What I Mean by Middlebrow & Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass

"I'd rather be reading middlebrow!"

“I’d rather be reading middlebrow!”

I wrote my first “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” column on Jan. 24, 2013.  It consisted of  five short pieces on books by Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson.

I use the term affectionately.  It’s all in good fun.  But a friend recently objected to my use of the word, saying it devalued the books I recommended.

I am not a critic.  Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not use “middlebrow” as a derogatory term.

I love language, have a quirky sense of humor, and enjoy the bubbly sound of the word. I often use “middlebrow” to describe well-plotted, traditional novels, or light, charming books that do not quite meet the criteria for classics. We could argue for hours about what is a classic, but the bottom line is that much popular fiction is well worth reading.

It can also give you a sense of the times we live in.

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine HoweOne of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this summer is Katherine Howe’s engrossing second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass. Not widely reviewed when it was published in 2011 but marketed wisely online, it is loved by almost exclusively female readers at Goodreads who say they stayed up all night to read it.

I confess I had a similar reaction.

If you’re interested in the Titanic, spiritualism, or opium dens at the turn of the last century, this well-researched historical novel is for you.  Set in Boston in 1915, it centers on the brilliant, witty Sybil Allston, the spinster daughter who holds her father’s household together after her mother and younger sister, Eula, die on the Titanic.  She turns to spiritualism to contact them, but when the medium  gives her a scrying glass (a tiny crystal ball) to use on her own, she doesn’t expect anything to happen.  As the cracks in her life widen–her younger brother, Harley, gets kicked out of Harvard and is beaten up by thugs, and his disreputable bohemian girlfriend, Dovie, moves in with them on Beacon Street–Sibyl visits an opium den with Dovie.  Under the influence of the drug, she sees scenes of the Titanic in the scrying glass.

It soon becomes obvious that her visions are real.   Her old boyfriend, Benton Derby, a psychologist who studied with William James, has recently been widowed and returned to Boston to teach at Harvard.  Ben can’t decide whether to forbid her to take drugs or experiment on her.

Thinking back on the past, Sibyl remembers her guilty fury when her mother decided to take Eula on a trip to Europe and leave Sybil behind to take care of her father.  At first Eula pretended she wanted to stay home with Sybil.    Sybil observes, with humor,

It was the duty of Boston spinsters to encourage and reassure marriageable young women, and Sibyl slipped into that performance with worrisome ease.  ‘You mustn’t talk that way.  You know mother dotes on you…. Just think of all you’ll see.  The pictures.  A real opera.  The cafes, full of artists and writers and singers.  I’d love to visit a Parisian cafe, you know.  You’ll order your clothes, and if I’m very lucky you’ll lend me a few of them when you get back, provided I haven’t gotten too fat pining for your return, of course.  You’ll meet all sorts of interesting people.’

Sibyl isn’t the only one in the family with psychic powers.  Parts of the narrative follow her father as a seafaring teenage boy in Shanghai, where he sees the future on the drug opium.

And parts of the narrative, set in 1912, describe Eula and Helen’s joyful experiences on the Titanic.  Eula has met the man she plans to marry, and Helen is thrilled by the match.

Great fun to read, and Howe is a smart writer:  at the end, however, the novel definitely turns from literary to pop by a decision Howe makes to focus on all the good things in the lives of the troubled Allston family.   The ending doesn’t spoil the book; it just changes it.  Another turn, and the novel would have been marketed differently, as literary fiction.

Howe, a historian who teaches at Cornell, is also the author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a novel set in Salem about a historian studying witches.

Zero Spending

Bookshelves upon bookshelves when we had the painters in.

Overlapping & sagging laminate bookshelves.

Like Susan Hill, the author of Howards End Is on the Landing, I should spend a year reading only books I own.

I like the idea of zero spending.

Well, perhaps an iced coffee here, a paperback there.

Here’s the thing.

In London I got in the habit of using credit cards instead of money.  The relationship of the credit card to money is like the relationship of the e-book to the book.  What’s real and what’s not? Who knows? How many books did I buy?  I tucked my receipts in a folder and decided to calculate it later. Turns out I only spent $400 on books, including shipping.

High five!

But I have continued absent-mindedly to use my cards in the U.S.

I thought I had an instinctive feeling for low spending.

And then I got this month’s bills.  Between Amazon and Barnes and Noble…

If you have Amazon Prime, you know the temptation of shopping at Amazon.  Two-day free shipping.  When I absolutely must have Volume I of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I order it from Amazon.

There is also the temptation of buying on the Nook.  There you are–you want to read Peyton Place when you have insomnia–so you click on Buy, and you have it.

All right.

I CAN’T spend so much money.

I have to turn off the money-spending thing.

I’m not getting rid of my cards.

There are other options.  I have read a surprising number of books in our huge home library (“Please let’s just open a bookstore,” my husband says), but there are hundreds I haven’t gotten around to.

Then there’s the public library if you’re not too fussy.  Ours is not the best,  but you can check out what I call a “library” read–one of the  latest books that won’t be the latest in six months.

Some people worry about privacy at libraries.  Records of internet searches, etc.  Now that we know about the NSA, who cares?  Well, we do care.   One librarian I know rudely tried to define a friend’s character by the books she checked out. “Mainly mysteries,”  she said scornfully.  (For all she knows, this person Is BUYING most of her books, like us.)

So let’s just say not all librarians have taken a vow of silence.

Some librarians are passionate about civil liberties, others will sell out their patrons.   I wish they were all like the small-town librarian in Alice Hoffman’s novel, The Ice Queen.

The Ames public library is excellent about protecting your privacy: for years they have put the books on reserve in envelopes.

It’s not that I check out anything outlandish.  Right now I have Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, but what if that’s a controversial book?  South American, hm?  Could be, right?

One thing I like very much about my cousin the librarian is that she never reveals what the patrons are reading (except me:  she gets a kick out of posting on Facebook when I reread Villette.   “She is reading the V book again.”).

I plan to limit myself to buying only a book a week for the rest of the summer.

I’m avoiding book reviews and reading the trashy book news instead.

Yes, some of it really IS trashy.

Perhaps if I never read any book reviews or book news…


Two Great Movies with the Actress June Squibb

June Squibb, Golden Globe Awards 2014

June Squibb, Golden Globe Awards 2014

Do you want to know what it’s like to live in the Midwest?  See the movies Nebraska and About Schmidt.  Parts are hyperbolically funny, parts are moving, and both have a Midwestern atmosphere.

Coincidentally, both feature June Squibb.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Nebraska” as Bruce Dern’s aged wife, and also appeared as Jack Nicholson’s  wife in About Schmidt, which begins in Omaha, Nebraska.

Here is the trailer for Nebraska:

Here is the trailer for About Schmidt.

Stroszek Weekend

Werner Herzog's Stroszek

Werner Herzog’s Stroszek

There’s the opera, there’s the literary event, and now, just to make sure my weekend is perfect, a relative called to say he’s coming to town and can he get together with us?

At first I despairingly thought, Yes.  He’s family.

And then, No.  I can’t cope.  I’m not f—ing Aeneas.

My husband says, No.

And my cousin told me I would be crazy to let him come.  “Kat, he is so mean.”

He’s kind of a wild guy.  Undiagnosed bipolar II.  (Bipolar II is the lucky bipolar.  It’s out of control, but not actually hallucinating.)

It’s always tough to deal with him.

He’ll be utterly bored in five minutes, and want to go to a restaurant or a bar to talk to strangers.

Once he arrived in an RV, opened a manhole in the street, and dumped his sewage in it.   Is that manic, or what?  It reminded me of Herzog’s film, Stroszek, about a German road trip through barbaric small-town America.

What can you do?  This is family.  This is why I left the Midwest.  This is why I came back.

Families don’t change.  Original reactions are often right.

The last time we had lunch together, he told my cousin and me how unattractive we were.   This did not actually hurt us.  He has said worse.

My cousin said,  “Wow!  Do you think we WANT to be attractive?”

I said, “One of the great things about being over 50 is that I’ll never have to take off my clothes in front of anybody new.”

