Thursday, November 29, 2012

Too Polite?

Writers used to speculate about the consequences of the end of civility. Now they speculate about the consequences of the end of rudeness on the internet

I first came across an odd complaint about the waning of rudeness on the internet in an article by Jason Silverman at Slate.  He blamed social media for ruining literary criticism.  Social media are not too rude, mind youThey are too polite. (Social media roughly seemed to be Twitter, blogs, and Facebook.)

Then the nonsequitur:  If other people are too nice online, you can't be a literary critic at a newspaper. 

Hmm.  I didn't see that.

I didn't understand the relationship of polite social media to literary criticism, but soon The New York Times, the Man Booker Prize chairman, and The Guardian were repeating the argument.  

And now Nathan Heller, a columnist at Slate, has written a piece for New York magazine in which he pines for the days when everybody was rude online.  

"For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling.... These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation." 

These attacks on politeness online, all by male writers, express their perception that the pressure to be nice has bankrupted a few book review sections--surely not!--or at least wrecked their fun.  They are annoyed by blandness.

I don't have Facebook or Twitter, so if there is too much blandness, I am missing out on it.  And I am no doubt the blunt kind of person who would get "iced out of the nice conversation." 

As a blogger, I am marginally part of the social media.  Some bloggers are much more active socially.  I enjoy reading blogs, but I don't usually read the comments, so I can't say whether they are too nice or not.  The people who comment here are thoughtful and polite, but they say they find it difficult to access the publish comment button:  one must  type in a complicated code consisting of slanting, illegible letters and numbers to hit the Blogger "comment" button. Inevitably spammers can master the code.

If there is less rudeness online, that has to be good.   Here's what I can tell you: the polite online communities last the longest. In the '90s, one of the online book groups I belonged to fell apart over Palestine--Edward Said's excellent autobiography, Out of Place, sparked a battle between one of our Jewish members and a radical pro-Palestine activisit.  We begged them to stop talking about politics and move on, but alas!  And another group split over responses to a book called Patty Jane's House of Curls.  Yeah, I disliked that book.  I never did have any tact. 

Still, many of the Yahoo discussion groups, predecessors of social media, have longevitiy, due to excellent moderators.  Ineresting, sometimes controversial, discussions take place, though occasionally a moderator comes on to say, "Be nice."
So perhaps these journalists will find what they're looking for if they get off the social media and join older traditional online discussion groups?  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Male Author Count: Books by Nick Hornby and Terry Pratchett Again!

I read mostly books by women.  It's no secret.  Maybe 72 percent of the books I read are by women.

When I read Hemingway, I'd rather be reading Margaret Drabble or Hortense Calisher.

But the year is ending, and I'm trying to get my Male Author Count up.  That sounds vaguely like sperm count, but isn't.

So I gathered a stack of short books by Nick Hornby and Terry Pratchett.  

I recently finished Hornby's A Long Way Down, a poignant, funny novel in which four suicidal people meet on a roof on New Year's Eve. 
Since I'm in the mood for comedy, I'm also rereading Hornby's Juliet, Naked, another novel hard to classify.  An incompatible couple is undone by the man's rock fandom, and his female companion wants out, tired of his nutty website about a retired rocker.
Though I'm not stalking Hornby, I happened upon his excellent short story, "Everyone's Reading Bastard," published as an original ebook for $1.99 (or maybe $2.99).  

It begins when Charlie, a banker, and his wife, Elaine, a journalist, decide to get a divorce.  Their mode of separation is no longer viable:  Charlie lives in a flat during the week, but spends weekends with Elaine and the kids.  Even the kids think the parents should get divorced.
After talking about it, Charlie walks away feeling as though he has been hit by a sniper's bullet.  

And then Elaine writes a newspaper column, "Bastard," about him. Suddenly everyone knows all about her "Life with My Ex." 

