Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Media

Media distortion is hardly a surprise. Jonathan Alter's editorial in the Dec. 24 issue of Newsweek claims, "In a carefully prepared sound bite at last week's Des Moines Register Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton thought she had found a line to jump-start her flagging campaign: 'Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get change by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change."

Some of the ACTUAL quotes were more vigorous--less dumbed-down. Edwards said (in response to another candidate) that it would be unrealistic to promise he could do everything in one year. Hillary responded to Edwards, "Well, I'm going to be busy." And she also mentioned "hard work."

Whether you prefer Edwards' realism, Obama's idealism, or Clinton's aggressiveness, their words were more intricate, snappier "sound-bytes" than Alter's quotations.

Alter analyzes Edwards style as "confrontational," Obama's as "conciliatory." and Clinton's as based on "perspiration." He didn't mention the other candidates. The voting records don't match their stump speeches--what a surprise--and he should have given us stats (they're out there). Essentially he says that Clinton should work on children's issues. "Her best bet is to reconnect with the real Hillary, the one who spoke out passionately for children." All of them must do more than that to get the nomination.

Most of the editorial reads as though it were written before the televised debate (in fact all except the first paragraph). And the quotes are tedious--inconsistent with Alter's style. Perhaps an intern took the notes.

And, if I may say so, his attitude towards Hillary Clinton is sexist. Get her back in the mommy-dom, is what he suggests


Thursday, December 13, 2007


I love Edward Gorey cards--but this year have a much more amusing card. It’s an Edwards card! On the cover is a photo of the family. Inside there's a message, which if you can read you're brilliant. The handwriting is terrible. It looks like: “Fur deliberately sacrifice...and, closs cless times...”

Brilliant PR! And I'm not mocking. I put the card on my mantel.

Right now--I'd far rather stay home and do embroidery than go to any caucus or primary. I feel grumpy about it. I have to decide so soon. Why can't we have one big primary on the same day? Don't they do something like this in France?

I have to do my research at the Congressional Record, though I'd rather go by the PR.

So far I support Hillary Clinton to an extent it’s because she’s a woman, but I also believe she might win. She has worked with Republicans closely in the Senate and is very pragmatic and middle-of-the-road, which many progressives complain of. I still remember her health care reform committee as a First Lady during the ‘90s. Defeated, but a good effort. Frankly, I don’t think they can do a damned thing about health care--the drug companies are too strong. Of course, I don’t know who owns America... Hillary is tough: God knows she’s had experience. All those “scandals” during the Clinton administration.

I might change my mind. I do love Edwards's PR.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Powell and Lethem

If you haven't read Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, you should. It's a classic (she says who doesn't get to decide these things), a brilliant novel, an often jeering riff or graffiti "tag" on Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. The first allusion to A Dance to the Music of Time comes on p. 50:

"One day she thrilled, almost drunkenly to scratch with a ballpoint pen in the pages of Anthony Powell's Casanova's Chinese Restaurant_, breaking a taboo of seventy-eight years: she heard her father's voice then, a shred of memory, commanding her reverence for the leather-lined vault of his library. There might be nothing worse than defacing a book, but now she felt the urge to drop them, half read, from her deck into her overgrown garden. She would only need to turn her wrist, let her grip slip once more. She knew she'd quit, one way or another, drop the book or simply die, before finishing the twelve volumes of Powell's novel, his Dance to the Goddamn Music of Time. Powell had written too much, taken too much of her time already, and she punished him by scribbling in his book, a wavering row of lines, like some hieroglyphic tide."

This is so brilliant: I almost can't express how brilliant it is. Because in this gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of the '70, hieroglyphics, graffiti, comic books, Star Wars, funk, and science fiction take the place of Powell's cycle (traditional literature), classical music, and Andy Warhol's art. Scrawling is somehow necessary: art is for everyone. There is no prep school or Oxford: it's public school, Stuyvesant, maybe City College. Lethem outlines class as: the upper-class woman who wants to gentrify the neighborhood, a woman who can't read Power after observing middle-class whites and blacks in the brownstones (artists, singer), middle-class blacks in the projects, Purerto Ricans, and Italians. Abraham, a single father and artist, has given up painting since moving to Brooklyn and has now documents his life painting on film and designing paperback covers. A black singer and divorced father has given up his lurcrative career to move to Brooklyn (he does drugs and watches football) but compromises by going back to work as a singer in a bad funk band (he's the only one who doesn't dress like a pimp). Dylan is the main observer, the artist's son who has to figure out how to be a reader, a writer of "tags," white, and not get beaten up every day by the blacks. (He's one of three whites in his public school.) The types are surprisingly similar to Powell's in many ways, sans prep school: Mingus is one of the most important characters, likable and able to move easily between black and white; Widmerpool is a fawning bootlicker, a boy named Arthur, a chess-playing nerd who fakes asthma attacks to escape violence and who has figured out how to latch onto Dylan and Mingus for protection.

It's fascinating: it's a scribble on the pages of Powell. It's "okay, Powell, this is you, privileged, in England, and this is us." Something like that.

It's the class distinctions that have always gotten on my nerves in Powell. They're much easier to understand in Lethem: there's more going back and forth.

Anyway, some of you might be interested in this book. I'm...FASCINATED. How could anyone be so brilliant?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bastard of Istanbul

Here is an entertaining quote from Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel about a Turkish family and an Armenian family and their intertwined pasts. Amanoush, the Armenian-American beauty with no friends, meditates on the subversive power of novel-reading and can't stop talking about books on dates. (Novels do seem to be disapproved of by people who read only history, science or biography--they're considered light-weight--and perhaps that's why so few novels get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. And perhaps that's why Shafak includes a long chapter about Amanoush's reading ):

"Though books were potentially harmful, novels were all the more dangerous. The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert. Before you knew it you could be so carried away that you could lose touch with reality--that stringent and solid truth from which no minority should ever veer too far from in order not to end up unguarded when the winds shifted and bad times arrived. It didn't help to be so naive to think things wouldn't get bad, as they always did. Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced. If as a child of survivors you still wanted to read and ruminate, you should do so quietly, apprehensively, and introspectively, never turning youself into a vociferous reader. If you couldn't help harboring higher aspirations in life, you should at least harbor only simple desires, reduced in passion and ambition, as if you had been de-energized and now had only enough strength to be average. With a fate and family like this, Armanoush had to learn to downplay her talents and do her best not to glimmer too brightly...."

And later Amanoush tells her aunt:
"'You see, unlike in the movies, there is no THE END sign flashing at the end of books. When I've read a book, I don't feel like I've finished anything. So I start a new one.'"

Friday, February 16, 2007

American Masterpieces, Not Read in Loserville

Maureen Howard’s Novels of the Seasons are contemporary American masterpieces, little read. Think of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as written by an American Virginia Woolf. Yet who reads them? Very few seem to have heard of her. There are so few Catholic writers I really like. She lacks the masochistic streak of Mary Gordon. She is no Flannery O'Connor, but writes about the sweep of geography, history, art, and perhaps the end of Catholicism in America. (The end of civilization? No, I'm joking.)

Howard fuses the stories of several Catholic families, immigrants, refugees, Catholic commune workers, priests, stockbrokers, farmers, artists, computer guys, professors, Audobon's wife, and even an autobiographical sketch of Howard. Personally, I find these novels more eloquent and less sentimental than Alice McDermott's Catholic novels. Why do critics love McDermott rather than Howard? Because the critics can understand McDermott? (I don't mean to put down McDermott, who is very good in her way.) Yet Howard’s pyrotechnics of language and prodigious leaps back and forth in time are much more gorgeous and layered. Give this woman a National Book Award or Pulitzer.

