Not Enough German Literature & Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast

Not enough German literature!

Not enough German literature!

I don’t read enough German literature.  Americans don’t read much German literature, or literature in translation, period.  According to the Economist’s blog, Prospero, only 3% of the books published annually in the U.S. and UK are translated from another language.

Universities have expanded their Spanish departments, shrunk or cut their German departments.  Spanish is practical, they say. I often wonder how practical it is:  do Spanish students rush out and converse with their Hispanic neighbors, do they read Bolaño in Spanish, or do they only remember a few words?  Aren’t German, Italian, French, Russian, and other languages important?

But how to learn about contemporary German literature when it’s not translated?

I learned about Birgit Vanderbeke’s graceful novel, The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch, from a review in the TLS, which I incidentally began to read after Ursula K. Le Guin gushed in January about the wit of  “‘NB,’ the reliably enjoyable last page of the London Times Literary Supplement.”

The Mussel Feast by Birgit VanderbekeThe Mussel Feast, published in 1990, won the German literature award, The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize.  It is published by a British press, Pierene, a publisher of European novellas, and has not yet been reviewed in the U.S.

It is a family story.  The mercilessly observant teenage narrator, her brother, and mother await their father’s return from a business trip.  The mother is preparing a feast to celebrate his much-vaunted dream of promotion, which is expected to coincide with the trip.  And so Mum prepares a mussel feast, though she doesn’t much like mussels. The narrator dislikes mussels, too.

The narrator describes in detail the messy cleaning of the mussels.

That evening my mother, alternating between the small kitchen knife and scrubbing brush in her bright-red hand, was holding the mussels one by one under ice-cold water, all four kilos of them, scraping and scrubbing and rinsing several times – since my father couldn’t bear the crunch of sand between his teeth – because he would be coming through the door with his promotion virtually in the bag; not officially of course,…

The mother’s hands are red and hard-worked:  she does the cooking and housekeeping.  Her hands are unlike the perfect hands of her husband’s much-admired assistant, who is unmarried, fashionable, and paints her fingernails red.  Sometimes the mother paints her fingernails shell-pink to please him, but only right before he comes home, because it chips off.  The narrator says her mother goes into “wifey” mode when he comes home, and she and her brother despise her for it.

Their mother is a good teacher–she is very strict at school–but when she comes home, she is a housewife, constantly working to please her domineering husband.

The narrator and her brother help their mother prepare the dinner (her chips are perfect, even if they don’t like the mussels).  They are happy and relaxed, but know it will end when the father comes home.

Suddenly there is an ominous noise.

The noise was coming from the mussels, which had already been cleaned and scrubbed; they were sitting in the large, black enamel pot that we always used, because it was the only one large enough to hold four kilos. My mother had fled from the East with this pot, she told us; it was indispensable for washing nappies, and she used to wash our nappies by hand, or rather with a wooden spoon.

The rattling is the sound of the mussels’ shells opening in the pot.  The narrator finds this “creepy,” and is also angry because she doesn’t want to think about their being alive when they are cooked.

Birgit Vanderbeke

Birgit Vanderbeke

Time passes, and their father doesn’t come home.  Finally they cook the mussels, but don’t eat them.   They stare, repulsed.  They begin to drink the wine, and as the hours pass, they get drunk.  Gradually they express their hatred for the father.

The narrator, born with black hair all over her body (which fell out), was hated by her father from birth.   As a baby she didn’t sleep, and once he threw her against the wall. The violence and abuse have continued throughout her girlhood.  She is brilliant, and gets all 1s at school, but he says the standards are lower now. He equally dislikes her brother, who  is pretty,  who wanted to wear dresses when he was young, and who gets 4s at school.  They are forced to spend Sundays with him, listening to Verdi, whom the mother hates, and then to go out on walks in the afternoon.

Both parents grew up in east Germany, and the trauma of the escape has affected them differently.  The father needs total control:  they must be a “proper family.”  The mother had wanted to be a musician like her brothers, but the father won’t let her play the violin.  She admits to her horrified children that she  fantasizes that she is Medea, poisoning the family so she can have time alone.

Taut, pitch-perfect prose, riveting story, and an open ending that can be interpreted more than one way.  A great book:  hope I can find more by her.

Sex, Feminism, & How to Save Your Own Life

Remember this famous picture of the beautiful Erica Jong?

Erica Jong

Sometimes one wonders where feminism went.

We still spend hours listening to pop songs about the men who love us and dump us.  We still love rom/coms where the girl gets the guy, even if he’s obnoxious.  And we are supposed to want a romance with Edward in Twilight, a vampire, even though in Stephenie Meyer’s  fourth book, Breaking Dawn, Bella’s longed-for sex with Edward leaves bruises all over her body.  (Vampires and human aren’t meant to mate.)

How to Save Your Own LIfe erica JongI am reading Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own life, the sequel to Fear of Flying.  Jong sensitively explores Isadora Wing’s alienation from her husband, her affairs with unattractive male friends she loves, and with attractive men she doesn’t love, and her feminist philosophy in progress.

