Monday, January 31, 2011

Girlebooks: Roast Beef, Medium

Girlebooks has just published Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber's delightful, humorous collection of short stories, Roast Beef, Medium (first published in 1913).  Ferber's witty heroine, Emma McChesney, is a successful petticoat saleswoman and a divorced mother with a remarkable sense of humor.

Laura, the publisher of Girlebooks, learned about Roast Beef, Medium from Frisbee.   Thanks, Laura, for publishing this beautifully designed free ebook, and, by the way, for the other beautiful editions at your charming website.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Last Rites and The Importance of Cheerfulness

The relative I visited last week is recovering slowly, as I expected.  The doctor said the blood work and the prognosis were good.

So I was amazed when the priest came in rattling his vials of oil for Last Rites.  I rapidly father-son-holy-ghosted, pausing to ascertain whether the Sign of the Cross  was left-to-right or right-to-left.  Fortunately I remembered correctly, as I didn't want to participate in a witches' sabbath.  Then I zipped the lips as in a silent movie. I didn't believe it was time for Last Rites.  I listened to the mouthings of "Lord have mercy!" by the non-Catholic relative who called the priest.

The rest of us did not say the responses.  We were too stunned by the extravagant gesture of the sacrament. Apparently Last Rites can be called for someone very ill, but it is more usual for the terminally ill or dying.

Certainly I didn't like all that talk of death for my confused

"Cheery-bye!"  I said to the priest.

The problem with the meddling, non-Catholic Last Rites organizer, whom I will refer to as Mr. Death, is that he is a depressive.  He insensitively exaggerates the severity of her illness to her (which is severe enough at her age) and does not expect her to walk or eat, the major goals right now. He scorns the goals.

So we are in the waiting room while our relative has surgery and he is talking about a divorce that happened in the '70s.

"Can you forgive his infidelities?  He didn't pay a penny of child support."

Ancient history, and besides, they made a deal that each would financially support the child he or she had custody of.  The family was split.  Sad, isn't it?  But it was many years ago AND people moved on.      

I tried to explain that these are human problems, common.

"I'm sure she has forgiven him."

"She hasn't."

I'm thinking, She's a Catholic.  What about those Last Rites?

Mr. Death is suspicious of the rest of us. He seems to think we are there to get her to change her will.  Love doesn't come into it for him. He talks only about her money.  He is obsessed with selling the house and talks about it in front of her. Charming. The rest of us hope she will be able to return home and have attempted to explain to him that a washer and dryer could be installed on the first floor so everything could be on one level.  

Mr. Death. (whining):  "When I think of what she used to be able to do.  And they're cutting her nutrition bag by a third." 

Me:  "That's a good thing.  It's been less than a week since the surgery and she's eating on her own."

Different points-of-view, eh?

I'm sure I'll be back next week, but I have a different schedule now.  I'm there only when Mr. Death is not.

The importance of cheerfulness cannot be overestimated  in that gloomy hospital.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Women's History: Stephanie Coontz and Gail Gollins

Two fascinating new women's history books, Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring:  The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, and Gail Collins's When Everything Changed:  The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, analyze changes in women's role in society over the last 50 years.  
The former is a critical study of Betty Friedan's 1963 bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique, and its effect on the women who read it in the 1960s; the latter is a lively general history which also briefly chronicles Friedan's role in the Women's Movement.  The two writers' approaches to history are very different.  Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, summarizes and analyzes Friedan's book in the context of twentieth-century history.  Although A Strange Stirring is well-organized, well-written, and very readable, Coontz is weirdly irritated by small perceived inaccuracies in Friedan's interpretation of data. She comes to terms with the book in the course of criticizing it.  It is a page-turner, if you can believe that of a scholarly non-fiction book.

Collins, a columnist at The New York Times who was the newspapers' first female editorial page editor, is more blatantly feminist yet has a pop-light journalistic tone that not may not be everyone's cup of tea. When Everything Changed is much more ambitious than A Strange Stirring, and though it is a bit disorganized, I am enjoying it immensely. 
I find both books addictive.  There is terrific information in both.
Our mothers read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, or perhaps when it was released in paperback. It inspired women to question their lives as housewives, and Friedan received much mail saying it had changed women's lives.  I read it in junior high.  Although my friends and I didn't aspire to traditional break-out careers like law or medicine, and pursued liberal arts, neither did we relive our mothers' lives. The Feminine Mystique was inspiring.
Friedan, a freelance writer and alumna of Smith College, spent a year preparing a questionnaire for the fifteenth reunion of her class of 1942.  She published an article on their despair and wasted education  and then expanded it it into a book.  Many of her housewife classmates admitted they "were slowly going crazy in their well-appointed homes, just as she felt she had been doing" (Collins, p. 58).  Friedan said women were coerced to "waste their lives on meaningless household chores in order to create profits for the manufacturers of household goods." (Collins)  She encouraged them to work part-time or go to school while their children were growing up.  It is not the radical book that many condemned, though she did compare being a housewife to living in a concentration camp.
On the other hand, Coontz admits that she thought she was above Friedan's book in the '60s and that she could do any work she wanted. (A very unusual attitude for a woman born in 1944, I would say.)    Coontz taught The Feminine Mystique a few years ago and said she and her students found it very dated.  It was not her idea to write A Strange Stirring:  she was asked to take on the project. Although she isn't the enthusiast I expected, I very much enjoy her detailed history of the American women's suffrage movement, followed by the greater freedom of women, and then the post-war cocooning of women till the Women's Movement blossomed in the '60s.  In the course of the book she questions Friedan's reasoning and claims she exaggerated the post-war changes in attitudes toward women and the family, but she seems to reaffirm Friedan's conclusions.    

