Rebecca of Bookish Beck runs this monthly meme, which I am very much enjoying!
The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells (1910): I said on Twitter that this is a book about a man finding true love and happiness with a fat woman, and it is! Alfred Polly is a miserable, failing small businessman living in a provincial town and trapped in a marriage he hates. His imaginative capacities are immense, but his education has been scanty. Desperate for beauty and poetry, but unable to find it in his life as it is, and ground down to despair, he plans to set his shop on fire and then cut his throat, thus neatly ensuring his own death and his wife’s receipt of a large sum of insurance money. This plan backfires spectacularly, but what it does for Polly is make him realise, as Wells famously wrote, that “if you don’t like your life, you can change it.” A life of happy vagrancy ensues, during which Polly grows as a person, discovers his courage, and enters a fulfilling relationship with the landlady of a country pub (the aforementioned fat woman, whose size is integral to her perfection in Polly’s eyes)—but the final test of his character is yet to come. It’s simultaneously extremely funny (the account of Mr. Polly’s wedding literally had me laughing out loud) and has what Adam Roberts calls “an unforced dignity”: Wells knows Polly is not exactly a hero, but what is it to change your life and seek joy, if not heroic? Glorious, and with an ending that is almost tear-inducing in its quiet sweetness.
The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather (1925): Definitely the oddest Cather novel I’ve read so far. It has a lopsided three-part structure, bookended by two sections that follow the titular Professor, Godfrey St. Peter, as he and his family try to come to terms with the changing dynamics imposed by the wild success of a patent taken out by St. Peter’s former student Tom Outland—who was engaged to S.P.’s eldest daughter Rosamond, died in WWI, and left everything to her in his will. The middle section is an account of Tom’s experiences as a young(er) man on the Blue Mesa in the American Southwest, where he and a friend find evidence of an ancient Native American settlement, and where, eventually, their friendship is shattered by a betrayal. The sections don’t have an obvious fit with each other, but that’s part of what makes the book interesting. The Professor is obviously haunted by Tom, who represents something significant and vital to him. There are certainly homoerotic undertones (especially given Tom’s broken friendship with his Blue Mesa pal Roddy Blake). Philosophically, it’s quite bleak; I’m not sure what I make of it, but Cather still produces perfect landscape writing and emotionally descriptive prose.
Little Sister Death, by William Gay (2015): Posthumously published from material found in Gay’s papers, this tiptoes the line between Southern Gothic and horror in its reimagining of the Bell Witch haunting. I liked Gay’s style plenty, but didn’t find this as terrifying as the publicity had promised. The opening chapter, which is profoundly early-Cormac McCarthy-esque in content though not in style (probably not a coincidence: Gay and McCarthy were very good friends and read each other’s work in manuscript), is powerful and scary, but we never return to it—it’s more of a prologue—and that feels like something of a disappointment.
The Half Life of Valery K, by Natasha Pulley (2022): Pulley has written five books and I have now read all of them, which makes her one of my most-read authors. I think this one is her best. It’s the least overtly fantastical (there’s no precognition/time travel/steampunk), but that’s because realism is quite fantastical enough when it’s about the Soviet Union’s nuclear secrets. Valery Kolkhanov is plucked from the labour camp where he’s serving a ten-year sentence and reassigned to an extremely peculiar experimental laboratory near Chelyabinsk, where the local forest is dying of radiation exposure but the propaganda figures say nothing is wrong. Valery quickly determines that very much is wrong, and finds himself caught between the KGB, his former doctoral supervisor, and his conscience. Other Pulley tropes (MLM yearning, people who are probably autistic but live in contexts where diagnosis isn’t really possible, octopuses) are gloriously present and correct, and everything is pulled together into a compulsively readable package; highly recommended.
The Complete Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino, transl. William Weaver, Tim Parks, and Martin McLaughlin (2009): All the “cosmicomic” stories Calvino ever wrote, published all together for the first time. This was my introduction to Calvino and highly enjoyable, if (through no fault of its own) a little repetitive. The cosmicomics are wildly inventive and peculiar stories, each of which takes some scientific principle about the universe as a jumping-off point. Many are narrated by the irrepressible (and unpronounceable) Qfwfq, who is sometimes a dinosaur, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes an elemental, clearly an eternal. My favourites were “The Aquatic Uncle”, in which land-dwelling animals evolve but one eccentric relative refuses to leave the water, and “The Daughters of the Moon”, in which lunar activity causes a frenzied parade of naked women in New York City to first chase, then worship, then rescue, the moon. Lovely, weird, thought-provoking, often very funny. I’ve requested a bunch of his other work now.
The Three, by Sarah Lotz (2014): Like Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, an entry in the excellent-execution-of-schlocky-genre-concept books. I heard about this through Blair Rose’s newsletter Learn This Phrase, I think, Lotz’s novel is about three miraculous child survivors of plane crashes that happen almost simultaneously around the world. Their survival shouldn’t have been possible, and everyone from chat show hosts to religious fundamentalists wants a piece of them and their story. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that there really is something wrong with all of them, but nobody has all of the puzzle pieces… Like World War Z, it’s told as though it’s an oral history/documentation collage, including autopsy reports, interview transcripts, chat logs, and voicemail messages. Fantastically chilling, an ending that lands just on the right side of ambiguous (imo), and there’s a sequel of sorts. I’ve already reserved it!
