The Literary Debate: Reviewers, Critics, Writers, & Social Media

Audrey Hepburn:  not a literary critic.

Audrey Hepburn, reading and looking lovely.

I will not be at the Boston Book Festival.

My husband will not get on a plane.

And anyway we already went to the Iowa City Book Festival to hear Marilynne Robinson in a conversation with Ayana Mathis.

If I lived in Boston, however, I would undoubtedly attend “Where’s My Good Review?”, a conversation with Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra (my favorite book last year).

The description of the event at the BBF is as follows.

There have never been more opinions about books in the media. But what has happened to critical argument? Is there a difference between debates online and in print? Need there be? Books pages in the press are shrinking and books sections have closed while literary discussion is thriving on social media. But who has the responsibility for keeping criticism alive? Join a conversation with Sir Peter Stothard, newspaper editor, prize-winning author, and for the last twelve years, editor of the Times Literary Supplement. For more than a century the TLS has stood for the most searching criticism of books and ideas. Join in its analysis of the problems and opportunities ahead. Sponsored by the Times Literary Supplement.

Since the advent of the internet (which happened for me in 1996 when my job required me to invest in a home computer),  the democratization of criticism has become a hotly-contended issue.  Social media book discussions are indeed thriving. Talented bloggers write book posts or reviews, and some bloggers  participate in so-called “challenges” to read, for example, the English writer Margaret Kennedy.   Recently I have also browsed at Goodreads, where there are a dizzying number of book groups and reader reviews.

Traditional book reviews at book publications are my main source of information about new books. Yet I must intervene and point out that very  few newspaper book pages share the high standards of the TLS, which publishes scholarly literary criticism, or The Washington Post Book World, which publishes both criticism and reviews (mainly reviews).  Move to the wilds of the Midwest, Southwest, or any West, and you will find average book editors with bachelor’s degrees in journalism who assign reviews to book-loving reviewers who do not have scholarly  qualifications.  Often these pages are quite good, but bear in mind that the reader denizens of these towns also rely on The New York Times.

Amazon reviews are a big source of contention among writers.  In the new issue of The New Republic, Jennifer Weiner contends in her article, “No Author Is Too Good for Her Amazon Critics,” that writers need to suck it up when Amazon readers attack their books.  Weiner says that the writer Margo Howard, a former advice columnist, the daughter of Ann Landers, and the author of Eat, Drink, and Remarry: Confessions of a Serial Wife, a memoir published by Harlequin, is furious that Amazon reviewers who received free copies of her book trashed it before it was published.  Howard says that they are “dim bulbs,” they are “evangelical, unworldly,” “barely literate, and “deluded.”  The populist Weiner insists that Amazon reviewers are entitled to their opinions.

Although I don’t often read Amazon reviews, I do notice they are sometimes tough on my favorite writers.  Yet there are also knowledgeable people who write enthusiastic reviews.  Imagine my relief to find that Homer’s Iliad gets four and a half stars, and that Virginia Woolf is a four-star writer.

In One for the Books, Joe Queenan writes that “most people read drivel. That is their prerogative. The case can be made that it is better to read drivel than to read nothing, on the theory that people will eventually tire of baggage and move on to something more meaty, like trash. I believe that this may sometimes occur with the young, but I doubt that it ever happens with adults. Adults do not suddenly tire of reading Nora Roberts and jump up and exclaim: ‘Screw this crap; by God, I’m going to give Marcus Aurelius a rip!’”

Okay, Joe.  We get what you mean.

I love blogs, but the first rule of reading blogs is “Know thy blogger.”  Feverish PR can be a problem if a blogger feels under an obligation to publicists.  Then there is malice aforethought as practiced by enemies of a writer under a pseudonym or anonymously.

My general philosophy:  Caveat Emptor.

In the end, I trust only my own judgment.

Reading Catch-Up: Proust Update & John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

Odette in Swann's Way looks like Boticelli's Zipporah:  one must admit she's gorgeous.

Odette in Swann’s Way looks like Botticelli’s Zipporah.

