The Locusts Have No King, Dawn Powell

In a way, this is a fascinating study of life's little disappointments, where scant agency exists and things spin madly on. "Nobody ever decided anything," Powell writes. "Situations were solved only by other situations." And your meager self, the book seems to say, might never be enough: "Underneath the woes of the world ran the firm roots of the platitudes, the calendar slogans, the song cues, a safety net to catch the heart after its vain quest for private solutions." We are left to make sense of the beautiful wreckage.

Practical Jean, Trevor Cole

Cole's tale is a little macabre, a little madcap: when Jean's mother dies slowly and painfully, she vows never to let her friends suffer in the same way.

There's one passage, where Jean is on a bus, that offered a particularly rich description:

Beside her, the girl took a bite of the apple, chewed for a while, and then she held up the paper towel like a plate under her chin and spat out the rumpled skin. Again and again the girl took a bite and chewed, carefully ingesting the flesh but eschewing the peel, until after ten or fifteen minutes a mound of green, translucent remains, like the desiccated husks of a dozen praying mantises, sat in the paper towel in her hand. ... she saw in this girl's actions the way of life itself. How it consumed, scraped clean, all that was sweet and good in a person, until nothing remained but the bitter, chewed-up shell.

My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead

I first read Middlemarch in 2011, and by the last page, I greatly regretted not having read it earlier. But it's never too late for great literature, and Mead's book is another reminder that with each review, a book can grow and change -- just as a person does: 

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.

I've worked through most of Eliot's catalog since getting hooked on Middlemarch, but it's inevitable that I'll pick many of them up again: it is her studies in little disappointments, and the way we harness or move through them, that have been one my greatest motivators in the past few years. As Mead underscores, there is much value in even seemingly insignificant moments and motions: 

This notion -- that we each have our own center of gravity, but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do -- is one that is constantly repeated in the book. The necessity of growing out of such self-centredness is the theme of Middlemarch. ...[Eliot's] aspiration was not for literary immortality -- though she got that -- but for a kind of encompassing empathy that would make the punishing experience of egoism shrink and dwindle. She believed that growth depends upon complex connections and openness to others, and does not derive from a solitary swelling of the self. She became great because she recognized that she was small.

 

Music For Torching, A. M. Homes

Though not so perfectly crafted as May We Be ForgivenMusic For Torching is still tremendously enjoyable. Homes explores varieties of destruction, and it's hard to look away, even when the urge is toward utter annihilation: "Elaine doesn't want to celebrate women's lives, she wants to smash her life, to pummel it into a powder." There's something to be said for an anatomy of the pieces as they come apart.

West With the Night, Beryl Markham

There are many astounding reminiscences in Beryl Markham's memoir of her childhood in Africa and her years as an aviator there. But one of the passages I found most compelling was filled with less bombast than retellings of, say, an elephant hunt:

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

What are our silences saying?

Cat's Eye, Margaret Atwood

It's been a long while since I've revisited Cat's Eye, yet it still resonates (and perhaps is even more striking for me today than it was ten years ago). I was newly horrified with the small cruelties of girls growing up, newly tickled by the ruminations on development, and memory, and art. What is permanent, and what will shift? Time takes form for the narrator:

I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.

Truly lovely to revisit Atwood at her best.

The True Deceiver, Tove Jansson

This taut, enigmatic book probes the entanglement of two women in a ceaseless Scandinavian winter. 

There's a palpable loneliness in the peopling of Deceiver, and to some degree I wonder whether Jansson is saying that much or all of closeness is deception, or "flattery, empty adjectives, the whole sloppy, disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity." It is only in convivial silence that true companionship really seems to emerge, and it is in isolation that Anna, a book illustrator, can thrive. And see clearly. While this might be bleak in the hands of a less able craftsman, the message is surprisingly hopeful when we finally depart from the story:

... [she] sat and waited for the morning mist to draw off through the woods. The silence she needed was complete. And when every bothersome element had departed, the forest floor emerged, moist and dark and ready to burst with all the things waiting to grow.

It "would have been unthinkable," Jansson writes, for Anna to depict the solemn scene by "cluttering the ground" with her signature flowery rabbits -- and so a new day, a new era, perhaps, is born.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

I liked this collection much better than Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and it was interesting to read the first short after having read Swamplandia!, which expands upon that piece. It's an immensely entertaining and rather accessible book, despite the determined strangeness of the people and places Russell describes. The final story, after which the collection is titled, was captivating---as when, for example, one of the wolf-girls takes stock of the "purebred" girls who visit the home, throwing games of checkers in a show of misplaced pity:

I wondered what it would be like to be bred in captivity, and always homesick for a dimly sensed forest, the trees you've never seen.

The sense that there is another world, just out of reach, seems to me to pervade much of Russell's work; perhaps the beauty of her writing is that it brings this shadowland closer to us, makes the untenable suddenly seem like a hazy possibility.

Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner

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In this quick comedy of manners, a lone aunt breaks free of her family and makes a new life on her own terms, only to discover, well, that she may be under Satan's spell. I, for one, was enchanted, drawn well into the parable of what happens to women who don't play by society's rules. 

The narrator speaks of the appeal of a life so different from that offered by the well-meaning nephew gifting his spinster aunt a hot-water bottle or a black lace scarf:

... you say: 'Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.' That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure. ... One doesn't become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It's to escape all that---to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day ...

Fierce, powerful, provocative, Lolly Willowes was Warner's first book, and it was published in 1926---and recently reissued by NYRB. (The prose also belies an eye for interesting detail; the demonic kitten named Vinegar is burned into my subconscious.)

