Reading Catchup

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the COVID thing started (although not as much as I had anticipated seeing as I have all this time available), but the pace is picking up (in between jigsaws!), and I’m planning on reading more now that school is finished and the grades are in. Phew. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve read a mix of books, a couple of them really excellent and one just meh, but all of them off the TBR. (Go me.)

The “just meh” one was “Home Life One”, the first of four volumes and a collection of newspaper columns from an English journo (?) named Alice Thomas Ellis. (See top pic.) She wrote columns on domestic life, I suppose you’d call it, and they were published in The Spectator, a British magazine that runs conservative (I think). 

I must have read someone somewhere online praising these offerings and rushed out to order it, but the columns didn’t seem to hit the same high notes for me. I think some of this was because I just worked my way through the collection, one after the other, and I now doubt the wisdom of reading the book that way since it all got pretty same-y after a while. Maybe I should remember that next time I choose a similar book. The content was also a little dated (but that’s hardly the author’s fault!) Moving on…

The good reads: a Canadian novel called “Birdie” by Tracey Lindberg (2015). Selected as a 2016 CANADA READS title, I picked this book up on a trip to Vancouver last year as one written by an aboriginal native author. This was a really good read, although it covers some heavy-duty topics as part of the plot: sexual abuse, mental illness, native rights… 

Kudos to the author, though, as this book reads smoothly and although the characters (one in particular) undergoes some hellish experiences, it’s written in a manner that it’s not too much for you as a reader (although it might be triggering for some people). Good book; off the TBR; native author about native characters: win-win-win. 

(Plus – look at the fantastic artwork on the cover: It’s a detail from Modern Girl, Traditional Mind Set by George Littlechild (2010), an author/artist of the Cree Nation, same as Lindberg.)

The other excellent read was just a cheapie bargain book from the sales shelves at B&N (when it was open), but despite the price, it was soooo good (if you like this sort of thing). I’m going to do a more thorough review in the next few days as I’d like to chat about it more in-depth, but suffice to say, I loved it. Stay tuned.

And then a good friend of mine happened to ask me to be an early reader for her second novel – which I loved. If anyone is an agent (or knows one), please let me know. I’d love to hook my writing friend up with someone who knows what they’re doing in the publishing world. Other people need to read her work – it’s good!!

And naturally – jigsaws! 😃

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971)

I’ve finally found my reading mojo and so have been finishing a few titles which I thought I would review. I’ll start off with this one…

Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner (1971, Pulitzer Prize winner).

I do love some Stegner every now and then – typically very well written with true-to-life characters about whom you end up caring for the duration of the read. 

This one, Angle of Repose, has elderly protagonist Lyman Ward researching the life of his grandparents who had both gone to the American West as part of the pioneering mining-for-gold industry. 

Ward is trying to understand his grandparents via these old papers (including letters and diaries) which he has gathered from a local library, and interestingly, this novel is written as a mix of both a straightforward narrative looking back in time (from Lyman to the grandparents) and also as an epistolary novel (in that Stegner includes some slightly-fictionalized diary entries and letters from his grandmother character). 

So, this is the plot and the reader tracks along with Lyman as he ploughs through all this historical paperwork from his family. The reason why Lyman is doing this is fairly hidden until the last third of the novel, but this doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book but does clarify a lot of what’s come before when you do learn this. (So, hold tight if you read this. Patience, my friend. It pays off.) 

The novel switches back and forth between his grandparents’ lives and times and Lyman’s current life, where he is now an elderly retired history professor who lives by himself and whose son believes that Lyman should really be living in an assisted living home. The old man is helped by various assistants who come in, and his observations about these people are sharp as a tack, so he’s obviously still got his intellect. It’s his physical body that is failing him, so it’s rather a race against time in some ways. 

