Aegypt, or The Solitudes, by John Crowley

John Crowley is an underread American writer whose Aegypt series is one of my favorite tetralogies.  I am not alone:  Michael Dirda has written about it in The American Scholar and Harold Bloom includes it in his  Western canon.   The quartet consists of  Aegypt (reissued as The Solitudes), Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things.

I recently returned to Aegypt, the first novel in the quartet, and loved it.  In fact I enjoyed it much more, because the first time I read the books out of order.  I began with the last book, Endless Things, because it was widely reviewed  in 2007. And then I scrambled to find used copies of the other books.  I do not think all were in print then.

Aegypt manages to be one of the most intricate novels of the 20th century, and yet it is also lucid, accessible, and delightfully imaginative.  It begins  in the late 1970s, but it shifts back and forth in time, even to the Renaissance, and the influence of the 1960s as experienced by the hero Pierce Moffett is powerful.  Pierce, a lazy historian who has never finished his Ph.D. dissertation,  has been a popular history instructor at Barnabas College in New York.  But he  has lost both his vocation and teaching job after a mind-blowing affair with a drug-dealing diva. Needless to say, he did not do his best work on cocaine.

Those of us who grew up in the ’60s or ’70s will recognize the experimental history curriculum at Barnabas College. Pierce is encouraged to change the syllabus to accommodate students of the Age of Aquarius. (By the time I was in college, I was so bored by experimental education that I studied classics.).  And reading about Barnabas  College reminds me not to take too seriously the changing college curricula today. Everything will change again in 20 years to accommodate a generation who will revolt against political correctness.

Crowley writes amusingly of the college in the ’60s,

Barnabas College, like a fast little yacht, had quickly tacked with the new winds that were blowing, even while old galleons like Noate were wallowing in the breakers.  Courses in the history, chemistry, and languages of the old everyday world were semester by semester cut to a minimum (Pierce’s History 101 course would, eventually, very nearly reach the present day from time-out-of-mind, even as the 200-level courses, out of his provenance, came to deal chiefly not with the past at all but in possibilities, in the utopias and armageddons that all adolescents love).  The old standard textbooks were chucked, replaced by decks of slim paperbacks, often the students’ own choices, they are after all (said Doctor Socrabasco) paying the bills.  Veteran teachers faced with this fell tongue-tied or turned coats garishly; young ones like Pierce,  his students’ coeval almost, still had trouble facing children who seemed to have come to Barnabas chiefly to be instructed in a world of their own imagining.

And so, having lost his job, Pierce has to find a new job outside of New York, and he can hardly imagine living out of New York.  He rides a Greyhound bus to another small college where he has an interview.  But when the bus breaks down in the Faraway Hills, he by chance meets his former student Spofford, a Vietnam vet who now raises sheep.  And Spofford hosts an outdoor party which has the effervescence of a modern Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And then the next day Pierce learns he doesn’t have a job interview after all–the letter was some kind of automated mistake, sent after someone else was hired for the job.  Spofford suggests that Pierce stay  and research regional history.  But  Pierce returns to New York and gets his old teaching job back, partly because he is inspired to try a new line on history inspired by the alternative culture of the Faraway Hills.

A scholar of  the Renaissance, Pierce lands a book contract to write an alternative history of the Renaissance dominated by gypsies, myth, astrology, crystal balls, Shakespeare,  hermeticism, the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno, and the occultist John Dee. And he refers to the source of this non-traditional magical history as Aegpt, an imaginary country.  And of course he moves to the Faraway Hills to write his book.

The other main character, Rosie Rasmussen, has left her husband and moved with her daughter into  an eccentric uncle’s house. They run a family foundation, and she is hired to work on some projects, including putting local historical novelist Fellowes Kraft’s papers in order .  And she is connected to Pierce through Spofford, who is in love with her, and also through Pierce’s  love of  Fellowes Kraft.  Rosie is escaping from her problems through reading the complete works of Fellowes Kraft  which she finds surprisingly good.  (I like the excerpts, too, especially the chapters from a novel about Shakespeare’s boyhood.)

And then Pierce discovers a lost manuscript by Kraft about Giordano Bruno, which complements and changes his own work.

Mind you, this book is weird.  You’ll be happily reading about one character or another, and then suddenly you’re reading about Giordano Bruno (and I admit I was not entirely fascinated by him).  Overall this is a very enjoyable book.  But there are many, many threads, and it is not for everyone.

