All Souls, by Javier Marias

I enjoyed All Souls by Javier Marías in a detached, intellectual kind of way. It’s not the kind of book that wins over your heart, or not in any obvious way at least. It’s set in Oxford and tells the story of a visiting lecturer from Spain who is looking to pass his two years as pleasantly as possible. He has minimal teaching duties and frequently finds himself bored. He looks around for and then finds a woman, an Oxford tutor, with whom to have an affair and this helps fill his days. But his life is fairly flat. He finds amusement looking through used book shops — this is, as Amateur Reader pointed out to me, a book shopping classic — and he also observes British life and particularly university life and reports to us on its oddities. Most memorable for me was a lengthy set piece describing a college dinner in which one of the dons behaves spectacularly badly and everyone else pretends not to notice. We also get lengthy descriptions of the things that fill the narrator’s life: the beggars he sees on the streets as he takes long walks, the author whose work he is trying to track down, the garbage that accumulates in his apartment.

All this sounds dull, but it’s not. Somehow, through the satirical tone, the dry humor, the detached observations, a deeper feeling comes through. I’m not sure how to describe it; perhaps it’s melancholy, sadness, and nostalgia all mixed together. The narrator is writing from a time after his stay in Oxford is over; he is back in Madrid, married and moving on with his life. We learn early on that two of the men most important to him while in Oxford have died, and he is writing in part in order to describe them and his interactions with them. So a sense of loss hangs over the whole book. It’s not only these friends — or, perhaps, acquaintances — that he has lost, though; he recognizes on the novel’s first page that the person he was then is gone, replaced by someone entirely different. Even memory doesn’t hold him together as a coherent being. He didn’t make much of a mark in Oxford, and it seems that this is his fate: not to make much of a mark on the world. All he can do, it seems, is to write down his story, and to seek out the nearly-lost stories of others, which his bookshop haunting allows him to do.

The pleasures of this novel are quiet, but real, nonetheless. For a lengthier review of the book, make sure to read Litlove’s take on it. I think I might like to read more Marías at some point. All Souls has intrigued me.

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Supporting Independent Bookstores

I care very much about independent bookstores staying in business, so it only makes sense to buy books from independent bookstores as frequently as possible, right? Right. I thought so. So while on our way to visit friends in Vermont for Thanksgiving, Hobgoblin, the baby, and I stopped in Brattleboro to visit a couple stores. From Mystery on Main Street, I bought Sarah Weinman’s anthology of stories Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. The book includes stories by Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar and others. Troubled Daughters From Everyone’s Books just around the corner, I found How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman, a collection of profiles of contemporary authors.

And then later, in Manchester, we stopped by the fabulous Northshire Bookstore and I got a few more things. First is Maureen McLane’s book My Poets, which Stefanie wrote enthusiastically about. How could I resist? It’s a book of experimental prose, combining memoir, criticism, and poetry, and it sounds beautiful. My Poets I also found My 1980s and Other Essays by Wayne Koestenbaum. I’ve never read Koestenbaum before, but he seems to write the kind of book I admire — idiosyncratic cultural criticism. And finally, I picked up From the Mouth of the Whale, a novel by Sjón, an Icelandic writer. A.S. Byatt wrote glowingly of his work, so I thought I’d give it a try.

When I arrived home, I found this waiting for me, a non-independent bookstore purchase (I’m not perfect!): Hallman The Story About the Story II, edited by J.C. Hallman. I loved the first volume Hallman edited. The book collects  essayistic literary criticism — criticism of literary works that is literary in its own right. As a lover of literature and of the essay form, I had to have this, right?

To further support independent bookstores, I hope to stop by my local bookstore (one of my local bookstores, I should say — I’m lucky!), Byrd’s Books, which is hosting Mark Slouka as part of “Small Business Saturday” and Sherman Alexie’s Indie’s First idea, where authors act as booksellers for a day at their local stores. It should be fun.

I’m just here doing my duty!

