Friday, October 29, 2010

The Jolly Experience

"The Class,"an award-winning movie
I'm teaching two adult education classes this fall.  
It is not a career. One teaches these because of a passion for the subject, not for monetary rewards.  I don’t go in 9-5, fill out forms, attend union meetings, or deal with test scores.  My subject was cut long ago from most school curricula.   I talked my way into the adult ed program because I thought academic classes had possibilities.  

But I've had to do my bit quietly.  After my first class last fall, my superintendent was up in arms because I was teaching grammar.  I couldn’t figure out a way to teach a language without grammar, so I went ahead and secretly taught it anyway.   
Vocabulary and grammar are the stuff of life to language teachers.  A certain amount of discipline and analysis is necessary to gain proficiency in a language, and, alas, that particular kind of discipline disappears as cuts to the liberal arts eliminate German, Latin, Russian, and other departments.  Without the study of languages our society loses so much.  The ability to see patterns in words and sentences, to analyze structure and style, to understand other cultures, to discover that some languages very sensibly have words for different kinds of snow, and to enrich one's vocabulary with English derivatives.  Grammar can even influence the way people think.  What happens as we become a society without grammar?  A society that thinks "between you and I" is correct (the correct phrase is "between you and me," because the preposition  "between" takes the direct object),  nominates a book called Who Do You Love for the National Book Award ("Whom" is correct, as it is the direct object of the verb "love"), and says "everybody loves their cars" (the singular form of the possessive adjective", his" or "her," is correct because the possessive adjective refers back to "everybody," a singular form)? 
One of my classes is excellent:  students study, translate, write, and tell me up-front that they want to complete chapters, not do parts.  They understand that a certain amount of boredom and memorization is necessary. Of course, many aren't really bored, are fascinated by grammar, enjoy the readings.  And they do their homework.  It’s not that much, honestly.  But as long as they’re taking a class, they might as well learn something, no?  

 This year the other class, alas, is there to socialize.  I am told that I must put up with it.  They are there to have fun. Don't give homework.  It doesn't matter if they do it.  (But I'm still teaching grammar and...oh no, I'd better not go that route.)
For the first time, I really understand the problem with the public schools.  Standards are kept very low.  Students have a right to be there, regardless of behavior. Instead of raising the level by assuming intelligence, one must assume idiocy. One class can go down the drain because of the incivility of a few.  It's all very well to try to teach an academic subject, but teachers can be kept from teaching by the need to make it  "fun" and to please everybody.  One size fits all--or rather, one size fits none.  

One wonders:  do teachers have the right to teach?  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Zombie Novels

There is some beautiful writing at the beginning of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth:

"My mother used to tell me about the ocean.  She said there was a place where there was nothing but water as far as you could see and that it was always moving, rushing toward you and then away."

As I paged through the first chapter at a bookstore, I was hoping for an all-ages classics, like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.   I decided to buy it.

It is, as a matter of fact, a zombie novel.  No one let me in on this.  Laura Miller in "Fresh Hell," an article in The New Yorker, promoted Ryan's novel as a Y.A. dystopian novel.  She expressed much interest in this new dark trend and speculated that youth today were more alienated than others. (Go figure:  we had Catcher in the Rye, they have zombies.)  Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games made the list, along with Catherine Fisher's Incarceron and James Dasher's The Maze Runner

I enjoyed The Hunger Games and Incarceron, fast, fun novels with likable heroes and heroines and a few real questions about ethics and power,  but Carrie Ryan's formulaic novel is not of that class.  It seemed immediately to escape the author's control, turning into a formulaic zombie movie in book form. Think 28 Days Later crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend--and I am already under the covers.  Except that Mary, the narrator of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, is a rather anemic heroine, trained to use weapons against zombies but essentially too romantic not to lean on boys and breaking down at crucial moments. Ryan doesn't bother much with the style.

The plot is fast.  Mary, the imaginative narrator, grows up in a village surrounded by a fence.  The zombies, known as the Unconsecrated, infect human beings by their bites.  Mary's  mother becomes a zombie on page 7 while Mary is flirting with Harry by the river. Mary becomes an outcast.  The Sisters, a group of secret-loving nuns who know the true history of the world, shelter her for a while after her mother "turns"--her mother chooses to become a zombie rather than to die.  Although Mary is badly treated by the Sisters, she learns that the nuns have contact with the outside and that a young woman named Gabrielle has come in from the outside with news.  Unfortunately, Gabrielle turns into a super-zombie.

if only Ryan had developed the link between Mary and Gabrielle.  Mary very much identifies with this girl-turned-unconsecrated, but, like so much of this book, it leads nowhere.  The book itself goes nowhere.  On the last page, in the middle of an adventure, the book ends.  We have no choice but to buy Book 2 if we want to know what happened to Mary.

