The Changeling

changelingI’ve been interested in stories about changelings for a long time. I can’t quite trace the source of the interest — perhaps part of my more general interest in stories about interactions between fairies and humans, and that goes back to obsessive re-reading of Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, so that might sort it. But anyway, as a result, I’ve read two or three books about changelings, from different perspectives, with different outcomes, and enjoyed them more or less. The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle, is absolutely the best of the lot.

Apollo Kagwa is a rare book dealer and a new dad (actually a New Dad, as he frames himself, one of the Good Ones, who is determined to do his share of loving as his own father didn’t) in New York. He’s in love with his wife Emma and his baby son Brian, named after that disappeared father who haunts Apollo’s dreams. But when Emma commits an act of unspeakable violence and disappears, Apollo is left with the shreds of his unravelled life. In order to find himself again, or her, or his child, he must follow strange hints and clues through forests and rivers and labyrinths and caves that are all, somehow, in the boroughs of New York.

So I say that. And that’s the basic plot. But there is so much to this book. For one thing, the warmth and the complications of race infuse it in a way that makes it exciting and interesting to read.  Throughout, it’s a story of black people loving each other, cooking, caring, talking, planning, listening, watching out for each other. Logistically, it presents practical problems: how do you hunt a changeling in one of the magical places of New York, if the neighborhood watch is likely to report you for walking the sidewalk? Structurally, it’s a story of greed and exploitation that makes more sense the deeper you go.

For another thing, it gives such a sense of history. The notion of the changeling itself is an old one — the folklore goes back a long way in different cultures — and Lavalle plays on many different myths and stories, incorporating new ones like Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (and even To Kill a Mockingbird, in a sinister twist.) It makes for a rich background for this new take.

I wanted more of Emma’s perspective, more of her voice. I would read a sequel that was just her retelling of all of this. But that feels like a quibble in a book I enjoyed so thoroughly. I am really looking forward to reading more of Lavalle’s work. If you know where I should start, I’ll take recommendations.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

June Reading (a week into July)

I don’t seem to have read very much in June, not nearly enough. I did finish the Wolf Hall trilogy, which I’m going to write about separately, and that did mean that overall I read nearly two thousand pages about the Tudors, but somehow that doesn’t seem to account for all my time. Like Teresa, I have also been watching The Americans (it’s excellent and very complex and pretty unpredictable, and I recommend it if you don’t mind a reasonably dark show in These Times, but I will say as my one criticism that it has almost no humor whatsoever.)  Like Teresa, I have also taken up a new hobby (mine is knitting rather than crochet, and I am a very slow, very novice knitter. But I am having fun with it. I’m almost done with a fairly large blanket that I started literally years ago, and I’m about halfway through with a scarf. Nothing fancy. But it’s nice to be doing something with my hands. And I like pursuits that make me feel connected to other people down the years, like bread-baking and putting babies to sleep and making jam and bird-watching and things like that.

In any case. Here’s what I did read, besides the Mantel: one of my friends and colleagues in the English department asked me to read a novel he’s written and give him feedback, and I did. I can’t tell you about it because it’s not published yet, but it’s almost there. I will say that it was very good, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and not just because I know the author, and I hope it gets published and is a hit, and if that happens I will cheerfully tell you all about it here and nag you to read it.

Then I read Ways of Going Home, by Alejandro Zambra. This is translated from the Spanish — Zambra is a Chilean author — and the translation is terrific. It’s a layered story that starts out about a child in an earthquake in Santiago, and the consequences of that night among his neighbors and family members. Then the second part is about the author of the story about the earthquake, and his girlfriend. Then the third part is about the author of the second part, and his musings on his memories. The whole thing is so cleverly done, about memory and forgetting and nostalgia, about the city of Santiago itself, about who has the right to remember certain things and whose memories are allowed to dominate in a culture that has a dictatorship in its near past. It has a light touch in its style, but its themes are vital, and even though it’s a short novel — less than 200 pages — it sticks with you long after you close it.

