May 2023: superlatives for the rest of it

A lot of reading and not a lot of posting this month—I managed the regular Love Your Library, American Reading Challenge and Great Reread posts, but nothing else. So that means a fairly substantial superlatives roundup!

best technically-related-to-work read: Memoirs of a Georgian Rake (written 1808-10; published 1913-1925; this edition 1995), by William Hickey. This sprightly Folio Society condensation of the original 700-page memoir (!!) is well judged, taking us into the bustling Regency world of money, sex, entertainment, and imperialism. Hickey is appealingly hapless, although elements of his memories are pretty disturbing. (In a scene that we would now recognise as child sexual abuse, he wakes up in the middle of the night age seven or eight to find that the teenaged female servant with whom he shares a bed has placed his hand on her genitals; he credits this as his moment of sexual awakening.) His accounts of the rakish life aren’t all loveless: he seems to truly love both the courtesan Charlotte Barry, who posed as his wife when they traveled to India and who died of a fever age 21, and his subsequent Bengali mistress Jemdanee, who died giving birth to their son. A fascinating window into a vanished world and way of thinking.

best fantasy quartet wrap-up: An Autumn War (2008) and The Price of Spring (2009), by Daniel Abraham. Don’t start here—you really need to read the first two to understand the last two—but these volumes develop and conclude the plot lines elegantly and enjoyably. I’m glad I found Abraham’s work last year, but this quartet particularly.

quickest read: The Beggar’s Opera (1728), by John Gay. There’s a reason why reading plays never appeals to me. It’s all over too quickly, and there’s a certain ironic lifelessness to drama on the page. I’d rather just watch Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera again, instead.

most unconventional memoir: My Father and Myself (1968), by J.R. Ackerley. I found this lovely NYRB edition in an odd little brunch spot in Bromley North, and couldn’t leave without taking it along with me. Ackerley is a funny fish and his memoir is too: he writes both about his father’s “secret life” (as the patriarch of a second family, complete with children) and his own (as a sexually active gay man), and how his and his father’s relationship allowed them to talk about sexuality (surprisingly candidly, I feel, for the era—maybe for any era). It gives a rather sad picture of Ackerley’s personal life, though—he’s too much of an idealist in love—and is peculiarly lopsided in structure for a memoir.

my nomination for the cinematic treatment: Sarah Jane (2019), by James Sallis. One of those short, strange books about taciturn people, in this case a Midwestern cop who’s lived many lives before washing up where she is. The mystery element is oblique and I’d have preferred something a bit more definitive plotwise, but the atmosphere is terrific and the real extent of Sarah Jane’s secretiveness is revealed over the course of the book. It would make a great indie movie, with shots of Americana-classic diners and prairie, perhaps with Sarah Jane played by Clea DuVall…

most sacred cows overturned: Lilith’s Brood trilogy (Dawn: 1987, Adulthood Rites: 1988, Imago: 1989), by Octavia E. Butler. A tremendous triple whammy of alien sex, polyamory, non-binary gender identities, genome editing, paternalism, utopianism, and postapocalypticism. (WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word. It is.) The story of the human race’s total remaking, and the philosophical question of whether to be remade means to survive or to be destroyed, underpins these intensely thought-provoking books. As always with Butler, the most apparently fundamental tenets of social relationships are interrogated and frequently cast aside. The writing is often more plain and functional than beautiful or interesting, but the ideas are more than radical enough to make up for that.

most oddly insubstantial: The World of Yesterday (1942), by Stefan Zweig. I had never read any Zweig before this, and felt I ought to like him (or at least try him), but was aware too that he’s been criticised for poor style. I’m not sure it’s style that’s the problem with The World of Yesterday; it felt more as though Zweig wasn’t being specific enough, making broad statements about (his experience of) pre-war European society. This improves a bit as the memoir elements of the book follow him into adulthood, but in total, it has all slipped from my mind with alarming speed, and I think that lack of particularity and bite might explain why.

boldest move by a white writer: Property (2003), by Valerie Martin. This pulls off the difficult balancing act of making its first-person narrator protagonist both generally sympathetic and unredeemed. Manon Gaudet, a white woman married to a boorish Louisiana plantation owner, becomes fixated by the enslaved woman Sarah who has borne two of her husband’s children. When a slave revolt causes chaos and Sarah runs away, Manon becomes obsessed with finding her. A fascinating read in conjunction with Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—the other side of the slavery-ruins-everything-for-everyone coin. In Property, we’re allowed to understand that Manon’s life is stifling and terrible, but we are also allowed to understand that this is not a sufficient excuse, that she has allowed elements of her humanity to become crushed and warped and that pursuing Sarah is so important to her because it is—pathetically, awfully—the only way she can feel powerful. Clearly written and under 300 pages, it becomes ever more impressive the more I think about it. A worthy Women’s Prize winner in its time.

most engrossing: Grass (1989), by Sheri S. Tepper. An incredibly rich novel encompassing ecology, feminism, theology, sex and power, class prejudice, practical ethics, and—incongruously—horseback riding. A seemingly incurable plague is sweeping the inhabited planets of the galaxy, except for one, named Grass for its endless prairies. Marjorie Yrarier, her husband Roderigo, and their two children are sent as ambassadors by the religious monolith Sanctity (clearly adapted from Mormonism) to find out what they can about the secret to Grass’s immunity. They find a strangely closed-off community of aristocrats who engage in a parody of fox-hunting with the planet’s native fauna, an unorthodox Sanctity monk whose archaeological interests have led him to some remarkable discoveries, and a more horrifying truth than anyone anticipated. I really loved this; I know Tepper has her detractors, but so far her work has been spot on for me, with tenderness and brutality interwoven and fascinating, complex female protagonists. Grass is a strong candidate for the Best Books of 2023 list.