This is like a serialized novel of the 19th century, only I paid $9.99 for it and was expecting an ending.  Not even an attempt to wrap it up.

Sorry, can't support this.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A New Doctor Zhivago

Today I got out and rode my bike for three hours, was caught in the rain, but returned relaxed after riding in the country. Enjoy the autumn while you can:  the tree in the back yard is bare, the trees in our front yard are still orange, but it's only a matter of time before the cold sets in.  It snowed a year ago Friday.  Soon there will be no more bicycling:  just weekend after weekend of reading Russian novels. 

I didn't get dressed yesterday because I was reading the new translation of Doctor Zhivago. Consider my enthusiasm equal to that generated by Obama's recent visit to a house in my neighborhood.  I couldn't get dressed for that event, either, meaning that I didn't go. But I got psyched at B&N last week over a new translation of Boris Pasternak's masterpiece by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, award-winning translators.  OhmyGod--and I couldn't buy the book, either, because I was already carrying too many packages for my bike pannier.  But a copy managed to appear in the house.  No protests from my husband, either.

The previous English translation of Doctor Zhivago by Manya Harari and Max Hayward came out in 1958.  It was done in haste after the international excitement fueled by Pasternak's winning the Nobel Prize for his Soviet-banned novel, which was first published in Italy in 1957 and banned in Russia until 30 years later.  Pasternak accepted the Nobel by telegram and then had to decline, pressured by the Soviet Union.  His son finally picked up the prize for him in 1989. 
Doctor Zhivago is both a page-turner--I can read this the way others read John Grisham--and a poetic masterpiece.  I am rapt over many passages in this new translation. Here's Yuri's observation of a foul day in autumn.
“The rain poured down most disconsolately, not intensifying and not letting up, despite the fury of the wind, which seemed aggravated by the imperturbability of the water being dashed on the earth. Gusts of wind tore at the shoots of the wild grape vine that twined around one of the terraces.  The wind seemed to want to tear up the whole plant, raised it into the air, shook it about, and threw it down disdainfully like a tattered rug.”
Here is the same passage in the Harari-Hayward translation:
“The rain poured with a dreary steadiness, neither hurrying nor slowing down for all the fury of the wind, which seemed enraged by the indifference of the water and shook the creeper on one of the houses as if meaning to tear it up by the room, swinging it up into the air, and dropping it in disgust like a torn rag.”
Actually I like both translations. The new one is  more elegant, the old one more concise.  Those who feel Pasternak just won the Nobel for political reasons--my husband tells me that’s the general view--may be very interested in this new, fuller version of Doctor Zhivago.
More later. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Siberia, Lucky to Be Here, and P.S.

Don't get up.  I'm writing this in lounge position.  See all those pillows?  I'm pretending I'm Oblomov.   Every time my husband sees me, he says, "You're still in your pajamas."  Yup.  There are days like this.  You read and sip tea and finally jump into your shoes just to go downstairs and do the laundry. Then you recline again. I was supposed to make squash soup, but in the end I didn't feel up to it. 
I have four books going, three of which are classics, and I'll report on them later.  One is a real classic (NOT Madame Bovary; I've already given up on that, and, alas, find Lydia Davis's translation even clumsier than Alan Russell's); a 1980s novel by a Big Name; and one extremely good contemporary novel by a little-known English writer.  The fourth, alas, I can't recommend:  a Y.A. paranormal romance I was suckered into buying after it somehow got the lead review on the L.A. Times Books Webpage.  

Because of my susceptibility to well-reviewed bad books, I've begun a moratorium on book-buying.  I'm lighting a candle and flashing the peace sign to publishers in hopes that they'll "release" better books next year.
But here are some books, recommended by various reivewers, that I do want to read.  Perhaps they're good.  

1. Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. We love Sandy Frazier's books. He's intelligent, funny, and does good research.  Of course, he doesn't know us, but we call him "Sandy" because I interviewed him once and that seemed to be his name.  I obtained his autograph on a copy of Family, a memoir of growing up in Hudson, Ohio, combined elegantly with his family history, which I highly recommend.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle,  "Frazier was in his early 40s when he became 'infected' with a love for Russia. (He is now 59.) After meeting the Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Frazier became friends with Melamid and his wife, Katya. They invited him to accompany them on a 1993 trip to Moscow - their first trip home after a 15-year exile - and Frazier found Moscow to be merely a gateway drug to Siberia, where he would return time and again over subsequent years, like a hopeless years, like a hopeless addict. "At what point can you say you have traveled in Siberia enough?" he writes.

