Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Virgil, Robert Fagles, and Margaret Drabble

I didn’t know Robert Fagles had translated The Aeneid. Nobody told me. I haven't kept up. I was browsing in a bookstore and discovered his 2006 translation in a beautiful Penguin Deluxe edition. I bought it immediately. The cashier treated me with respect. How many customers buy The Aeneid? This was the only Fagles in the store, though I have to admit they carried other good translations, among them Allen Mandelbaum's, Robert Fitzgerald's, and Dryden's.

Still, there’s something special about Fagles. Some years ago a group of intelligent online friends discussed Fagles’ The Odyssey, and we agreed it was a startling experience, the poetry seeming crisper, clearer, and more vivid than Richard Lattimore’s more literal translation, which we read in college. He also translated The Iliad. There are other equally good translations: Robert Fitzgerald's The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid are stunning.

Epic poetry is my favorite. The more I read The Aeneid, the more I appreciate it.

“Wars and a man I sing,” Fagles begins.

Virgil writes: "Arma virumque cano," literally “Arms and the man I sing.” The most common translation is, "I sing of arms and the man.” Fagles uses the word "war," not "arms" - less striking than Virgil's metonymy- but there is something fierce and simple about “wars.’

War is Aeneas' fate, a fate he doesn’t want. Early in Book I, during a turbulent storm caused by Juno, with people dying all around him, we first meet Aeneas. He cries out:

“Three, four times blest, my comrades
lucky to die beneath the soaring walls of Troy-
before their parents! eyes! If only I’d gone down
under your right hand - Diomedes, strongest Greek afield-
and poured out my life on the battlegrounds of Troy!’

Many don't like Aeneas. He seems colorless, listless, too obedient to the gods. He is a hero in the Roman tradition: dutiful, pious. Aeneas wishes he were dead. He is denied a personal life. He must carry on. It is his fate to lead the Trojan refugees to Italy and found Rome. And a miserable life it is, traveling through hostile lands and seas and then conquering Italy so that further generations of Trojans/Romans may thrive. A man tired, dispirited, forced to lead by default.

The great anti-war literary poem. Some read it as a celebration of empire, most as a subtle condemnation of war and the loss of personal life.

Robert Fagles died last year. I wasn’t aware of that. Somehow I had been expecting more translations. I had thought of him as young and dashing. Strange, isn't it?

As a companion volume to The Aeneid, I am reading Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters. In this novel, she writes in part about an adult community center Latin class in London, in which the aging students compare many different translations of The Aeneid to the Latin. The heroine, Candida, a rather muted, practical, judgmental, but smouldering-under-the-surface adventurous aging divorcee, organizes a trip to Italy with the class after the adult education center closes and becomes a health club. The health club is modern, but discussing The Aeneid gave purpose to Candida. Book 6 of The Aeneid is the key for Candida.

Anyway, it’s a charming novel.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rebels with the Proofs and the Diva Maureen Howard

If you’re an impatient person, Advance Uncorrected Proofs are perfect, because they're very readable, even though they’re rather poor-quality trade paperbacks, with big tacky NOT FOR SALE signs and marketing information printed on the covers. I’ve collected Advance Uncorrected Proofs for a long time. It started when I was a book reviewer and the book editors sometimes forgot to replace my Advance Uncorrected Proofs with the published books. I was relaxed about it. They had a lot to do and I didn’t want to bother them. You had to be nice. You had to work.

Then I went through a phase where I ordered everything in advance on the internet because Uncorrected Proofs were for sale (and I didn’t have to review them, either). Thus I got the advance proof of Will Self’s apocalyptical novel, The Book of Dave, and Margaret Drabble’s The Sea Lady.

But this year - they’re just not for sale. The rebels with the proofs are discreet. I recently did manage to find the uncorrected proofs of The Rags of Time by the award-winning Maureen Howard (an American diva), one of my favorite writers. It’s the final volume of her “Four Seasons” quartet: the others are A Lover’s Almanac, Big as Life, and The Silver Screen. If you’re not familiar with her work, you should read her: she’s a female Joyce/Updike - is that an exaggeration? She won the National Book critics Circle Award for her 1978 memoir, Facts of Life, and has been nominated repeatedly for the PEN/Faulkner fiction award.

The Rags of Time (Autumn) splendidly interweaves the story of an aging writer with her fictional characters, people we met in Howard's previous books in the quartet. It’s a bit hard to keep up if you don’t remember them, so I would suggest reading the other books first: I had to skim parts of the previous three before I felt confident. Her style is much, much more elliptical than Anthony Powell’s in A Dance to the Music of Time, so it is a bit of work. She’s very lyrical - usually accessible, sometimes less so - and much more ambitious than most contemporary writers. Howard has a very visual imagination and her books are also illustrated with photos and drawings.

In Howard's new novel, reality and fiction are filtered through the consciousness of the novelist, an invalid who wears a floppy black coat and jeans shredded at the cuffs in the autumn as she shuffles on her walk around Central Park, and begins by recalling the “performative" ‘60s, her anti-war protests against Viet Nam and Cambodia - and correlates the time with the current war - but she is now unable to march. As she walks and later at home, she imagines the present of her fictional characters from past books (the other books of the quartet).

Among the writer's characters are Arnie, a young mathematician, struggling to solve problems and musing about his family life while waiting to testify in court on behalf of a boyhood friend who has broken financial laws. Louise, Arnie's wife, an artist, now devotes most of her anxious days to caring for her children. She copies the names of casualites of the Iraq war into an old baby book, saying it's art, a personal way of remembering, completely different from printing out their names from the internet.

There is also Sylvie, a refugee from Innsbruck in WWII, who was raped by Nazis and traumatized before she and her mother, Inga, moved to NY. Inga, a realist who quickly recovered, immediately found boyfriends, flirted with Hollywood, and soon married a rich man in Texas. Sylvie worked as a translator for the UN; eventually she recovered from her fear of men and married a well-to-do man with children; and then had an affair with Cyril, the grandfather of Arnie.

One is not supposed to quote from uncorrected proofs - says so right on the cover! - but why not break the rules? This is the internet!

Here is an excerpt about Sylvie. This passage is illustrated with a woodcut by Durer.

“Still the Federal house is not her home; and the broad stucco villa on Lundstrasse is not home, though she can tour every room with portraits of of ancestors, all men with trim whiskers, several with military honors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Durer woodcuts were hung between mirrors in the dining room. So predictable, Inga said to her friends in New York, and so dreary.... Well, Inga would rather not partake of Melancholia with her schnitzel, Danke schon, and one day said as much to her husband.... The famous etching of that brooding angel with her mystical apparatus and a sleeping dog at her feet remained in its place.”

