The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton

 

continuouskatherine

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (July 5, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590179714
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590179710

 

In an ambiguous future when death has become all but extinct – save for accident and old age – Katherine Mortenhoe is dying. She has weeks to live, her doctor’s estimate about four at best.

Her decline will be particularly awful. Beginning with seizures and shaking, confusion and double-vision will follow, then incontinence and the inability to walk or care for herself.  But the final indignity is yet to come: smarmy Human Destiny TV executive Vincent Ferriman will not rest until he’s blared Katherine’s last days for the entertainment of a fascinated public hungry for novelty.

DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is at once a prescient work of fiction anticipating the era we live in, one obsessed with voyeuristic sensationalism, and an exploration of one man’s choice of humanity over fame and fortune. A young, up and coming reporter named Roddie, hired to shadow Mortenhoe and equipped with a camera installed behind his eyes, recognizes the beauty inside a middle-aged woman haunted by the specter of her own death. As they meet and become acquainted, he sees in her strength a humanity forgotten by a society in which death has lost its power to inspire fear.

Following her around becomes a quest of sorts. Growing more ill, she comes to depend on him. In turn, a sense of protectiveness spills out of Roddie. As what he sees is transmitted to the control room where Ferriman’s men edit and broadcast it, Roddie is forced to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies – with the expensive cars and instant fame celebrity brings, or in nursing a woman no longer able to control her bodily functions as she rapidly descends into death – from the glamorous and sexy to the messy reality of the end of a life.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe is a lovely, lovely book.  It’s a story about living and dying, about regrets and the unfortunate tendency of humans to forget mortality and believe themselves invincible. It asks the question: what would you do if you found out you were dying, where would ultimate meaning be found, and how and with whom would you choose to spend your last moments?

There’s loads of symbolism in the book, from the prefix “mort” – meaning death – in Katherine’s name to the all-seeing eye in Roddie’s head that allows him not just to transmit but to penetrate the soul of another human being. It explores relationships, separating the superficial and fleeting from the truly deep and meaningful. Compton skewers celebrity and avarice, voyeurism and the danger of a society that loses the understanding of what humanity means.

Absolutely breathtaking. Yet another worthy classic brought back into print by NYRB editions.

 

 

 

 

A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Purchases:

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Novel by Alfonso Zapico

Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss by Donald E. Pease

Review copies:

Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Up Soon in Reading:

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors – The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (NYRB)

Etc.

 

Sampling.

Sampling.

 

Loads of overtime hours this week: 14, to be precise. Overtime means time and a half, and time and a half means money I’m lusting to spend. A responsible adult, I realize no money should be squandered, which is why I wasted none of it on groceries or rent. As long as there’s money jingling in the buy one, get one Egg McMuffin fund, I see no problem here.

It was a bookwhorish week dreams are made of, both purchased and review books hitting the doorstep with a frequency impressing even me, no stranger to One Click frenzies – the nerdy equivalent of drunk dialing. But books arriving unbidden, oh GOD what a beautiful thing.

It’s best when you don’t anticipate them coming, in a way. Don’t you agree? Slavering for the UPS man is all well and good, but boxes hitting the front door after you’ve torn up the stairs to find a dark place to sit and stroke your new presshussses, well that’s the equivalent of God leaning down and whispering he exists and has a place for you after all, despite all your atheistic snark.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is one of the Booker nominees I spoke of a mere couple days ago. It’s the easiest Shortlist title attainable, so I snatched it. Levy’s Hot Milk, Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Moshfeh’s Eileen (PEN Hemingway winner) are available now; Szalay’s All That Man Is and Graeme MaCrae Burne’s His Bloody Project are due in early October.

Resist, Amazon one click finger. Mama has bills.

I’ve paged through Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance during Barnes & Noble lurks, but never properly read it. Scoring one of the wingback chairs on my last visit, settled into read the first four or five pages and my hands couldn’t let go. A portrait of the economically depressed South that’s also home to my family, it appeals to my great need for an empathetic portrayal of my roots.

