Friday, May 29, 2009

The Janeites

Years ago, seeing an ad in the paper and starved for the company of fellow Austen lovers, I attended a Jane Austen Society meeting: a group of intense, mostly white-haired ladies sat around a library table drinking tea (and what bad tea!) and earnestly read aloud a play based on one of Austen’s works. It wasn’t what I expected. Though one lovely middle-aged woman introduced herself and chatted with me about her favorite writer, Penelope Lively, whom I subsequently read and loved, the fan group bored me.

Now, of course, that I live in exile outside of JASNA territory (there is no JASNA here), I delude myself into thinking I’d enjoy it. Then I remember reading aloud the play and waiting for the moment when I could gracefully escape. But many years after this puzzling experience, I find I would like to transform myself into a Janeite and attend one of the national meetings, or even The Jane Austen Festival in Louisville on July 18. It’s been a few years since I’ve attended a literary conference or festival of any kind, and I’m very, very curious about the kinds of fun-loving Janeites who attend the Louisville festival to watch a Regency Fashion Show, study Period Sewing Techniques, and dance at a Jane Austen ball. (My husband says he won’t be my ball partner, so my dance card won’t be will be non-existent.)

Alas, there’s not enough time to immerse myself in Jane Austen’s world. I’ve been following the discussion board at The Republic of Pemberley, a Janeites site, and I don’t know much of the trivia about the minor characters, though I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility. I’d love to be one of these people who know every stroke of Jane’s pen! Really! But, as Carol Shields writes in her brilliant short biography, Jane Austen: A Life (one of the Penguin Lives series), “This detailing of Austen’s minor characters - what they ate for breakfast, how much income they’ve settled on their daughters, the precise hour of a ruined picnic - has never been a part of my own impressionistic response to her work, and I worry, but only a little, about what this says of me, her devoted reader.”

My relationship with Jane has been long and inspirational, but never obsessive.

“Some people read nothing but Jane,” a professor told me long ago. Though I was a fan , I couldn't believe this. How shocking! How could people read nothing but six short books? How naive I was! I liked everything from Virginia Woolf to George Eliot to Samuel Beckett to The Medea to Agatha Christie...but of course Pride and Prejudice was my favorite.

But there is something fascinating about obsession. When I read the Austen blogs, the popularity of Austen sequels begins to make sense. When you’ve catalogued every bit of data about every character in Jane, where do you go? It’s perfectly natural to want to read the humorous Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict or a more straightforward sequel like Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma or The Mansfield Papers.

But I’m still on the original books. I did, however, make time for Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Janeites,” a charming story about a lodge member who recalls his intiation into the pleasures of Austen’s novels by a witty group of soldiers as a shell-shocked officer-turned-mess-waiter in World War I.

From “The Janeites”:

“Real!” Humberstall’s voice rose almost to a treble. “Jane? Why, she was a little old maid ‘oo’d written ‘alf a dozen books about a hundred years ago. ‘Twasn’t as if there were anythin’ to ‘em, either. I know. I had to read ‘em. They weren’t adventurous, nor smutty, nor what you’d call even interestin’ - all about girls o’ seventeen (they began young then, I tell you), not certain ‘oom they’d like to marry; an’ their dances ‘an’ card-parties an’ picnics, and their young blokes goin’ off to London on ‘orseback for ‘air-cuts an’ shaves....”

I’m not sure this story is online, but it’s available in many collections of Kipling’s short stories.

And if anyone has any Austen sequels, biographies, or reference books to recommend, let me know. There are so many...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Howards End

To read or reread...

“Are you reading that again?”

“Me? Again? Of course again! It’s THE classic of 1910 - a literary analysis of socioeconomic changes, class, and the family. Or something! We could write a course about it and humanize MBAs.”

I was talking about one of my many, MANY favorite books, Howards End.

Give those business people culture: a little art, a little soul. Howards End, Aretha, and R. Crumb. Require those potentially double-dealing business types to study liberal arts before loosing them on the MBA community. I’m sure some accountants and stockbrokers would rather read Howards End than study spreadsheets (or embezzling) or whatever it is they do. All those Wilcoxes to identify with and defend - or be appalled by. This could be their top ethics course book, along with, err, perhaps an abridged version of Bonfire of the Vanities . And Babbitt, The Jungle, Death of a Salesman, and An American Tragedy might round out the literature course.

When a friend said E. M. Forster was slow, I had the vapors. Or not the vapors. Margaret Schlegel, the heroine of Howards End, would never have vapors.

Howards End isn’t really a business novel. It is a novel about houses and changing class. It is the story of what happens in an age of increased mobility, with the advent of motorcars and expansion of railways, as people swarmed into London and others expanded into suburbs. People who have lived their whole lives in one house began to move. And many of the urban problems are the same ones we have today.

