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.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bachelor Girl Lit 101 (written during my "pop" period)

There’s no urine test to prove it, but I AM addicted to an outmoded literary genre. In an age when the press reports an alleged man shortage and pop sociologists document post-30-aged women’s diminishing chances of marrying, I’m urging the revival of what I personally call ‘60s Bachelor Girl Lit (a predecessor of Chick Lit).

In these mostly British novels, all of which were published during the ‘60s, the unmarried heroines get a lot of fun out of life. (Remember fun?) Adventurous, sexy, and refreshingly light-hearted, they generally settle in cities, run with arty crowds even when suck in humdrum jobs, and like men without necessarily wanting to get married.

Why the ‘60s, you may ask. Well, quite simply: hard-working women of the latter-day ‘80s crave entertainment. After a long day’s slaving in the harsh, cruel world, light reading in the bathtub is the ultimate luxury. And the buoyant antics of ‘60s bachelor girls are infinitely more amusing than the alienation of housewives and mistresses described in ‘70s fiction, or the terminally cute befuddlement of post-feminist heroines of the ‘80s (can they get any quirkier?)

A recent rereading of Bachelor Girl Lit evoked fond memories: the exhilarating struggle for self-determination; the solitary highs and lows of single life; the single outsider’s keen perceptions of the compromises and drawbacks of married life.

Most important, however, these wry, funny novels buoy the spirits of single and married women alike.

1. THE EDIBLE WOMAN by Margaret Atwood. Nice girl Marian is engaged to an equally nice young lawyer; her mini-skirted roommate, Ainsley, leads a wild life. When unexpected events trigger Marian’s rebellion, all hell breaks loose. An extremely funny book.

2. CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING by Dorothy Baker. Awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary fellowship for her first novel, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, Baker wrote CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING in 1962. The narrator, Cassandra, disturbed by her twin sister’s engagement, wreaks havoc before coming to terms with “the things that get in your way; the indignities you have to suffer before you’re free to do one simple, personal, necessary thing--like work.”

3. THE L-SHAPED ROOM by Lynne Reid Banks. Pragmatic Jane Graham is respected at her public relations job. A slip-up--an unplanned pregnancy--forces her to examine her life. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she befriends some unconventional Londoners and makes peace with her disapproving father. (Two sequels published in the ‘70s, THE BACKWARD SHADOW and TWO IS LONELY, relate Jane’s further adventures.)

4. THE GREAT OCCASION (in THREE NOVELS) by Isabel Colegate. Attractive Angel listlessly attends a succession of wild parties while secretly pining for a charming homosexual friend; Charlotte falls in love with an artist sight-unseen on the basis of his paintings; and Selina, on whom our hopes are pinned after the others grow disillusioned, remarks, “I think it’s better to be in love with someone you don’t know...Then they themselves don’t play any part of it, loving or not loving you.”

5. THE MILLSTONE by Margaret Drabble. Brainy Rosamund theoretically approves of the sexual revolution, but hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant.

6. A JEST OF GOD by Margaret Laurence. Time is slipping by for 34-year-old Rachel, whose invalid mother dominates her. During a brief, not always happy, love affair, she discovers the importance of taking risks.

7. THE COUNTRY GIRLS TRILOGY AND EPILOGUE by Edna O’Brien. The first two novels in this recently reissued trilogy constitute a lyrical coming-of-age story. Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends, contrive their own expulsion from a convent school and move to Dublin to pursue fun and love. Obrien occasionally overwrites the wispy, romantic parts, but it’s all undoutedly true to women’s literary heritage.

There should be ten here, but I’m missing a page.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Elizabeth Taylor: Hide and Seek

My social circle used to comprise people who read Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, and Elizabeth von Armin. We would roam around at political parties, eating ghastly food and trying to think of something to discuss besides politics. When we discovered similar tastes in literature, we argued for our favorite Elizabeths: Elizabeth Taylor seemed to get the most votes, though her characters always seemed a little too ladylike to me. (How do they get so ladylike?) Elizabeth von Armin’s novels also have their fans, particularly for The Enchanted April. Elizabeth Bowen, with her elegant prose and sometimes dark point of view, appeals most to me, though she's the dark horse.

Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek certainly has its merits (such as being a delight). Her deceptively simple style offsets a complicated narrative about young and middle-aged love. Harriet, the central character, believes she is not good at anything. At 18, she fails her exams and disappoints her mother, a former suffragist whose politics Harriet despises. Harriet falls in love with Vesey, the cynical nephew of her mother's best friend, and Vesey upsets the family (for instance, he takes Caroline's children out to eat meat, which they are not allowed), causing Caroline to make an excuse to send him home to his mother. Because he is only able to get attention by pseudo-sophisitcation, he is willing to hang around in his frivolous mother's boudoir and watch her apply beauty treatments while he cracks cynical jokes. He is eventally sent down from Oxford for the turmoil he causes and for his lackadisical attitude toward work.. Harriet's and Vesey's failure is a bond.

When they meet in their 30s, Harriet ismuch more confident: she has married Charles, a successful businessman and is the mother of an intelligent child who loves Greek; Vesey is a bad actor who works in regional theater, and is still cynical, still charming when he wants to be. Vesey's disruption of the household irritates Charles, furious at the reappearnce Harriet's formerr lover (even if the love was not consummated). One can't help but think it's silly for Harriet and Vesey to become involved, but Harriet has a spark that has been smothered by Charles. On the other hand, Charles and Harriet are very well-suited in conservatism: Charles's has rejected his mother, a former actor, whose dramatic ways still irritate him , just as Harriet disliked her mother's politics.

Charles reads Persuasion, his favorite book, and wonders what marriage is about.

The novel isn’t perfect, however: some of the really interesing characters die, or become cardboard walk-ons: Harriet's mother dies; Caroline, Vesey’s vegetarian aunt dies, the two young children, with whom Harriet and Vesey play Hide and Seek, show up at their mother's funeral in dreary military uniform.

Elizabeth Bowen (yes, my Elizabeth!) reviewed it, “Soberly speaking, however, it is not too much to say that A Game of Hide-and-Seek has something of the lucid delicacies of Persuasion, together with, at moments, more than a touch of the fiery-icy strangeness of Wuthering Heights.”

Thursday, July 24, 2008

One of Our Conquerors by George Meredith

One of Our Conquerors is a very good, if not great, novel, but I closed it thinking, “This is enough Meredith for now.” Meredith writes witty, epigrammatic, baroque English: some will like it, others not. The main issue of the novel is divorce, and it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton's themes, also dealing with hypocrisy and the double standard for women.

In the first chapter, Victor Radner, the Babbit-like businessman and central character, sullies his white waistcoat. Cleaning up the “absurd blots of smutty knuckles” and buying a new waistcoat is easier than defending the sullied reputation of his mistress of 20 years, Nataly, who, blackballed by bores, never finds her place in society. Their daughter, Nesta, who grows up in their bohemian musical circle (Nataly is a former singer), knows nothing of their unmarried relationship. Money can protect Nesta, if not Nataly. Victor blames his first wife, who still bears his name, Radner, for not giving him a divorce. He says she shouldn’t have married him in the first place: she was too old. Divorce is the issue, but so is Victor's hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of society. Two women’s lives have been ruined. Nataly, increasingly worn and sensitive, has almost ceased to love him.

Victor does has a buoyant sense of humor, which makes him likable. He laughs about his waistcoat. “But I am taking it seriously,’ he said, and jerked a dead laugh, while fixing a button of his coat.”

The dead laugh--this sadly is the tone of the whole novel. Every incident follows on Meredith's beautifully planned interwoven path.

We see some of the chapters through Nataly’s and Nesta’s points of view. Meredith understands them very well. They love Victor, but he is too ostentatious for them. They want to live a quieter life.

