Monday, August 31, 2009

Allusions to The Secret Garden: After You and The Forgotten Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was a childhood favorite - probably yours, too. It ranked up there with Little Women, which could be found for 59 cents at the grocery store, and with the Nancy Drew mysteries, which cost approximately $1.25 a volume at a bookstore - as extravagant as our book-buying got. The Secret Garden was too expensive, my mother said, and since it was at the library, I had to borrow it. Now I, of course, have my own copy, with Tasha Tudor’s beautiful illustrations.

Two recent novels, Julie Buxbaum’s After You and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, have many allusions to The Secret Garden, which will spark interest or make them a joy to many women. The first is a a well-written women’s issue novel, reminiscent of the books of Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen; the second is a mystery with fairy-tale overtones about three generations of women, a wild garden, and identity.

Buxbaum’s After You is touching and dramatic, a page-turner mom-lit kind of novel to read in your pajamas on the weekend. The quirky, caring voice of Ellie, the narrator, is instantly likable and charming. She has flown to London in the wake of disaster to take care of her goddaughter: Ellie's best friend Lucy was murdered in Notting Hill by a meth addict while she was walking her daughter to school. Eight-year-old Sophie witnessed the violence, is traumatized, and won’t talk. Ellie is determined to fix this. Slowly she coaxes Sophie to talk, charming her by reading aloud The Secret Garden.

“By the way, just so you’ll know, you aren’t allowed to read it without me. Once you start a book together, you have to finish it together. So we have Mary Lennox, who is, what? About nine, I think. A little older than you. And she’s ugly. Not like you at all. But isn’t it funny how the books just spells that out? She’s an ugly, miserable pain in the ass...” Sophie giggles. You said ass.

Ellie says she loves The Secret Garden because when her grandmother died,

“I was a little freaked out, understandably. So that night, my mom took out The Secret Garden and started reading to me. And you know what happened? I forgot everything else and all I could think about was Mary Lennox...”

Ellie’s marriage has been rocky since she lost a baby in her eighth month of pregnancy. Her husband thinks she is staying in London to get away from him. Living in the house on Notting Hill with Lucy's reserved workaholic husband, Greg, whom Ellie scarcely knows, and Sophie, whom he neglects, is not easy. Her maternal feelings are in full swing. Then she learns some of Lucy's secrets which change her idealized portrait of her beloved friend.

Ellie's divorced parents, meanwhile, are getting back together (for the zillionth time), and she reconsiders her own relationships and marriage. This is a fast-moving, entertaining novel, with characters we're rooting for.

I read Morton's more ambitious novel, The Forgotten Garden, a while ago: it is a rambling, sometimes fascinating pastiche of mystery and fairy tale, a kind of pop-fiction version of A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book. (There really are some resemblances, but I won't get into that.) In 1913 a child who doesn't know her name shows up on a dock in Australia: she has traveled alone from England. She has a fairy tale book in a suitcase, but no other personal belongings. When she grows up and learns she is adopted, she investigates her identity. Interspersed are tales of another orphan, an abused girl, who grows up to be a fairy-tale authoress and lives in a cottage in a secret garden. Nell's granddaughter mysteriously inherits the cottage and finds out more secrets.

Parts of this are quite good, though it sags a bit in the middle.

Anyway, two different ways of paying tribute to Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shortlisting the Booker

2009 Booker Prize Judges

I used to be a book award groupie. The National Book Award and Booker Prize were the highlights of the fall - the ‘90s WERE incredibly boring. But the Booker seems to be a far bigger deal, beginning with the longlist in the summer, then the exciting shortlist in the fall, with an almost campy feeling to the carryings-on and arguments among the English fans - as if it were a review of the Stones at the halftime Superbowl concert or something.

Wouldn’t it be fun if Americans were like that!

Then reality kicked in when a judge for an American book award very kindly told me that he/she did not have time to read all 120-some books, could only commit 50 or so pages to books that seemed disappointing, and then concentrated on the ones that seemed most worthy. Publishers submitted the books for commercial reasons - the judges had to winnow the list down - and of course read seriously the final list. This didn’t disillusion me: it made perfect sense.

At our house we have established something we call the Midwest Booker Prize, based on this fine not-reading-every-word principle. We winnow the Booker longlist, at least those books we can find in the U.S., so that awestruck readers like ourselves don’t feel impelled to read the mediocre books that probably slip in there for political & friendship reasons. The leading couple (us) dashes to various independent bookstores (or libraries) in search of Booker Prize longlist books, reading them, skimming them, judging them, then putting them on our Shortlist or crossing them off into oblivion. We’ve read a few of the books - or, let’s face it, we’ve read parts of four books we’ve managed to find - and so far two have made our list. (It would make a great reality show.)

1. The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. Probably unbeatable. A classic about the complexity of turn-of-the-century children’s lit, the writers who wrote it, the Arts and Crafts movement, Fabianism, fantasy, and the children of artists. Reviewed here.

2. Me Cheeta by James Lever, on the basis of 150 pages. A monkey comedy classic and spoof of celebrity autobiographies. Cheeta, the chimp who is Tarzan’s sidekick in the movies, tells all, bitching about the stars, animal rights, his own choice to be an actor rather than replaced by digital pixels, the pranks of Johnny Weissmuller and David Niven, the cocaine parties, the obnoxiousness of Lupe Velez, and more.

Maureen O'Sullivan, Cheeta, and Johnny Weissmuller

We have rejected two:

1. Sarah Waters's popular The Little Stranger. Didn't like it. (Sorry.)

2. Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness. Ditto.

We would read more, but we seem to be on the "longlist" for Brooklyn at the library, and some of the other books won’t be published till September.

Although I'm something of a cynic, I have read with great interest many bloggers who read the whole longlist for the Booker Prize. Here are some thoughts by other bloggers on the four books we've considered (and I'm trying not to pick the famous blogs, because we can all read them any time).

1. Fantasy Book Critic says about A. S. Byatt's The Children’s Book: "Despite its length and many characters and threads, the novel flows so well that I read it in two days and I was extremely sad to see it ending...."

2. 2009 - The Year in Books says about James Lever's Me Cheeta: "Me Cheeta is an ode to Johnny Weissmuller, the best friend Cheeta ever had. ...At times it's laugh-out-loud funny, and yet there's a sense of poignancy throughout the book that makes the reader stop and think about the cruelties that humans can inflict upon each other (not to mention animals)."

3. Chazz W. says about Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness (rejected by us, but liked by many): "…well, these characters will probably fade from memory fairly rapidly, much like the people in Jake’s life will fade from his mind."