Crowley has a distinctive American voice. He occasionally descends into sentimentality, and I do think that’s an American thing, but he also has an enormous vocabulary and arranges words in beautiful sentences.  He is an intellectual who  reminds me of Robertson Davies, not in style, but in wide-ranging knowledge of hermeticism. In  Davies’ The Rebel Angels (which I wrote about here), Renaissance scholars are scrambling and competing to find documents by Rabelais, and there is much involvement with gypsies, tarot cards, and the occult.

The eclectic Crowley has won an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Literary  Award and a World Fantasy Award .  This  year his novel Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (which I wrote about here) has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel.  I am rooting for him.


In Which I Cannot Find My Copy of Le Fanu’s “The Rose and the Key” & Alphabetize Some Books

I cannot find my copy of Le Fanu’s The Rose and the Key.

If you have read this mediocre novel, you will wonder why on earth I’m looking for it.  My own reaction a decade ago was:  “A 400-page poorly-plotted Gothic.”  Well, even though it is bound to be disappointing, I am a mad Le Fanu fan. Uncle Silas is my favorite Gothic novel, and so I want to reread The Rose and the Key.

Our books used to be well-organized, even catalogued, but then we had a black mold scare in the study.  We packed up our books so the  de-molding crew could do its thing, which seemed to be painting the walls. (N.B.  The CDC  website says there is no black mold menace. All houses have mold,  and no link has been proved between black mold and any diseases.)

Well, some of our books are still packed in boxes, so I decided to reorganize them.  Our library is so huge that I am doing them bookcase by bookcase, alphabetized by author.  Each bookcase has its own A-Z shelves.

Here are some messy stacks on the floor.  I wonder if I will ever reread George Meredith’s Evan Harrington.

All right, they’re shelved now.  Here is a partial photo of the front of two reorganized double-stacked shelves in one bookcase.  Curiously, I have read almost all of them, but I don’t feel the urge to weed these (mostly) classics.

Well, we’re not ready to go on Booktube with this look.  Booktubers have spare, tastefully-ordered, often white-painted bookcases. Their books often match!  I should do this by color code.

But I didn’t find my copy of The Rose and the Key.  Very sad.  And reading the e-book is just not the same.

The Best Read of the Summer: Conscience by Alice Mattison

Oh no, I think as I riffle through the latest novels:  is there anything I want to read?

Perseverance has its rewards.  I absolutely loved Alice Mattison’s smart, well-written new novel,  Conscience.   The characters are mature, the structure is brilliantly complex, and Mattison has something to say (so much to say).  Told from three points-of-view, Conscience focuses on the consequences of reading, or rereading, a Vietnam-era novel, written by a friend and  based on the life of another friend, a conscience-stricken anti-war activist who became a terrorist.

It begins in the present with the musings of Olive Grossman, an editor of crafts books and a biographer of women writers, who says she will never write a memoir, but  wants to recall the exact moment of the commencement of a series of painful events.  It began, she thinks,  when her husband Griff,  a high-school principal, asked to borrow  Bright Morning of Pain, a novel written by her high school friend, Valerie Benevento.  He has always refused to read the book, because it presents a a romanticized view of the actions of their friend Helen, who decided in the ’70s that words and demonstrations were not enough to end the war. And Griff and Olive are both characters in the book, too. Indeed, Olive and Griff separated years ago, partly because of their attitudes toward Valerie’s book. But Olive has been asked to write an essay about it for a magazine, in conjunction with a publisher’s reissuing a paperback with a readers’ guide.   When Griff insists it’s time for him to read it,  she is flattered.

What I’m saying is that Griff’s need for the book was sexy. It was also something else, though Griff wasn’t talking about Val Benevento’s book that morning as anything more than a book that mattered to me. Griff too had a connection with this book. Some men would have seized it the day it was published, read it, dismissed or condemned it, or become briefly famous discussing their connection to it. Another sort of man would be more comfortable pretending it didn’t matter and could be left unread, and Griff was one of those. This was different—and despite my nervousness, I was curious. Barefoot, I crossed the hall into my study and took my copy of Bright Morning of Pain from the shelf: the hardcover first edition, with its familiar green-and-gold matte dust jacket (green tree, gold lettering, against a blue sky). The paper had soft, frayed edges and a row of tiny parallel tears at top and bottom that looked familiar. I had marked it up—both years earlier when I first wrote about it and later, when I wrote about it again. The older marks were in ink, the newer ones in pencil.

Alice Mattison

But Griff loses the book, and she thinks that he has done it unconsciously on purpose.  He says he found it compelling, and that it made him cry.  When it finally turns up in the office of Jean, a director of a drop-in center for the homeless, she says she is reading it and doesn’t want to give it back yet.  Griff, the president of the board, left it in her office when he went in to use her phone. And he needs to recover the book so he can finish it, but mainly because it has his wife’s notes in it.

