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Archive for October, 2010
I decided a few months ago to read one contemporary novel a week. This has its ups and downs. If I state the truth–and if you blog, you might as well write what you think–it’s good for my journal but might hurt somebody’s feelings. Occasionally a writer does show up here and I’ve been very pleased to read her comments. But on the other hand, what if I trash the book?
So far, no twitters saying, “Never go to this blog.”
Since I prefer older books, which are often better-written (some people were better-educated back in the day), I have a difficult time adjusting to the simpler style and uneven structure of popular new books. Take Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I got my library copy today. Everybody LOVES this book, so shouldn’t I be excited? I enjoyed The Corrections. I threw up on one copy–literally, I was sick–and had to buy another copy. Well, here’s what I think. Freedom looks ordinary. Okay, I’ve only read ten pages. But he’s not Michael Cunningham or Peter Carey, for God’s sake.
I loved Franzen for saying 10 years ago on the radio that The Corrections wasn’t really meant to be an Oprah book. I understand the kind of person who says what he thinks and then suddenly has a hundred powerful enemies (like Oprah). But I can’t stand the marketing of Freedom. Critics and writers were already calling this a classic before the damned thing was published. And it’s an Oprah book. That really doesn’t recommend it to me at this point
So I’m staring at this book and think I’ll wait a bit to read it.
So the novel of the week is more obscure, Mary Helen Stefaniak’s enjoyable novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. It is neither very good nor very bad. I read part of it at Barnes & Noble, decided it wasn’t worth buying, then did a turn-around and decided I wanted to read her portrait of Miss Spivey, a one-room schoolhouse teacher in Georgia in 1938.
It’s very difficult to believe in Miss Spivey. She is radical, a free spirit ahead of her time, a WPA teacher who winds up in Threestep, Georgia. She reads The Thousand and One Nights to her students–she recently made a long trip to Baghdad– and structures her school year around the theme of Baghdad. She plans a bazaar based on The Arabian Nights and gets the town involved with painting, building, and electricity. But just before the bazaar she stages a kind of sit-in, bringing Negroes into her classroom, and almost loses her job. The town decides they can’t do without her for the big Baghdad bazaar, as she has even tracked down some camels and brought them in for the show. Miss Spivey is part Miss Jean Brodie and part Mary Poppins.
Stefaniak takes the easy way out: instead of showing us Miss Spivey’s point of view, she presents her through the eyes of the narrator, 11-year-old Gladys Cailiff. So you know where you are: a perspicacious Southern child observes the teacher, not always understanding what she sees and hears, and it’s all very cute and sentimental.
I do enjoy this book, and if you like any of those book group-y kind of books, like Water for Elephants and The Lace Reader, you’ll enjoy this novel. I haven’t finished it, and I’m thinking Miss Spivey is going to turn into a Miss Brodie: there are plenty of hints. But we shall see.
There’s been a lot of light reading here lately. Barbara Pym, Daphne du Maurier, and many sallies at rereading Emma, my favorite book. There is an enormous pile of books by my bed. A little bit of Emma, followed by a little bit of Pym. Then a quick look at an SF book by Clifford D. Simak, which has very small print. Then parts of Mary Helen Stfaniak”s The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. This system is very strange, but it seems to be working out.
Here’s what the day looks like.
1. Get up. Read Emma. Wouldn’t you rather be Emma than any other Jane Austen character? She has a busy life, many small talents, devoted friends, an imagination, and is less bitchy than Elizabeth Bennett, who is a money grubber where the wealthy Darcy’s estate is concerned. (All right, I like Elizabeth anyway, and if Colin Firth wanted to marry me and had a huge estate…) Emma’s boyfriend Knightley is handsome but controlling, and perhaps she doesn’t quite need him to complete the picture. Would one really like to be married to any of the control-freak men in Austen, and is that part of her message?
2. Get dressed and finish Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love.
3. Go to work, stare at your crumbling textbook, and wonder if you can obtain a teacher’s copy of Wheelock. The front right-hand corner has just fallen off the cover and there’s an asymmetrical flapping that distracts you slightly. Will they believe you? You’re more or less a squatter here, the publishers insist on faxed requests and you don’t have a fax machine, and you don’t have any workplace stationery unless you forge it.
5. Go home and do yoga in negligee. After a few sun salutations abandon the exercises to drink a screwdriver (really just orange juice) like a woman on Mad Men and read The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, your contemporary novel of the week.
