Book Groups and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower

I’ve belonged to many old-fashioned “real-life” book groups.  I used to lead a book group.  That was my favorite, of course.

book groupBut the popularity of book groups seems to be waning here in my Midwestern city.  The membership of one of my book groups has completely turned around in 10 years.  It is now a kind of lonely group, where older women chat about grandchildren (a stage of life I will never reach, because I didn’t “breed”) and the men talk about their odd hobbies, collecting The Smiths memorabilia or Civil War junk.  If only the women and men would get together…but I think the men are all gay.

The genre book groups I used to attend were more interesting, but have buckled with the closing of Borders. Believe me, mystery and science fiction fans know far more about their genres than the average literary fiction reader knows about contemporary literature.

The interactions at online book groups these days are often more intelligent than those in real-life book groups. Some group members write amazing essays on Trollope, Zola, Clyde Edgerton, Sandra Cisneros, or whomever they are reading.

The history of online groups goes back to the ’80s. When I got online in the late 1990s, AOL hosted dozens of book groups at a site called Book Central, where readers posted on “boards” about what they were reading and the books scheduled for monthly discussions.   One year many of us attended The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and it was delightful to meet online friends.   We also heard  Jill McCorkle, Susan Choi, Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Madison Smartt Bell, Daniel Wallace,  and Elizabeth Spencer.

Eventually AOL closed down Book Central.  Many of us left AOL.  And I have to admit, we drifted apart.

And so I joined Yahoo book groups, which are conducted in email instead.  Many of these groups are terrific, but participation has waned over the years here, too.  I haven’t received an email from the Dorothy Sayers group since August 12.  I used to receive 70 or 80 a day.

Bloggers sponsor group reads, but that never works out well for me.  You sign up… you read the book… you blog about it… you go back to the original blog and post a link to your blog in the comments…  it’s kind of like an ad…  maybe two or three people come to your blog… and it doesn’t seem to be much of a discussion.  I am accidentally doing the “Virago All the Time” group read, because I have posted about a Virago, Mary Hocking’s Good Daughters.   I loved Good Daughters, but it’s a family saga, not literature.  I can’t commit to reading books by publisher!  (But don’t be upset with me, Virago fans:  I feel this way about NYRB and Persephones, too.  Some are good; some are crap.:))

A few days ago I announced I would spend less time reading traditional book review publications online like The New York Times Book Review.  With the death of my mother, I realized I don’t want to spend too much time online. I am going mainly to internet-only book sites now.

And guess what?  It works.  I am spending less time online.

But there are no untraditional book sites.  The internet is probably owned by Amazon and Google.

Goodreads (owned by Amazon), Shelfari (owned by Abebooks, owned by Amazon) and LibraryThing (40% owned by Amazon) are the natural places for online book groups now.  Goodreads looks by far the best for book discussions–in fact, it reminds me of the old AOL boards–and you can also set up individual pages about the books you read.  I also find it adorable that Goodreads hosts a 2013 Reading Challenge.  So far, 406,244 participants have posted the number of books they want to read this year.

All right, I’m not into things like that.  But I may join a book group discussion.

Let me know about your “traditional” online book groups, or any “untraditional”  book publications.

200px-ParableOfTheSower(1stEd) Octavia ButlerScience Fiction.  I just finished Octavia E. Butler’s very well-written, if uneven, novel Parable of the Sower.  Butler is an African-American science fiction writer (1947-2006), winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards and the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.

Parable of the Sower, which I found shelved in the literature section of a bookstore, is a dystopian novel abouta future where (barely) middle-class and working-class people in the U.S. live behind walls, where they struggle to make enough money to buy water, where cities are trashed, and where pyromaniacs take a drug that makes watching fires feel like sex.

The narrator, Lauren, a Baptist minister’s daughter, has hyperempathy, a condition where she feels the pain that she witnesses.  When she bicycles with her family and neighbors to church in their small city in California, she tries not to look at people who are crippled or ill.

…most of the street poor–squatters, winos, junkies, homeless people in general–are dangerous.  They’re desperate or crazy or both.  That’s enough to make anyone dangerous.

Worse for me, they often have things wrong with them.  They cut off each other’s ears, arms, legs…. They carry untreated diseases and festering wounds.  They have no money to spend on water to wash with so even the unwounded have sores.

Lauren loves her father, but she does not believe in his religion.  She has made up her own belief system, Earthseed. She teaches that God is neither good nor bad, God does not care about people, God is change, and you can shape change, i.e., God.  Lauren wants to form an Earthseed community:  the goal will be eventually to travel to a planet where people can live.

