Angle of Repose

By Wallace Stegner. I read this novel back in February and loved it. It was a re-read. I’d read it years ago in the 1990s, at university. I couldn’t remember many of the details, but I did remember that I loved it even then. On re-reading, what did I enjoy? Its complexity, its ambiguity, the poetic and sometimes thrilling descriptions of nature and life on the frontier, the contrast between culture and nature, the complex human relationships, the open ending.

The novel has two levels of plot. We have the life lived by the first-person narrator, Lyman Ward, who is researching and narrating the lives of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward. Oliver was a mining engineer and Susan a famous illustrator and novelist. They lived in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Lyman is writing in the 1970s. He’s a retired professor of History, suffering from a degenerative disorder that makes it hard for him to move or care for himself. He focuses specially on Susan, because she has left a large collection of letters. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Lyman is interested in his grandparents’ relationship, because his own has fallen apart:

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 227

Lyman and his wife Ellen divorced after 25 years of marriage under circumstances that Lyman judged to be a horrendous betrayal (well, it was, pretty much). He very much resents her but is being pushed towards a reconciliation by his son who still has a relationship with his mother.

Oliver and Susan also had a complicated and difficult relationship and once a great crisis but remained together. As a young woman, Susan was friends with Augusta Drake and Thomas Hudson. They lived on the East coast and lived for culture. Thomas became a well-known editor and married Augusta. Lyman believes that Susan would also have liked to marry Thomas or might even have lived as one of a ménage à trois with them. But she came to know Oliver and after a long engagement they were married. Augusta and Thomas didn’t approve of Oliver, he was too uncultured for them. He also didn’t try to ingratiate himself for which there wasn’t really much opportunity as his realm as geological engineer was in the West of America. Susan and he moved from one mining camp to another, but he always tried to build nice homes for her. Susan was ambitious for him, but she also held him back, as she didn’t want to follow him to some of the more uncivilized places that might have been good to grow his career. Sometimes, Oliver was unemployed, because he had a mind of his own and had strong ethics that caused conflicts with his superiors.

Eventually, a second relationship triangle formed. Oliver collaborated a lot with his friend and colleague Frank Sargent, who flirted with and perhaps fell in love with Susan. Susan started unfavourably comparing Oliver not only with Thomas, but also with Frank. Oliver’s career stagnated while Susan, with her connections back East to Thomas, turned into a famous illustrator and novelist. Sometimes the family lived off her income. Oliver occasionally turned to drink, which Susan resented. Eventually, when they were in their forties, with three children, a boy, Ollie, and two girls, Betsy and Agnes, a tragedy happened, which was Susan’s fault, that caused Oliver to leave Susan for a couple of years and also created a break between Ollie (the son) and Susan that was apparently never completely reconciled. Ollie was Lyman’s father.

Lyman presents all this to the reader from Susan’s letters to Augusta and from some old newspaper articles. Susan, however, didn’t write anything in her letters about the crisis (which I don’t want to mention, so as not to spoil the crux of the novel for anyone), so Lyman, is basically speculating:

All I know is the what, and not all of that; the how and the why are all speculation.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 582.

Lyman was a History professor; he’s used to interpreting texts. The reader can’t be sure whether the tale he tells about Susan’s and Oliver’s motivations are any kind of truth. The letters aren’t shown to the reader, only the narrative that Lyman creates from them. And isn’t his name “lie man” kind of telling? Lyman believes that his grandparents never made up and lived next to each other for the rest of their long lives in a kind of petrified marriage. But I, as the reader, think that this may not be true. For one, Susan and Oliver may not have indulged in public displays of affection, seeing that they grew up in the 19th century. For another, I think that the rose garden that Oliver planted for Susan at the cottage that Lyman is now living in (and to which they only moved to after the crisis in their marriage) may have been a sign that he had forgiven her after all. Directly after the tragedy, before leaving for a couple of years, Oliver had destroyed an earlier rose garden in a fit of despair and rage. That’s why I think that the second half of their marriage wasn’t as loveless as Lyman seems to think.

It’s Lyman who is debating with himself if he should stay unforgiving towards his ex-wife in the same way he believes his grandparents to have remained estranged. He is pressured by his son to reconcile with his ex-wife, who had left him when he first became ill and who now, after a strange tragedy of her own, would like to see him again. It appears that, due to his analysis of his grandparents’ life (regardless of whether he is right about them, which he may well be) he has begun to question his refusal to forgive his wife. He’s wondering whether unforgiving harshness is really healthy, and whether he was a good husband during their marriage. Or maybe he thinks that a reconciliation would solve his caretaker problem – she could look after him and he could stay in his home instead of needing to move into a care facility, as his son urges him to do throughout the novel. The latter would be a rather self-serving act, which I don’t think is in character for him, but who knows? It would certainly suit his son.

