Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rumer Godden

Finally, a beautiful Saturday! We turned off the heat, threw the porch door open, and basked in the sunlight, reading our library books. The sun feels so good! If we’d been braver, we would have sat outside in our Adirondack chairs, though there are still seven or eight crunchy inches of snow to deter us. (If we'd been younger, we would have done it.)

This timidly slanting light reveals memories of past reading in other gasping thaws. I remember with delight long ice-crunching walks to the library at the age of 12, gambling with my first adult library card on Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrows, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, and Lloyd C.(?) Douglas's The Robe. It took a haphazard divining to come up with these three choices, but they were not as weird as you might think. I knew Rumer Godden from The Doll’s House, probably the only one of hers children’s books I'd read; I picked out The Magic Toyshop for the cover (and became hooked on Angela Carter almost before anyone else did); and The Robe because I’d been thrilled by the movie. Obviously my taste was all over the map, but I read all three indiscriminately, with equal enjoyment. go back in time, I've been reading some "real" library books, the old ones you find when you browse without preconceptions. I've rediscovered Rumer Godden's China Court, which was proudly displayed in the glass bookcases at my grandmother’s house. China Court was a Book- of-the-Month-Club book, as were most of my grandmother’s books. As a child I thought the novel had too many threads, portrayed too many generations, and was confusingly non-linear with parallel and intersecting back-and-forth-in time lines. Of course now I love it; it's exactly my kind of book. Five generations, the rise and fall of a Cornish house, the fourth generation abandoning the quarry and the obsolete china factory for more lucrative, less demanding careers. The novel begins with the death of Mrs. Quin, the third-generation dowager of the slightly dilapidated, once grand house, China Court.  Mrs. Quin, an unconventional woman who was originally rejected by Lady Patrick as an appropriate friend for her son, has, ironically, not only married into the family, but become the last matriarch and house historian.  Yet, through her wild garden, she has somehow renewed the house and even made the past more accessible.

One thing I love about Godden's style:  characters who are peripheral to the action, or even family members looking back at the past, comment, Greek-chorus-like, on events in the narrative.  We first learn about Mrs. Quin and life at China Court from her maids.

Godden writes:  "Neither Cecily nor Mrs. Abel whispered, nor did they speak of Mrs. Quin as if she were not there, but all the same, things were muted; there was no early firing of explosives from the quarry, which had stopped work when the news was heard and the men had been sent home as a mark of respect.  'But the news will be in the village before the men,' said Cecily.

"Of course, Dr. Taft's car would have been seen, then Mrs. Abel coming down, and Cecily knew the vicar would be here at any moment.  'No one goes in or out of China Court who isn't seen,' complained Cecily often, 'seen and talked about.'  The village was not kind: proudly inbred, it kept for strangers the spirit of its wrecker forebear, though where it respected it was staunch and for Mrs. Quin there would be genuine feeling.  'Mrs. Quin gone!'..."

Godden's best books deserve rereading:  most are out-of-print, at least in the U.S. We should lobby for  Persephone or Virago to "rediscover" them. T

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike

John Updike died of cancer today at the age of 76.

I wasn’t a natural fan of John Updike. He was not John Cheever, the reigning chronicler of the suburbs whom I idolized in my university days. Cheever’s stories were easier to read, more direct, less disturbing than Updike's.

It wasn’t until I read the Rabbit books that I understood Updike’s genius.

With humor, pathos, and a complete lack of sentimentality, Updike wrote about Rabbit's hollow confusion and stumbling attempts to break away from his class paradigm. Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest seemed to describe my life, or rather the contiguous lives of lower-middle-class male relatives who played pick-up basketball, yearningly watched sports, and broke their wives’ hearts by picking up women and sometimes leaving their families. The scenes are so familiar: Rabbit running away and his wife Janice drinking; Rabbit returning to Janice, and the two trapped by conventions and tragedy; Rabbit eventually managing his father-in-law's car dealership while Janice blooms; and their son Nelson’s cocaine addiction.

Isn't this the stuff of all our lives? Even as a metaphor?

The Rabbit books meant so much to me that I vigorously chose Rabbit Is Rich for my reluctant book group in 2000. Nobody wanted to read it, but they were stunned by the beautiful writing and the easy flow of the story. It was the third of the Rabbit quartet, and they loved it and immediately changed their minds about Updike’s reputation for inducing boredom.

