Christmas Tips: How to Give Someone a Book

One of Garth Williams' illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter'
One of Garth Williams’ original illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter’

Christmas is not my favorite holiday.  It is very cold on the prairie.

I try to get in the mood by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Ruth Suckow.

Christmas is different in the 21st century. Pa no longer fiddles, Lucy Gayheart doesn’t skate on the Platte, Abby doesn’t make homemade gifts after the failure of the harvest, and the Bonneys don’t rush off to church suppers.  Nowadays we’re more laid-back:  we sing along to old Doors albums (“Break on through to the Other Side”), pretend to knit scarves (I drop a lot of stitches), and attend old-fashioned taffy-pulls (they are fun candy-making parties).

But I do know how to make a nice Christmas for a cranky snowbound family.

Give them books.

Here are some tips.

1.  Snoop around their bookshelves, or ask them to make a list. Your taste isn’t necessarily theirs, so it’s best to find out what they like.

2.  Use “Best of” lists with caution.  Some love critics’ recommendations; others go their own way.  Elmear McBride’s prize-winning experimental novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, may or may not be ideal for the proponent of Susan Conant’s dog mysteries.  In my own experience, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel about an Iowa minister, seemed the ideal gift for a super-religious second cousin, but she deemed it slow.  On the other hand, she might want Lena Dunham’s racy memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.  You never know.

3.  Don’t order books from the UK.   One year I begged my husband to order Stevie Davies’ novel, Into Suez, from the UK, because Margaret Drabble recommended it on a “Best of” list.  I still haven’t read it.

4. Generally suitable gifts:  the light reading option.  I am better at buying gifts for women than men.  The novels of Barbara Pym, Nick Hornby, E. M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady series, and D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books are usually suitable for women. And Golden Age Detective novels (Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, etc.) are appropriate for everyone.

Ask your bookseller at the local indie.  Sometimes he or she can recommend books outside your area of expertise.

Classics are excellent gifts, but after a certain age we’ve read everything except Martin Chuzzlwit.   I do like Library of America editions, however, and have had good luck with giving editions of Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, and Sarah Orne Jewett.

7.  Give Christmas books.  Try Christmas poetry books:  Christmas Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), selected by John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy, includes 52 Christmas poems by the likes of Christina Rosetti, Walter de la Mare, John Donne, Dorothy Parker, T. S. Eliot, and  Stevie smith.

And here is  a list of free Christmas books available free at Project Gutenberg and manybooks.net.

Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party (1909)

Louisa May Alcott’s The Abbot’s Ghost, (A Christmas Story), Or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation (1867)

The Bird’s Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1886)

A Budget of Christmas Tales by Charles Dickens and Others (1895)

The Christmas Books of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh by Thackeray

A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm (1912)

And now my shopping is done.

The Stories of Jane Gardam

The joke for Boxing Day was how to get rid of her.  You couldn’t say that everyone was going hunting because nobody did now.–“Miss Mistletoe,” The Stories of Jane Gardam

Almost everyone has been a Christmas parasite at least once.

naughty-nice anne taintorIt happened to me the year I was divorced.  Although I did not mind the prospect of a day alone, a kind friend invited me to Christmas dinner.  Although she rarely ate anything, she was a gourmet cook, and we all loved her food, though there was dark talk among her children about hospitalizing her for anorexia.

The meal was fantastic.

Being a parasite was never so good.

I did leave before Boxing Day.

Jane Gardam, whose short story of the unwanted guest, “Miss Mistletoe,”  is my favorite Christmas story, is perhaps the best living English writer.  Why she did not win the Booker for the Old Filth trilogy (Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends), I cannot imagine.  This year Europa published The Stories of Jane Gardam, a collection of her favorite stories.  It is my favorite new book of 2014. If you are determined to give someone a book for Christmas (I usually fail at this, I would risk giving The Stories of Jane Gardam.

