R.E.M. “Shiny Happy People”

Fun and gently ironic!

Addendum:  More ironic than I thought.  According to  the SongFacts website, “The title and chorus are based on a Chinese propaganda poster. The slogan “Shiny happy people holding hands” is used ironically – the song was released in 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square uprising when the Chinese government clamped down on student demonstrators, killing hundreds of them. (thanks, Ali – Oxford, England)”

Favorite Books of the Decades of My Life

My mother reading to me.
Mom reading to me.

My mother was not bookish, but she encouraged bookishness.

She read to me day and night until I learned to read.  I bounced into her room at 5 a.m. to beg her to read  She read nursery rhymes (I was partial to Three Little Kittens), fairy tales, and Make Way for Ducklings.

How glad she must have been when I learned to read!

I owe my bookishness to Mom, whom I miss very much, so I am dedicating this List of Favorite Books of the Decades of My Life to her.  I am listing only one per decade, so it is a bit arbitrary.  Lists are fun!

e. nesbit the enchanted-castleMy first decade (zero to nine):    E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle.  This is a classic, my favorite of Nesbit’s fantasies.  It is the story of the “magic adventures” of Gerald, Jimmy, and Kathleen (siblings), and a friend, Mabel.  The three siblings wander into the garden of a castle and see Mabel dressed up like a princess and feigning an enchanted sleep. When she is kissed, she  convinces them she is a princess and says she has a magic ring–and then, to her consternation, it becomes true. She wishes she were invisible–and becomes invisible. She doesn’t believe they can’t see her–and shakes them. The sight of their being shaken by someone invisible is terrifying. They clutch her invisible arms and legs.  In each chapter, they have a different adventure with the ring.  I especially remember a frightening chapter when the statues come to life.

Lessing newer edition the_golden_notebookMy second decade  (ten to nineteen):  Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The Nobel Prize winner’s powerful experimental novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she no longer respects her fiction-writing. She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is a disillusioned leftist who once idealized the Soviet Union,,and can only fall in love with men who cannot love deeply.  Lessing also chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of World War II, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.

The experimental structure of the novel is bold. Lessing alternates sections of a short traditional novel about Anna, “Free Women,” with Anna’s writings in four notebooks–black, red, yellow, and blue–in which she tries to measure out the truth about her life of organized chaos, often writing in fragments, experimenting with different styles, chronicling her experience straightforwardly in the communist party in Africa, her marriage and love affairs, her difficulty with writing. She also writes a novel about an alter ego, Ella, who is more brittle than Anna, but undergoes similar emotional upheaval.  Eventually she receives a golden notebook…

The Realms of Gold Margaret Drabble 51gXeBOFMLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My third decade (twenty to twenty-nine): Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold.   At the beginning of this fascinating, insightful, analytical, but ultimately cheerful book, Frances Wingate, a brilliant archaeologist,  is in her hotel room suffering from depression. The next day she must give a lecture, and, having idly visited the city’s octopus research laboratory, she is thinking about the octopus who lived in a plastic box with holes for its arms. The female octopus is programmed to die after giving birth: what has Frances been programmed for? She wonders. What are middle-aged women supposed to do when they no longer have babies? Her children are fine. She has her work.

Frances has some non-biological reasons to be depressed. She broke up with her lover, Karel, a professor, adult education teacher, and misses him badly. She even carries a bridge of two of Karel’s false teeth, sometimes in her bosom to “protect her virtue.” He was married, and she was suddenly disturbed by the fact they had only managed to get away for four days away in the years of their relationship. She told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.

Thee novel is also a dark exploration of family, heredity, and “the landscape of the soul.” Frances is fascinated by herroots, and we learn about her relative Janet Bird, a trapped housewife in Tockley, France’s hometown.  . There is something profoundly optimistic about Frances, the second generation away from Tockley. And that is why we like this book so much.

Dickens our mutual friend 9780679420286_p0_v2_s260x420My fourth decade (thirty to thirty-nine):  Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.  The plot of OMF revolves around money: the effect of the inheritance of the riches of a miserly junkyard owner on his heirs, the Boffins who worked as his servants; they believe his son, John Harmon has been murdered. Members of the Boffins’ circle include John Rokeman, the mysterious secretary who dedicates himself passionately to their interests; the beautiful, greedy, witty Bella, whom the Boffins informally adopt; poisonous Wegg, the one-legged con man who hopes to blackmail Mr. Boffin; and Betty Higden, the independent old woman who refuses to accept money from the Boffins because she wants to stand on her own two feet and, by her own money, keep out of the workhouse.

There are also sub-Boffin circles: Lizzie Hexam and her father, Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, find the body of John Harmon in the Thames. Mortimer Lightwood, the Boffins’ lawyer, and his good friend and fellow lawyer, the witty, languorous Eugene Wrayburn, meet them when they come to identify the body. And thus they are all connected to the Boffins.