A Lover’s Almanac is perhaps the simplest novel in the cycle: Louise Moffat and Artie Freeman, a young couple without a history at the millennium, learn their personal histories and invent their own life-style, rebelling against parents and grandparents who concentrated on American rather than personal history. Louise and Artie see themselves as more sophisticated and ironic, but these Generation X-and-a-halfers have not lived through wars or sacrificed for family or country and only partially, through photographs and letters, come to understand their family relationships (yet self-centeredly and without much knowledge of their country’s history). The second and third novels give us their 20th century families' viewpoints, as well as Audobon and his wife’s. The refugee family from Austria in World War II is Catholic, not Jewish: fascinating in itself, since the Catholics who died in concentration camps are largely forgotten. The novels are told in sream of consciousness, straightforward narrative, illustrations, almanac pages, and histories of Franklin, Edison, and other Americans.

Perhaps religion is missing from Louise and Artie's lives.

These novels are showy and magnificent, the story of America. Too flamboyant? I don’t think so. The fourth novel--Autumn-- is yet to come.

Where are the Modern Library editions?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Willa Cather, The Rolling Stones, and U2

Willa Cather’s fictional “lost lady” has something in common with The Rolling Stones and U2: all three bank with “shelters that pay handsomely.” Marion Forrester chooses to invest with Ivy Peters during “changing times” in the west, much to her old-fashoned friends' disapproval. And according to The New York Times (business, Section 3, p. 1, Feb. 4), the Stones and U-2 bank in the Netherlands. Bono and U-2 switched last year after Ireland did away with tax breaks for musicians, but the Stones have done it for 30 years.

Here’s why I like the Stones: they say “Hello, Detroit,” play, and collect their paycheck. They don’t suck up. They're businessmen. They don't pretend otherwise. After Captain Forrester’s death, Marion is a stony stone, stonier than the Stones. She doesn't care what anyone thinks. She needs money. It’s “Hello, Sweet Water” and then she’s out of there.

I'm prim about investments and tax shelters myself (not that I have any) but don't want taxes to support the war in Iraq. Give it to health care, etc. Marion, of course, was completely selfish. She had to get out of Nebraska. And that she did so by Ivy Peters's investments pulls her down in the readers' eyes.

A lot of people are criticizing U2 for banking in the Netherlands, trying to find hypocrisy in their actions. Bono has certainly done a lot of good for the world and I don't know where his taxes would have gone in Ireland.

Anyway, why was this in the New York Times? It's certainly "business lite."

If anyone wants to write about Cather’s women and banking...feel free.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Lost Lady

One of the saddest American novels I've read is Willa Cather's A Lost Lady. No one in the twentieth century writes more tragically and exquisitely than Cather, though she’s often designated a regional writer and craftsman rather than a tragedian and artist. She influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald, a midwestern writer who did not write about the midwest, and surpasses him because she realistically documented life on the prairie after she moved east, unlike Fitzgerald, who preferred to write about New York and France. Yet she is often despised for her "sentimental" novels about the pioneer era and its decline. Her work is passionate more often than sentimental, but many critics cannot see that and dislike her nearly perfect, simple style, believing it is less significant than that of her successors, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

A cup of tea and Cather’s descriptions of winter in A Lost Lady are grand: they make one feel the cold of the terrible Nebraskan winters. The structure of A Lost Lady is complex. We see Captain Forrester and his wife, Marion Forrester, through the eyes of Niel, a small-town boy who grows up to admire the Forresters. Niel's uncle, Judge Pommeroy, is one of their few social equals. Marion Forrester is a vivacious woman who flirts with men and boys, allows the boys to fish on her property, and feeds them fresh cookies. Her husband, one of the richest men in town, is 25 years older, but she seems devoted to him. Questions are raised about this as the novel continues, yet we understand her duality. As long as the Forresters can spend the winter in Denver with friends, Marion can endure life in Sweet Water, Nebraska. But after Captain Forrester gives away his money to protect the working-class men who have lost everything in a failed Denver bank, Marion begins to drink and no longer cares if people know about her affair with a man in Colorado. Her morals are worse than the Captain’s and her ideals non-existent: Niel and Judge Pommeroy are disappointed and shun her. After the captain's death, Marion allows Ivy Peters, a base, cruel lawyer, to control her investments and business affairs. She doesn’t care that he cheats Indians and the poor.

“Money is a very important thing,” she tells Niel. Later, she explains to him why she has given her business to the working-class, scornful Ivy Peters. “[Your uncle] wouldn’t attempt to sell [the house] for more than twelve. That’s why I had to put it into other hands. Times have changed, but he doesn’t realize it. Mr. Forrester himself told me it wouldn’t be worth that. Ivy says he can get me twenty thousand, or if not, he will take it off my hands as soon as his investments begin to bring in returns.

Hermione Lee writes a chapter on "Lost Ladies" in her amazing critical study, Willa Cather: Double Lives. She writes:"There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The foucs has shifted from the immigrants to the American 'aristocracy'; and from female heroism to femininity. These heroines are 'ladies,' socially adept, self-conscious, sophisticated, decorative. They have no children, they are separated from their family roots, they have no independent occupations, and they define themselves in terms of their relation to men. They are confined and thwarted, not expansive and self-fulfilling. Their energies are poured, not intos something impersonal and bigger than themselves--the shaping of the land, the making of an art--but into personal feelings and self-expression. They are much more elusive and less reliable than the pioneering women-heroes."

No one respects Marion Forrester after a time. Yet Niel retains an affection for her. He learns the end of her story: she has finally gotten away. So was she lost? Was she right to change her business in changing times? Niel has the old values. So do we. Yet we think she might have straightened out near the end, after leaving Sweet Water, which was a kind of death to her.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Kristin Lavansdatter

An Amazon book club plog is discussing Kristin Lavransdatter, a book I loved so much the first time that I tried to teach myself Norwegian.

Because I needed a respite from genre fiction, I turned first to Gissing and Trollope. Now I’m rereading Kristin Lavransdatter, the remarkable, luminous twentieth century trilogy about Kristin’s girlhood, marriage, and religious life in medieval Norway.

Penguin has a new translation of KL, which is supposed to be very good. I have the 1929 Nobel Prize Edition, translated by Charles Archer, which was fine when I first read it and is still fine now. One cannot be plugged into an iPod and read this; perhaps the Penguin edition is easier. In the first 35 pages Kristin runs away from an elf-maiden and a monk asks her to contemplate becoming a nun.

“’We have no child but me,’ answered Kristin. ‘So ‘tis like that I must marry. And I trow mother has chests and lockers with my bridal gear standing ready even now.’

“’Aye, aye,’ said Brother Edwin, and stroked her forehead. ‘tis thus that folk deal with their children now. To God they give the daughters who are lame or purblind or ugly or blemished, or they let Him have back the children when they deem Him to have given them more than they need. And then they wonder that all who dwell in the cloisters are not holy men and maids--’”

Having read this once before, I understand that Kristin would have been better off as a nun than married to an alcoholic (if I remember correctly he is an alcoholic: I haven't gotten that far).

I don’t think Undset is read much these days, even though she won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps the Penguin translation will introduce Kristin to a new generation. There is also a movie available at Amazon.

You may wonder why I can't stick to my reading plans. 2007 was supposed to be the year of the genre book. But can anybody read nothing but SF/fantasy and mysteries? I’ve read about medieval falconers and hawkmistresses (I love _Hawkmistress!_), psychics, women with vampire boyfriends, and crimes solved by detectives in ancient Rome and Egypt. Then I said one should read nothing but Gissing.

Next week...what?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gissing, Vampires (Ugh), and Trollope

I mentioned that you might as well read nothing but Gissing.

One could make Gissing one’s life work. I loved The Nether World, which is one of his best novels about class. There is no escape for most of his lower-class characters, but a few of the slum dwellers who sacrifice themselves to help others are educated, virtuous, and philanthropic. They don't exactly find their rewards, though. If you can’t find Gissing's books at the library (and I can’t), most of his novels are at Project Gutenberg so you can read them on your computer or PDA or Sony Reader.

At Amazon I discovered, with a lot of work, that Gissing’s books are in print. Typing in George Gissing wasn’t enough. I then had to click on George Gissing after clicking on a title to get all of his books to come up. Something has happened to the Amazon database since they “improved” it a few years ago. Jeff Bezos’s book database was the best in the world until it was improved. It's still good, but one has to be very creative. I had to think like an idiot to find a boxed set of Leonard Woolf's autobiographies (finally found it: God knows how).

Instead of reading more Gissing this weekend, I decided to read one of those science fiction mystery series about women with vampire boyfriends. Who on earh would want a vampire boyfriend? Good vampire boyfriends, but a little of that goes a long way. Like 100 pages. There aren’t enough hours to read about women with vampire boyfriends.

After 100 pages I threw down the vampire book in disgust. I needed a classic. Finally I picked up Ralph the Heir. Reading Trollope is like going back to an old boyfriend who writes sensibly about money, marriage, class, and politics. Ralph the Heir, a playboy, doesn't pay his bills for clothes and boots, relying on his great expectations of a legacy. Since his uncle shows no sign of dying, he may have to marry the breeches-maker's daughter, Polly. It's so entertaining. Some people read nothing but Trollope, and though he's not as good as Gissing, he's great in a different way.

Friday, January 19, 2007

George Gissing

Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer. Too gloomy, too depressive. But one can’t put his books down. Unlike Dickens, he shows unrelenting poverty and the daily grubbing for money. New Grub Street is a masterpiece about writing junk for money. The Odd Women and In the Year of Jubilee portray women who must work for their living or starve. Marriage doesn’t prevent starvation. Men drink and are estranged from their wives, who struggle to raise children and sometimes also drink. These three novels are underrated like many notable realistic novels of the nineteenth century. Realism wasn’t quite the thing. Dickens was comic. Gissing has no sense of humor. The British weren’t happy about Zola, one of Gissing’s cherished writers. What novel did I read in which a Zola novel is taken away from a young woman? Something by Colette, perhaps My Mother's House. And Gissing reminds me so much of Zola.

Having spent the day in Gissing’s thrall, reading The Nether World, a novel about working-class London, I am pondering the editor Stephen Gill’s suggestion that the novel is based on Great Expectations. it seems so much more complicated. The characters include slum dwellers, orphans, alcoholics, factory workers, barmaids, actresses, and one wealthy old man who hopes to use his money to help the lower classes. No one can fight his or her way out of the Nether World. I am not reminded in any way of Dickens. There are no caricatures. Dickens could be dark, but not like this. Dickens was an entertainer. Gissing wants to educate.

Gissing began The Nether World after being called to see his estranged wife, who had died of alcoholism in a bare room. In his diary her wrote: “Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind.”

In the twenty-first century most American novels seem to be about the upper classes. Some American writers assume there is no class. One exception is Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, largely set in Nebraska, about a working-class man who suffers from a rare neurological disease after a car accident. But Powers doesn’t quite capture the tone of working-class men in dialogue. The dialogue about sports and women could take place among any men. He can’t do class.

It’s very hard to do.

That’s why we might as well read Gissing.

Check out George Gissing Website

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Genre Fiction

Snobs hate genre fiction. It's never been clear to me why. The best mysteries and science fiction novels are seldom if ever included in the canon, though some are certainly classics.

For years I had to conceal a taste for mysteries because only Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James were acceptable in my circle. Oh, no, nobody read mysteries, until I met a plucky woman who told me she read nothing but mysteries and showed me a whole room devoted to them.

Then suddenly Agatha Christie was back in vogue with the new BBC Jane Marple series. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series was also helped along by the BBC.

Interestingly, mysteries are often adapted for TV, but never science fiction or fantasy novels.

