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Archive for April, 2012

You can stop dyeing your hair or give up jogging.  You can write that book or take up photography.

The problem is that we’re women.  And we’re judged by how we look even in middle age.

Mary Beard

The 57-year-old classicist Mary Beard was recently interviewed by the Guardian about her new TV series, Meet the Romans.  Beard, a professor at Cambridge, author of the TLS blog “A Donnish Life,” and a popular writer of history books like The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, is a likable media personality, who, with her long gray hair and casual style, isn’t capitalizing on beauty.

Surprisingly, her Twitter audience was concerned about her looks.  She told the Guardian:

I’ve been getting tweets like ‘Can’t she brush her hair?’, ‘Shouldn’t she be sexing herself up a bit?’, ‘Did she try to look so haggard?’ Lucky I’ve got a thick skin. Sometimes you think they’re writing this after half a bottle of wine, and I feel like writing back after more than half a bottle: ‘Actually, that’s what a 57-year-old woman looks like.’”

Sad, isn’t it?  TV audiences are used to models and actors and don’t know, within the confines of the box,  “what a 57-year-old woman looks like.”

The actress Ashley Judd, 44, recently wrote an article for The Daily Beast, complaining about reporters’ harsh criticism of her appearance when she was finishing a round of steroids for sinus problems.  Her puffy face was supposed to be a sign of bad plastic surgery.  She wrote:

Ashley Judd

I choose to address it because the conversation was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle.”

Actors are fair game, you may say.  Well, they are and they aren’t.  They’re not real people to us, because their business is their looks,  But perhaps if they protested more often about the pressure, we’d give them a break.

Fortunately most of us are not media personalities.  Nobody is going to worry about our gray hair or puffiness.  In youth we manage to be pretty, in our thirties we begin imperceptibly to lose the glow, by our 40s we are plain, and…

Our hormones change.

Life goes on.  We can’t compete with our younger selves in the looks department.

So we embrace middle age.

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Rereading great novels is a precious gift, perhaps more meaningful as we get older.  At different times of life, we focus on different elements and patterns in a novel.  If we revisit classics after a decade or two, we experience them differently. As a girl I read with total faith, as though everything in a novel had happened to me.  Yes, God knows how, but I was Justine in Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (unlikely) and Martha Quest in Doris Lessing’s novels (a little less doubtful).  I reread passionate novels like Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because I identified strongly with the intense heroines and understood the Victorian mores and morality.   In middle age, I read differently and more critically:  I prefer Charlotte Bronte’s quieter Villette and Hardy’s less showy The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Alas, I have become a  less kind reviewer of new fiction than I used to be.  It is difficult to take seriously the latest book by  whoever the latest sensation is when one has just finished rereading a classic.

Yet, oddly, I lose all distance and separation from the text when I reread Sigrid Undset’s masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter.  I still become Kristin, the heroine of this trilogy,  set in the 14th century.  These gorgeously-written books by the Nobel Prize winner chronicle the life of one medieval woman and her experiences of different kinds of love:  filial love, passionate first love, marriage with all its rewards, disillusion, and hardships, maternal love, and spiritual love. And as life goes on, Kristin becomes more religious, and more aware of how her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, who was excommunicated from the church, has shaped her unhappiness.  (Yes, pre-marital sex was a sin in the Middle Ages, particularly because Kristin was already betrothed to someone else, and Erlend had lived with a married woman for 10 years and had two children)

But it’s not just about Kristin and Erlend’s love.  It also shows in relief the contrast between Kristin’s love and the marriage of her middle-aged parents and the marriage of  elderly neighbors, Fru Ashild, and Herr Bjorn.  They are not happy couples, though each has had their share of love.

These couples should prove an object lesson to Kristin, but of course they can’t–the young can’t see the future.

