Ms. Mirabile On Bookishness & Elizabeth Savage’s The Last Night at The Ritz

smart women read between the lines woman reading tumblr_m4bw1ln3kR1rnvzfwo1_400I am too bookish.

I came out of the womb and started reading.

No, you could not read Edward Lear’s alphabet books too often.

My mother got stuck reading a book called Baby Farm Animals again and again.

It was a huge relief  when I could read.

Recently I thought of sending  a thank-you letter to my  fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. W.,  a charming woman who loved children’s literature and took over the formation of our literary taste after our mothers decided we were old enough to read to ourselves.   This lovely, enthusiastic young woman with a ’60s beehive hairdo and lots of mascara on her already-thick eyelashes  read to us daily from such classics as  Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (recently reissued by NYRB), Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast (one of my favorite books of all time!), Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Borden Deal’s A Long Way to Go, and Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman.

Of all my teachers, I think Mrs. W. would have been the best book blogger!  Still, I am sure some would have surprised me with their secret reading.

I’ve been so busy reading that I haven’t blogged much about books here lately.

So here’s a catch-up post.

last-night-ritz-elizabeth-savage-paperback-cover-artI adored Elizabeth Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz.  If you’re not familiar with Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries, you should check out this Amazon-published reprint series.   Nancy Pearl, a famous librarian, author, and NPR book commenter, has selected the novels for the series.  These books, which were originally published from 1960-2000, had fallen out of print and were revived by Pearl.  She has exquisite taste, and the four I’ve read in this series are brilliant.

Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz, set in the late ’60s, was published in 1973.  The action takes place in one day, and centers on a reunion of four  friends at the Ritz in Boston.  The unnamed narrator has stayed in touch for decades with her college roommate, Gay.  Long ago,  she briefly dated Len, Gay’s husband.  Wes, the narrator’s former lover, is the fourth at the party.

In the course of one boozy day, the friends have lunch at the Ritz, take naps  afterwards (they rent one room for the guys and one for the gals), and drink and dine heavily into the night. Unsuspected secrets are revealed and there are some twists we don’t see coming.  As the narrator delves into the past and reveals the seeds of the present, it morphs into a college novel.    Gay, a hardworking student, obsessively read, wrote, and kept note cards because she wanted to go to a good graduate school, but the narrator’s own approach was more casual:  her academic career was undistinguished, except for winning the poetry prize.

When the narrator thinks she might be pregnant, she tries the gin and hot bath thing generations of women used to try in lieu of an abortion.  Savage makes the escapade humorous, whereas Marge Piercy would make it intense and overwrought.

The gin was horrid.  I had taken the precaution of bringing a Coke to cut it with but naturally I hadn’t thought of a glass.  And didn’t dare to waste any of the gin–it might be just that one swallow that would make all the difference–so I slugged the first of it down straight and then tried to pour the Coke into the gin bottle.  The warm Coke didn’t help the warm gin all that much and after a while it got harder to pour, too; a lot of the Coke went into the tub, which seemed to me exquisitely funny.  I giggled and eased the Coke bottle down upon the floor.

Naturally, it is Gay who finds her in the tub and helps her out of the tub and back to their room.  Later, she has her period.  Obviously, she was never pregnant.

The two girls are so close that they share each other’s text books “because neither of us could afford them all, which was fine until it came time to divide them up.”

I love the narrator’s sense of humor.

“Now that we can buy anything we want we seem to read detective stories.”

Gay and Len, now an editor, seem reasonably happy, though they worry about their oldest son Charley, a draft dodger in Canada.  The narrator was happy with her first husband, but since his departure and subsequent death, she has been less happy.    She never had children, nor did she miss them, because she has always thought of Gay’s son Charley as partly her child.  When Gay was in the hospital having a second baby, she helped cover up an incident of violence–Len’s striking Charley out of terror after the child got lost.  She observed that the violence was unacceptable but she understood the love and fear it came from.

Pearl’s introduction is not scholarly.  She muses on her own emotions about the book when she first read it, and how much it meant to her when she met someone else who loved Elizabeth Savage.   I especially like her thoughts on the close friendship between the narrator and Gay.

It’s a friendship that began in college and now, more than a quarter century later, still continues as strong as ever, having withstood distance, secrets, time, and betrayal.  Tolerance, disapproval, forgiveness, and understanding are all woven into the close connection of between these two characters; indeed, without those the friendship likely wouldn’t have endured.  Perhaps it is the kind of friendship that only exists in novels, though I don’t really think so, although I’ve not been fortunate enough to have (or have had) that sort of friend myself.

I feel that way myself.  I did have close friends in college, but the friendships ended a few years after, because we were all too “geographically challenged” to keep them going.

