Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Best of the Decade


Making "Best of" lists is ridiculous when you love almost every book you read. Do you prefer Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible to Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Brimming Cup? Julie Hecht's Happy Trails to You to Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time? They're all great, but there's probably not room for all of them on the list.

And if you can't decide which books you loved most this year, imagine what it's like to catalogue the best of the decade. Earlier I listed an absurd number of my favorite books of 2000-2004. Now I've winnowed the whole decade down to a Top 30, and, guess what, my Top of the Charts is in reality more like a Top 200! Below are a mix of 30 classics and pop, old and new, listed by the year I read them.

2000:

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

Romola by George Eliot

2001:

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina by David Hughes

2002:

In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor

A Whistling Woman by A. S. Byatt

2003:

None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery by Janwillem Van de Wetering

2004:

Long for This World by Michael Byers

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

The Best Awful by Carrie Fisher

Aloft by Chang-rae Lee

Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

2005

One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

The Newcomes by Thackeray

2006

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence by Goeff Dyer

The Trench by Abdulrahman Munif

2007

Hunk City by James Wilcox

The Towers of Trebizand by Rose Macaulay

2008

Honourable Estate by Vera Brittain


The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr

A Hazard of New Fortunes by William dean Howells

2009


The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt

Ovid's Heroides

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

An Avenue of Stone by Pamela Hansford Johnson

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

They Walked like Men by Clifford Simak

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

See a longer Best of 2009 list here.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Plain Sense of Things


Have you ever read a book by a writer you wish you'd never heard of? A book a friend gave you because you’re a champion of regional fiction? A collection of short stories so flat and grim that even 221 pages feels too long?

Pamela Carter Joern’s The Plain Sense of Things makes little sense. This minimalist collection of linked short stories, set in western Nebraska, follows three generations of a family from 1930-1979. Wow, a quick trip, you may think. Maybe it’s like Kate Walbert’s beautifully-written intergenerational novel, A Short History of Women. But while Walbert has a gift for revealing her likable characters through vivid vignettes, Joern has a philosophy of ellipsis. Her prose is so pared-down that one continually expects supporting sentences that never appear. The characters are surfacely so hard and empty that I became squeamish. These downward-spiraling farmers and their wives don’t seem to feel much. They’re uneducated and crude (do you have to be educated to feel?). Sometimes they escape or are driven from the farm, but life is atrocious. Joern describes in a clipped, sometimes poetic, style the bitterness of ignorance and disappointment. A despairing widow, Mary, hits one of her teenage stepdaughters when she lags behind at housework. Later, Mary can’t get out of bed to attend another stepdaughter’s graduation. In Denver, two of the stepdaughters, one married and toting her child with her, pick up two men in a park. On the farm, a young boy masturbates while he watches his aunt nurse her baby. Jake, a failed farmer, takes second place in a singing contest, only to find that the radio station will not air the prize-winners’ performances after all.

Some of you will like this: it's not for me. Here is a typical paragraph.

“A year later, on a Sunday afternoon, Mary sits at her kitchen table snapping beans. Libby’s got Ruth outside dangling her feet in the horse tank, Edward’s checking on the cattle in the south pasture, and Helen is down for a nap. timmy and Nick walked to Pumpkin Creek with their fishing poles. Grace is hovering over the cook stove and worrying about whether her rice pudding will set up right. Mary has shown her a dozen times how to do it, but Grace doesn’t have the knack.”


I enjoy other minimalist writers: Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Barthelme. But Joern’s economical descriptions of farm life don’t seem real to me. These characters are so beaten-down, and so undeveloped. Granted, part of it is set during the Depression. But the Depression seems like the highlight for some of these people.

I haven’t finished this book, though I will. My antidote for this super-depressing read is to read cozy Miss Read, a writer I've never enjoyed. Village School is about all I'm up for right now, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Letters vs. E-mail: Sincerely, Yours Truly, and Best Wishes


Personal letters numbered among the joys of my life when I was growing up. Anything in the mail was a delight, even chain letters, though these were viewed with suspicion by parents and teachers. In third grade we learned the etiquette and format of letter-writing. Date and return address at the top, then the polite greeting, then the gossip, thank-yous, or condolences, and finally the choice of closing, Sincerely, Yours Truly, or Best Wishes. Then we acquired stationery and fountain pens. Then we got pen-pals. What could be more exciting than a letter from a pen-pal in Australia? A complete stranger, but who knew? Maybe we could be best friends someday. That was the sort of thing that happened in books.

I have cards and letters dating back to the ‘80s. A friend and I from grad school exchanged silly cards with letters enclosed until the late ‘90s. She and I continued to know each other so well that we visited back and forth across the country. We confided in our letters about boyfriend problems and work. She called me when she gave birth. She invited me to take a vacation with her and her child (though I couldn’t go because of work).

And, of course, I kept in touch with other friends through occasional chatty letters, but only those who loved writing kept in touch.

E-mail changed all that. Suddenly it was too much trouble for us to print out a letter, put it in an envelope, and lick a stamp. Everybody was on e-mail. Our short, badly-written missives went back and forth at the speed of dark. We didn’t know each other as well. I didn’t bother to revise my notes anymore, nor did anyone else. I knew everybody and nobody. I knew lots of complete strangers but I didn’t know my friends as well. It’s a quandary. How can we write so much and lose intimacy?

E-mail is a blessing and a curse. I have “met,” sometimes in person and sometimes only virtually, some charming, brilliant people who have similar interests. My e-mail friends are great, but my “real” friends are more like "e-friends" these days. It’s easier to exchange a few efficient e-mails than to correspond by "snail mail" Anyway, aren’t we older and colder now? Isn’t it a natural process that we don’t confide as much? Or has e-mail destroyed our innocence?

People in the traditional workplace learn to keep e-mails short. This is smart. I don’t know about you, but e-mail has sometimes screwed me over. Send a snotty e-mail about the vagaries of your boss--and, trust me, there’s always a “friend” out there willing to forward it. And perhaps this leads to a holding back in letter-writing too.

My sole remaining correspondent and I agree that people have become too lazy to write letters. We love our e-mail friends, but something is lost when people cease to consider letters an art. You don’t keep e-mail in a folder. Or at least I don’t. I probably get 50 e-mails a day.

Emily Post knew what she was talking about in 1922 when she wrote:

"The letter you write, whether you realize it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character. A “sloppy” letter with the writing all pouring into one corner of the page, badly worded, badly spelled, and with unmatched paper and envelope—even possibly a blot—proclaims the sort of person who would have unkempt hair, unclean linen and broken shoe laces; just as a neat, precise, evenly written note portrays a person of like characteristics.'


And that's the problem with e-mail. it catches me with my hair unkempt and my prose limp and graceless. Everything's a rough draft on the internet. (If Emily Post could see this blog, she'd have a fit.)

But I still have 30 years’ worth of cards and letters in a folder. And they mean something to me, if not to anyone else. It's evidence of another era. And who know where we're going with this one?

