French Exit is described on the title page as “a tragedy of manners,” which is apt. It’s a dark/funny/darkly funny novel about Frances Price, a (formerly) very rich widow who, at the age of sixty-five, has burned through all the money in her husband’s estate and finds herself having to move to a friend’s apartment in Paris in a hurry. It’s also the story of her son, Malcolm, who has lived with his mother since he left boarding school at the age of twelve, and their cat, Small Frank, whose body houses the spirit of Franklin, Frances’s late and not-at-all-missed husband/Malcolm’s father. They all move to Paris, though Malcolm is engaged to a woman in New York, and though Malcolm has no idea what they’re going to do once they get there, and along they way they interact with an amusing cast of characters, including but not limited to a medium, a wine merchant, a private investigator, and another American widow living in Paris.

Somehow Patrick deWitt makes his characters simultaneously awful and likable: I saw him read the first chapter of this book at a bookstore in Brooklyn last year, and the quirky humor of that first chapter made me want to read the rest of the book. That humor is present throughout the book, though it ends up being moving, too, especially in the interactions between Frances and Malcolm, and in the stories they both tell about their unhappy childhoods and fraught parent-child relationships. If you’re looking for straight-up realistic fiction, this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and are in the mood for an odd family story, this is an excellent read.

At first, I was worried that Conversations with Friends was going to be the kind of novel where a) cheating is a plot point but b) no one ever considers the possibility of non-monogamy. I’m happy to report that it is not that kind of novel, and also happy to report that it’s really really good. This book was a delight to read from the start, even with my initial misgivings about cheating-as-plot-point. It’s narrated in the first person by Frances, a 21-year-old university student in Dublin, and it’s about her best friend Bobbi (who’s also her ex-girlfriend), their new mutual friend Melissa (a writer and photographer who sees them perform spoken-word poetry together and says she wants to do a profile of them), and Melissa’s husband, Nick, an actor who’s been having a tough time with himself/in his marriage. Melissa and Nick are a bit older than Frances and Bobbi (Melissa is 37; Nick is 32), and their moneyed/married life is something that both attracts and repels Frances (whom Bobbi describes as a communist, and who talks about not wanting to work for money). Frances’s voice is a lot of what carries the book, but it’s not just her voice: I like the way that the narrative includes IM conversations or texts and emails, the way that it’s full of the exchanges of Frances’s daily life, in whatever format, as well as her thoughts and feelings. I like the book’s sense of humor, too, and the way that it captures things people do—looking at Facebook videos, looking for more information about new friends/acquaintances, looking back at past conversations. (About Melissa, shortly after meeting her and Nick, Frances thinks this: “I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online” (12).)

A lot of the book ends up being about Frances’s feelings for/relationship with Nick, though it’s also about her friendship/relationship with Bobbi, and her identity as a writer, and her family, and families/relationships/friendships in general, and being young and not knowing what to do and figuring things out as you go along. Frances is difficult/prickly/endearing: she’s smart and independent and uncomfortable with emotion and vulnerability, and I love her voice/the tone of the narration, the way there are lyrical moments that are beautiful without being too ostentatious. I love sentences like this: “A bumblebee flew through the open window and cast a comma of a shadow on the wallpaper before flying out again” (98). Or this: “We were driving along by the harbor, where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog” (132). Or this: “I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand” (178). Or this: “Lights sparkled on the river and buses ran past like boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows” (252).

In an Absent Dream is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, and gives us the backstory of Lundy, a character from the first book. Lundy, like the other characters in this series, goes through a magic portal to another world when she’s a child. The world she goes to is the Goblin Market, and she can actually keep going back and forth between it and our world—until she turns eighteen. When the book opens, it’s 1964 and Lundy (full name: Katherine Victoria Lundy) is eight, though we also see a scene from a few years earlier, when she turned six. She has an older brother and a younger sister, and her parents are fine, though her dad’s job as the principal of the elementary school she attends makes things hard for her: no one wants to be friends with the principal’s daughter. But Lundy is happy to entertain herself: she’s a bookish kid, fine with her own company or that of adults. At the start of summer vacation when she’s in second grade, though, something happens: she’s walking home, lost in a book, and ends up in the woods instead of in her neighborhood. She knows where she is/it’s a path she’s been on before—but now there’s a tree in the middle of the path that definitely wasn’t there before. And in the tree is a door, carved with images of fruit and the words “Be Sure.” When she goes through the door, there’s a hallway, which introduces her to the Goblin Market’s rules, and then she emerges into the Market itself, a place full of human and non-human creatures that feels like “a carnival and a farmer’s market and a craft fair” all at once (41).

