July

ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.

 

For the Record: Recent Reading

cassatSince I started Novel Readings in 2007, I’ve written up—sometimes briefly, sometimes in great detail—almost every book I’ve read. The best thing about that has always been the exercise itself: knowing I would write at least something about my reading encouraged me to read more attentively and thoughtfully, and then finding the words for what I’d noticed and thought about not only fixed the experience better in my memory but helped me understand the experience better, since as we all know, writing isn’t just a matter of transcribing things you’ve already figured out but is a vital process for figuring them out.

Over the years I have come to really appreciate having this record of my reading, and I am sad that this habit has been so hard to keep up since Owen died. At first, I just wasn’t reading much; now, I am reading again (though not as much as before, and with more difficulties) but I’m tired all the time, mentally as much as physically. Also, writing—at least, writing that doesn’t come with the extrinsic motivation of a commitment and a deadline—turns out, for me anyway, to be a more optimistic activity than I had realized. Going back, as I have so often now, to Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow, I came again across her comment,

You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity . . . Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralyzed time.

Earlier in my own experience of grief, I was not really conscious of what she describes as “the sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time,” but as I try harder to make my own way back into the present, I think I understand better what she was talking about. riley-time-2

have done a lot of writing since Owen died, of course: about my grief and loss, not just here but privately (it might seem to some people that I’ve overshared here, I suppose, but there are definitely aspects of my experience and of Owen’s, both his life and his death, that are too hard, or just too much, to share even—as I imagine this space being—among friends); about at least some of my reading; in draft material for the book I am working on; and in a few published reviews and review-essays. Many times in the past I have stumbled over identifying myself as “a writer,” but not now: it has never felt more essential to me to put things into words. As I have learned more about grief and what helps people move through it, I have realized that the compulsion I felt starting very soon after Owen’s death to write about it was probably an intuitive reaching towards what in therapeutic jargon is sometimes called “meaning making.”

monica-aliAnyway, this is a pretty roundabout way to get to the point of this post, which is to update the record of my recent reading, if only to shore up my recollections of this period of my life. There’s no way I can write “proper” posts about each of these recently read titles, but I don’t want to forget that I read them, and I also (as part of my larger effort to “reengage with the world”) want to push myself past the sad inertia that at this point is mostly to blame for my losing the habit of writing up my ‘novel readings.’ I remind myself, not for the first time, of my conviction that if something was worth doing before a catastrophe, it remains doing after. Novel Readings has never been “just” a book blog, of course, and I expect I’ll continue to write sometimes about my grief, just as I know mourning is going to continue changing how and why I read. As September nears, I expect I’ll also go back to blogging about my teaching.

So: here’s a stack of books I’ve read in recent weeks but mostly haven’t written up here (the exceptions are The Slowworm’s Song and  Woolf’s diary).

June Books

It was a good run: there’s not one here I wouldn’t recommend to you if you asked about it. The standout was Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, which is at once the best representation I’ve ever read of what it’s like being on Twitter (which she calls, evocatively, “the portal”) and a truly heartfelt and heartbreaking human story. I appreciated that, while she doesn’t gloss over the ways Twitter can be strange and terrible and inhumane, she doesn’t pit “real life” against it either. “The world of books is still the world,” Aurora Leigh remarks, and I have always felt the same about social media.

I didn’t like Oxygen as much as the other books I’ve read by Andrew Miller, but that’s a pretty high bar; ditto Companion Piece, which read easily but made less of an impression on me than Smith’s Seasonal Quartet did. The Dictionary of Lost Words is probably the most conventional one in this stack, which is not a knock against it: it’s smart and very readable. My review of Haven will be in Canadian Notes & Queries at the end of the summer; the tl;dr version is that it’s quite good, though I continue to wish Donoghue would slow down and write a really good, more expansive, novel. (I wish the same of Sarah Moss.) I do admire how different Donoghue’s novels are from each other. Haven has the most in common, thematically, with The Wonder, as it is in part about faith, but it’s still quite distinct in approach and tone. It’s set on Skellig Michael, which looks like an incredible site. Donoghue writes wonderfully about that setting, and the novel is also chock full of brilliant process writing, about everything from fishing to making ink.

gileadI have stumbled more in the last couple of weeks, starting and then quitting a lot of titles including Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat and Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, but I did read Monica Ali’s Love Marriage with interest that (with a bit of persistence) grew into appreciation. One book I began with enthusiasm but ultimately decided not to finish was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I have read before, long ago (pre-blogging, that’s how long ago!). It was just too religious for me this time: I just don’t see the world as John Ames does, and while as a well-trained and very experienced novel reader I totally understand and agree that I don’t have to in order to engage with his story, this time (with apologies to the people of faith among you) it just felt too much like having to take very seriously someone who believes in Santa Claus. There’s a lot that’s beautiful in what and how the Reverend Ames sees, but I’m with the brother who reads Feuerbach and goes his own way (I assume he read George Eliot’s translation!). I didn’t much like Housekeeping when I went back to it a few years ago, so maybe Robinson is just not for me.