This is a very worthwhile, and the more I think about it, unconventional novel.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Rector's Daughter

Sometimes it seems that spinsters dominated the women’s literature of the 1920s and 1930s. Viragos particularly published women's classics about the lives of spinsters, while the "gentler" Persephones are often women’s “family” novels. (Not always, though.) Viragos have had a determined spinster slant since their beginning 30 years ago: In 1984 they published an original papterback by Sybil Oldfield, The Spinsters of this Parish, partially about F. M. Mayor.

F. M. Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter (1925) is a spinster lit masterpiece. The women characters are saddish and in part shaped by their environment: Mayor's vivid writing rather Gothically potrays Dedmayne, the damp and moldering village where Mary, chief spinster, has lived her whole life (one of Mary's favorite writers, Trollope, wouldn't have been caught dead in Dedmayne: he preferred less moldy hamlets, preferably peopled by aristocrats). Mary, rather exhaustingly intimidated by her father, has only occasionally left home.

Mayor writes: “Dedmayne is an insignificant village in the Eastern counties...Dedmayne was on the way to nowhere; it was not troubled by motors or bicycles, except native bicycles. The grimy “Blue Boar” did not induce any one to stop for tea. Artists and weekend Londoners wanted something picturesque....”

The village is not picturesque; neither is Mary. She prefers winter to any other season. She doesn't like the hyperbole of flowers. Rain and black trees suit her best. She has no outlet for her energy. After her mentally iill sister, Ruth, is released from an asylum, Mary cares for her until she dies of a stroke. Her father doesn't grieve. The servants love and coddle Mary.

Mary is not a desperate character: after Ruth's death, she travels with an aunt and stays at a boarding school where the women conspire to help her change her appearance and hope she’ll catch a man. Mary doesn’t mind dowdy clothes and unfortunately the only man in the boarding house doesn’t consider proposing to her (though she doesn’t particularly like him and he has been rejected by all other female society there).

Her friends begin to reappear in her life,. This is not a drab, hopeless book. Mayor is not too serious--she writes with humor of a woman whose life “went round in its accustomed round; Advent Sunday, Carols, the Christmas treat, Ash Wednesday, and a hope that people will come to Church this Lent (never realized);...summer treats; garden- and tennis-parties....”

The novel is not without a love interest. But when Mary is invited to mix with the upper class, a small tragedy happens. Her relationships are unbalanced. Horse-and-hunt women with nicknames like "Jim-Jam" turn her world upside down. Kathy, a beautiful woman who doesn't notice Mary, particularly hurts her.

There is much more to this than plot, of course. Mayor's direct narrative does not get lost in sentiment. This is a startling book, never softening Mary's difficulties, and the character, unlike Barbara Pym's single women, is penniless. That of course makes all the difference. Without money, how can these women live? Pym's women can work.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell

I read a little today: 100 pages or so of Wives and Daughters, which I’m reading for a book group (and as usual I’m behind.) This is one of those forgotten novels--forgotten by me anyway--which have been revived by feminist critics in recent years. (I myself first read it as a graduate student, after reading Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte.) Wives and Daughters is a rich example of her work, almost contemporary in its understated style, and is generally regarded as her masterpiece, Gaskell's style is quiet but intense, not unlike her friend Bronte's style in Villette (another masterpiece). Each character and episode is delineated skillfully, especially the character of Molly Gibson, whose life is sketched childhood to womanhood. Molly, a doctor’s daughter, is quiet, yet emotional and spirited, strongly bound to her father, and imbued with a sense of rightt.. She makes friends mainly among older people, because ther are no young ones in the neighborhood. Her father's marriage to a (slutty) former governess breaks up Molly's home: old servants are dismissed; she prevents Molly from visiting an old friend merely for the sake of stopping her; and she cares only about fashion and a posh social life (she wants to make Molly drop her old friends). Gaskell contrasts Molly with her new stepsister, the beautiful Cynthia, who doesn't stick strictly to the truth herself, doesn't care about people admiring her beauty (they've always done that),and informs Molly repeatedly that she'll never "be good." Yet the two amuse each other greatly: Molly has never known anyone like this.