“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.” – J.D. Vance

 

Next up: a graphic books.  No good reason I haven’t read more save the old complaint about that thief time.  James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Biography leapt off the shelf and hit me in the head. No hesitation; this book was mine.

In 2014 I visited a Dublin bursting with echoes of Joyce. Of course I made a vow to read more of his work, and of course I haven’t since. Goodbye, guilt and hello to a genre I’ve neglected, all in one go.

Bargains!:

The Literature Book by James Canton– $ 1.99

The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days – $ 2.51

The Yellow Room by Mary R. Rinehart – $ 1.99

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – $ 1.99

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke – $1.99

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – $ 1.99

 

As much out of left field as the graphic bio, Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss happened. Ironic it’s another literary biography with A Portrait in the title. It’s like Barnes & Noble had a plan for me, like they’ve been stalking me. Looks like it worked.

Now, the review books – bookwhore crack that didn’t make my credit card scream in agony.

Atticus sent me two: Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan and He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even, both of which are completely unknown to me – books and authors.

Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I met a few years ago and whose writing takes my breath away, had this to say about Hoopty:

Hoopty Time Machines is much like a bag of M&M’s, in that it’s nearly impossible, once you’ve opened it, not to consume it down to the last morsel, and fast. It is less like a bag of M&M’s in that you never know what you’ll find beneath the candy coating: a peanut or an amphetamine, a rosary bead or a thumbtack.” –Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

A bit baffled by Aaron R. Even. He’s not coming up on Amazon searches. Seldom do I make time for writers with no creds, no blurbs by authors I respect. This one’s described as Southern gothic, an appealing term. Nevertheless, it’s a descriptive thrown around liberally, seemingly by those who have no idea of the true meaning – or less about the meaning than profit margins.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Two books I’m wildly excited about are also freebies:

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell. I hang out with Matt on FB, share taste in beer, and was floored by his 2015 Scrapper. I hadn’t yet worked up to asking him up for a review copy; it’s like his publisher read my mind.

FREAKY.

And Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book which left me conflicted, but ultimately impressed. I said in my review I’d gladly read more of her work. I’m getting that chance.

I was going to write about current reads, but covering this week’s literary immigration into my apartment exhausted me. Disclosure: at least three others didn’t make this report. They were late night One Clickers that haven’t arrived yet, bless their papery hearts. Next time.

Always next time.

Booker Shortlist 2016: the blood-letting of Coetzee and Strout

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Six novelists have made it to the shortlist, the last step in the Man Booker Prize competition. The 2016 finalists are from Britain, the U.S. and Canada.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

 

Once more unto the breach.

The Shortlist is upon us. I protest I have not the time read them, yet I’ve never let this stop me from opining with gusto. I opine because literature is my life – qualification enough.

What’s interesting about this year’s shortlist isn’t only the titles that made it through, but those that didn’t: namely JM Coetzee and Elizabeth Strout. Lesser-to-unknown writers, of impressively eclectic range, leap-frogged right over them, which is the crux of my thesis.

I’ve been witnessed wailing and gnashing my teeth over slights to literary icons, frustrated it’s become fashionable to cry “entitlement” when the successful repeatedly excel. Is the purpose of literary awards not to honor the best of the best?

The purpose of literary awards is to honor the deserving. Politics and political correctness have no moral right to intervene.

And then there were 6:

Two Americans.

Two Brits.

Two Canadians.

News flash: literary icons get to the top through a hell of a lot of hard work. No one hands fame to undeserving writers. Strike that. Usually, undeserving writers don’t make it to award lists.

Okay. One hopes only the best rise to the top.

My argument against unknown writers eking through to the Shortlist is a nomination for the Man Bookers is a nod only a handful of writers will ever receive. Slapping “Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize” stickers on covers boosts sales. Boosting sales raises visibility. And when visibility rises, books get attention. And when books get attention, literary reputations are built. When literary reputations rise, the baton passes to the next generation of great writers.

In other words, they earn it the old fashioned way: writing highest-quality prose.

Honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards are very encouraging. I know that it might sound strange that a writer who has published many books still needs encouragement, but this is true.   – Joyce Carol Oates

Yet, I’m not blind to the other side. Underdogs are exciting; knowing the outcome of a contest is flat boring. This same eclectic group of Shortlisted writers have beaten the crowd, hand-picked by judges – I won’t get into the politics of judging  – who winnowed from who knows how many others, until only these few remained.

Even great writers occasionally stumble: see the list of phenomenal first books whose authors never managed to repeat. I wouldn’t rule out lesser-known writers besting the best of the best. It’s happened, and in these cases previous fame should have no influence. When a writer falters, he deserves no credit for past success. Likewise, when a writer crushes it, accolades are imperative.

The weeding process must, of necessity, be brutal. Sub-par writing deserves no sympathy. It’s here the door’s left cracked for better efforts to squeak past. And it’s here I understand lesser-knowns rising.

“Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” – Witold Gombrowicz

I cannot speak to the quality of Coetzee and Strout’s recent books. I have not read them. I know Coetzee to be a staggering talent, full stop. I’ve read several of his works, and know him as a giant. Even this should give him no advantage here.

Strout’s Olive Kitteridge fairly crushed it, but I know nothing of My Name is Lucy Barton.  Could be she faltered, I do not know. But if she did, all’s fair in love and literature.

I have not read these six left standing. Reviews and blurbs make them all sound remarkable, but then they’re designed to sell.

Literary awards are not the only thing. Books are not defined by awards won. However, literary awards are in place to judge books that have achieved a level of excellence above the rest. It’s a thing apart. None of these books is unworthy, but only one of them is the best of this particular lot. And the one that’s nearest perfection, regardless of who wrote it – their color or gender or ethnic origin or previous fame or  tough life story – should rightly win.

I’d say good luck to them all, but it should never be about luck. May the best win.

Thien

Szalay

Moshfegh


manbooker




Levy

Beatty

Burnet

The Bronte Cabinet by Deborah Lutz

brontecabinet

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 4, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393352706
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393352702

 

You may remember me from such manias as a fascination with all things Brontë, evinced by several posts written earlier this year.  Upon the Grand Event of the purchasing of Claire Harman’s biography Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart, published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Brontë’s birth, as a preface to Harman’s book I began reading Lynne Reid Banks’s fictionalized biography of the family, The Dark Quartet, which lit a fire in me.

Thus began my Brontë year.

Over the past couple of weeks, in the midst of weeding my book collection, my hands again alighted serendipitously on Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet. I’d received this advance copy months prior to its publication in May of 2015, however, before I could crack the cover life intervened. The publication of the book coincided with the beginning of my divorce proceedings, so unsurprisingly I didn’t get around to reading it last year.

That’s since been remedied. Over the course of the past couple of weeks I fairly flew through it, thoroughly absorbed. I’m surprised the pages didn’t catch fire, I turned them so quickly. And I have the inky hands to prove how often I underlined passages and wrote excited notes in the margins.

 

” … I feel the deep mystery of the lives of others in this palpable emissary of past moments, now impossible to recover. The texture of those lost days settle into possessions that outlive their owners, it seems to linger in a mended tear, a stretched elbow, a corner’s roundedness.”

  • The Brontë Cabinet

 

Reader, I’m smitten by the Brontës,  all over again.

I knew lots of the basic facts from other reading, but my world was positively blown apart by the revelations Lutz imparted. Really amazing things, explaining much about how these mousy pastor’s daughters came to produce turbulent, passionate works of sensuality and darkness.

Lutz’s premise is this: she takes eight objects owned by the Brontë family and explains not only their relevance to the family, but also each particular object’s place within Victorian society. The result is at once fascinating and fanciful, as the author both flexes her scholarly research muscles and, occasionally, engages in melodramatic leaps of supposition, imagining how the Brontës may have felt or acted or experienced, even when there’s nothing to back it up.

