Where’s My Book?

"War and Peace" in my bicycle helmet one summer!

“War and Peace” in my bicycle helmet one summer!

Today I made calls and behaved like the outspoken Marya Dmitrievna, the middle-aged le terrible dragon in War and Peace  “who told everyone her opinion as candidly, loudly, and bluntly, as ever…”

Actually I just went to my cousin’s house. I wanted my copy of The Bone Clocks back.

“Great cookie.  And is that my book?”  It was splayed face-down on a floury kitchen counter.

Where's my copy?

Where’s my copy?

“I’m slowly reading it.”

She’s on page 10.

“I want to read it now, but I’ll give it back when I finish,” I said.

“No biggie.”

Some people are very rough when you ask for your books, though.

You lend a book; you want it back.  They borrow a book; they don’t think you value it.  Hinting isn’t enough:  you have to say, “I need it back.”   I lost Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face to a woman who pored over self-help books and memoirs of ruination (I lost a few other memoirs of ruination to her, too); Kathleen Raine’s collected poetry to a friend’s girlfriend who walked off with  at a party; and almost lost an out-of-print edition of Osbert Sitwell’s short stories to a friend who insisted I had given it to her..

I had to be firm about that one.  “No, I want it back.”

Sometimes I protest, sometimes I do not.  People do not take the loan of books as seriously as they take, say, the loan of your ball gown or, er, only dress.

It is more practical to give books away than to lend them.

the haunted bookshop by christopher morley 609284Here is a quote from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop:


I GIVE humble and hearty thanks for the safe return of this book which having endured the perils of my friend’s bookcase, and the bookcases of my friend’s friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.

I GIVE humble and hearty thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant as a plaything, nor use it as an ash-tray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.

WHEN I lent this book I deemed it as lost: I was resigned to the bitterness of the long parting: I never thought to look upon its pages again.

BUT NOW that my book is come back to me, I rejoice and am exceeding glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honour: for this my book was lent, and is returned again.

PRESENTLY, therefore, I may return some of the books that I myself have borrowed.”

What’s your policy on lending books?

New Translations of Anna Karenina

A new translation by Marian Schwartz.

A new translation by Marian Schwartz.

Two new translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina have recently been published.

In the Nov. 21 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Sam Sacks praises the power and clarity of contemporary translations by Marian Schwartz (Yale, 754 pages, $35) and Rosamund Bartlett (Oxford, 847 pages, $29.95).

In the Dec. 24 issue of The New York Times Book Review, Masha Gessen, a Russian and English journalist, is technical in her brisk comparison of the English to the Russian and translators’ choices.

I don’t quite need a new translation, but it is tempting.

Anna Karenina Bartlett book_review

The new translation by Rosamund Bartlett.

I  already have read three translations of this masterpiece: the Maude (translated by the brilliant husband and wife team, Aylmer and Louise Maude, in 1918), the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (an excellent 2000 translation by another talented husband and wife team), and Constance Garnett (I find this 1902 translation less elegant than the other two).

Although Gessen is as incisive as a surgeon in her scrutiny, I prefer Sacks’ charming,  no-nonsense common reader’s approach to the art of translation. He explains that the new isn’t necessarily better than the old:  some of it is about familiarity.

Translations are like recipes: We tend to think that the best one is whichever we encountered first. That’s why, amid the ever-growing list of versions of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I will remain partial to Louise and Aylmer Maude’s. It was through their 1918 version that I discovered the novel—in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, the mass-market paperback with the bright yellow spine and sturdy, laminate covers. This fact alone would give them pride of place.

Sacks says there are only minor differences between the two new translations (and the other translations, as far as that goes).  He explains that Bartlett’s is a more “classically elegant translation,” while Schwartz stresses “Tolstoy’s artless, intuitive side by retaining his repetitions (whereas Ms. Bartlett deploys synonyms) and eschewing commas in long sentences.”

Gesson agrees that Bartlett’s is more readable, though she says Schwartz has a better ear for Russian.  In a comparison of one passage in four different translations–the 1902 Constance Garnett, the Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Schwartz and Bartlett–she zeroes in on different renditions of Russian words that have varied meanings .

Translators may change their sympathies for different characters with every reading, and so translations can vary in tone, she observes.

How earnest, ironic, condescending, moralistic and simply funny a Tolstoy should the translator inhabit? Perhaps the only way to render Tolstoy’s variable voice is to continue producing ever-varying translations.

Hers is a fascinating, if slightly cynical and almost overly precise, review.

