Book Sets & Why We Love Them

harvard classics

A 1910 liberal arts education!

Do you like book sets?

I’ve been laughing over Josh Hanagarne’s article  at Book Riot, “The Bookseller Who Saved My Collection.”   He  decided  to become a scholar, so he majored in philosophy for a semester and then “gave up immediately after finals.” But he still wanted to appear erudite, so he asked his parents for  a 1910 set of the Harvard Classics for Christmas. He writes,

On Christmas morning, I opened up the two massive boxes and looked down at the dusty, crinkled green spines as a cloud of dust billowed out.

No one was jealous of my gift, but my siblings were philistines, not at all interested in appearing to be serious scholars.

The idea with the 51-volume set was that it contained, according to Dr. Eliot, “A liberal education.” I started looking at the titles on the spines. I even recognized some of the names, like Plato. I had no idea who Benvenuto Cellini was, and I didn’t know what I Promessi Sposi was, but 51 volumes of knowledge!

Better yet, there were 52 weeks in a year, so I’d be done with my liberal education at the rate of slightly less than one book per week.

Well, it didn’t quite work out. He read a few and got bored.  And later when he tried to sell the set, the bookseller refused because he saw Josh hesitating.

I, too, have a weakness for sets.  Some are nice, some were just cheap, and I ‘ve replaced most with paperbacks over the years because I needed scholarly introductions to the books.

d. h. lawrence book club editions 026410

A Lawrence three-pack!

1 The Literary Guild classics.  I worked briefly at a bookstore where women were ghettoized as cashiers.  A charming colleague with a college degree (also stuck as a cashier) persuaded us to join the Literary Guild book club, which offered classics in sets of three.  She emphasized how much fun it was to receive books in the mail (long before Amazon, and she got free books for signing us up) .  I became  fond of these cheesy book club editions, though we must have been out of our minds since we could have bought nicer editions at a discount at the store.  But we were secretly radical:  we didn’t put our money back into a sexist bookstore.

2 Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  We were waiting for a Greyhound bus in Iowa City and stopped at The Haunted Bookshop, a used bookstore. I was thrilled to find a musty set of Modern Library editions of Proust.   I eventually replaced them  with a paperback set with D. J. Enright’s corrected translation, but the original Moncrieff  may well have been good enough.

proust set il_570xN.808961634_tfet

Mine didn’t have dust jackets!

3 Trollope’s Palliser books.  I originally read these in mass market paperbacks, but for my second read bought a used set of these Oxford editions.

Oxford pallisers novels set trollope 51lFtqDxc-L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

A set of the Pallisers books.

4. The Dickens set.  I bought an almost complete book club set of Dickens (Walter J. Black) when I was a teenager.  The down side?  They have no introductions, so  I later supplemented them with Penguins.  Nowadays these hardbacks (two volumes for each title) are convenient because they have big-ish print.  But I had to lug them home in two trips!  None of us had a car back then.


Thomas Hardy (Heritage editions).  I love these Heritage Book Club hardbacks of five of Thomas Hardy’s most famous novels. They come in boxes and have great illustrations! Here’s a copy of Jude the Obscure.

Thomas Hardy heritage e23cfba15680805062fb890ed8560ae1

A Heritage Book Club “Jude the Obscure.”

6.  The Bronte set.  I really don’t know what got into me.  This illustrated Folio Society set of the Brontes  was cheap and looked very nice in the picture at eBay.  Well, it is nice in a way, but the covers are silk, which wasn’t clear to me, and you have to be careful not to stain them with tea.  The best thing I can say about it is that I finally have an illustrated copy of Villette.

bronte folio society 61eXAuaf5BL._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

If only they weren’t silk!

Have any of you gone mad for a set?  Loved it or regretted it?

Why Book Chat Is Hard & Four Literary Links


Why is it so hard to talk about books?

The first time I read Anna Karenina, I wanted to share it with someone. I dragged my huge paperback copy to work and to restaurants and read it in hallways between classes, but none of my friends had read it.   I kept up with Cicero and Homer but bluffed my way through German and chemistry until I turned the last page of Anna.  I was swept away by life in nineteenth-century Russia.  I empathized with beautiful, kind, intelligent Anna, who leaves her husband and son to live with her lover, Vronksy, whom she meets, ironically, on a visit to fix the marriage of her brother Stiva and  sister-in-law Dolly, who is shattered when she learned of Stiva’s  affair with the governess.

“This is such a brilliant book,” I told my then boyfriend.  He sat smoothing his moustache and staring at a cup of coffee, because he was extremely hung over.  He was a big-time partier, a guy who told stories about getting kicked out of the Peace Corps because of his antics at a fiesta. It is a sign of my tremendous immaturity that I thought this anecdote funny.