2.  Keith Richards's Life.  I didn't know who Keith Richards was till I heard that a friend of a friend had had an affair with him. I love the Rolling Stones, never followed any rock stars' lives, and didn't know any of their names (except Mick). I am, however, interested in the survival thing after the deaths of so many:  Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, Kurt Cobain, and surely one of the Rolling Stones. In the Martin Scorsese film about the Rolling Stones, Richards said he felt lucky to be here.  (And don't I know what he means, in a different way?)

The New York Times  says: "He’s been through quite a lot of phases. And they’re all on the page in “Life”: the Boy Scout (really); the tyro rocker; the lovestruck kid (mad for Ronnie Spector, unbeknownst to Phil Spector); the astonished new star; the heroin-addicted older one; the jaded veteran of countless world tours; and the longtime sparring partner of Mick Jagger....All of this is recounted with straight-up candor, and some of it is easily sensationalized. But the book’s single biggest stunner is a hand-written note on its jacket flap: 'Believe it or not, I haven’t forgotten any of it.'”  I'm quite a bit kinder to memoirs than I am to paranormal romances, so I might like it.  

3.  P.S.  Iowa City, UNESCO City of Literature, celebrates Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the UI Russian program this month.  You can attend a public reading of Anna Karenina by the fountain downtown Oct. 27-30, Wed. and Th. 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.  There are also many, many other events, like a staged reading of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and an exhibit of Mauricio Lasansky's "Tolstoy."  I'm cyber-inviting A Work in Progress (who inspired me to reread AK last spring) and Dovegreyreader might as well come, too, since she's reading War and Peace.  I don't live in Iowa city, but it's a lovely town.

Book Giveaway

"Any books to give away?"  That's my husband speaking. He needs stamps, and if there's one sure-fire way to get them, it's to do our cyber-trading of books for stamps.
I have two books to give away.
1.  Saki's The Unbearable Bassington.  I enjoyed this novel, reviewed here, but it it's included in my Complete Saki.  So my lovely Capuchin copy is available. 
2.  Connie Willis's Doomsday Book, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards.  This very popular science fiction book is about time travel to the Middle Ages and a faulty time machine.  Most loved it; honestly, I only read half.  

If you'd like one of these, leave your first name and the title of the book in a comment.  I'll do the drawing on Monday, but if you're the only one then the book is yours.  The book is free, but you'll reimburse me for the postage.  

Bonam fortunam!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?

Reading Trollope is like finding a secret treasure.  One wants to share it, but Trollope's very smoothness and modern ease of style masks his subtle brilliance and sometimes renders him mundane in the eyes of the uninitiated.  He is neither Dickens nor Hardy, lacking the former's baroque style and the latter's gloomy poeticism, but his novels are beautifully-written page-turners.   People are vaguely aware that Trollope wrote "classics," but Barchester Towers is the only one universally stocked at bookstores.   So who reads Anthony Trollope?  
Numbers of people online participate in discussions of Trollope.  There are approximately 550 members of two separate Trollope groups at Yahoo, Trollope19thCStudies,  run by Ellen Moody, and Trollope, founded by Elizabeth Thomsen. For those who believe he is not worth reading, these  groups of enthusiasts will strive to change your mind.

At the excellent website,, there is more evidence of reading.  4,756 people have participated in a poll about their favorite Trollope book.  The results?
31.6% Barchester Towers
12.5% Doctor Thorne
13.4% Can You Forgive Her?
16.7% Phineas Finn
10.5% The Way We Live Now
15.3% Dr Wortle's School 

It is a bit of an odd list, but I voted for Can You Forgive Her? And it is about Can Your Forgive Her? I want to write today.  

This will almost surely be my desert island novel.  It's very rare for me to want to start rereading a book the minute I reach the end.  Yet I feel I can't spend too much time in the company of heroines who can't forgive themselves: Alice Vavasour loves her Independence so much that she jilts John Grey, primarily because she can't face living in the country and hopes to support liberal politics; Kate Vavasour, Alice's cousin, who undermines Grey and tries to push Alice into a marriage to her brother, George, who is running for Parliament and needs Alice's money; and  Glencora Palliser, perhaps the wittiest and most original,  coerced by her family to marry a man she doesn't love, Plantaganet Palliser, but standing up for herself afterwards.

