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!

Second Copy Takeaway: Daphne du Maurier, G. B. Stern, & Angela Carter

It’s a Second Copy Giveaway!

Do you ever literally not know what’s double-stacked on your shelves?

I’ve been weeding to make room for my London books and discovered in exasperation that I have Two-Copy syndrome.

I am giving away:

stern-61. Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.   This is an old hardback.  I’ll never read it again, but know some of you are mad fans.

2. G.B. Stern’s The Matriarch. Can you believe I bought this in Europe when I had the Virago at home?

3. Angela Carter’s The Passin of New Eve.  Coulfn’t resist a Virago in London, but this is a nice hardback.

Leave a comment if you would like one or more!!


Is Conversation Necessary?

                      “The Women,” 1939

You move to a small town in Texas, the Midwest, or Upstate New York.  It hardly matters.

Population:  700 or 7,000

Bookstores:  None

Libraries:  do not have the classics and out-of-print books you need.

Technology:  Superior!

And so you are on the computer, phone, or tablet 24/7.  When you wake up in the middle of the night, you check your email. It doesn’t seem normal, but who is your best friend? The kind people who help you scan your passport at O’Hare, or your computer?  It should be the people, but it is the computer.  (I am leaving family off this list, because they are family!)

And that’s why I was interested in Jessica Love’s review in The American Scholar of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

anne taintor shopping 27aca604e0d45210680200ba25ea2d11I am banned from reading book reviews until March 2016.  I am on an (Almost) Zero-Spending program because I spent £95 at the London Review Bookshop,  £30 at the Persephone Bookshop, and,  thank God,  less at the used bookstores!  Is it possible to buy books without checking the prices?  I am, however,  allowed to read book blogs, because the pace is less urgent.   Bloggers are so eclectic–some read only out-of-print books–that I am happy just to put the books on the list and think about them.

I actually wasn’t aware that Jessica Love’s article, “We Need to Chat: How technology,” was a review until I clicked on it.

We need this kind of review/article to interpret society nowadays. Love says that Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation, reports that Facebook, email,  texts, etc., are destroying our ability to focus on a subject and have meaningful conversations. In 2012, a study at Essex University found that  students who were paired off to converse with each other for 10 minutes were so distracted by a phone on a nearby desk that they lacked empathy for and were less trusting of each.

Jessica Love writes:

It was the intimacy of conversations that really took a hit, the researchers found. When discussions were casual, the cell phone on the desk made little difference. But when conversations touched on more meaningful topics, the device—though it remained still, silent, off to the side, and unanswered—discouraged conversation partners from warming to one another.

I often joke that I haven’t had a conversation in 15 years. I chat with my relatives and a few friends, but we seldom talk about anything deep.  Is it necessary to be profound?   I used to tell everyone what was on my mind.  Why am I less serious?  Is this a less serious age?  Do we have to be Stephen Colbert?  (Do you think Stephen Colbert is funny?)

I miss seriousness.

I can’t say I am a researcher on the internet, but I have noticed a few things.

1 The Occupy Wall Street Movement n 2011 was adorable.  “We are the 99%.”  Possibly untrue, but I liked the sound of it.  However, I could not help but notice that the protestors couldn’t focus.   What were they protesting?  They couldn’t say.  Bankers?  Debt?  The website adds, “The sanctity of individual privacy,”  and “Making technologies, knowledge, and culture open to all to freely access, create, modify, and distribute.”  Isn’t privacy on the internet an oxymoron?  Has the internet interrupted their train of thought?  Is my skepticism a hearkening back to the ’60s and ’70s, when we were able to organize groups around promoting specific goals, such as  legalized abortion, equal pay for equal rights, the end of the Vietnam War, etc.?  Could we do that because we conversed face-to-face instead of online?

2.  As a blogger, I have noticed  a movement of what I call “parallel  blogging.” Instead of discussing a single book, as  one does in book clubs, many talented blogger/readers volunteer to read one or two books from, say, a list of 25  posted by a lovely blogger.   I am happy to participate in a year-long reading of The Forsyte Saga, but I have never been able to comprehend the point of a 24-hour-readathon.  Bloggers register for the readathon and read and tweet and post and provide links to other participants’  blogs until I am dizzy.  The new way of parallel participation isn’t bad, it is simply different. I am a part of this culture but I am also apart from it.

