The Dead by James Joyce

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The Dead is the final story in James Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. Published in 1914, it has been described by many as the finest short story ever written. It was Tim’s choice for our January ‘short story/novella’.

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Tim:

A 58-page story or novella, the last in Joyce’s Dubliners completed 1905/6 when Joyce was only 23/24 although not published until 1914.

When I read the hyperbolic statement that this is the best story ever written I was naturally sceptical but I was not disappointed. After the frankly disappointing visit to the unrelievedly maudlin Louise Gluck, this was uplifting. Set at Christmas in middle-class Dublin, c.1905, Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta, in their 30s/40s, visit his aunts’ jolly Christmas party where a good time is had by all singing, feasting and dancing. The reader may well wonder why the story is entitled The Dead. One of the guests, a Mr D’Arcy, sings a song, ‘The lass of Aughrim’. Gabriel notes that his wife was lost in a reflective enchantment by the song but thinks little of it, ‘a sudden tide of joy went leaping out of his heart’. The party ends and on the way back to their hotel, following Gretta though the snow he is overcome by love and lust for his wife. ‘Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory’. In their hotel room Gretta is unresponsive to his amorous mood, ‘why did she seem so abstracted’. She discloses that the song reminded her of a youth she had loved who had died. Gabriel ‘shy of intruding on her grief’ lets her sleep beside him. Gabriel suffers the awful realisation that the woman he loves has, all their marriage, loved another unattainable man. ‘It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband had played in her life’, ‘he thought of how she who laid beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live’.

The pathos evoked by a writer of 23 is remarkable, portending the work of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

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Kay:

Remembering my struggle to read Ulysses when I was about 19 (due entirely to a boyfriend at the time), I was geared to find this story hard going. As it turned out, it’s not, though its age (it was published in 1914) is evident not only in the language but the characters themselves and the descriptions of the Irish society in which they live. It’s a story that has won much praise: T.S. Eliot described it as one of the greatest short stories ever written; the New York Times on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dubliners, that it is the ‘greatest short story ever written’. High praise indeed, which inevitably brings high expectations.

For me a good short story is one that captures one’s imagination and interest immediately and condenses a lot into a few words. The Dead excels in both these conditions. Its opening paragraph is a delight, immediately creating a vivid scene at the opening of a party, which is the centre stage of the story:

‘Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet. Hardly had she brought one gentleman into the little pantry behind the office on the ground floor and helped him off with his overcoat, than the wheezy hall-door bell clanged again and she had to scamper along the bare hallway to let in another guest.’

It is on one level so simple yet it tells us so much: we ‘see’ Lily and immediately understand her feeling harassed; we ‘hear’ the wheezy bell; we ‘feel’ that soulless bare hallway. Joyce’s story is rich in descriptive language – ‘A light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat’ – but it is the layers of his story that have gained it such a big reputation. The characters and their internal lives are revealed through such descriptions but just as in life, and especially through the internal life of the main character, Gabriel, we witness how thoughts and emotions play out; are suppressed and then reveal themselves.

Gabriel is to make a speech at his aunts’ annual party. When we read that ‘He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand’, I cringed at his arrogance and yet it is more a display of his insecurity and he fears being seen as a failure. When an old friend, Miss Ivors, accuses him of being a West Briton (supporting British rule in Ireland) for writing a book review for The Daily Express, he becomes agitated and defends himself by thinking that ‘literature was above politics’ (and we, the readers, may ask, Is that true?). He plots in his head to take his revenge in his speech and a cruelty is exposed in his thoughts both of Miss Ivors and his aunts: ‘that was one for Miss Ivors. What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?’. His pomposity shows through the speech: ‘… we are living in a sceptical … thought-tormented age … I fear that this new generation … will lack those qualities of humanity … kindly humour which belonged to an older day.’ Despite the fact he shows no kindly humour himself!

The character of Gabriel is a device through which Joyce exposes the paralysis of his fellow Irishmen in the years leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21). But it is through the paralysis of Gabriel’s marriage that epiphany finally comes. There is a beautiful description of his wife Gretta at the end of the party, standing on the stairs listening to someone singing: ‘There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something’ and he imagines how an artist might paint her. They are to spend the night in a hotel where ‘he longed … to make her forget the years of their dull existence together and remember only their ecstasy.’ But the evening ends in a shocking way: the song Gretta was listening to reminded her of a lost love; a boy she’d loved when 17 who had been very ill and died. She describes the tragic story and how the boy risked – and lost – his life in order to see her. She is too distraught now to respond to her husband’s attempt to make love. Gabriel ‘watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife’. Painfully, through Gabriel’s reaction, Joyce reveals how we can never really know another; how a hidden secret or experience can change everything. Now, thinking of his ageing aunts and the death that awaits us all, he thinks: ‘Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade dismally with age.’ This is such a wonderful way to look at not only how the young boy died, but how we should live out our lives to the full.  ‘Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love … His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead … His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world.’ He sees finally how we’re all connected, the living and the dead.

It’s a story that deserves time and thought. At first my pleasure in it turned to thinking it rather a grim story about an unpleasant man, but this gradually changed to my feeling Gabriel was just a rather pathetic figure and then compassion with his reaction to Gretta’s story at the end. I read much of the literature available, analysing the story, and am sure I will go on thinking about it and finding new layers for some time.

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Ted:

This is the final story in a collection of fifteen short stories in Dubliners, written in 1904-7 and finally published in 1914. Publication was delayed because certain passages in some of the stories were regarded as ‘obscene and the publishers were also concerned that the collection presented a bleak depiction of Irish life in Dublin at that time.

The setting is an annual dance and dinner party held by Kate and Julia Morkan and their young niece Mary Jane Morkan, which draws together a variety of relatives and friends. Their favourite nephew Gabriel Conroy is the main protagonist of the story and his wife Gretta emerges as an important character. It is symbolic that the party is set at or just before the feast of Epiphany on January the sixth. I initially found the party slow going but it was a way of getting to know Gabriel’s character. In his conversation with Miss Ivors he confessed to being ‘sick of my own country, sick of it!’ and was subsequently labelled a ‘West Briton’ during their dance. The story begins to change as the party is winding down when Gabriel notices his wife standing at the top of the stairs transfixed by a sad old Irish song The Lass of Aughrim being sung by a guest in another room. He feels joy and passionate feelings for his wife as they walk back to their hotel through the snowy streets. Later his romantic inclinations are dashed when Gretta bursts into tears and confesses that she had been thinking about that song which reminded her of a former boyfriend who had sung it to her in her youth and who later died after waiting outside her window under a tree in the cold. Gabriel is shocked and initially dismayed that there was something of such significance in his wife’s life that he never knew about. Later, as he watches her sleep he reflects that a man died for her love and Gabriel realises that he had never felt like that himself towards any woman. One epiphany follows another as he realises that they have both aged, he would soon attend his aunts’ funerals and he feels the shadow of mortality on all of them. He imagines he sees a the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree… ‘Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.’ It is difficult to put into words, but the last page has an almost cosmic feeling as he hears the snow faintly falling, all over Ireland and through the universe!

