Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bicycling in the Sunshine & Mary Webb's Precious Bane

Bike Art on the Trail from Last Fall
When we saw the sun, we ran out in t-shirts and capris and soaked up the light.  Finally!  We felt like the girl in Ray Bradbury's story, "All Summer in a Day," one of the few characters on rainy Venus who knows sunshine.

We rode our bikes.  You all know how good it feels to ride a trail when it's not raining. It has been mucky, muddy, and rainy for weeks.  There was so much flooding last year that many trails are closed.  Very few were out on the woodsy trail we rode today, due to the grand opening of another bike trail.  Actually we've been on that trail, too, but this was a special celebration.  

The wind just about gusted us off the path in a few places. We saw some who gave up.   Fortunately it was at our back on the way home. 

We took a break for half an hour and as usual we read. The husband:  nature essays.  I lay down on a bench and finished Mary Webb's Precious Bane.

The short biography of Mary Webb at the beginning of my 1938 Modern Library edition of her masterpiece, Precious Bane, says:

"...Precious Bane might have languished unnoticed by the world at large and its author...might have been forgotten, had not a busy Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, paused to introduce and champion Mary Webb in 1928."

This edition of Webb's novel also includes Baldwin's 1928 introduction, which says her power lies in "the fusion of the elements of nature and man."  And, indeed, her elegant nature writing is one of the pluses of this lovely novel.

Precious Bane, which won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse  as the best English novel of 1925, is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's novels.  Webb's pastoral novel delineates a tragedy just as deep and affecting as that of Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure.  Her poeticism and allusive consciousness of Hardy's Wessex world are deliberate; her Shropshire is as gorgeous and often as forbidding as his terrain.  

Yet she is a very different kind of writer. Her lyrical language is not as arresting as Hardy's, yet her sense of story is strong, and the intelligent voice of her first-person narrator, Prue, is more direct than Hardy's less personal omniscient third-person narration.   She isn't quite in Hardy's class, but she is certainly worth reading.  Sadly, many remember her novels only as the object of satire in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm.  

The heroine of Precious Bane, Prue, age 21, was born with a harelip.  She lives and works on her parents'  farm, and, though she is quick, caring, practical, and brilliant, she believes her deformity will prevent her marrying.  Her rhapsodic observations of nature are her comfort.  For most of the book, she lives with her ambitious brother, Gideon, and peaceful mother.  

But she falls in love with a traveling weaver, who doesn't know she's alive.

"It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first.  And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the coutnry for reaping and mowing, if those that mayhappen will read this don't know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time."

 The novel is intertwined with love stories:  her brother Gideon's engagement to their light-hearted, giggling neighbor, Jancis, the daughter of Wizard Beguildy; and then Prue's more complicated love for Kester, the weaver, whom she gets to know indirectly through letter-writing: Gideon and Jancis are illiterate, so Prue writes her brother's letters and Kester writes Jancis's.

Prue is no prude.  In one scene, she agrees to participate in a trick Wizard Beguildy plays on the squire.  He says he can raise Venus, and orders Jancis to appear naked.  Prue takes Jancis's place:  no one can see her face.  And it turns out that Kester is present: both he and the squire are smitten by her figure.

Because of Gideon's insane ambition--he works day and night on the farm to get rich--he refuses to marry Jancis even when her father says he will sell her to the squire or as a farm maid.  This leads to tragedy:  it makes Far, Tess and Jude look bland.

Except we know what's coming.  We never know what will happen in Hardy.

I loved this novel when I read it in the '70s and rereading it has been a pleasure. And I love it that a politician would have bothered to write an introduction to the novel.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Shakespeare Festivals

It's Shakespeare festival time.  The brochures are arriving.

Park in Stratford
There's the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, of course.  We used to live nearer to Stratford, so we traveled there every year.  We planned to see two plays a day, but usually burned out after one, so we'd see the second play the second day, the third play the third day, and so on.  There was plenty to do:  hang out in the park and watch the swans in Lake Victoria, take a boat ride on the River Avon, go out for tea or coffee, walk around the town and admire the nineteenth-century houses, browse at a bookstore or antique shop, hike in a park near Goderich (we think), and swim in Lake Huron.

If you can't go to Stratford, and I certainly wish I COULD go back, there are Shakespeare festivals in almost every state.

My friend the actress once played a shepherdess in As You Like It at a Shakespeare festival in Boise.  She finished a master's in theater arts, moved to a big city, played some small roles in a local theater, then moved again to follow her husband.  She lost touch with the theater when she was home with the kids, but during those halcyon hours when the kids were in nursery school, she made friends, implored stay-at-home neighbors to walk around the lake with her for comapany, and organized an evening play-reading group.  Finally she got her break when a slightly crazed community theater director cast her as Hermione in The Winter's Tale (she got to wear a Coco Chanel suit!).  She never made it to Stratford, but she often worked in small theaters in neighboring towns and absolutely believed in what she was doing.

Well, the brochures may have made me think of her.  She loved her Shakespeare festivals!  You can see Romeo and Juliet at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona,  The Taming of the Shrew at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, Othello at Flatwater Shakespeare in Lincoln, Nebraska, and As You Like It at the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival.  And of course each festival shows at least one other play (often two).

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cousin Bette

In the end we always go back to Balzac.

Even a reader with only a smattering of French can appreciate La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), Balzac's cycle of approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories portraying French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.  All the antithetical pairs of qualities mentioned above can be found in Balzac. 

Balzac is easier to read in French than Flaubert or Proust, and his novels translate well into English.

