Celestial Navigation

Another beautiful book by Anne Tyler (how is it that I have never heard of her amazing writing before?!). This one from 1974 shifts the narrator among a handful of people, beginning with Amanda in 1960, gone home to Baltimore with her sister Laura to help their brother Jeremy bury their mother. Once she discovers that her mom left her house to Jeremy, the sisters depart and are only shadows in the remaining story. But we get a glimpse of Jeremy in her story, a man incapable of leaving the house to visit his mother in the funeral home, a man lost in his own world spending hours creating art in his upstairs studio while letting the elderly boarders roam around the rest of the house willy-nilly.

We get a chapter with Jeremy as the main focus but he never achieves first person narration. Next up in the narrator’s slot is Mary, a woman who arrived at the boarding house with her four-year-old daughter in tow, escaping a husband and intent on marrying another man. Her husband refuses divorce, the other man loses interest, Jeremy is blinded by her dazzling looks and comforts her as best he can. When he comes across her crying, “his voice wavered, as if he might start crying himself. Sad people are the only real ones. They can tell you the truth about things; they have always known that there is no one you can depend upon forever and no change in your life, however great, that can  keep you from being in the end what you were in the beginning: lost and lonely, sitting on an oilcloth watching the rest of the world do the butterfly stroke.”

Jeremy pseudo-marries her (they pretend to get married, since she can’t, because the husband won’t divorce her) and they start to churn out babies. His art thrives, he becomes successful. The house hums along in orderly fashion with Mary at the helm. And yet, the sounds of the children and Mary’s household questions starts to overwhelm him. Eventually Mary’s husband divorces her, Mary suggests that she and Jeremy get married for real, she proposes a date and reminds him and reminds him but he never leaves his studio, so she leaves with the kids to an abandoned shack his art dealer has for his boat. Jeremy comes out once, is overwhelmed by her competency, goes back to his art and to the other elderly boarder, Miss Vinton, who shows her own predilection for solitude: “If you were to ask my vision of the future back then, my favorite daydream, it was this: I would be reading a book alone in my room, and no one would ever, ever interrupt me.”


Ladder of Years

One of the joys of reading several books by a writer is picking up the patterns between them. This one expands on the interesting scene that happens in Breathing Lessons where a woman leaves her husband’s car during a spat and imagines setting out a new life for herself. Ladder of Years begins with the ominous news clipping about the disappearance of a Baltimore housewife and we learn that Delia simply walks away from her unappreciative family to slip into a new life. First she gets a room in a boarding house and is a secretary to a lawyer in town. Then she answers an ad for a live-in woman to care for a young son and a bachelor ex-husband. Letters from her mother-in-law arrive with more sympathy than nagging to get back to her own husband. Her grumpy teenage son shows up in town one day looking for her, but she’s disappointed that husband Sam never makes much of an effort to win her back. Eventually, her daughter Susie gets married and she heads back to Baltimore for the festivities, slipping back into her old life. The writing is incredible and almost timeless—I was jolted by the appearance of a computer in the lawyer’s office, otherwise this could have been set in the 1950s or 60s. Delia’s father had died the previous year, leading to this poignant thought:

Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.


The Perfect Nanny

An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.

Breathing Lessons

Another from Anne Tyler, but a step down from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. A mother meddles in her son’s failed marriage, trying to engineer them back together by telling each what they want to hear. This comes after a trip to a friend’s husband’s funeral where they’re required to sing the same songs they sang at her wedding 30+ years earlier. Add in a dash of eating disorder (she’s constantly worrying about her weight), falsely telling an old man he had a wobbly tire to force him off the road after he nearly ran them off, and an incident where she demands to be let out of the car and walks back to the diner where she imagines she starts her life all over again. It’s odd, but quick.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

