Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Do Women Still Read Gone with the Wind?

Scarlett O'Hara lives in a box. Her hat is cockeyed and her hairdo got smooshed. You may ask: why do I have a Scarlett O'Hara doll?  Well, she was a gift from my mother, who adores Scarlett.

I grew up with these bewildering facts:
  • My mother's favorite book was:  Gone with the Wind .
  • My mother's favorite movie was:  Gone with the Wind.
  • My grandmother's favorite book was:  Gone with the Wind.
  • My grandmother's favorite movie was:  Gone with the Wind.
The movie Gone with the Wind was a coming-of-age ritual. We drove, three generations of women, 40 miles to see a re-release of the film in an enormous theater with a big screen.  There were red velvet curtains in front of the screen. It was quite a moment when they drew the curtains.  We were enraptured by the vividness of the film and the actors:  the coyness and strength of Vivien Leigh, the sweetness and intelligence of Olivia de Haviland, the personable Clark Gable, and the charm of Leslie Howard.  The intermission was 15 minutes long, but there was much to discuss:  my mom liked Scarlett, but I preferred Melly because she was a "social justice" person.

I loved the movie but didn't read the book till I was 15, when I really was an Anais Nin and D. H. Lawrence person. Recently I decided to reread it because I want to understand the appeal and figure out whether women read it anymore.  And guess what?  GWTW, Margaret Mitchell's only novel, published in 1936 and the Pulitzer winner in 1937,  is a delight.  It's the kind of American pop classic that ought to be reissued by Virago, along with Valley of the Dolls and Peyton Place. Except it doesn't need to be reissued because it's still in print.

The novel is basically a Southern plantation rehash of Thackeray's Vanity Fair .  Scarlett is Becky Sharp and Melly is Amelia.  Scarlett's a flirt and bad to the bone, but she's brilliant and doesn't adhere to the feminine restrictions, but goes into business during the Civil War when all the men are gone.  Melly is gentle and intelligent, a do-gooder out of Little Women, who always mistakes Scarlett's attempts to steal Ashley for friendship.  As for Rhett,  he's can see the good in others, particularly the superiority of Melly, and is appalled when he finds out what Scarlett is really like.

The novel is well-written--not a classic--but great fun and absorbing.

Are women reading it anymore?

The problem, I'm sure, is the Confederate attitude toward African-Americans.  The slaves are called "darkies," though many are characterized as smarter than their masters and are much respected.  Several of the families, including Scarlett's, feel a strong affection for their slaves. Mammy is loyal, smart, and very much in charge of Scarlett.  Jeems, the Tarleton twins' slave, is much brighter than they and can answer their questions about the moods of Scarlett:  they are simply too dull to understand.

It's a historical novel, written in 1936, and words like "nigger" are used as they wouldn't be today in literature.  But it is set in the South during the Civil War, and there is much that is good in this novel. 

Monday, March 29, 2010

Bicycling Books

Excuse me, sir or ma'am.  Are you staring into space on a bicycling break?

I'd never think of taking a ride without a book. Choose something light in weight and substance and carry it with you at all times.  Forget about hardbacks or trade paperbacks:  that copy of Kristin Lavransdatter is too big. The terrific thing about mass-market paperbacks is that (a) they fit easily in my bike panniers and (b) there's a wide variety that won't tax my brain. Although War and Peace is available in a mass market edition, Proust is not. Both books are too darned heavy for bicycling anyway.  One summer I read P. G. Wodehouse forever.   It wasn't terribly compelling but it was a slim volume, lots of fun, and I can always follow a story of Lord Emsworth and his stolen pig.

My current bicycling book is The Listeners, an astute, thoughtful, well-written  novel by Monica Dickens about the Samaritans, a group that runs a hot-line for potential suicides.  Monica Dickens, who is Charles Dickens' great-great granddaughter, is better known for her humorous autobiographies, One Pair of Hands,  the story of Monica's experiences as a "cook-general" after she is kicked out of drama school); One Pair of Feet, her adventures as a nurse during World War II; and My Turn to Make the Tea, an account of her work on a weekly newspaper.

The Listeners focuses on three Samaritans who have their own problems, among them Paul, an ex-teacher whose alcoholic wife destroyed his career.  It also vividly portrays three potential suicides.  Dickens, who has a real sense of social justice, also unflinchingly looks at class differences.

Dickens, who was involved with the Samaritans in England,  helped found a branch of the Samaritans in Massachusetts in 1974.  The Listeners might be a tiny bit preachy, but it is an unusual "issue" novel and the characters are a  bit grim but not without humor.

And it fits the criteria of a good bicycling book, meaning one can put it down, segue back to the real world, and get back on the trail.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library

At the Big Charity Book Sale I discovered a book that was tailor-made for me.   Not only do I browse in the classics, fiction, biography, and cookbooks, but I also check out something called the "Vintage" section.  The '50s novel  Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library describes my book-buying habits and storage problem exactly.

Chapter 1 begins:

"Oh, no," Lucy moaned as she climbed the Gordons' front steps to join Ginny on the porch.  "Not more books!  Whatever are we going to do with them, Ginny?"  

"I don't know, Lucy," Ginny said disconsolately to her best friend.  "It was really very stupid of me to order those books for our lending library before we had a place to set up in business."
Julie Campbell, one of my favorite writers as a child, wrote Ginny Gordon and the Lending Library. She created the Trixie Belden books, my favorite mystery series, starring the incorrigible Trixie Belden, her best friend Honey, and siblings and friends who are all members of a club called the Bob-Whites.  Trixie can't help getting involved in mysteries.  Crimes happen and she's always finding clues and barely escaping with her life.  These were the most exciting books ever at age seven and I begged my mother to buy me one every time we went to the grocery store.  Whitman, a publisher of inexpensive books for children, reissued classics like Little Women and popular series like the Bobbsey Twins, but also published original mystery series, sometimes with celeb heroes like The Lennon Sisters and Annette.  They were displayed on a revolving rack near the cash register and proved too tempting for young readers like me.