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Christine B:

I’m blown away by this stunning, perceptive, sensitive, beautiful story written in thirty pages by a genius.  I can’t say any more tonight but, if you haven’t read it, you must.

Thank you so much, Tim, for suggesting it.

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Do please let us know what you think about The Dead in Comments below!

The Poetry of Louise Gluck

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Louise Gluck is an American poet who was born in 1943 in New York and raised on Long Island. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is an adjunct professor at Yale University. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2020 and was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2003 to 2004.

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Tim:

I suggested we should visit her work not through prior acquaintance but on hearing she had been awarded the Nobel prize. I have only read ‘The Wild Iris’, published 1992 when she would have been 49 years old, which must qualify the generality of my remarks .

I was disappointed; you have all heard of my antipathy to blank formless ‘verse’. I am not alone . ‘Her work is not known for poetic techniques such as rhyme or alliteration’; a fellow poet has called her style ‘radically inconspicuous’ or ‘virtually an absence of style’.

Her youth was unhappy, suffering from anorexia. She failed to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and underwent seven years of psychotherapy.

On first reading ‘The Wild Iris’ I thought I was reading the reflections of one at the end of life contemplating death, not a 49 year old. Not that youth is a proof against melancholia.

All ‘The Wild Iris’ seems to be set in her garden and she is quite a botanist e.g. the poem ‘Ipomoea’ – Morning glory. She personifies the plants:

What was my crime in another life,

     as in this life my crime

     is sorrow, that I am not to be

     permitted to ascend ever again,

     never in any sense 

     permitted to repeat my life,

     wound in the hawthorn, all

     earthly beauty my punishment 

     as it is yours…

Are the poems addressed to a deity*, her husband , her alter ego???. The book is dedicated to, inter alios, her husband, John and son Noah.

Seven poems are entitled ‘Matins’, ten ‘Vespers’.

          *Even as you appeared to Moses,because

            I need you,you appear to me,not

            often,however.I live essentially 

            in darkness.

Death is never far. ‘The Wild Iris’:

            At the end of my suffering 

           there was a door.

            Hear me out : which you call death

           I remember .

            It is terrible to survive 

            as consciousness 

            buried in the dark earth.

Perhaps not cheering reading for Covid lockdown!!!!!!!!

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Margaret:

In choosing this poet for today’s poetry session, I thought we were on safe ground with the 2020 Nobel prizewinner, but even that accolade did not prepare me for what I found. Today – after a hasty, stunned scanning of the material about her and some of her work – I know that I can’t wait to read more. In these strange and imponderable times, it seems to me that Gluck’s ostensibly direct voice, with all its nuanced comprehension of suffering, endurance and the prosaically awful nature of ‘real’ life, could be the one we need to hear.

I can only refer to ‘The Drowned Children’, which concerns a group of children who were drowned in a pond.  The poetic persona who narrates the story appears to be a detached onlooker, her tone as cold as the frozen pond itself. She says,

          ‘You see, they have no judgement. So it is natural that they should drown.’

This horrifying logic and the numb, but searing and harrowing description by the narrator of the children’s deaths leaves the reader to suffer the full shock of the incident without any guiding intervention from the emotions of the writer. Instead, she offers the reader her own pitiless observations. For example, here, she says,

          ‘… and then, all winter their wool scarves

          Floating behind them as they sink

          Until at last they are quiet.’

There is no description of the children, no detail of numbers, or of people screaming or attempting rescue. You are, in a sense, alone, watching these children succumb to the black waters. But the final lines, although tragic, ‘What are you waiting for/ come home, come home’ do serve to remind us that the poet is still there…

More than one critic and many readers has said they were haunted by this poem.

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Ted:

I was not familiar with her work and she has a huge anthology so it was difficult to know where to start. Ararat [1990] was referred to by the critic Dwight Garner writing in the New York Times in 2012 as ‘the most brutal and sorrow-filled book of American poetry in the last 25 years’! Not a good idea to read in lockdown, so after doing searches I opted for one of her most popular and critically acclaimed books The Wild Iris [1992] and have chosen the title poem.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater
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It is a beautiful poem but what is the poet saying? I’m not sure, but I think she is talking about the immortal human soul and persistence of some form of consciousness after death by using the perpetual life cycle of the iris as a metaphor. The iris withers [‘suffers’] and ’dies’ at the end of the growing season, yet remains alive underground [as a bulb] and is reborn in the spring. Her words also made me think of reincarnation and also of the resurrection of Christ. I look forward to hearing what you all think.

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Christine B:

Louise Gluck won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for her book The Wild Irisand the poems are written as the voices of flowers, human, natural world and external. She is revisiting the myth of Persephone and, reading this idea, I felt very attracted to her concept but, unfortunately, I couldn’t believe in the voice.

It may be the unfortunate time we are living in but flowers give so much to us, their beauty, studying the changes through their lives and, inevitably their death, we know that they are ephemeral and it is wonderfully calming to look at a single flower for ten minutes; it will change in that time but reading her poem will remain unchanged, I felt a hardness that for me doesn’t work with flowers; that Trillium is lily, Latium is the nettle and ‘The Wild Iris’ is here (see poem in full above).

A more recent, very lovely poem is ‘Matins’, which reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s writing:

Matins 

The sun shines; by the mailbox, leaves

of the divided birch tree folded, pleated like fins.

Underneath, hollow stems of the white daffodils,

    Ice Wings, Cantatrice; dark

leaves of the wild violet. Noah says

depressives hate the spring, imbalance

between the inner and outer world. I make

another case – being depressed, yes, but in a sense passionately 

attached to the living tree, my body

actually curled in the split trunk, almost at peace,

     In the evening rain

almost able to feel

sap frothing and rising: Noah says this is

an error of depressives, identifying

with a tree, whereas the happy heart

wanders the garden like a falling leaf, a figure for

The part, not the whole.

 I found a longer poem, ‘Screened Porch’, interesting; I shall look for other poems that she has written.

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Please let us know in Comments whether you’ve read Louise Gluck’s poetry and what you think of it.