I discovered Anne Tyler by way of John McPhee and can’t believe I hadn’t heard of her before. This was a book that wrapped you in its arms and treated you like family, letting you in on all the secrets of Pearl and her three children. Her traveling salesman husband left one day and she raised Cody, Ezra, and Jenny by herself, never announcing that he was gone but simply getting a job as a cashier at a grocery store in Baltimore. Cody grows up to be a time management consultant, wildly successful but jealous of his brother Ezra for whom everything comes easily (most especially his mother’s love and admiration). Ezra, the dreamer, is happy running a restaurant in town (Homesick) although he gets a bit gloomy after Cody steals his fiancee Ruth away and marries her. Jenny becomes a pediatrician and goes through a few divorces before marrying a man with a large brood of children. In the end, Pearl dies, Ezra finds his father’s contact information and invites him to the funeral. Happily ever after, a grand way to lose yourself from the world for a few hours.

No Fond Return of Love

Mediocre Pym book which I sped-read, trying to avoid the overwhelming scent of lotion that lingered on the library’s copy from a previous patron. I love Pym’s commitment to writing from an elderly spinster’s perspective, but this was too slapstick, with the main character, Dulcie, traipsing about the countryside looking in graveyards and otherwise putting together clues about Dr. Forbes, the man who ultimately shows up at her doorstep to declare his love only a week after Dulcie’s much younger niece has rejected his advances. The best part of reading Pym is for the throwaway lines, like this one that her housekeeper flings at her: “You read too much, that’s your trouble. They [men] don’t like it.” Dulcie replies, “No, I don’t think they do.”

Quartet in Autumn

A harmonious tale of four solitary lives interwoven together—the two women and two men work together in some dusty forgotten office, marking the days down as they approach retirement. The men are widowers and the women never married. All live alone and grapple with aging by themselves with the perils that come with that. Each a character unique in their own way—sloppy or trim, religious or haphazard. One woman dies and leaves her house to one of the men in the office that doesn’t have a house; he must spend time clearing out the shed of milk bottles she was hoarding. The other woman’s plans for retirement centered around going to live with an old friend in the country, but those are dashed when the friend decides to marry a village priest. Wry, sparse, occasionally funny. Pym is always a treat.

Typical Pym, nailing the voice of an older narrator:

She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.

Conversations with Friends: A Novel

It’s weird how the same Baffler article could gift me this delight in the same breath as the fairly putrid Asymmetry, but here we are! I very much enjoyed Sally Rooney’s tale of not a love triangle but a love square perhaps? Finishing up college, Frances is our narrator, a strong intelligent poet whose only relationship has been with her best friend Bobbi. Enter a married couple, Nick and Melissa, when Melissa asks to photograph Bobbi and Frances and write up a profile about their spoken word performances. Bobbi pursues Melissa while Nick and Frances sidle up to each other. The couples part, come back together, part again, ending up in a cozy intertwining that is a happy ending of sorts? Along the way Frances is chronically poor from her drunk father not depositing funds for her, fainting due to her newly diagnosed endometriosis, trying to make sense of the Dublin world. Highly entertaining romp.

Asymmetry: A Novel

If only Lisa Halliday had released this as short stories instead of trying to asymmetrically forcing the two stories into a non-coherent whole, I would have enjoyed it more. Hooray for the first part, wherein she writes what she knows, drawing on her relationship with the much older Phillip Roth who plied her with gifts and contrasted wildly to her younger life. But part 2 comes along to remind you of how bad writing can be when so removed from what you know. And then there’s some weird coda that supposedly knits the whole together, an interview with the Roth-ian character. Did literary America all conspire to push this book forward? I did not enjoy the shift off a cliff it never recovered from.

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft

George Gissing almost had my complete admiration with this book of curmudgeonly wisdom from a writer retiring to a peaceful life in the countryside until he slapped me with a throwaway sexist comment near the end: “Little girls should be taught cooking and baking more assiduously than they are taught to read.” Yowza, Gissing. Up until that point we were mind-melding, but that was the record scratch that brought me up short. Perhaps I’m too sensitive; Woolf didn’t seem to mind that bit when she wrote her essay about his talents.

