The Love of the Canon: The 150th Anniversary of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment & Do We Need Booksellers’ Recommendations?

Dostoevsky at the Iowa City Writers' Festival.

A Dostoevsky reading at the Iowa City Writers’ Festival.

The lineup for the Iowa City Book Festival, Oct. 4-9, is stunning:   Robert Olen Butler, Leslie Jamison, Roxanne Gay, Nathan Hill, Michelle Hoover, Suki Kim, and many international writers.  And, Russian literature fans, there will be a celebration of Dostoevsky.

Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, is a natural for literary festivals. It is  home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, founded in 1936, the first MFA program in creative writing.  Growing up in Iowa City I took the literary culture for granted.  The writers were there, their readings were boring (my mind still wanders during readings), I missed Stephen Spender (I know!), but we kept up with the work of the faculty:  John Irving, Gail Godwin, Kurt Vonnegut,  T. C. Boyle, Jane Smiley, John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut…

One of the best things about the University of Iowa was taking multiple creative writing classes for credit. I loved my Fiction Writing class from T. C. Boyle, a helpful teacher and a very kind grader indeed. (It was before all the creativity was slapped out of me in the workplace.)  A lesbian with a quirky sense of humor confided over coffee that her girlfriend wrote her stories for her:  she needed an A!   Shocking, but fascinating.

If I  attend the Iowa City Book Festival this year, it will not be for the authors’ readings. Instead, I will support the canon:  I want to attend the three-day public reading of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in honor of the classic’s 150th anniversary.  It is organized by Anna Barker, an adjunct who teaches the “Tolstoyevsky” course (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), and, yes, they will read the whole book.  The reading will take place at the Old Capitol,  Oct. 4 and 5, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Oct. 6, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. (or until finished). There is also  a panel discussion, “Dostoevsky’s Notions of Criminality and Redemption for 21st Century Readers,” at the Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 6.

I probably won’t go, though.  Well, maybe for an hour.

ARE YOU MESMERIZED BY BOOKSELLERS? We all miss Doug (1949-2012), who worked at Borders and chatted endlessly with lonely readers.  Sometimes, in my Anita Brookner moods, I wasn’t in the mood for conversation and ducked him.

Perhaps there are “Doug”s at Heywood Hill, an independent bookseller in Mayfair I read about in The Guardian this morning.  It is sponsoring a “Library of a Lifetime Prize Draw” to mark its 80th anniversary, with a free book of the month, chosen after interviews with the customer-winner.

According to the website:

Enter our spectacular 80th anniversary prize draw for the chance to win one of three incredible literary prizes. First prize is a lifetime’s subscription to our famous A Year in Books service. The lucky winner will never need to buy a book again. They will be sent a new hardback book, individually chosen to suit their particular reading taste, every month FOR LIFE. This competition is a free to enter prize draw. To enter simply tell us which single book has meant the most to you, published in English since Heywood Hill opened in 1936. You can enter the prize draw by filling in the form below. This prize draw closes at midnight on Monday 31 October 2016. Scroll down to find out more about the fantastic prizes on offer and our famous book subscriptions, A Year in Books.

Oh dear, why didn’t I know about this bookstore in London?

There are other bookstore clubs with similar programs.  I’m thinking of the The Apple-a-Month Club at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.

Here’s how it works: We pore over stacks of soon-to-be-released fiction to find the paperback original we’re most excited about. The only guiding policy is that every book we pick will be new, fiction and what we think will be appealing to all types of readers. Why take the risk? Well, we’re hoping you might discover something you never would have picked up elsewhere. You can then look forward to getting a new book with a handwritten note about why we love it in the mail once a month. As publication dates vary, so will the delivery date — that’s part of the fun.

It does sound like fun, doesn’t it?

But I must admit, I’ve read widely in the canon, and I don’t need anyone to curate my reading for me.  I have enough trouble not buying every book that gets a good review.  I also have a weakness for the blogger Jacqui Wine, and thus cannot regularly visit these fabulous book sites.

A Reader’s View: The Books of London


Mary Stewart’s lost novella.

Is there a better city for books than London?

I doubt it.

Sometimes I think British literary culture is Greece to our Rome, but then I am an Anglophile.  Even though I’m fond of American novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and  Dawn Powell, I prefer Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Bowen.

And then there are the bookstores.

If I lived in London I  would have to wear blinkers, because I could not afford to pump money into the book economy every week. On my recent trip, when I tired of weird self-guided walks suggested in my guidebook (most ended up being about shopping), I binged on books like a librarian who has inexplicably acquired a windfall in her budget.

If my husband had been with me, he would have kept me from buying so much.

Still, he took it pretty well when he saw the box of books I had mailed to myself.

