A Willa Cather Reading & a Bike Accident

I am a fan of day-long readings of classics.  Such readings usually fall on anniversaries of an author’s birth or the publication of a book.  You probably know about Bloomsday, June 16, the day on which James Joyce sets his novel Ulysses.  Some years ago, my husband and I popped into a pub where there was a Bloomsday reading of Ulysses.  People milled and thronged, drank beer, and listened to the reading.  I wonder:  did they really read aloud the entire book in a day? Or did it take longer?  It was both moving and boring, and we left after a couple of hours.

This weekend there is a similar event for Willa Cather fans.   On Saturday, Sept. 22, the Willa Cather Foundation is sponsoring a daylong reading of My Antonia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book.  (The official publication anniversary is Sept. 21, but Saturday is obviously a better day for gathering.)

The Willa Cather Foundation reports:

This event is free and open to the public and will take place at Omaha’s Gallery 1516. It will begin at 10:00 a.m. and end in the early evening, to be followed by a talkback discussion and no-frills closing reception. Attendees may drop in at any time of day or come and go throughout the event. A live stream will also be available on the Willa Cather Foundation’s YouTube channel.

Alas, we will not make it to Omaha for the Willa reading because…

BAD NEWS AND GOOD NEWS

Our bikes parked in front of a cafe.

THE BAD NEWS:  I have spent a lot of time this week riding the bus back and forth to the hospital.  My husband, a bike commuter, was hit by a car on his way home from work. He was riding in the bike lane when a car swerved in front of him to turn into an alley.  My husband was pitched over the handlebars and his body slammed into the car.  He was hospitalized for a broken collarbone and collapsed lung.  Witnesses assured the police that it was the driver’s fault, but the driver is long gone.

Since my husband has never been hospitalized, you can imagine that this did not sit well.  It was a battle of wills to get him to sit down:  he wanted to give his chair to guests.   He wildly talked of driving the car home with his arm in a sling.   He also thought he was could saunter down to Starbucks with his arm in a sling and carry back his own tea.

“No, I’ll get your tea.”

He insisted the doctor and I were over-protective!

THE GOOD NEWS.  He is home, thank God.  I have NEVER been so worried in my life.

I offered to get him a cup of tea. “I’m not an invalid,” he said.

“You are, dummy,” I said.

Anyway, I would prefer him to rest, but he is not used to sitting around.  He has, however, promised not to bike or drive for a while.  Thank God!

And if anyone has any tips on taking care of an extremely healthy person who has been in the hospital and who won’t sit still, tell me!

Book Despair: Too Many Books, Not Enough Space

Shelved, if not organized.

I  looked around the room with pleasure. The space is bright and cheerful:  we recently painted the walls and moved out some of the furniture.   But the real difference? There are no books on the floor.

Bloggers write about book hauls, but gloss over book hoarding. The official definition of book hoarding, according to Rachel Kramer Bussell, is having 1,000 books or more.

Bussell wrote at The Toast in 2014:

I wish I could honestly answer “there’s no such thing as too many books,” but as I learned from experience, that’s not true. Nothing brought this home for me like watching paid professionals cart away hundreds of books—read and unread, purchased lovingly or attained at book parties or conferences—when I hired a trash removal service last year upon moving from my two-bedroom apartment after 13 years.

In my experience, it is all about square footage.  We used to live in an old house where the attic alone could hold 1,000 books. Now we live in a nicer house with less space–and if only we had only 1,000 books!

If the public library were better, I would depend less on bookstores and own fewer books.  On the rare occasions when I visit a university library I find everything I need, but the local library has a policy of weeding books every five years.  See the picture above?  Only three of these books are available at our library:  the Anne Brontes, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and The Butcher’s Daughter.  (And, by the way, I’ve read all the books on those shelves, so I’m not just a hoarder.)

