Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Paperback Reader or Paperback Writer?

 

I found this picture online. Somebody's great collection!

 I was listening to a Beatles CD as I walked briskly to the library.  Paul McCartney was singing: " I want to be a paperback..." and I anticipated the next word as "reader."  But the next word, of course, is "writer."  And the song is "Paperback Writer." 

My excuse for the slip-up is that I had not heard the song in years.  Comical that I misremembered the whole concept, but perhaps it is because I love my role as a paperback reader - too much. 

"Paperback reader" is not my only musical misdemeanor.  I referred to a favorite Simon and Garfunkel song as "Kathy."  You know it: the persona of the song and his girlfriend Kathy are riding on a Greyhound bus "looking for America." ("'Kathy,' I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, 'Michigan seems like a dream to me now.'"  To me, too. ) The song is called "America."

Music is not my forte, but I admire friends who play in a community orchestra and/or local rock band. Go to any poetry reading and you'll see my friend Janet lugging her cello down the aisle after a rehearsal of her string quartet. How delightful to top off music with a poetry reading. 

My talents lie elsewhere. Reading paperbacks is one of my occupations (and I think I'll list it as my occupation on the tax form next year).  I could spend hours and hours browsing in the paperback sections of bookstores.  And I have.  I  prefer paperbacks to hardcovers: they make the best reading copies, one can scribble notes in the margins without worry, and who cares if the cover gets bent between the gym shoes and laptop in the totebag? 

I have multiple paperback copies of my favorite classics. Should I keep the Maude translation in the Oxford edition of War and Peace, or the Anthony Briggs in the Penguin?  Should I keep the Modern Library edition of Villette or the Vintage?  I can't decide.  I spent Sunday reorganizing a bookcase, and the best I could do was put the extras in a box.  

Alas, some paperbacks do fall apart.  My old Penguin of Pamela Hansford Johnson's Cork Street, Next to the Hatter's (1968), is at this point very, very fragile. There are still a few reads left, I think. I doubt it is in print.  And the thin pages of my lovely used Norton edition of Anna Karenina grew so brittle and rumpled that I had to replace it. But Mr. Nemo does not replace any of his old books.  He reads his old paperbacks without caring at all about the wear and tear.

Here is my question: Are you a paperback reader or a hardcover reader?  Or an e-reader?

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Mary Stewart's Heroines on Vacation: Gianetta in "Wildfire at Midnight"

  

Mary Stewart

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mary Stewart wrote eleven so-called Gothic novels, now categorized as romantic suspense - which sounds  tackier.  Although her Gothics are in a class of their own, she does not garner the laurels she deserves.  In the 1970s  Stewart made a name for herself with her award-winning Merlin trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment; these are reminiscent of Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy. 

I admit, I am fonder of Stewart's Gothics. The mid-20th-century Gothic centered on a plucky, intelligent heroine who stumbled upon a mystery while visiting a castle, or traveling in a foreign country.  The heroine usually meets two handsome men, one a charming criminal, the other a less charming, ironical hero.  She has difficulty figuring out which is the hero and which is the villain.  Stewart's heroines run into drug smugglers, gold smugglers, jewel thieves, and murderers. However idyllic the setting, there is crime.

And yet Stewart transcends the Gothic formula by combining the "romantic suspense" with travel writing.  Her Shakespeare-quoting heroines travel to exotic, often remote, places.  A mystery unfolds, but I especially love her descriptions of the settings.
    



As for me, I haven't traveled this summer, so I turned to Stewart.  I reread Wildfire at Midnight (1956) and traveled with  Gianetta to Skye, an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.  The narrator, Gianetta Brooke, named after her disreputable great-grandmother, Gianetta Fox, a famous artist's model, is a model herself for the Montefior salon in London.  She is run-down and in need of a vacation, so her mother, a vicar's wife and potter, recommends a little hotel in Skye.  And Gianetta can't wait to get away from her musings about her disastrous marriage, which ended in divorce.  

What we love in Stewart's novels is the thoughtful, witty voice of the narrator.  Gianetta wryly tells us that her ex- Nicholas cheated  on her because she wasn't as sophisticated as she had seemed at the gallery where he met her. 

What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate...; what he'd actually got was only Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montefior's salon and the Mayfair mannequin factory.

Of course Skye is gorgeous, and Stewart describes in detail the beauties of the mountains and the sea.  And there is much witty dialogue in the small hotel, because Marcia Maling, a brilliant, sparkling actress, who hates walking, fishing, and mountain-climbing, is here to rest, like Gianetta - though Gianetta walks. "Adrian said I positively must vegetate, and I had just read a divine book on Skye, so here I am."

But guess who else is there?  Several writers - including Gianetta's ex-husband, Nicholas.  
    

She doesn't wear high heels in the book!


And then she learns that a ritual murderer is on the loose in the mountains. It is possibly one of the hotel guests. And, as you can imagine, since everyone is a suspect, everyone behaves badly.  There is a trace of Agatha Christie here.

Gianetta is not a helpless heroine.  She proves herself cool and quick-witted during a search for a young woman presumed dead. She continues searching after the others quit.  But the danger does not end there.

There is no time for romance in this sinister novel, which is why I consider this a mystery rather than "romantic suspense."  In Wildfire at Midnight, there is also a shrewd critique of the underlying insecurity of the glamour industry. And in Stewart's later Gothics, she diverges even more liberally from the Gothic formula.  

My favorite of her books is This Rough Magic, set in Corfu.  But you are always safe in Stewart's hands.  She is the best of her Gothic peers.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Why Is the Blog Pink? And Did I Finish My Neglected American Series?

 I tried to go all-American in August. Was it the Olympics?  No, not at all.  I chose to boycott the TV Olympics, thinking it unseemly to hold them during the plague in Tokyo. But whenever Mr. Nemo told me an American had broken a record, I shrieked, "Go, U.S.A." 

