Friday, April 16, 2010

The Kramer Girls

"Ruth Suckow is a living answer to those critics who have damned the small town as a place where no artist can flourish."

Yes, I love this, too. This dramatic quote appears on one of the back pages of my 1930 copy of Ruth Suckow's The Kramer Girls. Pasted on the opposite page is something so charming I felt the need to photograph it: an index card labeled "Portage Book Club" with a list of names and dates of members who borrowed this novel in 1930 and 1931.

Portage, Wisconsin, is a small town of 9,000, located north of Madison. I love to think of the Portage Book Club passing around this book in 1930. Suckow, a minister's daughter and beekeeper who lived in Iowa for many years and wrote short stories and novels about small towns in Iowa, was encouraged to write by H. L. Mencken. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, and raised in small towns, including Grinnell, where she went to college, she was living in New York when this novel was published in 1930.

There are 20 names on the Portage Book Club index card. Seven of them borrowed this book. They are (I've guessed at some of the names that are illegible with age):

Margaret R.J. 1/24-1/31/31
Ethel Kerr Oct. 18, '30
Mattie K. H. Oct. 25, '30
Narisa K. S. Nov. 1, '30
Ethel Klemment Nov. 8, '30
Mamie Mae G. Nov. 10, '31
Metu H. J. Nov. 25, '30

I will write more about this charming novel later. It's very complex, despite Suckow's very plain style--plainer than her 1942 novel, New Hope (which I wrote about here, here, and here), which I would recommend you start with. The Kramer Girls tells the story of three sisters, of whom the older two, the dominating Georgie and the good-natured Annie, sacrifice themselves to care for their paralyzed mother at home so the youngest, Rose, can go to college.

This novel must have meant so much to women of my grandmother's generation. Like Rose, my grandmother taught school. Suckow describes in detail social events like church suppers, Rose's dates with a "bad" boy and later reluctance to marry, her receiving the Phi Beta Kappa key, Georgie's envy and thrill at vicariously living through Rose.

Wouldn't the book club's descendants be thrilled by this book?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It's Not about the Books

It's not about the books.  It's about the space.

There's always a place for a new book, right?  Only sometimes there isn't.  My husband stumbles upon my Amazon boxes or Abebooks packages before they are recycled and sighs.   He does not share my passion for owning books. His call for frugality should be printed on a ball cap. 

"No more books." 

I sometimes feel like the woman standing beside the farmer with the pitchfork in Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Then a new unsolicited review copy arrives and suddenly I, too, am dismayed by the plethora of books.
There are bookcases in every room except the bathroom. If a guest feels like reading Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons over dinner, it's right there on the second shelf of the cabinet to the left of the table. Maybe he/she wants to read The Diary of Virginia Woolf over coffee.  That would be in the third box on the left on the porch. 
I now have two tables covered with books because I honestly can't think of anywhere else to put a shelf.  Unless I get rid of the TV.
So I've made a temporary vow.  It's the kind of vow that all of us make from time to time to the household gods.  I WILL stop buying new books.  And I WILL be taking estimates on that addition to the house, by the way.
How did this new mysterious unsolicited book end up here?  A publicist got my name somewhere--I don't remember dealing with this publisher before so it's probably from a very old list. Alas, I don't want the book. It doesn't look good, it doesn't look bad, someone's going to love it, but I cannot accept more books from publishers.  
"It was kind of you to send an advance copy of _____, but I have a backlog of books to review.  Please take my name off your publicity list."
That's the note going out to publicists.  I'm not on that many publicity lists, am I?   
Meanwhile, it's time to get back to Mrs. Oliphant, Ruth Suckow, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and some of the other hard-won old favorites.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Homer's Daughter

Robert Graves' small masterpiece, Homer's Daughter, is not in print. This is not surprising. Graves' compelling novels about men, I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and King Jesus are still in print. But the feminist classics are disappearing in the wake of desperate pop publishing decisions that have, if Publishers Weekly is to be believed, nearly bankrupted them.

