A World Elsewhere

 A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston said he was inspired to write this story after visiting the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. The Vanderbuilt family's names are here changed from George, Edith, and Cornelia, to Pagett, Gertrude and Godwin Vanderluyden, and their home to Vanderland. The story, and all the words and actions of the characters are fiction.

Landish Druken met Pagett Vanderluyden, called Van, as a student at Princeton. They became good friends but when they left university, after Van set Landish up and got him expelled, they went their separate ways. Van, who would inherit a fortune, went to North Carolina to build the house he claimed would be the most magnificent in the country. Landish, who rejected his own inheritance because of differences with his father, went back to Newfoundland to live in an attic room in poverty. 

Landish adopts a baby boy because he holds his own father responsible for the death of the child's father. Back in the attic room he tends the child, spending his days writing and each night burning what he wrote. When he becomes desperate to provide for the boy, he writes to Van asking for help. Eventually they join him in North Carolina at Vanderland, where Landish is to tutor Van's daughter. That sounds like a good opportunity, but both Van and Landish are deeply troubled characters and it turns out to be a precarious situation for everybody.    

At this point I found the story dragged a bit and I began to wonder what the point was, but his writing is so good I didn't think seriously about not finishing,  and in the end I was glad kept going.  

The characters in this book and others of Johnston's that I've read are unlike any I meet anywhere else, and yet they are always relatable on some level. They're just peculiar enough that you are compelled to try to understand them, even when you're furious with them. You want so much for them to succeed, to live better, to stop self-destructing. There are layers and layers to each of them, and to the plot - he really is a brilliant writer. I did like this one, but maybe not quite so much as the others. 

I got the opportunity to visit the Biltmore Estate a few years ago and it is nothing short of breathtaking. It's a working estate with a tourist village that's fun to explore, but the jewel of the estate is the house, as seen in this picture I took while there. Hard to believe it was home to a family of only three, but at least one of those floors was probably used to house the large staff required to keep it running.

We stayed at the nearby Biltmore Inn, also a beautiful place. This was our lovely room:

And here's the link to their website where you can take a virtual tour: 

How To Stop Time

 How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a rare condition called anageria, causing him to age at an extremely slow rate. He looks 40 but has actually lived over 400 years, which may not be as great as it sounds. If he stays very long in one place people become suspicious and question why he's not aging, and that's usually followed by all sorts of rumors and wild accusations. As a boy, his mother is accused of witchcraft; as a young man, he is forced to leave his wife and daughter behind for their protection. It's a dangerous life.

In time he finds others like himself and is recruited to The Albatross Society, an organization formed for the protection of people like Tom. The man who runs it arranges for the members to be relocated every 8 years with complete new identities in exchange for which they do jobs for the Society. Tom accepts a mission that leads him to change his thinking about what life is for and how it should be lived. 

In his current situation as a teacher, he meets, and is attracted to, a woman who says she recognizes him from a very old painting. Tom knows the first rule of The Albatross Society is "don't get involved in relationships", but he's lonely and he likes her. Eventually he has to tell her the truth about his age...I'll let you imagine how that conversation goes.        

It's an interesting story - if a bit heavy on angst - that asks some serious questions. What is life for? Does it matter how you live? If you had unlimited time, what would you do differently? Is more time necessarily better?   

I liked this one, and these lines in particular:

"...the only reason such music exists is because it is a language that couldn't be communicated in any other way..."

"The main lesson of history is: humans don't learn from history."

"...you only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth."

" I understand that the way you stop time is by stopping being ruled by it. I am no longer drowning in my past, or fearful of my future."
"To teach feels like you are a guardian of time itself, protecting the future happiness of the world via the minds that are yet to shape it."

As I Lay Dying

 As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This is my second Faulkner, after reading The Sound and the Fury a few years ago. I greatly admire his writing, but yikes is he intense! I had to keep coming up for air, but it was worth it. His characters are mesmerizing, so real it's easy to forget you're reading fiction. And his stream-of-consciousness writing gets you so into their heads that it's calming in a way and disturbing in another. It's absolutely brilliant, but it is not light reading. 

The story is about a poor, rural family in Mississippi, the Bundrens. I want to say they're dysfunctional because they surely do have their peculiarities, I'm just not sure what "normal" means anymore and I'm not sure all families aren't dysfunctional in their own ways. 

The dying mother, Addie, lays in bed listening to the sound of hammering and sawing drift in through the window as her son, Cash, builds her coffin in the yard. This slightly unsettling picture sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

When Addie dies, her husband, Anse, sets out with their children, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman to take Addie's body to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi where she has asked to be buried. They are beset with all kinds of problems on the journey, often brought on, or at least exacerbated by, their own actions or inactions. Sometimes I was deeply moved by these characters; other times I wanted to shake some sense into them. 

I found the story a little confusing in the beginning so I looked up a plot summary and made a character list to keep all the narrators - there are 15 of them - sorted out. That gave me a better idea of what was happening and a sense of where the story was going. Once I got situated, I could see how each character's personality was being revealed as the narration switched to one to the other. Faulkner's characterizations are utterly fascinating.

