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… in which I discover Joyce Carol Oates – and also explore e-reading a little more!

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Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

I can’t quite recall when it was that Joyce Carol Oates hit my radar; but I asked around on the LibraryThing VMC group and several people had read her and there were interesting responses. So when her latest thriller, Jack of Spades, turned up on NetGalley (a place I’m just beginning to explore) I thought I’d try requesting it and see what I thought of Ms. Oates!

Oates has a long and interesting pedigree as an author; her Wikipedia entry reveals that she “published her first book in 1963 and has since published over forty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She has won many awards for her writing, including the National Book Award, for her novel them (1969), two O. Henry Awards, and the National Humanities Medal. Her novels Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), Blonde (2000), and short story collection Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories (2014) were each nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Oates has taught at Princeton University since 1978 and is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing.”

jack of spades

Jack of Spades is a short, sharp and scary novella narrated by one Andrew J. Rush; a middle-list, best-selling thriller writer, he specialises in well-mannered mysteries with a happy ending. Rush lives in a small community in New Jersey, has a wife and grown up kids, supports local charities and good causes and is a pillar of the community. However, the opening scene is a visceral one, with someone being attacked brutally with an axe, and it is soon clear that there is more to Rush than meets the eye.

For our hero has an alter-ego, and writes mysteries which are a lot nastier under the pseudonym of Jack of Spades. Initially, Rush plays this down, making out that it’s just a little sideline and that he’s slightly miffed, in a joking way, about how well Jack’s books sell. He, of course, is a paragon of society. Gradually, however, the cracks start to appear and it is clear that we are in the presence of a frighteningly unreliable narrator.

A further element enters in the plot in the form of C.W. Haider, a local woman known as a crazy who issues a suit against Rush for plagiarism; even though Rush claims never to have met the woman or know anything about her unpublished writings. The court appearance connected with this is enough to crack Rush’s civilised veneer and it becomes obvious that the picture of his life he’s presented to us is far from accurate; the perfect family man is nothing like that, there are plenty of secrets in his past and the less pleasant side starts to take the upper hand…

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To say any more would spoil the joy of reading this book, which is one of the best thrillers I’ve read for a long time. Oates writes brilliantly; cleverly sucking the reader in with the apparently nice and normal Andrew J. Rush, and then turning the tables. The narrative voice is utterly convincing and the gradual slipping of his persona quite chilling. In particular, Rush’s relationship with his wife is gradually thrown into relief as the story develops and her part in his life and work becomes much, much clearer…

Oates is also poking fun at the whole horror/thriller genre, with homage-style references to such authors as Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and of course Stephen King. The latter, in fact, features much in the book, almost as something of a plot device, and Oates can’t resist the odd dig; not only at the other authors, but also at the concept of authors writing books under different names, something she’s done herself.

This was a quick and wonderful read, and Oates is obviously an author of some power and talent; in fact, “Jack of Spades” has caused me to rescue two of Oates books from the charity donation pile as I’m now really keen to explore more of her work!

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley, for which many thanks.

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“Jack of Spades” is the second full e-book I’ve actually read, and the experience itself was ok; I can deal with the electronic turning of pages, the device is user-friendly and reading on screen is not too painful. However, I think if the book was anything more complex than a murder mystery I might struggle – I don’t find I engage in quite the same way with an e-reader, I tend to read it quite quickly and I found when I tried to read “The Voyage Out” on it, it just didn’t work for me. And from my (limited) experience of e-books, I really think that the people who produce them need to give serious attention to the formatting, as it’s often a complete mess….

Haunted by the Past

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Snow in Autumn by Irene Nemirovsky

Last to the party – that’s me! Of course, people have been raving about Irene Nemirovsky since “Suite Francaise” made its appearance in English in 2006, but although I tried to read that work when it came out, I got stuck halfway. It’s taken me until now to really start to get to grips with her books – and I’m *so* glad that I have! Following on from “The Ball” (which I reviewed here), I started the next novella in the Everyman collection I picked up, “Snow in Autumn” – and what a wonderful work it turned out to be.

the ball

“Snow in Autumn” was published in 1931, a year after “The Ball” and at a time when Nemirovsky’s star was in the ascendant; she and her family had settled safely in Paris, following the uproar and displacement of the First World War and the Russian Revolution; her works were selling and she was becoming a popular author; and the shadow of Nazism had not yet touched the family. This novella focuses on the Karine family, an old Russian one, and opens with war – one of the sons of the family, Youri, is leaving to fight and the family nanny Tatiana Ivanovna (the central character in the book) is grieving. Having brought up the young of the family for over five decades, she has seen much change – though nothing like what is to come. As the story steps forward in time, we see Tatiana holding the fort at the old house during the Civil War, the family having fled into exile; Youri returns and she tries to hide him; eventually she follows the family, taking with he whatever valuables she can; and they all wash up in Paris, exiled from their native land and trying to come to terms with their new home. But for Nanny, this is not so easy…

