I’ll just skip the throat-clearing excuses for not blogging and get to it. I read quite a lot in June, and really liked most of it, too; I seem to be over my slump–and of course in summer, when I’m reading less for work, I read more for fun (though I do have a stack of work library books I need to browse to refresh my Academic Writing readings).
Romance (I’ve been wanting to read more again lately–hope that continues and it becomes a more regular part of my reading)
Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Mirrors and Mistakes A category romance from the mid-80s, this book had a lot I liked: a smart, competent heroine, a hero who respects her, a reserved and mature pair of lovers. It also had a number of plot twists that really pissed me off (but which I won’t spoil), and which relied to some extent on very gender-essentialist ideas about what people really want. But Seidel is a smart and psychologically perceptive writer, so the book kept me engaged even when I didn’t like the choices she made. Pretty sure I have more of hers on my e-reader.
Kate Hewitt, Meet Me at Willoughby Close (I keep wanting to call it Willoughby Chase thanks to a childhood love of Joan Aiken). My very first post here was a review of one of Hewitt’s Harlequin Presents; she’s written everything from Presents to women’s fiction to small-town romance. The Willoughby Close series (I think this is the second, but they stand alone) is the kind of British chick-lit/romance with a cute cartoony cover. That’s not a knock–I enjoy this kind of book, which tends to focus on the heroine’s journey and parts of her life beyond romance, with a mix of humor and serious themes and emotions. As is typical with chick lit, the humor is often at the heroine’s expense, but this one stayed on the right side of the heroine humiliation line for me.
Heroine Ellie and her young daughter move to Oxford for a fresh start in life, and Ellie falls for the uptight, upper-class professor whose manuscript she’s typing. But can a working class Northern woman possibly be right for him? Ellie’s anxiety about her daughter’s happiness hit a little too close for home just now, but I kept telling myself this was a romance and it would all be OK. And in the end, that focus made this a satisfying and comforting read for me.
Literary Fiction: The Stories We Tell About Ourselves/To Ourselves
That seems to be the theme of my non-genre novel-reading this month. My biggest hit was Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, which I started earlier, had to return to the library, and finally got back late this month. I read the second half in a day. Lillian, in her mid-80s, walks around New York on New Year’s Eve 1984, thinking back on her life as a high-paid advertising woman in the 30s, an author of light Dorothy-Parker-style verse, then a wife and mother (despite previous plans to the contrary); she’s survived severe depression, alcoholism and divorce, and more or less made peace with herself: “I could not revise. I had been who I had been, and so I largely remained.” Rooney expertly captures Lillian’s voice. In a weird way this reminded me of Oreo by Fran Ross, because the heroine is delightfully impervious to the dangers of the city she traverses, connecting with everyone she meets–she is, after all, skilled at rhetorical persuasion. Near the end of the book, Lillian thinks to herself “The point of living in the world is just to stay interested,” and she’s interested in everyone she meets, learning a surprising amount about them in brief encounters. This may not be the “best” novel I’ve read this year, but it’s probably the one I enjoyed most.
I was thinking of trying the Tournament of Books summer reading challenge, and then Sunita mentioned she was too. We both read Katie Kitamura’s A Separation and I went on to Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean (you can get to ToB discussions of them from the link above). What I like about challenges and award lists like this is picking up books you wouldn’t otherwise read. Both of these feature a female narrator with a missing husband, and both, I think, are partly about the stories we tell as a way to make sense of ourselves and our world, or to deceive ourselves or others, or…. Well, for whatever reason.
Kitamura’s narrator was too detached for me. She kind of floats above the end of her marriage and, when staying in Greece trying to figure out where her husband has gone, imposes a narrative on the people around her in a privileged, imperial way I found off-putting. I think this may be part of the point of the book–she’s a translator, but doesn’t speak Greek, so she’s out of her depth and trying to assert interpretations of what’s going on. Because I didn’t care about the characters, I got impatient with it, but I stuck to it because it was short and the ideas it played with interested me enough to keep going.
A lot of ToB commenters compared this to Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which I’d been wanting to read, so I grabbed when I spotted it at the library. I liked Outline much better than A Separation. It’s narrator is a British woman in Greece to teach writing, and the novel is essentially a series of not-quite-monologues by people she meets. She herself emerges largely in outline, against this background. Cusk skillfully creates a kind of fugue of a book, a theme and variations–you can see how the various stories people tell Faye reflect on each other, and on her own experiences (which we never know in detail), but there’s nothing heavy-handed about it. I love a book that leaves the reader to reflect and interpret, with little overt direction. Still, the passages I copied were places where the narrator is most overtly interpretive:
I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom, an impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. I was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity. Yet this impulse, this desire to be free, was still compelling to me: I still, somehow, believed in it, despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.
Cusk has written a sequel of sorts, Transit, and I’ll definitely read it.
The second ToB book, Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, also features a missing husband, and it’s a nest of stories around stories. At the center (or is it the outer layer?) is the Erotonomicon, which purported to be the diary of HP Lovecraft, but was later revealed as a fake. The narrator Marina’s husband, Charlie, tracks down the author and writes a book about that person’s true identity. But is this story, too, a fraud? I enjoyed the first half of this more than the second, which is mostly the narrative Marina hears from this person when she tries to figure out what happened to Charlie. The concept is interesting, with the layers of shifting stories–all a bit Freudian, as Marina is a psychoanalyst–the last section is “The Navel of the Dream.” I wasn’t into the parts that revolved around SF fandom battles in the 30s and 40s, and I was unsure about the comparison La Farge (or just one of his narrators?) seemed to draw between Lovecraft’s horrors and WWII/the Holocaust. Plus, you know, Lovecraft–how have I ended up reading two novels in which he features when I dislike horror and have no desire to read his work? So this had some interesting parts but ultimately didn’t work for me, and I think I’m done with the summer Tournament of Books as I’d like to read more from my towering TBR.
Simon Goldhill’s A Very Queer Family Indeed: Sex, Religion and the Benson’s in Victorian Britain also revolves around the self-fashioning through writing and the stories we tell about ourselves and our families. The Bensons–the father, Edward, was an archbishop of Canterbury and the sons include E. F. Benson of Mapp and Lucia fame–produced astounding amounts of writing, including diaries, letters, memoirs of each other, and semi-autobiographical fiction. The first section on these texts was the most interesting to me; Goldhill is often a thoughtful close reader of the ways they present and re-present themselves and their parents.
The mother and daughter (I wish there’d been more about her) both had intense relationships with women that were probably sexual; the sons were probably celibate and not sexually interested in women. Goldhill is good on the ways they could and could not think and talk about their sexuality in the time when they lived (“homosexual” was only beginning to be conceived of as an identity, rather than a behavior, near the end of the Benson sons’ lives). One thing this section reminded me of is that despite our stereotype of Victorian repression, in practice people’s relationships and the accommodations they made for their desires could be as creative as those we make now–and sometimes, their behavior was less constrained because they lacked the labels we apply and the judgments that go along with those, for good or ill.
The religion section wasn’t as well developed, I thought, but because of my personal history I enjoyed the chapter on how Edward, the archbishop, worked out a compromise around the place of ritual in the church that paved the way for the liturgical practices common today.
I squeezed in a couple of mysteries, too, but nothing that stood out and this is more than long enough already! If I blogged more often maybe it wouldn’t be tl;dr.