I wonder if this novel might be too radical for today’s audience.  It’s not necessarily the sex.  It’s the ideology.

It’s refreshing to read Erica Jong in 1977 on shopping and makeup as a substitute for sex.   Feminists used to try to escape the sexist image of women as dolls who made up their faces, dyed their hair, and shopped for shoes.

Suddenly I had a vision of a whole world of women starved for sex and making do with all sorts of buyable substitutes. Making up. A woman who spent her afternoons with a lover would never again find herself in Bloomingdale’s fingering Mary Cunt or lusting after Elizabeth Ardent. She’d go barefaced as a baby and throw her charge plate in the nearest sewer. Isn’t that the problem? That women have been swindled for centuries into substituting adornment for love, fashion (as it were) for passion? The main floor of Bloomingdale’s by Hieronymus Bosch!

Very funny!  And many women of my generation thought this in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,  and then we gave up.

What do you think about Jong’s radicalism?

The Summer of Aeschylus & Other Summer Reading

beach_books(2)I am always fascinated by summer reading articles.  They tell us that we won’t be able to read classics on vacation.  They tell us we have vowed to read Proust, but won’t do it.  They tell us we will apparently be too stoned on ganja on that island to read.

Well, they won’t tell us that.

I’m not going to an island this summer.

For me it will be the summer of Aeschylus.

My deepest regret is that I didn’t take that Aeschylus seminar in graduate school.  (Writing a freelance feature on my wedding day wasn’t a good choice, but it wasn’t life-changing.)

Aeschylus Prometheus BoundIf I could go back in time,  I would enroll in the Aeschylus seminar.

So now you see why I have to read Aeschylus.

I am making up for the semester that was my last chance to take an Aeschylus seminar.

This summer I will read parts of Aeschylus in Greek, parts in English.

I have begun with the David Grene translation of Prometheus Bound.

Bright light, swift-winged winds, springs of the river, numberless
laughter of the sea’s waves, earth, mother of all, and the all-seeing
circle of the sun:  I call on you to see what I, a God, suffer
at the hands of Gods–
see with what kind of torture
worn down I shall wrestle ten thousand
years of time–

As Grene says in the introduction,

We are never told why Zeus wished to destroy man.  There is no indication what sort of animal he wished to put in his place, but, insofar as Prometheus in disobedience to Zeus enlightened man by the gift of intelligence, it may be assumed that Zeus’s creation would have had no such dangerous potentialities of development.

Prometheus says:

In helping man I brought my troubles on me;
but yet I did not think that with such tortures
I should be wasted on these airy cliffs–

It is the Summer of Aeschylus.

OTHER SUMMER READING.  It is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. What do you think of the new cover for the Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Fear of Flying?

Fear of Flying erica jong

Erica Jong’s heroine’s “zipless fuck” doesn’t look like much fun here, does it?  I mean, just lying there, unzipped?

I prefer the more feminist rendering of the “zipless” on the old cover art.

Erica Jong Fear of Flying originalAnd I prefer Jong’s narrative to the cover art.

What do you think?

I am now reading Jong’s fascinating sequel to FOF, How to Save Your Own Life, which has given me more ideas for summer reading.

How to Save Your Own LIfe erica JongThe heroine, Isadora Wing, now a famous writer, is stuck reading galleys of friends’ novels.

Reading was becoming more and more of a chore. I yearned for the days when I could sitdown with a copy of Bleak House or Tom Jones without thinking guiltily of the galleys on the floor by my desk.

Should I read Bleak House again?

Perhaps Tom Jones is more in the spirit of Jong’s books.

Tom_Jones_by_Henry_FieldingI do like this cover.

Anthony Briggs’ Translation of War and Peace & Read What You Want to Read

war-and-peace-briggs-bigWe’re on the trail, preparing to ride 22 miles to a small college town. Click click click!  We’ll take pictures of the goldfinches, the llamas, and the cows along the way.

But first I have to load my book in the pannier, the Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs.

“That’s too heavy.  That’s why you have back problems.”

“It’s a new translation, and it’s what I’m reading.”

” What’s wrong with the old Rosemary Edmonds?”

“We don’t HAVE the Rosemary Edmonds.”

We have the 1923 Maude translation.  He has read it once, and I have read it many times.

In 2005, Penguin published Anthony Briggs’ excellent translation.

Briggs’s translation is vigorous and compelling.  It was the first new translation in 40 years.  In his note on translation, he lauds earlier translations, mentions Constance Garnett, says that the Maudes’ version of War and Peace “is still read as a classic in its own right, and the errors are so few as to be negligible,” and that Rosemary Edmonds (1978) and Ann Dunnigan’s  are sound.

So why a new translation?  It is a way of finding a modern audience.  He points out that phrases from earlier translations like, “Can this be I?”, “in quest of fowls,” and “ejaculated with a grimace” seem dated.  If the Maudes’ dialogue seems  stilted at times, Briggs’ more colloquial language can be refreshing.