"All right, all right."

Julie Campbell was a busy woman:  she ran her own literary agency in the 1940s, and when Whitman Publishing asked her to scout some writers who could "produce" original mystery and adventure series, Campbell pitched her own.  The Ginny Gordon books were published from the 1948 to 1956.  These books were a little before my time.  I was still toddling next door to read Golden Books collected by our next-door neighbor, who taught "country school" in a one-room schoolhouse until they shut it down sometime in the '60s.

I wish the Ginny Gordon books had been available during my childhood.  The Trixie Belden books were still in-print in the '60s and the series continued until the '80s under various ghost writers.  The characters in Ginny G. and the Lending Library remind me very much of Trixie and the Bob-Whites.   Ginny Gordon, her friend, Lucy, and a group of boys and girls belong to a club called the Hustlers.  Like the Bob-Whites, they raise money for good causes.  They accomplish this by running small businesses.  When the book begins, they have plans to start a small "portable" lending library by subscriptions, but haven't found a storefront.

This book is very lively and perfect for nostalgia buffs and Trixie fans!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

President Obama Shops at an Indie Bookstore in My Hometown!

You have to see this video. A man walks into a bookstore.

Actually, it's President Obama. He went shopping on Thursday at Prairie Lights Bookstore, an independent bookstore in my hometown, Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and best known (perhaps) for the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Video: Who Shops at Indie Bookstores? President Barack Obama Does.

He's just a regular guy in his shirt sleeves, surrounded by Secret Service men, customers smiling at him in the background, while the cashier quietly rings up three books. His manner is low-key. He bought two books,  Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson and The Secret of Zoom  by Lynne Jonell, for his daughters, and a pop-up Star Wars book for White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs' son.

I was moved to tears when I saw him walking down the street and people cheering as soon as they recognized him. Wow. Am I sentimental or what?

Iowa City is kind of a boutique-y town these days. When I was growing up there were two hip bookstores, Epstein's and The Paper Place, as well as a bookstore nicknamed Iowa Book & Crook and trashed during the anti-Vietnam war riots. It's actually Iowa Book & Supply and is the best of the indies there now, if you want to buy remainders of Sylvia Townsend Warner and other unusual books. Prairie Lights is hipper, does have a very good selection, and sponsors readings by excellent writers like Sherman Alexie. A very nice man there once recommended Riddley Walker, and I'm sorry to say I hated it. It's a post-apocalyptic novel, but not in the same class as my beloved The Day of the Triffids or I Am Legend.

There are countless used bookstores in Iowa City, too: my favorite is The Haunted Bookshop on Linn St., across from the Hamburg Inn.

I'm thrilled President Obama bought books. In this economy, the book is a simple, inexpensive pleasure. And if we bought more books we'd stay home cozily and spend less money.

By the way, he didn't buy anything for Michelle. What books would you recommend for President Obama and his family? I would recommend two books for President Obama and the First Lady: Virgil's Aeneid translated by Robert Fagles and Brenda Peterson's environmental memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth (reviewed here); and Suzanne Collins' Y.A. best-seller, Hunger Games; and E. Nesbit's classic, The Enchanted Castle for the girls!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Food Writing: Della T. Lutes & Home Cooking

When it comes to Sunday dinner, no food writer can hold a candle to Della T. Lutes.  
"'Sunday dinner' turns my thoughts to that one which was almost standardized in the home of my childhood, and is very nearly so in my own:  an old-fashioned dinner of fricassee chicken, biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes, boiled onions.  That was the kind of dinner most favored for the Sabbath day by my father and still favored by my own family.  I have never seen any reason for trying to improve upon it."
Della T. Lutes' The Country Kitchen  is s a unique example of food writing: part memoir, part history of 19th-century midwestern home cooking, interwoven with  recipes for your grandmother's or great-great grandmother's favorite biscuits and Irish stew.  First published in 1936, this comical, homey book is the predecessor of the charming food essay collections of Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.  Although this is a bit uneven and not in the same class as Lutes' Millbrook, her small masterpiece, a hybrid-memoir about growing up in a small town in Michigan in the 19th century and a history of the town itself, aficionados of food writing will find it informative and entertaining.
Did you know that a fowl over one year old will have a richer flavor than a chicken?  That women of the 19th century slowly boiled their chicken before frying it "in a spider?" And don't let that butcher chop up your chicken. He'll make a mess of it and Lutes insist it's better to disjoint it yourself.  
She colorfully describes food-centered events like church suppers.  One of the most popular church events at churches without a hall was the box social.  Women cooked enough food for two people and packed it in a pretty box.  Men bid on the boxes at the church and then were obligated to eat with the cook, while the children helped themselves to an overflowing buffet. Lutes hilariously chronicles the occasion when her anti-social father reluctantly attended a box social and inadvertently bought a box prepared by the Lutes' trashy neighbor, Mrs. Covell. He was so repulsed by the "cold sausage, coated with lard," gray bread, pickles, and friedcakes that he immediately claimed he had to go home and milk the cow, apparently an easily decoded lie, and dragged his humiliated wife and Della away from their rare evening out.
Millbrook was my aunt's childhood favorite:  the book she sent to all of her nieces.   It occurs to me that I've never written about Millbrook:  I am obviously due for a reread and re-evaluation. 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Radicals' Charity Book Sale

The Left got me again. Yup, twice a year it happens. I spent one hundred dollars at the Charity Book Sale and came home with two boxes of books and the smug feeling of having supported a good cause. Obama speaks on the new health care plan today; I'm celebrating and supporting his politics by buying used books from his supporters.

