Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter was not what I expected, but then, this is my third Comyns novel and none of them have been what I expected. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was my first one, and it was an unsettling mix of a light, breezy tone and dark subject matter. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead remains my favorite Comyns so far; it’s very strange, opening with ducks swimming in and out of drawing room windows and staying on a similar off-beat note. The world of the book seems familiar, but it’s not, quite. The Vet’s Daughter is perhaps more like Our Spoons than Who Was Changed, but it’s darker in tone throughout. But it also veers off in some odd directions, especially in the second half.

It tells the story of Alice, the daughter of the title, who lives in London with her bitter, nasty father and her ailing mother. She’s trying to give her mother as much help as she can, but her mother is on her way out of this world, and now the daughter is going to be left to manage her father on her own as best as she can. She has a friend Lucy, but she can only see her occasionally, and Lucy is deaf, which makes communication difficult. The vet’s practice has sinister aspects to it; a vivisectionist stops by to pick up unwanted animals and many of the animals they keep suffer. There are few bright spots in Alice’s life. One is Mrs. Churchill, who is a companion to the family during and after Alice’s mother’s illness. She provides some needed stability.

Mr. Peebles is not exactly a bright spot in Alice’s life, but he’s a friend and one with some power to provide Alice with much-needed diversions. He is another veterinarian who has helped with the family vet practice, and it becomes clear early on that he is attracted to Alice. It seems as though he might provide an escape, but Alice does not return his feelings. She spends time with him but considers him only a friend, although marriage is always there as a possibility should she get desperate enough. She walks a line between honesty and deception, trying to get what pleasure she can out of his company without leading him on.

All this takes place in the gloomy setting of poverty-stricken London, but this is only the first half of the novel. In the second half Alice heads out toward the English coast to live with Mr. Peebles’s mother. She is a depressed woman living in a house that’s halfway burned to the ground, being cared for by a truly strange, scarily sinister couple, the Gowleys. Alice’s job is to be a companion. She is still isolated here, this time geographically isolated as well as emotionally so, but this job brings some new opportunities with it. Alice learns about the countryside and its ways, and she also learns about sexual desire, as she meets Nicholas, a young, attractive soldier who teaches her how to ice skate and seems to be attracted to her as well. This relationship puts her feelings toward Mr. Peebles in a new light; she knows now what real attraction can be and marriage Mr. Peebles takes on an even duller, bleaker aspect.

I think I’ll stop there with a discussion of the plot, except to say that levitation becomes an important plot point, and I’m trying to figure out what to make of this. Alice had a couple experiences with levitation during her sleep while in London, and it happens again out on the coast. She experiments a bit and discovers she can levitate at will, although it takes a lot of energy and focus. When her father finds out about her ability, it becomes another way he can exploit her, and her life closes in on her again. But what are we supposed to make of this? I first thought she was merely dreaming that she could levitate and that it was a metaphor for her desire for freedom or something like that. But then what I thought was a metaphor becomes real and she actually does have the ability to float up into the air. Of course, it is still a metaphor even though it’s “real” — her ability to levitate only sets her apart and leads to more suffering and despair. The thing that makes her special makes her miserable, and there is no chance for escape, ever.

I’m still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts. I liked the first person narration; the story is told through Alice’s eyes in her forthright, no-nonsense tone. Alice is so young — only seventeen — and she hasn’t had the chance to do much in her life, but she has seen a lot of suffering. One of the first things she tells us is that “if [my mother] had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” She describes her father’s cruelties matter-of-factly and without dwelling on the darkness of it all, but there’s a sadness to the tone as well, as though she knows life isn’t ever going to offer much, in spite of her hopes. When Nicholas betrays her, she is not really surprised. But I’m not sure how to integrate the two parts of the book, particularly the very ending. The note the book ends on seems appropriate, but to get there by way of levitation? I’m curious what other people think of the value of bringing in this fantastical? supernatural? element.

But I definitely can conclude that Comyns is a writer I want to read in full. I love how she’s full of surprises and that her novels have so much variety. I love the darkness and twistedness of her worlds, and the way she look at that darkness straight on.