Howard writes beautifully - I'm savoring this novel.

Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet, her elegant memoir/history of jigsaw puzzles. I ended up buying the hardcover from the UK last spring. It’s a beautiful book and no regrets. But I looked for it every time I went online for months. I was VERY disappointed I couldn't get it in advance.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Counting the Stars

Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars has been on my shelf for a while. This well-written, sensuous novel, published in 2008, is based on the lyric poetry of Catullus and centers on his affair with a woman he called "Lesbia" (the name is a tribute to Sappho's poems, nothing to do with lesbianism). Traditionally she is believed to be Clodia, the wife of the consul of Rome in 60 B.C. Clodia had a bad reputation: she was accused by Cicero in his speech Pro Caelio of seducing the young man Caelius and somehow plotting to involve him - or make it look as though he was involved - in a political murder. The fact that she was older made her guilty. It all sounded very sexist and improbable to me: Caelius was indulged in sowing his wild oats but she, as a woman having an affair with a younger man, was portrayed as a sexual deviant. She was also accused of having an incestuous affair with her brother, Clodius Pulcher.

Catullus is one of my favorite poets: I was very fond of him when I was young. He made Latin come alive in a way that still feels immediate and contemporary. As one of the Novi Poetae, or “New Poets,” of Rome in the first century B.C., Catullus broke from tradition and wrote lyric poetry, sometimes translating Sappho from the Greek, often writing "nugae" (small personal poems) in the tradition of the poets of the Greek Anthology. His most famous poems alternately celebrate and defame Lesbia, his passion, jealousy, and frustration. Of course, these were his poetic persona’s feelings, not necessarily Catullus' own: the biographical interpretation is a bit old-fashioned. But for Dunmore's purposes, it works very well.

As seen through Catullus’ adoring, if melancholy, eyes, Clodia is a passionate, smart, witty but unfaithful lover. The title Counting the Stars refers to the following lines in his famous poem (Poem 5):

"You ask how many of your kisses, Lesbia,
are enough and more than enough.
As great as the number of Libyan sands...
or as many as there are stars , when the night is silent,
watching the furtive loves of men....”

Curiously, the narrative is third-person limited, though Catullus’ poems are told in the first person, and seem more casual, colloquial in tone.

But Dunmore is not a humorist, and this more distant tone makes her able to write about a serious love affair, and Catullus' depression.

One of the most surprising characters is Aemilia, the slave Clodia has had since childhood, who has a very strange relationship with Clodia. She trails after Clodia to her various rendezvous with Catullus, bringing a basket of unguents and powders so she can repair Clodia’s hair and makeup after the sex. Catullus seems to imagine she is also having an affair with Clodia.

Not published in the U.S., this got mixed reviews in England - but I am enjoying it very much. Dunmore’s prose is poetic if perhaps more careful that usual - perhaps a bit inhibited by the brilliance of Catullus. Don't expect a lot of action. It is about feelings. Slow, but well-done.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mary Stewart: A Fashion of Romantic Suspense

The revival of Daphne du Maurier by Virago has apparently inspired a new respect for Gothic novels and romantic suspense. Virago has power: I even attempted to read Jacquelyn Susann’s ghastly Valley of the Dolls after they reissued it last year. (Well, that was a mistake.) But du Maurier’s Rebecca is a classic, and two other novels I’ve read by her, My Cousin Rachel and Frenchman’s Creek, are certainly worthy of a second look by fans - though have no illusion that they're in the same class. A Work in Progress has been reading various short stories by du Maurier, including the collection Don’t Look Now, recently reissued by NYBR - and her review along with the NYBR stamp of approval certainly entices me.

But I’m not quite the du Maurier fan many are, so I decided to turn back to my own favorite writer of Gothic novels, Mary Stewart. I couldn’t resist a cheap copy of The Spell of Mary Stewart, a 1968 book club collection of three of her novels, This Rough Magic (my all-time favorite), The Ivy Tree, and Wildfire at Midnight. Reading Mary Stewart’s elegant, witty novels, rich with Shakespearean allusions, was as much a rite of passage in turbulent, idealistic 1968 as protesting the Vietnam war, listening to the White Album, considering Andy Warhol’s famous sound-byte, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes," and seeing The Graduate.

This Rough Magic is an incredibly literate, well-written Gothic novel that departs from the romantic formula in many respects. The epigraphs in each chapter refer to The Tempest - and the scenes and action reflect a close knowledge of Shakespeare's romance. The heroine is extremely self-reliant, unlike the passive narrator of Rebecca. Stewart also characteristically introduces elements of travel literature.

The narrator, Lucy, a resourceful out-of-work actress, is cheerfully taking a break after the folding of a play and visiting Corfu, the idyllic vacation home of her pregnant sister, Phyllida, who happens to be married to a rich banker.

Lucy is both extraordinarily level-headed and impulsive. She jumps into the sea in front a dolphin when someone in the woods shoots at it; rescues it when it is beached; meets the retired actor, Julian Gale (who has had a nervous breakdown and spins elegant theories about Corfu being the site of The Tempest); his son, Max, a reserved, unfriendly musician; and the charming Godfrey, a handsome photographer. Two men are murdered in a week, a young Greek, Spiro, who is the photographer's assitant, and Yanni, a smuggler: well, in shipwrecks, as in The Tempest (boating accidents). And ANY of the men could be involved.

Of course they’re all attractive. Who's the good guy, who's the bad guy: that's always the problem.

But it is Lucy’s wit, creativity, and ingenuity that keep us going. She is really a terrific heroine - a kind of Emma Thompson character.

The novel begins with witty dialogue.

“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course...Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.”

The title, This Rough Magic, is from Prospero's speech, "But this rough magic I here abjure..."

Her descriptions of Corfu include a religious festival that involves a procession of villagers with the body of Saint Spiridian, the town's own saint.

I'm really enjoying this. I feel a Mary Stewart binge coming on. Next: Airs Above the Ground.

And, by the way, The Moon-Spinners was made into a Disney movie with Hayley Mills. (Hayley Mills' first screen kiss - 1964!)

All are in print!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Brimming Cup

Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s beloved novel, The Homemaker, has been championed by Elaine Showalter and reissued by Academy Chicago Publishers and Persephone Books. In this feminist novel, an unconventional homemaker switches roles with her husband after he becomes ill. Although I was somewhat disappointed, I am glad I read it, because it has led to The Brimming Cup (1919), one of the most charming books I’ve read lately.

