Can This Little Free Library Be Saved?

imageCan this Little Free Library be saved?

It’s so-o-o-o cute. Why does it need saving?

Because the book selection is  awful!

imageI love pop culture. I read mysteries and watch sitcoms.   But why go to the trouble of putting a Little Free Library bookcase-on-a-stick in your front yard if the best you can offer is Carl Hiassen, Jonathan Kellerman, or V. C. Andrews?

So this is what people read, we say as we inspect the LFLs we so admired when they started.

The populist LFL trend began in 2009 in Hudson, Wisconsin.  Todd Bol built a small bookcase in the shape of a one-room schoolhouse and stuck it in his yard with a sign saying “Free Book Exchange.” People loved it and built their own and there are, according to the LFL website, as of January 2016,  36,000 Little Free Libraries registered in the U.S. and in 40 other countries.


A very nice LFL!

But is it really a movement?  No, it’s one of those things people put in their yard and forget about. But why not use it to raise the level of reading?  Book clubs,  literacy organizations, and political discussion groups could sponsor LFLs.  Liberal hipsters formed co-ops and groups in the ’60s and ’70s to discuss and promote collective knowledge: our non-physical LFLs contained Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest books, Thoreau’s Walden, The Diaries of Anais Nin, Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Population Bomb, Brecht,  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sexual Politics, books on Dadaism, and Dune.   Today, everybody has a voice and a Facebook page (she says, while blogging), but the internet absurdly has promoted the concept that all literature is equal.  When Jackie Collins died, our library had a display of her books.  The Library of Congress classifies Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as fantasy and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries as a mystery.  (That’s where you’ll find them at our public library.)  The few remaining newspaper book pages pander to the masses with interviews with Danielle Steel and reviews of rock memoirs. And by the way, rock memoirs are ghosted, are they not, so why review them? The few I’ve skimmed set the bar for bad writing.

In a stunning article in The Millions, “The Open Refrigerator,” Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday, discusses the changes in the now corporate culture of publishing.  He writes about the history of the publication and decline of sales of Thomas Mann’s books in the U.S.

Sadly, The Magic Mountain, once a fixture of every middlebrow household’s bookshelf, has fallen off sharply in its sales and cultural currency, as has the rest of Mann’s oeuvre.  He and it are too forbidding, demanding, and German for contemporary tastes.

It’s true.  Foreign language departments are closing, the LFLS display bad books, God knows what Book Page editors are up to these days…

If I’m sounding like Carrie Matheson in Homeland, it’s because I just watched Season 4 on DVD!

To be honest, the LFLs do not do a brisk job in moving books, so why do I care?

A Posthumous Novel: The Theoretical Foot by MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher

MFK Fisher

I love MFK Fisher’s elegant essays on food and travel, collected in books with unforgettable titles like How to Cook a Wolf and The Gastronomical Me.

But it is her posthumous novel, The Theoretical Foot, just published by Counterpoint,  that has taken my breath away.

Written in 1939, this gracefully-written autobiographical novel was not published in her lifetime due to family objections.  The typescript was found in a box after Fisher’s agent Robert Lescher died in 2012.

It closely mirrors the events of the pre-war summer of 1938, when Fisher and her second husband, the illustrator Dillwyn Parrish,  entertained friends and relatives,  including Dillwyn’s sister Anne Parrish, a best-selling writer, and her friend Mary, on a farm in Switzerland. In September, Dillwyn suffered excruciating pains in his leg and was diagnosed with Buerger’s disease, culminating in the amputation of his leg two weeks later. In Switzerland they were able to procure a pain killer, but back in California, they could not afford it, even with Anne’s financial help.

theoretical foot fisher 9781619026148_custom-2aaf5d2ec2d14770370b73e75657332909770852-s400-c85Though scenes of shattering illness are interwoven with the narrative, The Theoretical Foot is for the most part a house party  novel.  Set in Switzerland on a farm called Le Prairie in 1938, it revolves around  Sara Porter, the beautiful, charming American hostess, always cooking delectable food.  Sara and her lover, Tim Garton, who are separated from their spouses and unable to marry yet, have a kind of magical attraction for their guests.  Only one of the guests, Lucy, an artist with a closeted lesbian crush on Tim’s sister, Nan, strongly disapproves of the unmarried couple living together.  But their shimmering love has nothing to do with marriage, in the eyes of the others.

