Elizabeth Berridge’s Rose Under Glass

rose under glass elizabeth berridge 41sGi6fFVxL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_On a gloomy, rainy day like today (where are we, England?), I turn on all the lights and curl up with a cup of Earl Grey.  If I am not writing this blog, I am almost certainly reading one of my favorite authors.  It could be Charlotte Bronte, Barbara Pym, or Elizabeth Bowen.  It is unlikely to be Hemingway or Norman Mailer.  Yes, I am a fan of women’s fiction.

One of my new favorites is Elizabeth Berridge (1919-2009).  The characters in her superb novel, Rose Under Glass, are domestic but also adventurous as they try to find, or avoid love. Berridge is little-known in the U.S., and not very well-known in the UK.  Her obituary at The Guardian called her “a writer of rare distinction who deserved more recognition than she ever received.”

I discovered her work by chance on the lists of reprinted books at Faber Finds  and Persephone Books.  I recently read Rose Under Glass.  This beautifully-written, fascinating novel tells the story of several characters in 1950s London: at the center is 45-year-old Penelope Hinton, a widow whose husband Jamie, a famous artist, recently died.  He stepped off the curb in front of  a lorry while preoccupied with cricket (or perhaps football?) scores.  A fortuneteller had predicted his death to Penelope, and she very much resents that the woman “with a dusty bang and pale eyes” dared know the future.

The marriage of Penelope and Jamie was unusually close:  they were so close that one day at tea their oldest daughter bitterly tells Penelope they ignored and neglected her.  Penelope dismisses her daughter’s complaint, but cannot stop grieving for Jamie.  She fills her day with visits to museums and parks, but they no longer mean anything to her.

They related to nothing, so, terrifyingly, she felt nothing.  Nothing revived her.  Staring at the stone emperors, she thought, “We are two stone people, face to face.”  In the past, she had loved the ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the tiny miracles of the jewelled watches and snuffboxes.  Now they shone up at her dully, dead in their glass coffins.  Neither did the compassion and depth of Rembrandt’s paintings at the Wallace Collection, revive her, although the spaciousness and cold elegance of the house itself eased her by enclosing her in its own mood of petrifaction.

The terror of feeling nothing:  in middle age this strikes as a warning.

But Penelope is not alone for long.  Shortly thereafter, she meets Pye Rumpelow at a launderette.  He owns a chain of launderettes and coffeehouses.   He came up from nothing, is brilliant, self-educated, and cultured.  Everything he touches is golden:  it is a joke that he cannot stop making money. And he finds Penelope the most golden treasure of all.

She likes him, but is terrified of his love.  Every feeling makes her feel unfaithful to Jamie.  But he shows her something new:  he takes her on a walk to see one of his favorite views.   In the middle of a bridge, they look at the Houses of Parliament, the dusky, melting river, and Big Ben.  When Big Ben chimes at 7, she has a new memory, he tells her.  He likes to remember the date and time.

As their friendship develops, he suggests she move to a new flat, away from the memories that so constrict her life.  And so she writes and offers her flat to a friend’s son,  Spencer Manley, a bookstore clerk who lives in Wales with his lovely wife, Nika, and their two children. They move to London  so he can start a publishing company with his friend Stefan, who has worked in publishing for years.

As you can imagine, things are not easy for Nika and the children.  Life in the country was idyllic: they had a garden and a pony. The boy Lewis is struggling at a tough school.  He hates London.  But Spencer no longer notices or cares much about his family; he works round the clock with  aggressive, ambitious Stefan, who is only just humanized by his lover, Bonny, a best-selling romance writer who has begun writing historical novels. Then  Pye becomes a partner, and  reins them in when they want to compromise their ethics.

As Penelope and Nika approach an emotional crisis in their love lives,  Penelope  feels she must get away.  She brings Nika with her on a Mediterranean cruise.

One of the things I love best about the book is the travel narrative, which is partly in the form of correspondence.

Nika, who doesn’t quite understand Spencer’s indifference to her, writes:

Spencer, darling,

I’m keeping a journal to show you when I get home.  It’s all so terribly exciting.  Venice was marvellous, but how I wish you had been with me!  We could have  taken a vaporetto and gone swishing down the Grand Canal to the Lido, where it was hot enough to bathe and not crowded….

Penelope, who is not sure what she really thinks or feels, writes to Pye:

Is it possible to come to Greece and remain unchanged?  In a queer way what you started, Greece is carrying on.  Here there is something painful and unavoidable in the very clarity of the air.  The sun strikes sparks from the sea as we cruise between these delicious islands, strikes sparks from the piled white houses, magnifies the details of the statues (so that even I can see them without my glasses); the honey-coloured columns of ruined temples…

I very much enjoyed this book, which is not entirely cozy:  there are a few dark turns along the way, and certainly things do not turn out perfectly.    I look forward to reading her collection of short stories, Tell It to a Stranger (Persephone).

