Dolly by Anita Brookner

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                                 Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s death last week at the age of 87 has prompted a “Brookner-thon” at my house.  I can read one of her short elegant books in a day, and this week I have raced through Dolly and A Closed Eye.  

Brookner is a stunning writer, reminiscent of Henry James.  I am astonished by the crystalline quality of her prose.   She wrote 24 novels, and I took her for granted:  I had been looking for the new Brookner.  I never thought of her getting older.  I only thought of my need to read her exquisite, perfectly shaped sentences.

When I read her books as a young woman, I was enthralled by her accounts of independent women.  Now I love the books, but also find them painful.  Her heroines are usually single, emotionally remote, and shut out of everyday relationships.  They spend their time reading David Copperfield and wandering through art museums in London.  (Brookner was also an art historian.)   Perhaps I understand these heroines better now that I am older, and even better because I have finally visited London.  I have seen the paintings that fascinate her heroines. I know some of the neighborhoods.

dolly anita brookner 9780394224381-uk-300Dolly, published in 1993, is a small masterpiece, much more complex than her early work.   It explores the relationship between Jane, a  young woman, and her Aunt Dolly, who turns out to be a hustler.   The narrator, Jane Manning, a very quiet writer of children’s books, grew up in a peaceful household in London:  her well-to-do parents, Paul and Henrietta, read for recreation and certainly did not go in for luxury. Hence Jane is fascinated when her exuberant, well-dressed Aunt Dolly, who lives for bridge, dancing, and  social engagements, breezes in from Brussels with Uncle Hugo, a former mama’s boy now very much under Dolly’s thumb.  Dolly isn’t very nice to the Mannings:  essentially she stole Hugo from his mother and considers his sister, Henrietta, a nonentity. Henrietta anxiously tries to please the couple by taking them to dinner at the Ritz, but Dolly  is accustomed to the best restaurants and bored.  Dolly and Hugo go out in the evenings to play bridge:  Dolly is frantic when she learns that Henrietta and Paul do not play.  Henrietta explains they prefer to read.

“Oh, read,” said Dolly.  “Well, of course, I am a great reader myself, but in our circle one has to mix, otherwise one would know no one.”

“I suppose you have a great many friends,” said my mother.

“Yes, I can certainly say that we are well liked.  Not that we mix too much with the expatriate community, except for bridge, of course.  Our dear friend Adele Rougier is the one we see most constantly.  Her husband was our ambassador to Zaire, you know….”

I find this dialogue both comical and heartbreaking.  Dolly is so snobbish, yet she reads romances and is oblivious of the Mannings’ different values.  I find Henrietta’s supposition that Dolly has  friends poignants.  Jane, who sees all this,  regards  Dolly as a monster, and Dolly dismisses her because she is quiet, intelligent, and dully dressed.  But after Hugo’s death, Dolly, who was raised in France by her mother, a Jewish dressmaker who sewed for the neighborhood prostitutes and was saved during the Occupation by these women’s relationships with Nazis, now is unwilling to be deprived of luxury.  She decides her best bet is to live with Hugo’s rich mother, who sends her packing with a small allowance.  Dolly is an opportunist:  she borrows money often from Henrietta.  But after Henrietta’s death, Jane begins to understand Dolly better.

The British edition.

The British edition of Dolly.

I love Jane, but she breaks my heart.   She is content with her routine, her job at a cuttings agency, her walks, and her books.  After her parents die, her only real friend is John Pickering, her parents’ solicitor. After the cuttings agency closes, she writes her first children’s book and studies fairy tales.  When she speaks on “Sleeping Beauty” at small American women’s colleges, she prefers the middle-aged women in their fifties to her feminist peers.   Although the feminists worry about sexual harassment and study gender in 1950s melodrama, they turn out to be “reconstructed” when they learn Jane doesn’t have a husband.   They regard her lack of a relationship with a man as a failure, much as Dolly does.

Jane writes,

It is not that they would necessarily want me to find love and marriage, in the sense of a happy ending. But if I were sharing household chores with some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself they could understand me better.  How then to disappoint them by telling them that I prefer the fairy-tale version, and will prefer it till I die, even though I may be destined to die alone?

Brookner is so quietly barbed it almost went past me.  “Some cheerful fellow in jeans and a shirt ironed by himself”:  didn’t we all marry him?  I know that Jane’s solitude is not as hard for Jane as it would be for some of us, but it is not easy, either.  Surely women who live alone find it easier if they have friends.  But Dolly has friends who are not real friends:  she is lonely.  And  Jane’s coming to terms with Dolly is perhaps the loveliest thing in this graceful, pitch-perfect novel.

Women’s Literary Prizes: What’s Not to Like?

