Maybe some people are just born with the deck stacked against them, and no matter the good intent of their efforts, nothing can change anyone’s bad opinion of them. Take poor Janet, from the late Elspeth Barker’s only novel O Caledonia. A clumsy, bumbling child with frizzy hair and no social skills, even her own family found her unpleasant company. When the poor girl was murdered at age 16 in the family’s highland home, despatching her body and being shed of her was their one concern.
Only her pet jackdaw was left to mourn, dashing himself against the castle walls.
O Caledonia is an absolute joy of a novel, smoothly flowing, at times poetic, with a nasty satirical bite. Like Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Barker makes merry with gothic conventions, while taking the opportunity to wax lyrical about silly young girls whose heads have been turned by books.
Though the story begins with a murder, this is neither mystery nor thriller. Strange as it sounds, the poor girl’s death isn’t the point but, rather, the culmination of a series of events starting from her birth and ending in her premature demise. The young misanthrope was never long for this world, a point the novel drives home very effectively through scene after dire scene featuring a not always well-intentioned Janet. In one particularly hilarious scene, while her mother drives them to the dentist her younger sister – the literal golden child of the family – inexplicably falls out of the car. Grabbing the door and pulling it closed, Janet’s only thought was, essentially, oh god, I hope I don’t get blamed for this. Then, when instead of going out for tea and cakes they turn around and take her bruised sister home, Janet is frustrated and resentful.
Not a pleasant girl, granted, but still not sure she deserved a stabbing. Call me irrational.
As the oldest, Janet’s robbed of any hope of parental love as a series of increasingly adorable, perfect children are born. Fed up with being occasionally expected to help out, when charged with bringing her baby sister in from the rain Janet grabs the infant by the head, dragging her out of her pram then through the mud by whatever limb she managed to get hold of. Inevitably, she was punished, and rightly so, but no effort she made ever paid off, so why even bother?
I could see her point.
Barker does show some sympathy, allowing her one consoling friendship with cousin Lila, a fascinatingly eccentric, witch-like character whose continued residence at their inherited home, Auchnasaugh, comes as a requirement stipulated in the will of the uncle who granted her family the property. A hermit who may despise people even more than Janet, Lila nevertheless welcomes the girl into her dark and strange little cottage on the grounds of the castle – at least for a while, but nothing good ever can last for the poor thing.
Elspeth Barker was a journalist and book reviewer whose life bore a striking similarity to her main character’s. Raised in Drumtochy Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, like Janet’s father, Barker’s also used their home to house a preparatory school for boys. It’s not a stretch to imagine young Elspeth whiling away her time in books, though I certainly hope her family didn’t despise her and the boys weren’t as nasty.
O Caledonia set the bar high for my reading year and I hope it’s a sign of good things to come. It’s earned itself a perfect 5/5 and I’ve already shifted it to the re-read list.
Fans of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle would probably love this book. Speaking of, I should re-visit that one, too.
The Scottish Highlands setting really sealed the deal for me, as if I wouldn’t have loved the wretched, book-obsessed anti-heroine in any environment. I just wish Elspeth Barker had had time to write more novels, and I’m keen to track down her book of essays and reviews, Dog Days, which doesn’t seem to be available anywhere – believe me, I’ve been checking.
Like Janet, I’ll keep soldiering on, despite being an incredibly irritating human being.
When did I last make a Best Reads of list? I honestly can’t remember. Apparently I’m making one this year, which feels somewhat like a victory against my indolence. Nah, that’s too harsh. I’ve simply gotten out of the habit and I’m struggling to get back to regular blogging. I could make any number of excuses but you’ve heard them before, so let’s skip it.
It was a decent reading year, overall. I used Goodreads to record most of my reads, which worked out to be around 35 I’m able to name. Of those, three fell into the Did Not Finish pile I chucked aside as useless. Two of those three were book group reads, or books recommended by a group I didn’t wind up joining. I followed along from home, telling myself I’d go to the meetings if I liked the books. Well, funny story, in addition to those DNF titles there were three others I finished but very reluctantly. That’s a whopping five, which makes them a bit shit when it comes to picking books. Call me silly, but seems to me the books are an integral part of a book group – hence the name.
Another four were online book group read-alongs – via Facebook and the now-defunct online Literati site, which sent me an email a week ago abruptly announcing that’s it, they’ve packed up shop. My guess is other members like myself got fed up their celebrity book group “leaders” never posted a damn thing during the discussions, which left us all paying money for books we read on our own. That’s fine, I like books. What I don’t like is the promise name-brand authors are going to share their personal favorites then chat with you about them, only to find out they’re basically just hand-selling.
Ah well. That’s more books I’ll choose for myself in 2023.
This year’s Booker Prize list engaged me and I read five of the longlisted novels, then became angry my top two favorites (The Colony and Case Study) didn’t win. Adding insult to injury, two books I was very meh about (Oh! William and The Trees) advanced to the shortlist. They always manage to piss me off somehow, yet still I return. To be fair, they’ve introduced me to loads of great reads.
I bought the book that did win the prize, which wasn’t published in the States until after the prize had been awarded so I couldn’t have read it before, anyway. It has potential. The premise is great and the first few pages are promising. I’ll talk about it once I’ve gotten to it, update to come.
Non-fiction reads in the biography category were both about male writers and written by females: Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman and Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, both stellar. The RLS was inspired by a planned return trip to Scotland, though that odyssey was shifted to Ireland, but at least now I’m better-equipped for next time I go – tentatively planned for late 2023. I do highly recommend the Solnit title, too, if you have even the slightest interest in George Orwell. Fascinating how she structured that book, telling some of her own story then thoroughly examining Orwell the man, rather than Orwell the author.
My one completed book about books (most of these I don’t read straight through but I took this one on a retreat), Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda, is also a recommend. Many of the books he writes about I’ve already read but that makes his essays no less enjoyable.
