Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Smith Thing

Smith is ubiquitous in literature. Perhaps you, too, have come across the Smith thing. It seems that Smithies can't stop writing about Smith. A friend obsessively wrote about her mother’s posh days at Smith, though she adamantly chose to attend a hippie general-studies college. Two women I’m reading at the moment describe Smith. In Nora Johnson’s light, humorous memoir, Coast to Coast: A Family Romance, she fondly recalls Smith in the '50s, where she spent a lot of time listening to Patti Page and Elvis on the jukebox, dating the wrong guys, sulkily tolerating the domination of Sylvia Plath in class, and watching her friends get married immediately after graduation. In Ursula Perrin’s novel, Old Devotions, the witty heroine Isabel, an alumna of Smith, also reminisces about Smith and coincidentally watches her roommate get married right after graduation. Isabel, the cranky daughter of German immigrants, initially dismissed Morgan as a “horsey type” but learned there were hidden depths and became her lifelong friend.

Both these books are entertaining, and to be honest, only segments are about Smith. But what is with the Smith thing? As a graduate of a good state university, I think how rarely I read books about women who graduated from state universities (Marge Piercy is the only one who comes to mind). I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a women’s college - I was too progressive and thought girls’ schools were medieval - and I still get bogged down in the class issues.

Johnson, who grew up shuttling between New York and Hollywood, with a parent in each port, liked the structure of Smith.

“I know now, which I didn’t then, how happy I was at Smith...if happiness is having a place where you belong. I made the customary complaints about living with hysterical girls and a housemother who smelled your breath when you came in, about spending four years gathering useless information and the absurdity of living without men - but I didn’t really believe any of it.”

Perrin’s Isabel expects to dislike the country-club girls who attend Smith, especially Morgan, her roommate, who has hockey sticks, shin guards, a saddle, etc.

“It turned out, against all possible odds, that we grew to like each other. Besides our roaringly high rates of metabolism, we had this in common: We were both broke. I had gone to a seedy, failing girls’ day school in New York City, where I had been one of two scholarship girls and not often left to forget it.... Morgan hadn’t gone to Madeira but to a seedy girls’ boarding school in Maryland where, between bouts of alcoholism, her father was the riding instructor.”

So stereotypes are broken: Johnson and Perrin’s Isabel claim not to have much money, yet one can't help but notice they grow up in elite intellectual homes, Johnson the daughter of Nunnally Johnson, a director and writer, and the fictional Isabel the daughter of a fictional scholar who expects her to get a Ph.D.

I doubt that the rest of my reading this summer will be about Smith. Still, what were the odds with these two?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A. S. Byatt and the Booker Prize

One hundred pages into A. S. Byatt’s stunning novel The Children’s Book, I've decided she wins the Booker Prize. I don't have to read the rest of the contenders. The longlist was announced today, and Byatt's on it, so she has a good shot, though my other nominee, Geoff Dyer, didn't make it. I'm putting ALL my money on Byatt. It’s a good list this year - a relief after last year’s White Tiger debacle, when so many first-rate novels were winnowed from the list in favor of unpromising first novels. What happened to Hensher's brilliant novel, The Northern Clemency, and Ghosh's Sea of Poppies? My husband hated White Tiger, and I abandoned it after 30 pages.

It’s a great feeling to discover another classic by Byatt, sink into it, fall in love with it, or whatever one does. The reviews of The Children’s Book didn’t at first appeal to me, but it's brilliant and rich with layers of allusions to children's literature: Olive Wellwood, a famous Victorian children’s book author reminiscent of E. Nesbit, writes a book for each of her children, and lives a life mainly absorbed in social life, fairy tales, and Fabian politics. It’s one of the best novels i’ve read this year and I should have ordered it right away: plot lines don’t always tell the story. The writing is extraordinary, and blended with this magnificent history of art, crafts, Victorian fairy tales, socialists, and - well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten - the beautifully-written novel has won me.

There are many fairy-tale and children’s book motifs in this novel. There is Philip, a runaway from a job at the Potteries who wants "to make things" (his sketches are elegant). This young artist hides in the South Kensington Museum, and, once discovered, is taken home by Olive , the children’s writer, to live for a short time until training and work for him are found. (This museum sanctuary seems to be a clever allusion to E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 Newbery-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a girl and her younger brother run away to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps Byatt read it to her children)

Byatt also weaves tales into the text. Olive’s disturbing The Shrubbery, which she believes almost crosses a line into terror, is included at the end of a long section about her childhood in a mining town. Olive marries up and leaves those memories behind. I read a biography of E. Nesbit this year and this certainly isn't her story, but there are other parallels: Olive’s idealistic husband quits his job, as did Nesbit's husband, Hugh Bland, and Olive talks about supporting him, as Nesbit did support Hubert.)

I ordered this from the UK because I loved Possession and her other novels (the Fredericka Quartet is my favorite) and wanted to read another contemporary classic.

I HAVE found one small Latin error, which I'm blaming on her copy editor. I have put the error in italics: "Gratias tibi agimus, omnipotens Deus, pro his et omnis donis tuis." The ablative plural of omnis is omnibus. Yes, it's a 3rd-declension adjective. Let's correct the ending to "ibus" for the paperback edition!

Here is the longlist for the 2009 Booker Prize. Some of them haven’t been published in the U.S., but I've listed their U.S. publishing date, when applicable.

Byatt, A. S. The Children's Book Oct.

Coetzee, J. M. Summertime      Oct. 27

Foulds, Adam. The Quickening Maze    no U.S. date mentioned

Hall, Sarah. How to Paint a Dead Man     Sept. 8

Harvey, Samantha. The Wilderness     already published                 

Lever, James.  Me Cheeta  already published
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall       Oct. 13                          

Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room       no U.S. date mentioned 
O'Loughlin, Ed. Not Untrue & Not Unkind      April 1, 2010 

Scudamore, James. Heliopolis     no U.S. publication date

Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn    already published                    

Trevor, William.  Love and Summer     Sept. 17             

Waters, Sarah.   The Little Stranger     already published

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lost in the Woods

First, we made the rounds of the bookstores. I bought a used copy of Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, a novelistic biography of her father and of the frontier community where he settled in western Nebraska ($3). I also found Janet Flanner’s 1926 novel, The Cubical City (50 cents, the Popular Library Lost American Fiction series), about a young woman in NY in the 1920s trying to balance independence with the sexual desire that might trap her. I considered a new novel by Norah Labiner. Coincidentally, two people were talking about how they knew her and hadn't realize her book was out.

After decaf-to-go from a coffeehouse (we waited ten minutes while others got their espresso drinks), we got lost in the woods.

One minute we were reading at a picnic table. I brought my mystery.

