Somewhat of a Review: Daniel Mendelsohn’s THREE RINGS: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate

Three_RingsIn “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” In Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings, based on lectures he gave at the University of Virginia in 2019, the eponymous “rings” refer to the narrative construction of Homer’s Odyssey, as Mendelsohn defines and understands it, and to both the construction of his narrative and the pattern that helped him escape from a stasis in his life’s journey.

When the narrative opens, Mendelsohn tells us he was in a state of what the Greeks called “aporia,” (a kind of, from my weak demotic Greek, “unknowingness”), “a helpless, immobilized confusion, a lack of resources to find one’s way out of a problem … I was, in the Greek way of thinking, pathless — the adjective, as it happens, that, in the Odyssey, is used to describe the sea, the terrifying blank nothingness from which Odysseus must extricate himself, literally and figuratively, in order to claim his identity and find his way home”.

After writing two “big” books (one a years-long attempt to uncover how six family members were lost in the Holocaust; the other recounting his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey and relationship with his father, a text and story inundated with fathers, sons, and occurrences of separation and connection) and enduring his father’s loss, being emotional journeys as much as intellectual ones, Mendelsohn found himself, like Dante at the opening of “Inferno”: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Mendelsohn then tells the story of three men, emblematic of the central figure of our time and place, the wanderer, the exile, the DP, Berger’s “seventh man,”: first, Erich Auerbach, author of Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; then, an eighteenth-century French archbishop, François Fénelon, author of The Adventures of Telemachus (a telling that centres the Homeric narrative on fils over père); and, lastly, W. G. Sebald, the German writer who lived in East Anglia, and wrote strange hybrid tales of memory, history, haunting photography, and journey-logues. Continue reading

Samantha Harvey’s THE SHAPELESS UNEASE: A Year of Not Sleeping

The_Shapeless_UneaseMy sole response to reaching the end of Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease was gratitude, not to Harvey, but to reaching the end and not giving up. It was a long, difficult slog, but I made it, sheer stubbornness propelling me forward to its vague conclusion. It’s not a terrible book, not by litfic, and not memfic, standards: it has the requisite lyrical prose, occasional, brilliant insight, only to lapse into lyrical existential-babble that hopes to dissolve the self, or digressive, tangential passages, never coming together with what came before, or what comes after.

Initially, I was drawn to the topic, but driven away by the style. As someone who has experienced bouts of insomnia, one in particular, I’d say, debilitating, and is an obsessive lover of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the greatest account of insomnias ever written, I wanted to read Harvey’s memoir. It started out great: Harvey, a regular sleeper pre-year-of-not-sleeping, recounts the incident at the heart of her not-sleeping: her cousin’s death. My understanding, and who knows, given the impenetrable style, I may be wrong, is that Harvey’s insomnia is linked to an existential dread of death, triggered by her cousin’s loss: “my cousin’s death has invited all deaths”. Continue reading

Reading Scarcity … if not for a few great books …

Little_StrangerAs I make my way towards this coming winter of discontent, my reading is as slow and endless as February. Here I am, in early December, and I’ve read one book this past month. One. Sad. On the other hand, it’s a GREAT book. I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, what you’d get if Shirley Jackson had written Downton Abbey, crossed it with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”, and tossed in a touch of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

The Little Stranger is one of the most compelling and disorienting novels I’ve ever read and I kind of loved it. At times, I resented it, felt it was built only on relentless plot that remained impenetrable. Yet I couldn’t put it down and resented work, family obligation, and mundane household tasks keeping me from sitting down and reading through to its end.

Set in post-WWII Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is narrated by a country doctor, Dr. Faraday. Of humble origins, Faraday’s parents (long dead when the novel opens) gave up everything to educate him and yet, now he is “risen” above their station, he remains at most a modest success, treating his small-town patients’ ordinary ills and keeping an uninspired bachelor apartment above a store. In his late thirties, his life is circumscribed by his practice and the occasional dinner with his partner’s family. All is stodgily quiet until he is called to Hundreds Hall, a Downton-esque estate where his mother worked as a maid when he was a child, to treat the ailing servant-girl, Betty, who, in the end, may or may not be the “little stranger” and whose part in Faraday’s and the Hundreds’s family’s, the Ayreses’, tragedy may have played a part, or not. That is the most maddening and brilliant aspect of Waters’s novel, even reaching its final words, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, or why.   Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: THE EDGE OF WINTER, #34

