Archive for May, 2010

Some of us favor thin books in summer, rushing out to buy the latest Ian McEwan  or an NYBR reprint of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra and the Wedding.  Others among us beat the heat by ensconcing ourselves on the porch with Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky,  or, in my case, Hermann Broch.

 And coffee, please.  Iced.

 “Where’s your Hermann Broch Assistance Group?”  my husband wants to know.

He knows I’ve declared I will read Hermann Broch’s novel, The Death of Virgil, this summer.   He suggests that I might find an internet group to read with–after all, the Big Book might be back in fashion, as Infinite Jest was read by a group last summer.  

 “I’m the person who couldn’t give away War and Peace,” I explain.  If I couldn’t give away War & Peace, is it likely there will be co-readers for a big unknown  classic that is seldom read?  NO.

 “Well, maybe there are some German literature readers.  Put it up on your blog.”

 So I ask you:  Is anybody interested in reading The Death of Virgil?  Small chunks at a time. A certain amount of Joycean bafflement will probably rule, but I do know my Virgil.

Hermann Broch


According to Wikipedia, this modernist novel was begun in 1938 when Broch, an Austrian Jew, was in a concentration camp. Eventually he ended up in the U.S., where the first edition of the novel was published in 1945 in an English translation by Jean Star Untenmeyer.  This is the only English translation, as far as I know.  A  German translation appeared in Zurich in 1947, but it was not published in Germany until 1958.

 Here is an excellent quote from Wikipedia about the book:

 “This great, difficult novel, in which reality and hallucination, poetry and prose are inextricably mingled, reenacts the last hours of life of the Roman poet Virgil, in the port of Brundisium, where he accompanied Augustus, his decision – frustrated by the emperor – to burn his Aeneid, and his final reconciliation with his destiny. Virgil’s heightened perceptions as he dies recall his life and the age in which he lives.”

 I’m pretty sure German literature is out of fashion in the U.S.–the colleges are cutting all the graduate programs– so it’s good to revive the German classics.  And we can assist each other with this Big Book, which admittedly does not look easy! 

 So if there are any volunteers…!

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It’s the Sunday of the long weekend, and, since there’s a whole day left, time feels luxuriant.  Gardening was our occupation today.  We planted annuals (a little late this year), a mix of geraniums and impatiens, after chopping at the soil with trowels and finally realizing we needed new topsoil. So the plants are happily ensconced in new soil.  Usually I plant snapdragons or begonias, but the store was out, so I bought other easy plants instead of  running around the city trying to find my favorites. 

 I’d like to grow a wide variety of plants, but no garden book has ever taught me much. Hollyhocks?  Eaten by rabbits.  Many unidentified and forgotten varieties of gorgeous flowers?  Dried up in the heat.   Zinnias are dependable, as I learned from a person, not a book, and geraniums lived in the flowerbeds of my childhood. The gardeners I know–people with a few plants–are all pretty hands-off like me.  We like to go out and peer at the flowers every once in a while without having to do a lot of mulching and weeding.  It’s already so hot this year.  Sitting in the back yard is a thing of the past.

 If anybody knows a good garden book, please let me know.

 It is very, very hot today.  Other top activity today:  Lolling around in front of the fan, drinking Diet Coke, and reading a hard-to-find novel by George Gissing, available at Gutenberg, Demos:  A Story of English Socialism.  It’s a good-bad late- 19th-century novel: parts are compelling, parts are incredibly stilted. If you’ve read the uneven work of Mrs. Oliphant and George Meredith, you’ll know what I mean:  good writing to hasty to vivid again in a matter of minutes.  The hero of Demos, Richard Mutimer, is a poorly educated working-class man who lectures on socialism.  When he inherits money from his uncle, he decides  to expand his late uncle’s mining-factory enterprises, determined to pay the men fairly and give the profits to socialist education.  Alas, his businesses, located in an unspoiled village, ruin the environment.   And once he has money, his position becomes difficult.  He  knows he must live in the manor house and have servants in order to impress other men of his class.  His sister and brother are almost ruined by money.  And gradually he is seduced by money.  He admires the manner of the rich and upper-middle-class and starts to imitate them.  And his girlfriend, Emma, suddenly seems less desirable.  

Richard is not the only character, by any means, but he’s the one I admire the most.