“Are we supposed to be Playboy or The Jane Austen Book Club?”

“Do you see any attractive men here?”

“Hmmm.  How about that one?”

“Couldn’t he be more built?”

That one looks like he works out.”

My cousin doesn’t take any shit.  As she says, the minute you try to have a conversation with him he’s looking over his shoulder to see if there’s anybody more interesting.  He didn’t even seem to take it in that we’d insulted him.

This all is wearisome.

He can’t help being who he is, and sometimes what he does is better than what he says.  He’s my blood!  I’ve tried to get to know him.  I’ve tried to like him.

What can I do?  Be insulted?  I’ve done that.

So here’s the plan.

Let’s go to Minnesota!  Or Missouri!  Or anywhere!

No, I’ll just have to call him back.

What Bloggers Do & Catching up on Books

Ms. Mirabile:

“I have fallen behind in writing about books.”

What do bloggers do best?

I’ve been thinking about this since my favorite English blogger, Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader, decided to discontinue his book blog.

He is an excellent writer, his book reviews are thoughtful and reliable, and he did not allow publicists to define what he read.

Still, I understand how difficult these reviews are.

Even writing a book journal can be work. Alas,  I have fallen behind in writing about books.

So this is a catch-up blog on a few books I’ve been meaning to write about: a remarkable literary novel, Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard, and a middlebrow classic reissued by Melville Press, Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars.

Frances and Bernard Carlene Bauer1.  Carlene Bauer’s  Frances and Bernard. This short, pitch-perfect  epistolary novel is based on the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell.   It is a lovely, intense book, and though  I have not read biographies of O’Connor or Lowell,  it would be fascinating to be able to compare the writers with the characters.

Bernard/Robert and Frances/Flannery meet at a writer’s colony.  Bernard writes to a friend,

I met a girl I quite liked–but not in that way…Was a little Mother Superiorish.  She’s just escaped from the workshop at Iowa.  She was the only other real writer there.  Her novel is about a hard-hearted nun who finds herself receiving stigmata.  It sounds juvenile, but it’s very funny.

Frances, who is from Philadelphia (why Philadelphia rather than O’Connor’s Georgia I don’t know), gradually falls in love with Bernard; but she does not want to marry; she wants to write.

Writing can be a burden, though.  She says,

I get the existential shakes–I’m like one of those small metal wind-up toys that chatter in circles until they peter out, exhausted and finally keel over.

Bernard is also an intense writer.  He suffers from bipolar disorder, which Bauer does not romanticize, though it is often associated with creativity.  She does show that it does not adversely affect his brilliant poetry,

The disease makes his life very hard, and his relationship with Frances is rocky.  In one scene, Frances calls the police when she finds him camped  out on her doorstep after a fight.  He punches a cop, and babbles that Frances is his “bride”and that he is “a dragon with his foot on the saint.” They realize he is an altered state and  take him to a mental hospital. Frances is a loyal friend and visits him during his hospitalizations.  But eventually she says she cannot be involved with him anymore.

Bauer fascinatingly describes their intellectual discussions of Catholicism, teaching, reading, madness, and friendship.

A fascinating, sad novel about a romance/friendship between two writers.

The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars 300dpi2.  Maurice Dekobra’s The Madonna of the Sleeping Cars, reissued in the Neversink series by Melville House, reminded me a bit of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat.  Dekobra, a popular French writer, published this best-selling novel in 1925.  Not only is it an entertaining portrait of rebellious New Woman who loses her fortune, but it also features Russian spies.  Through the eyes of the narrator, Prince Gerard Séliman,  we study the impulsive behavior of Lady Diana.

When she hires him as her secretary, she says,

If I add that my banker cheats me, that each year I have seven hundred and thirty invitations to dinner, all of which I couldn’t accept unless I cut myself in half at eight o’clock every evening; if I go on to say that I have, on the average, six admirers a year, without counting casual acquaintances and some exploded gasoline which sticks to the carburetor; that I keep an exact account of my poker debts, that I always help every charitable undertaking, that I am the honorary captain of a squad of police women and I was a candidate in the elections for North Croyden; if I finally admit that I have a very poor memory, that I love champagne and that I have never known how to add, then, perhaps, you will understand why I need a private secretary.