At the Market, Lundy meets a girl her age, who says to call her Moon, and who says she’ll take her to the Archivist, who will explain the Market’s rules. The Market, it turns out, is based on barter and the idea of “fair value,” which the Market itself magically enforces: if you don’t give fair value, you’ll go into debt, and if you go into debt, you can lose yourself in a way I won’t describe because it’s impossible to do so without being spoilery.

I liked reading about the Market, which the Archivist describes as “a place where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming” (56-57). But if the last book in this series felt too plot-driven to me, this one was the opposite: Lundy has adventures in the Market but they’re described in asides; most of what we see is her daily life in the Market, or at home, as she travels back and forth between the two worlds. Daily life in the Market is interesting, though: I mean, I love this:

There was a woman in a wheelchair with a shaggy golden dog whose fur flickered around the edges, like it was burning without being consumed. There was a man with four arms, weaving ribbons into beautiful ropes with the speed and ease of a lifetime spent in long practice. There was a centaur of a sort, half human and half unicorn, a single spiraling horn rising from his forehead, taking a tray of meat pies out of an oven large enough to hold an entire bakery. (64)

And of course, the traveling back and forth has its drama too. The first time Lundy goes to the Market she’s an eight-year-old kid who has disappeared on her way home from school: her mom thinks she’s been kidnapped. After she disappears again, when she’s 10, she’s sent to boarding school when she comes back, but she’s determined to go back to the Market, to be with Moon and the Archivist again (and she does, though if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway you may remember how things end up). The later part of the book, when Lundy’s older and wrestling more with the tension between what she wants and what others want from her, was more compelling to me than the beginning, and this definitely isn’t my favorite book in the series—but I’m glad I read it and I’m sure I’ll pick up the next one when it comes out.

I read and loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid, and I’m happy to report that it definitely stands up to an adult re-read, one in which I feel like the things that stuck out to me are different from the ones that stuck out when I read it as a child. The book starts with a letter from one Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of Farmington, Connecticut, to her lawyer, to explain a change she wants made to her will. But then the story shifts to Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, a pair of siblings from Greenwich. Claudia, who is nearly twelve and is the oldest of four kids (and the only girl) has decided she’s fed up of her ordinary home and school life, and particularly of the way she feels like she’s taken for granted. She’s decided she wants an adventure, so she’s decided to run away, and to invite her brother Jamie, who’s nine, to come along. But she doesn’t like being cold or uncomfortable, so she’s chosen to run to someplace warm and dry: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I’d forgotten just how sweet and smart and funny this book is. The pieces I remembered most, from reading it as a kid, were the parts about the running away itself, and the museum mystery that ensues: I remembered Claudia’s preparations, and how she and Jamie hid at the museum, and how they found themselves trying to figure out if a newly-acquired statue, which might have been carved by Michelangelo, actually was done by him. (It’s the statue that brings them to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: the statue used to be hers, until she sold it at an auction and the museum acquired it for a bargain price.) But I’d forgotten, or never fully appreciated, the parts about how Claudia and Jamie come to feel like a team, or about how Claudia is starting to figure out who she is and what interests and motivates her, outside of her role as her parents’ dutiful daughter. (I love this: “Becoming a team didn’t mean the end of their arguments. But it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats” (39).) Also, I definitely have more of an appreciation for the bits of humor and observation about NYC. Like this: “Her mother’s Mah-Jong club ladies called it the city. Most of them never ventured there; it was exhausting and it made them nervous” (7). Or this: “If you think of doing something in New York City, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people have that same thought. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it” (50). There’s also a great passage that talks about the different kinds of people that Claudia and Jamie see at the Met on a Wednesday afternoon, from art students to older women passing time before a Broadway matinee.

