It is Small Business Saturday, or Civilized Saturday, as some call it. In past years Obama has shopped at an independent bookstore to buy Christmas presents.
I am fascinated by his bookstore trips, because I used to live in D.C. I loved Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe at Dupont Circle. The book selection was superb and I would have loved to quit my professional job and work there, except the low wages would have meant sharing a house with half a dozen strangers in Rockville, Maryland, which was my idea of a nightmare. (It’s the Rockville of the R.E.M. song, “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.”)
Obama sent a cabinet member shopping today: very disappointing. Although I didn’t go shopping myself (that will be later), I planned the gift parcels of two-to-three books I like to give my bohemian friends. I put together a “theme” parcel and package it in canvas or cotton bookstore bags. (I have two Skoob bags, a Waterstones bag, a Prairie Lights bag, and two Barnes & Noble bags, so I’m ready to go).
This year my theme is LITERARY FANTASY. And so I have put together some very odd artsy books, all of which are slightly bohemian.
These are not traditional fantasy novels: Barbara Comyns is a literary writer, published by Dorothy, Virago, and NYRB, Stella Benson is literary and weird beyond, and John Crowley is highly acclaimed both in the SF/fantasy community and by critics. I first learned about his books from the critic Michael Dirda.
1. Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed (Dorothy, a Publishing Project). Comyns is one of my favorite writers: I recently posted about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths here. Born in 1909 in England, she went to art school, became a novelist and a painter, and did various odd jobs to support her painter husband and two children (she was an antique dealer and apartment renovator, among other occupations).
Each of her beautifully-written novels is lyrical and pitch-perfect. Fans of her charming novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, the story of a young woman married to a painter and their trials and tribulations after she has children, may be puzzled by the strange, unpredictable, fantasy/fable, Who Was Dead and Who Was Changed.
This strange, dreamy novel begins with a flood:
The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the window open; so the ducks swam in. Round the floor they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful novel that came in the night.
Gorgeous, poetic sentence follows gorgeous, poetic sentence. I could read Comyns forever just for her word choices. Her elegant fantasy is set in the ordinary life of an upper-middle-class family. Floods are a fact of life for the Willoweed family, who row a boat through the water and see a squealing pig, drowned peacocks, and a white beehive with the bees still buzzing around. Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, still hopes to find a dead body in the flood. Like all journalists, he is curious and thinks in terms of stories. Fired after a libel case, he returned 10 years ago to the country with his three children, Emma, Dennis, and Hattie (who is black: Ebyn can’t figure out where his late wife found a black lover). Their house is owned by Grandmother Willoweed, who is truly the grandmother from hell. Emma looks after the younger children: she daydreams by the river while they play with paper boats and run through the woods. And the maids, Norah and Eunice, also have a close sibling relationship, but these sisters are often verbally abused by Grandmother Willoweed. They find love on their days off.
The flood is nothing, however, compared to the plague of madness that soon strikes human beings in the village. What doom will strike whom next? In this rapt fairy tale about life, death, coming of age, love, ambition, and betrayal, nothing is what it seems.
2. Stella Benson’s This Is the End (Michael Walmer). About a decade ago, I accidentally discovered Stella Benson’s Living Alone at Project Gutenberg. I fell in love with this strange World War I fantasy, in which a middle-class conventional woman’s life is changed by a witch who runs a boarding house for people who want to live alone.
I recently discovered that two of Benson’s novels have been reissued in paperback by the Australian publisher Michael Walmer (and are available in the U.S.). I loved This Is the End, her second novel, published in 1917. Benson is a peculiar writer, with a gift for whimsy and enchanting questing characters. If her prose isn’t consistently elegant, she wins you over with her originality and clever blend of fantasy and philosophy.
In this strange little novel, set in World War I, the quixotic heroine, Jay, has run away from her middle-class home to work as a bus conductor in London. She doesn’t feel it’s fair to be comfortable during th war when so many are poor. When her brother Kew, a soldier on leave, tracks her down, he is dismayed to find her working in a uniform. Her letters to her stepmother, Mrs. Gustus, a writer of popular sentimental novels , are fantastic invented fantasies of living in a house by the sea. In her real life, she spends her free time in this fantasy world where she has a Secret Friend.
Mrs. Gustus tells Kew and their visitor Mr. Russell that she has a letter from Jay with a clue. They must drive along the coast to find her house in Mr. Russell’s car, Christina.
Jay and Kew are orphans and understand Mrs. Gustus, whom they call Anonyma, well.
Mrs. Gustus had no gift of intimacy. She was reserved about everything except herself, or what she believed to be herself. The self that she shared so generously with others was, however, not founded on fact, but modelled on the heroine of all her books. She killed her heroine whenever possible–I think she only once married her,–and yet still the character remained immortal in everything that did not seem artistic. Her notebook was a tangle of self-deceptions. The rest of the Family knew this. They never pretended to believe her.
It is entertaining, very strange, riddled with verse, sometimes beautiful, occasionally clumsy, and there is tragedy as well as comedy. Is it ever right to give up our dreams?
Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “A curious feeling, when a writer like Stella Benson dies, that one’s response is diminished. Here and now won’t be lit up by her: it’s life lessened.”
A peculiar book!
3. Little, Big by John Crowley, winner of the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the World Fantasy Award. I am an enormous fan of his Aegypt tetralogy. I have not read Little, Big , but find it is always good to include one book you haven’t read in a parcel. Here is the description at Goodreads.
John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.
Hope you’re all having a good Thanksgiving weekend! I am, except that I ruined the turkey (long story), and my husband had to buy some at the deli at the Hy-Vee.