"Exactly a week later, when Charlie  discovered that he had become known--to hundreds of thousands of people who still bought newspapers, and God knows how many more who didn't but who read them anyway--as somebody called Bastard, it all began to make sense."

Elainee is one of those journalists who cross the line.  Everything becomes fodder for a column. The good and the bad personal stuff is entwined even with serious examination of other subjects. 

So Charlie's life is pretty much ruined.  Everyone knows all of Charlie's foibles and his social life becomes impossible.  Charlie, like his predecessor, Martin, in A Long Way Down, is stuck.  Who will ever think well of him again?
The ending is abrupt, but I very much enjoyed this story, which is structured like a novella.  Probably in a novel we would get Elaine's point of view, too.
TERRY PRATCHETT'S DODGER is a Dickensian Y.A. book, and adult fans of Dickens are likely to enjoy it.  It is fast-paced, witty, and rambunctiously plot-driven, laced with allusions to Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, and Bleak House. Although the structure is simpler than that of Dickens-inspired novels like Dan Simmons's rambling Drood--hence the Y.A. category--it is more entertaining.

Dodger?  The Artful Dodger, right? No, they are not the same character.  Pratchett's Dodger is a "tosher,"  a scavenger who mines the sewers for coins and treasure, while the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist is a thief.  Dodger makes a good living, and more money than a chimney sweep, though he doesn't like to say how well he does.  He lives in an apartment with Solomon, a Jewish mentor who insists on good hygiene. 
Dodger is a hero.  He saves a young woman from her kidnappers, and this incident is the crux of the novel.  She tumbles out of a coach, and the men are instantly after her.  With brass knuckles, wit, and skill, Dodger hammers the two men. They run away.
Soon Dodger and the girl are joined by Charlie Dickens and Henry Mayhew (the author of London Labour and the London Poor, a 19th century study of work), who happen to be on a walk. They hide the girl, nicknamed Simplicity, in Henry's house.  
And Dodger becomes even more heroic.  He tries to find the coach, which he noticed had a squeaky wheel,  stops a robbery at Charlie's newspaper, and catches the mad barber, Sweeney Todd. 
Fans of Pratchett's Discworld books will be fascinated by parallels between the Victorian London of Dodger and the fantastic Discworld city Ankh-Morpork.  Again, if you're one of those people who reads all Dickens-inspired books, as I am, you'll probably enjoy this.  It would need a little tweaking to appear in the adult literature section, but, like all Pratchett's books, it is very well-written.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Traffic: Twelve Books to Give for Christmas

The best new book this year.
This year consumer addicts could get their "fix" at Walmart on Thanksgiving, i.e., Gray Thursday.

I didn't shop on Gray Thursday or Black Friday.  It's not that I am pious, but why give those corporations all your money?  I saw the ad for a $59 Nook and was tempted to rush out and buy one.  But I don't need a $59 Nook.  I have an old Nook, which works fine.  Last year I gave my husband a Nook which works fine, too, though not as well as my really old Nook.

Why buy all that electronic crap and contribute to the world's trash? 

This year I'm giving everyone a book.  ONE book. It will be like World Book Night, except I'll give different books. I am not going to be cute and flutter around shopping the day before Christmas. It isn't cute.  And usually I buy gifts no one much cares for anyway.  An organic watch got ruined last year when somebody washed the dishes wearing it. I was the one who wanted the organic watch.

 I have already pored over The Best Books of the Year lists at The Washington PostPublishers' Weekly, The Guardian, and The SpectatorThey look very good, but I am going to add a list of more good books, if you want something a little different...  Well, here goes.

1.  Break of Day by Colette.  An  exquisite, witty, lyrical novel written by Colette in her fifties about retirement from sexual love.   Published in 1928, it perfectly traces the resolve of middle-aged Colette to set aside sexual love for solitude.  

2.  The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale.  This out-of-print novelist and memoirist was the daughter of painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale. Some think this was her masterpiece.  This memoir was inspired by relics in her mother's studio, which Nancy cleaned out after her mother's death.