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Very Best of the Doors

I spent the day “rocking out” to the Doors. The Very Best of the Doors was one of the most coveted Christmas presents in our household: Other Family Members would not allow me to listen to it on my new Sony CD Walkman. “We want to hear it, too.” Even the animals seemed to like it. So we spent the day listening to “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” Light My Fire,” “The Crystal Ship,” “Waiting for the Sun,” and other brilliant old songs.

As Rolling Stone said,

"At its best, the Doors’ music — “Light My Fire,” “L.A. Woman” — has come to evoke a noirish view of ’60s California that contrasts sharply with the era’s prevailing folky, trippy style.”


One great thing about the counter-culture era: seasonal depression was never an issue. Christmas belonged to our parents’ culture and we simply didn’t take it very seriously. We’d go out for a walk, have a feast, exchange a few gifts (books),and see a movie. Oh--and we did like the Alistair Sims version of A Christmas Carol. That was as Christmasy as we got. Now we have more responsibility for the day and less fun. The religious aspect doesn't dominate the day, though of course that should be the focus. Instead, I get twice as many presents as I did a decade ago and why? Sure, they're mostly books, but the pressure is on to give more--and it should slow down over the years, one would think. But people just ignore me when I say we shouldn't exchange gifts anymore.

It used to be so simple!

As are these lyrics (back to the Doors):

Now, I'm gonna love you
Till the heavens stop the rain
I'm gonna love you
Till the stars fall from the sky for you and I

Jim was either trying to be cool, or did not know that the preposition “for” governs a direct object--”for you and me," "not for you and I."

Love ya anyway, Jim!

By the way, couldn't someone write a noirish mystery about the following: am I the only one who thinks some of those rock stars, Jim Morrison included, might have been murdered? Yes, it’s a crackpot theory, but how can so many of them have died so young? Other people took drugs, too, but stayed alive!

Okay, enough about that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve & Peace


Merry Christmas and Peace!

Some of you will have nice Christmases. Others will not. Some will have lovely dinners with your families; others will endure dysfunctional family dramas. Some will be solitary. Some will be stuck at home or relatives’ houses because of the weather. Some will stay in a posh hotel, but breakfast on Krispy Kremes from the convenience store, as we once did, because nothing else was open, and yet it was one of the best Christmases ever! But will we make it to the movies tomorrow in the snow?

Here’s what has happened to my ‘60s housewife stay-cheerful Christmas resolution: today I was suddenly unable to clear table surfaces! I simply lay on the couch and read like a vampire.

Here are some of the books on my table I couldn’t bring myself to clear off today. As you can see, I like lots of choices:

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. The first book in the series, Twilight, is fantastic, but this one seemed a little hurried and awkward. I wouldn’t have finished it if my YA mentor hadn’t told me the end was worth it, but she was absolutely right. One has to know what happens to Bella.

Little Dorrit (I’ve read this book way too many times. I'm almost done, though.)

Simonetta Perkins by L. P. Hartley (a novella published by Hesperus Press)

Flambards Divided by K. M. Peyton. The last Flambards book.

The Guermantes Way (I’m reading it occasionally.)

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin (a well-reviewed Russian novel, not a werewolf junk book!)

By the way, the dysfunctional family drama took place outside of our household. Still, it was sad, and listening to Susan Boyle made me cry (a sign that I was a bit upset, because she was singing Wild Horses, not the Dream song!). But the dropped ball is dropped, it's out of our control, and now we can relax and spend our actual Christmas day in peace.

So have a lot of happiness, and if you’re feeling too freaked-out, try to treat it as an ordinary day. It’s an excellent time to read, watch reruns of House, and listen to R.E.M. or your favorite rock.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Battery-Operated Christmas Trees, Indies & Part of Another List


As many of you know, I am half-facetiously playing the role of a '60s housewife this month. My struggle against Christmas depression and general seasonal affective disorder has comprised cleaning house and reading '60s novels by Rumer Godden, Pamela Frankau, K. M. Peyton, Elizabeth Goudge, and others. A constant clearing of table surfaces, all the lights in the house kept on all the time, and the purchase of a few Christmas decorations have kept those dark existential thoughts at bay. But I haven't quite been able to stay in the '60s, as there has been an earth-shattering advance in Christmas decorations, especially the TINY CHRISTMAS TREES from Target. If you pry open the base and insert batteries, TINY LIGHTS STRUNG AROUND THE TREES WILL LIGHT UP AND CHANGE COLORS. There were no directions, however, and it was like sovling a Rubik's cube to unravel the mystery. We had to pry off the base with a knife! It’s not like we’re engineers or anything (that’s a joke, because one of us is) but these things weren't on sale for nothing.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to read and enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, her lively novelistic chronicle of a Baptist family in the Congo in 1959. While Nathan, the chauvinistic minister, smugly believes he is converting the "heathen," his wife, Orleanna, and their four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May, more realistically and humanely interpret the culture through their daily interactions with people. As the Congo declares independence from Belgium in 1960 and other whites flee from the chaotic country, Nathan ignores the needs of his family, and of one very sick child, and insists on remaining without the Mission's salary. Narrated by the women of the family, mainly the daughters, the brilliant novel is tragicomic, moving, lyrical, and lightened by the children's malapropisms.

By the way, my husband mentioned that he read my blog (not a habit!) and understands that I want Kingsolver’s new book. So we’re going to walk up to the independent bookstore tomorrow. Usually this is not a good experience, because I have been followed suspiciously around the tiny space and generally treated like an intruder, but the other day when I was looking for a certain book for my spouse, the clerk was really nice and actually hunted down the title from some unpromising vague clues. Either she’s new, or I looked more normal in my snow-clomping clothes than my bicycling clothes (I don't think they care for the sweaty look). Anyway, now I feel I can support the store for the season.


AND NOW: Here’s a part of my Best of the Decade list (2000-2004). Just what you need: another list!

2000:

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

Romola by George Eliot

2001:

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina by David Hughes

2002:

The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble

In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor

A Whistling Woman by A. S. Byatt

2003:

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon

The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery by Janwillem Van de Wetering

2004:

Long for This World by Michael Byers

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

The Best Awful by Carrie Fisher

Aloft by Chang-rae Lee

Don’t Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Catch As Catch Can


What happens when you OD on reprints? Is it possible to read too many old books? (Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.)


Four reprint publishers, Virago, Persephone, Kessinger, and Elibron, featured prominently on my reading list last year. These dauntless small presses gamble on lost literary gems, otherwise unobtainable. Like what? you want to know. I was spellbound by the leftist fiction of Vera Brittain (Virago), diverted by the wit of Rachel Ferguson (Virago and Persephone), engaged by the fascinating, overlooked 19th-century novels of Margaret Oliphant (Elibron and Kessinger), and moved by the Willa Cather-influenced novel, Fidelity, by the Pulitzer-winning playwright Susan Glaspell (Persephone).

But this year not so much. The Phenomenal Four don't traffic in Pamela Hansford Johnson and Rumer Godden, writers I rediscovered in 2009. Two other good small presses, however, list at least one title by these authors in their catalogues: Capuchin Classics has Johnson's An Error of Judgment, and Loyola Press has reissued two of Godden’s nun books (In This House of Brede is especially good). As for collecting the rest of their books, it’s catch as catch can. It's a matter of chasing bargains day to day on the internet (like searching for the Holy Grail, or a unicorn).


