Recent Reading: Five Fine Finds!

I can’t seem to muster the mental or physical energy to keep up with regular blogging right now (blame an excess of computer time for other purposes plus a spell of back pain – happily now subsided – making it particularly unappealing to spend yet more time at my desk!). But I also can’t stand to watch the pile of read books growing without saying something about them, and I don’t feel like waiting to do a monthly survey, which seems to be a bit of a trend. So let’s see what I can manage to say about these five rather miscellaneous but all, in their own ways, very good books. They all deserve more than passing attention, but it’s 2020 and that means sometimes less has to be enough!

Steven Price, Lampedusa. This was my local book club’s most recent choice, and it proved an excellent one. Everybody loved it, which is actually pretty rare for us. I think the last book we were all this excited about was Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead. One thing we wondered about going into this was whether it would be important to have read The Leopard beforehand–some of us had, some of us hadn’t. I read it, but years ago (with the Slaves of Golconda group, which sadly faded away) so my recollection was pretty vague. Some who hadn’t read it before opted to read it in preparation for Lampedusa, and some watched the Visconti adaptation. But some just went ahead with Price’s novel, on the theory that he can’t have expected readers to ‘prep’ for it. And we were all fine! Those who knew The Leopard were able to make or appreciate some connections, but Lampedusa is plenty good enough to stand alone as a beautifully written (it genuinely deserves that over-used word ‘lyrical’), evocative (another over-used but well-earned word) and very moving account of creativity, memory, middle age, loss, and death. Oh, and Sicily too: it is very much about a particular place at a particular time.

Lampedusa joins Colm Toibin’s The Master on my very short list of books about other authors that really succeed in conveying what it might have been like to be that other consciousness, to write that other novel. Here’s a sample:

After that first night, Mirella did not again react to the story. She responded neither with surprise nor disapproval nor delight. Rather she was quiet and precise and wholly present, like a shadow on a wall. He was grateful for this. Some part of him understood that these were the cleanest and purest working hours he would ever know; hearing the language aloud, steady, slow, permitted him to edit as he went; and later, after Mirella had left, he would lift the new typed papers to a random page and begin making alterations almost at once, unable to help himself. There were truths inside the story that surprised him, that he had not intended. It felt at times as if he were overhearing the novel speaking to itself. HIs prince, he saw, whom he had always thought of as hollowed out by an absent faith, in fact was the last of the devout. But his prince’s faith was a faith in tradition, in the fate of a bloodline, and at such moments Giuseppe saw that he had written his way through his own bitterness, towards the man he might have wished to be. His prince stood alone, impassive, needing no one; and because of this, and because there is no true survival in isolation, it would be his prince’s very strength that destroyed him.

There is more to the novel than writing and contemplation–there’s family drama, and war, and myth, and also failure, as he dies before knowing “his prince” and his novel would be published, acclaimed, and lasting, the masterpiece he felt but could not be certain it was.

I loved the idea of Lampedusa when I first heard about it but I admit I was prepared for disappointment. The genre is a risky one (I have yet to read a George Eliot novel that hasn’t bored, annoyed, or outraged me), and the only other novel by Price I’ve read is By Gaslight, which I liked just fine but which is a very different kind of thing altogether. I’m so glad I didn’t let those hesitations deter me: it’s one of the best novels I’ve read all year, and this is a year that included Hamnet and The Mirror and the Light.

Up next for the book club: We usually follow a theme of some kind from one book to the next, so this time we chose Italy and Elsa Morante’s Artur’s Island.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet. The subtitle of this book is ‘A Personal History with Jigsaws’ and I plucked it off the shelf (where it had malingered for a few years mostly unread) because I have been doing jigsaw puzzles as a form of meditative distraction since early in the lockdown. I thought–rightly–that this might mean Drabble’s book, which hadn’t interested me much when I began it before, might have found its moment, and it had. It is a wonderfully digressive book that manages, by the end, to say some profound things about how we pass our time. It began, she explains, as what she intended as a gift book about jigsaws, the kind of thing you’d buy in a museum gift shop. In the end it is part memoir; part history of a wide range of puzzles and games and arts and crafts; part  reflection on (and this will sound pompous, but in the book it really isn’t) the human condition, including especially aging and death. There are many parts I would love to quote but in the interests of actually finishing a blog post before age too much more, here’s just one:

