Books that have shone out during my recent long run of duds as being really splendid reads, giving me faith that good books are out there if you keep at it long enough.
This is the revised translation by Edward Seidensticker from 1960 of a nameless 10th-century Japanese noblewoman’s complaints about her very unsatisfactory marriage. She and her husband communicated in poems, and she could be very bitter in them. Her main complaint was that he didn’t spend enough time with her. She was the second wife: she doesn’t object to him spending time with ‘the lady in the main house’, but by golly she is incandescent with rage at his affairs with ‘the lady in the alley’, and other women who catch the Prince’s eye. Her noble husband’s son by his first wife would become the Emperor, yet politics are largely absent from her writing. Maybe she was writing for the court, who would, as the translator notes in a very good introduction, be aware of the intrigues. Or maybe she was showing how perfectly indifferent she was to such mundane concerns by ignoring them.
All this would be fascinating enough in the 16th, 17th, or 18th centuries. But this is a text more or less from the same period as Beowulf, whose authors hadn’t yet grasped character or dialogue or how to write a linear narrative. In the context Gossamer Years is astounding, and very entertaining. But ignore the publisher’s hopeful strapline: it is NOT packed with passionate details of a Japanese marriage, unless you count rage as passion. The author was related to and preceded the authors of The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book, and probably showed them the possibilities of narrative writing. Highly recommended if you want to immerse yourself in another culture and time.
Riverman, by Ben McGrath
I heard about this book in a New Yorker podcast, and arranged for it to be sent to me as a birthday present. Struck down with covid on my birthday I sat still reading this for six hours, and it did me a lot of good. Rest, lots of; took me out of my huddled chair into a canoe on the Hudson, the Mississippi, and any other North American river you can remember the name of; and focusing on navigational problems when all you’ve got is a road atlas, and no river charts. Riverman is the story of Dick Conant who took to the water in his middle age and spent at least a decade paddling up and down the USA’s waterways just for the enjoyment, the excitement, the pleasure and the peace and quiet. The patchworking of his story by the author, a New Yorker journalist, is expertly done, and is a quietly delightful case study of good long-form journalism done well and unobtrusively. The darker sides to Dick’s personality and his life are not glossed over, and the mystery of the ending is not avoided. An excellent read.
Merlin and Company, by Alvaro Cunqueiro
Imagine that Merlin the magician decided to retire to northern Spain, to Galicia perhaps, and found the climate so pleasant that he invited the Lady Guinevere to join him and share the villa. Together they conduct their social lives, talk to the neighbours, receive visitors, and smile at the earnest attempts of the servants to not be surprised or amazed at any of the wonders that turn up on the doorstep. Cunqueiro was a magical realist in the tradition of Borges and T H White. Merlin and Company, published in 1955, is thoroughly entertaining. Stories lead onto more stories, but there is no plot. Merlin’s servant and narrator is a wide-eyed witness more concerned with the charming maidservant than with the bishops, princes and soothsayers turning up for advice and assistance. He doesn’t understand that every myth and story in western Europe, and from the Sultan’s Empire as well, are connected to Merlin’s affairs by the most intangible of webs. Yet the novel is an uncontrolled ferment, going nowhere. White’s The Sword In The Stone had structure, plot and world-building. Cunqueiro sets off firework after firework of spontaneous, clever invention that have no bounds or connection other than that all travellers’ roads lead to Merlin, and that feels a bit unsatisfactory. The translator, Colin Smith, prefers the uncontrolled fireworks to White, but he might also have compared Cunqeiro’s invention to that of Sylvia Townsend Warner in The Corner That Held Them, also from the 1950s, which is also a slice of life without end and without plot or obvious purpose.