President Obama Goes Shopping, Mad Shopping at Book Chains, & a Few Literary Links

PrPresident Barack Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha shopped at Upshur Street Books on Small Business Saturday.

President Obama and his daughters at Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C.

I love it when President Obama goes shopping on Small Business Saturday!  He always stops at a bookstore.   Today he and his daughters brought home the following from Upshur Street Books in Washington, D.C.

“Purity: A Novel” by Jonathan Franzen
“Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: A Novel” by Salman Rushdie
“Elske: A Novel of the Kingdom” by Cynthia Voigt
“On Fortune’s Wheel” by Cynthia Voigt
“Jackaroo: A Novel of the Kingdom” by Cynthia Voigt
“A Snicker of Magic” by Natalie Lloyd
“Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, Book 8” by Jeff Kinney
“Dork Diaries 1: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life” by Rachel Renée Russell

I don’t remember any other President going shopping for books every year.  He has his priorities straight.

David Mitchell slade_house2. MAD SHOPPING AT B&N.  The only independent bookstore in town is about the size of a handkerchief, so we checked out Barnes and Noble instead.

What did we like?  There is a new bookcase of signed copies of popular books. David Mitchell’s Slade House is a little gem, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a signed copy of this lovely yellow square hardcover with the cutout window?

The store was crowded, and we hope it’s doing well, because every town needs a bookstore.

3. THERE ARE GREAT DEALS AT AMAZON: 30% off any book through Dec. 1, with a maximum of $10 off.  It’s a good way to shop for those of us who live in the wilds!

Wise Blood flannery o'connor 41PFiW2R1VL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_4. I loved ISABELLA BIEDENHARN’S charming article,New Looks for Old Books:  Why Classics Are Getting Makeovers”(Entertainment Weekly).   She writes, “If familiar titles at the bookstore seem to be drawing the eye of your inner art lover more than usual lately, it’s not your imagination. Publishers are having a creative field day reissuing classic books with stunningly beautiful new covers—and lovely insides, too…”  One of the books pictured is this lovely new FSG edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.

5. ADULT COLORING BOOKS.  Francesca Wade at The Telegraph writes that this is the “hottest publishing trend.”   I haven’t had a coloring books since I was six and don’t feel the urge to color, but the books are lovely.

6. And, last but not least, “Christmas 2015: The 14 best translated fiction books,” at The Independent.

The Cat Collection, the British Library, & Wearing a Cat Sweatshirt in London

taintor crazy cat lady 36639_catladyI love cats.  I  am a crazy cat lady.  I have lived with cats for decades:  Chloe the wild Siamese, Grendel the laid-back black-and-white,  Miss Beethoven the explorer…the list goes on.  As a cat lady, I open cans of tuna, chat to them, and ensure the furniture is “cat-proof.”  I arrange tables and chairs where they can jump up and look out the window. I let them play in paper sacks.

Cats have distinctive  personalities.  Chloe was so wild she playfully batted my pens to stop me writing, ran up the curtains and hung there, and also once incredibly clawed her way across a fiberglass ceiling.  Miss Beethoven loved to explore bizarre unknown crawl spaces under the sink.  How many hours did we spend calling, “Miss Beethoven! Miss B!”  And then she would pop back out, and it turned out we needn’t have worried.

People give you cat stuff if you are a cat lady.  I have received many, many kitschy cat figurines, cat mugs, cat sweatshirts, a cat charm bracelet, and a cat fire screen.  Most of the cat collection is in the basement, but I do drink from cat mugs and like my wooden cat figures (which are seldom upright, because the cats like to knock them over).


You can’t have too many cat sweatshirts to wear in your freezing cold house in winter.  (Thanks, Mom!)

But a cat sweatshirt isn’t quite the thing in London.  It is like going out in your pajamas.

I’m pretty sure everybody at the British Library wore black the day I wore my cat sweatshirt. While I huddled at a table on the piazza  rereading Jane Eyre after seeing Charlotte Bronte’s “fair copy” in a glass case,  researchers indoors sat at tables in the halls staring at their computers.  What research, I wondered, could get them out of the hall and into the fantastic Reading Rooms?

Anyone can apply for a reader’s pass, though not everyone gets one.   I couldn’t think of any research I had to do.  If I wore my cat sweatshirt to apply for a reader’s pass,  I would probably have said,  “I am very interested in your, er, material on…cats.”

Cats, Kat?  Don’t you mean…Katherine?

Katherine Somebody…

Looking up Katherine at the British Library, I came up with Katherine by Anya Seton (a historical novel); “Katherine,” words and music by Osborne, Stuart James; or, this sounds promising, Katherine, notes from http://www.katherinetailoring.co.uk/ available only in our Reading Rooms.  But I went to the website and it just isn’t me.

My subject?  Oh, yeah, I do remember.  Classics…I taught it… .and to tell the truth I reread Book IV of The Aeneid in Latin recently.

How about a paper on Aeneas’s bad luck with women, or, more appropriately phrased:  “Aeneas and Women:  Relationships with Queens, Princesses, and Goddesses”? His mother is Venus, the goddess of love; but Juno, the queen of the gods, hates him.  He is unlucky with women:  he lost his first wife, Creusa, in the smoky chaos while escaping from burning Troy. Fortunately her ghost appeared and said it was all good.  Years later, he drove his lover Dido, the queen of Carthage, to suicide, and later in Italy, the middle-aged Queen Amata stirred up a war to prevent his marrying her daughter Lavinia.    Aeneas wasn’t a misogynist, but women had reason to hate him.  Was he a good husband to Lavinia?  One must read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia to find out.

Nice try, Kat, but this isn’t a British Library kind of thing, is it? They do have fragments of an illuminated manuscript of The Aeneid, but that won’t help.  You can do this at home.  You’d better go back to cats if you want to do research at the British Library!

P.S. I left my cat sweatshirt in London to make room for 15 paperbacks in my suitcase.

What I’ve Been Reading: Elizabeth Tallent’s Mendocino Fire & Katherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot

retro reading WomanReadingWriting about books isn’t easy.

I would rather read than write.

Couldn’t I just write: Five Stars, and be done with it?

No, because it would be a betrayal of my twentieth-century education in the humanities, which somehow transported me to the purple haze of a bewildering internet cloud…

And so I must tell you what I’ve been reading, a stunning new collection of short stories by  Elizabeth Tallent and a very light chick lit novel by Katherine Reay.

Mendocino Fire Tallent 510FkeTd9rL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_ELIZABETH TALLENT’S MENDOCINO FIRE.  Elizabeth Tallent’s short stories were published in The New Yorker in the 1980s and early ’90s.   Most were set in the Southwest, about quirky artists, dysfunctional families,  dropouts, or confused divorcees.   After the publication in 1993 of her collection of short stories, Honey, she mysteriously dropped out of sight.  I used to wonder what had happened.  Illness?  A change of editors at The New Yorker?  But after a while one forgets the writers who fall out of print.

Mendocino Fire, a collection of short stories, is Tallent’s first book in 20 years. These new wide-ranging stories are brilliant, honed, edgy, and lyrical, though they are now set mostly in California rather than the Southwest.:  she is a creative writing professor at Stanford.

Tallent depicts characters who live on the edge, who don’t belong. Some are academics, as we might expect, but others are working-class.   In the first story, “The Wrong Son,” the hero, Nate, harbors a bitter affection for his charismatic father, Shug, a stunningly handsome man whose beauty convinces his admirers of a depth of character that just isn’t there.    Nate has turned their ailing fishing boat into a  tourist sportfishing business, with Shug as a guide.  But Shug doesn’t care much for Nate:  he once told Nate’s friend Petey that Nate was “the wrong son.”  When Shug has a heart attack, Nate takes the boat in an illegal direction, and after his drunken friend, Petey, attacks a Vietnamese  abalone poacher, his father’s blame of Nate changes his life.

Tallent’s edgy outsiders also have complicated sex lives.  In “Eros 101,” written in the form of a Q and A interview, a Virginia Woolf scholar becomes obsessed with a beautiful assistant professor who may or may not get tenture.  In “Nobody You Know,” a divorced artist moves to Iowa after her husband leaves her for a younger pregnant woman:  when she returns to look over his new wife, it ends in a disturbing lesbian flirtation.  In “Narrator,” the narrator briefly leaves her husband for a famous writer she meets at a writers’ conference.  His overwhelming personality saps her own strength as a writer and she becomes ill with sexual jealousy and obsession.

Two stories deal with radical environmentalists.  In “Tabriz,” a famous environmentalist takes home a beautiful Oriental rug from the dump and then weirdly learns his new wife is a Republican.   Is the rug unlucky, or even polluted, as she claims?  In the title story, “Menocino Fire,” the smart daughter of a nomadic hippie grows up to be a radical environmentalist who spends months sitting in a tree she cannot save.

I have read so many exquisite collections of short stories this year.  Perhaps they fit our strange century better than the novel?

the bronte plot 511MXbMuTHL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Katherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot is a light novel–what used to be called chick lit.  Why did I read it?  Because of the title!  I can’t resist anything Bronte.

But it is entertaining, if very light: so light it is “lite!” The heroine, Lucy, is obsessed with the Brontes.  She sells rare books for an interior decorator who specializes in gorgeous antiques.  When her new boyfriend, James, discovers that she  forged inscriptions in an early edition of  Jane Eyre he bought for his grandmother and a copy of Kidnapped for his father, he breaks up with her. (Who can blame him?)   Lucy, the daughter of a con man,  had thought of the inscriptions as a harmless story, but she did know they  increased the value of the books.  And she begins to realize that her relationship with the father who left his family has blurred her relationship with the truth.