One of the reasons why the jigsaw appeals to me … is that it is pre-made, its limits finite, its frame fixed. No ordinary degree of manual clumsiness (and mine is advanced, and inevitably advancing) can yet prevent me from finishing a jigsaw. It can’t be done badly. Slowly, but not badly. All one needs is patience … In this aspect, the jigsaw is the very opposite of the novel. The novel is formless and frameless. It has no blueprint, no pattern, no edges. At the end of a day’s work on a novel, you may feel that you have achieved something worse than a lack of progress. You may have ruined what went before. You may have sunk badly into banality or incoherence. You may have betrayed or maligned others. You may have to scrap not only the day’s work, but the work of the preceding week, month, year, lifetime. You may have lost ground, and for ever. You may have lost your nerve, and indicted all that you have achieved. Writing fiction is frightening.

She goes on to note that when she was working on The Oxford Companion to English Literature, it had more of the character of a puzzle: 

The pieces fitted together, they interlocked … Assembling and fitting the pieces together was a form of carpentry.

Writing novels is not like that.

Actually, here’s one more passage. Perhaps because I am currently working on a puzzle that is one of Monet’s paintings of his gardens at Giverny, I appreciated her discussion of the way jigsaw puzzles help us understand and appreciate works of fine art by forcing us to pay meticulously close attention:

From jigsaws, you learn about the brush strokes of Van Gogh, the clouds of Constable, the reflections and shadows of Manet, the stripes of Tissot and Rousseau, the brickwork and tiles of the Dutch masters, the flesh tones of Titian, the undulating fabrics and limbs of Botticelli, the business of Bosch and Brueghel. While struggling to recreate Titian’s Venus of Urbino, you discover that the little dog at her feet is painted in almost exactly the same shades of russet and apricot as the naked Venus herself. According to Julian Mitchell, himself a master puzzle solver, the dog represents her politely concealed public hair …

I learned more about the appreciation of clouds and of Constable from doing jigsaws of The Hay Wain and Salisbury Cathedral than I learned from my first encounters with the original paintings. Now, when I see clouds, I see clouds and Constable, not clouds and the shapes of a jigsaw puzzle, but the puzzle was the medium that introduced me, that fixed my attention, that made me pause. This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. I could have learned about clouds at the Courtauld, but I didn’t have the opportunity. I learned through Clementoni.

One thing the book made me realize is that my local jigsaw options are sadly limited! Her book inspired me to go looking for a Brueghel puzzle and I found this line of what look like beautiful art puzzles—how I would love to work on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus!-but they are not to be had in Canada, as far as I can tell.

OK, just one more bit, to give you a sense of how much more this book is about than idle pastimes–or, more accurately, of how it makes you think differently about your pastimes, which may not be as idle as they seem:

The concept of life as a journey, a pilgrimage, a quest, a ladder, or a spiral track may be attractive to some, but to me the notion of a goal is not. The very word ‘goal’ has unpleasing associations. Board games, unlike jigsaw puzzles, necessarily admit elements of competition and victory … Whereas the Greek telos can mean an end, an aim, an ultimate purpose, a final cause, and need not embrace the concept of competition. In the larger pattern, all the solitary journeys combine, and we arrive together.