The next minute we were admiring the beautiful wild woods.

The next hour or so we were lost.

The map didn’t help. The Driver is an excellent navigator. We have never gotten lost in the woods before. And of all places! In this small, undeveloped woodsy park in my hometown.

Even I couldn’t find my way.

Eventually, after wandering through woods and out onto a highway,I recognized a REALLY undeveloped trail off which I once camped illicitly.

A mile uphill and two bottles of water later, we drove home.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Love All

There’s more to convalescence than taking pills: a philosophical doctor admitted to me that reading can be part of a cure. I maintain that Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles did as much to cure me of an Unidentified Illness as the IV. I’ve read and loved all of Howard’s books, and my ideal vacation would be curling up (pill-free) on a beach in September and rereading them. I picture this as a women's-fiction-a-day holiday.

Love All is an absorbing, beautifully crafted, character-driven novelthat might be dismissed as a romance by a reviewer who doesn't make it to the startling end. Howard’s large cast of characters are linked by place - Melton in the West Country - and by colossal loneliness: It is the late ‘60s, and all know they should have love, but how does one get it? As they frantically try to create the emotion, falling often into unrequited love, only Floy, a garden designer in her late sixties, is level-headed, accepts her life, and doesn’t crave what she can’t have.

Floy’s ideas of love have been shaped by loss, Jane Austen, and selfless caring for her niece, Persephone, whom she raised and still lives with in Maida Vale in London. Percy (Persephone), an attractive twentyish Anglo-Greek, loves her aunt and shares her fascination with Jane Austen, but longs for romance to complete her happiness. She has quit her job in publishing to go on vacation with a man whom she has persuaded herself she loves. He breaks up with her. He’d “simply wanted a jovial extra-marital affair, while she wanted -what? A great love?” Appalled, Percy realizes she has deceived herself about her feelings and has given up a job for a fantasy. When Floy realizes what has happened, she suggests they work together to refurbish a large garden on a millionaire’s estate in Melton. And it is their meeting with the divorced Jack Curtis, the howlingly lonely businessman who has just bought and renovated a mansion, that sets the events in motion.

Jack tries to organize an arts festival to make his mark on the town. The city council is less than enthusiastic, feeling the annual flower festival is sufficient. But after Jack hires Percy to be the festival administrator, she recruits Francis, a council member, neighbor, and painter, who works in a nursery for his brother-in-law, and the two learn the double art of PR and fund-raising.

Percy is at the center, in that most of the men are in love with her. She, however, has become canny: though she has trouble saying no, she knows she has not experienced real love. Proposals begin to make her claustrophobic. She is especially upset by Tom, Francis’ brother-in-law, a widower, who is obsessed by her. Even Tom’s intelligent, concerned sister, Mary, another Jane Austen fan, can’t make it all right.

The women describe love in terms of Jane Austen. Percy feels sorry for Mr. Collins . Floy accuses Percy of being Emma-ish when she tries match-making. Mary wonders if she is Charlotte Lucas as she considers a marriage proposal.

It’s such an entertaining book - definitely not a romance. The ending is a complete surprise - unsettling. I enjoyed this novel very much, though it is sad. Howard is anything but sentimental, and the star-crossed loves of her characters ring true.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Next Up

Above: Elizabeth Jane Howard

It's been a strange week's reading: a jumble of historical novels, fairy tales, a fantasy, a thriller, and a mystery.

Now, back to normal. I just received two English novels from Amazon UK, A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book (because after Possession no contemporary fiction seemed good enough) and Elizabeth Jane Howard's Love All. Thank you, Amazon UK, for the recommendation of Love All, because I didn't know Howard had a new book (2008). I've read and loved all of her fiction, especially The Cazalet Chronicles, a well-written, fascinating four-book family saga that cured me of serious trauma after a hospitalization. Really. Litterae vincunt omnia, i.e. literature conquers all. (Muriel Spark also helped me along.)

Howard's new novel Love All is set in the late '60s (a fascinating time for a novel). According to the jacket, it's the story of "Persephone Plover, the Anglo-Greek daughter of distant, neglectful and constantly absent parents...her aunt, Florence, a garden designer..., and Jack Curtis, a self-made millionaire" who wants to start an arts festival to cope with the loneliness of divorce.

I've also got a couple of contemporary American novels coming up: The Servant's Quarters by Lynn Freed and A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

So it's back to women's fiction. A very different line-up from last summer's Viragos and Persephones.

Opposites: Jeff Abbott and Reginald Hill

“I enjoy thrillers,” I wrote idly in an e-mail.

I was thinking of John Le Carre, or maybe James Bond. A novel of slow and genteel intrigue. The kind of book I haven’t read in a while, because I switched over to mysteries some years ago. So I wasn’t prepared for Jeff Abbott’s Trust Me. This non-stop action-crime-espionage novel is a lot like techno-thriller science fiction in terms of pace. It’s suspenseful and mesmerizing, a rapid-fire book that is difficult to put down, unless, like me, you get overstimulated. Trust Me is so fast and frightening that I took periodic breaks to do something ironically normal like surf the net. Only you shouldn’t surf the net when you’re reading Trust Me, a novel fueled by extreme, if realistic, internet paranoia.

The hero, Luke Dantry, a brilliant, techno-savvy psychology grad student in Texas, spends his nights reading and writing posts at internet forums to locate and profile potential terrorists. He isn’t doing it for fun: he hands over the names to his stepfather Henry, who runs a think tank that fights terrorism. But when Luke is kidnapped by an edgy middle-class banker, Eric, then chained up in a cabin, from which he escapes, and then pursued by two terrorists, Mouser, who dreams of killing “the Beast” (the U.S. government), and Snow, a fanatical killer who has made bombs for a forthcoming operation, he realizes that Henry may be implicated in the terrorist network.

Luke is on the run throughout the novel. He uses computers to contact acquaintances in Chicago, the base of Erik, his kidnapper, and to gather information. The computer geeks who help him along the way, however, are just as likely to stab him in the back. He must find $3 million, hidden by Eric, that Henry and the terrorists are searching for. If he doesn’t find it, a series of bombings known as Hellfire will disrupt the U.S.

Abbott’s characters are convincing and well-drawn. Luke is a tall, quiet guy, an athletic loner who has to learn to take care of himself fast. After two shoot-outs in Chicago (yes, it’s all action), Luke travels to New York with Aubrey, Eric’s girlfriend, who is also on the run, a smart, savvy woman. And when she is kidnapped, it’s onward to Paris to find her and the rest of the network.

