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.
We fancied a short break before term starts (my husband is a teaching associate in university-level biology), so booked a cheap Airbnb room in Bridport for a couple of nights and headed to Dorset on Wednesday, stopping at the Thomas Hardy birthplace cottage on the way down and returning on Friday via Max Gate, the home he designed on the outskirts of Dorchester.
I’d been to both before, but over 15 years ago. In the summer of 2004, at the end of my study abroad year, I used a travel grant from my college to spend a week in Dorset and Nottinghamshire, researching the sense of place in the works of Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I marvel at my bravery now: barely out of my teens, there I was traveling alone by train and bus to places I’d never been before, finding my own B&B accommodation, and taking long countryside walks to arrive at many sites on foot.
I found that much had changed in 15 years. The main difference is that both properties have now been given the full National Trust treatment, with an offsite visitor centre and café down the lane from Hardy’s Cottage, and the upper floors of Max Gate now open to the public after the end of private tenancies in 2011.* This could be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing: Everything is more commercial and geared towards tourists, yes, but also better looked after and more inviting thanks to visitor income and knowledgeable volunteers. Fifteen years ago I remember the two sites being virtually deserted, with the cottage’s garden under black plastic and awaiting a complete replanting. Now it’s flourishing with flowers and vegetables.
*In 2004 only a few ground-floor rooms were open to the public. I happened to spot in the visitor’s book that novelist Vikram Seth had signed in just before me. When I made the caretakers aware of this, they expressed admiration for his work and offered him an exclusive look at the study where Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I got to tag along! The story is less impressive since it’s been a standard part of the house tour for eight years now, but I still consider it a minor claim to fame.
The thatched cottage doesn’t possess anything that belonged to the Hardy family, but is decorated in a period style that’s true to its mid-1800s origin. Hardy was born here and remained until his early thirties, completing an architecture apprenticeship and writing his first few books, including Under the Greenwood Tree. Even if you’re not particularly familiar with or fond of Hardy’s work, I’d recommend an afternoon at the cottage for a glimpse of how simple folk lived in that time. With wood smoke spooling out of the chimney and live music emanating from the door – there are two old fiddles in the sitting room that guests are invited to play – it was a perfectly atmospheric visit.
Afterwards, we headed to Portland, an isthmus extending from the south coast near Weymouth and known for its stone. It’s the setting of The Well-Beloved, which Hardy issued in serial form in 1892 and revised in 1897 for its book publication. Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor whose fame is growing in London, returns to “the Isle of Slingers” (Hardy gave all his English locales made-up names) for a visit and runs into Avice Caro, a childhood friend. On a whim, he asks her to marry him. Before long, though, following a steamy (for Victorian literature, anyway) scene under an upturned boat during a storm, he transfers his affections to Miss Bencomb, the daughter of his father’s rival stone merchant. The fickle young man soon issues a second marriage proposal. I read the first 30 pages, but that was enough for me.
[I failed on classics or doorstoppers this month, alas, so look out for these monthly features to return in October. I did start The Warden by Anthony Trollope, my first of his works since Phineas Finn in 2005, with the best of intentions, and initially enjoyed the style – partway between Dickens and Hardy, and much less verbose than Trollope usually is. However, I got bogged down in the financial details of Septimus Harding’s supposed ripping-off of the 12 old peasants who live in the local hospital (as in a rest center for the aged and infirm, like the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester). He never should have had his comfortable £800 a year, it seems. His son-in-law, the archdeacon Dr. Grantly, and his would-be son-in-law, gadfly John Bold, take opposing sides as Harding looks to the legal and religious authorities for advice. I read the first 125 pages but only briefly skimmed the rest. Given how much longer the other five volumes are, I doubt I’ll ever read the rest of the Barchester Chronicles.]
My other appropriate reading of the trip was Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, in which Claudia Hampton, a popular historian now on her deathbed, excavates the layers of her personal past and dwells on the subjectivity of history and memory. She grew up in Dorset and mentions ammonites and rock strata, which we encountered on our beach walks.