The-Stories-of-Jane-Gardam-Cover-658x1024Gardam’s extraordinary short stories are elegant and witty; and her portraits of offbeat, independent characters brilliantly drawn.  Whether she is humorously describing the Infills,  a family who mocks their annual Christmas parasite, Daisy Flagg, a tiny woman of indefinite age  “whose clothes seemed to have been boiled, her hair almost shampooed away” (“Miss Mistletoe”); or depicting the peculiarities of an elderly woman who queues for Shakespeare tickets (“Groundlings”), her prose is pitch-perfect.

There is something  for everyone.  Austenites will love “The Sidmouth Stories,” narrated by a novelist whose paper on a putative love affair by Austen at Sidmouth was plagiarized by Shorty Shenfield, a professor “at a small university in the Middle West.”  Ironically, he sends her on an errand to buy some letters by Austenthat may prove her thesis.

Shorty is an unscrupulous character, who specializes in digging up dirt on respected authors.

Long before Anthony Burgess, he enthusiastically launched into the syphilitic overtones in the life of Shakespeare.  It was said that he had much to suggest , after the fifty years of grace were up, about Kipling, and his piece on how far Keats had got with Fanny Brawne was discussed for many a furious week in The Times Literary Supplement, ensuring that every word of it was widely read.  Shorty was a good scholar but his pastimes and tactics were a hyena’s.

Gardam’s work is never sentimental. There is always a twist.   In “Swan,” Pratt, a boy at a liberal school, is required to do “social work”:  his mentoring of a Chinese boy who never speaks involves trips to a park and unexpected encounters with swans. In “Damage,” a translator has an unhealthy relationship with her father, whom she somehow cannot translate.  In “The Tribute,” three old women gather at a tearoom to gossip about their dead friend, a former governess, and are shocked by the richly-dressed niece who brings them keepsakes.

Gardam, 85, has won many prizes:  the Whitbread Award twice, for The Queen of the Tambourines and The Hollow Land; the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 1999; and God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

If you don’t like short stories, try her novels. They are outstanding.

Back to the Book: Is It a Trend?

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha:  Wouldn't we rather be here than in an e-library?
Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha.

Are people turning off their e-readers?

Are they going back to the book?

Is it a trend?

Or is it just me?

I have an elegant Nook, stocked with free e-books by Mrs. Humphry Ward, E. M. Delafield, Charlotte M. Yonge, Stella Benson, and Elizabeth von Arnim. Conventional wisdom says that e-books of new hardbacks are inexpensive (half-price or less), but I have found that used books are still cheaper.

I have journeyed from true e-love back to paper.

In my very first post here, “Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader,” I wrote:

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader. Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend. It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile. I have my hands all over the screen every day. I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

And so it went on for a couple of years.

Then suddenly I tired of reading on the screen.

In 2013, 21% of the books I read were e-books.  This year, although the number is only slightly lower, 19%, it is emblematic of my return to real books.

The Means of Escape Penelope Fitzgerald 519CFN92NAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
The book: a lovely object.

On a plane from London to Chicago, surrounded by the loud e-silence of people on machines,  I  turned off my e-reader and took out a paperback. I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape, Gerald Heard’s mystery, A Taste for Honey, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube, and much of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heat Wave.

It was a long paperback trip.

And I discovered I concentrate better with paper.

There are too many e-distractions with e-readers–checking e-mail, etc.  Once I tried the Kindle app, and that was much less satisfying than the Nook.

Others, too, concentrate less well when they read e-books.  A study released last summer found that readers of the Kindle comprehended a mystery less accurately than paperback readers.  When asked to reconstruct 14 events in the plot, Kindle readers did “significantly worse” than paperback readers.  The Norwegian lead researcher also said that paper supports reading better than text on a screen.

I take notes on e-books, because it is so difficult to find things later.

The general consensus is that everyone is reading e-books now, but it is hard to find statistics.

The Pew Research Center says that  younger readers read more e-books:   Thirty-five percent of of 50- to 64-year-olds and 17% of people ages 65 and over read at least one e-book, but the number jumps to 47 percent in 18- to-29 year-olds  And since Christmas 2013, the number  of Americans owning e-readers or tablets has jumped from 43 percent to 50 percent of adults 18 and over.

