Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland

Strange to consider a book quiet when one of its central plot points is a woman being eaten by a lion, and yet Rowland's Transcriptionist felt contemplative, meditative. The narrator wrestles with life, death, and her own unlikely obsessions, struggling to make sense of an unlikely act and how a chance encounter informs her own day to day. The writing is measured, and some of the imagery simply haunting:

She puts the book back on the shelf and stares at the row of spines. For the first time, she thinks of bookshelves as plots in a vast potter's field, except these dead can be claimed and known each time someone selects them from the shelf.

I may never look at my library the same way again.

Broken Monsters, Lauren Beukes

I enjoyed The Shining Girls and decided to give Broken Monsters a try as well. It's another enjoyable page-turner, set amid the depression of Detroit and its art scene. There's a certain bleakness that's rather compelling. "Keep your options open, his parents told him," one passage reflects, "but they didn't tell him the growing older is about your options shutting down, one by one." And yet in spite of our bleak prospects, we keep going, finding ways to work within those constraints ...

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch

A man crafting his memoirs grows increasingly obsessed with his past, which more and more is his present. It was a hard read, and yet hard to look away, with reflections like this: 

Can one change oneself? I doubt it. Or if there is any change it must be measured as the millionth part of a millimetre. When the poor ghosts have gone, what remains are ordinary obligations and ordinary interests. One can live quietly and try to do tiny good things and harm no one. I cannot think of any tiny good thing to do at the moment, but perhaps I shall think of one tomorrow.

The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This is the second Fisher book I've read, and I was just as absorbed in it as I was in The Deepening Stream. First published in 1924, The Home-Maker explores the bounds of Tradition and what happens when men and women test unorthodox roles.

Here, we meet Evangeline, a dutiful housewife perpetually scrubbing grease stains from floors, and Lester, her husband, a thwarted store clerk unhappy with his lot. They have three children, and though Eva loves her family, she isn't sure she likes them or the life they've built:

What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.

In fact:

A profound depression came upon her. These were the moments in a mother's life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you ... How solitary it made you feel!

They plod along with a sense of suffocating dissatisfaction ... until Lester meets with an accident and breaks his back. Desperate to make ends meet, Eva enters the workforce, becoming a shopgirl at the store where Lester can no longer work, and he stays home to mind the house in her absence.

There, he comes into his own, embracing tasks like peeling potatoes and spending time with the children, and in this space, he finds he again has time for the things he used to love -- the aimless cogitating which had served him so ill in the office. Lester realizes, "For years he had been shutting into the cage of silence all the winged beautiful words which came flying into his mind! And beautiful words which you do not pronounce aloud are like children always forced to 'be quiet' and 'sit still.' They droop and languish."

Of course, the transition of Lester into house-husband isn't well received by everyone in the community. A neighbor visits and is shocked to see the state of affairs:

'The idea of your darning stockings! It's dreadful enough your having to do the housework!'
'Eva darned them a good many years,' he said, with some warmth, 'and did the housework. Why shouldn't I?' He looked at her hard and went on, 'Do you know what you are saying to me, Mattie Farnham? You are telling me that you really think that home-making is a poor, mean, cheap job beneath the dignity of anybody who can do anything else.'
Mattie Farnham was for a moment helpless with shock over his attack. ... She brought out a formula again, but this time with heartfelt personal conviction, 'Home-making is the noblest work anybody can do!'
'Why pity me then,' asked Lester with a grin, drawing his needle in and out of the little stocking.

Eva, in the meantime, thrives in a professional setting and is quickly promoted; this, in turn, allows her to be freer and happier in her home life, as well. It's all rather subversive for the era -- and refreshing. Still, as Karen Knox notes in the preface to the Persephone Books' edition, Canfield didn't consider herself a feminist. In that respect, it's interesting to see how she works counter to that label while still embracing the ethos, ultimately elevating the work of the domestic while adamantly arguing that it need not be a woman's destiny to attend to this arena.

The Life in the Studio, Nancy Hale

Hale's memoir is a charming tribute to her parents, artists in New England as the 19th century turned to the 20th. As she clears out their studios following their deaths, she meditates on what remains and how to protect what's good. A rumination on trying to keep up with her mother's gardening was particularly touching:

The garden casts a hush in early morning, as if some old forgotten secret were being silently exposed once more. ... The white maple a neighbor predicted would die has doubled its size in three years, and waves large, silver-green leaves in the little breeze. Instinct says, Do nothing; stay perfectly still; barely breathe.
But there is danger everywhere. At any moment, something can filter through the green wall of leaves, or the blue wall towards the sea -- aphis, green worms that drop by a thread, earwigs, a driving rain to penetrate the windowsills, the ivy under the threshold. At every portal, fortify with shears and secateur, with spray gun and worn-out Turkish towels, to hedge around -- set free? -- what's trapped within this place.

