Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge on the Missouri River
2010 was a pretty good year. 

I rediscovered Victorian novels, read a number of well-written contemporary books, discovered Michael Dirda's reviews in The Washington Post of everything from poetry to genre books, and wrote/scrawled 125 blog entries.  

Resolutions for 2011:  
1.  Keep a closer eye on what other bloggers are reading.  Ellen is reading Elizabeth Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow and I plan to read along. A few years ago I read Wives and Daughters with her and very much enjoyed it.  Her two blogs,  Reveries under the Sign of Austen and Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, are revelatory, personal, and erudite.  

I don't "accept" blog challenges, because there is too much I want to read on my own, but I very much enjoyed reading Anna Karenina along with A Work in Progress and Doctor Zhivago more or less simultaneously with Nonsuch Books.  (I was about to start Dr. Zhivago when Buried in Print kindly informed me of the group read.  It was fun.)
Seven Highlights of 2010 (In Which I Spend a Lot of Time in Nebraska):
Self-Portrait by Kent Bellows
  1. Visited Bess Streeter Aldrich's home.  I wrote on my blog on July 22: "Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954), author of A Lantern in Her Hand, is less well-known than the flamboyant, brilliant Willa Cather [whose house we visited last year in Red Cloud], but equally beloved by those of us who enjoy her quieter writing.  Today, feeling literary, we drove to Elmwood, Nebraska, population 300, the town where Bess, who grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, lived most of her adult life." 
  2. Taught Latin.  This is the most important (?) project I undertook this year.  Since classics departments are no longer valued at many universities and high schools, I started a mini-program. Twenty-six people of all ages--well, mostly older, I'll admit--studied Latin to increase their vocabulary, read a little literature (a few poems by Catullus and excerpts from Virgil), and to decode a mysterious dead language.  I got great evaluations, which pleased me.  Teaching is not my vocation, but I still remember a professor's prediction that lovers of classics with bachelor's and master's degrees would be important in the future.  Okay, I've done my duty.  It very much amused my students that I told them it was my officium.
  3. Went to a fabulous Shakespeare festival.  We try to see a few plays every year.
  4. Saw the spectacular Kent Bellows exhibit, "Beyond Realism:  The Works of Kent Bellows, 1970-2005,"  at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The Omaha artist's hyperrealistic paintings look like photographs and portray different stages of his life as well as wives and family members who manifest a variety of moods.  His wife looks very pissed off in some later paintings.  Very sad and disturbing exhibition.  We eavesdropped on some people who knew Bellows.
  5. Also saw the Currier & Ives exhibit at the Joslyn Art Museum.  These prints are surprisingly effective when seen together.  The Joslyn website says:  "The foremost lithographers in America from the mid to late 1800s, Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824-1895) were the "photojournalists" of the 19th century. Altogether, their firm, Currier & Ives, created between 7,000 and 8,000 scenes that were reproduced as hand-colored prints that sold in uncounted millions of copies — at one point 95 percent of all lithographs in circulation in the United States were theirs. Because of Currier & Ives, mid-19th-century America was documented more completely than any other time and place in history before the widespread use of photography." 
  6. Walked across the Bob Kerrey aerial bridge between Omaha and Council Bluffs. A 3000-ft. footbridge across the Missouri River.
  7. Took a number of lovely bike rides in a couple of states.  Yes, we did have some breakdowns, but we rode thousands of miles through fields and woods and saw cows, corn, soybeans, wild turkeys, geese, deer, refurbished depots at trail stops, and pretty and ugly little towns.
Happy New Year, everybody!

"B" Writers: Hugh Walpole's The Green Mirror

Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) is rarely read anymore.

One of the most popular middlebrow English novelists of the '20s and '30s, he was not satisfied with commercial success. He was very ambitious, was a protege of Henry James, and published over 50 books.  He felt competitive with W. Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie, with whom he was often compared.

None of the three is read much anymore, and I would certainly recommend Maugham before Walpole.  Sinister Street is a classic, but is the only book by Mackenzie I've read.  Walpole is sometimes very good, but uneven.

There is something about "B" writers, though. Walpole's The Green Mirror:  A Quiet Story (1917) is often awkward, but absolutely brilliant in parts.  It is comparable to E. M. Forster's Howards End, though Walpole is less subtle.  Walpole and Forster both write about the breakdown of tightly woven upper-middle-class families at the turn of the century. Individuality begins to take precedence over groups.   Home gradually comes to mean something beyond a physical place.

The Trenchard clan is smug, convinced that nothing can alter their narrow perspective and routine.  Uncle Tim, who is almost an outsider, says to their friend, Rachel,
"The break-up is beginning....
"Nearly the whole of our class in England has, ever since the beginning of last century, been happily asleep. It isn't good for people to have a woman on thethrone for sixty years--bless her all the same, and her making a success of it.  So we've slept and slept and slepet.  The Old Lady died.  There was the Boer War:  there were motor-cars, flying machines, telephones.  Suddenly England was an island no longer.  She's got to pay attention to other people, other ideas, other customs.  She's got to look out of her window instaed of just snoozing on the sofa, surrounded by her mid-Victorian furniture.  Everything's cracking: new classes are coming up, old classes are going down."
Forster would never have beaten us over the head with an analysis like this.  Still, it sums up the themes of The Green Mirror.

The narrative is told from muliple viewpoints, and the action centers on Philip Mark's proposal to Katherine Trenchard.  Katherine is the prop of the family and especially the guardian of her mother's wishes.  Her mother is the Queen Victoria of the clan.  Katherine's family is shocked that she plans to marry an outsider against her mother's wishes.  Her younger siblings, Millie and Henry, look on her as an old maid, because Katie isn't pretty like Millie and it was believed she would stay home to run the family.  But Millie, who has been to school in France, is more liberal than the rest of the family and is intrigued by Katherine's anticipated break with the family.  Henry, a sloppy adolescent, both likes Philip and is threatened by his masculinity.