The cultured half-English, half-German Schlegel family must change their way of life as the lease of their house expires and they must decide where to live. The heroine, Margaret, a sensible, sometimes whimsical, tolerant woman in her late twenties holds the family together, encouraging her younger sister, Helen, a beautiful, lively, passionate radical, to travel and study, and indulging their younger brother, Tibby, a self-absorbed scholar with hay fever who doesn’t care much for people. The novel centers on their encounters with people of other classes: the Wilcoxes, successful businessmen who live on the surface and mistrust intellectualism; and their patronage of/friendship with Leonard Bast, a lower-class clerk who passionately wants to better himself through literature and music. They meet Leonard at a concert, and when Helen absent-mindedly walks off with his umbrella , Margaret convinces him that it was not a deliberate theft. Through a series of coincidences, Leonard comes back into their lives later, and is ruined after the Schlegels pass on Henry Wilcox's advice to leave the insurance company where he has been employed. Leonard and his wife, a former prostitute, go hungry. And when Helen tries to take responsibility, the tragedy deepens.

Howards End is an old English country house, where Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret's friend, has lived her whole life. After her death, this house becomes the fulcrum for a meeting of the characters of three classes: the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts.

It's a fabulous book, which explores many themes: work, marriage, and feminism among them.

There is also a Merchant-Ivory film, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sir Thomas Wyatt

If you’re a lackadaisical poetry reader, one for whom prose is the natural element, you may like to reread the same poems again and again, so that they become an effortless delight. Sit in the hammock, sip a non-alcoholic mint julep, and reread an epic: it will take all summer and you’ll never be bored. Translating Virgil and Dante is completely absorbing, though juggling dictionaries and grammars can be awkward. English, however, may be read in the supine position. Paradise Lost is always a joy, but you may prefer the shorter Paradise Regained for its weird pinnacle imagery and intellectual and spiritual dialogue between Christ during his 40 days in the desert and Satan.

But this summer I'm not reading epic: my poet is the much maligned Renaissance lyric poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Recovering from a 30-mile bike ride in the heat and rain yesterday, I reclined on the couch and read at random all of Wyatt in The Oxford Book of English Verse. I quickly became an anthology expert and had to find a better book. The Essential Wyatt, selected by W. S. Merwin, was in our mud room. And what an improvement over the revered Oxford anthology, which has no critical introduction or biographical information! Merwin’s introduction is both personal and informative: during Merwin’s student days he was struck by Wyatt’s original verses, “and it was the cranky artistry not just of his prosody but of his language as a whole, its mixture of bluntness and grace, directness and song, that first drew me to his poetry.” He defends Wyatt’s irregular metrics, long condemned, and explains that they were championed in the 1930s by E. K. Chambers, who considered them a predecessor of Donne and Hopkins. Many of his poems are translations of Petrarch; many meant to be sung. Merwin also includes a brief bio and relays the titillating gossip about Wyatt’s love affair with Anne Boleyn (which should be taken with a grain of salt: it’s not so very different from Catullus’s alleged - and on little evidence - affair with Clodia: but three sixteenth-century accounts claim Wyatt confessed he had been Anne Boleyn’s lover and that she was not fit to marry Henry VIII.).

Wyatt was born in 1503, attended Cambridge, married Lord Cobham’s daughter at 17, became a diplomat at 22, and managed to escape from the Spanish when they imprisoned him on a diplomatic mission to Italy to see the pope - how he escaped Merwin does not say - and I, for one, am ready for a historical novel about this! He was imprisoned in the Tower in 1536 (Anne-related), but after his release his diplomatic career flourished until his friend and patron, Cromwell, was executed in 1540. Wyatt died in 1542.

Well, it's his poetry that impresses me. And here is a sonnet commonly interpreted as about Anne Boleyn. (Sorry about the placement of the lines: I can't get them to come out in the blog form.)

Who so list to hounte, I know where is an hynde,

    But as for me, helas, I may no more.

    The vayne travaill hath weried me so sore,

    I ame of theim that farthest cometh behinde.

Yet may I by no meanes my weried mynde

    Drawe from the Diere: but as she fleeth afore

    Faynting I folowe. I leve of therefore,

    Sithens in a nett I seke to hold the wynde.

Who list her hount, I put him owte of dowbte,

    As well as I may spend his tyme in vain.

    And graven with Diamondes in letters plain

There is written her faier neck rounde abowte:

    "Noli me tangere for Cesars I ame,

    And wylde for to hold though I seme tame.“

Note: The poetry is online, but sometimes it is translated into modern spelling - not necessarily a bad thing - and other times Wyatt's original spelling is mangled. So it's probably better to read the book.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Walking People

I haven't made or kept any New Year's resolutions in quite awhile. I haven’t read the 50 Greatest Books of the 20th Century (my 2000 resoution), gleaned from several turn-of-the-millenium lists on the internet. (Well, I have read some, but not lately.) I'm doing slightly better with forgotten lit: Viragos, Overlook Books, Persephones, Capuchin Classics, University of Nebraska, Phoenix Fiction, and out-of-print Pamela Hansford Johnsons. I'm behind on worthwhile pop: I have yet to finish R. F. Delderfield's God Is an Englishman, the 1970s romantic-industrial historical novel with the silly title which is my chosen bedtime-reading.

My spring resolution is simple: gamble on more contemporary literature. And I’ve hit the jackpot with Mary Beth Keane’s first novel, The Walking People, which I learned about in Joanathan Yardley’s fascinating review in The Washington Post (I trust him more than most reviewers). He didn’t rave, but he called it “thoughtful and appealing.” And that’s good enough for me from a demanding critic.

