Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer of Eldercare

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

It shouldn't have been this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so she had surgery.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Year without Book Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I plan to start JM soon.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Biking for the Booker

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

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

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

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

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

The longlist includes:

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

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

It's like this every year.

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

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keith Donohue's Centuries of June

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klimt's painting

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100 pages to go.

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Notebooks & The Daily Stats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so the notebook-writing goes on... 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Bibliobits: Anthony Trollope, Typos, & Literary Centenaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Notes on My Vacation and Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did have the book I wanted, though. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Yardley writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sonya Sones's The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus

In Sonya Sones's lovely new novel in verse, The Hunchback of Nieman Marcus, the narrator is a woman in midlife.  Sones's light verse is both poignant and powerful.  The witty narrator, Holly, who is just entering her fifties, confronts hot flashes, empty nest syndrome, and her aged mother's need for a long-distance caregiver.   I am not only charmed by Holly's quirky outlook, but empathize with her sense of loss:  no more babies, not that she'd wanted any more; the sense that she and her husband have remained together because of their daughter; and her shock when her mother calls to say she has fallen out of bed and cannot get up. 

On Holly's 50th birthday, which has been "rushing at me/like a cinderblock wall while I try/in vain to slam on the brakes," she has her first hot flash.

It happens for the first time
on the very day I turn fifty--

a scrim of sweat
cloaks my body,

beading on my upper lip,
misting on my forehead,

gathering in a steaming pool
between my shoulder blades

as if a tiny cup of liquid lightning
in each one of my cells

has just bubbled up, burst ablaze,
and cremated me,

to ashes,

to dust.
This is light verse, yet it strikes close to the bone.  Many of these feelings are covered up because no one wants to hear them.   Menopause is a relief-- no more tampons or sanitary pads--but at the same time it means you're not young anymore.  In our family we all have early menopause, which makes one feel MORE freakish. 

And how about the time at the supermarket when the hunky cashier looks Holly up and down?  She thinks he's flirting, but then he asks if she wants the senior discount.  

She calls herself the hunchback of Neiman Marcus after she glimpses herself in the mirror and notes the beginning of a dowager's hump.

I glance in a mirror at my own posture
and am appalled at how
my head's jutting forward,
as if it's trying to win a race
with the rest of my body.

I'm stunned by the gorrilla-esque curve
my spine seems to have taken on,
as though determined to prove 
once and for all
that evolution really did happen.

The light verse is engaging and well-wrought, though sometimes as a novel it breaks down.  There isn't much conflict or plot.   But it is  "chick lit" for women of a certain age, very good of its kind, and I liked it very much.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

BBBs, B&N, & the "New" Guardian Books Blog

What is the Best Big Book (BBB) of the summer?

Some may pick the 20th anniversary edition of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, as did a friend who attempted to bribe a bookstore employee to sell it before the publication date; some will recommend David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel, The Pale King; others will read cover-to-cover the revised Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire, the French chef's culinary bible.

I'm time-traveling to Victorian England, where I would undoubtedly have been a maid instead of a lady, despite zealous genealogical claims that we rode on the Mayflower and are related to...whom? 

My pick of the summer is Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, an 822-page pageturner about  marriage, money, and male chauvinism.  Jane Smiley recently recommended it in The Barnes & Noble Review.  A longtime fan of this masterpiece, I knew I Couldn't Go Wrong and pulled it off the shelf.

In 1869, when He Knew He Was Right was published, Trollope was at the height of his powers.  His pitch-perfect prose is the perfect vehicle for the delineation of the complex loves and losses of his richly realized characters.  

The novel focuses on the marriage of Emily Rowley, daughter of the governor of the Mandarin Islands, and Lewis Trevelyan, a Cambridge graduate and poet "who possessed 3,000 pounds a year of his own, arising from perfectly secure investments."  They are happy in London for two years until Colonel Osborne, Emily's father's best friend, visits too often and is too blatantly flirtatious.  He has annoyed other married couples in London, according to rumor, and drove one husband to whisk his wife away to Italy. 

But Emily, who does not flirt back and points out that he knew her as a baby, is enraged when Lewis tries to bar him from the house.