I have just started Natalie Jenner’s Bloomsbury Girls, which seems fine so far, though I don’t expect anything groundbreaking from it either stylistically or thematically. Ali Smith’s how to be both looks more exciting in both respects, so it’s probably next.

Recent Reading

winmanThe past few weeks, though still often sad and difficult, have been a bit better for reading. I’m not sure if it’s me or the books—probably a bit of both.

My favorite recent read by far is Sarah Winman’s exquisite novel Still Life. It took a while to draw me in, but it was well worth an initial bit of patience: it unfolds into such a tender story about friendship, art, beauty, values, love, loss, and chosen families. It has darker shadows and fiercer pains than Forster’s A Room With a View, source of its main intertextual and contextual allusions, but it has in common with Forster’s novel a commitment to seeing widely and to seeking sunshine—to clearing the way for it. I loved it. I also loved Panenka, which like Rónán Hession’s first novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is small, quiet, funny, and yet also piercing. And I almost loved Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, which engrossed and moved me nearly to the end—but I thought the last 10% or so dragged, to the point that I started skimming a bit just to see it through. (I was also frustrated by the decision not to name or specify the narrator’s mental illness. A note at the end says her symptoms are “not consistent with a genuine mental illness,” and that seemed to me to undermine a lot of the novel’s work to bring them to such vivid life. What was the point of labeling it “——”? Is it an act of resistance to the whole idea of labeling and diagnosing mental illness? If so, then why is the narrator so relieved to get a correct diagnosis?)*

colwinI didn’t much like Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I persisted to the end, but it never engaged me deeply at all. My least favorite quality in a book is archness, and that seemed to me Less‘s primary mood. It will shock some of my Twitter friends when I say that I also didn’t much like Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time: it isn’t arch, exactly, but it is crisp and clever and detached to the point that it felt thin, even superficial, and thus unsatisfying. I was interested in the premise of Kate Grenville’s A House Made of Leaves and there are good things about it, but overall the execution felt dry and the messages (about history and gender and colonialism) perfunctory, delivered rather than dramatized.

My lighter reading included Jenny Holiday’s pretty entertaining Duke, Actually and a reread of Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader; I’m currently rereading Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear trilogy, my second favorite historical romance series (my very favorite is Loretta Chase’s Carsington series, especially Lord Perfect and Miss Wonderful).

smithI have some promising options in my TBR pile to choose from next, including Nicola Griffith’s Spear (a sequel to Hild is apparently on its way, but this looks good too), Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song (for my book club), Pip Williams’s The Dictionary of Lost Words, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat. I’ve put some of Ali Smith’s earlier novels on hold at the library and would also like to read her new one, Companion Piece, partly out of personal interest and partly because I’m still thinking about how her Seasonal Quartet might fit into the book I’m trying to work on. It’s a pretty tough time—personally, but also generally—to find the motivation to write something that seems unlikely to become anything, so I figure I should follow this flicker of interest in Smith as far as it will go.

As you can tell, I’m still not up to writing the kind of longer, more detailed and thoughtful book posts I used to enjoy crafting. But I am reading more again, and reading better. To quote Taylor Swift, this is me trying.

*After posting this, I looked up some reviews and interviews about Sorrow and Bliss and the idea seems to have been to avoid the novel being tagged as “the schizophrenia book” or “the borderline personality book” etc., and thus getting reduced to “a novel about X” in every discussion. I suppose that’s fair enough, though it still feels like a dodge.

Recent Reading

anneThe last three months haven’t been very good reading months for me: I have picked up and then put back down a lot more books than I have finished. This is true of new (to me) books, at any rate: since January I have actually reread quite a few books that were easy and comforting, including the first four Anne books (thanks to a dear friend who sent me a lovely box set), several favorite romances and mysteries, and The Beethoven Medal (part of one of my all-time favorite ‘YA’ series). I have also, of course, been reading books on grief and loss, and odds and ends of poetry.

But I have read some new books, and I thought I would remark them here, if only sketchily, so that I don’t forget them, and so that this blog doesn’t altogether lose its bookish aspect.

matrixIn January, I read Lauren Groff’s Matrix. I expected to like it more than I did. This is not to say I didn’t like it; the premise was fascinating, and I remember being impressed at how vividly Groff built her world, and how strong, strange, and specific she made Marie as a character. Female agency and empowerment, creativity, desire, spirituality: the book explores them all, with a compelling combination of grittiness and lyricism. For some reason, though, I was disappointed when I learned that this particular work of historical fiction is much more fictional than historical—that almost nothing is actually known about Marie, that Groff’s character and story is all invention. This retroactively took some of the life out of the book for me, which is hardly fair given that I read and love a lot of historical fiction that is mostly made up.

