On our trip to another city last month, I was quite excited to check out what appeared to be a ginormous used bookstore. I even saw a short documentary about the owner that I found quite admirable.
From almost the minute I entered I didn’t like it. I think it has done a good job providing the general public with books they want to buy, but for someone like me who wants to root around and find some unpopular, unheard of novels, it didn’t offer much.
I’m not going to name the bookstore, but I am going to tell you what I didn’t like.
Too much book “art”. I don’t like seeing books abused, particularly when I feel like that kind of books I am looking for are the ones that don’t make it to the sale shelves.
Too many local looky-lous who seemed to consider it a part of their Saturday night outing, the fact that it was a bookstore was neither here nor there to them. Lots of 20-somethings taking their pictures next to the book “art”.
The classics were separated from the general fiction, further diminishing the chance that I might find something from mid-century by lesser known novelists. All the classics were, of course, the big boys (sic). And among the general fiction there was no chance of finding an esoteric little tidbit. It was one of those things where I seemed to know every title on the shelves. It shouldn’t be that way.
There was nothing about the atmosphere that encouraged serious browsing as well. The lighting was either too low or too harsh, the music was annoying and loud…I know I sound like a grumpy old man. It is certainly a place that other people love, but for the die hard book nerd, not so much.
After reading this at the very end of 2016 and having just spent some time working on this review, I was shocked to realize that it was only as far back as 2011 that I read it for the first time. I was even more shocked to see that I wrote about it then as well. Kind of interesting to see the difference between then and now.
[Number 11 in my chronological re-read of Brookner’s 24 novels.]
Harriet Lytton, a recent widow in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exhorts Lizzie Peckham, the daughter of her childhood friend, and ersatz friend of her own daughter Immy, to visit her in Switzerland. Why Harriet chooses Lizzie to help her mitigate her lonely life in Switzerland, and how Harriet got to this lonely state in the first place, is laid out as the timeline goes back to before Harriet was born.
The daughter of a vivacious, rather driven mother and a father left nervous by his experiences in World War II, Harriet is born with a prominent birthmark on her face. The birthmark not only informs how Harriet feels about her self, her relationships, and her place in the world, but it’s also the motivation for Merle, Harriet’s mother, to gently, but firmly push her into a marriage with a much older man. Harriet finds herself married to a man she doesn’t really love and doesn’t even really like much, but the birth of her perfect, blemishless, daughter Imogen ends up being the focus of her life . As Immy grows older, more independent, and frankly, brattier, Harriet begins to escape the tedium of her marriage by thinking about the possibility of an affair with Jack Peckham. The husband of her childhood friend Tessa, Jack is a TV news correspondent who represents all the danger, and excitement, and passion missing from Harriet’s life.
In the meantime, the relationship between Harriet’s Immy and Tessa’s daughter Lizzie is never what Harriet thought it should be, but Harriet never figures this out. She is blind to how much the two girls dislike each other. Having been raised as the perfect child–the one who redeems Harriet’s life, Immy ends up acting like someone who was treated as perfect. She becomes insufferable and spoiled. Lizzie on the other hand becomes bookish and quiet and old beyond her years. In a way Harriet and Tessa ended up with the wrong children and all may have benefited from a parent swap. Interestingly, re-reading Brookner’s novels chronologically as I am, this is not the first time we see this notion of children born to the wrong parents in her work. The two sets of parents in Latecomers also each have have an only child who appears to be better suited to the other couple. It makes me wonder if Brookner felt she had been born into the wrong family.
And then, rather oddly for Brookner, there are a few spoilers. Without giving these spoilers away, one event that shapes the story fairly early on, and thus, isn’t so much of a spoiler, is that Tessa dies young leaving Lizzie adrift and Jack, the subject of Harriet’s seduction fantasies. But then the spoiler of spoilers happens that cements Harriet’s future. Don’t get me wrong, for those of you used to plot, this spoiler won’t shock you much when you come across it, but for those who have read a lot of Brookner, it’s pretty surprising.