Here’s where I shopped and what I bought–and I didn’t go to as many bookstores as usual.


AT THE LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP:  Not yet available in the U.S., Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent has been widely praised in the UK.  Set in the 1890’s, it is, according to the description, “enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era.” Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone has also received good reviews, and I was influenced by Margaret Drabble’s blurb on the cover:  “[Moss] writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now, about our fears and obsessions and dreams, about mortality and parenthood and just keeping going from day to day.”

LIKE PENGUINS?  I found these at Oxfam, Skoob, London Review Bookshop, and a market on the South Bank.


new-books-penguins-four-usedI scooped up Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love his Clayhanger trilogy!), Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning (historical novel set in Egypt), Travels with Herodotus (anybody who travels with Herodotus is all right with me) and John Masters’ Far, Far the Mountain Peak (know nothing about it) at Skoob, an excellent used bookstore in Bloomsbury.

My husband and I are dying to read Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing, a McCarthy era novel which I picked up at Oxfam.  Born in Marshalltown, IA, as was the actress Jean Seberg, another outcast of Marshalltown, Miller, a gay activist, wrote the fascinating novel, A Gay and Melancholy Sound, reissued in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series published by Amazon.  (I wrote about it here at my old blog, Frisbee.)


At Waterstones and Foyles, I found the three books pictured above by authors hitherto unknown to me.    I have begun Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn, a fascinating small press novel described as “a psychedelic road trip”;   Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is a Turkish novel; and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.


Waterstones or Foyles?  Who knows? Both stores had good science fiction sections.  Joanna Russ’s The Female Man is a ’70s classic of the ’70s and I have long meant to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books.

wind-off-the-small-isles-stewart-51fyyphh5tlAt Waterstones I bought Mary Stewart’s lost novella, The Wind off the Isles, a beautifully-written but very slight novella that will appeal mainly to Stewart’s fans.  The narrator, Perdita, a writer’s assistant, researches sites for hter employer’s children’s books and organizes travels to the  countries.  On the island of Lanzarote, they are fascinated by the story of a young woman and a fisherman who eloped during a volcanic eruption.  A playwright and his assistant  are pursuing the same story, and there is a mystery involved.  Julian Gale, an actor, one of the characters in Stewart’s super novel, This Rough Magic, is mentioned in this novella!  So you might want to start with that if you have never read Stewart.

Sleeping on Planes & What to Read Between Monuments & Museums: Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days

woman-with-suitcases-in-airport-0636a5184c1670f4514954228afaf8d5I don’t travel much, because I don’t sleep: why leave the hotel after a sleepless night? But I recently conquered my angst and took my third trip to London,  an “imaginary” city, in that I know it only through literature.

I love the drama, wicked satire, and eccentricity of London novels:  Barbara Pym’s indexers and anthropologists swarming  the streets of Bloomsbury;  Anita Brookner’s solitary heroines visiting museums and reading on benches in Regents Park; and, best of all, Muriel Sparks’ Mrs. Hawkins, an editor at a small publishing company, gossiping  at night in a Kensington boarding house.

Flying can be claustrophobic, but it is not a long flight, unless the airline stops in Charlotte instead of Chicago. I slept enough in London that I even got some reading done. There is a Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Costa, or patisserie on every corner where you can sip caffeine and read.  (TRAVEL TIP:  DO NOT ORDER COFFEE, because they will say, “An Americano?,” and serve you a vile mixture of espresso and water.)

If you are the last person without an iPad on the planet and get lost in Hyde Park,  have another latte or three and read your book for 15 minutes because I think your map is upside down!


bright, precious days mcinerney BN-PE464_JAYjpg_MV_20160729171322McInerney was called a member of the literary Brat Pack in the ’80s, along with Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. McInerney’s first book, Bright Lights, Big City , was the quintessential ’80s novel, notable for its second-person point of view and portrait of a reckless, unhappy young man. It begins,  “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”   The hero,  a writer, has an unsatisfying job as a fact-checker at a magazine and is grieving over the breakup with his girlfriend, a model.  He parties at clubs and snorts way too much cocaine.

I didn’t follow McInnerney’s career, and then in the 21st century rediscovered him.   I loved his story collection,  How It Ended, and his 9/11 novel, The Good Life, the second in his trilogy about a New York couple, Russell and Corinne Calloway.   Bright, Precious Days, the  third in the trilogy, is a compelling read, and you honestly don’t need to read the first two books. (I have not yet read the first book, Brightness Falls.)

Russell and Corinne were deeply shaken in The Good Life by the trauma of 9/11, and have tried to be their best selves since.  Now they are at a crossroads in their marriage: Russell,  known for publishing literary fiction, toys with the idea of buying a commercial blockbuster because of financial problems, and Corinne, a former stockbroker coming to terms with middle age, now manages a massive food bank that distributes vegetables and fruit to the poor and thinks he should stick to his ideals.

