Midweek @ Musings Review: Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Spark

It’s Muriel Spark Reading Week, and blog-land is on fire with reviews and commentary!  Simon kicked things off, as did his co-host, Harriet.  I’m looking forward to their posts throughout the week, and to catching up with what other bloggers have to say about Muriel Spark and her books.  I, for one, have used this event as an opportunity to discover an author I know very little about.  I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and enjoyed the movie in my teens, and was completely unaware of Dame Maggie Smith’s amazing talents until much later.  And that was it for Ms. Spark and me … until this week.

I chose to commemorate this week by reading Loitering with Intent, which was published in 1981 (20 years after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).  It’s also one of Simon’s favorites, and I took that as a good sign.  When I brought my copy home, I looked inside and found 217 pages in a large-ish typeface.  I pegged it as a quick, fun read.  It was definitely quick — I read it in 2 days — but it didn’t quite hit a bullseye on “fun”.  I’d say it was quirky though.  Oh yes, definitely quirky.  Thank goodness for Thomas at My Porch, whose “Quirktensity Index of the Works of Muriel Spark” popped up in my Google Reader Sunday morning.  I had just reached the book’s halfway point and was trying to decide whether I was enjoying it or not.  He classified Loitering with Intent very quirky, but below average in intensity.  AHA, I said to myself.  It’s a quirky book!  Somehow that made all the difference to my reading experience, and I was able to sit back and appreciate the rest of the book.

So now, without further ado, I’ll attempt to capture some reflections in a review … I hope you enjoy Muriel Spark Reading Week!

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Fleur Talbot is a “modern” young woman, living and working in London in the middle of the twentieth century.  An aspiring novelist, she lands a secretarial position with the “Autobiographical Society,” an organization that helps clients write their biographies as life unfolds.  The society promises to store these works for seventy years, publishing only after everyone in the book has died.

If that sounds a bit strange, hang on, because the story gets more bizarre with every page.  The society’s clients are a band of misfits and unknowns, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would be interested in their life stories.  But Sir Quentin Oliver, head of the society, coddles them and coaches them through each chapter, focusing on their childhood, their early romantic and sexual experiences, and so forth.  As secretary, Fleur has access to their manuscripts and uses her creative talents to spice things up a bit.  In the office, which is actually Sir Quentin’s flat, she engages in a power struggle with Quentin’s housekeeper Mrs Beryl Tims, and befriends his elderly and incontinent mother, Edwina.

But all of this is secondary to Fleur; her life is focused on finishing her novel and getting it published.  She’s also distracted by an affair that’s gone sour, and an unlikely friendship with the man’s wife, Dottie.  For some reason she convinces Dottie to join the Autobiographical Society and write her memoirs, and gradually discovers Dottie may not be the friend she thought (really? I could have told her that).  She also begins to see another side of Sir Quentin that is obvious to the reader, but would stun the society members who idolize him.  When Fleur’s manuscript goes missing, and scenes from her novel are played out in real life, the story gets very strange indeed.

Spark’s characters are very funny. Edwina pees on the floor nearly every time she stands up; Beryl Tims is very proper and judgmental.  There’s an unfrocked priest with a story that’s far less controversial than he thinks, a disabled mystic, and many more.  The madcap storyline moves along at a brisk pace.  This is a light read, darkly funny, and while I enjoyed it on one level, it was also all a bit over the top.  I found it a nice diversion from some of the heavier stuff I’m reading.  For my tastes, Spark is best taken in small doses like this one.

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Midweek @ Musings: Delights from my Virago Secret Santa

One of my favorite holiday traditions is Virago Secret Santa, sponsored by the Virago Modern Classics Group on LibraryThing.  The giving is just as much fun as receiving.  This year my “Santee” was someone I’ve come to know reasonably well, considering she lives all the way across the world in Australia.  But Trish presented me with two gift-giving challenges:  first, she owns so many Virago Modern Classics already that I wanted to do something different, while still remaining focused on woman authors.  Second, I wanted to send a book from my list of all-time favorites, but I quickly learned she’d read them all.  Fortunately, I found a couple of books I thought would interest her.  I noticed she owned nothing from Peirene Press, so she received a copy of Beside the Sea, their first book and a very powerful one, indeed.  I also wanted to send Trish something “very American.”  Inspired by a fabulous profile of Tess Gallagher in Belletrista, I sent a collection of stories, At the Owl Woman Saloon.

I mailed my gifts off just after Thanksgiving, and then came the difficult part: being patient until December 19, the designated gift-opening day.  When my parcel arrived, I gave it a place of honor next to our nativity scene:
Virago Secret Santa 2011 - waiting, Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone AppDecember 19 was my first day off work for the holidays, and what a lovely way to ring in the season! After a nice hot bowl of oatmeal with bananas and brown sugar, and a couple of steaming cups of coffee, I decided it was time to open those lovely parcels. There were two cards: one cleverly designed to protect my Santa’s identity, and the other with a very stern warning. This was indeed she who must be obeyed.