I was busy reading while Mr. Nemo watched the track and field events. And I was busy writing my blog when Simone Biles emerged from her self-declared mental illness sanctuary and won the bronze medal. 

I felt that I had completed an Olympic hurdle myself when I realized it was time to change blog platforms.  And  now that I've discovered what I call "the pink parlor template," I feel at home at Blogger. Very simple, very feminine, perhaps faux Victorian, perhaps faux Edwardian - at any rate, it looks like pink wallpaper.

 

H. K. Browne's illustration of a parlor in Dombey and Son

Although I loved my Wordpress blog, which was the original Thornfield Hall blog,  I recently encountered "road blocks" which made the "new block system" untenable.  If I tried to correct a spelling error, an entire block of text would disappear. Paragraph signs and quote signs vanished by black magic, and as for trying to add and size an image - was I in hell?  The IT department asked repeatedly, "Have you tried emptying your cache?"  One wonders what would have happened if the cache had been full. 

I will use the Wordpress blog for announcements of posts here.

PLANS & SPONTANEITY

Upon my arrival on August 3 at Thornfield Hall Redux, I announced I was writing a six-part series on neglected American women writers.  I was fantastically moved by The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher and the overall high quality of The Riddle of the Fly and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Enright, the award-winning children's writer.

Then I got bogged down while searching for other neglected American writers. The
Library of America and Virago have rediscovered so many worthy books that one can scarcely call them "neglected" anymore. (Think Nancy Hale and Elaine Dundy.) And I have doubts about my inclusion of the Native American writer Susan Power, who I realize belongs to a neglected writer series of a later era. She began writing in the  '90s, while Calisher and Enright started in the '30s and '40s.   Meanwhile, I recommend Susan Powers's 2002 short story collection, Roofwalker.

One of my posts, which I did not consider at the time one of the series, is actually perfect for it. The clever Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) is a master of beautifully-written suspense novels.  She won the Edgar award for
A Dram of Poison, one of her wittiest psychological noir classics, and the one I chose to write about. 

For the moment, I'm on a break from neglected American women writers.  As an Anglophile, I've become wistful about English writers. And so I am snuggling up with some semi-neglected English novels this weekend.  For all I know they are widely read in England, but they are neglected here.

Good enough?  We shall see!

Any recommendations for neglected English novels?




Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Women in Translation Month: "What You Can See from Here," by Mariana Leky

  


Mariana Leky's lovely novel, What You Can See from Here, translated from German by Tess Lewis, is one of the most charming books of the summer.  After reading half my free e-book copy, I rushed to the bookstore and purchased the book.  I am sure you've been there: you prefer turning the physical pages, or you intend to pass the book on to a friend. I love the colorful jacket, which depicts a pink okapi and a pink tree blooming with white flowers, against a pink and purple background. 
 

This gem-like novel, set in a village in Germany, is narrated by Luisa, whom we first meet at the age of 10.  Picture a group of quirky Anne Tyler characters, only not in Baltimore. In the first chapter, Luisa's grandmother, Selma, divulges her dream of an okapi the night before.  (The okapi belongs to the giraffe family and is known as the zebra giraffe.) 

 Leki's style is plain but smart and sure-handed.  Her simplicity accentuates a deep understanding of human connections.


Selma had dreamed of an okapi three times in her life, and each time someone has then died.  That's why we were convinced her dreams of an okapi were directly connected to death.  That's how the human mind works.  It can draw connections between completely unrelated things in an instant.  Coffeepots and shoelaces, for example, or deposit bottles and fir trees.


The dream, as well as other important events, is filtered through the reactions of Luisa's family, friends, and neighbors.  The optician, who has an incurable case of unrequited love for Selma, reassures them that death and the dream are not connected.  Luisa's father, a doctor, says it is utter nonsense.  The superstitious Elsbeth, Selma's sister-in-law, however, decides to warn the mayor's wife, and soon the news is all over town.

And now Leky moves from the individual to the collective consciousness. Nobody is predictable, and Leky is not sentimental.  Love and tragedy are the stuff of everyday life here.  Luisa's best friend dies in an accident and she never quite gets over it.  Her father decides to quit his medical practice and travel all over the world.  He leaves Luisa and her mother, the town florist, with almost no warning.  Just like that, people disappear.  Luisa's mother has an affair with the owner of the ice cream parlor and is seldom home.

And perhaps that is why Luisa stays close to Selma and home.  As an adult, she leaves the village only for the county seat, where she takes a job in a bookshop.  One afternoon, Luisa meets a handsome young Buddhist monk, Frederik, who helps her find her missing dog, Alaska, in the woods.  Luisa falls in love with Frederic, but he returns to Japan. They correspond, but the years roll by.

Will Luisa ever get her act together?  Will the monk come back?  Will the optician stop writing unsent letters to Selma?  The community supports these individuals, some sympathetically, others grumpily.  A fascinating book, in which individualism is nurtured not in a city, but in a small town.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Spinsters in Literature - or Do I Mean Single Women?

 


The word spinster is funny and subversive. I use it flippantly, and hope it causes no offense. The word evokes the image of a  professorial woman wearing spectacles on a chain and sipping a stinky tea brewed from herbs grown in her weedy back yard.  Who knows what tisane she sips?

All spinsters are by definition single women, but are all single women spinsters?  The definition in my old Webster's dictionary is:  1.  a woman still unmarried beyond the usual age of marrying.  2.  Chiefly Law. A woman who has never married.  3. a woman whose occupation is spinning.  

I know many women who are delighted to be called spinsters, but none whose occupation is spinning.  And yet I have gone ahead and compiled a list of

Ten Spinsters (or Single Women) in Fiction
   



1.  Rosamund in Margaret Drabble's The Millstone. Brainy Rosamund theoretically approves of the sexual revolution, but hasn’t yet experienced it personally. When she takes a break from her research to lose her virginity, she has the bad luck to get pregnant. But is it bad luck?  She becomes a single mother and continues to work on her dissertation.
      


