Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Reading Alliance: Elizabeth Bowen and Others


I might not have read the complete novels of Elizabeth Bowen had I not formed a reading alliance with a saturnine, charming professor.  We were unlikely friends:  he was, by my standards, an elderly East coast snob, while I was a "nervous" (his unflattering epithet) midwestern blonde.  I was disabled by insomnia, and might have benefited from a Valium prescription at Student Health.  But, no, our reading friendship relaxed me and won me an hour or two of sleep.  Yet I was told he was the meanest man in the department.

"Really?  He's charming to me."

He got the idea I was some kind of savant.  What impressed him was the extent of my common reading.  I was the only student who identified a blind passage by Virginia Woolf on some kind of mischievous intelligence test he had cooked up to torment grad students.  

"How did you do that?"

"I read."

I read all the time when I wasn't socializing.  One semester I'd signed up for a class because I'd read everything on the syllabus:  it freed up time for extracurricular reading and watching Masterpiece Theater in a friend's rented room. (She was the only person with a TV.)  In grad school, too, I had a relatively "light" schedule, so I could knock off work at the classics factory at 7 p.m. I needed to read my novels, to go to six-hour foreign films, to hang out with my boyfriend...

Over the years, Dr. Saturnine and I often chatted about books while we tried to fix the Xerox machine that was held together by a single rubber band. He dubbed Anne Tyler "the most overrated American writer." (She was one of my favorites.)  I dubbed Barbara Pym "the most underrated English writer." (He hadn't read her.) We both liked Ruth Prawer Jhabvala,  Margaret Drabble, and Elizabeth Bowen.   For a man his age, he read a lot of women writers.  As I said, he was charming.

I think (I am not sure, and I never spoke of it) that Dr. Saturnine was having an affair with another professor.  She glared when she saw us chatting. Oh my God - hadn't she seen my handsome boyfriend?  She had the wrong idea.

One time I tried to chat with her.  "Have you read Elizabeth Bowen?"

She was civil.  "No, I haven't.  And, sorry, I have to go." Dropping papers hither and thither, she drifted off in her tattered hippie skirt, perhaps on her way to the faculty dining room, perhaps to class, perhaps getting turned around, since she seemed so absent-minded.  Endearingly so, really.

It is surprising how much we miss the dead.   

R.I.P., Dr. Saturnine. I don't see him as dead somehow.

And more on Elizabeth Bowen, later.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Uncanny Lit: Why We Love Wilkie Collins's "The Woman in White"


It is too hot to take autumn seriously (87°), and yet we have turned  already to Uncanny Lit:  Victorian sensation novels,  Gothic novels, and ghost stories by Sheridan Le Fanu rule the supernatural season.  I am happily reading Wilkie Collins, master of suspense and sensation. I opted for The  Woman in White (1859), which was dubbed the first sensation novel, and outsold even Uncle Tom's Cabin, the American best-seller of the 19th century.

Collins's prose is simple and effective, but the plot is more twisted than I had remembered.   Oh no, stop! I wanted to say as Collins guides us in and out of the depths of hell inhabited by theWoman in White, Anne Catherick, a Persephone-like escapee from a mental asylum. Her enemy, a baronet (we'll call him Hades), had locked her up in the asylum on false pretenses.  She knows his secret - which will not be revealed till much later.

Collins is a craftsman who narrates this rapid-paced novel from multiple points-of-view.  Each narrator's voice is distinctive; Collins rivals Dickens in character delineation. The first narrator is Walter Hartright, Teacher of Drawing. Discouraged by low-paying work in London, he has landed a four-month teaching job at Limmeridge House in Cumberland.  As he walks the road away from London, he is astounded by the apparition of a woman in white.

Collins dramatically sketches this strange scene.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road - there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped out of the heaven - stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments; her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.  

I love the anaphora and the
vivid, almost threatening phrase, "her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her."  Walter is spooked at first, but when Anne asks the way to London, he gallantly accompanies her part of the way and finds her a cab.  After the cab takes off, two men appear and ask a policeman if he had seen the woman in white, who had escaped from the asylum.  Walter is aghast, but does not betray Anne, and does not regret helping her.

At Lammeridge House, we are fascinated by Marian Holcomb, a witty woman with a magnificent figure but an ugly face.  (A footnote speculates that Marian is based on George Eliot).  Marian is, in my feminist reading, the most important character in the book, after the Woman in White herself. It is in Marian's vivid diary that we read the most intriguing accounts of the mystery.  And we wonder if Marian's diary is the dark side of Esther Summerson's cheery-even-when-struggling diary in Dickens's Bleak House. (Dickens and Collins were great friends; Bleak House was published in 1852.)  Marian's half-sister, Laura Fairlie, is fair and gentle (a bit like Ada in Bleak House?), and almost identical to the woman in white, almost her twin. Walter falls in love with the sweet but submissive Laura, but she, it turns out, is engaged to Anne Catherick's evil baronet.

A case might be argued that Anne is the central figure of this intriguing novel. She is often in the background, but her appearances are like earthquakes. Not only does she uncannily resemble Laura Fairlie, but she was attached as a child to Laura's mother, Mrs. Fairlie. For a short time Anne and her mother lived in the village, and the late Mrs. Fairlie took a fancy to Anne; it was she who told Anne she should wear white. One day, Walter and Marian find Anne cleaning Mrs. Fairlie's gravestone.  A schoolboy had mistaken the white-clad Anne for a ghost. She had come to the village to send a letter warning Laura about the baronet.  No one believes her.  Don't you love a good sensation novel?

