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Archive for September, 2012

William Blake: Dante’s Inferno, Canto IV: Homer and the Ancient Poets

At Frisbee:  A Book Journal, October is the Month of the Dead

This month I will devote myself to dead authors and their biographers.

Many bloggers participate in something called the R.I.P. challenge in October, but I was so terrified by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, part locked-room mystery, part horror story, that I dare not read ghost stories.

Nonetheless, think of the ghosts I spend my time with.  In September, there were Flaubert, Sheila Ballantyne, Elizabeth Berridge, George Meredith, and Nevil Shute.

That doesn’t look as though I’ve been neglecting the dead.

But I was trying to read four new books a month, and it is so difficult to predict what will be good and what will not be.  I found some truly wonderful books, and some truly terrible books.

I will put aside new books this month, or at least wait till November to write about them.

Since it’s still September, let me recommend David Bellos’s fascinating book on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?  Though language students dispute translation endlessly, I don’t hear much about this at blogs. I like this book very much, though I disagree with some of Bellos’s views, particularly his statement that it is fallacious to say, “Translation is no substitute for the original.”   I would argue that translation does not give you the equivalent  experience of reading a book in the original language.  That word “substitute” is tricky.

He writes about translators working together, like Pevear and Volokhonsky, the award-winning Russian translators, and describes his own work with a French translator and Ismail Kadare himself to translate Kadare’s work from Albanian.  He even writes about subtitles and surtitles.  I am intrigued.

There is a Greek error in my e-book version, but it may be only in the e-book version, because typos do sneak in to those. The ancient Greek word for “foreigner”  is barbaros (barbarian comes from it), not varvaros.

Bellos is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Princeton, and has written many translations of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare.  He won the first Man Booker Prize for translation in 2005.

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Library of America set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books

On my nightstand is These Happy Golden Years, the last of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, three quarters of which I reread while wondering about my two grandmothers’ experiences as one-room schoolteachers.

If you’re not familiar with Wilder’s eight autobiographical novels, you must not have read girls’ books as a child:  the famous series describes Laura and her family’s experiences as Midwestern pioneers.  In These Happy Golden Years, fifteen-year-old Laura takes a job as a teacher in a shanty school 12 miles from town to earn money to support her sister Mary at the College for the Blind.

Wilder doesn’t soften the bleakness.  Laura boards with the Brewster family, and Mrs. Brewster dislikes her.  An older boy at school, Clarence, encourages the other children to be disrespectful.

Laura was in despair.  They were all against her; she could not discipline them.  Oh, how could they be so mean?  For an instant she remembered Miss Wilder, who had failed to teach the school in town.  “This is the way she felt,” Laura thought.

I can just imagine my teenage grandmothers struggling. They were both very nice.

Wilder’s spare, simple, unsentimental prose cuts close to the bone.

The novel is not all about schoolteaching, though.  The muted romance between Laura andAlonzo Wilder, who drives her home in his sleigh every weekend,  is realistic.

The Library of America just published a two-volume set of Wilder’s books.

2.  David Garnett’s Lady into Fox.  David Garnett, the son of Constance Garnett, the translator, was a member of the Bloomsbury group and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1922 for this allegorical fantasy.

It is blessedly short:  40 pages in the Echo Library edition.  It is also available free at manybooks.net  It has been recommended by many bloggers.

3.  Constance Garnett:  A Heroic Life by Richard Garnett.  I adore Constance Garnett, the Russian translator, and Richard, her biographer, is her grandson.  This summer I read several of Turgenev’s books translated by Constance, who is out of fashion now, but her style is quite good.  Bring back Turgenev.

4.   D. E. Stevenson’s The Blue Sapphire.  I love some of D. E. Stevenson’s books:  Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, Miss Buncle’s Book (just published by Sourcebooks), The Baker’s Daughter, and Spring Magic, to name a few.

I abandoned The Blue Sapphire after 100 pages, as it was a bit too romantic for me, but I recently rescued it from its perch on the chest of drawers.   The plot:  Julia Harburn must choose between her stuffy fiance and the handsome Stephen, whom she meets on a park bench, and who says she should have a sapphire ring instead of a diamond.  He has discovered a sapphire mine.