I discovered Gissing years ago–I read The Odd Women because it was featured in Gail Godwin’s academic novel, The Odd Woman.  Gissing’s sympathetic portrait of working women interested me very much.   New Grub Street is semi-autobiographical:  about a writer who writes more and more quickly &  badly to make money so he can support a prostitute with whom he falls in love  I have tracked down several of his other novels, among them A Year of Jubilee, the story of Nancy Lord,eNew Woman, upper-class seduction, class snobbery, yellow journalism, and secret marriage, and The Nether World , an extremely depressing novel about the lower class and their struggle to do more than survive.

Demos is fairly fast-paced and picks up after the first 100 pages.  A good book to read on a hot day.

And ginger snaps are the snack for the day.  Remember ginger snaps?  I haven’t had them in years.

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We rode our bikes forty miles today.  It was hot, but not too hot.  It is a tradition to ride our bikes on my least favorite hilly trail every Memorial Day weekend.  We were prepared:  three bottles of water, which we replenished at a golf course drinking fountain, bananas, assorted reading material, and money for junk food. 

 All went reasonably well, considering I wanted to stay home and read George Gissing’s Demos.  I wasn’t sulky, but I was shortly  dehydrated.  Too much tea and too little water. My husband was energetic from the beginning, but I had to stop frequently for water and everybody passed us on the way out.  Disgrace.  But then everybody stopped at the popular bike bar (well, bicycle bar) and I HAD THE MOST DISGUSTING EXPERIENCE I’VE EVER HAD IN A CHEMICAL TOILET.  This high-traffic portajohn had not been cleaned all year.  But when you’ve got nowhere else to go you have to use the damned thing…  Usually the chemical toilets are well-maintained for bicyclists, but this is a very small town which doesn’t  even supply trash cans, so we also had to carry our trash out of town again.   

 I brought a rather crumpled paperback of Sebastian Faulks’ Engleby to read in the park on our break. I didn’t get much reading done, but it seems to be a mystery about a creepy college kid who takes a lot of drugs and has no social skills.  According to the cover blurb, Engleby may be involved with the murder of a girl with whom he is obsessed.  This is the kind of fiction that can be picked up and put down and picked up again and you lose yourself without losing the thread.  It’s better to read all at once, of course, but it’s a pretty good selection for a bicycling book. 

 Did i tell you about the squished banana incident?  My husband packed a banana in a bag with the books. The books were on top of the banana–the banana squished–and one of the books was ruined.  I guess I’m in charge of packing the food from now on.  What a mess!

After our junk food, I had a surge of energy.  Suddenly I was effortlessly riding uphill and passed a couple at least 20 years younger.  I don’t know what happened.  I attribute it to the junk food.  Floyd Landis, disqualified 2006 champion of the Tour de France, didn’t need drugs–just chips!

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The other day I noticed how many of the bloggers on my blogroll have tastes similar to mine.  We promote the English women’s presses Virago and Persephone, and though that is fine and good, I am brazenly American and irritated with myself for neglecting American small presses.  So here is a very short entry devoted to a few American small presses, which I have rated (cheeky of me, I know) on an A+-A- scale, entirely on the basis of my quirks.  

Please tell me about your favorite small presses in the comments.

 1.  Academy Chicago Publishers.  This diverse small press, based in Chicago, is the place to look for English reprints: they have reissued E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books, Monica Dicken’s comical autobiography, One Pair of Hands, and Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People Is Wrong.    The catalogue also offers eclectic American books ranging from the Charlie Chan mysteries to Dorothy Canfield’s The Homemaker.   

Trivia:  Nice, sturdy covers and paper that doesn’t yellow.

Personal criticism:  Hard to find in bookstores. 

 Grade:  A-

 2.  Bison Books.  This University of Nebraska Press imprint publishes out-of-print classics, ranging from midwestern writers Bess Streeter Aldrich (A Lantern in Her Hand reviewed at my old blog here) and Wright Morris (here) to western writer Mildred Walker to the English David Lindsay’s science fiction classic, A Voyage to Arcturus.  The University of Nebraska Press has a reputation for being one of the best in the nation.

 Personal criticism:  The covers aren’t the greatest, but no other criticism.

Trivia:  Available in independent bookstores.

 Grade: A+

 3.  Europa Editions.  Based in New York, Europa publishes European books in translation, but also some English novels by Jane Gardam and other superb writers.   Among the titles I most admire are Elsa Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, reviewed here, and Patrick Hamilton’s superb Hangover Square, a must-read novel by the author of Rope, the Alfred Hitchcock movie.

 Criticism:  too many  noir mysteries for my taste.

 Grade:  A

 4.  The Feminist Press.  Based in New York, this press publishes many different series:  Femmes Fatales, Contemporary Classics, Women Writing Africa, Women Writing Science, and more.  Among their fascinating titles are Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth, and Alice H. Cook’s A Lifetime of Labor.  An excellent place to find good women’s books in translation.