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New Ways of Reading: Giving Scribd a Try

I’ve known about subscription services for reading such as Oyster and Scribd for a while now — services that give you unlimited ebook reading for $8-9 a month. They never appealed to me, though, because I was happy getting ebooks from the library and from other sources. Cheap and free ebooks are plentiful right now, so I thought I didn’t need another source of them, particularly since I read slowly and read fewer ebooks than print books. But then Scribd started offering audiobooks as well as ebooks, and the situation changed. I had been getting audiobooks from the library, and that worked pretty well, but I always had a problem with the timing of it — I’d be in the mood for a particular audiobook, but there would be a long waiting list for it, and when it finally became available, I was no longer interested, or involved in something else, or happy listening to podcasts at the moment. I’d considered using Audible.com or a similar service, but the price always seemed too high.

So I thought I’d give Scribd a try. I’ve had it for going on two months now, and have finished one audiobook and am in the middle of another, and I’m in the middle of an ebook as well. So far, I think it may be worthwhile to keep, although the service is still very much on trial in my mind; if I find it’s not worth it, it’s easy to drop, and I will. But there is a pretty good selection of audiobooks — plenty there I’d like to listen to — and I love how they are instantly available, with no waiting. The price seems to be right. Even if I listen to only one audiobook, or even less than one, per month it’s still cheaper than Audible, plus it includes ebook access. I haven’t looked through their ebook catalog very thoroughly, but that’s because my focus is more on audiobooks, plus it’s very large and overwhelming to browse through.

I listened to Jennifer Egan’s novel Look at Me, which was great — though so long! It took about 20 hours to listen to. Now I’m in the middle of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, which I’m enjoying very much (and which is a much more reasonable 10 hours). I’m slowing reading Jennifer Weiner’s novel Good in Bed, which I started because I’ve been curious about her books and wondered how I would like something a little more “commercial” than what I usually read, plus wanting something potentially fun to read before I fall asleep each night. It’s been enjoyable in parts, but in the last third of the book, I’m finding it implausible, and I’m kind of losing interest. Ah, well.

The Scribd app isn’t perfect — I’ve had some trouble getting audiobooks downloaded and ebooks don’t sync very well between devices (iPhone and iPad). But generally I’m happy with this experiment so far. It’s a good way of getting more audiobooks into my life, at a time when audiobooks are becoming a more and more convenient way for me to read.

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Best of 2014

Okay, it’s time for my best-of list. I made this list really quickly because I’m not sure agonizing over what I put here will lead to a better list. I go with my gut impulse instead. But I think my gut impulse is pretty reliable!

Best Fiction:

  • Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
  • A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler

Best Mysteries:

  • A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke

Best Nonfiction:

  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, by Roz Chast
  • Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
  • My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
  • On Immunity, by Eula Biss

Best Poetry:

  • Bough Down, by Karen Green

Best Short Story Collection:

  • I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, by Matthew Salesses

Best Essay Collections:

  • Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss
  • Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin

Books I Brought Up in Conversation and Recommended Most Often:

  • Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz
  • A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

Funniest Book (and best book to have on hand Christmas day to make your bookish family read chapters of):

  • Texts from Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg

And a shout-out to the best book published by a friend, which is really great book and could go on my best-of list easily: Michelle Bailat-Jones’s Fog Island Mountains.

Happy reading in 2015 everyone!

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2014 Wrap-up

It’s time for a wrap-up of the year. I’m feeling resistant to both best-of lists (I’m sick of them! although I’m not sick of yours, dear reader, and I am still going to do one of my own) and thinking in terms of years — does it matter that a year is ending, really? But still, I want to keep up my tradition of looking at reading stats for the year. So here goes:

  • Books read: 78 (down from the previous three years, but that’s what having a toddler, a job, a bicycle, friends, and a strong desire to sleep will do to you)
  • Audiobooks: 10 (up from the previous year’s 2. Audiobooks are a great way to keep reading even when you’re busy)
  • eBooks: 18 (a little bit down from 2013)
  • From library: 12 (This includes some library audiobooks and ebooks)
  • Fiction: 53 (the exact same percentage as last year)
  • Nonfiction: 23
  • Poetry: 2 (up from last year — by 2)
  • Essay collections: 9 (higher than last year)
  • Biography/autobiography: 10
  • Theory/criticism: 1
  • Short story collections: 3 (same number as last year but a higher percentage)
  • Mysteries: 8
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (really a graphic memoir)
  • Books in translation: 3 (down)
  • Books by writers of color: 15 (up, both in terms of number and percentage. I worked at this one and can still do better)

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 21
  • Women: 55 (a higher percentage than last year)
  • Collections with men and women: 2

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 57 (slightly higher than last year, which was already pretty high)
  • British: 12
  • One each by authors from Canada, Italy, Korea, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nigeria, and the Virgin Islands, plus two books with writers from more than one country.