The net result is a life of low expectations that are nevertheless unmet. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, those of you who don’t mind that won’t mind that.
The jacket flap from my U.S. edition referred to the novel as a story of three generations of women, but I really think it is more accurately thought of as Harriet’s story. Her mother Merle is fairly well fleshed out, but Immy remains pretty opaque even when we know is going on in her life. And all that we do learn about Merle and Immy is not really independent of their association with their daughter/mother. Brookner created a literary work that revolves around Harriet but Harriet’s “real” life most certainly does not revolve around her.
A chunk of Penelope Lively’s memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites deals with the challenges of being over 80 years old. In addition to advanced aches and pains, Lively writes about how the rest of society deals with the elderly, and how it feels like the world is leaving one behind.
As if jinxed by Lively’s memoir, yesterday I felt like I was 47 going on 80. I decided to take advantage of John being out of town to go have a nice long dig through ‘the annex’ at a local used bookshop. I was stunned, however, when I showed up and the formerly chaotic annex had been sorted and organized and priced. Previously the annex was a large space with tall shelves with three rows of books on each shelf, absolutely no order whatsoever, and a pricing scheme that put all paperbacks at $2 and all hardcovers at $4. And it was a glorious. The thing I loved best was not the prices, but the fact that the books were so not sorted that there was often treasures lurking for those of us who like unwanted, forgotten, probably never very popular books that aren’t even all that pretty to look at. When it sunk in that the chaotic mess was a thing of the past I got deeply sad. Not only was this fun (for me) activity now impossible, but it became clear that there would no room in the newly organized shelves for those books that I love to find. They recognize the classics, and the modern classics, and the popular, but the possibility of coming across an R.C. Sherriff, or a Cecil Roberts, or a D.E. Stevenson or even lesser known authors than this esoteric bunch was all but zero. The staff was completely incapable of understanding what I was looking for and pointed me to Victorian-era books no one wants to read but that have pretty spines. And they pointed me to the rare book room. And they pointed me towards the fiction section. It flashed before my eyes that all those books I hope to stumble across would end up as pulp, or as props at a furniture store, or sold as books by the foot to decorators.
I didn’t leave empty handed, it was a bookstore after all, but I did leave feeling like a little bookish part of me had been dulled and a tad depressed. Flashing forward a hundred years I decided to drown my sorrows in Dairy Queen at a nearby mall and thought I would take the opportunity to upgrade my smart phone. I was first a little annoyed by the fact that shopping malls no longer seem to believe in directories or garbage cans. Both were few and far between. Then I get to the Apple store and the 12-year old working there made me feel about 500 years old. I could feel the old man shame creep into my face as I gave him my Hotmail address. I might as well have told him my phone number was KLondike 5-3452. When we discovered that my 8,000 digit Verizon password is not one I have memorized, he suggested I go to the Verizon kiosk and upgrade my phone there. At Verizon, the 16-year old working there made me feel not only old but really dumb. Do they have to talk that fast? Do they have to assume that everyone knows everything about everything about telephony? I might as well have offered him a Werther’s Original as I stuck a used Kleenex into the sleeve of my cardigan.
Perhaps I shouldn’t use the average age of the typical mall employee as a reference point for my own place in the world (don’t get me started on my misadventure in the food court or my failed attempt to buy running shoes at the Foot Locker). As I thought about it later, one of the things I found troubling was the fact that in none of these interactions were any of the people engaging with me aware of anything about me. They all misunderstood or didn’t hear what I was saying. They couldn’t recognize anything emanating from me: hope, friendliness, confusion, frustration, resignation. I’m not trying to make a comment on the state of customer service or the youth of today, or anything like that (that would make me sound like a cranky old guy). But I really do feel like got a glimpse of what life is going to be like when I really do get to old age.