By the way, we're reading Gaskell in this book group:

In his 1866 review of Wives and Daughters , Henry James wrote: "The book is very long and of an interest so quiet that not a few readers will be sure to vote it dull....The reader will be tempted to lay down the book and ask himself of what possible concern to him are the clean frocks and the French lessons of little Molly Gibson. But if he will have patience awhile he will see.”

Henry, I loved the details.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


It’s very difficult to keep a daily reading journal, the kind of thing I used to ask my students to do in a “Writing about Literature” class. My students didn’t know what a reading journal was. Neither did I. But they'd scribble about Heart of Darkness or P. G. Wodehouse or whatever they were reading and I’d write about what I was reading and occasionally we’d read bits aloud. They’d groan when I read mine: “Not E.M.. Forster again.” But I was reading about E. M. Forster and, believe me, they learned about him

I've been drinking a lot of iced tea lately. I mean a lot. It is very hot here and there's a constant struggle about whether to keep the air conditioner on. So I've been reading Angela Thirkell.

She was the granddaughter of Burne-Jones, and made her living as a writer from the age of 30 on. Her novels are witty in a somewhat subdued goofy way (though this might offend class-conscious people: her people are snobs, but the humor makes them occupy their own little world: nothing like any world I know). Angela Thirkell's What Did It Mean? made me laugh so hard I forget about the humidity. No one reads her anymore except for members of the Angela Thirkell Society. Go to their web site and learn all about her books.

George Meredith’s One of Our Conquerors is temporarily on hiatus: the yellow pages in the 1914 edition crumble in my hands. One of Our Conquerors is, however, available in some new paperbacks( published by (Kessinger or BiblioBazaar) and I have ordered a new copy. (This also might be available online, but I haven't looked.)

In the meantime I’m beginning Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge. The Persephone web site say it’s being reprinted so I feel incredibly lucky to have a copy. The Saturday Review i in 1933 said it was not "a beach companion" but “a book to be read and relished in an armchair at home.” So those of us who don't go to the beach much won't feel intimidated.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

One of Our Conquerors, Pomfrey Towers, and Time after Time

What do you read in the heat? (A) mysteries, (B) classics, (C) non-fiction, (D) Other?

Where do your read it? (A) on a chaise longue wearing earplugs to keep out the lawnmower noises, (B) sprawling in a comfortable chair with a fan overhead, (C) at the office between checking e-mail, (D) ) Other?

As for myself:

1. As promised, I have read a mystery, Time and Time Again, by B. M. Gill. Narrated by an upper-class accountant who has spent 18 months in prison for throwing a rock at a policeman during an anti-nuke demonstration, she cannot fit into conventional society (people keep telling her she had a cushy time in prison) and secretly hangs out with a shoplifter she met in prison.

2. Angela Thirkell’s Pomfret Towers (Thirkell writes humor books, somewhere between A Provincial Lady and P. G. Wodehouse).

3. George Meredith’s One of Our Conquerors, much superior to Beauchamp’s Career. The “revised” edition, published in 1914 by Constable & Company, is, unfortunately, a little crumbly with some uncut pages. (Those rip easily, regrettably). I highly recommend this book, if you can get a copy. It’s rather Edith Whartonish, reminding me very much of The Custom of the Country.

The contingency of the novel lies in the relationship of Victor Radner to Nataly, a woman he has lived with for 20 years. His first wife, a much older woman, introduced him to Nataly when she was her companion. The first Mrs. Radner has never gotten over her grief over the elopement and has maliciously refused a divorce, Victor, a cheerful Babbilt who is satisifed with money l, is relatively unharmed by the gossip, but society is harder on women, as Nataly knows. And so they have moved from place to place, shunned as soon as society finds out their position.