I love hard facts, and can sometimes indulge possibilities. Where I draw the line is in making sweeping assumptions based on the most tenuous of connections. Still and all, this is a remarkable book I will probably read again and refer to in future.

Following are the eight Brontë-related items, and a bit about each as presented by Deborah Lutz:

Item One – Tiny Books

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Tiny books made by the Bronte children

Brontë lovers will recognize these as the wee works “published” by the Brontë children.  I’d give anything to touch them, to turn the pages and get inside their minds, wouldn’t you?

“This mania for scribbling wasn’t an unusual activity for literary middle- or upper -class children in nineteenth-century England … Jane Austen filled the beautiful notebooks her father had bought her with sparkling imitations and parodies of fashionable society novels … Mary Ann Evans (who later took the pen name George Eliot) wrote a fragment of a historical novel in a school notebook … the young Stephens had their family magazine, produced weekly, in the 1890s, with Thoby and Virginia (later Woolf) as the main authors…”

 

Item Two – Pillopatate

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Charlotte Bronte needlepoint sampler

Needlework wasn’t just a way to while away time. Young ladies were expected to be skilled in the art of mending clothing, as well as making pretty samplers, needle cases, etc. As with so many other aspects of life in the 19th century, thrifty recycling of fabric was a necessity. Small, handmade items also made very good gifts, useful things prettily made.

“The act of sewing itself had something of a public character, since women were expected to keep their hands busy, even among company. Advice manuals taught how best to show off skills and elegant hands while at needlecraft, even as a way to potentially attract a mate.”

 

Item Three – Walking Stick

Victorian era walking stick

Victorian era walking stick

 

The girls loved roaming the moors, and as the footing wasn’t always the most stable, it’s possible they may have borrowed their father or brother’s walking stick on occasion. These were fashionable and prized items to Victorians, who often bought beautifully crafted sticks and them handed down from generation to generation.

Walking with sticks wasn’t feminine, but Emily Brontë was well-known for thumbing her nose at society. She’s also the one of the sisters most passionate about perambulating the moors. If any of the girls used a walking stick, it was most likely to be Emily.

“The tallest person in her family except for her father, she “slouched over the moors, whistling to her dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth.” A “solitude-loving raven,” Charlotte called Emily, “no gentle dove.”

 

Item Four – Keeper, Grasper and Other Family Animals

 

Collar of Emily Bronte's dog Keeper

Collar of Emily Bronte’s dog Keeper

 

Not just the family walker, Emily was also the family animal lover.  But she was no tender flower sitting around petting her dears. One famous story has her beating her dog, Keeper, for daring to lie on beds in the parsonage. After beating him nearly blind, she washed his wounded face. Forever after, so the legend goes, Keeper was inseparable from her. And, when Emily died, her animals kept vigil, waiting for her to return.

The “cult of the pet” was a very Victorian custom. We probably owe our affliction for cat videos to our 19th century forbears.

Thanks for that.

“Queen Victoria so loved dogs that she collected close to a hundred in her lifetime, most of them living in the kennels on the grounds of her castles. When she was dying, her Pomeranians kept her company on her deathbed.”

 

Item Five – Fugitive Letters

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Letter from Anne to Ellen Nussey

Oh, the Victorians loved their letters! But they were very expensive to send. Payment for letters fell on the recipient, not the sender, and costs were so exorbitant people often waited to send letters until someone they knew was visiting the area where the recipient lived, to hand deliver their missives. Counter-intuitively, sending packages was less expensive than letters. Knowing that, people often illegally tucked letters in with other merchandise to save on postage.

Charlotte and her close friend Ellen Nussey were passionate letter writers. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of letters were exchanged between them. Something that made me cringe inside, after Charlotte’s death her letters were sometimes cannibalized, so mourning fans could have a small scrap of something written in her hand. Ellen, as well as Patrick Brontë, were guilty of this.

“Ripe for reform, the post service changed radically in 1840 when it instituted a countrywide penny post. All letters weighing under half an ounce traveled anywhere in England for one penny … Charlotte wrote jubilantly to Ellen in January 1840: “I intend to take full advantage of this penny postage and to write to you often … that is as often as I have time.”

