New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

So, I have fallen off the wagon, and spectacularly too. You may recall that I was not meant to be buying books this year. Up until a couple of days ago, that was going pretty well. I had only bought three books in seven months. If you look at the pile on the left below, you’ll see Orient by Christopher Bollen, Vivien Gornick’s essays The End of the Novel of Love (which were excellent) and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s controversial book on psychosomatic illness, It’s All In Your Head. This last has really split the reviewers on amazon, half finding it a compassionate book, the other half decrying its lack of scientific testing. But I thought science hadn’t found ways of measuring emotions, their strength, and the damage they can do to the human body? If science has no measuring tools, then isn’t science failing here rather than the book? Ah well, I’ll let you know what I think about it when I’ve read it.

I’m not quite sure why I weakened, but a trip into town on Thursday found me seduced by the three-for-twos in Heffers. And before I knew what I’d done, I’d bought Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Peter Lovesey’s Down Among the Dead Men (I adore his crime fiction) and William Nicholson’s The Lovers of Amherst. I put them in a pile and got Mr Litlove to take a photo, vowing no more. And then somehow, looking at the cheap marketplace seller books on amazon, I ordered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the new Angela Thirkells rereleased by Virago, and one of the Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamilton because I’m interested in art theft at the moment (in theory, not in practice) and that’s central to the plot. And THEN, when I was in town today (I was going to have a haircut but there’d been a mix-up at the salon so I went shopping instead – honestly, they made me do it), I bought a book for Mr Litlove and, given it was buy-one-get-one-half-price, another novel for me. It would have been rude not to.  When I gave Mr Litlove his book, he said, ‘You think it makes it any better if you buy one for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ confidently. Because you have to brazen these things out. He doesn’t know about the amazon order yet. Let’s not tell him.

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So now I really must get back on the straight and narrow. Not least because I really do have a lot of unread books on my shelves. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t reading much, I took to poking around on my bookcases, seeing what I had there, and I found all sorts of things, good and bad.

The pile on the right in the above photo is just a selection of books by authors I have been meaning to read for so long it’s almost embarrassing. On the top is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (I could have added John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids to the pile, too), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (how can I have never read Calvino?), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Joan Didion’s essays.

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I love non-fiction, and there have been several books over the past six or seven years that I just had to have as soon as I heard about them, that of course remain unread still. The above is a selection again: Stacy Schiff’s prize-winning biography of Cleopatra; O My America by Sara Wheeler (which tells the stories of six 19th century women who escaped trouble of one sort or another by travelling to America, including Trollope’s mother, Fanny Trollope and travel writer Isabella Bird); The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (a mix of nature writing and memoir); Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (recounting her relationship to her emotionally troubled mother); Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (which I’ve seen recommended so many times in the blogworld) and The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte which mixes meteorology, notably fog in San Francisco, with memories of his brother who committed suicide.

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Now this pile might be termed books where I have bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not very good with chunksters, on the grounds that there is no good reason, ever, for a book to be longer than 500 pages. So you’d think I wouldn’t buy them, wouldn’t you? I even started a blog several years ago on the William Gaddis, as I thought it might encourage me through it. Several of us bloggers were going to read it together, though I think only one did in the end, that one not being me. I read the first twenty pages or so and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t have the necessary concentration over an extended period of time. I have a good friend who is a huge fan of this novel and I’d like to read it for his sake. I will get to it again one day.

Similarly, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I began for Caroline’s German Literature Month, did the twenty pages thing, never picked it up again. Forever Amber I am sure is a favourite novel of blogging friends (though I can’t recall who loves it, and I’m not sure William Gaddis is too thrilled about having it sat next to him).

The book on top of the pile, Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy was one of those impulse buys on amazon that sounded interesting, only I never looked at the page count. Imagine my surprise when it arrived! It’s larded with quotes from reviewers who call it ‘ambitious’ and ‘unusual’, which if  you translate those phrases like estate agent speak, you get ‘over-blown’ or ‘pretentious’ and ‘strange’. I do wonder what I was thinking. Then the Rumi… well, I thought I’d like to know a bit more about Rumi. I am not at all sure I have the brain capacity to know that much about him.

So that’s just a few of the books I rediscovered. Any there you think I should hasten to read? Any I should send to the charity shop?

 

Two Apologies

I have been a terrible book blogger this year and whilst I owe apologies all round for visiting so infrequently and not replying to comments (I do hope for better things in the second half of 2016), I’ve also got two book reviews particularly on my conscience. Steven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage and Britta Böhler’s The Decision were novels I read in December of 2015 and faithfully promised to review either on this site or Shiny. Six months late they may be, but the following accounts do seem oddly pertinent to the political moment, one way or another.

lady of steerageSteven Mayoff’s Our Lady of Steerage is a novel about emigration, the story of ‘Everyone who ever crossed an ocean to escape the inescapable.’ Its central focus is Mariasse Knyszinski who runs away from an overbearing father and a downtrodden mother in Poland to follow her beloved cousin, Piotr, to the promised land of Canada. The year is 1923 and she boards the S. S. Montmartre in Cherbourg for the week-long trip across the Atlantic, a voyage that will indelibly alter the lives of several of the travellers. Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Shulim and Betye who have suffered a tragedy during the train journey from Bucharest to Paris: their five-year-old son fell ill and died en route. Betye is so prostrated by grief that she is unable to care for her baby, Dvorah, (known as Dora for most of the novel), and Mariasse willingly takes on this task. The week of devotion creates a life-long bond between Mariasse and Dora, and also links Mariasse with the Krager family, whose son, Aaron, will come to benefit from the innate goodness in Mariasse that his parents so admire.