The great thing about “redoing” the bedroom:  I can now read in bed without getting distracted by the messy stacks of books on the floor.   With fewer books in the room, I get more reading done.   And I am so happy with the less cluttered space hat I am determined to address my shopping problem

HERE’S WHAT I’M DOING ABOUT IT.  (And I would welcome any suggestions.)

1. Read fewer book reviews. I don’t need to keep up with the latest books, because I have so many good ones at home.

2. Read Goodreads reviews and blogs.  There is less urgency about blogs, probably  because it is a volunteer activity.  And bloggers write about both old and new books:   there is no expiration date on the product, so we can add the books to our TBR and enter the conversation when we’re ready.   Hence, there is no voice in my head saying, “Buy the latest books!  Buy them now!” Now the voice says, “Oh, a reissued book by Rachel Ferguson.  I will buy a copy next month, after if I finish X, X, and X.”

3.  Stop using bookstore sites as databases.  There is much information about books at bookstore sites, but it is too tempting to buy the books.

4.  Find a new hobby.  But what?  Politics? Knitting?  I can’t imagine.

All right, any other hoarders out there?

The Mrs. Project, # 1: Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Elizabeth Gaskell.

It began in 2010 as part of my desultory “Mrs. Project.” In the nineteenth century, Gaskell’s work was published under the name “Mrs Gaskell,” not Elizabeth.  The Mrs. title was also de rigueur  for Victorian writers Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Mrs. Browning, and Mrs. Campbell Praed.

I have been considering Gaskell’s work because I am reading Nell Stevens’ new book, The Victorian and the Romantic, which is part fictional biography of Gaskell, part memoir of Stevens’s studies of Gaskell for her Ph.D.

I recently reread Ruth, Gaskell’s second novel, in which she treats the subject of pregnancy out of wedlock with sympathy and intelligence. Though much has changed since the nineteenth century, unintentional pregnancy remains a social problem, especially as states slash funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide health care for low-income women.

The first hundred pages of this intriguing but uneven novel are pitch-perfect.  Gaskell’s style is simple and serviceable:  the plot races along, the characters are vivid, and there is much pathos. The unmarried heroine, Ruth Hilton, is a teenage orphan with no future. After her parents die, her guardian sends her away to be a seamstress in a sweatshop.  The girls work impossibly long hours–they sometimes work till 2 a.m. and then get up at dawn.  One night Ruth is chosen to go to a ball to work in the cloakroom sewing rips and repairing ladies’ gowns. And then a wealthy young man, Mr. Bellingham, falls for her beauty.

An illustration by Debra McFarlane from the Folio Society edition of Ruth

Poor Ruth!  Her boss, Mrs. Mason, fires her after seeing Mr Bellingham holding Ruth’s arm as they walk around town.  And so Ruth becomes homeless.  Mr. Bellingham, whom she loves and regards as her saviour, whirls her away to London.  Then they travel to Wales, where Ruth admries the countryside and takes long walks.

Naturally, this idyll cannot last forever.  Mr. Bellingham falls ill, and his mother takes him away.  He never returns to Ruth, because she was just a passing phase.  After he deserts her, she becomes very ill, and she learns she is pregnant.  Mr. Benson, an upstanding minister, and his sister,  Faith, take her into their home. After a discussion of the relative morality of telling the truth about  Ruth’s pregnancy (and ruining her life),  or  passing her off as a widow and a relative, they do the latter.  And it works out very well:  Ruth blooms under their care, and they love her son Leonard.  She even gets a day job as governess for a wealthy family.  That is, until…  Yes, the Mrs. title can serve her only so long.

There is a draggy patch in the middle, but the pace picks up again and I really loved this little book.  It is a predecessor of Thomas Hardy’s classic, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Wearing Chambray

You can’t get more girlish than the color pink. Why do I, a woman of a certain age, now have a pink diary?

On a recent shopping trip I couldn’t resist a notebook with a suede cover. I would have preferred any other color but pink was all they had.  And I thought it might be on sale because there was no price on it. The cashier scrolled through notebook pix on her phone. “It’s $11.95. Do you still want it?”

