Thursday, March 31, 2022

A Neglected Classic: W. Somerset Maugham's "Cakes and Ale"


What a pity the novelist W. Somerset Maugham is forgotten in the twenty-first century.  His brilliant, readable books are in print, but no one calls for a Maugham revival.  I love his well-plotted short stories and incisive short novels, among them  The Moon and Sixpence, The Painted Veil, The Razor's Edge, and Ashendon.

My favorite is Cakes and Ale,  a roman à clef about the business of writing literary biographies.  It begins when the crusty narrator, Willie Ashendon (Maugham), a middlebrow novelist, receives an  urgent phone message from his rival, Roy Kear.  Ashendon dislikes Roy and isn't eager to speak to him.   

And indeed Roy wants to pick Ashendon's brain.  The character Roy is based on Hugh Walpole, another once popular English writer whose books I have enjoyed. In Cakes and Ale, Roy is an opportunist who woos reviewers, editors, writers - and socializes with them only as long as they are useful.  

Ashendon observes,

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters.  His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature.  I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent.  This, like the wise man's daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon.

 It turns out Roy is writing a biography of the late Edward Driffield, a famous Victorian writer based loosely on Thomas Hardy.   And since Ashendon as a boy knew Ted and his first wife, Rosie, Roy wants him to share his reminiscences.

Roy and Ashendon have different ideas about biography.  Roy intends to edit the facts to make Driffield a more conventional figure.   And both Roy and the widow, Amy Driffield, are intent on minimizing the importance of the first marriage.  They believe that Rosie, a former barmaid, was a lower-class "slut."  And indeed she did sleep with everybody - but she was kind, charming, and very sexy.  Ashendon recognizes the double standard: men can sleep around, but Roy calls Rosie a "nymphomaniac." 

And so Ashendon rebels against the constraints and writes a charming history of his friendship with Ted and Rosie, first when he was a boy - Ted teaches him to ride a bicycle in their hometown - and later in London when Ashendon was a medical student.

Cakes and Ale is a classic, and Maugham deserves a revival.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Heyer Question & 20th-Century Gothics: What Women Want to Read

 The other day I saw a copy of Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub at a Little Free Library. I greeted it like an old friend:  "Oh, it's Devil's Cub!"  

I am not a Heyer fan, so I don't know why I was so excited.

"Aren't you going to take Devil's Cub home?"

"Oh, no, somebody else will want it." 

 Some of the poshest, most intellectual writers, bloggers, and vloggers gush about Heyer's bright, witty Regency romances.  I feign more enthusiasm than I feel:  somehow it is not the right genre for me.

 I do, however, recommend The Transformation of Phillip Jettan, which is laugh-out-loud funny and blessedly short, unlike so much of Heyer.  The Transformation of Phillip Jettan is published in the Modern Library Torchbearers series. 

There was much excitement last year about a new Folio Society edition of Heyer's Venetia.  Many vloggers held up this beautiful book in front of the camera, and I am delighted to say that I broke free of the trance and realized my old paperback was good enough.


Heyer was such a prolific writer that a fan's bedtime reading would be unambiguous:  there would be The Grand Sophy, then Frederica, then Faro's Child, etc., on forever.


I prefer the Gothic novels of the 1960s and '70s to Regency romance. (These are now billed as romantic suspense, and does anyone besides me read them?)  I love Mary Stewart's Gothic novels,  This Rough Magic, The Moon-Spinners, and Airs Above the Ground, with their Shakespeare-quoting heroines on vacation in Corfu, Greece, and Austria.  And Goodreads lists hundreds of Gothic writers, some well-known, like Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney, whose books are still in print, but the majority are out-of-print and unknown to me.  


I recognized the name Anne Maybury, and even though her writing is sometimes a bit awkward, I love the mood she creates, and wish her books were in print.  Her 1975 novel, The Jeweled Daughter, set in Hong Kong, centers on the theft of Chinese antique jewelry from Red China. What I love about Gothics is their combination of mystery, travel writing, and, in this case, information about rare jewelry and auctions.  The narrator, Sarah Brent, a gemologist and a jewelry designer, evaluates a beautiful ancient Chinese jade belt for her employer, Theodora Paradine, a wealthy businesswoman and jewel collector.  Only after the purchase does Sarah realize this rare piece must have been stolen from an an archaeological site in Red China. 

