Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Angus Wilson’s The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot

penguin middle age of Mrs. Eliot wilsonZ4_BK_0127I don’t like to be classical when there’s a turkey in the oven.

And so I read middlebrow novels on Thanksgiving.

One year it was Edna Ferber’s Giant, a bold novel about an intellectual Southern woman who marries a rich Texas rancher. (Ferber won the Pulitzer for her masterpiece, So Big.)  On another, it was Jacqueline’s Susann’s page-turner, Valley of the Dolls, the story of three friends in New York who succeed as a model, a singer-actress, and actress, but two tragically turn to drugs.

Not everyone would agree that Angus Wilson’s The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot is middlebrow.  Indeed, he is a much more literary writer than either Ferber or Susann. This fast-paced, intelligent novel, published in 1958 and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is often elegantly-written, and misses being a classic by a hair.  But the characterization is sometimes unbelievable, the writing seems dated, and there is a hint of misogyny in Wilson’s portrait of Mrs. Eliot.  He also chronicles the middle age of her much less interesting homosexual brother, David.

Angus Wilson The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot angus wilsion st. martin's 2910672The heroine, Meg Eliot, has the perfect life.  She is the wife of a rich lawyer, gives marvelous parties, and dominates the “Aid to the Elderly” committee she insists on chairing for an unprecedented third time.  Before she leaves on a six-month trip around the world with her husband, she firmly forbids punitive measures like depriving a very old woman of her gin.

Meg is wound up because she is also giving a big going-away party.  She feels empty as she waits for her husband Bill to come home.

There was nothing for it but to seek the escape she and David had found in the past.  Emma, The Mill on the Floss, The Small House at Allington, The Portrait of a Lady lay together with her hand luggage.

Reading holds her together, and, by the way, she compares herself to Emma and Maggie Tulliver.

Theparty is a success:  even her “lame duck” friends mill and throng, while Bill and his friends play bridge.  But Bill has been uneasy about his health, and seems unsettled.   On the plane to Asia, he makes a special effort on her behalf, and reads a bit of The Portrait of the Lady, but it doesn’t interest him.

Then, during an hour-long stop at an airport restaurant in Badai, Meg teases him about his criticism of the younger generation, and Bill tactlessly refers to her infertility.  Meg, terribly upset, goes to the lavatory to pull herself together. While she is gone, he is killed by an assassin’s bullet aimed at a high-ranking official.  Although he is hailed as a hero, Meg believes it was an accident.

Meg has a mental breakdown.  When she finally gets home to London, she discovers that Bill had no money.  Meg’s confidence has been that of a trophy wife, and she seems,  not surprisingly, unable to survive without Bill.

How she starts over–the secretarial course, staying in sordid hotels, and eventually alienating her best friends–is not the story we expect.

Her homosexual brother David, whose partner, Gordon, has just died of cancer, runs a nursery where he deals paternalistically with an odd menage of employees.  He is cold, repressed, and irritable, and does not want Meg to stay with him, but it is inevitable.

There’s a hint of misogyny in the portrait of Meg, but in the introduction Margaret Drabble says,

…it has a powerful effect on a generation of women readers, including myself.  It was the kind of book which needed to exist, and it occupied a space which was waiting for it.  It is now hard to recall, after three flourishing decades of female and feminist fiction, the dismal and stereotypical portrayals of women which was on offer in the early post-war period…

I am not of that generation of readers.  This novel is, however, very entertaining, and if it were not in print, would have Virago potential.

Black Friday

Thanksgiving anne taintor 819b0e2d979ab69cb9ccdd56c54e7108The day after Thanksgiving in 2005, I nipped into a gourmet candy store to buy a hostess gift. I was a Black Friday innocent, and I was discombobulated by the crowd.

Since then, I’ve avoided shopping on Black Friday.

Black Friday is relentless.  This week, during the two-day, five-hour finale of Dancing with the Stars, dance routines were interspersed with loud ads for stores that opened as early as 5 p.m. on Thursday.

Dorp Dead 16093416It used to be nice, if boring, to know nothing was open on Thanksgiving.  When I was a child, we read quietly in the morning (I remember reading Julia Cunningham’s Dorp Dead one year), then zoomed across town to Grandmother’s house for dinner. The guys watched football.  The girls did girl things.

There was no dashing off to Penney’s or Wal-Mart.