The book sale is held in a building the size of an airport: 400,000 books.

It's the event of the spring and though I didn't wear an evening gown (never having had one, having skipped proms and weddings), I felt like a queen as I plucked a number of rare books from the 1920s through '60s section.

First up: Della T. Lutes' The Country Kitchen and Home Grown.

My aunt raised me on Della T. Lutes' Millbrook. Well, not literally, but she saw to it that every woman in our family read this charming 1938 memoir/history of a small town in Michigan in the 19th century. The Country Kitchen, which I've been looking for for years, is part narrative, part recipes. The previous owner of the book--"To Betty from Floyd, February 14, 1939"--neatly penciled opposite the Contents page a list of the recipes: apple dowdy, chicken fricassee, marble cake, rhubarb pie, sour milk & soda biscuits, and more. For an example of Lutes' plain but fascinating prose, here is the beginning of Chapter 2, "Winter Wears On":

"'As the days begin to lengthen, then the cold begins to strengthen.' That was in the almanac. We stay closely housed. There is little to be done outside except chores. Cows are milked, horses bedded and fed, all animals kept warm and comfortable. The barn smells agreeably of hay and grain and of animal flesh. The sound of munching hay and moving feet is pleasant and assuring. The fowls venture but seldom outside their coop. Warmed water, warm meal mash with a little red pepper in it, and shelled corn are given them night and morning. The water in their drinking pans freezes in between."

Home Grown looks equally riveting. It seems to be more narrative than food writing, however, more like Millbrook, a book I swear by and even once tried to pitch to Virago (or Persephone or Bloomsbury Group: honestly I can't remember!).

Then there is my beloved Ruth Suckow:

Ruth Suckow is an Iowa writer who wrote in the '20s, '30s, and '40s. I blogged about her here (and elsewhere). Not as good as Willa Cather or Susan Glaspell, she is still a very likable and effective chronicler of small-town life at the turn of the 20th century in plain minimalist prose. I am a card-carrying member of The Ruth Suckow Society.

I also found a copy of Gone with the Wind, a book my mother and grandmother loved. I didn't really like it much when I read it at 15 but this pop novel certainly influenced them. I was given a Scarlett O'Hara doll and still have it somewhere.

And Howard Spring is the author of My Son, My Son. I don't know this book at all.

A productive day, though I'm now all covered with bookish dust.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Latin Teacher Walks into a Bar

A Latin teacher walks into a bar.

I hurried into the coffeehouse early to snag two tables for my Latin class. We've been kicked out of Adult Ed--our group is too small--so we agreed to meet at an independent coffeehouse. But Tuesday night turns out to be Scrabble Night! Imagine my surprise when I burst in the door lugging two shoulder bags of Latin books to find that revolving Scrabble games topped every table.

I coaxed a very nice man into relinquishing a reserved table as yet unmanned by players. He saw my quandary as I dumped a pile of thick Latin books onto the floor. He twitched a smile and it must have seemed too funny--word gamers battling with a Latin teacher for space!

Anyway, my students and I ended up huddled in a dark corner shouting over the noise.

“Couldn’t we get a room at a church?” one asked

And then I blurted out, “Does anybody BELONG to a church?” And then I realized I had put my foot in it, because I had no idea what their private religious beliefs are. I quickly added, “I’m a nomad.” And then I explained dismally that churches, too, charge for meeting rooms.

It is really a nice group of students and we managed to get a fair amount of work done due to determination, calm, and tenacity. We're meeting somewhere else next week needless to say.

Today I've been recuperating from Latin Whoop Night by reading a light novel by E. M. Delafield, The War Workers, which I downloaded onto my Sony Reader free of charge (it's in the Public Domain). It's not her best, but it rather slowly takes shape as an entertaining satirical novel set in World War I about a group of women of different classes who do war work in an office run by a power-mad aristocratic bureaucrat, Miss Vivian. The workers room together in a house across the street, some get along and some do not, and everything turns topsy-turvy when class boundaries begin to blur during an influenza epidemic and Miss Vivian's mother befriends one of the secretaries. I'm halfway through.

Not bad, but not great!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Nick Hornby and the Lit Bitches

Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked is not the kind of comedy favored by the sprightly book group at my church. When the TV Oprah book club broke down and became decidedly episodic, we "Lit Bitches," as we call ourselves--the tolerant minister lists us as the "Lit Bits" in the bulletin--branched out from the Oprah selections that originally fueled our meetings to pop-literary novels like Hornby's How to Be Good, Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, and Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

I prefer Hornby's essays to his novels. His three collections of literary essays, The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money, originally published as book columns in The Believer, are funny, perceptive, and addictive. They made me laugh so hard I hurt. Well, sort of. I would want to quit reading one column and then read just one more...and then one more. He begins each essay with lists of Books Bought and Books Read, and of course they're seldom the same books. So I'd laugh away and I'd marvel at his insights.

My favorite Hornby novel is A Long Way Down. It's amusing but he obviously also understands depression. It's a darkish comedy: he follows the lives of four suicidal people who originally meet by accident on a roof on New Year's Eve.

Juliet, Naked is an even darker comedy, and actually not that comical. Parts are not funny at all, though there's always wit. Duncan and Annie, an unmarried couple who have been together for 15 years by default, don't love each other anymore. Annie knows it; Duncan doesn't. She is incredibly irritated by his obsession with Tucker Crowe, a has-been rock star who retired from his career mysteriously in 1986. Duncan, a college teacher who spends most of his time running a Tucker Crowe website, is jealous when Annie posts an articulate piece trashing a "new" album released to the fans. What he doesn't know is that Tucker Crowe has contacted Annie to say he agrees.

