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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

Book Cover

Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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On Classics, Average Older Books, And Contrasting Values

A photograph of three classic books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

I’ve been thinking about classics and, for want of a better descriptor, bog-standard older books, in terms of how they match up, and where the term ‘classic’ begins and ends.

When I first began to develop an interest in reading famous books, and for a fair length of time into my journey reading them, I used to call all older books classics. True, I was naïve back then and didn’t realise just how many older books the world had managed to retain, but mostly I saw historical books as being equal to each other, all full of value – albeit that I started to see it more as a perceived value once I’ve read my first dull book that everyone else seemed to like.

(On the note of needing a better descriptor – I’d like to see one. Does the fact there isn’t a proper descriptor for average older books a reason why so many of them are still put on a pedestal?)

A recent article on Lit Hub included this:

Classics are classics for good reason, and forgotten books are most often forgotten because they weren’t excellent.1

In many ways, never was a truer word spoken, but there are a lot of books that were forgotten and then remembered – forgotten because they didn’t seem relevant at that time; I believe Twelve Years A Slave would be in that category – a book that was relevant during abolition but perhaps not so much after slavery ended, until it was discovered again in the last few decades. (And that’s why I didn’t add ‘forgotten books’ to my bracketed paragraph – whilst the article says ‘most often forgotten because’ I reckon it’s a bit less than ‘most often’. There are many more reasons books are lost, and we likely won’t find out about all of those reasons.)

Having now read a few older books of that non-classic variety, particularly those in the ‘was very popular and a classic for a short period of time’ category, I find it interesting how we change; some books are forgotten because they have values we no longer, or had no longer, ascribe(d) to.

I’m thinking of Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline, the book I’m currently struggling through, a book in which a man follows the unhappy main character everywhere she goes, having tantrums when anyone suggests he leaves her be. Turner Smith’s publishers and contemporary readers would doubtless be surprised to hear the book is now virtually unknown – it was incredibly successful in its day (which is a reason to read it – a book by a female author in the 1700s). It was considered excellent by most.

Mary Wollstonecraft did not like it much at all, however, and this is something else to consider – if a writer who is revered so much today for reasons that are completely opposite to the popular book’s qualities did not like it, it does stand to reason that it would be obscure now.

She “lamented […] that the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected, and content despised.” 2

The Light In The Clearing I read a few years ago. I likened it to Great Expectations insofar as literary atmospheres go; it was a popular book by a very successful author. Nowadays it’s obscure, its topic and messages far surpassed in execution by others from the same period whose fame has only increased.

It’s both sad and understandable – as the world changes, books that used to be important may cease to be so. The good thing now is that we can at least save them, retain them digitally where they can be uncovered in the future whereas previously they might have been lost.

1 Our Obsession With Lost Books And How Often They Disappoint
2 Wikipedia’s page on Emmeline

 
Dorthe Nors – Karate Chop

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Spooky coincidences and horrific happenings.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 82
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27432-2
First Published: 25th September 2008 in Danish; 4th February 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Danish
Original title: Kantslag (Side Stroke)
Translated by: Martin Aitken

In this collection of very short stories (some have called it flash fiction) a person left alone by potentially mysterious boyfriend watches and remembers a documentary about a missing person who left their wife; a grown-up remembers the stories about his grandmother told to them by their mother and aunt – two children brought up by an abusive parent; and a psychologist looks at her bruises and wonders about the way she gets into bad relationships when she well knows the warning signs.

Karate Chop is a thin book of vignettes about realisations of the self and aspects of society. Told in simple prose, the author’s style is one of subtlety – with her writing set somewhere between the almost vague and small shock, Nors’ collection delivers some poignant endings, some horrible endings, and others that are ambiguous.

These endings result in a book that can at times confuse you. Because some of the stories are easy enough to see through – well, easy enough once you’ve worked out the right amount of thinking you must do – the ones that are a lot less opaque can seem not so successful. It can be hard to decipher whether the more vague pieces are like that on purpose – leaning ever more towards subtlety – or just objectively miss the mark. It could be due to the length – no matter how literary the endings, the shortness of the stories means it can be a bit too easy to forget what came before. Make no mistake – there is something to take away from all the stories – but some will fade from memory a lot quicker than others.

The simplicity of Nors’ prose has been translated well; doubtless some changes have been made to aid the reader not familiar with Denmark but if they have they are hard to see. The text flows well and the translation reads as faithful both to the takeaway of the stories and the phrasing.

Highlights of the collection include Mutual Destruction, in which a man watches a neighbour who has previously ‘helped’ him put animals to sleep when they were ill – where is the man’s family? The Winter Garden looks at the moment children start to realise their parents might just be average; Flight looks at a woman who is close to realising what went wrong in her relationship but incapable of seeing it; and the aforementioned story about the tales of the narrator’s grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, And Aunt Ellen, is exceptional.

Karate Chop delivers more than one punch in the reading experience – the title may refer to a particular story but it could equally have been used for a few others. It is a great little collection that takes less time to read than it does to finish thinking about it.

I received this book for review.

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A Jane Austen Evening: Historian Cheryl Butler At Cobbett Road Library

A photograph of Cobbett Road Library

We have in Southampton our own Jane Austen expert – a historian who knows a great, great, deal about the history of our city, too. Cheryl Butler is well known in Southampton and gives many talks, is a writer of local history books and theatre performances, and guides walks in the medieval areas of the city.

On Thursday evening, Cheryl spoke to those gathered at Cobbett Road Library, a community hub in the suburb of Bitterne Park. Now run by a small staff and volunteers, and championed by a great Friends group, it is one of if not the oldest standing library in the city, inhabiting a building that was created in 1939 expressly for the purpose of book lending; decorated still by its original wood panelling, it encompasses a stunning lobby that is the nucleus, the main library to one side, and a community room and children’s library to the other.

A photograph of Cheryl Butler

Cheryl came to the library to give her Jane Austen & Southampton Spa talk and whilst I believe everyone expected to leave having learned quite a bit, the sheer amount of information Cheryl knows was something else. Reason being – there’s not much known generally about Austen’s time in Southampton, indeed it’s completely overlooked by her time in Bath and Chawton, yet she visited and stayed in Southampton three times over the course of her life and there is good reason to believe she preferred this city to Bath. Living in Southampton, one learns a bit just by walking around and patronising the city centre – everyone knows that Austen stayed at the very haunted Dolphin Hotel near the sea’s edge, and that she stayed in a house the grounds of which were later rebuilt upon to become what is now a pub. There are other plaques baring information near the water’s edge and it’s fairly well known that she liked the ruins of Netley Abbey.

Jane first visited Southampton when her sister Cassandra’s school mistress moved her school to the city. Jane joined them; the school was based somewhere on the High Street. Cheryl believes that Jane’s talk of a similar-sounding school in Sanditon may point to an influence. Due to the movements of the military at the time – the various wars that were going on – there was a lot of disease about and Jane, Cassandra, and their cousin caught Typhus. That was the end of the first visit.

On the eve of her 18th birthday, Jane returned to the city, staying with relatives. These relatives were rich, at the upper end of society, and had connections to the East India Company. This was the visit during which the author danced at the Dolphin Hotel, in the ballroom which stretches across the first floor. (William Thackeray is also known to have visited the hotel.) Jane’s relatives are buried at Pear Tree Church, across the river from the city centre (Southampton spans two sides of the Itchen.)

A photograph of Pear Tree Church

Jane’s third visit happened when her brother, Francis, moved to the city. The Austens got a property together in Castle Square; a gothic castle had been built by the Marquis of Lansdowne with expensive houses surrounding it, the most expensive of which was rented by the author’s family. The castle no longer exists (the ruins remaining in the city are of the medieval castle) but the area is still called Castle Square. Jane wrote about their garden; she grew a flower that William Cowper, her favourite poet, had composed a work about. (Cowper was another visitor to Southampton.) The family grew strawberries. Jane enjoyed attending a theatre on French Street, a place that would later host her favourite actress, Sarah Siddons – though Jane did not see her perform here.

Cheryl believes it’s possible that we don’t know more about Jane’s time in Southampton due to Cassandra’s burning of her letters after she died. [Full disclosure: I haven’t included everything in this post.] We have some of her letters which include notes on Southampton and given this, it’s likely there were originally more. Cheryl also posed the interesting question – if Jane’s letters that include her dislike of the upstanding vicar of All Saints Church were not burned by Cassandra, then what in the world did the burned letters contain?

We have no evidence that Jane worked on her novels whilst in Southampton, but do know that she corresponded with her publishers for the return of a manuscript that they had yet to do anything with. That manuscript was ‘Susan’, which later became Northanger Abbey.

Do you enjoy learning the history of where you live?

 
Sherry Thomas – The Luckiest Lady In London

Book Cover

Lucky, but well matched.

Publisher: Berkley Romance (Penguin)
Pages: 276
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-425-26888-9
First Published: 5th November 2013
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Felix doesn’t trust people. Neglected as a child by his mother, and having to watch his parents’ loveless marriage progress ever further into bitterness, he never lets an affair become serious. Meanwhile family rich but cash poor Louisa is looking for a husband amongst the wealthy; she’s got a few siblings, one with epilepsy, and a mother to look after; if Louisa likes her husband then all well and good but it’s not important. When Felix suggests she become his mistress with the promise of life-long provision she’s tempted but believes she can do better.

The Luckiest Lady In London is a novel that shares its society and a couple of characters with Thomas’ previous book, Private Arrangements. It’s a deftly-plotted story that shows the author’s expertise in writing what her readers want.

The romance is very well done. Thomas has created a couple that are well suited and the relationship is believable. She looks into the ways they are suited in terms of interests – quite a few pages are devoted to astronomy, telescopes, and there’s a fair amount of information to learn about the practices and scientific beliefs of the period.

But the strongest element of this book and what sets it above many others is the way Thomas deals with the requirement for conflict in a story. The defining conflict, apparent early on, is not the be all and end all of the work; Thomas uses it but keeps it realistic and reigned in – never once does it outstay its welcome. Thomas gives a clear nod to what is wrong and then the characters get on with solving the problem.

And they are good characters. Obviously there’s the fantasy of the poor historical woman gaining the hand of the wealthiest man in society, but Thomas makes it work. There is solid reasoning in everything. The story is undemanding and an easy read with a good chunk of value. The writing, as always with Thomas, is top notch.

The Luckiest Lady In London isn’t standout in the way one usually thinks of that category but it’s a good read.

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