I downloaded The Brimming Cup onto my Sony Reader and became lost in it as one does in good books, despite the fact that there is no hard copy. The prologue is simply awful - about cosmopolitan young love in Italy - so skim it and move on, because it turns into the most amazing book. Fisher's vigorous narrative centers on the life and philosophy of Marise Crittendon as a Vermont housewife, her family, and her neighbors - and much of this is conveyed wittily in dialogue between Marise, Mr. Welles, her elderly new neighbor from New York, and his obnoxious guest, the aggressive Vincent Marsh (a Henry James-ish character). Marise and her husband, Neale, returned to her hometown of Ashley, Vermont, 11 years ago from Europe, because Neale inherited a mill from his uncle - and also because of their unique philosophy that one can live more happily and peacefully in small towns than sophisticated cities in Europe.

The novel begins with Marise's sadness over her three children’s going to school: the first day for her youngest. She is depressed at the realization that her children will not always need her. Mr. Welles makes a call on her, and she perkily recites the history of Ashley, explaining humorously that in small towns everyone knows everything about everyone, and the whole town already knows that he has moved here after a lifetime of successful business in NY.

Marise explains over a period of months to Mr. Welles and Vincent that she thinks life in small towns is more honest and honorable than urban life. The materialistic Vincent cannot believe that Marise is happy in Ashley. She belongs to New York, he says, where there is good music. She explains that the arts are more heartfelt in Vermont, that music is a part of life in Ashley, that the chorus she leads is more joyful and expresses the spirit of good music more sincerely than the professional concerts she hears in town. They have fewer distractions in Ashley, so it means more to them.

Fisher conveys the beauty of the changing seasons in Vermont, dating each chapter by month and day, and writes from the point-of-view of different characters: Marise, her daughter Elly, Mr. Welles. In one of my favorites, Chapter VII, “The Night-Blooming Cereus: April 20, ” she delineates The Crittendons’ journey with their neighbors to see the night-blooming Cereus at a farmer’s house, which blooms once a year. It is a big event for Marise and her three children and other townspeople, but Vincent almost spoils it for Marise by saying they admire the beauty only because there is nothing else to do.

"Marise felt suddenly wrought upon by the mildness of the spring air, the high, tuneful shrillness of the frogs’ voices, the darkness, sweet and thick. She would not amuse them; no, she would really tell them, move them. She chose the deeper intonations of her voice, she selected her words with care, she played upon her own feeling, quickening it into genuine emotions as she spoke. She would make them feel it, too.”

She explains:

“...Sometimes when they cannot decide just the time it will open, they sit up all through a long night, hour after hour of darkness and silence, to make sure that it does not bloom unseen. When they see that it is about to open, they fling open their doors, wishing above everything else to share that beauty with their fellows....And all up and down this end of the valley, in those ugly little wooden houses that look so mean and dreary to you, everywhere people rise up and go their pilgrimage through the night...for what? To see something rare and beautiful.”

I absolutely love her philosophy, and hope Vincent, who insists that small town life is narrow, won’t convince her her life is false and not worth living!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Dark Flower

As Frisbee readers know, I declared in one impetuous post that I would devote the autumn to John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (nine volumes). Then I branched out from the Forsytes to Galsworthy’s out-of-print The Country House, which I also enjoyed. Now, lo and behold, I have discovered another in-print novel by Galsworthy, The Dark Flower, reissued by Capuchin Classics. This poetic, enchanting, if uneven, novel, first published in 1913, spans 30 years in the love life of an artist, Mark Lennan, from the age of 18 in 1880 to 48 in 1910. What does love mean in late adolescence? What in the mid-twenties? What in middle age? This is a little slow starting out, but is worth reading. Part Two and Three are excellent.

Age is important in The Dark Flower, as it defines the intensity of characters' emotions. The first part, “Spring,” is a kind of predecessor of Colette’s Cheri (1920) and The Last of Cheri (1926), and centers on a young man’s affair with an older woman. Mark is an immature student at Oxford, young for his age, still climbing trees during his vacations, and guileless in love. Anna Stormer, the miserable, 36-year-old wife of his cynical tutor, falls in love with Mark, since he is perhaps the only man with whom she has contact. (Mark seems too young for Anna - that tree-climbing! - but the narrator of Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance also incomprehensibly climbed trees. It's an "Eden-ic" activity.)

Point-of-view is key in this novel: Galsworthy beautifully charts the shifting emotions of Mark and Anna from their unhappy, separate points- of-view in alternate chapters. When Mark accompanies Anna and her husband on vacation, Anna and Mark have a brief affair: she gives him a dark flower, which symbolizes her mature love. The affair ends when Mark has an opportunity to compare Anna with a sweet young girl, Sylvia. The dark flower, which Anna had taken back, is thrown out of a moving train.

Perhaps Anna's name refers to Anna Karenina, who also does a lot of traveling on trains and suffering.

Galsworthy seems to think she has the relationship because she wants to recapture her youth.

Part Two, “Summer,” focuses on Mark’s affair in his mid-twenties with another married woman, this time his age. They do a lot of hand-holding, but the pretty Olive hesitates to commit adultery, frightened of her abusive husband, Cramier, and reluctant to break her marriage vows. Her uncle, Colonel Ercott, who is half in love with his niece, realizes that it is only Olive’s prettiness that makes men fall in love with her - and that it endangers her. He wishes he could save her from Cramier’s and Mark’s attentions, which he recognizes will not last beyond youth. In the end we wish he could, too.

Galsworthy also explores the feelings of Mrs. Ercott, who is hurt by the Colonel’s attention to his niece. We understand her feeling of being thrown away: women, when older and no longer pretty, lose status.

In Part Three, “Autumn,” Mark is middle-aged, bored with his marriage to the lovely Sylvia (whom we met in “Spring”), and falls in love with an 18-year-old girl who makes advances to him (a fantasy?). Like Anna in “Spring,” he understands his love is inappropriate, but is captivated by youth and spurred on by his own unhappiness.

This lyrical novel deals with the emotions of men and women at different ages. Mark’s love for the girl seems inappropriate, but we understand, as does Galsworthy, that imagination and midlife crises spark love. And he is also compassionate toward the women - especially towards Sylvia. (There are a lot of dark flowers in this book - but Sylvia is not one of them.)

