Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

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6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

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Off to read one of my series books!

Hostess for the Holiday: You’re Gonna Need Somethin’ to Read!

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Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. If you’re lucky, you persuade your husband to splurge on a big organic turkey, you make your side dishes in advance, and you sign up all your relatives to volunteer at the Free Thanksgiving Dinner at your church. (They will eat your dinner later.)   Now you can read in the kitchen while you occasionally baste the turkey or stir something on the stove.

But a hostess’s books are the trick for surviving even a quiet holiday. Depending on the hectic-0-meter of the holiday, the hostess will need to dive into  (1) the Dumpster of Trash Reads, (2) the Sanctuary of the  Middlebrow Novel or (3)  a Critically-Acclaimed Possible-Classic to  impress OCD parents who denied you the Nancy Drew books.

skyscraper faith baldwin 51REOFxE9aL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_CATEGORY ONE:  TRASHY BUT FUN.  If your sister’s dog eats your favorite sweater, there is no question. You need trash.

On my Trash TBR Pile:

Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (the Feminist Press:  Femmes Fatales Women Write Pulp).    Wow, does this ever look trashy!  Trashy in a good way.  Published in 1931, it is the story of a career woman, Lynn Harding, a doctor’s daughter who drops out of college because her father can no longer afford the tuition. She moves to  New York City and  loves her office job in a skyscraper, but her boss says she’ll fire anyone who has a working husband.  Laura Hapke writes in the Afterword:  “Beyond the saga of Lynn’s love affairs, what matters is that she can support herself.  In that, she is representative of the one-quarter of women who worked as wage earners, many the sole supports of their families.  Also fairly typical for the time is that Lynn, as the fiancée of a low-level financial analyst, risks losing her job.”

How can you resist dialogue like

“Sure, I mean it.  Personally I’d respect her more if she was paying for whatever influence this bird may have, instead of taking it and giving him a lot of hope that doesn’t mean a damn.  I like to pay on the nail.”

The writing is not what I’d call good, but historically it gives you an idea of the kind of office romance that was published in the Depression.

CATEGORY TWO:  MIDDLEBROW AND FUN.   Sometimes we don’t want to read anything too deep because of the constant interruptions on the holiday.


du maurier scapegoat 41Q7b24xscL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat.  Du Maurier is best known for Rebecca, her Gothic classic, but in recent years feminists  have revived interest in her other books.  The others are solidly middlebrow, in my opinion, but they are entertaining.  The jacket copy of my University of Pennsylvania edition  says, “Two men–one English, the other French–meet by chance in a provincial railroad station and are astonished that they are so much alike that they could easily pass for each other.”  They drink together, and the  next day John wakes up and finds the Frenchman has stolen his identity,.  He takes the Frenchman’s place at the chateau and…. solves the mystery, I imagine!

d. e. stevenson listening valley 51LQWyl4uuL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_D. E. Stevenson’s Listening Valley.  I love D. E. Stevenson’s gentle comedies and romances.  According to the jacket copy on the Sourcebooks paperback, the heroine Tonia moves to London from Scotland at the  beginning of World War II, but a tragedy sends her home to Scotland.  This novel was published in 1944, and  reflects the horrors of war, as well as Tonia’s interrupted romance.

CATEGORY THREE:  CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED POSSIBLE CLASSICS.  If you have no anxiety about the day or have some quiet time, you can read something more demanding.


some luck f_smiley_someluckJane Smiley’s Some Luck.  The first in a trilogy, this novel covers three decades in the life of an Iowa family, from 1920 to the 1950s.  The trilogy has been well-reviewed, and all three of the books have been published this year.  Perhaps now’s the time to read it.

Delany dhalgren_coverSamuel R. Delany’s DhalgrenThis post-modern SF classic is experimental, disturbing, and difficult.  Set in Bellona, a strange city that has survived an unspecified catastrophe, Dhalgren is the story of Kid, a poet hero who does not remember his name,  and who wears only one sandal. All kinds of people live there:  hippies who share what they have,a  middle-class family trying to hold on to a middle-class life in a skyscraper now  inhabited by squatters, a wealthy man who still occupies a mansion, and gangs of thugs .

William Gibson in the foreword writes,

…[it] is a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors.  Once established in memory, it comes to have the feel of a climate, a season….It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

All right!  It’s very, very good.  And I do need to finish it.

I hope your holiday reading will be as good as mine!