Review 1468: Swimming Home

I didn’t know what to make of Swimming Home because the situation was unbelievable to me. First, there is some timeline confusion because of a short scene dated July 1994 in which Kitty Finch is driving dangerously through the Alpes-Maritimes at midnight with a man. The scene seems threatening, and you get a sense of dread.

Then, the main action of the novel begins with no timeframe, so that you don’t know if the preceding scene comes before or after it or even what year we’re in until there are references later on.

Joe Jacobs, a poet and serial philanderer, has rented for the summer a villa in the Alpes-Maritimes with his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, his young daughter Nina, and another couple. They come home to find a naked woman in the pool, looking dead. She is not dead, she is Kitty Finch, a beautiful but clearly disturbed woman. She makes an unconvincing explanation that the owner lets her stay there sometimes off-season and she got her dates mixed up. It is not off-season, however.

Do they show her off the property? No, they do not. They invite her to stay in the extra room. In particular, Isabel invites her, which gives rise to wondering for the rest of the book.

In fact, it shortly comes out that Kitty knew Joe Jacobs was staying there and wants him to read her poem, “Swimming Home,” which is about suicide. It is clear all the way that the novel is working toward death, but the ending is surprising.

I read the novel for my Booker Prize project, and I’m still wondering about it.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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Day 1177: Song of a Captive Bird

Cover for Song of a Captive BirdI have this little quirk. I’ll pick out a book, but when I actually get around to reading it, I don’t look at the blurb to remind myself what it is about. If I’d done that, I would have known that Song of a Captive Bird is about an actual person, and that knowledge may have affected my reaction to it. On the other hand, a novel should stand or fall on its own merits, not because of what you know or don’t know about it before you begin reading it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad is having a difficult time with the strictures of her culture. She wants to be a poet, but the role of women in her country is still only that of a wife and mother. She has always been a difficult child, and as a young woman, her first act of rebellion is in trying to select a husband for herself. She chooses her cousin Parvez because of a shared interest in poetry.

She marries Parvez but at the cost of losing the regard of her father, a powerful general under the Shah. But marriage isn’t what she expected. Instead of staying in Tehran, her husband takes her home to his small village where they live with his disapproving mother. In the village, her every action is scrutinized.

link to NetgalleyThe novel follows Forugh as she pursues her career as a poet and later a film director despite being slandered, attacked, and viewed as a prostitute by most of Iranian society. It is interesting in its evocation of this time and culture, especially the details of everyday life and the build-up to the Iranian revolution. However, something was missing for me. The novel did not seem particularly successful as an inspiring and moving story of one woman’s courage.

I think my reaction was because of Darznik’s choice to write this novel in first person. There was something about that perspective that didn’t work, particularly at the end of the novel. Although I think I would have ordinarily been touched by this woman’s story—she was certainly gifted and courageous—something about the novel kept me from getting fully involved.

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Day 1157: This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Cover for This Is a Poem That Heals FishI read about This Is a Poem That Heals Fish on Brain Pickings and had to have it for my great nephew. It was difficult to find a copy (but no longer is).

Lolo at the bicycle shop

The book has a simple story. Arthur’s fish Leon is bored almost to death. When Arthur asks his mother what to do, she says, “Hurry, give him a poem!”

So, Arthur spends the rest of the book trying to find out what a poem is, getting advice from various people and animals in the neighborhood. For example, Lolo at the bicycle shop says “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” From everyone’s comments, Arthur makes his own poem at the end of the book.

This is a lovely book, with beautiful, modern illustrations and ideas that make you ponder. Although I am giving it to a four-year-old, I think it could be appreciated by any age.

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Day 814: Passion

Cover for PassionPassion tells the stories of the Romantic poets from the points of view of their women. It begins with each as a young girl, starting before Romanticism with the broad strokes of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin Shelley’s mother, a famous early feminist, writer, and philosopher.

Mary Wollstonecraft dies shortly after childbirth. Her daughter, Mary Godwin, grows up worshipping her mother and taking seriously the ideals of her father, William Godwin. However, he compromises his principles (he doesn’t believe in marriage) by marrying Mrs. Clairmont, a woman Mary detests. Her ideals and the poisonous atmosphere at home make her open to the advances of Percy Byssche Shelley, even though he is already married. She runs off with him at the age of sixteen, unfortunately accompanied by her stepsister Jane (who later calls herself Claire).

Lady Caroline Lamb loves her husband, but she is prone to a certain instability that her husband’s family deplores. When she sets eyes upon the famous Lord Byron, she is entranced and is soon engaged in a flagrant affair. When he breaks with her, she stalks him, sneaking into his rooms, following him around dressed as a boy. Her behavior is a scandal.

The only woman George Byron really loves is his half-sister Augusta. Even she succumbs to his charms. After he makes the mistake of marrying a self-righteous and vengeful woman, his worst secrets come out and he must leave the country.

Fanny Brawne comes late to the novel. She falls in love with a neighbor, John Keats, but he is a victim to a family weakness, consumption.