Known as one of six political novels, the first book of the Pallisers series, Can You Forgive Her?, is mostly about love.  But it also deals quite candidly with politicians who cannot handle their personal lives and who treat women badly.  The charming George Vavasour wants Alice's money. He is running for Parliament and can't raise all he needs for the campaign.  Some years earlier, he and Alice had been engaged.  She broke it off after he had an affair with another woman.  But now that she has broken her engagement to John Grey, he decides to take another shot.  His sister, Kate, who loves them both dearly, is a full-time campaigner for this marriage.

George's relationship with Alice is frightening.  She agrees to marry him, liking the idea of staying in London and being a political force.  But it soon becomes clear that he cares only about the money and when he becomes angry he physically abuses her.  Later, in another fight about money, he breaks his sister Kate's arm.  The two women are shocked, terrified, and  break off their relationships with him.  Alice cannot forgive herself for having broken with John Grey, and Kate cannot forgive herself for having brought George back together with Alice.

Plantaganet Palliser, the husband of Lady Glencora, a distant cousin of Alice,  is also a politician.  Unlike George, he is not abusive.  He is simply cold.  The relationship with Glencora means nothing to him except in terms of politics and insofar as she may be the mother of the heir.  Parliament is his whole life.  He is an up-and-coming young politician.  But Glencora longs for Burgo, the young scapegrace whom her family had prevented her marrying, and it is not until Plantaganet is forced to confront this fact that her love for Burgo is real that he finally changes his manner and courts his wife.  

Trollope's women in Can You Forgive Her? are strong and fascinating.  Oddly, the men are gray.  Even John Grey, Alice's lover, though handsome and decent, seems a bit lacklustre, and it is easy to see how she mistook George's vivacity and humor for kindness and love.  

This novel is beautifully written and compelling.  A perfect book for Trollope "newbies" to start with.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Writing on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's novel, The Writing on the Wall, escaped my radar in 2005. There was a flurry of 9/11 literature:  Ian McEwan's  Saturday and Jay McInerney's The Good Life, both of which were stunning and sad, and many, many more I didn't read.  
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I was tired of the incessant chronicles of the event.  A zillion and one journalists wrote books.  All that TV jingoism.  The televised concert for the firemen.  Yes, Paul McCartney, Bon Jovi, and the Who.  Writers expressing their reactions in The New Yorker.  
But novelists often tell the truth in a more effective way than journalists, and I was finally ready to read Schwartz.
In Schwartz's superb novel, the main character, Renata, has an emotional breakdown after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center. Renata is a librarian-translator who has kept emotions under wraps for years.  Her twin sister, Claudia, died when they were teenagers after the uncle with whom she had had an illegitimate baby left her to drown in the river.  A few years later Renata's father committed suicide.  Then her mother went into a mental hospital.
Renata, the sole (sane) survivor of the family, was left literally holding the baby, her sister's illegitimate daughter, who had been given away informally to a mobster couple.  When the couple had to run from the police, they left the baby with Renata, who was working as a barmaid in New York.
Something so terrible happened after that that I'll spare you. The trauma explains much about Renata.  But the point of the 9/11 disaster is that Renata's quiet life finally explodes, and her carefully edited presentation of herself to Jack, her boyfriend, falls apart.  The lacunae in her confidences become apparent when her exaggerated attachment to a few needy children in the aftermath of the event--an orphaned baby and a lost girl who cannot speak--underscores her mourning.  The terrifying disaster deranges her.
Of course the plot is not all.  It is Schwartz's skillful, lyrical writing that makes this novel compelling.  She manages to describe the terrorism in an understated style that conveys the shock and the horror.  And she shows us Renata's metamorphosis--the turning of her mind inside-out during the horror--from a controlled woman obsessed with language to a sad person who briefly loses her sanity.
"After the pillar of smoke came a hurricane of paper.  The sky rained paper, and later some of the papers would be picked up as relics and sorted out--office memos, bills, jottings, computer printouts, resumes, stock reports, the daily menu of corporate life mingling with private scrawled hieroglyphics--while other papers would be left lying in the ash to devolve back to pulp under trampling feet and the wheels of sanitation trucks.  Any other day the papers would have been a treasure trove for Renata, with her collections of linguistic artifacts, of demotic speech, examples of brain and tongue company.  But not today.  Not hurricane day."
Schwartz is one of our best contemporary novelists.  Perhaps her work is overlooked because it doesn't employ the pyrotechnics of Jonathan Lethem (actually my favorite American writer) or the poeticism of Marilynne Robinson.
But I do urge you to look her up.  My favorite of her novels is Disturbances in the Field.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Translations and a Note