autumn-coverIn February, I read through Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. The sabbatical project I am picking away at has to do with the relationship between fictional form and social or political engagement (or, to put it another way, with fictional form as itself a kind of social or political engagement). With this in mind I was poking around in information about the Orwell Prize and this led me to some articles and interviews about Smith’s win, which in turn made me curious about whether her series might make a good contemporary example for me. I reread Autumn, and then picked up the other three and read them all through. By the end of Spring I was a bit less sure about using this series for my purposes, but some of my hesitation came from feeling unqualified to work on Smith: both her style and her influences, including the explicit invocation of Shakespeare plays, are a bit far afield for me. That doesn’t rule the books out, of course; it would just mean I would have to work hard to figure out how to talk about them, a prospect which is actually kind of appealing, or it would be if my mind didn’t feel so scattered all the time right now.

rizzioIn March I read Denise Mina’s Rizzio, another historical novel I ended up being a bit disappointed in. There was something awkward (to my reading ear, anyway) about the combination of meticulous historical detail and a too-contemporary idiom, especially in the dialogue. Mina is good at foreboding and action, as you’d expect from a crime novelist. I reread Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, which I loved all over again, though it is even more melancholy than I’d remembered. Then I read Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, which went really well at first and then started (I thought) to lose its focus and ended up feeling scattered, full of good bits but not a satisfying whole. I read two recently reissued novels by Rosalind Brackenbury, A Day to Remember to Forget and A Virtual Image, for an upcoming review (I finished a third, Into Egypt, yesterday). My last March book was Katherine Ashenburg’s Her Turn, which I enjoyed a lot. It’s less ambitious than some of my other recent reading, but it seemed to me to do well what it set out to do, including explore the possibilities and implications of both revenge and forgiveness in the context of our most intimate relationships.

I have a lot of unread books to hand that look tempting, including Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, Sarah Winman’s Still Life, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I have more of the Anne books to dip back into, too, and another kind friend set me up with Emily of New Moon and its sequels, more childhood favorites that I haven’t read in decades. I have picked up and put down some of these a few times already but I’m sure their time will come. It’s not them—it’s me. It is rare for me that reading is this difficult: usually books have been a refuge for me in troubled times, but this time is not like the others. We’ll see how April goes.

(Brief update: I finished Small Things Like These this morningthere’s not much of it!—and it was indeed very good, as everyone has said, although I also felt that underneath the beautiful writing and careful minimalism—did I mention there’s not much of it?—it might actually be a bit heavy-handed.)

Recent Reading: King, Lawson, Mitford

I have read three NFW (not for work!) books since finishing The Strangers: Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge, and (sort of) Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing. None of them was very demanding, unless you count the struggle to persist with The Blessing, which by about half way through I was just tired of. I didn’t really finish it: because it was for my book club, I really tried, but I ended up short on both time and patience and so did a very sloppy speed read so that I could at least say I saw the last page. 🙂

I was inspired to order The Other Side of the Bridge because I read Lawson’s latest, A Town Called Solace, for a review and also had recently read and liked Road Ends. I am pretty sure I read Crow Lake back when it was a new release, but that was in the Before Blogging so I can’t be sure. That I hadn’t followed up with her subsequent novels suggests that if I did read it, I didn’t love it. I don’t know if I would say I “loved” any of these other ones, but they are all very readable. They are all on a small scale: if I were devising a marketing blurb for them I might describe them as “Anne Tyler in Alice Munro country,” intimate family stories, often shot through with loss or trauma but softened by a kind of tenderness in the point of view, set in rural landscapes that are bleak but sustaining.

I looked up Writers and Lovers because of a swell of Twitter endorsements: I forget the exact context (as one does, with Twitter recommendations) but recently someone asked for smart but light(er) books for their mother to read on vacation, IIRC, and Writers and Lovers got a lot of shout-outs, and I already had it on my ‘watch list’ because of some earlier mentions. Twitter is both wonderful and terrible this way, of course: sometimes you are just (or, at any rate, I am just) sucked in by buzz around new, hot titles, but sometimes—and these are the good times!—you learn about books you’d never heard of before from readers whose range is wider than yours and whose judgments and sensibilities you believe in. (And yet I still can’t bring myself to read Bear, in spite of Dorian and everyone else. I went so far as to suggest it for my book club, and everyone’s expression on Zoom was basically ‘WTF you weirdo?!’) Anyway, I didn’t much like Writers and Lovers at first: plots about young people’s boyfriends and dating and break-ups sometimes seem as alien to me now as stories set on Mars. The novel’s protagonist is not exactly “young,” though, and she’s a writer, and her mother has just died quite young and very unexpectedly, and her struggles with her novel and her grief add layers to the story of her love life. A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are writers, and of course even more of them are readers, and I do sometimes think this skews the books that get a lot of attention, the way that following so many academics made The Chair seem like such a big event on Twitter when in fact surely it is quite a niche little thing. Writers and Lovers spent a fair amount of time on workshops and creative angst and agents and things—and on the stress and logistics of waiting tables, work I am pretty sure I would be terrible at. I expected something lighter, but in the end it was the sadder parts I liked the best, especially because (spoiler alert) they are capped off with a happy ending. It felt earned.