3.   The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. A dark Cinderella story by an Austrian Jewish writer who wrote several stunning novellas and novels and fled the Nazis to Brazil.

4.  Twilight of Love:  Travels with Turgenev by  Robert Dessaix.  In this short book, Dessaix retraces Turgenev’s footsteps in Europe, and meditates on his own relationship with Russian literature.  He also compares his Australian identity to the “barbaric” Russian identity of Turgenev in the 19th century  (both places were said to have “no culture,” and travel to Europe was necessary for intellectual development).

5.  The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.  A retelling of Antigone set during the war in Afghanistan, this complex novel about a woman amputee and American soldiers is my favorite new novel of the year.  Give this book with a copy of Sophocles' Antigone

6The Red House by Mark Haddon.  A novel about a difficult family vacation.  Richard, a doctor, has invited his sister,  Angela, an inner-city school teacher, and her family for a week’s vacation on the Welsh border near Hay-on-Wye.

7.  The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton.  Inspired by James Brown, Civil Rights, and friendship, this charming novel is  the deceptively simple story of a music-based interracial friendship between two boys who work in a furniture-refinishing shop.  One of the best books I read this year.

8.  The Sweetest Dream by Doris Lessing, an extraordinary novel about idealism and disillusion in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

9.  Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather.  Divided into three parts, this brilliant novel vividly chronicles the brief life of Lucy, a graceful young woman and piano student who suffers a terrible loss in Chicago and then is lost herself in Nebraska.

10.  Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson.  A satire of the publishing world.  One of the funniest books I read this year.

11.  A Lovesong for India by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.  A collection of short stories by the Booker Prize winning author of Heat and Dust

12.  The Truth by Terry Pratchett.  A great satire of journalism, set in Pratchett's fictional fantastical city of Ankh-Pork, where William de Worde starts a newspaper after dwarves invent a printing press.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Books That Get You through the Holidays: Olivia Manning's The Doves of Venus

This year Marilyn French's The Women's Room, my chosen trashy book to read while basting the turkey, didn't hold my interest.  

The turkey was dry and overcooked. That was okay, because I don't have much vested in cooking.  But it happened because the old guys returned late from a community center one illicitly has the key to. 

I opened a jar of gravy.

 Over pie a drunken friend recited Hart Crane's "The Bridge," the subject of her dissertation, until given an alcohol-free Martini, which she thought had alcohol in it. Then there was some listening to the Beatles and Wynton Marsalis.  Then there was Charades, and someone did "Fifty Shades of Grey," and, yeah, I guessed it.  

Then our friend Natalie burst into tears, because her evil ex- stole her car, which is, yeah, his officially, but he zooms around in an SUV, and she needed the old Chevy to get to Walmart to work the graveyard shift.  Usually she can cope with him, but somehow...The holiday?  Anyway, we called to say we'd put it up on our Facebook page if he didn't give the car back so she could work Grey Thursday.

Well, that was a blatant lie because we don't have a Facebook page.

What counter-culture person has a Facebook page?

I have been very tired the last couple of days.  I slept till ten Friday and Saturday. Then I took a hike on a hilly trail in the wrong pair of shoes and limped back to a picnic table to wait for a ride--the first time I've ever broken down on a walk.  

So reading and more reading was the answer. 

Olivia Manning's The Doves of Venus is a gorgeously-written, exuberant novel about what it meant to be female in the mid-twentieth century.  It traces the career of Ellie, a young woman who leaves her home in Eastsea for London, where she finds a job painting and "antiquing" Regency furniture.  She doesn't mind living in a tiny room, and is utterly intoxicated by her unfaithful lover, Quintin, the middle-aged man who  seduced her and got her the promotion to work in the studio. 

