A Catch-Up Post: Mary Gordon, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Marguerite Duras

Although this is a book blog, I do not write about every book I read.  Why not?  Well, it is my book journal.  Sometimes I transcribe notes from my handwritten diary, other times I prefer to muse on bookish topics like reading habits or unlikable characters.

But what happens when you have skipped critiques of so many books you have no option but to go back and look at your notes?  It is my obligation, isn’t it, to introduce you to the best books I’m reading?

And so this is a hasty catch-up post on three books I’ve meant to review.

1  Mary Gordon’s stunning novel, There Your Heart Lies, published in 2017, is my favorite book by this award-winning Catholic writer.  I was so moved by it that I didn’t want to blog about it. You read it, you love it, you think about it–but it spoils the mood to explain.  I scrawled in my notebook:  A gorgeous novel, really a double narrative, set partly during the Spanish Civil War, partly in Rhode Island in 2009.  After Marian’s gay brother commits suicide in the 1930s, she rejects her wealthy family and marries her brother’s lover to accompany him to Spain. Gordon alternates chapters about Marian’s life in Spain in the ’30s and ’40s with Marian’s retelling of  the story to her granddaughter when she is in her eighties.   Often Marian repeats in conversation the same words Gordon used in the third-person narrative.  It is surprisingly effective.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s (1965).  Johnson’s satire of the writing life in the 1960s is hilarious.  The pretentious poet-playwright Dorothy Merlin is writing an “Anti-Verse play”; Pringle Milton has published her first novel but gets sidetracked posing for an artist’s photo for a milk ad;  Tom Hariot is determined to write a play so obscene that it can’t be produced (this proves impossible); and Dorothy’s  husband Cosmo reluctantly hosts a poetry reading at his bookstore.

Cork Street is the third in the Dorothy Merlin trilogy, three books loosely connected by the appearance of Dorothy and her friends. When I say these satires can be read as standalones, I mean it.  The plot elements don’t overlap.  Why didn’t I write about Cork Street before?  It is so witty that I wanted to give the book to everyone for Christmas so I wouldn’t have to write about it–but it’s out of print. And so I have to write about it.

And here is why Cosmo Hines is my favorite bookstore owner in literature:

Though it was commonly believed that Cosmo never opened a book, this was untrue. He was a passionate writer with positive tastes who could easily get through a dozen advance copies in a week; but what he liked best was novels about mad people, and through sheer personal enthusiasm had managed to sell thirty copies of one of these the previous Christmas. He also enjoyed books about drug addiction, but kept this to himself, since he had a clientele wholly uninterested in the subject.

Marguerite Duras’s Wartime Notebooks (1943-1949).  These four small notebooks, written during the war, contain rough drafts of  stories and several alternate versions  of her novel The Lover.   The war stories are brutally effective: a woman tortures a collaborator (all the women leave the room in disgust, as would I have), and there is a powerful autobiographical account of waiting for her husband to be released from a concentration camp, and how she and a friend managed to save his life–he was a living corpse, unable to eat.  Later, when he is healthy at the beach, she laughs over the mriacle of his recovery.  This jumble of material is, I think,  more suited to someone who knows Duras’s work.  It is important work, but shouldn’t one first know the primary literarature?  And that’s why I put off writing about it.  It’s really not for me.


10 thoughts on “A Catch-Up Post: Mary Gordon, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Marguerite Duras

  1. Good for you, using your blog as a journal as you wish and not being a slave to the reviews! I see people getting exhausted by that quite a lot, and we should be enjoying what we’re spending our time doing, right? I must read the Johnson trilogy one day: she’s on my look out for in charity and second-hand shops list!


  2. Sometimes these off-the-cuff notes we write to ourselves, are concise and suggestive and communicate as much or more than the worked-up blog with all the details, and the tone more spontaneous so the experience so enjoyable. Yes to Kaggys: if I don’t make notes while I’m reading or leave it too long after finishing the book, the details and sense of the experience conveyed vanish. Alas though continually to write notes makes the time reading less fun or more arduous and time-consuming; if I wait until I’ve finished, there is so much in my mind, to write it up takes an hour. Often then I make a posting and put it on a list …. and then file it away. Not always though. Like Kat, I read too much.

    “Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith


    • Yes, it’s a balance. Reading, blogging, sometimes blogging about just one feature of a book that interests me. Taking notes takes time, but it is better to scrawl a few.


  3. “Though it was commonly believed that Cosmo never opened a book, this was untrue. He was a passionate writer…”
    Shouldn’t “writer” be “reader”?


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