My Summer So Far, In Reading

My summer has been crazy. I have been on the go so much I’ve hardly had time to think. I actually did the math, and in a span of exactly 30 days, I was in 9 distinct airports and took off and landed no less than 23 times. The novelization of my life might refer to this epic thirty-day-period as “Two Weddings and a Baby Shower”, with an afterword entitled “Four Time Zones Apart: Vacation and Work Travel With 24 Hours Between”.

But on the bright side, with all that airport and airplane time, I read six books!

Before the Air Travel Extravaganza, I was working on a post to let you all know ahead of time the reasons for my absence, but the post was scrapped, mostly because I was afraid that my real and actual joy at being able to do all of these things and go all of these places — for and with people I love — would be overshadowed by my melodramatic dread of the attendant exhaustion (and the huge life changes that each trip represented to me).

And I’m glad I scrapped it. “Kill your darlings” is what people who know say about writing, and in this case my darlings were allusions to Robert Frost poems. Thankfulness is a much better use of my time (when compared to melodramatic dread, not allusions to Robert Frost — poetry is never a waste of time).

Let’s talk instead about those six books: here’s what I read, in no particular order, and typically random!

nfrol_coverNo Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym. How I would have loved to have actually known Barbara Pym. I like to think that she and I would have been great friends, if only because I see something of myself in each one of her heroines, who one imagines must each have something of her in them, too. While this particular book of hers was not (in my opinion) quite at the same level as Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence, it still offered such little gems of perfect expression as “the rather perfunctory tone in which social invitations not meant to be accepted are sometimes issued, and to which the only suitable reply is a murmur.” For me, reading one of her books is like reading a long, storied letter from a friend with whom I entirely sympathize.

therook_coverThe Rook, by Daniel O’Malley. A woman wakes up in the rain in a London park, surrounded by dead people, with no recollection of who she is. She soon discovers that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization in the British government tasked with keeping supernatural forces in check, and that she has extra-special supernatural powers of her own. If you’re not already intrigued, then my raving about wry writing (which reminded me of watching recent Doctor Who) probably won’t convince you to read this super-fun book (first in a planned series). A few hallmarks of a first novel were outweighed by the novel’s being refreshingly without so many of the characteristics that seem to plague so much of recent science fiction/fantasy: there was no annoying romantic triangle (or romance of any kind), and there WAS a confident heroine getting stuff done — on her own, to boot. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE.

deathofbees_coverThe Death of Bees, by Lisa O’Donnell. The story of two sisters, Marnie and Nelly, opens with Marnie’s confession: “Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved.” Set in urban Glasgow, it’s the story of Marnie and Nelly just trying to get by keeping the secret of their parents’ deaths until Marnie’s next birthday, when she’ll be legally old enough to take care of Nelly herself. Keeping that secret proves harder and harder as neighbors, authorities, and their parents’ drug dealers start asking questions. This is not The Boxcar Children: there is a hefty bit of Glaswegian grit in this story. While it might not be quite urban fiction, it certainly had similar themes and content. Somehow it still managed sweetness, though — if you can get past the grit and you enjoy coming-of-age stories, this book may be for you.

tntysm_coverThe Next Time You See Me, by Holly Goddard Jones. “Lives of quiet desperation” is what springs to mind when I think of this book. The story is told from multiple points of view: a young girl, a loner, finds a dead body in the woods and keeps it a secret; a schoolteacher’s wild older sister has gone missing; an older man works in a local factory; each of their lives and the lives of others in their small Kentucky town will converge as the search for the missing sister escalates. Really more of a slow-burn character study than a true mystery or thriller, each of the characters was finely drawn and even sympathetic — but it doesn’t shy away from or understate their sadness and hopelessness, and while I’m not sorry I read it, I would probably never read it again.

habits_coverHabits of the House, by Fay Weldon. Fay Weldon was the author of the original “Upstairs Downstairs” — and because I love both period dramas and comedies of manners, I confess I had high hopes for this particular book. But I found it disappointing, and I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. At the end of 1899, the Earl of Dilberne and his family stand on the brink of total financial ruin. Their only hope is to secure a lucrative marriage for their son, who is only interested in keeping his mistress happy and his automobile in working order. Maybe I found it dissatisfying because almost every character was portrayed as having few (if any) redeeming virtues; and although I actually rather liked the American heiress the Dilberne family targeted, I could only picture a future of disappointment for her married to the future Earl of Dilberne. It is entirely possible, however, that I was just tired.

never_coverNever Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a date, by Katie Heaney. I decided to read this book after discovering the author’s contributions to The Hairpin, a series called Reading Between The Texts, in which Katie and her friends analyze text message conversations they’ve had with boys (it is seriously one of the funniest things on the Internets and if you’ve been single at all in this century you can probably relate to these conversations). I believe I can say unequivocally that if you enjoy those analyses, you’ll enjoy Ms. Heaney’s book. There were so many times reading the book I laughed out loud and felt like Ms. Heaney and I should be really good friends because we have so much in common, except she’s funnier.

So my list began and ended with an author I should like to call a friend. What about you? Has your summer been as out-of-control crazy as mine? What have you been reading?

The End of the Affair

endofaffaircover

image via Audible.com

I came across The End of the Affair somewhat accidentally: that is, I knew of Graham Greene’s books but have always had other novels I wanted to read more. Then one recent afternoon I stumbled across an article on the internet about books this particular person had read but would rather have listened to on audiobook (because the audiobooks were so good), including Greene’s The End of the Affair as narrated by Colin Firth.

Now, I am one of those people who would listen to a proper English actor’s voice reading almost anything: I’m even trying to figure out how to convert this clip of Tom Hiddleston reciting the “Once more unto the breach!” monologue from Henry V into an audio file compatible with iTunes so that I can play it in my half-marathon playlist, in part because I recite this particular monologue to myself and my hapless running partner whenever I really have to talk myself into continuing to run, and partly because I like having my reading life follow me into other areas of my life (like running), and really let’s-be-honest mostly partly because it’s Tom Hiddleston [swoon], and he reads Shakespeare so well!

This audiobook seemed like the perfect solution for me right now, as in addition to a spate of recent long drives, I am very painstakingly trying to knit a baby hat for my future nephew, these being things impossible to do while also reading. I have the hardest time picking out audiobooks, because somehow I need to believe that I will want to listen to the audiobook again in order to justify the cost (rather than books I buy that I may never read again without any guilt or thought whatsoever), and my library’s selection of audiobooks leaves quite a few titles to be desired.

But I digress.

The End of the Affair left me with very mixed emotions. As you’d guess, this is the story of two people who were lovers, Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, whose affair stops abruptly. It’s the story of two people who fell in love, whose affair falls apart, and these two people and their search for God.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to talk about this book, so I turned to Goodreads to get an idea of what other people have already said about it. My perusal of reviews there was by no means comprehensive but it does seem like a frequent theme among those who loved it was that they read it just as a relationship they were in was ending or had ended, and how it helped them through that time.

This was not true of me. I found the novel’s theology problematic, not in the sense of it detracting from the novel’s success but the very real and acute sense that the novelist’s idea of who and what God is fundamentally differs from the God I know. What I thought Greene did — and did expertly — was sharpen the emotions driving Maurice, particularly, as he examines how the human emotions of love and hate are not so far removed from each other; or how hating something or someone doesn’t necessarily lessen one’s desire for that thing or person.

Maurice was not an easy character for me to like, but — and I think this is Greene’s particular success — that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize myself in him:

Grief and disappointment are like hate: they make men ugly with self-pity and bitterness. And how selfish they make us too.

In The End of the Affair, Greene takes up a very human sort of story with very human characters, and listening to it, it was impossible for me not to feel that Greene followed Hemingway’s school of thought about writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

My Favorite Mistake (So Far)

You may have noticed the silence around these parts. I’m very sorry to say that I’ve been absolutely buried at work and that it’s likely to continue for some time, and it’s been overwhelming and exhausting already and I’ve only had enough energy to read the kinds of things I have nothing to say about.

A huge contributing factor to my workload lately is that the standards that govern a large part of what I do for a living changed last year (to be implemented this year). At one point in my career that might have been exciting, but eleven years’ eye-opening experience have colored my glasses with tones of cynicism.

