Shaun Bythell’s “The Diary of a Bookseller”

This week my guilty pleasure has been reading Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller.  I am so engrossed in Bythell’s diary that I have put off finishing a work project.  Bythell owns Scotland’s largest second-hand bookstore, The Bookshop, in Wigtown, which is designated a National Book Town and the home of the Wigtown Book Festival.  His diary entries are short, curmudgeonly, and witty, and I am absorbed by this insider’s view of  bookselling.

We’d all love to own a bookstore, or so we think, but the business isn’t always easy. Bythell identifies with George Orwell, who wrote in his essay, “Bookshop Memories,” about the difficulties of working in a bookstore.  Indeed, Orwell may be the inspiration for much of this book.  Orwell enjoyed some parts of the job, but was glad on the whole to have left.  Bythell stays, but understands Orwell.

Bythell begins the book with an epigraph from Orwell.  Then he writes,

Orwell’s reluctance to commit to bookselling is understandable. There is a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor –played so perfectly by Dylan Moran in Black Books –and it seems (on the whole) to be true.There are exceptions of course, and many booksellers do not conform to this type. Sadly, I do. It was not always thus, though, and before buying the shop I recall being quite amenable and friendly. The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this. Would I change any of it? No.

Bythell makes a bare living, mostly from the store rather than online sales, which I find encouraging, but he lives above his shop, as  so many  used bookstore owners do.  The difference between Bythell and the (obviously) older semi-Luddite booksellers of my acquaintance?  Bythell has Facebook, where he writes about customer behavior.   One day, he hears a woman whisper to her friend to shut up or they’d get written up. His amusing descriptions of eccentric customers are riveting:  the chatty customers, the smelly (some of whom have great taste in books), the hagglers, and, finally, the happy bibliophiles who spend money.

I enjoy reading about his eccentric part-time employee, Nicky, a Jehovah’s witness who seldom follows his instructions and sometimes shelves Charles Darwin in the fiction section.  Driving to estates to  assess the worth of a personal library sounded fun, until I learned it often means buying not just the books you can sell but the whole lot.

But perhaps he is most interesting about the changes in bookselling in the 21st century. In the UK Amazon is always the enemy–perhaps we have a bigger variety of  online sellers here– and online bookselling has changed the business.  The huge used booksellers with no overhead can sell in bulk very cheaply, so the prices have come down for everyone.  And the ratings can be erratic.  We’ve heard about writers’ frustrations with online ratings, but I never thought much about booksellers (because I never rate them).

Bythell writes,

Today an Amazon customer emailed about a book called Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? His complaint: ‘I have not received my book yet. Please resolve this matter. So far I did not write any review about your service.’ This thinly veiled threat is increasingly common, thanks to Amazon feedback, and unscrupulous customers have been known to use it to negotiate partial and even full refunds when they have received the book they ordered.

I feel a bit like Janus:  I see both sides of the online selling problem. As a non-driver in the Midwest, online shopping has been a blessing for me, because it saves me hours of bicycling or changing buses to go to malls that don’t have what I want.  Like most of us, I’ve flirted with eBay and have  sold a few books online. Usually it’s fine, but  we sold a brand-new pristine Penguin hardcover edition of Middlemarch, which I couldn’t read because the print was too small for me!  It was never read, in perfect shape. The buyer wrote angrily that the book was beaten-up and scribbled in.  Really?  By whom?  we wondered. We gave him a refund, and we did ask him to return it, but clearly that isn’t going to happen. So he got a free book.  Was it worth it?

And is that why I’m not a bookseller?

I’m a happy reader and book buyer, though, and that’s what matters.

What Was Published in 1968? Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” & John Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar”

The internet is sometimes Dadaistic.   Take the 1968 Club.  Sponsored by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, this whimsical group of readers is spending a week ( Oct. 30-Nov. 5) reading and posting about books published in 1968.

The task sounds simple–until you discover that none of your favorite writers published that year.  Turns out Margaret Drabble, Peter Handke, Kawabata, Lynne Reid Banks, A. S. Byatt, Clifford D. Simak, Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, Marguerite Duras, Merle Miller, Richard Yates, and Sue Kaufman published books in 1967 or 1969, but not in 1968.  I  looked up so many writers that it became a joke!

So what’s a girl to do? I am re-posting bits from my blog about two neglected 1968 classics, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.  Enjoy!

First up, Exley.  In Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968,  the hero, also called Frederick Exley, cannot hold a job.  Exley, an alcoholic, is in and out of mental hospitals, sponges off his parents, or lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment where flamboyant, sad characters drop in all day, including an Italian who sometimes believes he is a hit man.

A Fan’s Notes should have been Top of the List for our Mental Health  Christmas.  One year my cousin became manic from a steroid prescribed for an ear infection (a side effect). At the hospital she was not herself:  she wore a bra over her sweater, sang Van Morrison’s “Days Like This” at the top of her lungs, and demanded that we bring presents for her “new friends.” And so we rather lamely distributed McDonald’s milkshakes and old books in the common room.

If only we’d had A Fan’s Notes.

Exley wittily delineates and skewers the customs and hypocrisy of the American middle class in a brilliant narrative akin to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.  Depressed Exley turns down advertising jobs before he gets them, teaches off and on at a high school, and drives from Glacial Falls to Watertown every weekend to get drunk and watch Giants games.

He is amazed by the limitations of the English department chairman and teachers.  One teacher informs Exley that he should not talk at meetings because “talking took time.”

This is a great American novel, by a writer whose work is out of fashion.

You can read the rest of my post about it here!

Next up, John Brunner.  I love John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), a post-modern science fiction classic.  Set in 2010, it is a brilliant book, the story of a future dominated by a giant too-smart computer, geneticists’ control of reproduction, and miserable citizens who hate their work.   Women don’t always have permanent homes: “shiggies” stay with men who pick them up, sometimes for a night, sometimes longer.  “Dicties” (addicts) wander the streets, and “muckers” kill people at random.

The  narrative is broken up by quotations from radical sociologist Chad Mulligan (who is rather like Marshall McLuhan) and TV blurbs from news and rumors on Scanalyzer.

Here is one of the definitions from Chad Mulligan’s book, The Hipcrime Vocab:

Hipcrime:  you committed one when you opened this book.  Keep it up.  It’s our only hope.

Here is an excerpt from Brunner’s futuristic New York Times editorial:

Like living creatures, automobiles expired when their environment became saturated with their own excreta.  We ourselves are living creatures.  We don’t want the same to happen to us.  That’s why we have genetic legislation.

The novel follows two main threads: Norman, an African-American executive in New York, is wretched and lonely.  But eventually he is chosen to rule Benini, an African country whose president, Obami (I am not kidding!), is dying and wants to hand this small, peaceful country over to someone who can unite it with the West.

Donald’s fate is much worse.  He is a spy paid to read obscure journals and books to spot trends.  Finally he is activated to be a killing machine and assassinate an Asian  geneticist who has threatened the Western world by scientific discoveries.

I’m not going to write about this at length:  it is a very complicated book.  But if you like science fiction, you will be impressed by Brunner’s writing.  Some of it is very like our present.

Here is TIME’S COVER FOR 1968, not a very happy time in history.  And Exley’s and Brunner’s books reflect that.

Michael Redhill’s “Bellevue Square”

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Ron Charles once jokingly used this adage (at least I think it was Charles) to describe Canadian literature.  And it certainly dovetails with my belief that we Americans don’t know CanLit because it is almost impossible to find new Canadian books in the U.S.

So this weekend I checked out the shortlist for Canada’s Scotiabank Giller Prize.  And I picked up a copy of Michael Redhill’s  Bellevue Square, because the narrator, Jean, owns a bookstore.  Yes, that’s all it takes!

The question is, does she own a bookstore?

On the surface, life is going well: Jean’s husband, an ex-cop, made a fortune investing in legalized marijuana companies, so they moved to Toronto and she opened a bookstore.

And her bookstore sounds like a fun place to hang out.

I have a bookshop called Bookshop. I do subtlety in other areas of my life. I’ve been here for two years now, but it’s sped by. I have about twenty regulars, and I’m on a first-name basis with them, but Mr. Ronan insists on calling me Mrs. Mason. His credit card discloses only his first initial, G. I have a running joke: every time I see the initial I take a stab at what it stands for. I run his card and take one guess. We both think it’s funny, but he’s also shy and I think it embarrasses him, which is one of the reasons I do it. I’m trying to bring him out of himself.