The writing goes on and on like this–isn’t it charming?

After losing all her money, she and Gerard travel on the Orient Express to  find a powerful Communist official, Varichkine, and inquire about the oil fields her late husband owned in Georgia.  Diana stops at nothing; she even gets engaged to Varichkine, and sends Gerard on to Russia to investigate the wealth of the oil wells.  He meets Varichkine’s sadistic mistress, who wants to stop Varichkine’s marraige to Lady Diana, and he has many adventures.  This is an entertaining, often comical little book, perfect for a summer’s beach read.

Alain de Botton on Twitter & Opera vs. Literary Event

you-are-never-too-old to try something stupid anne taintorLast summer I had a disastrous experience with Twitter.

My cousin set up an account for me because it was “time for me to get into the 21st century.”  Why?  Don’t I spend enough time on the internet?  Twitter did not seem attractive, but I subscribed to the feeds of Lydia Davis, Jo-Ann Mapson, Sherman Alexie, Natalie Merchant, Ron Charles, Jay McInerney, and Salman Rushdie.

My husband said, “I don’t get it. You’ve read War and Peace six times and now you’re on Twitter?”

I didn’t get it either.

It was extremely boring.

About 100 links were coming by tweets a day.  Tin House was the worst.  All day long, links to unknown writers’ websites.  Newspapers tweeted every time they published an article.  And then all the lit pages tried to be hip and sponsored Twitter lit contests.

Finally I closed my account.  I hated it.

Alain de Botton, a philosopher, recently advised his Twitter followers to delete Twitter from “at least” their phones for their mental health. He also spoke to a writer at the Washington Post,

Twitter is of course a wonderful thing, but it is also the most appalling distraction ever invented. It sounds so harmless. But it wants you never to be in touch with yourself again and never to have time to catch up on ‘updates’ from the person you really need to keep close to you: yourself. It denies us that precious non-specific time in which you can daydream, unpack your anxieties and have a conversation with your deeper self.

I do agree with him.

The minute you’re without it, life goes back to normal.  You’re not constantly checking to see if someone will finally make the Twitter experience worthwhile.  You know what?  Nobody is ever going to make the Twitter experience worthwhile.  It is a waste of time.

So I say, good for Alain de Botton.  He thinks it’s a good thing to take time off from Twitter.

This weekend we have so much going on.

1.  A literary event.

2.  An opera.

The minute I realized both were scheduled for the same weekend I felt doomed.

Weekends are for idling.

I haven’t gone to a literary event in a long time, but we have been looking forward all summer to seeing Jonathan Lethem at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.  My husband introduced me to his novel, The Fortress of Solitude, and I have since read most of his books.

One hundred miles IS a long way to drive, though.  And there have been some disappointments.  Where was Will Self the time we went?  Canceled.  Where was Jeffrey Eugenides?  Canceled.  The last great reading I went to in Iowa City was by Sherman Alexie.

The thing is, we cannot do both opera and literary event.  I don’t know how we scheduled this.

I like rock and live jazz, but I do not really care for opera.  I love the Met HD series, because even an almost tone-deaf person appreciates the Met.  But operas last hours and hours and hours.  “I ha-a-a-ate Carmen,” I told my husband when I realized we would have to choose between the opera and the lit event.  Does every regional opera company put on Carmen every year?  Can there BE any more hip-wiggling and shoulder-shrugging?  They put on Carmen when they’re not putting on La Boheme.   (All right, I like John Adams’ Nixon in China, but it’s safe to say we’re not going to that.  It’s probably Madame Butterfly.)

Anyway, back to the literary events, I recently found an autographed copy of a book by Carol Shields and remembered that event with fondness.  Autographs used to mean something to me, and now I don’t even have real books.

“Your book would probably be worth more money if it was autographed,” my husband says.

“Buy me the paperback.”

But I don’t think we’ll actually make it to I.C.  We’re still repairing the damage done by the storm last week.