Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham (#NovNov22 Short Classics Week)
This was just what I want from a one-sitting read: surprising and satisfying, and in this case with enough suspense to keep the pages turning. When beautiful 30-year-old widow Mary Panton, staying in a villa in the hills overlooking Florence, receives two marriage proposals within the first 33 pages, I worried I was in for a boring, conventional story.
However, things soon get much more interesting. Her suitors are Sir Edgar Swift of the Indian Civil Service, 24 years her senior and just offered a job as the governor of Bengal; and Rowley Flint, a notorious lady’s man. Edgar has to go away on business and will ask for her answer when he’s back in several days. He leaves her with a revolver to take with her if she goes out in the car. A Chekhov’s gun? Absolutely. And it’ll be up to Mary and Rowley to deal with the consequences.
I’ll avoid further details; it’s too much fun to discover those for yourself. I’ll just mention that some intriguing issues get brought in, such as political dissidence in the early days of WWII, charity vs. pity, and the double standard of promiscuity in men vs. women.
Compared to something like Of Human Bondage, sure, this 1941 novella is a minor work, but I found it hugely enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone looking for a short classic or wanting to try Maugham (from here advance to The Painted Veil and The Moon and Sixpence before trying one of the chunksters).
Some plot points are curiously similar to Downton Abbey seasons 1–3, leading me to wonder if this was actually a conscious or unconscious influence on Julian Fellowes. Mostly, though, this reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a deliciously twisted little book where you find yourself rooting for people you might not sympathize with in real life.
And how’s this for a last line? “Darling, that’s what life’s for – to take risks.”
(See also Simon’s review.)
[120 pages] (Public library)
Catching Up: Mini Reviews of Some Notable Reads from Last Year
I do all my composition on an ancient PC (unconnected to the Internet) in a corner of our lounge. On top of the CPU sit piles of books waiting to be reviewed. Some have been residing there for an embarrassingly long time since I finished reading them; others were only recently added to the stack but had previously languished on my set-aside shelf. I think the ‘oldest’ of the set below is the Olson, which I started reading in November 2019. In every case, the book earned a spot on the pile because I felt it was worth a review, but I’ll stick to a brief paragraph on why each was memorable. Bonus: I get my Post-its back, and can reshelve the books so they get packed sensibly for our upcoming move.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti (2012): My second from Heti, after Motherhood; both landed with me because they nail aspects of my state of mind. Heti writes autofiction about writers dithering about their purpose in life. Here Sheila is working in a hair salon while trying to finish her play – some absurdist dialogue is set out in script form – and hanging out with artists like her best friend Margaux. The sex scenes are gratuitous and kinda gross. In general, I alternated between sniggering (especially at the ugly painting competition) and feeling seen: Sheila expects fate to decide things for her; God forbid she should ever have to make an actual choice. Heti is self-deprecating about an admittedly self-indulgent approach, and so funny on topics like mansplaining. This was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2013. (Little Free Library)
The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990): The first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles, read for a book club meeting last January. I could hardly believe the publication date; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of daily life in 1937–8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex that it seems it must have been written in the 1940s. The retrospective angle, however, allows for subtle commentary on how limited women’s lives were, locked in by marriage and pregnancies. Sexual abuse is also calmly reported. One character is a lesbian, but everyone believes her partner is just a friend. The cousins’ childhood japes are especially enjoyable. And, of course, war is approaching. It’s all very Downton Abbey. I launched straight into the second book afterwards, but stalled 60 pages in. I’ll aim to get back into the series later this year. (Free mall bookshop)
Keeper: Living with Nancy—A journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (2009): The inaugural Wellcome Book Prize winner. The Prize expanded in focus over a decade; I don’t think a straightforward family memoir like this would have won later on. Gillies’ family relocated to remote northern Scotland and her elderly mother- and father-in-law, Nancy and Morris, moved in. Morris was passive, with limited mobility; Nancy was confused and cantankerous, often treating Gillies like a servant. (“There’s emptiness behind her eyes, something missing that used to be there. It’s sinister.”) She’d try to keep her cool but often got frustrated and contradicted her mother-in-law’s delusions. Gillies relays facts about Alzheimer’s that I knew from In Pursuit of Memory. What has remained with me is a sense of just how gruelling the caring life is. Gillies could barely get any writing done because if she turned her back Nancy might start walking to town, or – the single most horrific incident that has stuck in my mind – place faeces on the bookshelf. (Secondhand purchase)
Reflections from the North Country by Sigurd F. Olson (1976): Olson was a well-known environmental writer in his time, also serving as president of the National Parks Association. Somehow I hadn’t heard of him before my husband picked this out at random. Part of a Minnesota Heritage Book series, this collection of passionate, philosophically oriented essays about the state of nature places him in the vein of Aldo Leopold – before-their-time conservationists. He ponders solitude, wilderness and human nature, asking what is primal in us and what is due to unfortunate later developments. His counsel includes simplicity and wonder rather than exploitation and waste. The chief worry that comes across is that people are now so cut off from nature they can’t see what they’re missing – and destroying. It can be depressing to read such profound 1970s works; had we heeded environmental prophets like Olson, we could have changed course before it was too late. (Free from The Book Thing of Baltimore)
Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman by Alice Steinbach (2004): I’d loved her earlier travel book Without Reservations. Here she sets off on a journey of discovery and lifelong learning. I included the first essay, about enrolling in cooking lessons in Paris, in my foodie 20 Books of Summer 2020. In other chapters she takes dance lessons in Kyoto, appreciates art in Florence and Havana, walks in Jane Austen’s footsteps in Winchester and environs, studies garden design in Provence, takes a creative writing workshop in Prague, and trains Border collies in Scotland. It’s clear she loves meeting new people and chatting – great qualities in a journalist. By this time she had quit her job with the Baltimore Sun so was free to explore and make her life what she wanted. She thinks back to childhood memories of her Scottish grandmother, and imagines how she’d describe her adventures to her gentleman friend, Naohiro. She recreates everything in a way that makes this as fluent as any novel, such that I’d even dare recommend it to fiction-only readers. (Free mall bookshop)
Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth (2018): I didn’t get the chance to read this when it was shortlisted for, and then won, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, but I received a copy from my wish list for Christmas that year. Alaska is a place that attracts outsiders and nonconformists. During the summer of 2016, Weymouth undertook a voyage by canoe down the nearly 2,000 miles of the Yukon River – the same epic journey made by king/Chinook salmon. He camps alongside the river bank in a tent, often with his partner, Ulli. He also visits a fish farm, meets reality TV stars and native Yup’ik people, and eats plenty of salmon. “I do occasionally consider the ethics of investigating a fish’s decline whilst stuffing my face with it.” Charting the effects of climate change without forcing the issue, he paints a somewhat bleak picture. But his descriptive writing is so lyrical, and his scenes and dialogue so natural, that he kept me eagerly riding along in the canoe with him. (Secondhand copy, gifted)
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Two Mother–Daughter Author Pairs for Mother’s Day
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.
The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart
From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.
Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]
Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart
In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.
She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]
The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.
It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.
Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]
A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”
The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor
Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.
Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.
This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]
Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift
If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]
Mini Reviews Roundup for the Summer
Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.
Trio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.
[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.