Quotation of the Week: Tama Janowitz on Ironing in “Scream”

Tama Janowitz (right)

                                               Tama Janowitz (right)

I am enjoying Tama Janowitz’s entertaining new memoir, Scream, which has a lot in common with stand-up comedy.  Janowitz is best known as a Brat Pack writer in the ’80s (along with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis) who became famous overnight for her short story collection, Slaves of New York, which was later adapted as a Merchant Ivory film.  But life wasn’t always easy:   She was raised in semi-poverty by her mother, the poet Phyllis Janowitz, because her father, a pothead psychiatrist,  wouldn’t pay child support.  Janowitz grew up smart and stylish:  she went to Barnard College in New York, spent a junior year abroad in London, where she failed to recognize the talent of the Sex Pistols,  studied with Elizabeth Hardwick both at Barnard and in the MFA program at Columbia,  and finally publishesd by submitting a  story to The Paris Review under a male pseudonym, Tom A. Janowitz.

Janowitz scream u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az2vNK7LiZyZN+sBWsKtMX1WWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuShe also felt she was following in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath in 1977  when she won a contest to be a guest editor at  Mademoiselle, as Plath had done in the ’50s.  Janowitz expected her experience to be like Esther’s  in The Bell Jar.  Unlike Plath, she is sent to a photoshoot,  where she is commanded to iron a white satin blouse, “much nicer than anything I had ever had or seen.” How on earth do you iron a satin blouse?   Janowitz gamely tries, but she burns the blouse.

Would this have happened to Sylvia Plath?  She had been a guest editor and went to dance with Yale men on the roof of the St. Regis hotel during her time at the magazine.  There was no mention in The Bell Jar of being sent out to iron.  But if she had been, she would have ironed beautifully, I am sure.  My life and my future career possibility  were over.

Later, she is unable to get even an entry-level job at Conde Nast, so she  goes home to “Mom’s bleak little tract house by the interstate highway outside of Boston.” Her mother comforts her .

My mother was indignant that my job had been to iron.  “You’ve never been able to iron!”  But she suggested I write a letter to the editor apologizing and explaining how this terrible incident had occurred.  We wrote it together.  It started out reasonably, and then, as the two of us perfected it, became a masterpiece easily equal to Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”

And the letter is truly hilarious.  You’ll just have to read it!

Obama’s Reading List & New Books by the Brat Pack

obama_2016_sticker_bumperThe other day we saw a bumper sticker: OBAMA 2016.

Yes, we laughed, but we’re going to miss him.  Could we write him in on the ballot?

And then yesterday I saw Obama’s summer reading list.  I love reading lists!

Barbarian Days william finnegan 51+9Q4THKRL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_He’s at Martha’s Vineyard with the following  books.

“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
“Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

And so I went to a bookstore to look at some of these books.  I read a few pages of William Finnegan’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, Barbarian Days:  A Surfing Life, but it must be said I’m not much of a surfer–I’m NOT a surfer!  Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, an Oprah Book Club pick, interests me more than the others, but I did not buy that, either.


bright, precious days mcinerney BN-PE464_JAYjpg_MV_20160729171322Because two Brat Pack writers of the ’80s, Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney, have new books out!

Was I happiest in the ’80s?  Well, happy, who knows? But I loved 1980s literature.  Although Janowitz’s and McInerney’s partying life-style did not appeal to me, I enjoyed reading about it in Janowitz’s humorous collection of short stories, Slaves of New York, and McInerney’s witty novel, Bright Lights, Big City.

Naturally I bought Janowitz’s new memoir, Scream:  A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, and McInerney’s new novel, Bright, Precious Days, the third in a trilogy.

Janowitz scream u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az2vNK7LiZyZN+sBWsKtMX1WWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuI haven’t kept up with all of their work, but these two seem to be underrated these days. There are fashions in writing.  And yet  McInerney’s The Good Life is the best 9/11 novel I read, and I also loved his short story collection, How It Ended.  Janowitz is always witty–I laughed and laughed at The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group— but one reason I’m drawn to this memoir is that not only does she examine the excitement of her social life in New York in the ’80s but adjusting to marriage, motherhood, and ordinary life in upstate New York.  She also describes the care of her aging mother, who had dementia and ended up in a nursing home.  (I went through something like this a few years ago with my mother.)

