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 Future Is So Far Away: Why Do We Buy Too Many Books?

In 2012, Gabe Habash, author of the novel Stephen Florida, wrote an amusing article for Publishers Weekly, “The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books.” One weekend, as he browsed at bookstores in Brooklyn, he bought four books he wasn’t looking for.

He writes, “… you could call this either a habit of mine or a problem of mine. Either way, one thing it is is a pattern, something that repeats itself, that exists in its very repetition…”

According to Habash, who read several posts and online articles about book clutter, compulsive book buyers cut back or stop after they trip over stacks in their home libraries, or have some similar troublesome occurrence.  Then they  weed their “library’s duplicates and never-will-reads or already-read-and-didn’t-really-likes.”

Does this sound familiar?  It does to me. After a stack of books, toppled by an oversized Folio Society edition, fell out of a bookcase in January, I began my desperate weeding, giving away books I’d  already read.  My goal?  To weed the equivalent of two bookcases and have one book-free room.

I try to buy only books I will read. I spend less time in bookstores now.   On my trip to London, I bought very few, by my standards.  At Oxfam?  Nothing in the fiction, nothing in nonfiction, a very few in the literature section.  I found myself wishing I had gone instead to the London Review Bookshop, with its tables of interesting new books. But even the ten books I squeezed into my suitcase and shopping bag seemed superfluous when I got home.

My home library is better than most bookstores.  I was surprised to realize that.  But sometimes books are mere commodities–good for their (or our) time, but not for long.  Are those stacks of the new Kristin Hannah, the latest Richard Powers, or the new Meg Wolitzer, which has been so hyped that I’m leery, going to be read in 10 years?

The future is so far away.

The Non-Ivy League Geek Dream Courses!

Where did you go to school?  Harvard?

No, because it’s expensive!  It costs more than $60,000 a year.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 0.4 percent of American undergraduates go to Ivy League schools.  Seventy-three percent are educated at state universities and public colleges.

But New York publications continue to–excuse this nasty phrase–suck Ivy League d—.   In a recent article at the Literary Hub,  Emily Temple felt nostalgic for her school days,  so selected 10  courses  from university syllabi she’d like to take “from her couch.”  I raised an eyebrow when I noticed that seven of the 10 are offered by Ivy League schools, because isn’t Literary Hub supposed to be hipper than that?

Here are the Lit Hub stats.

  • Princeton:  3 courses.
  • Harvard:  1 course
  • Stanford:  1 course
  • Cornell:  1 course
  • Northwestern (the only Midwestern school, an elite private university):  1 course
  • Williams College (junior Ivy League):  1 course
  • Berkeley (a very cool state university, but very elite):  1 course
  • University of Florida (a state university, perhaps chosen to balance the others?):  1 course

And, to remind you-all that there are affordable schools between the east and west coasts,  I have selected three fascinating courses offered by the University of Iowa and University of Illinois.


University of Iowa, Comparative Literature:  The Tale of Genji

Close reading of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic Tale of Genji; students come to know the characters by exploring the social and cultural context of the tale and discover the art, literature, and film that the Tale of Genji has inspired while tracking its reception through the history of Japan and across the globe. Taught in English.

(Some of you remember I read Tale of Genji the summer of 2016.  I’d love to do it right:  all the notes in the world can’t make up for not having a professor.)

University of Iowa, Comparative Literature:  Wonder Woman Unleashed: A Hero for Our Times

Development of the woman warrior archetype in mythology (Athena/Minerva and Artemis/Diana), literature (Camilla from The Aeneid by Virgil), and history (Artemisia and Joan of Arc); focus on the development of Amazon narratives in Metamorphoses by Ovid, The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizzan, and On Famous Women by Boccaccio; students read Wonder Woman Chronicles and one or two critical studies on the subject, which may include The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.

University of Illinois, English: Literature of Fantasy, From Mordor to Gormenghast: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  and Peake’s Gormenghast

If J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955, rev. 1966) established the dominant paradigm for the genre of secondary-world fantasy fiction, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy(1946-1959) established a rival paradigm that, while less influential, has been all the more important for defining an alternative to hobbitry—so much so that Peake has sometimes been described as “the anti-Tolkien.” Among contemporary fantasy writers who have preferred Peake’s vision, China Miéville has gone so far as to say that “The nicest thing anyone ever said about [his novel] was that it read like a fantasy book written in an alternate world where the Gormenghast trilogy rather than Lord of the Rings  was the most influential work in the genre.” …

There are so many great courses and creative professors out there!