Although Sara is at the center, we see her only through others’ observations.  The novel alternates the points of view of the other characters. Joe, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, is half in love with Sara, but hopes she will help him break up with his American girlfriend, Susan, with whom he has been hitchhiking in Europe.  Tiny, pretty Susan, a student at an American university, is afraid of Sara.

She was wondering as she went along how this woman managed to scare her so thoroughly.  The several times she’d seen Sara before, in America, she’d been quiet and kind and–in her own detached way–seemed honestly interested in what Susan was doing and what and where she was studying.  Sue and Joe had gone to her house twice for dinner and had eaten and drunk and talked well into the night; rather, Joe had.  Sue still remembered the agonies of her own shyness that had almost conquered her before each visit and the awkwardness that conspired to make her clumsily drop glasses and trip over rugs and stutter as she never had since grammar school.

Very soon, Susan, too, wants to confide about her worries about Joe.

Sara’s siblings, Honor, who is in love with a Jewish man who is probably incarcerated in a concentration camp in Germany, and Daniel, a student madly in love with the much older Nan , are drawn to Sara and want her approval, but her perfect confidence, beauty, and seductiveness annoy them. They are inhibited by her.

Fisher’s novel is interspersed with sections in italics that tell a different story.  They describe a man in a hospital suffering from pain in his leg, and then phantom pain after the amputation in his “theoretical foot.” They also describe the suffering of his wife.

Fisher’s sister-in-law, the writer Anne Parrish, objected to the book’s publication, because characters and situation were barely disguised.  I think it is a great pity this was not published at the time,  but it certainly is not a flattering portrait of Anne Parrish’s friend Mary.  Anne wrote in a letter that if Fisher ever decided to publish it, it should be under a pseudonym.  “Not for my sake, not even for Mary’s…but to spare you and Dillwyn embarrassment.”

in 1941 Dillwyn committed suicide. After that, Fisher seems to have forgotten about the novel.

What a magnificent book!  There are occasional awkward bits at the beginning, but it is a small classic.

This will be one of my favorite books of 2016.

Quotation of the Week: Angela Thirkell on the Greeks

August Folly angela thirkell 21219550It’s a new segment:  Quotation of the Week!

Why?  Because it’s easier to post a quote than actually write about a book.

I just reread Angela Thirkell’s hilarious novel, August Folly, a hectic comedy in which a bossy village matriarch is directing a summer production of Hippolytus in her barn.  Mrs. Palmer corrals friends, neighbors, relatives, servants, and station-masters to act, sew costumes, and train the chorus. I burst out laughing when her neighbor Mr. Tebben learns that, thank God, he will not have to play Theseus.  Here is his quirky response.

“I am relieved to hear about Theseus.  Nothing would have induced me to act, but I had no wish to argue with Mrs. Palmer.  Greek plays!  I have always felt that the Greeks were easily amused.  A stone seat under a burning sun, with a bitter wind that so often accompanies it, four or five people in preposterous boots and masks, plays with whose plots everyone had been familiar with from childhood, and there they would sit for days and days.  Now the Vikings…”

Very, very funny.

An Interview With Sarah Vincent, Author of The Testament of Vida Tremayne

Sarah Vincent

     Sarah Vincent

Sarah Vincent, the author of the compelling novel, The Testament of Vida Tremayne, has kindly agreed to an interview here. I became hooked on her gracefully-written book while browsing at Amazon!

First, a few words about the book.

It centers on the relationship between Vida, a blocked writer, and her resentful daughter Dory, a real estate agent.  But the twist is the intrusion of a charming fan, Rhiannon, who has insinuated herself into Vida’s life.  After Dory finds Vida collapsed in the kitchen unable to speak, her mother is hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder. Dory realizes she must stay for a while at her mother’s country house, named “The Gingerbread House” after the title of Vida’s  first novel.   She is startled to meet  Rhiannon,  a stranger who seems to have moved in.  What is the relationship between the women? But Rhiannon, who identifies herself as a creative counselor, seems so sympathetic.  Told partly in the form of Vida’s journal and partly in a third-person narrative from Dory’s point of view, this psychological thriller is a riveting read.

The Interview

Mirabile Dictu: What inspired you to conceive of such a sinister situation and unusual triangle of characters?