I also love this bit of wisdom from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler herself, when she’s telling Claudia that at the age of 82, she doesn’t feel a need to learn something new every day, and that she actually isn’t sure that’s such a good idea in general:

I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow. (153)

“There is no place in my life for sentimentality,” Taylor Markham thinks, near the start of Jellicoe Road. It seems true when she says it: she’s 17 and has been at the Jellicoe School for years, and now she’s “the one-in-charge” in the Territory Wars that happen for six weeks, in which students from her school face off against local kids (the Townies) and boys from a Sydney military school (the Cadets). The Jellicoe School is pretty much home for Taylor, though she also has lived in a nearby house that belongs to a woman in her early 30s named Hannah, who’s been taking care of Taylor since her drug-addicted mom abandoned her in a 7-11 bathroom when Taylor was eleven. But Taylor’s story isn’t the only one we get: there’s also a story from decades before that starts with a car crash on Jellicoe Road: we quickly learn that this other story is a book that Hannah’s writing, but Taylor wonders if it’s more than that, too.

At the start of the book, I found the dual narratives somewhat off-putting, and had a hard time getting into the book generally: it felt like there was a lot going on and it didn’t all flow together, and I wasn’t really into some of the moments of magical realism. But by the end, I was sitting on my couch in tears, so I’d say Jellicoe Road won me over, magical realism and all.

What makes the book work for me, mostly, is Taylor, and how she grows over the course of it. She’s so closed-off when the book starts (understandably, given her childhood): she has a hard time trusting people and tells herself she isn’t particularly interested in changing that. But of course that isn’t totally true, and on some level she knows it. I like how we get to see Taylor becoming friends with other kids from her school, and becoming close to the leaders of the Townies and the Cadets as well (especially the leader of the Cadets, a kid named Jonah she knows from a few years back). And I like how we get to see her learning more about Hannah and her mom and the other kids who were part of their close-knit circle of friends, back when they were kids and teenagers, and how she starts to understand some things about why her mother has done the things she’s done.

I like Italo Calvino’s fiction a lot, and I’m glad I read this book of essays, but I’m definitely not this book’s ideal reader: it’s a mix of big-picture literary/philosophical/political thought and close literary analysis of works/authors I’m (mostly) not that familiar with (e.g. Orlando Furioso or The Betrothed or anything by Charles Fourier). That said, I like Calvino’s style a lot, and I appreciate how, throughout the book, he talks about the subversive or expansive potential of literature, the way it can let us see other possibilities/other ways of being, the way it can show us that the way things are now is not the only way for things to be.

As far as specific essays go, the high point of the book for me is “Why Read the Classics?”, which is just such a delight. I like how Calvino says we all have to “invent our own ideal libraries of classics”, and how we should read them for pleasure rather than out of obligation—sticking with the ones with which we feel a “personal rapport” (133, 129). I also really liked “Levels of Reality in Literature,” which is a deconstruction of the sentence “I write that Homer tells that Ulysses says: I have listened to the song of the Sirens” (107) and an examination of the possibilities of metafiction and narrative twistiness and stories within stories. “The City as Protagonist in Balzac” makes me want to read Balzac, and “Guide to The Charterhouse of Parma for the Use of New Readers” makes me want to read Stendhal. “Man, the Sky, and the Elephant” doesn’t particularly make me want to read Pliny the Elder, but I do like how many bits of the Natural History this piece quotes, and how Calvino talks about Pliny’s “admiration for everything that exists” (316).