I’ve been reading like a bookseller, fast, felicitously, and not quite finished with all I plan to hold forth on.  A bookseller once told me he had 16 books going at once because he could not sell a book without knowing whether it would interest his patrons.  He finished the best books, but rejected many after reading half or two-thirds.

I, too, have several books going at once.  Here’s an update on two of the best:  the Proust obviously is still in progress.

Proust’s Swann’s Way: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time explores feelings and memory. His long sentences may be convoluted, but it is not the sentences that defeat his readers.  To appreciate the evocative beauty of Proust’s labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness, you cannot be afraid to feel.

In “Swann in Love,” the second part of Swann’s Way, a traditional narrative tucked in the middle of the book, I empathize with Swann when Odette cheats on him.  She is not Swann’s type, and indeed he is having an affair with a seamstress when he first begins to flirt with Odette.  He is amused by Odette, who is  uneducated and very different from his upper-class circles.  She doesn’t care about art:  she hates the 18th-century decor of a friend’s home because it is so plain, and doesn’t see much in poetry.  But she looks like Botticelli’s Zipporah ( beautiful, but he doesn’t quite like the cheekbones).  In the end, the Botticelli resemblance makes the difference.

The vague feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he knew the original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him. When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.”

Proust draws a portrait of the genesis of Swann’s obsession with Odette.  It is erotic, familiar, and painful. Swann  is careful not to spend too much time with Odette, so she will continue to value him.  Yet he becomes more and more intrigued  as he spends evenings with her in the salon of her great friends, the Verdurins.   One night when he is late, Odette has already left to go to a cafe for hot chocolate.  Swann and his coachman search Paris cafes for her. In an erotic scene in the coach after he finds her, he seduces her by first rearranging the flowers on her dress.

There are some charming scenes in which he flirts with Odette.  She plays the piano “vilely,” but he makes her play his favorite phrase from a sonata over and over while he kisses and caresses her.  Though Odette seems empty-headed, we can see her charm for him.  In fact, Proust is the only writer who has ever made me imagine a shallow, pretty woman from a man’s point of view.  Usually I am incredulous, like most of my women friends of my generation.  (We bluestockings came of age in a time when “hotness” was less of a factor in love.)

Odette herself is quite a flirt.

Then she would pretend to stop, saying:  “How do you expect me to play when you keep on holding me?  I can’t do everything at once.  Mae up your mind what you want am I to play the phrase or play with you?”

After she begins to cheat on him with Forcheville,  Swann is in denial, then he tries to catch her.  He  is depressed and would like to go to the country, but  cannot “summon up the courage to leave Paris, even for a day, while Odette was there.”

Poor Swann!  One’s pain over a lover’s infidelity is in direct proportion to the amount of love one feels for the betrayer.  When one is deeply in love, a partner’s infidelity is devastating. It happens to all of us, no?

John Wyndham's The Chrysalids 91OJ24mZT8L._SL1500_John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.  Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is one of my favorite science fiction books.   In a postapocalyptic future, a brilliant flash of light blinds most of the people on Earth, and walking plants called triffids, once farmed for oil, have escaped from their corporate greenhouses and are  killing people.  Many categorize this novel a “cozy catastrophe,” because the main characters do manage to survive.

Wyndham’s 1955 novel, The Chrysalis, is overall a simpler novel, though science fiction writer M. John Harrison, in the introduction to the Penguin Decades edition, denies that this Cold War response to the threat of nuclear destruction was a “cozy catastrophes.”  He writes, “…the post-disaster novel was in itself a feature of its times, a response not just to the immediate terrors of the nuclear age, but to the vastly accelerated rate of social, economic and technological change in Britain following World War II.”

In The Chrysalids, the narrator, David, is the son of a landowner -preacher who fanatically tries to stamp out mutations.  One thousand years after a nuclear apocalypse, the government in Labrador has laws decreeing that mutant animals must be destroyed, and mutant humans sterilized and exiled to a wild area known as the Fringes.

What does it mean to be human?  Any kind of difference is suspect.

The character Sophie says, “To be any kind of deviant is to be hurt, always.”