“Yes.”

Pink was the color of my girlhood.  My mother painted my room  pink. In elementary school, she bought me a pink dress with a cape collar to wear to birthday parties. In junior high, we were mod like Twiggy but less thin.  I had a “shocking pink” mini-dress which I wore with textured over-the-knee stockings.  In the cafetorium in study hall, a fashionable mini-skirted friend confided she was having sex with a popular girl by inserting a Yardley Slicker (a Yardley brand of lipstick) into her vagina. I was cynical: I said she would get an A in English for that story.  In retrospect she was probably inspired by the Yardley ad: “Only Slickers Do It. Make you soft, wild, whatever you want to be.”

Then in high school I rebelled against pink: freedom was just another word for wearing chambray shirts and jeans. And a lesbian teacher took me out for coffee, lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems, and then seduced me by sobbing about how often she had been rejected when she said she was gay. I’d rather hoped my high school crush (a boy) would seduce me, but who was I to reject her? Not only did we “wear our love like heaven” (Donovan) but “loved the one we were with” (Stephen Stills).

I’ve written elsewhere about how boring it was. I wasn’t keen on other women’s vaginas. And then there were the women’s dances, where radical lesbian feminists wore men’s suits and danced only to women’s music. Perhaps they were parodying  butch-femme roles, but it was a drab scene, even with the Supremes.  In retrospect I’m impressed with their intellect:  they were writing about feminist politics, founding various women’s centers, and experimenting with being gay.  Some went back to heterosexuality (like me), some really were gay.

By the time I was in college, I was happily heterosexual again and had a boyfriend (and then two husbands). Sometimes I wore pink t-shirts with Lee jeans, pink Oxford shirts with jean skirts, and a pink jacket.

I only have one pink shirt at the moment. And my husband will not allow me to paint any of our rooms pink.  Fortunately there are hundreds of colors at the paint store.

And now I have a pink diary!

Whom Should You Read after Dodie Smith? I Say Elizabeth Goudge

An illustration from the Folio Society edition of I Capture the Castle

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and The New Moon with the Old are incomparably charming.  I often reread favorite scenes:  the scene in I Capture the Castle where Rose and Cassandra are mistaken for bears because they are wearing their late aunt’s unfashionable antique fur coats; and the scene in The New Moon with the Old where Clare  jokes that the only job she is qualified for is “king’s mistress,” because she has read so many Dumas novels.

But whom do you read after Dodie Smith?

I have turned to Elizabeth Goudge, another witty, spellbinding storyteller of the 20th century.  You don’t see her books anymore, but our public library still has her enchanting children’s novel, The Little White Horse, which won the Carnegie Medal for British Children’s Books in 1946.  The first Goudge I read was her adult novel, Green Dolphin Street, which is a bit like Gone with the Wind set in New Zealand; it won the Literary Guild Award in 1944 and was adapted as a film.  (I’d love to see the film.)

I recently reread A City of Bells, set in Torminster, a Cathedral town based on Wells in the UK.  I thoroughly enjoyed this well-written novel, with its sharp dialogue and lyrical descriptions of the city.  One of the main characters, Jocelyn Irvin,  has been physically and psychologically damaged in the Boer War.  He has no vocation, so he goes to Torminster to stay with his grandfather, a canon of the cathedral. And while there he falls in love with Felicity, a gorgeous, charming actress who is visiting her aunt.  Due to the influence of Felicity and Grandfather, he opens a bookshop.  And there he finishes the manuscript of a poem by the former tenant;  he and Felicity produce it as a play in London.  When Jocelyn goes to London for rehearsals,  Grandfather runs the bookshop.

I know this quote will make you laugh.

