A Month of Reading – March 2023

March was a slow reading month for me, it started off well but I barely read much in the last couple of weeks due to various distracting factors. So just four books, but they were great, so I really can’t complain. I continued to participate in Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a contribution to Cathy’s ‘Reading Ireland Month 2023’.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the four books…You can read the detailed reviews on the first three by clicking on the title links.


Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life. The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road.

The next two sections focus on the Derdon and Bagot families respectively and are some of the finest stories she has written. The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple. In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. The highlight of the collection is the last story which also lends the collection its name – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.

The stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing.

CRAMPTON HODNET by Barbara Pym  

Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.

The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age. We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to hot up with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer who possibly becomes interested in Miss Morrow, and the entry of the idealistic and intelligent student Barbara Bird with whom Francis embarks on an affair.

Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships and Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy.

IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes

The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively.

Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place; it’s an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective.


Death at La Fenice is the first book in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice, and I liked it so much that I plan to read more.

The novel opens during a concert performance at Venice’s famed opera hall La Fenice where Maestro Helmut Wellauer, a world-renowned conductor is found dead in his dressing room from cyanide poisoning between the second and third acts. Wellauer was a well-known and deeply respected figure in the music circles and his death mounts the pressure on the Venetian police to find the murderer. Suspects are plenty, chief among them being Wellauer’s third wife who was beckoned to her husband’s dressing room for a brief chat which ultimately never took place; Wellauer was also seen arguing with a couple of performers from the orchestra he was conducting. One of them is a famous singer rumoured to be in a relationship with a rich American woman settled in Venice.

As Brunetti digs deeper, Wellauer’s unsavoury past begins to unfold (“As a musician, he was as close to perfection as a man could come. It was worth putting up with the man to be able to work with the musician”) – he was possibly a Nazi sympathizer as well as a homophobic with a penchant for blackmail and interfering into the lives of his colleagues and family. And Brunetti realises that finding his killer in the present is to unlock the key to Wellauer’s past.  

In the midst of all this, we get a bit more color on Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola who comes from a rich, aristocratic family, and an easy relationship despite the differences in their backgrounds.

For reasons he had never understood, she read a different newspaper each morning, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, and languages from French to English. Years ago, when he had first met her and understood her even less, he had asked about this. Her response, he came to realize only years later, made perfect sense: ‘I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told.’ Nothing he had read in the ensuing years had come close to suggesting that her approach was wrong.

For the most part, Guido hates attending social gatherings at his in-laws’ palatial Venetian home, but they have unmatched connections, and during one point in the case when it seems to be heading nowhere, Guido attends one such soiree to get a flavour of the social circles that Wellauer himself possibly frequented.

But Venice with all her allure and mystery is as much a character in the book as the rest; the novel is drenched with a vivid sense of place and Leon effectively captures its two sides – the dirty politics of this canal city, and its magic that draws in so many visitors like moths to a candle flame. Here’s Venice at night when it is empty of day trippers:

But these were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzo lining the Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty. A boat that, during the day was making a delivery of soap powder or cabbages, at night became a numinous form, floating toward some mysterious destination. The fogs that were common in these winter days could transform people and objects, even turn longhaired teenagers, hanging around a street corner and sharing a cigarette, into mysterious phantoms from the past.

That’s it for March. In March I had started reading All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, both of which have spilled over to April so they will be featured in my April reading post. Also on the agenda are the two Iris Origo diaries – A Chill in the Air and War in Val d’Orcia as part of the “NYRBWomen23” readalong.


In a Lonely Place – Dorothy B. Hughes

I first read Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place almost a decade ago on Kindle and recall being impressed. Thus, Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project and this lovely NYRB edition was the perfect excuse to read a novel that was both familiar and new at the same time. My verdict – It’s absolutely terrific, the reread as good as the first time. As an aside, her novel The Expendable Man, also published by NYRB Classics, is also excellent, a cleverly written tale that questions the reader’s prejudices.