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Giveaway Winners and Recent Reading

First of all, I’d like to announce the winners of Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound. And yes, I said “winners” because I decided to give away two copies. The first winner is Teresa, and the second is Stefanie! So congrats to both of you, and thanks to those of you who entered. I hope everyone gets a chance to read the book at some point. If the winners would email me with their mailing addresses at ofbooksandbikes at yahoo dot com, that would be great.

I’d also like to write about the latest Emily Books selection I read, Samantha Irby’s essay collection Meaty. Irby is the author of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat, which I hadn’t heard of before I read the book, but which has a lot of readers and a devoted following. Irby is also a comedian in Chicago. The essays in Meaty have a “bloggy” feel to them, which I don’t mean as a negative; I just mean that they are loose, funny, and informal. They are also very personally revealing and sexually explicit. They are not for everyone, for sure! But I liked their forthrightness, their energy, and their humor. I always admire writers who can reveal personal details about themselves and do it in a way that’s not irritatingly self-absorbed. These essays may be self-absorbed, but they are self-absorbed in the best possible way, which is to say that they are entertaining and may make you feel better about yourself. To say that Irby “reveals” personal details isn’t quite the right way to put it; it’s more like she revels in them, she throws them in your face and dares you to criticize her. She is her own worst critic, after all, so you can’t possibly do her any harm. Her topics include body image, dating and sex, race, food, money, mothers, health, and others. Her first essay is about turning 30, and is basically a long list of all her longings and failures. In another essay, she lists, in actual list format, all her physical imperfections. The overall effect, in spite of or because of the in-your-face tone and the foul language, is charming. She seems like she would make a great person to hang out with, if maybe not the best roommate.

As for the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I finished Javier Marias’s novel All Souls, and I’ll try to write about that later. This evening, I’m going to start Tinkers, by Paul Harding. And soon, I’ll pick up The Missing File by D.A. Mishani for my book group.

Have a good week everyone!

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Book Subscriptions

I’ve become a subscriber to Emily Books, an ebook-only bookstore that makes one book available per month and offers a subscription service so that each month’s book arrives as a link in your email box. I’m very happy with the service, in part because Emily Books are so distinctive: they are generally books by women and ones that have been overlooked or forgotten, or are out of the mainstream for one reason or another. They tend to have a feminist sensibility, and are sometimes edgy and experimental. The books are sometimes novels, sometimes nonfiction. The most famous ones are probably Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent and Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but there are a lot that I had never heard of before. I have Emily Books to thank for introducing me to Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a book I loved.

I’m enjoying reading by subscription, but it does cause some anxiety: a new book arrives every month, and I always wonder when I will have time to read it. There is so much to read already! I don’t want these books to pile up unread (metaphorically speaking — they are ebooks!). But on the other hand, I love the idea of someone else choosing a book for me. And I love supporting a small, indie bookstore like Emily Books. They are doing great work in supporting and promoting lesser-known books and authors.

It seems to me that book subscriptions have been growing in popularity lately. There’s the NYRB Classics Book Club, the Melville House Art of the Novella subscription series, the TNB Book Club, and others, I’m sure. There is even a personalized service from Heywood Hill bookshop, which Alex wrote about recently, that offers a book a month tailored to your individual taste.

Emily Books is the only subscription service I’m participating in right now, and I should probably limit myself to only one such service at a time, but they all look so good. All this is entirely too tempting for someone as greedy for books as I am!

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Reading Round-Up, 11/19/13

First of all, don’t forget that I’m giving away a book! Leave a comment on my post reviewing Elizabeth Gentry’s novel Housebound to have a chance to win a copy. I’ll draw a name after this Friday.

A few new books came into my house in the last week and a half, although none of them were books I bought — they were all books I won in some way or another. I rarely have this many free books coming into the house at once, so it felt decadent:

  • Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life came from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer’s program. I’m not sure if this book is getting more attention or less since it has the same title as Kate Atkinson’s new release.
  • From Goodreads I won Brother Kemal: A Kayankaya Thriller by Jakob Arjouni, part of Melville International Crime from Melville House. This is book 5 in a series of crime novels set in Germany.
  • And then The Cutting Season by Attica Locke, which I won in a giveaway on Twitter. Can you believe my luck? This is another mystery, part of Dennis Lehane’s imprint with HarperCollins.

