Sunday, February 27, 2011

What Do Bloggers Mean?

Sound familiar?  I've read plenty of blog reviews like this.  I haven't ached with loss yet, but I have recommended many books.

I recently wrote an unintentionally provocative piece about bloggers and bookstore affiliates. Is it conflict of interest?  Do bloggers compromise their standards when they sign up to sell books as Amazon or B&N affiliates ?  A blogger writes about a book. An image appears in the post, or in a sidebar on a blog, and if you click on the image you go right to Amazon, B&N, or another bookstore. Then if you buy the book, the blogger makes a little money. Bloggers visited my blog to say there was no conflict of interest.

Nobody but bloggers commented. 


Corporations use bloggers to make money. Of course, bloggers can use corporations, too.  According to one blogger, she makes pennies per book sold. According to another, she made about $200 a year.  These two directly dealt with the issue and made no bones about it.  I have to admit I do not sneer at $200 a year.  I probably spend $1,000 a year on books.   

Oh, it's tempting to sign up as an affiliate.

But if I want to sell books, for God's sake, I'll open an online co-op.  The internet HAS compromised bloggers' ethics.  It makes things too easy for us.  It gives us a template:  Suddenly we find ourselves filling in the Amazon Associate gadget on the Blogger draft page even if we have no intention of doing so.  Honestly, it appears right here. I never asked for this to appear on my page.   Blogger must have made a deal with Amazon.  So click, click!  When I had a blog on Wordpress, one day I went to my blog and found an ad for my city.  It appeared without my permission.  You can imagine how I felt.

Bloggers are not journalists.  Far from it. They're not worried about journalistic ethics.   Everybody is blogging, writing on Facebook, & Twitter:  businesses (so many businesses), writers (so many writers), PR people (so many PR people), publishers (so many publishers), book lovers (professional and amateur), and who is who is who...well, we don't know.  People have different motives for what they do. 

So here are Four Three Precepts for PR Forewarnings:

1.  If a blogger lists books received from a publisher and thanks the publisher, why?  Reviewers are under no obligation to a publisher.  They are doing the favor, not vice versa, and might as well sort out the books first and review the good ones or bad ones.  My husband and I think some of these people are naive and are "bragging." Some may be quite cynical.

2.  If a blogger constantly thanks a publisher for sending a book and then gushes about it, it is a heads-up.  I'M JUST SAYING...

3.  My note of sympathy:  It IS difficult NOT to feel obligated to publicists who send you free books.  If a publicist seeks you out when you are not a professional reviewer, you feel good.  But after awhile it gets old.  You look at the packages with dismay if the books are not your kind of thing.  It isn't necessary to say, Look, I got a free book, and then to say you like it if you don't. It's heart-rending to stay silent, but sometimes you must. The publishers will keep sending them to you anyway because they appreciate your "selling" the books you like. 
4.  Why DOESN'T Persephone Books make bloggers affiliates?... [I deleted most of this paragraph to pacify the crazies.]

My husband notices these discrepancies and thinks there is something deeply wrong in the world of book blogging.  He prefers amateur sports blogs, where they share information about races, weather conditions, etc.  

Bicycling & Books

My first bicycle. Note the casual Amazonian outfit for my first bike ride and the sun squint that eventually lined my face.   Little did I know that I would one day ride a bike thousands of miles across four states. 

My first book,  Baby Animals, a Rand McNally Junior Elf book for 15 cents. Adorable dog, kitten, and chick on cover. Cheap books brought literacy, literature, and book-collecting into our house.

My mother must have been relieved when I learned to read.  I woke her up every morning at 5:30 to be read to.  This was a typical scene in our house (picture at right).  Mom reading (and having a bad hair day), I listening.  The boredom for her, the excitement for me.  Our next-door neighbor was a one-room school teacher whose job was cut when the state closed country schools and bused students into town.  We sat on Mrs. X's stoop and I read her stacks of Golden books, which she brought home from school in the summer, while she and my mother talked and my hair dried after a wash.  Very pleasant scenes.

Later, I subscribed to The Weekly Reader, and we ordered books from its book club.  Curious George, Homer Price, Little Witch, On Your Toes, Susie, The Kid Who Batted 1,000...wonderful books.  It was so exciting when the order arrived at school, our teacher ripped the box open, and called us up to the desk to distribute books.  

What a good beginning.  Of course I went on to Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, and Beany Malone, and then begged books from bookstores for Christmas.  

Later there was the bicycling with books in my baskets to parks where I'd read Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and Jane Austen.

Bicycling and books:  essential parts of life.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Back and Forth

The Relative's illness brought out the worst in people.  There was mean-spiritedness, greed, and would have been fighting if people had been on speaking terms.  She has recovered and is out of the hospital.  The next question was, What was to be her fate?  Home with multiple services (my idea, because many agencies provide, in addition to visiting nurses, services such as grocery-shopping, cooking a meal, driving, etc.) or committed to an Old People's Home?  Well, she's in the OPH.  

This week I camped in her nearly empty house.  I brought a reading lamp, plugged in my clock radio, and huddled in the back bedroom.  There was no phone, no internet access.  The TV worked for one day and then the cable was cut.  It will be the electricity next, I thought.  I anxiously watched the snow fall.  I had not brought boots, only a bicycle, so I tried on all the boots I found in the closet.  Nothing fit.  (I felt like the Ugly Stepsister in Gregory Maguire's terrific book.)  I read Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear on my Nook, a novel I could dive into at the end of the day, regardless of the distractions. My pop fiction vacation.  And when I needed a break from that, I turned to John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman.

I bicycled to the new old age facility. Dog walkers tried to keep me off a bicycle path.  Wow.  They told me it was a nature path and that I was not allowed.  Big dogs, too.  BLOCKING the trail.  This would never happen in my city, where walkers and bicyclists roam the trails.  But I was able to use the damn trail later in the day, and thank goodness there are many bicyclists in this town.   I was not the only bicyclist out there in the 30-degree weather.  