In a Lonely Place is an elegantly written, stylish noir; a brilliantly rendered tale of evil, post-war desolation, paranoia and dubious morals, the almost pitch-black NYRB cover is perfect for a novel that has darkness at its core.

The novel opens with our protagonist Dix Steele staring out to sea during the evening when all colour has been drained from the sky and fog has descended over the shore like a misty veil.

It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face there was something in it akin to flying; the sense of being lifted high above crawling earth, of being a part of the wildness of air. Something too of being closed within an unknown and strange world of mist and cloud and wind. He’d liked flying at night; he’d missed it after the war had crashed to a finish and dribbled to an end. It wasn’t the same flying a little private crate. He’d tried it; it was like returning to the stone ax after precision tools. He had found nothing yet to take the place of flying wild.

In the milieu of post-war Los Angeles, Dix misses those days of being a pilot, “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that came with loneness in the sky.”

With the thick fog unfurling over the beach, Dix’s shadowy motives immediately become clear when he begins to follow a woman who has just alighted from a bus. It’s a lonely stretch of land, the girl is afraid and luckily manages to evade him (“Anger beat him like a drum”), but from the outset, we gauge Dix to be a killer, the “strangler” who has unleashed terror on unsuspecting, solitary women in the city. Immediately afterward, Dix overhears the name “Brub” and is reminded of his old friend Brub Nicolai with whom he had lost contact for several years. On learning that Brub is now based in Santa Monica, Dix decides to visit him. Brub as it turns out is a cop with the LAPD and ironically assigned to the very case of ferreting out “the strangler”, a case that seems to have completely beaten him. 

Dix is invigorated by this feeling of danger; arrogantly confident that there’s no way Brub will remotely suspect him of those heinous crimes. Under the pretext that he is writing a crime novel, Dix unwittingly becomes Brub’s confidante, and he revels in a role that heightens his sense of power, of always being one step ahead of the law; it’s from this point on that we see the gradual buildup of tension between Brub and Dix in the way their conversations pan out; the hunter seemingly clueless about the hunted being none other than his friend, while the hunted enjoys the thrill of the chase.

“A murderer is a murderer as…an actor is an actor. He can stop acting professionally but he’s still an actor. He acts. Or an artist. If he never picks up another brush, he will still see and think and react as an artist.”

That’s the basic kernel of the plot, and as the book progresses, this transforms into a psychological novel as Baker takes us deep into the twisted mind of Dix Steele, gradually laying bare his troubled thoughts, erratic perceptions, and a deluded view of himself.

The characterization in In a Lonely Place is terrific, and it’s the depiction of the two women that I vividly remembered during this reread even when all other details seemed hazy – the silvery, sinuous Sylvia Nicolai, Brub’s wife, and the fiery, sensual Laurel Gray, Dix’s love interest (“He knew beauty and the intensity of a dream and he was meshed in a womb he called happiness”). The two make up a striking combination of “fire and ice” – the earthy, volatile Laurel paired with the classy, sophisticated Sylvia, both women perceiving that all is not necessarily right with Dix. Dix, meanwhile, is enamoured by both women in different ways, but as the novel progresses, his resentment towards them amplifies led by the fear that they are out to get him.

But with a title that encapsulates its protagonist’s alienation, In a Lonely Place, ultimately, is all about Dix Steele, anti-hero and the epitome of evil; a parasite aspiring for moolah and the good life, bitter because he lacks both, choosing therefore to live off the wealth and lavish lifestyle of others.

He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn far at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.

Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place. One of the reasons that fuel Dix’s belief that the law won’t catch up with him is his ordinariness; he looks like a normal man who hardly stands out in a crowd, a man like all others. But more importantly, Dix is utterly lost. Always attracted to the rich, cool crowd, Dix laments his limited means and the rigidity of his uncle Fergus who is a stickler for hard work much to Dix’s chagrin and growing resentment. War, therefore, is the only period that offers Dix the chance to truly excel as a pilot, a time when class differences and wealth divide are relegated to the sidelines in a common cause towards fighting the enemy. But once those war days are over, Dix is back to square one with hardly any money or prospects and ruled once again by the iron fist of Uncle Fergus.