I added a few books to my TBR list (which numbers in the hundreds and includes a lot of books I may not get to for a long time):

  • The first is Young Rebecca: Writings, 1911-1917, which Rohan from Novel Readings was tweeting about recently. I’m a great admirer of West’s, but I haven’t read any of her nonfiction and would like to.
  • Then there is Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 1960-2000, which Danielle has been writing about. The book is made up of diary entries from, as the title tells us, one day each year. The concept is intriguing.
  • And then I’m greatly looking forward to writer/professor/blogger Jenny Davidson’s forthcoming book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. It’s not coming out until next spring, but I’ll get a copy as soon as I can.
  • Finally, I read about Enid Bagnold’s book The Squire from the Persephone catalog. It was originally published in 1938 and is largely about pregnancy and childbirth. Intriguing, right?

As for what I’m reading now, I decided to pick up All Souls by Javier Marias, which I’ve had on my shelves for a while now. I was drawn to it because I felt like reading about its Oxford setting, and I just finished a rather ridiculous set piece narrated in great detail about formal dinners at the university, or “high tables.” So far I’m enjoying the novel’s dark humor. I’m also making my way through the essay collection Meaty by Samantha Irby. I should finish that one soon.

After that, who knows?

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Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound, and a Giveaway!

Housebound I’m thrilled that today is publication day for my friend Elizabeth Gentry’s novel HouseboundI’ve been rereading it this week, and what a pleasure it’s been. As I wrote earlier, I read the novel in draft form and loved it then, so it was fun to reread and see what changes she’s made to make it even better. I’ve read a lot of Elizabeth’s writing over the years, and my response is always, oh, this is exactly the kind of writing I like! Things happen in her books, but the focus is on the characters and their experience of consciousness. The books are about what happens in the mind as much as in the world. Her writing has a very distinctive voice, a thoughtful, deeply insightful voice that makes me think about the world in a new way. But it’s also a little bit strange, in an entirely good way, a little eerie and dark. It’s beautiful, and entirely unconventional.

Housebound tells the story of 19-year-old Maggie and her family, who live an isolated life in a large, oddly-shaped house. Maggie is the oldest of nine siblings, in a  family that undermines the stereotype of large families as close-knit, their houses full of noise and chaos. This is a cautious, guarded family, with an emotionally-absent set of parents and a habit of watching each other carefully, making sure everyone follows the rules that, at this point, don’t have to be named. Everyone just knows what they are. The children are home-schooled, and their only social interaction, at least in recent years, is with neighbors they meet on the way to town to go to the library once a week. They spend their time doing their lessons, reading, and playing quiet games. They know that one of the rules is not to wander beyond the boundaries of their land; in particular, they are not supposed to visit their neighbors, who are few and far between.

It becomes clear soon enough that the family has been under some kind of spell, and that this spell is now showing signs of weakening. The novel opens with Maggie’s decision to leave: “Leaving home felt like tunneling out of a snow that had kept everyone housebound so long they had run out of things to talk about.” From there, the opening paragraph circles back to what it had been like when the spell descended:

There were no more anecdotes, poetry recitations, ghost stories, contrived games, or late-night disclosures before the wood stove. Rather than building their knowledge of one another in successive cycles of irritation and love, memorizing each new layer as they aged and grew, the eleven members of the family had simply succumbed, once and for all, to a silence that turned them into strangers … They felt suspended, always waiting for someone else to make the first move — to take a turn with the bath, to return with fresh wood, to put the pot on to boil, to summon to supper, and most of all, to grow up and to leave.

But now, Maggie has decided she’s ready for a job and drives into the nearby city with her father to find one. The events of the novel take place during the days between getting the job and moving to the city to start it, a strange, suspended time when Maggie is still part of the family, but newly separated from it as well. She begins to venture out into forbidden spaces, to visit the neighbors she’s not supposed to visit.