Finally, I read Mink River, by Brian Doyle. I read this for my book group, and I never would have read it if it weren’t for the group (one good reason to be in a book group!) The book is about a smallish coastal town in Oregon, and a fairly large cast of its inhabitants, including its birds and animals and the Mink River itself, which runs through the town to the sea. The people are mostly scraping by; there’s a doctor and a sculptor and a teacher and a logger and a couple of old guys who work for the Public Works Administration, some kids, a cop, a bartender, some deep-sea fishers, a nun, a talking crow, and so on. The book runs, like a river, from one consciousness to another, letting us see through each person’s eyes, letting us dwell in their hopes and worries and banal thoughts about what’s for dinner and criminal desires and small joys. The events of a small town take place: birth, death, injury, hiking, picnics, adultery, loss of a job, inheritance, depression, sight of a moose.

When I first started this book, I did not think I was going to like it much. Its style is, shall we say, unusual. I thought it was going to be much too twee for me, way over the line into purple prose. But about twenty pages in, I found myself unexpectedly moved to tears… and I decided to go ahead and stop fighting the style and give it a chance. I wound up really loving it, and all its strange wondering insight into human hearts. It’s not a long book, and that’s probably for the best, but for something that never, ever would have crossed my path if not for my book group, I am so glad I read it.

And that’s all for June! I will hope to have more to show for myself in July!

 

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June in Review

Now that I’m into the third month of the pandemic, my new at-home life just feels like normal life. Virginia is opening up a bit more, but I expect to be working at home indefinitely, and it will be a while yet before churches and theatres are open, so I don’t expect to be getting out much more in the near future. Trips to the grocery store and farmers’ market, monthly-ish shifts at my church’s food pantry, and daily-ish walks in the neighborhood are my main activities away from home.

I’m enough of a homebody that stay-at-home life has felt manageable, and I’m extremely fortunate not to have to deal with health stress or worries about job loss at this moment. I’ve been surprised that my use of social media has actually gone down with my increased solitude, and I’ve been pondering why that is. I don’t know if it’s just the (entirely understandably) highly emotional tenor of the conversation that’s putting me off or if having it serve as a primary vehicle for human contact has made it feel less useful than before. Personal messages, usually through text, just feel so much more real and vibrant. Anyway, it may well be just a phase, as my mood around social media tends to ebb and flow.

As for reading, this month was sort of on the slow side. I just finished rewatching The Americans, and I found myself much more eager to watch that than to read this month. Have you watched it? It’s so good! And totally stands up to repeated viewings. It is intense and violent, but the characters’ emotional journeys are so complex and interesting, and it took turns it didn’t even occur to be to expect. The 80s details are spot-on, and the final episode is one of the very best series finales I’ve ever seen.

Crochet bag

I’ve also taken up a pandemic project, learning to crochet. I’ve wanted to learn for years, partly to give myself something to do while watching TV and movies, so I don’t snack, scroll Twitter on my phone, or fall asleep. I ended up subscribing to a few crochet subscriptions, so I don’t have to get out to yarn stores or deal with the pressure of deciding what to make. As I get better and more aware of what I like to make, I’ll strike out on my own. My first completed project was a one-handled bag via Happy Hook Crocheting. I also am working on an afghan through Annie’s Afghan Block of the Month Club and will be starting a shawl today via KnitCrate. (Yes, I went a little overboard, but I want to have enough to do. My next worry will be what to do with all the things I make.)

Natasha on top of the kitchen cabinets

I’ve also been celebrating my cat Natasha’s being cured of FIP (feline infectious peritonitis)! Until recently, FIP had no cure, and a diagnosis usually meant having to decide how much supportive care to get and when to euthanize. And, even now, the process of getting the cure is, well, tricky. The Atlantic had a great article about it and how the cure of FIP is linked to a COVID-19 treatment. It’s pretty wild. I was lucky that Nat’s treatment went smoothly. I was able to get it in pill form, and when the pills were coated in a little bacon-flavored pill paste and a dab of Churu, she thought they were treats and gobbled them down. At the end of May, she had her 90-day post-treatment blood work, and everything looks great! She’s just two years old (FIP tends to attack young cats), so I hope we will have many more years together.

