Category Archives: Fiction

New Grub Street – George Gissing

New Grub Street – George Gissing

I had never even heard of George Gissing before he became one of my Victorian Book Group authors!

Here is the blurb …

In New Grub Street George Gissing re-created a microcosm of London’s literary society as he had experienced it. His novel is at once a major social document and a story that draws us irresistibly into the twilit world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and his friends and acquaintances in Grub Street including Jasper Milvain, an ambitious journalist, and Alfred Yule, an embittered critic. Here Gissing brings to life the bitter battles (fought out in obscure garrets or in the Reading Room of the British Museum) between integrity and the dictates of the market place, the miseries of genteel poverty and the damage that failure and hardship do to human personality and relationships.

and the Wikipedia plot summary

The story deals with the literary world that Gissing himself had experienced. Its title refers to the London street, Grub Street, which in the 18th century became synonymous with hack literature; by Gissing’s time, Grub Street itself no longer existed, though hack-writing certainly did. Its two central characters are a sharply contrasted pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a novelist of some talent but limited commercial prospects, and a shy, cerebral man; and Jasper Milvain, a young journalist, hard-working and capable of generosity, but cynical and only semi-scrupulous about writing and its purpose in the modern (i.e. late Victorian) world.

New Grub Street opens with Milvain, an “alarmingly modern young man” driven by pure financial ambition in navigating his literary career. He accepts that he will “always despise the people [he] write[s] for,” networks within the appropriate social circle to create opportunity, and authors articles for popular periodicals. Reardon, on the other hand, prefers to write novels of a more literary bent and refuses to pander to contemporary tastes until, as a last-gasp measure against financial ruin, he attempts a popular novel. At this venture, he is of course too good to succeed, and he’s driven to separate from his wife, Amy Reardon, née Yule, who cannot accept her husband’s inflexibly high standards—and consequent poverty.

19th-century Grub Street (latterly Milton Street), as pictured in Chambers Book of Days.

The Yule family includes Amy’s two uncles—John, a wealthy invalid, and Alfred, a species of critic—and Alfred’s daughter, and research assistant, Marian. The friendship that develops between Marian and Milvain’s sisters, who move to London following their mother’s death, provides opportunity for the former to meet and fall in love with Milvain. However much Milvain respects Marian’s intellectual capabilities and strength of personality, the crucial element (according to him) for marriage is missing: money. Marrying a rich woman, after all, is the most convenient way to speed his career. Indeed, Milvain slights romantic love as a key to marriage:

As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn’t repulsive.

Eventually, reason enough for an engagement is provided by a legacy of £5,000 left to Marian by John Yule.

Life and death eventually end the possibility of this union. Milvain’s initial career advancement is a position on The Current, a paper edited by Clement Fadge. Twenty years earlier, Alfred Yule (Marian’s father) was slighted by Fadge in a newspaper article, and the resulting acerbic resentment extends even to Milvain. Alfred refuses to countenance Marian’s marriage; but his objection proves to be an obstacle to Milvain only after Yule’s eyesight fails and Marian’s legacy is reduced to a mere £1,500. As a result, Marian must work to provide for her parent, and her inheritance is no longer available to Milvain.

By this time, Milvain already has detected a more desirable target for marriage: Amy Reardon. Reardon’s poverty and natural disposition toward ill-health culminate in his death following a brief reconciliation with his wife. She, besides the receipt of £10,000 upon John Yule’s death, has the natural beauty and grace to benefit a man in the social events beneficial to his career. Eventually Amy and Milvain marry; however, as the narrator reveals, this marriage motivated by circumstances is not lacking in more profound areas. Milvain, it is said, has married the woman he loves, although it should be noted that the narrator never states this as a fact, merely reporting it as something others have said about Milvain. In fact, in a conversation that ends the book, the reader is left to question whether Milvain is in fact haunted by his love for Marian, and his ungentlemanly actions in that regard.

At first I was pleasantly surprised – like many Victorian novels it took a depressing turn; poverty and despair – it was very modern. There were discussions about writing as an art and writing as a business, marriage – should it be for love or a step up the career ladder/social order?  It is a novel about writing – do you know that it is easier to write dialogue and it fills the space quicker?  Gissing is sympathetic to all of his characters, particularly Marian, the point of this novel is to highlight how poverty is a terrible burden on the intelligent and sensitive.

