Quotation of the Week: Anita Brookner on Reading

The Debut anita brookner 51Z+1pq0N7L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Anita Brookner, who won the Booker Prize in 1984  for Hotel du Lac, occupies my pantheon of favorite writers somewhere between Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym. She died this week at age 87.

Brookner has a reputation as a pessimistic writer who depicts single women. Her characters are smart, if lonely, and her observations are often comical.  I do not find her pessimistic.

I just reread The Debut, published originally in the UK as A Start in Life.  From the beginning I identified with the heroine, though my life is unlike hers. But just look at this opening line: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”

Don’t we readers know what that is like?  The heroine,  Ruth Weiss, the daughter of a pretty actress, Helen, and the owner of a rare book store, George, expects people to behave like characters in books. She spent her childhood reading Dickens in the company of her strict German grandmother.  She wishes she had read Balzac, whom she considers much more realistic.  “Why had her nurse not read her a translation of Eugénie Grandet?”   Ruth has written a book on Balzac’s women and is at work on the second volume.  But her emotional life is barren, except for a year in France when she bloomed in the company of a charming English couple and had an affair with a married middle-aged philologist.

Ruth’s mother, Helen, and her father, George, also play a major role in the novel.  Eventually Helen takes to her bed, while a chain-smoking housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, nominally looks after things.  George sells the bookstore, and then begins to spend all his evenings with Mrs. Jacobs,  the woman who buys the store from him.

Helen becomes addicted to romantic suspense novels.  I very much enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s and Helen’s reading. While Ruth studies Eugenie Grandet at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Helen reads a book a day in bed.  Mrs. Cutler picks them out at the library.

Helen, fully made up but a bit dingy about the neck, was reading.  She had got to the part where the governess, maddened by despair at the rakish ne’er-do-well younger son’s forthcoming engagement to the neighboring squire’s daughter, has rushed out into the night and is about to be discovered sobbing on the moor. Helen knew what was coming.  Deserting the glittering lights of the ballroom, ne’er-do-well, his black curls streaming in the wind, finds a tiny fragile figure all but spent with exhaustion.  Cradling her roughly in her arms, he realizes that she is his own true love.  The book jacket showed the deserted fiancée, in vast crinoline, staring in agony through the window, with a dancing couple and a character in the background.  Helen had read it before.  Only a month before, in fact, but Mrs. Cutler had other things on her mind these days and did not spend too much time at the library.

Very, very funny!  Heavens, I think I’ve read that book, too.

More Baths on “Dune” and Five Dystopian Classics

Dune frank herbert newish 71c5xWv-fkLThere was much interest in my post on Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, probably because I asked the question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”

So here’s a little more background.

Dune was a groundbreaking ecological novel, originally published in 1965 by Chilton Books, a press known for auto repair manuals.  (it was rejected everywhere else, according to the afterword of my paperback.)  Herbert, a journalist, got the idea for the novel while researching a magazine article on a government project in Oregon.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture planted “poverty grasses” (which grow in sandy soil) on the crests of dunes to stop the drifting of sand on to the highways.

Fascinated by the idea that the change of an ecosystem could green a planet, he wrote Dune.

Set on a desert planet, this SF classic focuses on the paucity of water and the exploitation of a planet’s resources for the mining of a valuable, addictive spice called Melange. The rich live luxuriously, with access to all the water they want, while the native Fremen survive by wearing “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of moisture, from sweat to urine.  A radical planetologist, Kynes, plots a scientific system that several centuries on will green the planet.  But after the assassination of the sympathetic Duke Atreides, Kynes, too, is killed.  The duke’s priestess-witch concubine Jessica and psychic son Paul flee to the desert, where Paul becomes a T. E. Lawrence-style leader and champion of ecology and the Fremen culture.

Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert writes in the Afterword that Dune sold slowly in the ’60s but eventually became a best-seller.  It received a good review in The New York Times and was promoted in The Whole Earth Catalogue.