There is an odd thing about having read a novel long ago.  I had misremembered parts of the plot.  Didn't the brilliant, homely Marian  and gorgeous Laura give shelter to the mysterious refugee, Anne Catherick, the Woman in White?  No, they did not.  That would be another novel.   

It is a delightful book- so much so that I don't mind the unlikelihood of events and the stereotypical Laura. 

The Woman in White is a classic.  More Wilkie Collins later!

Friday, September 24, 2021

A Delighful Read for Book Lovers: Allan Massie's "Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns"

 "Where have all the book columns gone?"  I asked after J.C. (James Campbell) wrote his last N.B. column for The Times Literary Supplement.  The competent M.C. has taken over the column and avails himself/herself of the same tropes, though. We Americans still have Michael Dirda at The Washington Post, thank God, but if other book columnists exist they must be behind a paywall.

And then I remembered Allan Massie, a former book columnist for The Spectator. (He is a historical novelist, a book reviewer for The Scotsman, and a journalist.)  I learned at The Scotsman that Massie's columns have been collected in a book, Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns. 

You will read this marvelous book in one sitting.  Most of the pieces are new to me, but I recalled Massie's excellent column about George Meredith, "What Price George Meredith?"  He compares Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, wondering why there are so many biographies of Hardy and so few of Meredith.  He considers Meredith the better writer by far, and believes Beauchamp's Career is "arguably the best Victorian political novel." He dislikes my favorite, The Egoist, but is a great fan of The Adventures of Harry Richmond:  "...if permitted to keep only half a dozen novels from the Victorian age, Harry Richmond would be one of my selections, which wouldn't, however, include any of Hardy's."

Massie is eminently readable and surreptitiously scholarly.  In "The Fate of the Running Man" (May 20, 2006), he explores the career of Widmerpool in Anthony Powell's 12-book masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. First, he humorously explains the vast gap between Widmerpool's fans and detractors:  Evelyn Waugh was disappointed that there were only three pages of Widmerpool in Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, while Massie's classics master said, "I don't like this chap Widmerpool." And Massie wonders if Powell knew how Widmerpool would die (ridiculously, alas) when he wrote the first novel in 1950.  The last was published in 1975.

Massie writes,

One of the problems of Dance, read as a coherent work, is that Powell started writing it years before the time in which the last two books are set. Accordingly, though Jenkins is in a sense remembering the story, he starts telling it long before it is completed. In writing a novel over a period of 25 years, Powell responded to changes in what was acceptable, being aware also that, unavoidably, he himself changed too. ... This suggests that had Powell published a novel every year rather than biennially, bringing out the last volume in 1963 rather than 1975, Widmerpool’s end would have been different, perhaps less awful. His disintegration, recorded with appalling zest in the last two books, could not have taken just the same form before the Sixties.

A brief digression on Dance:  I love it uncritically.  Other  readers compare Powell to Proust, but I am surprised: so much of it seems to be satire to me. The first time, I read it as satire and chortled at Widmerpool. On a second reading, I pitied Widmerpool, a public school misfit still mocked by those horrible grown-up schoolboys after he  surpasses them in his professional life.  The third time, I begged the question, disliking Widmerpool but feeling compassionate. And now, having read Massie, will I read it through his glasses?  My bifocals will tell.

Massie is an eclectic critic:  he writes about the literary world in a broader context.  In "The Art of the Irrelevant" (July 1, 2006), he explains the limited selling power of book reviews.

Certainly publishers remain eager to secure reviews, though not, I suspect, half as anxious as the author, for whom a review may be the only evidence that anyone has actually read his book. But what difference does it make? More than 20 years ago, when Auberon Waugh wrote a full-page weekly review in the Evening Standard, he modestly suggested to me that his recommendation might be worth at most 200 additional sales. Given that the paper must then have had more than a million readers, this is not an impressive figure; but I doubt if any other reviewer could honestly have claimed to have had even that much influence. I have reviewed new novels in The Scotsman for 30 years now, and in that time not more than a dozen readers have ever thanked me for introducing them to the work of a particular writer.

These essays are short and perfect: if you like Anne Fadiman's essays on books, you will enjoy Massie's Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Constant Reviewer: Margaret Drabble's "The Ice Age," Sandra Cisneros's "Martita, I remember You," and Julian Symons's "The Man Who Had Everything"


During my rounds of bookstores in the tropical jungle that is Indiana in the summertime, I discovered the books of Margaret Drabble, the intellectual, profoundly sympathetic English novelist. In her novel The Ice Age, published in 1977, she interweaves the characters' personal problems with a socioeconomic analysis of the recession in England in the '70s. At the center is Anthony Keating, a BBC-producer-turned-real-estate mogul, who has lost a fortune, suffered a heart attack, and lost his nerve when one of his partners was sentenced to prison. His body has rebelled:  he is not suited to high-stakes property gambles. His fiancee, Alison, a former actress, is a complementary opposite, saintly by comparison.  She left her profession to devote herself to her youngest daughter, Molly, who has multiple sclerosis and a low IQ.  Then she is called to Wallacia, a middle-eastern country, to save her sulky teenage daughter, Jane, from a prison sentence:  she has killed two men in a car accident. Fear, anxiety, heavy drinking, skulking politics, rocky parent-child relationships, IRA terrorism, the construction of  windowless high-rises, and class anxiety shape the mood and drive the narrative.  If you like light novels, try the early Drabble of the '60s, but if you prefer heavy I recommend her '70s and '80s books. Her later novels are a mix, but I have my favorites.  Later I will make more recommendations.


