February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist

March was a strong reading month. Through March and April I’ve been very busy at work so finding time to read was a challenge. The answer was shorter, punchier books – books with an impact beyond the mere weight of pages.

I’ve also been trying to catch up on some backlog reading. Like many heavy readers I tend to buy more than I can read, so I’ve consciously taken the opportunity to browse my own shelves a little. That’s been a big success, so I expect to be doing more of that over the coming weeks.

Anyway, without more ado here’s my March reading.

Slimer, by Harry Adam Knight

I read Harry Adam Knight’s novel The Fungus back in January (short review here), and even though I’m not sure I’d recommend it exactly I did rather like it. So, I thought I’d start March with another ‘80s horror shocker.

The Fungus was fun but flawed. The vision of a weirdly post-apocalyptic London entertained even if some of the violence and the treatment of women distinctly didn’t. Slimer just isn’t as good, and is much nastier.

It’s basically a rerun of SF horror classic Who Goes There?. Horror fans will of course know that as the source novella for the equally classic movie The Thing (the earlier movie version of The Thing isn’t nearly as true to the original novella, though it is very good).

Here four castaways find a secret research station set up on a disused oil rig. At first they think there’s nobody there, then they discover what may be some survivors of whatever happened, then they realise that perhaps the only survivor is a creature able to take the forms of those it absorbs.

It’s not a bad concept, but it’s already been done (and better) and here there’s some really unpleasant sexual violence. Not one I’d recommend.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, by Violette Leduc and translated by Derek Coltman

This is one from Penguin’s recent and rather lovely European writers series. It’s my personal favourite of those I’ve read from that range so far.

It’s about a destitute old woman, desperately poor and eking out a threadbare existence with a handful of coins; her sole luxury is a small tin of carefully hoarded and measured out coffee beans.

I say her sole luxury, but that’s not quite true, because there’s also her fox fur. Like her it’s a tattered old thing, discarded by its former owner.

The fur is the woman’s only friend, and yet her desperation is so great that she considers selling it. Does it have any value though to anyone but her? And even when you’re starving are there things still more precious than money?

It sounds bleak, but somehow it isn’t. This is partly as it’s beautifully written, partly as it’s incredibly humane, and partly because Leduc never forgets the humanity of her protagonist.

It’s an intense and impressionistic novel, but short and easily read. Highly recommended. Grant’s more detailed review at 1streading is here.

Fell, by Jenn Ashworth

This is a slightly odd one, as I bought this entirely by mistake. I meant to buy Daisy Johnson’s Fen but at the time couldn’t clearly recall the author’s name. This was back when I used to buy books from Amazon (I don’t any more), so I didn’t browse it to see I’d ordered the wrong book.

To make things worse, I’d heard mixed things of Fell, which had been described to me as weak stuff. It’s a ghost story of sorts, though that’s more a narrative device really. A woman in her forties returns home to the fens after the death of her father and stepmother, her mother having died years before. The family house is nearly in ruins, quite unfit for habitation, but it becomes apparent the woman is slightly disturbed and she becomes obsessed with restoring it.

Her arrival wakes her parents’ spirits, for want of a better word. They can only observe, but their observations can track through time as well as place and so they look back to a long-ago summer when their lives and their daughter’s went off the rails.

Decades past, when the girl was just a child, her mother was dying. On one of their last summer outings they met a young man who appeared to have miraculous gifts, the power to heal. He somehow cured the father’s terrible eyesight, something he’d lived with all his life and which had prevented him serving in World War Two. If he can do that what can’t he do? If he can do that, why shouldn’t he be able to cure the mother’s terminal illness?

What follows is a parallel tracked narrative. The present, with the ill-judged attempts to restore the house and a new friendship with a tree surgeon called in to help; the past with the parents, their family of lodgers brought in to pay the bills, and the young man with a miraculous gift he seems curiously unwilling to use.

What I liked here is that while the ghosts are a narrative device, the healing isn’t. The young man has real power, but no real control over it. The book then becomes partly a study of faith, and partly a sort of grim whydunnit. We know from the present strand that he didn’t heal the mother, but it takes time to understand why.

