Sunday, August 14, 2011

Moving to Wordpress

I've enjoyed posting at Blogger, but have decided to move Frisbee:  A Book Journal back to WordPress.  Please visit us at Frisbee:  A Book Journal.  The url is

Friday, August 12, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

Bicycling vacation!
Summer travel. It’s not exactly a vacation.  It’s WORK.

You carry two copies of a Jane Austen novel everywhere, one for your handbag and the other to lose in the hotel room (does that happen to you?); or open your Nook and discover Charlotte M Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and Irrepressible, a biography of Jessica Mitford, should you feel like reading them.

But back home you’re happy to sit down with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a novel about a cotton factory and its workers, among other things.

I would rather read Victorian novels than almost anything.  It's another century; characters struggle to be good; they deal with important social issues; and there are rocky romances. I'm astonished by how political Gaskell's books are.  In North and South, Margaret, the heroine, becomes involved with a mill owner and striking workers.  In Mary Barton, Gaskell's first novel, set in Manchester in the 1840s, she writes from the point of view of factory workers, documenting unemployment, social injustice, and the struggles of the poor.  Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a brilliant, unemployed factory worker.  He helps the poor, makes sacrifices to assist the starving, and is naively certain that if he points out the facts to Parliament they’ll bring relief to the workers.  

Mary at 16 is a beautiful girl who finds herself a job as a dressmaker’s apprentice.  It is the best she can do:  her father won’t let her work in a factory, and he hates the idea of service because of class issues.  Mary, who hopes to rise in the world, wants to be independent, but she is also a frivolous and immature girl.  She dreams of rising in the world by her beauty.  And that, as we aficionados of Victorian lit could tell her, is unrealistic.

Gaskell writes:
“I am afraid that Mary’s determination not to go to service arose from less sensible thoughts on the subject than her father’s.  Three years of independence of action (since her mother’s death such a time had now elapsed) had little inclined her to submit to to rules as to hours and associates, to regulate her dress by a mistress’s idea of propriety, to lose the dear privileges of gossiping with a merry neighbor, and working night and day to serve one who was sorrowful.... She knew she was very with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady...”

There are many moving scenes in which John Barton helps the starving family of an unemployed "Methody" who is dying of of typhoid in a clammy basement.  Gaskell vividly describes the streets brimming with slops and waste, and the damp freezing basement flats. Mary, good-hearted and hard-working, helps the hysterical widow and her children.

 Mary has friends who are wiser than she.   Margaret, a singer and a seamstress who is going blind (so Victorian, I know, but very sad), understands the connection beween poverty and disaster much better than Mary.  Mary is very excited when one of the mills catches fire, and though Margaret cautions her about the danger and significance, they go to see the fire.   When Mary witnesses her friend Jem’s trying to save his father from the flames, she understands it is not just a pretty sight.  She faints.

But Mary gets involved with a mill owner's son.  One knows that nothing good can come of that.

More on this later...

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Bibliobits: Lorraine Lopez's The Realm of Hungry Spirits & Joseph Heller's Catch-22

I found Lorraine Lopez's The Realm of Hungry Spirits displayed prominently on the new paperback table at a bookstore. On the cover a woman danced with butterflies.  Was it chick lit?  Was it a romance? 

It is definitely not a romance.  Lopez's enjoyable novel teeters on the edge of fluffy comedy, but also treats serious issues like class, unemployment, and Buddhism.

What happens when a woman becomes middle-class through education and suddenly her friends and relatives are a class or two beneath her?  This is the situation of the frazzled Latina narrator, Marina, a middle-school English teacher who used to work in insurance.  She isn't immediately in the market for love, having broken up with her sleazy boyfriend.  Yet she must continue to deal with her family's and friends' problems, as those with less education seek her emotional support and free room and board.  

Marina is so busy helping others that she can't solve her own problems.   People keep intruding.  Her unemployed nephew, Kiko, and his best friend, Reggie, jilted by Marina's sister, Xochi, live with her, and the living room smells of funky socks.  Because Kiko's mother kicked him out, and because he is dyslexic, Marina is sympathetic, but things have gone too far. 

Her ex-boyfriend Rudy's crazy friend, Nestor, wants to purify her house with some voodoo spell in return for a deposition supporting his desire to take away his children from their mother. (Marina refuses.)  She is still in touch with Rudy's daughter, Letty, who has a nervous breakdown when her baby dies. 

Here is an example of the witty, smart voice that can surprise one with its occasional sharpness. 
"You wouldn't expect so many people to make it out on a Friday morning to attend a funeral for a five-month-old baby, but the chapel is so jam-packed with cristianos and the parking lot arrayed with so many motorcycles that it looks like a breakout session at Bike Week in Daytona.  The place reeks with exhaust emissions, sweat, and stale cigarette smoke.  I'm sure it means a lot to Miguel that his church group turns out big-time to support him on the day when he and Letty bury their son, but I can't help wondering where and if any of these people work.  Who would hire them?"

And there is dating.  While teaching summer school, she gets to know an attractive substitute teacher who is an artist. At the hospital, she meets a nerdy doctor who wants to date her.  She is a little flustered when he invites her to take a nap with him.  He means nap--literally. 

Although Marina longs to be a Buddhist and reads the Dalai Lama, she has little time for prayer.  Yet things may work out for her. 

Lopez, a professor in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt, has painted a sensitive, vivid portrait of a first-generation college graduate. 

Joseph Heller.  Walter Kirn's excellent article on Joseph Heller at Slate was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an anti-war classic (and so much more), and by a new biography, Tracy Daugherty's Just one Catch.  

Heller's daughter Erica Heller has also written a memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22. 

Time to get out the Heller.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut

I was astonished to learn that a high school district in Republic, Missouri, has banned Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.  A 2010 complaint in the Republic School District said it spread "false conceptions of American history and government or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth." 

Missouri must be the new literary capital of the world.

