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Novellas in November: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

As always, I encourage you to read Cathy’s and Rebecca’s reviews. I’m down to the wire here so this will be a short comment on a short book that needs no introduction. This is the fourth and final #NovNov buddy read, and I’d like to thank hosts Cathy and Rebecca for doing a bang up job. The buddy reads were a great idea! Check out all the posts linked here.

Ethan Frome is sometimes seen as a departure from Wharton’s other works, though in the Everyman’s Library edition I read, Hermonie Lee makes a case for linking Ethan Frome, Summer, and Bunner Sisters in one volume, and not just because they’re short. They’re also about working-class heros and heroines. There’s none of the social climbing (and falling) that mark The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Unrelenting poverty is the driving force of this story. Zeena and Mattie end up at the farm because they are both poor relations with nowhere else to go, and Ethan can’t leave even if he wanted to (and he sure does by the end) because he’s running the farm into the ground and couldn’t raise $50 if he tried (and he sure does try.)

It’s also about isolation and revenge. I was struck by the parallels between it and my all-time favourite book, Wuthering Heights. The framing device, the stark landscapes, the isolated house, the use of dialect, and most of all, the people, tied forever to the land and to a never-ending cycle of blame and regret.

The last line even echoes Wuthering Height’s iconic ending. I have a personal aversion to quoting last lines, but these are both so good, and I’m hardly spoiling anything. Feel free to stop here if you haven’t read one or both.

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Nonfiction November Week 5: New to my TBR

The final #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Jaymi at The OC Book Girl. Despite some early efforts, I did not keep up with her daily Instagram challenge. For me, Instagram isn’t a place to post, it’s a place to see what my Millennial and Gen Z cousins are up to, and to indulge in hyper-local memes and cringe TikToks. Anyways, Jaymi encouraged us to keep track of the nonfiction books added to our TBRs in preparation for this week, which I did, until the 15th. So this will lean heavily on the first two weeks of the event. My new additions:

And that’s it! I didn’t do much reading (concentrated my efforts on novellas, the other perennial November book blog event) by enjoyed posting and reading. A huge thanks to all the hosts and participants.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings

This week’s #NonFicNov prompt is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey,  and she challenges us to pair a nonfiction book with a novel. She suggests a historical novel paired with the real history, which is the best place for me to start. In the run up to publication of The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, third and final book in the Wolf Hall series, I took in a pre-Broadway run of Six in late 2019, and reread the first two books in early 2020. I was so ready. Unfortunately, my reading experience ended up being seriously dampened by early pandemic anxiety. A reread will be in order. But to make myself feel better, I indulged in a couple of Tudor nonfiction titles.

So if you liked the Wolf Hall series, you should check out:

  • Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell. Juicy and scandalous, but scholarly enough to bring some real insight into what the Tudor court was like for an eligible young woman.
  • The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives is a little drier at times (he has a lot to say about her possessions, textiles and drinking vessels and prayer books and whatnot), but not without controversy, as theories abound about who Anne really was and how much agency she really had. But this does seem to be the authoritative account, and has been since 1986.

And speaking of royals, fans of Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, or specifically the first book, Quicksilver, which is all I read, should check out the real life story of a minor character in Anna Keay’s The Last Royal Rebel: The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth. He is portrayed as a lecherous rake in Quicksilver, and well, he basically comes across as the same in Keay’s history, but with some nuance. Great fun, and illuminating, if you read historical fiction set in this time.

Reading history (and not just royal history) to clarify and illuminate novels would be a fun project! It’s got me thinking about the world literature I’ve loved this year, like Independent People (20th century Iceland) and Demons (19th century Russia), and how they could probably be appreciated better with more background knowledge. I have a bit of a TBR going for Russian nonfiction, but wouldn’t know where to begin with Iceland.

I hope others are able to go beyond Katie’s suggestion of historical fictions/history, but I’m drawing a blank! I thought about suggesting various anti-social media books to go with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, but I’m going to save that for next week’s prompt…

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore for #BrianMoore100

This event is being hosted by Cathy of 746 Books, who is known for celebrating all things literary and Irish. Moore’s Irish connections are always jarring to me, as he’s well known as a Canadian author here. In reality, he was a wanderer, living in many places in Europe and North America, and spent more time in the United States than anywhere. So I guess it’s not that odd that I read a “New Canadian Library” edition of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book about Ireland, with an afterword by Australian writer Janette Turner Hospital. Actually, Hospital lived in Ontario for thirty years, later moving to the States, sharing a claim on Canadian identity and a nomadic spirit with Moore.

Hospital uses that connection, and familiarity with being “from away”, to bring forth themes of displacement in her brief afterword to this edition. Miss Hearne lives a very circumscribed life in Belfast, but Hospital shows us that she actually goes on an epic journey, including romance, hope, dashed expectations, and a crisis of faith. The afterword was illuminating, but to me the more interesting themes were those of hunger, desire, and rage – or, you know, passion – and specifically the rage of the middle aged woman. These themes reminded me of Jean Rhys’s writing, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the same editor who shepherded Wide Sargasso Sea into the world, Diana Athill, was a champion of this book.