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone AppBut OH! Such treasures!! My Santa sent four — count ’em — four books.
Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone App

From left to right: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym, in a Virago edition. Next, Mandoa! Mandoa!, the one Winifred Holtby I was still searching for, and in absolutely mint condition. Santa also decided my one-volume collection of Persephone Classics needed to be expanded, so she sent Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and The Far Cry. The latter has gorgeous floral endpaper lurking beneath its unassuming gray cover.  I was speechless, and equally pleased when Trish reported in on her gifts, and had already settled down to read some of the Gallagher stories.

I’m touched by the camaraderie and generosity of people I only know online, through a shared love of literature.  It was a lovely beginning to Christmas week!  Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

Midweek @ Musings: Is Nonfiction Better Than Fiction?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading nonfiction.  Not actually doing it, mind you, just thinking about it.  My 2011 reading is more than 90% fiction, up slightly from the past two years.  My LibraryThing catalog is more than 85% fiction; I have nonfiction books scattered around the house, not in my catalog, but still …  Imbalance gives me food for thought whether it’s about genre, author gender, owned books vs. library books, etc.

A few weeks ago, Zoe Williams published a piece in The Guardian, No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?, strongly recommending people read “serious nonfiction” rather than novels.  Her premise is that fiction does not inform, and that excessive fiction reading creates an ill-informed society:

the storm we’re living through now makes me realise how little I understood of any of the past 20 years … The problem with ignorance is twofold: you feel alienated and disempowered, and that’s quite anxious-making, but you also feel embarrassed by the limits of your understanding, so you back out of the conversation.

Ms. Williams went on to say how “backing out of the conversation” results in a “government full of bankers and technocrats,” the implication being that a failure to read nonfiction results in a society lacking in the foundational knowledge and context to make sound decisions.

Harrumph.  I grumbled, and I pondered.  And I enjoyed episode 8 of The Readers podcast (show notes), in which Gavin and Simon debunked Ms. Williams’ thesis.  They didn’t like its preachy tone (“it’s like mum just told me off”), and noted that not everyone is in a place to influence global events so we don’t all need the same level of factual information.  Plus, fiction can be the perfect form of escape from stress and hard times.

About the same time, I listened to Books on the Nightstand Episode 156 (show notes).  Coincidentally published about the same time as the Guardian piece, the BOTNS duo discussed the concept of narrative nonfiction, defined as “nonfiction that reads like fiction, following a story and incorporating the elements of fiction such as plot, character, pacing, etc.”  Examples from my archives include Unbroken, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (click on the links for reviews).  I find this type of nonfiction more accessible than, say, a detailed and meticulously researched factual account of a subject.  And the more meticulous, detailed, and dense a nonfiction book, the more likely it will gather dust on my shelves.

My thoughts went off in about 100 directions, and are still germinating.  But I’ve formed two clear points of view out of this:

First, I respectfully disagree with Zoe Williams.  Reading fiction does improve your knowledge.  Ms. Williams implied fiction is all vapid, lightweight, escapist rubbish.  And yet I know a great deal more about American & British history, the historic role of women in society, the impact of World Wars I & II, colonialism and its aftermath, slavery, and racism, all from fiction read in 2011 alone.  I don’t purport to be an expert on any of these topics, but reading has enriched my world view.  My increased knowledge has proven useful in at least one setting:  solving the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  How else would I have known “Biafra” and “codex”?  I loved it when my husband looked at me in wide-eyed wonder:  “how did you know that?”  Of course, if I were called upon to make weighty decisions about world affairs, I would need much more extensive knowledge.  But I certainly have what I need to function effectively as a cog in the great machine that is our world.

That said, I’d like to read more nonfiction, specifically narrative nonfiction.  I think this is the best way to begin redressing my reading imbalance, along with selective reading of memoirs and biographies.  As luck would have it, I have a few  nonfiction books on my shelves already that might qualify as narrative nonfiction (I need to peek inside to confirm):

I also want to keep my eyes open for new narrative nonfiction titles.  I don’t think I’ll make a seismic shift in 2012, but expect to do a bit better just because of my new-found awareness.

What thoughts do you have? 

  • Do you favor fiction over nonfiction, or read only certain types of nonfiction?
  • Have you read any of the above books, and would they qualify as narrative nonfiction?
  • Can you recommend any great nonfiction reads?

