Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Show or Tell

On the recommendation of friends and graduates of writing programs, I finally broke down and read Louis Menand’s “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing be Taught?” (The New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2009). This long, evasive essay about the pros and cons of writing programs, inspired by Mark McGurl’s new book The Program Era (Harvard $35), reaches no very dramatic conclusion; I wanted to say: "Come on! Should they be praised or abolished?" Menand outlines a brief history of creative writing programs, describes evolving styles from minimalism to maximalism, and quotes antithetical philosophies of teaching from various programs. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop maintains that “writing cannot be taught but can be encouraged,” while John Barth at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars once wrote a long essay for The New York Times Book Review asserting that it definitely can be taught, though “Not even in America can one major in Towering Literary Artistry.”

So where is the controversy? Obviously we’re not talking about fly-by-night colleges but the famous and established. Menand says that the earliest creative writing programs were the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury, founded in the 1920s, and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, followed by the Johns Hopkins Seminars and Stanford writing fellowships in 1947. By 1975 there were 15 programs. Today there are 153. Writers earn MFAs in writing and artists in art. What’s the big deal?

As a townie who grew up in a university town known for a creative writing program, I was proud but took the program for granted. Famous writers like John Cheever and Stephen Spender swooped in to give readings: didn’t that happen everywhere? (I didn’t realize until I moved away that it didn’t.) I was more entranced by a group of experimental Workshop graduates and anti-Workshop dissidents who published small journals and encouraged performance art-community-based writing projects. I still marvel at Dr. Alphabet’s poem around the block, written on a huge white roll of paper pasted to buildings around one city block. And then there was Chuck Miller, an anti-academic-workshop former student (perhaps MFA) who wrote beautiful, innovative poetry but preferred to stay under the radar.

Workshop methods have infiltrated every creative writing class in the nation. You write a story or poem - you make enough copies for every member of your class - and then you sit back and listen to the criticism - not allowed to say a word. If you have a good teacher, the criticism is constructive. If you’re in a competitive MFA workshop, I've heard it can get ugly.

There are also private writers’ groups and workshops throughout the country.

Non-degree summer writers’ conferences, not mentioned by Menand, are enormous money-makers for universities: The summer conferences are haunted by would-be writers who in real life are teachers, dancers, doctors, journalists, actors, clerks, waitresses, and every other profession. They submit their work in advance and pay a fee for a nice quiet week’s or two-week’s writing and socializing with people in their workshop. Some end up publishing : Katrina Kittle and Tim Cockey are two I’ve heard of.

Menand ends his essay by saying workshops work. He took a class in college and loved it. He writes:

“I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem - which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative writing class. But I’m sure the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Nice save, Menand! But the essay was a waste of time, as far as I'm concerned. I've heard these issues debated all my life, and when it comes right down to it, degrees in writing are no more unusual than in other liberal arts . English, history, languages, drama, music: all condemned as worthless by the philistines and precious to me. Every M.A. program has its twists and scandals: thank God most of us survive.

The photo above is of Marilynne Robinson and Frank Conroy with a class at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Uncharted Places

What do you read after Nora Johnson's The World of Henry Orient? I like to binge-read authors, so I riffled through the shelves for her Uncharted Places, which I bought at a book sale a few years ago. What a peculiar book this is!  The Nora Johnson of 1988 is completely different from the Johnson of 1958. Part literary novel, part beach book, Uncharted Places is a fascinating mess, unrealistic and uneven, yet compelling and entertaining. At first I thought I was reading a comic masterpiece about marriage by an American Penelope Mortimer, with just a hint of Sue Kauffman and Lisa Alther thrown in. But then the whole thing goes Erica Jong on me - eroticism and Haitian voodoo - it falls completely apart, but I couldn’t stop reading - and then the narrative adheres again - ironic and satiric, literary and fast-paced.

When I told my husband the incredible plot, he said, “Where do you get this shit?”

Well, but it’s fun.

It starts in medias res on a tropical island, where Dinah and Willy have fled from New York to survive the demise of Willy’s medical career and his nervous breakdown. It’s hot and flamboyant and gorgeous, but they’re unhappy in their idyll, burdened by too much leisure, surrounded by other expat failures they don’t want to know.

Dinah muses:

"I hate it when Willy lies, even when it’s for my benefit. He’d like me to think he’s happier here than he was before in his high-powered life. But I know him too well. He thrived on the work, the breakneck pace of hospital life, the bizarre complexities of the medical establishment. Nothing put him in better spirits than another intramural shake-up; never was he better than with a group of dewy-eyed residents. In situations that would wilt other men, Willy grew more alive, more potent, brave and cheerful. Power made him magnificent."

The early chapters are alternately narrated by Dinah and Willy - eventually it’s more Dinah. We return to the beginning of their relationship in the 70s. Dinah surfaces in New York, an amnesiac who remembers nothing about her earlier life, a waif with bruises and cuts, assessed by the police as an abused wife. The doctors at the hospital decide she’s not crazy and release her into the world with no survival skills. At first Dinah is pressured to room with her doctor’s mistress, Chrissie, so she can provide a “cover” when Chrissie’s parents call (she says Chrissie is at Bloomingdales). Later, so lonely that she is a walking victim, Dinah is seduced and virtually imprisoned by white-haired Sally, a scheming, insane, successful lesbian writer of sensational non-fiction, who is determined to make her fortune through a book about Dinah’s amnesia and recovery. (One of Sally’s masterpieces is a book about the Kennedy women murdering Marilyn Monroe.) With a $50,000 book advance, Sally is furious that Dinah recovers no memories, and forces her to go to the police station to read the crazy responses sent therein to an AP article about Dinah. Sally finds Dinah's interviews with sad people and nuts searching for their relatives funny; Dinah finds them poignant. Eventually, the disgusted Dinah runs away, threatened by Sally at gunpoint. Later in the book, when they are reunited for a short time, Sally chases her naked through a motel with a knife, infuriated that another book has been published on an amnesiac and she has to return the advance. Actually these scenes are so horrific they’re funny (and are intended to be).

Then marriage: Willy, an alpha doctor/world-famous hand surgeon, adores Dinah because she has no memories and “no baggage.” She becomes the perfect housewife and stepmother of his two children and mother of a son: he believes no other man in the ball-busting ‘70s has such a dutiful wife. But Dinah is more original and free than he thinks: she becomes friends with his ex-wife, Liz, who briefly went insane during the marriage, and reunites Liz with her kids; she inspires Liz to start a business, Finders-Keepers, which brings together people who have lost each other, others who are seeking substitute mothers, brothers, sisters, and ready-made friends. Dinah’s ex-husband shows up at Finders Keepers. Needless to say, Willy can’t handle any of this. And when Dinah and Liz becomes involved in voodoo ceremony with Dinah’s Haitian housekeeper, they are arrested, and the papers have a field day with the story of two wives of a doctor in voodoo.

So you see why it sounds crazy.

I enjoyed it. I hope I can find something good by Nora Johnson. There’s very little about her online: if anyone can recommend any of her other books, I’d appreciate it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Tempest

Every summer there’s Shakespeare in the park, the amphitheater, or some other venue: bugs, picnic baskets, collapsible lawn chairs, and a play.