The jigsaw, with its frame, is a simulacrum of meaning, order and design … if you try hard enough, you can complete it. That galactic scatter of inert and inept fragments of wood or cardboard will come together and make a picture.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It combines a brisk personal history of Goodings’ years with Virago Press with comments on the books and writers the Press published–some of whom I knew of but without having connected them explicitly to Virago, like Sarah Waters or Sarah Dunant. Goodings is clear that in its origins Virago was a product of second-wave feminism and so had some of the shortcomings you’d expect; she’s also explicit and occasionally defensive about Virago’s determination to be a feminist press that reached mainstream audiences. The tension between ideology and marketing was real sometimes but she makes a good case for the value of having a range of approaches to feminist publishing, including theirs. It was slightly disorienting reading enthusiastic sections about Virago’s close relationship with Margaret Atwood, who of course has long been an ‘iconic’ feminist writer but who has become a controversial figure, in her home country anyway, because of her entanglement in the Steven Galloway case. I suppose this particular mess is not really relevant to Goodings’s story, but it’s a long time since I read anything admiring about Atwood that didn’t have at least an implicit asterisk by her name–a sign, as I expect Goodings herself would readily acknowledge, that feminist critique is always evolving.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot. This is another book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while (one thing lockdown has done is encourage me to look more closely at the books I already have, since things like leisurely trips to the library or bookstore are not currently options). I loved Lolly Willowes and liked Summer Will Show, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this one yet! Maybe it too was waiting for its moment, and like The Pattern in the Carpet, it found it, since I read it in one delicious sitting and absolutely loved it. It is sad and strange and funny and touching; it is about faith, and the loss of faith, and about love and the loss of love, or sacrifice in the name of love. It is wryly satirical about missionary zeal and imperialism and cultural arrogance; it takes a small man and uses him to tell a much larger story about freeing ourselves from the things we believe in and the harm they can do. Mr. Fortune is kind of a stupid man in many ways, but he finds a lot of wisdom by the end. A snippet:

‘Because I loved him so for what he was I could not spend a day without trying to alter him. How dreadful it is that because of our wills we can never love anything without messing it about! We couldn’t even love a tree, not a stone even; for sooner or later we should be pruning the tree or chipping off a bit of the stone. Yet if it were not for a will I suppose we should cease to exist. Anyhow it is in us, and while we live we cannot escape from it, so however we love and whatever we love, it can only be for a few minutes, and to buy off our will for those few minutes we have to relinquish to it for the rest of our lives whatever it is we love.’

My nice NYRB Classics edition comes packaged with the short sequel Townsend Warner wrote for it, The Salutation. I didn’t read it (yet): I was so satisfied by Mr. Fortune’s Maggot that I didn’t want anything to distract or detract from it! I won’t forget that it’s still there, though, waiting for me. Perhaps it perfectly completes or complements the original: some day I’ll find out.

Kerry Clare, Waiting for a Star to FallI was so looking forward to Kerry’s new novel: I really enjoyed and admired Mitzi Bytes and of course I know Kerry well from her wonderful blog and from Twitter (though sadly for me, she is rarely there now!) and for all her work reading, writing, talking about, and cheering on Canadian literature. Waiting for a Star to Fall did not disappoint, though it is a different kind of novel than Mitzi Bytes–at its heart is a painful personal struggle that is really well summed up in Stacey May Fowles’s review in Quill & Quire:

In sketching the nuance and power imbalances of Brooke and Derek’s romance, Clare has successfully rendered a spectrum of abusive behaviour and articulated a vital cultural tension between two seemingly opposed concepts: being 23 and being taken advantage of, and being 23 and having agency. In doing so, she asserts that both can exist simultaneously and that those who mistreat young women are not relieved of responsibility because their victims “should have known better.” 

Waiting for a Star to Fall is a highly topical novel, what I suppose we will come to call (maybe we already do?) a #MeToo novel. It doesn’t feel forced or formulaic, though, mostly because it walks us through the problem of recognizing the harm, rather than insisting on it or hectoring us about it from the very beginning. Brooke’s struggle to make the right kind of sense of her own experience is hard to watch and harder to participate in vicariously, which the close third-person narration requires of us. I appreciated that while by the end it is clear even to Brooke that she needs to understand the story differently, even it it means letting go of ideas about herself that she wants and needs to hold on to, the pieces do not fall so neatly into place that labels like ‘victim’ really fit. Real life is full of ambiguity, after all, and she did make choices; her relationship with Derek is not something that just happened to her, without her participation. At the same time, there’s some wishful thinking in Brooke’s own insistence that right and wrong are not so easy to determine:

‘But it’s not nothing,’ said Brooke, trying to explain. ‘It can’t just be either/or–there is something in the middle.’