Infinite Ground, by Martin McInnes (2016): Pleasing flavours of Jeff VanderMeer, in this story of a detective inspector trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a man named Carlos in an unspecified South American country. The surrealness of the inspector’s methods—trying to recreate a precisely accurate copy of Carlos’s office, analysing the air he might have inhaled, focusing on his microbiome—is probably going somewhere, but there’s no guarantee of anything making sense. I downloaded it as a backup for my conference trip, but a lack of immersion meant I lost interest. I’ll certainly try McInnes’s other novel, Gathering Evidence, and I’ll probably try Infinite Ground again later.
The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper (1826), and Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Henry Howarth Bashford (1924): I grabbed both of these off the shelves without really thinking, the Cooper because it’s been in my head for a while as a possible American Classics project book, and the Bashford because it’s on the Guardian 1000-best-books list and I’ve never seen it in the wild before, ever. But at the moment, the Cooper isn’t what I fancy (I’ll go for it later in the year), and the Bashford strikes me as very Diary of a Nobody-esque, which is a great vein of comedy, but as I’ve already read Diary of a Nobody, and as comic writing per se isn’t one of my great literary loves, I’m not actually that interested in it right now. It’s good to know the Bromley library system has it, though!
It’s been something of a joy to decide not to read these. They’d both make good entries in my self-imposed project reading, each in its own way, but I don’t fancy them right now and that’s okay! No one is going to make me read stuff I don’t want to or give me a reward for doing so! I can just return them and maybe try again later! Revelation.
10 thoughts on “Love Your Library, January 2023”
I’ve read that Cather, too, but retained no memory of it. I’m going to try a very obscure one of hers for the 1940 Club in April: Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
I was thinking I’d read Augustus Carp … but actually it was Mr Verdant Green by Cuthbert Bede, a silly 1850s novel about a naive Oxford freshman.
And I also thought I’d read some H.G. Wells … but apparently I haven’t! Maybe it’s just that I’ve read David Lodge’s novel about him, A Man of Parts, and so felt familiar with his themes and plots (and I also may be conflating him in my mind with W. Somerset Maugham). It’s funny how he is remembered for his speculative fiction and socialism but actually wrote plenty of realistic novels too.
I am all for borrowing loads of books, more than you can ever read, because you never know what will then catch your eye from the stack, and returning things unfinished or unopened is never a problem. Like you say, you can always get it out another time (sometimes it takes three borrows before a book even makes it onto a reading stack for me), and it boosts the library’s circulation stats in the meantime, which should ward off budget cuts.
Ohhh I am definitely thinking of trying Sapphira and the Slave Girl for the 1940 Club, too! It’ll be fun to compare notes. Haven’t heard of Mr Verdant Green but it sounds like it would sit comfortably in the same vague world as Zuleika Dobson (also about silly Oxbridge students). H.G. Wells is quite fantastic; I’ve enjoyed his short sci fi (read The Island of Dr Moreau just after Christmas—fantastic and awful), but dipping into his realist fiction has proved very rewarding and I’ll definitely carry on!
Yes, it’s nice to know that authors get their 30p from a borrow no matter whether you read it or not, and I’m very keen to keep circulation numbers healthy so that libraries don’t lose any more resources than they’ve already lost.
The Cosmicomics are such a treat aren’t they?? One of my favourite Calvinos!!
Oh my goodness, a delight. I’m so excited to read If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller—read the opening pages in a bookshop and was totally hooked!
I was the same when I first read it – can’t wait for your thoughts!!
I love returning unread books to the library!
I also liked Valery K a lot. I don’t think it was quite my favourite of Pulley’s novels (that’s probably The Bedlam Stacks, or The Lost Future of Pepperharrow) but tbf I think that’s partly because of the order in which I read them – like you, I’m noticing certain story elements which reoccur, and inevitably feel a bit less fresh.
I would have ranked The Bedlam Stacks as #1 before reading Valery K. Pepperharrow lost me with the precognition stuff; I couldn’t keep track of when and which things were happening. (I love Thaniel, Mori, and Six, though; it’s why I enjoyed her standalone story “The Eel Singers” so much. Because Mori’s precognition doesn’t work in the fen, all the characters were able to shine through without me getting wildly confused.)
It’s so interesting to read your thoughts on Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House! Like you, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and my memories have faded since then. I do recall the bleakness and homoerotic touches, though. Cather has such a talent for combining beauty and bleakness in her novels, especially in the way she sets these relationships against the backdrop of the natural world.
I love her nature writing more than any other aspect of what she does, I think! This was definitely an odd one but it felt like it was getting at something vast and almost uncommunicable. I’m excited to move into her obscurer back catalogue now.