NOTE:  Aug. 9 was the third anniversary of my mother’s death.  I thought about writing a post, but it is hard to write about the life of a very ordinary person.  Her favorite activity, as she coolly told the recreation advisor of the nursing home, was watching TV. And let me tell you, she settled in front of her TV and refused to go to the dining room or do crafts! I despaired but she would not play Bingo.  (I wonder:  would I?)  But I appreciate her stubborn eccentricity and dwell less on  her death these days.  In fact, I forgot the anniversary of her death until I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s brilliant novel, My Struggle, Book 1,  in which he writes about his father’s terrible death.  That’s progress!

And now I can cheer myself up with two good books.

Quotation of the Day: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book 1

knausgaard hardback MyStruggle_cvrforwebIt is hard to imagine a better novel than Book 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the first of a critically-acclaimed autobiographical sextet.  I have spent the last few days alternating watching the Olympics with reading Knausgaard. Who is better:  Gold Medal-winning gymnast, Aly Raisman, or the Norwegian novelist?

The narrator is the writer, Karl Ove, who describes in detail the real events of his life, or perhaps a fictional reflection of events.  This is a bildungsroman so realistic and exhaustive that his father’s family threatened a lawsuit before the publication.

He has been compared to Proust, and even the smell of Ajax cleanser can serve as his madeleine. He describes thoughts and feelings so intensely that  if we haven’t thought and felt them, we think and feel that we have.

In the first part of this unsentimental coming-of-age novel, Karl Ove explores his relationship with his alcoholic father, an English teacher obsessed with suicide who spends his last few years living in squalor at his mother’s house and drinking himself to death. Karl Ove’s older brother Yngve says their father destroyed his self-esteem, but Karl Ove was less hurt by him.  As Karl Ove looks back at his boyhood, he remembers good and bad moments, and captures the  pathos :  he also evokes the hours of boredom that constitute the life of the typical adolescent.

Knausgaard my struggle book 1 51maejxEQlL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Karl Ove is a dreamer:  he loves rock music and he and his friends form a band.  Only lack of talent stands in their way:    they don’t realize that until their audience winces at a mall and the manager forbids them to play.   He occasionally has girlfriends and is frequently in love.   On a freezing New Year’s Eve, he and a friend take a seemingly never-ending  trip to a party out of town, which involves lying to parents, hiding illicitly-obtained liquor in a ditch,  hitchhiking,  and drinking at a bus stop. They make it to the party, but Karl Ove doesn’t get the girl.

Karl Ove is sometimes depressed, but he is ultimately optimistic.   As a student and young writer,  he drinks too much, studies creative writing at the university in Bergen, spends much time at clubs and rock concerts with his brother, since he has trouble making friends, and interviews famous writers for the student newspaper.

In one of my favorite scenes, which is both painful and hilarious, Karl Ove interviews the poet Olav H. Hauge with two of his friends.  Since Hauge is expecting only Karl Ove, he won’t let them in at first, and then he is grumpy.  But they hang around forever, and watch a TV team interviews Hauge, and then he finally loosens up.  He even reads them a few poems, but Karl Ove spaces out and experiences what inevitably happens to me at poetry readings.

Standing there on the drive and looking down at the ground while he read, I was thinking that this is a great and privileged moment, but not even this thought had time to settle, for the moment occupied by the poem, which its orginator read in its place of origin, was so much greater than us, it belonged to infinity, and how could we, so young and no brighter than three sparrows, receive it?  We could not, and at any rate, I squirmed as he read.  It was almost more than I could endure.  A joke would have been apposite, at least to lend the everyday life in which we were trapped some kind of form.  Oh, the beauty of it, how to deal with it?  How to meet it?

And then, disastrously, not one of them has taken notes, and when Karl Ove tries to write it, he has nothing.  Hauge wanted to see the article before publication–never, never agree to that, guys!–and Karl Ove sends it to him.  Hauge hates it and tells him not to publish it.  Karl Ove suffers:  he had loved meeting Hauge, and now he is humiliated.

Knausgaard makes us want to look at boxes of cleaning products with a list and simple descriptions.  After their father dies in 1998 , Karl Ove and his brother clean up two years of their father’s destruction of their grandmother’s house:  piss and shit everywhere, moldy piles of stinking clothes, food-clotted plates.  It takes them days.  As he cleans, he thinks of the products.

The smell of Klorin and the sight of the blue bottle took me back to the 1970s, to be more precise, to the cupboard under the kitchen sink where the detergents were kept.  Jif didn’t exist then.  Ajax washing powder did though, in a cardboard container, red, white, and blue.  It was a green soap.  Klorin did too; the design of the blue plastic bottle with the fluted, childproof top had not changed since then.  There was also a brand called OMO.  And there was a packet of washing powder with a picture of a child holding the identical packet, and on that, of course, there was a picture of the same boy holding the same packet, and so on, and so on.  Was it called Blenda?