And there is a shallow monied sub-culture which is hilarious: the Veneerings, social climbers, invite everybody and anybody who seems to have money to dinner as part of their scheme to claw their way to the top of the precarious ladder of high society. Lightwood and Wrayburn are members of this group, though they seem not to know why they are there or want to be there. And Dickens’ portrayal of this group is an education in what kind of person not to aspire to know. In this whole layer of society, as we learn as the book progresses, there are only a few good souls.

Charlotte bronte villette 31173My fifth decade (forty to forty-nine):  Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.  To a woman of a certain age, Bronte’s Villette, an unflinching report of solitude and isolation, is more interesting than Jane Eyre. This bold novel is tougher and yet more nuanced than Jane Eyre, and feminist readers and Bronte fans should give it another chance.

Lucy Snowe, the solitary narrator, is the invisible woman in triangular relationships. Attachments become triangulated without her realizing it whenever she has a relationship with a man.

When we first meet Lucy, she seems cold. There is something  voyeuristic about Lucy’s cold scrutiny of her godmother Mrs. Bretton’, though she loves her godmother. As a teenage girl, Lucy has no interest in Graham Bretton, the handsome, lively teenage son. But in minute detail Lucy describes Graham’s friendship with Polly, a small child who becomes passionately fond of Graham when she stays with the Brettons during her father’s illness. Graham teases her and behaves like an older brother, while Polly is like a tiny woman. Lucy cannot understand the magnitude of the child’s attachment.

Lucy is shadowy. She tells us very little about her family, and there is a Gothic mystery about her intense solitude and taciturnity.

Then as an adult she is thrown on the world without money, and eventually ends up a teacher at Madame Beck’s school in Villette (an imaginary city like Brussels, where Bronte taught) and meets Graham Bretton (now called Dr. John) again.

And you can read the rest of this “review” here.


Reading in Bed: In Which I Donate a Big Book to Charity

Bye, bye, Book!
Bye, bye, Book!

I sat in bed reading the new Folio Society  edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children.

It is as big as a dictionary.  Maybe a Complete Shakespeare.

It is a beautiful book.  It duplicates the design of Ye Olde Book, with a leather binding and gilded edges.

The Folio Society’s new complete four-volume edition of The Duke’s Children (it was originally published as a three-volume book and the missing volume has  been restored) has gotten good press:  John McCourt at The Irish Times loved it.  He wrote:

Standard editions of The Duke’s Children still read well and hold their ground against other works in the Palliser series, but the reborn text is of a much richer fabric. Shorn of its short cuts, and with all its details of plot, character, setting and narrative tone restored, it functions far more effectively both as a stand-alone novel and as the last of a long series full of familiar names, characters, settings and themes.

Alas,  it is too unwieldy to read in the supine position.

I know, I know.  I should sit up.

I am going back to my Oxford paperback.  I can’t read oversized books at my age.

What to do with my Folio Society edition?  Sponsor a contest at Mirabile Dictu?  Make everybody write an essay about why they deserve the book?

That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?

And so I donated it to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  I stuck it in a bag and put it in my bike pannier. Then I had to find the Planned Parenthood book drop.

The Jacqueline Blank drop for Planned Parenthood
The Jacqueline Blank drop for Planned Parenthood

I got lost in the inner city on my bike.  I was sure the map had said to head north.  Sure, it was north–north  of a street a few blocks south!

I  finally found it and dropped off the book.  After a decade of shopping at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, I am happy to give them a valuable book.  I hope they make a huge profit.

I love the Folio Society’s clothbound books, and own one of the Thomas Hardy books.  They are normal-sized books:  a little tall, but readable in bed.

But I regard The Duke’s Children as a mirabile dictu folly!    What was I thinking?

Thomas Hardy set, Folio Society
Thomas Hardy set, Folio Society




The Planned Parenthood Book Sale, Spring 2015

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des MoinesThe Planned Parenthood Book Sale is a perk of Midwestern living.  It is held on the Iowa State Fairgrounds  in Des Moines April 16 (today) through April 20..

IMG_3112Scruffy bibliophiles and book scouts lined up eagerly, as though attending the premiere of a Star Wars movie.   When the doors opened at 3, they  made a mad dash inside. Well, semi-mad:  this is Des Moines.  They stopped at the door to pay the $10 entry fee.

I found some gems, even first editions.  The prices are dirt-cheap:  mine ranged from 50 cents to $4.50.   I look for reading-in-bed copies in good shape.  I found a lot of wonderful books.

I came home with a box-full  Here they are!