Perhaps I’ll try one of these new translations someday, though I already love the Maude and the Pevear and Volokhonsky.

And perhaps I should stick with what I have.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Last Resort

pamela hansford johnson the-last-resort-978144721627801Pamela Hansford Johnson’s brilliant, mercilessly observant, psychological novels explore the vicissitudes of relationships in the mid-twentieth century.

Johnson is a very underrated English writer. She was the author of 27 novels, as well as poetry, plays, and books on Proust, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Thomas Wolfe..  The best of her novels, including the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide, are bold, dazzling masterpieces. Even her most flawed novels are well-crafted.

But does anyone read her anymore?

Perhaps Wendy Pollard’s new biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson:  Her Life, Works and Times, will rekindle Johnson’s reputation.  I am making my way through it slowly, and finding it fascinating.  Though it begins awkwardly with the assertion that Johnson and her husband C. P. Snow were the intellectual celebrity couple of the mid-twentieth century (do we need a mention of Snow on the first page?), Cope hits her stride by the second chapter.  Now if only the British press would review it.  The one review I read in The Spectator was simply awful.

I recently reread Johnson’s The Last Resort, published in 1956.

Pamela Hansford Johnson

Pamela Hansford Johnson

All right, this is not Johnson’s best book.  Yet I couldn’t put it down.  It is not stylishly written, but is rather a melodramatic page-turner about the tragic consequences of a love affair for a brittle woman in her late thirties.

How can you be happy if you are unmarried, even if you are the successful owner of a secretarial agency? That is the question Johnson poses.  Christine, the happily married narrator, a novelist and the mother of a son, quietly relates the story of her friend Celia Baird’s passionate love affair with a married man.  On vacation, Christine runs into Celia at the Moray, the hotel where she lives with her parents on weekends.  Celia is aglow as she recounts the history of her relationship with her lover, Eric Aveling.  But the situation is tortuous and guilty:  Eric’s wife, Lois, is dying in the hospital; and Celia is Lois’s friend. After Lois dies, the affair fizzles out. Celia is devastated.

No one is Celia’s true friend, except Christine. Celia’s mother wants Christine to help her break up Celia’s  affair with Eric.  Celia’s homosexual friend (the business partner of Eric), Junius, is often mischievous.  Celia attacks his campy insincerity in praising unattractive, eccentric old women:   she says homosexuals disdain them. Even after Celia apologizes, Junius is furious.  And this quarrel is part of Celia’s downfall:  later he introduces a beautiful young woman to Eric.

There are many twists and turns to the plot, but Christine’s description of life at the Moray is riveting and Dickensian. When  Christine and her family spend Christmas at the Moray with the Bairds, the hotel culture adds an odd sparkle to Christmas.

Christmas dinner was a curious meal.  It was not the custom at the Moray for guests, whether resident or not, to pay much attention to one another.  The Bairds knew all the residents by now, but they hardly ever exchanged more than a good-morning or a remark about the weather.  I myself had commented upon two old ladies who, having lived there for more than ten years, occupied seats on opposite sides of the chimneypiece and had never spoken together in anything resembling friendship.  “But they aren’t relations,” Mrs. Baird said, puzzled, “though they do look a bit alike.  They don’t even know each other.  At dinner on that particular day (it was served at the usual time, at half past seven) a feeble attempt was made at general comradeship.  All through a well-cooked but poorly served meal…well-known solitaries braced themselves to look around, nod and smile blindly at random; elderly married couples, who wanted nothing but to be alone, bobbed quickly at other married couples, while hoping the gesture would not form a precedent; and one or two determined diners even leaned across with their crackers at adjacent tables.

The portrait of Junius, the gay  friend who lives in a “chi-chi” beach house, talks frivolously, shows off his young men, and accuses Christine of not liking people of his “persuasion,” would be politically incorrect today.  Although Johnson had lesbian friends, she denigrated gay men in her diary, says Wendy Pollard in her biography.  And  Johnson was upset by “adverse reviews from critics known within literary circles to be homosexual,”

I wonder if the relationship between gay men and heterosexual women was more fraught in the mid-twentieth century. In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), there is an even more disconcerting scene between the heroine and two gay men:  Anna rents a room to a gay man, and all is well until his lover moves in. They they make loud misogynistic remarks about her and borrow her lotions and makeup. Eventually she has to evict them.

In The Last Resort, finally Christine turns to Junius, who helped destroy her relationship with Eric.  He  is indeed a “last resort.”

