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?

C. A. Higgins’s Lightless

A novel that reads like a movie...if you like movies.

I began to read SF in graduate school, because classicists are mad about it, and you couldn’t have a conversation at Bear’s Place (a local dive) unless you could (a) quote Caesar over pizza or (b) talk about Ursula K Le Guin and Westworld.  But I really became bewitched by  literary SF in the 21st century, with my discovery of Jonathan Lethem,  Jo Walton, and, most recently, the surreal Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer.

Where do we find out about SF classics?  Not usually at The New York Times. But I enjoyed the lively writer Sarah Lyall’s  enthusiastic review of C. A. Higgins’s Lightless.   If she likes it, I will, I thought.

Not necessarily.

Much as I like Lyall, Lightless could not even hold my attention on a  plane.

I read it in dribs and drabs.   It is a pretty good first novel set in outer space…if you don’t mind a novel that reads like a movie.

You know Gravity?  The beautiful, suspenseful movie set in space, where all goes wrong for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney ?

Lightless reads like a cliched, much less complicated SF movie.  All of the action takes place on the spaceship Ananke, described as “a System-sponsored research vessel with military applications.”  Yup.  That’s the caliber of writing.

There are only three people in the crew, unlikely as that seems on a military super-ship, and the only one of any interest is the engineer, Althea.  Domitian, the captain, and Gagnon, the senior scientist, are there strictly for plot purposes.   Althea is not a well-developed character, but at least we understand her seriousness and that her personal life revolves around the computer.

Then two intruders, Leontis Ivanov and Matthew Gale, suspected terrorists, break onto the ship and introduce a virus into the computer.

The ship goes haywire. The computer tries to kill Althea with one of her many arms, which are intended to do repair work.  The computer’s functions are screwed.

Althea and the other two officers try to catch the trespassers, but Gale gets away.  They catch Ivanov, and a special officer, Ida, comes to the ship to interrogate him to prove that he is linked to terrorists.

In their surveillance society, where every minute of their lives is taped, disabling the computers facilitates privacy.  Ivanov seems sympathetic, and gives Althea information about the virus, but he is also manipulative.   Is he a hero or a villain?

Higgins is an awkward writer.  Lightless reads like hard science fiction, only without complexity or  style.  The dialogue is wooden.  The characterization stinks.  Althea is terrified about her baby, the computer, which Domitian would like to shut down.

Hopelessly, certain that it was not precisely what she wanted to ask, Althea said, as she had before, “Are you…are you worried about the computer, too?”

Domitian blinked.

“Yes,” he said, and he said it gently, but Althea was struck with the awful feeling that he did not know what she meant.  “Of course I am.  It will seriously impact our mission if the computer remains”–he paused–“in a state of disrepair.”

If you can stand the hackneyed writing, you might tolerate this book, but it might be a better fit in the Y.A. sector.

Garage Bookstores, Book Journals, & Second Week of Zero Spending!

The ultimate garge bookstore: the Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines

The Ultimate Garage Bookstore: the Planned Parenthood Book Sale in Des Moines

I love garage bookstores.

That’s what I call them.

They are located in literal garages, concrete bunkers, and dilapidated buildings in deserted urban neighborhoods.

In the 1970s, my dad used to take me with my terminally hip, wire-rim-bespectacled friends to what we laughingly called the “garage bookstore.” It wasn’t one of the great bookshops like The Paper Place or Epstein’s, where you could find Lawrence Ferlinghetti and The Diaries of Anais Nin.   No, it was a low-to-the-ground concrete building on Riverside Dr., between Iowa City and the small town of Hills.   You could find Kurt Vonnegut (he taught briefly in I.C. so we loved him), Mary Stewart, Herman Hesse (Steppenwolf was made into a movie), Rosemary’s Baby, Jane Eyre, and an occasional Thomas Hardy for 25 or 50 cents!  Later you could trade them in for something else!  The shop was crammed with treasure and junk.

the watefall margaret drabble 6574486-MEvey town used to have a garage bookstore.  In Bloomington, Indiana, there was a similarly gloomy low-slung building near the park where the market was held every Saturday.   I walked past The Book Rack or Book Bag (or whatever it was called) every day on the way to and from campus, and I acquired most of my Margaret Drabbles there..  It wasn’t in the class of Bloomington’s other used bookstores, among them Caveat Emptor, where I bought Kathleen Raine’s autobiography, or Christopher’s, where I found Kristin Lavransdatter.  But I loved it.

On vacation in Canada some years back, we stopped late one afternoon for lunch in Fort Erie, Ontario,  and then went to a garage bookstore.  (Possibly  Bridgeport Books, which I found on the net, but I am not sure.)  Rooms opened into rooms into more rooms, and we found lovely Canadian books by Sandra Birdsell, Margaret Laurence, and Joy Kogawa.

One winter we were in Dubuque, Iowa, for a cross-country ski race (my husband skis; I do not!).  It was three degrees and we were both cold and cranky, so we stopped in a run-down neighborhood to shop at a true garage bookstore.  (It may have been called Catherine’s._  It was unheated, and you could see your breath, but there certainly were a lot of books.  I found Barbara Pyms and a complete boxed set of Anne of Green Gables.  The next time we went to Dubuque, the store had gone out of business.  Too bad!

In Des Moines, the ultimate garage bookstore is the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, held twice a year in the 4-H Building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.   In the huge, uncozy building, I  always find cheap hardbacks, Viragos, travel books, and classics.

I suppose there are still garage bookstores, but I rarely see them anymore. Do you know this kind of store?

My book journal.

  My Book Journal is falling apart!

