Bittersweet

Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920s

F Scott Fitzgerald:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories
Penguin Books 2010 (2008)

This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story’s appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald’s work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

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Managing change

Alison Croggon: The River and the Book
Walker Books 2015

“All writing comes from the inside,” said Ling Ti. “It burns you with wanting to be written. It’s the writing that matters.”
— From Chapter 25, The River and the Book

Rivers and books have so much in common, don’t they? They each have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re ever-changing, never quite the same — even a little way further on. If you ever revisit them they are different again, their compositions have somehow altered — either in their elements or the relationship between those elements — and outside influences have meant that your perception has had to permanently adjust. Which is why Alison Croggon’s novella, The River and the Book, works so well, each aspect of the title informing the other and complementing it.

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Drowning sorrows

Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)

For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

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The naming game

Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the 'real' Tarzan's birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on.
Elmo Lincoln, the first screen Tarzan, was born in 1889, the year after the ‘real’ Tarzan’s birth. He wears the rope and locket described in the book, though his headband may be there to keep his wig on. Here Tarzan is teaching himself to read using a picture book.

I’ve talked before about character names in fiction, for example in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and in Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ve noted that certain authors are drawn to choosing significant names for their protagonists, authors such as A S Byatt in The Biographer’s Tale and in Angels & Insects. Donna Leon chose to call her truth-seeking heroine in The Jewels of Paradise Pellegrini, after the Italian name for a pilgrim, and the magizoologist Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them bears names that mark him out as a scientist (Newton) whilst also being able to transform (from larva to eft to newt) and survive in different environments (the newt, a kind of salamander, lives both in water and on land, while the Scamander is a river near ancient Troy).

Yet it appears that many authors don’t go in for universally significant or symbolic names for their leading men and women, especially when it comes to realistic novels set in a contemporary world. For example, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child has the parents of Luke, Helen, Jane, Paul and Ben simply as David and Harriet Lovatt, and unless these names had personal significance for the author (as a difficult ‘family’ member had for Lessing’s life) I can’t see that these are anything other than what any ordinary middleclass family might choose. Again, in Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January is it apparent that Rydal Keener or the couple Chester and Colette MacFarlane have anything special about their names other than they seem typically North American? Perhaps the fact that Chester and Rydal are both derived from place names is more noteworthy than I can fathom.

But if the characters’ names neither obviously conform to the conventions of their setting nor have a personal resonance for the author (or at least one that they wish to share) do we have to fall back on significance or symbolism as guiding spirits? What do online gurus have to say about choosing the names of characters? I’ve selected three of these advisers.

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The sea all day

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

Julia Rochester The House at the Edge of the World
Penguin 2016 (2015)

A man falls from a high point into the sea and is lost. I am reminded of the myth of Icarus, the son of Daedalus, who on his way to freedom flew too close to the sun so that its heat melted the wax holding together the feathers of his artificial wings and he fell from the heavens. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting on this subject famously shows his fall as unnoticed by ordinary people such as a ploughman, a shepherd and an angler.

But when John Venton falls off a cliff somewhere facing the North Atlantic on the southwestern peninsula of England his absence is very definitely noticed by his family — by his wife Valerie, by his twin children Morwenna and Corwin, by his father Matthew — and by his friend Bob, who was too drunk at the time to notice what happened. The impact that this disappearance (no body is ever found) has on the evidently dysfunctional family is far-reaching, stretching years into the future; and the time comes when the twins, who were of school-leaving age when their father disappeared, start to question the received wisdom.

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Yet more on spoilers

Spoiler-Alert
Bear with me: I’m still fascinated by this thing about spoilers and whether readers generally like or loathe them. Nikki of Breathes Books disputed my notion on whether most of the world can be divided up into one camp or other: “I think,” she suggests, “often people think they’re in one camp or t’other, but in reality, everyone has exceptions.” And she’s probably right. Would a straw poll based on blog comments give a clearer picture?
After sifting through comments on both our blogs here’s where I found responders to both blogs roughly stood on a continuum between hating and liking spoilers:

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Every book is a world

bookshop window
Bookshop window display (Book-ish, Crickhowell, Wales)

Gabrielle Zevin The Storied Life of  A.J. Fikry Abacus 2015 (2014)

A book about books, the love of books, booklovers, selling books, writing books, quoting books, reviewing books, talking about books — what’s not to like? Add to that memorable characters whom you can get to love and care for, a few who either achieve a kind of redemption or get their just deserts, who live and breathe and die and live on; and what you glimpse is a little world, a kind of microcosm of the greater world we all inhabit — or would like to inhabit.

A. J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a bookstore on the fictional Alice Island off the coast of Massachusetts, only reachable by ferry from Hyannis. He is a curmudgeon, true, but a curmudgeon with good reason — personal tragedy has touched his life and coloured his world view. After his loved one dies book sales flatline; a valued book of his — an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s early poem Tamerlane — is then stolen, an irritatingly pushy new agent from Knightley Press appears and, to cap it all, a two-year-old orphan is left in his care. Not only is he out of his comfort zone but there is little prospect of him finding his way back again. What’s a man to do?

I shan’t be spoiling matters by suggesting that he finds a kind of redemption and a new sense of purpose when he decides to adopt Maya, the bright young toddler who enchants him with her love of books. Through her he reconnects with family, makes new friends, cleans up his life, revitalises his business, even learns to love again. But there is unfinished business still awaiting him at the end of a dozen or so years, one that adds more than a touch of poignancy to this tale.

I found The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry absolutely delightful. Each chapter is headed by a book title and a short discussion by A.J. addressed to a teenage Maya; the title itself or an aspect of the book usually relates to what happens in that chapter, but I found I didn’t need to know much about any of the books to appreciate the thoughts and ideas that A.J. expounds, reflections that clearly indicate his belief that books are not an escape from life but a vital spark that makes life worth living. There is too a metafictional parallel: the stolen Poe edition dealt with the regret Tamerlane felt at the end of his life after forsaking true love for worldly power and success. As one of the strong themes in this novel, it is a message perhaps for us all; and it is echoed by the Rumi quote prefacing all: come on, sweetheart | let’s adore one another | before there is no more | of you and me.

There is a fascinating cast to discover peopling this book, which helps to underscore the message on the faded “sign over the porch of the purple Victorian cottage” declaring No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World. Reminding us of our interconnectedness with others it also emphasises that through books we may experience a wider life; and through writing we can speak as if by magic to future generations, even allowing them to love us when we are no longer in this world.

No man

This is my Massachusetts entry for Lory’s Reading New England Challenge at Emerald City Book Review, which may be a bit of a cheat as Alice Island doesn’t exist, but one or two scenes actually take place on the mainland — even straying to Rhode Island — so I hope it just squeezes in!

Author alphabet 2016: Z for Zevin