Abbott’s novel is enjoyable in a scary kind of way. It’s all about the pace and plot of the different scenes. It's all about trust: can you trust anyone? The writing is good enough, but you don’t really notice it. You have to read to know what happens next. I couldn’t do this too often. I’m used to books where nothing happens (my Jane Austen binge, etc.).

It didn't feel quite like reading. That's the weird thing. It's more like experiencing a movie on some molecular level. The experience was exhausting, though I think this could be a really good movie, a cross between The Bourne Identity, The 39 Steps, and something, anything, with Harrison Ford.

On another note, I’ve also been reading a mystery, Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning. (I try to read one mystery a year.) If you don’t know this classic series, it’s worth reading just for the characters: Dalziel, a fat, smart superintendent who has seen it all, regularly mocks, exploits, and then praises Pascoe, an overworked, well-organized sergeant, who has a college degree in social sciences (scorned by Dalziel). When a crane operator removes a statue to transport it to a different part of the grounds at a small college, the skeleton of a woman is found in the base. Dalziel and Pascoe are called in to solve the mystery. This is a slow-paced novel - only one corpse in 70 pages - but well-written and fun in a different way from Abbott's book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Geeks Recommend

Every summer I set out to read a stupendous science fiction or fantasy novel by an author unknown to me - the kind of brilliant genre fiction only geeks recommend, because the rest of the world has been sold on big names like Charlaine Harris, Neil Gaiman, or J. K. Rowling (not that there's anything wrong with these writers, but it's nice to branch out).

Paul Park’s Roumania series is stunning. A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tiger, and The Hidden World make up a brilliant, astounding quartet of fantasy novels about an alternate universe in which Roumania is an empire, magic is real, and an adopted American girl, Miranda Popescu (who magically turns 20 immediately after she and two friends are abducted from Massachusetts), is a reluctant heroine and disguised Roumanian princess at the center of a political struggle. This isn't quite a "Geeks Recommend"; the first book was reviewed in 2005 by The Washington Post Book World (before the separate book section crumpled) by Michael Dirda, who has a genius for rooting out the great all-ages books from the publicity-generated pop-culture phenomena like Harry Potter. It's a shame that Paul Park’s books don’t generate that kind of enthusiasm. And these books, though billed as Y.A., are really just unusually well-written fantasy novels for all ages - all the characters are adults by the the second book, which is better than the first. And the graceful writing is reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, or John Crowley.

Dirda wrote:

"Paul Park knows fairy tales, contemporary and classic fantasy, and literary science fiction, and he borrows tropes from all these genres. So readers will find, as they enjoy this long novel (the first volume of two or more), that it provides the pleasures of the familiar -- indeed, the archetypal -- without neglecting some twists and enigmatic variations all its own. “

These are beautifully written and addictive

Now here's a caveat.

I struck out with Catherynne M. Valentes's The Orphan's Tales: In the NIght Garden. Obscure, yes, but well-written no. It seemed tailor-made for me: a collection of linked original fairy tales. I was hoping for a cross between Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories and A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, but it's a kind of Bloody Chamber of Crossed Eyes and Body Parts. These are the most violent fairy-tale metamorphoses I've read - some of them make me sick - and Valente's style loses its magic after the first 50 pages or so. She decided to concentrate on the blood. This won an award: someone will like it. But I can't even sell it: the binding of the book cracked magically on page 90, giving me the message that it was Not a Well-Made or Well-Written Book.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wapsi Great Western Line

The Wapsi Great Western Line trail is like a beautiful dream. It extends from Riceville, Iowa (population: 400) to the border of Minnesota in a whirl of forest and farms. It's one of Iowa and Minnesota's' best-kept conundrums: if nobody knows it's there, who will come? This beautiful, shifting, astonishing landscape is calm and silent. Eighteen miles of the trail are allegedly paved, but we clocked only 12.5 before the surface turned to big rocks and dirt. We rode an easy 25 miles on asphalt trail and bumpy country roads.

The trailhead (above)

Few trails are this beautifully groomed. We've ridden all over the midwest: there's usually at least a pothole. Here's the history of the WGWL: In 1990, ten years after the last Chicago Western Train whistled through town, the Ricevillians decided to build the trail on the railroad bed. The idea was simple: it would connect the town to Lake Hendricks Park a few miles away. Then the project took off: trees were planted as memorials to people, a butterfly garden was developed, and grants acquired for the extension of "The Gateway to Iowa - Gateway to Minnesota" project. (There are several fundraisers planned.)

At the trailhead are flower beds, an information center in an old wooden church, and memorial stones. This memorial especially struck me:

We rode through dark green northern woods, fields so up close and personal you could touch them, off-trail on a county road past Amish farms, through miles of stunning windmills.

Through the Woods (above)

Riding on the roads I was ecstatic. The roads are always faster than the trails, the surface harder, and the scenery more exciting and varied. We rode up a couple of hills and down dales past farms, many with flowerbeds in their front yards. We passed an Amish farmer in a field with a horse-drawn wagon. An Amish buggy clop-clopped behind us but turned off before it passed us.

Grain elevator

Here are my attempts to photograph the gorgeous windmills (with no zoom on my trusty camera). By the way, in terms of wind power, Texas is No. 1, Iowa No. 2, California No. 3, and Minnesota 4th place. The Great Plains states from Texas to the Dakotas have the potential to generate up to 16 times the normal electricity consumption in the U.S., according to a study released last week by Harvard's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Go, wind!

And what was I reading? The Tourmaline by Paul Park, a fantasy, second in a series, very well-written, vaguely reminiscent of Philip Pullman's books.

Friday, July 17, 2009


"Classic" is the best word for A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Published in 1990, this acclaimed novel won the Booker Prize, has been the subject of countless book clubs (including the June Guardian book club), and is so complex and structurally prolix that I find it impossible to classify. On the one hand, it is a post-modern homage to Victorian poetry and intensity of emotions. On the other hand, it is a gorgeously complicated novel that interweaves satire, realism, the poetry and letters of two passionate Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte (created by Byatt), and the more tepid, intriguing love affair of two withdrawn young contemporary scholars, Roland and Maud, as they pursue the poets’ love story through letters, diaries, and a trip to Whitby. In the first half of the book, Roland and Maud, who interpret literature through a scrim of Lacan and Freud, are still hiding their research from other scholars. If I remember correctly, their rivals will soon track them down.

Byatt is a brilliant writer, every sentence carefully crafted, and this novel is more enjoyable on a second reading. The form confused me in the beginning: is it an academic satire, I wondered? I had a sinking feeling that it was heading in the direction of a parody of women’s studies (my own women's studies classes were very good). The scholarly men, though eccentric, seemed more grounded than the women. Even Roland, our diffident, worried, mistaken-for-dull, marginally-employed hero, seemed more sympathetic and vital than the reserved arty-beautiful-yet-spinsterish Maud, who always covers her princess-like blond hair with a scarf or turban. And yet when he begins to know her, this stereotypical female scholar (whom he feared) is revealed as a complicated, compassionate person.

