I read less fiction than usual this past year, a frustrating situation, though perhaps of a piece with a year of being upended.
Nevertheless, I did read some excellent novels, of which I choose a few, as well as some excellent non-fiction.
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior. I had long wanted to read this novel and finally did through an on-line reading group. I found it riveting and relentless, the saga of a Chinese-American daughter and her fierce Chinese immigrant mother, owner of a laundromat. Through fable, fiction, and fairytale Kingston relates a startlingly honest story about her mother’s otherness vis-à-vis American culture and the impact the mother had on her daughter. I found this novel original, raw, difficult to categorize, alienating, and yet intensely engaging—a novel that was completely itself, seeming entirely true to what it wanted to say, and with little interest in what we thought of it. As such, it seemed a privilege to peek into this window.
Felix Salten, Bambi. I was told this was a book about the perils of anti-semitism. Having not received the movie version of Bambi even remotely through that lens, I was fascinated to read the novel. The movie is much like the novel in its sweet depiction of the beauties of nature, as well as in the anxiety engendered by Man, the great hunter and disruptor of the natural order. The antisemitic theme rings clear in the latter part of the novel.
Salten was an Austrian Jew born in 1869, so had lived a lifetime in the shadow of antisemitism by the time he published Bambi at age 54 in 1923. The hunters—MAN--represent the Aryan overclass. The most overt warning about antisemitism and assimilation comes in the form of a deer who is rescued by humans after being wounded. He is taken good care of, fed, petted, allowed by a warm fire. When he comes back to the forest, he trusts MAN, and is sure his former saviors see him as distinct individual about whom they care and who they will want to protect. The other animals try to tell him this is not so and to be wary of the hunters. The deer disregards them and stands in an open clearing, sure he is a special animal to the humans who won't be harmed. He is shot and killed, and the message is clear: as a deer is always merely a deer, so as Jew is always Jew: there is no special protection through assimilation. In light of subsequent history, the novel reads as prescient, tragic, and clear-eyed in its understanding of antisemitism—and as sadly relevant today. More problematic is its treatment of patriarchy—the male bucks are depicted as a noble breed apart, far superior to the female and child deer, occupying an almost god-like spot in the deer hierarchy. This seems false in and of itself, and unfortunately Salten links it to a need for the bucks to live solitary and very lonely lives, aloof from their fellow deer. This toxic masculinity may have kept deer—and Jews—from destruction, but the price was unnecessarily high: one longs to tell Bambi that he can both stay (relatively) safe by staying carefully in his own world but also can experience the joys of relationship and community.
Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry. This debut novel by New Zealand author Frame was published in 1957 and owes much to literary modernism. It’s a powerful work, as is The Woman Warrior and Bambi, and like them is animated by a distinct voice and vision. It centers on the children of the Withers family who grow up in poverty and seek treasure in a garbage dump. Like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, different characters provide different points of view in different sections, all in their own ways carrying childhood trauma, including the death of sister and poverty. One sister becomes a shallow-minded middle class snob with a husband and two children, running after the beautiful people and wanting to distance from the family of origin, while the epileptic brother hoards money, and the sister Daphne, modeled on Frame, ends up in a mental institution where she receives the lobotomy that Frame narrowly escaped. The story is depressing, but there are flashes of joy in it, and it reads as relentlessly real and honest.
Anonymous, The Woman of Colour. This 1808 novel follows a biracial woman of color named Olivia Fairfield who travels from Jamaica to London and must marry according to the dictates of her father’s will.The plot involves a conventional moral-choice situation of conscience, but the book is notable for its lively—and still completely topical-- critique of racism and its satire of snobbery and greed. Meghan Markle does come to mind as the pages turn: how little has changed in two centuries. The burning question is the following: Did Jane Austen read it? One wants to wish so, and to see it reflected in both the treatment of Jane Fairfax and in the creation of the biracial heroine of Sanditon, but we don’t know that she did.
Honorable fiction mentions:
Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger. A burst of interest in Agatha Christie and the possible influence of Jane Austen on her led to a group reading several Christie mysteries in rapid succession: The Moving Finger stands out as the most interesting of the bunch, with poison pen letters, accusations of brother-sister incest, and the tantalizing possibility of more than one answer to “who done it” if we delve into the Shakespearean subtexts. I would also mention The Complete Short Stories of Miss Marple—the stories are spooky and entertaining and quietly and savagely puncture stereotypes about older women.
Hat tips to Elaine, who recommended both the Kingston and the Frame novels, to Rachel for Bambi, Liz Anne for The Woman of Colour, and Constance for The Moving Finger. I don’t know where I would be without friend recommendations.
Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman. I’ve read Agatha Christie’s entertaining and humane memoir and have tried to read several Christie biographies that I had to abandon. Lucy Worsley’s new book, which was unaccountably dismissed by the New York Times, is well researched, intelligent, and readable. Beyond delving into Christie’s archives to uncover how wholly Christie financed her second husband’s career, Worsley folds in the serious academic scholarship on Christie that has emerged in the last 30 years, such as by Alison Light, which emphasizes Christie as a modernist writer and perhaps the most underrated playwright of the 20th century. As Worsley points out , the pared down prose we so admire in Hemingway is an aspect of Christie’s writing as well—and with her sharp eye for the telling detailed, Christie documented much of the social history of England in the first three quarters of the 20th century.
Anne Hart, The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple. I enjoyed this older book, published in the 1980s, which compiles Miss Marple’s life story based on what can be gleaned from Christie's books and stories. This led me to the early stories, where a very Victorian Miss Marple emerges in 1927 as a member of The Tuesday Night Club, a group that presents and tries to solve vexing mysteries. There’s an eery and uncanny quality to this early Miss Maple who comes to use festooned in lace over white hair piled high on her head and long black silk dresses, a far cry from her later iteration in sensible British tweeds. Despite being roundly dismissed and discounted, ala Miss Bates, she is very much the person who knows what is going on and solves the crimes.
Daniel Mark Epstein, ed., Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St Vincent Millay. Though gaps occur in her diaries, what we have, especially with Epstein’s fine contextualizing, brings Millay and her period alive, from her financially strapped childhood as one of several daughters of a single mother in Maine to her unlikely ascent to literary stardom, and later, to her life running a farm with her husband in upstate New York. As with the well-edited set of Shirley Jackson’s letters I read a year ago, the real woman behind the myth shines out, in both cases a decent person coping with an unlikely life of fame.
Hilary A Hallett, Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. I had never heard of Elinor Glyn before this highly readable biography. Born in Canada and married to an upper-class British man who did little but spend down the family estate to near destitution, the supremely self-assured and socially polished Glyn put pen to paper and became the inventor of best-selling steamy romances of the “tiger rug” variety, earning her the name of Tiger Queen. She ended up in Hollywood in her 60s as Madame Glyn, coaching such stars as “It” girl Clara Bow. It’s sad that so little is remembered today about this energetic and capable woman with a talent for rising to occasions. She seems much of a piece with other women writers of her period, such as Edith Nesbitt, who used their talents to grind out endless mediocre works for money. These must have been the women Woolf had in mind when she contrasted male writers’ privilege to what so many women writers had to contend with.
Brigitta Olubas: Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life. I have never read novelist Shirley Hazzard, but nevertheless this well-written account of her life. Has stuck with me, drawing a clear portrait of who she was. A self-made woman from Australia, Hazzard wove aspects of her life story into her carefully crafted and critically acclaimed novels. She also created for herself the New York and European intellectual life that she craved. I hesitated putting this book on the list, as I don’t plan to read Hazzard, but the bio itself got under my skin, leaving me feeling as if I knew Shirley as a real person.
Christopher Prendergast: Living and Dying with Marcel Proust. I found myself copying Proust quotes out of this book, which focuses on different aspects of Proust’s Recherche, from his use of the color pink to asthma to his thoughts on death. Prendergast knows Proust well, and this command serves him well in the book. This work gave me a better understanding of Proust, complementing Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, which ends on the image of the two roads Proust habitually walks meeting—to his stunned surprised. In Prendergast, I enjoyed the way he tied together Proust quotes, such as in:
‘I first noticed the round shadow that apple trees
make on the sunny earth and those silks of impalpable gold
which the sunset weaves under the leaves.’ It is later echoed by
the sunlit apple trees of Normandy, ‘in full flower for as far as
the eye could see, unimaginably luxuriant, their feet in the mud
but wearing their ball-gowns, not taking any precautions so as
not to spoil the most marvellous pink satin you ever set eyes on,
made to shine by the sunlight.’ There is also the ‘dazzling whiteness’
of the pear trees in the village …
Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. This book on trauma comes alive because of van der Kolk’s relentless, insatiable quest to understand and treat trauma, wherever the path leads. He speaks out strongly against medicating trauma as a sole treatment therapy, and against severing trauma from the social and political contexts that cause it.
Jack Zipes, Buried Treasures: The Power of Political Fairytales. Zipes brings together a lifetime of work and reading in this compilation of mostly 20th century fairytale writers, including Salten. Zipes shines a light on writers, often forced to hide their communist or socialist beliefs in fascist regimes, who channeled their ideas into fairy stories, whose political content would be overlooked. Zipes talks about how he first gained an interest in fairytales when he and his mother ran into Einstein on the Princeton campus when he was very young. His mother asked Einstein what Zipes should read, and when Einstein said fairytales, Zipes took the advice. His delight has been finding out of print modern fairy tales in used books stores and bringing their stories back into circulation.