He writes,

By the early 1970s, sales of Dune began to accelerate, largely because the novel was heralded as an environmental handbook, warning about the dangers of destroying the Earth’s finite resources. Frank Herbert spoke to more than 30,000 people at the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, and he toured the country, speaking to enthusiastic college audiences. The environmental movement was sweeping the nation, and Dad rode the crest of the wave, a breathtaking trip. When he published Children of Dune in 1976, it became a runaway bestseller, hitting every important list in the country.

I in high school, a very clean young woman!

Here I am in high school, a very clean young woman!

It is easy to see why this hit a nerve in the ’70s.  In  my hometown, we read The Environmental Handbook and The Population Bomb (two books still pertinent today).   The professor/political activist family I lived with for a few months in high school recommended Dune.  They were very aware of the advertising culture (soaps, detergents, deodorants, makeup) that defined American lives and made us heartily dislike our bodies.  They showered only a couple of times a week, while I admired their philosophy but continued to shower daily and washed my hair at least twice a week. “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.

But if my use of water was high in those days, imagine how it increased over the next decades.   By the ’80s, I washed my hair every other day. In the ’90s, I washed my hair daily.   It is only in recent years that I have rethought this and bathe according to my activity level.  (Today  I rode into a fierce wind that whipped my hair into my eyes and my bike chain fell off twice, so I came home with filthy hair and hands covered with grease.  Thank God for water!)

In answer to yesterday’s question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”, two commenters mentioned that they do not wash their hair everyday, because it is not good for it, while another says she washes it daily and considers it her water therapy. (I find it relaxing to sit in a hot bath, which is even more taboo than showers in terms of water usage.)  In an article in Buzzfeed, “How Often You Really Need to Shower (According to Science)?”, two dermatologists said that showering too often can dry out and irritate skin and wash away the good bacteria that naturally exists on your skin.  Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist, said, “We overbathe in this country and that’s really important to realize.  A lot of the reason we do it is because of societal norms.”

Yes, we want very much not to smell our bodies.  Isn’t it wonderful that we live in such a luxurious clean culture?  But one wonders:  how long will it last?  Probably through my lifetime, but I have real doubts about the future.

And now here is a list of five more classic dystopian novels.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver1 Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  Is Kingsolver the best writer working in the U.S. today?  In 2013, I wrote, “When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change. Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is. Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family. She creates a plausible fictional overview of a problem that will not go away.   One day the heroine, Dellarobia, a bored housewife, is on her way to a rendezvous with a hot telephone repairman. She sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees, but it turns out to be monarch butterflies that have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change. Soon Dellarobia is working with a scientist and graduate students who have followed the butterflies.  It changes her life.

2 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  Many of you know Shteyngart from his short stories and memoirs in The New Yorker.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into apparati (essentially smart phones which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor). The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives.  Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society and tries to interest his Asian girlfriend in books. Reading books is a suspicious activity: books “smell.”  And unfortunately Lenny’s “fuckability” score, which is posted on a screen when he enters a bar, is low.

Super Sad True Love Story3 City by Clifford D. Simak.  This classic SF novel is divided into eight linked stories, told from the point of view of genetically altered talking dogs who are guardians of the history of an Earth abandoned by humans.  The first chapter,   “City,” is about urban sprawl. Very few people in the late 20th century remain in cities – atomic airplanes and helicopters have replaced cars and made it possible for a dwindling population to live on big country estates and commute hundreds of miles to work. Only renegades are urban dwellers: old-fashioned residents reluctant to give up the traditional ways and farmers displaced by hydroponic farming who have developed their own urban culture . A crisis occurs when an insanely controlling police force decides to burn down the farmers’ houses. Webster (the first of many Websters in the novel) supports the rebel farmers and gives a speech on how the city is a dying structure, and “the automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it.”

City by Simak 61e1-z87MhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4 Kevin Brockmeier’s graceful novel, The Illumination, is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory. A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer.  In Brockmeier’s alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up. As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining. Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.

The Illumination Kevin Brockmeier 0224093371.02.LZZZZZZZ

5 Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. One of the best-written post-apocalyptic novels of all time, it is set in Australia in 1963 after a World War kills everyone in the northern hemisphere. The winds will bring the fallout to Australia soon, and all will die of radiation by the next September.