Cousin Bette is one of my favorites. I'll briefly synopsize the plot, because I haven't the inclination nor years of study necessary to analyze this very funny French novel.  Balzac's vivid characters' flaws and foibles, and the elaborate machinations of the plot, make the action unroll so rapidly that one breathlessly feels as though one inhabits the novel.  The characters are weak or villainous people you might not wish to know, but they are your friends in this tragicomedy.  Bette, a provincial old maid who has worked for years as a seamstress and lived in poverty in Paris, conspires with her neighbor, a clerk's beautiful wife, Madame Marnieff, to destroy her cousin Adeline's family fortunes.  Bette has always envied Adeline Hulot, who years ago married a baron and has, in Bette's view, had an easy life.  How to bring them down?  By the neighbor Madame Marnieff's seduction and fleecing of Baron Hulot.  

With the exception of Adeline, all the characters have frailties and imperfections, and Adeline's daughter Hortense, who deliberately sets out to seduce Bette's "lover," Wenceslas, a Polish count and artist who depended on Bette's advice and affection, brings Bette's vengeance down on their heads, and almost deserves her fall.  Eventually, Baron Hulot installs Madame Marnieff in a rich, luxurious apartment, with Bette  upstairs, while Adeline, her son, and daughter, Hortense, fall into terrible poverty.  One man after another in the family falls for Madame Marnieff; the women are soon on their own. The susceptibility of Baron Hulot to women is humorous, even though one desperately empathizes with Adeline.  

Can anything stop Madame Marnieff?  Even Baron Hulot's actress-singer courtesan mistresses were more compassionate than this greedy bourgeois woman. 

Balzac's detailed accounts of money make this a very realistic novel.  Money and debt are intertwined with love when it comes to old men with young women.  Things haven't changed much--money is still an obsession--only we're maxed out on credit cards instead of unscrupulous moneylenders.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier's graceful novel, The Illumination, is gorgeously written but disturbing.  It is a bit like Saramago's  Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory.  A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

The science fiction aspect is apparent from the beginning. Perhaps some would call this magic realism.  In Brockmeier's alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up.  As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining.  Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.

Kevin Brockmeier
Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer. 

In the first chapter, Carol Ann Page, a data analyst, severs the tip of her thumb while attempting to open a package from her ex-husband.  At the hospital, her wound begins to glow.  

"...when she saw the light shining out of her incision, she thought she was hallucinating.  It was steady and uniform, a silvery-white disk that showed through her thumbnail, as bright and finely edged as the light in a Hopper painting."

In the operating room, someone says, "This is really freaking me out.  Isn't this freaking anyone out?"

But the world soon gets used to it.  The light is everywhere, on the streets, in photos, on TV.  People flash with pain.

In the hospital, a dying woman, thinking her husband is dead, gives her journal to Carol Ann.  Her husband had left a love note daily, which she copied into the journal.  Each beautiful note begins with, "I love..."  Her relationship with her husband is in every way the opposite of Carol Ann's with her ex-husband. It describes a perfect love.

As this journal gets passed from person to person, it inspires, raises questions, and causes problems.  Love is contrasted with pain.  The characters who "share" the journal include:  Jason, a photojournalist, the widower of the woman who gave away the journal, and the author of the notes; Chuck, an autistic child; Ryan, a former stockbroker turned Christian missionary for the sake of his dead sister; Nina Poggione, a writer who suffers terribly from ulcers on her mouth, but must give readings; and Morse, a homeless man who sells books on the street.  

The characters are fascinating, but the illumination doesn't quite clarify for me.  The chapter about Nina is perfect: the descriptions of her loneliness on the book tour, her attempts to speak as little at her readings because of the pain caused by language (she has ulcers on her mouth and it hurts her to speak), her anxiety about her teenage son, and her attraction to the young man who hits on her at readings.  The chapter about Jason is also pitch-perfect.  He is in such pain after his wife's death that he gets involved with a group of teenage cutters.  On the other hand, the chapter about Ryan, an urban missionary who rages about the meaninglessness of suffering, is startling after Brockmeier's spare elegance in the other chapters.  I absolutely understand his rage, though, and he addresses the Christian question.

Something tells me I need to read this novel again to understand exactly what Brockmeier is saying.  His lyrical writing is stunning.  A spare Borges mixed with David Lindsay?  Maybe.  But I might find it difficult to reread, because of the emphasis on pain.  

One of the best new books of the year so far. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

New Books, The "Opposite" of Critics, & Susan Fletcher's Corrag

Dallas News Book Editor's Room
It takes time to read new books. 

On my table are Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Aminatta Forma's The Memory of Love, and Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree.  I'd like to read them, but I am in the middle of SIX other books.  My husband doesn't know how I can possibly read all these books at once. 

The older I get, the less time I feel I have for new books. While I work, bicycle, shop, cook, and read forgotten classics, I rely on reviewers to read the new books.  I'm just praying the newspapers and magazines continue to publish reviews.  Although I often disagree with reviewers, I can read between the lines of bad reviews by GOOD reviewers to figure out if I might actually LIKE a book. 

I have an "opposite" view of certain reviewers.  The famous Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer-winning reviewer for The New York Times (does she set the bar for reviewers?), and Ron Charles, book editor of The Washington Post, are excellent writers but perhaps a bit jaded after years of reviewing.  Often I consider the books they reject page-turners.  Yes, honestly. 

On that note, I can't wait to read Francine Prose's new novel, My New American Life, dismissed by Kakutani as mediocre, and Mary Gordon's new novel, The Love of My Youth, considered pompous and boring by Charles.   Now it may very well be they're right, but on the other hand they have inspired me to read TWO new books.  And these are NEW books in a dying book industry. 

And that's why I read Susan Fletcher's Corrag.  Ron Charles didn't like it, but I love novels about witches. 

I very much like the atmosphere of this beautifully-written historical novel.  Fletcher's lyrical narrative is divided into two parts: short letters from Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite sent to Scotland to investigate the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe; and his long interviews with Corrag, a young woman accused of witchcraft, through a fascinating first-person chronicle of her short life.