Sarah Vincent:  Firstly, thank you for the kind words, and for having me on your blog, Kat, it’s an honour to be in such fine company.

I wish I could say I had a blinding flash of inspiration while ironing the tea towels or walking the dog. I envy those writers who find the plot and characters arrive all neatly packaged in their heads. It doesn’t work like that for me. And I hate the idea of too much pre-planning with charts and so on. For me, it’s more a case of setting out to sea without a compass. I never know what I want to write until I’ve written it.

This novel evolved slowly. I work as an editor, so it had to be fitted in between clients, scribbled in fragments. I had no idea of how those fragments would fit together. All I knew was that I wanted to explore the creative process. Where does it come from? Does it falter, dry up with the menopause? The mother-daughter relationship is also a theme I keep returning to in my short fiction.

Originally I just had the two main characters, mother and daughter, Vida and Dory. Somewhere along the line, Rhiannon turned up. It was as if she’d just invited herself into the story. Rhiannon is clearly an archetype. She surfaced from my unconscious as I wrote, and then it seemed she’d always been there. The same thing happened with the creature, who pads through the pages, although I’d better not give too much away here.

The Testament of Vida Tremayne by Sarah Vincent 23583770Mirabile Dictu:  Was it difficult to alternate voices and create this complicated structure?

Sarah Vincent:  Again, while it does appear quite complex, the structure came about mainly by accident. It was tricky getting the dates right in the final edits! That said, the alternate voices felt natural. It can get a little dull writing from a single perspective, so the dual narrative suits me. Vida is dreamy and introspective, so it was good to offset that with Dory’s acerbic, worldlier voice.

Mirabile Dictu:  Did any writers influence you in the writing of The Testament of Vida Tremayne?

Sarah Vincent:  In a word, no. Not for this novel anyway. Countless writers have influenced me over the years, but perhaps more in terms of style or approach than in subject matter.

Mirabile Dictu:  Would you tell us about your other books and writing under two names?

Sarah Vincent:  My short stories and the Y/A trilogy are all published under my own name, Susan Davis. The short fiction has been widely published in anthologies and magazines, and been short-listed for awards including the Asham. Some stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. I love this form, because it allows more artistic freedom than a novel. It’s strange how the stories seem to divide into two distinct types: there are the socially realistic stories and the supernatural or magic-realist ones. The latter will be coming out shortly in a new collection. ‘The Gingerbread Wife’, picks up on Vida’s novel within the novel of ‘The Gingerbread House.’ It should be published this April.

The Y/A trilogy was published by Random House back in the early noughties: The Henry Game, Delilah and the Dark Stuff, and Mad, Bad and Totally Dangerous. That was a magical period. They were huge fun to write and practically wrote themselves. Wish I could pull off that trick more often!

That said, writing adult fiction is my preference. When I discovered I’d written a psychological thriller, I needed a pseudonym. Sarah Vincent now feels more ‘me’ than Susan does.

Mirabile Dictu: What are you reading now and who are your favorite authors?

Sarah Vincent:  Oh dear – how long have we got? I love unreliable narrators, and Jane Harris’s ‘Gillespie and I’ is one of my top ten favourites. Sarah Waters rarely disappoints, especially when she ventures into the supernatural. ‘The Little Stranger’ is impeccable, so much more than just another ghost story, it explores consciousness itself. Then there are writers like the late Elizabeth Taylor who was a genius. She wrote the kind of exquisite prose that makes other writers sigh. ‘Angel’ her classic about the writer Marie Corelli is a favourite, as is ‘Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont.’ I also love Barbara Comyns: a quirky original voice with a touch of magic. My favourite of hers would have to be ‘The Vet’s Daughter.’ I’ve definitely got a leaning towards gothic. I’ve just finished ‘The Loney’ by Andrew Michael Hurley. It’s that rare thing, a truly beautiful literary page-turner. Finally, I can’t leave out the obvious suspects: Angela Carter, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood, Nabokov, Alice Monro…I could go on.

Generally, I look out for something a little different in my reading, the kind of books that are hard to categorize like Scarlett Thomas’s brilliant, ‘The End of Mr.Y.’

I’d better stop there! Thank you for having me, Kat.

Mirabile Dictu:  Thank you so much for the interview!  I look forward to reading “The Gingerbread House.”

