Shirley Ann Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street

shirley ann grau open road img-the-house-on-coliseum-street_12092465275When it comes to American novels, I prefer Southern.  I love the mix of heat, humidity, and Gothicism.

I have just discovered Pulitzer Prize-winning Shirley Ann Grau.

Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street, set in New Orleans, has a cast of Southern  eccentrics.  The house is full of women:  20-year-old Joan Mitchell, her three half-sisters,  and her mother Aurelie Caillet, who has been married five times.  Aurelie’s current husband also lives there–until he is carted off to a mental hospital.

Characterized by a gorgeous style, realism, and a slight Gothicism, this novel is a gem.

th eHouse on Coliseum Street Shirley ann grau 51oN6nfz9wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The House on Coliseum Street (1961) is a classic.  It is also an astonishing Southern novel about abortion.   In the ’60s, no one in the South talked about abortion.  After her abortion, the heroine, Joan, numbed by the secrecy, goes mad in the style of  the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is.  Okay, she doesn’t go as far as Cordelia, but she goes pretty far.

The novel opens after the abortion, when Joan is waiting for her mother to pick her up. She has been banished to her great-aunt’s house on the Gulf coast, so no one in New Orleans would know.  It is so taboo among upper-class Southerners that her great-aunt insists that Joan go to a dance the night before the abortion so one will suspect.  Joan got pregnant by Michael, a handsome professor who used to date Joan’s younger sister and asks her out on a whim.

Joan contentedly watches the rain from the gazebo as she waits for her mother, but does not want to return to the house on Coliseum Street. Built by her great-great-great grandfather, it is supported by funds from Joan’s late father, on the condition that a particularly hideous fountain he designed remain in the front yard.

She didn’t want to go home.  Maybe  because she had the funniest feeling that the house wasn’t real, wasn’t there at all.  Nor the people in it…she felt different here on the coast.  Not happy, perhaps.  But sure.  She hadn’t been this sure since she was a child and had gone into the library (a small dark room, its air laced by the carbolic smell of bindings and the sweet odor of mildew, and in a little secretary , carefully locked against the children, the family-written books…)

Nothing is real to Joan because the abortion is a secret.  And, typically, her mother denies it by arriving at the great-aunt’s with Joan’s sometimes boyfriend, who knows nothing about the abortion or even her date with Michael.

When she gets home, she reads.  She has always been a reader.  She takes college courses to get out of the house, and chooses her classes at random.  (She does not even know her schedule.)  She works in the library, in a kind of attic where she is supposed to fill orders for books that are rarely requested.  And she is obsessed with Michael, who takes her out once at her suggestion.  He obviously has no interest in her, and she thinks the abortion has made her repulsive.

It takes so long to grow back, she thought; I didn’t know they were going to have to shave there.  But I didn’t know anything about it.  And anyway, as soon as the hair grows back, there won’t be a mark to show that it ever happened.  Not a mark.  And nobody will know.

Completely solitary, speaking to almost no one, she is breaking down.  But it is the secrecy that has done it.  She had fancied herself a mother–the pregnancy might fill her emptiness.  She was so passive that her mother made the decision for her.

No wonder she is angry–and more than a little crazy.  She stalks Michael and his young girlfriend.  And…

Before Roe v Wade, abortion was taboo in the South.

The novel is in print by Louisiana State Press and as an e-book by Open Road Media.

Fourth of July

FireworksOn the 4th of July, there are parades, picnics, barbecues, rock concerts, and fireworks.  People gather at parks at 7 a.m. to nab picnic shelters.

How do we celebrate?

Today we took a bike ride.  We rode past a park where a band was setting up and ice cream tents were hawking their wares.  We went to a bookstore.

We used to go to the family picnic.  Now that we Baby Boomers are in charge, attendance has been halved. We have less tolerance for day-long boredom, the smoky grilling of hamburgers, and Frisbee.

Anyway, what family?  The children are grown-up  now.   There are no grandchildren yet.  Most of us were afraid to breed. The next generation, too, is afraid to breed.

My mother’s belief was that I did not have children because I could not take care of them. Actually, it was because I used birth control.

No regrets!

It was an all-adult picnic this year, ages ranging from 25-70.  My cousin claims that the only people who had a good time are the members of AA (a surprising number, though I suppose it is not all that surprising).  They  know how to party, even without alcohol.  Take my cousin.  She stopped drinking last fall.  She has spent her non-drinking time memorizing the answers to the trivia game Oxford Dilemma.   She and the other AA types played  for money.

Do we have the right to the pursuit of happiness?  Yes, I think so.

And just let me say:  End the wars and support gun control!