Enough preamble. Let’s get to my list – in no particular order:
” Always when I play back my father’s voice,” Maria says, “it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don’t do it the hard way. My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of two lessons I learned as a child. The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake. As lessons go those two seem to hold up, but not to apply. “
– Play It As It Lays
Joan Didion died in 2021, arguably the finest American essayist ever. Her writing was often politically and socially charged, classified as “new journalism” along with writers like Tom Wolfe, whose Bonfire of the Vanities I read and enjoyed decades ago. Her minimalist prose was a sort of homage to Hemingway, whose essays she hand copied to study his style. Because her writing was so journalistic, she’s a writer who seems to polarize readers. I adore her.
Play It As It Lays was one of the first books I read in 2022. It’s gritty and realistic, grim but not without purpose. It reflects the time and place in which it was written and set: 1970s Hollywood. I shouldn’t have liked it, much less been blown away. I have little interest in either the 70s or Hollywood but it transcends its subjects.
It was all about the writing; it cuts like glass.
“What happens in a room lingers there invisibly, all deeds, all words, always. Not seen, not heard, except by some, and even then imperfectly. In this very room both birth and death have taken place. Long ago, maybe, but the blood is still visible on certain days, when time wears thin.”
– The Promise
Speaking of the Bookers, The Promise was the 2021 winner. It is spectacular.
The story of a family falling apart in South Africa of the apartheid years, it revolves around the youngest member of the family, Amor, who’s almost a mystic or sage. Even though she moves away from them and distances herself, she’s always a presence. The book is tragic and beautiful. I loved it and vowed to read more by Galgut.
“She was lonely. Who isn’t lonely, I’d like to know? And that includes people who do have someone but just haven’t noticed.”
– The Door
Such an odd book! And that’s exactly why I loved it. With elements of magical realism and a distinctly dark tone, the story is about an older woman who basically takes ownership of a couple and asserts herself into their lives until she becomes essential. She gains power over them, but not in a truly sinister way. Yes, she controls them but without malice.
I love darkly psychological books. I say that all the time, and The Door is a prime example.
“Bless me, Father, said Francis, for I pushed the Englishman off the cliff. One Hail Mary, said Micheál. Bless me, Father, for I have pushed the Frenchman off the cliff. One Our Father. Two Hail Marys.”
– The Colony
I said my best reads are in no particular order, but that’s not entirely true. I’m realizing now The Colony is my absolute favorite read this year. My impulse is just to yell it’s fucking brilliant, pick it up. Because it is fucking brilliant. Pick it up.
It’s about a tiny, insular island that’s home to the last pure Irish speakers living in the traditional way – that is, trying very hard to survive by fishing and trading skilled labor for food and other essentials from mainland Ireland. Because they need the money, they allow a couple visitors at a time to stay in their ruggedly beautiful community. In the story, both summer visitors are men: one a linguist who’s a perennial visitor, on the island to study and write about them, the other an artist, an older man who believes himself a more brilliant painter than he is, and whose motives are ultimately devastatingly selfish.
Magee alternates the story of the island with chapters about the brutality of The Troubles, relating bloody attacks between the unionists and the nationalists in Northern Ireland going on at the same time the islanders are realizing the inevitability their lifestyle is no longer sustainable. The effect is breathtaking. This book hasn’t left my head.
“Karen, her elbows folded on the deck-rail, wanted to share with someone her pleasure in being alone: this is the paradox of any happy solitude.”
– The House in Paris
Finally, I made time for Elizabeth Bowen and she smashed all expectations. I’m not sure she’s like Virginia Woolf but I love her writing for similar reasons. Her prose style is very modern, her themes including breaking away from Victorian values and running madly into the 20th century. As an Anglo-Irish writer, much of this book examines a tug of war between her homeland of Ireland – seen as somewhat provinicial – and a more modern life outside its borders.
Because Bowen doesn’t feel completely comfortable in either world, the theme of house and home is very prominent. It’s almost gothic the way she writes about houses, as if they are sentient. Actually, it is gothic how she describes the moods of houses and their ability to warp life within them.
In addition to her novels, she’s known for accomplished ghost stories. I haven’t read hese yet. I hope to in 2023.
If there’s a common thread in these five books, it’s atmospheric quality. I like a good plot – which all these have – but I’m more impressed by authors able to flex their skills manipulating the reader to feel, to really resonate with the prose. I don’t need to like characters. In fact, brilliant writers are capable of making the reader viscerally revile the characters while riveting with a plot that drags them through the muck.
Now that is my kind of book.
All these works could be called brooding and dark; there’s nothing sunny and happy here. I’m not a depressed person anymore but I maintain an interest in realism over relentlessly cheerful writing. There are exceptions, when I’m in the mood for it, but truly good comic writing demands the same mastery as the darker stuff. Books that don’t challenge my mind are incredibly dull and I don’t have time to waste on dull things.
I may finish another book or two in 2022 but I’m confident nothing can dislodge these five. Here’s to more stellar reading in 2023 that pushes my boundaries and shoves me out of my comfort zone.
Looks as if a crafty Christmas extravaganza blew up Chez Bluestalking, as I prepare to greet the holidays with a gusto that frankly surprises me. I’d given myself permission to skip it this year, in favor of pared-down, basic decor. Maybe a wreath on the door, I said. A poinsettia plant if I’m feeling fancy. I’ve been working loads of hours and I honestly wasn’t feeling it.
Once I decided to buy the tree, things just snowballed of their own accord.
There’s something about a Christmas tree that commands drama. You can’t leave it standing naked, and since I gave most of my holiday decorations to my daughter last year I was basically starting from scratch. A lot of stuff came from resale shops; I extended a couple of work lunches and ran out in the evenings. Before I knew it the place was filled and festive. It wound up a whole lot more expensive than a wreath on the door – which I already owned, by the way. That, and a tall, skinny fake tree I wound up sticking my office.