Corrag's grandmother and mother were condemned as witches. Now Corrag is locked up in a hut.  Her mother, Cora, who had a "gallows neck," knew through second sight that  men were coming to hang her.  She ordered Corrag to ride northwest, on a neighbor's horse.  Cora ends up in the highlands of Scotland, and wins the respect of the MacDonald clan for her healing herbal knowledge.  

Corrag says:

"Witch is a dying word, I know.  I've known it as along as I've known my own name--witch will make you hunted, witch will shorten your days.  And they hunted me, and hated me, and my life will be done by the month's end, I am certain of that.  They will rope me to barrels, and make me flame."

Eventually, her story convinces Charles that she is innocent.  He changes from a prejudiced man into a respecter of her knowledge and smart conversation. 

It's very enjoyable, probably a women's book, because somehow women relate to witches.  Even though it's the 21st century, we still earn only 77 cents for every man's dollar, and there's still a feeling women may be punished for doing too well in school or in the workplace.  Corrag does everything too well, and people are envious and cruel:  Corrag talks too much (is a great storyteller), does good deeds (saves a boy's life but then is condemned as a witch by the mother), tolerates difference (provides henbane to a drug-addicted witch), and is an excellent doctor/herbalist (a witch).

Good characters, much good writing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Borders Closing and A Silly Website

How Borders Used to Look
Yesterday I went to Borders.  The store is closing, so I hoped to find bargains--perhaps H. G. Adler's The Journey, Jean Plaidy's pop historical novels, and a nice copy of David Copperfield. Nothing.  I was so appalled by the stripped-down store that I bought nothing.

How Borders Looks Now.
It is NOT my Borders.  It looks like a warehouse now.  Glittery lights, no more Borders Original Voices, big 40% off signs everywhere, and the coffeehouse closed.  Borders is FINALLY selling books.  There was a line.

There are no more cozy chairs.  No more book groups.  The mystery book group met here for 20 years. No more backlist treasures in the literature and history sections.  No more annoying clerks for whom I now feel incredibly nostalgic.  

Borders was the store with personable personnel.  I'd sneak around the science fiction section, PRAYING I wouldn't have to have a conversation about Octavia Butler or Jo Walton, and somebody would materialize from the back. A very nice person, I might add, who knew a lot about SF, while I vaguely murmured about Teri Gross's interview with Butler on Fresh Air and asked about Jo Walton.  Or I'd pick up Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment (a book I later read and blogged about here), and a clerk who hadn't read it, either, was pushed out of the wings by his or her boss, and we discussed the publisher, Europa.

Once I bought most of Shakespeare in paperback because I could no longer stand reading my huge Pelican Complete Works of.  I stuffed them in a backpack, a messenger bag, and bike panniers, and took off on my bike.  I looked like one of those people who bicycle around riffling through people's recycle bins to find pop bottles.

So, I wonder, glumly, what has happened to bookstores.  Borders was not my favorite store, just a heartless corporation, owned at one time (perhaps now?) by K-Mart, and the clerks' chatting didn't work for it.  My husband refused to shop there.  

The store has been below par for a few years now.

WRITERS & KITTIES.  This entire website is devoted to photos of writers and their cats!
Francoise Sagan

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Frisbee Book Blog Book Awards!

The Frisbee Book Blog Book Awards!
The American book awards are pretty much over.  

We had the National Book Awards in November, the National Book Critics Circle Award in March, the PEN/Faulkner Award in March, and the Pulitzer in April.  I pay attention to the National Book Award, because there's a lot of fuss, famous writers being honored for life achievement, and the awards themselves often go to books I haven't heard of (as is the case with Lord of Misrule this year).  I care less about the NBCC, because I care less about critics, though this award goes to very respectable writers.  The PEN/Faulkner Award, like the National Book Award, often highlights writers I don't know or who don't quite get their dues.   As for the Pulitzer, I am gobsmackeded by the idea of a bunch of journalists getting together to judge anything besides journalism.  (It provides a nice monetary prize, though, so I'm not knocking it.)

"Now is the time for REAL awards to be dished out," said my husband.   

The Frisbee Book Awards for Best Books Published in 2010, according to genre!!!!!!   Every winner gets a frisbee.  Of course I have no frisbees, but I'd be happy to send you one if you really want it. 

Best Novel Published in 2010:  

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  From Frisbee:  "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.... Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society. ...It doesn't help that he is the only person who reads books (a suspicious activity:  books "smell.)" 

Best Historical Novel:

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey.  Frisbee said:  "Based loosely on Alex de Tocqueville, Olivier is a French aristocrat whose politics are confused by the French Revolution and his pride in aristocracy.  When he and his best friend frequent political meetings which endanger their lives, his parents intercede and arrange for him to travel to America to investigate prisons. Reluctant to go, he is kidnapped and awakes from his drugged stupor on a ship bound for America.  He is accompanied by Parrot, an English artist, secretary, and spy, hired by Monsieur, the French marquis with whom as a child he escaped  a political raid on a printer forging currency (Parrot’s father was killed), to look after Olivier."

 Best Memoir:
I Want to be Left Behind:  Finding Rapture Here on Earth by Brenda Peterson.  Frisbee said:  "This beautifully written memoir is a mixture of autobiography, musings on Christian fundamentalism, and stunning sketches of her work as an environmentalist.  Peterson, a novelist and non-fiction writer who has founded a Seal Watch group in Washington, was raised by Christian fundamentalists.  She fascinatingly compares similarities between belief systems of conservative Christians and radical environmentalists when it comes to blame-finding. Her relationship with her warm family is loving despite her rejection of their beliefs."