The OPH is on the edge of town.  Why, I wonder?  So they can have the true suburban experience?  The Relative claims that no one will visit her because it's so far out of town.  It's only three miles, but it's true that most of her friends can no longer drive. I urged her to invite a few friends to a bridge party--we could easily set up a card table in her apartment--and my husband could pick them up.  But she doesn't like the idea.  She thinks this is like a hospital setting, and people should drop in.  She thinks she's going home, but the OPH "broker"-relative has talked of selling her house.  The tape measure is on the counter.  All I can do is be slightly subversive on the side.

These McDonald's-style places for the aged, in demand and big business, have a pretty facade to relieve our minds. Actually they're more like McRed Lobster crossed with Panera.  Solid, new, and unobtrusive.  A white winding stairway that no one uses since many are on canes or walkers. The place has a beautiful lounge, with a fireplace, and many comfortable chairs and couches.  It is like a coffeehouse without coffee.  There's music sometimes at night.  There is a dining room, where in theory people go to eat, though in reality some skip meals.  There is a room where people play cards, a computer room/library (I wildly hoped there would be a computer so I could check email, but no chance of that), a gym, a beauty salon, and a chapel.  It's very showy in the front lounges, less so in the dining room and apartments, and of course they have the services like garbage pick-up, laundry, etc.  So people feel comfortable about parking their relatives.

There are glitches.  She isn't getting her newspaper.  She didn't know there was a bus service.  She didn't know when her doctors' appointments were, though she gets free rides to the doctor apparently.  She had no stationery, envelopes, or stamps.  She did not know where the office was or have a phone number to contact them in case she needed anything.  She is receiving bills that worry her. She does wear a button around her neck so she can contact someone in an emergency.  She's only been there a few weeks and doesn't really care for playing cards every afternoon.  "Sometimes they need an extra for rummy," as she says, but bridge is her game.  

She needs more orientation.  Nobody lives in her town, not her "broker," as I call him,  nor any of her relatives.  And I'm not sure she shouldn't have been moved to one of OUR towns.  If she can't be at home, does the city matter? 

Well, I'm back home and am glad to be.  I do what I can, but I CAN'T move there.  I don't want to stay in a hotel, but that's obviously next.  The isolation is terrible in her house.  I'm used to having a computer, phone, and other accoutrements.  I've never had a reason for a cell phone, but I couldn't even call my husband in the evening.   Cell phone service is expensive, I don't need the fun features, but I now see why people have all that crap on their phones.  I couldn't check the internet. I couldn't even find out about buses the night of the snow because I didn't have internet access.  And I have the lowest-end Nook, the one that doesn't give you internet access except at home, because why pay $30 or $40 extra?  Fortunately I was able to get around as usual. Walk, bicycle:  you'll get there.

By the way, James Franco was a guest star on General Hospital, the best of the Relative's shows.  We kept trying to spot him, but I confess we haven't seen 127 Hours and didn't know his work.  We knew he was one of the handsome dark-haired men.  Which one?  Dante the policeman?  The ponytailed boyfriend of a young woman? (He quoted "In Memoriam.") Then at the very end, "Franco," an artist and mobster, appeared.  It was he!  It had to be.  The relative and I were thrilled.  He is very, very wicked, though.

The plot is convoluted.  A bride was blown up with a car bomb.  We couldn't believe it.  

"I'm wondering if she's really dead," the relative said.
"Is Sonny responsible?"  I wondered. "But they seemed so in love."

We were expecting the worst because it's a soap.

No, it was Franco!  He was scary.  

Did you know James Franco has written a book?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Ultimate Bookstore Diet & Pop Fiction Vacation

I went on a diet.  I lost 10 pounds.  Then I lost five more pounds. Fifteen pounds! Then I gained five pounds back.  I didn't actually GAIN weight, since I'm still 10 pounds lighter than I was last summer.  So I've lost 10 pounds.   

I went on a bookstore diet.  I cut up a credit card and swore I would not buy books for ten months.  At a bookstore I considered Michael Frayn's My Father's Fortune, Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters, and Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud:  A Novel of the Revolution.  

The odd thing is I find I don't really care if I'm fat or thin but I do like to buy books.

So last night I came up with the ultimate diet...the diet I know will work for me...because for every pound I lose I WILL buy a book!

"I'll go on a diet if you buy me a book," I said nonchalantly.

Now what husband doesn't prefer a svelte wife to a cozy one?  He immediately agreed.  He was ready to hop in the car and drive to a bookstore and buy me a book.  But then I explained the beauty of the plan.

 "I can download it onto my Nook."

"Really?  You don't prefer the hard copy?"

"The cover is sort of embarrassing."

It's not really embarrassing.  It's sort of pretty.  But the truth of the matter is I don't want to be seen with a book that screams The Clan of the Cave Bear.

Crown has reissued Jean Auel's entire Earth's Children series (novels set in prehistoric times) to prepare us for the release of her latest book, The Land of the Painted Cave, in the spring.

In the '80s I stumbled upon three of these books, read them, and then lost track. I found them utterly absorbing but didn't realize more had been published.  The bookstores have been pushing Auel online again this winter, but, to tell the truth, if I hadn't seen the attractive display of paperbacks at B&N I would not have considered them.

On the other hand, they are perfect for my Pop Fiction Vacation.  Yes, starting today I am reading a LOT of pop fiction.  Auel's prehistoric novels about Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl who, after an earthquake, is adopted by a Neanderthal clan, are wonderfully and skillfully told.  You know the people who read all the Twilight books to get ready for a new one?  Well, I'm the Auel person doing the same thing.

I love the delineation of the character, Ayla, her resilience and strength that allow her to survive after an earthquake, and the intelligence and kindness of the two Neanderthals who adopt her,  a medicine woman, Iza, and the clan magician, Kreb.  There are also details about gathering herbs, making weapons, the difficulty of mathematics for a Neanderthal, and Ayla's Cro-Magnon quickness and daring to rebel.  Fascinating!

