Tag Archives: W. Somerset Maugham

Five Final Novellas: Adichie, Glück, Jhabvala, Victory for Ukraine, Woodson (#NovNov22)

We’ll wrap up Novellas in November and give some final statistics tomorrow. Today, I have mini reviews of another five novellas I read this month: one short nonfiction reread and then fiction ranging from India in the 1920s to short stories in comics about the war in Ukraine.

 

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2021)

[85 pages]

This came out in May last year – I pre-ordered it from Waterstones with points I’d saved up, because I’m that much of a fan – and it’s rare for me to reread something so soon, but of course it took on new significance for me this month. Like me, Adichie lived on a different continent from her family and so technology mediated her long-distance relationships. She saw her father on their weekly Sunday Zoom on June 7, 2020 and he appeared briefly on screen the next two days, seeming tired; on June 10, he was gone, her brother’s phone screen showing her his face: “my father looks asleep, his face relaxed, beautiful in repose.”

My experience of my mother’s death was similar: everything was sudden; my sister was the one there at the hospital, while all I could do was wait by the phone/laptop for news. So these details were particularly piercing, but the whole essay resonated with me as she navigates the early days of grief and remembers what she most admires about her father, including his piety, record-keeping and pride in her. (How lucky I am that Covid travel restrictions were no longer a factor; they delayed his memorial service.) My original review is here. Cathy also reviewed it. If you wish, you can read the New Yorker piece it arose from here.

 

Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück (2022)

[52 pages]

The first (and so far only) fiction by the poet and 2020 Nobel Prize winner, this is a curious little story that imagines the inner lives of infant twins and closes with their first birthday. Like Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, it ascribes to preverbal beings thoughts and wisdom they could not possibly have. Marigold, the would-be writer of the pair, is spiky and unpredictable, whereas Rose is the archetypal good baby.

Marigold did not like people. She liked Mother and Father; everyone else had not yet been properly inspected. Rose did like people and she intended them to like her. … Everyone understood that Marigold lived in her head and Rose lived in the world.

 

Now every day was like the days when the twins did not perform well at naptime. Then Mother and Father would begin to look tired and harassed. Mother explained that babies got tired too; often, they cried because they were tired. I don’t cry because I’m tired, Marigold thought. I cry because something has disappointed me.

As a psychological allegory, this tracks personality development and the growing awareness of Mother and Father as separate people with their own characteristics, some of which each girl replicates. But I failed to find much of a point.

With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.

 

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975)

[181 pages]

A lesser-known Booker Prize winner that we read for our book club’s women’s classics subgroup. My reading was interrupted by the last-minute trip back to the States, so I ended up finishing the last two-thirds after we’d had the discussion and also watched the movie. I found I was better able to engage with the subtle story and understated writing after I’d seen the sumptuous 1983 Merchant Ivory film: the characters jumped out for me much more than they initially had on the page, and it was no problem having Greta Scacchi in my head.

In 1923, Olivia is a bored young officer’s wife in India who becomes infatuated with the Nawab, an Indian prince involved in some dodgy dealings. In the novel’s present day, Olivia’s step-granddaughter (never named; in the film she’s called Anne, played by Julie Christie and changed to a great-niece for some reason) is also in India, enjoying the hippie freedom and rediscovering Olivia’s life through the letters she wrote to her sister. Both novel and film cut quickly and often between the two time periods to draw increasingly overt parallels between the women’s lives, culminating in unexpected pregnancies and difficult decisions to be made. I enjoyed the atmosphere (see also The Painted Veil and China Room) and would recommend the film, but I doubt I’ll seek out more by Jhabvala. (Public library)

 

PEREMOHA: Victory for Ukraine (2022)

[96 pages]