I should read more women's history.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Iowa Book & Supply:  If You Can Get Past the Campus Paraphernalia, It's a Good Bookstore

I'm thrilled to be home, reading my blogs again and catching up on articles about Borders' financial recovery.  When I wasn't doing my stints at the hospital, I bought FIVE BOOKS at various bookstores, my favorite being Iowa Book & Crook, but I'm happy to support Borders again. 

"They know you're back in town," my husband said. 

Most of the time I was reading on my Nook--I hardly dared to buy a Kobo because I feared Borders would go out of business any minute--but there's nothing better than a real physical book. After finishing Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing, I discovered I myself was the mistress of an e-book I'd never read again.  I can't sell it and I can't give it away, and I usually give 100 REALLY GOOD BOOKS to the Charity Book Sale. So nobody gets to read my copy of this Governor General's award winner, as it metaphorically rattles around in my e-reader until I delete it.  That's why it's much, much better to download free out-of-print books from onto your e-reader.

Anyway, I am reminded  of this hilarious video episode from "The Book vs. the Kindle" at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.  I do love my Nook, by the way, but you're going to understand the point of this immediately.

So an e-reader is really best for reading books in the public domain.  I have, however, bought some e-books I love, among them Alison Weir's Lady in the Tower.

What's been happening in the blog & review world this week?

Dovegreyreader is reading more men writers this year.  She has started a William Golding project, and, coincidentally, my husband collected some William Golding paperbacks to read in 2011, "but I can always change my mind," he said when I told him Dovegreyreader was his soulmate.  (He thinks I should stop blogging and return to writing essays and is tired of hearing about dovegrey.) 

Elaine Showalter at The Washington Post has written a fascinating review of Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring, a study of women who read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in the '60s.  

The National Book Critics Circle has announced its award finalists. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Hospital and the Lady's Maid

Winter Scene

A relative is ill.  I've been shuttling back and forth between the hospital and temporary lodgings.  I think you'll agree that patients need an advocate in the hospital, someone to make sure they don't lie in bed neglected or in pain, too dazed to remember how to push the button to call the nurse. Care varies.  I'm there for stints when no one else can be there.  It's complicated by the fact that Relative A doesn't speak to Relative B because of something that happened at a family reunion in 1989, or was it 1979?  Relatives C, D, and E try to reconcile A and B. Nothing works, so I'm staying out of the way.  
It's very difficult to read in the hospital. I've been dashing out in the afternoon to eat vegetable sushi at a nearby restaurant, and almost fell asleep over my book at the table yesterday. Then I tried to get coffee at a kiosk and a boy informed me that he was out of everything except decaf.  "Are you going to make another pot of coffee?"  "No, we don't have any more coffee."  "Really?"  
Fortunately I found some in the hospital cafeteria.  
I have read Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing this week.  It won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 2009 in Canada and was recently published here.  It's the story of Sally Naldrett, the lady's maid of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, a writer of the 19th century best known for Letters from Egypt.  She moved from England to Egypt because of her tuberculosis, and Sally, her devoted maid of many years, accompanied her.  In Egypt, Sally became involved with the Lady's dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh, and got pregnant.  After helping to deliver Sally's baby, Lady Duff Gordon banished her from her service.  And Pullinger imagines the situation from Sally's point of view.  
It's a very short novel, and the first part is very interesting.  Sally has a reserved but intelligent voice, is devoted to her bold mistress, and the description of their travels through Egypt is lyrical and fine, perhaps adapted from Letters to Egypt.  Lady Duff Gordon is a fascinating character.  She  taught Sally to read.  She translated literature from the French and German.  She knew George Meredith.  When she moved to Egypt, she lived for writing letters.  
"It was as though writing these letters was as important as the day itself had been, if not more so, as though these letters home had become her work, replacing all the other writing she had done in her life."
And it is fascinating when both reject their European women's clothing. 
I must admit, I became a little bored with Sally after she gave birth to Omar's son.  You would think she would become a more fully realized character then, but instead she just hides out in the house while Omar takes care of Lady Duff-Gordon.  Finally she is sent away, with orders to leave her baby with Omar's family.  Lady Duff Gordon ruins her life.
Sally works at a hotel in Cairo and arranges her life so she can visit her son.  Omar, however, is a big disappointment.  He refuses to allow Sally to live with his parents and first wife, because he is afraid of being fired.  Lady Duff Gordon has told him he cannot have anything to do with Sally if he wishes to work for her.  Lady Duff Gordon seems half in love with him herself.
It's a puzzling novel--so muted and plain--and one has the impression that not much happens, though much IS happening.  There's a lack of drama about the narrative.   it reminds me of Margaret Forster's novel, Lady's Maid, the story of Elizabeth Wilson, the maid of another sick writer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
I have to say that I prefer Forster's novel, but I enjoyed Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing.  