Publishers are mad not to exploit the commercial potential of this absorbing, well-written, mythic masterpiece, a perfect candidate for revival in the current classics boom that embraced David Malouf's much-revered novel, Ransom, and a misguided remake of the film, Clash of the Titans.  In Graves’ feminist novel, The Odyssey is not the work of Homer, but of Nausicaa, an intellectual princess and 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. According to the post-Homeric sagas recited by a guild of traveling bards known as the Sons of Homer, Penelope was found “living riotously with fifty lovers, all of whom he killed on his return to Ithaca.” And then Odysseus sent her home to her father.  Not so in Homer/Nausicaa's Odyssey, in which Penelope forever unwinds her weaving at night to delay her suitors--a trick Nausica also plays to deceive her rustic suitors.
Graves speculated that the Odyssey was composed 150 years later than the Iliad and was written by a woman.  Apollodorus informs us that the scene of the poem was traditionally Sicily;  Samuel Butler in 1896 comfirmed this from his own research and speculated that a woman was probably the author.  Graves came to the same conclusion while compiling a dictionary of Greek myths.  
Nausicaa, a princess and priestess of Athena, is the lively narrator of a political drama that comprises the disappearance of her brother, her father's departure on a quest to find his son, political manipulations of rustic suitors, squashed coups, strangers, and returns.  As Graves says in his Historical Note:  "Here is the story of a high-spirited and religious-minded Sicilian girl who saves her father's throne from usurpation, herself from a distasteful marriage, and her two younger brothers from butchery by boldly making things happen, instead of sitting still and hoping for the best.
This novel is exactly the kind of thing that should be in vogue.  Retellings of myths are popular this year.  David Malouf's Ransom (reviewed here), a reworking of the episode in the Iliad about Priam's ransom of Hector's body, was hailed in The New Yorker as a great novel.  John Banville's The Infinities (reviewed here ) is even better, I think, though the New Yorker writer liked it rather less.  

An aside:  I am reading this novel in the company of the former owner of the book. She marked it with red ink, random underlinings, and comments that usually are along the lines of “Interesting!” but left one charming note that almost makes me forgive her.  She defines “oleaster:  a small Eurasian tree having oblong silver leaves...”

I wouldn't have bought this edition, however, if I had known there were notes in the margins. How I hate that!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why Blog? Bacchantes of the Book World

Bloggers all over cyberspace, the boundaries of which are infinite, have considered the question, "Why blog?" Who posed this question first?  Socrates, Kant, or dovegreyreader?  I’m never in the vanguard and this question trickled down to me through a charming essay at Stuck in a Book , in which Simon, an Oxford student, considers his position as the  writer of an engaging blog in which he gracefully conveys his boundless enthusiasm for books. Although he may be the youngest and among the most exuberant of the writers on my Blogroll, all of them read and blog as if inspired and frenzied by a God of Reading, whoever that might be.  They are the Bacchantes of the Book World.
Some bloggers write actual reviews, others keep a journal of their notes or impressions (I'm the impressionistic type). Many admit they prefer writing without the pressure of reviewing for newspapers or magazines, a task which entails tact and tempering criticism to be fair, overpraising because one is intimidated by the fame of the writer, or, worse, overemphasizing the flaws because trashing is amusing.  There is less negative “attitude” in the U.S. book pages because space has shrunk to a premium and why waste space on bad books (unless they’re by really famous people)? But I’m constantly shocked by the slash-and-burn reviews in UK newspapers of pretty good books.  In the U.S., book reviewers have begun to adopt a more conciliatory tone.  In the UK, ironically, it is often bloggers who are wishy-washy.  (Sebastian Faulks, in his excellent novel, A Week in December, portrays a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate books--no doubt a writer's nightmare.)
I love to complain about book whores, though I don't really care one way or the other:  some bloggers are one-man-or-woman PR firms.  I watch with fascination as self-referential English bloggers (Americans don’t go in for this so much) make self-congratulatory lists of books they’ve received free from publishers (who cares?) and assure us that all of the many books of which they’ve no doubt read a paragraph or two are excellent.   
In a way I understand them.  If there’s a lot of traffic at one's blog and publishers and writers drop by, it’s embarrassing to remember that one's review might not have been 150 percent positive.  And so one might gradually become a PR flack.
On the other hand, who cares if one blogger reviews and another does PR?  Blogs are personal, self-edited, and free--and can be whatever the bloggers choose!
I’d like to change the name of my blog to Book Whore because I believe I coined the phrase, but as my husband pointed out, I’m not one.  I no longer accept any free books from publishers  because it makes me unhappy to stare at a shelf of books I will probably never read.  There are just too many good books in the world to waste time on the mediocre, especially if one isn't getting paid 

