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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Cracked Looking-Glass’ by Katherine Anne Porter ****

The thirty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list, The Cracked Looking-Glass by American author Katherine Anne Porter, was one which I was particularly intrigued by.  In this story, which was first published in 1922, ‘a passionately unfulfilled woman considers her life and her marriage’.  This woman is named Rosaleen; she has been married to Dennis, thirty years her senior, for over two decades, and the pair live on a farm in rural Connecticut.

9780241339626I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes of the story, in which Porter sets both scenes, and the complexities of marriage, with precision and beauty.  She writes: ‘Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering.  He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything.’

Porter is so aware of her characters’ flaws, and how these adapt with the passing of time.  During their anniversary dinner, for instance, ‘He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her.  Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when  man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way.’

The Cracked Looking-Glass is quite tender in places.  Of Rosaleen, Porter writes: ‘She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days.  This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart.’  Given that this is a short story, there is a lot of depth here, and we learn a lot about the pasts of the characters, and how this has affected their present-day lives.

The looking glass of the story’s title is square in shape, and positioned in the living room.  ‘There was,’ writes Porter, ‘a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water.’  Throughout the story, Rosaleen views herself in it, and Porter records her thoughts.  With this technique, and the scenes which she records, Porter has been able to create a fascinating portrait of a complex and complicated, and incredibly realistic, woman.  The Cracked Looking-Glass also presents a searing portrait of a troubled marriage in a skilfully crafted way.   I was reminded somewhat of Katherine Mansfield whilst I was reading, one of the highest accolades which I could give; not so much because of Porter’s prose style, but due to the way in which she builds her characters and their histories.

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‘Lost Things’ by Jenny Offill ****

I very much enjoyed Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, and happily hunted down her debut, Last Things, which was published in 1999.  The Irish Times calls the novel a ‘glorious debut’, and The Times writes that ‘Offill creates for Grace a mesmerising imaginary world…  She writes with a heartbreaking clarity… and is dextrously able to evoke emotional extremity through pitch-perfect narrative compression.’ 9781408879719

The protagonist and narrator of Last Things is Grace Davitt, who is seven years old when the novel begins, and who lives in Vermont with her parents.  She finds her volatile mother, Anna, ‘a puzzling yet wonderful mystery.  This is a woman who has seen a sea serpent in the lake, who paints a timeline of the universe on the sewing-room wall, and who teaches her daughter a secret language which only they can speak.’  Her father, schoolteacher Jonathan, is an antithesis to her mother; he trusts only scientific evidence, and ‘finds himself shut out by Anna as she draws Grace deeper and deeper into a strange world of myth and obsession.’

Offill captures her young protagonist’s voice wonderfully and believably.  She weaves in childish fantasies of Grace’s, which are rather lovely at times: ‘I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language’, for instance.  From its opening pages, the novel is an incredibly thoughtful one.  Grace imparts: ‘Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form.  I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.’  Throughout, and with the guidance of both her parents, Grace is trying to make sense of the world around her.  This is made more difficult, as her parents tend to disagree about everything.

Grace’s mother is bound up in stories which she fashions both for her daughter, and for herself.  These stories confuse Grace, and serve only to muddle the truth for her: ‘Sometimes I tried to guess which of my mother’s stories were true and which were not, but I was usually wrong.’  Anna takes Grace to a nearby lake each morning, before anyone else arrives, in order to try and catch a glimpse of a monster which she is convinced lives there.  She has some rather peculiar notions about the world, and how one should behave.  ‘Sometimes,’ Grace tells us, ‘my mother tired of looking for the monster and we’d go to the park instead.  The rule about the park was that we could only go there if we went in disguise.  Otherwise, men might stop and talk to us.’

All of the characters in Last Things have unusual quirks.  Grace’s babysitter, sixteen-year-old Edgar, is a science prodigy, who answers questions only if he is interested in the answer.  One morning, he imparts a dream of his, in which ‘one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold.’  Of her cousin, Grace states: ‘Grooming was important to Mary because she believed her portrait would one day appear on a dollar bill.  The summer before, she had sent away in the mail for a kit to start her own country.  Martyrdom, it was going to be called.  It wasn’t ready yet because there was a lot of paperwork to do, she said.’  Her father carries around a book entitled Know Your Constitution!, which he uses to write letters to the newspaper.

The family dynamic which Offill presents is fascinating.  Offill probes the decisions which Grace’s parents have made, and the sometimes amusing effects which they have had on their only child: ‘I had never been to church because my father had vowed to raise me a heathen.  A heathen was a godless thing, my mother explained.  In some parts of America, it was against the law to be one.  On Sundays, I watched from the woods as the Christians drove by.  The women had on dresses and the men wore dark suits.  Sometimes I threw rocks at their cars and waited to see what God would do.  Nothing much, it turned out.’

I rarely see reviews of Offill’s work, which I feel is a real shame.  I can only hope the this review has piqued someone’s interest in this novel, or her more popular Dept. of Speculation.  This novel is funny, and whilst at times it appears lighthearted, there is a darker undercurrent to it.  The characters are realistic creations, and will stay in your head for weeks afterwards.  Particularly for a debut, Last Things is accomplished, and has such a surety about it.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Duke in His Domain’ by Truman Capote ****

The thirty-fifth book in the Penguins Modern series is Truman Capote’s The Duke in His Domain, a piece of journalism which covers an extended meeting with Marlon Brando in Japan.  This ‘peerless piece of journalism’ presents, promises its blurb, a ‘mesmerising profile of an insecure, vulnerable young Marlon Brando, brooding in a Kyoto hotel during a break from filming’. 9780241339145 The interview was conducted in 1956, when Brando was filming ‘Sayonara’, and the extended article was published in The New Yorker the following year.