But, unadventurous as it may seem, I prefer Shakespeare indoors. Today we saw The Tempest at The Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota - a beautiful university town on the Mississippi - a stunning production (indoors), with a minimalist but very effective set with revolving platforms, with the Spirits doing the grunt work of turning the platforms between scenes. Ariel (Tarah Flanagan) perched acrobatically on a metal tower/tomato cage/jungle gym, striking in her absurd punky blond wig and bodysuit/leotard (she had no breaks: she was there at the beginning of the intermission and again when we came back). The spirits wore the same body suits and climbed, cavorted, and sang. Caliban (Christopher Gerson), who gave a fantastic performance, raged, growled, snorted like a pig, crawled, jumped, and somehow flexed his shoulder blades so they looked like humps. Were there some kind of falsies attached to his shoulder blades? We couldn’t tell for sure. In the second act this looked more normal, and we began to think he was just REALLY WELL BUILT (he was extremely muscular, and maybe he can point up his shoulder blades like that.). The goddesses were enchanting. In beautiful white gowns with long trains, they climbed the jungle gym, sang, one played the flute, and their gowns wafted down to the ground. It was magical, dreamy, and gorgeous. The romance between Miranda (Nicole Rodenburg) and Ferdinand (Nick Demeris) was charming and comical, with Miranda proposing marriage and then shaking hands, naive and thrilled at discovering "the brave new world" of men. Prospero (Jonathan Gillard Daly), is serious, majestic, and not overdone, the perfect island ruler, sorceror, stern father, and friend of the spirits.

A very hard-working, consistent, strong Shakespeare company.

Afterwards I bought Will by Christopher Rush (a novel). I have to support the Shakespeare industry: last time it was Will in the World (a biography) - much speculation - everybody loves it except me.

The painting above is The Tempest by James Henry Nixon.

A perfect day! Windy, sunny, and a picnic by a blue lake.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The World of Henry Orient

Nora Johnson’s 1958 classic, The World of Henry Orient, is a charming comedy of the kind often rediscovered by NYRB, Overlook Books, Virago, or The Bloomsbury Group. The good news: it’s in print, reissued by Green Mansions Press. More good news: the Peter Sellers movie, co-written by Johnson with her father, Nunnally Johnson, is available from Netflix. The bad news: the novel is now billed as YA, which severely limits the audience.

The World of Henry Orient surely isn't meant to be just a YA novel: its quirky characters, situation, and wryly humorous narration are designed to appeal to adults more than to children. Johnson chronicles the rebellion of two nonconformist 13-year-old girls at a progressive girls’ school in Manhattan, where “the 8s” (eighth graders) are obsessed with a meaningless, sadistic game called Prison Ball, which involves hitting people hard with a ball and then sending them to “prison.”

The Norton School, and even Prison Ball, is a microcosm of upper-class society. The wide range of eccentric characters include: Marian, the deadpan narrator, who “suffered through each day (at school) like a prisoner filling out a jail sentence” and lives in an unfashionable neighborhood with her laid-back pre-hippie-era divorced mother and their housemate, Boothy, a wisecracking divorcee. Life changes for Marian after she meets “the utterly unpredictable” Val, a piano-playing genius abandoned by her rich parents, who rooms with an abstract sculptor and his wife, Emma, who loves Val, tolerates her mood swings, and reads Freud and Adler to understand her.

Val is an impish extrovert who daily sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Braintree: whether or not she needs one is a source of controversy at the heart of the novel. Val’s exuberant humor and imagination bring the friendless Marian out of her shell. Soon they are exploring parts of New York Marian has never dreamed of.

We had nothing to do with the rest of the Norton girls, nor they with us. Their week end adventures paled beside ours. All they had done was to go to a dance with burping Trinity boys, while we had made friends with a tramp in Morningside Park who turned out to be a frustrated oboe player, had tea with two pansy friends of Val’s who ran a lampshade shop, seen a Chinese movie on the Bowery, taught a group of children in a playground to play prison ball, or spent an afternoon in one of the booths t Liberty’s playing records, aided by the obliging salesman. The city turned out to have unheard-of depths, and we plumbed all that our age and circumstances permitted.

Eventually they embark on their most daring adventure: after Val falls madly in love with the pianist Henry Orient, she and Marion stalk him (in an innocent teenage kind of way), cut out magazine and newspaper reviews and gossip about him, memorize data, and know where he will be every minute of the day. The crisis occurs when Val’s mother moves into a fancy hotel for a month and encourages her daughter to become a deb. As Val loses her spark and begins to conform/"grow up,” Marian desperately creates a last adventure centering on Henry Orient.

The Freudian Dr. Braintree, Val's mother's staunch ally, is the enemy: her idea of adjustment conflicts with Val's genius. Marian's creative mother and Boothy understand what is happening, and explain to Marian that you can't help anyone else.

And we sense that Marian has no choice but to change, too.

Really a good book! And I have another of Johnson's novels to read.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Ruth Suckow

You know it’s the hottest summer of your life when you don't bother to shave your legs. When you go out on your bicycle, flecks of mud and bugs stick to your sunblock, and the floppy capris cover 3/4 of your legs anyway. The construction worker directing traffic respectfully calls you “Ma’am” as you weave between bulldozers. (You've been wasting your time shaving your legs.) In shimmering 95-degree heat, you bike to the air-conditioned public library (the computerized library telephone voice has threatened to send a posse to collect your overdue books). When you reach the library, you guzzle half a bottle of water, hurry inside dripping with sweat, check out more Ruth Suckow books, and pay a $23 fine. Did you know they take Mastercard and Visa?

I checked out The Odyssey of a Nice Girl (1925) and Carry-Over (1936), which is an omnibus that contains two novels, Country People (1924) and The Bonney Family (1928), as well as some short stories. This fiction is as slow as molasses, but Suckow's plain style matches the simplicity of the middle-class midwesterners whose lives centered on church and neighborliness almost 100 years ago. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, where her father was pastor of the Congregational church, Suckow studied in Grinnell, Boston, and Denver, where she earned her M.A. in English, and returned to Cedar Falls to get married (eventually she and her husband moved to California). She chronicles women's work and social lives, the extremes of midwestern weather, pioneer history, and the holidays that mark the changing of the seasons.

I’m halfway through New Hope, which is supposed to be a portrait of Hawarden, and am enjoying Suckow's descriptions of small-town life. Nobody knows this - but I once went to a taffy pull. And I have attended various Pioneer Days festivals and church suppers, all in the line of New Hope. Suckow’s characters' social lives revolve around the church, and she describes in detail their preparations for a Thanksgiving festival, the Christmas-service and gift-giving in the Primary Room, choir practice and fudge-making at the Millers, kaffeeklatsches, cooking big suppers, and the Miller girls' flirtations and rendezvous, which often take place at church. Bess, the oldest daughter, gets engaged at Christmas, but slyly waits till Easter to announce it by wearing her diamond ring with an inappropriate spring dress in wintry weather. Her cranky younger sister, Edie, drops out of school and refuses to discuss marriage and future plans. And their beautiful, finicky, cynical sister, Irene, makes a bet with a friend that she can get the wealthy Harvard-educated Vincent to come out of his house and notice her. She relates the triumph to her sisters and friends as they primp and get ready for the Easter evening service.

