My Russian Lit 101 Office!

Russian 101 Office (My Bed!)

                      The Russian Lit Office:  My Bed!

My Russian lit office is set up for the winter.  Actually, it’s my  bed.

We had our first snowfall today, so I retired to my warm bed to read a Russian novel. The wintry scenes in Russian novels brace me to endure the cold. I picture myself as Natasha in War and Peace, mischievously dressed up as a Hussar, riding in a sleigh at Christmas with the mummers;  Chichikov in Dead Souls, driving through the provinces in a “rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors”; or Eugene Onegin (in the Mitchell translation) dealing with winter ennui under his lonely roof because:

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.

Here’s how Russian lit-crazy I go in winter:  this week I’ve reread  three Russian novels, Gogol’s Dead Souls and two by Turgenev, The Home of the Gentry and  First Love.

And I recently found an old college notebook (that tatty green thing in the snapshot above) with my notes for a class in Russian Literature in Translation.  My sketchy  notes are strangely touching–I do like myself as  a young woman discovering Russian literature–and  have also inspired me to go back to the nineteenth century.

fathers and sons turgenev 51FN7Uw7+BL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_We spent a lot of time reading Turgenev. I am very fond of Turgenev.  I recently reread Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev brilliantly personifies the split between humanism and nihilism as a generational conflict.  The hero, Bazarov,  is a nihilist, a recent science graduate who dissects frogs and despises art and literature.  On a  visit to the country home of his nihilist friend  Arkady, Bazarov clashes with Arkady’s uncle and patronizes Arkady’s  father, both humanists.  Bazarov’s father and mother cannot understand his views.  And he comes to a tragic end.  Some of my notes on Turgenev are quite interesting, but I am most impressed by  scribbled questions (perhaps to consider for an essay? Or  class discussion?  God only knows.):

  • Is the novel really about generational split?
  • the use of philosophy and political discussions
  • Integration of love affairs
  • which characters truly similar and dissimilar
  • In what respects is Bazarov a positive hero?
  • Is Bazarov a victim or suicide?

By Dec. 3, near the end of the semester, my notes were mere hieroglyphs.   They reflect a bullet-list undergraduate ennui:

  • Dostoevsky spokesman for conservatives:  THE Christian writer, but also convincingly presents views of radicals.  Polit left to polit right, possibly because of experiences in prison.
  • Question of existence or non-existence of God.
  • intellectual and moral honesty in novels.
  • religion helped him endure his hard life.
  • Belinsky thought D’s works should do for Russia what Dickens did for England.

Could I possibly have elaborated on those topics! What was I thinking?   I can only hope I read the introductions to my Dostovesky books!

To supplement my erratic  notes, I got out Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.   He did not like Dostoevsky, who was never one of my favorites.

My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one.  In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.  From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.

And here I thought it was just the translations.  Well, perhaps I’ll try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations.  Or perhaps I’ll skip the rereading of Dostoevsky.

The Fairy Godmother of Books & The Year of Sex in Literature (A Spoof!)

Pile-of-BooksEvery blogger wants to be the Fairy Godmother of Books.

Bloggers love to share their love of books.  I understand that.

What I don’t understand is the yearning to direct the reading of other bloggers in a chain of endless Readalongs and Challenges.

What I call “Bossy Blogger Disorder” dominates the net these days. Bloggers used to have group reads. One book, one discussion.  Nowadays as the canon grows looser (excuse the pun),  trendy “challenges/readalongs” are organized around a genre, category, or publisher.  A blogger designates himself or herself the leader and (hypothetically) declares it Japanese Literature Month. He/she suggests everyone should read a Japanese book:  any Japanese book! The question is: can a group of bloggers really bond over different Japanese books from  different centuries (and read in translation)?  One blogger might post about Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, another about Hiruki Murakami’s 1Q84.   Is there a link between the 11th-century classic and the 21st-century science fiction classic?  No.  Not unless a Japanese literature professor volunteers to spend months teaching us the history of Japanese literature.

Blogging is the homespun flip side of literary criticism.  We’re not James Wood:  we’re gals from the Midwest, the rural South, and Alaska. Most of us are doing our own thing

In recent months, we have survived Virago Month, Persephone Month  Women in Translation Month, R.I.P. Challenge, Witch Week, and the 1924 Club.

And now we are in the middle of German Literature Month.