I am not a trendsetter.  If I am reading less on my e-reader, others are, too.

Mind you, I have read some wonderful e-books.  I recently read Edith Olivier’s The Love Child ($2.99), a charming fantasy about a woman whose childhood imaginary friend materializes as a real child after her parents’ death.  I was never able to get hold of the Virago, and pounced on the e-book.

But when I can get the real book, I prefer it.

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

I love these Vintage editions.  There's no intro in this one, alas.

When it’s dark on the dot of five in winter, I need more than a Diet Coke to perk up.

All those hours and hours of winter darkness…

Maybe a few cookies and a Victorian novel

I recently reread Trollope’s The Way We Live Now,  a stunning novel about financial fraud, desperate aristocrats, calculated courtships, and literary corruption.

According to John Sutherland in the introduction to The Way We Live Now (Oxford World Classics, 1982), Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.”  The book is witty and absorbing, but is not for the faint of heart:  it is the longest of his works, at 425,000 words.

trollope the way we live now oxford 0192835610A financial scam is at the heart of this novel, and I was faintly reminded of the financial collapse in 2008.  Finance is not always based on real money (and that’s as far as my financial knowledge goes). Trollope’s book revolves around Melmotte, a wealthy financier of mysterious origins who suddenly moves to London with his family.  He directs the board of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, and whether or not the railroad actually exists, shares are briskly bought and sold.

Who is Melmotte?  Nobody knows.  It is doubted that he is English.  His manners are atrocious, and his arrogance is enthralling. He throws tantrums over a dinner he is to give for the Chinese emperor, and wins an election as a Conservative candidate for Parliament, even though he gives money both to the Catholic church and the Protestants.  Oddly, he becomes more sympathetic as the book goes on, and, in a way, he reminds me of  Soames in The Forsyte Saga. 

None of Trollope’s characters respect Melmotte:  they want to use him.  Most of them move in higher social circles.  Roger Carbury, the squire of Carbury Hall, says that Melmotte is “a sign of degeneracy.”  “What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

As usual, Trollope’s women are fascinating.   I very much enjoyed reading about Lady Carbury, a widow who has turned to writing because her handsome, evil son, Sir Felix, has run through all his money. Her literary exploits are both hilarious and sad:  she manages to get a few good reviews for her short book, Criminal Queens, because of her connections with editors. Trollope’s descriptions of her ceaseless networking seem very realistic.

But she can’t control all the reviewers, and is devastated that “one of Alf’s most sharp-nailed subordinates had been set upon her book, and had pulled it to pieces with rabid malignity.”

Trollope writes,

Of all reviews, the crushing review is the most popular, as being the most readable.  When the rumour goes abroad that some notable man has been actually crushed, been positively driven over by an entire juggernaut’s car of criticism till his literary body be a mere amorphous mass, then a real success has been achieved, and the Alf of the day has done a great thing.

Lady Carbury also schemes for both her children to marry money:  she urges Sir Felix to marry Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, and insists that her daughter, Hetta, must marry her reliable cousin Roger Carbury, who also has money.  Lady Carbury has bad values, but she is desperate, especially on behalf of her beloved, if sociopathic, son.  Unfortunately for Roger, who adores Hetta,  she is in love with his friend, Paul Montague, a very attractive but weak character.

The women in The Way We Live Now are reluctant to marry the men chosen for them. Lady Harbury hesitates to marry a besotted editor; Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, plans to run away with Felix instead of marry the man to whom her father betroths her; Ruby Ruggles runs away from  marriage to a country bumpkin to London to be near Sir Felix, who has been flirting with her; and Georgiana Longstaffe is on the shelf so long she longs to marry a rich middle-aged Jewish merchant she meets at Melmottes’s house (and, yes, her parents are anti-Semitic, and Trollope’s views on Jews are also dicey).

But my favorite character is Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow who travels to London to claim Paul Montague, her fiance, after he writes to break off the proposal.  She is witty, charming, smart, and has money, and though her reputation is bad–she has shot a man in Oregon and her husband might not actually be dead–she has traveled with and lived with Paul, and one cannot help but think he is a fool to prefer Hetta to Mrs. Hurtle. (But  Mrs. Hurtle knows she has no chance against the virgin, Hetta.)