Then in 2008, a new translation by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky was published, and it eclipsed Anthony Briggs’ in the reviewers’ minds. How are they different?   Pevear and Volokhonsky include all the French, with pages of footnotes.  Briggs  translates it.  It’s a matter of taste.

war-and-peace-maudeAlthough Brigg’s translation is excellent, I am most familiar with the Maude translation.  Compare these two sentences translated by Briggs and Maudes and see which you prefer. Scene: The Rostovs are preparing to leave Moscow, because Napoleon and the French are coming to occupy it, and Countess Rostov has asked Sonya, a poor cousin, to write to her son, Nikolay, and free him from obligation so he can marry an heiress.  She is, as you can imagine despondent.

Here is Briggs’ translation:

“The ghastly upheaval of the Rostovs’ last days in Moscow had repressed all the dark thoughts that Sonya now found so burdensome.  She was glad to find temporary relief in practicalities.

Here is the Maude:

“The bustle and terror of the Rostovs’ last days in Moscow stifled the gloomy thoughts that oppressed Sonya.  She was glad to escape from them in practical activity.”

Different styles.  Do you prefer “ghastly upheaval” to “bustle and terror”? “Repressed” to “oppressed”?  “temporary relief in practicalities” to “escape from them in practical activity”? They mean the same thing.

War and Peace is such a fast-paced novel that it’s hard to stop and think about the language. No matter how often you read it, it is vivid and absorbing; you become anxious about the war and the foolishness of Pierre and Natasha; find yourself on General Kutuzov’s, because he knows that no military planning will affect what happens, and that it’s rare that the troops even to manage to be in the right place: and you hope against hope that this reading there might be a better outcome for Prince Andrey, Petya, Sonya, and Platon.

I have very much enjoyed the Briggs translation, as I have the others.

Briggs does, however, make an anachronistic statement about women translators that a Penguin editor should have omitted for the sake of not alienating his audience.  He writes:  “…from Constance Garnett onwards they have been produced by women of a particular social and cultural background (Louise having contributed more than Aylmer to the Maudes’ version), with some resulting flatness and implausibility in the dialogue, especially that between soldiers, peasants and all the lower orders.”

Being female has nothing to do with translating Russian.  Class, perhaps.

READ WHAT YOU WANT.  And now I am going to make an inquiry:  do men try to control women’s reading?

The canon sends strange messages to women.  Library of America, my favorite nonprofit publisher in the U.S., has made some strange choices about publishing women’s books.  A few years ago they published a volume of Louisa May Alcott’s children’s books:  Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Many thought these were not the most representative of her work.  Then  last year they published Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s books.

Women are underrepresented by LOA  (I looked up the stats and it was appalling).  They seem to be sending a message, particularly with their highlighting of Wilder, that women are children’s writers. I mean, why not publish Caroline Gordon or Hortense Calisher?  There must be some  first-rate women writers whose estates would  allow LOA to publish their work.

I love LOA, and don’t mean to insult their work in any way, and I own many of their books.  But….

MORE ON THE MEN’S CANON.  Boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands, friends’ boyfriends, friends’ husbands, and friends’ ex-husbands can’t help making comments about my reading.

Wives and Daughters GaskellThere was the time I read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and a friend tried to persuade me it wasn’t in the canon.

“Why would you read that?”

“It’s a classic,” I said.

“Penguin is just trying to sell books.”

“No, it’s a really good book.”

There’s nothing you can do about it.  Some men don’t like women’s books.

I went back to my reading.

Men have a canon, a list of the Best 100 Books, which includes Tolstoy, so I can read War and Peace to my heart’s content, and Jane Austen, thank God.  Gaskell?  No.  They never heard of her, and maybe they don’t like the women in gowns on the cover.

Ross Poldark“That’s a fusty-looking book.”

It’s a used copy of My Lady Ludlow.

But what if I want to read something pop? Ross Poldark?  Is that allowed?  Many of my friends are big Poldark fans.

“Why are you reading that?”

Much, much teasing.

How about Rumer Godden?  Not quite first-class, eh?  Kingfishers Catch Fire happens to be one of my favorite books.

So whom are you allowed to read, and how often?  Are the rules different for women?  Are we expected to read more mathematics or science?  Less?


End of rant.

Fashionable Books: James Salter’s Light Years & Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk

Light Years by James salterSometimes I try to catch up with the latest fashionable books.

I am more comfortable with the classics, as many of you know.

James Salter and Edward St. Aubyn are two brilliant, fashionable writers.  I recently read Salter’s 1975 novel, Light Years, and St. Aubyn’s Booker Prize finalist, Mother’s Milk.

James Salter is the most remarkable novelist no one ever reads, I have recently heard.  His prose is “brilliant,” “beautiful,” “luminous.”  GQ recently called him an “icon.” The Guardian says he’s “The Forgotten Hero of American Literature.”  The New Yorker published a very long essay last month, “Why James Salter Matters.”

Barnes and Noble has a James Salter section now.

I maintain that he isn’t forgotten, because every book review publication has reviewed his new novel, All That Is. 

He can’t be forgotten, because he’s revered. And he can’t be forgotten, because I have read him.

Light Years is my favorite book,” said a friend some years back.

I recently finished Light Years for the second time, and am on the fence about this beautifully-written, but also overwritten novel.

It is a novel about a marriage.  Viri is an architect in Manhattan, and Nedra is a bohemian housewife. They have moved from their apartment in New York to a beautiful house by the Hudson River with their two children.  They entertain friends with perfect dinners cooked by Nedra and perfect bottles of wine.

It’s too perfect.

Both Viri and Nedra have lovers.  Viri’s is his assistant, a young woman he’s in love with, and Nedra’s is a friend of theirs whom she loves rather more lightly.

There is, as you might expect, a lot about light.

On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down.  A soft light, God’s idleness.  In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.

If you admire this lyricism, there is a lot of it. He writes beautifully about the change of seasons:  I prefer his concrete descriptions to his similes.

I was very moved by the story of the marriage.  And though this creative couple seems impossibly wealthy, we are told that they struggle, despite the pony and the beach house.  On a more human level, I recognize the dinner parties, the intelligent conversations, and the creativity of the parents (Viri makes an Advent calendar; Nedra writes a book about an eel).

Here is a quote I love:

There are things I love about marriage. I love the familiarity of it,” Nedra said. “It’s like a tattoo.  You wanted it at the time, you have it, it’s implanted in your skin, you can’t get rid of it.  You’re hardly even aware of it anymore.  I suppose I’m very conventional.”

Nedra, who is talking about marriage to her lover, makes it clear that her marriage is somehow a part of the love affair.

Later, when her daughters are more or less grown up, Nedra decides to leave Viri and live by herself.  He is shattered.  It takes him a very long time to recover.  And Nedra is happy, but she flounders.  She auditions for a special life-acting group, where the actors live together and train together, but she is rejected.  Yet she goes on.

Viri’s self-knowledge is more panicky than Nedra’s.

One of the last great realizations is that life will not be what you dreamed.

One cannot imagine self-sufficient Nedra thinking this.

Though I had my ups and downs with this novel, I cried over the ending.  Nedra, a character I did not particularly like, dies before her time, and I miss her the way Viri did:  she may have been exasperating, but she was fully alive.

PatrickMelroseNovelsBookOn to Edward St. Aubyn.  I respect but do not love Edward St. Aubyn’s  witty, disturbing Patrick Melrose series, about an abused child who grows up to be a heroin addict. In the first novel, Never Mind, Patrick is the abused and neglected child of drunken aristocrats:  his father rapes him; his mother drinks in the car; he has no one to turn to.  In Bad News, Patrick goes to New York to pick up his father’s ashes; he spends every free moment, abusing drugs; and heartbreakingly has inherited his father’s vicious wit,  and so the cycle continues.  In Some Hope, he is on the wagon and facing a clean life, albeit at a party.

And then I waited a year to read Mother’s Milk, a Booker Prize finalist.

Mother’s Milk is more ambitious novel than the other three, dependent on description of domestic scenes as well as witty dialogue:  it describes Patrick’s solid but frustrating marriage to Mary, a woman who is obsessively child-centered. St Aubyn explores the points-of-view of Mary and the children as well as Patrick.  Mary, a kind of Earth Mother, is devoted to her two children, particularly the younger one, Thomas.  Patrick bitterly says Mary has left him for the younger child:  she even sleeps with the toddler.

It’s not just Mary and the children who upset him.  He rages because his own mother is dying and intends to leave the family house in France to a self-help charlatan who talks about Happiness, Peace and Prosperity.  Later, after a fight with the guru, the Melrose family leaves the house and eventually goes to New York on vacation, where they encounter the nightmarish emptiness common in European films about America (Wim Wenders?  I can’t remember).

Back in the UK, Patrick feels guilty about his dying mother.  She says she wants assisted suicide.

I don’t understand Mary’s passion for Thomas:  well, I don’t have children.  But her musings on her lack of solitude illustrate one of the reasons I was afraid to reproduce:

As she hoisted ‘Thomas into her arms, she felt again the extent to which motherhood had destroyed her solitude.  Mary had lived alone through most of her twenties and stubbornly kept her own flat until she was pregnant with Robert. She had such a strong need to distance herself from the flood of others.  Now she was very rarely alone, and if she was, her thoughts were commandeered by her family obligations.  Neglected meanings piled up like unopened letters.  She knew they contained ever more threatening letters that her life was unexamined.

Mary is expected to stand for Woman in a way I don’t find altogether realistic.  I’m sure mothers see her differently; but I don’t personally know any mothers who are as devoted as she is.  Motherhood is, of course, sone way she can distance herself from Patrick.

Patrick’s wit is scary, and the children pick it up.

So there you have it:  three generations of men/boys with scathing wit, and where will it take them?

American Blogger!

Ruth Suckow

Ruth Suckow

Regional women writers get short shrift.

I’m thinking particularly of Midwestern writers.  Perhaps you’ve read Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather’s My Antonia (I recommend her stunning novels, The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady), or Pulitzer and Orange Prize winner Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Home.

