Burning Your Boats, by Angela Carter

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Somehow, in all my reading, I only recently stumbled across this author. Carter was a British author who died in 1992, only fifty-two years old, and known for her wildly inventive and imaginative work. In addition to the short stories collected in this volume, she wrote novels, poetry, children’s books, plays and nonfiction. I know! How could I have missed her?

I love these stories. Actually she calls them tales, saying, “The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience.” Thus she draws on images from dreams and legends, from fairy tales and the unconscious. The tale “retains a singular moral function—that of provoking unease.”

While, yes, these tales do provoke unease, they also overwhelm with audacity and rich allusions and tangled passion. She layers in the descriptions and emotions until you feel as though the whole thing is going to explode—and then she reels you back with a coolly humorous detail or sarcastic observation. You may be reading along, buried in a forest, and only gradually understand that you are in a bizarre version of Briar Rose where the sleeping maiden is actually a vampire. Or is it Jack and the Beanstalk? Maybe they are actually the same story.

Within all the fun and games lurk shadows, ones we can’t help but find resonances of in our own lives. Sex and power and passivity shift in surprising ways in these stories. What happens when the girl with the red scarf finds a wolf has eaten her grandmother, but she only laughs when he threatens to eat her? Who emerges triumphant when a wild child who’s grown up with the wolves is returned to her family? What did the “stern and square” four-year-old Lizzie Borden learn when she ran off to see the circus tiger, who is obedient until he is not?

Some tales go directly for society’s jugular. One such is “Our Lady of the Massacre”, written in the lush voice of a Lancashire orphan, transported to the New World for stealing where she ends up with an Iroquois tribe. Another is “The Bloody Chamber”, a richly imagined Victorian version of Bluebeard, where the power struggle between man and woman reaches a surprising resolution.

As Salman Rushdie says in his Introduction: “She opens an old story for us, like an egg, and finds the new story, the now-story we want to hear, within.”

My two favorites stories are “Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, narrated by a Puck even more irreverent than Shakespeare’s creature, and “The Erl-King”, a passionate retelling of the classic tale that begins—against modern story-telling advice—with a long descriptive passage that immerses the reader in the haunted atmosphere of the autumn woods, woods that

. . . enclose and then enclose again, like a system of Chinese boxes opening one into another; the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveller walking towards an invented distance that perpetually receded before me. It is easy to lose yourself in these woods.

Here is another one of her subtle, rule-breaking techniques: changing the point of view without warning. She sometimes goes from first- into third-person or vice versa, leaving me unsettled and wondering what I’d missed.

In his essay on Carter in Children of Silence, Michael Wood suggests that among her exuberant and often hilarious imaginings, Carter is luring us into considering other possible ways of being in the world. She isn’t recommending them per se but rather making a passage for them, as a bullfighter creates a space for the bull to pass him.

He says, “Difference is Carter’s great theme. We can know other creatures, including humans, but only if we know their difference.” He goes on to talk about how she so often uses beasts in her fiction, beasts being “absolutely other”. But they are not “beyond transformation.” Nor are we, as the many tales here of people turning into beasts and beasts into humans suggest. Even though there are plenty of evil deeds perpetrated by both humans and beasts, Wood concludes that “there are no monsters, there is only difference.”

I cannot think of a theme more relevant to our world today.

Have you discovered a new author lately?

Migrations to Solitude, by Sue Halpern

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Here’s another essay collection, this one from 1992 on the theme of solitude. Halpern says these pieces are not about the right to be left alone or protection of privacy but rather about “the experience of being left alone, or of not being left alone.”

In these essays she interviews, among others, a couple who have chosen to isolate themselves in the woods for 40 years, monks whose order has rules of silence, and a prisoner in and out of solitary confinement. Much has been written lately about the dangers of solitary confinement, its potentially dire consequences. Halpern relates the story of a thirty-two-year-old French woman who in 1989 isolated herself in a cave for 111 days as part of an experiment. A year after completing the experiment, the woman killed herself.

Halpern also interviews homeless people, pointing out the terrible need for privacy in homeless shelters, especially those whose beds are in dormitory rooms. She interviews a woman who has finally moved to an apartment and her fierce joy at having a place where she can close the door.