Genre people are extreme fans. That makes me not quite a genre person. Some genre enthusiasts read nothing but police procedural mysteries, others nothing but cozies about English villages, the crimes often solved by old ladies, others nothing but P.I. novels, others hard science fiction, and still others fantasy.

Historical mysteries are often excellent. I recently discovered Lauren Haney’s first-rate Lieutenant Bak mysteries, set in ancient Egypt. Haney is a former technical writer, with a plain flawless style. She doesn’t attempt to win the reader too quickly but contrives her plots thoughtfully and analytically . She includes historical details about Queen Hatshepsut and police and the military in ancient Egypt. At first her protagonist seems to have little character, but Lieutenant Bak of the Egyptian Medway police is a quiet, tough, and tenacious character who speaks wittily when he speaks, and who interrogates everyone associated with a crime and keeps going when others have long given up.

In Haney’s A Curse of Silence , Lieutenant Bak investigates the murder of a popular local prince. The murder was committed in the house of an inspector who has been sent by Queen Hatshupset to evaluate the worth of army fortresses and storehouses from the city of Buhen to the southern frontier. The people of Buhen and the provinces are furious, believing the inspector’s men are responsible for the murder and that they will shut down fortresses and cause unemployment. Lieutenant Bak must solve the crime, advise the inspector, and also provide protection for the inspector and his party as they travel through the south.

Haney writes so well that I was a little disturbed to see the series seems to have stopped in 2003. I hope she’s still writing something.

Trixie Lore

Ellen Moody of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too has often mentioned Bobbie Ann Mason’s study of Nancy Drew. Although I avidly read Nancy Drew as a girl, I preferred a rival series about the tomboyish Trixie Belden. Sixteen books in the series have been reissued by Random House and are worth a look by collectors and others. I reread several recently, considering writing a retrospective about the female role models of my youth, and though I found the Trixie Belden books uneven, they are enjoyable in a kitschy way. She is indeed a sympathetic heroine. Fourteen-year-old Trixie believes there's nothing she can't do. Although she simply has too many distractions to succeed in school, she is very bright: she spends her time sleuthing, horseback riding, raising money for UNICEF, elderly displaced women, the school art department, and other charities, and attending meetings of the club she belongs to.

Julie Campbell Tatham, the creator of Trixie Belden, conceived of the series as an alternative to Nancy Drew, which she thought badly written. She wanted Trixie to be a more realistic character than Nancy, so Trixie has faults, occasionally makes mistakes in her sleuthing, and often jumps to conclusions, though she always solves her crime in the end. The first novel was published under Tatham’s maiden name, Campbell, in 1948; after the sixth book she left to write Cherry Ames and a stewardess series (both created by another writer). Then Western Publishing Company, publisher of the Trixie Belden series, which had paid her a flat fee for her books, insisted that it owned the rights to continue the series with other writers. Tatham fought them in court and won royalties for the other books, which were written by several different ghostwriters under the name Kathyrn Kenny, In 1986, after the publishing company had been bought a couple of times, the series died. If I remember correctly, Mattel was the last owner of the company. They were probably too busy with Barbie to appreciate Trixie.

It’s fascinating to see how Trixie changes over time. So many writers were involved that no one is quite sure who wrote some of the books. Some have been identified, others not. My favorite ghostwriter wrote both The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island and The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain. This particular “Kathryn Kenny” is a better stylist than most. Trixie is considerably more worldly and mature in the 1980s than she was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, though even then she could knock guns out of gang members’ hands (The Mystery of Cobbett’s Island), solve a sheep theft case and survive one of the worst floods in Des Moines (The Happy Valley Mystery), and briefly pilot a plane (The Mystery of Mead’s Mountain).

Most of the plot is told in dialogue. The novels are a bit clumsy, but I thought them incredibly witty as a child and was mesmerized by Trixie and her best friend, Honey. My mother had to buy me these and the Nancy Drew books. She had an argument with the librarian, who did not pity my mother for having to buy me the two series. The librarian told her the books were too poorly written to be in a library. Well, that has changed over the years...