Bridport isn’t so well known, but we thought it a lovely place, full of pleasant cafés, pubs and charity shops. It also has an independent bookshop and two secondhand ones, and we had an excellent meal of dumplings and noodle bowls at the English/Asian fusion restaurant Dorshi. It’s tucked away down an alley, but well worth a special trip. Our other special experience of the trip was a tour of Dorset Nectar, a small, family-run organic cider farm just outside of Bridport, which included a tasting of their 10+ delicious ciders. We had splendid late-summer weather for our three days away, too – we really couldn’t have asked for better.
It’s safe to say that book bloggers love lists: not only do we keep a thorough list of everything we read in a year, but we also leap to check out every new top 5/10/50/100 or thematic book list that’s posted so we can see how many of them we’ve read. And then, at the end of any year, most of us put together our own best-of lists, often for a number of categories.
When I was younger, though, I took the list-making to an extreme. As I was going back through boxes of mementos in America a few weeks ago, I found stacks of hand-written records I’d kept. Here’s a list of what I used to list:
- every book I read
- every movie I saw
- dreams, recounted in detail
- money I found on the ground
- items I bought or sold on eBay
- gifts given or received for birthdays and Christmas
- transactions made through my mail-order music club
- all my weekday outfits, with a special shorthand designating each item of clothing
Age 14 (1997-8) was the peak of my record-keeping, and the only year when I faithfully kept a diary. I cringe to look back at all this now. Most of the dreams are populated by my crushes of the time, names and faces that mean nothing to me now. And to think that I was so self-conscious and deluded to assume people at school might notice if I wore a shirt twice within a couple of weeks! My diary isn’t particularly illuminating from this distance, either; mostly it brings back how earnest and pious I was in my teens. It’s occasionally addressed in the second person, as if to an imaginary bosom friend who would know me as well as I knew myself.
What’s clear is that I was convinced that the minutiae of my life mattered. Between us, my mother and I had kept a huge cache of my schoolwork and craft projects from kindergarten right through graduate school. I was also a devoted collector – of stamps, coins, figurines, tea sets, shells, anything with puffins or llamas – so I obviously felt that physical objects had real importance, too. It’s a wonder I didn’t become an archivist or a museum curator.
Why did I save all this stuff in the first place? Even as a teen, was I imagining an illustrious career for myself and some future biographer who would gleefully mine my records and personal writings for clues to who I really was? I’m not sure whether to admire the confidence or deplore the presumption. We all want to believe we’re living lives of significance, but when I take a long view – if I never have a child … if I never publish a book (though I think I will) … if human society does indeed collapse by 2050 (as some are predicting) – it’s hard to see what, if anything, will be preserved of my time on earth.
This is deeper than I usually get in a blog post, but these are the sorts of thoughts that preoccupy me when I’m not just drifting along in life’s routines. My nieces’ and nephews’ generation may be the last to inhabit this planet if we don’t take drastic and immediate action to deal with the environmental crisis. Many are working for change (my husband, a new Town Councillor, recently voted for the successful motion to declare a climate emergency and commit Newbury to going carbon-neutral by 2030), but some remain ignorant that there is any kind of problem and so consume and dispose like there is (literally) no tomorrow.
My home is a comfortable bubble I hardly ever leave, but more and more I feel that I need to become part of larger movements: first to ensure the continuation of human and non-human existence; then to improve the quality of human life, especially for those who have contributed least to climate change but will suffer the most from it. I have no idea what form my participation should take, but I know that focusing on outside causes will mean less time obsessing about myself and my inconsequential problems.
That’s not to say I won’t listen to the angst that’s telling me I’m not living my life as fully as I should, but I know that working with others, in whatever way, to tackle global issues will combat the lack of purpose that’s been plaguing me for years.
Appreciation for my past can only help with bolstering a healthy self-image, so I’ve kept a small selection of all those records, and a larger batch of school essays and assignments. Even if this archive is only ever for me, I like being able to look back at the well-rounded student I was – I used to get perfect scores on calculus tests and chemistry lab reports! I could write entire papers in French! – and see the seeds of the sincere, meticulous book lover I still am. As Eve Schaub writes in Year of No Clutter, “I’m not about to stop collecting my own life. It has been a source of pleasure for me ever since I can remember; it helps define me.”
A selection of favorite mementos I discovered back in the States:
In high school I started making my way through the American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 movies. I’ve now seen 89 of them.