Sarah follows the ethical path of investigating the origin of the jade belt, and in the process reconnects with her husband, Marius, a doctor from whom she has been separated for two years, and who is studying eastern medicine in Hong Kong - and spending a lot of time with Theodora.  This quiet book might seem static to some - there is only one genuinely suspenseful scene - but Maybury can be almost poetic, and her portrait of Sarah as a sympathetic '70s career woman is realistic and fascinating.  

Monday, March 28, 2022

Hope in Space: Ray Bradbury's Homesick Colonists


As a Second Wave feminist of the 20th century, I am dispirited by what I now perceive as the failure of idealism. We were born in an idealistic, if chaotic, era: we marched for the anti-war movement, the Women's movement, the environmental movement, the civil rights movement,the abortion rights movement, and the gay rights movement. On one occasion a university building was occupied.


Mind you, I was not a radical. Like many women, I wanted a decent job with equal pay for equal work, and, as it said on the NARAL postcards, to Keep Abortion Safe and Legal.  To my knowledge, we never achieved equal pay for equal work- I did not- and in the last few years the erosion of abortion rights has happened dismayingly quickly in Republican states.


The moon walk, 1969



I try to dream bigger these days.

I am drawn to the collective dream of space exploration - a symbol of the expanding universe, of inner and outer space. And I wistfully remember the first moon landing and the moon walk on July 20, 1969.

My mother was exasperated by the entire space program, and suggested that the money would be better used to help the poor on Earth. This remark was unanswerable. Later, I realized that that THERE WOULD BE PLENTY OF MONEY FOR ALL if we yanked dollars away from the military-industrial complex, which must have enough weapons anyway, and if not they could walk into any gun store and buy enough assault weapons to outfit an army. (I hasten to add that guns should be illegal in this violent country, and their availability is a disgrace.)

My mother's concerns about NASA accounted for the fact that we didn't watch the moon landing "live."  Naturally, I saw the footage later on the news.  And in 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I read a fascinating book about it, Charles Fishman's One Giant Leap. Did you know the moon has a smell? After walking on the moon, the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and and Buzz Aldrin, noticed the dust they had tracked in smelled “like wet ashes,” or like “a firecracker” that had gone off.

Folio Society edition


Science fiction writers have long written about space travel and the problems of colonization.  The award-winning Ray Bradbury, best known for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, often describes colonists' homesickness for Earth. In "The Luggage Store," one of the linked stories in The Martian Chronicles, the radio newscaster announces that there will be a war on Earth.  The owner of a luggage store on Mars doesn't believe it, until Father Peregrine explains that he feels this way because he isn't there and is too far away to see it or hear the explosions.  And so the store owner dusts off his stock because he anticipates a rush.  Father Peregrine asks if he thinks everyone will return to earth.

"It's a funny thing, Father, but yes, I think we'll all go back.  I know, we came here to get away from things - politics, the atom bomb, war, pressure groups, prejudice, laws - I know.  But it's still home there.  You wait and see.  When the first bomb drops on America the people up here'll start thinking.  They haven't been here long enough.  If they'd been here forty years, it'd be different, but they got relatives down there, and their hometowns.  Me, I can't believe in Earth any more, I can't imagine it much.  But I'm old.  I don't count.  I think I'll stay here."

In "The Last Night of the World" in The Stories of Ray Bradbury (Everyman's Library), all the adults on Earth have the same dream that the world will end the next  night. There is no panic, no screaming in the streets. Men at the office discuss the dream; the women discuss it with their neighbors over fences or coffee. A married couple decides to spend their last night following their usual routine. They wash the dishes, put the girls to bed, read the papers, listen to the radio, and then go to bed themselves.  The wife wonders why the world is ending at his particular moment. Her husband says it is because the conditions are so terrible all over the world that it cannot go on. 

"There are bombers on their schedules both ways across the ocean tonight that will never see land."

"That's part of the reason why."

Bradbury's stories are timely because of the state of emergency on Earth (climate change, the pandemic, and wars). We hope that politicians and industrialists will make a pact, that electric cars will replace gas-fueled cars, and that power companies will go green to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But this would be a good time to go to Mars, if NASA could get us there.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Intrigues and Conspiracies: Le Fanu's "The Wyvern Mystery"


I had high hopes of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's The Wyvern Mystery because I loved The Rose and the Key
.   The Wyvern Mystery  disappoints:  it is readable but messy.  Yet I was fascinated by the Gothic tropes and an allusion to Bertha, the mad wife in the attic in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  In Le Fanu's novel, Bertha is the mad, homicidal ex-mistress of Charles.  In addition to sharing Bronte's mad wife's unattractive personality, Le Fanu's Bertha is old and blind.