Philip has a secret:  he had a mistress in Russia and a child who died.  But he doesn't tell Katherine right away, and other members of the family gradually find out.  

The conflict is among Mrs Trenchard, Katherine, and Philip.  Mrs. Trenchard hopes to break Philip, so that Katherine will live at home even if she does marry.

The novel begins and ends with the consciousness of Henry, the younger brother.  He lives for reading novels, because he has a year off before attending Cambridge.  He is idle, shabby, dreamy and wants to write, but can't finish anything.  (Maybe a young Walpole?)  He spends most of the time in the drawing room with a green mirror that reflects everything beautifully.  The green mirror symbolism is very ineffective.

And his dreams are shattered by Philip's past, because he idealized him, though he could have accepted this behavior in a book.

Katherine's mother has been the most important person in her life.  She wants to keep her mother and Philip together.  It is only Philip's deterioration under her mother's rule that begins to change her mind.

Somehow this is more dated than Howards End.  Howards End still applies to our new society:  the questions of home and class and family.  

The Green Mirror is the second in Walpole's Rising City series.  If anybody knows the complete series, please let me know.  I can't seem to find it online.

I like The Green Mirror, but it isn't in the class of his Rogue Herries series (liked by Nella Last, by the way).

My Kessinger edition of Hugh Walpole's The Green Mirror:  A Quiet Story ends with the preposition "in."  

"He went to the window and stood there, looking out. In"

That's it.  A page is missing.  Fortunately, I was able to read the last paragraph in a Google version online.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Work of the Devil

A few years ago I bought a Sony Reader.  I use it only to read.  It can't shop or surf the web.  I download free books from the public domain and have enjoyed charming slight classics like Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost, Edna Ferber's Roast Beef, Medium, and E. Nesbit's The Red House.  Now that the novelty has worn off,  I use it less.  My husband has never read an entire e-book.  We're not big e-people.

After a certain point, doesn't one go back to the book? 

Today e-books make up 9-10 percent of trade book sales, says The New York Times.  Can't pretend I'm one of those shoppers.  And apparently people are buying more and more e-readers for their households.  We did admire some pretty new Sony touchpad readers in the window of Radio Shack.  But honestly we don't mind pushing buttons and our old one works perfectly well.

Every feature writer in the U.S. wrote about the rise of e-readers as Christmas gifts.  TV broadcasters also enthused about it.  And in the UK two of my favorite bloggers, Dovegreyreader and Random Jottings, both received Kindles for Christmas.  I read this with interest, and at first assumed Amazon had sent them Kindles for publicity.  These two write very well, and I love to read about their lives as well as their reading, though I admit no one could pay me to read some of the free books they get from publishers.  Then I looked more closely and learned that Random Jottings received her Kindle from Helen and James, while Dovegreyreader merely said she "homed" it. (Are Kindles new in the UK?)  Anyway, they are enjoying it.

The Kindle has a reputation as the most intrusive Bad Boy of e-readers, though the current generation of all brands of e-readers is Big Brotherish. According to NPR, most e-readers have antennae that transmit information back to the manufacturer about what you read.  They also have geo-location technology that can tell where you read. 

"They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page," said Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out."

In the same story, Scott Turow said of Amazon, "They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender and other interests of the people who bought my books. Now you can throw on top of that the fact that a certain number of them quit reading at Page 45."

As a teacher I was interested to learn that students of all ages loved e-devices. One read The Aeneid on an iphone device (don't know the name of the thing, sorry).  I thought he was texting, though it didn't bother me, and though I don't actually recognize texting, because I don't have a phone.  But he was reading The Aeneid along with the rest of us. Another student brought her Kindle to class and the sleek-looking device interacted with her as the dominant partner. 

I love Amazon and yet think these e-readers are, well, the work of the devil. Eventually the publishers will put themselves out of business with e-texts, just as physical bookstores are disappearing, just as newspapers have crippled themselves by publishing everything free at websites. 

Not to mention the amount of pollution.  Give me a good clean book every time.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gossip in The Perpetual Curate

We can stop tidying the house, sit back and read, and enjoy our gifts.  

There was some tension over the etiquette of whether to invite relatives who might be alone on Christmas, since not until the last minute do their nearest and dearest contact them.  It is hard not to interfere, but if you even HINT that it is someone's duty to invite a mother/father/maiden aunt/twin sister, it might backfire. 
I was raised on Louisa May Alcott, while they were raised by wolves.

I didn't get the Louisa May Alcott biography for Christmas, by the way, but considered checking out Kelly O'Connor McNees's novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, at the library today.
Before Christmas I was reading Mrs. Oliphant's Chronicles of Carlingford and am now back on track.  They're enjoyable popular novels of the 19th century--comparable in some ways to Trollope's Barsetshire series.  The Perpetual Curate, the fourth in the series, is an excellent character study of a brilliant young man who is almost destroyed by unjust gossip in a small town.  There are many similarities between The Perpetual Curate and Salem Chapel (its prececessor, which I wrote about here).

Gossip nearly ruins the ministerial careers of Frank Wentworth in The Perpetual Curate and Arthur Vincent in Salem Chapel.  Frank Wentworth, the Anglican curate of St. Roque's, is in his late twenties, an experienced, respected, hard-working clergyman who has created a mission in Wharfside, a poor neighborhood of Carlingford, in addition to his other duties.  He is in love with Lucy Wodehouse, a lawyer's daughter who works with him among the poor, and it is as a favor to her older sister, Miss Wodehouse, that he complicates his life by helping out their ne'er-do-well brother.  This older brother is unknown to Lucy, who is the child of her father's old age, and Miss Wodehouse is frantic, because his father has disowned him and he has committed a white-collar crime.   He is essentially in hiding at Frank's rooming house.  When a young woman, Rosa, the brazen, slutty niece of a shopkeeper and deacon, disappears, her aunt and uncle blame Frank, who unfortunately was seen talking to her outside his house.  No one connects Rosa with the lurking lodger.

