Monthly Archives: January 2014

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Reading Round-Up, 1/12/2014

It’s been over a month since I’ve done one of these round-up posts, and in that time, I’ve only properly reviewed one book. What have I been up to? The books I’ve read since last time I did a round-up include:

  • Alix Kates Schulman’s memoir Drinking the Rain. I liked this, although I thought it started a little slowly. You have to have a fairly large appetite for nature writing in the book’s first section, although it is beautifully written and interesting. Basically, Schulman retreats to an isolated primitive cabin in Maine to live on her own. Later parts of the book include more of Schulman’s past life — her involvement with the feminist movement, her marriage, her writing. There’s lots of interesting stuff here.
  • Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory, a short collection of feminist essays, and also an Emily Books pick. Really great cultural criticism.
  • Victor LaValle’s The Ecstatic. This reminded me a little of A.M. Homes’s writing in the way it’s realistic fiction but turned up just a notch — the people are a little larger, wackier, and stranger than in real life, and more stuff happens to them than happens to most people. I liked it.
  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, which I wrote about in my previous post.
  • Laura Kipnis’s Against Love. I started off loving this and continued to like it to the end, although the tone began to feel a little same-y after a while. But this book is a great critique of contemporary ideas about marriage and fidelity. I finished reading it not feeling against love, exactly, but definitely against social expectations that people fit into one model for how relationships should go (which I was already, but still).
  • Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Review forthcoming!

As for current and upcoming reading, any plan I previously had got disrupted by the publication of the Tournament of Books short list. I love the Tournament of Books and have followed it closely for a few years now. It’s so much more interesting than other awards and contests because the decision-making is transparent, at least once you get to the short list stage, and you can follow along and comment on each decision over the course of several weeks. And I love how the organizers recognize how silly and ridiculous the whole idea of a Tournament of Books is. It’s absurd! But it’s fun, and I’m glad they do it.

As happens every year, I’m tempted to read some of the books off their list so I can follow along with the decision-making that much more closely. As it turns out, Hobgoblin gave me a copy of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries for Christmas, a book that’s on the tournament list, so I’m reading it right now. Since I put James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, also tournament short listed, on my TBR list last month, I thought I’d check it out of the library and see if I liked it, which I do, so I’m in the middle of that now too. After that, we’ll see. I have a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, so I might pick that up, and others on the list look appealing as well. I may read from the list until I get bored with contemporary fiction and then move on to other things. Of the 17 books on the list, I’d already read only two: Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Have a great week everyone!


Filed under Books

The Trip to Echo Spring

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing was the last book I read in 2013, and it was a good way to end the year. It’s the kind of nonfiction I like: bookish, elegantly written, with a mix of genres. The book is mostly biography, but it contains elements of travel narrative and memoir as well. The idea of the book is to trace the influence of alcohol in the creative lives of six writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, and John Cheever. Laing travels by train around the U.S. visiting places of importance to these writers, and while describing her journey, she tells us about the lives of these authors and the ways their paths crossed and their experiences coincided. The connections among these writers proliferate: they were friends, enemies, colleagues, rivals, fellow sufferers. Laing looks not only at the biographies of these writers, but at what they had to say about alcohol in their writing, both in their creative work and in letters and journals.

Laing undertakes a LOT in this book, and for the most part she succeeds. The biographies are interesting, and her insights into the literature she examines are strong. What she has to say about how alcohol influenced these writers’ lives and creative work is illuminating. I kept wishing she would develop the memoir aspects of the book further, though. With Litlove, I wanted more. This touches on another part of the book I found puzzling: Laing’s decision to discuss only  male writers. She says in a parenthesis early in the book that

There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.

The reasons that “will become apparent” are presumably to do with her mother’s partner who was an alcoholic. Laing sketches out this story in the book. But the reasons for writing only about men never did “become apparent” for me; to say that her experience — very powerful though it was — with an alcoholic woman meant that she couldn’t write about alcoholic women didn’t satisfy me. The explanation might have satisfied me if she had developed it at greater length, but further explanations never came. So I felt that Laing missed an opportunity to shed light on her own experience in the way she does with the writers under examination. I would have loved to see more discussion of gender itself and the role it played in writers’ relationships with alcohol. Have alcoholic men had a fundamentally different experience than alcoholic women? Perhaps this is asking too much of a book that already accomplishes so much, but it does leave what felt to me like a hole in the book.

