Five Links: Refunds for Go Set a Watchman, Pharos Editions, Barbara Pym Film, Willa Cather Memorial Prairie Night Viewing, & a History of Vampires

There’s always a lot of book news, so here are five literary links!

Harper Lee Go Set a Watchman A1rBZedGc0L1.  Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins’ history.

But Peter Makin, the owner of Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse, Michigan, is offering refunds.

After a customer explained that To Kill a Mockingbird was her favorite book, and she had only become aware of the controversial nature of Go Set a Watchman a few days before its publication, Makin gave her a refund.

He decided to offer refunds to other customers, too.

Here is an excerpt from his statement.

It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel”. This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view Go Set A Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.

2. Are you familiar with Pharos Editions, a publisher of gorgeously designed “out-of-print, lost or rare books of distinction”?  Check out their website.  I am looking forward to reading  Raymond Mungo’s Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life, the story of a “back-to-the-land hippie commune in late 60’s rural Vermont.”

Total Loss Farm 51V1miysWyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

3.  Are you a Barbara Pym fan?  Watch Miss Pym’s Day Out, a film at Youtube starring Patricia Routledge as Barbara Pym.


4. The Willa Cather Foundation is sponsoring a Prairie Night Sky Viewing  and dinner on the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, five miles from Red Cloud, Nebraska, on Friday, August 14, 2015, 6:30pm to 11:00pm. The price: $35.

Willa-Cather-Memorial-Prairie5. Readers of vampire books will enjoy Jon Foro’s article, “On the (Un)Natural History of Vampires,” at the Amazon Review.  The excuse is a new novel by Ben Tripp, The Fifth House of the Heart, but this article on the history of the vampire in literature and film goes way beyond that.

bram stoker dracula capuchin dracula-website

Literary Award Gossip: World Fantasy Award, Sidewise Award. and Man Booker Prize Longlist

A finalist for the World Fantasy Award

A finalist for the World Fantasy Award

It’s been a thrilling week!

The Man Booker Prize longlist, the World Fantasy Award finalists, and the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History finalists  have been announced .

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenSince I’m an SF freak, I’m  excited that David Mitchell’s brilliant genre-bending novel, The Bone Clocks, and Jo Walton’s alternate history, My Real Children, which I wrote about last year, have been nominated  for the World Fantasy Award.  Mitchell is known as a writer of  literary fiction, whereas Walton has won awards for SF.  The truth is that both are very literary writers who play with elements of SF and fantasy.

Walton’s My Real Children is also a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Long Form. Last year, D. J. Taylor (one of my favorite writers) won it for The Windsor Faction.. (You can read about it here.)

The Man Booker Prize longlist is always exciting, because I am a shameless Anglophile.  This year however, only three titles are from the UK.   There are five Americans, one Irish, one Jamaican, one Nigerian, and one from New Zealand.

Poor Canadians!  They get no respect.

FIVE Americans IS a lot of Americans.  I’m not NOT a patriot—-I pledge the allegiance to the flag of the United, etc.–but are the odds not stacked in favor of Americans this year?

Here is the longlist:

Bill Clegg (U.S.) – “Did You Ever Have a Family” (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright (Ireland) – “The Green Road” (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James (Jamaica) – “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami (U.S.) – “The Moor’s Account” (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy (U.K.) – “Satin Island” (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) – “The Fishermen” (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan (U.K.) – “The Illuminations” (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson (U.S.) – “Lila” (Virago)
Anuradha Roy (India) – “Sleeping on Jupiter” (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota (U.K.) – “The Year of the Runaways” (Picador)
Anna Smaill (New Zealand) – “The Chimes” (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler (U.S.) – “A Spool of Blue Thread” (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (U.S.) – “A Little Life” (Picador)

Have you read any of these books?  I saw Marilynne Robinson read from Lila:  does that count?  My husband says Anne Tyler’s book does not belong:  it is her last book, and it is not quite up to her usual high standard.

To fan the fires of excitement,  let’s add a good gossipy segment on the News about the literary prizes.   Let Oprah host it, or Kelly Ripa.  After all, both of them have run TV book clubs.  We don’t need the PBS boys getting involved: Charlie Rose and Bill Moyer are so solemn in the presence of writers, and  Garrison Keillo, just keeps enunciating and babbling till he declares erroneously that novelist Caroline Gordon wrote poetry, when that would have been her husband, the poet Allen Tate.

Reading With RipaOprah and Kelly Ripa are unpretentious and will have a straight-ahead conversation with the writers based on facts and innuendo gathered by their   assistants.  Oprah will inquire how they overcame never learning to read or flunking the SAT essay,  and got sidetracked  into working  at a Ford plant in Detroit. Kelly will tease and joke about obstacles like hemorrhoids that keep them from sitting at their computers.  And cut to commercial!