And then they have to figure out the care of their now senile grandmother.

The second book is also great:  I read them out of order, and wrote about Book 2 here.

I do look forward to reading the others!

Good Sportsmanship, Reading Calendar for August, & Literary Links

2016 Rio Olympics - Swimming - Final - Women's 200m Freestyle Final - Olympic Aquatics Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 09/08/2016. Katie Ledecky (USA) of USA and Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) of Sweden celebrate

Good sportsmanship:. Katie Ledecky (USA)  and Sarah Sjostrom (SWE) embrace.

“Go, go, go, go!”

Yes, we yell at the Olympics on TV.  We are Olympics-crazy!  And how could they win without our yelling?  After Katie Ledecky won the Gold Medal for  the 200-meter women’s freestyle tonight, we approved the sportsmanlike embrace between Ledecky and Swedish Silver Medalist Sarah Sjostrom.   Some athletes prefer one-upmanship to sportsmanship:  we saw clips of South Africa’s Chad le Clos’s repeatedly taunting Michael Phelps. Then  Phelps won his 20th Gold Medal for the Men’s 200-Meter Butterfly and Cahd le Clos came in second, so let’s hope that nonsense is over.


Summer is prime time for enjoyable online reading events, with many bloggers and readers coming together to read books in a designated category.

A Virago: it has the green spine!

First up:   All Virago/All August.  This was founded by the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group.  My choice?  A Virago I found in London:  American writer Alix Kates Shulman’s On the Stroll, a little-known novel about a pimp, a runaway, and a bag lady who has visions.   I loved Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and her 1995 memoir Drinking the Rain, so I’ll give this a try.

Second up:  Women in Translation month.  Here is a link to an article at PEN America about the genesis and progress of Women in Translation Month.

In May 2014, blogger Meytal Radzinski, a student of biophysics in Israel and an avid and insightful reader, announced the first Women in Translation month, to be held that August. Her goals, she wrote, were simple:

1. Increase the dialogue and discussion about women writers in translation

2. Read more books by women in translation

And, by the way, I have already finished a book in translation,  Colette’s The Pure and the Impure, a  collection of essays about gender and sexuality, possibly shocking in her time, doubtless politically incorrect in our time.

the pure and the impure colette 89848LITERARY LINKS.

1. At The Guardian,  Alex Clark’s article on women’s friendship in fiction is worth reading.

2  At Salon, Dan Green complains about Little Free Libraries. Here is an excerpt:

Little Free Library has a seductive marketing slogan that’s carved into the top of every unit: “Take a Book; Return a Book.” Such a simple equation. And such wishful thinking. Take? Oh, absolutely. People are, in fact, really good at that part. For example there was the young mom who lifted her toddler up to the box, watching uncritically as he scooped up “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie’s collection of criticism and essays. Which I’m sure he enjoyed.

When it comes to returning, people mean well. For example, I don’t doubt the sincerity of that young mom when she told her greedy little urchin, “We have to remember to come back soon and give them some books.” The problem is that, to borrow my favorite report card phrase, remembering, for most people, “remains an area of growth.” It’s not that I blame my (mooching) neighbors. Indeed, I, myself, seldom return books to the public library on time. And they fine you if you don’t. But since I don’t punish people (unless you count silent, withering judgment), I’ve got no leverage. The truth is laziness is just part of human nature. It’s what separates us from the beavers.

3  And at Literary Hub, Daisy Dunn, author of Catullus’ Bedspread, writes that her longest relationship is with the dead poet Catullus.

Catullus' Bedspread 61nE1tim0bL

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

tarkington dover magnificent Ambersons

They had one supreme theory: that the perfect beauty and happiness of cities and of human life was to be brought about by more factories; they had a mania for factories; there was nothing they would not do to cajole a factory away from another city; and they were never more piteously embittered than when another city cajoled one away from them.
― Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons

Since moving back to the Midwest, I have read many early 20th-century Midwestern writers.  You probably know the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Willa Cather, a peerless chronicler of loneliness in small towns (A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House), the struggles of aspiring musicians and artists  (Lucy Gayheart, The Song of the Lark, Youth and the Bright Medusa), and the hard lives of immigrant farmers (My Antonia, O Pioneers!).