Russell and Corinne are, by most of our standards, rich.  Let us just say they are not “the 99 percent,” though they borrow a house in the Hamptons for the summer rather than rent, while the rest of us would be at the Jersey shore.  In many ways, the brilliant McInerney’s fiction fits into my “imaginary city” fetish, because I know New York only from literature.  Russell and Corinne live in a Tribeca loft with their almost-teenage twins, and Corinne thinks it’s much too small.  She wants to move to the suburbs, while  Russell wants to hang on to the cool life he thinks he still lives in Manhattan.  Corinne, a brilliant woman who loves art and literature but spends much of her time with shallow girlfriends and attending benefits (she must so people will donate money to her organization), has an affair with her super-rich ex-boyfriend, Luke, whom she met  working in a soup kitchen after 9/11.  (He has his own plane, so at least Corinne isn’t squished in her seat, as I was.)

Russell is the more interesting character of the two, an old-fashioned publisher/editor who takes his line editing very seriously.  His new star writer, Jack, a “handsome young redneck,” rebels against Russell’s propensity for minimalism.   (The account of the conflict between Russell and Jack is reminiscent of what I’ve read about the clash between  editor Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver.)  Like many writers,  Jack is a handful, indulging in drugs and drinking.  So is a famous travel writer, Phillip Cahout, who has written a book about his three weeks as a hostage of the Taliban.  Russell’s idea is to go all out in a bidding war for this book and have one title on the list that can pay its way.  Cahout, however has a reputation for instability. but Russell glosses over this.

If he begrudged his authors’ drug habits and narcissistic behavior, he wouldn’t have much of a list. “I’ve worked with Kohout before—I basically discovered him, so I think that gives me an edge. Plus, a book like this puts us right in the middle of the cultural dialogue.”

Russell makes a few bad calls, and his company almost goes under.  Corinne is supportive, but they aren’t making love or very connected right now.

McInerney is an exceptional chronicler of New York, and I very much enjoyed this book, but I was occasionally jarred by Corinne’s shallow friends, who are obsessed with fashion, blow jobs, and plastic surgery. Still, turning 50 is difficult.    I do identify with Corinne’s shock as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror at a restaurant.

Leaning over to pick up her napkin, she was surprised, as she righted herself, to see her face in the smoky mirror behind Casey, as if for a nanosecond she didn’t quite recognize the middle-aged woman, so like her, only slightly older. In her heart she was still twenty-seven, or thirty-three. At most forty-two. She’d always resisted the idea of getting work done, but maybe it was time to start thinking about it.”

Who hasn’t had that experience?  Though there will be no surgery here (how can they face the needles?).

I very much like Corinne’s response to her friend Casey on her appearance.

Have you thought about getting your eyes done?”

“Do I look that bad?”

Corinne also worries about her daughter Storey, who  has put on weight since learning that her sister Hilary’s eggs had been implanted in infertile Corinne’s womb.  Storey wonders if this makes Hilary her mom.

Casey pooh-poohs Corinne’s qualms about talking to Storey about her weight.  “This is no town for fatties.”

This intelligent literary novel is very enjoyable. The dialogue is pitch-perfect.   Occasionally the account of the rich and famous are too much for me me:  imagine a crossover of Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant observations of the unhappy rich with  a women’s best-seller devote to the drama of the glamour.   Who  in my world knows anybody like the mogul Luke? Wel, Mcinerney obviously does, and he is not in my world.  But this strange mix makes it the perfect plane book.

Sam Tanenhuas, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review, is far more articulate than I about McInerney’s work.  He wrote in 2009 of McInerney’s short story collection, How It Ended:

McInerney’s gifts have never been in question. He possesses the literary naturalist’s full tool kit: empathy and curiosity, a peeled eye and a well-tuned ear, a talent for building narratives at once intimate and expansive, plausible and inventive. His sentences, vivid but unshowy, exhibit the same strengths he once identified in Fitzgerald’s; they are “sophisticated without being superior, conspiratorial without the gossip’s malice.”

Selfies at Westminster Abbey, or Sleeping Beauty’s Evil Twin


Women taking selfies at Westminster Abbey

When we’re young women we’re svelte and adorable. Our hair is real blonde and we don’t need makeup.  Then 100 years or so later,  we wake up and are Sleeping Beauty’s evil twin:   our faces are lined–why didn’t we wear sun hats?–and our prince is dating a bimbo.

Carrie Fisher, who took a lot of heat for looking her age (58 ) in Star Wars:  The Force Awakens last year,  wittily told The Guardian:  “I don’t like looking at myself.  I’m just getting bigger and older…. I went from Princess Leia at 23 in a bikini to this broad.”

We know the feeling.

We deal with it.

We are the same person we always were.

But we do not take selfies.  There’s no self-gratification in photos after a certain age.  Anyway, I don’t own a phone on principle.  (Not yet.)

On a recent trip to London, I inadvertently took pictures of people taking selfies. I am a point-and-click photographer, and only later noticed the tourists in the frame. Selfies define the new tourist culture.

There are two ways of looking at a selfie.  The positive slant?  It’s rather sweet, because it implies a positive self-image.  In the photo of Westminister Abbey above, four women are taking selfies.   Do women today like the way they look?   In the ’70s when I grew up,  women were very self-critical.   It took feminist publications like Our Bodies, Ourselves and the underground paper Ain’t I a Woman? to help us accept our  bodies. Even those with perfect bodies were often riddled with self-hatred.  Remember in Valley of the Dolls when Jennifer North, valued only for her body, commits suicide rather than have a mastectomy?

The negative slant?  The selfie culture is narcissistic.   A couple of generations have now documented their entire lives on computers  (phones ARE computers). Do they have an exaggerated sense of self-importance?  Do the selfies deflect from actual experience?  The pictures go straight to Facebook, Instagram, and all the other platforms.  Well, the internet is narcissistic.  We’re all blogging, commenting, tweeting, and the rest.  Marketers know who we are and how to sell to us.  Or at least they TRY to sell to us, with those annoying ads that pop up on Wunderground and other sites.

The concern about selfies is that people are more involved with phones than with the here and now.  Instead of looking at the stunning art and buildings, they are busy with self-photo shoots instead of the sights.  A picture of oneself outside Westminster Abbey is as or more important than Westminster Abbey.

I have a rule:  I don’t take pictures inside of museums, cathedrals, etc.  It diminishes the quality of the experience.  It gets in the way of our appreciation. It would have been ridiculous for me to take a selfie in front of Velazquez’s Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos just because I noticed he looks like James Franco.  I would have had to label the selfie, Saint John the Evangelist’s Mother on the Island of England.

Here’s one good thing: People don’t take selfies in the rain. At Trafalgar Square in the light rain, people were interacting with each other.   As you can see,  nobody is taking selfies.  Between the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, both located at Trafalgar Square ,  one must frequently rest tired eyes  by taking a break on the steps.



The Anglophile Abroad: On the Bookish Grid

Virginia Woolf lived here.

Virginia Woolf lived here.

London is not laid out on a grid: it is organic. It grew out of chaos, and it is still chaos for many of us Americans.  But I am getting the hang of it. On a recent trip, I was able to find my favorite sites without a map.

Lytton Strachey

Portrait of Lytton Strachey by Dora Carrington

In Bloomsbury I took a self-guided Virginia Woolf walk.  That was rather a let-down, as it is essentially looking at blue plaques on row houses.  Still,  I loved the views of Tavistock Square and Gordon Square, where Virginia and, indeed, almost the whole Bloomsbury group, lived at one time or another in the early 20th century.  And then to make it even more thrilling, I saw portraits and busts of the Bloomsbury Group at the National Portrait Gallery including paintings by Vanessa Bell  and Dora Carrington.  There are portraits or busts of Virginia, Violet Trefusis, Lytton Strachey, Vanessa, Duncan Grant,  and E. M. Forster. What an incestuous group they were!  Brilliant, but always sleeping with each other.

At the British Museum in Bloomsbury, I felt  like a Barbara Pym character: her characters sometimes work or live in Bloomsbury, and surely that’s where all her strange little  anthropological societies are housed. Think of “Less Than Angels” and “Quartet in Autumn.”

Here’s how I know I have a better feel for it than I used to.  I was able to find every bookstore in London by instinct.

London review bookshopBut where  are the signs? Tiny almost organic signs are posted high on buildings.  It is easy to miss Bury Place across from the British Museum, and you don’t want to miss it because the London Review Bookshop is there.

The London Review Bookshop is the perfect size for an independent bookstore.  Not too big, not too small, with every book carefully chosen and arranged (by whom?  The manager?  The booksellers  together?  The LRB itself?). I almost bought an edition of Keats, because it had an intro by Jane Campion.  But I have my Keats at home.  And, naturally I went crazy in the fiction section, where there were fascinating small press books on a table, and I was able to find new books not available in the U. S., among them “The Essex Serpent.” There are also Turkish books on a table, since they are having a Turkish month.


Waterstones Picadilly

I love the booksellers’ culture in London. We don’t have that much in the U. S. anymore, except in big cities and a few university towns. Waterstones  in Picadilly reminds me of the original Borders chain in the ’90s, which had everything you could imagine.  Waterstones is breathtaking.  The tables are cleverly organized:  at the moment they are displaying paperback novels from different decades, the 60s, the ’70s, etc.  Lots of small-press books and I was very amused by arrangement of the historical fiction titles on a table, “Gladiators & (Somethings)”  (Oops, I should have taken notes.)