Before the casual, devastating sexism popped in, I was wholly loving this story of a retired writer who lucked into an inheritance from a friend that allowed him to spend his remaining years peacefully reading and thinking in the countryside, wandering on walks, watching the seasons, learning the names of the wildflowers he encountered, hating the sound of the human voice to disrupt his reveries.

His advice for letting the day’s news wait until later in the day is refreshing for those of us addicted to refreshing the internet/Twitter for the latest gossip: “Generally I leave [the newspaper] till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish.” Later, he adds: “Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”

He frequently reflects on his earlier toils, making his living by his pen, dodging poverty by the skin of his teeth. Mostly, he did it alone. “I never belonged to any cluster; I shrank from casual acquaintance, and, through the grim years, had but one friend with whom I held converse. It was never my instinct to look for help, to seek favour for advancement; whatever step I gained was gained by my own strength.”

On living alone in cheap lodgings: “I was easily satisfied; I wanted only a little walled space in which I could seclude myself, free from external annoyance… A door that locked, a fire in winter, a pipe of tobacco–these were things essential; and, granted these, I have been richly contented in the squalidest garret.”

My kinship with Gissing grew even more with his delight in reading. “To the end I shall be reading– and forgetting. Ah, that’s the worst of it! Had I at command all the knowledge I have at any time possessed, I might call myself a learned man. Nothing surely is so bad for the memory as long-enduring worry, agitation, fear. I cannot preserve more than a few fragments of what I read, yet read I shall, persistently, rejoicingly. Would I gather erudition for a future life?  Indeed, it no longer troubles me that I forget. I have the happiness of the passing moment, and what more can mortal ask?”

He also hated the sounds of the city. “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence… I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense on returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. Noises of wood and metal, clattering of wheels, banging of implements, jangling of bells–all such things are bad enough, but worse still is the clamorous human voice. Nothing on earth is more irritating to me than a bellow or scream of idiot mirth, nothing more hateful than a shout or yell of brutal anger. Were it possible, I would never again hear the utterance of a human tongue, save from those few who are dear to me.”

Most houses were quarrelsome, but his was not. “What proportion of the letters delivered any morning would be found to be written in displeasure, in petulance, in wrath? The postbag shrieks insults or bursts with suppressed malice.”

Thinking vs. reading: “I read much less than I used to do; I think much more. Yet what is the use of thought which can no longer serve to direct life? Better, perhaps, to read and read incessantly, losing one’s futile self in the activity of other minds.”

More on reading: “How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion… often it happens that the book which comes to mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by for ever. I have but to muse, and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly by too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come  into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness– friends passed upon the way.  What regret in that last farewell!”

On coming to grips with old age: “As I walked today in the golden sunlight–this warm, still day on the far verge of autumn–there suddenly came to me a thought which checked my step, and for the moment half bewildered me. I said to myself: My life is over. Surely I ought to have been aware of that simple fact; certainly it has made part of my meditation, has often coloured my mood; but the thing had never definitely shaped itself, ready in words for the tongue. My life is over. I uttered the sentence once or twice, that my ear might test its truth.”



The Odyssey

This is the translation of Homer’s Odyssey I’ve been waiting for—the first English translation of the ancient Greek text by a woman. The retelling of this ancient story from a woman’s perspective is a marvel and I felt closer to the text than in previous readings. The Odyssey is a smorgasbord of entertainment: detailed descriptions of lavish feasts, fantastic adventure tales, a love story, murders, enchantment, a guide to etiquette. The rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea are you constant companions.

A very skillful 80 page introduction lays the groundwork for your appreciation of the book, complemented by a translator’s note that picks apart some of the tangled threads I’ve been thinking about translation over the years. Wilson asserts that the original text is much simpler than the convoluted, highly stylized versions we’ve gotten in the past (“The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption.”)