What have you enjoyed reading this month?


Love Your Library, May 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month. I’ve auto-scheduled this one as I’m currently off hiking Hadrian’s Wall!


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (1861): My fifth American Classics Reading Project book, an extraordinary first-person account of courage and anger by a woman who escaped slavery in the South but found that the North had its own dangers. I wrote a lot more about it here.

The Premonitions Bureau, by Sam Knight (2022): A nonfiction exploration of the life’s work of John Barker, a psychiatrist whose belief in the reality of premonitions led to a collaboration with science journalist Peter Fairley that sought to harness the power of people with foresight to prevent catastrophes. The book grew out of a New Yorker article and, unfortunately, it seems to have been better at article length; not that the material isn’t fascinating, but Knight goes down many side roads and spends much time on topics other than the titular one. He writes well and is capable of engaging the reader’s interest on most of these (disquisitions on the crumbling of Britain’s state mental health provisions are particularly interesting in their own right), but it feels like a wasted opportunity to delve deeper into the nitty-gritty of how the Bureau actually functioned, to interview people (or the children of people) who worked there, and to examine the science and philosophy behind the idea of precognition.

The Parasites, by Daphne Du Maurier (1949): A curiously uncharacteristic novel from du Maurier if, like me, you’ve only read Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Frenchman’s Creek. Julie Myerson’s introduction compares it to Wuthering Heights in its focus on the quasi-incestuous relationship between not-quite-siblings, though, and in that sense the Gothic influence is certainly strong. It’s the story of Maria, Niall, and Celia, three children whose parents were famous performers and who grow up to be extraordinary studies in selfishness, passivity, and immaturity—even Celia, who seems at first glance to be the most selfless of them all, remaining with their father in perpetuity as nurse and caregiver. Maria and Niall are technically only step-siblings, making the intimacy of their relationship (which du Maurier hints has a sexual dimension, though she is never specific) both acceptable and disturbing. The accounts of theatrical life are marvelous, as is the dissection of the ways in which pretending to have emotions for a living can stunt you if you’re not careful. Very funny and odd.


The New Life, by Tom Crewe (2023): Can’t wait for this, a story of queer Victorian love that’s partly based on the life and work of John Addington Symonds. Rebecca loved it, and I hope I will too!

What have you enjoyed from your library recently, and what’s up next for you?

The Great Reread, #6: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). First read: January 2015. ~~caution: this review contains details of the plot~~

What I thought then: Although I didn’t review Annihilation on this blog when I first read it, I did write about it on Goodreads: “Absolute cracker of a book […] The long-drawn-out uncanniness of Area X; the way that all of the characters are women and all are characterized as human beings first and foremost, not as wives/mothers/appendages; the way that human relationships are present in the story but are nuanced and awkward and life-like; and above all, the few answers we manage to glimpse at the end… It’s very well done.”

What I thought this time: One of the great pleasures and purposes of rereading is the recovery of detail. My memories of Annihilation‘s plot were in the right shape and order, I remembered most of the truly salient scenes, but so much of the specificity had disappeared. I had forgotten, for example, that the Tower (tunnel) near the expedition’s base camp was not marked on their maps, and that this is the first hint of deception on the part of the agency who have financed and trained the expedition team. I had forgotten that the expedition leader, the psychologist, is authorised to use hypnotic suggestion on the other team members, and that she takes this power too far almost immediately. I had forgotten that the protagonist, known as the biologist, was married to a member of the previous expedition who came back changed, and that she joins this team in part to find out what happened to him.

The entirety of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy also existed in my memory as a kind of unsolved puzzle. I seemed to recall that we don’t really get any answers about what on earth (or, rather, not) is happening in Area X. Rereading Annihilation, I realised that we do. I could see the hints and clues much better the second time around: the unnerving gaze of a dolphin, the mysteriously human tissue contained in the creature known as the Crawler, the molted husk of dead skin that the biologist finds on a path. With the faintest of recollections from eight years ago, I was able to come up with a theory for Area X much earlier than during the first reading. I had forgotten, also, that the biologist has a theory which she actually articulates, late on in the novel, and with which mine largely matched up. It doesn’t explain the actual origin of the phenomenon occurring in the area, so perhaps that’s why I recalled the mystery as unresolved, but it does explain, to an extent, what the biologist has observed and what we’ve observed through her eyes. It satisfied me, this time.

As before, I was pleased by the fact that every character (except for one we only meet in flashbacks) is a woman. Other readers have been irritated by the lack of personal names, but for me it just reinforces that these women are their jobs, first, and their relationships to others (as mothers, wives, etc.) don’t define them. This extends to their characterisation, as well, or at least as much as it can do with a single point of view. The biologist thinks like a biologist. Area X’s weirdness throws her off a little, and she’s already emotionally vulnerable, so she’s inconsistent, but she takes samples of the organisms she comes across, analyses them, thinks in terms of ecosystems and niches and adaptability. The psychologist, although she makes mistakes in doing so, also thinks like a psychologist, in terms of control, manipulation, and reward. It’s still so unusual to read a book where women are allowed to relate to each other with distrust, dislike, even violence, not because they’re competing in some feminine arena of desirability, but because they’re human beings trying to survive in an inexplicable environment.