4. Asking the Wrong Questions says about Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (liked by many, and a mixed review by ATWQ): "It may not be a ghost story, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of horror novel that gives its genre a bad name--the kind that expects us to turn off empathy and enjoy the suffering of others.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Country House (Worshipful Society)

“To those many thousand readers who know Galsworthy only through the Forsyte novels, Worshipful Society will be a new experience.”
--Book jacket blurb, Worshipful Society, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932

The bookshelves in the room have a cobwebby Miss Havisham look. There is no order. The Book of Games is next to Creating Colette, which is next to War and Peace, which rests on top of a Paint-by-Number set. There are boxes of books on the floor, arranged a la hopscotch. I stepped over a box of Leonard Woolf’s autobiographies, turned right at a set of John Christopher’s classic Tripods novels, and came face to face with the Barbara Pyms (two copies of A Few Green Leaves, if anyone wants one).

Then I rummaged around in the Northeast corner bookshelf.

“I saw it just the other day.”

It was there: John Galsworthy’s Worshipful Society, a one-volume edition of three of his novels, each of which the book jacket says "presents contemporary society in a different phase - in The Country House the theme is divorce; in Fraternity it is class consciousness; in The Patrician it is unyielding family pride.” I ordered it from Amazon a few years ago for some incredibly cheap price (it starts now at $3.19), anticipating the moment when I would want to read it.

That is now.

It’s actually quite good, in the way minor Trollopes are good. Minor Trollope is everything (thirty-some novels) besides the Barsetshire novels, the Palliser novels, and The Way We Live Now; my favorite is probably Orley Farm. Minor Galsworthy seems to be everything besides The Forsyte Saga, though I can’t claim knowledge of his other work. Yet I am remedying that out of a kind of obsessive curiosity.

Halfway through The Country House, I find it immensely enjoyable and readable, though the characters are certainly not as vivid as the Forsytes and the structure of the novel is much looser. Published in 1907, a year after The Man of Property, The Country House centers on a Forsyte-like family of landed proprietors, the Pendyces, whose son, George, is having an affair in London with an unconventional woman, Mrs. Bellew, who left a drunken neighbor of the Pendyces. Although the subject is divorce - George is named as correspondent in a divorce suit against Mrs. Bellew - I confess I am much more fascinated by George’s extraordinary mother, Mrs. Pendyce, a sweet, compassionate woman who loves the country and has the imagination to see beyond the scandal: her son is not “sowing wild oats” as his father thinks, but is genuinely in love. Jasper Bellew will drop the suit if George agrees not to see Mrs. Bellew. What will happen? Horace Pendyce is sure George will agree. Mrs. Pendyce is not so sure.

The portrayal of Mrs. Pendyce, a gentle soul and passionate gardener who has saved her orchard for 30 years from her husband’s pruning and improvements, is memorable.

“They were as yet the only things she had fought for in her married life, and Horace Pendyce still remembered with a discomfort robbed by time of poignancy how she had stood with her back to their bedroom door and said, 'If you cut those poor trees, Horace, I won’t live here!'"

In a sense she defends George as if he is one of her trees: he will thrive if left alone, but, alas, must be rescued form this tangle if possible.

There are many gorgeous descriptions of the garden in springtime. Mr. and Mrs. Pendyce love the family's country house, and their values are rooted in a late-Victorian conventionality and love of tradition. And though George and Mrs. Bellew should be main characters, so far they are mere ciphers, and we are seeing most of the events through the eyes of Mrs. Pendyce and her husband, Horace.

Mrs. Bellew is not a sympathetic character like Irene. She comes across as hard.

By the way, the name Pendyce sounds a bit like Forsyte. But the Pendyces are not as obnoxious as the Forsytes,. Of course that quality makes the Forsytes so fascinating.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Wodehouse & Gene Stratton Porter

Today I bought several P. G. Wodehouse books at a used bookstore - as many as I could comfortably carry in my bicycle pannier, with other accessories: an emergency apple for fuel, old purse, inner tube, and map. it’s such a thrill to “shop local” instead of ordering everything. I relentlessly blocked the aisle - I was determined to take these unshelved Penguins right off the cart - and sorted through them methodically to ascertain which ones I had. How many novels DID Wodehouse write about the Earl of Emsworth and his pig, the Empress of Blandings, a “pre-eminent sow, three times silver medalist in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show?” How many times DID Bertie Wooster & friends actually steal the pig? This is a quiz for the P. G. Wodehouse Society. At any rate, I bought Pigs Have Wings and Market Blandings, crossing my fingers that I didn’t have them.

My husband wants to know, "Don’t we have enough Wodehouse?"

It’s true that I prefer Nancy Mitford, E. F. Benson, and Angela Thirkell. But the Wodehouses are classics - and occasionally I am in the mood for them. I love Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, though I think I’ve read all those books.

On the Sony Reader I had to abandon Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden, an awkward novel about an attractive, aggressive, innovative woman farmer who is too successful to attract men, though I’ve just gotten to the part where she’s engaged to a Lord So-and-So, who has just fallen ill with a cold and may be dying - who knows, because I’m done with it. This is available in a Virago, but the writing is so terrible I advise you not to waste your money ,unless you’re simply interested in women farmer books, of which there are better ones: Far from the Madding Crowd and A Lantern in Her Hand. I looked up Kaye-Smith and apparently this is not one of her famous books, so it’s probably not the right one to read.

I am, however, very much enjoying Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost on the Sony Reader - a girls’ classic which I never read as a child - it was one of those moldy old books we never checked out of the library. Earlier this year Janet Malcolm wrote a good essay about Gene (Geneva) Stratton Porter in The New York Review of Books, and though Malcolm is far from my mentor, as she is also a fan of the Gossip Girl books, I have heard good things about Porter from other sources. Porter, an Indiana native and environmentalist, is best-known for two children’s books, Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost, and the heroine of GOTL, Lenora, reminds me vaguely of Anne of Green Gables. The novel thus far revolves around Lenora’s determination to attend high school, which she discovers on the first day will cost her a prohibitive $20 tuition and $6 for four books. In her old-fashioned calico dress, hat, and boots, she is mocked by the other students, and walks home crying. Her mother, a reclusive, well-educated, angry widow & farmer, allowed her to attend without money and in the wrong clothes, because she sadistically wanted her daughter to stay home. But two neighbors discover Lenora’s plight and buy what she needs - and then Lenora discovers from the Bird Woman, a local expert on natural history, that she can sell moths from her collection - she immediately makes $50.

Lenora gives away her lunch to three starving children and performs other good deeds. But this isn’t just a moralistic children’s book of the turn of the century. There are some sinister elements, warnings for girls. A thief and peeping tom steals Lenora’s money from a box in the swamp - and then spies on her at her house. He hears her talking about how she has no money, and guiltily returns the money, but leaves a note warning her not to leave her money there anymore, and saying that he can’t answer for what will happen if he finds her in the swamp. So Lenora simultaneously has found a way to make a living from the swamp and has met with terror.

Porter’s writing is sometimes good, sometimes merely page-turning, a mix of realism and melodrama. But I’m very glad to add this to my store of L. M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and Charlotte M. Yonge.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Galsworthy, James Lever, and Colum McCann

I almost cried over the tragic ending of Galsworthy's The Man of Property, the first novel of The Forsyte Saga,. I feel I know these characters personally, and want to rush on to the next book, In Chancery, to see their conflicts resolved. But I can't indulge my Galsworthy habit all the time. I'm going to limit myself - 9 p.m. to midnight

These complex novels are more than just another plot-driven family saga. Galsworthy’s astute characterization of the new-monied Forsytes, the suspenseful plot focused on the clash between love and money, his beautiful, unwavering, evenly-paced style, and brilliant analysis of the fabric of Victorian (and then Edwardian, and post WWI) society are compelling. It's a quick read - like one long sumptuous novel that will make you miss your bus stop, forget to pick up your concert tickets, and crossly tell the family that it's sandwiches tonight.

But it is Galsworthy's characters, good and bad, who capture our affections, and live on 103 years after the first publication in 1906 of The Man of Property. In the preface to the 1934 edition of The Forsyte Saga, Ada Galsworthy quotes a letter from a fan to Galsworthy.

Dear Mr. Galsworthy,

Thinking you may be somewhat interested, I am writing about a happening in London, where I spent considerable time a few years ago. Late one bright afternoon I walked down the Haymarket. Just as I turned into Cockspur Street I came face to face with a man whom I instantly recognized as some one I knew, but whose name for the moment had escaped me. It was apparent he did not recall me, and passed on. Trying to recall where and when I had met this man, I suddenly realized that I did know him well. It was Soames Forsyte.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: My reading of the Booker long-listed Me Cheeta by James Lever is temporarily on hold because my husband wants to read it. He and I are both “judging” this for our - ha! - Midwest Booker Prize. I’ve read two, he has read one, and he says he has read so many bad books lately that he needs a laugh. I’ve read 100 pages and actually think it’s good - I should never trash a book until I read it.

AND: A friend gave me Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, so I am also reading this. It’s set during the ‘70s, when Philippe Petit the artist walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. The novel focuses on several different characters who (I assume) witness the tightrope act in 1974. Very good writing. Why isn’t this in line for the Booker Prize?

By the way, there's a fabulous documentary about Philippe Petit's planning of his illicit tightrope walk between the Town Towers, A Man on Wire: lots of footage from '70s home movies made by friends, as well as interviews.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Persephones and Forsytes

This is Persephone Week, according to A Work in Progress, who is joining whole-heartedly in a “Persephone challenge,” started by another blogger (and I can’t remember who started it - sorry). There should be many fascinating Persephone reviews this week, since some of the most famous & prolific blogs support Persephones, Viragos, and other women’s presses. I have done my bit by ordering Christine Longford’s Making Conversation, and though I may not get around to it this week, I will read it. Here is a link to one of my old reviews of Persephones, so I can get into the spirit of the thing.

FORSYTES: I am otherwise booked this week reading The Forsyte Saga. I wasn’t planning to start my Galsworthy marathon till fall, but I have already read two-thirds of The Man of Property (the first book in the series) and CAN’T STOP. It’s one of those things. The next eight books will go fast. Anyway, we have had autumnal golden light, and the golden wild flowers are shaggily peering over the dryish, bending prairie grass, and last-minute summer birds and crickets are chirping end- of-summer songs, so it feels like fall.

There’s no denying that The Forsyte Saga (surely a Persephone kind of series) is an underrated classic, a celebration of rebellion against conventional mores. Though people mock Galsworthy, they often change their minds once they have read him. One of my favorite INTELLECTUAL blogs - now deleted - what a waste! - had a post about reading Galsworthy, how much he was enjoying it, and would now probably would find himself reading Arnold Bennett. (And of course that’ would be a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.) But clearly he had to overcome the middlebrow, second-rate label and was astonished by the quality of this traditional novel.

The first trilogy of The Forsyte Saga in one volume.

When I first discovered The Forsyte Saga, I’d attend classes, then go to work as a low-level clerk, then home to recovery-read and do my reading for classes. It was always hard for me to put aside the Forsytes to read Joyce, etc. Fascinated by the two romantic triangles described in The Man of Property, I was so sorry for artistic, musical Irene, caged in an unhappy marriage to materialistic Soames Forsyte, because her stepmother had wanted her off her hands. Soames, who adores her and can’t understand why she doesn’t love him, watches her fall for Bosinney, an architect who is building their country house. Soames can’t quite admit what is happening, though it’s causing a scandal among the Forsytes. Later, his cousin, Jolyon, an artist and outcast from the Forsytes, comes to Irene's rescue after a disaster.

One of my first university professors indicated that Galsworthy was second-rate, which amazed me, since the prof and I were kindred souls and he loved all my other canonical favorites AND watched the series on TV. So I couldn’t understand what was so middle-brow about Galsworthy. I guess it’s the fact that he wasn’t a “modernist: Joyce and Woolf set the bar, though they were a little later surely.

Jolyon , the artist who himself ran away from his conventional marriage (as did Galsworthy), defines a Forsyte in this dialogue:

“A Forsyte,” replied young Jolyon, “is not an uncommon animal. There are hundreds among the members of this Club. Hundreds out there in the streets; you meet them wherever you go!”

“And how do you tell them, may I ask?” said Bosinney.

“By their sense of property. A Forsyte takes a practical - one might say a commonplace - view of things, and a practical view of things is based fundamentally on a sense of property. ...He knows a good thing, and his grip on property - it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money, or reputation - is his hall-mark.”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nella Last's War

I have just stumbled upon a riveting book, Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49. This extraordinarily well-written record of a middle-aged housewife’s life in England during World War II is sometimes cheerful and funny, often very sad and dark, but always moving and compelling. Nella wrote her diary for The Mass-Observation Archive, founded in 1937 to conduct social research on everyday life in England. In addition to chronicling the routine, she describes the nerve-racking domestic changes galvanized by absent sons in the army, patriotism, enforced thrift, pluck,and bombs. I'm so happy I found this book, browsing at Amazon - the kind of book usually published by Persephone and Virago. Although I’m not familiar with the publisher, Profile Books, this version of the diaries (2006) was edited by Richard Broad, the TV director of a TV series about the home front during World War II, and Suzie Fleming, a historian of the women’s movement.

“Next to being a mother, I’d have loved to write books,” Nella writes. She obviously was a writer. She kept a diary until 1965.