Then one day, while she is shelving books, everything changes.   Mr. Ronan, one of her best customers,  insists he saw her at the Kensington market 15 minutes ago, wearing a different outfit and with short hair.   He attacks her, and tries to pull off what he thinks is a long-haired “wig.” Stunned that the hair is real, he says she must have a twin.  (She does not.)  He apologizes, leaves, and never returns.

Shortly thereafter, another woman, Katerina, who works at the Kensington market, mistakes her for her doppelganger.   So Jean takes to hanging out in Bellevue Park, across from the market, so she can catch a glimpse of her double.

And when she finally meets her double, a woman named Ingrid Fox, a mystery writer who writes under the name Inger Ash Wolfe, Ingrid insists that she is the real one, and that Jean is a symptom of the brain tumor that is killing her.

I raced through this Dostoieveskian novel about doubles, by far the fastest-paced book I’ve read this year.  The concept is brilliant, but does it deserve the award? I enjoyed it  enormously, but the style is unassuming–perhaps a little too unassuming.  Do we want verbal fireworks?  Probably.

I recommend it because it’s a great read!

Robertson Davies’s “The Rebel Angels”

The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies is one of the best writers of the 20th century, and, though it may not be true that he is neglected, American bookstores seldom carry his books anymore.  And that’s a pity: he is in the class, I think, of Anthony Powell.  Davies’s books are still in-print, but have not yet been published as e-books.  Does electronic accessibility determine a writer’s reputation these days?

Like many Americans, I fell in love with the Deptford trilogy years ago, and then eagerly read his other books. This month, when I felt like celebrating the fall with an academic novel, I found my copy of The Rebel Angels, the first in the brilliant Cornish trilogy. (N.B.  I wonder if I was conflating the season of fall with the fall of the rebel angels, with whom one of the narrators, Maria, identifies her favorite professors.)

Davies’ scholarly characters comically discuss alchemy, tarot cards, theology, and Rabelais.   At the fictional Canadian College of St. John and the Holy Ghost (nicknamed “Spook”), Maria Magdalena Theotky, who is one of the two narrators of the novel and a graduate student specializing in Rabelais, is desperately in love with her mentor/dissertation advisor, Clement Hollier, a gorgeous, absent-minded scholar who is researching “filth studies” (don’t ask!) in the Middle Ages.  Maria has not heard from Hollier since they impulsively had sex on the couch in his office before summer vacation, but the new semester is starting, and she plans to tell him the latest gossip:  Parlabane is back.

Who exactly is Parlabane?  Everybody is talking about him.  This robust novel opens with Davies’ rapidfire dialogue.

“Parlabane is back.
“Hadn’t you heard? Parlabane is back.”
“Oh my God!”

Hollier explains to Maria that his old friend Parlabane was a brilliant student who never fulfilled his potential, went rogue, fell in love with a gorgeous man, failed at many jobs,  briefly joined a monastery, and then asked Hollier (and others, it turns out!) to send him money so he could return to Toronto.

Maria’s first meeting with Parlabane happens in the outer room in Hollier’s office, which is her work space.

I was rearranging my papers and things on the table in the outer room after lunch and there was a soft tap at the door and in came someone who was surely Parlabane.  I knew everyone else in St. John’s who might have turned up in such a guise; he was wearing a cassock, or a monkish robe, that had just a hint of fancy dress about it that marked it as Anglican rather than Roman.  But he wasn’t one of the Divinity professors at St. John’s.

Maria and Parlabane struggle for ascendancy in Hollis’s outer office:  Parlabane sleeps on the couch, stinks up the room (he never washes), borrows money from her, and goes through her papers when she is out.  But  Maria is determined not to go back to her carrel in the library,  and is not as conventional and biddable as she at first seems.   It turns out Maria has a secret life: her wealthy businessman father left the family very well-off,  her mother is a gypsy and has an illegal business restoring violins smuggled in from the U.S., and Maria lives at home, sleeping on the couch (rather like Parlabane), even though she has money to leave,  because she does not want to hurt her mother’s feelings.  And her mother has more-or-less gone native since her husband’s death:  she wears layers of gypsy skirts and cleans herself with oil rather than soap.