The Toast also recently published a piece on Hale's fiction, which has fallen more or less into obscurity -- a couple titles to add to the reading list!

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker

Pinker's accessible guide suggests that there are some writing "rules" that are made to be broken. Rather than obsessing over split infinitives and the like, Pinker counsels readers to take an approach that recognizes the broader view: "... for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness."

It's a worthy contribution to the near-endless literature on the subject, and one that I suspect I'll return to again. And in the ongoing fight for clear, effective writing, what can we do? Well, he says:

We can share our advice on how to write well without treating the people in need of it with contempt. We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.

The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar

This untraditional biography traces the life and loves of Patricia Highsmith, writer of such classics as The Talented Mr. RipleyStrangers on a Train, and The Price of Salt. Characterized by one editor as "the most unloving and unlovable person I've ever known ... a really terrible human being," it's nonetheless hard to look away from these fleeting glimpses of an eccentric. I'd read it again for the disquieting anecdotes alone:  at various points, we see Pat smuggling snails into France by concealing them under her breasts, toting tortoises along to parties, spooking house guests by jumping out at them from behind a tree, flinging dead rats through open windows, leaning over a burning candle at a dinner party to set her hair on fire, scrawling love notes for her mistress on her mirrors with red lipstick, and posing "with terrifying hostility" amid a wall "hung with her saws and hammers."

A fascinating, if rather long, exploration of a woman who perhaps remains unknowable in her strange genius.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart

A searing, lyrical book of prose poetry on love found and then lost. Although I preferred the more contemplative, "what now?" take of the book's "sequel," The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, I nonetheless was in thrall to By Grand Central Station, finishing it in a single sitting.

Oh, to be wrapped up again in those early days of an affair:

How can I find bird-relief in the nest-building of day-to-day? Necessity supplies no velvet wing with which to escape. I am indeed and mortally pierced with the seeds of love.

The Art Forger, B. A. Shapiro

This quick-moving tale about a disgraced artist conscripted to copy a looted Degas would be a good complement to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Both work in themes of authenticity, artifice, guilt, innocence, but where Goldfinch meditates more on grief and solitude, The Art Forger goes for page-turning twists; an enjoyable read nonetheless.

The Borrower, Rebecca Makkai

This quick read is good for the literary -- a children's librarian accidentally, well, borrows one of her patrons, a 10-year-old she fears is at risk of having his spirit crushed by his family. Although lighter in tone, it called to mind two other recent books that touch on kidnappings: Schroder, by Amity Gaige, and Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam.

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

There are a lot of great little moments in Dept. of Speculation; take, for example, this scene: 

A few nights later, I secretly hope that I might be a genius. Why else can no amount of sleeping pills fell my brain? But in the morning my daughter asks me what a cloud is and I cannot say.

Sometimes, writers focus so much on these little set pieces that they sacrifice the larger story, and Offill resists this. It's the story of a courtship, a marriage, a family, but it's so, so much more than that.

Fair Play, Tove Jansson

Just as I enjoyed Jansson's The True Deceiver, I greatly delighted in this book, a series of vignettes from the lives of artists Mari and Jonna. The exploration of the line between work and life, and of the creative process, was one of the most intriguing aspects. In particular, Jansson devotes a good deal of time to the idea that one must be able to toil artistically in long, solitary stretches.

On abiding silences:

There are empty spaces that must be respected -- those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

Why do we need this?:

After all, a period of creative grace can be short. Suddenly, and without warning, the pictures disappear, or they're chased away by some interference -- someone or something that irretrievably cuts off the fragile desire to capture an observation, an insight.

And a final reminder of the necessity -- the vitality -- of this kind of aloneness:

A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.

The Bachelor of Arts, R. K. Narayan

The last time I read Narayan, I was living in South India, and it only seemed appropriate to get more familiar with Malgudi. I worried I'd be less charmed from afar, but R. K. Narayan really was a master, and I savored The Bachelor of Arts. 

One of the book's many merits is its last line, a meditative gem. The narrator, fretting over an unanswered letter, is unsatisfied when his friend asks why he always assumes the worst. The friend throws up his arms in despair: "But then, it is a poet's business only to ask questions; he cannot always expect an answer."