5.  Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks through Walls. I love SF, read little of it, and found a copy of this at a sale.  A blurb by The New York Times says on the back:  “Dialogue as witty as Oscar Wilde’s, action as rollicking as Edgar Rice Burroughs’, and satire as spicy as Jonathan Swift’s.”

Oh, dear.  I will definitely be reading this one tonight.

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My cat Emma was not named after Emma Bovary.  A friend teased me by calling her Madame Bovary.  Her cats were rock stars: Mick, Clapton, Jerry Garcia, Lennon, Elvis, and Stevie-called-Wonder.  Even the girls got boys’ names.

Most of my cats had the quaint, old-fashioned names of dead relatives, but Emma was from my favorite book, Austen’s Emma.  Like Emma, she “was handsome, clever,” and managerial, “with a comfortable home and a happy disposition.”  She had a big clique of cats.

I would never have named her Madame Bovary.

Although I love most adulteresses in literature–Anna Karenina, the wicked Madame Merle, the unspeakable Charlotte in The Golden Bowl, Lara in Doctor Zhivago, Edna Pontellier, and Tina Balser–I never admired the novel Madame Bovary.

I have read the Alan Russell translation three times, and the language has seemed monotonous.  I know that Flaubert was supposed to be a great stylist, sometimes wrote only one sentence a day, and that he struggled with radical realism.  I concluded that it didn’t translate well.

I finally read the novel in the very smooth Lydia Davis translation, and for the first time appreciated the beautiful language. The odd thing is that I tried to read this a few years ago, and couldn’t.  I gave the book away. This time I had intended to read the 2004 Margaret Mauldon translation (Oxford), but was unable to find it on our bookshelf.  So I ended up buying the Davis translation twice.  Why Madame Bovary appeals to me now when I couldn’t appreciate it a few years ago is a conundrum.

Though not as silly as Emma Bovary, many of us, I realize, were very silly as young women.  Bored Emma has it in mind that she can live at the height of passion all the time.  I vaguely remember friends talking about their marriages and “waiting for their lives to begin.”  There were, needless to say,  a few divorces.  For the first time I was able to empathize slightly with the silly Emma.  She had no one to talk to, and there was no divorce.

Isabell Huppert as “Madame Bovary” (1991)

Emma loves to read novels, and has a disappointed, romantic view of love.  Bored by her husband, Charles, a doctor in a tiny town, and inspired by the suggestion of Homais, the busybody pharmacist, who reads an article on curing clubfoot, she encourages Charles to perform a risky operation on a young man with a clubfoot, which ends in amputation.  This results in more disillusion for Emma.  Why couldn’t her husband succeed?  She cannot achieve fame alone. She cannot think about her husband.   (Frankly, he is lucky to keep his practice.)  Then she has two affairs, one with Rodolphe Boulanger, a landowner, and another with a young clerk, Leon.  And those, of course, cannot be lived at the height of passion, either.

Although I tried in a desultory way to compare translations, I was much too caught up in the story to do much of that. And it is difficult to judge the translation without knowing French.  Fortunately, in Davis’s introduction, she explains at length the history of Flaubert’s development of the realistic novel, his  reasons for choosing different tenses of the verb, in particular the imperfect tense, and his fascination with writing a “supposedly lofty conversation between two sensitive, poetic individual that is, in fact, wholly made up of clichéd ideas.”

In 2010 Julian Barnes wrote an excellent essay in The London Review of Books on Lydia Davis’s translation, and, if I recall correctly, he compared several translations.   He knows French, and of course wrote the novel Flaubert’s Parrot.

I do not see dramatic differences between Davis’s and Russell’s translations.  Here is a quick look at two translations of  a passage that describes Emma’s ecstasy after she embarks on her affair with Rodolphe.  First, the Davis translation:

Then she recalled the heroines of the books she had read, and this lyrical throng of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.  She herself was in some way becoming an actual part of these imaginings and was fulfilling th long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so much envied.  Besides, Emma was experiencing the satisfaction of revenge.  Hand’s she suffered enough?  But now she was triumphing, and love, so long contained, was springing forth whole, with joyful effervescence.  She savored it without remorse,without uneasiness, without distress.”