Everything snowballs.

One of the few characters in the novel who defends Frank is Mrs. Morgan, the new rector's wife.

"When the rector's wife went to her own room to dress for dinner, it is very true that she had a good cry over her cup of tea.  She was not only disappointed, but exasperated, in that impatient feminine nature of hers.  Perhaps if she had been less sensitive, she would have had less of that redness in her face which was so great a trouble to Mrs. Morgan.  These two slow middle-aged men, without any intuitions, who were coming lumbering after her through all kind of muddles of evidence and argument, exasperated the more rapid woman.  To be sure, they understood Greek plays a great deal better than she did, but she was penetrated with the liveliest impatience of their dullness all the same.  Mrs. Morgan, however, like most people who are in advance of their age, felt her utter impotence against that blank wall of resistance."

The Perpetual Curate is complex and nightmarish.  There are many eerie parallels between Frank's and the Wodehouses' situation.  His ne'er-do-well older brother, Jack, also appears in Carlingford.

Penelope Fitzgerald's introduction to the Virago edition is very interesting:  it's almost worth buying the edition for the intro.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bibliobits: In Which I Read Patti Smith & Continue to Read Dorothy Sayers

Weekend Reading:  Patti Smith's memoir and Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise.

Patti Smith.  For Christmas my husband gave me Patti Smith's Just Kids, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010. I was surprised to find this in my stocking, because, though I respect Smith, I am a very casual fan of rock music.  Did this mean I was unqualified to read it?   I rather thought it did.  But I am very much admiring it.  
Smith's vibrant memoir is more than a personal story.  It also chronicles in a general way the generosity, free philosophy, and artistic experiments of hipsters of the alternative culture of the '60s and early '70s.  This is not my generation, but I had mentors of this generation.  Some of my older friends introduced me to Greek poetry, tried to persuade me to read William Burroughs, and wrote poetry themselves.  We were obviously more word-oriented than music-oriented, but we listened to music, too. It was a time when I really thought people of different classes regarded each other as equals.  
Smith concentrates on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late '60s and early '70s.   She met him serendipitously when she first moved to New York and was crashing at friends' houses, sleeping in the park, and looking for work. The two fell for each other--there's a sort of sweetness and naivete about their young love --and spent evenings drawing, listening to music, and making collages.  She loved to read--he didn't read.  But they pursued their art together and she supported him by working at bookstores because he was so unfit to hold a full-time job.  
Eventually Robert becomes very depressed and remote; Patti leaves him for a while.  He moves to San Francisco  and has affairs with men, then returns to New York and has a boyfriend.  But he and Patti get back together because of their intense understanding of each other.  Patti supplements her income by buying and selling rare books she picks up cheaply.  

I feel akin to her because of her love of books.  Early in the memoir, she sketches her childhood and adolescence in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. Patti describes her love of reading and her childhood attempt to absorb what her mother, a waitress, loved in books by hiding a copy of Book of Martyrs under her pillow.
"I was completely smitten by the book.  I longed to read them all, and the things of read of produced new yearnings.  Perhaps I might go off to Africa and offer my services to Albert Schweitzer or, decked in my coonskin cap and powder horn, I might defend people like Davy Crockett."
Below is a fascinating video of a conversation at PEN between Patti Smith and my favorite writer, Jonathan Lethem.

Dorothy Sayers.  I finished Dorothy Sayers's Murder Must Advertise, and though it's not quite as good as The Nine Tailors, it is immensely readable and fun:  again, I'm wondering why I don't read more mysteries.  Her witty detective, Peter Wimsey, goes undercover as an advertising copywriter after a murder at the agency.  Blackmail and drugs wait in the wings, and Wimsey writes some humorous ads as he covertly investigates.  It turns out Wimsey is an athlete as well as a brilliant detective.  He's polite, manipulative, and rather cold at times.  Somehow I didn't notice these latter two qualities in the other book.  I intend to read more of these this winter, so I'll have a chance to see how his personality changes from book to book.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors

The ginger cookies don't look great.  I do far, far better with drop cookies.  

A mystery, I thought.  A mystery is perfect vacation reading.  
I needed some hours with Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey, my favorite detective. Lord Peter Wimsey is a witty, suave, and often artfully silly sleuth who mingles and gossips enthusiastically with all classes, collects obscure clues, deciphers codes and train time-tables, and solves murders.  He's a bit like Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, though Wimsey came first.  Sayers was a medieval scholar and a translator of Dante, but is much better known for her 11 Wimsey books.

Anyway,  I picked up a copy of The Nine Tailors because it is a classic, yet not one I'm overly-familiar with.   And I remembered some winter scenes.  I'll read for just a few minutes, I decided, and then I'll riffle through the boxes downstairs and add a few Target ornaments to our plug-in artificial tree and then I'll go out and get some chocolate.
Snow accumulated and I certainly didn't dither over the problem of no chocolate in the house for the holidays.  I was glued to my book.  The Nine Tailors opens in a snowstorm on New Year's Eve.  
"That's torn it!" said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow.
Peter Wimsey and Bunter, his butler, take refuge in Fenchurch St. Paul after the accident.  The rector of St. Paul's is a keen change ringer and very proud of the ancient bells in his church.  One of the ringers is ill and Wimsey offers to stand in for him during their nine-hour ringing-in of the New Year.  Sayers provides fascinating information about change-ringing, the art of ringing bells in mathematical patterns.

But more fascinating is the history of crime in the village.  Twenty years ago an emerald necklace was stolen from an old woman guest of the squire's.  Although the conniving butler, Deacon, and a jewel thief, Cranton, were convicted, the emeralds were never found.  Mary, Deacon's former wife, once suspected, has married Will Thoady and returned to the village.