Foyles is also stunning, and I couldn’t decide if I preferred it or Waterstones. They are competitors.

As for used bookstores, Cecil Court near the Trafalgar Square imagestop has many charming shops, but they are pricey.  I would have loved a first edition of a collection of Kay Boyle’s stories , but I couldn’t justify it.  I have her Complete Stories at home.

There are also some remarkable used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, and others not.

Don’t forget Skoob in Bloomsbury,  the best used bookstore for the common reader (and collectors).

TIP. And so I have discovered it is much more fun to see the sights than to take self-guided walks from the guidebook, or even walks with experts,  I love getting off the tube and seeing Buckingham Palace.

At the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, you can see an excellent exhibition of the Royal Collection of Scottish paintings.

I drroled over Westminster Abbey and sat peacefully in one of the small gardens.  I never cared much about royal weddings but I was ecstatic at the National Portrait Gallery to see the portraits of Princess Diana and Kate.  Oh my goodness!  There is a royal-loving gene in me after all, and I did love both of Obama’s inaugurations.

The trip ended in hilarity at the National Gallery when I had looked at so much art that Velasquez’s Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos looked EXACTLY like James Franco.  Well, maybe there is a slight resemblance.

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos by Diego Velasquez

Where Is My Guidebook?

“Where is my guidebook?”

I don’t treat my travel guidebooks with respect.  I rip out pages and stow them in my purse.


Yes, these two pages were all I could find of the guidebook one day in the hotel.   On the flip side of these glossy pages, there are directions for a 90-minute walk.

One wonders if the travel writers actually take these 90-minute walks, or if they’re phoning it in.  I need the recommendations, and I DO take the walks.  Still, I never find that terminally hip out-of-the-way art gallery where I intended to kill some time.  And just as well.  I get positively  SICK of art, even with the help of Julian Barnes’ book.

Fortunately, you glimpse unmistakable historic landmarks on your uninspiring walk, usually across a bridge, and you make your way there.

I love landmarks.  I’m happy with the restored opera house in Willa Cather’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska.  I’m  happy with the Mason-Dixon line.  (There’s nothing to see THERE.)  And I am certainly going to pretend I saw the undiscovered (by me) art gallery.

The guidebook was

  1. Not in my laptop case, in which I  found a crumpled boarding pass, an Angela Thirkell book, and part of a to-do list (the part I didn’t do).
  2. Not in my suitcase, in which there are stray barrettes, a bag of unopenable Gorp from the airplane, and an “I heart the Badlands” nightgown (a souvenir gift from a friend).

Although I rather like holidays, I chortled at this quote from Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper.  The heroine, Pompey, is discouraged on her trip to Germany.  She didn’t really want to go.

Why the hell does one come abroad after you don’t get school holidays any longer?  The awful cramping weariness of long journeys, and no sooner there than back you have to come again.

Pompey cuts her holiday short, and indeed the ’30s, with the rise of Hitler, made Germany grim.

One doesn’t have to go abroad.  I’ve enjoyed vacations in tiny towns in Illinois and Ontario.  Abroad is more adventurous and at the same time educational.  It’s like being inside a favorite book by a regional writer.  Oh, NOW I see what she means.

I’ve never been to the Badlands.

On my next vacation, I’m going to Emily Dickenson’s hometown, Amherst.  Get ready for lots of reciting from Emily.

P. S.  I did find my guidebook, in bed under the quilt, before I went home.  It had been my bedtime reading.

What are your favorite guidebooks?  Are any publishers better than the others?  I wish I had something light!

What’s Real in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman?

imageShirley Jackson’s  Hangsaman is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.  Published in 1951, it begins like a cozy English comedy, reminiscent of Dodie Smith’s l Capture the Castle, albeit crossed with adulterous cocktail parties from a 1950s novel by John O’Hara.

American novels rarely stay cozy, which is why I always go back to Smith, the uncloyingly charming novelist whose characters may be slightly peculiar, but are never found chatting with imaginary friends while in a psychotic state.  Jackson may tread lightly at first, but she is very dark.

Like Smith’s adolescent heroine, Cassandra Mortmain, an aspiring writer, Jackson’s heroine Natalie Waite is a writer’s daughter who wants to write. But Natalie’s family is neurotic.  She tries bracingly to maintain a comic view of life, as she wobbles between the struggle for approval from her  father, a writer who criticizes her grammar and syntax and openly disdains his wife,  and her sympathy for her misanthropist mother who prepares the food for Mr. Waite’s Sunday cocktail parties and then hides upstairs.  Mrs. Waite trusts nobody.

