Richard Powers: The Overstory

The latest addition to my website is Richard PowersThe Overstory. This is another first-class, long and complex novel from Powers. Its subject is trees, particularly the idea that trees are, to some degree, sentient, rational beings and the fact that trees are being chopped down in unprecedented numbers in the United States and elsewhere, to the detriment of human beings and, indeed, pretty well all other land-based species. We follow the stories of eight individuals/families and how they are affected by trees or, in some cases, by an individual tree and how they come to realise the importance of trees and the fact that they need protecting. In particular, some of these characters come together and commit both legal and illegal acts to prevent trees from being logged. Inevitably, they face the power of the state when they commit illegal acts. Powers give us a wonderfully complex novel, a series of superbly written interlocked stories and lots to think about. Indeed, you will think differently about trees after you read this book, which I urge you to do.

Nicole Krauss: The History of Love

The latest addition to my website is Nicole KraussThe History of Love. This is an excellent book about creativity and authorship, about the Holocaust and about who we are. Leo Gursky was in love with Alma back in Slonim (variously in Poland and Russia). Her father paid for her to go to the USA before the Nazis arrived but Leo did not escape in time. However, he managed to hide out and emigrated to the USA after the war. Meanwhile, Alma, thinking him dead, had married. Leo had written three books before the war. The History of Love, however, was a novel apparently written by Zvi Litvinoff and only available in Spanish, about a woman called Alma. The connection between these characters, the novel and Alma Singer, who is named after the Alma of the novel, forms the basis for the complicated plot.

Jean Stafford: The Mountain Lion

The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s The Mountain Lion, a semi-autobiographical novel with the two main characters, brother and sister Roger and Molly Fawcett, being based on Stafford and her brother Dick, who were very close, as are Ralph and Molly. The Fawcetts live in California. Mr. Fawcett is dead but his family are well-off. His widow, Rose, also lost her father when she was young and her mother remarried a rough cattle rancher, Mr. Kenyon, who visits annually. When he dies on one visit, the family get to know, Claude, the only child of his marriage to Rose’s mother, and Molly and Ralph spend the summers at his ranch. The story is mainly about how Ralph drifts away from Molly, wanting to become more manly in imitation of Claude, culminating in the hunt for a mountain lion, while Molly becomes more interested in literature. In many respects, it is a very sad story but very well-told.

Steven Moore: My Back Pages

Steven Moore is the author of two essential works on the history of the novel: The Novel: An Alternative History , the first one covering the beginnings to 1600 and the second one 1600 to 1800. Both will tell you far more than you ever knew about the history of the novel, not in an academic, dry-as-a-dust manner (that bloodless, wooden mode as he describes it) but with a well-written, clear approach, (colourful, lively writing, prose that is witty and actually fun to read rather than a chore, as he calls it) while, at the same time, giving a whole host of fascinating information about the early novel. I (and many other people) rather hoped he would continue into the modern era in his novel series but he has declined to do so, saying he is more interested in reading books than writing them.

However, all is not lost. We now have another large work which, as the title suggests, is a collection of his various occasional writings. In his past life, he worked for the Dalkey Archive Press and its associated publication (now defunct) The Review of Contemporary Fiction (RCF). Many of the articles in this work are his reviews of book published in the RCF, as well as those published elsewhere, particularly in the Washington Post where he was a long time freelance book reviewer. The book also includes quite a few essays, both published and unpublished, on topics literary.

Moore starts the book with a brief description of his life – running a bookstore in Denver, writing a book, reviewing and working for Dalkey. Where it becomes interesting is in discussing his interests, which seems to be mainly though certainly not exclusively centred around 20th US fiction, particularly more experimental fiction. While Joyce may have been his first love, it is clear that William Gaddis is his second. As I was, he was stunningly impressed by Gaddis’ The Recognitions. The book contains both reviews of Gaddis’ works and a collection of essays on him. His other great interests are authors like Gaddis, often called difficult, experimental and certainly not best-sellers. Some of them he has discovered as I and many other readers have done, by following a trail from one writer to another.

His reviewing philosophy is one I can wholeheartedly endorse and one I hope that I practise on my website/blog: I’ve always regarded book reviews as consumer advisory reports more than nuanced evaluations. Naturally, he has used his reviews to promote authors he considers worthy of promotion.