James’s grandmother, Helen, who is dying of cancer, inexplicably rescues Lucy.  She takes her on a trip to London as a consultant  to buy antiques, but also to right a wrong that involved a theft she cannot confess to her family.  By example, she teaches Lucy that cheating is wrong. I didn’t care much about the characters, but I enjoyed their trip to London:  museums, Bloomsbury, bookstores,  Jane Eyre at the British Library.  I’ve been there!  And then they go to Haworth!

Is it a good book?  No.  But Lucy and Helen both love the Brontes.  So do I.  Parts of it are very enjoyable.

Happy Thanksgiving! & How We Used to Spend It

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

I love Thanksgiving.  It is so quiet it is almost sacred, I swear.

The turkey is thawing and the pies are in the oven.  The tablecloth and napkins are ironed. And I have settled down to read a beautifully-written novel, Elizabeth Berridge’s Rose Under Glass (1961), the story of Penelope Hinton,  a widow in London, her  friendship with a launderette mogul, and a friend’s son who uproots his family from the country to start a publishing company with another ambitious young man.

Reading on Thanksgiving is a luxury, but it is the last peace before the Bacchic frenzy of Merry Capitalism begins. A few years ago I cried after we set up the  Christmas tree.  Very silly, but I dreaded the exchange of extravagant, meaningless presents: that year I didn’t bother to wrap the gifts.  And so we established a new tradition of going to a bookstore and each picking out one book.  It has been a relief for us.

Thanksgiving can be magically quiet, but it is not for everybody.  Somehow holidays are difficult for childless couples and other outsiders. We are not the stars of the Rockwell paintings; we are the peripheral aunts and uncles.  We may feel we have more in common with spinsters than mothers or grandmothers.  Perhaps I am Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe or Jane Austen’s Miss Bates, even though I am married.  And so we learn, like the designated superfluous women we are, to design our own holiday rites.

Our culture  has trouble integrating those who do not fit the ideal niches of family life.  It felt like this in the ’80s; it feels like this now, even though the number of childless women has increased since my youth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, in 2014, 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, up from 46.5 percent in 2012.  Another study says that only 6% of these women are childless by choice.  I wonder how many of us are ambivalent.

Nonetheless, we have had happy Thanksgivings.  The history of the Baby Boomers’ Thanksgivings might look a lot like ours.

The 1960s:  prime time for the nuclear family.  My mother never learned to cook, so my grandmother did all the holiday cooking:   turkey, stuffing, ham, three kinds of potatoes, three-bean salad, homemade noodles and rolls, Jell-O, dressing, cookies and pies.  She phoned us when it was ready.  We piled into the car and drive the mile to her house, though we could have walked. So quaint! Close families were literally close!   The men watched football, the women talked and babysat.  Everybody took home leftovers.  Most of us have since scattered to different parts of the country, so this holiday cannot be duplicated.

The early 1970s:  The nuclear family broke up.  At least mine did. So did millions of others. And so one was expected to attend two Thanksgiving dinners:  one with Mom and one with Dad.    One year I dutifully ate turkey in a tiny hick town with my dad, his new wife, and his new stepchildren.  What I remember most vividly:  a boy drove a tractor past the house over and over to signal his love for one of the girls.  OH MY GOD IT WAS SO EMBARRASSING, I COULDN’T WAIT TO GET OUT OF THERE.

The late 1970s: We were students.  One year my boyfriend (now husband) and I cooked turkey legs in the kitchen of the house where I rented a room and then went out for  pie.   Another year we ate with fellow grad students at a Thanksgiving Buffet in the faculty dining room of the Student Union.

The 1980s:  Doing good.   We volunteered at a church’s free Thanksgiving dinner.  What we learned:  people are desperate, poor, mentally ill, and homeless, and the services and shelters are inadequate.  The churches have too many volunteers on holidays and too few the rest of the year.  (And we learned we are better at giving money than mashing potatoes.)

The 1990s:  Physical fitness.   You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a jogger.  I ran a 10K or two.   The year I ran the Turkey Trot half-marathon, I got sick.  My husband, a runner, also puked.  He said it was part of athleticism.   Not for me, thank you!

The millennium: A geographical shift. We moved back to the Midwest and spent Thanksgiving with parents, aunts, and cousins, who taught me how to order meals from Harry & David or the Hy-Vee!  My husband sentimentally thinks my home-cooked meal is better.  It is not.

The Twentytens:  I MISS MY MOM, who died in 2013.   Our traditional holiday celebrations have ceased with her death.  That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our turkey dinner with cousins or friends.  We can and do.  But my mother’s generation created our first Thanksgivings.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Gogol’s Dead Souls

dead souls gogol vintage 51JIBDUkuvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Gogol is one of my favorite Russian writers.  I love his wit and grotesquerie.