I understand Annie, an embittered woman who never got what she wanted from romance and is terrified by her emptiness and the fact that she hasn't had children. And I understand Duncan: it's easier for him to deal with internet people than real people and he has little interest in love and sex. I don't quite understand Tucker Crowe, though I like him and he seems as real as any rock star does to me: part of the confusion is that I just saw Crazy Heart and I kept picturing Jeff Bridges in the role.

Hornby twists away from the romantic conventions, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The ending--well, it was unexpected. Perhaps this is Hornby's best book. Parts of it actually reminded me of Stephen Dixon's underrated work:
the same pared-down style and bitter humor.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Brenda Peterson, the Environment, and My Personal Doomsaying

We had a new snowfall Friday after a week of sunshine. It was mildly pretty but dismaying. Today the snow melted and we were able to bicycle to a coffeehouse. I must admit I bundled up in coat, scarf, hat, and gloves, but it warmed up while we were sitting in the coffeehouse, and then we were able to shed some layers. Sun, sun, sun!

The coffeehouse was quiet, except for an annoying Top-40 soundtrack from the '70s that might have been someone's iPod plugged in. When the manager's away, the baristas... Still, we were able to read. I was engrossed in the final pages of Brenda Peterson's I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, and increasingly fascinated by her attitudes toward environmentalism. Her perspective as a life-long environmentalist who rebelled against a nature-loving fundamentalist family is unique.

Writing about the Rapture, which, for those of you who haven't encountered Born Againers, is the literal interpretation of Revelations and the belief that God will snatch up devout Christians and save them from the tribulations of the end of the world, she makes an interesting comparison with the doomsaying of many environmentalists who "also believe that we are living in a kind of End Times for all nature and other species." I have mixed feelings about this comparison.

She continues:

"Both belief systems are firmly rooted in the conviction that paradise is forever lost. God banned us from Eden; humans have destroyed the earth. What might have happened if the early Christian storytellers, who imagined this world was still a paradise, had prevailed over the state Christian empire-builders who chose crucifixion, not Eden, as their main drama? And what if environmentalists stopped portraying nature as crucified? What if both camps stopped all their fearmongering and found a new story. We might imagine a future in which all species flourish, along with us. A garden that is more beautiful than it is battered, sacred than scarred."

This is beautiful writing, but, more important, a viewpoint I've never considered. Yes, how we tell the story matters. And it is true that I've been a lifelong doom-loving environmentalist who, though I proudly set an example as a bicyclist, can't resist criticizing the SUV drivers who waste gas and pollute, the sheer idiocy of the factories that make wasteful plastic containers (let's go back to waxed cartons!), plastic bags, and other unnecessary bits of destructive rubbish, and the drama of climate change. Well, but how can I not be angry at what happened in Stockholm! And the rest of it.

Yet I understand Peterson's belief that it would be better to present a beautiful future, albeit dependent on taking new steps to save the world. And she does do that: telling mesmerizing stories of her annual research trip with Baja Expeditions to see the great whales and their babies. This thoughtful, gripping writing is probably worth a thousand prohibitions.

But somebody has to say, "No, this or that is wrong." People now use recyclable bags when they go to the grocery stores. This is great! I don't know whose campaign it was, but it worked.

Now I'm not going to run a campaign. Riding my bicycle is all I'm up for. And I personally won't be here when things get out of control. Unless I'm already here, and climate change is causing floods in the midwest, hurricanes, earthquakes, and unusual blizzards.

See, I'm a doomsayer!

But people don't change unless they have to. More took the bus when the price of gas went up. People were buying smaller cars for a minute or two then. The problem is that the incredibly wealthy, as most Americans are in comparison to the rest of the world (well, actually, Europeans are wealthy, too, so forgive my chauvinism), won't give up what they want. Big is status (in terms of vehicles and houses). Why it's not the medium I'm not sure.

Brenda Peterson's memoir has certainly made me think about nature in a different way. She will inspire you to want to go to Mexico to see the friendly whales and to encourage attention to ecology with a more positive spin.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Friend Who Introduced Me to the Mitfords

If you had the chance to change into somebody else for a few hours, who would you be? Meryl Streep at the Oscars? Emily Bronte brooding on the moors? Marie Antoinette at the ball, flirting with someone other than the impotent Louis XVI?

No, Nancy Mitford. Or, actually, the friend who introduced me to the Mitfords, because she has exquisite taste.

I love the Mitfords and will read anything about them. Nancy's novels, Decca's memoirs, various biographies. My poor husband has had to buy them all for various birthdays and special occasions. When a new volume of the Mitfords' letters came out a few years ago, I begged him to go out on a cold night and get it for me before he fetched our takeout dinner. He had a little chat with the bookstore clerk. They commiserated with each other about the Mitford Industry.

My friend, Sylvia, a musician who loves the Mitfords, has the best supply of "vintage" novels from the '30s, '40s, and '50s ever. Sylvia got me started on Nancy's three greatest novels, all narrated by Fanny, the observant, good-humored daughter of the Bolter (a woman who can't seem to stay married or with one man), and the cousin of the flamboyant Radletts, whose grumpy father hunts them like dogs when he has no foxes to hunt. At the heart of The Pursuit of Love is the story of Linda Radlett, a charming, witty, tragic beauty who has a series of romances until she finally meets the One in France before World War II. The next two, Love in a Cold Climate and Don't Tell Alfred, are equally sweet and funny.