As adults, we’ve had many quiet Thanksgivings, and a few chaotic big family holidays.   But it’s usually low-key, and I read an amusing book like Valley of the Dolls while the dinner cooks.

This year, however, it was 12 degrees, with snow on the ground. We all have colds, and we were trapped indoors.

Perhaps that’s why people shop.

It’s not that I’m a stranger to sales.  My mother used to take me to sales the day after Christmas (or was it New Year’s Day?).  We’d line up in front of Seiffert’s, which opened at the usual 9 a.m., when dozens of women would rush inside to rifle through the racks.

A sale at Seiffert’s was just a sale.  There is always violence on Black Friday.

There’s so much hype about holidays.  If you are lucky, they are pleasant.  If you are unlucky, they are nasty and distressing.

But Black Friday is Too Much.

Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade

the bee-loud glade steve himmer 8a8f60f4493114b069736dd295c125c2I don’t read many small-press books. Occasionally in cities, I may find books by Black Sparrow Press or Graywolf Press, but they  do not often turn up at Barnes and Noble.

Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade, published by Atticus Press in 2011, was recommended by Goodreads after I noted that I had readJohn Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.

Himmer’s book is one of my favorites of the year.

The Bee-Loud Glade (the title is a phrase from Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”) is not quite science fiction. The premise may be Wyndhamish (Goodreads thinks so), but Himmer’s voice is more akin to John Kennedy Toole’s or David Foster Wallace’s.  The Bee-Loud Glade is a brilliant, comic, allegorical novel about our society’s failings, climate change, and the life of the soul.

The novel begins with the narrator, Finch, noting that last night’s storm was the loudest he’d ever heard.  He can no longer see the storms well enough to measure them.  We suspect we are in post-apocalyptic territory, but it turns out Finch has lived in a cave for years, originally as a paid hermit in a man-made Paradise created by a multi-millionaire, Mr. Crane. When Crane’s business crashes, Finch decides to stay in the garden.

The economy has collapsed, and the exact setting of the novel is kept vague, but we do know that city life goes on outside of the garden.

Now  two hikers have encroached on Finch’s turf.

The narrative is simple but fascinating.  In alternate chapters, Finch interweaves the story of his growing rage at the intrusion of the hikers who threaten his way of life with the history of his own arrival and gradual transformation by the garden. His past is very sad.  He was an office drone for a “hyperefficient” (i.e., plastic) plant company, called, ironically,  Second Nature.  His title was assistant to the director of brand awareness.  When his new submanager calls him into his office to fire him,  Finch cannot explain what he did.

Finch does explain to us, though.

…I kept dozens of weblogs, and post after post shared intimate memories of the imaginary lives I’d created.  Sometimes my bloggers left comments on each other’s sites, and they commented on other sites, too, drawing more traffic and potential plant buyers into my marketing web.  Unless those commenters weren’t actual people, but the inventions of others with jobs like mine, the whole blogosphere a soapbox for a few busy schemers selling plastic palm trees and flavored milk drinks and guides to selling products online.  Each of my imaginary bloggers had a backstory, a family or else an explainable absence of one; each had his own history of successes and failures. Second Nature’s viral campaign spanned the gamut of human behavior from borderline psychotic to contemplative, fractured English to erudition, and all of those voices and vices were mine.

Although marketing dominates the web, and I am disturbed by the ads that pursue us, there is something endearing about Finch’s marketing efforts.  After he shuts down the blogs, he imagines the loss felt by readers and wonders what happens to his own characters.  Jobless like so many (the majority?), Finch stays home, doesn’t shower, watches TV, and answers spam.

This last brings him to the hermit job.

Mr. Crane, who owns Second Nature, is arrogant in his creation of a woodland-garden on his estate in the middle of the city.  Essentially he has created it to house the hermit, whom he will watch on film as though he is a toy.  Finch  is not allowed to talk, and is given whimsical orders:   one day to paint, the next to play the flute, then to keep bees (he is allergic to bees).   One day engineers  blast the landscape, building a river in which Finch is to swim and fish. A team is hired to make snow.   Finch has never seen snow.

The garden is a microcosm, and we see the Mr. Cranes changing nature and possibly destroying it.  They believe they can control the future, but it is out of control.

But, oddly, Mr. Crane’s garden is a kind of Paradise.  Yet climate change is at work, and it’s not quite clear where the future is going.

As Finch loses his vision, he in danger of losing his vision of the garden.

Not a perfect book, but an engaging, very well-written one.