Sarah lives in the South Shropshire countryside with her husband and her Jack Russell terrier, Beryl. She writes in a converted coal shed at the back of the house.  You can read more about her at her website:

And I posted about The Testament of Vida Tremayne here.

I’d Rather Stay at the Fishing Lodge: Camping vs. Camping Lit

Reel Livin' Lodge-644x422

A fishing lodge in  Wisconsin

Somewhere on the planet is a couple who want to take a vacation.  That is, the same vacation.

The rest of us flunked the one-question travel compatibility test: “Do you prefer to spend your vacation  (a) on a primitive camping trip, or (b) in a luxury hotel on an island?

If this were the 1950s and I were Jean Kerr, I’d write columns for women’s magazines about the challenges of outdoorsy vacations. My spouse relishes 100-mile bicycle rides, long walks on muddy forest trails that suck the shoes right off our feet, and heating up a can of Dinty Moore stew on a one-burner Primus stove before retiring to the tent. Meanwhile, I lobby for a cabin or a lodge with an en suite bathroom.  As the years go by, you realize that sleeping under a roof makes all the difference.

And so  I wonder what other couples do.  I am always fascinated when I hear President Obama and Michelle are spending a weekend at Camp David, because I am assured of the fact they are not literally camping. Barack does not turn to Michelle and say, “Let’s pitch a tent!”  Michelle does not turn to Barack and say, “Can we take that moosehead off the wall?”  And, trust me, all lodges have animal heads on the walls.

We have, apparently, camped in Iowa, Michigan, Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. I can’t verify this, because the camp sites are so similar.  Massive deer flies swarm as you walk from the campsite to the shower.  You can only read two pages of your book before a herd of mosquitoes drives you into the tent.  Shivering in front of a waterfall, I have remarked, “I adore Ontario!,” only to find I am at Letchworth State Park in New York.  If you’re getting ready to sleep under the stars this summer, and I fear you are, here are some fine books to prepare you for what lies ahead.

1. We Took to the Woods by Louise Rich.  In this delightful memoir (1942), Rich wittily describes her family’s life in a rustic fishing camp in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s.  She and her husband, both writers, left the city for a simpler life in the woods, and, with their son Rufus, befriend lumberjacks and laugh at tourists.  Okay, the life would be far too “simple” for me, but if you don’t mind chopping wood, gardening, snowshoeing, and training huskies to pull a dog sled, you’re in.  I loved this book!

we took to the woods rich il_fullxfull.457237985_k3ls2. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  In Faulkner’s poor-white-trash camping  tour de force, Addie Bundred is still breathing when her son noisily builds the coffin right outside her window.  After her death, they embark with her unembalmed corpse  on a nine-day wagon trip to Jefferson, where she wants to be buried.  The coffin falls out of the wagon as they cross a flooded river, catches fire in a barn, and the corpse arrives stinking in Jeffrerson. This is a Southern Gothic classic, but reading it made me remember why I seldom read Faulkner.

faulkner as I lay dying 6614355-M3.  Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In what must have been a very trying  phase of childhood, I wore a “Frodo Lives” button and begged my mother to take us camping so I could recreate some of the hobbits’ finer moments.   She refused:  she did not care to venture into a space where more than five trees congregated, and  felt that watching my brother play Little League baseball was more than enough time outdoors.  I still adore the adventures of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, Strider (with whom I was in love), etc..  If you don’t know the plot, well…they take a long, long, long journey to destroy a Ring of Power that will destroy the world if it isn’t destroyed, and are  often shivering in rainstorms under sopping wet capes.  Yes, that’s camping for you!

Ballantine lord of the rings tolkein 29tolkien-slide.103.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.  Set in a post-Arthurian mythic post-war England, this gorgeous novel is the story of Britons and Saxons living in a mist of forgetfulness. The two protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple, cannot remember what happened yesterdays, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time. On a journey to find their son, they discover the causes of their amnesic culture.  And, let me tell you, they don’t have Triple A or five-star hotels.  They sleep wherever they find themselves, and not always under a roof.

