From listening to Tove Ditlevsen’s short story collection, translated by Michael Favala Goldman and narrated by Stine Wintlev, I can safely conclude the trouble with happiness is it’s elusive and unlikely. Certainly, the characters in these stories make conventional choices about achieving happiness, marriage, children, a modest income, simple, easy, no? No, says Ditlevsen, and she’s right, these choices aren’t simple, aren’t likely to offer bliss and satisfaction; except Ditlevsen, it’s not “unlikely” she’d attach to the likelihood, it’s that they lead to disappointment, a sense of uneasy drift through life, a constant feeling of listless depression, which permeates her world and the people in it. (more…)
I read two novels as perfect as the novel can and should be: exhilaratingly intelligent, downright cerebral, and yet strangely knot-in-throat moving. They’re also as unlike as two novels can be and yet, both about turmoil and war, inner and outer, of the historical-literal variety and domestic-lethal one. You don’t have to read the rest of this post, but you should run, don’t linger, to read Laurent Binet’s HHhH (2009) and Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare (1954; reissued by Virago in 1983). Thanks to the Eiger Mönch Jungfrau blog for suggesting the former and the Backlisted podcast for the latter. Linked here, please check them out. (more…)
It’s been ages, dear friends and readers, since I wrote a blog-post. I played with the idea of shutting down the blog entirely. Life has been dealing lemons and I had a hard time making lemonade: nothing utterly shattering, just the slow erosion of my house and caring for an aging parent. Add a full-time demanding job and the spinster’s lot to carry it all and the result is not much reading and certainly no blog-posting. None of that is going to change any time in the near-future, so I thought a tiny post with a paltry number of books and even fewer thoughts about them was better than continued silence. So, here it goes. I read two whole books since April: Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast and a more disparate reaction to two books I haven’t had in ages. (more…)
It was fascinating reading St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven after Sarah Moss’s The Fell, to compare a writer with much talent, little purpose, and lack of control over her material with one of equal talent, clear purpose, and control of her material.
If you’re not familiar with Station Eleven, its plot is one great big jumble of narrative threads with a large cast of characters. I think the GR blurb does the best job of describing it:
Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lake region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.
This makes it sound way better than it actually was. I’m not sure they’re “risking everything for art and humanity,” or surviving the way travelling players did in the late middle ages (not sure about the history there), grubby, as much sacrificing for art as eking out a living. As for “suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding,” I’ll give Mandel this: she sure can write and kept my interest for the most part. As the novel went on and I couldn’t see the point of it, her conceit did wear. (more…)
I don’t know how wise it is to write while gob-smacked by a book, but I’m doing it anyway. Sarah Moss. The Fell. My first pandemic lockdown novel. I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did because it’s great, or because I think we’re starved to have some articulated understanding of what we’ve experienced. (Only time will tell, so I’ll have to revisit The Fell when my year-end review comes ’round.) Or maybe I was engrossed and in awe of Moss’s novel? novella? (it’s really quite short) because I’m skittish around litfic, with its dreaded poshy reviewers’ “lyrical” epithet (tells me to stay far, far away). I adore narratives of ideas, meaty with meaning and demanding thought over feeling; hence, not a fan of lyrical…please, no description. No wonder I enjoyed Moss as much as I did and no wonder I’m ordering her entire back-list because now, I have to read all the Mosses.
So. The Fell. Lockdown 2020 in England’s Peak District: the “fell,” backdrop to the characters’ lives, at least until one of them enters it and another follows. Rob, whom we meet in the first chapter, a divorced dad with an angry, snarky daughter upset when he leaves on a call. Is he a doctor? Moss doesn’t tell, not yet. Sixteen-year-old Matt who lives with single mother Kate, in precarious financial circumstances; their neighbour, Alice, a comfortably-off widow with breast cancer. Sounds mundane and it is: the circumstances of the characters’ lives. They’re in lock-down: Alice hasn’t left her house in weeks; Matt and Kate help out with groceries and meds, but now Kate has to isolate because she came into contact with someone with covid. Kate can’t stand being “locked up”, even for the requisite weeks; she suffers and, stupidly sets off at dusk to walk the fell…it’s empty anyway, she won’t come into contact with anyone. Alice sees her leave. Kate tumbles and is badly injured. Night approaches and her position is, at best, precarious; at worst, fatal. That’s it, them’s the “happenings”. What drives the narrative (and I was so anxious reading it, hold-my-breath anxious) are the characters’ inner worlds. (more…)
Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club was brought to my attention by Caroline Crampton during an episode of her SHEDUNNIT podcast (which, if you don’t follow, is marvellous). I’d seen it knocking around and obviously being enjoyed by many and Crampton’s recommendation made me pull it out of the gargantuan TBR.
From the back-cover blurb:
In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved murders. But when a brutal killing takes place on their very doorstep, the Thursday Murder Club find themselves in the middle of their first live case. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron might be pushing eighty but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?
