The Interview Slump & The Year of the Short Story

Brenda Starr reporter 6a00d8341c684553ef0148c74fc819970c-300wiThis is the time of year when I usually interview writers.

As a former freelance writer/”girl reporter,” I have no qualms about flipping open a notebook and asking questions.

Writers are surprisingly generous with their time.  At this blog, I have interviewed Karen E. Bender (shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award for fiction), D. J. Taylor, Michelle Huneven, Peter Stothard, Lionel Shriver, and Robert Hellenga,

This fall I haven’t gotten around to it.  Like Oblomov, the hero of Goncharov’s famous novel, I am slothful.  According to my doctor, I have jet lag. (Still?)  Sleep…sleep…sleep… is the cure.

When I wake up perhaps I’ll interview somebody, but meanwhile…

I can refer you to other interviews!

This has been the Year of the Short Story.

I am addicted to the novel, but this year, for the first time, I have read better short story collections than novels.  Here are recommendations:

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories1. Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories, Refund, is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  The stories are linked by the theme of money.  In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple:  the heroine. a  freelance editor,  decides to have an abortion.   In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.

You can read my post about Refund here, and there is also a fascinating interview with her at The Lost Angeles Review of Books.

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories is an exceptionally brilliant book.  Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism.  In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling.  But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”:   the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment.  It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.

You can read my post about Lucky Alan here, and there is an excellent interview with him at Salon.

DJ-Taylor--Wrote-For-Luck-Frontboard3. Wrote for Luck is a masterly collection by  D. J. Taylor, the novelist, biographer, and critic.  In the hilarious story, “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings.  The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.” Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  China is broken, but Mrs. Underwood is surprisingly tough.

I am a fan of stories about work,  and some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the demoralization in the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

My post about Wrote for Luck is here, and you can watch a  video of a very good talk he gave about Cyril Connelly at The World Literature Festival 2015.

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble is another stunning collection.  Does Link write literary fantasy? Magic realism? Horror? She has burst out of the SF ghetto and is now reviewed at The New York Times and The Guardian.  I loved this collection, though I lazily didn’t write about it.  You can read an interview with her at NPR and a review at the Guardian

A Trip to Iowa City: Not Buying One Book!

Prairie Lights Books

  Prairie Lights Books

I am not an addicted consumer.

That’s what I thought.

But I do love bookstores.  Any bookstores.   Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris, Jackson Street Booksellers, Skoob, Prairie Lights, Waterstones, The Haunted Bookshop, The Bookworm, The London Review Bookshop, Oxfam, Barnes & Noble, The Strand…

But since my book binge in London, whence I carried 15 paperbacks in a suitcase I could barely wheel across the airport and mailed a box of books home, I have decided to cut back on buying books for a while.

It has been three weeks since I bought a book.

At first I felt flat.  Now, honestly, I think I am becoming delirious.  E-books don’t count as books, do they? They are so cheap…  and they’re not physical objects!

No, no, no!  I think e-books are books…sort of!

Today we went to Iowa City, and we did not go to any bookstores.  It is a bit odd not to go to a bookstore in a UNESCO City of Literature.

There are, however, many other things to do.

We went to Hickory Hill Park, a beautiful wooded park  on the north side of town.  We THOUGHT we were near the big open field near the cemetery where my mother is buried.  But the park has acquired more acres since we lived here, so we took a wrong turn and got lost.  We found a map in a kiosk by the parking lot–later!

Hickory Hill Park

                               Hickory Hill Park

Then, because we felt like sitting and reading, we went to the University of Iowa Library. Here is a book all will want to read, Gods, Kings and Merchants in Old Babylonian Mespotamia.

IMG_3490No, I don’t actually want to read it! I’m joshing.   But someone will.  It’s on display.

The first floor of the library is a space-age looking area broken up by colored cube-shaped study rooms, soft couches and comfortable chairs, and a cafe with a large-screen TV.  It looks a little like the Jetsons’s futuristic house, sans robot, in the 1960s cartoon show, The Jetsons.

The library looks a littlle like the Jetsons's home, sans robot.

The Jetsons!

We, of course, prefer the floors of the library that actually house books.

I spent an hour reading  journals.  I was mesmerized by a bound volume of the 1960 issues of Analog:  Science Fiction and Fact.  Established in 1930, this  magazine publishes science fiction based on real science and articles on science. I very much enjoyed reading a rather poorly-written novelette by a no-name author (sorry!  I didn’t have even a pencil to take notes with!) about a man with telepathy on a mission to prevent witch-burnings.   It seemed very appropriate for Halloween.