But there are many neglected Midwestern Pulitzer Prize winners.  All but forgotten is Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), born in Indianapolis, a once popular writer who won the Pulitzer for two excellent novels, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1919 and Alice Adams in 1922.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a small masterpiece. It’s not so much the style, which is very plain, as the development of the parallel themes of the decline of a wealthy  family who dominated a midwestern town with  the rise of the automobile and urban sprawl.   It very radically connects the popularity of the car to the desertion of once wealthy neighborhoods in the inner city.

Tarkington begins with a sketch of the Amberson family.  Major Amberson, the patriarch, made a fortune in 1873, when others were losing theirs, and his family not only owns the town, but dominates society.   And a lovely society it was for the rich, with much parading on sidewalks and in buggies.  In Orson Welles’s excellent film version, it starts  with Welles’s narration of a paragraph on the opening page.

In that town, in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet, and when there was a new purchase of sealskin, sick people were got to windows to see it go by. Trotters were out, in the winter afternoons, racing light sleighs on National Avenue and Tennessee Street; everybody recognized both the trotters and the drivers; and again knew them as well on summer evenings, when slim buggies whizzed by in renewals of the snow-time rivalry. For that matter, everybody knew everybody else’s family horse-and-carriage, could identify such a silhouette half a mile down the street, and thereby was sure who was going to market, or to a reception, or coming home from office or store to noon dinner or evening supper.

Dolores Costello, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons

Dolores Costello, Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons

The  gracious, charming Ambersons live idyllic lives and set the bar for manners and hospitality in the thriving town.  But time passes.  Businesses come and go and new generations are born.  The birth of the anti-hero, Major Amberson’s grandson, George Amberson Minafer, marks the beginning of a stagnancy among the upper classes.  This arrogant rich boy,  even while still dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy ruffles and long curls, is rude to adults and  beats up any boy who challenges his preeminence.    A boy hanging on a fence sees Georgie on his white pony and yells jealously,

“Shoot the jackass!  Look at the girly curls!  Say, bub, where’d you steal your mother’s ole sash!”

“Your sister stole it for me! ” Georgie instantly replied, checking the pony.  “She stole it off our clo’es-line an’ gave it to me.”

“You go get your hair cut!” said the stranger hotly.  “Yah!  I haven’t got any sister!”

“I know you haven’t at home,” Georgie responded.  “I mean the one that’s in jail.”

magnificent ambersons tarkington new modern library 51WEepB+5XLBefore the encounter is over, Georgie beats up “the stranger.”  He has no regrets.  His mild mother, Isabel, admires him so much she doesn’t discipline him.  Uncle Jack Amberson, a congressman,  is half-amused, half-exasperated, claiming he was not unlike him as a boy but grew out of it.  Unfortunately  Georgie shows no sign of growing out of it.  He grows up to be a monster.

Why does Isabel dote on and coddle Georgie?  Perhaps because of her marriage.  Everyone thought she would marry the lively, brilliant Eugene Morgan, but he blew his chances when he drunkenly serenaded Isabel with a band and walked through a bass viol.  (As one of the town gossips points out, it wasn’t the drunkenness that caused the breakup but the fact that he made a fool of Isabel.)  Isabel married the quiet Wilbur Minafer instead.

Tarkington’s models and favorite writers were Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and George Meredith.  I see the influence of  Meredith.   Georgie grows up to be a tyrant, and is not unlike the arrogant Sir Willoughby from Meredith’s The Egoist.  Conceited Georgie falls in love with  beautiful, bright Lucy Morgan, but she can’t bear his idleness. He tells her he has no interest in studying law or going into business.  He is a gentleman with money, a graduate of an Ivy League school, and he intends to be, not do.

Lucy’s father, Eugene Morgan (Isabel’s old boyfriend),  has worked his way up in the world through enthusiasm for the automoile, inventions, and tinkering.  He has returned  to town to start an automobile factory.  Since Georgie is strictly a “Get a hoss!” man, you can imagine what he thinks of Eugene.  And after he hears gossip about Eugene and his mother,  Georgie loses everyone’s sympathy.

I am fascinated by novels that treat contemporary issues like pollution, and this seems very modern.  Eugene’s factory thrives, other factories come to the city, the car replaces the horse, and the pollution is so intense that people must leave their now smutty, smoky homes for the suburbs. The Ambersons try to hang on, but the Major makes some bad business decisions and loses money.  He doesn’t understand the new century.

Much as I love Eugene and Lucy, Tarkington hints that Eugene’s factory is the first of many that wrecked a gracious way of life.  The dirt of the smoky city creates the flight to the suburbs.

