Friday, 21 January 2022

The New Yorker, January 17th 2022

I am a great fan of the public library system, and have written here about my first library book, which I "borrowed" (in fact my mother handled the entire transaction) at the age of five.

And here about the efforts of the public library to interest me in e-books.  My scorn, expressed ten years ago, has been replaced by delight, especially since the pandemic when the public library buildings were closed for months on end. Many wonderful books could be accessed, at the touch of a phone screen, and audiobooks could be downloaded free of charge. I have written here about the many audiobooks I listened to last year, and every single one was a free download from one of two library websites. One is called "Borrowbox" and the other is called "Libby".

A further delight offered by the library Libby app is the unlimited quantity of magazines available to read online. Downloading a magazine does not affect the number of books or audiobooks you are allowed to borrow at any one time.

You can read the Radio Times, (this does require some patience in scrolling, as the pages are so full of tiny boxes).  You can read "Hello" (if you want to catch up with the latest pictures of William and Kate). You can read "The New Yorker".  

Now, I spent much of my youth reading stories from The New Yorker, anthologised (my copy is shown below)

in paperback form. I still have a copy of this book, in this exact edition, increasingly fragile and yellowing, as it dates back 60 years. My ideal short story, as showcased in this collection,  is encapsulated by a conversational ambience, a comfortable feeling of fireside chat, a homely, yet educated tone, (one often emerging from an older, immigrant, poverty-soaked childhood), an emphasis on family, childhood memories, and family relationships.

When I read the complete edition of Sylvia Path's letters, I was intrigued to note that one of her great ambitions was to have a story published in The New Yorker.  The magazine accepted many of her poems, but her ambition for a story was not realised.  This was comforting to me. When a writer has become a legend, it is sometimes hard to imagine that they ever failed at anything.  This brings Sylvia to life as an ordinary human being, a new perspective.

So when I discovered that I was able to access every weekly edition of the magazine online, free, and peruse at my leisure, I was delighted.  I homed in first on the stories. Stories these days encompass every type, every background, every type of voice. Some of them I just can't find interesting.  

At other times, the story is pure genius, which is hard to define.  An example is anything by the Chinese born scientist, Yiyun Li. Here is a novel which I strongly recommend, as a good indication of her political depth, historical knowledge, and emotional intensity. You can also listen to an episode of BBC World Book Club here, in which she talks about this novel.  Yiyun Li was born in China, so brings a very different background to the table, also being a scientist she is not the usual type of writer. 

Many stories in The New Yorker, however, appear to me to be both pointless and boring.  If nothing happens, I struggle to see why the story is deemed to be worthy of publication.

I am an eternal seeker after the next interesting story, so I persist.  This week I am reading the magazine edition of 17th January, and have devoured the first of my chosen items of interest, an interview with the New York based writer, Hanya Yanagihara. 

As a subscriber to "Goodreads" and "Guardian Books" website newsletters, I have already come across this author's name as one to look out for on lists of the best books to be published in 2022. Her new book is called "To Paradise." 

She is best known for her second published book, which appeared in 2015, called "A Little Life".  I have owned a copy of "A Little life" for some years now, and have yet to read a page of it.  The fact that it is 700 pages long is of less importance than the reviews, which all emphasise the content as being terribly upsetting, largely about appalling physical torture and abuse. This has put me off.  The new book, following three timelines, 1892, 1992, and 2092, in New York, sounds interesting, so I read the interview.

As is sometimes the case, I found the author herself (as portrayed in the interview) far more intriguing than the book itself.

She spent fifteen years writing her first book, "People Who Live in Trees"which seems like an incredible marathon.  A triumph of self-belief. It was little thought of at the time, and was quickly completely overshadowed by her second, "A Little Life".

She spent 18 months writing this, her second book, a 1,000 page long manuscript, writing between nine and midnight every evening, and through the weekend.

She lives in an apartment containing 10,000 books. She is 48. 

Why do the numbers grip me more than the content? I am not sure.  All I can say is that I find her own life, as viewed and interpreted by the New Yorker interviewer, far more fascinating than the idea of reading a lengthy tome about torture and abuse, however well reviewed.  I went to my upstairs bookcase and brought down my copy of "A Little Life" to my downstairs bookcase, in case I should feel the need to dip into it.  I haven't felt this need yet.

I think what I really find fascinating is how diverse writers are, how their lives are so different from mine, how they scintillate with visions which they translate into words.  Some of these word-pictures I find entrancing, some moderately interesting  and some completely boring.  But the individuals themselves, the writers, each one completely an entirely unique human being - now THAT is interesting.

Friday, 7 January 2022

The White Ship and In the Midst of Winter

 Two More Books finished, and still in the first week of the New Year! Awesome progress.