Monogamy by Sue Miller

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Sue Miller is an American best-selling novelist, born in Chicago in 1943, who now lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Kay:

I came across the writer Sue Miller through the blog, A Life in Books, and so much enjoyed Monogamy that I’ve read two more Miller books since. I found Monogamy such a powerful read that once I’d finished it I felt sad to let it go and unable to start another book straight away; I haven’t felt like that about a book in a long time. It’s a wonderful, extraordinarily powerful read; moving and insightful. It’s a novel about life, marriage and relationships. All the characters seem so real. Miller understands the complexities of life, the structures we build both externally and internally to support our stories, the experiences that shape us.

Annie is Graham’s second wife; he remains on very good terms with his first, Frieda, and this is a relationship Annie has to absorb into her own life with Graham. Graham has two children: Lucas with Frieda and Sarah with Annie. Graham is a larger-than-life, gregarious man; the kind everyone is drawn to and ‘loves’. Annie seems to have lost of her way a bit, allowed herself to be absorbed into Graham’s life and huge needs, but is, as the novel opens, starting to take up her photography work seriously again; find herself again. But when she wakes one morning to find Graham dead beside her (and this is in the opening chapter so no spoiler), quite suddenly and unexpectedly, her life is thrown into disarray.

The novel is about coming to terms with grief; understanding how one can become lost in a long marriage, especially to such a big and overwhelming presence as Graham; and resolving in one’s mind a greater understanding of the life you’ve led and your part in the way it has played out. Annie was in no doubt that she had loved Graham, but at what cost to herself? Then into her grief comes betrayal: learning that Graham had an affair just before his death when she had believed so completely that they’d had a monogamous marriage. Miller brilliantly charts Annie’s journey through her internal landscape, full of grief and then betrayal and rage at the discovery of the affair, all the while conscious of the needs of his children and those around her. How does Graham, now gone but ever present in her life through her memories and other people who were close to him, even his bookshop which is a hub of the local community, fit into her life now? How must she think of him now? Can she still love him? Miller follows all the complex emotions that play out in Annie’s mind with such intelligence and understanding that it’s a powerful journey to follow and there is some relief at the end when she manages to find a way to remember the love and the good rather than allow the rage and hurt to dominate for ever.

Maybe because it touched in some ways on my own experiences, this seemed a novel about real life with real characters, and it had a profound effect on me.

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Christine A:

An absorbing read for the quiet period between Christmas and New Year. A well-constructed, evenly paced novel with some insightful characterisation. Also some whimsical twists and turns – the bequest for the cat really gave me a lift!

The subject of Sue Miller’s book is a long and essentially happy marriage; Annie, the wife, is a very believable protagonist and I quickly care about her fate. This writing is emotionally pitch-perfect throughout.

Each response to the death of a lead character for instance is analysed with laser-sharpness. The son of the deceased’s reaction is examined as follows: “Why did X’s sympathetic but essentially rote response reach him when the news from his mother hadn’t? Because his mother had her own sorrow, he supposed, and needed him … he realized that somehow his father’s death would have to be, for him, first about his mother. That her sorrow would have precedence over his…”

To me this is a book about how difficult the transition is between being recently bereaved, with all the rawness of parting, to the point where the deceased’s memory is a source of strength. So although it is an exquisitely written book, which I very much enjoyed as I read it, the after effect is profoundly sad.

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Do please let us know if you’ve read Monogamy of any other of Sue Miller’s books in Comments below.

The Poetry of Robert Frost

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Robert Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet. His first collection of poetry was published in Great Britain while he was living in Beaconsfield (1912-1915). He went on to win four Pulitzer Prizes (1924, 1931, 1937 and 1943). At the age of 86 he recited his poem ‘The Gift Outright’ at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. He’s known for his depictions of rural life (he inherited and for a time ran the family farm in New England) with social and philosophical themes.

Tim:

Please give my apologies to the group for not being able to report in depth on my choice, a very favoured poet, Robert Frost, but my laptop has been playing up this afternoon . . . I had prepared quite lot to say beyond his well-known favourites, ‘Stopping by woods  on a snowy evening’, which he  called ‘My best bid for remembr’nce’ and ‘The road not taken’. I went to work in New Hampshire, which became his home state the year he died, 1963. His time in England (1912-1915) was interesting with Edward Thomas and the Dymock Poets including Rupert Brook. He in fact had a tragically sad life reflected in some of his less popular/well-known poems. His mother died of cancer when he was young as did his wife in 1938. Of four children only two survived him. In ‘Birches’ he wrote:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

For his epitaph on his very simple grave: ‘I had a lover’s quarrel with the world’.

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Ted:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening 

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse will think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

I like this poem where R.F. is celebrating a magic moment when he stops his pony trap near some woods on a snowy day in mid-winter. The mesmeric quality of the falling snow is conveyed by the rhyme scheme and using simple words (know, though, here, snow). This is enhanced by onomatopoeic sound effects (‘the only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake’), and with long drawn-out vowel sounds (dark, deep, keep, sleep). In the final verse there is also his decision to re-engage with life (‘But I have promises to keep’) and there is the metaphor of life’s journey which is made more effective by the use of repetition (‘And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep’).

I have to confess that I now receive, by notes and telephone, occasional poetry tuition from my neighbour who was a lecturer in English Literature many years ago!

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Christine A:

The first poem that came to mind when I saw this week’s subject was ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost. It’s a wistful take on the freedom and joy of both the poet’s experience of swinging on birch trees and an imagined farm boy similarly having fun:

As he went out and in to fetch the cows –

Some boy too far from town to learn baseball

Whose only play was what he found himself….

The poet yearns to return to the joy he experienced as ‘a swinger of birches’ but realises that life is often ‘a pathless wood’ He seems to suggest that the patience and stamina needed to successfully swing on birches are useful traits for later life. How childhood foreshadows adulthood is a common theme for poetry; here Frost keeps it fresh with original imagery.

Poem Number Two is ‘Mending Wall’ – the poet has agreed to repair the boundary wall of his property in conjunction with his neighbour. My take is that this is mostly an interior conversation that he is having – his ambivalence about the need for walls is only overtly expressed when he tells his neighbour:

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

The neighbour replies with the well-known proverb: ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.

So in the spirit of mutual respect and cooperation, Frost keeps any further contrary thoughts to himself but the reader is party to them. The proverb appears again in the last line of the poem as if, tradition is so stubborn, the more expansive thinking of Frost cannot prevail.

On a historical note when President John F Kennedy inspected the Berlin Wall he quoted the poem’s first line: ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ A pity the current president was not of the same mind.