My husband and I were chatting about this.  We are both foreign language junkies. We are of a generation that read widely in the canon and studied literature in foreign languages. And so all hail German Literature Month!  But here’s the thing.  We have read  the books the German Literature bloggers are posting about!  And so I’m thinking: these Challenges are a generational thing?

lady chatterley's lover chatterley2Do they have meaning for a generation whose canon has become non-canonical?

It is probably an internet phenomenon.  We’re all alone on our phones, and this is how we connect thee days (not closely).

Anyway, I couldn’t resist creating a Spoof challenge.

My cousin the librarian and I together have “come up” (sorry!) with the risque Sex in Literature Spoof Challenge! We challenge you to have sex!  Err, I mean, we challenge you to read about sex!

You get triple points for every menage a trois and twenty-four for an  orgy!

Choose from this list.

  • Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
  • D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • The Kama Sutra
  • The Joy of Sex
  • Doris Lessing’s Landlocked
  • Elizabeth Tallent’s Mendocino Fire
  • Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
  • Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus & Little Birds
  • Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
  • Nicholson Baker’s Vox
  • John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Aristophanes’ Lysistrata
  • Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve
  • Petronius’s Satyrica

Read ten.  Then add ten more books to the list.

Send the list to ten people.

And you win a free book if you get ten people to read ten!

It’s  a spoof!  It’s a chain letter!

I couldn’t resist.

The 200th Anniversary Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition of Jane Austen’s Emma & a Few Others

The cover of my edition fell apart long ago!

My old Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago, alas!

The summer before ninth grade, I toted a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen everywhere. It weighed a ton, but fit in my basket purse.   I read Sense and Sensibility on the steps of MacBride Hall on the Pentacrest in Iowa City, Pride and Prejudice at The Mill, where you could sit for hours over a Diet Coke, and Northanger Abbey after everyone else fell asleep at a slumber party.  One friend’s mother, a Smith alumna,  said “You’re gonna love it.”  I did love it, though at that age I  didn’t differentiate between Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Goudge.

jane austen Cover_EmmaFast forward to college and  Emma was the funniest book I’d ever read. I have read Emma many, many times, and my Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago.  And so I could not resist the new 200th Anniversary Annotated Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Emma. This handsome orange paperback has a cover design that blends the contemporary with traditional illustrations.  (The figures of 19th-century-style men and women are cleverly displayed inside the figure of the heroine, Emma.)  The colors remind me of Klimt’s painting, The Kiss.  And the high-quality paper makes this an excellent reading experience.

Klimt's "The Kiss"

Klimt’s “The Kiss”

This is an edition for the common reader, says Juliet Wells, the editor.  It has an excellent introduction, notes, maps, illustrations from early editions, and contextual essays on dancing, food, health, love etc.

Juliet Wells explains,

It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one.  In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates.  In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.

This is perfect for the common reader: I love reading this well-made paperback.   If you need something more scholarly, the Norton edition includes critical essays as well as basic background.  And I have a copy of The Annotated Emma, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard (Anchor Books).  (I use that for notes rather than reading, though.  I find it distracting to have the long notes on the sides of the pages of text.)

annotated emma shepard 51Vz1rBtWgL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Surprisingly, Emma is controversial.  Readers argue over whether this brilliant comedy is an essentially  conservative novel, reinforcing the values of a classist society, or a satire.  It is both, I think. Not all online Janeites chortle over Emma’s wicked wit, ridiculous misunderstandings, and boredom with the very talented, musical, but prim Jane Fairfax, a young woman she very much dislikes. Some criticize her outrageous observations (who hasn’t had them?) and a strong will they mistake for selfishness.  They overlook Emma’s kindness to her valetudinarian father, the card parties she arranges for him, her devotion to her nephews and nieces, and charity to the poor.   She is the most hated (the only hated?) Austen heroine!

I love Emma.   At the beginning of the novel, after her ex-governess’s wedding to a country squire, she tells Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law, that she  made the match four years ago.  She says she intends to make more matches.  Knightley is characteristically grim in response to her liveliness, and her hypochondriac father discourages her:  he pities “poor Miss Taylor” for marrying and moving half a mile away.  But Emma continues to tease them:

“I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people.  It is the greatest amusement in the world!  And after such success, you know!–everybody said that Mr. Weston would never marry again.