And so I have been trying to find a copy of Narezhnyi’s 1814 novel, A Russian Gil Blas, a little-known predecessor of Dead Souls. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation.

But it doesn’t really matter, because we have Gogol’s absurd tales and his unfinished masterpiece, Dead Souls.

In Gogol’s satiric novel, Dead Souls, the wily hero, Chichikov, has a mission: he travels through the  provinces to buy dead souls, i.e., dead serfs  who have not yet been struck from the tax rolls.  Since the serfs are not officially dead, he can mortgage them or otherwise exploit them for money.  Chichikov, a former government official, believes he can deceive the corrupt government officials, though he himself was fired for corruption and instituting a system of accepting bribes.  When he arrives in the town of N., his obsequiousness to the government officials is hysterically funny.

In conversation with these potentates, he managed very artfully to flatter each of them.  To the governor he hinted, somehow in passing, that one drove into his province as into paradise, that the roads everywhere were like velvet, and that governments which appointed wise dignitaries were worthy of great praise.  To the police chief he said something very flattering about the town sentries…

dead souls gogol everyman 19108Chichilov also flatters the confused landowners from whom he buys dead souls.  Is he joking, wonders Manilov, a sweet but idiotic landowner married to an equally sweet but dim wife. In the end, he sells them out of friendship.   Natasya Petrovna Korobochka believes in ghosts but eventually agrees to sell. Later she goes to town because she worries she has been cheated on the prices, and causes an uproar.   Sobakevich tries to increase the value by giving Chichikov detailed histories of each:   the carriage-maker built carriages “complete with springs,” the carpenter was seven feet hall, and the bricklayer could build a stove in “almost any house!”  There is a riotously funny scene in which Chichikov gloats over his lists and creates still more details about the lives of the dead serfs.  But then he notices that Sobakevich slipped in a woman serf (worthless) and is indignant.

Chichikov’s dead souls scheme is so preposterous that we have to laugh, but the plot was taken from real life.   His Uncle Pivinsky, a vodka distiller, exchanged vodka for fifty dead peasants after he was told he needed fifty souls to continue distilling vodka.

But the comedy goes deeper than that.  Early Russian critics read the novel as a realistic portrait of  Russian types and traditional Russian life, while radicals thought it attacked the ruling classes and government bureaucracy . In the introduction to the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear rejects Gogol’s alleged “realism”; instead, he talks about “inverted realism”.  Vladimir Nabokov in  Lectures on Russian Literature also debunked political and moral interpretations.  He says,

But when the legendary… Chichikov is considered as he ought to be, i.e., as a creature of Gogol’s special brand moving in a special kind of Gogolian coil, the abstract notion of swindling in this serf-pawning business takes on strange flesh and begins to mean much more than it did when we considered it in the light of social conditions peculiar to Russia a hundred years ago.  The dead souls he is buying are not merely names on a slip of paper.  They are the dead souls that fill the air of Gogol’s world with their leathery flutter, the clumsy animula of Manilov or Korobochka, of the housewives of the town of N., of countless other little people bobbing through the book.  Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representative of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades.

In 1841, Gogol had trouble getting the first volume of Dead Souls past the censors.  The title offended them:  they thought he was saying the soul was not immortal, and when they learned it referred to serfs, they thought he was condemning serfdom.  And so the title was changed to Chichikov’s Adventures.  Published in  1842, it established him as a great Russian writer, the first (or one of the first) who was not using European models for his work.   He spent the next 10 years struggling to write  the second and third volumes.  And he grandiosely believed the novel as a whole would save Russia, because Chichikov would reform.  But before his death, he burned the manuscript.  The second volume was composed from fragments and published in 1852.  I very much enjoyed it:  Chichikov finally goes to jail.  But does he reform?  I didn’t see it!  Poor Gogol either burned a good manuscript or didn’t finish. (The latter!)

Even if you don’t know much about nineteenth-century Russia, Dead Souls will make you laugh.  Gogol’s characters are hysterically funny, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and even the digressions are meaningful and necessary to the text.    And Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation is magnificent.  Is there such a thing as a bad translation of Dead Souls?

Hostess for the Holiday: You’re Gonna Need Somethin’ to Read!

faith bladwin skyscraper-400x400-imadgv59ac7hqgpm

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. If you’re lucky, you persuade your husband to splurge on a big organic turkey, you make your side dishes in advance, and you sign up all your relatives to volunteer at the Free Thanksgiving Dinner at your church. (They will eat your dinner later.)   Now you can read in the kitchen while you occasionally baste the turkey or stir something on the stove.