A few months later, when a body is found in the grave of the squire's wife, Peter Wimsey is called in to help the police.

Who is the corpse?  Was he the tramp who came through the village last winter, asking strange questions about the bells?  And how do the bells fit in with the mystery? 

Wimsey believes the tramp may have been the jewel thief, Cranton, now out of prison. The tramp worked as a mechanic for a few days and then disappeared.   The accomplice butler, Deacon, who is believed by the police to have been the worse of the two, died some years ago after breaking out of prison. 

But identification of the corpse is difficult.  The face and hands have been cut off. 

A piece of paper with a silly paragraph, part of which Wimsey identifies as a satire of one of Le Fanu's novels, holds riddles to the mystery.

So good.  I haven't read a mystery this quickly in years.

I now wish I'd asked for a set of Peter Wimsey books for Christmas.  Some of my old paperbacks are torn and tattered, in need of replacement. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Packages, The Last Resort, and Christmas

I ordered a gift from a catalogue and inadvertently sent it to myself.  I had avoided hysteria only to end up at the last minute in line at UPS wondering much it would cost to ship the package in time for Christmas.  I was relieved to learn that the regular rate would transport it magically.  

Now everything is done.  Christmas tree up, presents wrapped and sent.  And the novel I'm reading by one of my favorite writers happens to have a couple of chapters about an ordinary Christmas.

Pamela Hansford Johnson
Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Last Resort features a realistic Christmas scene that is more true to life than sentimental scenes in traditional Christmas books.  The narrator, Christine, relates:
"Gerard happened to remark to Aveling, who had recently become a member of his club, that I did not welcome Christmas.  It had been agreeable enough when Mark was a little boy, when it was his day, worth the planning, but he was nearly fifteen now and passing through a phase of aggressive religious orthodoxy.  He remarked grandly to me that Christmas had entirely lost its original significance:  it was simply an occasion for pigging, spending too much money and wearing silly hats.  "Of course," he added with his usual redeeming realism, 'I wouldn't want not to have presents.'"
The family, urged on by Aveling, a recent widower, spends Christmas in a hotel with complicated, unhappy friends.  Celia, who has had a long affair with Aveling, lives in the hotel part-time with her parents.  Since Aveling's wife's death, he has not had sex with Celia, and we, the readers, are waiting for him to dump her. Celia's smothering mother will do anything to break them up.  Celia's loud father makes everyone uncomfortable: he plays table tennis with Mark, accuses him of cheating, and gives him 10 pounds.  All seems like a real Christmas--who hasn't played ping pong on Christmas day?--especially the dinner scene in which single people and couples in the hotel awkwardly exchange nods and conversation, not wanting to set a precedent.  

And Celia, so unhappy herself, insists to Christine that they make a special gesture toward two of the lonely old women residents.  Celia orders special port, and, as the four women drink, it seems to break the ice between the older residents.
"The old ladies finished their port and thanked us again.  They rose in unison, said good night and went together toward the lift.
"'That is the very first time I have seen them side by side,' Celia said, 'they're always in single file.  Isn't it wonderful?'"
The kind gestures at Christmas seem realistic to me. People make contact with difficult family members.  They invite solitary people to their homes.  I wish to goodness someone would invite me to a hotel.  Some give money to charities and others volunteer at church suppers, though of course the food kitchens need volunteers the rest of the year, too.  

But of course some do nothing.  Or just plain make it worse.

It is kind of a horrible time of year for a holiday.  It's dark and cold.  It is a good time to stay inside and read Christmas books.

And I do intend to do some REAL Christmas reading.  I have my Dickens Christmas books out and will randomly read one I haven't read before or at least a short story. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

11 Classics, Old Books, & Cult Classics of 2010

It's chilly.  There's snow on the ground.  Christmas is almost here.  It's ALMOST too late to shop. We're cozily hanging out at home.  

A few days ago I compiled my Best of 2010 list, strictly culled from new and recent books. That isn't quite representative of me, though.  Because I also read a lot of "old" books, I've selected 11 "Best" Classics, Old Books, & Cult Classics of the year, complete with blurbs from my absurd book journal.  