I love the ambiguity of the novel. You think you know everything about Oliver and Susan, but more and more you come to see that you are only following Lyman’s interpretation of their lives. In addition to the relationship issues, I also like the novel because of the great description of nature and life in the American West. It’s not about the Wild West from cowboy movies, but about exploration and cartography and building a life in remote places. The contrast between the civilized East and untamed West is very well shown. There are also other characters and their stories that I haven’t touched on in this review, but which are also vividly realized. Have I said I love this novel? I really do and highly recommend it. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it and finding things I’ve missed. I also would like to read more of Stegner.

“Angle of repose”, by the way, is geological terminology meaning the “angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling downhill.”

Keep safe, world.

February Reading

Considering that February was a short month and I wasn’t on vacation as I was in January, I managed to read quite a lot:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I managed to read the first 100 pages that I should have read in January. It’s fascinating, but also very strange – a completely unfamiliar world for a European reader, like me, without much knowledge of Japanese culture and history.

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    I’m almost done with this great selection. Pondering on what poetry to read next.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    I’m reading this one when I’m in Bavaria, as the Irish Poetry book is too huge and heavy to lug around. Dickinson is one of my favourite poets; I really need to get her collected works one of these days.

Short Stories:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King: Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Most of these stories just blew me away, they were so good. I was skeptical when I started as I expected stuff about “the white-man’s burden” and other imperialist rubbish, but these stories are not only set in India (and those that are, aren’t about those ideas). There are some powerful stories with fantastic elements, some stories set during WWI, lots of stories set in England. Some of them are almost gothic. The more of them I read, the better they got. My prejudices where just that, prejudices. Kipling was given the Nobel Prize in Literature and I guess these stories illustrate why. I think I’ll write about a few of them in more detail in a later post. A strong recommendation!

Non-Fiction:
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books.
A short book about the meaning of reading in the author’s life. Thought-provoking and interesting for fellow life-long readers.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary and The Moor.
    Installments 3 and 4 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Rereads, both of them, very enjoyable. The Moor is set in Dartmoor and one of my favourites in the series (of the books that I’ve read so far).
  • Sally Wright, Publish and Perish and Pride and Predator.
    Around the middle of February, I had to spend a whole half-day doing a meaningless but necessary task for work and on the side I was listening to BookTube channels. I came across this series, which is a crime series set at a University (at least the first one) and I couldn’t resist, as I love mystery novels of that sort. There are 5 books in the series, and I plan to read them all. It was reward for my horrid workday – I shouldn’t have started another series. But no regrets!
  • Jane Harper, The Dry.
    This was a book club read. A crime set in a small town in the Australian outback, where flora, fauna and people suffer from a years’ long drought. It was full of suspense, but also just slightly predictable – even I got an inkling as to the motive, and I’m usually not very perspicacious when reading crime novels. The book contained two crimes, one set in the protagonist’s past and never solved, one set in the present of the novel. Not bad.
  • Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader.
    A lovely short novel about what happens when the Queen (Elisabeth II) turns into a serious reader. Cozy and funny and heartwarming.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
    A brilliant novel. A reread, as I last read it while still at University. I started in January, but read most of it in February. I really should read more by Stegner; I love his style in this novel.

Graphic Novel:

Marguerite Abouet, Aya: Life in Yop City.

2021_03_02

I wasn’t meaning to read a graphic novel, but this turned out to be the February selection of the Goodreads “Read Around the World” group. It is about the life of a group of teenage girls a suburb of the city of Abijan in the 1970. Abijan is the largest city of the Ivory Coast (the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire). Some of their experiences are incredibly like teenage experiences in Europe and America. I say “incredible”, because we stupidly always seem to see the African experience as somehow different, usually negatively different. This is, of course, a stupid view and this graphic novel helps to break it up. These universal teenage concerns about school, family, relationships, careers take place in the specific cultural space of Yop City (the suburb) at a certain point in time (the 1970s) and so the details of their lives are different to, say, my teenage experience. I found these cultural specifics engaging and enjoyable. I now feel the need to read the sequel of this graphic novel, as the first part ends rather abruptly, leaving stories unfinished.

In sum it was a good reading month. As for reading from my TBR, I had had Angle of Repose on Kindle since December 2018, so I guess that counts. On the other hand, all the other novels (except for the Laurie R. King ones) and the non-fiction book were new, so I’m not making much inroads on my collection of unread books.

As in January, I’m planning to write more detailed reports on some of the books I read (hopefully in the next few days).

Keep safe, world.