Irene didn’t seem to mind telling the story. Her voice had a note of subdued sweet malice. The children had heard that note before; they admired, and were wary of that tone. ...Reports were all around that Vincent had said he had no time to waste on any girl brought up in the atmosphere of New Hope; although Alicia Donohue was a beauty in her way...

How does she attract him? Irene crosses the muddy street in front of Vincent’s house and walks into a puddle, where her shoes get stuck. Vincent comes out of the house and extricates her from the mud. Then he gives her a pair of his mother’s slippers and entertains her while the maid to dries and clean her dainty slippers.

But where were her rubbers?

“That smile curved Irene’s lips. A dimple showed faintly in one cheek. 'Look under the sidewalk near Vance’s crossing,’ she said demurely, as she took up her silk waist to put it on."

There isn't much of a plot and it's not really necessary to finish these books. Read a little bit - enjoy the small-town scenes - and then put the book aside. She's not a great writer, but I'm adding her books to the ranks of regional fiction by the likes of Bess Streeter Aldrich, Mildred Walker, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. (My personal opinion: Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the best known, is the most overrated writer of the group. Now I'm not saying Suckow is better. I'm saying Canfield Fisher is overrated).

Well, off to cope. The air conditioning is broken. I may have to read something a little more spellbinding.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

New Hope

Ruth Suckow’s New Hope (1942) is a charming novel, worth reading if you're interested in old-fashioned women's fiction. Her books turn up at midwestern library sales, because Suckow was born in Iowa, a once popular writer whose novels portray the details of family life, on farms or in small towns in Iowa. Set at the turn of the 20th century, this novel is quietly entertaining: it centers on the arrival of a new minister and his family in New Hope, and tells the story of two years in this quiet backwater. At first the Greenwoods are guests at the hospitable Millers' because the parsonage is not yet ready. Dave Miller, a banker, takes them for rides in the buggy around town and in the country and boasts about the growing small town; we learn the history of the town, of the Old Community (flooded, and then moved to the new location), about the railroad, the water supply, and the different businesses. Bertha Miller and her three daughters spend a great portion of each day cooking, and though the daughters try to keep Bertha out of the kitchen, she makes frequent surreptitious visits. Bertha also has a soft spot for feeding tramps. They get off the train and head for the Millers'.

“Ja, they don’t know where to find their food,” Bertha murmured. “They ain’t got anywhere to look to....”

There was plenty of food in that house anyway. Such cooking as went on! Every day was baking day. And when the regular baking was done, one of the girls would cry, “Do you know we haven’t a bit of candy in this whole house?” There seemed to be always at least one great batch of fudge set out in long baking pans in the back kitchen to cool. All three of the Miller girls were famous fudge makers. “Bess’s fudge,” “Edie’s fudge,” “Irene’s fudge” - each kind had its defenders among the connoisseurs of the town. Mrs. Greenwood, however, couldn’t be prevailed upon to give any opinion; she would only laugh and say, “I like all of them better than is good for me!” She said with some anxiety she never saw the two children when they weren’t licking candy spoons.

Suckow's novels are a good source for midwestern women’s history, particularly in daily life. I very much enjoyed her novel The Folks. I'm only 100 pages into this one, but am finding it delightful. There's no plot - a negative in a novel - but it somehow captures the rhythms of a life I remember from my grandmother's farm. Suckow's style is very, very plain. She isn't a Willa Cather, or a Susan Glaspell, but has her merits.

Query: does anyone know why old library books smell so delicious? My copy of is a discarded library book. The cover is orange, with an illustration of a small, rather ugly midwestern town - not an English village - and the book smells the way old-fashioned library books used to smell, perhaps of the library bindings (textured pasteboard?), perhaps of the cream-colored paper.

And (I'm adding this just for fun) the pocket on the inside cover amusingly reads:


Each borrower registering will be assigned a number by which his books will be charged. He will be held responsible for all books charged to this number.

Number of volumes

Varies. Ask at library for latest rules

Time Kept

Seven day books 7 days only.
All other books 14 days.
(Books for serious reading or study, one month.)


Will be granted for all but 7 day books. Books renewed by telephone.


Two cents a day is charged for all books kept overtime.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Youth and the Bright Medusa

Willa Cather’s Youth and the Bright Medusa is a splendid collection of short stories - a literary page-turner which actually will help you forget the heat. (It’s so hot, or tropical, after weeks of rain, that the Christmas cactus is blooming. AND the flowers are white instead of pink....) I’m a harsh critic of short stories, which often seem less successful than novels, as less accomplished authors employ a kind of lazy shorthand to portray one-dimensional figures that fit the plot. The best short story writers are perhaps better than the best novelists: Flannery O’Connor, Roald Dahl, Katherine Anne Porter, Donald Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason...

Cather's novella Alexander’s Bridge was clunky, so I was a bit leery about the short stories. But Youth and the Bright Medusa is a perfect collection of stories about artists. Cather had obviously honed her talents - her characters and plots are fully devloped in Jamesian stories often 30 pages or more.

The protagonists in this collection are singers and artists, some sensitive, others ruthless, who struggle to balance professional and personal success. In “Coming, Aphrodite!”, a young, experimental painter, Hedger, falls in love with a midwestern singer who moves into his rooming house in New York. The singer, Eden, is an alluring, selfish woman who can use successful men to further her ambitions, and in the end the two fall out over different definitions of success. Years later, Eden, rich, hard, and unsentimental from years of pleasing audiences, returns to New York, and in a rare moment of emotion wonders what happened to Hedger.

Cather loved to write about music: consider Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark. Two of the stories here are about a confident singer, Kitty Ayshire: in “A Gold Slipper,” a middle-aged man reluctantly accompanies his wife and friend to a concert and fumes about having to sit in a folding chair on the stage; he struggles against music that might make him feel. When Kitty, who had noticed him onstage, meets him on a train, she disconcerts him by asking why he disliked her performance. He doesn't like women - and it doesn't surprise her.

In “Scandal,” while Kitty is seriously ill, a friend entertains her with old gossip about Kitty. A department-store millionaire was seen all over New York with a woman who looked like Kitty - and it turned out he had dressed her deliberately to create this impression. Then Kitty remembers her own humorous encounter with Klein.

I wonder if the Kitty stories started out to be a novel. These stories were published after Song of the Lark. I'll have to check a biography...

My favorite story is “The Diamond Mine”: Cressida, a brilliant, middle-aged singer, must cope with parasitical relatives who spoil her personal life. Narrated by a friend, the story describes the ruin of Cressida’s happiness by the envy and schadenfreude of siblings and husbands. Cressida never pities herself, remains cheerful, and manages not to be bitter about marriages that fell apart. She still mourns the one that got away. She is a "diamond mine," and gives and gives, and this exhausts her, much to her friend's chagrin.

Very good, very sad, and Willa Cather's strong characters are always an inspiration. Her prose is lyrical and smooth.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Red Cloud

Every summer we talk about traveling to Red Cloud, Nebraska (population 984), Willa Cather’s childhood home: “the only town named Red Cloud in the world,” according to the charming web site. Every summer we reread Willa Cather instead of visiting Red Cloud because it gets hot (and God knows Nebraska is even hotter) , and every summer we imagine her world as vividly as if we toured the restored house and Opera House.

