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Archive for July, 2012

Elizabeth Bowen’s luminous novel, To the North, is a classic, and seems, at first glance, surprisingly contemporary, especially in its descriptions of work. Although this novel is not about work, Bowen details the quotidian pleasures and problems of an unorthodox travel agency which specializes in off-the-beaten-track vacations.  Bowen’s upper-class heroines can work or not, just as they choose, and needn’t fight to get out of the house, as in many novels of this era. (It was published in 1932 and set in the ’20s).

But of course the novel is more about love than work.

Under ordinary circumstances, the two young heroines, with very different attitudes towards love and work, might not be friends, but they are related by marriage.  Emmeline, a quiet, creative young businesswoman and part-owner of a travel agency, thrives on work. Cecilia, the widow of Emmeline’s brother, takes taxis and goes to parties.  She doesn’t work.

Work isn’t the problem in To the North.  The problem is love.

Cecilia and Emmeline share a house Emmeline found (because she is a travel agent, of course), in a street no one has ever heard of, in a slightly inconvenient neighborhood.  Cecilia, an attractive, witty woman in her late twenties, still misses her late husband and stares often at his photograph.  At parties she attracts many men, with whom she can’t seem to fall in love, and is especially annoyed by Julian, a kind, sophisticated, serious suitor.  Emmeline co-owns a very odd travel agency:  she and her partner are committed to sending clients to places they’ve never heard of, where being uncomfortable is part of the bargain, and almost chic.

The two young women love each other, but don’t understand each other.  When Cecilia is overdrawn at the bank, she stops taking taxis, but she doesn’t like to stay home alone:  she asks Emmeline if she won’t spend more money entertaining at home than going out.

Emmeline, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy parties, doesn’t think about love, and spends most of her time thinking up new travel itineraries.  She also reads in bed, and I must quote this next sentence because I know most of you will love it.  “Nothing could be as dear as the circle of reading-light around her pillow.”

When Cecilia returns from a trip to Italy, Bowen unnervingly describes both her deep loneliness and her reveling in leisure.

Cecilia resumed life at high pressure:  before she was into her bath two people had rung up to know whether she had arrived.  Then–as she could not bear to miss anyone–she was called twice from her bath to the telephone, and stood steaming and talking, while patches of damp from her skin came through her wrapper.  It would have been sad to return unnoticed.  All the same, as she lay turning on with her toe more and more hot water, melancholy invaded her.  She thought how at sunset the little hills lapped like waves round Urbino, and having brought her whole pile of letters into her bath with her read them, all blotchy with steam, with tears in her eyes, dropping sodden envelopes on to the bath-room floor.”

It is Cecilia’s meeting on a train with Markie, an aggressive, power-hungry barrister, that disrupts their menage.  It is not Cecilia who falls in love with him:  she drops him soon, summing him up as an upstart and cad.  Emmeline, who has never been in love with anyone, falls for him:  she finds him very funny, enjoys his attention,  and doesn’t understand his determination not to commit.  She doesn’t tell Cecilia she is seeing him.

Emmeline’s relationship with him of course hurts her commitment to work. Markie is cruel to her:  she almost blacks out his cruelties.  Her looks fade.  When he tells her he will never marry her, when he mocks the special arrangements she has made for a dinner, she is breathless but manages to ignore it.    No amount of hurt will tell her he’s not for her.

As in all of Bowen’s novels, her elegant, poetic, vivid style  almost obscures the plot.  If you don’t like style, Bowen is not for you.  In fact, Bowen seems to laugh at her own inimitable, gorgeous sentences in the passage below, Emmeline’s response to a long speech by Cecilia about Julian.

She had sat staring so fixedly at Cecilia that Cecilia had disappeared; instead, she had seen spinning sentences, little cogs interlocked, each clicking each other round.”

One of the best novels of the summer, one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and yes, it makes my If I Were Oprah Book Club.

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A few weeks ago I lauded Clyde Edgerton’s The Night Train, a beautifully-written, humorous novel about two boys, one black, one white, who perform rock and roll in a small Southern town in 1962.  Jazz piano may be African-American Larry Lime’s ticket out of town, as he studies with a brilliant hemophiliac musician knows as the Bleeder; meanwhile, the privileged Dwayne, son of the owner of the furniture refinishing shop where the two boys work, learns the power of  rock and roll through talented Larry Lime’s patient explication of James Brown’s “The Night Train.”

And this novel is truly a classic:  if you reread it, you’ll find out how beautifully the surprising, occasionally digressive parts weave a harmony into the main narrative, inspired by James Brown’s version of “The Night Train.”

I wanted to read more by Edgerton.  Today I finished Lunch at the Piccadilly, a feather-light, humorous, moving novel about residents in a nursing home.  Edgerton’s spare style is deceptively simple, and there is much more to this fast-paced novel than meets the eye.