What was really so interesting about this novel was the actual story of how Stegner obtained and then utilized the background materials for the historical underpinnings of the story. Let me tell you – it’s a corker… 

You may (or may not!) have heard of a real-life American woman called Mary Hallock Foote who was a nineteenth-century writer and illustrator of pioneer life in the West. She has left behind a bounty of handwritten materials about the early mining life for many Victorian pioneers, and she had the industry connections as well since her husband had been the mine superintendent for some time. Stegner’s two main grandparent characters closely mirror this same lifestyle in the book, although they are not portrayed in a very flattering manner (especially the grandmother).

Stegner, as a real-life English professor at Stanford University, included one of Foote’s stories in his American Literature class that he was teaching in 1946, and a grad student in that same class decided to write his dissertation on Foote. The grad student had learned that Foote had a granddaughter who was living quite close and so this student visited the family with the dual intention of both asking the family for the collection of papers to be donated to Stanford Library and also for using them for his academic work. 

The family gave the grad student permission to use the papers with the understanding that he (the grad student) would publish from their content and also supply the family with typed transcriptions of the actual letters. Years passed with no dissertation, but when the grad student gave up that goal, he passed the transcriptions on to Stegner who took them with him to read over a faculty summer. 

A few years pass and Stegner comes up with the book idea (very influenced by the transcript materials and also by some of the people he knows), and thus Angle of Repose is scribed. By this time, Stegner is familiar with one of Foote’s granddaughters and it is she who gave Stegner the go-ahead to use the family paperwork however he wished. 

The trouble arrived when the rest of the Foote relatives found this out and learned that the plot was very heavily based on Foote’s own life and times, and when you look at the parallels, it’s obvious.

The Foote family had believed that Stegner would follow Foote’s history more closely and give her credit where credit was due. Instead, Stegner really carbon-copies the Foote life but with his own characters and in doing so, ends up being accused of plagiarism. (The book’s introduction states that just over 10 percent of the actual novel uses Foote’s letters in toto but with no credit to the original author.)

Stegner does give his thanks and credit to a J.M. at the start of the novel, writing: 

“My thanks for J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” 

So, it seems to me that both parties were working under varying definitions of what a novel is (or “should be”) and exactly how much Stegner relied on the papers. Perhaps it’s more of a communication problem than anything, because I can’t see this misunderstanding happening nowadays since a legal representative would more than likely be present in a similar situation. 

In the end, Stegner stuck to his guns saying his novel was “based” on the historical papers, but how much is too much? Needless to say, the Pulitzer committee gave him the prize in 1971 (which probably did not help things between Stegner and the family!) 

A number of years later (and before the book’s publication), a scholar received funding to publish Foote’s actual reminiscences and although this was great news for the Foote family, it put Stegner on tricky ground since it would be apparently obvious upon whom his novel’s main protagonist was based upon.

To his credit, Stegner got in touch with the family and offered to change character names and action in the novel (to protect the anonymity of Foote as author), but the family member didn’t want that nor did she want to read the manuscript. So, the printing went ahead…

Another issue that cropped up was that some thought that Stegner co-opted the life of the Victorian female writer. As a privileged white male who worked in a university, there was some umbrage about this…

As for what I thought about the book: I thought it was a really solid straight-forward read. It kept my interest throughout (although there was some wandering in the middle third of the novel), and I did become attached to the central characters (even if I didn’t particularly like them as people). 

I can see why the Foote family was disenchanted with Stegner’s portrayal: the grandma in the book is petulant and immature throughout her ENTIRE life on earth, holding her husband responsible for taking her away from her cultured East Coast friends and the letters which are quoted provide evidence of her small-mindedness and resentment (that NEVER goes away). 

I suppose in Victorian times, marital separation (let alone divorce) was very frowned upon but the couple were out West where laws only played a secondary role in life, so why didn’t she just up-sticks and move back East? And her husband was portrayed as a big dreamer in business without the skills to follow through on his ideas, but Heavens to Betsy – leave him. Instead, there are years of moaning and complaining about the life they lead (which, TBH, does sound hard), but then again, no one has a gun to his (or her) head. 