“Well, That’s DNA, Darling”: H. M. Pulham, Esquire by John P. Marquand

Julia Dreyfus-Louis as a posh mom in Old Navy commercial

Julia Dreyfus-Louis as a comic posh mom in Old Navy commercial

In the latest Old Navy commercial, Julia Dreyfus-Louis (Veep, Seinfeld) plays a posh mom picking up her son, Hunter, at prep school.  There is a big sign above the door:   Class Picture Day.  When she asks how Picture Day went, Hunter, who is dressed in a suit, complains that he looks like his dad.

Dreyfus-Louis has perfect zingy timing.

“Well, that’s DNA, darling.”

John P. Marquand H. M. Pulham 81sZ4gKbJEL._SL1500_This is very much how things are for Harry in Pulitzer Prize-winner John P. Marquand’s sad, satiric novel, H. M. Pulham, Esquire, which the critic Jonathan Yardley praised highly in his collection of columns, Second Reading.  This 1940 novel is in print as an e-book (Open Road Media).

Harry does not have many choices.  It’s not that he is ever inappropriately dressed, it’s that he is always perfectly dressed as the scion of an upper-class Boston family   He has always done the expected thing:  he went to prep school at St. Swithin’s, graduated from Harvard, and immediately went to work as a bonds salesman at his father’s firm.  All of the Harvard men seem to have gone to St. Swithin’s, with the exception of the brilliant Bill King from New Jersey.

Harry earnestly wishes that Bill had gone to school with him.  The radical Bill is very glad he didn’t.

Don’t get mad, Harry.  You couldn’t help it….The only thing you can do is to try to snap out of it. Good-bye, Mr. Chips.”

Harry is a bit of a stick, but there is something sad about his sentimental conventionality.  He muses,

If you have not prepared for college at one of the older and larger schools, with traditions and a recognized headmaster, you have missed a great experience.  You have missed something fine in intimate companionship.  You have missed that indefinable thing known as school spirit, which is more important than books or teaching, because it lasts when physics and algebra and Latin are forgotten.  The other day I tried to read a page of Cicero, and I could not get through a single line…but I can still remember the school hymn word for word.

John P. Marquand h. m. pulham paperback 51ZmVJLIDqL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_When his rah-rah former football player friend Bojo, the organizer of their 25th Harvard reunion, coerces Harry into collecting classmates’ life stories, he starts to think about his life.  Looking over one of the dull forms completed by a classmate for this project, Harry realizes, startled, that his life is the same as everyone else’s.  His class consists mainly of lawyers and financiers.

Harry had only one period where he “broke out”: he was traumatized at the front during  World War I. He was briefly in charge of a group of men who  all died after he refused to surrender to the Germans. And then he got a medal for it. No wonder he has a breakdown at the Waldorf in New York.

He doesn’t want to go home to Boston.

Bill King saves him, and gets him a job in advertising in New York.  Harry loves doing research and gathering stats, and he falls in love with Marvin Myles, a copywriter, who is a charming and fashionable woman who went to the University of Chicago. (I love her, too.)  They work together on a soap campaign, and go door to door washing people’s socks.   But Marvin doesn’t fit in at the Harvard football game, or with his family, and when he goes back to Boston after his father’s death, she says he must come back to New York if he wants to marry her. Eventually, Harry marries Kay, a woman who, ironically, was in love with Bill King. Both longed for someone outside of their narrow group.

And so the years pass.  Very dully.  He goes back to the bond department at Smith and Wilding, and eventually starts is own consulting firm.

Harry’s dullness is poignant.  He has no real relationships.  He golfs, sails, plays tennis, rides–all those expensive WASP things.  The novel is slightly satirical, but it is also serious.

And poor Kay.

Harry is an upper-class Babbitt.

Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt is the better book of the two, because Lewis is a tougher writer than Marquand.  Marquand meanders, and his style is plainer.  But Lewis’s Babbitt, a middle-class businessman in a Midwestern town called Zenith City, is just as conventional as Harry.   If I were teaching a class about class in America (and thank God I’m not),   I would assign both  of these .  I would also throw in Ruth Suckow’s New Hope, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and and something by John O’Hara.

Marquand won the Pulitzer for The Late George Apley in 1938.  That’s next on my Marquand list.

H. M. Pulham, Esquire isn’t a great book, but it is a very good one.

If you would like to read Jonathan Yardley’s column, here it is.

Wunderground and Reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Expect occasional thunderstorms to continue for the next several hours.”–Wunderground

Is that a prophecy?

I am so tired of rain.

I am jittery as the thunder roars. I kept shrieking when the lightning flashed, so closed the “blackout” curtains.