Monday, April 12, 2010

Brenda Peterson, D. H. Lawrence, & Miscellaneous

High on my TBR list is Brenda Peterson's Animal Heart, a novel about a wildlife pathologist's investigation of "an eerie mass stranding of whales and dolphins," according to the cover flap.  And it went to the top of the list today because Brenda Peterson stopped by and left a comment on my review of her new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth. In this charming and innovative memoir, she interweaves an engaging narrative about her upbringing as the daughter of a well-educated fundamentalist forester with thoughts on the origin of her lifelong reverence for animals, her rebellion against religion, and her work as a writer and an environmentalist. Her ideas about disseminating positive pro-active information about ecology are sensible:  many of us emphasize what not to do as opposed to what to do. Thank you for stopping by, Brenda!  In theory I know that some people read my blog, but in reality I don't believe it. You can visit her website at Iwanttobeleftbehind.
We've been bicycling lately because we're having a hot April. The day goes like this:  start with your sweatshirt zipped up and pedal along a trail for a couple of hours to a pretty small town.  By the time you get there it's hot enough to sun oneself in one's shirtsleeves. My bicycling book of the moment is Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, which I carry around in my panniers as my paperback for breaks. Reading Hardy this winter made me think of Lawrence, who considered Hardy the only good writer of the 19th century, if I remember correctly. One of Lawrence's best novels is Sons & Lovers, the story of a miner's son, Paul Morel, who is loved too much by his mother.  The first part of the novel is actually the story of his mother Gertrude's agony as the wife of a drunken miner and her passion for her children.  I'm still reading about Paul's childhood, but I do remember Paul later in the novel is miserable in his teaching job and embarks on an affair with a woman to whom his mother objects.  Freeing himself from his mother is one of the main conflicts of the book.  Typical anti-family-pro-sex-preaching Lawrence!  But the situation is realistic and I understand all too well.  His writing is exquisite and poetic, but I can't read him endlessly.  Hardy is poetic, but less obtrusive. 
April, the cruellest month, is National Poetry Month, so I should be reading T. S. Eliot.  But being a big fan of I, Claudius, I’m reading Robert Graves’ quiet, undemanding poems instead.  The language washes over me, but I don’t have to think (as I do with T. S.). And, weirdly, it reminds me a bit of Lawrence’s.   

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sebastian Faulks

People love or hate Sebastian Faulks. I heard such incredible things about him in the '90s that it led of course to disappointment. Birdsong, declared the 13th most popular novel in Britain in a BBC "Big Read" survey in 2003, let me down when I read it: one of my friends recommended this as a "sexy" novel, had fallen in love with the hero (her own husband was busy managing a hospital and God knows what else), and praised it to the skies. What I noticed about Birdsong was that the affair between the hero and the French woman turned sentimental very quickly.  The man was basically emotionally a woman.  I don't mean the woman was "on top," or anything like that:  I simply mean he was more emotional than the average man.  
But the novel was very well-written--rather as Pat Conroy's are.  Yet there is a point where these two writers deliberately turn away from literary and go pop, though they’re perfectly capable of writing a literary novel.  I like pop novels but World War I romance isn't one of my genres.  So I dismissed this.
To further complicate my feelings toward Faulks, he wrote the new James Bond novel a year or two ago.  Ugh, ugh, ugh!
But his new novel, A Week in December, is exactly my cup of tea.  Reading between the lines of reviews, I knew I would enjoy it.  I love books with ensemble casts of characters, especially when the author takes the time to describe their professions in detail and to a certain extent defines the characters by work.  And Faulks does a convincing job in this novel, set the week before Christmas in 2007, of showing us the characters' attitudes toward work.    
Jenni Fortune loves her job.  She is an Underground Tube driver.  A thoughtful woman who loves books but also plays a complicated internet “virtual reality” game at night, she is tense because a “jumper” was injured on the tracks during her drive.  Ironically, the jumper is suing the railroad, because Jenni couldn’t stop the train in time to avoid hitting him (nor could anyone, and she knows this).  Although the lawyer, Gabriel, explains that she isn’t responsible nor is she being sued, Jenni can’t quite take it in.  Gabriel is a depressive.  He doesn’t care about his job.  He doesn’t understand people who love their work.  And he is interested in Jenni.  She doesn’t fit into the class of people he knows best.  And she is a reader, staring at his Balzac books in his office.
One of the main characters, Veals, is an emotionally dead financier who lives to make semi-legal trades--and Faulks is very detailed in his explication of Veals’ job.  We learn, too, all about his paranoia--he never says anything important in his office, because the place is bugged and his employees could gossip.  He prefers to do his business on an orange phone in an alley.  His son is a dope fiend (well, he smokes a lot of marijuana and has made deals at a pet cemetery).  His wife is appalled by her family.
My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell and is a kind of small-time Veals, who trades on a much smaller level--criticizing literature.   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  He is one of the funniest characters in this novel.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.
None of this interested Tranter.  His years in the business had trained him to go straight to the fiction pages, which he read with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices.  The difference was that Tranter had no investment and no favorite; he didn’t want to see a modest growth, still less a boom.  He was interested only in bad reviews.  Crash was what he wanted:  crash and burn--failure, slump, embarrassment.
See what a good writer he is?  Fluid and precise.  I’m only halfway through this novel but it’s one of the most entertaining I’ve read this year.
Now i’m going to have to go back and read Faulks’ other stuff.  I have read Charlotte Grey and I liked it.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Greensleeves, Library Snaps, and Damned Good Books