What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.


1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.


Books in Omaha: Four for Me, One for Him

Books I bought in Omaha.

We’d love to live in Omaha. It’s fun to visit a big city, and we like the understated Midwestern hipness. You can shop in the Old Market area, visit the Joslyn Art Museum, go to concerts, and, best of all, browse at Jackson Street Booksellers.

Will we drive three hours to a bookstore?  Yes, we will. We passed yellow soybean fields and  windmill farms and finally crossed the bridge from Council Bluffs to Omaha. We headed straight to the Old Market so we could browse at Jackson Street Booksellers, a great used bookstore.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

I picked up several books and carried them around the store because I couldn’t decide which to buy–a lot of Anita Brookner, an adorable Penguin omnibus of mysteries, and some nice editions of Trollope–but iI limited myself to four books. I am so disciplined!

So here’s what I bought!

1.  I’d never heard of the Brazilian writer Rachel de Queiroz, but was intrigued by the cover art on this 1975 paperback of Dora, Doralina,  translated by Dorothy Scott Loos.  De Queiroz (1910-2003) was a novelist, journalist, and translator who, in 1966, was a Brazilian delegate to the UN.  She won many awards, including the Camões Prize in 1993.

And she has a statue in Brazil!  I do want to go to Brazil.

Kate Braverman is a poet and fiction writer.  Her 1979 novel, Lithium for Medea, used to be in every bookstore. Somehow it never appealed to me.  Did I even know what Lithium was?

Anyway, I was drawn by this 1989 Penguin Contemporary American Fiction edition, because I was always fond of this “yuppieback” series.  And her prose is stunning!  I’m racing through it.

The Goodreads description says,

“Lithium for Medea is a tale of addiction: to drugs, physical love, and dysfunctional family chains. It is also a tale of mothers and daughters, their mutual rebellion and unconscious mimicry. Rose grew up with an emotionally crippled, narcissistic mother while her father, a veteran gambler, spent his waking hours in the garden cut off from his wife’s harangues. Now an adult, Rose works her way through a string of unhealthy love(less) affairs. After a brief, unhappy marriage, she slips more deeply and dangerously into the lair of a parasitic, cocaine-fed artist whose sensual and manipulative ways she grows addicted to in the bohemian squalor of Venice.”

It is depressing, but somehow I can take this now that I’ve Lived a While and Seen a Few Things I Would Rather Have Not.

3.  I missed Virago Month, but here’s the good news:  I found a Virago at the bookstore, Fanny Burney’s Cecilia.  I am fond of 18th-century novels, and enjoyed Burney’s Evelina, so look forward to this.

4.  We were  very excited to find an Everyman copy of John Updike’s The Complete Henry Bech, sans book jacket, for $6:   Bech: A Book (1970), Bech Is Back (1982), Bech at Bay (1998), and the short story His Oeuvre (2000).  My husband and I are both fans of Updike.

Here’s the Goodreads description:

“From his birth in 1923 to his belated paternity and public apotheosis as a spry septuagenarian in 1999, Bech plugs away, globetrotting in the company of foreign dignitaries one day and schlepping in tattered tweeds on the college lecture circuit the next. By turns cynical and naïve, wry and avuncular, and always amorous, he is Updike’s most endearing confection-a Lothario, a curmudgeon, and a winsome literary icon all in one. A perfect forum for Updike’s limber prose, The Complete Henry Bech is an arch portrait of the literary life in America from an incomparable American writer.”


1.  Uwe Johnson’s Speculations about Jakob.  My husband is mad about this award-winning German writer, and recommends Arrivals. Here is a link to an article about Johnson in The Millions.

Reading the Victorians, Lost in Trollope, & Why I Don’t Read Their Modern Equivalents

He Knew He Was Right trollope 41RJjyDTOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

If you wonder why I’m not writing more on my reading lately,  it’s because  I’m in a Victorian phase.  Some of the books are very, very, very, very long.  And you do not want to read me every day on the Victorians, because so many excellent books have been written, there are scholarly introductions to all the books, and there is not much for us bloggers to do except enthuse or condemn. Since I am so chatty, you will soon know all.

MY READING THIS WEEK:  I’ve been reading Swinburne’s poems, and I love his reinterpretations of myths, but mostly I let the poetry wash over me. Can I admit that?  Does anyone know a good book about the pre-Raphaelite poets?   I’m  also reading Trollope, and of course I can drone on about Trollope, because he’s so accessible:  we don’t really need notes on Trollope, who is one of the greatest storytellers of the nineteenth century. But I have read so many excellent introductions to his books, plus Glendinning’s biography of Trollope, that it’s overwhelming.

Last weekend I turned down a day trip to Iowa City and said I had do things around the house, which I did, but I actually was reading  He Knew He Was Right, his brilliant retelling of the Othello story.  This is my third reading of this stunning novel about Lewis Trevelyan, a jealous husband, and his strong-minded wife, Emily.  They separate because he goes mad from jealousy of a flirtatious friend of Emily’s father’s, who does try to egg him on. (I did jot some notes about the book here in 2015.)

Since I love the Victorian novelists, whether they wrote short (Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford) or long (Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right), I wonder why I don’t care much for today’s equivalent popular “literary” novelists. Were the Victorians better writers because they were  better-educated, even if they were not formally educated? I have a theory about why we all love Trollope.  It’s not just the engrossing stories and the vivid characters.  He read Cicero every day–he even wrote a life of Cicero–and his style reflects Cicero’s rhetorical skill:  for instance Trollope uses parallelism, tripartite structure, and anaphora (the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses). Today’s stylists just don’t (can’t?) do that.  Do they?   Can they?  There are some great writers out there, but literature is very different.

Some of today’s prize-winning literary writers seem overrated, among them Jonathan Franzen,  Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan,  Donna Tartt, Elena Ferrante, and even Ann Patchett (by far the worst of this lot).  It’s not that I dislike these writers–I don’t–but can we even begin to compare them to the great 19th-century novelists?

Perhaps these critically-acclaimed best-selling authors ARE the great writers of today.  Who am I to say? But will they be read in 50 years?  All right, my guess is yes, Franzen will be read, because he says something about American life.  (He is not my favorite: it’s just a hunch.)  Jeffrey Eugenides, ditto:  I loved The Marriage Plot, with all its references to Victorian novels, though honestly found The Virgin Suicides misogynist.  I think of Jennifer Egan as artsy dystopian–will that play in the future?  Everyone loves Elena Ferrante, and she writes insightfully about women’s lives and Euripidean emotions, so how can she go wrong?  But I prefer her earlier more “experimental” (if that’s the word) work.  Picky, picky, aren’t I? I am just getting ready to read Tartt’s The Goldfinch and it looks very good.  I waited for the hype to fade.  I would say Patchett, who is really in the pop category, absolutely not will be read, unless everybody’s brains have caved in.

Do you read these writers?  Whom should we read instead?  Are any writers like the Victorians?

There are many excellent contemporary writers, and I PROMISE to write about them soon.  I admired Laura von den Berg’s literary dystopian first novel, Find Me, though it is not a perfect book,  but it probably deserves a better reception than it got.  And I admired Elizabeth Tallent’s collection of stories, Mendocino Fires, last year, the first book she’d published in (I think) two decades.  And she is undoubtedly at the height of her powers, even if the powers are very different from those of the prize winners.

This or That? Multiple Copies

The Penguin or the teeny-tiny Oxford?

The Penguin or the teeny-tiny Oxford?

Many years ago, our calico kitten, Maxie, squeezed herself into a bricks-and-boards bookcase and scratched the top edges of many of our favorite books.  The tops of the pages of several Willa Cathers and Colettes are jagged.  But she was just so cute!   Eventually she grew too big to play with the edges as though they were her piano.

Books on the floor are also a problem.  Lulu, a black cat who did gymnastics and sang opera from the top of the refrigerator, ripped the cover off a big Webster’s Dictionary, and believe me, I need my reference books.  So the books live in boxes if there’s no room on the shelves.   This year I have  weeded dozens of books in an effort to display all our books.