Monday Miscellanea

Last week was quite eventful (at least compared to other recent weeks) regarding work and the weather. At work we had a team meeting where we discussed our projects of the year and how best to divide things up amongst the team members. I’d been dreading it, because feared that it would be awfully tedious and that I’d end up with a horrid new project. It actually wasn’t bad. The meeting itself was productive with hardly any boring discussions. I did end up with the project coordination job that I had almost volunteered for ahead of time because it seemed to fit in well with my other tasks, but I also got to drop a couple of small projects that I hadn’t cared for anyway, so that was almost a win. Almost, because the project I’m supposed to coordinate appears to be extremely chaotic and there’s a high risk that it won’t keep to its schedule. Also, not much support from project management, because there doesn’t seem to be a dedicated project management. Apparently, it’s a strategically important project that’s supposed to run itself. If that sounds crazy, it is crazy. Recipe for disaster. I really don’t understand how these things keep happening. I’ve had quite a few such projects in my work experience. Sometimes they work out, often they don’t. Perhaps it will flub its first project milestones and then get reorganized – one can always hope. I already had my first meeting last week to learn what I am supposed to do and what the boundary conditions are, and when I heard about all the unclear responsibilities, I kind of regretted not declining the project and spent a bit of a sleepless night, but I’ve got used to the idea in the meantime. At least it should be interesting.

2021_02_15b

Regarding the weather, we had a very cold week and a half. On some nights it got down to -15°C. We also had a bit of snow, about 10 cm, which hardly melted as it stayed cold during the days (around -4°C on average). When it wasn’t snowing, it was sunny with a freezing wind from the Northeast. In the North and middle of Germany, there was much more snow and it caused traffic chaos. At my cousins’ place, they had 50 cm of snow and -20°C, which hasn’t happened for I don’t know how many years. They did an experiment: throwing a cup of boiling water into the air and watching it come down as fine feathery snow (apparently this only works at these low temperatures). The snow was lovely and feathery, very small crystals, not soggy at all. It squeaked underneath our boots when we went walking. As it only snowed once or twice here, the snow on all the paths was trampled flat and grew very slippery. Rather dangerous with Curious Dog’s great talent for pulling on the leash. So, I tried out my new spikes for my Winter boots. They are a kind of rubber sole with spiky screws on the underside that are attached to one’s boots with Velcro fasteners. They worked great on flattened snow and ice; CD could pull all he liked. I got them three years ago and this year was the first chance I had to try them out. I had older ones that I used last month in Bavaria. They belonged to my Dad, but they are not as good as the new ones. It was fun walking with them on my boots. I went on a few nice long walks with Curious Dog in the afternoons. In the mornings, we only walked for about half an hour, as it was too cold for longer walks. He is, after all, an inside dog, not used to such temperatures. Neither am I.

This week the Winter interlude is ending, temperatures are rising, and I guess we’ll end up with the same old wet and muddy conditions we had before (apparently the U.S. is now affected by unusual cold weather in unusual places).

2021_02_15a

The only thing I didn’t like about the weather was the cold wind that kept causing my eyes to tear up when we were walking and the fact that the sunny weather gave me a headache for a couple of days. Somehow highs in Winter sometimes don’t agree with me. On Friday, my day off, I woke up with a headache that then made me feel queasy. But it went away after the morning walk and an aspirin. The weekend was otherwise rather ideal. A lot of time for reading and meditation. On Friday I did half of the shopping, on Saturday the other half. I also managed to clean the bathroom on Saturday (including cleaning the partly blocked drain in the bathroom sink – revolting) and I read two books. That made me feel quite accomplished.

One book was a crime novel, The Dry, by Jane Harper. It’s set in Australia in a small farming community much affected by drought. It’s about a multiple murder/suicide that’s unofficially investigated by a policeman friend of the victims who had a shared history with the suspected murderer. Very atmospheric and full of suspense, although I did get an inkling about the real motive for the murders before it was revealed. This is quite odd for me. Usually I never work out the mystery ahead of the reveal. I read this book for my book club very quickly because it was so thrilling. I started reading on Saturday morning and finished it early in the afternoon. Then, after doing a bit of cleaning, I started reading The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett. A slim book about the power of reading, which took me only about an hour and a half to finish. It gave me the warm fuzzies. This book was recommended by Steve Donoghue on BookTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3DjZDZaBaQ.

On Sunday, I did a bit more housework and continued reading my poetry anthology, my current short-story collection, and Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which I’ve been reading for a few weeks (it’s a reread, very good). But I will write in more detail about my reading when I tally up my books for February.

I also managed to prepare two book review posts which I will post later this week and watched another couple of episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks with Partner. Partner cooked a new-for-us dish, a celeriac risotto flavoured with capers and sage. Sounds strange but was delicious. Today, Partner’s cooking another new dish, fennel with mango on basmati rice. I’m sure it will also be very nice. It’s great that Partner has become such an adventurous cook. If it were up to me, we’d be repeating the same few dishes all the time.

This week we will be off to Bavaria again (three weeks pass so quickly). My book club will take place later this week, but since it’s a Zoom meeting, I can join from anywhere. One slight upside to the Corona restrictions. Regarding Corona: the numbers in Germany are still improving, but the lockdown remains in place because of the danger of the mutated version of the virus. There are even border checks on the borders to Austria and the Czech Republic because they are so very badly affected by those mutated viruses. Not sure if it will be possible to keep those mutations from gaining more ground in Germany than they already have. Still a very uncertain situation.

Keep safe, world.