The Radners and their daughter, Nesta, attract friends through their music. There is a huge cast of diverse characters who attend the concerts at the Radners’ house: Meredith wittily contrasts teetotalers with oinophiles, etc. His has suitors: Radner hopes to marry her to a lord or some bigwig because he tells them she will have $10,000 a year settled on her.

Victor builds an enormous house of which his wife and daughter are ashamed, and we learn as much about him through their dialogue and thouhts as we do through Victor's escapades (Meredith also does this in Beauchamp's Career).

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Political Novel

George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career is an odd, confused jumble of a book. Some believe this is the best political novel of its kind, but I can’t pretend I like it as much as Phineas Finn. Beauchamp's Career is about not only politics but love, and how one affects the other--love and politics, money and marriage. Meredith's Beauchamp, inspired by the historical character, Frederick Maxse, a radical who ran for election in Southampton in 1868, becomes a radical candidate and canvasses from door to door among the poor, hoping to trigger a revolution. The first 80 pages, however, are devoted to the theme of love. Beauchamp is not a mercenary: he has a platonic affair with a young French girl, who is engaged to an older man. At one point Beauchamp obstinately tries to carry her away against her will on a yacht. This extremism is characteristic of Beauchamps in politics as well, and soon he is defined to us not just as a radical but as appallingly domineering in his relationships with women.

Beauchamps decides to become a candidate because, after studying the radical pamphlets and speeches of his friend Dr. Shrapnel, he believes that he can equalize the fortunes of English society. Maxse, Meredith's model for Beachamps, wrote. ' ..I found that a number of Britons were slaves, slaves for artificial oppressive circumstances, for the maintenance of which the governing classes stood, in my eyes, responsible," and this pretty much sums up Beauchamp's campaign. Beauchamp's political career hinders his financial prospects with his aristocratic uncle, who not only cuts off money, but furiously sends a catty nephew to oppose Beachchamp in the election. Beauchamp's candidacy, in fact, threatens all society.

Politics are important, but love and money are more so. “I must have money. I must have money,” he says, forever worrying about starting a radical journal. When Beauchamp’s uncle turns against him, he decides he must marry an heiress. Cecilia Halkett, brilliant and impressionable, would marry him, but her father, the Colonel, understands that Beauchamps wants her inheritance to start a radical journal. Cecelia, too, notices this, but it doesn’t seem offensive to her. She’s not a rebel: she, like Renee, is a “good girl,” who will do nothing without her father's approval. Jenny, the pragmatic niece of Shrapnel, is fatherless and skeptical about radicalism: she has no money, so she is not a candidate for wifedom. But all three women play as important parts: we see Beauchamp more clearly through their eyes.

Margaret Harris writes in the intro to the 1988 Oxford World Classics: “Women are denied writes, and even needs. Cecilia suffers, grievously; but her position socially and economically is a privileged one, and she has the means partly to salve her hurt by putting to sea. By contrast, for Jenny Denham...male dominance is compounded by her material dependence. However, she has a resilience and self-sufficiency..."

The book is fairly enjoyable, in a kind of messy way, but If you want to read Meredith, you’re far better off reading The Egoist or Diana of the Crossways.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Haggard Summer

I'm reading King Solomon’s Mines (1886), an adventure novel by H. Rider Haggard.

Haggard, who lived in Africa for six years, wrote 34 adventure novels. His fans included Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling and Orwell. The influence of Treasure Island on King Solomon’s Mines is unmistakable and Haggard genially admitted it: both novels center on a treasure map and describe adventurers who attempt to decode it. The characters in King Solomon’s Mines, however, are nobler and more idealistic. Allan Quatermain, KSM's 50-year-old ex-elephand-hunter narrator, Charles Good, and Sir Henry travel n search of ir Henry’s brother, who was last seen traveling in search of the legendary diamonds of King Solomon's Mines. Wwith the help of a map from a dying treasure hunter, the three travel across Afica. The geography--crossing the desert without water and climbing freezing mountains, in which the streams run south to north--is their primary enemy until they reach a Zulu city.

