Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Remarks on Recent Reads: The Books of August

Greetings, Bookish Friends, as we move onward into September! I wanted to revisit my August reads before I turn to September reading.

On the blog . . .

I talked about The Sea by John Banville, a satisfying summer read about a writer who returns to the seashore of his childhood to reflect upon his life.

For Women in Translation Month, I read The War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras, an intense but interesting look at Duras' life at the end of World War II.

For Robertson Davies Reading Week, sponsored by Emerald City Book Review, I chose the first of Davies' books of the Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business. I understand that this is a much loved book, but I did not connect with this novel as much as other readers have.  

Now, on to the mini-reviews . . .

Summer Morning, Summer Night by Ray Bradbury ( 2008) is a lovely edition of short stories (some never published before) and vignettes. These stories have to do with summer in a small town and are full of the nostalgia of childhood and the magic of small towns reminiscent of Dandelion Wine. I liked this collection and enjoyed revisiting Bradbury's writing.

Letters from Constance by Mary Hocking (1992) has been on my bookshelf for awhile. I was a bit skeptical of the premise of two women who are life long friends told from one of the women's letters, but I found myself unable to put the book down. The letters begin in 1939 as Shelia and Constance vow to keep in touch while each goes off to make her own contribution to the war effort. Each woman has plans and dreams, but life takes them both in different directions. Letters from Constance is beautifully written, and I look forward to reading more by Mary Hocking.

The second Virago Modern Classic I read in August was The Sugar House by Antonia White (1952), which picks up with Clara's story after Frost in May and The Lost Traveller. The story begins with Clara's new life as an actress. She travels throughout England, earning little money, and dabbling with her writing. She spends much of her time worrying about Stephen, the love of her life, an older actor working in another part of the country. Clara dreams of a life with him, but when that's not possible, Clara turns to Archie, her old boyfriend who she almost married in The Lost Traveller, and she finds out that life with Archie far from perfect.  Although it's not an upbeat story, I enjoyed The Sugar House

At Lady Molly's by Anthony Powell (1957) is the fourth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series, and I liked this novel. The story begins in 1934, and Nick is now a scriptwriter for a film company. He's invited by a work colleague to a party at Lady Molly Jeavons. Nick makes the acquaintance of several people who show up throughout the story, including the ever present Widmerpool, an old school friend. Powell's writing is absorbing, and At Lady Molly's is a fun read.

My favorite reads of August were The Sea, The Sugar House, and The War: A Memoir.

What was your favorite book of August? 

Happy reading!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (1970)

I read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies for Robertson Davies Reading Week, sponsored by Lory at Emerald City Book Review.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a fictional definition of fifth business:

"Fifth Business . . . Definition
These roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.
--Tho. Overskou, Den Danske Skueplads"

And so begins the first novel of the Deptford Trilogy, the story of Dunstan Ramsay. Ramsay's retiring after decades of teaching and writes a long and detailed letter to the headmaster in which he details his life.

The story begins in the small Ontario town of Deptford in 1908. Two boys throw snowballs at one another. These boys are Dunstan Ramsay and his friend, Boy Staunton. Ramsay ducks, and the snowball meant for him strikes Mary Dempster, who is pregnant and gives birth to a premature baby. Thereafter, Mary roams around the town, and the townspeople refer to her as "simple."

As Paul grows up and leaves Deptford, Boy, Mary Dempster, and Paul, the premature baby, become central figures in Ramsay's life. Boy finds great success as a wealthy captain of industry while Mary Dempster becomes a particular worry but also a fascination to Ramsay, while Paul grows up to become a magician. 

I  liked the first half of the book, especially Davies' portrayal of small town life of Deptford with its foibles and flawed individuals. The most compelling part of the book is Ramsay's depiction of Passchendale in World War I, perhaps Ramsay's finest hour when he wasn't simply fifth business. The sacrifice comes at a great personal price. Certain events before and during the war fuel Ramsay interests in his study of saints.

In the second half of the book, Fifth Business veers off into the breakdown of Boy's marriage, and Ramsay's happenstance meeting with Paul and the members of Paul's group in the production of his magic show. Ramsay joins this band of misfits of the show and travels with them for a time. 

Fifth Business is a hard book to talk about because there are so many facets to it, but the overwhelming feeling I have is that Robertson Davies doesn't like women very much. The female characters in the story don't fare well from Mary Dempster to the one note controlling mother who Ramsay resents all his life. Boy's wife, Leola, who's controlled by her husband, drinks while he resorts to various affairs after he feels his wife doesn't make the cut as an important society wife. She attempts suicide. Then there's Liesl, the brains and money behind Paul's magic show. Ramsay finds her grotesque yet charming, but a late night encounter between Liesl and Ramsay leads to conflict and leaves her face bloody but makes Ramsay feel more alive than he has in years. He even jokes about this encounter with an elderly friend of his who is a Jesuit. 