After discovering some uncatalogued letters by Ash to the poet Christabel Lamotte, Roland visits Lincoln University to consult the archives of the library and Maud, a LaMotte scholar. She kindly invites him to a Women’s Studies block (block?) coffeehouse after he has consulted a diary at the library.

“They sat down at a low table in the corner, under a poster for the Campus Creche and facing posters for the Pregnancy Advisory Service - 'A woman has a right to decide about her own body. We put women first' - and a Feminist Revue: 'Come and see the Sorceries, the Vamps, the daughters of Kali and the Fatae Morganae. We’ll make your blood run cold and make you laugh on the Sinister side of your face at Women’s Wit and Wickedness.' The room was largely uninhabited: a group of women in jeans were laughing in the opposite corner, and two girls were in earnest conversation by the window, pink spiky heads leaning together. Maud Bailey’s excessive elegance was even odder in this context. She was a most untouchable woman. Roland discerned in her a rigorous sense of correctness, or justice, which made her trustworthy, but would likely cause her to disapprove of his own behavior about the letters....”

Of course this is Roland’s view of Maud. And we eventually come to know her more fully, to understand her, and to love her, as we do another eccentric woman scholar. (But so far not the Americans. We’ll have to see what happens with them.)

Roland vaguely reminds me of an Orwellian hero. Maybe the bookstore clerk in Keep the Aphidistra Flying? Maud is one of those stereotypical repressed scholars who slowly blooms. The scholars are a dry lot, but not without emotions, and their emotions are affected by their Victorian poets. And they envy the emotions of the Victorians: their own have been ruined by Freud (who now is considered out of date - so maybe the Victorians will come back_.

I appreciate LaMotte's and Ash’s poetry - the first time I doubt that I got much out of it - I simply read because it was an integral but headachey part of the novel. Ash’s poem about Swammerdam, the entomologist, bored me, but it seems quite good now. Has my attitude toward Victorian poetry changed? Is LaMotte really a lost brilliant poet? But confusingly she has been invented by Byatt.) This time I loved it. I also love Ellen Ash’s journal, which has much information about her husband’s perfidy between the lines of her domestic life.

I can also see the inception of Byatt's interest in entomology. Read Angels and Insects.

Well - I’m halfway through - a very good read!

The White Witch

I started to read Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch and am dropping in to say how much I’m loving it. I implied in my last entry that only nostalgia would inspire me to read it: imagine my delight that I get to recant! Apparently I always had good taste (good to know)! Goudge's style is lyrical, characterized by lengthy, poetic sentences, and the narrative is fascinating and fast-paced, set during the English Civil War, wholly driven by characters who are first people, second Royalists and Parliamentarians. The unusual characters are intriguing and colorful: Froniga, half gypsy, half English, lives in a neat little cottage near her English cousins, is shunned by the gypsies for not traveling, and, though a Parliamentarian, suspected of witchcraft because of her individualism; t Yoben, a Royalist who took refuge among the gypsies long ago for mysterious reasons, and is chastely in love with Froniga; Francis, an itinerant painter; and the Haslewood family, Margaret, the much put-upon wife, upset by the new Puritan regime, her husband, the loyal Robert, a Parliamentarian only because he follows a much-admired friend, and their twin children, the very ordinary Will and his intelligent, imaginative sister, Jenny, who always comes second to the adored Will but doesn't really mind (he needs the adulation).

Here’s a description of Froniga’s garden to give you an example of Goudge's beautiful prose (sometimes sentimental, but always describing nature in a way that makes you see and feel):

“The trees had been so twisted by winter storms that they lay this way and that, and one lay along the ground, but still bore apples of a moony green. Growing over it was a bush of autumn musk rose, glimmering with ivory flowers. It was wet from the rain and a gust of scent came to him as he brushed against it. There were beehives under the trees and in the rough orchard grass he trod upon fragrant growing things, bruising them. Froniga was a noted gardener and herbalist, skilled in all healing arts, with fingers that were not only green but enchanted, and her small domain always seemed to him almost intolerably prolific. He was, he supposed, a little jealous of her passionate love of plants.”

Such a good book!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Air Conditioning and Elizabeth Goudge

Air conditioners rattle all over the neighborhood. THR-R-R-UMMMP! Temperature: 81. Humidity: 55%.

Midwesterners panic as soon as it gets hot. Eighty-one might so easily turn into 82. Some never turn the air conditioner off. Others rush to bookstores and the library to log time in AC.

The drone of AC makes me nostalgic for the energy-wasting days of my childhood. I did not own an air conditioner for many years as an adult, because I preferred "natural" weather (pre-global warming). But I grew up with AC, as did most middle-class families in the humid midwest. I’d sit in front of the AC after a game of softball in the vacant lot, feeling the sweat dry under my ponytail, drinking Kool-Aid, and reading Elizabeth Goudge.

Reading was the main activity when it got hot. I could lie on the couch for days in front of the air conditioner reading my favorite authors - a motley lot: Elizabeth Goudge, Angela Carter, Charlotte Bronte, and Mary Stewart - getting up only to go to the library and check out more books - or to rush out to Sidewalk Sales and buy shorts with defective zippers and t-shirts with threads hanging from them. My friends and I met at the library to talk about the latest books, and most of us went home with a huge pile that included an Elizabeth Goudge. An old-fashioned sentimental novelist, Goudge wrote some charming historical and contemporary fiction and owed much of her technique to the 19th century giants. Her characters are Dickensian and there’s more than a touch of fantasy and romance in most of the books. R. K. Rowling says her favorite book is Goudge’s A Little White Horse, a children’s fantasy that won the Carnegie Award. Linnets and Valerians was checked out so much I might as well have owned it. My grandmother had a copy of Green Dolphin Street (which I reread last winter). I eventually found paperback copies of The Dean’s Watch and Scent of Water. Goudge's novels may be overwritten and sentimental, but the plots are fascinating and her distinctive style evokes a certain time and values I still have today. (I don't overestimate the importance of learning good values through literature.)

My favorite was The White Witch. I'm so excited - I discovered while sorting things for a sale that I own a copy! It has been so many, many years since I read this that I can't remember much about it. It takes place during the English civil war in the 1600s - Catholics vs. Protestants - and centers on Froniga, a beautiful, gypsy-witch who uses her herbal medicines as a healer. Loved by everyone, Froniga is nevertheless exhausted by the attentions of men. At random I picked out this passage:

“A sense of weariness came to Froniga. Here was another man. Would she never reach an age that would be a safe harbor from men? She had sailed into forty with high hopes but it had made no difference."