The characters in this chilling 1957 novel are well-developed, and the plot is horrifyingly realistic–people worried about the Bomb then, as they should now, and Shute gives us one of the best arguments for disarmament I have ever seen. The popular writer Shute’s book was categorized as fiction instead of science fiction, and that gave it a wide readership.  The movie is good, too.

onthebeach by nevil shute

Frank Herbert’s Dune and How Often Should a Water Conservationist Bathe?

“To the working planetologist, his most important tool is human beings… You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”–Frank Herbert’s Dune

frank herbert 50th anniversary dune-coverFrank Herbert’s Dune, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, is an ecological classic.   In the early 1970s, I lived for a few months with a family of professor/political activists, who, in their free time, organized a food co-op, played guitar, and read the science fiction novel DuneDune is set on Arrakis, a desert planet. Not only did I find it a compelling story, it taught me about water conservation.  Still, it was hard to see what was in front of my eyes (and occasionally my nose) during my extremely self-conscious clean teens. I had a glimmer of why my friends showered only a couple of times a week, but didn’t  make the personal connection and continued to shower daily.   “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.  Their water bills undoubtedly went up with me in the house..

I recently reread Dune.  It is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.

dune by frank herbert tumblr_nf6rpmXyZ01tcujuyo1_1280At the center of the book is the Atreides family, who have recently moved to Dune to rule part of the planet. During a coup,  Duke Leto Atreides is killed, but his wife,  Jessica, a trained priestess with psychic powers,  and son Paul, trained by his mother in matters of the mind, escape to the desert.   The learning and mastery of ecology is the difference between life and death.

The usurping baron kills tens of thousands of people, including Kynes, the radical planetologist, who is seen as a threat because of his ties to the Fremen.  Left in the desert to die, Kynes meditates on water and Arrakis, in a scene reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness  scenes  in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when men wounded or dying become extra-sensitive and alert to the beauty of the world they are leaving.

Herbert’s style is usually straightforward and brisk, but here is one of his more poetic passages.

He tried to think of moisture in the air—grass covering this dune… open water somewhere beneath him, a long qanat flowing with water open to the sky except in text illustrations. Open water… irrigation water… it took five thousand cubic meters of water to irrigate one hectare of land per growing season, he remembered.”

The reader of Dune wants to become more ecologically literate, but she inevitably wonders:  HOW WOULD MY HAIR LOOK?

Herbert does not mention hair much, but he writes frequently about the odors.  At one point, a character tells the Atreides,

“There’s little to tell them from the folk of the graben and sink. They all wear those great flowing robes. And they stink to heaven in any closed space. It’s from those suits they wear—call them ‘stillsuits’—that reclaim the body’s own water.”

Ah, the unwashed smells of the early ’70s.  I  did know a few men who occasionally stank.  The women never stank:  they no doubt kept themselves cleaner, with quick dabs of the washcloth.   But here’s a fun fact:  even though radicals showered less, no one used deodorant.  Even I, the mad showerer, didn’t.  We weren’t going to support capitalists who made us feel bad about our bodies!  (And there really is no need.  We still have water.)

The climate is in a worse mess now, as was predicted, but my guess is that people use more water, not less.  According to the EPA, the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day.  Good God, that  is a lot.  In the 60s, we washed our hair once or twice a week.  By the time I was in my twenties, most washed their hair daily.  All that washing of hair increases the time of the shower or bath.

Because  I was rereading Dune, I was intrigued by a recent essay in The Guardian by Donnachadh McCarthy, with the headline,”I shower once a week. Here’s why you should too.”  McCarthy statistics about the amount of water used in daily baths and showers and the cost.  He points out that the daily bath

is terrible for the environment and our bank balances. That’s one reason I have reverted to a weekly shower, with a daily sink-wash that includes my underarms and privates. But there are health consequences too.

He writes that soap products can damage the skin and cause medical problems.  It is true:  I myself am allergic to some soaps.