MY BOOK JOURNAL is falling apart!  The cover has been clawed by cats, the pages are dog-eared, and now the spine is cracked.

These guys didn’t do it.  They’re asleep!

IMG_3470They say it was that visiting cat–the one outside who wants to come in and live here!

Actually, I can’t imagine what could have cracked the spine.

Fortunately, I have lots of other notebooks.  But I’ve only written in one-third of the pages!

I suppose I could tape it up.

Do you have trouble with book journals?

no shoppingZERO SPENDING!  I am very good at ALMOST-ZERO spending so far.

My conspicuous consumption was brought home to me during my recent vacation.

And so I decided to spend less.

The Living Well Spending Less website expresses what we all feel sometimes.

Let’s face it–we all get off track sometimes when it comes to budgeting and managing our money wisely! Whether it be overspending on a vacation or little bad habits that add up over time, sometimes we just need to hit the reset button! If you’ve ever made it to the end of the month and wondered where all your money actually went, a month of no-spending might just be the perfect way to reset your spending habits.

I am buying the necessities. But I am not buying any more books till March 2016.

And so I have also temporarily stopped reading book reviews, because somehow an enthusiastic book review in a professional book publication can send me into BUY BUY BUY mode.

Reading book blogs is more soothing.  Really, it’s very like spying on someone’s book journal. I write them down on a list and look for them at used bookstores.  The bloggers I read don’t always read the latest books.

Anyway,  I spent zero for six days in a row and then had to buy a teaball for $5.  (My other one broke.)  Another day I bought sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, and white beans for an emergency vegetarian meal.  It cost $7.45.

Aren’t groceries expensive?

But I’m doing very well!  I have many weeks to go, though.

Women Crime Writers: Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man

helen eustis 150603_horizontal_man_audio3I don’t usually read noir fiction

Too blood-curdling.  Too macabre.

But I am mesmerized by Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Library of America).  Weinman, the editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Women:  Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, has chosen four once popular but forgotten novels for this volume:  Vera Caspary’s classic, Laura (which I wrote about here); Helen Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, set on a campus; Elisabeth Sansay Holding’s The Blank Wall; and Dorthy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place.  (There is also a second volume, novels of the ’50s.)

There was so much to mull over in Caspary’s classic,  Laura, that I didn’t immediately go on to the second novel, Eustis’s The Horizontal Man, winner of the Edgar for best first novel in 1946.  It is superb campus noir.   If you think you know campus mysteries–for instance, Edmund Crispin’s  Case of the Gilded Fly, set in Oxford–you will find this very different. Set at an elite women’s college where many disturbed people thrive, Eustis’s  psychological novel is simply terrifying.

Eustis’s style is not quite as smooth as Caspary’s, but her book is a very good murder mystery.  Like Caspary in Laura, Eustis plays with point of view.  Who would be crazy enough to murder Kevin Boyle, a handsome Irish professor of English and poet with the gift of blarney?  Writing in the third person, she relates the events after the murder from the perspectives of students, professors, a reporter, the college president, and a psychiatrist.

The novel begins with a chapter of one page and four lines.  Kevin is afraid but is trying  his best to calm down the crazy person (unnamed) who is threatening him.

“I say,” he said, almost tenderly, “you’re not well, you know.  Do let me take you home.”

But it was no use.  “No!” she cried, loud and harsh–and it gave him hope that someone might hear that voice–“I’m not sick!  At last I am well, at last I can tell you, Kevin!  My God, do you know that is like water running down my throat to say that I love you?”

This histrionic dialogue is truly demented.  The killer strikes Kevin with a poker and the chapter ends.

Then we hear from the other characters, some of whom are suspects.

the horizontal man helen eustis penguin side11The first suspect, Molly Morrison, is an unbalanced student who had a crush on Kevin Boyle. She wonders if she could have saved him if she had simply told him ,  “I love you!  I will black your boots, mend your clothes–anything!  I love you!”  That style does sound a bit like the style of the murder’s dialogue, doesn’t it?  She has kept journals about her crush.  She went to the malt shop regularly when he was there.   And eventually she confesses to the crime, but since she is in the middle of a nervous breakdown no one quite knows what to do with this confession.

Then there is poor, weak-chinned Leonard, an English professor who lived across the hall from Kevin.  He heard the thud, without realizing it was Kevin falling.  He idolized Kevin, who told him stories about his many women.  Leonard has had no women.

George Hungerford, another English prof, has suffered from mental illness.  He is so good at his job that college president and faculty respect him and has tactfully overlooked his illness.  Hungerford is haunted by an intruder who periodically breaks into his apartment and leaves a journal with details that nobody but Hungerford could know.  The intruder is, he thinks, female.

Freda Cramm, yet another English professor, is seductive, buxom, and made a pass at Kevin.  Suspiciously, she is caught in Kevin’s apartment a few days after his murder.  She is there to retrieve a paper, she says.

At the heart of the novel are three clean-cut young people who meet in a bar.

“I gotta get an angle,” crooned the young man, rocking his face between his hands.  “I simply gotta get an angle.”

That’s Jack Donnelly, the tabloid reporter.  He meets two college girls, a brilliant, but plump, Kate Innes and the seductive Honey.  After he prints the story about Molly’s confession (which he gets from her in an interview), Kate is furious.  But after she flirts with Jack in an effort to manipulate him, the two work together solve the murder.  They are the bright young innocents who save us from drowning in gloom.

This is really a very good book.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.  And the murderer is not who you think it is (though I did guess it before the end.)  I am very enthusiastic about Weinman’s anthology of crime fiction.  There’s something about women’s crime fiction.  I didn’t actually know these hard-boiled women’s noir novels existed!