Now I am reading Lindsay Zier-Vogel’s Letters to Amelia, which is going well so far and has even made me think perhaps I should get to Newfoundland one of these days. Also in my TBR pile: Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (because I decided I might as well find out for myself), and Molly Peacock’s Flower Diary, which is a physically beautiful object. Some of you might recall how much I loved The Paper Garden. It is a bit stunning to realize it has been nearly a decade since I wrote it up. It inspired me so much, including to reflect on my own efforts to find “[my] own form among the endless varieties of life on earth.” “Five years ago,” I wrote then, “though I had done a lot of writing, I would never have called myself a writer. Now, that identity lives for me as a possibility.” I am still not entirely sure that I call myself a writer, but I certainly have done a lot more writing since then, including here!

Reading Around (and Around)

little-strangerIt has been quiet at Novel Readings this week but that’s not because I haven’t been reading! It’s more that there hasn’t seemed to be much to say about the reading I’ve been doing. My recent novel reading has mostly been rereading: Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds (nice, light, familiar, but also, as I remarked in that earlier post, a bit on the melancholy side for ‘comfort reading’); Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field (an old favorite that, oddly, I have never written about at any greater length than this brief note at John Williams’ old site); and, following on the success of rereading Affinity, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (still a good read, still to me a bit dissatisfying with its irresolute ending – just how unreliable is Dr. Faraday? just how literally should we take his final revelation?).

oup-the-yearsThose are the novels I’ve reread for “fun” (though as I’ve said before, it is never 100% clear to me when or why my reading shades into “research”). I’ve also just finished rereading The Years, and I am a few chapters along in yet another time through South Riding, both of these with an eye to whatever it is that I’m one day going to write about them and the ideas and material I was deep into during my last sabbatical. I had some real momentum for this work going into Fall 2019 and in fact I sent off a proposal related to it early in 2020—but then came COVID and since then I haven’t returned to it in any systematic way. Last summer it was as much as I could do to finish a couple of smaller, more narrowly defined pieces of writing in between the work I was putting in on preparing for my first year of online teaching; while I was actually doing that teaching, I had energy to spare for only a couple of other similarly finite writing projects. (The main one, a feature on Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, will be out soon in the TLS, I hope!) The work of the term is mostly wrapped up now, though, and even if Fall 2021 is partly (or even completely) online again, it won’t require nearly the same amount of effort to prepare for it, so I am determined to use this summer to reinvigorate this research and figure out what to do with it. This means not just rereading the relevant novels but also revisiting and adding to my folder of related scholarship.

VS-2020The other reading I’ve been doing pretty steadily is also for research purposes, but with an eye to my teaching rather than my writing: I’m always gathering up references to new or (to me) unfamiliar scholarship in, around, and about “my” field, and at intervals I resolve to dig into it and see what else I could or should be talking about in the classroom, or just thinking about. Since the end of term I’ve been trying to go through 2-3 articles a day from that folder. This exercise tends to be equal parts exhilarating and exhausting: I enjoy feeling as if I’m learning new things or seeing familiar things from fresh angles, but I have long had a vexed relationship with academic criticism. About a decade ago I resolved to stop worrying so much about it and just get on with my own work; sometimes this reading (which I do consider one of my professional responsibilities) reminds me why I started looking around—and advocating for—other (complementary) possibilities.

blessingI’m not sure what I’m going to read next “just” for myself. I bought Lonesome Dove as a summer treat, but I’m saving it for real summer weather: it looks perfect for reading on the deck. My book club’s next choice is Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing (we wanted something light for summer, and this was one of hers that none of us had already read)—but I don’t have it in hand yet. Of course, like everyone likely to read this post I have a number of unread books on my shelf (not as many as some of you have, though, I’m pretty sure!) but none of them look that tempting  right now, which is probably why I haven’t read them already … Maybe I’ll reread something else I know I’ll like, if only to keep the temptation to order yet more new books at bay!

Recent Reading: Herron, Hardy, Drabble, Thorne

Although until a couple of days ago I was awash in end-of-term work, especially evaluating final essays and exams, I have been managing to fit in some “leisure” reading (although, given my line of work, what reading is ever purely personal is never clear). Partly just to break the inertia of not blogging, I thought I’d write the books up briefly; hopefully that will clear my mind enough that some more thoughtful posts will follow over the next few days, including some kind of wrap-up post about my first full year of teaching online.

First up: Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. I have really enjoyed the three books I’ve read so far in Herron’s Slough House series and usually crime fiction is more my thing than spy novels, so I had high hopes for this one. It didn’t really live up to them, but I think that’s more because of a mismatch between my expectations and Herron’s book, rather than any faults with Down Cemetery Road on its own terms: it is more a thriller than a whodunnit, and while it has some good characters, it is more about plot and suspense than about developing them. It’s pretty dour, even dark, and also pretty political, with its crimes reaching back to things like experimentation with chemical weapons and war crimes. If that’s your thing, you’ll probably like it! It’s well written and pretty fast paced. I won’t be seeking out more in this series, though; I’m much more interested in reading more of the Slough House ones.

