Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Another gem from British author Elizabeth Taylor (I also read her Angel earlier this year). In this one, Mrs Palfrey is a widow who arrives at a London residential hotel because she has nowhere else to go, her daughter not having invited her to live in Scotland with her, ignored by her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. It’s brimming with tragic descriptions of how barren life can be for an oldster, how the residents cling to their routine and savor the tiny enjoyments like reading the day’s menu, trying to make time pass as quickly as possible.

One day, Mrs Palfrey slips and falls on the street, and is rescued by Ludo, an aspiring author who lives in a basement apartment where she fell. He cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea before calling for a cab. Ludo slips into her life and Palfrey passes him off as her grandson Desmond, whom the residents have been clamoring to meet. In fact, Ludo is a much nicer “grandson” than her actual one.

The lone male resident decides he wants to marry Palfrey and she is horrified by the prospect. But still, she hints at his proposal in a letter home to her daughter, which sends consternation flurrying at the idea that they might not get her money after all.

Clever, charming book, a delightful treat for an afternoon’s reading.

Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings

A smorgasbord of various pieces across Vita’s career—travel writing from Persia, diaries of her exhausting lecture trip across the U.S., excerpts from novels, bits of poetry, letters, diaries, memoirs. I enjoyed her incessant carping about Americans being loud, dumb, and fat in her 1933 travel diary, her inflicting a cold blast of air on reporters in Chicago by leaving the window open, her insistence that the red on her cheeks was not rouge—go ahead and wipe it off, she encouraged, so much train travel and arriving dirty and tired.

I’m also keen on reading Passenger to Teheran in full, especially on the heels of reading MacCannell’s thoughts on tourism. VW got letters from Vita and noted in her diary that “[Vita] is not clever: but abundant and fruitful, truthful too.” After getting the manuscript for the book, she declared it full of “nooks and crannies.”

Seducers in Ecuador

Brilliant novella by Vita, written in 1924 and dedicated to Virginia Woolf, who said “I wish I had written it.” In the collection of Vita’s writing that I’m reading, it’s described as “the most complex and the most highly stylized, the most interesting and the most modernist” of her works.

Arthur Lomax is a nonchalant Englishman whose life is changed when he agrees to join a pleasure-cruise to Egypt. This is where he discovers the joy and transformation of wearing colored glasses, first blue then green and black. The very first sentence gives away a major plot point: “It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold.”

He loves the effect of the colored glass and refuses to go anywhere without them. “He resolved, however, not to initiate a soul into his discovery. To those blessed with perception, let perception remain sacred, but let the obtuse dwell for ever in their darkness.”

How did he end up in Egypt anyway? He’s sitting beside a man at his London club who mentioned that he was sailing to Egypt the next day and bemoaning the fact that his third guest backed out due to family problems:

“Family ties,” he grumbled; and then, to Lomax, “somehow you don’t look as though you had any.” “I haven’t,” said Lomax. “Lucky man,” grumbled Bellamy. “No,” said Lomax, “not so much lucky as wise. A man isn’t born with wife and children, and if he acquires them he has only himself to blame.” This appeared to amuse Bellamy, especially coming from Lomax, who was habitually taciturn, and he said,”That being so, you’d better come along to Egypt tomorrow.” “Thanks,” said Lomax, “I will.”

A few paragraphs later, Vita introduces the rest of the cruising passengers:

It is now time to be a little more explicit on the question of the companions of Lomax.
Perhaps Miss Whitaker deserves precedence, since it was she, after all, who married Lomax.
And perhaps Bellamy should come next, since it was he, after all, for whose murder Lomax was hanged.
And perhaps Artivale should come third, since it was to him, after all, that Lomax bequeathed his, that is to say Bellamy’s, fortune.
The practised reader will have observed by now that the element of surprise is not to be looked for in this story.

And there you have it—the entirety of the plot line. The rest of the novella flows along these lines, finally ending with Lomax arrested for Bellamy’s death and Artivale not getting the money after all due to a contested will. The seducer of the title is the unknown man who has impregnated Miss Whitaker, causing Lomax to marry her out of pity. Bellamy supposedly has a fatal disease and asks Lomax to help him die, but once the deed is done, his body is exhumed and no disease found.

