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text 2019-09-08 11:13
Reading progress update: I've read 15%.
Hawksmoor - Peter Ackroyd,Derek Jacobi

Hooray -- what a relief to FINALLY be in the hands of an author who understands the absolutely terrifying effect of both a plague epidemic and the occult -- individually and, even more so, when experienced in combination.  After a week's worth of reading books with (alleged) supernatural and / or mystery and / or horror elements that went anywhere from "nice but kind of nondescript" to "infantile drivel", it feels like with this book and yesterday's impromptu revisit of Agatha Christie's Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, Halloween Bingo is finally beginning in earnest.

 

Obviously, it helps that this book is narrated by Derek Jacobi -- and I think it says a lot that not even Simon Vance's narration of two of the Agatha Christie stories managed to get too much into the way of my enjoyment -- but by all the gods in bingo heaven, I sorely needed some quality grown-up, well thought out writing, and Hawksmoor is delivering just that ... in spades.

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-03-31 20:51
Sonata in a Minor Key
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

Wow.  What a depressing read -- particularly so, the first half of the book (or thereabouts).  We're meeting four main characters who thoroughly seem to be passengers, not drivers of their own lives, in a trajectory from nowhere to nowhere (and not necessarily a different part of nowhere, either) -- all set, as I said in my reading status update from a little over the halfway point, against a quintessentially late 1970s backdrop of cheap drabness (with the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists's personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age.

 

Like others who participated in the buddy read, I felt by far the most drawn to Lettie; not only because she is the character whom we get to know the best both inside and out (and with whom it is thus easiest to empathize), but also because she is the one who most reflects about her situation and who is the most honest to herself

-- to the point of realizing, at the very end, that even at this comparatively late point of her life she does still have choices, however seemingly minor ones, and it is up to her and nobody else to make those choices.  (Norman, by contrast, is likewise given a choice and though he does realize it for what it is, he ultimately backtracks to the status quo, only a more secure version thereof; and Edwin -- the most financially secure and socially "established" member of the quartet -- never has sufficient incentive to change the status quo to begin with ... whereas Marcia's path is one of utter self-destruction.)

(spoiler show)

 

Throughout the book, I kept finding myself comparing the lives of the four protagonists with those of my grandparents and my mom: The former, selling the house where they had raised their children upon my grandpa's retirement from his job in a federal ministry and moving into a (much smaller, but comfortable) apartment and into a financially secure and, health allowing, active final 2 (or in my grandma's case, 3) decades of their lives.  And my mom, taking advantage of the generous early retirement program offered by the employer where she'd worked the final 2 decades of her working life, and making the most of it, with plenty of travel in Europe and elsewhere as long as her body would play along, and at 80 years of age still my opera-going companion and still in control of arranging her life just as she sees fit. -- And yet, only a few decades earlier (if my mom had not started but ended her professional life in the 1960s or 1970s), she might easily have found herself in Lettie's place, and the poorer for it.

 

This was quite a contrast to our first Pymalong read, and while Pym's fine eye for the workings of British society and of people's behaviour was again on brilliant display, I do hope our next Pymalong book will strike a less somber and subdued note again and leave more room for her particular brand of wry, gentle humour.  For a novel of less than 200 pages in length, it took me quite a long time to finish Quartet in Autumn and quite a substantial effort to return to it time and again -- if it hadn't been for the buddy read, I might quite conceivably have DNF'd it, not because it's not well-written (it is), but because it is simply such a depressing book.

 

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text 2019-03-17 00:15
Reading progress update: I've read 99 out of 186 pages.
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

Is this the fate that would have awaited Pym's heroine from Excellent Women, Mildred Lathbury, if she had decided upon permanent "spinsterhood"?

 

So quintessentially late 1970s -- cheap drabness (the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists's personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age.  Pym (1913-1980) quite obviously more than empathized with her protagonists -- but unlike other writers born before WWI and still publishing books in the 1970s (looking at you, Dame Agatha and Ms Marsh), she seems to also have looked upon the concerns and attitudes of the representatives of younger generations with quite a fair amount of sympathy.

 

Now that the two female protagonists have retired (and I'm about halfway through the book), it seems a good moment to take a break.  I wonder how Pym is going to keep the "quartet" together, though -- the office so far having provided their only, albeit persistent, point of contact.  I guess I'll be finding out tomorrow!