Lately I’ve divagated strangely further away from my Phenomenal Four ideal into mid-to-late 20th century fiction. What does it mean? Have I gone modern? I’m finally reading Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 blockbuster, The Poisonwood Bible, and loving it. It's as good as everyone said it was. (The voice of one of the characters is even reminiscent of Scout's in To Kill a Mockingbird.) And in the last month I’ve read Pamela Frankau, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, Patricia W. Wrede, K. M. Peyton, John Thorndike, Jonathan Carroll, and Stephanie Meyer (the first Twilight book is excellent).

Better go back to Viragos and Persephones before the year ends, I thought. So I checked out from the library a Persephone, Princes in the Land, by Joanna Cannan. Unless there’s a revelation in the next 30 pages, it's been a waste of time.

Cannan seems strangely conservative in her values: Upper-class horsey redheaded Patricia meets awkward lower-middle-class grad student, Hugh, on a train. A charming meeting is characterized by spilling books out of a bookbag and poetry-reading. Hugh, apprehensive, not to say hostile, about class issues, visits her on the estate and is put at his ease by her broad-minded grandfather. Patricia's mother, Blanche, like some evil fairy at a wedding, predicts Paticia's life will be ruined by marrying out of her class and that she’ll end up in some narrow little house, stuck doing housework. Alas, her predictions actually come true: Patricia is the most fettered of housewives and mothers. Her husband grows stuffy and unappreciative and really does feel pleased that he has ended Patricia's horseback riding and quashed her spirit. Ouch. And her children don’t turn out the way she thought they would. Corrupted by the lower-middle-class?

There must be a twist at the end. This can't be about class. But I’m wondering. Patricia's mother, the unsympathetic character, is hardly a seer, is she? So what will happen? Something cheerful, I assume. The writing is awfully plain--and uninteresting to me.

I’m hoping for the best. But I also struck out with Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden (Virago) earlier.

On the other hand Kessinger and Elibron have kept me happy with Mrs. Oliphant, so maybe it was just a few bad titles from these other presses.

Or I’m transforming into a contemporary fiction promoter? I plan to read some new books this week--new this year, not just new to me!

Yikes!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Barbara Kingsolver, Linda Hogan, and Brenda Peterson

"Barbara Kingsolver can do anything she wants."

I heard it at a book festival in 1998 from a publishing saleswoman with an advance copy of The Poisonwood Bible.

"Is it good?"

"It's great."

I never got around to The Poisonwood Bible. I have, however, read Kingsolver's other books, and have liked, if not loved them. I am especially fond of her elegantly-written novel, Prodigal Summer, which seemed to me to be going in a new more sophisticated direction: a contemporary Edith Wharton, I thought. Then there was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.), a beautifully written and well-researched book that nudged us to eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables. With The Lacuna, she has returned to political fiction and her fans are not pleased. They liked her simpler leftist books like The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, but the political literary pop icon's ambitious new novel has not inspired awe.


People think it's flat, stuffed with research, and not very entertaining. In a panel discussion on The Book Studio, I heard it was just plain bad.

I want to read it anyway. I reason that since I admire her two most recent books more than her earlier work, this may be the one for me.


In the meantime, if you're a Kingsolver fan but haven't found exactly what you're looking for in the new book, let me recommend two other political novelists who are less well-known. Linda Hogan, a brilliant American Indian writer who weaves magic realism with leftist politics in her gorgeous novels, published The People of the Whale last year. This was my top book of 2008.


Brenda Peterson is another skillful novelist, and has actually collaborated with Hogan on a non-fiction book about gray whales. Her novel Animal Heart, published by Sierra Club Books, is about a wildlife specialist who investigates a mass stranding of whales and dolphins.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anna Delaney's Child


John Thorndike’s powerful first novel, Anna Delaney’s Child, is one of my favorite novels of the ‘80s. It got very good reviews--”affecting...deft...lyrically powerful prose,” said the New York Times in 1986--and then slipped under the radar. A group of us on AOL in the '90s rediscovered it and wondered why it wasn’t in print. It’s the question that haunts those of us who find a small masterpiece and can't share it easily.

This lyrical novel charts the mourning and gradual healing of a group of believable, strong characters in Fell River, Ohio, who have suffered a range of losses. Anna Delaney, a farmer, has lost her eight-year-old son, Kevin, in a car accident; her father's beloved wife, Anna’s mother, has died of cancer; Susan, now a paraplegic after a recent climbing accident, longs for the sports that kept her centered; and Anna’s ex-husband, Paul, has moved to Fell River with his unresolved drug problems.

All the characters are deftly drawn, but Anna is at the center. A year after the accident, every minute she isn’t working, Anna still thinks all the time about Kevin: his love of cowboys; the way he ate nothing but Wheaties for a year (and survived because he was secretly eating fruit at a friend’s house); his absorbed reading of cereal boxes and advertisements; her ex-husband's defense of Kevin after the stern letter from the daycare center about the rambunctious child’s refusal to take naps.

Looking at a snapshot of Kevin in a borrowed cowboy outfit, she grieves that she denied him the suit so long because she hated guns.

It got worse when Todd down the street was given a cowboy suit for his birthday. Kevin gave no peace for weeks. He called himself Silverman and Tough Stuff. He wanted a suit and two guns like Todd’s. He needed them. One Saturday he left for Todd’s at eight in the morning and didn’t return until noon. He rode full tilt into the garage, braked with a streak of rubber across the concrete and pushed his bike against the back wall. With a snapshot in his hand he burst into the kitchen shouting, “See, Mom, I’m a cowboy!” He had gotten Todd to lend him the suit and Todd’s dad to take a Polaroid picture of him with full scowl and guns up.

She never had a sadder moment with him, realizing how she had denied him a harmless fantasy for years. But he paid her no more attention now than when she gave him sermons on violence. He had finally gotten into a cowboy suit and had the photo to prove it; that was all that counted. He danced around the kitchen and shot into the air with his fingers, saying, “I’m Jesse James! I’m Pretty Boy Floyd!” Anna could hardly keep from crying. Guns were playthings to Kevin, there was nothing in him that was violent or tough....


Thorndike is a thoughtful, sensitive, utterly convincing writer, and the characters feel like family. The book is “unputdownable.”

Back to it!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Housewives and Angel-Headed Hipsters: Merry Un-Capitalism!


Tawdry, isn’t it?

That’s not a creche: it’s Disney Hunchback of Notre Dame figures found under my desk (certain animals carried them to their lair there). The trees were on sale at Target--homage to aluminum Christmas trees of the ‘60s.

The ‘60s housewife role-playing has been a cheering holiday distraction. You can’t have the blues if you aren’t who you are. The “character” spends only two hours on housework so she can read for a solid six hours before she picks up the kids. She doesn’t have a perfect house. She isn’t clicking around in mini-skirts and high heels, but a pantdress and tights or old college sweatshirt and bell-bottom jeans. She carries a cloth bag with a Peace button on it.