Various writers and artists contributed these graphic shorts, so there are likely to be some stories you enjoy more than others. “The Ghost of Kyiv” is about a mythical hero from the early days of the Russian invasion who shot down six enemy planes in a day. I got Andy Capp vibes from “Looters,” about Russian goons so dumb they don’t even recognize the appliances they haul back to their slum-dwelling families. (Look, this is propaganda. Whether it comes from the right side or not, recognize it for what it is.) In “Zmiinyi Island 13,” Ukrainian missiles destroy a Russian missile cruiser. Though hospitalized, the Ukrainian soldiers involved – including a woman – can rejoice in the win. “A pure heart is one that overcomes fear” is the lesson they quote from a legend. “Brave Little Tractor” is an adorable Thomas the Tank Engine-like story-within-a-story about farm machinery that joins the war effort. A bit too much of the superhero, shoot-’em-up stylings (including perfectly put-together females with pneumatic bosoms) for me here, but how could any graphic novel reader resist this Tokyopop compilation when a portion of proceeds go to RAZOM, a nonprofit Ukrainian-American human rights organization? (Read via Edelweiss)

 

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (2016)

[175 pages]

August looks back on her coming of age in 1970s Bushwick, Brooklyn. She lived with her father and brother in a shabby apartment, but friendship with Angela, Gigi and Sylvia lightened a gloomy existence: “as we stood half circle in the bright school yard, we saw the lost and beautiful and hungry in each of us. We saw home.” As in Very Cold People, though, this is not an untroubled girlhood. Male threat is everywhere, and if boyfriends bring sexual awakening they are also a constant goad to do more than girls are ready for. In short, flitting paragraphs, Woodson explores August’s past – a childhood in Tennessee, her uncle who died in the Vietnam War, her father’s growing involvement with the Nation of Islam. What struck me most, though, was August’s coming to terms with her mother’s death, a fact she doesn’t even acknowledge at first, and the anthropological asides about other cultures’ death rituals. This was my second from Woodson after the Women’s Prize-longlisted Red at the Bone, and I liked them about the same. A problem for me was that Brown Girls, which, with its New York City setting and focus on friendships between girls of colour, must have at least partially been inspired by Another Brooklyn, was better. (Public library)

 

In total, I read 17 novellas this November, though if you add in the ones I’d read in advance and then reviewed over the course of the month, I managed 24. All things considered, I think that’s a great showing. The 5-star stand-outs for me were The Hero of This Book and Body Kintsugi, but Up at the Villa was also a great read.

Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham (#NovNov22 Short Classics Week)

This was just what I want from a one-sitting read: surprising and satisfying, and in this case with enough suspense to keep the pages turning. When beautiful 30-year-old widow Mary Panton, staying in a villa in the hills overlooking Florence, receives two marriage proposals within the first 33 pages, I worried I was in for a boring, conventional story.

However, things soon get much more interesting. Her suitors are Sir Edgar Swift of the Indian Civil Service, 24 years her senior and just offered a job as the governor of Bengal; and Rowley Flint, a notorious lady’s man. Edgar has to go away on business and will ask for her answer when he’s back in several days. He leaves her with a revolver to take with her if she goes out in the car. A Chekhov’s gun? Absolutely. And it’ll be up to Mary and Rowley to deal with the consequences.

I’ll avoid further details; it’s too much fun to discover those for yourself. I’ll just mention that some intriguing issues get brought in, such as political dissidence in the early days of WWII, charity vs. pity, and the double standard of promiscuity in men vs. women.

Compared to something like Of Human Bondage, sure, this 1941 novella is a minor work, but I found it hugely enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone looking for a short classic or wanting to try Maugham (from here advance to The Painted Veil and The Moon and Sixpence before trying one of the chunksters).

Some plot points are curiously similar to Downton Abbey seasons 1–3, leading me to wonder if this was actually a conscious or unconscious influence on Julian Fellowes. Mostly, though, this reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a deliciously twisted little book where you find yourself rooting for people you might not sympathize with in real life.

And how’s this for a last line? “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.”

(See also Simon’s review.)