The book lacks a real protagonist.  The most memorable character is Mildred Tarnley, the gloomy, elderly housekeeper who has always lived at the Grange.  But the action revolves around gentle Alice Maybell, who was adopted as a baby by Old Squire Fairfield after he hounded her widowed father, a timid vicar, to death over real estate.  And  Alice, who has grown up to be a pretty woman, unwittingly attracts the attentions of "the  gaunt old squire" in his seventies.  He has descended into dementia and is determined to marry her.

 Le Fanu's wordy dialogue is not even faintly realistic, yet it is dynamic. In a horrific scene, "the gaunt old Squire"  pesters Alice to accept his proposal of marriage.  Certainly this is incestuous, as well as mad, and Alice is appalled.

The old Squire speaks in dialect, ponderous with "ye"s.

"Well, you're tongue-toed, ye little fool - shame-faced, and all that...  But you shall answer - ye must; you do -  you like old Wyvern, the old squire.... and I like ye well, chick-a-biddy, chick-a-biddy - ye'll be my little queen, and I'll keep ye brave satins and ribbons, and laces and lawns; and I'll 'gi'e ye the jewelry - do ye hear?..."

 Alice and her lover, Charles, the squire's oldest son, elope to live in poverty at the Grange, a run-down, reputedly haunted house owned by the Fairfields.  The housekeeper Mildred informs the new mistress of the dark history of the house and its ghosts.  At first she seems to dislike Alice, but that is because of her long history with the family and the house.

There are mysterious doings at the Grange. Alice is not allowed to leave, even to shop in the nearby village, because Charles is afraid of debtors, or so he says.  And his smarter younger brother, Harry, is contemplating a double-cross in his dealings with a character he calls "the Old Soldier," who it seems is blackmailing Charles.

As I have indicated, the traditionally minor characters upstage the Fairfields.   Though Mildred Tarnley bends the rules, she is torn between the family and its usurpers.

The Wyvern Mystery is a very fast read,  but it not for everybody.  If you like Gothic novels, however,  add it to the list.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The Way It Crumbles: The Charm of Old Books


 That's the way the cookie crumbles, or should I say the book? When the cover fell off my 19th-century edition of the Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary, which I'd purchased cheaply at a used bookstore long ago, I was philosophical about it.  Nothing lasts forever, I chirped.

But I am less chirpy now that some of my paperback classics are crumbling. I knew that paper didn't last forever, but that didn't apply to my books. 

Here is how it happens.  The pages turn yellow and acidic.  Sometimes the covers fall off. My husband recently read a crumbling old Penguin of Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, though I urged him to read my newer Oxford.  No, he prefers the compact old Penguins. And indeed I do not know why Penguins and Oxfords are now so large.   He did not enjoy North and South.  I wonder: Did the foxed pages influence him? 

The foxed pages of my 1954 Penguin of Zola's Germinal, translated by Leonard Tancock, actually hurt my hands. I am allergic to acidic old paper.  But if I replace it with a new Penguin, I also get a new translation, and I am nostalgic for my original reading experience.  Perhaps that is why my husband is a faithful reader of old Penguins.


My Avon paperback copy of  Elizabeth Bowen's Eva Trout is fragile, but the error on the first page - lines published out of order - gave me an excuse to quit before the book did.

What do you think of this puzzle of disordered lines?

"This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon," had pulled up the car on a grass track running along the Eva Trout said, suddenly, pointing across the water.  She edge of a small lake.
Of course they should be arranged as follows.

"This is where we were to have spent the honeymoon," Eva Trout said, suddenly, pointing across the water.  She had pulled up the car on a grass track running along the edge of a small lake.
Many wish to go back in time so they can be young.   I want to go back in time so my books will be young again! 

Monday, March 21, 2022

A Defunct indie Bookstore, The International Booker Prize, & Violaine Huisman's longlisted "The Book of Mother"


For years we longed to visit The Hungry Mind in St. Paul, Minnesota, a bookstore that published a quarterly book review of the same name.  By the time we traveled to Minnesota in the early 2000s, the store was struggling and had sold its name to an online university.  The new name of the store, The Ruminator, was less charming - but the store was there.