And so I had to talk to other people about Anna Karenina. I needed a book group!  A friend and I occasionally got together at Grace and Rubie’s, a women’s club in Iowa City, for book talk. I chatted earnestly about Levin and Kitty, my favorite romantic (though not very romantic) couple in the book, and between my blathering she talked  about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  It was cross-talk, since neither of us had read the other’s books, but it is comforting for readers to spend time with each other.

Is it hard for you to chat about books?  I can put down on paper what I cannot express in talk.

That’s one reason blogs are so nice.  I find it easier to share my enthusiasm on paper, though still not very easy.


  1. crowley engine-summer2At Tor’s science fiction blog, Caitlyn Paxson writes about finding the right book at the right time.

She begins:

I spent my 16th year as an exchange student in France, living with a French family, attending a French school, and being completely immersed in the language—which I barely spoke a word of when I arrived. Even though I was an obsessive reader, I left my books at home. The whole point, I’d reasoned, was to forsake English for a year while I learned a different language. I rapidly realized my mistake—I was forlorn without books that I could understand.

So I wrote a letter to my Great Aunt Joan. In my reading life, my Aunt Joan was the Gandalf to my Frodo, the Merlin to my Arthur. She was responsible for most of the great literary loves of my childhood: the Moomins, Oz, the Dark is Rising series—all of them came from her. I wrote to her and I told her how forsaken I felt without any books that spoke to my heart.

The book was John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

Amanda Peet

Amanda Peet

2 At Lenny, the actress Amanda Peet writes about drawing the line at plastic surgery.

It’s painfully obvious, but I’m still ashamed to admit this: I care about my looks. How else can I explain my trainer, stylist, and Barney’s card? I’ve bleached my teeth, dyed my hair, peeled and lasered my face, and tried a slew of age-defying creams. More than once, I’ve asked the director of photography on a show to soften my laugh lines. Nothing about this suggests I’m aging gracefully.

Yet for me, it would be crossing the Rubicon to add Botox and fillers into the mix. I want to look younger (and better), trust me. The only reason I don’t do it is because I’m scared.

We hear you, Amanda.  I  look like a witch now but still wouldn’t consider Botox or plastic surgery.

3. The blogger Kate MacDonald writes amusingly about Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise.

4 And at the Picador blog, you can read a list of Ten Books about Cults.  (The only one I know is Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, which I wrote about here.)


Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

Charles Bock Alice & Oliver 51sUYGu0tgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Charles Bock’s new novel,  Alice & Oliver, is powerful, but it is not for everybody.

It is about the horror of cancer; it also describes the bureaucracy of the American health care system.

It’s Ambulance Chaser lit, as my friend A would say.  She has a ghoulish interest in disease, has been known literally to follow ambulances and fire trucks, and  is a godsend in that she actually enjoys visiting hospitals.

But this novel is more than illness lit:  it is a small masterpiece, the tragic story of a young couple devastated by the crisis of leukemia.

From the beginning I was hooked by Bock’s quietly observant style.  In the first chapter, the endearing heroine, Alice, who is a fashion designer, the mother of a newborn baby, a Buddhist,  and a key lime pie junkie, is determined not to let her “cold” interfere with Thanksgiving plans to visit her mother in Vermont.

Bock’s description of Alice is vivid.

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked. This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making her way down West Thirteenth. Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders. The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time. She drank coffee from a paper cup. Sweat bubbled from her neck. Her scarf kept unraveling. She was rocking knee-high boots–sensuous leather, complicated buckles. Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal. But she was slowing. A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her. Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody.

Oliver is not sure they should make the trip, but Alice insists. Her mother takes one look at her and calls the family doctor, who has known her all her life. The diagnosis leukemia:  she has no white blood cells and a severely compromised immune system.  She is immedieately hospitalized.

What happens to a marriage when one partner is diagnosed with cancer?  Do they come closer together, as in a TV movie?  No, that’s not the way it works.

The big business of cancer, both the barbarous treatment of the disease and the red tape of the health care  bureaucracy, slowly cracks the marriage.  After she is stabilized in a hospital in New Hampshire, she and Oliver go home to New York and must start all over with new  doctors at a prestigious cancer clinic.  They spend hours in what Alice calls “the blood cancer waiting room,”trying to distract an increasingly tired baby, because they couldn’t get a sitter.   When they finally see the doctor and are asked for her medical history yet again, Alice is exasperated.

“I don’t mean to be difficult…But we seem to keep going over information your staff asked me ages ago.”