Vonnegut is controversial.  Some dislike the meta-fictional elements in his work. For instance, in a book group I belong to, people hated the meta-fictional techniques in Timequake, a clever autobiographical novel in which Vonnegut himself is a character, a blocked writer who has been writing Timequake for ten years, and his alter-ego, Trout Kilgore, a failed science fiction writer, accidentally becomes a hero and is worshipped in a literary colony.  (In the novel, timequakes cause people in 2001 to repeat everything they did in 1991.)  Trout Kilgore  appears in several of Vonnegut's other novels, too, including Slaughterhouse-Five. 

Well, the students of Republic won't be reading Vonnegut in school.

But the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is fighting back. They say they will send a free copy of Slaughterhouse-Five to 150 Republic High School students who email the website.  The Vonnegut Memorial Library is also looking for donors to pay for postage.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Bibliobits: How Many Books?

Another hot summer day.  We were full of vim on our bicycles because the temperature was under 90. I would have preferred lolling around the house, but when all the days are hot, you know you need to go out.

At the coffeehouse where we drank iced tea, my husband informed me that he has seen me reading three books in two days.  I informed him that I have seen him reading one book in two days.

Does it matter?  Is one way of reading more serious than the other?

Well, it's true that I juggle books.  I finished Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South in the car yesterday.  I read a little bit of John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in a lull. And I was reading a mystery today.  

How can I explain this student-style multiple reading?

In Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag, a short novel about a dysfunctional Native American family, the heroine, Irene America, the wife of a painter famous for his disturbing portraits of her, badly needs privacy.  She writes one diary for him to find and one for herself. Even her reading style is private and independent:  she reads the parts that nurture her and doesn't always finish books.  And this drives her husband crazy.

Or something like that.  I read this novel last year and hope I have the details right.  

Although I'm not like Irene, I do read like this.  I wonder:  do women read serially more than men?  The women bloggers I read seem to.  Men seem less personal in their blogs, less revealing of their habits.

WHAT I WANT TO READ.  My husband and I are sharing a copy of Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days, a Booker-longlisted novel published by a small press, Seren.  Set in Bucharest in 1989, this lit thriller, according to the book jacket blurb, is about a "young English student... [who]finds dissidents, party appartchiks, black marketeers, diplomats, spies, and ordinary Romanians, all watching each other as Europe's most paranoid regime plays out its bloody endgame."

The first one to finish has to blog about it.  

I also want to read Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train.  I love this humorous Southern writer, enjoyed Raney and Walking across Egypt, and intend to pick up one of his others (though not necessarily the newest, because I believe I have one of his other novels around) before the end of summer.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Rejuvenating lemonade!
It has been a hot summer.  Beautiful, but hot.  And I've been rushing around, traveling back and forth between two towns (again and again and again), trying to combine home life in one city with the obligations to an ill relative in another. I discovered there are not two of me, as you could have told me. 

Pop lit saved me this summer. It's easy to rush out for 10 minutes for a gasp of contemporary "lite" fiction on a "break."  But now everything is organized, and I am home again.

So I've turned to a relaxing Victorian novel--a rejuvenating novelistic "cocktail," which I "drink" along with fresh lemonade.
Rejuvenating Victorian novel!
Elizabeth Gaskell is a marvelous writer, who, like Mrs. Oliphant, was very popular in her day but is neglected now. Some readers dismiss her as sentimental and middlebrow, but her novel North and South shows she was as concerned about class as she was about mores and morals.  North and South, first published 1854-55 as a serial in Dickens's Household Words, seems to me to be a hybrid: part romance, part portrait of a dutiful daughter, and part chronicle of the politics of factories in the industrial north of England.  Gaskell's sketches of the striking workers are vividly drawn and haunting.

The novel does not begin with politics.   Margaret Hale, the 19-year-old heroine, is happy in the beautiful rural village where her father is a clergyman.  After Mr. Hale has a crisis of belief, he resigns from the Church of England.  The family moves to Milton, an industrial town, where Mr. Hale works as a tutor to Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill who wants to learn Greek and Latin.

The North is smoky and gritty, and there are no trees.  No one is happy, but Margaret must manage the household because her mother is very ill.  A relationship develops between Margaret and Mr. Thornton--he falls in love with her, but she considers him rough.  A strike brings the two both closer together and farther apart.  Though Margaret knows a striking worker's family, and thus sympathizes with the men, she believes the Union is wrong.  When the men throw rocks at Mr. Thorntons for hiring Irishmen, she runs out and stands in front of him, putting her arms around him to protect him, not because she likes him but because it is the right thing to do.  She is hit by a rock.

Mr. Thornton and his mother interprets her action as love, and when Margaret refuses his proposal he is upset and his mother thoroughly annoyed.  Margaret grows to respect Mr. Thornton.

There are also other subplots, but let me say that the factory politics and the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton are the most interesting (so far).

I admire North and South, but Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's masterpiece.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reading Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English & a Digression on the Booker Prize

Just so you'll know:  Stephen Kelman is not James Kelman, the Scottish writer who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late. Stephen Kelman, who grew up in the projects in Luton, England, is longlisted for this year's Booker for his first novel, Pigeon English. I am almost through Pigeon English, the first book I've read on the longlist.  And I WILL blog about it in this very post, after a digression on the Booker.

I love the Booker Prize.  I love the betting, the blogging, and the book burble.  But sometimes the conflict gets out of control.  I glanced at the Booker Debate general discussion page, and was surprised (though why?) to see  bloggers (you'll recognize some of them) and commenters quarreling and jockeying for position. 

The moderator wrote: 

"we are saddened to see the behaviour on this board. We will be contacting people individually today and are meeting today to discuss further action. Please return this to an open debate about the Prize and books in general - some of the personal comments from various members have been unacceptable."