Apart from the niggling irritation with the couple, the actual writing and descriptions of the Western mining camps and their inhabitants was lovely. Stegner was a great writer – I have no doubts about that. 

I do wonder what he was thinking when he took this Victorian figure, unknown but hallowed by her immediate family, and then twisted her story very slightly (and not always in a positive light). I suppose he thought that he’d given the family the chance to review the manuscript and they had chosen not to, so it was a done deal. 

But don’t let all this drama overshadow the fact that Angle of Repose is truly a good novel. Think of it as an interesting sideline. 

And, I learned that the phrase “Angle of Repose” is from physics and is the actual angle at which material, when it’s piled up in a cone shape, actually stops moving – it reposes. Imagine a pile of sugar – the angle at which it settles and finally stops moving – that’s the angle of repose. 

The title (and its meaning) also opens up another can of worms, as the grandparents live an itinerant life moving from mine to mine — so do they actually reach their own “Angle of Repose”? You’ll have to read to see.

Swabbing the decks…

Well, I apologize for that unintended slightly-longer-than-I thought break there. Life has gone a little awry (just as it probably has for you all as well), and it’s taken me a little bit to get my bearings back. Our university classes all had to be moved online in a remarkably short amount of time, and it seems that I have spent most of the last couple of weeks either online in workshops learning how to do this effectively or messing around with the software needed to do it. 

However, I feel more comfortable with the software now and have a stronger idea of just how to make this transition work for both the students’ academic experience and my own personal one. I’ve learned to keep things as simple as possible and we’re all taking it day by day. 

Like an awful lot of others out there in book-blogging land, I found it hard to concentrate on reading for a little while, but this is coming back to me now. Thank goodness. 

Anyway, I thought I would make this post more of a catch-up post than anything and then I can move onto getting back into the swing of things. 

So – to the reading. I really enjoy Cathy746’s blog which focuses on reading from Ireland, and when I learned that she would be running February as “Read Ireland” month, I really wanted to join in with that. I toddled off to the TBR shelves and read the following as a tribute to the Emerald Isle: 

  • Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (F)
  • Death in Summer – William Trevor (F)
  • The Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy (F)
  • The Things We Lose, The Things We Leave Behind – Billy O’Callaghan (F/short stories). 

For two titles without links, I’m afraid that I didn’t write up official reviews for them. However, I can report that the Binchy was a great read – like “a big cup of tea with chocolate digestives” good read and it hit the spot at a time when stress was quite high re: the class online transition. (To give you an idea of that, I have never taught online nor have I ever taken a class online, so I had a lot of learning to do! I’m much more comfortable with the whole process now, thankfully to the high level of support from both the university and my faculty colleagues.) 

The O’Callaghan short stories were good with a couple of great ones in there. I think reading short stories as a unit is a bit of a gamble, and to be honest, I’m not convinced that reading the stories one after the other (as I did with this title) was the best way to experience them. I think I’ll probably make more of an effort to spread out the short-story reads a little more in the future. I bet that is a completely different reading experience that way. 

Anyway, O’Callaghan is an Irish author and this was a good read. I also have one of his novels on deck so perhaps that might be more up my alley. 

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Another read that was definitely up my alley was an old collection of themed essays from the acclaimed zoologist Sir David Attenborough. Called “Journeys to the Past”, this collection of writing pieces goes back to the 1960s when Attenborough was traveling to far-flung places such as Madagascar, Tongo and Australia’s Northern Territories “doing what he does best, journeying with camera and pen to observe animals and tribal customs in some of the remotest parts of the world,” says the book cover. 

Although written 60 years ago, this essay collection more than meets the mark for excellence in nonfiction writing. I had wondered if there would be some non-PC descriptions of places and peoples, but there were none. (I shouldn’t have worried. It was Attenborough, after all.) A thoroughly enjoyable armchair travel with an erudite and humorous host who plainly adores what he was lucky enough to do. He’s is just as thrilled meeting the local tribal representatives and learning their customs, despite his main focus being on animals, and his enthusiasm and respect for the individuals who he meets in the course of his travels were a balm for this frazzled soul. 