But I have a problem.  Duplicates.  Sometimes I can’t decide which to keep.

I have two copies of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right.  I love my Penguin and read it several times, but the cover is Scotch-taped on.  Recently I also acquired a teeny tiny Oxford hardback, whose print is actually bigger than the Penguin. But The Penguin has an introduction, and the tiny Oxford hardcover does not. And can the whole text really be in that mini-Trollope?  Well, I have done some beginning and end of chapter checks, and it seems to be.

Here’s the difference in print size:

Print size: Penguin (on bottom) and Oxford.

Print size: Penguin (on bottom) and Oxford.

Bizarrely, the Oxford print seems to be bigger.But the Penguin is close.  Do I want a bigger or a smaller book?  And will I need the biggest possible print someday?  Well, I must keep them both, because I can’t decide.

The Walter J. Black book club edition of Little Dorrit and an Oxford.

The Walter J. Black book club edition  and an Oxford of Little Dorrit

And what about Little Dorrit?  It is far from my favorite Dickens, but you will not be surprised to learn I have two.  When I was a teenager I bought a partial set of Walter J. Black hardcovers at Alandoni’s bookstore. Each title is divided into two volumes, with the original illustrations and huge print.   In the photo, you can see one slightly soiled (from many rereadings) volume of the Walter J. Black, complete with Maxie’s scratches.  As you can see, we also have a newish Oxford paperback, also with illustrations.

Here’s the print comparison:  Walter J. Black in top photo,  Oxford in bottom photo.



I had planned to get rid of the Walter J. Black, but you know what?  That big print might come in handy someday. And it has sentimental value.  My first Dickens set!

break-of-day-colette-2-copiesI have two copies of Colette’s Break of Day,  but the one on the right  HAS to go because the binding is broken.  I have hung onto it because of sentimentality, because I bought and fell in love with almost the entire FSG Noonday Press series of Colette series at the Union Bookstore and have read them multiple times.   OH, well, here I must stick with the new version, because the pages are all there!.

I tried to persuade my husband we need a bigger house for our books, but he says I must weed instead.  Too bad.  There are several in the area that have what I want:  three, maybe four floors.  Alas!

When Print Is Too Small: Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere & Others


…the afternoon sun, about to descend before very long behind the hills dividing Long Whindale from Shanmoor, was still lingering on this May afternoon we are describing, bringing out the whitewashed porch and the broad bands of white edging the windows, into relief against the gray stone of the main fabric, the gray roof overhanging it, and the group of sycamores and Scotch firs which protected it from the cold east and north.”–A lovely descriptive passage from Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere

I was raised on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Hardy, and cannot get enough of Dickens.

In recent years, after reading and rereading my favorite nineteenth-century classics,  I have turned to the “third-rate” Victorians.  Call them minor, but they are better writers than your average 21st-century computerized pisseur de copie. Mrs. Humphry Ward, the author of 25 novels,  is intellectually and stylistically in the same class as George Meredith, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Oliphant.   I recently read  and loved  Robert Elsmere, Ward’s most famous novel.

Yes, it is a religious novel, but don’t be put off:  the characters are vivid and surprising, love and marriage don’t always work out, and the plot doesn’t go where you think it will.  At the center is Robert Elsmere, an inspired but delicate clergyman whose body  breaks down when he works too hard.  He tells stories and lectures on history to the poor, nurses the sick with the help of his wife, and insists on the importance of good drains.  But his contact with an intellectual atheist changes his  own beliefs.

The print is small….

Women play a big role in this 1888 novel and are more sympathetic than the men.  My favorite characters are the Leyburn sisters, who really dominate the book:  Catherine, who marries Robert, a very bright and diligent but rigid woman whose vicar father entrusted to her the religious care of her mother and sisters before his death; Agnes, a smart, witty, tactful spinster who unfortunately drops out of the narrative far too soon; and the youngest, Rose, a wild, beautiful, talented pianist who worries Catherine with her penchant for the arts. Although there is much intellectual discussion of church history, Christianity, and atheism  (see the introduction!),  there is also plenty about love, art, and the value of social work.  What I love most:   the way Ward creates an atmosphere.  I love her country walks, idyllic woods and pastures, and later the ugly smoky vividness of 19th century London.