Best Science Fiction:

Blackout by Connie Willis.  Frisbee said:  "Award-winning science fiction writer Willis's time-travel book reads like a compelling historical novel about World War II. In 2060 Oxford historians travel back and forth in time; the main characters happen to be doing research on England in World War II. Her characters are unforgettable and their lives riveting, as they become more and more involved with the past: Eileen, a sensitive, responsible young woman, takes care of hoydenish evacuees in Lady Caroline's mansion and is quarantined for so many weeks when the children come down with measles that she somehow can't get back to 2060; Polly, determined to study Londoners' reactions to the Blitz, finds herself incredibly attached to the other people in the bomb shelter and to friends in a department store where she works; Mike is dropped miles away from Dover and ends up by accident at Dunkirk, where he believes he may have saved someone not intended to be saved and changed history..."

Best Novel in Translation: 

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  Frisbee said:  "I loved both the old and this new translation of Doctor Zhivago. This one is more lyrical.  Doctor Zhivago is both a page-turner--I can read this the way others read John Grisham--and a poetic masterpiece.  I am rapt over many passages in this new translation. Here's Yuri's observation of a foul day in autumn.

'The rain poured down most disconsolately... Gusts of wind tore at the shoots of the wild grape vine that twined around one of the terraces.  The wind seemed to want to tear up the whole plant, raised it into the air, shook it about, and threw it down disdainfully like a tattered rug.'

Best Criticism: 

Dickinson:  Selected Poems and Commentaries by Helen Vendler.  Each chapter of this book is headed by a poem of Emily Dickinson, followed by Vendler's critique.  

I should have Best Mystery, Best Poetry, etc., but I read mainly OLD books in these genres last year, so nothing applied...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for "Butterfield 8."
I love Elizabeth Taylor.  I love her in Butterfield 8 and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?   She won the Oscar for Best Actress for these two movies, but should also have won for Giant and A Place in the Sun.  Maybe for others, too.  A great movie star, but much more.  A great actress.

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in "Giant"
It started with National Velvet.  My mother took us to a matinee re-release of  National Velvet.   We saw Lassie Come Home (on TV?), Little Women, and Life with Father.  We weren't allowed to see her Oscar-winning movies until much later.

Although her movies weren't shown at the university cinema--the "star" system was frowned upon and we saw exclusively Fellini, Jean Renoir, and Martin Scorsese--we watched the DVDs of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and her comparable great movies.  

Then there was her AIDS work.  

When she died, I was sad.  So my husband got me C. David Heymann's Liz:  An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor

It's a very fast read, very absorbing.

The first chapter is almost shockingly frank.  It begins with her rehab in 1983 at the Betty Ford Center for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.   She was forced to share a room and share the cleaning of the unit.  In her journal she wrote, 

"Nobody here wants anything from anybody else except to share and help.  It's probably the first time since I was nine that nobody has wanted to exploit me.  Now the bad news.  I feel like hell.  I'm going through my body. I can almost see it, rushing like red water over the boulders in my pain-filled neck and shoulders, then through my ears and into my pounding head.  My eyelids flutter.  Oh God, I am so, so tired."
Peter Lawford, the actor, a friend of Liz, entered the Betty Ford Clinic at the same time.  He ran away into the desert, looking for a liquor store.  He contacted a drug dealer who leased a helicopter and landed near the center.  A comedy of rehab. 

Everybody who has been in rehab, or visited someone in rehab, will recognize these scenes. Somebody is cured, but somebody else is kicked out for smuggling in cocaine. These places are far from pristine, so I'm not surprised about Peter Lawford. Plenty of good people have a drug or alcohol problem.  (Not I:  I'm a "non-addictive personality," apparently meaning I don't drink or take drugs.)

The photographs in this book are gorgeous.  Liz is glamorous, but somehow human.  Doesn't she look charming on her Acapulco honeymoon with Mike Todd in 1953?  Yet she isn't perfect.  It's not an air-brushed picture.

She died on March 23 of heart failure.  Still lovely after all those years.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Borgias Total Immersion, Day 2

Yesterday, inspired by the miniseries The Borgias, I read Jean Plaidy's Madonna of the Seven Hills, a historical novel about Lucrezia Borgia. Today I perused M. G. Scarsbrook's The Life and Legend of Lucrezia Borgia, a compilation of useful texts about the Borgias by 19th-century and turn-of-the-century authors, published as an e-book for 99 cents.

Since I adore 19th-century texts, it's perfect for me. It includes:

  • Lucretia Borgia: According To Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day by Ferdinand Gregorovius
  • The Borgias by Alexander Dumas (from 'Celebrated Crimes')
  • The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rafael Sabatini
  • Lucrezia Borgia, libretto by Felice Romani for the Opera by Gaetano Donizetti (in Italian)
  •  Encyclopedia Britannica articles (11th edition) on Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia
  •  Love Letter From Pietro Bembo to Lucrezia Borgia

These texts are (mostly) available free online, but it is convenient to have the collection.

I am fascinated by the 19th-century biography, Lucretia Borgia: According To Original Documents and Correspondence of Her Day, by Ferdinand Gregorovius, a  German historian who specialized in the medieval history of Rome.  Though he may or may not have interpreted texts exactly as modern historians do, he certainly gives rich background on the daily life, the position of women, the history of Roderigo Borgia (later Pope Alexander VI) and Lucrezia's mother and brothers, and Lucrezia's fascinating story.  

What astounds me is how close Jean Plaidy's novel is to Gregorovius's biography. 

Here is a tidbit about Lucrezia's education from Gregorovius:

"She was both a Spaniard and an Italian, and a perfect master of these two languages.  Among her letters to Bembo there are two written in Spanish; the remainder, of which we possess several hundred, are composed in the Italian of that day, and are spontaneous and graceful in style.  The contents of none of them are of importance; they display soul and no depth of mind."

