I resolve every year to ground my reading ever so slightly more in reality, yet when it comes time to tally it all up, my list invariably leans toward fiction. Let’s face it: real life is full of real troubles. It’s just easier to read about calamities that we can pretend don’t really happen.
Rounding out the 2022 fiction reads are:
Silverview: A Novel by John Le Carré
Audiobook narrated by Toby Jones: 6 hours 28 minutes; 224 pages
File under: I spy!
Spy fiction isn’t usually my thing, but the reviews positively glowed for this posthumously published finale by the storied Le Carré. As David Cornwell, he served in Britain’s MI6 foreign-intelligence service, where he gathered fodder for the future blockbusters he would pen under his pseudonym. You may have heard of a few: do The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy perhaps ring a bell? Silverview is tightly constructed and elegantly written, and like the best of the genre, makes readers feel that they are being let in on how all that spy stuff really works. The thing about these sorts of books for me is that they are quite absorbing during the read (or in this case, the listen) but they fade rather quickly from memory. As “entertainment reading” goes, however, it’s a top notch choice.
Brood: A Novel by Jackie Polzin
Audiobook read by Rebecca Lowman: 4 hours 50 minutes, 240 pages
File under: the wisdom of chickens
A near universal aspect of flock keeping seems to be the continual epiphanies that accompany daily life with chickens. There’s something about the rhythm of it all – you’re tending the hens thinking of absolutely nothing and suddenly a significant life truth bubbles up out of nowhere. For Jackie Polzin’s unnamed protagonist braving the harsh winters of St. Paul, Minnesota, the day job of house cleaning and new-found hobby of hen-keeping spur a continually overflowing cup of self-awareness. The writing is wry – particularly around the subject of marriage; and poignant – having suffered a miscarriage and facing a future that likely does not include children, this is a woman for whom being mama to a flock of hens is especially meaningful. It’s a quick read, and, while probably anyone would enjoy it, it will particularly resonate with those who spend part of their day tending a coop.
The Fortnight in September: A Novel by R. C. Sheriff
Kindle, 229 pages
File under: Nuances, nuances, nuances
I’d been feeling weighed down by some recent soul-crushing book club reads, so when it was my turn to choose I went Googling for a pick-us-up selection. Lo and behold I instantly came across a 2020 article in The Guardian that conveniently asked prominent authors to suggest books offering escape from “lockdown culture”. Kazuo Ishiguro was quick to recommend The Fortnight in September as “just about the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of right now”.
At first glance, the Stevens family is dull as dishwater, and the 1930’s setting duller still to the contemporary reader. But Ishiguro, who has pretty much written the book(s) on nuance (Remains of the Day, Klara and the Sun) rejoices in the ever-so-delicate peeling of the onion around the layers that hold the family together and the nicks in the veneer that hold them apart. The catalyst for the novel’s tension is supplied by the family’s annual beach holiday, where everything must be exactly the same as it has ever been and everything must be splendid perfection. There is so much riding on the success of the vacation, but of course there are the niggling details of circumstance and personality that keep perfection at bay. At one point, “Mr. Stevens was thinking what a very happy place the world would be if people could lead each other quietly aside, and gently but firmly tell each other the little things they unconsciously do that irritate and annoy their fellows.“(Oh, who among us has not silently made that same wish?) The long-married Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and their young adult son and daughter all fervently want the best for one another at the same time they wish one another was just ever so slightly more of this and less of that. The novel is gently written, and somehow makes the reader feel gratefully protective of the Stevens family…and of their own.
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
Kindle, 458 pages
File under: Oh, the tangled webs we weave!
I have been stubbornly, and oh so slowly, making my way through the Henry James canon. Things started out well enough with The Ambassadors and Portrait of a Lady, but bogged down with The Golden Bowl. For me, Henry James may just be a never-quite-acquired taste. But I kept coming across references to The Wings of the Dove in other reading, and, after all, it is listed at #26 on the sacred Modern Library 100 Best Novels list, so I took a deep breath and book-traveled to London to make the acquaintance of Merton Densher, Kate Croy, Aunt Maud and Milly Theale.
Kate is in love with Merton but lacks the financial ballast that would allow her to make her own choices. Aunt Maud has buckets of money but strings are tied to every pound sterling. American heiress Milly Theale, with neither a mean nor a healthy bone in her body, makes Aunt Maud look like a piker in the wealth department. Somehow they all end up on holiday together in a Venice palazzo, thanks to Milly’s largesse.
Merton, like most of James’ male characters, is ineffectual. A man of in-action. Kate is of quite the opposite nature. She has a plan. And while we wait for it to unfold, we observe Milly’s undefined illness advance at the speed of a snail race. It is a damnably long read, but perhaps because it takes James that long to set us up for the rather shocking denouement.
The critic J. C. Powys observes that “What Henry James aims at is a clear field for the psychological emotions of people who have, so to speak, time and leisure to indulge themselves in all the secondary reactions and subtle ramifications of their peculiar feelings.” In other words, it’s kind of like watching paint dry. But like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, Kate Croy is an unforgettable character. You pay (458 slow pages) but there’s definitely a pay-off – and maybe some pay-back – at the end.
The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian
Kindle, 380 pages
The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian
Kindle, 272 pages
File under: Best odd couple ever
These are numbers #10 and #11 in the Aubrey/Maturin series which begins with the well-known Master and Commander. I parcel out my reading of them penuriously, because there are only 20 and 1/2 of them and I never want them to end.
In The Far Side of the World, Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy is off on another mission, this one taking him along the coast of Brazil. Naturalist (and spy)Stephen Maturin is along for the ride, of course, and the hope of exploring the Galapagos islands. Instead, he falls out a window (Stephen is known for taking a tumble in almost every book) and Jack dives into the sea to rescue him. They come close enough to perishing that I began to wonder how there could be a book #11 without our heroes. Help arrives, as it always does when “there is not a moment to lose!”
The Reverse of the Medal puts Jack and Stephen back on land, for better or worse. Jack’s affairs, as ever, are in disorder, not to mention some surprises from his past coming to light. Stephen is trying to piece together an intrigue that began two or three books ago. He is beginning to lose patience with a number of people, evidenced by his response to an interviewer at the Admiralty: “Christ’s blood in heaven, you ignorant incompetent whey-faced nestlecock”, he hisses “in a low venomous tone”.
Things may begin to look up when Stephen learns he has inherited a large sum of money, but the book ends in a cliff-hanger, so I’ll just have to wait and see. Book #13 is waiting in the wings…