But even with all of that going on, I did manage to read a bit, most of it pretty ok. Here’s what I read:

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This book rocketed to the top of the best-seller list as people have sought to become more educated about racism in the U.S. I already had a copy, so I decided that now was the time to read it. It was … ok. I think it had value for white readers who already believe that racism is a problem but who haven’t spent a lot of time in anti-racist literature. But I’ve read lots of books and articles, listened to lots of podcasts, and watched lots of films about the subject, so not much here was new to me. I picked up a few helpful ideas, but I wouldn’t say that this is the book every white person must read. And, honestly, I think something like White Rage by Carol Anderson or The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are more useful as beginning texts because they really look at the big picture. DiAngelo’s focus on white people’s reaction to diversity education in the corporate sector felt a little limited.

The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell. This book is about an Irish woman and her missionary husband who go to Bahrain to with their young daughter and the teenage girl who becomes wrapped up in their lives. It’s a pretty gripping book in that the characters’ emotions are huge, and I was interested to see how it would all wrap up. I didn’t really buy one of the key relationships, and the ending felt really swift, but I really liked some of the introspection toward the end as the characters reflect on what happened.

Riviera Gold by Laurie R. King. The Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries are consistently enjoyable, and this one was no exception. Set in Monte Carlo in 1925, this one involves Mary’s efforts to find her and Holmes’ former housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Of course, a murder intervenes, and Mary and Sherlock must investigate to keep their old friend out of trouble. It was such fun and my favorite book of the month.

All Adults Here by Emma Straub. This was the selection for the Old Town Books subscription service and book club, and it is a nice book about nice people who are doing their best even though they don’t understand each other. It centers on a family comprising a mom and three adult children with their own children. It’s full of misunderstandings, many of them long-standing, and it was pleasing to see the characters grow in understanding of each other. It sometimes felt a little too perfect New England small-town liberal to me, with everyone having the exact right social attitudes, but, at the same time, there was something comforting about it.

A Candle for St Jude by Rumer Godden. This book about a London dance school was a bit of a roller-coaster for me. The head of the school, Madame Holbein, just seemed so mean and self-centered and outright cruel to one of her most talented dancers. I didn’t really care about seeing her succeed at putting on the big ballet recital in celebration of her 50 years as a dancer. But I did care about Hilda, the young dancer and choreographer who Madame Holbein seems to resent for no reason. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that Holbein cannot deny real talent when she sees it and that Hilda could use some pushes to improve.

Dearest Anne by Judith Katzir and translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bila. Another roller-coaster. This book is about the sexual relationship between a 14-year-old girl and her 28-year-old female teacher, Michaela, and it’s written from the perspective of the girl, Rivi, who is both reflecting on the relationship after Michaela’s death and writing a diary about it in the moment. Because Rivi is young in the diary (which she addresses to Anne Frank and signs as Kitty), she doesn’t see the relationship for what it is, and the reader is brought along through her detailed descriptions of their erotic encounters. An alert reader will note plenty of troubling aspects of the relationship along the way, but it’s only toward the end, when Rivi is an adult, that she realizes how irresponsible and selfish Michaela was. For a long time, it’s not clear that there will be any such reflection, and I wasn’t sure what my ultimate reaction to the book would be. I’m still mulling it over — there are a lot of layers to what’s going on.

As for July, I’ll finish The New Jim Crow, which I’m reading with a group at church. I also started the ebook of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, which I’d checked out from the library, but then a hard copy arrived from Old Town Books after I’d just read couple of chapters, so I’ll hold off on reading it until closer to the book club date. My library has officially opened up to curbside service, so I’ll start working through my holds list there pretty soon. And I’ll continue reading from my shelves!

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime, Nonfiction | 8 Comments

May Reading in Review

May was an uneven sort of reading month for me. I started out doing a lot of reading, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but by the end of the month, the news had me retreating into old seasons of Project Runway and really distracting movies, if I could bring myself to look away from all the news. I feel like the racial injustice going on in the U.S. right now deserves my attention, but I’m still figuring out at what point the attention ceases being part of the important work of learning and bearing witness and becomes something unhelpful both to the cause and to my own mental health. It’s a balance we all have to figure out, I suppose.