You are less likely to know Margaret Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Able McLaughlins (1924), a chilling, compelling novel, set during the Civil War, about a woman who is raped  and how she and her fiance courageously deal with her pregnancy.  There is also playwright and novelist Susan Glaspell, who won the Pulitzer for her play Alison’s House, and whose collection of stories, Her America:  A Jury of Her Peers and Other Stories, was published by University of Iowa Press.

And then there are the Midwestern women writers who didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize.

Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), an Iowa-born novelist of the 20th century who wrote very quiet, simple novels about small-town life in the Midwest, has many devoted supporters.  The Ruth Suckow Memorial Society has worked hard to promote her books, and will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, June 8, at the Hawarden Public Library in Hawarden, Iowa, Suckow’s birthplace.  The business meeting starts at 10, and  the discussion of her novel, The John Wood Case, begins at 11.  Afterwards you can tour the six-room house where the Suckow family  lived.

Her novels are not classics.  I won’t lie to you.  She is, however, historically important if you’re interested in Midwestern women’s lives at the turn of the (last) century. The daughter of a Congregationalist minister, she followed her father to many towns in Iowa and even studied bee-keeping in Colorado.  In her novels, she describes the daily  lives of women whose  social lives revolve around the church, as her own life did growing up.  She details their preparations for Thanksgiving festivals, Christmas services, choir practice, kaffeeklatsches, fudge-making, church suppers, flirtations at choir practice, and marriage.

new-hope-ruth-suckow-paperback-cover-artI enjoyed The Folks and New Hope, two of Suckow’s novels reissued by the University of Iowa Press.  Some of her books are available as e-books.


Yes, I’m an Anglophile. Yes, I read mostly English books.  Yes, I read many English blogs. But  last week some of my favorite English bloggers BEGAN  TO SOUND EXACTLY LIKE MISS READ.  I was reading Dovegreyreader and Mary Beard, and they sounded like the same person.

It’s disconcerting, so I am taking a short break from their blogs.

Anyway, I have gone all-American this week: here are a few links to American blogs.

I recommend:

1.  Ellen Moody’s beautifully written and intense blog about her husband’s cancer, “A Visit to the Surgeon” (Under the Sign of Syliva Two).

2.  D. G. Myers on Claire Messud, a novelist who replied angrily to a Publishers Weekly writer who asked if she’d want to be friends with the heroine of her novel, The Woman Upstairs (A Commonplace Reader).

3.  Borderline Ph.D. on “The Unthinkable Thought of Borderline Pride. ”  After a decade of publication of frank mental illness memoirs in the ’90s, the depressed, bipolar, and others have gone underground, leaving autism the most-written-about brain disease.  I don’t quite know how borderline personality disorder fits in, because I haven’t heard much about it, but Borderline Ph.D.states her case and good luck to her.

4.  The novelist Jay McInerney’s blog on the PEN Freedom to Write award and the award to Roth for service, “The Weight of the Word.”

Culture, Lost in the Scandinavian Section, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie,  Nebraska

When we moved, everybody warned me, “There’s no culture there.”

It is, however, a beautiful place to live.  We bicycle on the prairie, we ride by the Mississippi, we career over walnuts in the fall and almost fly off our bikes, we pedal through the woods, we fix tires beside lakes, we coast down hills, we ride past Amish farms, we avoid the bar on the trail (The Flat Tire), we stop to eat pie or grab a snack at Casey’s in small towns where there are cow statues.

When we want culture, we drive to Nebraska and visit Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud or Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood.

Or we go to a university library.

Without university libraries, I would go crazy.  All you fans of English literature, Canadian literature, American literature, German literature, Russian literature, know you can’t find every book you want at the public library.  The university library in Iowa City would let us check out books if we got photo IDs at the Union, but that is not possible on weekends, so we gave up.

There is another university library where we can check out books for $20 a year.  It is not a liberal arts school, but the library has a big literature section, always deserted.  During my Anna Kavan phase (it never occurred to me that I would shock my family on Thanksgiving with talk of “heroin addict lit”:  Kavan, Will Self, Edward St. Aubyn, William Burroughs), I found many of Kavan’s books, a biography, and even Rhys Davies’ novel about Anna Kavan, Honeysuckle Girl.

Last week I got lost in the Scandinavian literature section.

Lost in the Scandinavian Section

Lost in the Scandinavian Section

I picked up a book by Tove Jansson  before I found the American lit section and the new book club selection for Emily Books, Sarah Schulman’s Empathy.

WHAT I’M READING.  I’m reading D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, the first in the trilogy which includes Women in Love and Aaron’s Rod.

The Rainbow is a family saga, poetic, incandescent, and rich with adjective-and-adverb-heavy prose, Thomas Hardy on drugs.

On the opening page, Lawrence describes the Brangwen family.

They were fresh, blond, slow-speaking people, revealing themselves plainly, but slowly, so that one could watch the change in their eyes from laughter to anger, blue, lit-up laughter, to a hard blue-staring anger, through all the irresolute stages of the sky when the weather is changing.”

