READING: New Year, A Resolution, and a fantastic new novel: The Immortalists

In this post I will be talking about The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt; The Sense Of An Ending, by Julian Barnes; and The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. And about backlog, used, and reprint versus shiny new publications.

The living/dining room shelves I share with my sister. Old treasures, photography books, our childhood books.

I own a lot of books. In addition to the books furnishing my current address (and the photos are not all of them) there are at least as many again living in a friend’s basement-online bookstore awaiting re-sale, and, before those were rescued, another amount at least that large was sold to used bookstores in bulk, donated to libraries and charities, and given away to friends during a number of moves in a very short number of years, and, too, hundreds left behind in a home from which I had quickly to get out, making what amounted to “what do I save in the fire” choices.

This is my desk where I write my blogs — sometimes. Reference books and inspiration and stacks of Twitterati-gifts and mementos, because I like feeling as if I’m working among the people I have met on Twitter, so many of them in the book business or, like me, in love with the book business.

I have, mostly, stopped spending money on books. This is not because I don’t love and adore books, but, rather, because in my life there is an ongoing declension of square footage and annual income. But, I’ve always been lucky and so am blessed to live in a town with a great library, and an even better independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana, to which my dearest of friends frequently give me gift certificates, so I’ve quite an account there. I am also often gifted with cards to a major bookseller chain, and, too, an online behemoth of a book merchant-monopoly. So, I jealously hoard those credits and use them only on authors who I consider “must haves” and books I fall in love with when reading and so want to have around me, with me, permanently part of my life.

Stacks beside the couch in my room, where I sit in the morning — of late, 3 or 4a.m. having become my morning — doing my morning journaling and drinking coffee, or tea, or water.

In order to make room for more, I decided I would need to set free a commensurate amount of the already-owned. Many of those books in these pictures are in the “to be read” category and so for 2018 I made a promise to those stacks — some of which residents have been waiting patiently for years to be held and page-turned — that for every newly published book I read or got from the library, I would read one of those stoic waiters-in-line.

A closet shelf given over to that which is way more valuable to me than clothes: BOOKS! And a fan, to keep them cool and fresh. Yes, I’m a little crazy about books. I’m okay with that.

Thus, two of the three books I talk about here are backlog: The Sense of an Ending and The Sisters Brothers. Interesting petty-Charlie fact: both of those books were Man Booker short listed in 2011, The Sense of an Ending ultimately winning the prize. As a follower of the Man Booker, I was all in that year for Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, and when it didn’t even progress to the short list, I declared all those that did so to be libera non grata. Luckily, I’m bad at remembering a grudge, and acquired copies of Ending and Brothers because others I know or read had written about them. So, here we go.

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt, hardcover, 328pp, April 2011, Ecco

This is the second of Patrick deWitt’s novels I’ve read, the first having been Undermajordomo Minor about which I said, “It’s seriously playful – or playfully serious, and darkly illuminating or illuminatingly dark. It was very Wodehouse on acid while depressed and horny and homesick. I liked it. I think.” That was two years ago and reaching back, trying to remember, I have only a vague recollection. Not unusual, I read one hundred or more books each year and so it is only the very rare book that sticks — which is no reflection on the writing, but, rather, a snapshot of where I was at the time and whether or not what I read resonated with who I was in that moment.

I’m afraid The Sisters Brothers will turn out to be the same faint flashback. It was certainly different from anything I’ve read, which is a nice plus. The scenes were hard-edged, sharply drawn, yet somehow surreal and dreamlike, as if watching a Coen Brothers film while high. I found most of the characters unlikable, which shouldn’t be a disqualification, but right now, at this point in world history, politics being what they are, I’m perhaps not in a good place to read about self-centered, sociopaths with fungible (at best) morals.

Certainly I missed (or ignored) the deeper meaning, the journey to amorality and back again; killer brothers in the old west, one somewhat less psycho and more empathetic than the other, on a mission of murder for a man even worse than they are, lose everything along the way and return to a home they departed in violence long ago, to the literal bosom of their mother. I just wasn’t into it, what it meant to say about home, family, choices, violence, men, women, lots and lots of things, and I still don’t get how it beat Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child onto the Man Booker shortlist.

The Sense Of An Ending, Julian Barnes, Paperback, 163pp, May 2012, Vintage (originally published August 2011)

This was the winner of 2011’s Man Booker Fiction prize. It was also my first Julian Barnes novel, although, I owned in hardcover and had in my “to be read” stacks his Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur and George for years having been wowed by their synopses when published, but when I experienced one of my “I have to move again and to an even smaller space” they didn’t survive the purge.

I didn’t love this book. And that made me doubt myself and my erudition because a writer and intellect and human being I very much admire, Glenda Burgess, very much loved this book. You can — and should — read what she said about it here: GLENDA BURGESS REVIEWS Julian Barnes THE SENSE OF AN ENDING.

I am having difficulty articulating what I didn’t like, so I’ll start with what impressed me. The language is beautiful. The artistry of the structure of it, its shape, quite technically stunning. And its themes, the question; What are the limits of responsibility in the matter of how much your choices and actions influence and affect the actions of others? Where does taking responsibility become hubris and/or where does not accepting responsibility become dishonest and self-deluding?

Too, there is the question of how many versions of reality exist, as in, even without going into Einstein and physics theories, we live inside so many parallel universes made of the stuff of differing memories and points of view; we all see things through the filter of our own angles and frames of reference so what is truth? What is reality?