Little Free Libraries & Bookstores in Bloomsbury

A Really Lovely Little Free Library

A  lovely Little Free Library

People cannot get enough of Little Free Libraries.

The movement started in 2009 in Wisconsin when Todd Bol built a bookcase shaped like a a one-room schoolhouse. Today, there are 25,000 Little Free Libraries. You can buy kits at

At least five new LFLs have been built here in the last month.  The stylish LFL pictured above represents a big commitment.   The owners have  built a brick patio on the edge of the sidewalk and installed a bench painted with phrases like “fairy tale” and “short story.” The basic birdhouse-on-a-stick-style LFL is well-stocked:  recent titles ranging from Women in Love to Ordinary People to Memoirs of a Geisha to The Old Curiosity Shop.  There is a big turnover.

The bench has phrases like

The bench has phrases like “fairy tale” and “short story” painted on it.

Very attractive, isn’t it?  I’d love a Little Free Library, but there are already five in my neighborhood.

A well-stocked library.

A well-stocked library.

Not all are in quite such good shape, though.  On the trail, there is a Little Free Library shaped like a general store.  But it needs donations.

Little Free Library on the  trail

Little Free Library on the trail

The good thing:  most of the books have been taken.  The bad thing:  no one replaces them.

Here is the shelf today.

This one needs to be stocked!

This one needs to be stocked!

Good God!  It needs to be stocked,

Do you want to shop for books in Bloomsbury (London)?  I do.   In the “NB” column  in the July 3 issue of the TLS,  the writer J.C. entertains us with news of new author plaques and bookstores “hidden away”  in Bloomsbury.

J.C. writes :

Across the street from Empson’s old place is Judd Books, specializing in bargain academic, but with remaindered poetry and fiction in dubious abundance. In adjacent Leigh Street resides Collinge & Clarke, with a hint of the Old Curiosity Shop, a place for seekers after private presses, periodicals and rear first editions.

And then he writes about Skoob.  (I have been there.)

Here are the overflowing shelves, the arcane subject headings, the musty smell, the foreign languages on the floor, the grumpy staff—so much a feature of Skoob that we’d take offense at a warm welcome—the piano we’ve never heard played.

Booksellers are often so grumpy!  In Jonathan Lethem’s hilarious story, “The King of Sentences,” two pretentious bookstore clerks (who snub their customers, as bookstore clerks do everywhere) try to write perfect sentences and stalk a reclusive writer they call the King of Sentences.  (The story is in Lethem’s new book, Lucky Alan and Other Stories.)

J.C.’s excellent column in the TLS is unfortunately not available free online, but you can buy a copy or read it at your local library.  And here is a link to the TLS website.

Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great

What Makes This Book So Great Jo Walton 51nh5hxMgRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great has won the Locus Award for Best Non-Fiction.

This lively book, subtitled “Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” is the best book I have read on rereading.  In these short essays, originally a series of blog posts she wrote for, she not only analyzes yhe greatest SF and fantasy books, but also where Doris Lessing goes wrong  (Shikasta) and where Michael Chabon goes right (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).

And she has introduced me to the stunning Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer, whose elegant novel Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, she compares to the work of Borges and Le Guin.  I had never heard of Gorodischer.

…it isn’t exactly fantasy–there isn’t any real magic.  It’s the history of an empire that never was.  A Lot of time passes.  Dynasties rise and fall.  Even the empire falls and is reborn.  We have all tech levels from nomadic hunters to planes and cars, not necessarily in a sequence you’d expect.  A number of the individual stories have the story nature, but some of them are interesting in the non-fiction way.  They don’t relate a history so much as a series of vignettes, so that they echo, in a macro-structure way, this amazing style that evokes by listing and naming.

The quotes from Gordischer’s novel are beautiful.  And I like to support small presses. (It is published by Small Beer Press).

Walton recommends many novels she thinks should be SF classics but says no one reads (among them Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine and Robert Reed’s An Exaltation of Larks, which I’ve added to my TBR list).

She eccentrically speculates that George Eliot would have made a brilliant science fiction writer.

And all you readers will laugh at her thoughts on rereading. In “Why I Re-read,” she begins,

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who ree-read and those who don’t.  No, don’t be silly, there are far more than two kinds of people in the world.  There are even people who don’t read at all.  (What do they think about on buses?) But there are two kinds of readers in the world, though, those who re-read and those who don’t.  Sometimes people who don’t reread look at me oddly when I mention that I do.  “There are so many books,” they say,” and so little time.  If I live to be a mere Methuselah of 800, and read a book a week for 800 years, I will only have the chance to read 40,000 books, and my readpile is already 90,000 and starting to topple!  If I re-read, why, I’ll never get through the new ones.”

