I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the ones I read over the last few weeks!
Remember when this was supposed to be a weekly project?
Anyway, I opened this last month with The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (1958), which is a very funny book about Sally Jay Gorce (what a name!), a 21-year-old aspiring American actress who has moved to Paris for a year or two mostly just to see what sort of trouble she can get into. The plot of the book is not really the point: Gorce flits between various artistic and romantic/sexual escapades, all of which we hear from her delightful perspective.
In the introduction to my copy of the book, Terry Teachout states that he would bet money that “some dewy-eyed young critic is going to . . . write an essay about how Sally Jay Gorce . . . was the spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones,” and I confess that I think it does make sense to draw a straight line from Sally to Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw and other self-aware, self-doubting and self-narrating heroes of “chick lit.” (I should note, however, that I have not actually read nor watched Bridget Jones’s Diary, and have only seen scattered episodes of Sex and the City; nevertheless, I’m familiar enough with them through general cultural osmosis that I feel okay making this connection). But although the book is primarily comedic, I do think that Gorce’s struggles with her own sense of self give the book more depth than that might imply. (Also, Gorce actually gets into a fair amount of trouble and danger throughout the course of the book which I don’t believe is a major concern in Sex and the City or Bridget Jones.)
Consider this passage, set immediately after Gorce tries to go out for a late-night sandwich and accidentally finds herself at a bar where every other woman is a prostitute trying to pick up clients:
“I was still the greatest phony of them all–the unavailable prostitute.
In an atmosphere of open hostility, I gobbled up my sandwich and chocolate as fast as I could, the hot chocolate burning my tongue, a revelation burning my soul. I had always assumed that a certain sense of identity would be strong enough within me to communicate itself to others. I now saw this assumption was false. Tout simplement, in a tarts’ bar, I looked like a tart. I tried to cheer myself up by thinking that after all this was really a very good thing for an actress. But it was depressing anyway. Not so much the thing of looking like a prostitute. I mean, except for the inconvenience of the moment, I found that rather thrilling, but the whole episode was forcing me to remember something that I’m always trying to forget and that is, that in a library as well, I’m always being taken for a librarian. No kidding. My last Christmas in New York, I had an English paper to write over the vacation, and there was this public library I used to go to, and no matter where I sat, people were always coming up to me and asking me where such and such a book was. They were furious too, when I didn’t know. It was eerie. I began to feel that I actually was a librarian. The wood growing into my soul and stuff. I suppose I am rather an intellectual.”
The book consistently returns to questions of identity: the first real scene involves Gorce’s primary love interest trying to figure out exactly which “type” of female tourist she is. Again and again, the men in Sally’s life try to place her within a specific box, and again and again she struggles against this restriction, even as she occasionally enjoys the idea of having a specific role to play.
It’s a good book!
Next up was Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford (2021). Spufford is one of my all-time favorite authors (and Joel and I refer to him as the patron saint of our podcast), so I of course had to read his newest book as soon as I could. In Light Perpetual, Spufford imagines five children (Jo, Valerie, Vernon, Alec, and Ben) killed by one bomb during the Blitz, and then spends the rest of the book describing lives these children might have lived had they not been killed when and how they were. The children are entirely imaginary, though the bomb Spufford uses to kill them with is a real bomb that blew up a Woolworth’s in 1944, killing 168 people.
Spufford checks in with each of the children at specific times in the future, each marked as t+some number of years: t+5, or 1949; t+20, or 1964, t+35, or 1975, t+50, or 1994, and t+65, or 2009. We watch as Jo becomes a musician, as Valerie becomes involved with a skinhead, as Vernon builds a predatory real-estate business, etc. The heart of the book is probably Ben, who is schizophrenic and spends a significant amount of time in institutions or in dead-end jobs, trying to manage his symptoms. Probably the best portion of the book shows Ben trying to work a job checking tickets on a bus, focusing almost entirely on trying to clamp down on the intrusive thoughts (charred ribs) he can’t get away from. I’ve read a lot of portrayals of mental illness over the years, and I found Spufford’s portrayal here both more compelling and more convincing than most.
Spufford is a helluva writer, and I enjoyed the book. Yet I couldn’t escape a gnawing sense of uncertainty about whether the overall conceit really added anything to the novel. The fact that these are all lives that did not get to happen, even in the universe of the novel, is presumably meant to hover over the entire proceeding like the Angel of Death, yet I’m not sure that it really changed much. He never comes back to this fact (well, except for very briefly at the very end), and while I think that’s probably smart (it would have been cloying for him to say “except, don’t forget, none of this happened” at the end of every chapter), it does leave the conceit feeling perfunctory. I’m not sure Spufford needed to make up an excuse to write about five Londoners: parts of this book reminded me a great deal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and that book doesn’t require an unusual framing device in order to just tell the stories of several people growing up in England over a similar timeframe.
I certainly won’t say it’s a bad book, but I don’t think it quite hits the heights of his best previous work. Yet this is only Spufford’s second published novel (or third, depending on how you want to count Red Plenty), so this hardly shook my faith in Spufford’s abilities. Most writers, Susanna Clarke excepted, struggle with the sophomore novel. Spufford still has a blank check from me, at least, to write about whatever he wants.
I switched gears entirely from fiction to early 20th century socialist thought, and next up I read Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution by Peter Kropotkin (1902). In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin takes aim against the social Darwinist sociologists who were prevalent at the time, and tries to show that evolution selects not just for vicious, self-interested actors, but also for the ability to cooperate. He starts by going through the lives of animals (of all kinds, ranging from ants to terns to apes), and showing how, contrary to the conception of nature as a constant Hobbesian struggle of all against all, many animals prefer to work together, at least within their own species, to defend against predators and other natural challenges. He then moves through the traditions and institutions of different stages of human civilization, from the “savages,” through the “barbarians,” and then the medieval city and the contemporary world.