Then there is Classical Journal.  You can never  fall behind in the field of classics, because it is always the same ancient Greek and Latin literature,  but it’s fun to catch up on scholarly journals. It’s not always fun, though. And so I perused a tedious article comparing Cicero’s Pro Archia to Pro Balbo.  SNORE…. Then I read a review of what sounded a really unnecessary abridgement of Herodotus.  Then, in the June 30, 2014, issue, I found a brilliant analysis of  one of Propertius’s elegies, in the article, “MARRIAGE CONTRACTS, FIDES AND GENDER ROLES IN PROPERTIUS 3.20″ by MELANIE RACETTE-CAMPBELL.

If you’re interested, here’s a sentence from the abstract (which I found online):

Propertius 3.20 uses the language of fidelity and contracts that was traditionally associated with solemn legal ceremonies and agreements in his depiction of a socially illegitimate relationship between a lover and his mistress.


And then afterwards we dined.   There’s The Brown Bottle (Italian), Pagliai’s (the thin-crust pizza I grew up on), and the Hamburg Inn (burgers and breakfast:  every  Presidential candidate goes there!).  These are places we ate at with my mother.  And the pedestrian downtown is now mostly a restaurant-bar area, with lots of ethnic food, burgers and chicken wings, something for everybody.  (But the French restaurant did go under.  Too bad!)

President Obama at the Hamburg Inn

President Obama at the Hamburg Inn

If the Hamburg Inn is good enough for the President….

Anyway, can you believe I didn’t buy one book?

John Wyndham’s Chocky

John Wyndham Chocky_2048x2048This fall, NYRB has reissued a new edition of John Wyndham’s novel, Chocky,with an Afterword by Margaret Atwood. Wyndham is the author of one of the best SF novels of the twentieth century, The Day of the Triffids

The publication of Chocky sent me running for my own shabby copy (SF/Fantasy Shelf, Bookcase A). It is a 1968  Ballantine Science Fiction Original with a tacky cover.  I paid $3 for it at a used bookstore in Ames.

The Bad Thing about Having the Ballantine:  it doesn’t have an Afterword by Margaret Atwood.

The Good Thing:  you don’t need an Afterword by Margaret Atwood.

A note about cover art:   Why does the pretty pink NYRB cover depict an androgynous child wielding a tape measure?    On the tacky cover of my Ballantine, a boy is assembling a model of atoms, and there is a white outer-space-y shape in the background.

Wyndham ballantine chocky

The Ballantine cover is appropriate for a science fiction novel about a kind of haunting.

It is told from the perspective of Mark Gore, the father of a very ordinary adopted 12-year-old boy, Matthew.  One day he notices Matthew is talking to himself.  Actually, he is chatting to an invisible being named Chocky. David is startled, but he and his wife, Mary, have had experience with imaginary friends.  When their daughter was much younger, she had an annoying imaginary friend named Piff.

But then Matthew starts asking his parents and teachers questions they can’t answer.  Where exactly is Earth located? Why is a cow’s intelligence limited?  And the teachers wonder why the Gores are pushing their child.

Of course Chocky is the one asking the questions, and Matthew gets frustrated when he can’t answer.  He doesn’t even know Chocky’s gender.   Mark asks Matthew why he refers to Chocky both as “he” and “she.”

“But Chocky’s sort of different,” he told me earnestly.  “I explained all the differences between hims and hers, but she couldn’t seem to get it, somehow.  That’s funny, because he’s really frightfully clever I think, but all he said was that it sounded like a pretty silly arrangement, and wanted to know why it’s like that.”

Much of the novel is written in dialogue.  It’s very simple, but effective.  Is Chocky benign, or evil?  It is clear that he/she is possessing Matthew, who is learning many subjects at a frightening speed.  Suddenly he uses binary code to do his math problems  He draws and paints pictures with a very sophisticated, if odd, perspective.

And then there is a dramatic incident.  I don’t want to give away too much.

This is really a wonderful little novel. Is it a children’s book?  No. It’s an all-ages book.   Chocky was adapted in the UK in 1984 as a children’s film, but Wyndham wrote it in 1963 as a novelette for the magazine, Amazing Stories.  Heraises fascianting questions about intelligence, possession, and communication.  Yes, it’s a bit sentimental.  I cried at the end.