Alas,  the print in my out-of-print Oxford World’s Classic edition, which was large enough when I first tried to read it pre-bifocals, is now too small for me.  There is almost no space between the lines. I was exasperated.   I read much of it on an e-reader.  Do your eyes ache after hours on an e-reader? Mine do.

Old books last, but some of mine have seen better days.


A curly book!

J. B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement is a charming, lively novel,  but after one read my used paperback copy began to curl.  There is nothing wrong with it, but why do covers curl?   I loved the book, the story of a group of sad, desperate people who work in an office, Twigg & Dersingham.  (I wrote about it in 2014 here.)


Chewed by a cat.

The Moon-Spinners is my favorite book by Mary Stewart, though this 1964 paperback is  bunged-up.  My cat ate a corner of the cover,  but I love the photo of Hayley Mills in what the blurb calls the “spine-tingling Walt Disney motion picture.”

This has seen better days.

This has seen better days.

The binding of this nineteenth-century edition of An Old-Fashioned Girl, my favorite book by Louisa May Alcott, is falling to pieces.  Thank God paperbacks are cheap and e-books are free.

A Greek dictionary

A Greek dictionary

The cover of this scholarly nineteenth-century Greek dictionary, bought for $29 when I was in school, is turning from a book into wood and dust.  Just look at that cover.   The pages are still readable, though.


Held together with tape.

The Needle’s Eye is my favorite novel by Margaret Drabble.  My paperback is held together with tape.  I love the picture of Drabble on the cover!

Have your books suffered from small print, curled covers, etc.?  We can’t replace our books!

A Reader’s View: The Books of London


Mary Stewart’s lost novella.

Is there a better city for books than London?

I doubt it.

Sometimes I think British literary culture is Greece to our Rome, but then I am an Anglophile.  Even though I’m fond of American novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and  Dawn Powell, I prefer Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Bowen.

And then there are the bookstores.

If I lived in London I  would have to wear blinkers, because I could not afford to pump money into the book economy every week. On my recent trip, when I tired of weird self-guided walks suggested in my guidebook (most ended up being about shopping), I binged on books like a librarian who has inexplicably acquired a windfall in her budget.

If my husband had been with me, he would have kept me from buying so much.

Still, he took it pretty well when he saw the box of books I had mailed to myself.

Here’s where I shopped and what I bought–and I didn’t go to as many bookstores as usual.


AT THE LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP:  Not yet available in the U.S., Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent has been widely praised in the UK.  Set in the 1890’s, it is, according to the description, “enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era.” Sarah Moss’s The Tidal Zone has also received good reviews, and I was influenced by Margaret Drabble’s blurb on the cover:  “[Moss] writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now, about our fears and obsessions and dreams, about mortality and parenthood and just keeping going from day to day.”

LIKE PENGUINS?  I found these at Oxfam, Skoob, London Review Bookshop, and a market on the South Bank.


new-books-penguins-four-usedI scooped up Arnold Bennett’s The Card (I love his Clayhanger trilogy!), Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning (historical novel set in Egypt), Travels with Herodotus (anybody who travels with Herodotus is all right with me) and John Masters’ Far, Far the Mountain Peak (know nothing about it) at Skoob, an excellent used bookstore in Bloomsbury.

My husband and I are dying to read Merle Miller’s The Sure Thing, a McCarthy era novel which I picked up at Oxfam.  Born in Marshalltown, IA, as was the actress Jean Seberg, another outcast of Marshalltown, Miller, a gay activist, wrote the fascinating novel, A Gay and Melancholy Sound, reissued in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series published by Amazon.  (I wrote about it here at my old blog, Frisbee.)


At Waterstones and Foyles, I found the three books pictured above by authors hitherto unknown to me.    I have begun Seraphina Madsen’s Dodge and Burn, a fascinating small press novel described as “a psychedelic road trip”;   Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat is a Turkish novel; and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday won the Booker Prize in 1974.