Sandra Cisneros, one of my favorite Latinx writers, has published a new novella, Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo.  This slim book about female friendship contains Cisneros' novella in the original English and a Spanish translation by Liliana Valenzuela.  The narrator, Corina, who works for the gas company in Chicago and is raising daughters, is not living the life she'd planned.  And when she finds an old cache of letters from her friend Martita from Chile and her Italian friend Paola, they bring back memories of their days in Paris as starving would-be artists and writers, hopeful students, and roommates. Did their dreams die?  The women may simply have metamorphosed into adults.  My only complaint?  The book is too short. 

Julian Symons's tense crime novel, The Man Whose Dreams Came True,  is diverting in an agonizing way.  Tony Jones, who prefers the sobriquet Anthony Scott-Williams, is a petty con man fired from a secretarial job for stealing petty cash. Out of the frying pan into the fire, he is lured by sexy Jenny to work as a secretary to her husband, Mr. Foster. Although Tony occasionally does some work, he spends much of his time in bed with Jenny  And then Jenny hatches the con to end all cons -  but who gets conned?  Symons is a meticulous writer and a brilliant plotter of flinty crime novels.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Can a Review Be Too Vicious?

 Long ago, in a different universe, before internet competition bankrupted book review journals, I was a book reviewer.  I  loved the free books in the mail and seeing my reviews in print.  I was an avid reader of literary fiction, or the occasional biography, and though my reviews were not always glowing, they were not hatchet jobs.  If I hated a book I returned it to the editor, who did not mind because he/she had little space for reviews, and less for hatchet jobs - unless they were very, very amusing.

Writers are so sensitive that they occasionally mistake a negative sentence for career-ruining criticism.  But there is something horrifying about a truly well-wrought vicious review.  Human beings glory in schadenfreude.  I am a tougher bird than I used to be, and try to take the higher, if not the high, road.  Nonetheless, I was spellbound by Michael Hoffman's brutal review in the TLS of Colm Toibin's The Magician, a new historical novel about Thomas Mann.      

I have complained that reviews are too "nice."  This one is not.  It is way, way over- the- top. And after the initial excitement, I felt slightly sick about it, because the first few chapters of The Magician seemed pretty good to me. I haven't finished the book. I put it back on the shelf.  Hoffman has (only temporarily, I hope) ruined it for me by reducing it to a "biopic"  by a writer with a poor vocabulary.  

Hoffman claims Toibin used no words longer than two syllables in The Master, a novel about Henry James, and three-syllable words in The Magician. Here is a passage from the review:

...  Tóibín has a dozen, or even a score, of people to push through sixty years; that makes perhaps a thousand man-years, or Mann-years, and he can’t afford to stop too many times. And so the poor words come out for them to speak. Like little soundbites, little what-might-have-been-said-by-you-or-me-in-similar-circumstances samples. Scenelets. Description intolerably bland: “In the confusion created by the war”, or “her clothes understated and expensive”.

Well, you know, it's only a book review:  it's not a critical analysis of the pandemic. 

So no more complaints about too nice. 

Has anyone read The Magician yet?  

A Bracingly Intelligent Bildungsroman: Dorothy Whipple's "Because of the Lockwoods"

 After three months of sporadically reading Gene Wolfe's surreal masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, my brain was reeling. I loved the Ulysses of science fiction, and yet I was relieved to have finished.  I returned it to the shelf and prayed to the Household Gods: "Please, O gods, find me a great middlebrow novel."

My eyes fell serendipitously on a copy of Dorothy Whipple's 1949 novel, Because of the Lockwoods. If you are not familiar with the wonderful Dorothy Whipple, that means you have not yet crossed the Whipple line (more about that later).  Whipple is one of the  best-selling authors at the small English women's reprint press, Persephone Books.

 I adored Because of the Lockwoods, a smart, pitch-perfect, absorbing bildungsroman, which reminds me slightly of W. Somerset  Maugham's Of Human Bondage.  Funny, isn't it, how the great middlebrow writers fall out of fashion?  Both Whipple and Maugham are masters of plot, characterization, and readability, and yet they are underrated.  Maugham's books, or at least some of them, have remained in print, but Whipple fell into oblivion until Persephone revived her.

You may think I'm mad to compare Whipple and Maugham, but the protagonists of these particular books share traits in common.  Each has lost a beloved parent; each suffers from insecurity and unrequited love. Thea is pursued by a charming working-class entrepreneur she doesn't love, while Philip's girlfriend in Paris commits suicide when he breaks up with her, and in England he falls in love with a sickly waitress who uses him but disdains him.  Thea is more protected, because she lives at home with her mother.  Philip, an orphan, is raised in a vicarage by an aunt and uncle who don't think much of him. He breaks loose to travel abroad before returning to England to study medicine.  They both spend time in France.