Virginia is easing up on its stay-at-home restrictions, although here in Northern Virginia, we’re a bit behind the rest of the state. I’m not in a huge hurry to move to the next phase. The things I miss the most — church, theatre, movies — are pretty far down the list to reopen, and I expect to be working at home indefinitely, perhaps permanently. I do have a haircut scheduled, and the library is going to start curbside service soon, but if either has to be delayed, it’s not a huge problem. No one really sees my scraggley hair, and I have plenty of books around to read.

So what did I read in May?

Colony by Hugo Wilcken (2005). This novel about Sabir, a man sent to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, feels at first like a slow thriller about a prison break. But it eventually turns into a series of dreams of other potential outcomes. I don’t know if my reading tastes have gotten less sophisticated or if I’ve become more discerning, but I’m not as patient with these sorts of loopy stories as I used to be. It wasn’t bad. I just lost interest.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954). This historical novel based on the life of one of du Maurier’s great grandmother starts out strong, but I got bogged down in the legal machinations. I posted a full review for Daphne du Maurier Reading Week.

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). This was the first selection in my local bookstore’s subscription service, which also includes a (currently virtual) book club. I loved the setting of post-Civil War Texas, a time and place I’d read little about. And I enjoyed seeing the fiddler, Simon, build a little family around making music together. But the romance that drives the story irritated me, and the resolution came too swiftly and easily.

Together and Apart by Margaret Kennedy (1957). This was perhaps my favorite book of the month. Set in 1936, it starts with an unhappy wife deciding she wants a divorce from her inattentive husband. Their mothers try to intervene to keep them together, and they even seem hesitant, but events ensue that drive them apart. I loved how Kennedy showed the short- and long-term consequences for the entire family. It’s not exactly a cautionary tale about divorce, but neither does it make getting out seem like the best choice. It’s all so complicated, and this book explores that very well.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016). Entirely accidentally, I read two books in a row that delved into the long-term consequences of a marital break-up. And this book was also very good, although maybe a little more gimmicky in its construction than Kennedy’s more straightforward novel. Not that I minded the gimmicks. It moves around in time, doling out bits and pieces of each character’s story. And there’s a meta-element, too, that makes for some big drama but doesn’t itself become the story.

Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello (1990). I love Hitchcock’s films, and Psycho is one of my favorites, although it’s not one I’ve watched often. Rebello pulls together the memories of lots of different people involved in the making of the film, which was a low-budget venture for Hitchcock. When people disagree about, for example, whose body is on film during the shower scene and how much is visible, Rebello just lets the discrepancy lie. I liked that about it because it gave it the feel of an oral history.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936). A contender for my book of the month, but it had just a few too many characters for me to keep my mind fully engaged, given all the other distractions. It’s basically the story of a Yorkshire community, as experienced by a variety of residents, from the new teacher, to the long-time landowner, to a poor girl longing for an education, to the minister with a secret. Holtby structures it around the various subjects the county council has to attend to, and many of the major characters are on the council. She ably shows how the fates of different members of a community are intertwined and how changes that are good for one group may be difficult for others. The people are generally likable, even when their positions are not, because few are acting out of malice. At worst, they’re selfish unaware of and unconcerned with others’ fates. Not of good thing, to be sure, but right now, a lack of malice in people’s actions feels refreshing.

As for June, given recent events, I’ve pulled my copy of White Fragility by Robin Diangelo off my shelf to read next, and my church is having a series of discussions on The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander, so I plan to read that. And on a different note altogether, the latest Old Town Books subscription book is All Adults Here by Emma Straub, so I’m going to try to read that in time for the book group. I’m on the library’s waiting list for the Network Effect ebook, but it might be a few weeks for that. I’m enjoying getting through the books on my shelf. Since domestic dramas worked well for me in May, perhaps I’ll go for more of those, but I’m eyeing some mysteries, too. I have lots of options, even without the library!

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The Ibis Trilogy

Back in 2011, I read the first two volumes of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy: Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The first is set mostly in India in 1838, and the second mostly in Canton just afterward. Both volumes have an enormous cast of characters and draw on a sometimes-bewildering variety of cultural identities: here there are dozens of different races, religions, castes, languages, national identities, economic classes, vocations, and walks of life. What draws them together is opium.