IMG_3116A hardcover copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Doll:  The Lost Short Stories, originally published in periodicals during the 1930s.  Price:  $2.50.

A first edition of Gladys Taber’s novel, Spring Harvest.  Price:  $1.00. The film Christmas in Connecticut is based loosely on Taber’s columns  for Family Circle and Ladies’ Home Journal.   She wrote novels, nature books, cookbooks, and books about living in a Connecticut farmhouse.  (I posted on two of my favorite Tabers, Country Chronicle here and Mrs. Daffodil here.)


A hardcover edition of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. $3.50.

A  book club edition of The Deadly Decisions by Helen MacInnes, an omnibus containing two novels, Decision at Delphi and The Venetian Affair.  $1.00

IMG_3118An Oxford paperback of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.  $3.00.  Just think, if I like this one, he wrote dozens!)

A Penguin  of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. This is a replacement copy for a book that fell apart.   $2.50.

IMG_3119A Book Club hardcover edition  of Mary Stewart’s The Moon-Spinners, my favorite “Gothic novel,” as we used to call them,  set in Crete, published in 1962.   $1.00

                     Stolz end paper

A People’s Book Club edition of Mary Stolz’s Ready or Not.  $1.00.  The cover flap says:  “Gentle, capable Megan Connor had long carried the responsiblity of making a happy home for her widowed father Fan, her sister Julie, and her brother Ned.”  Then she falls in love apparently.  Stolz was a writer of Y.A. ficiton.    I couldn’t resist the end paper.

Rock on!

IMG_3121A paperback of Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys.  I have long meant to read something by this Pulitzer Prize winner.  $3.00

A paperback of Alice Hoffman’s Blackbird House.  $3.00.  I never got around to this one.

IMG_3123A Europa edition of Orange Prize finalist Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past.  $4.00

Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver’s 2007 novel The Post-Birthday World.  $3.00.  I loved her novel Big Brother and she generously  give us a Q&A interview in 2013.

IMG_3125The black book is Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar ($2.50) and the red is John Buchan’s The Blanket of the Dark ($1.00).

we took to the woods rich il_340x270.603139834_6imy map WE Took to the Woods 001


A first edition of Louise Dickinson’s classic, We Took to the Woods, her autobiographical book about living in a cabin in the woods of Maine.  $5.00.  ANd  I love the map on the end page.

John O'Hara Ten North Frederick 51ykQ73Z-2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ the waiting game elizabeth cadell 51xGAo8465L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_






Elizabeth Cadell’s The Waiting Game.  She has been compared to D. E. Stevenson:  we’ll see!  $1.00

And a new unread Penguin of John O’Hara’s Ten-North Frederick, the winner of the National Book Award.  $3.00

Morton in search of london 41DbJgkH8OL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_And, last , an unread paperback copy of H. V. Morton’s In Search of London.   $1.00

Do let’s hope this keeps me busy for a while.  I hardly think I need to buy another book this year.  Ha ha!

New Barnes & Noble Bags & Penny Dreadfuls

IMG_3106The Barnes & Noble bags have undergone a redesign.

An illustration on one side depicts the Great White Whale diving into the opening paragraph of Moby Dick. (“Call me Ishmael.”)  On the flip side, Huckleberry Finn sits against a tree and smokes a pipe.  (“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sayer; but that ain’t no matter.”)

The good news:  they’re pretty.

IMG_3105The bad news:  they’re plastic.

“They’re not destroying the ozone layer,” said my go-to air pollution control engineer friend. “See that HDPE triangle?  That stands for High Density Polyethylene.  Yes, they are made from petroleum.  That’s oil.   That causes pollution. But this plastic is recyclable.  And there are also issues with paper.”

hdpe Plastic Resin Code - 2 HDPE_pngThe  B&N  bag says, PLEASE REUSE OR RECYCLE AT A PARTICIPATING STORE.  I hope my local store participates.

Meanwhile, I must remember to say I don’t need a bag.  We already have a drawer full of plastic bags to return to stores.



Okay, they’re not really penny dreadfuls.

Do you every buy used books for a penny at Amazon?

The nice and the good murdoch 41PPJB576CL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In recent months, I have paid a penny for a used hardback of Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a Woman’s Life and a paperback of Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good. Both were in good shape.  The trick is to know who is a reliable bookseller.

As far as my husband knows, every book I buy costs a penny.  “I got a deal on that,” I say when a package arrives.

The shipping cost is $3.99, so a penny book actually costs $4.  Still, that is very cheap when you’re able to track down a book you want but are not able to buy locally.

How do stores make money off penny books?

On April 14, The Guardian ran an excellent article on the subject.  Calum Marsh reports that some of the huge online stores, like Thrift Books, cart away truck loads of books from Goodwill, public libraries, and charity shops.  They sift through the piles and find some valuable books, sell others for a penny, and pulp the junk. They make only a few cents  on penny books, but it is profitable if their volume is great.