What they meant by Prosperity was credit at the bank; but in exchange for this credit they got nothing that was not dirty, and, therefore, to a sane mind, valueless; since whatever was cleaned was dirty again before the cleaning was half done. For, as the town grew, it grew dirty with an incredible completeness. The idealists put up magnificent business buildings and boasted of them, but the buildings were begrimed before they were finished. They boasted of their libraries, of their monuments and statues; and poured soot on them. They boasted of their schools, but the schools were dirty, like the children within them. This was not the fault of the children or their mothers. It was the fault of the idealists, who said: “The more dirt, the more prosperity.” They drew patriotic, optimistic breaths of the flying powdered filth of the streets, and took the foul and heavy smoke with gusto into the profundities of their lungs. “Boost! Don’t knock!” they said. And every year or so they boomed a great Clean-up Week, when everybody was supposed to get rid of the tin cans in his backyard.

We are lucky that our small Midwestern city is about 10 years  behind big American cities. For a long time, we hoped urban sprawl might pass us by. Until a few years ago, we had a viable downtown.  Unfortunately, the demise of downtown often means the demise of the city. But a developer is trying to build a downtown mall:  fingers crossed!

Loved The Magnificent Ambersons, which is the second of his Growth trilogy.

Zombiefied by the Olympics

Michael Phelps wins 19th Gold Medal!

Michael Phelps wins 19th Gold Medal!

I am zombiefied by the Olympics so I cannot write about LITTERACHURE.  We sat with saucer eyes in front of synchronized diving, gymnastics, and Michael Phelps.  Hurrah, go Team USA, and Michael Phelps won his 19th gold medal, but IT IS TOO MUCH TV.

I had planned to write about Booth Tarkington’s  magnificent novel The Magnificent Ambersons, which won the Pulitzer in 1919. Did you know it is the great urban sprawl novel as well as the story of the decline of a wealthy family?

Well, I’ll write about it soon.

Here is a poem about watching the Olympics by J. Allyn Rosser (July 2012, The Smithsonian).  Enjoy!

Only five of us were arguing about the score
of a forward one-and-a-half triple twist
with absolutely rip entry, executed
by an unpronounceable stiff-stepping Russian,
because the sixth was busy in the kitchen.
I couldn’t help noticing how Jane had made
every surface sparkle, clutter-free, neat tray
of snacks, napkins fanned on the coffee table,
fresh daisies on the mantel and by the door.
The Russian’s entry was smooth, minimal splash,
but his come out had been a tiny bit clumsy.
So Jane’s future ex-husband said, anyway,
and when he called out that he wouldn’t mind
another beer as long as she was up,
and she called back that she’d just brought him one,
he had to say something.  Because there it stood,
still frosty, darkening the coaster at his elbow.
He said now that’s the sign of a good wife,
like a good waitress, you’re hardly even aware
when she’s there.  By now Jane had entered,
her arms crossed in a kind of tuck position.
Her approach was understated but forceful,
and the deftness of the look she sent him
when he finally looked up at her
was so pure and deep and swift, it left
hardly a ripple there in the room among us.

My Colette Paperbacks Are Falling Apart!

IMG_3852Alas, woe is me, oimoi! My faded Colette paperbacks are falling apart.  I had a set of 16 FSG/Noonday Press editions, but the bindings cracked and I’m down to seven.  I love the delicate drawings on these white covers now faded to cream.  I found them at the Union bookstore as a freshman and charged the books on my student ID.  Reading Colette made me feel sophisticated (says she who wore bell-bottom jeans and t-shirts).

Sure, my cat used the top edge of  My Mother’s House and Sido as  a scratching post, but  all remained readable until the glue began to dissolve.  The bindings have cracked: p.  84, The Pure and the Impure, p.  26, The Vagabond, etc..

I’ve replaced The Blue Lantern, Break of Day, The Shackle, The Complete Claudine, Mitsou/Music-Hall Sidelights, My Apprenticeships, and Gigi, to name a few.  Several are in print from FSG, thank God.  But most of mine are used:  an   NYRB, an old hardcover Colette omnibus with an introduction by Erica Jong,  old Penguins, a Dover,  and  Peter Owens.

How can I replace this pretty edition of Sido and My Mother’s House?  (Mine is not as pretty as this picture of someone else’s online.)