Eisenstatt tipped his forehead, the nineteenth-century gentleman conceding a thorny point.  “It’s maddening .  You’re going to get a lot of it.  Standard medical procedure.  We go over things repeatedly.  this is our thinking:  it’s possible you’ll remember something that deviates from what the nurse heard…. Each time a staff member or doctor hears your story, it gives us a chance to consult with one another, and hear everything fresh in our own ears.  It’s an inconvenience for you, I know–“

Charles Bock

Charles Bock

And then there are the insurance problems.  At the end of their first visit to the clinic, they are sent back to the business office because the cap of their insurance money is “only” $350,000. It turns out they’re going to need a lot more than that.  Alice needs a bone marrow transplant.  They have some time to get the money, because they have to find a match.

Alice is in for a long haul of hospitalizations, painful procedures, chemotherapy, nausea, surgery, and general agony.  Oliver, a computer nerd with a small software development company, must put his life on hold and turn his work over to his colleagues while he spends the majority of every day organizing Alice’s care, babysitting, and haggling for an acceptable insurance plan.

This quietly powerful novel is semi-autobiographical:  Bock’s wife, Diana Joy Colbert, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 and died in 2011 before their daughter’s third birthday.

But it is not straight autobiography.  It is set in 1993, and the trajectory of the story differs slightly.

Some of the best parts of the novel are very clinical:  Bock brilliantly captures the slowness of hospital routines, waiting, interactions with nurses and aides.

Anyone who has been very ill or cared for a sick family member will relate to this book.  Alice and Oliver are two very ordinary people whom we get to know in the midst of a crisis.

A stunning book, never maudlin, never overwritten.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter

Charles Archer's translation of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Charles Archer’s translation of Kristin Lavransdatter.

I recently finished The Cross, the third volume of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter.  

It took me a year to reread this stunning trilogy, set in fourteenth-century Norway.  Unset is a brilliant storyteller, and every sentence shines with pictorial detail and psychological insights.  And even now, decades after my first read, I fall into the book and  become Kristin, the heroine. There is no separation of myself from the text.   As I get older, this is particularly true with the last volume, The Cross.

These gorgeously-written novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, chronicle the life of a medieval woman and her experience of love:  filial love, intense friendship, passionate first love, sex, a tumultuous marriage, maternal love, charity, religion, and spiritual love. And as life goes on, Kristin becomes aware that her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, has shaped her unhappiness and the fates of her sons.  (Yes, pre-marital sex was a sin, particularly because Kristin was already betrothed to someone else, and Erlend had lived with a married woman for 10 years and had two children).

Charles Archer's translation.

Charles Archer’s translation.

In The Bridal Wreath, the first volume, we first meet the rebellous, willful heroine.  She has an idyllic childhood, and is much loved by her father, Lavrans.  But at the age of 15 Kristin is unhappily betrothed to Simon, a  smart,but chubby and unattractive man chosen for her by her father.  She  begs Lavrans to send her to a convent for a year, partly because she is not attracted to Simon, and partly because she believes her sins have made her younger sister ill.  She has suffered the loss of her childhood friend, Arne, who  fought and was killed by a priest’s son who maligned her reputation: no one knows the priest’s son attempted to rape Kristin.  And people gossip about Kristin, and Arne’s mother blames her.  And so Lavrans allows Kristin to go to the convent, where, ironically, she and another girl are almost raped during a festival in town; they are saved by Erlend, a handsome aristocrat, and one of his friends, Munan.  Erlend seduces Kristin and they fall in love.  When Kristin begs Simon to break off the betrothal, he reluctantly agrees, though he is still in love with her.

But will Kristin and Erland be allowed to marry?  Erlend asks his aunt, Fru Aashild, to invite Kristin to her house.  She  ran away 20 years ago with a younger man, Herr Bjorn, after her husband’s death, and people have said that she murdered her husband and that she bewitched Bjorn.  She reluctantly decides to help Erlend.  But she is sorry for Lavrans and his wife.

She grew strangely heavy at heart when she saw that this child seemed to think not at all on the sorrow she would bring to her father and mother.  Yet I lived with Baard for more than 20 years in sorrow and torment, she thought.  Well, maybe ’tis so with all of us.  It seemed Kristin had not even seen how Ulvhild [Kristin’s sister] had fallen away this autumn–’tis little like, thought Aashild, that she will see her little sister any more.  But she said naught of this–the longer Kristin could hold to this mood of reckless gladness, the better it would be, no doubt.

Kristin gets her way, but is already pregnant when she and Erlend marry:  no one knows that except her mother, not even Erlend.

