Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zero Spending: Why I Can't Do It: Coffee & Books

Zero spending! I love the proposition. I admire radical groups of non-consumers who vow not to spend money for an entire year.

Can I get through a single day without spending? No.

I spent $1.60 today on a cup of coffee and it was entirely worth it. The cinnamony warm atmosphere of the coffeehouse, the kindness of the barista (who made a special blend for me because I was in too great a hurry to wait for a new pot), and the group of long-haired Peggy Fleming figure-skater types and half-shaved barbarian lads who mill around the latte station, laughing. I drank my coffee at leisure outside in the sun. Remember that story in The Martian Chronicles where it rains every day and a bullied boy is locked in a closet in school during the only hour of sunshine in several years? Well, that's how I feel about the sun. I can't miss a minute of it. If only I lived in the South! North Carolina, anywhere. My skin is dry and itching from the eternal winter, fifteen-inch banks of snow intimidatingly line the sidewalks, and a cold miasma rises from the snowbanks. Zero consumerism in coffee is impossible this time of year, because it warms me up.

Books: now there's an area I could save on. Zero spending! But would that be a good thing? Aren't booksellers and publishers THE most important people to support? And don't they need somebody like me to buy books? I own stacks and stacks of books. Do I want to read Plutarch's Lives? Or The Picture of Dorian Grey? Or perhaps Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna? They're all right here, people!

I buy a LOT of books.

I'm not like dovegreyreader or random jottings of an opera--bloggers who announce their packages of free books almost daily and apparently get thousands of readers every day to whom they can SELL the books (though my husband, who is very funny about blogging, suggests the thousands of readers they get are themselves clicking on their blog over and over. He thinks blogs are worthless)!

I can't accept free books: I don't know what to do with them. I have a huge stack of books from a very good publisher who were kind enough to supply me last summer. I didn't expect so many books--and they haunt me. I've reviewed three or four. I stare at them gloomily from time to time, wondering if I'll ever get around to them. And then I realize, scandalized, that I should probably send them back. But they're review copies, and it's too late now. One feels like such a whore when one writes a paragraph or two about the book, not reading it, but just doing a little publicity. I'm writing a book journal, not running a book news bureau. But perhaps I should do some of those paragraphs because I ACCEPTED the books. Or I could write a review of one of them for a small mag I used to write for. They're printing shorter and shorter reviews, so it COULD work out.

I can't even read all the books I've bought, and these are generally the books I really want to read. So zero spending is not the way for me to go in books. I'm committed to the rich selection on my coffee table.

As for zero spending, I've got it down in one area: Isn't it better to spend zero on clothes than zero on books? That's my current practice. A couple of pairs of black jeans and I'm fine.

So let's do zero spending on fashion and call it a day!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Science Fiction Week

It's Science Fiction Week.

That's what I'm calling it. It's been a while since I've had the luxury of reading SF. And what better time of year for it? There are 10 inches of snow out there, you've been jumping over humps of snow at corners all winter, and you may have had a crying jag looking at snow at the Olympics.

And a luxury SF is. Get psyched for the big event. All those paperbacks and book club editions you've collected at sales can finally be brought into play. Read a few pages of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy: has it stood the test of time? How about that Peter S. Beagle novel you've been meaning to read since you cackled at and were sympathetic with Lila the Werewolf? Isn't Clifford A. Simac one of the greatest American SF writers ever? Maybe you'll try The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Much recommended in Britain, but I don't actually have it, and it costs a fortune at Amazon.

Obviously, you won't have time to read them all--it's only a week, which might mean you can read a book, maybe two if they're slim.

I've begun reading my first SF book of the week, Kit Whitfield's In Great Water, a beautifully written novel about vicious mermaids and besieged human beings, or deepsmen and landsmen, in a Venice of some alternative history. After the deepsmen attack the landsmen again and again, the landsmen make a treaty involving the intermarriage of the races. Which leads to problems after a while. But the novel starts in medias res, with the abandonment of a weak child by his mermaid mother.

PREPARATIONS FOR SF WEEK: I got a geek haircut so I wouldn't cheat, rush around outdoors, or go back to the classics. It's better to have an SF haircut than Spock ears. This is the haircut, frozen into some psychedelic software that does give it a bit of an SF feeling. Four heads with identical haircuts, against a scene of leafy wallpaper. I don't know how I got four heads. Four heads, zero choices.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games was a YA sensation in 2008. I'm too old for YA books, but I have a friend who reads them, and she earmarked this as exceptionally entertaining. And so it is. If you liked Twilight--well, maybe if you didn't like Twilight-- you might enjoy this science fiction thriller. Set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. called Panem (meaning "bread"--a reference to the Roman panem et circenses, and also to the starvation of the masses), it is the spellbinding story of Katniss, a 16-year-old girl who takes care of her family in District 12 through hunting and black-market trading after her father dies in a mining accident. She is serendipitously beautiful, but not flirtatious or feminine, and enjoys the company of a handsome boy, Gale, and the friendship of many, because she is athletic and active (but this is not a Twilight romance: she is more like an Amazon, not the least in love).

Katniss' life is turned topsy-turvy when her younger sister Prim's name is drawn in a lottery that drafts 24 children from the 12 districts to be sent to the Capitol to compete in an annual murderous Roman-style game. Katniss immediately volunteers to substitute, and becomes caught up in a terrible TV frenzy, where her best friends are a fashion team who make her up and dress her in exotic flaming costumes, and the other children become her enemies. The game is about PR and winning the interest of sponsors who send gifts of medicine and food, as well as competing in an arena that looks like a big wildlife preserve, where the biggest danger is her fellow contestants, who kill one another to live. The survivor--and there is only one--will spend the rest of his life mentoring future tributes.