In The Wreath, the first volume of Kristin Lavransdatter, we meet Kristin as an independent, intelligent, beautiful girl, who is almost too beloved by her father. Kristin rebels against her betrothal to Simon, a good man chosen by her father, and begs to go to a convent for a year, partly because she is not attracted to Simon, partly because she believes her sins have made her younger sister ill.  A man has already died for Kristin, her childhood friend Arne; he stood up against a priest’s son who maligned her to a group of men, and who, unbeknownst to anyone, had attempted to rape Kristin.   Kristin goes to the convent and ironically, on a complicated foray through town with another girl, she meets and falls in love with Erlend, a handsome aristocrat who has been excommunicated from the church for living with a married woman.  (He is charming, though, and we like him.)   It is not surprising that Kristin falls in love with him, because he also saves her from another rapist.

From Liv Ullman's movie, "Kristin Lavrandatter"

I am paying equal attention this time to the older characters.   Ragnfrid, Kristin’s mother, is a passionate women whose husband, Lavrans, the perfect landowner and manager, loved by all, has never felt attracted to her.  We learn of her grief:  not only has she miscarried and lost children, but her husband has never returned her sexual feelings.

This is not the kind of love we usually read about in fiction.

Yes, God help her.  What kind of woman was she?  What kind of mother was she?  She would soon be old.  And yet she was just the same.  She no longer begged the way she had when they were young, when she had threatened and raged against this man who closed himself off, shy and modest, when she grew ardent–who turned cold when she wanted to give him more than his husband’s rights.”

And then there is the aristocratic old woman, Fru Ashild, thought by some to be a witch.  She has no regrets–she does not regret her passion for the younger man, Herr Bjorn, with whom she ran away when her husband died.  People have said that she murdered her husband and that she bewitched Bjorn.  But she tells Kristin it’s better to know love, even illicit love, than not.  But she never expected Kristin to fall in love with her ne’er-to-do nephew.

There is so much in Kristin Lavransdatter.  And if you’re interested in Liv Ullman’s movie of Kristin Lavrasndatter, here is a montage of scenes I found on YouTube:

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"Birdsong" on Masterpiece

I missed “Birdsong” on Masterpiece.  That’s how things go around here, because I am too lazy to read the newspaper.

“Is Great Expectations on Masterpiece?”

“No, it’s something about World War I.”

In my brain, that means a series by Ken Burns.

“Well, I don’t want to see that.”

And believe me, I don’t.  Ken Burns is great, but I’m bored to death by his work.

And then I find out it was Birdsong.

 I haven’t read Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong yet. Back in the ’90s on AOL, everybody was reading it, and one of my friends claimed it was the most erotic novel she’d ever read.  So I really can’t imagine why I didn’t get around to reading it…  But a couple of years ago I read Faulks’ A Week in December, one of my favorite books that year.  I also enjoyed Charlotte Grey.

Anyway, I took my copy of Birdsong out a few weeks ago and put it on the table on the enclosed porch.  And now it’s gone.  My husband and I both know it’s on the porch.  But it’s not on the porch.  Did the mailman steal it?  Ha ha, of course not.  We think we put it in a box and gave it to the charity sale.  It was kind of a beaten-up copy anyway.

This is the problem with weeding.  You no sooner weed a book than you need it.

Are you surprised that all the library copies are checked out?

There’s no getting around it.  I’m going to have to trade a fantastic asparagus stir-fry for a copy of the book.  Yes, family, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll go out and buy me a copy.  Because I’m the one with the asparagus.

Jonathan Jones Reads Ovid.  Jonathan Jones, the art critic for the Guardian, is now my favorite art critic.  He translated a few lines from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in his article on an exhibit at the National Gallery on the transformative effect of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on European art.

Is he a classicist?  I can’t find out online.  But anyway the Latin is actually up there with his translation.  I can’t believe any paper in the U.S. would publish the Latin.

LIBRARY OF AMERICA has published two Edgar Rice Burroughs “keepsake editions”:  Tarzan of the Apes, with an introduction by Thomas Mallon,  and A Princess of Mars, with an introduction by Junot Diaz.