Nella is not a Provincial Lady or Mrs. Tim, though her diary reads like a novel and is every bit as much a page-turner. She lives in Burrow, a small town heavily bombed during the war - and selflessly works for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service ), knitting blankets and sewing cot quilts, hospital gowns, and dolls. Although the women who work with her depend on her brightness and leadership, she is not a saint - she is often irritable and furious at selfish neighbors, who have the gall to ask her to look after their houses when they flee to the country, or ask her to shop for them - she refuses to do either, because she has enough to do. She has to queue up for groceries and look for bargains, buying cheap meat, which she uses in stews, and tinned fruit cocktail, which she saves for a special occasions. Her husband gardens and she keeps chickens.

Nella has an original voice and chronicles not only her domestic life and challenges, but the strain of forced optimism, her depression and anger. Her son, Cliff, begs her “not to change” after reading her diary, upset by her “hardness.” She is honest and venting in her diary a way she can't be in her family life.

We learn that her marriage has been oppressive, and that her anti-social husband had prevented her from going out alone, until her health collapse three years before. At the beginning of the war she develops a stutter and bumps appear on her nails. (These symptoms don't last.) Motherhood has been the main joy of her life. In some ways the war gives her freedom and independence she's never had before. She becomes a super-patriot: when Cliff, the younger son, takes leave from the army shortly after his sick leave, she rages, because she thinks he’s not doing his duty. And his friend, Jack, also a soldier, comes home on leave and mocks Churchill and expresses his doubts whether he knows what he is doing. Nella is furious, but when she next listens to Churchill, she isn’t inspired. She processes others’ opinions slowly and begins to understand the stress of the army on her sensitive son. And there are things we’re certainly shocked by: she agrees with Hitler “on one thing,” his gassing of the mentally ill, because she thinks they have no purpose. Her older son, Arthur, also in the military, hates Jews. She defends the Jews and Arthur admits he's prejudiced.

She has a very positive effect on people - but bitches in her diary.

And her black depressions are also very much a part of her story. I think this is what makes it very different from more upbeat, novelistic accounts. Here's an excerpt:

Monday, 22 January, 1940

I feel so useless tonight - always a sign of nervous tension with me. I feel as if my efforts were so tiny and feeble - so little to help all the trouble and pain in the world. I’ll have two aspirins tonight to try and sleep, for when I don’t it makes my wretched bones worse and makes the pain in my back unbearable. I sat quietly casting my knitting and feeling half-wild with nerves, when my little dog got up from where he was lying and peered up at me with his blinding old eyes, and then lay down on my feet, as if he knew I was unhappy.

Some residents of Burrow actually complain that its destruction is ignored by the media, while cities like Liverpool are in the news, which makes her laugh. This is a very unusual book - and there's a sequel called Nella Last's Peace.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Midwest Booker Prize: 827 Che

It was a little bit difficult to track down the Booker-longlisted Me Cheeta, since the suburban library had catalogued it as non-fiction. Yup! I'm not being facetious. 827 Che. (See above.) But I was not up to being the whistleblower today, so I checked it out at the automatic self-check-out and DID NOT SAY A WORD. I’m going to write a little note about the mistake, including an article about the Booker long-list, and hand it in when I return it. The error is embarrassing and KIND OF LETS THE AMERICAN SIDE DOWN: if some careless librarian screwed up and didn't catalogue it as fiction, who's going to read it? In the librarians' bare defense, the American HarperCollins edition does not list an author, and the jacket copy cheekily describes it as “a celebrity autobiography,” without indicating it's fiction. On the other hand, only a moron could read the blurbs on the back and think it's non-fiction: “Praise from Cheeta’s Cohorts and Co-Stars: Lassie, Mr. Ed, Johnny Weismuller," etc. Oh, let's face it: somebody was really alseep at the wheel.

Let's hope the Library of Congress didn't make the initial error.

But...Whoa! What’s going on out there?

This is crazy, but I just looked it up at the New York Public Library and discovered that it’s classified as  Performing Arts Circulating Drama Non-Fiction  -  599.885 M  

What? I know it's a novel. Am I the smartest person in the U.S.? (No, because Harriet Klausner and other Amazon reviewers also know it's fiction!)

Okay - how could this mistake happen?

Me Cheeta is a spoof-Hollywood autobiography of Cheeta, the chimp from the Tarzan films, and was inspired by an ACTUAL article about Cheeta's 76th birthday in Hollywood. The publisher assigned the book to James Lever, a 37-year-old editor, who wrote the novel in a couple of months. And everybody in the UK loved it. It actually got reviewed. AND it's Booker long-listed.

I plan to "deconstruct," i.e., "read," this meta-autobiography soon. And wait for my husband's review next week. ONLY ONE OF US HAS TO LIKE IT FOR IT TO MAKE THE MIDWEST BOOKER PRIZE SHORTLIST!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga (2002)

There was a Galsworthy revival a few years ago when Masterpiece Theater aired a BBC remake of The Forsyte Saga. We were glued to it at our house, took no phone calls from 8-9:30, and had to order takeout for our “TV parties” because we were too distracted to stir-fry broccoli. We gossiped about the Forsytes as if they were long-lost best dysfunctional friends. Was Soames nicer than we remembered? Was Irene too passive? We argued about whether languid Gina McKee was suitable as Irene, the artistic, gentle beauty coerced by her poor mother into marrying the wealthy Soames Forsyte, or whether we preferred the the gorgeous actress Nyree Dawn Porter from the 1967 series.

The Forsyte Saga (1967)

The underrated John Galsworthy, a neglected Nobel Prize winner and one of my favorite writers, was known primarily as a playwright in his day, though he is remembered now for The Forsyte Saga, a title that technically refers only to the first of three trilogies of autobiographical Forsyte novels, The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let. Alas, it is very difficult to find the other six novels: perhaps publishers think readers are fixated on the Soames-Irene-Jolyon triangle and will lose interest in subsequent generations. Not so!

Anyway, I was thrilled to find they are all available now at Borders, B&N, Amazon, etc. in individual paperback editions from the Headline Publishing Group. They even have book group guides in the back. I love it! I love the idea that you can coerce your friends into reading them by declaring them your book group choices. The last six are: The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon, Swan Song, Maid in Waiting, Flowering Wilderness, and Over the River.

Here are three of them.

I’m also thinking of Galsworthy because at a used bookstore I discovered for $5 a Scribners Compact Edition (1929) of Three Novels of Love by John Galsworthy, consisting of The Dark Flower, Beyond, and Saint’s Progress. I don't know these novels at all, but am very much looking forward to them. This book is Vol. 5 of a set, and I'm thinking of going back to pick up the others (only a few are left: the set is broken up).

Galsworthy may be my project for autumn - the leaves are already turning yellow on who-knows-what kind of tree on my street - though I'm certainly hoping we'll have quite a bit more summer.

