Library Books I Won’t Read & The Cats Who Love Them

My hometown library, long before my time!

My hometown library.

Books may look good, and turn out to be or not to be.

Although I buy classics, I am dismayed when I buy a bad new novel, or even a very good one that I won’t reread.  Much as I enjoyed Kent Haruf’s quiet novel, Benediction, I could have saved myself a “giveaway” and trip to the post office had I borrowed it from the library. Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl, a  well-written novel about Aristotle’s daughter, is less than compelling, and I will probably not finish it. And  Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon is brilliant, but I am not that keen on metafiction.

I should have borrowed these three.

And so I have finally developed a practical system, which most of you have employed for a very long time.  I make lists of books I read about online and check them out of the library, because  no matter how much I enjoy the reviews and blogs, I may not necessarily enjoy all the books.

I check out way, way, way too many library books.  There is a box of library books in our computer room, many by very good authors, but I can’t possibly read all of them.

My cats  also enjoy library books.

My cats are readers.  I even have read to them on occasion.  They love The Princess and Curdie and The Beastly Feast.  They sit on my lap and mark the books after they’ve marked me.  The books are their books, and I am their human being, except when they claw the Library of America edition of Willa Cather’s novels, and then I say, “No no!” Sometimes they push a book off  the coffee table when they want attention.  “No no no no no!”

Tonight I encouraged them to prophesy whether I should or should not read my library books.

My cat Clodia is not quite sure about the well-reviewed new novel by Peggy Hesketh,  Telling the Bees.  She might enjoy it, but is more interested in the book bag.

She might read this, but she's more interested in the book bag.

She might read this, but she’s more interested in the book bag.

I have read 70 pages of Hesketh’s charming, well-written mystery, which is told from the old-fashioned point of view of a refined, elderly beekeeper.  The narrator, Albert,  has been a beekeeper all his life, and though the orchards in the once beautiful neighborhood have been bulldozed and housing developments have taken over, he is surprised by the intensity of young new neighbors who drink beer in their “garage workshop” and protest the electric overhead wires, which they believe are  responsible for  deaths in the area.   (Albert thinks they’re crazy, but admits he has heard the bees humming through the wires.)   Then he considers the past, and recalls his discovery of the murder of two beekeepers in 1992, on an unseasonably warm Sunday morning.  A policeman tried again and again to persuade him to talk about the two spinsters, but mostly he told him about bees.

Many people will love this book, possibly even the same people who liked The Secret Life of Bees, which I disliked.  But here’s the problem.  I don’t really like mysteries.  And I didn’t quite understand that it WAS a mystery until I started to read it. It’s shelved in the literary fiction section.

I went back to the review in The Washington Post and discovered that the reviewer DID compare it to an Elmore Leonard book, though she said others are comparing it to The Remains of the Day.  I simply didn’t remember the Elmore Leonard part.

And so…I’m tempted to skip to the end and see whodunit. Oh, I just did.

Now I don’t have to finish it.

Again, many of you will love it.  It’s just not for me.

IMG_2351 Clodia seems very keen on Colleen McCullough’s Caesar’s Women, which was an impulse check-out.  When it’s between reading a Persephone and a historical novel, she’ll go for the historical novel every time.  I would very much like to get hooked on the Master of Rome series, because there are so many, but these are very long beach books:  I’d be better off rereading War and Peace.  (If anyone knows the Master of Rome books and thinks they’re worthwhile, please tell me.)

Look at this dialogue following the scene in which Clodius Pulcher dresses up in women’s clothes and crashes the Bona Dea festival.

I mean, it’s only some silly old women’s binge–everyone gets stinking drunk and makes love or masturbates or something…”

“Clodius, the Bona Dea isn’t like that.  It’s sacred!  I can’t tell you what exactly it is, I’d shrivel up and give birth to snakes.  Bona Dea is for us!”

Sometimes I love bad-good historical novels, but I don’t expect to read this.

Dee also picks Caesar's Women.

Dee also picks Caesar’s Women.

I was also pleased to find a Persephone, Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country.  The preface is fascinating, but the novel looks less than brilliant. As I have already read one extremely bad earnest novel by Perephone author E. F. Delafield this year, Faster!  Faster! (though this one was published by Bloomsbury Reader), I am a little hesitant to take on another lacklustre middlebrow women’s novel.  So this will go back to the library unread, and I’ll try it another time..

So do your cats influence what you read?

Mine also make me drink out of a cat mug ($3 at the HyVee).