But a hostess’s books are the trick for surviving even a quiet holiday. Depending on the hectic-0-meter of the holiday, the hostess will need to dive into  (1) the Dumpster of Trash Reads, (2) the Sanctuary of the  Middlebrow Novel or (3)  a Critically-Acclaimed Possible-Classic to  impress OCD parents who denied you the Nancy Drew books.

skyscraper faith baldwin 51REOFxE9aL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_CATEGORY ONE:  TRASHY BUT FUN.  If your sister’s dog eats your favorite sweater, there is no question. You need trash.

On my Trash TBR Pile:

Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (the Feminist Press:  Femmes Fatales Women Write Pulp).    Wow, does this ever look trashy!  Trashy in a good way.  Published in 1931, it is the story of a career woman, Lynn Harding, a doctor’s daughter who drops out of college because her father can no longer afford the tuition. She moves to  New York City and  loves her office job in a skyscraper, but her boss says she’ll fire anyone who has a working husband.  Laura Hapke writes in the Afterword:  “Beyond the saga of Lynn’s love affairs, what matters is that she can support herself.  In that, she is representative of the one-quarter of women who worked as wage earners, many the sole supports of their families.  Also fairly typical for the time is that Lynn, as the fiancée of a low-level financial analyst, risks losing her job.”

How can you resist dialogue like

“Sure, I mean it.  Personally I’d respect her more if she was paying for whatever influence this bird may have, instead of taking it and giving him a lot of hope that doesn’t mean a damn.  I like to pay on the nail.”

The writing is not what I’d call good, but historically it gives you an idea of the kind of office romance that was published in the Depression.

CATEGORY TWO:  MIDDLEBROW AND FUN.   Sometimes we don’t want to read anything too deep because of the constant interruptions on the holiday.


du maurier scapegoat 41Q7b24xscL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat.  Du Maurier is best known for Rebecca, her Gothic classic, but in recent years feminists  have revived interest in her other books.  The others are solidly middlebrow, in my opinion, but they are entertaining.  The jacket copy of my University of Pennsylvania edition  says, “Two men–one English, the other French–meet by chance in a provincial railroad station and are astonished that they are so much alike that they could easily pass for each other.”  They drink together, and the  next day John wakes up and finds the Frenchman has stolen his identity,.  He takes the Frenchman’s place at the chateau and…. solves the mystery, I imagine!

d. e. stevenson listening valley 51LQWyl4uuL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_D. E. Stevenson’s Listening Valley.  I love D. E. Stevenson’s gentle comedies and romances.  According to the jacket copy on the Sourcebooks paperback, the heroine Tonia moves to London from Scotland at the  beginning of World War II, but a tragedy sends her home to Scotland.  This novel was published in 1944, and  reflects the horrors of war, as well as Tonia’s interrupted romance.

CATEGORY THREE:  CRITICALLY-ACCLAIMED POSSIBLE CLASSICS.  If you have no anxiety about the day or have some quiet time, you can read something more demanding.


some luck f_smiley_someluckJane Smiley’s Some Luck.  The first in a trilogy, this novel covers three decades in the life of an Iowa family, from 1920 to the 1950s.  The trilogy has been well-reviewed, and all three of the books have been published this year.  Perhaps now’s the time to read it.

Delany dhalgren_coverSamuel R. Delany’s DhalgrenThis post-modern SF classic is experimental, disturbing, and difficult.  Set in Bellona, a strange city that has survived an unspecified catastrophe, Dhalgren is the story of Kid, a poet hero who does not remember his name,  and who wears only one sandal. All kinds of people live there:  hippies who share what they have,a  middle-class family trying to hold on to a middle-class life in a skyscraper now  inhabited by squatters, a wealthy man who still occupies a mansion, and gangs of thugs .

William Gibson in the foreword writes,

…[it] is a prose-city, a labyrinth, a vast construct the reader learns to enter by any one of a multiplicity of doors.  Once established in memory, it comes to have the feel of a climate, a season….It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.

All right!  It’s very, very good.  And I do need to finish it.

I hope your holiday reading will be as good as mine!

My Russian Lit 101 Office!

Russian 101 Office (My Bed!)

                      The Russian Lit Office:  My Bed!

My Russian lit office is set up for the winter.  Actually, it’s my  bed.

We had our first snowfall today, so I retired to my warm bed to read a Russian novel. The wintry scenes in Russian novels brace me to endure the cold. I picture myself as Natasha in War and Peace, mischievously dressed up as a Hussar, riding in a sleigh at Christmas with the mummers;  Chichikov in Dead Souls, driving through the provinces in a “rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors”; or Eugene Onegin (in the Mitchell translation) dealing with winter ennui under his lonely roof because:

What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.

Here’s how Russian lit-crazy I go in winter:  this week I’ve reread  three Russian novels, Gogol’s Dead Souls and two by Turgenev, The Home of the Gentry and  First Love.