It’s hard not to see this novella in terms of autobiography, bearing in mind how events in it seem to mirror Nemirovsky’s life. And it’s a beautifully written, very evocative piece of writing, conjuring up the lost world of the Russian house, the confusion of the Civil War, the cold crisp snow in the woods. In fact, the snow is a recurring motif, representing all that Tatiana has lost, and its lack is a poignant reminder of how different the world the family has moved into is from that of their homeland.

nemirovsky

In the end, the Karine family start to adjust to their new surroundings; they find work, assimilate into Parisian life and throw off the memories of the past. It is only Nanny who is unable to do this – her visions of her past life are too strong and in many ways she holds the family back, as a reminder of all they left behind. As Tatiana waits for the snows of the autumn, her life will reach a turning point…

“Snow in Autumn” is a wonderful novella, with a brilliantly realised cast of characters, utterly believable settings and wonderful writing. Irene Nemirovsky’s prose is beautiful; eminently readable and elegant, she can evoke a mood and a place so well, and her works are proving unputdownable. In some ways I really wish I’d *got* Nemirovsky’s writing before now, but at least it means I have so much to discover. The trouble is, I just keep wanting to read her works and nothing else…. 🙂

Fun at my Lovely Local Library – and an intriguing new find!

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I *do* love my lovely local library though I confess I borrow less than I used to; this is probably because my reading habits are a little erratic, and I don’t like having a time limit on a particular volume.  I’m constantly borrowing and then taking back because my mood has changed and the borrowed book isn’t in tune with my current literary vibe.

However, the local branch came up trumps last year when they ordered in a load of lovely British Library Crime Classics, and I was really pleased to find out more titles had arrived. I put them on reserve and these three lovelies were read for collection at the weekend:

bl crime

I’m particularly looking forward to reading “Resorting to Murder” – I only wish I could be sitting in the sun on the English Riviera while I did so!

And I was very good in the charity shops this weekend after last week’s binge, just picking up one volume:

sleepwalkers

This was from the Samaritans Book Cave too and seems to have oodles of praise everywhere. Since I like European fiction very much, let’s hope it’s one for me!

It hasn’t all been incoming, though – I have four large boxes in the garage ready for collection by the Samaritans tomorrow! I confess, though, that while packing them up this morning I did salvage two titles for possible future reading:

oates

There’s a reason for this… I grabbed these two from the charity shops ages ago when I thought I might like to explore Oates’ work. Then I decided I would never get round to reading them so I would donate them. Then I read my first Oates (this morning!) in the form of a NetGalley review e-book and liked it so much I figured I would try these ones too! However, when I’ll get round to them is another matter…. 🙂

 

 

A Troubadour’s Journey

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Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Poet Simon Armitage is actually something of a polymath, as his writings include poetry, travel books, plays and novels as well as translations, plus TV and radio work. “Walking Home” is subtitled “Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way” and takes the form of a travel book interspersed with the odd poem; however, it’s also the story of an adventure, as Armitage aimed to walk the Pennine Way in reverse, ending up at his home, and fund himself by doing poetry readings along the way – hence the ‘troubadour’ bit! I read about this book when it first came out, and figured it would be something I would like very much, so I was really happy when it turned up in the local Oxfam.

walking-home

The first work of Armitage’s I read was in fact another travel book – “Moon Country”, written with Glyn Maxwell, when the two poets went off to explore Iceland. A mixture of prose and poetry, I found the book evocative and thoughtful, and I’ve picked up Armitage’s work whenever I’ve had the chance.

The Pennine Way is, of course, very northern – as is Armitage – and the thought of walking all that way in the wind and the rain and the fog would be quite daunting to the most experienced trekker. Armitage, however, is not that trained up and although not old, admits he’s middle-aged and perhaps not that fit; so the journey will be a test of strength and willpower, and also a test of whether the troubadour tradition survives and whether he can sustain himself by way of the written word.

Of course, it’s not quite so simple as just packing a bag and setting off, and Armitage is honest enough about this, relating the background to the trip, the network of friends and contacts made online who’ll arrange the readings and guide him along the way; and also those responsible for carting his luggage from spot to spot! He’s an engaging and honest writer, and never glosses over either the difficulties, or the help he’s received.

weather

The lovely weather en route…

So the journey begins up north in Scotland, and Armitage makes his way through what is often a quite barren landscape, meeting some kind, fascinating and unusual folks on the way. The readings are by and large a success (with funds collected in a sock at the end!), and despite getting lost occasionally he manages to stay on course. And there’s plenty of chance for meditation, as Armitage mulls over life, walking, poetry and all sorts of other subjects on his way, dropping in poems here and there that have been composed en route.