It's annoying, really, to read boards like this, so I gave up on it.  People behaving  badly over the Booker? I have better things to do.  The Man Booker Prize is not exactly brain surgery, nuclear disarmament, or global warming, so why not just have fun?  But even Carmen Callil, a judge of the International Booker Prize, apparently went crazy this spring and resigned from the panel after bashing Philip Roth, the winner.

I am in the home stretch of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English. Do I think it will win the Booker?  No.  It is a charming, often moving first novel, narrated by an 11-year-old boy.  Some parts are well-written and effective, other parts cloying.  It reads like a Y.A. novel, or a book club novel.

It is the story of Harri Opuku, a boy from Ghana living in the projects of London with his mother and sister, Lydia.  He is trapped in a world of gangs and poverty, but this very innocent boy uses his imagination to protect himself from the violent reality.  He pretends his speedy running is a superpower, enhanced by his off-brand trainers.  There is a touching scene in which he draws stripes on his trainers to make them look like Adidas.  And he and a friend, Dean, use binoculars to spy on gang members and try to solve a crime.

In the first chapter Harri is looking at the blood of a boy murdered in his neighborhood.   He says:

"Me and the dead boy were only half friends.  I didn't see him very much because he was older and went to my school.  He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted to see him fall off.  I said a prayer for him inside my head.  It just said sorry.  That's all I could remember.  I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy."

How can Harri survive?   He knows how to fight and is a fast runner, but a gang bullies him into agreeing to help them attack an old man.  He shies away at the last minute.  A female gang member, while ironing his sister's hair, burns Lydia with the iron to make her shut up about something she knows. Harri thinks some of the gang members know about the murder of the boy.

Some scenes have actually made me cry.  Astonishingly, I cried over a humorous, touching scene where he talks about superheroes and his friend Altaf's gift for drawing them.

"There's about a hundred superheroes in the world.  Altaf knows all of them. He draws their picture and they're even better than his cars.  Altaf can tell you about any superhero.  It's his favorite subject.  Spiderman is a superhero.  That's how he can stick like a spider....

"Every superhero has a favorite power.  Some of them can fly and some of them can run proper fast.  Some of them are bulletproof or have rays.  They all have names that tell you what's their favorite power, like Spiderman..."

If I have an hour to read, I get absorbed and appreciate Kelman's blunt style, which reads like English in translation (a very smart approach) and also translates Harri's puzzlement and escapism from the culture.  But I have found that 10 minutes here and there isn't enough. You really have to sink into the book.

It's a good first novel, but do I think first novels should make the Booker longlist?  No.

N.B. I haven't read a Booker winner since 2007.  Sometimes I start to read the longlist, and by the time we get to the winner in October I no longer care.

 Here are my picks for winners 2007-2010 (none won)

2008 - I picked three from the shortlist.  Loved 2008!  Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

2009 - A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book

2010 - Peter Carey's Parrott and Olivier in America

I just found my copy of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, the 2010 winner, and can't imagine why I haven't read it.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What I'm Reading Now: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Sitting by the pool at Villa Frisbee (I made that up) we're  still engaged in summer reading.  Summer reading will soon be obsolete and metamorphose into  "light reading."  Well, perhaps we're not always light in the summer.  We like to mix up classics, literary fiction, and pop.  One day we may read Clifford D. Simak's science fiction classic, They Walked like Men, the next Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, and the next Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

As a last gasp at the end of the season, book reviewers and bloggers are recommending summer reading again. But, you know how it is, I have quite a stack on the coffee table already.

One of my favorite books of the summer is Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time, a historical fantasy that mixes elements of literary and pop.

The Map of Time is an astonishingly well-written novel, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, and deals with time travel, romance, and H. G. Wells.   I'm very enthusiastic about Wells, loved David Lodge's stunning historical novel about Wells, A Man of Parts (and wonder why it didn't make the Booker longlist), and am amazed that two novels about Wells should be published at roughly the same time.  The Map of Time,
published in Spain in 2008, is newly released in the U.S.  A Man of Parts will be published this fall in the U.S. 

Set in the late 19th century, The Map of Time vividly delineates the possibilities of time travel, hucksters' exploitation, and couples separated by time and other factors.  H. G. Wells, one of the main characters, is so popular after writing the best-seller, The Time Machine, that he is pursued by quacks, fans, and occasionally respectable readers.  Out of the blue his home is intruded one night by Andrew Harrington, a suicidal Englishman whose prostitute girlfriend was killed by Jack the Ripper. His savvy, aggressive cousin, Charles, accompanies him.  Charles says he knows Wells has a time machine and wants him to send Andrew to the past to save his girlfriend.  

No wonder they believe, or want to believe, in time travel.  A frustrated novelist owns a time machine-travel agency that purports to carry customers to 2000, where they can view a battle between human beings and automatons. 

Imagine what happens when a brilliant, dissatisfied young woman falls in love with a man of the future, Captain Shackleton. 

Palma also fashions a mostly accurate, partly fictionalized, biography of Wells.  He charts Wells's rise from the lower middle class, from draper's assistant to science teacher to influential writer.  Wells, a womanizer, had two sexually unsatisfying marriages, but his second marriage to his former student, Jane, lasted.  Jane is a minor character in the novel.

The future and past are interwoven.  There are many allusions to 19th-century novels, among them H. Rider Haggard's popular novel, Allan Quatermain, and to historical characters like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, a famous Victorian  deformed by disease (his skin was thick and his head elephantine) and rescued from a freak show.  

This novel is utterly compelling and irresistible.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer of Eldercare

It has been a difficult summer. Temperatures in the 90s, sweat and anxiety, and lots of travel to take care of an aged relative.   She fell and broke her hip this week.  She had surgery.  

It shouldn't have been this way.

I knew the assisted living facility was wrong for her.  I would often find her doing nothing,  sitting on the edge of the bed in a darkened apartment.   She had no visitors.  She claimed that the place was too far out (and it was, because her friends don't drive anymore).  She complained that no one socialized at lunch.  (They didn't.  I sat at the table with them.)

"Where are they going?  What do they have to do?  They're not going anywhere," she would say when they got up and left immediately after eating.

She perked up when we took her to her house, where she had lived practically forever.  There were Things She Had to Do.

It might have been different if she'd had home care, if she had been in her own home with her own things 

I intervened last month at the assisted living facility when I learned that her primary doctor had recommended hospitalization and this request had been ignored by her caregiver.  The assisted living facility nurses claimed they hadn't known about it.  

"She has failure to thrive," they said.  "We see a lot of this."

She was covered with bruises from falling.  She had become too frail to get up by herself or go to the bathroom alone.   She had lost 15 pounds in two weeks. Her weight loss was the result of a serious health problem, not "failure to thrive."

It was a case of severe neglect.  And she ended up in the hospital.

After much coaxing and detailed documenting of problems via email, I persuaded her caregiver to consider a nursing home--thank God, we thought--but it proved to be too much trouble for him.  Like someone out of Middlemarch, he thought our offers to help were some kind of power gambit.  

After the hospitalization, he returned her to the assisted living facility. 

She fell at night.  No RNs after 6:00.  This facility was designed for people who are much more mobile. Was she able to push her emergency button?  

And so she had surgery.

It is very difficult at the best of times to watch one's loved ones grow old.  You think they'll be strong forever.  

But it is horrifying to see what goes on in the system of eldercare.  The problems are common; many families have the same frightening experiences; and unfortunately there is no regulation for assisted living facilities.  They may be fine for people who don't need too much assistance, but unfortunately many are owned by development and real estate companies, and care varies.

Two books that have really helped me:  The Good Caregiver by Robert L. Kane, M.D., and A Bittersweet Season by Jane Gross.   

It is very important to do the research, no one knows this world until they're in it, and these books are superb.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Year without Book Reviews

A newspaper book review editor's office.
The L.A. Times has fired all its freelance book reviewers.  Budget cuts, the editor says.  The Guardian Books Blog is now written entirely by staff writers. Budget cuts, I imagine.

These cuts have an effect.  This year, 11 of the books I've read came to my attention from book reviews.  Book reviews, whether positive or negative, publicize books.

The New York Times Book Review is touted as the most influential book page. I no longer depend on it personally, though.  I've been burned, not by critics, but by novelist reviewers writing too kindly about other novelists.  It's not that I want unkindness, but neither do I want to rush out to buy a flawed book because I am too easily influenced by big-name reviewers. In other words, I have passed Book Reviewing 101 and have become impervious to reviews.   Book reviewing is a tough job--it's no fun reading bad books--but, all the same, we look for the reviewer's true opinion and assessment of how well the writer has succeeded in achieving his or her goal in his or her genre.

The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker still have energetic book sections.  They recognize reviewing and book news as an art, and also publish articles about old or out-of-print books.

The Guardian is eccentric, never afraid to eviscerate even a famous writer's book (and these negative reviews often send me searching for the book).  The Washington Post has an excellent crew of in-house critics.  The New Yorker is, well, The New Yorker.
Of course there are other venues.  Many bloggers take contemporary literature seriously.   But sometimes they are "compromised."  (Have I been watching too much "Battlestar Galactica?")  Sometimes they're doing obvious PR, out of naivete or to return a favor.  Some may actually be PR people.  If they're bookstore affiliates, watch out.  Every time you click on one of their links to a bookstore and buy something, anything, they profit.   It may not be by much, but it's something.  (By the way, I'm not a bookstore affiliate.)

What would I do if I had to do without book reviews for, say, a year?  I suppose I'd go back to the system I had in the old days.  Most of the new books I read, by the way, are not the result of reviews.  A few new books are bought on impulse, a few inspired by recommendations at Amazon or The Barnes & Noble Review, a few from prize longlists.   The older books I pick out according to my own system. 
We need our book reviews, though.

Bibliobits: Tigers, Werewolves, & Dogs (Oh My!)

A tiger with jaw wide-open...
2011 is the year of the tiger trend in literature. 

There is Tea Obreht's Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger's Wife, narrated by a doctor on a mission to inoculate children at an orphanage in the Balkans.  When she learns by phone that her grandfather has died and that she must pick up his things at a clinic in a remote village, she recalls his tales about an escaped tiger in the Balkans, and of the woman who, according to village gossip, was the tiger's wife.

Then there is Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills, a heart-rending Indian family saga in which one of the characters is named the tiger's husband. 

There are also two memoirs with "tiger" in the title, Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Margaux Fragoso's Tiger, Tiger.

Now the tiger has appeared again, not in the title, but in the text of the Booker-longlisted novel, Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie. The jacket copy tells us that Jaffy Brown, an eight-year-old street urchin in London's East End, "finds himself face-to-face with an escaped tiger, which swiftly takes him in his jaws.  The tiger's owner, the great Mr. Charles Jamrach--famed importer of the world's strangest creatures--boldly struggles to free the boy from death's gasp."

I plan to start JM soon.

WerewolvesI bought Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver because I love the cover.  So shallow!   But that's how it is sometimes.  Shiver is a paranormal romance, the first in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series. The melancholy, romantic, witty tone is similar to that of Stephenie Meyers's TwilightTwilight was the first of these popular Y.A. vampire romances, as far as I know.  It was a matter of time before werewolf romances caught up.

In Shiver, 17-year-old Grace lives in a town where a wolf recently killed a teenager.  As a child, she was attacked by wolves and saved by a yellow-eyed wolf.  The yellow-eyed wolf is actually Sam, a werewolf who works summers in a bookstore.  When the townspeople set out to kill the wolves, Grace tries to save them.

I've only just begun it, but so far so good.