1.  Home Life, Home Life Two, & Home Life Three by Alice Thomas Ellis.  A novelist, mother, editor, friend of writers and artists, and a conservative Catholic, Ellis wrote brilliant domestic comedy about state-of-emergency plumbing in Chelsea and personal hygiene in a cold house in Wales. In Home Life Two, she muses on the absurdity of bank cards and credit cards (money is faster); building on to her house; struggles with faulty dishwashers; and the ridiculous prevalence of love in the lyrics of pop music. She also wryly catalogues the eccentricities of her family: the laconic husband (referred to as Someone), four sons (who like bad pop music and leave dangerous, ominous-smelling camping equipment around) , “the daughter” (12 and incomprehensible), and a sensible live-in housekeeper/nanny/friend, Janet.
2.  Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.  I spent several refreshing hours reading   Dangerous Ages, an overlooked novel that perhaps is best appreciated in middle age. This gently humorous, sometimes very painful examination of three generations of women charts the sad sense of loss as choices narrow for women in middle- and old age,  contrasted with the confidence and sense of immortality of youth.    Despite the fact that some of the characters are unlikable, I feel sympathetic to their very different plights.   Macaulay’s writing here is plain, less perfect than in her award-winning novel, The Towers of Trezibond, but her ideas are first-rate.
3.  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.  Eliot is my latest passion. The Mill on the Floss is a luminous tragicomedy, a page-turner, and a masterpiece. Really, I can hardly put it down. Book Second, “School Time,” is Eliot’s fascinating account of Tom’s classical education with the smug Rev. Walter Stelling, an unimaginative materialist and social-climber to whom Mr. Tulliver sends Tom because he wants him to become a professional, perhaps an engineer. Alas, this system of education does not suit outdoorsy Tom, who scarcely understands that Latin is a language or why he is to learn Euclid’s geometry. It is Maggie who perks up over the language during a visit, and Philip Wakem, a crippled pupil who arrives after Tom’s first term, who helps Tom to learn enough to justify the education. Absolutely absorbing, and very, very sad when Mr. Tulliver loses all his money to Philip’s father.
4.  The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles has the empire-questioning pessimism that somehow makes the "future" seem like the past. Not only is it good science fiction, but the experience of reading is like time travel to the 1950s and 60s. Bradbury writes about Americans landing on Mars and being trapped by illusion and disillusionment: a crew of Americans who land on Mars is dismissed as psychotic by Martians who are used to lunatics projecting visual and sensory hallucinations; others land on Mars and encounter their dead relatives walking about in what seem to be their midwestern hometowns; and a lone astronaut rebels against American colonization of Mars.
5.  Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.   I love science fiction and fantasy. One of my favorites is Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, a charming, humorous, all-ages classic that deserves a wider audience. Janet, the intellectual heroine, adores reading and spends four years studying English at a small college.  Romance and friendship overlap with the supernatural.  Classics majors are all considered crazy, a ghost throws books out the windows, some Shakespearean actors turn out to have a very strange background, and Janet regularly discusses literature and philosophy with her friends. These discussions are very exciting, by the way.  They’ll make you want  reread all of Shakespeare and Keats and read several books you've never read.  Tam Lin, a Scottish ballad, is woven into the novel.
6.  Homer's Daughter by Robert Graves.  Best known for I, Claudius, Graves is one of those writers who could not write badly.  In his feminist novel, Homer's DaughterThe Odyssey is not the work of Homer, but of Nausicaa, an intellectual princess known to us as rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey.  She has listened all her life to bards’ poems about Odysseus’ homecoming.  Nausciaa reshapes the narrative to accommodate her own experiences and to invigorate the characters of women like Penelope.
7.  David Copperfield by Dickens.  It’s 727 pages of delight. The narrator, as everyone knows, begins, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  Of course David does turn out to be the hero of his own life, but since he’s such a charming, intelligent observer of people, he draws unforgettable characters, like Peggotty, the kind, loyal, hard-working servant who throws her apron over her head when she laughs at her suitor, Barkis; Mr. Micawber, who is always in debt..., and more.
8.  The Vera Wright Trilogy by Elizabeth Jolley.  Jolley, an award-winning Australian writer whose work was briefly feted in the U.S. in the '80s and early '90s, was praised by Robert Coover, Peter Ackroyd, and Frederich Busch.  Persea has reissued the award-winning trilogy and what a pleasure it is to find these stunning novels, My Father's Moon, Cabin Fever, and The Georges' WifeJolley's style is Virginia-Woolf-meets-D.-H.-Lawrence, a poetic yet blunt stream-of-consciousness mixed with erotic strangeness and lies.
9.  Forty Plus and Fancy Free by Emily Kimbrough.  I love humor writing, and Emily Kimbrough's travel adventures are hilarious.  When her employer, CBS Radio, agrees to give her time off if she will also cover the Coronation in England, she and her friend Sophy recruit three other widow-grandmothers for a trip to Italy.  Kimbrough insists that she and Sophy must take Italian lessons at the Berlitz school.   I burst out laughing over her account of her linguistic incompetence.  They are supposed to learn words from pictures on the wall and cards, but she mixes up “table” with “ceiling.”  There is not a single English word in their textbook....
10.  The Second Coming by Walker Percy.  In this funny, beautifully written existentialist novel, Will Barrett is the anti-hero, a middle-aged lawyer who has retired early in New York and moved back to North Carolina to play golf and…what? He isn’t sure.  He is hallucinating on the golf course, falling down repeatedly, blacking out, and having flashbacks to his childhood.  Death is on his mind, and no wonder. His wife has died, and he is living alone.  What is the meaning of life?  What is God?  Why are non-believers just as obnoxious as believers?  And more...
11.  An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott.  An Old-Fashioned Girl is my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott. I know: everyone prefers Little Women, but An Old-Fashioned Girl holds up surprisingly well. I love Polly, the main character, a country girl with a sense of humor and a sensible attitude who spends the first half of the book on an extended visit to her sophisticated city friend. Far from a fashion plate, this brisk, charming heroine has inner resources and more skills than her friend, Fanny, who is sometimes ashamed of Polly's childish quality and simple clothes.

Mrs. Oliphant's Salem Chapel

Mrs. Margaret Oliphant's Salem Chapel, the third novel in the Chronicles of Carlingford, is a perfect airport book.  You don't notice anything around you while you eagerly turn the pages to learn whether the hero, Mr. Vincent, a dissenting minister, will alienate all the gossipy parishioners, or whether his mother and Mr. Tozer will be able to smooth over the disputes.  Salem Chapel was so popular when it was published in 1863 that fans speculated George Eliot was the author.  (Mrs. Oliphant had mixed feelings about this.) John Blackwood, a Scottish publisher, said Salem Chapel just missed greatness.

Parts of the novel are literary, parts are junk; nevertheless, I love it.  Perhaps 200 pages of the novel are a masterpiece.  It is dramatic, vigorous, and suspenseful.  Mrs. Oliphant, who wrote to support a large extended family, badly needed money.  An admirer of Wilkie Collins, she was determined to use sensational elements to make it a bestseller.  And she succeeded.

The hero, Arthur Vincent, is very young and naive.  Straight out of the seminary, he hopes to preside over an intellectual circle.  That his parishioners are materialistic, smug tradesmen disturbs him.  A poor widow's son, Vincent is a snob. His mother, a refined minister's widow, knows diplomacy is imperative.  Vincent, on the other hand, is idealistic and passionate and doesn't find it worthwhile to compromise with less-enlightened souls.   He is an excellent preacher and moves the townspeople, but has no interest in socializing with his parishioners. He is much more fascinated by the beautiful Lady Western, who is not a church member.  Oliphant loves struggling ministers:  The Rector and The Perpetual Curate are two of the six volumes in the Carlingford series.