Question:  Why aren’t Virago readers reading these?

 Personal criticism:  The Feminist Press seems to have a PR problem.   Their books aren’t available in many bookstores, but of course there is always the internet.

Grade:  A-  

5.   Soft Skull Press.  This quirky independent publisher  has been called “the literary version of a punk rock label.” Known for edgy poetry, plays, fiction, politics/current events books, and memoir/biography, it’s a great place to discover new authors.  Their star author is  Lydia Millet, whose recent collection of stories was nominated for the National Book Award.  

Personal Criticism:  None.  Good books, though not always to my taste.

Grade:  A-

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Elena Ferrante’s beautifully-written novel, The Days of Abandonment, fell into my hands by mistake.  I originally bought the book because I mixed up Elena Ferrante with Elsa Morante, author of History:  A Novel.  Their styles, however, are very different,  and I was just musing about how much more diverting this witty but serious novel is than Morante’s  tragic, harrowing World War II novel when I suddenly noticed Ferrante was not Morante at all!   

This new women’s classic, translated by Lisa Goldstein, was first published in 2002 in Italy.  It is Kafkaesque, but crossed with the realism of Marilyn French and Doris Lessing.  It treats the feminist theme of a woman’s collapse after her marriage breaks up and her slow realization that she must live alone.  Yet it is much more than a traditional story of divorce:  the hours, days, and weeks are described with agony, spite, and humor in the strangely energetic voice of an enervated narrator.   The Days of Abandonment is the story of Olga, a housewife deserted by her husband without explanation.  Mario, an engineer, her husband of 15 years, had shown no signs of discontent.  They had been living happily ever after, as far as she was concerned, with two children and a dog.  Olga is mystified by his departure, and treats his desertion as a mystery.  

 “I spent the night thinking, desolate in the big double bed.  No matter how much I examined and reexamined the recent phases of our relationship, I could find no real signs of crisis.  I knew him well, I was aware that he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him. We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.”

It is impossible for Olga, or any woman whose husband suddenly moves out, to believe it is forever.   Olga is sure he will come back.  He hasn’t taken his things.  She fearfully remembers Gina, a past friend who had flirted with him,  and how Gina had coerced him into tutoring Carla, her daughter, so she could spend more time with him.  But that is long ago, and she is convinced his leaving is an aberration.  Yet she sinks into depression and slowly loses herself.  She can’t wash.  She can’t put on makeup. She can’t hold it together for her two children, who become unruly and disrespectful.  She stays up all night and writes letters to her husband she will never send instead of working on her book. And she can only clean the house when she knows Mario is coming over.  

When she finally discovers with whom Mario is living, she loses it.  She becomes violent:  she beats Mario, furious that he had gone for the nubile over the mature, and that this option was even available to him at 40. The violence is unacceptable, and yet he is such a shit that any woman over 38 (Olga’s age) and probably most men, too, cannot help but applaud.  Ferrante boldly makes it slightly funny, but it is very unsettling because this realistic behavior is taboo, especially in women.  (Yes, we know it’s wrong!) Olga rages over Mario’s perfidy after her depression.  The nature of his affair also breaks a taboo–and I’m more shocked by that than by the violence–but I’d better not reveal too much.

TThe Days of Abandonment is published by Europa Editions.  In Italy it was a best-seller, and, according to the book jacket, Ferrante has shunned publicity and kept her identity secret.

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This could be me--if I looked like this.

My husband recently visited his aged parent, who has morphed into a multiple-reader with several books going at once.  

“He goes to Amazon just like you,” he said.

A very thrifty guy, my spouse was incredulous.  This encounter had shattered his belief that the multiple-book-reading-habit was restricted to me, who spend every spare nickel on books and recycle Amazon-Abebooks-Alibris boxes secretly to avoid conflict.  

But every time he mentioned a book his father went up on the internet.  

 I hoped that his father’s shopping would make my practice more acceptable, but it doesn’t work like that.  

 The multiple-book obsession is much discussed on the internet. Often it’s condemned as a jittery modern thing that indicates internet users can’t commit to books. In an article in the Guardian last fall, Philip Roth was quoted by a journalist who quoted him from an interview with Tina Brown (can it get more complicated?) as saying that potential novel readers are turning to computers or to television.  He said, “If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.”

 Personally, I disagree.  I’d love to say I finish every novel in two weeks, but I don’t.  Anna Karenina–did that take a month?  Little Dorritt?  Don’t ask.  Even Dickens nods.