…Joceylyn was obliged to leave the shop to the care of Grandfather, the children, and Miss Lavendar on at least three days a week … Grandmother was outraged … That she should live to see her own husband on the wrong side of a counter was really the last straw in a married life strewn with straws.  “A Canon of the Cathedral serving in a shop,” she said indignantly to Jocelyn.  “I never heard of such a thing in my whole life.  What the Dean thinks I don’t know and don’t want to know.  And what your poor Grandfather, who has never, let me tell you, been able to subtract a penny from three-halfpence since the day he was born, gives in the way of change I’m sure I don’t know.”

I am surprised at how well Goudge’s books have stood up. Some passages are Dickensian, some are graceful, others sentimental.  My favorite Goudge is The Scent of Water, a  novel about a professional woman in London who inherits a house in the country from a relative she saw only once as a child. When she decides to move there, friends tell her it’s a bad decision, but she comes to terms with herself as a person rather than as a financially successful woman without a personal life

What is your favorite comfort book?  And whom do you read after Dodie Smith?

London Is Full of Loebs & Tips for American Booksellers

My first trip to London was fun but bewildering. I got lost a lot.  When in doubt, I went to a bookstore.

“London is full of Loebs,” I wrote in an email.

If you don’t know the Loebs, you are not a classicist, but anybody can use a Loeb, which is why they’re popular.  The Loebs are a series of Greek and Latin classics with the Greek or Latin text on the left page and the English translation on the right.  I have reservations about the excessively old-fashioned literal translations, but where else can you find an edition of Manetho, an Egyptian priest in the third century B.C.E. who wrote in Greek?

Manetho’s History of Egypt and Other Works

The Loebs would be superfluous at our house–we have a bookcase full of Greek and Latin books– but I know I’m in civilization when I find them.  I let out a sigh of relief when I saw Loebs at Prairie Lights in Iowa City 10 years ago.  Just to be in a town where people read classics…I was in a daze.  Alas, the store’s stock has shrunk, and the Loebs have vanished.  So now I go to the used bookstores, where I find more scholarly texts.

Waterstones Piccadilly

Not to get carried away, but Barnes and Noble could use some Loebs:  just one or two to look classy. And that’s not all.  My serious advice:  the CEO and the Managers of Books (MOBs?) should take a trip to London bookstores.  Why not copy the attractive display tables at Waterstones and Foyles?  Some of them are even themed.  I remember an alluring table of Booker Prize-winning paperbacks at Waterstones. B&N could surely do a National Book Awards table.  Right now B&N is in financial trouble: it mostly pushes best-sellers, and, oh yes, they have what I call the Lord of the Flies table: you know, books you read in school.  A little more quirky, a little less predictable–it could be win-win for everybody.

ANY OTHER IDEAS FOR IMPROVING B&N?

The Rise of the Bibliomemoir: Readers Love to Read About Reading

In the 1990s, we saw the rise of the memoir.  “Couldn’t you add a couple of paragraphs about how memoirs glut the market?” an editor asked.

“But what’s the evidence?” There may have been evidence, but I hadn’t found it. Nobody had any numbers. They just had feelings that memoirists were whiners.  If I had to say the market was glutted on the basis of a few people’s feelings, it would have been a deal-breaker for me. Quite a few memoirists write about marginalized lives, which may be why so many  were eager to shut them down.  Fortunately this kind editor let me be the literal-minded nerd I was.

In the twenty-first century, there are still plenty of memoirs, but we have also seen a rise in popularity of the bibliomemoir, a word I’m quite sure I didn’t invent but which isn’t in the dictionary.  Some memoirs about reading are classics; others are quite pedestrian little books; but I look at all of them, because I like to know what people are reading. And since I enjoy these books, here are links to posts I’ve written about two of my favorites:   Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev and Ann Hood’s Morningstar:  Growing up with Books.

But there are more, more, and more being published all the time. Here are four new bibliomemoirs, three recently published and one to be published in January. I have divided them into two categories, “Intellectual” and “Common Readers.”