The novel follows the narrator, David, from childhood until he is almost 20.  As a young boy, David first begins to understand how minor the mutations can be when he wanders off alone and meets Sophie.  After sliding down a slope into a sandy gully, her left foot gets jammed between two stones.  David has to remove her shoe to get her foot loose, though she begs him not to.  She has six toes on one foot; he barely notices. But when he takes her back to her mother, she stresses that he must never tell anyone.  Sophie does not have a certificate saying she is human.

David and eight other children, too, are deviant, because they have a special ability:  they can send “thought shapes”and communicate silently.  Uncle Axel, who comes upon David while he is in the process, stresses that silence and secrecy are of the utmost importance.

David’s father’s, Joseph Strom, is obsessed with offences and blasphemies.

Many of them were still obscure to me; others I had learnt something about.  Offences, for instance.  That was because the occurrence of an Offence was sometimes quite an impressive occasion.  Usually the first sign that something had happened was that my father came home in a bad temper.  Then, in the evening, he would call us all together, including everyone who worked on the farm.  We would all kneel while he proclaimed our repentance and led prayers for forgiveness….  As the sun rose we would sing a hymn while my father ceremoniously slaughtered the two-headed calf, four-legged chicken, or whatever kind of Offence it happened to be.  Sometimes it would be a much queerer thing than those…

Eventually their telepathy is detected because of the strength of his younger sister Petra’s ability.  All of them are in danger.

This beautifully-written novel is much more complex and sophisticated than the recent crop of Y.A. dystopian novels, which apparently are equally popular with adolescents and adults.  But the ending of The Chrysalids is simplistic, and it is because of this simplicity that it could also be marketed as a children’s or Y.A. book.

After a decade or so  of “junk” dystopian Y.A. novels, literary writers are now again adding to the genre.  This year Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, J;  Edan Lepucki’s well-reviewed California, and Emily St. John Mandel’s National Book Award-shortlisted Station Eleven are praised by reviewers.

For now I’ll stick with The Day of the Triffids.

Do We Need Privacy?

Desperately Seeking Susan, a slightly subversive women's starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

“Desperately Seeking Susan,” Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive women’s movie, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

We love our privacy.  It is a right we take for granted.

The right to come home from a bad day and relax in a bubble bath with a soggy science fiction novel.

The right to work out to those old Madonna tapes you secretly enjoy.  (Especially “Into the Groove” from Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive women’s film, Desperately Seeking Susan, in which a friendship originates from a personal ad.)

The right to ride your bicycle for transportation without being labeled unAmerican for not buying gasoline.

Even before WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we knew our privacy was gone.  Haven’t we known since the ’90s that every article we read on the internet and every item we shop for at Amazon are recorded?  It’s not just the internet:  malls record our movements and shopping tastes, too.  And apparently spies must sift through some of these records.

Although I don’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter account, I am a heavy user of WordPress.

This blog is not very personal, but there is a wealth of information.

I used to keep a journal; I wrote almost daily.  I wrote less coherently but more emotionally.  Here I write mostly bookish posts, and, since I have an instinct for self-preservation, I am brisker than I am in real life, where I always seem to be a beat behind. Yet, while scanning recent posts, I was startled to see an account of the decline of my “bad cold” into bronchitis.  I wrote it was “just a bad cold”; yet I was too sick to go outside much and “looking wistfully out the door.”  If I had written about this in a journal instead of at a blog, would I have written more intensely about my illness, been less stoic, and noticed that I needed to go to a doctor?  I wonder:  to what extent do we create our own emotions by writing publicly on the internet?

Am I Kat? Or am I “Kat?” It’s a strange question.  And if I’m not exactly “Kat,” then is the internet really destroying my privacy?

In an interview at The Guardian about his new novel, Amnesia, which is inspired partly by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, Peter Carey discusses the importance of privacy.  He says,

Privacy should be a fundamental human right. We’ve been tricked out of it to a great degree by giving up little bits of it along the way, because it’s easier to give some information to Amazon or to Walmart or to whatever it is. So the water is getting hotter and hotter. We are used to being in the warm bath. We are putting up with it. But it is sort of evil, I guess… We should be able to keep our information, our conversations private.”

