Our “Book Nook” reviewer Abby Pinard returns with three more gems you may have missed or may want to pick up and re-read…
THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH
by Saul Bellow, 1953
It took me almost forty years to read “Augie March.” I bought the book in the late ’70s (cover price $1.95 and cover art worthy of Harold Robbins).
This was shortly after Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature and after years of listening to my father (also Saul, also a first-generation American Jew, and roughly Bellow’s contemporary) rave about the book. (It was also years before Bellow became a curmudgeonly conservative, but that’s another story.)
The book sat on many different shelves for many years and was later joined by my father’s copy (cover price $.95 and thankfully without the art):
But while I became acquainted over the years with virtually all Bellow’s fictional characters – Henderson, Herzog, Sammler, Charlie Citrine, Ravelstein and more – I never got around to Augie. Until now.
“I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
And so Bellow, in 1953, announced his presence and his ambition, the first of the post-war Jewish writers to blast his way into mainstream American literature.
Augie March grows up fatherless amidst grinding poverty in “that somber city” but sees only boundless possibilities, a life in which he can be whatever he chooses if only he can figure out what he is meant to be. All of Chicago — i.e., the whole world — is his, from dingy rooming houses and pool halls to opulent homes and rich, beautiful women. He tries his hand at multiple enterprises, not all of them legal, many hilarious, while struggling to educate himself (reading, always reading) and pondering the great philosophical questions.
The novel is episodic rather than plot-driven. Augie’s adventures range from hustling textbooks and babysitting a seasick prizefighter to training an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico and drifting at sea in a lifeboat with a madman. He is drawn into the schemes of friends, mentors, and lovers – he refers to himself as a “recruit” – but it’s never long before he is ready to move on, always seeking what he is intended for.
The Adventures of Augie March was the Great American Novel of its time and maybe of ours as well. With his exuberance, optimism, and passion for a life well and thoughtfully lived, Augie is a hero for all time.
THE GRASS IS SINGING
by Doris Lessing, 1950
Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing died in 2013 at the age of 94. The Grass Is Singing was her first novel, published in 1950 when she was thirty years old, had moved from Southern Rhodesia to London, and had had three children by two husbands. Lessing wasn’t born in Africa – she arrived with her British parents as a young child from Persia – but her early novels were based on her years on her family’s struggling farm and her experience as a young wife and mother in colonial Africa with its rigid constraints based on race, class and gender.
While The Grass Is Singing reflects Lessing’s deep feeling of place, it is the least autobiographical of her Africa novels. It is the five-volume Children of Violence series that tracks with Lessing’s life as it follows the remarkable Martha Quest from adolescence through marriage, children, communism, and eventually to London. But The Grass Is Singing is a masterful work that unflinchingly exposes the brutality of the relationship between white masters and black workers and the fear and repression at its core.
The novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner, a farmer’s wife, and the arrest of Moses, her houseboy. Mary was a thirty-ish independent woman in the city, with a job and a casual social life, when an overheard conversation rattled her equanimity and she determined to marry. She accepts Dick Turner’s proposal and moves to his farm, which is forever verging on bankruptcy, and to a squalid life for which she is unprepared and unsuited. Dick is an inept but stubborn farmer and overlord, unable to wrest any value from his land or his workers. Mary is isolated, brutalized by the sun, and her fear of the natives begets increasing cruelty and confused feelings. Neither is capable of intimacy or self-awareness, and their attempt to make a life within their constricted environment can only result in ruin.
This is an unrelentingly sad book with tragic characters whose destruction is inevitable. There isn’t a light moment as Lessing depicts Mary’s desolate life, her psychological deterioration, and the dehumanizing effects of virulent racism. The land and climate are brilliantly evoked, and the social and political concerns that permeate Lessing’s later work are presaged here. It’s a book that grabs you in the first chapter and doesn’t let go.
by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1926
British writer Sylvia Townsend Warner is best known for the short stories that appeared over decades in The New Yorker. Even brief biographical blurbs usually reference her leftist political affiliations and sometimes her 40-year relationship with Valentine Ackland, a poet. Lolly Willowes, the first of her seven novels, was published in 1926 and was a bestseller both in the U.K. and in the U.S., where it was the first selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
“Even in 1902, there were some forward spirits who wondered why that Miss Willowes, who was quite well off, and not likely to marry, did not make a home for herself and take up something artistic or emancipated. Such possibilities did not occur to any of Laura’s relations. Her father being dead, they took it for granted that she should be absorbed into the household of one brother or the other. And Laura, feeling rather as if she were a piece of property forgotten in the will, was ready to be disposed of as they should think best.”
Laura’s relations dispose of her by depositing her in her brother’s comfortable London household, where she becomes Aunt Lolly, indispensable caretaker for her nieces and domestic companion to her sister-in-law. But after twenty dutiful years, Laura succumbs to the lure of nature and, to the horror and puzzlement of her family, moves to the village of Great Mop in the Chiltern Hills, chosen from a guidebook. On long, solitary walks in the woods and fields around Great Mop, Laura responds to the magical power around her and enters a fantasy world in which she makes a deal that offers her a life of her own.
“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others…”
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s witty and lyrical prose is a vehicle for her subversive, satirical commentary on a world in which only by selling her soul to the devil can a woman become independent of the expectations of society and her family. Delightful.
Abby Pinard is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.
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