The storms have gone on for hours.

Ovid Metamorphoses 51QQ3C0NSYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Ovid’s lively account of the flood myth struck me as the logical thing to read when you have water in the basement.  This brilliant epic poem, a collection of myths linked by the theme of  metamorphosis, is a comic masterpiece.  The myths range from the creation of the universe, to the famous episode of Daphne’s preferring a transformation into a tree to having sex with the out-of-shape Apollo, to  Orpheus’s attempt to recover his wife  Eurydice from the Underworld, to the deification of Julius Caesar.

Think of Metamorphoses as science fiction/fantasy if you don’t like poetry.

Ovid’s account of the  flood, of course, is parallel to that of the Old Testament myth.  In Ovid’s myth, two good people survive,  Deucalion and Pyrrha.

One of the most extreme characters in Metamorphoses is Jove.  Jove floods the earth, furious at mankind.  He enjoys throwing  his thunderbolts around but is afraid of setting heavens on fire, so he locks up the thunder and sensibly lets the Southwind do the work. Here is an excerpt from the Brooks More translation (available free online):

the Southwind flies abroad with dripping wings,
concealing in the gloom his awful face:
the drenching rain descends from his wet beard
and hoary locks; dark clouds are on his brows
and from his wings and garments drip the dews:
his great hands press the overhanging clouds;
loudly the thunders roll; the torrents pour;
Iris, the messenger of Juno, clad
in many coloured raiment, upward draws
the steaming moisture to renew the clouds.
The standing grain is beaten to the ground,
the rustic’s crops are scattered in the mire,
and he bewails the long year’s fruitless toil.

There are of course many more modern translations,  Rolfe Humphries’s, Horace Gregory’s Allen Mandelbaum’s, David Raeburn’s, etc.  I am reading the Humphries.

Rolfe Humphries says in his short introduction,

The great virtue of this writer of fantasy, of improbable events, is that both his people and places are real, the landscape and motives credible, so that, in the end, the impossible event takes on the truth of symbol, becomes–of course!–perfectly natural. There is little abstraction in Ovid, and so much natural detail!

I love a good comedy, and there are few episodes funnier than Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne the nymph.  In Humphries’s translation, Apollo says,

The ground is rough here. Run a little slower,
And I will run, I promise, a little slower.

He says he wants to marry her.

It is not comical to Daphne, though.   She wants to remain a Diana-worshippping virgin always, is not a fashion plate, and even Apollo admits she would look better if she combed her hair.  The god’s love is repugnant and terrifying to her.  She prays to her father the river god to “change and destroy the body/which has given too much delight.”   He thinks Apollo would be a good match, but turns her into a laurel tree.  Then Apollo claims even the tree.  But at least he cannot “marry” her.  She remains autonymous.

Bernini's sculpture of Apollo and Daphne

Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne

Women’s Road Trips in Literature

Reese Witherspoon in

Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

I don’t take many road trips.

Nothing could compel me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, as Cheryl Strayd did in Wild (played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie).

Nor am I eager to bicycle across the Himalayas,  as Dervla Murphy wrote about in her inspiring book,  Full Tilt:  Ireland to India with a Bicycle.

I would rather take the train or fly.  And I like a nice hotel at the end of the day

I do not drive, and I generally pass on road trips with the goal-oriented men in my family

The guys are all about getting there, taking the interstate rather than back roads, and know the words “coffee” and “camping”  but not “motel.”

There was the time we were on the New York thruway in a blizzard and I had to stick my arm out the window and wipe snow off the windshield with my mitten. I was never so happy as when the Highway Patrol closed the road.

During an 11-day bicycle trip, the only way to get the guys to take a break was to pretend I was yearning to heat up Dinty Moore stew (yum yum)  at a campground.

But  I do like reading about travel.

At Atlas Obscura, Richard Kreitner has written a very clever article about literary road trips,  “The Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips.”  A good list and a great map, but where are the women?

Only one woman has made the list, and that is Cheryl Strayd, whose beautifully-written book, Wild,  a memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Portland, is a literary page-turner.  The poor woman was mourning her mother, did not work out or hike before her trip, and had just shot some heroin, so could she have hiked in that kind of shape?  Well, yes:  she was raised in the country and is outdoorsy.   (And she is a fantastic writer.)

Surely there must be some less extreme women travelers, I thought.  And so I  decided to list a few  other women’s road trip books.  Guess what?  All the trips are demanding.

von arnim the caravaners 11407011. In  Elizabeth von Arnim’s charming comic novel, The Caravaners,  a young woman blooms during a caravan trip in England. Edelgarde has persuaded her much older husband,  the narrator,  Baron Otto von Ottringe, that the trip will be cheap and healthy. He has envisioned himself sitting cozily inside the caravan, but it rains all the time, and he must tramp in the muddy road beside the horse, guide it through narrow gateways, and hold umbrellas over cooking pots.