Jackson has a light touch, when she wants to.  But Natalie struggles with identity and refers to herself in the third person.

Natalie Waite, who was seventeen years old but who felt that she had been truly conscious only since she was about fifteen, lived in an odd corner of a world of sound and sight past the daily voices of her father and mother and their incomprehensible actions. For the past two years—since, in fact, she had turned around suddenly one bright morning and seen from the corner of her eye a person called Natalie, existing, charted, inescapably located on a spot of ground, favored with sense and feet and a bright-red sweater, and most obscurely alive—she had lived completely by herself, allowing not even her father access to the farther places of her mind. She visited strange countries, and the voices of their inhabitants were constantly in her ear; when her father spoke he was accompanied by a sound of distant laughter, unheard probably by anyone except his daughter.

When Natalie is sent to an elite women’s college, Hangsaman turns into Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a horror story about the annual stoning of a person chosen by lottery.  (I haven’t read this since junior high, but that’s the gist.) Natalie’s resistance to hazing guarantees her friendlessness.  Sherarely eats, because she is afraid to sit in the dining room, where she is shunned.

She tries to disguise this in her letters, which her father critiques as though they are literature.

Strange, Natalie thought, in all his wisdom my father never found from my letters that I get along badly with people; I suppose it’s the first thing my mother fears, just as she is afraid that I have been visited with all her sorrows, because those she is better able to heal in me than she could in herself.

Things take a very strange turn when Natalie makes friends with Tony.

What’s real? What’s not?

This is a book I’ll return to, because there’s so much here.  It’s superb but also horrifying!  And it makes you think twice about the Seven Sisters schools that have spawned some of my favorite writers.

When Award Lists Don’t Overlap!

After taking a few years off from literary award finalists,  I perked up this summer and decided to try a few from the Man Booker Prize and National Book Award lists. Alas, there is no overlap on the lists.  I had hoped for overlap!

Naturally, the two Booker-longlisted novels I loved, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton and David Mean’s  Hystopia, have been eliminated.  Isn’t that always the way?  The National Book Award judges ignored the Americans on the Booker longlist, including the shortlisted Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen” and Paul Beatty ‘s “The Sellout,” which, by the way, my husband says are not worth reading. (He does, however, recommend the English writer Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk.”)

Do American judges understand American literature better than English judges?  I have not read any on the National Book Award longlist yet, but most of their choices did make a splash when they were published.  Some of them look interesting.  I love Lydia Millet and have heard good things about Elizabeth McKenzie.

Here’s the NBA longlist.

Adam Haslett, “Imagine Me Gone” (Little, Brown)
Paulette Jiles, “News of the World” (William Morrow)
Karan Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking)
Elizabeth McKenzie, “The Portable Veblen” (Penguin Press )
Lydia Millet, “Sweet Lamb of Heaven” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Brad Watson, “Miss Jane” (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Colson Whitehead, “The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday)
Jacqueline Woodson, “Another Brooklyn” (Amistad)

And here’s the Booker shortlist (they’re done with the longlist!).

Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen,” Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk,” Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout,” Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project,” Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,”and David Szalay’s “All That Man Is.”

What a dilemma!  The NBA is somehow not as romantic as the Booker, but the National Book Foundation is now imitating the Booker with long lists and shortlists.  Are any bloggers reading the NBA longlist?


A Favorite Out-of-Print Novel: Sing for Your Supper by Pamela Frankau

Pamela Frnaku, 1936

Pamela Frankau, 1936

I recently reread Pamela Frankau’s Sing for Your Supper, the first in her stunning trilogy, Clothes of a King’s Son.   I love this trilogy and go back to it every few years.

Here is what I said in 2009 and 2010 at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal.

Frankau (1908-1967) has her fans, yet people in real life seldom talk about this neglected writer.  It is left to us bloggers and other cyber-characters (myself included) to proselytize. There was quite a lot of traffic when I posted about her a few years ago. For those unfamiliar with her work, I would put her in the same class, more or less, as Rumer Godden and Pamela Hansford Johnson; perhaps a tad less polished than those two, but equally brilliant and lots of fun to read. Three of Frankau’s novels are in print in the UK:  The Willow Cabin, The Winged Horse, and A Wreath for the Enemy; none in the U.S.  Which of her books most deserve to be reissued?  The trilogy, of course:  Sing for Your Supper, Slaves of the Lamp, and Over the Mountains.