VanderMeer is known as an ecological activist, and the Southern Reach trilogy strikes me now as one of the first wave of what has become known as climate fiction, or eco-horror. (Not that concern with the environment and the horror potential of the natural world are new in literature; just that there’s a specifically 21st-century interest in these themes.) There’s also a cosmic, Lovecraftian aspect to the weirdness of Area X: full comprehension means madness, subsumption, even (dare I say it) annihilation. But the strange hopefulness of the ending lies in an understanding that, in Area X, the experience of death may simply be more obviously related to its tarot-card meaning: not a termination of anything, but a complete change, a transformation.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1861)

A quick housekeeping note: last week, at the end of a work trip to France, some orange juice spilled in my bag and went all over my laptop, which promptly died. It’s currently in the hands of specialists and my hope is that data recovery will be possible, if not full power restoration, but it’ll take some time. For now, I’m writing on my phone, so please excuse any infelicities of formatting–Jetpack, the new WordPress app, is a little glitchy on small screens.

Harriet Jacobs’s book was the first first-person account of slavery by a woman to be published in the United States. It was printed privately the year that the American Civil War began. Jacobs’s work was edited by Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist who had previously edited biographies of several men involved in aiding and protecting runaway slaves once they reached the North. The presence of an editorial hand always makes me a little nervous (and is in fact responsible for a large portion of the second chapter of my thesis)–how much input have they had? In this case, it appears, surprisingly little; Child may have tidied up some of Jacobs’s phrasing and advised on structure, but the book is Jacobs’s work.

And what a story. Born into slavery, but with a free grandmother, Jacobs always worked in a domestic capacity, not in the fields. As she reached adolescence, her owner, Dr. Flint, began to make aggressive sexual overtures to  her. To avoid being forced into sex with him, she chose another white man with whom to enter a relationship, a Mr. Sands, by whom she had two children. She represents this as a pragmatic exercise: she and Sands do not appear to feel much love for each other, but he isn’t cruel and she calculates he is more likely to help her free her children. When she discusses this in retrospect, she clearly understands how vulnerable she is to charges of promiscuity, and she uses that vulnerability to her own advantage: Incidents is an unabashedly political book, a deeply polemical anti-slavery work, and she uses examples like this to underscore the devastating moral effects of the slave system. She is not ashamed of what she has been forced to do to survive, and several other anecdotes (like that of her friend Luke, whose brutal master eventually dies and from whose deathbed Luke manages to illicitly acquire money) are presented in similar terms.

In fact, the tropes and techniques of sentimental fiction are everywhere in Incidents (yet another way in which it has surprising resonance with my thesis). Slavery was often dealt with in 19th-century reform literature in the same way as prostitution was handled in the 18th century: as a system that operated through force and cruelty, that ripped families apart in the quest for profit, that was profoundly anti-Christian for that reason, and from which those unfortunates involved in it needed saving. Obviously, slavery and the sale of sex are not identical activities, and it behoves us in the 21st century to be very careful and precise about what exactly we mean when we talk about sex work and public policy. At the same time, the sexual coercion and violence visited upon enslaved people was central to the functioning of slavery and cannot be separated from it or ignored. Jacobs’s use of sentimental techniques like direct address to the reader and invocation of “natural feeling”, her reiteration of anecdotes that circled in abolitionist circles (and may therefore have had reference to no specific situation), and her account of Dr Flint’s predatory behaviour (which  although in a wildly different context, will have a familiar shape to readers of Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela) all contribute to the resonance. Jacobs’s narrative makes it utterly clear that antebellum slavery relied on rape.

Probably the best-known thing about Jacobs is the fact that she spent seven years hiding in a crawl space under her grandmother’s roof, having fled Dr. Flint at last and making it appear as if she had gone north. Instead, she remained right under his nose, able (just) to see and hear her children every day, although they were not told the truth and believed she had gone north, too. The incredible audacity of such a proceeding gives you some idea of what Jacobs is like as a human being: fiercely protective of her children, extremely courageous, stubborn. After she and her children manage to leave the South, her beloved grandmother dies, sending a final letter to Jacobs in which she recommends passive acceptance of God’s will. It is not at all the kind of relationship Jacobs herself appears to have with God, although her long confinement with only a Bible to read gave her an extraordinarily deep knowledge of Christian scripture. Instead, she more often furiously questions God’s goodness and omnipotence, notes the hypocrisy of white Southern Christians, and laments the sufferings her family experiences. One of her most frequently alluded-to texts is the Book of Job.

The Fugitive Slave Law, which was passed in 1850, means that even the north isn’t safe for Jacobs: free states were required by law to help slaveholders from the south recapture runaways. Some states worked around this and some didn’t, but private bounty hunters and malicious informing was a constant threat. Her book has a happy ending: “not marriage,” she writes, self-aware about the genre tropes of sentimentality, “but freedom”. Her friends in the North purchase her from Dr. Flint and complete her manumission; at last, she is as free as her children. Even so, there is a note of frustration and melancholy: Jacobs wanted to purchase her own freedom. Her pride and tenacity are entirely sympathetic; for her, to be freed by others’ hands is the final indignity of slavery. It’s a lesson for our times, too: people dealing with systemic oppression don’t want saving, but empowering.

This is the fifth entry in my American Classics reading project, and my first by a Black woman.