At the start of Black Hearts in Battersea, Simon, who was an endearing supporting character in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, has just arrived in London, where he’s planning to attend art school. He’s meant to live with Dr. Field, a minor character from the last book (who also paints, and who recognized Simon’s artistic gifts immediately upon meeting him), but something’s fishy: finding the place where Dr. Field said he was living is more of a challenge than Simon thought it would be, and when he gets there, everyone he meets says Dr. Field doesn’t live there and never has: they all claim not to know the man at all. But it’s definitely the right place: Simon remembers Dr. Field talking about his landlord being named Mr. Twite, and the first person Simon meets is Dido Twite, a grubby kid who’s apparently Mr. Twite’s daughter. And not only that, one of the empty rooms on the top floor has a view that exactly matches the view that Dr. Field talked about having from his window. Simon figures he’ll rent a room from the Twites so he’ll be there if Dr. Field comes back, and also figures he’ll go to art school as planned in the meantime.

On his way to school, he sees Sophie, a girl he knows from his early childhood in Yorkshire: apparently she lives in London now, and is a lady’s maid to a woman who turns out to be the Duchess of Battersea. Simon and Sophie end up meeting again, and Simon ends up meeting more of the Battersea clan, too: he becomes friends with both the Duke and the Duke’s nephew, Justin, who’s an orphan whose parents died in the Hanoverian wars. (This book is set in an alternate England where a Stuart monarch is still on the throne in the 1830s.) Between Sophie and Justin and the Duke and art school and Dido, Simon has plenty to keep him busy while he’s trying to figure out where Dr. Field might have gone. He suspects, though, that something must have happened to the doctor: he was expecting Simon, and wouldn’t have just left without telling Simon where he’d gone.

As it turns out, Dr. Field’s whereabouts have something to do with both the Twites and the folks at Battersea Castle: I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it becomes clear by the book’s third chapter that there’s some kind of political intrigue afoot. Watching Simon and Sophie figure things out and try to set things right is fun, and I like that more of the alternate-England in which this series is set is explained in this book, but I think I liked the atmospheric delights of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase more. I do like some of the set-pieces in this book though: Aiken’s description of an excursion that Simon, Sophie, Justin, and Dido take to Clapham Fair is a total delight, with rides and games and a fire-breathing dragon and a fortune teller. And I appreciated the wintry mood/images at the end of the book, an England that’s all snow drifts and icicles and wolves, the Thames frozen over.

I can’t remember if I read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase when I was a kid or not, but when I bought a copy of Black Hearts in Battersea in a used bookstore on my Christmas vacation, I figured I’d better read/re-read this book before starting that one: they’re set in the same world, though I hear The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is pretty much a standalone story. The edition I checked out from the library was missing the note explaining that the book takes place in an alternate England of 1832, where the king is James III and Britain apparently has both a Channel Tunnel and a wolf problem. The book opens with those wolves, or at least, with the threat of them: it’s winter, and snowy, and night is approaching, and with it the possibility of hungry wolves. Willoughby Chase, a big house full of warmth and light, is a contrast to the dark and drear outside. And inside is Bonnie, who’s excitedly waiting for her cousin Sylvia to arrive by train from London: Sylvia’s been living with their Aunt Jane, who’s older and frailer than Bonnie’s parents (and poorer, too, though she’d never ask her rich brother for help), and is now coming to Willoughby Chase to live. Bonnie’s parents are leaving, though: her father is taking her ailing mother to someplace warmer in hopes that her health will improve, and so the girls are to be left in the care of one Miss Slighcarp, a new governess who’s also a distant relative, who arrives at the house before Sylvia does. Though Bonnie excitedly shows Miss Slighcarp “the oubliette where Cousin Roger had slipped, the panel which concealed a secret staircase, the haunted portico, the priests’ hole, and other features of her beloved home,” the governess is not, alas, particularly interested in either children or architecture (8).

From very early in the book, it’s clear that Miss Slighcarp is bad news, and before the book is half over it becomes clear why she’s come to Willoughby Chase, and from there things only get worse for Bonnie and Sylvia. Spoilers ahead, though these were on the back cover of the edition I read, so I knew about them going in: Miss Slighcarp sends the girls to a bleak/Dickensian school for orphans, from which they manage to escape with the help of Bonnie’s friend Simon (who lives in the woods of Willoughby Chase and raises geese). Having accomplished the escape/rescue, the children have to figure out how to reclaim Bonnie’s home from their dastardly governess.