Oh, dear.  It is gone.  Though we book bloggers may seem to lead a surprisingly dull life, we do record some, if not all, about what we like to read.

Today I finally caught up on all the stories about the terrifying ebola outbreak. And because I have read too many dystopian novels, and, by the way, enough with them, it takes an ebola epidemic to  make me imagine a world where we fear ordinary contact with human beings, where we wear protective suits and gloves, and where our health status is furiously tracked,.  I suddenly imagined having to check in daily at a website with a health update…

Is that Kat, or is that “Kat?”  It’s probably Kat.  Kat can get a little wild in her speculations, while  “Kat” says, There’s no need to panic.

In the meantime, let’s enjoy our online writing.  Privacy is gone,  but we’ve made a few friends, too.

And so let’s relax and celebrate friendship by watching Susan Seidelman’s slightly subversive 1985 screwball comedy about women’s friendship, Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

Here’s Madonna’s “Into the Groove” from the movie:

Reading with Bronchitis: Swann’s Way and Laughing at Odette

Me biking, the year I broke my arm.

Biking a few weeks after the broken arm fiasco.

Last night, I lay in bed panicking.  It hurt to cough.  It hurt to breathe.

Did I need to go to the hospital? I wondered.

No.  I would lie in bed and gently breathe until my doctor’s appointment the next day.

Going to the emergency room in the middle of the night is not an experience one wants to repeat. Long, long ago, in a city far, far away, I foolishly went running at night and tripped on the sidewalk and broke my arm.  At the hospital I waited four hours in a filthy emergency room (no soap in the restroom) and all they gave me was a sling.  Does that left arm look a little hyperextended to you?  Yup.  That’s ER care.

No, I would wait to see the doctor.  Because I knew it was bronchitis, not pneumonia.  A cough, chills and sweating, aching lungs, and a fading feeling when I tried to take a walk.

But had it ever hurt to breathe?  It’s been 20 years since I had bronchitis.  I didn’t remember that.

I was in pain, but I am glad I didn’t visit the ER in the middle of the night. The diagnosis is bronchitis and an hour after taking the antibiotics for bronchitis, I COULD BREATHE AGAIN and was on my bike.

And after the bike ride, I was laughing at Odette.

What do I mean by laughing at Odette, you might want to know.

Proust Swann-Way-Modern-Library-Classics-0812972090-LI’m rereading Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, previously translated more elegantly, to my mind, as Remembrance of Things Past.

Not being a French literature scholar, I find it difficult to write about Proust.  Would that I had read Swann’s Way with Sam Jordison at the Guardian Book Club in 2013.  He eloquently said,

I’m guessing that a healthy proportion of people who pick up the book don’t even get beyond page 51. Within a similar word count, Raymond Chandler could have got through two murders, six whiskies, half a dozen wisecracks. Raymond Carver could have described at least six suburban households descending into despair. And Hemingway had almost finished The Old Man and The Sea. Yet, in pure plot terms, pretty much all that happens in those first pages of Proust is that the young Marcel struggles to fall asleep.

Although little happens, there are moments of wild joy.  Proust is for those who revel in lyrical, sensual language rather than traditional narrative. Three thousand pages pass while the narrator Marcel meditates on the subject of memory and describes the visual and sensual cues that evoke the past.  Reading Swann’s Way is like falling into a luxurious feather bed of exquisite language.   Marcel, the narrator, remembers as a boy he couldn’t sleep unless his mother kissd him.  He describes every detail of life at Combray, where the family lives in the summer with his great-aunt, from his Aunt Leonie’s two rooms to the hawthorns he admires on walks to the emotions evoked by the joyful reading of his favorite author, Bergotte, and the joy of his first serious writing.

Swann, a brilliant, thoughtful, charming man who moves in high society, is s a close friend of Marcel’s family.  He is pitied for an unfortunate marriage to a woman who blatantly is unfaithful. Marcel’s aunts don’t quite understand how well-connected Swann is in society.  They like him purely for his kindness, courtesy, and conversation.