But we are here to write about Thea Hunter, the rebellious heroine of Whipple's novel.  She is haunted from childhood by her family's financial problems. Mrs. Hunter, helpless after her husband's death, turned to their neighbor, Mr. Lockwood, for help with the estate.  And Mr. Lockwood defrauds the widow of a paddock, a valuable piece of property he himself has always wanted. He pretends that Mr. Hunter never repaid a $300 loan he borrowed to buy the paddock. As a result, the Hunters are left penniless, and must leave their country house to live in poverty in a lower-class neighborhood.

Thea hates the Lockwoods.  Her blood boils on the rare occasions  they are invited to the Lockwoods' grand house.  She loathes Mrs. Lockwood's condescension toward her mother, and the meanness of the horrible Lockwood twins, Bee and Muriel.  The only decent one in the family is the youngest sister, Clare.

But Mr. Lockwood is the worst,  truly an evil fairy godfather.  He  yanks Thea's siblings, Molly and Martin, out of school at age fifteen to so they can "support their Mother." This is a nightmare, since both are banished to low-paying jobs they are ill-suited for. Molly must work as a governess - and she cannot discipline children so it makes her sick - and Martin, instead of going to medical school (like Philip in Of Human Bondage?), must work in the lowest capacity at a bank.  Thea is prepared to fight Mr. Lockwood, but he forgets about her and she stays in school.

When she hears the twins and their younger sister Clare are going to France to study, she practically explodes.  She will not let the Lockwoods get ahead of her! She contrives a way to travel to France:  she will go to the provincial school with the Lockwoods and teach English while they study French. While she is there, she writes home for her copy of Villette.  I chortled.

Thea has an absolutely innocent, non-physical love affair with a young French man, but is expelled from the school and sent back to England when Madame finds out.  And Thea's reputation follows her to England because of the Lockwoods' gossip. 

Whipple's writing is spare, yet descriptive.  Her characters are so vivid that you can see them distinctly on the page.  The most lively of the bunch is Oliver Reade, the Hunters' neighbor, a working-class entrepreneur who proves a staunch friend to the family.  And he is mad about Thea, who is in love with the Frenchman (from whom she never hears, whom she will never see again).

Now let me tell you about the Whipple line.  I sense that there is some rivalry between two great publishers of lost women's novels, Virago and Persephone.  In a fascianting essay published in The Guardian in 2008, Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago, wrote,

We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink. Dorothy Whipple was a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us. A considerable body of women novelists, who wrote like the very devil, bit the Virago dust when Alexandra, Lynn and I exchanged books and reports, on which I would scrawl a brief rejection: "Below the Whipple line."
Well, I have crossed the Whipple line, and it's all fine. I love Virago, but have also enjoyed Persephone books. If only the Persephones were not so expensive:   the used booksellers knock only a few dollars off the price.  But one way or another, I will read more Whipples.  I hope they're all as good as Because of the Lockwoods.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Sympathetic Reader: A Bubbly Golden Age Mystery and the Theatrics of Star Ratings


 I enjoy a genre wallow. I recently came across a bubbly Golden Age mystery, The Widening Stain (1942), by W. Bolingbroke Johnson, which was the pseudonym of Morris Bishop, a Romance Languages professor at Cornell University.  Johnson wrote only one mystery. Don't expect too much, but if you like "librarian fiction," this is for you.

The witty narrator, Gilda Gorham, is the chief cataloguer at a university library staffed by the usual vague scholars and impertinent students.  When we meet her, she is musing on the question of whether or not she is a spinster. Her quasi-boyfriend, the witty Professor Parry, assures her she is not, and makes up a limerick on the spot.

"A morbid young miss of Westminster
 Was in terror of being a spinster;
      But they say that you can't
      Make a spinster enciente,
And that is what really convinced her."

Professor Parry is a limerick addict, and there is much witty repartee.  But Hilda also proves herself a smart amateur detective after she discovers the dead body of a f
emme fatale French professor who fell from a rolling ladder in the library.  The police say it was an accident, but Hilda wonders.  Could it have been because she was up for tenure? Or connected with the suddenly much-in-demand Mansucript B 58? And when she discovers another corpse in a locked room containing rare manuscripts and erotica, the police admit it is suspicious.

This is a very slight, light read, hardly a classic, but one to add to your academic mystery collection.


I do not go in for star ratings. They are meaningless.  I know, I know: a 5 is "Brilliant!", and a 1 is "Hell to read!"  But without a written explanation, one person's "Brilliant!" may be another's hell.

I prefer words. In my blog posts, I enjoy using popular superlatives like "stunning" and "horrific," and adore the  juicy, much deplored "unputdownable" and "compelling." The latter two, I heard, are banned from reputable literary journals.  I love the word "unputdownable." 

But back to star ratings:  I confess, I do enjoy them at Goodreads.  When I occasionally post there, I love clicking on star ratings. It's fun! It's part of the campy experience of the website!  And most of the people who read the books I like are thoughtful, not the types who write "I hate it!"  and click on 1 star. 