Amongst Capote’s many gifts is the ease with which he wonderfully depicts settings, such as one of the more traditionally Japanese decorated rooms of a Westernised hotel which Brando is staying in: ‘His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath and a glassed-in sun porch.  Without the overlying and underlying clutter of Brando’s personal belongings, the rooms would have been textbook illustrations of the Japanese penchant for ostentatious barrenness…  In these rooms, the divergent concepts of Japanese and Western decoration – the one seeking to impress by a lack of display, an absence of possession-exhibiting, the other intent on precisely the reverse – could both be observed, for Brando seemed unwilling to make use of the apartment’s storage space, concealed behind sliding paper doors.’  The way in which Capote writes about Kyoto too, is stunning: ‘Below the windows, the hotel garden, with its ultra-simple and soigné arrangements of rock and tree, floated in the mists that crawl off Kyoto’s waterways – for it is a watery city, crisscrossed with shallow rivers and cascading canals, dotted with pools as still as coiled snakes and mirthful little waterfalls that sound like Japanese girls fighting.’

Capote also had a marvellous ability to capture so much in just a single sentence, as he does here: ‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet.’  His descriptions of his guide, as well as the woman who looks after Brando, are rather enchanting; he describes them variously as ‘doll-delicate’, with ‘tiny, pigeon-toed skating steps’ in their kimonos, and having a ‘plump peony-and-pansy kimonoed figure.’

Brando’s elusive qualities are discussed in swathes in The Duke in His Domain.  Whilst defined as a ‘slouchingly dignified, amiable-seeming young man who was always ready to cooperate with, and even encourage, his co-workers’, he would rarely accept invitations to spend time with anyone, ‘preferring, during the tedious lulls between scenes, to sit alone reading philosophy or scribbling in a schoolboy notebook.’  Capote captures Brando and his curiosities in such a playful, precise manner: ‘Resuming his position on the floor, he lolled his head against a pillow, dropped his eyelids, then shut them.  It was as though he’d dozed off into a disturbing dream; his eyelids twitched, and when he spoke, his voice – an unemotional voice, in a way cultivated and genteel, yet surprisingly adolescent, a voice with a probing, asking, boyish quality – seemed to come from sleepy distance.’  He also gives a real insight into Brando’s thought processes, and the manner in which he conducts himself: ‘The voice went on, as though speaking to hear itself, an effect Brando’s speech often has, for like many persons who are intensely self-absorbed, he is something of a monologuist – a fact that he recognizes and for which he offers his own explanation.  “People around me never say anything,” he says.  “They just seem to want to hear what I have to say.  That’s why I do all the talking.”‘

I knew very little about Brando before reading The Duke in His Domain, and was looking forward to learning about him.  Capote is one of my absolute favourite authors, and his journalism is the only part of the work which I’ve not yet got to from his oeuvre.  As well as outlining his observance of Brando, and the in-depth conversations which they have, Capote has also included testimony from several of Brando’s friends here, which helps to build a full picture, and explores the effects which others have had on him.  The Duke in His Domain is a great piece of extended journalism, and one which I would highly recommend.

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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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Challenge-Free 2019

Each year since I have been seriously recording my reading, and particularly since I have been blogging, I have decided to participate in year-long reading challenges.  This year’s Around the World in 80 Books challenge took me only four months to complete, but in the past, I have tended to get a little bored by the challenges which I set myself several months beforehand, and other, non-challenge reading has taken over instead.  This issue has been complicated further by my studies; I had so much to read whilst doing my Master’s that I wanted to make the most of the reading which I was able to do in my spare time, and did not want to have to adhere too much to challenge conventions.

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From Goodreads

Despite the evident interest which reading challenges give me (for the first few months of the year, at least!) I have decided that I will not set myself any reading goals during 2019.  I want to be able to pick up books as and when I feel like reading them, rather than having to squeeze in books I am not as interested in, just because they contribute to a particular challenge.  I will also have far less time in which to read during 2019, as I will be working full-time and expect to be commuting every weekday.

I am taking part in a project with my sister, in which we are going to be ticking off every book mentioned in the Gilmore Girls, a series which she loved.  I engineered the challenge in order to encourage her to read, but she is adamant that she’s going to watch as many dramatised versions as she can find, and then read only what she can’t get hold of on Netflix…  I will, of course, be reading each title.  Our deadline goal is the end of 2020, so it should be doable!

I will be participating in the Goodreads yearly challenge, merely in terms of a set number of books which I want to read, although I haven’t decided on my goal yet.  In 2018, I let my mother select it for me; she went for 275 books.  The number which I settle for will more than likely be far lower next year.  I want to set myself a reachable goal whilst still challenging myself, but have no idea how many books I will be likely to get through.

What are your personal experiences with reading challenges?  Do you like to participate in them, or do they detract from the enjoyment which reading should bring you?  What are your goals for reading during 2019?