Old interviews with Updike are all over the internet today. He was brilliant, calm, and patient with reporters who asked the same questions again and again. Was he too old to write well? Did he think he’d written better in his youth? Updike, who had liver spots on his hands and apparently was already suffering from cancer last fall, talked about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the youth culture and America’s restless insistence on young talent.

His books were always there: something new to read in the teacher’s lounge at lunchtime. “Is that actually good?” someone asked, thinking I was posing as an intellectual when I read Memories of the Ford Administration. Oh please, give me a break.

“Of course.”

He won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the National Critics Circle Award, so he certainly wasn't lacking in the awards department. But he should have won the Nobel for Rabbit if for nothing else

He was imminently readable.

Off to read Updike.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Favourite of the Gods

Sybille Bedford, a widely-touted novelist who died in 2006, was described in The Guardian as a writer who "did indeed look back to a multi-lingual society of salons and private trains, flawed by arrogance and complacency..." (Is there perhaps a hint of an apology in "indeed?")

She is so highly recommended (there seems to be a kind of mystique) that I did attempt to read A Favourite of the Gods.

Bedford wrote beautifully, with a luminous clarity which validates her reputation for intelligence and wit. The narrative of the novel perfectly orchestrates brilliant style with a loose plot centered on the complications of sexual fidelity. This Jamesian saga about three generations of women is vaguely reminiscent of Portrait of a Lady. James never wrote a saga, of course, but the characters on a superficial level fit into his paradigm of naive women and duplicitous men. Anna, an American ingenue (New England), marries an impoverished Italian prince, who makes her happy for many years. But when she learns of her husband’s long-term affair with a chic Italian woman he has known from childhood, she flees with her teenage daughter, Constanza, to England. And for a long time Constanza does not understand the reason for the separation. Since adultery seems so commonplace to her (she has already had affairs), she believes her father committed some crime, probably involving money.

In this case, unlike any of James’s novels, the prince is sweet, not a monster, but promiscuous. All three of the women, Anna, Constanza, and her daughter, Flavia, have different morals, all shaped by their birthplaces: America, Italy, and England.

The daughter of an IItalian prince and a German noblewoman, Bedford had some experience of growing up as the displaced daughter of a separated couple (she traveled between Rome and England, like her character, Constanza). And whe wrote of imcompatible marriage partners "that they at least shared a belief in the importance of society and the habit of being rich."

The characters seem shallow to me. I believe in Henry James, though how I don't know, yet these capricioush characters never come alive for me.

I know Bedford was a "good" humanist, though, who, as a legal journalist covered 100 complicated trials, among them the Lady Chatterley scandal and Jack Ruby's trial for the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.

And A Favourite of the Gods is a brilliant book on many levels. It just doesn't work for me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pamela Hansford Johnson

Yesterday we drove 40 miles to a university town, passing abandoned smashed cars cordoned off with yellow tape, wondering what had happened, since the ice has melted away (perhaps the tow trucks haven't come yet). We stopped at our favorite coffeehouse, Carpe Diem, rattled the paper, enjoyed the cappuccino-and-cinnamon smell, and then walked to one of the best libraries in the state. One of the perks of living here is that, with the flash of an ID, one is entitled to check out books statewide. I’ve browsed at small-town libraries (population 3,000) where I’ve discovered forgotten treasures by Cozzens and Cronin, and at bigger-city (well, population 100,000) libraries where I’ve perused the complete works of Sigrid Undset.

Tromping through the snow, a little more snow than we have in ____, we clumped and puffed up the staircase of the granite many-windowed building. It was a warmish day, thirtysomething, slushy, birds singing, a harbinger of spring, and people striding with parkas opened. We stopped at the computers to look up our lists: the computer is an IBM thing (I’m used to Macs) and I confess I couldn't turn it on without help. On my list: many of the books I wanted are in storage. I found Pamela Hansford Johnson, but not Pamela Frankau. In the stacks I serendipitously discovered a novel by Vera Brittain  and The Spare Room by Helen Garner (which I've read about online). The stacks are very narrow, so navigation among the bookshelves in a parka is slightly precarious: I pulled out my pile of books and sat cross-legged on the floor to examine them. My last collection included several disappointing books, among them Prozac Highway, which turned out to be a novel about lesbian performance artists with angst. (I had expected one of those fascinating madness books.) This collection looked better.  Then I smugly wandered over to a comfortable chair with a view of black-and-white trees through the church-like windows, as far from the buzzing fluorescent lights as possible.

