Thursday, June 30, 2011

Startled by Book Art

Book Art: Has Iowa City Gone Too Far?
I was out of town and needed something to read other than Jane Austen. Only War and Peace would do on a hot day in Iowa City.  Naturally my copy was in my living room at home. 

So I went on a tour of bookstores and ended up startled by gigantic book art

Murphy-Brookfield Books, a lovely used bookstore with a huge literature selection and a tortoiseshell cat, had the Pevear-Volokhonsky, but I needed a smaller copy for my bike pannier. I was on my way to another bookstore when  I was gobsmacked by art.  A gigantic statue of the Stieg Larsson trilogy loomed above me.  

Had Iowa City gotten carried away with its status as a UNESCO City of Literature? Was a sculpture of a thriller near Iowa Book & Supply a comment on the decline in reading?
 And then I found the other statues:  One of Marilynne Robinson's Home (she lives in Iowa City, so I get it), another of Treasure Island, and...

It turns out that this exhibit of 25 statues, known as BookMarks Book Art in Johnson County, was the inspiration of Iowa City library director Susan Craig.  The statues are on display through October and will be auctioned off in November to benefit the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature, Iowa City Public Library, Coralville Public Library and North Liberty Community Library. 

So you see it's all rather sweet.   You can see the statues here.   

And I did find my copy of War & Peace.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Was It Mud? Jane Austen, Nancy Drew & Trixie Belden

He fixes another bike tire.
I was in the middle of Mansfield Park.  It was a cold, wet day and I didn't plan to go out.

When my husband suggested that we take a bicycle ride on the trail, I reluctantly closed my book.  Green fields and woodland scenes flashed past us as we rode, but I was musing about Henry Crawford, a rakish character who has announced his intention to win Fanny Price's love.

He told his sister a couple of chapters back:

"No, I will not do her any harm, dear little soul!  I only want her to look kindly on me, to give me smiles as well as blushes, to keep a chair for me by herself wherever we are, and be all animation when I take it and talk to her; to think as I think, be interested in all my possessions and pleasures, try to keep me longer at Mansfield, and feel when I go away that she shall be never happy again.  I want nothing more."
I was indignantly evaluating Henry's chances when my bike wheel began to roll  sideways in a squishy way. Was it mud?   

"I think it's flat."

"No, it can't be flat."

On Monday his tire was flat.  On Tuesday my tire was flat.  On Thursday his tire was flat.  Yesterday mine was flat.  

It takes him five minutes to fix it.  It takes me 12 hours. 

"There isn't any glass; it just seem deflated," he said.

It's a mystery.  It's been this way all week. 

"Maybe kids are going into the garage and deflating the tires."

"That would be a pretty tame crime."

Years of reading Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden made me a shamus.  Nancy or Trixie would find a forgery gang based in our garage, hiding the evidence of currency inside our inner tubes.  I think thieves were hanging out in Nancy's attic or Trixie's club house...or was that in a chalet on a ski trip?

In real life, we'll just keep our bikes on the porch for awhile. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tapped Out, Bookstore Reading Tickets, & What I'm Reading Now

I went to Barnes & Noble.  It had been a month since I'd been in a Barnes & Noble.   I needed to fill up my pannier with books.

So I went to the mall in my chic bicycling clothes.  Bicycle helmet:  check.  Bicycling gloves:  check.  Sneakers rather than bicycling shoes:  check.

You can imagine the wandering, the browsing, the dipping into various books.  I had a pleasant time drinking coffee in a comfortable chair and skimming parts of Monica Ali's Untold Story, Bella Pollen's The Summer of the Bear, Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie, William Deresewicz's A Jane Austen Education, Adrian Murdoch's The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World, Noelle Hancock's My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir, and Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest.

I decided to keep the spending in the $40 range.  Very reasonable for a shopaholic.  So I cheerfully went up to the cash register, expecting to be treated like a queen.  BUT GUESS WHAT?

I was tapped out.   

"I'll try another card." Laughing.

But I cut up my other card last winter. 

There must be another card, I thought, looking at my collection.  I expected a card to appear.  

Could I use my LIBRARY CARD?

"I wasted all that time shopping," I said.  I  abandoned my books with some amazement.

BOOKSTORE READING TICKETS. Would you pay to attend a reading?  I used to ORGANIZE readings, so I'm curious.  Some independent bookstores charge $5 or more now because audience members, instead of buying from the indies, rush home and order from Amazon.


Centuries of June by Keith Donohue.  Although I never got around to his much-praised first novel, The Stolen Child, I decided to try his new book, Centuries of June.

It's part science fiction, part literary novel.  It begins with a man on the bathroom floor, bleeding from a hole in his head.

"Falling seems to have happened in another lifetime. Even as I tumbled, stupefaction began  to gnaw at me and consume all.  In that nanosecond between the blow and timber, my mind began to hone in on the who and the why.  When the hardness struck bone, just at the base of my skull, an inch above my neck, when I began to lose balance and propel headfirst to the floor, my vision instantly sharpened as never before.  All the objects in the room lost dimension, clarified, flattened as if outlined in sharp bold black, a cartoon of space."

His dead father appears. A ghost?   And then eight furious women, who have parked their bicycles in his yard and are resting in the bedroom next door, enter the bathroom one by one and tell their stories. 

I love the first story, a Native American story set in Alaska, "The Woman Who Married a Bear."  It  very much reminds me of Louise Erdrich's fiction.  The second, "The Woman Who Swallowed a Whale," is about a shipwreck and a girl who is dressed as a boy. 

Very different, surreal, and I haven't read enough of it yet to judge, so more later.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

BiblioBits: Ursula Parrott's Ex-Wife & Susan Howatch's Starbridge Series

Chester Morris and Norma Shearer In "Divorcee," based on Usula Parrott's "Ex-Wife"
I finished Ursula Parrott's Ex-Wife, an interesting Jazz Age novel, if not a masterpiece. 