Just the kind of thing I like to read.  

Sarah Bradford, her biographer (Penguin 2004), in the London Times quoted a letter dictated on Lucrezia's deathbed to the Pope, Leo X, dated June 22, 1519:

“Most Holy Father . . . Having suffered greatly for more than two months because of a difficult pregnancy, as it has pleased God on the fourteenth of this month at dawn I had a daughter, and I hoped that having given birth my illness also must be alleviated: but the contrary happened, so that I must yield to nature. Our most clement Creator has given me so many gifts, that I recognise the end of my life and feel that within a few hours I shall be out of it . . .”

Now I may have to read Sarah Bradford's biography, too.  But why?  Do I think I'll have to write a paper?

And I'll have to see if there are any more episodes of The Borgias online.  (I don't have cable.)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pop Historical Novels about the Borgias

I went to B&N and saw a big Borgias book display.   

The display suggests that fans of the Showtime miniseries, The Borgias, may also also want to read novels and biographies about the prominent corrupt Renaissance family.  Among the novels are Jean Plaidy's Madonna of the Seven Hills, John Faunce's Lucrezia Borgia, and Sara Poole's Poison:  A Novel of the Renaissance. The nonfiction includes Sarah Bradford's Lucrezia Borgia:  Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy and The Borgias and Their Enemies

Well, I was quite excited.  I don't have cable, but I do have a copy of Jean Plaidy's Lucrezia Borgia novel, Madonna of the Seven Hills.

So I've been reading it this weekend. 

Plaidy, one of the most popular English historical novelists of the '50s and '60s, wrote two novels about Lucrezia Borgia. (You may know Plaidy as Victoria Holt:  her real name was Eleanor Hibberd and she wrote under several pseudonyms.) I am enthralled by Madonna of the Seven Hills, perhaps because I'm a Plaidy addict.  This well-written, enjoyable pop novel begins with the heroine Lucrezia's birth.  Vannozza, the mistress of Cardinal Roderigo Borgia, age 38 when Lucrezia is born, is uncertain whether Roderigo, a womanizer, will hang around much longer.  Fortunately he is thrilled with his golden-haired daughter and comes often to visit her and his young sons, Cesare and Giovanni. 

Roderigo, in case you didn't know, was Spanish-born and aspired to be pope.  On the death of Pope Innocent VIII, he was elected Pope Alexander VI. In the novel, there is much scheming and conspiring, and he buys the conclave votes.

Lucrezia Borgias
But Plaidy's tale of decadence really begins with the rivalry of Cesare and Giovanni Borgia's rivalry for their younger sister Lucrezia's attention.  The two boys hate each other, are violent, and grow up to be promiscuous and cruel.  Lucrezia is sweet, but they slowly corrupt her.  Even when she is a toddler, they tell her quite a lot she doesn't need to know.  When Roderigo ambitiously decides their futures for them for political reasons--Cesare must go into the church,  Giovanni take the place of a much older brother in Spain who dies, a duke--the boys are unhappy.  Cesare, who becomes an archbishop, hates the church, and Giovanni wants to live in Rome.

Only Lucrezia is happy as a young girl transferred to the household of Adrianna, a sophisticated woman with whom Roderigo sends the children to live.  She is becomes close to Giulia, the wife of Adrianna's son, who becomes Roderigo's mistress. 

Anyway, this book is about plot, plot, and plot.  Can you tell?  But I have also read a little history of the Borgias and find them fascinating.

Displays are my downfall.  If you want me to BUY a book, just put it in an attractive cardboard display. 

I was able to watch the first episode of The Borgias online. There is also a page at Showtime with a list of Borgias books.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Buying Books & Monica Dickens's The Nightingales Are Singing

I bicycle to B&N and peruse several books. I end up in the coffee house reading a few pages of Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone, and a chapter of Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason. Perhaps I could buy them and return them the next day if I don't like them, but it's easier to sort through them on-site.  I buy both books, because I want them. 

The next day, I set out to read O'Nan or Shorto, but somehow it's not a contemporary day.  I feel kind of spinsterish in this rain (though I'm married), and, finding a copy of Monica Dickens's The Nightingales Are Singing, begin to read.  Dickens was Charles Dickens's great-granddaughter, and wrote several comic memoirs, comic novels, and serious novels.  Her stuff falls somewhere between Barbara Pym and Nancy Mitford.

Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., The Nightingales Are Singing is part domestic comedy, part serious novel about marriage.  The heroine is Christine, head saleswoman of a book department at Goldwyn's department store, and known as "the estimable Miss Cope."  Unmarried at 34, she is an ideal bookstore employee.  She "moved calmly about the alleys between the bright new paper jackets, knowing that book customers liked to take their time, unlike the thrusters who stampeded through the Notions with never a moment to spare." She finally meets a man who wants to marry her, a dull American naval commander who takes her out to restaurants and likes her family.  For a time she refers to him only as "the American."  It could be romantic, but it's not.  He gives her family ham and other much-appreciated food that Americans have access to.  On the first date, she learns his name is Vinson, and there is slight confusion over his name.  Christine does not particularly like him.  She does not, however, want to end up like Aunt Jo, a spinster, who urges her to marry.  It does not have to be romantic love.  It can be a simple marriage to a decent man, Aunt Jo insists.

One empathizes with Christine.  In our thirties, we are ALL particular. Though middle-aged people insist romance is not essential, Christine finds it hard to compromise.  The appropriate man is not always the right one.

We do and don't want Christine to marry Vinson.

They do get married, and the marriage is difficult.  Christine has to adjust to Washington, D.C.  She is so good-natured that she submits to Vinson on almost every point.  He is sweet, but unimaginative.  There's no getting around it.  He adores her, but is ultra-conservative.  She loves him, but wishes she were working.  He disapproves of Christine's quirky, sloppy housewife friend.  He is worried about impressing admirals and their stiff wives.