Sing for Your Supper is a vivid, compelling, beautifully written novel. Set in 1926, it begins and ends with Blanche Briggs, called Brigstock, a middle-aged nanny who is needed only in summers now that the children are in school. Briggs’ life still revolves around the itinerant Weston children, who follow their father, Philip, the director of a troupe of Pierrots, to a different boarding house in a different seaside town every summer.

pamela-frankau-sing-for-your-supper-md17615930370The three children are more sophisticated than their peers, because of their roving theater background. Gerald, a precocious 16-year-old, banters with Brigstock, hangs out with acquaintances of questionable morals,  and tries to hide his obsession with money (obviously traced back to his father’s poverty). Fourteen-year-old Sarah, a witty, imaginative girl who has been reprimanded at her girls’ school for a sappy note she wrote to an older girl, develops a crush on Shirley Ormonde, one of the actresses in the troupe. Standing in front of a mirror, Sarah daydreams in the third person about her future, imagining herself the heroine of a romantic novel.

‘That’s the girl I want for the part,’ said the great actor to the great actress, ‘that girl over there, do you see? Wait till you hear her read. Voice like a cello. She could be another Meggie Albanesi.’

The youngest, Thomas, age 10, is very absent-minded, slightly Puckish, and in trouble at school for his “ungovernable rages.”   He is the champion of the weak, and can be pushed to fury when anyone is attacked. He is also psychic, like his grandmother. This talent is ignored by his family, who think it is simply “tricks.” When he shows up a magician at the Moonrakers’ show, the magician knows Thomas’s magic is for real.

Sarah is amused by Thomas and recalls his quixotic defense of a fat Pierette some years back.

She can see how maddening it is when Thomas does that, thought Sarah; now he doesn’t bawl any more, she takes his side. The thought of Thomas bawling led to the Moonrakers because of the fat, jelly-wobbling Pierette called Maisie Something who had made them choke with giggles at Eastbourne three summers ago. They had behaved quite badly and Thomas had bawled afterwards and kicked Gerald and said, ‘I liked her the best’ all the way home. He was only seven; it was the first time he had seen the show. (Not the Moonrakers, then, of course: not their father’s own company, but Philip Adair had written many of the songs; old numbers from Hi Jinks or The Gay Cavaliers were still inclined to show up in the Moonrakers program. By special request, Philip Adair will sing…)”

It is a fascinating novel–not exactly a theater novel–but it centers on the children, who grow up early because of their experiences, connections to the theater, and knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes. Philip, their father, a widower, is also a fascinating character, doomed to be unsuccessful, but suddenly comes into money–and the children speculate about where on earth he got it.  Suddenly they have a house to themselves and an expensive car. And even Blanche (Brigstock) doesn’t know the source of the money.  She assumes it is Gwen Richmond, a comic actress and longtime girlfriend of Phillip’s who has expected a legacy from an aunt.

sing-for-your-supper-hardback-frankau-md351993184Told from multiple points of view, the narrative moves rapidly  as Frankau delves into the minds of her characters and reveals much about the others through their perceptions.

After all, Blanche reminded herself once again, there might be worse fates than Miss Richmond.  She could look back on a string of horrific little threats.  (That tiny dark one in Aladdin–what was her name?  Esme Something.)  She could always recognize them.  Nothing was ever said; nothing was ever audible, visible; she just knew when it happened and who it was.  When Blanche thought ‘It’ her mind made no exact statement.  And ‘It’ was none of her business.  Not until Mr. Philip told her would Miss Richmond become her business.

Another important character is Rab, a  12-year-old American girl who looks like a boy.  A child of divorce, she has lived all over Europe with her mother, Paula, and moment is staying in a hotel suite with the chauffeur, Miles, while Paula travels.  She  envies the Westons:  how she would love to be a member of a family, doted on by Nanny, and keeping regular hours.  Rab has trouble eating, and doesn’t have the faintest idea how the middle-class live (or how Pierrots live!).

There is much drama, apart from the drama of Philip’s troupe, the Moonrakers!

Next up: Slaves of the Lamp, set 10 years later, when the children are grown up.

My Country Tis of Thee (Not): The End of Summer, Trollope As a Comfort Read, & Please No Politics on Dancing with the Stars

grounds-for-celebration-in-rain-sept-0-2016I got caught in the rain on my bike again.  There was a bad storm:  it blew up suddenly, a scary wind blew, and I barely made it to a coffeehouse before the rain.

You can’t see how hard the rain is falling in this snapshot, but trust me:  I need a rainsuit.

TROLLOPE AS COMFORT READ.   After my cat Lulu, a feline gymnast who performed flawlessly on the “uneven bars” of our dining room chairs (Gold Medal!), died of cancer a few years back, autumn began to depress me.  And so I read Trollope.  A LOT of Trollope!  He is my comfort read for all seasons.

