fiction published in English; before the Booker expanded to include American entries last year, it was the most Catholic of the fiction prizes. Now it risks being considered redundant; especially since it lost its Folio Society sponsorship, it’s unclear whether it will continue. [Shortlist in February and winner announced in March.]
- The Wellcome Book Prize is for medical-themed literature, fiction or nonfiction. Last year’s winner, The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, meant a lot to me for personal reasons but was also one of the most unusual and impressive memoirs I’ve ever read. I reviewed it for The Bookbag here. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in April.]
- The Pulitzer Prize is America’s premier literary award. I confess I often feel a little out of touch with the winners and don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to seek out the nominated books. I’d like to be more familiar with Pulitzer winners. Next year marks the prize’s centennial, so there’s no better time! [Winners announced in April.]
- The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is for any book that has been translated into English and published in the UK in the previous year. I’ve found some great offbeat reads by browsing through previous longlists. As of next year, the prize is merging with the Man Booker International award, which previously recognized the life work of a foreign author every other year. [Longlist in March, shortlist in April and winner announced in May.]
- The Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the UK’s prize for comic literature, has run since 2000. Among the past winners are Paul Torday, Howard Jacobson, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Gary Shteyngart, and (surprise!) Ian McEwan. I’ve read five of the winners, including Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn. [Shortlist in March and winner announced in May.]
- The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize). Ali Smith won the 2015 award for How to Be Both. [Longlist in March; shortlist and winner announced in June.]
Do you follow literary prize races? Do you make a point of reading the winner and/or the shortlisted books? All comments welcome!