Actually, I like it better than Yardley did, but then I like immigrant fiction. There’s been a run on Indian, Chinese, and Russian immigrant fiction lately, but Irish immigrant novels seem to have fallen out of fashion. Keane's engaging, lyrical style has an echo of Irish-American storytellers like Frank McCourt and Alice McDermott. The narrative is very detailed and compelling and gradually quickens pace as the second half of the 20th century catches up with the characters: among the most charming scenes is the description of a celebration of electricity when it comes to rural Ireland in the early ‘60s, the excitement of the young, the fears of the old.

About a third of the novel takes place in Ireland in the '50s and '60s and two-thirds in New York from the late '60s to the present.

The prologue begins in 2007, with Irish-American Michael Ward’s retirement from work as a “sandhog” - digging water tunnels- in New York City after 37 years. No one throws a party, as he’d vaguely hoped, and only one friend takes him out for a drink. We learn that Michael started life as a traveler, or gypsy, in Ireland - a well-kept secret - and after he decided he’d like to settle down, worked on the Cahills' farm in an isolated part of Ireland, and then emigrated to America with two young women, Johanna and Greta Cahill.

Then, in Part One, we backpedal to rural Ballyroan, Ireland, in 1956, where we learn the story of Johanna Cahill, the mother of Michael's first child, and her younger sister, Greta, who becomes Michael’s common-law wife in New York. Johanna is adventurous, the one who initiates mischief as a child, but Greta, the cautious youngest daughter, is considered simple and backwards until in elementary school a health visitor discovers she needs glasses and she quickly catches up in school. Years later their father, Big Tom, a farmer, illegally fishes for salmon at night, as his necessary second job, and is tragically killed by an inspector, who shoots him in the dark, having intended to shoot over his head.

Thus begin the hard times for the Cahill family. The two oldest brothers go to Australia, since their mother fears they will be arrested, leaving their other brother ,Little Tom, who has a speech impediment, and their mother to run the farm. Michael works as a hired hand on the farm, and is shortly thereafter seduced by Johanna. The two girls work as maid and cook in a hotel. But because there is no business at the hotel - and there is nobody living in the area - they find themselves out of a job. But when a vivacious Irish New Yorker comes to Ballyroan to bury her mother, the aggressive Johanna schemes to go to New York, with Shannon as their sponsor. She pressures Michael, who is ambivalent. Her mother insists that they take Greta with her.

Michael gets Johanna pregnant - but after the baby, Julia, is born in New York, Johanna runs away, leaving the baby with Michael and Greta. Greta, who works by day at Bloomingdale's, raises Julia as her own, and is always frantic that Johanna will want her back. At one point, Johanna does file custody papers through a lawyer, but schanges her mind. Greta has two other children, but Julia is always special.

This is a very touching family story, capturing the rhythms of daily life, the slow turn of the seasons, marked by dramatic episodes: Greta’s losing her job, though she keeps the shameful reason secret; Michael’s serious injury on the job; and Johanna’s constant quasi-blackmail about Julia.

Obviously there are some conscientious reviewers out there.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Peeling History

I peeled stickers off my books. I peeled off my books' history.

The sticker can conjure atmosphere and occasion.

I'm desultorily reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Poet and Dancer, which came from a large urban independent bookstore, a kind of predecessor of Borders, which was wiped out in the mid-90s after Borders came to town. I loved browsing there and then gossiping with friends in the cafe over coffee and brioches. I discovered my favorite Margaret Drabble books there, The Radiant Way trilogy.
"These are for women in my age group, not yours," the exotic owner with the kohl-lined eyes told me. (Flattery...!) It was a dark city, goblinish really, dark enough to match Drabble's London.

On a break from Jhabvala, I'm reading Sense and Sensibility in a Modern Library paperback, which was purchased at Borders by my husband, who felt sorry for me having to read Austen in an enormous Complete Austen works with chocolate-stained pages from my adolescence. No more big indie bookstores with Austen! We only have two indies here, both with small inventory, neither guaranteed to stock S&S.

I'm a fan of genre fiction: I just don't seem to read it much except in summer. This afternoon I finished a police procedural mystery, Paul Mann’s Season of the Monsoon, which I found at the indie bookstore. Although it might turn up at Borders or B&N, the neighborhood indie owner has a sixth sense for the unusual mystery that might interest the discerning shopper. Set in Bombay, this well-plotted and engrossing mystery centers on the investigation of a murder in Bollywood. This is the first of the Geeorge Sansi mysteries, and he is a memorable character, the son of a famous Indian feminist and an English general, an Oxford-educated lawyer who joined the police force and has integrity in a corrupt system. I read mysteries mainly for the puzzle and characters, and almost couldn't finish this: the last third of the novel was too graphic.. It is an excellent police procedurals, but there is a reason I read few of them.