NYRB reissued Wyndham’s The Chrysalids a few years ago. I’d love to see more of Wyndham’s books in print. Let’s hope they have plans for more.

Isobel English’s Every Eye

every eye english goodreads 2702244On a recent trip to Persephone Books in Bloomsbury, an American woman squashed herself between a table and a bookcase to examine out-of-reach titles.  After perusing several identical pearl-gray books, she accidentally bought a copy of Isobel English’s Every Eye instead of Elizabeth Berridge’s Tell It to a Stranger.

But it turns out Isobel English is a stunning writer, so this American had no regrets.  I read Every Eye while jolting around on the tube, resting on the steps of an unknown memorial, and slurping a Frappuccino.

English, a writer hitherto unknown to me, won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories, Life After All.  She was a friend of Stevie Smith, Olivia Manning, and Muriel Spark.

That said, her style is spare and mercilessly observant, and this is a small classic.

In the first sentence of this pitch-perfect novel, the narrator, Hatty, learns on a trip with her husband that her aunt Cynthia has died.  She has not seen Cynthia in six years.

This news has affected me in a way that I did not expect.  One minute I was all set with my resentments close-knit and compressed, and the next it was as if a great wave had suddenly crashed shorewards undercutting and breaking into the very foundations of my life.

This is a marvelous description of self-scrutiny after a death.  As a child, Hatty loved Cynthia, but their relationship changed over the years.

Born with a lazy eye, Hatty is aware that this flaw has both shaped and intensified her vision.  Though she had corrective surgery, she still prefers a broad-brimmed hat to tilt over the eye. In the course of the novel, she realizes that the figurative hat may have occluded her vision of Cynthia.

Isobel English

Isobel English

In Every Eye, Hattie alternates her musings on Cynthia’s subtle influence on her coming-of-age with an account of Hattie’s honeymoon trip with her  younger husband to Ibiza, the island Cynthia had loved.

Lack of confidence has dogged Hatty, a pianist-turned-music teacher.  The first time she met Cynthia, shortly before she married Uncle Otway, Hatty got rattled over a piece she was playing as Uncle Otway turned the pages.  Not believing in her talent, Uncle Otway sent her to secretarial school.  Eventually, she found work as a music teacher.

How did her relationship change with Cynthia?  During Hatty’s affair with a middle-aged anthropologist, Jasper, a friend of Uncle Otway,  Cynthia repeatedly tried to warn her it would not last.  Of course Cynthia was right.  But there is a missing piece to the puzzle.

The travels of Hattie and Stephen are breathtakingly described.  The boring train rides, the acquaintance with strange travelers, the drinking of coffee and wine in cafes, and the trip to a fantastic shrine on a mountain.  On the island of Ibiza, they discover a small detail that links them to Cynthia. Hattie finally understands Cynthia’s meddling.

A gorgeous book!  Perhaps the best Persephone I’ve read.  (Except for Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady.)

Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve

The Passion of New Eve angela carter 51BAQglKXzL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_I read a lot of literature by women, and when I am over-tired, as I have been lately, I read little else.

Why?  Because I understand it perfectly.  It expresses what I feel.  It explores psychological issues that interest me.

But an excess of feminine consciousness can be a burden even for us feminist readers.

Angela Carter has written exquisite masterpieces, and she has written uneven novels. Her baroque style is hypnotic; her imagery is colorful and original.  In The Passion of New Eve, a surreal novel rich with symbolism and satire, she walks a fine line between feminism and tedium.   In Carter’s mordant exploration of what it means to be female in a post-apocalyptic society, the ideal woman is defined by men in Hollywood, or by a cult of militant Earth-worshipping female plastic surgeons.

This novel is Carter’s homage to the myth of Tiresias, the Greek prophet who spent part of his life as a man and part as a woman.  (Naturally, being a woman was best.)   Well, the story is part Tiresias myth anyway: the rest is Caitlyn Jenner crossed with Charlie’s Angels.

