Sunday, 4 November 2018

When the Skies of November Turn Gloomy

What should one do when, in the words of the famous Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, "the skies of November turn gloomy?" How will you manage when the temperature drops, the rain lashes your windows, and you haven't seen the sun in days? Actually, I think you know the answer to that question perfectly well. Read, people, read. Build a big fire in the fireplace, make a pot of tea, snuggle up with your significant other, and read. 

Last of the fall  leaves along the Rideau Valley Conservation Society walking trail
Weak sunlight and fallen leaves on my walk the other day
And I have just the book for gloomy weather and troubled times. Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Christopher Buckley writes in The New York Times that Less is the "funniest, smartest, and most humane novel" he's read in a long time. I would agree.

The title character Arthur Less is a middle-aged writer, about to turn fifty. His long-time publisher has rejected his latest novel, and his younger lover has ditched him and is about to marry someone else. Oh, and he's gay. But that fact while integral to the story of Arthur's life, of course, seems relatively unimportant to the reader. That's because, to the reader, Arthur Less is simply a lovely man struggling with life and love. When Less gets an invitation to his former lover's wedding he decides to be conveniently out of the country when the event takes place. So, feeling dejected, rejected, old, and quite possibly a total failure at life, he decides to accept a myriad of invitations to literary events across the globe. Hauling from his desk drawer invitations he has heretofore ignored, Less pieces together a weird odyssey from Mexico City, to Italy, Berlin, Morocco, Southern India, and on to Kyoto, criss-crossing continents doing all manner of literary and non-literary things, teaching a short creative writing course to university students in Berlin or riding a camel train in Morocco. And while doing so he rewrites and repairs his latest book, and pretty much heals himself in the process.

Rainy dark day on the Rideau River
Too damp and gloomy to walk today.
I adored Arthur Less. He reminded me of another hapless protagonist I remembered from my university days when I read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. When Less takes a sleeping pill while flying and stumbles off the plane and through one airport after another in a memory-erasing fog, I was reminded of my favorite scene from Lucky Jim. The one where Jim has to give a lecture to students, staff, and guests at the school where he teaches, takes too much sherry at the reception beforehand to bolster his courage, and stands clutching the lectern, weaving, and unconsciously imitating the voices of his principal and other worthies, at the same time watching himself in horror, unable to stop as he sinks his career. I love that scene. But I must say I found Arthur Less much more lovable, and less exasperating than Jim Dixon. 

cover of Andrew Sean Greer's novel Less

I can't say enough good things about Less. Recently at my book club meeting, I gushed, and gabbled, and pretty much took over the conversation. I'm sure the ladies were quite tired of the sound of my raptures by the end of the afternoon, especially since not all of them shared my opinion. My love of Greer's plot and character, and his wonderful depiction of setting as Less criss-crosses the globe, were enhanced by Greer's beautiful writing. He is a master stylist. Writing lyrical passages with a deft hand, never over-egging the metaphor. Ha. I earmarked way too many passages to transcribe in this post. But, if you want more detail, take a look at Christopher Buckley's review here

At the moment I'm currently reading Kate Atkinson's latest novel Transcription. I'm a huge Kate Atkinson fan, as you might know if you've read my reviews of her books here. This novel begins when Juliet Armstrong is hit by a car in the midsummer twilight in 1981, as she returns home from a concert. Lying on the pavement she thinks: "there was no way out from this. She was just sixty years old, although it had probably been a long enough life," although it suddenly all feels like "an illusion, a dream that had happened to someone else." And thus the reader is catapulted into Juliet's "dream." Back to post-war London, when she worked for the BBC, and before that to wartime London, when she'd been a naive eighteen-year-old recruited by MI5. 

cover of Kate Atkinson's newest book Transcription

Atkinson's plot moves back and forth among the various time periods. Juliet's life in 1950 post-war London and her mundane job at the BBC seem bleak. But Atkinson is such a skilled writer that she draws us into the mundanity of Juliet's life, her wry humour, and her older-than-her-years ennui. During the work week, she eats her solitary lunch on a bench, her homemade sandwich "a pale, limp thing, a long way from the déjeuner sur l'herbe of her imagination that morning. Later we follow Juliet for coffee at a café she's frequented since before the war, where she muses that the café was a "thread in the labyrinth, one that she could follow back to the world before the war, to her self before the war. Innocence and experience butting up against each other in the greasy fug of Moretti's." She supposes "there was a better life somewhere... if only she could be bothered to find it." 

Life as an MI5 recruit at the beginning of the war is mundane too. Juliet's job is to transcribe taped conversations held between an MI5 operative and so-called "fifth columnists", German sympathizers. At first her job is mind-numbingly boring, listening to scratchy almost inaudible conversations about nothing even remotely important. Then she is drawn into undercover work, and feels as if she is living out a story from one of her childhood Girls Own adventure stories. False identities, secret code words, and invisible ink. Attending parties dressed in borrowed jewels, drinking with fellow, young MI5 agents and then stumbling home clutching each other, giggling in the darkness of the black-out. And then things get very real. And much more complicated, as we knew they would. 