This famous bookstore was founded in 1970, and writers from all over the U.S. gave readings there. What fascinated us near the end of the store's life was its small but excellent selection of books.  The Booker Prize shortlist had been announced, and I had ripped out the article from the paper.  I found all, or most of, the shortlisted titles at The Ruminator/Hungry Mind.   "Why don't we live in Minnesota?" I asked. A few years later, The Ruminator shut its doors, as did so many indies of that decade.

Do tell me about your own favorite iconic bookstores of yore. 

 The longlist for The International Booker Prize has been announced, and I am taking  an interest.  

The International Booker Prize Longlist

Translation is a  slippery slope, a bit like skiing in scuba gear. Only a few translators make the Olympian team. 

For instance, one wonders if Soviet literature can possibly be as flat and tedious as it is rendered in translation.  (Nabokov hated Soviet lit, too.)   I've had better luck with the Columbia University Russian Library series than with translations published by other small presses:  perhaps a better choice of books, probably a better "stable" of translators. 

 And then there are the books I underestimated until I found breathtaking translations. I did not love Madame Bovary until I read Lydia Davis's superb translation:   Davis, a fiction writer, essayist, and translator, is herself a winner of The International Booker Prize.  I fell in love with Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago when I discovered the lyrical translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.


But enough controversy! The 2022 International
Booker Prize longlist has introduced me to a modern French classic, The Book of Mother, a first novel by Violaine Huisman, translated by Leslie Camhi.  This beautifully-translated novel is reminiscent of the early fiction of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante.   Huisman's prose is spare, exquisite, and intense, every sentence is perfectly crafted, and I keep reading and rereading my favorite passages.  The novel opens: "On the day the Berlin Wall came down I was ten..."  

From the perspective of the narrator, Violaine, the personal is as dramatic as history.  Walls fall down, the Twin Towers are destroyed, but at home there is powerful Maman, who is creative and charismatic one minute, desperate and screaming the next.  Violaine and her sister play mother to Maman, who is insecure, a chain smoker, and a crazy driver.  They soothe her and tell her how much they love her, that they'll never leave her.

The Book of Mother gradually reveals the story of Maman/Catherine.  Because she lies so much, and believes her own lies, her biography is dubious.  Violaine tries to understand by looking at her mother from different points-of-view.   In the first part, we see Maman through the eyes of Violaine and her sister.  Maman, a talented dancer who sporadically runs a ballet school, encourages her daughters to be independent and get a good education. But she marries three times, and  the second marriage to the girls' father, a tumultuous open marriage, is at times violent.  But it is not until Maman is hospitalized for manic-depressive illness that the girls are traumatized by her absence.

Maman is different when she comes home. The girls don't understand what manic-depressive illness is.

Once home, Maman would frequently ask us to forgive her for having yet again almost set fire to the kitchen by allowing the strange stew that was supposed to be our dinner burn.  It was the fault of those damned anti-psychotics, she said, she couldn't get over them, they'd leached her brain, it was all scrambled inside, there was too much static on the line.

In the second part, the novel continues in the form of Catherine's third-person biography, in which Catherine is volatile and unreliable.  We see Violaine's struggle to discover who Maman  really is, as she explored her point-of-view.  Catherine climbs the social ladder weth her gift of beauty, her husband's money, and knowledge of authors like Stephen Zweig, her favorite. 

And in the third part, the adult sisters struggle to find closure with their mother's shocking death.  The rituals Maman demanded were eccentric, but they do help the sisters accept what happened.

A fascinating, complicated novel I cannot recommend too highly.

Friday, March 18, 2022

From Dial-up to Wifi: The Age of Online Book Shopping


 In the 1990s, in the age of dial-up, I was oblivious of online shopping.  My laptop made a whirring noise as a slow, twirling ball on the screen indicated the struggle of the machine to connect and took me to my lunchtime book club chat.  In the middle of a heated, typed discussion of a book by Margaret Drabble, the computer booted me off. It was part of the experience.  I did not expect much.

 And then we got WiFi and it was very fast.  Suddenly there were online bookstores. I discovered Amazon, the Barnes and Noble website, Alibris, Abebooks, eBay, Thriftbooks, Powell's, etc.  (Do tell me your favorites!)

"YOU SHOULD ONLY BUY AT INDIES," a puritanical friend announced.

I'm not a monster:  I would if I could.  But the independent bookstore here is the size of a lady's handkerchief in a Regency romance.  And even Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, has only one indie bookstore left, the great Prairie Lights.  And The Haunted Bookshop, Iowa City's last used bookstore, has been open by appointment only since the pandemic started: one pays $25 an hour to browse.