The  second section of the novel, “Swann in Love,” focuses on Swann’s passionate affair 15 years ago with Odette, a former courtesan.  The prose is often erotic, and Proust does very definitely know how to evoke the development of an erotic relationship.

Odette is often comical.  Like Marcel’s aunts, she doesn’t understand the meaning of the social circles Swann moves in.  Because his friends, high-ranking government officials and aristocrats, don’t go to the parties and balls she has heard are fashionable, she concludes that Swann’s friends are bores, though she appreciates the first-night theater tickets and racing tickets .

She hoped that he would continue to cultivate such profitable acquaintances, but in other respects she was inclined to regard them as anything but smart, ever since she had passed the Marquise de Villeparisis in the street, wearing a black woolen dress and a bonnet with strings.

“But she looks like an usherette, like an old concierge, darling!  A marquise, her!  Goodness knows I’m not a marquise, but you’d have to pay me a lot of money before you’d get me to go round Paris rigged out like that!”

So funny!

A few of my impressions so far.

Light Reading with a Cold: Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings & R. A. Dick’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

woman with cold cartoon huge.101.505042I have been trailing around Iowa with a very bad cold for a couple of weeks.  Actually, I don’t so much trail as look wistfully out the door.

Life consists of hacking open cold medicine packets with sharp objects, applying Vicks Vaporub (one of my sweaters is now a wearable form of Vicks), and sleeping on the sofa.   I do hope no one else has this cold, but if you do, I wonder, what are you reading?

I have been reading light, short books.  Here are recommendations:  a mystery and a ghost story.

Five Red Herrings Dorothy Sayers 1326761.  Dorothy Sayers’s Five Red Herrings. I love Golden Age Detective Stories of the 1920s and ’30s, and Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novels are especially charming and elegantly written.   Set in Scotland, Five Red Herrings is a whodunit about the murder of an obnoxious artist.  The hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, an eccentric, witty, affable amateur sleuth, is vacationing in Galloway, accompanied by his valet, Bunter.  The scenery is beautiful, and everyone “either fishes or paints.”  Wimsey has a way of fitting in wherever he goes.

Into this fishing and painting community, Lord Peter Wimsey was received on friendly and even affectionate terms. He could make a respectable cast, and he did not pretend to paint, and therefore, though English and an ‘incomer’, gave no cause of offence. The Southron is tolerated in Scotland on the understanding that he does not throw his weight about, and from this peculiarly English vice Lord Peter was laudably free.

When Campbell, an artist who has quarreled with everyone in the community, is found dead in a pool at the bottom of a steep granite slope, it looks like an accident.  His easel is at the top of the slope, and the police think he stepped back to examine his painting and fell.  It is Wimsey, of course, who  realizes Campbell was murdered when he notices something crucial is missing from the artist’s bag of supplies.  Six artists are suspected, and the mystery involves a stolen bicycle, train time-tables, and the personal painting styles of the suspects.

This is one of Sayers’s most enjoyable books. I must admit I just let the train time-tables wash over me, but the puzzle is clever, the information about art is fascinating, and I enjoy the company of Peter Wimsey.

2.  R. A. Dick’s Thghost and mrs. muir r. a. Dick 81D8vVMXZyL._SL1500_e Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the latest in the Vintage Movie Classics series of reprints of books that inspired famous movies.  Among the books recently reissued in this series are Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer-winning Alice Adams, Edna Ferber’s Cimmaron, and Fannie Hurst’s Back Street (which I wrote about here).

I couldn’t resist The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, because I am a fan of the movie with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.    Guess what?  This light, graceful novel, published in 1945, is even better than the film.  It is spare,  very funny, and a joy to read.  The Irish writer Josephine Aimee Campbell Leslie wrote under the name of R. A. Dick, believing that a man’s name might help sales, according to the introduction.