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I often tire of gender issues.  Don’t we all?  By the time I passed a Certain Big Birthday, I hoped I would no longer worry about equal pay for equal work, legal abortion, or free day care on demand. But the battle continues:   Republican politicians, including the circus of very strange Republican presidential candidates, threaten to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood and criminalize abortion.  Reproductive control is the tipping point of women’s freedom.

As if that weren’t enough to make us anxious, the gender struggle continues even in the literary world.

I am a fan of the Orange Prize for the best novel by a woman written in English, which is now  called The Baileys Women’s Prize.  This year, I’m rooting for Elizabeth Strout’s I Am Lucy Barton (which I wrote about here). Without the Orange Prize, I would never have discovered Helen Dunmore.

But the need for the prize goes deeper than to introduce me to Dunmore’s work.  The award-winning novelist Nicola Griffiths, author of Hild, did a study on the last 15 years’ results for six fiction awards: Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal.  When it comes to literary prizes, more men than women win, and when women do win, the subject of the narrative is usually male.  She writes,

…the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties.

Women are divided on the issue of women’s prizes.   A recent panel discussion on International Women’s Day, called “What sex is your bookshelf?”and sponsored by the Man Booker Prize, sparked a debate. According to the Bookseller, the novelist Lionel Shriver, winner of the Orange Prize for her novel, We Need to Think About Kevin, said during the discussion that she doesn’t see the need for a women’s prize.

This whole thing of treating women specially, as if they need special help and special rules, is problematic and obviously backfires. It is the big downside to the Orange Prize. Having won it, I never want to seem ungrateful, and I don’t bad mouth the Orange Prize. Kate Mosse who runs it is very approachable on how the prize has its problematic side. But I would still feel perfectly comfortable saying it is not as meaningful to me to have won the Orange Prize as say it would have been to win the Booker. Most people who win that prize surely say the same thing: you have eliminated half the human race from applying. …I took the money! But there is this problem of suggesting that we need help, that men have to leave the room and then we’re prize worthy.

Well, this is eccentric, but Shriver also outrageously said that International Women’s Day is “creepy.”  Shriver is a stunning writer, of course, but I must ask this question:  WHAT WAS SHE DOING ON THE INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY PANEL?

On the panel, Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of London, defended the Bailey Women’s Prize and International Women’s Day.  “I believe both are necessary because we have not yet achieved equality. When we do achieve equality then it will be nice to have a world in which those are not necessary.”

Thank God for a sensible take on a sensitive issue.

Even on a local level, the issue of special prizes for women is debated.  A female editor friend, very feminine but male-oriented,  laughed at the local women’s journalism awards and said they didn’t matter. (The men didn’t laugh, doubtless because they’d never heard of them.)  But  I must confess, I garnered several local  prizes over the years. Two were from women’s organizations.

Did I disdain these women’s awards?  No.  I am honored.  Sure, I wasn’t a war correspondent, but writing on women’s issues requires its own kind of toughness.  You would be surprised how many enemies you make when you write on sex discrimination cases or abortion.  Whether the prizes were from co-ed associations or women’s organizations, no money changed hands. They gave me framed certificates or plaques, always useless, which perhaps end up in boxes or the garage.   The prizes look good on my resume.  My husband recently reminded me of a prize I’d forgotten. We got a fancy dinner, but no certificates!

In England, the big literary prizes, The Booker Prize and the Baileys Prize, get lots of attention.We all like the glamor of the longlist and the shortlist, and the gossip and the scandal.  Somebody always says the wrong thing somewhere.  We don’t have much of that in the American papers.  I guess people aren’t interested in literary awards here.

I do have a couple of observations on the British prizes.  I would say both the Man Booker and the Baileys have changed their emphasis in the 2010s.  I have read 11 of the Orange Prize winners  over the years, but since 2014, the prize has gone to so-called “experimental” novels.  I felt an instant rapport with all the mainstream publishers who rejected Elmear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and discovered I have a very limited tolerance for Ali Smith’s prose: “and now me falling upward/ at the rate of 40 horses dear God old .Fathermother please spread extempore.”

The Man Booker Prize has also gone astray, in my opinion. It has  been awarded to historical novels since 2012.  Why historical novels?  Whatever happened to brilliant, poetic literary fiction? Does it have to go to the Tudors or prisoners of war very year?   Give it to Elizabeth Strout or Tessa Hadley.   For God’s sake, they’re great writers of extraordianry lyrical prose.  And they’re women.

What do you think about women’s prizes?  Pro or con?

Women Writing Well About Sex: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre

This Bed thy Centre Pamela Hansford Johnson imagePamela Hansford Johnson (1912-1981), a critically-acclaimed novelist of the mid-twentieth century, is the author of several neglected classics. My favorite is the Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.