In 1988 the Plume American Women's Series reissued Ex-Wife, with a fascinating introduction by Francine Prose and afterword by Parrott's son Marc.  Parrott won and lost small fortunes off her novels and women's magazine fiction in the '20s and '30s, according to Prose and Marc Parrott, but also endured blackmail attempts and at forty was accused of smuggling a 23-year-old soldier out of military prison in the rumble seat of her car.  Her novel Ex-Wife, which she wrote between her first and second marriages, was published anonymously in 1929.  It sold 100,000 copies, she was eventually able to claim it under her own name, and it was made into a movie, Divorcee, with Norma Shearer.

Parrott's cool, understated narrative is faintly reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett's Thin Man books (though it is not a mystery).  Parrott's elegant narrator, Patricia, an advertising copywriter and assistant manager, is always poised and always good company in speakeasies, but she is heartsick over the separation from her husband, caused by one infidelity, fictionalized by her to hide the fact that it was with his best friend. Her husband, too, has been unfaithful, but what's good for the gander is not good for the goose.  She muddles through the divorce with the help of her divorced roommate, Lucia.  Real happiness is not necessarily the lot of these ex-wives.

Parts of the novel, as Prose points out,  are almost shocking.  "At moments we feel that Patricia is telling us slightly more than necessary, that some of this is intended to scandalize." Patricia talks so honestly about the lurid making out in the clubs--her husband's kissing "beautiful shoulders" of other women--as if she is expected to accept it.  In a way it reminds me of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

Virago Press, Capuchin Books, The Feminist Press, Any Reprint Press:  publish this book at once, please!  It's a great popular book of its kind.

Coincidentally, at the end of Ex-Wife, Patricia is reading H. G. Wells.  I've been reading him, too.  The book?  The World of William Clissold. Never heard of it.

Susan Howatch's Ultimate Prizes.  I am devouring Susan Howatch's Starbridge series, an excellent series of six pop novels about the Church of England in the 20th century.  

Susan Howatch's early bent was for Gothic novels and family sagas.  In 1980, after she settled in Salisbury, she became interested first in the Salisbury Cathedral and then in Anglican Christianity.  The six resulting novels are set in Starbridge, a fictional Anglican diocese not unlike Salisbury. Although it is not on the level of Trollope's six-book Barsetshire series, perhaps part of the inspiration was Barsetshire. 

The priest/clergyman narrators of Howatch's pageturners are unconventional, highly-sexed, and hubristic.  They have crises, but also find romance.  Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who investigates the much admired Archbishop of Canterbury's unconventional household, is the narrator of the first book, Glamorous Powers.  What he finds out leads to a breakdown and eventually to romance.  In the second book, Glittering Images, Anglican monk Jonathan Darrow, a psychic, is the narrator.  He decides to leave the monastery and undergoes a kind of psychological and psychic transformation.   He also meets a woman.

In Ultimate Prizes, the third in the series, Neville Aysgarth, an Archdeacon, has a similar crisis.  A Yorkshire draper's son who has spent his life "chasing prizes," under the influence of an uncle who took over the family after Neville's father died, he gets everything he wants:  the perfect career, perfect wife, and perfect children.  He insists that all is well, but then meets and falls in love with a rich young woman at a dinner party, Dido. They write letters, supposedly about religion.  

Neville's "perfect" wife, Grace, a very nice woman but exhausted by Neville's social demands,  five children, and the political life in Starbridge, shortly understands that Neville is in love with Dido.  When she dies, Dido becomes his second wife, and all hell breaks loose.  Neville's identity crisis leads to counseling by a monk.  And monks and Anglocatholicism are abhorrent to him; he is strictly a Protestant Church of England clergyman.

The series is fascinating.  I recommend it to anyone who loves a good story:  you don't have to be religious.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott

Ursula Parrott's Ex-Wife, a compelling novel about divorce, unflinchingly captures the sadness, numbness, and confusion of a heroine still in love with her ex-husband. This hip, deadpan, pitch-perfect novel, published in 1928, is surprisingly contemporary.

Parrott begins the novel:

"My husband left me four years ago.  Why--I don't precisely understand, and never did.  Nor, I suspect, does he.  Nowadays, when the catastrophe that it seemed to be and its causes are matters equally inconsequential, I am increasingly disposed to the belief that he brought himself to the point of deserting me because I made such outrageous scenes at first mention of the possibility."

Set in New York during the Jazz Age, Ex-Wife describes the aftermath of the destruction of the narrator Patty's marriage by a combination of drinking, infidelities, and sexual misunderstandings.   Patty, an advertising copywriter, is madly in love with her husband, Peter, a newspaperman, but they go drinking and dancing every night and occasionally kiss other people.  When he sleeps with someone else, Patty is upset but dares not complain, but when she sleeps with someone else, he never forgives her.  And when Patty's dull virginal friend Hilda visits, Peter falls in love with her because of her apparent virtue and constant bad-mouthing of Patty.  He leaves Patty after six months.

Patty moves in with Lucia, a divorced friend who tries to help her survive the wreck.  Patty has her heart set on getting Peter back, and spends all her extra freelancing money on new clothes so that she'll attract him.  Lucia tries to explain that it is unlikely that Peter will return.  He has ditched the virginal Hilda for a sexy woman named Judith.

" are always coming back from little excursion trips--but once they start on world cruises...

"...About the excursions and cruises--I mean that a man, really in love with one woman, often can go tripping off blithely but briefly with another, simply because she has a stirring voice or wide innocent eyes.  He comes back then, to the woman, sometimes improved, even.  But once he embarks on a tour, child, he's going to forget perhaps, what city he started from, and certainly what that city had that was unique, among all the scenery he's seen since."

It's true.  Once the touring starts, you end up like Jane, H. G. Wells's wife, who had to put up with an "open marriage."

Ex-wives have ugly stories. I was an ex-wife for a very numb year and a half.