I started reading Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage in the car and continued to read it till bedtime. Fascinating Virago-like material, the story of a thoughtful, strong-willed young woman who knows enough to dump a young man with whom she is sexually compatible but not otherwise;  but then makes the same mistake when she falls in love at first sight with a beautiful but arrogant man 14 years older than herself. That whole experience of falling in love at first sight: can that ever turn out well? The horror: it usually involves falling for someone believed to be superior to and more beautiful than oneself (and some groveling ). Johnson describes the affair with compassion and insight. She is a very good writer, whom I haven't read in years.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If not for Janet Malcolm...

When Janet Malcolm praised Gossip Girl in the "Critics at Large" column in The New Yorker (“Advanced Placement: The Wicked Joys of Gossip Girl,”3-10-2008), I made a mental note. I recently found a couple of Gossip Girl books and read like a zombie (at least I read one and a half before throwing them into the “give to charity” box). Although I admire Malcolm’s exuberance, her brisk, mordant style, and her penetrating journalism--The Freud Archives and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughe are certainly American classics--why is she writing about Gossip Girl? A shock thing? This trashy series is about materialistic, shallow teenagers who casually drop brand names into every conversation, wear new designer clothes on each page (though I haven't heard of half the brands), drive Jaguars, fly private planes, check into posh hotels to meet boys, and attend exclusive private schools. In fact they have no real friends. These hollow girls and boys steal each other's lovers and spread rumors about each other on their phones when they're not in the dressing room at Barney's. The "Gossip Girl" column is a computer blog, on which the most scandalous gossip is spread. No one knows who Gossip Girl is (at least not in the first book).

Malcolm writes: "Von Ziegesar pulls off the tour de force of wickedly satirizing the young while amusing them. Her designated reader is an adolescent girl, but the reader she seems to have firmly in mind as she writes is a literate, even literary, adult."

Oh dear. What literate adult might that be? Malcolm actually refers to these books as "classics."

Some of the Gossip Girl columns are humorous, but the narrative is appalling. We need that loyal coterie of friends at the center, like the Sex and the City gals.

The Gossip Girl computer board could say: Rumor has it that Janet Malcolm is ghosting the series. That is totally so Gossip Girl! But of course, I made it up, so don't believe it for a minute. Janet Malcolm has nothing to do with these books ! Some of the books are "created by Cecily von Ziegesar," not written, so we can conclude she has some ghosts. (Not Janet Malcolm, though. I SO made that up!)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My snowshoes are lost...(What would Trixie say?)

I planned to photograph the ice-rink lawns and post them here to invoke pity. Poor Mad Housewife! No wonder she's mad having to live in that ig -alow. Wait, isn't that Alaska? From all I hear, Alaska is melting and and it's trickling south so the Great Plains get whalloped with the ice and snow. The environmental drums are rolling. But if this is the New Alaska, where are the pubs, the small planes, the talk radio station? Maybe a couple of cute huskies and a sled? Is that Northern Exposure or Men in Trees?

The ice has melted, though, and we have a blanket of seven inches of snow. As you can imagine, every winter athlete has hit the, well, not the slopes, unless they wander down to Colorado, but the groomed trails. These obsessed x-country fanatics spend their LON-N-N-NNNNG lunches and breaks x-country skiing and sometimes make videos of themselves skiing . I have to pretend that I'm watching the ski film or I'll get hit over the head with a ski (gently). The boss doesn't rebuke them: he'd probably get whopped over the head with a ski, too.

"Do you want to ski or snowshoe?" they ask for the thousandth time. Their idea of teaching me was to stand me up on skis at the top of a trail and give me a little push. I slammed into a tree and was lucky I didn't fall into a deep ravine. Running into a tree sounds humorous, but it is painful. Since then I've glowered at the SHARE THE SKI ENTHUSIASTS. IT IS A WEAPON, NOT A TOBOGGAN. And why doesn't everybody remember that?

But they don't take a hint.

"How about the snowshoes?"

"What snowshoes?"

"I gave you snowshoes a couple of years ago."

"OH, THOSE SNOWSHOES. Well, they don't really fit, you know."

"Oh, come on. Wear the snowshoes. It'll be fun."