Love, Not Drinking, & Cyberaddictions

My cousin, a librarian whose social calendar is filled by drinking in a bar with her latest boyfriend, dropped by to see me because he was “at a training session” out of town.

She wanted to go to a bar.


I mean it is impossible. I don’t drink.  I can’t drink.  I take meds that preclude drinking. Meds that could kill me if I drink.  Meds that people take to commit suicide.  I am liberal with my meds, and have always sympathized with House, but overdosing on drugs and alcohol is a “no.”  Thank God for relief from pain, but why don’t they invent a pill that allows one to drink?

The last time I had a beer was 1993, the day I rode the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas we drink sparkling non-alcoholic wine.  It is really terrible.

“But don’t you have something to drink?”  she asked despairingly.

Read and grow cup“I have nothing to drink.”

I offered her a drink of green tea.

“Don’t you have anything to smoke?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Isn’t marijuana legal?”

“I haven’t any idea, but I don’t smoke it.”

She turned on her phone.  Who you gonna call?  I listen to my messages later, much later.

I understand cyber-addictions.  But not phones.

The only thing that worked for her when not drinking was a little cyberstalking.  She started talking about Twitter, and showed me her boyfriend’s tweets.  He didn’t answer her tweet, and that upset her.  She’s cyberdrunk@cyberdrunk, or something like that.  He’s cheatonyourmate@cheatonyourmate, or something.

Maybe he’s in a meeting.

Then she cyberstalked some authors.

Did you know that Gail Godwin has a new book coming out this spring?  That Amy Tan has a new book coming out this fall?  That Ann Hood is giving a reading in Massachusetts?  That Brett Easton Ellis is gay?  That Karen Thompson Walker  is not on Twitter?  That Peter Stothard has a new book out this summer?  That Jennifer Weiner has a giveaway?  That Penguin Books has a giveaway?  That…?

We waited for more tweets.

Then she found a picture of her boyfriend with “some whore Lancome clerk” somewhere, possibly at Facebook.

“How does he know some whore Lancome clerk?  Don’t let it bother you.”

I do understand this kind of cyber-addiction. Cyber-life blurs with real life.   I used to get very bored when I started to write the same articles on the same subjects again and again, and I was online while I wrote.  I still check my email too often.

But I don’t like real life to interfere with my cyber-life.  I have cried over old friends after googling them and discovering they are dead.  I have repeatedly googled my old friend, Linda, hoping if I do it often enough the obituary will be a fake and she will be alive.

Linda is survived by her mother.  That struck me as tragic.  Did she ever marry?  Was she gay?  What happened?  Why didn’t she write the damned book?

I thought about writing to her mother, but in the end one doesn’t.

For me, finding Linda’s obituary was the equivalent of my cousin’s finding that picture.

Angela Thirkell, Snobbery, The War, & the Delectable Private Enterprise

AugustFolly thirkell

A friend enthusiastically recommended Angela Thirkell in 2000, and at first I just PRETENDED to like her books.  I  started with The Headmistress, one of the few the library had, and found it rambling and clumsy.  Why did my friend, the radical Jane Austen fan who got us all off pharmaceuticals and  inspired us to do yoga,  Zen meditation, and make our own yogurt, enjoy these snobbish comedies?

But then I read August Folly and loved it. I went on (out of order) to High Rising, Pomfret Towers, and on and on…

There are 29 books in Thirkell’s Barsetshire series, set in Anthony Trollope’s fictitious county.  Her characters are magnificently quirky.  They keep poultry, pigs, and dogs;  Lord Pomfret shows off the trompe l’oeil books in his study;  they tweedily (and tweely) converse at tea parties about archaeological societies and petrol shortages;  they revel at fetes and amateur theatricals;  they have misunderstandings in love; and they rant against the government and lost civility.

My favorite character, Mrs. Morland, the heroine of High Rising, is a novelist and Thirkell’s alter ego. Her hairpins fall out as she tries to plot her novels, or, indeed, engages in any kind of thinking, and people are forever picking them up for her.

I am fond of Lydia Merton and her muddled classical allusions.  “It’s just like Horace,” she’ll say, and you’ll have no idea what she means.

In Thirkell’s last book, Three Score and Ten, Mrs. Morland said, “I’ve written the same story so many times that I’m never quite sure which book I’m in, and I find I’m always making people the wrong age, or mixing up their names, or forgetting whether they know one another or not.”

One knows that Thirkell felt much the same.