Ex-wives' lives often revolve around finding new boyfriends and husbands.  Long hours of work and Saturday mornings at the art museum cannot while away all the hours of the day.  Nor can blind dates with attractive ex-managers of rock bands who drink a little too much nor never-married CPAs who are referred by friends of friends of friends make up for an ex-life.

My favorite ex-life story? 

When I was going through a divorce, for some reason I didn't tell anyone at work.  One of my acquaintances found out and set me up on a blind date with a doctor.  Since I've never cared for money, it didn't occur to me that he was a "catch."  One minute he was gushing about taking me out on his sailboat and then suddenly he observed outside the movie theater: "There are sure a lot of Jews around here, aren't there?"

I was aghast.  And after the movie started, I couldn't stand it and left. 

As a lefty, I really can't stand anti-semitism, racism, sexism...any of those things.  

The very fact that I was sitting in a theater with a complete stranger who stood for everything I hated showed that  I was not myself.  It is tough being an ex-wife because you're used to being with someone  and suddenly you're in a world of strangers.  

I am no longer an ex-wife.  

I haven't finished Ex-Wife, but have a feeling it will not end happily.

Monday, June 20, 2011

H. G. Wells & David Lodge

On a recent bicycle trip, my husband and I were riding uphill and sweating.  Until we got our Gatorade, we needed a common subject, a distraction from the heat.  My husband just started reading H. G. Wells's comic novel about a bicycling holiday, The Wheels of Chance:  A Bicycling Idyll. And I am halfway through David Lodge's excellent historical novel about H. G., A Man of Parts.

The common component:  Wells and bicycling. 

I read many "Grade B" novels by the likes of Wells.  My husband scorns such writers unless he comes across a reference in somebody's book, or a comment on a blog.

Under somebody else's influence... 

I have not inspired him, though I've been maundering about Kipps and Tono-Bungay lately.  He found the reference to Wells's novel in Robert Penn's It's All about the BikeThe Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels.     

Wells's protagonist of The Wheels of Chance, Mr. Hoopdriver, a draper's assistant, can barely ride a bicycle.  Like Mr. Hoopdriver, H. G. Wells was a draper's assistant (for awhile) and a bicyclist. The hero of The History of Mr. Polly was also a draper's assistant and a bicyclist.   And in Kipps, the draper's assistant/protagonist's life changes when a playwright runs into him with a bicycle.

I'm sure there's bicycling in other novels, too.

About Lodge's A Man of Parts:  it's a staunch and solid book but really takes off in Part 3.  The episodes with the Fabian Society-- E. Nesbit, her husband Hubert Bland, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, etc.--are completely absorbing.  Then there are the women he has affairs with:  Violet Hunt, a feminist novelist, and Amber Reeves, a feminist who had a daughter by Wells and who was the inspiration for the heroine of Ann Veronica (a novel considered so shocking it was rejected by his publisher).

His poor wife, Jane, with whom he was very much in love when he married her, had to put up with so much.  A brilliant science student of H. G.'s in his teaching days, she had an affair with him while he was married to his first wife and then they married.   Ironically he had many affairs during their marriage and told her about them--he was promiscuous, so they had a "free" marriage--but he always came back to her.  She was the mother of of his children.

But then so were Amber Reeves and Rebecca West the mothers of his children.

I must read some more Wells soon to complement Lodge's book.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Housewives, Prom Queens, & How to Be a Woman of the 1960s and 1970s

Nora Johnson
I recently ran across Nora Johnson's excellent 1988 New York Times article, "Housewives and Prom Queens, 25 Years Later." She reread several women's novels from the 1960s and '70s, saying that she "finds [her] history in novels."

I know what she means. 

Among the 19 novels she reviewed were Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, Lois Gould's Such Good Friends, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, Marilyn French's The Women's Room, and Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.

These women's novels, both the good and the bad, the classics and the dated, are historical records of the Second Wave of feminism. Being a housewife could drive you crazy; getting out of the house could save you.  If you didn't conform to societal standards, the received wisdom was that your husband and children would be unhappy.  Simone Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique encouraged women to be independent, to work and fulfill themselves.  The anti-war movement also inspired women to question authority.

The feminist novels explored sexuality as well as everyday life.  These authors wrote as explicitly about sex as Henry Miller and Philip Roth.

I am surprised by how many of these books I have read.  In the '70s, I read mostly 19th-century novels, but also enjoyed popular novels of the time.  Some of my favorite women's books were:

  1. Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.  Anna Wulf, the heroine, cannot integrate the many facets of her life as an unmarried independent woman and writer in a society that expects women to marry and sublimate their ambitions. She records in five (?) notebooks her history in South Africa, her masochistic affairs with married men, years in the Communist party, etc.
  2. Marge Piercy's Dance the Eagle to Sleep.  Teenagers in a future society rebel against the draft and the system.  I love many of Piercy's books, but don't dare look back at this.
  3. Erica Jong's Fear of Flying.  A steamy, funny novel about Isadora Wing, a psychiatrist's wife who accompanies him to Vienna for a conference (though she is afraid of flying) and encounters a Laingian analyst who sexually changes her life.  
  4. Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife.  The heroine, Bettina Balser, keeps a funny, sad diary about her life as a dissatisfied New York wife and mother.  She has an affair with a playwright, who is also unsupportive.  I absolutely loved this book.  NPR used to have a local nightly show in which the three classical music DJs took turns reading books aloud: Diary of a Mad Housewife was one of the novels.  
Lessing's and Kaufman's have stood the test of time:  I'm not sure about the others.

Nora Johnson, herself an excellent novelist and memoirist, the author of The World of Henry Orient, Uncharted Places, and Coast to Coast:  A Family Romance, also intelligently differentiates between "women's novels" and "feminist novels."  She writes,

''Womens' novels'' accept the ''society'' as it is. Confessional, domestic, they deal with traditional women's matters - love, marriage, children, the emotional life. The feminist novel cuts deeper, burns with mysterious pain that is sometimes transmitted into black humor.
 Since I lived the life of a housewife-heroine myself during those turbulent years, caring for small children in a suburban house, my response to this feminist fiction was primal and only half-critical; I listened for cries that matched mine, novelty and hope (however illusory) in the dark night. Now, a decade or so later, some of my old favorites seem dull and polemical, and others that eluded me then have widened, deepened, and now seem very fine.
 I'll have to reread one or two of these.

