The Decades Project one year on

At the start I didn’t mean it to work out like this, I just wanted to introduce a little discipline to my reading for the blog. I decided to select a novel from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here on the blog. What happened was that for the first two decades my choices were both by women and before long I had decided to stay with novels by women. It’s my blog so I do what I want to.

by Henri Lebasque

The decade’s list

Once a month I picked a novel and reviewed it. Here’s the full list with links to my posts:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, (1905)

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, (1913)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, (1926)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, (1938)

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, (1943)

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, (1950)

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, (1969)

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, (1975)

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, (1984)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, (1993)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrap, (2003)

The variety

I am very pleased to have included such variety here: from different countries and continents, two translated into English, some sci fi, a classic or two, one was a graphic memoir and there were several prize winners.

The book I most enjoyed rereading …

… was undoubtedly The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993). I was already an enthusiastic reader of her books when I first read it, and on rereading I found that this one combined the best of her humorous and humane writing. Set largely in Newfoundland it took me somewhere I had only been in the film of the novel.

It was serendipitous that as I was making my choice for the 1990s Annie Proulx was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The judges noted especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. You can find her acceptance speech here. In it she reveals that she did not begin writing until she was 58. She laments

the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil.

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The book I reacted badly to …

… was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It’s a classic. For many people it is their favourite book. But I hated the manipulation of the reader into wanting the narrator and Max to get away with what they thought was murder.

But it has many qualities, not least in the way the tension mounts, and in the creation of Mrs Danvers. And it has a terrible grande dame, Mrs Van Hopper, in the opening scenes. I don’t suppose my criticisms matter a bit to readers who love this book and enjoy the nostalgic thrill of the opening sentence as they begin another reading.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003). 441pp

The book I was most pleased to read …

… was O Pioneers by Willa Cather. I have wanted to read it for years, and was pleased to have made the acquaintance of this writer. I expect to read more by her soon.

O Pioneers! By Willa Cather. First published in 1913. I used the edition by Oxford World Classics. 179pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the position of women in relation to marriage. Beginning with the tragedy of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, readers of these books find themselves confronted with variations on the theme of independent women. In complete contrast, but still in the United States, Alexandra Bergson is revealed as a pioneer, with no need of a husband, indeed as more capable than all the men in her corner of Nebraska. Rebecca emerges from a frightened mouse to become a fierce lioness, protecting her man. In They were Sisters Dorothy Whipple compares the lives of three women, and shows how their marriages affected their fortunes, and their children’s. And who could read Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing without seeing the worst kind of marriage, oppressing both partners, this one set against the racist backdrop of Southern Rhodesian white society. And how terrible are the trials of Firdaus in Egypt in Woman at Point Zero. Anita Brookner has, with class and style, written many times about the challenges for single intelligent women. Hotel du Lac was a prize winner.

The theme was magnificently emphasised in Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet where near-humans have no gender for most of the time, but when they go into oestrus they may emphasise either their male or their female characteristics. So what does gender do when it’s not for reproduction, she asks.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin first published in 1969.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and rereading novels for 2017. The project introduced a wildcard element to my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read non-fiction by women from each decade. I have already found that the choices for some decades are easier than others. It may be that in the first decade of the 1900s women only published gardening books. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

6 Responses to The Decades Project one year on

  1. I am interested in what you say about The Shipping News and the fact that you encountered a landscape only previously known through films. I belong to a book group where each September we spend a whole day together, talking about a book in the morning, catching up after our summer break over lunch, seeing the film of the book in the afternoon and then discussing the adaptation over tea. The Shipping News was our first ever choice around fifteen years ago now and I remember very clearly that one of our main criticisms of the film was that it completely underplayed the landscape, which we felt was a main ‘character’ in the novel.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this observation. It sounds like a very enjoyable Book Group. I agree that the environment the family find in Newfoundland is almost another character. I don’t remember the film well enough to reflect on its place in the film, but cinema rarely manages anything like the depth of a novel.
      I hope your group enjoyed The Shipping News, the book!
      Caroline

  2. Marianne Coleman

    Well done for reading this sequence of books and selecting one emerging theme. I sort of expected you might choose next a companion set of fiction written by men. I don’t think the emerging theme would be the same.

    It will be interesting to see what you choose and make of the non-fiction work of women though.

    • Caroline

      Hi Marianne,
      I did toy with the idea of a sequence of men’s novels, but not only would the choices be too hard but they get plenty of promotion anyway. The non-fiction already looks like being a challenge, but I have the first three choices lined up. It gets crowded only about the 1960s!
      Thanks for your comments here and in response to the posts.
      Caroline x

  3. Jennifer Evans

    I loved your reviews of these books. I must confess I haven’t read Rebecca and maybe I won’t bother now. I loved the Shipping News but didn’t much care for Hotel du Lac. One line I remember from it was some chap saying ‘I hate it when women cry – it makes me want to hit them’. Which I must confess made me laugh at the time.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Jennifer for this comment. It’s always good when a reader responds to one’s ideas. I have enjoyed this first decades project series, which is why I have decided to try to continue the idea of following a century of books.
      I think Hotel du Lac is an odd book, out of step with popular fiction at the time, and even more today. It’s a questionable line, the one you quote, and reflects a view of women that I remember from the 1990s. But Anita Brookner spoke up for/write about single women as if they counted. That was rare even then.
      I hope you enjoy the next series as much.
      C xx

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