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Read new posts on Jean Rhys, Howard Jacobson, Lillian Hellman, Colette, William McPherson, and D. H. Lawrence.
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We saw fewer book scouts than usual.
We didn’t have to stand in line.
We came home with two boxes of books.
Some of the most exciting finds at the sale are:
Stephen Dixon’s Interstate, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1995. He is a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Pen/Faulkner Award finalist, and has won three O. Henry Awards, two NEA Fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters literature award, and he taught for 26 years in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. (We have an autographed copy of 14 Stories, but, hm, no autograph in this.)
Agatha Christie’s Murder by the Box: a boxed set of They Came to Baghdad, The Golden Ball and Other Stories, The Boomerang Clue, and The Murder at Hazelmoor.
Ivy Compton-Burnett’s The Present and the Past. According to the book jacekt: “…her addicts, for that is what one can safely call Miss Compton-Burnett’s admirers, need have no fear; this novel is as trim and tidy as a hand grenade.”
Rex Warner’s The Young Caesar. A historical novel by the classicist and translator who also wrote The Aerodrome, one of my favorite science fiction books.
Muriel Spark’s Territorial Rights. No idea if I’ve read this one or not. It was only $1.
Zola’s Germinal. We have a copy somewhere, but this appears never to have been read, so if I want to reread it…. (only $2).
Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit. The cover says: “The once-banned, and best-selling novel about an illicit love affair and race relations in 1920s Georgia.”
A FEW WORDS ABOUT BOOK GROUPS. A few days ago I compiled some information about online book groups. There is an impressive variety, ranging from classics groups to small-press groups to Janet Evanovich groups to groups that specialize in quirky out-of-print books.
Now in real life book groups are different. If you want to read a book that you want to read you have to run the group.
I’m joking, but I’m also telling the truth.
That’s because we read BOOK GROUP BOOKS. You know what these are. They are books with book group guides in the back. I don’t understand the obsession with book group guides, but in the last 10 years I’ve seen a shift. People who run book groups depend on the questions in the guides. The guide questions are simple, the kind of questions you ask yourself anyway, so I don’t see the point.
It is likely that your book group has read one or more of the following: Half Broke Horses, The Help, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Bel Canto, Julie Ostsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, The Half Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Ape House
Most are good or goodish, I see at least three prize winners, but there are a lot of other new books out there. Where are Mo Yan (the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature announced yesterday), Zadie Smith’s NW, anything by Stephen Dixon–you get the picture.
I don’t say much at book groups. I inveighed against The Secret Life of Bees, and it turned out it was the best book everybody else ever read.
And really, you go because the women are quite nice, not because it’s important to dislike The Secret Life of Bees.
I’ve been in some great book groups that, unfortunately, broke up after about 10 years.
We need face-to-face book groups because the people are nice. But on the internet we find groups that discuss books we want to read.
This one is going out to LRW.
The book discussion climate in your household or extended family may be far from ideal: she will read nothing published later than Wuthering Heights, he will read nothing before Gary Shteyngart, the cousin in rehab will read only Barbara Pym and those two books by Alice Thomas Ellis the library doesn’t have, and the nieces and nephews read nothing but 50 Shades of Grey and The Annotated Dracula.
The only thing to do is pretend you don’t read. And that’s why you need to join an online or face-to-face Coven of Desperate Readers (i.e., book groups).
One new and fascinating place to pick your book group selections is Emily Books, a virtual bookstore that sells only one book a month. At this all e- store, books are selected by the two founders who met working in publishing. You can subscribe for $150 to receive a free book every month, or buy one at a time. Apparently there are also e-discussions for subscribers.
The choices have been interesting, among them a collection of stories, Glory Goes and Gets Some, by Emily Carter, the daughter of Anne Roiphe; Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent; and Ellen Willis’s collection of essays, No More Nice Girls.
I did read the Emily Books September selection, Maidenhead by the Canadian writer Tamara Faith Berger. If you like your fiction filtered through the eyes of Hegel, Simone Weill, Michel Houellebecq, Clarise Lispector, and Bataille, this literary novel about porn is for you. The adolescent narrator, Myra, on a vacation with her family to Key West, falls in love with Elijah, a beautiful older Rashta musician from Tanzania. Before you know it, she’s in his room learning oral sex, being urinated on, and submitting to intercourse with Elijah’s flute.