Anyway, I am definitely a fan.

So is Verlyn Klingenborg.  In an op/ed piece in The New York Times in 2008, he wrote that he had recently reread nine of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books,would probably reread all 29 and then start over again.  “When I first came upon Thirkell, nearly 30 years ago, she seemed like a diverting minor writer. Minor now seems too slight a word to me for the purveyor of such major pleasures.”

Robert McCrum of The Observer was not exactly a fan  in 2005 (though he may be by now).  He briefly upset the Angela Thirkell Society when he joked that no one read Thirkell anymore. “In a reckless moment during the summer I asked, ‘Who reads Angela Thirkell?’ and ignited a firestorm of protest from across the known world,”wrote McCrum in December 2005, and mentioned that he had a couple of her books to read over Christmas.

I just hope they were her prewar books.  Honestly, her 1930s novels are the best.

Private Enterprise by Angela Thirkell I have recently made an exception for her 1947 novel,  Private Enterprise, a comical, charming novel which I admire, though it does ramble a bit.

In Private Enterprise, peace is proving more difficult than war for the residents of Barsetshire, says Lydia, one of the main characters.  Thirkell paints a fascinating portrait of post-war England, wherein rationing is more severe than ever, everyone is indignant about “them” (the government), nobody understands the points on the ration forms, and the queues get longer and more ridiculous when the government rations bread.  On Saturday mornings, children on the way to the movies hog the bus and buy all the cakes before the housewives can get them.

The housewives, a hopeless minority among these young pests, had to trudge farther afield almost crying with fatigue to find bread, and when their second or third round of shopping was accomplished, for all the shops opened at different times and if one went to the grocer who opened at 8:30 to get a place in his queue one was too early for the fish that didn’t open till 10 or the second delivery of bread that wasn’t in at any specified time, and they wearily trailed home for what they’d hoped was the last time that day, the dear little children coming yelling and pushing and fighting out of the cinemas stormed the ‘buses for a half-mile ride at half-fare, and heavily laden mothers of families had to drag their baskets home as best they could, while each child occupied a grown-up person’s seat.”

Private Enterprise angela thirkell hardbackWe’ve met most of the characters in other Barsetshire books.  Lydia Merton (nee Keith) is married to Noel Merton, a barrister who returned  from the Army a year ago.  She is a happy housewife, and he is charming and very smart but bored, and the arrival in the neighborhood of Mrs. Arbuthnot, a beautiful widow, and her smart, homely sister-in-law,  a birder, threatens their  happiness.  Lydia’s brother, Colin, also a barrister, is in love with Mrs. Arbuthnot, and is surprised that she is not more grateful that he found her a cottage.  She sees him as just another guy with a crush on her.  And she finds it much more fun to flirt with Noel, Lydia’s husband, who is not so serious, or the sophisticated Francis Brandon. Susan Dean, a sensible librarian who had been dating Francis, is also annoyed.  Poor Lydia pines without knowing she’s pining.

Other characters include teachers, a retiring headmaster, and a new headmaster who talk about Latin grammar grammars.  I got a big kick out of the following:

“A good Latin grammar is a permanent source of income if properly handled.”

First I heard of that!

Very enjoyable, though there is a lot of snobbery about one’s “inferiors” and “the empire.”  Well,  we just ignore those parts.  We get it that Thirkell is having a rough time and life is not as smooth as it used to be.

Love & Twitter

Doormat for Love_Girls Love Stories 148_ dropped books

Unnatural librarians!

My cousin stopped by to tell me about a sale. Fifty percent off.  Drone drone drone.

“I’ve got to work.”  That was a lie, but I typed a few words.

She proffered a thermos of fresh Starbucks.  “Want some?”

“Of course.”

Chat chat chat.  Her boyfriend’s going to a training thing this weekend.

On the weekend?  I doubt it.  And now I have to be nice.

She met him at the reference desk.  She meets a lot of men that way.

He needed to know everything about film noir.

They retired to the storage room to check out the Patricia Highsmith.

She’s in love.  Except…  He’s not…  Well, her sister-in-law can tell you about that.

She’s not really spacey.  Not Phi Beta Kappa, but honors. Bored at her  job, and if you don’t want her blabbing about what you check out, you might as well buy the book.  I prefer to own the omnibus edition of the Works of Mary Stewart to hearing at a party that I’m reading Airs Above the Ground.

She hopes to marry this guy.

She is also addicted to Twitter.

“He has sent ten tweets today.  Isn’t that cute?”