The books are steeped in it. Deeti is a poor opium farmer in India. Raja Neel Rattan is an opium plantation-owner. Zachary Reid is a biracial sailor on the Ibis, whose ability to pass for white means his ability to advance in his chosen calling; the Ibis is transporting workers who can grow opium on the island of Mauritius. Benjamin Burnham is a white British opium-trader. Paulette Lambert is a young French woman who lives with the Burnhams, and whose fate is determined by the Burnhams’ prosperity. Bahram Modi is a Parsi opium trader in Canton, one of the few non-white traders accepted by the British enclave in Fanqui-Town. Ah Fatt is at first an ahkeemfor (an opium addict) and then much more as the story develops. And these are just a few of the characters, who for the most part are developed, engaging, and often quite funny.

One of the most wonderful things about the books, especially the first two, is their exuberant use of language. Ghosh uses words from Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Bangladeshi, Urdu, and many more languages that come together in a kind of opium-creole. It’s joyful and experimental and sometimes hard to understand; entering into it in the spirit of the thing is like going to these places and eating the foods you’re offered rather than demanding a hamburger.

I re-read the first two books in preparation for finally reading Flood of Fire, which came out in 2015. (I know, I’m years late, it’s not as if I haven’t been reading anything in between.) The first two were as good as I’d remembered. They have a strong sense of the wheel of fate: kings become peasants and peasants become kings, all because of the flood of opium rushing through. There was depth to the characters, and I wanted more. The second book had a bit of a heavy hand, carefully s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g out how the British were the villains, and I think I probably could have been trusted to understand that by myself, without all the lecturing about Free Trade and its Evils, but still, it was a refreshingly excellent read in many ways.

Sadly, Flood of Fire did not live up to the first two. It spends almost the first 250 pages on an affair between two of the characters, which is not only vulgar (and full of embarassing “tee hee” moments, my Lord) but incredibly boring and tiresome. Once we finally extricate ourselves from that morass, and something begins to happen, the book divides itself between the moral decline of one formerly favorite character (acceptable if given motivation, which it isn’t) and a lot of very dull battle scenes (historically accurate I’m sure, but preserve me, this isn’t what I signed up for.) Ghosh’s epilogue makes it clear that he wanted to take the books much farther into the historical record, but got bogged down in detail (perhaps… in 250 pages about a very unoriginal affair?) and now those books won’t be written. What a shame.

If you’re interested in reading these, of course try the final one if you think it might be to your taste, but I might actually recommend just reading the first two. They’re very entertaining and rewarding, and even make good re-reading fodder.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 1 Comment

May Reading

Greetings to all of you at the beginning of June. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and well, and I hope you are finding courage to speak up in a way that matters to you for those who are oppressed.

Here’s what I read in May!

 

I’m going to do a separate review of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, because the first two were a re-read in preparation for finally reading the last one. And Wolf Hall is a re-read, in preparation for finally reading The Mirror and the Light, so I’m not going to talk about that one either, until I finish the trilogy. (I’ll say that it was wonderful as a re-read, though. Just a magnificent book.) And I already wrote about Ulysses, at interminable length.

So what’s left? I like Barbara Pym so much. I’ve already read Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence, so I was prepared for her style: not exactly plot-driven, is she? This book, A Glass of Blessings, is told from the point of view of Wilmet, a married woman who is heavily involved in the doings of her local Anglo-Catholic parish. Wilmet herself is rather vain and judgmental, so part of reading the book is figuring your way around the narration to see what’s really going on with the characters, a bold choice. And there are so many clever layers to it. It’s wonderfully written and extremely funny in places (one of my favorite parts is where a server in the church has had his own cassock specially made for him, and he takes it home in a little suitcase so that no one else can wear it. I laughed like a drain. I’m certain this is a true story.)