 2.  Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Bronte. With no job prospects in England, Lucy bravely travels to Villette (i.e., Bruges) and serendipitously finds a job teaching English at a girls' school. Teaching is not her vocation, but how else can a Victorian woman make a living?  This book is about making do:  not every girl gets the guy she wants; Lucy falls in love with Dr. Graham, her godmother's son, but he falls for much prettier women.  She
doesn't get what she wants, but perhaps she gets something better.  The ending is ambiguous.

 


3.  Sheila Levine in Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent. Written in the form of a suicide note, this 1972 novel reads like stand-up comedy. Sheila is unabashedly unpolitically correct and has problems with “women’s lib.” Unlike the beautiful heroines of ’70s feminist best-sellers like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen,  Sheila Levine is an overweight sexy girl who doesn’t attract the men she is attracted to.  She doesn’t mind being an easy lay:  she enjoys sex.  But we do feel her pain and grief as the book goes on.
   



4.  Miss Bates in Emma by Jane Austen.  Miss Bates babbles a mile a minute and lives in genteel poverty.  When Emma cruelly mocks Miss Bates, Knightley explains that it is her duty to be courteous.  The well-born Miss Bates would have been her equal but for the loss of the family fortune. Poor Miss Bates!  As the years go by, I have more and more sympathy for her.
    


5.  Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians by Henry James.  Olive, a fanatical suffragist, woos (without knowing she woos) a beautiful young orator, Verena Varrant.   Soon the two women are living together,  and Olive coaches Verena to become a celebrity feminist speaker. Does, Olive, a repressed lesbian, know she is in love with Verena?  She certainly battles Basil Ransom, Verena's suitor, for Verena's soul - and presumably her body. Basil has many faults, too, though we tend to be pro-Basil.  This reads like a prison break, but James makes it clear that Verena may be exchanging one prison for another.
   


6.  The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks. Pragmatic Jane Graham is respected at her public relations job. A sexual slip-up--an unplanned pregnancy--forces her to examine her life. In a bug-infested L-shaped room, she befriends some unconventional Londoners and makes peace with her disapproving father. (Two sequels published in the ‘70s, The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely, relate Jane’s further adventures.)
     


7.  A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence. Time is passing for 34-year-old Rachel, whose invalid mother dominates her. During a brief, not particularly happy, love affair, she discovers the importance of taking risks.
   


8.  The Country Girls trilogy by Edna O’Brien. The first two novels iare a lyrical coming-of-age story. Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends, contrive their own expulsion from a convent school and move to Dublin to pursue fun and love.  But they are not destined to be spinsters, of course.
   


9.  Georgy Girl by Margaret Forster.  I saw the charming movie, with Vanessa Redford as Georgy, on TV years ago and then read the book. It isn't fresh in my mind, so here is the Goodreads blurb:  Georgy is young, gregarious and fun - she is also large, self-confessedly ugly and desperate for love. Georgy bears her fate bravely as she alternates between playing the fool and humbling herself before Meredith, her pretty, callous flatmate, although when James, middle-aged socialite and self-imposed 'Uncle', asks Georgy to become his mistress, she is tempted to accept.
  


10.  Bassett by Stella Gibbons.  In this delightful novel, two middle-aged women go into business together. Miss Hilda Baker, a Londoner who works in a pattern-cutting office, wants to invest her savings of 300 pounds.  S
he sees an ad in Town and Country that might offer what she wants:  Miss Padsoe, a spinster in a country town, needs a partner in the conversion of her house into a rooming house. Miss Baker cautiously visits Miss Padsoe, but doesn't decide to invest until her boss fires her (he is downsizing).  And thus the adventures of Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe begin. 

Who are your favorite spinsters in literature?  There must be thousands, but I had trouble thinking of ten!


Monday, August 23, 2021

Catch-up Notes: Pat Barker's "The Women of Troy" & Rose Macaulay's "What Not"

 


I am playing "catch-up" with these scribbled notes on two novels.  Though these books are far from my favorites, they will certainly appeal to other readers.  Who can resist Pat Barker and Rose Macaulay?  

Before I go on, I admit that I am burned-out on retold myths. Yet I was eager to read Booker prize winner Pat Barker's The Women of Troy, the sequel to The Silence of the GirlsAnd certainly her inventive versions are superior to most other writers' retold myths. 

 In The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy - and I suspect there will be a third book - the narrator is Briseis, Achilles's prize in the Iliad. ln the new novel
, Briseis's status has improved:  pregnant with Achilles's child, she is now married to kind Alcimus. As a married woman, she has more freedom and can roam where she will.  She no longer works in the hospital - the war is over.  The Greeks are stuck in the camp, restless and claustrophobic, waiting for the wind to change. The women are terrified of their fate.

And so Briseis tries to lift the spirits of the women.  She comforts the slaves in the women's quarters, among them Hecuba (Priam's wife) and the traumatized Andromache , who are now concubines of Odysseus and Pyrrhus respectively. Cassandra is also enslaved, married to Agamemnon.  No one believes Cassandra's prophecy that Agamemnon's wife will murder both of them.  They think she is histrionic.

Barker amazes us with stylistic pyrotechnics and her keen understanding of psychology: she even gets into the head of violent, insecure Pyrrhus, who feels he can never live up to his dead father, Achilles. Pyrrhus botched the killing of Priam, who died in harrowing pain as Pyrrhus hacked away at his neck; now the rotting body is displayed on the beach. Although Barker can do almost everything, one episode went on far too long for me. An Antigone-like Trojan woman is determined to bury Priam, even though it is virtual suicide.  Somehow this dragged on and on, and seemed the least effective part of the novel.

And that is the problem with retold myths; spinning tales from epic can work, but Sophocles's tragedy cannot be adapted in prose.  I felt that Colm Toibin's House of Names, an elegant retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia, failed for the same reason.  Well, not failed.  Pat Barker and Colm Toibin cannot fail.

