In this 2003 piece in the Guardian, Susan Hill is quoted as saying this: “It’s not plot that interests me, but setting, people in a setting, wrestling with an abstract subject.” So it’s apt that the atmosphere and setting of this book were what made it a pleasure for me to read, while the plot, particularly the ending, felt less compelling. It’s presented as a story within a story: a nameless narrator talks about spending an evening at his Club and the conversation turning to ghost stories; when he leaves, an older Club member approaches him and says he’s got a ghost story of his own, if the narrator would like to read it. The narrator accepts his offer, and much of the book consists of that ghost story, as written by the older Club member, James Monmouth. Monmouth writes about returning to England at age forty, after having been sent abroad at the age of five, presumably after the death of his parents. He had grown up in Kenya and then elsewhere with his Guardian, and continued traveling after his Guardian’s death, often making a point to travel in the footsteps of one of his heroes, an earlier English traveler/explorer named Conrad Vane. He decides, in England, that he will try to find out about Vane’s early life, and perhaps will write a book about him, but along the way he starts seeing the ghost of a boy and experiencing other strangeness, and also keeps getting dissuaded from learning too much about Vane by basically everyone he asks about him. He’s told that Vane is evil, but scoffs: even if he was evil, he’s been dead for twenty years, and besides, no one will tell him any specifics about what Vane did, exactly. When he visits the school Vane attended, though, he learns of the death of another pupil there during the time when Vane was a student, and realizes the boy-ghost he’s seeing must be this boy, who, it turns out, shares Monmouth’s last name. Monmouth isn’t sure if this is just a coincidence, but realizes it can’t be: the boy is from a place called Kittiscar Hall, and Monmouth has a prayer book from his early childhood inscribed with the name of that same place. So, after a Christmas visit with new friends, and after recuperation from an illness that may be tied to the ghost and Vane, Monmouth decides to visit Kittiscar for himself, where the plot gets wrapped up in a rushed and vague way: we learn how Vane is connected to the Monmouths, sort of, but it doesn’t particularly make sense.

But the specifics of the plot aren’t necessarily the point. Monmouth is trying to figure out his past, and his future, and how they’re connected. He’s trying to figure out how/where he fits into the world, and into England, and as a character adrift, an orphan, his life is particularly his own to make. So he does, and that’s part of the book. And then there’s the setting, which is really perfectly atmospheric: there are wonderful descriptions of London rain, and early spring in the countryside, and Monmouth’s first time seeing snow as an adult, and how the open moorlands of the North make him feel. I loved this, from the very start of Monmouth’s story, about his arrival in England:

Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain. Out in the country, over field and fen and moorland, sweet-smelling rain, borne on the wind. Rain in London, rolling along gutters, gurgling down drains. Street lamps blurred by rain. A policeman walking by in a cape, rain gleaming silver on its shoulders. Rain bouncing on roofs and pavements, soft rain falling secretly in woodland and on dark heath. Rain on London’s river, and slanting among the sheds, wharves and quays. Rain on suburban gardens, dense with laurel and rhododendron. Rain from north to south and from east to west, as though it had never rained until now, and now might never stop.
Rain on all the silent streets and squares, alleys and courts, gardens and churchyards and stone steps and nooks and crannies of the city.
Rain. London. The back end of the year. (15)

This memoir, which consists of named chapters/linked pieces, some of which were previously published as standalone works, covers a lot of territory. It’s about obsessions, how they can shape a person’s life, how they can give structure/meaning/purpose, but also about the obvious flip-side of that: about how their all-consuming nature can be negative, can be a way of avoiding everything else. Hocking examines his own serial obsessions (skateboarding, surfing, Moby Dick, particular women/relationships) and tells the story of how he came to New York, then left again, in prose that’s sometimes lovely and sometimes struck me as overdone. (In one passage, Hocking describes Maspeth Creek, English Kills, and Newtown Creek as “ruined waterways like New York’s trackmarked veins after a century-long overdose” (4). But there’s this, from the same paragraph, which I really like: “Brooklyn spits us out into Queens, past cinder-block car washes and fast food joints and a cluster of graveyards: Linden Hill, Mount Olivet, Lutheran, and St. John—the only shards of green space for miles.”) My other issues with the book may just be about me not being the right reader for it, in minor ways or more major ones. Some of the skateboarding and surfing passages were hard to follow: I felt like I couldn’t really picture what was being described because I didn’t know some of the vocabulary (e.g. I don’t know what a frontside grind looks like). And I’m probably more interested in stories about people who come to New York and feel at home and stay than about people who come here, don’t feel at home, and leave.

Ha’penny is set in the same world as Farthing (an alternate 1940s England in which WWII ended with a peace treaty and Hitler is still in power in Germany) and takes place shortly after that book ends. The structure is similar, with chapters of first-person narrative alternating with chapters of third-person narrative. Some of the characters are the same—the third-person narrative, as in Farthing, centers around Inspector Carmichael and his colleagues in the police force, and some other figures from politics/society reappear as well. And the first-person narrator shares some characteristics with the narrator of Farthing: they’re both upper-class women, and each has done something to earn the disapproval of her family. (Viola, the narrator of this book, is an actress; her family is modeled on the Mitfords. She grew up with her five sisters, and one point she says: “From one angle, I could see how ghastly they were, and that was the angle on which I had changed my name and made my life in the theater. There was another angle though, a very deep one, and from that angle everyone else came and went but my sisters were the only ones who were real” (202-203).)

I liked this book more than I liked Farthing, maybe because that book played with the conventions of the English country house mystery, whereas this one had the excitement of a thriller: the structure felt like it worked particularly well in this one, which starts with Viola’s narrative, and immediately makes it clear that she’s in a psychiatric hospital, after some involvement in something criminal. That something turns out to be a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister (Mark Normanby, whose government has been encroaching on people’s freedoms in the name of security and safety from terrorism). It’s clear from the start that the plot is discovered, but what isn’t clear is the timing of that discovery: is the plot stopped before the bomb goes off? Or if not, what happens?

The setting of this book also felt a lot more fun than the setting of Farthing: Viola is playing Hamlet in a cross-cast production of the play, and I liked the vibrancy the theater world a lot, and also the vibrancy of the relationship Viola ends up in, and of London itself, which Viola describes like this:

It’s strange how many Londons there are and how they overlap in some places but not at all in others. There’s the debutante London, which is mostly Mayfair and Knightsbridge, in which the embassies and Pall Mall are included. Then there’s theater London, which overlaps at the West End, but only there, and which includes bedsits and fix-ups in Muswell Hill and Clapham that I once hadn’t known existed. There’s financial London, around St. Paul’s and the City. There’s the London of the swarming poor, still almost Dickensian. All of these pass each other in some streets, rub shoulders in others, and leave certain areas untouched. (228)

The engravings by John Lawrence that illustrate this book may have been my favorite part: I was charmed from the tiny first-page illustration of a descending balloon on. Look at the one below: the snowy sky, those smoking chimneys, the windows and their shutters, the lantern on the corner: I love it all:

Once Upon a Time in the North

Not that the story is bad, but I didn’t love it. It probably would have helped if I’d read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy more recently: this book is set in that world, and gives the backstory of the friendship between aeronaut Lee Scoresby and armored bear Iorek Byrnison. But more than my distance from the world/characters of the story, my problem with this book was in the pacing and emphasis. The introduction of the characters and the book’s dilemmas works for me—we see Lee with his balloon, we hear about a mayoral election in the town of Novy Odense and one candidate who’s running on an anti-bear platform (but is also clearly in bed with a big mining company), and we meet Captain van Breda, who’s being prevented from taking his cargo from a warehouse to his ship, supposedly because of a fee or duty he hasn’t paid, but actually because the mining company want to get their hands on it. We meet Iorek, who tells Lee that the Captain’s enemies are his enemies as well. Lee makes a plan to get the Captain his cargo, with Iorek’s help. And then comes a long and involved gunfight scene. The Wild-West-meets-Frozen-North aesthetic is probably not my cup of tea to begin with, but my main problem with the gunfight scene was how much detail there was about the logistics of it: the warehouse looks like this, with this many columns, and piles of stuff here and here, and the other gunman must be hiding in this spot, so if Lee can make it behind this column, etc. etc. etc.