"So does Greensleeves do that?" my husband asks.
"Or Green Jeans." 
I'm snapping a picture of my library books. It’s a satisfying stack of library books--the kind of musty out-of-print middlebrow English novels I read for comfort, as well as a book of Elizabeth Bowen's letters.  I gloat over my treasure.  I vaguely register what he has said.  I have no idea who Greensleeves is.  Green Jeans is a character from Captain Kangaroo.
Finally it occurs to me he's talking about bloggers. He persists in believing the bloggers are some kind of virtual reality show. This Greensleeves thing is coming up a lot. Now all women bloggers are known as "Greensleeves" and all men as "Green Jeans."  
“Pictures of library books are a blogger stand-by. It's endemic to the blogging system. You feel like blogging, but haven’t read any books today.  So you take pictures of books.”
“But you’re always reading,” my husband objects. "And does anybody want to see pictures of library books?"
"Sure they do.  They like to see any pictures of books."
Okay.  I admit it.  I’m reading Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December, but I'm not ready to blog about it. His  Birdsong was a great favorite of my friends, but somehow it never appealed to me.  Then I got around to Charlotte Grey, which was a damned good read.  A Week in December, however, is something altogether more--a Hensherish/Drabbleish sociological fictional portrait of London, with a fascinating gamut of characters ranging from a tube driver who loves to read to a financier who barely observes the letter of the law to a drab lawyer to a snotty book reviewer who devotes his reviews to the evisceration of contemporary novelists.  I spent an hour reading it in the car on our way to the university library 40 miles away and could barely tear myself away.
The university library is a great luxury.  If only we could move to the university town!  But it’s too far away for a commute--what’s the point of living in a small city if you’re going to commute the distance you did in the big city?  We haven’t been to this library in a while, because the last time we came we forgot our library cards.  This university library is very fussy.  They won’t accept a driver’s license instead of a library card.  They won’t issue library cards on the spot--they have to vet you, as though you’re Sarah Palin.  (The ghastly Repubs certainly didn’t vet her very well, and thank God for that!)
Checking out books here is very trying.
I didn't quite make it to the American literature section.  My attention wandered here and there in the English stacks, and I was first drawn to this Hogarth Press edition of E. F. Benson's An Autumn Sowing. Not that I've had much luck with Benson.  I love his Lucia novels but have never made it through any of his other books. And I was a bit daunted by John Julius Norwich's daring words in the Introduction.  Brace yourself:
"...indeed, I know of no other novel that reminds me so much of Jane Austen, or that strikes me so forcibly as being exactly the sort of book that she would have written had she lived a century later than she did."  
Hm.  But I decided to let it pass.
A. A. Milne's Two People has been roundly praised by Hannah Stoneham and Stuck in a Book.  Inspired by these two excellent reviewers, I decided to take a chance on this, though I've never had a desire to read Milne's adult books (because I didn't really like Winnie-the-Pooh.  I keep hoping to go back to it, though). Capuchin Classics has reprinted Two People, as I see from jumping over to their reviews.  And their editions are always lovely!
As for Rose Macaulay, I adore her!  Some of her books are good, some are medium, and others are just plain bad, but I like her saucy point of view and took a chance with I Would Be Private.  Going strictly on the Macaulay brand name here.
I was very keen on getting Love's Civil War, the letters and diaries of Elizabeth Bowen and her Canadian lover, Charles Ritchie.  Perhaps this will inspire an Elizabeth Bowen revival.
And that's it!  Tomorrow:  More on Sebastian Faulks.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Madeleine L'Engle and Girls' Lit

