Book Review: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris


The Unnamed
Joshua Ferris
I know the book world is divided on this, but I LOVED Joshua Ferris’ first novel Then We Came to the End. I thought it was a wonderful mash up of Austen, Trollope, and “The Office”. And it has, in my humble opinion, one of the best opening lines of all time: “We were fractious and overpaid.”

Well, Ferris’ sophomore novel The Unnamed, is nothing like Then We Came to the End, but it is still a really fantastic book. Some professional reviewers have dinged him because the two books are so dissimilar in style. But I think professional reviewers, as a rule, suck. I prefer the uninformed ramblings (like mine) of people (and blogs) I trust.

The Unnamed tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a successful lawyer in Manhattan who has an unusual malady that defies diagnosis. His unnamed affliction compels him to walk (and walk and walk). We aren’t talking about a nice stroll through Central Park on his lunch hour kind of walking, but the kind that takes him across bridges to other boroughs, across state lines, through all kinds of weather and with the inability to stop until his body/mind decides it/they is/are ready to stop.

This is a compelling, kind of fast read that had me tearing up from time to time. His condition seems totally implausible in most ways, but the emotion, fear, and uncertainty that it illustrates feels very plausible and frightening. And it is somewhat of a paean to unconditional love, although a kind of sweetly sad paean (is that possible?).

I enjoyed reading it, and it made me love my husband a little more than I already do.

Book Review: A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym


A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym
Hazel Holt

I read my first Barbara Pym novel back in April 2002. It was Crampton Hodnet and I must admit I remember nothing about it. I remember that I enjoyed it in a mild kind of way. Later that year I followed it up with A Glass of Blessing and then again in 2004 with Jane and Prudence. In each case I remember enjoying them but not being able to remember a blessed thing about any of them. It wasn’t until this past August when I picked up Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, that I really understood the brilliance of Barbara Pym. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Some Tame Gazelle, but I actually remember what happened and think of various scenes from that book with some frequency and with more than a little amusement. So when I came across this copy of A Lot to Ask I couldn’t pass it up.

Hazel Holt, Pym’s friend, colleague, and literary executor has pulled together a short life of Barbara Pym using extensive excerpts from Pym’s diaries, correspondence, and published works. The result is a somewhat choppy, episodic narrative that nonetheless delights because it is rich with the same kind of detail that one finds in Pym’s novels. As I am with most biography, I was bored with the details of her childhood, but once Pym heads off to Oxford my interest started to quicken. And by the time she gets to writing novels I was completely enthralled. What becomes clear is how much of Pym’s fictional output is pulled from real life. Not necessarily autobiographical, but it does seem like Pym’s novel are repositories for a vast catalog of observations, experiences, and collected stories (gossip) that she picked up and recorded in her diaries over the years.

Not surprisingly I was particularly taken with passages that detail Pym’s interest in various authors and books. Her shared love of Ivy Compton-Burnett with her friend Jock led them to correspond with one another in the style of ICB. In practical terms this meant clever, funny letters with lots of dialog that read more like scenes from novels than correspondence. She also writes more than once of her love of Anthony Powell’s, six volume magnum opus, A Dance to the Music of Time. (I have the complete set and Pym’s encouragement from beyond the grave is moving them ever higher in my TBR pile.) And I am dying to find out more about Denton Welch, an author with whom Pym was “besotted”.

Perhaps the most difficult time in Pym’s life was the period in the 1960s and 70s in which her work was unpublishable. Having had six novels published between 1950 and 1961 Pym was devastated when her publisher, Jonthan Cape, declined to publish An Unsuitable Attachment. Even in her despair Pym recognized that the literary landscape had changed with the popularity of such work like William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as well as the works of James Baldwin and others. Indeed it is hard to reconcile the dissonance of the era with the quiet challenges of a typical Pym story line. Recording everyday life observations in her notebook she bemoans the unfashionable quality of what she loves to write:

Mr Claydon in the Library – he is having his lunch, eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, a glass of milk near at hand. Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?…What is wrong with being obsessed with trivia? Some have criticized The Sweet Dove for this. What are the minds of my critics filled with? What nobler and more worthwhile things?

It wasn’t until 1977 when the Times Literary Supplement included a feature on underrated authors in which both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil pronounced Barbara Pym as their favorite, that Pym’s career got back on track. Not only was her reputation (and publishing) revived but she achieved sales and accolades like never before. It was, however, a bittersweet revival given that Pym died of cancer only three years later in 1980 at the age of 66.