So, right, those illustrations. Here’s my other favorite, boats by the quay:
Once Upon a Time in the North

Anastasia Again! starts with twelve-year-old Anastasia’s reaction to her parents’ announcement that they’re moving to the suburbs: to say she’s not pleased would be an understatement. Anastasia has lived in Cambridge (where her dad teaches at Harvard) her whole life, and she’s sure that suburbia will be an aesthetic and intellectual wasteland, which results in hilarious passages like this, about her dad:

He was reading an article called “Morality and Mythology.” Anastasia didn’t have any idea what that meant; but she liked it that her father knew what it meant and that he liked reading about it, and she was absolutely certain that there wasn’t a single person in the entire suburbs of the United States who would ever in his entire life read an article called “Morality and Mythology.” (2).

Anastasia’s also sure that suburbia means split-level houses, matching furniture sets, a lack of bookcases, big TVs, plastic fruit, and bad art. So, yeah, not excited to move there. But then her family finds a house that’s got what each of them wants most, including a tower bedroom for Anastasia, and she finds herself liking suburbia despite herself. Which doesn’t make moving easy, exactly: it still means leaving the only place she’s lived, and being farther from her best friend, and having to make new friends. And packing: “It was hard, packing. Not hard on the muscles—Anastasia had pretty good muscles—but hard on the head. And hard on the heart” (45).

In suburbia, the Krupniks’ next-door neighbor turns out to be an old woman named Gertrude Stein (which leads to a hilarious conversation between Anastasia and her English-professor father), who takes an immediate liking to Anastasia’s brother Sam, and gets to be friendly with Anastasia as well. The friendship between the Krupnik kids and Gertrude (who they call Gertrustein, because that’s how Sam says it, like Frankenstein) is totally sweet: one of the highlights of the book is when Anastasia visits the Senior Citizens Drop-In Center and invites everyone to a party at her house so Mrs. Stein can make some friends her own age. (Another highlight is Mrs. Stein’s totally hilarious story of her idiot husband who left her decades ago, and good riddance to him.)

Also, how great is this list of titles of mysteries Anastasia thinks about but doesn’t write (and one she does)?

  • “The Mystery of Why I Am Not Allowed to Go to X-rated Movies Even Though I Have Known All the Facts of Life Since I Was Six.”
  • “The Mystery of Why Some People Make Decisions without Consulting Their Twelve-Year-Old Children.”
  • “The Mystery of the Girl Who Lived in a Tower.”
  • “The Mystery of Why Other People Always Think Your Very Serious Problems Are Hysterically Funny.”
  • “The Mystery of Why You Sometimes Hate the Idea of Something, but Then You Like the Thing Itself” (“Subtitle: Or Why You Sometimes Like the Idea of Something, But Hate the Thing Itself.”).
  • “The Mystery of Saying Good-by.”

One of the things I like most about The Magicians and The Magician’s Land is the way they play with the tropes of myth and fantasy and quest narratives, the way that the quests in those books are never entirely straightforward, the way that a world in which magic exists is not necessarily a world centered around an Epic Clash between Good and Evil. The Magician’s Land is more of that, and is a really satisfying conclusion to this trilogy.