Edge_Of_WinterOn the Betty Neels scale of perfection to meh, The Edge of Winter falls closer to perfection, except for one great big ole blip near the end. In the dramatic opening, our heroine, with the unlikely name of Araminta Shaw, is rescued from a treacherous Cornish cliff (she descended the ramparts to save a stranded child) by a mysterious sailor, who … behold, shows up as Dutch visiting Dr. Crispin van Sibbelt at the hospital where Araminta is employed as a nurse. Like my favourite Neelses, Araminta and Crispin do NOT hit it off: he’s arrogant, overbearing and teasing; she’s annoyed and peevish. She hates him and especially herself for finding him attractive. One night, after a particularly harrowing hospital day, Crispin shows up at Araminta’s flat, with supper … from Harrod’s. Is there anything to compare to a hero who appears when the heroine is too tired to deal with supper? They eat companionably enough and Crispin kisses Araminta. She’s half in love with him and in total denial, giving rise to one’s of Betty’s finest peevish-heroine passages: “He had invited himself — and he had behaved very strangely; she had been kissed before, but somehow this time she had felt disturbed by it, and that was strange in itself, because she didn’t like him. She would take great care to treat him with polite aloofness when next they met. She entered the Accident Room, carrying on a mythical conversation with him in which he came off very much the worse for wear” (40). WARNING: spoilers ahead. Continue reading

REVIEW: Allison Montclair’s A ROYAL AFFAIR (Sparks and Bainbridge #2)

Royal_AffairI loved Allison Montclair’s first Sparks and Bainbridge mystery, The Right Sort of Man, and anticipated the second. Is there anything better than a summer holiday, with only a modicum of work obligations, to enjoy an anticipated book?

A Royal Affair takes Iris Sparks and Gwen Bainbridge out of their humble business start and into the highest echelons of royal matters, to the possible engagement of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Someone, however, doesn’t want this to take place. A blackmailer, with damning letters involving the prince’s mother, Princess Alice, and intrigues implicating Greek leftists (anti-monarchist, of course) and those who would restore Greece’s ersatz (sorry, my side is showing) royal family, who, where I come from, are neither royal, nor Greek. This lent a moue of disappointment reading the mystery novel, but it is strictly a personal one and I can still heartily recommend the series and this addition to it. To set the scene, Lady Matheson, Gwen’s cousin, arrives at London-based Right Sort Marriage Bureau with a task for Gwen and Iris: to search out the person, or persons, who seek to destroy the union between the handsome Greek prince and the future queen. Continue reading

The Great Betty Read: Esmeralda, #33

EsmeraldaWhen you’re in a pandemic, what can you do but pick up your GREAT BETTY NEELS READ from where you left off, victim of neglect and ennui? Sigh. So glad I’m back on my epic quest to read all 134 of her oeuvre. It was a comfort to return to a world where the tea is good, the sandwiches are better, there’s always a pudding, the hero is enormous and ethical, as is the heroine, and everyone receives rewards commensurate with their qualities. A warning to readers: our eponymous heroine had a childhood accident, which left her disabled in one foot. The novel’s first half is dedicated to her encounter with the hero, Dr. Thimo Bamstra, a renowned Dutch surgeon, who will “fix” her foot. This may be offensive to some, that Esmeralda needs “fixing” in any way and, indeed, I don’t think the hero feels compelled to “fix” her. It’s Esmeralda herself who has crawled into a hole of shame, aided and abetted by a society that sees disabled people as less than (pub. date is 1976). I can’t say I embraced Esmeralda when I started reading because of this. But I can’t help but say how much I ended up enjoying it. Continue reading