At first I was keen on acquiring a 1960s aluminum tree. Retro-housewife discipline had sent my mind whirling like one of the color wheels used to illuminate “artificial” trees. Dismayed by the prices ($239 new at Hayneedle) and rejecting the hassle of bidding at e-bay, I decided to buy a few cheap decorations instead as a joke.

Anyway, a tree wasn’t in character and I was just having fun.

Imagine me at Woolworth’s (well, Target), staring at the decorations and not finding much that I liked. Christmas isn’t in line with my desires--I’d rather go to the SDS potluck--but there’s the family to consider.

Oh, give it up, I bought the trees because I thought they were fun! and represent, well, silliness, which we need a lot of at Christmas!

Do I have to reread Allen Ginsberg to feel like my character? Well, it's so goood; why not?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Flambards


Reading in bed is one of those insurrectionary activities that bonds insomniacs at cocktail parties. All of you must go home early to sleep--but you can NEVER sleep--so you will instead finish Bleak House, Brat Farrar, or the Pogo cartoon book. Astonishing all the books you’ve read in the dark. Reading in bed is staunchly forbidden by doctors, who swear that the bed must not be associated with incendiary reading. Doctor, if we could sleep, we wouldn’t be reading in bed in the first place.

You manage to finish Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding while your partner snores beside you, and then, bored by an obscure novel by Barbara Comyns, Mr. Fox, you tiptoe out of bed, “ ...and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...” but in the living room you stumble over a pet toy aka Christmas tree ornament, and now EVERYBODY’S awake and you come back to bed with the first book you grab, Flambards in Summer.


But, guess what, it’s not bad. It's good. It's entertaining and well-written, the third book in K. M. Peyton’s award-winning Flambards tetralogy, which has certainly enchanted my young, middle-aged, and elderly friends. The second book, The Edge of the Cloud, won the Carnegie Medal in 1969. The first three novels, Flambards, The Edge of the Cloud, and Flambards in Summer won the Guardian award in 1970. A fourth book, Flambards Divided, was published in 1981. And Yorkshire Television made a television series out of the first three books in 1978, available on DVD. These are children's books 'for all ages," as they say.

Set in the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I, the novels center on a likable heroine, Christina Parsons, whom we first meet as an orphaned teenager, sent to live with her equine-obsessed, crippled uncle on his dilapidated estate, Flambards. He has two sons, Mark, an excellent horseman but a womanizer who is cruel but paradoxically popular; and Will, an aviation-mad genius who cripples himself deliberately to avoid the hated riding and secretly pursues his interest in flying. Christina loves to ride, the only thing that matters at Flambards, but she is a humanist and appalled by her uncle and Mark's callousness. At the end of the first book Christina and Will elope: Will finds work as a plane mechanic, engineer, and stunt-flier; she works as a receptionist at a hotel. Then World War I breaks out and and Will, a pilot, crashes. The third novel describes Christina's return as a widow to Flambards, where she is determined to succeed as a farmer.

The plot sounds simple, but the characters are not. Christina is very sad, angry, devastated by loss, irritated by the class snobbery and stasis at Flambards, lonely, but also self-reliant: she resents very deeply the war and the absence of men to help with the farm. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is more determined than ever to renovate the estate. And she loves horses, so one of the first things she does is buy a horse no one else will take a chance on.

The following passage moves me because Christina expresses what many of us feel when we are down and have had a loss. Christina is at a farm sale, and the past fuses with the present as she looks at a car: Will had taught her to drive a car.

“Someday I shall drive to sales in my own motor-car,” Christina said to the smart Ford. It would not be for preference, only to show status, and her success with wheat. Will had taught her to drive a motor-car. A picture of Will, leaning out of Sandy’s Model-T with his arm stretched out to pull her up, his dark eyes laughing, cap on back to front, came into her mind very suddenly, very vividly. For a brief instant Will was as near and as real as he once had been in fact. Christina gripped the horse’s halter and shut her eyes, but the dream was past almost before it had come. Her mind reached to recall the vision, but it was irrevocable, dissolved like thistledown.”

It's really very good, and still in print! I very much enjoy these books.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Trails to You


My husband found a copy of Julie Hecht’s Happy Trails to You at the library. He has an eagle eye, and since I had read no reviews of this, I’m grateful that he found it.

“Isn’t she one of your writers?”

I don’t patronize the library much because of its post-five-year-discard policy (who gets those books?) and shady goings-on (losing its accreditation one year and subsequent financial scandals). I go there when I'm looking for old Gothic novels (a defiant, nostalgic librarian has saved the Mary Stewart books). Occasionally I do miss out on a new book.

Julie Hecht’s short stories have been published in The New Yorker. This collection of droll short stories is narrated by an eccentric leftist vegan photographer who adores Paul McCartney and despises Republicans (especially the one she refers to as the "Alfred E. Neuman president"). Hecht's two previous books, a collection of short stories, Do the Windows Open?, and a novel, The Unprofessionals, are about the same obsessive heroine. Parts read like absurd stand-up comedy.

The deadpan, hilarious narrator is always musing about the end of civilization. She despairs of young people who don't know enough about Elvis and President Kennedy; criticizes the hideous “prostitute fashions” of the 21st century; consults and recommends Dr. Weil’s web site for every health problem; and punches the ATM buttons with the corner of her debit card because of germs.

In my favorite story, “Being and Nothingness,” the narrator spends the summer of 1998 in Nantucket photographing the light, but also compulsively watching the Bill and Monica debates on Geraldo and CNN. Although she rages at the Republicans, she strives to find balance in yoga and Emerson. But it's not just Kenneth Starr's persecution/prosecution of Clinton that bothers her. At the organic food store, she attempts to teach the fruit manager the objective case when the fruit manager says “between you and I.”

“Jim and me,” I said. “Object of a preposition.”

“Really? It sounds wrong. ‘Jim and me.’”

“‘Between Jim and me.’ ‘Between us,’” I said. “‘Between them.’”

I remembered the host--if such a man could be called a “host”--of the cable show Hardball, saying, “A picture of my wife and I.” Can you call in to these Republican supporters about the grammatical errors?...

Although Hecht's narrator has immigrant servants who baffle her and paradoxically goes quasi-Republican in her belief they should speak English in "the workplace" (a phrase she hates), I enjoy this character very much. I agree with her about the objective case. I wince every time I hear "between you and I."

This is a very entertaining book. Actually, the whole set would be a good Christmas gift. I feel a Julie Hecht revival coming on and am going to reread them all. But I wish she would name her narrator.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Housewife Thing: Who Has Time to Read?


If I’d known that housework was such HARD WORK, I would never have agreed to do it. Women of my generation made a choice long ago not to be slaves and to do less housework than our mothers did. According to an ongoing study since 1968 by the National Science Foundation, women did an average of 26 hours of housework a week in 1976, compared with about 17 hours in 2005 (and I think they're lying about the 17). But there was always an assumption that if we wanted to we could keep house as well as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. (Note my sinister associations with housework: Mrs. Danvers as opposed to Donna Reed.)

Why did no one tell me that my mother’s neat house was not the result of a zombie-like devotion to appliances and elbow grease? After my pre-Christmas visit, I felt a certain competitive instinct about housewifery. I wanted a completely neat cozy house like my mom’s.

