Time is slipping away now, and I'm not going to get caught up on telling you about the books I read earlier in the year but never got around to writing about. Writing about them properly that is. It's a little scary how quickly stories begin to fade from memory once that last page is turned and the book is returned to its place on the bookshelf. And that's not even books finished a year or two previously, but in a few cases just a few months ago. I can see I will need to get back to keeping a reading journal. In the past, and it's been very helpful, I've jotted down notes or quotes as I read or have made little pencil notations in the text. This year, however, has been an off reading year for me in a variety of ways, so maybe once I can get back into (good) old habits I'll feel less afloat in a sea of books.
So, here's the first of two posts where I try and catch up on a few books I (mostly) really liked but didn't get around to writing about.
Elizabeth Wilson is a writer I plan on reading more of. Her Girl in Berlin is a stylish and sophisticated thriller that begins as a story of intrigue and espionage but twists and turns nicely becoming something of a mystery with a surprise ending. It's set in post-WWII London but moves to Berlin and back again.
A London detective is hired by MI5 to follow a British expatriate who had been living in Berlin--a self-proclaimed Communist of questionable loyalties. He has ties to a woman in Berlin who is only too eager to marry him and emigrate to England. His are not the only loyalties to be questioned. Two British spies have disappeared and then a murder takes place muddying the waters of the investigation. Nothing is as it seems and those in power can't be trusted. As spy stories go, this is a good one and just thinking about it makes me want to reach for another of Wilson's (or any spy story in general really) novels sooner rather than later.
I love Barbara Pym. I wish I had read more of her books during this year's centenary anniversary of her birth. I only managed to read Crampton Hodnet, which was written in 1940 but not published until 1985 after her death. What a delightful story it was and I could happily pick it up and start reading it all over again. Does anyone write stories about women of "a certain age", often spinsters but entirely likable and interesting (and happy), like Barbara Pym? This is truly a story that deserved a proper post, though I see that I at least shared excerpts from the story here. Crampton Hodnet is a fictionalized--and that is fictionalized within the story by the way--village (Crampton is also part of Pym's name), that the story's vicar lies about having visited! That sets the tone.
The story is filled with her typical vicars, spinsters, academics, a pair of young lovers and dewy-eyed students. A 'not young though not old' curate has come to North Oxford sending titters through the little community as he is intelligent and handsome. But he's also practical. He is living with one of the local spinsters and her companion. It's Miss Morrow, the companion, on whom he has set his sights. He thinks he should marry, and certainly he could do much worse . . . But Miss Morrow has other ideas. I do like a heroine who not only knows herself and her sense of worth, gets her own happily ever after yet it's a happy ending that's not expected or typical.
Pym is such a shrewed writer. She's funny and acerbic and spot on in her characterizations of people. This is a comedy of manners of the best sort and will very likely show up on my favorites' list (which I am now working on). And thinking about this book again now makes me want to pick up another of her books now, too.
Okay, another really excellent read that deserved a proper post, too, Jean-Claude Izzo's Total Chaos, the first book in his Marseilles Trilogy. As a matter of fact I've kept the book sitting right next to my computer from the time I finished reading it (at the end of the summer!) until now when I finally am getting around to at least mentioning it. Izzo is credited with being the first to write what is now known as Mediterranean noir. Marseilles is a city he knew (he passed away several years ago when he was only fifty-five) intimately and loved, and his passion for it shows in every page of the book.
The story, however, is noir in every sense. Marseilles, however lovingly written about, is a city full of crime and corruption. And Total Chaos is gritty and dark and often bleak for the city's North African residents, and Detective Fabio Montale is tired and jaded. He was one of three friends who grew up as close as brothers, but missteps and bad choices mean it's easier to be part of the city's dark underbelly. One friend is gunned down, another returns from abroad to revenge his death, and Fabio must try and mete out a different kind of justice. While his friends are drawn further into the criminal side of life, Fabio has pulled himself up and out and became a police officer. It's a betrayal of sorts, but Fabio remains loyal to his friends in his own way and is determined to see justice done.
Along with the story of Fabio and his friends Ugo and Manu, he is also investigating the murder of a young woman who is the daughter of a close friend. She also happens to have been part of the immigrant community, yet as a second generation French woman she and her siblings straddle that invisible line--not exactly wholly part of either culture. The two investigations become inexplicably wrapped up together. This is an excellent crime story--gritty and passionate, a little dark and very melancholy. I've already got the second and third books in the series: Chourmo and Solea. I hope to read them both next year. Izzo also wrote a book of essays, which I read earlier in the year and wrote about here.
Virginia Woolf! I actually read two of her books this year. Both are short--novellas and both excellent reads. I wrote about Jacob's Room already. For me Virginia Woolf is formidable in every way. As a woman, a writer, a thinker. She's amazing and challenging. Whereas Jacob's Room was something of an undertaking (an "I'm glad I read this, but I am not sure I understood it" book), I thoroughly enjoyed and found Flush to be quite a delight. Another book I wish I had written about right when I finished it, as I won't do it justice here and now.
I read the Persephone edition which has an excellent introduction with lots of explication (thank you! always helpful with Woolf . . . ). Ostensibly this is a fictionalized biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's little Spaniel, Flush, which was stolen not once but multiple times. A beloved pet, EBB paid ransom each time (the "reward" money was more than the salary of her maid by the way). As any true biographer does, Woolf chronicles the life of Flush from his forefathers through to his death. And the 'story' is told from his perspective. It's certainly one of the more inventive novels I've read this year and an interesting way to view the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert.
Of course this is Virginia Woolf we're talking about, so there is more going on in the story than what appears on the surface. This is more than just a fictionalized biography of a beloved pet. Woolf is writing about women and society and class. Flush is really more than just a dog, he acts as a mirror to his owner. Charming as the story may be, I think it's meant in a more satirical manner. Per the introduction:
"It is this tension, between protection [EBB and her father and later Robert] and confinement, between dependence and freedom that underpins Flush."
It goes without saying that anything by Virginia Woolf should be read and reread. I wonder which book by her I will read next year? I see that Flush at least warrented a passing mention, and that I had intended to read Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins as a companion book. Maybe next year?
A few more books tomorrow to wrap up the year!