Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008

Seven hours till midnight: Hello, 2009. I sweat and chew my pen as I rustle through my notebook, my glasses on the end of my nose. It's the annual Mad Housewife's awards (I being MH) and so much depends on it. Yes, I have at least two readers, who are waiting to hear my judgment. I’ll mix and match a little of each.

Best contemporary novel: People of the Whale by Linda Hogan. I said: Hogan's elegant, concise, and subtle style is suited to recounting Indian legends about a fishing village's relation to the sacred whale... and to depicting the violence of damaged Vietnam vets, determined to break the poetry of the legend by hunting the whale, an endangered species, and committing crimes against the environment.

Second-best contemporary novel: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. Not reviewed here.

Best fairy tales: Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block. I said: A collection of Block’s “post-punk” Weetzie Bat books are delicate “post-punk” prose poems about a creative, unconventional group of drifting L.A. characters with names like Weetzie Bat, Dirk, Duck, Cherokee, Witch Baby, and Brandy-Lynn.

Best 20th-century women’s novel: Honourable Estate by Vera Brittain. I said: In Honourable Estate, Brittain analyzes the impact of World War I on two generations of men and women. Janet, a pre-war suffragist, loathes housework and motherhood and escapes from her fanatical vicar husband to political meetings. In the next generation, Ruth, the feminist daughter of an indulgent manufacturer, graduates from Oxford, despite her family’s belief that marriage should be her 'estate.'

Best 20th-century men’s novel: The Deep Sleep by Wright Morris. I said about his work in general: "Though Morris won the National Book Award twice, one must look to small presses for his books: Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press) publishes (most of them).

Best classic: A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howell. I said: A Hazard of New Fortunes is brilliantly written... , a luminous example of the “new realism” of the late 19th century....The focus of A Hazard of New Fortunes is the inception of a literary magazine: its many employees s comprise a complete society, who are transplanted to New York to pursue “new fortunes." They come from all classes and economic strata: poor artists and writers, intellectual editors and publishers, shrewd businessmen and backers, nouveau riche, middle class, and genteel poor.

Best Classic Western: The Curlew’s Cry by Mildred Walker. I said: Mildred Walker is a powerful writer. Set in Montana, where Walker lived from 1933 to 1955, The Curlew's Cry is the story of Pam Lacy, a passionate, independent young woman whose coquettish friend woos and steals her boyfriend... Confused and on the rebound, Pam makes a hasty marriage to the son of a wealthy businessman in Buffalo who is a director of the Rocky Mountain Cattle Company. (A fifth-generation Montanan, she returns to the West alone.)

Best memoir: An Orderly Man by Dirk Bogarde. I said: Tired of the hectic life of an actor, Bogarde buys a small run-down house in France (which is the frame and organizing concept of the memoir). The house needs extensive renovation. He hires an architect to redesign the house, which the architect explains has been neglected for 500 years. While Bogarde is away finishing a film (he retires only occasionally), the architect and contractors finish the house. Everything that can go wrong does. Humorous and sensitive.

Best non-fiction: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. Not reviewed here, but Mitford fans will like it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

People of the Whale

People of the Whale, by the award-winning American Indian poet and novelist Linda Hogan, is perhaps the most stunning novel of the year. Certainly it tops my list for contemporary fiction of 2008. Hogan's elegant, concise, and subtle style can be effectively adapted to recounting Indian legends about a fishing village's relation to the sacried whale (who gave birth to humans), and to the violence of damaged Vietnam vets, determined to break the poetry of the legend by hunting the whale, an endangered species, and committing crimes against the environment.

Hogan interweaves the stories of a broken couple, Ruth, a strong-willed fisherwoman, and her drifter husband, Thomas, a Viietnam vet who disappears by choice after the war. These two stories are complete in themselves: they are subtly unbalanced by the tale of Thomas’s daughter in Vietnam, whose long life story seems to belong to a different novel. Hogan’s lovely, poetic prose compensates for the flaws, but it does detract from the novel. Yet Hogan’s world is one of contraditcions and conflicts:: the women lfeft behind in the U.S. and Vietnam, traditional cultures and the loss of belief by men who never recover psycholgically from the war and who turn on themselves.

The senseless, cruel killing of the whale and the women’s protests become a metaphor for the destruction of the old way of life and the fight of the conservationists. Hogan writes:

"On the day of the whale hunt, the gray day, only three women had the courage to stand at the shore facing the ocean fog as it lifted. Far out was the roar of the water, tlhe sound of a storm beginning in the lead-colored sky. Their eyes closed, the women sent their hearts across the ocean, willing the whales not to come near land....

"The three women told the whales not to come. But the whales no longer heard their voices or thoughts. Perthaps because the hunt had become a spectacle and not a holy thing. Their voices were drowned out by the sound of speedboats and a helicopter...This was not the way it had ever been done in the past. This was the first whale hunt since the 1920s."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Journey into Christmas

Dickens' A Christmas Carol doesn't blunt the edginess of the season. Is your family having a fit of major sulks while you entertain a ragtag group of friends who have appeared out of nowhere because their own families have rejected them? Is your perfectionist sister on the edge of nervous collapse because she burned the turkey? ("And, no, you can't start over again with a new turkey," you all have to insist). Is it possible that your husband and cousin are really going to spend all day playing foosball in the basement? ("IWe're not hungry," they say casually.)

Dickens particularly depresses me. I have two copies of his Christmas books, purchased at sales, in case I am suddenly infused with the Dickensian Christmas spirit, but I honestly believe these slapdash novels are sub-standard and setimental. The longer the better for Dickens: lest you think I am a philistine, I am very fond of Our Mutual Friend, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son)

This year, I have, however been delighted to find excellent Christmas stories in Bess Streeter Aldrich's collection, A Journey into Christmas and Other Stories. The title story is especially good and can be read at:

A Journey into Christmas

Sunday, December 21, 2008


It's the winter solstice.

Is this a festival, I wonder? It’s -2 degrees. Lord, what could be gloomier? And in just four days...four will be Christmas.

David Lodge's Deaf Sentence has some hilarious Christmas scenes, told in the form of a diary. It will cheer you up as much as a hot toddy (especially if you take meds, and are by necessity a teetotaller.)

So, anyway, I'm drinking herbal tea and trying to think cheerfully about Xmas. Here are some innocuous Christmas memories over the decades, showing that Christmas isn't ALL bad. (Though really, don't you hate those Dickens books?)

1964: there is a photograph of me, twinkling through my cat-shaped glasses, wearing an olive-green dress with fishnet stockings, so I obviously didn't mind getting dressed up on Christmas Eve. If I got the dress from Sears I'd begged for, I wore It. I also wore the impractical fishnet stockings, even in winter (think -2 degrees): Care about the cold? No, be cool. we wanted to look like Twiggy, or the Revlon girl, or someone.

The unwrapped gifts were kept in my mother’s closet, so it was impossible not to know what we were getting. Was this the year of the Barbie dream house? Or the Tammy house? This was the year of Tammy, a kind of alternative to Barbie (here is a photo of Tammy and her sister Pepper: I also had the Tammy house, cardboard with folding cardboard furniture, and Pepper's treehouse made of plastic.) Relieved, our mothers practically embraced Tammy, who, unlike Barbie, seemed like a nice, NORMAL girl.

There were also books: A Wrinkle in Time, E. Nesbit's books, etc.

1975: rabbit stew and no gifts. Friends and guests indulged in a drunken debauchery, so I got stuck cooking. Only immense irritation could have gotten me through that Julia Child recipe. I had to channel Julia Child, which is not easy when one is a non-cook. After dinner a Russian sang and accompanied himself on a guitar-like thing, which I should have appreciated. Instead, I wandered off into another room., leaving the drunks to drink and sing. The sober ones followed me. My excuse: exhaustion.

1982: we traveled; no gift exchange; doughnuts for breakfast and dinner at a steak house, the only restaurant open in town. I did receive a copy of Keats.

1990s and 2000s: we did the whole Christmas thing, complete with expensive presents. I suppose this shows we are finally adults.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Anti-War Classics

During a lull at a peace rally you might want to rejuvenate yourself with:

Joseph Heller's Catch-22

Aristophanes' Lysistrata

Virgil's Aeneid

Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Sophocles's Antigone

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five

Cicely Hamilton's William - An Englishman

Vera Brittain's Honourable Estate

Noel Stretatfeild's Saplings

Elsa Morante's History: A Novel

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Miss Bishop

Miss Bishop was so popular when it was published in 1933 that it was made into a movie, Cheers for Miss Bishop. it was Bess Streeter Aldrich's homage to teaching, which was her own itinerant profession for 11 years (six in her hometown of Cedar Falls, one in Boone, IA, another in Salt Lake City, and three years in Marshalltown, Iowa, where she met her husband in a boarding house). The heroine, Ella, whom we first meet as an extroverted college freshman, cannot find a job teaching country school, but is then recruited to teach grammar at her college. A dedicated teacher, she cannot do "half-measures," and she manages to be vigorous and inspiring even about participles and subordinate clauses (her students love her) . She supports her frail mother, who worries that her schoolma'arm career may end in spinster-dom. But Ella says,, "Don’t you worry. I won’t be an old maid.... I have too many dreams for that, Mother. I think sometimes it is as though I am weaving at a loom with a spindle of hopes and dreams. And no matter, Mother, how lovely the pattern--no matter how many gorgeous colors I use,--always the center of it know..., just a little house in the country in a garden and red firelight and...the man I love...and children...and happiness. For me, Mother, that’s the end of all dreaming.”

Although this novel was a best-seller in 1933, it has not stood the test of time: Aldrich’s language is dated, the style too blunt, and the change of point-of-view sometimes disconcerting. Yet her portrait of Ella, the workaholic teacher, is entirely convincing. Have we not all known someone like this? The novel is lighter and less affecting than A Lantern in Her Hand, Miss Bishop, the novel, not the character, is almost cloying at times. The imaginative reader must transport herself to another place and time to appreciate this, imagining herself in her “own little house in the country in a garden.” Ella, of course, does not realize all her dreams. To state one’s dream is to jinx it. Ella wants to marry: she is jilted in a scene that reminds me very much of the jilting in The Curlew’s Cry.

Read A Lantern in Her Hand instead.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Lantern in Her Hand

Bess Streeter Aldrich knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote A Lantern in Her Hand (first published in 1928). Before she wrote the novel, she interviewed early settlers in Nebraska and studied historical documents and letters. Her heroine, Abbie Mackenzie Deal, follows her husband, Will, a Civil War veteran, to Nebraska, where he struggles to farm on the unforgiving prairie. Droughts and onslaughts of grasshoppers raze the fields year after year. One year the prices fall so low that the farmers burn corncobs rather than trade for coal at a loss. We often grieve for Abbie, who suffers the agony of the displaced yet struggles to emphasize small dertermined joys for the sake of her husband and five children. The landscape is barren and desolate, the endless wave of grasses get on her nerves, and she must constantly work in the sod house, saving every string and button and piece of brown paper (she eventually writes on the brown paper). She educates her children, giving them opportunities she didn't have. She cannot pursue the talents she once had (particularly singing), and is both proud and envious of her successful children.

Aldrich's understated prose in this engrossing novel matches the numbness necessary for dignity in Abbie's often dramatic life: She cannot show her feelings;

"The grasshoppers swarmed over the young waist-high corn and the pasture and the garden. By evening the long rows of sweet corn had been eaten to the plowed ground. The tender vines of the tomatoes were stripped down to the stalk. The buds of the fruit trees were gone. Part of the garden was a memory. The chickens had feasted themselves to bursting point. Gus Reinmueller, driving up to the door, could hardly control his raring houses, so irritated were they by the bouncing, thumping pests. The farm was a squirming, greenish-gray mass of them."

Aldrich, a conscientious graduate of Iowa Teachers College who had the "writing bug" (according to her son in an intro to an older versison of this book), won a writing prize from Ladies' Home Journal in 1911 and became popular in 1918 after American Magazine bought "Mother's Dash for Liberty." .Adrich moved to Nebraska with her doctor-husband in 1909 and raised her family there.

This is not a classic, perhaps, but it is a book to be cherished (it was recently reissued by University of Nebraska press). She seems a little uncertain at the beginning, but after three chapters you race through the book--and I did cry over one page.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bookworm Alert

"No more books." That's the Grinch speaking. But our shelves swell pregnant lywith books, so I have not succumbed to Borders 30%-off coupons for TWO WEEKS.

It's like a twelve-step program.

One Christmas Eve I hysterically bought most of Nabokov for an intellectual friend because I didn't have the faintest idea what to give.

"Going to have a dark Christmas?" the bookseller inquired.

Probably, though that wasn't my goal. I plunge into shopping on Christmas Eve out of a pathetic anti-Christmasy gloom to gossip with people who have even worse Christmases than I do (I hope this doesn't get on their nerves). Few clerks have families like Bob Cratchitt's They sit around; they read Advance Reader Copies; they have mood disorders and they lounge under those special lights to fight SAD.

I'm reading bookworm lit this year to prepare for giving gifts to bookworms. Here's a list:

George Orwell's Keep the Aphrodistia Flying (about a gloomy intellectual who works in a used bookshop)

Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop

Nick Hornby's The Polysyallbic Spree (essays)

Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley's Pipefuls (essays and newspaper columns)

Christopher Morley's Shandygaff (essays and newspaper columns)

D. E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book (published by Persephone)

The Western Canon by Harold Bloom

Alex Beam's A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books (I can't vouch for this one: it's a history of the Great Books program)

Nabokov's Lectures on Literature

Coetzee's Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005

Lynne Tillman's Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.

Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross

Helene Hanff's Q's Legacy

On Reading by Andre Kertesz (photographs)

Hallie Ephron's 1001 Books for Every Mood

(And I'm sure there are many more, so let me know, and I'll add them)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Curlew's Cry

I wouldn't have read Mildred Walker's The Curlew's Cry if I hadn't gone to Omaha. (Like Chekhov's Three Sisters, we're always chanting, "If only we could get to Omaha.") It was a curiosity I spotted in a bookstore, and because I'm a sucker for university presses (Bison Press: I decided to take a chance.

I have such a passion for this book that I don't know if I can convey it.

Mildred Walker is a powerful writer. Set in Montana, where she lived from 1933 to 1955, The Curlew's Cry is the story of Pam Lacy, a passionate, independent young woman whose coquettish friend woos her boyfriend away and almost spoils her life. Confused and on the rebound, Pam makes a hasty marriage to the son of a wealthy businessman in Buffalo who is a director of the Rocky Mountain Cattle Company. (The company ruined her father, a rancher, when it refused to back up his loan from a bank which changed hands). And in a sense the company also ruined Pam through her marriage to the unimaginative Alan. The marriage is mechanical and disastrous from the start. All Pam's loyalties are to her father and the landscape of the West, but when she speaks of her beloved Montana, the Easterners disparage it. She returns to Montana and divorces her husband (who cannot understand it) and builds an astonishing, unconventional career.

But the book is more than its characterization of Pamela. Walker writes this with such unobtrusive and consistence brilliance that we see and feel the beauty of the West.

I suppose she's considered a craftsman, not an artist. How boring that gets. But for readers of Susan Glaspell 's Fidelity,which I have also posted about, this novel is as remarkable or more so.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

William Dean Howells

William Dean Howells is one of those American writers of whom I’ve only been peripherally aware. His paperbacks have been floating around our house forever, though they have remained largely unread, because I understood that he was “second-rate.” Second-class novels are resigned to abysmal fates: they lie inert and dusty forever unless someone takes them idly off the shelf. Our grandmothers may have read them, but we have considered ourselves too modish and posh for such unfashionable literature. After bingeing on Sinclair Lewis’s satires, however, Howells, famous for his realistic “domestic” novels and skewering of capitalism, seemed the next logical step..

“Where’s Howells?” I asked. I looked over my glasses.


“Which do you recommend?”

Vaguely: “I’ll bring you a pile.”

“Just one.”

The pile grew. I considered his science fiction novel, A Traveler from Arturia, but decided to start with a more conventional, characteristic work. I chose A Hazard of New Fortunes (a classic reminiscent of Henry James, and why it took me so long to get around to it I’ll never know).

A Hazard of New Fortunes is brilliantly written and structurally convoluted , a luminous example of the “new realism” of the late 19th century. Howells controls the threads of his New York unobtrusively and the detailed, reflective, almost businesslike story unfolds in a subtly organized manner. The focus of A Hazard of New Fortunes is the inception of a literary magazine: its many employees s comprise a complete society, who are transplanted to New York to pursue “new fortunes." They come from all classes and economic strata: poor artists and writers, intellectual editors and publishers, shrewd businessmen and backers, nouveau riche, middle class, and genteel poor. All are connected to the new literary magazine. There are many, many protagonists: in Part One the March family reluctantly leave Boston for New York after March loses his insurance job. Fulkerson, the founder of the new magazine, has recruited him through sheer bluster to take a chance on being the editor. In Part Two we meet Beaton, a moody artist, and Alma Leighton, an illustrator, whom he has dropped after luring her and her mother to New York. The publisher, the son of a nouveau riche farmer who has made a fortune in real estate after being forced off the family farm, has no interest in the literary business, particularly as regards making money, and his sisters miserably live alone in a great house, unable to make friends in New York, having hoped to break into "society." (Their religious mother and their shrewd monied father care nothing about it.)

Howell, the son of an itinerant newspaperman and printer,worked as a journalist in his youth and eventually became editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly. He wrote 13 novels and three works of criticism. Among his friends were Henry James and Mark Twain.

He is one of the best writers I’ve discovered this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Oh, Sinclair Lewis! As I read Babbitt, I'm beginning to mix Sinclair Lewis up with Upton Sinclair. Such good ideas, such insightful sociology, such clumsy sentences. What is (was) America of the '20s and '30s? These two documented it unflinchingly.

Sinclair Lewis's Main Street is a beautifully written classic--Carol Kennicott gives us the middle-class, liberal arts-educated perspective on the horrifyingly closed-minded materialism of prairie towns . Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels operate on a broader canvas--Lanny Budd, over a period of 20 years, analyzes international politics, often living in Europe and dealing with politicians (as did Sinclair in his lifetime).

But Lewis's Babbitt has almost defeated me. This satire is so broad, and the style much more florid than in Main Street. The style itself condemns George Babbitt. Yet I feel so sorry for the babbling, boosterish Babbitt. Babbitt's Zenith is a super-sized Gopher Prairie, a city of 300,000 people characterized by dog-eat-dog businessmen, state-university-educated vs. Yale-educated clubs, desperate housewives in modern housing developments, aimless daughters (graduates of Bryn Mawr with nothing to do), and punk sons who want to drop out and take correpsondence classes. It's a sad society, but of course they don't feel sad. Babbitt, a realtor who lives to shop and chomp cigars, is immensely proud of his self-made man status but also empty and bewildered as he wishes inarticulately for something better.

Babbitt and his overly-sensitive friend Paul (of whom he is proud) go to Maine for a week without their wives. Babbitt finds himself gradually descending into enuui, breaking down, wanting silence, relieved to escape the "chumminess" of his everyday life.. He becomes more lethargic when his wife arrives. He doesn't feel well until the last day of vacation.

Some of the scenes are really hysterically funny--a seance scene at one of Babbitt's dinner parties (the guests are Vergil Gunch, Chum Frink, Eddie Swanson, Orville Jones, Howard Littlefield, and their wives): and the wives want to "talk to Dante."

Vergil Gunch says: "I suppose Dante showed a lot of speed for an old-timer--not that I've actually read him, of course--but to come right down to hard facts, he wouldn't stand one-two-three if he had to buckle down to practical literature and turn out a poem for the newspaper-syndicate every day, like Chum does.:

But Babbitt thinks privately--and this is why we love him--"We're all so flip and think we're so smart. There'd be--A fellow like Dante--I wish I'd read some of his pieces. I don't suppose I ever will, now."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Main Street

Sinclair Lewis, who refused the Pulitzer in 1925 (see below) and accepted the Nobel in 1930 (love that international yet anti-American chauvinist attitude), isn't much talked about anymore.

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis' classic satire of the midwest, is my favorite book--at least occasionally, when I reread it. It has a perennial place in women’s studies and American studies (a kind of thank-God-I-took-that-class novel, with a radical bent). Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, mocks the sanctimony of small town America . His Gopher Prairie (brilliant name!) is a dull, smug town of 3,000 gossips, which dismays and almost defeats Carol Kennicott, the heroine. (If you've read Babbitt, you'll know that Gopher Prairie is the country cousin of Babbitt's Zenith City.)

Poor Carol Kennicott, the heroine and would-be lofty converter to the arts in Gopher Prairie, is horrified by the ugliness of the town. She is baffled by the dull citizens' emphasis on "comfiness" and "jolliness" and resistance to change. She dreams of art, writing, drama, anthropology, archaelogy, plays, parties, and concerts. Born in Mankato, a university town with hills and valleys, she is encouraged to dream and studyt. As a librarian in Saint Paul, she dreams and influences patrons and attends parties where people discuss the latest" ideas." Her marriage to the good-hearted Dr. Will Kennicott almost shatters her dreams. Gopher Prairie, Will's home, almost breaks her. Although she loves Will, Carol fights back.

She guides us through the small town as though she has a Baedker. It takes 31 minutes to walk around the town. She is aghast at fly-specked store windows, a grocery store with a cat sleeping on bananas and lettuce, Billy's Lunch (an odor of onions and hot lard), ugly one-and-a-half-story houses, no town square. This is not a pioneer town--it's a nightmare, she decides.

Lewis’s style is blunt, yet he knows exactly the bluff tone of the dialogue. “Maybe we’re kind of slow, but we are democratic,” “Bridge is half the fun of life,” “There’s a fine class of people,” and “Best people on earth here. Great hustlers, too. Course I’ve had lots of chances to go live in Minneapolis, but we like it here. “Real he-town. did you know Percy Bresnahan came from here?”

Carol alienates people by her attempts to inculcate culture. Even Vida Sherwin, the "liberal" schoolteacher, a friend, crushes her by passing on the biting gossip of "The Jolly Seventeen "about Carol. (A whole chapter describes Vida's hatred and envy of Carol).

The most interesting character in the novel after Carol is Miles Bjornstam, a socialist handyman who becomes a successful and farmer and tones down his ideas so his wife, Bea, Carol's former maid, will make friends. No one comes near her. Carol has more in common with these two than with anyone else and visits them often.. But she is afraid to declare it. She doesn't want to lose any more friends.

Carol, though she is also subtly satirized, is a strong character, a nonconformist who tries hard not to be provincial, who doesn’t want to give in to the men’s narrow jokiness and the women’s gossip. Completely realistic.

Excerpt from Lewis's reasons to decline the Pulitzer:

"I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel Arrowsmith for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

"All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards; they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for Novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

"Those terms are that the prize shall be given "for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment. "

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Post-Wright Read

After Wright Morris’s The Works of Love, I had trouble settling down to another book. Clearly Morris made an impression on me. It's not that he’s a GREAT writer--he can be sentimental--yet there are flashes of brilliance. And his voice mimics perfectly the bleak rhythms of midwestern speech, its strange mix of gloom, lyricism, numbness and sentimentality. Do you think Midwesterners are articulate? Think again. And Morris shows this through dialogue.

Most midwestern writers satirize their home. Sinclair Lewis couldn't wait to get away: think of Main Street, my favorite book (and why am I not reading it now?): in which Carol, the librarian from the Twin Cities, marries and get stuck in a small town with no culture. Then of course there's Babbitt.

Perhaps Larry Woiwode's artistic, lyrical novels are closest to Morris's in style. His extraordinary classic, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, describes four generations of the Neumiller family in North Dakota. Woiwode wrote for The New Yorker for a while, then he disappeared and returned to North Dakota. He has a title there: laureate of North Dakota. Yet people seem to have forgotten his masterpieces, now that he is farming, now that he is writing less.

I prowled around the room and stared at my bookcase. After rejecting a few yuppiebacks from my collection, I dug out Miles Franklin’s saucy My Brilliant Career. Stella Maria Miles Franklin wrote this witty, autobiographical account of a pioneer girl’s rebellion in Australia at the turn of the century when she was 16. Her chatty, upbeat--resentful, but undefeatable--narrator, Sybilla, longs to escape the failing farm in the bush. She is passionate and ambitious: she wants desperately to read, write, sing, dance, anything artistic. But she is doomed to work dawn to dusk on her parents’ farm, until she is invited to her grandmother's. And that's not the end of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wright Morris

Regional literature, often uninteresting to mainstream publishers, maps the fictional history and geography of the country between NY and California: the midwest, south, and west; of farms, small towns, and unknown cities. The work of regional writers Susan Glaspell and Dorothy Canfield Fisher has recently been revived: Glaspell perhaps by Updike's inclusion of her work in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, and Canfield Fisher by small presses in the U.S. and England.

Wright Morris’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer (2 novels) was reissued by Black Sparrow Press (before it was bought up by a mega-publisher). This exceptionally good writer is virtually unknown

The Works of Love, published in the '50s, is the terrifyingly sad story of Will Brady, a man with no connections, because of the geography that shapes him. Born on the empty plains of Nebraska in a dugout, Will grows up in the town of Indian Bow, where there is "a depot, a cattle loader, several square frame houses with clapboard privies; and later there were stores with pressed tin ceilings along the tracks." When he moves to the tiny town of Carbury (Will takes a train; trains and hotels are the connection in the novel for lonely ), working at the hotel seems the height of sophistication. But he wants and needs a wife. Where does he look for one? The town whorehouse, where he "connects" with the same woman every weekend. When he proposes, all the women laugh at him. A young prostitute with whom he has never had sex leaves her baby behind with his name on it: he raises the son as his own.

He is lonely and passive. He marries a rich woman who initiates the marriage but who is terrified of sex. Is this marriage normal? He doesn't know. Later he marries a young woman who is closer to his son's age than him: they hang out in the front room all day while he works.

Obviously influenced by Willa Cather, Morris is a good writer, yet there is something sentimental about his attempts at humor. His lonely protagonist has a bleak life, yet Morris tries sometimes to instill hope that isn’t there. But sometimes he gets it just right.

Though Morris won the National Book Award twice, one must look to small presses for his books: Bison Books publishes Plains Song (a Natl book award winner), a moving saga of three generations of Nebraska women; The Home Place, and Ceremony in Lone Tree. The University of Nebraska Press publishes Field Vision and The Works of Love.

Wright was also a photographer and a few of his books of photograpy are avialable (most out of print). Here is one of his quintessential Nebraskan photos:

Monday, November 17, 2008

Lost in Sandwich, or How to Take a Women's Road Trip

On a hot blue-skied day in Sandwich, I get lost.

Okay, not everybody could do this. I have three maps, dotted with “You are here” signs and decorated with arrows.

Well, I warned everybody: “I’m not very good at map-reading.” But I said goodbye to Mindy and Jan and walked briskly down the private drive from the condo.

It started with a wrong turn. It is my first day in Cape Cod. I turn instinctively toward the downtown area. The only problem is it’s not a left-hand turn, as Jan advised when I asked for directions to the beach. So what? Didn’t she mention the First Church of Christ? Yeah, It’s historic. Something like that. So why consult a map?

Founded in 1639, Sandwich has a Ye Olde New England look that tourists “ooh” and “ah” over. As the first village on the 70-mile peninsula of Cape Cod, it is a natural place to get out and stretch one’s legs. Personally I cared more about its beautiful white sand beaches than its Colonial architecture. In the middle of the village I passed a glass museum, a doll museum, and....all wasted on me. I refused to do anything educational.

Finally, unable to find the beach and aware that I was walking in circles, I sat on a bench on the village green and just sipped from my water bottle. I thought, What am I doing in Sandwich? On my first girl trip since 1981, I was already lost..

What’s a "girl's" road trip? It’s a trip taken with women friends, without husbands or boyfriends. It’s driving down the road at 75 miles an hour, praying a cop doesn’t ticket you, popping your gum while you swap life stories. It’s stopping at countless rest stops without some guy interrupting, “Do you have to go again?”

Perhaps women's road trips are a twentieth century phenomenon. Over the centuries most road travel books have been written by men, judging from a quick glance at the Oxford Book of Travel. Road trip literature since the 1960s has included the ultimate road novel, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road , Tom Wolfe’sThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip , an account of the Merry Pranksters’ rock-and-roll, acid-laden cross-country bus trip, and William Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, a back roads look at America. Then there are the road trip movies: “Easy Rider,” “Get on the Bus,”“Harry and Tonto,” and “Stranger than Paradise.” And who was television’s premier chronicler of back roads? Charles Kurault.

When women in literature hit the road, they’re often on the lam or running away from husbands: there’s the mother/daughter road trip in Mona Simpson’s novel Anywhere But Here , and the cross-country adventures of Taylor Greer in Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling The Bean Trees.. In movies we’ve seen the offbeat travels of women characters in “Manny and Lo,” “Thelma and Louise,” ”Boys on the Side,” “Trip to Bountiful,”and “Leaving Normal.”

An old woman in a church dress walked past. “Well, you found a nice shady spot.”

I smiled. “It is nice here, isn’t it? But could you tell me how to get to the beach?”

I had, of course, gone the wrong way entirely. I was all turned around. I had no clue what direction to go in. “Which beach? Oh, near Horizon House? Left, left, right, right, right,” she said. “That’s the easiest way, I think.”

So I started up the street around a left curve until I hit an intersection. And lo and behold, I was finally on the right road, Tupper Road, the road I started on, for God’s sake, the road I was supposed to turn left on instead of right. And I was approaching the intersection of Route 6A when Mindy pulled up in front of me in her Tracker.

“Want a ride?” she said.

“Please. “ And I climbed in, grateful to escape the heat .

So we went to the Bee Hive, a pub with a mural in the foyer and beehives hanging above the bar, and ate respectively a Greek salad (me) and clam chowder (Mindy). Then we went shopping. It was only hours later, when the sun was starting to set, that I realized, We never made it to the beach.

Not much of an adventure, you say? I think that’s the whole point.

In the evenings, we went in search of night life. We went to Hyannis! Oh, land of the Kennedys. Described by Jan’s husband as “tourist ticky-tacky,” it appeared to be a town of strip malls and tourists.

A used bookstore employee directed us to a coffee house called Prodigal Son. I cannot pretend that the ambiance was charming. It was a dingy hole-in-the-wall coffee bar, smelling of smoke and sweat. Mindy and I squeezed our bodies onto a faded burgundy couch in the back, banged down our decaf (Mindy) and latte (me) on a coffee table, and awkwardly opened books and laptop.

Then a guy stood up on a makeshift stage area in the front and announced that it was Poetry Slam night.

“It’s the Boston slam team vs. Hyannis,” announced the emcee. “And what’s our prize?” he asked as an afterthought

A ponytailed guy working the sound system quipped, “A date with me?”

Everybody groaned.

I typed notes about the slam on my laptop, though it was so dark I could only see by the light of the blue screen. A man with round glasses approached, nodded, and said, “Cool laptop.”

“Yeah.” I wondered, Hasn’t he ever seen a laptop?

Then Patricia Smith from Boston got up. I grabbed Mindy’s arm like a groupie.

“I can’t believe it. We get to see a famous slam poet. She’s a past winner of the National Poetry Slam,” I said.

Smith, a slim African-American woman, was younger than I expected. Funny, I felt about thirty on this vacation, but Patricia Smith probably is thirty, while I’m a forty-one-year-old pretender.

“Did I tell you that I’m the architect of rock and roll...Now I’ve never been sexy...But if I do say so myself..I do still turn some eyes,” she recited.

Oh yeah. I hear ya! I felt the same way, especially tonight. I typed frantic notes, and suddenly looked up to see one of the ponytailed guys turned around on his bar stool andsmiling.

What is this? Are these guys blind or desperate or what? By the time Mindy and I left, we were laughing.

“Hey, I really think we could have picked up some guys in there,” Mindy said.

“Oh, my husband would have loved that,” I said.

During the remainder of the girl trip I:

1. went to the beach, but did not go swimming.
2. went shopping in Provincetown, an artists’ colony on the tip.
3. read novels.
4. dyed my hair.
5. and did as little as possible.
And I returned from my girl trip refreshed and rested, horrifying my husband with my tales of DOING NOTHING on vacation.

RESOURCES FOR GIRL TRIPS (These may be old; I'll look them up)

Journeywoman,an online travel magazine for women:

The Women’s Travel Club, itineraries designed for married and single women who like to travel:

women’s adventure travels, adventure travel service for women over 30:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Phillip Hensher

Books: I am reading Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, finally released in the United States this month. This book in a way strikes me as the quintessential American novel (only English), similar to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, the epic which failed as an Oprah book after Franzen made the mistake of saying on the radio something about not having written for Oprah fans. The Corrections (which I threw up on during an illness and then had to buy another copy of) focuses on two siblings from Kansas City, the brother a professor who is sued and fired after having an affair with a student (the girl calls her parents from a motel), and the sister a cook who, having escaped the midwest, turns lesbian. Hensher’s epic is a slower narrative and covers a much broader canvas, including minutiae about multiple characters from Sheffield, and focuses on two generations of families, straight, dull fathers, often discontented mothers, occasional drug dealers laundering money, and untraditional children who grow up to escape to London. (I’m only halfway through.) Both Franzen and Hensher shock with masturbation scenes: Franzen’s character masturbates on a couch (or perhaps it’s a leather jacket, I can’t remember), and one of Hensher’s characters actually DIES from masturbation. Please, no.

Hensher’s writing is lively and acerbic, his characters are realistic, and somehow we trust his analysis of the culture of the '70s and '80s: he has obviously observed and absorbed, understood and organized the confusing, jumbled elements of ordinary life. When the neurotic Katharine wants to have an affair, we understand why: her husband lives for re-creation's of the Civil War and gardening, while she dreams on a large scale and ends up outdoing him by working in a florist’s shop and even having sex with the florist (once).

It's a sociological novel: "All happy families are alike..,etc."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

E. Nesbit

At night, you want to read something that will put you to sleep. There is a pile next to my bed: Georgette Heyer, Poldark, and E. Nesbit. E. Nesbit has become a favorite lately, because after half a chapter of Story of the Treasure Seekers, the Wood-Be-Goods, or The New Treasure Seekers, I fall asleep. ZZZZZZZ. As a child, I loved her books. Every birthday I received her books in plain red editions, published, I believe in Great Britain, which were always on the same shelf of the bookstore, which my parents became very familiar with. My favorite was The Enchanted Castle , but I also loved The Phoenix and the Carpet ,The House of Arden, The Magic world, and other” magic adventures.” All had the original H. R. Millar illustrations.