So I hope you can picture my glee, when toiling away last night with my new book of standards in hand, I came across a spelling error in the “guiding literature” governing these changes:

COSO2013

It’s “occurrence”!

It was the sort of thing that made me want to happy dance my way out of the office yesterday evening and drink umbrella drinks. Because that’s just inexcusable. Basic word processing software should have highlighted that as an error, not to mention the fact that being able to correctly identify “occurrence” as an assertion is Auditing 101, and getting it spelled correctly is probably Copy Editing 101: both skills I’d expect the purveyors of these new standards to have more than mastered.

Longbourn

cover image via GoodReads

cover image via GoodReads

There are easily more spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice than any other of Jane Austen’s novels. I despise the majority of these novels, so it was with carefully-guarded skepticism that I read all the raves about Jo Baker’s Longbourn. One critic at BookRiot hailed it as the “best new addition to the Austenverse”, and even Kirkus listed it as one of the best books of 2013. But somewhere in the midst of all the hype, I decided I had to lay aside my own prejudice against the greater canon of Austen spin-offs and give this book an honest try.

Longbourn is the story of the Bennet family’s servants. In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ms. Baker says: “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennet girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.”

This note probably would have gone over with me better if she’d couched her statements in the realm of imagination (“…imagine it has been prepared in Longbourn…”); as it was, it felt a bit presumptuous to me, so it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t see it until after reading the whole book. I tend to take issue on principle with anyone who tries to give life to the story “beyond the text”, which is my primary complaint about Austen spin-offs generally. But this sticking point, ironically, is ultimately why I forgave Ms. Baker and ended up enjoying Longbourn: the principal characters in Austen’s novel are mere sketches of supporting characters in Baker’s (the sole exception being Wickham, but I don’t like Wickham, so I don’t mind if she paints him in slightly greater detail as the lech that most readers already know him to be). I may not choose to think of her novel as being the Truth about the servants in Pride and Prejudice, but it’s an entertaining story, nonetheless.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn is a love story. It’s the story primarily of Sarah, the principal housemaid, and the Bennet’s mysterious new footman, James. It’s also the story of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper and cook. Ms. Baker certainly did her research into the times; this novel is very much about below-stairs life — the cleansing of literally dirty laundry and the stink of smells and the servants’ chilblained hands.

My other primary complaint about most Austen spin-off books is that they sound desperately unintelligent to me: either they try to mimic Austen’s prose style and can’t carry it off successfully, or they use modern language without modernizing the setting and characters and it just doesn’t work. They’re all too often poorly-written, in other words. So I’m fully aware of the irony in announcing that my biggest complaint about Ms. Baker’s novel is that I frequently felt she was hitting me over the head with her PhD*.

For example, very early in the novel (page 21 of my copy), Sarah’s chilblained hands are washing the breakfast dishes and we learn that she “watched the glair whiten and lift.” If you, like me, had no idea what “glair” was, please allow me to enlighten you: it refers to the white of an egg or a concoction made therefrom. This may have been the first word I had to look up, but it was certainly not the last (cf. stour, gallinies, scrofulous, frowsty).

Normally I like having my vocabulary stretched by a novel; perhaps it was just the overall tone that in conjunction with the vocabulary seemed pretentious. Or the fact that the same author who used the word “clayey” (really!) also used the word “medicaments”. Or, and I realize this is the rabid Austenite coming out in me, using “calash”, an alternative spelling of caléche, when I would guess most of us are more familiar with the French spelling from Austen’s novels, or even “barouche” (a similar, if not identical, vehicle also already familiar from Austen’s novels). (I do realize it might have been an editorial rather than an authorial decision to use the Anglicized form of the word.)

But truthfully, my complaints about the book are small. Jo Baker did none of the things I despise: she didn’t try to reimagine Darcy and Elizabeth or re-tell their story, putting her own spin on it, and she didn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s voice. No, Longbourn tells its own story. I think it was better when it was telling that story than when it was dwelling on the sights or smells in a scene — and it was rather more George Eliot in tone than Jane Austen, but I enjoyed it.

* After reading page 21, if anyone was to ask me how the book was they would have heard: “I feel like the author is hitting me over the head with her MFA!!!” Then I looked the author up online and discovered she actually has a PhD.