Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

The Portrait of a Lady and Wandering off the TBR Trail


Henry James tends toward florid and superfluous narrative descriptions, at least so in The Portrait of a  Lady. I cannot fault him too severely since the novel appeared as a serial in a magazine, which meant he got paid for the word.  Today’s editors probably wouldn’t be so generous, being space is more valued than profundity in current publications. Nevertheless, Mr. James is in good company in terms of wordiness since much of Charles Dickens’ works appeared as monthly features as well. One problem with my current reading of TPOAL is after two or three chapters I have this urge to get up and read something that requires coasting instead of constant pedaling to get somewhere.  I have wandered off my TBR trail more than a couple of times, and I’m sure Robert Frost would have approved my trail wandering.  Although he might have been more in the manner of path resistance than not.

Here are a couple of easier reads I’ve slipped off and enjoyed.  DISCLAIMER: because the are labeled “easier” does not mean they are not of merit.  I’ve recommended them to other readers and I hope you will consider them if you are casting about for a coaster versus a peddled read.


I picked this one up off the freebie cart at our local library.  I needed a book for my four hour flight and it seemed the right size and the title intrigued me.  I thought the book would be a cheesy murder mystery and instead I was treated to a humorous, bordering on fantastical, character ensemble tale.

From Kirkus Reviews

By the author of the arresting Max Lakeman and the Beautiful Stranger (1990): a Marty-themed, whimsical novel with flashes of bright fantasy and high hilarity–all about two losing loners who find each other–and love. The story begins with the death of retired hardware-store owner Atlas Malone–no simple affair, involving as it does greetings, conversing with, and digging the message of a most familiar angel. Here, dying is a far from peaceful matter–whether in the Malone preserves, where live Atlas’s wife Gracie and horribly disfigured son Louis, or in the Intensive Care Unit of the local hospital, where toils short, squat, unlovely Iris. Take one long-term patient, the dying comatose Tube Man who will speak–one ghostly word at a time. Then there’s the town undertaker, who grabbed a gold ring after dying–for a reason having to do with an old dirty deed. Another wrongdoer will show up in the hospital, the ever-drunk Harvey, a link to Louis because Harvey had shared a transcendent moment with Louis 16 years before, when the teen-age and then handsome Louis had yet to be disfigured by the fire Harvey claims he set. Of course, Louis, a recluse these many years, always encased in a scarf and hat, and Iris the lowly and lonely, do get together–but it’s only after Louis’s plummet (or was it an ascension?) from a second-story window and a gathering of the world as represented by the neighbors who accompany him in a loud caravan to the hospital. Then, while Iris and Louis heed the incredible summons to love, Gracie and Iris’s tottery father also pair off. An attractive flight into romance’s more fabulous dimension- -but whether or not the fantastic palls, the ructions and crackings wise by the nurses laboring at incredible machines and patients are a fascination and delight. Cohen continues to bemuse and entertain. — Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

During the summer I attended an AP Conference and my brain fell into mush after a week of intensive how-to-teach-literature training. After a week of such intensity I wanted to relax with a book not from the 19th century and considered a classic in need of a lengthy analysis.   I found all that and then some in a new-to-me author Jetta Carleton and her book Claire de Lune.  Although initially elated I had found a new author I immediately wandered about in glumsville upon learning she only wrote two books before her  death. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing and only wonder what her writing career would have amounted to with subsequent offerings.

From Harper Collins:

The time: 1941, at the cusp of America’s entry into World War II. The place: southwest Missouri, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains. A young single woman named Allen Liles has taken a job as a junior college teacher in a small town, although she dreams of living in New York City, of dancing at recitals, of absorbing the bohemian delights of the Village. Then she encounters two young men: George, a lanky, carefree spirit, and Toby, a dark-haired, searching soul with a wary look in his eyes. Soon the three strike up an after-school friendship, bantering and debating over letters, ethics, and philosophy—innocently at first, but soon in giddy flirtation—until Allen and one of the young men push things too far, and the quiet happiness she has struggled so hard to discover is thrown into jeopardy.

Not knowing I was reading her undiscovered manuscript (it was thought to have been blown away in a tornado, but a friend had been safely keeping it and it was found something like 50 years after Carleton’s death) I immediately sought out her first book when I returned home.  There it was waiting for me on the shelf!

Again from Harper Collins:

On a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the twentieth century, Matthew and Callie Soames create a life for themselves and raise four headstrong daughters. Jessica will break their hearts. Leonie will fall in love with the wrong man. Mary Jo will escape to New York. And wild child Mathy’s fate will be the family’s greatest tragedy. Over the decades they will love, deceive, comfort, forgive—and, ultimately, they will come to cherish all the more fiercely the bonds of love that hold the family together.

A fourth diversion was not quite as enthralling, and I read it mainly for another slant on Shakespeare.  The concept proved more fascinating than the actual read and I found myself skip reading through it.

From the New York Times:

May 9, 1999




f what we don’t know about the life of William Shakespeare could fill several books, Robert Nye’s entertainingly overstuffed novel bursts its bindings with gossip, rumors and outright fabrications about him. Its fictional author, Robert Reynolds, an actor who when young played female lead roles in many of Shakespeare’s premieres, is writing his version of his mentor’s life. Reynolds — or ”Pickleherring,” as he prefers to be called — possesses not only an excellent memory for trivia but a wide-ranging, wandering mind that makes rival biographers like John Aubery look like models of objectivity and concision. The few records and confirmed dates in Shakespeare’s life form the smallest part of Pickleherring’s red herring-stocked chronicle, which incorporates not only familiar rumors — for instance about Will’s lost years, which he possibly spent as a lawyer, or a sailor, or a deer poacher — but also folk tales, riddles, songs and a constant bombardment of allusions to works by and about Shakespeare. Among other true-to-life details, we learn about the four dozen different ways to spell his name; about his favorite oaths while playing tennis against the scholar John Florio; and about his interest in flowers and especially weeds. Engaging if overly discursive, Nye’s novel has more of the real Shakespeare in it than the souffle-light ”Shakespeare in Love.” 

True, it was fascinating learning so much about Shakespeare (although much I had already read elsewhere) and I did at first embrace Pickleherring’s loquaciousness; however, Pickleherring  did *ahem* have some personal issues that well, hmm, let’s just say that got in the way of reading.  If this had been a movie I would have fast forwarded some parts. Well, he was living in a brothel…

I did manage to finish The Portrait of a Lady and the second half had me breathless as I anticipated what Isabel would do about Ralph, her husband, and the continuing dedication of Caspar Goodwood.  I ordered the movie version primarily because Viggo Mortenson plays Caspar and all through the book knowing soon I would be watching Viggo kept me going when James’ snail pace bogged down (I try to read the book first before watching the movie)

The book’s ending is so perfectly rendered I will encourage my students to read it for AP.
“Go after her, Caspar,” I encouraged him, especially after that amazing kiss. I will always want to know if Caspar pursued Isabel to Rome.  Someone want to take on a sequel?

I am next on to Ellison’s Invisible Man, which is the most mentioned novel for AP exams (coming in a 26 times!).

Single Post Navigation

Comments, anyone?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: