20 books of summer 2016

ORIGINAL 20 books of summer 2016

Well, I’ve gone and done it! The two books reviewed here are Books 18 and 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project. Book 20, “Blómin á þakinu”, has NOT been read in its entirety: I didn’t actually expect to do that. As it’s in Icelandic and is being used as a project to improve my Icelandic by laboriously translating it, and it takes an hour or so to work on each page, I was always going to end up with that one as a work in progress, having established a routine to work on it regularly and improve my language skills. So that’s a win in my book! Anyway, two great books to finish up with, and as these reviews are quite long, I’m going to do a 20Books round-up tomorrow, if Cathy doesn’t mind! … and No Confessions today, although my last two confessions are in the post and should arrive soon!

Edith Wharton – “Hudson River Bracketed”

(23 October 2015 – from Verity)

This was one of the set of five lovely big Viragoes my friend Verity kindly sent to me when she was having a clearout (I’m pretty sure I did a donation to Mind for them). It’s a bit of a chunkster, but being Wharton, that’s not a problem as it’s easy to read and just skips on by.

The central character is Vance Weston, a boy from the Mid-West who’s from a family that’s commercially and religiously minded but not providing him with the intellectual stimulation he needs – or rather that he doesn’t truly realise he needs until he encounters a distant cousin who’s grown up in entirely the opposite milieu in the house of another distant cousin which is full of books, poems and cultural references he has never before come across. His vague yearnings to create a new religion and to write poetry are now subsumed beneath a desire to acquire the knowledge he would have gained from a combination of being a man and having his cousin Halo’s education.

There are a few false steps, and he does end up spending some time back home trying to fit into a journalism role he’s not happy with, still yearning for the intellectual environment that’s been dangled before him. But also, it’s the emotional outpouring after witnessing his grandfather’s bad behaviour that gets him his first literary break, and it’s the world of the motions, from his impulsive marriage to a wife who seems to exist wholly in the world of emotions, the impulsive expression of needs that draws Halo towards him and the brief trend for his grandmother’s brand of emotional evangelism that prove to shape Vance’s life far more than intellect and the world of the brain.

Of course, Vance can never return home once he’s had a second taste of the literary life and the emotional blending of a marriage, however impetuous. He’s distanced himself through both intellect and emotion, and I think the author may be pointing out that you need a decent balance of both, as he teeters between the two ends of the spectrum. Wharton pays little attention to convention, and although the Afterword suggest otherwise, I think she draws a portrait of a man with insufficient early education in the subtleties and control of both the emotions and the intellect, bewildered and attracted by both. Society’s expectations are also denigrated in Wharton’s social commentary: Halo and others are effectively bought, and all kinds of society work on commercial exchange rather than love or honour.

I was put off by mention of this being inspired by the early life of a writer, as I don’t tend to like novelisations of real-life events, but her portrayal of 1920s literary life in New York and a flawed hero drew me in.

This was Book 18 in my #20BooksofSummer project

A.S. Byatt – “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods”

(25 December 2015 – from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, Virago Not So Secret Santa gift)

As part of Canongate’s retelling of the great myths by various writers, Byatt cleverly frames her reworking of the Norse creation and end-of-world myths by using a small child (herself), evacuated during World War II and seeking comfort from a German book about the Norse myths and legends.

Comparison is made between the gentle Christianity she’s presented with in the parish church, the more violent and basic myths and the claims she rejects of a link between the two made by the German editor of her book. The writings of the myths are superb, with all the right stuff in muscular, absorbing, dense and rich prose which uses alliteration and repetition to echo the language of the originals (but not in a pastiche, with an inventiveness all its own). The description of Loki, student of chaos, and his demonic offspring, especially the snake, is just wonderful, and it’s a tour de force indeed, attractive, multi-layered and thoughtful.

Messages about women’s roles in war and peace and about ecology are not too laboured, the Afterword reveals Byatt’s own childhood engagement with the topic, and the bibliography shows that she read the translation of the Edda done by my own Old Norse tutor, which pleased me. An amazing book.

This was Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project

I’m currently reading Stuart Maconie’s “The People’s Songs” which is as excellent as I hoped it would be, and about to start my next Dorothy Richardson. How are you doing with your challenges?