“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.

2018 year-end wrap-up

December 31st, 2018

I definitely didn’t read as many books in 2018 as I did in 2017, but it was a good reading year nevertheless. I read 32 books in total:

Middle-grade and YA: 6. Highlights: Re-reading The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, which I find as fun and quirky now as I did when I was a child. Finishing up Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books with The Penderwicks at Last, with its warmth and sweetness. (I especially love how Birdsall writes about dogs. Aww.) Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza, which was smart and fun and depicted a story of teen friendship with lots of heart.

Fiction for grown-ups: 17. Highlights: Winter and How to be both by Ali Smith, who is one of my favorite authors: I love how linguistically/stylistically playful her books are, and also how full of empathy. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, with its themes of history and memory and family and its compelling plot. Inferno by Eileen Myles, with its wry humor and descriptions of life as a queer writer in New York. Malacqua by Nicola Pugliese, with its descriptions of Naples and water and weather and a city/society that just doesn’t work properly.

Non-fiction (including autobiographical comics): 9. Highlights: Calypso by David Sedaris, which made me laugh a whole lot even though I’d read a lot of the pieces before. Going into Town by Roz Chast, because Chast captures the things she likes about New York City so well (and because I like a lot of the same things she does), and also because her art is always so fun to look at. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, because it was interesting to learn more about artists whose stories I only knew slightly, and because I liked the way that Laing included bits of her own New York experience.

I don’t know what 2019 will hold for me, reading-wise, but I’m looking forward to reading more books from my own shelves (I know: I say that most years) and seeing where my reading moods take me.

The Lonely City (whose subtitle is “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone”) is a blend of the personal and the art-historical, though a bit heavier on the latter. Laing writes about how she had been planning to move to New York City from England to be with a man who then changed his mind; she ended up living in the city on her own, moving from one sublet to another, finding comfort in visual art and music as she went through a period where she was “inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis” (5). The works of art in which she found solace “seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness” themselves, and the book is an exploration of that art/those artists/their lives and stories (ibid.).

Most of the book’s chapters focus on a particular artist: there’s one about Edward Hopper, another about Andy Warhol, one about David Wojnarowicz, another about Henry Darger, another about Klaus Nomi. (I liked all these chapters, especially the one about Wojnarowicz.) There’s also an introductory chapter, a concluding chapter that talks a bit about Zoe Leonard’s “Strange Fruit” and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, and a chapter about loneliness and the internet that discusses the work of Josh Harris, an internet entrepreneur who ran a live-streaming project called Quiet in which sixty people lived together for a month in a basement pod hotel. (I found the internet/Josh Harris chapter the weakest, though I liked the bits in it about Laing’s fondness for Craigslist and experiences placing ads on it.)

While I found Laing’s discussions of specific artworks and the lives of artists interesting, and while I also liked her discussions of the larger culture in which these artists were working, my favorite parts of the book were probably the pieces we see of Laing’s own story, whether she’s talking about living in a room on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue and waking to the lights of the city in the middle of the night, or about ordering coffee in the East Village and how when you’re lonely, social interactions with strangers or near-strangers are much more fraught. And I love how Laing writes about her experience of New York City, in sentences like this: “It was winter now, the sky bright blue, buckets of copper-colored chrysanthemums outside the bodegas” (110). Or this: “In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets” (12-13).

I haven’t watched The Office or The Mindy Project, and I don’t read many celebrity memoirs in general, but I found a copy of this book somewhere at some point (a Little Free Library? a giveaway pile at work? I don’t even remember) and thought it might be a good fun/light read. Which it was, although I’m probably not its ideal audience—there were a lot of pop culture references I didn’t get without Googling them. The thirty-seven pieces in the book are arranged somewhat chronologically, somewhat thematically, and range in length from very short (e.g. a one-page piece whose title is “Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly?”) to somewhat longer (the longest piece, about The Office, is twenty pages). Some of the shorter pieces fell flat for me, but even not having watched The Office, I liked the section about it a whole lot (and even paused in my reading of that section to watch the pilot episode, which I liked: I’ll probably catch up on more of the show at some point).

In general, I found the pieces about Kaling’s working life to be the strongest: it felt like she had interesting things to say about being a writer/working in Hollywood/how she got to where she was when she was writing this book, and those pieces tended to be a little longer, which I liked: it felt like there was more room in them for humor and good writing and good narrative flow. In addition to the piece about The Office, I really liked “Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth,” “Day Jobs,” and “Matt & Ben & Mindy & Brenda,” all of which are about Kaling’s pre-Office work/artistic life, and which are also full of really great details about life in NYC in the early 2000s. Kaling is a few years older than me, but I’m close enough to her age that passages like this felt pretty relatable, even though my NYC experience at this time was that of a college student rather than a college grad:

It was October 2001 and I lived in New York City. I was twenty-two. I, like many of my female friends, suffered from a strange combination of post-9/11 anxiety and height-of-Sex-and-the-City anxiety. They are distinct and unnerving anxieties. The questions that ran through my mind went something like this:

Should I keep a gas mask in my kitchen? Am I supposed to be able to afford Manolo Blahnik shoes? What is Barneys New York? You’re trying to tell me a place called “Barneys” is fancy? Where are the fabulous gay friends I was promised? Gay guys hate me! Is this anthrax or powdered sugar? Help! Help! (66)

Other highlights for me included the title piece (which is about growing apart from childhood friends in high school/bonding with a new friend about shared interests) and a list piece called “Non-Traumatic Things That Have Made Me Cry” (which includes Paul Simon’s Graceland, a line said by Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, among other things).

My reading experience of How to be both felt slower and more scattered than I would like—I started it while getting ready to move, and finished it after moving, and there was a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and generally being stressed in between—but it’s Ali Smith, and I pretty much always think she’s great. This is a dual-narrative novel in which the two sections can be read in either order, and the book was printed so that some copies have one section first, while others start with the other section. Mine started with the “camera” section, which focuses on George (short for Georgia), who’s an English teenager whose mother unexpectedly died a few months before the story starts. George remembers a trip she took to Italy with her mother and brother, and remembers, in particular, the frescoes they saw at Palazzo Schifanoia. (A detail from one of the scenes in the fresco is what prompted the trip to begin with.) We see George’s daily life: her experience of loss and grief, the way she thinks about her mother, her relationship with her father and brother, conversations she has with a school counsellor, and her relationship with a girl from school, H (short for Helena). Then comes the “eyes” section, which is narrated by the ghost/spirit of Francesco del Cossa, the artist who made those frescoes George and her mom saw. del Cossa is unexpectedly conscious, and in England (and watching George, in fact—they’re somehow tied together). We get del Cossa’s memories of working as a painter and living in Italy in the 1400s and also del Cossa’s observations of England, and of George.

I like the bothness of this book a lot, the way it looks at past and present, art and life, death and life, grief and love, and other dualities besides, and I like how it’s full of Ali Smith’s usual combination of playfulness and empathy and grace and intelligence. I’m glad I read the “camera” section of the book first: it’s more of a straightforward narrative, and while I probably liked the “eyes” section more, I might have felt adrift if I’d opened the book to it, and I like the way that the start of the “camera” section raises questions that are very relevant to the “eyes” section. (George and her mother in the car in Italy have this conversation, where George’s mom is telling her to imagine a hypothetical situation where George is an artist asking for more money: “Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?” and then: “Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other. Who says? Why must it? her mother says” (9).) I also like the way this book explores different aspects of paintings, and of stories, and of what art does/how art works.