Sunday, August 14, 2011

Moving to Wordpress

I've enjoyed posting at Blogger, but have decided to move Frisbee:  A Book Journal back to WordPress.  Please visit us at Frisbee:  A Book Journal.  The url is

Friday, August 12, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton

Bicycling vacation!
Summer travel. It’s not exactly a vacation.  It’s WORK.

You carry two copies of a Jane Austen novel everywhere, one for your handbag and the other to lose in the hotel room (does that happen to you?); or open your Nook and discover Charlotte M Yonge’s The Daisy Chain, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and Irrepressible, a biography of Jessica Mitford, should you feel like reading them.

But back home you’re happy to sit down with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, a novel about a cotton factory and its workers, among other things.

I would rather read Victorian novels than almost anything.  It's another century; characters struggle to be good; they deal with important social issues; and there are rocky romances. I'm astonished by how political Gaskell's books are.  In North and South, Margaret, the heroine, becomes involved with a mill owner and striking workers.  In Mary Barton, Gaskell's first novel, set in Manchester in the 1840s, she writes from the point of view of factory workers, documenting unemployment, social injustice, and the struggles of the poor.  Mary is the daughter of John Barton, a brilliant, unemployed factory worker.  He helps the poor, makes sacrifices to assist the starving, and is naively certain that if he points out the facts to Parliament they’ll bring relief to the workers.  

Mary at 16 is a beautiful girl who finds herself a job as a dressmaker’s apprentice.  It is the best she can do:  her father won’t let her work in a factory, and he hates the idea of service because of class issues.  Mary, who hopes to rise in the world, wants to be independent, but she is also a frivolous and immature girl.  She dreams of rising in the world by her beauty.  And that, as we aficionados of Victorian lit could tell her, is unrealistic.

Gaskell writes:
“I am afraid that Mary’s determination not to go to service arose from less sensible thoughts on the subject than her father’s.  Three years of independence of action (since her mother’s death such a time had now elapsed) had little inclined her to submit to to rules as to hours and associates, to regulate her dress by a mistress’s idea of propriety, to lose the dear privileges of gossiping with a merry neighbor, and working night and day to serve one who was sorrowful.... She knew she was very with this consciousness she had early determined that her beauty should make her a lady...”

There are many moving scenes in which John Barton helps the starving family of an unemployed "Methody" who is dying of of typhoid in a clammy basement.  Gaskell vividly describes the streets brimming with slops and waste, and the damp freezing basement flats. Mary, good-hearted and hard-working, helps the hysterical widow and her children.

 Mary has friends who are wiser than she.   Margaret, a singer and a seamstress who is going blind (so Victorian, I know, but very sad), understands the connection beween poverty and disaster much better than Mary.  Mary is very excited when one of the mills catches fire, and though Margaret cautions her about the danger and significance, they go to see the fire.   When Mary witnesses her friend Jem’s trying to save his father from the flames, she understands it is not just a pretty sight.  She faints.

But Mary gets involved with a mill owner's son.  One knows that nothing good can come of that.

More on this later...

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Bibliobits: Lorraine Lopez's The Realm of Hungry Spirits & Joseph Heller's Catch-22

I found Lorraine Lopez's The Realm of Hungry Spirits displayed prominently on the new paperback table at a bookstore. On the cover a woman danced with butterflies.  Was it chick lit?  Was it a romance? 

It is definitely not a romance.  Lopez's enjoyable novel teeters on the edge of fluffy comedy, but also treats serious issues like class, unemployment, and Buddhism.

What happens when a woman becomes middle-class through education and suddenly her friends and relatives are a class or two beneath her?  This is the situation of the frazzled Latina narrator, Marina, a middle-school English teacher who used to work in insurance.  She isn't immediately in the market for love, having broken up with her sleazy boyfriend.  Yet she must continue to deal with her family's and friends' problems, as those with less education seek her emotional support and free room and board.  

Marina is so busy helping others that she can't solve her own problems.   People keep intruding.  Her unemployed nephew, Kiko, and his best friend, Reggie, jilted by Marina's sister, Xochi, live with her, and the living room smells of funky socks.  Because Kiko's mother kicked him out, and because he is dyslexic, Marina is sympathetic, but things have gone too far. 

Her ex-boyfriend Rudy's crazy friend, Nestor, wants to purify her house with some voodoo spell in return for a deposition supporting his desire to take away his children from their mother. (Marina refuses.)  She is still in touch with Rudy's daughter, Letty, who has a nervous breakdown when her baby dies. 