Reading a book like this, you look out for books that seem worthy that you do not know, books that you do know to see if his opinion is (more or less) the same as yours and to be reminded of books that you have read and forgotten (or almost forgotten) or, in my case, that you have bought and somehow never got round to reading. There are all too many in all categories. Inevitably, I found mention of novels that I was unaware of but also quite a few buried in the recesses of my library that I should bring out into the sunlight. Some of his recommendations, particularly of US novelists, are of works that seemed very relevant and interesting at the time, so I bought them, in some cases read them, but have since forgotten them. Reading his reviews makes me realise that many of them are worthy of closer attention.

Moore does not hold back his views. There is a review of Richard Ford’s stories, for example, which all have an old-fashioned tone, as if they had been written 50 years ago. He quotes Paul West who has no patience for what he variously calls “mercantile novelists”, “literacy greengrocers”, “antiquarians who keep on trying to invent the nineteenth-century novel in the age of quasars”. it is clear that Moore shares West’s views.

The final section, consisting of his essays, covers several authors that he clearly seems to admire, including Gaddis and Joyce but some less well-known writers who should be better known. I have several books by Alexander Theroux and Brigid Brophy but have yet to get round to them. Slaughterhouse Five: A Poor Man’s Remembrance of Things Past, is something of a provocative title (you have to read his essay to see his rationale, though I am not convinced that I entirely share it). I know of W M Spackman (Moore has edited his Complete Novels), Carole Maso and Edward Dahlberg but have yet to read them. I must admit that I had not head of Alan Ansen, a Beat writer and that Sheri Martinelli and, Chandler Brossard and Jack Green are little more than just names for me. I have read David Markson and Richard Brautigan and did not take to either. Like Moore, I loved Adán Buenosayres (Adam Buenosayres).

The book ends with three essays. One is on his nympholepsy (no, I hadn’t heard of it either). The second is something you will be aware of, if you have read his two books on the novel. It tells us that, just as he used to think Columbus discovered America, he used to think (was told) that the novel was invented by Samuel Richardson in the eighteenth century. It was not, of course. It is just that many critics had a very narrow view of what the novel is. In this essay (and subsequently in his first book on the novel) he gives numerous examples of novels written (and known) well before Richardson was born. The final essay is on publishing Rikki Ducornet, another writer I know of but have never read. (Oh dear, my TBR pile has grown substantially again.). Whether you know of or have read Ducornet, it is a fascinating essay on the publishing process, at least as regards a small press.

Whoever you are and however much you have read, it is almost certain that, in reading this book you are going to learn about new authors and learn a lot about the twentieth/twenty-first novel. I spent a long time immersed in this book. Sadly, very sadly, Moore is not going to write another book in his history of the novel series but, at least, this is a really worthwhile book and anyone who is interested in the modern novel should buy it at once.

Jean Stafford: Boston Adventure

The latest addition to my website is Jean Stafford‘s Boston Adventure. Jean Stafford had a strong reputation when this book was released in 1944 but her reputation seems to have faded (this book is currently out of print, though easily obtainable). The book tells the story of Sonia Marburg, twelve years old when the book starts, daughter of poor immigrants to the US (he, Hermann, German, she, Shura, Russian) who live in (the fictitious) small town of Chichester, across the bay from Boston. Shura has mental health issues and is not happy with her lot. Hermann is not happy, either, having hoped to make his fortune in the US. Shura works as a chambermaid in a hotel mainly catering for summer visitors from Boston but is often substituted by Sonia when she is unwell. There Sonia meets a rich Bostonian, Miss Pride, who takes an interest in her and when , firstly, Hermann runs away, and then Shura is committed to an asylum, Miss Pride takes Sonia in as her trainee secretary. Stafford mocks the Boston patrician society, seen primarily through Sonia’s eyes. Sonia herself feels trapped and more or less Miss Pride’s plaything but cannot find a way out. Though a bit dated, it is a book still worth reading.

Robert Creeley: The Island

The latest addition to my website is Robert Creeley‘s The Island. This is an autobiographical novel by Creeley – his first – about the breakdown of his marriage to Ann McKinnon (his first of three marriages). John, the Creeley character, and his wife, Joan, are living on an unnamed Spanish island (but clearly Majorca where the couple lived with their three children). Joan is trying to bring up the children while John spends his time drinking with Artie, a permanently impoverished, often loud-mouthed English poet (based on Martin Seymour-Smith). We gradually watch the marriage fall apart, as John makes only feeble efforts to behave better and Joan becomes more and more distant from him. Meanwhile, other writers turn up and help John with his drinking. It is a fine portrait of a failing marriage, though Creeley would continue to be known for his poetry rather than his prose.