To cap the day off, I had a bit of a nightmare last night. I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but it was one of those situations where my mind wakes up before my body does. Where I am aware that my body is asleep and that I want to wake up but as much as I try and call out (scream) or move my body, my vocal chords and my body won’t respond quickly enough. If it goes on too long it begins to feel like being buried alive. As I was struggling to make my limbs move and my voice audible, I kept thinking that surely John, lying next to me, would wake me from my disturbed dream–a comforting thought in my panic. When I finally did wake up with a shout I realized that I was in bed alone. Remember, John is out of town. As I stumbled to the bathroom I was relieved to be awake, but also haunted by the notion that isolation, both literal and figurative can be a big part of old age. Invisible during the day and trapped in a nightmare at night.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
There is nothing in Lively’s memoir of old age that is as depressing as what I have written above. Lively is a delightful writer who puts a spin on her past, present, and shortish future that is humorous, enlightening, and comforting. Like much of her fiction, this memoir dabbles in the vagaries of memory, personal history, History with a capital H, and includes a the musings of a highly literate, creative, thoughtful mind. She makes me wish I were her friend. I will forgive the fact that she writes that she once enjoyed Pym’s novels, but now can’t stand them.
Judgment Day by Penelope Lively
One of my reading resolutions for the year was to read every month an author bio/memoir/diary/etc. and then follow it with one of their novels. There were only 2.5 days left of January when I remembered this was one of my resolutions and grabbed an unread Lively off my shelves. Judgment Day is basically a slice in time of village life. A group of lives that intersect in mundane and profound ways. Not only does the cast include the interesting-to-me newcomer to the village archetype, but it also includes one of my favorite situations: the closed off/hardened heart open/melted by unforeseen circumstances. I enjoyed every minute of the book and got emotionally caught up in the characters’ lives. And on top of that, it made me want to be a better person–a little more giving and forgiving.
The shuh’s (think of the sh sound) really represent in the fabulous author category. This installment includes one of my favorite authors (Shute), the author of two of my favorite books (Sherriff), an author who wrote wonderful books and died too young (Shields), and another who I think is totally charming despite loving one of her novels and disliking the other one that I read, but whom I still have high hopes for (Sharp). Not to mention Schlink who not only sounds like a shuh, but who writes amazingly good novels.
Having said that, you all SHould definitely read some of my favorites on this page. If you need help where to start drop me a comment.
Schine, Cathleen – The Three Weissmanns of Westport
Nancy Pearl “told” me to read Schine. So far I haven’t been able to get into it. Fingers crossed.
Schwarz-Bart, Simone – The Bridge of Beyond
Somehow this one has disappeared from my shelf and I don’t know why. I am pretty sure I didn’t weed it out, so it must be in a pile somewhere in the house.
Schlink, Bernhard – Homecoming (completed)
I find Schlink’s novels (the two that I have read) to be solid, engrossing, good reads, that offer a lot of food for thought. Both this and The Reader deal with the moral and intellectual aftermath of Nazi Germany.
Selvadurai, Shyam – Funny Boy (completed)
I read this a million years ago and loved it. A gay coming of age story in Sri Lanka. Also enjoyed his novel Cinnamon Gardens.
Sen, Chaitali – The Pathless Sky
Sennett, Richard – An Evening of Brahms (completed)
Not only did I love this mix of sociology, history, and cello pedagogy, but it gets high marks for depicting the milieu of classical music in an intelligent, natural way. That is hard to find in fiction.
Serge, Victor – Unforgiving Years
Shamsie, Kamila – A God in Every Stone
I think this was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize.
Sharp, Margery – Brittania Mews Sharp, Margery – Cluny Brown (completed) Sharp, Margery – The Flowering Thorn Sharp, Margery – The Nutmeg Tree Sharp, Margery – The Gipsy in the Parlour Sharp, Margery – Something Light (completed) Sharp, Margery – The Foolish Gentlewoman
I took a chance on buying some lovely copies of Sharp years ago when we were in Maine. Turned out I loved Cluny Brown and so have continued to buy her books. I see here I even have two copies of Something Light which I found quite boring.