There is also a LOT of Galsworthy at Gutenberg, etc. I always start with the BOOKS, though.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In the Kitchen

If you’re fascinated by independent restaurants or have ever worked in the business, you’ll enjoy Monica Ali’s new novel, In the Kitchen, an insider portrait of a fortyish executive chef whose energies are focused on trying to open his own restaurant and whose personal life is a mess. Does this sound familiar? Watch the restaurant news in the paper. The chef from the Pacific Rim restaurant on the quay is now chef of the chic new Vietnamese restaurant; the executive chef of the chain pasta place has just opened his own upscale Italian restaurant; the manager of La Boheme is accusing her husband, the owner, of assault; and the bus boy at the pierogi drive-in has just been busted for cocaine.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her stunning first novel, Brick Lane, Bangladesh-born Ali clearly knows her material. Chefs work 60-80 hours a week, endure stress in the kitchen and abuse from customers, work with people with - or have themselves - a variety of addictions, and are nomadic because stability is not the hallmark of success in this dysfunctional business. And there are also a lot of immigrants in restaurant work, as Ali knows.

Ali’s protagonist, Gabe Lightwood, fits this profile. As executive chef of the Imperial Hotel in London, he is overwhelmed with paperwork and the inadequacies of his staff, whom he defends but can’t control, and is just putting in his six months (though he promised 2 years) until he can prove to two potential backers that he can turn around a business. Ingredients are supposed to be fresh, but he catches an employee using frozen potatoes; Oona, his right-hand woman, the only woman of power on his staff, irritates him with her constant solicitous cups of tea and protective attitude toward the staff. He wants someone more efficient, faster, smoother. He is subtly racist, though he doesn't believe it.

“One thing he should do tomorrow was think of a way of getting rid of Oona. It would hardly be fair to hand her on to the next executive chef. He had nothing against her personally, and it wasn’t like she wasn’t willing to do things his way. But even when she was doing exactly what he asked of her, there was something so -what? -static about her. Even bustling around the kitchen, Oona had a way of seeming to stand stock-still.”

Although he has a girlfriend, a singer named Charlie, he is emotionally numb. He has never married, never made a commitment, though he tells himself he will marry Charlie soon. His father is dying of cancer, but he won't go home to visit until his sister bullies him. He has no friends and is lonely.

At the beginning of the novel, one of the restaurant porters, Yuri, is found dead in the basement of the hotel, where it turns out he has been living. Although the police say it was an accidental death, it is the catalyst for change in Gabriel, who is afraid he’ll be blamed and lose the backing for his own restaurant, as he sees pretty nearly everything in terms of his personal drama.

Then he meets Lena, who it seems had been living in the basement, and takes her home with him, fascinated by her ugly-attractiveness, slavish indifference to him, and history as a victim of slave-prostitute trafficking. Lena lies about almost everything, and her background isn’t quite clear to me at this point. She claims to have run away from her pimp.

Obsessed with this woman, Gabe feels compelled to lie about her to Charlie.

Gabe’s passivity can be annoying. He is not a likable hero, and we have to spend a lot of time with him, as the point-of-view is 3rd person limited. The narrative can be gloomy, but it fits the subject. Parts are slow, but parts are perfect. A little editing wouldn't have hurt.

Ali certainly knows and writes well about the hierarchy in restaurants, the immigrants who work there on the lower rungs, and the dysfunctional atmosphere, fed by the turnover.

I'm a little more than halfway through this, and am impressed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Oh My Goodness It's Not Literature!

Edna Ferber’s trio of career-woman short story collections, Roast Beef, Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney & Co. (available in one volume published by the University of Illinois), are not your typical turn-of-the-century women's lit. There is not a struggling Sister Carrie or a genteel well-educated woman with an interesting past who struggles to win the love of a good man because she cannot work. Ferber's capable, humorous Emma McChesney is an absolutely confident divorced businesswoman who rises from traveling petticoat salesman - she has the much-coveted Midwest region - to partner of Featherstone Petticoats. She loves her work and has adventures selling petticoats throughout the U.S. and South America, designs new lines of bloomers, skirts, and pajamas when fdresses become slim and tight and the petticoat falls out of fashion, helps her son Jock start his career as an ad man after Harvard, and eventually falls in love with her partner. This is absolutely charming Grade B stuff, very light, witty and fun.

Anyway, I became absolutely hooked on Ferber and decided to read one of the blockbuster novels made into movies (Giant, Showboat, etc.). Her 1924 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, So Big, happens to be in an omnibus of her work I picked up at a sale. Oh my goodness it’s not literature but I couldn’t stop reading!

From a a literary point of view the light Emma McChesney stories are superior to So Big because Ferber has perfected a humorous tone, knows her limitations, and even provides important historical facts about businesswomen and fashion in the early 20th century. But her ambitious novel, So Big, a kind of cut-rate but fascinating version of Willa Cather’s My Antonia crossed with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street , is powerful in a page-turning way, absolutely compelling though with occasional purple patches. This is an original portrait of a woman truck farmer, Selina Dejong, who becomes a successful businesswoman, and the powerfully sad story of her spoiled son, Dirk.

The first half of the novel focuses on Selina, the daughter of a well-educated gambler. This charming,,original character regards her father’s ups and downs on the road as an adventure. Sometimes she goes to public school, sometimes she goes to girls’ prep schools, depending on their fluctuating finances, but her father sees to it that she always has books.

“...good ladies wasted their sympathy. Selina had a beautiful time.... She read absorbedly books found in boarding-school parlours, in hotels, in such public libraries as the times afforded. She was alone for hours a day, daily. Frequently her father, fearful of loneliness for her, brought her an armful of books and she had an orgy, dipping and swooping about among them in a sort of gourmand’s ecstasy of indecision.”

Selina’s father is murdered, mistaken for someone else, and Selina, left penniless, goes to work as a country schoolteacher south of Chicago. When she falls in love with a Dutch truck farmer who is a gentle, handsome failure, she abandons her dreams, becomes a farm wife, is overcome by the amount of work but gallant, and works side by side with her husband. But her life revolves around her son, Dirk, nicknamed “So Big” during his childhood, and she transfers her dreams to him. The second half of the novel describes the fall of Dirk, who, because he falls in love with a manipulative rich woman who will not marry him, spoils his life under her mercenary influence and becomes a soulless bond dealer/banker. The last 100 pages of this sad, realistic novel are really literature.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and can whole-heartedly recommend the last part about Dirk if you want to read Ferber at her best.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Heavenly Pie

3:30 p.m.

3:31 p.m.

It is traditional for bicyclists to snack on pie. If you have read chronicles of RAGBRAI (The Register’s Great Annual Bike Ride across Iowa), BRAN (Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska), or other organized bike rides, you know that pie vendors make a killing on bike routes. Pie! MMMMMM. $3 or $4 for a heavenly slice. Pie is perfect when you’re crashing. Instant energy until the next pie stand. In newspaper interviews these cross-state group-bicyclists talk hypnotically about the pie.