I blame Pinterest for what came next, the obsession with dehydrating fruit and hanging it in garlands around my apartment. It’s pretty and feels like an accomplishment. My evenings were a lot more varied working on that. It’s nothing I’ve done before and I’m happy with how it looks. If it lasts more than one season I’ll be doubly pleased.
In addition to gluing it to candles, I made ornaments and the aforementioned garland:
Every year it’s been getting harder and harder coordinating with my kids for our traditional meal. They all have partners now, plus my divorced status forces them to make time for each parent, as well. Last year I did appetizers and desserts instead of a proper meal. When I mentioned making lasagna from scratch this year my two sons were pretty enthusiastic.
When I make lasagna, I make my own red sauce. And when I make red sauce, I put in a crazy amount of garlic and wine and simmer it all day. I haven’t made it since I’ve been divorced, which is seven years now – wow, time’s been flying. I have the basic recipe memorized but I never make it the same way twice. It’s not an exact science, it’s a matter of splashing out the money for quality ingredients and devoting the better part of a day to chopping and sauteeing, simmering and pouring it in containers.
The resulting smell is pure heaven, not to mention the taste. Once you’ve had homemade red sauce, that jarred stuff tastes like absolute garbage.
Baking focaccia bread, however, does require precision; yeast breads rely on a specific ratio of warm water and sugar to produce the gas that creates those wonderful bubbles. The taste relies on salt, rosemary (in this case), and lots of olive oil. Loads of it, in the dough itself and over every inch of the top. Olive oil makes a soft crust and delectable taste. They say it’s a healthy fat, and I certainly hope so considering the amount I’ve consumed these past two weeks.
I baked two focaccia breads before I was happy with the result. Focaccia makes glorious toast; the first test loaf has all but disappeared. The other two I’ve thrown in the freezer, and I’ll probably make more before Christmas. There will be six of us and, at this rate, I’ll be sending bread home with the kids.
I hope they take lots of pictures, because this may become the stuff of Christmas legend. It’s dangerous cooking this much in a given year, lest they begin to expect it. How thoroughly and unusually domestic of me, from stringing cranberries and dried fruit to making real food. If I do it once a decade, it proves I’m still capable of it. It’s good to flex that culinary muscle every now and then. It feels like a personal challenge putting in the effort to prove I am still capable of creating extraordinarily delicious food.
I guess I’m set for the next decade, if the pattern holds.
In the midst of all the holiday prep, I’ve been working on my Best Reads of 2022 list. I think I have it decided, though in the course of creating it I bolted off on several tangents.
I participated in a few online book group reads this year, speaking of things I haven’t done in ages. I already mentioned To the Lighthouse in my last post, and the experience, though rushed, re-ignited my obsession with all things Woolf. The group finished it in just over the two weeks allotted (our moderator bumped things out after a few of us expressed a problem keeping up) and I’d like to go back through everyone’s summaries to tie it all up in my head.
Then the Booker Prize – another interest re-kindled. I re-visited that as I was toting up numbers and examining reading patterns.
For next year’s reading, I’ve purchased a bespoke, dedicated reading journal. It’s incredibly organized, with built-in pages for listing books read, books bought, books I’m lusting to buy, brief reviews, and even an adorable blank bookshelf where I can color in the volumes and write the titles as I finish. Pricey as hell, but if it keeps me better organized it’s worth it to me.
It’s a short work week – this week and next, actually. Over the course of the next few days I’ll be juggling the planning of tasty cocktails, wrapping the last of the gifts, baking, and writing my end of the reading year posts. I’m not taking extra time off for the holidays. My hours are flexible, plus we get banker’s holidays. Between Christmas and New Year’s I’ll get it done.
In the meantime, I’m hoping your holidays aren’t fraught with negative things. Mine aren’t without their share, but at least this year my coping mechanism of going over and above is working pretty well.
Take care of yourselves, friends. I’ll be back to talk books soon.
In 1995 I first discovered Virginia Woolf. A stay-at-home mother with an infant and toddler, exhaustion didn’t dampen my need for mind-expanding reading; it lit a fire. When I felt my intellect beginning to leak out my ears, I genuinely worried if it wasn’t used it would begin to atrophy.
Once my son and daughter were old enough to throw in a stroller and transport to the library, I was ready to pick up a book with actual words for myself, not just cartoon animals with simple rhymes. Because my kids and their patience were short, that first venture into the adult fiction area was a calculated short dash. I grabbed To the Lighthouse knowing it was a classic but lacking much knowledge about the novel and Woolf in general, beyond a vague understanding of her place in the literary canon. I knew enough to believe I should read her, that not having done so was a gap in my education. And when I put my kids down for their nap, I opened the cover and devoured.
I didn’t own a lot of books in those years – mostly college textbooks with a few stray novels peppering the shelves. My then-husband gave me a very hard time when I bought books, much less took time from the demands of motherhood to read. Picking books up for free at the library was moderately better, still not encouraged. Current-day me is shocked I tolerated such a lack of respect and empathy. I absolutely wouldn’t now. Still, for too many years I placed sole responsibility for my perceived lack of power on him. From the distance of decades, it’s easy to see should haves and could haves. I just don’t have the energy for grudges anymore. Plus, things worked themselves out. I’m now divorced and autonomous – and I own hundreds of lovely books.
Reading well is the best revenge.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years and I’m re-reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I’ve read Mrs Dalloway at least three times and many of her other works once or twice though, but I’d never made it back to TTL until my Facebook book group chose it as one of our December 2022 reads. Five chapters in, I find myself agreeing with me from 30 years ago: To the Lighthouse is a masterpiece.
To the Lighthouse is not a difficult novel. Woolf has a reputation for impenetrable prose that’s overblown because her trademark style was stream of consciousness, honestly no more difficult to understand than the average person’s monkey mind. It’s just that you’re listening to someone else’s monkey mind. Seriously, sit down and listen to your brain. Really pay attention, especially when attempting to meditate. The brain rebels when it feels restricted. Never do we sound more outright crazy than when we are attempting to repress thoughts:
Empty your mind.