You can read Trollope’s novel on many levels.  It is a novel about money, and it is a novel about marriage.

And much more.

These are just a few notes.

So much fun to read.  I always love Trollope.

The Folio Society’s New Edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children

The Folio Society edition of The Duke's Children
The Folio Society edition of The Duke’s Children

In March 2015, the Folio Society will publish the first complete edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.  

The Duke’s Children was written as a four-volume novel, but was cut to three volumes. As the Folio Society tells us, “65,000 words ended up on the cutting-room floor.”  The restored manuscript is published in this limited edition, and a separate volume of scholarly essays and notes is included with the novel

I am excited about the new edition, because  I am rereading Trollope’s Pallisers novels:  Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke’s Children.  If I wait till March to read The Duke’s Children, I can read the Folio Society edtion.

I dearly love the Pallisers books, which I discovered in the 1970s, when the BBC series aired in the U.S.  In those days, mass market paperbacks were often published to complement the TV series.  My set had photos of the actors on the covers.

A scene from the BBC Pallisers series.
A scene from the BBC Pallisers series.

Then, in the ’80s, I found a classier set of Oxford editions at a used bookstore. Alas,  I was not very fussy about condition, and I must say these were too well-used.

A set of the Pallisers books.
A set of the Pallisers books.

Now I have the inexpensive Oxford World Classics editions.

The new set of Oxford Palliser books
The Oxford World Classics Palliser books

Much as I like the Folio Society books (I recently saw a gorgeous edition of Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trezibond at a used bookstore), I am not a collector.  They are beautiful, but expensive.

But perhaps I’ll treat myself to the new The Duke’s Children.  I’m not traveling to London this spring, so this can be the substitute.

Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue & A Teasing Mockery of Book Review Publications

Last week I had a Mary Wesley marathon.  I reread four of her witty, whimsical, often darkly comic novels.

mary wesley jumping the queue 720832As I mentioned, Wesley’s first novel Jumping the Queue was published in 1983 when she was 71.  She became an overnight sensation, a respected novelist whose work is reminiscent of the books of Elizabeth Jane Howard , Alice Thomas Ellis, and Barbara Pym.

Jumping the Queue is a rich, dark comedy that could not be possibly be categorized only as women’s fiction.

The heroine, Matilda/Mattie Poliport, a suicidal widow and mother of three neglectful adult children, rescues the suicidal Hugh, known in the press as the Matricide. (The alliteration of Mattie and Matricide is not coincidental.)  Matilda has planned her suicide precisely:  after a final picnic and pills, she intends to swim out to sea. Prevented by a group of young people who gather near her rock, she roams the town and finds Hugh getting ready to  jump off the bridge.  She is old enough to be his mother, as she says,, but she also pretends to make out with him so a slow-cruising police car won’t recognize the Matricide from his picture in the papers.

Slightly incestuous?

And no wonder:  Matilda’s husband, Tom,  had a long, incestuous affair with their daughter, Louise, which she carefully ignored. She thinks there are worse things than incest and matricide.  She says she, too, has murdered someone.

As we learn more about Matilda’s past, there is a sense of menace.  A few of the characters she knows are sinister, especially one old friend who briefly muses that he might have to stage her heart attack.  (Thank God she doesn’t know too much.)    Her  dog and cat are dead, and she only has her goose, Gus, the Matricide,  a stray dog they pick up, Folly, and a neighbor who is in love with her.  Everyone recognizes the Matricide, but no one wants to turn him in.  There are so many twists near the end of the novel that I won’t reveal them, but they are utterly logical.

By the way, her books are in print as e-books, and you can also find used copies at Amazon, Abebooks, etc.

