My generally crappy week in review: reading and other complaints

Books mentioned in this post:

Muriel Spark – The Comforters

Muriel Spark – Robinson

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori

AJ Finn – The Woman in the Window

Peter Manseau – The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost

Michael Wolff – Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

All the Louis Penny

Charles Dickens – Nicholas Nickleby

Peter Ackroyd – Hawksmoor

Martin Stannard – Muriel Spark

 

A combination of seasonal depression, big changes at work, and a slew of exaggerated, looming negative thoughts combined to bring back insomnia with a vengeance.

The general rule is I tire myself out mentally every day, so when my head hits the pillow I’m out like the dead. A couple nights this week I lay wide awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, dropped off abruptly, then woke an hourish later, up for the duration.

At that point, you may as well say screw it.

I made good use of time knocking out household tasks that wouldn’t piss off the neighbors who share walls with me, enjoyed a decent breakfast, and treated the dog to extra outdoor adventures.

Of course, I felt like shit by evening.

What’s nagging me is a confluence of small things blown out of proportion by virtue of an ongoing battle with depression. That’s how it works. Grounding is a practice useful to combat insomnia. Lying in bed, notice and be grateful for the warmth, the roof over your head, the food in your kitchen, the clothes on your back. You’re safe, nothing’s going to happen in that moment. Then, the next moment, then the next. I’ve had days it’s been necessary to practice that moment by moment for hours, very dark days in the grip of a serious and dangerous slide into the pit. I’m not there anymore, thankfully. It’s not that dark.

Routine is equally important. Rituals are a good thing, training mind and body that sleep is preceded by set steps.

I know all these things, but threw them out the window.

 

Memento Mori (1959)

Moving on … Reading!

In Muriel Spark news, after recently finishing her first novel The Comforters and second astonishing Robinson earlier in the week, I’m working on her third novel, Memento Mori. Funny, when you think about it. I had this grim week, and the literal translation of memento mori is “remember you can die.”

Uplifting, that.

I won’t talk a lot about it now, but thus far it’s extraordinarily depressing, wickedly sniping at older people. It deals with, among other things, the dismissive way they’re treated, and the horrors of dementia.

I need to see where she’s going with all this before I decide if I’m enjoying it. Then, I’ve not been reading it with full attention. Once I’ve finished I’ll go back through and re-read parts I haven’t granted full justice.

Sometimes that happens. Readers get it.

In general Spark news, I asked the incomparable Ian Rankin which were his favorites of her novels. Here’s his reply:

 

The undeserved IT book of 2018

 

Also knocked off this year’s Gone Girl, the big-ass book and film adaptation combo of 2018. SPOILER: Unimpressed.

It’s an extremely fast read, very unsubtle and undemanding. A thriller needs to be razor-sharp, lean and menacing. The Woman in the Window is none of these. Yes, it’s a great premise. A woman with agoraphobia spies on her neighbors, sees a horrific crime, and no one will believe her because she’s a drunk who mixes heavy depression medication. Her erratic behavior soon brands her as unreliable.

It would have been a wise move to leverage that a bit more than Finn did, to do so with stronger writing.

 

I know what I saw.

 

 

The problem was the plot played on a loop, dragging on without much advancement for more than 100 pages. It should have been at least that many pages shorter.

Good thrillers aren’t repetitive. Hence “thrill.” They’re lean and mean, menacing and horrifying. Finn never quite managed to hit these notes, though I’ll grant him at least one decent revelation. Despite a promising start, the main character’s love of old thriller movies hinting at use of Hitchcockian understatement, it didn’t deliver.

The writing wasn’t bad. It was actually better than average, and his outline has merit. It just lacked urgency, for which major points are deducted. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, and I should have been. I wasn’t cringing, worried about the main character’s safety more than a brief moment. I should have been.

I haven’t even touched on the worst part. The denouement is related flatly, almost in monotone. Don’t set up a book with the promise of nuance then deliver bland prose. The last 75ish pages twisted and turned so quickly it was like watching a tennis match, after not much happening for ages. While you want twists in a thriller, you also want more development, more doubt put into the reader’s mind this could be true, before yanking the rug out from under again.

Stephen King loved it? Gillian Flynn? I gotta read this! Sigh. It’s all part of the game.