Writers don't like star ratings, I hear. If I were on Twitter or some hipper social media platform, I would doubtless unearth lots about this.  I don't, so I checked  Google, and found a post by a writer unknown to me, who complains  that every 4-star review brings her overall ratings down.  She says, "I had to get 100 more reviews, with enough of them 5-stars to bring it back up to 4.5 overall."  Wow, very few books have a 5-star average.  What an unrealistic goal! And how does she get 100 5's?

Not all star ratings are innocent.  There are "star bombers" at Goodreads.  An article at Time magazine reports:  

Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.
What a world.  The pandemic, and star-rating terrorists, too.

As a sympathetic reader, I try not to judge by star ratings.  And I do not often give them, so we can all relax.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Packing Dickens: Rereading "Our Mutual Friend"


"All you have to do is show up." But I am befuddled at airports: I got frisked at O'Hare because I was holding a Kleenex when they scanned me.  Mr. Nemo was once detained because he had a battery-operated alarm clock in his suitcase. 

We might as well stay home and read: my travel plans often revolve around the question of how many books to pack anyway.  Because what if all the bookstores close?  (This sounds less ridiculous now.)  In Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs, the heroine forgets to bring a book on a plane.  My nightmare.

Books are essential to our traveling identity. In fact, I remember my travels by the books. On Amtrak to New York:  Patricia Wentworth and Galway Kinnell.  On a bus to Chicago:  Margaret Drabble.  On a plane to Texas:  Barbara Kingsolver. On another plane:  H. F. Heard's A Taste for Honey.

Nowadays I pack a Dickens, that most readable and charming of writers.  I recently enjoyed a fourth reread of his dark page-turner,  Our Mutual Friend.  Like John Irving and Desmond on Lost, I have read almost all of Dickens and deliberately saved one  to read later.  I will not tell you the title, but I like the idea of having a "new" Dickens. 

I am enthralled by Our Mutual Friend.  Murders, fraud, unscrupulous networking, blackmail - I was surprised by how grim it is. But there is also humor, gorgeous language, and vividly-etched characters.  Could any heroine be wittier or more whimsical than Bella Wilfer? Could anyone be sweeter than the Boffins, heirs of the Golden Dustman?  And then there is the bright, sharp dolls' dressmaker, who financially supports her "bad child," her alcoholic father.  This reading I had a soft spot for Eugene Wrayburn, the languid, witty slacker who falls in love with  Lizzie Hexam, the lovely daughter of a rough man who made his living trawling for corpses in the Thames. 

One day in 2011, I had an Our Mutual Friend revival. I carried it in a bike pannier.  Mr. Nemo and I were bicycling along the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a trail that extends from the Loess Hills near Omaha to the hamlet of Blanchard, Iowa (population: 50). The first six miles are uphill, and many stop at the top of the hill in Silver City and head for The Hood Bar & Grill. We are made of sterner stuff, and keep on pedaling.

 Once past Silver City, you see no one. We passed shaggy farms and scrubby woods. The crickets were chirping, or perhaps the cicadas, and the light was autumnal, with the prairie grass turning wheat-yellow.  It should have been a blissful experience, but I was longing to get back to my book.     

Do you feel your life is suspended when you're not reading a book?  When we took a break, I rushed to the gazebo and raced through the chapter in which the social-climbing Sophronia and Alfred Lammle discover that neither has money - and each had married the other for money. 

OMF used to be my favorite Dickens, and is still a favorite.  I vacillate over which is my favorite.  The only one I dislike is Martin Chuzzlewit, but I did enjoy that the first two times I read it.

What books do you read when you travel?  And do you associate travel with certain books?  Like, perhaps, OMF?


Monday, September 13, 2021

My Epic Summer Reading: Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"


The SF cover does not match Wolfe's brilliance.

This summer I set out to reread Gene Wolfe's critically-acclaimed science fantasy quartet, The Book of the New Sun (1,125 pages).  It was a rewarding experience, though, near the end, it became a bit of a struggle. In June and July I was mesmerized by The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, and The Sword of the Lictor, but only recently finished the fourth, The Citadel of the Autarch:  I got bogged down in a never-ending tale-telling contest - never my favorite literary device.

 Critics often compare The Book of the New Sun to James Joyce's Ulysses.  Wolfe, like Joyce, was a polymath and had a colossal vocabulary, but the literary comparison seems superficial. Wolfe's psychedelic prose owes more to New Wave SF writers like Samuel R. Delany (I thought of Dhalgren). And in terms of the fantasy genre,  I see the influence of George MacDonald's surreal Phantastes and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The lyricism of The Book of the New Sun makes for hypnotic reading. Set in a quasi-medieval future on the planet Urth with its  red light and dying sun, this meandering epic is narrated by Severian as he looks back on his life. He remembers everything and never forgets a detail, as he often reminds us - but that does not mean he remembers in terms of plot.  Instead, he paints one dream-like scene after another.

Raised and trained from childhood by the Guild of Torturers to master techniques of torture, Severian understands the psychology of prisoners, most of whom are confident they are there by mistake and will soon be freed. In the first volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, the Guild bans Severian for saving a prisoner, the beautiful Chatelaine Thecla.  He slips her a knife with which to commit suicide, rather than suffer the endless tortures prescribed by the Autarch. 