This is a far from sexy novel, told from the viewpoint of a desensitized teenager, who spends much of her time masturbating to internet porn. She is subjected to various forms of degradation by Elijah and his girlfriend, Gayl, which she tries to justify as “liberation porn.” Then she writes a paper about her own masochism and exploitation without understanding the degradation. She reads philosophy, and tries to justify sex slavery. She writes: “Pornography links up the internal, the external and the fantastical ways that we are not yet in the world with the ways that we might very well be.”
This is one of those spare, affectless, detached novels with an unreliable narrator that succeeds, in a way, but is horrifying, depressing, and perhaps unclear if you are not a big fan of Houellebecq.
If Emily Books selections are too stark for you, here is something more interesting to the “average” book group: the literary magazine Tin House Bookclub in a Box for $100, which includes “five or ten copies of Alexis Smith’s new novel, Glaciers, some Earl Grey tea, book club questions, vintage postcards, and Skype for your book club with Alexis Smith. Doesn’t that sound charming?
Do you like online book groups? There are thousands of enjoyable discussions at Yahoo, GoodReads, and elsewhere.
And if you like your discussions blog-style, there are hundreds of blog reading “challenges.” I don’t participate in these events, which I refer to as bloggers-reading-bloggers, but they pop up constantly, and even I have heard about the R.I.P. challenge, much touted by bloggers, which involves reading all things “ghostly and ghastly,” leaving comments, and rushing around to the 200 participating blogs to leave YET more comments.
If you have any book group recommendations, let me know.
Colette (1873-1954), the graceful French writer of lyrical, spellbinding novels and memoirs about love, sex, and work, is one of my favorite writers. The Vagabond and Break of Day are classics.
Not everyone agrees.
At a “salon”/dinner party (isn’t it adorable that we had a salon?) with some other university-town denizens who worked as professors, clerks, waitresses and electricians so we could stay in idyllic Iowa City/Ann Arbor/Berkeley/Chapel Hill/Fayetteville, a linguist spoke about the translation of French literature.
The name Colette came up. “I cannot read her,” he said.
I remember being surprised, and saying nothing. Is she mainly a women’s writer?
Her exquisite, inimitable prose is really poetry, and I especially appreciate her lush writing about nature. Take this perfect sentence from Break of Day: “Vial took himself off, and I became more aware of the warmth, the freshness, the increased slant of the light, the universal blue, a few sails on the sea, and the nearby fig tree spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass.”
That sensual image of a fig tree “spreading its odour of milk and flowering grass” would never have come to me.
Judith Thurman, author of Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, believes in Colette’s wicked wit and writing, and, in her fascinating introductions to several newish editions of Colette’s books (Farrar Straus Giroux), she mused on the exclusion of Colette from the canon.
In the introduction to The Complete Claudine, Thurman writes:
But for the last quarter of a century, Colette has been out of fashion and, in translation, often out of print–or, to borrow an image from La Naissance du jour (Break of Day), which is probably her most innovative and profound novel–”hiding, like Poe’s [purloined] letter, in plain sight.” What accounts for her eclipse, particularly during a period when scholars and readers have been so avid to rescue even minor women writers from oblivion?
Thurman suggests that it is because Colette was far, far from politically correct–often conservative, not a feminist, not a suffragette, though she called herself an “erotic militant”: she was bisexual, married thrice, and had affairs with women and men.
I particularly appreciate Colette’s novels about middle-aged women. In Julie de Carneilhan, a beautiful woman in her early forties cannot get over her divorce from her second husband, Herbert Espivant, “the man of her life.” She lives alone in a studio, on a tiny (voluntary) alimony payment from her first husband, Becker. Colette’s detailed descriptions of her careful living arrangements are fascinating. I love reading about her habits, furniture, and clothes. “In five minutes’ time she was dressed in a white tailored shirt, a skirt with a pattern of black and white birds’ feet and a black jacket that flouted every current fashion. Her slightly overdone trimness betrayed the fact that Julie de Carneilhan was approaching the age when women decide to sacrifice their faces to their figures.”
She is blond and gorgeous, has a younger boyfriend, Coco, whom she scorns, and many sociable younger friends who drink and party too much.
Julie asks, “Am I expected to put on mourning in advance for a man who was unfaithful to me for eight years and has been married again for another three?”
She has a bitter humor, but indeed she deeply cares for her ex-, and it is part of her affected coolness to pretend not to care. When Herbert invites her to visit him on his sickbed, she begins to understand him as he is. A proposal he makes to her dramatically changes her life.
