Category Archives: Fiction

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Updates: Recent reading and 35 weeks

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season. All is well here, although everything feels slightly strange, in a not-bad way. Hobgoblin and I usually spend Christmas with my parents, but this time we didn’t want to drive the six hours required to get there so (relatively) close to my due date, so Christmas was quiet, with just the two of us and Muttboy. But we had fun opening presents, eating Hobgoblin’s awesome cooking, and seeing The Hobbit (not my kind of movie, really, and not perfect, but enjoyable nonetheless).

And now I … wait. After submitting final grades last week, I now have no obligations at work until I return 6-8 weeks after the baby is born (at which point I won’t have many obligations — it will be nothing but putting in an appearance in the writing center a couple times a week during the remainder of the spring semester to keep the paychecks coming). So all I have to do is stay healthy, take care of a few things like buying a car seat and arranging the nursery, and sit on the couch and read in between muttering complaints about my sore back. I’m extremely lucky to have so much time to rest before the baby is born (extremely!), but at the same time, I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring. I generally don’t deal well with having a lot of time on my hands. I get anxious and cranky and find myself doing nothing at all. But this time I’m going to keep telling myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because it won’t last long, and maybe I’ll convince myself. We’ll see.

As for what I’ve read recently, I’ve been ploughing through Francis Burney’s long (900+ page) novel Camilla and should finish it in a day or two. It’s been a fun read. Yes, it could be shorter — there are episodes that could easily be cut — but it’s obviously not the kind of book you pick up when you want a quick read; it’s the kind of book you pick up when you want to be absorbed in a long story, and it’s perfect for that. Camilla is that very typical 18th/19th novel character — the young woman venturing out into the world for the first time without the protection of a mother, finding that all is not what it seems and that people can be treacherous and deceitful. Even those who appear to be kindhearted and friendly can pose dangers — in fact, these are the most dangerous of all because they seem so trustworthy. But they are all too often frivolous, or friends with the wrong people, or profligate with their money, or vain, and they lead poor, susceptible Camilla down dangerous paths. The book is all about the dangers of having the wrong friends, and also, although Burney wouldn’t frame it this way, about how horrible it is that women of Camilla’s background can’t easily earn money. As the novel goes on, it gets more and more obsessed with money and the problem of not having any, and Camilla can do nothing about it except look for new people to borrow from and hope her relatives can come to her rescue. If only she could just work a small part-time job for a while, she would be fine, but, of course, she doesn’t live in that world. And I don’t live in Camilla’s world, a fact for which I’m very, very grateful. The restrictions she lives under are absurd, but no one in her world sees it that way.

I also finished Virginia Woolf’s diary, volume 2, which I’ve been reading off and on for several months now. I’ll admit I skimmed over some of the passages where she talks about her social life, except those where T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster appear, in favor of passages where she discusses her writing and reading and her mental state. Those passages are fascinating, particularly toward the end of this volume where she is working on Mrs. Dalloway. She struggles with it at times, but she also seems to know that this is going to be one of her masterpieces. She is writing in a way that pleases her and she doesn’t much care, at least in her best moments, about what people think. She’s found her style and her subject, and it’s fun to know from the perspective of the future that her confidence is justified.

A few quick notes on other books I’ve read in the last month or so: first, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which was as great as everyone seems to be saying it is. It’s an absorbing story, and at the same time it leads you to thoughts, questions, and conclusions about global economic structures without being at all didactic. She has a great way of keeping her focus on the story, but getting the reader to realize the implications of the story without spelling them out. Surely that’s not easy to do.

I also read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I liked very much — it has a satisfying structure and is the sort of book that makes you turn back to the first page after finishing it to see what you missed the first time around. It turns out to be worthwhile to take that extra look because then you understand the book as a whole so much better. It’s a book about art, specifically about being a writer, and it’s also about faith. This is where I balked a little bit, for the very personal and non-literary reason that I didn’t understand the religious conversion the main character undergoes. Hers is a kind of faith I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I’m still undecided as to whether Sophie makes sense as a character. But in a way this is okay because the narrative purposely keeps a distance from her and she is meant to be mysterious (as the novel’s title indicates). I liked the way the novel circles around her, trying and never quite succeeding to understand what happened.