"When he had endeavored to make her understand his wishes by certain disparaging hints which he had thrown out as to Colonel Osborne, saying that he was a dangerous man, one who did not show his true character, a snake in the grass, a man without settled principles, and such like, his wife had taken up the cudgels for her friend, and had openly declared that she did not believe a word of the things that were alleged against him."
The couple eventually separates: Emily will not end her relationship with Colonel Osborne, and Lewis, though he knows she is innocent, does not believe that the relationship should continue.  He arranges for Emily, their baby, and her sister Nora to live in a village with the Stanhopes, the mother and sister of Lewis's best friend, Hugh.  

Lewis will not compromise, nor will Emily. And we watch Lewis slowly go mad.

The correlation between the Emily-Lewis-Colonel Osborne triangle and other romantic triangles is fascinating: Nora, Hugh, and the wealthy Lord Glascock; Hugh's sister Dorothy, the clergyman Mr. Gibson, and Brooke Burgess, Aunt Stanhope's heir.

Barnes and NobleHow fast can a bookstore change?  The local Barnes and Noble began to compete with Borders about five years ago, expanding its backlist and stocking  "intellectual" (?!) books as well as pop.  

Borders closed in May. Suddenly B&N has fewer comfortable chairs, less enticing displays, and no copies of small-press books like Lynne Tillman's Someday This Will Funny and John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun.  It is now a (smug) seller's market. B&N needs competition.

Guardian Books Blog.  First, let me say how much I like the Guardian books blog.

Do you like the "New" Guardian books blog?  I still haven't gotten used to the redesigned books page, which seems awfully busy and unclear. As far as I can tell, the "new" version of the books blog marks the occasion of firing the freelance writers.

Now only staff writers will write the blog, according to Guardian staff writer Sarah Crown.  A. L. Kennedy's blog entries and those of several other writers were really "columns," not blog entries.  Columns will be integrated with the articles on the books page.  

I'm confused and only hope I'll see the freelancers' writing again.

Hannah Freeman, another Guardian staff writer, blogged this week, "We turn the Guardian First book award longlist over to you and we ask to see your battered books, there may not be much time left to post your suggestions for other series, articles or reviews, but if you have an idea you'd like us to know about, this, as ever, is the place to post them."

That's called commenting.

Bring back the old blog.

Monday, July 11, 2011

On the Vacation Circuit: Clifford D. Simak, H. Rider Haggard, & Other Genre Writers

Hommage à Seurat by Jonathan Burton
It's hot! 

Crank the air conditioning up and thank God for summer reading.  Old paperbacks, rescued out-of-print books, and Anything Genre can help you transcend the mugginess of July for a few hours.

Here's a list of what I'm reading for fun. 

Clifford D. Simak's Ring around the Sun.  So you never heard of Clifford D. Simak?  

He's one of my favorite American science fiction writers. A journalist by profession, Simak (1904-1988) won three Hugo awards, a Nebula, and was named the third Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for his "pastoral" science fiction, which emphasizes humanity, rural areas, and the ecosystem rather than technology.

In 2009 I "rediscovered" his lost classic, They Walked like Men.  A wisecracking journalist discovers that aliens are taking over the earth--by buying real estate.  It's a witty and scary premise.

I picked up Ring around the Sun at random, and it is similar to They Walk--but mutants are at work rather than aliens.  Their inventions of the Forever car, Forever house, everlasting razors and everlasting light bulbs are destroying business or saving the world, depending on your point of view. The hero, Jay Vickers, a writer, embarks on a quest to rediscover his childhood after a friend (who turns out to be a mutant) advises it.  Chased by xenophobes and persecuted for a murder he didn't commit, he manages to visit another world and...

I'm still reading.

H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain.  H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925) lived in Africa for six years and wrote 34 adventure novels. His fans included Robert Louis Stevenson, Kipling and Orwell. Allan Quatermain, the hunter hero of several of Haggard's novels and short stories, first appears in King Solomon's Mines (known to many through the Stewart Granger-Deborah Kerr movie).   Using the map of a dying treasure hunter, Allan and his two friends, Charles Good and Sir Henry, search in Africa for Sir Henry's brother, who had journeyed to find the legendary diamonds of King Solomon's Mines.