Now a few lines from the Russell translation:

She remembered the heroines of the books she had read, and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.  She was becoming a part of her own imaginings, finding the long dream of her youth come true as she surveyed herself in that amorous role she had so coveted….”

Davis is lyrical; Russell is slightly less wordy.  Both work.

So, again, I go back to the character.  Why is Emma so foolish?  She knows nothing, despite her education from the nuns.  She listens to everything businessmen tell her, acts on it, and gets into terrible trouble.  First Homais advises the operation (which is botched), then Monsieru Lhereux tempts her into debt with pretty scarves and other unneccesary fripperies, she gets power of attorney from her husband, and it ends in bankruptcy.

How can she know so little?  She is not stupid, just selfish.  It is fascinating to see how far she’ll go.  She lives in denial.  And though we simply cannot like her, we come to understand her.

One of the greatest scenes in literature is certainly her suicide.  I’ll always remember how she stuffs the powdery arsenic into her mouth. Then the long, drawn-out death, when the doctors confer and eat,  poor Charles and the maid mourn, and Emma, occasionally talking to them between pain, is almost Roman:  a bit of Petronius with less control.

And, oddly, the funeral scene reminded me of the funeral scene at the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, though the influence would be the other way around.  I wonder if I’m comparing because Doctor Zhivago was also translated in a new translation in 2010.

I very much enjoyed Madame Bovary this time, and think it is probably safe to read it in either the Davis or the Russell translation, if you are ready for Madame Bovary.

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The Lord Peter group at Yahoo wonders if Pagford, the small town in J. K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy,  is a reference to the Pagford in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon.

I  don’t have a copy of Rowling’s book obviously, because the official publication date isn’t till tomorrow, but Pagford rings a bell, because I recently reread Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon.

Sayers (1893 -1957), one of the first female graduates of Somerville College at Oxford, a scholar, a linguist, a translator of Dante, a playwright, an essayist, a poet, and a theologian, was the author of 11 Peter Wimsey mysteries.

Her brilliant sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, is an oenophile and Oxford graduate who sports a monocle, has infinite charm and money, and tricks information out of people by acting silly.

When is a genre book not a genre book?  When it is a Dorothy Sayers mystery that also seriously attempts to explore the complex nuances of relationships between men and women:  affection and indifference, camaraderie and courtship, love and loathing, and the structures of new and old marriages.

Busman’s Honeymoon is the strongest of the four Peter Wimsey novels featuring Harriet Vane, the mystery writer he fell in love with when she was accused of poisoning her lover (Strong Poison).  He courted her through Have His Carcase (Harriet finds a dead body on a hiking vacation) and Gaudy Night (Harriet investigates poison pen letters at Oxford), but didn’t succeed until Harriet saw other women at Oxford falling for him.

Corpses have always come between Peter and Harriet.  She was understandably reluctant to marry an amateur detective.  So what is Sayers saying when, in Busman’s Honeymoon, the couple stumbles upon yet another corpse?  Bunter, the valet, finds the body in the cellar of the country house which Peter has bought for their honeymoon to please Harriet, who grew up in the area.   Is Sayers trying to say their sex life not as fabulous as Harriet implies?  That death separates them?  (Isn’t “Death” one of Wimsey’s many names?)

Sayers’s dazzling prose, fascinating characters, and humor combine to make a rambunctiously entertaining novel.  Her love scenes fail, but I admire the witty repartee.

And the form is innovative.

The first 20 pages, the “Prothalamion,” is an epistolary experiment that reveals in bits and pieces in the form of documents,  letters,, and  journal entries the fact of Peter and Harriet’s marriage.  Peter has very much annoyed his sister-in-law by pretending he would be married on one date in Hanover Square , and then dodging over to Oxford to get married on another date to fool the reporters.  His mother, though, is very much pleased.