April 2023: superlatives for the rest of it

Here’s the rest of this month’s reading that wasn’t covered by Love Your Library, The Great Reread, or my #1940club posts!

most engrossing: The two-day family reunion chronicled in Eudora Welty’s final novel, Losing Battles (1970). So much of it is dialogue, and so much of that dialogue is anecdote; it was easiest to read once I stopped trying to keep close track of who exactly was speaking, and surrendered to the ebb and flow of conversation in the way that I would at a gathering of my own family. The return of their prodigal son Jack from prison, the determination of Jack’s wife—his former schoolteacher, Gloria, who is fortunately his age—to disentangle him from his supportive but also smothering family, and the omnipresence of their baby girl Lady May, weave in and out of the raucous retelling of family history, the passing around of plates of fried chicken, ham, watermelon, and lemonade, attempts to tow a damaged car off a precipice, campaigning efforts by an uncle trying to get elected to a county government position, and so much more. It’s a big book with small type and occasionally feels overwhelming, but it’s utterly absorbing and the writing is absolutely gorgeous (a randomly selected example: “The bank pitched them into the bed of a rusty sawmill track, overgrown like the bed of an untended grave. A stinging veil of long-dead grass flowed to meet their steps… They stepped fast without missing a tie—domino-black, flat-sunk, spongy as bread, suncooked, all of them. Sumac hung over the way ahead, studded with long heads like red-hot pokers.”) Also, the cover above is one of the best I’ve ever seen, perfectly conveying the vivid plenteousness of the day-long feast.

best scholarly intuition: That of Paul Kocher in his lovely little Master of Middle-earth: the Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien (1972). I found this in, of all places, a breakfast-and-brunch-type café in Bromley North, where a bafflingly esoteric smattering of books are propped up on windowsills (and, in some cases, wedged between the black iron bars that protect the windows adjacent to their garden area. No, I don’t know why.) Kocher’s book was possibly the very first deep dive into topics like Middle-earth cosmography and metaphysics, and he did it all five years before the publication of The Silmarillion, in which Tolkien himself actually discusses those topics. Kocher’s conclusions were overwhelmingly proved correct after The Silmarillion‘s release, which I just love: that he was such a good close reader and understood Tolkien’s mindset so well, and also that Tolkien was consistent enough and detailed enough for these things to be deducible.

most regrettably forgettable: I’ve been on a slow-moving Wilkie Collins kick since last autumn, and immensely enjoyed both Armadale (on my Books of 2022 list) and The Dead Secret (lesser, but still pretty good). It is a great shame then that Basil (1852), his second novel, should have been so dull and broad-brush. The premise is promising: eponymous Basil, son of a nobleman with immense pride of lineage, falls head over heels for a linen-draper’s daughter, Margaret Sherwin, and marries her clandestinely, agreeing to a condition by which he does not actually sleep with or live with Margaret for a year. Deception, unfaithfulness, and the revelation of terrible family secrets ensue. Unfortunately the central characters never really come alive. Margaret is supposed to be awful but remains enigmatically one-dimensional throughout, while Basil himself is uninteresting, and the villainous Mannion is more engaging but no more ultimately believable. The time frame is also longer than the quantity of plot really requires; a more skilled Collins, later in life, might have filled in the year of waiting with thrilling and resonant subplots, but here he hasn’t yet learned how. It wins back a point for having a terrifically atmospheric Cornish-coast-set death scene at the end, but otherwise is my least favourite of the five Collins novels I’ve read so far.

most unjustly left out of my last Love Your Library post: Because of an administrative mixup at the library, I didn’t get my copy of Winters in the World, by Eleanor Parker (2022) til the deadline for the post had passed! No harm done; the staff at the London Library are brilliant and found the missing book within a day. It’s a wonderfully readable account of the Anglo-Saxon seasons and the way they tended to mark the passing of the year, focused through the lens of the surviving poetry (and some prose, like sermons and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Two immediately interesting and memorable things: first of all, the festivals of the medieval Church were absolutely inextricable from the cycle of the year more generally—the Church year was the year, in a way that twenty-first-century people will probably find quite alien, although Parker shows that remnants of this closeness lasted until well into the twentieth century. Secondly, the Anglo-Saxons and the medieval Church had a whole lot of fluctuation around the celebrations of Midsummer and Midwinter vs. the actual dates of the equinoxes and solstices, but there’s strong textual evidence that they counted their seasons differently than we do: their “summer” started on 6 May and ended on 6 August, so June 21 really was Mid-summer. This makes infinitely more sense to me than the academically-enforced habit of considering June, July and August the summer months; I’ve become very sensitive to the hour of sunset in recent years and I find it noticeable, as August ends, that the evenings are losing light. So this has given me a good reason to shift my own thinking—which means the next King of England will be crowned, next week, on the first day of summer. The Anglo-Saxons would have loved the symbolism of that.

What have you enjoyed reading this month?

The Great Reread, #5: I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith (1948). First read: oh, ages ago, when I was in my teens. I read it most recently before this in January of 2017.

What I thought then: This feels like a tiny bit of a cheat, actually, because I have adored this book for years and reread it more than once. The thing is, I’ve never owned my own copy; I borrowed it from my mum the first few times, and from my then-boyfriend’s mum in 2017. Recently I stumbled across a lovely Vintage paperback copy for £1 in a charity shop and simply couldn’t resist. Last time I read it, I wrote, “It’s a book about first love and naivety and making terrible mistakes; there is real emotion in it, which I had almost forgotten, since I hadn’t re-read it for so long. And yet the stakes are never so high that Smith can’t make us laugh… I Capture the Castle has always been my ultimate safe book. In the depths of winter, at the beginning of what is bound to be a difficult year, it feels like a charm against darkness.”

What I thought this time: It’s still lovely. I almost feel inclined simply to stop there! But no, I can’t, I must say something else. I will assume you all know the plot and characters; if you don’t, go back and read my earlier review (linked above) first.