I'm sure it's just me. I've probably read too many retold myths.

     



Rose Macaulay's What Not: A Prophetic Comedy( 1918) begins promisingly:  two women are hurrying from the Underground to to their office at the Ministry of Brains.  Here is the shocking part: the purpose of the Ministry is to promote eugenics. The working classes are in an uproar because the Mental Progress Act regulates who can marry whom and who can have children.  Snobbish Kitty Grammont, "something of the elegant rake, something of the gamin, something of the adventuress, something of the scholar," writes pamphlets in the Propaganda section with no twinge of conscience and parties on the weekend. The fanatical Minister, who is not allowed to marry because of idiots in his family, turns out to be a confused young man, and falls in love with Kitty. The only three-dimensional character is the charming Pansy Ponsonby, a whimsical socialite who sensibly ignores the government rules and is compassionate if not exactly brilliant. We're stuck with the romance of Kitty and the minister, alas. But we do like the Dadaistic "Stop It!" movement.

This book is very slight, yet much too long.  If you want to read Macaulay, try her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond.



Friday, August 20, 2021

An Archaeological Mystery: "The Night Hawks," by Elly Griffiths

   



We've had our fun this summer, and now it's time to slap masks on.  The resurrected State Fair, attended by two million people, has spread Covid and case numbers are up, but hey, why cancel when you can make money?  "I'm loving it," the governor said.  And I'm sure that deep-fried chicken egg salad sandwich was worth it. 

Actually, I was ill this week myself, and  I wondered, Is it Delta?  If only it were the Nile Delta instead.  We were supposed to be on vacation.

While I was sick I read Elly Griffiths's smart new mystery, The Night Hawks.  Earlier this year I had devoured her charming novel,  The Postscript Murders, which centers on the murder of a mystery writer.

The Night Hawks is the 13th in her Ruth Galloway series, and it is a police procedural.  You needn't start with the first book:  Griffiths explicates Ruth's personal and professional background inthe first chapter of the convoluted narrative.  Ruth is a forensic archaeologist who is also the new chairman of the archaeology department at the University of North Norfolk.  And she is a consultant to the police, specifically DCI Nelson, her married former lover and the father of their daughter, Kate.

I love reading novels about work, and the development of complicated professional relationships. Ruth must contend with a prickly male colleague who seems threatened by her, and also with a group of amateur archaeologists, the Night Hawks, who putter around at night with metal detectors and are lucky enough to discover a site with a Bronze Age corpse. On that same night the Night Hawks find the dead body of a young man on the beach.   Ruth is called in to help with the murder case, and also must supervise the dig.  More murders are committed,  each discovered by one or more members of the Night Hawks.

 And then near the end it turned into a psychological drama, which I found disappointing and not quite believable.  But it is possible that I don't read enough police procedurals. 


Happy Weekend Reading!  And what are you reading, by the way?

Thursday, August 19, 2021

On the Shelves of a Small-Town Bookstore

 


"Oh, thank God!  They're not censoring books here."  

"Wasn't this banned?" my friend Janet asked.

"As good as."     
 

While browsing in a small-town bookstore, we were astonished to find Blake Bailey's controversial biography of Philip Roth, which was withdrawn by its publisher, W. W. Norton, after Blake was accused of sexual harassment and abuse. Mind you, he was accused, but neither tried nor convicted. That is the way the system works nowadays.  Blake, whom Roth had chosen as his biographer, was fortunate to find a new publisher in Skyhorse.  In a statement about their acquisition of the book, Skyhorse quoted the Authors Guild.

The answer to suppression of expression and ideas isn’t greater or responsive suppression, but greater public debate, which is silenced when a publisher prevents readers from reading a book and forming their opinions. A book is larger than its author; it is an addition to the often contentious public record for posterity.

As a proponent of free speech, I was cheered to see this book on the shelves of a small-town bookstore. Whether one approves of a writer or not - and I haven't the faintest interest in reading this book - we cannot ignore all the critics who lauded it, among them Cynthia Ozick and Elaine Showalter.  But Barnes and Noble does not stock Philip Roth: The Biography at any of its stores in my state.  (You can buy it online, though.)  Why, you may ask, do I care? Well, I abhor the J'accuse culture.  If I banned anything, it would be the cheesy romance novels which exploit women and make publishers rich. 

The  new J'accuse movement was reborn a few years ago in Hollywood when female actors launched the @MeToo movement, which I call the WhoHasn'tBeen? movement.  Frankly, I've suffered much much worse things than harassment and gropings.  And I was shocked when Minnesota Public Radio canceled Garrison Keillor's popular "Prairie Home Companion" show and deleted all his work from its  website.  The good news is, Keillor now has his own website,  where you can listen to new episodes of A Writer's Almanac

You may agree with me or not about the Roth biography, but here is some good news:  not only do I read brilliant books by authors I disapprove of but I also watch movies with actors and actresses whose lives seem scandalous:  that is, if I believed the tabloids got right.



 

The Eclectic Work of Joanna Russ: Feminist Science Fiction & Literary Criticism

 Joanna Russ (1937-2011), a literary critic and English professor at the University of Washington, is best known for her feminist science fiction novel, The Female Man (1975). Both men and women recommended it, but I was not a fan. It felt like being clobbered over the head with the smashing of sexual stereotypes.  We all loathed sexual stereotoypes, but the book seemed clumsy and unsubtle.

 
I had an opportunity to improve my opinion of Russ
when I discovered her charming novel, Picnic on Paradise (1968), included in the Library of America volume, American Science Fiction: Four Classics (1968-1969).  This was Russ's first novel, and it is almost pure action-adventure, with a surreal setting and whimsical sensibility. Alyx, an agent who has been transported from ancient Greece to Paradise, a tourist planet, is commanded to guide a group of spoiled tourists to safety across a snowy mountainous terrain.  A commercial war has been declared on Paradise.  Neither Alyx nor I know quite what a commercial war is.
      