I'd been wondering about this author, so I'm glad I read Fifth Business. I wouldn't recommend this novel. I'm in the minority, however, so please check out Lory's review of the Deptford Trilogy.

Have you read Fifth Business? I'd love to hear your comments.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras (1986)

The War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras (1986), translation from the French by Barbara Bray, is a selection for Women in Translation Month, hosted by Biblibio

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was a prolific writer, probably best known for The Lover. In a short introduction to The War, she recounts how she forgot about this memoir of her experiences during World War II. She found the manuscript in a cabinet years later and realized the importance of the work. 

The first part of The War is a diary of the time in Paris during the last days World War II and the end of the war as she attempts to locate her husband who spent the last part of the war at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Duras and her husband are members of the French Resistance, and she and her group operate in plain sight, hiding their information and activities, even after the war has ended. In this complicated existence, Duras experiences loneliness, depression, hunger, sadness, fatigue, and vulnerability. 

She pores over lists of the dead and spends her time at various stations where trains bring survivors to Paris. Through her connections, she finally locates her husband and finds a way to bring him home. He's near to death from starvation. Along with the help of a doctor and friends, Duras brings her husband back to life. She holds nothing back in her depiction of the experience and the challenges.

The remaining sections of the book are stories, the most powerful of which are two autobiographical tales. One story has to do with a cat and mouse game between Duras and a gestapo agent and her attempt to extract information about her husband while the gestapo agent wants to have an affair with Duras. The other story is about Duras and her group from the Resistance who interrogate a man, and the story descends into violence and betrayal. There are several other World War II era stories, fictional in nature, that didn't resonate with me, perhaps because of the powerful writing that comes before of true life and death situations.

Although I liked The War, I found it a difficult read because the writing is stark and intense, and Duras' experiences are unforgettable. Barbara Bray's translation is excellent, and there are helpful footnotes that have information about the various Resistance groups to which Duras refers. 

I read The War in small doses, but it's a compelling work that I recommend.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Sea by John Banville (2005)

In The Sea, Max Morden, a semi-retired writer, goes back to the seaside of his youth after the death of his wife. Much of the novel reminded me of someone writing in his journal in a stream of consciousness fashion as Max jumps between memories of a particular summer of his youth, the recent past with his wife's illness and death and the present where's he come back to the familiar seaside at a guesthouse known as the Cedars. 

Life at the guesthouse is not that pleasant. The only other guest is a retired colonel who is a bit eccentric and a proprietress who does little to ensure her guests' comfort. Also, Max has a drinking problem.

The story always comes back to that summer of his youth. His parents rent a small cottage in the lower part of town while a wealthy middle class family, the Graces, take a big house at the beach. The Graces arrive in their expensive car with the parents, the fun loving Carlo and Connie. Their children, Mylo who is mute, and his twin sister, Chloe, are close to Max's age. Also along is a young woman, Rose, who is the governess. 

Max tells the story of long days at the beach and his first association with the Graces and his crush on Connie Grace. An event at a picnic with the Graces changes Max's feelings for Connie, and he turns his affections to Chloe. 

The first half of the novel goes along with beautiful prose that has a lovely ebb and flow like music. A  slight tonal change occurs in the second half of the novel as the dreaminess wears off. Max reveals how unreliable he is as a narrator, and a foreshadowing of danger looms over the novel that shows that the summer Max has idealized over the years was not that magical and that nothing is what it seems.

This is the first novel I've read by John Banville. I enjoyed The Sea and how Banville played with memory.

Have you read any of John Banville's novels?

Monday, August 5, 2019

Remarks on Recent Reads: The Books of July

Hello, Bookish Friends! Hard to believe that we are already at August. July was a good reading month for me. To be honest, I read more books in an attempt to distract myself from the utterly dismal news. Looks like reading to distract will continue in earnest for August as well.

Here's a rundown of my selections for July:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954) is a short novel with a frank and sometimes gruesome look at an eccentric family and their lives near an English village in 1914. The close proximity of the river means there is a deadly flood. Later, there is a plague that causes madness and hysteria. Some of the characters in the quirky English family seemed familiar, having read Comyns' Sisters by a River (1947). There's dark humor in this fast moving and unputdownable novel.