The Spoils of Poynton, by Henry James
A nice short Henry James novel to get your teeth into, with all the familiar ambiguity to make you concentrate on exactly what is being done and said to whom, and when. Mrs Gereth is a widow, and Poynton, the house she has spent her entire marriage furnishing with the best and most precious art and artefacts, now belongs to her son. She knows that he is waiting patiently for her to move out so that he can bring his bride to a house without a mistress, but Mrs Gereth has other ideas. She plans to find a suitable wife for him, who will appreciate the house and its contents as much as she does, and allow her to continue to live there. Young Mr Gereth is courting Mona, a hopelessly unsuitable young woman (rich, tasteless, uninterested in art except as an asset). Then Mrs Gereth meets, at the same country house party, another guest, Fleda, who is an entirely suitable and sympathetic young woman (attractive, in tune with art and its aesthetics, grateful for the attention). The efforts of Mrs Gereth to get what she wants, no matter who and what she has to use and destroy in the process, are a riveting read. And the ending is perfect. Brutal, but perfect. One of the Henry James novels I am most likely to reread.
A Bookshop In Algiers, by Kaouther Adimi
Bought on holiday, and it was a terrific read. This is a modern French novel about Les Vraies Richesses, a famous bookshop in Algiers, its origins, its vicissitudes through the wars and the uprising against French colonial rule, and Editions Charlot, the publishing house set up by its owner, who published many famous French works and authors for the first time. The gentleness of the narrative helps to get the reader through the quite horrifying brutality of the French authorities against the campaign for Algerian independence, in Algeria and in France. Charlot is the focus of the book: hopeful, smiling, confident and passionate about the power of stories. The translator uses a restrained vocabulary of reticence that conveys authority and decision in the characters. I think this may have been a BBC radio book choice, and it deserves all the sales it can get.
The First Woman, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
This was a stunning read, a brilliant novel about modern Ugandan history and social change. Kirabo is growing up in her grandparents’ house in a small village, and thinks she is turning into a witch. (This is the only and very small fantastical aspect of the novel: don’t worry about it if fantasy is not your thing.) She daren’t ask her beady-eyed grandmother to help so she goes to see Ntuusa, who she thinks is a witch (not really) to ask advice. Thus she develops a bond with this much-loved blind old woman who has secrets and strange relationships with almost everyone in the village. When Kirabo is in her teens, her father decides that she will come to live with him in the city, and Kirabo is wildly excited because her father is rich, successful and wears very smart western clothes. They go to Kampala, and Kirabo discovers that her father is married to a woman she has never met or heard of, and has two small children. All three of them, not unreasonably, dislike Kirabo on sight, because Kirabo is the child of her father’s first wife, who died (or left?) when Kirabo was born. Kirabo is sent to the very fancy St Theresa’s boarding school for girls, where she is protected from the riots and armed violence racking the country, and then she meets again the boy from the village with whom she has been in love since forever.
This is a novel about women and their relationships with other women, and the complex connections between mothers, grandmothers and best friends. It’s about traditional Ugandan clan culture in the 1970s and 1980s, under threat from western citification but still essential to the fabric of society. It’s about three pairs of women, each of whom have children with the same man, and how not enough information is given to the children to help them make sense of it all. It’s a coming of age story in which Kirabo is not particularly nice to her best friend Giibura due to their comparative wealth and class positions, and also because of the horrifying history of slave-taking by Kirabo’s great-great grandfather. It has so many pregnancies and so many missing mothers and fathers. It’s about 1970s Ugandan women articulating feminism and how the men slowly come around to understanding it, moving away from culturally entrenched positions about how men and women should behave. It’s completely brilliant and is the most exciting and accomplished novel I’ve read in six months.
For more remarks about books I have enjoyed rather than despaired of, try Books I Want to Keep and Read With Pleasure
4 thoughts on “More good books”
What a great mixture, thank you, Kate!
Several here look good – thanks. I enjoyed Katherine Addison based off a recent recommendation from you – good fun, though I prefer a bit more adventure and self-defence in among the empathy and hurt feelings in a fantasy kingdom. A recommendation in return, maybe – have you tried Samuel Shellabarger? Very popular in the 40’s and 50’s, but pretty much out of print now (so very easy to find second hand). The Prince of Thieves and The Captain from Castile were both made into decent movies with Tyrone Power, but the books are better, and I specially enjoyed The King’s Cavalier.
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Spoils of Poynton is such a good book. I was delighted to see it mentioned in Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season. Her character are so well read.