The Heir

Vita wrote this in 1920 after visiting property that had gone up for sale after the death of one of her acquaintances. It’s a charming quick story of a nephew who inherits a large home and parcel of land from his aunt. Immediately ignored by the lawyers and house agents, Chase finds the sale of the house arranged for him, but then takes a few weeks off work (for an insurance agency) to explore the home and environs. Unfortunately, he falls in love with the house and the local people (who all fall in love with him too). But he has no money, and so the house must be sold. In the end he shows up at the auction and outbids everyone, a ridiculous sum that he does not have. It’s worth it, he feels, and he keeps the servants around, ending the book with the choice between dinner in the garden or inside.

Great Expectations: A Novel

Kathy Acker’s most readable book, according to Chris Kraus’s biography. It’s a great example of her layering technique, collaging with words, expropriating work from other writers (e.g. Dickens), avant-guarding all over the page.

Snuck in bits of her own life between wild careenings of flights of fancy, like her mother’s suicide on Christmas Eve after spending all of her money, and Acker’s own inheritance of wealth from her father.

Acker explains her process: “I wrote so many pages a day and that was that. I set up guidelines for each piece, such as you’ll use autobiographical and fake autobiographical material, or you’re not allowed to re-write. I really didn’t want any creativity. It was task work, and that’s how I thought of it.”

All Passion Spent

Oh Vita, bravo! This is a book I shall recommend to anyone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one, tackling death and absence in such a tremendous way, with a light touch and humor.

We first meet Lady Slane at age 88, her husband of 70 years having just died. Her brood of children includes the usual bores—the over-ambitious first son, the hyper-efficient first daughter, the complaining second son, the parsimonious third son, and the dreamers who were the youngest daughter and son, most beloved by their parents. In the wake of their father’s death, they all gather to discuss what is to be done with Mother, hatching their tedious plan of pawning her off between each of their houses for a few months of the year. Mother (Lady Slane) has other plans. After dumping her only real wealth, the jewels left to her by her husband, into the lap of her oldest son, she declares that she’s taking a house in Hampstead that she noticed 30 years ago and no she does not want anyone going out with her to arrange matters.

Alone, she meets the landlord Mr Bucktrout, and immediately finds a kindred weirdo spirit who tells her “I have few friends, and I find that as one grows older one relies more and more on the society of one’s contemporaries and shrinks from the society of the young. They are so tiring. So unsettling. I can scarcely, nowadays, endure the company of anybody under seventy.” Lady Slane agrees and tells her children that she does not want her grandchildren or great-grandchildren visiting her. “They were forbidden. The grandchildren did not count; they were insignificant as the middle distance.” So refreshing to hear this opinion, especially in this age when grandparents gush unremittingly about their offspring’s offspring.

A friend of her youngest son appears who has known Lady Slane many decades ago in India and they resume acquaintance, whereupon he rewrites his will and leaves millions to her, dying soon after. Lady Slane then donates all the money and art to hospitals and museums, infuriating her oldest children, but her great-granddaughter comes to thank her, saying that this made her less attractive as a marriage option and able to break an engagement she didn’t want. We end with Lady Slane expiring after that conversation.

The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks

Many thanks to Erin for reminding me about how wonderful Gwendolyn Brooks is. This is a distillation of the “essential” poems of her life, including the perfect We Real Cool. I didn’t realize that Brooks was the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer, obtained in 1950 for her book Annie Allen. Born in Topeka, KS in 1917, she moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration only a few months after her birth.

We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

McGlue

In an interview with The Guardian, Ottessa said she wrote this during her MFA course at Brown, “Looking back I’m astonished that I wrote it, I think it’s an astonishing book.” Indeed it is.

Incoherent, poetic rambling from the mouth of a sick alcoholic (McGlue) jailed for killing his best friend, Johnson. Parts are very very violent, leaving me shuddering. But overwhelmingly you’re drawn into the dream world of McGlue as he frets below-deck of the ship in a haze and ensconced in a Salem jail once he’s on shore. He keeps yelping for Johnson, not believing that he’s dead.