We cannot all be like Donnachadh McCarthy, but are we the last generation to enjoy this luxury of daily baths? Think of the drought last summer, and the paradoxical paucity of clean drinking water during the frequent floods in the Midwest.   If only water conservation could be made to seem glamorous.  Never going to happen, I’m afraid!

A Bike Ride & Another Library Sale

flying bicycle freelance-illustrator-Victoria-Semykina_Dreams-can-come-true_personal-workToday was a beautiful day. Seventy degrees, sunshine, a gentle breeze, and everyone riding bikes.   The uncanny early spring makes the city seem enchanted:  gliding downhill, I expected my bicycle to sprout wings.   Traffic all around me, but I feel completely safe in my bubble in the bike lane.

I biked downtown and checked out the main library’s ongoing book sale.  Lo and behold!  I picked up six books for 25 cents each.   And I won’t complain about the library’s weeding of  these excellent books, some of which are decades old, because I already did that yesterday.  Some of  these books are by literary writers who were not  well known even at the time of publication.  Others are newish, so I was both pleased and puzzled.  If I were a librarian I would check out the books I want to save over and over.  (Actually, I know a librarian who used to do that.)  Do you think there’s any way I can sneak these back on the shelves after I’ve read them?  Nah.

image Hortense Calisher’s Queenie.  Calisher (1911-2009), a prolific writer of novels and short stories, is one of my favorite writers.  The daughter of Jewish immigrants, she lived in New York, sold stories to The New Yorker, and was way ahead of the curve in her realistic novels about the changing lives of women in the twentieth century. In her  In the Slammer With Carol Smith, she portrays a former ’60s radical who, 20 years after her incarceration for a bombing and years in a mental hospital, is mentally ill and homeless in New York. Calisher won the 1986 Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for another very odd novel, The Bobby Soxer, which deals in part with transgender issues. (One of the characters is a hermaphrodite.)

Queenie is, according to the book jacket, a coming-of-age novel.  Here’s the first paragraph.

A happy childhood can’t be cured.  Mine’ll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that’s all, instead of a noose.  In today’s world, Miss Piranesi, who doesn’t know which is more practical?

Are you hooked?

imageVictor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev.   In the introduction, Susan Sontag asks the question about this Soviet satire, “How to explain the obscurity of one of the most compelling of twentieth century ethical and literary heroes, Victor Serge?” Now that NYRB has reissued several of his books, let’s hope he’s less obscure.  I love Russian novels, and this will be my first by Serge.

imageDreamside by Graham Joyce.  A few years ago I went crazy for Joyce’s beautifully-written fantasy, The Silent Land (which I wrote about here), an uncanny novel in which a couple, Zoe and Jake, are buried in an avalanche on a skiing holiday and discover themselves all alone in the resort, with all the food they need at the hotel, etc., but there is a problem: they cannot leave the town.  Every description of a snowflake is breathtaking. According to the book jacket,

It began as an experiment in college–a seemingly harmless investigation into “lucid dreaming,” the ability to control one’s dreams. But they stayed too long on Dreamside, and now, ten years later, the dreams have returned–returned to upend their adult lives.

Joyce, who won the World Fantasy Award, died last year of cancer.  He wrote about it eloquently at his website.

imageLousie Erdrich’s The Round House.  I am a great fan of Erdrich, who won the National Book Award for this  novel in 2012.

imageSusan Cheever’s The Cage.  Susan Cheever is John Cheever’s daughter, a novelist, memoirist, and biographer.  I very much admired her biography of Louisa May Alcott. A few years ago,  I read and immensely enjoyed her novel Doctors and Women( Iwrote about it at my old blog, ) The Cage is her third novel, published in 1982, and, according to the book jacket, is set during a summer in New Hampshire, when a fortyish couple’s marriage falls apart.

imageThe Starry Rift by James Tiptree, Jr.  The award-winning James Tiptree, Jr., was actually Alice Bradley Sheldon, a woman who served in the military and later worked for the CIA.  The James Tiptree Jr. Award was initiated by the writers Karen Joy Fowler and Pat  Murphy to recognize SF books that encourage the exploration and expansion of gender.