Because of the book, they invite Jean to dinner and she becomes a family friend.  She is fascinated by the  complexity of Griff and Olive’s relationship. She sees that Olive is angry at Griff, and Jean is angry, too, because Griff keeps trying to block new services at the drop-in center, particularly a program that will allow the homeless to sign up for private rooms for an hour or two during the day.  Jean and Olive become friends, and Jean sides against Griff on some of the center’s issues. Will the marriage thrive or break?  And, dangerously, for Jean is the one radical at the dinner table, she begins to date an inconsiderate younger man, Zak, a doctor Olive’s daughter used to date, and who Jean knows has the ability of causing great grief.

Oddly, Griff was a radical in the ’60s, and believes his own use of a gun at a protest inspired Helen’s using a gun at a bank robbery.   He feels guilty, but Olive insists that there was no connection, that Helen had long been involved in radical politics before she knew Griff.  And Olive has her own guilt:  she spent hours talking about Helen to Valerie when Valerie was doing research for the book.  And Valerie sold out Helen, Olive, and Griff.

The compulsive readability of Conscience is slightly reminiscent of two other poltical page-turners, Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced novel about a ’60s radical who goes underground, and Doris Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, a brilliant autobiographical novel about Martha Quest’s involvement with  a small communist group during World War II in Southern Rhodesia.  Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion:  the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action.

I thought about so much when I read Conscience.  There are a few faults:  occasionally the writing is choppy, but that fits the flexible form of the book.  Can a book be great because of the intensity of the content and history?  I think it can, and that is the case here.

What to Read When You’re Ill: Novels with Memorable Scenes of Illness

My husband caught a cold at the office.  I blame it on paper clips, post-its, and office supplies.

And now everyone has it. The city is stricken with the common cold.  And I’m surprised there’s not a quarantine.

And so I am coughing and drinking Cold-Eeze and wondering if there’s a yoga pose that will banish the cold.  Meanwhile, I’m making a list of novels with memorable scenes of illness.  Alas, I cannot remember many scenes with the common cold.

1.  In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet catches a violent cold while visiting Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst at Netherfield Park, the home of her future fiance, Mr. Bingley.  She becomes so ill that they refuse to let her go home and she sends a letter to her sister Elizabeth.


“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

2.  In Turgenev’s On the Eve, the  heroine, Elena, an intense young woman who wants a purpose, falls in love with Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary, and educates herself about the cause.  Alas, he catches pneumonia, and though he recovers for a time, he does not live long.  Elena is heartbroken but she lives to fight another day.

‘Elena!’ sounded distinctly in her ears. She raised her head quickly, turned round, and was stupefied: Insarov, white as snow, the snow of her dream, had half risen from the sofa, and was staring at her with large, bright, dreadful eyes. His hair hung in disorder on his forehead and his lips parted strangely. Horror, mingled with an anguish of tenderness, was expressed on his suddenly transfigured face.

‘Elena!’ he articulated, ‘I am dying.’

She fell with a scream on her knees, and clung to his breast.

‘It’s all over,’ repeated Insarov: ‘I’m dying… Good-bye, my poor girl! good-bye, my country!’ and he fell backwards on to the sofa.

3.  In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the hero, Hans Castorp, visits his tubercular cousin at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, and laughs at the easy life-style there before he, too, is diagnosed with TB.

It would not have taken much for Hans Castorp to be seized by another fit of laughter.  “What?  You lie out on your balcony rain or shine, night or day?” he asked, his voice wavering on the edge.

4.   In The Painted Veil, one of my favorite novels by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty’s husband Walter is furious when he learns she has had an affair.  He takes her with him to mainland China, where he must deal with a cholera epidemic.  Needless to say no one is safe from the cholera, but Walter and a group of nuns put up a good fight. Kitty wants to help the nuns.

“There is no need to scrub the floors.  That is done by after a fashion by the orphans.”  She paused and looked kindly at Kittty.  “My dear child, do you not think that you have done enough in coming with your husband here?  That is more than many wives would have had the courage to do, and for the rest how can you be better occupied than by giving him peace and comfort when he comes home to you after the day’s work?  Believe me, he needs tthen all your love and consideration.”

5. I’ve run out of respiratory illnesses and cholera and am on to a zombie novel.  There is some beautiful writing at the beginning of Carrie Ryan’s  The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

My mother used to tell me about the ocean.  She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away.


The narrator, Mary, has grown up in a village behind a fence, to secure the villagers from zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, who infect human beings with  their bites.  After her mother becomes a zombie, Mary becomes an outcast.  The Sisters, a group of secret-loving nuns who know the true history of the world, shelter her for a while after her mother “turns”–her mother chooses to become a zombie rather than to die.  Although Mary is badly treated by the Sisters, she learns that the nuns have contact with the outside and that a young woman named Gabrielle has come in with news.  Is there any hope?  Not much.