And then in The Mistress of Husaby, Kristin has to face Erlend’s faults. He is beautiful and noble, but also foolish and careless.  And when she and Erlend get off the boat and travel to his estate,  Husaby, she sees the manor house is a wreck and the farm a shambles.

Everywhere she had seen ill husbandry, when on the second day she went round with Erlend and looked over the manor and farm.  By the time the feasting was over, little would be left in barn and storehouse; the corn-bins were all but swept clean.  And she could not understand how Erlend could think to keep all the horses and so many cattle through the winter on the little hay and straw that was in the barns–of leaf-fodder there was not enough even for the sheep and goats.

Tina Nunnally's translation, Penguin 2005

Tina Nunnally’s translation, Penguin

Kristin takes over the management of the estate.    And she is constantly pregnant and sick for the next several years:  she has seven sons.  She and Erlend quarrel frequently.  She can barely hold things together.  The church is Kristin’s refuge, and Erlend’s brother, Gunner, a priest, one of her best friends.  And then Erlend is accused of treason.

The Cross is my favorite of the three.  This is obviously because I am older now, and  Kristin is older.    Erlend has lost his estate, and they have moved back to Kristin’s childhood home. Kristin is in charge.  As usual, he is a wastrel.  He hunts and parties while Kristin manages the farms and tries to train her sons to work on the farm. (She manages to train one.) Her youngest sister is unhappily married to Simon, who still loves Kristin.  And Kristin, with a strange mix of herbs, medicine, knowhow, and witchcraft, manages to save their son.

Unset writes brilliantly about marriage.  No one is happily married in this world.  Kristin’s parents were unhappy; she and Erlend are wretched.  They separate and he goes to live on a ramshackle  property he has inherited, and says he has had enough of the farmer’s life.  She truly loves him, and is horrified by how he is living; she visits once, and gets pregnant again, but he won’t come back.  And she needs a good life for her sons.  But because she is pregnant and Erlend isn’t living with her she faces accusations again.

A long section of The Cross is from Simon’s point of view.  He is so decent, so smart, and we all feel he deserved Kristin.  But Kristin knows she could never have loved Simon.  Her bond with Erlend cannot be broken, though it is a hellish one.  It is a paradox.

The Cross undset penguin 6219Characters die.  We mourn.  And finally, Kristin goes on the pilgrimage she has always wanted to take, and enters a convent.

How horrified I was by that when I was younger!  But I was always fascinated by the arc of Catholicism that defines this book.  Kristin needs beauty, she needs faith, and what she has is  struggle, illness, and pain. Monks and priests bring her books, spiritual help, and good conversation.  They are the most educated people of their day.  And the rules of Catholicism give a structure to the hard life in the Middle Ages.

Kristin is not so different from you and me, though she lives in different times.

Why should we care about Kristin, you ask. Well, she is us.  Different century, same experiences. As a teenager wants to buy expensive handmade purple shoes!  Loves to dance! Sneaks out of the convent!  Doesn’t want to marry the dependable guy!  And later there is marriage, multi-tasking, motherhood, religious pilgrimages, political and theological discussions, disappointments, separation–and do not let us forget the plague!

I love Charles Archer’s 1920s translations, which have a faint medieval tone, but a new modern translation by Tina Nunnally, published by Penguin (around 2000?), has been widely praised.  Nunnally’s translation of The Cross won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize in 2001.

Ovid’s Amores. I.14: Corinna’s Hair Falls Out After a Bad Dye Job

ainted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

Painted fresco panel from Herculaneum, Italy. 1st c AD. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.

My hair didn’t fall out, but I did dye my hair in my forties: a lovely glinting brown when I went to the hairdressers, and then a too-white  Clairol blond when I did it at home.  Everyone liked the blond–they were disappointed when I went gray–but I had an allergic reaction to the dye.  My  mother said: “It would take ten years off.”

Possibly that’s what Corinna thought.

In Ovid’s Amores (Loves), I.14, the narrator of the elegy chides his girlfriend Corinna when her hair falls out after a bad dye job. He praises the thin hair she used to have, using hilarious epic similes, and finally teasing her too hard.

The name Corinna is not used in this elegy, but I am calling her Corinna because of convention. Ovid mentions Corinna in several of the elegies, and whether she is called Corinna or not, the women in Ovid’s love elegies have the same character.