Although Halpern says these essays are not about political definition of privacy, she does look at government surveillance, still in its early days since this book was published in 1992. She talks about the cross-checking made possible by large government databases and quotes Frank Church on the power that this technological capability would give to a dictator if one ever took over the U.S., something that’s looking all too possible today, during this bizarre presidential election.

Halpern isn’t trying to make an argument or put forth a thesis. She simply introduces us to some people whose stories illustrate the need for, and dangers of, solitude and privacy. Such stories are a good counterbalance to a culture that today seems to privilege the social over the private, where wanting to spend time alone is often considered an indication of mental illness.

What I said most often as a child, what I repeated over and over was Leave me alone. Growing up in a large family meant frazzled, impatient parents and younger siblings tagging along when I tried to escape. Solitude became my vision of paradise. But no matter what white-room fantasies I’ve had, I know that absolute seclusion is not the right thing for me. I’ve found my own balance between being alone and being with others. Society, community: these are needs as well.

As may be obvious, I’m rereading some books that I’ve held onto for a while preparatory to passing them on. It’s time to clean out the bookshelves. Our local free book exchange, The Book Thing, burned down a few months ago, but I still have a few options for giving books away to those who can use them.

Where do you donate books? And what for you are the uses of solitude? What balance have you found between solitude and society?

Ordinary Mysteries, by Stephen Vicchio

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It’s been almost 15 years since I first read this collection of short essays by Vicchio, longtime Philosophy professor at Notre Dame College of Maryland. Even then I recalled having already encountered a few of the pieces in the local paper; this was back when Op-Ed pages sometimes carried such diversions.

The essays, which rarely run more than three or four pages, are what we would now call creative nonfiction. Truer to Montaigne’s original definition than to the formal school essays to which we’ve become accustomed, Vicchio’s ponderings range from funny to profound. Reading them is like having the best dinner conversation ever.

He takes the most ordinary occasions—looking at the clouds, going to a toy store, watching students raise their hands in class—and carries us more deeply into the experience. As a man who has read widely and thought deeply, Vicchio surrounds each simple experience with a web of echoes and associations.

For example, in “Music is its Roar” he writes about listening to the ocean on the last night of vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware. After placing us in the moment by describing his porch and the beach and the children playing there earlier “looking like small King Canutes”, he tells us that “this evening everything has disappeared.” What follows are descriptions of the sounds and the thoughts roused by them, ranging from the Byron quote which provided the title, through baseball, Hindu priests and Darwin before coming to rest in Plato. Although this may sound forced and dauntingly erudite, believe me: It is not. The sentences flow one into another in a beautifully quiet rhythm, leading in only two short pages to a satisfying conclusion.

Others of his pieces take off from a news item. Since most of these pieces were written in the 1980s, you’d think old news would be boring. Unfortunately, though the names may have changed, we still have dishonest preachers, muggers, and mass murderers. We still have the mentally ill, shoved onto the street when the back wards were emptied, left to die alone, stifled by their delusions like Gladys Finkenbinder. The plastic she’d taped over her windows to keep the voices out prevented anyone from noticing the fire in her kitchen until it was too late.

In some essays, Vicchio writes about his childhood, summoning up a world now gone, a world of dancing to Buddy Deane with his sisters, cutting mass to have a cherry coke at the Rexall drugstore’s soda fountain, feeling awkward at CYO dances, watching Sky King on Saturdays, fearing the school incinerator and its terrifying keeper. Such pieces brought back many memories for me, but the grounding of experience in each is universal enough to appeal to those growing up in another time or place.

I especially loved the essays that touch on time and memory. This is a collection I know I’ll come back to again. And if you’re looking for some good dinner conversation, invite Stephen Vicchio by picking up this or another of his essay collections.

What essays have you read lately that set you thinking?

Saving Our Sons: Raising Black Children in a Turbulent World, by Marita Golden

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been getting a lot of press since it came out last year. With good reason: Coates’s letter to his son is an essential reminder to all of us, in the U.S. at least, that a hope and a dream alone are not enough to undo centuries of racism built into the structure of this country. His fears for his son’s physical safety took on new resonance in the outrage over the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and too many others.

Yet it was this slim book by Marita Golden that I first read twenty years ago that truly brought home to me the dangers faced by young men of color and the emotions endured by their parents.