Back in the ‘70s, when we first discovered Cather, her novels were not taught in universities. Her work was dismissed as that of a craftsman, not an artist, and sometimes even marketed as juvenile fiction. Of course, those were the days when the “boys’ club” reigned: Hemingway and Fitzgerald were worshipped as gods. Yet some of us were quietly reading lost women writers who have since gained “a room of their own” in the canon. In our student rooming house, friends and I traded Cather paperbacks and were transported over Ramen Noodles and Snackin’ Cakes to the prairie of My Antonia, the opera house of The Song of the Lark, and the Chicago of Lucy Gayheart. I know no men or women who don’t admire The Professor’s House . And a few years ago I blogged on A Lost Lady, a classic which has sorrowful charms.

This summer I’m reading portions of the Library of America edition of Willa Cather’s Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. This volume contains Uncollected Stories 1802-1929, Alexander’s Bridge, Youth and the Bright Medusa, My Mortal Enemy, Obscure Destinies, The Old Beauty and Others, April Twilights and Other Poems, Not Under Forty, and Selected Reviews and Essays 1895-1940. Quite a feast!

Short stories don’t have the allure for me of novels, but Cather is an accomplished storyteller. Last night I read Alexander’s Bridge, a compelling if slightly awkward novella (not the one to start with), the story of the restless Alexander, a world-famous engineer, who in middle age is numbed by his clockwork life, disillusioned by success, and simultaneously terrified by the emptiness of his fame.

Cather gracefully describes Alexander's midlife crisis.

“He had expected that success would bring him freedom and power, but it had brought only power that was in itself another kind of restraint. He had always meant to keep his personal liberty at all costs, as old MacKeller, his first chief, had done, and not, like so many American engineers, to become a part of a professional movement, a cautious board member, a Nestor de pontibus. He happened to be engaged in work of public utility, but he was not willing to become what was called a public man. He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape.”

And the novella is tragic, like so many of Cather’s stories. Alexander no longer cares for his work - the projects are forever stymied by money problems and he doesn't directly supervise his bridges anymore - nor does he appreciate his beautiful, loving wife in their beautiful house in Boston, as does his good friend and former teacher, Wilson, who visits twice and observes the changes in Alexander, and inquires about the frequent travel to England (though he doesn’t know what it means). Alexander does the middle-aged thing: he has an affair with an old friend, now a famous actress in London, whom he had known years ago in Paris. He comes alive with Hilda as he remembers their youth: and yet it never seems quite real. It makes him more and more agonized and torn - not less. He is in love, but Hilda is more in love. And while he should be concerned about building the biggest bridge in Canada, which he has been forced to cut corners on by his employer, he travels to London and broods about his emotional problems.

This, as you can imagine, proves fatal.

I have started Youth and the Bright Medusa, Cather’s first collection of stories. I’ll report later on these.

Perfect reading for the heat. It’s supposed to be 99 in Red Cloud tomorrow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Favorites

Mary Yukari Waters’ The Favorites is a quiet, restrained first novel about quiet, restrained Japanese women. The whole of this intergenerational family story is more powerful than its parts, with a style so spare that it suggests the manners of Japanese culture. But strong emotions boil beneath the surface of formal courtesy. Different parts of the novel are relayed from shifting points of view: the outsider, Sarah Rexworth, a Japanese-American girl brought up primarily in California, slowly learns the nuances of Japanese conversation; the relationship of her complicated grandmother, Mrs. Kobayashi, to Sarah's mother is so close that it inspires familial envy; Sarah’s jealous great-aunt, Mrs. Asaki, who adopted Mrs. Kobayashi’s second daughter during WWII, spies on and sabotages her daughter's visits to her birth mother; and Mrs. Nishimura, the quiet, repressed adopted daughter, speaks in polite cliches except to her children and is regarded as bland and unemotional by adults.

Surprisingly, the most flamboyant character is seen only through others’ eyes, Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Rexford, a vivacious, brilliant, charming woman in Japan, sadly underestimated and awkward in the U.S. because of her language skills - good on paper, but slow in speaking.

The novel begins in Sarah’s adolescence in the ‘70s, when she and Mrs. Rexford visit her grandmother in Kyoto for the summer. Waters’ delicate descriptions of complicated social manners, houses, and nature blend easily with dialogue and Sarah’s thoughts. Every item in the beautiful house has meaning from the past and present.

As Mrs. Kobayashi says, “There is no such thing as just my generation.”

The clock was a shiny modern piece, incongruous with the aged wall post on which it hung. The wooden post dated back to a more traditional time, when aesthetically minded craftsmen used to leave small remnants of nature in their work. Each wall post in the room retained some individual quirk: a curious burl, or the serpentine tracks of beetle larvae just below the surface of the wood.

Traditions and innovations are woven so beautifully into the women's daily lives that Sarah wonders why the relationship with Mrs. Asaki and Mrs. Nishimura is so strained. She gradually comes to understand the resentments and pressures caused by the adoption of her aunt - Mrs. Kobayashi, after her husband’s death in World War II, was coerced into marrying her husband’s younger brother and giving away her youngest daughter to her domineering, infertile sister-in-law, Mrs. Askaki.

As the years pass, Waters describes events through the eyes of Mrs. Asaki, Mrs. Kobayashi, and Mrs. Nishimura. When Sarah’s mother dies in a car accident, the relationship among the three Japanese women changes. And when Sarah visits as an adult, a CPA bored with her job, she analyzes the changing balance of power in her family and accepts her jeopardized position as one of the favorites.

In college, Sarah had learned that history was the study of power rising and power falling. Sitting here, leafing through the pages of another women’s life, she felt the truth of this and was humbled. It occurred to her that her own past - the trio of her mother and grandmother and herself that had once seemed extraordinary, strong and shining like the sun - was hardly unique. Countless other suns, like her great-aunt’s, had risen and fallen as a matter of course, each with its own forgotten story, its own poignance.

This novel is akin to ikebana, the spare Japanese art of floral arranging, “a disciplined art form in which nature and humanity are brought together” (Wikpedia). Although it may be too still for some tastes, there is passion beneath the surface. But the brief narrative is slow, and occasionally Waters spins out a scene too long: I feel that I'm on the outside even when I'm inside one of the women's heads. One of the characters, Mrs. Asaki, is so stiff that she never captures my interest. Because of the presence of Sarah, The Favorites could probably be cross-marketed as YA fiction. I wish that the older generations of women had been more fully delineated, their problems not reduced to an after-school special.

Waters is also the author of The Laws of Evening, a superb collection of short stories, and, to be honest, her style is more suited to the shorter form. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Marketing and Blogging

Book editors receive tens of thousands of review copies every year and have to calculate the number and kind of books they can fit into precious shrinking pages. 275,232 books were published in the U.S. in 2008, according to statistics released in May by Bowker, the famous bibliographical information company. The top five categories were:

1. Fiction (47,541 new titles)

2. Juveniles (29,438)

3. Sociology/Economics (24,423)

4. Religion (16,847)

5. Science (13,555)

Yet there's no more Washington Post Book World. No more L.A. Times Book Review. These newspapers still print daily reviews, but many fewer.

So many books, so little space.

No wonder publicists turn to bloggers.

Bloggers sell books. Are there statistics? Over the years, I've bought books recommended by countless bloggers, and sold a few myself.

