Novelists are some smart folks

You know how people say that you don’t really understand complex somethings until you can parse those somethings down into things any dummy can grasp? That’s how I feel about a novelist who can put big ideas into a good story. Philosophy is one thing, but philosophy placed in a physical world, with no dialectics and no arguments but just so – and then given life through characters – is quite another.

Sarah Perry, the Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent is a bizarre tale. It’s bizarre not because of its serpentine mystery, but because it’s a good novel when everything about it would say otherwise.

Sarah Perry, the Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent · Sarah Perry
Custom House, 2016 · 417 pages, hardcover

You couldn’t say that The Essex Serpent is historical fiction or mystery or thriller, nor does it have a Victorian pastiche or the effervescent pall of a fantasy about it. Or it does, but not quite. It’s a curious novel but one clearly meant for the present day, the present year, a sort of amalgamation of past place and present principle. It’s odd. Continue reading

For the love of books!

I started the Masthead in January as a space devoted to reading and writing. I had the aim to broaden my reading to include those areas I’d neglected – mystery, fantasy, contemporary, drama, dystopia, thriller (can you tell I’m not one for genre fiction?) – and authors I’d never read. I had never written a book review; I’d never written out more than marginal notes scrimped onto 3×6 notepaper that could double as a bookmark.

But the books never did stick with me for very long, no matter how much I loved them (I wrote a little about this here). For the love of books I did something more when I started the Masthead, and when I read over those reviews I’ve already written, the whole novel comes back to me effortlessly – the plot, yes, but everything else, too: its characters, its stylistic genius (or stylistic mess), the feelings I felt…I’ve even had an excitement to read it again (or, in two particular cases, strong reasons to purge it from my shelves…)

I started out easy when I wrote “Pity the fool,” a review of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I’d already read a lot of his work, so writing this one wasn’t much of a stretch.

But I was in new territory with my second review, “Diamond in the rough.” Not only was Anthony Doerr a new-to-me author and All the Light We Cannot See a book much hyped, but when I wrote the review for it I found myself on the other side of popular opinion. Doerr did not regale me as he had so many others.

Doerr aside, I’ve found myself taken with a few new-to-me authors and astounded by feats of ingenuity in prose. I’ve picked up books I may otherwise never have – I saw Hangover Square at another blogger’s site and ended up myself quite taken with it! You won’t find Patrick Hamilton at Barnes & Noble unfortunately, and no length of browsing would have brought him to me.

Sure I’ve read some favorites. This project’s to be a fun one and a year with no Hemingway or Rushdie would be such a sorry thing. So no, not everything’s been new, but I have read more from many of those genres I’d neglected and I’m excited to continue the venture in the New Year.

The Masthead has one more book review for you before its quarter ends (and its first birthday pops) on January 15, and the first two weeks of January will be full of end-of-year reflections, recaps and discussions because after all, we’re all here for the love of books!

– EMH

Ménage à trois: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden

Hemingway’s novel dives in and out of androgyny like its two newlywed swimmers who bathe in the salted sea and grow ever darker on its pale and silted beaches. David and Catherine take their honeymoon in the off season. They do everything a little differently.

Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden · Ernest Hemingway · 1946-‘61
Scribner, 2003 · 247 pages, paperback

David and Catherine Bourne are three months married and vacationing on the Côte d’Azur. The Garden of Eden, though, is a study of division just as much as it is one of marriage: what is yours, what is mine, what is ours. The Garden of Eden has the happiness of marriage. It has its dissolution and it has its estrangement. Continue reading