 
You don't know where you are at first.  Nor does the heroine. What the...? 

She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature - but that was normal enough for a Mediterranean Greek nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned all humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants.

     


 And because she is a small woman, there are  power struggles.  Some of the tourists so out of touch that they don't believe in danger - they fancy it's part of their fun package. And Gunnar, a famous mountaineer, believes he knows better than she does.  The novel is to a large extent about the bonding of the group, occasionally disrupted by competition. And for those who want more than a dangerous trek, there is some sex and romance.

This is super-light, but I can see why it's included in this surreal '68  LOA round-up of science fiction.
 
AND THEN I PICKED UP A COPY OF Russ's book of feminist literary criticism, How to Suppress Women's Writing, published in 1983 and reissued by University of Texas in 2018. Russ reports on the resistance of male critics to including women writers in the canon.  She has portrayed an academia where few women are hired as professors and even fewer women's books are taught in English classes.  The critic Harold Bloom is mentioned.


Russ writes about the suppression of radical women writers in publishing and academia.  She is obsessed with Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which I, too, deem one of the best novels of the nineteenth century.  She tries to order Villette for one of her classes, and discovers it is out of print.  And she is not interested in teaching Jane Eyre, which is the only book by Charlotte available.

I think it is no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers' less good work as their best work. For example, Jane Eyre exists, as of this writing, on the graduate reading list of the Department of English at the University of Washington. (This is the only PhD reading list to which I have access at the moment. I mention it not as a horrid example, but because it is respectable, substantial, and probably typical of first-rate institutions across this country.) Villette does not appear on the list. How could it? Jane Eyre is a love story and women ought to write love stories; Villette, “a book too subversive to be popular,” is described by Kate Millett as “one long meditation on a prison break.



Russ is illuminating about stereotypes about  women writers: it is said they can't write, or their experience is limited, or they are amateurs, spinsters or   wives.  She sketches the history of reception of Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, both dismissed as unimportant in the mid-to-late 20th century.  I had low expectations of my English classes (though there were some great professors), and read these women writers in my leisure.  When else? 

 If there is one thing this book suffers from, it is Russ's attempt to do too much. She reports endless statistics about percentages of women writers in anthologies - we don't need pages of this. And she too often quotes critics Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter, instead of writing her own views and citing the critics in footnotes.

A good, if slightly dated, history of women's writing, the canon, and feminist criticism in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Virtue and Villainy in "Little Dorrit": Little Dorrit vs. Miss Wade

 


 Little Dorrit is far from my favorite novel by Dickens, but that is its charm and novelty. I do not know it by heart, and that makes it seem almost new upon rereading.  Indeed, I am afraid of getting jaded if I read my favorite Dickens books too often.  I never want to lose the ability to laugh at the adventures of the traveling actors in Nicholas Nickleby, or at Mr. Micawber's financial advice: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” 

I found Little Dorrit disappointing on a first read many years ago,
but it is a favorite with the critics. The great Lionel Trilling praised it as "one of the most profound of Dickens's novels and one of the most significant works of the nineteenth century," while Dennis Walder says it is "Dickens's most profound attempt to find an answer to life's mysteries."

And I enjoyed it immensely this time round - I was surprised. It is one of Dickens's darkest books, almost as dark as Our Mutual Friend, only, alas, less humorous.  Many of the characters live in prison, or are self-imprisoned.  There is the Marshalsea, the debtors' prison where Little Dorrit was born and has grown up, and where her father, known as the Father of the Marshalsea, has lived twenty-odd years.  He lost all his money and has no prospect of paying his debts.

Little Dorrit (Amy) is a very good young woman.  Here is how good she is: she goes out to work as a seamstress so she can support her father financially, and has found jobs for the rest of the family, too.  Her gloomy uncle is a musician; her older sister is a dancer (Little Dorrit found her a dance teacher); and their brother Tip has had many jobs, which he always quits, or his fired from.

 


And Little Dorrit is universally kind:  Maggy, a mentally handicapped woman, proudly tells people she will always be ten years old,  and refers to Little Dorrit as "Little Mother." The two get shut out of the Marshalsea one night, and while huddling in doorways are mistaken for mother and daughter - until the woman sees Little Dorrit's face and realizes she is a woman.  And Little Dorrit is even valued by her difficult, uncommunicative employer, the despotic Mrs. Clennam, who is confined to a wheelchair.  At her house Little Dorrit meets Arthur Clennam, the depressed middle-aged son who has been away in the East for 20 years.  Little Dorrit and Clennam have much in common:  they both want to do good, and they do do good.  But Little Dorrit is cheerful and Clennam is a depressive.  A match made in heaven?


 These two characters (Yin and Yang?) are very sweet, but are rather dull.  Little Dorrit is kind and charming, really too good for this world, and though I would love to be her best friend, I wouldn't want to be her.  Clennam, however, is so subdued that I barely notice him on the page.  The other characters seem to find him attractive, but I had to look to the illustrations. Maybe?

Little Dorrit and Clennam.

And now let me tell you about the misanthropic Miss Wade, a character who does not do much good to anyone.  We cannot like her, but she fascinates us.  She has a dark sensibility; she believes in no one and nothing,

"I have the misfortune of not being a fool," writes Miss Wade on pages meant only for Mr. Clennam's eyes.  Because, yes, even Miss Wade has a weakness for Mr. Clennam.
 

Chapter XXI, "The History of a Self Tormenter," is Miss Wade's memoir, and the pages are tragically honest - everything people used to write in private diaries but now post on Twitter.  Miss Wade is an orphan who believes everyone is false:  school friends were condescending, charming employers only pretended to like her, her fiance didn't really care for her, and the man she loved left her to marry a well-to-do woman nicknamed Pet, whom Miss Wade hates so much she lured Pet's servant away, a stormy girl unfortunately known as Tattycoram.

