Effi Briest

Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)

This forgotten gem by Theodor Fontane in 1895 is well-worth a read. Thomas Mann said in 1919 that it was among the six most significant novels ever written, yet it has been completely forgotten by most of the literati. The story involves young Effi Briest, a girl who’s married off to her mother’s ex-boyfriend (!!), Baron Instetten, many decades older than her. What could go wrong?! The story unfolds slowly but not ploddingly, she’s semi-abandoned in a frontier town while her husband climbs the ranks of official life. Along the way she has a flirtation/affair with one of his friends, and when they must leave for Berlin, she’s relieved to end it all. Six years pass, and when her daughter bangs her head on a stair, bleeding profusely, the maids crack open Effi’s desk to find some bandages. Later, out of the chaos, the Baron discovers a packet of letters and reads them. Despite so much time having passed, he immediately heads out and challenges the guy to a duel, killing him. Effi is then truly abandoned, stripped of her child and reputation, only surviving due to her parents’ largess. Later she has a doctor convince her parents to let her come back and live with them, where she later dies. Just before leaving this mortal coil, the Baron has some twinges of regret, realizing that he’s forsaken happiness forever.

The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain

The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain (Modern Library Classics)

I’m on a hunt for specific tips around the craft of story-telling, and who better to ask than Mark Twain? This collection features what the editor feels are the best of his stories, plus a snippet in the appendix “How to tell a story” comes from Twain in 1895.

Perhaps my favorite was “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” from 1882, wherein Twain relates a tale told to him (a frequent device) by a man who foolishly invested and doubled down and tripled down on his burglar alarm investment. Delicious first sentence, “The conversation drifted smoothly and pleasantly along from weather to crops, from crops to literature from literature to scandal, from scandal to religion; then took a random jump, and landed on the subject of burglar alarms.”

Also of interest, the extracts from Adam’s diary (and later, from Eve’s, which wasn’t as interesting).

But mostly I was there for the writing tips, and nuggets like this are sprinkled throughout: “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.”

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

Isabel Greenberg does a graphic novel treatment of Scheherazade’s story. The main action revolves around a virgin wife who’s in love with her maid; her dumb husband bets his neighbor that he can’t seduce her even if given 100 nights to attempt it. The maid overhears the nefarious plan and she and the wife devise a plan to avoid entrapment—Hero will tell amazing stories for 100 nights and the neighbor will forget all about seducing the wife. Which is exactly what happens, and we flit around into various folk tales. Good stuff!

The Prodigal Women

I got swept up in the fast-moving currents of Nancy Hale’s dramatic masterpiece from 1942, a best-seller in its day that has now become moldering. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for stories with strong women who prefer solitude to anything else.

The story begins with a young Leda March looking back at her home and relishing the weekend’s release from school so that she can be alone. She comes from a poor branch of the aristocratic Marches of Boston and is an only child who finds comfort in the rollicking good time offered by her new friend Betsy Jekyll. The next 500+ pages follow the girls as they grow up and try on various identities—wealthy and beautiful wife (Leda) who bores of her marriage and chucks it all to become a poet, and Betsy’s bohemian spirit leads her to flapperism in NYC which she must renounce when she ends up with a wife-beating husband who loves to imagine all the various men she’s been with (so as to enrage himself). Leda falls in love with Betsy’s sister Maise’s husband, the artist Lambert Rudd. Maise herself gets sick in South America due to a botched abortion and becomes an invalid until she has her own child, and then loses her mind. It’s a real page-turner, delicious way to sink into the hours of the afternoon.

Enchanted Islands

Enchanted Islands

Sometimes you have a bad idea that you just have to follow through on. Today’s mistake was deciding that I’d slough off on work and simply read all afternoon, which I doubled down on by consuming this not so great book in a few hours. I was intrigued by the premise when I saw the book jumping out at me from a Chicago bookstore not long ago, so ordered it up and polished it off in one sitting, despite giving myself a tummyache in the process. It’s not good writing. It’s not good plot development. The characters are flimsy and unbelievable. Yet, I persisted, driven by the idea that some nugget of wisdom about female friendship would be waiting for me at the end. Nope.

It begins at the end, when Fanny & Rosalie are tucked away in an old folk’s home in the Bay Area, then yanks you backward through their childhood growing up Jewish in Minnesota, running away from home to work as a secretary in Chicago and then fleeing for farm life/suffragette life in Nebraska (of all places) when Fanny walks in on Rosalie with Fanny’s boyfriend Zeke, in an unnecessarily graphic and extremely detailed sex scene. Then Fanny ends up graying in San Francisco as a teacher, which she eventually chucks to go back to secretarial work in her 50s for the Navy. She gets recruited to pose/become the wife of a spy and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands in the lead up to WWII. Her husband, Ainslie, is gay, the “confirmed bachelor” hints broadly ignored by Fanny up until she catches him (of course) in flagrante.