INTELLECTUAL BOOK  MEMOIRS

Elizabeth Gaskell fans will  want to run to the bookstore to find their copy of Nell Stevens’ new book,  The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship Across Time.  Why?  it will complete your Gaskell mania. Hannah Rosefield has published a fascinating essay in The New Yorker about Stevens’ book and her own thoughts on Gaskell,  “The Unjustly Overlooked Victorian Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.”  I do recommend it.

Here is the first paragraph of Rosefield’s review:

“I have always imagined [Gaskell] as somehow asexual,” Nell Stevens admits at the beginning of “The Victorian and the Romantic,” a hybrid of memoir and fictional biography that invites us to update our view of the writer. Around a third of “The Victorian and the Romantic” is a novelistic portrayal, in the second person, of Gaskell in Rome, falling in love with Norton (“You never felt lost for words, and yet for a second, now, you truly were. Your heart was beating quickly, disturbed”) and her subsequent frustrated years in Manchester, longing to see him again. The other two thirds of the book describe Stevens’s own tortured long-distance love affair with a handsome, literary Bostonian (Stevens is British), her lifelong relationship with Elizabeth Gaskell and the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress of her Ph.D. dissertation on the transatlantic literary community in mid-nineteenth-century Rome. Along the way, Stevens volunteers for several medical trials, wins a honeymoon to India (she is single at the time), and spends several months living in a Texas tree house.

And so I have my copy of The Victorian and the Romantic and am ready to begin.

2.  All the Lives We Ever Lived:  Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth will be published in January, 2019.  I look forward to an intriguing book about the multi-talented, charming, vulnerable, and sometimes infuriating Woolf and Smyth’s interpretation of her best book, To the Lighthouse.

Here is the jacket copy:

Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death—a calamity that claimed her favorite person—she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief.

Smyth’s story moves between the New England of her childhood and Woolf’s Cornish shores and Bloomsbury squares, exploring universal questions about family, loss, and homecoming. Through her inventive, highly personal reading of To the Lighthouse, and her artful adaptation of its groundbreaking structure, Smyth guides us toward a new vision of Woolf’s most demanding and rewarding novel—and crafts an elegant reminder of literature’s ability to clarify and console.

Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author

COMMON READERS’ MEMOIRS

1  I know little about Sarah Clarkson’s new book, Book Girl: A Journey through the Treasures and Transforming Power of a Reading Life, but I do like the cover and the concept. It seems to be part reading memoir, part self-help book, complete with annotated book lists and a section on “what you can do to cultivate a love of reading in the growing readers around you.”

From the jacket copy:

Books were always Sarah Clarkson’s delight. Raised in the company of the lively Anne of Green Gables, the brave Pevensie children of Narnia, and the wise Austen heroines, she discovered reading early on as a daily gift, a way of encountering the world in all its wonder. But what she came to realize as an adult was just how powerfully books had shaped her as a woman to live a story within that world, to be a lifelong learner, to grasp hope in struggle, and to create and act with courage.

 2.  Then there’s I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel, a lifestyle and book blogger at the site Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Here’s the jacket copy:

For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time–it’s a lifestyle. Our books shape us, define us, enchant us, and even sometimes infuriate us. Our books are a part of who we are as people, and we can’t imagine life without them.

I’d Rather Be Reading is the perfect literary companion for everyone who feels that way. In this collection of charming and relatable reflections on the reading life, beloved blogger and author Anne Bogel leads readers to remember the book that first hooked them, the place where they first fell in love with reading, and all of the moments afterward that helped make them the reader they are today. Known as a reading tastemaker through her popular podcast What Should I Read Next?, Bogel invites book lovers into a community of like-minded people to discover new ways to approach literature, learn fascinating new things about books and publishing, and reflect on the role reading plays in their lives.

I read the sample and it is quite well-written.  It’s on my TBR list.

What bibliomemoirs do you admire and do you know of any new ones?