A gripping book, if slightly dated.  We are all very worried about Celia, but know that  Eric and Junius can take care of themselves.  We hope that Celia hasn’t made a terrible decision.

My Best Books of 2014

stack_of_booksDon’t you love the critics’ “Best of the Year” lists? I pore over them and enjoy them immensely.

But I don’t make my own list till after Christmas, since I am not writing for commercial purposes.

No, I wait till New Year’s Eve.

This year, however, I have made the list early, because I am in training and dutifully going to bed early.  I plan to get up at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day to listen to Radio Four’s presentation of War and Peace.  (We’ll believe it when we see it, right?)

So here is My Top Twelve List of 2014, arranged in no particular order.  The first six are “new” books, published between 2009 and 2014. The last six are books of the 19th and 20th century.

The-Stories-of-Jane-Gardam-Cover-658x10241.  The Stories of Jane Gardam.  Gardam’s extraordinary short stories are elegant and witty; and her portraits of offbeat, independent characters brilliantly drawn. Whether she is describing a family who mocks their annual Christmas guest, whom they dub a “parasite” and nickname Miss Mistletoe (in the story “Miss Mistletoe”); or depicting the peculiarities of an elderly woman who queues for Shakespeare tickets (in “Groundlings”), her prose is pitch-perfect.

AskAlice2.  D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice.  You may be surprised when I categorize the English writer D. J. Taylor’s novel, Ask Alice, as an honorary Midwestern novel. Though most of this novel is set in England, it begins in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, and we first meet the heroine, Alice, traveling on a train through Kansas with her Aunt Em. And, yes, if you’re thinking of Oz, so you should. This is the beginning of Alice’s journey from sweet Midwestern girl to successful English actress to London society hostess in the Jazz Age.  He pays homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dreiser, H. G. Wells, and J. B. Priestley, among others.

WeAreAllCompletely_paperback Fowler3.  Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. In this transcendent coming-of-age novel, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the narrator, Rosemary, a psychologist’s daughter who grew up in Bloomington, Indiana,  was twinned with a chimp, Fern, for the first five years of her life. When Fern disappears, Rosemary doesn’t understand why, and her brother Lowell goes berserk. Finally, as a college student, Rosemary explores the mystery of why Fern was sent away.  (This is very much a feminist novel, so I am not surprised it didn’t win the Man Booker Prize.)

museum of extraordinary things Hoffman4.  Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things.  In this lyrical, moving novel, Hoffman interweaves the stories of two protagonists, Coralie and Eddie, who eventually meet and fall in love. Coralie is the daughter of the cruel owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a museum of “freaks” (Siamese twins, dwarfs, giants, and the butterfly woman, who has no arms and fake wings attached) and gruesome artefacts he has collected or fabricated. He forces Coralie, who has webbed hands, to swim long distances in the Hudson River to prepare for a mermaid act in a tank. She is kept at home, so she will keep his secrets. The only people she knows are his employees; especially influential are the housekeeper who has raised her, Maureen, who has burns on her face from acid; and Maureen’s lover, the Wolf Man, a man born with hair all over his body, who was imprisoned for years in an attic by his family in Richmond, Virginia, and finally escaped, inspired by Jane Eyre.

Off Course by Michelle Huneven5.  Michelle Huneven’s Off Course.  In this short, graceful novel, set in the ’80s, the heroine, Cressida, cannot write her dissertation. Cressida moves to her parents’ A-frame in the mountains to write, but after falling in love with Quinn, a married, semi-literate carpenter, she works as a waitress and procrastinates writing for four years. If you have ever hesitated about your future after school (or some other pivotal time in your life), you will identify with Cressida. (You can read more about Off Course in my post here.)

Eyrie tim Winton6. Tim Winton’s Eyrie.  The Australian writer Tim Winton’s new novel, Eyrie, is a literary page-turner. From the beginning, his spare, tough prose swept me away. The hero, Tom Keely, an environmentalist activist, has been unemployed for a year, his reputation slashed by a powerful politician. The divorced, impoverished Keely has moved from a lovely middle-class house to a hideous highrise. Though we hear about his fury over the impact of the mining industry and his concern for endangered birds, we don’t learn much about his former high-profile work. That’s because he has fallen several class es, despite his mother’s attempts to help him. Nowadays Keely drinks, does drugs, and blacks out.  And he tries to save a lower-class woman he knows from his childhood and her grandson.

My favorite book.

7.  Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  My reasons to read Anna Karenina are here.