Then the novel becomes a traditional 3rd-person narrative, but it is still more than a whodunit.

Who killed Mr. Noakes?  Was it Miss Twitterton, his niece?  Mrs. Ruddle, the housekeeper?  Crutchley, the gardener?

We do end up caring, as Sayers brings these urban and country characters to life.

FAVORITE BOOK REVIEW/PROMOTION PUBLICATIONS. In light of Sir Peter Stothard’s tentatively bipolar (and I usually LIKE bipolar) fulminations against book bloggers, I have decided to mention some of my favorite, slightly less traditional book publications.  Call it solidarity, call it occupy, call it what you will.

First, my entire blogroll.

Second, BookPage.  BookPage is a free monthly book review magazine–actually a book promotion publication–you can pick up at the public library.  Although the reviews are never very critical, BookPage highlights new books by genre, and it is the one of the best quick guides to what’s out there.  I even like the ads.

Third, Blogging for a Good Book.  This excellent blog from the Williamsburg Library in Virginia publishes five well-written reviews a week by various staff members.  The reviews are very interesting, and cover all genres.

Please add your favorite book publications in the comments.  I have come across some great ones over the years, but don’t always remember to bookmark them.

WHAT I GOT IN THE MAIL  I cannot buy any more books for the rest of the year if I want to buy Christmas presents.

And please, publicists, don’t mistake this for a plea for new books.  I am trying to live a simple life-style here.

But  two interesting books came in the mail this week, which I scouted and ordered from my favorite bookstore, Amazon.

William McPherson’s Testing the Current.  I had to buy a second used copy after my old copy fell apart a few weeks ago.  I am fascinated by this novel about an eight-year-old boy’s view of his upper-class family and neighbors on the verge of World War II.  Summers on the island are bucolic, Christmas in his midwestern hometown is magical, but McPherson is never sentimental, and we are aware of darkness in the margins of the child’s life.  There is also an excellent description of a chemical plant:  if you’ve ever visited a big factory like this, you’ll be awed.  This is a classic.  NYBR is reissuing it in November.

Diana Tutton’s Guard Your DaughtersStuck-in-a-Book recommended this novel and compared it to I Capture the Castle.  Heavens, that’s one of my favorite books.  I just wrote about it the other day.

I can’t wait to read this!

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Carrie didn’t blog because she had a column.

Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and the chair of this year’s Man Booker Prize panel of judges, thinks bloggers are loose cannons (or should I say loose “canons”) who read Ian Rankin and are the death of literary criticism and literature.

Much of what he says is colorfully paraphrased in two articles published in The Independent and The Guardian.  The phrase “killing literary criticism” is used in The Independent, and “drowning out literary criticism” in The Guardian.  It’s hard to know what he really said, especially now that I have added “loose cannon” to the mix.

According to The Guardian, “he expressed fears that the burgeoning amount of online opinion about books could be damaging to the future of writing.”

According to The Independent, he said,

Criticism needs confidence in the face of extraordinary external competition….It is wonderful that there are so many blogs and websites devoted to books, but to be a critic is to be importantly different than those sharing their own taste… Not everyone’s opinion is worth the same.”

Some animals are more equal than others.

Oh, dear.

But Stothard’s phrasing is much more tactful than that of similar attacks by American literary critics a couple of weeks ago.  Dwight Garner in the NYT and Jason Silverman at Slate said that literary critics can no longer write criticism because bloggers and other social media writers can’t distinguish good writing from fandom (or something, something, something).

So glad this fantastic reasoning finally reached the UK.

I just want them to know that they’re right.   At Frisbee, I am committed to killing criticism at TLS, The New York Times, Slate...and the world.

Let’s be realistic, boys.  Do you know who my readers are?  They are not necessarily your readers: if there is an overlap, they’re not deserting your publications for my blog.  Even the fact that you think blogs are a threat shows me you don’t read them.

Think about it.  TLS, NYT, LSD, oops, not that one, and then FRABJ.  Nope, that last isn’t going to make it.