I hope I'll enjoy all of them.  I'll let you know.  I'm still on the first book.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bloggers & Bookstore Affiliates

Chris Cleave, a novelist and Guardian writer, says that he received the worst review of his life from a blogger.  The mysterious unnamed blogger didn't show up for a recent lunch for nine writers and nine of the UK's most popular bloggers.  In fact, only four bloggers showed up for this lunch sponsored by Cleave's publisher.  Very odd.

Cleave says he thinks book reviewers and book bloggers are equally powerful and he doesn't prefer one to the other. He enjoyed chatting with Farm Lane Books, a blogger I confess I don't know.  But he humorously insists that some blogs are big business these days, receiving "a 6% kickback off Amazon when you click through on one of their links. I'm just saying." And, he goes on cattily, some bloggers receive tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, so they're NOT strictly the not-for-profit operations you'd imagine.  

His facetious remarks about the Amazon Associates program gave me pause.  I'm vaguely aware of bookstore affiliate programs:  Amazon Associates, the Book Depository Affiliates, & Barnes & Noble Affiliates.   The Am/Ass gadget appears in the sidebar of my draft blogger page.  The truth is I CAN'T profit from it because I can't be bothered to use it. 

I don't pay much attention to these links.  Well, perhaps I've noticed them, but I never click on the book image links at blogs.  If I want to buy a book, I note it in a notebook and then go to Amazon afterwards.  Amazon has the best website, so even when I don't buy, I often read up on books there.  

Do affiliates compromise more in their reviews?  I'd have to analyze reviews and note stats and...  Heavens!  It's not Bloggergate.  But I just clicked on some blogs on my blogroll and am amazed to find so many enrolled in affiliate programs, among them A Common Reader, A Work in Progress, Dovegreyreader, Nonsuch Books, Random Jottings, and The Literary Stew.

A few of these bloggers are really about PR.  They say they write only about books they like.  I used to suspect some of being marketing firms.  And that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them.  I DO.  Only not always for their book reviews.  They're TOO nice, and that means they're unreliable.

But quite a number on my blogroll are NOT enrolled in these programs.  I tend to respect their judgment, too. I must admit I feel relieved I'm not the only one not in business.  There's something about making money off a blog that doesn't SEEM right to me. I never thought about it, of course, before I read Cleave's Guardian piece, though.  

I read blogs for many reasons.  I like Dovegreyreader, Stuck in a Book, and Random Jottings for notes on English life-styles as much as reviews, Ellen and Jim Have a Blog Two for her academic fairness and intelligent criticism, The Fiction Desk for elegant writing, and A Work in Progress for the midwestern perspective on pop and literary novels. 

The truth is I'm much more interested in fair reviews than nice reviews.  Vintage Reading, an honorable, shrewd reviewer, didn't like Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmans of Westport, but I was able to deduce that I might enjoy it, and I did.  A reviewer's opinion is only part of it, and doesn't dictate what I read.

My blog sketches & reviews help me remember my life:  books, bicycling, weather. Perhaps I would be nicer if I remembered that writers sometimes stop by.  But I honestly don't think about that much. 

And I'm not bothering to put links by the bloggers' names in this post; you'll have to go to my blogroll.  There are simply too many potential links in this post...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bibliobits: If I Formed a Publishing Co., Dodie Smith's The New Moon with the Old, & Jo Walton's Among Others

Dodie Smith.  If I indulged the sudden impulse to become a publisher and reissue old books, I would reprint Dodie Smith's The New Moon with the Old

You all know Dodie Smith.  She is the world-famous author of The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I bought a copy of her adult novel, I Capture the Castle, for 25 cents at Good Will when I was 14 and subsequently carried it everywhere in a string bag which matched my fey green embroidered dress.

A few years ago I set out to collect all of Smith's novels.  (I wonder if I've paid them off yet. I recently cut up a credit card which was out of control.) The New Moon with the Old is my favorite.  On March 17, 2009, I blogged:  "This 1963 pop masterpiece has somehow fallen below the critical radar, but this witty, elegant novel is even more engaging than the classic, I Capture the Castle."

I am rereading The New Moon with the Old.  It is a fairy tale about work, a subject that fascinates me.  Smith, a playwright, has a somewhat artificial dramatic style that also appeals to me.  The novel begins with Jane Minton, the new secretary-housekeeper at Dome House, the country house of her charming London employer, Rupert Carrington.  A few days after she arrives, he flees the country guilty of financial misdeeds.   The novel is the story of what happens to Jane and the four Carrington children afterwards, when all must fend for themselves.  

Smith divides the novel into five books, "Jane," "Merry," "Drew," "Clare," and "Richard." Jane takes a job at a school to help support the household.  The two maids do the same:  they take a job at an inn to help out.  Oddly, the children, ages 14-24, find jobs in reverse chronological order.  Fourteen-year-old Merry, a talented actress, runs away and finds a job directing an aristocratic family's amateur theatricals.  Nineteen-year-old  Drew, an aspiring novelist writing a book about the Edwardians, becomes a companion to a 70-year-old woman who is slavishly trapped in an Edwardian life-style.  Clare, 21, who wants to be "a king's mistress" (the family joke and because of her reading of many Dumas novels), becomes a companion to an ex-king whose son falls in love with her.  As for Richard...

Well, I haven't gotten that far and I don't remember much about Richard.  He's the dull one. 

Anyway, one thing that strikes me this time is the isolation of Drew in his Edwardian "time machine."  His employer, Miss Whitecliff, whose life was directed by her ancient domineering mother until the matriarch died a few years ago, cannot make the simplest decisions, cannot even write a grocery list, and was slowly starving, along with her two dependent maids, until Drew came along, contacted her lawyer, and arranged modern life, bringing in food, newspapers, a wireless, central heating, and a refrigerator.

The village appears quaint and completely antique to him until he updates the house.  Then modernity abounds. Suddenly he realizes the house had misled him.  He is grateful to find himself back in the 20th century. He needs contact.

And, for Trivial Pursuit Night on The New Moon with the Old, you'll want to know that Clare's favorite Dumas book is Louise de la Vallicre.

