Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Women Misbehaving: Novels by Jane Bowles and Laura Kasischke

This June is American author month for me and I started off with two unusual and insufficiently known American women. I braced myself for poetic, unusual, eccentric and they did not disappoint! Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 and was her only novel. Laura Kasischke is better known as a poet (I’ve had the pleasure to attend one of her master classes), but has also written several unsettling, hypnotic novels. I was a particular fan of Mind of Winter, but this time I read Be Mine, published in 2007.

Both books are about middle-aged women (I suppose back in the 1940s the mid-thirties were perceived as middle-aged) trying to recapture (or perhaps even capture for the first time) that elusive sense of happiness. And the way they choose to do so may be quite disturbing to the regular, sane reader, namely by plunging into some rather reckless adventures.

Jane Bowles led a very colourful life herself, but her two ‘matrons’, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, don’t at the outset of the novel. Miss Goering has flaming red hair and a grumpy disposition, never caring about pleasing others.

I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.

She is a wealthy spinster and at first people expect her to be easy to manipulate. Certainly Miss Gamelon thinks so,appearing on her doorstep one day and asking to be her companion. She then meets the hapless Arnold at a party (and later, his father) and they all move in with her, but then she decides to sell her luxurious home in New York and moves to a shabbier house on Staten Island. Even that doesn’t seem to satisfy her desire for bizarre and tawdry adventures, so she keeps taking the ferry back to town and getting involved with shady characters. Meanwhile, Mrs Copperfield goes on a trip with her husband to Panama but abandons him to move into the seedy Hotel de Las Palmas in Colon, run by the disillusioned yet ever-hopeful Mrs Quill and falling under the spell of teenage prostitute Pacifica. Both women have numerous entanglements from which they emerge wiser and somehow braver. As Mrs Copperfield says:

I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.

The book is almost entirely made up of dialogue; the conversation seems reckless and strange, constantly provoking you to think, retort, defend yourself, certainly not the kind of dialogue you expect to strike up with strangers. The author is also unapologetic about not giving us too many reasons for why the characters are behaving the way they are, beyond what they tell others. There is no extensive introspection here and a certain ‘don’t care if you like me or not’ attitude which is funny and refreshing. There is also no neat resolution or sense of an ending: the women have had their adventure, they are somewhat smarting from their experiences (not all of which have been pleasant). ‘Hope… had discarded a childish form forever.’ And yet they move forward, as if everything is ‘of no great importance.’

Laura Kasischke’s Sherry is less unrepentant, and less able to move on and shake off her experiences at the end of her novel. In the beginning, she appears to have a solid, happy life: a respected lecturer at her local community college, living just outside town in a nice big house with her devoted husband Jon, her only son Chad having just left for college on the West Coast. However, no life is quite as perfect as it looks on the surface. She has few real friends. Her father is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. She experiences a bit of a midlife crisis, empty nest syndrome, her marital sex life has got a little too tame, she wants to still feel desirable and mysterious… and so, when she receives an anonymous Valentine in her locker at work with the message Be Mine, she is intrigued and excited. But then she thinks she has guessed who the sender is, finds her husband oddly turned on by the thought of her having a secret admirer and so begins a descent into a very dangerous erotic game.

Billed as an erotic thriller, it is in fact very much a poet’s introspective coming to terms with aging and with what Sherry calls ‘planned obsolescence’, as she no longer feels useful or necessary to her son:

All those years feeding and rocking him, and the birthday parties – the cakes and the candles added one by one until the surface of the whole thing danced with flames – driving him to track meets, band practice, soccer, I was driving him all those years into adulthood. Oblivion. Into my own obsolescence.

She alternates between flirtatious moments, when she thinks she might be the kind of woman ‘a man might fall in love with from a distance’ to moments of stark recoil in front of the mirror: ‘I have built my house on sand… Where have I gone?’ She spends the rest of the novel searching for herself – and in the process messing everyone else’s life.

The French cover, Kasischke being quite popular in France.

Although the ending fell a little too neatly into the thriller genre, the journey to get there was filled with terrifyingly relatable moments to perimenopausal women everywhere, while at the same time hoping that we would never make such disastrous choices.

As American writers go, perhaps neither of the two are fully representative. They are elusive, allusive, telling things slant, comfortable with ambiguity, and therefore I can imagine both of them being more popular in Europe. Or maybe they simply are representative of a more universal ‘women’s literature’ and ‘women’s sensibilities’, if there is such a thing.