Case in point: Bloomsbury is reissuing the light and charming Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D. E. Stevenson as a result of reading Frisbee. (They dropped in to tell us.) Fabulous! That’s what we love to do: spread the word about books.

But will I receive a review copy when it’s published? Dubious. I don’t live in the UK, I've already reviewed the book, and I can’t be much use to them, except for occasional recommendations of out-of-print books. On the other hand, Bloomsbury novels like Poppy Shakespeare and The Spy Game have delighted me. So we’re kind of even already.

Bloggers often step in where a professional book review editor fears to tread: the space is free and their own, so they don't have to write about the latest books. Often they're talking about reprints and library books.

I buy most of my books (I just bought and reviewed A Short History of Women, and bought and will review Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen). I’ve had to build my own collection of out-of-print books and classics. (In other words, Penguin and Oxford World Classics have yet to send me their complete set of books - or any books.)

I occasionally receive review copies from publishers.

I have one question for my fellow bloggers, though - and I respect them, so don't take this the wrong way. Why, when they write about a review copy, do they feel compelled to preface their blogs with fulsome statements like: “I just found in the mail a copy of A Short History of Women from Scribners and I was ecstatic, because Kate Walbert is on my list of 10 Writers to Read Before I Die, and Ann Packer wrote a blurb...” No, It’s not that bad. But it is bewildering. It somehow makes it sound like: a) the blogger is insecure and worried about ethics, because she’s receiving gifts and advertising the publishers, or b) hoping that if she praises the book enough, maybe they’ll send a book that she REALLY wants.

I find the tone confusing, to say the least. Are we marketing, or blogging?

It's really better not to mention it. Do professional book reviewers, as opposed to bloggers, write, ““Love and kisses, Scribners" or "Random House, thanks again!" No, it’s pointless.

I know that's not what my favorite bloggers mean - I hope not - but it's weird...

No one else complains about this, however...

A Short History of Women

"Mum starved herself for suffrage, Grandmother claiming it was just like Mum to take a cause too far. Mum said she had no choice."

The mother-daughter intergenerational conflict is the subject of Kate Walbert’s A Short History of Women, surely the shortest, most brilliant women’s novel of the summer: 237 pages of understated prose comprising the lives of five generations of women. This non-linear novel jumps back and forth in time: it begins in England in 1914, with 13-year-old Evelyn Townsend Trevor’s reactions to her suffragette mother's slow suicide through a hunger strike. After her mother’s death in a hospital, Evelyn retreats into the infinite but controllable world of mathematics, immigrates to New York to pursue her studies at Barnard, and becomes an eminent mathematician. This emotionally numb woman retains humor but completely rejects her mother, while at the same time living out some of her values. Because of her mother's generation, she enjoys intellectual opportunities women in history lacked. Yet her sexuality seemes limited: Evelyn lives with a man she does not have sex with; she does not like to be touched.

Backtrack in time to Evelyn's mother, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, the wittiest, most rebellious character in the novel. A sophisticated woman and brilliant student who is not allowed to graduate from Cambridge due to her sex, she becomes involved in protests at a young age. At Cambridge she has an affair with an anarchist, William, who later becomes a famous politician, and, still later, again her lover. She marries someone else, is widowed, and raises her children alone (and guiltily abandons them, as far as they are concerned, by her political activities), establishing the paradigm for future generations.

Enter Dorothy Townsend Barrett, whom we first meet in Delaware in 2003, protesting the war in Iraq by taking photographs of a military camp (No Trespassing, Government Property, Photography Forbidden).

“Christ, Mother,” Caroline said after the first arrest, the fine. “Get a life.”

“Your great-grandmother starved to death on principle; she literally ate nothing.”

“I know, I know. I’ve seen the postage stamp,” Caroline said.

“I think it changed things then,” Dorothy said. “To do something. She made up her mind, she took a stand.”

Later in the book, Walbert describes a younger, less political Dorothy attending a consciousness-raising group meeting in the 1970s (Walbert’s sketch is both dizzyingly wry and sympathetic): the leader, Big Sister, talks in a kind of parody of the 70s self-help slang and fiddles with her braids, a ball is tossed back and forth to decide who gets to speak, and the hostess, though she confesses to three abortions and wanting progress for women, repeatedly snaps at the black maid, until finally the woman with the Ph.D. protests and the maid sits down with the rest of them.

But it is not until old age that Dorothy, after preparing a talk about Florence Nightingale for passengers on a cruise to Patagonia, begins to see what her life lacks. She lived for her husband and children and never found a vocation like Nightingale. She divorces her husband, lives alone, and, eventually, starts a blog.

When her conservative millionaire daughter, Caroline, discovers the blog, she calls her homemaker sister, Liz, who isn’t interested. Caroline thinks they should write some comments, because her mother is pathetic, writing into a void.

She has done her best not to keep constant tabs on DT, but it is like a hot spot, an itch to scratch, and she finds during certain slow moments at work and in the late evenings that she cannot resist the pull to check in on “A Proclamation,” to read again her mother’s declaration of passing through the point of rate and the posts that follow. Who were these people? What else did they have in their lives?

But in the course of worrying about her mother’s blog, Caroline comes to understand her mother. Her own daughter has just gone to Yale; Caroline is suffering empty-nest syndrome, as she tries not to call it. And she questions whether her high-powered work in finance has been worthwhile.

Walbert’s spare writing makes this novel a treat. There is something reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s work in the shape.

I adored this! It's one of the best contemporary novels of the year. Give it to your women friends: start A Short History of Women chain letter...or something

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From Catseye to Hot House Flower & the 9 Plants of Desire

Yesterday I planned to read the lightest of books during breaks on a bicycle trip: along with my tire patch kit and emergency chocolate bar, I brought Andre Norton’s Catseye, a 1961 science fiction novel with a kitschy cover I unearthed at a library sale. It unfolds with space-opera-ish action: a young man from a devastated planet finds temporary work in an interplanetary pet shop, an assignment generated by a work-bureau machine. But odd underworld deals are threatening the shop: on his first day, hijackers attempt to steal a shipment of cats, and there's a shoot-out with stun guns. Unfortunately, I dropped this book accidentally in a bucket of dirty water when I got home. The bucket was sort of THERE, and I tossed my keys onto the table and the book slipped, so I had to throw the book out.

But there is always another novel, as we bibliophiles know. Margot Berwin’s Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire is an enchanting light first novel with a hint of magic realism, set in New York and Mexico. I was immediately captivated by the heroine’s tentative encounters with tropical plants, her discovery of a laundromat decorated with tropical plants and moss, and a quest for the legendary Nine Plants of Desire. This charmer of a summer read is narrated by the likable but confused Lila Nova, a divorced, clever, sometimes calculating advertising executive who stumbles into a kind of magical world of gorgeous tropical plants, dominated equally by good and evil gardeners: David Exley, a handsome, greedy plant seller at a market, sells her a Bird of Paradise plant; Armand, the laundromat owner, promises to show her the 9 Plants of Desire if she can root a cutting from a rare fern.

Armand tells her, “The tropics can happen anywhere, you know. They’re a state of mind.”

He asks her to close her eyes and picture a laundromat. “I see white plastic baskets on wheels, filled with dirty clothes, and boxes of laundry detergent with bright-blue, green, or red letters....”