My readers are  (a) other book lovers and bloggers; (b) people who come here to kill time; (c) college students who crib my posts about The Aeneid and Anna Karenina (which are, astonishingly, according to the stats, my most popular posts ); and (d) the rest are here to make sure no literary criticism is ever written again.

But I wan to tell you something you should know outright:  bloggers are your friends! We may not write literary criticism.  We may not WANT to write literary criticism.  But we READ.

We are not your problem. We like your writing.

Newspapers have been in trouble at least since the ’80s.  Two-and-three- newspaper towns became one-newspaper towns overnight.   Book sections grew and shrank and grew again and shrank again…according to ads, as I understand it, which support newspapers (size = ads, yes?).

The internet has undoubtedly created competition.  According to Eric Alterman’s excellent article, “Out of Print,” in The New Yorker, a quarter of newspaper jobs have been cut since 1990.  And many readers (including me) have stopped buying newspapers (except for the local paper) because we can read them online free.

That is your problem. Your editors are making a lot of bad decisions.   It’s just silly to blame book lovers  and to say they don’t love books enough or know enough to criticize or express an opinion online at free blogs they write for fun and not for money.

It is all of our problem that the internet culture interrupts us so much.  But think of it this way:  many bloggers have long attention spans.  At Twitter, not so much.

And bloggers cannot make literature worse.  It’s already destroyed.  Didn’t corporations gobble all the publishers in the mid-90s and drop their midlist writers?  Didn’t Doris Lessing protest?  Isn’t that why I spend my time rereading The Aeneid instead of reading the latest novel?

Though I like the Booker Prize.

Now here are two things I want to bring up briefly.  This blaming of bloggers for the end of criticism seems to be a guy thing, and a class thing.

Guys are upset that their book sections are shrinking.  Blogs are NOT shrinking.  (So is this a shrinkage issue?)  I’m sure there are gals who are threatened by bloggers, too, but I haven’t heard them on this.

Now here is another obvious, obvious issue.  We’re talking about class.

Sir Peter Stothard, Dwight Gardner, and I love to read.  And so we should be friends, right?

And Sir Peter and I were both classics majors.  Dwight may have been a classics major, too, for all I know.  His Wikipedia entry says only that he went to Middlebury.

So our backgrounds are not identical.  The Independent tells me Peter went to Trinity College, Oxford, where he also edited the Cherwell student newspaper.  My classics friends and I were scholarship students and teaching assistants at The University of ____ (fill in any state in the U.S.).  We didn’t have time to do anything except read Greek and Latin and attempt to make sense of scholarly articles which were as clear upside down as rightside up.

I wonder if there might be just a touch of snobbery when Peter and Dwight look at blogs and realize we didn’t go to their school.  I’m not saying there is, but think about it.  Lots of people like to write, not everybody gets a writing job, and the internet gives everyone a “platform.”   So what’s the difference between them and us?  The critics are not getting it that we are not competing with them.  They are competing with us, and why don’t we get it?

I AM your friend, bloggers and critics.  I love reading literary journalism, book blogs, and book reviews.  I just think it’s silly for newspaper guys to equate their problems with social media.

You’re projecting. What you’re really concerned about is the end of civilization.  Think global warming, think fossil fuels, think college loans, think nukes, think no money for research for alternative engery, think politics, think the loss of your job, get a little upset over texting…but we’re all pawns, and we’re all indoors now, seduced by the internet where we’re more easily controlled, and it’s all about marketing and surveillance, yet it’s the height to daring for thousands and thousands of people  without your or my education to be able to write on the internet.  Where there’s writing, there’s reading.

And that’s a good thing.

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My grandmother’s tea set and Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”

I am having a very English experience today.

Yes, I am rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and drinking tea out of my grandmother’s tea set.  My idea of England is to sit around and drink tea and read mid-twentieth-century English novels.  Apparently my fantasy is not quite the UK some of you live in.