Dogs.  Although I'm not really writing about  animal lit, I decided to add a note on dogs to the jottings on tigers and wolves.  Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov is the best dog novel of the 20th century and one of the best Russian novels. Ruslan is a bewildered prison dog set free after the demolition of a Siberian gulag’s camp.  Trained to guard and herd, he misses his terrible master, doesn't know what to do, where to find food, or where to live.  With the other dogs, he haunts the train station and awaits new prisoners.  Although some of the prison dogs gradually become tame and find masters, Ruslan cannot adapt.  This is a very sad book, I cried and cried, and it is my top animal book of all time.  There were repercussions for Vladimov for writing the political allegory. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Biking for the Booker

It's hot. We don't live in the South and aren't used to the high 90s.  After days and days of 97, 92 seemed like nothing. 

We had to get out of the house before it got hot again.  A short bike ride.  What could be more energizing?  And after reading the titles on the Man Booker Prize longlist, we wanted to go to the library anyway.

We briefly had to play Control My Lane through a narrow orange-cone-construction one-lane stretch.  ("Controlling your lane," or riding in the middle, is what expert bicyclists say you should do anyway.  It was a harrowing experience.)  

By the time we got downtown, we needed to drink an entire bottle of water.  Our hair was damp, mooshed down by the helmet, and uncontrollable.  Our summer pajamas fashion was frazzled by heat. But many fellow patron/bicyclists had identical limp t-shirts and pajama bermuda shorts, and we exchanged empathetic looks.   

I found exactly one novel from the longlist, Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie

The longlist includes:

• Julian Barnes  The Sense of an Ending
• Sebastian Barry On Canaan's Side
• Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie
• Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers
• Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues
• Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats
• Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger's Child
• Stephen Kelman  Pigeon English
• Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days
• AD Miller Snowdrops
• Alison Pick Far to Go
• Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb
• DJ Taylor Derby Day

Not yet published in the U.S. are the Julian Barnes, Sebastian Barry, Alan Hollinghurst, Esi Edugyan, Patrick McGuinness, Jane Rogers, and DJ Taylor.  

It's like this every year.

The Booker is fun because the list goes through so many public weedings and reconstructions, like a literary version of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars.  And we often discover excellent books, like Sebastian Barry's The Sacred Scripture, A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book, and Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss.  

But, being so busy with the longlists, I haven't read a prize winner since 2007.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keith Donohue's Centuries of June

The success of Keith Donohue's new novel, Centuries of June, will depend heavily on your attitude to short stories.  This surreal, wickedly humorous narrative, told from the point of view of the narrator, a dying man who has fallen and hit his head on the bathroom floor, is laced with short stories.  If you like ghost stories and magic realism, this is for you.  

The ghosts of seven angry women invade the bathroom and then tell their stories, among them a folk tale about a woman who falls in love with a bear, an epistolary story about the Salem witch trials, a tale of American slavery, a filmic montage about baseball, and noir fiction. There is an eighth woman waiting in the wings, but her story is different.

Does this sound confusing?  It is difficult to describe; hence my lateness in a review of a book I June, appropriately.  Each story is set in June in different centuries of America.  And though we don't learn the narrator's name is Jack till the end of the book, I will call him Jack to cut through the post-modern anarchy.

One of the most important characters is an old man who appears sitting on the edge of the tub.  He may or may not be Jack's father, and saves his life by warning him about the entrance of each homicidal woman.   Jack nicknames him Beckett, and their dialogue is occasionally like Waiting for Godot.  They talk wittily about the women (Jack says they showed up on bicycles, sang and danced for him, and then went to bed with him).  When Jack asks who has redecorated downstairs, Beckett suggests faeries, changelings, gremlins, or two tramps.

"His sarcasm perplexed me, but I did not press the point.  Beckett had saved my life five times, yet possessed a preternatural relationship with the five would-be assassins, cozying up to them in my absences.  Nonchalant to the essence of my predicament, he seemed awfully familiar, yet his true identity shifted in mysterious ways.  One moment he reminded me of my deceased father, the next I was sure he was the spirit of Samuel Beckett come to wait with me for a truth that would never arrive.  I could not tell if he was friend or foe, and as these thoughts raced through my mind, he smiled dumbly at me, as though content to let me stop and ponder it all."

Donohue said in an interview that he was inspired by Gustav Klimt's painting of eight women in bed.  In Centuries of June, all eight women have been sleeping in the same bed.  One by one, except for the eighth woman, they enter the bathroom and try to kill Jack.

Klimt's painting

In one scene, Jack fixes a hole in the attic by covering it with a print of a painting by Klimt.  I wish a reproduction of Klimt's  painting were on the cover. 

I am not really a short story reader.  I admired Tea Obreht's beautifully written The Tiger's Wife, a novel interwoven with a series of tales about tigers and a deathless man, and Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination (which I learned about from Donohue's review in The Washington Post), a morbid novel told in six short stories linked by a woman's journal.  Louise Erdrich's novels, of course, are always linked stories.  Donahue's novel has the strengths and weaknesses of this form. 

My two favorites, the folk tale, "The Woman Who Was Married to a Bear," reminiscent of Louise Erdrich's stories, and "The Woman Who Danced the Vaudoux," a story of slavery, could be stand-alone stories.  But others, "The Woman Who Caught the Gold Bug and the Silver Fever," a story of the Gold Rush, and "The Woman Who Lost the Flag," a story of baseball, mystified me.  These two women's stories did not particularly seem like women's stories to me.  The magical American history of women could perhaps have been better represented.  

The ending winds things up, but seems a bit precious.  Wait...there should be more.  An editor should have asked for more.  It's all very detailed, and then it ends abruptly.  I wanted more of Jack's story from Jack's point of view. 