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Reading Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story in a Small Town

Abandoned railroad in small town.
A friend was kind enough to let me stay in his empty house in a small town. We'll skip the family emergency that brought me here, because everyone has them and you don't need me to describe it.  Let's concentrate instead on the place.  Founded in 1879, it was once a thriving railroad town and had a flour mill and a ferry.   Sometime in the 20th century the railroad and small industries died, the population dwindled, and it is now a bedroom community.  It still has a grocery store, a small downtown, a public library, a good restaurant, and a roller rink.  There are Victorian houses with porches, Arts & Crafts bungalows, ranch houses, trailers, Colonials, and pre-fab houses.  Some of it is pretty--blueish light on snow--some of it is junky and ugly.  There are meth labs on the outskirts.  One reason I've always hated Garrison Keillor country is that it doesn't exist.   It's a little scary to go to the restaurant and find that everyone in town has your "data."  They all know the drama. You cannot say anything without the whole town's knowing it.  It's like e-mail.

Everyone knew what had happened at the hospital almost before I did.  People brought coffee in the morning and called to find out how I was doing.  

People in cities are also kind, but the experience in a SMALL small town is different. People REALLY socialize.  It can be reassuring or devastating.

What was I reading?

Mostly I was observing people with their e-devices in hospital rooms. I saw iPhones, e-books, iPads, cell phones, and things I couldn't even identify.  In the evening I read parts of Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into  apparati (computer-phone-things which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor).  The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives and Lenny can't right away figure out how to use a new apparat (my problem with a borrowed sleek cell phone is because even the person who lent it doesn't know how to work it). Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society.  He, however, does not qualify for post-human services because he isn't Aryan, isn't healthy enough, and his "fuckability" is measured on his apparat as low.  It doesn't help that he is the only person who reads books (a suspicious activity:  books "smell.)  
"I thought about that terrible calumny of the new generation:  that books smell.  And yet, in preparation for the eventual arrival of Eunice Park, I decided to be safe and sprayed some Pine-Sol Wild Flower Blast int he vicinity of my tomes, fanning the atomized juices with my hands in the direction of their spines."
His much younger new girlfriend, Eunice, is second-generation Korean and her father is abusive.  She and Lenny met in Italy whence they have returned to a fragmented totalitarian United States whose dominance has been usurped by China and even Korea.  Eunice is shallow:  she spends all her time sending GlobalTeens messages to friends and relatives, has flunked her LSAT, and does nothing except shop for underwear.  She is intimidated by Lenny's reading.  She "scans" books occasionally.

Booksellers should market this both as literary fiction and science fiction.  Shteyngart is a 20-under-40 New Yorker writer and doesn't need that genre support, but this is cross-over, and my science fiction club would like it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

In Case You're Wondering

In case you're wondering about my reading plan, bravely announced on January 4, I admire my stack of books. Needless to say, I haven't stuck to this list.  I have added and subtracted desultorily.  

Finished:  Nadine Gordimer's A World of Strangers. Gordimer's stunning second novel examines the changing political views of a cynical Englishman in Johannesburg.

In Progress :  Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, R. F. Delderfield's Theirs Was the Kingdom, and Helen Vendler's Emily Dickinson:  Selected Poems and Commentaries.
 All great!

Rejected:  Yiyun Li's Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.  Li is a 20-under-40 at the New Yorker. I admit I think the New Yorker has gone downhill.  The first story in the collection, about a Chinese lesbian soldier, seems chilly and distant. 

George Meredith's The Amazing Marriage.

Added to List:  Olivia Manning's School for Love (Finished:  I posted about it Sunday).

Alison Weir's The Lady in the Tower:  The Fall of Anne Boleyn and Jean Plaidy's Murder Most Royal (a biography and a historical novel. I haven't gone insane: Plaidy's historical novel actually complements the biography.)

Robin Black's If I Love You, I Would Tell You 


 Antonya Nelson's Bound

So I'm curious:  how many people stick to their reading plans?  My list is mutable. I read Nadine Gordimer and get interested in political fiction.  Or I see something at the bookstore and break my vow not to buy books.  

I wonder how people are doing on spending, too.  YOU'RE MY HERO IF YOU DON'T BUY BOOKS!  I'd never buy a book if I weren't bewitched by book reviewers (who get free books so are unreliable because they want to make friends or enemies, and it's hard to sort out what's what :) ).

A Girl Thing: Victoria Holt & Jean Plaidy Are the Same Woman

Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert, aka Jean Plaidy & Victoria Holt

I almost left a bookstore with a box of Victoria Holt novels.  I very much liked the idea.  The clerk and I agreed the mass-market paperbacks were "like new" but she wanted to get rid of them.  

"I can cut you a deal."