I cannot translate Catullus, nor can anybody.  Peter Green's bilingual edition, published by University of California in 2006, is the best I've seen, but Green was smart to include the Latin.  Although one can find readable translations of Virgil and Ovid, Catullus's lyric poetry must be read in Latin.  The flexible Latin word order defines the tone and meaning. Latin words can be placed anywhere in the sentence; only the endings change to show the sense.  These effects can't be duplicated in English, which depends on a rigid word order. The two languages are like oil and water. 
Catullus was one of the Novi Poetae--"new poets" of the first century B.C.--who brought the Greek meters of lyric poets such as Callimachus and Sappho into Latin literature.  His poems were short and personal, as opposed to the  historical epics favored by earlier Romans.  And his friend Cornelius Nepos, a biographer who apparently did something similarly radical in prose (his lost book Chronica was three volumes), encouraged him.
Here is my literal translation of Catullus 1, the dedication.  I tried whenever possible to duplicate the word order.  
"To whom do I present the elegant new littlebook* [*one word in Latin]
polished just now by a dry pumice?
Cornelius, to you, for you were accustomed 
to think my trifles were something,
when you alone of the Italians dared
to explain all time in only three volumes.
These volumes were learned--by Jupiter!--and laborious.
So take for yourself whatever or what kind of a little book this is. And, O protectress Muse, may it last longer than a single age."
How on earth does one convey the sound, playfulness, and double meanings of words? Libellum (meaning little book), placed at the end of the first line, describes the size but certainly not the quality.  It is a charming false modesty, which the reader appreciates.  His poems are dazzling.  Expolitum (meaning "polished" or 'smoothed") falls at the end of the next line, and refers both to the smoothing of the ends of the scroll and to polishing the style.  The phrase arido modo pumice precedes expolitum, and means literally "by a dry just now pumice."  The "just now" between the adjective and noun indicates just how fresh the process is.  Catullus wants us to think this poetry is tossed off but he also admits it is polished.  He also refers to it as nugas--trifles.
And what of the two lines, Quare habe tibi quidquid hod libelli/qualecumque, quod,... ("So take for yourself whatever and what kind...")  What can one do with all the q's?  
  Those of us who have taken comp lit classes have agonized over translation.
That's why I'm heartened by the translation of prose classics.  The new translation of Dr. Zhivago by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is available today in bookstores.    I was excited to see it, but I was simply so laden with packages that I couldn't fit it into my bike pannier. I have the old translation in a beautiful Everyman edition--hastily done, according to Pevear--and it has always been one of my favorite books. Pevear and Volokhnosky have a good track record.  I love their translation of Anna Karenina, though the Maude translation is even dearer to my heart.
I am looking forward to reading Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary. There has been a surge of online enthusiasm for Flaubert, and the new Bovary was even promoted in Book Page, the free paper.  The edition is beautiful, with a detailed historical and literary introduction and notes, and Davis'  note on translation is fascinating: she looked long and hard at eleven other translations. My husband has read Madame Bovary in French and was not impressed, but perhaps I'll finally understand the fine prose of Flaubert.  I'm hoping that Lydia Davis will come through for me in a way that other translators have not done.
NOTE:  Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently recommended The Aeneid as a favorite book.  I don't have a Facebook page and I've never really understood what it's for, but I was thrilled that he mentioned The Aeneid in an interview in The New Yorker.
My students, however, were more cynical.  They know Facebook, know his reputation, and seemed to think it was some kind of PR trick.
The New Yorker asked Zuckerberg about Ender's Game, a sci-fi novel he had recommended elsewhere as one of his favorites.  He said:
“...there are definitely books—like the Aeneid—that I enjoyed reading a lot more."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Five Books I'm Inspired to Read

Since I'm busy finishing an excellent novel at the moment (Lynne Sharon Schwartz's The Writing on the Wall), I decided I'd eschew a review tonight and post a quick blog instead about five books I want to read, inspired by two excellent bloggers and three newspaper reviewers.  Of course I don't have any of these books, so I can't start them tomorrow. And I should cut up my credit cards so I can't start them the next day, either.