Obviously there is more to follow.

By the way, Haggard's masterpiece, SHE , has three sequels. If you want to read any of Haggard's books online,, they're free at various web sites.. But you can also buy the books in paper and print style....

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Kind of a Summer Thing

You really need to get out of the house in this heat and spend at least part of the day in air conditioning. Mad Housewife does this. First, she loads her almost-messenger bag with easy reading for coffeehouses. Then she takes off on her city bike. It squeaks. The tires rub. She can’t fix it. But she continues bravely.

In the fabulous coffeehouse she orders a cold drink (mocha fabucchino or something) and chooses what to read, taking books out of her bookbag.


1. The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger. She's been meaning to read this forever.

2. Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. The witty repartee flies back and forth in these humorous romances between libertines and witty George Meredith heroines. Who hasn’t laughed over these?

3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Mad Housewife is a fan of She, one of the best adventure/romances of all time. Haggard, who lived in Africa for many years, said, “The thing must have heart; mere adventures are not enough. I can turn these out by the peck.” It’s a Dover. You can read it in public. Mine is a triple-pack, She, Allan Quatermain, and King Solomon’s Mines.

4. Any mystery. It doesn't matter. Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, Arthur Conan Doyle...

Meanwhile, you notice that everybody at the coffeehouse is on laptops doing mysterious things. Perhaps they’re writers; perhaps they’re students; perhaps they’re mad housewives reading King Solomon’s Mines online. It’s kind of a summer thing.

Monday, July 07, 2008


As you may have noticed, I read mainly older novels. I spent many years happily reading Philip Roth, Ann Beattie, Antonya Nelson, and the late Ray Carver. But lately I have had bad luck with contemporary fiction, such bad luck that I've considered turning to biogaphies, and have one biography on my coffee table as I write this, about Evelyn Nesbit, though I have no idea who she was .

My cross-off list: I didn’t care for Peter Carey’s latest; Jim Crace’s futuristic trashed world was too horrifying and real (he can create a world); and Ethan Canin’s book simply floored me. How could I hate so innocuous a novel? See my post:

Fae Mayenne Ng’s STEER TOWARD ROCK is pretty good, though. Ng, a Chinese American born in San Francisco and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award in 1994, does not write much but what she writes is perfect.. STEER TOWARD ROCK,, her second novel, delicately integrates voice, identity, and place, making that integration almost the subject, and certainly the foundation of the novel. Her characters, like beautiful Origami figures, are shaped by her poetic prose and confident swirl of voices.

The main character is Jack Sveto, a butcher who “was sold to a (Chinese-American) woman who couldn’t have babies. The village was so small, its name was a number.”

And that is part of the sadness of this narrative: the numbers instead of names, the use of false names for illegal aliens. The characters are Chinese illegal aliens (like Jack), immigrants, and Chinese-Americans raised in San Francisco's Chinatown. Stories become confused. Stories and lies become truth. There is also a complicated Chinese belief about holding back part to the story. Even the younger generation is confused about identity.

Jack falls in love with a woman who won’t love him back. He gets her pregnant; she runs away. She is a Chinese-American with her real nane, She cannot imagine Jack's life.

“I first saw Joice Qwan at King Duck’s Noodle House. Mankok and I were running a hand truck of butchered pigs to the Four Seas and as we passed, there she was, sitting at my favorite windows, so I couldn’t see her face well. I was drawn to the way she held her bowl, a thumb on the top rim and four fingers underneath, so that the heavy restaurant bowl seemed cradled in her hand. “

Jocie is wild: a woman of the ‘60s. Jack is forced by Gold Sveto, his “fake father” (who extracts payment from Jack periodically) to bring over a pseudo-wife from China in Jack's name, so Gold can replace his infertile wife. IIronically, Ilin is infertile, too. But she has her own life, and learns to be a butcher.

Fertility and infertility are recurring themes in this novel. Jack’s daughter also struggles with story and backstory and family and choices.