For anyone who likes Pym this is a must read. It has certainly put me in a Pym mood. I have already started on Excellent Women and am finding the experience all the more rewarding for having read A Lot to Ask.

Book Review: A Song of Sixpence by AJ Cronin

A Song of Sixpence
A.J. Cronin

My edition of this book is missing a dust jacket so I knew next to nothing about it. I thought I recognized the author’s name, but not with any certainty. And I certainly didn’t remember that Archibald Joseph Cronin was the author of The Citadel and other book-to-BBC favorites. The title and the bits and pieces that I read before I purchased A Song of Sixpence promised a coming of age tale set in Scotland. And, as you may know, coming of age tales and UK settings are two of my favorite themes. I couldn’t resist lines like these:

Mrs. Heston had provided an excellent buffet lunch which was taken standing up, people moving about with plates of chicken salad and cold veal pie, in a general air of heartiness.

A Song of Sixpence is a highly autobiographical tale so I knew that everything was going to turn out alright. Yet there were so many trials and tribulations I couldn’t help get caught up being worried for young Laurie Carroll, Cronin’s alter ego. If this Cronin book hasn’t already been adapted to the screen it would make a wonderful film or mini-series.

The thing I liked most about this book was the way in which Carroll/Cronin’s wariness of the world quickly dissipates in the face of something new and interesting. And once his interest is piqued, his enthusiasm is boundless and he becomes a sponge for knowledge. I suppose I feel like I was a bit like Carroll as a child, or I wish I had been like Carroll as a child. I had the enthusiasm and interest in learning but my tendency was to go broad rather than deep so the hours and hours I spent in the library, while enjoyable, didn’t necessarily prepare me for some future academic or professional pursuit. Carroll/Cronin’s early interest in the life sciences led to a medical degree. My early interests just helped set me up for my life as a dabbler. A little of this, a little of that. Still, I can’t complain too much, the process has been enjoyable.

The other thing I really appreciated about this book was the adults who took an interest in young Carroll. Most notably Miss Greville the downstairs’ neighbor. Her quest to turn Carroll into the Spartan ideal of youth and her active interest in him as both instructor and patron is heartwarming while it lasts. No spoilers here.

Overall, a delightful, well-written, and yes, despite the ups and downs, a rather cozy coming of age tale. What more could I ask for?

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale sometime in college in the late 1980s. After about 20 years of recommending it, I have been thinking maybe I should read it again to make sure I would still think it recommendation-worthy. Although given my pro-Atwood bias it seemed unlikely I would change my tune. My husband (at my urging) brought The Handmaid’s Tale along with him on our trip to Thailand and Cambodia. I casually picked it up just to remind myself what he was going to be reading and suddenly found myself drawn in. And not surprisingly I enjoyed reading it again, remembering things I had forgotten and noticing new details. Some of the themes may be slightly dated, but the story is still very compelling.

The brilliant thing about Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction is that she is such a master of language that she can create a new world without the descriptions seeming forced. The details of her dystopias just unfold as part of the narrative. There are none of those klutzy moments like those found in the works of lesser writers. Those writers who, like an old fashioned opera singer who has no sense of drama and who can’t sing and act at the same time, walks to the middle of the stage plants his/her feet, faces forward and sings the whole damn aria like they were giving a recital. Although, having said that, I must admit that Atwood does get a little cutesy when she applies proper nouns to some of her made up people, places, and things like she did in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

My biggest problem with The Handmaid’s Tale is the same issue I had when I read it 20 years ago. The ending feels too frivolous to me. I think the story is quite devastating. It just seems wrong to end on a humorous note. No doubt Atwood is satirizing academia and academic conferences, but the emotional effect is a little jarring for me.

But none of the quibbles really matter. The book, like Atwood herself, is brilliant. And I am now contemplating a re-read of all of her fiction. And to those Canadians who may think Atwood overexposed, over-praised and self-important (I’ve read your blogs…), for many of us fans who aren’t exposed to Atwood as a National Treasure, the woman is a goddess.

Book Review: The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell

The Distance Between Us
Maggie O’Farrell

A friend of mine at book club absolutely loved O’Farrell’s book The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox which I half-heartedly tried to read at one point. Since I trust her recommendations 99% of the time I felt bad about putting it down. So when I saw this O’Farrell book on the library shelves at the resort in Phuket I thought I would give it a go and make Wendy proud.