He’s such an e-slut.  He gives out his personal email address, and no doubt his Twitter, to the more attractive minimum-wage employees at the mall.  (Ask my cousin’s sister-in-law.)

She was in tears last time I saw them at the grocery store, and I hardly  blame her.  I gave him a cross look, but he paid no attention.

Fortunately she has $500 of Lancome in her bag, so she can hide her feelings.

She offers to give me a makeover.

“I’m beyond help.”

“Just a little lip gloss.”

“I’m allergic.”

Then she showed me his tweets.

She couldn’t believe I don’t have Twitter.  So she signed me up.

I am now a follower of Lydia Davis (I like her translation of Madame Bovary), Jo-Ann Mapson, Sherman Alexie, Natalie Merchant, Ron Charles, Jay McInerney, and Salman Rushdie.  Lydia was saying something profane, which made no sense out of context.  Jo-Ann recommended a book.  Natalie is against fracking (I agree).  Ron sent a link to one of his video reviews.   Jay was talking about food.

I tried to follow Pevear and Volokhonsky, but they don’t have Twitter.

Twitter thinks I should follow Jennifer Lopez and Ellen Degeneres.  Why?

I didn’t send a tweet, because I need 500 words to say nothing.

And I should unsubscribe from Twitter, because it is just one more silly thing.

Karen Thompson Walker & The Age of Miracles

Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson WalkerIt is seldom spring, and I seldom have a chance to wear my out-of-fashion spring sweater with the asymmetrical flower print.   But it was spring last night, and I wore it to Karen Thompson Walker’s talk about her lyrical first novel, The Age of Miracles.

In Walker’s gracefully-written apocalyptic novel, set in California in a not too-distant future, the earth’s rotation slows and shatters the basis for the 24-hour day. Sometimes sunrise is at noon, sometimes at night. Sometimes the hours of daylight are long, other times short.  The cycle of light and darkness may mean a 26-hour day, or a 60-hour day. The government says the country will remain on a 24-hour clock, but a few rebels are “real-timers,” waking in the light and sleeping in the dark.

The slowing also affects gravity and the earth’s magnetic field.  Trees fall down. Plants die.  Birds die. Whales are beached. It becomes harder to kick a soccer ball across a field.  People get sick.  Their circadian rhythms are off.

The novel is narrated by Julia, an adult looking back on the first year of the catastrophe from the perspective of her 11-year-old self.

This is the second apocalyptic novel I’ve read this spring from the perspective of an adolescent, the first being Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape.  Lethem’s Pella is more rebellious than the shy Julia, but both girls must face a reality of  a bleak planet, viruses, death, mass suicides, and rednecks who target people who are different.

I was very curious to see what Walker would have to say about her book.

Walker, a smiling young woman in a floaty peasant top and casual trousers, began her talk breathlessly, but soon gained confidence and charmingly read from the opening pages of her book.

Much of the novel is written in the lyrical first-person plural:

We were distracted then by weather and war.  We had no interest in the turning of the earth.  Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries.  Hurricanes came and went.  Summer ended.  A new school year began.  The clocks ticked as usual.  Seconds beaded into minutes.  Minutes grew into hours.  And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.”

Walker, a native of San Diego and a graduate of UCLA, wrote a short story while in the MFA program at Columbia about the slowing of the earth’s rotation.  After reading  in 2004 that an earthquake in the Indian Ocean had affected the earth’s rotation, she was fascinated by the ramifications. Her other stories had been realistic, so this was a challenge.

Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker

“It was the first time I experimented with a fantastical premise,” she said.

After graduate school, she worked as an editor at Simon and Schuster, and did not have leisure for writing.  At 9:30 or 10 she went to work, took phone calls, wrote jacket copy, and met with authors.  At night she did her reading and editing.

But she wanted to turn the short story into a novel, and began to write 45 minutes or an hour every morning before work, sometimes on the subway.

She set the book in California where she grew up, because she knew the threat of earthquakes and the puzzlement or fear of children who must bring a three-day supply of non-perishable food to school every year in case of disaster.

She remembers a day when there were two earthquakes and a 50% chance of  another big one.  Like Julia and her mother in The Age of Miracles, she went to the grocery store with her mother and “it was swarming with people.”

Walker interweaves ordinary life with catastrophe.

“I wanted the book not to be just about how people panicked but about how they went on in normal living day by day,” said Walker.

The novel explores the emotions of Julia as she sees the world fall apart.  She also records in minute detail the beauty of the dying world.