Lauren foresees that the neighborhood walls will be destroyed.  But her father explains that you cannot give people too much terrifying information:  it is better to offer classes in self-defense and plant identification than say they will need it. Her father disappears a few days before the neighborhood is burned and looted.  Lauren is the only survivor of her family,

And then it becomes the usual dystopian fiction:  she and two survivors from the neighborhood travel north, hoping to find work.  On the road they make new friends and allies, camp in dangerous places, shoot pyromaniacs, and strip dead bodies of money and clothes. Much of it is quite gruesome.

I have read enough dystopian fiction to last a lifetime, but this is good as that kind of thing goes.  Fans of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games will undoubtedly enjoy this.   There is a sequel, Sower of the Talents. Perhaps I won’t read the sequel, but I will read more Butler.

My Grandmother’s Letter

a-vintage-style-portrait-of-a-woman-writing-a-noteMy grandmother wrote this letter in 1943 to my aunt.   Those of  you who enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels (recently reissued in a Library of America edition) may be reminded of the eighth novel in the Little House series, These Happy Golden Years, in which Alonzo Wilder courts Laura while she is working as a one-room schoolteacher.

December 22, 1943

Dear  Jean,

If you live to be a hundred you may never get another letter from me written in a hospital.

So, for that, and other reasons, this is going to be unique.  No present to send you this year.  Tears squeeze out when I think of it.  All I can do is write to you and Bill.

I thought in the night of a story to tell you.  A romance, if you please.  You’ll say, there is nothing in mother’s story could be like me because we are opposites: she was the timid kind and I’m a go-getter.  (Hard to write, keep watching the door for the doctor.  I’m going to be all relaxed with my eyes shut so he won’t think I’m making too much effort.)  Here it is.  Your father was the best-looking young man in the Wheelerwood neighborhood.  (Neighborhoods were only a few square miles in horse and buggy days.)  Father was the tallest, and handsomest, with dark hair like Bill’s, and had dandified ideas of dressing, and a good-looking horse and buggy to drive which was equal to a car nowadays.  A lady-killer he was, he’d gone with lots of girls and to dances and everywhere young people went to make big time.

Mostly his whoopee was harmless, but a few times he went too far and was ashamed.  I never had a fellow, went once with somebody and the boredom was mutual.  That was the way it was when I was 18.  I had admired Father from a distance since my first sight of him.  He had walked home from Sunday school with us girls once.  Sister Olive was the attraction.  She was thought to be the prettiest but she had a young man coming from Grinnell to see her, so Father dropped that lead.  I was fifteen then.  Later, he went with Estella a year or more, off and on.  Estella was a good dresser, like she always fixed her own girls.  Well, then it happened when I was 18, we had all gone to Wheelerwood S. S. and built a fire and crowded round it to get warm.  When the others scattered around the room I stayed by the stove and so did Father.  That seemed queer but, to be doing something, I opened the “hot blast” in the top of the stove, “so the fire would burn better.”  Dad promptly shut it and told me, “It burns better closed.”  He didn’t know any more than I do, I thought stubbornly and reached again.  Isn’t that silly, remembering every tiny detail.  well, while we lingered there he asked me to go to Fairview church with him that evening and I took the plunge.  I was never one to do things on the spur of the moment and to go with Dad was undreamed of.  We visited together like two people just made for each other.  In all my life I never had talked with anyone like we did.  The second time I went with Father he told me I was his girl and we were going to get married.   This is long in the telling, isn’t it, Jean, and what I just wrote is a proper ending.  But it took three years courting after that.  You see I had read many a story of girls who believed and trusted to their sorrow.  No gay young man was going to make a fool out of me.  So whenever Dad talked getting married (which was every blessed evening we spent together, ambling along country roads behind old Prince or Daisy), I was on my guard.  One Friday evening he brought me home from Wilson’s where I boarded and taught school and I had been doing some stern thinking–why does he go to all this trouble, taking me so far in this bitter cold weather (6 or 8 horse miles) every Sunday and Friday?  It isn’t possible that he loves me because I’m so dumb and homely.  Well, I can’t figure it out but I must say Thank You.  I did, just when Dad was putting his coat on after warming in the kitchen.  It made him angry and he made me take back that Thank You, incautious whispers so as not to wake the sleeping family.  “But I don’t know why you do it,” I told him and he answered, “You do, too, know why I do it” and kissed me and went home.  The second Christmas he gave me my ring.  I accepted it but with reservations in my own mind.  Used to give him back my ring every so often, and then we had to talk and talk for hours, ironing out all the misunderstanding, and then I’d have my ring back and everything was like heaven between us, all but that stubborn doubt I never could quite be rid of.  Remember once I planned to settle it, more matter of fact about breaking our engagement, only not give him back the ring at all.  Because he used to no pay much attention to what I said, only insist that I must keep wearing my ring.  This time he wouldn’t know until later when he found the ring in his breast coat pocket.  I got it slipped in there cautiously, and then I got scared for fear he might not find it and it be lost.  From somewhere about me I got hold of a safety pin–oh, goodness, was I a silly girl.

Jean, I always meant to tell my daughters about their father and mother, if they cared to listen.  But whether you read all this through or not it is a secret between us that I’ve told you.  We women ought to stick together.



Miss Manners, My Mother, & Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour

Sleeping_Girl_crying source_cropped lichtensteinMy cousin complimented me on not wearing black to the funeral.

“Such a cliché.  Wear what you want!”

I raised my glass of tea ironically.  “Yeah!  Power to the people!  Smash the state.”

Miss Manners says you should wear something dark to a funeral, but f___ Miss Manners.  If you have a beautiful dress, you wear your beautiful dress.  If, like me, you haven’t worn a dress in 10 years, you wear trousers and a decent shirt.

I never wear black in the summer:  it’s just too hot.

My mother didn’t own anything black.  Not one thing.  Nor did her elderly friends wear black to the funeral.  They wore multi-colored trousers and tops.

My cousin made a point of attending  my mother’s funeral, but then had to drive 100 miles back so she could go to work at the library (1-8 shift).  I haven’t seen her since the funeral.  I haven’t answered  the phone.  Today she showed up with food, drink, and 10 genre books.

“I’m taking away that Latin dictionary,” she said.  “You are not to read more of that multas per gentes.”

“It would have been good at the funeral.”  I’m talking about Catullus’s elegy to his brother (101).  It begins, multas per gentes

“Yeah, good for whom?”

“My mother was the valedictorian.”

We laughed.   We think my sibling made that up for the obituary.  I certainly never heard it.  My mother used to tell us she got B’s.

“I couldn’t believe he put your name wrong in the funeral ‘program,'” she said.

I kept my maiden name, because I believe the name you are born with tells you who you are.  (In my case, from a family of eccentrics.)  But my sibling put my husband’s last name in the obituary and on the funeral program. The priest referred to me a few times by the name that is not my name.

“Want a drink?” my cousin asks.

“Oh, come on!  I’m on pills!”

We put her Dos Equis in the refrigerator.

I’ve been trying to sleep.  Ten hours if necessary. But I’ve been waking up very, very early.  I look at photo albums and her old yearbooks. So lovely!  The picture in the obituary was appalling:  a picture of her in old age.

Cheer up.

I watched part of M. Night Shyamalon’s Unbreakable, but I have to say it wasn’t very cheering.

Then there’s the mistake of the novel I’ve been reading.

Diaries of Jane Somers Doris LessingI read Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour, a novel she wrote pseudonymously under the name Jane Somers.  I did not know when I picked it up that it was a novel about a middle-aged woman’s friendship with an elderly woman. (It is appropriate, but I was looking for escape.)  Jane Somers, the narrator, an assistant editor of a women’s magazine, befriends Maudie, a ninetyish woman she meets at a pharmacy.  And she does things for Maudie that she had not done for her own dying mother.

It is the smell that gets to her.  Maudie is incontinent.

When I got home that evening I was in a panic.  I had committed myself.  I was full of revulsion.  The sour, dirty smell was in my clothes and in my hair.  I bathed and washed my hair and did myself up and rang Joyce and said, ‘Let’s go out to dinner.’  We had a good dinner at Alfredo’s and talked.  I said nothing about Mrs. Fowler, of course, yet I was thinking about her all the time.  I was looking around at the people in the restaurant, everyone well dressed and clean, and I thought, if she came into this restaurant…well, she couldn’t.  Not even as a cleaner, or a washer-up.

Lessing is always brilliant.  That is how it was when my mother got very old.  When I visited,  I washed her if she didn’t make it to the bathroom.  It was clear she could not manage at an assisted living facility, which does not supply services for the disabled or very ill, but it took many emails to relatives, her breaking a hip and lying all night on the floor unattended, and the intervention of my mother’s neighbor (who called the director and accused him of elderabuse) before she got out of there.

Twenty-four-hour care at home would have been best, and she could have afforded it, but she was put in a five-star nursing home, which at least was better than the ALF.  The care was adequate, but once I was hit with such a bad smell that I couldn’t sit in the room.  I demanded cleaning supplies and air freshener.

In Lessing’s book, Maudie is afraid of losing her apartment and being put into a home.  Jane makes it possible for her to stay by visiting every day, buying groceries, doing some cleaning, and eventually getting her to accept some social services.

Maudie, like my mother, was not ready to die when the time came.

Jane thinks:

Oh, God, if only she would die.  But of course I know this is quite wrong.  What I think now is, it is possible that what sets the pace of dying is not the body, not that great lump inside her stomach getting bigger with eery breath, but the need of the Maudie who is not dying to adjust–to what?  Who can know what enormous processes are going on there, behind Maudie’s hanging head, her sullen eyes.  I think she will die when those processes are accomplished.

“Help me,” my mother said.  I’ll always be haunted.  As my husband said, she took a sip of orange juice as soon as I sat down and held the cup with straw up to her mouth.

So if I had been there…?

One can’t think like that.  She lived a long life.

I was not her caregiver or heir.  I was the daughter who lived far away for most of her life.

I am sure she is at peace now.

Here is Catullus 101:  Adapted as an elegy for my mother, by changing endings from masculine to feminine.  The internet is sort of like the afterlife, don’t you think?

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vecta
advenio has miseras, mater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsam,
heu misera indigna mater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe pio multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, mater, ave atque vale.

The Simple Life

library of america louisa-may-alcott-little-women-men-jos-hardcover-cover-artMy mother’s life was very simple.

No computer.  No answering machine.

My sibling claims she was valedictorian of her high school class, but I think he made it up for the obituary.

Out of the house every day. Dinner at my grandmother’s or Hamburg Inn.  Movies.  Made sure I had a copy of Little Women and a bicycle and then left me alone.

Squinting:  "Thanks for the bike, Mom!"

Squinting: “Thanks for the bike, Mom!”

I still read.  Obviously.  A hard-core environmentalist, I never learned to drive.  Deliberately.  I am still riding my bike.

But today I went to 36 sites online, most of them book-related, instead of biking.  (Well, I biked to the store, but that doesn’t count.)

Why didn’t I turn off the computer?

Much as I love book reviews, I am weary of them.

It happened this week.  Suddenly.  After the funeral.  I realized I need time, not online time.

Why go to The New York Times when I have already read my 10 free articles for the month?  Or The Washington Post Book World, where absolutely nothing looks interesting lately?  I can’t possibly read every book in translation I read about in the TLS.  I don’t need to read book review publications more than once a month.

I am cutting way, way back.  I will use my online time for internet-only features like blogs and internet magazines.

The internet is for the unconventional, right?  Or used to be.  So why use it for traditional stuff?

I have been uninterested in the new books reviewed lately.  No way am I reading the heavily-promoted Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, by Boris Kachka.

I don’t like that sucking-up of “Most Celebrated” in the title. And it so happens that none of the books I’ve loved this summer has been published By FSG.  Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances (Knopf).  Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint).  Andre Aciman’s Harvard Square (Norton).  I pay no attention to publishers, but that’s the way it’s turned out.

Pamela Erens’ The Virgins (Tin House), yet another novel about an “exclusive boarding school,” received a rave review by John Irving in The New York Times.  It may be brilliant–I don’t know Erens’ work–but I gave up boarding-school lit after Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language.

And I can’t read any more books about the Kennedys, even if Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days is good.

Here is a list of books I’ve read this month.  Only one new book, and I found out about none of them from reviews!

  1. Anna Karenina. A reread I started last spring and just finished.  One of my favorite books.
  2. Good Daughters by Mary Hocking.  Ad in back of Virago.
  3. The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough.  At Amazon or Barnes and Noble website.
  4. No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up–, by Ford Madox Ford.  Rereads.
  5. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.  A reread, inspired by Emily Books.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale graham joyceNot only do I not need reviews, I apparently no longer need award lists.  Today I discovered that I have read two of the finalists for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel without reading any reviews.  Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a brilliant novel about a woman who disappeared 20 years and returns saying she was abducted by faeries (or was she psychologically damaged?); and The Drowning Girl by Caitla­n R. Kiernan is a strange, lyrical, fantasy-cum-psychological novel.

My husband says I’m a book magnet, and I think it’s true.

I’ll still be blogging and reading your blogs, but I’ll be leading a simpler life online.  If you have any recommendations for internet-only sites–like book clubs at GoodReads–I’m game!

Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End

parades-end-ford-madox-hardcover everymanYes, Christopher Tietjens is my favorite character in literature.

He is the hero of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s elegant Modernist tetralogy about World War I: Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post.

There is no one like Tietjens, not in my life, nor in yours. We’ve all had smart, witty boyfriends and husbands, but is there anyone as honorable as Tietjens?  Not in the twenty-first century.  He is thoughtful, ethical, chivalrous, philosophical, decent, a brilliant statistician, almost soldier-like in his morality.  His society wife, Sylvia, a beauty whose son is probably not Tietjens’, though he is Tietjens’ heir, has affairs.  He declines to live with her, but because  Sylvia is Catholic, there can be no divorce.  He gives her money and the run of the estate, Groby.  And he enlists in the Army even though he is over forty (as Ford Madox Ford did), partly because he knows he can be a good officer, partly because there is no life for him in England.  Parades’ End is partly autobiographical, the critics say.

In the second novel, No More Parades, we see the extent of Sylvia’s depravity and viciousness:  she wants Tietjens back so she can humiliate him.  She ruins Tietjens’  reputation in the Army by lying about his politics (she says he is a socialist) and by claiming that he is having an affair with a young woman (she is the one having an affair, cruelly, with a man under Tietjens’ command). A general who is in love with Sylvia ships Tietjens to the front, believing he will die there.

In the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up– (which I have just finished), Tietjens waits for the war to end so “a man could stand up.” He is tired of crouching in the trenches, but standing up can get people killed.  The account of a day in the trenches is harrowing.  He is first in command by default, much loved by the men, but he has shell-shock and is afraid of going mad.  But he wants to keep the command for the money.

…Damn it, he was going to make two hundred and fifty quid towards living with Valentine Wannop–when you really could stand up on a hill…anywhere!

Parade's End Ford Madox Ford vintageBefore the war Tietjens met and fell in love with Valentine Wannop, a suffragette.  But he would not make love to her, because she was the daughter of his father’s oldest friend,  and he could not  marry her.

Valentine, however, looked at it differently and was insulted.  She muses about the fact that no one has ever gone mad for her freckled, sandy, snub-nosed looks.

A Man Could Stand Up begins with Valentine’s consciousness, and ends by alternating her point-of-view with Tietjens’.   Valentine hears from Lady MacMaster, a woman who is indebted to Tietjens because he chivalrously did work for her husband that MacMaster took credit for, that Tietjens is back in London, mad from the war and asking for Valentine.

And so Valentine thinks about her relationship with Tietjens.

She had never–even when they had known each other–called him anything other than Mr. So and So… She could not bring herself to let her mental lips frame his name…. She had never used anything but his surname to this gray thing, familiar object of her mother’s study, seen frequently at tea-parties…. Once she had been out with it for a whole night in a dogcart!  Think of that!… And they had spouted Tibullus one to another in moonlit mist.  And she had certainly wanted it to kiss her–in the moon-lit mists a practicality, a really completely strange bear!

A Man Could Stand Up– is a remarkable, harrowing novel about love and war.  In a different, modernist style, Ford’s book is as moving as War and Peace.

Ford considered himself an Impressionist writer, according an article by Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, in The New Statesman (Sept. 7, 2012).  There is action, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness punctuated with dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points.

I cannot tell you if I am in love with Ford or Tietjens, since I have not read a biography of Ford.

But I assume it is Tietjens.

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013

Man Booker 2013 logoI have blogged about the Man Booker Prize every summer since 2009.  This year I haven’t mentioned it.

But I love awards.

Only I’m a little wary now.

I used to read a couple of the Booker longlisted books every year.  Occasionally, but not often, I got around to the winners.

Naturally, I complained a great deal.  My favorites never won.  What happened to A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s  Book?  Or Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side?

I couldn’t face Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (the 2009 winner). I couldn’t even keep my Cromwells straight.  I thought her novel was about the other Cromwell, Oliver.  No, it was about Thomas.  No American would want to read about Oliver or Thomas Cromwell, I thought.  (I read it last year, however, and it was as good as everyone said.)

In 2010 I bravely read a few  inconsequential books on the Booker longlist, like Lisa Moore’s Feburary  (which I compared  to the episode of Friends where Rachel had the baby) and Alan Warner’s The Stars in the Bright Sky (surely a Y.A. book!)

In  2011 Dame Stella Rimington, the chair of the judges that year, emphasized the prize would go for readability.   I read a couple of very violent books on that longlist:  Yyvette Edwards’ A Cupboard Full of Coats  and Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (surely another Y.A. book!).  The literary novels, with the exception of the winner, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, didn’t make the shortlist.

How about last year?  Sorry, I am so far behind I haven’t read any of them except Will Self’s Umbrella. But in 2012, Sir Peter Stothard, TLS editor, author of Alexandria:  The Last Days of Cleopatra, and chair of the judges last year,  said they were interested in literary fiction.  Writers and critics were pleased.

Last year I caught up with previous winners.  I finally read Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), and Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question (2010).

And so this year I am catching up with Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011) and HIlary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (2012).  Then I will have read almost the complete list of Booker winners.

Where does this leave the 2013 longlist?

I have already read most of Colum McCann’s Transatlantic (beautifully-written, but disappointing: the historical transatlantic-in-Ireland segments don’t connect very well ).  I also have  copy of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (written originally as a monologue, so I am doubtful, but I will read it).

Transatlantic colum mccann

I will decide whether to read the other longlisted books on a scale  of my own invention:

1.  The Basically American Scale”:  Jhumpa Lahiri, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

2.  The Most Interesting Scale:  Jim Crace

3. The Great Writer Scale:  Colm Tóibín

4.  The Best Little-Known in the U.S. English Writer:  Charlotte Mendelson

I’m sure many of these other writers are excellent, too, but I don’t know their work.

Here is the complete list.   And if you’ve read any of them and can recommend them, let me know.

Tash Aw – Five Star Billionaire
NoViolet Bulawayo – We Need New Names
Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries
Jim Crace – Harvest
Eve Harris – The Marrying of Chani Kaufman
Richard House – The Kills
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
Alison MacLeod – Unexploded
Colum McCann – TransAtlantic
Charlotte Mendelson – Almost English
Ruth Ozeki – A Tale for the Time Being
Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart
Colm Tóibín – The Testament of Mary

Sweat, Hipsters, & Banned Relatives

peace sign 1We got there on the dot of ten, but the priest was already praying over the body.  The deacon asked if I wanted a minute with the open casket.

I shook my head. On the day she died, I had already said,  “Goodbye, Mom, I love you.”

And I dislike open caskets.

The last funeral I went to was in a Mennonite church.  It was very simple.

Here there was a procession.  My husband and I walked awkwardly behind my sibling and his family who do not speak to me who walked behind the coffin.

“Kat,” hissed my  “banned relative” from a front pew.   I have never been so overjoyed to see him.

“They can’t kick me out,” he had said on the phone.

The priest walked around the coffin shaking incense.  Suddenly the censer broke.  The two vessels (or vessel and lid?) fell off the broken rope.  They were so hot that the deacon had trouble picking them up.

I didn’t know the responses in the Mass.

My dad said, “Why is your brother kneeling?  Isn’t he an atheist?”

We stood and sat.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

I could have sworn it was, “And with your spirit.”  I remember the Latin:  et cum spiritu tuo.

“No, it’s ‘And also with you,'” my husband assured me.

I took communion.

“Body of Christ.”

A pause while I figured out what to say.  “Amen.”

The holy wafer stuck to the roof of my mouth.  In the old days we weren’t allowed to touch it.  It didn’t dissolve.  It was there for the rest of the mass.

I sang the last hymn, “Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring.”

But, on the second verse, we, the family, were expected to troop out of the church.

“Bye, do you need a ride to the burial?”  I whispered to the “banned relative.”  I was a little late leaving the church, but, really, who cared?

I talked to my mother’s friends at the burial service.

Afterwards we had coffee downtown, Chinese food, and went to one bookstore before driving home.

It was a very long day.

Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding & Preparing for a Funeral

This weekend I read the selection from  Emily Books, a women’s bookstore that chooses one e-book a month.  You can subscribe as a member and get the monthly selections, or buy the books one at a time.

This month the selection is Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, which is also available from NYRB.  (I have an old Virago).

Cassandra at the wedding dorohty bakerIn this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, prepares to drive from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding.  Judith, a musician, will marry Jack, a medical student, in a private ceremony.   Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and perhaps a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend.  Their mother died of cancer a few years ago.  She was a writer, often absent.

Cassandra, a graduate student who has written 56 pages of her thesis, has felt suicidal.  She stares out the window of her apartment at

…the bay with the prison islands and the unbelievable bridge across it. Unbelievable, but I’d got to believing in it from looking at it so often,and it had been looking quite attractive to me off and on through most of the winter.  All but irresistible at times, but so was my analyst, and they canceled each other out more or less.

She decides to go home a day early, and on the five-hour drive stops at a bar for vodka and lemon squash.  Cassandra drinks a lot.  She never stops drinking.  And when she looks in the mirror at the bar, she sees her sister’s face.

But I looked again in a moment or two, unable not to, and this time I let myself know who it was.  It was the face of my sister Judith, not precisely staring, just looking at me very thoughtfully the way she always used to when she was getting ready to ask me to do something–hold the stop watch while she swam four hundred meters, taste the dressing and tell her what she left out, explain the anecdotes about the shepherd and the mermaid.

When she arrives, drunk and drinking, she tries to persuade Judith not to get married.  She and Judith are both disturbed by the fact that they have bought the same dress (separately) for the wedding.  Their grandmother thinks it is very funny, because their parents were adamant about their not dressing alike as children.  But Cassandra is devastated.

Cassandra at the wedding viragoThey belong together, she tells Judith.  They are special.  They need to live together in their apartment in Berkeley with their Boesendorfer piano.  Cassandra has had lesbian encounters with a few women, but they have meant little to her.

The next day, Cassandra wakes up and believes Judith has agreed to call off the wedding.  She is mistaken.

Part of the novel is narrated by Judith.  Her voice is likable, balanced, and sensible, and we are relieved that she can separate from Cassandra, and that we can have a break from Cassandra.

Baker’s style is witty, brilliant, and bold, and though this book is not quite a classic–it is a tiny bit overwritten–Baker’s portrait of Cassandra is both richly-colored and convincing.  Cassandra’s voice is wry and often funny, but she is exasperating, sometimes even frightening, when it comes to her relationship with Judith.  Cassandra’s detailed account of the events of her arrival and the following day is harrowing.  She attempts suicide when Judith goes to the airport to meet Jack.

It is a fascinating novel, one you can easily read in a day.  Baker’s husband, Harold Baker, a poet and critic, said that Cassandra and Judith were based on their own daughters, who were not twins, but were astonishingly alike as children.

Is this perhaps the best book about twins?  I did enjoy Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, but it is not in this class.


Photo on 2013-06-09 at 21.11

I can’t wear this to the funeral.

I will go to my mother’s funeral after all.

I am going in her honor.  She went to a lot of funerals.

I will wear matching clothes. Usually my outfits are far from put-together.  A t-shirt and jeans are my normal ensemble.

Today I shopped for funeral clothes.  No, just clothes.  Clothes a woman can wear out of the house.  It took me five minutes to try on ten tops and buy the five most acceptable.

In the morning I will put on whatever seems most appropriate.  Maybe “the matron shirt,” as I call it.  With khakis.  Except my ancient khakis no longer fit. I rummaged through the closet and fortunately found a pair of suitable slacks on the floor.

I will wear sunglasses if I can find a pair. I will literally not be able to see my family if the glasses are dark enough.

I will sit in the back of the church.  No, I’ve been told this is unacceptable.

I will not know when to stand, sit, or genuflect.

I will not know the new (Protestant) end to the Lord’s Prayer that the Catholics added some years back.  “Power and glory something something something?”

I will take some drugs.  No, I don’t take drugs.  Anyway, I have searched the cabinet.  We have:

1.  Vitamin B (always an exciting drug).

2.  Advil (my favorite.  I may chug a couple of those).

3.  Alka-Seltzer Plus.  (It’s a cold medicine.)

4.  Ambien.  (A sleeping pill.)

All right.  Here’s what I’m saying to myself.


To My Mother and to Myself

"A Burial at Ormans" by Gustave Courbet

“A Burial at Ormans” by Gustave Courbet

My mother died this week.  I miss her very much.

Shall I go to her funeral or not? I am not callous.

A divorce split my family forty years ago.  Some people in the family still do not speak to one another.  Forty years is such a long time that I can’t imagine how they keep it up.

“They can’t kick me out,” said one relative who intends to go to the funeral.

But that is exactly the kind of confrontation I hope to avoid.

I do not go to funerals.  My mother went to funerals.  Once she told me not to visit because she was going to a funeral.  “It’s going to be huge,” she said.

I could not comprehend what these funerals meant to her until I ended up with her box of obituaries.

My mother believed in God and went to Mass every week.  I believe in the afterlife for her because she believed.

The death scenes have been a bit like the scenes in War and Peace, when Count Bezukhov is dying , and the three Princesses (his daughters), Prince Vasily Kuragin, and Anna Mikhaylovna (on behalf of the illegitimate Pierre) are intriguing for money.  The Prince tells the Princess that they must find a letter the Count wrote to the Emperor.  If it is sent, the Count’s illegitimate son Pierre will inherit everything.

Although there are no letters in my family, the word “money” is said so often that I have taken care to accumulate very little in my lifetime.  (Does this call for a poem by Horace?  Probably.)

In Chapter 18 of War and Peace, many clichés are uttered.  Tolstoy had a fine sense of irony.

The human span,” said a little old man, some sort of cleric, to a lady who had come to sit by him and was now listening naively to everything he said, “that span is determined and may not be exceeded.”

I had to listen to a lot of cliches like that this week.

My mother was in agony the day before she died.  “Help me,” “I might die,” and “Sorry.”

Sitting next to her while she slept the next afternoon, I flashed on her life.  I worried about the “Sorry.”   I felt that I understood her.  When she was in her mid-forties, her husband left her, I, her daughter, left her, and her mother died. Too much at once.  It cracked her.  In my life it has been more or less one thing at a time, which is a blessing.  Though, frankly?  The two of us both suffered immensely, and there is no point to our sufferings, either.  (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  What shit!)

My mother was a devout Catholic who became more liberal as the years went by because of watching “The View” and other talk shows.  She positively approved of gays at the end of her life.

We had little in common.  She liked TV, I don’t much.  We both liked movies.  She liked shopping, I don’t.  But we became very good friends.

I miss her very much.

I dedicate the following song to the one I love:  her.    John Mellencamp was a Midwesterner, and that kind of identity meant a lot to her.  For instance, she loved Ashton Kutcher because he was a Midwesterner!

Love you, Mom!

Here goes.

“Human Wheels,” written by John Mellencamp and George Green.

This land today, shall draw its last breath
And take into its ancient depths
This frail reminder of it’s giant, dreaming self.
While I, with human-hindered eyes
Unequal to the sweeping curve of life,
Stand on this single print of time.

Human wheels spin round and round
While the clock keeps the pace.
Human wheels spin round and round
Help the light to my face.

That time, today, no triumph gains
At this short success of age.
This pale reflection of its brave and
Blundering deed.
For I, descend from this vault,
Now dreams beyond my earthly fault
Knowledge, sure, from the seed.

Human wheels spin round and round
While the clock keeps the pace.
Human wheels spin round and round
Help the light to my face.

This land, today, my tears shall taste
And take into its dark embrace.
This love, who in my beating heart endures,
Assured, by every sun that burns,
The dust to which this flesh shall return.
It is the ancient, dreaming dust of God.

Human wheels spin round and round
While the clock keeps the pace.
Human wheels spin round and round
Help the light to my face.
Human wheels spin round and round
While the clock keeps the pace.
Human wheels spin round and round
Help the light to my face.

Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

All over the country people were being dislocated, heading off to places they didn’t belong, hoping to somehow find themselves another home.”–Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances

realm of last chancesSteve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances, a spare, brilliant novel about being set adrift in midlife, unflinchingly examines the lives of Kristin Stevens and her husband Cal, both fifty when Kristin is laid off from her job as vice president of academic personnel at a university in California.   Moving to Massachusetts, where Kristin finds a job at a third-rate college, is traumatic:  even the change of seasons is disturbing.  Neither Kristin (named after Kristin Lavransdatter, her parents’ favorite book) nor Cal (a lifelong Californian)  are sure they will survive the move.

Yarbrough writes of Cal, who works construction and is a musician:

He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work.  You had to accept certain things about him, though.  He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen throughout the day….The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call.

Cal has a violent past.  He has secrets.  In fact, Kristin didn’t know when they got married that he’d legally changed his name from Stegall to Stevens.  His father, a developer of cheap housing estates, did time in prison for bribery, mail fraud, and witness tampering.   On the other hand, Cal, more or less in the same line of work, is utterly ethical and  chooses only the best materials for his carpentry and construction.

Every character is believable, lonely, and depressed.

Their neighbor, Matt, is displaced.  He used to be the fiction buyer at the Harvard Emporium.  He dreamed of buying a bookstore in Andover, a gorgeous, wealthy town where he and Kristin (and her coworkers) shop at Whole Foods before returning to their duller suburb.  Matt now works at a friend’s deli.

He lost his job at Harvard Emporium after he volunteered to work the cash registers for an hour a day. He explains to Kristin,

The staff loved it.  You’ve got a very leftist workforce there, and for me to do something as lowly as ringing up sales…well, that created a kind of egalitarian atmosphere.”

But he used that time to embezzle $35,000.  He bought cocaine.

He and Kristin begin to have an affair, but at one point Matt thinks,

He’d let his own nose ruin his own life, and now it looked like his prick would ruin somebody else’s.

Kirstin, who is very snobbish about her new job at first,  is unhappy that she has ended up at North Shore State.  After earning her Ph.D., she was an English professor, though not a very good teacher, she says, and then went into a job in administration.  In California, she  had enjoyed her work.  But North Shore State College, originally a teachers’ college which expanded the curriculum after World War II, has much lower standards, Kristin thinks.

In a purely academic sense–and almost every other sense as well–NSSC was undistinguished, its deficiencies rendered all the more glaring by its close proximity to Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Brandeis, even UMass Lowell.  It was just a third-rate state school, where the students often worked full-time and took seven or eight years to graduate, but this was where she’d ended up.

Then a plagiarism case turns up.  The head of the history department has discovered that two  assistant professors have published articles they’d plagiarized, and that one had  plagiarized a book.  Kristin must document the evidence before she informs the president and the provost.  The two are well-liked and under review for tenure, and Kristin is afraid she might lose her job.  But Kristin, like Kristin Lavransdatter, does the right thing.  She takes risks.

Throughout the entire novel, the characters are under extreme stress and must contemplate morality and justice.  Kristin has never had an affair before, and  the plagiarism case is convoluted. Cal, who is lonely and violent, finds out about the affair, as he must.  And Matt realizes that he must get his life under control.  Does he want to break up a marriage?

The writing in this book is breathtaking.  There is no showing off, no overwriting.  Every sentence is deftly balanced and pitch-perfect.  I have seldom read such a perfect novel.

I highly recommend it.   Perhaps a classic?  Time will tell.