Where Memories Lie by Deborah Crombie (2008) has a lot of moving parts. The mystery begins with a jewelry auction that features a family heirloom thought lost during World War II. Soon Scotland Yard detectives Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid find themselves embroiled in a mystery that involves Gemma's friend, Erika Rosenthal, who fled to England during World War II, and a recent murder of a young woman who worked at the auction house. The book also has an unsolved murder in the past, and then there are issues that surround Duncan and Gemma's relationship. I always enjoy Crombie's mysteries, and Where Memories Lie was no different. 

I wrote a review earlier in the month of the fabulous novel by Marghanita Laski, The Village (1946), about life in a postwar English village.

Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford (1934) is Mitford's witty story based on her sisters, Unity and Diana, whose love of fascism and Hitler has been well documented. The plot is rather convoluted with two young men, Noel Foster and Jasper Aspect, on the lookout for wealthy young women to marry. Eugenia Malmain is a wealthy heiress and also an ardent supporter of the Union Jackshirts. Then there is Lady Marjorie who's in disguise in an attempt to elude the duke she's jilted and her friend Poppy who wants to divorce her husband. Wigs on the Green is a dizzy satire and at times, it felt a bit like reading Evelyn Waugh.

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark (1960) is another wonderful novel by this inventive writer. Spark returns to the world of 1960s London, and she writes about a group of bachelors who become involved in the shady world of mediums, seances, fortunetelling and blackmail. I loved The Bachelors and Spark's dark humor.

The Girl from the Fiction Department by Hilary Spurling (2002) is the only nonfiction book I read in July. This is a riveting biography from Hilary Spurling about the bittersweet life of Sonia Orwell, wife of George Orwell, and the subject of an earlier post.

The South by Colm Tóibín (1990) tells the story of Katherine Proctor, who leaves her husband and son in 1950s Ireland, and moves to Barcelona. There, she meets Miguel, an artist and former veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and they fall in love. She also becomes friends with an Irishman, Michael Graves. Katherine and Miguel move into a house in the mountains where she begins her own career as an artist. Nothing's ever simple, and both Katherine and Miguel find it hard to leave the past behind. The South is Tóibín's debut novel. I read it in one sitting and found it to be a satisfying read.

Roseborough by Jane Roberts Wood (2003) takes place in small-town Texas. Mary-Lou works at the Dairy Queen. Three weeks after her husband dies, her fourteen year old daughter, Echo, runs away from home. At a loss as to what else she can do to find Echo, Mary-Lou signs up for a parenting class at the local community college and meets Anne Hamilton, the instructor, and an interesting cast of other parents in the class with their own parenting challenges. Roseborough is an easy novel to fall into and one which has interesting characters. I liked reading about people whose lives are changed merely by meeting others and helping others. I've read several of Jane Roberts Wood's novels and have enjoyed them all. 

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim (1898) is a short semi-autobiographical novel. Elizabeth disappears into her garden each day where she wants to be left alone from the dreariness of being a housewife and mother, and the dreaded visitors who come calling each afternoon. There are comic moments, and I loved reading about her joy of gardening.

The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim (1899) is the followup to Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and it is a wonderful novel. The Solitary Summer shares the same epistolary form as in Elizabeth and Her German Garden and continues with Elizabeth's love of her garden and anything to do with gardening. She talks over her plan with her husband (known as The Man of Wrath) to spend her summer days alone in the garden without the pressing responsibilities of being a housewife, and he relents. What I also loved about this book is that von Arnim writes about her love of books and reading and her love of Thoreau in particular.

I loved both of these novels, and they made me want to be outside in my own garden.

I am rather behind on my reading of the novels that make up Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, but I did manage to read two of the novels in July. A Buyer's Market (1952) finds Nicholas Jenkins trying to set up his life in London, and there is a debutante ball and several parties where his friends Stringham and Widmerpool make appearances. I found this novel to be somewhat of a slog, partly due to the wordiness of Powell's writing. I considered not reading anymore of the novels. 

The third novel in the series, The Acceptance World (1955), changed my mind. The writing was better, and there was something fun and breezy about this novel. Nicholas visits his much talked about Uncle Giles and makes the acquaintance of Myra Erdleigh, fortuneteller, which leads to seances. (It's mere coincidence that I chose two novels in July that dealt with fortunetellers and seances.) There's a reunion of Nick's childhood friends from school and lots of situations that are seemingly unrelated, but Powell has a wonderful way of weaving everything together in the end.

While I enjoyed all these books (with the exception of A Buyer's Market), my favorites were The Village, The Bachelors, and Roseborough.

That does it for the books of July. Thanks so much for reading this post.

I wish you great reading this week!