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[Saturday Reads] #NYRBBookClub First Quarter Picks (Part 1 of 2)

"A House And Its Head" by Ivy Compton-Burnett | "Irretrievable" by Theodor Fontane.


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

My reading life or “my world in books” has definitely been enriched by my active participation in Litsy (see here and here for my posts about Litsy) – the only social media platform that is pretty much keeping me sane right now. Last year, I joined the #NYRBBookClub and these are our first quarter book club picks.

I am also thrilled that two books out of three fit into our #ReadIntl2020 reading theme as well.

January Pick: A House And Its Head (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Ivy Compton-Burnett Afterword by Francine Prose
Published by NYRB Classics (2001, first published 1935)
ISBN: 0940322641 (ISBN13: 9780940322646). Bought my own copy of the book.

Among the NYRB titles that I have read for the book club, this must be the one title I seriously thought of bailing out on. But I persevered, having read a few of my fellow book club members’ measured but generally positive response.

Duncan is the head of his “respectable” Victorian household (as appearances go) with the old money and inheritance. He is insufferable and seems unable to survive without remarrying each time that he is widowed. There is family drama, unexpected but foreseeable adulterous twists, and murder yet restrained mayhem clothed in propriety.

Throughout the narrative, there is also the neighbors’ well-meaning but endless chatter (said to be Shakespearian according to learned book club members), the voices all blending into one cacophony that I frankly had trouble following, the voices indistinguishable from each other, but perhaps that is the point? I really don’t know, because I didn’t really care about any of the characters.

Yet, because of our book club discussion, I ended up being a little more sympathetic to the novel – but not too much, as I found the dialogue (and the entire narrative is predominantly written using this literary device) unbelievably tedious. Here are some of the discussion questions raised by the hosts for the month of January:

I believe that is what great book clubs do: they force the members to rethink their initial conception (umm.. distaste) of the book that they have read, and perhaps take into account the historical context in which the story was written, the supposed brilliance of the author, and revisit the story yet again – with a more enhanced perspective. That being said, I am still not reading any other Ivy Compton-Burnett novels in the foreseeable future. Not for me, at this point in my life. I feel very accomplished though after reading this novel, truth be told.

February Pick: Irretrievable (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written by Theodor Fontane Translated by Douglas Parmee Afterword by Phillip Lopate
Published by NYRB Classics (2011, first published 1891) Original Title: Unwiederbringlich
ISBN: 1590173740 (ISBN13: 9781590173749). Bought my own copy of the book.

I lost my first copy of this book while we were touring my mother-in-law, who was visiting at the time, at Jebel Hafit (a mountain here in Al Ain). My commitment to our book club has made me purchase another copy of this book from Germany, originally published in 1891.

Similar to our January pick, this one talks about wealthy European aristocrats (setting shifts from Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark) and their healthy and unexamined privilege; but unlike the first book, this one has more political drama (most of which went over my head and I did not understand a fig, but did not detract from my enjoyment of the narrative, strangely).

The aristocrats have been described in this manner by the puritanical and borderline-self-righteous Christine, one of the main characters in this story:

“They are certainly a highly civilized people, very intelligent and talented, endowed in many, many ways. But if they have all the virtues of social intercourse, they have all its vices as well. They are completely worldly; they have never had to worry or exert themselves and wealth and good fortune have just fallen into their laps. They have never known what it is to have a thrashing and that is what sets their whole tone and gives them their taste for pleasure.”

The quote above being uttered by someone who lives in a house by the sea and whose main preoccupation is having artwork in their mausoleum/tombstones.

Yet like A House And Its Head, this one also focuses on marriage, and its irretrievable and inevitable dissolution; there is also adultery (pretty amusing as it is being played out), divorce, remarriage, and suicide. Once again, most of the male characters in the story are oblivious, insufferable, and beyond redemption (Christine’s husband, Holk being one of them); whereas the female characters were empowered, unyielding, and to-a-certain-extent, quite cunning.

This book was also dialogue-heavy similar to Compton-Burnett’s novel, but the voices here were quite distinct, the narrative quiet and insightful, while at the same time entertaining.

Here were some of the questions raised during our Book Club discussion:

It was, once again, a thoughtful and insightful sharing as we tossed around our own interpretations of the characters’ motivations (e.g. whether they were passive or merely inflexible and rigid), and what aspects of the story worked and did not work for us. As I am writing this review, I am now reminded of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (which I reviewed here, buy from Amazon | Book Depository) as there are some parallels with how infidelity was portrayed in both stories – and the largely unrepentant nature of the husbands as they justify their behaviours. Utterly deplorable.

Watch out next week for our March pick, Iza’s Ballad by multi-award-winning Hungarian novelist Magda Szabo.

#ReadIntl2020 Update: Germany (Theodor Fontane) | #7 for Language (German for Irretrievable)

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “[Saturday Reads] #NYRBBookClub First Quarter Picks (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] #NYRBBookClub First Quarter Picks (Part 2 of 2) – Gathering Books

  2. Pingback: #GB101020 [Saturday Reads] List Of Ten International Titles For #ReadIntl2020 – Gathering Books

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