Not everybody in the games is bad. Katniss makes an alliance with a young wild girl who had watched her wistfully when they practiced before the games. And after the girl dies tragically, the Gamemakers change the rules, so that there can be two survivors. Katniss makes an alliance with Peeta, the other tribute from her district, a young baker who has declared he is in love with Katniss. Katniss thinks it's part of the game, and also must pretend she's in love to please the sponsors. But will Peeta make it?

This novel is very plot-oriented, and though the voice of the narrator originally reminded me of Makepeace, the postapocalyptic survivor of Far North (an excellent adult novel by Marcel Theroux, which was a National Book Award finalist), the writing does go down a tad in the final 100 pages or so. But it left me gasping for more. I've begun reading the second in the trilogy, Catching Fire, though I have to admit it's less compelling. The real action doesn't begin for 200 pages or so.

Well, I'm not done with it yet. But the style is a problem I also noticed in the Twilight tetralogy. Excellent first book--but then the writing goes slightly downhill. The plot still keeps you going, but you feel the writers could be doing better. Perhaps they're forced to "manufacture" them too fast?

I really enjoyed The Hunger Games, and think it will appeal to adults who like action and sci-fi.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Non-Combatants and Others

Rose Macaulay's Non-Combatants and Others is a strange little novel, replete with humorous episodes and dark, heartbreaking sadness. Macaulay is herself a strange writer, as anyone will know who has read The Towers of Trebizond, a classic which combines humor, travel, camels, and Christianity. I don't mind admitting that I read Non-Combatants and Others because I noticed Capuchin Classics had reissued it (it's not out in the U.S. till April, but there are plenty of used copies). I love the Capuchin cover.

But this 1916 novel is worth reading as a passionate excoriation of World War I. Alix, the unconventional heroine, an art student with a limp, does everything possible to avoid acknowledging the importance of the war. The daughter of a pacifist activist and the sister of a boy in the army overseas, she doesn't care about politics, doesn't support the war, and certainly doesn't want to think of its effect on the men she knows. She moves to London to live with a suburban lower middle-class cousin and her two very ordinary daughters, partly to escape from the relatives who think she's lazy for not contributing to the war effort. Although she appears almost hard, she is ultra-sensitive and nervous, on the edge of breakdown if she analyzes too closely what is happening.

Despite her horror of jingoism, Alix gradually has to confront the reality of the devastation. First, a friend of hers comes back with a hand injury: traumatized by war, he now wants only to be around the healthiest people, even if they are shallow. He hurts Alix by rejecting her in favor of the beautiful, stupid Evie, her cousin's daughter, a milliner. And then Alix learns of her brother's death: his psychotic break in the trenches, his shooting himself in the shoulder, and dying of an infection. And she has to find some kind of support: religion, politics, something.

Actually I'm not quite done so I'm not sure what her support will be. The novel seems to go off-track a bit as she explores Catholicism. Macaulay first proffers a beautiful argument for atheism, but then Alix experiences the sophistication of the theology and emotional consolation of the Church. I know Macaulay herself was very religious and wonder if she underwent a conversion.

This is a good, if uneven, novel, not great. There is lots of fascinating dialogue among intellectuals, artists, writers, and journalists scorning the truisms that the war effort brings out the best in civilians. I'm very glad that Capuchin reissued it. If not, I would never have discovered this book.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Fatum & Ransom

I've been unusually interested in myth lately. I've been collecting novels that retell myths, David Malouf's Ransom among them, and enjoying his reinterpretation of the story of Priam.

It has to do with teaching adult ed Latin, and reading an English translation of The Aeneid with my students. It's very different from teaching Latin IV, where I help students read the Aeneid in Latin and we read small chunks at a time. I'm confronted with the fatum-furor-pietas symbolic triad (fate--furor-- & recognition of duty to gods, country, and family) coming at me at an incredible speed. It's all there, all at once, a jumble, a grief, a tragedy, a weariness, terror, love, battles, and the epic agony of having to go on, whether one wants to or not. Aeneas, an unusual hero, ravaged and numbed by the destruction of his civilization, comes to terms with the difficulty and horror of his mission, to lead the Trojan people to Italy. (He is seven years on the road when the poem starts.) This is a beautiful, under-read epic poem with countless allusions to the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the days when everyone took Latin, of course everyone knew this poem.

David Malouf's novel Ransom is an inspired reimagining of the Iliad, not the Aeneid, so you may wonder why I'm so intrigued. Well, the answer is, in case you haven't read the Aeneid lately or ever, that Virgil pays brilliant homage to Homer, alluding to episodes and speeches from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and sometimes reimagining them with a Roman twist. As Malouf says about his new novel, it "re-enters the world of the Iliad to recount the story of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector, and, in a very different version from the original, Priam's journey to the Greek camp."

At the heart of Ransom is Priam's questioning of fate. In a dream/vision Iris, a messenger of the gods, visits him, and tells him that perhaps it is chance, not fate, that has killed his sons and wrecked Troy. This goes against all the teachings: the gods condone or chastise, favor or destroy empires, seemingly on a whim, sometimes to punish one man's hubris, even when a country like Troy has honored the gods. Priam hatches a plan that will challenge and rethink the acceptance of fatum: he will go, a suppliant, in a humble cart, filled with gold and Trojan wealth, driven by a working-class driver, to Achilles' camp to ransom his son Hector's body. He will approach Achilles on a personal level, not as a king of Troy. He will change the assumptions of civilization.