Jo Walton's Among Others.  I bought this novel by chance at B&N because the premise reminded me of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin, a literary novel about magic and literature.  According to a blurb by Suzy McKee Charnas, "This is a love letter, laced with sharp-edged anguish and triumph, from within the SF/F genres.  Among Others shows just how such books are not only entertaining stories but social lifelines."

Doesn't this sound like my kind of thing?  I love SF and fantasy.

The narrator, 15-year-old Morwenna Phelps, keeps a diary at boarding school, in which she records not only encounters with fairies, ghosts, and various odd students, but her impressions of the science fiction and fantasy novels she inhales.  Morwenna understands the gravitas of reading and writes very well about books.  In fact, she spends more time writing about books than people.  Dramatic events include getting a library card at the village library, befriending the school librarian, and joining a science fiction book club.  It is a bit Y.A.-ish in its weaker parts, though it is marketed in the adult SF section and mostly deserves this designation. Perhaps we can blame the failings on Twitterish editors:  great beginnings, award-winning writing, then floundering because no one reads beyond 140 characters.  I will finish, this, though, because Walton is clearly a superior writer and I love the premise for this novel. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Anorexia in Old Age and Isolation at the Relative's House

The historic Hamburg Inn. 
A few weeks ago the Relative was in the hospital. It was an hour's trek to the hospital through an unplowed foot of blizzard snow.  The days were both full and depressing.  I tracked the Relative's vital signs in a notebook, watched her favorite TV shows with her, recorded conversations with nurses, and pushed her IV during walks. 

The dietitian was direct.  She told her,  "You've lost a lot of weight this year and eating is the main thing standing between you and going home."

The Relative has developed a contempt for food. She went from a size large to a petite-petite in a year.  Anorexia in old age?  She didn't bother to talk to the dietitian.

According to a 2001 article in the Guardian:  "Though anorexia nervosa is most commonly associated with teenage girls and young women, the latest research shows that it is as likely to occur in the elderly - and that eating disorders in the elderly are more deadly, accounting for 78% of all anorexia deaths."

It may be anorexia.  I fleetingly thought of it at the time, yet no one suggested it. This may be because of widespread ignorance of psychiatric problems, the general lack of psychiatric training among physicians (an average of two weeks in a four-year residency) and nurses, and separation between the hospital and its psychiatric ward. 

I was there mainly to make sure she ate a little.  I spoon-fed her some small bites of vanilla pudding until she defensively began to use utensils again. "Can't I just feed myself?"  The nurses were convinced she was mentally incompetent and had forgotten how to use a fork.   I tempted her with pie from the cafeteria--she ate the whole piece with a fork--and a hamburger from Hamburg Inn--she ate it with her hands.

At the end of the day I was eager to go home.  I collapsed on the couch.  I was eerily isolated from the world.  The newspaper had been stopped at her house, there was no mail, no internet access, the street was still unplowed, there were only 20 books in the house, and the TV dominated the living room. I had to bring in food from the outside world because she obviously had not been eating for some time.

It's odd to stay in a TV-oriented house.  What was happening in the world?  I had no information except from the TV.  The blizzard was the only local news.  I had investigated and experienced the weather personally and didn't need the "Road Warrior" reports.  How I missed print and the internet.

Yet there must have been 50 cable channels.  Change the channel and you get V, The Good Wife, old movies, reruns of The Sopranos, or the Lifetime channel.  Where's the news?  I didn't have the faintest idea.

I looked at the relative's books.  I was desperate for something to read and hoped to learn more about her.  Books are simply not her thing, though.  There were:

1. Barry Paris's biography of Audrey Hepburn.  I wouldn't have minded reading that.  But Audrey weighed 103 at tops and I'm afraid the Relative weighs less now.

2.  Two copies of Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett wore a corset!

3.    The Torch is Passed.  A book about John F. Kennedy published in 1964.  Did the Relative order this through an ad in the paper?  

4.  Several books by Danielle Steele.  Romances about thin people, I'm assuming.

5.  Gladys Taber's The Book of Stillmeadow.  She was a magazine writer who wrote several books and this is the story of a year at her country house.  I left this during a previous visit and forgot to bring it home again this time.   I haven't read Taber, so can't say if it's good or not.

I found some old photo albums and "read" those instead.  And of course I had brought some books from home.

Addendum:  Now the Relative is out of the hospital but eating is still a problem.  She is in a new place, found by another closer relative, and weasels out of going to the cafeteria for meals.   It may really be anorexia.  Apparently large numbers of people in assisted living refuse to eat. Some get very depressed.  Some die of starvation.  Doctors don't often diagnose anorexia in old age.  They consider the loss of appetite normal.

Loss of appetite is one thing; refusal to eat is another. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Iris Murdoch's The Bell

I just read Iris Murdoch's spectacular novel, The Bell. Inspired by various writers who say that Murdoch's books are classics, I downloaded The Bell onto my Nook. 

This stunning novel could be of any time:  utterly contemporary or of the 19th century. It centers on a new bell at a Benedictine abbey and its meaning to Imber, a lay religious community adjacent to the convent. 

This complex novel is told through multiple points of view.  Murdoch begins the story through the consciousness of Dora Greenfield, an impetuous young woman who has gloriously enjoyed herself during six months of Bohemian life and separation from her strait-laced husband.  Paul, an art historian, courted her as an art student and then, after marriage, became obsessive and possessive. She returns to him mainly out of guilt, joining him at Imber, where he is writing about medieval manuscripts.

She finds Imber strange and repugnant.  As an outsider, it has no meaning to her.  The house, Imber Court, and the Benedictine convent are located on a beautiful lake, but the peace of the community seems artificial and tense.  Dora is repulsed by the smiling prayerful inhabitants, particularly by Mrs. Mark (Margaret), a furry-legged housewife, and Sister Ursula, a spying Benedictine nun.  Murdoch is extremely funny about Dora's impressions of the hippie-ish atmosphere  of this Anglican community, whose members work in their garden and sell produce.