Friday, June 17, 2011


We wanted to see a chick flick.  We wanted a romantic comedy set in Tuscany, or maybe Niagara Falls.  So we went to the mall, where our choices were Super Eight, Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean, Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, X-Men, Kung Fu Panda, Hangover 2, or Bridesmaids.  

Bridesmaids it was, and we loved it.  It's a grungy Saturday Night Live-style Pride and Prejudice, crossed with You've Got Mail, Sex and the City, and Bridget Jones. If you have two X chromosomes, and you love Jane Austen, you must see Bridesmaids.  My guess is that the there are no ACTUAL allusions to Austen, but I have become an Austen nut since V. S. Naipaul trashed her.  The banter is worthy of Austen.  Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo have written a hilarious and sweet contemporary satire of the craziness of weddings, women's friendships, and dysfunctional romances with men. 

Kristen Wiig, an SNL comedian who played Jill in Knocked-Up (which I didn't see), stars as Annie, a down-and-out baker whose cake shop in Milwaukee just closed.  Annie's British roommates, obnoxious Gil, and and his overweight unemployed sister, Brynn (there go my fantasies of British thinness and perfection), take advantage of her financially, insisting that she pay half. 

Worst, Annie keeps having sex with her attractive ex-boyfriend, Ted (Jon Hamm of Mad Men), who doesn't care about her and tells her in the morning (if he lets her stay that long), "I don't know how to say this but I really want you to go."

The best thing in Annie's life is her friendship with Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph, another SNL comedian.  Then Lillian breaks the news.  She's getting married.

Annie is happy for her, but confused.  As maid of honor she plans showers and bridesmaid dress fittings.  Everything goes awry when she takes Lillian and bridesmaids to a Brazilian restaurant, where they get food poisoning--and there is a gross-out scene, to keep the men awake, as my husband says, and to appeal to the very young, as I say.

One of the bridesmaids, Helen (Rose Byrne), a perfect corporate wife, competes with Annie for Lillian's friendship. And may I say I don't think she's as funny as the other bridesmaids?  The others are all so quirky, but she is stiff.  We want to hate Helen, and we do hate Helen for awhile. I guess that's the point of her stiffness.

Annie meets a nice Irish cop (Chris O'Dowd), but she can't take him seriously because he LIKES her.  Yes, I know, but isn't this the way it goes sometimes?  He encourages her to return to baking. 

She alienates everyone but finally learns about friendship and turning her life around.

This is a comedy classic for the 2000s.  At least I think so.  Of course I'd have to see it again to make sure.

Six stars out of five!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

David Lodge's A Man of Parts & Michael Dirda on Wells

Some of us read reviews this spring of David Lodge's  A Man of Parts, a historical novel about H. G. Wells, in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Some of us prepared for the September publication in the U.S.  by reading Wells's Tono-Bungay, an overpraised novel about class, advertising, and science that has not made our Wells canon.  Some of us even tracked down an advance review copy of A Man of Parts. Yes, I am enjoying my advance copy of Lodge's novel and will give you a preview.

Although bulky historical novels are not my favorite genre, my interest in Wells exceeds my distaste.  I became a Wells groupie a few years ago, when, curious about his popularity (i.e., affairs) with some of my favorite writers, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Rebecca West, I read some of his charming comedies, The History of Mr. Polly, Ann Veronica, and Kipps.  

H. G. Wells
In Lodge's entertaining new novel, he vividly records the highs and lows of Wells's career and personal life.  Wells, who started life as a draper's assistant, like the heroes of his comic novels, The History of Mr. Polly and Kipps, rose from housekeeper's son to science teacher to writer of articles and reviews.  When The Time Machine was published in 1895, he became a best-selling novelist.  

Wells seems to have been a bit of a sex maniac.  Married twice to women he couldn't satisfy, or who were frigid (Wells's conclusion), he had multiple affairs.  His second wife, Jane, agreed to an open marriage because she didn't care for sex.  She insisted that he tell her about his affairs.

As a socialist, Wells attempted to influence the Fabian Society (a group of socialists who meant well but never acted, in his view).

Lodge enlivens his straightforward narrative with experimental bits and pieces.  The dying Wells looks back over his life, and answers questions of an imaginary interviewer-interlocutor only he can hear. His answers  contain biographical information and link the longer sections of chronological narrative.  This technique is oddly reminiscent of Wells's own combination of radical ideas and stodgy style,.   You can't hope for much with Wells's style--he's all about story and ideas--but Lodge doesn't have to use pyrotechnics to create a believable Wells.

A Man of Parts begins in 1944 at Hanover Terrace in London, where Wells has bravely remained throughout the war.  Other houses in the area are boarded up.

"Only one house, number 13, has been permanently occupied throughout the war by its owner, Mr. H. G. Wells.  During the London Blitz of 1940-41 he was frequently teased with the suggestion that this might prove an unlucky number, to which he responded, consistent with a lifetime's contempt for superstition by having a bigger "13" painted on the wall beside his front door.  He stubbornly refused to move to the country, saying 'Hitler (or in male company, 'that shit Hitler') is not going to get me on the run,' and stayed put in Hanover Terrace as, one by one, his neighbors slunk off to safe rural havens and their houses were occupied by sub-tenants or left empty."