My Mother's House and Sido colette 0374512183.1.zoom

Well, it is in print from  FSG, but with a different cover.

my mother's house sido colette new fsg 51IOr+jGOJL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

And what about The Vagabond?  I am very attached to this book.

the vagabond colette noonday 904293My favorite Colette is The Vagabond, the first one I read.  The heroine, Renee, is a witty, sophisticated, reserved writer-turned-music-hall artist,  enjoying casual friendships with  the troupe and life on the road, while trying to avoid her fan, “Big Noodle,”  who sends her flowers and is determined to seduce and marry her. Renee is divorced and resists a new relationship. She prefers to spend time with her bulldog.  I wanted to be just like Renee, but how would that would have would been possible?  Should I have been a mime/dancer instead of a Latin teacher/flunky editor/perpetual student/waitress?  Well, I can’t mime or dance…but I do know Latin.

colette erica jong il_340x270.766889536_leuuFortunately, The Vagabond is included in an omnibus edition of Colette with an introduction by Erica Jong, so I’m covered if this one falls apart.

Omnibuses are the salvation of biblio-civilation!

Do your books fall part?  Can they be saved?  What is their shelf life (ha ha)?  I have turned on comments just for this post.

What Critics & Bloggers Think of the Man Booker Longlist (& Why I’m Supposed to Read The Leatherstocking Saga)

A friend says, “Enough Anglophilia!”

I was thinking of reading Charlotte M. Yonge when he launched a protest about my gaps in the American canon:  how can I read third-rate Victorian novels when I haven’t read James Fennimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Saga?  And so I am reading The Last of the Mohicans, and,  I admit,  there is a certain charm in sentences like,

“Chingachgook grasped the hand that, in the warmth of feeling, the scout had stretched across the fresh earth, and in that attitude of friendship these intrepid woodsmen bowed their heads together, while scalding tears fell to their feet, watering the grave of Uncas like drops of falling rain.”

Yet I will go crazy if I don’t read something British, so I am poring over the Man Booker Prize longlist (posted here), which, astonishingly,  features five Americans.   The only book I’ve read on the list is Elizabeth Strout’s  brilliant Booker-worthy novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. 

Even more fun  than the longlist is the fuss about it.  Critics and bloggers have their favorites.

At the TLS blog, Toby Lichtig  analyzes the longlist and shares his personal longlist.  He writes,

When it comes to the Man Booker I’m firmly with Julian Barnes on the “posh bingo” front. As I discussed last night on Front Row with Alex Clark and John Wilson, this year’s is a particularly surprising list, blindsiding the critics with several novels that have barely been reviewed in the British press. Having not seen all 155 submitted books – and having, frankly, not read many of the ones on the current list – it would be unfair of me to criticize the choices. But while many of the entries are no doubt worthy of recognition, I could quite imagine an alternative reality in which all of these thirteen were replaced by thirteen deserving others. And certainly the list as a whole looks a little narrow to me. Everyone on it is either North American or British, with the exception of J. M. Coetzee, who represents the whole of African and Australasia. There are no Irish writers and no Asian ones (Madeleine Thien is a Canadian of Chinese parentage). There are fewer doorstops this year than in previous ones, and fewer sweeping narratives, with an emphasis on the family, the domestic.

I have read none of the books on Lichtig’s list (read the post!), but I do have Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs on my e-reader.  Does that count?

Then there’s The  Guardian Every summer it sponsors an informal Not the Booker Prize. There are 100 or more on the list, and you can vote for two choices.

Sam Jordison writes,

OK, I’m happy to admit that the main prize has a few things going for it. But I always feel that its longlist is just as notable for its omissions as the books that are chosen. This year was no exception. A few good books sometimes sneak on there – but dozens more don’t make it. And you know what? The Booker’s so-called longlist isn’t even that long. Not like the Not the Booker. As you will see below, our list really is long.

Well, I’ve only read three on this list.  Are they Not the Booker-worthy?  Here are my thoughts:

lionel shriver the mandibles 41m4GoRGmnLLionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, a brilliant, comical,  often dark  dystopian novel about money, is three-fourths Not the Booker-worthy. It’s fascinating, but some of the information about money (which we learn in dialogue) seems dumbed down.  (I also noted this dumbing down in the movie Money Monster with George Clooney and Julia Roberts.  People think we’re dumb about money–and yet…)

The Girls Cline 9780812998603Emma Cline’s The Girls, an eerie atmospheric novel about a woman looking back at her 1960s adolescence and her peripheral involvement with a Manson-like cult, is definitely Not the Booker-worthy (but British reviewers don’t seem to get it, so I think it’s an American thing, and that’s why it didn’t make the actual Booker list).