Though The Dark Flower is not as good as The Forsyte Saga, it is a perceptive study of love in all its vagaries, and I’ll read it again. It's the thoughtful kind of book that is much more complex and tightly woven than it seems on a first reading. (I've already reread parts of it, and am impressed.)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tom Stacey, The Willa Cather "Virus," and More on Little Dorritt

Today's entry, as Caesar might say, est omnis divisa in partes tres.

FIRST, A SHORT REVIEW: Tom Stacey’s The Man Who Knew Everything, reissued by Capuchin Classics, fits neatly into the niche of the political novels of W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Unconventional heroes face moral challenges, the settings are exotic, and there is a lot of action. These are quasi-thrillers: Stacey's multi-layered novel, set in the 1970s, tells the story of a semi-retired foreign correspondent who misses out on a coup in the Middle East and then faces the moral dilemma of what to report under a repressive regime.

The protagonist, Granville Jones, has built a life on the newspaper business and become discouraged. He settled down 20 years ago on an idyllic island in the Middle East to escape the demands of his marriage and the irritations of celebrity, and to start a new life with his lover, Romy, an archaeologist.

“By fifty, what could he add to his achievements but pallid repetitions of a greater past? He was already tired of fame, and something had gone from the centre of him. He craved privacy, and perhaps some deeply precious personal secret.”

Gran remains on the island, adhering to his routine after Romy's death. And thus he is absorbed in writing his book when the coup happens.

What should a good newspaperman do? The Reuters reporter has already sent out his story: pabulum straight from the new Emir. Ironically, a TV journalist, whose values are supposed at first to be antithetical to Gran's, also feels driven to inform the public of the real situation. Gran collects information but has to weigh the pros and cons of dissemination: Who will benefit? Is it too late? It’s a case of world politics - and journalistic ethics - and adventure.

Fascinating, plot-oriented, plain, good writing.

THE WILLA CATHER VIRUS: Jay Yost, president of the Willa Cather Foundation, writes in the spring/summer 2009 issue of The Willa Cather Newsletter & Review, that his partner asked him to write about "viral Cather."

"Just by letting people know how important Cather is to us and by sharing her oboks with them, we can start our own individual viral marketing campaigns that will help ensure that Cather is read by continuing generations."

(Yost says Wikipedia defines a "viral phenomenon as an object able to... convert other objects into copies of itself.")

LITTLE DORRITT INTRODUCTION: Stephen Wall's introduction to Little Dorritt, missing from my book, can be read at Google Books.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Clifford D. Simak

A friend has never read science fiction. He cannot, unfortunately, read genre fiction, because God, or possibly his upper-class parents, will come back from the dead and smite him if he so much as opens a novel by John Wyndham. He is a pleasant, conventional, well-educated person (Vanderbilt), reads literary fiction reviewed in The New York Times, is devoted to the Kansas City Royals (the worst team in the league), and volunteers for many political causes. But he is so well brought up that he panics when educated friends come into his house flaunting a novel with surreal SF imagery on the cover.

Science fiction could take you over - like aliens.

That’s the theory.

Clifford D. Simak took me over this weekend. His 1962 novel, They Walked Like Men, is the best science fiction I’ve read since John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. This is a classic - out-of-print, naturally - which found its way into my collection in much the same way Simak's aliens infiltrate the earth. I liked the cover, so I bought it.

Simak (1904-1988) won three Hugo awards, a Nebula, and was named the third Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. According to the Clifford Simak Fan Site, he wrote "pastoral" science fiction, which emphasized humanity, rural areas, and the ecosystem rather than technology.

Simak’s combination of ironic narrator and realistic delineation of the atmosphere of a newsroom overlay the classic theme of ordinary people dealing with a threat to earth . Aliens are taking over the world - but not by hackneyed means - they're buying all the real estate on Earth. They look like bowling balls - and somehow combine with dolls to simulate human beings. The narrator, Parker Graves (love the last name!), is a newspaper science writer who investigates the aliens after he foils a trap they’ve set outside his apartment. He also discovers that all the real estate has been bought up by a mystery man - and that even wealthy people are homeless because once they sell their homes, there’s nowhere to go.

It’s intriguing.

There is a talking dog in this novel. I like it anyway.

Here’s the beginning:

“It was Thursday night and I’d had too much to drink and the hall was dark and that was the only thing that saved me. If I hadn’t stopped beneath the hall light just outside my door to sort out the keys, I would have stepped into the trap, just as sure as hell.

“Its being Thursday night had nothing to do with it, actually, but that’s the way I write. I’m a newspaperman, and newspapermen put the day of the week and the time of day and all the other pertinent information into everything they write.”

Don’t you love the voice?

Among Simak's most famous books are City and Way Station.

They’re ALL out-of-print!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Opening Night at the Charity Book Sale

Part of our haul from the Charity Book Sale

It was Opening Night at the Big Charity Book Sale. There we were browsing and competing with hundreds of readers for choice books in an enormous building stocked with 300,000 volumes.

The first night costs $10 and is bedlam. The classics section is bottlenecked - people squeeze together and grab copies of E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady books, Thackeray's The Virginians, The Brontes' Juvenilia, The Library of American edition of Cheever, Updike's Rabbit books, first editons of Ruth Suckow and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Dawn Powell, Flannery O'Connor, various Viragos, sets of Russians, N. G. Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, and just about anything you want (except the copy of Little Dorritt with notes). Book dealers race around distractedly scanning book bar codes with a little machine which I assume plugs into their store and tells them whether they've got the book. The crowd, many of whom are nearsighted, more of whom move in a trance with eyes downcast, and all of whom are euphoric, can get a little frantic: the shopping carts barely fit between the aisles and people who get there late like us have to grab boxes under the tables and just kick them along the aisle gently. (Finally we got a cart after two and a half hours.) The fiction section takes up about fifteen rows. The rest are biographies, humor, sports, foreign languages, reference books, sets of classics, travel, cookbooks, old school books, nature books, crafts books, music books, magazines, - everything.

I wiped out the Storm Jameson collection. I’ve read some of her post-WWI socialist novels in Virago copies purchased at previous sales: Company Parade and Love in Winter. There is a new biography of Storm Jameson, so interest has been revived in her. This year I found A Cup of Tea for Mr. Thorgill (1957) - I can’t resist a title with “Tea” in it. The cover says it's about "the close-knit world of an Oxford college, epitomized by the Master and the Master's house, a haven of good taste, intelligence and aristocratic noncomformity." Hm. There's a student from the slums and something happens. "No one can read this story unshaken." (The cover synopsis is bad, but Jameson is very good.) There Will Be a Short Interval (1973) sounds like a downbeat modern version of The Professor's House: a historian examining his life and family. We'll see.