6. Wonder why you’re totally unlike Miss Grace Spivey, the teacher in The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia. Would she really have had one year-long teaching theme in 1938, The Arabian Nights in Baghdad? Much as you’re enjoying this book, it’s one of those frivolous book-club novels with completely unrealistic characters and a slightly sentimental tone. If you enjoyed The Sweet Potato Society (or whatever that book was called), you’ll like this. Actually this is better.
Barbara Pym became famous in 1977 when Philip Larkin in The Times Literary Supplement called her “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Two of Pym’s novels were published simultaneously in the U.S. in 1978, Quartet in Autumn and an older title, Excellent Women. Pym was of course compared to Jane Austen, as women writers always are, though her humorous novels are nothing like Austen’s and bear the stamp of a different sensibility. Her protagonists are intellectual spinsters who live in the suburbs, work as freelance indexers or anthropologists, attend jumble sales, and have romantic entanglements with vicars.
These entertaining novels were passed around in graduate school. Our social life unfolded at a coffeehouse–think Cheers on caffeine–where we retired exhausted after classes and talked to hip people who also lounged there. Barbara Pym got swapped for Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Rough Strife–there were a lot of book buyers among us–but I eventually bought most of Pym’s books in paperback.
I am rereading No Fond Return of Love, which I have to say is not her best book. This is not to say that it isn’t charming. Dulcie Mainwaring, a freelance indexer, is philosophical about her profession and her single life. Her fiance recently broke up with her, her mother has died, and she goes to a conference for editors and indexers as a change.
When the notice of the conference came, it seemed to be just the kind of thing that was recommended for women in her position–an opportunity to meet new people and to amuse herself by observing the lives of others, even if only for a weekend and under somewhat unusual circumstances.”
At the conference she meets Viola Dace, a difficult, sour, attractive woman who is in love with Professor Aylwin Forbes. When Alwyn, recently separated from his wife and determined to avoid the amorous Viola, collapses during his speech on Some Problems of Editing, Dulcie comes to the rescue with smelling salts. Dulcie becomes intrigued by the gorgeous, shaggy Aylwin. She researches him in the library, walks through his neighborhood, and goes so far as to attend a jumble sale at his mother-in-law’s house. Reducing a person to research is strangely satisfying for Dulcie, who loves to compile facts about people but is sometimes disappointed by relationships.
The sensible Dulcie’s harmless crush is very funny, and when Viola alienates her landlady and moves in with Dulcie, the situation becomes even more comical. Pym shows us how eccentric, quiet women can be as interesting as the heroines of action novels. Dulcie’s wry musings on human nature are delightful.
Are Pym’s books classics? Well, I don’t know. I enjoy them very much, but they don’t awe me as they did in my youth. I would, however, like to attend the Barbara Pym conference in Boston in March. I would love to meet the Dulcie Mainwarings and Viola Daces who, I imagine, attend these conferences.
William Prynne (1660-1669), a contemporary of Samuel Pepys and a Puritan attorney, was rigorous on the subject of diaries. He held a grudge against William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a diarist, his political enemy and prosecutor. Prynne served time in the Tower of London, prosecuted by Laud, and eventually had his ears cropped after alienating the queen by publishing a pamphlet condemning actresses as whores (Queen Henrietta had acted in a play). Later, when Laud was imprisoned under another government, Prynne went so far as to dig up Laud’s diary in his room in the Tower of London. He published a redacted edition of the diary, and Laud was eventually executed.
Prynne said about diaries:
An exact Diary is a window into his heart that maketh it and therefore pity it is that any should look therein but either the friends of the party or such ingenuous foes as will not, especially things doubtful, make conjectural comments to his disgrace.”
Diaries are dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than ever in the age of the internet.
A friend told me that she didn’t dare write down anything that might offend her husband or children. I couldn’t imagine what she found to write. Gossip made the best copy for my own diaries. I stopped keeping them years ago, but I still have one, a record of the social life of my friends and (fr)enemies in college. It makes me laugh. It is, of course, not for publication.
I suppose the most dangerous forms of diaries these days are email, Facebook, and Twitter. People have lost jobs for tidbits in email, which go around and around and around forever, and Facebook, which anybody can read. Divorce attorneys use Facebook in their cases against cheaters. Twitter has made some people look really bad: Alice Hoffman called a reviewer who belittled her book a moron and published her phone number.
Some of my favorite blogs, since deleted, were personal. I was fascinated by the life of a witty woman in Texas–barbecues, tennis, and baking– and a photographer in Cambridge. When the photographer announced he was stepping down, he promised me he would let me know if he started another blog. I haven’t heard from him yet.