This was by far one of the best of the reads I’ve had in the past few weeks, and if you’re looking for some gentle reads combined with some far-off travel (from the comfort of your own shelter-in-place home), then you won’t go wrong with Sir David. 

A completely different read from Attenborough was a short read by NYT critic, Margo Jefferson, who wrote a small collection of provocative essays about Michael Jackson. (Yes, that Michael Jackson. Thriller one.) Jefferson takes a pretty academic lens to Jackson’s life and provides much food for thought about him. I’m still thinking about this read and am contemplating putting together a full review of this book since it’s got a lot of material inside the slim page count. (I’ve read some other Jefferson work: check out the review of Negroland here.)

So, I’ve been reading. And napping. And learning new software. And playing with my animals. And going for walks. And more napping. 🙂  I’m planning on adding more reading to this list from now on. 

Death in Summer – William Trevor (1998)

A second Trevor read for me (see review of Felicia’s Journey here), this was another tightly-wound narrative with wounded characters interacting with each other. (I wonder if this is a pattern with Trevor novels/short stories? I’ll have to investigate further.)

The plot revolves around the Davenant family and their big old house in which they have lived for several generations. Current inhabitants Thaddeus and wife Letitia (along with infant Georgina) have put a lot of money into renovations, funded chiefly by Letitia’s family money. 

In fact, this financial resource was really what pushed Thaddeus into marrying Letitia, as he doesn’t really love her. In contrast, his emotional attachment to his daughter is a surprise to him since his difficult childhood did not prepare him for loving anyone and so Thaddeus is faced with new feelings to handle.

At the same time as the fairly recent birth of his daughter, wife Letitia is killed while riding in country lanes on her bicycle, and so Thaddeus not only has to handle his almost-overwhelming and surprising (to him) adoration of Georgina but also face his wife’s death (and his lack of feelings with regard to that). 

Into the middle of this whirlpool of emotion arrives Letitia’s mother (Georgina’s grandma) who volun-forcesThaddeus into letting her live with him and Georgina in the house to “help” him parent the child. Prior to this arrangement, the family had been looking into hiring a nanny to help with childcare and so both Letitia’s mother and Thaddeus go ahead initially to interview three not-really-qualified young women.

It’s one of these three interviewees who really throws the spanner in the works for the small family. Both Thaddeus and Pettie, the young woman in question, have the same need to love little Georgina, but it’s expressed in very different ways and when Pettie commits a serious crime, things come to a head for both of these damaged adults. 

It’s a tightly-wrapped narrative, like a noose that is slowly strangling you, and when another death occurs in the Davenant orbit, is it a chance for redemption? And if so, for whom?

Another good read from William Trevor. I wonder how his short stories are?… [Toddles off to the library – if it’s open due to coronavirus.]

(Read as part of Cathy746’s Reading Ireland Month.)

Loving and Giving – Molly Keane (1988)

This was my second foray into the literature of Molly Keane (also published under the name of M.J. Farrell during the 1930s) and this was another read from her that was a good experience whilst also being slightly prickly. (See review of Devoted Ladies [1934] here.)

This novel, as implied by the title, is about the push-and-pull of tricky family relationships and how the central protagonist, at the start a young girl, tries her best to understand and adapt to the people who surround her. However, despite her efforts to be “loving and giving” (cue: title), the recipients of her intentions aren’t always responsive in predictable ways, and this was a little heartbreaking for me, as a reader, as I could see how this was slowly breaking this young girl’s heart (although the adults involved had no idea about this).

Nicandra, the lead character, is only eight years old and living in the isolated and rural world of a rather grand Irish estate called Deer Forest in 1914. Her life is organized and satisfactory. Her mother is beautiful and loved; her father distant and involved in running the estate; her Aunt Tossie walks about grandly in her widow’s weeds. But one day, her mother runs away and things change overnight for Nicandra.