 

Read this in place of The Woman in the Window…

 

No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life.  – Mathew Brady

 

In recent nonfiction, The Apparitionists is an utterly fascinating book about the early history of photography as well as its use in spiritualism: the hoax perpetrated by a certain group of 19th century photographers purported to have the ability to capture images of the dead in photos of the living.

It also covers Mathew Brady, famous Civil War photographer, and his peers, explaining how they got the images they did. Shockingly, many of the images we’ve grown to associate with the Civil War dead were staged. Some were live soldiers posed dramatically, borrowed from the war then sent back to fight. Begs the question if any of them wound up legitimate subjects later in the war.

Gruesome thought.

 

Photographer Mathew Brady

 

Photojournalists of the time were attempting to convey the war’s true horror and devastation. Those without family or friends on the front lines saw only lists of the dead. In cities like New York, especially, it was an irrelevant, far-off happening. Photos brought everything home.

It’s gripping, packed full of fascinating detail. Love the photos, as well, though being a proof copy they’re not the sharpest. I expect I’ll be back to it this evening.

 

Playing on desperation of the grieving

 

The principle of the thing

 

God, I hate seeing that face on my blog.

Do I think this is totally nonfiction? No. Do I believe it’s politically motivated? Absolutely. But I hate this man with a vengeance. He tried to censor the book, threatening to sue to stop publication. Then the publisher moved up the release date…

Superb!

I don’t know that I’ll read it. We all know he’s unbalanced, stupid, inept, a lech. I see enough of him in the daily news. I bought the book because he didn’t want me to, because it’s my First Amendment right.

I have enough on my reading plate. It can sit on my Kindle.

 

Cha-ching!

 

This is what happens when you hobnob with editors and other literary folk. I regularly bump into Louise Penny’s US editor on Twitter, largely because we share the same political views. I mentioned I’d owned several Penny titles, but had to sell them when I moved to Scotland. She said, well, then, let me fix that.

Swoon!

If you’re bookish you won’t ask the question. The answer: when I can get to her.

Etc.

Some books have slipped by the wayside, as tends to happen when you’re a greedy binge reader. I didn’t make this month’s meeting of the classics group at my library, and hadn’t finished Nicholas Nickleby, anyway.  I intend to, mind. I’m largely enjoying it, though unusually frustrated by some of the side-track plotting.

Also languishing are Hawksmoor, for the Bowie read, and Stannard’s bio of Muriel Spark, which I’m reading but slowly.

Then there are two books I’m overdue in reviewing. Glasgow Review needs a date from me regarding a book I’ve had since my summer in Scotland, and NYJB hasn’t asked, but I owe them one immediately, as well. It’s timely, so I need to get off my arse. Another in the NYJB queue awaits, partially read but nowhere near reviewed.

 

That’s a wrap on the basics of my reading week. I have today’s New York Times sitting beside me, which is a good slow simmer guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, I also have a headache from hell (allergies), and work I need to get done.

Ah, but it feels good firing off a summary post.

Next post will likely be personal again. Much to say that doesn’t fit well in the scope of a bookish theme. Until then, good news is the days are lengthening and I have so much exciting stuff ahead.

x

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

 

Starting out 2018 with fantastic reads, coming into my year of Muriel Spark with gusto. Having finished her first novel, The Comforters, I see great joy lies ahead – not that I doubted that one second.

Muriel Spark was brilliant. I don’t just say that because she was Scottish, native to my beloved Edinburgh. Doesn’t hurt her case; she was genuinely talented. Related to my reading of her books and associated books about her, she happens to have written a biography of Mary Shelley.

 

I lucked onto a copy of this at a library book sale.

 

Why is that significant? I’ll tell you! 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, written by the very same Ms. Shelley. Throughout the course of the year I hope to re-read that classic gothic novel, my small participation in the festivity of all things Frankenstein happening throughout the world.

How handy Spark’s book falls under both umbrellas. Serendipity.

A (Very Tiny) Bit About Muriel Spark’s Edinburgh

Photo credit: Benjamin Brock: Bruntsfield area

Born in the Bruntsfield area of Edinburgh, a mile south-west of the city center, the opening scene of the film adaptation of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was shot on the steps of her first home at Admiral Terrace.

 

Admiral Terrace, Edinburgh – which house she lived in, I don’t know

 

Also in the Bruntsfield area is James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, which she attended and used as a model for the Marcia Blaine School in Jean Brodie.