The second narrator is Simon Darcourt, an Anglican priest and professor, who is writing a sort of Aubrey’s Brief Lives about the college–and the gossip he picks up is fascinating.  He is by far the kindest man in the book, and the only one who could really be called “good.” And then, at dinner at Maria’s house, Simon falls in love with Maria.

As in A. S. Byatt’s Possession, scholars scramble for rare manuscripts.  Who will get his hands on a rare document by Rabelias? Arthur Cornish, a wealthy collector of paintings, music, and manuscripts, has died and left behind many treasures.  The executors of the estate are all professors at Spook:  Hollis, Simon, and Urky McVarish, a  rival Renaissance scholar,.  When Rabelais’s documents disappear, all  know Urky took it.  But what can they do?  He denies it.

Actually, what happens is very exciting and unexpected.  Good against evil, turning into evil, evil against evil, and does evil ever save the good?  God knows!  But there are lots of parallels between characters, even when they are opposites.

I loved The Rebel Angels, and enjoyed it more than I did the first time, though I also liked it then.  Over time, I seem to have have gleaned  a little more information about alchemy and medieval philosophy.  This remarkable novel has aged very well, and is very amusing.  Davies is always erudite, but I had forgotten how very comical he is.  A great book!

Bibliobits: Arnold Bennett’s “Anna of the Five Towns” & Jeanette Watson on Hand-Selling Books

Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns (1902) is  one of those wonderful early twentieth-century novels that carry on the Victorian tradition of telling rip-roaring stories with superb social insights.   Perhaps this classic is not in the canon–It’s hard to keep up with the evaluation of Bennett–but it is one of the best business novels of the twentieth century.  Bennett reminds me slightly of  George Gissing, another writer who chronicles the tension between love and money.  And Bennett’s portrait of the heroine Anna Tellwright, a miser’s daughter who has never handled more money than is needed to do the marketing, is sharply-observed and sympathetic.

In this brilliant novel about religion, money, and love, Bennett interweaves these conflicting elements with the dramatic shaping of scenes:  some disdain his minute descriptions of everything from a maid’s apron to an inventory of furniture in the Tellwrights’ house, but every detail matters and contributes to the drama.

In the opening chapter, we do not immediately meet Anna; instead, Bennett sketches a scene in which the most important characters in her life wait for her outside the Sunday school.  Her younger half-sister, twelve-year-old Agnes, has just burst out of the Sunday school, happy because she has won a book, a Sunday School prize.  And handsome Henry Mynors, a popular businessman who is the morning superintendent of  the Sunday school, teases Agnes about her prize while he waits for Anna.

‘I’m sure you don’t deserve that prize. Let me see if it isn’t too good for you.’ Mynors smiled playfully down upon Agnes Tellwright as he idly turned the leaves of the book which she handed to him. ‘Now, do you deserve it? Tell me honestly.’

She scrutinised those sparkling and vehement black eyes with the fearless calm of infancy. ‘Yes, I do,’ she answered in her high, thin voice, having at length decided within herself that Mr. Mynors was joking.

Most of the main characters are involved with the Methodist Sunday school in one way or another.  Accompanying Mynor is Willie Price, secretary of the men’s Bible class, a bashful young man whose father, the head of the Sunday school,  rents a run-down factory from Anna and Agnes’ father, Ephraim Tellwright–and they are in financial trouble.   And then there is Mrs. Sutton, the cheerful wife of an eminent businessman who runs the sewing society and other charitable groups.

When Anna emerges, she is perfectly poised.   It is the confident Mynors who walks her home, while Willie fades away.  Anna suspects that Mynors is infatuated with her, but she isn’t quite sure, because she has never had a friend, let alone a boyfriend.  Her father is a miser, and she is his housekeeper. They live in poverty, though he is one of the richest men in town.  She is so used to eking out pennies that she only half-realizes her father’s wealth.

On her 21st birthday, her father calls her into his office:  she inherits 50,000 pounds from her mother, who died 20 years ago.  Her father’s idea, of course, is to use her as a puppet for financial transactions.  Ironically, she owns the run-down factory Willie Price and his father rent from them, and since they are behind on the rent, he forces Anna to go collect it.