 

Item Six – The Alchemy of Desks

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desk of Charlotte Bronte

Portable desks held writing papers, sewing supplies, sealing wax and pens, buttons and stashes of money. They were ubiquitous in the Victorian era, so even poorer ladies like the Brontë girls owned them.

They held little cubbies with secret openings to secure dear treasures.

“Another precious desk was Jane Austen’s mahogany one, its writing slope covered in leather, that she took along when traveling … on one trip in 1798, the desk … was accidentally placed in a chaise whose luggage was bound for the West Indies. It was saved just in time when she sent off a horseman to stop the carriage. “No part of my property,” Austen remarked, “could have been such a prize before, for in my writing box was all my worldly wealth.”

 

Item Seven – Death Made Material

Mourning jewelry - hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

Mourning jewelry – hair of Anne and Emily Bronte

So many books have been written about the Victorian cult of death and mourning. Ever the trend-setter, Queen Victoria was a model for widows everywhere. She never ceased mourning after her beloved Prince Albert died. Her sadness was unrelenting.

Treasuring locks of hair is another custom of the era, sending off tresses cut from the corpses of loved ones to crafters who turned them into beautiful pieces of jewelry. Alternatively, hair was kept within lockets and tucked into books.

After losing her sisters, Charlotte had a beautiful bracelet made from their hair – a beautiful tribute within a family which had known so much loss.

“Part of the body yet easy to separate from it, hair retained its luster long after the rest of the person decayed. Portable, with a shine like certain gems or metals, hair moved easily from being an ornamental feature of the body to being an ornament worn by others. By the 1840s, hair jewelry had become so fashionable that advertisements for hair artisans, designers, and hairworkers ran in newspapers …”

 

Item Eight – Memory Albums

Charlotte Bronte memory album

Charlotte Bronte memory album

FInally, the memory album. Snippets of poetry and prose, observations of life, and little souvenirs were kept within these albums. The Victorians were crazy about ferns and other plants, pressing them into books and what came to be called scrapbooks, i.e., little bits of life kept as mementos. Similar to commonplace books, these memory albums were to be treasured and sometimes shared. They told the story of a life.

“Victorians were prolific album compilers, creators of all manner of curated collections arranged in the little museum of the volume. Albums, along with Wardian cases, were part of the Victorian enthusiasm for collecting, containing, classifying, and organizing, especially when it came to saving the past by placing it into some sort of permanent system.”

 

This is only a small part of what’s to be found in The Brontë Cabinet, the treasures held in this book. I didn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage every lover of things Brontë and Victoriana to give it a read. It’s given me so much to think about, so many new interests and avenues of exploration.  Not least among them is the theory Emily may have written a second book, which Charlotte perhaps destroyed…

A second book. Possibly destroyed. It doesn’t bear thinking about. Or perhaps it’s still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found… Hey, it could happen,

I’m so glad to have run across this book again, especially in this year of all things Brontë. It was all pleasure, through and through.

 

9-11-2016

 

9/11 Memorial, New York City. June 2015.

9/11 Memorial, New York City. June 2015.

 

“The Names”

  • former poet laureate Billy Collins, on 9/11

 

Names etched on
the head of a pin.

One name spanning
a bridge, another
undergoing a tunnel.

A blue name needled
into the skin.

Names of citizens,
workers, mothers,
and fathers,

The bright-eyed
daughter, the quick son.

Alphabet of names in
a green field.

Names in the small tracks of birds.

Names lifted from a hat

Or balanced on
the tip of the tongue.

Names wheeled
into the dim warehouse
of memory.

So many names, there
is barely room on
the walls of the heart.”