6.  Graham Greene’s A BURNT-OUT CASE deals with leprosy, but I’m too tired to write about it!


Do You Plan to Read the Man Booker Prize Longlist?

Every year I am enthralled by The Man Booker Prize longlist.

It was announced in The Guardian today.  Ah, the joy of reading, or thinking about reading, the longlist of a famous prize!

Bloggers always support the prize.  In 2009, Dovegreyreader and several other bloggers read the complete longlist.  I, too, managed to read more than half the list that year, including two I had to order from the UK:  A. S. Byatt’s brilliant The Children’s Book (should have won!) and Sarah Hall’s remarkable How to Paint a Dead Man.

I lost interest in the Booker in 2011. The judges chose a number of very violent novels, and I caught hell from a small press for a negative review of an extremely violent book (which is why I seldom deal with the divas of the tiny presses).

This year I’m changing all that.  I intend to read half the longlist (half of a half will be sufficient).  But it is a bizarre-o list, in that I’ve only  heard of three of the books:  Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Richard Powers’ The Trees, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight.  And these three are doing very well here, as I imagine they are in the UK.

The big news:  Nick Drasno’s Sabrina is the first graphic novel to make the Booker longlist.  As my husband says, “That will be this year’s winner.”

Naturally, the British bloggers are annoyed about the three Americans on the list.  I say with a hand on my hip:  “Deal with it, honey.” For whatever reason, the Man (or Booker or whatever) company is determined to favor Americans.  Famous writers have submitted petitions saying
Bring back the British!, and nothing has changed.  What’s in it for the ManCo  I couldn’t say.

But surely an American won’t win this year, after George Saunders and Paul Beatty’s wins in 2016 and 2017.  But of course the graphic novel, Sabrina, is by an American.

And now here is the longlist.  Let me know if anything looks good, or if you have plans to read the Booker list.  Not all titles are available in the U.S. yet.

• Anna Burns, Milkman
• Nick Drnaso, Sabrina
• Esi Edugyan, Washington Black
• Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City
• Daisy Johnson, Everything Under
• Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
• Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
• Michael Ondaatje, Warlight
• Richard Powers, The Overstory
• Robin Robertson, The Long Take
• Sally Rooney, Normal People
• Donal Ryan, From a Low and Quiet Sea

Emily Trevelyan’s Moral Code in “He Knew He Was Right”

Anthony Trollope’s  He Knew He Was Right is my favorite novel at the moment, simply because I know it less well than my two other favorites, War and Peace and Villette.  And I consider He Knew He Was Right even greater than The Way We Live Now, which is often cited as Trollope’s greatest (see Robert McCrum at the Guardian and John Lanchester at NPR).  I almost wonder is there is a man/woman split on these two classics:  The Way We Live Now is about finance; He Knew He Was Right focuses on marriage.  Mind you, I love both novels almost equally.  But I am fascinated by Trollope’s views on the making and disintegration of engagements and marriages In He Knew It Was Right.

In this brilliant novel, the marriage plot is at its thickest.  Can two obstinate people have a happy marriage? A seemingly well-suited couple, Louis Trevelyan, a wealthy Englishman, and Emily Rowley, the daughter of Sir Marmaduke Rowley, the governor of the Mandarin Islands, have fallen in love and are engaged to be married.  Emily’s mother, Lady Rowley, observes that Louis has one fault:  he likes to have his own way.

“But his way is such a good way,” said Sir Marmaduke. “He will be such a good guide for the girls!”

“But Emily likes her way too,” said Lady Rowley.

And that is the crux of the novel.  What happens when a strong-willed couple disagree and will not see each other’s point-of-view?

The marriage between Louis and Emily is all billing and cooing at first:  they live in an extravagant house in London, and  Emily’s charming sister Nora lives with them because the Trevelyans can help her make a good match, i.e., with a rich man.   Louis and Emily have a little boy who is the apple of their eye.

Suddenly everything changes.  Louis becomes pathologically jealous of the frequent visits of Colonel Osborne, a flirtatious 50ish man who is one of Emily’s father’s oldest friends, as she frequently points out.  Emily does think she views the Colonel as a father figure, and he is much too old to be attractive to a woman in her twenties.  But she is oblivious of the fact that Colonel Osborne glories in mischief.  He caused a rift between another couple, as Louis’s friend Lady Millborough warns him, and the jealous husband took his wife to Naples to get away from him.  She asks, Couldn’t Louis just take Emily to Naples?  When Louis decides he and Emily must separate, Lady Millborough is appalled.  She tries to talk to Emily, but the talk of obedience to her husband does not go over well. Emily says, “And I will obey Mr. Trevelyan–in anything reasonable,”

Louis, Colonel Osborne, and Emily in the park.