If I’m going to read George Gissing, Simone Weil, Simone de Beauvoir, Halldor Laxness, Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series (I have a few left), all the Europa Editions, all the NYBR books, the rest of the Viragos and Persephones, Bess Streeter Aldrich (one of my favorite writers), Edna Ferber (who’s suprisingly good), the rest of May Sinclair, Alain de Botton, Elena Ferrante, the rest of Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters, reread John Stuart Mill, H.D., Roger Hornsby’s Reading Latin Poetry, Plato, Propertius, Dickens, Monica Dickens, Dante, The Decameron, the Lucia books,Twilight, and learn Italian before I die, I have to budget my time.  

 Book bloggers often “multiple-read.” Many gossip about their addiction to books, record their impressions as they read, instead of waiting to review after they finish,  and list what they’re reading in attractive sidebars (if only I could figure out how to do that!).  Some admit that they can’t finish every book they begin.  I empathize:  there’s only a limited amount of time I can devote to Two Worlds and Their Ways, surely the worst of Ivy Compton-Burnett.  

Even Dovegreyreader (the most popular blogger ever?) recently admitted that she had to cut back.  

“So the pile of books I was supposed to be reading seemed to be self-multiplying and I was like a moth to a flame, dipping into everything that arrived and wanting to carry on with it immediately and in the end I had to give myself a very stern talking to.”

We all love to keep our book journals:  what we used to do in notebooks we now do online.  It’s impulsive, it’s frequent, and it’s a little kooky.  And some academic out there is doubtless tallying and categorizing our blogs as we write…

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Anthony Trollope’s Kept in the Dark has long been kept in the dark.  If you’ve read his well-beloved Barsetshire series and Palliser series, and love to spend time in the company of Mr. Trollope, you’ve probably moved on to his more obscure classics.  Among my favorites are The American Senator, Orley Farm,  John Caldigate, and The Way We Live Now.  You can download them free at Project Gutenberg, but since I prefer books, I managed luckily to find old paperbacks at the annual Charity Sale.  ($3 each!)

 Kept in the Dark is not one of his best. I enjoyed it very much, but it is probably for the mad Trollope fan. The atmosphere is early Henry James-ish, a kind of marriage problem novel, and the plot centers on a secret kept by a woman wounded by gossip about a past love affair.   The complicated, beautiful heroine, Cecilia, unwittingly chose a cruel, sadistic fiance, and broke off the wedding when she learned his true nature.  Sir Francis holds a grudge.  The king of bad PR, he spread a story implying that Cecilia was unchaste.  Cecilia, who does not speak of the engagement, cannot bear the gossip, so she and her mother go to Europe.   And there she meets George Western, an older, intense, unmemorable man who soon trusts her and tells her a story about being jilted by a young girl.  It happens that this  girl married Sir Francis’ cousin.  Cecilia finds the circumstances so awkward that she does not tell him her parallel story.  And the secret comes to haunt her after their marriage in an unexpected way.

In Trollope’s smooth, laid-back, sometimes humorous third-person omniscient narrative, we dip into the minds of different characters.    Most often we see Cecilia, but  we also see Geroge Western , Sir Francis, and Miss Altifiorla, Cecilia’s false friend, a satirized spinster-feminist (Henry James also satirizes spinster feminists), who often occupies center-stage.  Cecilia is madly in love with her husband (why, we’re not sure), but Miss Altifiorla blackmails Cecilia and threatens to tell George her “secret.” She refers to it as her “duty” to Mr. Western.  Actually she just wants to hurt Cecilia.

 “It is literally true that the tongue will itch with a desire to tell a secret.  Miss Altifiorla’s tongue did itch.  But upon the whole she endured her suffering, and kept her promise.  She did not say a word in Mr. Western’s hearing which led to Sir Francis Geraldine as a topic of conversation.  But in reward for this she exacted from Mrs. Western an undertaking to keep her at Durton Lodge for a fortnight.”

 The jealous Miss Altifioria and Sir Francis plot together to ruin Cecilia, and very nearly do so.  When George Western discovers the secret of her past engagement to Sir Francis, who has a terrible reputation, he rages beyond reason and believes the worst of her.  He will not hear Cecilia’s side of the story before he deserts her.  

 Poor Cecilia!  Marriage is not a happy state for her. But Cecilia is a complicated person.  The connivings of villains, parallel heartbreaks of Cecilia and her husband, and mediations of outsiders make this an intriguing, if very short book. My Penguin has enormous print and is double-spaced.  

An enjoyable book.  I’m always happy to go Victorian.

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