I read this book in its entirety over the course of a very cold holiday Monday, and it was a delight to read while wrapped under a blanket, drinking tea. The children-in-peril/scheming-and-villainous-adult-relative plot was largely predictable but also really satisfying, and I liked the friendship between Bonnie and Sylvia—an early scene when they go ice skating together on a frozen river is great, and it’s sweet how they look out for each other when they’re at the horrible school. Simon and his geese are great as well, and I like how there are some good/helpful adults, to balance out the awful ones. I can’t decide whether I want to read this book again, more slowly, or if I should forge straight on to the next one.

Crudo by Olivia Laing

January 19th, 2019

Near the end of Crudo, the book’s protagonist, Kathy, is having a conversation about plagiarism, which doesn’t concern her, and we get this: “You take what you find, it’s all material, I mean what is art if it’s not plagiarising the world?” (121). Which is a pretty good thesis statement for the novel as a whole, which is full of bits of actual life: people’s tweets, bits of news headlines, details from Kathy Acker’s life and quotes from her writing, and details from Olivia Laing’s life, too: moments from the summer of 2017, twined with fiction to make a novel about the anxieties of that particular moment, both globally/politically and personally for the protagonist (who is on the verge of marriage when the book opens and not sure she’s suited to it). It was interesting to read this book so soon after I read Laing’s The Lonely City: the proximity in time of my reading experiences made the points of overlap between the texts stand out to me—little things like references to Basquiat, or the Alphabet City location of Ninth Street Espresso, but also bigger themes of how people relate to each other.

I liked both books, but I liked Crudo more, the style and pacing of it, the narrative playfulness, the prickliness of the protagonist. (From page 2: “Was Kathy nice? Unclear.”) So, plotwise: Kathy is 40; Kathy is getting married. Kathy and her husband-to-be are in Italy together, and then in England, where they live. They are preparing for their wedding, and Kathy is preparing for a trip to New York, and it kind of feels like the world might end. I like how the narrative looks at Kathy’s personal happiness and how it contrasts with her unease with the state of the world and also looks at her personal unease, the question not only of how to be happy/in love when it seems like the world is falling apart, but also the question of how to be happy/in love when one is perhaps a difficult person, and when solitude/loneliness has been, or has seemed to be, a key part of one’s identity. I like passages like this:

You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room. You’re selfish and rigid and absorbed, you’re like an infant. (65-66)

Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

January 10th, 2019

Early in Jane Gardam’s 1977 novel, Bilgewater, Marigold Daisy Green describes herself as a “strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea” (11). She’s good at chess and math, started reading quite late (but loved being read to, and quotes Keats and Chaucer and Coleman and Blake), is farsighted, and lives at the boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire where her father works. Her father is Bill, so she’s Bill’s Daughter, or Bilgewater, and this book is the story of her last year of high school, in which she’s seventeen and doesn’t much understand other people or herself, until, eventually, she does. We see bits of her life at school, where she’s surprised, partway through the year, by the return of Grace, a girl she was friends with when they were young who’s been away at boarding school. And we see bits of her life at home, where she lives with her sweet/absent-minded father (her mother died when she was born), and where we see her interactions with her father and his friends and the boys at the school, who are at first just there but then become a source of romantic interest/possibility.

I like the style of Bilgewater’s narrative voice, how she describes people and situations in ways that are funny but also concise and illuminating. She describes Paula, for example, as “always running and usually towards you” (19). Of the school’s headmaster’s wife, after Bilgewater sees her with one of the older schoolboys in the town’s lovers’ lane: “She was given to sofas and thinking. Some people said that she suffered from melancholia, others from her husband” (35). That said, I found the start of the book somewhat slow-going, but am glad I stuck with it: partway through, Bilgewater’s romantic concerns/travails become central to the story, and the mix of teen angst and ridiculous/humorous situations, which I don’t want to spoil by describing, totally works for me.