He knew all the fascinating people of his time:  Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, Henry James, the Webbs of the Fabian many people.  Lodge's characterization of E. Nesbit, the author of children's classics, is brilliant.  A founder and fellow member of the Fabian Society, she lived an unconventional life with her husband Hubert Bland, also a writer, and Alice Hoatson, their housekeeper who gave birth to two of Hubert's children (raised by E. Nesbit with her own two children).  When Wells, a shit to his wife, went to stay at Nesbit's house two weeks before Jane gave birth because he couldn't face the pregnancy scenes, he wrote in the morning in a separate part of the garden where Nesbit wrote, discussed their intimate lives, and played charades with the family.

Of Nesbit Lodge writes:

"She reminded you of Rossetti's languorously pensive maidens....On occasion she would smoke a cigar.  But she was also energetic and athletic... He felt that in many ways they were kindred spirits.  Edith was as prolific and work-driven as himself, and she too liked to writer her quota of words in the early part of the day in intense solitary concentration, and then be free to exercise and amuse herself for the rest of it in company, the more the merrier.  Like him she was impulsive, restless, easily bored, and subject to sudden changes of mood."
I'm very much enjoying this.

Michael Dirda's Reviews 2 of H. G. Wells's Novels.  Michael Dirda, a reviewer for The Washington Post and a columnist for the Barnes and Noble Review,  has recently reviewed The History of Mr. Polly in The Washington Post and Tono-Bungay in The Barnes and Noble Review.  New editions of Wells's books have been published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rereading Persuasion and The Bed-Reading System

There are Persuasion people.

Their favorite novel is Jane Austen's Persuasion, the story of Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old heroine who regrets having broken off her engagement at 19.  Then she meets her former fiance again by chance.

I am very fond of it, though on this reading I found it almost too abbreviated. 

Rereading Persuasion  on a recent trip was challenging.  Like Anne Elliot, I was organized:  I took two copies, a small reading copy for my purse and and The Annotated Persuasion, edited by David M. Shapard, for reading in my room.

But I stayed in an uncomfortable room in an almost empty house.  How I wished for furniture and lamps!  I had the choice of reading in bed or cross-legged on the floor in the living room. 

Sitting scrunched against the wall under the only lamp in the house, I could not get comfortable.  Then I tried the bed.  The mattress, bought in about 1960, is so lumpy and soft that it almost doubles up and the springs hit your lower back.  OW.  

Back to the living room floor?  Really uncomfortable.

I finally created a bed-reading system.

1.  Drag lamp from living room to bedroom.

2.  Remove the boxes and stuff off the top of the bookcase so I can move the bookcase very slightly and plug in the lamp.

3.  Roll two blankets behind pillows for back support. 

4.  Put pillow under legs.

When I eventually perfected my bed-reading system, Persuasion was a pleasure, though it is sketchier and more minimalist than, say, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.  It is also the shortest of Jane's novels. Austen was writing it in 1816 when she became ill, and, though she finished it before she died, perhaps she did not have time to revise it. 

Anne Elliot is one of my favorite heroines.  She is quiet and sensible, a little like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park.  She is good-natured, has a sense of humor, and is the most dependable character in the book, with the exception of her former fiance, Captain Wentworth, and his friends.  Anne is the one you want at your sickbed, or to organize a challenging social situation. On the other hand, the UPPER upper class--Anne's family, her father, Sir Walter Elliot, her sister, Elizabeth, younger sister, Mary, and Lady Russell, her late mother's best friends--are proud, sometimes silly, and often show bad judgment. Lady Russell had opposed Anne's engagement because Captain Wentworth, at that time, had not advanced to the gentlemanly rank of captain.

Sir Walter and Elizabeth go to Bath to save money (they are in debt), and Anne stays behind for a few months with Mary and Lady Russell.  Captain Wentworth's sister and husband have rented Kellynch-Hall, the Elliot's house.

Keep your eye on Elizabeth's cunning companion, Mrs. Clay, and Anne's warm-hearted but arch friend, Mrs. Smith.  Remember Harriet Smith in Emma? Could Harriet have grown up to be an amalgam of the two?

When Anne meets Captain Wentworth again, it is not an instant romance, but romance develops (I will not tell you between whom, or how it all turns out). 

But, as you can imagine, the ending is happy.  

I'm home after the short trip, and thank God we have plenty of "reading systems," lamps and furniture, here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Living with an Athlete, Long Distances, & A Trip down the Raccoon River Trail

The Raccoon River Valley Trail:  Redfield, Iowa
Living with an athlete can be fun, or the reverse.  Do you want to golf, bungee-jump, white-water raft, or whatever it is they do?

Or would you rather be reading Jane Austen?

I was in training for a 10K and couldn't imagine why.  Were any of my friends doing this?  No, they were in air-conditioned living rooms reading The Cider House Rules, watching Masterpiece Theater, or eating takeout pizza. I finished several 10Ks that summer, encouraged by my husband.  I was curiously proud of myself, because so unathletic was I that my gym teachers had even corrected my jump-roping.  Yes, I jumped too high (like Icarus, flying too near the sun, I presume) but now I was one of hundreds running the Don't Fall Run, The Freedom Run, and God Know What the Others Were Called.

So thanks to my husband for improved athletic self-esteem.

Then there was the biking.

I agreed to accompany him on a 400-mile bicycle trip. How hard could it be?  I could ride.  There was training:  overnight trips carrying tents and sleeping bags and such on the back of the bike.  Then there was the trip.  Was it fun?  If you consider bicycling up mountains, eating variations on the HUNGRY BICYCLIST SPECIAL at diners three times a day (steak, eggs, and pancakes), and crashing in a tent at 6 p.m. outside of Natalie Merchant's hometown (Jamestown, NY) because bugs were circling the campfire, then fun it was!

I do like bicycling, in a low-key kind of way. On summer weekends I enjoy our bicycle trips.  The landscape is pretty, it's nice being outdoors, and pedaling for a few hours is a good way of clearing the detritus out of your mind.  

My routine with my sprained foot has been:  limp out the door, get on bicycle, and glide to wherever I have to go.  Amazingly it hasn't hurt my foot to pedal. 