Gore Vidal read and admired them. In the ‘60s, he wrote an essay n which he attacked the American teachers and librarians who,, according to Vidal, rejected turn-of-the-century fantasy classics by Nesbit and pushed badly-written realistic novels on children. He lamented the slow development of children’s imaginations, and gave many examples of Nesbit's influence on C. S. Lewis (and, my God, was she better. Those ghastly Narnia books!) As a matter of fact , he may have overstated the case. because many public libraries carried Nesbit (under her maiden name, Edith Bland, and perhaps he didn't look there) and certainly my parents good-humoredly purchased every one of them over a period of years.

So it has been a while since I read them. I read half of The Enchanted Castle a year ago, and though I remembered loving it, I eventually abandoned it. Perhaps it's less entertaining when you’ve read it 20 times. (It was the Harry Potter of its day. Only in those days they didn't need midnight book parties to read) Recently I began rereading the Story of the Treasure Seekers, one of my least favorites as a child. But The Story of the Treasure Seekers--one of the Bastable books-- is more readable because it is more realistic: the Bastable children wish to estore the family fortunes, only nothing quite works out: when they dig the hole for treasure the earth collapses when the sniveling Albert-Next-Door digs. Etc. Etc.

Nesbit was a socialist and feminist and a “free thinker” who had to write to support her family and found she could easily crank out children’s books. She had tried all kinds of writing, and though she didn’t particularly like children, she remembered exactly what it was to be a child. In fact, Vidal also loves her autobiography (which I have not been able to find).


Sunday, November 02, 2008

Everyman: Gogol's Tales

Who could not fall in love with the touching epigraph : “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in the most need to go by thy side”? A good library SHOULD be a guide, and Everyman retains this idealistic principle. The new editions have jazzed-up covers, presumably to sell books to an over-stimulated generation (though I like the covers very much and admit that I bought this new edition of Gogol’s The Collected Tales partly because of the new translation but also partly because of the art , a reproduction of The Peasant). Founded in England in 1906 and relaunched in the U.S. in 1991, Everyman Books resembles Penguins and Oxford Classics in their lluminating introductions and notes.

This is a superb edition, translated by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Divided into "The Ukrainian Tales" and "The Petersburg Tales, " Gogol's voice is rollicking, irrespressible, and merry (one would like to meet Gogol at a party). The earlier Ukrainian Tales often adopt the voice of a flippant narrator who claims he cannot remember the tale or cannot even remember who has told the tale or, when he finds, that person, then HE cannot remember the tale, either. There is often a fairy-tale quality to these early tales: demons "call" souls of innocent daughters, old women turn into witches, warrior ghosts appear, friends feud almost to the death (the feud has the quality of a folk tale). These earlier stories, good in their own right, pave the way to his equally witty, more sophisticated later work.

One of the best stories in the Petersburg Tales is “The Portrait,”which begins in medias res when an artist acquires an unlucky painting. The painting falls into many hands: all are driven to crime or suicide. The tale leaps and bounds and finally combines both past and future.

Of course the best stories are also included: "The Nose," "Diary of a Madman," and "The Overcoat." In "The Nose," a man wakes up without a nose: then he meets his own nose riding in a coach around Petersburg. “He did not know what to think of such a strange incident. How was it possible, indeed, that the nose which just yesterday was on his face, unable to drive or walk--should be in a uniform!” In “Diary of a Madman” and "The Overcoat," civil servants are maddened by poverty and lack of status: in "Diary of a Madman," a schizophrenic expresses grandiose dreams of royalty; in t"The Overcoat," another civil servant attempts desperately to acquire a new overcoat.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My Mrs. Tim fandom does not preclude my reareading the gloomy Tess of the D'urbervilles. I am now on my fourth copy of Tess because I have given away three: two to charity sales and one to a friend who recommended it to her daughters, only to be informed they only read Harry Potter and Gossip Girls.

It is autumn; the first freeze has occurred; we ate the last of our green tomatoes (hard as rocks) in an onion sauce which usually softens them nicely. One cannot read Tess in the summer. Now the garden is gone; our freezer is full of bags of beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Often I turn to gloomy books this time of year.

Tess, though far from my favorite Hardy, shows Hardy at the height of his powers. His solemn style is effortlessly elegant, his descriptions of nature (the heath particularly) create or reflect moods, his outlook, though pessimistic, is leavened by occasional flashes of humor, and the structures architecturally symmetrical, resembling figures of speech, which fly, loop, rearrange themselves, and then fall to fate, and reflect Hardy’s training as an architect and classical reader.

Hardy sets up Tess's story as follows: A beautiful, intelligent girl, Tess is educated to be a schoolmistress, but the death of a horse when she falls asleep in a cart on the way to market stymies her ambition. (The death of the horse is needlessly graphic: pierced by a mail cart in the dark and buried by the family. Tess only drove the horse because her father was too drunk.) Believing she is responsible for her family's poverty, Tess goes to work on a farm for a branch of the D’urbervilles, to which her family apparently belonged at one time. (Durbeyfield is a corruption of D'urberville.)

Mrs. D'urberville is blind; Alec, the moustache-twirling son, seduces Tess. Pregnant, Tess goes home.

Hardy can be heavy-handed (particularly in his last two novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, which shocked his readers).

Iinsecure about his working-class roots, he sometimes burdens his prose with odd references to Thomas Malthus, Praxitelean creation, and "Thermidorean." His dialect, however, is perfect: one of the best features of his books.

Pregnancy out of wedlock ("getting into trouble") was unacceptable even twenty years ago. In the 2000s we hardly bat an eye at it. (Sarah Palin's teenager is pregnant.) But the question was problematic to a Victorian audience: unmarried women with children were routinely ostracized or declassed. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her didactic novel, Ruth, a predecessor of Tess, defended such women. Hardy treats the same problem of the ostracization of unmarried pregnant women. Although sympathetic fellow writers, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Edmund Gosse, and Walter Besant, considered Tess a masterpiece, Tess was trashed in the Saturday Review and The Spectator as “immoral.” (One critic concocted the witticism, “Tessamism.”) Hardy, always too sensitive to reviews, was prevented from confrontng the reviewers when friends told him it was undignified; finally he was buoyed by the realization that condemnations of Tess's “sensuality” and "immorality" boosted sales.Yet in the preface to the fifth edition Hardy could not resist the opportunity to rebut reviewers (which goes on for two pages).

Hardy stopped writing novels after Tess and Jude the Obscure. A pity.

Friday, October 24, 2008

D. E. Stevenson and Mrs. Tim

D. E. Stevenson wrote her Mrs. Tim Christie books, a quartet of interwar novels written in the form of witty diary entries , after a friend read her amusing diary and suggested she “pep it up” and publish it as a novel. The four resulting novels, Mrs. Tim Christie (originally Mrs. Tim of the Regiment), Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home, resemble E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady series, though Stevenson's are less telegraphic (and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle is possibly influenced by both). The diary genre was popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and perhaps the short entries made the domestic comedy seem more appealing and realistic because they fit the staccato routines of daily life.

Mrs. Tim, though a British officer’s wife, is not in the least military: rather, she is a tactful, often secretly mirthful, popular figure among the soldiers and their wives: her husband, Tim, has a dry sense of humor, though, like all husbands, he is obtuse about fashion and wonders why she can't keep wearing the same dress; their Tom-Sawyer-like son is away at a prep school; and their rambunctious daughter asks embarrassing questions when the meddling colonel's wife drops in to tea.

The entries, subtly hilarious, consist of a vivid, first-person narrative (if only we could all write diaries like this!). For instance on April 12 in Mrs. Tim Christie (published in the 1930s):

“Sit down after dinner feeling very tired. Tim points out that I have done nothing all day to make me tired (which is true, in a way). He continues that I have no business to be tired. I have not got a crowd of half-boiled soldiers to plague my life out from morning to night. Am surprised at this statement (as Tim has been very keen on his territorilals up to now), but conclude that something must have occurred to upset him, and resign myslef to listen and sympathize instead of starting Sheila Kaye Smith’s latest novel, which I have just procured with vast trouble from the librfary.”

Compare this to an entry of Diary of a Provincial Lady Dec. 9 (published in 1931, a bit earlier than the Mrs. Tim books:

“Rose staying here two days before going on to London. Says All American houses are Always Warm, which annoys Robert. He says in return that All American houses are Grossly Overheated and Entirely Airless. Impossible not to feel taht this would carry more weight if Robert had ever been to America."

Stevenson and Delafield write gentle satires of family life, but I prefer D. E. Stevensons more expansive (and less snobbish) entries.

The Christie family adjusts to frequent moves, and much of the book is set in Scotland. Mrs. Tim and the Provincial Lady both have to cope with the servant problem, which few of us have had to contend with these days, but the British in novels have difficulties with governesses, cooks, etc. (And of course Monica Dickens, in One Pair of Hands, quits her cook job, because the employers are so unreasonable, so that's another way of looking at it) .