Nobody needs a box of Victoria Holt. My husband thought it very strange that a lover of classics would want to read Gothic novels with cover blurbs like the following:

"Lovely Ellen Kellaway knew very little about her past.  Orphaned as a child and taken in by her arrogant cousin as a 'poor relation,' she was grateful when the handsome young son of a wealthy family asked for her hand..."

I think you will agree it's a girl thing.

Victoria Holt turns out to have been Eleanor Alice Burford Hibbert, the author of 200 novels under eight pseudonyms, the most famous being Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, and Philippa Carr.  By the time of her death, Plaidy's historical novels sold 14 million copies worldwide, according to Fantastic Fiction.

I realized I'd never read Plaidy, I thought.  And I had a copy of Murder Most Royal.  I'll read my Victoria Holt later.

So, guess what?  I'm hooked on Jean Plaidy.

Murder Most Royal is the fifth in her 11-volume Tudor Saga. Websites sort these by order of kings and queens, not by publication date.  Murder Most Royal is actually the first, published in 1948.  

Plaidy's novel is the story of Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII's second wife) and Catherine Howard (her cousin, and Henry VIII's fifth wife). According to Plaidy's novel, which pretty much complements the biographies, with some divergences, Anne was brilliant, manipulative, and politically shrewd.  Wanting power, she did not have sex with Henry till he took serious steps to divorce poor Katharine of Aragon, his devout first wife who did not have a son. When the Pope wouldn't approve the divorce from Katharine, Henry, encouraged by Cardinal Wolsey, broke from the church.  When Anne was pregnant, she and Henry had a private wedding.  

Anne has her enemies:  among them Cardinal Wolsey, her Uncle Norfolk (whose own daughter was once a mistress of Henry), and Princess Mary.  She has lesser enemies of whom she is not aware:  Jane, her sister-in-law, who is envious of Anne's power.  Anne lives for politics, not for love.

Catherine is a much simpler creature:  can't read, is pretty, and is introduced to sex young when she lives at her grandmother's house in a dormitory of ladies who meet their lovers by night.  It is easy to see she will be a pawn of Henry when she grows up.  

What I really like about Plaidy's book are her historical insights .  This is not strictly a romance--it's not romantic at all, since Anne can't follow her instincts, and Henry gets rid of the young man she loves.  

Cardinal Wolsey, who rose from almoner to the Lord Chancellor and more or less ran the king's court, is one of the most interesting characters.  Plaidy points out that "his true religion was statecraft."  And she shows us how he thinks in a few choice paragraphs.  Actually, I would like to read a whole novel about him. The pre-Cromwell Wolf Hall...

Plaidy writes of Wolsey:
"He was well hated, as only the successful man can be hated by the unsuccessful.  That he had risen from humble circumstances made the hatred stronger.  'We are as good as this man!'  'With his luck, there I might have gone!'  So whispered the people..."
"The cardinal was brooding on the secret matter of the King's.  It was for him to smooth the way for his master, to get him what he desired at the earliest possible moment, and he who had piloted his state ship past many dangerous rocks was now dismayed.  Well he could agree with His Majesty that the marriages of kings and queens depend for their success on the male issue, and what had his King and Queen to show for years of marriage but one daughter!"
I'm very much enjoying this entertaining novel and recommend it for leisure hours.  So much fun to read!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Olivia Manning's School for Love

Olivia Manning's School for Love is a short, horrifying, agonizing yet slyly witty novel reminiscent of the psychological fiction of Patrick Hamilton and L. P. Hartley.  If you've read Manning's masterpieces, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, novels following the fortunes of an intellectual couple during World War II in Romania, Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Syria, you may be surprised by the less ambitious scope of School for Love (now available in an NYRB edition, with an introduction by Jane Smiley).  Yet it is a perfect small novel in its way, and addresses both the fortunes of war and the desperation of a group of strangers as seen through the eyes of an adolescent.

The novel is set in a rooming house in 1945 in Palestine run by a mad landlady, who both starves her tenants and keeps the house freezing.  I've always enjoyed novels set in rooming houses, perhaps because I once lived in a rented room, and though there was no landlady to contend with, I spent a lot of time the kitchen-attic eating ramen noodles (did we ever eat anything else?) with a group of disparate roomers I became fond of who ranged from construction workers to artists to education majors to dental students.  

But rooming houses in literature are grungier, or at least more uncomfortable, than mine was. Think of Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude (reviewed here at Tony's Book Blog), or the makeshift living arrangements of Barbara Pym's two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, who briefly room together in the  house Dulcie inherited from her middle-class parents, in No Fond Return of Love

In School for Love, Felix, a teenage boy, is adrift after his mother dies in Baghdad.  No one wants him, and he ends up in Jerusalem, living in a rooming house run by a miserly step-relative, Miss Bohun, who is also head of a mysterious fundamentalist Christian cult waiting for the rapture.  

Felix didn't know what to expect.  

"Now he knew there was not a chance she would be like his mother. For one thing, she was years older; she was older even than his father, who had always seemed elderly and remote.  Although she was not related to him--Miss Bohun had been an adopted child of his father's parents--Felix was afraid she might resemble his father.  Another thing, Miss Bohun was a person whom his mother had not wanted to visit.  Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: 'Oh no, dear one, not there.  We'd have to see Ethel Bohun.  I couldn't bear it.'"