“I need to pick up milk my ass itches is it hot in here or is it me who is that guy my god he breathes so loudly I want to slap him oh dammit I forgot to empty my mind my toe itches I wonder what John meant the other day when he said oh crap I’m thinking again and I’m thinking about the fact I’m thinking what time is it anyway how much did I pay for this class I’m staying home next week.”
That text up there, does it sound familiar? Stream of consciouness wades into that crazy-wonderful mess, picks it up, and slaps it onto the page. Again, because it’s not your mess, it takes a minute to get the rhythm. As the reader, you’re being dumped into as authentic a representation of the true functioning of the mind as it gets.
Woolf knew most – if not all – fiction is structured artificially and that life just doesn’t work like that. If real art imitates life, it follows that fiction should not be bound by these impossible rules. Life doesn’t pick up at Point A, move smoothly through Points B, C, D, then smoothly pull up at the station in time for Point Z. Neither do real people start out one thing, experience catharsis, then inevitably grow in a predictable way.
To the Lighthouse has a loosely-defined “plot” in that a family and its acquaintances are present in the beginning and some of them ultimately wind up at the end. In between, some people die, some go their own way, and a few make it to the final page. What does that sound like? Oh, I’ve got it: LIFE! If your story, or my story, anyone’s story were being told without benefit of a narrator voicing it over, this would be the sum of it: people randomly show up, time passes, things happen, some people are still there in a decade.
Woolf employs the device of starting the novel in medias res – in the middle – with no preamble. If you’ve read the Iliad or the Odyssey, you’ll recognize this as the method Homer employed. In all epics, there is a Hero, a Man on a Very Big and Important Adventure. He’s Brave and Strong and, again, Very Important. He goes through Trials, he is Tested. Ultimately, he reaches a Destination and does a Thing.
Virginia Woolf knew all about epic poetry, having at age 8 taught herself to read Homer in the original Greek (keep in mind her father was a famous scholar, thus she had advantages). She also lived on the cusp of the Victorian Era, bridging into the 20th Century. Her parents were Victorians, and, although quite artsy and educated, mirrored the expectation men and women had traditional roles. As her parents died and she became involved with the artists, writers, and philosophers known as the Bloomsbury Group, Woolf’s circle shifted to the constant presence of Bohemian libertine/socialists. Several of them were bi-sexual – some swapping partners and/or having open affairs – all of them valuing the life of the mind over mundane responsibility.
Of course, when you have money you can afford to thumb your nose at society, and they pretty much all did.
Even with all her privilege, intelligence and education, Woolf nevertheless knew she was still bound by certain societal expectations. Women were becoming more accepted in the literary world but the fact remained the history of literature – and the world – was written by men. Epic Heroes were exclusively men. So, in To the Lighthouse, she picked up the genre of the epic poem and plopped it down in the middle of the domestic lives of the Ramsay family. Instead of Odysseus, there’s Mrs Ramsay, perfect example of the Victorian era matriarch, as modeled by her own mother. Instead of an epic sea voyage to accomplish Very Great Things, there’s one family’s hope to take a short boat trip from their summer home on the Isle of Skye to a nearby lighthouse.
To the Lighthouse, on the grand literary scale, proves that life, as experienced by an average person, can have as much meaning and drama as all the voyages of Odysseus. Sometimes great hopes are symbolized by a not-so-simple day trip, and, sometimes, the great epic poet, the teller of tales, is a woman.
In a nutshell, this is why the book’s studied so widely. It’s a damn fine book, in some ways autobiographical, with a tremendous amount of beauty and relevance. The backstory, what makes it so autobiographical, is fascinating to Woolf scholars. I’ve started my deep reading of it, as well as some secondary sources. The book group’s pace will be breakneck, covering it in two weeks (frankly not a fan of that speed but okay). l’ve been to both the place Woolf chose to set it – Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides, Scotland – and the area it’s actually based on – Cornwall.
I’m going to be reading like a mutherfugger over the next two weeks to keep up. I hope I don’t drop the ball for my part of the discussion. Now that I have the luxury of permission to read, there’s full-time work in place of a household filled with children. It’s always something but at least I’m the one rowing the boat.
When I last posted, I was in the midst of a selective Booker longlist read-a-thon of selected titles. When the shortlist came, I was disappointed my favorite – The Colony by Audrey Magee – was not on it. From there, I didn’t much care who won. I was soured on the whole thing and just hoped they didn’t choose one of the two novels I’d read and disliked – Oh! William by Elizabeth Strout or The Trees by Percival Everett. Ultimately, they didn’t, which pleased me.
Oh! William annoyed the living hell out of me. Though it was a short novel, it took strength getting through it. I’d read and loved Olive Kitteridge, so it follows I’d expected this book to be just as good. Oh! but it was so not. It started well enough but ended a kitschy mess.
The Trees was a better book but had it won it wouldn’t have been for its merit as a written work so much as its civil rights theme. While I support great writing about social issues, and the Emmet Till story deserves to be told over and over lest we forget, it’s not that good. I saw what he was trying to achieve – a lighter take on a dark subject – it just doesn’t work. It’s my first book by Percival Everett, so I don’t know how representative it is. I just don’t quite understand what possessed him. Because of the social justice atrocity at its center, no reviewer called him to task, which is the downside of criticism in 2022. I do not judge Percival Everett, I judge the work he puts out. Critics are muzzled now, afraid to tell the truth about sensitive subject matter. Utimately, if a writer doesn’t succeed, they should not be lauded. I don’t care what their reputation is or what they’re writing about.