This is the kind of woman I thought I'd be when I grew up!

Looking this over, I feel it might be difficult for me to get past the style. Some of her books hold up better than others: I can vouch for Green Dolphin Street (Green Dolphin Country in the UK). But I have always loved novels about witches. Perhaps I'll try it with the air conditioner on. (It is warm.)

There are some enthusiasts online who have read this recently and written some beautiful articles about The White Witch. Try

Elizabeth Goudge Society

What's Wrong with the World?

Manon's Garden

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jon Hassler's The Dean's List

Jon Hassler’s The Dean’s List is a likable, humorous novel set in Rookery, Minnesota, a low-key village in the mythic far north. This entertaining fiction reads like a cross between Jan Karon’s Mitford and Richard Russo’s more bracing novels of upstate New York; but since it’s neither as saccharine as the former nor as salty as the latter, my guess is it gets lost in the shuffle. Most of Hassler’s novels are in-print. I have no idea whether this is one of his best. Two of his novels, North of Hope and Dear James, and his memoir, Good People, have been reissued by Loyola Press. A lifetime resident of Minnesota, born in 1933, Hassler grew up in Staples and Plainview, earned a master’s at University of North Dakota (while living in Minnesota), taught high school, community college, and college, and became Writer-in-Residence at Saint John’s College in 1980. The author of 22 books, he died in 2008 of progressive supranuclear palsy, a disease similar to Parkinson’s.

The Dean's List is a gentle satire that hinges on the witty, tolerant voice of the narrator, Leland Edwards, who describes himself as Dean “by default” of tiny Rookery State College. A lifelong resident of Rookery, Leland captivates us with his easy-going, unhysterical, accepting view of a group of eccentric small-town characters, among them his canny ex-wife, Sally, an administrator at the Hi-Rise, an apartment house inhabited by flamboyant senior citizens; his vivacious mother, who has her own radio show and loves bossing him around (he lives with her); L. P. Connor, a bitter, psychotic woman who is suing Leland for sexual harassment because he hugged a depressed student good-bye when she confided she was dropping out of school (and who has no complaint); and an obnoxious poet who shows up two months before the speaking engagement on which Leland pins his hopes for the salvation of Rookery College.

The problems at Rookery are manifold: declining enrollment, an unscrupulous hockey coach, an education professor who is having a nervous breakdown, and an illiterate president, O. F. Zastrow, who reads James Thurber as non-fiction and can't communicate.

And being the world’s worst communicator isn’t Zastrow’s only failing. He’s pitifully unaware of the world around him. Take Paul Bunyan, for example. Years ago, when “Paul Bunyan’s Alma Mater” became our official and ill-advised motto, Zastrow, then Dean, didn’t know Paul Bunyan was a mythical character. We had a brassy speech professor here at the time - her name was georgina Gold - who spoke up one day at a faculty meeting and suggested that Paul Bunyan be asked back to his alma mater as our commencement speaker. There were a few chuckles at first, but then we all held our breath when we saw the unmistakable signs that Dean Zastrow was thinking it over - his right eye narrowed, his lips tightened - and sure enough, he told us -confirming our awful suspicions - that he’d have his secretary inquire about Mr. Bunyan’s fee. He said we shouldn’t get our hopes up because celebrities charged a lot of money.

This is typical of Hassler’s tone. Occasionally, when he’s not being funny, Leland’s memories of his boyhood border on the sentimental. I don’t like my books sweet, and we get a little too much of that here - but on the other hand so did we in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. This is a humorous depiction of small-town life. Probably not for everybody, but it’s fun.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Butt

The years pass: 2001...2002...2009. Only yesterday I was reading Will Self’s How the Dead Live, a bizarre novel in which the protagonist, Lily Bloom, dies of cancer, moves after death to a dead neighborhood in North London, and attends twelve-step Personally Dead meetings. I seem to remember her walking out for a daily Milky Way. Very funny, very weird, and not a vampire novel. Not sure what it was about.

Self is witty, wicked, and a very prolific satirist.

It was the Driver who discovered Self’s latest novel, The Butt, at the library.

“Isn’t he one of your writers?”

He knows it. The Driver chauffeured me 100 miles or two (no distance at all in the midwest) to a reading in 2001. The reading, alas, was canceled. Afterwards we always called before we left, but honestly we have gone to fewer readings.

The Butt is an extremely funny send-up of extreme non-smoking laws, litigation, and revenge. The history of the reality is weird enough: Self's light satire reflects what is actually happening in the U.S. Smoking lounges once took care of the smoking problem. Then in the late '80s the lounges were closed and in the next two decades the ban became increasingly punitive. Certain parts of the outside are now sacrosanct, as I understand. The coatless smokers in wintertime can't just go outdoors and light up. Only certain spaces are legal. I'm not a smoker and I love non-smoking hotel rooms but the new laws are extreme. Not my battle, though.

Tom Brodzinski, on vacation with his wife, teenage daughter, and squirrelly sons in an unnamed country dependent on the tourist trade, morosely considers the implications of the country's excessive prohibitions on smoking.

“For the three weeks of the Brodzinskis’ vacation, Tom had found the prohibitions on smoking, in this vast and sun-baked country, particularly intrusive. There were strident signs in - and on - every restaurant, bar and public building, threatening fines and imprisonment not only for smokers themselves but even for those - whether wittingly or not - allowed smoking to take place.”

When Tom decides to give up smoking, he accidentally flips his last cigarette butt from his balcony onto the head of man snoozing on his balcony below. The blister on the old man’s head leads to hospitalization and an insane accusation of assault by the old man’s teenage wife, a member of a tribe that does not believe in accident. Tom is simultaneously “arrested” and “bailed” on the same day once he arranges for huge amounts of money to be transferred from his bank account. His wife flees the country with the children, blaming him for being a patsy.

The situation is entirely crazy - the honorary consul (who hasn’t worked for the state in 10 years) and a rich, aggressive lawyer ridicule and take advantage of him, and the outrageous tribe demands “two good hunting rifles, one compleat set of cooking pots and pans, and $10,000."

Tom's road trip across the country to deliver the goods, undertaken in the company of another felon, who has to pay his penalty in prescription drugs, is hilarious, though I'm only halfway through the book. Apparently there's terrorism and chaos ahead, which didn't please the reviewer in the NYT.

A good novel to read on a hot Saturday.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Independent Bookstores - for Better or Worse

In Coast to Coast, a charming memoir about growing up in New York and Hollywood, Nora Johnson describes the book-buying habits of her father, Nunnally Johnson, the famous writer, producer, and director.