Mocking the BOOK REVIEW PUBLICATIONS.  Much as I enjoy book reviews, I  am often flippant about the critics. After the recent debacle of Ayelet Waldman’s complaints on Twitter about not making the Notable 100 Books at the New York Times, I thought how very silly it is to give the book pages so much power.  I probably find at least half of my books browsing at bookstores , and read the reviews later.  The reviews may or may not be good, but my motto is Caveat Emptor.  The death of the book review pages WILL be the end of civilization, but meanwhile we can browse.

And so I have created mocking nicknames for some of the publications I read.

BOP:  The Boys’ Own Paper.  Though The Washington Post Book World is one of the best  review publications in the U.S,  it is very male-oriented, and the tenure of the three in-house male critics has seemed very old-fashioned indeed.  Though I’ll miss the great Jonathan Yardley, who  is retiring at 75, this is an opportunity for a female critic to step up.

GOP.  The Girls’ Own Paper.  The New York Times Book Review, now edited by Pamela Paul, is  the most equitable book review publication in the U.S., reviewing numerous women’s books and hiring many women reviewers.  I was exhilarated one week when  almost all of the books reviewed were written by women and reviewed by women.  What validation:  Is that how men feel all the time? But women are under a lot of pressure to succeed, and I think pop books like Jennifer Weiner’s should still be barred from The New York Times Book Review.  .A short review of Weiner’s latest book was sneaked into an article with several short reviews.  Couldn’t the space have  been better used for small-press books or university-press books?

SNOP.  The Snobzzz’ Own Paper.  The New York Review of Books is zzzzzzzzzzzz…snobbish and intellectual, very male-oriented, but…did I just fall alseep ?   zzzzzzzzzzz.

FREQ-COP:  The Frequently Controversial PaperThe Guardian has one of  the best and largest book pages, and is  well-known for its controversial, liberal slant on literary matters.  The creative essays are original and fun to read, the lists of oddball books are entertaining, and  I very much enjoy the columns on paperbacks, science fiction, and the book clubs.  My one criticism is that the book news is frequently rehashed from  other newspapers, with remarkably little original reporting.   Let’s get out of the tabloid mentality and send those writers into the field!

The Best Books of the Year Lists & Merry Capitalism

Pile-of-BooksThe Best Books of the Year lists are so much fun.

I’ve read lists at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, TLS, and The Guardian.  The latter two publish articles consisting of recommendations by famous writers, and these influence me more than lists compiled by critics.

Do lists matter?

They must have an effect on sales.

Writers like to be on these lists.

This week Ayelet Waldman has protested on Twitter because her well-reviewed novel Love and Treasure didn’t make the New York Times 100 Notable Books list of 2014.

Waldman tweets,

I am really not dealing well with having failed to make the @nytimes notable book list. Love & Treasure is a fucking great novel IISSM.

and

I never complain about this shit, but there are MANY books on that list that are NOWHERE near as good as mine.

On the list or off the list, does it really matter?  Her tweets get attention, and I suppose they sell books.  (Or perhaps Twitter should be illegal till after the holidays.)   I read a sample of her book at Amazon:  it is well-written and  interesting.

But would we really care if her book was on the list?

No.

I don’t use the “Best of” lists as shopping lists.

I have not read any of the 100 Notable New York Times books this year. I don’t read many books published after 2000, so the list is non-applicable to my reading.

Yet I did read a few marvelous new books this year that did not make the list. They are:

Fowler is one of three women longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.
Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Awarad &  longlisted for The Man Booker Prize.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize  (this didn’t make the NYT list, but did make the Washington Post and The Guardian, I think)

Tim Winton’s Eyrie

Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

Jo Walton’s My Real Children

Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things

I’m not setting myself up as an arbiter of taste; I’m just saying that many remarkable books don’t make the lists.

The book I want for Christmas isn't on a list.
The book I want for Christmas isn’t on a list.

The book I want for Christmas is not on a list:  Wendy Pollard’s biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, has scarcely been reviewed, and the one review I found was vituperative.  The Spectator reviewer doesn’t believe Johnson and her husband C. P. Snow are worth writing about.   I disagree:  Johnson is one of my favorite writers, and I look forward to reading the biography.

Merry Capitalism,!

And do you use the Best of lists?