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Christine B:

‘The Road Not Taken’ is so well known I hope it’s not jaded; the ending is worth waking and thinking about it every now and then.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is also very familiar and again I think the final verse is the important –

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

ANd miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

A less well-known poem that I really relate to and love the wry humour underlining it is ‘The Armful’:

For every parcel I stoop down to seize 

I lose some other off my arms and knees,

And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns –

Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,

Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.

With all I have to hold with hand and mind

And heart, if need be, I will do my best

To keep their building balanced at my breast,

I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;

Then sit down in the middle of them all. 

I had to drop the armful in the road

And try to stack them in a better load. 

I feel I begin to understand Frost through that poem far more than any of his poems I’ve read.  He was a close friend of Edward Thomas and he gave Thomas confidence with his encouragement to write poetry, very wonderful poetry. I imagine they drew upon each other very intensely, becoming very close and shutting out much outer life. How do I know!

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Kay:

I always feel a bit out of my depth with poetry so can’t say I know Robert Frost’s poems, though of course his name, but have enjoyed learning a bit about him and looking at a few of his poems in my trusty Poem for the Day: Two, and now feel inspired to read more. I’ve chosen this lovely poem that he wrote when devastated by the death of his friend, the poet Edward Thomas, with whom he shared a passion for the countryside and long ‘botanizing’ walks:

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted gray

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

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Please let us know which are your favourite Robert Frost poems in Comments below.

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

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Dwyer is an Irish award-winning novelist and short story writer who lives in Dublin. She won the Walter Scott Historical Prize for Fiction 2020, the Dalkey Literary Award for Novel of the Year 2020, and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards 2019 for The Narrow Land.  Set in Cape Cod in 1950, the novel centres around the artists Edward and Jo Hopper and two young boys, both scarred by World War II, and unlikely friendships are born amidst various tensions.

Kay:

I found this novel through a brilliant book blog I follow, A Life in Books. I was attracted not just by the good review but the subject matter, for it is set around a summer in the lives of the artist Edward Hopper and his wife – also an artist – Jo. Having long been a fan of Hopper’s wonderful atmospheric paintings, and seeing ‘Sea Watchers’ on the cover, it was a novel I couldn’t resist reading.

I wasn’t disappointed either and found it a great and engaging read. And although there is a background of art to it, it’s really about relationships, the effects of war – it’s set in the 1950s soon after the end of WWII – and a long marriage.

The novel gives us an excruciating portrait of the Hoppers’ destructive marriage, which is all the better for being told from both perspectives. We see Edward through his wife as a self-absorbed, boorish man but through him we see Jo as unbearably needy, jealous and irrational.

Into this volatile mix come two boys: Michael, an orphan haunted by terrible experiences in the war; and Richie, who seems an awful spoilt child at first but then we come to understand his tragedy, desperately missing his father who was killed in the war. Michael has been invited to spend the summer with the Kaplans – who are staying in a house close to the Hoppers – as a companion to Richie.

Both Hoppers make surprising bonds with each of the boys. Through Jo’s friendship with Michael we witness her best side. A former teacher, her needy side latches on to his need for her, but she understands him as none of the others do. Meanwhile, Edward shows an empathetic and gentler side in his friendship with Richie.

Dwyer has a fantastic understanding of relationships and people’s inner psychological landscape. It is a novel of loneliness and regret; of longing to feel love again; love and venom; hidden secrets; insecurity and jealousy. And of course there was some art as we followed Hopper’s search for perfection as he sought locations and subjects for his paintings – this time resulting in ‘Cape Cod Morning’ – which wonderfully transported me to 1950 America. And I think the novel goes a long way to helping us understand the loneliness, isolation and bleakness of his paintings.

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Ted:

Set shortly after the Second World War in Cape Cod during the summer, the novel is a fictional portrait looking at the marriage of American artists Edward and Jo Hopper. During this period we also meet Michael, a German war orphan who is sent to spend the summer on Cape Cod with a boy called Richie, his mother Olivia and the extended Kaplan family who vacation in a house close to the Hoppers. Both boys have been scarred by the war and they form an unusual friendship with the Hoppers.

I really enjoyed this book and found the characters interestingly and perceptively drawn from the slightly pretentious Kaplans in their large rented house, the ill and otherworldly Katherine [whom Edward Hopper was unconsciously attracted to], sad Richie grieving for his dead father and Michael who forms a strong bond with Jo Hopper whilst compulsively stealing items from the Kaplan household, and the cruelty of several of the women towards Jo. The Hoppers’ relationship is brilliantly and believably described. I guess what I most enjoyed were the descriptions of scenes for potential paintings seen through Edward Hopper’s eyes, particularly his descriptions of the light. There was also his voyeuristic way of viewing women. It was exciting to have the action played out in landscapes or urban scenes that one recognised from some of his paintings.

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Louise: 

It took me a while for the penny to drop that Cape Cod is the Narrow Land. It is of course exactly that and, while the title of the book is also a metaphor (I believe) for the strange restricted lives that the characters lead – not least Edward Hopper and his wife, it is the strange echoes of Cape Cod and its bleak-yet-inspiring seascape that resonated most with me.

For I have to admit I struggled – as have a few readers before me (see GoodReads reviews). I admire Hickey’s skill, her ability to get inside the character’s lives and to tell their stories from intimate and ever-changing perspectives; but it just wasn’t the book I wanted to be reading right now. I disliked most of the characters (except possibly Michael) from the start and was torn apart by the magnification of the Hoppers’ dysfunctional marriage. So I abandoned the book about halfway through with the thought that I will pick it up again when times are different. Superb writing just isn’t quite enough for me. And, frankly, there is so much of it about that we can pick our moments.

However, what the book did do for me was take me on a fascinating evening’s journey to rediscover Edward Hopper, the man and his art. In 2004 I had visited the celebrated Tate Modern retrospective of his work and, as so many others, fell in love with his often bleak realistic depiction of American life (I had been spending a lot of time in America in the previous decade). So, as I sat down with the iPad to read some others’ reviews of Hickey’s novel, I started to surf into his world and emerged two hours later having read pieces on him, on the overlooked artist Josephine Verstille Nevison – Jo Hopper – whose great legacy is not her art, but the detailed diaries she kept of their life together – on some of his most famous paintings and on their shared history and deep dependence on each other. I also saw some fascinating video clips (including one of Hopper speaking) and as a result discovered a poorly followed but interesting YouTube channel called Art Nerds. I took a bit of time to remind myself why I had loved his paintings and also remembered a rare few days I spent in Cape Cod myself in 1995, looking at the landscape and reading Henry David Thoreau.