The characters in the lay religious community are wildly eclectic:  Michael, the owner of Imber, is an intellectual, a former teacher, a former aspiring priest, and a homosexual (whom we would label a pedophile); James, a forceful, charismatic, informal preacher, is Michael's macho alter-ego and conscience; Nick is a depressed temporary inhabitant and a former student of Michael's; Nick's twin sister, Catherine, plans to join the convent; Toby, a student going Oxford in the fall, has no idea of his sexual effect on people; Mark and Mrs. Mark are both practical; and Peter is an ornithologist.

Michael, the devout, confused, erudite leader, is one of the most important characters.  He spends most of his time managing community business, and his interactions with others are both controlled and jumpy.  Like an immature teenager, he waits for the romance of life to begin, believing that a sign or pattern will eventually show him life's religious meaning.  His desire to become a priest was thwarted by his obsession with teenage boys.  He rarely acts on these urges, but was fired from a teaching job years ago when Nick reported him at the beginning of a relationship. He is very nervous about Nick's living in the lodge, but Catherine had insisted he was suicidal and needed the community.

Much of the book revolves around the bell.  "The bell is cast," James says.  He believes Imber can use the ceremony of installing the bell to publicize the community. James plans to organize a festival. The other members are equally avid about carrying out the plan.    Michael, ever more passive, is reluctant.

In a speech at a church service, Michael focuses on the symbolism of the bell. He says,

"The bell is subject to the force of gravity.  The swing that takes it down must also take it up.  So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength." 

The symbolism of the bell is complicated. In some ways it represents the voices of the powerless, i.e., in this instance, Dora and Toby, the former dominated by Paul, the latter by Michael, who embarrassed him by kissing him.   A legend about the original bell revolves around a nun whose lover died and a Bishop's curse which sent the great bell flying "like a bird out of the tower and fell into the lake."  The nun commits suicide.  When Toby finds the old bell at the bottom of the lake, Dora concocts a plan to substitute it for the new one.  This leads to some extremely funny events, other ominous and tragic events. 

Things seem to happen twice in The Bell.  The legend of the bell is reflected in contemporary events.  The novel is religious, tragicomic, and philosophical.  

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:  I took my first bike ride of the year.  68 degrees, sunny, 2.3 MPH west wind, air quality GOOD, and many people walking or riding the trails.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Six Days After the Vow

Six days ago I ripped up my Amazon credit card.  I vowed I would not buy books for ten months. I modified that vow yesterday.  I will not buy books unless I pay cash.  

My husband says it's cheating.

I don't know.  It's a pretty tough vow.  It means I have to walk into a bookstore and pay the cashier if I want a book. It means I have to look the cashier in the eye whether I choose Balzac's A Harlot High and Low or Victoria Holt's Mistress of Mellyn.   It means I cannot hide behind a credit card but must handle MONEY. 

The cashier at B&N was clearly shocked as he had never seen money in my Gilded Hand before.  It is a bit of a shock to have to go to the ATM.  The bus driver watched me struggle with quarters yesterday.  I clearly belong in a future world. 

The amazing thing is my mother never had a credit card.  I would never have had one, either, if I hadn't briefly traveled for a business.
At bookstores I'm tempted by displays.  Yesterday I perused Heather Gudenkauf's These Things Hidden, a novel displayed on a bookshelf in front of the balcony and a comfortable chair.  It seems to be an issue novel narrated by a young girl who has spent five years in prison for some undisclosed crime.  I didn't purchase it, though.  

I have enjoyed Michael Frayn's novels and plays, and his memoir, My Father's Fortune, looks like something I'd like to read.  I didn't buy it.  It's against the vow.

Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud:  A Novel of the Revolution is fascinating.  I love wax sculptures and would like to know the story of the museum's origins.  Anyway, I like Moran's novels of ancient Egypt. But I have plenty of historical novels at home.

I really, really, really want to read Sofia Tolstoy's Diaries.  But not now.  I'm reading Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?

So, a few dollars spent on coffee and a snack and I'm ready to go home. Thing to Remember:  I delight as much in the browsing as in the buying. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

You've Got Mail & Chain Bookstores

You know You've Got Mail? Nora Ephron's cinematic fairy tale about an independent bookstore threatened by a chain bookstore?   Meg Ryan played the charming, chirpy Kathleen Kelly, owner of The Shop around the Corner, a children's bookstore. Tom Hanks played the amiable Joe Fox, owner of Fox Books, a chain bookstore that puts independent bookstores out of business.  Kathleen brilliantly reveals the beauty of children's books, while Joe has business-savvy.  And yet Joe is a good guy, genial and witty, and brings his father's and grandfather's children to The Shop Around the Corner.  Kathleen dislikes him and is unkind every time she sees him. Yet Kathleen and Joe are in love anonymously online.  Confusing, yes?  Of course I madly wanted Hanks and Ryan to get together, but chains were the evil empire in 1998 and I was scandalized.

I saw the movie again recently. John Sayles definitely didn't make it. 

Now Fox Books seems benign.  Barnes & Noble and Borders (The Foxes?) are the good guys now.  Amazon is the bad guy, and the "little" chains are going out of business.  What?  They're all three huge corporations.  I shop at all three of them.

Borders is seeking a $450 million loan from GE Capital to keep its shelves stocked and is expected to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of the month. Ten years ago it was a different story.  Borders was the most popular bookstore here.  We went there on Sundays to drink coffee and read The New York Times.  

Then I switched to B&N because Borders kept thinning its stock.

Today I went to Barnes & Noble and Borders to see how they were doing. B&N was tagging shelves and getting ready to do inventory.  It was very quiet, and I sat in a comfortable chair and drank coffee and read.  

Borders was also quiet.  It relieved me that they still sell new books.  The articles in the paper had me worried.  Losers tend to lose business, I imagine.  

The literature section is smaller than it used to be and they no longer have New Fiction & New Nonfiction shelves in the front of the store.  Instead, there is a smattering of tables with new hardbacks and new paperbacks. And no one works the floor.  It was very, very quiet.

Neither bookstore had a copy of Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches.  Very weird.   It's a best-seller. 