Proust Swann-Way-Modern-Library-Classics-0812972090-L8.  Proust’s Swann’s Way.  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 kissed 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.

9.   Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novelMcCarthy a charmed life 80057, published in 1955, centers on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village.  John and Martha Sinnott, an unconventional couple, have an idiosyncratic relationship to the village of New Leeds. Martha used to live here with her violent first husband, Miles, but ran away from him seven years ago after he locked her out of the house in her nightgown. Now she and her second husband, John, are back in New Leeds.  And, as you can imagine, relationships are awkward when they return.  This novel is far, far better than her best-seller The Group.

trollope the-way-we-live-now10.  Trollope’s The Way We Live Now.  I recently reread this stunning novel about financial fraud, desperate aristocrats, calculated courtships, and literary corruption.  According to John Sutherland in the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.”  A financial scam is at the heart of this novel, and I was faintly reminded of the financial collapse in 2008. Finance is not always based on real money (and that’s as far as my financial knowledge goes). Trollope’s book revolves around Melmotte, a wealthy financier of mysterious origins who suddenly moves to London with his family. He directs the board of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, and whether or not the railroad actually exists, shares are briskly bought and sold.

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy11.    Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor.  I reread this splendid novel this year, but didn’t blog about it.  In 2012 I wrote at my old blog,  Frisbee:  A Book Journal:.  In 1975, novelist Maureen Howard in The New York Times enthusiastically praised The Memoirs of a Survivor as a “fable.” In the New York Review of Books, reviewer Rosemary Dinnage rather snottily acknowledged it as science fiction, and patronizingly said that SF suited ‘the very flatfootedness of her style… ” Jane Rogers in The Guardian has called The Memoirs of a Survivor a “cozy catastrophe” in the tradition of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids.  I very much admire Lessing’s post-apocalyptic novel of societal breakdown, narrated by an intelligent, independent middle-aged woman who confronts the problems of the demise of her city calmly. She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, and only the rich are still on the grid. Her apartment house, once solidly middle-class, is now inhabited by new lower-class families and squatters.

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe 2032312,  Constance Beresford-Howe’s The Book of Eve.  I didn’t blog about this lovely Canadian novel, so am copying this description from Goodreads.  “First published in 1973, The Book of Eve has become a classic. When Eva Carroll walks out on her husband of 40 years, it is an unplanned, completely spontaneous gesture. Yet Eva feels neither guilt nor remorse. Instead, she feels rejuvenated and blissfully free. As she builds a new life for herself in a boarding house on the “wrong” side of Montreal, she finds happiness and independence — and, when she least expects it, love.

English House-Party Fiction: Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding & Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon PIe nancy mitford 511WzvBv56L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If all the Christmas cookies have disappeared and you have threatened to serve your family a stick of butter sprinkled with sugar on Christmas, I suggest you take a break with Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding or Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow.

It won’t solve your cookie problem, but it will make you laugh.

There is something very soothing about English house-party comedies.  In Mitford’s rollicking second novel, Christmas Pudding, she describes “sixteen characters in search of an author” who spend Christmas in the Cotswolds.

One of the most endearing characters, Paul Fotheringay, a recent Oxford graduate, is the author of Crazy Capers, a novel deemed hilarious by the critics.  Even the very silly young woman he is in love with, Marcella Brackett, thinks it’s funny.  Paul intended it as a tragedy.

…how could praise or promise of glittering gain compensate in any way to the unhappy Paul for the fact that his book, the child of his soul upon which he had expended over a year of labour, pouring forth into it all the bitterness of a bitter nature; describing earnestly, as he thought, and with passion, the subtle shades of a young man’s psychology, and rising to what seemed to him an almost unbearably tragic climax with the suicide pact of his hero and heroine, had been hailed with delight on every hand as the funniest, most roaringly farcical piece of work published in years.


christmad pudding nancy mitford 11992420533_c5ab262684_oOn the advice of Amabelle Foretescue, a wealthy socialite and former prostitute, Paul decides to give up fiction and write a biography.  But when Lady Bobbin, a hunting fanatic whose season has been interrupted by an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, refuses Paul access to her poet ancestress Lady Maria Bobbin’s journals, he takes a job as tutor to her son Bobby Bobbin under a false name, and reads the journals while Bobby snoozes on the couch.  In the afternoon they pretend to go horseback riding but actually play bridge at Amabelle’s rented country house.

Love conquers all–sort of. Michael Lewes, a dull diplomat, returns from Cairo to court Amabelle.   Paul falls in love with Bobby’s sister, Philadelphia.  Are any of these couples suited?  Who really loves whom?