I'm trying to read more contemporary novels. After I read Jonathan Yardley's thoughtful review in The Washington Post of Mary Beth Keane’s The Walking People, I ordered it from Amazon. I'm halfway through it and extremely impressed and entertained: the story of Irish immigrants in America, beginning with Michael Ward's retirement and then backpedaling 50 years to tell the story of his wife Greta's childhood in Ireland, his as a traveler, and the strong will of Greta's sister Joanna which brought them to New York.

So...the history of four books and where I got them...One automatically bought independent before Borders and B&N gobbled up the scene. Of course some of the indie employees were kept on a part-time basis with no benefits and gladly jumped ship to Borders. It wasn't all an indie romance. A few of the old indies have hung on, but shopping has diversified. Accustomed to B&N coupons, one is shocked to buy four paperbacks at the indie for $45. Shopping is an important decision...some feel corporate bookstores are as exploitative as Wal-Mart. I cross my fingers and hope not. My house is an Amazon-guilt-free zone - meaning I buy from Amazon and feel no guilt because I can't get everything I want from local indies. So I support them ALL on my shopping days.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is one of those writers you know even if you don’t. She is best known for her fiction about India, particularly her stunning novel, Heat and Dust, which won the Booker Prize in 1975. But she is FAMOUS for writing Merchant-Ivory films: she won two Oscars for Best Screenplay, first for A Room with a View, and then for Howards End (the E. M. Forster industry throve as strongly in the '80s and '90s as the Jane Austen mill does now).

Jhabvala’s books have lined my shelves for many years. During my student years I read Heat and Dust and Travelers several times. My then-beau was fascinated by India and brought her work to my attention. Always an energetic whistle-blower journalist type, I was fascinated by Jhabvala’s portraits in Travelers of women who were conned by corrupt gurus; and loved Heat and Dust for its interlocking tales of two generations of women, a grandmother and granddaughter, who defied stifling convention by having love affairs with Indians. In the ‘70s and ‘80s people sought - god knows what they sought - but there was much optimistic travel, exploration of eastern religions, and yoga (we were all flexible then) - hoping to solve the problem of emptiness in a competitive, materialistic society.

Jhabvala understands the irony and naiveté of such religious and philosophical quests: traveling among the poor, ill, suffering, crippled, and starving in India can be a dismaying experience for idealists, though of course others appreciate the beauty, love the diverse culture, make friends, and find religion, just as they’d hoped. In her introduction to her 1976 collection of stories, How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories, reissued last year by Capuchin Classics, she writes:

I had better say straightaway that the reason why I live in India is because my strongest human ties are here. If I hadn’t married an Indian, I don’t think I would ever have come here for I am not attracted - or used not to be attracted - to the things that usually bring people to India. I know I am the wrong kind of person to stay here. To stay and endure, one should have a mission and a cause, to be patient, cheerful, unselfish, strong. I am a central European with an English education and a deplorable tendency to constant self-analysis. I am irritable and have weak nerves.

How I Became a Holy Mother is a beautiful collection of short stories, in which Jhabvala explores the lives of Indian film stars, singers, wealthy older women, students, housewives, spinsters, and other unique characters. Some of these characters are contentedly ensconced in extended families, while others restlessly seek fulfillment outside the demarcations of tradition. In my favorite story, “Rose Petals,” the narrator, the wife of a cabinet minister, enjoys the leisure and comforting repetition of events of daily life and visits from her unambitious brother-in-law, Biju, while her husband and daughter slave on important social issues and cannot understand her indifference.

The Minister is very keen to ‘move with the times.’ It has always been one of his favorite sayings. Even when he was young and long before he entered politics, he was never satisfied doing what everyone else did - looking after the estates, hunting and other sports, entertaining guests - no, it was not enough for him. When we were first married, he used to give me long lectures like Mina does now - about the changing times and building up India and everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel...only I did not listen too closely...

In “An Experience of India,” an Englishwoman in India, upset by her journalist husband’s indifference to alternative life-styles, travels alone, enjoys casual friendships and love affairs, but destroys her sense of freedom and adventure when she and a lover, out of money, return to live unhappily with her husband.

And in the title story, “How I Became a Holy Mother,” an English model, “fed up with London and the rest of it,” moves into an ashram and has an affair with a designated guru.

These are such good stories. i’ll now have to rifle through my bookshelves for the rest of her books. I know I have The Poet and the Dancer somewhere...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

A few years ago I read Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer's original hybrid-memoir/literary meditation about his procrastination writing about D. H. Lawrence. Committed to the project, but too busy dithering about where to live to take his work seriously (or at least so his meta-self claims), he is dismayed at the prospect of rereading the novels, and inexplicably prefers the letters. This eccentric preference makes sense as Dyer’s blase, offbeat voice meanders along, like a seemingly effortless, charming, witty, book-length letter. He goes on and on about himself, then suddenly tosses in quite a few facts and insights about Lawrence, without appearing to do any work. As he writes the book, he retraces at least some of Lawrence’s travels with his girlfriend in search of inspiration. And of course he does paradoxically write a lot about Lawrence in the process of not writing about Lawrence. I remember being delighted when he finally views Lawrence’s paintings in a motel gallery somewhere in New Mexico (I think) and says how bad they are. There are some limits to his love of Lawrence.