At the heart of the novel is Carl, the stolid, dutiful, unexciting, unmarried nephew of Aunt Lil, who frequently visits her and sometimes drives her and her cronies to the Piccadilly for lunch.  Access to a car is freedom for the residents, who are otherwise stuck gossiping on the porch.

Physical and mental problems in old age sometimes commence with a fall.  Carl remembers how Aunt Lil

“fell in her tub, twice in the same night.  She managed, after the second fall, to get out of the tub and call Carl on the phone, and that night was the beginning of her downward drift, her gradual failing of mind and body, a decline less abrupt than his mother’s or Aunt Sarah’s.”

Carl keeps her apartment for her, though he believes she will have to stay at Rosehaven.  Yet  when they visit the apartment one day after lunch, Lil’s mind  snaps into focus.  She goes through files, competently removes war bonds to help pay for her care, and then, with Carl’s help, looks for her sensible shoes.  Suddenly she wants to vacuum.  She won’t use her walker, so Carl holds her by the waistband of her pants while she does a little vacuuming on the balcony.

And this scene struck a chord, because I went through the same thing with my mother.  The last happy memory I have of her was the last day we took her to her house to pick up a few things.  She looked immensely satisfied, as she ordered me to vacuum the living room–I did a very good job, because I wanted her praise– put a few clothes in bags, and then tottered outside without her cane to pull weeds. I quickly ran out with a chair for her, and distracted her by asking what size clothing she needed now that she had lost 15 pounds (and was dangerously anorexic)…  She kept looking at those weeds, though.

Edgerton, who has been around the block a time or two with aging relatives, has an intuitive understanding of their emotional situation.  In one hilarious scene, Carl takes Aunt Lil and Mrs. Cochran shoe-shopping at the mall.   It’s a bit like junior high:  Mrs. Cochran insists on high heels, and Carl, like a heavy father, has to steer her away from dangerous heels towards slip-ons.  Ironically, Carl always wishes that Anna, the social worker who wears sensible shoes, would wear high heels.  Too bad Mrs. Cochran doesn’t have Anna’a common sense.

Carl’s Aunt Sarah told him before she died that giving up driving was the worst thing.  Because of this, Carl has trouble telling Aunt Lil she can’t drive anymore, even after she takes off on a hair-raising adventure in a stolen car.

There are other vivid characters in the novel.  There’s L. Ray Flowers, a preacher, who wants to start a movement to turn nursing homes into churches–nurches–so the residents won’t be lonely anymore. He is also a songwriter and teaches Carl to play bass.  Carl starts writing lyrics:  the songs are in the back of the novel.

There are Carrie and Latricia, two aides who eat lunch together and talk about the patients.

And there’s Anna, the social worker whom Carl has a crush on.  She agrees to go out on a date with him, but will the relationship go anywhere?  Carl is nervous on their first date.

It’s a funny, sad, touching novel, about old age, caretakers, kindness, nursing homes, exploitation, and occasional injustice.  I laughed out loud at some scenes, cried over others.

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We have three winners!

Rhonda – The Blush

Ellen – Hester Lilly

Sherry – The Devastating Boys

Happy reading!   Just send your address by e-mail to frisbeebookjournal@gmail.com  and  I’ll mail the books Monday.

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Over the years, I have enjoyed Elizabeth Taylor’s well-crafted, if uneven, novels about the problems of middle- and upper-class women in love and family relationships.

So although I am not a big fan of short stories, I decided to read Taylor’s Complete Short Stories, and ,amazingly, have found them richer and more graceful than her novels.

This is the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor’s birth, and the English press has beaten the drums for her. Every reviewer of The Complete Short Stories avows that “she is not as widely read as she deserves” (The Guardian), is “claimed to be the most underrated writer of the 20th century” (The Telegraph–but I think “claimed” says it all), and “her work …did not secure what most writers truly covet: fair public acknowledgment” (The Irish Times).

I’m not sure she is neglected, as I found pre-Virago editions of her books in the ’80s in an American public library, and talked at a party to a man (ok, he was a book reviewer) who said she was his favorite writer.

Nonetheless, The Complete Short Stories is a find, revealing a much wider range than the novels.

Elizabeth Taylor

In the opening novella, “Hester Lilly,” Taylor tips her hat to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  Both Taylor and Wharton describe triangular relationships involving a married couple and a cousin who comes to live with them.

Taylor describes the strain on a marriage when Robert, a headmaster, and Muriel, his neurotic wife, feel obligated to invite a young homeless cousin to live with them.  Muriel dreads the arrival of Hester, who has lost her father and written countless obsessive letters to Robert. Muriel, who has not been allowed to read them, has observed what she considers Robert’s “guilty love” in response.

And she is not far wrong.

