The Luxury of Long, Slow Reads

On the internet, we hustle to meet our goals. We participate in the Goodreads challenge (we “promise” to read a self-imposed number of books  and Goodreads tracks our progress), learn the speed of our reading on Kindles (can we speed up?), and keep pace with innumerable book groups.

Sometimes we forget the luxury of long, slow reads.   My computer calendar pops up to dictate my reading progress, but not even the calendar gods could convince me to finish Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil.   Before the distractions of the internet, I would have slogged through it anyway because I expected less amusement. In those days I was able to finish War and Peace in a week and Trollope’s six-book Palliser series in six weeks.  I have reread these brilliant, unputdownable classics with pleasure, but now the experience is different because electronic devices split my attention and I tend to read multiple books in the same time period.  Pity the poor blogger who writes that he/she has given up long books because they get in the way of reviewing a set number of books at his/her blog.  That strikes me as very wrong.

And so I was very interested in Erin Bartnett’s article in Electric Literature, “Reading a Book Takes Time—Deal With It.”  She criticizes the start-up companies that tailor books to  your commute time.  She writes,

Serial Box turns the book into a quick, consumable, commute-sized commodity: each “episode” in the serial season is set up so it only takes about 40 minutes to read, in order to line up with the average back-and-forth commute time. As Molly Barton, one of the founders of Serial Box, told Vox: “I was aware that for many people, reading a book can feel rather slow and daunting compared to other media forms at this point. It’s harder to fit into your life.”

I say malarkey. You only have 40 minutes to read a book? Get a bookmark! Don’t worry — the book will still be there when you get back. Reading is supposed to be slow. And it’s okay if it’s daunting. Books take a long time to write, and the good ones deserve more than a morning commute time to fully digest and understand. Books also have the capacity to take you out of time and space and make you miss your subway stop, and that’s a good thing, too. The right story gives us permission to get lost when we need to. Indeed, Constance Grady reported the Serial Box books she’s read did not enchant: “I couldn’t lie on the beach and lose myself in it because it actively did not want me to do so.” Is our obsession with hurrying up getting in the way of our having fun?

Serial Box is an outrageous attack on the art of reading, and, yes, hurrying up does get in our way.   I agree with Bartnett:  get a bookmark!

The long read is still alive, I learned from Alex Clark’s brilliant essay in The Guardian, “I’m going back to Proust this August. The truly long read is a summer treat.”  She writes,

Another summer, and another assault on the unscaled mountains of literature. Having woefully failed at 2017’s attempt on Henry James, who fell foul of a sudden addiction to his sleuthier cousin PD, I’m once again preparing to tackle Proust, courtesy of a 50th birthday present of a beautiful boxed set of In Search of Lost Time. Thank God I shan’t be doing it alone, but in the company of novelist Susan Hill, who explained in last week’s Spectator Diary that, having got so far and no further on multiple previous occasions, she too was going back in. She is now on Book 5, and I salute her.

What a wonderful summer reading plan!

I declared the summer of 2018 my summer of science fiction but it has been the summer of Trollope and P. G. Wodehouse. And I wouldn’t trade this summer for my original plan.

Have you met your goals this summer?   Have you changed them?  And are you reading long or short?

Angela Thirkell, Snob and Comic Genius

I have an ambivalent relationship with Angela Thirkell.  She is very, very funny; she is also very snobbish. My favorite of her novels is August Folly, which I described here in 2016 as “a hectic comedy in which a bossy village matriarch directs a summer production of Hippolytus in her barn.”

In her nonsensical Barsetshire series (yes, she borrowed Barsetshire from Trollope), Thirkell populates a ridiculously upper-class imaginary world with distracted widows, charming headmasters, smart headmistresses, eccentric lords, lovesick vicars, lonely secretaries, and obnoxious, silly schoolboys.  Thirkell wrote a book a year:  the first in the series, High Rising, was published in 1933, and the last, Three Score and Ten, in 1961.  One of the pleasures of the series is following the careers of recurring characters.  I am very fond of Mrs. Morland, a writer whose hairpins fall out as she plots her popular thrillers;  the unpunctual Lady Leslie and her constant dropping of prayer books; and Lydia Merton, whose muddled classical allusions make me chortle.