In a Lonely Place sizzles with a wonderful blend of mood and atmosphere. The thick LA fog, “the gauzy veils” that descend over the city, like a curtain in a theatre, is a character in its own right, a sharp contrast to the idyllic LA world of beaches and eucalyptus groves, as menacing as Dix’s persona. One gets the impression that the fog is Dix’s only ally assisting him in his crimes, in a world where he feels increasingly isolated.  

Through a vantage point that is largely Dix’s, Hughes splendidly unlocks the door to his unstable mind, allowing the reader to see a distorted world through his eyes; the effect being that we are both repelled and fascinated by him at the same time. The way a feeling of mounting dread and unease pervades the novel is also masterfully done with the result that some of the anxiety that Dix begins to experience begins to rub off on the reader too, even if rationally we acknowledge that Dix deserves his comeuppance.

Hughes’s piercing gaze and sharp writing style elevates the novel; the prose has a unique rhythm while the deliciously edgy, hardboiled, noirish tone lends the novel much character. It’s a tale laced with understated tension, an uncomfortable reminder that evil can exist right under your eye, where you least expect it.

In a Lonely Place, then, is an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective with a vivid sense of place that encapsulates the dissonance between warm, ordinary days and murky, terrifying nights where danger lurks just around the corner. Highly recommended!

A Month of Reading – February 2023

February was another excellent reading month in terms of quality if not quantity; mostly a mix of translated lit (from Germany, Chile & Argentina) and 20th century women’s literature. I continued to participate in the #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a couple of contributions to #ReadIndies.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.

GRAND HOTEL by Vicki Baum (tr. from German by Basil Creighton)

Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, Baum dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions. The novel sizzles with a vivid sense of place (1920s Berlin) and the language is wonderfully tonal and visual. Also, Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. I read this for #NYRBWomen23 and it was great.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE by Nona Fernández (tr. from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

Using the motif of the 1950s popular science fiction/fantasy show The Twilight Zone, Fernández delves into the unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.

In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.

Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? It’s a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.


Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.

The book centres on the relationship and subsequent marriage of Robert Thomas, a scientist at a cosmetics firm and Katherine Bott, a teacher at a council school; both idealists who believe in progress and prosperity. As they marry, they enjoy a brief period of comfortable suburban living only to be followed by crippling poverty when Robert loses his job. Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War; Robert and Katherine’s relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. 

It’s this placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape that makes the novel unique and remarkable.

TWO SHERPAS by Sebastián Martínez Daniell (tr. from Spanish by Jennifer Croft)

In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.

Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome. This is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN by Dorothy Baker

Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life. The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.

Rick is an orphan but from the very beginning he displays talent and flair for music, although with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. Once employed at Gandy’s Pool Hall, he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee and the two immediately slide into an easy friendship fuelled by their passion for jazz. At its very core, Young Man with a Horn is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries. Some of the racial terms used in the book might be hard to digest for modern readers (I did find quite a few of them jarring), but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. The novel is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading. This was the second book I read for #NYRBWomen23.

That’s it for February. In March so far, I’ve read Death at La Fenice, the first of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice followed by Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place and Barbara Pym’s Crampton Hodnet – all three were excellent. I’m also reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan and All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, so it’s shaping up to be another terrific month.

Young Man with a Horn – Dorothy Baker

I’m enjoying the #NYRBWomen23 reading project this year, hosted by Kim McNeill, and have read a couple of wonderful novels as a result – Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn was slated for the second half of February; I was impressed by her Cassandra at the Wedding, and so was really looking forward to this one. I liked it, didn’t love it, and yet there is much to enjoy in the novel, particularly Baker’s terrific writing on jazz and music.