‘There are many degrees, aren’t there,’ Derek’s mother eventually says to Brooke, ‘between perfection and being a sinner And who among us hasn’t sinned? … It’s not all or nothing.’ This is true, but it’s also not really good enough, especially for Derek as Brooke finally comes to see him.

So there we have it: five good books I’ve read recently!

“Multiplicity of the Self”: Kerry Clare, Mitzi Bytes

The problem with the multiplicity of the self — an idea that appealed to minds as wide-ranging as Virginia Woolf’s and Lolo’s, not to mention Cher’s — was that you never knew which part of you anybody was talking about. The problem with the multiplicity of the self was that there could be enough of you to get spread all over town.

I knew I wanted to read Mitzi Bytes as soon as I saw that it was being pitched as “a grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age.” Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books as a child — though I discovered today that, to my dismay, I apparently no longer have my well-worn copy. I loved the premise of Mitzi Bytes: a pseudonymous blogger who gets “outed,” just as Harriet does, and then must disentangle herself from the consequences. And I knew I could trust Kerry Clare to tell a good story, one with wit and tenderness, but also with some bite, because these qualities are all on display at her excellent blog Pickle Me This, as well as in her conversations on Twitter, where we are what Sarah Lundy, the protagonist of Mitzi Bytes, might call “virtual friends.”

Mitzi Bytes did not disappoint: I enjoyed it from start to finish. Even better, I was interested in it, particularly in the questions it raises about voice, identity, and perception, and about how (or whether) we really know ourselves or each other. [Warning: though I’m not going to walk through the many entertaining twists of the plot, I’m also not going to avoid spoilers.] When the novel begins, Sarah believes that her identity is divided between the person she is “IRL” and the persona she inhabits on her blog:

Was Sarah Lundy Mitzi Bytes? She said she owned her words, but did she really? Once upon a time, Sarah had aspired to be Mitzi. She’d needed a life, so she’d invented one, and for a while, the two led the very same existence, one whose adventures she’d turned into stories because the stories were all that she had. But somewhere along the line, her two selves had diverged.

Sarah feels safe in her online anonymity because she assumes nobody she knows would recognize her in herself. But when her secret life is exposed, this comforting belief proves naive. Though some of the people in Sarah’s life have indeed been ‘Mitzi Bytes’ readers without identifying her, it turns out, for instance, that no pseudonym could hide her from her mother, and though her husband had no idea ‘Mitzi Bytes’ existed, Mitzi herself is perfectly familiar to him:

She said, “Do you hate me now?”

He said, “Because you’ve just revealed that you have a vicious streak, no compunction, are socially clumsy, and talk far too much about everybody else’s business?”

She said, “I guess so.” She got out from under his arm and moved away so she could see his face. . . .

“I didn’t know about the blog,” he said, “But I know you.”

And really, how could Sarah have so blithely imagined that her own voice would not speak for her, at least to those who knew what to listen for? What is a blog, after all, if not a kind of dramatic monologue in which, as always, character relentlessly reveals itself? “It was a world I recognized,” says one of Sarah’s friends after the story breaks and she reads the blog for the first time; “It was so totally you.”

Mitzi Bytes also highlights the impossibility of telling the story, rather than a story. Sarah believes that when writing as Mitzi she has only ever been honest, but as she hears from the people who became, unsuspectingly, her subjects, she is forced to acknowledge that being honest doesn’t preclude being partial. “I only ever said what I meant,” she writes in a belated apology, but the stories she told “only ever stood for a single side, a tiny sliver of a single side of that many-sided thing: The Entire Story. Life itself.” Her pseudonym freed her to describe “life the way I see it,” but it also shielded her from the obligation to consider how other people saw it, to weigh her own first-person narration against competing points of view. It is a narrative failure, in other words, with moral consequences, which the structure of Mitzi Bytes itself highlights as it alternates between Sarah’s plot (in 3rd person) and cleverly apposite samples from the ‘Mitzi Bytes’ archives. The blog posts are brisker and funnier than the ‘novel’ portions, but especially as we get to know the characters Mitzi blogs about, their skewering wit becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and it’s hard not to agree that Sarah’s angry friends have a point when they rail against her betrayal of their trust.