We were riding the Root River Trail in Minnesota when we became obsessed with pie. The trail stopped in Whalan (population 60) in front of World Class Pies, a small restaurant in a comfortable house, with the usual bicycle sculpture in front. We ordered our pie and sat on the porch. We casually put our books aside - no one seemed to be reading - and photographed the pie. There was strawberry-rhubarb (mine), blueberry (my husband's), cherry, banana cream, strawberry with whipped cream on top, and more. The strawberry seemed the most popular. Slice after slice of that whisked out the back door.

We ate and watched the hummingbirds at a bird feeder. But it felt very odd to take a break without reading.

The reading-relaxation addiction is problematic on the beautiful, scenic, well-maintained Root River Trail, which extends for 60 miles along the Root River, under 300-foot bluffs, through woods, past cornfields and wildflowers. It's very difficult to find a place to relax and read. Bicyclists spread out until you get to a town, and then everyone crashes at the same park or restaurant or whatever else they can find. Well, except in Lanesboro, a beautiful bluff town - the central destination - that has been converted into a bicyclists’ tourist town, with bicycles and inner tubes for rent, many restaurants, shops, etc. There IS space there. There are some nice restaurants there, but my husband frankly hates it. (I love it - it's not tourist ticky-tacky.)

I kept trying to read bits of H. G. Wells's Ann Veronica at a picnic table on a crowded terrace in Lanesboro (my husband presented me with a Diet Coke from a machine, because he refused to go into a restaurant). Wells loves to satirize social issues, and this coming-of-age-in-the-turn-of-the-century-suffragette-and-Fabian-socialist world novel is engrossing. Ann Veronica, a 21-year-old science student, wants to be independent, to transfer to a good college, and to escape her father's domination and the proposal of a very silly young man, because she does not intend to live under any man. So she runs away to London after her father appallingly, violently refuses to allow her to attend a masked ball. Ann Veronica is a sympathetic heroine, but many of the marginal people she meets at political meetings puzzle her, because they can't argue well and are of a different social class. Wells has intruded occasionally to point out that prostitutes are better-able to earn a living than Ann V., so we know she's going to learn a lot very quickly.

There was too much noise to read much, though. That made both of us sulky.

After 41 miles I began to get that welded-to-the-machine feeling. The last couple of miles were hard for me, though it's an easy trail, not hilly. It's the longest ride of the summer so far. It's just a matter of riding that distance regularly and then it is nothing. ALL of it seems easier after that road-riding we did a while back.

N.B. If you plan to ride the Root River Trail on weekends, note that there are some share-the-trail issues. Groups of tubers now walk the trail with their giant orange doughnut-shaped inner tubes and some very aggressively resist the single-file protocol. One walked right AT my bicycle and refused to get over until I said, "Excuse me" as a strong hint. There should be etiquette contracts one signs before going on the trail!

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Acid Kool-Aid Midwest Booker: 2 Eliminations

The Booker Prize in the Midwest - or the Midlands, if you like - is like a pointless reality show where couples race cross-country in an energy-wasting SUV and then jump out at 13 random wasteland independent bookstores to perform pointless tasks, in this case reading a lot of long-listed Booker books. We eliminate what we can, and quickly, so as to spare the public.

And what we say is our FINAL ANSWER.

Two shocking eliminations occurred today.

Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness has been rudely dropped from our list.

My husband says, “It's forgettable. The characters are not that interesting. If I were British maybe I would appreciate the setting or something. There’s an architect and the woman he lives with and his dead wife and a daughter who might be dead and a son is in prison.

“The committee is - I’m not saying anything. They need some great themes like White Tiger. “ This said very sarcastically, as he hated White Tiger.

He says Harvey takes a chance by writing from the point of view of a man with Alzheimer’s. “But it won’t make it. There’s not enough there.”

The wife in the Booker Prize in the Midwest has even more rudely dropped Sarah Waters’s popular The Little Stranger.

“I’ve had to force myself to read 125 pages. She’s a good writer, but this doesn’t interest me at all, and I have to think it’s not up to her usual standard. It’s very plot-driven and the characters seem unreal and shadowy, especially the doctor-narrator. A truly horrific incident happens at a party at the crumbling posh old mansion - and Stephen King would like it, but I don’t.

“It doesn’t measure up to her last novel, The Night Watch. And I’m not going to finish it!”

Yes! That’s what we like to hear. Rudeness! It’s a COMMITTEE choice, not a classic.

Eleven are left in the running, and the only one we’ve read is Byatt’s brilliant novel, The Children’s Book.

"We're looking for a dark horse, but we haven't found it yet," the husband adds.

This is probably the year of Me, Cheeta in England because there was some kind of Acid Kool-Aid Test to disrupt the judges’ judgment.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Roast Beef, Medium

We don’t have an American equivalent of Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, D. E. Stevenson’s classic humorous novel (soon to be reissued by Bloomsbury) about an army wife whose diary regales us with her adventures as a versatile housewife, ebullient mother of two precocious children, and charming friend who helps other army wives adapt to their gypsy life. This novel is a darling of the D. E. Stevenson Yahoo group, an online group devoted to discussion of her novels. And because the book is so popular, I’ve been racking my brains for an American equivalent. In vain.

For some peculiar reason, however, the tone of Edna Ferber’s delightful collection of short stories, Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney (1913), puts me in mind of Mrs. Tim. It’s not that the heroine has much in common with Mrs. Tim - Emma McChesney is perhaps the only a successful traveling saleswoman in literary history, a stellar employee of T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats. Her domestic situation is utterly different from Mrs. Tim's, too, as she is the divorced mother of a 17-year-old son. But her sense of humor, friendliness, and resilience are an American rendition of Mrs. Tim.

“Roast Beef, Medium is not only a food. It is a philosophy,” Edna Ferber writes in the preface to the collection.

The title refers to the only consistently good road food, in Emma's opinion: roast beef. On the road, Emma daydreams about the Sunday dinners she could cook if she were an ordinary housewife. Roast beef becomes a metaphor for the family life she feels she is missing, though none of the women she knows lead that life,. After five months on the road in small towns she wants nothing more than to eat a good dinner in Chicago and see a show. But, tired from a long day of the business she simultaneously adores and is cynical about, she watches other housewives in the small towns.

“As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley....There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat.... She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.”

Emma doesn't have a boyfriend, though men try to pick her up. She has a competitive relationship with a salesman for a rival petticoat company, a fat, talented pianist who likes to play the piano in hotel lounges. Her women friends work in department stores - and she makes friends on a train with an actress. Her son takes her money for granted until she takes him on the road and he finds out how difficult the life is.

Edna Ferber is known for big old-fashioned novels like So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer) and Giant (which was made into an incredibly good movie with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean). I always thought they were supposed to be bad novels - not read anymore, anyway - but these stories, which I discovered at Gutenberg, are superb. There are two sequels, Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emily McChesneyand her Son, Jock (1914), and Emma McChesney & Co. (1915).