Shouldn’t this be read aloud?

rainbow d-h-lawrence- modern libraryParts of The Rainbow are fascinating, parts are dull, parts are surprisingly erotic.  (The erotica was considered shocking, and the book was prosecuted in an obscenity trial in 1915, prefiguring the prosecution of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in obscenity trials in the UK and U.S.) Lawrence is lyrical about sex, except when he’s maundering about powerful women destroying men through sex:  Anna is somehow destroying Will’s supremacy through dancing around naked and pregnant.  It’s sort of a Gaia vs. Chronos thing, I suppose.  Anna is lost in her fecundity:  she has so many children that we don’t exactly know how many.

But on page 200, the powerful section about their daughter Ursula begins.

In The Rainbow, we follow Ursula’s story from birth through young womanhood.  She struggles as a student and a teacher to make her life mean more than the mechanization of society. (In  Women in Love, she is very much in control of her own life, negotiating a relationship with artistic Rupert Birkin, a school inspector.).  Ursula dreams about poetry and love, loves freedom, and dislikes the discipline of school until she becomes involved with a lesbian teacher who takes advantage of her.  (I had completely forgotten this lesbian relationship, which doesn’t last long:  Ursula fobs off her lonely, pathetic lover on her industrialist uncle.)

After matriculation,  Ursula hates staying home with her lax mother and all the undisciplined children, so she becomes a teacher at 17.

The school is horrible, as so often these places are.  Lawrence is brutally honest:  he was himself a teacher for a time and does not sentimentalize.   Ursula  has 60 students (an impossible number, as any teacher will tell you),  has no training, and barely knows what she is saying half the time.  Her view of education is artistic and Rousseu-like, but this is not suitable to the dynamics of the large group or the expectations of the headmaster.   She must learn to discipline the students mechanically, stop seeing them as individuals (which is difficult to do anyway in a huge group), and prepare them for tests.   Ursula learns she will lose her job if she doesn’t discipline the students:  her headmaster often grabs one of them, canes them, and says they are the worst group in the school.  After she has been so soft and sympathetic, the students despise her.  They taunt her, and some of the boys throw rocks at her as she walks home.  Finally she canes a boy and regains authority.  It is a horrifying experience.  But then she is accepted as a teacher.

I star and bracket p. 393.

I star and bracket p. 393.

Her friend, Maggie, another teacher who does the job as a job and dislikes it, helps her survive.  Both love poetry and nature, and this time it Ursula has a straight relationship, a warm non-sexual friendship with a woman.

I used to teach part-time to eke out a living, and at one particularly horrible school (the only horrible one, to be honest), another rebellious teacher, a man who couldn’t believe FOR THIS HE’D GONE TO COLLEGE, respected the school so little that he turned in his grades only when it was convenient for him, and begged me to run away to San Francisco with him and teach at a hip school he’d heard of, which made me laugh very hard, because my particular subject wasn’t taught much out west, and did his girlfriend know about the proposed menage?  He was a good friend, and thought this was very funny, too.

I don’t usually write in books, but starred and bracketed page 393, fascinated by Lawrence on suffragettes, freedom, and work.

Here Ursula passionately denounces the workplace.

It was so difficult.  There were so many things, so much to meet and surpass.  And one never knew where one was going.  It was a blind fight.  She had suffered bitterly in this school of St. Philip’s.  She was like a young filly that has been broken in to the shafts, and has lost it freedom.  And now she was suffering bitterly from the agony of the shafts.  The agony, the galling, the ignominy of her breaking in.  This wore out her soul.  But she would never submit.  To shafts like these she would never submit for long.  But she would know them.  She would serve them that she might destroy them.

A very great book:  Lawrence is original, writes strangely but poetically, is often underestimated, and is sometimes sexist, occasionally absurd, but has created some of the best women characters in literature.

Jack Kerouac & The Other Middle-Aged Woman

kerouac-on-the-roadI’m in an elevator in a bookstore with a middle-aged woman who’s carrying a Nora Roberts book, a student in a ‘clones T-shirt and pajama pants who’s looking at his phone, and a tall blond man in a tight herringbone sportscoat over tight faded jeans who is reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

I wonder if he knows the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.

That’s what Jack Kerouac said; I didn’t say it.

I’m a white-haired middle-aged woman who’s muddy from bicycling in the rain and my bicycle helmet is balanced on my basket of books.

“I hope we don’t get stuck in the elevator,” says the other middle-aged woman tossing her hair, staring at the blond man.

He says nothing.

“It’s a short ride,” I say.

She glares at me.

If you’re waiting for a punch line, there isn’t one.

Banter.   I am not that friendly.  I don’t often speak in elevators.  Her banter was aimed at him; my banter was a aimed at covering up her banter.

I am so glad the top book in my basket is Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick–let’s go with the science fiction if we’re in an elevator watching a plump middle-aged woman hitting on a beautiful younger man.  As the other middle-aged woman, I understand what she doesn’t want to understand:  he is seeing her/us as maternal.