There’s a lot else that I appreciated about Mitzi Bytes, including its many deft literary allusions, from Harriet the Spy (the dumbwaiter!) to Unless (which I flatter myself I would have noticed even without a heads-up). I was also moved by its honest portrayal of Sarah’s struggle to retain her own sense of self after becoming a wife and mother. (For more about this topic, see the essay collection Kerry edited, The M Word.)

The aspect of Mitzi Bytes that I found most thought-provoking, though, was its treatment of blogging. “I just didn’t really see the point. Of blogs at all, basically,” Sarah’s husband Chris says to her as she’s making her confession to him about ‘Mitzi Bytes.’ Kerry wryly acknowledges that blogs are no longer the cutting edge medium they once were: “Blogs were for old people,” notes one of the teen-aged moms Sarah tutors, while her editor tells her bluntly that “Blogs aren’t big news anymore. Unless they’re dying.” Those of us who keep on blogging nonetheless do so for reasons that Kerry, via Sarah, does a good job explaining. Some of the anger directed at Sarah once she is outed as Mitzi comes from people not understanding the form or spirit of a blog and thus taking her posts as something more declarative than they are, or were ever intended to be. I think most bloggers would agree that a blog is always a work in progress, a place of intellectual exploration rather than definition. “To me,” Sarah-as-Mitzi writes,

this has always been the attraction of the blog, that it’s a place to record impressions of the innumerable atoms as they fall, to decipher the universe, assembling the chaos into a pattern of days, weeks, and years.

Blogging is open-ended in a way that allows for ongoing discovery: “the best posts,” as Sarah reflects,

began from a jumping-off point instead of with a careful route plotted on a map. Every time she posted, it was just a little bit an act of faith.

To me, that certainly sounds both familiar and true. I was thinking recently about why I’m not quite comfortable with calling my blog posts “reviews,” and that exploratory spirit is one reason. There are obligations in reviewing that, for me anyway, don’t exist for blogging, and while I craft and structure and revise reviews until they are just so, I usually start writing blog posts about books (including this one) with no specific plan except to reflect on my reading experience and see where it takes me. I relish that freedom, even though — or maybe because — it means the results are always a bit ragged or imperfect.

The division (however unstable) between Sarah’s “real” life and her blogged experiences also resonated with me, but in this case because my own experience of that split in identities is the reverse of Sarah’s. Because I blog under my own name, I have mostly avoided discussion of my personal life, for instance, including writing only occasionally and very selectively about my family and almost never about my friends. I think of ‘Novel Readings’ as a personal but also a public space, not a private one. Though I have certainly addressed some fraught issues (especially around my professional life) and some emotional ones, I think (though like Sarah, I may be deluding myself!) that by and large my online persona is better (more positive, more generous, more temperate) than I sometimes am offline. It’s not that my blog doesn’t represent who am I, but like ‘Mitzi Bytes,’ ‘Novel Readings’ represents only parts of who I am — the better parts, I usually think, though over the years there have certainly been slips. Though I can see the appeal of a blog where I could really let loose, as Sarah does when writing as Mitzi (and as some anonymous academic bloggers once did – remember “BitchPhD”?), I have come to appreciate the pressure to rise to my own standards here.

I think in a way that is the lesson of Mitzi Bytes— though I am reluctant to boil it down to anything that sounds so didactic: that you have to both own and live up to the person you are capable of being. By the end of the novel, the plot complications are mostly resolved but their emotional aftermath remains. Having to confront and then try, as best she can, to reconcile the different pieces of her life finally prompts Sarah to “show her face to the world” — her best face, if she can. It will be a work in progress, but this time an aspirational one, and of course, she’ll still “put it down in words,” because that remains the best way to find out what she means.

“A Book of All My Secrets”: The M Word, ed. Kerry Clare

mword

I got to a poem about us, about how quickly our children become themselves, and as I blithely read the poem over the air, my five-year-old daughter suddenly, breathlessly, began to sob. She was inconsolable. When my husband could finally calm her down enough to speak, she blurted out, “Mommy wrote a book of all my secrets.”