Donohue is a very good writer, and though this novel isn't quite for me, it is because I only want to read two short stories a year, and I have now read three novels of short stories in one year.   I'll have to look at his future work. He is also the author of The Stolen Child, a fantasy much touted a few years ago, and Angels of Destruction

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Life's a Beach: Diana Gabaldon, George R. R. Martin, & Winston Graham

Life's a beach whether you want it to be or not when the temperature is this hot.  I keep cool in my butterfly-print shortie pajamas (wearable to the grocery store), drink iced tea in glasses with cocktail umbrellas, and download beach books onto my Nook.   (Southern energy-saving tip:  Keep the windows closed during the day and open them at night when it cools off.  If it doesn't cool down, turn on the AC at night.)

The BEACH BOOKS are, of course, the most important items on the list.  I have spent hours choosing just the right books.  

Number One on My Nook. I'm very much enjoying Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber, the second book in the Outlander series.  You can't go wrong with Gabaldon if (a) you're a woman, (b) don't feel like reading the George R. R. Martin books but want a trendy series, (c) like historical novels, (d) like romance, (e) like time travel, or (f) all of the above. 

A friend urged me to read the Outlander series. "Jamie!" she said.  "Jamie!"  Jamie is apparently the sexiest guy in fiction since the priest in The Thorn Birds (or something like that).  There's a woman named Claire who steps into the cleft of a standing stone and accidentally time-travels to eighteenth-century Scotland, where she meets Laird Jamie and has political and historical adventures.  My friend loves these books so much that she went berserk over the 20th year anniversary of Outlander  this summer and tried to bribe a bookseller to sell it to her before the publication date.  To please her, I read the first book awhile ago and thought parts were well-written, but parts were trashy romance.

I lam glad I transcended my supercilious gotta-read-literary-fiction attitude, because Dragonfly in Amber is better than Outlander.  It starts in 1968, with Claire, an American doctor, and her 20-year-old daughter, Brianna, visiting Scotland.  Claire wants to tell Brianna that her father is Jamie of the 18th century, not Frank, Claire's 20th-century husband, a historian who recently died.  But how can she make Brianna understand?

Okay, the book is not perfect, but it's lots of fun.  One minute Claire is freaking out in a graveyard because she sees Jamie's gravestone, the next she has told Brianna and a young historian who has fallen in love with Brianna the truth (the historian believes her), and the next we've flashbacked and time-traveled back to prerevolutionary France in the 18th century,where Claire and Jamie have fled, because Jamie was condemned to death by the English.  Now they are secretly working to stop Bonnie Prince Charlie's efforts to regain the Scottish throne.  And Claire and Jamie frequently go to bed.  Detailed sex scenes, but not that sexy.  But you get used to it...and the historical novel part is great. 
Fun pop lit!  Love this one (so far).

Number Two on My Nook.  George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first in A Song of Fire and Ice series.  George R. R. Martin has saved the publishing industry this summer, or so I understand from all the articles about A Dance with Dragons, the fifth in the series.  Stores expected e-books to do well, because there is a ravening fan base, but found to their surprise that fans really wanted the physical books as well.  Paul Ingram of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City said of the series, "It's Harry Potter for everybody."  

I didn't like the Harry Potter books, but I loved Twilight.  So I understand where this is going, though I'm not in on this trend.

I tried and failed to read A Game of Thrones a few years ago after a bookseller told me he would give me my money back if I didn't like it.   I didn't like to tell him I didn't like it, and I ended up giving my paperback away.  

But you know how it is.  I have to read the first one now. I need to know what I'm missing.   So I've downloaded it onto the Nook.  I'm a fan of science fiction and fantasy, so we'll hope it takes this time.

Number Three on My Nook.  Winston Graham's Poldark books.  My friend Ellen of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two loves this series of historical novels set in the 18th century.  She has written about both the books and films.  Visit her blog for much about the series; she even taught the first book, Ross Poldark, this spring.

Very enjoyable, well-written, and I adore Poldark, an impoverished aristocrat who returns to Cornwall from the Revolutionary War with a limp only to find he's lost his girl to his cousin, Francis, that his house is a shambles, and he needs to refurbish a mine so he can revive the local economy and his own income. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Marriage in He Knew He Was Right & The Year of H. G. Wells

When Trollope's characters marry, they want the whole package:  love, sex, and money.  But there is confusion in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right; some of the female characters want to sacrifice themselves for their lovers.  Before or during their engagements, Dorothy Stanhope and Caroline Spalding decide to abnegate their claims to marriage.  Dorothy doesn't believe she should marry Brooke Burgess because her aunt threatens to cut him out of her wil.  Caroline Spalding, an American, fears rumors that say her nationality will ruin Mr. Glascock's social standing. 

As you can imagine, love prevails for many of Trollope's couples.

When women won't make sacrifices, however, look at what happens.  Emily and her husband, Louis Trevelyan, are in love.  They have money, a baby, and are very happy.  But they separate after Louis becomes pathologically jealous of Colonel Osborne, Emily's father's best friend, a flirtatious man in his fifties who visits too often and who has allegedly brought discord to other married couples.  Louis says Emily has disgraced him, and Emily refuses to apologize for innocent behavior. 

So Louis banishes Emily, her sister Nora, who lives with them, and their child to a house in a village far from London; he will take them back only if Emily admits her fault.

Nora is distressed by the break-up of her sister's marriage.  Nora is in love with Hugh Stanhope, an impoverished political journalist for a penny paper, but she desperately wants money.  She hopes to marry Mr. Glascock, Lord Peterborough's heir, a man with whom she has been thrown together at parties, but she cannot love him.  Morally, she decides she cannot marry a man she does not love, though she very much regrets this. 

There is plenty of comedy.  Arabella and Camilla French, two spinsters who are almost mythic monsters, set their caps for the same man, Mr. Gibson, a clergyman.  What happens I will not say, but the sisters are horrifying, and at the same time very funny. In a way I feel sorry for them:  they are portrayed as foolish women who throw themselves at men, but it is their only chance of escaping life with Mother.  The other women are not mocked, of course, because they are lovely and men want them.

100 pages to go.