This novel is not for the faint hearted – it is long and the last third is depressing (I suspect that was Gissing’s point). It is also bleak and cynical and none of the characters you like fare well. However, it documents a time and place in English life and publishing.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/31/100-best-novels-new-grub-street-gissing

http://www.londonfictions.com/george-gissing-new-grub-street.html

 

 

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Road Ends – Mary Lawson

Road Ends – Mary Lawson

So after reading Crow Lake I moved straight onto this one (and I think this one is the better novel).

Here is the blurb …

He listened as their voices faded into the rumble of the falls. He was thinking about the lynx. The way it had looked at him, acknowledging his existence, then passing out of his life like smoke. . . It was the first thing—the only thing—that had managed, if only for a moment, to displace from his mind the image of the child. He had carried that image with him for a year now, and it had been a weight so great that sometimes he could hardly stand.

Mary Lawson’s beloved novels, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, have delighted legions of readers around the world. The fictional, northern Ontario town of Struan, buried in the winter snows, is the vivid backdrop to her breathtaking new novel.

Roads End brings us a family unravelling in the aftermath of tragedy: Edward Cartwright, struggling to escape the legacy of a violent past; Emily, his wife, cloistered in her room with yet another new baby, increasingly unaware of events outside the bedroom door; Tom, their eldest son, twenty-five years old but home again, unable to come to terms with the death of a friend; and capable, formidable Megan, the sole daughter in a household of eight sons, who for years held the family together but has finally broken free and gone to England, to try to make a life of her own.

Roads End is Mary Lawson at her best. In this masterful, enthralling, tender novel, which ranges from the Ontario silver rush of the early 1900s to swinging London in the 1960s, she gently reveals the intricacies and anguish of family life, the push and pull of responsibility and individual desire, the way we can face tragedy, and in time, hope to start again.

This novel, like Crow Lake, is about families – relationships between parent and child, between siblings, who is responsible for whom. It is also about responsibility for our actions – accepting the consequences and finding a way to move forward.  It is a beautifully written novel – the cold seeps of the page – and it is very moving. All of these people – Tom, Edward, Reverend Thomas – tormented by the past and their actions or lack of action. However, there is hope at the end.

More reviews …

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2013/11/15/road_ends_by_mary_lawson_review.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/road-ends-a-compelling-but-familiar-look-at-the-harsh-realities-of-northern-ontario-life/article15675077/

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Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time – ever since I read that she was a relative of L.M Montgomery, but it was quite hard to get hold off eventually I found a copy at the Book Depository.

Here is the blurb …

Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Center stage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

For all of you Montgomery fans this does have a bit of a Montgomery feel and there is a family called Pye! In this novel we know something happened between Matt and Kate, which severed their close connection. And I have to say when the thing was revealed I was disappointed. However, I loved everything else about this novel – the characters are particularly well-written, I just thought the climax was anti-climatic. I was swept away to this small northern Ontario town – the sense of place was brilliant particularly the Morrisons’ house.

This is a story about families and family conflict and the different methods different members employ to negotiate conflicts.  It is also about choices – and how much freedom people have to make decisions about their lives.

More reviews …

https://www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/crowlake.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/books/the-girl-she-left-behind.html

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Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I have read an Atwood novel that I haven’t liked. So I was keen to read this – I did ask at my local Dymocks and they hadn’t heard of it, which is very upsetting. Anyway this is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project). I know nothing about The Tempest, so I read the wikipedia summary (although having read that I think The Collector by John Fowles might have some Tempest allusions – there is a Miranda, a man who wants to be called Ferdinand, but gets called Caliban – I do wonder now what my English Lit teacher was thinking not to mention Shakespeare?)

Here’s the blurb …

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself — and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I found this to be quite the page turner – and I am quite sure I wouldn’t have found the original to be so enthralling.

It is such a clever, fun, modern interpretation (and the prisoners offer insightful commentary about the original).