What follows is the account of these intertwined lives from the early 1920s to the early 1960s, but the recounting of the events is in no way linear. Instead, we skip around in time, visiting moments in  the 1940s or 30s before heading into the past to understand what provoked them. From very early on in the novel, we realise that Mariasse and Dora are destined for terrible emotional hardships that will break them both, and only gradually do we piece together the chain of events that befall them. I thought that the disjointed chronological structure was the most impressive part of this novel. It is clever and well-orchestrated and adds depth and tension to the narrative. Mayoff teases the reader who wants to know what happens when Mariasse and Piotr finally meet (he doesn’t know she is coming), what drives Dora to a suicide attempt and electric shock therapy, what happens to the angry, bitter Betye, why Mariasse abandons Catholicism and embraces Judaism – and then why she converts back again. For me, the constant switchbacks really made the reading experience.

What’s perhaps more problematic is the bleakness of the story. It didn’t feel like a political point was being made here – it’s not the treatment the immigrants receive at the hands of the Canadians, for instance, that gives the characters pain. A more likely cause seems to be the displacement a person feels when they leave their native land behind, when family trouble or political unrest or poverty forces them into an exile that they will never really come to terms with, even when it has been undertaken with determined hope. And then again, there seems to be a deep vein of mental instability in the characters, combined with the hardship of just living, that cannot be assuaged. The bleakness is inevitable, however, when we consider the characterisation of Mariasse, who is supposed to be the light and hope of the novel, but who never really feels convincing on the page. Had she been a stronger force for good, rather than a nice person who is continually put-upon until she cracks, a more balanced novel might have resulted. Betye, on the other hand, leaps off the page at you and electrifies her scenes, and Dora never seems to overcome the legacy of being her daughter, or of her early neglect.

A very interesting part of Canadian history under the microscope and some fine storytelling to be had, then, but a dark, dark story.

the decisionBritta Böhler’s novel The Decision, focuses on three momentous days in the life of the German Nobel prize-winning author, Thomas Mann. Between the 31st January and the 2nd of February 1936, Mann frets over a terrible choice he must make. Does he or does he not denounce the Nazi party in the Swiss press? On the one hand, he feels morally compelled to do so, horrified by all that is happening in his beloved homeland and urged on by his politically-minded daughter. But on the other, any such denunciation comes at the cost of permanent exile, the loss of his German readership, the probable burning of his books.

This is only a short novella, but it achieves a masterful portrait of Thomas Mann. Sitting comfortably in the close third person, the voice is a brilliant evocation of a committed artist – the hypersensitivity, the hypochondria, the euphoria and the passion of creation, along with the lengthy stretches of insufficient work done, the anxieties over creative sterility. Thomas Mann loved Germany, and he needed his routine, clung to it and all the other beloved familiarities that allowed him to venture into the realm of his imagination. The occasion for his exile is an ironic one, a long essay he wrote about his hero, Wagner that became the basis for a lecture tour, and which was used by the authorities to denounce him, claiming he had ‘besmirched the memory of the great composer’. Mann is hurt, bewildered, and aware of the danger he is in. The denunciation is used as an excuse for the Nazis to search his house and he fears for the safety of his notebooks, in which he has written everything he could never say elsewhere, not least his romantic feelings for beautiful young men.

And so a holiday in Switzerland turns into a permanent exile, and from this most uncomfortable of positions, Mann must negotiate not only his personal effects, but his critical reputation. What sustains him during this time is, naturally, his creativity. He is writing the first novel in his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers, in what would become an epic work demanding 16 years of his life.

The great novel is set in the distant past, and yet it’s so near. Joseph, too, is an outcast, driven against his will from his own land by his jealous brothers, he has to find a new home in a strange country. A stranger in a world that he doesn’t understand. And Joseph, too, takes satisfaction in order and wants everything to be consistent; he takes a stand against chaos and disorder. Against the emergence of destructive forces that threaten a peace that is only apparently safe. It’s as if when he started the book he had an inkling that the same fate would befall him one day.’

I just loved this; I have a weakness for novels about writers in any case, and this is so exquisitely done. The whole of Mann’s life is here, combined with a neat but powerful account of what was happening in the German republic. Mann is a public figure and he takes pride in his prominence; he feels a duty to speak out, at a time when ‘anyone who does nothing, participates’. But he knows to do so might be the end of his life as a published writer. The decision he comes to, and how he makes it, feel exactly right.

The Other Part of the Reason…

Why I’ve been quiet, is to be found here at the wonderful Numero Cinq.

I’ve been writing about one of my favourite French authors, Patrick Modiano, whose name may be familiar to you after his unexpected win of the Nobel Prize for literature.

patrick modiano for numero cinq

His novels are almost ridiculously accessible – very simple and elegant language, very simple plots in which the main protagonist seeks the answers to some ongoing enigma, often concerning his own past, and yet immense psychological depth. He became famous in France for writing about the period of the Occupation, just at a time when the French were beginning to realise that their own history was much darker and more complex than was comfortable. I think he’s an amazing writer, and well worth your time. Lots of his novels are coming out in translation now, thanks to the Nobel, but my suggestion would be you start with either Missing Person or Honeymoon. And do let me know how you get on.

And Finally, Some Reviews

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been (though I expect you have much better things to think about), then a partial answer is: writing for Shiny.

SNB-logoYes! Shiny New Books, issue 10, is live today. It’s full of the usual stock of bookish goodies, lots of reviews, features and interviews, and these are the books I’ve personally recommended:

A clever and compelling novel about a troubled marriage.

A classic novel that I doubt anyone has read.

A non-fiction account of a profession that’s had a lot of bad press.

A brilliant piece of shrink-lit.

A literary novel that won me over, even though it wasn’t the sort of thing I like best.

And please do check out the BookBuzz section, which includes special features by our friends, Elle and Arti Ripples.

Enjoy!