1.  Nonsuch Book is hosting a discussion of Lydia Davis's new translation of Madame Bovary.  Since Nonsuch is neither a gusher nor a publicist, we can probably trust her take on MB.  I've already read two translations of Flaubert's novel, and though I don't share Nonsuch's enthusiasm--I'm definitely more an Anna Karenina person--I am game to try Davis' translation as soon as I've finished Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?  
2.  Guy Deutscher's Through the Looking Glass:  Why the World Looks Different in Different Languages, reviewed in The Washington Post.  "Guy Deutscher confidently asserts that a language influences how its users perceive the world. The book is a thrilling and challenging ride, and in the end you may find yourself agreeing with Frenchman Étienne de Condillac that 'each language expresses the character of the people who speak it.'"
3.  Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, reviewed in The Spectator.  This humorous memoir of his walks in Canada, Britain, and the West Coast of the U.S. annoys the reviewer.  He complains of an imaginary talk with Scooby-Doo, and perhaps that is going too far, since I don't exactly know who Scooby-doo is.  But I'm a fan of Self, I enjoyed The Butt and How the Dead Live, and we once drove 2 hours to a reading in Iowa City only to find it was canceled.  
4. Roald Dahl's Boy and Going Solo, reviewed by Reading Copy Book Blog, the blog of Abebooks.  "The two books document his own childhood at boarding school as well as his time working in East Africa for Royal Dutch Shell and flying with the RAF out of North Africa in WWII."  I'm very fond of Dahl's short stories and look forward to trying his autobiographies.
5.  Andrea Kremer's Nightshade, reviewed by The L.A. Times.  "Although "Nightshade" is likely to be devoured by Twi-hards, there's a lot more to enjoy about this new series debut from young adult author Andrea Cremer than weak-kneed romanticism and its similarities to the vampires-and-werewolves blockbuster."  I liked the Twilight books and would probably enjoy this.  I have, however, some other science fiction and fantasy novels to read first.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Trollope, Saki, and Who Else?

Today I went on a beautiful walk around a perfectly calm lake, and by the time I got home had recovered my will to read.  I have been immersed in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?--a breathtaking classic about politics and love--and have just reached the point where Burgo determines to run off with Lady Glencora.  Glencora loves Burgo, but wants to avoid behaving badly to her husband, Plantaganet Palliser, a member of Parliament who expresses no love for her.  Their marriage, which Glencora was pressured to make, was purely political and advantageous for the two great families.
More on this later.
Last night I finished Saki's The Unbearable Bassington, a 1912 novel reissued by Capuchin Classics.
If you've never understood the point of Saki's clever stories, and I have tried to read them in vain, The Unbearable Bassington is the place to start.  This fascinating satire of Edwardian England combines the best elements of Saki's short stories--the depiction of the effete hero, the casual badinage of drawing rooms, and the surprising turns of plot--with a more detailed delineation of characters and perhaps a more complex structure.  Saki is a predecessor of Firbank, Noel Coward, and Evelyn Waugh:  Waugh happens to write the preface for this elegant edition of the 1912 novel.
The novel centers on the materialistic but charming Francesca Bassington's determination to marry off her ne'er-do-well son, Comus, to an heiress. She is in danger of losing her gorgeous drawing room:  the house has been bequeathed to her only until her niece marries, and the manipulation of Comus is her only hope.  If only her niece would never marry!  And if only Comus would behave!  We meet the cruel Comus at boarding school, where he is a prefect and deliberately punishes a new student for nonexistent infractions again and again.  As an adult, he is witty, attractive, and presumably kinder, but indifferent to people's feelings, pressuring Elaine, the woman he loves and who loves him, to pay his debts, and ignoring her irritation, which inevitably leads her into another's arms. Of course, when we read a chapter from Elaine's point of view, we are startled by her cruelty and shallowness. Courtney Youghal, the politician who has won her, is even more selfish than Comus:  after their  marriage, there is no warmth, and Elaine despairs.  Francesca cruelly rejects Comus after he fails to marry Elaine.  In short, there are no good people in Saki's world.  And when all is said and done, Comus himself turns out to be the best, because he is totally without pretence and accepts his failures.  
The style is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's--all the wit but fortunately less preciousness.  I enjoyed this so much that I am now eager to read his short stories--well, some of them anyway.  There are many collections of Saki, and you can also read him online at Gutenberg.  

Who next?  I'm on a roll here...let's hope I find some more classics.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What Is My Time Worth?