The gender issues that dominate the text are apparent from the opening page.  When we first meet the narrator, Evelyn, a selfish, sexist young  Englishman  who has long been obsessed with a movie star, Tristessa, he is about to move to New York City.  He describes his last night in London at a Tristessa film with “some girl or other” (this is typical of his attitude) while paying a tribute “of spermatazoa” to the actress via the mediation of his companion.   He adores but is also cynical bout Tristessa, who has  “executed her symbolic autobiography in arabesques of kitsch and hyperbole yet transcended the rhetoric of vulgarity by exemplifying it with a heroic lack of compromise.”

virago carter-passion_of_new_eveThis lack of compromise sums up what  Evelyn looks for in the very feminine women he pursues. When he arrives in New York to peddle his scholarship at a university, the teaching job no longer exists, because the university has been seized by a group of black radicals. New York is riddled by rats, race riots, violent radical feminists, crime, and gunfire.  On his first night in New York, there is either a fire or just a fire alarm at the hotel:  it’s hard to tell. Even after his only friend, an alchemist neighbor, is murdered outside a store, Evelyn spends  time in the streets.  One night he unwisely follows home Leila, an African-American dancer with painted nipples. He says he has never met  such “a slave to style.”  When she isn’t combing her hair or putting on makeup, they have torrid sex, and sometimes he leaves her tied up to the bed until she defecates.  After she has an abortion by a witchdoctor and almost bleeds to death, he gives her money at the hospital and says good-bye. Then he takes a road trip.  His destination:  the desert.

Carter’s descriptions of his adventures are psychedelic and indelibly printed on my brain because of the colorful imagery.  Her prose is also threaded with flamboyant humor.

On a road that ran into an insane landscape of pale rock, honeycombed peak upon peak in unstable, erratic structures, calcified assemblages of whiteness and silence where jostling pebbles marked the paths of rivers that dried up before time began, where snakes and lizards rustled in the grey sand, where buzzards floated in the sky.  I ran out of gas and so found myself entirely at the desert’s mercy.

If you like her style, you like it.  If you don’t, you don’t.  I admire her prose, but find the story a little lacklustre, if often very funny.

After Evelyn’s  car breaks down in the desert, Evelyn is abducted by a cult of militant one-breasted women, a la Amazons,  to an underground city.  They surgically change  him into the women of their dreams.  Well, of somebody’s dreams anyway.  They castrate him, build a vagina, and enhance his breasts.  She looks like a perky Charlie’s Angel by the time they’re done with him.  They have saved a sample of his sperm and hope to impregnate him with it.

Angela Carter

                   Angela Carter

But as you can imagine, this scene of Evelyn’s transformation is ghastly and terrifying, despite Carter’s black humor.  After he recovers from the surgery, he escapes.  Not for long, though.  He is out only a few hours when he is  abducted by yet a worse cult led a misogynist named Zero, who has  seven women slaves.  Zero is as obsessed with  the movie star Tristessa as Evelyn is.  When Zero finally finds Tristessa’s hideout, the actress is as melancholy as her name.  Zero intends to kill Tristessa, but Tristessa has a side to her nature that no one was aware of…  Evelyn and Tristessa almost escape.

All the American women characters are caricatures, it would seem, and when Leila turns up again, she is no longer a dancer but a militant. (It’s a long story.)   Leila helps Evelyn accept being the new Eve.  Still, Eve isn’t going to be a passive object for one of the cults. She has her own idea of what to do with her life.

But what is Carter getting at?  In this satire, men are the perfect male-identified women. Are men better women than women are?    Militant women are just as bad as men in Hollywood about pursuing their myths.  In the end, only Evelyn is sympathetic. Is that the joke?

Carter knew what she was doing, and I’d have to read it twice to comprehend her meaning entirely.   It is good in its way, but unfortunately I don’t like it enough to reread it.

Paulette/Pauline in Chicago


Old Town in Chicago

“You walk strong and look people in the eye.”

That is how I remember Paulette’s advice, though I am not sure it was her advice.   It is hard to remember dialogue when you didn’t really understand it. I had no concept of cities.  It sounds a little off now.  More likely she said, Walk strong and pay attention to your surroundings.

Paulette moved to Chicago when she was 18.

She was an incredibly fascinating hipster, and I wanted to grow up to be just like her.  Chicago was a great city:  the Sears Tower, the Renoirs at the Art Institute, the lake!  On a trip to Chicago with my mother, we stayed at the Palmer House, bought clothes on sale at Marshall Field, popped into the Art Institute,  bought a psychedelic poster in Old Town, a reputedly counter-culture area, and had lunch with Paulette.

I visualized Paulette living happily in Old Town. (She probably did not live in Old Town.)

Later, I would live in a city, in an apartment in a slightly dodgy neighborhood, and I would instinctively know how to act.  (How you act is:  move  into a better neighborhood as soon as you can.)