Basically, his goal is to show how cooperation that is not imposed by some overarching State is and was very common throughout animal existence and human societies all around the world and throughout history. I am not skilled enough as a biologist or as a historian to really evaluate his research, but his overarching point seems valuable: humans and animals really do seem to generate at least some institutions and habits for mutual aid whether or not that is imposed by an external state, and this should perhaps cause us to re-evaluate our understanding of the “state of nature” that might or did exist prior to the foundation of a State.
From there I read the best book on this list today: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004). Gilead won the Pulitzer in 2005 and is consistently spoken of highly by a lot of writers I really enjoy on Twitter, so I finally got around to reading the darn thing.
Gilead is the sort of book that is hard to describe without making it sound very hokey. It’s styled as one long letter written in the 1950s by a dying, septuagenarian preacher to his young son. It’s about faith, about history, about family, and about what it means to try to be a good man, and while I understand that that sounds like something you might expect to find on the Hallmark Channel, it’s a very subtle work, excellent and beautiful.
The Reverend Ames’s letter is very rarely a straightforward letter full of advice for his young son. Instead, he writes about the struggles between his father and grandfather, both also pastors (granddad was a John Brown style abolitionist who lost an eye in the Civil War and ultimately, late in life, abandoned his family to die somewhere in Kansas, causing no end of strife amid the family in the meantime). He writes about the travails of Jack Boughton, son of Rev. Ames’s dear friend, who has recently come back to the town of Gilead to either comfort or rip off his dying father, no one’s sure which. He writes about his first marriage (which ended when his wife and child died in childbirth) and his second marriage, to a woman much younger than he is, and the surprise and joy he felt when his son was born. And he writes about questions of faith and theology; about John Calvin and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Gilead gave rise to three sequels: Home (2008), Lila (2014), and Jack (2020), and I’ll definitely be reading them soon. My understanding is that each of these novels covers more or less the same ground as Gilead, only from different perspectives: Home from that of the Boughton family, Lila from that of Rev. Ames’s second wife, and Jack from that of, well, Jack. That this sounds interesting, rather than repetitive, shows the power of Robinson’s first-person narrative. Actually, reading both The Dud Avocado and Gilead in a short time frame might not be a bad way to survey the scope of first-person narrative, since both are excellent at it. (This might be the only thing they have in common).
Let’s switch from the sublime to the very silly and talk about The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Emmuska Orczy (1905). I’ve had a copy for goodness knows how long, but had yet to read it. I knew it as a foundational text in adventure fiction, one of the first works in which a heroic character adopts a secret identity with a codename in order to engage in vigilante heroics. As a big fan of Rafael Sabatini, I was excited to read more historical swashbuckling heroics. Alas, The Scarlet Pimpernel is not a very good book, and I spent the whole time wishing I was reading Scaramouche instead. It is overwritten, melodramatic, and, to my surprise, lacking almost entirely in swashbuckling of any kind.
What was interesting is that the titular Pimpernel does not actually appear very much in the novel – we don’t discover his identity until almost halfway through the novel, and we rarely get to see him in action. The novel is almost entirely from the perspective of Marguerite St. Just, Lady Blakeney, a French actress who married Sir Percy Blakeney, the biggest fop in England, who is also, as it turns out, the dashing and heroic Scarlet Pimpernel, the master of disguise who rescues French aristocrats from the horror of the guillotine. We watch as Marguerite mocks her husband, wishes he loved her more, and then, ensnared by devilish French plots, tries to rescue him from certain death once she discovers his secret identity. Much of the book, thus, consists in listening to her worry while she waits on boats or in drawing rooms. (The book also ends with a long and bizarre sequence of anti-Semitic caricature). In short, while I understand The Scarlet Pimpernel’s historical importance, I don’t think I’ll be returning to any of the 13 or so Pimpernel sequels any time soon.
Finally, I finished White Is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi (2009), which is set in a haunted B&B in Dover. Miranda Silver is a strange young woman who suffers from pica, an eating disorder characterized by a desire to eat things that are not food. Miranda’s favorite such thing is chalk, though she also gnaws on plastic forks and various other things – scenes involving her family trying to understand/help her with/punish her for her pica are probably the best in the book. The house she lives in, the Silver House, is a bed and breakfast that has been in the matrilineal line of her family for many years, and it’s very alive, and it wants to keep her in the house. The book is told from the perspectives of Miranda’s twin Eliot, the House itself, Miranda’s friend/girlfriend Ore, and Miranda as well (though Miranda’s portions are in third person rather than first person).
As the book progresses, we learn more about the house’s hold over Miranda, about the house’s hatred of immigrants and non-white people in general (as well as how that hatred came to be), and explore how all the women in Miranda’s family came to grief. When it works, it’s very good, but the book as a whole feels clumsy and like it has bitten off far more than it can chew. It’s not clear to me what Eliot’s perspective really adds to the novel, and it feels like the real story doesn’t get going until Ore (who is black, though she was raised by a white family that adopted her when she was young) comes to the house, though by then the novel is mostly over.
The book is often compared to the work of Shirley Jackson, which is not an unreasonable comparison, given that it’s about a haunted house and its parasitic/symbiotic relationship with a psychologically fragile young woman. But it lacks the precision of Jackson’s work, and its multiple-perspective conceit frays at the edges, and feels more like noise than a coherent formal choice. Anyway, there is some good stuff in it, so I’ll keep an eye out for more of Oyeyemi’s work even as I doubt I’ll be thinking much about White Is for Witching going forward.
Current Progress: 44/104, or 42.30%
Current average pagecount: 295.43
*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.