Golden’s book has a different focus than Coates’s. It is not a letter written to her then-teen-aged son. Rather it is a combination of interviews, essays and journal entries that document her search to discover how on a practical level she can keep her son—and all our sons—safe.

How much should she worry about his taking on the walk and fashions of the street? Should she and her husband move out of Washington, D.C., to a suburb? Should she take Michael out of public school and send him to boarding school? What should she tell him so he can protect himself? How to couch it so as to scare him enough but not too much, this child she has worked so hard to make feel loved and safe and secure?

You can imagine how Golden’s thoughts and fears hit home with me, since I have two sons, at that time barely out of their teens. I worried about them, knowing how dangerous the streets are for young men, whether from other young men looking to assert themselves or from those who assume a teen-aged boy must be a troublemaker.

Walking in our neighborhood, they had been bullied by police who assumed they must be about to commit a crime. But they weren’t handcuffed or arrested. They weren’t shot. I knew already, before reading this book or any other, that insulting and infuriating as those incidents were, they were nothing—nothing—compared to what could, maybe would have happened if their skin had been a darker color. They and I are well aware that we walk with privilege, unearned and unwelcome.

I urge everyone to read this powerful book. Golden’s call to action is more vital than ever. She says:

There was a transcendent moment in our history when we faced bulldogs, water cannons, jail cells, firebombs, assassinations, sacrifice, so that our children could be full citizens. What will we do so that they can live?

They are my children too. And yours. They are the future.

What will you do?

The Edge of Heaven, by Marita Golden

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It’s been a few years since I read this novel by the incredible Marita Golden. In her work she consistently takes on issues so delicate that most are afraid to discuss them at all. Golden approaches them with intelligence and humanity, forcing us to envision and inhabit lives that may be different from our own. To me this is what make literature one of the highest callings: that it nurtures our empathy.

The story opens with twenty-year-old Teresa Singletary and her mother, Lena, facing a major turning point in their lives: Lena is being released from prison.

As Teresa’s grandmother (and Lena’s mother) Ma Adele says, “‘She’ll need you to love her, love her to the bone.’” But Lena isn’t at all sure she’s ready to do that. She bitterly resents the losses that her mother’s actions caused and misses the father who left them shortly before events spun out of control. Ryland has been too absorbed in his own grief to be much of a father to Teresa, leaving her to Ma Adele’s steadfast care.

All of these characters have a turn, as the story moves between Teresa’s first-person point of view and the third-person point of view of the others, particularly Lena. Their actions and memories balance Teresa’s and add context and depth.

Through this “chorus of voices” as Golden describes it in the Reader’s Guide, the story conveys the terrible damage not just to the person imprisoned, but also to her or his family. This theme is what brought me back to this book, now when it seems as though our society may finally be ready to confront the massive racial inequality in the U.S. prison system.

I’ve learned so much from Marita Golden’s workshops. Her skill is evident on every page. Look at how Ma Adele is introduced. About to leave for work, Teresa stops to see her grandmother, entering a bedroom full of plants and flowers. “Some days I heard her behind her door conversing with the plants. She had names the cactus Butch and the azaleas that hung from the ceiling Aretha.” From this we get a picture of Ma Adele as nurturing and having a sense of humor.

Further we find that she is still in bed reading the newspaper, signaling an active intellectual involvement in the world. “The TV remote control, a paperback mystery, an aged, tattered leather phone book, knitting needles, a ball of yarn, and a stack of bills littered my grandmother’s bed.” We are reminded that Ma Adele is perhaps tired, spending much of her time in bed, a woman asked in her old age to raise another child.

Among the litter on the bed is a stack of letters from Lena. Teresa says, “Each time I looked at my grandmother’s face I saw the shadow and the promise of my mother and myself.” By now we know how complicated her emotions are about this seemingly commonplace observation.

This is just one example. The story takes us deep into the history of these individuals and their experience as a family. While the journey is sometimes dark and the human cost is huge, it is in the end a story of love’s possibilities.

I hope with all my heart that we can learn to live inside the lives of others and, seeing the world as they do, make better choices. Stories such as these help us get there.

What novel have you read that illuminated a life different from your own?

Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot

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George Eliot’s last novel is an ambitious undertaking. We follow two people starting with the moment they first saw each other, in 1865 at a resort in Leubronn, a fictional town in Germany. As young Gwendolyn Harleth plays roulette, she is observed by Daniel Deronda. She perceives that while he is taken by her great beauty, he seems to be critical of her behavior. Spoiled and stubborn, she refuses to stop until she has gambled away the last bit of her winnings, trying to appear uncaring. The next day she is called home by a letter from her mother that they have lost all their money, but not before the necklace she has pawned after her losses is mysteriously returned to her.

From there we go back to learn how the self-centered Gwendolyn and the quiet Deronda reached this moment. Gwendolyn has had everything her own way up to this point, ruling over her social circle despite her lack of wealth, uncaring about others, and demanding to be entertained constantly. Just before her trip to Leubronn with family friends, she has refused an offer from Henleigh Grandcourt, a man whose wealth and position would seem to promise all her dreams would come true. However, she has learned that he has a family already, with his longtime mistress.

Deronda is the ward of Sir Humphrey Mallinger, Grandcourt’s uncle. Like most people, he believes he must be Sir Humphrey’s illegitimate son. A most generous and compassionate man, he misses a scholarship to Cambridge through helping his friend Hans Meyrick to win one. He also rescues Mirah, a young Jewish girl who was about to drown herself, and takes her to the Meyrick family for safekeeping. Through her he meets a mysterious Jewish visionary named Mordecai and becomes interested in learning more about the Jewish faith. This novel is the first to treats Jews sympathetically.

From there the two stories continue in tandem, only occasionally intersecting. While there is a great deal of narrative, common in novels of the period, the tale is enlivened by Eliot’s light touch with dialogue and by her penetrating, and sometimes satiric, insight. For instance, she says “it was evident that Gwendolyn was not a general favourite with her own sex; there were not beginnings of intimacy between her and other girls, and in conversation they rather noticed what she said than spoke to her in free exchange.”

I love what Mrs. Meyrick says of her son: “‘If I were to live till my Hans got old, I should still see the boy in him. A mother’s love, I often say, is like a tree that has got all the wood in it, from the very first it made.’”

Deronda’s story of growing interest in Judaism and what we would now call Zionism is less interesting. In his introduction to my copy, F.R. Leavis disagrees with Henry James that Eliot’s intellectual ability is the cause; Leavis admires her intelligence and intellectual powers. Rather, he blames the failure of this part of the book on Eliot’s persistence in endowing her protagonists with idealism. He calls this “immaturity” on Eliot’s part, and even describes Deronda as being a woman in his desire to make the world a better place.

I disagree. As Donald Maass points out, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant.” He goes on to ask writers “What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with?” In another post he suggests that “Positive emotions are harder to access and more difficult to use. Perhaps that’s because they relieve conflict rather than feeding it.” Yet we as readers treasure our encounters with these emotions. “‘Higher emotions’ are called that for a reason. They elevate and inspire us. Even just reading about them changes us, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote and which more recently has been scientifically demonstrated in studies of ‘moral elevation’ by Dr. Jonathan Haidt and others.”

The trick is to make the character interesting by adding internal conflicts and shadings. He or she cannot be all positive. Plus the character has to change. While Deronda has some internal conflicts over who his parents are and whether the woman he loves will also love him, these do not fundamentally change him and he never does or is tempted to do anything wrong. The only way he changes in the book is through his decision to immerse himself in Judaism. He is still his perfect self at the end. Mordecai too is entirely perfect and does not change.

The other reason why the Jewish part of the story drags is that so much of it is presented in long intellectual monologues by Mordecai, unbroken by action or emotion. Today we call this “info-dumping” and try to avoid it.

I don’t think the problem here is idealism, so much as it is the lack of shading in our idealistic characters and the misuse of dialogue to convey chunks of information. Still, there is much to admire in this book. I found myself, despite having read it before, hurrying to get to the end to find out what would happen to these two characters.

Have you read any of George Eliot’s novels? What did you think of them?

Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi

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I always start my memoir classes by discussing what a memoir is. It covers a discreet portion of the author’s life, usually with a limited time frame, and is the author’s perception of the incidents described. Autobiography, on the other hand, is expected to be more objective and to cover the author’s entire life. Therefore, we might question this “autobiography” of someone who is only 39 the year it is published.