In 1932 she’d be crowned the school’s poetess:

 

Her poems appeared regularly in the school magazine

 

I recognize Bruntsfield. I couldn’t tell you specifics, but I know I’ve been there – at least passing through. If I enlarged the photos and squinted a bit I may be able to relate anecdotal knowledge. The Scot, who knows the city like the back of his hand, would know. Unfortunately, he no longer speaks to me.

Ouch.

Let’s not think about that. I’m not in the mood to have my mood ruined.

In any case, I don’t think I’m done with Edinburgh just yet. If I return, I’ll investigate this and other literary sites. All the places I’d eventually have known like the back of my own hand.

 

Kicking Off the Reads

 

The Comforters (1957) – her first novel

 

What an odd novel, The Comforters – meant in the very best way. The cast of characters is outrageously eccentric, putting it mildly, the plot points funny to the point of slapstick.

There’s a converted Catholic writer (Caroline Rose) who hears her thoughts spoken out loud, accompanied by the sound of a typewriter – an unseen writer composing the actual novel we’re reading, as we’re reading it, whom only Caroline can hear; a sweet, unassuming grandmother engaged in a diamond smuggling trade and her grandson Laurence Manders (formerly involved with Caroline, still obviously in love with her), who works for the BBC and is determined to find out what she’s up to; a practitioner and devotee of the dark arts, possibly two (one of whom is also a bookseller who declares it’s an interest, only); an irritating, universally disliked and paunchy middle-aged disappearing woman who’s either a devotee of the dark arts or a staunch Catholic, no less mysterious by the time of her death …

And on it goes.

 

The Comforters was the first of the 22 novels Muriel Spark would write over nearly 50 years, the first of what would become her recognisable but inimitable oeuvre of slim, intelligent, irreverent, aesthetically sophisticated, sometimes Hitchcockianly grim, always philosophically powerful works of fiction. Each of these – with a paradoxical lightness, and a sense of mixed resolution and unresolvedness that leaves its readers both satisfied and disturbed – would take to task its own contemporaneity and ask profound questions about art, life and belief.

 

 

The two main plot lines involve Caroline Rose’s attempt to write a book about novels, in the midst of her fervent conversion to Catholicism – effectively killing off her physical relationship with poor Laurence, now that she sees that as  the sin of fornication – as well as her battle for her sanity, and Laurence’s attempt to get to the bottom of his grandmother’s suspected diamond smuggling. Then the grandmother’s own story, of course, through which we’re told everything, before Laurence figures it out.

The inter-relationships between all the characters is tight. By the end, everyone’s related to or very tightly bound to everyone else. There are no characters extraneous to the plot.

Timeline of Muriel Spark’s Life

 

The Comforters is a matter of fact novel, despite dealing with occasional supernatural elements. This makes it all the more humorous, presenting ridiculous situations in a dead-pan tone. Very British, as we’ve come to know their comedy.

Told in a linear narrative, not given to flights of fancy or high-flown language, it flows smoothly. Between ease of reading and its humorous and compelling plot, it’s a fast read. How does it compare to her best-known The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie? It’s not as sophisticated, unsurprisingly, much more light-hearted. It doesn’t delve as deeply into psychological aspects, though you can see hints of the mature writer Spark will become.

The Comforters is a delight, a brilliant kick-off to my Year of Reading Muriel Spark. I’m going straight into her second book, Robinson (1958), having set myself up nicely ordering her first three novels.

Other books published in 1957:

Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Father and His Fate

Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat

Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Bernard Malamud – The Assistant

Nancy Mitford – Voltaire in Love

Iris Murdoch – The Sandcastle

Vladimir Nabokov – Pnin

Nevil Shute – On the Beach

Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Nobel Prize for Literature: Albert Camus

Other Literary Events in 1957

 

I’ve also downloaded the Kindle edition of the Martin Stannard biography of Spark. Rubbing my hands in glee at the thought of curling up with that, something I’m able to do sans guilt as I’m laid up, nursing my fractured rib and accompanying soft tissue injury – worse than the fracture itself, actually.

I have a three-day weekend, thanks to working for a company headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, home to Dr. Martin Luther King. As Monday’s his birthday, we have the day off. You can guess where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.

I’m off to do just that.