I heard Madeleine L'Engle speak at a church when I was in my thirties. Why I didn't take notes I'll never know.  The pews were packed with long, slim white Episcopalians, Quakers, Catholics, agnostics, and atheists in khaki pants and sweaters.  Some were alums of Smith, L'Engle's alma mater; others bore the stamp of Berkeley, the University of Iowa, Northwestern, Stanford, or Wayne State.  
There was murmuring about her books. (Source: my journal, which is mostly full of complaints but occasionally recorded events or my responses.)
Quirky woman:  "I couldn't wait to start menstruating when I read The Moon by Night."
Laughter.  "But stopping was the best thing I ever did."  
I knew what they meant. At 11 I wanted to be like Vicky Austin, the heroine of Meet the Austins and The Moon by Night.  In the latter, Vicky both starts her period and has her first romance during a summer camping trip with her upper-middle-class family. I got the idea that if I started my period I would fall in love.   At our house there was much clamor of  “Mom, can’t we take a camping trip?”  
I didn’t even get an autograph at L'Engle's talk. It was in my anti-celebrity autograph period.  L’Engle projected a demeanor of calm and confidence as she described her career,  the repeated rejection of her Newbery-winning A Wrinkle in Time, and her interest in religion and physics.
A friend wouldn’t allow her child to read A Wrinkle in Time.  She thought it too scary.  This quirky science fiction classic, beloved by me as a child, is an astonishing story not only of three children’s fight for interplanetary peace but also about the essential heroism of misunderstood children whose genius and individuality alienate peers and teachers.  Meg Murray, the daughter of two ethical and liberal scientists, is much disliked because of her social awkwardness; her genius baby brother, Charles Wallace, didn't speak till age four and is considered mentally retarded in the public school system (probably today he would be diagnosed with Aspergers); and Calvin, a basketball star, carefully conceals his brilliance to survive.  On a dark and stormy night, the three are recruited by Mrs. Whatsit to travel to a dark planet to save Mr. Murray, who has been imprisoned by a terrifying giant brain that controls thoughts:  IT.   Conformity is the enemy...and don't we know it?
I treasured A Wrinkle in Time, but I also enjoyed her realistic novels about smart, brooding teenage misfits.  I identified with intense upper-class heroines like Camilla of Camilla, the dweller of a New York City apartment house which has a doorman, a girl excruciatingly embarrassed by her mother's flirtations who luckily meets her soulmate, a handsome teenage boy who takes her on ferry trips.  "We were very tired, we were very merry/We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry."  Camilla introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.  Perhaps Camilla and her boyfriend were an early version of Bella and Edward.
My identification with L’Engles thoughtful, politically green & liberal upper-class characters convinced me that I belonged not to the middle-middle but the upper and catapulted me (eek!) into a marriage to the upper.
Books.  They’ll do that to ya.
At the book sale I recently found a copy of A Live Coal in the Sea, an adult novel which is a 1996 sequel to Camilla.  The cover flap describes it as: “a gripping account of a family’s struggles with loyalty, faith, commitment, and identity.  Its central character is the noted astronomer Dr. Camilla Dickinson, who is married to Macarios Xanthakos (whose father is an Episcopal bishop)...”
I must admit I’ve never done well with L’Engle’s adult fiction--somehow the style has never matched the structure and ideas as adeptly as in her children’s fiction--but I am looking forward to reading it.
I considered rereading Camilla, but I read a few pages at Amazon and thought better of it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, is a breezy page-turner that flirts with philosophy, religion, and psychology.   Goldstein, a philosopher who won my heart years ago with her first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, has the gift of appealing to readers by embedding arguments in characters so smart and charming that you find yourself reading to find out what happens next, even if the most exciting event on the horizon is filling in a chart about game theory or a fast drive to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue with a fussy philosopher in the back seat. Of course some of the ideas are above my head, but I'm willing to spend hours in the company of her smart characters.  The protagonist is Cass Seltzer, the author of a best-selling book on the psychology of religious experience who has become famous overnight as an expert on the "new atheism"  in the post-9/11 era.  Harvard has made him an offer he can't refuse but he hasn't yet managed to tell his girlfriend, Lucinda, a former Princeton professor who was more or less "gamed" out of her prestigious job.
As a burlesque of the academic life, this is both effective and fascinating.  Cass is smart:  but he's also clumsy and appealing. Suddenly he has a shot to get out of Frankfurter University, a mostly Jewish university in Mass., where his mentor, a spectacularly brilliant but insanely absent-minded philosopher-psychologist, Klapper, presided with dictatorial powers over a handful of graduate student groupies. The flashbacks to Cass's graduate school days are a mix of hilarious awe and chaos.   Klapper's lack of a syllabus and indifference to time results in much confusion.  One of the grad students, who seemingly will never finish his dissertation, takes care of all practical details, like unearthing the lone copy of a translated Hebrew text and putting it on reserve at the library.  Klapper must be at the center of attention at all time and not held responsible for anything.  One of the funniest scenes in the whole book is when Klapper is upstaged by a child prodigy during a visit to an intellectual Jewish rabbi and throws a fit.    
Cass's old girlfriend, Roz, shows up while Lucinda is in Germany.  This intrepid anthropologist, who has traveled the world and suddenly shows up at Frankfurter U, now runs an immortality foundation and pops hundreds of pills and powders a day.  Is she here to seduce Cass or to use him?  Time will tell.  200 pages into this novel, there's lots of brilliant talk but little action; but the action is beside the point.