"IT'S BASICALLY CLOSED," my severe friend said.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't? 

Online bookstores are a godsend for me.  I mean, I live in the wilds, yes? With the click of a key, I can find almost any out-of-print book at a reasonable price.  I hope used bookstores make some money selling online, though perhaps not much.

About 10 years ago, a naive used bookstore owner complained to me that  his business had been ruined by print-on-demand.  This innocent had not heard of the Kindle or the Nook: I didn't want to spoil his day with unwanted information. 

Prices of used books seem to be lower in physical bookstores these days but have soared online since the beginning of the pandemic.  I watch the prices to see if they go down  (though so far they only go up), because it is  satisfying to know a book is available if I find a reasonable price.

In fact, the only book I've never been able to find online- and I looked for it for years - was Eleanor Cameron's 1950 adult novel, The Unheard Music.  As a child, I loved her Julia Redfern series, and hoped The Unheard Music would be a treasure. Finally I found a copy in a storage building at a university library.  It is a pretty good book, with echoes of Carson McCullers.  I do wish she'd written more for adults.


One thing I've noticed:   bookstore algorithms do not work very well.  At Goodreads, which is a kind of portal to bookshops,  the recommendations are strangely off.   After reviewing a Japanese novel, a Georgette Heyer book was recommended on my home page.  Everyone loves Georgette Heyer, but clearly Goodreads had gone crazy.

In the early 2000s, Amazon may have had the smartest algorithm in the world: in fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if real people were recommending:  I learned about small-press books like Emily Carter's Glory Goes and Gets Some (Coffee House Press) and Kathleen Hill's Still Waters in Niger (TriQuarterly). Both fabulous books I would never have learned about otherwise.

At the moment, Barnes and Noble has a smart, very attractive website, where you can learn very quickly about the latest books.  And the stores too have improved since James Daunt, the CEO, took over.  I'm sure Daunt doesn't give a damn about the store here, but kudos anyway because there's a trickle-down in the flyover states.  The backlist is much improved, and the store now sells Penguins.  It used to sell only the name-brand Barnes & Noble classics.

And so I feel there is a wealth of choice in online bookstores.   
You may have to go to a big city to find excellent indie bookstores, but meanwhile we're chuffed to have online stores.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

One of Kingsley Amis's Best: "The Folks That Live on the Hill"


 Kingsley Amis's first novel, Lucky Jim, published in 1954, is one of my favorite books.  In this brilliant academic satire, Jim Dixon, who teaches medieval history at a provincial university,  can't stop his self-destructive blundering, because he does not enjoy academia at all.

And now I have a new favorite book by Kingsley Amis, The Folks That Live on a Hill, published in 1990. I had never heard of this truly enjoyable, compelling novel:  why not?  According to Harry Hitchings, the author of the introduction to the 2012 Penguin edition, this is a kinder, more forgiving novel than Amis's savage 1980s satires.  (Having read Ending Up, which I simultaneously adore and shudder at, I know what he means.)  Set in North London, in Shepherd's Hill, a bohemian area based on Primrose Hill, where Amis lived, The Folks That Live on the Hill follows the unexpected antics of colorful characters and describes in detail the neighborhood shops and bars frequented in real life by Amis.  Though some of the characters are off-putting, like Popsy, a violent lesbian who beats up her lover, most are sympathetic.

The main character is Harry Caldecote, a twice-divorced, retired librarian who is an inveterate do-gooder. He feels responsible for ineffectual people:  his unemployed and apparently unemployable middle-aged son, Piers; Bunty, his lesbian lawyer ex-stepdaughter (the daughter of one of his ex-wives), who, along with her bullying lover, Popsy, shares a house with Piers;  Fiona, an ex-wife's alcoholic niece whose flat is unspeakably filthy;  and Harry's brother, Freddy, a thwarted poet who is the downtrodden husband of a controlling, charmless woman, Désirée.

At home Harry gets a break from his irremediable friends and relatives, because he lives with his sister Clare, a very capable woman who chides him for doing too much good.  But Harry can't stop worrying, especially about their brother, Freddy.

"I feel responsible for him," he said almost peevishly. "I don't like feeling it, because among other things I have to keep seeing him, but I do.  I don't know, I keep feeling responsible for people, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it. I'm sorry to say it must be the hand of Dad at work.  Through early training or through the genes."