And I recently found an old college notebook (that tatty green thing in the snapshot above) with my notes for a class in Russian Literature in Translation.  My sketchy  notes are strangely touching–I do like myself as  a young woman discovering Russian literature–and  have also inspired me to go back to the nineteenth century.

fathers and sons turgenev 51FN7Uw7+BL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_We spent a lot of time reading Turgenev. I am very fond of Turgenev.  I recently reread Fathers and Sons.  Turgenev brilliantly personifies the split between humanism and nihilism as a generational conflict.  The hero, Bazarov,  is a nihilist, a recent science graduate who dissects frogs and despises art and literature.  On a  visit to the country home of his nihilist friend  Arkady, Bazarov clashes with Arkady’s uncle and patronizes Arkady’s  father, both humanists.  Bazarov’s father and mother cannot understand his views.  And he comes to a tragic end.  Some of my notes on Turgenev are quite interesting, but I am most impressed by  scribbled questions (perhaps to consider for an essay? Or  class discussion?  God only knows.):

  • Is the novel really about generational split?
  • the use of philosophy and political discussions
  • Integration of love affairs
  • which characters truly similar and dissimilar
  • In what respects is Bazarov a positive hero?
  • Is Bazarov a victim or suicide?

By Dec. 3, near the end of the semester, my notes were mere hieroglyphs.   They reflect a bullet-list undergraduate ennui:

  • Dostoevsky spokesman for conservatives:  THE Christian writer, but also convincingly presents views of radicals.  Polit left to polit right, possibly because of experiences in prison.
  • Question of existence or non-existence of God.
  • intellectual and moral honesty in novels.
  • religion helped him endure his hard life.
  • Belinsky thought D’s works should do for Russia what Dickens did for England.

Could I possibly have elaborated on those topics! What was I thinking?   I can only hope I read the introductions to my Dostovesky books!

To supplement my erratic  notes, I got out Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature.   He did not like Dostoevsky, who was never one of my favorites.

My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one.  In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.  From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.

And here I thought it was just the translations.  Well, perhaps I’ll try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations.  Or perhaps I’ll skip the rereading of Dostoevsky.

The Fairy Godmother of Books & The Year of Sex in Literature (A Spoof!)

Pile-of-BooksEvery blogger wants to be the Fairy Godmother of Books.

Bloggers love to share their love of books.  I understand that.

What I don’t understand is the yearning to direct the reading of other bloggers in a chain of endless Readalongs and Challenges.

What I call “Bossy Blogger Disorder” dominates the net these days. Bloggers used to have group reads. One book, one discussion.  Nowadays as the canon grows looser (excuse the pun),  trendy “challenges/readalongs” are organized around a genre, category, or publisher.  A blogger designates himself or herself the leader and (hypothetically) declares it Japanese Literature Month. He/she suggests everyone should read a Japanese book:  any Japanese book! The question is: can a group of bloggers really bond over different Japanese books from  different centuries (and read in translation)?  One blogger might post about Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, another about Hiruki Murakami’s 1Q84.   Is there a link between the 11th-century classic and the 21st-century science fiction classic?  No.  Not unless a Japanese literature professor volunteers to spend months teaching us the history of Japanese literature.

Blogging is the homespun flip side of literary criticism.  We’re not James Wood:  we’re gals from the Midwest, the rural South, and Alaska. Most of us are doing our own thing

In recent months, we have survived Virago Month, Persephone Month  Women in Translation Month, R.I.P. Challenge, Witch Week, and the 1924 Club.

And now we are in the middle of German Literature Month.

My husband and I were chatting about this.  We are both foreign language junkies. We are of a generation that read widely in the canon and studied literature in foreign languages. And so all hail German Literature Month!  But here’s the thing.  We have read  the books the German Literature bloggers are posting about!  And so I’m thinking: these Challenges are a generational thing?

lady chatterley's lover chatterley2Do they have meaning for a generation whose canon has become non-canonical?

It is probably an internet phenomenon.  We’re all alone on our phones, and this is how we connect thee days (not closely).

Anyway, I couldn’t resist creating a Spoof challenge.

My cousin the librarian and I together have “come up” (sorry!) with the risque Sex in Literature Spoof Challenge! We challenge you to have sex!  Err, I mean, we challenge you to read about sex!

You get triple points for every menage a trois and twenty-four for an  orgy!

Choose from this list.

  • Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying
  • D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
  • The Kama Sutra
  • The Joy of Sex
  • Doris Lessing’s Landlocked
  • Elizabeth Tallent’s Mendocino Fire
  • Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
  • Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus & Little Birds
  • Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series
  • Nicholson Baker’s Vox
  • John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • Aristophanes’ Lysistrata
  • Angela Carter’s The Passion of the New Eve
  • Petronius’s Satyrica

Read ten.  Then add ten more books to the list.

Send the list to ten people.

And you win a free book if you get ten people to read ten!

