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Possession by A.S. Byatt

Today we have a guest post from Val in Vermont.

Year: 2000

General idea: Male and female British academics get romantically involved while researching the work of a Victorian female poet who also had a male lover.

Details:

  • I wanted to like the female professor but she’s described as wearing hideous clothes, like all bright green.
  • In the Victorian narrative a souvenir brooch from a seaside town has some significance.
  • The professors visit the poet’s former home and find documents hidden in a doll’s or baby’s cradle.
  • I don’t remember anyone’s name even though I also saw the movie.
  • Byatt cleverly includes the poems written by the fictional poet, but I didn’t read them.

Lingering feeling: Disappointment. I really liked the novel at the time but didn’t like any of the characters, plus heterosexual romance is a hard sell for me.

Follow-up from Val: Per Wikipedia, there is a lesbian subplot that I forgot, as well as an illegitimate daughter.

 

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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Year: 1999

General idea: In a conservative Protestant colonial New England town, a woman has birthed a child out of wedlock with the local minister, and she has to wear an A on her chest to indicate that she’s an adulteress.

Note: Today, I talked out this post with my friend, Val, who sat patiently while I butchered the plot, offering occasional comments like “There’s not a Reverend Parris in this book.”

Details:

  • The minister is called Reverend Parris. [Note: This is wrong. That’s The Crucible.] He’s associated with shadows.
  • The woman is Hester Prynne and her kid has a noun name, something symbolic and naturey like Willow.
  • Someone lives near a river.
  • There’s a graveyard scene? [Note: This is wrong. There is a stocks scene.]
  • Someone lives in the woods, or moves to the woods.
  • Everyone feels very guilty.

Lingering feeling: Boredom. I’m sure this is a masterpiece of early American literature, but unfortunately, I read it at 14 and didn’t get much out of it except for a sense that I should probably memorize all the symbols for the quiz. And also not get pregnant.

 

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Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Year: 2001

General idea: A closeted midcentury American man goes to Paris and falls in love with another man called Giovanni.

Details:

  • The American man had hooked up with a male friend as a kid but didn’t let himself think too hard about what that might mean. Possibly the hooking up took place near an ocean or outside somewhere. The friend might have been a servant’s son. Or that might have been Boys in the Band.
  • I kind of remember two passages. I will try to recreate them:
    • ‘It was an interesting phrase, “finding oneself,” not current as far as he knew in any other language. It betrayed a sense that something was missing. Perhaps, having gone all the way across the ocean to find it, he might discover that he should have stayed at home.’
    • American guy is walking by the Seine thinking about all the people people who’d jumped in the river and drowned. And then it’s something like… ‘He envied them. Not because he wanted to die but because, for them, their troubles were ended, and his were still to come.’

Lingering feeling: So much angst. As a closeted but fairly obvious gay teen, I always kind of wondered why people didn’t drop hints that they were safe people to talk to. For example, in the late 90s, someone could have said, ‘I’ve been watching a lot of Will & Grace lately. What a great show (with problematic attitudes about race, gender, weight, etc etc)!’ But nobody really did this. The one time it happened was when a slightly older friend from church recommended Giovanni’s Room to me. I think she was trying to give me the safety signal. But holycrap! Giovanni’s Room! Not a light-hearted romp! I don’t remember who dies / kills themselves / kills someone else / is arrested, but I know it doesn’t end well.

 

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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Year: 2007

General idea: A woman is pursued by a man she rather likes, but she turns him away. She marries another guy who kind of sucks. Later, her daughter is pursued by the first man. The woman feels some regret.

Details:

  • The husband is surly and mean. I think he has dark hair and dark eyes.
  • There may have been something on a boat.

Lingering feeling: Sunshiny. Makes me think of that Seurat painting of all the people with parasols by the lake. I suspect I read the book while outside. Also, frustration at the woman for not marrying the first guy if she was going to get married anyway. And also a bit of ickiness that the first guy is then down to marry her daughter later and everybody seems okay with this.

 

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The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

Year: 2006

General idea: Someone’s sold their soul to the devil in a contract but keeps passing that contract on to other people. Bloodshed ensues.

Details:

  • There are some Norse gods. One of them is there at the beginning of the novel doing something weird to the streetlights in the dark.
  • The guy who gets stuck with the contract doesn’t realize what it is or that he’s now sold his soul to the devil. The benefit he gets is that his terrible record becomes famous. The record is about a hot potato (don’t pick it up!), but he doesn’t understand that the contract literally is the hot potato.

Lingering feeling: A bit of light Douglas Adams fun. What I remember more than the plot is reading it in bed in the bach at my ex’s parents’ house in West Auckland. Some years later, I read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and discovered that The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is actually the sequel. I hadn’t noticed that at the time. I still don’t remember anything about Dirk Gently in this novel.

 

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Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Andy in New Haven remembers a thing or two about Kafka on the Shore

Year: 2006

General idea: Two plot strands, one involving a troubled teenager in search of his identity (I think?), the other involving a strange old man who can talk to cats, gradually intersect in odd ways

Details:

  • Wonderful, unhurried description of a cozy little library that becomes an refuge for the teenaged character
  • Weird sex scene between the teenager and a librarian whose identity turns out to be conflated with that of another woman (?)
  • The old man’s conversations with cats
  • A plot point involving some sort of mystery dating back to Japan’s WW2 atrocities in Manchuria…

Lingering feeling: I really enjoyed this at the time I read it. It was one of the first Murakami novels I read, so I wasn’t yet overly-familiar with his schtick. Since then, I’ve read better novels by Murakami, so I wonder if I’d be as enthusiastic about this one were I to reread it.

 

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I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves

Year: 2005

General idea: Claudius becomes a Roman emperor and rules.

Details:

  • Claudius wasn’t expecting to become emperor. He wasn’t groomed for it, and didn’t become emperor until he was fairly old.
  • He might have had some kind of physical disability. Like a Richard III-esque hump?
  • He might have been some kind of scientist or botanist before being emperor.
  • His nephew was Nero or Caligula or one of the other naughty ones. There were a lot of orgies on islands.
  • He starts off reluctant and avoids conflict, but I think he eventually has to do something evil/unpleasant. Maybe poison some people?
  • Somebody, possibly Claudius, has a wife and she has a strong personality. Maybe an evil one. Unclear.

Lingering feeling: I really liked these books at the time, and I remember the writing style being very pleasant to read. I’m surprised I remember so little.

 

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