I kept a list of new vocabulary words encountered in novels, especially Victorian ones. Note trumpery: (noun) attractive articles of little value or use; (adjective) showy but worthless – how apt!
As a high school senior, I waded through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to write an essay that won me an honorable mention, a point of interest on my college applications. Though I find it formulaic now, it’s a precursor to a career partially devoted to writing about books.
I planned my every college paper via incredibly detailed outlines. (I’m far too lazy to do this for book reviews now!) Can you work out what these essays were about?
As a college sophomore I wrote weekly essays in what looks like pretty flawless French. This one was an imagined interview with Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy about the autobiographical and religious influences on their fiction.
Are you a list keeper? Do you have a personal ‘archive’?
How do you balance a healthy self-regard with working for the good of the world?
Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.
The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*
I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.
Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?
*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)
So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:
if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.
The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.
A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.
Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.
Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.
There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner
- 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel
- The Poem and the Journey and 60 Poems to Read Along the Way by Ruth Padel
- The Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart
- Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)
The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
Possibly never before nor since has a great writer been so intensely and so permanently influenced by one woman as Lawrence was by Frieda von Richtofen.
~biographer Robert Lucas
I have a weakness for “famous wives” books, which have become increasingly popular over the past decade. (I have a whole shelf for them on Goodreads.) Frieda particularly appealed to me because of the reading I’ve done around the life of D.H. Lawrence. In my sophomore year of college I took a course on Yeats & Lawrence and found Lawrence fascinating almost in spite of myself. I remember bursting out in one early seminar on Sons and Lovers, “but he sexualizes everything!” The more I read, though, the more I admired his grasping for the fullness of life, which at least starts with the body.
After my study abroad year I did independent travel in Dorset and around Nottingham to explore the sense of place in Thomas Hardy and Lawrence’s works, and when I applied for graduate school scholarships I was undecided whether to focus on the Victorians or Lawrence and the Moderns (I eventually settled on the former). I also adapted a paper I’d written about D.H. Lawrence’s new moral framework for sexuality in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and presented it at the D.H. Lawrence Society of North America’s 2005 conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The conference included a wonderful trip out to Lawrence’s ranch at Taos.
All this explains why I was so keen to see how Annabel Abbs would depict Frieda, who came from disgraced German aristocracy and left her first husband, Ernest Weekley, a linguistics professor at Nottingham, and their three children to be with Lawrence. If you rely only on the words of Lawrence himself, you’d think Frieda was lucky to shed her dull family life and embark on an exciting set of bohemian travels with him as he built his name as a writer.
Abbs adds nuance to that picture by revealing just how much Frieda was giving up, and the sorrow she left behind her. Much of the book is in third person limited from Frieda’s point of view, but there are also occasional chapters from the perspectives of Ernest and the children, mostly their son Monty, as they work through their confusion over Frieda’s actions and try to picture the future without her. I loved the way that these chapters employ dramatic irony, especially to create a believable child mindset. “I have realised there is something inside me struggling to come out,” Frieda says to Monty. “I call it the what-I-could-be.” Poor Monty, just seven years old when the book opens in 1907, thinks his mother must be talking literally about a baby on the way. When her inchoate longings finally center on Lawrence, Ernest’s working-class former student, in 1912, Monty describes the young man as a “hungry fox.”
Frieda’s relationship with Lawrence, whom she called “Lorenzo,” lasted nearly two decades but was undeniably volatile. Abbs refuses to romanticize it: the early days of frolicking naked in meadows and weaving flowers through each other’s pubic hair soon cede to incidents of jealousy and disturbing cruelty. Lawrence pressed her into remarrying though she was happier living outside of convention. We can sympathize with the passion and deep communion she found with Lawrence –
“She was conscious, in that moment, that their minds had met and crossed and understood. That this miner’s son – so strange and unknown, so young – was more like her than anyone she’d ever met.”
“She felt as if she had been split open, as if Mr Lawrence had peered deep inside her, seen things she had hidden from the rest of the world. It was a marvellous feeling, she decided, to be explored and understood.”
– but also with the later suspicion that she’s given up so much – social acceptability and years of life with her children – and perhaps in some ways it hasn’t been worth it. “He could be so infuriating! So exhausting! But his vitality, the sharp light in which he saw everything, his wild poetic fury, they made her feel as if she could breathe again.”