This is THE YEAR OF H. G. WELLS.  Earlier this year, I binged on Kipps and Tono-Bungay, two of Wells's realistic novels about the rise and fall and rise of lower-middle-class heroes.
I also read David Lodge's A Man of Parts, an excellent historical novel about Wells. I'd love to see this nominated for a Booker.

I just picked up Spanish writer Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time, a novel set in Victorian London in which H. G. Wells is a character.  I bought it at Borders--probably the last time I will visit a Borders since all the stores are going out of business.

Since The Map of Time is partly about time travel, will I have to reread The Time Machine?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Notebooks & The Daily Stats

I take notes out of habit and boredom, a practice formed in grad school, when at any hour of the day or night I might have to look up a Greek word like kakodaimon (evil genius) while reading Aristophanes's The Clouds. Later I bought hardback notebooks, but cheaper, lighter-weight notebooks are better for traveling. On a recent shopping trip, I bought inexpensive composition books (love the yellow one!  Only $1 at Target) and slightly fancier paperback Apica notebooks. 

Bess Streeter Aldrich's house
I use the blue Apica notebooks most often because they fit in my purse. There are quotes from Our Mutual Friend, indecipherable marginalia on Caroline Gordon's stories, "The Last Day in the Filed" and "One Against Thebes,"  and notes on our visit to Iowa-born novelist Bess Streeter Aldrich's home in Elmwood, Nebraska.  Aldrich (1888-1954), author of A Lantern in Her Hand, grew up in Cedar Falls, graduated from Iowa State Normal School (now University of Northern Iowa), taught for several years in Iowa and then supervised student teachers in her hometown, before marrying lawyer Charles Aldrich in 1906.  He bought a bank in Elmwood, Nebraska, where they moved in 1907. Here are some of my notes:

"Built house (where museum is located) in 1922 for $7,000. Piano came on steamboat. Visited Green Drug every day to socialize and pick up mail.  One bad Christmas, when there was no money, the Aldriches made gifts for children and put them in a big pine barrel:  wooden checkers game, log rocking horse, dolls, homemade doll dresses...."

We use another Apica for a bicycling journal.  Huh!  I never remember to write anything down. Bicycling is...boring...good exercise...relaxing...what else can we say?  My husband sometimes remembers to record our rides.

Then there is the big notebook for tracking health care problems.  During a relative's recent hospitalizations, I wrote down vital stats, notes on conversations with doctors and nurses, and health and behavior changes.

"Are you a nurse?" someone asked when I rattled off stats over the phone.

"No, no."  What can you say?  It's a matter of trying to understand the language of medicine, and going over the notes to make good decisions.

And so the notebook-writing goes on... 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bibliobits: Anthony Trollope, Typos, & Literary Centenaries

For two weeks I've been reading Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right.  I carry it everywhere in my purse and in my bike pannier in case I need a Trollope break. Although I have also been reading some excellent contemporary novels, I love Victorian novels and this is possibly the best book of the year.  Of course I say that every year about whatever Victorian novel I'm reading, and last year it was Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? 

Not everyone is at home in 19th-century England. My husband, who grew up reading Celine and Dostoevsky, loathed English novels until he discovered Dickens.  But if, like him, you have a prejudice against Austen's dry wit, Dickens's rhetorical flourishes, and Thackeray's chatty asides, Trollope, with his energetic prose, extraordinary plots, and arresting characters, may be your man.

He Knew It was Right centers on marriage.  Emily Rowley, the vivacious and strong-minded daughter of the governor of the Mandarin Islands, and Lewis Trevelyan, a Cambridge graduate, gentleman, and poet, separate after two years of marriage. Louis asks her to stop seeing Colonel Osborne, a man in his fifties who likes to flirt; Emily refuses to obey Louis because she's innocent and Colonel Osborne is her father's oldest friend.  Colonel Osborne complicates the situation by enjoying the mischief and continuing to visit her even when she is banished by Louis with her baby and sister to live in a rural village.

Louis hires a detective, loses his health, and goes slowly mad.  Although we pity him, it is impossible to feel empathy after he kidnaps their child.

I must admit, I prefer Emily's sister, Nora, who lives with the  Trevelyans.  It is clear that she is there partly so she'll have opportunites to marry well.  Mr. Glascock, the future Lord Peterborough, falls in love with her, but though Nora wants to marry money, she is in love with Hugh Stanhope, a failed barrister who is a successful political writer for a "penny newspaper."  Nora's parents oppose the marriage because of his financial situation.  Many other characters face the same difficulties:  financial problems and family opposition. 
It is ironic that the couple with no financial difficulties, the Trevelyans, are the ones who have emotional difficulties.  

Typos.  In the July 17 edition of The New York Times, Virginia Heffernan explores "The Price of Typos" in publishing.

As Geoff Shandler, the editor in chief of Little, Brown and Company, told me, “Use of the word processor has resulted in a substantial decline in author discipline and attention. Manuscripts are much longer than they were 25 years ago, much more casually assembled, and beyond spell check (and not even then; and of course it will miss typos if the word is a word) it is amazing how little review seems to have occurred before the text is sent to the editor. Seriously, you have no idea how sloppy some of these things are.”

Literary Centenaries.   2012 is the centenary of poet Elizabeth Bishop's birth;  Tennessee Williams's birth; Nobel winner Czeslaw Milosz's birth; Irish writer Flann O'Brien's birth; and the publication of The Secret Garden

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Notes on My Vacation and Borders

You get up at dawn on vacation.   Since your husband is up at 7, he thinks you should be up at 7.  He says the two of you must take a bike ride before it gets too hot.   IT WILL BE 97 DEGREES BY NOON.

You say you won't ride without coffee, and point out that even the Deathless Man in Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife gets to drink coffee. Your husband says you should sell The Tiger's Wife

Starbucks at 7:30 isn't much as much fun as you'd hoped. You read in bed till 3 and didn't expect to get up till 10.  There are a lot of people in suits, looking as crusty-eyed and exhausted as you feel.  (Don't they wish they were going on a bike ride at 7:30.)