Is Miss Wade right or wrong about people?  We only see them from her point of view, and since it is always the same point of view, we tend to doubt it. Good is bad and bad is good: she is very perceptive, but at the same time mixed-up.  Yet she is not really a villain; she has had, unfortunately, one or two transactions with the villain of the novel.  And she kept cool.

We do get fed up with the extremes of good and bad. And  this is a strange tack for Dickens, whose characters usually are much funnier and yet have so much more depth.  I want to be Little Dorrit's best friend -  but what if I'm more like Miss Wade? I'm in the middle - like most of us.  Miss Wade and Clennam are both depressives  - that they have in common - and would have been a disaster together.  Little Dorrit takes care of everyone, but she does not know Miss Wade.   And that is probably for the best.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

A Comedy of Suspense: Charlotte Armstrong's "A Dram of Poison"

 


A stickie note commanded: "Do floors!" 

I'd intended to offer libations to the household gods and experiment with vacuum cleaner attachments to assail grimy baseboards. But I ignored the memo to self and spent the day productively reading Charlotte Armstrong's charming Edgar award-winning classic, A Dram of Poison (1956).

Charlotte Armstrong, who is occasionally referred to as the Queen of Suspense (one of many), is my latest literary discovery.  Her plots are shatterproof, her characters ordinary yet memorable, and her fast-paced prose seems effortless.  Armstrong's books often have a hint of California noir, and two of them have been made into movies, The Unsuspected (1945) and Mischief (1950).

What I didn't know is that she could be so funny.  A Dram of Poison is at heart a gentle comedy of suspense. The hero, Mr. Gibson, a middle-aged bachelor who teaches poetry at an obscure college, marries Rosemary, who is 22 years younger, for altruistic reasons. Poor Rosemary is sick, hopeless, helpless, plain, destitute, and about to be evicted, because her late father, a cranky professor emeritus who spent his latter days writing angry letters to the editor, left her nothing.  And so  Mr. Gibson to the rescue!  They move into a charming cottage and, adorably, they fall in love.

But, alas, it doesn't end there.  Oh, no. This is not a romantic comedy but a comedy of suspense.  After dining at a restaurant to celebrate Rosemary's recovery, they have a car accident and Mr. Gibson is in the hospital for weeks with a broken leg.  He calls his domineering sister, Ethel, and asks her to fly out and look after Rosemary.  I shall not say much more, except that Ethel almost breaks up (or do I mean down?) the couple.

If you lived with Ethel, this is the kind of thing you'd hear day and night.

"The fact is, old dear," she continued affectionately, "all of us can't live in a romantic, poetical and totally gentle world.  Some of us have to face things as they are."  Her bright eyes were direct and honest and he feared they were wise.  "Face reality."


But the dram of poison is the real comedy.  I won't tell you the details, except that a Shakespeare-quoting bus driver rounds up  passengers to help Mr. Gordon out of a predicament.

Loved this book, and loved Armstrong's writing.
 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Science Fiction Ads for the Literati


 

I love skimming ads in old science fiction books.  Commercialism may corrupt us, but I also am an avid reader of book ads in The New York Review of Books.  Still, SF paperbacks have the most amusing ads.  Smack in the middle of a back page that urged me, "Buy them at your local bookstore or use coupon on next page for ordering," I found the title of a hitherto unfamiliar book, The Elephant and the Kangaroo by T. H. White.  

Has anyone heard of this?

 I am a fan of The Once and Future King, somewhat less so of his autobiographical The Goshawk.  Shall I try The Elephant and the Kangaroo?  The e-book costs only $2.99.  I certainly would be happy to devote a few hours to "a hilarious romp" or "a mad flight of fancy."

The strange things we learn from perusing paperback ads. 


 



A Real Pleasure: Rereading The Camomile Lawn, by Mary Wesley

 


I have just reread The Camomile Lawn, one of my favorite books.  What a pleasure to read!  And so naturally I am musing about the splendid career of Mary Wesley, who published her first novel, Jumping the Queue, when she was seventy-one.  For many readers, that was the biggest part of the story.  Actually, it is a pretty marvelous part.  My goodness, we all thought, there's hope for us yet. 

 
But the real wonder of her elegant fiction is its appeal to a broad spectrum of readers.  The critics loved her, library-goers reserved her books and hugged them to their bosoms, and fans of  Penelope Lively, Elizabeth Jane Howard, and even Rosamunde Pilcher enjoyed them.

Wesley's second novel, The Camomile Lawn, is flawless and fun.  In this slightly quirky literary family saga, which spans half a century, everybody sleeps incestuously with everybody, without much harm.  The novel begins before the war, when five cousins pay their annual visit to Uncle Richard and Aunt Helena in idyllic Cornwall.   (Four of them are in their late teens and early twenties, while the youngest,  Sophy, an unhappy orphan, lives with Richard and Helena.)  

With Wesley's buoyant prose, the description of the cousins' arrival in Cornwall is charming and witty.

The London train snaked into Penzance.  Calypso, Walter and Polly sprang from it with zest, kissing Helena, hugging Sophy and crying, "Well, well, how are you?  Isn't this lovely?  Isn't this wonderful? What air after London!  Let's grab the luggage, find a porter.  Where's the car?  How's Uncle Richard?  How's his leg?"  Their anxiety always seemed to be addressed to the artificial leg, which indeed went wrong oftener than the active member.

And so we are introduced to the bold and reckless cousins: Oliver, who ran away to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was slightly wounded, is the master of their games, including their annual Terror Run along a cliff at night;  saucy, beautiful Calypso laughs as she fobs off Oliver's advances, reminding him she intends to marry money; charming Polly is savvy and unconventional; while her brother Walter wants to join the Navy so he can save the Jews.

The family breaks up when England declares war with Germany: Oliver and Walter enlist, while Calypso and Polly live in London and work in intelligence. (Sophy is at school.)  And Calypso and Polly admit they are having the time of their life during the war:  their work is interesting, they go to parties, and have many affairs. Although Calypso has married a rich man, he is is in Egypt for the duration of the war, so she gads about.