Savage is a bold, yet vulnerable, writer, and I very much enjoyed this beautifully-written novel

If you like Viragos, you will very much like this series of reprints.  Perhaps Nancy Pearl is our American Carmen Calil, and these are our Viragos.

Bless Our Bookish Hearts: Book Festivals!

Iowa City Book Festival

Iowa City Book Festival

I’m a bookish soul, bless my heart, and autumn is Book Festival time in the Midwest.

Book festivals give us common readers a chance to hear star novelists and new writers discuss their work.

A book festival can be a low-key vacation. You can attend free events all day, and then hole up in your hotel room and read.

There are several festivals coming up in October.

Next weekend at the Iowa City Book Festival, you can hear Marilynne Robinson, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for  Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, and the  Orange Prize for Home, and Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer prize for A Thousand Acres, discuss their work.   Their new novels are on the longlist for The National Book Award:   Robinson’s Lila is a prequel to Gilead, and Smiley’s Some Luck is the first in a trilogy about a farm family in Iowa.  There are several events I’d love to attend:   I am particularly interested in the public reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (October 2, 1-5 p.m..)

Then there’s The Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 11, where Katha Pollitt, Ann Hood, and Steven Pinker, among others, will speak.  It’s all in one day, and that’s attractive.

Or you might like to go to the Wisconsin Book Festival (Oct. 16-19) and see, among others, Anthony Doerr, Gail Sheehy, and Deborah Crombie.

What kind of people go to book festivals?

Readers, writers, bloggers, tweeters…

The best and biggest I’ve attended is the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville (Oct. 10-12).  Members of an online book group I belonged to met there “face-to-face” one year.  If you had the stamina and the ability to be in several places at once, you could see 100 writers in three days.  My favorite event was a talk by Kaye Gibbons, the author of several Southern classics; she  essentially did stand-up comedy.  I also saw Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Susan Choi, Daniel Wallace, Chris Bojalian.  I remember rushing up to chat to Gwen Hyman Rubio, whose wonderful novel Icy Sparks I’dd read before it was an Oprah book.

I don’t make it to literary events as often as I used to, but I do like to travel this time of  year.

Below is a  video chat (a kind of advertorial) by John Kenyon, the executive director of Iowa City, the UNESCO City of Literature, about the Iowa City Book Festival.

The Nightstand Problem, or Piles of Books

Pile-of-BooksOnline life has changed our reading habits.

There are fewer bookstores.

The indies crumble.

Amazon is dominant.

And the nightstand bulges with more books than ever.

Before the internet was invented, I was so busy reading books that I seldom bothered reading criticism, except on Sunday mornings when I luxuriated in The New York Times Book Review.  Due to the glory of the internet,  we can now read about books  all day without actually reading the books. I know what Ursula K. Le Guin said about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, though I haven’t read The Bone Clocks.  I peruse articles about books in translation at  the TLS, savor the tough reviews by the daily critics at The New York Times and Washington Post, and try not to be gobsmacked by incendiary book news.

There are  superb blogs that concentrate on older books and classics as well as the latest publications. I try to catch up with blogs a couple of times a week.

The problem is, the more reviews we read, the bigger the book pile grows.  Everybody asks, What’s on your nightstand? I don’t  have a nightstand; I have piles of books. Chances are if I’m reading War and Peace, I also have a Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscovery and an Agatha Christie on the go.  My bet is that many  of you also are dealing with your nightstand problem, and your non-linear book-reading problem.

The book pile or nightstand problem is a common trope at blogs.

Danielle at A Work in Progress expresses it perfectly.

The state of my reading pile has really been bothering me for some time now.  Things have shifted about somewhat since this photo was taken–a few new books added, a few removed, maybe even a few have been finished (though not many at the rate I seem to be reading this year–what’s going on with that anyway. . . ).  With the year completely speeding by I feel I need to take serious steps to reduce the piles and try and get them under control before a new reading year is upon us (and no plans at all in mind as of yet–may have to keep it that way, though I know it is unlikely to happen).  I know we are still months away from 2015, but (scarily) it’s not as far off as it seems.  And already we are midway through September.

Dovegrey reader recently mentioned a pile of books.

The very first book from my Fifty ‘Unread’ Books shelf, The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard, started in early July, when I really was deep into Port Eliot preparations but in need of some space from this big pile of books that I seemed to have been tripping over for months, and some respite from looking at all those Martin Parr photographs…a quick armchair trip to sunny Naples, that’s what I needed.

Thomas at My Porch wrote a blog about acquiring 31 books in five days.

I tweeted this morning that during the five days that Simon Savidge (@SavidgeReads) stayed with me here in Washington, DC, thirty-one books managed to find their way into my apartment. Borrowed, bought, given, and free, I somehow managed to acquire thirty-one books in five days. Sue Parmett (@SueParmet) wanted a list of the titles. That is just the kind of pesky question I would ask and it seemed liked a great topic for a blog post.