Walker read aloud from a section about beached whales.  Julia and her friend Seth go to the beach to see the beached whales and help the rescuers.  They pick up two plastic cups and rush to the ocean, thinking the water will keep the whales alive until they can be moved.

We ran barefoot down to the water, cups in hand.  It was a long run.  The mud sucked our feet.  Creatures slithered unseen beneath my toes.  Dead fish sparkled in the sun as my hair whipped in the wind. When we reached the lapping water and looked back, the humans on the beach were barely visible.  Their hairline arms and hairline legs fluttered soundlessly around the whales.  The only noise was the churning of the ocean.”

Age of MiraclesWhen they return, they pour water over a dry whale with flies on its eyes.  They want to help, but then a man tells them, “That one’s already dead.”

And that is more or less what is going to happen.  People, too, will die.

The novel is a hybrid of literary fiction and science fiction, though Walker doesn’t mention science fiction.  But she says she loves Nobel Award winner Saramago’s Blindness, a novel about a plague of blindness in a modern city, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, the story of five sisters who commit suicide.

She admits she likes apocalyptic novels.  “It’s sort of a secret pleasure to read a novel about ordinary life falling away.  It makes us realize how extraordinary ordinary life is.”

She mentions some apocalyptic films people like, the TV show “Walker” and the new Tom Cruise movie, “Oblivion.”

She didn’t consult a scientist until she sold the book.  “I didn’t want to bother anyone about a book that would never leave the computer,” she said.  The scientist corrected a few errors and explained that gravity would be stronger rather than lighter if the earth’s rotation slowed.

Will wonders never cease?  Katherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight, has signed on to direct the film version of The Age of Miracles.

An excellent novel, and a lovely evening in the company of Karen Thompson Walker, who currently lives in Iowa City with her husband.

Critics We Like & Mrs. Caliban

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

There are critics we like, and critics we don’t like.

I am astonished that most of the critics I admire are men.  I would never have believed such a gender division possible fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

First, the past.

We all miss John Updike.

We all miss John Updike.

John Updike was a life-changing critic whose essays in The New Yorker introduced me to many brilliant writers.  He wrote fascinatingly about Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, one of my favorite books, a sad, witty, moving novel about a desolate housewife who falls in love with a monster. Surely all women understand this inclination to love exotic monsters, because monsters in literature are more human than the human monsters we fall in love with.  (Not you, honey!)

Ingalls’s Larry is one of manifold literary monsters who attract women.  Think of Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, in which the heroine falls in love with Erasmus, an escaped 300-pound ape.  Think of Melissa in  Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets; she falls in love with a dolphin.  Think of Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Think of the many strange couplings–like Leda and the swan–in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  (I should get offline and finish this essay.)

Ingalls’s heroine, Dorothy, is the neglected wife of a philanderer and the grieving mother of a dead child.  One day when she is listening to the radio, she hears, or thinks she hears, a strange announcement.

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this programme to make the following announcement in this area.  Early this morning, keepers at the Jefferson Institute for Oceanic Research were attacked by a creature captured six months ago by Professor William Dexter on his South American expedition.  The creature, known to the popular press by its nickname “Aquarius the Monsterman,” appears from intensive scientific analysis to be a giant lizard-like animal capable of living both underwater and on land for extended periods….

When the monster, Larry, shows up in her kitchen, she is not afraid.  She hides him.  He is kinder than her husband.

And oddly, though few of us entertain lizard-like monsters in our kitchen, we empathize with Mrs. Caliban.

We are all Mrs. Caliban sometimes.

And would we have found this book without Updike?

But what about contemporary criticism?  These days we read so many reviews online that criticism can metamorphose into a chimera if we’re not careful.  We read The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Review of Books, TLS, The Guardian, and other publications, not to mention blogs, tweets, and GoodReads.

And then I give up on a book.  “This is a piece of crap.”  “Where did you find out about it?”  “Either The New Yorker or a blog, I’m not sure.”  “Get offline!  It’s too unreliable.” “My blog is not unreliable. I found out about this at X blog.”  “Is that the one with the dog pictures?”  “WEll, they all have dog or cat pictures.”  ” The New Yorker doesn’t have a dog or cat.” Oh, dear.  I should never have shown him that dog video.   And why didn’t I take better notes?  If I had been taught by Jesuits, I would have believed the tenet, “Do it right the first time.” I would have  written bibliographical information…

Do it right.