Next up: The Mayor of Casterbridge. One of my vague plans for ages has been to revisit some Hardy in case there’s something I’d rather assign in the ‘Dickens to Hardy’ course than Tess or Jude, so the last time I ventured out to campus I brought back two likely suspects to read over the summer, The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge. Picking up Mayor a bit randomly the other day, I found that for whatever reason, I could stick with it better than with the contemporary novels I’d been sampling, so I stuck with it. I think it had been 15 years or more since I last read it: presumably I didn’t love it then or it would promptly have taken its place on my syllabus, and I didn’t end up caring that much for it this time, though I can see that it probably teaches well. As an aside, I mentioned on Twitter that it wasn’t for me and (inevitably, I have learned) people popped up in the replies to tell me that it’s a great novel, or Hardy is a great novelist. Honestly, that’s not a particularly relevant response: even setting aside the vagaries of terms like “great,” tastes vary. By all means tell me that you like it, and better yet tell me what you like about it, but I don’t enjoy replies that sound as if they are correcting my “mistake.”  (I’m sure some people do not mean to chastise you when they tell you how good a book is that you’ve admitted to not liking, but especially when it’s a “classic,” I do find that it often sounds like they are saying that you should know [that is, read] better. Tone is notoriously difficult to convey online!) I really hope I don’t do that when people say (as they pretty often do) that they don’t like Middlemarch.

I also picked up Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises pretty randomly: it has been ripening unread on the shelf since I picked it up used at the symphony book sale, which has not been held now since 2019. (How I have missed it!) Isn’t it odd how the right moment for a book just arrives, sometimes? I think I hadn’t read it before because it has a dreary cover and sounded dour–and if that makes you wonder, then, why I even bought it, well, it was only $2, and Drabble is a novelist I often like, so it seemed worth the very small risk. That said, it is a bit dour, but it’s also sometimes mordantly funny and also kind of encouraging, for a novel that is mostly about death–because what it is really about is what it means or looks like to live a good life. A number of its characters are near the end of their lives; it is not written in the spirit of raging against the dying of the light so much as of seizing what small comforts you can, an idea encapsulated really nicely in Robert Nye’s poem “Going On,” which is quoted in the novel in full. Here are the last line, though of course they mean the most in context:

Now when I think I can’t go on

What I remember is that man

With some small comforts in his hands

Passing along a crowded street

Towards a room all of his own.

Drabble’s eye is really sharp and she does not soften her stories of middle or old age at all. What I appreciate is that the resulting perspective, while resolutely unsentimental, is also not cruel or harsh: it’s just perceptive and kind of curious, as if she’s puzzling out what odd creatures people are and examining the various ways they get as best they can from one day to the next.

Finally, my ‘light’ reading: I had pre-ordered Sally Thorne’s latest romance, Second First Impressions, and was happy when it showed up on my Kobo just when everything else felt like a bit too much. I thought it was just OK. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Hating Game, though I know it was a bit polarizing among other readers. To me it felt fresh and believable, and it’s also very funny; I’ve reread it a few times when I needed a diversion. I can’t imagine rereading this one: its people just didn’t stand out and it all felt a bit too manufactured. I think it might have been better if she’d alternated points of view: the ‘hero’ never quite came into focus for me. It wasn’t bad, though, and it had a lot of cute elements.

What’s next? Right now I’m reading Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth, which is going pretty well so far. It’s a bit hard to roll with some of his devices for Shakespeare’s characters and plots; I’ve just reached the murder of Duncan and that, in particular, seemed insufficiently motivated for these updated characters, who don’t exactly live in a world where “killing the king” is a thing people do to get ahead. The exercise itself is fun, though; I’ve read a couple others in this venture (Vinegar Girl, for one, and also Hag-Seed) and part of the pleasure is just seeing what creative approach the contemporary author comes up with. As far as other reading plans go, I started The Garden of the Finzi-Continis but wasn’t getting along well with it, so I’m saving it for a day when I can read it on the deck, basking in the sunshine and tuning out the fretful world better than I can at the moment. I’ve got Lonesome Dove on order, and I’m looking forward to that, as it sounds as if it’s an adventure in great old-fashioned story-telling. Plus in honor of Independent Bookstore day, I’ve ordered Anne Enright’s Actress and Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree, both recommended by other trusted readers and books that also look smart without being too demanding.

Pretty soon, too, the last of the administrative work for the term will be done and then I will finally–for the first time since last March, really–be able to turn my attention away from online teaching and sort out some priorities and plans for longer-term reading and writing projects, probably including a return to the work I’d been doing on and around The Years. What a nice thought! It’s almost (but not quite) enough to cheer me up in the face of today’s dismal and rather frightening COVID numbers.