Parts are screamingly funny.  When they move to a house, Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine.  At an immigration office, when Christine's visa turns out to have expired, Dickens hilariously illustrates the incompetence of the staff.   When Vinson's hypochondriac mother visits from Illinois, she never stops talking and only the vacuum cleaner drowns her out.

But some very sad things also happen in the novel.  And does the marriage work?

I won't tell you.

This novel is free online at the Internet Archive

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pop Lit: Susan Wittig Albert, Jean Plaidy, Luke Devenish

At the Big Book Sale I could not find a complete set of Susan Wittig Albert's mysteries.  I could not find even one.  I could not find them at Book Mooch.  The dream of the bargain is gone.  People must be hanging onto them, or the professional booksellers abscond with them the moment they're for sale.

I started with Lavender Lies, the eighth in the China Bayles series.  Alberts' heroine, China Bayles, owns an herb shop in Pecan Springs, Texas.  She is a former lawyer who, according to the first novel in the series, Thyme of Death, got tired of working for "a law firm that specialized in protecting the constitutional rights of bad guys--mostly big bad guys who had the wherewithal to pick up the tab for an expensive defense."  And, like the charming shop owner-detectives in many cozy mysteries--owners of tea shops, coffee shops, quilt shops, restaurants, wedding planner businesses, and scrapbooking shops--China has a genius for ferreting out criminals.

The newest in the series.
China runs Thyme and Seasons Herb Company with panache.  In Lavender Lies, she prepares to expand her business by opening a tea shop with her friend, Ruby, the owner of a New Age shop.  She also has last-minute wedding jitters due to last-minute complications: the cake baker quits, it might rain on her garden wedding, and, most important, if she doesn't help her fiance, McQuaid, a criminal justice professor and temporary police chief, find the murderer of a real estate shark, the honeymoon is canceled.  When Edgar Coleman's body is found in his garage, no one has a good word for him.  Edgar blackmailed the City Council members and is suspected of abusing his wife.

I like Wittig's voice, the originality and down-to-earth intelligence of China, the details about the shop, and the fact that we never really feel we're in danger.  These are great fun to read, and I enjoy reading about herbs--the theme is lavender in this one, and there are recipes in the back for Lavender Bath Tea, Lavender Madeleines, Lavender Sachet, etc.

THE JEAN PLAIDY OBSESSION. I considered buying a complete set of Jean Plaidy.  Her 31 novels in print by Three Rivers Press would cost roughly $465.  I  gazed at this number as though it had no meaning.  I very much enjoyed Murder Most Royal, her novel about Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. I read an excerpt of her novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Courts of Love, and though I have not yet bought it, it is a matter of time.  Plaidy (who is also Victoria Holt) wrote SO MUCH.  There is the Norman series, the Tudor series, the Queens of England series, the Plantaganet series, the Mary Stuart series, and much, much more. 

There is a terrific Jean Plaidy page here.    
EMPRESS OF ROME SERIES.   Luke Devenish's new series of Roman historical novels, Empress of Rome, has a cult following in Australia.  The first novel, Den of Wolves, was published by Bantam last year.  I love Roman historical novels.  Occasionally I indulge myself with a Robert Graves, or Lindsey Davis, and have contemplated Collen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.  I just received my copy of Den of Wolves and am enjoying it very much.  I know this period of history very well--early imperial Rome--and have always been fascinated by Livia, Augustus's murderous wife, one of the main characters. Is she as bad as everyone said?  The novel is narrated by a slave, Iphicles.  I've just begun it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Leila Aboulela's Lyrics Alley, The Orange Prize, and American Novels I Mean to Read

Leila Aboulela won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000.  I am spellbound by her stunning novel, Lyrics Alley, which was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Award and longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize.  This lively, intricate story of a Sudanese family in the 1950s, with vibrant writing and a big, satisfying cast of characters, is reminiscent of Nadine Gordimer's novels.  It centers on the Abuzeid family, the relationships among Mahmoud Bey Abuzeid, a rich businessman; his two wives, the first a traditional Sudanese woman, Waheeba, and the second a young Egyptian woman, Nabilah, who longs to return to civilized Cairo; their children, and other relatives. The political upheavals of Suez, Egypt, Sudan, and Britain are still in the background two-thirds of the way through the novel.  It's not quite as political (yet) as Gordimer's work.

Aboulela deftly manipulates the divergent threads of the story.  She explores the characters' different perspectives with a pitch-perfect voice and third-person omniscient point-of-view.  One of the most interesting characters is Nabilah, a well-educated woman, distressed by the provincialism of Sudan; she questions her mother's choice to marry her off as a second wife.  Her marriage to Mahmoud is stressful. Although Mahmoud lives with Nabilah, he is devoted to his and Wahheba's  brilliant second son, Nur, who  is headed for Cambridge.  When Nur is crippled by a tragic accident, the family is stricken and Mahmoud spends much time at Waheeba's adjacent house. They must care for Nur, now a quadriplegic; Soraya, his cousin and fiancee, is devastated when Mahmoud insists on breaking off their betrothal; and Waheeba, furious at her family's fate, deliberately avenges herself on Nabilah. Aboulela's intelligent voice, precise word choice, and controlled storytelling make this one of the best novels of the year.