It's Day 5 of my Ten Months of Monasticism (Not Buying Books).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Conrad Richter's The Town

I passed up a complete set of Conrad Richter. What was I thinking? I was tempted.   I'm almost finished with his compelling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Town, and am looking forward to his other books.   

But I made a vow last week not to buy a book for ten months. So I mused about my resolve for a minute, realizing how sensible it was.  I HAVEN'T BOUGHT A BOOK IN FOUR DAYS. And not buying is a release from a strain.

Thank goodness the library has Richter's books.
The library has plenty of his books.

In junior high I read Richter's The Light in the Forest, a novel of pioneer and Indian life consumed in English class along with Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's The Yearling (a classic) and John Steinbeck's The Pearl. This was as contemporary as teachers got:  the first half of the 20th century. 

Richter's The Light in the Forest, the story of a pioneer boy captured in a raid and raised by American Indians, didn't appeal to me much. Boys were the heroes of the books we read in school.   Girls are alleged to be open to reading books about both sexes, but  I may have been an exception. 

On the other hand, many years later, I am enthusiastic about Richter's realistic rendering of 19th-century American life.  I admire his simple, sometimes elegant, sometimes odd or sentimental, prose, the naturalness of his use of dialect, and the memorable characters.

Published in 1950, The Town is the third in a trilogy, The Awakening Land, about a family of Ohio settlers in the 19th century.  I am beginning with the third novel, because it won the Pulitzer, and I wanted to read him at his best.  Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, this vigorous novel tells the story of a growing town, Americus, Ohio, through the chronicles of the Wheeler family.  It centers on Sayward Wheeler, a hard-working pioneer woman who is the wife of Portius, a Yankee lawyer, and the mother of nine children.  She faces many changes as her land is cleared, cultivated, and slowly gobbled up by developers and public works. Sometimes she gets a good price, but other times she is gypped.  Then her husband desires to build a big house on one of her lots in town.

She takes over negotiating with the builders when she finds the workers haven't been paid.  She realizes Portius intended all along only to pay half and for her, land-rich, to pay the other half.  She can't imagine what she'll do with such a house. 

I get goosebumps over some of the scenes.  Yes, I know that is corny, but I really love Sayward's determination and courage.  She never feels limited by her sex. She realizes she is a "woodsy," someone who doesn't want to live in a city.
"The moving part she put off till the very last.  The truth was she hated to leave the cabin.  Most of her life had she lived here. Now she would have to give it up for a place where it looked like she was putting on airs, thinking herself better than ordinary folks.  The last day she kept looking about the cabin.  How many times had she stood at the fire with her long-handed pan, or gone down on her knees of a morning to puff at the coals.  This ladder and those steps, how often had she climbed them when one of the young ones lay abed ailing.  Why, forty years of her life had she spent between these log walls.  And now she had to go and leave them."

Parts of the narrative are told from the point-of-view of her youngest child, Chancey, a sickly, dreamy child who resists Sayward's attempts to persuade him to walk to town or attend school like normal children, until he meets his father's illegitimate daughter, Rosa, another dreamer.  The two imaginative children take refuge in the woods together and create a fairy world.  Then Chancey is motivated to walk and play.

Rosa's mother is a schoolteacher who got knocked up by Portius and then married Jake Tench, a drunk.  She never leaves the house and is hostile toward Rosa.  She reads all day long.

Chancey, when he first meets Rose's mother:

"But the most alien thing was Rosa's mother sitting here with him, her tangled hair falling over the soiled shoulders of her once fine dress with tassels.  She was reading a book in the darkest corner as if she had owl's or cat's eyes.  Right in the middle of all this dirt and disorder she sat at her ease, and in the middle of the day when women still had most of their work to do."

Sound familiar? 

If you love Willa Cather, Mildred Walker or Bess Streeter Aldrich, I recommend this regional novel, which is available  from Ohio University Press. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Thaw, A Walk, & W. Somerset Maugham

View from the Bridge
We were gobsmacked by the heat. Fifty-two on February 13. "Write that down so we remember," said my husband.  He's the environmentalist and I'm the archivist. We used to have a friend who kept a weather diary, but we never remember to do it.  For awhile I kept an online diary called Blue Earth Notes.  I deleted it.  We stood outside and admired the very blue, blue sky. 

Skaters pirouetted on the ice rink, but the ice on the river was melting. We decided to take a walk downtown because the sidewalks were cleared.  We wore our spring coats and I my black velvet hat.  (Rather like Sara Monday or Mrs. Harris.)

We stopped at the coffeehouse.  It had moved to another location and it took awhile to find it.  "When did you move?"  "July." Last time we were here the building was empty, and there was no sign as to where they had decamped.  It was almost closing time, so we took our coffee and muffins to a pedestrian bridge, a longer distance than we'd remembered because we usually are on bicycles.  

We plopped down in a little alcove where you overlook the river.  We had misremembered benches.  It was good to soak up Vitamin D and see the snow melting, MELTING.   

Then we walked on.  There are several bridges to cross.  Here's a snapshot of some buildings from a bridge.  

This is the new pedestrian bridge.  It's near the hall where Paul McCartney, Green Day, and Led Zeppelin have played in concert.  In theory we could park on this side and walk across the bridge.  But we usually stay home. 

I'm sure what you really want to know is WHAT I'M READING.  I finished W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage yesterday.  

I am a fan of Somerset Maugham and especially like The Painted Veil, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor's Edge, and his short stories.  He is a superior storyteller, a predecessor of Graham Greene, and depends more on surprising plot twists than on innovative writing.  His writing is plain but compelling and breathtaking because he vividly imagines his restless, itinerant heroes and anti-heroes. His books are craftsmanlike page-turners and the time flies.

His most famous novel is Of Human Bondage.  It was my introduction to Maugham, but if I had not gone on to his short stories, I might never have discovered his brilliance.