Simon Armitage by Paul Wolfgang Webster

Simon Armitage by Paul Wolfgang Webster

Illustrated with photos taken en route, this was an excellent, stimulating read; I confess I’m very much an armchair traveller (though I would get out more if I could!) and this was one of the most enjoyable journeys I’ve read about in a long time. I’ve come to realise that the travel books I read and like most are the ones where you make some kind of connection with the author; for example, I’ve read a lot of Colin Thubron, but never warmed to him in the same way I have to Eric Newby and his works. I think the person you travel alongside when reading a book like this really does matter – and Simon Armitage is a great travelling companion!

Spoofing the Crime Novel – with a little bit of Sci Fi thrown in!

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The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised that I’m discovering new and wonderful books and authors after all these years of reading – but I still get a real kick out of stumbling across something wonderful! I did last year with “Definitely Maybe” by the Strugatsky brothers; a piece of Soviet satire/sci-fi that was thought-provoking as well as being a fantastic read. it was published in the excellent Melville House Press’s Neversink Library, which seem to specialise in bringing obscure-ish works to us, and they’ve come up trumps with another book by the duo, in the form of “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn”, a work from 1970 translated into English for the first time – and what a treat it turned out to be…

dead mountaineers

The blurb has it that the brothers were sick to death of fighting with the censors, trying to get their work published; so they decided to produce a detective novel, in which no harm could be possibly seen. However, this being the Strugatskys things didn’t exactly go as planned… Despite having all the tropes of a classic crime novel – isolated ski chalet, motley collection of guests, vacationing detective, avalanche, murder and locked room mystery – the brothers take things a step further, throwing in ghostly manifestations, a decidedly intelligent dog, plus possible zombies and extra-terrestrials…. The whole book is a wonderful mix, but also a very, very wonderful read.

The detective in question is Inspector Peter Glebsky, escaping from routine and family to take a skiing trip to the Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, recommended by his friend Zgut. You get the impression quite early on that Glebsky is a bit of an unreliable narrator, and certainly that does seem to be the case as the book progresses. Glebsky hits it off instantly with the Inn’s owner, Alek Snevar, and also the St. Bernard Lel (left over from the titular mountaineer). And the guests *are* a motley crew – there’s the scientist Simone, constantly climbing up walls and emitting hysterical laughter; Mr. and Mrs. Moses – the former very eccentric, the latter very beautiful; the magician du Barnstoker and the child of his deceased brother, known as Brun and of indeterminate sex; the highly strung Hinkus; and Olaf Andvarafors, described as a “blond viking”.

None of these characters are remotely straightforward, and as Alek and Peter strike up a kind of friendship, drinking together and chewing the fat, the Inn is subject to apparent manifestations; why is the shower always in use, but no-one knows who’s in it? Is Brun a boy or a girl? Does Lel know more than the humans? And why is Hinkus spending so much time on the roof in the snow? As the protagonists become trapped at the Inn by an avalanche, events become more and more mysterious and a murder takes place – but the body is in a locked room with absolutely no way of entry, the murder method itself is decidedly odd, and Glebsky (who is turning out to be a somewhat unreliable narrator) struggles to make sense of what’s happening around him. I’m not going to reveal any more about the plot because it’s a real delight watching it unfold, but let’s just say that the denouement is completely unexpected and surprisingly thought-provoking.

By midnight the owner and I had a pitcher of hot port already under our belts, and had moved on from discussing how best to notify the guests that they had been buried alive to more universal questions – for example, Is mankind doomed to extinction (Yes, doomed, but we won’t be around when it happens); Is there a force in nature that the human mind cannot fathom (Yes, there is, but we’ll never know anything about it); Is Lel the St. Bernard capable of sentient thought (Yes, he is, though convincing scientific dolts of this is impossible); Is the universe in danger of succumbing to so-called “heat death” (No, it is not in danger, due to the existence of perpetual motion machines of both the first and second type in the owner’s barn); Was Brun a boy or a girl (Here I was unable to come to any conclusion, but the owner put forward the odd idea that Brun was a zombie, that is, a sexless creature animated by magic)…

“The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” is a book that obviously is going to work on several different levels, and I expected no less approaching a work written during Soviet times: it functions as a basic murder mystery story, as a spoof of the genre itself and the tropes associated with it, but also crosses genres in a way that’s very ahead of its time. And of course it is a comment on the state of the world as it was in 1970 and how it would be seen by people from other worlds. It’s important not to forget that the Strugatskys are mostly known for their science fiction; a genre much used in Soviet times, and one that would allow them to slip commentary past the vigilant eyes of the censor.

strugatskys

In some ways, the book reminded me of another Neversink treasure I read recently, “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” which also spoofed the detective genre very successfully. I loved that book very much, but I think the Strugatskys take things to another level with this book, which left me meditating rather deeply on the mess humanity’s made of this planet and the failings of the human race. There were also hints of the influence of Stanislaw Lem, another recent discovery of mine, and I can’t help thinking that Soviet sci-fi writing is something which would bring rich rewards if explored.