Still, there is so much here to admire. My biggest fear when picking up biographical writing is that it will be boring, and Laing’s book is decidedly not that. And she makes it look like weaving together multiple strands of narrative, complete with beautiful sentences, is an easy thing to do, when I know for sure it definitely is not.


Filed under Books

My Best of 2013

As I’ve done in recent years, I will list my favorite books in terms of categories rather than creating a simple top ten list (or whatever number). How can I really say which is better, my favorite biography vs. my favorite mystery, for example? So here is what stands out the most from the year:

Best fiction overall:

  • Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding
  • Alissa Nutting’s Tampa
  • Justin Torres’s We the Animals
  • Paul Harding’s Tinkers
  • Elizabeth Gentry’s Housebound

Most enjoyable novels — these are maybe not great, great books, but they were lots of fun:

  • Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette
  • Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins
  • Georgette Heyer’s The Talisman Ring

Best mystery:

  • Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Best graphic novel (yes, I only read two this year, but still):

  • Craig Thompson’s Blankets

Best biography/autobiography:

  • Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments
  • Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave

Best essay collections:

  • Michelle Orange’s This is Running For Your Life
  • Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth
  • Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America

Best literary criticism:

  • Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

Best unclassifiable nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (a reread)

Here’s hoping that we all find some wonderful books in 2014!


Filed under Books

2013 Reading

Happy New Year! I’d hoped to post at least once before Christmas, but I wasn’t able to finish my fall semester grading before we headed off on an almost-two-week trip to visit family in western New York state and California, so I just couldn’t squeeze it in. The trip to California involved three flights on the way there and three flights on the way back — with an eleven-month-old. It was crazy. But the trip was great, and involved this:

Cormac Beach

and this:


And this (that’s a winery in the background):

Cormac winery

The California sunshine was lovely. Now I’m back home and there is a snowstorm on the way. Sigh. But it’s a good time to think about last year’s reading. I read much more last year than I thought I would, considering I had a baby and all. I read a lot in the few weeks before the baby was born and then a lot during the night when I was up with the baby, so I learned that it’s not having a child that keeps me from reading. It’s really my job that’s the problem. When the job started back up, my reading slowed down. Again, sigh.

Here’s how my reading breaks down:

  • Books read: 100 (tied with 2011 for my highest number)
  • Audiobooks: 2 (down from the previous year because of podcasts)
  • eBooks: 27 (way, way up)
  • From library: 30 (also up. This includes some library ebooks)
  • Fiction: 67
  • Nonfiction: 33 (this fiction/nonfiction breakdown is pretty typical for me. Nonfiction means a lot to me, but I read it more slowly than fiction.)
  • Poetry: 0 (fail)
  • Essay collections: 10 (typical)
  • Biography/autobiography: 14
  • Theory/criticism: 4 (other nonfiction included history, religion, and unclassifiable nonfiction)
  • Short story collections: 3 (up!)
  • Mysteries: 12 (typical)
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 6 (up only a bit)
  • Books by writers of color: 12

Gender breakdown:

  • Men: 36
  • Women: 63 (almost exactly the same as last year. I used to read more evenly. I don’t purposely try to read more women; it just works out that way.)
  • Collection with men and women: 1


  • Americans: 70 (up a lot!)
  • British: 17 (down)
  • Canadian: 2
  • French: 2
  • One each by Dutch, Irish, Israeli, Japanese, Norwegian, Pakistani, Spanish, Sri Lankan, and Swiss authors.

Year of publication:

  • 18th century: 0 (I’ve moved on from my grad school days, I see.)
  • 19th: 1 (fail)
  • First half of 20th century: 6
  • Second half of 20th century: 16
  • 2000-2009: 25
  • 2010-2013: 52 (way up)

This year and last year I read  many more contemporary novels than I used to. Ah, well. I’m just balancing out earlier years of my life when I hardly read anything contemporary.

As for the upcoming year, I’m doing what I did last year and setting no specific goals and making no real plans. I would like to try to read more books from other countries, keep reading more and more books from authors of color, and read more books from earlier centuries. It would be great to read some poetry as well. But these are just thoughts in the back of my mind and if I don’t follow through, so be it. The one thing I’d like to do this year is not worry about the number of books read. If I read less, I don’t want to feel bad about it. This year promises to be very busy, so I’d like to focus less on quantity and more on quality. I set myself a goal on Goodreads of reading 50 books, half of this year’s number and a goal I shouldn’t have any trouble meeting. I hope this will help me choose the books I pick up a little more carefully and take my time with them.

I hope to come back soon with a list of favorites from 2013.


Filed under Books