Why is Emily so hard to empathize with?  She is right, and her husband is wrong.  But in the beginning, she carries things so very far.  Louis is tormented with jealousy, but she does nothing to assuage it.  Even Nora tells her to take a step back, but Emily fusses, argues, and continues to be defiant, writing notes to the Colonel, in which she implies that her husband is being unreasonable.  It drives Louis crazy–literally.

And so the couple separate.  Their friend Hugh Stanbury (eventually Nora’s suitor) arranges for them to live with his mother and his strong-willed spinster sister, Priscilla, in a nice biggish house in a village.  Even here Colonel Osborne cannot leave Emily alone.   He enjoys his mischievous flirtation and pays her a visit.  There is much gossip in the village after Emily “receives” him, and even Nora is not sure that he should have visited.  And the  mad Louis, who has hired a detective to keep an eye on her, becomes, if possible, even madder on the point of Emily’s “sins” when he learns of the visit.  And Priscilla tells Hugh that things have gone too far, what with the Colonel and the detective and the gossip, and that it is not right for them to continue to live with Emily and Nora.

My inner spinster is almost, if not quite, in agreement with Priscilla.  On the one hand, I love Nora (if not Emily), and want them to have a home.  I also want Priscilla and her mother to have a nice home:  before they lived in a tiny cottage.  But all the women are (rightfully) uncomfortable about the Colonel’s visit.  Only Emily seems not to notice his transgressions.

Emily has a strong moral code, and as a feminist I agree that she should be able to see anyone she wants.  But in a marriage compromises are made, and where there is jealousy someone usually has to bend.  Couples do break up due to jealousy, but not over a father’s friend!  Colonel Osborne is not worth it.

I do not empathize with Louis Trevelyan, and do not mean to indicate that I do.  But Emily is only sympathetic as a mother:  her insane husband’s kidnapping of their child is one of the cruellest acts in the history of fiction.  One question that is never quite answered is whether Louis’s madness could have been prevented, or whether the mad jealousy would have manifest itself later with someone else.  Trollope seems to have regarded the jealousy as inevitable.  I am not sure.

This is a rich novel, with a large cast of characters, most more sympathetic than the Trevelyans, and all at the center of a web of engagements (some broken) and marriages (that we hope will be happy).  And he is an unusually effective writer. It drives me crazy when people say Trollope’s style is flat. It is simple, unembellished, and seems more modern than that of most 19th-century writers.

Trollope’s “He Knew He Was Right” & Literary Links

I am rereading He Knew He Was Right, my favorite novel by Trollope. Is this his masterpiece?  Well, I am fond of most of his books, but I do think this is one of the greatest Victorian novels.

This is a timeless and unputdownable novel about a marriage that becomes unbearable because of a husband’s pathological jealousy and his  wife’s rightful insistence that he has no reason to be jealous.  But he knew he was right, and she knew she was right, so the couple separates with disastrous results.  But I am equally intrigued by the various subplots (which aren’t quite subplots, because some get equal time) about other marriages being made, especially a worldly young woman’s reluctant falling in love with a penny journalist.  If only she could bring herself to marry the rich Mr. Glascock!  And what about the two spinsters pushing thirty who are both courting the affections of the vicar?

This is my fourth reading, but knowing the outcome makes no difference to the pleasure.

I started HKHWR last week after finishing Cousin Henry (which I wrote about here) and smugly planned to finish the 800 pages today.

Turns out it is 930 pages, so my calculations were wrong.

Meanwhile, you can read an essay about He Knew He Was Right at the TLS, “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump.”


1. Check out Howard Jacobson’s essay, “Why the Novel Matters,” at the TLS.

I don’t mind you thinking me a scaremonger. Scaremongering has a respectable history. The fact that we’re still here after so many prophecies of doom doesn’t, to my mind, prove the prophets were mistaken – only that the worst hasn’t happened yet. That state of “savage torpor”, for example, into which Words­worth saw the “discriminating powers of our mind” descending – did he get that so wrong? Wrong about the torpid, maybe. We are too hectic to be torpid. We troll, wear trainers and fulminate. But is “savage” so wide of the mark? Wordsworth was describing what made his age unpropitious to poetry. Need I state what makes our age unpropitious to the novel?