This time, however, I noticed how marvelous the second half of Of Human Bondage is. It's so good that I will reread it someday.  Published in 1915, this bildungsroman made Maugham's reputation, and is reminiscent of Compton Mackenzie's 1913 masterpiece Sinister Street.  It is the coming-of-age story of Philip Carey, a young man with a club foot who suffers many losses and tragedies growing up.  He studies art in Paris after dropping out of school and then moves to London to study medicine.  He falls in love with Mildred, an anorexic waitress with green skin (really) who has no interest whatsoever in Philip.  She is rude, mean, and stupid, which Philip readily admits, but her very indifference attracts him.  Philip becomes obsessed.  

Maugham is a strong realistic novelist, he delineates the character of a clinical depressive, and this long novel is more unflinchingly gloomy than his shorter, more tightly-plotted novels about artists and rebels. It is reminiscent of the novels of Theodore Dreiser, who, by the way, praised it in The New Republic.

Here is an example of Mildred's charm when Philip approaches her at Victoria Station:

"Oh, I'm all right.  I haven't got much time to waste."
        "D'you mind if I walk down Victoria Street with you?"
"I'm none too early.  I shall have to walk fast," she answered, looking down at Philip's club-foot.

He turned scarlet.

"I beg your pardon.  I won't detain you."

"You can please yourself."
But this kind of scene simply ties him more tightly to her.  His masochism is upsetting. He debases himself to the point where he goes down, down, down himself.  Eventually she runs off with another man and Philip builds a rewarding life, aceing his medical exams and spending his time with an intelligent, loving woman, a writer of novelettes.  But Mildred, on a downward course, finally seeks him out again and almost ruins his life.  She is pregnant and he allows her to live with him. I won't even tell you where this goes because it is so horrifying.  

There is some excellent writing here, and parts are even Dickensian, like his friendship with Thorpe Athleny, a philosophical, charming man who is the father of many children, works as an advertising writer for a draper, and takes in Philip when he is down-and-out. 

But start with his short stories or shorter novels, if you're a Maugham neophyte, because they're more characteristic. And better.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Zero Book Spending for 10 Months and E. F. Benson's Paying Guests

The Beginning of the Affair
Jeff Bezos and I have broken up. 

Jeff doesn't know it yet.  "Jeff" (Amazon) sent me a free travel mug in 1999 or 2000.  It must be a collectible by now.  I use it as a toothbrush glass.

Zero income, zero spending.  That's my new philosophy. Zero Spending on Books.  After reviewing my purchases this month--ten books at various bookstores--I decided this profligacy must stop.

I ripped up my credit card. 
I am also breaking up with Other People. I've been quite a slut.  I'm breaking up with Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other bookstores.  I will no longer buy every book endorsed by excellent reviewers Michael Dirda, Ron Charles, Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and Julia Keller.  I SHOULD break up with book bloggers, book discussions, and author interviews.  Instead I plan to read ALL the reviews and record the books that interest me in a small notebook.  I will not instantly buy them. 

Ten months, I can do it.

On to E. F. Benson.

E. F. Benson.  Fans of E. F. Benson's Lucia books know these books are classics.  We buy up used copies and send them to friends who have read them who pass them on to other friends who have read them who pass them on to friends who HAVEN'T read them. I discovered the Lucia books in Maryland when I was a teacher at a heavenly snob school. I read Lucia in my garret while my charming students took flying lessons, traveled to Europe, and had their makeup done at Elizabeth Arden.

"Oh, you've got to read them."  My fiance would not read them. He lay in bed sick on Thanksgiving and, between feeding him chicken soup, I read Queen Lucia, Lucia in London, Miss Mapp, Mapp and Lucia, The Worshipful Lucia, and Trouble for Lucia.  Lucia is a snobbish hostess who leads the citizens of Tilling in the arts, bridge, and the annual fete.  She faces serious competition from Mapp and other social climbers.  Who will be the leader?  Even though Lucia is a terrible hypocrite, I love her and always root for her. These books are hilarious.

I've read Lucia so many times that I've moved on to  Benson's other books.  I didn't like the Dodo books, didn't much like Mrs. Ames, and very much disliked An Autumn Sowing

But I am very enthusiastic about his 1929 novel, Paying Guests, which can be downloaded from Internet Archive or Google.

The action revolves around Wentworth, a little hotel at Bolton Spa.  Mrs. Oxney and her sister Amy Bertram run it but the action revolves around the paying guests.  Meet Colonel Chase, an opinionated permanent guest who prides himself on the miles he logs on his pedometer; Miss Howard, an untalented amateur pianist who practices her "improvisation" for a concert; Mrs. Bliss, a Christian Scientist; Mr. Kemp, an invalid, and his daughter Florence, a meek, frustrated, annoying lesbian who wants a life.

Miss Howard is especially funny.  Before she opens an exhibit of her paintings, feigning nervousness, she tells everyone, "So frightened about it.  I shall certainly leave Bolton the day before it opens so as not to hear the unkind things you say about."  

Like Lucia, she is supremely confident.  No one buys her paintings until... 

And when the Colonel, a passionate bicyclist and walker, loses his pedometer, you will be amazed at the machinations  of fellow guests.

Hilairous.  Read it after Lucia, because those are the masterpieces. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Hospital Reading: Antonia Fraser & Maggie O'Farrell

The relative is a tough old bird, a devout Catholic, and a card sharp, and she is OUT OF THE HOSPITAL. 


Life is getting back to normal.   

I've logged so many hours in the hospital with The Young and the Restless, The Talk,  and Rachael Ray that you'll be surprised I missed reading. Cane got shot on the steps of the church after his father's wedding; Myrlie Evers, widow of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, was interviewed on The Talk (actually a very good segment); and Rachael's sister gave a mommy a makeover.  I surreptitiously read a few short contemporary e-books (the Nook really does come in handy when you're traveling).  I'm STILL working on Sacred Hunger (it's pictured on the bottom of the stack above).