Here is an example of the witty, smart voice that can surprise one with its occasional sharpness. 
"You wouldn't expect so many people to make it out on a Friday morning to attend a funeral for a five-month-old baby, but the chapel is so jam-packed with cristianos and the parking lot arrayed with so many motorcycles that it looks like a breakout session at Bike Week in Daytona.  The place reeks with exhaust emissions, sweat, and stale cigarette smoke.  I'm sure it means a lot to Miguel that his church group turns out big-time to support him on the day when he and Letty bury their son, but I can't help wondering where and if any of these people work.  Who would hire them?"

And there is dating.  While teaching summer school, she gets to know an attractive substitute teacher who is an artist. At the hospital, she meets a nerdy doctor who wants to date her.  She is a little flustered when he invites her to take a nap with him.  He means nap--literally. 

Although Marina longs to be a Buddhist and reads the Dalai Lama, she has little time for prayer.  Yet things may work out for her. 

Lopez, a professor in the creative writing program at Vanderbilt, has painted a sensitive, vivid portrait of a first-generation college graduate. 

Joseph Heller.  Walter Kirn's excellent article on Joseph Heller at Slate was inspired by the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, an anti-war classic (and so much more), and by a new biography, Tracy Daugherty's Just one Catch.  

Heller's daughter Erica Heller has also written a memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22. 

Time to get out the Heller.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut

I was astonished to learn that a high school district in Republic, Missouri, has banned Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five.  A 2010 complaint in the Republic School District said it spread "false conceptions of American history and government or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth." 

Missouri must be the new literary capital of the world.

Vonnegut is controversial.  Some dislike the meta-fictional elements in his work. For instance, in a book group I belong to, people hated the meta-fictional techniques in Timequake, a clever autobiographical novel in which Vonnegut himself is a character, a blocked writer who has been writing Timequake for ten years, and his alter-ego, Trout Kilgore, a failed science fiction writer, accidentally becomes a hero and is worshipped in a literary colony.  (In the novel, timequakes cause people in 2001 to repeat everything they did in 1991.)  Trout Kilgore  appears in several of Vonnegut's other novels, too, including Slaughterhouse-Five. 

Well, the students of Republic won't be reading Vonnegut in school.

But the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is fighting back. They say they will send a free copy of Slaughterhouse-Five to 150 Republic High School students who email the website.  The Vonnegut Memorial Library is also looking for donors to pay for postage.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Bibliobits: How Many Books?

Another hot summer day.  We were full of vim on our bicycles because the temperature was under 90. I would have preferred lolling around the house, but when all the days are hot, you know you need to go out.

At the coffeehouse where we drank iced tea, my husband informed me that he has seen me reading three books in two days.  I informed him that I have seen him reading one book in two days.

Does it matter?  Is one way of reading more serious than the other?

Well, it's true that I juggle books.  I finished Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South in the car yesterday.  I read a little bit of John Kennedy O'Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in a lull. And I was reading a mystery today.  

How can I explain this student-style multiple reading?

In Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag, a short novel about a dysfunctional Native American family, the heroine, Irene America, the wife of a painter famous for his disturbing portraits of her, badly needs privacy.  She writes one diary for him to find and one for herself. Even her reading style is private and independent:  she reads the parts that nurture her and doesn't always finish books.  And this drives her husband crazy.

Or something like that.  I read this novel last year and hope I have the details right.  

Although I'm not like Irene, I do read like this.  I wonder:  do women read serially more than men?  The women bloggers I read seem to.  Men seem less personal in their blogs, less revealing of their habits.

WHAT I WANT TO READ.  My husband and I are sharing a copy of Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days, a Booker-longlisted novel published by a small press, Seren.  Set in Bucharest in 1989, this lit thriller, according to the book jacket blurb, is about a "young English student... [who]finds dissidents, party appartchiks, black marketeers, diplomats, spies, and ordinary Romanians, all watching each other as Europe's most paranoid regime plays out its bloody endgame."

The first one to finish has to blog about it.  

I also want to read Clyde Edgerton's The Night Train.  I love this humorous Southern writer, enjoyed Raney and Walking across Egypt, and intend to pick up one of his others (though not necessarily the newest, because I believe I have one of his other novels around) before the end of summer.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South

Rejuvenating lemonade!
It has been a hot summer.  Beautiful, but hot.  And I've been rushing around, traveling back and forth between two towns (again and again and again), trying to combine home life in one city with the obligations to an ill relative in another. I discovered there are not two of me, as you could have told me. 