He approaches his wife, Hecuba, and in an epic speech, tries to persuade her that his plan is sanctioned by his vision.

"But to Hecuba the image is a shocking one--she is more tied to convention than she believes--and as Priam warms to his subject she grows more and more disturbed."

Malouf writes beautifully, and one of my favorite books of all time is An Imaginary Life, the novel he wrote about Ovid in exile and his encounters with a feral boy. Ransom is quieter, more formal. The epic dignity is there. It is a beautiful, short book.

Graham's Black Ships revisits the Aeneid: I've barely started it, but I can hardly wait!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Running over a Magazine with a Wheelchair

Readers in literature fascinate me. Holden Caulfield introduced me to Thomas Hardy. Tom in The Professor's House read the Aeneid on the mesa. But unlike the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, whom I wanted very much to resemble as a teenager, I don't go through periods when I do nothing but read. I DO nothing but read. And can a good life be spent reading? Yes.

A friend died 20 years ago. She was young. She was furious. She read, but she also wanted to write. She wrote poetry for years and never published. She ran over a literary magazine with her wheelchair when they rejected her. It was a magnificent gesture. The magazine wasn't very good. She was good enough for that and more.

Since I was writing features for a newspaper, I explained that it wasn't all that hard to get published. You couldn't write what you wanted exactly, but you could write. Occasionally I wrote and published some essays. You know the kind of thing. Ha, ha, I'm a bit freaky, but I'm just like you.

And so she published some essays about her life in a wheelchair. They were very, very good. It wasn't poetry. But it was something.

Both of us knew we either (a) weren't good enough to write what we wanted, or (b) were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She got discouraged. She burned all her journals. I begged her not to, because she was so very smart and funny, but she didn't want anyone to read them and be upset. She didn't save any of the funny excerpts. It just seemed a waste to have written that well and to have destroyed everything. She was articulate. She had a voice. But at the end of her life she didn't care. She felt other people were wasting their lives, and she might as well burn everything. She hated them. "I look at people and I wonder why they get to live. I contribute so much more than they do."

She hated me at the end. It was devastating.

She threw everything out of her room so she could die.

Dying isn't easy.

What she did best up to the end was read. That was our link. The two of us never stopped reading. Calvino. Tolstoy. Sharon Olds. Philip Larkin. Cynthia Heimel. Edna O'Brien. Gail Godwin. Sara Paretsky. Dickens. There was always a book in her car. I rode my bike to visit her and brought books. She had incredible insights.

We felt we were on a different level from others because we were RAISED ON LOUISA MAY ALCOTT. We had an Alcott fest near the end of her life when she was thinking about her childhood. The morals in every lively chapter taught us, yes, "to be good." But we also enjoyed the stories. Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl was our favorite. Both of us were as strong-willed as Polly, but we did work hard and try to help others. An attempted suicide in a rooming house? Like Polly, you bet we would have been there to help her back into the land of the living. Illiterate? We tried to help them read. It was a thankless job, but...

But you know what? In the end I wasn't very good at helping the dying. She refused to see me or her other close friends. What had we done wrong?

We were living. We were reading. And it was too hard on her.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sigrid Undset & Louisa May Alcott: A Pair of Entertaining Moralists

Having just finished The Snake Pit, I am awed, as usual, by Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner whose historical novels are still popular: particularly Kristin Lavransdatter, published in a new translation by Penguin a few years ago. I still have three of my original four volumes of The Master of Hestviken, purchased in the '70s at a used bookstore, run by a guy who wore fringed jacket and fringed boots (you know the type) who was always running next door to the coffeehouse. "I'll be right back." He wasn't overly friendly, but it was an excellent bookstore. He sort of peered at me when I bought his complete Undset collection: I read Kristin Lavransdatter first, then dashed back a few days later to buy The Master of Hestviken. Hanging around bookstores was my favorite thing, because I didn't sleep during my two years of graduate school (this is almost literally true). So I often treated myself to a luxurious stint at a used bookstore or the fantastic public library, which had a great veranda, and since it never got very cold (why did I leave the south?), we could sit outside three seasons of the year.

The Snake Pit is a tragic, fast-paced novel about a doomed marriage in the Middle Ages: I'm surprised by how closely I identify with the characters, since their lives are not at all like mine. Undset has a gift for pulling you into an absolutely compelling historical story, and forces you without pain to analyze the shaky moral axis on which the marriage of Olav and Ingunn stands. In the first volume, The Axe, the betrothed couple are separated for years while Olav follows his political leader into exile. When he returns, he finds that Ingunn has had a baby by another man, the result of a rape. Olav secretly kills him. So they marry and move to Hestviken with this sin on Olav's conscience. Ingunn worships him, but is anxious, because she is sickly and her babies all die. Finally Olav brings back her first baby, the offspring of the rape, whom they had left with a nurse. And then Ingunn finally has a reason to live, but her beauty fades, and she is constantly jealous. Olav feels tied to her--she is his only friend--but he also wishes he had a "normal" life, with a healthy wife. We empathize with both characters, but I especially feel for Ingunn: how many women were like her in history, fated to give birth again and again, and the infants die? The novel ends tragically. It is simply so compelling that I HAVE TO GO ON TO THE NEXT ONE RIGHT AWAY, In the Wilderness.