Edelgarde loves the outdoor life.  She shortens her dresses and stops taking the Baron’s  orders.  She refuses to wait on him.  She points out that he can do everything she does if he puts his mind to it.  She is inspired by the companionship with the politically radical German woman who suggested the trip, her sister, Mrs. Menzies-Legh, who has lived in England for many years, and Jellaby, a socialist, whom Otto refuses to acknowledge until  finds out that Jellaby is “Lord Sigismund.”

I hope I could behave so well as Edelgarde on a caravan trip in the rain!  But actually it’s quite a bit like Wild when I think about it…

mona simpson Anywhere_But_Here_book_cover2.  Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here.  I loved this novel when I read it in the ’80s.   The narrator, Ann, and her mother, Adele, take a road trip to California from Wisconsin on Adele’s ex-husband’s credit card.  Adele has a dream  that Ann can be a child star in Hollywood.  It’s actually a novel about a mother-daughter relationship, but there is a road trip.

The first line is two words:  “We fought.”

Typical of mothers and daughters, yes?

Nevada Imogen Binnie3.  In Imogen Binnie’s bold, if wildly uneven, novel, Nevada , the heroine, Maria, a transgender woman, works at a bookstore in New York.  After she breaks up with her girlfriend, she takes a road trip west in her girlfriend’s car (reported stolen, of course). In Nevada, she meets a boy, James, who works at WalMart, who she believes is trans without knowing it.  And then there is much discussion with him about what it means to be trans.    Maria’s road trip in a broken-down car is something most of us can relate to, and Maria is an intelligent source of information about transgender women–much better than interviews with Cait Jenner, who, in my wry womanly view, stands for money, Kardashian reality, and hair extensions.

towers of trebizond macaualy 51xRuH-4gLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_4.  Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond.  I read this wonderful novel years ago.

The following description is from the jacket copy:  it is :

the gleefully absurd story of Aunt Dot, Father Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s deranged camel, and our narrator, Laurie, who are traveling from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond on a convoluted mission. Along the way they will encounter spies, a Greek sorcerer, a precocious ape, and Billy Graham with a busload of evangelists. Part travelogue, part comedy, it is also a meditation on love, faith, doubt, and the difficulties, moral and intellectual, of being a Christian in the modern world.

mary morris nothing to declare 5179G9elPbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_5.  Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone  is a remarkable travel memoir.  I read it in the ’80s so it isn’t fresh, but here is a quote from the writer  Wendy Smith’s  Amazon review:

…Mary Morris’s category-defying 1988 memoir was an instant classic as much for its candid revelation of the author’s turbulent emotions as for its sensitive, unglamorous portrait of a Latin America most tourists never see.”

And, yes, that’s how I remember it!

Mara and Dann Lessing 5125ZTWXP0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_6.  Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann, a stunning science fiction novel about the odyssey of a brother and sister during a dystopian future.   After a palace coup, the children Mara and Dann flee to a primitive rural village.  Eventually, during a drought, they join a great human migration northwards.  They survive war, enslavement, and famine.  They grow up. At one point, they are fighting on opposite sides of a war.  They escape.  Mara especially is articulate about their experiences.  She wants to remember.

In 1999 Michael Upchurch wrote in the New York Times:

”Mara and Dann” has the shape of a myth or a folk tale in which a humble foundling’s illustrious origins are eventually revealed after much hardship. But the book’s proportions are those of an epic; at more than 400 pages, it feels inflated, repetitious and strangely devoid of surprise. All the necessary elements are here, often dazzling in their invention, but only intermittently do they coalesce into tension-filled narrative. Mara herself describes her ”adventure” as a ”slog of endurance,” and those same words, unfortunately, sometimes apply to the book itself.

I obviously admired this much more than Upchurch did, but you get the drift!


Okay, what are your favorite women’s travel/road trip books?  And are the trips always rugged?

On Corfu: Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, & Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic


Our life on this promontory has become like some flawless Euclidean statement.”–Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell

I am pretending to be in Corfu.

I would love to be on a Greek island right now.

A commenter at my post on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet recommended Durrell’s travel books, among them  Prospero’s Cell, a memoir/history of Corfu that includes journal entries, poetry, history, a travel guide, dialogue, and letters.

Durrell writes lyrical, dense, rhythmic, imaginative prose. You either fall in love with it or you don’t.  In the passage below,  he writes unconventional fragments about the sea.