Wright Morris: Plains Song: For Female Voices

The latest addition to my website is Wright MorrisPlains Song: For Female Voices. This is one of Morris’ last novels and tells the multi-generational story of the Atkins Family. Cora has married Emerson, after a very brief courtship, and then joined him and his brother, Orion, who are homesteading land out West. The families tend to have daughters and Cora has one daughter, Madge, who is overweight and quiet as a child a as an adult. Orion marries Belle, something of a hillbilly, and they have three daughters. The middle daughter dies when very young and Belle dies giving birth to the youngest one. However, it is the eldest daughter, Sharon, who is key. She is more boisterous and more independent than her cousin, Madge, and, to a certain degree, clashes with Cora. In particular, a strong contrast is made between Cora, the steadfast pillar of the family, and the more flamboyant Sharon, who leaves the area, has a musical career and never marries. We also follow the changes, both in the individuals and in the world around and the effect this has on the various characters. This is an excellent swansong to Morris’ work, focussing on the women over several generations.

Wright Morris: Ceremony in Lone Tree

The latest addition to my website is Wright MorrisCeremony in Lone Tree. This is a follow-up to his The Field of Vision, but, in my opinion, a much better book. It features much of he same cast but with a few extra, who will, in the second part of the book, attend the eponymous ceremony, namely Tom Scanlon’s ninetieth birthday party, in the now almost deserted town of Lone Star. Scanlon spends most of the book asleep but his two daughters, Lois and Maxine, and their husbands and children feature, as does Gordon Boyd, friend of Walter McKee (husband of Lois). Boyd travels around, finding the A-bomb tests and a young woman he calls Daughter before arriving, almost inadvertently, in Lone Star. The others come from nearby but still carry as much emotional and mental baggage as Boyd, not least Lee Roy, nephew of Bud, Maxine’s husband. He is one of two murderers in this book – the other managed to kill ten, but Lee Roy only two. The ceremony itself is chaotic – a madhouse as Maxine describes it – but takes its course. It is an excellent novel, showing Morris as an excellent portrayer of the foibles and problems of the people of Nebraska.

Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies

The latest addition to my website is Jane BowlesTwo Serious Ladies. The story mirrors, to a certain degree, Bowles’ own life and the life of her husband, Paul Bowles. It is also her only completed novel, published when she was twenty-five. It is a decidedly strange novel and got very mixed reviews when first published and had very limited success. The two serious ladies are Christian Goering and Frieda Copperfield though, throughout the book, they are usually referred to as Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet briefly early in the book, and right at the end but, apart from those meetings, follow their own path. Miss Goering has generally been disliked by others, both as a child and as an adult. She does not particularly care, as she is well-off. She takes in a companion, Lucie Gamelon, in her expensive New York house, before moving to a house on an island, with Lucie, Arnold, a man she met at the same party where she met Mrs Copperfield and Arnold’s father, before going off with a rough man who thinks she is a prostitute. Mrs. Copperfield goes to Panama with her husband and has a Lesbian affair with a teenage prostitute, before falling to pieces though this is something, she says, she always wanted to do. The book is essentially about women leading their own life in their own way, however wrong or unconventional that way may be. It is not to everyone’s taste but is certainly an original, modernist work.

Robert Coover: Huck Out West

The latest addition to my website is Robert Coover‘s Huck Out West. This is another wonderfully post-modern, iconoclastic, very funny book from Robert Coover. It tells the story of Huckleberry Finn and, to a certain degree, of Tom Sawyer, when they become adults and head out to the Wild West. Finn remains the loveable but somewhat naive and unambitious rogue, essentially decent and trying to do what is best. We follow him as he struggles with General Custer, the Lakota Indians, the Black Hills gold rush and even the Civil War. All he wants is some booze and to be left in peace, with a few friends. Sawyer, however, is ruthless, dishonest, ambitious and devious (possibly based, at least in part, on Donald Trump). Coover thoroughly demythologises both Tom Sawyer and the Wild West but has great fun doing so and leaves us with a wonderful post-modern novel – written at the age of eighty-four.