This is frothy farce, one of those short novels you can gobble up like a cookie.

aldous huxley cromeyellowMitford’s charming  novel may have roots in Aldous Huxley’s satiric first novel, Crome Yellow.  The character Paul is very like Huxley’s Denis Stone, a naive poet who moons over Anne, a sophisticated slightly “older” woman, when he is not penning verse.

But while Mitford’s house-party novel is sheer farce, Huxley’s is a house-party novel of ideas. The house party at Crome, which satirizes the parties of Lady Ottoline Morrell, which Huxley and D. H. Lawrence attended, is made up of intellectuals, artists, spiritualists, eccentrics, and attractive women.

One of the guests, Mr. Skogan, rants about population control and test-tube babies.  The host, Henry Wimbush, has written a family history, and reads aloud a fascinating chapter about an ancestor who is a dwarf, Sir Hercules. You can imagine what happened when Sir Hercules and his little wife gave birth to a normal-sized child.

There are incongruous traits to all the characters.  The sexually active Anne turns out to be chaste, the  virginal Mary is obsessed with sex, and a modern artist disappoints them by rejecting cubism.

Paul can’t stop quoting other people’s poetry and wants to escape his education.

Oh, these rags and tags of other people’s making!  Would he ever be able to call his brain his own?  Was there, indeed, anything in it that was truly his own, or was it simply an education?

Two comedies in very different styles, both featuring confused young writers.

Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden

Sheila Kaye-SMith ESKS

Sheila Kaye-Smith

A few years ago in a “Books of the Year” article in The Spectator, Charlotte Moore charmingly recommended Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels.

My most enjoyable wallow in the past this year has been provided by Sheila Kaye Smith, ‘the Hardy of Sussex’, whose intense human dramas, enacted in a primitive rural landscape about to be forever changed, were satirised in Cold Comfort Farm. Try The End of the House of Alard — the title says it all.

You are missing out on a guilty pleasure if you know the books of Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb only from Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Although Gibbons’s witty satire is amusing, it destroyed the reputation of these once popular writers for us.

I am a fan of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, which won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1924.

I recently curled up with Kaye Smith’s Joanna Godden.  It is not in the same class as Webb’s Precious Bane–the writing is much rougher–but Kaye-Smith’s portrait of a woman farmer is intriguing.

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith, 4901896Published in 1921, Joanna Godden chronicles 20 years in the life of a woman farmer.  When Joanna inherits a sheep farm from her father, she scandalizes the neighbors and other farmers by managing it herself.

It is not easy being a woman farmer.  She is snubbed by the other farmers, and has trouble managing her father’s men.  She makes staff changes: she hires a new “looker” for her sheep, partly because he will obey her, partly because she is attracted to him.  After a disastrous experiment with breeding sheep, she realizes her father would never have hired anyone so inexperienced.

The writing is rough, but the story is gripping.

Kaye-Smith’s description of Joanna in the opening pages shows us that she is no “lady.”  She is loud, outspoken, big, and likes frills and plumes.

She was emphatically what men call a “fine woman’ with her firm, white neck, her broad shoulders, her deep bosom and strong waist; she was tall, too, with large, useful hands and feet.  Her face was brown and slightly freckled, with a warm color on the cheeks; the features were strong, but any impression of heaviness was at once dispelled by a pair of eager, lively blue eyes.  Big jet earrings dangled from her ears, being matched by the double chain of beads that hung over crape-filled bodice.  Indeed, with her plumes, her earrings, her necklace, her frills, though all of the decent and respectable black, she faintly shocked the opinion of Wayland Marsh, otherwise disposed in pity to be lenient to Joanna Godden and her ways.

Joanna  becomes the richest, most successful farmer on the Romney and Walland Marshes in Kent.

But what to do for sex?  She wants a relationship, but will not marry anyone who is after her money.   She falls in love, but…

Kaye-Smith also explores the complications of sisterhood.   Joanna is alternately affectionate and violent towards her sly, pretty younger sister, Ellen.  Joanna sends her to boarding school so she can become a “lady,” but when rebellious Ellen comes home, the marshes bore her.

Ellen runs away with a man.  Years later, Joanna, has an unsatisfying romance, and finally faces a problem she cannot solve.

Rachel Anderson writes in the introduction to the Virago edition:  “Popular romantic heroines of the twenties, whether large or small, were uncertain whether they wished to be liberated from man or dominated by him:  to choose true love inevitably meant to choose male domination.”