It’s  a spoof!  It’s a chain letter!

I couldn’t resist.

The 200th Anniversary Penguin Deluxe Classics Edition of Jane Austen’s Emma & a Few Others

The cover of my edition fell apart long ago!

My old Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago, alas!

The summer before ninth grade, I toted a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen everywhere. It weighed a ton, but fit in my basket purse.   I read Sense and Sensibility on the steps of MacBride Hall on the Pentacrest in Iowa City, Pride and Prejudice at The Mill, where you could sit for hours over a Diet Coke, and Northanger Abbey after everyone else fell asleep at a slumber party.  One friend’s mother, a Smith alumna,  said “You’re gonna love it.”  I did love it, though at that age I  didn’t differentiate between Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Goudge.

jane austen Cover_EmmaFast forward to college and  Emma was the funniest book I’d ever read. I have read Emma many, many times, and my Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago.  And so I could not resist the new 200th Anniversary Annotated Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Emma. This handsome orange paperback has a cover design that blends the contemporary with traditional illustrations.  (The figures of 19th-century-style men and women are cleverly displayed inside the figure of the heroine, Emma.)  The colors remind me of Klimt’s painting, The Kiss.  And the high-quality paper makes this an excellent reading experience.

Klimt's "The Kiss"

Klimt’s “The Kiss”

This is an edition for the common reader, says Juliet Wells, the editor.  It has an excellent introduction, notes, maps, illustrations from early editions, and contextual essays on dancing, food, health, love etc.

Juliet Wells explains,

It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one.  In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates.  In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.

This is perfect for the common reader: I love reading this well-made paperback.   If you need something more scholarly, the Norton edition includes critical essays as well as basic background.  And I have a copy of The Annotated Emma, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard (Anchor Books).  (I use that for notes rather than reading, though.  I find it distracting to have the long notes on the sides of the pages of text.)

annotated emma shepard 51Vz1rBtWgL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Surprisingly, Emma is controversial.  Readers argue over whether this brilliant comedy is an essentially  conservative novel, reinforcing the values of a classist society, or a satire.  It is both, I think. Not all online Janeites chortle over Emma’s wicked wit, ridiculous misunderstandings, and boredom with the very talented, musical, but prim Jane Fairfax, a young woman she very much dislikes. Some criticize her outrageous observations (who hasn’t had them?) and a strong will they mistake for selfishness.  They overlook Emma’s kindness to her valetudinarian father, the card parties she arranges for him, her devotion to her nephews and nieces, and charity to the poor.   She is the most hated (the only hated?) Austen heroine!

I love Emma.   At the beginning of the novel, after her ex-governess’s wedding to a country squire, she tells Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law, that she  made the match four years ago.  She says she intends to make more matches.  Knightley is characteristically grim in response to her liveliness, and her hypochondriac father discourages her:  he pities “poor Miss Taylor” for marrying and moving half a mile away.  But Emma continues to tease them:

“I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people.  It is the greatest amusement in the world!  And after such success, you know!–everybody said that Mr. Weston would never marry again.

Emma is half-serious about match-making.  She fantasizes that her new friend Harriet, an orphan awho is the “natural” daughter of no-one-knows-whom, is of gentle birth, and needs a gentleman husband.   The new clergyman Mr. Elton would be an appropriate match, she thinks.  Unfortunately, Emma does not understand men. She misreads Mr. Elton’s sexual signals:  she is horrified when she discovers he is courting her, not Harriet.  Eventually Emma realizes her all-too-human mistakes:  she has hurt feelings without intending to; she has encouraged Harriet to aspire too high  (shame, shame!); and she has not found a husband for herself.  Finally Emma gets Knightley:  of course I loved him as the logical mate when I was very young, but he  is 14 years older and so controlling and critical:  will the strong Emma prevail?

In The Annotated Emma (Anchor Books,) Shapard describes Emma as Austen’s “most flawed heroine.”  He says Emma drives the plot more than any of the heroines of  Austen’s other novels.  And he points out her good points.

A significant reason for Emma’s greater ability to drive the plot is that the other Austen heroines are all in a state of dependence, inhabiting households run by others an dsubjec to tothers’ wills.  furthermore, they all suffere because of people around them sho scorn or neglect or mistreat them in some way.  Emma, while severely restricted geographically by her need to care constantly for her father, is mistress of all she surveys (within her limited field).  She is completely in charge of her household and able to guide her fatehre, restrained only by her own concern for him, in those areas where he retains nominal leadership.  She is also in a supreme  position socially.

I love Emma’s strength, though I am concerned about her future as a wife.

the watefall margaret drabble 6574486-MMargaret Drabble’s narrator, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall, also particularly dislikes Knightley.

How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.

I do know exactly what she means about Knightley.

But if this is not a happy ending, what is?  Clearly Austen thinks it is happy.