Catalogues, Ruined by Classics, & Literary Award Burnout

Sears Catalogue 1968

Sears Catalogue 1968:

I love the summer.

Summer is the relief we feel when we shed thick coats and boots. We sit outside, walk, bicycle, go camping (ugh), rent a cabin (better), or stay in a lovely hotel (best).

Winter is cabin fever and going to the mall. We disembark from the bus with the other puffy-parka-clad stragglers, and begin to sweat. We drink a gigantic coffee and try on sweaters and wonder if anyone still eats Maid-rites and end up buying blankets and Yaktrax.

Summer is the end of mall rat season. Instead of being a mall rat, we do what little shopping we do via catalogues or online.

I have always loved mail-order catalogues, which have historically been a  lifesaver on the prairie. The first Sears catalogue was published in 1888. Catalogues provided a wider selection of goods than general stores for farmers and others in remote locations.

We loved the Sears catalogue at our house.  We circled everything we wanted for Christmas.  My mother was an ardent shopper in  department stores, but she also ordered clothes from Sears and Montgomery Ward.  It was very exciting.  Would that plaid jumper fit?  And how about those rather odd ’60s psychedelic pink and lime-green mini-dresses my mother ordered for me?

amazon_boxI am fond of catalogues and online stores.  Without leaving the house, you can order books, black-out curtains, tables, towels, pans, fine china….everything.

Ruined by Classics and Unable to Read Award Winners & Nominees.

I am ruined by classics.

Here is what has happened.

large_baileys_women_s_prizeYou cannot really go back and forth between Chekhov’s stories and, say, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which was longlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize last year.

I do not know if Chekhov was nominated for any prizes, but guess which writer is better?

Semple’s novel is both enjoyable and dismaying.  Bee, the teenage narrator, arranges a mix of emails, reports. and letters  in chronological order to figure out why and where her mother Bernadette disappeared.  I like Bernadette’s voice best.  Her emails, reminded me slightly of E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  But there is a little too much here of the crazy neighbor’s emails.  And it essentially reminds me of a Y.A. book.

Now I realize that politics are involved in these prizes, though as I have said elsewhere, I DON’T WANT TO KNOW ABOUT IT.  I intend to avoid all articles this year that are likely to spoil the charm of the literary awards.

Oddly enough, reading Semple’s novel (not many pages to go) has made it impossible for me to go on to  Ali Smith’s How to Be Both .

How to Be Both Ali Smith 9780375424106_custom-66420141237c01275ebff57053eea17dc3e26d7f-s300-c85Smith’s How to Be Both won the Baileys Women’s Prize this year.  It is divided into two stories, one set in the present and the other in the Renaissance.  Half of the books have been printed with the present narrative first, and the other half with the Renaissance narrative first.  In my e-book, you are simply given a choice.

I chose the part set in the present, because it looked easier.

Smith’s writing is elegant, but oddly I am finding echoes of Maria Semple’s books.  In both books, a teenage narrator has lost her mother.

So I am simply going to have to start over with Smith’s book later.  I just can’t read it right now.

Perhaps it is a classic, but I cannot judge at this point.

I am put off by the opening of the Renaissance section, which seems to be a poem containing such extravagant phrases  as “Fathemotherplease spread/extempore”…

I’ve read so many classics that I need to go to literary rehab so I can appreciate this.

Or perhaps Semple’s book really IS better.  I’ve read 275 pages, but am not finished yet.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?  Maria Semple 13526165

9 thoughts on “Catalogues, Ruined by Classics, & Literary Award Burnout

  1. You are definitely spoilt by the classics! But it is rather a compliment. I think that, tongue in cheek, you know it and I know it because I feel the same with most contemporary novels in English and in French (my own native language). I am so often disappointed! Which will become a classic then? For there must be classics among them. But, again, we feel which ones. Don’t you?

    And again as well, let me tell you how much I enjoy your posts and your style.


    • Yes, I am not reading enough contemporary fiction to know the modern classics! I had a better sense for this in the ’90s, when I was reading a lot of new novels. In those days I was very fond of John Updike, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ann Beattie, and Philip Roth. Well, I guess they ARE in the classic category now. Or are they? I don’t hear much about Updike anymore.

      Thank God we have the REAL classics!

      And thank you for the ocmpliments!


  2. I have trouble with modern writing too. I think most of these modern books are so thin and underdone that there’s no point in wasting time with them. I’m extraordinarily fond of 20th century literature up to about 1980 too – but most modern mainstream novels leave me cold. As you say, thank goodness we have real classics!


  3. I realise that there was a time when I read very little other than the classics but now that you raise the question I can’t remember the last time I picked one up. I think it would be about four years ago when I chose ‘Daniel Deronda’ (my favourite Eliot) for book group. Given that my term is coming to an end I shall have to dust down my classic shelves and re-visit some old favourites while I have a long stretch of time to indulge. The Palliser novels perhaps.


    • Oh, I love the Pallisers! I reread all the time, and it is really just lately that I have been disappointed by some of my choices. I do want to read a book you recommended: Station Eleven. That will probably be excellent–everyone says so–though it did not win any of the awards it was nominated for!


  4. I do read modern writing but I am picky about it and read less than I used to. I love 20th century literature best roughly 1900 -1970 my favourite period. Though I love older classics too.


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