THE WEEKEND RIDE. Yesterday we rode 32 miles on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.   The rail trail extends 56 miles from Clive to Jefferson, and, per usual in Iowa, goes through woods and farmland.  The stretch from Waukee to Adel is beautiful and soothing:  a few miles of prairie, then a cool downhill for some miles through the woods.  If you want to stop at Adel (population: 3,682), you can ride to the town square, eat in a fancy restaurant, or go to the public library.  Then the next stretch is mostly downhill to Redfield (pop:  833), a smaller town but a bicycling hub, with a renovated depot for bicyclists.

Of course it's all uphill on the way back.

Friday, June 10, 2011

John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun; Michael Dirda's Review of Tono-Bungay

John Sayles's entertaining new novel, A Moment in the Sun, is a literary beach book, though too big to take to the beach.  (I wish it were a paperback.)  This ambitious historical novel begins in 1897, on the brink of the Spanish-American War, and is expertly threaded with stories of Americans, Cubans, and Filipinos.  The characters are linked by the advent of war, politics of war, and the aftereffects of the Civil War.  It is set in the Yukon, Wilmington, Fort Missoula, the Philippines, Cuba, Tampa, and Hong Kong, to name a few of the places. 

Sayles's research is apparent, yet this novel isn't onerous.  His sentences are short and robust. He doesn't attempt pseudo-19th-century prose, the nemesis of many a historical novel, but writes in the vivid present tense.  He weaves the details of the history into the narrative.  You may be surprised by how much of this turns up in dialogue.

There are dozens of characters.  

It begins with Hod, who has worked as a miner and at every other unskilled job to save enough money to seek gold in Alaska.  In Alaska he ends up working with cons, though he tries to stay honest himself.  Later, after leaving, he hooks up with Big Ten, an American Indian who has also seen the underbelly of America.  Their odyssey of search for work illustrates the futility and poverty of the down-and-out life of the invisible classes.  They dig beets with Mormons, work in mines, and get arrested for riding the rails.  

Two of my favorite characters are Junior and Royal, an African-American doctor's son and a servant's nephew who enlist in the colored 25th Infantry of the U.S. Army at Fort Missoula "in hope of heroic actions when there has been little more than monotony and cursing and scutwork of the lowest variety."  They also serve as members of the Black Bicycle Corps, founded because of General Miles's belief that the bicycle could in some instances replace the horse.  (You can read about the history of the Corps online here.)  They ride from Fort Missoula to St. Louis.

Since I am a bicyclist, I'm thrilled by this chapter, "Sojourner" (pp. 69-72), told in the form of a letter by Junior to his father.

"'The bicycle requires neither water, food, nor rest,' General Miles has written, and at times it appears that the same qualities are expected from the  colored soldier.  Our training at the wheel is additional to our other duties at the fort, so as you may imagine only the most intrepid (some would say 'ambitious') of the enlisted men stepped forward.  Lt. Moss's quest this year was a sojourn from Missoula to St. Louis (over 1,000 miles as the crow hobbles) and back, to demonstrate that the only limit of this method of transport is human "spunk" and endurance."

These characters eventually fight in Cuba in the war.  It's very sad:  Royal accompanies a wounded friend, Little Earl, who was recently "saved" in a Christian tent revival in Tampa, to the chaotic field hospital.  They have done what everybody else has done, running, shooting, surviving longer than some, and it has been for--what?   

Sayles, an independent filmmaker, has won many awards at film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Lone Star.  He is also the author of novels and short stories, including Dillinger in Hollywood and The Anarchists' Convention

I'll be reading this slowly this summer and hope to check in again.

MICHAEL DIRDA & H. G. Wells.  Michael Dirda reviewed H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay for The Barnes & Noble Review.  I  am thrilled it's getting play nationally.  I just read this in May myself.

Of course my favorite Wells is Kipps, which I also recently read, and since I wrote better on this than on Tono-Bungay, will link you to my blog review of Kipps here.  

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Rereading Pride and Prejudice

How many times can one read Pride and Prejudice?  

Since Austen wrote six novels, it's possible to reread them every year.  Janeites read Pride and Prejudice countless times.  Members of JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) discuss it frequently at conferences. The Pride and Prejudice board is the busiest discussion at The Republic of Pemberly (a Jane Austen internet site with the subtitle: "Your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen).

I just reread P&P myself, for the God-knows-how-many-timeth.

When I last blogged about P&P on June 2, 2009, I concentrated on the character of Elizabeth. I said, "Elizabeth Bennet is curiously modern, vivacious and witty, but also bitchy (in a good way), an outspoken young woman who can charm or sting, and who speaks her mind, unintimidated by wealth and the class system." 

A friend and I used to argue about P&P. Was it greater than Emma?

"Yes," she said.  

"No," I said.
Now I say sometimes yes and sometimes no.  It is a very great novel.  Emma is my favorite, a sharp, complicated comedy about misunderstanding and misbehavior, but perhaps the charming Pride and Prejudice is more symmetrical.  And certainly readers like Elizabeth Bennet more than Emma.

Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse are similar.  Both are smart; both are critical.  Both are outspoken; both have great senses of humor. Both have a tendency to misinterpret characters.  Elizabeth misunderstands Darcy and Wickham.  Emma misunderstands Harriet, Mr. Elton, and Frank Churchill.   Emma crosses class boundaries and has the potential to damage lives by fantasies about matchmaking.  

This time through P&P I was enchanted.  I was lost in Elizabeth and Darcy's satisfying romance.

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard (Anchor Books), enhanced my delight.  The text is on one page; the notes on the facing page. I read the text in my old paperback, because I found the facing notes in the annotated version too distracting.   Then I went back.

It is doubtless redundant for scholars, but is a nice companion to the text for the common reader.  Some of his notes are entertaining mini-essays on historical background, plot, literary techniques, and style. Shapard is a very good writer.  If you read the notes down the page without a break, it is almost like reading a prose poem.

Shapard himself says in "Notes to the Reader," "First-time readers might prefer to read the text of the novel first, and then to read the annotations and introduction."  

I am by no means a first-time reader of Austen, and sometimes he wastes my time defining the nuances of words like "dull," "impudent," and "hesitate."

But, as I said, I like the expansions on the text and background.  Here is a sample of a note on Volume III, Chapter XI, p. 599.

1.  Since Mr. Bennet was unwilling to go to Brighton, which would be at most 75 miles away, it is hardly surprising  that he does not wish to voyage to Newcastle, which would be at least 200 miles away--and this is not even counting his disinclination to see Wickham and Lydia.
 Interesting, yes?  It's like having a conversation with another reader.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Blogger Fashions: When Lit Meets Pop Meets Blog Talk; & Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic

Book bloggers design fashions. 

Not Can-Do Cardigans, Whatever Skorts, or Kickit Bermudas. We're talking about bookish fashions. Book bloggers influence, reinforce, and sometimes create trends in bookselling.

Ellen at Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two suggests we might enjoy Linda H. Peterson’s Traditions of Victorian Women’s Autobiography: The Poetic and Politics of Life-Writing, and perhaps we'll rush out and buy it. Jacket Copy writes about a new release of John LeCarre's  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and it reminds us we've neglected him lately. 

Publicists also send bloggers free copies of books they want to promote.  So there might, for instance, be a rush of certain books getting reviewed by the bloggers at the same time. 

And there is an altruistic blogger fashion of writing zealously about books that are not in fashion.  Lost, cozy, or middlebrow classics often are featured.

We read our share of classics, but middlebrow mysteries are getting us through the night.  It was 95 degrees today.  We're not from Texas; we're not used to it.  A splash of Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic, set in Corfu, is refreshing.  The heroine even saves a dolphin.

Middlebrow Writer of the Month:  Mary Stewart.

Mary Stewart, consigned to the ghetto of romantic suspense, deserves more acclaim for her well-written mysteries than she receives.  Unlike Daphne du Maurier, who is now hot due to Virago's and Sourcebooks' reissuing of her books, the popular Mary Stewart has never been out-of-print. Yet somehow Stewart, a very good writer who was a lecturer in English literature before she married and who quotes Shakespeare freely in her novels, is classed with Victoria Holt rather than du Maurier.  New attractive trade paperback editions have recently been published by Chicago Review Press and Hodder and Stoughton, and that should boost her popularity with those who have rejected Stewart
sbooks in "romance" editions.

In This Rough Magic, the witty, likable narrator, Lucy Waring, an out-of-work actress, escapes gray London to visit her pregnant sister, a banker's wife, in Corfu.  Phyllida says she'll name her baby Prospero if it's a boy. 

I laughed. 'Poor little chap, why on earth?  Oh, of course...Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare's magic island for The Tempest?'
"As a matter of fact, yes, the other day, but for goodness' sake don't ask me about it now.  Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast."
In the bay, a tame dolphin approaches Lucy.  She realizes the classical stories about dolphins who play with humans are true.

"And here, indeed, was the living proof.  Here was I, Lucy Waring, being asked into the water for a game.  The dolphin couldn't have made it clearer if he'd been carrying a placard on that lovely moon's-horn of a fin."

Then she hears a humming sound and realizes it is a silenced rifle.  Someone is trying to kill the dolphin. She jumps in front of it furiously to stop the shooting and is determined to find the shooter.  Why would anyone shoot a dolphin? Could it be one of their neighbors?  Surely not Julian Gale, a beloved actor who retired to Corfu after a breakdown and who often quotes The Tempest.  His son, Max, a sullen composer of a score for The Tempest?  Or Godfrey, the charming photographer (of work unrelated to The Tempest)?

Smuggling, dolphin rescues, romance, and murder occur in this fast-paced mystery.  Stewart's intelligent, upbeat voice is charming and entertaining.  This is one of my favorite Stewarts--a great place to start.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Jane Austen's Emma

Last week in an interview,  V.S. Naipaul slammed Jane Austen.  After admitting he considered no women writers his equals, he said of Jane Austen that he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental taste of the world."

And though mannerly Janeites  suggested we should ignore Naipaul, I've never been a mannerly person.  

I was inspired to reread Emma.

I wondered aloud to my husband if Naipaul had READ Jane Austen. It occurred to me that maybe he just PRETENDED.  My husband pretends he read Jane Austen for a course long ago, but he is certainly vague about whether it was P&P or S&S.  

"I wonder if he's read Emma," I said thoughtfully.  "Because if he'd read Emma, he would know Jane's not sentimental."

"Well, I've read Emma," my husband said.

This made me laugh, because I know he hasn't. 

I carry Emma on a bike trip.
I do think Naipaul should read Emma under the tutelage of Diana Athill, his editor, an award-winning writer whom he also trashed in the interview.  

Oh well, I don't care what he reads.

Rereading Emma seemed a proactive response to his very silly words.

Emma is a satiric novel about misunderstandings and misbehaving.  The heroine Emma's hilarious misinterpretations of relationships and manners are at the center of the novel.  But other characters behave badly, too: Frank Churchill, a charming young man who visits his father, Mr. Weston, after living for years with an uncle and sick aunt, has a secret and takes advantage of Emma and the Westons.  After he writes the word "blunder" in a Scrabble-like game to alert another character to a social mistake, Austen repeats the word "blunder"  frequently fast and furiously in regard to other characters, like Mrs. Elton, a vicar's wife and merchant's daughter with (of course) bad manners, who attempts to control the society in Highbury. 

The characters are humorous, if not likable, and this is one of the fastest-paced anti-romances in the English language.  (Okay, there is romance, but it's really about settling down in society.) 

Austen wrote of Emma that she was a heroine "which no one but myself would like."

I love Emma.  And Austen certainly describes her merrily.

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years with very little to distress or vex her."

Thus Austen begins her masterpiece.  