Thrown into confusion and sadness (as of course no one has a conversation with her about her mother’s absence – them’s the times and place), Nicandra vows to make up for her missing mother by providing everyone left with lots of love and kindness. But things go rather awry.

The author was in her 80s when this was finished. decades after Keane’s other novels were published, but it’s clear that life has not softened the edges of her mind and how she handles her characters. This novel follows the sharpening of young Nicandra as her efforts to be kind are rebuffed and misinterpreted over the years and how these reactions shape her life in terms of loving and being loved.

It’s a sad novel in many ways and reflects how life doesn’t always turn out as glamorous as you would like to be. As the house falls into disrepair, so does the family break down, and then the ending of this novel was just fantastic. (Shan’t say anything about it, but believe me. It’s good.)

So, a prickly but enjoyable read. You don’t need to love the characters in a book to care about them, and this is ably demonstrated in this novel by Molly Keane. Another off the TBR pile (been there for years!) and read as part of Cathy 746’s Reading Ireland Month project. Thank you for the nudge to read this title!

Reading Ireland Month 2020 with Cathy746

I’ve decided to join in with Cathy (at Cathy746 blog) to read some books by (or about) Irish people or the country itself, and as a start (although it’s actually in its second week), I pondered to myself exactly how much Irish literature I’d read over the past few years.

(BTW, if you haven’t met Cathy yet, her blog is really interesting and all about Irish lit. She is one of its biggest cheerleaders in bookish circles, it seems.)

So, I went trawling through my blog posts and found quite a few. Most of these I have loved so I think you may as well. Have a nosie if you’d like:

  • Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw (1912) play

February 2020 Reading Review

February has passed pretty quickly for me, but it’s also a short month and smack in the middle of the school semester so it’s not surprising really. Still, weird to believe that Spring Break is just around the corner and then, it’s only a matter of weeks until the summer break. Whoosh. Time does fly faster as you get older, doesn’t it? 😉

My February reading was steady but slow, sadly. The most impactful read for me (as part of Black History Month) was, no doubts about it, Invisible Man by Ellison. What an amazing read. (It’s also a Scary Big Book [in terms of page count – 581 pp], but the story carries you along nicely for the most part.  

I must admit to wading in the weeds of confusion for parts of it, but the big picture is that it’s a memorable read and is a classic for a reason.

If you haven’t read it, do pull this title off the shelf. Just know that there are passages that are a little dense (or perhaps it was me who was a little dense?) Just keep on truckin’ through these and know that it all makes sense in the end. 😉

To the actual titles:

In progress:

  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/auto) POC
  • Inside this Place, Not of It: Narrative from Women’s Prisons – Robin Levi and Aeylet Waldman (NF/bio) POC
  • Total number of books read in February4
  • Total number of pages read1,229 pages (av. 308 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 F and NF
  • Male authors: 4. Female authors: 0. (Yikes.)
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 1 library book and 3 owned books. 0 e-books this month.
  • Books off TBR pile this year: 12. (Go me.)

Plans for March? Spring Break is on the horizon, so very looking forward to that (as are the students!) I’m also going to continue the POC topic/author and the reading-my-own-TBR trends and yet, at the same time, open my reading selection up to the rest of my TBR pile.  There are some other authors I’ve been itching to get my little hands on…

And I’m not sure if I’ve told you this yet, but I’m also on a serious book-buying ban. It started on January 27 and I’m holding out until the end of April. An occasional library book can get thrown in the mix, but for the most part, my focus is on my own TBR. It’s going pretty well so far – only one book purchase and it was for the Kindle. :-}

Onward and upward, my friends.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

Continuing the focus on my own TBR, this title floated to the surface as part of the ongoing recognition of BHM and making a concerted effort to read more POC authors and related topics. This title, written by Ethiopian-American writer, Dinaw Mengestu, follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant and struggling small shopkeeper living in Washington DC’s Logan Circle, a dilapidated but slowly gentrifying neighborhood.

