Tag Archives: Binocular Vision

A little outburst about favourite books and authors

As far as books are concerned I don’t do favourites. I couldn’t tell you about my favourite book and I don’t have a favourite author. The very concept of ‘favourite’ makes me churn. I risk being thought pedantic, again, but read my 5 reasons about why I dislike the idea so much and see if you agree.

171 heart.svg

  1. The idea of favourites is more appropriately applied to colours or animals or even numbers when you are six years old and trying to understand the vast and various world in which you find yourself.
  2. A favourite is claimed as if it were a personal whim – almost random and certainly something to be proud of. It’s to do with making a statement about one-self, not about the qualities of the books/authors. ‘I don’t know why, but I just love anything by John Smith.’ You’ve heard that kind of thing?
  3. To have a favourite book or author is to approach it with a lack of discernment, judgement and it values sameness above all. What does one expect from a favourite except the same again? As a child I read every Enid Blyton book going. Judith Lovell was ill and had left her entire collection in our dorm while she recovered in Dar es Salaam. We devoured them until we began to realise they were so much the same that they bored us. Formulaic was not a word we used at the time, but that’s what we thought of them. We invented a workshop where Enid Blyton gave the ideas to elves and they concocted books to her recipes. And then we gave up reading Enid Blyton and moved on to Malcolm Saville. That’s what you hope to get from favourites – more of the same.

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

    Blyton Bookshelf by Blytonite at en.wikipedia

  4. Having favourites is encouraged by Twitter, with its ‘favourite’ button. I expect lots of twits (as a friend calls us), use it to save the tweet for later, as I do. It’s as easy as ‘like’ on FaceBook. Which leads to difficult verbs such as ‘unfavourite’, ‘unlike’ or the dreaded (and dreadful) ‘unfriend’.
  5. 171 star.svgOn the other hand, to say ‘one of my favourites’ is okay. I don’t think I’m being inconsistent here. One of my favourite novelists is Anne Tyler, but there are so many good writers it would be silly to say she was the one above all others, especially as her many books are of variable quality. Yes really. All good, and some very good indeed. And one of my favourite books is Pride and Prejudice, another is H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and another A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and Middlemarch by George Eliot and … One of my favourites means this is a book/author I recommend.

So, do you agree with me – fixing on favourite authors and books does not encourage bold readers?

 

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Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

What a find! Have you read Edith Pearlman’s collection? For good writing you would do not better than read this generous collection of short stories, mentioned frequently last year in book-of-the-year lists. And a friend recommended it to me – thank you Marianne.

106 Bin Vis coverThe virtues of the collection are extolled in the introduction by Ann Patchett (author of Bel Canto):

What you have in your hands now is a treasure, a book you could take to a desert island knowing that every time you got to the end you could simply turn to the front cover and start it all again. It is not a collection of bus crashes, junkie, and despair. Despair is much easier to write about than self-reliance. These stories are an exercise in imagination and compassion, a trip around the world, an example of what happens when talent meets discipline and a stunning intelligence. This collection offers a look at an artist at the height of her powers. Once you have read it, I hope you will go forth and spread the news. Edith Pearlman has been a secret much too long. (p11)

I have included it in the older women in fiction series for two reasons. First Edith Pearlman is an older woman writing fiction. She is 78 today. From the cover:

Edith Pearlman published her debut collection of stories in 1996, aged 60. She has published over 250 works of short fiction, to huge critical acclaim, and won numerous prizes including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Binocular Vision and the PEN/Malamud Award. (From the back cover of the Pushkin Press edition, 2011)

Second, the collection includes many characters who can be defined as older women. Here are 34 stories in 418 pages (about 12 pages per story); 13 of them under the heading of new stories. Most of the older women can be found in these newer stories.

Edith Pearlman’s stories, however, are not about older women specifically. They are populated by people of all kinds and ages: old and young, children, men and women, many of them from Jewish families, and many migrants. Several stories are set in Godolphin (a made-up suburb of Boston), but others take place in Europe, South America, Israel, Russia.

It is very refreshing to read stories that include older characters but are not necessarily about ageing. Or rather they are about ageing as much as they are about rubbing along together, loving people with all their faults, changing lives, and the impact of having children. Lonely people are befriended and lives are changed. A child has an insight into the adult world and takes another step into independence. In these stories, characters are caught in the everyday where nothing much out of the ordinary happens.

106 Edith PearlmanShe is a very sharp writer, one with a generous view of humans, in all their failings and attempts to make good. Most of these stories are about the relationships between people. People who are displaced, perhaps, or from different generations, or who arrive in one circumstance and have to adjust.

Here is an older couple just beginning to accommodate to each other after a sudden and unlikely marriage in Elder Jinks:

They looked at each other for a while.

“I’m Grace,” she said after at last.

“I’m Gustave” – and how his heart leaped. “I’d like to . . . get to know you.”

Another long pause while he belatedly considered the dangers in so ambitious an enterprise, for he too would have to be known, and his shabby secrets revealed, and his out-of-date convictions as well. They’d endure necessary disappointments, and they’d practice necessary forgivenesses, careful to note which subjects left the other fraught. Grace’s mind moved along the same lines. Each elected to take the risk, Gustave showed his willingness by touching the lovely face, Grace hers by disdaining eclipsis. “Me too,” was all she said. (p385)

I don’t think it matters that eclipsis is a rare word. (It means the omission of parts of a word or sentence; more usually – ellipsis.) The import of this moment, which is in fact a reprise of an earlier exchange, is beautifully paced, as if they must both take a deep breath.

She includes details that, with minimal words, lead you to understand her characters. Consider the opening of Settlers:

One early Sunday morning Peter Loy stood waiting for the bus downtown. It was October and the wind was strong enough to ruffle the curbside litter and to make Peter’s coat flap about his knees, open and closed, open and closed. He wouldn’t have been sorry if the wind had removed the coat altogether, like a disapproving valet. It had been a mistake, this long glen-plaid garment with a capelet, suitable for some theatrical undergraduate not for an ex-schoolteacher of sixty-odd years. He had thought that with his height and thinness and longish hair he’d look like Sherlock Holmes when wearing it. Instead he looked like a dowager. (p40)

In just over 100 words, the reader quickly gains a visual image of Peter Loy, and something of his character.

She is also mistress of the sudden image like an unexpected jewel. Here’s Valerie Gordon, an older nannie in the park in Vallies:

British au pairs avoided her as if she were a headmistress. Scandinavians smiled at her as if she were a pet. The mommies – there were some of these, too, unmannerly – ignored her entirely: they were too busy boasting about their children as if someday they meant to sell them. (p389)

Woah! And from The Little Wife:

… awake as if she had been smacked … (p292)

106 EP sittingExplore these wonderful stories yourself. You can hear her reading The Story on the Pushkin Press website. For an insightful review of the connections between her stories see Andrea Nolan’s review on Fiction Writers Review Blog.

Have you read Binocular Vision? How did you react? What did you think of the older women in her stories?

 

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