"At Martindale’s bookstore on Little Santa Monica, there was a ritual. Salesladies greeted him, asking if they could help. Well, he wanted so-and-so...did they have any ideas? With seeming carelessness they produced their favorite new novels. He listened carefully to what they had to say. A shrug from Miss. W., a little moue from Mrs. S., and the book might go back on the table or the shelf. But a nod, a couple of meaningful taps, sent it on its way. We always left with an armload and within an hour he’d be home in his corner armchair cracking the first glossy cover, a scotch and ice on the table next to him, a new pack of Old Golds.”

Bookselling has changed distinctly since then. As the indies of our youth have gone under, we have cursed the corporate pirates like Amazon and Alibris, but secretly shop there for specific titles. I occasionally pop into the tiny local independent bookstore, but it has some problems: (1) it seldom has what I need, (2) out of guilt I purchase books I’ll never read, and (3) I have to deal with a snotty attitude that bubbles out of comic-book boutique-y clerks’ heads: “I’d rather not wait on someone with a bike helmet.”

Some have great experiences at independent bookstores. Matt Cheney wrote in Conversational Reading on Feb. 24, 2009:

"When I know exactly what book I want, ...I just buy it on Amazon. Bookstores are where I go to spend an enjoyable hour and make serendipitous discoveries. And, yes, browsing is very much an addictive experience that bookstores can and should build on. Whenever I pass by a bookstore, I feel the pull. Despite everything Jeff Bezos has done to replicate this in his bookstore, I'm not drawn to browse Amazon in the same way."

Elizabeth Gettleman in Mother Jones in the article “What’s Wrong with Independent Bookstores?”(April 6, 2009) wrote:

“So we recently lost our local bookstore. MoJo really tried to support Stacey's on Market St, our research team went there before Amazon, we bought lots of gift certificates, we are sad to see them go. Well, mostly. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually thought the store was frustrating and found it a struggle to shop there. And Stacey's isn't the only guilty party.“

Let me say that I support some of the larger stores. Mager & Quinn in Minneapolis has an unusual selection. (I have found many used and out-of-print books here). I love The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City. Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe in Washington, D.C., has a sophisticated atmosphere. My best indie experience: I loved living above a bookstore in grad school: rushing downstairs to buy Queen Lucia or a New York Times.

The mysterious, reclusive, brilliant bookstore owner used to serve as the middle man between you and the publisher. He/she changed your life by putting Catcher on the Rye or Anthony Trollope on the shelf. He/she preserved the classics.

But those days have changed - for better or worse...etc.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The World of Willa Cather

I’m still recovering from our trip to Red Cloud - a long, long road trip few would be crazed enough to undertake in one day - and after a scary midnight detour on a dark road between Lincoln and Omaha, I was voting for the Super 8. But we kept going and The Driver got to sleep in his own bed. Two-thirty a.m. found me wide awake and reading “Old Mrs. Harris,” so I was happy, too. The trip was worth it! The hours in Red Cloud were intense, precious, and inspirational.

I’ve read a couple of very entertaining blogs about other trips to Red Cloud: one blogger arrived when the Willa Cather Foundation was closed and had to devise a self-guided tour:

"We picked up a map of all the sites, but grossly overestimated the size of the town. We drove to Willa Cather’s childhood home, approximately 2/3 of a block away."

Another stopped at a bar in Red Cloud during BRAN (Bike Ride across Nebraska) for lunch and was impressed by the gorgeous Opera House:

"The Willa Cather Foundation is located in a downtown building that is really cool."

Still another seemed unmoved by Cather's birthplace but warmed to Cather & Co. Bookstore:

Cats meandered and slept in old typewriter cases and a few older visitors browsed through the shelves of used books. There were finds just about everywhere.

The Willa Cather Foundation itself has an excellent bookstore: I purchased a first-rate short biography of Cather's Nebraska years, The World of Willa Cather by Mildred R. Bennett, first published in 1951, and reissued by University of Nebraska Press. Bennett was one of the founders of the Willa Cather Foundation and moved from Lincoln to Red Cloud in the 1940s specifically to work on a memorial to Cather. The guide referred to her book repeatedly: much of the tour is derived from it. Bennett’s book is a primary source no one could replicate today: she interviewed and corresponded with Willa's family, friends, and residents of Red Cloud who had known her. She is a graceful writer: I'm flying through this book.

Here’s a quote from Willa (from an interview from the Lincoln Sunday Star, Nov. 6, 1921):

“The ideas for my novels have come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child. I was all over the country then, on foot, on horseback, and in our farm wagons. My nose went poking into nearly everything. It happened that my mind was constructed for the particular purpose of absorbing impressions and retaining them. I always intended to write, and there were certain persons I studied. I seldom had much idea of the plot or the other characters, but I used my eyes and my ears."

I plan to reread Hermione Lee's biography, too: the American title is Willa Cather: Double Lives, though the Cather Foundation sells the Virago edition, with a different title.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Red Cloud: Willa Cather's Home

Yesterday we drove to Red Cloud, Nebraska. I’ve longed to see Willa Cather’s childhood home since we moved to the midwest, but something always prevents us: storms, heat, drought, or dismay at the prospect of such a long trip. But the weather was mild (mid-80s), and, after some discussion, we left, early for us - around 9 a.m.

I slept through Omaha, woke up in Lincoln, and as we cruised through rural Nebraska, stared at prairie and corn for miles. (I also jotted down the slogans for many obnoxious billboards to pass the time.) As soon as we turned south - Red Cloud is very near Kansas - the landscape changed. Corn, yes, but brown wheat, too - the first time I've seen wheat.

Then we turned off the highway toward Red Cloud. Suddenly the flatness gave way to rolling prairie and lovely farms with old-fashioned farmhouses. So beautiful. And when we drove into Red Cloud we were amazed by the cobblestoned street of well-maintained red brick and red sandstone buildings (the stone was from Colorado). The town is devoted to Cather in a modest, unobstrusive way: Willa Cather Hardware Store, the Cutter Cafe, Cather & Co. Bookstore, etc. It is not a redneck town or a ghost town. (Our fear.)

We strolled into the Opera House (1885; restored by the Willa Cather foundation in 2003). A charming Foundation guide, who knew everything about Willa and her work, regaled us with information and anecdotes. Willa went regularly to the opera house to see the theater and opera companies, which arrived almost daily on the train, and herself acted in a hometown production of Beauty and the Beast. The guide told us about some of the originals for Willa's fictional characters. Silas Garber, the model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady, who was the fourth governor of Nebaska, built and founded the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889. When the bank failed in 1893, he used his own money to make sure that nobody lost theirs. And Willa loved Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who was very sociable and brought sophistication to Red Cloud. We also saw photos of Mrs. Anna Pavelka, the hired girl who became Antonia of My Antonia. Willa loved her so much that she paid her taxes in the thirties when everyone was broke.