In case you’re not sure whether tea is ever mentioned in Dodie Smith’s charming, humorous 1947 classic novel, I Capture the Castle, let me tell you it is.  In the first chapter, Cassandra is very excited when Topaz puts on some eggs to boil:  she hadn’t known the hens had laid, and had expected bread and margarine.

How odd it is to remember that ‘tea’ once meant afternoon tea to us–little cakes and thin bread-and-butter in the drawing-room.  Now it is as solid a meal as we can scrape together, as it has to last us until breakfast.  We have it after Thomas gets back from school.

I try to read I Capture the Castle once or twice a year and never am bored by it.  Usually I read it on Midsummer Night’s Eve, because there is a very funny scene in which Cassandra celebrates with a bonfire and some witchery. But this year I’m reading it two days after the Fall Equinox–do you think that counts?

The narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, a 17-year-old aspiring writer, “captures” her life in a journal:  she and her family live in a mouldering castle, which her father, James, bought on the proceeds of a Joycean novel he wrote.  But he has inexplicably stopped writing, sits in the gatehouse all day reading mysteries, and thus the Mortmains have no income to speak of.  In a very funny scene early in the book, the librarian, Miss Marcie, tries to help them figure out their earning power, and they are an unpromising lot:  Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, is a former artist’s model who loves to commune with nature in the nude; Cassandra’s beautiful 21-year-old sister, Rose, wants to marry but knows no men; and their younger brother Thomas is normal but still at school.  Only their servant, Stephen, has real earning power:  he can do manual labor.

Fortunately their interactions with some new American neighbors provide both free food and romance.  I am very happy to read Cassandra’s offbeat ruminations on her family, but I knew I needed tea and homemade muffins to make the experience perfect.

So what’s the story on the tea?

The Bavarian tea set in the photo was my grandmother’s.  Pink flower patterns aren’t really to my taste, but it was given to me because I am the only one in the family who drinks tea. I vaguely thought Grandma had bought it at Woolworth’s;  I got the Woolworth’s idea in my head because of all the stories she had told about being a farmer’s wife during the Depression and dressing my aunts in burlap feed bag dresses.

No, no, the tea set wasn’t that old!  It wasn’t a Depression tea set, my aunt said.  My uncle brought it home from Germany after the war as a gift.

Hmm, a guy’s taste:  no wonder the pink flowers.  Because we Frisbee women aren’t very flowery.  We’re practical.

Another Tea Time photo

Occasionally I take it out and look at it, but we have broken a couple of the tea cups, so I usually leave it in the cupboard.   Today I enjoyed drinking lapsang souchang (not chosen to pair with the muffins, but because it is the only tea I had in the house) out of the delicate cup, though  I actually enjoy drinking out of mugs more, because  the mugs can be banged around, and they rarely even chip.

Now what’s with the muffins?  I know that’s what you really want to know.

I made them.  They’re banana muffins.  Does Cassandra eat banana muffins?  No.  I don’t believe bananas were on the menu.

But I bake what I have, and we had bananas.  These are not super coffeehouse muffins, just the kind of stuff your mom used to make.  If you use three bananas, they’re very moist, but I only had two, so, oh well.

They were good, though.

And you can get the recipe here at allrecipes.com

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The internet is a ghastly muck-up and I wish I’d never heard of it.  It is dull and time-wasting.   I’m NOT paying $50 a month to subscribe to The New York Times online (which cuts me off after 10, or is it 20, free articles?),  and I’m certainly not paying $30 a year to WordPress to write my own blog!

That’s how I felt this morning when I learned I had to pay $30 for another ad-free year at WordPress.

One day last year I noticed ads popping up on my blog.  I gulped when I clicked on my comments and saw a big ad for Hewlett-Packard.  What?  I’m not writing for money.  I’m not even an Amazon affiliate:  I decided not to exploit my readers by sending them inadvertently to Amazon when they click on “product” (i.e., books) icons, which would tempt them to buy books, and then I would get a cut if they bought anything.

So what the hell was this Hewlett-Packard thing doing on my blog?  If I were going to advertise, which I’m not, it would be for Macs.

So I searched WordPress help and learned that they can run ads any time they want unless we pay $30 a year.