Marry a monster.

Criticism is chimerical.

It’s so confusing.

Good reviews, bad reviews, books that sound good, books that are good, books that turn out to be terrible.

But there are good critics, and sometimes we find them.

truths_ragged_edge_cover_hrMy favorite critic is Michael Dirda of The Washington Post Book World.  Isn’t he everybody’s favorite?  His style is relaxed and conversational, but he has a Ph.D. in comp lit, and is obviously one of the most over-qualified newspaper reviewers. He writes about poetry, science fiction, biographies, novels, reference books, you name it.  He is prolific, and I’ve read his reviews in The New York Review of Books, TLS, and The Barnes and Noble Review; he used to have a blog at The American Scholar. I can’t tell you how many dazzling books I have read because of his reviews.  He recently reviewed Philip F. Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, and I would have loved to read it had I not spent all my money at the Planned Parenthood book sale and banned book-buying for the next few months.

Book-How-to-win-an-election ciceroPeter Stothard, editor of TLS and a classicist, is a brilliant critic:  after I read his stunning book, Spartacus Road:  A Journey through Ancient Italy, I looked for his criticsm online (a little gentle cyber-stalking), and I must say he keeps a low profile.  I found some of his reviews in The Wall Street Journal: He praised Donald Kagan’s Thucydides: The Reinvention of History  and Philip Freeman’s translation of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s How to Win an Election, which particularly interests me because I’m fascinated by Cicero’s relationships with his family (Quintus is the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero’s brother).  I’ll be looking for more by Stothard on the classics.

I very much like the reviews of novelist Adam Langer, who, astonishingly, was called “the worst reviewer in America” by The New York Daily News. I  read one of Langer’s reviews in The Washington Post to ascertain whether he was as eloquent as I remembered, and he was.  His review in The Washington Post of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, a novel of “wayward youth” in the “Reagan ’80s,” not only describes the book so vividly that I have added it to my TBR, but admits its flaws, which many reviewers seem too intimidated to do these days.  He mentions that two other recent novels have similar themes , but are presented in a more solid historical and political context.

Then there’s Robert McCrum, an associate editor at The Observer. What I enjoy most at The Guardian/Observer website are McCrum’s mini-essays. Today he wrote about conspiracy theories on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  Last week he wrote a fascinating essay about the speech as a genre, both in the political arena and in literature.

Where are the women, you might ask?  I’d like to know, too.

Joan Acocella

Joan Acocella

I love Joan Acocella, the dance critic at The New Yorker who also writes fascinating articles about books.  Her style is both engaging and sophisticated:  she has a gift for making you want to read books you wouldn’t normally read, such  as André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, and Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. She has also written brilliantly about Willa Cather and Zadie Smith.  I only wish she wrote more often about books.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is shrewd and sharp, a demanding, even-handed critic known by writers for hitting hard.   I read her reviews more frequently than I do the other Times reviewers, because I trust her, even though our tastes are very different.  For instance, I didn’t think the Oprah book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was particularly graceful or significant, and it made Kakutani’s Top 10.  But I always want to know what Kakutani says, because she can be trusted.

My goal in middle age has been to be beyond gender, in the sense that I no longer want to consider gender issues.  As I have indicated, I happily read male critics, and I don’t  care if a review is written by a man or a woman. But I feel disgruntled when I realize that fewer women get criticism gigs than men:  you can read the VIDA statistics here.  

I’ve been a very good sport about this.

And so, if you’re out there, what is your plan for making writing gigs more equitable?

And, fellow bloggers and readers, who are your favorite critics?

Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood & A Little Bit About Ken Kesey

Tom Wolfe wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a  chronicle of his travels with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on their famous bus trip across the country in the 1960s, when they all took a lot of acid (except for Wolfe).  He is an exceptional writer of New Journalism and a good novelist.


Did I get Ken’s autograph, or was it his brother’s?

I am a fan of Ken Kesey, so of course I like Wolfe’s Kool-Aid.  I am such a fan that in 1997 I got Kesey’s autograph, or at least I THINK it’s his autograph, during Kesey’s fiftieth anniversary bus tour with the Merry Pranksters.  The bus was roped off, and we could file by and look at it, and occasionally somebody like Mountain Woman would get out and walk around.  Then I saw Ken Kesey, and I did a groupie thing that I can promise you I’ve never done before or since:  I slipped under the rope to get my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest autographed.  He said, “Oh, no, I’m his brother; Ken is on the bus.” But I asked him to autograph my book anyway, because I have a sense of humor, and who knows if it was Kesey or not, because the brothers looked identical?    And then I got a reporter friend to get my book autographed by the REAL Ken Kesey.  But the whole thing looks like a scribble, so did I get his autograph or not?