[120 pages] (Public library)

I own too many unread books by…

A side effect of packing my library in preparation for moving: I’ve noticed there are certain authors whose works I tend to acquire secondhand and then stockpile rather than read. (I’ve also included in the tallies copies that I know are sitting in boxes in the USA.)

 

D.H. Lawrence: 9+ (Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Lost Girl, The Plumed Serpent, a Complete Poems volume, Sea and Sardinia, a Selected Short Stories volume, Studies in Classic American Literature, The Woman Who Rode Away)

Lawrence was one of my research specialties as an undergraduate, so I read all his major works in my early twenties, as well as some lesser-known stuff, but haven’t felt compelled to pick up anything by him since. I’m not sure I’d care for him anymore, and it’s as if I don’t want to destroy the mystique. Yet I also can’t bring myself to get rid of these.

 

T.C. Boyle: 7 (A Friend of the Earth, The Inner Circle, Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain, Water Music, The Women, World’s End)

I’ve read five of Boyle’s books and have had a mixed experience, but his plots – whether biographical (Alfred Kinsey! the wives and lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright!) or environmental – tend to attract me. My husband has actually become the bigger fan, so has read 3–4 of these that I haven’t.

 

W. Somerset Maugham: 7 (Ashenden, Christmas Holiday, Creatures of Circumstance, Liza of Lambeth, The Magician, The Razor’s Edge, The Summing Up)

I read four of Maugham’s novels between 2014 and 2020. He’s an unappreciated author these days. Back when we had a free bookshop in my local mall, I volunteered weekly and most weeks came away with a backpack full of goodies. One week it was a partial leatherbound set of Maugham, which I’ve since supplemented with other paperbacks.

 

Robertson Davies: 6.5 (The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy)

I loved Fifth Business and The Rebel Angels, read for subsequent Robertson Davies week challenges run by Lory, but made aborted attempts at both ‘sequels’, so the rest of his three major trilogies remain unread on my shelves.

 

Barbara Comyns: 5 (The Juniper Tree, The House of Dolls, Mr Fox, The Skin Chairs, A Touch of Mistletoe)

I blame Liz for this one: after I read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead during Novellas in November last year, she passed on her Comyns stash in a lovely Christmas parcel. Most are short enough to suit a future #NovNov, but I have The Juniper Tree earmarked for 20 Books of Summer (flora themed) and A Touch of Mistletoe for Christmastide.

Wendy Perriam: 5 (Absinthe for Elevenses, Breaking and Entering, Cuckoo, Michael, Michael, Sin City)

Again, mostly Liz’s fault. (Though two others came from my Hay-on-Wye haul in September 2020.) I’ve still only read the one novel by Perriam, The Stillness The Dancing, but it was great and made me confident that I’d enjoy engaging with her repeated themes.

 

Richard Mabey: 4 (The Common Ground, Gilbert White biography, Nature Cure, The Unofficial Countryside)

Considering that Mabey is the father of modern British nature writing, it’s kind of shocking that I’ve never read anything by him. I’ve put Nature Cure on my bedside pile to start soon.

 

Virginia Woolf: 4 (Between the Acts, The Waves, The Years, a volume of her diaries)

I’ve tried The Waves and The Years and didn’t get further than a few pages; I find Woolf unreadably dense in a way I didn’t in my early twenties, when I studied To the Lighthouse (go figure). But there’s still this compulsion to have read them so that I can be a well-rounded literary person.

 

Kent Haruf: 3 (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction)

Our Souls at Night topped my backlist reads in 2020, but an attempt at reading Plainsong soon after failed. I think it was more involved, with more strands, than I was expecting after the simplicity of his novella. So the trilogy, acquired piecemeal secondhand, has languished on my shelves. I’ll try again with Plainsong this year.

 

Elizabeth Jane Howard: 3 (Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off)

I loved sinking into The Light Years, the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles (read for a book club meeting last January), and even read the first 60 pages of the sequel, Marking Time, but then tailed off – you can see I’m terrible about continuing with series. But I’d like to get back into this one and, when I do, I have Books 2–4 out of five awaiting me.

 

Mary Karr: 3 (The Liars’ Club, Cherry, Lit)

Karr was key to the resurgence in popularity of memoirs in the 1990s. I’ve read her book about memoir (as well as a commencement speech she gave, and a volume of her poems), but not yet one of her actual memoirs. I found them all free or secondhand on trips back to the States. I don’t know whether it’s important to go in the chronological order listed above, or if I should just jump in with whichever, maybe Lit, about her struggle with alcoholism.

 

Sue Miller: 3 (The Lake Shore Limited, While I Was Gone, The World Below)

After I read Monogamy in December 2020 and it ended up on my Best-of list for that year, I scurried to get hold of a bunch of her other books. I’ve since read The Senator’s Wife, which was a big disappointment, but I’m looking forward to trying more.

 

Howard Norman: 3 (Devotion, The Northern Lights, What Is Left the Daughter)

I’ve read six of Norman’s books; he’s an underrated treasure of an author. I have no idea why I haven’t read these yet. Two are marooned in America, but The Northern Lights could make it onto a reading stack anytime. I just need the right excuse, it seems.

 


I’m thinking back to 2020, when I realized I had four unread Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie books on my shelves. Through various challenges – doorstoppers, summer reads, short stories, novellas – I managed to read them ALL that year, followed by another two in 2021. I don’t usually enjoy binging on particular authors in that way, but her books are different enough from each other (and just so good) that I didn’t mind.

I can’t promise to try the same tactic with these underread authors this year, but I can at least resolve to read one book by each of them, to reduce the backlog.

Do you have particular authors you own a lot by … but fail to read?

Classic of the Month: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

(20 Books of Summer, #12) This is the third Maugham novel I’ve reviewed here (after Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence) and my fourth overall. I’d recommend his work to fans of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, or to anyone looking to expand their knowledge of the classics: his books are short (with the exception of Bondage) and accessible, and the frequent theme of struggling one’s way to love and creative success in defiance of poverty and a cruel fate resonates.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by an older writer named William Ashenden, a Maugham stand-in who previously appeared in the 1928 linked story collection Ashenden, widely recognized as the first English spy narrative. He’s contacted by a popular author of his acquaintance, Alroy Kear (“I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent”) with a request: Roy is writing the authorized biography of the late writer Edward Driffield, at his second wife’s behest. Remembering that Ashenden knew Driffield as a boy, Roy hopes to mine his memory for some good anecdotes. The book contains his resulting recollections – though Ashenden is unlikely to share them all with Roy.

Ashenden shares a background with Philip Carey from Of Human Bondage: both were raised in a vicar uncle’s household in Blackstable, Kent. Young Willie would go for bike rides with friendly neighbors Driffield and his wife Rosie, until his aunt and uncle forbade him.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}


The Driffields, you see, were considered low-class and vulgar, an opinion that was seemingly confirmed first when they ran away from their debts to London, and then when Rosie left Edward for a Kent coal merchant. Rosie comes to represent a familiar type: the whore with the heart of gold. As Ashenden knows from personal experience, she enjoyed sex and slept with men out of kindness or pity. Only decades later did he learn that Edward knew Rosie was stepping out on him, and that the couple had lost a six-year-child to meningitis. This is not, I think, meant to excuse Rosie’s promiscuity, but it does give her an extra dimension, and perhaps explains why Driffield’s first marriage failed. Unfortunately, Rosie’s sexuality is racialized, with Driffield’s second wife saying, “I’ve always thought she looked rather like a white nigger” and an illustration giving her stereotypically wide nostrils and thick lips.)