Amis clearly likes Harry, who is not a busybody but a genuine altruist: he helps people even when their cause is hopeless.  Desmond, Bunty's ex-husband, wants to get Bunty back, with Harry acting as the middle man. Desmond simply cannot believe in lesbianism. But his professional life shows him in a better light:  he is the owner of the Cafe Cabana, where customers dine on English versions of international dishes.  He tries hilariously to explain this system to the cook, Philippa, his current girlfriend.

There was not really much for her to know and he had thought he had told her all of it in a couple of mornings, for instance the punters not liking moussaka (and no wonder) but liking shepherd's pie with some canned tomatoes stirred in and just enough grated cheese on top to see, not forgetting a couple of slices of aubergine, and called moussaka, and no, no eggs and no, no bleeding garlic no matter what the bag in Daily Express might say.  In the same way, duck- liver pate a l'orange.
Desmond has a career, but poor Freddy, the most helpless, is a cipher.  Harry tries to help Freddy by encouraging him to write again.  Freddy's terrible wife, Désirée, embarrasses and bullies him.  She cannot stop talking about Freddy's prostate surgery and how it has improved their sex life.  She goes into so much detail that both Harry and Clare protest.  But
Désirée thinks they are simply prudish.  And nobody can help Désirée, because she simply doesn't notice things.


In this comic novel, the keen-eyed Amis is a master of perfect sentences and witty dialogue, with a wicked understanding of psychology.  And we are rooting for Harry's lame ducks.  Even Desiree shows a twitch of humanity at the end.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Phone Messages from the Afterlife & Louise Erdrich's "The Sentence"


I prefer landlines to those tiny Orwellian machines that have eroded the manners of Americans in the twenty-first century.  In my view, cell phones should insist on social graces.  They should (a) forbid talking on the phone or texting on walks,  b) ditto in the car, and (c) chide you for cheating online to solve crossword puzzles.

The "1" button got stuck on our landline.   We had to buy a new phone
. It has gone rogue; it talks.  Between rings, it recites the phone numbers of callers in an annoying, uninflected computer voice.  We can't make it stop. 

Another thing about the new landline:  it is haunted.  Imagine checking your messages and hearing the  voice of a dead relative.  Amazingly, it accessed a message from 2015. 

"What?  You again!"  

 He must have called from the afterlife.  A kind of "Right on!" from the grave.

 My eyes filled with tears. 

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. --Virgil's Aeneid,  Book I. ("Perhaps we will be happy someday even to remember these things.")




This year the Women's Prize longlist includes Louise Erdrich's The Sentence, in which Louise herself is a minor character.  I am enjoying it -- I have read two-thirds -- but it is lighter than her 2021 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Night Watchman

I love the ebullient voice of the Chippewa narrator, Tookie, an ex-convict who was released from prison early after a tribal lawyer found new evidence, and who is now happily married to Pollux, the retired patrol cop who arrested her in 2005.  She also has the perfect job:  she works at Louise's bookstore in Minneapolis. (Erdrich owns a bookstore, Birchbark Books, in Minneapolis.) Tookie is a voracious reader whose passion for books impresses even her gloomy favorite customer, nicknamed Dissatisfaction. 

Although Tookie is stable in middle age, complications follow.  The bookstore is haunted by the ghost of Flora, the store's most annoying customer, a white wannabe indigenous woman. Flora begins to haunt Tookie. But when Covid strikes in 2020 and the staff members work solitary shifts to fill online orders, Flora's haunting amps up and she begins to bother Tookie's co-worker, Penstemon, too. 


Although this novel is lighter than her other books, Erdrich's poignant account of the terror of the first days of the pandemic in 2020, shortly followed by George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, gives the novel depth.


I've been a fan of Erdrich since the publication of her first novel, Love Medicine.  Still some pages to go in this one.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Loving Fanny Burney's "Evelina" & Trying to Find a Good New Book



If you are a fan of Jane Austen, you will love Fanny Burney's epistolary novel, Evelina, a best-seller in 1778.  This comic novel is a precursor of Austen's work, and I experienced the delight I felt when I discovered Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.   


The subtitle, The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into Society, encapsulates the plot of this gentle comedy.  Evelina, a well-educated young woman, has led a sheltered life in the country with Rev. Mr. Villars, her overly-protective guardian.  Her mother, Caroline, died in childbirth after fleeing from her licentious husband in France; and Evelina's father denies the marriage and does not acknowledge his daughter.  When Mr. Villars receives a letter from Lady Howard and learns of Madame Duval's  plans  to travel from France to meet her granddaughter, Evelina, he is upset and afraid.  Lady Howard suggests that Evelina visit her at Howard Grove, where she herself can supervise the girl's meeting with the coarse, impulsive old woman.  And Mr. Villars agrees.