These are great winter books. Very addictive.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights, which I last read in the hospital, is one of those novels I reread every few years. I am perusing it again this fall: it is my desert island book. At a slumber party long ago, while Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band crooned on the stero, a friend declared that Wuthering Heights was the best book ever written. So, at 3 a.m. I read it. Charlotte is perhaps a better writer, but one reads Emily Bronte for her passionate weirdness and powerful poetic effects, for her genius at matching mood to landscape (moors and parks), for her Byronic hero, Heathcliff, an interloper at Wuthering Heights, and for the quasi-feral passion between Heathcliff and Catherine, the imaginative yet disappointingly practical daughter of Wuthering Heights who chooses money and security over love.

The most famous passage of all time might be (after Catherine Earnshaw has a dream about heaven):

“This is nothing,’, cried she: ‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth, and the angels were so angry that they flung me out into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights, where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

And heaven is not her home, by the way.

The frame story is less appealing, concerned with, yes, property rights and death . Heathcliff, who has become wealthy and acquired property, rents the Grange (the Lintons’ former home) to .Lockwood, the narrator. This voyeuristic tenant hears the story of two generations of Earnshaws, Heathcliffs, and Lintons from the housekeeper, Nelly, a fairly well-educated, faithful employee who has occasionally interfered horribly for what she considers the good of the interwoven families and has become exasperated by all of them. (She is a genius at explaining their complex network of relationships.) Mr. Lockwood can listen, and he can write, but Linton-like, he lives in the Linton house and cannot act. Or is it Nelly writing and telling the story? Emily is so perverse that we can’t know what she really meant.

Monday, October 13, 2008

East Lynne

Glutted by the history of Henry VIII, I have abandoned Ford Madox Ford’s historical novel,The Fifth Queen, a strange, stilted, literary pageant which revolves around Katherine Howard. (if it’s not the Boleyns, I have to consult Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII.)

So I have returned to the Victorian age, and am very much enjoying Ellen Wood's East Lynne. Her work was introduced to me by The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, and thus I am now reading East Lynne, her most popular novel,

Considered a sensation novel, it emphasizes sexual jealousy among women and the resulting smoldering triangles, of which Archibald Carlyle, at the apex, seems amazingly oblivious. Lady Isabel, the main character, marries Archibald Carlyle only after the gorgeous Captain Levison rejects her; Barbara Hare, who had expected Archibald to marry her, is furous that the insipid, beautiful Iabel has usurped her place; and Isabel is also jealous of Barbara, who is consulting Archibald "on business" at every opportunity. Exhausted by childbirth and what sounds like post-partum depression, Isabel loses her sparkle and goes abroad to recover. Captain Levison appears on the scene, idly flirting with her, bent on the destruction of her marriage.

Isabel becomes far less insipid as the novel goes on, and when she needs to support herself, she demonstrates remarkable intelligence and self-reliance. But I don't want to give away the plot.

Wood writes plainly and well, and the story is so compelling that I was able to read half at one sitting.. There are flaws and awkward transitions, but it races along. She asks questions about adultery and women: Who supports women when the marriage fails? How can women support themselves unless they marry? What happens to adulteresses?

This novel is also being discussed at:

  • Trollope Discussion Group listserv
  • Monday, October 06, 2008

    Six Wives in the Vegetable World

    I have lately been ruled by the vegetable world: tomatoes, endless tomatoes, tomato sauce for dinner every night, simmering on the stove while I absently read the newspaper. Baked eggplants, doomed never to be eaten. (We have quite a few scooped eggplants in the refrigerator, but no tahini so we never make our dip. When asked what tahini is, I always vaguely say, "They sell it at the health food store." If I remember correctly, it's like peanut butter. So can I just use Skippy?) I'm also harvesting hot peppers so horrifyingly spicy one dares use only a sliver in cooking . It is one big vegetable world, in fact.

    So the other day, bored with the vegetable world, I visited a bookstore, and while browsing in the "If You Like This, You'll Like This" section, I discovered Alison Weir's beautifully written and thoroughly researched history, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

    Between Alison Weir's scholarship and Philippa Gregory's historical novel,The Other Boleyn Girl (yes, I enjoy this racy interpretation of the facts), I am taking a crash course in Boleyns and rapidly filling in the gaps. The clarity and organization of Weir's work is especially impressive.. I can dip into it and learn quickly about the period. (I'm using it as a reference book.) She explains confidently (and not in the subjunctive) her various sources and different historians' interpretations. The basics are necessary to understand the elusive quality of Jane Boleyn and to appreciate Fox's ambitiious biog (which occasionly seemed hazy to me) .

    So I've moved beyond my first intro to Henry: "I'm 'Enery the Eighth I am...Enery the Eighth I am I am...I got married to the woman next door...she's been married seven times before...And everyone was a 'Enery..." Something like that.

    Thursday, October 02, 2008

    Jane Boleyn and the Subjunctive

    I am deliciously settled into Julia Fox's delectable biography, Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford. Have a glass of milk and curl up: it's a bit like reading a novel. i'm unfamiliar with contemporary biographies, and, honestly, this revisionist history reminds me a bit of Lytton Strachey's narratives. Jane was bad, bad, bad: a traitor and a gossip. So we've heard. But Julia Fox has written the case for Jane: she has researched every document or oblique reference to Jane, as is evident from the detailed notes and bibliography My only problem is that she is too quick to admit what she doesn't know . No one seems to have bothered much about Jane except Fox, and it seems that little has been documented. Nonetheless, she has read depositions, biographies, Henry's letters to Anne, wordings and proceedings of the marriage ceremony, manuscripts at the Nathional Archives: this research must have taken years.

    Fox frequently uses the subjunctive, however, and this makes me distrust her. There are quite a few "may haves" and "might haves" as Fox struggles to put together the puzzle. The biography would be (subjunctive again) more plausible if she used direct or indirect statements.

    Page 246: "We do not know the precise date of Jane's appointment as a lady of the privy chamber but once installed she was likely to come across several of her friends and acquaintances. Her mother's sister, Katherine, recentlyw widowed by the death of Sir Piers Edgecombe, would be there, and so would young Katherine Carey, Mary Stafford's daughter."

    There's also a lot of: "Jane may well have been included in one of those ceremonies."

    So my question is: how much do we really know about Jane Boleyn? Thus far, the convincing passages center on Anne, about whom so much more is known. Less subjunctive would help here. So perhaps the title should be: The Conflict of Anne and Jane, etc.

    I'll keep reading. I'm only halfway through.

    Friday, September 26, 2008

    A Good Indian Wife

    I stayed up till the wee hours reading Anne Cherian's novel, A Good Indian Wife, one of B&N's Discover books. Why is contemporary Indian literature so good? I started with Narayaon and moved on to Jhabvala, Ghosh, Bannerjee, and Manil Suri. These novels are all exquisitely written yet earthy and rich with subtle undertones . But Cherian is exceptional at conveying the culture of Inida, the radical differences between an Indian village and San Francisco. The story is absorbing but we also see the immigrant's view of the seeming coldness of America.

    We see and feel the action through two main characters: the stay-st-home Leila and the doctor Neel, who spends much time flying his own plane when he isn't with his American girlfriend.

    The main character, the sympathetic character, is Leila, a 30-year-old teacher of Shakespeare, who becomes a "victim" of an arranged marriage in India. Rejected again and again by suitors, she is thrilled when an Indian man from San Francisco returns to his village and agrees to marry her, through a kind of comedy of errors. (And which Shakespeare Cherian was referring to I'm not quite sure, but she and Leila know their Shakespeare thoroughly, so obviously there is a prototype).

    Since she has no dowry, she has no choice but to live at home and teach at a women's college,. The prospect of marriage relieves her, even though Neel doesn't come to see her after the initial marriage brokerage. she believes the wedding red sari makes her look fat, and the hennaed designs on hands and feet are not her usual fashion statement. This portrait of Indian life is fascinating: the trips to sari shop, the struggles with relatives (both Leila's and Neel's), the food preparation, and the traditions that are completely humiliating to Neel, the reluctant husband.

    Chernan alternates points of view--Leila's and Neel's--so we understand Leila's terror at Neel's stark apartment and worry that he isn't a doctor after all; and Neel's resentment of the marriage contrived by a pushy aunt and by his grandfather's assurance that he needs to see Neel married before he dies. Neel cannot believe he is in this situation. Neel lies about his work hours so he can frequently visit his blond American girlfriend, rather stereotypical but, yes, the manipulative bimbo who schemes to break up his marriage. We feel Leila's aching loneliness and isolation in an apartment house in San Friancisco where no people are on the streets and watch with fascination the development of the marriage. There is much more to this novel. Such good writing!

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    The Last Victorian Proto-Feminist Heroine

    From Oct 23-26, at the L. M. Montgomery Research Center, scholars and Anne aficionados will convene to explore the cultural influence of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. They will also celebrate the centenary of her first and most popular novel, Anne of Green Gables. And if you've never read Anne, this is a good year to begin, because there are innumerable articles about the centenary.