2. Obama has posted his Summer Reading list at Facebook.  He writes, “This week, I’m traveling to Africa for the first time since I left office – a continent of wonderful diversity, thriving culture, and remarkable stories.”  And he lists six books by African authors, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

3.  At Tor you can read “Five SFF Books in Which Art Matters,” by C. E. Polk.

I love art and illustration. My childhood obsession with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood led to hours with art history texts. I’d need a fortnight just to properly do the Met. And so I love it when SFF books engage with art and culture, providing insight into the history of the world, their aesthetic, and their values. There are plenty of literary works revolving around art, and artists, but SFF provides a number of stories where art matters—to the story, to its society, and to its character.

Happy Weekend!

The Meaning of Home: 10 Novels about Houses

How does home define us? Is it a house, or an atmosphere?

Proust nibbled a madeleine, but I recalled my Edenic girlhood when I visited my mother’s house. The tree-lined neighborhood didn’t change much over the years,  and the back yard was lush with two apple trees, a weeping willow, a pear tree, and an evergreen.  And though I did not read in trees–I was not a character in a Louisa May Alcott novel–I spent hours reading in a lawn chair outside.  I remembered home, the trees, and the books simultaneously.

Since my mother’s death a few years ago, I have visited my hometown less often. So was home my mother?  Or was it the house as well, now sold? Home means something different to me now:  home is the present, rather than the present and the past.  Today, musing about the meaning of home, I have complied a list of 10 Novels about Houses.  Not all are homey, but Godden’s especially applies.  And do tell me your favorites!

A Fugue in Time, or Take Three Tenses by Rumer Godden.  This enchanting novel revolves around a house, 99 Wiltshire Place. When the 99-year lease is up, Rolls Dane, the ancient tenant, is enraged that the lease cannot be renewed.  And so he sits and contemplates family history. The house, with a plane tree in the yard, and the Dane family are inextricably intertwined.  And time overlaps:  the present, past, and future happen at once.  In a single paragraph, Godden switches from the perspective of a character in the 1940s to that of a character in the 19th century. And, finally, the visit of an American niece changes the house’s history.  (You can read my post here.)

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.  In 2015 I wrote at this blog:   “Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in a Castle is a clas-SICK!  It is a horror take on Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Smith’s novel is narrated by the benign, humorous Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer who lives in a dilapidated castle with her eccentric family. The narrator of Jackson’s novel, Mary Catherine Blackwood, lives only with her sister in the large country house because the rest of her family is dead from arsenic poisoning….  Beautifully written, funny, horrible, and perfect.”

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  I wrote in my book journal in 2012: I  try to reread I Capture the Castle once a year.  Usually I read it on Midsummer Night’s Eve, because there is a very funny scene in which Cassandra celebrates with a bonfire and some witchery. But this year I’m reading it two days after the Fall Equinox–do you think that counts?

The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old aspiring writer, “captures” her life in a journal:  she and her family live in a mouldering castle, which her father, James, bought on the proceeds of a Joycean novel he wrote.  But he has inexplicably stopped writing, sits in the gatehouse all day reading mysteries, and thus the Mortmains have no income to speak of.  In a very funny scene early in the book, the librarian, Miss Marcie, tries to help them figure out their earning power, and they are an unpromising lot:  Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model who loves to commune with nature in the nude; Cassandra’s beautiful 21-year-old sister, Rose, wants to marry but knows no men; and their younger brother Thomas is normal but still at school.  Only their servant, Stephen, has real earning power:  he can do manual labor.

Fortunately their interactions with some new American neighbors provide both free food and romance.

The Past by Tessa Hadley. Every sentence of this novel is exquisitely crafted, and every character brilliantly alive. The book has a tripartite structure:  “The Present,” “The Past,” and “The Present.”  In the first and last sections, called “The Present,” four adult siblings chat and bicker during  a three-week vacation together in the dilapidated, moldering rectory where their mother grew up and their grandparents lived for decades.  They must decide whether to keep or sell this summer cottage.  The luminous second section holds it together and elucidates their entwined yet separate views of the past.

From the beginning, the siblings squabble about what the past means.  Alice holds forth “in one of her diatribes against modern life”  that modern objects are not beautiful and have no meaning.  Roland is “wary of [her] evaluative judgements,” while Harriet dismisses her romanticism.  Fran also gangs up against her.

You can read the entire post  here.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.  This lush, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  I am especially fond of the character Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house in the city to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the house after a fascist coup in the city.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The first time I read it, I was teaching at a lovely snob school, and so steeped in classics that Brideshead did not measure up.   When I reread it in 2005,  I admired the exquisite style and the witty dialogue.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, the narrator Charles Ryder remembers a romantic pre-war past.  At Oxford he was befriended by the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte, and fell in love almost as much with the Flyte’s gorgeous house, Brideshead, as he did later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, whom Charles later married.  The novel begins the 1940s when he is an army captain.  His company believes it will be dispatched to the Middle East, but, ironically, when they get off the train, the destination turns out to be Brideshead.