The question of what Maggie will discover is what drives the plot forward, but along the way, there is so much to notice. The novel has a fairytale quality to it, with witch-like figures, frightening grandmothers, lost memories, suspended time, and the sense of a magic spell settling on the house. There is a definitive emphasis on the menacing, eerie aspects of fairy tales and the threatening sexuality that underlies many of them. Nature is menacing as well; rather than being a benign or a healing force, nature repulses and repels the characters. It’s forever threatening to invade their house — most importantly in the form of a rat that bites Maggie one night — and requires never-ending labor to contain. Even something as potentially pleasurable as reading takes on a dark cast in this novel: the characters are forever escaping into stories in ways that do not seem entirely healthy.

The novel is about isolation and loneliness, as Maggie does battle in a sense against these menacing forces all by herself. The focus isn’t entirely on her, however; the point of view shifts regularly into that of other characters, so that we learn, slowly, what the other siblings and the parents are experiencing. We even, briefly, get into the perspective of the rat. This gives the book a sense of richness as we come to understand the emotional and psychological complexity of everything going on in this very quiet, seemingly still, house.

So, as a way to celebrate publication day, I’d like to give away a copy of the book someone who might like to read it. If you would like a copy, just leave a comment on this post letting me know, and if more than one person is interested, I’ll choose a name at random at the end of the day next Friday. I’m happy to send the book internationally, so everyone is welcome.

If you would like to get a sense of the writing, The Collagist has published an excerpt of the novel here.

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A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura

When I requested this book from the publisher on Netgalleys, I had no idea it was 880 pages long, and I probably wouldn’t have requested it if I’d known. But I thought, well, I might as well give it 50 pages and see what I think. After 50 pages, I was reading happily, and I read happily until the end. Now I miss being in the world of the book. It’s not that the book is unputdownable in the way that long, plotty novels can be, exactly, but it’s absorbing and draws you deeply into the world the author evokes.

It’s described as a retelling of Wuthering Heights, set in Japan, which is largely true, although it doesn’t follow the plot of Wuthering Heights exactly, and there is much more to it than that. But it is about a long love affair between a Heathcliff-like man, Taro, and a Catherine-like woman, Yoko. Taro disappears from home for many years and makes a return just as Heathcliff does, among many other parallels. The parallel to Wuthering Heights that I liked best, though, was the novel’s use of multiple story tellers and embedded stories. Where in WH, we get Nelly Dean telling us the bulk of the story, in A True Novel, it’s Fumiko who narrates much of it. She is first the maid to Yoko’s large extended family, and later more of a friend. There is also an equivalent of Lockwood, the first narrator in WH, in this case, Yusuke, who meets Fumiko accidentally and finds himself unexpectedly drawn into her story. But there is another layer beyond all this, which is the author herself, Minae Mizumura, or someone very much like her, who tells us how she found out about the whole story. This forms a lengthy prologue before the main part of the novel begins.

All this sounds complicated, but, of course, there is plenty of time for Mizumura to develop all her story lines. We begin, surprisingly enough, among Japanese immigrants to the U.S. living on Long Island, where Mizumura meets Taro, her novel’s hero. From there, however, we move to Japan to read about Fumiko’s history and Taro’s and Yoko’s youth and family life, and we learn a lot along the way about Japan from the World War II period through the 1990s. The novel has much to say about the struggles the Japanese experienced after the war and how the ups and downs of Japan’s economy affected their daily lives. We get a picture of Tokyo and also of the countryside, of poor families and of wealthy ones.

The novel offers a chance to think about the relationship of reality and fiction, a preoccupation announced in the book’s title — a “true novel” is perhaps oxymoronic, perhaps not. The author starts with what seems to be autobiography or memoir, and then moves into the lives of her “characters,” one of whom she has met in “real life.” So is all of this “real”? But this real life story is a retelling of sorts of a novel from 19thC England. Added into the mix of fact and fiction are photographs sprinkled throughout the book of landscapes and places mentioned in the story. In case you start to feel as though you are reading a fictional story (which of course, you actually are), the photographs are there to ground you in “reality,” or something like it.

Again, described this way, the book seems like a messy tangle, but that’s not what the experience of reading it feels like. Instead, you feel like you’re drawn into a complex, fully-realized world, a book that explores ideas and history and tells a good story at the same time.

For a lengthier, more detailed discussion of the book, see The Complete Review’s take on it.

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