{END OF SPOILERS}

 

I felt Driffield must be inspired by Thomas Hardy, and I’m not alone: in a preface, Maugham reports that many assumed he had Hardy in mind, but denies basing his portrait on any author in particular. Yet the similarities are undeniable: the flighty first wife; the late remarriage to his secretary; childlessness; humble origins and the fight to be taken seriously in the literary world. Maugham does, however, mention loving Tess of the d’Urbervilles and its milkmaid heroine, so Rosie is his homage (in the preface Maugham explains that, while the book’s plot occurred to him for a short story, he didn’t want to ‘waste’ Rosie on something so brief).

Dickens is an influence, too; I enjoyed references to his work, as well as to (on consecutive pages!) the New Woman and Mrs. Humphry Ward, both of whom were part of my MA thesis. The Victorian shadow is long here. But the focus on Rosie means Driffield himself is never more than a cipher. Ashenden admits this: “I am conscious that in what I have written of him I have not presented a living man, standing on his feet, rounded, with comprehensible motives and logical activities; I have not tried to: I am glad to leave that to the abler pen of Alroy Kear.” But The Moon and Sixpence, which employs the same setup of an author reminiscing about a great man he once knew, makes its subject a three-dimensional character, and is better for it.

Note: Maugham’s titles are often unusual and allusive. “Cakes and ale,” as part of a Twelfth Night quotation, represent the luxurious lifestyle in opposition to the moral one. The book’s subtitle is “or The Skeleton in the Cupboard.”

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

“All to Do with the Moon”: Four Books with Moon in the Title

I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.

 

The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)

This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.

 

The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)

This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).

Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.

 

To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)

My special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.

I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.

Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)

Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.

I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.

Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”

“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”

“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”

A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.

 

Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:

Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

Incidents of Book Serendipity

Since May I’ve been posting my occasional reading coincidences on Twitter and/or Instagram. This is when two or more books that I’m reading at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once – usually between 10 and 20 – I guess I’m more prone to such serendipitous incidents. What’s the weirdest one you’ve had lately? (The following are in rough chronological order.)

 

  • Two historical novels set (partially) among the slaves of Martinique and featuring snippets of Creole (Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man and Jane Harris’s Sugar Money)
  • A book about epilepsy and a conductor’s memoir, followed by a novel with a conductor character and another who has seizures (Suzanne O’Sullivan’s Brainstorm and Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?  to Caoilinn Hughes’s Orchid & the Wasp)

 

  • Two characters mistake pregnancy for cholera (in Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come and W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil)

 

  • Two characters are reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s Good Morning, Midnight and Julie Buntin’s Marlena) … I’ve since tried again with Le Guin’s book myself, but it’s so dry I can only bear to skim it.

 

  • Two memoirs by Iranian-American novelists with mental health and drug use issues (Porochista Khakpour’s Sick and Afarin Majidi’s Writing and Madness in a Time of Terror)
  • References to the blasé response to Martin Luther King’s assassination in North Carolina (in Paulette Bates Alden’s Crossing the Moon and David Sedaris’s Calypso)

 

  • The Police lyrics (in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard [a whole essay called “Sting”])
  • Salmon croquettes mentioned in Less by Andrew Sean Greer and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

 

  • I’m reading Beryl Markham’s West with the Night … and then Glynnis MacNicol picks that very book up to read on a plane in No One Tells You This

 

  • Starting two books with the word “Ladder” in the title, one right after the other: Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan and Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler (followed just a couple of weeks later by A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne!)
  • Two books set in Dunedin, New Zealand, one right after the other – I planned it that way, BUT both have a character called Myrtle (To the Is-Land by Janet Frame and Dunedin by Shena Mackay). Then I encountered Harold Gillies, the father of plastic surgery, in Jim McCaul’s Face to Face, and guess what? He was from Dunedin!
    • Then I was skimming Louisa Young’s You Left Early and she mentioned that her grandmother was a sculptor who worked with Gillies on prostheses, which was the inspiration for her WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.