Frieda is particularly reminiscent of Loving Frank, Nancy Horan’s novel about Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright: she left her children in pursuit of love and independence and spent time traveling, including in Germany, where she absorbed notions of free love and women’s rights – just as Frieda did. I was also reminded of Free Woman, Lara Feigel’s book on Doris Lessing, who gave up her children to pursue her writing. In Lessing’s case there was not the same wrenching regret. Still, all three books offer a valuable look at the choices women make when love, duty and vocation don’t align.
My knowledge of Lawrence’s writings and biography enhanced my enjoyment of this novel. I’ve appreciated for the first time just how much Frieda inspired the female protagonists in Lawrence’s major works. In a comprehensive Historical note and Author’s note, Abbs lists her sources and explains the small tweaks she made to the historical record to fit the story line. However, you don’t need any prior knowledge to fall in love with Frieda’s vivacity. Her determination to live according to her own rules makes her a captivating character.
Frieda was published by Two Roads on November 15th. With thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.
Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.
One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).
The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.
Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.
I love book lists: ticking off what I’ve read from newspaper and website selections, comparing my “best-of” choices and prize predictions with other people’s, and making up my own thematic inventories. Earlier in the year I spotted Desert Island-style 100-book lists on Annabookbel and A life in books, as well as Lonesome Reader’s reconsideration of the 100 favorite books he’d chosen half a lifetime ago. For my 35th birthday today, I’ve looked back at my “Absolute Favorites” shelf on Goodreads and picked the 35 titles that stand out the most for me: some are childhood favorites, some are books that changed my thinking, some I have read two or three times (an extreme rarity for me), and some are recent discoveries that have quickly become personal classics. I’ve listed these in rough chronological order of when I first read them, rather than ranking them, which would be nigh on impossible! Perhaps I’ll revisit the list on future significant birthdays and see how things change. Interesting to note that this works out as about two-thirds fiction and one-third nonfiction.
- Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
- The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Possession by A.S. Byatt
- Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
- Sixpence House by Paul Collins
- A History of God by Karen Armstrong
- Conundrum by Jan Morris
- The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg
- The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- On Beauty by Zadie Smith
- Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
- Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Caribou Island by David Vann
- To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
- We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway
- An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
- Want Not by Jonathan Miles
- Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
- F by Daniel Kehlmann
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
- March by Geraldine Brooks
Are any of these among your favorites, too?
I’ve been somewhat cagey about the purpose for my trip back to the States. Yes, it was about helping my parents move, but the backstory to that is that they’re divorcing after 44 years of marriage and so their home of 13 years, one of three family homes I’ve known, is being sold. It was pretty overwhelming to see all the stacks of stuff in the garage. I was reminded of these jolting lines from Nausheen Eusuf’s lush poem about her late parents’ house, “Musée des Beaux Morts”: “Well, there you have it, folks, the crap / one collects over a lifetime.”
On the 7th I moved my mom into her new retirement community, and in my two brief spells back at the house I was busy dealing with the many, many boxes I’ve stored there for years. In the weeks leading up to my trip I’d looked into shipping everything back across the ocean, but the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars and just wasn’t worth it. Although my dad is renting a storage unit, so I’m able to leave a fair bit behind with him, I knew that a lot still had to go. Even (or maybe especially) books.
Had I had more time at my disposal, I might have looked into eBay and other ways to maximize profits, but with just a few weeks and limited time in the house itself, I had to go for the quickest and easiest options. I’m a pretty sentimental person, but I tried to approach the process rationally to minimize my emotional overload. I spent about 24 hours going through all of my boxes of books, plus the hundreds of books and DVDs my parents had set aside for sale, and figuring out the best way to dispose of everything. Maybe these steps will help you prepare for a future move.
When culling books, I asked myself:
- Do I have duplicate copies? This was often the case for works by Dickens, Eliot and Hardy. I kept the most readable copy and put the others aside for sale.
- Have I read it and rated it 3 stars or below? I don’t need to keep the Ayn Rand paperback just to prove to myself that I got through all 1000+ pages. If I’m not going to reread Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, better to put it in the local Little Free Library so someone else can enjoy it for the first time.