The 2022 Booker winner, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Sheehan Karunatilaka, didn’t make it to my TBR but it sounds kind of wonderful. I pre-ordered it, since it hasn’t yet been published here in the States. As usual, I have loads of books on the go but I’m hoping to squeeze it in before the end of the year.
Haha, sure. If I don’t take time to sleep, maybe. But it’ll be here, and where there’s presence, there’s hope.
For those who don’t follow me on social media and weren’t inundated with pics, in mid-September I traveled to Ireland for a few days, visiting Kilkenny and Galway. I regret I didn’t have longer, and I regret I listened to those who encouraged me to avoid the dangers of Dublin – which I now believe were overblown. Originally intent on revisiting Scotland, the nightmarish stories of connecting through an overwhelmed Heathrow, coupled with a threatened UK rail strike, prompted my change of plans. I’m hoping for a 2023 return to Scotland in the off-season, when it’s more afforable.
I had a glorious time, regardless, and didn’t even contract Covid – despite all the coughing, hacking people I ran into. Before I left I got the Omicron booster and flu shot, which might have helped on that score. I visited museums, walked around a medieval city center, and found several bookshops. The food was magnificent, the people kind, and the weather shockingly perfect. I encountered no rain! Zero! In Ireland!
Last week the prints I ordered – of the hundreds I took – arrived and I’m getting those framed and on the wall. Ireland really is lovely.
I’ve read loads since my last update, most of which I’ve entered on Goodreads without commenting much. They were good to very good reads, no pun intended. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve finished:
The Colony by Audrey Magee (easy 5 stars)
Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay (4 stars)
The Past is Never by Tiffany Quay Tyson (ugh… my 3 star reads only mean it’s above mainstream fiction by a hair)
The Door by Magda Szabo (another easy 5 stars)
Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (4 stars and a massive crush)
The Promise by Damon Galgut (5 stars and a vow to read much more by this stunning South African writer)
Currently I’m re-reading Bleak House (huge favorite), Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (Ron Charles of The Washington Post says it may be the best book of the year – I’m wary of such sweeping statements, though it is quite good), and Philip Roth’s The Facts, an autobiographical work. A fair mix, I’d say.
Last week I went to my first author event in years. I saw Rebecca Makkai at Woodstock Opera House and she was brilliant. She spoke about the writing of her Pulitzer-nominated The Believers, which I still haven’t read – mea culpa. It’s largely about the AIDs crisis, as it was experienced in 1980’s Chicago. Of course it made me want to pull it off the shelf and start it immediately but I simply have too much on my plate already. I do, however, have the ARC of her upcoming February release beside my bed.
This coming week I’m attending a David Sedaris event in my very own hometown. I saw him at Roosevelt University in 2019 and he is screamingly funny. I highly recommend going to his readings if you aren’t easily offended. Even if you are, to thicken your skin. Can’t wait to see him again. He’s brilliant and inappropriately funny, the best possible combination.
On the homefront, I’m excited to report I had my new Ikea furniture assembled this week! Without context that sounds bland but if you knew how many times I’ve moved in the past several years, and how tough it’s been settling anywhere longer than a year, the significance is more apparent. I like this place. It’s large enough for me to have an office, and, now that I have a job that allows me the means to spread out, I can see myself staying a while. Wanderlust is all well and good, but not so much when you feel like a nomad. Nothing can match the splendor of Scotland, and even my prior apartment in Elgin, IL was more charming, but I’m trying to balance out the benefits of living in a major metro area with the lack of history and character. That’s what travel is for.
Am I caught up? Reasonably so. I’m not pleased I’ve crammed so much into such a small space, but glad I can pick up here with more substantial posts. If you blog and find coming back from pauses as stressful as I do, you’ll get it. And there’s no reason I can’t expand on any of this later – Ireland, for instance, there are loads of stories as you can imagine. As for the books, there’s no statute of limitations on that score. So I’m well-pleased with myself, as it should be.
Next up on the Bluestalking docket, November is National Novel Writers Month (NaNoWriMo). While I’m not planning to write a novel, I am looking forward to writing a short piece a day through next month. I’ve written up more than 30 writing prompts, stuck them in a jar, and I’ll pull one a day. To keep myself accountable, I’ve told people about it – including the writers group I founded ages ago at the library I used to work for – and promised to post the day’s prompt, in case they’re interested in giving it a go. At least one of them replied they’re excited and that’s enough inspiration for me.
Since I find myself doing little outside my apartment, I’m planning to attend a local reading group of ladies who meet at different local independent restaurants every month. The upside’s obvious: I get to discover local eateries while talking about books. The downside’s what has kept me from participating in any book group, that is, they tend to read the kind of books that get a million positive reviews on Amazon, popular books that blow up social media because they please everyone. Books that please everyone are seldom those I enjoy. Until and unless I form my own group, or find one suited to my tastes, this is it.
So much to do, so little time. So many distractions, so little discipline, more like.
I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Booker longlisted Oh William! this week and set aside my Friday evening to write a blog post about it, but the vicious attack on Salman Rushdie has sapped my energy. I’m too mentally exhausted to face the prospect of dissecting another underwhelming read.
Raise your hand if you’re tired of shit things happening, if you’re also digging out from under PTSD. The vast outpouring of grief and rage today has been the only saving grace, it’s proven people care very deeply about both Rushdie and intellectual freedom. This hits hard. I guess it’s good I was working while it unfolded. I saw the headline and read the breaking news, but I can’t afford to break my concentration, as a fraud investigator. All I wanted to do was keep refreshing my feed, which I should know by now is the opposite of what’s good for me mentally. By the time I flopped down on the sofa after work, mentally exhausted, Rushdie’s agent had just come out with the grim news: he’s on a ventilator, likely to lose an eye, and there’s damage to his liver.
Frankly, I’m afraid to hit refresh any more.