And this book features an alien librarian!  How can I not like it?   According to the book jacket, it is set “against the backdrop of a a far future univeristy library where alien students are researching a project on the history of the human race.”  I’m in!

It begins,

Moa Blue, Chief Assistant Librarian, snuffles his way back to the Historical Specialites carousel.  HIs snuffling is partly constitutional–Moa is an amphibian–and partly directed at his current customers… They are asking for a selection of Human fact/fiction from the early days of the Federation, “to get the ambience.”  A selection!  In Moa’s day as a student, you did the selecting yourself.

Wow, he’s as crusty as I am!

The Vintage Library Book Sale


From the Library’s “Vintage Book” Sale

In theory I love to “spring forward.” By tomorrow I will love Daylight Savings time.  But today I slept late, though not as late as the clock said, and I have been groggy all day, somehow oppressed by gloom.  It’s four o’clock (really three), and all of us, even the cats, are off our normal schedule.  Next year remind me:  I might as well spend the time at the movies going from theater to theater at the cineplex.

Well, at least I went to the 50-cent Vintage Book Sale at the public library this weekend!

The public library has been discarding books faster than I can find them.  The Angela Thirkells are gone,  Gladys Taber’s Mrs. Daffodil is discarded, and all the Ruth Suckows and Bess Streeter Aldriches have been transferred to an Iowa Special Collections Room, where they cannot be checked out.

All except one apparently.  Because look what I found!

imageBess Streeter Aldrich’s A White Bird Flying is one of my favorite novels.  Born in Iowa and living for most of her adult life in Nebraska,  Aldrich (1881-1954), author of A Lantern in Her Hand, was less famous than Nebraska writer Willa Cather, but a best-seller in her time and equally beloved by some of us who enjoy her quieter writing.  A few years ago we visited Aldrich’s house (now a museum) in Elmwood, Nebraska.  She composed her stories between household tasks, and her manuscripts were spattered with dish water because she jotted down notes while washing the dishes. Her desk was in a front room with many  windows so she could keep an eye on her four children. Because she wrote by hand and hated to type, she designed a secret compartment in the desk to hold the typewriter, which pops up when you push a switch. She hired high-school students to type for her.

Bess Streeter Aldrich's desk

Bess Streeter Aldrich’s desk

A Lantern in Her Hand, Aldrich’s most famous book, tells the story of Abbie Deal, the matriarch of a pioneer Nebraska family.  A White Bird Flying is the sequel, the story of her granddaughter, Laura Deal, an aspiring writer.  At the beginning, Abbie has died, and Laura is looking through Abbie’s scrapbook of clippings from newspapers.  The last entry is a poem by Margaret Widdemer.

She read it through twice, her heart beating fast in response to the attractiveness of it.  She and Grandma always liked the same things. Grandma had found it in a magazine, loved it, and evidently saved it for her to read.  She and Grandma liked the same things.  Grandma had found it in a magazine, loved it, and evidently saved it for her to read.

As always, the rhythm and exquisite loveliness of the thought caught and held her emotions.  She thrilled to the lilting symmetry of it and the sadness of its beautify.  Nimble in committing verse, already she could say it without looking.  the line that captured and held her fancy the most was the third one:

But all there is to see now is a white bird flying.

I look forward to rereading Aldrich.

We found some other stunning books.

imageNo, really, can you believe it?  I can’t.  I’ve noticed that even English bloggers know Betty MacDonald’s humor classic, The Egg and I, (1945), the best-selling  memoir of MacDonald’s hilarious experiences as a young wife on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest.    Onions in the Stew is another very, very funny book, about the MacDonalds’ years on the island of Vashon in Puget Sound.  Even the book jacket is hilarious:  “It was here amid the untamed grandeur of fog, raccoons, and 4th century heating” that the MacDonalds lived chaotically.  It’s a shame to weed these books.  Couldn’t they promote vintage humor classics in a display instead of selling them?