Dyer’s witty new novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, has received a lot of press, but I resisted the press: why I don’t know. This novel turned up serendipitously at a suburban library where I took a bicycle break, and as I began to read, I realized that I’ve wasted a lot of time NOT reading Geoff Dyer. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is absolutely a literary turn-pager. James Wood of The New Yorker wrote an enthusiastic piece in the April 20th issue, and his intelligent essay gives you all the background on Dyer you need.

Dyer’s amusing, polished, jesting self-denigrating novel is divided into two parts, one set in Venice, the other in Varanasi. Jeff Atman, the protagonist (at least of the first part; there’s some controversy about the second part, where the voice switches to a first-person unnamed narrator, but I’m betting on his being Jeff, too), is a middle-aged freelance writer who hopes ironically never to have to churn out a “think” piece about art again, though he needs the money. The day before he flies to Venice to cover the Biennale (an international art event), he walks along Marylebone High Street, musing on his discontent. As he looks into the window of an expensive hairdresser, he decides impulsively to have his hair dyed: perhaps this have something to do with “dyeing” Jeff Atman so he is not Geoff Dyer? (Clumsily I meta along.) His hairdresser quotes Sylvia Plath.

Dyer writes:

He had never paid more than ten pounds (with tip), had not had his hair cut anywhere but a barber’s for thirty years, not since the unisex craze of the mid-seventies, and, most importantly of all, he didn’t need a haircut. But here he was, opening the door, taking the first steps towards doing something he’d been thinking about for years: getting his hair dyed. For a long time he’d thought of gray hair as a symptom, a synonym of inner dreariness, and had accepted it, accordingly as inevitable - but all that was about to change.

Dyeing his hair boosts his confidence and is perhaps a factor in helping him get the girl. In Venice he has an idyllic affair with beautiful woman who works at an art galley in California and who matches him quip for quip in Nick-and-Nora-style dialogue. They're amazingly compatible, though usually hungover, because they get drunk and do cocaine at the art opening parties before going back to their hotel rooms to have oral sex. It’s very, very funny, but is also a sensitive account of a love affair. Dyer knows the parties and the art talk, and we feel as though we're there: in his acknowledgements he explains that he has attended three Biennales.

The second part, set in Varanasi, is the reverse of Venice in many ways, but this assignment also gives the freelance writer character a chance to escape himself as he becomes increasingly immersed in the culture.

Very entertaining. Booker Prize-worthy!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Lace Reader

Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader is one of those popular word-of-mouth-novels-with-a-corporate-Cinderella-spin that I really want to like. The indie bookstore owner was enthusiastic. “You’ll love this book! It’s perfect summer reading. The author originally self-published it, then was discovered, and then the book was auctioned in a bidding war and became a best-seller. ” She smiled at me nervously. She wasn’t quite sure of her customer: you could see that. She knew me on the basis of my buying a pretty strange bouquet of books even for me, which included The Arabian Nights, The Volcano Lover, a Robert Barnard mystery, and something with a pretty cover called The Snow Fox.

“Oh, add it to the stack,” I said airily. “I certainly can support a book that one-upped the corporate world.”

And I can. Let’s call this Support Women’s Book Group Month.

The Lace Reader is a fast-paced novel of the kind one can devour as fast as a chocolate bar. Set in witch-haunted Salem, Mass., it’s very plot-oriented and atmospheric, part mystery, part magical, part Salem travel guide, part social issue novel. The sassy, witty narrator, 32-year-old Towner Whitney, returns to Salem from L.A. when her Great-Aunt Eva, a psychic who runs a ladies’ tea room and teaches children’s etiquette classes, disappears. A self-proclaimed crazy person who is psychic as well as sometimes psychotic, Towner left the dysfunctional family to avoid eccentricities like "lace-reading," a fortunetelling gift shared by the Whitney women: Aunt Eva sees pictures in the lace, and so can the other women in the family if they try. But Towner, who was hospitalized for depression after her twin sister, Lyndley, committed suicide 17 years before, has bad associations with the lace. She has had her share of hallucinations and carries an expired anti-psychotic pill as a mental health charm. Her brother convinces her to come home to their dysfunctional family in Salem.

The narrator’s staccato voice is fun and eccentric.

“...anyone would admit that it is the women of the Whitney family who have taken quirky to a new level of achievement. My mother, May, for example, is a walking contradiction in terms. A dedicated recluse who (with the exception of her arrests) hasn’t left her home on Yellow Dog Island for the better part of twenty years, May has nevertheless managed to revive a long-defunct lace-making industry and to make herself famous in the press. She has gained considerable notoriety for rescuing abused women and children and turning their lives around, giving the women a place in her lace-making business and home-educating their children. All this from a raging agoraphobic who gave one of her own children to her barren half sister, Emma, in a fit of generosity because, as she said at the time, there was a need, and besides, she had been blessed with a matching set.”

Towner, too, is very conscious of abuse: her violent uncle beat Aunt Emma so badly she has brain damage, and he drove Towner’s twin to what looked like suicide (perhaps it’s murder: I haven’t finished the book yet).

And parts of the novel are narrated in the 3rd person by an attractive cop who was a friend of Aunt Eva and is investigating her death.