As a bicyclist, I have chatted with, and let’s face it, lived with men who read On the Road and who, like Kerouac’s Sal, take cross-country trips to San Francisco, only on bicycles instead of cars, and with a bit more than $50 in their pocket. They want you to take their picture at the beginning and end of their trips. They courteously fix your flat tire and then insist you ride fifty more miles.  You camp and the bugs get in the tent while they update their Crazy Guy on a Bike page on their iPad, and then they say they’re too tired to ride back to the diner and isn’t there a can of soup?  And then you have to explain that you will ride back to the diner in the dark by yourself if you have to because you are not heating up a can of soup when what you want is a hamburger.

The other middle-aged woman makes a desperate move and sidles closer to him .  “What are you reading?”

DING.  The elevator door opens.

The Beats

Brilliant graphic history by Harvey Pekar, et al

He leaves.

Kerouac wrote, “I was surprised, as always, at how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

And, “They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there – and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see.”

No worries.  The Beat women had to worry a little harder.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Girl Books!

Photo on 2013-05-07 at 20.18 #2

Mirabile Reads Girl Books!

Getting lost in Barbara Kingsolver’s entertaining new novel, Flight Behavior, made me realize something is missing from my reading this year.

I’ve read classics by Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, and Virgil.

I’ve read Jonathan Lethem.  One can never read too much Jonathan Lethem.

I’ve read Tom Wolfe and Peter Stothard, journalists who have turned respectively to fiction and history/memoir/travel.

I’ve been moved and saddened by Kent Haruf’s lovely novel, Benediction, put my head down in exhaustion over Dave Eggers’s very masculine novel, A Hologram for a King, relished Nick Hornby’s humorous masterpiece, Juliet, Naked, and been stunned by the gorgeous prose of Graham Joyce in The Silent Land.

What is missing?

Girl books!

You know exactly what I mean if you are a woman.

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver writes not just about climate change, but marriage, makeup, and hair.  I very much enjoyed Dellarobia and Dovey’s shopping trip to the secondhand store, and think I recognize that emerald-green jacket.

It’s not that I’ve ignored girl books.  I’ve loved Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (the book about the teacher who doesn’t get the man she loves), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery masterpiece, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Year, the story of a girls’ friendship in the ’50s, and Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle, a novel about two unmarried sisters in their fifties.  I have read more books by women than men this year, but my relief when I read about Dellarobia’s doing dishes and eating at the Dairy Prince made me realize I NEED to read about women’s lives.

So I intend to add a lot of women’s books to my summer TBR.  Here is a list of 10, and please recommend others!

Wuthering Heights lithograph by Bartlett Freedman

Wuthering Heights lithograph by Barnett Freedman

1.  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  This is my favorite book!  I’ve read it, reread it, reread it, reread it.   When the doctor saw me sitting up in bed, eating Junior Mints and reading Wuthering Heights, he decided I could go home from the hospital.  (He had not been impressed a few days earlier when he saw me reading Barbara Pym’s A Few Green Leaves.)  I own a charming Heritage Press edition of WH with Barnett Freedman’s lithographs, but it seems a little fragile, so I’ll have to be careful with it.  WH is the story of Catherine and Heathcliff, then Cathy and Hareton, narrated by Mr. Lockwood, a nondescript tenant who hallucinates when he stays overnight in Catherine’s room…   The Brontes have bad taste in men, but Heathcliff seemed appealing when I was 20.

Flora by Gail Godwin2.  Gail Godwin’s Flora.  “She’s supposed to be good,” one of my friends said vaguely of Gail Godwin:  there was  a display of her book in the window of Iowa Book and Supply.  I loved The Odd Woman, her novel about a professor who is writing about George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Flora is supposed to be a variation on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

3.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.  Everybody else has read this, right?  I finally got a copy.  There was that birthday a couple of years ago when everybody refused to take me to the Julia Roberts movie, and I had to sit through a silly comedy about artificial insemination.  But now I have the book, and can travel by armchair to Italy, India, and Bali…

Rose in Bloom4.  Louisa May Alcott’s Rose in Bloom.  Alcott’s best novel by far is An Old-Fashioned Girl,  but this summer I want to catch up on Rose in Bloom.  In Eight Cousins, Rose Campbell is a teenage orphan, who loses her lady-like ways when her guardian, Uncle Alex, takes her to live among her male cousins.  In the sequel, Rose in Bloom, she is in love with Mac, the bookworm.  I was probably eight when I last read it.

5.  Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl:  A Memoir.  I can’t wait to read this memoir:  I loved her Country Girl trilogy, a lyrical coming-of-age story about Caithleen and Baba, two bickering, mischievous friends who contrive get expelled from a convent school and later move to Dublin and find love.

6. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.  I am looking forward to this postwar ghost story in which Dr. Faraday is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall and…

maddaddam margaret atwood7.  Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, the conclusion to her post-apocalyptic science fiction trilogy.  I’ll have to get ready by digging out my copies of Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood and rereading them.

8.  Nancy Mitford’s Frederick the Great.  NYRB is reissuing it, and guess who has a hardcover edition in the back room? I loved her biography of Madame de Pompadour; maybe I’ll get around to Fred.