Armand visualizes it differently:

“I see a room with absolutely perfect growing conditions. Plenty of heat from industrial-strength dryers, mist and moisture from powerful washing machines, and just the right amount of sunlight from the windows- not too direct, because in a Laundromat of this age they are usually scratched. To me, a Laundromat is an ideal greenhouse that just so happens to have some clothes going around in circles.”

Berwin has a visual, tactile imagination and sensually describes the colors and textures of plants and people in New York and Mexico.

During the novel, Lila grows and learns about herself. Corrupted by the advertising world and damaged by her ex-husband, seduced by David Exley, who is not what he seems, she betrays Armand for the chance to make money. And after David steals Armand's plants - she had intended to sell him cuttings - she embarks on a wild trip to the rain forest in Mexico to replace the plants.

This is a light novel, somewhere on the cusp between romance and almost-literary fiction. It's like a perfect book club choice, and I enjoyed it.

P.S. What I find serendipitously funny is that Catseye and Hot House Flower have a few parallels. Both the shop and the laundromat are thieves' targets.

Hot House Flower is a great novel to read outside: here's MY (vegetable) garden!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Reading

Blogs are not an art form - sometimes they're rushed and staccato, other times wordy and meandering - but the format is ideal for chronicling what we read and our informal reactions. Skimming through my entries, I was apparently obsessed last summer with Viragos, Persephones, and some Victorian English novels. Good heavens! Winifred Holtby, Rachel Ferguson, Susan Glaspell, and George Meredith! Although I prefer Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady (Persephone), I also love her earlier novel, The Brontes Went to Woolworths (soon to be reissued by Bloomsbury), which I tracked down, inspired by other bloggers. What was the psychology behind my attraction to obscure lit? There was a flood - Garrison Keillor donated something like $300,000 (or was it $3 million?) to renovate the ruined library in Cedar Rapids - and perhaps these lost classics distracted and comforted me.

This June has been pretty “classical" so far. Three Jane Austens, on the principle that you can’t read too much Jane. And then there are the Russians. Goodness, nothing like reading about sledges and snowstorms when it's 80 degrees.

But it’s time to get down to some serious (meaning lighter) summer reading. Here are a few contemporary and older books on my list:

1. In the Kitchen, the third novel by Monica Ali, the author of Brick Lane, sounds exactly like my kind of thing. Someone will give this to me for my birthday if I hint loud and long enough. According to Publishers Weekly: "As executive chef at London’s luxurious Imperial Hotel, (Gabe) must contend with demanding customers, a bully of a general manager, and a kitchen staff that runs the gamut from bellicose to perverse. So when a Ukrainian porter is found dead in the restaurant basement, Gabe knows his already challenging life is about to become even more so. Shortly after the porter’s demise, Gabe encounters Lena, an eerie, ethereal young woman from Belarus who is clearly harboring secrets about the deceased. She piques Gabe’s curiosity and his passion (and just when he was about to propose to his longtime girlfriend, Charlie).”

2. Catseye by Andre Norton (Ace 1961). As a feline lover, I couldn't resist this at a sale for 50 cents: it’s about an interplanetary pet shop, whose rarest animals come from Earth. Love the cats on the cover! Long ago I was a fan of Norton's Witch World books. And I once saw her doll house on display in a museum!

3. Family Memories: An Autobiographical Journey by Rebecca West. Found this at a sale for $1. I can't wait to read this memoir by the unconventional, powerful novelist and political journalist. The Fountain Overlfows is one of my favorite novels; she is also famous for an epic travel book/political analysis, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia.

4. Janet Burroway’s Bridge of Sand. Checked it out of the library. A politician’s wife grieves and rebuilds her life after her husband dies of cancer. The funeral is on 9/11, when everyone is terrified and discombobulated, and several politician friends are held up in Washington. i've started this and love Burroway's heroine, a thoughtful art history graduate and volunteer who spends her first months after the funeral obsessively cleaning house and refinishing a turn-of-the-century hutch. Eventually she turns to her past and takes a road trip down south.

5. Georgette’s Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (Ace 1950). Found at a sale for 50 cents. Georgette Heyer is always charming and witty. The 1950 cover blurb says: “Beautiful, gay, impulsive, shockingly direct Miss Sophia Stanton-Lacy swept into elegant society and scattered conventions and traditions before her like wisps in a windstorm.” I love it already!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


“Ilya Ilyich Oblomov was lying in bed one morning in his flat in Gorokhovaya Street in one of those large houses which have as many inhabitants as a country town."

A few years ago The Washington Post published a review of a new translation of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. This beautifully-crafted essay inspired me to read two translations of this 19th-century Russian comic classic. As it happens, I prefer David Magarshack’s vivid 1954 translation in the Penguin edition, which transports me enchanted into Oblomov's sleepy world. Pearl's new translation did not seem as smooth or graceful, though it's good enough. But any translation is better than none, and if you haven’t read Oblomov, you are missing out on a treat: the humorous adventures of a lethargic Russian Don Quixote, who lives to fantasize about the future and reminisce about the past, and emerges from his slumbers only when spurred on by concerned friends.

Oblomov, the most famous procrastinator in literature, makes efforts to get out of bed and live like "other people," but some of the most charming scenes are his stream-of-consciousness as he dreams away his days.

The novel begins with two business emergencies, about which Oblomov quarrels with his grumbling, devoted servant, Zakhar, a family retainer since childhood. Oblomov has lost a letter from his cheating bailiff, and Zakhar says he hasn't seen it and can't be expected to know where it is. When the letter finally flutters out of bed, there is, alas, no note paper nor ink with which to write a reply, so the two quarrel some more. Oblomov is also upset when Zakhar delivers the landlord's message that he plans to evict them so he can build a flat for his children. Oblomov unreasonably refuses to move from his dirty rooms because it would be too nerve-racking and noisy, and he is not "like other people," who race around, work, and move from place to place , so that they "never begin to live." The same morning, friends visit, and he asks their advice about his problems, but only the wily ne'er do well Tarantyev proffers an opinion, bullying Oblomov to agree to move into a flat in a friend's house in a remote part of Petersburg, where the old-fashioned landlady will cook and clean for him.

Finally, on the same day, 150 pages or so into the novel, Oblomov's energetic half-German friend, Stolz, arrives from abroad and bustles Oblomov out of bed. Before Oblomov knows where he is, he is living in a rented country house and in love with Olga, a beautiful young woman who wants to inspire Oblomov to action: humorously, she asks him to read and review books for her (Oblomov hasn't read in years) so she can decide what to read, takes him on walks, and has long serious conversations with him (Oblomov has to do a lot of research on current affairs). But when it comes to a question of marriage, his timidity and weariness set in.

This is so absorbing that you can read it even in the middle of a noisy park, during a clash between dueling buskers. I just reread it again, and as usual feel amused, affectionate, and sad about the fate of the loving and sweet Oblomov. It's a charming novel!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Booking and Biking

Preparations for a shopping trip on a bicycle can be hectic. Stick a rain jacket in your book bag or panniers, a lightweight paperback (Jane Austen will fit!) to read if your bike breaks down, and perhaps a first aid kit in case of spills. Fill up your water bottle. Put on jeans and some sturdy athletic shoes. It is unnecessary to wear the puffy bike shorts or special shirts, since you are shopping AND biking, not proving your athletic-trend acumen. Alas, you always forget to bring a comb, and your helmet hair is an odd mix of flat and flipped up. DO NOT LOOK IN THE MIRROR IN THE RESTROOM. There’s nothing you can do about it!