Waterstones or Foyles?  Who knows? Both stores had good science fiction sections.  Joanna Russ’s The Female Man is a ’70s classic of the ’70s and I have long meant to reread Le Guin’s Earthsea books.

wind-off-the-small-isles-stewart-51fyyphh5tlAt Waterstones I bought Mary Stewart’s lost novella, The Wind off the Isles, a beautifully-written but very slight novella that will appeal mainly to Stewart’s fans.  The narrator, Perdita, a writer’s assistant, researches sites for hter employer’s children’s books and organizes travels to the  countries.  On the island of Lanzarote, they are fascinated by the story of a young woman and a fisherman who eloped during a volcanic eruption.  A playwright and his assistant  are pursuing the same story, and there is a mystery involved.  Julian Gale, an actor, one of the characters in Stewart’s super novel, This Rough Magic, is mentioned in this novella!  So you might want to start with that if you have never read Stewart.

Going to Omaha for the Books!

We live in a small, beautiful city on the prairie.  Nobody knows it’s here; nobody understands why we live here. It’s not glam, but it’s Paradise in the summer, and  has livable urban neighborhoods near shops, almost no traffic, and everything you need to be a well-adjusted 21st-century American.   A woman who moved here from California observed  in line at Starbucks,  “I can live anywhere there’s a Starbucks and Target!”

But we do lack bookstores, except for B&N, so today we headed to Omaha, the nearest big city, to browse at Jackson Street Booksellers, a huge used bookstore, and The Bookworm.

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

Jackson Street Booksellers, Omaha

First up:  I found an  irresistible Library of America volume with three of William Dean Howells’ novels, The Minister’s Charge, April Hopes, and Annie Kilburn.  Have you heard of these?  We have not, but I love Howells!

Ilka chase new york 22 bought in omahaAnd now for ’50s pop!  I could not resist this cover.  According to Kirkus, Ilka Chase’s 1951 novel New York 22 is “a chaise longue coverage of marital friction, feminine calculation and upper bracket racketing, this should have good rentals on the distaff side; and substantial sales to the gilded glamor fringe.”

There is very little about Chase online.   The daughter of Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue from 1914-1952, Ilka was a member of the Smart Set and an actress who starred in many Broadway plays, including the original Broadway version of The Women.  Ilka adapted her novel In Bed We Cry, the story of a self-made career woman in the cosmetics business.  And she had  her own  TV show called Fashion Magic!

I’ll be happy if this novel is readable in the style of a trashy pageturner like Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper or Susann’s  Valley of the Dolls (a truly great trash classic!).  There’s hope:  The characters are drinking cocktails, and the heroine, Georgiana, leaves her husband and daughter  to chase a writer who is 12 years younger than she.

Here’s a quote chosen at random:

Georgiana sat in her office at Tang, her desk spread with manuscripts and correspondence waiting her attention, but she ignored them.  She was engrossed in reading the first review of Reams’s book, The Shadowed Path.  Reams had sailed according to schedule, but Barnstable had published it that week and Georgiana read the clippings with a sense of triumph and a sinking heart.  As she had expected, Reams was accepted into high company.  Thomas Wolfe,Hemingway, Faulkner, in reference and comparison–the great names dotted the columns.

I may save this for Thanksgiving:  I like to read old pop novels while the turkey is roasting.

C by Maurice Baring omahaNext up:  Maurice Baring’s C (1924).  I’ve never heard of it, but I do love a good novel about Edwardian house parties.  Goodreads says, “Baring’s homage to a decadent and carefree Edwardian age depicts a society as yet untainted by the traumas and complexities of twentieth-century living. With wit and subtlety a happy picture is drawn of family life, house parties in the country and a leisured existence clouded only by the rumblings of the Boer War. Against this spectacle Caryl Bramsley (the C of the title) is presented – a young man of terrific promise but scant achievement, whose tragic-comic tale offsets the privileged milieu.”

Last but not least,  Tama Janowitz’s A Certain Age.  I loved Janowitz’s new memoir, Scream (which I wrote about here), and look forward to reading this  modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.

janowitz a certain age 1769009474

I bought nothing at the Bookworm today, because I had exceeded my limit at Jackson Street Booksellers.

And, by the way, here’s the sky  snapped from the car as we tooled down the highway:

Western Iowa off the highway