And so Severian sets out into the world alone, wearing his blacker-than-black fulgin cloak and carrying his sword, Terminus Est. His adventures unfold in a series of surreal scenes. At the Botanic Garden, he unwittingly saves Dorcas, a dead woman in a lake, while he is plucking a deadly enormous flower with which he must fight a duel. Somehow or other, he has brought her back to life (they form a theory about it later). This is the reverse of his saving Thecla by death, and Dorcas is a wiser, kinder friend/lover than Thecla - though Thecla becomes literally a part of Severian when he is forced to partake in the imbibing of a drug made from Thecla's brain, which passes on all her memories to the partakers.

I am awed by Wolfe's imagination and the beauty of his prose.  Of the
books I read over the summer, this is the one I will remember best and yet forget the most of.  It is a paradox - but it is why I will reread it again someday.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Book Jackets on or off? Kingsley Amis's Librarian and Other Snobs

 Book jackets on or off?

In one of the many party scenes in Kingsley Amis's second novel, That Certain Feeling (1955),  John, a snobbish working-class librarian, satirically inspects the decor of his hostess's living room. He sees, "right under my nose, the latest Graham Greene and Angela Thirkell lying, still in their jackets, on a copy of Vogue."  Keeping the book jackets on is apparently Edie's way of showing off. What I want to know is, Which Angela Thirkell is it?

Without Kingsley Amis's cynicism and today's exchanges on social media, I would not know that keeping book jackets on or off signifies high or low culture. And which is it anyway?  Periodically, a journalist, blogger, or online pundit zealously pontificates  on this subject. Dan Weaver, owner of The Book Hound in Amsterdam, New York, explains at that used books are worthless to booksellers without the book jacket, unless the book is very  rare.  

Weaver adds, 

A dust jacket serves several important functions, but it is more than just functional. It is an integral part of the book. A book without its dust jacket is incomplete. Yes, you can still read it and enjoy it, but you do not hold in your hand the final result of the artistic process that culminated in the book.

 I am personally a fan of book jackets; I love the vibrant colors and designs. I also enjoy watching trends in book covers.  The title with no art whatsoever on the cover seems to be fashionable again (Lisa Taddeo's Three Women, Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror).  I seldom remove a book jacket unless I am reading a  Library of America volume. These well-made books have such high-quality paper that they are a pleasure to handle. I put the cover back when I'm done.

Of course there are many naysayers who feel inconvenienced by the gaudy covers. They complain that book jackets have no function. They find the cover art tacky and dislike the feeling of the slippery paper.  The first thing they do is rip off the jacket and throw it away.  Chris Higgins at Mental Floss writes,"practically speaking, I can't stand them -- too easy to tear, lose, or crumple!"


The Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Jhumpa Lahiri, has a more philosophical bent.  In her gracefully-written book, The Clothing of Books, she says that book jackets are distracting.  The daughter of a librarian, she grew up reading "naked books";  the  library books did not have  jackets, because they were difficult to keep intact.   And Lahiri loved encountering books without extraneous information about the author.   

Lahiri writes,

I have read hundreds of books, almost all the literature of my schooling, without a summary blurb on the flap, without an author photograph. They had an anonymous quality, secretive. They gave nothing away in advance. To understand them, you had to read them. The authors I loved at the time were embodied only by their words. The naked cover doesn’t interfere. My first reading happened outside of time, ignorant of the market, of current events. The part of me that regards book jackets with suspicion seeks to rediscover that experience. When I purchase a book today, I acquire a range of other things: a picture of the author, biographical information, reviews. All of this complicates matters. It causes confusion. It distracts me. I hate reading the comments on the cover; it is to them that we owe one of the most repugnant words in the English language: blurb. Personally, I think it deplorable to place the words and opinions of others on the book jacket. I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me.

The Clothing of Books makes me nostalgic for my own experience at university libraries. The university libraries still shelve " naked books," and perhaps that accounts for a quieter, more focused experience. At home, my  book jackets do seem to scream at times,  "Read me!"  "No, read me!" So many colors and designs competing for my attention.  

Yet I cannot imagine throwing out the  book jackets. For me, it is a key part of the experience of choosing the book.  I hate to admit this, but I always begin with the author's bio, and I even like the blurbs.  Blurbs may not tell the whole truth, but they make for fascinating reading.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

A Retelling of "Ethan Frome": Ali Benjamin's "The Smash-Up"


I came upon Ali Benjamin's light novel, The Smash-Up, in a tiny bookstore in a small town - it was the only day trip we managed this summer.  The cover was bright, but it was not the cover that hooked me:  it was the jacket copy. Who can resist a modern retelling of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome?  Not I. 

This clever, witty novel is gently satiric.  Benjamin constructs a plot centered on the splintering of a marriage over feminist politics and the MeToo movement.  Like Wharton's Ethan Frome, it begins with a frame story, but the main story unfolds from the point-of-view of Ethan, a sweet, likable freelancer who got rich as an advertising entrepreneur and then sold his share of the firm to his business partner, the aptly-named Randy.  Ethan and his wife, Zo, a documentary maker, have moved from New York to the tiny village of Starkfield, where their daughter, who has ADHD, attends the expensive, vaguely hippie-ish Rainbow Seed School.  Life in Starkfield has proved surprisingly expensive.