Sherriff, R.C. and Vernon Bartlett – Journey’s End Sherriff, R.C. – Chedworth
I love, love, love the two Sherriff reissued by Persephone that I have read (A Fortnight in September and The Hopkin’s Manuscript) and hope these two are even half as good.
Shields, Carol – The Republic of Love (completed) Shields, Carol – The Stone Diaries (completed) Shields, Carol – Small Ceremonies (completed) Shields, Carol – Larry’s Party (completed) Shields, Carol – Swann (completed) Shields, Carol – Collected Stories
I am a big fan of Carol Shields and have read all of her novels. The one that gets the most praise, The Stone Diaries, is not my favorite, but still very enjoyable. I hope to read her story collection this year as part of one of my reading resolutions for the year.
Shepherd, Nan – The Grampian Quartet
I got this from a generous reader/blogger, but I don’t remember who it was!
Shute, Nevil – The Rainbow and the Rose (completed) Shute, Nevil – Slide Rule Shute, Nevil – Kindling (aka Ruined City) (completed) Shute, Nevil – Landfall Shute, Nevil – Pied Piper (completed) Shute, Nevil – On the Beach (completed) Shute, Nevil – A Town Like Alice (completed) Shute, Nevil – Requiem for a Wren (aka The Breaking Wave)(completed)
Nevil Shute is easily one of my top five favorite authors of all time. His writing is not sophisticated but he is a great storyteller. The next installment of Shelf by Shelf will have lots more Shute, so I won’t say too much about him here.
The four red-spine Vintage paperbacks at the end are a good place to start if you haven’t read him. I would say On the Beach is the best one to start with. Not only was it an amazing response to the threat of nuclear destruction but it is a page turner with lots of heart and emotion. I first read it in high school and I literally SOBBED for the final 30 pages. Granted it was the Reagan 80s and we all thought we were going to be nuked, but still. A Town Like Alice is the stunning story of a group of Britons caught in southeast Asia during World War II under Japanese occupation and then the story moves to post-war Australia. Pied Piper is the story of an Englishman caught in Europe at the outbreak of WWII and finds himself leading a group of children to safety. Probably the lightest of the four. Requiem for a Wren is perhaps the least compelling of the four, but still a damn good story.
I’ve read many of these twice and also listened to audio versions. They make really great listening, however, some of the language is not something you want to have blaring out your car window when waiting at a stop sign. More on that in the next installment.
NEXT TIME: Shute to confusion (This will make sense when you see it.)
LOS ANGELES – The awards for best reads of 2016 were awarded last night by the Academy of Reading Arts and Sciences during a live telecast from Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles.
As usual, this year’s ceremony brought out the usual mix of gowns and glamour as the world’s literati arrived to recognize the achievement of the books that most moved, enthralled, and entertained over the past year. Thomas Otto, president of the Academy noted how many of this year’s contenders were actually published in the past five years. “This truly is unpresidented [sic] in the history of the Hoggies.”
The normally joyous occasion was thrown into controversy early in the evening when Sinclair Lewis came back from the dead to excoriate the mostly American audience for what he sees as rank stupidity over not having learned the lessons of literature and history. Lewis, whose seminal novel Main Street was re-read by the Academy in 2016, showed in a two-hour slide presentation a sample of the thousands of novels that he claims could have kept the electoral nightmare from playing out in the US this year. Lewis said “If only more people picked up a darn novel from time to time.” Lewis finished his remarks by chiding the audience: “The boys in the Zenith Rotary or down at the BPOE* lodge may think there’s some sort of strength in stupidity, jingoism, and know-nothingness, but their approval is no gauge of success.”