Part 1 Chapter 6 of Young Man with a Horn is a special chapter and a turning point in the way the story moves forward and Rick’s music path branches out. It’s late into the night and after the clientele of the Cotton Club has left, Rick Martin and his friend Smoke Jordan enter the club to meet pianist extraordinaire Jeff Williams and his jazz band, a group of black musicians. They are friends of Smoke’s, but Rick is meeting them for the first time, experiencing both anticipation and awe. Rick is introduced, one of the band members brings in bottles of alcohol, and the rest of the night until the wee hours is devoted to nothing but jazz; Jeff and his band artfully play various numbers in a continuous stream punctuated by breaks filled with banter and chat. In between, the bottle gets passed around, Rick keeps suggesting pieces for the band to play which highlights his musical knowledge although he is yet to master the technique of actually playing, and Smoke is given a chance at the drums by Ward, the original drummer.

It’s this portrayal of music, banter, and camaraderie between friends, who are also serious practitioners of their craft that forms the nucleus of Young Man with a Horn, the kind of writing that makes the book unique despite certain shortcomings (elaborated later on).

Young Man with a Horn has been inspired by the “music of Bix Beiderbecke”, an influential jazz soloist and composer in the 1920s, although the life and music trajectory of its protagonist Rick Martin has not been modeled on Bix’s life.

The prologue at the start of the novel gives the reader a fair idea of Rick Martin’s short but dramatic career as a jazz musician – his gradual ascent in the world of music to become the golden boy of jazz only to culminate in a string of disappointments, heavy drinking and death.

Our man is, I hate to see it, an artist, burdened with that difficult baggage, the soul of an artist. But he hasn’t got the thing that should go with it – and which I suppose seldom does – the ability to keep the body in check while the spirit goes on being what it must be. And he goes to pieces, but not in any small way. He does it so thoroughly that he kills himself doing it.”

Rick is first introduced to us as an eight-year-old orphan residing in Los Angeles with his aunt and uncle (“brother and sister and not husband and wife”). Not much information has been given about his parents, but at the outset, Rick is an increasingly lonely child, left pretty much to his own devices with his aunt and uncle leading “their own lives.”

From the very beginning, Rick displays talent and flair for music with not much opportunity to harness that passion largely because of his circumstances. He manages to somehow trudge through grammar school and high school but only because he is forced to; studies are of no importance to him whatsoever, his interest clearly lies elsewhere – in music, in jazz.

One day hanging around pawnshops, Rick is enamoured by the array of musical instruments on display in windows, particularly a series of trumpets, and this sparks an idea in his mind to get a job so that he can afford to buy one. Initial attempts to find employment mostly fail but his persistence is finally rewarded, he gets hired on the spot at Gandy’s Pool Hall, Billiards and Bowling (“It gave him something to get away from and come back to, the tie that makes freedom valuable”). There he meets Smoke Jordan, a black aspiring drummer and a tentative employee; he is frequently fired but also subsequently rehired because he just happens to be around when Gandy needs an extra hand.

Smoke and Rick immediately slide into an easy friendship, fuelled by their love for music and Rick expresses his wish to master the trumpet, while Smoke talks about his dreams of being a drummer. Meanwhile, Rick and Smoke’s family could not have been more different. While Rick’s is pretty much non-existent, Smoke complains about being surrounded by his extended family all the time, with no room or time for himself or to practice his music, although Rick comes to like Smoke’s family, envying the closeness between the family members, an anchor in his own life that is sorely missing.