But I have also been reading An Old-Fashioned Girl, my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott. I know: everyone prefers Little Women, but An Old-Fashioned Girl holds up surprisingly well. I love Polly, the main character, a country girl with a sense of humor and a sensible attitude who spends the first half of the book on an extended visit to her sophisticated city friend. Far from a fashion plate, this brisk, charming heroine has inner resources and more skills than her friend, Fanny, who is sometimes ashamed of Polly's childish quality and simple clothes. But Polly has a good influence on everyone: she befriends Fanny's wild brother, Tom, sledding with him though other young ladies don't, and plays with the irritable younger sister, Maud. And because Polly is poor and has "morals," she has a different viewpoint on city life: she has had to share with her family, has had to think of others, and, though far from a saint, helps Fanny and her siblings see outside their narrow world. In the second part of the book, Polly gives music lessons and hangs out with artists. (I'm rereading that now.)

I truly recommend this.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Virgil and Homer: Newspapers on the Classics

As a rather casual part-time Latin teacher, attempting once a week on the adult ed circuit to teach grammar through the excellent text, Wheelock, and introduce students to the Aeneid in the Fagles translation, I'm thrilled to have found two fascinating blog entries, one in the New York Times and the other in the Guardian, devoted to Virgil and Homer respectively. It's not often that newspaper bloggers write about the classics (though it's more frequent in the UK than the U.S.).

Virgil Strikes Back

The Influence of Homer on World War I Poetry


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Snake Pit, The Kin, and Shani Davis Wins (Go, U.S.A!)!

Two Great Books and the Tiara I'll Be Wearing Until I Get a Haircut

After an exhausting night at work, I slept, slept, and slept some more. My husband came home and found me sleeping.

"Have you been sleeping all day?" Amused.

Actually, I hadn't, though I was still in my sleeping sweatshirt and holey stretch pants and wearing a ridiculous tiara/headband to keep the hair out of my eyes. Earlier I read part of my Norwegian medieval saga, Sigrid Undset's The Snake Pit, and 100 pages of a superb science fiction novel, Peter Dickinson's The Kin. Both writers are extraordinary in their different ways: Undset won the Nobel Prize in 1929 and Dickinson's The Kin was a finalist for the Carnegie Prize.

I do know how to pick them.

Undset's beautiful, sad novel (Book 2 of The Master of Hestviken) is an exquisite interweaving of mood, action, and the rhythms of medieval daily life. No character has ever seemed more real to me than Ingunn, the unhappy, depressed woman who, having had a baby out of wedlock (the result of rape, though she knows and likes the man) while her childhood sweetheart is away at war, pays the price when she guiltily confesses to Olav and then deserts her baby to marry and follow Olav to Hestviken. Her first baby with Olav is stillborn, and a tactless priest gives a lecture on the price of shame, not knowing Ingunn's secret. Ingunn is weak, sickly, and unskilled at housewifely skills like making cheese (a relief after Kristin Lavransdatter's efficiency). Olav doesn't understand Ungunn; he is simple and hearty and sociable. But he also has a secret: he killed the man who philandered with Ungunn. He is not shriven by a priest, because he is not willing to pay the price. Both Olav and Ungunn are haunted by guilt, but Olav suffers less, being a man of action.

Unset perfectly understands Olav. She explains that he felt:

"A vague pang at the heart, like a faint throbbing beneath a healed wound--was he wasting his manly strength as he toiled in his loose woollen working-clothes, powerless to determine what he would gain in the end by his trouble? And a kind of revulsion against the memories of his intimate life with the sickly woman--it was as though he surrendered his powerful youth and unbroken health in order that she might absorb vigour from his store, and in his heart he did not believe it would be of any use. Like swimming with a drowning woman about one's neck--no choice but to save the other or go down with him, if one would deserve the name of man...."

Elsewhere in the novel Undset describes exactly what Ungunn feels.

I found The Kin, officially a children's or YA book, in the science fiction section of a used bookstore. Like many YA books which attract award judges, this is much better written than the average contemporary novel. Do they set the bar higher for children's books, or is it only that the good ones come to my attention?

Dickinson sets his elaborate story in prehistoric Africa, where early men roam the changing, frightening landscape of desert, mountains, and plains. A group of children are separated from their Kin after a massacre, and fend for themselves in their own nomadic society. The story of survival is told in the third person, focusing on Suth (the oldest boy), Noli (the oldest girl, who is a seer), and two other children. In vignettes between chapters, Dickinson creates a mythology of animal gods and the origin of humankind. This is beautifully written and absorbing.

AN OLYMPIC P.S. Shani Davis from south Chicago--the son of a single mom, the only African-American on the team, and did you ever read a better American story?--did a beautiful job speed-skating and won the Gold Medal for the men's 1,000-meter race.

Again, though I know this is obnoxious: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dido Dux et Troianus

Landscape with Dido and Aeneas, Thomas Jones, 1769

Book IV of the Aeneid has long captured the imaginations of readers who are more interested in relationships than empire. This included most of my friends at age 20 when we piled into a Classical Literature class every morning at 11. Afterwards, over coffee at Things & Things & Things, we'd discuss the incomprehensible namby-pambiness of Aeneas. We didn't understand the dull, wooden, too obedient hero who was willing to sacrifice his marriages/love affairs for power. We didn't particularly care for his mission of empire. But we did understand a heroine who would give up her power for a relationship. Dido was real to us, and quite a relief after the first woman we met in the Aeneid, Creusa, Aeneas' wife, best-known as the ghost who gave Aeneas the you-go-ahead-without-me-dear speech (end of Book II).