Above: Willa Cather's house

It was such a thrill to see Willa Cather’s house. It made me understand her in a whole new way. Ordinary and small on the outside, it is surprisingly spacious inside, with 14-ft. high ceilings, some of the original furnishings, all familiar from Thea’s house in Song of the Lark and “Old Mrs. Harris.” After Mr. Cather gave up his farm and moved to Red Cloud for his wife’s health and opened a realty and insurance company, they lived here with their seven children (Willa the oldest), a grandmother, a cousin, and a hired girl. Willa's parents slept in a small room off the pretty parlor, Grandmother in a little room with a sewing machine and a rocking chair, Willa in her own small but very pretty attic room, which has a ceiling-to-floor window and a collection of seashells displayed in a small cabinet, the children in three beds in the open area of the attic, and the hired girl in a small space in the front of the attic. No one knows where the cousin slept.

At the Opera House I stood on the stage where Willa gave her high school valedictory speech. The opera house has the original wood floor and stage. There are still performances there. There are countless photos and posters, and a glass case holds Willa Cather’s lipstick, a notebook in which she recorded her sales, and confederate money in which the Cather's packed some belongings when they moved from Virginia to Nebraska (the money was worthless after the Civil War).

We saw much more, but I’ll just add some pictures and a quotation from "Old Mrs. Harris" which describes the grandmother's room at Willa's house. Unfortunately we don’t have photos of the inside of buildings. Our camera had flash (not allowed)!

Above: a happy pony across from the depot!

Above: the Miners' house, where Anna Pavelka (Antonia) was a hired girl.

Above: The bank, founded by Silas Garber (Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady), in 1889. Inside the building is gorgeous, with elaborately carved wooden banker's cages from Chicago.

Below: three photos of the Willa Cather Prairie, newly planted (soon to be gorgeous)

Here is an almost literal description of Willa’s grandmother’s room in the short story, “Old Mrs. Harris”:

"It was a queer place to be having coffee, when Mrs. Rosen liked order and comeliness so much: a hideous, cluttered room, furnished with a rocking-horse, a sewing-machine, an empty baby-buggy. A walnut table stood against a blind window, piled high with old magazines and tattered books, and children’s caps and coats. There was a wash-stand (two wash-stands, if you counted to oilcloth-covered box as one). A corner of the room was curtained off with some black-and-red-striped cotton goods, for a clothes closet. In another corner was the wooden lounge with a thin mattress and a red calico spread which was Grandma’s bed. Beside it was her wooden rocking-chair, and the little splint-bottom chair with the legs sawed short on which her darning-basket usually stood, but which Mrs. Rosen was now using for a tea-table.”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Right Book

Tricked into a forty-mile bike ride on a country trail famous for its pub, I did not get to stop at the popular ___ Tap. No, we rode eight miles past it to the end of the trail and spent half an hour at a picnic shelter drinking Gatorade instead of getting soused on beer.

Everything would have been fine if I had brought a well-written, interesting book. Engrossed in a novel and sipping from a jug of Gatorade, I can refuel my mind and body. But if I'm stuck with a bad book, it can be irritating. I attempted to read Erica Jong's best-selling '70s novel Fear of Flying, because Elaine Showalter writes about it in her book about American women's literature, A Jury of Her Peers. Oh my God. This is like pretending Valley of the Dolls is a classic. This one goes directly to the charity sale. (Don't trust Showalter. Her edition of the Library of America Little Women is also full of typos.)

When I got home, I decided to gather some books specifically to be taken on bicycling trips so I don’t get fooled again. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Jon Hassler’s The Dean’s List. I’ve been meaning to read Hassler since I discovered that one of his novels is published by Loyola Press. The Dean’s List, according to the cover synopsis, is about a dean who has “to save his beloved campus from diminished enrollment, hockey thuggery, and its ignoble associations with Paul Bunyan."

2. Memoirs of a Midget by Walter de la Mare. According to Carl Van Doren’s foreword, “It is not a allegory, but a narrative seen from a point of view which is new to fiction: a midget’s-eye view of the world....There are touches of Dickens in the novel, and of farce."

3. Ruth Suckow’s The Bonney Family. The Bonney family moves from a tiny, secure parsonage in a village to a small college town iafter Mrs. Bonney recognizes that her children need a better education. Unsentimental, it covers a number of years and the children’s coming of age. (What I've read is pretty good.)

Okay! Now I’m set.

P.S. Bicyclists on a pub crawl can get a bit woozy and dehydrated - and crash! The orange poles barring the trail from the road have been run over many times.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Freeling's The Janeites

My Jane Austen readathon (four down, two to go) has made me preternaturally sensitive to Jane-referential titles. Kipling’s famous short story, “The Janeites,” a tale of WWI soldiers whose disillusionment is relieved by discussions of Austen, gives us the origin of the descriptive tag for Austen fans. And the bright, gorgeous red and black cover of Nicolas Freeling’s brilliant mystery, The Janeites (Arcadia Books: EuroCrime ), practically leaped off the shelf, with its design outshining the other books'. But of course the title, taken from Kipling's story, was the clincher.

The Janeites is a stand-alone mystery. Freeling (1927-2003), who won the Golden Dagger Award from the Crime Writers Association, the Grand Prix de Roman Policier, and the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America, was best known for his Van der Valk detective series. Eventually he grew bored with the series and killed off the hero: fans protested. Freeling also wrote the Henri Castang series and several stand-alones.

The two protagonists of The Janeites are linked by their “detective” work in different fields, medicine and police work. Raymond, a Jesuit doctor, treats William, a retired high-powered guard for highly-placed politicians, for cancer. Raymond believes that the police are “mostly pretty dim,” but William is exceptional, and too young for cancer. And because Raymond believes that “blockages” (caused by stress, life changes, etc.) can breed cancer, he tries to shake up his patients with new interests to take them out of themselves. Raymond’s unconventional cure for William includes becoming a Janeite. Ray remembers the Kipling story, and how Jane cured the shell-shocked soldier. A woman is hired to read Emma to William. But William doesn’t stop being a cop: when Raymond is beaten to a pulp in the streets of Strasbourg by a professional thug and ends up in the hospital, William tries to find out who bore the grudge.

William says of Emma:
“Getting quite addicted to Jane. I mean Harriet’s girlish confusion over who she’s in love with, it couldn’t be more boring but I don’t fall asleep, I still want to know what happens next.”