Here is a quick literal translation.  The meter is the elegiac couplet, which I have not attempted in English!  (The Latin meter is based not on accented syllables, but on the quantity of vowels, long and short syllables)

Amores, I.14

I said, “Stop dyeing your hair.”
Now you have no hair left to tint.
And what could be longer than your hair, if only you had let it alone?
It fell all the way down to your hips.
Did you dye it because it was thin and you feared to dress it,
like the silks the colored Chinese wear,
or the thread which the spider spins with graceful foot
when it weaves its light work under a deserted beam?
It was neither dark nor gold
but, though it was neither color, every color was mixed,
like the color he tall cedar has in the wet valleys
of hilly Ida when the bark is stripped.
Add that hair was docile and fitted to a hundred styles
and never a cause of grief.
No pin broke it, nor did the teeth of a comb….

Ovid amores book I 41n-zuNNiXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then he tells her he especially likes it when it is loose when she wakes up in the morning, “like a Thracian Bacchante, when she heedlessly lies down tired in the green meadow.”

And a few lines later:

Your beautiful hair has perished, which Apollo would want,
which Bacchus would want.
I should compare it the hair which the naked Venus
held in her wet hand in the painting.
Why do you complain that your badly disarranged hair has perished?
Why do you absurdly put down your mirror with your sad hand?…

And he points out:

No charmed herbs of a rival wounded you,
No treacherous witch washed it with Thessalonian water,
nor did the power of a disease harm you (may the bad omen stay away)
nor did a jealous tongue thin your hair.

Ovid tells her it her own fault. “You put the mixed poison on your head.”
And now a wig is the solution.  (Wigs were often sent from Germany.)

Now Germany will send you captive hair;
You will be safe by the gift of a conquered nation.
O how often you will blush when someone admires your hair
and you will say, “I am now esteemed because of purchased hair.
He praises some Sygambrian woman.
I remember when that fame was mine.”
Oh miserable me, she holds her tears badly and covers
her face with her right hand, a flush painted on her cheeks.
She holds her old hair in her lap and looks at it,
alas, a gift not worthy of that place.
Put in order your mind with your face; the damage is reparable;
Soon you will attract attention with your own hair again.

Ovid is witty and very comical–Roman love elegy is based in Roman comedy-but he goes too far, perhaps because the poet was so young when he wrote these, perhaps because it is a macho stance.   At the same time he seems to love Corinna and to sympathize with her trivial loss.   Who wouldn’t cry?  A woman’s tresses are her glory.  Mine could have been my glory, if I could have been bothered to blow dry it.  The only good hair days I have are when I’ve been to a hairdresser who can persuade me not to cut it  when I’m having a REALLY bad hair day.

We try to help our poor hair, and then it all goes wrong. There are so many scenes of hair in literature.  Louisa May Alcott is always writing about hair.

Think of Little Women. when Jo sells her hair to help her family. Her father, away at the Civil War, is very ill,, and Marmee must go to him.

…a  general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

“Your hair! Your beautiful hair! Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty. My dear girl, there was no need of this. She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!”

I remember laughing my head off when Winona Ryder as Jo was told her hair “was her only beauty.”  I did love Winona as Jo, though.

In Charles Bock’s remarkable new novel, Alice & Oliver (which I will write about soon), Alice gamely sports a blue wig when her hair falls out after chemo and radiation treatments.  But eventually she is too tired to strike an attitude and lets people see her bald head:  she undergoes so much pain in preparation for a bone marrow transplant.

And let me know any scenes in literature that come to mind!

Spring Is Here! & a Library Book Sale


We love the early spring! Our winter was not bad, but we were all tired by February and are now outside enjoying the weather.

Some trees are in bloom, some have already lost their blossoms, there are dandelions and violets (not enough for dandelion wine or violet jelly),  tulips and daffodils are out, but I have seen no lilacs.

And here’s the sure sign of spring:  lawn mowers.

The men are out with their machines all weekend.   You will be sitting in your backyard, pleasantly enjoying iced tea and a book, when CH-CHUG-CHA-ZZZZZZZZZ. There are many types of machines, mowers, edges, and is that a chainsaw?  Couldn’t they find something quieter?

There are a few women who mow:  they get the job done and are gone.  I did mow half of the yard when we first moved here.  I got blisters, and  my husband insisted on taking over.  Very nice of him!

imageSpring comes on very fast.  Just a week ago, I snapped this dark photo. You can see the grass is patchy, and the woods are still brown. On this particular day, the bicyclists were out, the walkers were out, occasionally a whole team of of  RAGBRAI riders went by (preparing for the seven-day cross-state ride in July), and  track team runners from the nearby college.