Some of her books are much better than others.   It can be wearisome to read about the characters’  attitudes toward “inferiors,” “the Empire,” and eastern European refugees. On the other hand, they volunteer for the Red Cross and care for the evacuees. They have good morals and values.  If only all snobs were like that!

I prefer the interwar novels of the 1930s, but her more rambling books of the 1940s are an invaluable source of history, as she more or less documented English civilian life.  I think of her as a comic Nella Last.

Still, Thirkell occasionally irritates me with her silliness and superciliousness.  Evelyn Waugh is much funnier about the war.   Waugh’s Put Out More Flags, a satire which features a family of evacuees so destructive that people pay money in order not to billet them, does not strike me as snobbish, because Waugh is a more skillful writer.

The Thirkell revival is in some ways surprising.  She was nearly forgotten  In 2005 when Robert McCrum, in an excellent essay about literary societies, wrote,

Who, for example, reads Angela Thirkell these days? Yet there is a society devoted to her memory which organises group outings, promotes group discussion, and – I’ve no doubt – in the nicest possible way, gives Thirkell’s publishers hell about out-of-print titles.

All press is good press–and the Angela Thirkell Society organized an e-mail campaign to change McCrum’s mind.  If I remember correctly,  McCrum menitoned in a later article that he intended to try some Thirkell over the holidays.

N.B.  The Virago Modern Classics group at LibraryThing is sponsoring a monthlong reading of Angela Thirkell.  My Thirkell of the month is The Brandons, parts of which are brilliant, though it is not my favorite. I do find it very funny when Mrs. Brandon has to pretend to be interested in the vicar’s reading of his paper on Donne.  He is in love with her.  Fortunately, there are so many interruptions that he doesn’t make it past the first sentence.

The Absurdity of Celebrity Book Clubs & Book Imprints

I was not an Oprah fan until she founded her book club in 1996.  As a passionate reader and reviewer, I loved the idea of a celebrity promoting books. And I admired her choices, among them Wally Lamb’s I Know This Thing Is True, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, and Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World. 

Oprah chose a certain kind of issue-oriented literary fiction.  Novels had to deal with schizophrenia, adultery, incest, or some other daytime talk-show issue.  Not everyone applauded the book club.  A friend with a Ph.D. asked me why Oprah should choose our reading.  She believed a PR person selected the books (possibly true) and that people bought but did not read them. She thought I was too gullible;  I thought she was too serious.

When Oprah tired of contemporary novels, she started a classics book club.  Do you remember the summer of Faulkner?  I heard the boxed set of three Faulkner novels did not sell well.  No PR person would have been happy with that summer choice!

Now we have a glut of celebrity book clubs and celebrity book imprints.  Sarah Jessica Parker has her own imprint at Hogarth, SJP, and this summer published her first book, A Place for Us  by Fatima Farheen Mirza (which has garnered rave reviews).  The highly intelligent actress/writer Lena Dunham and producer/director Jenni Konner have their own imprint at Random House, Lenny Books.  And then there are the celebrity book clubs:  Reese Witherspoon has a book club, Hello Sunshine; Emma Watson has a feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf; Emma Roberts has a book club, Belletrist; and Sarah Jessica Parker has SJP Picks at ALA Book Central.

Sarah Jessica Parker and  novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza.

This PR trick sells thousands of books, but it also speaks to our times. Are we so shallow that we want beautiful actresses to run our book clubs?  There are thousands of book clubs, some run by experts, others by enthusiasts.  I have belonged to both kinds, but the best leaders are experts in their subject.

Marilyn Monroe

Would Marilyn Monroe, who read widely, run a book club now?   Would Jean Seberg, a reader and a radical, have published her own book imprint?

Jean Seberg

These are very strange times.

Five Books to Read after a Biking Breakdown

Yesterday I took a bike ride.

I It was 88 degrees, but it has been so hot that it felt cool.  Although the trees have that frumpy end-of-summer look, it’s lovely to pedal through the woods.  But then, despite frequent breaks to guzzle water, I registered that I was riding unusually slowly. And so I took a coffee break in an air-conditioned cafe.  All better, I thought as I walked into the heat.  But I was so exhausted on a steep hill that I got off my bike and walked.  That NEVER happens.

It was a biking breakdown, obviously. Too hot, too long.   Once home, I sat on the couch and drank water for two hours. My husband went off to buy me a huge bottle of Diet Coke.  Did I get off the couch at all?  No, except to make dinner–just to prove I was not defeated.