The premise of the book is simple.  Mrs. Muir is a lovely, gentle widow who was dominated by her husband and his family,  Now that her husband is dead, she is determined that she and her two children will be independent.  They will live at Gull Cottage in the seaside village of Whitecliff, far from all relatives.  The realtor is reluctant to show her the house, because, yes, Gull Cottage is haunted, but Mrs. Muir soon befriends the ghost, Captain Daniel Gregg, and  he agrees not to make himself known to the children.  He will restrict his hauntings to her bedroom, where they have many spirited conversations and disagreements.  When she runs low on money, he dictates his colorful memoir to her, Blood and Swash, which, anonymously published, becomes a best-seller.  The book is so fascinating that Lucy’s publisher reads it in her presence and forgets she’s there. It is a subject at a stuffy dinner party where Lucy’s son, a pompous curate, the Bishop, and other members of prominent society condemn the book.  And this is a very funny scene, because none would ever suspect of Mrs. Muir’s role in the writing.

Charming, funny, and gracefully-written.  I am likely to read this again soon.

Getting Controversial: When Corporations Clash and Why I Shop at Amazon

I’m a liberal Democrat.  I’m Pro-Choice and I vote.  I don’t drive because burning fossil fuels has wrecked the environment.  I don’t shop at WalMart.

I do, however, shop at Amazon.

The Amazon feud with Hachette about e-book pricing, which, by the way, has gone on absurdly long, is not a matter of priority to me politically.  If Hachette chooses not to take care of its authors–Amazon did, after all, propose that Hachette writers should earn 100% of the e-book profits until the superstore and the publisher have reached a deal–how will my failure to buy other publishers’ books, classics, and used books support the publishing industry?

The Kindle does not concern me.  I have a Nook. I already pay higher prices for e-books than Kindle users do.  This is not my battle.

Pray, where would I buy books if not at Amazon?  I live in an insurance town.  The number of bookstores is minuscule.  We have Barnes and Noble and two tiny independent bookstores.  If not for Amazon, how would I find the books of Mrs. Humphry Ward, Pamela Frankau, and Margaret Wilson?  I very much prefer books to e-books.  Particularly in recent months, I have tired of reading on a screen.  Are others, too, going back to the physical book? One can hope.

Everyone in my family is liberal, and yet we all shop at Amazon.

Some groups of writers have organized against Amazon’s  decision to make Hachette books harder to buy, i.e., by not allowing pre-orders and claiming that the books will take one-to-three weeks to deliver.  According to the Wall Street Journal,  the Authors Guild, which has about 8,500 members, met with Justice Department officials in August to request an investigation of whether Amazon is violating antitrust law in its tactics with Hachette Book Groups.  Another group, Authors United, with more than 1,000 members, has written a letter to the Justice Department about the same antitrust issue.

This actually does not seem to me a huge number of writers.  The New York Times stresses the presence in Authors United of white male stars like Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie.  Can ordinary writers afford to make a big issue of this?  I very much doubt it.

So I was relieved when two highly-respected writers, Paulo Coelho and Germaine Greer, recently spoke in favor of lower e-book prices.

Publishers Weekly reported last week that Paulo Coelho told an audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair that change could not be stopped.

“It is a lost case,” Coelho said.

“Paulo, you’re saying the war is lost?” Juergen Boos [the fair director) asked.

“I’m not saying the war is lost,” Coelho replied “I’m saying we humans are still here because of our capacity of adapting ourselves. The war is not lost. It is the opposite. The war is won. Culture is now available all over the world. People can read.”

On Aug. 28 on BBC Radio 4’s “The Report,” Germaine Greer said,

“Amazon wants to sell e-books at less, so they should,” she said. “They should cost less because they don’t have to be put together, stitched, printed, designed, blah, blah, blah. If you skip all that and all you have got is a ribbon of text on a Kindle then it should cost you pennies frankly.”

Of course one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin, emailed the New York Times to say that Amazon’s treatment of Hachette authors was censorship.

“We’re talking about censorship: deliberately making a book hard or impossible to get, ‘disappearing’ an author,” Ms. Le Guin wrote (The New York Tin an email. “Governments use censorship for moral and political ends, justifiable or not. Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

One cannot sanction censorship.