In some ways, Warner's work called to mind Zona Gale's Miss Lulu Bett for me, in that they both filtered the experience of the independent woman of the 1920s through high satire to throw into relief the narrowly circumscribed conception of femininity. In any case, I'm interested to dip into Warner's six other novels for a closer look at her oeuvre; perhaps I'll turn to Mr. Fortune's Maggot next.

Behind the Burly Q, Leslie Zemeckis and Blaze Starr

Although it's the be-all-and-end-all book on American burlesque, this chatty history offers glimpses of the wild, woolly, wonderful world of sassy ladies, classic comedians, and their straight men.

Who can resist, for instance, this description of dancer Faith Bacon's 1939 publicity stunt, when the woman was arrested "for wearing a skimpy white bathing suit, or leotard, and walking a doe on a rhinestone leash down Park Avenue as an advertisement for her World's Fair appearance." Could this be the infamous shot? Oh, those were the days.

Women Against Men, Storm Jameson

I lazily read a collection of three novellas, Women Against Menby Storm Jameson. It was published in the early 1930s, but Jameson's voice is remarkably fresh, and the first novella, “Delicate Monster,” enraptured me the most; it featured two rather embittered women writers unable to part ways, though they did not particularly like each other. “She has a lively vulgar mind, which never fails to amuse me,” one says of the other, explaining why their lives are so intertwined. “She is everything I dislike---as well as everything I have not had the courage to be.” The people she writes of are lost and searching, which I suppose is a rather universal condition. “‘I feel I must learn about life. Shall I read biographies? Or travel? How can I learn?’” This is Rodney Whimple, a young writer, still feeling his way; recent books, such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, to name just one, still joust at these everlasting meditations.

Jameson, through her narrator, also reveals her own philosophy on writing: “I had the misfortune to be brought up in the belief that the first duty of a writer is to make himself clear. (That done, he may give himself the further trouble to be easy---and then, brief.)” The narrator can’t live up to these mandates, but the crisp, breezy style of the novella clearly differentiates Jameson from the personae she channels. Nonetheless, I love the brittle, solitary woman narrator; she offers a counter to the sentimental, lovesick characters that so often are held up for us. “Since I have lived alone I have done exactly as I chose.  … Victoria would interrupt to tell me that I lead a narrow, dry life. I tell her that it is the one I chose. … All I know is that it suits me to live alone, to eat when I choose, to think constantly of the novel I am writing, and to sit down to my desk the moment I get up from my dinner-table.” She’s not warm and fun, but she does offer an interesting, atypical role model.

And her loneliness, oh, her loneliness. How I love its quiet humility: “It is only when we are young that we fear loneliness. As we grow old a useful instinct reconciles us to it---unless we have been weakened by a happy marriage or the too loving company of a friend. I suppose that the farther we travel (in Time) from the enclosing flesh of our human mother towards that of our mother the grave the more independent and indifferent to anything outside ourselves we become.” All the things that we are told will make us happy in fact weaken her; only the trial of being alone can be her salvation. I suspect this woman wouldn’t be such a pleasure to be around, but what an interesting sketch to study.

I didn't much care for the second novella in this collection, The Single Heart, but the third, A Day Off, was also quite resonant. Probably worth looking more deeply into Ms. Jameson's life and other works, which seem to be rather voluminous.

Dear Mr. Henshaw, Beverly Cleary

I've started volunteering with an literacy program; I read a book, along with a fifth- or sixth-grade student, then exchange e-mails with him about important themes and ideas. Dear Mr. Henshaw, about a boy who corresponds with one of his favorite authors, was a great way to start the program off -- whether writing for younger readers or telling the story of her life (as she does in Girl from Yamhill, which I read in 2011), Beverly Cleary is a perennial fave.

The Box Garden, Carol Shields

Such a quiet, interesting book that is as much meditation on happiness and being as anything else. This quote, from the narrator, was a nice take on how we try and build new things into our lives:

For me kindness is an alien quality; and like a difficult French verb I must learn it slowly, painfully, and probably imperfectly. It does not swim freely in my bloodstream -- I have to inject it artificially at the risk of all sort of unknown factors. It does not wake me in the mornings; every day I have to coax it anew into existence, breathe on it to keep it alive, practice it to keep it in good working order. And most difficult of all, I have to exercise it in such a way that it looks spontaneous and genuine; I have to see that it flows without hesitation as it does from its true practitioners, its lucky heirs who acquire it without laborious seeking ...

The Assassin from Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski

Reportage from Turkey, past and present, that sings with stories of the untold everyday. Stork Press, which brought out the Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation of Szabłowski's work, has an excerpt if you'd like a taste. Some of my favorite essays included "The purgatory of Istanbul," "It's out of love, sister," and "The black girl," but there are many treasures here.

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The Complete Short Stories, Agnes Owens

My favorite of Owens's stories are the darkly twisted tales like "Arabella," which follows a compellingly detestable woman who pushes her four dogs in a pram and practices some sort of alternative medicine that relies on her own healing brew of excrement and other odds and ends. "The Castle," about two sisters on holiday, is grimly fantastic, as is "Roses," which tells of a bookish woman who can't seem to keep good help around -- but who needs a gardener when you have a green thumb like she does?

For a longer exploration of Owens's work, and her place in Scottish literature, Alasdair Gray's "'Honest poverty' and Agnes Owens at 70" is a good primer.