The part of the story that unfolds on the islands is the flimsiest, most improbable, and least worth reading despite what you’d imagine. There are German spies on the island, drama drama drama, then the war, and Fanny’s shipped back to SF where she finally does fall in love (Joseph) but returns with Ainslie to the Galapagos when the war is over. It’s a muddy, icky, not-worth-your-time mess and I wish the author had had the kindness to keep it tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Twelve tales that Mann wrote between 1896 and 1912 (Death in Venice), some quite strange, all with the tell-tale Mann stamp upon them.
The Will for Happiness (1896)- man with fatal heart condition evades death until at long last the father of his beloved allows them to marry. He dies on their wedding night.
Little Herr Friedemann (1897)- crippled by being dropped as an infant, Friedemann falls in love then realizes it is futile since he is grotesque, focuses on being cultured instead. Years later, he falls for a new woman in town who cruelly rejects him, he drowns himself in the creek by her house at a party one night.
Tobias Mindernickel (1897) – old man is laughed at by children, acquires a dog but then beats it, only finds relief in providing succor once he’s almost killed it. Then he does kill it.
Little Lizzy (1897) – attractive woman married to an obese lawyer and openly carrying on affairs that the whole town knows about. She convinces her husband to dress up like a giant baby and sing a number at her party, to his humiliation. “This fat man had the most bizarre character. No one could have been more courteous, more gracious, more obliging than he. Yet without actually articulating it, people felt that his overly friendly and flattering behavior was somehow forced, that it was rooted in timidity and insecurity, and so it got on their nerves. Nothing is uglier than a person who despises himself but who, out of cowardice and vanity, is eager to please because he wants to be liked.”
Gladius Dei (1902)- strange story where a painting of the Virgin Mary is deemed by a passerby to be too seductive, he tries to get it taken out of the window of the gallery that’s selling copies of it.
Tristan (1903) – hints of Magic Mountain in this one— a writer and a consumptive (only the windpipe tho!) meet in a sanatorium and develop a friendship; she dies after having been convinced by him to play Tristan and Isolde.
The Starvelings: A Study (??) – brief portrait of a jealous friend who wishes his lady friend would tell him to wait a bit and hang out with her. Echoes of this show up again in Tonio Kroger.
Tonio Kroger (1903)- fantastic novella, Kroger falls in love with Hans and then with Inge, both of whom he encounters later in Sweden they having married and he having traveled there to get a fresh perspective. “If he was asked what in the world he wanted to be, he would supply different answers, for he was in the habit of saying—and had already written—that he bore within himself the possibilities of a thousand different ways of life, together with the secret awareness that they were all impossibilities.”
“He did not work like someone who works in order to live; rather, he worked like someone who wants nothing but to work because he considers himself nothing as a living person, wishes only to be regarded as a creative being, and otherwise goes about gray and inconspicuous like an actor who has taken off his makeup and is nothing so long as he has nothing to portray. He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.”
The Wunderkind (1903) – a young skilled composer and pianist pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, or so he feels.
Harsh Hour (1905) – I think this is Mann’s portrait of Schiller writing? He mentions Don Carlos… it’s late at night, the writer is alone and taking a break to look more holistically at his work. “Do not brood: work! Limit, exclude, give shape, complete… And complete it he did, the work of his suffering. It may not have been good, but complete it he did. And when it was complete, lo and behold, it was good. And from his soul, from Music and Idea, new works struggled upward, resonant and shimmering creations, which, in sacred form, wondrously hinted at their infinite homeland, just as the ocean, from which it is fished, roars in the seashell.”
The Blood of the Walsungs (1905) – bizarre tale of twins who are in love with each other, named after the characters in Die Walkure who they see that night at the opera; they consummate their relationship on the eve of the girl twin getting married off.
Death in Venice (1912) – old man and the sea, feels the travel bug and doesn’t know how to fight it, goes here and there and finally Venice, tries to leave but his trunk gets sent on in the wrong direction, he uses this as an excuse to stay and watch a young boy whom he’s in love with. Disease hits the city, he dies.

White Teeth

White Teeth: A Novel

Oh Zadie Smith, where have you been all my reading life? Great fictional tale of a mixed-race (Jamaican/English) family growing up in London intertwined with an immigrant family (Bengali) due to the fathers having stumbled across each other during WWII. Masterful weaving in of teeth, whether the light bits that hint of Iris becoming a dentist or the terrible things that come out of the old man racist’s mouth when the children go to deliver apples to him as a school charity project.

