Garbled Thoughts About Sarah Moss’s THE FELL

Th_FellI 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…)

MINI-REVIEW: Richard Osman’s THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB (Thursday Murder Club #1)

Thurs_Murder_ClubOsman’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…)

Commentary on Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I

The_Plague_and_II 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.
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Review: Deanna Raybourn’s AN IMPOSSIBLE IMPOSTER (Veronica Speedwell #7)

An_Impossible_ImposterAh, 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…)

Having Read Olivia Manning’s THE GREAT FORTUNE (Balkan Trilogy #1)

Fortunes_of_WarThe 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…)

Having Read Amor Towles’s A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Gentleman_In_MoscowI 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…)

Reading Ruth Kluger’s STILL ALIVE: A HOLOCAUST GIRLHOOD REMEMBERED

Still_AliveKluger’s Still Alive is a remarkable book and I thank Dorian of the Eiger Monch Jungfrau blog for bringing it to my attention.

Like most girls of my generation, I read and reread Anne Frank’s Diary (the expurgated version, sadly) in grade six. It led, for years, to more reading about the Holocaust. Until now, however, I’d never come across Kluger’s memoir. It is superb, harsh, and unforgettable. Like Anne, Kluger speaks of a difficult relationship with her mother; unlike Anne, Kluger’s memoir recounts her life at Theresiensenstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Christianstadt. We don’t know what Anne thought and felt when she was betrayed and brought to Auschwitz: there are accounts, I don’t remember where I read them, that Anne despaired, lost hope (how could one not?), but we are not privy. Her diary remains, as my students would say about any book they enjoy, “relatable”: I’m not damning with faint praise, simply acknowledging the universality of the adolescent experience she recounts, despite her unusual circumstances. Anne is not alien to us, attested by my still calling her by her first name. Kluger’s, on the other hand, is an alien experience, but it is her voice that washes over us and takes over, a dominant, indomitable voice. It is, as Kluger insisted about every Holocaust survivor, unique to her, to her individuality, a singular experience: this was a thread I noticed, an insistence on rejecting any uniformity in writing the Holocaust. She is writing, she would insist, not as a historian, but as an expression of herself. I understand her insistence on not “romanticizing” the Holocaust, not museum-fying it, placing it in “amber,” her way to assert the self. And yet, there are moments where she is weighed down by the history she carries, by her struggle never to be defined and yet, acknowledging she is defined, not so much by a monolithic history, but by time, place, and a monumental absence, of those who did not survive.
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Barely Reading Through February

This month’s winter of discontent came with a vengeance: appallingly bad weather, which, in Montreal, consists of cycles of freezing and thawing that leave us with ice-ponds to navigate and barricades of snow to o’er-leap; a non-stop work month from hell for me (I am, blissfully, on a two-week March break as of Friday, though my tax-time piles and dust-bunnies are balefully eying me); a world imploding in war; and reading conducted in the early morning hours when anxiety saw me sullenly awake before dawn. But I did read some books, none of which made anything better, but which I loved, enjoyed, and respected, respectively: Tana French’s The Likeness, Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

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Wendy’s TBR Challenge: February is Fairy-Tale Month!

The_Man_Behind_the_ScarsContinuing with my category romance reading for Wendy’s TBR Challenge 2022 I was happy to see this month’s fairy-tale theme. After all, what are romance novels but fairy tale retellings? And what is closer to fantasy and wish-fulfillment than the HP category romance? Which is why I chose to read Caitlin Crews’s The Man Behind the Scars. When an HP is done right, you stay up reading till past your it’s-a-work-day bedtime, as I did with Crews’s little HP gem. It’s over-the-top and groans under the weight of its melodrama, but I enjoyed it. Is the premise ludicrous? Yes, that’s what makes it fun. The scarred hero, Rafe McFarland, eighth Earl of Pembroke, is lurking in the shadows of a society wedding when Angel Tilson, “former model and tabloid darling,” spots him. On the lookout for a rich husband, one waltz later, Rafe and Angel are engaged! She needs money and he, an heir. Before you know it, they’re ensconced in Rafe’s “remote Scottish estate” as husband and wife and the interplay of two lonely people who feel unworthy of love prove how much they deserve it.   (more…)

Having Read Sayers and Greer

Five_Red_HerringsWhen you read a lot of bad prose as a high school English teacher, you hunger for the good stuff, which is how I ended up reading two books this brutal work week (reports to write, papers to grade, meetings to attend, you get the picture), Dorothy Sayers’ Five Red Herrings and, in one Saturday-into-Sunday swoop, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I didn’t think, going from one to the other, they had anything in common and they don’t, except attractive, blond, wiry, irrepressible protagonists and scenes of macabre or absurd humour.

I’m on a two-year best-laid plan to reread Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, Five Red Herrings (1931) followed one of my favourites, Strong Poison. Herrings is Vane-less, sadly, and contains a significant number of scenes sans Wimsey too; ONLY ONE HILARIOUS BUNTER SCENE, a tragedy, because we can never have too much Bunter.

I don’t care for the whodunnit variety of murder mystery: one murderee, an artist named Campbell, a hateful dude, truculent and dour, and five suspects, also artists, implicated in hating/resenting/plain-disliking Campbell. Set in a Galloway artists’ colony, Lord Peter Wimsey is taking a hol, doing some fishing (thank goodness he doesn’t seem to ever play golf), and solving a murder. Bunter is nonplussed by what the Scots call their cuts of meat and Sayers’ talent to draw character and write vernacular are brilliant. And yet, I didn’t love it. A paucity of Wimsey scenes and the detailed rendering of plottish points about who was where, which train they took, and who saw them when, take narrative precedence.   (more…)