#300 Cannery Row

I realised a while ago that there was a John Steinbeck book on the list that I hadn’t read but missed the chance to get it out and it’s taken me ages to find it there again (because it’s been lent out to other people, presumably, not because I forgot where it was). I’m a big fan of Steinbeck and of 20th Century American fiction in general (though not in absolution) so I’ve been looking forward to this, and (although I love the epic-ness of Grapes of Wrath) I was quite glad that Cannery Row turned out to be a collection of touching and sometimes funny vignettes.

In contrast to, for example, Upton Sinclair’s the Jungle, the narrative does not focus on the eponymous Californian canneries: instead it gives a snapshot of the lives of the people who live on the row who choose not to work there – drunks, prostitutes, shopkeepers. The vignettes revolve around Doc, a marine biologist. As Doc examines and studies his various collection of sea creatures, so we study the inhabitants of Cannery Row, and watch as they, in turn, study Doc. Doc is held up as something of a hero to the others – and they, in turn, decide they want to throw him a party to show their appreciation (which predictably doesn’t go to plan).

I think I read in the introduction that Steinbeck wanted a change after the politics of Grapes of Wrath and wanted to find a new way of writing. While he does this to an extent in Cannery Row, he continues to create characters who are both likeable and flawed, human and identifiable. It actually took me a few days to get through this, which surprised me because it’s only 140 or so pages long, so that isn’t a reflection of how much I enjoyed it or the length of it and I’d definitely recommend it.

#299 Cause for Alarm

I’ve been skimming back over recent entries to try and figure out whether Cause for Alarm reminds me of another book that I’ve read – or whether it was just so well written that I felt completely comfortable and familiar slipping into the narrative. Either way I think it is actually a while since I read any kind of spy book – I’d guess the last would have been the Spy Who Came in from the Cold – and I would rate this a million times better than the latter – despite my never having heard of this before.

Cause for Alarm is set in 1938 and follows an out of work British engineer, Nick Marlow, as he takes up a new post in Milan as a stopgap. In the opening scene of the novel we witness his predecessor’s murder – so already we as readers know that there’s something amiss – but Nick quickly realises this for himself upon arrival – even just in the luxury apartment kept by the man on not completely such a luxurious salary. Already something in the situation – he’s selling armaments in fascist Italy which – while I don’t know much about fascist Italy, to be honest – sets alarm bells of espionage ringing for me straight away – if the blurb hadn’t set me off. Of course the problem with espionage is that it is rarely straightforward – and it takes a while for Nick (and me) to realise everyone’s intentions and who can be trusted (I’m not entirely sure you can ever be completely assured of that). What ensues is an extremely well written and captivating, suspenseful novel which also manages to be funny and clever.

I wasn’t really expecting much when I picked this up – I think actually it very nearly didn’t make the cut – but I’m glad I did and if there are any more books by the same author on the list I’ll be looking them out soon.

#298 the Green Man

Kingsley Amis is an author who I feel like I should have read more of, but somehow has eluded me – I read Lucky Jim quite a few years ago but the Green Man only brings the total up to two.

From what I remember of Lucky Jim it’s eponymous hero was far from perfect, but I was still rooting for him, but I don’t really think there’s anything likeable about Maurice Allington – the alcoholic proprietor of the Green Man pub and inn, who is preoccupied with his attempts to bed his friend’s (annoying) wife, ignoring his own (second) wife and teenage daughter, who has come to live with him after her mother’s car accident death. In the meantime, Maurice begins to see ghosts around the (allegedly haunted) pub: his investigations into these sightings eventually overtake his obsessive perusal of Diane.

To be honest I’m not sure how much of a fan I am of Kingsley Amis – I found myself skim reading a lot of this and had to re read quite a few pages because I hadn’t been paying attention properly – and the story itself was quite interesting I suppose so I think it’s something more in his style of writing that doesn’t really grip me, but I think there are still (unfortunately – maybe) a few more of his novels on the list so I can see if that’s true of another book… in time.

#297 Like Water for Chocolate

So in preparation for a couple of weeks of commuting I managed to get 6 (because I couldn’t get any more) 220ish page books out at the weekend. I thought it would probably take a couple of days to read each of them but I got through Like Water for Chocolate in a day – it was so good I couldn’t put it down but I’m not sure if I’d ever heard of it before.

It’s the story of the Mexican, all female de la Garza family and its youngest daughter Tita, who is doomed to serve her mother until her (the mother’s) death – in a cruel family tradition – which means Tita is unable to marry her love Pedro who instead marries her eldest sister Rosaura to stay close to her (which I think is quite messed up). Each chapter begins with a recipe, which is fitting as Tita grew up helping Nacha (who I thought was her great aunt or something but is actually the family cook – but more of a mother to Tita than her real mother, Mama Elena) in the kitchen, and the recipe is made in the course of the chapter – for example, for Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding the recipe is for their wedding cake, to which Tita accidentally adds her tears and has the (comedic) effect of making all the wedding guests (save Tita herself) violently sick – so much so that Rosaura slips in it trying to find a discrete place to throw up and ends up covered in vomit, ruining her wedding dress. The novel is interlaced with magic realism such as this – although really to call it magic realism kind of down plays it. As evidenced by the recipes, food is a big part of the novel (as you would expect from a character who spends most of her time in the kitchen) – and Tita uses the meals she prepares to communicate her love to Pedro – incurring the wrath of her mother who is determined to keep them apart (despite them living in the same house).

I did try and read the recipe methods which are built into the narrative but ended up skimming them to get back to the main content of the chapters because the story itself is really good and although I’ve previously found magic realism (using it for want of a better word) a bit hit and miss I really enjoyed this. This also adds to the extreme minority of Spanish translations that I’ve read and I have to give credit to whoever did translate it (I have no idea) because they did a really good job – and I don’t mean that to sound condescending because of course different languages have different styles and traditions and they don’t always come across as well translated.

#296 The Postman Always Rings Twice

This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for years – based purely on its title (which is never specifically explained or referenced in the course of the story) – and I’m glad to say that it didn’t disappoint. 20th Century American fiction has always been my favourite “type” of literature and I’ve been reading around a lot recently, so it was refreshing to finally return to it – and with such an archetypal American novel.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a relevantly short book (at 116 pages, I got through it in an hour or so) but is fast paced and action packed – so really if it had been much longer I would have had to stay up later reading it – and really clever. At the centre of the novel is the murder of Nick Papadakis by his wife Cora and his friend/Cora’s lover, Frank Chambers; who finds himself at Nick’s Californian diner at the beginning of the story after having been ejected from the hay truck on which he was (secretly) catching a ride. Nick, a amiable Greek, offers Frank a job almost straight off the bat, which Frank accepts after catching a glimpse of Cora. Frank and Cora begin their affair almost immediately, and simultaneously their plotting to kill Nick (for whom Cora expresses a contemptuous repulsion) – despite Frank seeming to have nothing against him (“…a guy you like as well as I liked the Greek”).

The novel is set out very cleverly and the characters are extremely well written – one of the things I found most interesting is the way that (like characters in Hemmingway novels) Frank and Cora fall “in love” immediately – but in such a way that they do want to be together, not just sexually – and yet I never found myself questioning the validity of their feelings or their motivation or thinking that it wasn’t “believable”. This is definitely worth a read and I would highly recommend it to anyone.

#295* The Years

I’m not completely sure how I feel about Virginia Woolf – despite this being the fifth** of her books that I’ve now read I still regard her works with suspicion due largely to the tedious boredom that I encountered on my first attempt to read Mrs Dalloway. However, when I gave it a second chance a few years later I managed to get through it and even (grudgingly) liked it (a bit); since then I did find myself enjoying To the Lighthouse but to be honest both the Waves and (especially) Orlando were just a struggle to get through and I didn’t really come away with much more of a lasting impression of them than that.

The Years follows a middle class London family from the 1880’s through to the 1930’s: the Pargiters (Colonel Pargiter, his dying wife and their seven children), their cousins and subsequently their spouses and children as the novel progresses. The initial family dynamic is not completely what you’d expect – one daughter, Delia, eagerly anticipates her mother’s death and believes her father (who has a mistress we see him visiting early in the first chapter) feels the same. The family is already somewhat divided, with one son up at Oxford and another training to be a lawyer, the eldest daughter, Eleanor, involved in charity work and the youngest, Rose, only 12. At first we jump quickly through the decades, lurching from 1880 to 1891, then to 1907 when chapters tick on year by year, showing more gradual changes; but in doing so we are able to see the children’s growth accelerated, thus Rose quickly becomes an adult activist and Eleanor seems to go from her early 20’s straight to spinsterhood (which is perhaps a bit unkind, because she doesn’t seem unhappy but to me “spinster” does carry that connotation). I’m not sure that I’m selling this all that well – which is something of a misrepresentation because I did actually get through this quite quickly without much tedium, but to be honest I don’t think that the story particularly gripped me. For me I think the most illuminating moment was the Pargisters’ servant, Crosby, moving into her own lodgings following the father’s death and hanging pictures of the family on her wall after having served them for 40 years and (seemingly) having no other life or loves, which I found saddening (especially given Martin’s – her favourite – flippant attitude towards her when she comes to collect some laundry from him).

I suppose one thing that was interesting was the way the characters and their relationships evolved through the years – the novel focuses largely on Eleanor who, following her father’s death, seems to travel most of the continent and then on to India in her much later life; and then in later chapters on Peggy (struggling to remember all the tenuous family connections…) one of Morris’s children, who is a doctor and finds herself unable to express herself at Delia’s party at the end. North and Martin (I think) spend time living abroad “in the colonies”, as does (cousin ?) Kitty, while Edward wiles his life away in Oxford and another daughter, Milly (who seems annoying although we only really glimpse her briefly in the first chapter) becomes really fat. I suppose I’m trying to say that I liked the way the family spread out and then comes back together again and how they all end up old (with a slightly disillusioned Peggy trying to comprehend how they could ever have fallen in love) despite their different lives – some being more conventionally interesting, while some more unconventional (like their cousin Sally, who seems to have a lose grasp on reality that’s not really properly explored – or at least not in a way that was basic enough for me to properly follow – but I was glad to see her being championed by the younger members of the family). Ultimately I think I’m clutching at straws a bit here, and although I do appreciate Virginia Woolf’s writing I don’t think I’ll ever be her biggest fan.

*In crossing this off the list I realised I missed Orlando – which I distinctly remember reading and not enjoying one summer, so this boosts the total up to 295 instead of 294

**See above, I think it’s probably a good reflection of my feelings towards her that I managed to miss one of them out of my total count – although in saying that I’m a bit surprised because it’s generally the more tedious novels that I do remember and am keener to cross off (to avoid having to accidentally read them again).

#293 Love in a Cold Climate

As I begin studying again I’m having to snatch the opportunities to read as and when I can – so I’m surprised I got through this so quickly. I hadn’t heard of Nancy Mitford before (which I feel a bit bad about now) but this title stood out to me on the bookshelf – reminiscent a bit, I suppose, of Love in the time of Cholera – which I’ve wanted to read for years based primarily on it having a good title (although I have a feeling it’ll be quite dry and all those excited expectations will come to nothing). Again, I have to betray how shallow I am when it comes to reading by saying that my first impression of the novel was one of dismay, when I opened my copy (happily, Love in a Cold Climate only occupied some 170 pages in the ‘Love in a Cold Climate and Other Stories’ volume I picked up – and lucky that Love in a Cold Climate was the one referenced in the title as there aren’t any other Nancy Mitford novels on my list so I would have skimmed over it otherwise) to find a much smaller than expected print size.

In the first couple of pages, our narrator (Fanny) introduces the Hamptons, an aristocratic English family with a celebrated lineage, whose youngest member Polly (christened Leopoldina) is Fanny’s friend. The only offspring of aging parents, Polly is described as a great beauty but quite flat – Fanny says of her that her looks make you want to “gaze and gaze”, but at balls and society events prospective suitors quickly flee to less stunning but more animated young women. This is problematic for Polly’s eccentric and self satisfying mother, who wishes above all for Polly to marry (to the point of tediousness) and is preoccupied with her observation that her daughter doesn’t show signs of being in love – nor ever has.

I normally try not to describe one author by comparing them to others because I don’t want to do them a disservice – but because I hadn’t heard of Mitford before and because I want to try and convey the strength and wit of her writing I would have to say she reminded me of a cross between Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh (and reading the introduction once I’d finished the novel I found out she was a friend and contemporary of the latter). I’ll admit that the first few pages didn’t exactly inspire me with hope for the rest of it – and this could be in part due to the uninspiring nature of Polly who dominates the beginning of the novel (and who, even when she does finally cause some scandal, did not really live up to my expectations); but the rest of the characters are really well written and amusing – with peculiarities and eccentricities that really are akin to Austin or Waugh (my favourite is Fanny’s bad tempered Uncle Matthew, who believes that by writing his enemies names on bits of paper and putting them in draws he will bring about their deaths, leading to all the draws in their house being full of scraps of paper and him feeling a few days of triumphant guilt in the rare instance that any of his named victims do drop dead). The introduction to the collection cites Mitford’s novels as the type that you’d take on holiday and enjoy – but wouldn’t abandon in the hotel or on the plane, rather that you’d take back home and keep; by this I take it to mean that they are witty and accessible, but stay with you (literally and figuratively), which I think is true.