Emma is half-serious about match-making.  She fantasizes that her new friend Harriet, an orphan awho is the “natural” daughter of no-one-knows-whom, is of gentle birth, and needs a gentleman husband.   The new clergyman Mr. Elton would be an appropriate match, she thinks.  Unfortunately, Emma does not understand men. She misreads Mr. Elton’s sexual signals:  she is horrified when she discovers he is courting her, not Harriet.  Eventually Emma realizes her all-too-human mistakes:  she has hurt feelings without intending to; she has encouraged Harriet to aspire too high  (shame, shame!); and she has not found a husband for herself.  Finally Emma gets Knightley:  of course I loved him as the logical mate when I was very young, but he  is 14 years older and so controlling and critical:  will the strong Emma prevail?

In The Annotated Emma (Anchor Books,) Shapard describes Emma as Austen’s “most flawed heroine.”  He says Emma drives the plot more than any of the heroines of  Austen’s other novels.  And he points out her good points.

A significant reason for Emma’s greater ability to drive the plot is that the other Austen heroines are all in a state of dependence, inhabiting households run by others an dsubjec to tothers’ wills.  furthermore, they all suffere because of people around them sho scorn or neglect or mistreat them in some way.  Emma, while severely restricted geographically by her need to care constantly for her father, is mistress of all she surveys (within her limited field).  She is completely in charge of her household and able to guide her fatehre, restrained only by her own concern for him, in those areas where he retains nominal leadership.  She is also in a supreme  position socially.

I love Emma’s strength, though I am concerned about her future as a wife.

the watefall margaret drabble 6574486-MMargaret Drabble’s narrator, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall, also particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

I do know exactly what she means about Knightley.

But if this is not a happy ending, what is?  Clearly Austen thinks it is happy.

Richmal Crompton’s Merlin Bay

richmal crompton merlin bay 9781509810192Virago, Persephone, Bloomsbury Reader, the Feminist Press, and now Bello have reissued many great women’s novels.

In 2008 at The Guardian, Rachel Cooke wrote a lovely essay about the 30th anniversary of Virago.  She became a fan of the trademark green books when at 17  she discovered Stevie Smith’s novels.  She went on to read other neglected Virago writers,  including Miles Franklin, Sylvia Ashton Warner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rosamund Lehmann.

The founder Carmen Calil had high standards in choosing books for Virago, Cooke writes.

But there was a point below which Carmen and her colleagues would not go: they referred to this as ‘the Whipple line’, after Dorothy Whipple, a writer of popular fiction in the Thirties and Forties. (Whipple does, however, have her fans; she is now published by Persephone, which also revives out-of-print work by women.)

I wonder if Persephone fans were upset by the Whipple line.  I  have very much enjoyed Whipple’s novels, though they are what I call middlebrow.  And so  I would draw a different line: the Richmal Crompton line!

Bello has recently reissued Richmal Crompton’s books, which I discovered  when I looked up Pamela Hansford Johnson (not available in the U.S. from Bello, for some reason).  Crompton wrote 38 books for adults.  Maybe I’ll get hooked, I thought.


  Richmal Crompton

And I am hooked!  I very much enjoyed Merlin Bay (1939), a novel about an ordinary family who spend their vacation together in Merlin Bay in Cornwall.  Crompton grapples with the limited affections and understanding of a group of far-flung relatives.  During the trip, they forge or renew difficult relationships.

It opens with the musings of Mrs. Paget, who  spent her honeymoon years ago in Merlin Bay.  She regrets having silenced her late husband when he tried to confide bout his past in Merlin Bay:  she could not bear to know too much.  Now she hopes to learn his secrets.  She travels with her daughter, Florence,  a nervous spinster who believes her purpose in life is to take care of her mother.   (Mrs. Paget finds her wearisome).  They will stay at a hotel near the overcrowded house of Pen, once Mrs. Paget’s most promising child, now a housewife who lives at Merlin Bay year-round and is unhealthily  absorbed in her six children:  she left her husband in London on the pretext of their daughter Rosemary’s health. Last but not least is Mrs. Paget’s son, Martin, who has lived in Malay for years and  hopes to find a wife in England.

I am delighted by Crompton’s portrayal of the honesty of old age.  Mrs. Paget is not looking forward to spending time with her children.