When it comes to Diana Wynne Jones, I have that thing where I’m always confident that she’s going to be wonderful, but I always think that it can’t possibly be as wonderful as I think it will be, so every time I open one of her books, I am both very hopeful and ready to be disappointed. But I am never disappointed. Enchanted Glass was so good! It’s about Andrew Hope, who was brought up by his grandfather, who was essentially a wizard, and now Andrew must manage his grandfather’s magical field-of-care, a sort of estate around the house. He must also manage Aidan, a boy who winds up at the house because scary things are happening, and who (by coincidence? I think not) has the same sort of magical powers Andrew has. This book is funny and poignant and exciting and satisfying and deeply original. How did she do it? How did she do it so many times? Incidentally, I have set myself a project of reading all of her novels, not counting picture books or short-story compilations, and after working away at it for over a year and a half, I still have thirteen left! It’s a marvel.

I’ve been sloooooowly working through K.C. Constantine’s mysteries for quite a while now, and with Joey’s Case, I am not quite sure they are still in the mystery genre. Maybe? There’s a murder in this one. Anyway, the main character is the police chief of Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, Mario Balzic. It’s a rust belt town, full of working-class Italians and Poles and Black families, Hungarians and a bunch of Catholic priests and a lot of bars. In this book, Mario is seeing a doctor for impotence, and even though he doesn’t subscribe to all that macho sexist bullshit, it’s affecting him in ways he doesn’t understand. What makes a man? What is manhood? Why would he suddenly feel powerless over an uncooperative piece of tissue, and take out that powerlessness on witnesses and victims? Mario is seeing a side of himself — and therefore of humanity — that he hadn’t understood before. (So is this a mystery? It doesn’t matter very much. But it’s a great book and it’s 200 pages long.)

Okay, and then The Library at Mount Char. Have any of you read this one? I really enjoyed reading it — it’s a pacy, well-written, sardonic horror novel — but I find myself a bit at a loss to describe what happens in it. (Jeanne! There is a ton of necromancy in this book and NONE of it pays!) Let’s see: the premise is that there’s a god among us who adopted twelve children back in the 1970s and brought them up to study in his interdimensional “library,” in their different “catalogs” (languages, war, death, animals, the future, etc) so that he would be ready for a great battle to come. One of those children was smart enough to study outside her catalog and become an expert in multiple subjects. Shenanigans ensue. This book is probably not for the squeamish, as there’s a fair bit of violence in it, but it’s a real page-turner, often amusing, and the characters are interesting.

Now that I’ve finished The Semester That Wouldn’t End, I’ll have more time to read. I’m looking forward to some big projects and a lot of fun things. Recommendations always welcome!

 

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Ulysses

ulyssesIt’s become a commonplace (how do things become commonplaces so quickly?) that in time of quarantine, the days flow into each other, and it’s hard to feel that anything’s really been accomplished when everything looks so much the same. Well, I have a real accomplishment: during this incredibly weird semester, a friend and colleague of mine pulled together a small reading group, and we traveled through Ulysses together.

I didn’t know much about it before I started, except that it took place in Dublin. If you don’t know much about it, either, a very sketchy outline of it is that it traces one (very) full day in the lives of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, as they go about their business in the small-but-overflowing city of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

It isn’t… exactly… a novel. T.S. Eliot said it was a reclamation of the epic, and that might be as close as I’d come to describing it. It was serialized when it came out, from 1918-1920, in an American journal, and then Sylvia Beach published it in its entirety in 1922. Our group read it as if it were serialized, one chapter a week, and I would really recommend that way of approaching it. I don’t know many people who could digest it in a lump. Eliot, maybe.

Here’s what I was expecting: it’s dazzling. It’s highly allusive, from the structure itself, which draws on the Odyssey, to motifs and through-lines about Shakespeare and Irish revolution and Catholic faith, to sentence-level allusions to pop culture and trashy songs and puns and advertisements, most of which certainly passed me by. It’s technically and formally stunning, and I loved reading it.

Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: it’s funny. There are moments of pathos and tenderness, and there are dirty jokes. It’s incredibly, scandalously physical — if you’re a person who’s ever watched a TV show and thought, these people have gone four days and never visited the bathroom, let me tell you, this book is for you. It addresses anti-Semitism and poverty and sexuality and jealousy and ambition and childbirth and death and hunger and faith and nationalism and a thousand other human things. Within the formal novelty, within the dazzle of the wordplay, there is a high boil of human life at work.

