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The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

I have suddenly found myself on something of a short book kick and really enjoying it.  The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett caught my eye and the local library and since I am on said short book kick, I added it to the pile.

Publisher

The Ransomes had been burgled. “Robbed,” Mrs. Ransome said. “Burgled,” Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though “burgled” was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.

This swift-moving comic fable will surprise you with its concealed depths. When the sedate Ransomes return from the opera to find their Notting Hill flat stripped absolutely bare—down to the toilet paper off the roll, they face a dilemma: Who are they without the things they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating? Suddenly the world is full of unlimited and frightening possibility.

My quick take

I read it in one sitting and found it a little gem. Witty and clever and yet dealing with deeper issues just under the surface. Quirky and obviously British but dealing with human nature so universal.

Others

New York Times:

”The Clothes They Stood Up In” was a best seller in Britain, where Bennett, the author of the plays ”Habeas Corpus,” ”Forty Years On,” ”The Madness of George III” and countless other films and television shows, is rightly thought of as a national treasure. The book will probably not do quite so well here, for the traits personified by the Ransomes — emotional constipation on the husband’s part, an almost pathological diffidence on the wife’s — are English vices and not American ones. (Our own run on quite different lines.) But it is a witty, dark piece of work, a happy evening’s read and a tantalizing mental challenge to those of us who, like the Ransomes, find their lives encumbered and their senses blunted by too much stuff.

Kirkus

Short, pleasant, witty, and melancholy, though—á la Garrison Keillor—perhaps a richer treat for those who know and can hear the radio voice telling it.

PW

Bennett carries off his terse, surreal comedy with witty aplomb, adding to risibility with apt comments about the foibles of contemporary society and the consumer economy. Forecast: English readers familiar with Bennett’s plays (The Madness of George III, etc.) snatched up this novella to the tune of 140,ooo copies. The premise of being left without any possessions is provocative enough to entice readers on these shores, and the small size of the volume reinforces the idea that simplicity can be liberating.

Complete Review

The world Bennett describes here is a benign, bumbling one. From the well-meaning but hapless police (and the counselors they send to assist in the grieving process) to the Ransome’s own domestic life and little secrets Bennett offers a wealth of rich, simple detail that lift the text far beyond the ordinary. A pleasure to read, The Clothes They Stood Up in is a fine little book.

Book Review: Trust by Domenico Starnone

Trust by Domenico Starnone is the second of a handful of short books that I picked up at the local library (the first was Comfort Me with Apples).

Publisher’s Blurb

Pietro and Teresa’s love affair is tempestuous and passionate. After yet another terrible argument, she gets an idea: they should tell each other something they’ve never told another person, something they’re too ashamed to tell anyone. They will hear the other’s confessions without judgment and with love in their hearts. In this way, Teresa thinks, they will remain united forever, more intimately connected than ever.

A few days after sharing their shameful secrets, they break up. Not long after, Pietro meets Nadia, falls in love, and proposes. But the shadow of the secret he confessed to Teresa haunts him, and Teresa herself periodically reappears, standing at the crossroads, it seems, of every major moment in his life. Or is it he who seeks her out?

Starnone is a master storyteller and a novelist of the highest order. His gaze is trained unwaveringly on the fault lines in our public personas and the complexities of our private selves. Trust asks how much we are willing to bend to show the world our best side, knowing full well that when we are at our most vulnerable we are also at our most dangerous.

My take

Like the Valente novella, Trust is a short work of fiction that I enjoyed but wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it.

The kernel at the heart of the story is the secret shared between Pietro and Teresa. Never revealed, but a thread woven through the entire story. Sometimes the tensions builds and it feels like everything will come crashing down but it never quite does.

I enjoyed the story as a mediation on the way we create stories and perceptions of ourselves and our lives, about who we are and why we do what we do, etc. At the heart of the story is the idea that shared risk can bind people together but also push them apart. There is a sort of magnet effect of both attraction and repulsion and love is the wrestling with this effect.

But I also felt like there was a layer or level or the story or writing that I was missing. Particularly after reading the afterward by Jhumpa Lahiri which is really a musing on language and translation.

Quick Take On A Short Book: Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente

During a recent trip to the library, I picked up a couple of intriguing short works of fiction.  I finished the first, Comfort Me with Apples by Catherynne M. Valente.

Publisher

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze…

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

My quick take

I enjoyed it for the odd novella that it was but, like many, wondered if it delivered on its promise.

It was creepy and atmospheric in some ways; a sense of building panic, of something wrong just off page. Not sure I would call it horror or even a thriller (the book cover says “terrifying new thriller”). And the language and prose is wonderful in that unique Valente style. But the mystical feminist or anti-men ending with its Biblical language and imagery was both weird and a little unclear.