Olivia Laing, the deputy books editor of the Observer, has written a short piece about Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love in a little column called Classics Corner.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

It is very short, but it does serve as a reminder that this is an excellent novel.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Connie Willis's Blackout is my favorite book of the year. Here's why you should trust me.

In my thirties I greedily read every new book that came my way. It was like being drugged: I read award winners and runners-up; endless memoirs and biographies; and outstanding novels and nonfiction touted by trusted reviewers and online book groups.

Then I became incredibly picky and gave up reviewing gigs in favor of better-paid assignments. Books seemed to be getting worse. Was it the corporate publishing takeovers? It wasn't just I. A friend felt the same way. We decided, and this will sound vain, that we were such experienced readers that we perceived the flaws and the differences between vision and execution too readily. It was time to re-explore the classics. "It's kind of like getting back to the land," said my wry friend in her perpetually cynical New York accent.

But this week, the last of my vacation, I've been gobbling contemporary books as I did in the "old" days. Catching up on some of the best--John Banville and Brenda Peterson--has been a real pleasure. And among the new books I've read I have discovered a gem, a true classic (may it win many awards!), award-winning Connie Willis's beautifully-written literary novel, Blackout, which is part science fiction, part World War II novel. Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, probably the best critic out there these days, praised it so highly I went out and bought it. No regrets!

Willis's ostensible time-travel book reads as much like a compelling historical novel about World War II as it does science fiction. In 2060 Oxford historians travel back and forth in time; the main characters happen to be doing research on England in World War II. Her characters are unforgettable and their lives riveting, as they become more and more involved with the past: Eileen, a sensitive, responsible young woman, takes care of hoydenish evacuees in Lady Caroline's mansion and is quarantined for so many weeks when the children come down with measles that she somehow can't get back to 2060; Polly, determined to study Londoners' reactions to the Blitz, finds herself incredibly attached to the other people in the bomb shelter and to friends in a department store where she works; Mike is dropped miles away from Dover and ends up by accident at Dunkirk, where he believes he may have saved someone not intended to be saved and changed history; and Mary as an ambulance driver is uncertain whether she has been given the right times and days of bombings (so she won't be hit) or the false ones the government put out to fool the Germans.

Willis also pays homage to doors into other worlds and writers like C. S. Lewis and David Lindsay. Blackout begins almost like a Narnia book.

"Colin tried the door, but it was locked. The porter, Mr. Purdy, obviously hadn't known what he was talking about when he said Mr. Dunworthy had gone to Research."

There are a lot of locked doors in Blackout. After much research, many costume fittings, negotiations with Mr. Dunworthy, and implants that can give an American accent or provide instant access to dates and times of bombings, historians are dropped off at sites chosen because they are safe and will not, in any way, interfere with history. But there is an increasing problem with "slippage"--landing hours or days later than the target date, and/or in the wrong place--and Inevitably, things go wrong with the best-laid time travel plans. As characters find themselves trapped in the past, they agonize over the trajectory of history.

Willis is great, and I'm sorry I've never heard of her science fiction. Obviously I've missed out on one of the best writers of our time (no pun intended).

Dirda of the Washington Post said:

"If you're a science-fiction fan, you'll want to read this book by one of the most honored writers in the field (10 Hugos, six Nebulas); if you're interested in World War II, you should pick up "Blackout" for its you-are-there authenticity; and if you just like to read, you'll find here a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy."

A sequel is coming in October. I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Far from the Madding Crowd

An illustration from the 1958 Heritage Press edition of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Were you, like me, raised on Thomas Hardy? Secretly unable to believe that Tess of the D'Urbervilles was better than your favorite, Far from the Madding Crowd? Rereading FFTMC almost as regularly as Jane Eyre over the years? Unable to comprehend Bathsheba's rejection of Gabriel Oak? Utterly horrified by the tragedy at his sheep farm? Discouraged by Sergeant Troy's macho courtship? Thinking Boldwood was just pathetic?

Imagine my excitement when I found a copy of the 1958 Heritage Press edition of Far from the Madding Crowd, with engravings by Agnes Miller Parker, at a used bookstore for $10.

It was one of those heavenly spring afternoons, perfect for bicycling. The snow is gone. The earth is brown again. Birds sing, green tiger lily stalks are unfurling, and the waving prairie grass is not yet burned.

I like to check out a couple of used bookstores, a perfectly green trip by bicycle. I couldn't find what I wanted, of course. For some reason I was in the mood to reread Gone with the Wind--curious to see if it were really a Southern plagiarism of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, as I thought when I first read it. But they didn't have it.

Just as well, because I am always in the mood for Thomas Hardy, rarely in the mood for Mitchell. I found FFTMC while kneeling beside a bargain cart that had some very strange bargains--enormous leather volumes of War and Peace (thank goodness for paperbacks, because personally I like to be able to LIFT a book!), musty histories of Scotland, and a set of The Happy Hollisters (I used to adore those books, by the way, but didn't want to be disillusioned by trying them again).

The Heritage Press editions are gorgeous and come in boxes, rather like the Folio Society books. Some of them are too tall and big. We have one enormous volume of Joseph Conrad's works that I swear is as big as our coffee table. Now when are you going to read a book like that?

But this one is a regular book-sized book. In addition to illustrations, it has an excellent introduction by Robert Cantwell. It's the kind of old classic imitated by the new Penguin Hardcover Classics. Take a look at this cover and you'll see the influence on Penguin designs these old classics have.