The Country Life: A Novel

The Country Life: A Novel

As much as I like Rachel Cusk’s writing, her earlier work is not as good. This was her third novel, a bizarre tale of a woman fleeing her week-old marriage by taking a job as an au pair in the country, leaving her entire life behind. She quickly gets sunburned, falls down stairs, nearly gets heatstroke, almost dies of hunger from not being fed properly, drinks large quantities of wine and gin. All the markings of a proper country tale, indeed. Her name is given as Stella Benson, which is odd, and then later she discovers a book by the real Stella Benson in the cottage she’s living in. Attempts at creating some sort of mystery about the farm she’s on arrive in furtive bursts, pamphlets pushed under her door, whispers at the post office (by something called the Creature that daubs her sunburn and fixes her bruises). It may have all been a clever joke that I missed the point of. The writing shines briefly and patchily, but I suppose it’s a comfort that even the best writers had to have their years of practice and mediocre books.

Postcards from the Edge

Postcards from the Edge

Another hilarious book of Carrie Fisher’s finally washed up on my shore after months of waiting. Dammit I wish I’d known about her writing talent and appreciated her when she was alive. This is an early one (her earliest?), pub’d in 1987. A book of stories about Suzanne, the actress who gets her stomach pumped free of Percodan and does a stint in rehab with other addicts, who dives back into Hollywood life sober, girding her loins to handle ridiculous parties, who lazes about watching TV and giving up on the world but who meets an intelligent author in the green room when her friend was on a talk show. Her quips are endless, relentless. “Romancing the stoned.” “There but for the grace of overdose go I.” Etc. At one point she puts on the soundtrack to Somewhere in Time to listen to while she takes a bath. It’s pure Carrie, mainlined straight into your heart.

Transit: A Novel

Transit: A Novel

If I could, I would burrow deep into a Rachel Cusk book and never come out, completely escaping the world forever. Her writing continues to stun, mesmerize, delight. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, or to draw attention to one specific example or phrase. It’s more the feeling that as you’re reading, her words wash over you with the peacefulness of waves calmly lapping you with warm soothing water. Her characters get into lengthy complicated dialogues that don’t seem such; the lack of “quotes” helps make the conversation seem deeper without jarring your ear with fragments of talk.

For just a sip, here’s the narrator interposing a question after pages of intense reveal from a woman she just met at a mutual friend’s house: “I asked her whether she still had the feeling of unreality, and why she thought it had come in the first place… ‘I like it that you ask these questions,’ she said. ‘But I don’t understand why you want to know.’ ”

The story involves a woman with two children newly free from her marriage, moving to London where she’s able to buy a bad house in a good neighborhood and then sink tons of money into repairs. Her downstairs neighbors are nicknamed trolls by her sons, an evil-spewing older couple who bang incessantly on the floor with their broom, tell neighbors outrageous lies about her, and cook abominably stinky food that reeks through the floor. The narrator is a writer, runs into her ex-boyfriend taking his daughter to school, goes on a jaunt to read her work, teaches creative writing and counsels a student named Jane about not spending her time writing about the painter Marsden Hartley. She meets a man, she visits friends in a fog-enshrouded country home. It’s all quite magical.

My previous exposure to Cusk was in Outline, wherein I describe being “pummeled” by her work. Now ready to read anything and everything by her.

Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories

Cities I've Never Lived In: Stories

Dreamy, ethereal, gauzy, not very good stories; mostly east coast, Maine and NYC. The only one that sticks out as interesting was about the woman with two kids whose husband ran away when he found out she loved another man on the island they lived on (in Maine); she goes and lives with her father-in-law, the grocery on the island closes, she must schlep groceries from the mainland where she works. The eponymous story was about a woman who travels around volunteering in soup kitchens then eating there, living in hostels. But overall the writing wasn’t anything you could sink your teeth into and appreciate.

O Fallen Angel

O Fallen Angel

Originally published in 2010 as Zambreno’s first book, it’s re-released with an awkward and unnecessary introduction by Lidia Yuknavitch who first published it. The end acknowledgments bookend us with praise for Yuknavitch in a way that just leaves me wishing we could have the text sans Lidia.

It’s a weird, triptych-ish book that follows the story of Mommy, Maggie, and Malachi. Mommy is in full denial that the world is falling apart, closing her eyes to her daughter Maggie’s self-destruction. Malachi sets himself on fire and jumps off an overpass onto the highway.