My house has never looked like my mom’s. The whole concept is a different style. Old instead of new. Books instead of decorations. Plants: our antique geranium is getting ready to bloom for the first time in a year. Everything else utilitarian. Junk flung into closets instead of organized in plastic storage boxes. BUT MY VISIT TO MY MOM’S CHANGED ALL THAT. There’s something so enticing about clean table surfaces. No books and magazines in the living room. Her sofa is not covered with animal hair. The kitchen is spic ‘n’ span. There is no mildew on her bathroom tiles. There’s only one flaw in her housekeeping: a white artificial Christmas tree stuck in the shower no one uses. That’s the only point where I feel she has gone wrong. She offered the tree to me, but my husband says no to a white tree. (Anyway, Christmas trees make me cry, so we assemble our Martha Stewart tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day is really long enough for the Christmas season.)

After a day in her house, I also viscerally wanted Christmas decorations: my mom gave me two snowmen wearing little sweaters and hats, which I have set up in a corner of the “back room” because my husband has forbidden me to put “my people,” as he calls them, in the living room. I also have a kind of plug-in light-up Last Supper thing I have snuck onto a bookshelf. I HAVE NEVER HAD THINGS LIKE THIS AND THEY ARE NOT TO MY TASTE BUT THEY SORT OF PUT ME IN THE HOLIDAY SPIRIT OF ANOTHER GENERATION AND THEY FIT MY PRETENSE THAT I AM A PRE-FEMINIST '60s HOUSEWIFE (until Jan. 1, when I revert to the 21st century).

But it’s damned hard work. It takes hours. Here’s a sample of a minimal housewife schedule:

DAY 1

1. CLEAR all tables of mail, books, magazines, remotes, CDs, catalogues, coasters, and laundry baskets. Then dust and POLISH tables and bookshelves while you watch The View.

2. Remove animal hair from couch with tape rolled around hand.

3. Vacuum.

4. Cook meals.

DAY 2

1. Clean closets in bedrooms. Weed out half of your clothes to give to Good Will. Hang up rest of clothes.

2. Watch half of The View before returning to the bedrooms.

3. Clear table surfaces.

4. Sit down and look at the carpet and think about vacuuming.

DAY 3

1. Clean kitchen: wipe cupboards, bleach sink, mop floor.

2. Watch one-fourth of The View between kitchen activities. Realize that watching The View cuts into your reading time.

3. Put your head in the oven and then go read.

DAY 4

1. Clean the bathtub

2. Clean the bathtub again.

3. Clean the bathtub again.

4. Admire the gleam of the bathtub.

5. Skip The View because you really don’t want to hear anything about Tiger Woods ever again.

DAY 5

Take day off.

Day 6

Take day off but realize you have to get cleaning again or all your work is undone.

This is drone work, guys. It's HARD. This homemaker euphemism is for the birds: it's houseWORK and don't you forget it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

I Capture the Castle


Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of the funniest, most charming novels. I am a bit phobic about writing about humor, because I can't do it justice, but I will say that Dodie Smith’s books hover somewhere in the stratosphere between Jane Austen and chick lit and amuse almost everybody. I Capture the Castle is considered Smith's best book. My favorites are A Tale of Two Families and The New Moon with the Old, but they're not in print, so it's a moot point. Anyway, I Capture the Castle is a perfect book, a classic that never made it into the canon. Nick Hornby lists it as one of his Top 5 Favorite Books at his blog.

The novel begins: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea-cozy."

It's a running joke throughout the novel, all the different places the 17-year-old diarist Cassandra writes her diary. She "captures" the mouldering, isolated, unromantic castle where she lives with her eccentric family, one of two marriageable daughters near a scarcely populated Jane Austenian village (there are no eligible men).

James, her has-been writer father, has ceased to write, and royalties are dwindling; her stepmother, Topaz, is a former model who communes with nature in the nude; her moody beautiful older sister, Rose, is almost 21 and ready to sell her soul to the devil and her body on the streets to get away from home; her ordinary younger brother, Thomas, is still at school; and Stephen, the sexy servant (actually a servant's son who continued to live with them after she dies), is ironically the only one of the bunch who can make any money.

Cassandra describes Rose and herself as "Austen-Bronte girls" and parallels their attitude to love to that of the Bennet sisters.

“But it has come to me, sitting here in the barn very full of cold rice, that there is something revolting about the way girls’ minds so often jump to marriage long before they jump to love....I am judging from books mostly, for I don’t know any girls except Rose and Topaz. But some characters in books are very real--Jane Austen’s are; and I know those five Bennets at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, simply waiting to raven the young men at Netherfield Park, are not giving one thought to the real facts of marriage.”


I discovered my first copy of this at Good Will when I was in junior high, read it several times, then put it aside, then went back and bought it again three decades later. Have I read it 12 times?

When you're snowed in there's nothing like I Capture the Castle.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Snowbound, At the Gym without Sneakers, and Christmas Gifts


15 Inches of Snow

The snowstorm dropped 15 inches of snow. The city came to a halt and even the buses didn't run. After a pleasant snowbound day, as neighbors gathered in the street digging out cars and running snowblowers, we slogged through knee-high drifts to the gym and trudged on the elliptical through half an episode of Desperate Housewives. It was rather eerie as we walked precariously in the street home through the twilight, jumping into drifts every time a car came. The snow plows didn't show up on our street till yesterday evening.

I walked to the gym again today but forgot my sneakers--a "sign" that I was meant to stay home and be snowbound like everybody else. My gear--parka with supernatural warming powers, waterproof boots, long underwear--took forever to put on and I felt quite cross.

Fortunately some of my Christmas gifts arrived today. Two out-of-print novels by Pamela Frankau --I've been hankering for these and have to thank Santa--and Elizabeth Peters's The Crocodile on the Sandbank and Alexander McCall Smith's At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances--thanks to another Santa for those!


One of the novels by Frankau is Over the Mountains, the third in the trilogy Clothes of a King's Son. I've been haunted by the characters in Slaves of the Lamp, the second in the trilogy. It ended so tragically: deaths affecting the protagonists, Thomas, Sarah, and Gerald Weston, who have grown up in a theatrical family (see Vol. I, Sing for Your Supper) to be writers, actors, and in the case of Thomas, sometimes a reluctant faith healer. According to the jacket copy, which has been cut and pasted into the front of Over the Mountains, it is set during World War II and focuses on Thomas, a psychic and unusually compassionate writer-illustrator, who, as a lieutenant and POW, keeps an "unwritten notebook" which is "the backbone of this poignant novel." His other family members, including Sarah, the sensitive writer whose husband died tragically, Gerald, the ambitious actor, and their possibly bisexual stepsister Rab, whom Thomas wants to marry, also play key roles.

Frankau's other novel is The Bridge, a 1945 novel which I look forward to reading.