In a way this reads like a play. It is short, spare, and not much happens. The dialogue is sharp, and, though this is not one of her most lyrical, descriptive books, the drama plays out powerfully.
The novel Chance Acquaintances was also new to me, the last of the three short novels published together: Gigi, Julie de Carneilhan, and Chance Aquaintances. This is s novel which Colette herself narrates, and we quickcly understand that she cherishes her beloved cat more than people, and that both Colette and the cat are too finicky to live at the Knick-Knack, the “chalet” they have rented.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Colette begins the novel by writng of “human barnacles,” non-entities who have an ill effect on others. She thinks: “We are far too slow in realizing that they, though innocent of all personal ill-will, are, in fact, envoys from the nether world, deputized to act as a liaison between ourselves and beings with on other means of approaches.”
The rhythmic, pitch-perfect language is more noticeable than the plot, but the plot is deftly woven as a cobweb, and seems to stretch the tension between Colette’s need for solitude and her easy gift of sociability. One day, on a walk with her dog, Colette almost trips over Lucette d’Orgeville , a dancer from Colette’s music-hall days. Lucette says she is about to go away with her beau to stay in a gorgeous chalet in the mountains above X-les-Bains. A fortnight later she has decided to go off with a rich man in a yacht instead, and persuades Colette to sublet the chalet.
The chalet, which is called The Knick-Knack, and is one of several identical bungalows, does not meet Colette’s requirements, so she and her cat go to a hotel instead. And there she meets the “human barnacles,
a very pleasant couple, Gerard Haume and his beautiful older wife, Antoinette.
But all is not well in the Haume home. As soon as we know there’s an older woman, we know there will be a lack of balance. Antoinette is there to take the waters, because she is sickly. Gerard has been having an affair with a woman in Paris who has not written him in weeks. Toni gets very sick, and Gerard is not sympathetic because he is self-absorbed. He ends up confiding in Colette, who finds a way to help him.
What shocks Colette is Gerard’s quick transfer of his emotions from his Parisian girlfriend to Lucette, who shows up at the Knick-Knack after her plans on the yacht don’t work out. Lucette is sick, has blood poisoning, and Toni smells strange scents on Gerard.
It is finally the hypocrisy of the situation that breaks Colette’s liking of the Haumes.
This is a powerful drama, sketched with Colette’s usual irony and fastidiousness.
…is Jo-Ann Mapson! Please send me your address at email@example.com
Elizabeth Jolley, the award-winning Australian writer, published her first collection of short stories in 1976. I didn’t read it. I was perfectly happy with Victorian novels. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to read contemporary fiction: after being reduced to tears by a famous author (now dead) during an interview about his 1,000-page book (a freelance assignment I’d received the night before, along with the book, and he knew I hadn’t finished it), I vowed that nothing like that would happen again. I became an earnest reader of book reviews and contemporary novels. Oh, lord.
In the 1980s I read some brilliant books, among them Elizabeth Jolley’s very strange, well-reviewed comic novels. Persea has recently reissued several of Jolley’s novels, and sent me a few. (So I now have a backlog of 24 free books from publicists, down one, and read this because I like Jolley.).
Are Jolley’s novels comedies? Whimsically surreal? Modern or post-modern? It’s hard to know how to take them. In Foxybaby, an utterly odd and entertaining novel (which I reviewed here), Alma Porch, a writer, takes a job teaching drama at a “Better Body through the Arts Course”–an arts program with dieting– at an obscure college in an abandoned Australian town. The lesbian principal of the college, Miss Pyecroft, with her obsequious girlfriend, Miss Paisley, sabotages Alma’s teaching and invites Alma to an orgy. And part of the novel is the “film treatment” of Alma’s new novel, which the students will act out.
In Jolley’s dark comedy, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, she also mocks the domination of an unlikable principal of a school. The portly headmistress of a girls’ school, Doctor Arabella Thorne, is an intellectual but is also a lesbian lecher. She arranges bra-burning ceremonies for her students, loves to watch a student disco dancing, and invites a fat virginal student, Gwendaline Manners, whose father has ceased paying her tuition, on a trip to Europe, obviously with plans of seduction. Miss Thorne’s lover, the illiterate secretary Miss Edgely, is upset, and her friend, Miss Snowdon, matron of the Queens’ Hospital, also thinks it is unwise to bring along a student.
