Tag Archives: Bailey’s Reader

I Know, I Know

This summer’s been a wild one, but I have been reading, and will get more reviews up soon. In the meantime, I’ve joined Oyster and made a ‘Bailey’s Reader’ book list https://www.oysterbooks.com/booklist/x5sRiphQw6Y4wPZcocgGN4

It’s short a couple titles, but might be handy for those of you who read primarily ebooks.

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The Bailey’s Reader: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Spoiler alert: I’ll do my best to give advance warning when we get into the meaty spoilers, but will have to discuss some late twists and the ending of the story. Be forewarned!

After the first two titles in this series, in which both authors seemed determined to keep readers off balance, the first few chapters of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests read like settling onto a soft couch for an afternoon nap.  This effect was possibly magnified for a reader like me, who is perhaps overly familiar with the literature (and the PBS/BBC series which have resulted from that literature) of England between the World Wars.  We’re talking took-a-study-abroad-course-in-college-and-wrote-papers-at-Oxford-on-this-very-subject overly familiar. In addition to the familiar-to-me setting, the novel’s heroine, Frances, is instantly likeable: smart, gently sarcastic, but ultimately kind, worried about having compromised her beliefs to keep her family financially afloat in a way that isn’t entirely unfamiliar to modern audiences.

As one might guess from the title, Frances and her mother, left economically bereft by the discovery that Frances’s father had squandered the family’s money (and further complicated by the loss of Frances’s brothers in the Great War), rearrange their large family home to take in boarders.  As one might guess from Waters’ prior novels, including Tipping the Velvet, Frances is a lesbian, in a period where even those who identify as such can’t voice the word aloud, and finds herself instantly drawn to the wife of the young couple that arrives to take up residence in their upstairs.  And it is, for several lushly detailed chapters, a period romance told with twenty-first century generosity towards its main couple as they revel in their exploration of each other, Frances rediscovering a spark she thought lost to her, Lily, trapped in a too-hasty marriage brought on by a pregnancy that ended in miscarriage, discovering true passion and love for the first time. As in an Edith Wharton novel, there are early signs that a spectacular crash is on the horizon; as is most often not the case in Wharton, the women are likeable enough characters (particularly Frances), that you actually fear the harm that’s coming.

And then the storm arrives, and the novel becomes something very different altogether.

(Here is the point where I put a front page break and a couple extra line breaks so as to not spoil anyone who actually plans to read this novel.)

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The Bailey’s Reader: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill

Spoilers! Be forewarned!

I never felt truly comfortable reading The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.  O’Neill’s prose, by design, lacks the flow common to most literary fiction — it jumps uneasily from sentence to sentence, tone to tone, cavalierly tossing exquisite metaphors, sly humor, and brutally straightforward observations together in a narrative that won’t ever let the reader settle into a rhythm.  This voice turns out to belong to the main character, Nouschka, who enters the story like something out of a fairytale, getting plucked off the street on her way to enroll in a GED program (or the Canadian equivalent of a GED) and being crowned a beauty queen, all the while worrying about a mysterious Nicholas, who is sure to be displeased. That this all plays out in a seedy neighborhood in Montreal shortly before the 1995 Quebec Independence Referendum, that Nicholas turns out to be Nouschka’s twin brother, and that their parents turn out to be largely absent from their lives only adds to the feeling of not-quite-reality (their father, a Quebecois separatist folk singer, impregnated their underage mother and subsequently served jail time for the relationship; their overwhelmed mother gave them up to their paternal grandparents).

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The Bailey’s Reader: How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Note: I’m incapable of writing reviews of things without spoilers. Be forewarned!

The structural conceit of Ali Smith’s How to Be Both presents a reader (and a reviewer) with a particular dilemma: two distinct halves of the same story, “Eyes” and “Camera,” which we are told at the outset can be read in either order, without losing the necessary context to understand the full story.  And yet, once reader/reviewer has chosen their starting point, there’s no going back, no unremembering how it felt to dip into the section we chose and thus seeing how differently the novel might read had we picked the opposite starting point.

It’s a particularly interesting conundrum because “Eyes,” the section I chose to read first, is a master class in how to seduce a reader, literally starting with fragments and abstracted phrases that slowly fill in — both plot details, and as structural sentences — until it resembles what we would more traditionally recognize as a story.  Told from the point of view of a Middle Ages Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, a woman who has spent most of her life masquerading as a man (del Cossa and the works in the novel are real but there’s no historical evidence for the gender-bending backstory), “Eyes” is the half of the story in which the environment is most unfamiliar — both for its setting and the fact that it is unclear, until sometime into “Camera,” how Francesco has come to be a ghost, attached somehow to an adolescent girl in what appears to be the modern day United Kingdom. (There are a few to-be-expected observations from the ghostly spirit about certain confusing aspects of modern life that veer a bit into twee territory but Smith keeps these to a minimum.)  “Camera,” told from the point of view of George (a nickname for Georgia), the teenage girl, is a far more traditional and recognizable narrative.  George isn’t even aware of the painter’s ghostly observance of her life, so we get a far more pedestrian (although beautifully written) look at a girl grieving her mother’s untimely death, exploring first love and sexuality, and sorting out the “real” world the way teenagers so often do when confronted with it.

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Old and New

Been awhile, huh?

When last I posted, I was unaware that my entire life was about to change in the space of a month.  Right about the time SB and I started apartment hunting to move in together, I found a new job faster than I could have ever imagined.  In the space of a week I moved to the Financial District and started working at a nonprofit based down there.  The new job and cohabitating have both been great for me overall, but both had a pretty steep learning curve, and the complete overhaul of professional and personal life at once meant a lot of routines and habits got pushed to the side as I sorted out how my life worked in this new era.

But things have finally settled into something approaching a steady rhythm , and I’ve been slowly reclaiming some of my old hobbies and projects, and also creating some new ones.  This blog is sort of both.  I’ve been trying to encourage myself to both write and read more.  When it comes to reading, I’ve been particularly behind on contemporary fiction.  So I decided to read the entire Bailey’s Prize longlist this year, reviewing the books as I go.  I get to read a bunch of outstanding new novels by women, and I get to stretch my writing muscles a bit.  Hopefully someone out there gets to enjoy it.

I’ve already read one book from the list, so that review will be coming shortly.  In the meantime, you can see the full list and my progress on The Bailey’s Reader tab at the top of the page.  A key subplot at this point is how long I will have to wait for Station Eleven to become available at the library — I’ve been on the waitlist for a month already and have in that time gone from 411 to 298 on the list.  How many other books will I read before I actually get to the top of the list? Will it break the record four months’ that I waited for Wolf Hall?  Stay tuned!