I've spent a despairing two weeks with Mary Helen Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.  My new system is to browse at B&N, Borders, Amazon, and the local icy independent store and select new novels which haven't been reviewed yet.  I was damned if I was going to read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom or Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story after the pre-publication party heralded them as masterpieces. Franzen doesn't need my review, and my husband has delivered a blow-by-blow commentary on Super Sad.  (I probably will like Shteyngart, though, because it sounds vaguely science fiction-y and I'm the one in the family who likes that).
Here's the problem with reading books we dislike:  what is our time worth?
Mary Helen stefaniak
I should have known better than to try The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. I read part of it at the store and rejected it as poorly-written, but it made the September Indie Next List, and I was in the mood to read a corny teaching story. The first 200 pages are charming, if you suspend disbelief in Miss Spivey, an eccentric, moody, liberal new teacher who arrives in Threestep, Georgia, in 1938 and changes everyone's lives forever. Yes, that alone would be enough to put me off under normal circumstances.  A completely unreliable character, Miss Spivey introduces the class to the unexpurgated Arabian Nights and alienates some of the conservative students, talks constantly of her travels to Baghdad, plans a Baghdad Bazaar for the school, and then brings "Negro" children into her school one day, apparently determined to get fired.   Although she is fondly remembered by the dogged narrator, 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff, she is disliked by many:  Mavis Davis, a religious student who hates Miss Spivey, tattles on her inappropriate relationship with a student, Gladys's teenage brother. Then Miss Spivey, upset by the promulgation of her betrayal of trust, disappears during the bazaar; the novel, however, rambles on, and Miss Spivey's influence is long-lasting. May, Gladys's sister, tells a never-ending camel story she learned from Miss Spivey--a long tale that is supposed to mirror the structure one of the Thousand and One Nights.  Finally I skipped 50 pages to the last chapter because it became clear I would have to do the editing that was somebody's job at Norton.  Why can't mediocre books be limited to 200 pages?  
Stefaniak's book is okay, but not good enough for me. This is the kind of book that might appeal, say, to an Oprah reader. Her writing is simple and a bit ham-handed, and the attempt to see the world through the eyes of a Southern child detracts from any semblance of realism.  Gladys isn't Scout, and Stefaniak isn't Harper Lee.  Stefaniak also adds a dash of Miss Jean Brodie:  Miss Spivey is extremely unlikable, but perhaps that's because she is so vain.  
Here's what my husband and I have been wondering:  why do we finish books we dislike, bowing to the expertise of editors who are afraid to edit, edit poorly, or accept the books through the patronage system.  Couldn't better books be published?

Another thing: I do feel I was led astray by blurbs on the back of the book. If you can't trust Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Clyde Edgerton, whom can you trust?  Of course they're probably all friends, so what can you do?

P.S.  The best thing that has come out of this is that I've ordered a book by Lynne Sharon Schwartz I missed.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Eleanor Cameron's A Spell Is Cast

I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair reading Eleanor Cameron's A Spell Is Cast.  Eleanor Cameron is a children's author, best known for her Mushroom Planet series, but her realistic novels, the most famous of which is A Room Made of Windows, are my favorites.  I especially have wonderful memories of A Spell of Cast, one of the remarkable novels my fifth-grade teacher read aloud to us.  Mrs. Scott loved reading, and I am awed by her taste as I think back.  We were mesmerized by Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Treasure, A Long Way to Go, Ginger Pye, and Rascal.  She was a young woman with brown pouffy hair and heavily made-up eyes, who wore shirtdresses and other '60s fashions we admired. She was very quiet, but looking back, her reading aloud had an intense influence on me.  I have only to open A Spell Is Cast to recapture warm, rainy afternoons, with the windows open, and that muddy scent that is  redolent of storms in the midwest.  And of course I could never wait for Mrs. Scott to finish the novels before I read them myself. I usually ran over to the public library and checked them out.
A Spell Is Cast is the story of Cory Winterslow's stay with her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in California.  Her adoptive mother, Stephanie Van Heusen, an actress, tours constantly and has left Cory with a series of hired helps.  But during this tour, she has sent Cory to California, and Cory has looked forward eagerly to being part of a family. She is intensely disappointed when Uncle Dirk, who has written charming letters, doesn't show up at the airport.  This is one of the first of her adventures. A neighbor gives her a ride part of the way home, and when they run out of gas, a boy her own age, Peter, leads her on a short cut across the beach. A storm breaks and they shelter in a cave.  At home she learns that her mother sent the wrong date to her family and that they had expected her tomorrow.  And she learns from her grim grandmother that Stephanie has never legally adopted her, which is a blow.  
The Van Heusen relatives have many family secrets.  During a long dream sequence when Cory has a fever--have I ever read a dream sequence in another children's book?--she finds herself in a music room where there is a chess set with carved unicorns instead of horses.  It turns out later that this part of the long dream is true.  It is atmospheric moments like this that made this novel such an intense experience when I was young.
The descriptions of the beach made me quite desperately want to leave the midwest, and I spent many vacations at the beach as an adult.  
"...Cory explored the whole beach, keeping a watch on Peter's house to see if she might catch sight of him, but he did not appear.  Gradually, she began humming to herself as she searched for treasures.  She found a small bleached bird's skull, ivory-colored and perfect and not in the least fragile.  She found a curiously shaped piece of driftwood with peaked shells clinging to it, and another shell among a pile of seaweed.  It was oval, like a little saucer, a rough, dull greeny-yellow, the precise color of the seaweed to which it was stuck.  But when she finally managed to pry it off and turn it over, she discovered that on the inside it was glistening smooth as glass, pearly around the outside and with a pool of rich color in the center like frozen sea water."
It has been a real pleasure to reread this.  It is out-of-print, but it seems to me that there is plenty here to captivate readers.  A Room Full of Windows is a somewhat better book, but this is the one I love.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