I read both of these in college and loved them.  My professors were very into pop culture and recommended Tarzan, pulp fiction, all the stuff that LOA is publishing now.

Cute covers, too!

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The winners of the giveaway are:

Rhonda – Half Blood Blues

Silver Season – Saramago

Congrats!  E-mail me with your addresses at frisbeebookjournal@gmail.com

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Free Giveaway

We are not part of World Book Night.  We kind of forgot to apply.

But we have been weeding books, and if you would like a free copy of either or both of the books below, leave a comment.  Then I’ll whirl them up in the hopper tomorrow or Wednesday and pick a winner.

The books are:

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, winner of the Giller Prize and a finalist for the Orange Prize and Booker Prize.

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize

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Nicholas Nickleby, the play

Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby is not quite a masterpiece.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.

Thackeray wrote of Nicholas Nickleby:

I know one who, when she is happy, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she is unhappy, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she is in bed, reads Nicholas Nickleby; when she has nothing to do, reads Nicholas Nickleby; and when she has finished the book, reads Nicholas Nickleby again.”

He was referring to his 10-year-old daughter.

I read and reread Bleak House obsessively.   Jane Smiley, in her short biography of Dickens, says her favorite is Our Mutual Friend.  My friend the blogger and professor Ellen Moody prefers Little Dorrit.

"Dickens' Last Reading," by George C. Leighton, "Illustrated London News" (1870)

But even in Dickens’ lesser novels–and Nicholas Nickleby is definitely lesser–his mannered prose is baroque and resplendent, his passion for social justice inspires one to sign petitions, his exaggerated comic scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, and his hyperbolic offbeat characters are completely believable within the parameters of his own quasi-fairy-tale world.

Nicholas Nickleby is a coming-of-age comedy, influenced by the 18th-century picaresque novels by Fielding and Smollett.  Like other Dickens’ novels, it unmasks social injustice.  The Victorians loved it for Dickens’ ripping exposé of  Yorkshire boarding schools, dumping grounds for unwanted children, among them gentlemen’s illegitimate children, who were neglected, beaten,  starved, and seldom returned to their guardians.   A reporter before he was a novelist, Dickens went with his illustrator, Hablot Browne (“Phiz”), to Yorkshire to investigate.  With the publication of the novel, several of the schools were shut down, and at least one schoolmaster litigated, claiming to be Wackford Squeers.

Wackford Squeers is the sadistic schoolmaster who abuses the students and deliberately sends groups  to board where they will be exposed to smallpox and die.  He is the first in a long line of Dickens’ cruel schoolmasters.

How does Nicholas end up at the school?  After Nicholas’s gentle father goes bankrupt and dies, the little Nickleby family–Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother–travel to London to ask for help from rich Uncle Ralph.  It is the miserly Ralph Nickleby who sends Nicholas to work as a “teacher” for Wackford Squeers, and clearly the hope is that Nicholas will die.  Smike, Wackford Sqeers’ most famous “student,” the perhaps mentally retarded adolescent who was treated as a slave after his “patron” stopped sending money, is another casualty of Ralph.

Nicholas stands up against brutality and beats Squeers for beating Smike.  The two young men run off to London and save Kate from a stalker, Sir Mulberry, introduced to her by Uncle Ralph to boost his business.  The hotheaded Nicholas overhears Sir Mulberry maligning Kate in a bar, and again stands up for social justice and beats him.  It’s beat or be beaten in this Dickensian nightmare, until Nicholas and Smike travel to Portsmouth and fall in with a sympathetic, if eccentric, theater troupe.

Nicholas instructs Smike in the art of acting.