I snapped up The Collected Plays of Lillian Hellman.  One of the most famous playwrights of the twentieth century, Hellman is now out of style.  They also have a 50-cent copy of her memoir Pentimento, but I already have it!

imageAnd how about Edith Wharton’s Hudson River Bracketed, published in 1929?  Whether it’s her best or worst hardly matters–all they have to do is weed a book from the nine or ten shelves of Danielle Steel and there’s room!  II don’t know how I missed this one over the years.  I thought I’d read all of Wharton.

imageLast, but not least, is a discarded library book a friend in the UK sent me back in 2009, Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Bed Thy Centre.  If you’re still out there, let me know because I am finally reading it and I love it.  This is a brilliant first novel, not an apprentice work at all.   She is one of the best writers of the twentieth century, and I hope the publication of Wendy Pollard’s biography of Pamela (I interviewed Wendy here) is promoting Johnson’s work.

imageAll for now.  Enjoy Daylight Savings Time.

Quotation of the Week: Margaret Atwood on Prehistory

life before man atwood 511YB28J36LI recently reread Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novel, Life Before Man. Published in 1979, it has stood the test of time, even of prehistory:  one of the characters, Lesje, a paleontologist, fantasizes about the age of dinosaurs.

It is not of course about dinosaurs, though the three main characters are in their way museum pieces.  Elizabeth, who works in Special Projects at the museum of natural history, has the best grasp of the present; her husband Nate romantically harkens back to a simpler time and and has quit his job as a lawyer to make beautiful expensive wooden toys in the basement.  After Elizabeth’s lover, Chris, commits suicide by blowing his head off with a shotgun, they must realign their lives.  Elizabeth is traumatized, and Nate wants to end own affair with a woman too dramatic for him.   Lesje knows Elizabeth and Nate only slightly and also knew Chris, who  worked at the museum too. Nate has a crush on Lesje, and thus a triangle is formed.

Atwiood heads each chapter with a date and switches from one point of view to the next:   her characterization of Elizabeth, a controlling woman who does not respect Nate except as the father of their two children, is particularly lucid and chilling.  She and Nate share the house, but both openly have sexual affairs with others.  Nate is likable but weak: Elizabeth understands his fleeing from woman to woman all too well.  He is confused, running from closeness.

Lesje, daughter of Latvian immigrants, is younger and does not fit in anywhere.  She is bored with her lover, an environmental engineer who works in sewage disposal.  She fantasizes about  life before man.

In prehistory there are no men, no other human beings, unless it’s the occasional lone watcher like herself, tourist or refugee, hunched in his private fern with his binoculars, minding his own business.

Atwood’s cool observations are more sophisticated than Lesje’s. She shows us Lesje’s guilt about her regressive fantasy of watching camptosaurs and pterosaurs

Lesje knows, when she thinks about it, that this is probably not everyone’s idea of a restful fantasy. Nevertheless it’s hers; especially since in it she allows herself to violate shamelessly whatever official version of paleontological reality she chooses. In general she is clear-eyed, objective, and doctrinaire enough during business hours, which is all the more reason, she feels, for her extravagance here in the Jurassic swamps. She mixes eras, adds colors: why not a metallic blue Stegosaurus with red and yellow dots instead of the dull greys and browns postulated by the experts? Of which she, in a minor way, is one. Across the flanks of the camptosaurs pastel flushes of color come and go, reddish pink, purple, light pink, reflecting emotions like the contracting and expanding chromatophores in the skins of octopuses. Only when the camptosaurs are dead do they turn grey.

Nate creepily makes several hang-up calls to Lesje before they begin to see each other.  Elizabeth likes to control things, so she makes a point of getting to know Lesje and William and inviting them to dinner.

Though Elizabeth is not someone you’d want to have dinner with, she is the most interesting of the three.  Unlike Lesje, Elizabeth has no fantasies.

Elizabeth walks west, along the north side of the street, in the cold grey air that is an extension of the unbroken fish-grey sky. She doesn’t glance into the store windows; she knows what she looks like and she doesn’t indulge in fantasies of looking any other way. She doesn’t need her own reflection or the reflections of other people’s ideas of her or of themselves. Peach-yellow, applesauce-pink, raspberry, plum, hides, hooves, plumes, lips, claws, they are of no use to her. She wears a black coat. She’s hard, a dense core, that dark point around which other colors swirl. She keeps her eyes straight, her shoulders level, her steps even. She marches.