Yet Agassi is justified in calling this an autobiography. The frame of the book is his last match as a professional tennis player, at the U.S. Open. From there we go back to his childhood and follow him up to that moment in 2006, that last match. Since almost every moment of his life has been devoted to professional tennis, I think it’s fair to say that one life ended that day and another began. Also, the reworking of Agassi’s original material by another writer, the extensive fact-checking and multiple editorial rewrites provide some objectivity to what is a very personal account.

I love watching tennis, the intense one-on-one battles where the advantage shifts back and forth. The psychological battle interests me almost more than the physical one. A person has to stand out there alone under the unrelenting eyes of cameras and spectators, without teammates or coaches or even privacy to collect themselves. They have to summon the courage to keep playing when they are losing horribly, embarrassingly, and the composure to stay calm in the run-up to an unexpected win.

Reading this book just after Wimbledon gave me added insight into what is happening on the tennis court. Agassi speaks of the “magnetic force” that comes near the end of a match that can pull you over “the finish line” into the win and the equal force pushing you away.

More than that, he gives a close description of the shaping of a professional tennis player, something that starts in early childhood. Agassi’s father gave him a racket when he was three but even before that, according to his mother, “when I was still in the crib, my father hung a mobile of tennis balls above my head and encouraged me to slap at them with a ping-pong paddle he’d taped to my hand.” No wonder he grows up hating tennis and rebelling whenever he gets a chance. Given his seemingly adult-style career, I had to keep reminding myself as he described some of his shenanigans of how young he was.

In some ways, it’s an all-too-familiar story of a childhood stunted and deformed by a stage- or sport-parent who demands that the child’s every moment be devoted to practice. Yet Agassi’s unusual openness about his experiences, his emotions, his misjudgments and mistakes lift this book above the ordinary. The tone is well-calculated to avoid self-pity and show respect and even love for those who might be said to have harmed him.

It’s a compelling read. I was surprised by how well-written it is until I got to the acknowledgments at the end. Agassi credits J.R. Moehringer with transforming their taped interviews into this book, along with input from editors and first readers. He explains that though Moehringer refused to have his own name printed on the cover, Agassi wanted to ensure he got credit for his work. With that, I was no longer surprised. Moehringer is an amazing writer. I’ve written about his extraordinary memoir The Tender Bar.

I treasure the brief outline of Agassi’s second life at the end of the book, a life born of his desire to help disadvantaged children. If we are lucky, we find work that gives our lives meaning.

What sports biographies or autobiographies have you found illuminating?

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

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I recently saw the film Love and Affection, which is not based on Austen’s novel of that name, but rather on her epistolary novel Lady Susan. The film seemed odd to me and a bit boring, aside from some very broad humor, so I immediately went home and read the novel for the first time.

As so often happens, I wish I’d read it before seeing the film. The story begins with the recently widowed Lady Susan and her daughter Frederica leaving Langford, where they had been visiting the Manwarings. Lady Susan sends Frederica off to school and goes on an extended visit to her brother, Charles, at Churchill. We learn rather quickly that Lady Susan not only has been receiving Lord Manwaring’s “attentions”, but has also detached the wealthy Sir James Martin from Miss Manwaring and persuaded him to propose to Frederica. Frederica, “born to be the torment of my life” as Lady Susan says, violently rejects the proposal.

So we have a fairly standard gothic plot of a heroine being forced into an unwelcome marriage, except here it is by her mother rather than the usual father/uncle/guardian. Also unusual is that Frederica is not the protagonist of the story; we only hear from her once in the novel.

In the film, Lady Susan is presented as being deliberately amoral, fully aware and proud of her ability to twist events and actions to pretend that she is the one behaving properly. She comes off as a proper villainess, like Madame de Merteuil in LaClos’s Dangerous Liaisons, published in 1782 and immediately translated into English and widely read.

Yet, in the novel, this wickedness is not so obvious. The most interesting justifications come in her letters to her friend, Alicia Johnson, with whom one would think she would be more open. Is Lady Susan deceiving herself as well as her friend when she presents herself as a martyr trying only to do what is best for everyone? I have certainly known individuals with an immense capacity for self-deception. And Lady Susan, as a widow with a grown daughter and no money, is in a vulnerable position in a world that offers no hope for survival in such a situation except relying on the kindness of friends and family.

