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?

The Failure to Commit: Did You Finish Your Summer Reading Project?

“Reading Woman” by Matthieu Wiegman

I have a spotty record of finishing summer reading projects. Yes, I loved The Tale of Genji in 2016, but this past summer of SF I barely cracked open an SF book.  I preferred Jo Walton’s brilliant collection of essays, An Informal History of the Hugos:  A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, to two actual SF novels, Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer and John Crowley’s Aegypt.

Does this mean I cannot commit?

It is a bloggers’ tradition to commit to whimsical summer reading. This summer there was the Full Monte, a cleverly-named discussion of The Count of Monte Cristo; the Classics Club, The Books of Summer, All August All Virago, and Women in Translation Month.  Coming up is Victober, a reading of Victorian novels in October, sponsored by various vloggers at BookTube and a Goodreads group.  Since every month is Victober here, I will inadvertently participate.

Such bookish fun is a little too quixotic.  I prefer book clubs where all read the same book. (And so The Full Monte gets my vote of approval.) My husband and I, in our scruffier years, used to walk to the lake (where we never swam, because of dead fish and pollution) and read Betty MacDonald’s humor books aloud under a tree. More recently, we had a lunchtime Joseph Conrad book club. This year we’re reading an interminable Solzhenitsyn book.

Everything is undoubtedly more fun on the internet, though you might have to be a Millennial or of the “I” gen to enjoy it.  Take a look at the adorable book site, Bookish, which sponsors a Bookish Bingo game for its September Reading Challenge.  I would never do this; still, kudos to “red or orange cover.” And, let’s face it, I’ll have a Bingo without playing.

Why am I wary about cute internet reading projects?  Well, it is like interplanetary butterflies humming and hovering over different genera of flowers but never hovering or humming over the same flowers. (Is that what I mean?  And is it SF?)

I recently read David Ulin’s brilliant book, The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. (And I wrote about it here).  He discusses the internet interruptions that impede our reading books.  The internet actually rewires our brains so we need constant fixes.  In 2008, Ulin became so addicted to newsfeeds about the election that he could barely get off the net–and he could not get lost in a book.

Many critics have written about the triviality of social media.  Ulin quotes David Denby’s Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. Denby writes, “The trouble with today’s snarky pipsqueaks who break off a sentence or two, or who write a couple of mean paragraphs, is that they don’t go far enough; they don’t have a coherent view of life.”

Ulin does not entirely agree with Denby’s critique, but he explains the gist of it:

What Denby is lamenting is the lack of a larger framework, the absence of any wider point of view.  That’s the problem with the culture of the comments thread, which, for all its pretense toward open conversation, adds up to little more than a collection of parallel monologues.

It is difficult to conduct a meaningful conversation in parallel monologues. Certainly I do not have the facility.  What can a couple of lines in a comment possibly signify?  We try, but I succeed only as a cheerleader.

So let’s recover our hippie reading life, the best response to a noisy, muddled world.

To quote Joni Mitchell:

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

For Virginia Woolf Fans: “The Garden Party” by Grace Dane Mazur

I love this novel too much to write about it.  Does that sound absurd?

The action of Grace Dane Mazur’s exquisite new novel, The Garden Party, is set in a single day.  Celia and Pindar Cohen, both writers, host a wedding rehearsal dinner in the garden for their son Adam, a professor poet, and his bride, Eliza Barlow.   But the Cohens dread the party.  Celia is a literary critic and Pindar is researching a book about Babylonian cookery;  the Barlows are lawyers with whom they have nothing in common.  Celia would like to put the Barlows at a separate table.  She is still brooding over the seating chart and the menu as the guests arrive.

Celia muses on the subject of parties.

She loved parties, but she felt insufficient with all those lawyers coming to her house, inspecting. The floors were clean, everything glowed, but she didn’t know what they would be expecting. Did this mean they would now come over for Thanksgiving? And would she have to go to their Christmas festivities?

In the course of the day, there are many uncomfortable interactions.  The Barlows do not appreciate the wild whimsicality of the Cohens’ garden.  And the bride and groom, Eliza and Adam, so dread the huge wedding that Eliza’s brother, Harry, a former seminarian, offers to officiate at a private ceremony to reduce the pressure of the big day.  They retreat to the attic, where the ceremony is comically interrupted; the same thing happens by the pond. Finally they succeed at the dinner table. Their most important witness is Pindar’s 91-year-old sharp, still brilliant mother, Leah, an artistic gardener with a romantic past in Paris.

As I read, I fleetingly thought of two of Virginia Woolf’s best novels, Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts.  Mazur narrates the events of the day from multiple points-of-view and often through stream-of-consciouness. Every sentence is gorgeously crafted.  And she has perfect control over a huge cast of characters.   Her language really is almost Woolfian at times.

One of my favorite books of the year!

Women’s Satires: Lisa Alther’s “Kinflicks” and Lexi Freiman’s “Inappropriation”

Sometimes we forget women are accomplished satirists.  Satirist is not on the approved list of women’s roles:   daughters, caregivers, friends, confidantes, girlfriends, sluts, wives, housekeepers, mothers, good listeners, and wage earners. And so we find ourselves saying to a shoplifter,  “There, there.”  Baffling, isn’t it?

And we turn to satire.