I enjoyed this book very much, though I won’t lie and say it’s good.  Has anybody else read Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels?  What else should I read?

Christmas Tips: How to Give Someone a Book

One of Garth Williams' illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder's "The Long Winter'

One of Garth Williams’ original illustrations for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “The Long Winter’

Christmas is not my favorite holiday.  It is very cold on the prairie.

I try to get in the mood by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Ruth Suckow.

Christmas is different in the 21st century. Pa no longer fiddles, Lucy Gayheart doesn’t skate on the Platte, Abby doesn’t make homemade gifts after the failure of the harvest, and the Bonneys don’t rush off to church suppers.  Nowadays we’re more laid-back:  we sing along to old Doors albums (“Break on through to the Other Side”), pretend to knit scarves (I drop a lot of stitches), and attend old-fashioned taffy-pulls (they are fun candy-making parties).

But I do know how to make a nice Christmas for a cranky snowbound family.

Give them books.

Here are some tips.

1.  Snoop around their bookshelves, or ask them to make a list. Your taste isn’t necessarily theirs, so it’s best to find out what they like.

2.  Use “Best of” lists with caution.  Some love critics’ recommendations; others go their own way.  Elmear McBride’s prize-winning experimental novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, may or may not be ideal for the proponent of Susan Conant’s dog mysteries.  In my own experience, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel about an Iowa minister, seemed the ideal gift for a super-religious second cousin, but she deemed it slow.  On the other hand, she might want Lena Dunham’s racy memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.  You never know.

3.  Don’t order books from the UK.   One year I begged my husband to order Stevie Davies’ novel, Into Suez, from the UK, because Margaret Drabble recommended it on a “Best of” list.  I still haven’t read it.

4. Generally suitable gifts:  the light reading option.  I am better at buying gifts for women than men.  The novels of Barbara Pym, Nick Hornby, E. M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady series, and D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books are usually suitable for women. And Golden Age Detective novels (Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, etc.) are appropriate for everyone.

Ask your bookseller at the local indie.  Sometimes he or she can recommend books outside your area of expertise.

Classics are excellent gifts, but after a certain age we’ve read everything except Martin Chuzzlwit.   I do like Library of America editions, however, and have had good luck with giving editions of Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, and Sarah Orne Jewett.

7.  Give Christmas books.  Try Christmas poetry books:  Christmas Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets), selected by John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy, includes 52 Christmas poems by the likes of Christina Rosetti, Walter de la Mare, John Donne, Dorothy Parker, T. S. Eliot, and  Stevie smith.

And here is  a list of free Christmas books available free at Project Gutenberg and manybooks.net.

Booth Tarkington’s Beasley’s Christmas Party (1909)

Louisa May Alcott’s The Abbot’s Ghost, (A Christmas Story), Or, Maurice Treherne’s Temptation (1867)

The Bird’s Christmas Carol by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1886)

A Budget of Christmas Tales by Charles Dickens and Others (1895)

The Christmas Books of Mr. M. A. Titmarsh by Thackeray

A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm (1912)

And now my shopping is done.

The Stories of Jane Gardam

The joke for Boxing Day was how to get rid of her.  You couldn’t say that everyone was going hunting because nobody did now.–“Miss Mistletoe,” The Stories of Jane Gardam

Almost everyone has been a Christmas parasite at least once.

naughty-nice anne taintorIt happened to me the year I was divorced.  Although I did not mind the prospect of a day alone, a kind friend invited me to Christmas dinner.  Although she rarely ate anything, she was a gourmet cook, and we all loved her food, though there was dark talk among her children about hospitalizing her for anorexia.

The meal was fantastic.

Being a parasite was never so good.

I did leave before Boxing Day.

Jane Gardam, whose short story of the unwanted guest, “Miss Mistletoe,”  is my favorite Christmas story, is perhaps the best living English writer.  Why she did not win the Booker for the Old Filth trilogy (Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends), I cannot imagine.  This year Europa published The Stories of Jane Gardam, a collection of her favorite stories.  It is my favorite new book of 2014. If you are determined to give someone a book for Christmas (I usually fail at this, I would risk giving The Stories of Jane Gardam.