The library seems to cancel books only so we can buy them. We came home with some astonishing finds:

imageNo, I can’t believe it either. I haven’t read the American writer. Suzanne Berne, but her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won the Orange Prize. Yes, the library is really getting rid of Virginia Woolf:  this isn’t in the best shape, but I did see several other titles in very slightly better shape. I can only assume they have other copies.  This beautiful Everyman’s edition of Graham Swift’s Waterland appears never to have been opened. I’ve heard of Dubravka Ugresic and was very happy to find her book.

imageI have read Susan Sellers’ Vanessa & Virginia, a novel about Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, but decided I would like to own a copy.  Two by Isabel Allende: her work is superb, but I have not read all of it. John Updike is always brilliant–we thought he’d win the Nobel, but the Swedes apparently hate Americans and haven’t given it to an Amercian writer since 1993–and this is one of his last novels. I have enjoyed both the award-winning Alvarez and Rushdie..

So what is my challenge this year?  Read my library sale books!  It should be possible, yes?

Bedelia by Vera Caspary

bedelia vera caspary1097967I was not aware until recently that women wrote pulp fiction in the 1940s. I associated pulp with the great Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  But women’s pulp fiction has been reissued both in The Feminist Press’s Femmes Fatales series and in a stunning Library of America volume, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. Last fall I read Vera Caspary’s unputdownable  Laura.  Laura, a popular advertising executive, has been murdered, killed by a sawed-off shotgun.  The novel is cleverly  told  from three different points of view, that of Laura, an obese newspaper columnist, and the detective.

I recently read Vera Caspary’s “domestic suspense”novel, Bedelia,,  a gripping story of a mad housewife.

Men love sweet, naive, seductive Bedelia.  She and Charlie, a  well-to-do architect, are newly married.  Bedelia, a widow, met him at a resort in Colorado,  where she was recovering from the death of her husband,  who she said was an artist  in New Orleans.

Set in 1913,  the book starts with a Christmas party in Connecticut.  Bedelia is excited, and Charlie dotes on her.

This was to be his wife’s first Christmas in Charlie’s house. They had been married in August. She was a tiny creature, lovable as a kitten. Her eyes were lively, dark, and always slightly moist. In contrast with her brunette radiance, Charlie seemed all the more pallid, angular, and restrained.

Bedelia paperback vera caspary old 32262239.57223fc3.640

Although  I do not like “kitten” women, the party is wonderful.  Bedelia’s decorations and food are delightful.  And she has bought expensive, thoughtful gifts for everyone.

There is, however, trouble from the beginning:  we suspect she is less naive than she pretends.  There is trouble about an artificial black pearl ring,.  Charlie doesn’t like artificial jewelry, so he gives her a garnet ring to wear instead and she assures him she has given away the black pearl.    It turns she still has the ring.  He is frustrated by this deception.

Still, she is lovely.  Here is a description of how he views his darling  Bedelia’s housewifery skills.

Bedelia had tied over her blue dress an apron as crisp and clean as the curtains. She looked less like a housewife than a character in a drawing-room comedy, the maid who flirts with the butler as she whisks her feather duster over the furniture. The kitchen, with its neat shelves, starched curtains, and copper pots, made Charlie think of a stage-setting. And when Bedelia brought out her red-handled egg-beater and started whipping up a froth in a yellow bowl, he was enchanted. He had to hug her.

Life isn’t all neat and starched, though.  Bedelia has terrible nightmares.  Really terrible.  She won’t sleep unless the light is on.  And she communicates her fear to Charlie, so that he, too, becomes paranoid about the dark.

Gradually her fears had infected him. In the daytime he resolved to harden himself  against contagion, but when she clung to him in the dark, weeping, his mind filled with strange fancies and his flesh, under the blankets, chilled. By day his wife was earthy, a woman who loved her home and had a genuine talent for housekeeping. In the dark she seemed entirely another sort of creature, female but sinister, a woman whose face Charlie had never seen. It was absurd for a man of his intelligence to let himself be affected by these vague and formless fantasies, and he tried to account for his wife’s fear of the dark by remembering that she had lived a hard life.”

Bedelia becomes more and more tightly wound, especially about their artist neighbor, Ben.   Charlie wonders on earth has happened to his wife.  We become suspicious.

Well, I don’t want to tell you too much, but I will tell you this:  things are not what they seem.  I couldn’t stop reading it!  It is not as good as Laura,–I thought the ending was a little weak–but I enjoyed it very much.

I do intend to read more Caspary, and if anyone has recommendations, I would love to hear them.

Read the Review Later!

Charles Bock Alice & Oliver 51sUYGu0tgL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_How did I discover Charles Bock’s new novel, Alice & Oliver?  I read a review at BookPage. It is a promotional publication, and the reviews are always enthusiastic, but guess what?  I find it more reliable than  The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the TLS (wonderful critical publications, I must hastily add, when I’m in the mood for that).