These are some of my favourite lines:

"I don't know if a little music ain't about the nicest thing a fellow can have."

"Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered, as though it and the arm functioned in a tranquil conviction that rain was an illusion of the mind."

"I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He love, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be firm if He don't take some curious ways to show it, seems like."

To read As I Lay Dying, as with The Sound and The Fury, is to be pulled into a storm of feeling and turmoil that leaves you a little disoriented when it's over, but also leaves you astonished that the author could do all that with just words. Simply amazing.

Victory! and it only took 12 years...

Back in 2010 when I started this blog, I found a lot of "Must Read" and "100 Best Novels of All Time" and "Best (English) Novels of the 20th Century" lists. They introduced me to a lot of great authors and their books, but I needed to make a list of my own, one for all the books I felt I should have read at some point in my life but hadn't. These were books I'd heard a lot about over the years but had never gotten around to reading, and every time I read a reference to one of them somewhere I'd kick myself again for procrastinating. The result of all that angst was a "Guilt List" of 100 books I wanted to read enough of to at least find out what all the fuss was about. 

Well, it turns out that most of them were not difficult or dull or any of the other things that caused me to put them off, and I am pleased to say that after 12 years I have finally reached the end of my Guilt List. One hundred titles tackled, some more than once, and most finished. And what a sometimes fun, sometimes tedious, mostly interesting, gratifying experience it has been! 

I read authors I'm now embarrassed so say I had never read before: Atwood, Faulkner, L'Engle, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, DuMaurier, Maugham, Ishiguro, Ibsen, Woolf and more. I look back now and can't believe how much I'd been missing all those years. I've been catching up though, enjoying more and more of their not-on-my-list titles.  

One result of this experience has been to learn what kind of reader I am. The rich, beautiful writing I discovered in some of these books has made me less satisfied with those that are less well-written or edited. And I've learned that I read for many different reasons - escape, education, comfort, entertainment, and sometimes simply to challenge myself with something I know will be difficult. But I've found that in all of it, it's the writing that makes the difference. If I don't enjoy the way the author puts words together I won't like the book regardless of the story or the characters, but if the writing is beautiful I won't care so much if there is a hole in the plot or a flimsy character. My favourites are the ones I find myself putting down often to absorb a beautiful phrase or perfectly worded sentence. Those moments are what make reading magical for me.        

Some on my guilt books earned a place on "My Favourite Books" list: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Patton, The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, A Christmas Carol (seeing a dozen film adaptations isn't the same at all) by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner by George Eliot, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

And, of course, there were some I just flat out didn't like: 

 - Ulysses by James Joyce: I got half way through and quit, angry with Joyce and frustrated with myself for having read so much of it just to prove I could. But I tried Dubliners later and thought it was great.  

 - Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe: I abandoned this one about half way through, too, because I was not enjoying the experience. 

 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: I mean, everybody reads that and loves it, right? I tried - twice - and couldn't get interested, but it's so popular that maybe I'll attempt it again one day.

 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is another one I attempted twice, but I strongly disliked the characters and found it slightly ridiculous. 

 - Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust: Seven long volumes and I lost interest in the early part of Book 1.

 - 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I tried, I really tried, but I just didn't get it. 

 Getting to the end of the list was both satisfying and quite a relief, but I no more than finished the last one when I found myself thinking about other books I "should" be reading. The temptation to make a new list was strong, but I talked myself down and I think I'm finally done reading "shoulds". I'm enjoying my new freedom so much I might remove a few books on my tbr shelf that I've been avoiding for years, though the thought of actually doing it is still slightly horrifying. I did once want to read them after all. 

For now, I'm going to celebrate this small victory in my life. Probably by buying more books.  

The Novel

 The Novel by James A. Michener

It's been years since I've picked up a James A. Michener novel. Back in the 70s and 80s, before online used bookstores were a thing, I'd buy the biggest, thickest novels I could find to get as much reading for my money as possible. Michener's books offered epic stories in which I could immerse myself for a few days and which were usually set in places, times, cultures, or industries about which I could learn something while I read. I picked up this copy just as I'd finished a couple of disappointing reads, knowing it had to be better and looking forward to learning a bit about the world of publishing. Granted this is a fictional world, but Michener was known for his in-depth research so I trust him to know what he's talking about. 

The book is divided into four sections: The Writer-Lucas Yoder (108 pgs), The Editor-Yvonne Marmelle (74 pgs), The Critic-Karl Streibert (158 pgs), and The Reader-Jane Garland (103 pgs). You can see the critic gets the most attention, and I confess there were moments when I grew weary of Mr. Streibert, still this was the section I found most interesting. Getting their four different points of view on what literature is and isn't; learning a little about the publishing and marketing processes; and seeing how writer, editor, critic, and reader depend on, and spar with, each other was enlightening. In addition to all that, it was a good story with well fleshed-out characters and decent writing. 

I'd like to have another one on my shelf, maybe The Source. I read it a long time ago and remember being quite impressed with it, though I remember little of it now. Michener wrote over 40 books, including his Pulitzer Prize winning, Tales of the South Pacific, so there's lots to choose from. The guy sure could tell a story.