My first exposure to Salman Rushdie was probably when most people became aware of him, upon publication of The Satanic Verses. An undergrad working toward my B.A. in English literature, I wasn’t well-versed in a lot of contemporary writing. My specialty was Victorian literature, but when the news broke that a writer’s life was being threatened by religious extremists who found his work offensive, it set me off as much as you’d think it would any idealistic 22-year old. I bought the book immediately on general principle, but put it aside. I was busy taking exams, which morphed into graduation, then finding a job, and planning a wedding when I was far too young, but that’s a cautionary tale for another time.
I still haven’t read The Satanic Verses. I don’t own that copy of the book anymore, so I ordered it this evening, along with a reading copy of Midnight’s Children (I’ve put aside the edition Rushdie signed for me), and a collection of his essays called Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020. Over the winter, I’d planned to read something long and engrossing. My original though was Bleak House, or maybe the essays of Montaigne.
After today, I’ll be reading The Satanic Verses.
I don’t want this to be an in memorium read. In the reality I’m choosing to create, Salman Rushdie will recover in safety while I finally make time for a long, luxurious celebration of the book he’s refused to apologize for, in recognition of his defiance and refusal to be silent. I’m not 22 anymore; I’ve spent the intervening years between then and now earning my MLIS, writing about books, and becoming outspoken about my belief in freedom of expression. It’s not in my power to heal Salman Rushdie, but what I can do is read his work and talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.
If I were religious, I’d pray. My church is St. Liber: I read, and hope for better days.
You can be fully supportive of a book’s intent, empathetic to its theme, and just not resonate with it. This was my first read of Percival Everett’s work. I had no idea of his style or really any knowledge of his reputation. His name was familar, but had The Trees not been nominated for the Booker I’m not sure I’d ever have found The Trees.
The novel is about racism in the American South, in Money, Mississippi, focused on the lynching of Emmett Till. Acquitted following the trial, just one year later his murderers openly admitted to his brutal slaying. For better or worse, in the United States you can’t be tried twice for the same crime; double jeopardy protects you, no matter if you confess after the fact. After his wife Carolyn accused Till of either speaking salaciously to or touching her (the story was never clear), her husband Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law JW Millam hunted down Emmett Till – a 14-year old child – in Mississippi from Chicago visiting his family. They tortured him, mutilated his body, and shot him in the head, tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett Till’s body, bloated from time spent floating in the river, was brought back to Chicago for visitation and burial. His mother would not have a closed casket. She left it open for the world to see what these men had done to her child. Her baby. A hideous sight, it could not match the ugliness inside the real-life monsters carrying out heinous acts of hatred against Black people.
As a native of Mississippi, I know its egregious history of condoning racism and violence toward Black people. Raised in the North from the time I was a toddler, even as a young child I felt a jolt hearing relatives toss out “the n-word” in casual conversation. I can’t point to the moment I figured out it was a vile slur. I have no memory of not finding it shocking, which must mean no one in my immediate family – my parents and two brothers – used it. I most likely learned it on my own.
Casual racism behind closed doors is particularly insidious, perhaps equally as bad as vicious hate speech because it shows how engrained prejudice is within a culture. No one was trying to shock me. They jokingly called me a Yankee, in its way a mild form of exclusion, but they weren’t putting on a performance. Fed white exceptionalism from an age too young to differentiate right from wrong, it’s as normal to them as any other accepted behavior. How you fix something like this and move forward I do not know, which goes a long way toward explaining why lynching was not declared a hate crime in the United States until March of 2022.
In The Trees, Percival Everett writes a revenge novel. It starts with two White men brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi. Inexplicably, the same Black man is present at both scenes, brutally disfigured and shot in the head, holding the testicles of the men in his hands. Though the bodies are taken to the morgue, the Black man keeps disappearing, then reappearing at the scenes of other murders of the exact same description. Two Black detectives are called in from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to help local law enforcement make sense of what’s happening. Meanwhile, the murders have gone national.
I don’t have to explain the symbolism, having told the basic story of Emmett Till. There’s more to the book, characters moving in and out, other strange happenings. But Percival Everett’s intent is clear.
As a southerner by birth, I feel a measure of discomfort saying I did not find the book completely effective. As a book reviewer with nearly two decades’ experience, I would be disingenous saying anything to the contrary, but this does not mean I find nothing to praise. Percival Everett found a way to tell a revenge story with flashes of humor that keep it from descending into despair. There’s an elegance to his writing, genuinely graceful passages of lyrical language.
I believe the book takes too long getting started, then, once started, keeps too much distance between the reader and the horrors of racism. I understand his intent was not to beat us over the head with a story that’s difficult to hear. This explains the sly humor and absolute ridiculousness of the story – as in impossibility, not dismissing his talent.
As with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, the issues are urgent. They are grievous wrongs that show the absolute worst of humanity. But when you get to the level of the Booker Prize, every detail matters. I know literary taste is subjective, but I have a personal expectation of the winning book. It needs to have not just an important message but a compelling way of relating it that punches me in the chest.
It needs to have it all, then push it a bit further.
The Trees may make the shortlist, but I’m not convinced of it. It has qualities I’ve seen in other American Booker winners. I guess we’ll see.
First it was the Booker Prize for Fiction, then the Man Booker, finally, the plain old Booker Prize. I found them in the early 2000s, followed them religiously, and joined the other zealots attempting to predict the winners. Either I was very good at it or very lucky, but I crushed it for a string of years – not to brag.
Well, kind of to brag.
Okay, completely to brag. Humility will get you nowhere, do not hide your light.
I had a system. First, I grouped them into categories. Before they became a political statement, the Bookers had a formula of sorts; it was possible to crack the code with a fair degree of accuracy simply by reading a few, then researching the hell out of the others. The judges chose a certain number of established writers, a handful of up and comers who’d garnered a bit of fame (some of whom had been previously nominated for this or other prizes), then one or two debut novelists.
