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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And the Ship Sailed On

I've just taken a bit of a break, a self-imposed writing retreat on the coast of Maine. Crashing waves, mist rolling in from the sea, foghorns calling mournfully, and the twice daily highlight of the dawn arrival of the cruise ship and its twilight departure. Watching that ghostly shape, lights bravely twinkling, get swallowed up by the deepening gloom was the perfect end to the day. The solitude turned out to be refreshing rather than sanity-challenging, and it was the perfect place to ponder, write and READ. So here's what I tackled out there.

Generally I don't read many American books so I decided to take destination-appropriate reading material. First up was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, to which I was attracted by the jacket quote 'The OC meets Donna Tartt's The Secret History'. Well. This was another example of 'never believe the blurb'. I adore The Secret History, but it is not exactly a realistic novel. As I delved into Sittenfeld's tale of an ill-at-ease teenage girl trying to cope in an expensive New England co-ed boarding school, I wondered - when are they all going to start killing each other? And it's so not that sort of book, as shy heroine Lee might say.

I found myself puzzled by Sittenfeld's rigorous realism, her patient chronicling of Lee's academic struggles and silly school rituals, such as the prolonged game of Assassin everyone revels in. In each lengthy, immaculately constructed chapter, she details a particular element of Lee's misfit years at Ault College, whether it's the fake popularity she briefly attains through an ability to cut hair, the embarrassment she feels when her parents arrive from Indiana for parents weekend, or the mystery of the sneak thief who is rifling through possessions in her dorm house. Each chapter has a focal point - the hair-cutting, for example - but weaves in myriad other issues, observations and ramifications. It feels casual, but is expertly constructed.

In particular, Sittenfeld expresses time very well, how it's experienced not as a line but in overlapping layers. Occasionally there is an interpolation from adult Lee, sadder and wiser, so it is also an evocation of lost time. The last chapter, 'Kissing and Kissing', is masterful, an account of the culmination of Lee's mad passion for the out-of-her-league Cross Sugarman,and her (sort of) downfall - which is maybe just the first sign of growing up. Lee gets herself into an awful scenario with Cross - anyone who's ever been a teenage girl will wince, but Cross himself is a fully-rounded and believable, if unscrutable boy. Once I learned not to expect scenes of Bacchic ecstasy I found this an immensely impressive and moving book.

Next was a collection of stories, Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward, which actually contained a story set in Maine. The stand out story for me was 'The Way the Sky Changed' about the aftermath of 9/11 (and I read it round about the tenth anniversary). Beginning with the image of a rib on a mantelpiece, it dealt with a man and a woman who had lost partners in the atrocity, her husband in the north tower, his wife on flight 11. Their attempts to date are wonderfully pragmatic - she lends him her husband's pyjamas, and is delighted to discover his wife's designer shoe collection fits her too. Little bits and pieces of humanity are being sifted from the rubble and gradually returned to families, hence the rib. At they end they both have to face 'what remains'.

The problem with short story collections generally is that there are always a handful of killer pieces - the singles, if you like - and the rest is filler. Admittedly, this collection is of a pretty high standard throughout, and I especially enjoyed the second part, a series of interconnected stories about Lola, whose lover rejects her for Miss Montana, but who later finds love with Emmet, an oil engineer. Lola's mother and mother-in-law and especially difficult father Fred are well-drawn characters, the latter in particular apt to make this reader suck her teeth in annoyance. The humorous stories, such as the one about the attempt to catch a masturbator in the public library, are very good too. But a few of the others are about such banal life-experiences as difficulties with house-hunting and conception. I picked up a copy of Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales, which had been left in the house, and just one brief story - 'The Young Man With the Carnation' - had more to say about life, love, passion and art than Ward's neat accounts of self-involved couples with an obsessive urge to reproduce. Why should we care?

Another book I found lying around was Humphrey Carpenter's classic The Brideshead Generation, which I devoured as the sun set and cruise ships twinkled by. The Evelyn Waugh circle, comprising such eccentric characters as Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, the Lygons and the Mitfords, is something I've long been fascinated by. (D J Taylor's excellent Bright Young People intersects with this book, although his focus is more on the non-writers, the hedonistic, doomed socialites who partied their way into novels like Vile Bodies.) I suppose this must have been an early example of that now-familiar genre, the group biography. Carpenter tells a wonderful tale, though I suppose it's inevitable that the earlier chapters grip the most, when everyone is young, beautiful and fresh and living at Eton or Christchurch. Characters have a tendency to fall away, unnoticed, as the story goes on - surely Waugh was affected by the sudden death at a young age of his friend (and possible candidate for Sebastian Flyte) Hugh Lygon? Carpenter moves off too fast to say. But he was the first to start ploughing this particular field, and the book is fascinating, as are his shrewd comments on Waugh's novels.

Incidentally, I was not far from Egg Rock, which brought to mind the title of the early Sylvia Plath poem, 'Suicide off Egg Rock'. Is it the same one, I wondered? When I came home, I couldn't find my Sylvia Plath biographies or poems; they must have been 'archived' (ie hidden away somewhere). If anyone knows anything about any Maine connections of SP's, it would be interesting to hear.


  1. According to this website the Egg Rock in Plath's poem is in Massachusets not Maine!


    I have been reading Hughes' The Birthday Letters and thinking about place in relation to Plath, too. I think Hughes focuses more on geography. There is also an amazingly heartbreaking poem about how Plath met Marianne Moore, and sent her some of her poems, but Moore didn't like them. Though after Plath's death, she made a point of telling Hughes about a particular poem she liked by Plath. But Hughes took that as a peace offering rather than an actual compliment. All that in one poem!

    Sounds like a wonderful trip anyway!

  2. Ah, she was from Massachusetts, after all. And I guess it's a common enough name! The Hughes poem about Marianne Moore is magnificent in its disdain.

    Interesting point about Plath on place. She wrote some great poems about the moors, visiting Hughes's family. And 'Blackberrying', about Devon, is one of my favourites. Also I suppose the poem about the moon and the yew tree. But place doesn't seem to be a strong element in her work.

  3. Hughes' poem made me cry. The complexity of the emotions involved was too much!

    Yes I expect Hughes influenced her to a degree at least in introducing her to places that he loved. Oh didn't she write 'Parliament Hill Fields'?