This one is  history book, set in the reign of Henry I, but reads like a very exciting blockbuster.

There are some great female characters in the history too, almost all of them called Matilda.

Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, is the mother of Henry I, who was her youngest son.  She had nine children, four of them sons.  Two died in hunting accidents. One of these was the second son, Richard, the other the third son, William II of England. The third and fourth sons became William II and Henry I.

Robert Curthose - short trousers - (the eldest son) tried to become King of England, as one might expect, him being the eldest.  However, the Norman rules of succession were slightly different, and so it was accepted when the Conqueror's third son, William Rufus, succeeded as King of England.  After causing a lot of trouble in Normandy (where he was the legitimate heir under Norman rules of succession), Robert was finally captured and imprisoned by Henry I and kept imprisoned for the rest of his exceptionally long life.
The next Matilda was the first wife of Henry I - she was previously called Edith but renamed after marriage because Edith was an Anglo-Saxon name. 

A third was Matilda of Anjou, betrothed to Henry I's only legitimate son, (on whom the plot turns) - he was drowned in the White Ship in 1120, thus leaving Henry without an heir.  The kingdom was plunged into anarchy, literally, "The Anarchy" as it was referred to by contemporary historians, following the death of Henry I.  

A fourth Matilda, "the Empress"(a title gained on her first marriage to Henry V  of Germany), was the daughter of Henry I. She was his only other legitimate child (he had 22 illegitimate ones). She was named his heir and he intended her to inherit, but as she was a woman, her cousin Stephen took the throne instead, supported by the nobles who didn't want a woman on the throne.  Stephen, a likeable but weak character, was married to yet another Matilda, the fifth in this list. She was a strong and interesting woman, without whose support Stephen's reign would have ended much earlier than it did.

I feel that the field is wide open for a wonderful historical novel, possibly called "The Two Matildas", in which Henry's daughter and his nephew's wife battle it out over the next fifteen years after Henry's death.

I followed "The White Ship" as an audio book, which is a great way to consume more works while multi-tasking. 

A fascinating interview with the author, Charles Spencer (famously brother of Princess Diana), is available FREE.  You do have to log in and register, but after that, it's all free.

My next book is as follows:
I studiously avoided Isabel Allende for most of my life, having noted that her blockbuster "The House of the Spirits" seemed to be about things that wouldn't interest me.  I did watch a rerun on TV of the film, and found it better than I expected.  I remained a bit snobbish about blockbusters however, for some further years.

The real breakthrough came when I picked up a copy of her autobiographical work "Paula" in a charity shop. It's about the sad illness and death (at 29) of her beautiful, clever, successful and much adored only daughter, combined with a history of her own life intertwined with the twentieth century history of Chile, Allende's birthplace.  
After this, I would read anything by this author (always excepting The House of the Spirits).  

"In the Midst of Winter" seemed apt, and was available in the library on the shelf, so I took it home.

It would appear to me (I'm not accusing Jeanine Cummins of plagiarism), that the recent bestseller "American Dirt" may have been inspired by this book.  "Winter" concerns three characters, two of whom have been refugees from South American countries ravaged by appalling political and gang violence.  The younger escapes from Guatemala much as some of the younger characters in "American Dirt" did. The older,  being obviously modelled on the author, escaped from Chile in 1973 when a right-wing military coup overthrew the legitimately elected democratic left wing government headed by the author's cousin, Salvador Allende.

There is a bit of a lightweight mystery plot, (who killed the body in the boot? ) and a frankly fantasist love story between the two sixty something academics, but the real meat of the book is the refugee experience, from 1973 and then in 2008, including later references to Trump's border policy which was already being trumpeted (sorry) in 2015 when the book was being written. Also, because Isabel Allende has been married three times, and, at the time of writing was still very close to her 96 year old mother, the book is about women's lives, women as mothers, as daughters, as grand-daughters and as victims.  This is timeless. In both the two main female characters, an absent and/or feckless father has no part in their upbringing, which is carried out by the grandmother in one case, the mother in the other, devotedly, and with huge love which is reciprocated.

Just a couple of quotes -  a third, lesser character, an American white woman grossly abused by her husband, sees a psychiatrist.  Almost as an aside, the author notes that this woman "had confessed to her psychiatrist that she longed to be a widow. He had listened without showing the least surprise, having heard the same from other patients ...[who wished] their spouse dead.  His waiting room was filled with repressed, furious women."

Lucia, the Chilean exile, felt that "the hardest part had been her mother's death, which had affected her more than [her] divorce or cancer".  