The novel is absolutely a coming-of-age story, with all the pain and uncertainty of position that comes with being a teenager. Oddly, all the adult male characters keep referring to Cassandra as “a child” in front of her (or to her face), which is technically true as she’s seventeen, but strikes a modern reader as condescending. There’s another angle on growing up when Thomas comes into his own during Cassandra’s plot to force Mortmain into writing again; it reflects that surprising snap from childhood into opinionated and capable adolescence that happens around fourteen, and it brings Cassandra out of her own head for a bit, in her shock at seeing that her baby brother is no longer a baby. (Her blind spots are so beautifully and tenderly explored by Smith; her inability to take Stephen seriously, for instance, or her unawareness of the true feelings of Neil Cotton. She’s clever and observant but by no means perfect.) When she completes her Midsummer rites on the castle mound, and realises that this will be the last time—that if she carries on next year, it will just be play-acting, and that the purity of the rites must not be disrespected in that way—Smith makes us feel the sharpness of the loss in the same moment as the bittersweet anticipation of whatever compensations adult life might hold.

The gender stuff that I was tentatively alive to last time around is plainly evident now. Mortmain might be a genius, but he’s also a jerk. Topaz luckily seems to rather enjoy this, but is that entirely a good thing? And his violence towards his children has not aged well.

Still, the atmosphere is so gorgeous. The descriptions of the castle, their dog Heloise and cat Abelard (perfect), the casual allusions to literature, history and art (Cassandra is a Gainsborough, apparently, while the mean but talented photographer Leda Fox-Cotton is “a Dali… with snakes coming out of her ears” !), Smith’s brilliant comic writing (the scene at the railway station in the luggage van with the bearskin coat!) and her ability to shift on a dime to a tone that’s just as sincere but also deeply, passionately sad, but also obviously subjective… it’s all so well done. Smith revised this word by word for years, while living in California and missing England profoundly, and all of that—the hard work, the homesickness, the affection for land and heritage—really shows.

One other interesting thing: there are some striking parallels between this and Susan Scarlett’s Peter and Paul! Perhaps the most obvious is the sudden, deus-ex-machina-like sweeping off to Hollywood of a major character at the end (in I Capture the Castle‘s case, the handsome and pure-hearted Stephen Colly, the family’s de facto servant and ward, who is fruitlessly in love with Cassandra). Was this a common narrative trope in the 1940s? Maybe it was. Hollywood was still in its Golden Age, still deeply glamorous and magical, and still one of the few ways that ordinary people could visually access and imagine a wider world. The beautiful-one-plain-one dynamic is also, mildly, at work in the relationship of Cassandra to her sister Rose; Cassandra is not unpretty, but we’re made to understand that Rose is simply gorgeous, in a “pink and gold and feathery” way. (Their stepmother, Topaz, is also very beautiful in an entirely different way, a former artists’ model with white skin and masses of pale hair.) And dresses are also crucial. Indeed, Cassandra gets a beautiful internal monologue in which she thinks about the centrality of clothing to women throughout history, imagining the centuries of ladies living in the castle which is now their home. It is one of the loveliest moments in the book, linking women together in a chain of understanding and shared experience despite the passage of time—as, indeed, I Capture the Castle has done for nearly eighty years, passed down between grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, nieces, cousins, sisters.

Love Your Library, April 2023

Hosted, as always, by Rebecca of Bookish Beck, posting on the last Monday of each month.


It Walks By Night, by John Dickson Carr (1930): After such great success with Carr’s London-set chiller The Lost Gallows (1931) over Christmas, I thought I’d try the first novel of his that featured French prosecutor-general Henri Bencolin as investigator. This is, if possible, even more Grand Guignol and creepy than The Lost Gallows, featuring a murder by beheading (!!!) in a private card room inside a Paris gambling club, and a suspect who is known to have recently visited a plastic surgeon to alter his appearance (so he could be absolutely anyone!) There’s a twist I guessed fairly early on, although it’s not the identity of the murderer. The sexy Sharon Grey makes her first appearance in this novel, and there’s a terrific who’s-holding-your-hand-in-the-dark moment. I’m not entirely convinced by the stated solution; technically, Carr gives you the information you need (in a floor plan printed at the front of the book), but he never actually mentions that information within the text, which is improbable—the investigators would have noticed it and should have remarked on it—so it feels a bit of a cheat to me. I’ll keep reading him, though.

Native Son, by Richard Wright (1940): Neatly ticking off both another American classic and my second read of the #1940club week, this novel of anger, shame, racist oppression, and murder was an intense reading experience. I wrote more about it here.

Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1937): Another BLCC with a corking premise: forced to abandon their train in a whiteout blizzard, a group of disparate travelers takes shelter in a house where the fires are lit and the table set for tea… but no one is home. The almost fairytale feel of this (don’t eat the food or you’ll have to stay for seven years!) was enough to get me to pick it up. The ultimate solution, perhaps unsurprisingly, can’t really keep pace with the opening few chapters, and ends up feeling a bit prosaic. I do like the way each character is drawn, though, from the timid, Walter Mitty-ish Mr Thomson to the blustering bore Hopkins and the mysteriously serene “psychical researcher” Maltby. The women are also convincingly distinguished from each other—practical, encouraging Lydia and sweet chorus girl Jessie. Part of it does revolve around Jessie’s capacity for clairvoyance, which will either put you off or make you keener. A strong entry in the series for its atmosphere alone, though.