Many years ago I discovered the Russian director Tarkovsky and was captivated by his film “Stalker”. It’s only very recently that I realised it was based on “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatskys (a book I’ve recently invested in). Although I don’t read much hard sci-fi nowadays it was a type of writing I was very fond of in the past and I think I could quite easily be drawn back to it again…

…in which it becomes clear that I have something of a reputation!

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Not a really bad one, I should hasten to add! However, it’s obviously known in the Samaritans Book Cave that I am a bit of a Virago collector. So much so that the lovely folk who run it always look out for vintage green volumes when they’re gathering donations for the shop. They’d mentioned a few weeks ago that there would very likely be a few Virago titles coming soon but nothing had turned up yet. However, when I walked in today and said a cheery hello, I did get the impression that they were kind of waiting for a reaction… And this has got something to do with why!

virago finds

Quite a *lot* of Virago green originals had arrived!! And I had rather foolishly come out without any lists of what I had an hadn’t got. However, I was able to choose some I knew I didn’t already own and some I knew needed an upgrade and brought home seven lovely books!

The top row are the upgrades – and in fact the Comyns is one I only have in a modern version so I was very happy to find a green! The bottom row are new titles – lots of lovely Willa Cather and an intriguing sounding Enid Bagnold. The spares from the upgrade will be offered on to the Virago Group on LibraryThing; and I really, *really* must update my Virago list and remember to take it with me next week…. 🙂

 

 

Stories from Behind the Iron Curtain (and in front, actually!)

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Moscow Tales – translated by Sasha Dugdale / edited by Helen Constantine

moscow tales

Short stories have been something of a life-saver, reading wise, in recent weeks, and this lovely collection was no exception. I’m not sure whether I’ve just felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books I want to read, or it’s just been the lack of reading time I’ve had; it’s just been hard to get into, and commit to, big books – well, some of the time anyway! I confess, however, that I was waiting for a new arrival I desperately wanted to read, and so starting something big at this point would have been silly. But as I’d been dipping into this volume off and on, it seemed the ideal thing to keep me going…

OUP have brought out a whole series of “Tales” books, each focusing on a particular city (Paris, Berlin, Madrid etc) all apparently edited by Helen Constantine, and I must confess that I’d rather like to read the series. However, I stumbled over Moscow Tales in the Bloomsbury Oxfam, a book which had been on my wish list for some time; with my love of Russian and its literature, it’s a bit of a given that I’d want to read this!

moscow

“Moscow Tales” contains 15 stories ranging in time from Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” (1792) up to modern tales like “Underground Sea” by Marina Galina (2010) and it’s an excellent and varied selection. One particular thing which pleased me was the amount of new material available, previously untranslated – to a monolingual Russophile like me, that’s a huge treat! The only title I’d read before was Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”, so MT was a real voyage of discovery. And the stories are wonderful and varied! A particular stand-out was the aforementioned “Underground Sea” about a man who falls asleep on the tram and wakes lost somewhere in the city; the author conjures a frightening, nightmarish scenario of being lost in the night, struggling to find a landmark or even a person to point you in the right direction.

Then there’s “A Couple in December” by Yuri Kazakov, the tale of a pair of young people off skiing in the winter, and their mutual misunderstandings and inability to understand each other’s real feelings. And of course, there are dogs (Russians seem to love their dog stories): the Chekhov, of course, but also “The Red Gates” by Yuri Koval, a story about a young boy coming of age and his adopted dog, who in many ways takes the place of a lost brother – it’s moving and thoughtful, brilliantly portraying the relationship between the boy, the animal, and also the boy’s tutor.

old-moscow

It’s difficult to keep picking out individual stories as they’re pretty much all great reads. I confess I did struggle with “Poor Liza” a little – it’s an old-fashioned sentimental tale and perhaps a little out of keeping with the others, though it does give a good flavour of what old Moscow and the surrounding countryside was like. And the range of the tales really captures the city in all its phases from old wooden city through modern Soviet metropolis to the current concrete jungle.

MT is beautifully put together, illustrated with a photo at the start of each tale, author biographies and helpful notes. If this is the standard of the “Tales” books, I’ll certainly be looking out for more. But in the meantime, I’m still dreaming about Moscow past and present, as evoked by this wonderful collection.

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