Now Ethan's fortune is dwindling - Randy has not been sending him checks - and his marriage is crumbling, partly because of Zo's alienation, but mostly because of Ethan's crush on Maddy, their twentysomething blue-haired au pair.

Although the crush is annoying, it is impossible not to empathize with Ethan, because Zo, like Zeena in Ethan Frome, is a bitch. And Zo doesn't care that she is a bitch - since Trump was elected in 2016, this seems to her to be the only viable position.  Her feminist support group, All Them Witches, meets in the living room, which annoys Ethan.  On the morning of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, which the group plans to watch together, one of the witches pops in early with a cassrole and instructs Ethan when to pop it in the oven. 

 Zo and the witches are cardboard characters until the final chapter, but Benjamin's take on  Ethan's confusion and ambivalence is genuinely funny. When Ethan's former partner Randy calls from L.A. to say he's in trouble, Ethan thinks he's exaggerating.

"E! " Randy's voice in Ethan's ear is loud, insistent. "They're coming for me."

Ethan sighs.  There are   a few things he's come to expect from Randy's calls.  First and foremost is theatrics, some kind of urgent, pulsing drama....

"Who's coming for you now, Randy?"...

"The women.  They're coming for me."  There's something about Randy's voice.  A strain, just a little too high in pitch.  Ah, so this is the other version of his friend - the ranting, hysterical Randy. "They're after me, E. Oh God, I'm freaking out here."


 Benjamin is more subtle than you would think in her depiction of the issues, though the ending is simplistic.  But keep your eyes on the prize:  both Ethan and Zo have ethical dilemmas, and Ethan never makes a decision - he is weaker than Zo.  Perfect beach reading, until summer formally ends - and you'll keep wondering about the politics.


Monday, September 6, 2021

A Post-9/11 Dystopian Classic: Carolyn See's "There Will Never Be Another You"


Carolyn See (1934-2016)

If you are familiar with Carolyn See's novels, you probably know her dystopian cult classic, Golden Days.  "This is the way the Dark Ages looked.  It was hot, and it stank," the narrator informs us.  See's critically-acclaimed 1987 novel is a hybrid of a book, part realistic novel set in the '80s boom in L.A., part dystopian tale of nuclear holocaust. And yet there are survivors. A few years after the bombs, the irrepressible narrator, Edith, and  her hairless, toothless, but these days not  not-quite-so-sick family, hobble to the beach and rediscover joy.

 See's 2006 novel, There Will Never Be Another You, is even more  relevant as the news cycle commences the commemoration of the anniversary of 9/11.  This short, spare, moving novel begins on 9/11 and continues into a future much like ours,  characterized by the spread of lethal viruses.


The two main characters, Edith, a widow, and her son Phil, a dermatologist, are in mourning.  Edith's husband died the night of Sept. 10,  and, she is racked with grief. When Phil calls the next morning to urge her to turn on the TV, because history is being made, she mechanically obeys.   But her reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center is  the reverse of sanctimonious: it is shocking and funny.

I admit, for a minute, I was impressed.  That was the word.  Then I thought, Fuck that!  The only human being in the world who ever loved me - except for my goofy son, maybe - died last night.  Died in my arms.  Breathed his last.  Excuse me, God, but you're going to have to do better than that if you want to impress me!  Damn fucking easterners.  
See deftly reveals the extent of the imbalance between the narrative of personal loss and  the government's exploitation of public tragedy.  Edith and Phil are dismayed when 9/11 becomes the pretext for two wars.  And then there are Homeland Security's color-coded terrorism threat charts, incidents of terrorism, and the new viruses. A Homeland Security-type organization selects Phil and 37 other doctors to be "soldiers" in a war against viruses like SARS spreading across the U.S.  ("We are not soldiers.")  Phil sees some terrible things, even a case of Bubonic plague, but everything must be kept secret.  Finally, when a hospital "lockdown" is instigated, he tells everyone in the lobby that it is only a drill but to leave at once since they don't want to get mixed up with it.  He gets them out, disobeys all the top-secret orders, and leaves.

So how do you escape the nightmare?  The characters must stay or cut their losses.  Phil, who is separated from his wife and horrible children,  takes a radical approach to save his "monstrous" son from a bleak future. Family comes first, but you have to decide who your family really is. 

And yet, even in the worst of days there is hope.  Life goes on, somewhere or other.  Carolyn See seems to have been the most optimistic of pessimistic American writers.  She believes in the resilience of the human spirit. And isn't that half the battle?

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Less Recklessly Yours: In Which I Recommend a Post-Travel Song

We had a brief window of opportunity this summer for safe-ish travel.  Pompeii... Paris...  Provence... Palm Springs...  There were some deals, but they involved long flights with multiple stops and middle seats in the back by the restrooms. 

We regret not having gone further afield, but it didn't seem the right time. We came down with something.  Perhaps you had it, too. As we settle in for a cozy autumn, Fleetwood Mac's "Homeward Bound" is a source of endless comfort. 

Less recklessly yours,

K@ Thornfield Hall Redux 

Here are the lyrics.