Soon we understand why his mother did not want to see her.  Miss Bohun specializes in "saving" refugees and ancient pensioners, renting them rooms, starving them with cheap rations, regarding them briefly as family, and then throwing them out.  Her housekeeper, Frau Leszno, and her beautiful son, Nikki, are Jewish refugees who once had the lease of the house.  Then Miss Bohun moved in, gradually took over, kicked them out of their rooms, and demoted them to servants.  She quarrels with them incessantly because they do not graciously act as her inferiors.  And they are an unlikable pair, not idealized.  But Miss Bohun's paranoia and stinginess make the house a kind of hell.

A harried bureaucrat gives Felix short lessons and denigrates his poor education--he knows no Latin, poor boy.   Felix doesn't care, but he has nothing to do, so he sits in his freezing room studying and playing with the cat all day.  In the attic a retired man paints flowers and is thrown out after he invites a woman to the house.  Miss Bohun, who tutors English when she isn't running her Christian meetings, is sure everyone is taking advantage of her.  Her miserly measures--substituting fried eggplant for sardines, not lighting the fire, and stealing the milk of a pregnant woman--are over-the-top.

These desperate people have nowhere to go, and Felix makes friends with Miss Bohan because he has no one else.  But when Mrs. Ellis, a beautiful young widow, moves in, Felix falls in love with her and begins to see a different point of view.  Mrs. Ellis despises Miss Bohan, which sometimes makes Felix feel guilty, and she and Miss Bohan battle for the house.  Miss Bohan had implied to Mrs. Ellis that she would hand over the lease to her in the fall--a typical ploy for her to get a roomer. 

But which is better?  The miserly religious nut, or the widow who sees everything so cynically? 


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Journey to the Library on the Prairie & Gothic Guilty Pleasures

Today we drove to the university library 40 miles away.  It's an absolutely flat drive, not very pretty, and in the winter the snow blows around, but it's worth it, even if you have to rent a car, because it's like visiting the best used book store you can imagine.  We've spent many afternoons lounging in this lovely windowed space and reading the diaries of Vera Brittain, the memoirs of W. H. Davies, short stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Zona Gale, obscure novels by Southern writer Caroline Gordon, and books I would never have picked up elsewhere. Saturdays are especially nice because no one's there.  The students are playing football in the snow, eating Chinese food at the union, or walking around in giggling groups until Sunday night when they rush back to the library.

Alas, this afternoon we were not allowed to check out books.  We had to renew our library card and were told we must wait till Tuesday to borrow books.
"But we're already in the system."
Apparently a librarian has to brood over our information first.  It seems unlikely, doesn't it?  We paid our $20 fee, so why did we have to wait?  But nobody official works there on the weekends, only students, and they don't know what's going on, so what could we do?
We were baffled, but found a good assortment of books to check out next time. 
Then we went to our favorite coffeehouse.
The usual crowd of university town residents, profs, and students loiter for hours in comfortable chairs and on couches, huddle over laptops at tables, or convene in wooden booths for conversation.   There are free refills of coffee.  I recommend the chocolate muffins.  They are worth a 40-mile trip.

Then we went to the used bookstore.

Now this particular used bookstore has had pretty much the same stock since 2001.  It has a good pop-and-literature section, a lot of science fiction and mysteries, and a room devoted to non-fiction.  Today we also found a new bargain section:  all of Anne Tyler's and Philip Roth's novels for $1 apiece (though we have most of these)  and a new copy of Sebastian Faulks's The Girl at the Lion D'Or for $1.  Then at the last minute I discovered a whole box of Victoria Holt paperbacks and chose one.  What a find!

It's when you go pulling books out of boxes that you get into trouble.  The clerk-cashier-book expert hadn't priced it and said it was not a bargain book.  She went back to look at the box , and after we enthused over Holt for awhile, said she could sell it to me for 75 cents.  See, if you're just NICE to people?  Then she suggested that she could cut me a deal if I took ALL the Victoria Holt books.
Wow, I would have loved that!   But my husband frowned.  Tension.  I said, laughing, to make the peace, that I'd have to come back another time.  Of course I don't drive so that's not going to happen, but I really disliked the scowling back and forth that went on between them over the cash transaction.  I simply faded into the background because if people are going to be rude--and these two decided to be--there's nothing you can do.

Now I have to tell you the truth.  If she had been young and cute, there would have been none of this scowling.  Don't you hate to see things from the male point of view?  He would have cooed, she would have seemed like an entrepreneur, and I would have been very irritated by the time I got out of there with THE WHOLE BOX OF VICTORIA HOLT PAPERBACKS.
When we got out of the store, he told me he couldn't believe her nerve.
"Aren't those romance novels?"
"No, they're Gothic novels!"
I tried in vain to explain the lure of Gothic novels of the 1940s to '70s.  Brave, intelligent, agile heroines travel to foreignn countries, fall in love with men with dark secrets, solve crime, and battle villains, though there's always romance and sometimes the men rescue them.  Other times, as in Mary Stewart's novels, they work together.  Believe me, these heroines aren't limp.   Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart (my favorite), Phyllis Whitney, Dorothy Eden, and several others were popular in my youth.  As Wikipedia says, "the Romantic strand of Gothic was taken up in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) which is in many respects a reworking of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Other books by du Maurier, such as Jamaica Inn (1936), also display Gothic tendencies. Du Maurier's work inspired a substantial body of 'Female Gothics,' concerning heroines alternately swooning over or being terrified by scowling Byronic men in possession of acres of prime real estate and the appertaining droit de seigneur."