For a debut novelist to sweep the field, they had to be phenomenal. These were somewhat of a wild card, though their traditional role was as virtual cannon fodder. For all intents and purposes, they were chosen to be weeded out when it came time for the shortlist, in exchange for raising their visibility. For an established writer, they needed to perform at the top of their game. While I don’t have the statistics, the winners tended to lie somewhere in between (not counting the two Hilary Mantel years, and what the hell was up with that).
The years politics prevailed were dark days for literature. I am all for writers who make strong statements, but when the point is how loudly they speak out against that year’s pet issue over the quality of writing, that’s a problem. If you want a book prize centered solely on political issues, all well and good – develop that prize. If the point is to honor the best writing, the filter of political correctness needs to be muted. Judging from the past couple of years, and the books that made it for 2022, I’m tentatively hopeful the political years may be over.
This year’s longlist is dominated by Americans, taking up six of the thirteen spots: Elizabeth Strout, Karen Joy Fowler, Leila Mottley, Hernan Diaz, Selby Wynn Schwartz, and Percival Everett. I have nothing against them, they just don’t belong here. The US has so many prizes the rest of the world is excluded from, and the UK and Commonwealth produce brilliant literature that ought to stand on its own. It makes no sense Americans are allowed to be nominated for the Booker Prize.
I purchased four books from the list: Small Things Like These, The Trees, Case Study, and The Colony. Honestly, if money were no object, I’d have bought them all just to have thirteen books show up on my doorstep. They could keep company with the books I’ve bought and not read from longlists of the past. In the end I went with the titles I thought I’d enjoy most, weighing that with how many I could get from the library. Not all of them are worth buying.
From the library, I have Oh William! checked out and I’m on the waiting list for Booth. I’m planning to request Glory next, since NoViolet Bulawayo has a very good reputation in the middle-of-the-road category. Actually, all these writers are middle of the road, aren’t they. There’s no huge, iconic writer overshadowing the rest. Oh, damn. That makes my prediction a million times harder.
I haven’t fully researched the others, as much for lack of time as the fact some just don’t appeal to me at all. I watched a few YouTube videos made by booktubers and I may have taken on some of their negative prejudices, but that’s the price I had to pay for my crash course. Shrug. I’m in a lot more of a rush these days.
As of the publication of this post, I’ve finished one of the longlisted titles and I’m almost halfway through another. I’ll talk about that next time.
Spoiler: the book I finished was lovely, but it’s not the winner. I’ll tell you why, never fear.
The shortlist will be announced on September 6. The winner of the Booker Prize 2022 will announced the 17th of October.
NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the novel A Lost Lady
I’m incapable of turning down a good organized read these days. I’ve missed the group discussion dynamic, the “hive mind” of readers with varying degrees of expertise and experience. Discussing books together brings a lot more to the table. To be honest, it usually means I have to do less work. Let someone else think the thoughts and post them. I do my share, but I appreciate others who fill in the gaps. It’s a literary symbiotic relationship.
At the moment, I’m participating in two group reads: Willa Cather’s ‘A Lost Lady’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The House in Paris.’ These are two very different writers, making them easier to juggle. Cather’s prose is direct and straight-forward, meaningful but not particularly dense. Bowen is a modernist, her style multi-layered, requiring greater depth of study. I can read Cather quickly once through, skimming key passages again if I need to, and feel confident I’ve understood her meaning. Elizabeth Bowen requires much more heavy lifting. I read her chapters sometimes two and three times and there’s still a lot of room for interpretation.
I enjoy them both because they are so different. I read Cather for deeply-rooted, early-20th Century American stories with a narrow focus on specific American regions – mostly the Great Plains and Southwest. She largely writes about the immigrant experience and the dramas of everyday life. Though most of her writing could be classified as somewhat plain – by which I mean without adornment, easily understood – she’s capable of moments of lyrical and poetic beauty, most especially when she writes about the natural world.
I also love Cather because she was a literary badass, gender-fluid before we knew the term, opinionated and ambitious. A writer of short stories and novels, book reviews and non-fiction pieces, Willa Cather was the editor of a major periodical – McClure’s Magazine – credited with originating muckraking journalism, investigative reporting that goes after criminal activity and deceptive practices amongst the wealthy and powerful. There’s so much more I want to know about her.
I’ve finished reading both books, though in the case of Bowen that means I’ve finished passing the words in front of my eyes to find out what happens; with the discussion ongoing, there’s still a long way to go in understanding the nuances. The part of me that loves literary scholarship thrives on writers like Elizabeth Bowen. I could just read her novels for their surface stories, but that’s just not me.
I love a good literary dig. The problem is it can be tiring, one reason my ears perked up when I saw a Twitter summer read poll conducted by the bookish podcast The Mookse and the Gripes, which A Lost Lady won. I’ve read the novel before – last year, over my Great Cather Vacation Adventure in Red Cloud, NE – but I’m an unashamed re-reader. This isn’t a proper, in-depth discussion, it’s more about posting a few thoughts and quotes on Twitter, in advance of the podcast recording sometime this week. They wanted to generate interest and encourage readers to pick up Cather. So far I don’t see a full discussion happening, but the podcast will cover it in more depth with the help of reader comments on Twitter.
A Lost Lady is one of the books set in Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, NE. She changed the name of the place to Sweet Water, but there’s no real attempt at subterfuge. The married couple in the novel, Marian and Captain Forrester, are based on Red Cloud banking family Seward Garber and his wife, Marian Forrester is a young, beautiful woman married to a much older man. She is charming and well-loved, inspiring the adoration of every man in town – if not so much the women. She has an affair, but it’s not ruinous. It’s a thing understood to be true, a rumor no one can absolutely prove, but it’s a very small town. You can’t hide big secrets in small towns. Marian stays with her adoring husband, he says nothing about it, and their lives slide on comfortably until first they fall on hard financial times, and then he suffers a debilitating stroke. Without her solid husband to lean on, Marian’s standing in the community is less secure. From here on she’s living by her wits.