In the opening pages of Salem Chapel, Oliphant introduces the young Mr. Vincent with a mix of humor, irony, and admiration. 

"Mr. Vincent arrived at Carlingford in the beginning of winter, when society in that town was reassembling, or at least reappearing, after the temporary summer seclusion.  The young man knew very little of the community which he had assumed the spiritual charge of. He was almost as particular as the Rev. Mr. Wentworth of St. Roque's about the cut of his coat and the precision of his costume, and decidedly preferred the word clergyman to the word minister, which latter was universally used by his flock; but nothwithstanding these trifling predilections, Mr. Vincent, who had been brought up upon the 'Nonconformist' and the 'Eclectic Review,' was strongly impressed with the idea that the Church Establishment, though outwardly prosperous, was in reality a profoundly rotten institution..."

It is impossible not to like Mr. Vincent--who is no different from many of us when young--though he is often irritating.  Mr. Tozer, a churchwarden, constantly gives him good advice, but Vincent doesn't understand the importance of remaining on good terms with the members of the church.  Mr. Tozer has his work cut out for him mediating between Mr. Vincent and everyone else.

Then the plot becomes overly elaborate: a mysterious older woman, Mrs. Hilyer, a poor needlewoman, attends Vincent's lectures and services.  Vincent, directed to visit her by an officious member of the parish, enjoys her conversation, though she frequently mocks him.  Here is the sensational twist:  It turns out that Mrs. Hilyer has a daughter, Alice, whom she has hidden in another town from her estranged abusive husband for years.  When her husband shows up in the area, she asks if Vincent's mother and his sister, Susan, will take care of Alice and her caretaker until he leaves the area.  But Mrs. Vincent shows up, distraught because an anonymous letter says Susan's fiance is already married.  And the next thing we know his sister, Susan, and Mrs. Hilyer's daughter have disappeared with their maids.  And it seems that Mrs. Hilyer's cruel husband has abducted them.  

Although the ensuing events don't seem very likely, what does seem likely is that the members of the church are furious when Vincent takes time off from work to search for his sister.  They consider him very highhanded to find a substitute for Sunday and to focus on personal matters.  Only Mr. Tozer understands.

Even during the sensational parts, I am a fan of this book.  If you like Stiegg Larson...  no, I'm joking.  I haven't read Stieg Larsson.  But Salem Chapel is a well-written page-turner.  It is very hard to put this down to attend to one's work or holiday preparations.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gift Lists, Everybody's Best Book Lists, & My Best Book List

I watched Regis and Kelly this morning to find "gifts for him."  Some of the suggestions, like The Black & Decker Electromate® 400 AC/DC Portable Power Station/Jump-Starter /Compressor, were not quite what I was looking for. Then I found the gift he would have loved.   The Custom Republic Bicycle ($399)--a fixie to ride around town!   But I only had a small amount of money left to spend, for something like a book.  
Then I spent three hours perusing Best Books of the Year lists. I couldn't really find the European literature in translation he always mysteriously knows about.  And none of the titles at the Dalkey Archive Press or Three Percent meant anything to me.  
Finally, in a review of Lydia Davis's Madame Bovary at The Spectator, Philip Hensher made a useful suggestion.  Why doesn't someone publish a new translation of Balzac's Louis Lambert, a novella Flaubert loved, instead of a 20th translation of Madame Bovary?  Well, there aren't any new translations, but I bought an OLD translation of the book.  
Anyway, I'm going to give you my Best Contemporary Books of the Year list now, because you might need something desperately, or simply enjoy lists.  Most of these are new or recent and all are in print.
Best Contemporary Books of 2010 (in no particular order)
1.  A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks.  One of the most enjoyable novels I read this year, now available in paperback.   Set the week before Christmas 2007, this excellent pop literary page-turner delineates several lonely characters who are revealed mainly through their work:  Jenni, an underground tube driver who plays internet video games at night; Gabriel, a depressive lawyer; Trantor, a book reviewer who loves to eviscerate talented novelists; and Veals, a dishonest trader.  
2.  The Infinities by John Banville.  Hermes is the omniscient narrator of Booker Prize winner Banville's new novel, a comedy set in an alternative universe. Hermes and other Greek gods attend a family gathered around the bed of a dying mathematician. 

3.    The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.  This exquisite novel is a collection of beautifully written stories that fan out  in the most satisfying way and fit together as a novel.  Erdrich relates how several generations of a  group of American Indians in North Dakota are affected by racist accusations that they murdered a white family. 

4.  Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.  A beautifully written fantasy novel.  Shen Tai, the hero, has spent two years of his life burying the dead in Kuala Nor, a battle site haunted by hundreds of thousands of ghosts. His father, a general, fought in this blood bath between Kitai and the Tagur 20 years ago, and told his sons and daughter stories about the courage of both sides.  After his father’s death, during the official 2-year mourning period for the general, Shen Tai takes care of the dead...His life changes when a princess, a  daughter of the emperor, who was married off after the battle to a foreign king to seal the peace, honors him with a gift of  250 Sardian horses because he has been burying soldiers from both sides (and she represents both countries).  

5.    I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth by Brenda Peterson.  This beautifully written memoir is a mixture of autobiography, musings on Christian fundamentalism, and stunning sketches of her work as an environmentalist.  Peterson, a novelist and non-fiction writer who has founded a Seal Watch group in Washington, was raised by Christian fundamentalists.  She fascinatingly compares similarities between belief systems of conservative Christians and radical environmentalists when it comes to blame-finding. Her relationship with her warm family is loving despite her rejection of their beliefs.

6.  The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This lovely novel has a strong environmental slant.  Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, it tells the story of Bess Heath, a young woman whose life changes when her father loses his job as director of the Niagara Power Company. Her relationship with Tom, a fisherman who protests the power company's promotion of electricity, becomes the center of her life.  She relates how the  power companies started to leech water from the falls in the early 20th century and how it has affected the falls.

7.  The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam.  Gardam's witty, stunning novel is a sequel to her much-praised novel,  Old Filth, but can be read as a stand-alone.  It tells the story of Betty, an English woman born in Hong Kong, who marries Filth for the experience, not for love.  Gardam has won the Whitbread Prize twice and is worth reading.  

8.  Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.  One of the best novels of the year, nominated for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, it is based loosely on the life of Alexis de Toqueville.

9.  Solar by Ian McEwan.  A very, very funny satire.   An aging, fat, sociopathic Nobel winner who doesn't believe in global warming exploits a graduate student's research on alternative energy.  Didn't get nominated for the Booker Prize, but I liked it anyway.

10.  The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble.  A stunning short novel about a thoughtful, repressed middle-aged woman who moves to London after a divorce and "finds herserlf" through an adult ed Virgil class and an inheritance.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Biblio-Bits: Katharine Beutner's Alcestis, Mikkel Birkegaard's The Library of Shadows, & Georgette Heyer's The Wind of Blame

Here are some biblio-bits on my recent reading.
Katharine Beutner's Alcestis.  I have a weakness for retold myths and bought this novel earlier this year without knowing anything about the writer.  In fact, I haven't read any reviews, but hope someone has discovered it.  I ordered this from Amazon based on a computer-generated recommendation.  Despite the recent uproar about the Kindle/Nook/Sony Reader's invasion of privacy (the wireless devices report page-views to their stores via antennae, but don't our computer cookies do the same thing?), Amazon's recommendations of REAL books are often excellent (though it is always a case of caveat emptor.)

In this beautifully-written novel, Beutner retells the myth of Alcestis, a heroine best known through Euripides's Alcestis and also mentioned in the Iliad and Hesiod's Catalogue of Women.  The myth is straightforward.  Alcestis's weak husband, Admetus, forgets to sacrifice to Artemis at their wedding and incurs the gods' wrath and death sentence.  Apollo advises him to placate Artemis and the Fates, who agree to let him live so long as someone dies in his stead.  Alcestis agrees to do this.

In Beutner's absorbing novel, Alcestis, a sympathetic narrator with a muted yet spirited voice, tells the story of her motherless childhood, describing her close relationships with two very different sisters, one a teenager desperate to get married and the other a pious, maternal girl who looks after Alcestis.  Their abusive father, King Pelias, is more interested in hunting than in fatherhood or diplomatic relations with suitors. When he is around, he often beats them, but   Hippothoe, Alcestis's favorite sister, is good at hustling them out of the way.  She dies early in the novel when Alcestis is nine.  Alcestis never recovers from the shock.  She is on her own.

"Hippothoe was on the other side of life, the world's quiet underbelly.  I imagined her standing by the dark river, her chin lifted and her chest still, waiting for the boat to come and looking across the water at the vast, gray line of the dead crowding the opposite shore.  All those people, all vanished from some life, leaving gaps behind them, holes like the extra space in our bed.  Hippothoe would have to stand among them."

Time passes.  She must secretly visit her sister's grave, because her father will beat her if he finds out she goes there. She defies him during her father's wedding and openly goes to the cemetery:  odd timing, but it makes her older sister laugh.  One day, while Alcestis is weaving on the porch, Admetus arrives with Apollo.  Pelias opposes the marriage; Admetus manages to win Alcestis with Apollo's help, by hitching a boar and a lion to his chariot, as Pelias demanded.  Alcestis thinks this is rather funny, and we certainly appreciate her sense of humor.  

Beutner has an unobtrusive yet lyrical style and the novel races along.  It reminds me very faintly of Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, a vigorous historical novel about Alexander the Great and Aristotle published earlier this year, reviewed here, during my stint at Wordpress.  

Mikkel Birkegaard's The Library of Shadows.  This novel is blurbed as "an engrossing literary thriller of intrigue, conspiracy and extraordinary power of reading."  It is translated by Tina Nunnally, known for her translation of Kristen Lavransdatter.  

I thought it was a mystery:  in the first chapter, Luca Campelli, a bookstore owner, dies mysteriously in his antiquarian bookshop.  But it turns into a horror novel, a kind of paranormal detective novel.  It seems that Luca belonged to an ancient sect of readers who have special powers.  Some can influence the thoughts of others by dramatic reading, others by mind-reading.  

"It's about Bezos!"  my husband said.  Ha ha!

The powers of reading influence a politician to preserve a reading program in the schools.  Okay, that's a good thing.  But there's a lot of bad out there, too.  After Luca's son, Jon, a successful lawyer, inherits the bookstore, he investigates his father's murder. He learns that he has unactivated reading powers and that a "receiver"/mindreader is trying to kill people through reading.  And there are fire bombs at the bookstore and other shocking scenes.  

This is interesting but disconcerting.  It should be classified as science fiction or horror just so one understands what one is getting.  

Georgette Heyer's The Wind of Blame.   Georgette Heyer, known for her regency romances, wrote several mysteries.  The Wind of Blame, published in 1939, is as charming and humorous as her romances.  

Wally Carter, the shiftless husband of a rather loud, rich former actress, philanders, cheats, and wastes her money.  But who would murder him? Wally's ward, Mary, a thoroughly nice girl, can't imagine; his wife, Ermyntrude, has hysterics; and his histrionic stepdaughter, Vicky, takes advantage of the murder to show off her acting abilities.  Did the Russian prince do it?  

Heyer keeps this very light and concentrates on the puzzle:  this is a "cozy," with no disturbing subtexts.  