As with all Atwood novels, it is beautifully written – her choice of words is extraordinary (it must be the poet in her). I wish she would write for the Austen project, which apart from Northanger Abbey has been quite disappointing.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/hag-seed-review-margaret-atwood-tempest-hogarth-shakespeare

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/shakespeare-goes-under-margaret-atwoods-microscope-in-hagseed/news-story/d21be2b437ca5c86a5f2365b1d08747d

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Every Good Deed and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple

I love Persephone books – I don’t think I have had a disappointing book yet.  For some reason I hadn’t bought one for a while, so I had slipped off the Persephone Biannually list, but when I heard there was a new Dorothy Whipple I had to get it. And then clearly I had to buy another two to get the discount postage – Miss Buncle Married and Fidelity.

Here is the blurb (or what it has on the inside cover – it is an excerpt from one of the stories)…

She sighed heavily and looked unseeingly out of the window, crushed with the boredom of being where she was, of being a widow, of not being invited anywhere for this fortnight. ‘It’s cutlet for cutlet,’ she thought bitterly. ‘I can’t entertain, so no one entertains me now. To think that I should have come to a place like this. After the life,’ she thought, ‘I’ve lived.’

She closed her eyes against the dining room, but opened them again on being addressed by Maud.

‘D’you want the mayonnaise?’ asked Maud truculently, bringing it.

‘Out of a bottle?’ said Mrs Moore. ‘No’.

Maud went out of the dining room, but spoke in a loud voice in the passage outside.

‘It’s a quarter-past two and my afternoon off,’ she said. ‘I’m not going to stand this, so you know, Mrs Pink. I’ve no need to.’

These are beautifully written stories about ordinary (and the occasionally  malicious) people. These stories were published between 1935 and 1961 and are of their time and about a certain class (middle) of English society. Don’t assume it is all tea drinking and scone eating – people are people wherever you find them. They are selfish, self-centred, vicious, kind, generous and self-sacrificing.

These novels are for people who are more interested in character than plot.

Here is the Persephone page for Every Good Deed

Here is a review from the Book Snob about one of the stories – Every Good Deed

And another review …

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

 

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Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf

I love Kent Haruf’s novels – slow burning stories about the human spirit. So I was keen to read this his last novel.

Here is the blurb …

Addie Moore’s husband died years ago, so did Louis Waters’ wife, and, as neighbours in Holt, Colorado they have naturally long been aware of each other. With their children now far away both live alone in houses empty of family. The nights are terribly lonely, especially with no one to talk to. Then one evening Addie pays Louis an unexpected visit.
Their brave adventures – their pleasures and their difficulties – form the beating heart of Our Souls at Night. Kent Haruf’s final novel is a moving story about love and growing old with grace.

This is a beautiful story about the loneliness of old-age, but also about reaching out to connect with someone – the courage required and the rewards involved (a new lease on life). It is also about the expectations placed on us by our communities and our families.

The writing is (as always) beautiful – certainly not showy, but eloquent in its simplicity.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/27/our-souls-at-night-kent-haruf-review

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The Atomic Weight of Love – Elizabeth J Church

The Atomic Weight of Love – Elizabeth J Church

I bought this book with a gift voucher for my birthday – it was all about the cover.

Here is the blurb …

In her sweeping debut novel, Elizabeth J. Church takes us from the World War II years in Chicago to the vast sun-parched canyons of New Mexico in the 1970s as we follow the journey of a driven, spirited young woman, Meridian Wallace, whose scientific ambitions are subverted by the expectations of her era.
In 1941, at seventeen years old, Meridian begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago. She is soon drawn to Alden Whetstone, a brilliant, complicated physics professor who opens her eyes to the fundamentals and poetry of his field, the beauty of motion, space and time, the delicate balance of force and energy that allows a bird to fly.
Entranced and in love, Meridian defers her own career path and follows Alden west to Los Alamos, where he is engaged in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb). In married life, though, she feels lost and left behind. She channels her academic ambitions into studying a particular family of crows, whose free life and companionship are the very things that seem beyond her reach. There in her canyons, years later at the dawn of the 1970s, with counterculture youth filling the streets and protests against the war rupturing college campuses across the country, Meridian meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, and together they seek ways to mend what the world has broken.
Exquisitely capturing the claustrophobic eras of 1940s and 1950s America, The Atomic Weight of Love also examines the changing roles of women during the decades that followed. And in Meridian Wallace we find an unforgettable heroine whose metamorphosis shows how the women’s movement opened up the world for a whole generation.