Her own three–Florence, Martin, Pen–had been delightful as babies, but she had to admit that they meant very little to her now.  It isn’t that I’m not fond of them, she assured herself hastily.  I’d do anything in the world for them (at least I think I would), but I don’t really love them.  They’ve grown up so dull….

We do not spend much time with Mrs. Paget, though.  Crompton  frequently changes point of view so that we get to know all the family members, including the grandchildren.  Her daughters Florence and Pen, who seem as different as night and day, somehow cannot bear to look reality in the face.  Florence feels inferior to everyone.  She especially looks up to her friend Violet, an arrogant middle-aged teacher who hopes to entice Martin into marriage and who is staying with them at the hotel. When they look at a view,

Florence preserved a respectful silence.  She liked a nice view herself, but she knew that her feeling was not to be compared with Violet’s.  Violet was quoting poetry now in a deep tremulous voice….

Pen is angry about the intrusion of family in her perfect life. She even hates it that her husband is on the way from London.  She is especially annoyed by Violet.

What was the name of that friend of Florence’s?  Violet Something-or-other.  She remembered that she’d disliked her intensely the only time she’d met her.  She always disliked those charming middle-aged unmarried Women…Pen knew all about schoolmistresses.  Just sitting at a desk for a few hours in the morning and looking on at games in the afternoon….  She’d like them to try her job for a day or two–on her feet and hard at it from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.

We get the feeling that Pen resents Violet because she could have been Violet.  Instead, she’s a wife and mother.

I so much enjoyed this fast-paced, engrossing novel.  Mind you, it is not a great novel, but it is entertaining and fairly well-written.   Crompton writes simply, focusing on plot  and characterization.  Story trumps style.  It is dramatic and a bit soapy.  But it is more than a domestic novel.  She understands the gamut of human emotions, from kindness to compassion,  malice to rage.

I look forward to reading more Crompton, though I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin.

The Gloomy Season: Cheer Up!

The ice palace in Dr. Zhivago

  At least we don’t live in the ice palace in Dr. Zhivago! 

It is the gloomy season.

Sunset:  4:56 p.m.

Full-spectrum lamp:  bring it up from the basement.

Turkey (for high tryptophan content):  Thanksgiving

Dark chocolate (releases serotonin):  please.

Yogurt (another antidepressant):  we’ve got it.

Green tea (for theanine):  yes.

Some people revel in the dark.  They believe in Standard Time. My body needs Daylight Savings Time. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Seasonal Affective Disorder syndrome (a winter depression) is triggered by the lessening light and lasts four or five months until the days become longer.

As soon as we set the clock back, I am blue.  It’s as if I am a vampire in reverse. Every day at 5 p.m., I am dispirited.


1.Watch Doctor  Zhivago.  David Lean’s dazzling film, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, is set in a dark frozen Russian winter.  There’s balance in realizing winter can be so hard. It’s just not that bad here! And the acting is magnificent.  I defy you to take your eyes off beautiful Lara (Christie) and handsome Yuri Zhivago ( Sharif).  The ice palace scenes are breathtaking (Lara and Yury move into a deserted frozen country house in Varykino when they have no place to go and are on the run).  Filmed in Spain, the ice palace was actually a house filled with frozen beeswax.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago”

2. Play board games.  If you memorize the dictionary, you’ll win at Scrabble, and what’s not to like about building words on a board out of wooden letters ?   Oxford Dilemma, a trivia and spelling board game, is also entertaining.  Roll the dice, move around the Monopoly-style board, and earn money for answering trivia questions in four categories (Science, Famous, General, and Geography) and then spelling the answer. Despite our literary leanings, we had some glitches:  my husband misspelled “maneuver” as  “manoeuvre”  (later we found out  it is the French spelling!) and I wondered if an Inca city I’d never heard of might be spelled Mazo Pekzu!  Nope, not even close.  It’s Machu Picchu.  (And yet I won.)

Oxford Dilemma pic76303_md3. Read Aristophanes.  He is racy, satiric, poetic, and the best Greek comic dramatist. Laughter is a natural antidepressant.  He is hilarious, but also serious : Athens was at war with Sparta for 27 years of his career, and many of his plays are anti-war. My favorite is Lysistrata :  the heroine, Lysistrata, plots to stop the war:  the women must withhold sex until the men stop fighting.