Weekend Reading: Making an Effort

Woman Reading (Elinga)I can’t post about books I’ve finished this week because I haven’t finished any. I’ve been trying to read–keeping in mind my realization that my life as a whole is better if I do, and also if I then write about what I’ve read. One obstacle has been my eyesight, unfortunately! Happy as I still am with the multifocal contact lenses that make almost every other aspect of my life perfectly visible, apparently my eyes have been changing just enough that now, if I’m wearing them, I find it really hard to focus on books. I can read just fine without the lenses in, but I don’t like to take them in and out, so I’ve been fitting some reading in during the mornings before I put them in to start the rest of my day, and in the evenings when I will still need them a bit later for TV, I am experimenting with some cheap reading glasses–which do seem to help with that near focus, but make me pretty swimmy if I dare to look around and not just stare at the page. I need to see my eye doctor and reassess my options, but I don’t want to have an eye exam (which brings you inescapably up close and personal for quite a long time, if it’s thorough) until … well, until.

bowenSo, one challenge is aging, and there’s not much to be done about that (and it’s only going to get worse, I know!) The other, though, has been the books I’ve been trying to focus on. Both are ones I have wanted to read for a long time, but neither has proved the right book for this moment, although one of them I am still working on. The first one I started this week was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which has been on my reading wish list for years. It looks great! I am sure it is great! But a couple of chapters into it, I just couldn’t bear it: it was making me feel both bored and claustrophobic. I suspect some of that is a deliberate effect, as it seems to be about a stifling world that tries to stifle people’s feelings. Bowen’s sentences didn’t help. I love Olivia Manning’s description of Bowen’s prose as being like someone drinking milk with their legs crossed behind their head: often, it just seems to be making something that’s actually fairly simple much more complicated than it needs to be! I can and have enjoyed exactly that about Bowen–but not now. Maybe The Death of the Heart will be a good book to read in the summer, on the deck with the languorous pleasure of sunshine to soothe my nerves and no constant fretting about discussion posts ungraded and PowerPoint slides to laboriously create. Back on the shelf it goes, until then.

le-carre-perfectThe other is John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, which I am still working on. I loved the Smiley books so much, and was so engaged by The Little Drummer Girl–how could I not want to read the book Le Carré himself considered his masterpiece?  I acquired it in a flush of enthusiasm after reading the others, started it–and did not like it at all. Then I started it again, months later–and still could not get a grip on it. I took it off my shelves when I put Bowen back, because it seemed like the opposite kind of book and so I thought it might work where The Death of the Heart hadn’t. My hope is that if I can just get further in this time, I will figure it out, by which I don’t mean the plot (which I expect will be as twisty as always) but the voice and the style and the mood. It feels really different from the other Le Carrés I’ve read: it is more fragmented, more arch and nasty, and less (so far) morally serious. I know a lot of people argue that life is too short to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying, and this is a case in which I have obviously agreed so far, quitting it for other books that I liked better. I am not an absolutist about finishing every book you start–but I have, often enough, found that persistence can pay off, and I believe, too, that good books sometimes teach us how to read them, and it’s a lesson that can take more than a few chapters. I want to stick with it this time, just to give it a real chance. (Any admirers out there who would like to encourage me in this effort? Please chime in!)

DALHOUSIE-UNIVERSITYSo that’s where I am this week! I have been thinking a lot about posting more in my once-usual “this week in my classes” series but I can’t seem to get past the twin obstacles of my classes no longer being distinguishable “events” and of all the work for them already being done by computer, which makes reflecting on them by writing about them on the computer a lot less appealing, for some reason. I have a rambling post partially drafted about the other topic that has been much on my mind: realizing that by the time we are back on campus, I will be among the most senior members of my department, not by age but by longevity. In fact, by July 1 2022, I will have only one colleague still around who has been in the department longer than I have. What does–what should–this mean to how I go about my work, or how I think about it? I don’t really know, and I thought that writing about it might help. Maybe it will! We’ll see. In the meantime, things go on exactly the same as they have for months and months. Vaccines are coming, but very slowly–as is spring. Reason for optimism on both counts, but what’s still required above all is patience, and after a year of this, I sometimes feel I have to dig pretty deep for that.

Recent Reading: Gyasi & Rooney

gyasiI continued trying harder this week to do better reading, choosing books that I hoped would bring more or different rewards than my recent rather desultory choices of mysteries and romances. I had mixed success in terms of immediate satisfaction–I didn’t have a lot of fun reading either of the novels I finished this week, but both were thoughtful books that led to thought-provoking experiences.

First up was finishing Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, which I had started a few weeks back and set aside when I realized I had to dig in on the Balkan Trilogy if I was going to write my TLS piece about it in anything other than a total panic. That I hadn’t really felt the pull of it in the meantime and chose, when I felt free to do more personal reading again, to read other things is symptomatic of my relationship with the novel. I was interested in it from the start, and once I went back to it I remained interested in it until the end, but even though I found the story of Gifty and Nana a sad and sometimes harrowing one, the novel never gripped me emotionally: I felt at a distance from its (and their) feelings. I think some of that might be the result of deliberate choices on Gyasi’s part: Gifty’s voice, for example, is often quite detached, and her interests, at least as she articulates them, are often  intellectual or philosophical. She is processing trauma and grief in that way, by asking questions about what things mean and also by turning her family experience into something she can investigate – however imperfectly – through science. Her experiments are a way of managing what happened with her brother’s addiction and death, of trying to convert something that makes no sense to her into something wholly explicable.