Appalled by the conditions of the factory, Anna empathizes with the Prices. They simply do not have the money.  I would like to say that Anna rebels and manages the money herself, but that of course would not be like life.  Gradually, with the help of Mrs. Sutton, who includes her in the women’s social circles and invites her on a vacation, and her relationship with Mynor,  she learns about money and manages to break free.  But her way to freedom is not entirely satisfactory…

Really, you’ll have to read it!

IF YOU WERE A BOOKSELLER, WHAT BOOKS WOULD YOU HAND-SELL?  Jeanette Watson, owner of Books & Co in New York from 1977 to 1997 and the author of a memoir, It’s My Party, writes at the Literary Hub about her favorite books to hand-sell during her bookstore days.  Among them is one of my favorites, Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney. I thought I was the only person on the planet who had read this.

She writes,

This amazing book is about a female researcher who has a love affair with the dolphin she is studying. The love scenes are amazingly erotic and made me long for my own dolphin! Would that be considered adultery? Maybe married people could do this without guilt? We sold many copies of this too.

Watson also inspires me to want to read Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters.  She writes,

My customers also had an influence on my reading. I remember John Guare telling me to read The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki. “It’s the Gone With the Wind of Japanese literature,” he said: a line I borrowed when I suggested the fabulous book to others.

A fabulous list!

Patricia Wentworth’s “The Chinese Shawl” & Hooked on Booktube’s #Victobia

I absolutely love Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mystery series.  Years ago when I took the train from Chicago to New York (you can imagine the length of the journey), I escaped into these well-written mysteries with great pleasure.

If you’re a fan of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll like Miss Silver:  I actually prefer her.  That’s because Wentworth is a deeper writer than Christie. ( Well, I think it’s true, even if you don’t agree.)   For those who don’t know Wentworth’s work, Miss Silver is an ex-governess turned private investigator.  Like Miss Marple, she is always knitting, and seems so innocuous that people trust her.

I recently whiled away a rainy day with The Chinese Shawl, the fifth book in the Miss Silver series, published in 1943.  The best thing about it? It is more than a mystery.  In the first 100 pages (the murder doesn’t take place till page 106), she fascinatingly portrays a group of socialites dominated by a beautiful, cruel actress, Tanis Fane.  Tanis is a man-eater who steals other women’s men,  and then  rejects them.  Yes, she’s a stereotype, but we’ve all known the type.

A young man tries to explain Tanis’ character to her country cousin, Laura, who has just turned 21 and come up to London.  Tanis, whom Laura has never met,  has invited her to a party.

“You just wait.  She specializes in other girls’ boyfriends.”

“It sounds revolting.”

“Not a bit of it–it’s all done with kindness.  I’ve watched her at it for years.  She’s kind to the girl, and she’s kind to the chap, and she goes on being kind to him till the girl gets crowded out, and then after a bit she gets bored and he gets crowded out too.  She doesn’t want any of them for keeps, you know.  She just wants half a dozen of them trailing round, licking her boots and paying for taxis, and ready to cut each others’ throats.  She enjoys that part a lot.”

As you can imagine, Laura is an innocent.   She finds Tanis glamorous.  At the party, one of Tanis’s ex-boyfriends, Carey Desborough, falls in love with Laura at first sight.   But when Tanis sees he wants Laura, she isn’t inclined to let him go.  And things become more complicated when Laura and the others are invited to a house party at The Priory, the Fane family estate, which Laura recently inherited.   Agnes has rented it for years and wants to buy it.  But does Laura want to sell?

From the beginning you know Tanis will be murdered.  It’s that kind of book.  But she has so many enemies.  They’re all suspects, as you can imagine, and Miss Silver figures it out by reading character as well as the clues.  The police officer is one of her ex-charges!

Completely absorbing!  and there are 32 of them in the series.

NOT LONG AGO I WROTE ABOUT HOW SILLY I FIND BOOKTUBE.  Well, you will be happy to know that I  found one channel I like,  Books and Things by Katie Lumsden.   And I very much enjoyed her video on “Underrated Victorian Authors,” in which she talks about some of my favorites, like George Gissing and Margaret Oliphant, as well as two I haven’t read, Geraldine Jewsbury and Amy Elizabeth Dilwyn.

In general, I do find Booktube trite, but her “vlog” is enthusiastic and smart.

And do let me know if there are other good Booktube channels, because I have otherwise struck out!