Being the mother of two daughters,  I lapped this up.  I have always wondered why the standard romantic trope (or tripe, as you will), depicts a weak and needy woman searching for a strong handsome man to take care of them for ever.  The reality is much more likely to be as depicted here - flaky, or useless, or violent men ( or men who combine all of these characteristics), who leave, either physically or emotionally.  One husband was a bigamist, one left his wife when she got breast cancer because he couldn't cope (this exact situation happened to the fifty-something daughter of my neighbour).  A third was a violent and abusive human trafficker.  Two youths were killed in gang violence.  
It's no wonder I just don't believe in the sweet romance between the two sixty-somethings.

I probably sound like an embittered old bag.  Having been in the same relationship for 44 years, I do feel that there is a lot wrong with the traditional romantic stereotype.  My mother-in-law, whom I have thus known for 44 years, has just died.  I sometimes feel that she understood me better than my husband does.   She is much missed.

Monday, 3 January 2022

First Two Books of 2022 finished 2nd January 2022

So, not quite one a day, but two in two days isn't bad! This is the first:

I have in the past found Nabakov difficult.

 At college in 1976, I had the misfortune to be rooming in a shared house with a colossal bore who wanted to go on and on endlessly about "Lolita" and the brilliance of the character "Humbert Humbert". I dismissed all ideas of reading that book, because even 45 years ago it was clear to me that it concerned criminal child pornography.

Later on in life, I thought I'd give the memoir "Speak Memory" a go, hoping to learn more about what it was like to live through the Russian Revolution. Somehow, this failed to hit the spot. The only detail I retain is the train journey, attempted escape. The wealthy Nabokov family, cosseted in first class warmth and padded carriages, were astounded when thuggish revolutionaries urinated down the chimneys into the elite compartments from the roof.

Recently I took to reading the "New Yorker" online, which contains a short story in every weekly publication. One of the best of all the stories I have read in the last year was an excerpt from "Pnin" (it's actually chapter 6). This enchanted me, and I recognized at last the brilliance of the writing, so I decided to read the whole book.

You do need a dictionary. Why use the word "calvity" when the perfectly good word "baldness" exists, and baldly states the condition without nuance or subtext.

You do need patience. It's not a rollicking page turner.

However, I did laugh out loud on at least three occasions (almost unheard of for a 68 year old with jaded palate for humour).

There is subtlety and there is irony, and there is a very straightforward critique of the more ridiculous aspects of American college education (some of which we now see here in the UK). There is pathos, and the backstory of poor Pnin (far more evocative of the emigre experience than "Speak Memory") is filtered with delicacy during the course of the book through the lens of his current experiences.

Timofey Pnin is a truly unique creation, a bumbling yet endearing intellectual. Rejected by his cruel wife Liza, dismissed as unimportant by the more ambitious academics who seek to oust him from his untenured position, he evokes a long lost past. Through his experiences the author depicts an America which welcomed all its sad waifs and refugees (unlike the America of today). This aspect of the book (unimagined when it was written) has a pathos all of its own.

I give it four stars because there is something unsatisfying about the shadowy "narrator" who first poses as a friend of Pnin's, but is later exposed as someone Pnin cannot stand to be with or near, but this is never explained. Even this is revolutionary, however - the so-called "unreliable narrator" has become an extremely fashionable trope in contemporary English-language fiction in the last five or so years.

Finally, it is a short book, only 168 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition, so easily despatched.

The second book I finished today is even shorter, and much easier to read.

I've read books in which the pandemic appears right at the end, ("The Black Dress" by Deborah Moggach) or during the latter part of the book ("Summer" by Ali Smith), and this is the first I've read set entirely right in the thick of it. It is set in the Peak District during the second lockdown of 2020, foreshadowing the locked down Christmas of 2020, and referencing back to the first lockdown.

It's eery to see set down on the page the restrictions, the laws and fines, the confinement to home, the washing of shopping and hands, the loneliness and isolation. I now look back from the perspective of the post vaccination year of 2021 (the first vaccinations were in January 2021, after the book ends). It's so easy to forget what it was actually like, after getting used to the relative freedoms conferred by the summer of 2021 and the booster jabs which have encouraged many to get out more. It seems incredible what we actually put up with. This novel will become important social history. I would expect it to appear on school reading lists in the future.

The author has uncannily inserted herself into the minds of three key characters, representing three demographics - the well-off aged who can afford their comfort but are vulnerable, the frustrated and poor middle aged who lose their salary and their freedom (which matters more), and the young, who are doubtful, confused, fearful, angry but ultimately need the guidance of their elders.

The plot, which concerns a quarantine breaker out walking on the fell, is a neat analogy for those who court the virus by mixing with others, cost the state a lot of money, have to be cared for and are cared for.

Humanity and the mixed perils of being human. A very swift read, and a very worthwhile one.
Why only four stars? I feel the definitive pandemic novel has yet to be written and will be much longer and more philosophical than this one.