Parallel to the narrative of Ellie, and possibly more interesting, though much less developed, is the sketch of Petta, Quintin's wife, a suicidal drifting former beauty.  She is living with Theo, a tabloid journalist, and Quintin doesn't expect to hear from her.  But a stranger calls Quintin in the middle of the night to say he has talked Petta down from jumping off the parapet of Westminster Bridge.  Quintin is stuck with Petta, because there is nowhere for her to go.
Manning's descriptions are incomparable.  Here is Quintin looking at Petta after her suicide attempt.

"Under the ghastly violet-white of the fluorescent strips, Petta had the pallor of the unliving....

"She gave him a quick, uncertain glance, then, making a movement coquettish and pathetic, turned away.  She had been crying.  Looking down on her head, he noticed in the filmy fairness of her hair a sort of dusting of gray hairs.  Her whole appearance had taken on a kind of lifeless dryness as though, during the months she had been away, she had been pressed colourless like a flower in a book."   
Petta is an unsympathetic character, and yet haven't we women all been there?  Why should she/we be compared with girls of 18?  Why should she not be upset and sneery?  She is upset at a party by the younger generation, who are sensible and conventional, not chic and nonchalant, as she and her friends were in the aftermath of World War II.  When she sees her daughter from her first marriage, Flora, she is envious that Flora plans to be a doctor, bypassing the dependence of the beautiful woman. 

 But most of this charming novel is not about Petta.  Manning describes Ellie's struggles with genteel poverty, her work, and her exhilaration with the sights of London.  She also vividly delineates Ellie's friendship with Nancy, an artist in the studio who is also poor.  We see the girls giggling together, floundering, yet invincible, determined not to go back to the provinces.  And when they visit Nancy's uncle, Tom Claypole, a wealthy old man, for a weekend, they love the food and warmth, so different from their experience in London.  But Nancy uses Ellie to distract him from Maxine, a former friend who is trying to usurp Nancy's place in Tom's will.

Manning (1908-1980) is best known for The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, autobiographical novels about her experiences during World War II in Bucharest, Greece, Cairo, and Germany.

The voices of the women in The Doves of Venus are pitch-perfect, and this is one of the best "middlebrow" novels I've read this year.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Likely Story: The Day after Black Friday at the Used Bookstore

 At A Likely Story, a small used bookstore in a nearby town, four people were shopping.

My husband and I browsed silently in the literature section. 

The other two shoppers were a mother and daughter.  They were talking wistfully about a book or movie in which two people meet in a bookstore and fall in love.  (Notting Hill? You've Got Mail?)

Notting Hill
I should have asked, but I wasn't up to speed because I have a cold.  I didn't have my reporter's notebook with me, so I couldn't pretend to be a reporter. And I never admit to anyone I have a blog.  

So I was stumped.  No idea what romantic bookstore movie/book they were talking about.

Did I ever meet a paramour at a bookstore?  Sadly, no.  At far more predictable places than that.

Bookstores are not romantic, but they are my favorite places.  At A Likely Story (I've changed the name, because you won't be flying in to this tiny town anyway), you can have a chat with the owner.  He really knows books.
He'll also talk about the business, though you don't have to chat if you don't want to.

We bought $30 worth of books, and that seemed pretty thrilling to him.  I gushed about finding two books I'd never heard of, H. G. Wells's Christina Alberta's Father and Christopher Isherwood's Down There on a Visit. The internet has taken away something of the joy of serendipitous discovery.

The owner of A Likely Story said he is a member of a bookstore chat website, and that two small used bookstore owners told him they are going out of business this month.

"The smallest rent increase can do a bookstore in."

It seems the things most worth doing are not profitable.  I have known bookstore owners who live in their stores. 

There are no small used bookstores left in Our Otherwise Very Nice City. When B&N goes, we'll be stuck with a couple of lovely people's tax-write-off spaces that are smaller than my living room.