Midweek @ Musings: Abandoning “The Eyre Affair”

I’m late with today’s post, because I was in a quandary.  I wanted to write about the “fun” reading I had just started, and that I plan to continue through Christmas.  But I had a problem:  my first fun read was turning out to be not-so-fun.  I picked up a copy of The Eyre Affair three years ago in a used bookstore.  I finally decided to read it, thinking it would be the perfect read for a week when I’m off work and looking for some mindless fun.  I made it halfway through, but couldn’t get into the story.

This book is one acquired in my early years as a blogger and LibraryThing member.  It’s a “popular” sort of book with broad appeal.  But my reading tastes have evolved since then, and I don’t often go for the “popular” books.  With The Eyre Affair, the concept was cute, but way overdone.  Read on for my review.  And now I’m off to read something fun!

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The Eyre Affair‘s premise had great potential:  a mystery set in England c. 1985, involving time travel and a society obsessed with literature.  The protagonist, Thursday Next, is a Special Operative in a government agency devoted to “literary detection.” Thursday has had a long, successful career as a Special Operative, and hopes to move up in the service.  She’s unmarried, much to her parents’ disappointment. But it’s not for lack of opportunity; she still harbors feelings for an old flame, Landen Parke-Laine.

When Thursday is called out on a special assignment that results in fatalities, she accepts a post in Swindon, her hometown, to get away from the pressure and visibility of London.  But of course she can’t really escape, and the “baddies” turn up in Swindon.  Corporations battle with the government for control, people disappear, Thursday’s father shows up occasionally to report on his time travels, and elaborate contraptions often come into play.

The characters have “clever” names:  Thursday Next, Millon de Floss, Jack Schitt, and so on.  Each short chapter tossed out new characters, new situations, and new stunts.  But there was also a fair amount of violence.  Now I’m not the sort who prefers to read about kittens in baskets, but the violence juxtaposed with wordplay and cleverness just didn’t work for me.  And I just got tired of the cleverness.

On top of all this, the mystery was slow to develop.  The “blurb” on my edition states, “When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.”  After 175 pages, this storyline had yet to develop, and I was no longer willing to wait for it.

(DNF)

Review: A Book of Secrets, by Michael Holroyd

In A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, Michael Holroyd unravels the lives of three early twentieth century women, and joins them together through loose connections to Ernest Beckett, the second Lord Grimthorpe, and his Italian residence, the Villa Cimbrone.  If this sounds a bit obscure, well, it is.  Holroyd set out to write “not so much a traditional biographical narrative, but … a set of thematically related stories” about three interesting, if lesser-known, women.

The first, Eve Fairfax, nearly married Beckett after the death of his first wife.  Beckett commissioned a bust from the French sculptor, Rodin, but was ultimately unable to pay for the work.  Eve’s reasons for refusing Beckett are unclear.  She spent most of her life in poverty, living off various friends and lugging around a huge book in which her visitors composed pithy thoughts.  The second woman, Catherine Till, believes herself to be the illegitimate daughter of Beckett’s grandson.  Holroyd accompanied Catherine on a research project at the Villa Cimbrone.  And finally, there is Violet Trefusis, the best known of the three.  An author who had a notorious affair with Vita Sackville-West, Violet was likely Beckett’s illegitimate daughter, the result of his affair with Alice Keppel (later the mistress of King Edward VII).

Each woman’s story is interesting in its own right, as is the allure of Villa Cimbrone and the many literary figures and society members who graced its halls.  As a fan of Virago Modern Classics, I especially enjoyed reading Violet’s story.  Holroyd presents a fairly balanced picture of the woman and her controversial romantic liaisons.  On the one hand I felt sorry for her, forced by her family to marry a man and cover up her lesbian relationships.  On the other hand, her arrogant, controlling nature made her a less sympathetic figure.

I was also intrigued by Holroyd’s attempts to assemble a coherent history, when in fact many trails go nowhere, DNA evidence is not available, and there are no tell-all documents or definitive sources.  And then there’s the theme of illegitimacy, which manifests itself in various ways:

Illegitimacy is a word with several meanings. Ernest’s wife Luie was to die in her twenties producing a legitimate heir to the Grimthorpe title. Eve Fairfax was illegitimate in the sense that, not marrying Ernest, she lost her legitimate place in society. Her Book is a unique testament to the enduring pride that kept her afloat. And then there is Ernest’s extraordinary illegitimate daughter Violet who, exiled from England, was to compensate for her outcast state by claiming the King of England as her father. Such fantasies were a balm for the pain of lost love. But fact and fantasy are held in subtle equilibrium in the best of her novels, which may yet find a legitimate place in European literature for the name Violet Trefusis.

Holroyd’s style, mingling traditional biography with personal experience, results in an engaging book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys English history and literature.