Miss Hearne’s dreary bedsit put me in mind of Good Morning, Midnight‘s heroine Sasha’s awful hotel rooms. Both characters are without family, of little means, near starving, drink to excess and fall prey to depraved men. If anything, Sasha had less hope than Miss Hearne, lacking an object for her anger (other than herself), with no church to storm and no one to ask for forgiveness. Sasha had only lately fallen on hard times, while Miss Hearne had been sidelined her whole life, first by her tyrannical Aunt, and then by poverty. In The Lonely Passion, we see a woman who has been made invisible her whole life finally demand to be seen.

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A tale of two dinner parties

Well, one dinner party and one “dinner thing.”

I’m suseptable to seeing tenous connections and patterns in books. I succumbed to this impulse over the summer, drawing conclusions about Paul Beatty’s influences that are not borne out in reality, and I fear I’m about to do it again. Except for one blazing detail, that makes me think I must be right, but I’ll leave that for last…

In Real Life, Brandon Taylor tells the story of Wallace, a Black grad student at an unnamed, mostly-white school that is understood to be the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wallace’s regular weekend routine of lab work, tennis, and angst is interupted by a last minute invite to a dinner “thing”, which starts out benign enough but soon Wallace finds himself under attack by his so-called friends. The dinner party is the central scene in the novel, and is much celebrated by Taylor’s contemporaries as, well, real, and necessary.

I found it overly dramatic on first read. But then I read Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner and wondered whether his late-1930s alcohol-soaked dinner party scene wasn’t the model for Taylor’s 2010s vegan hispter potluck, and if Taylor wasn’t responding directly to it.

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Novellas in November 2020

I’m pretty disconnected from book culture (I’m trying! See here, here, here) but even I noticed that this is a big month. The Booker and Giller Prizes will be awarded, and a slew of reading events are running, one for every taste, including the geographic (Germany, Australia), the author-specific (Margaret Atwood Reading Month), and the category-based (Novellas in November, see below, and Nonfiction November, blog or booktube version).

I’m just here to read novellas, though I will have a bit of overlap with one other event. No need to break out the Venn diagrams in my case though!

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The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

This book is positioned as an essay collection, but it easily could’ve been called a memoir. Or one big essay in pieces. Or, as Meghan O’Rourke is quoted in the cover blurb, a “guide to the complexities of thinking about illness”.

The essays aren’t scholarly, though you’ll gain quite a bit of background knowledge, not just about her diagnoses, but mental health systems of diagnoses and treatment in general. They aren’t personal essays, in the “it happened to me” style, though there are plenty of personal details and even a little name-dropping. Wang doesn’t use schizophrenia as a metaphor, though she references the metaphors and plots of movies and books with ease.

And this book definitely, thankfully, doesn’t have the “overcoming adversity” inspirational feel of mainstream illness memoirs.

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The Known World by Edward P. Jones

I noted that my first #20BooksofSummer20 review, of Real Life by Brandon Taylor, would likely be enhanced by a rereading of Mrs. Dalloway, a text that is alluded to from the very first line. The Known World immediately put me in mind of a another book too, and I even did some research this time! And reread the first chapter of said book! Don’t say I never did anything for you, gentle blog readers.

But after all my hard work, I think I’ve talked myself out of it. Let me explain…

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor

I don’t know Brandon Taylor in real life, but it sometimes feels like I do. He’s prolific on Twitter, but doesn’t stick to a particular persona or schtick. He tweets all kinds of stuff and in all kinds of moods. It’s the kind of Twitter account that draws me in, and in this case, convinced me to buy a debut novel (see also: Colin Barrett).

So while I acknowlege that Twitter is not real life and I don’t actually know Mr. Taylor, after following him for several months, I feel confident in saying that he did not write Real Life to educate the likes of me, a 39-and-three-quarters-years-old white Canadian woman, about racism and sex. There’s also this article in the Guardian that says so pretty explicitly. And yet!

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Blurbing the Blurb: A recommendation of Songs for the Cold of Heart by Éric Dupont

During my hiatus, I wrote a “recommend” for Canadian literary website 49th Shelf. Songs for the Cold of Heart has been on my mind lately, as various translated book award long and short lists are being announced. I was hoping to see it crop up – but alas, no Canadians at all are in the running for either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Let’s take a moment and appreciate the book and the blurb, in both official languages. 

I am a blurb skeptic. Blurbs are, at best, the most biased form of literary criticism. Just check how often a blurber’s name appears on the acknowledgements page. At worst, blurbs are clichéd, or taken out of out of context, or of dubious veracity (did Gary Shteyngart really read all those books?).

The blurb on Songs for the Cold of Heart got all my skeptic senses tingling:

“If the Americans have John Irving and the Colombians Gabriel García Márquez, we have Eric Dupont. And he’s every bit as good as them.”—Voir

Like most Canadiens anglais, I didn’t hear of Éric Dupont until this English translation hit the Giller Prize longlist in 2018. I wondered if he was really as good as Irving and Márquez, two luminaries of world literature (and longtime personal favourites of mine). Or was this blurb just another bloated piece of hype?

Read the rest of my recommendation on 49th Shelf, as well as those of other luminaries, including Karen Hofmann, whose debut I reviewed five years ago and who since wrote another great novel with a very meta title: What is Going to Happen Next.

Thanks for indulging me with this mini-post while I try to get back in the swing of things! Let me know if you generally believe the blurb, or if you side-eye them as much as I do. Sadly, Shteyngart Blurbs is no longer updating, but I maintain that he must have been bullshitting at least some of the time.