The Distance Between Us is about two sisters Stella and Nina who were born to Italian parents in Scotland and Jake who was born to a British women in Hong Kong. Oddly enough, like Her Fearful Symmetry (reviewed below), the sisters have been extremely close their whole lives (although not twins) and have some issues related to dependence and independence. Jake on the other hand is alone. His mother lives in New Zealand, he has no siblings, and his mother never even knew his father’s full name. He ends up in the UK for the first time in his life in his early 20s and finds himself a fish out of water. Eventually these two story lines intertwine in ways that are not wholly unexpected but surrounded by details that will surprise.

This book was immediately enjoyable and has many fascinating storylines. One of the more fascinating is the story of how Jake’s mother ended up in Hong Kong. In the 1960s she makes her way there overground in a VW bus by hitchhiking, trains, etc. via Europe, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India…you get the picture. Hooking up (in more ways than one) with various people along the way. Not only does such a journey appeal to my own wanderlust, but it was a snapshot into a time when one could contemplate such a journey through parts of the world that seem highly problematic today.

Jake’s status as a British boy who has never been to Britain is also fascinating. I read this book in Chiang Mai and had been thinking about what it would mean to relocate to Asia permanently. My reaction, not surprisingly to me, is that I could never do it. Could never embrace fully all the differences and would always be pining for home. (And as much as I would love to live in Europe or the UK, I think I would ultimately feel the same way, always having a sense of not being “home”.) When Jake finally makes it to the UK he has all the feelings of dislocation and disorientation similar to what I was experiencing in Thailand. But to my Western-biased mind it seemed odd at first that this Brit would feel that way about his homeland. My extremely narrow-minded thought was “why would anyone prefer Hong Kong over the UK”. Of course Jake’s story helps me blow that personal ignorance (if not my own personal preference) to smithereens.

Stella and Nina also have interesting life stories (and Stella has a big secret) and I found all the characters interesting and likable. This was one of those books that is fun and is so compelling that I didn’t want to put it down. Thankfully I was sitting next to a pool in Phuket so I didn’t have to.

Now I need to give the Esme book another chance.

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger

I was actively avoiding this book. I had a long-held and completely uninformed bias against Niffenegger’s megahit, The Time Traveller’s Wife. In addition to being a contrarian, I am not a big fan of temporal displacement in novels and the addition of a love story really made me want to run for the hills every time it was mentioned. Despite trusted friends at book club raving about it, I just couldn’t bring myself to take a closer look. So when I started seeing the multitude of rave reviews in the blogosphere for Her Fearful Symmetry, I automatically took up a similar bias against it. And instead of time travel it had a ghost. No way, not for me.

And then while I was checking my email in the library at our resort in Phuket I saw it sitting on the shelf. My immediate reaction was “Oh, there’s that book.” And since I had never actually seen a copy in person I picked it up. And then promptly put it back. I did this a few times over the next few days. Then, on day five of our seven day stay I decide to give it a shot. And once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. I lounged around the pool deck of our villa doing nothing but reading Her Fearful Symmetry. Even when the ghost appeared I didn’t lose interest. I was happy to suspend my disbelief because I was enjoying it so much.

Everyone and their dog has reviewed this book so I am not going to bother with much with the plot. But I will give a short description: identical American twins inherit their aunt’s flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London, they move in, stuff ensues, etc. I will say it is an interesting and creative tale. The characters are also very interesting and generally very likable. I really liked Martin and his crazy OCD. I began to think I shouldn’t think of my own tendencies as OCD because they aren’t anywhere near the realm of debilitating like Martin’s are. But the more I read the more I realized that there are definite similarities with my behavior and OCD. Although based on Martin, mine is an extremely mild case.

I didn’t really like the ending. I feel like bad behavior was rewarded. But I won’t say anything more about that to keep this free of spoilers. And I had a few quibbles with some of the details. As an American who has cleared UK immigration about 20 times in my life I can tell you that if I had ever said to the immigration officer that I didn’t know when I would be leaving the UK like the twins did, they would have shuttled me off to a special room for additional scrutiny. UK immigration officers are far tougher than any others I have encountered. Heck in the Euro Zone they barely look at your passport, in the UK they always seem more than a little hostile, the look on their faces seeming to say “tell me again why we should let you in”. Also, is it really possible that the NHS would have been available to the twins just because they owned a flat in London? My experience as an American who once worked in London was that eligibility had to do with being employed. Am I wrong?

Still, despite these quibbles and the ending, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was perfect vacation reading. As much as I enjoyed it, however, I still don’t think I have gotten over my bias against The Time Traveller’s Wife. I don’t think I will be reading it anytime soon.