The New House by Lettice Cooper. Is it cheating to name a book I barely remember?  This was one of my favorite Viragos long ago, and was reissued more recently by Persephone.  It is the story of a day in the life of a family as they move from a big beautiful house with a garden to a house overlooking a housing estate.  I don’t remember more, but I loved it.

8. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathanael Hawthorne.  I haven’t read this one in years, either. A puritanical classic, the story of the Pyncheon family,  who live for generations in a  gloomy house cursed by a dead man. How can they get rid of the curse?

9. Slade House by David Mitchell.  In this literary horror novel, Mitchell skillfully manipulates the tropes of horror and fantasy.  Imagine E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle fused with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of  Hill House.

In this genre-busting page-turner, a supernatural brother and sister prey on the dearest fantasies of gifted human beings after luring 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.  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.

10.  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  The first sentence is unforgettable.  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  Can the unnamed narrator live up to her husband’s first wife, Rebecca when she moves into his forbidding mansion, Manderley?  A classic.

Summer Books in Progress and Mary Stewart’s “Wildfire at Midnight”

Oh, dear, I have neglected the blog lately.

This week I have unplugged from electronic devices and devoted time to observing “nature.” Often I don’t get beyond the yard, and I certainly don’t garden, but I agree with Alan Lightman, author of In Praise of Wasting Time, that doing nothing is a good way to replenish creativity.  And it’s delightful, when it’s not too hot, to sit outside with a book.  Birds twitter chattily and fly in and out of the trees and shrubs.  I don’t remember ever seeing so many birds.  Perhaps I never looked up from my book!

A little nature goes a long way:  naturally I have several books in progress, including an 800-page Victorian novel. Such a satisfying experience!  Why were the Victorians such splendid writers?  Were they harder workers than modern keyboarders?   Look forward to a gossipy post on a three-volume 19th-century novel soon.

You may be surprised to learn that I am also making my way through a few galleys.  I don’t usually go the Netgalley route, because I tend to get behind, but this time I selected only books I might read anyway and did not go rogue with unknowns.  I am currently reading Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise:  More Stories, a collection of 22 offbeat short stories by a brilliant American writer whose fiction, published mostly by small presses in her lifetime, was revived in 2015 when FSG published A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, Selected Stories (which I wrote about here.)  I will post on Evening in Paradise this fall.

My Mary Stewart book of the summer.  I adore Mary Stewart, whose Gothic novels were popular in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and whose heroines were my role models.  As a young girl under the influence of Stewart I considered becoming an actress (like Lucy in This Rough Magic), a veterinarian (like Vanessa in Airs Above the Ground), or a teacher at Cambridge (like Rose inThe Stormy Petrel).  The Stewart heroine I most resemble is Camilla, the Latin teacher in My Brother Michael, and believe me I never dreamed that would happen. (This is one of my favorites, and I posted about it here.)

Stewart’s beautifully-written novels can also be read as travel books, because Stewart’s smart, plucky narrators are always on vacation in exotic places and her  descriptions of landscape are lyrical.   And the romantic plots are both entrancing and formulaic:  the heroine (a) travels to Greece, France, Austria, or a gorgeous island to take a break from ordinary life, (b) meets two men, one of whom is a hero, the other a villain, and it takes a while to figure out which is which; and (c) eventually solves a mystery.

This summer I chose to reread Wildfire at Midnight, Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956.  Is it her best?  No, and do not start with it.  But it is set in Scotland, and I have always wanted to travel there.  I would love to visit Skye in 1953, when the book is set.

The narrator, Gianetta, a model in London, has as much work as she can handle, but her personal life is empty.  And don’t worry about her being a vacuous beauty–far from it!  She’s very bright and thoughtful.   She misses her ex-husband, a brilliant novelist, and regrets divorcing him: he was unfaithful.  In need of a vacation, she desperately wants to leave  London, which is crowded with an influx of tourists for the Coronation. So when her parents  recommend a hotel on Skye, she takes their advice.  The mountainous island is gorgeous, threaded with forests.

This is a murder mystery, but you read it for the atmosphere, the landscape descriptions, and the witty, almost theatrical dialogue, because the plot is slight.  One of the guests is a famous actress, Marcia Maling, whose doctor has ordered her to take a break from the stage.  When Gianetta learns Marcia has brought a car and chauffeur to Skye, she exclaims, “Is that what you call vegetating?”  Marcia replies,  “Well, I hate walking.”