“Right,” I said, but it didn’t feel very right. I didn’t want to make it. I wanted to lie down with it and strangle it and kill it and save it and nurse it and kill it again and I wanted to go and forget where I was going and I wanted to change my name and forget my face and wanted to drink and get my head ruined but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it.

The language is just unstoppable:

I’ve not seen Johnson in too long. He comes and goes in my mind’s eye and still he hasn’t come to my lock-up down here in the boat to cool my nerves, my hot snake brains they feel like, slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head.

And

Me, peddling my legs around Salem like a windup doll looking for a glass teat to suck. “We’ll go,” he said. “I’d even pay my way.” But he didn’t have to try hard to get a job on that ship, and with him me too. Looking like a stowaway I made onto that ship the day of departure with Jonson clearing a path for me, like a prince. “He’s not feeling well,” was his explanation for why I was stained with wine, stumbling, smirking and raising a finger to say something, then forgetting and stumbling on.

To the North

There is something about late December that always puts me in the mood for a tumble into mid-20th century British fiction. And mood determines whether or not I’ll throw a book across the room into my ever-growing discard pile or settle in for a comfy afternoon of reading. Elizabeth Bowen’s novel was just was I needed to entertain the mind and stay warm and cozy today.

To the North has two wonderfully complex women as the protagonists: Cecilia, a widow who lives with her dead husband’s sister Emmeline. Early on, Emmeline wonders if she will ever love anyone. “Nothing could be as dear as the circle of reading-light round her solitary pillow.” Cecilia meets Markie on a train in Switzerland and passes him off to Emmeline who then falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Cecilia is conflicted about whether she’ll marry rich Julian. Other characters: Pauline, Julian’s orphaned niece; Lady Waters – Georgina, who is Cecilia’s aunt and Emmeline’s cousin.

The book is infused with an understated atmosphere. Emmeline makes unintended cutting remarks as she dreams away in company with Markie, thinking of her travel agency. Cecilia, too, bustles about with her own energy and brings a certain light to the pages when she appears.

A sprinkle of yummy words like bumptious make the prose sparkle. Discovered by way of Cambridge’s summer reading course for next year.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York

Roz Chast is on a roll after her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and now this hit. The book was born out of a pamphlet she put together for her daughter who was going off to college and didn’t know what a “block” was in terms of city distances. It’s a labor of love, giving you the lay of the land, explaining the Avenues vs. the Streets and how the subway works, reminding you to hit up all the amazing museums and maybe skip the Statue of Liberty because Roz herself has not yet gone (too touristy). Very sweet book, works as a palate cleanser and a refreshing break from the book about oil that I’m hundreds of pages deep into now.

Homesick for Another World: Stories

A short story collection that includes her story I first read in the Paris Review—Dancing in the Moonlight—which was one of the strongest pieces in the book. Some of the stories felt like they could have used a bit more shaping, the endings coming on too sudden or jarringly. Overall yet another dip into the weird brain of Moshfegh, a delightful escape from the world of the normals.

The Heart of a Woman

I love reading Maya Angelou and enjoyed this memoir detailing her history in the late 1950s and early 1960s, shuttling from a houseboat commune in Sausalito to LA to NYC to Cairo and beyond. Her work in NYC brought her in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Max Roach, among others.

Most interesting to me were the descriptions of life in the ever-changing times, her mother and her being the first black hotel guests at a Fresno hotel that had just opened to blacks, her description of the streets of Harlem teeming with people to see speakers, her memories of life in the Fillmore district with a car accident at Fulton/Gough and her son learning to ride his bike in Alamo Square (“a park on Fulton”, I assume is A-Square).

Unfortunately, she marries an African freedom fighter mid-way through and gives up her work outside the home, retreating even from friends. She makes us suffer through the long, tedious marriage that you know is going to end, but not until they get to Cairo and she has further proof of his infidelity in addition to unpaid bills that he ignores. He also becomes enraged when she gets a job. Good riddance, she jettisons him near then end, then wraps up the tale with further travels in Africa with her son. Still, a strong first half and fairly weak second.

Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

If I were alive in the 16th century, I would have been nabbed as a witch for sure. Risk factors: female, not married, and outspoken.

Unfortunately, this academic dive into the witch hunts of Europe and the periphery was not well done. Barstow juggles tons of studies and primary source trial documents but overlays them with her narrow 20th century perspective. Not nearly as thorough or well-thought out as it should have been.

Of the meager good bits to be salvaged:

Persecution broke out when it did due to economics, of course. In ~1560, Europe had “population saturation, food scarcity, and runaway inflation” and women were a convenient scapegoat. Your wife not able to bear children? A witch has cursed her. Your crops are failing? It’s the witch’s fault. But the overwhelming targeting of women as witches only occurred after the witch hunting manuals came out, which pointed the finger at those dirty menstruating creatures. Fun fact—the pillaging of the New World lead to inflation as all that silver and gold flooded into European markets, indirectly causing this craze. This economic unrest shifted a lot of women into poverty, and Barstow claims that the increase in female beggars “so discomfited their better-off neighbors that the neighbors accused them of witchcraft in order to get rid of them.”

The church has a huge role in all of this, too. Clergy were jealous of women’s power as midwives and healers, usurping their own duties. And yet the church practiced its own magic as well—that turning of a communion wafer into the body and blood of Christ, for one.

Eileen

Little did I know when I grabbed a few copies of The Paris Review from my neighbor’s “Help Yourself” pile that I’d discover a new favorite author. Ottessa Moshfegh has major writing skills, and her short story Dancing in the Moonlight left me wanting more, which I got served in her novel, Eileen. I finished the book minutes ago and feel completely wrung out, spent, a puddle having been floored by her talent.

Eileen is the narrator of this weird, dark tale—a twenty-something reject living with her drunk father and working at the boys’ prison in town. Her mother died five years previously and Eileen shuffles between work and home and the liquor store filling up her father’s liver and her own, wearing her dead mother’s clothes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, jamming cold handfuls of snow into her underpants to wash away the image of two teenagers necking. A radiant, sparkling woman, Rebecca, comes to work at the prison, changing Eileen’s life forever.

The author is masterful in dropping hints that keep you reading. You know that the narrator survives the hellish landscape she’s describing, because she’s still here 50 years later, narrating her tale. But little pops of mystery get nestled in, you know she disappears before Christmas and she layers on lavish details about her present and past as she keeps reminding you that within a week of this occurrence, she’s gone from town, or in a few days she’ll be out of there. You see her ex-cop dad’s gun make its appearance, wonder about its significance. When she goes to Rebecca’s on Christmas Eve, Rebecca is acting weird and you start to get very anxious, what is going to happen, and then boom—you find out Mrs. Polk is tied up in the basement. It’s brilliant, well-paced, beautifully written.

Here are a few samples to give a flavor:

My father said it himself: I smelled like hell. I dressed myself in my mother’s old Sunday clothes—gray trousers, black sweater, hooded woolen parka. I put on my snow boots and drove to the library. I’d just finished looking through a brief history of Surname and a book on how to tell the future from looking at the stars. The former had great pictures of nearly naked men and old topless women. I recall one photograph of a monkey suckling a woman’s nipple, but perhaps I’m inventing. I liked twisted things like that. My curiosity for the stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright. I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library —something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly.

I remember sitting up on my cot under a bare lightbulb and surveying the attic. It’s a charming picture of misery.

There’s nothing I detest more than men with happy childhoods.

A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.

When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself. I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed. That always did the trick.

I’m almost too scared to learn anything about this writer which might puncture my perfect understanding of her talent, but I’ve added a few more of her books to my list.

 

How To Be Happy

I really liked Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road earlier this year so grabbed her first book, which was also a shot of joy in my arm. Unlike the other book, this is more of a meandering across various scenarios and topics, her observations as she makes her way through life. The art is gorgeous, lush, strange, and the stories are weird and wonderful. Before she begins, her first pages sketch out her character saying: “Write a story. A story about yourself. A story about your life. Now, believe it. Now write another story, same subject. A better story. More interesting. Stronger characters. Now, believe that. Just keep writing. You have plenty of time.”