The two mysteries were sent by my mentor, who has introduced me to Golden Age detective novels and now to some contemporary mysteries.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

A List for Those of Us Who Like Lists: Favorite Books of the Year


I love lists, but my favorite books of the year are seldom the newest books. I leave those to reviewers, connoisseurs of 21st century
literature, and pop culture enthusiasts who not only embrace the newest titles by Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City is my favorite new book of the year), A. S. Byatt (why didn’t her book win the Booker Prize?), and the Twilight books (which I liked), but also Hilary Mantel (can any American stand to read a 700-page historical novel about Cromwell?), Philip Roth’s latest self-indulgent imagining of sex between an octogenarian and a lesbian, and Dan Brown's best-seller.

I often read OLD books. OUT-OF-PRINT books. I love the classics, but seem to have read the complete Penguin list of classics, which duplicates the thousands of books in our home collection. So these days I read a lot of books by forgotten, frequently dead writers.

But I’ll try to make this list eclectic. Four living writers made it! N.B. The books are listed in no particular order, and I gave links to the first 10 "reviews" and then got tired of looking them up!

1. A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davies. I said here, "a comic masterpiece with disturbing elements, it follows the career of Boise-born Lowell Lake, an editor for a plumbing trade newspaper in New York, who wakes up one day at 30 with the epiphany that he’s wasting his life."

2. Kingfishers Catch Fire by Rumer Godden. I said here: "Godden delineates the misunderstandings and resentment catalyzed by a rebellious, hip mother who intrudes on village life in a remote area of India and transgresses social barriers without understanding the traditions and hierarchy dictated by pride and poverty."

3. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. I said here: "Bowen's brilliant portrait of the orphaned Portia's coming of age is drawn partly through a diary and partly through the witty, despairing conversations... of her brother and his wife."

4. Sinister Street by Compton Mackenzie. I said here: "a well-written, detailed narrative about the effect of different systems of British education...This is the best book I've ever read!" (It was probably the best book I read that day.)

5. A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith. I said here: "This beautifully-written short novel hinges on the decision of two middle-aged sisters, May and June, to move their families from London to the country to live in two neighboring houses, the Dower House and the cottage. Although the houses are beautiful, they are somewhat leery about the move, and with good reason: The sisters are married to two attractive brothers, George, a philandering, wealthy businessman, and Robert, a writer, and attractions flare up with the proximity of the two families."

6. Lies Will Take You Somewhere by Sheila Schwartz. A stunning, lyrical novel about a Jewish family, told from the point of view of a hip, discontented rabbi's wife and her confused husband. Written about here.

7. Youth and the Bright Medusa by Willa Cather. I said here: "A splendid collection of short stories about artists..."

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

9. An Avenue of Stone trilogy by Pamela Hansford Johnson (my favorite writer!). The complex, witty trilogy chronicles the relationship between the narrator, art historian Claud Pickering, and his histrionic stepmother, Helena, amidst the disintegrating class boundaries of postwar society. I gushed here (and elsewhere: bring this back into print! It is as good as Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time.

Other books I've loved and reviewed this year but am too lazy to provide links for:

Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49.

They Walked Like Men by Clifford A. Simak

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Harry Joscelyn by Margaret Oliphant

The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Far North by Marcel Theroux

Tam Lin by Patricia Dean

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Monday, December 07, 2009

Reading Pamela Frankau and Viewing The View


Pamela Frankau has her fans, yet people in real life seldom talk about her. It’s left to us cyber-characters (myself included) to proselytize about Frankau's novels. There was quite a lot of traffic when I blogged about her a few years ago (at a blog that I deleted). For those unfamiliar with her work, I would put her in the same class, more or less, as Rumer Godden and Pamela Hansford Johnson; perhaps a tad less polished than those two, but still very good and lots of fun to read. Anyway, three of her novels, The Willow Cabin, The Winged Horse, and A Wreath for the Enemy are back in print, thanks to Virago. So go out and buy them while you can! They’re considerably cheaper now than they will be when they go out of print. Remember the scandalous price of the out-of-print Virago of The Brontes Went to Woolworth’s before Bloomsbury reissued it.


Frankau fits well into my reading plan because (a) she wrote 30 books between 1927 and 1967 (lots to read if I can get hold of them), and (b) she is the chronicler of utterly original, unexpected characters: actors, faith healers, writers (playwrights, advertising copywriters, novelists), people who lose their money, frivolous, brilliant women who live according to their own moral codes, intense surgeons who give weird fatherly advice while they pick up lost girls at parties, psychics, etc.. But go with the Viragos first: they are among her most famous books.

I just finished a lesser work, Slaves of the Lamp, the second of a trilogy that centers on a theatrical family, Clothes of a King's Son. Sing for Your Supper, the first novel in the series, is excellent and I love her writing, but it seems that she simply fell in love with her characters (as Upton Sinclair does in the Lanny Budd books) and didn’t worry much about the structure of the second book.

THE VIEW: it was my plan to start watching The View, a show popular with women who work in the home, because it is a good thing to plug into pop culture from time to time (and I'm into the whole housewife thing till Jan. 1, as you know). Barbara Walters founded the show and it takes the form of a conversation among five women, Walters, Joy Behar (the liberal who also has another talk show), Whoopi Goldberg (the moderator, though away today performing in England), Elizabeth Hasslebeck (the ultra-conservative football player's wife and now fashion designer), and Sherri Shepherd (new to me) . Today they were discussing Tiger Woods. Honestly, could anything be such a snooze? So he had a fight with his wife and she "wrapped a golf club around his head," according to the gossip, though “no one knows what went on between those four walls,” as one of the View women said (sorry, I forgot which one, but it seemed very sensible).



Apparently Tiger Woods has offered his wife $80 million to stay with him for seven years.

Joy, the witty Democrat ("one of the few lefties on TV," as she says), cynically pointed out , “A lot of women stay and try to make their marriage work...and they do it for nothing.'

I agree and wanted to cheer.

Barbara Walters wants to know when Tiger finds the time to practice.

I just wish the subject matter were more interesting. They’re intelligent women and couldn’t they raise the level of TV by talking about more important subjects? Aren’t we all tired of hearing about celebrity men cheating? Why don't we just outlaw adultery and be done with it? And legalize smoking? (I think adultery is worse!)

Okay, I don't really think we should outlaw adultery. But I do really, really think we should legalize smoking. This crazed Puritanical prohibiliton of smoking/yet encouragement of prurient voyeurism about celb cheating is mystifying.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Epiphany: Matched Sets

I had an epiphany today: The biggest difference between my mother’s generation and the Baby Boomers (my generation) is that my mother and her friends prefer MATCHED SETS. We were desultorily shopping at a small hardware/dime store in my hometown and I started to load my cart with Lang mugs. (Yes, un-chic, I know, a Wisconsin-based company, very midwestern-y, but one of my mugs developed a hairline crack and I wanted to replace it.)

Then I couldn’t decide which ones I wanted and of course I could only buy two. “C” Is for Cat? One with a bird design? The one with the bicycle?

My mother suggested that I buy two that match. I was floored. I’ve never bought anything that matched in my life. AND WHAT A GOOD IDEA IT SEEMED!


A Lang Mug: Not the One I Bought, Though

And it does look really nice to have two matching mugs on the dining-room table though my husband is a little surprised by the Lang thing and perhaps I should keep them to decorate the dining room discreetly since they’re not in my usual taste.