Aren’t you relieved that someone is acquiring even more books than you are?

What has caused so many of us to go in this direction?  Is it something to do with the internet?

How many books are on your nightstand?  I have six on my bed, and don’t dare count anything else .

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: A Rediscovered Classic

Chocolates for Breakfast Pamela Moore 51XR+EweyRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A narrow banner across the back cover of Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast proclaims it is “A REDISCOVERED CLASSIC.”

Not every rediscovered classic is a classic, but this sharp, melancholy, often humorous, book is a small masterpiece.  Published in 1956 when Moore was 18, it was briefly a best-seller and compared to the work of Francoise Sagan.

In this  gorgeously-written novel, the heroine, Courtney Farrell, is the precocious 15-year-old daughter of a Hollywood actress and a New York publisher. At Scaisbrooke Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut, she has only two friends:  Janet, her debauched roommate, who has been expelled from every school she has attended, and Miss Rosen, an intense, probably lesbian English teacher.

I imagine these girls from a teacher’s perspective, because my first job out of grad school was teaching Latin at a “Country Day School” kind of place.   The faculty fumed about the nouveau riche students, who drove Mercedes and BMWs, were excused from exams for flying lessons, and reputedly spent their vacations in Europe with boys in hot tubs.  Although I liked my charming, smart, if sometimes overly-sophisticated, students, I found it best to ignore their vaguely repugnant life-styles.  Later I taught at a Catholic school, where the girls were smart but the values and discipline were, in my view, superior.  (N.B. It is difficult for a teacher to compete with flying lessons, and a surprising number of teachers left and found jobs at Catholic schools.)

Moore begins her novel with a lyrical description of a very traditional boarding school.  All is so peaceful that we are unprepared for the agony of the characters.

Spring at Scaisbrooke Hall was clearly the most beautiful time of all.  All the alumnae said so as they remembered the apple blossoms in the quadrangle, and the grass growing long and fresh beside the brook, where illegal Cokes were placed to keep them cool  for clandestine drinks before the evening study hall. …Scaisbrooke had been founded sixty years ago on the pattern of English public schools, and its high-beamed halls were dark and heavy with tradition.

Much of the novel is told in dialogue. Through her conversations with Janet, we understand that Courtney  has spent so much time with adults that she is uninterested in her peers. The erratic, boozy, sophisticated Janet thinks Courtney should spend more time with boys.

“Oh, I don’t mean to say that you’re naive or anything.  I just think you ought to make out with boys a little.”

“But prep school boys are so grubby.  They have bad skin, and they press your hand and their palms are all wet, and they are so awkward!   I mean, I like these actors who are so charming and put their arms around you with a Martini in one hand and all that.  I like men who are older.”

Pamela Moore Bantam edition chocolatesCourtney is devastated when Miss Rosen, who has lent her Finnegan’s Wake, breaks off their friendship  (probably ordered by the headmistress).  Janet gives her a drink and urges her to get to know some other students, but Courtney sleeps and sleeps until she is taken to a psychiatrist.   Then Sondra, her mother, decides to make a home for her in Hollywood.

The Hollywood scene is mostly drinking and sex, just as we would expect.  At 16, Courtney is allowed to drink, and spends most of the day doing just that. Soon Sondra is on the skids, and they are living in a dark one-room studio on a strip on the edge of Beverley Hills.  Courtney is so desperate that she seduces a friend of her mother’s, a homosexual actor in his late twenties.  As she later tells Janet, it doesn’t matter that he is “a fag,” because he can perform in bed anyway.

But after they break up, she cuts herself and ends up in a mental hospital.  Things have gotten out of hand, her father, long-divorced form Sondra, realizes:  he brings them back to New York and pays their rent.

New York is no healthier than Hollywood.  Did we expect it would be?   Courtney and Janet become friends again, and drink from morning to night, attend all-night parties, and have sexual relationships with older men.

They live like the most dissipated alcoholics, and have no interest in anything outside of their party life.  I won’t describe their downward spiral, but it is horrendous, realistic, and tragic.

Moore wrote a few more books, but, alas, committed suicide at 26.  In the Harper Perennial paperback, there is an introduction by the writer Emma Straub, a  fascinating essay by her son, a 1997 article about Moore from The Baffler, and a comparison of the three texts of Chocolates for Breakfast.  (The French edition was racier than the American edition.)

Alas, Moore’s other novels are out-of-print, but I will look forward to reading more Harper Perennial Rediscovered Classics.

The 75th Anniversary of Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind MV5BNDUwMjAxNTU1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzg4NzMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It is the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind.  On Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, the movie will be screened in more than 650 theaters in the U.S.