Raymond replies:
“Because it’s real. The world we live in, all the noise that’s made about it profoundly unreal, we look and say ok, what the hell. The ethical problems are the same; who one’s going to marry, is he the right social level and has he enough money. The man in the Kipling story says ‘They’re all on the make in a quiet way.’ We’re no different.”

Several Janeites are created in the course of the novel: William, the woman Ray hires to read, Josephine (William’s separated wife), and Ray himself. And their discussions of the books fit in nicely with the structure of the novel.

Highly recommended! A really good mystery.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Out-of-Print: Iowa's Ruth Suckow

Most of Ruth Suckow’s novels are out-of-print.

Iowa writer Suckow (1892-1960) chronicled life in midwestern small towns. Her simple novels, comparable to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s and Willa Cather's, were popular in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

Suckow, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, gypsied around Iowa with her father, mother, and sister, moving to pastorates in Hawarden, Le Mars, Algona, Manchester, Grinnell, and Earlville. Suckow became a behind-the-scenes expert on church-centered social life.

H. L. Mencken, who edited some of Suckow’s early stories for Smart Set, encouraged her to write her first novel, Country People (1924).

Her 1942 novel, New Hope, is a fictional account of Hawarden, Iowa, at the turn of the century. It is in-print, published by University of Iowa Press.

The publication is largely due to efforts of the Ruth Suckow Memorial Society, which meets once a year to discuss one of her books.

I recently read New Hope and very much enjoyed it. It centers on the arrival of a new minister's family in the small town of New Hope. They stay with the Millers until the parsonage is ready. The Millers, the main characters, are a bustling, sociable family, and a historical montage of family life at the turn of the 20th century emerges: scenes of women cooking fried chicken for church suppers, fudge-making, buggy rides, the importance of the railroad station to the economy, visiting farms, flirtations at church, even information about the town’s water supply. Frequent holidays break up the routine.

If you’re looking for a tight plot, New Hope fails. Our hectic post-phone-Kindle population may find this old-fashioned and slow. But if you want to read a plain but well-written novel about the details of middle-class life in the early 20th century, you’re in for a treat. It may not be a great book, but it's worth reading.

As I recall, The Folks (University of Iowa Press) was better. But I don't recall it enough to write a detailed review.

For now, Suckow's out-of-print books wait on the shelves for a new generation of readers to discover them.

For more information, visit the Ruth Suckow Memorial Society.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Confessions of an Ovid Addict

Every summer The University of X Classics Alumni Newsletter arrives. Every summer I swoop upon it, wondering how many of my professors have survived, what’s happening in the idyllic university town, and what amusing subjects my former professors have written about. Coincidentally I was jotting a few notes in my journal about my years of studying Classics (Greek and Latin) when the mail came.

I've been called a witch, but it really is a coincidence that I was contemplating the classics. I’m not Circe or Medea: no magic incantations here. I sprawled in the Adirondack chair, read the newsletter cover-to- cover, and crunched a Snow White-style apple, a kind of brainwashing agent that inspired a sentimentalization of my own classics days.

This year one of my professors writes about a Japanese animated version of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The original soundtrack of the 1978 film was by the Rolling Stones, but it flopped anyway. How is that possible? In 1979 it was re-released with a disco soundtrack and apparently thrives. The English title is Winds of Change, Hoshi no Orpheus in Japanese (Orpheus of the Stars). You can watch excerpts on YouTube.

I study the photographs of three of my former professors. I’m relieved to see familiar faces: so many are gone. The gawky ex-prodigy, now middle-aged, wears a neat vest, blouse, and slacks, no-nonsense and unshowy as ever, but a brilliant Latinist able to quote Julius Caesar at the dinner table. The courteous Horace enthusiast has looked the same for years, whimsical, kind, her head lifted up, her hair white now, in a full skirt and cardigan that could be from yesterday or today. My former Greek tragedy professor, now retired, looks as canny, original, and slightly cynical as ever. He once asked, confusing me with someone else (all graduate students look alike), "Were you the Puckish one?"

"No,." Oh dear. Not how I remember myself at all.

Another time he quipped, "Mr. _ doesn't take controlled substances" when a fellow grad student admitted he didn't drink coffee.

An excellent teacher, one of the best, but yes, we put up with a lot.

Studying classics was an opportunity and a luxury. I dearly love my Greek and Latin and reread Metamorphoses last summer.

I’ll have to rent Hoshi no Orpheus at Netflix. But I think it was a mistake to change the soundtrack from the Rollng Stones.

If you like the Orpheus myth, or love Ovid, I recommend two famous, powerful films: Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy, of which I only know Orphee (but there's a boxed set out now so I can see the rest), and Marcel Camus’s Academy Award-winning Black Orpheus (set in Brazil).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Three quarters of the way through Emma, I wonder if four Austen novels in two months is not too much of a good thing. I have developed a slight case of Austen-itis. I have been putting aside the novel to dip into Ruth Suckow’s The Bonney Family (a regional novel which has been compared to Little Women). Would I stray from this classic if it didn’t disappoint me? Emma, previously my favorite satire, has for the first time failed to enthrall me.

Since I last read Emma, I’ve become aware that many readers are annoyed by her. I feel a bit defensive. I'm looking for clues as to the cause of irritation. As a young woman I identified with Emma, having been handsome and clever (though not quite rich). Knightley was my ideal, and Emma, though a bit wild in her schemes, certainly matured and corrected her mistakes.

Margaret Drabble begins her introduction to the Signet edition by saying she dislikes Emma. (Drabble is one of my favorite writers, but what a first sentence.) So I turn to the Penguin introduction by Ronald Blythe: “Emma is the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.”

That's more like it.

I’m not one of those readers who have illusions of superior moral standards. Like Emma, I’ve talked behind people’s backs, misunderstood people, and overcome social faux pas. Like Emma, I made some crashing mistakes and learned I couldn't control people. I enjoy her wit, high spirits, honesty, snobbish asides, lazy brilliance, and disastrous match-making. I’m amused by her willful misinterpretation of everyone and everything, her fantasy that Mr. Elton will marry Harriet, her imitation of Miss Bates, and her irrational dislike of the brilliant Jane Fairfax (who is a dull conversationalist; I sympathize with Emma’s boredom).

The comedy is brilliant. My nerves vibrate with irritation as Mrs. Elton appraises Knightley’s character.

“Knightley is quite the gentleman. I like him very much. Decidedly, I think, a very gentleman-like man.”

And Emma’s reaction as soon as the Eltons leave:

“Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! - never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! - and discover that he is a gentleman! A little upstart, vulgar being...”

It’s a masterpiece. So, so different from S&S, P&P, and Mansfield Park. Austen had a wide range - much clearer to me after rereading them.

But I can’t do Jane Austen all the time.