I also found:

1. A first edition of Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter for $1.

2. J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, in a NYRB edition, for $3. It won the Booker Prize.

3. Some contemporary fiction: Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, and Jane Smiley’s The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.

4. Regional fiction: A copy of Ruth Suckow’s The Folks to replace my tattered one, Edna Ferber’s American Beauty, Marjorie Rawling’s The Sojourner, and two by Mari Sandoz, Slogum House and The Tom-Walker.

5. A novel by D. E. Stevenson, Celia’s House. I’m hoping this will be the equal of her witty Mrs. Tim books, but have to admit I’ve been disappointed in everything except the Mrs. Tim books and Miss Buncle.

It was quite a haul: two huge tightly-packed boxes of books for $95!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Henrietta's War

I could happily while away the time reading humorous books that make light of terrible experiences - and quite a few of these were written by women during World War II. If you can make a joke, you can survive: that is the premise behind much humor. Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Feet is a vivid, droll memoir of her experiences training to be a nurse during World War II - and, yes, Monica is the great-granddaughter of Charles. Many of Angela Thirkell’s nonsensical, witty Barsetshire novels are set during World War II (and her peculiar humor is simply unequalled). Always on the lookout for light, cheerful humor books, I have just discovered Joyce Dennys's Henrietta's War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 - one of the most charming of these WWII books.

Joyce Dennys, an illustrator and writer, was fortyish when she began to write Henrietta's War - a hilarious series of epistles about life on the home front during World War II, originally published in a magazine called the Sketch - and illustrated with her stylized cartoonish drawings. Written from “Henrietta” (Joyce) to an imaginary friend at the front, Robert, her witty letters capture the bewilderment, humor, tension, irony, sadness, terror over bombs, and mirth over bureaucratic trends like housewives being told to stock one’s cupboards for emergency one week and accused by the government of “hoarding” food the next.

Four of the characters are real: the bubbly Henrietta/Joyce herself; her husband, Charles, a doctor; Linnett, her daughter; and Perry, the bad-tempered dog. Henrietta, who is fragile and susceptible to colds and exhaustion, manages to spice up women's war efforts with casual humor: she describes a frantic jumble sale to raise money for flannel for hot water bottles after the zealous Sewing B exhausts supplies; a policeman drags Henrietta into court when a light shows during the blackout; and she attends a marmalade party at which there is not enough sugar.

"Perfect Wife": an example of Dennys's art from the '30s

Henrietta's friends are also witty. Faye, a beauty, is self-centered but fun. She is horrified when clothing rations are cut, can't believe makeup is scarce, and commandeers her moony beau, the Conductor (of music), into escorting her and conducting concerts. Lady B is always charming - she cheers up Henrietta when she gets depressed, takes in evacuees and a microscopic dog from a friend (she had been expecting a spaniel), and insists that Christmas should be merry because they can't help fight the war anyway.

Some characters are annoying, but none are all bad. The Whinebites, an arty couple who are self-righteous about vegetarianism, preen when meat becomes scarce. Yet they’re patriots who give a rousing War Weapons Week party, at which everyone pays half a crown and brown-bags it - but also brings a “war anachronism,” like old chocolates, restaurant menus (which they hungrily read), and a cookbook that requires you to “Take the yolks of eight eggs and a pint of cream.” Mrs. Savernack is a terror who wields a gun everywhere she goes, shooting game and looking for Germans, until it is confiscated from her - but she sacrifices her own meat to feed her dogs and finds meat for Henrietta’s dog, Perry.

Victory gardens are not exactly fun. After Henrietta hurts her back digging, she straps a hot water bottle onto her back while gardening.

“Digging for freedom is not nearly as romantic as it sounds. Ever since the war, Charles and I have been worrying about a patch of No-Man’s-Land at the bottom of our garden. Every time we looked at it, we felt we were betraying the empire.”

Henrietta wears a grim “shopping face” as the war continues and meat and fish become scarce. She catches sight of her reflection in a window and hardly believes that she looks so worn and hard. Then she notices all the other women have the same expression. Only Lady B looks calm: she explains to Henrietta that she looks at the sea and is happy to see one thing has more than enough of what is needed.

Summer tourists arrive every year and rudely tell the villagers that they don’t know there’s a war on.

“Charles and I, every summer, even go so far as to play a game called ‘Insults.’ It is a simple pastime which amuses us and does the Visitors no harm. Every time we are insulted by a Visitor, separately insulted, I mean, we score a point. Charles always wins; partly because he meets so many more people than I do, and partly because his profession exposes him to insults of the juiciest variety.”

I simply loved it and am giving it to everyone for Christmas. It has been reissued by Bloomsbury UK (though it will not be published by Bloomsbury in the U.S. until next year) and new and used copies of the Bloomsbury edition and old Penguins are available online.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Defective Books

I have gradually augmented my old beautifully illustrated set of Dickens with Penguins with notes. A few days ago I began reading a 2009 Penguin edition of Little Dorritt, which purports to have "notes by Stephen Wall and Helen Small."

“Notes” is right. The title page doesn’t say “edited by.” It says, “Notes by.” I have already ascertained that the appendices referred to in the notes are missing. I calmed down about it and was losing myself in the book again, when Note 24 of Book I, Chapter 13, referred me to the introduction. Now I'm upset. There IS no introduction!

I assumed it was a defective book. But I checked Amazon reader reviews: others complain of the same problem. The theory seems to be that Penguin reprinted an older edition - without the intro and appendices, as an economic measure.

This doesn't seem possible - Penguins are the most reliable of editions - so I'm hoping it's just a "bad batch" of books.

Editors Stephen Wall and Helen Small must be having a fit.

So did Penguin do this intentionallly, as the Amazon readers suggest, or was it an oversight?

Here’s the (harsh) customer service policy at I found at Penguin on “defective books.”

“We will replace defective books purchased new through our websites, or directly from us by phone, within 30 days of purchase. E-mail us at, stating the WEB order number included in the SmartReceipt order acknowledgment e-mailed to you, the title and ISBN, and the defect. We will then send a replacement copy.

“If you purchased the book elsewhere, return the book to the place of purchase; the reseller will refund or exchange in accordance with store policy and will eventually be reimbursed by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. when the book is returned to us.