The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino (1957; transl. Archibald Colquhoun, 1959): I am unofficially making this a project: reading at least one Calvino book per month for the rest of the year. The Baron in the Trees is my favourite of his fiction writings yet. It’s a kind of spoof picaresque, dealing with the young Baron Cosimo’s life after he climbs a tree one day in the mid-1700s and vows never to touch the ground again. Despite his arboreal existence, he lives as exciting and episodic a life as any Crusoe or Tom Jones, encountering pirates, smugglers, revolutionaries, brigands, and political exiles, corresponding with famous scientists and philosophers, and maintaining many, many love affairs. The novel is narrated by his adoring but baffled younger brother Biagio, who admires Cosimo’s commitment and ingenuity while also mourning his increasingly tenuous grip on sanity. I just loved this. There are so many brilliant touches: the armchair and bookcases that Cosimo lashes to a branch, the dachshund whom he adopts and names Ottimo Massimo, the Candide-like tone, the opposition of the physical limitations of the world to the wide-open horizons of the mind and emotions. Also, it’s funny, and the translation by Archibald Colquhoun avoids the slightest hint of preciousness or self-seriousness. I’d like to buy my own copy now, which is really the best thing you can say about a library book.


The Posthumous Papers of the Manuscripts Club, by Christopher de Hamel (2022). This is not, as you might imagine from the title, a cosy mystery set in the world of antiquarian book dealing, but it is a follow-up to de Hamel’s earlier book Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, in which he examined twelve medieval MSs and told us their stories. I loved that earlier book for giving not only a close-up look at each document, but also a sense of what it’s like to consult them—what each library makes you do in terms of security, the general atmosphere and ease of access, the architecture. Posthumous Papers is about twelve historic book collectors, from Saint Anselm to Belle da Costa Greene. Beautifully illustrated in colour, it’s also massive, so I can only read it when I’m at home. Still, I’m enjoying it as much as the first one: de Hamel’s cheery, discursive style hasn’t changed.

Native Son #1940club

Native Son, by Richard Wright (1940)

~~I do not accept that it is possible to “spoil the plot” of a book that has been in print for eighty-three years, but be advised that the following review makes plot details explicit!~~

My American Classics reading project coincided this month with Kaggsy and Simon’s 1940 club: I read Richard Wright’s Native Son, which was a sensation when first published and which, over the years, has had many grand claims made for it, including that it changed American literature and African-American literature for good. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a Black man in his early twenties living on the South Side of Chicago in the late 1930s. Reluctantly accepting a job as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, Bigger’s first day is marked by the family’s daughter Mary, and her Communist boyfriend Jan Erlone, attempting to befriend him, but doing so in a way that triggers all of his terrors about transgressing the standards of behaviour that white people demand from Black people. That night, he brings Mary back home drunk, and accidentally smothers her while attempting to keep her quiet. The rest of the book relates his efforts to shift the blame onto Jan, then to take advantage of the situation by writing a false ransom note and enlisting his sometime-girlfriend Bessie to collect the money, then the discovery of Mary’s body and his flight, murder of Bessie, and eventual capture. It ends with a fairly sensational account of his trial and sentencing to death.

It’s a book that seems to mean something slightly different to everyone who reads it—even to the same person at different times, as David Bradley’s excellent article “On Re-reading Native Son” would suggest. It’s a book that seems ripe for high school literature courses, because it is so deeply thematic: you could assign essays on things like the role of religion and the symbolism of crosses (Bigger’s mother has a deep Christian faith which he rejects two or three times over the course of the novel), anti-Communist prejudice versus racist prejudice (Jan Erlone is a Communist and is nearly scapegoated for the murder; the fact that he gives Bigger worker’s-rights pamphlets to read is considered something of a smoking gun for his moral standing, and in the dialogue of the bigoted investigator, it’s hard to tell whether he hates “reds” or Black people more), whether the novel deals in stereotype or archetype (many Black critics have been anxious that whites reading Native Son will absorb only the notion that all Black men really are violent, inarticulate criminals). For some reason, I never did have to read the novel in school—instead we read Wright’s memoir, Black Boy, which must have been considered quite traumatic enough.

One thing that struck me forcefully about Native Son was the simplicity of its language. It is a capable, straightforward prose style that is not difficult to read but is not beautiful, either. Wright uses declarative sentences—not always short or simple, but never syntactically convoluted—interspersed only occasionally with a run-on style that mimics Bigger’s frantic thought processes. Much of the book is dialogue. It is 454 pages in my edition (including a 30-page introduction by Wright explaining how he developed the initial idea) but reads quickly. There is very little description, and the only philosophical abstraction we get is in Bigger’s own mental monologue. The effect is to keep the reader trapped in a confused and angry person’s head as he makes worse and worse mistakes.

The other thing that struck me was the horrible humour of the most violent sections of the novel. In this it reminded me a lot of Crime and Punishment (a comparison that was apparently also made by Dorothy Canfield when she wrote an early introduction for the novel, although she refused to place Dostoevsky and Wright on the same footing as literary artists). After Bigger has killed Mary Dalton, he must dispose of her body. The surreal account of lugging her downstairs in a steamer trunk, attempting to push her corpse into the boiler in the basement, and being forced to cut off her head with a pocketknife (?!) and hatchet when it’s the only part that won’t fit, are so reminiscent of Raskolnikov running around the apartment building and hiding behind doors after the murder of Alyona Ivanovna. I found it funny in the Dostoevsky too, in a hideous sort of way. The only difference between this kind of physical hijinks and Charlie Chaplin’s, after all, is the presence of a freshly murdered corpse, and the laughter is the hysterical kind that verges on panic.