Here are some lines from Yeats’s poem:

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

A Home Librarian Hangs on to the Harder-to-Get

Picasso, "Woman with Book" (1932)

Picasso, “Woman with Book” (1932)

We cannot fit all our books on the shelves.

There are bookshelves in every room except the bathroom.

“Have you read all these?”

“Yes.”

It’s simpler that way.  Non-readers don’t understand that we have read many, many of these books, and will read many more of them in the future.

On the floor of the bedroom we have about fifty books stacked against the wall.

“What do you have on your ‘nightstand?'”

It’s a floor.

Hence the frequent weeding of books.

The question becomes:  what to keep and what to discard.

Naturally we have kept our classics.  One cannot read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda  too many times, nor Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  I read and reread Virgil, Cicero, Juvenal, Catullus, and the Greek lyric poets on which Catullus  based much of his work.

The Book of the Courtier Castiglione 9780140441925Some favorite classics may be less well-known.  Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is Machiavelli for the polite set.  Well, sort of.  He teaches the virtues you need to be a diplomat, and he is very entertaining.  He writes, “Practise in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought.”

It reminds me a little of the song “Popular” in Wicked.

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of
Celebrated heads of state or
Specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh! Ha, ha!

They were popular! Please –
It’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me! (Ahh!)

Thank you, Glinda the good witch!

And now back to my own musings.

Corduroy by adrian bell Penguin5We have picked up many books at used bookstores over the years.  Sometimes it takes a while to get around to reading a superb book like Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, one of the best coming-of-age novels I’ve ever read, or Colette’s My Apprenticeships and Sidelights of the Music-Hall, a fascinating memoir and series of sketches.  Did anyone else go through an Adrian Bell phase?  I love his rural memoirs, Corduroy, The Silver Ley, and The Cherry Tree. And I wouldn’t for the world give away any of the novels of the underrated Dawn Powell.   We have hundreds of Penguins, dozens of Viragos, several Library of America editions, etc., etc.

When it comes to discards, we are usually on shakier ground.

Looking over my 2008 and 2009 book journal, I realize that we gave away dozens of new or newish books to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.   I am not saying that they are bad new books.  I enjoyed many of them but discarded them because I would not reread them.

Here are is a list of a few  discards:

vanessa and virginia 5505825Dan Simmons’s Drood, a long novel about Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who is darkly pursuing an evil character called Drood.

Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia, a very slight novel about the relationship  of Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell.  Unfortunately, Sellers’  style is very bull-in-the-china-shop compared with Woolf’s delicacy.

Lydia Millett’s How the Dead Dream, a story of a realtor-turned-environmentalist who travels into the jungle.   It is pretty good, but the style is flat, despite the adventure elements of the plot.

America America by Ethan Canin.  Very sentimental:  other than that I remember it not at all.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.  Very good, the whole house admired it, but we are not reading it again.

Some of you will be furious that I have discarded your favorite books. “What the hell do you hang on to? you ask crossly

Well, quite simply, I hang on to the best.  My best.

Here are some remarkakle “new” books I read in 2008 and 2009 and kept.  Yes, I do expect to reread them.

Counting the stars helen dunmore 2580513A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, a beautifully-written historical novel based partly on the lives of E. Nesbit and her set.

Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars A lyrical historical novel about the poet Catullus and his love affair with Clodia Metelli.  Absolutely stunning.

Julie Hecht’s Happy Trails to You.  Witty, unusual short stories about a likable photographer with obsessive compulsive disorder (though I’m sure Hecht would never be so clumsy as to call it that).

Brenda Peterson’s  I Want to Be Left Behind:  Finding Rapture Here on Earth.  This stunning memoir by novelist, nonfiction writer, and environmentalist Brenda Peterson interweaves her story of growing up in a fundamentalist family with her writing, work to save porpoises, whales, and other endangered species, and rejection of her family’s beliefs while continuint to love family.

Many of you go through the same agony when you try to decide what to keep and what to discard…

I am not even going to begin to list the books I wish I hadn’t discarded…

National Readathon Day

January 24 is National Readathon Day.

The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Mashable, and Goodreads are sponsoring the readathon.

Read four hours on Saturday, Jan. 24, from noon to 4, invite friends to participate in the silent readaton, or attend a bookstore reading  party or library party..

Isn’t that adorable?

National_Readathon_Day_posterDuring the readathon, you also  can tweet, using the hashtag #timetoread.