The sea’s curious workmanship:  bottle-green glass sucked smooth and porous by the waves:  vitreous sells:  wood stripped and cleaned, and bark swollen with salt a bead:  sea-charcoal, brittle and sticky:  fronds of bladderwort with their greasy marine skin and reptilian feel:  rocks, gnawed and rubbed:  sponges, heavy with tear:  amber:  bone:  the sae.

Durrell Prospero's Cell A1ILhrTQcnLDurrell, his wife Nancy, and his mother and siblings moved to Corfu in 1935 and stayed for five years.   Both Durrell and his younger brother, Gerald, wrote about Corfu.  After World War II broke out, the family fled and Lawrence ended up in Alexandria, Egypt, where hw wrote Prospero’s Cell.

Lawrence Durrell describes the gorgeous island and their idyllic life of writing, gardening, picnicking, swimming, and climbing cliffs.  He also captures the intensity of the conversation of their many friends, who share information about Corfu’s history and myths.

The mythic traditions are the most interesting to me.  There is a rich tradition that Corfu is the home of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Durrell’s elegant friend the Count, a wealthy, hospitable man, explains at length his theory.  Among other thing, he claims that Sycorax, the name of Caliban’s mother, is an anagram for Corcyra (the Greek for Corfu).

Durrell descibes mythic spots associated with The Odyssey.  Three towns claim to be the site of the site of the meeting of Odysseus/Ulysses and Nausicaa.

In this landscape observed objects still retain a kind of mythological form–so that though chronologically we are separated from Ulysses by hundreds of years in time, yet we dwell in his shadow.  Like earnest mastodons petrified in the forests of their own apparatus the archaeologists come and go, each with his pocket Odyssey and his lack of modern Greek.

Durrell maintains that it is the fishermen who “ratify” the existence of Ulysses and that the poem applies to the culture of Modern Greeks very well. He also tells the story of a fisherman who stays up past midnight when his daughter reads her school book about Ulysses.  They had never heard of The Odyssey, and are surprised to learn that this epic is read in England.

He also writes about the island saint, Spiridion, the olive trees, and Edward Lear’s drawings of Corfu.

(By the way, this is available as an e-book.)

In Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, a very light memoir of the family’s time in Corfu, I chortled over the eccentric Durrell family’s idiosyncracies.

When they arrive in Corfu, a taxi driver takes them under his wing and helps them find a villa with a bathroom, his mother’s only requirement.  They live a leisurely, idyllic life there.  Mrs. Durrell cooks exotic meals, Larry (Lawrence) gets fat and complains that the world will be deprived of his deathless prose when he is interrupted by a donkey braying and his brother Leslie taking pot shots out the window at birds, their sister, Margo, spends all her time dieting and driving men crazy in her bikinis, and Gerald, the youngest, is obsessed with animals and spends hours in the garden watching animals and insects.

I love their pets:  Gerald raises a pigeon who believes he is a human being, and refuses to fly.  The pigeon takes walks with them (and puffs himself out with pride).  Eventually he lays an egg.  He is a she!

At one point Larry forces his mother to find another villa because he has invited eight guests and there isn’t enough room.

It is very comical.  Nothing like Lawrence Durrell’s books!  Gerald is very simple and charming.

Mary Stewart this-rough-magicSet on Corfu, Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic, a Gothic novel of the ’60s  (now known as romantic suspense), is one of my favorite books.   I reread it endlessly.   The narrator, Lucy, is an actress out of work and is happy to escape London in the rain to visit her sister, Phyllida, on Corfu, where her rich Roman banker husband owns a villa.

This witty, highly literate novel begins with references to The Tempest.  There is an epigraph from The Tempest in every chapter.  Phyllida tells Lucy that if her new baby is a boy, she will name him Prospero.

I laughed.  “Poor little chap, why on earth?  Oh, of course…  Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now.  Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.”

On the beach, Lucy swims with a playful dolphin, but someone shoots at it.  She jumps into the water to protect it, not caring if she is shot herself.  Her suspects?  Phyllida has three tenants, the famous actor Julian Gale and his son Max, a musician, in the Castello, and Godfrey Manning, a photographer, in a villa.  It takes a while to unravel who are the good guys and who are the bad, especially when Spiro, the son and brother of Phyllida’s female servants, dies in a boating accident.

Anyway, yes, eventually there is romance.  And there is much suspense.

Stewart always weaves travel into her mysteries.  Each one is set in an exotic place.  I never get tired of reading her descriptions of bays, beaches, woods, mountains, and cliffs.  And actually I can imagine being in her Corfu more readily than Lawrence Durrell’s or Gerald Durrell’s.

And so I’m on Corfu this weekend!

If only I could swim with that dolphin.

Marriage and the Family in Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage

Doris Lessing A Proper Marriage 6a00d8341c674653ef012876eeae79970cMarriage and the family were dead.