The speech more or less says: LOVE YA! IT'S FATE.

At regina--"but the queen," as Virgil reminds us three times in Book IV--Dido was powerful, intelligent, loving, and less willing to separate from Aeneas than Creusa. She couldn't believe her love was unrequited, or stronger on one side than another. Women get dumped. But Dido had already lost a husband. Was she to lose another one (though their marriage wasn't official)? Fate indeed! In poor Dido's case, fate was just another instance of that old literary paradigm, "The sexually active woman must die." Among some of the famous "The sexually active woman must die" works are Anna Karenina, The Awakening, Madame Bovary, An American Tragedy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and The Green Hat.

In one of the most famous scenes (IV, vv. 160-170), Dido and Aeneas consummate their marriage in a cave during a storm. Virgil slyly emphasizes Dido's leadership.

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deveniunt.

"Dido the leader and the Trojan (leader) arrived at the same cave."

In English, this is often rendered "Dido and the Trojan leader," but the word order is key here: dux (leader) is juxtaposed with Dido, and separated from the Trojan (Aeneas) by the conjunction et (and). Both are leaders, equals enclosed by the same cave, but Dido comes first in Carthage, and certainly she is the initiator of the "marriage," in love with Aeneas before he is in love with her. It's sad to see her power wasted and heartbreak because Aeneas leaves to pursue his fate, sneaking around behind her back to make his arrangements, because he needs to look out for the future, oh that fate, and oh yeah, bring the Trojans to Italy. Where he has to fight another war, and this time gets a wife who never says a word. From shade (Creusa) to passionate queen (Dido) to a woman who is not developed as a character (Lavinia), he progresses. His life is cold, sad, broken, and though I feel his pain (Book II), I CANNOT forgive him for his treatment of Dido. It's a pity she forgot her duty to her subjects and died for moody love (Shame on you, Juno & Venus!).

See The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodes for some of Virgil's literary influences.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ginger, George, & The Master of Hestviken

Don't you hate it when you're making a stir-fry dinner and you don't have the ginger? Everything is chop-chop-chopped: the scallions, the broccoli, the mushrooms, and then, lo and behold! You have the soy sauce, sesame oil...everything for the sauce...but no ginger.

"Where's the ginger?"

I know where the ginger is. My husband threw it out. He insists on cleaning the kitchen, but what is one woman's ingredient is his trash. No doubt he saw the brown roots in the plastic bag and thought it was garbage. I took everything out of our small refrigerator: there is an ancient shriveled garlic, but no ginger.

And so...

"You threw it out."

"No, you did."

Are we 12?

The dinner turned out all right, and he's in there cleaning the kitchen now (by choice). And now I am watching the Olympics, waiting for the skate dancing.

I have been reading in my pajamas most of the day. It's Valentine's Day: the day we
do what we like most. This means my husband is listening to opera, skiing, doing all that stuff he does. I was listening to R.E.M. and trying to read Silas Marner.

I've never wanted to read Silas Marner, because it was the short George Eliot my old friends carelessly read at the public high school (I went to the hippie school, where we had a choice of what to read and were reading, yes, Middlemarch). Well, I've read only a few pages of Silas and perhaps it's just not the book for me. It seems condensed: I like Eliot's leisurely development of place and character in her long books.

So I have switched to Nobel winner Sigrid Undset's The Snake Pit, the second in her tetralogy, The Master of Hestviken, recommended long ago by a friend who seemed to read little else. I mean it was always The Ax, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger--everywhere she went! I prefer Kristen Lavransdatter (Undset's masterpiece), but I did read The Master years ago.

In this medieval saga, Olav returns to his ancestral home with his depressed bride, Ingunn. In the first book, The Ax, the two had a difficult time: he was separated from her by years of war, and when he finally returned, she was ill and depressed, had had a brief affair, and had a child. Now she despairs that she was unfaithful. Olav murders the other man, though he then vows to take care of Ingunn's child. This IS the more dismal of the two sagas, as I remember. But medieval Norway is not where you want to live.

I have the 1929 Knopf edition, with a translation by Arthur G. Chater. The pages are yellow and crumbling, but I think I can get at least one more read out of it. Funny--my old Kristin Lavransdatter is also a '20s Knopf, but the paper is much better.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Popcorn and the Oscars: Movies Based on Books (or I Couldn't be Talking about Them)

I never write about movies, but the Oscars approach, and since a number of the nominated movies are based on books, I'll venture to review them. I should be fine. I should be "cool," within my bookworm limitations. Or never cool, but able to articulate my feelings within a bookish context.


Err, that means Crazy Heart or Up in the Air, because these are the two I've seen.

Crazy Heart is a brilliant, moving film about a down-and-out country singer, Bad Blake, who is drinking and smoking himself to death while playing in an underworld network of bowling alleys and bars. Down, down, and downer he goes. Throwing up between songs when he isn't sitting around drinking in motel rooms. Bridges disappears inside the part. Have you ever known an alcoholic? Bad is that charming drunk guy you can't count on. The one who's so crazy he really will drive hundreds of miles for you, but ends up having an accident on the way. In the singing world he's been shat on hard: the guy he gave a start to, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has transcended him on the charts (Bad is no longer on ANY chart), and is now asking Bad to open for him, though he really seems mainly to want Bad to write songs for him.