The novel takes the form of a correspondence between Mr. Villars and Evelina. She sends him pages of her journal; he praises her judgment and gives advice.  When she travels with with Lady Howard to London, she records every detail of their entertainment: the opera, the balls, and walks at Ranaleigh, a pleasure garden.

Perhaps most memorable is her first ball, where she meets Lord Orville, a quasi-Darcy, only unsnobbish; and his witty rival, the unscrupulous Sir Clement Willoughby.  Lord Orville is constantly saving her from rude strangers in fashionable society; the mischievous Sir Clement harasses her and likes practical jokes. After offering Evelina a ride home from the opera, Sir Clement drives miles out of the way, until she realizes she is in a strange neighborhood, and yells at the driver to stop.  She learns to assert herself.

On her second visit to London, she travels with Madame Duval, who attracts adverse attention by too much rouge and her strange, broadly comic dialect.  The rich people who formerly admired Evelina ignore her with Madame Duval and her cousins, a shop owner and his daughters.  Class determines social interactions. Evelina understands their superficiality but is impelled into unacceptable, if comic, situations.  Madame Duval and her cousins are indelicate and ignorant - especially at the opera.

Vivien Jones, in the introduction to the 2002 Oxford edition,  praises Evelina's "capacity for independent judgment and spontaneous enjoyment."  I admit, my take-away from this comic novel is not so much her good judgment (Evelina is naive) as the sense of humor that helps her decode and defuse the mines of London society. Burney, a playwright, entertains us with witty dialogue, broad humor, stock characters, and interweaves them into a very funny novel. Not only that:  she can also craft long, exquisite sentences, with rhetorical flourishes.

This novel will charm Jane Austen fans.

ON READING NEW BOOKS:  Tenderness by Alison Macleod

Every New Year's Eve,  I resolve to read a new book a month. Then I jettison it.  This year began well with Marian Thurm's comic roman à clef, A Blackmailer's Guide to Love,  and Penelope Lively's new book, Metamorphosis: Selected Stories.  Since then, nada.  I have rejected a few new literary novels after reading the first 100 pages.  They are not terrible, but will probably be short-lived.  My doom is depending on good reviews.  Better by far to browse and then choose.

And so I found a copy of Alison Macleod's Tenderness, a long, lyrical novel that has potential. It centers on the impact of D. H. Lawrence's banned book, Lady Chatterley's Lover.  In the beautifully-written, innovative first section, Lawrence, who has finished his book, is dying of tuberculosis while his wife Frieda openly cheats with her lover.  And the Lawrence-ian prose is interspersed with quotes from Lady Chatterley. 

Macleod makes a graceful transition from Lawrence's death to the  year 1959, when the elegant Jackie Kennedy, a fan of Lawrence's work, dons a cheap raincoat as a disguise before she attends the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover in New York.  An FBI agent with a secret camera in his briefcase recognizes her and snaps her picture for the files of J. Edgar Hoover.  I've reached the 100-page benchmark, and though I'm slightly bored by the FBI, I plan to continue.  This ambitious book is 600 pages long, and I don't know if Macleod will pull it off - but I'm looking forward to meeting Lionel Trilling. 

Thursday, March 3, 2022

What Would Mrs. Valance Do? and Other Problems


 I found a copy of William Plomer's appealing novel, Museum Pieces, at Oxfam some years ago.  I  bought it for the  cover art by Brian Jacques and the jacket copy.

Here is the jacket copy:

Susanna Mountfaucon and Toby d'Arley are "museum pieces' because neither in the 1920s nor in the 1930s, nor during the Second World War will they adapt themselves to change.  They are still Edwardian in spirit and extravagance.

Their life and that of the extraordinary people around them is described by a young widow who comes to know and to love them.

It is a bit more complicated than that. The narrator, Mrs. Valance ("the young widow"),  is an archivist. One day she receives a letter from Mrs. Mountfaucon, 
who is looking for someone to sort family papers.  She has heard that Mrs. Valance is  "a learned historian."  
"I'm afraid she has misled you," I said.  "It's true I did read history, but I'm only an archivist, and not at all a learned one.  Mostly self-taught, I'm afraid.  I just love old papers."
It is a charming book - but  a small section (the first 44 pages) has ripped apart from the binding.  Now I have two very fragile books.  Do I throw away each page after reading?  Any suggestions?

