Reluctantly Returning to Reading

When I read a book a day, I never imagined not wanting to read.  Most of my life revolved around stories professionally and personally but when my own story became the drama, it’s plot was too complicated to let any other in.  Needless to say, I won’t reveal the personal – those who know me already have it – but my unexpected separation from bibliotherapy taught me to savor moments of inspiration and not take them for granted.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription survived the purge of my bookshelves with two boxes of notable reads sent to the library annual booksale.  I uncovered its red cover under the dust jacket and it followed me until I gave in and opened to the first pages.  Many of you have already read this complicated spy novel with a twist I almost missed at the end, and Atkinson has already produced another book published last month.  But if you haven’t read Transcription, its story holds enough historical information to tease you into wondering what is indeed fact, as well as Atkinson’s trademark knack for plot twists to keep you  reading between the lines of the characters’ lives in this tale of espionage and treachery.

Juliet Armstrong flashes back to her life as a secretary secretly transcribing conversations for the British spy organization MI5.  Jonathan Dee neatly summarized the novel in his 2018 review for The New Yorker with enough detail to satisfy your curiosity if you are still deciding if you want to read the book – Kate Atkinson’s Spy Novel Makes the Genre New.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book led me to more books.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is listed as  one of Atkinson’s references.  Firzgerald’s 1980’s novel tells “the fictionalised experiences of a group of BBC employees at Broadcasting House, London, in 1940 when the city was under nightly attack from the Luftwaffe’s high explosive, incendiary, and parachute bombs.”  I became a fan of Fitzgerald after reading The Bookshop.

Atkinson’s newest publication revives her detective series with Jackson Brodie as the star Cambridge detective.  Of course, I need to backtrack to the first book – Case Histories – and maybe proceed to the other four before my library waitlist number for her latest, Big Sky, comes up.

So I have books to anticipate, and more.  A friend sent me hardback copies of the newest Elin Hildebrand and Jennifer Weiner books; my stack is growing again.

What have you read lately?

Related Reviews:

100 Years Is A Long Time to Last

December has the centenary anniversary of two of my favorite authors – Shirley Jackson and Penelope Fitzgerald.  Have you read The Lottery or The Blue Flower? If you have not, consider celebrating with a few of these authors’ good stories.

unknown-1A few years back I was so excited to hear a local book club had invited the author of The Lottery to speak; imagine how disappointed I was to discover it was a local author with a fictionalized memoir of buying a winning ticket in the sweepstakes.  Sadly, many in the audience had not read or heard of the famous author of horror and fantasy, Shirley Jackson.  When I read Jackson’s short story The Lottery as a young girl, her eerie Gothic world fascinated me, and I soon went on to read The Haunting of Hill House.  Her practice of writing one thousand words a day – more ambitious than Virginia Woolf’s goal of two hundred fifty – cemented her place in my list of writers to model.  December 14 is her 100th birthday.

unknown-2 Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald’s short novels accidentally opened a quiet escape for me.  I have her Man Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore, on my to-read list, but my two favorites of her writing are The Blue Flower and The Bookshop.  In her obituary for The Guardian, Harriet  Harvey-Wood wrote of her: “Throughout Fitzgerald’s novels, there are certain recurring themes, the most striking of which is the single-minded and blinkered innocent (usually male), whose tunnel vision causes disaster to those around. There is an example in almost every book, the most satisfying perhaps being Fritz von Hardenberg, Novalis in The Blue Flower.”  Perhaps because she found her voice later in life (writing The Blue Flower when she was 78), Fitzgerald represents an author to emulate. December 17 is her 100th birthday.

Addendum:

22trevor-obit-blog427 Today, a friend told me William Trevor died, and I looked for his obituary in the New York Times.  Although his birthday is in May, he deserves recognition.  I discovered Trevor when I read he was a favorite author of the revered British actress Maggie Smith, and I enjoyed his lyrical Irish flavor in The Story of Lucy Gault.  Have you read it?

 

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

9780395869468_p0_v1_s260x420Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald has given me the same rush as finding Jane Gardam – seasoned English authors do that to me.  In her slim but powerful volume of The Bookshop, Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale reminds us of the smallness of some people and the uncomfortable closeness of small-town living.  Although Fitzgerald first wrote her book in 1978, bookshops are still disappearing and courageous people who dare to challenge, are still are still being thwarted.

Middle-aged widow Florence Green decides to open a bookstore in a small British seaside town.  Since this will be the first bookstore in a town without even a library, her forward-looking venture would seem  heroic.  However, Florence did not count on the town’s self-appointed arts doyenne, Mrs. Gamart, jealous of anyone who would challenge her authority over the town, who suddenly decides that the old, leaky, haunted site of the new bookshop that has been empty for years, should be the town arts center, under her supervision.

With her determination, Florence’s initial success with the bookshop and her customers’ clamour for the new bestseller, Lolita, only raises the ire of fellow shopkeepers who greedily envy her short-lived success and irritates Mrs.Gamart.    Despite the patronage of the town’s old monied recluse, the bookshop falls to Mrs.Gamart’s lobbying for a new bill to take over the “historic” building, leaving Florence with no car, no money, and no books.

Throughout the story, Fitzgerald offers her unique brand of wit through Florence, changing morose actions into satire, sometimes with farcical asides.  It’s easy to laugh at the haughty dames and be wary of the scurrilous BBC announcer.  And, just when it seems Florence will be saved, her hero falls over dead.  Sometimes, the good guys don’t win.

 

Penelope Fitzgerald and others

The ubiquitous Gone Girl never seems to go away.  Gillian Flynn and Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild) are paired in an article about books made into movies in this Sunday’s New York Times.  I have yet to read Wild, and may wait for Reese Witherspoon’s version, but I share Bob Odenkirk’s view from his New York Times interview in “By the Book” –

I thought “Gone Girl” pushed the unreliable-narrator gambit past the breaking point. Please don’t hit me with your copy of “Gone Girl.”

Nevertheless, I read the article and admired the two self-posessed American forty-somethings.

Still searching for inspiration, I found Stacy Schiff’s review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography – a new book by Hermione Lee.  Schiff, the biographer of Cleopatra (see my review here ), notes the rediscovery of an older woman who had marinated through most of her life, before producing her first novel at age 60 and winning the Man Booker Prize in 1979 when she was 63 (proving it’s never too late).   The Blue Flower, published when Fitzgerald was 78, is called her masterpiece.

9780395859971_p0_v1_s260x420Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, describes The Blue Flower as a “novel about youth, hope, idealism, and the imagination…

The Blue Flower imagines the families, history and ideas of late 18th-century provincial Germany, the period in which the philosopher Novalis (Fritz von Hardenberg) was a young man, just when Romanticism was emerging…a mysterious short book… Fritz’s family life, his work as a tax collector for the salt mines, his philosophical education, the story of the woman who silently loves him, his romantic passion for the naive Sophie, who dies a cruel death, and the landscape of his everyday life…his visionary dream of a blue flower that can never be found haunts the book like a half-remembered tune…

Music is very important to the novel, and it is constructed, boldly, in short scenes, like moments in a dream or songs. The blue flower keeps shifting its meaning. What is its name, Sophie asks him. “He knew it once,” Fritz replies. “He was told the name, but he has forgotten it. He would give his life to remember it”.

Fitzgerald said once that the blue flower is what you want of life. “Even if there’s no possibility of reaching it, you must never give up”.

I am on my way to pick up a copy from the library.  It sounds familiar but I don’t remember reading it.

Have you read it?