Charlotte Wood’s The Nature of Things, an Australian dystopian novel in the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s brilliant, but a bit slow in the beginning.  Is it Not the Booker-worthy?  It won the Stella Prize in Australia, but it wouldn’t be my choice.


At A Little Blog of Books, Clare writes,

Like many others, I had particularly high hopes for The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and ‘The Tidal Zone’ by Sarah Moss but unfortunately both of these titles either missed out or were not submitted for entry. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan’s forthcoming ‘Nutshell’ are other notable absentees. However, as well as ‘Eileen’ and ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’, I also picked out ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien as a potential longlisted book in my predictions list and I am looking forward to reading it over the summer. I must also confess that I didn’t realise until today that ‘Purity’ by Jonathan Franzen was actually eligible last year – for some reason, I thought it had been published in November in the UK rather than September last year so apologies if I misled anyone with that!

The Essex Serpent and Do Not Say We Have Nothing haven’t been published here yet, but I do want to read them.

Phillip Edwards at PGE’s Booker Blog analyzes,

…this list reminds me of 2011 – not because of its “readability” – but because I see a lot of also-rans.

I had a hunch back then that the wide open longlist full of unknowns left the way clear for Julian Barnes, who was far and away the biggest name on the longlist, and this time around I’m wondering if the same applies to JM Coetzee.

Coetzee would figure highly in any list of the world’s greatest living writers (even when no-one is quite sure who, or what, he is writing about) so if The Schooldays of Jesus is anywhere close to his best work he could be heading for a Booker hat-trick. Although Booker judges love to be unpredictable, and do usually drop the favourite at the shortlist stage…

Now there’s somebody who knows his Booker!

What books on the longlist do you recommend?  What do you think is missing?

I wonder what happened to Tessa Hadley’s The Past, which I wrote about here.  Was it published too early in the UK for this year’s Booker?

In Twenty Years by Allison Winn Scotch

In Twenty Years Allison Scotch 51iNY+plaLLAllison Winn Scotch’s new novel, In Twenty Years,  is my favorite beach book of 2016.  It has a lot in common with Emma Straub’s widely-reviewed light novel, Modern Lovers.  Both center on the midlife crises of a group of old college friends–and, coincidentally, one of the group members in each book is a rock star.

Scotch’s novel is more focused:  it takes place during a weekend reunion. Five friends gather for the 4th of July weekend in the house they shared as students in Philadelphia. The twist?  It is not their idea. Their friend, Bea, who died in a car crash 13 years ago, was the one who kept the group together.  They learn that Bea bought the old house before her death when they receive invitations from Bea’s lawyer (at her written request) to convene for what would have been her fortieth birthday.

None of these characters is happy.  Lindy, a petulant rock star, loves to write songs, but the studio wants to keep her music “young,” and now gives her studio songs to pass off as her own.  Annie, a wealthy housewife, suffered from postpartum depression and had a problem with prescription psychotropic drugs, but now posts on Facebook and Instagram to convince herself she’s happy.   Catherine’s blog, The Crafty Lady, has become a big business, and she is under pressure and never home.   Her husband, Owen,  a  househusband, is as directionless as Annie.  (it’s hard to stay home.)  And Colin, a former neurosurgeon, switched fields to cash in on plastic surgery in L.A. They are no longer the simple people Bea loved.

The structure is slightly formulaic:  we see each character’s reaction to the invitation, their discomfort during their initial interactions, and finally the tension builds to a crisis.  It’s predictable, yet I loved it.  I kept highlighting passages, especially about the effect of social media on women’s lives.  (The men characters don’t seem to need it).

I’m  fascinated by the social media issues, because of blogging (my only social medium online).  Catherine’s Crafty Lady blog has grown from a fun project with 125 hits a day into a big business–and it is a nightmare.   She is constantly thinking about the competition.

The Crafty Lady has seen a treacherous slide over the past year; copycat bloggers have produced content faster and fresher, with younger demographics and hipper ideas. So if she doesn’t work these late nights, doesn’t slave over the right color of napkins, then the treacherous slide will evolve into a full-blown avalanche. And then what? They’ve built their whole lives around her success. Owen included.

For Annie,  social media saves her from actual communication.  Throughout the weekend she tweets, updates Facebook, and posts to Instagram. She feels comfortable if she doesn’t have to interact, especially with Colin, whom she has always loved.  As soon as she arrives she takes a photo of the house for Facebook.