I was a 19-year-old woman who read classics and feminist criticism, wore bell bottoms and Earth shoes, and enjoyed sex: but I would never marry.  And then suddenly I married an older, often drunken, man, in a casual ceremony by a justice of the peace.  The marriage lasted three years.

You would think Doris Lessing’s autobiographical quintet of novels, Children of Violence, which I devoured in my teens, would have taught me to avoid the misfortune of early marriage.  Alas, books do not work that way.

The heroine of A Proper Marriage, Martha Quest, is a rebel, but she, too, impulsively marries at 19.  She has left her parents’ farm and believes she is independent, though she does not find quite what she wants in a small African town.   She is bookish, analytical, leftist, and  determined to live a different life from her mother’s. Then she falls in with a group who attend sundowner parties , gets drunk every night, and she marries Douglas, a hearty, red-faced civil servant, in a civil ceremony.  . She is stuck in an apartment with Douglas and their  child, Caroline, until the beginning of World War II when Douglas enlists.  Then she and Caroline are alone.

A Proper Marriage is very much a young woman’s novel.  Although I love the later books in the quintet, I have reread this with some reluctance.  Young women suffer so much pain and insecurity.

The Children of Violence series consists of five novels, which follow Martha from adolescence through old age:  Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969).  The last two, written after the success of her experimental novel, The Golden Notebook, are mature works of fiction.

A Proper Marriage is a raw naturalistic account of Martha’s thoughts and feelings, and remarkable for that.  Lessing uses the third-person singular point of view, but the narration does not feel detached:  we are inside Martha’s skin, even though it is at a remove.  Occasionally Lessing switches point of view:  Mr. Maynard, an older man , a judge, is attracted to Martha, and we see her from his perspective. Critics have complained about Lessing’s “flat-footed” style, but the  precision and straightforwardness of Lessing’s early naturalistic novels give her a voice that does not spare the terror of a woman’s hating her life and the inability to go beyond stating a problem.

Lessing’s description of a woman’s anger and boredom is astonishingly honest.  Martha believes she will leave her marriage and her baby someday; it is just a matter of when. . When her husband, Douglas, enlists in the Army, she is both stuck and more independent.  She often hates her strong-willed baby, Caroline, with whom she fights daily battles trying to get her to eat. She is terrified that Caroline, who will not eat according to the Baby Book rules, is starving to death

Here is one of Martha’s battles with Caroline, observed by Mr. Maynard:

He saw a small lively girl striving energetically against the straps that bound her to a high chair, her cheeks scarlet and tear-stained, her black eyes rebellious….  On the platform before her was a heavy china plate, and on that a squelch of greyish pulp. Martha, planted on her two sturdy legs, her own lips as firmly set as Caroline’s, who was refusing the food she was trying to push between them.  As the spoon came near, Caroline set up an angry yell, and bright sparks of tears gleamed through squeezed lashes…  Martha was pale with anger, trembling with the contest…

This is a sad, horrifying scene, not what we expect from Martha, but we see that Caroline is not behaving like the Baby Book baby, and Martha has panicked.  Eventually Martha learns to ignore Caroline at meals, and finally Caroline begins to eat.  But Martha has to teach herself everything.  The books and other young mothers often fail her.

When Douglas returns from the war after a year with an ulcer, he moves the family into a big bungalow with black servants.  Martha does not know how to “handle” servants.  She “spoils the natives,” her mother says.  Martha tries to ignore her mother and Douglas and to live her life.   She joins a Communist discussion group. She gives a lecture on Russian education.  She is naive and passionate.  Not until the very end of the novel does she leave Douglas.

Mr. Maynard says ironically when he sees her leaving,

I suppose with the French Revolution for a father and the Russian Revolution for a mother, you can very well dispense with a family.”…After a while she conceded, “That is really a very intelligent remark.”

Not a great book by Lessing, but each one in the series improves until finally we read the last two masterpieces.

I’m hanging on for that!

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant Ishiguro.BG.jacketI have been long been a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day.   His latest novel, The Buried Giant, is another masterpiece. Set in a post-Arthurian mythic world, this literary novel is elegantly crafted and emotionally disturbing.  Oddly, it has generated controversy among science fiction fans and the writer Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ishiguro’s poetic, rhythmic narrative slowly unfolds in the shadowy reality of a post-war England inhabited by Britons and Saxons in a mist of forgetfulness  They cannot remember what happened yesterday in their villages, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time.. They barely remember who they are.

Important questions are asked about memory and forgetfulness.  Is it better to remember painful things, or to forget?