The other crucial layer of the novel is her struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with both Nana’s addiction and her own scientific predilections. This made perfect sense as part of Gifty’s personal journey, but there wasn’t much in it that interested me very much, partly because, as a life-long atheist, I can enter only theoretically or hypothetically into someone’s crisis of faith. If it’s going to feel important to me, I need to have a really strong sense of what makes it so difficult to let go of the religious side — or what makes it so important to hang on to it — not in terms of an argument about it, but in terms of the power it has for the character: what does it offer them, or has it meant to them, that a life without religion cannot? There are definitely literary texts that convey this urgency to me (the first writer who comes to mind is actually Hopkins, whose “terrible sonnets” I find extremely powerful–or Tennyson’s In Memoriam) or that tell a story about how faith matters in such a way that, although it is very much not my own world view, I find it compelling nonetheless. I just didn’t have that response to Transcendent Kingdom, which offered neither the intensity of a vicarious religious experience nor any novel insight into either belief or unbelief. Here’s a representative passage with Gifty reflecting on the relationship between faith and science:

gyasi2This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be. I grew up around people who were distrustful of science, who thought of it as a cunning trick to rob them of their faith, and I have been educated around scientists and laypeople alike who talk about religion as though it were a comfort blanket for the dumb and the weak, a way to extol the virtues of a God more improbable than our own human existence. But this tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.

As a description of a character’s point of view, this is fine–good, even. As a commentary on the relationship between science and religion, though, it seems pretty perfunctory and not at all memorable. (I think the novel, or Gifty, also underestimates the capacity of godless people to find meaning and even wonder in the world: Gyasi relies too much on a reductive opposition that she then, unsurprisingly, can’t reconcile or overcome in any profound way.) Maybe it’s as simple as the difficulty of incorporating philosophy into fiction. A “novel of ideas” is one of the hardest things to write without being either didactic or obscure–and while also fully dramatizing the concepts behind it.

NPThe other novel I read this week was Sally Rooney’s Normal People, after finishing the extraordinarily intimate and touching series. I have thought a lot about how watching the adaptation first (something I rarely do) affected my reading of the novel. The most important thing is that it inspired me to read the novel at all: after giving up part way through Conversations with Friends because I was “bored stiff with the process of reading Rooney’s prose,” I had assumed Normal People was also not for me. I’m still not sure what I think about it qua novel, because the whole time I was reading it, I could hear the lines in my head as delivered by the actors (the script is extraordinarily close to the novel–a sign, in some ways, of exactly what I don’t like about Rooney’s style–shouldn’t there be more sense of something lost in the translation to a different medium, the way no 19th-century novel is ever as good in the adaptation because, among other things, you inevitably lose the narrator?).

That said, Normal People is not quite as minimal as Conversations with Friends: there actually are some conspicuously written moments: flashes of gorgeous metaphors (“Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings,” for example–not the narrator’s own words, but Connell’s, rare evidence of the gifted writer he is supposed to be), or observations, contexts, or or internal reflections that at most we can only infer from the many long silences in the adaptation. Still, the sentences overall have the same flat affect and monotonous tone that alienated me from her earlier novel–except when I “listened” to their soft Irish lilt. Could it be that the accent makes all the difference? Not for everyone, obviously, as Rooney has been widely acclaimed. Why did I need the text on the page translated into talking before I could feel it? Because I definitely did feel Normal People. In fact, I felt so sad when I finished it I could hardly get back to my to-do list for the day. I did not find the adaptation so devastating, even though it covers so precisely the same ground. There was just so much tenderness in it: the way they looked at each other, which is described in the novel too but so sparingly you have to take the intimacy on trust, while on screen, you can see it, even when (especially when) they aren’t touching or talking. (They both give such good performances.)

NP-series

Did the series bring something to the novel that isn’t actually there? Or did it bring out something I might have missed if I’d read before watching, because the novel isn’t written in a style I like? Whatever it was, I found that I was willing to believe in depths behind the boringly minimal prose of Normal People that I couldn’t feel or believe in when I tried Conversations with Friends.

toibinNext up, I think, is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, which was one of my Christmas gifts, and then probably Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster, which I couldn’t resist when I saw it in the selection of March sale books at the King’s Bookstore. Plus I’m also, always, reading for class as well: in the ‘Woman Question’ seminar, we are doing a poetry cluster in the upcoming module, after wrapping up The Mill on the Floss this week, so that will be a change of pace; and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are starting Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only. Because I’ve assigned (as recommended for online courses) quite a bit less reading in both classes than I usually do, I am a bit wistful about what we aren’t covering, but all indications are that this kind of paring back is the right move–and I guess all things considered, I’m not really sorry given how laborious other aspects of online teaching continue to be.