I just can’t make everything my cause.  If I didn’t buy so many books, it would be easier.  I am not going to special-order everything I want from an independent bookstore and pay twice the price when I can order it myself.

Sometimes you have to do what’s good for yourself.

Bookishness: Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn & A Giveaway of Margaret Kennedy & D. E. Stevenson

THE GIVEAWAY.  No sooner have I washed the dust off from the Planned Parenthood Book Sale–and there is a lot of dust on old books, as you can imagine– than I’ve discovered I have duplicates of three of them.   If you would like Margaret Kennedy’s Together and Apart (Virago), Margaret Kennedy’s The Ladies of Lyndon (Virago), or D. E. Stevenson’s Celia’s House  (a VERY used ex-library book), leave a comment.

Pym Quartet in AutumnCATCHING UP ON MY READING JOURNAL.  I have read some short books this week because I have been immobile with a cold/flu thing.  Barbara Pym’s classics are perfect when one is sick.  They are light, the writing is elegant, and her understated humor is original and diverting.  Characters are always drinking Ovaltine, sorting out clothes for jumble sales, and getting to know the curate.  A good flirtation with a curate:  that’s what we need!   Only do we have curates in the U.S?

Quartet in Autumn is not what I’d call a typical Barbara Pym. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1977, it is a dark comedy about two men and two women who work in an office.  Retirement is imminent for these characters in their sixties, and their future will be determined to a large extent by their living arrangements.  Letty, a sympathetic spinster, lives in a bedsitter, always has a library book going, and will not buy dyed carnations.  Edwin, a cheerful widower and a homeowner, needn’t live on his salary, is conventionally religious, and spends his leisure attending church services and events  Norman, an odd, cranky man,  lives in a bedsitter, goes to the library to sit but not to read, and dislikes travel but enjoys travel brochures.  Marcia, the most peculiar of the lot, doesn’t throw away rubbish, keeps her milk bottles in a shed in the back yard, and is visited by a volunteer social worker, whom she scorns.

Working in an office is a strange way of life, and what one does can be obscure.  When I worked in an office, we spent much of the time chatting, and were only really busy one week out of every month.  Pym’s description of the work world fills me with mirth.  The office life revolves around shared rituals like drinking instant coffee or tea, chatting about hypothermia, and going to the library on the lunch hour.  No one in the building knows exactly what work this quartet does, and it is understood that their jobs will be phased out and they will be replaced by computers.

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Barbara Pym at the International African Institute

Living alone can be dicey in old age, and, oddly, various churches both help and hinder their plans.  Letty had planned to retire to a village with an old friend, Marjorie, a widow, but when Marjorie gets engaged to the new vicar who is 20 years her junior, that is the end of that.  What, Letty wonders, has she done to end up alone?  Why has no one ever wanted to marry her?  And yet stasis is impossible:  she must make a change even if she stays in London, because her landlady has sold  the house to a boisterous Nigerian priest of a Christian sect, and Letty is no longer comfortable there.  Edwin, through his  church connections, finds Letty a room in the house of a cantankerous woman in her 80s, Mrs. Pope.  Letty stays in her room and reads library books, but they sometimes watch TV together in the evenings.

One of the few characters outside the quartet is Janice Brabner, the social worker.  Confronting Marcia in her dusty house is disconcerting, but Janice keeps visiting.

You’ll be retiring,’ Janice Brabner had said.  “Have you thought at all about what you’re going to do?”…

Marcia had never revealed what exactly her job was but Janice guessed that it hadn’t been particularly exciting.  After all, what kind of job could somebody like Marcia do?  She wished she wouldn’t keep staring at her in that unnerving way, as if she had no idea what what was meant by Janice asking what she was going to do when she retired.

“A woman can always find plenty to occupy her time,” Marcia said at last.  “It isn’t like a man retiring, you know.  I have my house to see to.”

After Letty and Marcia retire, heir disappearance into retirement activities is fascinating.  This is not a hopeless book–Pym’s never are–but it is unsettling and at times acerbic.  The quartet comes together again, and the ending is surprising.