The two main characters, an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, are regularly taunted by the villagers for being slow and denied a candle because they are so old.  Axl cannot quite remember the past. He and Beatrice have separate memories.   He cannot remember even if they had children.  Beatrice remembers a son.

Ishiguro’s omniscient narrator says aside,

You may wonder why Axl did not turn to his fellow villagers for assistance in recalling the past, but this was not as easy as you might suppose.  For in this community the past was rarely discussed.  I do not mean that it was taboo.  I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes.  It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past–even the recent one.

Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their village (and no wonder!  what a ghastly place) and travel to visit their son.  On the journey, they meet a woman who has been separated from her husband by a tricky boatman (i.e., like Charon, who rows the dead to the Underworld) .  The boatman rowed her husband across to the island of the dead, promising falsely he would take her next. She does what she can to torment the boatman, because she wants to be with her husband.  Later, Ishiguro brings us back to this episode.

On their journey, they meet a Saxon warrior, Wistan, who has saved a child kidnapped by ogres.  The child, Edwin, now has terrible bites on his chest, and the  villagers want to stone him  Are the bites by vampires?  No, they are not. But they are horrifying.

And so Wistan saves the boy and they travel with Axl and Beatrice.  They meet Gawain, the knight of Arthur, who has been trying to kill a dragon for many years..  They learn that the enchanted breath of the dragon has caused the mist of forgetfulness.  It was a spell designed by Merlin

Wistan, who wants to kill the dragon, too, does not trust Gawain.  The two are almost equal as warriors.  Gawain tries to discourage Wistan.   Both think they recoginize Axl from the past.  Eventually Axl himself has vague memories of a battlefield.

There are some truly eerie scenes.  Monks want to kill them, but they find their way through a tunnel built over human bones while Wistan fights a whole army single-handed in a terrifying tower..

When we learn that Gawain wants to save the enchanted dragon for some reasons we cannot altogether reject, we listen.  We know we are heading toward tragedy.  Is it indeed dangerous to remember so much?   And is remembering worth the price?  There is a price.

Most reviewers recount the whole plot of the novel, and usually I tell more, but I do think most of this depends on surprise.  SO READ THE REVIEWS LATER!

The novel has been controversial.  There have been  misunderstandings about genre.  Ursula K. Le Guin, the great science fiction writer who has grown increasingly querulous in recent years about literary trends (and many, many other things),  labels Ishiguro’s novel a fantasy, and does not think it is a good one.  (It’s not a fantasy, so what can I say?)

At my public library Ishiguro’s novel has categorized as science fiction, and, yes, is on the new science fiction shelves.  Mind you, this is not a national trend:  Barnes and Noble (and probably everyone else)  knows it belongs in the literature section.  But  fewer readers at my library will stumble across the book in the SF ghetto.

Ishiguro himself has said he does not consider it fantasy. He said in an interview with the New York Times in March that this novel about memory was inspired partly by the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Ishiguro says,

I don’t know what’s going to happen.  Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

What can I say?  I loved the book.  And it is not science fiction/fantasy, though I love genre fiction.  It is not swords and sorcery, nor Arthur and Merlin.  No one but Ishiguro could have written it.

Do We Need Footnotes?

Anthony Trollope

Do we need footnotes in Trollope’s novels?

In Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, she is adamant about her loathing of footnotes.

In Chapter 94, she writes,

I once got into an argument on a Trollope mailing list with people who like footnotes.  (I hate all footnotes not written by the authors.)  The people I was arguing with maintained that they needed footnotes to understand the story, because Trollope wrote expecting his readers to know what a hansom cab was and to understand his jokes about decimalization.  I argued that they’d either figure it out by context or they didn’t need to.

I have had this same comical argument many times.  Mind you, I enjoy footnotes.  They are an art, though often of interest mainly to scholars. When I have time on my hands, I’ll skim footnotes.

But even when a footnote is necessary, it is often too protracted.  I  have gleaned everything I know about England in the 19th century from reading many, many, many novels, and I am often too involved in the story to stop.  How many times have I interrupted my reading to skim long footnotes on the history of Corn Laws or Corn law repeal, not only in Trollope, but in George Eliot, George Meredith, and Charlotte Bronte?  So far, Trollope hasn’t required me to take a test.

And sometimes the footnotes are a bit dippy.

For instance, in Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right (Penguin), Note 1 in Chapter 3 tells me that the Acrobats (a club in the novel), may have been “the Garrick, originally in King Street, a block away from Pall Mall.”

The Dover edition (left) doesn’t have footnotes, but it’s fine with me.

Jo Walton says she tries to find editions of Trollope without footnotes.

One must have notes to read Satyrica.I admit, there are times when you need footnotes.  If you read the extant fragments of Petronius’s Satryica (formerly known as the Satyricon), you rely on notes.