 

  • Two novels featuring drug addicts (Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin and Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn)

 

  • The same Wallace Stevens lines that appear as an epigraph to Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are mentioned in Elaine Pagels’s Why Religion? – “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.”
  • “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is mentioned in Little by Edward Carey and Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy

 

  • Reading Nine Pints, Rose George’s book about blood, at the same time as Deborah Harkness’s Time’s Convert, which is partially about vampires; in this it takes 90 days for a human to become fully vampirized – the same time it takes to be cured of an addiction according to the memoir Ninety Days by Bill Clegg.

My Patchy Experience with Book Clubs

I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
  • A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
  • The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
  • What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
  • Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
  • The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]

That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.

Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.

Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”


If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.

Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.

In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.

Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.


This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”

I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.

So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.

I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.

 

What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?

The Smell of Fresh Rain by Barney Shaw

Petrichor: that would be the alternative title for this book about the often-neglected human sense of smell. In avoiding that lovely but obscure word, Barney Shaw is making a specific point: we don’t have an everyday vocabulary for talking about smells; there are specialist terms and concepts, but try to depict an ordinary scent in words and you may struggle.

I had just such an experience myself the other week. We’d bought a jar of Sun-Pat peanut butter at Sainsbury’s that didn’t taste or smell right, but no longer had the receipt to return it to the store. When I contacted the company on Twitter, my attempts to describe the problem were decidedly feeble: we’d bought a “duff jar,” I wrote; it tasted and smelled “off.” If pressed I would perhaps have used the word “stale,” but I had no way of conveying how exactly it didn’t taste or smell right. (Sun-Pat very kindly took my word for it and sent £10 worth of vouchers. The new jars we bought as replacements tasted better but still not the same as before: chances are they’ve recently changed the recipe to be cheaper.)

I’m intrigued by the related senses of smell and taste in general, so I was delighted to find a whole book on the topic. Shaw, a retired civil servant who served as a private secretary to various government ministers, approaches the topic as an amateur enthusiast rather than a scientist, so his language is never overly technical and he ranges between history, anatomy, literature and even self-help.

Much of the book was researched “on location,” as it were. Shaw travels to Portsmouth to grasp the signature smells of the seaside; visits a hardware store to differentiate the odors of different metals (they release no smell on their own, only in contact with human skin/sweat); returns to his hometown to discover the smells associated with suburban gardens and different types of High Street shops; and sniffs at butcher stalls, pubs, and London Underground trains. With his son, blind from birth and autistic, he sets out to capture “the smell of 3 a.m.” as early-morning market sellers set out their mushrooms and cheeses.

Shaw also travels through time, imagining what it might have smelled like in the mid-nineteenth century or earlier: raw sewage, cooking smoke, animal dung, and laundries and tanneries with their reek of stale urine. Once many of those stinks were eliminated, bad smells became associated with the working classes (as in the work of Maugham and Orwell) or with foreigners, a continuing prejudice that fuels xenophobia. The book also traces the rise of the perfume industry and other artificial smells like scent diffusers and vaping. Shaw is uncomfortable with the idea of natural scents being replaced by synthetic ones, and notes the environmental consequences of our obsession with abolishing body odor: “The price we pay for hygiene and deodorants is in the pollution pumped out by a billion washing machines and … soap, toothpaste and washing powder flowing down to the seas.”

There are fascinating facts on pretty much every page of this book; I won’t bore you by listing them, but will just say that if you’re interested in exploring the connections between smell and memory in life and in literature, in discovering what makes the human sense of smell unique, and in learning some wine-tasting-style tips for describing odors, this is the perfect introduction. I noted a bit of repetition in the book, especially at chapter openings, but that didn’t keep me from being as enthralled with the subject matter as Shaw, a passionate tour guide to the olfactory world, so clearly is.

My rating:

 

The Smell of Fresh Rain was released in the UK on November 14th. My thanks to Victoria Reed at Icon Books for the free copy for review.