Well, we had a nice day, despite the tension at the store.  It's true that we didn't drive all the way there so I could buy Victoria Holt.  I'm going to put on my 'jamas and flaunt my Holt now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Reading on the Nook & a Short Review of Antonya Nelson's Bound

Person reading a Nook

I am very much enjoying the Nook, the e-reader I bought two weeks ago.  I went to an electronic appliance store to compare the Sony Reader (which I wanted) to other e-devices and ended up with the Nook because it is inexpensive and sleek.  Ironically, I had been at B&N earlier and hadn't considered the Nook.  The salesman was a Nook fan and before I knew it...  B&N should really hire him.

The B&N website has some excellent videos about how to use the Nook.  If I can learn to use it, anybody can. 

It is a smooth, fun experience reading on the Nook, once you learn to disregard the distractions:  the browsing at B&N, the downloading of samples, the borrowing of library books, and apparently you can also check your e-mail. Of course no one makes you do any of those things.  It is a delight to download free books from and other free websites.  The whole experience is as much like reading a book as it can possibly be, because that's what you're doing, reading a book.

But I have some tips.  If you plan to write about a book, don't rely on the e-reader's bookmarking and highlighting components. Use a pen and paper and take notes. It's quicker. Highlighting passages on the machine involves a cursor and is not the giddy swipe of the pen I remember.  If you want to add notes to the page, you have to type on a tiny keyboard and I keep making typos and have to rush back and forth between the "abc" and the "123" keyboards to find all the punctuation.  All of this is slow, and good luck finding the notes later!  You have to bookmark them, and if you're like me you've also bookmarked every time you've stopped to go to the bathroom because you don't really trust the machine to remember.  I'm sure people come up with their own systems, but a pen and notebook work for me.  

Anyway, I did a "sample" highlighting run with Antonya Nelson's Bound. I bookmarked too many damned pages.  But here goes. The novel begins from the point of view of a dog whose owner is dying in a car accident. The dog is torn between its survival instincts and loyalty to its owner.  And I almost couldn't go on because I can't read sad dog stories.

But then we switch to the humans.  Misty, the dog's owner, a Houston realtor, was driving east to visit her teenage daughter, Cattie, at boarding school when the car crashed.  After  Cattie hears the news of her mother's death, she goes  AWOL and moves into a friend's stepsister's run-down house in Montpelier, Vermont. Eventually she bonds with Randall, an Iraq vet with PTSD who rents a room upstairs.  They rescue an abandoned dog and puppies in the woods.  Meanwhile, in Wichita, Catherine, Misty's best friend from high school 20 years ago,  learns that Misty named her Catties' guardian.  Catherine, a smart, pretty housewife who never achieved her potential, is the third wife of a rich, successful, much, much older businessman.  Like a perpetual adolescent who has trouble making decisions, she can't decide what to do about Cattie.  Her fascination with Cattie is partly about her identification with Misty, a poor-white-trash girl with whom Catherine, a professor's daughter, had shoplifted, drunk, and picked up men during a rebellious period in high school.

I rolled along through this novel and enjoyed it.  Nelson is fascinating and I never quite know what any character will do next. Everything works out, more or less, according to artistic design. Nelson has a hip, funny style, but there's also a hardness.  I don't completely buy all of it.  Catherine is the weak link in the story, though I like her humor. She seems to be too good to have been so bad in high school--even breaking and entering. It was easier for me to understand Misty, who moved away and climbed up the ladder to the middle class, than to comprehend Catherine, an honors student who just stagnated.  

There are also dogs, dogs, and more dogs in the novel.  At least 12 dogs. I was always holding my breath to make sure they'd be all right.
So there's the Nook reading experience. It's reading.  Lots of fun!  But next time I plan to write about a book I'll just jot down a few notes.  It's more efficient than whatever I did.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


It's too cold to go the gym or the neighborhood store.  Not as cold as yesterday, actually, when I did go to the gym, but still 13 degrees. I bundled up in t-shirt, turtlenecks, sweater, long underwear, a parka that's good for five below, a ridiculous-looking tie-on hood (North Face, 1980s), parka hood, and extra-thick scarf I knitted a few years ago.  I had to take off my mittens repeatedly to wipe the steam off my glasses.  I was a walking disaster, seeing only out of one lens, and I fell down a step when I entered the gym. Fortunately I just joggled myself.  Everybody kept walking the treadmills without concern.
Paul Newman and companion obviously freezing in "Quintet"
My husband and I are always trading that handmade scarf back and forth.  I wear it outdoors, he wears it indoors.  It's cold in here, but I turn up the thermostat for a few hours a day so we'll have some comfort. It's a bit like Robert Altman's 1979 science fiction movie, Quintet, set in a new ice age.  This is the problem with ultra-environmentalism.  We have to conserve SO much energy ALL the time.  And if you believe it's cheaper to keep your furnace at 68 degrees all winter long, no, the gas company is trying to make money.  Turn it down at night!
We had a really bad winter last year, but this winter it's been milder. It used to be colder, we both agree. Fifteen below for days.  Walls of snow.  We'd run to class, work, or the coffeehouse nearby in our small university town.  We stayed indoors most of the time and devoured  Robertson Davies's Fifth Business, Larry Woiwode's novels, and anything else we found in the literature section at Iowa Book and Crook, the town's biggest bookstore.  We'd have our coats open when it got up to 15 above.  