- Can I see myself referring to this again? My college philosophy textbook had good explanations and examples, but I can access pithy statements of philosophers’ beliefs on the Internet instead. I’d like to keep up conversational French, sure, but I doubt I’ll ever open up a handbook of unusual verb conjugations.
- Am I really going to read this? I used to amass classics with the best intention of inhaling them and becoming some mythically well-read person, but many have hung around for up to two decades without making it onto my reading stack. So it was farewell to everything by Joseph Fielding and Sinclair Lewis; to obscure titles by D.H. Lawrence and Anthony Trollope; and to impossible dreams like Don Quixote. If I have a change of heart in the future, these are the kinds of books I can find in a university library or download from Project Gutenberg.
My first port of call for reselling books was Bookscouter.com (the closest equivalents in the UK are WeBuyBooks and Ziffit). This is an American site that compares buyback offers from 30 secondhand booksellers. There’s a minimum number of books / minimum value you have to meet before you can complete a trade-in. You print off a free shipping label and then drop off the box at your nearest UPS depot or arrange for a free USPS pickup. I ended up sending boxes to Powell’s Books, TextbookRush and Sellbackyourbook and making nearly a dollar per book. Powell’s bought about 18 of my paperback fiction titles, while the other two sites took a bizarre selection of around 30 books each.
Some books that were in rather poor condition or laughably outdated got shunted directly into piles for the Little Free Library or a Salvation Army donation. Many of my mom’s older Christian living books and my dad’s diet and fitness books I sorted into categories to be sold by the box in an online auction after the house sells.
All this still left about 18 boxes worth of rejects. For the non-antiquarian material I first tried 2nd & Charles, a new and secondhand bookstore chain that offers cash or store credit on select books. I planned to take the rest, including the antiquarian stuff, to an Abebooks seller in my mom’s new town, but I never managed to connect with him. So, the remaining boxes went to Wonder Book and Video, a multi-branch store I worked for during my final year of college. The great thing about them (though maybe not so great when you work there and have to sort through boxes full of dross) is that they accept absolutely everything when they make a cash offer. Although I felt silly selling back lots of literary titles I bought there over the years, at a massive loss, it was certainly an efficient way of offloading unwanted books.
As to everything else…
- I sent off 42.5 pounds (19.3 kilograms) of electronic waste to GreenDisk for recycling. That’s 75 VHS tapes, 63 CDs, 38 cassette tapes, 11 DVDs, five floppy disks, two dead cables, and one dead cell phone I saved from landfill, even if I did have to pay for the privilege.
- I donated all but a few of my jigsaw puzzles to my mom’s retirement community.
- I gave my mom my remaining framed artworks to display at her new place.
- I gave some children’s books, stuffed animals, games and craft supplies away to my nieces and nephews or friends’ kids.
- I let my step-nephew (if that’s a word) take whatever he wanted from my coin collection, and then sold that and most of my stamp collection back to a coin store.
- Most of my other collections – miniature tea sets, unicorn figurines, classic film memorabilia – all went onto the auction pile.
- My remaining furniture, a gorgeous rolltop desk plus a few bookcases, will also be part of the auction.
- You can tell I was in a mood to scale back: I finally agreed to throw out two pairs of worn-out shoes with holes in them, long after my mother had started nagging me about them.
Mementos and schoolwork have been the most difficult items for me to decide what to do with. Ultimately, I ran out of time and had to store most of the boxes as they were. But with the few that I did start to go through I tried to get in a habit of appreciating, photographing and then disposing. So I kept a handful of favorite essays and drawings, but threw out my retainers, recycled the science fair projects, and put the hand-knit baby clothes on the auction pile. (My mom kept the craziest things, like 12 inches of my hair from a major haircut I had in seventh grade – this I threw out at the edge of the woods for something to nest with.)
All this work and somehow I was still left with 29 smallish boxes to store with my dad’s stuff. Fourteen of these are full of books, with another four boxes of books stored in my mom’s spare room closet to select reading material from on future visits. So to an extent I’ve just put off the really hard work of culling until some years down the road – unless we ever move to the States, of course, in which case the intense downsizing would start over here.