I am rereading Lisa Alther’s underrated Kinflicks, a riotously funny novel about women’s changing roles and sexual identities in the 1950s and ’60s.  And I am also reading Lexi Frieman’s new novel,  Inappropriation, a satire of identity politics.  These books have more in common than you would think.

Let me start with Kinflicks, published in 1975.  The narrator, Ginny Babcock, has returned to her hometown, Hullsport, Tennessee, because her mother in the hospital.   The mother and daughter have a complicated relationship:  both have plenty of complaints.  But Ginny is the real protagonist, a refugee from the South who hasn’t found her identity yet.

As Ginny drives around her hometown, she has flashbacks to the past.  She has morphed from a flag-waving cheerleader to black-clad girlfriend of a motorcycle-riding delinquent to intellectual at a women’s college to lesbian feminist to cheating wife and ambivalent mother.

Her father, the Major, was always trying to straighten her out, and, ironically, his controlling personality drove her away from home.   After a motorcycle accident, he pressured her to apply to a women’s college,  Worthley College.  She tried to get herself rejected at the interview.

In a last-ditch effort of defiance, I wore a black, too-tight straight skirt; a black cardigan buttoned up the back with a Do-It Pruitt pointed bra underneath; Clem’s red dragon windbreaker, the tatters of which I had carefully stitched together upon finding them among Mother’s cleaning cloths; black ballet slippers; and Clem’s huge clanking identification bracelet.

But no matter what Ginny does, she succeeds, and she found herself at Worthley.  Whether she’s studying philosophy or living in a commune, she gives it her all.  But Alther is a wicked satirist.  When Ginny’s overbearing lesbian girlfriend is decapitated in a snowmobile accident, it is irreverently funny–plus accidents like that are common.

I am about one-third through Lexi Frieman’s new satiric novel, Inappropriation. Is it Kinflicks for Millennials?   Ziggy, the Australian Jewish teenage heroine, has just started attending Kandara, a girls’ school whose class hierachy disappoints her. There are the Cates (a clique of rich, entitled debutantes), the rugby players, whom she describes as “hypermuscular Anglo-Saxonites,” the brilliant Asians and the cool, homework-averse Asians, the “unsalvageable spinsters,” and “the large-boned unpretty.”

Soon Ziggy befriends two girls, Tessa, who has a prosthetic arm and “identifies as cyborg,” and Lex, who wants to be a rapper and is banned from school recitals.  After their first  conversations, Ziggy researches genderqueerness at Wikipedia. And after chatting and posting all night at a queer social media site, she decides “the only category she can commit to with any confidence is bisexual gender queerness.  A kind of placeholder….  If she is genderqueer, Ziggy doesn’t need to take hormones or wear a baseball cap or even call herself a he.”

So far the character who gives the best advice is Rowena, a trans woman in Ziggy’s New Age therapist mother’s annual menarche workshop. (Rowena cannot menstruate but experiences the symptoms; Ziggy does not menstruate.). When Ziggy corners Rowena,  she advises Ziggy to be herself and not commit to someone else’s definition of identity.

Inappropriation is comical, but it is also stark.  It lacks the joy of Kinflicks.  I am not sure I’ll have time to finish this, but I am quite sure some of you would love it.

A Retelling of the Iliad: “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

Whether you began your study of myth with Mircea Eliade’s Myth and Reality or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you are  thrilled by Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, and Seneca.

Writers and artists have recast the myths for centuries:  indeed, there seems to be a Myth-of-the-Month club among novelists. Last year we had Colm Toibin’s House of Names, a competent retelling of the Oresteia, and David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a retelling of Medea (on my TBR). This year we’ve seen Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica, an anthology of reimagined myths with allusions to Ovid (clever but uneven), Will Boast’s Daphne (Y.A.-ish), and Orange Prize winner Madeline Miller’s popular Circe (currently 50% off at Barnes and Noble, by the way).

And now the Booker Prize-winning Pat Barker has joined their ranks with The Silence of the Girls, a brilliant retelling of the Iliad from a woman’s perspective.  The narrator is Briseis, Achilles’ intelligent captive mistress, formerly a princess. But some scenes are shown from Achilles’s  point-of-view, narrated in the third person.

It begins with Briseis’s derisive musings on the epithets associated with Achilles.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him “the butcher.”

Before her city fell to the Greeks—a city near Troy—Briseis was the wife of King Mynes. Now she is Achilles’s prize, and serves him dinner and has sex with him.  (At least he’s quick.)

Another slave, Chyrseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, suffers horribly as the prize of Agamemnon, a rapist. When Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis to her father,  he decides to snatch another prize and takes Briseis from Achilles.   And so Achilles sulks in his tent and refuses to fight, and Briseis often sees him running on the beach in full armor.  But as the Greeks lose ground and hundreds die, the selfishness of the rage of Achilles becomes more apparent to Briseis, who cares for the wounded and dying every day in the hospital tent.

Finally Achilles goes back to war, after the death of his best friend Patroclus, who dressed in Achilles’ armor on the battlefield and got himself killed.  We are sorry for Patroclus, a good friend of Briseis, but Briseis’s sharp observations on the pointless war and the silent sufferings of women are the mainspring of the novel.  Briseis has no control over her fate, even when she returns to Achilles, though they do become friends.

Near the end, Briseis’s bitter observations of the Trojan War resonate.

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.

A remarkable, lucid and disturbing novel.  I can’t predict these things, but perhaps it is a modern classic.