Zambreno’s language sparkles: “Cell phone towers of Babble.” ; “Mommy likes books with stiletto heels on the pink cover. Anything pink. Pink, pink, pink. Think pink! Don’t think at all!”; “Caution is GrandMommy’s middle name. Although it’s really Marie, like all good Catholic girls.”; “The whole family likes to watch TV—they gather around it, it is their altar… Missy she is three and needs to learn to sit like a lady! Which is on your ass watching the television! It’s best to practice the assumed position of apathy and defeat!”

Little Dorrit

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

The Thirteen Travellers

Delightful collection of stories about the residents of a posh apartment home (Hortons) in the center of London, all figuring out how to live post-war in 1919. Published in 1920, this provided a fantastic glimpse into the chaos and psychic mess that people had to deal with.

1. There’s Absalom Jay, the man at his best in the 1890s who simply withers without funds/social engagements/society in the post-war world.

2. Fanny Close is the highly competent portress who takes over the job when all the men ship off for war, and retains it when they come back; she’s quite pleasant to everyone because compared to her sister Aggie, everyone is dreamy.

3. The Honorable Clive Torby is a silly chit of a man who spends his parents money without care until the day that it runs out and then he cheerfully goes out and learns how to be a (one-armed) house-painter.

4. Miss Morganhurst is an old spinster who only cares for her tiny dog and who effectively seals off her brain from any war news; she goes insane and dies after her dog dies and she’s unable to keep the vivid horrific war images from her brain, insisting that she was there: “I was there, you know.”

5. Peter Westcott is a has-been novelist who borrows the flat of a rich and successful author; he snubs modern authors for their cheap tricks and says he could do it as well as they: “Write in suspensive dots and dashes, mention all parts of the human body in full, count every tick of the clock, and call your book ‘Disintegration,’ or ‘Dead Moons,’ or ‘Green Queens.’ ”

6. Lucy Moon comes to visit her aunt in Hortons on the eve of her wedding, discovers that she knows nothing and has not yet begun to live. She exchanges glances with a strange man at the symphony and realizes she will not marry the older man she’s said yes to.

7 & 8. Mrs. Porter and Miss Allen have a bit of a ghost tale in them, haunted by the apparition of dead Mr. Porter who swore that as soon as Mrs. Porter began to enjoy her life without him, he’d come steal her for death.

9. Lois Drake is one of those hard, modern women who thrived during this time, whooping it up with men and living loud, drinking whiskey, flaunting convention. Only it turns out that her best friend falls in love with the man Lois is in love with, leaving her alone and weeping.

10. Mr. Nix is the manager of Hortons who begins having bad dreams after the war. This rings quite true for me in 2017: “everyone was having bad dreams just now, that it was the natural reaction after the four years of stress and turmoil through which we have passed.” His wife decides to leave him and assert her independence, at which point he falls madly in love with her again and vows never to take her for granted.

11. Lizzie Rand is an old maid whose last job as a companion netted her a boatload of money from the woman who wanted to spite her nephews and nieces. She meets a widower who struggles to let go of his wife’s image, and he soon proposes to her. Lizzie turns him down because she sees how easy it is to dominate him and just wants to stay pals.

12. Nobody is actually Tom, back from the war thrice wounded and inheriting a pile of money from his uncle. He’s dead on the inside until he has a chance meeting where he helps an old couple get home in the rain to their squalid home.

13. Bombastes Furioso is the storyteller who cannot seem to tell a completely true story about himself but does not think he is lying. His stories are threatened to come to an end when he falls in love with a woman who says she’ll marry him if he stops lying.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

The first book by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Mary, the one that gave her the name “Elizabeth” forever, is like a sandwich at tea time, crusts cut off the bread, proper, yet lacking. There are some good bits, such as when she first begins, glorying in her solitude for six weeks as she fixes up the house by overseeing those who are actually doing the work, and spending all of her time reading alone in the garden. She affectionately nicknames her husband Man of Wrath and after thoughtfully capturing baby owls for him to train, he is shocked at the idea, Elizabeth remembers that phrase “Two paradises ’twere in one to live in Paradise alone.” But no, she has 3 babies and a husband, and scores of people who insist on visiting. When conversation at a dinner party in a neighboring town veers towards Elizabeth being “abandoned” in her house, she insists that she enjoys it and is quite happy “buried” in her home. She almost mentions that she was surrounded by books but “reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.” So she pretends with them that she is not happy. The rest is a diary of her garden, what blooms, what is planted, and then the last half taken up by a Christmas visit of a friend, Irais, and a stranger brought in because she is a friend-of-a-friend, Minora. Unfortunately, Minora is an Englishwoman intent on writing a book, and she whips out her notebook to record the many amusing things Elizabeth and Irais say. There’s a brief interlude where the Man of Wrath lectures about why women are inferior, and then the women leave after a month. It’s a curious artifact, pub’d in 1898.