There are a few problems with changing narrators. Ilin suddenly takes over a chapter. Who the hell? thinks. But voice is only one issue here, and we're soon swept away by the writing.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Poor Caroline

While brooding on the question of what to read next, I turned to Winifred Holtby, my favorite inter-war novelist, whose name lives on here mainly because of Vera Brittain’s sutobiography TESTAMENT OF FRIENDSHIIP. Holtby is one of the greatest satirists of the '20s and '30s--a brilliant feminist who lectured on pacifism, worked for the League of Nations, and still found time to write novels.

POOR CAROLINE is Holtby’s best book. It was also her first best-selling novel. In Geoge Davidson’s introduction to the Virago edition he mentions that in 1931 POOR CAROLINE was “hailed as the wittiest novel of the season.”

This is spinster lit at its best. (If you read enough Virago and Persephone classics, you’ll recognize the elements.) Caroline, an evangelical, imaginative spinster, has ,at 72, been abandoned by her relatives. She lives in poverty, but refuses to acknowledge the sadness of her plain rented room, nor does she let poverty impede her activites. She has founded the Christian Cinema Company, an institution devoted to the making of Christian, anti-Hollywood film. At her insistence she has assembled (maybe captured is a better word) an incongruous board of directors: a penniless, indolent aristicrat, a Jewish antique enthusiast who needs a connection to get his son into Eton, an inventor who works with "talkie" films, and a con-man who pretends to write screenplays. Caroline ignores the politics. She expects not only to clean up the cinema for Christians, but to make millions. One has to laugh at her big dreams and imagination, but at the same time it is sad, and sometimes very irritating. She goes off the deep end when making plans, gets starry-eyed over a curate, chats to journalists in such a hysterical manner that they ignore her. And, worst, she doesn’t properly appreciate Eleanor, the feminist, scientifc, loyal niece from South Africa who, by contributing money to the bankrupt film company, helps Caroline retain her fantasies.

Caroline's relatives in the chorus at the beginning laugh after the funeral at Caroline . “But, my dears, the Will. Do you know, she left 500 pounds each to Betty and me, and eight thousand to her dear friend and kinswoman, Eleanor de la Roux, and twenty thousand--yes, twoenty-thousand, to the Rev. Roger Mortimer...Just think of it--she must have been a little bit potty, wasn’t she, Mums, dying in an imfirmary at seventy-two and making a will like that leaving thousands of pounds, that she hadn’t got, to people she hardly knew?"

Well, that's Caroline. And, although she is absurd, one can't help disliking her relatives for not helping her. And one can see that Holtby compares Caroline and Eleanor--two generations with different opportunities for women.

Friday, July 04, 2008

David Copperfield

On bicycle breaks, I’m still fishing out DAVID COPPERFIELD from my panniers, slowly making progress, loving the characters and comedic genius, wondering why I'm so slow (300 pages to go). Only Dickens in the nineteenth century could write Shakespearean comedy. The language of the first-person narration is outrageously good (David's sketches of the bizarre characters he meets are hyperbolic, but also affectionate).

The cast of characters include: Peggotty, the devoted servant who throws her apron over her head when she laughs; Mr. Peggotty , Ham Peggotty, Little Em'ly, and the gloomy Mrs. Gummidge, who live in a boat on the beach in Yarmouth; Mr. Murdstone, David’s cruel stepfather, who, in Peggotty's view, drives David's mother to her death; wily Uriah Heep, who schemes to take over his patron's law office; Aunt Betsey Trotwood, David’s guardian, who hates donkeys and rushes several times a day to drive them off her property; and Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, a genteel if ridiculous couple who are always in debt.

Here's an example of Dickens' Micawber's witty advice to David when he boards with them: "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

One can read Dickens all year round, and perhaps that's why I'm savoring it. BLEAK HOUSE is almost everyone's favorite: Harold Bloom wrote about it in GREAT BOOKS, and Nabokov wrote about it in NABOKOV'S ENGLISH LECTURES. There's something shivery about the description of the fog and Chancery Court; something humorous and touching all at once about Esther Summerson's 1st perseon narrative (her background is Jane Eyre plus feminine David Copperfield).