Pop lit saved me this summer. It's easy to rush out for 10 minutes for a gasp of contemporary "lite" fiction on a "break."  But now everything is organized, and I am home again.

So I've turned to a relaxing Victorian novel--a rejuvenating novelistic "cocktail," which I "drink" along with fresh lemonade.
Rejuvenating Victorian novel!
Elizabeth Gaskell is a marvelous writer, who, like Mrs. Oliphant, was very popular in her day but is neglected now. Some readers dismiss her as sentimental and middlebrow, but her novel North and South shows she was as concerned about class as she was about mores and morals.  North and South, first published 1854-55 as a serial in Dickens's Household Words, seems to me to be a hybrid: part romance, part portrait of a dutiful daughter, and part chronicle of the politics of factories in the industrial north of England.  Gaskell's sketches of the striking workers are vividly drawn and haunting.

The novel does not begin with politics.   Margaret Hale, the 19-year-old heroine, is happy in the beautiful rural village where her father is a clergyman.  After Mr. Hale has a crisis of belief, he resigns from the Church of England.  The family moves to Milton, an industrial town, where Mr. Hale works as a tutor to Mr. Thornton, the owner of a cotton mill who wants to learn Greek and Latin.

The North is smoky and gritty, and there are no trees.  No one is happy, but Margaret must manage the household because her mother is very ill.  A relationship develops between Margaret and Mr. Thornton--he falls in love with her, but she considers him rough.  A strike brings the two both closer together and farther apart.  Though Margaret knows a striking worker's family, and thus sympathizes with the men, she believes the Union is wrong.  When the men throw rocks at Mr. Thorntons for hiring Irishmen, she runs out and stands in front of him, putting her arms around him to protect him, not because she likes him but because it is the right thing to do.  She is hit by a rock.

Mr. Thornton and his mother interprets her action as love, and when Margaret refuses his proposal he is upset and his mother thoroughly annoyed.  Margaret grows to respect Mr. Thornton.

There are also other subplots, but let me say that the factory politics and the relationship between Margaret and Mr. Thornton are the most interesting (so far).

I admire North and South, but Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's masterpiece.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reading Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English & a Digression on the Booker Prize

Just so you'll know:  Stephen Kelman is not James Kelman, the Scottish writer who won the Booker Prize in 1994 for How Late It Was, How Late. Stephen Kelman, who grew up in the projects in Luton, England, is longlisted for this year's Booker for his first novel, Pigeon English. I am almost through Pigeon English, the first book I've read on the longlist.  And I WILL blog about it in this very post, after a digression on the Booker.

I love the Booker Prize.  I love the betting, the blogging, and the book burble.  But sometimes the conflict gets out of control.  I glanced at the Booker Debate general discussion page, and was surprised (though why?) to see  bloggers (you'll recognize some of them) and commenters quarreling and jockeying for position. 

The moderator wrote: 

"we are saddened to see the behaviour on this board. We will be contacting people individually today and are meeting today to discuss further action. Please return this to an open debate about the Prize and books in general - some of the personal comments from various members have been unacceptable."

It's annoying, really, to read boards like this, so I gave up on it.  People behaving  badly over the Booker? I have better things to do.  The Man Booker Prize is not exactly brain surgery, nuclear disarmament, or global warming, so why not just have fun?  But even Carmen Callil, a judge of the International Booker Prize, apparently went crazy this spring and resigned from the panel after bashing Philip Roth, the winner.

I am in the home stretch of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English. Do I think it will win the Booker?  No.  It is a charming, often moving first novel, narrated by an 11-year-old boy.  Some parts are well-written and effective, other parts cloying.  It reads like a Y.A. novel, or a book club novel.

It is the story of Harri Opuku, a boy from Ghana living in the projects of London with his mother and sister, Lydia.  He is trapped in a world of gangs and poverty, but this very innocent boy uses his imagination to protect himself from the violent reality.  He pretends his speedy running is a superpower, enhanced by his off-brand trainers.  There is a touching scene in which he draws stripes on his trainers to make them look like Adidas.  And he and a friend, Dean, use binoculars to spy on gang members and try to solve a crime.