The-Stories-of-Jane-Gardam-Cover-658x1024Gardam’s extraordinary short stories are elegant and witty; and her portraits of offbeat, independent characters brilliantly drawn.  Whether she is humorously describing the Infills,  a family who mocks their annual Christmas parasite, Daisy Flagg, a tiny woman of indefinite age  “whose clothes seemed to have been boiled, her hair almost shampooed away” (“Miss Mistletoe”); or depicting the peculiarities of an elderly woman who queues for Shakespeare tickets (“Groundlings”), her prose is pitch-perfect.

There is something  for everyone.  Austenites will love “The Sidmouth Stories,” narrated by a novelist whose paper on a putative love affair by Austen at Sidmouth was plagiarized by Shorty Shenfield, a professor “at a small university in the Middle West.”  Ironically, he sends her on an errand to buy some letters by Austenthat may prove her thesis.

Shorty is an unscrupulous character, who specializes in digging up dirt on respected authors.

Long before Anthony Burgess, he enthusiastically launched into the syphilitic overtones in the life of Shakespeare.  It was said that he had much to suggest , after the fifty years of grace were up, about Kipling, and his piece on how far Keats had got with Fanny Brawne was discussed for many a furious week in The Times Literary Supplement, ensuring that every word of it was widely read.  Shorty was a good scholar but his pastimes and tactics were a hyena’s.

Gardam’s work is never sentimental. There is always a twist.   In “Swan,” Pratt, a boy at a liberal school, is required to do “social work”:  his mentoring of a Chinese boy who never speaks involves trips to a park and unexpected encounters with swans. In “Damage,” a translator has an unhealthy relationship with her father, whom she somehow cannot translate.  In “The Tribute,” three old women gather at a tearoom to gossip about their dead friend, a former governess, and are shocked by the richly-dressed niece who brings them keepsakes.

Gardam, 85, has won many prizes:  the Whitbread Award twice, for The Queen of the Tambourines and The Hollow Land; the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in 1999; and God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

If you don’t like short stories, try her novels. They are outstanding.

Back to the Book: Is It a Trend?

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha:  Wouldn't we rather be here than in an e-library?

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha.

Are people turning off their e-readers?

Are they going back to the book?

Is it a trend?

Or is it just me?

I have an elegant Nook, stocked with free e-books by Mrs. Humphry Ward, E. M. Delafield, Charlotte M. Yonge, Stella Benson, and Elizabeth von Arnim. Conventional wisdom says that e-books of new hardbacks are inexpensive (half-price or less), but I have found that used books are still cheaper.

I have journeyed from true e-love back to paper.

In my very first post here, “Friendly Persuasion: Why It’s Okay to Have an E-Reader,” I wrote:

On a recent journey, I was much occupied with my new e-reader. Like many of us in the electronic age, I spend as much time with “e”-things as I do with human beings. My e-reader feels like my friend. It is basically a small computer that supplies me with infinite choices of books; allows me to open my email and surf the web; plays music; and provides me with crossword puzzles. It is tactile. I have my hands all over the screen every day. I tap, click and drag, swipe, and read.

And so it went on for a couple of years.

Then suddenly I tired of reading on the screen.

In 2013, 21% of the books I read were e-books.  This year, although the number is only slightly lower, 19%, it is emblematic of my return to real books.

The Means of Escape Penelope Fitzgerald 519CFN92NAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

The book: a lovely object.

On a plane from London to Chicago, surrounded by the loud e-silence of people on machines,  I  turned off my e-reader and took out a paperback. I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape, Gerald Heard’s mystery, A Taste for Honey, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube, and much of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heat Wave.

It was a long paperback trip.

And I discovered I concentrate better with paper.

There are too many e-distractions with e-readers–checking e-mail, etc.  Once I tried the Kindle app, and that was much less satisfying than the Nook.

Others, too, concentrate less well when they read e-books.  A study released last summer found that readers of the Kindle comprehended a mystery less accurately than paperback readers.  When asked to reconstruct 14 events in the plot, Kindle readers did “significantly worse” than paperback readers.  The Norwegian lead researcher also said that paper supports reading better than text on a screen.

I take notes on e-books, because it is so difficult to find things later.

The general consensus is that everyone is reading e-books now, but it is hard to find statistics.

The Pew Research Center says that  younger readers read more e-books:   Thirty-five percent of of 50- to 64-year-olds and 17% of people ages 65 and over read at least one e-book, but the number jumps to 47 percent in 18- to-29 year-olds  And since Christmas 2013, the number  of Americans owning e-readers or tablets has jumped from 43 percent to 50 percent of adults 18 and over.

I am not a trendsetter.  If I am reading less on my e-reader, others are, too.