Women do get harder and denser with experience, and I admire Elizabeth’s intelligence, even if I deplore her methods of managing relationships.

Life Before Man is a classic.

Man Up! It’s Hard to Be a Critic

A. O. Scott has written a new book, Better Living Through Criticism.  If you’re like me,  you do not know who A. O. Scott is.  He is the movie critic for the New York Times.  No, he is the film critic.

I do not see many films at the germy cineplex here.  In the last few months, I have seen Star Wars, Joy, and The Lady in the Van.  The first two are what I call movies; the last may be a film.  And I must say, Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Joy, is the Prettiest Actress Ever Stuck Playing the Inventor of a Mop.

I am never going to read a book with the title  Better Living Through Criticism.  I am a great fan of Pauline Kael’s witty essays, which  have titles like “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”

But I did read Nathan Heller’s lively review in The New Yorker of Scott’s book.

I cannot criticize a book on the basis of a review (or is it criticism?), but I can’t resist because I gather that Scott’s book is a lament about being a Gen-Xer who went to an Ivy League school and now writes criticism and doesn’t get the respect he wants.  Heller says Scott makes “a case for his embattled craft.” It seems that Scott assumes that readers of blogs and Yelp!  cannot tell the difference between film criticism and the reviews of  “Blogging Bob” (a character invented by Heller).

Heller is a young smart writer. He opens the review with a description of  George Orwell’s writing reviews for money and not respecting the work.  Then Heller segues into the difference between critics and “Blogging Bob.”

What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews? A common defense of the endeavor centers on three qualities: expertise, eloquence, and attention. Critics have essential skills that Blogging Bob does not. They know more. They are decent writers, who can give a fair encapsulation of a work and detail their responses. And they’re focussed: since their job is studying and explaining the object at hand, they are especially alert to its nuances.

Yes, it’s funny–but “Blogging Bob?”

Then Heller condescendingly adds that Blogging Bob, a tax accountant, may indeed have a lively voice and know about films. But the damage is done.  Nice try, but the name Blogging Bob says it all.

A. O. Scott may or may not be Critic Claude. I have invented the character Critic Claude in response to Heller’s invention of Blogging Bob.  This is not Scott’s fault.  And yet I am so, so very tired of white male Ivy League-educated critics complaining about the waning of criticism when they have jobs that others would kill for.  The quotations from Scott’s books are not especially promising.  “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”

Yes, it sounds defensive because we already know that.

Here is another quote from Scott:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.

Criticism has its place; We have no problem with that.

But I, too, have seen some changes in the culture.  It’s a tough life!  Scott graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then found work at prestigious publications in New York. Heller also graduated from Harvard and ditto.  I got my master’s from a state university  and could barely pay the rent with my teaching job. (I switched professions.)  And most of the Latin (slave) teaching jobs, German teaching jobs,  etc., are long gone except at eastern private schools that pay much lower wages than the public schools.

I ask myself, What would Pauline Kael do?   She wrote: “Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know.”

We love the internet; we hate the internet.  Our little blogs are not criticism. Godspeed, Mr. Scott!   But criticism isn’t the most embattled profession.

Between the Lines: Reviews vs. Promos

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I hate to say this, I really do, but I have 10 review copies left over from last year.

How did I end up in this dysfunctional relationship?  With less space for reviews in newspapers and magazines, publishers want to give free books to bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Goodreads reviewers, etc.  In fact, it has reached the point where most Goodreads reviews seem to end with the sentence, “I am grateful to ____ for the opportunity to read an advance copy.”

Oh, dear.  We’ve all been there.  I’m not exactly grateful. In this relationship, guess who ends up doing the work?   But the problem here is my own.  Last year, only 6% of the books I read were review copies. So why did I request and/or accept so many books I never got to?  I seem to prefer to buy my books and read them at leisure.  And now I must send brief e-mails explaining these books left over from 2015 are not quite my kind of thing.

