A hero of dubious morals, a poor child, and some excellent women: a mini-roundup

Let’s have a quick reading roundup, shall we? I have three books sitting on my desk that deserve better than this, but Everything Changed recently and I’m a little pressed for time.

I’ve been puttering along for the last while doing some freelance writing, some writing for free, and some editing. I have been quite busy, but when you work at home you make your own hours; just as importantly, you can work in pj’s while five cats vie to be the one allowed to sit in your lap and gaze upon you adoringly.

Yes, it’s all been rather lovely. However, I will soon be moving into a new full-time job in an office (dammit, I’m going to have to start wearing shoes!). I have to go buy some shoes. Also many other things, like pretty much everything that one wears when not schlepping it at home with a pile of shedding kitties.

I’d like to have a clean blog slate, as it were, before I begin the working outside the house, and so here I am, about to let down three really excellent novels.

I don’t know when I’ll get back to a normal (whatever that means for me) posting schedule. I’ve been thinking about that; it makes me sad, but it also makes me kind of excited to know that for the next little bit, I’ll probably be forced to read without posting in mind–just because it’ll be good to know if I can actually still read without thinking about what I might write.

Yes, it’s come to that. On the eve of the 5th anniversary of my thesis defense, I’ve come to realize two things: 1) I find it harder now to read without taking notes than I ever did when I was in grad school! Being surrounded by a large community of really gifted book bloggers has made me up my game. 2) It only took about 4 years or so, maybe 4.5, but I think I’m finally at the point where I can write seriously and thoughtfully about books without being dense, dry, and overly academic!

Something magical happened when I wrote my piece on The Knight of the Burning Pestle for Open Letters Monthly a few months ago, and the change in my approach is, I think, even more apparent in the piece I have on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the upcoming OLM. It’s very exciting: I’m getting to the point where I can write about books in a way that I would actually like to read! Well, maybe it would be more reasonable to say that my writing about books these days doesn’t make me so itchy and irritable as it used to; I’d call that progress. And now, of course, I’ll be on a little hiatus; I’m hoping it’ll be positively miniscule, this little hiatus.

But the books!

LermontovMikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1839-41) is apparently the first psychological novel by a Russian author, which is not, I think, an entirely promising statement. Fear not: Lermontov was a genius and A Hero of Our Time is brilliant in style, structure, and narrative voice. The tale of selfish, listless, lazily cruel, precocious Pechorin is full of the vice, scandal, shocking behaviour, and moral outrage you’d expect in a story of a mad, bad, and dangerous to know Byronic hero.

But it’s also funny! The first narrator, unnamed to make things slightly confusing, constantly makes fun of himself for being a travel writer, a writer at all–basically for everything. But then his landscape descriptions as he travels through the Caucasus are breath-taking in their beauty! Such descriptions normally slide right off my brain like they were never there, but they may have been my favourite part of this book. Lermontov, of course, wrote only one novel (and a number of poems) before he died in a dual. Down with this sort of thing.

My friend Andrew over at Albino Books recently wrote about bookstore browsing and chaos theory–a phenomenon to which I pledge my entire allegiance. The magic of coming across a hard to find book in a physical store is really half the pleasure in getting the book. This is how I found Jules Valles’ The Child (1878), and I’m sure the considerable pleasure I took in this novel was amplified by the fact that I found it tucked up tightly on a hard-to-reach top shelf at She Said Boom!.

the-child-vallesValles’s novel is a perfect and brilliant story of a horribly abused child who hates school. It doesn’t sound either rousing or hilarious, but it is both these things; obviously, it is not only these things. It is also gruesome and terrifying and very, very sad. But Valles, like Lermontov, was clearly a genius (and happily for me, run through the filter of an excellent translator) and so the topic hardly matters. That said, poor little Jacques is an unforgettably precocious and charmingly weird little beastie of a child, and I’m desperate to read the other two books in his trilogy. The brilliant translator of this volume, Douglas Parmee, has died and NYRB is not returning my request for comment re: them publishing the next two novels. Down also with this sort of thing.

Finally, the apparently most under-rated author of the twentieth century: Barbara Pym. The Twitter is entirely responsible for my having heard of, and deciding to keep an eye out, for any of her novels. I’d really never heard of her before this year! I have learned that Pym is not to be found in secondhand bookshops.

excellent-women-barbara-pymI suspect this is because she is simply too fine a writer to let go of once you’ve found any of her stuff. Excellent Women (1952) will certainly never leave my house again now I’ve got it. I’ll lend it to you upon receiving your $250 deposit in case of loss, theft, or damage.

I loved it; I am also quite sure I don’t entirely understand it. Pym has been likened to Jane Austen and I think I know why: she’s sharper than you’d expect. There are sharp edges everywhere, just cutting away at your brain and your assumptions and notions generally. But Pym is really sharp; I’m not sure Austen would have had a chance if it’d come to a fight. On Twitter, I said something extremely brilliant, but entirely unappreciated, to the effect of “Reading Excellent Women is like picking up what you think is a butter knife and then finding yourself bleeding out.”

Everybody, narrator not excluded (Mildred Lathbury is a single, church-going spinster with a taste for cookery books, her neighbours’ business, and doing other people’s dishes for the delicious combination of feeling in control and totally put upon), is quietly gutted by Pym’s deadly ruthless wit. I will be reading everything she’s written, yes.

That’s all for now. See you soon (I hope!).

10 thoughts on “A hero of dubious morals, a poor child, and some excellent women: a mini-roundup

  1. First, best of luck with the big transition.

    Second, a piece on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore? Oh yeah! Very exciting for your readers, too. I hope it is a recurring series.

    Third, one book I know well and two I should obviously read. You would think the big duel in the Lermontov book would be the end of duels in Russian literature, the insane, never-to-be-topped climax, but no characters keep having duels for decades afterwards.

  2. Best of luck with the new job.

    I really know what you mean about that sudden discovery of book you thought you might never actually see in the leaf and page. For me it was a volume of Winifred Holtby’s letters. I enjoy her fiction but I don’t think it holds a candle to her journalism and so finding letters in which she worked out some of the beliefs that then informed her articles and essays was like striking gold.

    • Speaking of Holtby, I’ve been looking for anything by her in the secondhand shops for about a year and nothing yet…but I’m sure it’ll happen. It’s not that I don’t have plenty to read already, but there is also the comfort of knowing something’s snug at home on the shelf…

      • Do you ever order from AbeBooks? They are sure to have Holtby titles at low low prices…sometimes with free shipping also.

  3. Oh, I’m glad you’ve been reading Pym: I hope you’ll write more about her as you read on. As you know, I’ve recently been trying her out too and I agree there’s something just a bit elusive about her, and the sharpness – yes, it’s unexpected and doesn’t spare anyone. I’m not sure I could *love* her, as a result. Who needs extra unanticipated pain?

  4. Congrats on the new job! I hear you about the shoes, it’s the worst thing about having to work in an office but if you have a desk you can slip them off sometimes, especially sandals in summer.

    Glad you found Pym! She’s a real gem. If you are diligent, she will turn up in secondhand shops now and then.

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