“We do not send out replacement pages for defective books that are missing pages, nor can these be e-mailed in electronic format.” 

In the past when I’ve had such problems, publishers have replaced the book. One small publisher in England told me not to return the book: they simply sent me a new one.

Penguins are my favorite, but I'll have to buy an older Penguin classic to replace this if I can't persuade Penguin to help me out. Here's a $12 book that, alas, will go to charity, because it doesn't have what I bought it for.

Don't buy the edition with the Masterpiece Theater photo of Little Dorritt (above): it's the one with missing parts!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Notes & More Notes

I contended for years that footnotes and endnotes were extraneous in English literature. I stubbornly ignored notes in novels. I read most of Dickens contentedly without notes.

But times change, and now notes strike me as an alluring luxury, and I have gradually augmented my old beautifully illustrated set of Dickens with Penguins with notes. I recently bought a new Penguin of Little Dorritt , with excellent notes by Stephen Wall and Helen Small. If you’re not in a rush, it’s fun and interesting to read in Little Dorritt, for instance, that Beau Nash was “Richard Nash (1647-1762), professional gambler and leader of fashion..... he did much to establish the reputation of Bath as a society resort, and became popularly known as the ‘King of Bath.’“ (Notes to Book the First, Chapter 9, Note 9 of Little Dorritt, Penguin 2009.)

Illustration from Little Dorritt by Phiz

My copy, alas, was printed without the appendices. A note refers me to Appendix 1: there is no Appendix 1. A note refers me to Appendix 2: there is no Appendix 2. I’m sure the appendices are fascinating, too, but missing in my copy.

I once bought a novel with pages printed out of order and some missing - and the publisher kindly replaced the book. But at the Penguin website I couldn’t find quite the right person to contact. That’s the problem with corporations. I received an automatic e-mail reply that seems to have registered me in a forum.

Recently, notes have also featured in my other reading.

THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS: Two annotated versions of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows have been published this year. They have been reviewed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books.

Illustration from The Wind in the Willows by Wyndham Payne (1927)

“Why are they both published this year?” a friend asks.

Good question.

The centenary was last year, and perhaps it is related to that. The "dueling editions" have been published by Harvard University Press and Norton.

I bought a copy of the excellent edition edited by Seth Lerer (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). Lerer’s notes are not intrusive: they are printed on the sides of the page with the text. And they are not stuffy: they often refer to the OED, in which he traces slang like “spring cleaning,” which first appeared in the OED in 1857, and reflected changing 19th-century domestic habits, with their emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation. He defines “scrooged,” a variation of “scrouge,” meaning to crowd or push. Who knew? He cites references to Milton, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, which Grahame definitely knew, having edited The Cambridge Book of Poetry for Children in 1899. He even includes a photo from a furniture catalogue to complement the description of Badger's home.

The introduction is fascinating, analyzing The Wind in the Willows as belonging to the tradition of humorous travel novels like Three Men in a Boat, animal fable, theater, etc.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book is the illustrations. I grew up with a copy with the E. H. Shepard illustrations. The text of Lerer's Annotated edition is illustrated with Shepard's, but there are also beautiful colored plates in the middle of illustrations by Paul Bransom (1913), Nancy Barnhart (1922), Wyndham Payne ( 1927), my favorite, Philip Mendoza (1983), and more.

The Wind in the Willows is charming: as a talking animal book, I rate it beneath Watership Down but above Winnie the Pooh. For an adult, the experience of reading is improved by the notes. Otherwise, I must admit, I’d be tempted to read a chapter and then put it away. It is very difficult to reread children’s fantasies, which often are spoiled by being filtered through our adult sensibilities.

THE SECRET GARDEN: After reading Julie Buxbaum's After You, a novel with allusions to The Secret Garden, I had to buy The Annotated Secret Garden (Norton), edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s biographer. Buxbaum mentioned in her acknowledgments how inspiring she had found Gerzina’s biography and The Annotated Secret Garden.

Illustration from The Secret Garden (Folio Edition) by Robert Barnett

So I had to have it! I haven’t read it yet, but the illustrations are fascinating. I grew up on Tasha Tudor’s, but she provides us with earlier illustrations that are equally charming. (By the way, I want the old SECRET GARDEN DIARY: The Perfect Gift for Anyone Who Loves Keeping Secrets, which is pictured in the introduction. I would also like the bracelet made from illustrations from The Secret Garden!)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Wise Virgins

Leonard Woolf is one of those forgotten novelists whom small presses sneak back into print from time to time. He is remembered as the husband of Virginia Woolf and as her diligent nurse during long, frequent bouts of bipolar disorder; a member of the Bloomsbury group; the publisher of the Hogarth Press; an editor of political journals; and the author of five volumes of autobiography that covered the years 1888-1969.

But he also wrote two novels - and gave up after The Wise Virgins was published and ignored in 1914.

But new interest in Leonard Woolf has been sparked in recent years - perhaps by the fascination with Virginia. Two editions of Leonard Woolf’s lovely neglected second novel, The Wise Virgins, have been reissued: one by Persephone in 2003, with a preface by biographer Lyndall Gordon; and a second by Yale University Press in 2007, with a foreword by Leonard Woolf's biographer Victoria Glendinning.

Endpapers for the Persephone edition

I, of course, have neither: mine is a 1979 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition, with an introduction by Ian Parsons, an editor who was the husband of Leonard's longtime lover, Trekkie Parsons, an illustrator.

Parsons admired the novel. He wrote:

“The Wise Virgins is a roman a clef, and like most novels that make use of real characters and events in disguise, it gave offense to those who thought they recognized themselves in its pages.”

It seems that Leonard’s mother was particularly upset by his portrayal of her as the character, Mrs. Davis, a whiny Jewish woman obsessed with "the servant problem." And though Leonard is not exactly like Harry Davis, the moody son and depressed artist, his love affair with Camilla Lawrence mirrors Leonard's affair with Virginia. Camilla (Virginia) is a charming, sparkling young woman who spins whimsical stories about other students in the art class. Katherine Lawrence is Vanessa Bell; Clive Bell appears, and so do other members of the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia did not read The Wise Virgins till 1915: Parsons says Leonard may not have shown it to her until her recovery from a third bout of mental illness. Leonard, who also suffered from depression, never allowed the novel to be reprinted in his lifetime, and some believe it is because it damaged his relationship with his mother.

It is slow but charming. Woolf has a gift for depicting the slowness of time in these different days.