The book becomes a character study – of the father; the mother to a degree; absolutely of the young man with his unwelcome gift (he dreams of being a tailor, but when you can heal with a touch it’s hard to live that kind of ordinary life). It’s also of course an examination of the damage unwittingly done, in the form of the daughter in the present with her memories of that long past summer stirred up by her return.

For me, Fell was rather an effective piece of literary horror. It’s very much in Andrew Hurley territory (who provides a blurb for it I notice). If you like him there’s every chance you’ll like this.

Finally, I don’t know for certain, but I strongly suspect Jenn Ashworth also wrote Holt House (published under a pseudonym).

The Revolt, by Nina Berberova and translated by Marian Schwartz

I discovered Nina Berberova through Guy Savage’s review here. This was my first by her, but won’t be my last (not least as for some reason I broke my usual rule and bought another by her before reading this one).

Two lovers part on the eve of the German invasion of Paris. One, Olga, stays behind to take care of her uncle who is a famous man of letters. The other, Einar, flees speaking of how much he wishes he could stay or take Olga with him.

Years pass. Berberova captures the war in a handful of pages and in four key visits to Olga’s uncle from the German authorities. After the war and her uncle’s death she travels to Sweden, where she once again runs into Einar and discovers why he never responded to all those letters she wrote…

This is a fantastic novella. It’s an examination of second chances and old loves rediscovered, and of the dangers of trying to rekindle old flames and lost dreams. I’ve said very little of what happens or why, because you should read this for yourself to find out. Very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.

The Waitress was new, by Dominique Fabre and translated by Jordan Stump

Another of Guy’s reviews, here, put me on to this one. It’s the story of Pierre, a middle aged Paris barman whose quietly ordered life is put into mild disarray when the owner of the bar where Pierre works has a mid-life crisis.

That doesn’t sound very dramatic, and to be honest it isn’t. We follow Pierre for a few days as he tries to deal with the fallout of the owner’s absence – keeping the bar going with the help of the cook, the owner’s wife and a new waitress. They manage fairly well.

Meanwhile, Pierre reflects on his customers, on the barman’s trade, and on his own life. It’s incredibly small, quiet stuff. I loved it.

The old woman in The Little Fox Fur is in fact only sixty, hardly old at all by modern standards but her life is essentially spent. Pierre is fifty-six, which now is just middle aged. Still, he’s not in as good position to bounce back as he once was, and he hadn’t planned for having to make a new future if the bar fails.

Guy refers to this as a melancholy and introspective novel, and I can’t better that. I said above that it isn’t dramatic, but in another sense it is. Our lives rarely involve uncovering conspiracies, solving murders, or sudden devastating family revelations. But loneliness, aging, fear of an uncertain future, doing the best you can regardless – these are intensely human concerns. It’s fair to say this is another strong candidate for the end of year list.

Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s Journal also wrote a (typically excellent) review of this here.

After Supper Ghost Stories, by Jerome K. Jerome

Kaggsy reviewed this here, and liked it a lot more than I did. The after-supper ghost stories are only a small part of the overall book. They are very funny – a series of frankly improbable ghost tales with an even funnier framing device.

After that though, the bulk of the book is a series of comic essays many of which are rather rambling and few of which are funny. It’s like reading a series of humorous newspaper columns, but concerned with issues of another century.

I felt a bit had by this one. The title of the book and the back blurb didn’t really suggest that the main part of it wasn’t actually comic ghost stories at all, which was what I bought it for. I’d suggest seeing if you can find another edition with just the ghost stories themselves – there’s probably a free version on kindle.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos

Oh I wanted to like this. I love the film, and it came highly regarded by Jacqui of JacquiWine (here). Sadly, I didn’t.

The novel is written as the diary of Lorelei, a not-so-dumb blonde who travels to Europe with her seemingly sharper brunette friend Dorothy. Lorelei likes to think of herself as civilised, cultured, and of Dorothy as a bit of a savage.

