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!

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.

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 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.

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?

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

lolly.jpg

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.

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.