"If you want them so much, you wear them." Suck your cigarette in.  Bad, bad loss of temper. They love their sport so much they can't help proselytizing. And I can absolutely see this.line of thought. Snowshoes will be easy: then throw her onto skis...

"Well, get rid of that cigarette."


Have you ever read Trixie Belden and the Mystery at Mead Mountain? I can't find it, but I have read it. While staying in a ski lodge, Trixie and the Bob-Whites (her gang) soon stumble upon some suspicious goings-on. Oh, yeah, and there's skiing in this book. Cross-country AND downhill. I don't remember any snowshoes, though.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Elliptical and the Bike

Be careful on your walks this winter. Sometimes there's an incline at the intersection and you find yourself frantically grabbing at the traffic light pole so you don't fall into the street. It's melancholy and treacherous. Day after day of freezing rain and ice storms have transformed the world into a gigantic science-fictionl ice rink this winter. The yards are ice. Not icy snow, really ice. The world is stunning but unnavigable. I’ve never seen anything like it.

So everyone is stuck indoors. And mad as hell about it.

So we must go to the health club.

 At the health club treadmills are all taken and eveybody’s huffing and puffing on the elliptical. The elliptical is MY THING. You walk up and down on those pedals while you watch that movie, Elf, which has been playing on all the channels all the time since Thanksgiving. No, really you don’t want to watch Elf. It's only one step above Project Runway, which you also got stuck watching once here.

The solution during this cranky time is to switch to the bicycle. Like other bicyclists, I've discovered that it is possible to read a small paperback, WHICH YOU MUST PROVIDE, during exercise. At the health club, there's a pile of germy sweated-up Newsweeks, abandoned by my peers. (Recently every issue is about Obama. Obama lore! These will be collectibles someday!) So, like all desperately bored health club members, I've discovered some books that make perfect workout reading.

1. James Welch’s lyrical Winter in the Blood, a classic first published in 1974. In the new Penguin edition, it is only 137 pages, easily read in 20-minute increments on the bicycle. The narrator, an American Indian with a drinking problem and a bad knee, often gets stuck walking back from town to the ranch, where he lives with his mother, Theresa, and Lame Bull, whom she marries early on in the novel. His mother goes out with Lame Bull one day after many jokes about marriage, and comes back married, much to the
surprise of the narrator.'s witty and sad, a novel about regrets, the past and the present.

2. I tried Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It is brilliant. It cannot, however, be read on a bicycle. The paperback is gorgeous, but I finally realized I'm not making a fashion statement. A fourth done, none of it at the health club. Well, it's a great book and I didn't really take it to the health club...

3. Any mystery will do.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Wicked Books

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, the first book in his reimagined Oz series, reinvents the character of the Wicked Witch of the West as a “green” animal rights activists. Her nemesis, Dorothy, is a displaced, manipulative, politically savvy, two-faced bitch (sorry), who will do anything, even murder the witch, to escape the political intrigues of Oz and return to her dour aunt and uncle in Kansas. When Elphaba, the witch, idling in a tree, overhears the Yellow Brick Road quartet slander about her, she is stunned to hear that she is “psychologically warped,” “a despot,” or “born hermaphroditic, maybe entirely male.”

"The last thing she ever cared about was gossip. Yet she had been out of touch for so long that she was astonished at the vigorous opinions of these random nobodies."

We were all crazy about Elphaba when we read the novel for a book group 10 years ago. Yet I didn't keep up with the Wicked books. Perhaps the idea of the musical put me off (even though it confirmed my good taste).

But for Christmas I received A Lion among Men, the third book in the Wicked series, an excellent novel for reading at night. Maguire has cleverly transformed Brr, the Cowardly Lion, into a displaced animal who earns a reputation for heroism when an act of cowardice is misinterpreted d during a political demonstration (dwarfs vs. humans).
Eventually we learn that he was probably concocted in a lab: he fits in nowhere and perhaps is the loneliest animal in the world. Talking animals have been driven out of the cities, and he has lived among humans too long. He is accepted neither by prides of lions nor by human beings during his adventures, and survives by working or, eventually, selling services for different political factions.

I enjoyed this novel, but it isn’t in the same class (a classic) as Wicked.

Son of a Witch, the second Wicked book, which I began today, is closer to Wicked in the complexity of the plot and smoothness of the writing.