On her first night at the hotel, Gianetta relaxes.  Stewart goes a little crazy with ellipses here, but I love the description of comfortable boredom.

I yawned and stretched a toe to the blaze, and drank some more sherry.  Idly I turned the pages of an old society weekly which lay at my elbow.  The usual flashlighted faces, cruelly caught at hunt suppers and charity ball,s gaped from the glossy pages… beautiful horses, plain women, well-dressed men… the London Telephone Directory, I thought, would be far more interesting.  I flicked the pages.  There were the usual photographs of me, this time poised against an Adam mantelpiece, in one of Hugo Montefiror’s most inspired evening gowns… I remembered it well, a lovely frock.  Here was the theatre page–Alec Guiness in an improbable beard, Vivien Leigh making every other woman within reach look plain, Marcia Maling giving the camera the famous three-cornered smile, staring at vacancy with those amazing eyes….

Gianetta’s ex- is staying at the hotel, and will they get back together?  What about that nice Alaistair?  Will He Be the One?   Although this is not a locked-room mystery, there is murder on the mountains and the guests are the main suspects.   It is suspenseful, though not Stewart’s most original plot.

What New Books Are You Reading? & Three Literary Links

I have perused every Summer Reading article in the U.S. and UK:  this is only a slight exaggeration.  But as usual I stick to dead writers, and it is a bumpy ride down from the classics to the much-lauded books of summer. Perhaps I’ll commit to the Man Booker Prize longlist this year, because  I’ve got to read some good new books!

But I have read two excellent genre books: Tara Isabella Burton’s nerve-racking debut novel, Social Creature, a thriller about identity, the internet, and the pursuit of wealth, and Lindsey Davis’s Pandora’s Boy, the sixth in the charming Flavia Albia mystery series, set in ancient Rome.

And I am loving Victoria Glendinning’s new literary historical novel, The Butcher’s Daughter, which I found by chance  at Barnes and Noble.   Glendinning is one of the most brilliant English biographers of Elizabeth Bowen, Trollope, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville-West, and Leonard Woolf.  She is also the author of a stunning novel, Electricity, set in Victorian times.

I have begun The Butcher’s Daughter and am swept away by the elegant prose. Will Glendinning give Hilary Mantel a run for the money?

Here’s a paragraph from the book description at Goodreads:

In 1535, England is hardly a wellspring of gender equality; it is a grim and oppressive age where women—even the privileged few who can read and write—have little independence. In The Butcher’s Daughter, it is this milieu that mandates Agnes Peppin, daughter of a simple country butcher, to leave her family home in disgrace and live out her days cloistered behind the walls of the Shaftesbury Abbey. But with her great intellect, she becomes the assistant to the Abbess and as a result integrates herself into the unstable royal landscape of King Henry VIII.

Doesn’t it sound great?

What new books have you been reading this summer?  And I mean by living writers!


1. At the Guardian, Natalie Haynes answers the question, “What are the best novels about ancient Greeks and Romans?”

She recommends Emily Wilson’s new feminist translation of Homer’s Odyssey Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir,  An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, and Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Lindsey Davis’s Roman mysteries (which include Pandora’s Boy, above), and more.

2. At the TLS, Mary Beard writes about Robert Harris’s Cicero on stage in London.  (And she inspires me to want to revisit Harris’s  trilogy, because I quit halfway through the second novel, Lustrum. I found it boring.  I do love Cicero, though, and recommend his brilliant defense of liberal arts, Pro Archia.

Beard writes,

Cicero has a lot to thank Robert Harris for. Many of us have struggled to make the Roman orator interesting for a modern audience. But I fear that my worthy PhD thesis (‘The State Religion in the Late Roman Republic: a study based on the works of Cicero”) have had far less effect on Cicero’s modern fame than Harris’s trilogy, Imperium,  Lustrum, and Dictator which have given us back a funny, enterprising, self-ironic and clever Roman politician (with a career ending, as they all do (I’m quoting E. Powell here, who knew) in failure. In Cicero’s case, that meant decapitation.

3. At Wired, you can read Arielle Pardes’s article about an academic conference on emoji.  Gotta admit, the only one I use is 🙂

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

At Stanford University this week, a collection of linguists, data scientists, computer researchers, and emoji enthusiasts gathered for the International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media, itself a smaller piece of the AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media. They brought with them research on how emoji are changing the way we communicate online, how gender and political affiliation are reproduced online through emoji, and the challenges emoji pose for natural-language processing in computers. The assembled academics also debated basic questions about the nature of emoji: Like, if emoji is something akin to a language, why can’t anyone agree on what individual emoji mean?

Happy Weekend!