I'm less resilient in winter these days and hate the cold even more than I used to.  Hence the "Big Book Plan" to keep me busy.   I chose several doorstop-size books to read this month so I'd never have to go out the door if I didn't want to.   So I'm reading Middlemarch, Theirs Was the Kingdom, and Sacred Hunger and hope I'll finish one of them. 

If you haven't read Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, you must go out and get a copy.  It won the Booker Prize in 1992 and is one of the best historical novels I've EVER read.  Yes, that sounds like hyperbole, but this stunning novel, set in 1752, is gracefully written and unflinchingly relates the story of Matthew Paris, a recently widowed surgeon who has served a term in prison for defending free speech and has taken a job on his uncle's slave ship because he feels he deserves nothing better. Paris is horrified by the cruelty of the captain, the ignorance on board ship, and the treatment of the African slaves.  He has already seen so much in prison, but he cannot remain numb in the face of so much suffering.  Occasionally he can make a difference, though not often, and he records events in a journal dedicated to his dead wife. 

I really admire Paris and his stoicism and decency.

So, though Unsworth would never be this sentimental, it makes me think of Kipling's poem, "If," though Paris is not idealized in this way and of course he cannot keep his head.

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run --
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nadine Gordimer's A World of Strangers

I didn't want Nadine Gordimer's A World of Strangers to end. 

I began it on the bus.  Passengers were talking about prison and the Lord. I was uncomfortable and burrowed into my book.  While I was reading, I heard about somebody's son who had just gotten out of prison. It's an everyday occurrence if you have a certain education.   Most got out at Walmart.  I boycott Walmart for political reasons but wasn't going to hold up a sign and say, "Don't go there."

In 2011 we certainly have our social problems.

Published in 1958, A World of Strangers is Gordimer's second novel and one of her best.  There is nothing of the neophyte about it.  It is utterly polished, utterly absorbing.  Her voice is clear and unhistrionic.  The novel showcases the racial politics of South Africa in the '50s.  It was banned for 12 years in South Africa.

It is, alas, no longer in print.  You can buy it for a penny.

The issues still seem pertinent. 

The hero, Toby Hood, an Englishman, does not want to come to South Africa. The son of two radicals, he intensely dislikes political movements.  He goes to South Africa to represent his uncle's publishing company.  He is not a likable narrator. He is repulsed by blacks.  

"I hate the faces of peasants."
 "I thought that the day the ship anchored at Mombasa, and I saw the Africans for the first time."
So it begins.  And there is something shocking about the tone.  Toby is sneery and detached, a cipher.  He is rather like a Graham Greene hero.  We have no feeling that he has ever been involved with anyone or cared about anyone.  

In Johannesburg, his attitudes change. At first he lives mainly in a white world. He is freed from the stifling progressive pressures of his English parents by the exaggerated insularity and indifference of new wealthy friends.  They have cocktail parties and swimming parties.

But he is divided. He meets a lawyer, Anna, who often represents black South Africans. And one of her black friends, Steven, a young brilliant man who breaks the rules without wanting to become political, becomes Toby's alter-ego.  Both want to live private lives and to ignore politics if possible.  And Toby spends many nights roaming the African townships without a government pass, never telling his white friends about it because they are completely oblivious to that world.

One thing that is surprising is Gordimer's male point of view.  Anna, the lawyer, though the most interesting person in the novel to me, does not interest Toby, who muses about her intellectual attractions but somehow is threatened.  Although she introduces him to Steven and other black people who fascinate him, he becomes involved instead with a beautiful, vapid young woman of the cocktail party set, Cecil.

The worlds clash eventually.

Beautifully written and graceful, this novel is one of the best I've read this year.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shopping, Books, & the Nook

Sometimes I shop at malls with my mother.  I can do the shoes-on-sale scene.  But why would I want to wear a ruffle-front mock-neck two-piece dress, a skin-tight t-shirt with crystal beads, a purple boyfriend sweater, or an animal-print trenchcoat?  

"You've never liked shopping," my mother says.

She’s pretty much right.   

I do have a dreadful vice, though.  It's called book-shopping.  

I don't care about shopping for clothes.  I always hated being dragged to holiday sales, standing in line with 100 people outside a sleek women's clothing store until it opened at 9. I'd stand in line for a dressing room while my mother riffled through satin-lined wool skirts, Nehru jackets, sweaters, knit mini-dresses, corduroy jumpers, suede coats, and whatever else was available. 