Over the Wall! & Diana Tutton’s “Guard Your Daughters”

The courtyard

Global warming has come on so fast, so inexorably.  The color of the leaves has changed very late this year.

My cousin Megan and I sat in the courtyard of a closed mental hospital and admired the foliage.

You may wonder, Why?

The view from outside the courtyard.

Megan has long wanted to do a photoshoot in this courtyard. During a hospitalization several years ago, the highlight of her days was taking breaks in the courtyard with the smokers.  She is not a smoker: she stood outside and breathed fresh air. And one afternoon a nurse mesmerized them with the tale of a  patient who went “over the wall,” i.e,  the fence, and never returned.

Doesn’t it sound like McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest?  When McMurphy disappears, the patients think he broke out of the hospital.  Actually, he was given a lobotomy for being rebellious and not conforming to Nurse Ratchett’s rules. And so Chief, the American-Indian narrator, is the one who breaks out.

The door from the courtyard to the hospital wing.

Well, we hope everybody gets over the wall like Chief.  But we were surprised to discover the GATE to the courtyard WAS ACTUALLY OPEN.  We sat on the ground and mused on the strange world of mental health.

We took  pictures of each other pretending to go over the wall.  Yes, it was hilarious, because we’re out of shape.

ONE OF THE FALL SELECTIONS of PERSEPHONE BOOKS IS Diana Tutton’s 1953 novel, Guard Your Daughters.  In 2012 I wrote the following at my old blog:

Stuck-in-a-Book, an energetic blogger who has revived interest in many neglected women’s classics, has created a craze for Diana Tutton’s out-of-print novel,  Guard Your Daughters.

After he compared it to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, I ordered a used copy from Abebooks.  I finished Tutton’s charming novel yesterday, and enjoyed the similarities to Smith’s classic.  Like the narrator of I Capture the Caslte,  Cassandra Mortmain, and her sister Rose, Diana Tutton’s narrator Morgan Harvey and her sisters live in the country and know no men.  Unlike the Mortmains, whose eccentric stepmother would love to help them meet men, the Harveys’  mother  gets hysterical over the prospect of their leaving home and marrying. Their self-absorbed father, a successful mystery writer, supports his wife and ignores his daughters’ needs.

It is certainly fascinating for readers interested in trends in women’s novels in the ’40s and ’50s.  Alas, Tutton’s style is less graceful than Smith’s, and she lacks her gift for shaping dramatic scenes and witty dialogue. (Smith was also a playwright,) Still, I would like to take a second look at Guard Your Daughters, and it’s a pity I sold it.  I’ll have to wait for the Persephone to come out in the U.S.

Rosamond Lehmann’s “A Note in Music”

Rosamond Lehmann’s A Note in Music, published in 1930, is the best novel I’ve ever read about being in one’s thirties.  Lehmann has a bleak take on women’s lives: there you are, married, bored, an infertile woman or a busy mother, reading novels, repeating the same monotonous tasks every day, and will you ever accomplish anything?

Lehmann does not exactly describe my experience, but as I read this stark novel I recognized the characters of Grace Fairfax and Norah MacKay.  They live in a bleak northern city, with grim weather and very little culture.   The two were lively and happy when they became friends 10 years ago, after moving with their husbands to the unnamed northern city, but their friendship has never progressed, and their marriages have deteriorated.

Life is so hard for Grace that we frantically want to help her. She is in her mid-thirties and very depressed.  She despises her husband Tom, a good-natured, if rather Babbitt-like businessman, who uses words like “gentleman” and “civil.” She spends her days reading novels while the maid, Annie, does the housework.  She longs to go back to the country where she grew up, and truly suffers over the lack of greenery and plants.  And, tragically, she gave birth to a stillborn baby. And  her puppy died.  She imagines a fortuneteller saying to her, “This is a most curious case.  There is nothing here:  nothing in your past, nothing in your future.  As for character–lazy–greedy–secretive–without will or purpose.”

Norah is a more cheerful, active woman, the mother of two sons, and a joiner of committees.  But her husband, Gerald, a university professor, is very difficult, and she must assess his moods constantly.  (He seems to be clinically depressed.) Sometimes she can calm him down, other times not.Certaintly this is not the marriage she wanted, but the man she’d loved died in the war.  (And from the sound of it, he was just as difficult as Gerry.)