 

 

The Brontes, Don DeLillo and Roald Dahl, and other semi-lunatic ravings

Books mentioned in this post:

Various biographies of the Brontes

Someone Like You by Roald Dahl

White Noise by Don DeLillo

 

What passes for literary criticism these days are underlined or bracketed passages, words penned in the margins of books I’m reading. Occasionally, I’ll take a picture of a particularly striking passage, or the front cover of a book I’m reading or came across and needed to hold just to feel its heft, and I’ll post that on Instagram. Once upon a time, I thought and wrote deeply about literature almost every day.  I miss that luxury, never imagined it one day wouldn’t be.

On normal weeks I work 9.5 hour days – and half-day Saturdays, ugh – in life insurance/finance, which stretches my brain in directions liberal arts majors just don’t go. Numbers hurt my head. Talking to people about their medical histories and financial needs, empathizing and occasionally de-escalating situations, drains me. I can hardly form sentences by the time I get home. I talk and talk, listen and interpret, advise and analyze, for hours and hours. My life is mentally exhausting.

Of necessity, most of my reading time comes when I’m exhausted, at night before sleep, or on my precious and all too rare days off. My bed is scattered with books. Some women have men in their beds; right now I don’t even have sheets on my mattress (I’m lucky they made it through the washer and dryer, much less back where they belong) but I do have six or seven books, most of them open face down on the side I suppose a significant other would occupy, if I were a girl who said yes. In place of a human bed warmer, there are pens and notebooks. They don’t steal my blankets or snore, demand I turn off the light and get to sleep, or comment how every night I leave my day clothes where they fall on the floor, looking like I’ve been Raptured right out of them.

Laundry is what Sundays are for.

Of my current reading, my interest in all things Brontë continues, my bed straining to suport huge, fat biographies and collections of their letters. Funny, none of their novels have made it under the duvet. I’ve read them all, and they’re due for re-reads, but it’s the lives of this family I’m obsessed with at the moment: Charlotte the sensible and serious intellectual, Emily the turbulent wild child, Anne the gentle aesthete, Branwell the Byronic un-hero and dramatic alcoholic, plus  Patrick the glue that binds.

I love them to distraction.

 

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Shirley

 

In short bursts, I’m reading a collection of Roald Dahl’s stories, with varying degrees of success. Some have power, but others honestly don’t impress me. The 21st century leaves a person jaded; we have enough real horror every day to beat the fictional imaginings of several decades ago, when life was in many ways so innocent.

Not all fiction holds up well. I read Dahl’s stories with the anticipation something big will happen before the end, waiting for that twist I hope will come. When it doesn’t, the let down is exasperating. Yet, I’m left wanting more, the potential of the next story’s promise keeps me reading. So he can’t be doing everything wrong.

 

dahlsomeonelikeyou

 

On a totally different front, there’s Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, a damned brilliant, very American novel and a work that couldn’t be more different from the Brontës and Roald Dahl. I started it while on the StairMaster, of all places, just about the least reading-friendly activity there is, but a necessity preparation since I’m planning an all-night round-trip drive to Cleveland, just to hear him speak for maybe an hour at most. No signing, no meet and greet, chance to touch hands or lock eyes. No, just a talk by an iconic, somewhat reclusive American man of letters.

Yes, you read that correctly, and I’ve done the math. It’s twelve hours of driving for a one-hour talk given by a writer whose work I’ve read very little of, though what I’ve read impresses me to the core. Like you, I find that completely and utterly irrational and insane. It’s impulsive and impractical – rather wonderful, if you want my opinion. Life doesn’t give you a lot of second chances. Sometimes opportunity whispers and you turn a deaf ear. At others, you tilt your head toward it and listen, really hearing what it has to say. I’ve regretted turning the deaf ear, but almost never the listening.

 

“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

― Don DeLillo, Underworld

 

I learned about this literary event serendipitously, realizing immediately it’s a rare, one-off opportunity. Don DeLillo doesn’t speak in public, hasn’t for ages, but he’ll be in Cleveland on Tuesday, September 13. And Tuesdays happen to be my days off. It’s a 6-hour drive to Cleveland, so if I leave Chicago early on Tuesday I’ll easily make it before his evening presentation at around 7 or 7:30. The place will be swept and cleared, his discarded water bottle at room temperature in the trash can before 9:00 strikes. By that time I’ll be back in the car, headed home. If the wind’s with me, by 4:00 a.m. I’ll be back home in my bed. And at 10:30 the same morning, I’ll be back in my cubicle, on the phone, talking to people about planning for their eventual deaths.

