Reading RoundUp: Gyasi, du Maurier, Hemingway

2016 is turning out to be one of the best reading years I’ve had in some time. Creating a physical TBR shelf (what I call my TBR Action Center) has been working out very well. 

Here’s a brief rehash of last handful of books that I’ve read:

Best novel so far of 2016

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi:  The best novel I’ve read so far this year, in what is, as I said above, turning out to be an excellent reading year. I read about this novel in BookPage and was surprised to see it sitting on the new book display at the library, because around this same time I started seeing it all over the bookish internet and on social media.

Homegoing is a feat of storytelling. I was both energized and exhausted by it. In a nutshell, the novel begins with the stories of two half-sisters in 18th-century Ghana who end up living very different lives: one is married to the white English governor of a Cape Coast Castle and the other is taken as a slave and held in the bowels of the Castle until she’s shipped off to America. The novel then follows their respective progeny through time, up to the present day. It touches on significant places and time periods in both Ghana and the U.S. Through dozens of characters, it shows both some Ghanian and some African American experiences. Each character gets only a couple dozen pages, but the images and feelings Gyasi is able to evoke in that space are powerful. As an aspiring fiction writer, this is a novel I plan on reading again to try to understand how she does it. (Source: library)

Finally off the TBR!

Rebecca (1938) by Daphne Du Maurier: This one’s going to have to percolate a bit before I can figure out what I think of it. I have a feeling that my esteem will ripen over time, but based on the squeals of pleasure and glowing recommendations I’d heard from those who had read this novel whenever it was mentioned, I was surprised it wasn’t more a page turner for me. I had to prod myself a bit each day to pick it up, but once I did the reading went well. It definitely made me think of Downton Abbey. There’s even a character named Crowley. I caught parts of the Hitchcock movie on TV when I was a kid — I think I flipped between it and a Cubs game — and plan on watching the movie asap. I’ve heard from several friends that they prefer Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel to Rebecca, so that one is going on the virtual TBR. (Source: bought it)

Hemingway: love him, hate him, will never leave him.

A Moveable Feast (1964) by Ernest Hemingway: I’m happy to finally have experienced this posthumous work by Hemingway, a writer with whom I have a love/hate relationship. Love his novels, but don’t so much like the man, although I do have some sympathy toward him. I may be one of the last of my peer group to read this memoir about Hemingway’s life in 1920s Paris. James Naughton did a fine job reading this book. I imagine another actor could have made Hemingway come across as a braggart or blowhard. It was nice to hear the French pronunciation of place names, streets, etc.

After finishing the audiobook version I cracked open the Restored Edition, which I purchased when it first came out in 2009 and apparently never opened; The binding was still tight. This text, edited by Sean Hemingway, the grandson of Hemingway and 2nd wife Pauline, is supposedly closer to Hemingway’s last revisions of the manuscript than the 1964 version. That first published version was possibly edited by Mary, Hemingway’s 4th wife, to conform to her prejudices. I know Wikipedia isn’t a scholarly source, but is intriguing to read there that Sean Hemingway may have edited the manuscript to make his grandmother appear in a better light. Perhaps a third version is warranted, one by someone without the last name of Hemingway. (Source: audiobook from library, hardcover bought it.)


It was interesting to read these three books back-to-back.

After reading Homegoing and even Rebecca, Hemingway’s white, male, middle-class privilege leaps off the page. I was struck by his romanticism of being poor and his glorification of the starving artist. At the same time, I do admire his tenacity to sit down at the page everyday and create something in his own voice. That is not something most people can do, no matter how much wealth and privilege they have. But you’re not really poor when, 1) you could go back to journalism to make money and 2) you have your wife’s family money to fall back on. That’s a far cry from being a single white woman with no family in the 1930s or a slave or a black person in Jim Crow America.

Then there’s the unabashed wealth of Maximilian de Winter in Rebecca. Max’s problem, like Fitzgerald’s, at least as presented by Hemingway, is that he married a selfish, mean woman who made life hell for him by sleeping with another man or saying snide things about his penis. Based on two of these titles, vicious, emasculating wives were the scourge of white upper class men in the 1920s and 30s.

All jokes aside, is it fair to compare such disparate books? What value can it offer?

Like all novels and memoirs, these three depict human life or at least the writer’s ideas about life. They show the choices open to people, the decisions they make, and sometimes the consequences. Hemingway can tell himself any story he wants, but, in the end, he chose to have that first affair and then had to live with the consequences.

As for the characters in Gyasi’s novel, I am struck by how they dealt with the choices available, as limited as they sometimes were. The novel is in some ways an illustration of the idea that the only choice we all have — some say the only real choice we have — is how we react: To the world around us, to things people say to us, to things that are done to us.

People die in war, in slavery, by murder. Others like Mrs. Danvers, Maximilian, and Hemingway seem to be broken by life. While others, like the unnamed narrator of Rebecca and so many of the characters in Gyasi’s novel, may exist for awhile in a fog, but then–if they’re lucky–they wake up and realize that what they do have is their life to live, as best the can, wherever they are.

It’s this resilience that I find fascinating, both in books and in life.

One comment

  1. I just finished reading/listening to A Moveable Feast as well. There are other Hemingway's that I like better for sure. The Fitzgerald roadtrip I found fascinating. No doubt heavily shaded by Hemingway's POV and biases, but I thought it was pretty hilarious. As you may know I hated Rebecca the first time I read it, but kind of enjoyed it the second time. Even having enjoyed it, I don't quite get why so many people love it so much. I tried to read around your thoughts on Homegoing, I own it but haven't read it yet.

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