As they get talking, through Smoke, Rick learns about the great pianist Jeff Williams and his band which includes the trumpet player Art Hazard, and their series of performances at the Cotton Club. Wishing to hear their music and familiarize themselves with their sound, Rick and Smoke are hesitant at first about actually being present at the jazz club, and so most evenings, post work, they sit outside listening and marveling at the sound of music streaming to them outside. Smoke is close to Jeff and his band members so that eventually they meet, and Smoke introduces Rick to them. After some initial awkward moments on account of racial differences (Rick is white, while Smoke and the rest are black), Rick begins to gel very well with Jeff and Art; the two are deeply impressed by Rick’s potential talent and struck by his ability to learn fast. Under their training and guidance, Rick begins to gradually master playing the piano and trumpet.

These are some of the most transformative days in Rick’s life; the crucial stepping stone that will catapult him into the world of jazz, as well as deep, solid friendships that will last a lifetime. In a way, this becomes a new and welcoming family to Rick, who otherwise hardly has a real family to boast of.

That absence of familial bonds does affect Rick’s ability to communicate on matters or life generally unrelated to music. For instance, early on, when Jeff’s drummer Ward dies, his post is immediately offered to Smoke, but Smoke is deeply affected by that death, guilty about replacing a man whom he considered a friend; a stance that Rick fails to comprehend.

He did the best he could, considering that this was the first time he’d ever handled any tenderness directly. His knowledge of the jargon was limited to the lyrics of popular songs. He made it work, though, well enough to make Smoke stop crying.

As the book progresses, Rick goes on to play the first trumpet in a couple of bands and as news of his talent reaches far and wide, he travels from Los Angeles to the jazz dens of New York re-uniting with his friends and mentors, and also forming new friendships and finding love (where Amy North makes an entry)…until a fatal slip-up occurs from whence things begin to go wrong.

Young Man with a Horn, then, is an exploration of music, male friendship, ambition, obsession and transcending racial boundaries.

Whether she is describing practice sessions or live recordings, Baker writes brilliantly about music, jazz in particular, its rhythms and improvisations, whether it’s the piano or the trumpet, the instrument Rick eventually settles on. The theme of male friendship is wonderfully depicted in the way Rick and Smoke bond and this to me was the highlight of the book. I liked the comfortable, warm rapport between the two, the way they could easily talk about their primary passion (music), and the way they could be themselves in each other’s company with no pretense involved. 

The book is also a meditation on ambition, the desire to become the best in the business. Even though Rick’s ascent as a jazz musician par excellence brings him much fame, he is not content with resting on his laurels. An obsession to hone and perfect his craft persists; that single-mindedness to innovate, to manufacture something entirely new even at the risk of likely failure. It is this overzealousness that ultimately precipitates his downfall (we are informed of this in the prologue), but while the world is quick to write him off, only Jeff and Smoke understand the real value of Rick’s ambition and what he was striving to achieve even if the result was a fiasco.

It never occurred to anyone that he really wasn’t slipping, he wasn’t played out: he was only getting so good that he couldn’t contain it. Nobody but Jeff Williams realized why he’d mugged up the record.

We now come to the race aspect of the book. Throughout the novel, there were racial terms used that made me uncomfortable, but I was reluctant to judge Baker by today’s sensibilities given that the book was published in 1938. It’s dated in that sense, but I do think that the message Baker ultimately wanted to convey was how racial backgrounds were unimportant when it came to making music; how talented individuals and artists (in this case Rick, Smoke, Jeff, art et al) aiming for perfection in jazz managed to overcome race barriers.

Another interesting feature in the book is the narrative voice; the slangy tone and manner of speech suggest a musician narrating the tale or someone who was abreast of the jazz milieu and who’s who of the music business at the time. At first, I thought the narrator is possibly a character in the book, but that turned out not to be the case and so it may be Baker herself who is donning the persona of a musician, or she has just created an omniscient narrator.

Rick’s relationship with Amy North was to me the least interesting aspect of the book; Amy somehow didn’t come alive in the way other characters did, and those pages devoted to their relationship felt a tad clichéd.

In a nutshell, Young Man with a Horn is not always perfect, but Baker’s rendering of the jazz world – practice sessions, recordings, the kinship between musicians – and her beautiful portrayal of male friendship alone make it well worth reading.