Recent Reading: Stuttering A Bit

Manning WindmillIt’s not that I haven’t been reading. In fact, in the last couple of weeks I reread all three novels in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, which is, cumulatively, over 900 pages. This is because I’m going to be writing up something about them for the TLS to mark the nice new reissues by Windmill Books. What exactly I’m going to say is something I’m still working out: the problem is not too few ideas but too many, given what strange and fascinating and provoking books these are. But because I have a formal writing project to do about them, I won’t be adding anything about them here. (I blogged about the whole batch years ago when I first read them, and I also reviewed Deirdre David’s outstanding biography of Manning for Open Letters Monthly.) Also for a review, I read The Appraisal and Deceptions by Anna Porter, two mystery/thrillers set in the very fascinating (under)world of buying and selling fine art masterpieces. My review will be out in Canadian Notes & Queriesdeceptions soon: the tl;dr version (though it’s actually quite a short review anyway!) is that they are good and have real historical and moral depth behind the genre-fiction surface, especially through the way their stories reach back to Hungary’s fascist and Soviet-dominated past. My mother kindly just shipped me her copy of Porter’s memoir The Storyteller, apparently out of print now, which I am looking forward to reading.

bakerI’ve done some other reading “just” for myself and it’s really here that I’ve felt that things are not going so smoothly. The books have been fine. Well, two of them have been fine: Jo Baker’s The Body Lies and Kate Clayborn’s Love At First. Baker’s is the next one we’ll be discussing in my book club: because we are all tired, stressed, and distracted, people wanted something plotty, and I took on the job of rounding up some crime fiction options that looked like they would also be “literary” enough for us to have something to talk about. I think we chose reasonably well with The Body Lies: it purports to be a novel about both violence against women and about how that violence is treated in so much crime fiction, meaning it has a metafictional aspect that adds interest beyond the novel’s own story. I finished it quickly, because I found it quite engrossing, so that’s a good sign in a way–but I also finished it unconvinced that it had avoided the trap of reproducing the things it aims to critique. I read it too soon, as we won’t be meeting up for a while, so I’ll have to reread at least part of it before our discussion to refresh my grasp of the particulars: I’ll come to that rereading with this question top of mind.

clayborn loveI was really excited for the release of Love At First because I am a big fan of Clayborn’s previous novels: they are in the relatively small cluster of romance novels that I have appreciated more the more often I reread them (which in this case has been quite frequently), because she packs a lot into them. That complexity, which can make them seem a bit cluttered at first, turns out (for me at least) to give them more layers and more interest than I often find in recent examples of the genre, which are either too thin and formulaic to sustain my interest or try too obviously to check off too many boxes, making them read like they were designed by focus groups, rather than emerging in any way organically. I really enjoy the intense specificity of her characters and their lives, including their work, which she pays a lot of attention to (yay, neepery). I feel a bit deflated by Love At First, because it seemed – while both very sweet and very competently written and structured – a lot less interesting and a lot less intense than the others. For the first time reading Clayborn, I felt I was reading something almost generic: the story goes through the motions rather than jumping off the page. I’ll reread it eventually: maybe I will find more in it then. I did like it! But I had hoped to really love it, and I didn’t–at  least not at first. 🙂

weinbergAnd speaking of books I don’t love, I have stalled half way through Kate Weinberg’s The Truants. It showed up on my radar around the same time I was looking into The Body Lies and they seemed so well paired that I ordered them both at the same time. Now I wonder what got into me: I started, hated, and quickly abandoned Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and everything about The Truants (including many of the blurbs!) signals that it is in the same vein. There’s nothing wrong with it qua book; it seems deft and clever and (like The Body Lies, but in a different way) it is also aiming at something metafictional through its engagement with Agatha Christie and ideas about how crime fiction works. But I can’t stand academic stories that turn on cults of personality around professors, which are creepy and and antithetical to everything I believe about teaching, not to mention about student-teacher relationships (hello, Dead Poets Society, which once upon a time I found enthralling but now consider kind of appalling). Also, while I try not to hold academic settings up to reductive standards of realism — and I’m also aware that I don’t understand the British system being portrayed very well, so I can’t actually be sure if I’m right when my reaction is “but this isn’t what we do!” — it gets distracting when the scenarios seem too far off. I have not so far managed to get genuinely interested in any of the characters, which means I keep not picking the book up to read further, which in turn means I’m also not picking up anything else because I feel as if I should finish it first. That’s a foolish “should,” I know, though I am by habit and on principle someone who does mostly try to finish the books I start, in case they get better or I figure out how to read them, both things that have happened often enough to make me hesitant to toss things aside. I’m not going to toss this one aside, or at any rate I’m not going to put it in my malingering “donate” stack (how I wish the book sale was once again able to accept donations, as this stack is getting kind of large!). Instead, I’m going to put it back on my Mysteries shelf and try it again another time.

macke woman readingI think I need to read something richer and more challenging to turn things around — and to do that I need to stop making excuses about distractions or poor concentration. Reading, including reading well, is a decision we can make, I honestly think, and it’s not just that I feel disappointed in myself when I’m not doing it; it’s also that my life overall feels worse without it. One of my favorite quotations is from Carol Shields’ wonderful novel Unless: “This is why I read novels: so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue.” My current unrelenting monologue (like most people’s these days, I expect) is not a particularly sustaining one: I need reading to give me other stories to think about. I need blogging for the same reason, I find: it is still the only writing I do that feels genuinely my own. This is not by way of making some kind of bold resolution about either reading or blogging, but it actually helps just putting into words why I hope I will be doing more of both.