Book Review (well not really): The Pilgrim Hawk

The Pilgrim Hawk
Glenway Wescott

This was the fourth and final novella I was to read for the November Novella Challenge. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I must say I am not a huge fan of novellas. I finished this one last night right before midnight, so I finished the challenge, but I didn’t enjoy it like I thought I would. The good thing is all of the titles were in my TBR so I didn’t buy anything especially for this.

Despite being a very short 108 pages, I really struggled with The Pilgrim Hawk. There is nothing I can think of to write that is even remotely enlightening or interesting. So I will let the New York Review of Books (who published this edition) stand in for my review. It doesn’t mean I agree with their review, it just means I don’t care enough about the book to write my own. You might be interested to note on the NYRB link that Christopher Isherwood, an author I quite like, gave it a fulsome blurb.

Out of the four I read for the challenge I liked Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the best. Strachey’s Cheeful Weather for a Wedding and Fitzgerald’s Bookshop are tied for second place. Both were interesting and had their moments, but didn’t necessarily satisfy. The Pilgrim Hawk comes in a distant fourth.

November Novella Challenge: 4 down, 0 to go.

Book Review: My Latest Grievance

My Latest Grievance
Elinor Lipman

If you are looking for interesting, smart, well-written, popular fiction Elinor Lipman is an author you need to know. Although her books tend to be quick, fun reads with likeable characters, they are by no means without substance. My Latest Grievance is narrated by Frederica Hatch, a precocious teenager who has grown up in a dormitory at a women’s college just outside of Boston, where her parents are professors and live-in houseparents. The professors Hatch have always treated their daughter like a mini-adult, so very little is kept from Frederica’s ears and she, in turn, is quick to insert herself into any conversation. The result is amusing.

The action centers on Frederica’s discovery that her father had been married before he was married to her mother and the subsequent arrival on campus of said ex-wife. Needless to say the arrival of Laura Lee causes a bit of a domestic stir in the Hatch family and sets into motion a string of events that changes everything. Despite a few tragedies, moral and otherwise, along the way, the tone of My Latest Grievance is always light and mostly humorous.

Being the third Lipman novel that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed, I feel like you could probably pick up any of her books and enjoy them. No doubt some may be better than others, but my guess is they are probably all worth a read. Especially if you are looking for something fast and fun.

Book Review: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction rather than science fiction to describe her latest novel The Year of the Flood (and her other works like it). Some might be hard pressed to understand the difference, but perhaps the distinction may be that Atwood speculates about the future based on our current trajectory rather than making up a new universe out of whole cloth. Not having read much science fiction over the years, I am not going to weigh in too much on this one. Suffice it to say that Atwood calls it speculative fiction. And since she is a goddess among us, I will defer to her wishes.

All of the speculative oddities included in The Year of the Flood seem less crazy not only because one can see the roots of the idea in what is happening in the present, but also because Atwood is a master prose writer and draws the reader effortlessly into this world. She doesn’t hammer these ideas home, she gently, in bits and pieces, introduces the reader to this dystopian future. Like all of Atwood’s novels, the characters are interesting and nuanced and don’t necessarily need the setting to make them so.

This story of survival, in the most trying of ecological and societal circumstances, is at times as whimsical as it is an overwhelmingly sad prediction of our future. A religious sect interested in bringing the biblical peaceable kingdom to fruition on earth attempts to get the lion and lamb to lay down together by genetically engineering “liobams”. The thought being that these lion/lamb hybrids would make such peace possible. However, as Atwood notes in the novel, the results were less than vegetarian. But this is only the tip of the iceberg (which don’t seem to exist in the future). In The Year of the Flood Atwood creates a complete world full of creatures and circumstances that are fascinating and yet seem entirely plausible after a few chapters.

This brings me to another aspect of Atwood’s great talent/skill. In addition to her writing ability, she knows so much about so many subjects or at least does the research to make it seem like she does. Like other great writers she is adept at weaving in deep layers of religious, mythological, psychological, philosophical, scientific, and cultural references. She also doesn’t shy away from sex, drugs, and violence, and writes about them in a way that makes you forget that she just entered her eighth decade.

One aspect of the story I found disappointing was her depiction of gender roles. Atwood’s future contains all kinds of advances in science but it doesn’t seem to include any evolution of male/female roles and attitudes. It is possible that this was a conscious choice on her part. Maybe she thinks the future doesn’t look bright for gender equality, or perhaps in this dystopian world where physical survival is paramount and weapons are hard to come by, gender roles devolve to something a little more Neanderthal. But I got the feeling that at least some of it suggests that Atwood’s personal outlook on gender–which doesn’t seem to grasp that men frequent spas–is stuck somewhere in the past.

There is definitely an environmental message here. About global warming, genetic engineering, the promise and danger of technology, and the effects they all will have on life as we currently know it. At no time does it come across as a political tract, unless you are one of those folks who believe we can do whatever we want to the planet and not suffer any consequences. If that is you, you will hate this book. As depressing as Atwood’s future world is, it kind of helps me cope with the stress of feeling powerless to do much about the enviro-political greed and stupidity we must deal with these days. Of course it is a fatalistic kind of relief. As in, won’t the planet be a better place without us? And personally, the idea that death means donating oneself “to the matrix of life” is quite comforting to me.