This material could be sensationally or romantically told, but it remains at a distance from us, more like biographical writing. We do feel sympathy for some of these women, especially for Mary Shelley, but I was not drawn right in. Although the book is named Passion and we know that this emotion was an important force for the Romantics, we don’t really see much of it in the novel, nor truly understand just what the attraction is to this group of neurotic young men. Sometimes I could catch a glimmer of the attractions of Byron, the only one who did not seem permanently deluded about the virtues of humanity. Still, for firmly setting a background for bits and pieces of information I picked up over time, I mildly enjoyed this novel. Although I admire the intent of Morgan’s more serious depictions of figures from literature, I have so far enjoyed most his romance novel, Indiscretion.

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Day 794: Classic Club Spin #10! Selected Poems of Robert Frost

Cover for Selected PoemsMy book for Classics Club Spin #10 is Selected Poems of Robert Frost. I have to confess to not having quite succeeded in finishing my selection this time, but more than 300 pages of poetry is a lot of poetry to read. I got about halfway through the book.

Poetry is just not my thing, I guess. I did enjoy many of the poems in this book, but they were the same ones I’ve enjoyed before, so it was like visiting old friends—“Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Acquainted with the Night,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Most of these, I notice, are devoted to observations about nature or are about rural work.

I do not so much enjoy what Robert Graves refers to in the introduction as his “poignant country dramas,” like “The Death of the Hired Man.” They seem more like prose to me, which is ironic, since I am generally more comfortable with prose. But they are not what I come to Frost for. I come to him for things like this:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.

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Day 779: The Quickening Maze

Cover for The Quickening MazeThe Quickening Maze is the first book I read purposefully because it’s one of the finalists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. By coincidence, I had already read half a dozen finalists and winners, and when I learned that Helen of She Reads Novels was trying to read them all, I decided to join her.

This novel is based on events in the life of the poet John Clare, known as the “peasant poet,” a man of rural background who was steeped in his natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Clare is having some mental problems and is staying in an asylum in Epping Forest. Nearby is Alfred Tennyson, whose brother Septimus also resides there.

John Clare seems to be doing well under the treatment of Dr. Matthew Allen. When we first meet him, his movements are relatively unrestrained and except for some confusion about a girl he knew named Mary, he seems sane enough. He is soon given a key to the gate so that he can walk in the forest.

Another patient important to the novel is Margaret, who is regularly transfixed by visions of angels and messages from god. At one point as Clare’s mental state deteriorates, he mistakes Margaret for his Mary.

Dr. Allen seems to have a gift for dealing with his patients during a time when mental health practices were deplorable. However, he also has a fascination with risk, and soon he is trying to talk his friends and the Tennysons into investing in his new invention, a machine for following the shape of furniture and carving additional pieces.

Hannah Allen at 17 has decided that Alfred Tennyson is the man she’d like to marry. She boldly begins seeking him out, not realizing that he is preoccupied with his brother and with grief over the death of a good friend.

Although this novel is more about the internal workings of some of the characters’ minds than its historical setting, it is beautifully written and atmospheric. I was interested in this narrow slice of history and curious to look at some of Clare’s poetry.

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Day 679: The Bees

Cover for The BeesThe Bees is a collection of more serious poems than those included in The World’s Wife, also by British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. This collection is more diverse in subject matter and quite varied in form, containing sonnets, haiku, free verse, and even drinking songs. And many of the poems are about bees.

In “Bees,” Duffy even presents her poems as bees: “brazen, blurs on paper,/besotted; buzzwords, dancing/their flawless, airy maps.” In this poem she finishes with “and know of us;/how your scent pervades/my shadowed, busy heart,/and honey is art.” My niece, a beekeeper, would especially appreciate that.

I understand that after Duffy’s mother died, she did not write for some time. Especially touching are some of the poems about her mother. In one, she gives her dying mother a last drink of water and remembers the times her mother brought her water when she was a child. In another, a remembered kiss from her mother after she was out in the cold as a child makes her think of kissing her dead mother’s lips.

Some of the mythological figures visited so vividly and amusingly in The World’s Wife, Sisyphus and Achilles among them, are revisited more seriously here.

The poetry is lyrical. It is sometimes harder to understand than the works in The World’s Wife, but it always sings.

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Day 623: The Goblin Market and Selected Poems

Cover for The Goblin MarketI don’t know much about the life of Christina Rosetti. I know a little more about her brother, the artist Dante Gabriel Rosetti. The introduction to this book of her poems says that something happened to her when she was 15 that changed her from a mercurial child into a controlled, careful young woman. Certainly, her poetry shows a preoccupation with religion and death. It is also brimming with life, full of nature and love.

In “The Goblin Market,” for example, her descriptions of the goblin’s fruit are luscious. But though I understand the introductory comments about the poems being too sexually explicit for Victorian tastes, I see this poem as more about the pleasures and temptations of life versus spiritual values.

Some of the poetry in this collection dwells on themes I am not that fond of, but there is no doubt that the language is vivid and gorgeous. I don’t know if the poems are arranged sequentially, but some of the earlier ones remind me somewhat of traditional folk songs. Her sonnets employ an unusual rhyme scheme, close to Petrarchian, but with the last six lines using a different scheme.

One of my favorite poems was “In an Artist’s Studio,” about how the artist paints and repaints his model:

Lizzie Siddal
Dante Gabriel Rosetti portrait of Lizzie Siddal

He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.

I know that Dante Gabriel occasionally painted Christina when she was young, but this poem made me think of how he obsessively painted his mistress, Lizzie Siddal.