And, finally, I finished Christina Schutt’s novel Prosperous Friends, which was a dark and difficult read that I liked very much. The characters are complicated and frequently unlikeable and the prosperous friends are not always friends you actually want to have. It’s a book about relationships and marriages gone wrong and only occasionally going right. I think I’m in the mood for unlikeable characters these days, so all this was fine, but I particularly liked the writing, which was rich and poetic — not always a good thing as far as I’m concerned, but it worked well here. The writing makes you work a bit, as Schutt does not always fill in all the pieces of the narrative, but it captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

I’ll close with my latest picture, which shows me looking a little bit harried — which is only to be expected, I guess! I hope to be back soon with my year-end round-up.

35 weeks

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Updates: 8/20/2012

I got back yesterday from my mystery book group meeting in Vermont, and it was a lovely time. Hobgoblin and I arrived on Friday afternoon and had some time to hang out, rest, and chat with our hosts (I guzzled limeade while the others drank martinis — I will certainly enjoy getting back to my moderate social drinking when this pregnancy is over!). Saturday involved a trip to the local farmer’s market in the morning, complete with bluegrass music, and a group excursion to Northshire Bookstore in the afternoon. We all brought home something; in my case, I found a used copy of Mark Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast, which I was thrilled to find after falling in love with his book Dog Years. We also bought our first children’s book, Tales from Old Ireland. The first of many more to come, I’m sure!

The book discussion Saturday evening was good, as it always is. Feelings were mixed about Sara Paretsky’s novel Hard Time, some really liking it and others finding it difficult to get through. Many people felt that Paretsky’s depiction of the prison system was the most powerful part of the book and the place where her writing really took off. It was clear that she has a passion for social justice, and when this passion lets loose, the writing gets stronger. The plot felt contrived, though, and we spent a lot of time talking about various plot points that seemed absurd. The mystery itself didn’t seem to work very well.

We also spent a lot of time talking about the news that John Banville/Benjamin Black will write a new Philip Marlowe book. Opinion here is very mixed as well, largely because many, although not all of us, strongly disliked Black’s novel Christine Falls and got the feeling that Black doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the mystery genre. It’s my feeling that I might like John Banville’s version of Marlowe better than Benjamin Black’s, but we’ll see what happens.

And then Sunday morning we all headed home and back to regular life, which for me includes finalizing my classes for this fall. I will spend some time today thinking about how I will teach E.M. Forster’s Passage to India in my new online class.

As for other reading from the past week, I finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and liked it very much. I don’t want to say very much about it, as it’s a book that should be read with no preconceptions, but it was extremely absorbing, entertaining, and satisfying. I liked that it had a focus on writing and how writing shapes our identity and how other people think about us (and on how crime cases are solved). It’s a book that gets you to think about narration and how much to trust what you are told. The book reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the sense that it left me with a vague sense of dread and anxiety the entire time I was reading it — a feeling that sounds bad, but isn’t entirely. It’s a sign of a powerful book, I suppose, that it can grip the reader so tightly.

I also began reading Tove Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver and am about a third of the way through it. It’s similar to The Summer Book (which I loved) in its simple, pared-down writing style that is also very beautiful, although in other ways it’s an entirely different story. It’s set in a small Scandinavian village (I’m not sure if it’s in Sweden or Finland) and is about a young woman at odds with her fellow villagers, trying to take care of her younger brother, and developing a sketchy plan that involves a vulnerable older woman. I’m enjoying the writing, and also the detached, non-judgmental tone with which Jansson tells the story. She simply lets it unfold and allows you to draw your own conclusions.

That’s it for me for now — have a great week everyone!

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The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can’t remember now, but it’s the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It’s the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There’s more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one’s fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It’s a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel’s opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I’m sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters’ lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters’ virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It’s possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.