Finally, some of you are going to ask if you need to read Oryx and Crake first. The answer is no. It might enhance certain aspects of the book as some of the characters do reappear, but the book is fabulous enough to stand on its own.

Other views (if you have reviewed it, let me know and I will link):
Boston Bibliophile
Shelf Love
Books – Sliced and Diced
Savidge Reads
The Mookse and the Gripes (This reviewer hated it so much I wasn’t sure we read the same book.)
  

Book Review: The Queen of the Tambourine

The Queen of the Tambourine
Jane Gardam

Even though I read this book before I read The Year of the Flood, I wrote the review of TYOTF before this one, and I don’t appear to have much steam left.

Winner of the Whitbred Prize for Best Novel of the Year,  The Queen of the Tambourine is a funny and poignant book about Eliza Peabody, a housewife whose sense of reality isn’t what it should be. The entire book is written as a series of letters to her friend Joan. I don’t want to go into my love/hate relationship with epistolary novels again. Suffice it to say this one starts off very well in that regard, with each of the letters seeming very believable, but they eventually stray into pretty conventional narrative posing as letters.

I enjoyed this book, it was humorous and kind of satirical, but with the right amount of sentiment never far from center. Sympathetic and villainous characters, twists and turns, tension and resolution, etc. The whole nine yards as it were.

This is the kind of book that is good to pick up if you run across it somewhere. But, even though I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone to go hunt it down.

Wow.

I stayed up until 2:00 AM reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Woke up this morning at about 8:30, and grabbed it off of my nightstand as soon as I could see clearly enough to read. Didn’t put it down until I finished. As I if I needed more proof of Atwood’s genius. What an amazing book. I will review it sometime this week hopefully.

Trying not to finish an author’s back catalog too quickly

The reading room
Jayne Dyer, 2007

My recent read of another novel by Nevil Shute got me thinking about authors whose novels I like so much I worry about running out of their work. For those that have passed on already the dilemma is already clearly delineated. For those authors still among the living, there are wishes for a long, long life and speedy, speedy writing.

This is slightly different than favorite authors. For instance I love Hermann Hesse, but I doubt I will ever read The Glass Bead Game. I will, however, read every work of fiction by these authors (if I haven’t already):

Margaret Atwood
Elizabeth Bowen
Anita Brookner

Willa Cather

Margaret Drabble
Timothy Findley
EM Forster
Ward Just
Sinclair Lewis
Penelope Lively
W. Somerset Maugham
Ian McEwan
Cheryl Mendelson
Iris Murdoch
Anne Patchett
Barbara Pym
Muriel Spark
Carol Shields
Nevil Shute
Anthony Trollope (I don’t think I will live that long.)
Edith Wharton

I am sure I have forgotten some.

Thank god some of these authors wrote (or are still writing) a lot. I have sadly finished Forster and Shields and neither are around to write more. And there are others like Brookner and Atwood who I have almost caught up to their output. And then others whose work I am rationing so as not to finish too quickly.

Who are yours?

Book Review: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding
Julia Strachey

(Aside: Don’t you love this portrait of Julia Strachey by fellow Bloomsbury-ite Dora Carrington? And the cover painting “Girl Reading” by Harold Knight shown below is also pretty darn fabulous.)

It is a good thing I included this title in my November Novella Challenge, because I have been having a hard time deciding which of my fabulous first twelve Persephones I should read first. One would think diving into that stack wouldn’t really be an issue, but the existential angst over which to read first was killing me. Then again, who am I kidding, now I just have existential angst over which to read second.

I liked Cheerful Weather for the Wedding less than Simon at Stuck In A Book, but I liked it more than Nicola at Vintage Reads. And I felt a bit like Bride of the Book God when she writes:

The word that kept on springing to mind as I read this was brittle; not a criticism as such, but the story struck me as being one of those bright and witty pieces produced by many in the twenties and thirties, some of which were much more successful than others.

Frankly, in my mind the bride probably looked about as happy on her wedding day as dear old Julia Strachey does in her portrait.

This novella is only 118 pages but it took me until about page 60 before I started to really feel the rhythm of the book and get over my urge to quit reading it. I know that makes it sound pretty dire, and it isn’t as bad as that by any means. I actually think I would enjoy the first 60 pages much more now that I have finished the whole thing. It is kind of like the brilliant TV series Extras with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. I only truly appreciated the first season after I finished the second season and the finale show. I agree with Simon that the humor in Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is funny and charming—especially the green socks thread (no pun intended). I think I was just worried that I hadn’t really caught on to an actual story by page 60. But then after page 60 when one finally starts to feel like something is happening, it all starts to fall in place and feel right.

I think it is also the kind of book that would benefit from a real face-to-face book club discussion. A little back and forth banter with others who had read it would help put it into perspective for me. It was worth reading, but perhaps an inauspicious place to start my Persephone experience.

UPDATE: Apparently I was channeling Paperback Reader’s May review of this book when I compared Simon’s review to Nicola’s.

November Novella Challenge: 3 down, 1 to go.