The Buried Giant Ishiguro.BG.jacket4. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.  I laughed and laughed over Bryson’s account of his hike on the Appalachian Trail with his friend Katz.  Nuff said.

walk in the woods bryson 51x-bFjBBeL._SY355_5 .Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners. In this charming comic novel,  a young woman blooms during a caravan trip in England. Edelgarde has persuaded her much older husband, the narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, that the trip will be cheap and healthy. He has envisioned himself sitting cozily inside the caravan, but it rains all the time, and he must tramp in the muddy road beside the horse, guide it through narrow gateways, and hold umbrellas over cooking pots.  The way I look at it:  at least they’re under a roof at night!

von arnim the caravaners 1140701

What are your favorite camping/travel books?

Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret

girl in the blue beret mason 10178343

I have long been a fan of Bobbie Ann Mason, whose fiction I discovered in the ’80s when I was a perpetually exhausted teacher.  Reading was my weekend rehab, and after devouring one of Mason’s early stories in  The Atlantic, I rushed from  bookstore to bookstore to bookstore (it took three!) to find a copy of her first book, Shiloh and Other Stories, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award.  She has an elegant, simple style, and skillfully captures the voices of smart working-class  and lower-middle-class characters  who mostly live in her native Kentucky.

The Girl in the Blue Beret, published in 2011, is a beautifully-written novel that reflects her empathy for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It is not set in Kentucky:  based on her father-in-law’s World War II experiences,  it is the story of Marshall Stone, a recently retired airline pilot and widower who has been too absorbed by his family and job–he loves flying– to think about the crash of his B-17 bomber in Belgium and the members of the Resistance who saved his life.  Before he retired, on his last flight as a pilot to Europe, he visited the crash site.  Angry that he has been forced out of a job and at loose ends in his house in New Jersey, he invites his unemployed son to housesit while  he goes to Paris to search for  the members of the Resistance who risked their lives to save him from the Nazis after the plane crash.

Mason cleverly interweaves the past with the present:  Marshall in his sixties shares many of the regrets of Marshall as a cocky young Air Force pilot in England, going on bombing missions.  Young Marshall was frustrated to be discharged after his ordeal in France;  he wanted to continue bombing the Nazis.  The Marshall of the present feels cheated that he has been forcibly retired only because of age.

Robert theoretically knew the Resistance took risks to  help allied pilots like himself. Still, he has never quite understood it.  Marshall is shocked to learn that a man named Robert had  became somehow fractured after the war: he even had two families, one with his wife and one with his mistress. Robert’s estranged daughter (by the mistress) tells him about Robert’s gradual descent into alcoholism and mental illness.  Marshall cannot imagine what happened. (Later we learn.)

The image that has always stayed with him over the years  is that of the girl in the blue beret, a  lively, confident teenage girl who who  guided him through Paris. Her family sheltered him in their apartment until it was safe to leave.  Eventually he left France through the Pyrenees.

Mason has a gift for creating lively, natural dialogue.  Annette’s Nazi ballerina image make me laugh.

He remembered her laughing.  She was standing by the window, half hidden by the lace curtain, with springy spools of brown hair dangling beside her cheeks.  She said, “Don’t look, but there are two German officers down there.  Their uniforms are so silly!  They look like ballerinas in those big pleated coats.  Oh, I can’t say this, it’s too embarrassing, but they were walking where the neighbor’s dog was walking and one of them–oh, his boots!”  She laughed.  “They deserve that!”

Bobbie Ann Mason

Bobbie Ann Mason

His reunion with Annette, a widowed farmer, is especially moving. She is still sparkling, with a sense of humor, even though she has suffered.  The war was terrible for Annette’s family.  Her story is shattering.  Yet she and Marshall help each other find peace. .

Part of what I love about this book is Mason’s description of Paris. I have never been a Francophile, but now I want to go to Paris.  I want to walk miles around the city  and sip aperitifs and eat langoustines at a posh restaurant.  (At a restaurant, Robert’s daughter suggests they order langoustines).

“Sure,” he said, wondering–and not caring–if langoustines might be pig snouts, or some obscure organ meats. They were the most expensive item.

Like Robert, I had never heard of langoustines.  They are small lobster claws.

At times I am slightly reminded  of her 1986 novel, In Country, a story of the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on a family in Kentucky.  This is a different war, of course:

Mason did a vast amount of research.  The character Annette is based partly on Michele Moet-Agniel, an escort for Allied airmen shot down in Occupied Europe who saved Mason’s father-in-law. Mason also read the diary of Virginia d’Albert Lake, a survivor of the slave-labor camp in Occupied Poland.

A very moving book:  I loved it!