So I am grateful to the book for the evening with the Hoppers and Cape Cod that it gave me. I will go back to it, but when life is a little less bleak. Meanwhile, some great memories revived and a renewed appreciation of Edward Hopper’s art.

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If you’ve read The Narrow Land do please let us know what you thought in Comments below.

Planning: January – March 2021

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Well, we still weren’t able to sit at our lovely bay window in The Roebuck for our planning last night due to Covid restrictions, but it was great to see everyone on Zoom and be able to chat and discuss our reading plan for the first three months of 2021. Here’s what we decided to read:

January 2021

5th (Novel) – Monogamy by Sue Miller (Kay)

12th (Poetry) – Louise Gluck [winner of 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature] (Tim)

19th (Short Stories) – The Dead by James Joyce (Tim)

26th (Theme) – Books with memorable opening or closing lines (Kay)

February 2021

2nd (Novel) – The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland (Ted)

9th (Poetry) – Poetry learnt by heart; what do we remember learning at school and later that’s stayed with us? (Christine A)

16th (Short non-fiction) – A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Kay via a recommendation from Christine B!)

23rd (Theme) – Books on the nightstand during Covid; what ‘rubbish’ and escapism kept you going? (Margaret)

March 2021

2nd (Novel) – Prague Nights by Benjamin Black [aka John Banville writing a thriller under pseudonym]  (Christine B)

9th (Poetry) – Favourite cat poems (Kay)

16th – Planning Meeting!

23rd (Short Stories) – Pretty Tales for Tired People by Martha Gellhorn (Doreen)

30th (Theme) – Novels set in the tropics – a bit of escapism in the winter months? (Ted)

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If you’re a visitor to this blog and would like to join in our discussions, do please read any of these books and share your thoughts via Comments the week we publish our reviews. We’d love to hear from you. Happy reading!

A Very Private Life by Michael Frayn

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Our novella choice this month is Michael Frayn’s A Very Private Life and was recommend by Doreen:

Doreen:

I first read this when it was originally published in 1968 and reread it recently when someone I know well, but who isn’t a keen reader, mentioned that lockdown seemed  like a book she’d once read. When she told me the plot I realised it was the Frayn story. At the time I registered it as a different departure for the writer and found it interesting but not particularly striking – now I marvel at his clairvoyance and ability to imagine the long-term impact of trends already observed.

The edition I got hold of this year has a new preface in which Frayn explained he was walking down a wide suburban street in Phoenix, Arizona, around midday and was struck by the well-spaced shuttered homes silent except for the hum of air conditioners and each isolated from the others. Deliveries came and were taken in. The self sufficiency and at the same time, the alienation, inspired his foray into dystopian science fiction. When I first read the book I found it an interesting example of genre fiction and was reminded rather of my reaction when I first read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and wondered why on earth the Morlocks let the useless Eloi lead their pampered lives, although Wells’ explanation had a far grimmer answer than in Frayn’s fantasy.

The medicated life of the inhabitants of Uncumber’s bubble home recalls Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well as the valium’d Stepford Wives of that era in America. However Frayn’s imagination didn’t extend to imagining any way of living except a nuclear family with differientiated male and female roles or a polygamous barbarian set-up. The book remains a gripping read and the imaginary world created, memorable.

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Christine B:

Michael Frayn is a neighbour to most of us and an outstanding eclectic playwright, novelist and renowned translator of Chekhov’s plays. He is best known for his plays which include Copenhagen, Clouds, Donkeys’ Years and Noises Off which, surely, must be the most-performed play by Amdram groups year after year. His novels include Spies and Skios.

A Very Private Life is an unusual, fascinating book written in 1968, over fifty years ago. It is a book that draws one in very quickly, is crisply written and extremely unusual. His prediction of the future is a division between the Insiders and the Outsiders, Utopian and Dystopian. When Michael Frayn wrote an excellent foreword in a new edition in 2015 he spoke of an electronic world of sexual relations with pixels, a screen, no illness and the choice to live forever for Insiders but the Outsiders have a harsh life, with more feelings, aggression and kindness. ‘Things have anyway not turned out quite as I and everyone else expected’ and ‘There will be two classes of people in the world and their lives will continue to be very different.’  Five years on it is becoming more prescient.

The main character is a teenager called Uncumber who is rebellious and curious, refusing to take her pill which will make her laugh she longs to see what Outside is like, she falls in love with a man on her Screen and determines to go to the Outside. She has a long, tortuous journey, but succeeds in finding him and experiences what life is  like outside. She’s tough and determined and, against all odds, she survives to tell her tale to us.

Good for her.

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If you’ve read A Very Private Life do please let us know what you thought of it in Comments below.

The Poetry of Dick Davis

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Our poet this month is Dick Davis (born 1945). A poet and translator of Persian literature, he was hailed by the TLS as ‘our finest translator of Persian poetry’. Born in Portsmouth to a working class family, he was the first member of his family to attend university (Cambridge). Distraught after the suicide of his brother, he decided to teach abroad. He fell in love with an Iranian woman, Afkham Darbandi, and taught of the University of Tehran during the last Shah’s reign. When the shah fell, Davis and his wife fled Iran, first to UK and then to US where Davis taught Persian literature and began translating Persian poetry. He is Professor Emeritus of Persian at Ohio State University.

Dick Davis was recommended by Christine A. Here are her and other members’ thoughts on Davis’s poetry:

Christine A:

I first noticed Dick Davis as the translator of my copy of The Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg) and googled him and found he writes poetry. Then I wondered if the exceptional facility with language, necessary to work on translations, helped in writing poetry. I didn’t reach a conclusion but I enjoyed reading Dick Davis’s poems along the way.

The first poem I came across is ‘A Monorhyme for the Shower’ – a tender observation of a much-loved wife. The poem opens with Lifting her arms to soap her hair, her pretty breasts respond – a delicate image without prurience. He continues with the knowing lines childbearing, rows, domestic care – all the prosaic wear and tear that constitute the life we share. This man definitely knows about the daily grind of relationships yet his deep appreciation of his wife shines through in this lightly drawn homage to her.

His poem ‘A Translator’s Nightmare’ is a riff, full of black humour, on a newly dead translator. He starts his journey in the Underworld where he is berated by poets whose works he had translated in his lifetime. They were angry with the end result and when he flees from them it’s only to find another group of poets with a grudge. This time it is those whose works he did not translate and they are simmering with resentment at being overlooked. When he tries to get away from this group he finds he is trapped and is told this is where he is to end up for eternity – echoes of Sartre’s play No Exit. The final line ‘It’s here, it’s here’ was originally an inscription on the Red Fort in Delhi.