They’re sent to Paris by Lorelei’s patron and admirer Mr Eisman, the Button King. The idea is to give them a little education, but Lorelei isn’t for educating and judges everywhere and everyone unfavourably in comparison to the US and to US gentlemen.

I loved the depiction of England, where a series of impoverished aristocrats constantly try to sell the rich Americans whatever they have nearest to hand. Europe is full of wolves looking to prey on the unescorted sheep they see the girls to be, but what they don’t reckon on is that Lorelei is the biggest wolf of all.

Lorelei cares about jewels and she cares about shopping. She cares about men to the extent they provide those things – Dorothy by contrast actually gets fond of some of them. They work well together, and their adventures are by and large pretty funny.

What didn’t work so well for me were Lorelei’s accidental misspellings and misunderstandings, many of which read to me as a highly literate journalist writing how they thought a less educated person might write. I simply didn’t believe that Lorelei would think she was travelling on “an oriental express”, rather than the rather famous Orient Express the name of which would be plastered everywhere around her.

Similarly, I didn’t buy her thinking she was in a country called The Central of Europe, or at least not for any prolonged period. Too many of her errors felt affected to me, like Loos was laughing at her rather than us laughing with her.

The book does come with delightful illustrations (I’m a sucker for a nice drawing in a comic novel), and the characters are nicely observed. It was just Lorelei’s voice that didn’t quite gel for me and that’s a shame. Still love the movie though.

The Cowboy Bible, by Carlos Velasquez and translated by Achy Obejas

I learned about this one from Grant at 1streading, here. It sounded raucous and unruly and full of barely contained energy, and it is all those things. Unfortunately, for me it also contained a lot of fairly showy writing that looked good on the page, but fell apart after a moment’s thought.

Essentially, this is a collection of very loosely linked short stories set in a fictional Mexican province. The Cowboy Bible is the linking element, but a protean one that changes from story to story. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes a person, later some shoes. Like much in the collection it’s really just some words, without anything particularly underpinning them.

The stories vary hugely, and are often surrealistic. Many are intentionally offensive (international competitive pubic hair carving competitions for example). There’s an intentional shock factor.

That’s not really the problem – it’s a fallacy to criticise a book for doing what it sets out to do, even if you don’t particularly like what it does. What is a problem is that when anything can happen it doesn’t much matter what does.

In the opening story the protagonist is a luchador. Here though luchadors compete not just through wrestling, but also through musical battles (a bit like rap battles). Velasquez slips fluidly in his descriptions from one to the other, with the result that I could read all the words but could form no mental image at all of what was actually happening much of the time.

Worse for me was a tendency to use phrases that sounded great at first reading, but on reflection didn’t really mean anything. “The Cowboy Bible came down from the platform sad and lonely, as if she’d just swallowed some matches.” What? There’s a lot like that – Velasquez loves the little twist at the end of the sentence but while it surprises it doesn’t really do anything more than surprise.

So, it’s not my book, but interesting if you want a dive into a sort of punk/rock-and-roll version of contemporary Mexican culture. Besides, if you like everything you read you’re probably not challenging yourself enough to try new things…


Filed under Ashworth, Jenn, Berberova, Nina, Fabre, Dominique, French, Horror, Jerome, Jerome K., Leduc, Violette, Loos, Anita, Mexican fiction, Novellas, Russian

14 responses to “February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist

  1. A very interesting selection of books, Max, plenty of range and diversity there.

    I’m so glad you loved the Fabre – it was Guy’s review that put me onto it too, so all credit to Guy for uncovering such a gem. I still think about Pierre every now and again, three years down the line. It’s a book shot through with a real sense of humanity, a feature you bring out in your summary review.

    So sorry about the Loos, though – I can tell how much you wanted to enjoy it! Funnily enough, while I couldn’t get enough of Lorelei at the time, she faded quite quickly like the summer sun. As a consequence. it didn’t quite make my end-of-year highlights last year, but I would still put it on the next tier down. Anyway, I can see what you’re saying about Lorelei’s affectations and misspellings – that’s a fair point!