 

Other books referencing smell/taste that I have read or at least sampled:

  • Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
  • Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste by Bianca Bosker
  • Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells by Philippe Claudel
  • The Diary of a Nose by Jean-Claude Ellena
  • A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

 

Other smell-related titles on my TBR:

Nonfiction:

  • Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel
  • Taste, Memory: Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter by David Buchanan
  • The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York by Chandler Burr
  • The Case against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

Fiction:

  • A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler
  • The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
  • The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books by Susan Hill

Susan Hill has published dozens of books in multiple genres, but is probably best known for her perennially popular ghost story, The Woman in Black (1983). Apart from that and two suspense novellas, the only book I’d read by her before is Howards End Is on the Landing (2009), a sort of prequel to this work. Both are bookish memoirs animated by the specific challenge to spend more time reading from her shelves and revisiting the books that have meant the most to her in the past. Though not quite a journal, this is set up chronologically and also incorporates notes on the weather, family events and travels, and natural phenomena encountered near her home in Norfolk.

The Virginia Woolf reference in the title is fitting, as Hill realizes she has four shelves’ worth of books about Woolf and her Bloomsbury set. It’s just one of many mini-collections she discovers in her library on regular “de-stocking” drives when she tries to be realistic about what, at age 75, she’s likely to reread or reference in the future. “A book that cannot be returned to again and again, and still yield fresh entertainment and insights, is only half a book,” Hill contends. Some authors who merit frequent rereading for her are Edith Wharton, Muriel Spark, W. Somerset Maugham and Olivia Manning, while other passions had a time limit: she’s gone off E.F. Benson, and no longer reads about Antarctica or medieval theology.

Hill is unashamedly opinionated, though she at least has the humility to ask what individual taste matters. Her substantial list of no-nos includes fairy tales, science fiction, Ethan Frome, Patricia Highsmith and e-readers, and she seems strangely proud of never having read Jane Eyre. She’s ambivalent about literary festivals and especially about literary prizes: they were a boon to her as a young author, but she was also on the infamous 2011 Booker Prize judging panel, and disapproves of that prize being opened up to American entries.

As well as grumpy pronouncements, this book is full of what seems like name-dropping: encounters with Iris Murdoch, J.B. Priestley, Susan Sontag and the like. (To be fair, the stories about Murdoch and Sontag are rather lovely.) Although aspects of this book rubbed me the wrong way, I appreciated it as a meditation on how books are woven into our lives. I took note of quite a few books I want to look up, and Hill ponders intriguing questions that book clubs might like to think about: Can we ever enjoy books as purely as adults as we did as children, now that we have to “do something” with our reading (e.g. discussing or reviewing)? Is it a lesser achievement to turn one’s own life experiences into fiction than to imagine incidents out of thin air? Will an author unconsciously “catch the style” of any writer they are reading at the time of their own compositions? Is it better to come to a book blind, without having read the blurb or anything else about it?

You’ll applaud; you’ll be tempted to throw the book at the wall (this was me with the early page disparaging May Sarton). Perhaps on consecutive pages. But you certainly won’t be indifferent. And a book that provokes a reaction is a fine thing.


Some favorite lines:

“Cold room, warm bed, good book.”

“I have had fifty-five years of experience but still every book is like walking a tightrope. I might fall off.”

“People say they can never part with a book. I can. As fast as I get one out of the back door, two new ones come in through the front anyway.”

“How many people are there living in the books here? Only take the complete novels of Dickens and add up all the characters in each one and then multiply by … and I already need to lie down. Overall, there must be thousands of imaginary people sharing this house with us.”

“One of the best presents anyone can give you is the name of a writer whose books they believe will be ‘you’ – and they are. Someone you would almost certainly never have found for yourself.”

My rating:


Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books was released in the UK on October 5th. My thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

Making Plans (and Book Lists) for America

On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.

I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?

I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.

I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.

I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?

However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.

My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.

As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!


On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.

Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.