‘Haydn and Hokusai’ is a poem to lift the spirits about the consolation to be found in music or painting:

Haydn and Hokusai

Be with me now, lighten

My lumpen moods, drive off

Ungainly panics, spleen,

Purge me of selfish torpor;

Remind me that you loved

Life’s dailiness, its quirks

And frumpish joy; and that

If there is heaven on earth

It’s here, it’s here, it’s here.

Again Davis uses ‘It’s here, it’s here, it’s here’ as a final line. I usually get quite irritated with notions of mindfulness and being in the present moment but found the emphasis in these two poems unforced and natural.

So some quirky angles and some original subjects.

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Ted:

Thank you to Christine A for introducing this poet to me. The Poetry Archive gave an excellent review of his life and work with several examples of his poems that I enjoyed and I bought a download of forty more. I understand from reviews that his work belongs to the literary movement known as New Formalism in American Poetry and that he is deliberately unfashionable.

‘A Monorhyme for the Shower’

Lifting her arms to soap her hair

Her pretty breasts respond – and there

The movement of that buoyant pair

Is like a spell to make me swear

Twenty odd years have turned to air

Now she’s the girl I didn’t dare

Approach, ask out, much less declare

My love to, mired in young despair.

Childbearing, rows, domestic care –

All the prosaic wear and tear

That constitute the life we share –

Slip from her beautiful and bare

Bright body as, made half aware

Of my quick surreptitious stare,

She wrings the water from her hair

And turning smiles to see me there.

I think the poet is saying that he is spellbound by his wife’s erotic beauty as he was twenty years ago. This idea is reinforced by alliteration and the effect of monorhyme [with sixteen repetitions of the ‘air’ sound]. He also creates a feeling of fluidity by running the lines into each other. A beautiful poem!

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Kay:

What a wonderful discovery is Dick Davis so many thanks to Christine A. Reading about his life and his great love – his wife – it was fascinating learning a little about him. I found just one of his poems in my two volumes of Poem for the Day and I loved it (there are many more poems online). Davis wrote ‘6 A.M. Thoughts’, he said, as ‘a poem about how children redirect a marriage from the romantic to the quotidian; that fact was represented by the rude awakenings toddlers can inflict … and from there came sour thoughts … which finally became the subject of this poem, the toddlers being relegated to the status of metaphor’. I have to say I don’t think I ever felt this badly about my kids, but this poem makes for a fun read and will resonate with any parent who has been disturbed in the quiet early hours of the day by small children jumping onto their bed!

As soon as you wake they come blundering in

Like puppies or importunate children;

What was a landscape emerging from mist

Becomes at once a disordered garden.

 

And the mess they trail with them! Embarrassment,

Anger, lust, fear – in fact the whole pig-pen;

And who’ll clean it up? No hope for sleep now –

Just heave yourself out, make the tea, and give in.

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Tim:

I am so glad Christine introduced Dick Davis, hitherto unknown to me.

What an interesting man and life. I loved his poems and hope we could visit a specific book sometime.

He eschews free verse, so welcome to me, and highlights the magic of unselfconscious rhyme which never seems trite or laboured. Much of his poetry is a paean of love to his Persian [nicer than Iranian!] wife.

‘A Monorhyme for the Shower’: ‘she wrings the water from her hair/ and smiles to see me standing there’

‘Uxor Vivamos’: Love in a good marriage surviving the ups and downs of conjugal life – ‘I woke and lying next to you/ I knew that all I dreamt was true ‘

‘The Shore’:

her face 

and body are a blur 

of breathing shadow, where 

beyond that gentle pace

he may by love infer 

the darkness of her hair.

I watched a lecture he gave to an American college audience on the history of Persia and it culture, with China and India the oldest in the world. Shall we visit Rumi some time?

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Margaret:

Thank you, Christine, for introducing me to Dick Davis. I have thoroughly enjoyed casting back and forth over his work today. Totally impressed by his academic and personal credentials, I listened to a talk he gave in the US some years ago, on his deep knowledge and love of Persian Iranian culture, history and literature. He showed that the country’s history is immensely longer than our own in terms of documentation and how it has been bisected between its own early history and the Islamic faith that the Arabs who conquered them in the 7th century, introduced. He emphasised that four other waves of conquerors swept across the country afterwards, two Mongol and two Turkish. He pointed out that an abiding element of Persian Iranian culture rests upon a deep-seated, almost folklore belief that they are ruled by the ‘wrong people’ and that the safest solution to a peaceful life is to maintain personal privacy.

His poems, whether satirical, lyrical, wittily epigrammatic or elegiac, exhibit an adroit flexibility of tone. I enjoyed the neatly crafted rhyming metre he employs (it seems he had discovered early on that he did not get on with free verse).

I found ‘Political Asylum’ with its terse and laconic delivery, very affecting. It begins with immediate effect,

My closest friends were killed. I have a life

That’s comfortable in almost every way.

I haven’t got a job yet, but my wife

Has found a good position with good pay –

 

Enough to keep us going anyway.

I don’t go out much, but, you see, my wife

Is out for almost all of every day.

I read a lot and reassess my life.

 

I’ve tried to write but what is there to say?

My friends were killed and this is my new life;

It’s almost certain this is where we’ll stay.

We like it here, especially my wife.

This is a poem for reading between the lines – the contrast between the husband’s and the wife’s positions, the implied misery on the one hand, and satisfaction of a sort, on the other.

In ‘A Monorhyme for the Shower’, we encounter another couple, where the husband is glancing at his much-loved wife in the shower. The steadfast love, remembered lust and memories and satisfaction he expresses is pitch perfect – especially when in the last line, the wife, ‘turning smiles to see me there’.

We all agree that book groups are particularly valuable because they introduce us to new works and authors. My introduction to Dick Davis completely reinforces this point.

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We’ve all been delighted to discover Dick Davis. If you know his poetry, do please let us know your favourite poems in Comments below.

‘Clock Dance’ by Anne Tyler

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Our novel for November is Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, chosen by Margaret. Born in Minnesota, US, in 1941, Tyler is one of the best-loved and respected writers around. She has written 23 novels, three of which have been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize and Breathing Lessons won the Prize in 1989. Clock Dance is her 22nd novel and was published in 2018.