    As for the others, I really like the sound of the Leduc. It’s been on my radar for a while, ever since Grant reviewed it (love his blog), so your recommendation of it here may well push me over the edge. Sounds as if I ought to investigate the Berberova, too. Unsurprisingly, the setting and period really appeal.

    I hope work eases up a bit over the next few months and you manage to get a break. (Lovely to see this post from you, btw – I always look forward to hearing more about your reading.)

  2. Like Jacqui I’m taken by your descriptions of the Leduc and the Berberova. Though French I’d never heard of Leduc and, now that I’ve looked her up, I see she had an interesting life among interesting people! The “lonesome woman with fur” theme reminds me of Katherine Mansfield’s story Miss Brill, which I’ll re-read when I read this Leduc (luckily in a library near me!)

  3. Thanks both!

    The Fabre is marvellous, and I’d like to read more by him (though probably not too close together since I understand he tends to re-explore similar themes in his work).

    I don’t regret reading the Loos, one can’t like everything equally. As I say at the end, one has to push oneself a little outside one’s comfort zone, though not sure I’d say the Loos is outside anyone’s comfort zone. It’s not that sort of novel.

    The Leduc and Berberova are both very good. I’d probably give the edge to the Berberova, though I suspect the Leduc is more technically complex. That’s really a matter of personal preference though, both do what they do very well. Both are also very quick reads if that’s helpful…

    I don’t know Miss Brill, or indeed anything by Katherine Mansfield (I think I thought she was an actor, possibly confusing her with the marvellous Katherine Hepburn whose image comes to mind). I’ll take a look.

  4. That’s very helpful, thanks. I may well go for both, especially as they’re short. The Leduc puts me in mind of Jean Rhys (I recall thinking that at the time of Grant’s review, and your summary has reminded me of it.) Would you say there are similarities between the two writers or is that totally wide of the mark?

    Also, re: the Loos, I forgot to say that I’d be interested to see how you find Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, should you decide to read it at some point. (It was written as a sort of German response to the Loos.) Looking back, I think it’s a stronger book than the Loos, more memorable and enduring – and the portrait it paints of Weimar-era Berlin is very evocative. Worth considering, even in light of your response to the Loos!

  5. Though I miss your longer reviews, I do look forward to your summaries.
    I also liked The Lady and the Little Fox Fur – probably my second favourite in the series after Death in Spring. I’ve just read The Trains Were on Time and hope to review it soon.
    I also recently discovered Nina Berberova – earlier this year I read another of her novellas, The Accompanist, in a similar edition.
    Sorry you didn’t enjoy The Cowboy Bible – although I did find it a bit uneven.

  6. I did indeed enjoy the Jerome! And although I get your point about the misleading title (because the humorous ghost stories really are just a short part of the book), looking back on my review I recall that I did find his essays somehow touched a modern nerve in places.

    The Leduc is excellent too (I did it for Shiny New Books). I have many more of her books which I read back in the 1980s but I can recall little about them. On the strength of this they probably deserve a revisit.

    As for the Berberova, I might just have to invest – I’ve loved what I’ve read by her and your high praise makes it just irresistible… ;D

  7. I rather like the sound of The Lady and the Little Fox fur. The Waitress was new also sounds interesting. A really interesting selection of books.

  8. JimF

    [[nudge]] You’re still typing “Fen” instead of “Fell”, Max. Makes it a little confusing, just sayin :-).

  9. Leduc is a lot more lyrical than Rhys, more obviously stylised (Rhys has tremendous style, but very quietly). Some similarities of subject though, albeit the woman in Leduc is much older. She could in some ways be a Rhys heroine years later…

    Grant, we can’t like everything, and if we did it would suggest we weren’t pushing ourselves anyway. The Leduc is great. I saw you had put up a review of Trains and will take a look at that soon hopefully.

    Kaggsy, I think Berberova might as well have been writing for you!

    Heavenali, both are really good, and both very different to each other. I don’t think either would be a disappointment for you.

    Jim, thanks! I’ll correct that. It does rather show how I made the initial error…

  10. Thanks for the mention. I’ve read several from Berberova and have never been disappointed. She deserves far more recognition.
    BTW I recommend Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy

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