I'm only about half-way through the novel, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I love how Juliet is so quiet, innocent, and seemingly compliant, but also wry and given to quoting Shakespeare at inopportune moments. She reminds me of a Barbara Pym character, if Pym had ever written about an "excellent woman" who becomes a spy. If you've read Pym you'll know what I mean. If not, then let me just say that it's folly to underestimate a character who is very easily underestimated. Spinsters, dedicated church ladies, single young women who quote Shakespeare... all can have hidden resources. 

rain on the branches along the Osgoode Trail
Autumn rain and bare branches mean it's time to light the fire, and settle in with your book. 
So that's how I'm coping with the gloomy skies of November, my friends. Reading, sipping tea, warming my feet by the fire. And singing Gordon Lightfoot songs in my head.

"Superior they said never gives up her dead/ When the gales of November come early." I love Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," a ballad so beautifully written that the lines keep swirling in my head, snatches of disembodied verse from the song he wrote in the seventies about a ship that went down on Lake Superior when the real "gales of November came early" in 1975. If you're Canadian you'll already know that, of course. Every Canadian knows at least a couple of Lightfoot songs. Or they should. Have a listen.



Speaking of lyrics swirling in my head. When Hubby and I were flying back from Rome a couple of weeks ago, the flight attendant announced that due to turbulence they couldn't serve us tea or coffee, and I leaned over to Hubby and whispered "When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'/ Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya." And when he ignored me, I continued: "At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said/ Fellas, it's been good to know ya." I may have received a dirty look at that moment. Ha. Okay, okay, I concede that's not the best song to be singing when mid-way over the Atlantic. 

Now, I must go and finish my packing. I'm heading off tomorrow for two weeks in the east at my mum's. My books and my boots were the first things in the suitcase. 

Gloomy November skies, no matter where they are, call for a long walk if it's not raining, followed by a good book, and a hot cup of tea. Don't you think? 



What have you been reading lately, my friends? 




Linking up with #ShareAllLinkUp and Thursday Favourite Things

17 comments:

  1. I haven't read Transcription yet -- I'm waiting for a copy from the library and there's a looooong list ahead of me. But I splurged on my own copy of Michael Ondaatje's Warlight and enjoyed it immensely -- have I mentioned to you before (on IG? in an email?) that it sounds as if it will read well with Atkinson's noel? I also loved Miriam Toews' Women Talking -- and my husband finally picked up my copy, intrigued, and he's now absorbed in it. Dark material but if you know Toews' writing, you'll know she can render that funny and beautiful while making us think and feel . . . And then I needed something lighter so I read Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (translated by Alexander O. Smith), and now I'm just finishing Kamin Mohamaddi's Bella Figura: How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way. . . delicious fun, very well written, and it might make you think about Florence differently -- armchair travel might be better than the real thing ;-) Enjoy your time with your Mom, you kindred spirits sitting by the fire with your tea and your books. Hope the weather is just rough and gloomy enough to make that the right choice, but not so much that you can't get outside for a stretch now and then. xo

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  2. I'll just second all the Frances good wishes for your trip and so precious time with your mother (and I hope for much better weather,you two could resist and stay reading as well,I'm sure. Or go to the lovely library you've described before)
    Less is a wonderful book,I've enjoyed reading so much till the end (and the end......!!)
    And,as a girl gotta read some funny and entertaining book,too,I've read Bella Figura as well
    One of my little,hidden (for me) gems was Dodie Smith's I Captured the Castle,old coming-of-age-book so lovely written
    I love CJ Sansom and his Tudor's time mystery series,so it was a pleasure to read the new one-Tombland
    Now ,I'm reading Kathy Wang's Family Trust-Kathy is one of the bloggers,too,who,while staying at home with two little kids under three,wrote a book
    Have a nice two weeks
    Dottoressa

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  3. Having got back from Scotland , we’ve moved into the sitting room & had our first open fire of the season . We all enjoy that , especially the dogs . Books become even more enjoyable & I shall be noting all the recommendations . I agree with Dottoressa that I Capture The Castle was a lovely book . As for me , I’ve been mixing fact & fiction lately . I wasn’t a big fan of Richard Burton , though he was an excellent actor , but he writes beautifully . His Diaries book was a great brick of a thing to carry round in hardback but worth it . Very honest with lots of self awareness - from his early days in the poverty of the welsh coal mining area to the heady days of Liz & her jewels , though in private they potterered round like any old married couple ( plenty of bickering ) . Then Ice City & Ice Lake by John Farrow - perhaps recommended by you ? Very good . It makes Canada seem like a frozen wasteland , which I know isn’t true from you bloggers there . Peter Robinson’s latest disappointed me . It began well but became rather repetitive & I got weary of his whisky & music . Then Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown , a wonderfully funny collection of observations by friends & others who knew Princess Margaret . Not for ardent royalists but I loved it & it confirmed everything I’ve ever heard about her . Better stop now or I’ll witter on all day & you need to get to your mums . Hope she’s well & that you enjoy your time together .
    Wendy in York

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    1. OH, I'm so glad you enjoyed those John Farrow books -- I go on about them every chance I get -- think they deserve much broader readership, although the novels are big enough to be a commitment (Personally, nothing better for me than a big, fat, juicy mystery novel, if it's really well written). There are a number more of Farrow's Emile Cinq-Mars series as well. . .