In the first chapter Harri is looking at the blood of a boy murdered in his neighborhood.   He says:

"Me and the dead boy were only half friends.  I didn't see him very much because he was older and went to my school.  He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted to see him fall off.  I said a prayer for him inside my head.  It just said sorry.  That's all I could remember.  I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy."

How can Harri survive?   He knows how to fight and is a fast runner, but a gang bullies him into agreeing to help them attack an old man.  He shies away at the last minute.  A female gang member, while ironing his sister's hair, burns Lydia with the iron to make her shut up about something she knows. Harri thinks some of the gang members know about the murder of the boy.

Some scenes have actually made me cry.  Astonishingly, I cried over a humorous, touching scene where he talks about superheroes and his friend Altaf's gift for drawing them.

"There's about a hundred superheroes in the world.  Altaf knows all of them. He draws their picture and they're even better than his cars.  Altaf can tell you about any superhero.  It's his favorite subject.  Spiderman is a superhero.  That's how he can stick like a spider....

"Every superhero has a favorite power.  Some of them can fly and some of them can run proper fast.  Some of them are bulletproof or have rays.  They all have names that tell you what's their favorite power, like Spiderman..."

If I have an hour to read, I get absorbed and appreciate Kelman's blunt style, which reads like English in translation (a very smart approach) and also translates Harri's puzzlement and escapism from the culture.  But I have found that 10 minutes here and there isn't enough. You really have to sink into the book.

It's a good first novel, but do I think first novels should make the Booker longlist?  No.

N.B. I haven't read a Booker winner since 2007.  Sometimes I start to read the longlist, and by the time we get to the winner in October I no longer care.

 Here are my picks for winners 2007-2010 (none won)

2008 - I picked three from the shortlist.  Loved 2008!  Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, and Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies

2009 - A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book

2010 - Peter Carey's Parrott and Olivier in America

I just found my copy of Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, the 2010 winner, and can't imagine why I haven't read it.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

What I'm Reading Now: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Sitting by the pool at Villa Frisbee (I made that up) we're  still engaged in summer reading.  Summer reading will soon be obsolete and metamorphose into  "light reading."  Well, perhaps we're not always light in the summer.  We like to mix up classics, literary fiction, and pop.  One day we may read Clifford D. Simak's science fiction classic, They Walked like Men, the next Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, and the next Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse

As a last gasp at the end of the season, book reviewers and bloggers are recommending summer reading again. But, you know how it is, I have quite a stack on the coffee table already.

One of my favorite books of the summer is Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time, a historical fantasy that mixes elements of literary and pop.

The Map of Time is an astonishingly well-written novel, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, and deals with time travel, romance, and H. G. Wells.   I'm very enthusiastic about Wells, loved David Lodge's stunning historical novel about Wells, A Man of Parts (and wonder why it didn't make the Booker longlist), and am amazed that two novels about Wells should be published at roughly the same time.  The Map of Time,
published in Spain in 2008, is newly released in the U.S.  A Man of Parts will be published this fall in the U.S. 

Set in the late 19th century, The Map of Time vividly delineates the possibilities of time travel, hucksters' exploitation, and couples separated by time and other factors.  H. G. Wells, one of the main characters, is so popular after writing the best-seller, The Time Machine, that he is pursued by quacks, fans, and occasionally respectable readers.  Out of the blue his home is intruded one night by Andrew Harrington, a suicidal Englishman whose prostitute girlfriend was killed by Jack the Ripper. His savvy, aggressive cousin, Charles, accompanies him.  Charles says he knows Wells has a time machine and wants him to send Andrew to the past to save his girlfriend.  

No wonder they believe, or want to believe, in time travel.  A frustrated novelist owns a time machine-travel agency that purports to carry customers to 2000, where they can view a battle between human beings and automatons. 

Imagine what happens when a brilliant, dissatisfied young woman falls in love with a man of the future, Captain Shackleton. 

Palma also fashions a mostly accurate, partly fictionalized, biography of Wells.  He charts Wells's rise from the lower middle class, from draper's assistant to science teacher to influential writer.  Wells, a womanizer, had two sexually unsatisfying marriages, but his second marriage to his former student, Jane, lasted.  Jane is a minor character in the novel.

The future and past are interwoven.  There are many allusions to 19th-century novels, among them H. Rider Haggard's popular novel, Allan Quatermain, and to historical characters like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, a famous Victorian  deformed by disease (his skin was thick and his head elephantine) and rescued from a freak show.  

This novel is utterly compelling and irresistible.