Year of publication:

  • 19th: 2
  • First half of 20th century: 4
  • Second half of 20th century: 15
  • 2000-2009: 12
  • 2010-2014: 45

So many super-contemporary authors! Even more than last year, and that number was pretty high. Ah, well. I’m just in a place where I want to read new and newish books. That may change in future years. In other trends, I haven’t read as many writers from countries other than the U.S. and the U.K. as I’d like, but I did read pretty diversely within those two countries. Not such a bad year! I’ll be back soon with my favorites of the year.

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Loitering, by Charles D’Ambrosio

I am not one to pass up a good essay collection — in fact, I’m one to chase down a good essay collection — so I was eager to read Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book Loitering. It includes some essays from an earlier book called Orphans and adds new material. I liked it very much — so much, in fact, that I wish I hadn’t read it as an e-galley and would like to buy myself a hard copy so it’s on hand for future rereading. The essays cover many different topics — whaling, Russian orphans, housing developments, J.D. Salinger, among others — and they also tell personal stories and present a persona who kept me engaged through the whole collection. D’Ambrosio has had some serious struggles in his life, and he writes about them movingly, and always with intelligence instead of self-pity. He is someone I felt I could trust to think deeply about whatever issue he confronts, and whose mind I was happy to have as company. I appreciated the variety of the collection, with interesting subjects you might not read about elsewhere. I also loved his writing style. But mostly I loved D’Ambrosio’s take on the world — a slightly jaded, perhaps disappointed outlook, but one that still is curious and receptive and trying to make sense of the world.

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Bookish Notes

I’ve got a few things to mention here, and the first is that the next pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group is Barbara Comyns’s novel The Vet’s Daughter. Everyone is welcome to join in the discussion, which will begin on January 15th.

The next is that I’m proud to announce my good friend and cycling partner, Megan Searfoss, has published a book on running, called See Mom Run!

See Mom Run

I helped Megan edit the book and so have had a chance to read an early version of it, and I can say that it’s perfect for anyone who wants to start or improve their running but has time limitations, whether those limitations come from motherhood or some other source. Megan is an amazing person — an incredible athlete, coach, business owner, mother, friend, and now author — and she 0ffers great advice and inspiration in the book. If running interests you, check it out!

The next thing to mention is I celebrated Small Business Saturday by visiting a local bookstore (of course) and got to meet Roz Chast, cartoonist for the New Yorker. I’ve laughed at her cartoons for ages, and loved asking her to sign my copy of her latest book, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which Hobgoblin is chuckling over at this very moment. Along with her at the bookstore was crime novelist Peter Spiegelman, and so I picked up the first of three books in a series, Black Maps. The only shopping I ever do on the post-Thanksgiving weekend is book shopping (I hardly ever do any other kind, actually), and I love, love, love the newly-born tradition of having authors in bookstores during the weekend to sign books and make recommendations. By the way, I made sure to get recommendations from both authors, and while I felt like I was already spending too much money and so didn’t actually buy these books this time, their recommendations are now on my list: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters from Roz Chast, and Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell from Peter Spiegelman.

And now, since it’s been forever since I’ve written abo0ut my recent reading, here’s the shortest of short round-ups:

  • Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan: strange with wonderful writing, sort of post-apocalyptic-but-not-really, surreal. It made me start the book over from the beginning once I’d finished.
  • Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss: not for the faint of heart. A memoir about incest, beautifully written, very disturbing, fascinating.
  • Blake Butler’s 300,000,000: I bailed on this one. It was darker and stranger than I could handle at the moment, but it might be something I return to later.
  • Ian McEwan’s The Children Act: I liked this one — lots to think about, a slow-paced novel that stayed compelling all the way through.
  • Karen Green’s Bough Down: a mix of prose poetry and art. So basically unclassifiable, and absolutely gorgeous. I’ll be reading this one again. A grief memoir about the loss of her husband.
  • Heather Lewis’s Notice: another one not for the faint of heart. Seriously. But if you want to think about the darker side of sexuality, it’s great.
  • Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books. I enjoyed this. It won’t make my best-of list when it comes to books about books, but it was still fun.
  • Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising: a mystery book group pick, and very good. A good story, strong characters, and about themes that are both always important and particularly pertinent right now: power, money, race, labor, oil.
  • E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars: A YA novel, and a lot of fun, with good plot twists and turns.
  • Lee Ki-Ho’s At Least We Can Apologize: part of Dalkey Archive’s series of Korean novels. Darkly comic social satire; I laughed and winced my way through this. It has a great premise and a lot to say about power and violence.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends, and happy weekend to everyone else!

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Slaves of Golconda: Time to vote on a new book!

Here is the post I just put up on the Slaves of Golconda site. If you are at all interested, head on over to that blog and vote!

Rohan got the ball rolling on choosing another book, and I volunteered to come up with a list for us to vote on, so here goes! But first, an explanation: this group is open to absolutely anybody who wants to participate. You don’t need to do anything to join us except to read the book and participate in the discussion in whatever way you want to. That could include something as simple as reading along and commenting on the posts here, or perhaps publishing a post on your own blog, or possibly publishing a post on this site. Leave a comment here if you’d like to publish a post on this blog, and we’ll figure out how to get that done.

For this round, I thought about what books I’d like to discuss with you all the most, and for some reason books from the 1950s were coming to mind. So, here’s a list of titles I think we might enjoy. Let’s vote by next Wednesday, November 26th. Perhaps we could discuss the book on or around January 15th? I thought that date was far enough away to give us plenty of time to read and also enough after the holidays that they won’t interfere. If anyone thinks another date would be better, though, just let me know.

So, vote for your choice in the comments!

  • Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957): “Tempering memory with invention, McCarthy describes how, orphaned at six, she spent much of her childhood shuttled between two sets of grandparents and three religions—Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. One of four children, she suffered abuse at the hands of her great-aunt and uncle until she moved to Seattle to be raised by her maternal grandparents. Early on, McCarthy lets the reader in on her secret: The chapter you just read may not be wholly reliable—facts have been distilled through the hazy lens of time and distance.”
  •  Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter (1959): “The Vet’s Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. The vet lives with his bedridden wife and shy daughter Alice in a sinister London suburb. He works constantly, captive to a strange private fury, and treats his family with brutality and contempt. After his wife’s death, the vet takes up with a crass, needling woman who tries to refashion Alice in her own image. And yet as Alice retreats ever deeper into a dream world, she discovers an extraordinary secret power of her own.”
  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953): “First published in 1953 when James Baldwin was nearly 30, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a young man’s novel, as tightly coiled as a new spring, yet tempered by a maturing man’s confidence and empathy. It’s not a long book, and its action spans but a single day–yet the author packs in enough emotion, detail, and intimate revelation to make his story feel like a mid-20th-century epic. Using as a frame the spiritual and moral awakening of 14-year-old John Grimes during a Saturday night service in a Harlem storefront church, Baldwin lays bare the secrets of a tormented black family during the depression.”
  • Yukio Mishima, Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956): “Because of the boyhood trauma of seeing his mother make love to another man in the presence of his dying father, Mizoguchi becomes a hopeless stutterer. Taunted by his schoolmates, he feels utterly alone until he becomes an acolyte at a famous temple in Kyoto. He quickly becomes obsessed with the beauty of the temple. Even when tempted by a friend into exploring the geisha district, he cannot escape its image. In the novel’s soaring climax, he tries desperately to free himself from his fixation.”
  • Ira Levin, A Kiss Before Dying (1953): “A Kiss Before Dying not only debuted the talent of best-selling novelist Ira Levin to rave reviews and an Edgar Award, it also set a new standard in the art of psychological suspense. It tells the shocking tale of a young man who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to get where he wants to go. For he has dreams, plans. He also has charm, good looks, intelligence. And he has a problem. Her name is Dorothy; she loves him, and she’s pregnant. The solution may demand desperate measures. But, then, he looks like the kind of guy who could get away with murder.”

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