We have only fragments left of this risque Roman novel. Only one manuscript (in very bad shape) survived to the ninth century:  The monks did not go out of the way to copy it, and I admit there is much that might not appeal to them:  men losing their boyfriends to other men, buggering, rites of priestesses of Priapus, and witches attempting to cure the hero’s impotence.

This irreverent, sometimes obscene, masterpiece was written by Petronius Arbiter, Nero’s arbiter of taste. It is probably (so scholars hazard) a Menippean satire (a long work of prose mixed with verse) of the first century A.D.  (Some are not sure that Petronius the author is the same as Nero’s Petronius.)   The longest chapter extant, “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Fellini’s movie Satyricon.

If you have time to read only a bit of this, I recommend “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.”  It requires the fewest footnotes.  Trimalchio is a hilarious, kindly, vulgar millionaire, a freedman who started as an accountant.  He pisses in gold chamber pots, washes his hands with wine, dries his hands in slaves’ hair, serves gourmet dishes shaped like the Signs of the Zodiac, and has acrobats jumping through flaming hoops during dinner.  Yes, like Gatsby, he’s nouveau riche.

During dinner, when an accountant  interrupts to read  to Trimalchio about the day’s happenings, Trimalchio is shocked to learn there was a fire in the gardens at Pompeii..

Hold it,” Trimalchio said, ‘when did I buy any gardens in Pompeii?”

“Last year,” the accountant told him, “that’s why they haven’t been entered in the accounts yet.”

Trimalchio blew up.  “Whatever properties’ve been bought, if I don’t get told within six months, forget it.”

petronius-satyricon-folio1This excerpt is from Frederic Raphael’s lively translation (only available through the Folio Society, alas, but now out of print and hence cheap on the internet):

Petronius’s Latin is odd, using vocabulary rarely used, and as you can imagine, one needs the notes.  But I am laughing as I read the Latin.   The guest Seleucus philosophizes on death after a friend’s funeral.

My translation?

We walk around inflated bags.  We are less than flies.  Nevertheless, flies have some virtue; we are not more than bubbles!

Yes,we are not flies but bubbles!

What to Do When It’s Hot, Part 2: Reading Barbara Trapido at the Coffeehouse & Shades of Green

Prairie grass on the coffeehouse patio.

Prairie grass on the patio at the coffeehouse.

My friend Janet and I biked to the coffeehouse.

And then we got out our “girl books” to read,  because we were hot and tired.  I am reading Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack, and she is reading Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness.

Photo of book and coffee drink.

Photo of book and coffee drink.

The winner of the  Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction in 1982, Brother of the More Famous Jack came up as a recommendation at a couple of online sites.  It has a foreword by Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  Semple is a Trapido enthusiast.  She found the book at a library sale.  She has corresponded with the author.  She writes, “The first page was so charming it made my chest ache.”

It is slightly reminiscent of the early novels of Margaret Drabble (The Millstone, etc.).  The heroine, Katherine, a very pretty  girl who loves fashionable clothes and gets picked up by a middle-aged bisexual man at the bookstore, has applied to a university in philosophy.  The philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman, is very amused by her. He asks her what she reads.

Somewhat to my retrospective embarrassment, I remember telling him, among other things, that I thought Wordsworth had possibilities, that dI thought Jesus Christ had been a Utopian Socialist and that I didn’t like the sex in D. H. Lawrence.

It continues like this–very funny. When her bisexual friend John takes her to visit the Goldmans  for the weekend, it is awkward–she hadn’t realized it was her professor’s house.  But then she falls in love with the whole family:    Jane, the wife, always pregnant, would rather garden than clean; her oldest son, Roger, is a brilliant, moody musician; Jonathan, the next son, is a rebel who reads Finnegan’s Wake, Vogue, and comic books; Rosie is nine and gets on her mother’s nerves; and then there are the twins.

Katherine falls in love with Roger, but he is cold and controlling.  He criticizes what she reads, pretends to his parents he isn’t in a relationship with her, and occasionally snubs her when visits him at Oxford.. Eventually she realizes that he doesn’t love her so much.

Well, I won’t tell you what happens because I’m not done myself, but may I just whisper, Italy?  And the back tells me that she visits the Goldmans 10 years later.

I love the book!

And I don’t remember Elizabeth Taylor’s book, but I read it years ago and she is excellent.

Shades of Green.  It is the time of year when the shades of green change.

It is July 19, and the green is now silvery and the leaves are sagging and a little blowsy.

The green's a little blowsy now.

The green’s a little blowsy and worn out now.

I love summer.  I love rushing out of the house coatless.  I love the fresh green, and I love the worn-out green.  But how did it get to be mid-July?

I must enjoy the rest of the summer!