At any rate, in the end it’s all just stuff. What I’m really mourning, I know, is not what I had to get rid of, or even the house, but the end of our happy family life there. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to that, or to my hometown. I’ve got the photos and the memories, and those will have to suffice.
Have you had to face a mountain of stuff recently? What are your strategies for getting rid of books and everything else?
My classic for September was one of those books that are so ingrained in the canon you most likely know the basic story line even if you’ve never read a word Gustave Flaubert wrote. I’d happened to read a fair bit about Madame Bovary (1857), mostly via Julian Barnes, and had also encountered some modern novels that might be said to be updates (Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum and perhaps even George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl), but never picked up the book itself until earlier this month. While the essential turns of the plot were indeed familiar to me, there was also plenty that surprised me in terms of the details and the mechanics. I’ve set this out in nine points below; if you’re determined to avoid anything that seems like spoilers, I’d suggest skipping over #6–8.
#1. We open with Charles Bovary.
And in the first-person plural: “We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy”. I suppose I assumed the book would open immediately on Emma Bovary, already married to Charles. Instead, we get a quick tour through Charles’s adolescent schooling and independent medical studies.
#2. There are two “Madame Bovarys” before the one we’re interested in.
The original Madame Bovary, and the only one to survive the book, is Charles’s mother. Charles also has a brief first marriage to Heloise, an older widow. Conveniently, she dies by the end of the second chapter, in which Charles met Emma when he went to set her farmer father’s broken leg.
#3. There’s a lovely Hardyesque flavor to the novel.
Flaubert’s original subtitle was “Provincial Morals,” and the scenes set among country folk – especially Emma and Charles’s wedding procession and reception and the later agricultural fair – reminded me of Far from the Madding Crowd.
#4. Emma has a child.
Despite all I’d absorbed about the book, I never knew Emma had a baby girl, Berthe. They lodge the infant with a wet nurse and servants do most of the hard work of raising her, so Berthe has only a tiny role. The scene in which Emma violently pushes the little girl away from her is meant, I think, to reflect her fundamental unfitness for motherhood.
#5. In the world of the novel, literature is a danger and religion is no balm.
On the advice of Charles’s mother, he cancels Emma’s lending library subscription lest novels exacerbate her discontent. Manual labor is what Emma needs, Old Madame Bovary proclaims. When Emma goes to the parish priest for advice about her angst, he tells her she must be ill if she benefits from all the physical comforts she could need yet cannot be happy. (An excellent and wrenching scene.)
#6. There’s a strong medical theme.
Charles is a doctor, of course, but I didn’t know his profession would enter into the plot. There’s a crucial sequence in which he performs a groundbreaking operation on a stable boy with a clubfoot, but gangrene sets in and the leg has to be amputated. (Emma guiltily buys the boy a false leg.) Emma’s somewhat prolonged death by poisoning, and the appearance of her corpse, are also described in recognizable medical detail.
#7. Emma’s death isn’t the end.
There’s still two more chapters to go, and things only get worse. It’s as if Emma is still a negative influence after her death: pushing Charles on to extravagances he can’t afford, and sending him deeper into despair when he finds undeniable evidence of her two affairs.
#8. Homais, the arrogant pharmacist, is triumphant.
Monsieur Homais is one of the key secondary characters in Yonville, this small town near Rouen. He’s a middling community member who’s gotten above himself, yet he succeeds whereas Emma is crushed. The very last line of the novel goes to him: “He has just received the Legion of Honor.” In the introduction to my Signet Classic edition, Mary McCarthy suggests that Homais is “not just Emma’s foil; he is her alter ego.”
#9. Madame Bovary went on trial.
Appended to my copy is a 78-page transcript of the novel’s trial. As I skimmed it, I was reminded of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, which took place just over 100 years later (1959–60). Flaubert and his publisher were accused of “offenses against public morality and religion,” specifically of portraying Emma as lascivious and making adultery appealing compared to the banality of marriage. The defense countered that Charles receives all the reader’s sympathy and Emma all the reader’s revulsion. Flaubert was acquitted (as was Lady Chatterley), but the judge’s ruling was essentially “Naughty boy, don’t you know literature has a mission to exalt the spirit, not to hold up vice as an object of horror?”