Quite often when I read a review I say, Fuck!  I’ll go back to this after I’ve read the book.

You know those crazy book-a-thons where bloggers read for 24 hours?  My husband says, “How is that different from a usual day?” I read all the time.   I would read walking down the street if I could manage it. Nobody cares what I did in school, but my undergraduate major was called, adorably, School of Letters, and then I did classics.  Yup, I’ve read widely not only in the Western canon, but in the Greek and Latin models.  As a girl I read what I call the girls’ canon:  every Nancy Drew book, every Trixie Belden, Betsy-Tacy, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, E. Nesbit, Jane Austen,  Dodie Smith, and many Newbery winners, including A Wrinkle in Time.  It was an excellent preparation for a lifetime of reading.

In Bock’s second novel, Alice & Oliver, Alice is diagnosed with cancer, leukemia (she has no white blood cells left), over Thanksgiving, and gradually this terrible illness whittles away at the love between her and her husband.  Impressed with the description of the book,  I read a sample at Amazon and  loved the first few pages. I am reading it and finding it compelling.  Here is the opening paragraph of Alice & Oliver.

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked.  This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making ehr way down West Thirteenth.  Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders.  The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time.  She drank coffee from a paper cup.  Sweat bubbled from her neck.  Her scarf kept unraveling.  She was rocking knee-high boots–sensuous leather, complicated buckles.  Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal.  But she was slowing.  A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her.  Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody.

Bock’s wife died of cancer, and this novel is semi-autobiographical. Bock is a stunning writer:  he won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters.

I have not yet finished it.  But I was browsing online, and did what I never do:  I read (instead of skimmed) a review of Alice & Oliver at The New York Times.

As is often the case, it doesn’t match my experience.  The last paragraph is condescending.  Lauren Groff, a novelist reviewer,  writes as though he’s a creative writing student.

When a novel is drawn from awful events in the writer’s own life, a reviewer can find herself on a wobbly bridge strung between her duty to be honest on behalf of the potential reader, and the ethical imperative to avoid hurting a person who has already suffered so much. …The audience is being asked to read “Alice & Oliver” two ways, both as fiction and as fictionalized autobiography; but most of the book’s emotional work is occasioned not by the text but by the context. This can feel manipulative. Remove the autobiography and the book seems drained, wan, the characters ghosts, the love between them rarely more than shorthand…. As a writing teacher of mine once said, very gently, to a student who handed in work formed out of the rough stuff of her life, “That it happened doesn’t make it true.” By this, she meant that good fiction comes out of the author’s artistry. The real things to celebrate with the publication of “Alice & Oliver” are Bock’s superhuman efforts to write a story that must have seemed so large it blocked out all of the light, and all of the books in this talented author’s future that are now free to come into view.

You know what?  It has nothing to do with my reading the book.   Professional reviewers  cannot say, Wow.   There  is always a moment when they  say the book isn’t quite what it could have been, if the author had added x or y.  And sometimes the best novelists are not the best critics.

Apologies to those I trust, some of whom are novelists, some not:  Margaret Drabble, Tessa Hadley, D. J. Taylor, Michael Dirda, Michiko Kakutani…and many others.  But, let’s face it, we don’t know the ethics of each reviewer, who’s to be trusted, who not.


Do you want to know more about reviewers?  I enjoyed Michael Lind’s crazily good essay  at The Smart Set , “The Art of the Book Review.”  He talks from his experience as the writer of a book about reviewers’ formulas and includes excerpts from a very odd 1807 essay, “Advice to a Young Reviewer, with a Specimen of the Art.”

Here are the first two paragraphs of his witty article:

When I was writing my first book, my editor advised me to put everything I wanted the review-reading public to know in the first and last chapters, because those are the only chapters that most reviewers read. In the years since then, I have discovered that indeed most of the quotes pulled by reviewers from my books have come from the first and last sections. In nonfiction books at least, reviewers tend to skim the middle section and read only the summaries of the argument at beginning and end.

But this is only one of many crimes against authors committed with impunity by many of their reviewers. Most elements of the art of the book review serve the purpose of making the reviewer look more intelligent or erudite than the author whose work is under review. There is The Omitted Subject: “For all its merits, this book about the South Pole suffers from the lack of any discussion of the North Pole.” And there is The Book the Author Should Have Written: “By focusing on the South Pole, the author misses the opportunity to discuss a far more important subject: the Equator.”

And the 19th-century essayist,  Edward Copleston, urges reviewers to do these things and more.