Bigger panics a lot. He’s not the mute, brutal idiot that he often pretends to be in the early days after the murder (to throw investigators off the scent), but he often errs because of strong emotion or short-term temptation. When he could leave well enough alone, or flee the city before he’s suspected, he instead decides to cash in on Mary’s disappearance by forging a ransom note (and thereby, hopefully, casting suspicion on Chicago’s Communists). When he could rake out the ashes of the furnace after burning Mary’s body, he doesn’t, leaving smoke to build up and causing the discovery of several small bones which haven’t disintegrated—it’s this that leads directly to his capture. When he could either continue refusing to tell Bessie the truth, or tell her and trust her with his life, he chooses the worst possible combination of options: he tells her he’s a killer, then decides he’ll have to kill her too, to keep her quiet. He can’t even manage this well: he beats her head in with a brick, throws her body down an airshaft, then remembers that the money he stole from Mary’s purse was in Bessie’s dress for safekeeping, and is now inaccessible to him. (As we find out later, Bessie isn’t even dead when he dumps her; she actually dies of hypothermia at the bottom of the airshaft.)

Wright apparently wrote Native Son after publishing a book of short stories called Uncle Tom’s Children which had “made the daughters of bankers weep”. He wanted to write a book that, as he put it, white people couldn’t cry over. Well, no, there’s certainly no sentimentality here. It’s difficult to read the story of Bigger Thomas as anything other than a hopeless indictment of the Black situation in America in 1940, and by extension, hard to see Wright’s viewpoint as anything other than deeply, bitterly cynical. James Baldwin certainly thought so. For what it’s worth, I think there’s real value in depicting anger and violence as a response to systemic oppression; it’s just not necessarily easy to go on from that point, literarily speaking. It feels more like a dead end than fertile soil in which more art could grow.

This is the fourth book in my American Classics reading project—I’m managing a pleasingly steady one per month, so far!

Peter and Paul #1940club

Peter and Paul, by Susan Scarlett (1940)

Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book have been running reading weeks that focus on books published in a particular year for absolutely ages now, and I’ve been increasingly keen to join in. This year I’m finally doing it! I’ve got another (very different) book on the back burner for the end of the week, but fancied something lighter and jollier to get under my belt first, and found this fantastic list of 1940 recommendations from Helen at She Reads Novels. Seeing that one of Noel Streatfeild’s adult novels was on the list, I remembered that Streatfeild had written some light romantic comedies under the name of Susan Scarlett, and hied me to Fantastic Fiction, where I found that she’d published several titles in 1940! Peter and Paul stuck out to me for the title (it refers to twin girls, who are really named Petronella and Pauline), and there’s something about a pretty-one-plain-one dynamic that speaks to a little part of my soul.

Like a lot of the Susan Scarlett novels, it’s a sort of fairytale romance set in a dressmaker’s shop (or department store or otherwise in the context of clothes and retail). There must have been a major market for this subgenre; as Elizabeth Crawford notes in her helpful introduction, this was wartime and female readers really needed a bit of light relief. Petronella and Pauline are twin sisters, daughter of a provincial vicar and his kind wife. Petronella is absolutely stunning–the sort of beauty that has never been denied or experienced a moment’s unkindness, because everyone wants to pet and spoil her. Pauline is a much better human being—thoughtful, generous, honourable—but “plain”. (How this is possible, genetically speaking, when they’re twins is never really dwelt on. Maybe they’re fraternal, not identical?) Needing some way to introduce them to men, which the tiny village and narrow horizons of the  parsonage cannot provide, Mrs. Lane arranges for both girls to take posts at the London dress shop Reboux, owned by David Bliss, the son of the local aristocratic lady.  Pauline falls for him at once, but he has eyes only for Petronella, who is clearly the wrong match. Will Pauline’s goodness and kindness win David’s love? Will Petronella be ousted by the gold-digging manageress Moira Renton, and learn the error of her ways?

Oddly, it’s sort of hard to answer any of these questions. Pauline has David’s esteem and friendship from the start, and we know thst he finds her refreshing and comforting, once referring to her as “the key to the gate of childhood”. Once he recognises Petronella’s shallowness, he starts to spend much more time with Pauline, but we never get a solid resolution of their arc, in the form of a proposal. Petronella manages not to get fired (despite Mrs. Renton’s machinations, which are pretty nasty); instead she is discovered by a talent agency and offered a Hollywood contract, which takes her neatly out of the picture. She does not, however, appear to grow as a person in any way; it is what she has always wanted, and she has always somehow  gotten what she wants. Another girl who works at the shop, Eloise, asks her at one point, “Don’t you ever think?”, to which Petronella replies, “Not often. Things just happen, don’t they?” You’d be forgiven for expecting the plot to encompass Petronella’s learning that things don’t just happen, and that if they have done to you, that’s not necessarily a benefit. But no: she gets what she wants, or at least it’s strongly implied that she does, despite her priggish father’s disapproval, and that’s the end of that.

Indeed, although it’s marketed as a light romance novel, there’s a curious cynicism running through Peter and Paul. Pauline’s “plainness” is so matter-of-factly accepted by everybody, and the difference in the way she and her sister are treated by the world is too. Scarlett doesn’t say it’s a good thing; in fact it’s pretty obvious that it isn’t; but she doesn’t deny that it happens, that life really is easier for very beautiful people. It reminded me painfully of a time when I lost a lot of weight (thanks to an eating disorder and poverty—0/10, not recommended), and people—strangers and acquaintances alike—were noticeably, startlingly, nicer to me. It is probably the strangest and saddest interpersonal dynamic I have ever experienced.

So, then. Was it a good start to the 1940 Club? Actually, yes: there’s absolutely no mention of the wider political or social situation, but that tells you a lot in itself, and I got a strong sense of what it might have meant to people reading the first edition of Peter and Paul, to have something witty and romantic to take their minds off things. Was it a good introduction to Streatfeild’s novels as Susan Scarlett? I think I could have picked a better one. Recommendations welcome!

Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn

Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, by Harvey Swados (1960-65; collected 1986; this edition 2004)

This was a bit of a lucky find in a local Cancer Research shop, which at about the same time also startlingly had multiple Chekhov collections in lovely OWC livery on its shelves! Having not read an NYRB Classic since teenhood, and knowing their reputation, and also knowing nothing about Harvey Swados (even the name was unfamiliar), I took a punt on this for £1 or so, and boy am I glad that I did.

Swados was an American anti-Stalinist socialist/radical in the mid-twentieth century. He died terribly young, at the age of fifty-two after a heart attack, and it’s tempting to mourn what he might have produced, and especially how his star might have risen as the Cold War waned. As it is, one suspects his political leanings had a lot to do with his obscurity. He was in the Merchant Marine during World War II, spent time working in factories (which likely inspired his first story collection, On the Line, set in an auto plant), and, with his wife and children, spent three one-year periods borrowing a friend’s house in the south of France from the ’50s to the ’60s: a fascinatingly idiosyncratic life by most standards! His stories are like a happier Carver or Cheever; Grace Paley nails it in her Preface when she writes,

Harvey was interested in good or almost good women and men more than most writers… By good people I don’t mean saints or angels, but people who, for all their complexity, want to do the right thing. Luckily he was unsentimental. He had too much integrity to allow for the soft lies of sentiment.

Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, p. ix

There’s a general consensus, at least on Goodreads, about this collection. Everyone loves the title novella, which comes first in the collection. Everyone loves or at least very much likes the final two stories, “My Coney Island Uncle” and “The Tree of Life”. Everyone seems disinterested or disdainful, or both, about the rest of it. I can’t fathom why. I enjoyed them enormously, and found Paley’s assertion—interested in good people, unsentimental—largely borne out, so I’ll talk about the middle stories, as they seem to be undiscussed in reviews.

One of my favourites of these, “Year of Grace”, follows a woman who marries an aspiring academic after a very brief courtship and moves to Provence with him so he can conduct field research. She is initially timid, afraid of being abroad, totally unmoored from her previous life—but as the year progresses she makes efforts to learn the language, gets to know neighbours and locals, and finds that her unmooring has actually been of enormous benefit to her. She recognises that her husband is incurious, a bore, and the wrong match for her (though not at all a terrible person). At the end of the year, she makes all the preparations for their return journey, then informs him she will be staying in France. He doesn’t understand, but she follows through. The final scene is of her watching him receding in the airport taxi. I just loved this, on a level that I can’t quite explain through critical analysis. Perhaps it’s the compassionate curiosity that Swados seems to have about every character. Other authors who do this—George Eliot, Sarah Hall, Rick Bass—are among my favourite writers, so it’s obviously an approach that works for me as a reader.

Complicated social currents are revealed through these stories. There is, for example, the shorter and somewhat nastier “Tease”, in which a man on shore leave in Panama, looking for sex with a local woman named Isabel, ends up paying for everything—drinks, cheeseburgers, taxis, hotel rooms—and never gets laid. It could have ended there; the narrator even says that he now tells this story to friends and ends it there, as a joke on himself. Swados keeps going, though, to reveal that a few weeks later, the narrator, still annoyed, plays a prank on Isabel to make her think he’s hired people from the local underworld to get revenge on her. She flees the country, and the prank ruins his friendship with another sailor, who delivered the message. It’s a rare moment in literature of this era, where a man recognises his pettiness and cruelty towards a woman who is just trying to make a living, and is explicit about it:

I knew when I started that her livelihood, her very life, depended on her countering aggressive men with all the cunning she could conjure up… Isabel and Gertrudis knew in their bones what I understood without ever being honest enough to make explicit to myself: that the cards were stacked in favor of the Tommys and the Tobys, the rich, careless Yankees who… could always win… simply by whistling up the apparatus of terror and repression.

Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, p. 346

Maybe it’s a little too political, a little too on-the-nose? But it is, as I say, such a rare moment in twentieth-century short stories by men: this story was first published in 1965.

“A Story for Teddy” and “The Hack” also have narrators revealing themselves to us as flawed, as having done unkind or thoughtless things which they now regret. (In both of these cases, the unkind or thoughtless things are connected to writing; Swados is not going to let the ethical quandaries of a writer’s life off the hook on grounds of artistic license.) In an earlier story, “The Peacocks of Avignon”, a young American woman named Terry, revolted by her mother’s remarriage to a much younger French handyman, is furiously fleeing their life in a little village, when she encounters flash flooding around the city of Avignon. An overheard remark from a peasant woman and her young son displaced by the floods—”il faut avoir de la beauté“—triggers an understanding in Terry, and she sends a telegram to her mother, apologising, wishing her happiness, and to say she loves her. She doesn’t go back; she’s still going to Paris, to discover who she is and who she’ll become on her own. But the hand is outstretched, the love is articulated, and the damage is sufficiently mended for time to do the rest. It is a merciful story.

A few of these don’t work as well: “A Glance in the Mirror” and “A Question of Loneliness” don’t seem to go anywhere, and “The Man in the Toolhouse”, although engaging, ends with a melodramatic suicide that struck me as over the top. (Another story, “The Dancer”, ends in a suicide that is also melodramatic but makes more sense as something that character might do, and seems better integrated into the story’s wider concerns.) “The Balcony” feels like a rerun of themes from “The Man in the Toolhouse” crossed with “A Question of Loneliness”, and equally doesn’t land anywhere, although the Mexican doctor is an interesting character. On the whole, though, there are many more successes in Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, and Swados is an author I’m pleased to have been introduced to. NYRB Classics should reissue On the Line, too!