Those of my generation may ask how a readathon is different from any other day.

We come home from work and read, no?

Perhaps we don’t read quite four hours.

Thomas Hardy read six hours a day.  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Perhaps the social media will encourage the younger generation to participate.  Some younger bloggers (Gen X? The Millennials?) regularly participate in readathons  and chime in on what they’re reading at their blogs or by Twitter..

Very sweet.

The Readathon is a fundraiser for the National Book Foundation.  They encourage us to ask friends to sponsor us with money for each hour, or give the money ourselves.  You can register here.

Only $600 has been raised so far.

The National Book Foundation has some interesting statistics on reading.

Consider this: 53% of 9-year-olds read for pleasure daily, and by the time they turn 17, that number drops to 19%. Without your help, book worms may soon become an endangered species.

That’s why Penguin Random House and the National Book Foundation are launching National Readathon Day. We’re asking book lovers across America to pledge to read for four hours starting at noon (in respective time zones) on January 24, 2015.

Make your commitment here on FirstGiving and fundraise to support the National Book Foundation’s efforts to create, promote, and sustain a lifelong love of reading in America.

You can fundraise individually, join an existing team, or start your own of friends, family, and colleagues.

Very disturbing statistics.  Let’s read for tomorrow!

Colette’s My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man

I have been busy.

I am reading Proust. (Proust is long, life is short.)

When I looked at my book journal, I discovered to my surprise that my book count is down this year.

A few bloggers, some a bit desperately, have written about this phenomenon lately:  they are reading less than usual, or finishing fewer books.  Blogging, new jobs, reading too many books at one time, and putting aside “difficult” books to read more entertaining novels have been blamed.

It is obvious to me that this is about the internet.

Our attention spans are shorter.

And so we have several books on the go.

Every year I try to decrease my time online to have more time for “real life.”  Last year I cut out Twitter; this year it was Goodreads.

I am behind on my book-blogging.

I’ve cut down on blogging so I can get more done, but here is a Reading Catch-up post.

Colette My Apprenticeships & Music-Hall Sidelights 102499b1.  Colette’s My Apprenticeships and Music-Hall Sidelights.  I’ve had this Penguin for years, and have  procrastinated reading it.  I am so glad I finally got around to it.  What a delightful book!  My Apprenticeships is a stunning memoir of Colette’s first marriage.  Her first husband was Willy (Henri Gauthiers-Villars), a philanderer, liar, writer and journalist, who hired a stable of ghostwriters to do his work.  He locked Colette in her room to write the partly-autobiographical Claudine books, which went through hundreds of editions, first under Willy’s name and later under Colette’s.  A popular play, starring the famous actress, Polaire, was adapted from the books, and Claudine merchandise was manufactured, including “Claudine” shirts with round collars.  Colette did not admire the Claudine books–they were spiced up by Willy’s erotic suggestions–but she did take credit for these first novels eventually.  She was fondest of Claudine in Paris and Claudine and Annie.

As to Willi:  why he did not write his own books and articles she did not know. He came up with the ideas and  plots.  Once the manuscript came in, he had it retyped so it would look like his work, farmed it out to editors, and sometimes farmed it out again to other writers and editors.

I also loved Music-Hall Sideights, a charming series of scenes and sketches about Colette’s years as a pantomime artist in the music-hall.  If you have read her novel The Vagabond, you already know about her life as a traveling performer, but she approaches it here from a different angle.  She writes vividly about the troupe lounging in a park during train delays, a circus horse,  the exhaustion of matinees, a talented young ballerina, and a listless young lesbian abandoned by her actress friend and kindly taken into their music-hall troupe as a chorus girl because she has no home.

sassoon memoirs of a fox-hungint man faber and faber image2.  Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:  The Memoirs of George Sherston Is this a classic?  Yes, no, maybe.  It is charming, well-written, and won the James Tait Memorial Prize. But after 200 pages of horse purchases, fox-hunts, and point-to-point races,  I did wonder if I would ever get through it.

The last chapters about the beginning of World War I make it worth reading.

The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first of a trilogy of novels based on Sassoon’s life as a soldier. This first book describes pastoral life in England, which is, of course, ended by the war.  George, the narrator, has no intellectual interests:  he is content to read Surtee’s racing novels and pursue sports.  After coming down from Cambridge without a degree, he lives on a small stipend with Aunt Evelyn in the country and soon becomes involved in the world of horses.

