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.

Ffffffffebruary

Winter came early where I live. I marked the descent of this most frigid season to our clime around mid-November last year, and it’s hung around with its usual persistence. The thing is, before Christmas, I don’t mind at all. I expect and might even occasionally delight in snow before Christmas. No, the worst thing about winter is how much of it is left to go after Christmas passes (essentially, all of it).

009The area I live in hasn’t even been hit as hard as other areas, like New York. We’ve had temperatures in the single digits, snow, and wind chills below zero, but it never makes national news. Maybe because I live in the Pacific Northwest, which everyone just expects to have grim, interminable winters.

You try to find ways to make winter bearable. Like telling yourself that these snow-covered trees might be something like what Lucy saw when she emerged from the other side of the wardrobe into Narnia. Or, on a particularly grim-weathered evening, as freezing rain edges into snow, one might imagine oneself inside that Howard Nemerov poem, just watching for the moment when the falling things fly instead of fall.

In post-Christmas winter, it can be hard work to find beautiful, magical things, and most of my coping mechanisms, for better or worse, involve my inserting myself into stories and poems. It’s a reason to read, after all, not that I needed one.

I mostly spent February watching the Olympics (yay Charlie and Meryl!) and cooking. I toyed mercilessly with three different blog posts for you all month long, trying to find fewer, better words. My reading last month was frenetic at best: I tried to read about four different books, but the only one I managed to finish, I essentially hate-read: by which I mean I hated nearly everything about the book but continued to read, bitterly, out of spite and a vague notion that Winter Is For Suffering.

At one point in this book I hated, the “heroine” (it pains me to apply that term to her) burns her winter coat because it got blood on it (don’t ask), but she throws it, whole, onto the fire. WHICH WOULD SMOTHER THE FIRE. BUT IT DOESN’T. LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS BOOK OF GIANT GAPS OF PLOT LOGIC, IT MADE NO SENSE. She says she’ll make some excuse and get a new winter coat (implying she has no secondary backup coats), but the very next day she’s pulling on a new one with no explanation of how she got it.

But this raises a question I’ve been struggling with for a while: how do you talk about books you hated? I shy away from being super-negative here on my blog because I don’t want to invite negativity here, but sometimes a book just doesn’t work for me and I’d like to talk about it. If you have any ideas, please share!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these links: the stages of winter rage (thank you, NPR!), and 5 Reading Rules for Books Lovers of All Ages, from Reading Rainbow. We can do it, guys. The first day of spring is technically two weeks away, so we’re almost there.

Notes of Meringue

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I for one would like to harangue Trader Joe’s until they correct the spelling of meringue on their chardonnay.

Actually, I wouldn’t. I’m not one given to haranguing; I was just swept up in enthusiasm for the idea of juxtaposing words which end in the same sound spelled differently. More likely, as enchanting as “notes of lemon meringue” sound in a chardonnay, I’ll refuse to try it until this spelling travesty is corrected.