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Books I Finished in March

Because I had jury duty for the entire month of March, I did not get as much reading done as I would have liked. I usually finish one book before starting another, but I decided to set aside the book I was reading, on which I wanted to take notes, for one that I could more easily pick up and put back down as necessary. As a result, I finished out March with two Big Books each half finished.

Here are the three—all rather short—that I did finish reading in March.

Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark

where are the childrenLong before Mary Higgins Clark took over as the reigning queen of romantic suspense, she concentrated on the suspense part. From childhood she had loved suspense stories, first books featuring girl detectives like Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew, and later books by authors including Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Daphne du Maurier. Clark’s first published book was a collection of stories. Her second book, published in 1975, was Where Are the Children?, her first novel.

Years ago Nancy Harmon had suffered through the disappearance and deaths of her two young children in California. Her husband also died of an apparent suicide. Nancy was charged with the murders of her children but was freed on a technicality. She dyed her hair, changed her name, and traveled to Cape Cod, where she remarried and had two children.

On the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of her first two children, the nightmare begins all over again when
Nancy discovers that her two preschoolers have disappeared from the back yard. As the search for the children begins, spearheaded by a retired detective turned writer, Nancy’s past gradually comes to light. She must endure the scrutiny of a small community naturally suspicious of outsiders along with the anguish over the fate of her children. Will the children be found, or will Nancy once again be haunted by, and accused of, a mother’s worst nightmare?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Recommended

bell jarSylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel was first published in England in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath died by suicide a month after that publication. The novel was first published under Plath’s own name in 1967. Through the influence of her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and her mother, the book was not published in the United States until 1971.

Set in 1953, “summer the Rosenbergs were executed,” the novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood as she begins a prestigious summer internship at a woman’s magazine in New York City. Greenwood, from the suburbs around Boston, has attended a nearby woman’s college on a scholarship awarded because of her outstanding writing ability. Unable to find any joy or meaning in the life she encounters in the city and in the gender identity society expects of her, Greenwood becomes increasingly depressed and unable to sleep. At the end of the internship she returns home, but her mental health declines rapidly and she receives treatment from a number of doctors and institutions.

This novel, which provides insight into the gender expectations and the mental health attitudes of the 1950’s, was the March selection of my in-person classics book club.

Of the Farm by John Updike
Recommended

of the farmPublished in 1965, this short novel provides an image of American life at that time. Joey Robinson, age 35 and a resident of New York City, brings his second wife, Peggy, and his 11-year-old stepson, Richard, to visit his mother on the rural Pennsylvania farm where Joey spent his adolescence. The farm belongs to Joey’s mother; his father, recently dead, was never happy here. His mother is aging and can no longer care for the farm on her own.

Over the three days of their visit, Joey is haunted by memories not only of his parents and life on the farm, but also of his first wife, Joan, whose large portrait has been moved from the living room to a small upstairs bedroom, and thoughts of his three children, who now live in Canada with their mother and stepfather.

With heavy-handed symbolism, the farm becomes the Garden of Eden: Peggy unexpectedly begins menstruating, to intensify the fertility/Garden of Eden motif, and Joey frequently thinks of her body as a field to plow. On Sunday they all attend the local church, where the minister preaches a sermon expounding on the biblical description of the Garden of Eden:

What do these assertions tell us abut men and women today? First, is not Woman’s problem that she was taken out of Man, and is therefore a subspecies, less than equal to Man, a part of the world? … Second, she was made after Man. Think of God as a workman who learns as he goes. Man is the rougher and stronger artifact; Woman the finer and more efficient. (p. 112)

Over the course of the visit, the child, Richard, becomes a mediator between the three adults as they debate the choices they have made and the ways in which they define their lives.

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Year-to-date total of books read: 10

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Fiction List On Novels and Novelists Reading

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov