Library Books & London

She would need flannel pajamas more covers if she lived here.

She would need flannel pajamas & more covers if she lived here.

It is 3 degrees.

I should go to the gym.

Instead, I am sitting in bed under 30 pounds or so of flannel sheets, blankets, comforters, quilts, and two cats.  When I get up to make a cup of tea, it is strenuous to get out from under the covers.  It equals, say, 5 minutes on the elliptical.

In weather like this, I love reading in bed.  Not any old thing. Library books.

Meaning books I like to read but will never buy.

I thought about walking to the library in several layers of modish coats, a muffler, ski mask,  and mittens, but I emailed my husband instead.

“Will you pick up mysteries by Robert Barnard for me?  Thanx!”  (I didn’t really write “thanx.”  I am making fun of the culture.)

My husband has a car and often stops by the library.  He picks up dozens of books for me.

When I go through a “library book” phase, I binge on good pop books. The thing about library books is that they’re “lite.”

Sometimes I want Golden Age mysteries. Sometimes I want out-of-print science fiction books by Pamela Sargent.

I have read and enjoyed Robert Barnard’s mysteries over the years, but I can’t remember which I’ve read.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read all the ones with “death” in the title.   Death of a Mystery Writer, Death of a Literary Widow, etc.

I convey this to him via email.

Hours later, he comes home with a stack.  “I got all the newest ones.  He’s written about 100.”

And here I am in bed, delighted with Barnard’s engrossing novel, A Murder in Mayfair, which my husband picked out because I am going to London, and Mayfair is in London… and that’s all we know about Mayfair and London.  Certainly I take note when the narrator goes to a Chinese restaurant near King’s Cross station, and the neighborhood is full of prostitutes.  He hopes it will change when the new British Library opens.  (Did it?)  “Don’t eat Chinese alone at King’s Cross,” I mentally note.   My guidebook already described the area as dicey.  But it’s not in Mayfair, is it?

It is going to be a bookish holiday. I don’t want to see the Changing of the Guards, the Tower of London, or Westminster Abbey.  I am much more interested in books, bookstores, and literary tours, and gasped when I realized that if only I had booked my vacation earlier I could have heard A. S. Byatt on March 1 at the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival.

What a pity I won’t be there!

But there are doubtless other literary events, and I have booked one ticket for a reading, which  I may or may not go to, depending on whether I feel like getting on the train, and I very well may not.  (I may be doing my laundry that day and reading a book by the author instead.)  There  is something so charmingly boring about a good literary event.  Growing up in Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature,  prepared me for all manner of literary boredom.

And now excuse me, but having written 568 very silly words, I must go finish my library book.

And please tell me about your favorite library binge books and your favorite literary festivals.

D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day

Derby Day Taylor AmericanI recently finished D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

Set in Victorian England, this brilliant novel details the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby.

It is not a horse book; it is about the human beings involved with the horse, Tiberius.

Taylor deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative about an unsuitable marriage, theft, discounted bills, forgeries, bets, a surprisingly detailed jewel heist, and the horse race.  The moments of comedy are almost equal to the moments of suspense, and there are many allusions to Dickens’ Bleak House, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and other Victorian novels.

Taylor’s graceful style and irresistible, if crooked, characters make this intricately-plotted novel unique.

Among the more respectable characters is Rebecca Gresham (whom Taylor compares to Becky Sharp), an impassive woman whose aspirations differ from those of her dull social circle, and who is determined to marry George Happerton, a man of mysterious origins. The charming Happerton has some money, whether from speculation or the racetrack.  Rebecca’s father, Mr. Gresham, a well-to-do lawyer, is suspicious of him.

Taylor writes long, elegant paragraphs.  Here is an excerpt from a paragraph in which he describes the relationship of Rebecca and her father.

Mr. Gresham and his daughter fell into that category of people whose want of sympathy is made yet more flagrant by their inability to disguise it. They were not at ease with each other, and the civilities of the breakfast table only fuelled their displeasure. And so Mr. Gresham read what The Times had to say about Mr. Gladstone’s disposition of his Cabinet, and Miss Gresham spread marmalade on a fragment of toast and snapped at it crossly as if she thought it might get away from her, and neither of them, in the matter of temperamental unbending would give an inch.

There are many surprises in this novel.  After Happerton and Rebecca marry, he admits he does not understand her, and is almost shocked when she volunteers to help him acquire Tiberius.  “There was something in her tone that suggested she might be his ally, that she was not averse to her father’s money being spent–the idea of its being lent was a polite fiction–on a horse.”

And there are other memorable characters:  Captain Raff, a comical, if sleazy, friend runs errands for Mr. Happerton:  the two buy up the discounted bills (of debts) of Mr. Davenant, owner of Tiberius, to get the horse (and his house).  Mr. Davenant broods in Lincolnshire, while his daughter, Evie, an albino girl with what we would now call an “intellectual disability,” contributes to the gloomy atmosphere.  Her new governess, Miss Ellington, tells her imaginative stories, but eventually has to give up trying to teach Evie to read.  Mr. Pardew, a burglar and safe-cracker, is one of Taylor’s most vivid characters, and, oddly, I am rooting for him throughout the book, even though he is not the guy you’d want to live next door to.  And then there is Captain McTurk, a brilliant policeman, perhaps a little like Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

I am not always keen on historical novels, but I also very much enjoyed Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a counter-factual history in which Edward VIII does not abdicate because Wallis Simpson dies.  Taylor is an exceptionally skillful writer, and I see why Derby Day was a contender for the Booker.

It makes you want to bet on a horse.  I like the races:  Golden Soul, “my” horse, came in second at the Kentucky Derby last year.

Taylor is also a critic and biographer, and won the Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

Writing in the Age of Writers’ Conferences

"Reading Girl," by Matisse

“Reading Girl,” by Matisse

I have revised my writing and improved it, and I have revised it and gone to hell.

Years ago an instructor at a writer’s conference advised us not to show our work to our family.  Family members, he pointed out, have already seen you naked.  Join a writers’ group.

The instructor was wrong on one count:  my husband very much liked the short story I’d submitted:  it was partly autobiographical, set in a poor urban neighborhood, and there was a scene where a family walked its pet goat down the street.  He recognized that scene.

When the instructor trashed the story in a private conference, I asked why I had been admitted to the workshop.  I did not realize then that writers’ conferences are a big business.  They are a place where one can learn to write, but more than one had been shocked by the instructor’s bluntness. He took us too seriously, and one can only hope at the next conference he loosened up.

He taught us to imitate his style.  No adverbs were allowed, sentences had to be short and simple, and  every story had to be quirky: my story “Suzanne’s” was set in an erotic bookshop, about a woman discontented (no!) with her life; there were drug dealers in another story; and in another a character had an affair with his sister-in-law.

Though the instructor was very good at spotting who would be published–a mystery writer, and a woman who wrote “issue” novels– he did not encourage anybody who wrote what I wanted to read.  Somehow the writers I though very good were never heard of again.

I did not write much fiction after the conference because I had no idea who my new characters were.  Quirky?  They were quirky, but in retrospect I would  have been better off writing for my own enjoyment about characters like myself.  I wasn’t writing for publication, and  I was shocked that my fellow students  already wanted to know how to get published. Most of us needed to work on our writing.

And now, all these years later, I have thrown out almost everything I wrote.

Here are a few lines of an autobiographical novel in verse I started writing some years back, about my friend L, who died at age 48 of complications from diabetes, and me.

Performance art
happened frequently
in our town
[when we were young].
Tree pods
nicked the lawn where we sat drinking coffee.
We caught one and said,
“What is this?”
We were supposed to be in math.
I hadn’t done homework since 1969.
We gathered pods and took them to the secretary’s office.
She smoked and shuffled papers.
She talked on the phone.  She looked at us.
“We need to xerox these,” we said.
“A project.”
She absently waved us behind the gate.
She didn’t care.
She knew us well.
We were always in there for this or that.
We skipped class.
We stole the pink pad of passes from the office.
We were permanently excused from classes.
The college counselor called us into her office constantly.

We glued the xerox
onto someone’s locker.

We couldn’t stop laughing.

We liked the boy
whose locker we had adorned
with phallic art.


See you tomorrow with another blog.

On the Bus, Reading Maps, and Challenges

"Yonkers" by Edward Hopper

“Yonkers” by Edward Hopper

Last week I rode the bus.  I am very familiar with mass transit.  I’ve taken the bus or train in every city I’ve lived in or visited.  The 3, the 4, the 5, the 50, the 60, the Metro, the L, the subway, BART–you name it, I’ve ridden it.

I once interviewed people on a train about what they were reading.

Nobody reads much on the bus here.

And so I was on the bus reading a forgotten novel by Mary Renault, The Friendly Young Ladies, when the bus zoomed past the usual turn on 9th St.  We were in the dodgy neighborhood where my late mother’s nursing home is. I panicked:  Oh no, what bus am I on?

And then I realized it was my mother’s birthday.

I’d had no reason to return to this neighborhood since my mother’s death in August.  It is poor.  There have been shootings.  When I took my mother into the nursing home garden with its very high chain-link fence, she was disoriented.  “What do they need that fence for?” For a long time she didn’t understand that she was no longer in her (and my) hometown.

Last year on her birthday, it was mild.  I rode my bike, stopped to buy a cake, and then unfortunately got a flat tire.  I hopped on the bus.

It was a spooky walk from the bus stop, six long empty city blocks.  A deserted dairy, a block with nothing, finally the hospital, a McDonald’s, a convenience store.  It was safer to ride my bike.

Once I came out of McDonald’s with a cheeseburger for my mom, and a large man asked for money for the bus.

Yes, I know it’s for drugs, but sometimes I give anyway.

“Not in front here,” he said, scandalized. “It’s on video.  They’ll kick me out.”

I wasn’t going to go behind McDonald’s with him, so I stepped to the side of the door, gave him a couple of dollars, and got out of there.

I found my mother sitting in the dark with a towel on her head.

And so I felt a flash of grief.

And then, last week, on the bus it got worse.

I felt like my mom.

I didn’t know where I was.

The driver shot past the busy street where the bus shelters used to be.  The bus had been completely rerouted.

“The next stop is the terminal. You can ride back.”

At the terminal I got off the bus and walked.  I was a little bit west of where I thought it was, but I made my way to a street I knew.

And so I took care of some boring business, and on my way back stopped at a coffeehouse to study the map on the bus schedule.

Finally I found a street on the map I recognized.

And it was a deserted street, and I didn’t want to wait long.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I was ready to get on any bus.

“Do you go past…?”  I asked the driver of a bus.

“Sure,” he said.

It’s map-reading practice for my next vacation, right?

CHALLENGE.  Richard Lea at The Guardian has taken on the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which he thinks very silly.

More than 240,000 of Goodreads’ 25 million members have already committed to reading more than 14m books this year, pledging to get through them at an average of more than a book a week…

“The tickbox, cross-it-off-the-list mindset of the Goodreads Reading Challenge points right in the other direction. I’m all for books, for writers and for literary discussion, but if books become just another form of bookkeeping, if we start notching them off on the wall of our literary cell, we may find our “reads” aren’t so “good” after all.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I approve of book groups and readalongs, but challenges seem ridiculous to me.  Last year I wrote about challenges when I inadvertently did “the Europa challenge.”

Do you know what a Challenge is?

Here’s what you do.  You sign up at the sponsor blog.  Then you choose books to read from the challenge  “syllabus.”  And if you have a blog, you post your reviews, then post comments at the sponsor’s blog, then post links to your blog, and…

It’s confusing….

I think these “challenges” are sweet, but I do better with online book groups.  There is more discussion.

Time is too precious for me to participate in challenges.  I read what I want to read when I want to read it.

Perhaps the “challengers” are very young.  It is a way to belong to a  group where there is no real discussion.

How do you feel about challenges?

In Which I Am a “Daily Life Whore” and Read about Pliny’s Literary Life

Fifty Letters of PlinyPliny the Younger (c. 61-113 A.D.) is a charming Roman writer whom few bother to read.  Was Pliny on our reading list?  I don’t think so.   Yet I took a course in Roman letters, greatly enjoyed Cicero’s self-absorbed outpourings, was fascinated by Seneca’s Stoic letters/essays, and delighted in Pliny’s personal letters. Pliny selected and published nine volumes of his personal letters, which are often spoken of as “artificial.”  Yes, they are polished and rhetorically shaped, but the sentences are short, simple, and readable.  The letters range in topic from his literary efforts to life in the country to the price of land to Trajan’s policies and politics.  Although most of the letters for the course were historically significant–“Pliny asks Trajan for instructions how to treat Christians in his province (XCVI)”; or “How Pliny the Elder perished in the eruption of Vesuvius (XVI)”– I love Pliny because you can glean gossipy information about daily life.

Historians are fascinated that Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan.

I want to know if his friend Octavius Rufus published his poetry.

Pliny was a writer, lawyer, senator, and government official, so he had it all, but I am “a daily life history whore,” and  more interested in Octavius Rufus than Trajan.

In Volume 2, Letter 10, Pliny tells his friend Octavius Rufus that it’s time to publish his poetry. If he doesn’t, the few of his poems that have become publicly known are likely to be attributed to someone else.

Pliny letters oxfordBelow is a rough, literal translation of a few lines so you can see the vivid pictures his words create.  The elegant Latin is more economical than the English, and could also be translated more abstractly, but this is Latin 101…

“Some of your verses have become known and, though you are unwilling, they have broken their locks (broken out). Unless you drag these back into the main body, one day, as vagabonds, they will find someone else whose they will be said to be…..”  (Enotuerunt quidam tui versus, et invito te claustra sua refregerunt. Hos nisi retrahis in corpus, quandoque ut errones aliquem cuius dicantur invenient.)

Pliny goes on to say that giving public readings is the thing to do.

“And about publication, certainly [do] as you wish in the meantime, but anyhow give readings, so that you will feel more inclined to publish, and will finally feel the joy I have long anticipated for you not without reason.” (Et de editione quidem interim ut voles: recita saltem quo magis libeat emittere, utque tandem percipias gaudium, quod ego olim pro te non temere praesumo.)

Pliny loved giving readings himself and tells his friend what he may expect.  “For I imagine what crowds, what applause, what even of silence awaits; when I speak or read, I delight in silence not less than the applause, if it is a silence of close attention and desirous of hearing more.”  (Imaginor enim qui concursus, quae admiratio, te, qui clamor, quod etiam silentium maneat; quo ego, cum dico vel recito, non minus quam clamore delector, sit modo silentium acre et intentum, et cupidum ulteriora audiendi.)

I love readings so much that I thought briefly of organizing a vacation around a literary festival.  I got over that very quickly, though.

Still, if Octavius Rufus is giving a reading I’ll be there…

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Murphy-Brookfield Books

Murphy-Brookfield Books

I was very sad to learn that the 33-year-old Murphy-Brookfield Books, my favorite bookstore in Iowa City, closed last fall.  It sells books online at Abebooks and Alibris.

I posted yesterday on bookstores, and then idly looked up Murphy-Brookfield, which sells Viragos, books by Gilbert Highet about the classics, out-of-print classics, scholarly books, history, biographies, and more.

Martha the bookstore cat

Martha the bookstore cat

Mark Brookfield said in an Iowa City Press Citizen article, “It’ll be very hard to stop having a bookstore.”

And what was his favorite part of having a bookstore?  “Just working with the books, talking to the people.”

The bookstore cat, Martha, a tortoiseshell, helped out.  I would sit on a stool; she would sit on the stool.  I would crouch to look at books; she would look at books.

She hung out.

I loved Brookfield’s apparent policy of leaving people alone.  He was friendly, but didn’t try to “sell” books.

If a used bookstore cannot survive in Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, it cannot survive anywhere.



The historic stone building has been sold to The Haunted Bookshop, another used bookstore.

You can see a video about the two bookstores here.

Tell me about any of your favorite bookstores that have closed.