Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Without meaning to, I’ve taken a little blogging break again. Mainly because I’ve been reading some male authors (Dany Laferrière, Ramuz and Cormac McCarthy) and therefore won’t be blogging about them, but also because I’ve been really busy with work and didn’t have much time. Things have calmed down a bit and summer is finally in full swing in Switzerland, so I’m catching up on my reading.

But I thought I would write up some casual reading notes to get back into the habit.


I just finished Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, published in 1950. Very interesting to read her first. Mainly because I didn’t realize it was her first until I was halfway through. It’s an incredibly accomplished book, extremely funny and wonderfully ironic. It introduces all that Pym would continue to explore in her later books – spinsterhood and bachelorhood, small communities centered around the church, the decision to marry late in life.

Some Tame Gazelle also looks at sisters. Harriet and Belinda, both unmarried, live together and spend their time involved in the local church, where Belinda is friends with the archdeacon. She was in love with him in her youth, but he married someone else. This sorrow rides its way through the entire book. Belinda has never quite gotten over what happened to her, although she is, in most ways, completely resigned to her fate. Pym is relentless in her exploration of people who find moments of contentment in lives that are inherently unhappy and very lonely. That she does this through comedy is remarkable to me. Her books are funny, and then they are horribly sad at the same time.

The last thing I wanted to mention about Pym is that it only just occured to me, after reading several of her books, that although they are always centered around a tightly-knit church community, there is no religion. There is ritual and clerical life, but there is no God. That’s a very interesting choice, I think.


I also started reading Dana Johnson’s Elsewhere, California. This book comes out this month from Counterpoint Press. It’s the story of Avery, an African American woman struggling with her identity. Johnson alternates between the story of Avery’s youth (written in African American Vernacular English) and her adult life, married to an Italian immigrant (written in non-vernacular). Language is exceedingly important to the cultural questions Johnson poses. I love books that look hard at America’s cultural identity, at its unspoken and spoken boundaries, at the way people negotiate these issues. Johnson also writes beautifully.

I’ll be reviewing this book for Necessary Fiction soon, so I’ll have more to say then.


I’ve also just started reading Janet Frame’s first novel, Owls Do Cry. This is my first time reading Frame, who is one of New Zealand’s most accomplished writers. The book was first published in 1957. I’m about halfway through and was trying to figure out what other book it reminded me of—it has a very particular rhythm and syntax that felt very familiar to me. It finally struck me today that it has a lot in common, language-wise, with Jack Kerouac’s Tristessa. Which really means that perhaps Owls Do Cry simply has a lot in common with other Beat-style literature of the late 1950s. This is not a decade I’m familiar enough with to make any other comparisons – I’d love some input.

More importantly, however, is the difference I do notice between Frame and other writers of the same era that I do know a little better – like Iris Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer, for example. Frame uses a stream-of-consciousness style with a lot of poetic language and not many passing-of-time markers for the reader to follow. But the book is beautiful and different and I can’t wait to finish it. Am hoping to finish it up tonight, so I can write about it before Monday, when we’ll be discussing it with the Dead Writer’s Book Club.


And finally, new books! Over the last few weeks, I’ve received, bought, and picked up a number of books at my favorite second hand book shop. My shelves are always overflowing, but I’ve added the following to those towering stacks:

  • W. Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
  • Deborah Levy – Swimming Home
  • James Agee – A Death in the Family
  • Irène Nemirovsky – All Our Worldly Goods
  • May Sarton – Kinds of Love
  • Daphne Du Maurier – Jamaica Inn
  • Melanie McDonald – Eromenos
  • Alexandra Fuller – Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
  • John Walsh – Border Lines

7 Responses to “friday reading notes”

  1. Guilherme

    Particularly curious about your take on Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”

    Did you ever publish anything here about how you manage to cram so much reading (and writing) into any given 24-hour period?
    Just extremely curious…

    • Michelle

      I’m really curious to read the Fuller, too. I shouldn’t compare the two, but I read Stefanie Zweig’s Nowhere in Africa, which is also about a young girl moving to Africa (set in the 1930s and 40s) and so the Fuller is a more modern version. I also have been dying to read this book because the cover of the edition I’ve seen most often has a photograph of a young girl who looks just like my sister did when she was young. I kid not. The same face, same smile. It’s uncanny.

      And ha ha on your question about reading and writing… I don’t own a TV and I wake up very early. Does that help explain it? 🙂

    • Michelle

      I have to say that Pym is becoming one of my favorite “light” reads – not that she’s light, really, because much of what she does is so devastating. But it all seems very light and I’m always trying to figure out how she does that exactly.

  2. Helen

    Seconding the curiosity over the Fuller, and your amazing ability to stretch time! Also, I know that being male he’s sort of off limits for your blog this year, but I should love to know your thoughts on the Somerset Maugham. I have a copy of that very same novel which I have picked up twice without feeling the smallest inclination to read beyond the first page. I’m sure if I read a good piece about it I would feel more inspired… 😉

    • Michelle

      I’ve actually never read anything by Somerset Maugham…although I’ve now got a little collection of his works. After your comment about not getting past that first page, I’m curious to see what I will think!

  3. litlove

    I think the remark you make about Pym featuring clerical life but without any mention of God is fantastic. That’s really poignant in relation to her general bittersweet approach. Pym is one of my ‘great’ writers. The ease with which she sucks you in is wholly deceptive, because what happens under the surface of her novels is quite complex, I think.

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