Maybe she won’t have to toy with the pigmentation too much to shift it from a photo of a sort-of pretty, but nothing special, house with navy bricks and white shutters (they used to be teal bricks with purple shutters—no one was ever sure why, but they affectionately nicknamed it “Bruiser,” and the moniker stuck) to something magical. Something emotive. Something that the women from school or Pilates or spin class (none of whom Annie really thinks of as friends because, well, she doesn’t have a lot of real friends) will see and think, OMG! Annie, I wish I was there with you, wherever you are! Xoxoxoxoxoxo!!!!! She takes the photo four different times, satisfied with the last version, aware that the distraction has calmed her nerves, blocked out the dizzying noise clattering inside her mind. She posts it to Facebook. Filter: vintage

Lindy doesn’t use social media much–her publicist writes hers.  But when she is recognized at a bar in Philadelphia, students post about her on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Suddenly everyone, including a very nice man in New York she has been sleeping with, knows where she is.   She has lied to her girlfriend in California and to her publicist about her whereabouts.

Well, eventually everyone comes together–sort of.  But, believe me, this is not The Big Chill or The Return of the Secaucus Seven.

A really enjoyable light book with a little bit of darkness!   For women only, just so you’ll know. 🙂

Small Changes by Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy Small Changes 1457469478_Piercy_SmallChanges

Women in Marge Piercy’s novels have messy lives, and I wonder if that’s why Small Changes got short shrift in a one-line review in The New York Times in 1973:  “A rambling story of two women, one working class, the other middle class, and their doomed stratagems for escaping hellish marriages.” No mention of the fact that the two women are radical feminists, or of Piercy’s messy, brilliant details about how we lived then:  applying diaphragm jelly, going on gay rights marches, and burning bread.

Small Changes is a fast-paced novel with fascinating characters, but it is also a brilliant study of the women of the counterculture of the 1960s. Piercy interweaves the stories of two radical women, Miriam, a flamboyant, sexy mathematician-turned-computer-scientist-genius who is in love with and has sex with two egotistical men, and Beth, a working-class woman who runs away from a controlling husband,  works for low wages as a typist, and eventually forms a women’s commune.

Few novelists successfully managed to capture the earnest feminist politics and experimental living arrangements of the ’60s and ’79s.  Piercy is savvy not only about feminism but about communes: she knows both the loosey-goosey house-sharing and the politically-motivated structures. The few communes I knew of were essentially house-sharing for the poor.  I  heard much more about “collectives”:  A friend’s parents lived briefly in a collective, organized around radical politics.

When we first meet Beth in Syracuse, she cannot believe she fell into the marriage trap.  Beth muses about how women’s magazines encouraged her best friend Dolores and herself to build a life around men.

If your hair didn’t please, you cut it or you curled it or you straightened it, and if your parents let you, you streaked it or dyed it. If your voice didn’t please, you went around trying to talk in your throat. You did exercises supposed to make your breasts grow and your waist shrink, and always you dieted. You shaved your legs and under your arms and bought creams and lotions and medicines to fight pimples. The constant message in the air was that, if you didn’t attract boys, you must change your body, rearrange your head, your personality, your ideas to fit in with what was currently wanted.

Small Changes Marge Piercy paperback 9780449236710-us-300When her husband flushes her birth control pills down the toilet, she runs away to Boston and changes her name. She reads widely and gets to know some interesting peoplein a commune.  When she tires of the power struggles between the men and women, she starts her own commune for women.  They want to form an identity outside the world of the nuclear family and consumerism.  At night they do improvisational theater.

Miriam, a brilliant computer science student at M.I.T., is sexy friendly, and maternal, and worries about and coddles Beth. Some men love Miriam, but she is working in a man’s field, and weak men resent her success.

The night before, something gratuitously nasty had happened. She had run into Barnett from her course in compiler generator systems and he had asked her how she had done. At her answer he had given her a mean squinty smirk and said, “Maybe if I had tits to shake in his face I’d ace it too.” He had walked off leaving her feeling daubed with vomit. As if she hadn’t been eating and sleeping and breathing that course.

Who of my generation hasn’t had such an experience in school?

And Miriam has such bad taste in men.  It is very painful to read about her experiences with Phil, a poet who writes sexist songs that insult Miriam, and Jackson, Phil’s sadistic best friend.  Miriam, Miriam, Miriam!  Get out!  But when she marries another computer scientist, things get even worse.  And then we see the worth of Phil.

I very much enjoyed this novel: it really is a (fictional) record of women’s history.  Most of Piercy’s novels have been reissued as e-books by Open Road Media.  She won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her science fiction novel, He, She, and It.