I just came across this picture John took of me havng fallen asleep while reading this book.

Book Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening
Kate Chopin

Almost immediately upon picking up The Awakening I realized it was a great book. I don’t have the appropriate expertise to explain why, but there was something so wonderful about the prose that it had my synapses firing away in joyful anticipation. And it wasn’t just the fact that I knew that it is a classic, there was something in the words themselves that had me convinced that I was going to be experiencing a great novel. Their styles aren’t necessarily similar, but it reminded me of the first time I discovered Willa Cather. Not only was the writing good, but the book also felt very American (I won’t even try to explain that) and although it is a bit of a period piece, it has a fresh feeling to it that was very exciting. I am trying hard not to oversell this book, but there is no denying that I reacted to it positively and viscerally from page one.

Published in 1899, The Awakening tells the story of Edna Pontellier a New Orleans society housewife who ends up throwing over convention in favor of her personal awakening. I won’t go into the plot because it is somewhat ridden with spoilers. Suffice it to say that the book was ahead of its time in dealing with the issues of female autonomy and the limited choices available to women during the period. In the process of telling the tale, Chopin wonderfully evokes well-to-do Orleans/Creole society. Not as Edith Wharton does with the very wealthy, old money New York milieu where their adherence to social mores seems innate, the society Chopin depicts has more of a self-conscious frontier quality to it. For Chopin’s characters their notions of society are inextricably intertwined with making money and getting ahead—nothing new in that—but it is a much more self-conscious, somewhat amateurish, rather provincial and parochial scene than the grand families of the East or in the old world. There is less room for eccentrics in Chopin’s world and this makes Edna’s choices much more limited and her non-conformance much more dangerous.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I highly recommend The Awakening.

Book Review: The Arena by William Haggard

The Arena
William Haggard

I am not one to spend much time on crime fiction, but this vintage Penguin Crime cover caught my eye when I was in a used bookstore in Doylestown, Pennsylvania back in November. I haven’t come across many (if any) of these green jacketed editions from Penguin in the U.S., and the crime involved seem to be white collar crime rather than anything grisly, so I thought I would give it a go.

The story involves merchant banks, defense contractors, and the fuzzy ethical lines in high level government machinery. Written in 1961, the book also paints an interesting picture of the alcohol-sodden workdays of 1960s London along with description of now-quaint ways of communication, travel, and information technology (or lack thereof). In that way, The Arena appealed to me as a period piece with just enough intrigue to make it count as a thriller, if a rather subdued one.

Book Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger
Penelope Lively

I finished this one right before we left for vacation on December 31st so there is much about it that I remember with any clarity. Between travelling and other books read during the past 19 days, I don’t remember as much about this book as is necessary to write a decent review.

Booker Prize-winner Moon Tiger is the fourth book by Penelope Lively that I have read. And while I found it interesting, I did not find it as compelling as other Lively books. (My favorite is still Consequences.) Claudia Hampton is dying and reflecting on her life as a journalist in WWII Egypt and as a writer. I actually found the bits in the present tense the most interesting. I was fascinated by Lively’s description of Claudia’s state of being as she lay dying. The part I found most disquieting was Claudia’s too close, and sometimes incestuous, relationship with her brother.

Beyond those two impressions I don’t remember enough to comment further. I found the book interesting and can understand why it won the Booker, but I have enjoyed other Lively books much more.

Book Review: On Reading by Andre Kertesz

Back in November I posted a scan of my favorite bookmark. It had a wonderful image on it with absolutely no photo credit or information on it. I have had it for at least 10 years and have always wondered where the photo came from. Well thanks to the power of the Internet and to the fabulous blogger Lethe, I now know. As Lethe wrote in her comment to my post:

André Kertész. It can be found on p. 56 of his book On Reading (reissued 2008) and is titled “André Jammes, Paris. November 4, 1963”.

Even better, I now have in my hands my own copy of W.W. Norton’s reissue of On Reading. It is a gem of a book. Smaller format than I had expected, but the images are wonderful.

Some of you in London may have been lucky enough to see an exhibit of this work as Reading Matters writes about here. Check out this site to see more of the images or better yet plan an exhibition.

Here is the beat-up old bookmark in question.

Andre Jammas, Paris, November 4, 1963
copryright Estate of André Kertész

Here are some of the other images from On Reading.

Academie Francaise, Paris, 1929
copyright Estate of André Kertész
New York City, February 25, 1951
copyright Estate of André Kertész