Meanwhile, the Orange Prize shortlist has been announced. The finalists are:

  • Emma Donoghue (Irish) - Room
  • Aminatta Forna (British/Sierra Leonean) - The Memory of Love
  • Emma Henderson (British) -    Grace Williams Says it Loud
  • Nicole Krauss (American) - Great House  
  • Téa Obreht (Serbian/American) -    The Tiger’s Wife
  • Kathleen Winter (Canadian) - Annabel

I am amazed that I am familiar with five of the six.  Last summer I read part of Emma Donoghue's Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize (not my kind of book). Krauss's Great House was a finalist for The National Book Award and Obreht's The Tiger's Wife has been hailed as an American masterpiece. Forna's The Memory of Love won The Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Africa).  Winter's Annabel was nominated for three Canadian awards. 

So it is safe to say we are in good company.

My wacky idea this year was to read all the American novels on the longlist, because I am an anglophile who needs to start supporting her fellow countrymen, but of course energy deserted me.  I have read two of the other four  American novels on the longlist (listed below) and would have been happy if Julie Orringer's beautifully written The Invisible Bridge had won.

  • The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone 
    The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer 
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell 
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 
  • The Seas by Samantha Hunt

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mild Depression & Camomile Tea

I've been slightly depressed lately. Bring out the herbal tea.  Any kind will do.  Time to drink chamomile.    

Then there are the antidepressants.  Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa.  27 million Americans, or 10 percent of the population in the U.S., took antidepressants in 2005, twice the number who took them in 1996, according to a psychiatry study.  People who want to avoid the stigma of psychiatry get them from their family doctor.  Anybody can get these, actually, but family doctors are hardly experts. 

But when you're not in the antidepressant phase, what should you do? What if you're mildly afflicted?  My prescription is, DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT.  It's a good idea to have TWO OR THREE THINGS GOING ON, I find.  You know, a job or two or three.  At the moment I'm balancing teaching and housewifery.   But perhaps one of these things does not belong with the other.  

So here's the rundown & changes by adjustment of attitude:

1.  TEACHING:  I enjoy it in moderation.  I'm good at it.  I mildly like the idea of passing on classics.  As a rule, it's easier to teach small groups than private lessons because bonding and competition help people learn.  I expect people to work--yes, I'm very intolerant this way--and I try to be nice, but I don't entertain.  Sorry, if I don't like you I won't teach you (unless you're in a group, and then I make do).

But it can be a source of stress.  I recently had an experience with a person I couldn't teach.  My instinct was to say no when I met her.  Always go with your instinct.  She was a crystal gazer, and a psychic.  She wanted to regress to a former life as a Roman, but since she did no work, it was all in her imagination.  We were still declining puella after five weeks.  I went home and cried.  Really. 
So should I screen individuals?  Interview people before private lessons?  Not teach people with harmless delusions?  You're supposed to give them what they want and humor them, and perhaps declining puella was enough.  And yet I know from my public school teacher friends that sometimes you can't.  I've known public school teachers who have sat for a whole semester and done nothing because their students couldn't learn, or wouldn't, and they could not of course choose their students.  

Conclusion:  Take this much less seriously.  Every student is different.  It's good to pass on what you can and not to worry when it doesn't work out. 

2.  HOUSEWIFERY:  I'm interested in this when I walk through my clean house and think, This is a really nice place to live!  I am trying to clean two days a week so I don't have to hire a maid.  I'm NOT a maid.  But a clean house DOES make me feel better.  So I should up the ante in housework and have a REALLY clean house. Get out my housewifely crafts?  Make wreaths and macrame and...?

And get going on that chamomile tea.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited is not quite in the canon.  Like Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Evelyn Waugh's novel is just below the arbitrary classic boundary.

But frankly I just love it.  Brideshead Revisited is a romantic middlebrow classic, with original characters, beautiful writing, a symmetrical structure, and many surprises in the plot.  The first book and most of the second book are elegant, though the end teeters and falls into incomprehensible Catholic gibberish. (Being a Catholic, I think it's all right for me to say this.)

But Book I, the story of Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte's charming friendship at Oxford, is enchanting and absolutely polished.  After Sebastian, a sweet Catholic aristocrat, drunkenly throws up over Charles's windowsill one late night, he sends all the flowers in a flower shop to Charles.  He charms Charles's scout (servant).  At a lunch that day, Sebastian is "peeling a plover's egg taken from a large nest of moss in the center of the table."

"'I've just counted them,' he said.  'There were five each and two over, so I'm eating the two.  I'm unaccountably hungry today."  

As an artist, Charles needs a little refining.  Sebastian educates him through his own taken-for-granted acquaintance with good things.  Charles puts away his prints and a vulgar screen.
Somehow anything in the UK goes with me.  Rich people?  Fine. In American literature I don't approve of them, but I can imagine myself rich, English, and at Oxford.  In Maryland in the '80s, when the PBS production of Brideshead Revisited was on, everybody watched it. We discussed it in the lounge on Monday mornings.  Even the most persnickety people loved it, but I may have been the only one who read the book.  My paperback (see left) says "Companion to the PBS television series" on the cover.  Companion! We all loved Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews.

The prologue, beginning of the frame constructionof the novel, introduces us to Charles, the narrator, in the 1940s when he is an army captain.  His company believes it will be dispatched to the Middle East, but the destination turns out to be Brideshead, the estate of Sebastian's family. Most of the rest of the book is a flashback.  The past is more vivid, of course.

When Charles spent time at Brideshead with Sebastian in the '20s, he slowly learned the difficulties of Sebastian's Catholic household.  His father left his mother years ago, and there was no divorce because she was a devout Catholic.  Mummy is a controlling charmer whom men end up hating.   After Sebastian becomes a drunkard and leaves Oxford, their friendship unravels tragically, mainly because of Mummy.  Charles's voice becomes muted and lugubrious, and the sunniness of youth is gone.  