“The good thing, finally is to lead a devoted life, even if it swings around and strikes you in the face.”

The English Understand Wool – Helen DeWitt

New Year, new book, new review. I started 2023 with The English Understand Wool by Helen DeWitt; the first novella I’ve read from New Directions’ newly minted ‘Storybook ND’ series that also features works from the likes of Cesar Aira, Yoko Tawada, Osamu Dazai and so on. I had first read DeWitt’s striking novel The Lightning Rods several years ago (pre-blog) – a brilliant satire of the corporate world centred on a salesman who invents a controversial product, and what also made it interesting was the language, deliberately flat so that it reflected the tone of ‘corporate-speak.’

A novella at just 70 pages, I thought The English Understand Wool was marvellous, as good as everyone said it was; after all it would have been “mauvais ton” not to love it, wouldn’t it?

Our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject.

Maman is the doyenne of fine tastes and impeccable manners, qualities she wishes to imbue in her daughter. The English understand wool and Scots tweed, so Maman makes the journey all the way from Marrakech to the Outer Hebrides to buy this tweed and cultivate relationships with the finest weavers. But she travels to Paris to fashion suits because Parisians are the epitome of style while Scots have a “genius for fabricating atrocious garments.” When in Europe, Maman and Marguerite stay in lavish hotel suites with pianos. In Marrakech, as if money is no issue, Maman buys ‘riads’ (traditional Moroccan houses) to house her Moroccan staff. A Parisian Thai seamstress is hired to tailor mother and daughter’s clothes, while a ‘gifted graduate of the Conservatoire’ comes from Paris to impart music lessons to Marguerite. During the holy month of Ramadan, the family settles abroad, the staff is not required to travel with them but is given a full month’s pay.

The French understand wine, cheese, bread.

The Belgians understand chocolate.

The Italians understand coffee and ice cream.

The Germans understand precision, machines. (She in fact kept a Porsche in Paris.)

The Swiss understand discretion.

The Arabs understand honor, which embraces generosity and hospitality.

Clearly, Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other.

And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. She is only 17, but can she navigate these new shattering developments on her own solely relying on the knowledge gained from Maman? And how will she deal with the nosy parkers of the publishing world eager to strike a deal with her?

The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates.

In many ways, the novella is a satire on the lengths to which one is willing to go to uphold the tenets of good taste. For instance, when she learns of the truth, Marguerite is beset by “extreme anxiety not to be guilty of mauvais ton.” There’s more…

I was conscious of a slighter anxiety. It would not be possible for quite some time, perhaps years, to go to the Thai seamstress – I would inevitably be followed, and whether or not this led to the apprehension of the fugitives it would certainly cause chagrins. Where was I to find a seamstress?

It’s an interesting novella because it also challenges the reader in how they perceive the situation that has unfolded, particularly, when it comes to family and maybe even trauma. Is Marguerite deeply disturbed by this sudden turn in her circumstances? Does she need to be? Is it necessary that her reactions conform to the dictates of modern society?

“I do not understand this grievance you expect me to feel.”

DeWitt also subtly makes digs at the publishing industry, the murky manner in which it functions, desperate to promote material having sensational value that will sell and connect with an audience, rather than accepting the truth of a version however unconventional. They are like vultures circulating around an alleged prey (in this case, Marguerite), always eager to profit from a distressing situation at whatever cost. But is 17-year old Marguerite naïve or is there more to her than meets the eye?

Just like in The Lightning Rods, DeWitt showcases a unique approach in capturing voice – here, atleast in most chapters, there is a formality and maybe even stuffiness to the prose that is intentional; Marguerite is after all the narrator and her haughty upbringing is accordingly reflected in her storytelling – factual and devoid of emotion.

The novella ends just as it had begun (“The English understand wool”), a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a fresh and highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.