The story is basically two parallel narratives that end up intersecting: Quentin Coldwater, now 29, gets and loses a teaching job at Brakebills, his magical alma mater, and then signs on for a contract job stealing a very important suitcase with presumably magical contents. (Plum, a young woman he knows from Brakebills, is on the job too.) So there’s a heist/caper story, but it’s not straightforward, in the same way the quests in these books are a little aslant. Meanwhile, in Fillory, Janet and Eliot and Poppy and Josh hear that Fillory is ending, and try to figure out what, if anything, they can do to save it, which involves Janet and Eliot going on a quest to try to find the answers.

There’s lots of humor in this book, but also lots of other things: beautiful descriptive passages, and introspection, and tenderness, and Quentin having finally grown up.

Farthing is a satisfying English-country-house murder-mystery set in an alternate 1949 in which England made peace with Hitler in 1941, and now exists across the Channel from the Third Reich. The book alternates, chapter by chapter, between the first-person narrative of Lucy Kahn, at whose parents’ house the murder takes place, and a third-person narrative centered on the lead investigator from Scotland Yard, Peter Anthony Carmichael. Lucy’s parents are at the center of “the Farthing Set,” “a group of loosely connected movers and shakers, politicians, soldiers, socialites, financiers: the people who had brought peace to England” (22). The deceased, James Thirkie, is also part of the group, and when he’s found dead with a Star of David pinned to his chest, Lucy’s husband David, who is Jewish, is suspected by some: maybe the murder was an act of political terrorism. But as Carmichael puts it, “Murders aren’t political, or anarchist, not one time in a thousand. Murders are sordid affairs done between people who know each other, nine times out of ten for personal gain, and the tenth time because someone lost their temper at the wrong moment, the crime passionel as the French call it” (31). I like Lucy’s narrative a whole lot, and Carmichael is great, and the ending is depressing but apt, and I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in this trilogy.

I think I read this book as a kid—I certainly owned a copy of one of the later books in the series, and pieces of this one felt familiar—but it wasn’t one of my favorites, and I’m not sure why. Anastasia Krupnik is ten, and hilarious. She’s an only child, living with her English-professor/poet dad and her mom, who’s a painter, but that’s about to change: she’s not at all pleased to learn that she’s going to have a baby brother. She has a notebook in which she keeps many lists, including a list of important things that happen throughout the year (e.g. “I began to have a mercurial temperament” (88)) and a list of things she loves and things she hates, which is charmingly reproduced between chapters—it’s great to see the way the list changes, with things crossed off from one side and added to the other, sometimes multiple times, in a way that captures how strongly kids can feel about things. (And the list is often quite funny: one of the things Anastasia loves is the wart on her thumb, which she finds “very pleasing,” and which “appeared quite by surprise, shortly after her tenth birthday, on a morning when nothing else interesting was happening” (2).)

There are so many funny moments, like when Anastasia gets super-excited that her fourth-grade class will be writing poetry, but then doesn’t pay attention to the assignment and gets an F because her poem is all in lowercase and doesn’t rhyme (it’s wonderfully e.e. cummings-esque). (When she brings the poem home and shows it to her dad, he changes the F to Fabulous.) Or when Anastasia decides she wants to convert to Catholicism because Catholics get to choose an extra name for themselves, but changes her mind once she hears about having to go to confession. (I love that her dad’s reaction to her wanting to become a Catholic is to say “That is both interesting and preposterous,” and then to carry on eating dinner. (32))

But the book isn’t all humor: there’s a tender and sad subplot about Anastasia’s grandmother, who’s 92 and seems to have Alzheimer’s, which totally made me tear up on the subway and then, later, cry outright at my kitchen table.

One thing about City of Djinns, which is about a year that William Dalrymple spent in Delhi with his wife in his twenties, is that it suffers for me a bit by comparison to Tamara Shopsin’s wonderful Mumbai New York Scranton, which I read in February and loved. It’s not a fair comparison, really: both books include travel in India, and both feature art by the author’s spouse, but Shopsin’s book is more personal, while Dalrymple’s book has more history in it. I found Dalyrmple’s mix of travel/memoir and history sometimes appealing, and sometimes not: I sometimes wanted to be reading just a memoir, or just a history book.