Anyway, on to Tom Wolfe.

Some years back I read The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I did not enjoy it as much as my fellow book group members did.

Back to Blood by Tom WolfeBut I read his new novel, Back to Blood, and it is extremely entertaining, the kind of book you can inhale, though it is 703 pages (but the print is big).  His verbal pyrotechnics in the first half of the book dazzle, and though plot takes precedence later, the novel probably should have won some kind of award, though I haven’t the faintest idea what, since it seems to be a mix of fiction and (not quite) journalism.  Wolfe has won many awards, including the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Set in Miami, Wolfe’s book interweaves the stories of many colorful characters, including Nestor, a Cuban-American policeman who dramatically rescues a Cuban refugee from the 70-foot mast of a yacht; Magdalena, a beautiful Cuban-American psychiatric nurse who wears very little clothing; John Smith, a Yalie who works for the Miami Herald and breaks a story about art forgery that upsets his editor, Edward T. Topping IV;  Norman, a sex addiction psychiatrist who has sex addictions himself; a rich Russian who donated millions of dollars worth of paintings to the art museum; and Igor, an art forger.

Wolfe has a very good time with this book.  He seems to have interviewed everyone in Miami to write it.

The character I found most moving was Nestor, the cop.  You know cops:  they can be heroic and touchingly chivalrous, but also very weird.  I was once coerced into a cop car at midnight because I was JOGGING.  They insisted on driving me home, because the neighborhood was too “dangerous.”

Nestor is a hero, in a cop kind of way, but things keep going wrong for him.  A Cuban refugee scrambles onto a yacht and climbs up a 70-foot-mast.  If he is arrested on dry land he gets asylum, but on a boat he is still technically in the water and, if caught, will be sent back to Cuba.  Nestor is ordered to rescue him from the mast, so he hauls himself up hand over hand, as he has learned to do on a rope at the gym.

Nestor before the climb is thinking:

Now he was in for it, whether he could pull off this stunt or not.  He sized up the mast.  He tilted his head up and looked straight up.  Way…way…way up there–Jesus!  The sun was burning up his eyeballs, darkest extremos or no darkest extremos!  He had begun to sweat…wind or no wind!  Chirst, it was hot out here, grilling out on the deck of a schooner in the middle of Biscayne Bay.  The man on top of the mast looked just about he size and color and shapelessness of one of those turd-brown vinyl garbage bags.  He was still twisting and lurching about…way up there.”

Traffic stops on the bridge near the mast, and all the Cubans get out of their cars and boo Nestor.  Nestor is shunned by his family and the Cuban-American community because the refugee was turned over to the Coast Guard (not Nestor’s doing) and will be deported, though he is a hero in the Miami Herald.

The same nightmarish kind of misunderstanding occurs again and again regarding intrepid, competent, if not too brainy, Nestor.  When he and another officer bust a crack house, someone with a cell phone tapes the scene and uploads an edited version on YouTube that makes them look like racists beating up a black man at random.  The drug dealer has actually given them a lot of trouble.

I was very sympathetic to Nestor, a muscular cop who does his job a little TOO well.  Wolfe makes Nestor the most sympathetic character in the book.

Other characters fare less well with me.  Magdalena doesn’t seem real–was there ever such a mindless woman?  Well, of course.   She dresses in bustiers and very short skirts, suggested by her roommate, a “sophisticated” Peruvian, and other outfits I suppose women do wear in Miami.  Magdalena, despite her penchant for slutty fashions, is very prim, and though she will do anything in bed with rich men, she is shocked by the sexual obsessions of her boss and boyfriend, Norman, the sex addiction psychiatrist, and later by the insensitivity of a wealthy Russian art collector.

There are few intelligent women characters.

But Wolfe very sharply illustrates the similarities between reporters and police.  John Smith, the aggressive reporter who looks like a blond wimp, shows his strengths when he and Nestor work together on an art forgery case ( informally, because Nestor’s  badge has  temporarily been taken away after the YouTube video).  The two thrive on being undercover.  At a strip club where Igor, the forger, hangs out, Nestor knows exactly how to act, and later at Igor’s studio in an assisted living facility where Igor has a studio, John takes charge and Nestor learns about true double-dealing.