The raucous manager, Mr. Crummles, a predecessor of Mr. Micawber, though solvent, with many schemes and dreams, requires Nicholas to write plays, act, publicize, and go door-to-door in search of an audience.  Nicholas is brilliant and can do it all and enjoys it very much, but  Smike is unable to remember his few lines.  Nicholas patiently spends hours teaching Smike, and the loyal Smike remembers for love of Nicholas.  These scenes are touching, realistic, and also very funny.

The gentleman next door expresses his passion.

There are other unforgettable characters, among them the comical Mrs. Nickleby, whose rambling conversation reminds me of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or Miss Bates in Emma.  The vain, silly Mrs. Nickleby cannot stick to the subject, and digresses along the most hilarious unexpected paths.  And she is (perhaps blessedly) oblivious to the dangers of London, so that she innocently believes Kate’s stalker is a friend until Nicholas corrects her. Later in the novel, when she lives next-door to a madman who throws vegetables over the wall and repeatedly says he loves her, she refuses to believe he is mad because clearly she deserves admiration

Then there is the lovable Newman Noggs, a ruined gentleman who has been an employee of Ralph Nickleby for years.  He becomes an advocate of Nicholas, Kate, and Mrs. Nickleby, and it is partly through his interventions that they survive Ralph’s schemes.

And there are philanthropists–there are always philanthropists–the Cheeryble twins.

It is the comedy that appeals to me.  When has there been richer comedy than in Dickens’ vivid, beautiful and horrific novels?  Who can hold one’s attention for 800 pages?

Doesn’t it make you want to turn off your phone–and reread Bleak House?  Well, perhaps I should read something else since I read that last year.

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Eight books for $8: the perfect price.

I’m broke.  You’ve heard it before.

I’m buying books.  You’ve heard it before.

I’m the only person I know who can go broke by cutting back on book-buying.

I don’t see as many new books accumulating in the living room, and I think we’ve brought fewer into the house this year, but that could be because I’m double-stacking them in the mouldy back room.

The number of books in our house is scandalous.  We’ve been cataloguing them, and we at least now know what we have and where it is.  We have bookcases on the porch and even in the kitchen.  I’d love to build a book “annex,” but we need a new roof.  And my husband, who is  hooked on his Nook tablet, urges me to buy “e” and to forget about acquiring more REAL books.

Maybe we could just buy a toolshed.

This year I’ve saved some money by dispensing with Amazon Prime, the $75-a-year “free” two-day shipping service.  I’m not boycotting Amazon: despite its colossal bad press (and no one does PR worse than Jeff Bezos and His People), the Amazon website is better than anyone else’s.  But I’m convinced that Amazon Prime encourages impulse-buying.  Did I really need Betty Rose Nagle’s translation of Ovid’s Fasti?  Well, as a matter of fact I did.  And how about those books by Peter Handke?  Yes.

“Did you know you have a biography of by Frederick the Great by Nancy Mitford?” my husband asked.

“Yes.”  I wondered where that was.

I have plenty of books, but love increasing the number of  choices in perpetuum. And buying at “live” used bookstores is the best way for me to cut back on spending, because I have to deal with what’s there, not what I’m specifically looking for.  If you look on the sale tables, you’ll often find delights.  I recently bought eight books for $8.  Of course I had to pay in quarters.  It’s pathetic.

Here are the books I bought.

1.  The Southwest Corner by Mildred Walker.  I love Walker’s novels about the West, especially The Curlew’s Cry.   This one is set in Vermont, though.  Here’s a bit from the book jacket: “It took Marcia Elder a week to write the ad for the Rutland (Vt.) Time, not because she wasn’t articulate–she could always speak to the point–but because it was a hard decision to make.  She liked living alone in the big three-story house on Ryder Hill which dated from 1802…but this had been the longest winter she could remember.”

2.  Mr. Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers.  I read a couple of Vicker’s novels last year and wanted to read more.  From the jacket:  “Many years ago, Mr. Golightly wrote a work of dramatic fiction that became an international best seller.  Now his reputation is on the decline, and he finds himself out of touch with the modern world.”