The narrative also draws upon strong themes of identity, of belonging/not belonging, of friendship, money, immigration… The story covers a lot of themes, but it stays connected through the ongoing friendship of Sepha Stephanos, the shopkeeper, and his two African immigrant friends, Ken (from Kenya) and Joe (from the Congo). There’s also an important overlap with Sepha’s new neighbor, white history professor Judith and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. 

Different though all these characters may be to each other and different though their paths through life are, there are enough commonalities for the reader to understand the overlaps between them – some are more closely overlapped than others – but they are all struggling with the feeling of belonging: to the neighborhood, to the city, to the country… It’s really well written by Mengestu and emphasizes that lonely feeling of displacement, whether you were born in a place or not.

The three African friends (Sepha, Joe and Ken) all met earlier in their immigrant journeys when they were still quite new to the US and each had fled their home countries due to unrest. The one thing that they have in common is that they enjoy passing the time playing their own game of Dictators.

As they hang out together, each pretty lonely and left out from the American life surrounding them, the three men list the many dictators from the African continent, old and new, and vow that the game continues so long as they can continue to list these. However, it’s not played in a mean or thoughtless way. It’s mostly due to their connected African selves, their identities from years ago and the ones that they have not left behind, despite having committed to life in the States. 

When new (and white) next-door neighbor Judith and her young daughter move on to the street, they stick out. Judith’s new home is a ramshackle but large house, and there are weeks of renovations before they move in. It’s also the only house on the block that receives that sort of care from its owner, and so there are numerous reasons why Judith is kept at a distance by her immediate neighbors: she is white (in a non-white neighborhood), her intentions are not well understood, she is far more wealthy then most of the residents (witness the renovations of her new home), and she is an academic (when most residents are working class, if that). She also brings in one of the few children who lives on the street, so there are lots of reasons for her to be viewed with suspicion by the long-time residents on the block. 

So the matter of identity and belonging occurs to the other characters as well: for example, take Mrs. Davis, the elderly busybody widow who watches everyone and their business. She has lived on this street for decades and has seen it go into a decline. She is lonely but doesn’t really mean any harm, but she can’t adapt to the changes as they happen around her, so she is also suffering from a feeling of dislocation and not-belonging. 

Back to the book: Sepha’s business acumen is not that strong and with his store being located in a disintegrating neighborhood (with gentrification moving in very slowly), there is an overall feeling of dread in the story. How long will Sepha’s little shop survive in this section of the city? How will Sepha survive if the store goes under? Sepha’s friends are also surviving on a thin knife-edge, and even though Ken is an engineer, his life is still unstable. The men’s friendship, actually, is the most stable thing in each of their lives and so it plays a really important role for them (although they may not realize it). 

And this ongoing feeling of doom threads its way through the whole plot. There is the gradual building-up of racial unrest in the city (and the country). There is income inequality and all that that brings with it. There is change and instability in the neighborhood which can be hard to deal with for many people (especially if they have no control or impact over it – which they don’t.) 

It’s a powder keg in a way and all it needs is one flame. When Judith’s house is set on fire… 

In fact, the only character who manages to pretty much escape these feelings of loneliness and dislocation is 11-year old Naomi, Judith’s daughter from a broken relationship with a Mauritanian businessman father.  Being a mixed-race child, Naomi is able to float, in a way, between black and white, between new and old resident, between belonging and not-belonging. Although she is really a child, she is actually more immune to these negative feelings of the grown-ups, perhaps because she is not old enough yet to recognize what they mean.

So, there is lots to think about in this book, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also just a plain good read with a story that keeps you turning the pages and wondering about the characters. Mengestu is a good writer (witness his loads of awards) and despite coming out of an MFA program, this writing does not fall foul to the narrative templates that can sometimes arise with such program graduates. This is a good read. Recommended.

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.