I found the science part of this novel interesting – experiments with radioactive material involving bare hands and a screwdriver! The sections on the crows and how they work as communities, mate for life and are clever was fascinating.

The relationship between Alden and Meridian was well-portrayed. It started so successfully but they were of different times and had different expectations of marriage. Although, in much the way it usually happens, the things that drew them together eventually drove them apart. The relationship with Clay was weaker and a bit cliched and for me the final third of the novel was not as strong as the first two-thirds. It started with such promise and I think it is a sign of better things to come from Ms Church.

It was an interesting read and I look forward to reading her next novel.

Another review …

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-atomic-weight-of-love-review-fledgling-feminism-1.2812164

 

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Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner

This was such a fabulous book and I am yet to hear a dissenting voice on how good it is.

Here is the blurb …

When two young couples meet for the first time during the Great Depression, they quickly find they have much in common: Charity Lang and Sally Morgan are both pregnant, while their husbands Sid and Larry both have jobs in the English department at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately a lifelong friendship is born, which becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict. Written from the perspective of the aging Larry Morgan, Crossing to Safety is a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.

It is beautifully written – understated and simple, but brilliant.  It is unusual to read a novel about marriage that isn’t about just starting out or ending in disaster. However, this novel is about more than that – it is about living the good life (in the moral sense), how to contribute to the world, about writing and reading (perhaps that is why all readers like it?), women’s role in the world (Poor Charity has to live vicariously through her husband) and finally it is about what makes a good death and who gets to decide that – the dying or those left behind.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

More reviews …

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/my-book-of-a-lifetime-crossing-to-safety-by-wallace-stegner-1051770.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/20/books/the-grace-of-old-lovers.html

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

This is the last of my Hardy novels for my Victorian Literature group – you can definitely see Hardy’s increasing maturity as a writer when you read them in chronological order. Having said that, however, I still think The Woodlanders my favourite. I am sure this novel has more literary merit, but Tess’s life is so grim.

Here is the plot summary from Shmoop

Tess Durbeyfield is a (totally and completely doomed) country girl living in the late 19th Century in an English village that seems secluded, even though it’s only a four-hour journey from London. Her father learns in the first chapter that he is the last lineal descendent of the D’Urbervilles—one of the oldest, most aristocratic, families in all of England. He foolishly assumes that his aristocratic heritage will suffice to pull his family out of poverty, and so he sends Tess off to “claim kin” (i.e., to borrow money on the strength of their distant family ties) from a wealthy branch of the D’Urbervilles.

Tess is a very pretty girl, and very “womanly” (i.e., sexy) for her age, and the son of the wealthy D’Urbervilles, Alec, tries to seduce her. He finds her too proud and modest to fall into his snares, and so he tricks her into accepting a ride from him back to the family house at night, and cuts through the woods. After getting lost (possibly on purpose), Alec leaves Tess to fall asleep under a tree while he tries to find the path. He comes back, and, finding her asleep, takes advantage of their solitude to rape her under the trees.

The next phase of the book (“Maiden No More”) opens with Tess back at her parents’ house in the village of Marlott. She’s had a baby as a result of her connection with Alec, and has secluded herself from her former friends out of a combination of shame and pride. She works a few odd jobs to make money, and things are going okay until her baby suddenly gets sick… and dies. Tess is more worried about the baby’s soul than anything else, so she buries it in the churchyard on the sly.

Time passes, and most of her friends and neighbors have forgotten about Tess’s troubles. But she hasn’t, so she decides to go to a neighboring county to work at a dairy farm where nobody knows her. One of the other workers at the dairy, Angel Clare, is the son of a gentleman. Angel is learning about farming so that he can move to the colonies in America and become a wealthy farmer there. He and Tess gradually fall in love.

Tess wants to tell Angel about her past, but she can’t bring herself reveal it to him. Finally, the night before they’re supposed to get married, she slips a note under his door confessing everything. When he doesn’t say anything about it the next morning, she assumes all is forgiven—but really, he never saw the note. On their wedding night, he confesses to her that he’d had a brief fling with a strange woman in London long before he’d met Tess. So Tess feels like she can tell him about Alec, since that wasn’t her fault.