Dalrymple tells the story of Delhi, or rather, of many Delhis, in two strands: he writes about his time there chronologically, but writes about the city’s history in reverse chronological order, from Partition back through the mythic past of the Mahabharata. He writes about Delhi as “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic” (9). And the Delhi of the present (this book was published in the early 1990s) is multiple, complex: “it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices” (7-8).

I liked the humor of Dalrymple’s Delhi experiences: his landlady who turns off the water because of too many toilet flushes, the customs officer who won’t let him leave the country on a five-day trip without bringing the electric kettle, printer, computer, and boom box he brought to India to the airport, the cab driver who always points out pretty women.

And I like the nostalgic or lyrical bits, like this conversation with an author born in Delhi but living in Pakistan:

We talked for an hour about the Delhi of their childhood and youth. We talked of the eunuchs and the sufis and the pigeons and the poets; of the monsoon picnics in Mehrauli and the djinn who fell in love with Ahmed Ali’s aunt. We talked of the sweetmeat shops which stayed open until three in the morning, the sorcerers who could cast spells over a whole mohalla, the possessed woman who used to run vertically up the zenana walls, and the miraculous cures effected by Hakim Ajmal Khan. (64)

Or like this passage about Delhi after the winter rains:

That February, Delhi seemed like a paradise. Olivia and I filled the garden on our roof terraces with palms and lilies and hollyhocks and we wove bougainvillaea through the trellising. The plants which seemed to have died during the winter’s cold – the snapdragon, the hibiscus and the frangipani – miraculously sprang back to life and back into bloom. The smells began to change. The woodsmoke and the sweet smell of the dung fires gave way to the heady scent of Indian champa and the first bittersweet whiffs of China orange blossom. (200)

Olivia Fraser’s watercolors of people and buildings, which illustrate the book, are sometimes really satisfying: I especially love a pair of turbaned Sikhs reading (p 26) and a pair of boys on a roof with their pigeons (p 226).

This collection of linked stories set in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen in the ’70s and ’80s does a great job of capturing a sense of place. The narrator of the first story puts it like this: “I remember all this vividly, our summer nights, but really, all I can recall is what it felt like. I try to piece together image from that” (2). The Pilsen of this book is a place of gangbangers and guns and drugs, a place where there’s a shootout at a cotillion and where the guy who lives upstairs “would have loud parties that ended up in fistfights at 3 a.m., people falling down our three-flat’s stairs, creative insults being slung in the stairwell, bottles being thrown on the front sidewalk” (7). But it’s also a place of childhood wonder and ease, summer streetscapes with open hydrants, kids playing in the water, competitions between blocks to see whose hydrants could shoot the highest jets. These stories capture the sounds and smells of this place: “frying tacos, boiling pots of garlic-spiced frijoles, cool Lake Michigan breezes transported by miles of sewer pipe,” and “how the expressway sounded from underneath, the high whine of tires, the low drone of truck engines, the shudder of engine brakes” (21, 137). This is a neighborhood of hiding spots and secrets: there’s a great story in which the narrator climbs to a pierogi factory’s roof, where he and a new friend carve out a space for themselves for a time; there’s another great story in which the narrator and his friends eavesdrop on another friend’s mother having sex in the apartment upstairs. But the stories aren’t all realism: there’s one that features a vision of an underground city connected to the aboveground one, and one in which the narrator’s friend can bring back the dead. But I like the realistic descriptive passages best, passages like this:

Up and down Eighteenth Street, the morning delivery trucks worked their horns to announce their backing into docks. The early mist had not yet burned off the neighborhood. The smell of yesterday’s fried food, tacos, gorditas, chicharon, hung in the air. Soon the sun would burn the haze away and allow a fresh day’s worth of fried-food smell to settle over the neighborhood. (55)