Now for what doesn’t surprise me about Madame Bovary: the beautiful writing and the enduring power of what is ultimately a rather commonplace story line. The percentage of novels with an adultery subplot must be very high nowadays, but Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina were two of the first to consider the female experience.
Flaubert famously declared “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“Madame Bovary is me”), and I think every reader must see something of him-/herself in this character: the lure of a romantic and luxurious life, the boredom of the day to day, the longing to make something more out of existence, and an increasing desperation to cover up one’s mistakes. A book that has had meaning for generations, Madame Bovary is a true classic.
Some favorite lines:
“But her life was as cold as an attic with northern exposure, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in all the dark corners of her heart.”
“Mealtime was the worst of all in that tiny room on the ground floor, with the smoking oven, the creaking door, the damp walls, and the moist flagstones; all the bitterness of her existence seemed to be served up to her on her plate, and the steam from the boiled beef brought up waves of nausea from the depths of her soul.”
“No one can ever express the exact measure of his needs, or conceptions, or sorrows. The human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out a tune for a dancing bear, when we hope with our music to move the stars.”
(Isn’t that last sentence incredible?!)
I read a Signet Classic edition of Mildred Marmur’s 1964 translation.
See also Susan’s review of Sophie Divry’s recent update, Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, at A life in books.
The dark horse in this year’s Man Booker Prize race is Elmet, a brilliant, twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. I’d love to see this win the Booker, or make the shortlist at the very least. You’d hardly believe it’s a debut novel, or that it’s by a 29-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history. The epigraph from Ted Hughes defines “Elmet” as an ancient Celtic kingdom encompassing what is now West Yorkshire. The word still appears in a few Yorkshire place names today. Metaphorically, Hughes notes, the region was a “‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” That’s an apt setting for Mozley’s central characters: a family living on the edge of poverty and respectability – off-grid and not quite legal.
Daniel and Cathy Oliver – 14 and 15, respectively – live with their father, John Smythe, in a simple house he built with his own hands in a copse. They mostly eat whatever they can hunt. Daddy is a renowned pugilist not above beating people up when they owe his friends money. Feisty Cathy is bullied by boys at school; when teachers don’t believe her, she has no choice but to hit back. There’s a strong us-against-the-world ethos to the novel, but underneath that defensiveness there’s a sense of unease: Daniel, the narrator, isn’t a fighter like his father and sister. He’s a sensitive soul who’s happiest cooking and playing with his dogs.
Like the reader, Daniel watches in grim fascination as Mr. Price, a powerful local landlord, starts issuing threats. Price warns Daddy that his family is trespassing. If they don’t leave he’ll make life difficult for them. A group of tenants, many of them just out of prison and barely getting by, bands together to take revenge on Price, planning to withhold rent and farm labor until conditions improve. No longer will they accept £20 payments for 10-hour work days. At first it seems their fight for rights might be successful, but Price and his goons retrench. Things come to a head when Price promises to sign their plot of land over to Daniel – if Daddy agrees to call off the strike and fight one last climactic match in the woods.
The final 70 pages of Elmet blew me away: a crescendo of fateful violence that reaches Shakespearean proportions. This knocks all those Hogarth remakes (which generally, with the exception of Hag-Seed, adhere too slavishly to the plots and so fail to channel the spirit) into a cocked hat. Though oddly similar to two other novels on the Booker longlist that unearth disturbing doings in a superficially pastoral England – Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and Autumn by Ali Smith – Elmet achieves the better balance between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism. Mozley’s countryside is no idyll but a fallen edgeland:
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.
The characters usually speak in Yorkshire dialect, but where many authors would render the definite article as “t’,” Mozley simply elides it. For instance, here’s John shaking his head over the injustice of land ownership:
It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.
The author is not entirely consistent with the transcription of dialect, though, and sometimes her use of spoken language is off: too ornate to be believable in certain characters’ mouths, like Cathy or a man who comes to the door to deliver bad news late on. These are such minor lapses of authorial control that I barely think them worth mentioning, but take it as proof that Mozley will only get better in the years to come. This is a gorgeous, timeless tale of the determination to overcome helplessness by facing down those who might harm the body but cannot destroy the spirit.
Elmet was published in the UK by JM Originals on August 10th. With thanks to Yassine Belkacemi and Katherine Burdon at John Murray Press for the free review copy.