Wolfe’s style is exuberant but sometimes glib;  there are lots of ellipses…lots of exclamation points….lots of noises like “Smack,”  “Beep,” and  ” Click!”

This book is sharply observed, humorous, and addictive.  The vividness is sometimes exhausting, though.

But I love his references to Balzac and Gogol–they’re the names of clubs and restaurants–and I think he is trying to write “Balzac-ian) realism, mixed with the bizarre.

It is vintage Tom Wolfe, a terrific read, and I do recommend it.  It is really a lot of fun.

Giveaway: Angela Thirkell’s The Duke’s Daughter

IMG_2342I found an embarrassment of riches at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, and I accidentally acquired a book I already have, Angela Thirkell’s The Duke’s Daughter.  If anyone would like my old copy, a 1951 ex-library book that has obviously been much read, leave a comment. The book is in what I’d call “acceptable” condition, but if you want a reading copy of this hard-to-find book it’s okay.

I’ll draw names tomorrow, and there is an excellent chance you’ll win, because I’m not sure how many Thirkell fans there are out there.

If you would like some background on Thirkell, here is a link to my “review” of Thirkell’s High Rising.

The Greatest Book Sale

Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

Planned Parenthood Book Sale.

Tonight we attended the Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines.

It is one of the five best things about living in the Midwest.  The other four are Murphy-Brookfield Books in Iowa City, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Wabash Trace Trail in the Loess Hills of Western Iowa, and Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

My taste is impeccable.

You may not agree at first.

“Where IS Des Moines?”

“WHAT is Des Moines?”

“Are we there yet?’

When you find yourself among 600,000 books in the 4H Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, you will think you’ve gone to book heaven.  And then you’ll remember:  oh, yeah, she’s the one with impeccable taste.  We, of course, went tonight, the first night.  There was some sleet.  There was some flooding in our basement.  But I was not about to stay home on Opening Night.  All the glitterati would be there.   What would we have done at home?  Watched “Community?”

There is  a certain protocol. Our maids and valets dress us for the evening.  “Where’s my fan?”  I say in a panic.

“It was here a minute ago, Ma’am.  Land sakes.”

“Please look for it, Tildy.”

Oh, wait,  this isn’t Downton Abbey. We have no maids or valets. We all dress down in old jeans and old sweaters, so we can get our hands dusty and dirty handling old books.


A smiling shopper!

Although the first Planned Parenthood Book  Sale was held in 1961,  I  didn’t learn about it till  the ’70s when I visited my grandmother in Des Moines.  She lived in an apartment in the charming Beaverdale neighborhood, above what is now Backcountry Outfitters, I’m pretty sure.  I loved all her old things, begged for her antique trunk, and when I saw her 19th-century copy of Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, I said, “Where did you get that?”

“The Planned Parenthood Book Sale.”

And of course she let me take it home.  She was a grandmother.

Although Planned Parenthood continues to be strong, they’ve had some setbacks.  A few years ago, an ani-abortion group  started something called “a Pro Life book sale,” always scheduled the same weekend as the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  The anti-abortionists hope is to undercut the profits of the 52-year-old Planned Parenthood sale:  the profits of the Planned Parenthood Sale, by the way, go to community education and outreach programs.

The anti-abortionists are playing dirty.  They’re petty.

The Planned Parenthood people never mention it.  They’re classy.

Someone should write a news feature about it, but the newspaper doesn’t  take it on.

So enough history.

And now for my stash!


We all love to read, and this little cat has her eye on Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall.

The best thing to do at a sale is not to look for any specific author.  If you want to find Balzac, you won’t.  I found many other splendid things, though.


Penguins, Oxfords, and Nortons. Pretty good, huh?

Some of these were almost new.  They cost $2-$3 each.  They’re mostly replacements for old disintegrating copies.

The book scouts were there clicking on their scanners, and they had wiped out the foreign language books by the time we got there. Thank God for the classics, older books, and paperbacks.  They had left quite a few behind.


On the way home with your boxes of books you have to stop for a snack. Do not go to the Homeplate Diner. They can’t even make an omelet.  Drive down Unviersity to the Dairy Zone for chocolate soft serve ice cream.  .  When you taste that chocolate ice cream, you’ll know you’re in the zone.

IMG_2339This kitty can’t wait to read the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of Crime and Punishment ($3).

I found several Angela Thirkell and Peter DeVries books.  I LOVE humor books.  Will try to add a picture or two tomorrow.  I’m tired!