I spent hours reading, but I discovered that you don’t want to read anything too demanding after an exercise breakdown.

So here’s a list of

FIVE  BOOKS TO READ AFTER A BIKING BREAKDOWN!

1.  My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa MoshfeggOblomov meets Gogol in this dark comic novel about a young woman who decides to sleep for a year.

The narrator is beautiful, blond, and smart.  Everyone does her bidding because she is always the prettiest one in the room. Her best friend says she looks like Kate Moss.   But  her parents have died, her boyfriend doesn’t love her, she disdains her only friend,  and she has a ridiculous job as a receptionist at an art gallery.  When she inherits money, she decides she wants to sleep in her expensive Manhattan apartment for a year. A psychiatrist prescribes many drugs for her “anxiety,” most of which make her sleep.

The narrator is unsympathetic, but the book is very, very funny; at the same time horrifying and sad.  One of the drugs causes blackouts during which she wakes up to find she has shopped (where did she get the white fur coat?), gone to clubs, and ordered Thai food.  Things get darker, darker, and darker.

A very fast read by the winner of the PEN/Hemingway award for her first novel, Eileen.

2.  Something Happened by Joseph Heller.   Who can ever forget Catch-22, the satiric American classic about World War II? (If you like Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, you should enjoy Heller’s novel.)  But I used to swear that Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, published in 1974, was even better.  Was I right?

Heller satirizes the discontent of an  American middle-aged man, Bob Slocum, who is living a life of quiet desperation but at least has a sense of humor about it.   He would rather be at his horrible office than at home with his family, and isn’t that the American way?  Fans of Mad Men will love the atmosphere, but I have to warn you, NOTHING HAPPENS. It is essentially a monologue by the narrator Bob Slocum.  Kurt Vonnegut wrote in The New York Times in 1974:

“Something Happened” is so astonishingly pessimistic, in fact, that it can be called a daring experiment. Depictions of utter hopelessness in literature have been acceptable up to now only in small dose, in short-story form, as in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” or John D. MacDonald’s “The Hangover,” to name a treasured few. As far as I know, though, Joseph Heller is the first major American writer to deal with unrelieved misery at novel length. Even more rashly, he leaves his major character, Slocum, essentially unchanged at the end.

3. An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000 by Jo Walton.  The Hugo Award is the only fan-voted and fan-administered science fiction award.  If you’re a literary award junkie, you will devour this even if you’re not an SF fan.  Walton, a brilliant writer, critic, and Hugo Award-winning SF writer, has an unusual approach to analyzing the process of nominations.  She criticizes not only the winners but looks at many great books that might have been equally deserving.

She writes in the introduction:

I don’t think the best novel always wins. I think it’s very hard to say what the best book of the year is. Most years, there’s no single obvious best. It’s much easier to say what the top five are. I thought it might be interesting to take a historical look at the individual years and consider what was nominated and what won, to look at what else could have been nominated and wasn’t, and how well the selected books have stood the test of time. I wanted to look at the nominees to see whether the Hugos were picking the best five books, not only at the winners. It’s easy to find consideration of Hugo winners. I wanted to do something different—to revisit the winners and nominees in context.

4.  They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak.  To my knowledge, no one on Earth (maybe on Mars) ever reads this science fiction classic.  Originally published in 1962, it has been out of print since  1979.  This radical satiric novel questions the wisdom of urban sprawl, the cynical practices of real estate czars, and suburban flight to…well, nowhere.  Everybody should have a copy of They Walked Like Men. You never know when Earth will be taken over for its real estate.

5. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart.  Set in Corfu, this brilliant Gothic is a homage to The Tempest. The narrator, Lucy,  an unemployed actress, decides to join her pregnant sister, Phyllida, the wife of a rich banker, on vacation at a villa in Corfu.  There is beautiful scenery but many strange events:  the maid’s son drowns on a boat trip with an English photographer, someone shoots at a dolphin while Lucy is swimming near it in the sea, and the moody behavior of a composer, Max, who lives in a villa up the hill, seems strange:  does he have something to hide?  But Max’s father, a retired actor she has always worshiped, is charming.  When Lucy learns about a smuggling ring, she makes some very smart decisions.  But are they smart enough?