I am not a horsey person. Please, dear God, don’t make me go to the races ever again.  I learned everything I know about horses from Trollope, and here from Aunt Evelyn’s groom, Dixon. I did very much enjoy George’s schooling by Dixon in riding and hunting. George is such a simple soul, not very bright, and he has a good sense of humor.  The first hundred pages or so are captivating.

But one really reads this for the last two chapters, when George enlists in the army and describes the incredible boredom of military life.  After he breaks his arm, he has a kind of nervous breakdown, malingering at home with Aunt Evelyn for months. Fortunately a colonel friend gets him transferred into the Special Reserve, where life is less grim.

It is grim at the front.  It is hell in the trenches.  Friends die.  Dixon dies.

Sassoon’s book reminds me very slightly of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, which is much more complicated, better-written, and more interesting.

Fox-Hunting Man has historical interest, but it is very slight.

I do, however, look forward to reading the other two books, because I am interested in World War I.

The SF Turkey Trot and Six Links

The Peripheral william gibson 81WCwPZNGyLMy cousin and I are in a Turkey Trot race.

We’re racing to finish two science fiction books between now and Thanksgiving.

That’s because I recently bought two hardcover SF novels,  William Gibson’s The Peripheral ($28.95) and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks ($30)..

“I can read them and then give them as Christmas gifts,”  I said chirpily to the clerk.

But then I had a spark of genius.

My cousin Megan and I are competing to lessen our cooking responsibilities.  The loser has to “make” the pies.  That means picking them up at the Village Inn.

“It will be a blast,” I said confidently.

Megan, a librarian who flaunts the fact that she doesn’t read (“Librarianship is just a job”) and mocks Library of Congress classifications (“The Luminaries is shelved in the mystery section”), does in fact read science fiction.

She even went to WorldCon, a science fiction convention, a few years ago in Chicago.  “It was a drunken weedy blast.”  She dressed up as a character from an SF novel, went to a panel on “Are you a Dickhead?” (about Philip K. Dick), did science fiction origami, and toured the Science and Industry Museum.

William Gibson is a fast,brilliant writer, and. I adored  Zero History, an SF thriller about postmodern marketing, fashion brands, and corrupt American military contractors. It is the third of a trilogy, but can be read as a standalone.

And David Mitchell’s new novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, is a shoo-in for folks who belittle science fiction but will read anything reviewed by James Wood.  In other words, it is a perfect Christmas gift.

I’m also reading Proust, so I’ll be very surprised if I win this contest, and Megan reminds me that she has a full life watching TV, though our favorite “Selfie” was canceled.

Who will win?

Probably both of us, or none.

Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin News:   Laurie Colwin’s  brilliant books, among them her novel Happy All the Time and her charming cookbook, Home Cooking,  have been published  as e-books by Open Road Media. Check out their webpage on her life and work.

I wrote of her masterpiece, Family Happiness:

Those of you who have read Laurie Colwin’s wonderful fiction and charming cookbooks will understand what brings me back again and again to her masterpiece, Family Happiness. This slender, quirky novel is a comic version of Anna Karenina, as might have been written by Jane Austen, with many comic twists, much confusion, and ultimately triumph for the heroine.

productimage-picture-testing-the-current-327William McPherson, author of the American classic, Testing the Current (NYBR), has written a harrowing essay about poverty in old age at The Hedgehog Review Since his retirement from The Washington Post, he has descended into poverty.

…Like a lot of other people, I started life comfortably middle-class, maybe upper-middle class; now, like a lot of other people walking the streets of America today, I am poor. To put it directly, I have no money. Does this embarrass me? Of course, it embarrasses me—and a lot of other things as well. It’s humiliating to be poor, to be dependent on the kindness of family and friends and government subsidies. But it sure is an education.

On a lighter note, here  is a charming Abebooks article about a 20-year-old book club in Vancouver.

http://www.abebooks.com/books/features/20-years-of-book-club.shtml?cm_mmc=nl-_-nl-_-C141118-h00-bkclubAR-121224GN-_-01cta&abersp=1

Karen Gillan and John Cho in "Selfie"

Karen Gillan and John Cho in “Selfie”

And here’s my question:  Why did my favorite new sitcom, “Selfie,” get canceled?  Entertainment Weekly analyzes it.

And here is a link to my favorite episode of “Selfie”:

http://abc.go.com/shows/selfie/episode-guide/season-01/05-even-hell-has-two-bars