It's nice buying at "real" bookstores again, because that way shopping is contained: I'm not salivating over every book written by or about Thomas Hardy because there is no computer screen flashing icons to tempt me. I love Amazon--I swear by it!--but there is still the pleasure of finding books in a bookstore. Long may used bookstores live!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth

At Barnes & Noble I was entirely thrilled to come across Brenda Peterson's memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. Peterson, a novelist, non-fiction writer, and environmentalist, is the founder of a grassroots conservation group Seal Sitters. But I know her best as a novelist: she first came to my attention as the author of the delightful novel, Duck and Cover (1991), the funny, touching story of a Bible-thumping family growing up in the '50s in the post-war fear of nuclear bombs, duck-and-cover drills at school, and bomb shelters in the back yard. Her last novel, Animal Heart, (2004), was published by the Sierra Book Club, which shows she may have outgrown conventional publishers.

Because, believe me, this woman can write.

I am a third of the way into this fast-paced, radiant, ebullient, and often purely funny memoir. Peterson writes about her relationship with nature as a nomadic forester's daughter who comes of age in the '50s and '60s, first living in California, then Massachusetts, then Virginia, and then California again. But her love of nature also spurs her rebellion against the Rapture predictions of her Southern Baptist family, who, though they are caretakers of the earth, literally believe the end of the world will come and the saved will be snatched up midway in the sky by God. Unlike right-wing politicians like Reagan, whose "rapacious use of natural resources" reached an extreme under Pentecostal James Watt's term as Secretary of the Interior, when he expressed doubts that the earth was worth saving because of the short time left, the Petersons are gentle, tolerant, and humane. Brenda has doubts but doesn't want to hurt them.

Brenda has a dilemma: don't animals have souls? In church she prefers to sit with Mr. Bode, who whittles an ark and animals during services. Brenda has a survival plan for World War III, based on her fascination with dinosaurs, and belief that the ichthyosaurus didn't become extinct but rather evolved into dolphins.

"We'll survive the first nuclear blast in my mom's fallout shelter. As soon as that's over, I'll take my family to Virginia Beach. We'll call on the dolphins to carry us out to sea where we'll be safe. We'll learn to float on the waves and go ashore only to sleep on the beaches."

Mr. Bode nodded, considering this. "You mean, we'll become amphibious?"

"That's it, yes!"

I love reading about Brenda's earth science background, her fascination with music and resonance, and experiences with racial tension when the black girls on her basketball team are taunted by an all-white team. (Brenda's team, however, wins, thank God.)

This book also covers her college education, work at The New Yorker, and life in Seattle. She is politically radical, and I'm wondering how this went over with her family. I'm very much looking forward to the rest of this.

I'm not sure I would have found this book if I hadn't visited the biography section at B&N. Another reason to go to "physical bookstores." It is very, very worth reading, a record of growing up in a religious family, but told in a non-stereotypical way.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Beware the Ides of March!

Cave Idus Martias! Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C. To commemorate the day, you can read:

1. Caesar's Gallic Wars

2. Caesar's Civil War

3. The short biography of Caesar in Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars

4. Philip Freeman's biography, Julius Caesar (2009)

5. Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Ides of March (an Italian historical novel, published in translation this year in a nice Europa paperback)

6. Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March (an American historical novel)

7. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

And much, much more.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Infinities

John Banville's The Infinities is a brilliant comedy. Since Banville won the Booker for The Sea in 2005, some reviewers (including Laura Miller, who reviewed his new book for The New York Times) have hinted that his literary Joycean style can be excessive and off-putting. What's to complain about? This is such an enjoyable book. Charm, humor, and crystal-clear prose are in abundance. The Sea is now on my reading list, too, though I have been trying to break the Cycle of Awards Addiction and not get carried away by reading every one. The Infinities is a very easy, quick, baroque read, with a gorgeous style, and light years superior to the other contemporary novels I've read this year (though, alas, that is not many).

Adam Godley is in a coma and dying. A brilliant mathematician, he is not good with people. His family, who are also not particularly good with people, have gathered at his bedside. But they are not the only ones there. Hermes, the psychopomp, is telling the story; Zeus has spent the early-morning hours having sex with Helen, Adam Jr.'s wife; and Pan visits in the guise of an old friend, Benny Grace.

This quirky novel is set in an alternative world, which at first seems a bit amazing. Godley's mathematical theories destroyed the Relativity Theory and other staunchly-taken-for-granted scientific formulae long ago. The world is powered by alternative energy: cars run on a sea compound of some kind. What? What? I kept thinking at first. I can deal with the gods, but the "rattly old Salsol" threw me for a minute. Banville reveals these things slowly, as though we are in the know.

Hermes shows us the day's events from the point of view of all the members of the family, including Adam himself, who thinks about the past. Especially interesting is Petra, the rather crazy 19-year-old with the shaved head and obsession with compiling an encyclopedia of diseases in a leather notebook with a steel pen. Hermes loves her, and says she'll be coming to the gods early, but not yet.

To give you an idea of Banville's style, here is Adam considering his inability to connect with people:

"I have never been any good in dealing with people. I dare say I am not alone in this sad predicament, but I feel acutely my incompetence in the matter of other folk. You know how it is. Say you are walking down a not particularly crowded street. You spy, at quite a long way off still, out of the corner of your eye, out of the corner of your watchfulness, as it were, a stranger who, you can see, has in his turn become aware of you as you approach him. Even at that distance you both begin to make little adjustments, covert little feints and swerves, so as to avoid eventual collision, all the while pretending to be perfectly oblivous of each other."

Goodness, isn't that exactly the way it is?

I'm very much enjoying this. Two-thirds done, I see no signs of any let-down.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why I Didn't One-Click Today

One-click. It's a way of life.

The other day a student announced his intention to buy A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book on his Kindle. We were floored. Was that thing a Kindle? No, it was an iPhone. It was going to be quite a fast one-click: not free postage but immediate transfer. "Start reading in less than a minute," he says.