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review 2019-02-11 21:19
Probably full of literary merit -- but decidedly not my jam.
The Hour of the Star - Benjamin Moser,Clarice Lispector,Colm Tóibín
The Hour of the Star - Colm Tóibín,Clarice Lispector,Benjamin Moser,Melissa Broder

I wasn't planning to write a review of this book, but since I already voiced off in a PM, I might as well copy my thoughts into a post after all.

 

Long story short, I'm finding, once again, that a combination of art- and purposefully deconstructed speach and a virtually plotless description of drab lives -- or A drab life -- just isn't my kind of thing. Fortunately it's a short book -- picked deliberately because I had a premonition Lispector and I wouldn't get along -- but all the time while I was listening all I could think was, "OMG, and this is what they preferred to Barbara Pym in the 1970s ..."

 

There were moments when I thought, if only my Portuguese were sufficiently up to snuff for me to be able to read this in the original; maybe I'd be able to pick up on some note or subtext that just got lost in translation.  But if the translator's afterword is to be believed, the reverse seems to be true -- according to him, while people with only a limited understanding of Portuguese may actually be able to make some rudimentary sense of the book, it's a seven-times-sealed box to the average Portuguese mother tongue speaker.  This has to be the first time I'm hearing it's actually harmful rather than helpful to be fluent in a given language in order to be able to understand a book written in it. 

 

(The translator, who also wrote a biography of Lispector, goes on to describe that the original passages from her works that he quoted in his biography did not pass the muster of several copy editors in the Portuguese edition of that biography ... they all insisted on "amending" what they believed to be his own (flawed) sentence structure and punctuation.  So, he tells us, much to Lispector's fury also did the French translator of Lispector's very first book, in an attempt to make the book more palatable to French readers.)

 

And if Lispector's prose is, though no doubt highly artistic, also so construed and littered with sentences devoid of any meaning as to make it impossible to follow (especially in the first roughly 1/3 of this book), the audio narration made it even worse. Note to self: If encountering Melissa Broder ever again, run, don't walk away. Obnoxiously squaky, reading as if by rote, and with no sense of intonation -- and also clearly zero feeling for the text she was reading (which is partly down to Lispector herself ... but not entirely).  I was seriously tempted to DNF and quite honestly only finished listening to it in order to be able to check off Brazil on my world reading map chart -- though I do hope I'll find a better representative of Brazilian literature after all.  (Hopefully even a woman writer: I'm currently looking at Dora Doralina by Rachel de Queiroz, which MR reviewed a while ago IIRC, as well as Lygia Fagundes Telles, and, on BT's recommendation, Patrícia Rehder Galvão.  Further recs most definitely welcome.)

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review 2019-01-28 18:41
No wonder Barbara Pym appreciated Austen
Excellent Women - Barbara Pym,Alexander McCall Smith
Excellent Women - Barbara Pym,Gerry Halligan,Jonathan Keeble,Alexander McCall Smith

The same kind of seemingly unassuming writing, combining gentility (and apparent gentleness) with acute, razorsharp, detached observation of both society and its individual constituents, and a very subtle sense of humour.  Pym, like Austen, is far from being a revolutionary, but she notes the state of the world in which she lives and comments on it with wry humour and the self-deprecation only possessed by those who are truly beyond the need of advertising themselves.  And, of course, like all great writing (Austen's included), Pym's feels relevant and -- to use a word much bandied about in connection with this particular buddy read -- "relatable" long after first having been published, in a world that (at first blush) seems to have undergone quite a number of drastic turns since.

 

Like Austen's, Pym's writing abounds with memorable quotes -- in lieu of pausing every other minute to post yet another one while I was reading / listening to the book, let me just share this:

"'You could consider marrying an excellent woman?' I asked in amazement. 'But they are not for marrying.'

 

'You're surely not suggesting that they are for the other things?' he said, smiling.

 

That had certainly not occurred to me and I was annoyed to find myself embarrassed.

 

'They are for being unmarried,' I said, 'and by that I mean a positive rather than a negative state.'"

Preach it, Mildred -- and Barbara, of course.

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