The books are in print: the University of Illinois publishes the entire trilogy in one volume. But you can also read them free at Gutenberg and I read these stories happily on my Sony Reader today.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Booker in the Midwest

“Here in the Midlands we don’t have to read the big names,” my husband says.

The Midlands?

We’re pretending we’re British and dividing up the Booker longlist - because we decided it was unfair of me to announce I was giving the Booker to Byatt without bothering to read any of the other books. What about Samantha Harvey and Sarah Waters, whose novels we found at the library? And hasn't Byatt already won it?

So my husband is reviewing Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness, a short novel about Alzheimer’s that he can fit in between histories of the French and Indian War and German novels in translation.

“There are three words that come into my mind, but I’ve just totally forgotten,” he says of Harvey’s book.

He also says, “it’s in the running.”

That means he likes it.

He turned over Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger to me. “I can’t read that,” he says.

So I’m reading it.

Waters is a lively, elegant, protean writer of historical fiction. The Night Watch, set in the ‘40s, nominated for every award a few years ago but winning none, centers on a female ambulance driver during the blitz. It goes backward in time from 1947 to the beginning of the war, and I admired this very much. I also enjoyed Affinity, set in the 19th century, a mysterious, intriguing novel about the fascination and relationship between a visitor/social worker at a Victorian prison and a charming medium who is in for assault and fraud.

I admit I didn’t buy The Little Stranger because I dreaded reading a ghost story. Any reference to The Turn of the Screw - invoked by the critics in the reviews - bores me shitless. So far the book is very good, and I haven’t actually reached the ghost story yet. The introspective narrator, Dr. Farraday, is called in to Hundreds Hall to treat the Ayres’ maid when his partner is busy. Because his mother used to be a maid at the Hall, he is very class-conscious and almost awed by the chance to tour the house again. But Hundreds Hall is a wreck, and though Roderick Ayre and his sister, Caroline, are arrogant, Dr. Farraday's professional relationship with them gradually changes to friendship.

The book cover says, “But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life?”

I’ve really only begun it.

Waters is solid - her plots carry you along and her style is impeccable.

So more on this later.

And as a treat - I’m reading an advance copy of Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, the final novel in her four seasons quartet (due out on Oct. 19). She’s one of the really important American writers, as far as I’m concerned, and I feel very lucky to have gotten a copy. But I am insane: I BOUGHT an advance copy over the INTERNET. I should have begged it from a publisher.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Sony Reader Report: Day 3

Sony Reader (in the Brown Cover) on Psychedelic Bag

You used to be dazzled by the Sony Walkman. You’d be out running with the radio clipped onto your pocket, listening to FM as you puffed by the lakeside park, grateful that Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, The Pretenders, and Eddie Rabbit (singers Ann Beattie’s characters also heard on the radio) distracted you from the boredom of running.

We have a Sony Walkman (antique), a Sony TV (a gift), and now a Sony Reader (chosen over the Kindle because it suits our slower life-style). The experience of getting a Sony Reader today is a bit like getting a Sony Walkman in the ‘80s. No running involved, but it’s a smooth gadget, and the transition to the e-reading is quick. Proof - and I realize this sounds unbelievable - last night I became so absorbed in my e-book that I kept reaching up to turn the pages. (There ARE no pages: you have to click a button).

Reading is reading, but this is a much better device than the Palm (which had a glaring screen, though the new ones are probably better). You can find endless free public-domain books at Gutenberg,, and Google. Last night I chose Mary Roberts Rinehart, who is known as the American Agatha Christie.

Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, a 1907 mystery whose title is reminiscent of my favorite Nancy Drew,The Hidden Staircase, is engrossing, amusing, and well-written. It transcends the machine.

The narrator, Rachel, is a wealthy, witty spinster, whose summer house suddenly begins to fill up with dead bodies (two so far). Her servants are jumpy, strange noises begin at the witching hour of three o’clock, mysterious men, women, and ghosts invade the house, and her clever, sophisticated nephew and niece may be involved (though she, and we, trust not).

Rachel begins ironically in the third person, before switching to the first person: “This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.”

Are you hooked yet? But it becomes even wittier.

Books are preferable to e-books, but my library discards books after five years (not making this up sadly). Therefore, no Rinehart in the library. So for some of us with catholic tastes, the e-reader is a good investment: my book and e-book libraries will never coincide.

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Shuttle & Chronicles of Avonlea

I’ve been downloading free e-books for my Sony Reader, among them treasures by Elizabeth von Arnim, Christina Rosetti, and Charlotte M. Yonge. It's like a continuous shopping spree for out-of-print books, only one pays nothing after the initial investment in the e-reader. Reading on the Sony is a surprisingly pleasant experience. Okay, it’s not quite as sensual as a book, but one forgets that it’s a machine because the screen/page is unobtrusive. And one has the advantage of being able to enlarge the print. My eyes appreciate it.

On the Sony I’m reading L. M. Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea, a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of Avonlea (Anne of Green Gables' town). As a girl I was disappointed because Anne appears only occasionally, but now I realize that these stories are probably not aimed at children: in the first two, Montgomery writes about love affairs and friendships among aging proud men and women. This is enjoyable end-of-summer fare for the mature reader.

But I’m also reading a lovely 1907 hardcover edition (heaven forbid I should ever abandon the book!) of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult classic, The Shuttle, which the novelist and biographer Diana Birchall introduced to many of us at the Yahoo group Women Writers through the Ages (moderated by Ellen Moody, who often comments on our posts). Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, also wrote novels for adults, and two of them, The Shuttle and The Making of a Marchioness, are available new from Persephone Books (though The Shuttle is abridged), and as free e-books. Diana kept championing The Shuttle, and she was absolutely right. (If you don't want the abridged edition or the e-book, there are plenty of cheap copies of the 1907 Grosset & Dunlap editions online.)

I am absolutely glued to this very modern novel, which is as good as anything Edith Wharton ever wrote. Burnett's style is vigorous and confident, and the theme is the tragic reduction of Rosy Vanderpoel from confident golden girl to battered woman, and the attempts of her sister, Bettina, to rescue her. Rosy, a blossoming, lovely heiress in New York, marries Sir Nigel, who despises Americans but has entrapped her for her money. Back on his mouldering estate in England, he abuses her psychologically and physically until she turns over most of her money to him (which he squanders on frivolous trips). He also cuts off Rosy's communications with her family (though he himself writes occasional letters to placate them) and reduces her to a nervous wreck. When the Vanderpoels visit Europe, he tells them Rosy is away. She is utterly isolated and shattered.