Her aim is for simple, ordinary, straightforward English in order to highlight the fact that Homeric writing is also not stylistically pompous. Even more impressive, her version is the exact length as the original text with same number of lines. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”

The best part of her Translator’s Note is calling out that it’s traditional to “bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original, [but she believes] we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation.” Hers is an entirely different work than the original. And her translation avoids the usual sexism brought into the other attempts. It is eye-opening to read Wilson’s translation go toe-to-toe with Fagles’ and this becomes more obvious. For example, after Telemachus’s famous lashing out at Penelope telling her to shut up and leave the talking to men, Wilson has Penelope’s reaction as “That startled her.” Fagles’ reaction for Penelope was that she was “Astonished.” And in Book 3, during Nestor’s sacrifice of a cow to Athena, Wilson has: “Then Nestor’s daughters and his son’s wives, and his own loyal queen, Eurydice, began to chant.” Fagles translation is laughable: “The women shrilled their cry, Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter.”

Neon in Daylight

A love letter to NYC in the best possible way. A woman escaping from her stifling post-grad life in London stumbles onto a 6 month house/cat-sit and discovers herself while falling in love with New York. Kate, the narrator, changes with each experience, growing more unpredictable as she downs drugs and sheds inhibitions. The best parts are the meaty bits I love about NYC, the grimy hot summer, the sweaty subway, the people packed and interesting. The flimsier part of the book is the wobbly plot structure—Kate sees Inez in a bodega on her first jet-lagged night, buys the same brand of cigarettes as Inez, then (serendipitously!) Inez runs into Kate in Washington Square and asks if she’s the Kate looking to buy Adderall. No, but (gasp!) her name is also Kate, and thus begins a friendship. Another coincidence—Kate meets Bill (famous old author) at a gallery party and gosh if he isn’t Inez’s father! The hubbub comes crashing to a climax at a Halloween party where the three end up and Bill’s old Warhol-factory-pal shoots himself on his 88th birthday.

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror

Terribly clever reworking of ancient fairy tales with a gender-bending twist and a modern huff of paint. Some were good, like the recognizable elements of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Little Mermaid. All are dark and perhaps this is a bit too much to thrust into a young-un’s hands. Nothing I’d much want to linger over or re-read. Ortberg puts the Grim in Brother’s Grimm, but the trick seemed tedious at times (see: the Mr. Toad story).

Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education

Sybille Bedford continues the fictionalized narrative of her childhood, picking up where A Legacy left off. She’s still a child, maybe nine years old, when her mother sends for her (she’ll never see her father alive again, he dies a few months later after an appendix operation). Thus begins life acting as the adult in the room, managing on her own when her mother deserts her for the weekend to run off with a lover. They are near Switzerland, then discover a small town in the south of France that ends up being their headquarters, Sybille running off to England to get schooled during the year. Fascinating tales of a young girl fending for herself in London on a tiny income that comes from her father’s estate, managed by some German firm until she turns 21. After a few years of being pawned off on friends of her mother’s, Sybille takes a bed-sit near her friend Rosie, wanders museums and teaches French to clerks for money. The summers are in the south of France, a meeting of the Aldous Huxleys is accomplished, her mother turns into a morphine addict after her young husband falls in love with someone else. At the end, she’s reverted back to using after an ineffectual cure, and her husband leaves her in Sybille’s hands to care for.

The Enchanted April

Another lovely tale of escape from Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Elizabeth. In this story, an Italian castle is rented out for the month of April and two youngish women having problems with their husbands meet and decide to take it as a rare treat to themselves. They recruit two other women, one an impossibly gorgeous blue blood with pots of money and the other a stiff old woman (also with pots of money) who is unbearable in her insistence on name-dropping all the literary celebrities she knew in her lifetime. Lotty (one of the wives) changes overnight in the fresh Italian spring air, blossoming and insisting on inviting her disapproving husband immediately. He shows up and is actually decent because he plots to recruit the rich ladies as clients for his business. The other wife, Ruth, moons about hopelessly about her memoir-writing husband who’s been living an alternative life in London away from her, decides to invite him at the last minute, and he shows up in pursuit of Lady Caroline not having received Ruth’s letter. The castle’s owner shows up and falls for Caroline and in the end it’s happily ever after with couples abounding.