REVIEW/RESPONSE: C. S. Harris’s WHO SLAYS THE WICKED

Who_Slays_WickedI hoard C. S. Harris’s Regency-set St. Cyr mysteries like a squirrel her winter-nut-stash. But every time, when I have time off, I crack one open to enjoy without interruption. Given it’s a pandemic-summer and stay-home is still the best way to go, I’m happy to say I have TWO St. Cyrs to enjoy! Number fourteen sees Sebastian St. Cyr and wife Hero’s sleuthing hit close to home as Sebastian investigates the murder of his beloved niece’s husband, Lord Ashworth, dissipated, privileged, arrogant, and, as Sebastian suspects, a murderer and defiler of women and children. No one will mourn Ashworth, least of all his wife, Stephanie, who suffered at his hands, but his murder becomes personal when Stephanie is suspected. Like all of Harris’s St. Cyr mysteries, it’s a wild ride: a Russian delegation arrives in London to foil the Anglo-Dutch alliance sprung out of Napoléon’s dwindling/defunct powers. Russian and English nobles, London’s poor and destitute, one notch above-impoverishment servant class mix and mingle in Sebastian and wife’s, Hero’s, attempts to discover who killed the vicious Lord Ashworth. The narrative moves towards a confrontation between Sebastian, with his preternatural detecting powers, and evil. There is, in this volume, evil in Biblical proportions and Seb, more than ever, aware of human frailty, as the people he loves are caught in Ashworth’s depraved vortex.  Continue reading

Summer Reading: A Wow Book

Say_NothingDespite a week of family and work obligations, I spent most of it rushing back from an errand, or logging off a Zoom meeting eager to return to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. (If you read one nonfiction text this year, make it this one.) It’s remarkable and, rare in nonfiction, written with spare, clear, elegant prose. It is, as the subtitle makes obvious, an account of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, from the 1970s conflagrations to present-day; vague images of fires and bombs on the television news as I was growing up. Radden Keefe brought things home: I grew up in a society divided along fraught, linguistic lines; one who, like Northern Ireland, stood on the brink of chronic sectarian violence. (In 1970, as I walked to school, Canadian soldiers manned every street corner: the FLQ kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, ironically Irish-born, and deputy premier Pierre Laporte. Unlike Northern Ireland, though Laporte was killed and Westmount mailboxes bombed, Quebec slid into sullen stability: the English fled; the French stayed; allophones endured; language laws passed; separatist referenda, defeated. Quebec continues playing chicken with Canada and Canadians, for the most part, politely tolerate it.) I compare apples with oranges and ignore the matter at hand, Radden Keefe’s amazing book, my digression a testament to how thought-provoking it is. Continue reading

A Few Thoughts on a Maybe-Reread of Muriel Spark’s THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1961)

Prime_Jean_BrodieIn a single sitting, I recently read (reread? I’m not sure, I might’ve read it years ago, but have no memory of it, so it might as well be a first read) Muriel Sparks’s The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, Sparks’s satiric take on the cult of personality. Said personality is, of course, Miss Brodie, and yet, by the end, though Sparks pokes, prods, and lampoons her eponymous anti-heroine, might there be a hint of redemption, a nod to Miss Brodie’s transformative power? I’m not sure. In many ways, Miss Brodie is detestable: arrogant, self-important, snobbish, a fascist. This final Brodie fact indicts her and is her downfall. (BTW, if you’re keen on not reading about Brodie with spoilers, I’d stop here.) Continue reading

MINI-REVIEW: Sarah M. Eden’s THE LADY AND THE HIGHWAYMAN

Lady_HighwaymanI was pleasantly surprised at the complexity and page-turning élan of Sarah M. Eden’s The Lady and the Highwayman. Eden is a new-to-me author and I’m glad I’ve discovered her romances; this first read won’t be my last, thanks to her robust backlist.

Victorian-set among the humble and working-class, Eden’s thriller-melodrama-romance boasts a former-“guttersnipe” hero, now successful penny dreadful author, and girls-school headmistress heroine. Fletcher Walker struts the streets of 1865-London with the swagger of a man who brought himself out of the gutter and into success. But Fletcher is not an advocate of the every-man-is-an-economic-island making his own way in the world. He is the defender, rescuer, and fighter for the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of London’s invisible people, the widowed, fatherless, and orphaned; the sweep’s agony, the harlot’s cry come under Fletcher’s protection and his penned stories tell of their pathos, endurance, and spunky survival, the importance of helping one another, and defending those who cannot defend themselves. His author’s income isn’t for himself alone, but largely given to the poorest of the poor. Continue reading