Holiday Cheer & Recent Reading: Satire, Surrealism, & Gothic Realism

Give the gift of books!

I was surprised when my husband said that Christmas is eight days away.  I exclaimed, “My God, I haven’t been thinking about that at all.” 

I feel no pressure about the holidays this year.  Perhaps it is because I’ve been online less. I have often felt competitive with holiday bloggers and amateur Instagram photographers, with their polished pix  of hand- knitted nativity scenes (links to yarn stores), tablecloths woven on their own looms (links to looms), and centerpieces made from a few sticks, some dead grass, and a petrified squash found in the garden.

I tried to be perfect once. The holidays of the early 2010s were frazzled.  After my mother went into a nursing home,  I tried to fill her role, so I decorated and shopped for the perfect gifts.  I have never gone to so much  trouble with so little success. My mother was gracious, but the the pajamas with Scottie dogs fit like leggings:  not her look, so I took them back. Stony-faced relatives barely thanked me for paint-by-number kits (it was ironic: something to do while the men watched football) or Fellini movies on DVDs. I went back to our simpler, happier Christmas routine:  exchange books or give a sweater! 

Enough about the holidays.  Here’s what I’ve been reading.

A SATIRE BY A NOBEL PRIZE WINNER:  If you liked Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, co-written by Wenders and Peter Handke,  you will appreciate The Revolt of the Angels, by the Nobel Prize Winner, Anatole France: it was doubtless one of the film’s inspirations. In France’s bizarre but charming novel, the library of an old French family is under attack.  The fussy librarian, Monsieur Sariette, who  hates to let anyone borrow a book, has a breakdown because books go missing and then mysteriously return. One day a book floats across the room and knocks him down when he chases it.

It turns out that a rebel angel, Arcade, is borrowing the books so he can read up on philosophy and theology. He wants to recruit an army of the angels on Earth and fight a war with God.  Centuries ago, when the earth was made from chaos (see Ovid), Lucifer and other angels descended to Earth. They brought fire, clothing, culture, knowledge, and civilization to mankind. They were worshipped as Greek gods.  

And then the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on self-hatred, immolation, and sacrifice,  ruined civilization, the angels think.  The Christians burned the libraries, and knowledge was lost.  And God – who was not always one god, by the way, and certainly wasn’t a favorite until Christianity – is quite a bungler.

This novel is a satire on Christianity, but it is also whimsical and fun to read.  

ALTHOUGH SURREALISM MAKES ME GRUMPY, I admit that New and Selected Storiess, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and others, is one of the best  books of 2022.  In “Nostalgia,” a man travels to an unknown city in his dreams:  the dreams become more real than life.  In “City of Men, ” a woman journalist arrives in the City of Men to write an article from a woman’s point-of-view.  From the beginning, the arrogance of the men is off-putting,  and eventually she is terrified by the atmosphere of the city.  A young waiter reveals that none of the women journalists have ever been allowed to leave. The reader knows and does not know what happens to them.   

And let me mention one more story,  “Offside.”A  woman runs out of gas in a city that is always wintry. Her car disappears in the snow.  She walks into town and lives with a man and has children by him.  But he begins to take them on long excursions:  she never knows where they go.  Like the journalist in City of Men, she begins to wonder if she has been lured.  What is the explanation?  

This book is published by Dorothy, an excellent small press.

A BRILLIANT NEW(ISH) BOOK (2020): The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld.  I loved this strange, eerie Gothic novel, which begins with the narrator Vivienne’s childhood memory of finding a corpse on the beach.  Viv is an unstable adult, who guiltily slept with her nasty brother-in-law, had a breakdown when her father died, and constantly picks at a patch of eczema on her leg until it bleeds.  Now she has been hired by Uncle Christopher  (a made-up job, she realizes ) to house-sit at Mrs. Hamilton’s big house and to archive papers and other belongings.  Mrs. Hamilton was Christopher’s alcoholic, invariably kind stepmother, and Viv’s mother, Bernadette, grew up the house with Christopher and his brother Michael (Viv’s father), and her  great-aunt, Betty (a servant).  

Every character in this novel deals with violence.  It is an everyday sickness, as in the society we live in now, but like all societies, as Wyld shows.  When Viv comes out of supermarket one night, a sex worker, Maggie, standing outside the store, saves her from rape or murder by warning that a man is hiding behind her car.   In an earlier time, shortly after World War II, Mrs. Hamilton (Ruth) accuses her husband Peter of having an affair.  Not only will he not admit it, but he threatens  to incarcerate her in a mental hospital.  Then there is Katherine, Maggie’s sister, whose  violent husband stalks her after she leaves him.  There is another less effective narrative, involving an accused witch, but I have little to say about that.  

I call this Gothic realism, for lack of a better phrase, but the gorgeous writing and unusual voice holds these eerie scenes together.  Not everything  meshes till the end of the book, but  it is well worth reading.

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