But Angel doesn’t see it that way. He’s shocked and horrified that she’s not a virgin, and runs off to South America to try and forget about her. Tess is heart-broken and wanders from job to job, trying to leave her problems behind her. But her problems keep finding her. Alec runs into her on the road, and even though he’s become a Christian, he becomes obsessed with her again. Eventually he persuades her to live with him, even though she’s legally married to Angel. But she’s given up hope that Angel will ever come back to her.

But he does come back to her, and when she sees Angel, she stabs Alec in their hotel room. Angel realizes that he’s partly responsible for the murder, and runs away with her. They flee together across the countryside, and are finally caught by the authorities at Stonehenge, an ancient monument of huge stones in the English countryside that was built by the druids or even earlier. “Justice” catches up with Tess, and she is hanged.

I listened to this one (it was read by Anna Bentinck), which, as Hardy is a poet first, means I have a much greater appreciation for how his work sounds.

I think Hardy has pyschological insight – like this (Tess has returned home after being ruined (seduced/raped) by Alec D’Urberville

Their chatter, their laughter, their good-humoured innuendoes, above all, their flashes and flickerings of envy, revived Tess’s spirits also; and, as the evening wore on, she caught the infection of their excitement, and grew almost gay. The marble hardness left her face, she moved with something of her old bounding step, and flushed in all her young beauty.At moments, in spite of thought, she would reply to their inquiries with a manner of superiority, as if recognizing that her experiences in the field of courtship had, indeed, been slightly enviable. But so far was she from being, in the words of Robert South, “in love with her own ruin,” that the illusion was transient as lightning; cold reason came back to mock her spasmodic weakness; the ghastliness of her momentary pride would convict her, and recall her to reserved listlessness again.

It must be quite unusual for a 19th century novel to have a working class heroine as its main protagonist. I am intrigued as to what contemporary readers thought.

Hardy is highlighting the complete lack of control or agency that Tess (or any woman) has over her life. Also the incredible hypocrisy and double-standards of the time – Angel cannot forgive Tess for not being innocent despite confessing a prior entanglement. There is a lot of tramping about the country side (Tess walks 15 miles to the vicarage at Eminister and back again in one day), descriptions of lush dairy country and harsh upland country. Country customs and conversations plus the usual Hardy pre-occupation with villages losing their tradespeople as life leases end.

 

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Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

This is my latest historical fiction group read. As I have been keen to read it for a while, I was quite looking forward to it. In my ‘normal’ book club we are not allowed to read anything Russian or with red in the title! Anyway, I have to be honest and say it was quite the slog.

Here’s the blurb …

This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international best-seller.
Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the novel.

My first issue, which is my problem and nothing to do with the quality of the novel, is the patronymic names. It took me a while to get the hang of that and for a long time I would think there was two characters when there was really only one.  This book is long – covering many years (revolutions) and characters. I did learn a lot about the Russian Revolution though – I had no idea it went on for so long. Or that the reds fought amongst themselves.

There were long rambling philosophical discussions that just got on my nerves – Zhivago was definitely a thinker rather than a man of action. And all of the waffling on about wanting to write – just do it.

And I have no idea why it is considered to be the greatest love story of all time. Zhivago just seemed to go with the flow of events – Tonya, then Lara and finally Marina. Clearly Lara was his first choice, but that didn’t stop him living (and having children) with Marina.

Having said that, it does bear witness to a turbulent and terrible time of Russian history. It was brutal and chaotic and life was cheap.

I am glad I read it, but I won’t be re-reading it any time soon. There is the chance my issues are all to do with translation. I read the version translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, although this article implies it’s the better version (but maybe Pasternack is only ever good in Russian?).

More reviews …

https://newrepublic.com/article/115305/boris-pasternaks-doctor-zhivago-reviewed

Doctor Zhivago, Part One

Doctor Zhivago, Part Two

https://bookssnob.wordpress.com/2010/11/20/lost-in-over-translation-doctor-zhivago-deconstructed/

 

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