A good novel to read when one is sick!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Top 10 Comfort Reads

I've had a bad day.  Not the hypothetical day described below.  But suppose:

Your husband read your diary, your cat has a cold, and your boss gives you an assignment to write a feature about a mysterious CEO-turned-Luddite-mountain-man who lives in a tiny geodesic dome...nobody knows quite where.  

I need to zonk out with a novel and chocolate milk.  But it can't be just any book.  

Comfort books.  You can turn to them and fall into another world. 

So here are my Top 10 Comfort Books.  And if you have more, please add them.

1.  Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat.  Publisher's Weekly said:  "An offbeat heroine shares a Hollywood cottage with three equally quirky companions; in PW 's words, "Block's first book is related in a breezy, knowing voice; her strange and sparkling tribute to growing up in L.A. is a rare treat for those sophisticated enough to appreciate it."

2.  Kitchen by Banana Yoshomito.  Library Journal:  "In this translation of a best-selling novel first published in Japan in 1987, the young narrator, Mikage, moves into the apartment of a friend whose mother is murdered early in the tale. What seems like a coming-of-age melodrama quickly evolves into a deeply moving tale filled with unique characters and themes. Along the way, readers get a taste of contemporary Japan, with its mesh of popular American food and culture. Mikage addresses the role of death, loneliness, and personal as well as sexual identity through a set of striking circumstances and personal remembrances. "Moonlight Shadows," a novella included here, is a more haunting tale of loss and acceptance. In her simple and captive style, Yoshimoto confirms that art is perhaps the best ambassador among nations. Recommended for all fiction collections."

3.  Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night.  A Golden Age Detective Novel.  Sayers is famous for her Peter Wimsey novels, and this is one of her best.  Amazon description: "When Harriet Vane attends her Oxford reunion, known as the "Gaudy," the prim academic setting is haunted by a rash of bizarre pranks: scrawled obsentities, burnt effigies and poison-pen letters -- including one that says, "Ask your boyfriend with the title if he likes arsenic in his soup."Some of the notes threaten murder; all are perfectly ghastly; yet in spite of their scurrilous nature, all are perfectly worded. And Harriet finds herself ensnared in a nightmare of romance and terror, with only the tiniest shreds of clues to challenge her powers of detection, and those of her paramour, Lord Peter Wimsey."

4.  Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool.  Library Journal:  "Sixty-year-old Sully is "nobody's fool," except maybe his own. Out of work (undeclared-income work is what he does, when he can), down to his last few bucks, hampered by an arthritic broken knee, Sully is worried that he's started on a run of bad luck. And he has. The banker son of his octogenarian landlady wants him evicted; Sully's estranged son comes home for Thanksgiving only to have his wife split; Sully's own high-strung ex-wife seems headed for a nervous breakdown; and his longtime lover is blaming him for her daughter's winding up in the hospital with a busted jaw. But Sully's biggest problem is the memory of his own abusive father, a ghost who haunts his every day. As he demonstrated in Mohawk (Random, 1986) and The Risk Pool (Random, 1989), Russo knows the small towns of upstate New York and the people who inhabit them; he writes with humor and compassion. A delight."

5.  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  A charming novel in diary form.  The 17-year-old narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, lives in a castle with a very eccentric family.  

6.  Faith Fox by Jane Gardam. Publishers' Weekly:  "A motherless baby named Faith is the linchpin of this delightfully eccentric comedy of manners and miracles by Gardam, a two-time winner of the Whitbread Prize (The Hollow Land; The Queen of the Tambourine). First published in Great Britain in 1996 and set in the early 1990s in the moody Yorkshire moors and the gentrified climes of Surrey and London, the novel features a highly entertaining cast of dotty characters whose class, ethnic and religious differences are wonderfully deconstructed by Gardam's sharp, dark wit. Jolly Holly Fox ("an extraordinarily nice girl") is the last person her devoted mother, the widowed and wealthy Thomasina, expects to die in childbirth. Unable to even look at the surviving baby, she runs away with a retired general. Andrew Braithwaite, Holly's physician husband, is equally unable to cope ("he disliked children altogether, really") and gives Faith to his brother, Jack, a devout but nontraditional Christian minister and Jack's Indian, ex-hippie wife, Jocasta, who live at a Yorkshire commune headed by Jack. Assorted relatives and friends wring their hands over Faith's fate, including her anxious paternal grandparents, the affable Toots and Dolly; ancient Pema, one of the mysterious Tibetan exiles staying at Jack's commune; Nick and Ernie, two ex-burglars working for Jack; and Jocasta's 11-year-old Indian son, Philip, whose loyalty to little Faith never wavers. Gardam's voice is dead-on as she crafts a tale with a lovely surprise ending that reaffirms the importance of faith, making this a royal treat for the holidays."

7.  Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby.  This collection of Hornby's book columns from The Believer makes me laugh.

8.  P. G. Wodehouse's Blandings books and Jeeves books.

9.  My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens.  A hilarious memoir about Monica's experiences working for a small-town newspaper.

10.  Modern Baptists by James Wilcox.  Amazon product description:  "Universally and repeatedly praised ever since it first appeared in 1983, Modern Baptists is the book that launched novelist James Wilcox’s career and debuted the endearingly daft community of Tula Springs, Louisiana. It’s the tale of Bobby Pickens, assistant manager of Sonny Boy Bargain Store, who gains a new lease on life, though he almost comes to regret it. Bobby’s handsome half brother F.X.—ex-con, ex-actor, and ex-husband three times over—moves in, and things go awry all over town. Mistaken identities; entangled romances with Burma, Toinette, and Donna Lee; assault and battery; charges of degeneracy; a nervous breakdown—it all comes to a head at a Christmas Eve party in a cabin on a poisoned swamp. This is sly, madcap romp that offers readers the gift of abundant laughter."