Magic Realism or Horror? The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s haunting new novel, The Third Hotel, defies classification.  Is it magic realism?  Is it horror?  It doesn’t quite matter:  this poetic, genre-crossing novel is eerily gorgeous. And it is more sophisticated than her  first book, Find Me, a beautifully-written dystopian novel about a plague of forgetfulness (which I wrote about here).

In The Third Hotel, the heroine, Clare, a widow, no longer understands the meaning of her life. She has been numb for some time, and is now mourning the loss of  her husband.  In December, she flies to Havana for the Festival of New Latin American Cinema he’d planned to attend.  Cuba is not her kind of place:  she is an elevator sales rep whose favorite state is Nebraska, because of the blandness and flatness. But her husband, Richard, killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York, was a scholar of horror films, and she wants to meet the director of the first horror film made in Cuba, Revolución Zombie.

Cuba is gorgeous, hot and disturbing:  dazed by beauty and unmarked streets, Clare keeps getting lost.  She calls her hotel the “Third Hotel,” because she had to ask concierges of two other hotels for directions before she found it.  Clare travels often for work and is usually at home in hotels, but she has seen some bizarre things. Once she found a human fingernail in a drawer–and that haunts her.

Van den Berg researched horror films exhaustively, and her analyses of the meaning of such films is enlightening.  Clare attends screenings, parties, and a panel discussion on a “zombie school.”  And then suddenly she catches sight of her husband, or thinks she does.  But what is she seeing?  It is easier for her to see it as a film through Richard’s eyes than to stop and wonder.

Screens were vehicles for the subjective, he had once written. No eye was objective and thus no lens could be either. In turn, the viewer’s response to the images became the third subjective eye, an invisible revelatory force. Screens and images revealed the viewer as much as they revealed to the viewer.

We’re not sure if he is the real Richard, a ghost, or a zombie.  As she follows him through the steamy streets, we feel that we are watching a film, and indeed she takes pictures with a camera.  Their eventual meetings are puzzling yet at the same time provide closure for Clare and the reader.  Van den Berg is a brilliant writer, and I admired this novel.  Supernatural meetings?  Maybe.  A lyrical, offbeat book.

A Novel for Political Junkies: February’s Road by John Verney

This is ideal summer reading!

As a child, I was beguiled by library books with eye-catching illustrations printed on the covers (not on paper book jackets). I was particularly charmed by the quirky covers of John Verney’s novels about the Callendar family, a boisterous clan consisting of Gus Callendar (Daddy), a political journalist; his wife, an artist-turned-mother, known as Mummy; February, a savvy teenager with a talent for ferreting out skulduggery; her older brother Friday, who has a penchant for machinery; and five younger children who provide comic relief.

Written and illustrated by John Verney, this funny, intriguing series focuses on the Callendars but also on journalism and political corruption. My favorite of the books, February’s Road, published in 1961, interweaves hilarious sketches of chaotic family life with the digging up of dirt on political skulduggery: a road is about to be built across the scenic downs–far from the ideal location.

Narrated by February, it begins in the Christmas holidays.

We’d had a super Christmas as always–our mother sees to that, and Daddy had done his best to enter into the seasonal spirit.  But the truth is he hates the whole thing because it dislocates his work for weeks before and after.  This year it had put him behind schedule with a series of articles for the Messenger on the need to build really good modern roads and he had been expecting a letter for days with photos and statistics about a new trunk road in Lancashire or somewhere.  Now, when he found the letter still hadn’t arrived, he swore loudly and chucked all the envelopes and their contents up in the air.  The bits of paper fluttered down like giant snowflakes on to the remains of breakfast, upsetting a milk jug.

When Daddy comes home from the office, he admits the letter and photos were waiting on his desk.  But  life at Marsh Manor does not remain peaceful. They are perturbed to learn that the Querbury City Council is building a new road near their house.  It will cross the paddock where their ponies graze.  Everyone is furious except Friday, who likes bulldozers. But they cannot protest the road, because Gus has been writing articles on the necessity of building them.

And then someone bashes the bulldozers.  The police think it is February.  She is cheeky when they question her, and she tells a lie:  she says she didn’t touch the saucepan in the river.  She is not the saboteur, but her fingerprints are all over the saucepan.

As if that’s not enough,  the journalists descend on the Callendars from London. They want to interview February:   one reporter compares her to Joan of Arc.  Mummy kindly lets them into the house not for the interview but because it is cold outside.  She serves them tea, and she allows a photographer to take a picture, because she can never resist a family snap.