What I love about Trollope is he’s so unseasonal: in  Can You Forgive Her?, the first of his Palliser series (known as his political novels), there are workmanlike descriptions of gardens, walks, and picnics, but you don’t read him for lyricism.  His strength lies in characterization, a deep understanding of psychology, and a brilliant analysis of politics, frighteningly like the politics of now.

trollope can you forgive her? 374371On this rereading,  I was absorbed by the parallel  love quandaries of the two heroines, Alice Vavasour and Lady Glencora. Both are unwise in love:  Alice breaks off her engagement to charming John Grey, mainly because she fears the boredom of country life, and because she is passionate about politics, and he doesn’t care.  Her distant cousin, the wealthy Lady Glencora, was coerced to give up the scatterbrained but gorgeous man she loved, Burgo Fitzgerald, to marry Plantaganet Palliser, the dull heir presumptive to the Duke of Omnium and a successful, albeit colorless, member of Parliament.

Poor Alice!  If politics are her life, why should she marry John Grey and leave London?

John Grey had, so to speak, no politics. He had decided views as to the treatment which the Roman Senate received from Augustus, and had even discussed with Alice the conduct of the Girondists at the time of Robespierre’s triumph; but for Manchester and its cares he had no apparent solicitude, and had declared to Alice that he would not accept a seat in the British House of Commons if it were offered to him free of expense. What political enthusiasm could she indulge with such a companion down in Cambridgeshire?

Everyone thinks she has made a mistake. But did she?  And can you forgive her? as Trollope keeps asking.   But the next move she makes IS a mistake.  She decides to support the political ambitions of her cousin and ex-fiance, George Vavasour, who is running for parliament and wants her money.  She promises him money for his political campaign and agrees to marry him off, though she puts off the marriage for a year. (Alice is obviously not keen on marriage.)  Things begin to go very, very wrong.

Lady Glencora Palliser is by far my favorite character.  She is whimsical and outspoken, charming and witty, and modestly refrains from reminding Mr. Paliser how much he benefits from her money.   Glencora is always in trouble with Mr. Palliser, going out for walks in the ruins at night with Alice and catching cold, or dancing with Burgo at a party, egged on by her “duennas,” a busybody widow and Mr. Bott, a very rough-hewn politican, who are  Mr. Palliser’s spies, though he denies it.   Lady Glencora is as bored by Mr. Palliser’s politics as Alice feared she might be by John Grey’s lack of politics.

He was now listened to in the House, as the phrase goes; but he was listened to as a laborious man, who was in earnest in what he did, who got up his facts with accuracy, and who, dull though he be, was worthy of confidence. And he was very dull. He rather prided himself on being dull, and on conquering in spite of his dullness. He never allowed himself a joke in his speeches, nor attempted even the smallest flourish of rhetoric.  He was very careful in his language, labouring night and day to learn to express himself with accuracy, with no needless repetition of words…

Poor Glencora!  But the women learn to compromise. The women learn to knuckle under, though it doesn’t quite seem that way.   Trollope knows marriage is a compromise.  In an authorial aside, Trollope says,

People often say that marriage is an important thing, and should be much thought of in advance, and marrying people are cautioned that there are many who marry in haste and repent at leisure. I am not sure, however, that marriage may not be pondered over too much; nor do I feel certain that the leisurely repentance does not as often follow the leisurely marriages as it does the rapid ones

Ryan Lochte and Cheryl Burke on Dancing with the Stars.

Ryan Lochte and Cheryl Burke on Dancing with the Stars.

There was a disturbing incident on  DANCING WITH THE STARS.   Tonight on the premiere, Carrie Ann Inoba, the most eloquent of the judges, was critiquing 12-time Olympic medalist swimmer Ryan Lochte’s foxtrot when there was a flurry of movement, black shadows crossed the stage, she said, “Back off,” and the very smart host Tom  Bergeron cut to commercial.  We didn’t see what happened.  Afterwards, he thanked the security guards.

So what happened? Everyone was shaken up.  According to online sources, two men ran up on stage wearing t-shirts with the name “Lochte” crossed out.  One of them fell against Lochte, his pro dance partner, Cheryl Burke, and host Tom Bergen.  Security guards removed the attackers from the stage.

This is not what we like to see on our fluffy show.   I’m not going to comment on Lochte, except:  are we really surprised by celebrities behaving badly?  We prefer it not to happen at the Olympics when they’re representing our country, but we see politicians flipping out daily on TV, Millennial bluestockings expressing “disappointment” with comedians’ memoirs  in refined little articles online, and now we see  protesters bashing Lochte On DWTS.  Come on!  DWTS is the place celebrities you’ve never heard of try to revive their careers.   It is always thrilling when Olympic athletew perform on the show.  Lochte’s dancing wasn’t bad;  as far as I’m concerned he now has earned his safe space on DWTS.  He is already suspended for 10 months from the U.S. national swim team.  Isn’t that enough?

Am I too lenient?