What happens to these women?  A young Oxford-educated man, Hugh Miller, comes to town to work in Tom’s office.   He is so charming, so attractive, so seemingly happy, that both Grace and Norah quietly fall in love with him.  Partly it is because  he is younger:  he reminds them of their lost hopes.  He has traveled and lived all over the world, and he does not have to stay in  this town.   And when his sister Clare, an old friend of Norah, comes for a visit, they all spend a magical day in the country.

Hugh is not as carefree as he seems:  he is homosexual, and his lover, Oliver, dumped him.   I feel compassion for these women falling in love with a kind, courteous, lively gay man.   They have so little experience:  it never occurs to them.  But what they see as Hugh’s happiness helps them in their own marriages.  Grace and Norah may never be happy, but they begin to look at their marriages differently.

Lehmann’s writing, and her frank, vivid portraits of the characters, make this book a gem. Here is a passage about Grace’s longing for the country.

The country haunted her still, she said to herself:  not a day passed without bringing some picture remembered or imagined.  Dawn and sunset were not in these skies, behind the slate roofs and red brick chimneys of the residential quarter–but in her mind’s eye, over country spaces; and spring and autumn still made her sick for home.  How many times had she not thought of the summer evening when a bird had sung in the poor lilac tree in the front patch?…  But that would never happen again, as the trams came to the end of the avenue.

As a person who  struggles with northern weather and sunless days–thank God I left the north!–I do understand this homesickness and longing for nature.  And I am just grateful that Grace finally gets a breath of air.

A great book!  Odd how modern this seems, even though today more women are in the workforce.

Are Introductions Necessary?

Brad Leithauser’s introduction to Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is a classic.

Do you read introductions to books?  Some are absorbing, some very dull.  Yes, I read them after I finish the book, unless I want specific information about the author’s life or to read a bit about a historic period.

The blogger Karen of Booker Talk recently wrote a fascinating article on introductions, inspired by Elisa Gabbert’s essay in the Paris Review, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter.”  Elisa Gabbert has an interesting take on introductions: she sometimes prefers them to the books.  She writes, “…I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.”

lt seems  odd, doesn’t it?  I’m more of a book person than an introduction person.  Gabbert admits she has not finished the Tao Te Ching or An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but she has read the introductions multiple times.

I understand what she means about introductions to nonfiction, especially biographies.   Quite often an author of a biography will summarize the book in the introduction. And if the lazy reader also peruses the final chapter, another summing up,  he /she can  pretend to have read the book.  I don’t recommend it.

For years I skipped introductions. You don’t always need them, though scholars need the work, and may they always have it. These days I find them very useful for reading poetry, though I do prefer books about the poets: Gilbert Highet’s 1957 classic, Poets in a Landscape, captures the atmosphere and influence of place on the Roman poets better than any fusty introduction.

Politics by osmosis.

As for novels, you don’t always need introductions.   I happily galloped through Susanna Rowson, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Melville, Trollope, Dickens, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell,  Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc., etc. without so much as a glance at the introductions.  By osmosis I knew about the Brontes’ seemingly narrow life at Haworth, which they illuminated and showed the importance of by their insightful writing.  I knew that  E. M. Forster was gay, and that Virginia Woolf committed suicide.   As for politics in Trollope’s Palliser series, and the factory conditions described in Bronte’s Shirley and Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, I picked up enough to follow the novel.  It’s like learning a language:  the more you read, the more you pick up.

In recent years, I have read many introductions to Penguins and Oxfords, partly because I  have more leisure.  What do I like in an introduction?  I prefer liveliness, but scholars do not always have that quality.   The novelist Brad Leithauser’s introduction to the Deluxe Penguin edition of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is one of the best.  He interweaves personal anecdotes with the traditional historical background and literary criticism.

In the first two paragraphs he writes,

My first foray into the world of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Laureate’s celebrated trilogy of novels set in fourteenth-century Norway, turned out to be a reading experience like no other. I’m thinking here less of the books themselves (though these were an unexpected delight, a convincing twentieth-century of medieval Norway) than of the personal encounters the books fostered.