Julian Barnes explores this in what is more novella than novel and, as I said, in beautiful language, technically stunning and it is amazing how much he manages to fit  between the covers in such a few pages.

But … there seemed a disconnect to me between the level of insight, education, and experience of the characters and the ways in which they behaved, the choices they made. In particular, the voice of the narrator, Tony Webster, who I came away feeling couldn’t have been so jealously ignorant of others or ignorantly jealous as to not see what was there to be seen, or, even, not ask the obvious questions. It’s clear he’s not meant to be a completely reliable narrator, that being part of the clever construct of the story, but if the premise is he is grappling with his responsibility for events in other people’s lives, looking for a way of seeing through all the memories to what is an ultimate truth, well then, it felt as if it was more an intellectual exercise in which he’d already decided he really was not that important, thus largely relieving himself of responsibility — at the same time, remaining full of his own sense of self-importance. These dichotomies were not plot points, but rather, the weakness (for me) of the novel.

Like many a privileged white heterosexual male before him (and after him), Tony had the luxury of deciding which of the consequences of his choices he dealt with, in a society built to enable people just like him to have those choices. There is never really anything at risk here but his ego, the possibility he won’t be able to maintain the class-privileged view of himself he was raised to believe his due. And perhaps because that very disease is bringing us closer to Armageddon every day, it was off-putting for me in this novel.

The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, Hardcover, 352pp, January 2018, G.P.Putnam’s Sons

Oh, how I loved this book. With each new year I carefully curate the first few reads to find one of those “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” experiences in an effort to start things off right. Well, The Immortalists was my third book of the year, but in a way similar to last year’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk [click here], —

(I talked about that here [CLICK IT] –and honestly, I cannot imagine another book equaling its effect on me any time soon, but I’m grateful even for coming close.)

— Chloe Benjamin’s novel gave me hope; people are still writing good stories well told, where things happen, movement and action equal to the interiority of the work. Yes. Good damn writing.

In this, the four Gold siblings; Varya,13; Daniel,11; Klara, 9; and Simon,7 on a hot, restless 1969 summer day visit a Roma fortune-teller, who Daniel heard has the ability to tell people the exact date on which they will die. The children enter, one at a time, alone, and emerge forever changed. We follow their stories, one after another, in the order of their deaths, and how each react individually and with one another to the existential threat hanging over them.

The predictions bring an intensity to living, the reminder that time is finite, opportunity to live and experience will be short. And whether or not they believe the predictions — and whether or not we do, or ought to — is never completely answered, the story combining what at first seems magic realism with behavioral insight: does fate happen to each of them or do they, by believing in it, make it happen?

Once I started reading this I was unable to stop, and, luckily (?) for me, I am suffering from pain and steroid-induced insomnia, from which The Immortalists served to distract me far more effectively than any of the painkillers I’ve been using. Thank-you Chloe Benjamin.

In addition to the compelling plotting, there is such accomplished rapid but never rushed pacing, always something moving, plot pieces coalescing in a marvel of literary pointillism that is never obvious or strained but fully engaging, painting vividly the eras through which the Gold siblings lived; there is Aids, 9/11, Afghanistan; and, too, delicate, intricate portraits of each of them and a layering of details proffered piecemeal, creating a literary chiaroscuro which grounds what might have been in less-skilled hands improbable or unbelievable stories in a tale which demands full investment of one’s attention, heart, mind, and appreciation for really damn good writing. There are so many lovely passages and striking lines, I hate to pick any out, but listen to this, close third narration from the heart of Klara after the youngest, Simon, who she convinced at 16 to run away with her to San Francisco, has died.

Still, Klara could not explain to anyone what it meant for her to lose Simon. She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time too, whole chunks of life that only Simon had witnessed: Mastering her first coin trick at eight, pulling quarters from Simon’s ears while he giggled. Nights when they crawled down the fire escape to go dancing in the hot, packed clubs of the Village — nights when she saw him looking at men, when he let her see him looking. The way his eyes shone when she said she’d go to San Francisco, like it was the greatest gift anyone had ever given him. Even at the end, when they argued about Adrian, he was her baby brother, her favorite person on earth. Drifting away from her.

Freaking glorious, yes? If you ever lost anyone to death, or anger and disagreement, or distance, then that passage has that piercing ring of “A-HA! THAT! OH, YES!” sort of truth for which one lives when reading, for which as I said early on, I search at the beginning of each new year.

In conclusion, this is a beautiful novel, one of those I got from the library and which I will now need to buy to have with me, always, to join this family of books in which I surround myself. Of course, this means, I need to get rid of another. I think I can do that. Maybe even two.

So friends, thanks for reading. Don’t forget to share your love of their work with the authors who bring you joy. It’s the least we can do for our national treasures.

And for now, here I am, going.

One of my to-be-read (or read again) stacks – I got rid of clothes in my closet to make room for books.

Another closet shelf sacrificed to my to-be-reads, or read-agains.

Stack on the trunk by my bed — books I read in pieces, Miss Hanff is always nearby. When I feel lonely, or miss my aunt (often, she’s the woman who gave me reading) I dive into some Helene Hanff and feel at home and loved and safe.

Living room shelf — these have all been read, many are personal treasures; here live Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Elia MacNeal, Dorothy Parker, Edmund White, Louise Penny, and — well, you get the picture. Dear ones who bring me such joy.

My nightstand. Poetry; Stevie Smith, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Frank O’Hara, and short stories, Lydia Davis, Paul & Jane Bowles, James Purdy, Lucia Berlin, and more, and things move in and out of here.