What would Mrs. Valance do? 


Judith Rossner's Emmeline is one of the few American novels reissued by Persephone.  I know nothing about it, but I found a cheap Pocket Books paperback edition.

And it has a frontispiece illustration. Is the paperback aimed at a historical novel or romance audience?


And here is the jacket copy:

Judith Rossner has stunned the nation once again with her haunting novel of heartbreaking innocence and shocking guilt.

Emmeline was still a very young girl when she was forced to leave her home to work in a cotton mill in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Hers is the story of a cruel seduction and the extraordinary chain of events which follow it of the two great love affairs in one woman's life... of the terrible power of passion to create - and to destroy.
Well, I doubt that I'll read it, but I can shelf it with my Persephones! 


I love ads in the back of old Penguins.  And in the back of my damaged copy of Museum Pieces, the publisher advertises Pamela Hansford Johnson's The Incredible Skipton, Anthony Powell's From a View to a Death, and Muriel Spark's Memento Mori.  (I recommend the Johnson and the Spark.)

I've never heard of this one:

Is it worth reading? 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

A Great Read: Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited"


Evelyn Waugh was a brilliant satirist:  my favorites are A Handful Of Dust, Scoop, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and Vile Bodies. But I actually prefer his realistic novel, Brideshead Revisited, which was a popular, if not a critical, success in 1945.  Critics disparaged the overblown style, but readers were besotted. And I love Waugh's extravagant, lyrical language, the comic scenes at Oxford, the charming, deftly-etched characters, the witty dialogue, and the narrator's romance with a country house, Brideshead.

The prologue opens in the 1940s, during World War II. Charles Ryder, the narrator, is an army captain stationed in England. His company hoped they would be transferred to the Middle East, but they end up at Brideshead, an English country house. And it evokes melancholy memories.


Charles's days at Brideshead shaped his art and career.  His  friend, Sebastian Flyte, introduced him to art and architecture there.  In civilian life,  Charles became a successful architectural painter.  But in his thirties, he could not break away from his traditional style.  A trip to South America did not revitalize his art:  the critics, nevertheless, like it.  Charles is depressed and denigrates himself. And clearly the critics do not convince him.

This beautifully-written novel is a wistful comedy, but it is also a lyrical examination of the pre-war past. In Book I, Charles relates the story of his joyful (platonic?) relationship  with Sebastian Flyte, whom he meets at Oxford in the 1920s.  After Sebastian drunkenly wavers across the lawn and leans over the windowsill of Charles's room to vomit, Charles and his scout, who must clean it up, are annoyed.  But Sebastian apologizes by sending Charles all the flowers in a flower shop.  Everyone forgives Sebastian:  he is irresistible.  He comically carries a teddy bear, drinks champagne, invites Charles to a romantic picnic where they eat the first strawberries, and then to  Brideshead while his family is away.


 But the Catholicism of his mother, Lady Marchmain, drives Sebastian to drink, though Sebastian is also devout.  The  Jesuitical Lady Marchmain sets spies on him to monitor his drinking, which complicates the problem.  Finally Sebastian Flyte "flies" from the Oxford professor (or lecturer?) who accompanies him on a trip to the continent:  he disappears in Morocco, where he lives with a German named Kurt, whom Sebastian loves, as he  points out, because he can take care of him.  


In Book II, Charles falls in love with Julia Flyte, who looks exactly like her brother.  This is Charles's "mature" love:  the mistress of Sebastian's father once told Charles that Englishmen's "romantic friendships"  were an interlude.  We wonder: Which is the real love, which is the interlude? Julia, a lapsed Catholic in a loveless marriage, has much in common with Charles, who is also unhappily married.  Her materialistic, doltish Canadian husband could not convince the priest he was fit to convert before their marriage. Julia,\ dropped her religion and had an affair.  And Charles no longer loves his charming, ambitious wife, a friend of Julia's, who also once had an affair.    Charles and Julia have an idyllic interlude - perhaps deeper than the idyll with Sebastian. And there seem to be no obstacles to divorcing their spouses and getting married - at first.

 The book is partly a subtle meditation on the dilemma of Catholics in the changing moral landscape of 20th-century England.  And Charles's tragedy is to take himself too seriously. Waugh, a Catholic convert, captures the appeal and pain of the religion.  But this book is beloved for its charm, beauty, and comedy.