I have also felt a pang of nostalgia about Borders lately.  A former student, a vivacious bookseller at Borders for many years, died of cancer last spring, a year after Borders closed. If Borders were still open he might be alive (health insurance), and he would be in his element this time of year.  I have to imagine that in an alternate universe he is still working at Borders, quoting The Shadow of the Wind (Cemetery of Books # 1) to customers:

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”  

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dreams of Thanksgiving and a Note on Plagiarism

Norman Rockwell,The Saturday Evening Post ,1942
 It's Thanksgiving!

 You know, I'm not really nervous about it. I hid in the back room last night and said I was "sorting out files," i.e., preserving my stamina for the big day. Those who wanted to sleep in the tent in Hello Kitty sleeping bags or on inflatable mattresses were indifferently waved into the back yard.  Someone I didn't recognize slept entwined with my niece under the dining room table.  

I had it all planned.  It would be Thanksgiving lunch, not dinner.  I would get up at seven to put the turkey in the oven.

Perhaps we could eat at eleven, and I could kick them all out afterward.  No, we have to wait till noon, but then I can kick them out.  They can play football in the back yard like the Kennedys at Hyannis Port in the '60s. 

You might want to know why I want to kick them out. 

It's the not speaking thing. 

My cousin Mitzi doesn't speak to any of us.  She spends most of her time smoking on the porch. She did that in high school, too.  She was so pretty she never had to speak.  Guys were just out there, flicking their lighters for her.

That was a very long time ago.  She's old enough to speak now.

She is the heir of our one wealthy relative, all right? And so she doesn't speak to us. She is very chilly.  We get it. She should get it that the relative is not changing his will to leave the rest of us money.  We all get it. Why doesn't she get it?

For God's sake, Mitzi!

Speak to us!

Mitzi, you are the love of his life!  He is not going to change his will just because we're nice to him.

(Yes, we are very nice family members, but we don't "do"  interventions.)

Friends are much kinder than family, and a group of us housewives whose careers have gone bust are having pie together.   We are:

1.  A Latin teacher without students. That would be I (or can I colloquially say "me?").  I've taught everybody in town who wants to take Latin, including Renaissance Faire types, Latin mass aficionados, and people who took it in high school.  I'm now waiting for the Pope to hire me to teach at the Holy See's new Academy for Latin Studies.

2. May, an ex-restaurateur, operated a Tudor-style Tea Room, Off with Their Heads!, that went bust last year, possibly because nobody could find it.  She now spoons jasmine tea into tiny muslin sachet bags labeled I Heart Anne Boleyn and sells them at a Boleyn website.

3.  Natalie, divorced, 50, reduced to living in a rented room in the inner city but still an enthusiastic acoustic guitar player, sells lingerie at Dillard's.  "Please buy this nightgown!" she chirps playfully to passing customers.

Her boss told her to cut it out.

She  recently finished an MBA, and now realizes the height of her career might be working holiday hours at WalMart.  She is about to work some crazy Black Friday hours there and at Dillard's.

But, my God, she's only been here an hour, and her 
rendition of "Alice's Restaurant" got a smile out of Mitzi.  

Get that woman a corporation.  It was all worth it...well, no... not at wasn't worth it at all!...They're going out to play football in a minute...

Happy Thanksgiving! 


 A veteran novelist has PLAGIARIZED an autobiographical anecdote from my blog in her new novel.  I'm not flattered. She could at least have had the decency to change the details of my childhood memory.

Too Classy to Name the Plagiarist
Isn't the internet great? 

Should I write to her editor and demand a refund?  

Yes, I am too classy to print her name

The book is getting bad reviews.   

Where is Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of TLS, when we need him?  In a conversation with reporters during his stint as chair of the Man Booker Prize judges in September, he blamed bloggers for ruining literary criticism and literature.  I vigorously disagreed with that, but then I deleted one of my two posts on the subject, because even I realized the second of the two was superfluous. And I think that the state of publishing is moribund for other reasons.   

Perhaps the state of publishing is also compromised by novelists cutting and pasting on the internet?

We're sure most writers are ethical.  This has never happened before. 

 I thought only students plagiarized blogs.