In her biography of Jane Austen, Carol Shields says of this book:

The novel, never published during her lifetime, is her strangest and most unsettling literary offering and seems to have been unpopular with her family and friends. It is charmless. And very nearly pointless . . . [Lady Susan] shows not the slightest degree of shame or self-awareness as a reader might have expected by the novel’s end, and Jane Austen does not mete out to her what would be an appropriate punishment. It may be that Austen half admired her creation’s mixture of cunning and sexual bravura; Lady Susan was at least capable of exercising power—even though this force was chiefly directed at breaking up homes and managing her daughter’s misery.

Austen scholar Ellen Moody offers a different view:

The real problem in the novel is there are no good choices. . . There is a quiet desperation here, a disjunction between the stereotype she [Austen] found in her culture and what she wanted to say . . . My suggestion was it’s a radical inverted protest novel. Austen is getting away with protesting her own and other women’s situations through presenting a heroine all will detest.

I appreciate the ambiguity of the novel over the shallowness of the film. As Ellen Moody points out, “If you read Lady Susan as tongue-in-cheek, and . . . think that Lady Susan speaks ceaselessly as a conscious hypocrite and never believes a word she says about her emotions, she becomes a wild caricature. It seems improbable to me – you could not find any depth in the novel then.” Instead, you can “read Lady Susan’s letters as partly self-righteous, at times fooling herself (as people do), really half-believing herself a misunderstood person trying her best to survive and dealing with a society indifferent to her, and only facing up to her hypocrisy when forced to.”

Shields dates the novel from around 1795, but Moody makes a good case for it being set in 1804-5, including there a calendar of the events in Lady Susan.

Ellen Moody also has completed a close reading of Jane Austen’s letters, posted on her Reveries Under the Sign of Austen blog, which Austen fans might enjoy. It begins here.

Have you seen the film Love and Affection? What did you think of it?

Sweet Caress, by William Boyd

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Boyd is another author of many books who is new to me. This one sounded like something I’d love: the story of a fictional photographer, Amory Clay, living through the first three-quarters of the 20th century. A professional woman’s life, the events of the last century, a much-loved author (apparently) with multiple awards, rave reviews for this novel: what could go wrong?

Much, apparently. While the story had moments of interest, I found it hollow at the core. Not only was it not compelling, it was rather boring. I’ll get to the reasons for that in a bit.

The story is narrated by Amory in straight-forward past tense, occasionally interrupted by journal entries from 1977, the “present” of the story. Born in 1908, Amory has a charmed childhood. Boyd includes fun quirky details such as her earliest memory being of her father doing a handstand. However, her father returns from the Great War damaged in ways that are not visible. Meanwhile, a friend of the family, “Uncle” Greville, has given Amory a camera, setting her on the path to her eventual career.

The story follows her life through high points of the next decades, such as Berlin in the 1920s and New York in the 1930s. She becomes one of the first female war photographers in World War II and later in Vietnam. A successful career woman, she publishes books of her photos and works on magazines.

The book is sprinkled with photographs, found by the author at places like estate sales and included to enhance the illusion that Amory is a real person. However, they backfired for me because their quality was so poor. I could not accept them as favorite prints of an accomplished photographer.

I was interested in her career, but in fact, the story is much more concerned with her love life. That sigh you hear? That’s me. Maybe a giddy 20-year-old would be more obsessed with her affairs than her art and career, but across a woman’s entire lifetime? It felt like a male author’s fantasy of a woman’s preoccupations. I should have been warned by the title.

The other reason the book felt empty to me is that Amory herself is hollow. She lives through exciting and terrifying events without any emotion. In fact, there were only two brief moments in the entire story where I detected any tremor of feeling. Since Boyd is supposedly such an accomplished author, I have to assume this is deliberate.

Can anyone, male or female, be so cold as this woman? It may be reticence rather than coldness, but it still keeps the book from engaging the reader. After the first terrible event, she says, “I had what I now suppose was a form of nervous breakdown.” That’s not really enough to stir feeling in a reader. As Donald Maass—an incredible writer, agent and teacher—says: just telling the reader a character feels an emotion doesn’t make the reader feel it.