Anyway, this housewife thing has its advantages. Decorating for Christmas could be fun--if I could stand it. YOU CAN BUY COLLECTIBLE DECORATIONS THAT MATCH AND PUT THEM ON YOUR MANTEL. WHO KNEW? (Okay, I just haven’t done it.) I haven’t really looked at Christmas decorations since we visited the windows of Marshall-Field in childhood. And, suddenly for no reason that I can see, I want one of those old-fashioned aluminum trees! In the ‘60s I wanted real trees so what on earth is going on?

Earth to Mad Housewife: you really are more the rebellious type who doesn’t buy a lot of things, waste a electricity on cheerful Xmas lights, or deck the roof with illuminated Santas, so get real here! There’s nobody to gather round the tree on Christmas so you don’t even bother to put it up till Christmas Eve! And things are really a bit out of control among shoppers! At a truck stop you saw a Barbie town house in the middle of the front aisle generating chaos (can you imagine trying to pull your kid away from that when you’re rushing to the restroom? We did hear some whining).

But would Christmas be more fun if you celebrated Merry Capitalism?

It’s better for me to be a hipster housewife. I’m going to have to get out some of my hipster books to remind myself that I’m a socialist! But I do respect the spirit of my mother’s generation: they celebrate the holidays with cheerful decorations and gifts bought with coupons. It’s fun!

"Talkin' 'bout my generation..." You know Who said that!

AS FOR MY ‘60S READING: i’m reading Pamela Frankau’s 1966 novel, Slaves of the Lamp, the second of a trilogy (I'm not sure if she finished the trilogy). Not her best work (but more about this later). I strongly recommend The Willow Cabin, The Winged Horse, and A Wreath for the Enemy. (The first two are available from Virago.)

TOMORROW: I report on The View. I’ve decided it’s a good idea to tune into pop culture. I’ll hear the latest news from Barbara Walters, Whoopi, Joy, and the rest--and see what all the fuss is about!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

On My Wish List: Thorndike and Mallon


My blog isn't linked to my Amazon wish list because frankly none of my readers are the type to send me books. I know from their blogs that they're frantically paying off credit cards and vowing never to buy another book. (It's like a disease this time of year: even I proudly announced that I had spent zero on books over a period of three or four days.) My husband sarcastically suggested I add a PayPal donation button to my blog so I could get my readers to pay off my credit card. (But I'm not Julie of Julie and Julia, so what good would this do?)

No one is paying off my credit card and I'm not in the bookselling business, either, but let me urge you to consider two new books by John Thorndike and Thomas Mallon, over which I'm very excited, and the only two to have made my Wish List.

1. John Thorndike, a writer and farmer who lives in Athens, Ohio, has published his first book in 13 years, The Last of His Mind: A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer's, a memoir of his father's struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. If you don't know the work of Thorndike, an underappreciated author who has written two very good novels and a memoir about fatherhood and mental illness, you can read an excerpt from the book at Thorndike's website. His father founded two magazines, Horizon and American Heritage, and Thorndike himself has had a fascinating life: working in the Peace Corps, farming, raising a son on his own, building houses, and writing. His clarity, sensitivity, and lyricism will undoubtedly reveal the character of his father in a fascinating light, as well as help those who are helping relatives with Alzheimer’s get on with their lives. There are at least two bases for readership of this book: fans of literature and readers of memoirs who are interested in the specific disease.

His other books are out of print, but I love Anna Delaney’s Child, a moving, lyrical novel about a divorced woman farmer struggling to recover from grief and devastation after the loss of her young child. This beautifully written and gripping novel mesmerized a group of us on AOL who read it together in the ‘90s.

His 1996 memoir, Another Way Home: A Single Father’s Story (published in paperback as Another Way Home: A Family’s Journey through Mental Illness) is a memoir of Thorndike’s raising his son, Janir, after his wife becomes ill with schizophrenia. Thorndike recounts the differences of the sixties and subsequent decades and his struggle to balance work, child care, and the occasional disruptive visits of his wife (whom we must pity, because the medications for schizophrenia make people feel so bad that they seldom stay on them, and this is the case with Clarissa). A sad, but powerful story.


2. NEXT ON THE LIST: Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, by Thomas Mallon, the author of A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries. The history of letters is an important and fascinating subject: they have been the primary source of much historical research, particularly about daily life, and are an endangered art, with e-mail abbreviating and in many instances taking precedence over the personal writing. Hang onto your letters!

By the way, Mallon is also a good historical novelist: every vacation I read one of his books, my favorite being Dewey Defeats Truman, set in Dewey’s hometown, Owasso, Michigan, and consisting of the interrelated stories of several townspeople and their politics.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Refrain We Had Forgotten


When I started writing this blog in 2006, I was reading Proust. My very first entry was about baking madeleines, a subject I had also written a newspaper column on in the mid-1980s; but, being notoriously careless about hanging onto grist for future hamster litter, I lost my own essay. So 20 years later, there I went again. On March 6, 2006, I scribbled, “Reading Proust is by turns (an) ecstatic, intellectual, humorous, philosophical, and boring (experience)...”

I had intended to read all seven volumes, but a few weeks after that entry I gave up. A twilight quality of boredom drove me to shut The Guermantes Way. It’s something about this particular volume, the long dinner conversations about military strategies and the dismal descriptions of November. The conversation about the art of war is indeed enlightening if you're a hoplite or a football coach, in that Robert Saint-Loup explains that war maneuvers are drawn from historic battle maneuvers, only with different ends anticipated: sometimes what appears to be the real battle is a mere distraction from the important action happening elsewhere. This is also true of the action in Proust's world, I suppose. But I learn this reluctantly. I am extremely bored. And though we also deduce much about Saint-Loup and Marcel from these dialogues, it seems a waste of ink. We know the close link between the men and their mutual admiration is partly based on Marcel's attachment to Mme de Guermantes, though Saint-Loup is unaware of the importance of Marcel's crush. Marcel's interest in Saint-Loup's battles draws him away from his interest in the Duchesse, Saint-Loup's aunt.

I was enraptured by the style of Swann’s Way and liked Within a Budding Grove, but The Guermantes Way left me cold. Is it simply focusing on a dull period in Marcel's life? Is the writing more pedestrian? In a review in The Guardian of the 21st-century translations commissioned by Penguin, Paul Davis indicates that the prose of these translations, though based on the latest corrected manuscripts of Proust, is sometimes very "un-English." So perhaps it's not just me. (I'm reading Mark Treharne's Penguin translation, but read the other two in the Moncrief/Kilmarten translations. Should I switch back? But Davis likes the Penguin translation of The Guermantes Way.)

Now, more than three years later, I’ve decided to continue from where I left off in The Guermantes Way, and though I don’t remember all of what’s going on, I've decided it matters very little, because the whole novel seems to be one collection of loosely-connected essays.


