Reading: Old over new

by anneMoore on November 15, 2017

Of course I’ve been reading. Newly published books left me frustrated — nicely written but tedious — so I turned to my daughter’s college humanities list and my own stacks of old books I haven’t read yet. Here goes:

Dorothy B. Hughes’ In a Lonely Place. Did I want to be in the mind of a serial killer? Not especially, given our culture of mass slayings. But I’d read that Hughes’ 1947 novel was a noir masterpiece. It is. Set in post-war Los Angeles, we’re instantly absorbed in the doings of Dix Steele, a former fighter pilot, who is in the city to write a detective novel. He’s a prowler, but he’s also a dandy, dressing for dinner and reacquainting himself with a friend from the military, who has become an L.A. detective. In desolate places, at night, women are strangled: the killer is in their midst. A beautiful, suspenseful read about a flawed man made understandable.

Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter (also from 1947). I’d loved Larkin’s Jill so reading the poet’s only other novel was a natural; he’d conceived of them as a series. The story concerns a young foreign woman in provincial England; she works, unhappily, at a library. It is winter, during World War 2. Years earlier, she had come to England at the invitation of a pen pal. Most of the book is those few weeks in summer, when she and her teenage host tour the countryside and Oxford and sort of fall in love. Will they reunite? That is the book’s tension. I earmarked a dozen pages: this is how a character wakes up in a strange home, this is what it is to be a teenager in love, this is a city street on a winter day, this is the only way this can end.

From the Dartmouth College humanities reading list — the theme was the other, the outsider — I plucked a few classics I didn’t know.

Francoise de Graffigny’s Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747) tells the story of an Inca Virgin of the Sun, kidnapped by the Spanish Conquistadors, rescued by a nobleman who brings her to France. Throughout, she longs to be reunited with her beloved, and it is her letters to him that form the novel. I loved this story for her descriptions of things she’d never seen: a carriage is a box on wheels drawn by horses, a ship is a floating house, her reflection in a mirror is a friend. All is alien in this new world. De Graffigny used this exotic tale to comment on French society, culture, and the role of women.

Another: Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the the North is set in the 1960s, along the Nile, in Sudan. A scholar returns home, hoping to make a contribution to this postcolonial place. There he befriends a stranger who has also made the place his home. The stranger is Mustafa Sa’eed; the story within the story is Mustafa’s years in London, where he was an educated economist entangled with women who loved him for his exoticism, the color of his skin, the smell they decided was him. Those loves ended badly, in suicide and death. These men are not at home in Europe, they’re not at home along the Nile. “Help, help!” is the last line. This is a good one for understanding that part of the world.

And finally, Lazarillo de Tormes, a novella from 1552 anonymously published and banned for its mockery of Spanish clergy and aristocracy. It’s the story of a boy made to earn his living serving others: a blind man, a squire, a thief, a cardinal. He must steal to survive. It’s picaresque, a boy’s adventure; from him we get Huck Finn, we get Donna Tartt’s Theo Decker, we get the children in The Florida Project film, a sad must see..

I’m reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine (see above, mass slayings) on the advice of a journalist friend, and I’m advising all to see the movie Lady Bird, because it’s sweet and funny and its situation real, it’s beautifully filmed and performed, it was written and directed by a woman.

Leave a Reply