This, friends, is why I’m unmarriageable. Because I’m impulsive and a little crazy, inclined to listen to that little voice of unreason. Yes, I’m a responsible adult, but I pledge never, ever to grow up.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bed to crawl into, and worlds to explore before I sleep.

 

“I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.”

― Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald

 

 

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

 

 

agostino

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics; Main edition (July 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590177231
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590177235

Alberto Moravia (1907-1990), the child of a wealthy family, was raised at home because of illness. He published his first novel, The Time of Indifference, at the age of twenty-three. Banned from publishing under Mussolini, he emerged after World War II as one of the most admired and influential of twentieth-century Italian writers.

  • NYRB ed. bio

 

I have dozens of NYRB editions I’ve never read, proving I’m better at collecting and hoarding than reading. Mostly I buy them at Half Price Books – which somehow manages to snag an extraordinary number of them, most mint unread – though occasionally I spring for full price at other stores and on Amazon. I love their covers, and the range of works and authors is staggering. They’re magnetic; I cannot not buy them.

Yes, it’s a compulsion. But admitting it makes it better, right?

Right?

Shuffling through my collection looking for something short enough to finish in the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon, I ran across a NYRB title by Italian author Alberto Moravia. It was short, at 102 pages, and the cover blurb was appealing, if a little discomfiting.

Agostino is the story of a 13-year old boy’s budding adolescence and sexual awakening, as well as the simultaneous and horrifying realization the madonna-figure mother he adores is also a sexual being.

“All of these gestures, which had once seemed so natural to Agostino, now seemed to take on meaning and become an almost visible part of a larger, more dangerous, reality, dividing his spirit between curiosity and pain. He repeated to himself “She’s only a woman” with the objective indifference of a connoisseur. But one moment later, unable to bear his mother’s unawareness or his own attentions, he wanted to shout, “Cover yourself, stop showing yourself to me, I’m not who I used to be.”

 

An only child, Agostino has been spoiled by his widowed mother’s attention. While he’s always perceived her as beautiful, coming into adolescence he notices her curves and pretty face are feminine and attractive, and not just to him.  When a handsome man begins spending time with her, he witnesses his formerly strong, independent mother becoming not just silly and girlish but seductive and sensual, adding to his sense of shame and embarrassment.

Escaping the sight of his mother and her lover, he turns to a group of boys whose rough behavior both shocks and attracts him. Though they ridicule and attack him, the hurt is less terrifying than dealing with what’s going on at home :

 

“He was not so much frightened as bewildered by the boy’s extraordinary brutality. It seemed incredible that he, Agostino, whom everyone had always liked, could now be hurt so deliberately and ruthlessly, a new behavior so monstrous it was almost attractive.”

 

The more he associates with them the tougher he becomes, yet he never quite loses his core self, never succumbs to the almost evil and definitely menacing natures of the other, wilder boys. His outside hardens, but inside he’s the frightened little boy who needs his mother. It’s a massive internal struggle, a necessary rite of passage from childhood through to the loss of innocence.

Agostino is tortured and unhappy, restless and alone. No matter where he goes, he feels out of place. At 13 he’s a child, yet not, at  the same time. Alberto Moravia writes with great immediacy and passion, earning the empathy of the reader. One cannot help but feel for Agostino in his plight.

 

“Who knows if by walking straight ahead, along the sea, on the soft white sand, he wouldn’t reach a land where none of these awful things existed. A land where he would be welcomed as his heart desired and be able to forget everything he had learned, and then relearn it without shame or offense, in the sweet and natural way that had to exist … “

 

It is, as I wrote earlier, a discomfiting book.  I couldn’t help sometimes finding it so, no doubt because I’m the mother of two boys. While not a prude, there are some things I’d rather not think about, and this novel manages to hit a spot I’d prefer to leave be.  Knowing and accepting your children experience such awakenings is one thing, being hit in the face with it is quite another.

