Picturing a World
Literary tip for Anglophiles: Angela Thirkell's long Barsetshire series was written, in effect, in real time. Jutland Cottage (1953) and What Did It Mean? (1954) include the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Here at the end of the queen's long reign, I have pulled them out for a nostalgic visit to the England that shaped her. And for good measure, Corgi owner that I am, I have ordered a copy of All the Queen's Corgis.) Keep calm and read on?!?
My favorite book dedication is Rudyard Kiplings for Plain Tales from the Hills: "To the wittiest woman in India." Now it has a close runner-up, Natasha Pulley's in The Half Life of Valery K: "For Claire, Larry, and Jacob, who put up with me telling them pointless facts about nuclear physics for the whole of lockdown." The rest of the novel is terrific, too—I only wish it weren't frighteningly apt at a time when jitters about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine are all too real.
This month, my library book club is reading The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. A few of its characters first appear in The Glass Hotel so I decided to read the two novels together. What fascinates me is that Mandel gives the Hotel characters somewhat altered lives in Tranquility—not out of carelessness, but because it fits! The Glass Hotel is very much about how a person's world is created by circumstance and psychology. It has no paranormal threads; but, with a large cast and interlocking plot lines, it offers many, many takes on perception, construction, hiding, disguising, remaking, maturing, drugs, etc. Tranquility, by contrast, is an outright time-travel, sci-fi novel and, as such, opens yet other ways of looking at the worlds, including speculation about the future, (something Mandel did brilliantly in her break-out novel, Station Eleven).
I am reading a poem a day in The Heeding, a collection by naturalist and poet, Rob Cowen, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book is vividly illustrated by Nick Hayes (an evocation of place is on the dust jacket). Unlike many other disasters with global impact (including the war in Ukraine), COVID-19 has had immediate, individual effects on each and every one of us, which means that artists can grapple with it in very personal, concrete ways. I haven't really collected Pandemic Art, but I became aware when I bought The Heeding that a cluster of books is forming on my bookshelf. Nicholas Borden's Lockdown Paintings is a virtual contribution, a reminder of how important place can be.
I've just watched the trailer for a film I'd love to see: Eric Ravilious: Drawn to War. It will be released in the U.K. in July. Maybe it will come to the U.S. or be streamed someday. Meanwhile, just the trailer is a treat!
Thanks to Keith Gessen's review in The New Yorker, I bought a copy of Andrey Kurkov's Grey Bees because I wanted to know more about life in Ukraine. The novel is set in the Donbas after Russian separatists have turned the region into a war zone. It makes for illuminating topical reading now that Putin has assaulted the whole country; but far more important to me, it goes on my shelf of deeply humane books to treasure and reread. My husband loved it, too, incidentally. It should appeal to many audiences—and kudos to Boris Dralyuk, who translates smoothly it into lovely English.
I have just finished my third reading of Sick Heart River by John Buchan, published as Mountain Meadow in America (always read it in winter!). The first time through, I thought it was one of the strangest and oddly powerful novels I'd ever encountered. I still do. The second time, I looked forward with relish to its strong evocations of bitter cold and the harsh beauty of the Canadian wilderness. It delivered. This third reading brought out for me its structure and a consequent narrative technique.
The news that at eighty-seven Alan Garner has just published another novel—Treacle Walker—is reason enough to celebrate. No surprise: it's superb. As always, Garner's prose has the compactness, rhythms, and multilayered power of poetry. His imagination is vivid and odd. And it's all rooted in the part of Cheshire where he grew up and has lived almost all his life. Another reason to celebrate: he has made a gorgeous promotional video that shows the house in which the story is set, a copse that plays a part in it, and three talismanic objects.
I admit I've been reading more than writing in the last few weeks, so here's another recommendation. Last night I finished Pat Barker's new novel, The Women of Troy, a sequel to The Silence of the Girls (2019). I read each compulsively in big gulps. Troy ends full of possibilities for another installment. I hope she writes it!