Mind you, I have read some wonderful e-books.  I recently read Edith Olivier’s The Love Child ($2.99), a charming fantasy about a woman whose childhood imaginary friend materializes as a real child after her parents’ death.  I was never able to get hold of the Virago, and pounced on the e-book.

But when I can get the real book, I prefer it.

Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

I love these Vintage editions.  There's no intro in this one, alas.

When it’s dark on the dot of five in winter, I need more than a Diet Coke to perk up.

All those hours and hours of winter darkness…

Maybe a few cookies and a Victorian novel

I recently reread Trollope’s The Way We Live Now,  a stunning novel about financial fraud, desperate aristocrats, calculated courtships, and literary corruption.

According to John Sutherland in the introduction to The Way We Live Now (Oxford World Classics, 1982), Trollope wrote this superb satire in reaction to the dishonesty and corruption he observed in London when he returned after a year and a half in “the colonies.”  The book is witty and absorbing, but is not for the faint of heart:  it is the longest of his works, at 425,000 words.

trollope the way we live now oxford 0192835610A financial scam is at the heart of this novel, and I was faintly reminded of the financial collapse in 2008.  Finance is not always based on real money (and that’s as far as my financial knowledge goes). Trollope’s book revolves around Melmotte, a wealthy financier of mysterious origins who suddenly moves to London with his family.  He directs the board of the South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, and whether or not the railroad actually exists, shares are briskly bought and sold.

Who is Melmotte?  Nobody knows.  It is doubted that he is English.  His manners are atrocious, and his arrogance is enthralling. He throws tantrums over a dinner he is to give for the Chinese emperor, and wins an election as a Conservative candidate for Parliament, even though he gives money both to the Catholic church and the Protestants.  Oddly, he becomes more sympathetic as the book goes on, and, in a way, he reminds me of  Soames in The Forsyte Saga. 

None of Trollope’s characters respect Melmotte:  they want to use him.  Most of them move in higher social circles.  Roger Carbury, the squire of Carbury Hall, says that Melmotte is “a sign of degeneracy.”  “What are we coming to when such as he is an honoured guest at our tables?”

As usual, Trollope’s women are fascinating.   I very much enjoyed reading about Lady Carbury, a widow who has turned to writing because her handsome, evil son, Sir Felix, has run through all his money. Her literary exploits are both hilarious and sad:  she manages to get a few good reviews for her short book, Criminal Queens, because of her connections with editors. Trollope’s descriptions of her ceaseless networking seem very realistic.

But she can’t control all the reviewers, and is devastated that “one of Alf’s most sharp-nailed subordinates had been set upon her book, and had pulled it to pieces with rabid malignity.”

Trollope writes,

Of all reviews, the crushing review is the most popular, as being the most readable.  When the rumour goes abroad that some notable man has been actually crushed, been positively driven over by an entire juggernaut’s car of criticism till his literary body be a mere amorphous mass, then a real success has been achieved, and the Alf of the day has done a great thing.

Lady Carbury also schemes for both her children to marry money:  she urges Sir Felix to marry Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, and insists that her daughter, Hetta, must marry her reliable cousin Roger Carbury, who also has money.  Lady Carbury has bad values, but she is desperate, especially on behalf of her beloved, if sociopathic, son.  Unfortunately for Roger, who adores Hetta,  she is in love with his friend, Paul Montague, a very attractive but weak character.

The women in The Way We Live Now are reluctant to marry the men chosen for them. Lady Harbury hesitates to marry a besotted editor; Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, plans to run away with Felix instead of marry the man to whom her father betroths her; Ruby Ruggles runs away from  marriage to a country bumpkin to London to be near Sir Felix, who has been flirting with her; and Georgiana Longstaffe is on the shelf so long she longs to marry a rich middle-aged Jewish merchant she meets at Melmottes’s house (and, yes, her parents are anti-Semitic, and Trollope’s views on Jews are also dicey).

But my favorite character is Mrs. Hurtle, an American widow who travels to London to claim Paul Montague, her fiance, after he writes to break off the proposal.  She is witty, charming, smart, and has money, and though her reputation is bad–she has shot a man in Oregon and her husband might not actually be dead–she has traveled with and lived with Paul, and one cannot help but think he is a fool to prefer Hetta to Mrs. Hurtle. (But  Mrs. Hurtle knows she has no chance against the virgin, Hetta.)

You can read Trollope’s novel on many levels.  It is a novel about money, and it is a novel about marriage.

And much more.

These are just a few notes.

So much fun to read.  I always love Trollope.