Now I wasn’t happy about paying, because I was in the process of cutting up credit cards.  But I thought, Oh, well, I’ll pay this one time!

Naturally I forgot all about it.  It’s time to pay again.

I could go back to Blogger, which is still free.

As a matter of fact, I started Frisbee:  A Book Journal in 2006 at (free!) Blogger, but after a major Blogger redesign a couple of years ago, which made posting more complicated, I decided to move to WordPress.  Then I moved back to Blogger.  Then I moved back to WordPress.

I am established here now.   I even managed to post a picture of the Loess Hills (we bicycle there) on my banner at the top.

So I paid the $30 because I don’t want to move again.  But it’s really against my principles to pay for a blog platform.  Isn’t it kind of like paying for e-mail?  But I’ve had a good experience here, and it does seem absurd for me to move again.

ZADIE SMITH’S NW.  I said I wouldn’t write about new novels for the rest of the month, but I enjoyed Zadie Smith’s short, fast novel, NW, so I thought I’d say a few words.

I love urban neighborhood novels.  Think Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye.  I love The Needle’s Eye because I like Rose’s neighborhood.   I’ve lived in some teetering-on-the-brink urban neighborhoods, where people raise goats and chickens, where there are glitzy indie bookstores and home-style restaurants, where there are Rich People’s Houses and Poor People’s Houses, where there are woods and bicycle lanes, and I was thinking only today about how much I love my neighborhood while I bought gummy mini-butterflies at the candy store.

Smith’s novel is the story of four residents of northwestern London, Leah, Felix, Natalie, and Nathan.  Originally from the Projects, they have achieved different levels of upward or downward mobility .  Leah, a muddled, unhappy Irish-English woman, majored in philosophy  at college but didn’t really understand it, has a dull job working for the Council, and desperately wants NOT to have children.  Felix, a black mechanic who lived briefly in the projects as a child, spends a Joycean day visiting his weed-smoking eccentric father, telling a former addict girlfriend that he must drop her since things are going so well with his new girlfriend, Jackie, and buying a car.  Leah’s oldest friend, Natalie (whose given name was Keisha), is a successful black Caribbean-English lawyer whose internet addictions are sad and shocking.  Nathan is a homeless drug addict who was beloved as a child in the Projects.

Smith’s fragmented descriptions of the beauties of NW London are reminiscent of Joyce Cary’s descriptions in The Horse’s Mouth.

Here is how Felix, my favorite character, sees the neighborhood.

Trees shaggy overhead.  Hedges wild over fences.  Every crack in the pavement, ever tree root.  The way the sun hits the top deck of the 98.  The trails have grown taller outside the Jewish school, and outside the Muslim one.  The Kilburn Tavern has been repainted, shiny black with gold lettering.  If he hurries he may even get home before her.  Lie down in that clean room, that good place.  Pull her into his body.  Start all over again, fresh.

But there is certainly more than urban descriptions to this surprising novel.

In a series of very short chapters, Smith manages to sketch Natalie’s life from childhood to empty professional with children and problems. She also charts the internet-phone interruptions and addictions of our culture, and the short chapters reflect that.  At one point Natalie’s mother asks her (I can’t find this quote, so I’m just writing an approximation), “Did you come to look at your phone or me?”

There is the tedium of the phone, the emails, and the IMs.

But there’s something about these short chapters that grieve me.

I like to settle into a novel because I want to spend a lot of time with the characters.  I don’t want to read in short grating segments.

I appreciate what Smith is trying to do, and this section reads a little like a Virginia Woolf novel translated to our century.

But it is not my FAVORITE novel of the year.

Still, I would happily put the Woolfian/Caryian(?) NW on the Booker Prize list opposite Will Self’s Joycean Umbrella.  But, whoops, it didn’t make the Booker list at all.  I wonder why.

HOBBIT DAY.  I was very happy to find out that today is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit, and that tomorrow is Bilbo Baggins’s birthday, officially Hobbit Day.

Here is a link to a live Hobbit Day festival:

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