The indie bookstore is nearby, but it's a bore being followed around this tiny space by the suspicious employee. Is it your bike helmet or bag that convinces them you are a menace to society? The last time you were there you threw your bag down on the chair as a friendly gesture. "I come in peace - and I'll buy a book if you let me browse!" They must have had trouble with shoplifters, as they used to sit behind the desk and read. Still, there's something disconcerting about it, especially when you're in the mystery section, which is cordoned off with decorative tape saying CRIME SCENE.

Most of the bookstores in town are chains, though there were once nine bookstores here, according to a friend. Bicycling to chain bookstores can be quite a challenge because they are located on quasi-highways in the suburbs. Does that stop you? No. The bus ride is far too boring. Bicycling is energy-efficient, fun, and healthy, and it is possible to ride on side streets and trails, a fairly direct route that avoids traffic. There’s green everywhere - if only you had your camera - and cottonwood drifting. Stop for a drink of water. Did you actually forget your water? Oh no.

But when you get to B&N or Borders, there are no bike racks. Sad, sad, sad. You have to lock up your bike to whatever rail or No Parking sign you can find, like a cowgirl hitching a horse to a derelict post in a dusty Western town. With your bicycle helmet clutched in one hand, you don't look like the most influential customer (despite the thousands spent on books), and the info desk people don’t take you seriously when you ask why there isn’t a bike rack. (Actually, some think it’s a good idea, but know the corporation “has no plans for a bike rack” in the immediate future.) You pick up a coffee and get a kick out of the barista who asks “for here or to go?”, not realizing that the bike helmet means gotta drink the coffee first!

Then you pick up a pile of books and methodically go through them while you sit in a comfortable chair. The Katherine of Aragon biography looks interesting. Jane Allison's memoir, The Antipodes Sisters, looks good: you like this author’s novels. No, the Pevar and Volokhansky translation of war and Peace would absolutely drive you crazy: all the French appears on the pages with footnotes. Please! Translate the French already!

It’s a fairly nice trip. Sometimes you buy a book, sometimes not. The trauma? When it’s difficult to fit them all into your bike bag. Occasionally one has to ride with one’s bag open. But it's easier to shop for books on a bicycle than for most things.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Tolstoy's Shorter Fiction

A couple of years ago I read Anna Karenina twice. There was the usual hoot of “Are you reading that again?” - very common in our household. Yet, despite my love for Tolstoy's novels, somehow I’ve never taken to his shorter fiction, as after the intense experience of his leisurely masterpieces it’s almost like reading sketches. But this weekend I settled down to read two of his stories: Family Happiness, an 80-page novella, published in 1859, identified by John Bayley as a predecessor of some of the marriage scenes in War and Peace; and The Death of Ivan Ilych, a classic published in 1886, a 53-page long short story about the illness and tragic death of a successful civil servant who has lived for status in work and social life, while keeping his wife and family at a distance.

First, the early, less accomplished story: in Family Happiness, Tolstoy delineates the philosophical adjustment of the definition of happiness in the marriage of an 18-year-old girl and a 36-year-old man, where happiness begins with “wild ecstasy." But a husband and children do not a happy marriage make, as we learn from the narrator, Masha - and it is quite interesting to read about this from a female point of view. In the introduction to Tolstoy’s Collected Shorter Fiction (Everyman) John Bayley writes, “(Tolstoy) became interested in various girls, and with his usual wish to get everything settled in his own mind he began to plan a sort of experimental nouvelle, setting out what he conceived a marriage in its early stages should be like.” It’s a fascinating experiment - though not entirely successful - and though the story is realistic, the ending is abrupt.

The romance is an unlikely one. After her mother’s death, during a stay in the country with her ex-governess and sister, Masha falls in love with a friend of her father, Sergey Michaylych. He coaxes her out of her depression, entertains her, and urges her to work at music . Their love affair is charming, though untraditional: Masha takes the initiative, as Sergey resists her. Sergey sensibly has reservations about marrying a younger woman, realizing that though he loves her, she has no life experience. Eventually, due to Masha’s persistence, they marry happily, but after several blissful months in the country they spend a disastrous winter in Petersburg, during which the couple become alienated. Masha becomes more and more absorbed in society, and he misunderstands her happiness, thinking it comes from flirtations with men. The ending is somewhat abrupt - Masha returns to the country after a dangerous flirtation in Baden - and, after she insists on talking about their problems, she accepts Sergey’s philosophy - which also comes as a surprise to the reader.

it’s an uneven story - but at least it’s Tolstoy.

On the other hand, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a masterpiece. It begins with the ending, with a group of Ivan’s friends talking about his death and privately calculating how the opening of his job might affect their own situations. (Yet they are not horrible - Tolstoy is ironic, but he stresses the inevitablity of man's ambition.)

Ivan Ilych had been a colleague of the gentlemen present and was liked by them all. He had been ill for some weeks with an illness said to be incurable. His post had been kept open for him, but there had been conjectures that in case of his death Alexeev might receive his appointment, and that either Vinnikove or Shtabel would succeed Alexeev. So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

When Ivan's friend Peter Ivanovich pays his respects at the house, he is very uncomfortable, repulsed by the presence of the corpse, and wants to go off to play cards. But he is cornered by Ivan’s wife, who like everyone else is concerned about the monetary consequences of Ivan’s death. And then Peter is stuck at a service, which strikes him as false.

The rest of the story focuses on Ivan’s life. Here’s the brilliant opening of Chapter 2: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

His death is solitary, long and drawn-out - and somewhat boring for his family. We see that Ivan has to die alone, because his family cannot cope. His illness interferes with dinners and balls - they seem shallow, but Tolstoy empathizes and emphasizes the realism. But it is impossible till the end for Ivan to realize he is dying.

A great short story!

My edition translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude - excellent - but other translators are also superb, as I know from reading the novels. Usually Constance Garnett is considered fusty, but I love her, too! And Richard Pevar and his wife Larissa Somebody-or-Other are award-winning translators, though I don't know if they've translated the shorter works.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

An Evening Outing at the University Library

It was such a beautiful evening that we made the 40-mile trip to the university library, staring at lush green fields, a bright blue sky, and occasional cows and horses. Rifling through our CDs, I could not find anything we could agree to listen to. Query: why are there so many Talking Heads albums in the car? A few weeks ago I mentioned that David Byrne has a new book on bicycling in the fall, and suddenly Talking Heads CDs are GROWING in the car. But we can’t really sing along with those: we don’t know the words, so we compromised with 10,000 Maniacs, though I haven’t the faintest idea what Natalie Merchant is singing, either.

The campus is beautiful: we passed softball fields, the Union, the Bell Tower, the Administration Building with the exhausting staircase, Caribou, and then arrived at the library. Nobody was there: too lovely for students to stay inside, but perfect for doddering adults like us. This is an unusually pretty library: lots of light, comfortable chairs, and five floors of good browsing. You can find everything here from coal miners’ narratives to Compton Mackenzie to Persuasions magazine (the JASNA journal) to small-press books of poetry.