The reporters easily lead February into saying things she does not quite mean.  At one point, she confusedly says she supposes you have to fight sometimes, though she is not referring to the bulldozers. And it doesn’t help when Friday jokes about Feb’s bulldozer-bashing.

The next day she is famous!   February writes,

For sheer imaginative fiction, the young men at tea were geniuses, and to read them you’d think I had sworn to take on the Ministry of Roads single-handed, but the headings give you the idea of the kind of stuff.

“YOU’VE GOT TO FIGHT THESE DAYS,” SAYS FEBRUARY.  “GOOD OLD FEB FAIRLY BASHED THOSE BULLDOZERS,” SAYS BROTHER FRIDAY….THE FIGHTING CALLENDARS….HER FATHER’S DAUGHTER….

Very funny.  But guess what? The building of the road has been hustled through illegally, with many political kickbacks.  And Gus/Daddy’s American colleague, Mike Spillergun, writes a three-page column about it, which is reprinted in full.  He has dug up information about a firm of speculators headed by Lord Sprocket, a Machiavellian businessman who is the villain in Friday’s Tunnel, the first book in the series.  The speculators  bought the land cheaply to sell  to the government at fabulous prices.

So witty, so much fun, and I even bought a duffel coat like the one worn by February in the illustrations.  (My mother didn’t like it.)

The complete series consists of Friday’s Tunnel, February’s Road, Ismo, and Seven Sunflower Seeds.  All are out-of-print.  Perhaps that’s because tehy’re really for adults? I am rarely amused by the books I loved in childhood, but I think February’s Road is a classic.

Guy Deverell by Sheridan Le Fanu

First, let me say that J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Guy Deverell is not a classic. Lefanu’s tour de force is Uncle Silas, my favorite Gothic novel. (I wrote about it here).

Guy Deverell is part Gothic, part locked-room mystery. And though I moderately enjoyed it, I will not pretend it is in the class of  Wilkie Collins’s superb locked-room mystery, The Moonstone, which was published 150 years ago, three years after Guy Deverell.

If you’re a Le Fanu devotee, you may enjoy this wildly uneven novel. The dialogue is robust though the plot is frenziedly far-fetched.  It begins with the “comely baronet,” Sir Jekyl, a rich man with 150 acres,  stopping at an inn and spotting a young man who is a “dead ringer” (no pun intended) for Guy Deverell, whom Sir Jekyl killed in a duel many years ago. Is it the dead man?

When Sir Jekyl beheld this particularly handsome young man, it was with a disagreeable shock, like the tap on a big drum, upon his diaphragm. If anyone had been there he would have witnessed an odd and grizzly change in the pleasant Baronet’s countenance. For a few seconds he did not move. Then he drew back a pace or two, and stood at the further side of the fire, with the mantelpiece partially between him and the young gentleman who spoke his parting directions, all unconscious of the haggard stare which made Sir Jekyl look a great deal less young and good-natured than was his wont.

…he exclaimed— “I could not have believed it! What the devil can it mean?”

The young man’s name is Guy Strangways, not Deverell, and he is accompanied by his French uncle,  M. Varberrierre.  Sir Jekyl recognizes the name Strangway, and wonders if the two men are distant relatives trying to cheat him of his inheritance.  He invites them to a house party.  Does that make sense?  No, but it doesn’t matter…

What happens at the house party? Well, we all wonder what goes on in the Green Chamber. Whatever happened, it caused Sir Jekyl’s own wife and his father to beg him on their deathbeds to wall it up. Sir Jekyl hasn’t bothered, for whatever reason.  Instead, he insists that his friend the General and his beautiful wife Lady Jane sleep in the Green Chamber during the house party.  Sir Jekyl’s housekeeper Donica, who slept in the Green Chamber for three years, quits her job because of this arrangement.

What IS going on?  Is there a ghost or a seducer in the chamber?  Was Lady Jane a gold digger?  Why does M. Varberrierre insist on measuring the Green Room?  And why does he warn Guy against Sir Jekyl’s daugher?  And why does Lady Alice, Sir Jekyl’s stepmother-in-law and Guy Deverell’s mother, try to protect Lady Jane by locking her in?

All right, if you’ve read Uncle Silas, you might enjoy this. Meanwhile, I’m on to another Gothic…