I really, really enjoyed reading the entire work — there are far too many pieces of it for me to pull out and look at here. (I probably should have blogged about it as I read it; that would have been a fun project, but most likely lots of people have done that before me, and better than I could have done it.) Each chapter is different from the next (which is why it works so well as a serial) : there’s one written with motifs of music, one written as a play script, one that’s full of journalistic headlines, one that’s question and answer like a catechism. But two things especially stand out to me. There’s a chapter in which Bloom and Stephen and a lot of other guys are drinking together, and Bloom is worrying about a woman in childbirth he’d heard about earlier in the book. The entire chapter, stylistically, is written as the history of the English language: it starts with latinate words, then Anglo-Saxon alliteration, then parodies of Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, and far more — all the way up to an almost incomprehensibly garbled international slang that signals the twentieth century. It’s just amazing, it’s a tour de force. Not only is it an absolute joy to read (and I’m certain I missed a third or more of the allusions), it’s deeper than it looks: the gestation of the language is linked to the gestation of the child and of the Irish people, through-lines that are woven into the entire book. It’s genius.

The last chapter, maybe one you’ve seen or read before, is in Molly Bloom’s voice. By the time we finally arrive at the end, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Molly, and hearing other people’s opinions about her, but this is the first time we’ve heard anything she had to say. The chapter has next to no punctuation and is a better representation of stream-of-consciousness writing than almost anything I’ve seen before. The thing that really stands out, though, is the warm humanity of her mind. She isn’t a token woman, she isn’t a two-dimensional wish-fulfillment. I’m not saying this well, but after an extremely long novel, it is so refreshing to be with Molly Bloom, falling asleep after a long day, thinking her own personal thoughts.

I don’t know how many of you have read this, or want to, but it was absolutely wonderful. Challenging sometimes, but not a chore to read at all. I really recommend reading it with a group if you can; my experience with faculty and students was so helpful, because often other people caught things I missed. (I think you’d have to read this several times to begin to catch details.) What I’ve written here is a tiny blep of a review, hardly anything at all, but if you’ve ever wondered about this book — keep it on your list for someday, or now.

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Suggestions?

This summer (and who knows exactly what this summer will look like?) I plan to do a book club with my 12-year-old son. We’ve done this a couple of summers in a row, where I make a list of books we can choose from, often with his input, and we take turns choosing from it and then discussing the books, usually over a frappucino or a snack.

This time, I’d love some suggestions from you on books you think would go well on my list. Matthew loves to read, but prefers action and plot-driven books to meandering stories about world-building and internal politics. He enjoys humor but will read any sort of book, and likes nonfiction as well as fiction, especially if it’s about sports. He has read Harry Potter one meelion times. (As one does.) He is very willing to try new things.

Books that have been especially successful in the past: Kwame Alexander’s Crossover and Booked, The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and the Hunger Games books.

I’m so looking forward to your suggestions! Have at it in the comments!

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Mary Anne

For Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali, I turned to the only unread du Maurier novel on my bookcase, the 1954 novel Mary Anne, based on the life of the author’s great-grandmother. I’ve loved all of the du Maurier novels I’ve read in the past (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, and The Parasites), but my reaction to this was much more mixed. At the beginning, it’s an exciting story of a woman living by her wits to get out of poverty and into a life of luxury, but then it becomes a nearly inscrutable legal drama, recovering slightly in the end as Mary Anne’s fate is revealed.

Mary Anne is born to a poor family, with a father who corrects printers’ proofs for a living, with Mary Anne’s secret (at first) help. Once her talent is revealed, her father’s employer offers to get her an education, and so she goes off to school, where she learns skills and manners that will eventually enable her to mix with more elegant society. That, on top of her natural cleverness, enables her, as an adult, to climb the social ladder as mistress to influential men. Eventually, she ends up in a relationship with the Duke of York, who sets her up in a home, takes care of her children from a previous marriage, and gives her an opportunity to grow her income by accepting bribes from those who want favors from the duke.

Mary Anne’s maneuverings are a bit shady, but she makes no secret of what she is doing. It’s exciting to watch her put all her past experiences and the talents she’s built up over the years to work to improve her status. The rise of a clever woman is a popular story for a reason. But when Mary Anne’s actions come back to bite her, the story itself comes to a grinding halt, turning into a not very dramatic courtroom drama.