He also has a strong, unerring sense of comedy. In the opening pages he wittily yet sympathetically describes the Garland family:

“Mrs. Garland was not strictly a virgin, but she was a widow with four virgin daughters, and a widow of so many years’ standing that she might almost have been said to have reached a second virginity.”

The Garland "virgins" range in age from 24-37; it does not seem they have much chance of marrying. Gwen, the youngest, struggles against her fate. And when the Davises move in next door, she is secretly excited by the thought of Harry. But then he depresses her with his bleak, cyncial attitudes.

Woolf also has a strong visual sense. He paints tableaux of the Garland women in the garden embroidering, reading, and conversing about the vacuity of novels; entertaining new neighbors with desultory conversation and tea; Harry’s conversations with fellow art students; the dull red villas in the suburbs; and middle-class vacations in August.

The novel is charming, not always well-written, but I have a feeling that it is going to end with a punch.

Good Sunday night reading.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


There is nothing more delectable than good humor writing, whether it is in the novels of P. G. Wodehouse or the comic fantasies of Thorne Smith.

But right now it is Thorne Smith here: it's a regular Topper marathon. Smith's 1926 best-seller, a comedy familiar to most of us through the Cary Grant movie, is a hilarious, whimsical ghost story - a purely American classic.

Cosmo Topper, a discontented, dull, middle-aged banker, begins to live when he buys a flashy used car: it happens to be the vehicle in which the flamboyant, glamorous, bathtub-gin-swilling George and Marion Kerby crashed into a tree. Topper defies the superstitious idea that the car will bring bad luck, learns to drive, and encounters the ghosts of the Kerbys. They're wild "lower-plane" ghosts who encourage him to drink, dance, drive fast, and defy his stuffy wife. They especially enjoy making mischief when they are not “materialized” - George terrifies three farmers when he invisibly changes the tire (while Topper sits in the woods, and has to pretend it is some kind of sleight-of-hand); Marion and George persuade Topper to sit in the middle while they drive recklessly (and the car seems to have no driver); drink at a deserted inn and then make a scene at a drugstore, so that Topper is arrested for fighting. and Marion accidentally frightens a store full of people when she is found in a dressing room half-materialized, trying on a pair of knickers.

In this hysterical scene, Marion insists on Topper's ordering her a chocolate soda.

“He procured two straws, plunged them viciously into the soda, then held the glass behind his paper. the liquid immediately began to descend in the glass. From the rapidity of the descent Mr. Topper decided that George Kerby had bought his wife very few sodas during her earthly existence.

“‘Now dig out the ice cream with the spoon,’ she whispered. ‘Pretend to be eating it. I’ll nibble it off.”

“‘This is going to be pretty,’ murmured Mr. Topper with as much sarcasm as can be packed into a murmur. ‘You’ll have to do better than nibble. You’ll fairly have to snap it off.’”

“The nibbling or snapping operation required the use of both Topper’s hands and forced him to abandon the protection of the paper.... The spoon flew to his avid mouth, but, just before his lips concealed their prize, the ice cream mysteriously vanished. It must be said in favor of Marion Kerby that she met the demands of the occasion.... When the ice cream had run its course Mr. Topper resumed his paper and waited, with a knowledge bred of experience, for the dregs of the soda to be drawn. He had little time to wait. Hollow, expiring, gurgling sounds loudly proclaimed the welcome ending of the soda.”

All these escapades get Topper into trouble - the soda jerk thinks he did a magic trick and demands to know how he did it. But the mischief is also his salvation. He learns to enjoy life.

Smith was a friend of James Thurber, and, according to Wikipedia, sold millions of books in the 1930s. I can see why. On to Topper Takes a Trip next.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Sharing the Road

Above: An organized cross-state bike ride.

I’ve become a very cautious bicyclist.

Two groups of anti-bicycle organizers in Colorado and Iowa have proposed legislation to ban bicyclists from county roads. Yes, they believe they shouldn't have to share the road with bicyclists. They even believe bicyclists don’t pay taxes on the roads.

But I hadn’t counted on the accelerated road rage.

Last week in Iowa after a bicyclist was killed in a hit-and-run accident, the "Citizens of Safety Coalition" - a euphemism for a group I like to call "Crazy Rednecks Against the Environment" (C.R.A.T.E.!) - cited the accident as an example of why bicyclists shouldn’t be on the road. (See the report at the excellent website

Dan Jones of the “Coalition” told Emily Carson, a WHOTV reporter, “Bicyclists are that much more hard to see. If they’re not here it would make it a lot easier for everyone.”

A terrifying, inhumane response to a senseless hit-and-run killing - witnessed by pedestrians.

Bicycles don't kill car drivers.

And it is also horrifyingly stupid in light of environmental problems.

And, yes, cars cause most of the air pollution. (The Cash for Clunkers program isn't going to make it go away.) Motor vehicles account for most of the ozone ozone pollution: they emit 72% of nitrogen oxides and 52% of reactive hydrocarbons (principal components of smog).

Bicycles cause zero air pollution.

So get on your bicycles and let your freak flag fly - or whatever you do.

Because if you're going to be insane, banning the goddamned cars makes more sense than banning the bicycles.

Here are a few stats about air pollution from the Transportation Almanac at BicycleUniverse. (A good reporter would get the stats from a primary source, but I'm not being paid!)

1. More than half of the people in the U.S. live in areas that failed to meet federal air quality standards at least several days a year, and around 80 million Americans live in areas that continually fail to meet these standards).

2. Emissions from cars dwarfs that from power plants. In May 2000, Austin Energy planned to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 40% at its Decker and Holly power plants, from 1700 tons per year to less than 1000tpy by 2003. By comparison, NOx emissions in Travis county from motor vehicles totaled approximately 30,000 tons per year in 1996 -- the last year for which complete data was available.

3. SUV's put out 43% more global-warming pollutants (28 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of gas consumed) and 47% more air pollution than the average car.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Long Distance: Penelope Mortimer Appreciation

Penelope Mortimer considered Long Distance, which was originally published in The New Yorker, her best novel. Certainly it is an unusual, difficult book - a departure from her realistic novels about witty, bemused wives and mothers who struggle to hang onto their identities or forge complicated new identities.

Long Distance goes over the edge into feminist science fiction/allegory. The anonymous amnesiac narrator “runs away” from "you" to live in a kind of shadowy institution/sanitarium that is reminiscent of the imaginations of Anna Kavan and Kafka.