BEST IRREVERENTLY FUNNY FICTION Marry Me by Dan Rhodes
BEST THOUGHTFUL, INTERESTINGLY TOLD, SLIGHTLY ANITA BROOKNERISH NOVEL The Spare Room by Helen Garner [The funny thing is this category existed last year. The Academy was pleased it read a book in 2016 that fit the bill.]
WORST PIECE OF PANDERING, SAPPY BULLSHIT – The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson [This could have been a tie with Rachel Joyce’s sequel to Harold Fry, but that annoyed the Academy so much it didn’t read much beyond the first chapter.]
We all know how I come up with or join challenges and then promptly forget about them. I am slightly better at following reading resolutions, but this year I am in the mood to do some crazy resolutions that are more like challenges that I will never finish. If I had any doubt about doing some stupid stuff, WildmooBooks pushed me over the edge. Here are some of my contenders with the easier ones towards the top.
Read Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym
I love Pym to death and I believe Civil to Strangers is the only book of hers I have yet to read. (I told you I was starting with the easy ones.)
Read 104 books
I squeaked in just under the wire with 104 books this year. I thought the equivalent of two a week was a good challenge. It was, and will be again in 2017.
Re-read one Brookner novel each quarter
I think I am up to 11 in my chronological re-read of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels. (I still have one to review from the end of 2016.) In general I love re-reading her books, but I am keen to finish my gazetteer of London place names that appear in her work. At this proposed rate I could finish it in just over three years.
Read at least one unread book from each of my fiction shelves
Sometime during 2017 I will finish chronicling my 35 shelves of books in by ‘shelf by shelf’ feature. Of those shelves, about 28 of them are fiction. My goal is to read one unread book from each of those fiction shelves. This might turn out to be the most fun of all my goals for the year.
Read all of Willa Cather’s 12 novels over 12 months
She wrote 12, there are 12 months in the year. Easy as a damn peach. I’ve read most of her novels, but her magnum opi (opuses?) O, Pioneers, My Antonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, were read a long time ago and I’ve been wanting to revisit them for some time now.
Read at least one short story collection on my shelves
I have several worthy contenders on my shelves, but I never seem to make the time for them. Maybe some of them are too big.
Carol Shields (the one I most want to get to)
Pair a novel with a biographical work about a different author each month
This could get trickier for me as I can get bogged down when I dip into non-fiction. I think I would prefer memoir over bios, but we will see what we can see. I’m not going to assign months just yet, but I think I know who my twelve authors are going to be. Pay close attention to some of the cheating overlapping with other challenges. Note that none of these authors is new to me, and I actually have bios/memoirs/letters for each one of them already on my shelves.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Follow Nonsuch Book down a Clarissa rabbit hole Nonsuch Book and some others are going to be reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa “throughout the year, each letter from this epistolary behemoth on its noted date.” I’ve seen others do this online previously and I like the idea of it without knowing anything more about the book itself. Happily I own a copy, but I won’t be reunited with it until mid-month, so I will already be behind.
Driving down a road on the Big Island of Hawaii got me thinking about Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful dystopian novel Station Eleven. Not because the Big Island makes me think of dystopia, but the isolation of the island got me thinking about the possibility of whether there could have been parts of the world that may not have been directly impacted by Mandel’s flu pandemic. Or, perhaps, how post-flu life for survivors on the Big Island might have been different than it was in the Great Lakes as portrayed in Station Eleven.
I can’t say that I have ever read fan fiction of any sort, but the more I thought about Station Eleven: The Big Island Edition, the more I was hoping someone may do it. I would never give it a go myself because for me to be happy with the effort it would take a good deal of research I am unwilling to undertake and a good deal more creative talent than I possess.
But let’s ponder the possibilities:
Does the Big Island get skipped, or do we encounter small groups of survivors?