Have you read any books  that are remarkable despite what the reviewers say?  I’m sure we all have our list!

Kathryn Davis’s The Thin Place

the thin place kathryn davis 51afuEV+qEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Kathryn Davis’s readers are no strangers to poeticism.  In her eerily transcendent novel, The Thin Place (2006), set in Varennes, a small town in New England, there is a thin place, barely separated from the spirit world, according to legend.  Many of the residents of Varennes are religious in varying degrees:  they attend an Episcopalian church, where ordinary people mingle with the eccentrics, and plaques commemorate eight children who died in a Sunday school picnic accident in 1872.  Their teacher, Miss Inez Fair, who also died, insisted on  taking them out in an unsafe boat. This historic event haunts the residents of Varnennes.

Davis is proficient at characterizing both children and adults.   Mees, a sensitive, angry 12-year-old girl, considered abnormal by her teachers, can bring people and dogs back from the dead.  Her  friends, Lorna, an aspiring writer who falls in unrequited love with a cruel trapper friend of her father’s, and Sunny, who is more mature than the others , do not understand her ability. The other characters are also sympathetic.  Andrea is a bookbinder who used to live in a geodesic dome and is currently binding the diary of Miss Fair; her husband is an archeologist who prefers living in a tent; Reverend Jenkins is a liberal and comforting minister; Helen Zeebrugge, who hates living in a retirement community, listens to the Forsyte Saga through headphones; her attractive sixtyish son, Piet, is having a purely sexual affair with a French teacher; and Billie, a nature lover,  joins a church security committee because she is lonely and has a crush on Piet.

Piet is a runner. But during a run, he cannot stop arguing with himself about God and the universe. What is the meaning?  What is God?

The universe a doughnut.  A teacup.  A scroll.  Like a garment turned inside out.  The outside of a bag without anything in it.  No throat.  No tongue.  No mind.  Also, no ventriloquist.

Let there be light, God said.  But what was God that God could say that?  where did his mouth come from?

The narrative is interspersed with short essays about the universe, creation myths, flood myths, and science.  Davis has said in an interview that these essays are from her point of view.

There are comic animal scenes.  The dogs, prowling at night, run away and kill chickens and then guiltily go home.  We hear what they are thinking, and their loyalty to their owners. A cat wanders into the church, then to the old age home, then onwards.  But there are sad things about the animals.  The determined Beau traps beavers in inhumane traps.

And sadly, some of the characters have accidents or are threatened, which  is very slightly reminiscent of the historical 19th-century Sunday school picnic.

This is a difficult book to talk about.  Like all of Davis’s novels, I absolutely loved it.  Davis uses elements of science fiction or magic realism, whatever you prefer to call it.  Davis has won a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999, a 2000 Guggenheim Fellowship,  and a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction in 2006.

One of my favorite novels of the year.

I also recommend The Walking Tour.

I Left My Bike at the Cemetery!

My cats speedily (and blurrily) explore emergency B&N bags.

My cats speedily (and blurrily) explore emergency B&N bags.

I checked the forecast. It wasn’t supposed to rain till 3:45.

I am  cavalier about bicycling in the rain. If it rains, it rains. I have sheltered sopping wet under trees on country trails.

And so I biked to Barnes and Noble.  I had coupons.

I bought Nell Zink’s Mislaid, a National Book Award finalist, and Susanna Gregory’s new mystery, The Chelsea Strangler (a hefty $30.95 with two 30%-off coupons:  the price of books rises, while salaries in the U.S. are stagnant).  I lingered and browsed, but intended to leave long before the rain.

IMG_3605 Nancy Drew bag and This Side of ParadiseAnd it started raining early!  So I had coffee.  And then, since it kept raining,  I needed a plan, so I bought two $1.99 polyester shopping bags (one with a Nancy Drew design, the other with Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise), put everything in one bag, then turned it upside down inside the other, and put it in the pannier.

It rained harder.  I put up my hood, which doesn’t tie, but it wasn’t windy, so it more or less stayed on.

Everything was under control until I got to the graveyard.

It is not a mysterious graveyard.  But suddenly I had a flat tire.

Naturally you have a flat tire, if you’re on your bike in the rain in the graveyard.

My new books.

My new books, dry!

And the tire was so flat it wouldn’t roll.  PLONK PLONK PLONK.  The tire had somehow come partly off the wheel.  I couldn’t deal with THAT.

And so I locked it up to a sign saying “The cemeteries’ graves and markers must be maintained by friends and relatives.”

Then I walked home, got soaked, and thank God the books stayed dry.

And now I think I’ll curl up with a book, because I deserve it!