When Hester arrives, unthreatening and awkward, Muriel briefly deceives herself about her emotions.

I will take her under my wing, Muriel promised herself. The idea of an unformed personality to be moulded and high-lighted invigorated her, and the desire to tamper with–as in those fashion magazines in which ugly duckling is so disastrously changed to swan before our wistful eyes–made her impulsive and welcoming.  She came quickly across the hall and laid her cheek against the girl’s, murmuring affectionately.  Deception enveloped them.”

Robert knows otherwise.  He knows his wife.  And she tortures Hester subtly.

Hester is naive, terrified, and confused.  She didn’t pay attention at secretarial school, her shorthand is execrable, and now she must work as a secretary to Robert. She doesn’t know how to talk to men.  But she does flirt with Robert, and no wife could like it.  When Muriel confronts Hester, saying she knows about her love and it is to be expected at her age and will soon be gotten over, Hester falls apart.

There is even a broken china scene, reminiscent of the scene in Ethan Frome in which Mattie breaks Zeena’s favorite china.    But “Hester Lilly” is a less obvious story than Ethan Frome, and Taylor pulls invisible strings to manipulate characters who have more options than Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie.  They are not stuck in New England, thank God!  (But Hester’s fate seem a bit…no, I won’t say it.)

Taylor writes comedies, too.  In “Summer Schools,” two unmarried schoolteacher sisters who live together fall out over a summer trip.  Ursula has been invited by an old friend, Pamela, to visit her in London, and the jealous sister, Melanie, who also knows Pamela, can’t understand why she hasn’t been invited, too.  Melanie decides she won’t stay home with the cat, and will attend a conference on 19th-century literature (there was a talk on Trollope that I’d like to attend).

The vacations don’t turn out quite as the sisters think they will.  The people they meet aren’t who they thought they’d meet.  But each sister deals with it in a unique way.

One of the lighter stories is “The Thames Spread Out.”  Periodically the river floods, and Rose, a former secretary who lives alone, enjoys looking out over the flooded field from her solitary house.  Although the downstairs of the house is flooded, she is serene.  She is relieved that Gilbert, her former boss, who now supports her, will not be there for the weekend.  The rest of the week she is alone.

With the world quiet around her, she makes tea on her primus stove, and everything is a joy to her.  She loves seeing her neighbors rowing a boat over the flooded fields from the train.  She doesn’t know her neighbors and has kept  to herself  over the years,because she doesn’t want anyone to know she is Gilbert’s mistress.  But an encounter during the flood with two neighbors changes her perspective.

I’m halfway through the short stories, and somehow I’m reminded of the brilliant William Trevor.

If you’re looking for middlebrow cozies, these stories won’t fit the bill.  (Though some of her novels do fit into this category, I think.  But feel free to disagree.)

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It is the centenary of Elizabeth Taylor’s birth, and I couldn’t resist replacing my copies of her short stories with the new Collected Short Stories.  Thus I am giving away three beautiful Virago collections of Taylor’s short stories:   Hester Lilly, The Blush, and The Devastating Boys.

If you would like one, two, or all three of these, leave a comment and let me know which you want.  I’ll pick a name or names from a hat tomorrow evening.

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One of the finalists.

The Man Booker Prize longlist has been announced.  The books are:

Nicola Barker, “The Yips” (Fourth Estate); Ned Beauman, “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre); André Brink, “Philida” (Harvill Secker); Tan Twan Eng, “The Garden of Evening Mists” (Myrmidon Books); Michael Frayn, “Skios” (Faber & Faber); Rachel Joyce, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” (Doubleday); Deborah Levy, “Swimming Home” (And Other Stories); Hilary Mantel, “Bring Up the Bodies” (Fourth Estate); Alison Moore, “The Lighthouse” (Salt); Will Self, “Umbrella” (Bloomsbury); Jeet Thayil, “Narcopolis” (Faber & Faber); and Sam Thompson, “Communion Town” (Fourth Estate).

The judges were not up at dawn, announcing the list.  I checked.

Five of the books are available in the U.S.:  Mantel’s, Frayn’s, Joyce’s, Thayil’s, and Thompson’s.  I have Mantel’s.

The novel I’m most interested in is Will Self’s Umbrella.  I’m one of his fans, and once drove 100 miles to see him give a reading:  he canceled.   Oh, well.

I very much liked his satire on smoking, The Butt.  His new book won’t be published in the U.S. till 2013, but here’s a quote from the description at Amazon UK:

Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community – the so-called Concept House in Willesden – maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. …then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades.,,, [and fell] victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War…”

This year we’re a little less interested in the longlist than usual.   My husband wants to read Andre Brink’s new novel (not published anywhere yet), and I am interested in Nicola Barker’s The Yips (I loved Darkmans and Clear).

But we’re not going on a shopping spree.  We’ll get them from the library.  Why?