Do the publicists even notice?  Well, sometimes.

There is a shaky border between reviews and promotions these days.

Professional reviewers can be barracudas, but writers also complain that amateur reviewers trash their books with one-star reviews at Amazon before the publication date.  Well, I can’t address that problem.  The amateur reviews I read are usually kind.  Some of them are promotions rather than reviews–which is much better both for writers and publishers, I suppose.

I’m not against promotional writing.  It’s easy to spot, and you accept it for what it is.  Some promotional publications are very good.  We pick up BookPage free at the public library.  It features reviews, interviews, and columns.  Well, the reviews are not actually reviews:  they are what I call “prom-iews.”  In short, it is promotional writing.

But the trick?  BookPage picks good books.  The genres are clearly defined, so one knows it’s a debut novel aimed at millennials, a memoir, literary fiction, or history.  Never a negative word is written, but I often learn about a good book first at BookPage.  (N.B.  It’s where I read about MFK Fisher’s novel, The Theoretical Foot.)

The free biweekly newsletter Shelf Awareness also features  “prom-iews.”   I find it less interesting than BookPage (editors do matter).  But I do look at the book ads!

As for professional book review publications, we all know these.  The New York Times Book Review seemed like magic when I was growing up. On the internet we can also read The Washington Post, The Guardian, and many more.  Criticism is mixed into the long reviews, and, at least in the U.S.,  boundaries are set between reviewers and writers of books reviewed:  they are not supposed to know each other.  Of course, lines do get crossed.

And because the book publication editor assigns the reviews, there is none of this “gratitude” to the publisher.  Some serious reviewing is expected!

Anyway, I try to avoid review copies.  There are so many books I want to read…  I don’t need free copies of new books thrown into the mix.

What I’m Reading Now: Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance


A book and iced tea.

It is an absolutely gorgeous spring day. Seventy-three degrees on March 7.  So lovely to glide out on my bike without a coat or hat. And the birds are back! The geese waddle on the bike trail, and the gulls are swooping over the creek.

I always stop for a coffee break and usually bring an e-reader, since reading on screens is now customary in public. But today I ventured out with a spellbinding book, Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance.

Valente’s very strange meta-fictional SF novel, which she calls “a decopunk alt-history Hollywood space opera mystery thriller,” describes the movie industry on the moon in an alternate twentieth century.  Thomas Edison’s family holds patents for movie-making, including auditory equipment, but silent films are art and talkies are despised. At the center of Radiance is a mystery:  the famous documentary maker, Severin Unck,  the daughter of a famous filmmaker, Percival Alfred Unck, disappeared on Venus while making a documentary, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, about the destruction of a settlement on Venus.

Really, I can’t put the book down.  Valente’s language is exquisite and lyrical, the story at times whimsically fantastic, at other times boldly noirish.  It unfolds in a pastiche of documentary scripts, gossip columns, diaries, and case logs.

Here is an excerpt from a kind of satiric noir film log by Anchises St. John, the last survivor of the destroyed settlement on Venus, now living in a godforsaken town in Uranus.  When we first meet him, he wanders into a theater to see one of Severin’s films.  He is obsessed with her.  And he muses, just as everyone else does, about the fate of her final documentary.

Of her final film, The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew, only four sequences remain. They’re all badly damaged.  Everybody copies them, cuts them up and spits them out again into endless anemic tell-all docs I wouldn’t wipe my feet on. The originals continue to putrefy in some museum in Chicago.  More people than you’d think go there to watch them rot.  I did.  It was comforting.  You plonked down your head against the cool wall on a soft pink Midwestern evening that seems impossible when you’re freezing to death on Uranus.  She flashes before your eyes:  a sprite, a fairy at the end of a long, dark tunnel,smiling, waving, crawling into the mouth of the cannon capsule with the ease of a natural performer.

Valente is a new writer to me, but she has won the James Tiptree Jr., Mythopoeic, Lamba Literary and Locus Awards.

Am really loving this book!