Best of Everything rona jaffe9.  Pamela Haines’ Tea at Gunter’s.  It has the word tea in it; that’s enough for me.  I have had good luck with the reprints in the Bloomsbury Reader ebooks series, and very much enjoyed Pamela Haines’s A Kind of War.  On to another good middlebrow novel…

10.  Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything.  It may be trash, but this 1958 novel looks like exactly my kind of thing: about five women employees of a New York publishing company, their love lives and dreams.

Please recommend your favorites!

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior: Crushes & Climate Change

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverWhen Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change.  Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is.  Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family.  She creates a plausible fictional overview of a  problem that will not go away.

Not only is Flight Behavior a passionate novel about climate change,  it is  also a mad housewife novel. The 28-year-old housewife heroine is so desperate for fulfillment that she is willing to throw away her marriage for a powerful crush on a hot telephone man, a scientist, or almost anybody.

One has to laugh, though crushes are not necessarily funny. Kingsolver, who wrote brilliantly about sex in Prodigal Women, knows what goes through a woman’s mind when sex determines her flight behavior.  And whether she flies or not, Dellarobia views her crush object ironically.

The high incidence of fantasy in mad housewife novels is endearing.  What do mad housewives possess without their fantasies? This smart, often wickedly funny novel complements Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, Robert Irwin’s The Limits of Vision, Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean the Termite Queen, and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.

The heroine, Dellarobia, a smart, vivacious red-haired woman without a college education, has serious problems.  Stuck on a poor farm near Feathertown, Tennessee, with her dull husband, Cub, two young children, and in-laws next door, she has no money and no books. (The library in town has closed.)  She doesn’t love Cub, who is interested mainly in truck engines, but they married because she got  pregnant at 17.  The first baby was born dead, but she stayed:  now they have a kindergartener, Preston, and a toddler, Cordelia, and live in a ranch house her in-laws built for them on the farm.

Why fall for the telephone man?  Why not?  “She’d had crushes before, but this one felt life-threatening…” She drops off her children at her mother-in-laws, and then climbs the mountain to meet him wearing the uncomfortable genuine calfskin boots she found at Second Time Around.  The boots are her first purchase for himself in a year besides hygiene products

So why put them on this morning to walk up a muddy hollow in the wettest fall on record?  Black leaves clung like dark fish scales to the tooled leather halfway up her calves.  This day had played in her head like a movie on round-the-clock reruns, and that’s why.  With an underemployed mind clocking in and out of a scene that smelled of urine and mashed bananas, daydreaming was one thing she had in abundance.  The price was right.  She thought about the kissing mostly, when she sat down to manufacture a fantasy in earnest, but other details came along, setting and wardrobe.

It makes sense to me.

But then she sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees.  And so she returns home, thinking it is a sign that she should not risk her marriage and children for a crush.

monarch butterfliesThe orange flames turn out to be butterflies:  monarch butterflies have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change.  Dellarobia’s in-laws, Bear and Hester, who are struggling to support their farm and a machinist’s business,  want to sign a contract with loggers to clear-cut the mountain. But Dellarobia urges Cub to take his parents up and look around before they sign, and when they see the butterflies, Cub believes that Dellarobia  had a vision.  He stands up at church and testifies, and pretty soon people think the butterflies are a miracle.

Dellarobia has been on the news because of her “vision,” and it is all over the internet. She regrets having talked to the TV reporter.   Church groups and tourists begin to come, and often her mother-in-law, Hester, is the guide.

Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver

And then a gorgeous black man, Ovid Byron, shows up in a VW.  He is a scientist, here to study the butterflies.

And, yes, Dellarobia has an instant crush.  As she tells her best friend Dovey on the phone, he looks “like Bob Marley’s cute brother that avoided substance abuse and got an education.”

Soon Dellarobia becomes a fount of knowledge about butterflies and climate change., and perhaps she learns so much because her crush on Ovid is so great.  Yet it all seems perfectly natural:  she is very, very bright, and the scientific details are woven naturally into the story as she begins to work for Ovid and the students.

But even Dellarobia has a hard time accepting everything science tells her.  Ovid tells her that the butterflies will probably become extinct because the mountain in Tennessee is not like the ones in Mexico.

These insects have been led astray, for whatever reason. But breeding and egg-laying are still impossible for them until spring, when the milkweeds emerge.”

“So if they die here, they die.”

“That’s right,” he said.

She despised this account, the butterflies led astray. She’d preferred the version of the story in which her mountain attracted its visitors through benevolence, not some hidden treachery.

Different people view the butterflies differently.  To the scientists it’s not a matter of activism, it’s about observation.  Dellarobia refuses to give up, and her interactions with different environmental groups give her a different perspective on the science.

Dellarobia’s crush on Ovid is strong, but he works around it and doesn’t mention it:  this is a Barbara Kingsolver novel, not a romance novel.

And as a result of the work and new knowledge, we see Dellarobia’s life change rather abruptly, but satisfyingly.

It is  probably a little too perfect.

But we’re talking about the last 50 pages.  Kingsolver’s elegant, sometimes even exotic, writing actually reminds me a bit of Edith Wharton’s prose.  This is a very good novel.