Short books I've been reading:

1.  I desultorily read Antonia Fraser's Must You Go?  My Life with Harold Pinter, but I still have quite a bit to go.  The biographer Antonia Fraser, author of Mary Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette, Oliver Cromwell, Warrior Queens, and the Jemima Shore mysteries, was married to Harold Pinter.  Her stunning memoir, Must You Go?, interweaves narrative with diary entries dating back to 1975 when she met Pinter.  They met at a party, broke up their marriages, religious issues impeded Pinter's divorce, but he and Antonia lived together, blended families at holidays, and eventually married and lived a rich life together.  Antonia wrote her biographies, urged on by Harold when she lagged behind on a project, and Harold wrote and directed plays.  Did you know this Beckett-influenced playwright  wrote the screenplay for The French Lieutenant's Woman (I'm all for pop culture)?  That Antonia voted for Margaret Thatcher to see a woman as prime minister, though she returned to her liberal voting next election?  Lots of fascinating anecdotes:  friends included Olivia Manning, Alan Bates, Tom Stoppard, Tom Courtenay, Jean Kerr, and on and on. 

 2.  I'm almost done with Maggie O'Farrell's short 2006 novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  O'Farrell recently won the Costa Novel Award for her latest book, which reminded me that I had this earlier book.   The plot of Esme is fast-moving, the sentences are short and lyrical, and it's a good women's read:  not great, but pretty good.

The theme of an old woman about to be released from a mental hospital into the community is strangely popular with Irish writers.  Think Reading Turgenev by William Trevor and The Sacred Scripture by Sebastian Barry and you'll get the idea.

O'Farrell's heroine, Esme, is probably not crazy.  She has spent 60 years in a mental hospital.  The hospital is closing and patients are being released to relatives and halfway houses.  Esme knows how to float away into a daydream, shutting out the images of the grille and the sounds of other patients.  No one has listened to her for years. 

Her great-niece, Iris Lockhart, the owner of a vintage clothing shop, has never heard of Esme.  Her grandmother, Kitty, never told her, due to the stigma. Then the hospital phones Iris.  Esme has nowhere to go.  Iris meets Esme and becomes sympathetic, unable to leave her at the hospital or at the junkie-haunted halfway house. She's on the list for a nursing home.

O'Farrell interweaves Esme's, Kitty's, and Iris's stories.  We learn about Esme's childhood in India, her parents' rejection of her, and the shock that sent her into moments of catatonia.  

Iris I find less interesting. She has her shop, a dog, and a cold-blooded affair with a married man (he's the one in love).  She is almost affectless.

Esme sees Iris as a younger version of her own cold mother and is fascinated.  

Because Iris is obviously Esme's friend here, she will probably turn into a semi-heroine.

I don't like this as much as The Sacred Scripture, but it's along those lines.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

William Cooper's Scenes from Married Life

William Cooper's comedies are little read anymore, or so I presume, as they are out-of-print.  In the '80s, an Avon paperback of two of his novels in one volume was very popular, and that was my introduction to his gently irreverent novels.  Cooper (1910-2002), a physics-teacher-turned-civil-servant, was best-known for five autobiographical novels, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Metropolitan Life, Scenes from Married Life, Scenes from Later Life, and Scenes from Death and LifeAlthough these novels are light, the heroes were rebellious enough that journalists declared Cooper, along with Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, and John Osborne, one of the Angry Young Men of the 1950s.  The narrator of Cooper's Scenes books, Joe Lunn, is a likable, preternaturally observant man with a droll sense of humor and puzzling talent for alienating his boss.  In some ways, he reminds me of Lucky Jim.

On the surface these are light novels, and it is difficult to understand why Cooper was controversial.  The first book in the series, Scenes from Provincial Life, was a hit in 1950, but his second, Scenes from a Metropolitan Life, written in the mid-'50s, could not be published till 1982 because of a threatened libel suit by the woman who was the model for the character Myrtle.  So they were originally published out of sequence, with the third, Scenes from Married Life, coming out in 1960. 

I recently read Scenes from Married Life with great enjoyment.  Why was Cooper an angry young man?  There is much talk about sex, work, alienating authority, and the desirability of women's working or not working. I can only think these elements were emblematic of the Angry Young Man label. The narrator, Joe, is a handsome writer, almost 40, who has never married and who works for the civil service interviewing scientists and engineers.  His immediate boss, Robert, is a friend and also a writer; they correct proofs of each other's novels. 

But there is something about Joe that riles up people in authority.  Robert's boss, Murray-Hamilton, has classified Joe as MISC/INEL (miscellaneous ineligible) on an official form, supposedly by accident.   Robert convinces Joe to remain quiet around Murray-Hamilton (and other bosses), because his manner is misunderstood.

This novel focuses on Joe's getting married.   It begins with his accompanying Sybil, his librarian girlfriend, on the bus to her train. Sybil says, "P.S.A." and  Joe is puzzled, looking for letters on a sign. Finally she tells him it means "Pleasant Sunday Afternoon, of course."

"I burst into laughter.  It was appreciative laughter.  Just before getting on to the bus, Sybil and I had been in bed together."

Joe and Sybil have a casual relationship that centers on going to bed. Beautiful, brainy Sybil looks like Marlene Dietrich, but after sex she recites soliloquies from Shakespeare.  

But somehow she is not the one for Joe. And when he meets Elspeth, a much younger woman, at a party, he immediately falls in love.  There is a charming scene in which he drops her on the dance floor and they are attracted as he catches her. And yet he doesn't see her for months afterwards.  Robert's marriage to a young artist, Annette, propels Joe toward Elspeth and the altar. 

The young women are fascinating.  Robert and Joe object to wives in the workplace, but Elspeth and Annette insist on doing what they want.  There is a scene where Joe, Elspeth, and Annette have tea in a cafe near the school where Elspeth teaches in a working-class area of London.  Annette plans to take Elspeth's job at the end of term, when Elspeth steps down, and Elspeth fervently supports Annette's right to work, much to the astonishment of the men.  Annette says she plans to have four children and teach.

Then Joe writes a novel about his happy marriage.  The publisher refuses it  because of discreetly  happy sex scenes;  the  Home Office is battening down on anything that hints at sex.

Obviously this mirrors Cooper's own experiences with publishing.

It's a very funny, very sweet book.  It is not a great book.  The writing is simple, spare, charming, and unmemorable.  But I did enjoy it and hope to get back to the first two one day.