The character Desmond on LOST, the T.V. show, has read all of Dickens except one, which he carries in a plastic bag (I'm not sure what he's saving, though someone told me it was OUR MUTUAL FRIEND).

I haven't read PICKWICK PAPERS.

Here's an excerpt from Nick Hornby on DAVID COPPERFIELD (from THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE, a great book):

"For the first time since I've been writing this column, the completion of a book has left me feeling bereft: I miss them all. Let's face it: You're usually just happy as hell to have chalked another one up on the board, but this last month I've been living in this hyperreal world, full of memorable, brilliantly eccentric people, and laughs (I hope you know how funny Dickens is), and proper bendy stories you want to follow."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Just in Time for the 4th of July

Ethan Canin’s AMERICA AMERICA is, well, a beach book. Why not be honest about it? Ron Charles in the Wash Post compared it to ALL THE KING’S MEN so I rushed out and bought it. Was that neccessary? No. I’d give you mine if you wanted it, but I've given it away to charity.

AMERICA AMERICA is about Democratic presidential politics and patronage, primaries and caucuses in 1972, as recalled by Corey Sifter, a pretty sentimental newspaper editor who as a teenager worked for "Bonwiller," a Teddy Kennedyish senator and presidential candidate. Corey's employer, Metarey, an industrialist/old money/ inluential Bonwiller Democrat, hires him as a driver and then impulsively decides to tuition for him to attend his old boarding school.,

This causes no conflict in his family. Oh my God, I thought. Not a boarding school. Am I in JANE EYRE or DAVID COPPERFIELD? Then there’s an Ivy League college. Yes, the tuition is paid here, too. What’s going on? For Christ’s sake, couldn’t the plumber’s son work for the senator without compromising his values? Did he have to be bribed? Why not go to public schools and state colleges?

Could anything be less hip than this book? It’s safe; that’s the best thing I can say about it. Nothing to offend; nothing unless you’re bored with the upper-class thing. A typical (if I may say so) book by a Writers Workshop professor. It’s polished, it’s traditional. John Updike reviewed it in The New Yorker. you can carry it around without feeling ashamed. Snobs will say it's all right.

Now on a good note: Canin is an M.D. and a writer. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it, that he’s gone from medicine to a professorial job at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop?

Anyway...look at the library before you invest...

Tuesday, July 01, 2008


I'm betwixt and between books and suddenly, pathetically, have too many books going at once. Have you seen those blogs where about 100 books at once are pictured in the sidebar? And you're wondering naively how the bloggers have time? Well, here are some recommendations for ditherers, some gleaned from boards, but most from my own library:

1. Something contemporary? I've begun AMERICA AMERICA by Ethan Canin, whose smooth, elegant writing makes contemporary fiction almost worthwhile. But (bad portent) I have begun a few contemporary novels lately and abandoned them. Essentially the world I know has nothing to do with any situation described in the 21st century novel. Here are some problems: (a) I am not rich, b) I do not live nor ever have lived in Manhattan, c) I am not a cocaine addict, d) did not graduate from a prep school ( we lived in small towns and crappy cities; at our schools we drank wine in borrowed science class beakersr; we only made about $10,000 a year at our refined liberal arts graduate jobs and slightly more at low-caste paralegal jobs, etc.).’s not that I’m seeking MY world particularly, but I’m irritated by the dominance of the upper-class Ivy (Icy?)-league writers..

2. Try something Victorian, something vaguely reformist. Maybe George Eliot.

3. Daniel Defoe. JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS looks like post-apocalyptic science fiction.

4. CLAUDIUS THE GOD, a pretty good sequel to I, CLAUDIUS.

5. Nothing about curates, rectors, priests, etc. for a little while. There's been a little too much Mrs. Oliphant around lately.

If anyone has any suggestions, please comment.