The novel is enjoyable, if a bit choppy. It’s never saccharine, because of Towner’s mordant, funny voice and point of view. Sometimes it’s comical, other times eerie. I don’t know where it’s going.

As so often happens, I read two-thirds of a contemporary novel and then discover I have nothing in common with it.

It doesn't mean it's not good in its way, though. And I sincerely wish Barry a lot of luck.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reading-in-Public Etiquette

What should you read in public? Must it be chic and discreet?

Absolutely. A trip to the coffeehouse or bistro demands a book as the ultimate accessory, because not only does it define your persona but it also keeps you company while you sip and smoke. You can be as slobby in attire as you want so long as your book looks good -there is no need to dress up in a pink skirt and madras shirt, like the preppy lady on the left with the scone habit, nor to flex tattoos under an REM T-shirt, like the 30ish gentleman in the sunglasses who is texting a novel on his cell phone. You simply sit there with a book and ARE COMPLETE.

So what is the book going to be? The book makes a statement - but the hilarious thing is that nobody knows what that statement is except you. God Is an Englishman? No, it weighs a ton, plus does that say you’d rather be wearing that preppy skirt? Nuruddin Farah’s Maps? You really, really want to read this Somalian classic about a boy orphaned in the Civil War between the Somali and Ethiopia, but it is best to savor it in an environment without distractions. (You just found this in your bookcase and it is now No. 1 on the TBR, but not yet ready to go out of the house.)

How about an Agatha Christie? Can’t be done. Why? Because your upper-crust in-laws don’t allow you to read mysteries unless they’re in a foreign language. (You’re not joking about this. If it’s not on Jane Smiley's or Harold Bloom's canonical lists, these guys are not going to be reading it any time soon.) Christie does say you’re kind of cool, though. It is a universal language.

In the end, because you are reading three or four books at a time, you bring two - both contemporary novels - both poetic romans a clef you picked up because they complement each other. The first: Branwell by Douglas A. Martin. This very short novel about Branwell Bronte reads like a spare prose poem, recounting the loss of mother and older sister and then progressing to Branwell’s, Charlotte’s, Emily’s, and Anne’s first writing experiences, the invention of complex identities of their toy soldiers, their battles, imaginary countries - recorded in minuscule books which can fit in the soldiers’ hands. Branwell, artistic and dilettantish, is thought to be the hope of the family, but starts drinking at a young age and... there’s tragedy ahead...

And there is tragedy in Susan Sellers’ Vanessa & Virginia, a short novel written from the point of view of Vanessa Bell. Fans of Bloomsbury will be fascinated by this poetic account of Vanessa’s painting, her ambivalent relationship with her difficult diva of a younger sister, Virginia Woolf, and her long, somewhat shocking love affair with Duncan Grant, an artist who prefers men and has a series of homosexual affairs. Broken into a series of short, beautifully written sketches, the novel reflects Vanessa's creative work, and her voice is lyrical yet obviously not competing with the brilliant Virginia's.

So you have your choice at the coffeehouse.

And afterwards you make a stop at the indie bookstore, where unfortunately you find a few more things you want but decide not to buy the only one that would make sense, Outcaste, or maybe The Untouchables (I've forgotten the title), a Penguin you will doubtless never find again... And then it's out with no bag and yet more publicly displayed books to stuff in your pannier.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Hireling

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That memorable opening from the brilliant novel, The Go-Between, was my introduction to L. P. Hartley’s lyrical, exquisite prose. Julie Christie and Alan Bates, who starred in the film adaptation by Harold Pinter, decorated the cover of my old Penguin (found in a musty bookstore and lost somewhere in the house). Years elapsed without my reading more Hartley: book-buying was different in pre-internet days. Happily, Hartley is in print again. NYBR has reprinted the Eustace and Hilda trilogy. And Capuchin Classics has reissued another gorgeous Hartley novel, The Hireling, an elegant, disturbing, complex, psychological masterpiece which examines class barriers, isolation, and sublimated desires.

One of the most striking aspects of The Hireling is the number of scenes which take place in a car, where the relationship develops between Leadbitter, a bitter ex-solider who makes his living as an independent hire-car driver, and Lady Franklin, a fragile young woman recovering from a breakdown after her husband’s death. This tale of a driver and a lady is vaguely, slyly reminiscent of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though Hartley’s ex-soldier, Leadbitter, is a sexless mercenary, and Lady Franklin is an ingenuous, sexless widow.

Lady Franklin, obsessively, excessively grieving for months because her husband died while she was enjoying herserlf at a party, hires Leadbitter to drive her to various cathedrals (as a homage to her husband, who loved architecture). During their first meeting, she pushes class boundaries by sitting in the front seat, which slightly irritates Leadbitter . And, as often happens in such situations with strangers, she finds herself confiding in Leadbitter rather than a friend, focusing on her depression, guilt, and solitude since her husband’s death.

Leadbitter, who dislikes women, is not overly moved. But when Lady Franklin, attempting to keep the conversation going, asks him about his life, he makes up a story about his imaginary family, a wife, Frances, who resembles Lady Franklin, and three children.