Goldstein writes well--not stunningly--but her characters and their talk are sprightly and interesting.  This is a novel of ideas with a "populist" spin.  Well, at least I'm one of the people and it interests me.

Monday, April 05, 2010


I awoke at 4 a.m. sniffling and coughing, sat up for 20 minutes sucking down a Cold-Eze (with magical properties to fight colds), and realized that Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves felt like an LSD experience. I've never taken LSD--I've avoided hallucinogens like the plague, having too vivid an imagination as it is--but even when I switched to Robert Graves' Homer's Daughter the narrative was developing a mistiness around the edges, and I realized:

Ugh, it's a cold.

My Latin class will have to do a hated sight-reading of Virgil tomorrow, as I'm too tired to expound on the literary aspects of the Aeneid. One grumpy student (I've only got one) is so lost in the mysteries of Wheelock he refuses to read Virgil anyway. My husband says I'm spending way too much time on prep  and this isn't a college class. The literary criticism was swimming before my eyes so I decided he was right.

Here's what I like to do when I have a cold: go to The Spectator website and read Allan Massie's  endearing essays about books. He expounds on a topic in relation to two or three books, not necessarily new, and I end up with a list of fascinating books to order from Amazon someday.

In his most recent column, "Open to the World?" , he identifies two types of novels: "the self-contained novel," impervious to history, like Austen's (well, I don't quite agree with that), and "the open novel," a novel very much defined by history, like Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, set in London during World War II, one of my favorite Bowen novels, and vaguely reminiscent of Graham Greene's stunning The End of the Affair. I think it's very clear that Massie prefers the open novel.

The odd thing is I have never read Allan Massie's books. He's the author of several historical novels, which I've never come across in a bookstore, and am thus not sure that they're in print in the U.S.

What I like about Allan Massie is that he's so not hip! The columns meander and don't necessarily go anywhere particular, but once he wrote about George Meredith, saying he thought we needed a new Meredith biography far more than another Thomas Hardy biography, and as I was reading an old '50s biography of Meredith at the time, I couldn't have agreed more.

So we're kind of kindred spirits, only not really, because I haven't read his books yet.