Actually, it does matter. Last night I needed a quick reference to Balbec, a place mentioned by Saint-Loup, where the two of them originally met (a small detail, but one needs it). I own a self-styled guide, A Reader’s Guide to Remembrance of Things Past by Terence Kilmartin, but it’s not good for prompting a quick remembrance: look up Balbec and you get, “Remembered by the narrator: 19. Legrandin’s sister lives in the neighborhood: 73.” A whole page of puzzling references to page numbers in a translation you don’t have!

Useful.

Thank God I know a bunch of francophiles. “Balbec is a resort,” my friend says.

Actually, my francophile friend thinks this whole thing is very funny. And I suppose it is. "It's not a real novel."

Cookies...Chambray...Grandmother...Francoise...Gilbrette...Albertine... It is all still there...somewhere. A brief synopsis of the first two books would be helpful. If I go back to the beginning of The Guermantes Way, I’m in danger of going all the way back to Swann’s Way, which I’ve already read three times on the principle that if I don’t read all seven books back-to-back I’ll never remember what is happening. Then i always get stuck and give up the project. If I want to read In Search of Lost Time in this lifetime, I have to go forward.

There are, fortunately, many rewarding passages unrelated to plot in The Guermantes Way. There is a beautiful essay on sleep. Remember Statius' ode to sleep? This is equally beautiful. Proust writes about different qualities of sleep, insomnia, and dreams. The meditation goes on for pages, but I’ll leave you with this line:

“The resurrection that takes place when we wake up--after that beneficent attack of mental derangement we call sleep--must in the end be similar to what happens when we recall a name, a line of poetry, or a refrain we had forgotten.”


If you know of a good guide to Proust, let me know!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Diary of a Pseudo-Housewife: Oliphant, Goudge, and Whitney


As you know, I'm warding off the holiday evil eye by pretending to be a '60s housewife--and I need a cigarette! Can you believe that I can watch As the World Turns as "I stand here ironing" (a nod to Tillie Olsen), as my mother did? Most of the cleaning products have also been around forever: Comet, Tide, Mr. Clean. Of course, I'm trying to stay roughly in period with my books, but I'm reading some things on the computer (is that cheating?) and overlapping a bit with the '70s.

Here's what I did today:

1. Ignored my housework all morning and sat around in dishabille drinking tea. Finished Elizabeth Goudge's 1963 novel, The Scent of Water. Goudge would be below Virago's "Whipple line" (see Guardian), but I read her with enthusiasm: Green Dolphin Street (reissued by Capuchin Classics and reviewed here) was made into a successful movie, and several of her books were selections of The Literary Guild. Her prose is lyrical, sometimes original, sometimes bordering on sentimental, and I tend to go away from her books feeling revitalized, as though I have taken a brisk walk in the country on a beautiful day.

The Scent of Water, my personal favorite, revolves around the decision of Mary Lindsay, a high-ranking government administrator who has always lived in London, to retire early at 50. She inherits a country house from her cousin, Mary, a brilliant but misunderstood woman who suffered from psychotic depressions (probably bipolar). Our Mary, the heroine, met this cousin only once when she was eight; she wants to live in the country so she can experience this way of life before it disappears entirely from England. Goudge vividly describes the England that is disappearing in the '60s: one of Mary's neighbors, Mr. Baker, the last bodger in England (makes table legs), knew her cousin, and both he and Mary as children refused the gift of a beautiful miniature object from Cousin Mary, believing it belonged with the collection in the country. There is a new urgency to modern living: people live for the now, not sure there will be a tomorrow, and the new generation has no qualms about breaking up collections (nor do Mary and Mr. Baker anymore). She also has a private wish to get to know the dead: John, the fiance who died in the war and whom she didn't love enough then, and Cousin Mary.

There are many, many fascinating characters: Paul, a blind poet and his cruel, self-dramatizing wife, Valerie, a perfectionist/housewife who has grown to dislike Paul for the way of life he has insisted on; Jean, the nervous sister of an intellectual vicar (she, like Cousin Mary, seems to have some mental illness); Mr. and Mrs. Hepplewhite, a shady financier and his kind, lonely, too loquacious lady-of-the-manor wife; Edith, an old-fashioned sprite-ish girl adopted by a very contemporary architect and artist who don't understand her. We also have Mary's diaries, and I must say Goudge does an amazing job describing Mary's bouts with mental illness (I felt that I was reading about Virginia Woolf).

2. Ignored my housework this afternoon, got dressed, and finished Harry Joscelyn by Mrs. Oliphant, an absorbing Victorian novel that would definitely appeal to Trollope fans. Oliphant has a smooth, elegant style, and this is one of her better efforts: the plot centers on Harry, a younger son of a not particularly distinguished family, who rebels and runs away to Italy after his abusive father shuts him out of the house one night. Harry's mother and sharp-witted older sister, Joan, remaini loyal to him; the years pass and Oliphant humorously describes Joan's cranky romance with a besotted older man. She delineates Harry's adventures in Italy: he lands on his feet, though we're surprised by this, as he has only determination going for him, no special skills. Ten years later the youngest daughter, Lyddie, has an opportunity to travel to Europe and is determined to find Harry. The characters are vivid, and the novel reads easily and quickly, though somebody should write something about time in Mrs. Oliphant: there's always something a little off about her scenes, as we'll spend 100 pages on a single day and then skip some years.

3. Cleaned sink and kitchen counters.

4. Cleaned bathroom.

5. Vacuumed.

6. Cooked homemade soup and made rice krispie squares. Now I won't have to cook for the rest of the week!


7. Started reading a Gothic novel, Phyllis A. Whitney's Listen for the Whisperer (1971; I should have found an earlier one). It's a bit pulp fiction-ish, but has a kind of du Maurier tone to it. (Du Maurier is SO overrated.) Fascinating, eerie, but a bit pulpy.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Alternative '60s Culture for the Holidays


Having swung into 1960s mode for the holidays--replicating the life-style of a ‘60s housewife is my technique for coping this year--I am baking fruitcake for gifts, planning my Xmas menu from a period Betty Crocker cookbook, and trying to put together an authentic outfit (how hard can this be? Jeans, jeans, or jeans!). I also (briefly) experimented with a Barbie bubble cut before flattening my hair into the usual no-nonsense drip-dry "do." Since I would never have pouffed my hair in the ‘60s--indeed my friends and I all wore it long and straight back in the day--this was out of character, and I am SO glad I haven't wasted months of my life on “hairdressing,” because eek! The Sixties was not just about fashion, though the Rolling Stones, Julie Christie, Star Trek, Glenda Jackson, and Barbie were part of my life. It was about ideas. It was about art. It was about rebelling. It was about BOOKS!

However hip people were, they were not reading just "alternative culture" books. Some of Rumer Godden’s best novels were written in the ‘60s. Elizabeth Goudge’s popular The Scent of Water was written in 1963 - and some of us think this was her best book even though this wasn't her era.

But below is a list of other books I actually read in the ‘60s that were published in the ‘60s! Have fun. They will propel you into another age (perhaps).


Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut







In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan










The Strawberry Statement by James Simon Kunen








Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin



Catch-22 by Joseph Heller








Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger




This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart







To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee



Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kauffmann






A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle








Slouching towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion






The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan






Dune by Frank Herbert