Not surprisingly, the blurb gets most of it right, but doesn’t quite represent the mystery novel’s originality, or complexity terribly well. Blurbs sell; they’re not there for the picky reviewer. In any case, there’s a hint of blurb cutsiness to the octogenarians that doesn’t do them justice. And for that, I liked Osman all the more. (more…)
I would’ve been intrigued by Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I on the basis of its title alone (thanks to our ongoing “plague”), but what convinced me to read it is a Backlisted episode. I love the way Mitchinson and Miller talk about books and I love their guests and I tend to run out and get whatever they’re reading, or read, with the exception of their latest episode; no matter how much I love Sarah Churchwell, I cannot read Thomas Pynchon ever again #traumatizedbyGravity’sRainbow.
I enjoyed MacDonald’s The Plague and I; it gave me many chuckles, but I wish it could have been revelatory, more than what it was, more given the promise of its magnificent writing. The fun of The Plague and I was in MacDonald’s voice: her satiric observations of human personalities and self-deprecating persona. There’s not much to “what happened?” in The Plague and I: MacDonald received a tuberculosis diagnosis and subsequently spent nine months in a sanatorium, the arena wherein she exercised her inimitable humour.
Ah, Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell #7, what a thorough joy I had of it! Its pacing was perfect, my beloved Veronica and Stoker were as larger-than-life as ever, both familiar and exhibiting interesting growth, and containing a mystery less cut-and-dry for them than usual, with all manner of messy feelings along with the resolution. And, ugh and love-it, a cliff-hanger of an ending: mystery solved, but our beloveds’ personal lives…well, let’s just say there needs be way more untangling than mere whodunnit.
Recently returned from their latest adventure in the fictional kingdom of Alpenwald, Stoker and Veronica are barely ensconced in the cataloguing employ of Lord Rosemorran before they’re summoned by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, the head of Special Branch, Scotland Yard, for a personal favour. He asks Stoker and Veronica to travel to a Dartmoor estate, Hathaway Hall, in aid of his god-daughter, Euphemia. The Hathaway heir, RIP Jonathan, died in the Krakatoa explosion years ago and the estate passed to the second-born son, Charles, who, with his nouveau-riche wife, Mary, are running the hall with an iron hand for improvement and return from neglect. Recently, a remarkable development: Jonathan has returned, most definitely undead. But is he Jonathan Hathaway, or an imposter? This is Sir Hugo’s request of Stoker and Veronica, to find out…especially because Veronica knew Jonathan Hathaway from her pre-Stoker adventuring. This appearance out of Veronica’s past precipitates heart-ache and a Veronica-Stoker reckoning. (more…)
The first volume of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Great Fortune, is fascinating and repellent, brilliant and distasteful. It is like gazing on a Max Beckmann painting for 287 pages. Like most readers and Masterpiece Theatre watchers of my generation, the Fortunes of War series introduced me to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, so easy to fall in love with them and the story. Not so when I read the novel. The series made Harriet Pringle an ingenue with a feckless husband, one or two train stops away from being caught in a war zone. The novel was an entirely different matter. I started it with these words from Rachel Cusk’s introduction as fulcrum to my understanding and interpretation: “As this vast narrative progresses it becomes clear that what these people lack, what stunts them and renders them no more than oversized children, is the transformative experience of love” (xi). By the end of the first volume, the one I discuss here, it was obvious Cusk and I disagree. I found myself retorting her claim with “Maybe they’re just terrible people;” except for the mitigating presence of Guy Pringle, Harriet’s husband, The Great Fortune is peopled with snobs and sycophants, bigots and anti-Semites: they do look like a Beckmann painting and their world is petty and claustrophobic. (more…)
I read Towles’s Gentleman In Moscow on the recommendation of two friends whose reading opinions I value. They did not steer me wrong: Gentleman is a wonderful book about a wonderful man, a “gentleman” by birth and a “gentle man” by temperament. It was an opportune time to read Towles’s novel: with Russia playing strongman and all of us emerging from endless lock-downs…what better book to read than one about a Russian character, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to a life-time’s house arrest in the Metropol Hotel overlooking Red Square? Yet there isn’t much of the topical in Towles’s Gentleman: to start, the timelessness of the Count’s setting, a storied old hotel which keeps its character through history’s vagaries, offering elegance, steadfast grace and service, comfort and civility to its guests as its denizens. History happens “out there,” in Red Square and beyond: revolution, war, famine, oppression, genocide, injustice, while the hotel carries on. Nevertheless, the snake is never far from the tree: cruelty and evil worm their way in, but in the inimitable characters of the Count and his friends, the Metropol’s loyal staff or devotees, we read about the circumvention of malevolence via cunning goodness, the heart of the novel’s theme. As such, Towles’s Gentleman is a comedy in the Fryian sense, moving toward possibility, towards, as the Count would agree, faith, hope, and love (with his charmingly, parenthetically exclamatory and the “greatest of these is love!”).
From the back-cover-blurb, some of the plot’s detail: “When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves,” bringing us from that 1922 tribunal to 1954 and the Count’s 65th year as we turn the final page. (more…)