Lysistrata 51xaUPzM9vLHere is an excerpt from the Paul Roche translation when she first tells a friend women can stop the war:

CALONICE: We’re just household ornaments in flaxen
and negligees you see through,
all nicely made up in pretty come-hither flats.

LYSISTRATA: Precisely, that’s
exactly what we’re going to need to save Greece:
a seductive wardrobe, our rouge, our negligees and our
pretty flats.

4. Listen to old albums:  Cream, Blind Faith, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, Lou Reed, the Mamas and the Papas.  You’ll be surprised how cheering you’ll find it, even when the songs are gloomy.



Here’s a stanza from Cream’s “White Room”:

In the white room with black curtains near the station
Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings
Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes
Dawnlight smiles on you leaving, my contentment
I’ll wait in this place where the sun never shines

Good writing, huh?

5.  Walk,  run, bike, or rake.  Get out!   It’s important to  get that Vitamin D from light, even if it’s not sunlight.  You’ll feel better if you move around,.

A Schoolmarm Ponders Star Ratings & Grades

doris day teacher's pet 6a00d8341c500653ef0120a51ceb7d970b

Call me “Schoolmarm,” but I deplore star ratings at customer reviews.

According to NPR, The Guardian, and Forbes, the new physical Amazon bookstore in Seattle carries mostly books with at least four-star ratings from customer reviews at Amazon and Goodreads (which Amazon owns).

I am not one of Amazon’s critics.  It is my favorite bookstore.  It has everything: reference books, small-press books, out-of-print books, classics, mysteries, poetry.  I cannot be forever flying off to New York or London to buy books.  I wish we had an Amazon bookstore here.

But many of my favorite books get less than four stars.

At Goodreads, Erica Jong’s new feminist novel, Fear of Dying, gets an average of 3.10 stars.

Oh, come on!  It should be at least a four!

One Goodreads consumer who gave it three stars writes,

I haven’t read Fear of Flying or anything else by Erica Jong to compare it with, but I’m not sure what I just read. I feel like I read a long meditation – perhaps a thinly veiled autobiographical one – about aging and death.

Yup, I’m going to read this reviewer regularly because she’s so brilliant.

Holly LeCraw’s stunning novel,The Half-Brother, recommended as an under-the-radar read by the librarian Nancy Pearl, receives a 3.32 average rating at Goodreads.  Amazon reviewers give it a 3.6 star rating.  Pretty good, right?  But not a four.

Great Expectations gets a 3.72 at Goodreads but the Amazon reviewers know their stuff:  four!

Lawrence Durrell gets high ratings at Goodreads because only extraordinary people read him.

But how did:

L. P. Hartley end up with 2.86 stars for My Fellow Devils?

Anne Beattie with 3.10 stars for The State of Things: Maine Stories?

Edna O’Brien’s with 3.76 for The Love Object: Selected Stories?

I am also not keen on grades at reviews or blogs.

As a former schoolmarm, I know that “A” means “brilliant and worked hard,” “B” means “breezed in with fairly good work that didn’t take hard work,” and “C” means “barely acceptable.”  The true meanings of grades do not apply to book reviews.

At Entertainment Weekly, which features brilliant, lively, thoughtful, short book reviews, the grade is a gimmick.  Lucia Berlin’s brilliant posthumous collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, gets an A, as it should, but Mary Gaitskill gets an A-  for The Mare and Isabel Allende a B- for  The Japanese Lover.  All three are “A” writers, so it’s absurd to grade them. Judge the book and  review it, but the grade undercuts the review.

And what if Virginia Woolf had given Persuasion four stars?

In her essay, “Jane Austen,” in The Common Reader, she wrote,

There is a peculiar dullness and a peculiar beauty in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on the subject. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works.”

She did not mean Persuasion got a B!

Good Saturday Books: L. P. Hartley’s My Fellow Devils, Storm Jameson’s A Day Off, & David Mitchell’s Slade House

Hartley my fellow devils 512kugsKhlL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_We all love a really good read. Preferably with shoes off, a cup of tea on the table, and all electronic devices turned off.

Saturdays especially are great days for discovering really-good-bordering-on-great books.  Mind you, not every good Saturday book is a classic.  But I recently read three superb novels that are right on the edge.

L. P. Hartley‘s The Go-Between and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy are masterpieces. In recent years, John Murray has reissued some of Hartley’s less well-known books. In My Fellow Devils, Margaret Pennefeather, a prim upper-class spinster,  devotes herself to committee work and social work.