Many of us have at one time or another known a Miss or Mr. Thorne. Not Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, mind you, but perhaps an inhabitant of Thornfield, like Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre). The grotesque characters in Jolley’s novel have names that are faintly reminiscent of Victorian novels, though they seem not to have much relation to them: Miss Edgely (Maria Edgeworth?), Miss Snowdon (Villette?), Mr. Frome (Ethan Frome?).
Miss Thorne is a horrifying character, I am sure we will all agree. But then she doesn’t even exist, except as a comic character in the mind of Jolley’s character, the novelist Diana Hopewell. The novel begins with the line: “The nights belonged to the novelist.” And the narrative begins with Miss Thorne’s walk in a pine plantation, and her musings about the school.
After three pages, the narrative switches to Miss Dorothy Peabody, a naive middle-aged typist who devotes her nights to reading letters from the novelist, Diana. Their correspondence, which they embarked on after Dorothy sent a fan letter, is the highlight of Dorothy’s life. Diana sends her long sections of the novel she is writing about Miss Thorne.
As [Miss Peabody] lit the gas under the hateful little milk saucepan she let her mind wander pleasantly. Whatever would Miss Thorne do with Gwendaline Manners in Europe! What an idea to take a schoolgirl on an expensive holiday like that and to pay all the expenses! It was beyond Miss Peabody’s experience to understand why Miss Thorne should do this. What would the girl’s parents think? It seemed an impulsive thing for a woman in Miss Thorne’s position to do.”
Dorothy and Diana are very lonely women, as we learn as the book continues. But does Diana even exist? Well, yes, she seems to, but Elizabeth Jolley’s novels are so strange that at one point I wondered if Miss Peabody was imagining everything. The names: Diana/Dorothy (Diana = the goddess Diana, and Dorothy = god’s gift)? (I don’t believe any reviewers suggested this, but I often react thus to the unreality of Jolley’s novels.) Eventually Miss Peabody has a drunken breakdown and starts talking to herself.
Poor Miss Peabody. Her mother is an invalid, and her social life consists of office parties where she gets drunk and people ignore her. At home she reads Great Expectations to her mother and writes her letters to Diana.
It’s not much of a life, but she begins to make things happen after the excitement of Diana’s letters. It’s not much–but it’s something. Especially when she conceals the fact that her key is in her handbag and… But it’s really nothing much, and I won’t give it away.
This preposterous, quirky novel is not my favorite by Jolley, but it is spare, gracefully written, and eminently readable.
If you would like a Penguin copy of H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (which I wrote about here), leave a comment. I read a copy on my Nook, then found the paperback, and now I don’t need it. It’s a well-thumbed copy, with an introduction by Margaret Drabble.
Any takers? We’ll hold a “drawing” Saturday or Sunday if more than one person wants the book.
Doug, a longtime employee of Borders, died recently of prostate cancer. Whenever I pass the old Borders, now a Babies R Us, I think of him. He was in my Latin class, and, unlike some of my students, knew my name.
When I saw him at Barnes and Noble last fall, he was sitting in a comfortable chair reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. He looked thinner and older, but still wore his hat. (He wore it even when he bicycled.)
“You’re not into hard sci-fi, are you?” He asked. He told me Stephenson was from Ames, where Doug had lived for many years.
He confided he had dropped out of our class abruptly because he was diagnosed with cancer. I was shocked, didn’t know if this meant he was dying, said I was sorry.
Couldn’t I have bought him Stephenson’s book? Seemingly not.
He described the last days of Borders, the changing book culture, how Borders stopped selling Loebs and reduced its stock, and then began hiring young beauties to replace the bibliophiles who hand-sold books.
He knew the whole history of Borders.
I thought he was the manager. No.
Over the years he quoted the first line of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, chatted about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic (still on my TBR), and guaranteed I would like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (so maybe I’ll read that this weekend).
He also read history.
One of my favorite moments in class was when we were talking about Wolf Hall and another student said he’d bought it for his Kindle.
“Traitor!” Doug said.
He was adamantly leftist, so I’ve posted his picture on the left.
At a caucus in 2004, he told Vote for America,
To me, democracy has always been neighbors and fellow citizens getting together face-to-face to talk about it. In a sense, the actual amount of commitment you have to have to come out here makes you think about it and makes you value it more.”
I will vote early and often for Obama on his behalf. (I am joking: I will vote once on his behalf.)
I will now read George R. R. Martin.
Luv ya, Doug! You were the most enthusiastic bookseller in town.