Her reasons for rereading are logical and entertaining.

Walton is an award-winning  science fiction writer, but she really writes cross-over literary fiction.

Her stunning novel My Real Children has won the RUSA Women’s Fiction Award and Tiptree Award (Feminist) this year.  I wrote about it here last year:

The plot is as follows: In 2015, the heroine, Patricia, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease. She remembers two pasts: in one she writes travel guidebooks in Italy, spends every summer in Florence, and raises three children with her lesbian lover, Bee; in the other she is Tricia, the wife of a closeted gay man and mother of four who does not discover her vocation as a teacher or a satisfying heterosexual relationship until her husband leaves her.

Walton is a brilliant writer, and this is one of my favorite books of the year.

Four New Books Worth a Midnight Bookstore Party

This month, bookstores are throwing parties for Harper Lee’s To Set a Watchman.  There are  pre-orderings, readings, Southern fried chicken dinners, and screenings of the film based on Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I hesitate to buy an early work that has not yet been reviewed.  (I’m waiting to see what people think.)  But I am looking forward to the publication of four other new booksthis summer. Surely these are worth a midnight party at a bookstore.

ann beattie the-state-were-in-9781501107818_hr1.  Ann Beattie’s The State We’re In:  Maine Stories.  (Aug. 11)

Ann Beattie’s witty, elegant short stories have been popular since they were first published in the 1970s in The New Yorker.   In her minimalist fiction, she explores the lives of drop-outs, divorcees, yuppies, uninspired teachers, widows, couples whose children have died, dog owners, adulterous professors and their student lovers, and rich people who are sometimes admirable but often obnoxious. Although she is best known for her trademark ironic short stories, characterized by witty dialogue and breathtaking imagery, she has also written remarkable novels.   In Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, she deconstructs scenes of Pat Nixon’s life based on history and imagination.  My favorite of her novels is Falling in Place (but that’s another story, and I’ll write about it another time).

Beattie has won an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the short story form.

Here is the description of her new book.  “From a multiple prize–winning master of the short form: a stunning collection of brand-new, linked stories that perfectly capture the zeitgeist through the voices of vivid and engaging women from adolescence to old age.”

And we can even have a film screening at the bookstore:  there’s Joan Micklin Silver’s Head Over Heels, based on Beattie’s first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), the story of Charles, a depressed, underemployed civil servant, Laura, the married librarian with whom he is in love, and his friend Sam, an unemployed jacket salesman. 

crime and punishment dostoevsky 61RnU2j+vVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2.  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, trans. by Oliver Ready (Penguin  Classics Deluxe)  July 14

At 18 I read the Constnce Garnett  translation of Crime and Punishment. Did I like it?  No.  And so I’m looking forward to the new translation by Oliver Ready, which has received rave reviews in England..  A. N. Wilson at the Spectator said, “Ready’s version is colloquial, compellingly modern and—in so far as my amateurish knowledge of the language goes—much closer to the Russian…”

Ghosh flood of fire 41ov3U2M69L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_3.  Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire (third of the Ibis trilogy) Aug. 4

What a perfect book to attend a midnight party for!  We can reread Books 1 and 2, discuss them at bookstores, and then show up to get our copy of the third book on Aug. 4!  Ghosh was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for the stunning first book in the trilogy, Sea of Poppies. The award went to the wrong book that year.

Here’s a paragraph from the  description of Flood of Fire:

“It is 1839 and China has embargoed the trade of opium, yet too much is at stake in the lucrative business and the British Foreign Secretary has ordered the colonial government in India to assemble an expeditionary force for an attack to reinstate the trade. Among those consigned is Kesri Singh, a soldier in the army of the East India Company. He makes his way eastward on the Hind, a transport ship that will carry him from Bengal to Hong Kong.”

Brush Back paretsky 51nQ4raHbRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4.  Sara Paretsky’s Brush Back (A V.I. Warshawski Novel) July 28

Paretsky, a Chicago writer, was one of the first American writers of hardboiled mysteries to star a female detective.  V. I. Warshawksi is tough, the daughter of a Polish-American cop, a runner, a former lawyer, very smart, and politically leftist.  I can’t wait to read the new Paretsky.  So why doesn’t a bookstore sponsor a Paretsky party?

From her website (and it’s all true):

Sara Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world in 1982 when she introduced V I in Indemnity Only. By creating a believable investigator with the grit and the smarts to tackle problems on the mean streets, Paretsky challenged a genre in which women typically were either vamps or victims.

And we can have a film screening of V. I. Warshawski (1991) with Kathleen Turner.

What new books are you looking forward to?