The English bookseller Colin Stephens, founder and director of Sunrise Books, sends two vans out every day to charity shops to collect their unwanted used books.  Stephens got his start in a very peculiar way.  He

was thumbing through a charity shop’s bookshelf when the manager told him how much she’d come to hate used books. Every few days, she complained, she would have to load the trunk of her car with the shop’s excess donations and shuttle them to the landfill, in her own spare time and at her own expense

So that’s where penny books come from.

Thomas Hardy vs. A (Now Dead) White Male Writer & Why I Love Two on a Tower

Thomas Hardy, the poet our grandfathers read, according to James Dickey
Thomas Hardy

“Who is your favorite writer?” a  Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer asked during an interview on a book tour while I scribbled everything he said in a notebook.

“Thomas Hardy,” I said.

Hardy was my secret love.

“Hardy was our grandfathers’ writer,” he said.

I said nothing.

But I was so humiliated by his condescension that I didn’t read Hardy again until the millennium.

Good God, I think in retrospect. Why let a little embarrassment keep one from reading a great English writer?

Thomas Hardy vs. the Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer?

Hardy is a surprisingly edgy writer.

two on a tower thomas hardy 41j5mT2XRaLI recently reread Hardy’s ninth novel, Two on a Tower, published in 1882.

In this lyrical, gorgeous, rather weird novel, he relates the  story of the tragic love affair of a beautiful, depressed woman and a brilliant young astronomer.

Two on a Tower is a predecessor of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Both center on clandestine love affairs between a sensitive lady and an intelligent man of a lower class.   The heroines have similar names:  Hardy’s  is Lady Viviette Constantine, and Lawrence’s is Lady Constance Chatterley.

The atmospheric first few pages of Two on a Tower not only set the scene but establish Hardy as a stunning poet.

On an early winter afternoon, clear but not cold, when the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons through whose ribs the sun shone freely, a gleaming landau came to a pause on the crest of a hill in Wessex.  The spot was where the old Melchester Road, which the carriage had hitherto followed, was joined by a drive that led round into a park at no great distance off.

What Gothic imagery!  I especially like “the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons…”

The heroine, Lady Vivette Constantine, is fascinated by the view of the tall tower on top of the hill.  A few months later, when the weather is more clement, she walks across the fields and climbs to the top of the tower. There she meets Swithin St. Cleeve, a handsome young astronomer who is using the tower as an observatory.  Swithin is the orphaned son of a curate-turned-farmer and a farmer’s daughter.

And thus the constant Viviette falls in love, though she constantly feels guilty.  She is ten years older than he, and she is terrified of gossip.

two on a tower hardy penguin 763039She becomes fascinated by astronomy–she has had nothing to do–and buys equipment for his observatory.  Her husband, Sir Blount, has been absent for three years on a hunting expedition in Africa.  Before he left, he demanded that she “not so behave towards other men as to bring the name of Constantine into suspicion…”  And when she asks the rector, Mr. Torkingham, whether she need continue to refuse social invitations and “live like a cloistered nun in his absence,” he advises her to keep her word.

thomas hardy two-on-a-towerThere is much irony in the narrative.  Swithin does ground-breaking research only to find that someone has just published the same results.  Viviette hears rumors about Sir Blount’s whereabouts:  first, that he is in London; then, that he is dead. Even after they hear that he is dead, the class-conscious Viviette and poverty-stricken Swithin marry secretly because of Viviette’s social position:  she is tormented by fear of scandal over different class and age and the need to conform.   On the day of the wedding,  Swithin receives a letter saying that his uncle has left him 600 pounds a year on the condition that he not marry till he is twenty-five. He sacrifices the legacy for the marriage and does not tell Viviette about it.  There are many ripple effects of the secret marriage. They deceive Viviette’s brother and the Bishop about their relationship.  Then their marriage turns out to be invalid because the rumor of Sir Blount’s death had been false and  he had died after the date of their wedding.

When Two on a Tower was published in 1882, it disturbed critics nearly as much as Lawrence’s much more graphic Lady Chatterley’s Lover did in 1928. The biographer Carl Weber reported that reviewers described Hardy’s novel as “’hazardous,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘little short of revolting,’ [and] ‘a studied and gratuitous insult.’”

Hardy wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse on Dec. 10, 1882 (Purdy and Millgate 110): “I get most extraordinary criticisms of T. on a T. Eminent critics write & tell me in private that it is the most original thing I have done…while other eminent critics (I wonder if they are the same) print the most cutting rebukes you can conceive–show me (to my amazement) that I am quite an immoral person…”

Different times, different mores.