One of these days I'll order one from Amazon.  This one looks good:  

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Plague of Doves

A few years ago I rode my bike manically downtown through a snowstorm to a book group meeting, eager to discuss Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.  I stomped into the meeting room and sat thawing in front of the fireplace, waiting. No one showed up.  I asked the librarian why and she shrugged.  
Erdrich is one of the best living American novelists and deserves not only book group reverence but also a Nobel Prize along with Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates (since Americans are snubbed, perhaps a three-way split could be arranged).  But I do have a love-hate relationship with Erdrich, because I have difficulty remembering the characters (some of whom appear in several novels).  I am halfway through her remarkable 2008 novel, A Plague of Doves , but I wish there were a genealogy chart to straighten out the relationships between her multiple narrators and their families and ancestors.  This exquisite novelistic tapestry of linked stories depicts the lives of generations of several families loosely related through a racist lynching of Native Americans blamed for the murder of a white family near the Obijwe Reservation in North Dakota in 1911.  The tales are laced with magic realism and poetic dexterity;  Erdrich manipulates her characters back and forth in time with aplomb.  The novel begins with a short sketch, a kind of prologue, "Solo," a bleak description of the crime, shocking and puzzling us for several chapters.  But the first actual chapter begins with a tale known by the narrator, Evelina, through the stories of her grandfather and great-uncle, about a plague of doves like a plague of locusts destroying the fields:  
“In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to parishioners that they should gather at St. Joseph's wearing scapulars and holding missals.  From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step proudly pray away the doves."  

Praying away the doves.  What an image!  Erdrich's books bear rereading and their organization is clear on a second reading.  Even looking back through the book I can see patterns I didn't initially understand.

I hope to reread her early novels this year:  I picked up many at the book sale and expect she will be one of my "main authors" this year.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Reading Aloud in the Age of Twitter

O tempora, o mores!  ("O the times, o the mores!")  Could Cicero possibly have twittered this?
I know how Cicero felt.  I know far too much about how Cicero felt.  He never shut up.  I've read his speeches.  I've read his letters.  He would have been a blogger, not a Twitterer.  
And undoubtedly he would have blogged about the demise of reading aloud.
There was a lot of reading aloud in ancient Rome.   Poetry and prose readings, you know.  An entertainment at dinner parties.  Cicero, Catullus, Cornelius Nepos, and all the boys.  
There's no use moaning about the times. This is the 21st century. It is what it is.  But do you remember reading aloud instead of of e-mail and iThings?  
Reading aloud is something we did when we were young and poor.  Stranded in Veracruz?  Buy the only book in the English bookstore, D. H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent , and read it aloud.  Far out!  (No, I never talked like that.) When you're making $10,000 a year, you don't spend a lot of money on amusements.  The Orchestra or Theater in our thrift-shop dresses and sports jackets?  Hardly.  We went to the beach and read aloud.  
Among our favorite reading-aloud books were the humor books of Betty MacDonald.  Her hilarious memoir, The Egg and I , chronicles her experiences as a chicken farmer.  This  entertained us for several hours over a period of days.  We enjoyed The Plague and I and had a long-standing argument with a humorless librarian about whether we had returned it.  We ended up paying for it.  Well, guess what?    It turned up under the couch.  So it was ours!
A friend of mine told me he recently read aloud Trollope's Miss Mackenzie to his family. They read aloud in the evenings.  Doesn't that sound so, I don't know, Amish?  Very nice, though.  
My husband and I weren't read aloud to much when we were children.  Oh yeah, I did wake up my mother every morning at 5 a.m. and demand that she read to me.  But as soon as I could read myself that stopped.  It never occurred me to ask to be read to after the age of six.
But our teachers read to us and, wow, were those books good!  My fifth-grade teacher had the best taste.   Snow Treasure  by Marie Mcswigan was about a group of Norwegian children during World War II who smuggled gold bouillon out of town on their sleds so the Nazis wouldn't get it.  Then there was Ginger Pye , a Newbery Award winner, about the Pyes' acquisition of an adorable puppy, its disappearance, and their solving the mystery.  And I loved A Spell Is Cast by Eleanor Cameron.  I vaguely envied the displaced heroine because she lived by the sea.
We rediscovered reading aloud as hipster adults.  Was it a trend in the '80s?  I knew other people who read aloud.  One couple read aloud Carol Shields' books before anyone knew who she was.  
The strange thing is I don't have a lot of patience with reading aloud these days.  My husband and I recently resolved to read a short story a week from a 3-volume boxed set of anthologies of several decades of New Yorker stories.  We lasted three weeks.  
Why don't we get back to that?  I just don't know.