King Solomon's Mines made Haggard's fortune, and he wrote the sequel, Allan Quatermain, in two months.   Three years after his adventure, Allan Quatermain, now over 60, invites his two friends travel to Africa again.

"...for years and years I have heard rumors of a great white race which is supposed to have its home somewhere up in this direction, and I mind to see if there is any truth in them. If you fellows like to come, well and good; it not, I'll go alone."

It's very exciting and plot-oriented--not particularly well-written, but  it doesn't matter, because it's pure entertainment, and some of the landscape descriptions are actually inspiring.  In the first 100 pages,  Allan and his group come upon a Scottish mission near the gorgeous Mt. Kenia.  The garden is the most beautiful they've seen, a mix of English and African flowers.   But when Flossie, the daughter, goes out on the hills with her nurse and some servants to find a rare lily, she is kidnapped by the Masai, who are mysteriously pursuing the Quatermain party.  Only the brilliant strategy of Umslopogaas, a former Zulu general and brilliant hunter, ensures Flossie's rescue.

Haggard wrote several sequels to this novel and they are great fun.

You can also find his books free at Project Gutenberg.

And I'm happy to take recommendations for other summer books!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

R.E.M.'s "Walk Unafraid"

It's too hot to write, so here is an excellent video of R.E.M. singing "Walk Unafraid" instead.  

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Good Caregiver by Robert L. Kane

"Hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation)--"My Generation," The Who
Elder Care in the U.S. is inadequate.

When an aged relative became seriously ill, we were suddenly long-distance caregivers. We knew nothing about the health care options for a person who could no longer live on his or her own.  We only vaguely understood the differences between assisted living and nursing homes. As you can imagine, some assisted living facilities have excellent amenities.  Others do not.  Unfortunately, it is all too easy for a novice to get conned by slick facilities competing for the business of our aging population. 

The designated primary long-distance caregiver chose the first place he visited, a facility owned by a commercial real estate management and development company.  The rest of us, being good, if reluctant, shoppers, had our doubts.  According to Robert L. Kane's The Good Caregiver, real estate development-owned assisted living places are sprouting up all over the country to cash in on the burgeoning demand for Elder Care. Sometimes the buildings look good, but these unregulated facilities don't always deliver on care.  Of course there are many excellent ALFs, but it's buyer beware.  

It turned out there was no communication between the Place That Shall Not Be Named, her doctors, and the main caregiver. I was horrified on a recent visit when I accompanied the relative to a doctor's appointment and learned hospitalization had been recommended by her primary doctor a week ago, that neither I nor the Place knew anything about the recommendation, and that the nurses had only learned the extent of her weight loss from the driver. 
Is this the place for your relative?  She is in the hospital again. 
In despair I bought The Good Caregiver:  A One-of-a-Kind Compassionate Resource for Anyone Caring for an Aging Loved One, by Robert L. Kane, M.D, Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota.  This short accessible handbook can help anyone struggling to make good decisions about long-term care for aged relatives.
Kane writes about family self-assessment, dementia, home health care, visiting nurses and aides, case managers, common illnesses, money and the law, and the differences between assisted living facilities and nursing homes.  He provides excellent checklists and interview questions, and the appendix has a helpful list of websites and resources.

Who knew that home health care could be arranged even for people with Alzheimer's?  That  assisted living facilities are unregulated, that some look good but are run by cynical developers, and that all must be investigated on a buyer-beware basis?  Who knew that nursing homes (which also vary significantly and must be shopped for on a comparison basis) are regulated and their ratings available at Medicare Nursing Compare, a database which provides detailed information on the performance of every Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the country?  
He also addresses the politics of aging:

"Easy access to quality choices in elder care will require major shifts politically, economically, medically, and individually.

"We need massive citizen demand for reform.  Maybe the time has arrived for this.  After all, things won't get any easier in the coming decades.  Our population is aging, and spending on long-term care for the elderly is projected to more than double over the next thirty years...  No politician is speaking out about this, and meanwhile as pointed out by Peter Strauss, chairman of the Elder Care Task Force of the New York Business Group, the costs of caring for these older people is impoverishing middle-income Americans."
When I called the Center on Aging to get information about the Place That Shall Not Be Named, Kane talked to me on the phone.  He spends an amazing amount of time talking with people about Elder Care. 

His book has helped our family.  Certainly reform is needed so the aged can live out their lives with proper care.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, a comic novel published in 1976, is riotously witty and satiric. Browsing at Virago, I discovered it had been reissued and decided to give it a try (though I think Virago's American selections are often very odd).  I am utterly glued to Kinflicks, am surprised at the seriousness beneath the comedy, and  didn't want to get up to make dinner because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO GINNY BABCOCK.   

Alther adeptly charts the fluctuating identities of her characters through the feminist changes in society of the '60s and '70s, and though she does it with a light hand, she explores their real angst. 

The heroine, Ginny Babcock, is sad and confused when she returns to Hullsport, Tennessee, ostensibly to visit her mother in the hospital.  In reality she has left her husband and child and doesn't know what to do next or where she will live.  

Alther delineates the rocky relationship of Ginny with her mother.  Mrs. Babcock has a clotting disorder, is resisting taking her medication, and screams at Ginny.  Why isn't Ginny dying instead of Mrs. Babcock?  Ginny has always done the wrong thing and Mrs. Babcock always did what she was expected to do.   

This outburst is realistic and at the same time startling because the mother-daughter relationship is so often sentimentalized in popular fiction. When Ginny tells her mother about trying to save baby birds that fell through the chimney at the cottage, and the parent birds' subsequent refusal to feed them after she puts them in a tree, she and her mother make peace.  Mrs. Babcock says, "Things like that used to kill me when you children were little.  I'd put them up in the trees, and the cats would get them, and you could never understand why nature was set up that way.  And of course I never knew what to tell you because I don't understand either."
Ginny is not primarily absorbed in her mother. Driving around her hometown, she has flashbacks to the past.  She morphed from cheerleading flag-swinger to black-clad moonshine-swilling girlfriend of a semi-literate hood to intellectual student at a women's college to passive lesbian to adulterous wife and mother.  

Alther's writing is straightforward but effective. The incidents are just offbeat enough to make you feel that the story is unique, while at the same time feeling a flash of recognition. 

For instance, after a motorcycle accident, when Ginny's father forces her to apply to women's colleges, she tries to discourage Worthley College from accepting her. 

"In a last-ditch effort of defiance, I wore a black, too-tight straight skirt; a black cardigan buttoned up the back with a Do-It Pruitt pointed bra underneath; Clem's red dragon windbreaker, the tatters of which I had carefully stitched together upon finding them among Mother's cleaning cloths; black ballet slippers; and Clem's huge clanking identification bracelet."

Doesn't that sound like all of us?  Heavens, would we have considered a WOMEN'S college?  Thank God, in the midwest, no.

More on this later.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Big Books

Here is a recent photo of new 600-page-plus books in my TBR pile:  The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, War and Peace, and John Fowles's The Magus.  Somehow I am reading BIG BOOKS this summer and astonished my husband by carrying a HUGE paperback in my bike pannier yesterday.   

"How many times have you read War and Peace?"

"I'm not reading War and Peace."

Then there are the big books I'm still working on. 

John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun--good historical novel; give it the National Book Award; I'll probably be working on it all year. 

Lisa Alther's Kinflicks.  Virago reissued this in 1999, and I thought it was extremely funny when I read it in 1977.

R. F. Delderfield's Theirs Was the Kingdom.  Popular novel, second in the Swann trilogy. 

Elizabeth Jane Howard's Slipstream.  A memoir.

Then there are the books I accepted from PR people ONE YEAR AGO (none of the above, and not all of them are big, but I have declared a moratorium on gifts from publicists because I rarely read them).  One of them is H. Rider Haggard's Alan Quatermain, a good summer read (I LOVED King Solomon's Mines! REALLY), and I should get to this soon.  And then what about all the OTHER Alan Quatermain books? 

I've finished some of my big books this year: David Lodge's A Man of Parts, H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, Barry Unsworth's Sacred HungerBleak House, Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Nancy Hale's Prodigal Women, Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills, and...

Some more that I can't think of.