Emma, a brilliant young woman and underachiever, needs a friend after her intelligent, good-natured governess, Miss Taylor, marries Mr. Weston and moves a mile or so away.  Since she has no other equals in the small town of Highbury, she spends time with Harriet, the "natural" daughter of no one knows who at a local boarding school.  Emma means to improve Harriet, but it is so much easier to make love matches than read.  Emma thinks Mr. Elton, the young vicar, should fall in love with Harriet.  

Only Knightly, a 37-year-old bachelor, dares to take on Emma and suggests that she is doing Harriet harm by attempting to yank her above her class and give her unrealistic ideas. 

Yes, there is a lot about class.

And about Jane Fairfax, Emma's equal, who, like Frank Churchill, has been living away from Highbury for some years.  She lived with the Campbells, friends of her late father, and has returned to Highbury to stay with her grandmother and aunt.  

Jane IS Emma's equal.  Yet they don't like each other very much.  Jane is reserved and takes few chances.  Jane can do everything perfectly:  play the piano, sing, etc. 

And though everyone blames Emma for not socializing with Jane Fairfax, Jane does seem dull.

Readers disagree about Jane Fairfax.

I've written too much about plot and not at all about the style, but of course it has been written about by so many others and I also blogged about it in 2009 (here).  I read this again and again because Austen's writing is perfect.  Austen is more Emmaish than Jane Fairfaxish, sharp, witty, and merciless, but she also has perfect morals. 

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The T-Bone Trail

It's summer.  Warm and green:  88 degrees.  Go outside in shorts, t-shirt, and helmet. No jacket.  Finally.   Explore the bike trails.  

But don't forget your Jane Austen book, because after V. S. Naipaul's denunciation of her Tuesday, it is necessary to read her again.   

Yesterday we rode 36 miles on the T-Bone Trail, a railroad flatbed trail which extends from Atlantic to Audubon.  It is one of the tamer, flatter trails in Iowa. Not up for a challenge?  This is the trail for you.  It runs through the valley of the Nishnabotna River.  The scenery is typically rural and mildly pretty, cornfields and undramatic woods.  The T-Bone Trail is named after T-Bone Days, a summer festival in Audubon (population:  2,332). The trail was built on a spur of the Rock Island Railroad from Atlantic to Audubon in 1878 to transport cattle to the stockyards in Chicago. 

We rested on a bench outside the Red Barn diner in Exira and snapped a pic of this wooded avenue from a distance because we were too lazy to go back.

Here we are in the "true country."  Birds, badgers, and chipmunks.  It's like riding through your grandpa's farm.

The trail ends in a park outside of Audubon, where there is a giant statue of Albert the Bull.  I sat here and contemplated it while my husband rode to a convenience store in search of Gatorade.

 I read Emma, too.  Just Albert the Bull, Jane Austen, and I.

On our way back we snapped photos of these ponies and goats. 

I couldn't persuade my husband to go off the trail to visit the Nathaniel Hamlin Park.  We saw the brick house and the sign from the trail and I was very keen on touring it.  I looked it up later on the  internet, however, and it says it is a historic farm, which is perhaps not my kind of thing.  Nothing about Nathaniel Hamlin.  And nothing about the house.

Oh, well, another time.

Friday, June 03, 2011

BiblioBits: V. S. Naipaul vs. Jane Austen; Nicola Griffith on Women in SF

V. S. Naipaul, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, has made an ass of himself. In an interview, he denounced Jane Austen and women writers.

You don't want to meet great writers.  Really you don't. When I did PR for readings, I bobbed around with water bottles, wrote the introductions to be given by the profs and bookstore owners, and observed the writers' interactions with their fans. Most were pleasant and considerate, but occasionally they were arrogant.

I never dealt with a writer who said that Jane Austen wasn't his equal, though. 

Naipaul told the Royal Geographic Society in England on Tuesday that no women writers are his equals and that he "couldn't possibly share [Jane Austen's] sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world." He also said that he could tell within a paragraph whether writing was by a woman.

Not this again.

I admire Naipaul's novels.  I agree with many of his political views, but does that make him a great writer? 

He is not in Austen's league.

Compare the brilliant opening of Austen's Emma to the opening of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.

"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her."
Austen establishes her character's interests and social position in one beautifully balanced sentence.

Now look at the opening of Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas.
"Shortly before he was born there had been another quarrel between Mr. Biswas's mother Biptu and his father Raghu, and Bipti had taken the three children and walked all the way in the hot sun to the village where her mother Bissoondaye lived.  Then Bipti had cried and told the old story of Raghu's miserliness:  how he kept a check on every cent he gave her, counted every biscuit in the tin, and how he would walk ten miles rather than pay a cart a penny."

Ahem.  Sort of awkward.

My husband has read all of Naipaul and has also read Paul Theroux's memoir of his friendship with Naipaul.

He summed up this latest flare-up:  "He's an ass."

Nicola Griffith on Women in Science Fiction.  Nicola Griffith, an award-winning science fiction writer, noted that when readers listed their favorite SF writers in comments in The Guardian, only 18 female writers were mentioned.  500 writers were listed. 

She seems to think IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE.  She thinks the gender parity is closer in the U.S.

She writes:

"Clearly, women's sf is being suppressed in the UK. Oh, not intentionally. But that's how bias works: it's unconscious. And of course sometimes it's beyond a reader's power to change: you can't buy a book that's not on the shelf. You can't shelve something the publisher hasn't printed. You can't publish something an agent doesn't send you. You can't represent something a writer doesn't submit. Etc."

She also lists the women mentioned in the comments:

Ursula K. le Guin
Joanna Russ
Julian May
Gwyneth Jones
Doris Lessing
Virginia Woolf
Anna Kavan
Marge Piercy
C.J. Cherryh
Mary Gentle
Anne McCaffrey
Mary Russell
Lois McMaster Bujold
James Tiptree Jr.
Karen Joy Fowler
Zenna Henderson
Margaret Atwood
Diana Wynne Jones