In the High Peaks

Friday, March 30, 2018

Novelist Anita Shreve Has Died at 71

It was with a sharp pain and a gasp that I read the news this morning that Anita Shreve, author of 19 novels, died yesterday at her home in New Hampshire. Sometimes I wish I had known of an author's severe illness before the final blow strikes. Perhaps I could have sent a card or a letter to say what her books meant to me over the decades.

Evidently lots of people in the publishing world knew, because a year ago she had to cancel numerous speaking engagements due to her chemotherapy.

There's something about an artist dying at 71--still in her writing prime, as evidenced by her last novel, The Stars Are Fire, which was published in 2017.  Something truncated--unnatural. Perhaps I feel that the ability to write a novel should go first, then sometime later, the writer herself, as does often happen. I guess it's a shock, a sadness either way.

She grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts,  a town 12 miles from the town where I was raised. After college she taught high-school English in a suburban Boston town, and one year she realized with force that she must write fiction, and she left her position in April. Breaking a teaching contract mid-year was unheard of during my teaching days in Massachusetts. The drive to write was that powerful. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A New Discovery for Me--Penelope Lively

I'm reading Penelope Lively's How It All Began, published in 2011, and am so entranced by her writing style. This is my first time reading her. The novel delights me, in some (but not all) of the ways that Barbara Pym's book enchant me.

Lively's writing style is unique, but the subject of personal isolation is not, and she treats it in ways that do not depress but rather illuminate the intricacies of personal connection with the world and  with other people.

From what I've been able to gather, How It All Began is the most recent adult novel that Lively has published. Lively was born in 1933, I recall, and so she must be turning 85 this year. I can see why there has not been a novel since 2011.

Have you read Penelope Lively? What aspects of her fiction have been meaningful to you? Which books have you liked or disliked, and why? 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Current Books, Including a Thrilling Gothic by John Boyne

Winter continues unabated. Tonight the temperature will drop to 1 degree F. Unheard of for mid-March. But I'm loving it! There's nothing  like heaping loads of blankets on the bed at night.

Oh, am I ever thrilling to This House is Haunted by John Boyne, author of the well-known young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The gothic is set in 1867, principally on an estate in Norfolk. The narrator  is a 21-year-old, well-educated young woman who impulsively abandons her home in  London the week after her father's untimely death to take the position of governess at a stately mansion. Problems arise when she arrives and discovers that there are no adults present in the household. There are only her charges Isabella, aged twelve, and her brother Eustace, aged eight. No parents, no servants, no one, except for an older man who sees to the stables and barnyard animals.

This novel also has ghostly appearances, but they are subtly treated and the book does not overlap into the paranormal genre.  I simply have been unable to put the book down. Boyne's style, his tone, his originality most of all, have made this a delightful read for this Gothic-loving reader. I will hate to see it end, and I am three-quarters through. Sigh.

I am now listening to Tina Fey's Bossypants. Parts  of it are so funny, I have been unable to wash dishes safely, or  exercise. I really need to listen to it sitting in the middle of a very large bed, so I don't fall over the side, laughing. Of course, some chapters are better than others, but still. Very funny.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Setting Straight a Less Than Stellar Reading Year

The snow has been falling all this month of March. It has snowed all day and last night. It's snowing now, and it will snow tonight, tomorrow, and the next day.

I don't mind this one bit. I feel as though I'm in a snow-globe cocoon. Getting a huge bulk of snow underfoot now means that Sasha and I will be able to keep our woods-loving selves free of mud for weeks to come. We will be free to traipse all over everywhere, with me in snowshoes of course and Sasha walking in my tracks. April is welcome to be as muddy as it likes, because by then the sun is high enough to dry out our dirt roads so that we have excellent road walking. I wish I had a good photo to post, but it needs to stop snowing first.

Okay--My conundrum:
I browsed through my list of books read in 2017, especially those I read in the first 3-4 months of the year and realized, with a start, that my 2018 reading has been nowhere near as satisfying as it was last year. In 2017, I enjoyed almost all of the books I read and I loved so many of them. I must blog a few posts about the stellar books of 2017, because I didn't do it at New Year's.

Things have improved with my last two books read in 2018, however.
First off has been an audiobook that has riveted me beyond realization. I wrote a bit of the premise of Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover in my last entry, when I had just started listening. When I penned that entry, I had no idea how tough a read (or listening experience) it would be.

 I must tell readers that at times Tara's story seemed unremittingly grim to me, especially when she was living in the grips of her parents' rigid fundamentalist beliefs without a way out. There are many, many incredibly frightening events that occur, BUT I did not even consider setting the book aside. It was too compelling, too well-written, and Tara's character was too strong to give up on her story.
I do heartily recommend this book because it has something to say to everyone who ever grew up in a close family. It has something to say to everyone who ever tried to live their dreams, and to live a life free from the shackles that hamstrung their parents.  But still, it is a challenging read.

I thoroughly enjoyed (and reveled in) Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Oh, Pym certainly was a proto-feminist, but her revelations about that, as portrayed through the first-person narrator Mildred, are subtle, yet at the same time, unmistakable, and revealed with Pym's recognizably droll humor.

Mildred, a woman in her thirties in the very early 1950s, lives solely on the small income left to her by her deceased parents. She seems to have never longed for a paying job or suffer the lack of one.
She has a second-floor apartment and a small attic space in a not prosperous London neighborhood, and must share a bathroom with the occupants of the first-floor apartment, who change from time to time.  Mildred is a hard-working member of her "High Anglican" church community, and she also volunteers for a charity that helps "elderly gentlewomen," who have fallen on hard times.

In this novel, Mildred keeps being swept up in her neighbors' and fellow churchgoers' difficult affairs of the heart. She, too, has a number of not entirely satisfactory relationships with single men but never seems to stop hoping. Until things change. And that's what makes this book worth the reading.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Books I'm Thirsting to Read

Heavy,  wet snow tomorrow after a spring-like week or more--perhaps my wishes have been answered.

I've been longing to read a book by Barbara Pym for weeks now. Finally the Penguin paperback of  Excellent Women (1952) has arrived, and I'm a quarter of the way through.   The only other book I've read of Pym's is Quartet in Autumn, which delighted me last year. And I can't wait to share my thoughts about this book very soon--most particularly the characters.

Late this afternoon, I pulled out my knitting and started listening to the recently published Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. It's the story of a girl and later, a young woman, who was raised in a survivalist culture in southern Idaho, and who managed to break free of her family, who had forbidden her and her siblings any education.

For those new to the topic of "American survivalists," many members of this small minority practice extreme religious fundamentalism and shun all the trappings of modern society. Many hide from public institutions, particularly those governed by the "Feds," but also from state and local governments. Like Tara Westover's father, many believe that the U.S. government is out to destroy them. They harbor extensive arsenals of weaponry, as Tara's father did, expecting slaughter from the federal government.
But Tara Westover makes it clear from the beginning that this book not about extremists--it's really about her journey and her education and her  "becoming" in the wider world.