Here’s what our members thought of the book:

Margaret:

I have always been a fan of Tyler’s writing. Her unique talent is to convey, with tenderness and empathy, an insight into the different ways in which we conduct our lives. Individuals, families or groups of people spring off the page to meet the reader in Tyler’s work. In the most famous of her books, there are characters who, once met, are never forgotten. For example, meticulous Macon, in The Accidental Tourist who can reduce his routine wash load by showering in his pyjamas; ever-optimistic Ezra in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, who constantly devises lavish dinners for his family, none of which ever comes to a proper conclusion, and warm-hearted Maggie in Breathing Lessons, whose lovingly plotted plans for others, again, never quite work out. Several of these books, have been made into successful films.

This 22nd novel, set in Baltimore, may not achieve that level of success, but it nonetheless demonstrates Tyler’s range of intensely alive characters. In particular, she shows her deep understanding of the internal life of an ‘ordinary woman’ in Willa, the central character of Clock Dance. The initial part of the book shows how Willa’s life has been governed by four particular stages: her erratic, emotional and unreliable mother; her engagement and marriage to Derek; her time as a mother; and the death at 43, of Derek, leaving her a widow. When she eventually marries Peter, her second husband, he turns out to be not unlike Derek in his predictability and self-centredness. It seems that Willa’s life has been governed by being of service and of achieving a level of almost welcome anonymity in the process.

However, the action picks up when Willa, at 61, and leading a comfortable, but dull life with Peter, receives an unexpected phone call from a woman who claims to be the neighbour of Willa’s daughter-in-law, actually, her son’s ex-girlfriend, and her 9-year-old daughter. She tells Will that Denise, the soi-disant daughter-in-law, has been shot in the leg, and that Cheryl, assumed to be her grand-daughter needs looking after urgently. Willa, being used to being imposed upon, and of being of use, does not question the call, assumes that her son is the father of Cheryl, although in fact that is not true, and jumps into action. She flies, with a reluctant Peter, to Baltimore and, despite finding that the scenario is murkier and more complex than that, rolls up her sleeves and sets out to help this new household. She forges a good relationship with Cheryl, a sturdily independent child, who, nonetheless, bonds happily with the natural warmth of Willa. Her hectic mother, laid up in hospital, is grateful. The surrounding community of neighbours, which includes a needy teenage boy, a winsome dog, a retired doctor, and various eccentric and typical Tyler characters, welcome Willa with open arms. Tyler’s skill with dialogue is instrumental in bringing this second half of the book to life.

Willa begins to blossom into the responsible, active and positive person she really is. Her life has moved at last onto a fifth stage of involvement and mutual appreciation, which is now leavened by her relationship with Cheryl. It is Cheryl who introduces Willa to the idea of the Clock Dance a game she plays with her friends. Two girls stand behind a third, moving and stopping like a living clock. Willa begins to see her own life – rather late at 61 – as one in which she whirls from stage left to right, in a race against time.

In her race, she comes to understand the complex factors that led to the shooting of Denise and helps the troubled teenager next door, who accidentally precipitated the accident. She finds a small measure of rapport with one of her sons. Quietly, she sees that she has a place in the community. She has been taken to its heart. Some of the most touching aspects of Willa’s story are those parts where she is privy to the philosophical musings of the elders around her. ‘What do we live for?’, they are asking each other. Some advocate appreciating the small matters of life, a cup of coffee in the morning, the sun, small, regular tasks and duties, but Willa has come to realise that she has needed to use her skills, she has needed a grandchild, she needs to be used up before it is too late. All this she has begun to achieve.

Sadly, all idylls have come to an end, and when Willa has to accept that she is required to go back home to Pete, as any dutiful wife should, she packs with a heavy heart and sets out to the airport. We have all stood in line at airport desks … as Willa does here … But wait. This is an Anne Tyler book, and although it has been criticised for some issues of pace and plot in this book, we cannot ever fault Tyler for psychological truth. So – what does Willa do when she reaches the desk?

(Tyler’s final sentences often throw a warm light back onto a book for me.)

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Ted:

I liked the title which is the name of a child’s clock game and is also a metaphor for the main protagonist, Willa’s whirl through the different stages of her life from childhood to middle age. Part One covers five decades, starting in 1967 when she is aged eleven and her sister aged six. Part Two is from 2017 deals with her passage to self-realisation.

In the first decade, which I found the best part of the novel, there are problems dealing with their vivacious but capricious and sometimes violent mother who on occasions impulsively leaves the home for several days. There are poignant descriptions of the little family trying to cope: their father’s grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner which ‘were all he knew how to make’ and the three of them sitting together on the sofa with their father’s arms draped around them. Her descriptions of people and of children in particular are so perceptive.

The decade starting in 1977 sees Willa at college and in a relationship with Derek who comes from a different and wealthy background. He wants to sweep her into marriage without real consideration for her wishes regarding her career. She has a frightening incident on the plane when they travel to visit her parents but Derek minimises the episode when they later discuss it with her parents. Despite her and her parents’ misgivings, Willa decides to go ahead with the marriage. At this stage I felt that Willa was the author of her own misfortune by giving up her potential career to be with Derek.

Twenty years later, married with two sons to her high achieving, corporate husband on the freeway to business associate swim party, Derek becomes enraged with another driver, cuts in front of that car and is killed in the ensuing accident. Having lost her anchor in Derek she felt very vulnerable. She was living in a part of the country that was alien to her, her sons were gradually drifting away, and she had not continued with her own career. She found living alone difficult and without real meaning. Her widowed father said what helped him with this problem was by breaking his day into separate moments: ‘It’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments that I could still appreciate’- wonderful!

In Part Two, it is 2017 and Willa is remarried to a successful, pedantic, semi-retired business man called Peter whose name for her is ‘Little one’!! [Why does she do this?].  She receives a phone call from a stranger informing her that her son’s ex-girlfriend has been shot in the leg and decides to fly across the country to help. Peter initially accompanies her but later returns whilst Willa stays on and forms a very strong bond with Denise and her nine-year-old daughter Cheryl. She gradually becomes more involved with the rest of the community. Willa comes to understand that she has a place and a role in this community and the outcome of this self-realisation is that she decides not to return to Peter. I loved the author’s descriptions of the different characters, especially the children, but I found this second part a bit drawn out.

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Kay:

I’ve long been a fan of Anne Tyler since Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which was published in 1982 when my daughter was two. I say this as I’ve always remembered the main character talking about having so much anxiety after her first child that she thought having a second would lessen the anxiety – but instead found she just had twice as much! Don’t we all know that feeling with our children?

Anyway, I used to read all Tyler’s novels, though haven’t for a while, so was looking forward to reading Clock Dance, published in 2018 (she’s just published a new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road). However, I was hugely disappointed.