I just read This Bed Thy Centre, published in 1935, her energetic, poignant first novel, organized around a small group of characters who live in the same South London neighborhood.  Although I am a Johnson fan, I expected little of this book, possibly because of the title.  I was thrilled to find it stylishly written and bold, the first of many brilliant novels.  It belongs to a genre described by D. J. Taylor in The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918, which I wrote about here, as a “panorama of capital life,” i.e, a novel set in a single London neighborhood or at a single address. Johnson’s book fits well with the “panoramas” he mentions, such as J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement, Patrick Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, and Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.

in This Bed Thy Centre, Johnson portrays characters of a wide range of classes and intelligence, most of them women.  Her explicitness about women’s sexual desires caused an uproar when the book was published.  In the preface of the 1961 edition, Johnson, who wrote the book in two months when she was 22, explains she did not mean it to be controversial.

Johnson writes,

Times have changed since, and it would be quite a feat today, to provoke such a succès de scandale as I did, without trying, in 1935.  Words like “outspoken,” “fearless,” “frank” (dirty words, the lot of them), flashed out of my headlines.  I was shocked and terrified.  That wasn’t what I had meant, at all.  Living in isolation from literary people, I shrank beneath the reactions of some of my kin, and some older acquaintances less than kind.  I was given to understand that I had disgraced myself and the entire area of Clapham Common.

this bed thy center johnson 077 At the center is a teenage girl, Elsie Cotton, who, in the beginning, has a crush on her art teacher, Leda, partly because she does not even know what sexual intercourse is.  “How are the facts of life?”  a friend asks cruelly the day after Elsie asks her how babies are made. But soon Elsie drops out of school and falls in love with a self-centered young man, Roly, who two-times her with a girl from the library with no twinge of conscience until he is found out.  Elsie tells her widowed mother, Mrs. Cotton, how much she wants sex with Roly, but she is also terrified of getting pregnant.  Mrs. Cotton chides her for talking so candidly, and Elsie asks if she didn’t feel the same way.  Mrs. Cotton cannot remember if she ever wanted sex much.

The other women in the neighborhood seem to belong to a lower class than the Cottons.   Mrs. Maginnis, my favorite character, is a cheerful, brave widow, well-liked in the neighborhood,  but Elsie’s boyfriend Roly nastily refers to her as “the best unpaid whore in the neighborhood.” She has an unemployed lover, who comes to her for food and angry sex.  She is sensuous:  she admires her body after a bath.  When she discovers a lump in her breast, she refuses to see a doctor.

“I haven’t,” she answered,” and I’m not going to. I don’t like them.  My husband, Bert his name was, had the TB, so they packed him off to a ‘sanny,’ and it’s my belief that they froze him to death.   Draughts, not enough bedclothes, snow and rain blowing in on him…  I shall never forgive myself for not making them leave him at home with me.  I would have nursed him well again.”

This attitude can perhaps be seen as representing the lower middle class (actually, I’m not sure about British class at all),  but I know many middle-class women who still doubt the medical profession.

Mrs. Godhsill, a Bible-thumping religious fanatic who preaches in the park, dominates her sickly daughter, Ada Mary, who works to support the family, and secret drinker son Arthur.  Maisie, the owner of a bar called The Admiral, knows all the doings in the neighborhood, and is not astonished when Arthur comes to the Admiral, drunk and vomiting.  Like Maisie, Ma Ditch, the cats’ meat woman at the market,  knows the neighborhood  gossip. The only educated woman in the novel is Leda, the art teacher, who has a passing fancy for Elsie, but when her writer lover returns, she reverts to her obsession with him.  She is both sexually attracted and repulsed, realizing she will have to support him financially.

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Pamela and Dylan Thomas

Hardly anybody writes as well as Johnson about women’s sexual desires, and the book seems very modern in that respect. Elsie is sensual but is also very anxious about sex:  perhaps she is a predecessor of Lena Dunham, writer and actress in the TV show “Girls” and author of the memoir, Not That Kind of Girl.  In Not That Kind of Girl (a very good depiction of a millennial woman), Lena is so ambivalent about sex that, rather than go to bed with men, she has sleepover dates.  Her mother thinks sleeping together without sex is more perverse than having sex.  (I agree.)

Johnson’s This Bed Thy Centre has many dark moments.  There are anxiety attacks.  There are suicides. Her boyfriend Dylan Thomas, her only literary friend then, came up with the title, from one of Donne’s sonnets.  (She wanted to call it Nursery Rhyme, which I think is better.)

Last year I read Wendy Pollard’s brilliant biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times.  ( I interviewed her about it here.)  Her second husband was C. P. Snow, another neglected writer.  Many of Johnson’s books have been reissued as e-books by Bello.  I hope this means there is a revival of her work.

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!