But in Santa Fe, a few nights before the Tommy Sweet concert, Bad meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a smart reporter who knows music and falls for him. He has a thing for her, too, but, in this brilliant movie, Bridges shows us how the women appear to musicians: any time he's on stage, there's some rocking woman in the audience who's giving him that special look. So he would like to get laid, but he's already BEEN laid. The romance is at the core of the movie, and we see a really nice, charming side of Bad, but there's also music and business. Well, maybe mostly music. I was fascinated, because it seemed real. And Jean has ties--she has a young son--so she's really acting out a dream of having a romance with a musician.

I loved this movie! And I hope to God the gorgeous, talented Jeff Bridges gets that Oscar, because he's been doing amazing work since Cutter's Way (the first film I saw him in), has been nominated for four (or five?) Oscars, and it isn't going to get any better than this. No one could have done this better than Bridges. Is it possible that he hasn't gotten an Oscar because he's too beautiful? (Those "surfer good looks" as my friend in L.A. says, but I'm not familiar with surfer looks.) Is beauty an asset for women but not so much for men? Bridges is looking a bit craggy these days. Maybe it will be his lucky night!

Oh, and the novel Crazy Heart is by Thomas Cobb and was well-reviewed.

The other movie I loved is Up in the Air (based on a novel by Walter Kirn). Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the country and fires people for corporations. He lives in airports and hotel rooms and has no close contacts. He likes it that way. But then Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a young, smart, apparently tough but vulnerable woman, comes to work for the company and wants to "ground" the flying fire-ers. On a trip with Ryan to see what the firing is like in person, she softens and also convinces Ryan to look differently at his casual relationship with a similarly unattached businesswoman (Vera Farmiga). And...

Very, very moving. Brilliant acting. Somebody should get an Oscar for this. George Clooney is nominated.

But I am still crossing my fingers for Jeff Bridges for Best Actor.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick are also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Somebody has to win!

P.S. Did you see Apollo Ohno speed-skate tonight? He's won gold and silver medals at his previous Olympics, but I've never seen him before, and have NEVER seen a race this beautiful and graceful. He started in the back--we were anxious--but then amazingly he breezed ahead and easily LAPPED the others. This is just a qualifying race, but It was a piece of art.

I'm being obnoxious, but I must say:

U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Classics, Geniuses, and Thwacking the Blog Divas

I can't read classics all the time. Or can I? I'm almost done with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a lovely, sad novel, but I am eager to return to the books of the diva, George Eliot. Hardy is a couple of rungs under the diva Eliot--and Tess is really not his best book, despite what they tell you--but in a way this is a good thing, because I am also able to read some other novels on my TBR list. When I'm reading Eliot, I Can Read Nobody Else.

FIRST GENIUS UP: Anne Tyler. Noah's Compass is another of her odd classic confections about eccentric Baltimoreans: she spins tales that are so engrossing one almost doesn't notice the brilliant underpinnings of the perfect style. In this case, the isolated, spunky hero is Liam Pennywell, a 60-year-old philosopher who, at the beginning of the novel, has just gotten fired from teaching fifth grade. Not terribly upset about it, he eagerly downsizes to a small bare-bones apartment near a mall, thinking he'll devote himself to reading and philosophy. But when he wakes up, he is in the hospital, and has no memory of the injury, or of the person who broke in and hit him on the head. He becomes rather fanatical about his memory loss. And when the doctor says he needs someone to look after him for 48 hours after he leaves the hospital, he's not sure who that might be.

"How could he have ended up so alone?

"Two failed marriages (for he had to count Millie's death as one of them), three daughters who led their own lives, and a sister he seldom spoke to. The merest handful of friends--more like acquaintances, really. A promising youth that had somehow trailed off in a series of low-paying jobs far beneath his qualifications. Why, that last job had used about ten percent of his brain!"

Of course his family are prominent, surprising characters: very, very funny, and much more interesting than Liam gives them credit for. Tyler, an American genius, should get the Nobel Prize. Odd, isn't it, how the only Americans anyone talks about as contenders are Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates? It's not that they're not great, but why isn't humor valued? Tyler never writes a wrong word: she manages to be smart, funny, elegant, and profound all at once. She is one of those writers like James Wilcox who never seems to get their dues: she's very, very popular, but everyone underrates her because she's funny. She has won the Pulitzer once, but all her novels are perfect. Where is the National Book Award? Where is the Nobel Prize?

THWACKING THE DIVAS: I'm terrifically disappointed that no one has commented on my entry thwacking the British blog divas who have just started their own mutual-admiration-society blog book club (called The Not the TV Book Club), and for some reason unbeknownst to me are congratulating themselves for not discussing books they have received free from publishers. (Wow, what a sacrifice!) There are already tens of thousands of free book clubs online, most of which are NOT getting freebies from publishers, but this group has gotten free publicity in the Guardian blog. I look for them to be on TV any moment; what do you think? I was rather happy to see the Guardian article got only eight comments; obviously I'm not the only one who thinks this is ridiculous. Only this club, as far as I know, is "endorsed" by the Guardian bloggers. But, um, I guess the million other online book groups aren't special because maybe, err, they aren't run by book whores doing PR for free books.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Amateur, Mineral, Asshole

Bloggers, er, I mean, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. --Julius Caesar

There are two main categories of bloggers: professionals and amateurs. At least that's what I used to think. It is easy to spot the professionals: the reporters and writers who keep the newspaper and magazine blogs afloat. It also used to be simple to spot the amateurs: these are the rebels, wild book enthusiasts, and publishing underdogs who use the free technology to criticize books, spreading the word about treasures and clunkers, some of the books famous, others overlooked. But recently a third category has emerged: the "pro-mateurs," as I call them, a group of bloggers who straddle the blogosphere somewhere between professionalism and amateurism. Can you be an amateur if you're receiving thousands of dollars worth of free books a year from publishers (the equivalent of a salary) and basically doing PR for them? No.

One of my favorite pros, Alison Flood at the Guardian book blog, unwittingly brought this to my attention when she publicized "Not the TV Book Club," a book group established by four bloggers in response to a British TV book club. Now there's nothing new about online book groups. There are thousands of thriving book groups on AOL, Yahoo, and all over the internet. I cannot tell you how many cherished books I have discovered through participating in online book groups over the years. So if four bloggers want to start a book group, more power to them, but it's hardly news.

Here's what is news: according to Flood, "The bloggers decided that the series would focus on books published within the last five years, books previously unread by the chooser, and no 'freebies' from publishers, Hatwell says, and response from readers has so far been 'really positive'."

Oh My God! Isn't that special! These "pro-mateurs" (my name for them) are having a book club but are bringing themselves down to mortal level by not promoting their FREE books. You mean: THEY HAD TO BUY OR BORROW THE BOOKS LIKE THE REST OF US READERS?

Are they "pro-mateurs," or are they just assholes?

I do read one of these blogs regularly, and do like her, although she gets a little boastful at times: dovegreyreaders scribbles, the writer whom I have referred to as "the Esther Summerson of bloggers" (a good thing). But I'll definitely avoid the Not the TV Book Club.

Although I hate to give them more publicity, you can read all about them here. Or you can support one of the many already established book groups on the internet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Yes, you might have known. After I blogged about the beautiful new Penguin hardcover classics, I talked myself into ordering one. Point and click. And I became the proud owner of this stunning edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

My husband said, “Those had better not be yours,” when he saw the photo of the set of Penguin classics I had cut and pasted into the Feb. 3 blog entry.

“Of course not. I got that off the internet.”

But here I am with a new edition of Tess and he doesn't seem to have noticed. Anyway, I've earned it because I gave my nieces my beautiful Heritage edition with the woodcuts!

The Penguin has many exciting features, though some or most are from the 1998 Penguin paperback edition: a chronology of Hardy's life, a scholarly introduction (which I'm saving for later, because I like to be "refreshed" by the text before I read criticism), maps of Wessex, some of the original illustrations from the Graphic (which ran the serial of Tess), textual criticism (this is the original 1891 edition), a glossary, and excellent notes by Tim Dolin, the author of a book about George Eliot I'm reading.

I love, love the language. Hardy is both poetic and awkward, a strange combination, but it works. Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge are my favorites--I can only hope they will be included in the series--but Tess is a riveting novel, a thought-provoking and sensitive portrait of a woman ruined by rape, an aspiring teacher, whose past makes it impossible not only to develop her intellectual self but to pursue sexual relationships without blame. She works in a dairy, far from her hometown (well, village).

I have never been interested in textual criticism, but since Dolin interweaves it with the regular notes, I find myself fascinated by the history of Hardy's language: sometimes the serial was more sexually explicit, more often he added to it in later editions. Apparently his later 1912 revised edition is the most frequently printed, but I am honestly not sure which one I read. I'm not sure it matters. It's rather startling to realize that later may not mean better, but this is certainly true with Wordsworth's Prelude.

This is absolutely a lovely book! It was my favorite book when I was a gloomy teenager. I can remember staying up past midnight to finish it and then taking a bicycle ride (it was a small town) and pondering Angel's inexcplicable rejection and condemnation of Tess. Damn him!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Top 10 Weepies

What are the Top 10 Weepies of All Time? This question popped into my mind as I read the unhappy ending of Daniel Deronda. Poor Gwendolen! I didn't cry, but almost.

Below is a list of some exceptionally sad books. I have rated them as follows:

*A few tears

**Gentle mewling


1. Faithful Ruslan by Georgy Vladimov. If you haven't read this tragic Russian novel about a dog, get thee to a secondhand bookstore. The main character, Ruslan, is a prison dog in a Stalinist labor camp, and when the camps close, life as he knows it ends. The guard dogs are released, and though they struggle to survive in a nearby village, Ruslan is bewildered, misses his favorite guard, and doesn't understand what happened to his world, which he attempts to re-create. This excellent, astonishing novel by a Ukrainian writer whose citizenship was revoked raises questions about humanity, dogs, and survivors.


2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I always weep over the scene --well, it involves Beth. If you haven't read this great American novel, you simply must.


3. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. This poignant popular novel about a mining family in Wales is surely one of the most underrated books of the 20th century. The despair of the strikes, the poverty, and the descriptions of the hideous slag are balanced by the unsentimental voice of the narrator, his brothers' courage, activism, and frequently witty dialogue.


4. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I defy you not to cry over parts of this brilliant novel set in the Congo. Overall, it is a comedy, but parts are terribly sad.


5. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This stunning memoir of Vera Brittain's experiences as an Oxford student and nurse during World War I is deeply moving.


6. The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Why are animal books so sad? This winner of the 1939 Pulitzer Prize, set in the backwoods of Florida at the turn of the (20th) century, tells the story of Jody and his pet fawn, for whom his parents have little tolerance.


7. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. A so very, very, very unexpected, tortuous plot: a tragedy in New England centered on the taciturn Ethan Frome, his cranky invalid wife, and his feelings for her sweet cousin, Mattie. Edith Wharton can really WRITE.


8. Stoner by John Williams. "I don't know if it's a weepie, but it's a sad book," says my husband. This is a novel about a depressed scholar, whose education allowed this poor farm boy to transcend class--and yet he is unhappy in the academic world. I haven't yet read this, but it's on my list.


9. The Works of Love by Wright Morris. A tragic, beautifully written novel about the midwest and isolation. In 2008, I described the hero, Will Brady, as "a man with no connections, because of the geography that shapes him. Born on the empty plains of Nebraska in a dugout, Will grows up in the town of Indian Bow, where there is "a depot, a cattle loader, several square frame houses with clapboard privies..' When he moves to the tiny town of Carbury (Will takes a train; trains and hotels are the connection in the novel for lonely ), working at the hotel seems the height of sophistication. But he wants and needs a wife. Where does he look for one? The town whorehouse, where he "connects" with the same woman every weekend. When he proposes, all the women laugh at him. A young prostitute with whom he has never had sex leaves her baby behind with his name on it: he raises the son as his own."


10. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. All you have to say to me is "Father Time" and I burst into tears.



Friday, February 05, 2010

Gwendolen Harleth

I had hoped to finish Daniel Deronda today, but it was not to be: 700 pages, not bad, but my plan was to read one Eliot novel a week, so I could appreciate the breadth and depth of her oeuvre with greater understanding and immediacy.

Why have I been so busy? Why do the best-laid schemes of mice and men...? I've been doing more work for work than necessary, if you know what I mean. I got sidetracked by something peripheral, and then I spent too much time researching it, and my personal reading life was disrupted. I'm sure you know how this can happen. It was fun!

Still, I can't say I'm sorry to be reading DD an extra few days. Every moment I have spent with Eliot's heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, has been a good one. I find Daniel a bit pompous this time around, but his story is also absorbing, insofar as his sensitive exploration of the Jewish faith and overcoming of prejudice and stereotypes reflect Eliot's own intellectual interests. In a way it's odd that she named the book Daniel Deronda instead of Gwendolen Harleth, but of course he links together all the characters. Yet it's Gwendolen's story that sticks with me. She is more vivid than the quieter Daniel, though he does keep that male emotional distance from women that most of us have experienced at some time.

Is Gwendolen a likable character? Although she does not care for people in general, and definitely does not like other women, she is high-spirited and proud, intelligent and emotional, powerful before marriage, a fascinating character with whom I empathize because she does not intend to be a typical submissive woman. She is an excellent horsewoman, and metaphorically intends to hold the reins in marriage. Alas, her marriage to the psychologically abusive Grandcourt breaks her. She is constantly sneered at, and worries about his previous mistress, whom she has wronged by marrying Grandcourt, but she can't leave the marriage because of pride and because her mother is dependent on the money. Gwendolen was the husband/master figure in her widowed mother's life, and she married Grandcourt as a last resort after her mother lost all their money. Marriage proves to be the biggest mistake of her life.

"Already she was undergoing some hardening effect from feeling that she was under eyes which which saw her past actions only in the light of her lowest motives. She lived back in the scenes of her courtship, with the new bitter consciousness of what had been in Grandcourt's mind--certain now, with her present experience of him, that he had had a peculiar triumph in conquering her dumb repugnance, and that ever since their marriage he had had a cold exultation in knowing her fancied secret. Her imagination exaggerated every tyrannical impulse he was capable of. "I will insist on being separated from him'--was her first darting determinations..."

But Gwendolen is totally self-absorbed: when she visits Mirah, the singer Daniel has rescued from suicide, she loses interest as soon as Mirah angrily denies the poisonous rumor, invented by Grandcourt, that Daniel is having an affair with her. Gwendolen, relieved, can't get out of there fast enough, leaving Mirah angry and upset. Not pretty behavior on her part, but she is desperate, and so defeated by the psychologically abusive Grandcourt that she idealizes Daniel, who has become a kind of somber angel/agent of truth and honor in her imagination, and she hopes to find salvation and a way to live through his advice. Daniel wants nothing to do with her, and is uneasy about this beautiful woman's dependence on him.

I think Gwendolen is very courageous, and understand her idealization. Sometimes we need a dream figure to believe there are people out there not behaving badly! Daniel teaches Gwendolen not only through what he says, but through her imagination of who he is.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

New Hardcover Penguin Classics

It has come to my attention that Penguin has a new line of glam hardcover classics. They look like this:

As far as I can tell, eight of the titles are available in the U.S.: two Jane Austens (they're not stupid), Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Great Expectations, and Cranford.

The artist is Penguin senior designer Coralie Bickford-Smith.

They remind me vaguely of the classics book club editions we used to buy in high school--you know, you get one person to join the book club and you get six free books or something. All of us were walking around with faintly ridiculous-looking fake leather books with gilt lettering. We were slightly ironic about the whole thing, but at the same time it was kind of great to be a hippie type and reading identically-packaged Constance Garnett translations of Crime and Punishment.

The Dostoevsky above isn't quite the same as the book club C&P, but is similar.

The Penguins are cloth-bound, not fake leather, so they're more tasteful. The colors are great. Anyway, the bookstores carrry them: Borders, B&N, Amazon, etc.

Because my old Penguins are yellowed and falling apart, I can justify the hardcovers. Ha!

Well, maybe not.