The writing is stark, the pseudo-everywoman narrator’s observations painful and funny, if perhaps vague and general, in a style that seems to belong to the ‘60s and ‘70s (the novel was published in 1974). She blends surreal scenes with stream-of-consciousness analysis of freedom, women's place, politics, motherhood, etc.

The narrator recovers from her forgotten vague past in different phases - enforced leisure spent swimming in the pool (an activity suggested by Mrs. April, the strange adminstrator who shows up every time there is a change in her life); relearning language; survival of the gardener's (Lady Chatterley's Lover?) attempted rape; curiosity about the politics of the administration, fueled by vague rumors of embezzling and spying; abreakdown after watching a play about motherhood; being moved hastily into a messy house where she recovers by playing the role of mother and raises several children; a stay in a mental hospital; and she finally splits into two people.

Life is, in effect, one continual breakdown.

Near the beginning, she explains:

I was, and still am, running away from the person to whom (in a sealed envelope, a bulky carton, a gift-wrapped package) I had addressed my life. The name on the address is simply “you,” partly because I still can’t bear to name you specifically, and partly because I am beginning to suspect that you are not an individual at all but a composite of many individuals;... that your characteristics, unlike your thumbprint, are not unique to you but are those of an ethic, a way of oblivion, what Mann calls “an unconscious type,” which I must either escape from or pledge myself to destroy.

Interestingly, parts of this are autobiographical. Like the narrator, Mortimer was raised by a minister, raised many children, and suffered depression.

Is Long Distance her best book? it's a tough call for those who first read her masterpiece, The Pumpkin Eater, in which a woman with too many children continues to have them as a kind of despairing rebellion and defiance of the institution of marriage and a husband who, though tired of his domestic life, long ago shut her in “a pumpkin shell.” (This, by the way, was made into a perfect film starring Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, and James Mason, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.) In Daddy Goes a-Hunting, recently reissued by Persephone Books, the theme is similar. Long Distance does not hold up as well as her other work, yet at the same time I intend to read it again because there's so much in it. I feel the same way about Anna Kavan's Ice, a 1968 novel which survived oblivion by immediately being labeled science fiction.

I would recommend starting with her other books - then coming to this after becoming a Mortimer fan.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Girl of the Limberlost

It is the centennial of Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost - first published in 1909 - a fact I found out by surfing the internet. Coincidentally, last year was the centennial of Anne of Green Gables, another classic about a smart, individualistic girl who wins affection and respect through charm, warmth, education, and enterprise. Curiously, the heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost, Elnora, reminds me of Anne. Both have striking red hair (though Elnora's tends to Anne's coveted auburn shade), both have vocations (Elnora's is natural history; Anne's writing), both grow up on farms, and both teach before marriage.

A Girl of the Limberlost is a superb girls’ classic, sometimes classified as adult fiction, sometimes as children’s fiction. I didn't read this as a girl: Elnora, the American Anne of Green Gables, has such a harsh time that I might have rejected it. Elnora always must struggle, unlike Anne, whose life unfolds in a series of charming episodes. The most enthusiastic and articulate Amazon reader reviewers of A Girl of the Limberlost tend to be older: one reader-reviewer says she is 60 and has read it every year since she was 10. Janet Malcolm wrote a rather peculiar essay for The New York Review of Books about capitalism in Gene Stratton Porter’s novels - with which I disagree - but it was her essay which brought Porter to my attention.

The Limberlost is a swamp area near Rome City, Indiana. You can visit Porter’s 14-room cabin, which she designed and built after her husband discovered oil on his farm. Porter also began a career in nature photography in the wetlands - she didn't began to write till the early 1900s - and knew very well the birds, moths, and animals of the Limberlost.

So does Elnora Comstock. This intense, fascinating, independent character is a self-taught collector of moths. Frustrated by her limitations, she longs to further her education at high school. On the first day of school she sets out, already in tears, because her mother made her flatten her lovely hair.

Behind her lay the land on which she had been born to drudgery and a mother who made no pretence of loving her; before her lay the city through whose schools she hoped to find means of escape and the way to reach the things for which she cared. When she thought of how she appeared she leaned more heavily against the fence and groaned; when she thought of turning back and wearing such clothing in ignorance all the days of her life she set her teeth firmly and went hastily toward Onabasha.

She discovers that country students are charged $20 tuition, and all are required to buy their books. She goes home in tears: she does not know how to get the money. She has also been mocked for her old-fashioned calico dress and clunky boots. Although Elnora was the star of the algebra class, a popular girl changed Elnora’s name from Comstock to Cornstalk on the board with a mischievous stroke, and Elnora, hanging onto her poise, was astonished by the hostility.

Elnora can expect no sympathy from Mrs. Comstock, her crushingly verbally abusive mother - whose unpleasantness perhaps accounts for Elnora’s long hours studying moths in the swamp - who had hoped for Elnora’s defeat. She had deliberately withheld information about the tuition to keep Elnora on the farm. Mrs. Comstock, who lost her husband many years ago when he drowned in the swamp, is crazy: she refuses to listen to music - he was a brilliant violinist - and resents Elnora, as though she had caused the accident.

The neighbors, the Sintons, love Elnora and step in when Mrs. Comstock fails. They go to town to purchase the clothes Elnora needs - and there is a touching scene where Margaret Sinton tells a well-dressed crowd of high-school girls in a store that she needs clothes for a girl who has all the wrong clothes, and asks what material she should buy, what the style should be, and how they do their hair.

Elnora finds money to pay for the clothes - she refuses to be in debt. She embarks on an after-school career of collecting rare moths and selling them to the Bird Woman, a naturalist and authors. When high school ends, Elnora once more needs money. The valedictorian of her class, she needs three dresses for various commencement exercises and a ball. Mrs. Comstock once again fails her by not buying the dresses, triumphantly letting Elnora find out by putting out an old dress on the first day. Elnora, crushed, fInds refuge with her good friend the Bird Woman, who quickly swathes her in white odds and ends pinned and basted, and makes a new dress in the next few days.

There are other subplots: the Sintons adopt Jimmy, an orphaned wild boy, a drunk's son: Elnora introduces them. Later Mrs. Comstock reforms and finds redemption. And during the summer after graduation, Elnora meets a young man who has been ill who helps her collect rare moths she hopes to sell so she can go to college. There are complications in the romance and the moth collection, so Elnora ends up teaching natural science - a position tailor-made for her by the respectful school board. But the book concludes satisfactorily.

I didn't want this to end. I'll look forward to reading Porter's other books.