It seems appropriate to be posting about The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood on my son’s 18th birthday. Milestones like this inevitably provoke reflections: memories good and bad, nostalgic and bitter, celebratory but always (in my experience, anyway) more complicated than you anticipate — or might be willing to admit, at least in public.

That’s what makes The M Word so surprising, and also moving, gripping, funny, and, occasionally, really uncomfortable to read: the writers put it all on the table, all the confusion, ambivalence, difficulty, suffering, hope, despair, and insight that swirl around people’s different experiences with motherhood, whether they are or aren’t mothers, however motherhood is defined, and whether their situation arose from choice or accident, gift or tragedy. As many of the writers observe, there’s a popular public story about motherhood that is all bliss, smiles, and cuddles. For many of them, there is plenty of bliss, but that’s rarely the whole story and often not the story at all. The M Word doesn’t try to tell one story: it allows, even insists, on the coexistence of many different ones.

All of the stories are interesting, though I expect that for most readers, as for me, the intensity of interest will vary. Paradoxically perhaps, since I’m a mother myself, one of the essays I found most compelling was Patricia Uppal’s “Footnote to the Poem ‘Now That All My Friends Are Having Babies: A Thirties Lament,'” a mildly abrasive commentary on pregnancy and motherhood from the perspective of a woman convinced she does not want children. “Perhaps it is my workaholism that keeps me childless,” she speculates. “I know I would resent the time spent away from my computer and notebooks. I already do. I think our three cats are demanding, and I frequently have to shoo them away as they bat my hands while I type.” Although my decision about parenting was not hers, I understand her resistance to it, and I know she’s not wrong about the threat of resentment. Other essays, though, bring out parenting’s rich and varied rewards (which it is hard sometimes not to think of as compensations). Still others emphasize loss — Christa Couture’s heartbreaking “These Are My Children,” for instance:

Sometimes I feel my mothering is finite, or plays on a loop. I can replay both of my children’s lives to their conclusions in my mind, rewind, and play them again. There is no wondering what they will become.

And still others take up abortion, adoption, and infertility with the same frankness, offering the same unsparing emotional revelations.

The M Word is a very personal book. Is there a point at which writing about our own experiences as parents becomes an invasion of our children’s privacy? Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang’s “Mommy Wrote a Book of All My Secrets” is the only essay that directly confronts this question. I found it very thought-provoking because I have chosen to be fairly reticent about my children — and indeed all my family and friends — here. For one thing, Novel Readings is not meant as a confessional space: its focus is just different. I do write the occasional personal post, and I don’t try to keep the rest of the writing strictly impersonal. One of the things I cherish most about blogging is the freedom to be more openly myself while writing,whether about Christmas or about books.  But my private life remains private (or, you might say, my public presentation of my private life is carefully curated!). Crucially, I choose what to say about myself in this public space, and I don’t think I have the right to make that choice for other people by sharing their stories (or my perspective on their stories) — by turning them into subjects or characters in my story. Clearly, a lot of writers feel otherwise, including everyone who has ever written a memoir and many (such as Miriam Toews) who have written conspicuously autobiographical fiction. I’m not saying they are wrong to do so (and I have read and admired plenty of life writing of one kind or another), but I can sympathize with Tsiang’s daughter (quoted above), with her sense of injury at the unexpected exposure. I’m not sure I agree with Tsiang that this was her daughter’s “first lesson in the fact that you cannot love without exposing yourself”: maybe so, but it’s one thing to expose yourself to your loved ones and another to find your secrets broadcast on the radio. At least Tsiang learns a lesson too: “that it is both a responsibility and a privilege to write about the ones you love.”

There’s lots in The M Word that made me think — often about my own experience of motherhood, as a mother and as a daughter, but also about what I know my family and friends to have gone through, hoped for, lost, or celebrated in this context, and about experiences and attitudes entirely different from mine or theirs. When I picked the book up (motivated by knowing Kerry Clare as a Twitter friend and author of the splendid blog Pickle Me This) I was a tad skeptical: I didn’t think I was actually that interested in motherhood as a topic. I realize now that’s because I hadn’t given it as broad a scope as Kerry and her contributors do. The result is a collection that confounds expectations.