The trilogy runs over one thousand pages in the old three-in-one Knopf hardcover I’d picked up secondhand, and I chose to read it slowly, for weeks on end, lugging the hefty, handsome volume everywhere I went.  One of its themes is the stubborn power of magic–the bewitching allure of pagan practices in a society that had officially but not wholeheartedly embraced Christianity–and the trilogy did seem to work magical effects:  it drew elderly women to me.

This is the kind of charming introduction you can read over and over.

One day I found an unusually well-written and engrossing introduction, and when I skipped back to the title page, thought, No wonder.  It was Margaret Drabble.

Do you skip introductions or read them?  And What is your favorite kind of introduction?

Alice Hoffman’s “The Rules of Magic”

“It was an ending and a beginning, for the month itself was like a gate. October began as a golden hour and ended with Samhain, the day when the worlds of the living and the dead opened to each other.  There was no choice but to walk through the gate of time. Franny had already packed up her suitcase and carried the Grimoire with her. The book, and all it contained, was now theirs.”
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s first novel, Property of, was a cult classic:  in this dreamy novel, an unnamed narrator describes her doomed love for the leader of a street gang.  Since her debut in 1977, Hoffman has written 30 novels, three collections of short stories, and eight Y.A. and children’s books.  I have always been a fan of her poetic style, wild fairy-tale-ish take on life, and delicate use of magic realism.

Witch stories are appropriate in October, and Hoffman’s beguiling new novel, The Rules of Magic, traces the struggles of the modern Owens family against their heritage as witches.   Billed as a prequel to Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic, it can be read as a standalone.  And indeed it was so long ago that I read Practical Magic that I consider it a sequel to The Rules of Magic.

The lyrical narrative of The Rules of Magic, set mostly in the 1960s,  grows out of an intricate plot. There is a dark curse on the descendants of Maria Owens, who was charged as witch in Massachusetts in 1620  (and who, in her diary, warned her descendants against love).  The curse means the Owenses cannot love without inadvertently hurting their lovers.   Three hundred years later, Susanna Owens of New York believes she has beaten the curse by marrying a man she likes but doesn’t love. She denies her three children, Franny, Jet, and Vincent, their heritage of witchcraft, and does not even allow them  to read about magic.

Alice Hoffman

During a summer in Massachusetts with their Aunt Isabelle, who embraces witchcraft and herbal remedies, they begin to learn about their family and are at last allowed to read magic books.  Birds fly to Franny of their own volition.  A crow becomes her familiar.  Two boys fall in love with beautiful Jet, a fan of Emily Dickinson, and kill themselves over unrequited love .  You can imagine the effect on this poetic girl, who escapes into reading. As for the youngest sibling, Vincent, he studies spells from a  Grimoire and makes mischief: he proudly casts a spell that scares finches away.  Franny is unimpressed:  she points out that a cat can scare finches without magic.

It is a landmark summer, but back in New York the Owens’ lives become more complicated.  Dare they fall in love? Dare they practice magic?  They all have the sight, and are anxious.  Franny is in love with a childhood friend, but refuses to let him get too close.  Jet conducts a dangerous romance:  in Massachusetts , shortly before she left, she fell in  love with Levi Willard, the son of a very conservative minister, who forbids Levi to see her, and who has continued a centuries-old feud with the Oweneses.  And even Vincent, who becomes an alcoholic, finally finds his way out of a drunken haze to fall in love with a man.  But there are obstacles in every path of love, and one tragedy is so poignant I’m still haunted.

The characters are so vivid, and real, and sad, and the pace is so fast that I flew through the book.  How would they manage their lives?  Would they beat the curse?

Hoffman’s exquisite writing is a gift to readers.   Here is a passage about Franny’s study of her aunt’s herbal remedies for customers.

Franny had taken to sitting on the back staircase to eavesdrop. She’d bought a blue notebook in the pharmacy to write down her aunt’s remedies. Star tulip to understand dreams, bee balm for a restful sleep, black mustard seed to repel nightmares, remedies that used essential oils of almond or apricot or myrrh from thorn trees in the desert. Two eggs, which must never be eaten, set under a bed to clean a tainted atmosphere. Vinegar as a cleansing bath. Garlic, salt, and rosemary, the ancient spell to cast away evil.

The Rules of Magic is entertaining and poignant, and now I want to go on to Practical Magic.  If you haven’t read the book, you may have seen the movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock.  I only vaguely remember it, but I look forward to rereading.