Paulette told us everything was going well. She had a vaguely bookish job typing ceaseless articles for a twentieth-century lit professor.  She checked his bibliographies, because he was a little sloppy.  She mimeographed handouts, which he usually made up at the last moment. She said he drove her mad quoting Robert Lowell, who was mad.   (She tore a poem out of a library book–bad, I know–and gave it to me: “Harpo Marx, your hands white-feathered the harp—/the only words you ever spoke were sound.”)

She loved her apartment in a dilapidated building in a bad neighborhood.  She was friends with everyone in the building, it seemed.

I am haunted by an image of what happened later: her boyfriend hacking the ice in her apartment to salvage her possessions after a fire.

There was a big fire.  It was winter. The building froze when the firemen doused it with water.

Paulette died of smoke inhalation.  Others died, too.  We cried and cried.

I wonder when they let her boyfriend into the apartment.  Perhaps he snuck in, slipped past the yellow tape x-ed over the doors. Did he use an ice pick?  I picture stalagmites and stalactites.  I do not know what he saved.

Nobody talked about the cause.  Code violations?  Neglectful absentee landlord? Sad, irrevocable.

I have always been puzzled by another memory.  When I was five, another friend, Pauline, and I were riding on the merry-go-round on the playground. Kids shouted and mocked her because she had freckles.  “Shut up!”  I was a strong girl. They did.

I do not remember her last name.  She is not in the class picture.  Did she move away?

The other day I suddenly realized:  Paulette/Pauline.   Paulette had freckles.  Perhaps I dreamed about Paulette as Pauline?   Paulette was a trusting, vulnerable  girl with freckles.  Perhaps I sensed that she needed protection?

But was it a dream?  Was there a Pauline?

Paulette was real.

Alternatives to Book Consumerism in a Cat Sweatshirt!

Not my suitcase, but it could have been!

Not my suitcase, but it could have been!

“We are all consumers. And we all, more or less, live by consumerism’s creed that our consuming is linked to happiness (in a recent poll, only 6 percent of Americans said that money can’t buy happiness).”–Cool:  How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, by Steven Quartz and Anette Asp

If there’s one thing we don’t need, it’s more books.

My husband has been telling me that for years.

My trip to London has changed my perspective on the library that is our home.

London does not have a magic potion for bookaholics.  Would that a witch would meet you at the airport  and say,

Boil and bubble, boil and brew, now I cast a spell on you– boo!

But after visiting some of the best bookstores in the world  and buying too many books to fit on our shelves and not regretting it at all, I realize that I could have done many other things on vacation.

All of them worse!

Horrible Alternative #1 :  Dine on gourmet suckling pig at a  glitzy restaurant in Mayfair for $200. Why suckling pig?  The guidebook seems to think that’s a good thing.  I do not.  Anyway, could I wear my mythic cat sweatshirt?   I don’t think so.

Horrible Alternative # 2:    Forget the bookstores.  Buy till you’re high at Selfridges, Dover Market, Fortnum and Mason,  and the like…  Squeeze yourself into a  GIVENCHY T-SHIRT that costs more than your plane ticket, order a CHRISTMAS HAMPER with delectable treats for your family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, and why not that nice  DE LAURENT NOTEBOOK that is not THAT expensive?  Well, the notebook was nice, but you can get a nicer one at Paperchase.

Horrible Alternative # 3: EXPAND YOUR CULTURAL HORIZONS.  Oh, already did culture.  There  was the Thing…  You know….the thing at the museum…Cool Celtic Coins and Crosses! Or something.  You love art, drama, and literature, but what about music? For years you’ve sat  through those Metropolitan Opera HD things, looking at your watch.  Why not go to the Royal Opera for £230?   But you need Renee Fleming to do those interviews during Halftime..  Maybe you could just buy a CD of Carmen…or go to the Abbey Road crossing!

I did think of one good alternative.   Stay at one of those gorgeous Victorian luxury  hotels.  The problem is you might never want to leave .

There are shades of consumerism. Some worry about payments for a conscience-sopping Prius, or a flashy Corvette that in Hollywood myth gets you the girl of your dreams.  I  ponder the price of a  hardback copy of The Collected Poems and Drawings of Stevie Smith and wonder if I need a shed (Michael Dirda says he has one!) for the books that don’t fit on the shelves.   It’s always good to look at overspending, and figure out how you could cut back a little.

I I am not buying books till March 2016, but I wish you all Happy Consumerism.  We’re lucky it’s books, isn’t it?