I’m back again from another trip to Boston, where I went for another of our more-or-less-biannual Open Letters Monthly editorial summits. Along with the pleasure of seeing my colleagues face to face comes the treat of visiting some of Boston’s many excellent bookstores. I brought back a more modest stack than last time (or the time before that): it’s dimly possible that I was chastened by my awareness that I have only just read some of the books from those previous expeditions (not that the others are wasting away – they are just still ripening on the shelf!). It was as much fun as ever lingering luxuriously over my options, though, and I had very good luck finding some things I have been particularly looking for.
One writer I’ve often been advised to try, especially because of my interest in philosophical fiction, is Iris Murdoch. I’ve gotten a lot of different recommendations on which novel to start with; of these, The Sea, The Sea (which won the Booker Prize in 1978) has always seemed like a good option, so when I saw a nice copy of it at the Brattle I grabbed it up. My recent reading of Angle of Repose had me on the look-out for more Wallace Stegner (the only other one I have is Crossing to Safety), so The Spectator Bird (which won the National Book Award in 1976) was also a happy find. My other Brattle pick was Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance, which I spotted on one of the dollar carts. It’s clearly a student copy (there’s a Brown Bookstore tag inside, and a lot of purple underlining), but it’s otherwise in good shape. Even before I started reading romance novels I knew that Radway’s was one of the key studies of the genre, and now that I have a little more experience both with the books themselves and with the interesting conversations people have about them, I’m curious to have a look at her arguments for myself. (The book is 30 years old now, and I know the field of romance studies has changed and grown a lot since it came out. But my guess is that a lot of those conversations still start with frameworks she set up.)
I usually love browsing the vast stretches of shelves at the Harvard Coop, but this time I actually found it a bit too much trying to make my way along them. Instead, I hunted up a few titles I have been wanting but unable to get a look at locally and finally settled on Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter. It’s no secret that I am a ridiculous fan girl about Dunnett’s Lymond series. I love it so much I have never really wanted to read anything else by her…which is irrational in all kinds of ways! I have the first in the House of Niccolo series and one day may follow through on those, but I’ve heard from a few readers that King Hereafter (in which, the blurb tells us, she “peels away a thousand years of legend to uncover the historical figure of Macbeth”) is actually her very best historical novel. Better than The Ringed Castle? Incontheivable! But OK, I’m game. Stay tuned for a full report.
I was specifically hoping to find W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants on this trip. I looked for it a few places and finally spotted it at the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center (where one or two of the OLM team can be found working most days of the week). Sebald is a writer I hear about often (most recently, in Tom’s comment here). I bought Austerlitz a few years ago and have started it once or twice but put it aside — it’s still ripening! The Emigrants looks like it might be a bit more accessible to me. Again, stay tuned!
We made a pilgrimage to the OLM post office box, where Steve unpacks an astonishing haul of books almost every day. Fortuitously, the day I was with him one of them was an advance copy of the third book in Elena Ferrante‘s Neapolitan trilogy, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which I promptly took possession of. Then at the Harvard Book Store I picked up The Days of Abandonment. So I’m all set for harshly unsentimental Italian fiction.
I guess I’d better start reading if I’m going to get through all of these before my next trip! Though maybe I should start with those Ivy Compton-Burnett novels from my first visit…
I love the idea of books ripening on the shelf. That is clearly what those I bought on my last visit to Oxford are doing. Mind you, there are some on there that have ripened to a point where if they were a cheese they would be walking off to the nearest secondhand shop in search of a reader who would appreciate them by themselves.
I enjoyed ‘The Sea, The Sea’, but if I was starting out on Murdoch I think I would have chosen ‘The Bell’. Nevertheless, I shall be really interested in what you think of her. Don’t let that one ripen too much, will you?
Alex, The Bell was also on my short list but they didn’t have it, and once I’d got The Sea, The Sea I figured that was enough Murdoch for starters.
Like wine, books sometimes need a little time before they are just right for consumption! (And unlike wine, they are still there after you first consume them, so you can enjoy them more than once!) There are so many books that I have owned for a while before reading that unread books on the shelves don’t really worry me any more. It’s good to have some selection when you go to choose the next one, after all!
King Hereafter! It is such a good book. Definitely my favorite of hers. (I also like the Niccolo books better than the Lymond books, but it’s a little like saying I like Bleu better than Brie because I adore both. )
I’m going to Boston for the first time very soon, staying at a monastery near Harvard Square. I don’t know if I’ll get any bookstore browsing time, but just in just case, are there any bookstores near there that you’d especially recommend?
Oh, have fun – if that’s something you are allowed in a monastery. 🙂
The Harvard Book Store is very close to Harvard Square (http://www.harvard.com/); it is an “indie” shop and has both a very good selection of new books and an alluring array of used books and remainders downstairs; the Harvard Coop is right there on the square itself and has a huge selection.
I’m excited that you found the Sebald. That book resides in a very special place inside me. And I’ve got that Stegner ripening on my bookshelf upstairs. Was just thinking last night it might be time to take it down.
Will join in and agree that ripening is a wonderful description of what all these books in our little house are doing… Very keen to hear your take on Sebald.
I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Murdoch. I read The Sea, The Sea a few years ago and I was totally captivated by it. It’s one of those rare sizable books of which I can honestly say I wish it were longer. Still: there was this voice in my head the whole time, and I couldn’t make it go away; it was saying things like ‘nobody thinks in those kinds of sentences’ and ‘okay, but nobody outside of soap operas actually acts this way’. Still, I devoured it. What hasn’t it got? Wild romantic landscape, walking breathing nostalga, meditations on acting (and the way we’re all actors, all act all the time), delightfully bizarre hijinks, tears of aching sympathy forming at the corners of one’s eyes.
And yet …
Two of my favorite books on top of each other – “The Sea, The Sea” and “The Emigrants.” Completely different from each other, of course (although both make interesting use of first-person narration). As far as which Murdoch is best to start with, I think TS,TS is a fine pick – it was the second I read but the first I really loved (“Under the Net” didn’t do much for me). If you don’t like it, you probably won’t like most of her later books, but I’d still recommend giving one of her earlier ones, like “The Bell” or “The Unicorn”, a try.