1.  Last year we were dismayed by the judges’ choices.  My husband said Half Blood Blues was THE WORST BOOK HE EVER READ.  I was quite disappointed in a couple of them, too, but I loved Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side.

2.  I’m not even British.  We declared independence in 1776, and thus are not eligible for the Prize.

3.  Oh, dear–I bought so many good books in July that I have a backlog.

4.  After last year’s choices, I prefer not reading OTHER people’s choices.

That said, the Booker announcement is still the event of the summer.:)

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Bloggers love blogs.  We may not be powerful, but we revel in our dashed-off journal entries about books.

And sometimes we have influence.  Sometimes publishers reissue books we recommend.

In 2009, an editor at Bloomsbury left a comment on my blog to say that Bloomsbury was reissuing D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim Christie (under the British title Mrs. Tim of the Regiment) “entirely due to your blog.” I was happy to think I’d had an influence, and other bloggers, too, were thrilled to be contacted about books they’d recommended.   I remember Stuck in a Book’s joy over the reissuing of Frank Baker’s Mrs. Hargreaves, a novel he loved and praised often (and still writes about).

I am a fan of lost classics and perfectly good, if not perfect, forgotten books.  Hence I was delighted to discover E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books through Academy Chicago Publishers, L. P. Davies’s A Meaningful Life through NYRB, and countless titles published by Virago.

Now Amazon has launched an interesting series of out-of-print books, “Nancy Pearl A Book Lust Rediscovery.”  The books to be reissued are selected by Nancy Pearl, the librarian and author of Book Lust.  The first two are Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound and Rhian Ellis’s After Life.  I look forward to reading them.

But others have great recommendations, too.  Now if bloggers and rebel readers could band together as a network, we could form our own publishing company and reissue out-of-print books as (perhaps free) e-books.

But it would be an enormous hassle–sitting around in our pajamas talking on the phone to writers or whoever about copyright… and we’d have to raise money to pay royalties–from whom?  But wouldn’t it be fun to find the out-of-print books recommended by bloggers and commenters without paying $50 or something for a rare book?

So here are a few of my choices for “If We Had a Publishing Company…”

Nancy Hale

1.  Nancy Hale’s Dear BeastI wrote last spring:  “In Dear Beast, the heroine, Abby Daniel, the wife of a well-educated, caustic Virginia bookseller, writes a best-selling anonymous novel about life in a small town very like Starkeyville. The difference is that he Starkeyvillians admire it, wondering who wrote it….

“This clever, witty novel is almost experimental in parts, a patchwork of lively Southern dialogue, New York party dialogue, and excerpts from letters, Abby’s diary, and The Rose That Died.  … Parts are funny, but the parts about Abby’s marriage to Boogher are painful to read.  Hale explores Abby’s observant musings about the South and Boogher’s long-winded Southern oral narratives.  They mesh at several points.”

2.  Clifford D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men is one of my science fiction favorites.  In 2009 I wrote:  “Aliens are taking over the world – but not by hackneyed means – they’re buying all the real estate on Earth. They look like bowling balls – and somehow combine with dolls to simulate human beings. The narrator, Parker Graves (love the last name!), is a newspaper science writer who investigates the aliens after he foils a trap they’ve set outside his apartment. He also discovers that all the real estate has been bought up by a mystery man – and that even wealthy people are homeless because once they sell their homes, there’s nowhere to go.”

John Thorndike Anna Delaney's Child3.  John Thorndike’s Anna Delaney’s Child.  I wrote in 2009:  his lyrical first novel charts the mourning and gradual healing of a group of  characters in Fell River, Ohio, who have suffered a range of losses. Anna Delaney, a farmer, has lost her eight-year-old son, Kevin, in a car accident; her father’s beloved wife, Anna’s mother, has died of cancer; Susan, now a paraplegic after a recent climbing accident, longs for the sports that kept her centered; and Anna’s ex-husband, Paul, has moved to Fell River with his unresolved drug problems.”

An excellent novel.

Best Out-of-Print Novel Due for a Revival

4.  Gladys Taber’s Mrs. Daffodil.   I wrote last winter about this humorous novel:  “It is obviously autobiographical, or at least parallels the Stillmeadow journals (which may be slightly fictionalized; I can’t find much information about Taber).  Like Taber, the heroine, Mrs. Daffodil, writes a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom.”  She also writes short stories about young love, because she has discovered people are less interested in stories about ordinary older people like herself.   And through this writing, she supports herself, her married daughter and graduate student husband, and presumably her housemate, Kay, a widowed college friend who agreed to share the country house after her husband died.  Mrs. Daffodil is not good with money:  sometimes she absent-mindedly sends two checks to the electric company.”

So those are four of mine.  Please let me know your favorites.  I’m always looking for good books to read (not publish, right?).

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