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    2. Yes Frances , I have the first of the trilogy ready but they are surprisingly difficult to get in the uk & not a bargain for us - worth the effort though. Perhaps it was you who recommended them ? If so thank you
      Wendy

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  4. I love this song. I remember clearly the moment I first heard it on a summer evening in 1977, literally stopped me in my tracks as I pinned up posters and pictures in my room. As for reading, I am tempted by Less, I must say. It also reminds me of David Lodge's Small World, by the sounds of it. As I have put books on my Christmas list, I am loath to buy more at the moment so it might be a library trip today. Definitely reading time of year here. Reading, running, and Poirot on tv will get me through. Plus more Gordon Lightfoot, I think. Enjoy your trip.

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  5. Remembering Gordon Lightfoot songs from my youth, I finally saw him in concert at Royal Albert Hall in London when I was on a solo visit there in 2016. His wry humour and laid back style in evidence; it was an enjoyable evening. Made me laugh at your use of his lyrics in the turbulent skies over the Atlantic.

    As for reading, Transcription has passed through my hands and back to the library, as well as Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo and, just finished this early morning, a biography on Eliza Hamilton by Tilar Mazzeo. The latter read in anticipation of seeing Hamilton on stage in London in January. Ron Chernow's book on Hamilton is also sitting on my bedside table, partially read at this point. Hope you have a lovely visit with your mother with plenty of good reading and conversation.

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  6. Thank you Sue - and also Materfamilias - for those book recommendations. I have been reading non-fiction, and need a good fiction to immerse myself in! My non fiction is fantastic, though - "Why are all black kids sitting together in the cafeteria" by Beverly Daniel Tatum, which is subtitled "and other conversations about race". It is a fascinating and readable explanation by a psychologist of race relations in the US. The other is "The Boy who was raised as a dog" by Bruce Perry - subtitled "What traumatized children can teach us about love and life and healing". Both are relevant and helpful to my work. I can't wait to try some of the titles you mentioned though. Less and Warlight for sure.

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  7. Having grown up on Lake Superior, this song has particular resonance for me. We visited the Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point this summer with the artifacts from the Fitzgerald. I love that lake but it's brutal in bad weather. The song is haunting and lovely.

    As for this weather and the time change, you are right...there is nothing to do but read, drink tea and make soup. I am SO grateful to be retired and able to do these things instead of work travel. The early airport run was really getting tedious.

    Enjoy your visit East!

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  8. No sun, no moon, no stars, November.

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  9. I'll be gone in the dark: The Search for the Golden State Killer...So good!
    Educated by Tara Westover. A memoir of a dysfunctional Mormon family living off the grid.
    David Sedaris Diaries. Once you get over his mis-spent youth it's super entertaining.
    The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. Fascinatingly strange.

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  10. I have a pile of Dorothy L Sayers and Donna Leon on their way to me courtesy of the library. Gordon Lightfoot of choice for the dark days is 'Song for a Winter's Night'. I will be warbling it until spring, making myself crazy...the lamp is burning low upon my tabletop...

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  11. Sob. Our library is closed till mid-December. I am down to the dregs, the last of my 24 books. I have book envy!

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  12. Sue, I am so very glad you wrote about books in this post. This weekend I finished reading two ancient books -- Carson McCullers's (1953) Clock Without Hands and Patricia Highsmith's (1974) last of her Ripley series, Ripley's Game. Both were so worth the effort.

    As soon as I finish typing this comment I'll order order Less and start it immediately. I didn't realize Less had won the Pulitzer, which is fortuitous: after reading two Pulitzer winners recently and loving them, I swore to "read nothing but Pulitzer winners" for a while because why read dreck when literature still exists.

    It's a bonus that Less sounds what I'm struggling with at the moment: Trying to pivot from an old life to a new one without too many bruises.

    Ann in Missouri

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    1. BTW, even with errands and appointments today, I'm almost through with Less already! I'm loving it so much. Have already emailed passages from it to my friends who are great readers. And learned that the book is on their nightstands or have already been read by them.

      Ann in Missouri

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  13. Love the sound of both of these books although my reading time is limited at the moment. I did manage to read Anne Tyler's "Clock Dance" and Robert Galbraith's latest "Lethal White" both of which I enjoyed. Happy travels. Iris

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  14. Loved Robert Gailbraith' Lethal White-much better than the previous one
    Dottoressa

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.