Both become addicted to these conversations.

And eventually things get out of hand, because Leadbitter blurs the image of the imaginary wife with the real Lady Franklin, after she gives him a large sum of money to solve an imaginary problem. And, ironically, as Lady Franklin begins to withdraw, he believes that that Lady Franklin’s interest in him is more than superficial.

The Hireling was made into a movie in 1972, starring Sarah miles and Robert Shaw. I'm looking forward to renting it.

God Is an Englishman

If only the title weren’t God Is an Englishman!
This has caused much mirth in my family. There are many variations on this floating around our house.

“God Is a New Yorker.”

“God is a Muscovite.”

All right already.

This diverting historical novel by R. F. Delderfield, author of To Serve Them All My Days (reviewed here), is a compelling read, the work of a fine craftsman, and the kind of book one would like to read in one day “in the horizontal position,” as Laurie Colwin used to describe her characters’ lounging reading habits. Set from 1857-1866, the 687-page novel, the first of a trilogy, kept me up till 1:30 this morning. Call R. F. Delderfield Scheherazade. One doesn’t want to finish too soon.

Delderfield is a plain, good stylist- nothing wrong there - but it is his strong, likable, believable characters and sweeping sense of history that set his work apart from that of less successful popular novelists. The hero, Adam Swann, a disillusioned soldier who has witnessed massacres in India, returns to England determined to quit the military and become an entrepreneur - and has the means to do so because of a ruby necklace he pocketed when he was knocked off his horse in India, the enemy owner having been killed.

Fascinated by the Industrial Revolution, Adam wants to travel around England before committing to a career. But a chance meeting with a railroad administrator determines the course of his life. Informed that the railway doesn’t stretch to every part of England and transportation of goods is difficult, he decides to organize his own transport business, rather like the trucking businesses of the future.

Adam isn’t the only leading character. There's also the extraordinary Henrietta Rawlinson, the daughter of a manufacturer whose main purpose is to break the unions after a long strike. On the way home to his father, Adam witnesses Sam Rawlinson's murder of a boy during a riot. And shortly afterwards Adam meets Henrietta, who is running away from home, not because of the rioting but because her father is determined to “sell” her in marriage to a rich repulsive man with clammy hands who bores her. And Adam, much amused by her, takes her home to his Aunt Charlotte to decide what to do with her. (The two marry.)

Then there’s Keate, Swann’s wagonmaster, a retired soldier and inspired preacher who rescues orphans from “baby farms” and attempts to turn their lives around. It is his scheme to train some of them to work for Swann. Keate is absolutely Dickensian - an ingenuous, sweet giant who is absolutely loyal.

This novel is so much fun- and there are two more to go. The book is still in print, thousands of copies floating around. But if only they'd changed the title for the American edition...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Readable Garb


It's Day 2 of my cold: I spent a wretched morning abusing Vicks and peppermint tea. To cheer myself up, after hours of sneezing, I threw my contaminated shirt into the laundry and donned my favorite Edward Gorey reading t-shirt. Although a stylish friend informs me it is a fashion no-no to wear clothing one can read, i don't hesitate to flaunt Gorey's version of "Too Many Books..."

It occurs to me that a complete reading wardrobe could be furnished with the following t-shirts .

Here's an appropriate tee for the next time someone athletic attempts to recruit you for a volleyball game (or other nightmarish sport):

For the first beach-reading day (whenever your vacation starts):

And when you're feeling political:

Of course there are many, many more. You can also print your own.

Doesn't this READ like someone with a cold? and who cannot procure cold medicine? The effective stuff was pulled from the shelves a couple of years ago because meth entrepreneurs chose to mine it for now-controlled-substance ingredients... Ugh, ugh ugh!

Monday, May 04, 2009

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

It’s not swine flu, but I have a cold - so I have cosseted myself this afternoon with a delightful comic novel, Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which is the charming literary equivalent of a cup of camomile tea.

Why haven’t I read this before? Have I been resisting each new comedy with a Jane Austen title simply because nothing could be better than the real thing? In a world of Jane Austen sequels, mysteries, and a Pride and Prejudice vampire best-seller (scary concept!), this is the first time-travel Austen novel I’ve come across. Rigler's charming cocktail of fantasy, Regency romance, and chick lit is addictive, as the heroine discovers that love affairs of the past are as enthralling and unfathomable as those in the 21st century.

The premise is original: the witty narrator, Courtney Stone, falls asleep rereading Pride and Prejudice, and awakens in in the body of one Jane Mansfield, another Jane Austen reader, in Regency England. Like Courtney, Jane is 30 and unmarried. Like Courtney, she doesn’t have the best taste in men (Courtney has just broken up with a cheating fiance, whom she caught in flagrante delicto with the wedding cake baker). Jane also has a match-making mother who believes it is a disgrace to be single.

Courtney doesn’t know if she is dreaming or crazy. But reality gets solider and weirder: when she regains consciousness in Jane's body three days after the real Jane had a fall from a horse, a doctor bleeds her for “brain fever” -and she is lucky to get away with that, because her 21st-century witticisms convince him that a permanent move to a mental asylum is the answer. She is appalled by 19th-century underarm odor, which is inadequately masked by perfume. And she frets over the social mores for ladies, which require her, even at 30, to be chaperoned. The details of everyday life for women are not as romantic as those in her Austenian imagination.