I can, however, spend hours in a bookstore.  I received two books from Amazon in the mail today, Millen Brand's The Outward Room (NYRB), "a novel about a woman's journey from madness to self-discovery," and the latest novel by Douglas Kennedy. I told myself I would order nothing else. 

But I bought a Nook last week.  I am going to have to disable the shopping option.  I have wirelessly downloaded a whole library.  

This reminds me very much of the actions of a manic student whose Kindle buying was out of control.  I was afraid to mention a book in case she bought it.  Truly.   She was a nice little addled woman but had no one to take care of her.  She didn't have the money for all that clicking.

And now I'm doing the clicking.

And I have that whole double-loyalty thing going:  Amazon for real books and B&N for virtual books.

I never bought books for my Sony Reader. I downloaded free books from  So I'm quite surprised that I like to shop on my new gadget.  This whole virtual book thing turns out to be lots of fun. Just flick the switch and you can read Alison Weir's The Lady in the Tower, Antonya Nelson's new book, or Arthur Ransome's Bohemia in London.  It's the middle of the night and you want to read that sample from Pat Conroy's new book on books.  Click.

But of course I can also read infinite real books from my shelves any time I want.
This morning I tried to buy an e-book, not remembering that I'd actually bought it in the middle of the night.  Thank goodness the Nook looks after its own.

But what do I actually have?  They're VIRTUAL books. When you finish, you can't sell them or give them away. 

It very much reminds me of the chaldron in Jonathan Lethem's novel, Chronic City.  Perkus Tooth, a retired pop culture critic, falls in love with a vase in a photo on the acupuncturist's wall.  it turns out the vases, called chaldrons, are VIRTUAL.    

Perhaps I'm keen on my Nook because I've never had much technology. I don't have a phone, so I'm not always clicking around (except on my computer).  My Nook and I have become FRIENDS.  Is that what technology is all about?

The e-reader thing seems to take the whole yuppie thing up a notch.  Are there yuppies anymore?  They must be called something else.  But that's the kind of feeling I have.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  And, yes, as a friend said years ago, we all really want to be yuppies because we like their things. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Biographies: Writers, Presidents, & Anne Boleyn

When it comes to biographies, I prefer them short.  Mildred R. Bennett's  The World of Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press, 285 pages), one of my favorites, is a vivid, well-written book about Willa's upbringing and early adulthood in Nebraska. Bennett collected unduplicable material: she interviewed and corresponded with Willa's family, friends, and residents of Red Cloud, Nebraska, her hometown.  It's one of those little-known books that should be read by all Catherites, but Bennett, the founder of the Willa Cather Society, was not a famous writer and was not connected with the New York publishing world.

I often lose biographies or get stuck in the middle.  I have skimmed many great biographies of American presidents, the best of which is Fred Kaplan's Lincoln:  The Biography of a Writer (a medium-sized biography at 406 pages). I especially enjoy literary biogaphies.  I adored Peter Ackroyd's exhaustive 1,195-page biography of Dickens, but after the halfway point skipped to the pertinent material about Our Mutual Friend (which I was reading) and the Staplehurst train crash in 1865.  I supplemented my reading with a short pictorial biography by Ackroyd and Jane Smiley's excellent short critical biography, Charles Dickens (Penguin Lives, 224 pages).

I read fewer biographies than I'd like to. Nevertheless, there are some historians and biographers I deeply respect.  Alison Weir is one of them.  Her thoughtful, beautifully written Wives of King Henry VIII, which I wrote about here, fascinated me.  There is a whole wives of Henry VIII industry.  Think of all the historical novels that compete with biographies.  Weir stands out among them.

Weir could be said to compete with herself, as she writes both historical novels and biographies.  At the moment I'm reading her latest biography, The Lady in the Tower:  The Fall of Anne Boleyn. Weir's enthralling book is keeping me up nights.  She investigates the rumors and fallacies about Anne Boleyn, who is perhaps my favorite of all the wives.  It's an engrossing book, and here are a few quotes from Weir.

In her introduction to Lady in the Tower, Weir writes:
"The fascination [with Anne Boleyn] is evident in numerous sites on the internet, the almost-regular appearance of biographies of Anne Boleyn, films and television dramas about her, and the numerous letters and emails I have received from readers over the years.
"Yet never before – surprisingly - has there been a book devoted entirely to the fall of Anne Boleyn, and it was a deeply satisfying experience having the scope to research in depth this most discussed and debated aspect of Anne`s life. It allowed me to achieve new insights and to debunk many myths and misapprehensions. It was an exciting project, and I was constantly amazed at what I was able to discover."
At Weir's website, she says:
"I have been interested in history since the age of fourteen, when I read my first adult novel, a rather lurid book called Henry's Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon. I was so enthralled by it that I dashed off to read real history books to find out the truth behind what I had read, and thus my passion for history was born. By the time I was fifteen, I had written a three-volume reference work on the Tudor dynasty, a biography of Anne Boleyn based partly on contemporary sources, and several historical plays; I had also started work on the research that would one day take form as my first published book, Britain's Royal Families."