I read it in one sitting. Can’t imagine buying a copy unless I was a big time Valente fan, but I did find it an interesting diversion on a cold Monday night.

For me the quickness of the read, and the fact that I checked it out from the library made it a low risk.  Others have reacted differently. Check out Goodreads to get a flavor.

For other reviews see below.

Library Trip: Short Books to Read in 2022

As I have probably mentioned before, despite having hundreds of books to read at home I have been unable to get out of the habit of going to the library and bringing a haul of books home. Yesterday, I made such a trip.

I focused on short fiction (I’m reading Dune and so need some shorter books to read) and found these three intriguing.

Comfort Me with Apple by Catherine M. Valente

I have a love/hate relationship with Valente in some ways. Her Fairyland books are some of my favorite books in the world but the other books I have read have left me cold. And yet, I keep reading…

Sophia was made for him. Her perfect husband. She can feel it in her bones. He is perfect. Their home together in Arcadia Gardens is perfect. Everything is perfect.

It’s just that he’s away so much. So often. He works so hard. She misses him. And he misses her. He says he does, so it must be true. He is the perfect husband and everything is perfect.

But sometimes Sophia wonders about things. Strange things. Dark things. The look on her husband’s face when he comes back from a long business trip. The questions he will not answer. The locked basement she is never allowed to enter. And whenever she asks the neighbors, they can’t quite meet her gaze….

But everything is perfect. Isn’t it?

Trust by Domenico Starnone

Italian fiction translated by Jhumpa Lahiri?  Sure, I’ll check that out…

Pietro and Teresa’s love affair is tempestuous and passionate. After yet another terrible argument, she gets an idea: they should tell each other something they’ve never told another person, something they’re too ashamed to tell anyone. They will hear the other’s confessions without judgment and with love in their hearts. In this way, Teresa thinks, they will remain united forever, more intimately connected than ever.

A few days after sharing their shameful secrets, they break up. Not long after, Pietro meets Nadia, falls in love, and proposes. But the shadow of the secret he confessed to Teresa haunts him, and Teresa herself periodically reappears, standing at the crossroads, it seems, of every major moment in his life. Or is it he who seeks her out?

Starnone is a master storyteller and a novelist of the highest order. His gaze is trained unwaveringly on the fault lines in our public personas and the complexities of our private selves. Trust asks how much we are willing to bend to show the world our best side, knowing full well that when we are at our most vulnerable we are also at our most dangerous.

 

 

Five Favorite Fiction I Read in 2021


Looking back on the fiction I read in 2021, nothing jumps out at me as exceptional.  Let me rephrase that, nothing struck me as “Wow, you have to read this book!” Instead, there were lots of “Hmm, that was interesting.”  These were books that held my interest but didn’t wow me; books that make you want to drop what you are doing so you can block out a chunk of time to read. Or maybe the pandemic has just taken the luster off of everything…

As an aside, as I mentioned in my 2021 Reading By the Numbers post, with Goodreads, I have a tendency to overrate books; giving 4 stars when looking back I don’t feel like I “really” enjoyed it.  There is such a fine line between enjoying a book and really liking it. Which is why I have been wishing for half stars for many years.

Nevertheless, I did read some entertaining and interesting novels in 2021.  Here are five that stood out:

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures  by Jennifer Hofmann

A sort of dark and gritty espionage novel but with a supernatural element haunting it and a Kafkaesque style. At first it reads like a typical missing person/spy story but then the combination of the paranoia that comes from living in an authoritarian state where the government is spying on everyone, and everyone is spying on each other, plus a mysterious illness (and perhaps a mental breakdown) leads to things begining to spin.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Grabbed this on Kindle for $2 so that is a plus. I enjoyed reading this and found it fascinating but it also felt like there was deeper meanings that I was missing or some key to the whole thing that I just couldn’t quite grasp. I am not really very good at unpacking symbolism and layers in fiction.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Quick but enjoyable read. I really enjoyed the mix of Ghana, futuristic and fantastical elements. Has a sense of the mythological even as it is science fiction.

How to Betray Your Country by James Wolff

More espionage and more dark humor. A sort of noir espionage thriller that is dark and yet with a kind of wit and humor. A psychological exploration of grief and depression through the eyes of a spy. I really like Beside the Syrian Sea so not surprised I liked this as well.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

This was one I struggled with rating. I enjoyed it and found it creative and in some ways insightful. But it was also rather depressing and hard to read at times. My natural prudishness didn’t help given the plethora of F-bombs, etc.  But it kept me reading and a unique and imaginative debut.

I am hoping to offer more detailed posts on each of these books as I go through the books I read in 2021 but given my track record I wanted to highlight them as among my favorites.

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