One of the most remarkable things about Wesley's books is that she writes from a very adult vantage point. Oddly, I don't see much of that in contemporary books. Wesley's women are strong and don't whine about the vagaries of men, because they are having casual sex, living like their men.  Only Helena, who leaves Richard and moves to London with her lover,  Max, a Jewish refugee and a musician, suffers from jealousy.  She fumes, because Max sleeps with every woman in the book!  That is too much for any woman to bear.  Resist, I kept thinking.  Well, Calypso think he is mediocre in bed.  But in Wesley's novels, sex is usually a joyous mating of satyrs and lusty women.  It is suitable that in the final scene, Max's funeral,  two of the cousins become lovers.

 


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Climate Change Fashions and a Climate Change Classic, "Dune"


  

As women of a certain age, we begin to intuit that climate change does not become us. Though our storage boxes burgeon with vintage summer clothes, we have nothing to wear.  With regret we have banished favorite threadbare t-shirts and baggy running shorts. Exasperated, we wonder, When did these cease to be appropriate? 

Here is my litany of woes:  sleeveless tops reveal fascinatingly sun- striated arms, shorts are proper only at home, all hats look stupid, and would cotton gloves improve or draw attention to veiny dishpan hands?  A friend wittily suggests that sandals should be illegal after age 50.  I wear them, but I know what she means.  This has been a summer of tennis shoes.

And gradually I have adopted more forgiving fashions, pedal pushers (or should I say capris?), cropped pants, baggy tunics, tasteful pajamas, and matron blouses.  When my mother was in her eighties, her fashion advice was: Wear turtlenecks, long pants, and nylon knee-highs. Alas, I see this arriving in the future, sans nylons, which are much, much too hot.

And now let me switch to a subject I know:  books.  I recommend the CLIMATE CHANGE CLASSIC, Dune by Frank Herbert.

 Did you know that HBO Max will release a new movie adaptation of Dune in October?  It's a  great time to read or reread Dune.  I can't persuade my husband to read this, and I'm devastated, so I hope one of you will read it! 

Let me start with one of my favorite quotes from the book.



“To the working planetologist, his most important tool is human beings… You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”–Frank Herbert’s Dune

 


 

Dune, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, did not become a best-seller until the environmentally aware '70s. Set on a desert planet, it focuses on the scarcity of water and the exploitation of a planet’s resources for the mining of an addictive spice called Melange.

This novel is, to a large extent, about the politics of water.  It is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.
 
At the center of the book is the Atreides family, who have recently arrived on the planet to rule the melange region. During a coup,  Duke Leto Atreides is killed, but his wife,  Jessica, a trained priestess with psychic powers,  and son Paul, trained by his mother, escape to the desert, where they must master the ecology:  it is the difference between life and death.

The  Atreides learn from the native Fremen to wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

This is a timely novel even for the ecologically literate. Let's hope the movie makes it a best-seller again.



Saturday, August 7, 2021

Rock on, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison (1946-2021)!

  

Patricia Kennealy-Morrison

Patricia Kennealy-Morrison died at age 75 on July 23 in New York City. You may have known her as a rock critic; I knew her science fiction.  She was a brilliant writer, but the headlines emphasized her relationship with Jim Morrison, which was a claim to fame, but hardly her most important accomplishment. 

It's not that I don't love Jim Morrison. ("Break on through to the other side.")  And certainly Kennealy-Morrison was not reticent about their relationship:  she wrote a memoir in 1992,  Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison, and was a consultant for the 1991 movie The Doors


But of course she led a long, full life after Jim's death in 1971.  She continued to work as a journalist, and wrote several several science fiction/fantasy novels and mysteries.  I enjoyed  The Copper Crown and The Silver Branch, two of the novels in her Keltiad series.  I had no idea she was Jim Morrison's partner until I read the bio in The Copper Crown.

One thing for sure, the obituary will sell some books.  But typical for women to be remembered for their relationships rather than their work.

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Meaning of Summer: Kat on a Hot Tin Roof

   



Summer is our favorite season, but this year it is out-of-control.  Our tomatoes have not ripened, nor has the zucchini proliferated, and the lusty zucchini usually spreads and usurps the whole yard. In addition to drought, the smoke from the Northwest wafted over the Midwest for a few days. I turned around on a walk because I was inhaling more smoke than I ever did from cigarettes in smoky bars in the 1980s.

And yet I stubbornly love summer, and am contemplating its significance, both on a personal and literary level.

First of all, there are the books, plays, and short stories:   Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams), "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" (Irwin Shaw), Summer (Ali Smith), Summer of '69 (Elin Hildebrand), Arctic Summer (Damon Galgut), Prodigal Summer (Barbara Kingsolver), The Summer Before the Dark (Doris Lessing),  The Solitary Summer (Elizabeth von Arnim), After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (Aldous Huxley), The Door into Summer (Robert A. Heinlein), and Summer (Edith Wharton). Clearly summer fascinates writers.

   



Then there are my personal memories.  There was the summer of Trollope's Palliser series, which I read while (help!) sunbathing on something called "a space blanket." Even the fascination of the characters Phineas Finn, Lady Glencora, Madame Max Goelser, Alice Vavasor, and the Duke of Omnium couldn't compensate for the atrocious sunburn, which, in those days, I treated with vinegar, a remedy that helped but perhaps wasn't scientific.

There was the summer of the endless bike ride. We lugged sleeping bags, a primus stove, tent, and various camping paraphernalia on our bikes.  I assumed I'd read at night, so I brought along a paperback of William Trevor's short stories.  Alas!  after a long day of pedaling I retired to the tent at 6 p.m. A couple of weeks not reading.  That was a record!