"Traitor!" another student called, shorthand for concern about the survival of independent bookstores.

Some of us don't recognize e-reader devices when we see them. I have a Sony Reader, but it doesn't go out in public. A Kindle was pointed out to me in a coffeehouse once. Those things are ticking bombs: allowing you to shop AWAY from your computer, for God's sake.

That doesn't mean I'm not a fanatical online browser, though. The one-click--which I'm quite fond of--is the online shopper's bliss or Achilles' heel. It can be a heady feeling to find a book you want and then immediately click on it and buy it. If you're a regular at Amazon, you may find yourself not just one-clicking till you hit the $25 mark that wins you free shipping, but paying an extra $75 a year to get free two-day shipping. Now I'm not sure how this $75-a-year thing works, but if you buy hundreds of books or spend $750 a year (guessing), it probably evens out.

I didn't one-click on any novels today, AND I'M SO PROUD. I've been reading a Golden Age Detective novel, and the online bookstores haven't found out yet, so they haven't been pushing Christie, Sayers, and the rest. I kind of feel relieved.

Abebooks, Alibris, and Amazon are seductive. They not only invite you to one-click, but they amuse you with recommendations that are sometimes apt and sometimes way off-base. It's a positive land of enchantment up there. You would never want a bookstore clerk to be as in-your face as the recommendation icons on the websites. Buy Marcel Theroux's Far North and suddenly Wolf Hall, Lark & Termite, and Let the Great World Spin appear on the screen. These books have all been nominated for or won awards. It's a clever system, but sometimes it can go astray. Buy a vampire book and every vampire book ever published shows up on the screen. Four Twilight books later, it's Sookie Stackhouse and I Am Legend.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Toby Lichtig & the Intellectual Lent of Books

Thanks to obsessive online book-buying, I have inexpensive copies of out-of-print Latin books for my students.--Frisbee

Toby Licthig, a blogger for The Guardian, has written a hilarious piece on his addiction to book-buying.

"We all know how it is these days. The faultline between desire and action has faded to a smudge. I'm not even sure I still bother going to Amazon. It's as if some dastardly sales whizz has infiltrated my brain, hooking my dopaminergic neurones straight up to PayPal. I read about a book. Mmmm... interesting, I think. And two days later it's sitting by my bed."

Don't I have a personal relationship with the "dastardly" mind-reading book fairy? I don't drive, so Amazon and Abebooks are a greenish alternative to shopping trips, utilizing the mail and the odd plane full of books, instead of individual energy-wasting vehicles and trips to the mall.

So I tell myself.

Shopping online--the click-click-click of the transaction--creates the illusion that books are free. None of it involves the clink of money. When there is a credit-card transaction at Borders or Barnes & Noble, I hand the card to a person and there is a moment of anxiety. What if the machine rejects me? But online it's all purely plastic and imaginary. The book fairies are buying the books for me.

I'd like to join Toby Lichtig, Stuck in a Book, and the other bloggers who have vowed not to spend. But it can't be done. My tiny, tiny salary is spent mostly on books. Arrived in the mail yesterday: a Latin textbook for a student and an advance copy of Holly Black's White Cat. And, oh yeah, the publishers didn't single me out for free copies. I bought the books fair and square.

Because I'm, yes, crazy?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

J. B. Priestley and the Critics

I've always meant to read J. B. Priestley, despite the condescension of critics which has somehow floated into my consciousness. I mean, why should I pay attention to critics? Some admittedly have taste and incredible integrity, while others are book whores writing flattering gibberish or trashing the powerless, but I can't tell one from the other without first buying a hundred bad books. So these days I try to block them out, with the exception of a few tried-and-true bibliophiles like Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. If I don't, I end up with piles of stuff like Kit Whitfield's In the Waters, which is well-written but isn't my thing, and if I had had any sense I would have figured that out from the review. Caveat emptor! Silly goose! Caveat lector quoque!

An uncritical life would doubtless work out very well. Think of all the unfashionable Viragos, Persephones, Capuchin Classics, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Rumer Godden I've discovered at random. Priestley is among them. He was very popular in his day, like Maugham, of whom he very much reminds me, and H. E. Bates, another underestimated writer. Perhaps you've heard of Priestley's best-seller, The Good Companions, which won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1929, or Angel Pavement, another of his smash-hit famous novels. He wrote enough novels, essays, plays, and memoirs to challenge the flowing pens of Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant (though he wrote in another era, of course).

Now Priestley is out-of-print in the U.S. The other day on the porch I dug up an old copy of Lost Empires, a lively novel about a young artist's experiences in his uncle's magic act in music halls before World War I. This was made into a Masterpiece Theater production in the 1980s, I learned from the photo caption on the back. Colin Firth was in it!

In the "Prologue by J.B.P," Priestley spins a frame-construction yarn about going painting on holiday and visiting a watercolor artist, Richard Herncastle, whom he'd known years ago. Herncastle, who is now too old and shaky to paint, has been writing his memoirs about his theatrical youth, and gives them to Priestley for revision. In Chapter 1 we commence reading Herncastle's story, narrated in the first person. This is so fast-paced, so well written, and so much fun that I am galloping through it. I hate magic acts, so I had some reservations, but the novel focuses on the relationships between actors on the road and the work of the theater rather than the technical tricks of the magic trade (though some of that is fascinating, too).

Richard has been saved from a dull clerical life by his Uncle Nick's offer of a stage management job, which takes him on a rollicking ride through the provinces of England. The gloomy, champagne-swilling, star magician Nick travels with an ensemble of lackeys, including his slavish assistant and lover, Cissie, two carpenter/engineers, and a drunken dwarf. Richard loves the job, because he can paint during the day, though there are trying weekends of traveling from town to town on bumpy trains, hustling all the stage paraphernalia into the theater, and negotiations with the bands about music. Richard's interactions with the other actors who share the bill with Uncle Nick, dancers, jugglers, and comedians, hone his powers of observation.