3.  After the Death of Don Juan by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  Lolly Willowes is one of my favorite books, but I had never heard of this one.  From the book jacket:  “In the seventh decade of the eighteenth century Don Juan disappears.  Has he been snatched by demons in retribution for the mortal wounding of Dona Ana’s father, or has he fled to pursue his notorious ways elsewhere?”

4.  Soap Behind the Ears by Cornelia Otis Skinner.  I’ve been chortling over the actress’s 1940s humor pieces.  From the book jacket:  “Have you ever tried to learn to speak Russian?  To keep warm in a duck blind? To reduce your rear?  To master the intricacies of adult bicycling?…This latest collection of philosophy and absurdity from Cornelia Otis Skinner is as neat and subtle as you please.”

5.  Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer.  I love his comical Rumple books.  From the book jacket:  “Why does Simeon Simcox, th CND-marching Rector of Rapstone Fanner, leave his fortune not to his two sons but to an odious Tory Minister?”

(What the…?  The CND-marching?  I guess if I read it I’ll understand.)

6.  Mourners Below by James Purdy.  I’ve heard of James Purdy, though I don’t think he’s read much anymore.  From the jacket:  “At the age of seventeen, Duane Bledsoe lives in obsessive isolation with his bluff stoical father, their clucking and comfortable housekeeper–and the ghosts of his brothers, killed in the war.”

7.  Dickens:  A Biography by Fred Kaplan.  It’s a biography.  Of Dickens.

8.  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani.  I admired the heart-wrenching movie years ago. From the jacket:  “In as dense and as charged a world as that of Marcel Proust, Gieorgio Bassani tells the story of a tentative, hesitant love between two adolescents, set against the background of Fascist Italy and the ducal town of Ferrara, with its fascinating Jewish community.”

These should keep me busy for a while.

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Elizabeth C. Goldsmith’s short, engaging biography, The Kings’ Mistresses:  The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin, is not about women who achieved greatness.

Not quite my kind of thing?  I’m more likely to read biographies of political schemers like Anne Boleyn, or anarchist/birth control advocates like Emma Goldman.

But I was drawn to the glamour and independence of the famous Mancini sisters, runaway wives of the seventeenth century who published memoirs of their struggles to live independently.  They were salon hostesses, patrons of the arts, performers in royal and private theatricals and ballets, runaway wives , mothers, and kings’ girlfriends/mistresses.  They traveled widely and lived in Italy, France, Spain, and England.

And they dripped with jewels and baubles.  Just the way the society tabloids liked it.

Because, oh yeah, they were celebrities.

At first I was entranced.  Later I wanted more context.

Their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, brought them as girls from Rome to Louis XIV’s court.  Marie became Louis’s first serious girlfriend, and all France knew about the intensity of their chaste romance.   They were intellectually compatible, read poetry and novels together, and danced in royal ballets.  But the Queen and the Cardinal soon separated them, because Louis XIV had to make a royal marriage and was too ardent about Marie.  The rebellious couple managed to conduct a secret correspondence, but Marie eventually realized she had to break it off.

Marie Mancini

Marie was the thoughtful sister and the great reader; Hortense was the party girl who later became the mistress of Charles II in England.  But the Cardinal married both women off to inappropriate men.

Hortense’s husband, Duke Armand-Charles Mazarin, was crazy, jealous, and violent.  He forbade her fashionable entertainments–plays, ballet, and concerts in the theater at their palace–and fired every servant she liked. He also slashed hundreds of valuable paintings of nude women collected in the Cardinal’s gallery to express his rage against her.

Hortense lost the sympathy of friends because she put up with so much, but could not get a legal separation or divorce.  Women had almost no legal protection.  After she ran away, leaving the children behind, she was locked in a convent with other rebellious wives.  This is one of many convent episodes, because the Mancini sisters were in and out of convents from the moment they left their husbands.  Women were often incarcerated if they didn’t want to live with their husbands.