Growing up in Red Cloud, Willa was canny enough to understand the stories told about Mrs. Garber, the bankers wife. To the surprise and dismay of her mother, to whom Cather confessed later, rumors got around and she knew every tale. The town tour I took in June 2021 covered the major players in Red Cloud and in Cather’s life. The place is miniscule. Everyone knew everyone else, which makes it very easy to know their business. I asked the tour guide how the residents took it when Cather used them as characters, if they were angry or confrontational. Quite the opposite, she said. Cather brought fame to Red Cloud, and fame brings tourists who still come to the town in search of the settings and characters from some of her most famous novels. Mrs. Garber must have cringed, but there were no defamation suits. Cather funnelled a lot of her money into Red Cloud, sponsoring buiding initiatives and donating generously. She wasn’t from there, having been born in Virginia, but this was where important formative years were spent. She saw through them and loved them anyway. Willa Cather was adopted as a hometown celebrity and admired for the rest of her life, though she never moved back.
As for contemporary readers of Cather’s novels, F Scott Fitzgerald was a huge fan. Taking a break from revising The Great Gatsby, he read A Lost Lady. The key issue here is – though he later contacted her to explain his side in case she thought he’d committed plagiarism – the Gatsby characters Daisy Buchanan and Nick Carraway closely resemble Marian Forrester and Niel Herbert from A Lost Lady. Once I read his letter to her and a piece about the stuation, I couldn’t un-see the similarities. When he wrote Cather, she replied she’d read his book and loved it. It never occurred to her he may have stolen her work. While I’ll admit I haven’t done my homework, I’m not sure I trust him as much as she did.
I will keep watching Twitter for tweets about A Lost Lady and participate accordingly, but it’s time to channel energy back into Elizabeth Bowen and the other books I’m reading, including a selection of the Booker Longlist 2022 titles. That’s a whole other subject, for another day.
End of the story first: I just finished reading my second book of 2022, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I’m not sure when a book last gave me actual chills – not hyperbolic chills but goosebumps, hair standing on end.
This comes immediately on the heels of the book I finished the first week of January, a collection of short stories and nonfiction pieces by Shirley Jackson titled Let Me Tell You. In contrast to Didion, Jackson’s book was uneven. In contrast to Didion, I don’t see anything else measuring up until I’ve calmed down from the high of THAT NOVEL. But it’s unfair comparing a posthumous compilation of early and uncollected pieces the author may never have consented to publishing with a critically-acclaimed stunner of a novel that slaps you across the face, drags you up the road a piece, then leaves you for dead.
I should not have connected with Play It As It Lays. Set in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert, if I were trying to come up with three places I’m less interested in it would take a minute. Fortunately, the book’s not about places. It’s a study of a woman living with the consequences of her choices in 1960s America. Maria Wyeth is an actress who plays the Hollywood game. She sleeps around, throws herself haphazardly into life, literally drives long distances for days with no direction. Already unstable, the inevitable choice to have an abortion upends her world, sending her spiralling. Without sympathy, unmoored, she cracks.
Didion (1934 – 2021) was an admirer of Hemingway, to put her style in context. She was a journalist-novelist: sparing and precise. While learning her craft, she copied out long passages of Hemingway’s writings. I’m not positive the student didn’t surpass the master.
Shirley Jackson (1916 – 1965), of course, is known primarily as the author of the macabre short story “The Lottery,” as well as her two most popular novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, the latter adapted into a Netflix series. Her themes are supernatural, modern American gothics. Her nonfiction can be charming and witty, as I learned from Let Me Tell You. Though some of the stories did let me down, the pieces compelled enough I pulled out the bio of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin.
Both modern American writers, I haven’t put enough thought into their similarities to pull out the ways they mesh. I’m sure those exist but I didn’t juxtapose these two with an intention to dive in deeply. What brings them together is my list of 12 books I plan to read in 2022, books I’ve had on my shelves over a year and not yet read. Organized by Adam Burgess of the blog Roof Beam Reader, the specifics of the project are explained on his site.
There’s no conscious intent behind the books I chose, though interconnections are everywhere, no matter what you initially believe. As I read more by and about Jackson and Didion – which I’d like to do, having whetted my appetite with my first two reads of the year – I will find elements that resonate with the both of them. I’ve given up not assuming a universal law of attraction. Nothing supernatural, just an acknowledgment of interconnectivity in all things.
Superficially glancing through their respective Wikipedia articles, both these American women writers were born in California, their lives overlapping by some 30-some years (I hate math). Did they meet, I don’t know. Were they aware of each other, certainly Didion would have known of Jackson, though she hadn’t published much before Jackson’s death so it’s not too likely the other way around. Any similarities between a modern gothic writer and a journalist? I’m sure Jackson’s work extends beyond her most popular pieces. Maybe?
Speaking of resonating with gothic horror, welcome to 2022. It’s only the 10th and I’ve finished two books. Not leaving without a fight, 2021 ended with my first Covid test of the pandemic – negative, thank the gods.
My year went mostly well, everyone I love made it through, and I’m trying not to get over-confident 2022 will hold anything grand or I’ll just let myself down, won’t I.
Let’s focus on these beauties:
The challenge is to choose 12 books – one for each month – plus two alternates, should any of the 12 prove impossible or just plain too long to finish.
1. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai 2. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland 3. Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee 4. Soul of the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life – JC Oates 5. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography – Philip Roth 6. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote 7. Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion – finished 8. Hill – Jean Giono 9. Blindness – Henry Green 10. Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings – Shirley Jackson – finished 11. Lucy Gayheart – Willa Cather 12. On Being Ill – Virginia Woolf
Aiding and Abetting – Muriel Spark The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
I’ve cut down social media – save Instagram – to free up more time for reading and apparently that helped. I’ll be reading other books but these twelve I’ve hand-selected for this specific project.