De gustibus non est disputandum

It's been a strange year for the Booker Prize: there was a betting scandal, but other than that nobody seemed especially excited. Dovegreyreader didn't review the longlist and what were we to do without a female point of view? It was a loss to the publishers not to have her reading along. I noticed less raucousness among Booker bloggers this year--nobody can seriously regard Kevin from Canada or Asylum as rowdies--and there were fewer big names on the shortlist.  I enjoyed Peter Carey's novel, but neglected to read the others on the shortlist, having eliminated three of the longlisted novels with the usual strangled "De gustibus non est disputandum."  
There's been much ado about Howard Jacobson's novel being the first comic novel to win the Booker Prize.  Fortunately, Jacobson pointed out in an interview with The Guardian that this was not true. "Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils won in 1986. That was comic. Even Salman Rushdie [who won with Midnight's Children] knows he is writing in the comic tradition of Rabelais and Cervantes." 
The National Book Award finalists have also been announced today. The fiction finalists are:
Nicole Krauss's Great House
Lionel Shriver's So Much for That
Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America
Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule
Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel
Perhaps I'll read one or two of these, but I've read so many contemporary books lately that I am longing for the classics. 

Memento Mori

If you are a Latin teacher, perhaps you teach the expression memento mori to your students. This reminder of mortality means nothing to most of them. Indeed, laughter sounded through the classroom as I translated the Latin tag, "Remember you must die." We don't think a lot about death, and as I absent-mindedly looked at the Latin, I realized that the gray-haired would ignore it, the dyed would deny it, and those with natural hair color would believe it never could happen to them. 
Muriel Spark, a Catholic writer, knew death would come. In her brilliant novel, Memento Mori, she eerily links a group of elderly recipients of anonymous phone calls which remind them they must die. Dame Lettie Colston, the first to receive the call, is outraged. She notifies the police and, when her brother, Godfrey, asks what the caller said, she replies, 
"The same thing. And quite matter-of-fact, not threatening. Of course the man's mad.... It's been going on for six weeks now."

"Just those words?" 
"Just the same words--Remember you must die--nothing more."

Eventually, all of the elderly characters in this black comedy receive the memento mori phone call. Although Godfrey, an intolerant octogenarian who despises his sweetly senile wife, Charmian, once a famous writer, does not like to think about death, he attends many funerals. And at the funeral of his former mistress, Lisa Brooke, he becomes determined to hire Lisa's attractive housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew, as a caretaker for Charmian. This is one of many false steps that leads to his downfall: confusing Mrs. Pettigrew's face-lifted tautness with beauty and her cruelty with pragmatism, Godfrey becomes vulnerable to blackmail.  And when he receives the phone call, Mrs. Pettigrew pretends to believe he is senile.  She, on the other hand, denies she received one:  she doesn't want anyone to know her age.   But the calmness of Godfrey's wife, Charmian--she is polite to Death on the phone--and the similar tranquility of Taylor, her former maid, now in a nursing home, reflect a kind of wisdom that is wrought of everyday realism and Catholic faith.  
Spark's glittering, terse prose is reminiscent of Ivy Compton-Burnett crossed with Patrick Hamilton.  There are no awkward words, there is no sentimentality, and  the precisely chiseled characters are completely realistic.