Tracing Willa’s life from age 11 in 1967, it moves quite quickly through various decades of her life in the first half of the book to 2017 when she’s 61. In the first decade, Willa’s mother disappears for a few days (which she does a lot) and this is one of the defining moments of Willa’s life. Willa has to cope with her father, who whistles his way through trying to seem normal, and her annoying younger sister Elaine. Thus begins a life of putting others first. A poignant moment is when Willa remembers her mother singing ‘Down in the Valley’: ‘It was such a lonesome song that it made Willa ache just to hear it now in her mind.’ More heart-rending are memories of her mother’s more volatile and violent moods when she’d shout at Willa’s father and ‘slap Willa in the face … or shake Elaine like a Raggedy Ann’. Later, she makes two disastrous marriages and as a reader you wonder how on earth she could like these men. While it’s a typical path after an abusive, dysfunctional childhood such as Willa’s, somehow Tyler didn’t make it a believable or empathetic for me. So much seemed like devices for supporting the bare bones of a story.

I felt the first half of the book was more a rushed attempt to create a background without much depth and I found it impossible to engage well with Willa or her story. I found it painful to read, and sometimes that can be a good thing in a book, but my feeling was more exasperation than feeling moved. By the halfway mark, I really didn’t want to read on and turned to look at reviews. Was it me? Was I missing something? But the Guardian reviewer was similarly disappointed and writes of ‘several false notes in what starts to be a rather irksomely homely kind of novel’. Perhaps it wasn’t good timing that I’d just finished reading two other middle-American, small-town novels by Sue Miller, which were wonderful and then the Anne Tyler just didn’t do it for me.

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Christine A:

If there was ever a case for persisting with a book when it doesn’t have any immediate appeal, this is it. Initially it looked very unpromising – a tale of apparent maternal abandonment featuring the hapless offspring – in a word bleak. So it was with some trepidation that I started Clock Dance and happily my expectations were confounded.

The book really takes off in the second half and becomes a feel-good novel with engaging characters and an interesting storyline. I found myself intrigued by someone giving up their time (and persuading their spouse to) flying across several states to look after a child they have no connection or obligation. Willa, the protagonist, does this effectively and with a degree of enjoyment and, when the time comes, bows out gracefully. The experience has been a positive one and introduces her to contemporary young person’s worldview. One gripe though, the last paragraph of the novel is an unnecessary tease – whether or not this is a pivot to new things in Willa’s life is beside the point. What is this passion for tidying up a storyline? – I like a writer who can leave a few loose ends, but I realise that is just personal taste.

This is not a tempestuous novel with lots of ‘Ah yes’ moments but a quiet gentle one with insightful characterisation which has led me to ponder the worth of lives spent fitting in with others. Willa and her father before her seem excessively meek but their constancy and willingness to put themselves out for others enables the more flamboyant livers of life.

It’s a satisfying read and when I finished the endearing characters (Willa and Cheryl) inhabited my mind for a day or so as I didn’t want to let them go and for me that’s the definition of a good read.

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Christine B:

Thank you, Margaret, for suggesting a thoroughly enjoyable book by Anne Tyler. I didn’t think it was one of her best but nevertheless a really good read, particularly for our present way of life; I was completely immersed.

I liked Willa but there were times I’m sure she must heard me shouting ‘No, no, don’t do it’ or ‘I don’t think so’. But, of course, that was her character, particularly marrying two similar men, both wrong for her, but she’s not me. She finishes up in places where she doesn’t fit, although she doesn’t know where that would be.

I thought it was very sad that such a good, kind, gentle, intelligent woman’s relatives weren’t interested in seeing or hearing anything about her, let alone meet, particularly her sons. Probably the Gandhi in her. The very sad paragraph – ‘She noticed a man walking toward her in the distance, a fair-haired man in short-sleeved shirt and khakis, and at first she merely registered his approach, but then some jaunty quality in his gait tugged at her and she stopped short. It was Sean [her son]. It was dear, familiar Sean, thirty-eight years old now and completely at home in a strange town’ – was so beautifully, sensitively written, it worth reading the book just for that!

All those different-to-her people do value her, possibly because she is different-to- them. When Ben said, ‘I’ve always meant to tell you that I like the way you look at people’ and Willa ‘felt a twinge of disappointment’ and ‘she had fancied that he’d been going to say he liked the way she looked, period’. Her sister had rejected the awful shallow judgement of appearance; maybe they’d get to know each other if she goes back, I do hope she goes back or even elsewhere.

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One of the great things about book groups is getting different reactions to a book and discussing different thoughts. We hope you’ve enjoyed our reviews – if you’ve read Clock Dance do please let us know what you thought of it in Comments below.

Theme: Africa

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Our theme for this month was ‘Africa’, chosen by Ted. This included both fiction and non-fiction works; books by people born in Africa (the whole continent) or people who lived or visited there for a time. We met on Zoom and had a lively discussion.

We wondered how books by writers like Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness), Evelyn Waugh (books set in fictional places in Africa like Black Mischief) and John Buchan (Prester John) would be seen today; whether they’d be viewed as too politically incorrect. This led us to consider the difference between books written by Africans and non-Africans and as well books written in colonial times and contemporary works.

Some African-based books were read and remembered by most people: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (pub 1948), Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa (pub 1937), Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (1950).

Here are some of the other books we discussed:

Disgrace by JM Coetzee (generally agreed a challenging but excellent read – published in 1999 it won the Booker Prize and the author the Nobel Prize in Literature 4 years later).

Things Fall Apart by China Achebe (Christine B remembered being traumatised by reading it but felt Achebe would have inspired all the excellent Nigerian writers who followed him).

Half a Yellow Sun  (‘violent but so good’ members thought) and also The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; the works of Nadine Gordimer; The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski; Bruce Chatwin’s The Viceroy of Ouidah (Tim: ‘topical given the current interest in the slave trade’); The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (Tim: ‘a cautionary tale for tourists; this account of a jaundiced progress around North Africa is a bleak reminder of the perils that lie within the romantic idea of travel’).

Christine B. loved Ben Okri’s The Famished Road: ‘a beautiful supernatural, magical realism book narrated by a young boy’.

We talked of the work of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka – playwright, poet and essayist and we noted that there were many great writers from Nigeria.

Christine A. recommended two non-fiction works: The Looting Machine by Tom Burgis, a Financial Times journalist, about corruption and the theft of Africa’s wealth.  The Devil That Danced on Water by Aminatta Forna is an autobiography about her childhood in Sierra Leone and the execution of her politician father.

We had a great time talking about this theme. If you’ve read any of these books or have other books on Africa to recommend, please let us know in Comments below.