In Rome, Marie was happily married for three years to Lorenzo Colonna, Grand Constable of the Kingdom of Naples.  The couple enjoyed elaborate entertainments and high society, and if you want to learn about how “the rich are different from you and me,” as Fitzgerald put it, here’s the place to do it:  When Marie’s first child was born, Lorenzo commissioned a baroque bed from designer Paul Schor, shaped like a seashell floating on waves and drawn by seahorses ridden by mermaids.  And she was displayed on the bed.

While Marie was busy having three children, Hortense was struggling in France, whence she eventually escaped disguised as a man, with the help of their brother Philippe and servants, and sought refuge in the Colonna household.  Social life in Rome became yet wilder, with two creative Mancini sisters in town competing for attention.

But Lorenzo had begun to have mistresses, and though that didn’t matter and was even expected after Marie decided three children was enough, one mistress was socially eminent and embarrassing.  Marie began to fear that Lorenzo would poison her.  So Marie and Hortense ran away together, dressed as men.

There are more travels, more convent episodes.  Both husbands are vindictive and want the sisters back, under any circumstances.   Rather than return to Lorenzo, Marie agreed to live in a convent in Madrid, and gradually makes friends at court, though there are setbacks:  her husband can’t bear the thought that she might be happy, so sends her to a more restrictive convent, really a prison.  And she is not released immediately.

Hortense, who had had enough of convents, escaped to England, where she became Charles II’s mistress, and a gambler and an alcoholic.

Hortense wrote and published her memoirs under her own name (the first woman in France to do so).  She writes, “I know that a woman’s glory lies in her nog giving rise to gossip, but one cannot always choose the kind of life one would like to lead.”

Marie, living chastely in conservative Spain, wrote her memoirs after a false memoir was published under her name.

I call this “history lite” because it needs more context.   I would have liked to see their problems  analyzed in the context of, say,  the history of divorce in the 17th century.  Although Goldsmith explains that the Mancini sisters’ celebrity brought discussions of separation and divorce into the open by the 1690s, I would have liked to know more details about the women who did this.

But Goldsmith writes well about these beautiful, sociable women with hidden depths, and many will find it a good entertainment.

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Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, announces the winners.

For the first time in 35 years, the Columbia School of Journalism failed–and we do mean “failed”–to award a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing good enough?  Oh, come on.

This is a debacle that gives awards a bad name.  The $10,000 Pulitzer Prize, though not the most innovative of awards, is a big career boost for fiction writers.  And although it usually goes to good books, the winners tend to be safe.  I mean, who can argue with the deservingness of Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, or Jeffrey Eugenides?   (The National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award seem to go for a wider spectrum.)

Do you ever wonder how a board of journalists is qualified to judge the arts?

Because of the scandal of not picking a prize for fiction, we have learned for the first time about the judging process.  The board delegates the labor of selecting finalists to “jurors.” In this case, the three fiction jurors were hardly strangers to excellence: chairwoman Susan Larson, former book editor of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and host of NPR show The Reading Life; book critic and author Maureen Corrigan; and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham.

David Foster Wallace deserved better than this.

And the finalists were not at all controversial: National Book Award winner Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams; the late David Foster Wallace’s posthumously published The Pale King; and Karen Russell’s much-heralded first novel Swamplandia!

The board picks the prize from the jurors’ three finalists.

Good God, what did the Pulitzer board want?

Okay, don’t give it to the dead guy.  The much-revered Wallace doesn’t need the $10,000.

But Johnson and Russell could probably use it.

And the failure to give the award is a loss to publishers, who sell books that win prizes; not to mention to those of us who consider fiction an art.

Something happened. But what?  Below are eight desperately-seeking-a-plot lines for the thriller we’ll never bother to write, to be called The Pulitzer Prize Fiasco.

Scenario # 1:  the board only likes Y.A. dystopian fiction.

Scenario # 2:  the board blackballs polysyllabic writers and/or writers who wear do-rags.