I love the slightly whiny Cissy, who has to watch what she eats, at least in front of short-tempered Nick, because she has to vanish during the act by dropping from a box into a thin pedestal which no one believes she can fit into. Nick bitches whenever she puts on an ounce! Then there's Julie Blane, the excellent West End actress who has come down in the world because of drink. I'm up to a quite exciting chapter where a suffragette's husband hires Nick to plot the disappearance of his wife, wanted by the police, from a political meeting, so she isn't dragged off to prison for more force feeding.

This is so much fun to read. Very Maugham-ish. I don't know about you, but I can read Maugham almost indefinitely. I have a feeling I'm going down the same road with Priestley.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spending & Love

One does feel smug when one doesn't spend money. No, you can't have that, I say sharply, looking at the latest Chang-Rae Lee novel. You have too many books at home. You have to read John Banville's new novel, The Infinities, first, a comedy featuring Hermes as the omniscient narrator. He and other Greek gods attend a family gathered around the bed of a dying mathematician. You adore classical mythology.

You also have Valerio Massimo Manfredi's The Ides of March, an Italian historical novel about Julius Caesar. Since next week IS the Ides of March, you'd better get cracking.

But why can't I have Chang-rae Lee's novel, too?

Because it's not a Virago, and you're actually in the middle of a Virago revival. If you want to buy something, you can buy Viragos.

I finished E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, one of my favorite Viragos ever, the sad, funny coming-of-age sotry narrated by Lallie Rush, the observant daughter of an obsessive sailor-adventurer. Finally in her teens Lallie admits that she hates sailing, and isn't perhaps the ordinary cog in the wheel of her ordinary family.

There is so much sadness about love in this novel. It makes me shudder. A young woman falling in love with a man who will probably never make her happy, a man who has made love to her younger sister, and whom we never expect to come back to Lallie anyway.

Oh gods. Young love. Isn't it horrid? It takes over Lallie, making her stay in one place and sacrifice job prospects elsewhere that might introduce her to more appropriate lovers. It makes one remember WHY one doesn't linger over memories of first loves.

This is a very charming novel, lots of humor, but Robertson doesn't let you forget that coming of age hurts.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Virago Revival and Movie Stars Behaving Badly

I'm having a "Virago revival" at my house, catching up on 20th century women's literature. I have to breathe the air of the century I belong to: not the 21st but the 20th. I have a huge stack of Viragos acquired from the Charity Book Sale, most set in the early- to middle-20th century, and E. Arnot Robertson is my current favorite. A few years ago I read her Four Frightened People, a very peculiar novel that A. S. Byatt recommended one year to the Washington Post. It was a weird survival story of four middle-class people who jumped overboard on a cruise because people were dying of smallpox or something. Jungle survival: one fat woman deserted by the others. Isn't that always the way? It was well-written but didn't particularly grab me.

I'm halfway through Robertson's Ordinary Families, a masterpiece, beautifully written, the story of an outdoorsy family devoted to sailing, but pushed beyond their desires and abilities by their heroic, athletic, charming engineer father. Sixteen-year-old Lallie Rush, the narrator, is frankly terrified when she has to race in a regatta during bad weather, and her brother, Ronald, tries to drop out of his race when the other competitors do so, but both are urged on coldly by their fearless father. To get revenge for the pointless competition, Ronald mischievously pushes their youngest sister, Margaret, to insist she sail in a race where everyone else has dropped out. Although the children win their races, Father is furious: he had handicapped his children so others would win. And the oldest daughter, Dru, who has grown fat as she rebels against her ex-femme fatale mother, is embarrassed when she has to give a speech at a luncheon after all their wins, thinking they'll believe it's some weird nepotism.

Lallie, a devoted bird-watcher, loves animals, but doesn't understand society, particularly their next-door neighbors, the Cottrells, an intellectual family who faintly despise the "buccaneer" Rushes. Her fascinating reports on their lives and conversational tics are mixed with her confusion about the subtext of their anti-religious, pro-sexual, political ideals. In a way she reminds me of Portia, the narrator of The Death of the Heart. Not as vulnerable, though.

No idea where this is going, but it's great.

I watched the Oscars last night. There were many complaints at our house. My husband groaned when the director of The Hurt Locker dedicated her Iraq bomb squad movie to, yes, the men and women in uniform. Or did we mis-hear that? I felt embarrassed. I'm sure she meant it, but it sounded so phony. I mean it's an action movie--with intellectual overtones, or something. The scenes they showed looked absolutely awful.

George Clooney sat in the audience looking irritated by Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin's silly jokes. Why? Was the Toyota joke un-politically correct or something? Repeated shots of his despising Martin and Baldwin. Today Entertainment Weekly has whitewashed it by saying it was all part of the joke, but one wonders. It really didn't look like a joke.

Sandra Bullock started off classy and then went bipolar-Gen X on us. She made a very odd remark in her speech about thanking people who had treated her well and people who had been mean to her, like George Clooney, who had thrown her into a pool, and she added that she still bore a grudge.

We're all thinking, What? Is she chiding him for behaving badly at the Oscars? Does she hate him?

And, yes, ha ha ha, this is all a joke, too, we learn today. He did throw her into a pool at a party. Tom Cruise was also involved.

Well, you know what--it wasn't funny.

Here's the thing. We want the people at the Oscars to behave like--Steve Martin! Yes, he's the classiest of them all.