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The Last Samurai

I’m not entirely sure where I learned about Helen DeWitt — from blogs of course, but I can’t remember which ones — but she’s been on my mind lately because of her good showing in this year’s Tournament of Books. I thought The Last Samurai might be a better place to start than the most recent Lightning Rods, though. What a fun book it turned out to be! It’s over 500 pages, but a fast read and very absorbing. It tells the story of a mother and son living in London, both of whom are brilliant, but the son, Ludo, is particularly so, and the mother, Sibylla, doesn’t quite know how to handle him. He has a desperate hunger to know things, and is studying Greek and other languages at the age most children are barely ready for Sesame Street. At the novel’s beginning, he wants Sibylla to teach him Japanese, inspired by her obsessive rewatching of Kurosawa’s film The Last Samurai. For her part, she is struggling, both because money is very tight, and because she needs time to do the typing that brings in what money she has. It’s hard to find time, though, when Ludo constantly asks questions and begs to be taught more — and more and more.

What I liked particularly about the book is the style: DeWitt captures the craziness of Sibylla’s and Ludo’s experiences by throwing it all out on the page. There are pages where the sentences go back and forth at a dizzying pace between Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions, or between a description of The Last Samurai and Ludo’s questions, or between comments they get from strangers as they ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm and Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions. There is also a lot of Greek and Japanese and other languages in the pages, as well as numbers and math formulas. The novel has so much energy that it threatens to overrun its boundaries at times, both because it’s frequently breaking out into other languages and different fonts and because it’s constantly veering off into different stories. As Ludo grows older, he becomes more and more curious about his father and asks Sibylla more and more insistently to tell him who he is. Sibylla refuses, so Ludo goes on a quest to find him, or to find someone worthy of being him. Part of this quest is discovering stories of brilliant, adventurous, potential father-figures, and these stories become part of the novel.

It’s here that the novel faltered the only time; in the second half of the book, the narration settled down into a pattern that threatened to get dull. But only threatened — the energy and humor of the writing saved it, as did the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo and the fondness I had for Ludo throughout the whole book.

I think the thing I like best about the book is the great sense of openness it has. Even though Sibylla frequently feels harried and trapped by her situation, she’s able to offer Ludo so much intellectual possibility and so much freedom that it’s satisfying to watch him figure out the world and begin to make his way in it. He struggles with boredom, frustration, and uncertainty, but he also has great resourcefulness to match his intelligence. It’s a pleasure to watch him take on the world.

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Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.

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The Accidental

I finished Ali Smith’s The Accidental the other night, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it; I’m not quite sure I like the ending, but that’s not a big deal with a book that is not plot driven. Mostly, I liked the book because of the writing, the way Smith captures the consciousness of each character.

I’ve always liked books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives because you can see how people react to the same situation in different ways or how they interpret a situation differently given their varied preoccupations and levels of knowledge. It shows how little solid information we have about anything and how our most prized opinions may be based on very incomplete knowledge. Smith tells her story from four different perspectives, each one appearing three different times: Eve, her second husband Michael, and two children from her first marriage, 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. They are on vacation in a rental house in Norfolk, and in walks Amber, a 30-something woman who wheedles her way into their lives. Each one thinks someone else in the family knows Amber, so no one seriously questions her presence. The story is about the havoc she wreaks as she develops different relationships with each family member and makes them confront who they are as individuals and as a family. There are short sections that are presumably from Amber’s perspective as well, although they don’t tell us much about who Amber is. She remains a mystery.

What works best is Smith’s use of language to capture the distinctive thought pattern of each character. The opening lines of Astrid’s story, for example, are interrupted by the words “Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski” in parentheses, as Astrid, in the midst of her thoughts on the dawn, also thinks about her own name and identity. She was born Astrid Berenski, but when her mother remarried, her name changed, and she is constantly thinking about what this change means. Eve’s first section is told in questions and answers, which is appropriate as she is a researcher and writer whose books are part biography, part fiction and who undergoes interviews herself. This format nicely captures her uncertainty and self-doubt. There is even a very odd section where’s Michael’s story transforms into a series of poems. Normally I would find this sort of thing irritating, but here it works: Michael is the sort who might start composing poems (bad ones) in his mind as a way of thinking about his life, and so it’s natural for the narrative to follow his mind there.

I found the characters almost equally compelling — which strikes me as hard to pull off when a writer is moving back and forth among four of them — and enjoyed being pulled into the emotional world of the Smart family. I read this book partly because I’ve heard very good things about Smith’s latest novel There But For The, and I wanted to read the Smith book on my shelves before moving on to the new one. I’m glad I did, and now I’m even more eagerly awaiting Smith’s latest.

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