My first thought was that the island get’s skipped entirely by the pandemic and that the 187,000 or so residents (and the thousands of tourists stranded there) have to make do with resources on the island as they are eventually cut off from the rest of the world, and technology begins to fail. But in order for this scenario to be plausible there would have to be something that would keep people from getting to the Big Island as the pandemic swept the globe. Since Mandel’s flu was pretty fast moving, one could imagine it just might be plausible that a multi-day hurricane event, perhaps leading to damages to the airports on the island, keep any visitors from arriving. By that time, the pandemic could be understood in the rest of the world and officials on or off the island make the decision to keep the island closed off to visitors. There could even be conflicts about whether or not to sabotage the airports to keep the contagion out. Maybe a few last flights out to let some visitors foolishly fly to their ultimate deaths…you see the possibilities here?
Perhaps it could be just as rich and entertaining if the pandemic did hit the island and left just 1% or so of it’s population. That would leave just about 1,870 residents plus about 200 tourists that survive. (This really could be an information junkie’s fantasy camp. In 2004 the Big Island had just under 10,000 guest rooms. Absent newer information at my fingertips, let’s use that number. Assuming 2 people per room, gives us 20,000 visitors at any given time, and only 1% of them surviving the flu.) So we have 2,070 people alive on the very big, Big Island. With 2.5 million acres (4,028 square miles), there would be plenty of room for everyone–even if the pandemic did skip the island.
Both scenarios would be fascinating, but the latter is probably more in keeping with Mandel’s original.
No dangerous animals and lots of food?
Other than humans, and a feral dog or two, the Big Island has no dangerous mammals that would threaten the human population. But what they do have are all the typical domesticated animals like cattle, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, etc. (and feral versions of each of these as well). And we haven’t even talked about what the ocean would be able to provide. There are also enough market gardeners and other farmers that could keep the green things growing and pass along their expertise. As we know from Station Eleven, as technology starts to fail those farmers would have to get back to the basics, but that seems doable–especially if your base population is only around 2,000 people.
Opportunities for conflict
With adequate food and water sources, and a hospitable climate, one wonders if Mandel’s dystopia would turn into more of an Utopia. Possibly, but all of the human conflicts are still possible, and when you add in the visitors with the local population, on-island military personnel, the breakdown of technology, etc. you could probably come up with enough friction to make things interesting.
Oh, yeah. Did I mention the active volcanoes?
With three active volcanoes on the island, including one that has been erupting continually since 1983, what more needs to be said? Pele (the Hawaiian fire goddess, not the soccer player) could make one of those babies pop in a spectacular way at any time.
Contact with the neighboring nation-state/kingdom of Maui…
Do the people of the Big Island eventually make contact with survivors on neighboring Maui? With the possibility of a self-sustaining island, do they risk allowing a relationship with Maui? Do they keep them at bay? Do they invade Maui? Do the Hawaiian islands reunify? Do they eventually travel even further into the South Pacific like the ancient natives did?
The full scale return of Hawaiian culture?
Hawaii is one of the few places I have been in the developed world, where I feel like enough of the traditional ways have been passed on and preserved, and in some cases are still practiced, that I feel they could lead the way in surviving. From how to work the land sustainably, to native fishing techniques, building and navigating outrigger canoes…I might be romanticizing the remaining abilities a bit, but I think less so than in many other places. Not to mention that there is a UH campus on the Big Island and the native Hawaiian studies program is not an abstraction in the same way it would be elsewhere.
The list goes on
In many ways the Hawaiian island of Molokai is more isolated from outsiders (and was once a leper colony) but it’s close proximity to Maui and Lanai make it seem less isolated. And there is Niihau (The Forbidden Isle), the only privately owned of the eight main Hawaiian islands. It is virtually closed off to visitors and many of its 170 or so inhabitants live a relatively native life. And then this sets me to thinking about other remote parts of the world, islands and otherwise. Some that are very remote perhaps would be disrupted very little. But what about the British island of St. Helena? The remote island in the south Atlantic where Napoleon was finally exiled and died. They easily could have missed the contagion. The mind boggles. Perhaps if Mandel gets bored she could write little sketches about how various parts of the world fared. Maybe Netflix could turn it into a series…