In the second book, Charles's sad romance with Julia, Sebastian's sister, is a bit shadowy:  they are both so unhappy, and their problems so serious, that one cannot read it with as much enjoyment. Charles is a successful architectural artist (he paints pictures of people's houses before they are demolished), and Julia is an unhappy wife of a brash politician.  They are drawn together.  The Catholic ending is surprising, and I'm not quite sure I understand it.  But it's not the Catholic ambiguity that draws one.   

Don't we all secretly want to have gone to Oxford in the '20s, carried around a teddy bear name Aloysius, drunk champagne and eaten fresh strawberries, and visited Sebastian's gorgeous estate?  Wouldn't we have loved to be Julia, the beautiful, intelligent woman who can have anything she wants, but cannot transcend the limits of religion?

But religion is a good thing.  It really is.  It just makes for a sad ending.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Five Years of the New Des Moines Public Library

Des Moines's New Public Library
It's the Des Moines Public Library's fifth birthday.

A spring photo
Yes, really.  The new Central Library opened on April 8, 2006. Old library: a comely, if shabby, brick building, purchased by The World Food Prize Foundation.  New library: 110,000 square feet, two stories and three wings built of concrete with a skin of copper mesh between two sheets of glass. 

The look takes getting used to. The copper reflects and reflects.  It's very glittery.  Inside looking out, there's a copper mesh in the way.  Concrete floor in the lobby.  Ugly.  

Of course I'm used to it now.  As in: it's the ugliest building but there's a LOT of space for books.  Comfortable chairs.  Well, some are comfortable.  Some are, actually, the wrong shape for people.  And when the flowers bloom and the grass greens, the exterior looks better.  Eventually the trees will grow.

The old library.
Libraries across the country have received grants for new buildings.  San Francisco, Denver, and many other cities.  In Iowa, there are  new libraries in Altoona, Iowa City, West Des Moines, and Urbandale, to name a few. All the Des Moines branch libraries have been spruced up by renovations.  Cedar Rapids is building a new library:  the old one downtown was destroyed in the flood of 2008.

With budget cuts, the Des Moines Public Library faces problems, though.  The library reported in 2010 that it had lost $400,000 over two years and must cut an additional $535,000 in 2010-2011.  Of course the building funds are separate from the other funds.  But aren't librarians cursing the government for not finding similar funds for personnel, books, and other normal functions?  Did they need new buildings in the first place?

And there have been plenty of construction glitches in the new library.  According to the March 6 issue of the Des Moines Register, the new boilers have to be repaired or replaced for the second time in five years.  It could cost up to $400,000.  And in 2009, the city settled a lawsuit over defective windows that began to break shortly after the library opened.

City manager Rick Clark told the Register:

"The boilers are pretty much shot.  I don't think anybody could be more frustrated about this than me and our new library director. There's no reason on the face of the Earth this should have happened, but the fact of the matter is we have to do something about it, and we will."
Meanwhile, the World Food Prize Foundation is restoring the old library for $29.8 million.  It did smell of B.O.:  it was like the homeless people's annex, a mile or so away from the homeless encampment on the Des Moines River.  There's no place for the homeless to go.  They can't hang out at the World Food Prize Building.  And  security guards seem to be keeping them OUT of the new library.  I don't know where they're going now. 

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What I'm Reading Now-Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling-& "Bits"

I'm reading Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling with a sense of, if not quite awe, happiness and relief.  It is very well-written.  It is amusing and smart.  I can't stop reading it. I sat down on the porch swing and told my husband to make dinner.  (He served me a casserole.)  Read, read, read.  I love Wolitzer's humor.

Wolitzer has a brilliant, distinctly American voice, slightly Nora Ephronish, with a twist of Dorothy Parker.  Her clever novel revolves around the sexual fallout from Aristophanes's Lysistrata.  Dory and Robby Lang, a happy couple in a suburb of New Jersey, are falling apart.  They're Best Teacher of the Year-type high school English teachers who joke about The Odyssey, but aren't obnoxious and don't take themselves too seriously, and have a nearly perfect life with their teenage daughter, Willa.  That is, until a cold breeze blows into the house and destroys Dory's sexual desire.  The other women in town fall under the same "spell" and lose desire.  They're the women in Lysistrata, turned around, not just depriving men of sex, but not wanting it.  And it is connected to a new drama teacher at the high school who decides to produce Aristophanes' Lysistrata. 

I took an Aristophanes class long ago, and though we did not read Lysistrata, we read two fascinating plays (actually more fascinating in Greek than in English, requiring too many footnotes in translation).  Perhaps the professor was worried about reactions to Lysistrata, though the other plays are ribald, too.

In The Uncoupling, there are many broken connections, especially internet clicking and links, though Dory and Robby struggle to be hip and unaffected by the changes in student thinking and short attention spans.
"You weren't supposed to think life was worse now; it was 'different,' everyone said.  But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse.  The intimacy of reading had been traded in for the rapid absorption of information....  The world was different, not worse, her colleagues said to one another."

I'm not finished yet, but really love this.  It means I DON'T hate modern literature. 

 Bits.   Through Mark Athakis's round-up of essays on approaches to criticism at his blog, Mark Athakis's Fiction Notes, I ended up at a place called htmlgiant reading an essay by someone who wants to see "constructive" instead of "negative" online criticism.

"it strikes me as an incredible exercise in futility to waste energy writing negativity. Sure, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be able to articulate why you don’t like something, but it seems to me much more progressive & useful to be able to article why you do like something."

Athakis also linked us to several essays which think you should tell the truth about books.  You know which kind I like...

Bookstores.  I went shopping this afternoon and realized that we must rely completely on B&N now.  Borders has closed its doors, and our independent bookstores are tiny cliquey affairs.  You have to drive to Iowa City to find a good independent bookstore.  So whom do I support?  I've never lived in a one-bookstore town and it's scary.  There's still a Borders 40 miles away, which, by the way, put out of business the only independent bookstore there.  So if that closes...