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.