    The Anne of Green Gables books are not only girls' novels, but also "cult" books: readers, especially women like me, who have not read Anne in many years, will be amused and amazed to rediscover Anne's wit, charm, romantic imagination, and humorous adventures.

    Montgomery, who wrote 24 books between 1908 and 1939, was not an Anne: she was a complex, energetic woman, whose idealized Anne reflected her optimism, but who had a darker, anomalous adult self, which had to cope with depressions and the loss of a son. Unhappy at 30, she wrote in her diary : " Only lonely people write diaries." After involvements with two men, one of whom she was briefly engaged to, she eventually married a minister (as does Phil, a character in Anne of the Island, who, also ditches two men to marry a minster). After marriage, Montgomery indefatigably played the role of the minister's wife, cared for her husband during his frequent depressions, raised children, and wrote and wrote and wrote.

    Montgomery is undoubtedly the Louisa May Alcott of Canada. Anne, the heroine of an eight-novel series, is a more feminine, whimsical equivalent of tomboy Jo. Both are covertly feminist, though they certainly make no speeches about it, and both unfortunately become more boring after marriage: that marks the end of the best adventures of Anne and Jo, though Montgomery and Alcott desperately introduce charming new characters and sometimes tragic situations. Anne is less shy than Jo--she has the gift of gab--and is more socially adroit: she would never accidentally burn someone's hair with the curling tongs, because she would know how to use them. Hair, however, is an issue in both books: Anne has red hair, which is a trial to her, and Jo's one beauty is her hair, which she cuts off to support her father in the Civil War. Different as their personalities are, they both cope with poverty, are extremely strong-willed and competitive, get into scrapes, are high achievers in the workplace, and inhabit a moral but not stuffy atmosphere. Jo is awkward despite her brilliance, but the more sociable Anne brings sunshine to others by genuine curiosity and by coaxing cranky old women, bachelors, "old maids," and troublesome students into surrendering some of their power for the greater good.

    Are the Anne books as good as I remembered them? Yes, in fact , they are: lively, all-ages books. The first novel, Anne of Green Gables chronicles her childhood, when she arrives as an imaginative orphan on Prince Edwards Island, where her new guardians, Marilla and Matthew, are expecting a boy;; Anne of Avonlea describes her experiences as a teacher in a one-room-schoolhouse; Anne of the Island her university years; Anne of Windy Poplars, an epistolary novel, delineates her three years as principal of a high school; and Anne's House of Dreams is the story of her marriage. (I have yet to finish the rest of them,, and I certainly never read all of them in childhood. ) Anne is a role model but she is not a prude: she loves good clothes, organizes a civic improvement society in Avonlea, turns down a proposal from a man who sends his sister to propose by proxy (she is insulted but then she sees the humor), enjoys matchmaking and meddling (even advising elopement on one occasion), and befriends classmates and waifs, at Avonlea's school, a stand-offish schoolteacher, crankly neighbors in Avonlea who eventually become proud of her, college roomates who include an intellectual beauty who prefers to flirt and dither than show off her brains, darling widows who run a boarding house, a lighthouse keeper, and, of course, Mr. Right comes along, more or less in the guise of Jo's Lauriey (WHAT was Jo thinking when she turned him down?)

    There is even a scholarly Norton's edition of Anne of Green Gables, if you don't want to get caught reading Bantams. And you can buy the complete set of Anne books: I believe there are 8, though more if you cound the Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicales of Avonlea.

    She also wrote many other series, including the autobiographical Emly books, with which I am less familiar.

    By the way, the Montgomery conference url is:

    And here is an url to a radio podcast:

    Monday, September 08, 2008

    An Orderly Man

    I was walking through the library, idly gazing at biographies, when Dirk Bogarde's name jumped out at me. I had seen “Despair” (based on Nabokov's novel), when I was a teenager and lacked the concentration to appreciate it. But somehow I knew his name, knew he was a good actor, and wanted to read his memoir.

    In An Orderly Man, which is a sequel to two earlier memoirs, Snakes & Ladders and A Postillion Struck, he documents his life from his late '40s into his '50s. Tired of the hectic life of an actor, he buys a small run-down house in France (which is the frame and organizing concept of the memoir). The house needs extensive renovation. He hires an architect to redesign the house, which the architect explains has been neglected for 500 years. While Bogarde is away finishing a film (he retires only occasionally), the architect and contractors finish the house.

    His account of what happens next is humorus yet despairing. Everything that can go wrong did. The moving truck smashes half his possessions, the pond that he paddles around in turns out to be leaking sewage, and his topsoil was limestone and dust.

    But the lack of electricity is the worst thing.

    “It was August, the middle of the biggest French holiday. Not a hope of finding an electrician, let alone one who knew where the main cable might run. We continued unloading the vans as fast as possible, all thoughts of a refreshing bath banished, no light, and presumably no heat to cook.”

    Of course all that is soon taken care of, and he lives quietly for two years in the well- loved house, working in his garden and entertaining his family. He also begins to think of writing. Amazingly, almost as in 84, Charing Cross Road, he corresponds with a brilliant old woman ( who once lived in his english house, who helps him fill the gaps in his literary education, returns his letters with grammar corrections, and shares his life at a distance.

    The house in France gives him the quiet he needs to write.

    He goes back to work after two years because he needs money. He works on many commercial films, but he also writes about working with Visconti on “A Death in Venice” (he writes about the concentration demanded by his role, but he’s fabulously funny about his co-star, who has been buillied into acting by his grandmother and cares about nothing but motorcycles).

    Then he is very proud of his work on Liliana Caviani’s “The Night Porter,”which sounds agonizing: about an SS man and a non-Jewish woman in a concentrration camp who falls in love with him. Cavani, Bogarde, and his costar, Charlotte Rampling were sued for obscenity in Italy. They won their cases, but this is the kind of art film he tended to be involved with.

    Friday, September 05, 2008


    This morning I read Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy, which is a prequel-sequel to her best-seller 84, Charing Cross Road, and a chatty hybrid memoir which literally tumbled out of a china cupboard (where there are books, not china). It's difficult not to enjoy her first book, the popular 84, Charing Cross, which is a charming collection of letters between Hanff, a New York writer, and the employees of Marks and Co., an antiquarian London bookseller. (Amazon doesn't quite go in for this.) In Q’s Legacy, she describes the events that indirectly led to the writing of her best-seller: after weirdly failing a college scholarship exam by not knowing how to read maps (she was otherwise a stellar student), she discovered by chance the books of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, which she used as a guide to studying literature. She also needed out-of-print books after reading Q: thus began the correspondence with Marks and Co. The Q-based literary background enabled her to win a playwriting contest, move to NY, work in the theater in many capacities, write magazine articles, and eventually meet the witty Asian editor and friend, Gene, who helped her find a publisher (Helene eventually helped Gene pass her U.S. citizenship test). Helene's friends included famous editors, actors, and fans who telephoned her at midnight. It's a very touching, funny book, vaguely reminiscent of Elaine Dundy's writing (Dundy was also a playwright).

    Friday, August 29, 2008

    Midnight's Children

    Blogging once a week is enough for me, I've decided. I've been incredibly listless lately and have deleted one entry after another (this one should be deleted, but I'll leave it here). Before I talk about Rushdie, I want to speak about how much I envy those who can blog every day, amusingly and well. Some bloggers are so witty and perspicacious that I've bought as many books from them (essentially) as I have from bookstores. After reading blogs like, say, dovegreyreaderscribbles, I often thrill to the siren of a good book. I love having a journal of my reading, but it IS easier to list books in a journal (any notebook will do, though I have a Moleskine, as do many of us online ). Scribbling: that’s the underground, pre-blog way to list books

    I'm more than halfway through Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children,, as two of his books were given to me for my birthday and I've chosen to start with this one (winner, 1981, Booker Prize). I only wonder why it’s taken me so long to discover Rushdie This particular incident will perhaps sound silly, but a pompous bookstore owner DID try to prevent me from buying it in the '80s. Sitting behind the counter giving hostile looks to the customers, he said, “Midnight’s Children will mean nothing to you; it means something to me.”

    Well, okay. He allowed me to buy Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. But I should have bought Midnight’s Children from a more stable bookseller: independent bookstores in those days had no competition and were occasionally owned by demented entrepreneurs. I miss the best one, but it's impossible to pretend they were all "cozy" or inspiring or whatever the myth is. I'm sure there are cantankerous booksellers everywhere: in B&N and Borders, too.

    Midnight’s Children is part fairy tale, part David Copperfield ("I was born in the city Bombay...once upon a time...”), the story of midnight-born children on August 15, 1947, the moment of India’s independence. Narrated by Saleem Sinai, a midnight child, the novel brilliantly interweaves the present with the past, depicting the partly-mythological adventures of a family, and on another level, an allegory of the post-Indian political happenings.