But the heroine is her younger sister, Betty, a beautiful, brilliant young woman who, 12 years after the marraige, when she is grown up, sets out to rescue Rosy. She does not believe her sister dropped them, and her father, a businessman, also suspects she may be Sir Nigel's victim. There's something of the fairy tale about this, with one princess rescuing another. Burnett's description of Betty's impressions of Sir Nigel's estate is enchanting: it's a kind of Sleeping Beauty's castle in need of repairs. And Rosy's 12-year-old son, the crippled Ughtred, is reminiscent of heroes of her children's books.

That's as far as I've got, but the writing is superb. And Burnett knows so much about the psychology of the battered woman. She understands PTSD before its time. The battered woman is not a masochistic victim, but often a successful woman brought down by isolation and constant belittling and tantrums. The abuser often is charming and sympathetic in public: only his wife and children know his other side. How Burnett knew this I don't know: she also writes about this in The Making of a Marchioness.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Don't Do Windows!

I bought a Sony Reader (an e-book reader). I wanted to buy the old 505 before the new sleeker tiny model gluts the market on Aug. 25. I didn’t want anything pink or doll-size, which the future promises. Twenty-four hours after bringing home my neat leather-bound mass-market-paperback-sized device which, according to the electronics salesman, didn't sell until inexplicably it flew out of the store last week - Kindle backlash? - I am thrilled with this unobtrusive device for reading free e-books from

You would think I would be a Kindle person after years of buying books from Amazon, but I reconsidered my options after the recent deletion of 1984 from customers’ Kindles. (This Orwellian scandal really happened: there was a copyright problem, Amazon had illegally sold 1984 as an e-book, and Kindle customers woke up to find their copies of 1984 deleted, with a refund.)

That's ironically intrusive.

There was one problem with the Sony. I didn't read the box. I have a Mac, and the “Mac environment” doesn’t "support" the Sony Reader.

Fortunately, bloggers suggested some (high-tech) solutions, so I didn't have to take it back.

I don't mess with tech, though. It took a one-and-a-half-hour bus trip to the Apple Store to implement the solution. The Genius Bar fixed me up with free software that allows me to bypass the Sony-Microsoft Windows requirement. So it has a happy ending.

I love my e-book!

No, I still don’t do windows!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Boxed Sets

I adore boxed sets. Whether it be Anne of Green Gables or Winston Churchill’s Second World War, it’s satisfying to have a whole set, and a box makes its own mini-bookshelf. When I went through a Churchill phase a few years ago - what was with that? - the boxed set lured me. A longtime anti-war petitioner and protester, I paradoxically became absorbed in Churchill’s accounts of orchestrating the war, detailed maps, and lists of arms and ammunition.

Not my kind of thing usually, but one sees why he won the Nobel.

Last fall I rapidly reread L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series in honor of Anne’s centenary - again, love the boxed set! I was surprised by how clever and original these novels are, and the series actually improves as Anne grows up, teaches in a one-room school, returns to college for her B.A., writes stories, and marries The Right Man (Gilbert) - though the later novels deteriorate a bit as they shift to her children. I think I still have to track down some short stories, Chronicles of Avonlea. And L. M. Montgomery wrote an adult book, if I can find out which one it was. (She was prolific.)

On my mainly-unread books shelf I found an adorable set of Laurence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet - Pocket Books, small paperbacks from the sixties with vaguely Picassoish cover art (I can't read the artist's signature on the covers; it's not Picasso).

One summer I fell in love with Laurence Durrell’s lush, poetic prose and spent a lot of time reading The Aleandria Quartet in a hammock, but I honestly don’t know if I can read lines like “Our love has become like some fearful misquotation in a popular saying” anymore without laughing. Perhaps It's best not to try. It seemed so romantic. I knew I was going to move to Alexandria and live like an artist. (Right!)

Books I'd Most Like to See in a Boxed Set: Pamela Hansford Johnson's Avenue of Stone trilogy.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Roads/Tea at Four O'Clock

Spoiled from years of riding flat rails-to-trails, I had forgotten how difficult it is to bike long distances on country roads. It was uphill...then another swerving and rushing by...another uphill...more cars...a precarious crack next to the shoulder of the road...a wooden church with a “Gospel Festival” sign...cows, but no chickens or pigs anymore...people waving from cars...another long, long uphill...and my legs ached in every muscle.

The book in my pannier was Janet McNeill’s Tea at Four O’Clock. I was in the mood for a Virago, so whimsically threw it in at the last minute. Sitting in exhaustion on a restaurant terrace opposite a bicycle sculpture (made of a bicycle), I read while I waited for my LARGE chocolate ice cream cone. (Last time they served teeny-tiny cones, so this time we both ordered a large.) Tea at Four O'Clock is an Irish novel, which begins with the funeral of a chilly spinster, Mildred, the dominatrix of her family. Her funeral is a relief, especially to her nervous younger spinster sister, Laura. After the funeral their brother, George, not on time, a ne’er-do-well in Mildred's eyes, returns for a reunion with Laura, the first in 20 years, and happy though he is to see her, he immediately worries that he has been too friendly and that she might come live with his family.

OK, that’s as far as I’ve got. Dinner at Panera; then I fell into bed at 7 and slept.

I got up a little later to read Byatt’s The Children’s Book, then fell asleep on the couch, then stumbled to bed, and slept some more. It’s the bike ride, not the book, that put me to sleep. I can’t recommend this book too highly - remember, it SHOULD get the Booker Prize - but I couldn’t stay awake after that bike ride.


I'm in the final stretches of Ursula Perrin's Old Devotions, an out-of-print women's novel. It's an excellent wry, self-conscious, humorous novel, the story of the thoughtful, ironic Isabel, a writer who finds herself single in her mid-thirties, and unfortunately falls in love with her dying best friend Morgan's husband and difficult suburban family way of life when she is called in to help with the children.

I started reading E. Nesbit’s The Red House, one of her adult novels. It’s available at and Gutenberg, and I downloaded it onto our out-of-date PalmPilot. Because Olive Wellwood (an E. Nesbit prototype) is one of the main characters in The Children’s Book, I decided to read one of Nesbit's adult books to understand more about her. (I read almost all of her children’s books as a child, my favorite being The Enchanted Castle.)

I don’t have a Kindle. Occasionally I’ve thought about it - but I really prefer books in book form. The nice thing about the PalmPilot - and I suppose about the Kindle - is that one can find odd out-of-print books online and read them for free. The screen isn’t that good: one can only read for an hour or so on the Palm. But it works in a pinch.

And I have discovered some wonderful authors online. I read an intriguing early novel by Enid Bagnold about witchcraft, which started me on a Bagnold spree a few years ago. (P.S. I tried to look this up, and came up with nothing, so apparently the novel about witches in World War I was by another writer.)

There is a hysterically funny series of “The Kindle vs. the Book” videos available from Green Apple Books in San Francisco. I was alerted to these via Jacket Copy, the L. A. Times blog. Enjoy!