“But she was far from being discontented or shut up in herself.  She had a great deal to give; and in the small town where they lived, within easy reach of London yet surprisingly not a dormitory town, she found outlets for it.”

Friends think she is too cloistered. When they learn she has never even seen the actor Colum MacInnes, they insist on a night out at the movies.  It is a gangster film:  she doesn’t care for his acting.  But she becomes infatuated when she  sees him in a sentimental play in London.  She breaks off her engagement to a man who loves her and marries Colum.

Churches are important in their marriage from the beginning. Colum, who describes himself as a bad Catholic, is a charming deceiver.  Margaret, who is not religious, refuses to convert to Catholicism, but they get married in a beautiful Catholic church in Italy by some special dispensation.  And while they are in Italy, Margaret sightsees at all the famous cathedrals and churches.

The more she learns about Colum, the more comfort she takes in visiting churches.  The marriage is miserable.  He is barely on the right side of jail.   He robs their apartment for the insurance money:  it happens a few times before she figures it out.  After she learns of Colum’s crimes, she talks to a priest who adamantly warns her about Colum.   I am not a fan of Hollywoodish novels, whether they are set in Hollywood or London, but this one is unputdownable.  It is a great Catholic novel, and yet Hartley was not Catholic!

storm jameson a day off 415ytCIo5FL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The underrated  writer Storm Jameson had brilliant ideas if a somewhat uneven style.  Her powerful novella A Day Off is  absolutely stunning.  It has recently been reissued by Bloomsbury Reader as an e-book.  It is also included in a Virago collection, Women Against Men.

The unnamed middle-aged heroine lives in a dingy room in London.  The weekend client who  has supported her financially for a few years has deserted her. She is almost penniless but decides to go out for a day on a spree:  she wonders who buys all the books on Charing Cross Road, fantasizes about meeting a man who will take care of her, goes out to tea, and steals a purse from an old woman.

Jameson’s heroine is desperate, dishonest, and determined to survive.  Here is her reaction to two women who stare at her.

Rude old ape.  Actually pointing.  She swung round to stare angrily after two elderly ladies.  What if I was singing.  There’s no law is there?  She wanted to shout a word or two after them. Give them a few they won’t have heard.  Tightening her lips, she stalked on, but now was all on edge and bothered.  The disagreeable impression faded slowly.

This is fascinating, convincing, and horrifying.  We can all imagine ourselves on the brink:  what if we lost everything?  Women’s lives are so often precarious.

David Mitchell slade_houseDavid  Mitchell, who has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Price and recently won the World Fantasy Award for The Bone Clocks, is always in the news.  He has written literary fiction and he has written science fiction. He has spoken up on behalf of genre fiction.   In his new literary horror novel, Slade House, he skillfully manipulates the tropes of horror and fantasy.  Imagine E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy,  The Enchanted Castle, fused with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of  Hill House.  In Nesbitt’s classic, children find a magic ring in a seemingly enchanted garden, but the warped artefact twists all their wishes:  in one terrifying scene, it brings the Ugly Wuglys ( life-size dolls made by the children of broomsticks, old clothes, and masks) to life. Add Jackson’s eerie haunted house and you crank up the nightmare.

In this genre-busting page-turner, a supernatural brother and sister prey on the dearest fantasies of gifted human beings.  They lure them into Slade House.  In the opening chapter, the  narrator, Nathan, who is autistic with a touch of OCD,  and his musician mother have been invited to a concert at Slade House.  The problem is they cannot find the house on Slade Alley.  Finally, they discover  “a small black iron door, set into the brick wall.”  It is so small they have to stoop.  And then they are in a fantasy garden.

…and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still summery garden.  The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name.  There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies.  It’s epic.  “Cop a load of that,” says Mum.  Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue.

Gorgeous, lyrical writing, no?

Nathan plays a terrifying game with a strange boy who disappears, and then Lady Grayer summons him into the house.  Nathan  discovers paintings of  people with no eyes, and when he finds the painting of himself, we know he’s in a trap..

The novel consists of five linked stories between 1979 and 2015, each with a different narrator who is lured into Slade House.  The ending is disappointing–it seems to prepare us for a sequel.  But otherwise it’s a rocking good ghost story!

Anyway, three very good books!