It’s a shame because the story is so promising and the prose, aside from its lack of emotion, well done. Dialogue is crisp; settings and characters economically and effectively described; action scenes tight.

In The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice W. Flaherty differentiates between cognitive meaning and emotional meaning. Of the latter she says, “This noncongitive notion of meaning, a sense of emotional importance or ultimate goal, is independent of the more traditional semantic notion of meaning as definition or intellectual content.” She also calls them “temporal lobe meaning and limbic meaning”, suggesting that they are processed by different parts of the brain.

Perhaps Boyd meant this story to be cerebral rather than emotional. If that were so, though, surely it would be more productive to focus on something other than Amory’s love affairs: world events perhaps, or what it was like to be one of the first women in a male-dominated field, or even what it was like to have a career at a time when few women did. If the women’s suffrage movement or second-wave feminism were mentioned, I must have missed them.

If you’ve read this or other of Boyd’s books, please let me know in the comments what you thought of them.

What novel have you read that captures the entire span of a character’s life?

The Lake House, by Kate Morton

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Summer is here, and no vacation is complete without plenty of books to read. Ebooks made packing easy: just bring my Nook. This year, though, I’ve gone even lighter, reading books on my phone through the Nook and Kindle apps. Which books, though?

For long car trips (I seem to do a lot of these) I love audio books, but must select them carefully. Thrillers make me drive too fast; long-winded sentences or complicated concepts make me tune out because I can’t follow them while driving. And the actor matters as well. If the delivery is too monotone, my eyelids get heavy. I thought I’d chosen a great book for my last trip: one of my favorite authors. However, this particular novel was more of a psychological study; it would have been excellent reading (and I may come back to it) but too slow for a car trip.

If I’m flying I want a book that is absorbing but not too thought-provoking, since its purpose is to distract me from my surroundings and make the time go by quickly. For a recent flight I picked up this novel by Kate Morton, an author new to me, though this is her fifth novel.

It was perfect! I fell into the story and barely came up for air during the long day’s travel.

Sadie Swallow, a disgraced detective keeping her head down at her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall, goes running and stumbles on a beautiful abandoned house. Fascinated by the house, she becomes riveted by the 70-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the small much-loved boy whose loss so broke his family that they could not bear to return.

The story goes back and forth in time to fill in her past and that of the elderly crime novelist who is the last remaining member of the family who lived there. This kind of time-shifting rarely works, but here Morton handles it brilliantly. Each chapter is a single time period and labeled up front, so there’s no confusion. What really makes it flow are the transitions within the text, the scene at the end of one chapter flowing seamlessly into the first scene of the next chapter; even if there is a huge time gap, the story feels continuous.

The crime novelist, Alice Edevane, older sister of the lost toddler, is easily the most intriguing character in the book. While very successful as a writer, Alice loathes publicity and is impatient with people who don’t meet her standards. Those standards emerge through her interactions with Peter, the man she hires as a personal assistant, and later with Sadie: on time for appointments, clever (in the British sense of intelligent and practical), and a quality I used to call clear through: open and honest, without social artifice—someone you can trust.

I loved spending time with Alice. And also with Sadie. As a very junior female detective she’s smart but a little too willing to go her own way, ignoring orders from above, thus getting on the wrong side of her superiors. She has a bit of a troubled background, hence being brought up by her grandparents, and is too driven by work to care for a houseplant much less a relationship.

In addition to enjoying the characters, I too fell for the house and for the life the family led there before their tragedy. Set in Cornwall and the London I’d just left how could I resist? The atmosphere reminded me a little of the first part of Atonement. I loved Sadie’s grandfather and his life as a widower, making pies for the fête, walking his two dogs. He’s at peace with himself and able to advise Sadie without seeming too good to be true.

Some cross-genre novels shortchange one or another of their genres. For example, The Girl on the Train was a good thriller, but disappointing as a mystery. Here, Morton manages to present a satisfying mystery in a historical novel that also tackles important issues in women’s lives.

There were a couple of things I thought too improbable and if editing the book would have advised Morton to change. But overall a most satisfying read. I’ll certainly take along one of her other novels on my next flight.

Can you recommend a good audio book for a car trip or one for a flight?