At Least I’ve Been Reading!

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 Cover of Kate Hewitt's Meet Me at Willoughby Close, showing a row of cottages with snow falling on them. The title is in cursive script and a pink ribbon-style banner at the top reads "Ellie's Story."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.

Non-Fiction

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.

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13 Responses to At Least I’ve Been Reading!

  1. willaful says:

    I literally can not read that title without reading it as Willoughby Chase.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I know! I wrote it wrong in my reading notebook and thought of it wrong as I was reading. I reread a bunch of that series about 15 years ago. Maybe it’s time again.

  2. Sunita says:

    The Hewitt sounds like the newer Fiona Harper books, which are on the chick-lit/WF/romance boundary as well and have the cute-cartoon covers. Harper used to write books in the regular Romance line (I think it was called Cherish by M&B?). I’ve enjoyed them quite a bit, so I’ll have to pick this one up.

    Like you, I found the Cusk book vastly superior to the Kitamura. The latter is getting a lot of praise and showing up on a bunch of summer reading lists, which baffles me. Horses for courses, I guess, but I wouldn’t pick it as a summer read, unless you want to spend time with one-percenters who see people in recession-plagued countries as stereotypes who provide the background material for their personal traumas.

    I know I’ve read the Seidel, because I read all of her categories a few years ago, but I don’t remember it at all. I think I have the print copy so I’ll have to wait until I’m back where it is, but now I’m curious. And I’m looking forward to Lillian Boxfish’s journey.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I noticed that ToB people who liked the Kitamura tended to find the narrator’s voice funnier than we did. Maybe it depends on whether you take her reading of the world at face value. If I’d thought the book was commenting on her privilege, I might have liked it more, but I never felt we saw it critically.

      Lillian Boxfish is kind of a fairy tale New York in its own way–that is, the way she is never really afraid and implausibly connects with all kinds of people she meets–but it’s not an all-white fairy tale, and that was nice. It was an adventure I was willing to buy into. (And maybe part of the point is that if you are interested in everyone, see them as human, instead of being afraid, your experience will be different….)

      • Sunita says:

        That’s a good point on the Kitamura. They may have seen critical commentary where I just saw its lack, or at best neutrality.

  3. laurakcurtis says:

    I adore the chick lit/wf/rom books. Just grabbed an arc of the new Jill Mansell through Jellybooks. I might need the Hewitt, although I will undoubtedly give up on calling it anything but Willoughby Chase.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I find that genre/style of book often provides a perfect balance of being light and escapist (cute cottage! eccentric neighbors!) without being substance-free. The problems are everyday and relatable, even if presented sometimes in a slapstick or exaggerated way. I like Hewitt’s voice and I think she’s good at that balance. The one thing I’ll say is this series is put out by Tule and it should have been better copy-edited. Nothing major but enough little errors to be distracting.

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    The Kate Hewitt novel sounds like just what I need to read this weekend – though like so many others, I am distracted by the name being almost Willoughby Chase!

  5. Hahahha, oh man, don’t get me started on how nuts the Victorians were in their private lives. Those kinky bastards. For a while I was reading a bunch about Victorian porn (thanks to a historical novel I can’t name because it would be a spoiler) and my GOD they were so into spanking and twincest. wtf Victorian era.

  6. KeiraSoleore says:

    Thank you for mentioning the Hewitt. I’ve heard about her often but have never read her. And this is based in Oxford? Sold!

    • KeiraSoleore says:

      After I bought the book to read, I realized that I had read her Christmas book, the first in the series. For some reason that had slipped my mind.

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