My eccentric mother loved Gone with the Wind.

It was her favorite book and movie.

“My life is Gone with the Wind crossed with As the World Turns,” she said dramatically after her divorce from my philandering father. (As the World Turns was a soap opera.)

Shortly thereafter, she began collecting Gone with the Wind memorabilia.

Without a doubt, it got out of hand.  Like many collectors, she was probably compensating for something.  Eventually there were five cabinets of Gone with the Wind figurines in her small living room.  Move too quickly and you would break something.

She gave me a Scarlett doll and a Rhett doll.   They are in a box somewhere. What was the mystique of the coy Southern belle/brilliant businesswoman and the dashing blockade runner?  What did it say to her?

She identified with Scarlett.  I know, because one year I excitedly tracked down a Melanie figurine on the internet for her Christmas gift.

She informed me that she only liked Scarlett.

That was typical of my relationship with my mother.

In my adolescence, we had a falling out after my parents’ divorce.  Many years went by when we barely communicated.  There were the painful Christmases when we exchanged unwanted gifts by mail.  (Christmas has always reminded me of the break-up of my family.)  When my husband and I moved to a lovely Midwestern city not too far from my hometown, my mother and I tried very hard to reconcile. She finally realized that I hated shopping (I used to get almost physically sick at the mall), and so we began to go to movies together, as we had in my childhood.

But our relationship was dysfunctional.  She was afraid of my sibling, who very oddly accused me of having moved back to the Midwest to get my hands on whatever little money she had.  He warned my mother that if  she ever visited us, he would cut her off from seeing his family.  She was as horrified as we were by his edict, so she cheated by allowing us to visit her.

I remember GWTW as a re-creation of Vanity Fair, only set during the Civil War.  Scarlett is an amusing opportunist who slept with men for power, tried to steal the sappy Ashley from the lovely, charitable Mellie, and exploited Rhett, the charming rake who loved her madly.   My mother was obviously more like Mellie, a gentle woman who did charitable deeds and helped out her friends.

I do have her copy of the book, and maybe I should reread it.

I won’t go to the movie in a theater, but I am still thrilled by its revival.  When I opened the newspaper today and read about the 75th anniversary, I felt that it vindicated my mom.

Breaking Bad & Marisha Pessl’s Night Film

I recently declared this my “Unintellectual Autumn.”  I’m in the middle of a month-long binge on contemporary literary fiction and award-winning TV shows.

I may not have known what was going on in the culture before, but now I have a better idea.

I’ve read books by wannabes literary stars, and I’ve read books by the masestros.

Jesse and Walt in "Breaking Bad."

Jesse and Walt in “Breaking Bad.”

I’ve also been watching Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning series about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth to support his family after he is diagnosed with cancer.  The writing, directing, and acting are brilliant, and the characters are vivid and intelligently-portrayed. As the series develops, there is an odd twist:  Walt’s sometimes drug-addicted partner, Jesse, becomes the more ethical and less psychopathic of the two.

In both contemporary novels and the better TV shows, the dialogue is smart and ironic, the double standards of the economy are apparent, and society is crumbling.

Sometimes contemporary literary fiction is rather like watching TV, so I’ve been cheating on my Unintellectual Autumn with Tolstoy.

Luv ya, Tolstoy!  (I’m saying this for anyone who took my “Unintellectual Autumn” too literally.)


night film 18770398I very much enjoyed the first two-thirds of thirtysomething Marisha Tessl’s literary horror novel, Night Film.  Though it is overlong at 600 pages, and the writing is uneven in the last lap,  it is one of those books often described as “a roller coaster ride.”  I like the tough, ironic voice of the narrator, Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter whose career and credibility were ruined after he verbally attacked Cordova, a cult art-horror film director, on the basis of a phone tip.  (Any journalist can tell you how fast this kind of thing can happen.) Now, with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s daughter Ashley, who for reasons of her own was stalking McGrath, he reopens the investigation.  And a quirky trip it is.  Middle-aged McGrath sounds more like a P.I. than a reporter, and the horror novel is also a mystery.

In the course of his investigation, he acquires two young assistants, Hopper, a hard-drinking, pill-popping  friend of Ashley’s; and Nora, a homeless girl who worked briefly as a hat-check girl at a restaurant and rescued Ashley’s coat from the lost-and-found.  These two unstable young people, who have survived rocky childhoods, are characteristic of the nightmarish, futureless culture from which Ashley was a refugee.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its structure.  The narrative is interwoven with fake newspaper and magazine articles about the Cordovas.  I just wish there were more of these in the last half of the book.

If you like a fast pace, detailed descriptions of edgy art films, histrionic confessions of retired actresses and antique dealers, and trips to the witchcraft store,  this is for you.

A  great airplane read!