Then you realize you don't have to bike ANYWHERE unless he drives you to Borders afterwards.  He agrees.

Borders.  Our Borders closed recently, and I just read at Reuters:

Borders Group Inc inched closer to liquidation on Sunday after a bidding deadline passed without offers, the Wall Street Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.

Bids for the second-largest U.S. book store retailer Borders were due at 5 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday ahead of a bankruptcy court auction scheduled for Tuesday, the paper said.

I inhaled Borders, have missed it the last few months, was happy with the ambiance, noted the number of people hanging out in the cafe, and felt sad that  it will probably be the last time we're in a Borders store.  The book selection is small now:  no more Trollope, no John Sayles, and much more pop lit.  Some plastic plants by the information desk were partly wrapped up in garbage bags.  Somebody was taking books OFF the shelf.  

They did have the book I wanted, though. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What I'm Reading Now & What I Want to Read

WHAT I'M READING NOW:  Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, which is not to be confused with other new books with "tiger" in the title: Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills, an Indian family saga;  Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir about Chinese child-rearing; or Margaux Fragoso's Tiger, Tiger, another memoir about parenting. 

The Tiger's Wife won the Orange Prize this year. Obreht was one of the New Yorker 20 under 40 writers last summer (though that means little to me). 

I'm very glad I picked up this novel--wouldn't have done so if it hadn't won the Orange Prize--as Obreht is a very accomplished writer.  The Tiger's Wife is a short, graceful novel, laced with magic realism, and narrated by Natalia, a politically-oriented doctor whose youth in the Balkans was shaped by war and by her grandfather's magical stories of tigers and the Deathless Man. Between grieving for her grandfather, a doctor who recently died, and picking up his personal effects at a clinic in a remote village he was mysteriously visiting, she inoculates children in a village orphanage by the sea and, like her grandfather, begins to hear magical stories.

It's very good.  Though I am surprised this won the Orange Prize, I'm enjoying it very much.

BOOKS I WANT TO READ.  I have "firmed up" my reading list for July. Naturally, there are other books I'd LIKE to read when I've finished everything I PLAN to read. 

1.  The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy.  It is Mervyn Peake's centenary year, and I would very much like to reread his fantasy novels, Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone.  Illustrated by Peake, this edition will be reissued in September by Overlook.  I last read Peake's trilogy on a camping trip, and because I never slept--nearby campers partied all night--my inclination was to sit by the lake in a daze and read instead of hiking, boating, fishing, and all those other fun things.  Finally I got a good night's sleep in a motel and then I enjoyed the park.

2.  A. S. Byatt's Ragnarok: The End of the Gods (a new novel published in the UK in September).  Here are two lines from the Amazon description:  "Recently evacuated to the British countryside and with World War Two raging around her, one young girl is struggling to make sense of her life. Then she is given a book of ancient Norse legends and her inner and outer worlds are transformed."

3.   Felix Palma's The Map of Time.  H. G. Wells is a character in this science fiction novel.  According to the book description:  "The Map of Time boasts a triple-play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel..."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jonathan Yardley's Second Reading: Notable and Neglected Books Revisited

I was pathetically reading in the bedroom, the coolest room in the house, the fan blasting the hot air OUT the window, because I couldn't close it and then turn on the air conditioning.

Fortunately, Jonathan Yardley's new book, Second Reading:  Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, kept me occupied until my husband came home and closed the window. Doesn't this book have a great cover? I found this gorgeous Europa paperback while I was looking the other day (in vain) for Rachel M. Brownstein's Why Jane Austen?

Yardley, a book reviewer, columnist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, has been at The Washington Post since 1981. The Post has many good critics--Michael Dirda (another Pulitzer winner), Ron Charles (a National Book Critics Circle winner), and Carolyn See (novelist)--where did they get them all?

Second Reading is a collection of columns that appeared in The Washington Post between March 2003 and January 2010.  After Yardley lost the column he had written "for more than two decades...for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained," he came up with the idea of writing a column about books from the past. It became an autobiography of a lifelong reader.

Yardley writes:

"It didn't take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my reading past--as you'll see, the word 'fun' appears frequently in these pieces--or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post's readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books.  The fixation of journalists on the new and trendy is a forgivable occupational hazard, but it neglects the interests of readers who want something more substantial than the Flavor of the Day."

These well-written, intelligent columns are more like essays than "pieces."  Yardley's writing is elegant and addictive.  He is what I consider "old school":  the son of a headmaster, a scholarship boy at prep schools, editor as a student of the paper at The University of North Carolina, and author of biographies of Frederick Exeley and Ring Lardner.  Excellent education, not that that necessarily means anything, because few can write this well.  (My own working-class roots are more like Michael Dirda's, but I admit I DID teach at a prep school after graduate school.)

The first essay is about John P. Marquand, a writer of satires of the WASP world.  He won a Pulitzer in 1937 for The Late George Apley.   Yardley focuses on  H. M. Pulham, Esquire, a novel about a Harvard-educated conformist looking back over his life.  He loves Marquand and believes he is neglected for all the wrong reasons, for his "smooth technique" and popularity.  He says, "It is ludicrous that the Library of America, which smugly proclaims itself guardian 'of America's best and most significant writing,' finds room for ever less significant work yet turns up its nose at Marquand."

I have read several of the books Yardley rereads, but have NOT read even more of them.  The 60 essays include reviews of Garcia Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, Ellen Glasgow's The Woman Within, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, John D. MacDonald's The Dreadful Lemon Sky, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Louis Armstrong's Satchmo:  My Life in New Orleans, Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, Bernard Malamud's A New Life, Allen Tate's The Fathers, and Noel Coward's Pomp and Circumstance.

I especially like his essay on John D. MacDonald and believe I will add one of the Travis McGee books to the night stand.