Scenario # 3:  the board lost its bifocals.

Scenario # 4:  the board transferred the $10,000 to a joint account in the Cayman islands.

Scenario # 5:  the board now considers only e-books self-published by their relatives.

Scenario # 6:  the board blackballed the jurors because David Foster Wallace’s 560-page book was too long for them.

Scenario # 7:   the board prefers nonfiction, and at least poetry and plays are short! (even though they don’t understand them).

Scenario # 8:  Denis, David, and Karen just aren’t/weren’t cute enough.

Shame on the Pulitzer Prize board.  I can’t imagine what they were thinking, and why someone didn’t stop them.

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I cut class for Virginia Woolf.

Forget about geology class.

I acquired Woolf’s novels from the Lodger, a grad student who held book sales in his efficiency apartment (his epithet was vaguely Dickensian, an inside joke about his digs).  He had almost no furniture:  just tall bookshelves running the length of his apartment with narrow aisles between them.

Reading Woolf’s books back-to-back left me with that kind of manicky feeling that can come when one reads too many beautiful books.

I reread To the Lighthouse a few weeks ago when I noticed  allusions to it in Penelope Lively’s novel, Family Album.  Although Lively’s character, Alison Harper, is a more annoying earth mother than Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, the similarities are apparent.

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf writes in detail about two days, ten years apart, with an interlude between them, in the lives of  the Ramsay family and their summer guests.  She begins by exploring the consciousness of Mrs. Ramsay, a mother of eight children, and the wife of a famous writer now past his prime.  The beautiful Mrs. Ramsay is at the center, but we also see her through the critical eyes of others.  Not only does Mrs. Ramsay tend to the psychological needs of her family, she also attempts to control her guests through tactful shifts in conversation and matchmaking, since she can imagine no other way of life than the nuclear family.

In the passage below, we see her try to comfort her son James after Mr. Ramsay bluntly, hurtfully tells him that he won’t be able to go to the lighthouse the next day because of the weather; then their guest, the obnoxious working-class graduate student, Charles Tansley, echoes Mr. Ramsay’s assertion.  The passage also illustrates Woolf’s lyrical prose, with its repetition, alliteration, and consonance.

“Perhaps you will wake up and find the sun shining,” she said, compassionately smoothing the little boy’s hair, for her husband, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine, had dashed his spirits she could see.  This going to the Lighthouse was a passion of his, she saw, and then, as if her husband had not said enough, with his caustic saying that it would not be fine tomorrow, this odious little man went and rubbed it in all over again.

Mrs. Ramsay is loved by most, but she can also irritate.   Lily Briscoe, an unmarried artist, tries to resist Mrs. Ramsay’s will.  She does not, for instance, want to soothe Charles Tansley at the Ramsays’ dinner party, but finds herself playing the feminine role under the auspices of Mrs. Ramsay.  And she is annoyed when Mrs. Ramsay tries to make a match her between her and William Bankes, a widower.  Lily wants to paint, not to marry.  (And Lily is obviously Virginia Woolf.)

Mrs. Ramsay knows she is criticized.

Wishing to dominate, wishing to interfere, making people do what she wished–that was the charge against her, and she thought it most unjust.  How could she help being ‘like that’ to look at?  No one could accuse her of taking pains to impress.  She was often ashamed of her own shabbiness.”

The book is a portrait of Woolf’s parents, says Alexandra Harris in her very good short book Virginia Woolf.    She quotes Woolf from Moments of Being:  “I wrote the book very quickly and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.  I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.”

It fascinates me how many writers are drawn to rewrite Woolf.  There’s Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, his reworking of Mrs. Dalloway.  There is Robin Lincott’s 199 novella, Mr. Dalloway (which I haven’t read).  And there is a newr recent reworking of Mrs. Dalloway, An Unexpected Guest by Anne Korkeavkivi.

One of these days, I’ll get around to the latter two.

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