Do we need more conversation?  Or is Sherry Turkle wrong?

Lodgings in Literature: Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room & Others

Better than a sidewalk cafe.

Yup, it’s tea time in the back yard.

I’m calmly drinking my home-brewed tea after a week of gulping Grande javas at sidewalk cafes.  My home cafe is like Starbucks without the Starbucks, or Costa without the Costa.  I love the beautiful parks and squares in London, but it is really better to sit under a tree in your pajamas and drink coffee out of a kitschy cat mug.

And so as I read Lynne Reid Banks’s elegant, moving novel, The L-Shaped Room, a 1960 feminist classic about an unmarried pregnant woman in her late twenties, I not only admired the exquisite writing but noted  how much coffee and tea is imbibed.

Lynne Reid Banks L-Shaped-Room-183x300The narrator, Jane Graham, a former actress who works in PR, is confused and sad and daren’t tell her friends about her pregnancy. Instead, she throws herself upon the expertise of middle-aged men.  A Harley Street doctor assumes she will want an abortion.  And when she tells her father she is pregnant, he says she is no better than a street-walker.  Fed up with the patriarchy, Jane leaves home and moves into a seedy L-shaped room in a dilapidated house.

We tend to forget the stigma of unwed pregnancy, since it is celebrated in sitcoms and movies  (Friends, Mom, The Switch, etc.). Abortion is still a guilty secret, because of the mad Fundamentalists who picket and protest Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics.  At the moment, funding for Planned Parenthood is under attack by the Republicans.  It wearies me to think my days as a volunteer coordinator for NARAL in the  1970s made so little difference.

But I am fascinated by this novel, not because of the pregnancy, but because I love reading about Jane’s cheap digs and the people who rent rooms there.  They band together, as people do when they have a bad landlady and bedbugs terrorize them.   Jane makes friends with Toby, a witty writer who would rather talk to Jane than write; John, a black jazz musician who does needlework ; the two kind prostitutes, Jane and Sonia; and Mavis, the retired costumer for a theater company.  John is always making tea and meals for Jane and Toby.  Mavis makes the best coffee.  Jane loves coffee, and also drinks it  at Frank’s, a neighborhood cafe.

In college we all rented rooms unless we had trust funds. (Those with trust funds owned their own houses, and generously offered to let us live there, but then you had to buy Christmas trees with them… and it wasn’t worth it if you were depressed).  I could barely squeeze a bed and tiny bookcase into my room, but it was my own.  All of us  got to know each other in the shared kitchen,  and we went to discos together (such bad music!), sunbathed on the roof, and occasionally shared Ramen noodles and cake mixes.

Jane’s house was bigger than our three-story.  Jane says,

My room was five flights up in one of those gone-to-seed houses in Fulham, all dark brown wallpaper and peeling paint outside. On every second landing was a chipped sink with one tap and an old ink-written notice which said ‘Don’t Leave Tap Dripping.’  The landing lights were the sort that go out before you can reach the next one.  There were a couple of prostitutes in the basement; the landlady had been quite open about them.  She’d pointed out that there was even an advantage to having them there, namely that nobody asked questions about anybody.

I love this kind of book.  So I’ve been thinking about other novels where characters live in lodging, and please let me know your favorites!

  1. London Belongs to Me Norman CollinsNorman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.  In this charming novel, Collins interweaves the stories of the residents of Number 10 Dulcimer Street in London.  Th stingy landlady, Mrs. Vizier, broods in her basement apartment, wondering if any of her tenants are bringing the tone of her house down.  But her tenants are a plucky lot, and they support one another through innumerable troubles, including a murder.  (I wrote more about this novel here.)
  2. Monica Dickens’s The Heart of London.  I read this years ago, so here is an excerpt from the Kirkus Review:  “The happenings in an urban section of London, Cottingham Park, have for their background the threats and rumors of the widening of the road through, of an expressway and the demolition involved — all of which become a reality, and link and interlink the of a large collection of people.
  3. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa-Al-Aswany. From the Amazon description:
    All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed “scientist of women”; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires.”These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany’s remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world.”

And that’s all she wrote for now!  Please let me know your favorite lodgings in literature!