Rigler comically interweaves the narrative of Courtney'’s trials and tribulations with reminiscences of her free but lonely life in 21st-century L.A. In Austen's England, Jane’s pushy mother acts as a quasi-procuress for her eager suitor, Mr. Edgeworth, a minister: shades of Emma, but he is completely unlike Mr. Elton, though Courtney broods on the similarity of the situations. She learns, by flashbacks and a friend’s warnings, that he may be a libertine who has impregnated the maidservant. Yet he’s so handsome and sophisticated that Courtney admits that her “palms are sweating and (her) throat is dry.” So she muses on blind dates in the 21st century.

It’s not like I’ve never been in blind-date situations before. But I’m one of those people who hates them and always has to be tricked into it by being invited to some gathering at which I just happen to be introduced (as if it hadn’t all been planned ) to the potential man of my dreams. These particular MOMDs have ranged from the computer nerd with the handshake that felt like a limp sea anemone to the performance artist whose magnum opus was licking dry a dozen opened cans of smoked oysters. Even though I usually feel not the slightest bit of interest in the man who has been summoned to the party, the dinner, or the art opening by the well-meaning friend, I always stupidly agonize over what kind of impression I’ve made on the would-be suitor.

There are countless clever allusions to Austen's novels; there is even a trip to Bath (what is a Jane Austen novel without a trip to Bath?). Rigler’s humorous light romance has got me hooked - I keep thinking it would make a great movie. The sequel, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, about Jane’s experiences in Courtney’s body in the 21st century, will be published next month.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Howard Spring

It was a good year for fiction, 1939. It saw the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, some of Dorothy Parker’s stories, Finnegan’s Wake, Angela Thirkell's The Brandons, and the charming How Green Was My Valley, which I recently reviewed here (how’s that for variety?). I am now enthralled by Howard Spring's 1939 masterpiece of pop fiction, My Son, My Son, which is scarcely mentioned anymore. This spellbinding novel examines the effect of a successful writer’s poverty-stricken childhood on his later relationships - especially the bond with his golden, tragically ruined son, Oliver.

Spring’s plain style and chronological storytelling create an unobtrusive framework: nothing distracts from the dry, articulate voice of the narrator, William Essex, a successful writer who has climbed up from poverty and now unflinchingly and unsentimentally scrutinizes his past relationships. His early experiences are Dickensian, without the verbal flourishes and the exaggerated comedy. During his childhood, his mother took in washing: when Bill picked up the laundry bundles, boys taunted him and often beat him up. At 12, Bill meets a kind, intellectual minister, Mr. Oliver, who employs him for the next five years and teaches him to read. When he commences work as an office boy, he meets the most important, faithful friends of his life: he rooms with the O’Riordans, who read Dickens aloud after dinner, and their son, Dermot, who is an Irish radical patriot who has never been to Ireland, an artisan who dreams of making furniture as beautiful as that of William Morris.

Some elements of My Son, My Son are autobiographical. According to Wikipedia, Howard Spring’s mother did take in washing after his father’s death, and at 12 he left home to work for a butcher; later he found a job as an office-boy, and eventually became a journalist for the Manchester Guardian and wrote novels.

Whether the rest of the novel is autobiographical I couldn't say. Bill ruthlessly marries for money, Nellie, a conservative baker’s daughter and excellent housewife, and after they inherit her father’s business, he writes: he starts out by selling sensational stories to magazines and progresses to novels and plays. Then, inspired by seeing Dermot's beautifully-crafted wooden toys for his son, he suggests that they collaborate in the toy business. They make a fortune, while at the same time perfecting their respective arts, writing and furniture-making.

These two successful men have realized their dreams. Yet they want their sons to help them fulfill their fantasies. We helplessly watch Bill interfere with Nellie and spoil their golden son, Oliver, a ne’er-do-well, who receives every material thing he wants, becomes an accomplished liar and cheater (even stealing a book from his best friend, Rory, Dermot’s son, and later from an office), and lacks his parents intellectual and moral qualities. Nellie attempts to intercede, but Bill wants to provide Oliver with the perfect childhood he never had. Dermot is more faithful to his vision: he marries Sheila, a soulmate who shares his love of Ireland, and his son, Rory, is unspoiled, though Dermot raises him as a radical and perversely ships him to Ireland when he is in teens.

After Nellie’s death, Bill's efforts to provide Olvier with the perfect life intensify . He excuses all of Oliver’s peccadilloes, but they finally fall out over a woman, Livia, a shallow, mixed-up, talented musician/designer who flirts with father and son and agrees to an engagement with Bill. As she is much closer in age to the beautiful Oliver than to Bill, it is clear that Bill is making an error. Oliver moves out and refuses to see his father because of the engagement. And the tragic loss of his son is the greatest grief of Bill's life.

My Son, My Son is also about fathers and daughters, politics, and war. This well-written, well-plotted, fast read of a novel creates a believeable world and is one of the most memorable I've read this year.