    Thursday, August 07, 2008

    The Caravaners

    Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners, a gentle, charming satire, is, indeed, the kind of novel I would have read in 1909, when doubtless I would have been a housemaid pretending to dust the drawing room. The Caravaners is vaguely based on von Arnim’s own experiences as a caravaner, which she embarked on after seeing an advertisement for vans and horses (very like another adverisement, the impulse behind the trip to Italy in Enchanted April). “Pray for fine weather, my child,” she wrote to her daughter. “For if it wet heaven knows what will become of us.” According to Kate Saunders, who wrote the introduction of the 1988 Virago edition, “it was the wettest August on record, and the caravaners spent most of their time shivering over the cauldron of rain-splashed porridge.”

    There is nothing worse than camping in the rain. Those of us who have done it know the misery. But Baron Otto von Ottringe, the narrow-minded narrator, does not put a good face on anything (and after all he has a caravan, not a tent). We see everything through the eyes of this smug, narrow-minded, anti-English Prussian, who has been persuaded to take a caravan trip in England with his young wife, Edelgarde (partially because it is cheap ). On the trip he hates every minute of it (just as he hates England): tramping beside the horse while it pulls the caravan (he had pictured sitting cosily inside), guiding it through narrrow gates (symbolic of his narrowness), rain all the time, begging food from farmers who won’t always sell to them, holding umbrellas over brew pots, sausages that never brown, washing up (which he shirks as women’s work).

    His wife, Edelgarde, on the other hand, blooms. She shortens her dresses and refuses to wait on him. She points out that he can do everything he asks her to do. He cannot understand this rebellion. She relaxes as a result of her liberal companionship: the politically liberal German woman who suggested the trip, her Anglicized German sister, Mrs. Menzies-Legh, who has lived in England for many years, Jellaby, a socialist, and a lord, with whom Otto won’t even talk until he finds out he is “Lord Sigismund’” Otto alienates everyone. He only sees the caravaners as a microcism of his own society, in terms of rank, which he cannot spot in this classless society among the caravaners.

    What a good book! Really a classic of its kinds. And it is set during August...

    Monday, August 04, 2008

    Mansfield Park

    I’m hanging out, sipping lemonade, reading Mansfield Park, a brilliant novel but somehow dull to me, especially after Persuasion. Fanny, the (anti-)heroine, is not unlike Anne in some respects, good, kind, competent, but timid, immature. prim, and without humor. A ward of the Bertram family, Fanny has never felt herself the equal of her female cousins, who intimidate her by referring to her as "stupid," etc.. She is generally overlooked except by Edmund, the second son, meant to be a clergyman.

    Fanny improves as time goes on, but her saintly temperament changes only as a result of jealousy. Mary Crawford, a lively young woman (with bad morals, of course), visits her sister at the parsonage, and Edmund delights in her vivacity. Mary and Henry Crawford, her brother, love to flirt, and within a few weeks Henry has broken the hearts of both Maria and Julia Bertram, and Mary has won Edmund’s heart (with more ambivalence about breaking it). The central scheme of the novel is a “racy” plan for amateur theatrics devised by Mr. Bertram, the hapless, licentious oldest brother (perhaps very like Henry). The play will bring the "lovers" together. Fanny from the start is scandalized, and Edmund, too, tries to discourage his swept-away siblings. But eventually Edmund’s admiration of Mary Crawford clouds his judgment: he cannot allow a stranger from the neighborhood to act as a lover with Mary. Fanny, who is in love with Edmund (who regards her as a younger sister), is very distressed not only by his acting, but by his acting with Mary.

    The return of Sir Thomas stops the play. Henry’s seduction of Maria and Julia also stops: he hastily leaves Mansfield.

    Is theater an evil? Because it allows amateurs to transcend emotional boundaries? Or is it ultimately hurtful because amateurs can't tell the difference between real and acted love?

    Mary Crawford stays behind and Fanny is constantly overwhelmed by her kindness (jealously),

    Not to give away more of the plot, I will instead quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (given at Cornell):

    “Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales. At first sight Jane Austen’s manner and matter may seem to be old-fashioned, stilted, unreal. But this is a delusion to which the bad reader succumbs. The good reader is aware that the quest for real life, real people and so forth is a meaningless process when speaking of books. In a book, the reality of a person, or object, or a circumstance depends exclusively on the world of that particular book. ...The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe. Mansfield Park never existed, and its people never lived.”

    But in his next essay, on Bleak House, he begins.

    “Personally I dislike porcelain and the minor arts, but I have often forced myself to see some bit of precious translucent china through the eyes of an expert and have discovered a vicarious bliss in the process. Let us not forget that there are people who have devoted to Jane all their lives, their ivy-clad lives....”

    I hate it when they go on and on about Jane's miniatures, etc. Comparisons are odious: Austens' books cannot be compared with Dickens's; and I very much dislike this reference to "ivy-clad lives." Nabokov's chapter on Mansfield Park seems dispassionate, but that whole "women's angle" thing is out of place.

    Friday, August 01, 2008

    The Sorrows of an American

    I've found a really good novel by Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American, about which I knew nothing. The narrator, Erik, is a psychiatrist and his sister, Inga, is a philosopher. After their father's death, they go back to Minnesota to clear out their father's papers. The papers trigger and change the narrator's memories, dreams, and responses. "I am lonely," he keeps muttering. He realizes he has been saying it for a long time.

    Everyone in his world is lonely, or alone. He is divorced, his sister is widowed with an only child, his tenant is an artist mother with an only child. Mr. T, a former psychiatric patient, shows up on his street, babbling poetry, in intense pain

    "Chip planters from the other side, channeling me, man, the great dead heads (not grateful, ungrateful), Goethe, Goering, God, Buddha, Bach, Bruno, Houdini, Himmler, Spinoza, St. Theresa. Rasputin. Elvis. Talkin' graves. Chosen from the other side. Nondimensional spaces, texts coming through, beating me hard up there. Mingus. Fear and trembling, trembling, and fear...."

    The patient needs his notebook. He has stopped taking his medicine, because it has made him obese. At the emergency room, the narrator explains that Mr. T needs his notebook. Mr. T is allowed to keep that, but in the psychiatric hospital they don't see him as special and the narrator is grieves over Mr. T's grief.

    Unlike Mr. T, the dangerous former boyfriend of Miranda, the artist-tenant, photographs her all over the city and breaks into Erik's house.

    Miranda does not find this odd. She, an artist, continually makes excuses for the behavior of another artist, a photographer.

    Hustvedt has this exactly right.

    Lots about dreams. A discussion at the dinner table about dreams, interpretation, remembering them, how writers use dreams. The novel sometimes reads like a series of eerie dream sequences.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008


    What does it mean to be a Janeite? Does it mean I can go to the convention as a journalist and interview Janeites for an alternative paper? (The conference is sold out.)

    Austen fans have uniformly good taste and all seem to have a favorite novel. Some argue for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; others for SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; still others for EMMA; others for MANSFIELD PARK. I cannot tell you how many writers have written about MANSFIELD PARK : A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre in IMAGINING CHARACTERS, Nabokov in one of his lectures. No one seems to like MANSFIELD PARK much, so one wonders why they bother.

    This was my year of PERSUASION. I read this as satire, though many read this as a conservative novel reinforcing class and rank.

    Anne Elliott, quiet except for her inner voice, is almost too demure at 27, and is unlikely to marry, having already turned down two proposals. Wentworth, the man she loved, was disapproved of by her family and by Lady Russell, her arbiter of taste; Charles, whom she didn’t love, settled for her sister, Mary. When Captain Wentworth shows up in her life again, he almost sadistically flaunts his preference for another woman. Yet the two are not unaware of each other. We experience Anne's agony personally; we hear Wentworth addressing Anne's weaknesses when he talks to his new love interest, Louisa, obviously still more than a little obsessed with Anne.

    There are so many triangles in PERSUASION, too many to chart. Anne, her brother-in-law, Charles, and Mary, her sister; Anne, Wentworth, and Louisa (Wentworth’s new love interest); Anne, Captain Benwick, and Louisa, etc.. Anne is much in demand for a demure and pale beauty.

    There are also parallels between PERSUASION and other books. Mrs. Smith and Miss Smith in PERSUASION and EMMA (there is even a Smith in MANSFIELD PARk); the trip to Lyme with day trips in other books; etc.

    Have heroes ever been so cranky? Captain Wentworth, Knightley, Darcy, etc.? Love can tame them.

    Anne does learn in the novel. She has compromised in the past, but learns more about asserting herself and flirtation. She is occasionally snobbish, but mostly inwardly mirthful over her father's and sisters' obsession with class (espcieially Mary's inappropriateness: of the sisters, she is the one we like the best). Anne has made mistakes, but is so likable, heroic (the only one not to panic when people get sick), though it doesn't always show on the outside: again, she hangs back, useful in the household, like a maiden aunt, never putting herself forward, a brilliant woman who can read Italian, appreciate music, who knows the social forms, but in the end knows the forms get in everyone's way.