I should make clear that I’m not sure how much of my problem with most of the last half of the book has to do with my own lack of understanding of the British political system of the early 19th century and how much has to do with du Maurier’s decision to act almost like a court reporter, detailing every bit of testimony. I suspect it’s a bit of both. If I understood the system better, I would have been less confused and wanted less direct explanation of who was who and what each turn in the proceedings meant. However, I’m not convinced that the level of detail presented was warranted or helpful.

As I said at the beginning, the book recovers a bit at the end, when Mary Anne’s ultimate destiny is revealed. There are moments of high emotion and drama here that are clear to anyone, whether or not they understand 19th-century law and politics. And it’s this human drama that interested me.

In the end, the good parts of the book are very good, but they constitute only about half of the novel. So a mixed bag for sure and nowhere near as good as her other books. My Cousin Rachel remains my personal favorite for its glorious ambiguity. If you haven’t read that, it’s the one I recommend most.

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April Reading (a week into May)

April! Whew! A very strange month: I was teaching from home (something I hope not to have to do much of in the future, but WHO KNOWS), and keeping an eye on my teens, and strategizing about safe grocery shopping and household stuff, and with all that, I was much less able to focus on reading this month than last. In March, I read fourteen books. In April, I read five! But they were quality, so let’s look at them:

Normally, for my wonderful and thrice-blessed book club, we all choose a book together and read the same thing, as most book clubs do. But this month, I suggested that each member read a different novel that had to do with an epidemic/ pandemic, and return with a report on her readiing. For our meeting, I re-read Connie Willis’s marvelous Doomsday Book, one of her time-travel novels, in which Kivrin, a historian traveling to the Middle Ages, accidentally travels to a plague year. Her supervisor, Dr. Dunworthy, works frantically to find out what the accident was and to retrieve her before the worst happens, but there is a virulent plague attacking Oxford on his end of the timeline as well. This is a book about plague, of course, and the horror that it is when illness and death surround you on every side. But it is also a book about friendship and community and doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming reasons not to. I read this when I’d been having real trouble focusing on reading other than in short bursts, and I read it in two days. It’s wonderful. (Other books my friends read included Love in the Time of Cholera, They Came Like Swallows, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Station Eleven, and Journal of the Plague Year.)

Another book that saved my concentration-deprived brain was Grace Paley’s collected short stories. I’ve heard Paley’s name mentioned many times over the years, but I’ve never read anything she’s written. Reading all of her stories at once in this collection was like taking a deep breath. More than anything else, she is an impresario of voice: her stories are full of human thought, full of dynamic energy, full of… empathy, I guess, in some kind of synergystic way that lets us into her characters’ heads (or Paley’s own head) for a while. The stories are witty and political and closely-observed. They have turns of phrase that open up whole new worlds for a minute and linger and then close them, because this story is already enough. How about this: “If you said the word ‘city’ to Edie, or even the cool adjective ‘municipal,’ specific children usually sitting at the back of the room appeared before her eyes and refused to answer when she called on them.” (“Ruthie and Edie”) Where have these stories been all my life? (New York.) They were perfect for this time and this place; they let us see and love the world a little better.

I also read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. I’m a lover of good nature writing, and this is a classic I’ve been meaning to get around to for years. Baker observed mating pairs of peregrines in his English valley, about 10 miles long by 4 miles wide, over a decade, and recorded his observations in prose that is deep and dazzling. He writes about their bloody predatory slaughter, the heart-catching beauty of their flight, their plummeting fall through thousands of feet of sky onto smaller birds, their ruffled, sullen shoulders in the rain as they sleep, their habit of bathing in running streams, their bones made fragile by pesticides. There is nothing he does not know. He is half peregrine himself. This book was difficult to read; it’s repetitive (because nature is repetitive) and dense. But every word is worship, and it’s both fascinating and brilliant without being purple or sentimental in the slightest.

I’m going to save a discussion for the last two books — the first two of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh — for next month, because I’m going to finish up the last book in a couple of days and I can write about all three at that point. I’ll say that the first two were wonderful, just as wonderful as I remembered. I’m looking forward to seeing how the third concludes.

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