This time I went mainly for non-fiction and poetry, operating on the premise that my house overflows with great novels, letters, and literary diaries.. Waiting on the shelf was Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, the new acclaimed study of American women’s literature, which, at a glance, I can tell I’ll be skimming rather than reading, as I have read everything she mentions after the first 125 pages, from the Civil War on. (There was a fantastic American Studies department at my university.) Switching over to my typical English obsession, I found Sir Thomas Wyatt: The Complete Poems, edited by R. A. Rebholz (Yale University Press), with great notes, which I needed and appreciate. I added a mystery, Nicolas Freeling’s The Janeites, because, temporarily at least, I'm obsessed with Jane.

Speaking of Jane, I’m almost finished rereading Mansfield Park. This novel has grown in my esteem: I can't tell you how much I admire this muted comedy, though last summer I was lukewarm (read here). Fanny is a quiet kind of heroine, but she certainly has spirit and a sharp intelligence, and I'm fascinated by the theater scenes that enliven and in many cases render insensitive the Bertram and Crawford families. Strangely, I rather guiltily prefer Henry Crawford to Edmund, though of course Henry has bad morals, betrays the Bertram sisters, etc. Edmund is dull, not my ideal romantic figure, and his flirtation with Mary Crawford irritates me more than Henry's flirtation with the Bertram sisters, because poor Fanny has to witness it. Of course Edmund is meant to be handsome and animated, as Mary Crawford AND Fanny fall for him; Fanny's crush develops over many years: the two have an affinity. The best i can say for him is that he's quietly witty. In the end one doesn't really want Henry for Fanny: the Crawfords let us down in a BIG way, a result of their light morals and tainted education.

This summer I appreciate the slower pace and less rackety voice. I'm not expecting a satire like P&P, so I'm enjoying it for what it is. As always with good books, I'm in suspense, wondering if maybe the ending will change...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Jane Austen Readathon

Steady, gals. It’s time for my annual Jane Austen readathon. Settle back in the wicker chair with your green iced tea and your Austen book of choice. I bought a couple of crisp new Penguins to replace my aging dilapidated copies of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park - after rejecting the idea of book-binding. Anyway, despite my un-Regency refusal to do Period Sewing on my tattered paperbacks, I am a cozy inhabitant of Austen’s strange world - happily with pages intact.

The world of Austen is essentially a feminine world, but it isn't the romantic ivory hideaway condescendingly described by Nabokov in his unfavorable comparison of Mansfield Park to Bleak House. Austen's female characters may not control Parliament or Chancery Court but the varied domestic patterns of their lives spawn the talent and wit that temper and transcend the frustrating limitations of money and marriage. Jane’s diverse characters run the gamut from saucy high-I.Q. witty women like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma to intelligent, competent, decorous true friends like Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliott, and Fanny Price to giggling flirts like the romping Lydia Bennet to manipulative bitches like the Bingley sisters and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Although marriage is the goal of each woman, and almost the only way to escape the claustrophobic role of adult daughter, her characters do not expect perfect happiness and have inner resources.

The Readathon is off to a good start. Last week I read Sense and Sensibility. On Sunday I finished Pride and Prejudice. I especially love the latter, and am always surprised by the realism of this novel. Elizabeth Bennet is curiously modern, vivacious and witty, but also bitchy (in a good way), an outspoken young woman who can charm or sting, and who speaks her mind, unintimidated by wealth and the class system.

Of course sometimes Lizzy is wrong. She misunderstands and underestimates Darcy, whose arrogance makes all of us dislike him. How can she fall in love with him? I wondered as I read. But then they meet at Pemberley and his manner is so different at his home. Of course later she jokes and says she fell in love with him when she saw the grounds. Austen is so wicked that there is a hint of truth there. But so much about this is the reader's narrowing and focusing perceptions through a kind of telescope: we see It is possible for two bright people, one witty and talkative, the other quiet and rational, to live happily together. (And by the end of the book I'm in love with Darcy, so want the marriage anyway.)

The happy endings are not always entirely happy. Poor Marianne, who does not marry for love! And poor Lydia, for whom I have a weak spot. Doesn't the hilarious Lydia deserve a better husband?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Sheila Schwartz

When my UPS guy dropped off my copy of Sheila Schwartz’s novel, Lies Will Take You Somewhere, I was thrilled and put aside my dog-eared Jane Austen so I could immediately begin reading this highly-praised new novel. If you haven’t heard of Schwartz, you’re missing out on a brilliant writer: her 1991 collection of short stories, Imagine a Great White Light, won the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, and in 1999 she won an O. Henry Award. She was a popular professor of English and creative writing at Cleveland State University, a busy wife and mother, and a poetic writer of page-turning realistic fiction. The sad thing is that there won’t be more books, unless her later stories are collected: Schwartz died in 2008 of ovarian cancer.

Her beautifully written, lyrical yet understated, stunning fiction is not odd or experimental in any way, yet both books were published by small presses, which sadly limits her audience. Lies Will Take You Somewhere should have been saleable to a corporate publisher, but perhaps she didn’t have the contacts, or the editors were too busy looking for the next Danielle Steele, or it was too Jewish: the novel delineates the sadness and betrayals in the complicated relationships of a close Jewish family, and is told from the point-of-view of Jane, an intelligent, observant housewife, and her husband, Saul, a popular rabbi who is weary of going through the motions of the routine at his job. At the beginning of the novel, Jane leaves her family to travel to Florida to wind up her late mother’s estate. She is sad and depressed, though there are some hilarious scenes: she gets lost while riding her mother’s tricycle home from the pool in the identical streets of the retirement development, which have four repeating architectural models of condos; she agrees to go to dinner with an elderly neighbor who becomes so involved in showing her his trinkets that he forgets to serve dinner. Meanwhile, at home, Saul seems unable to take care of himself or his three daughters (the oldest, Malkah, is very difficult); and as he performs duties like visiting cancer patients in the hospital, he is bored and despairing, and has to force himself to be calm and cheerful. I keep having this feeling of yearning deja vu as I read it: yes, this is the kind of contemporary fiction I used to love, but isn’t widely published anymore! Antonya Nelson’s witty fiction has some similarities, but Schwartz goes much deeper, her peeople are more real, and she doesn't’ try to be too clever as the story effortlessly unfolds.

I’m only one fourth of the way through, so I’ll have more to report later. Here’s a description of Jane’s first evening in her mother’s musty house.

All the furniture on the porch has been allowed to age. Her mother never bothered to keep it up maybe because she knew it was a losing battle. The humid air drenches everything. It seeps into wood and fabric, loosens the carpet from the floor. Her mother used to find it pleasant to sit out on the porch at night and drink tea as she listened to a horde of crickets scraping the heavy air, but Jane doesn’t. No sooner does she settle herself than she feels restless. Her mother said it didn’t matter what she listened to - bugs or Beethoven - once Jane’s father died, but the crickets get on Jane’s nerves, the crickets and katydids, the sudden heartfelt whining of a high-pitched motor from the canal across the street that starts up almost as soon as she takes a sip of her tea. Who would be driving a boat at this hour?

Although none of her newer short stories seem to be online, I will look them up at the library. And you can read her uncomplaining, ironic essay about cancer, “Three Cancer Patients Walk into a Bar.”