There was the relaxing beach summer when we stayed indoors in the cabin to reread Doris Lessing's Martha Quest books and  Susan Richards Shreve's entertaining family saga, Daughters of the New World.  We did go on some outings: we drove through Virginia and stopped in a spooky small town where we ate good fried chicken but feared the strange silence of the other patrons (who looked a little inbred), browsed at a discount bookstore outlet in Maryland, and saw the Mason-Dixon line (it was in a cemetery; my husband had read Thomas Pynchon's book).
 

I love the languid days of summer, but many have been scorching.  And so the joy of summer is tempered with misgivings about the future. 

I hope that you have escaped the adverse effects of climate change and are loving this carefree season - at least it is more carefree than last summer for some of us.

A Neglected American Novel: "The Grass Dancer" by Susan Power

          

So far, in this (I hope) unpretentious series on neglected American women writers, I have dawdled in the mid-twentieth century.  I have paid homage to The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975, and Elizabeth Enright's The Riddle of the Fly and Other Stories in1955. 

But I can't stay in that period forever. With regrets, I scratched out notes on Sue Kaufman's witty 1967 novel, Diary of a Mad Housewife,  because I have read this masterpiece too many times.  For my third short piece, I have chosen to write about Susan Power, a Native American novelist.  Born in Chicago in 1961, educated at Harvard and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Power is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and has written three books of fiction. And I just reread her first novel, The Grass Dancer, published in 1994.  Luckily, it is still in print.

While making the rounds of bookstores in the '90s, I was doubtless drawn to the cover illustration, a depiction of tall green and reddish grasses sweeping at an angle towards the greenish sky. And near the corner of the cover, a pair of colorful  beaded moccasins have been kicked off in the grass.

And so I bought the book and went home and avidly read it. In 1995 The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award.

    

Susan Power


And it was well-deserved.  I marvel at Power's lyricism and pitch-perfect storytelling.  Set on a reservation in North Dakota, her striking narrative goes backwards in time, tracking the interrelated lives of characters in the same community on the res. It begins in 1981, goes  back in time chapter by chapter, to 1864, and then comes back full circle.  These vibrant tales snap with wit and vigor - and the time goes fast.

Power is a master of magic realism and the spirit world. Witches cast spells and ghosts communicate with the living.

     



In the opening story, Charlene Thunder attends a powwow.  She  has a crush on the handsome boy, Harley Wind Soldier, who can't seem to get free of the tragedy of the death of his father and  brother in a car crash.  Since they died, his mother Lydia hasn't said a word.  She sings at powwows, and all the women tape her songs, but this hardly makes for a happy home.

Charlene's grandmother, Anna Thunder, a witch who has changed her name to Mercury Thunder, hates to see Charlene waste her time on Harley Wind Soldier.  Power writes,
 

Charlene's grandmother Mercury Thunder watched from her chair, shaking her large head at the girl's foolishness.

"Those Wind Soldiers are very bad news," she had warned just a week earlier.  But Charlene ignored her.

"You can't help who you love, unci."

"Yes, you can.  You love yourself, you love your family, and you don't let your feelings run around and jump into someone else's hand."  Mercury had made a fist.  "You grab on to your own life and push it around to where you want it to go."



Alas,  Charlene does not attract Harley Wind Soldier, who  is thunderstruck by the sight of Pumpkin, a vibrant red-haired young woman wearing the costume of a grass dancer.  The grass dance is for men, but she insists on competing and no man resents her win. She becomes the grass as she dances.  And then, tragically,  literally, she becomes the grass.

There are so many vivid characters, so many brilliant metaphors, such lovely prose, and I was spellbound by Power's perfect timing and mastery of time.   One can see the influence of Louise Erdrich, but Susan Power is a remarkable writer in her own right, and she has been overlooked.  If you missed The Grass Dancer in the '90s, add it to your TBR list now).  I have also read two of her other books, one published by a small press, the other by a university press, and they are even more obscure.  (That's what online shopping is for.)






Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Is It Science Fiction? Kazuo Ishiguro's "Klara and the Sun"


 

"Is it science fiction?" I asked myself as I read the Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize-longlisted novel, Klara and the Sun.

 

 I ask myself this a lot these days, as more literary writers experiment with science fiction.  A hardcore sci-fi fan friend scorns "the Atwood-Lessing bastardizations" (which I like) and recommends Ann Leckie and Philip K. Dick (whom I also like).  But I can think of three award-winning English literary writers who have in the last few years tackled a timely SF trope, the future of A.I.   


For instance, Ishiguro's stunning novel is told from the point of view of an Artificial Friend (AF). Klara is a loyal, intelligent robot who struggles to interpret the world with her electronic sensibility. In Frankissstein, longlisted for the Booker in 2019, Jeanette Winterson deftly interweaves a historical novella about Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, with the story of a transgender man in the future whose friend Dr. Victor Stein is frighteningly obsessed with artificial intelligence. 2019 also saw the publication of the Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me. (I have not yet read this.)

So is Klara and the Sun Booker-worthy? At first I wondered, but it grew on me.  This deceptively simple novel begins quietly and turns into a page-turner and then a tear-jerker (and I mean that in the best possible way).  Like an animated mannequin, Klara sits in the window of the AF store and watches the path of the sun - she runs on solar power.  She is not the newest model of AF:  customers admire her but do not buy her. Finally she bonds with a customer, a sickly girl names Josie, who thinks Klara is "cute" and persuades her reluctant mother to buy her. The mother is apprehensive about having an Artificial Friend in their house,  but Klara proves her worth by her dedicated care of Josie.  And she is willing to sacrifice everything to save Josie's health - even to the point of destroying a machine which causes air pollution.  (Artificial friend as eco-terrorist?)



Ishiguro's style is pitch-perfect but unobtrusive. It's not the wildly poetic prose we might expect of a Booker contender.  And yet it is the perfect style to reveal Klara's sentience. I will never forget Klara, and yes, I was a wreck at the end.  I don't know the other books on the longlist, but I wouldn't mind seeing Ishiguro get his second Booker win.



So dare I share this book with my sci-fi fan friend?  I'm thinking about it.  Still thinking.