I don’t want to give the impression this is a graphically sexual book. It is not that. It addresses the issues without flinching, but things are kept at arm’s length. There are no inappropriately sexual scenes, no graphic nudity or incestuous innuendos. Not at all. What I see in it that provokes distaste lies solely in me, not in the book. Perhaps it’s a puritanical streak, I don’t know. It just is.

Agostino is beautifully written, and clearly shows what a brilliant writer Moravia was.  I’d read more of his books, no hesitation, and NYRB has published both his novels Boredom and Contempt.

Next time I’m at Half Price Books who knows? Maybe I’ll pick them up.

And two or three other NYRB titles… Just maybe.

photo: amsterdam

amsterdam street: august 2016.

amsterdam street: august 2016.

 

My experience in Amsterdam is that cyclists ride where the hell they like and aim in a state of rage at all pedestrians while ringing their bell loudly, the concept of avoiding people being foreign to them.

  • Terry Pratchett

At Hawthorn Time by Melissa Harrison

athawthorntime

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (July 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1620409941
  • ISBN-13: 978-1620409947

 

SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA NOVEL AWARD 2015
LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2016 

 

Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of a rural community and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss.

 

At Hawthorn Time was one of several Baileys Prize longlisted titles I gifted myself earlier in the year. I picked a few of the more interesting books and made liberal use of my Buy It Now finger, a habit I practice less often now that I’m single and down to one income. It’s a necessary economy, still, I allow myself the luxury every now and then. Because there’s nothing better than getting a big box of books in the mail to lift the spirits.

In the course of the past few weeks, I’ve been in book culling mode. As I’m culling, I’m becoming more aware of exactly what’s on my shelves. Last week I came across my Baileys stash and grabbed Harrison’s novel at random, finishing it in the course of three or four days. It’s a quiet book, one that simmers slowly. It’s about the drama of the everyday. Nothing big happens, nothing splashy or headline-making, but to the characters the events are life-changing.

I enjoy novels with converging storylines, featuring characters unrelated but inhabiting the same geographical space. It allows deep exploration of a sense of place through the eyes of a cross-section of characters coming from very different perspectives.

At Hawthorn Time tells the stories of four main characters living in the area surrounding Lodeshill, a smallish English village:

Howard and Kitty, married 30 years and new to the village since their retirement, have grown steadily apart, unhappy but lacking the energy to do anything about it. When Kitty learns she may be ill, she’s forced into deciding what she’ll tell her husband, if anything. And when their children come to visit, this couple that’s slept apart must make room for guests sleeping in their home.

Jack, a rebellious modern-day hippie who skipped imprisonment after his conviction for trespassing, is walking across country on his way back to the village, hoping he’s not recognized and taken into custody while working migrant jobs for the money to keep body and soul together. Spending every day looking over his shoulder, when he is eventually discovered he’s forced to decide where he’ll go from there.

And Jamie, a 19-year old man with no prospects or direction in life, limps along in a low-paying, unfulfilling job while also helping his parents deal with the growing dementia of his grandfather. As the one person closest to his grandfather, when the old man goes missing it falls on Jamie to unravel the mystery of what happened to him and where, and if, he can be found.

Before it all ends, the lives in the story do cross, with disastrous consequences.

This book should be read for its beautiful language, gentle and meandering contemplation of relationships and ever-deepening examination of the inner lives of the characters. It can’t be read in a spirit of impatience, or it will not hold interest.

There is crisis and catharsis, movement and change. These are the sorts of crises you see from a distance, in friends and acquaintances with whom you don’t share all life’s problems. You think to yourself there must be more behind a surface that seems so tranquil, but aren’t always privy to their secrets.

At Hawthorn Time goes inside the lives we keep hidden. A lovely, lovely novel.