"Homeward Bound," by Christine McVie

I want to sit at home in my rockin' chair
I don't want to travel the world
As far as I'm concerned I've had my share
But time's more precious than gold
I don't wanna see another airplane seat
Or another hotel room
The home life to me seems really neat
I just wanna unpack for good

Buy me a ticket homeward bound (homeward bound)
Buy me a ticket homeward bound (oh homeward bound

Well it all seems the same when you've done it before
There's no difference in the style
There's no end insight or my own front door
I'll be a stay at home for awhile
So I'll have another drink and a cigarette
Just to console myself some how
It's not too bad if you can forget
I've just got to find a way somehow

Buy me a ticket homeward bound (homeward bound)
Buy me a ticket homeward bound (oh homeward bound

Buy me a ticket homeward bound (homeward bound)


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Too Much Bookish Conversation: A Rant

 O tempora!  O mores! 

Is there too much bookish conversation?  

Internet book sites are not the Algonquin Round Table, but I cannot keep up:  there are book reviews, online book groups, IndieNext picks, Bookstagram (I think I canceled that), author interviews, Facebook groups, newspaper comments, and entrancing newsletters from publishers (perhaps those are the best).  And so I have 150 books on my TBR, meaning I spend too much time online!

When did we become the stars of sad bookish biopics?  At old-fashioned services like CompuServe and AOL, small book groups flourished and were more focused - though groups splintered, as always happens. We did not read as many books, though we got through 50 a year.  When we finally got Wifi, the internet seemed vast and exciting, but there was also the loss of privacy on Facebook, the spread of stupidity on Twitter. 


There are many intelligent reviewers at Goodreads.  They are the scourge of authors, because they are honest and say what few would dare, but some are excellent writers, in the class of professional reviewers.  Yet bookish conversations online are generally a bumpy ride. Sometimes we are startled by insights, other times we note the metamorphosis of book love into meaningless book stats and "reading slumps."

Instead of savoring books, we rush to post tiny thoughts on Twitter and social media.  People posture about knowledge of an author's canon on the basis of a single book, usually the author's shortest.  (People often dissemble about books, period.)  Perhaps my disillusionment is a symptom of pandemic stress.  During our Covid year and a half, the internet seems yet another symptom of the crisis, fueled by our boredom. The isolation wrought by the pandemic has replaced Emersonian solitude. Perhaps I should delete my TBR list, gleaned from a glut of book reviews.

Like me, you are thankful for the vaccine that allowed us this summer of relative freedom.  It was dizzyingly exciting to meet with my small in-person book group. The human race may be done for - can anyone convince the anti-vaxxers to get over themselves? - but at least we've learned how much we hate Zoom.

Let me end with a brilliant, shocking, probably offensive quotation from Carolyn See's 2006 novel, There Will Never Be Another You.  Set in a post 9/11  L.A., characters try to lead normal lives in the face of personal tragedy, corrupt politics, terrorism, and the spread of lethal viruses like SARS.  At one point, Homeland Security (or perhaps a similar group) drafts and trains several unwilling doctors, including one of the main characters, Phil, to treat and contain new deadly viruses, which must be kept secret from the public. At one point Phil sees a case of bubonic plague.

Edith,  Phil's mother, a lonely widow, rages against the machine of politics.  Her husband died the night before 9/11, and she is furious about the drama of the news coverage of 9/11 as an excuse for wars.

Here is Edith's daring women's manifesto, which would seem equally appropriate in a tragedy by Euripides or a comedy by Aristophanes.

You look at the walls and think about it.  And you turn on the television and the news is not only awful but boring, so that you want to say to those idiots, Go ahead, if you want to so much!  Bomb everyone you can find into smithereens, women and children first and put the rest in jail, and I'm talking every last one of us, so then at least we won't have to listen to your lies and  watch your dreadful smirking faces! 

I recommend this brilliant book - a witty, timely, realistic novel, with a few dystopian elements and apparent prescience of the future.  

This is how we live now.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Six Delectable Paperback Designs

 Paperback fans and skeptics alike should enjoy pix of these six delectable paperbacks.  I will convert ye paperback naysayers.

Monica Dickens's charming novel, The Winds of Heaven, is the story of an impecunious widow who is shuttled from one daughter's house to another and to a friend's hotel in winter - until she cannot stand it and rebels. My copy is an old Penguin; it is also published by Persephone. Anna Kazan's surreal Julia and the Bazooka, her best book of short stories, is published by Norton.  I love the cover!  Published posthumously, these stories were edited by her friend Rhys Davies, who seems to have been her perfect editor.

The English-born Australian writer Elizabeth Jolley's comic Miss Peabody's Inheritance is published by Persea Books.  The brilliant Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's The Nature of Passion, the story of an intergenerational clash in a prosperous Indian family, is published as A Fireside book, by Simon and Schuster.  (I blogged about it here.) The cover illustration is by the author's husband, Cryil Jhabvala.
Stanley Middleton's Booker Prize-winning Holiday is published by Windmill Books.  Margaret Drabble's charming comedy, A Summer Bird-Cage, was published in paperback by Popular Library, with a cover photo of Margaret Drabble by Jill Krementz.  This was Drabble's debut novel.

These are photos of my books, instead of the images I post from the internet.  As you can see, my paperbacks are in excellent shape - all except the Margaret Drabble, a mass market paperback that has not held up well

 Do you have any favorite paperback book covers?  

Here is a paperback cover I covet: