Archive for June, 2010

Sometimes I despair over the sheer staggering number of new books. There’s so much to keep up with, but so little worth keeping up with, as a friend and I giggling agreed a decade ago, unsure if it were middle age (probably) or corporate takeovers that had dimmed our admiration. But fortunately there are still writers like Richard Flanagan.  His 2008 novel, Wanting, is a masterpiece.

In this stunning literary novel, Flanagan draws parallels between Dickens’ sentimentalization of family, the 19th-century British genocide of Aborigines on the penal island of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the adoption of a seven-year-old Aboriginal girl by Sir John Franklin, a governor of Tasmania and Polar explorer, and his wife, Lady Jane, and Arctic expeditions.  

When years after their return to England, Lady Jane contacts Dickens to save her husband’s reputation, the connection between England and Van Diemen’s Land seems remote.  Sir John, who had departed with two ships on an Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage, never returned, and Lady Jane refused to believe he was dead.  But when a newspaper claimed that the mutilated remains found by Eskimaux indicated cannibalism among the last survivors of the expedition, Lady Jane asked Dickens to write an article denying the accusation.  And Dickens became so wrapped up in his own fantasy of the Arctic explorers that not only did he refute the charges by a savage people (the article is now deemed racist)  but co-wrote a play about Arctic explorers with Wilkie Collins, “The Frozen Deep”–and this led to his obsession with a teenage actress, Ellen Ternan.

Dickens’ unhappiness with his English family and obsession with the Arctic mirror Sir John’s greater unhappiness in Van Diemen’s Land and obsession with the Arctic.  Both men  are constrained by Victorian double standards; both love the idea of exploring frozen land (perhaps so they won’t feel). But the tragedy in Van Diemen’s Land, which Lady Jane tries to deny, is the real cause of the destruction of Sir John’s reputation.  And Dickens’ passion for Ellen Ternan, Flanagan also implies, will do no good.

Flanagan’s Mathinna, the bright, lively Aboriginal girl, is inevitably ruined by the consequences of the Franklins’ adoption, and is one of the most vivid characters.  This is an extremely sad part of the novel–in the shadow of the British empire’s genocide, human beings are picked up and then thrown away like trash.

Flanagan is a poetic, lucid writer whose brief narrative is layered with subtexts and verbal arabesques.

Another great Australian writer!

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 The word “best” is not in my vocabulary.  What is the best book of the summer? Who is the best blogger or book reviewer?  Is there any such thing or animal? Doesn’t the best change every week or so?  Yes, because my best/favorite book of last year was–well, I don’t even remember.  And as for bloggers–don’t I like all of them on my blogroll nd many more?  And how about book reviewers?  Goodness, do I even know their names?  (Sometimes.)

While it’s difficult to identify the “best,” it’s lots of fun to make lists.  And it’s easier to rate “influential” than “best.”  So here is my list of the best, i.e., most influential of the moment, of the “B’s” above, and some other ephemera as well.  Have fun!

1.  What is the best new book of the summer? Private Life by Jane Smiley. In Smiley’s graceful new novel, she relates the story of Margaret Mayfield, a woman resigned to spinsterhood until she marries an eccentric scientist, Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early. Set in post-Civil War Missouri, extending through the beginning of World War II in California, this historical novel chronicles a woman’s unexpected marriage to a nutty anti-Einstein professor and her turning a wasted personal life into a rich one.

2.  What is the best old book of the summer?  David Copperfield.  

3.  Are you more influenced by book reviewers or bloggers?  I would have to say book reviewers.  Although I love to peruse blogs, I often read bloggers whose taste differs from mine. I’m always on the look-out for someone amusing or impassioned about books.

4.  What book review publication influences you the most?  The Washington Post.  The star critics, Michael Dirda, Ron Charles, and Carolyn See, have integrity and often introduce me to books  that other newspapers don’t review or review much later.  There’s no obsequiousness here.

5.  What blog influences you the most?  Uh–this would be hard to say.  I very much like all the blogs on my blogroll.  As for influence?  Why don’t we say American Fiction Notes.  Now this isn’t true, because I’ve bought no books recommended by it.  It’s simply the newest I’ve added to my blogroll.  My favorite long-time influential blogs are Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two,
Vintage ReadsTony’s Book World and  But all of the blogs on my blogroll are the “best.”

6.  What was the last book you bought on the recommendation of a book reviewer?  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, reviewed by James Wood in The New Yorker.  It’s available in paperback, a Penguin Original.  

7.  What was the last book you bought on the recommendation of a blogger?  Uh, that would have to be Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood.   I haven’t read it yet, but I love Cold Comfort Farm and had to have this immediately (from England!) in 2009.  It is now available in an American edition, so I was silly.  Bloggers who reviewed it? The English crew!  Vintage Reads, Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, Dovegreyreader, Stuck in a Book…  

8.  Latest book you found browsing?  Well, one of the last.  Janet McNeill’s The Other Side od the Wall .  She wrote Tea at Four O’Clock, a Virago title, so I thought it was worth checking out of the library.  

9.  Best “brand-name” publisher?  I went through a stage where I believed certain publishers were my soulmates.  Yes, I read every Virago, Persephone, and NYRB book with the absurd idea that every book they published would suit my taste.  Then finally I realized that, like all good publishers,  they are diverse and not necessarily aiming all books at the audience of me.  Isn’t that what good publishers do?

Invitation:   Feel free to add your own comments.  I love others’ bests!

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Did you think Genre Week would never end?  I was relieved to return to Our Mutual Friend. Although this is a very dark novel, a complete change from David Copperfield, Dickens’ prose races along at a very fast clip, and as usual he paints larger-than-life characters.  The plot revolves around the initial chilling event, the discovery of a dead body in the Thames.  In some ways, Our Mutual Friend is a mystery that spirals out from this point.  It reflects Dickens’ obsession with money, class, injustice, and the exploitation of the poor, and also is based on his own explorations of unsavory neighborhoods andv visits to morgues, often  undertaken with his friend, Wilkie Collins.  Dickens was in many ways a journalist:  he did his own research.  But he also frequently alludes to Mayhew’s fascinating social history, based on interviews, London Labor and the London Poor.  (Mayhew was a kind of Studs Terkel.)

The novel begins with a murder, or rather with a hardened waterman, Jesse Hexam, and his sensitive, beautiful  daughter, Lizzie, towing a dead body to shore.  This is Hexam’s livelihood:  dredging articles out of the Thames, with the odd corpse just one of the findings.  The body is ascertained to be John Harmon, the heir of a rich dustman, and John’s murder causes a chain reaction in the form of a series of events that affect the lives of all the characters.

Many of the characters in Our Mutual Friend are predators; caricatures, to be sure, but still frightening.  Many wish to prey on Mr. and Mrs. Boffin, two naive, thoroughly good-hearted working people who happen to inherit the fortune of the miserly Dustman after John Harmon’s death.  Weggs, a stall-holder, is hired to “decline and fall”–to read aloud The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire every evening, because Mr. Boffins wants an education.  Mr. Boffin starts to enjoy the book about the time they get to “Bully Sawyer” (Belisarius, a great general of Justinian).  But Wegg has his own agenda, as we will see.

Who is Rokesmith, the man who mysteriously offers to be secretary of Mr. Boffin?  Why does he live with the family of Bella, the young woman  to whom John Harmon had been betrothed?  Why is he so generous to the Boffins?  

Why does Roger Riderhood accuse his old partner, Jesse Hexam, of killing John Harmon?

 The heroines are a mix of good and bad, but seem more realistic and are more complicated than, say, the women of Little Dorritt.  Bella, the beautiful daughter of a clerk, is initially arrogant, egotistical, and unpleasant.  She is only too glad to take advantage of the Boffins when they gallantly offer to take her home with them, since the money would have been hers had  John Harmon not been murdered.  On the other hand,  Lizzie Hexam is a thoroughly sweet, but not saccharine,  mature heroine, who secretly sends

Keeley Hawes as Lizzie Hexam


her brother to school to get him out of the dredgers’ ghetto.  Eventually she goes to work as a seamstress and lodges with a young, spunky, saucy invalid girl, “the dolls’ dressmaker,” who makes her living sewing for children’s dolls, and in the evenings takes care of her own “bad child,” her alcoholic father, when he comes home from work drunk.

Well, more on all this, obviously, later.

We travel a long distance to ride on trails lately, because the trails in town are flooded.  The flood is supposed to peak tomorrow. But here’s a photo of some flooding we saw yesterday, on an unflooded trail, so you’ll see what’s probably in store.



Here’s a photo of cows:  not all is terrible.

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The Library

It was a perfect day to visit the library.  There’s something so cool and calming about university libraries.  No one was there. It’s summer school and no one spends the weekends in the library. They’re all at the British Fest (fish and chips?), the Arts Fest, the Saturday Rock Fest, and the Renaissance Faire.  The air conditioning was blasting and I thought seriously about living there for the next few days.

At the library, after climbing four flights of stairs, I started in the “M’s” of the British contemporary lit section. I can only fit four books in a backpack, so I select a stack quickly, then sit down in a chair and read bits and pieces and discard some.  Last time I made some bum choices:  a novel by A. A. Milne, much praised by bloggers, which I couldn’t read; E. M. Benson’s dreadful novel, An Autumn Sowing, which I did read for some reason; and something by Rose Macaulay, one of my favorite middlebrow writers, which I didn’t finish.  Usually I do well with British novels, but this was discouraging.

“Be careful this time,” I thought.

So I went more contemporary.  Here are the four books I chose:

1.  Pilcrow by Adam Mars Jones, a 2008 bildungsroman I vaguely remember seeing reviewed in British newspapers.  According to the Independent, it “is a coming-of-age story in the most protracted sense of the term. Its narrator progresses from birth to 16 during the course of the narrative, at which point the book simply stops. There’s been the odd pre-publication rumour that this is the first of a series, but no official line on the matter: the upshot is that one reads this densely elaborated fictional autobiography with a sense of mounting bafflement, waiting for something to happen to justify its existence.”

The Independent and the Guardian were very critical, comparing it to Proust, but in a sneery way.  But the first couple of pages look pretty good so we’ll see! I don’t always agree with the critics.

2.  Tiberius by Allan Massie.  Yes, everybody knows I was a classics major.  Allan Massie, a writer of historical novels, is a book reviewer/columnist for The Spectator, and I like his fondness for obscure novels such as George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career.  Massie’s Tiberius, judging from the first chapter, is not unlike Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.   Both are fictional autobiographies of  emperors; Tiberius has always managed to be decadent and somehow boring at the same time, so we’ll see Massie’s take on him.  

3.  The Other Side of the Wall by Janet McNeill. I read her novel, Tea at Four O’Clock, in a Virago edition and very much enjoyed it.  Now Viragos are not a guarantee, but I thought I’d take a chance.

4.  Excession by Iain M. Banks.  I have heard good things about Banks and stumbled upon this by chance.  We’ll see.

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Genre Week was going fine.  I was enjoying Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, readng in front of the fan and drinking tea with lemon verbena, and then I attempted a literary historical novel and was gobsmacked by the sheer badness of The Lacuna. Barbara Kingsolver is America’s pop leftist golden girl, though, so my dislike of her Orange Prize winner will hardly make a glitch in the system.  Her book is Amazon bestseller # 270! 

But I did the sensible thing.  I turned to Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave to fill my historical novel slot.  
I love Mary Stewart.  I was raised on her romantic suspense novels and found her Arthurian saga surprisingly good when I read it years ago.  It was my plan to carry The Crystal Cave in my bike panniers this summer and read it on bicycling breaks.  It fit perfectly into Genre Week.

 Oh, it’s so good!  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed The Crystal Cave.  Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which consists of The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, are her brilliant version of the King Arthur story from Merlin’s point of view, set in fifth-century Britain.  The novels are narrated by Merlin, who is an articulate, politically astute man with “the sight,” rather than a magician, and who interprets the god who speaks through him to change history and eventually help Arthur unite Britain. The first novel spans Merlin’s childhood and youth up till he is 22.  During his solitary childhood, when he is mocked as the bastard son of a Welsh princess who has refused to reveal the name of Merlin’s father, he makes a loyal friend of a servant, Cerdic,  and of Galapas, a hermit who lives in a cave and teaches him botany, meditation, healing, & magic.   

After his servant accidentally spills grease from a lamp and Merlin’s grandfather slips and dies, Merlin is an outlaw, wary of his uncle, who plans to kill him.  He encounters Ambrosius, a wise contender for the rule of all Britain, and becomes first a favored member of the household and then one of his men.  And Merlin finds out his father–a dazzling secret.  He attends rites for Mithras, as well as Christian rites, manages to solve the mystery of the Standing Stones through mathematics, and plots impossible political deeds made to look like magic.

 It really does seem there was a kind of King Arthur theme mania when I was growing up.  I’ve read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Finovar Tapestry. Not to mention seeing the movies Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Sword in the Stone, and Excalibur!  I wonder if there’s still this Arthurian fandom or if it’s been replaced by Twilight.

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I decided to read a genre book a day after my epic finish of David Copperfield on the road between X City and the bike trail.  I won’t read any classics for a week, I thought. I’ll swear off Dickens.  I’m going to read beach books like everybody else.  But I keep sneaking in bits of Our Mutual Friend, which is so spellbinding I’ve decided it must count as a thriller-comedy.  

 But the discipline of beach books! We’re told to read them, and so we read them.   Anyway, so long as I stuck to mysteries I was getting through one a day: no problem. Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent, one of her brilliant theater mysteries, was my second Marsh read of the week.  Mysteries are the perfect length, 250 pages or so, and now I understand the charm of the fast detective story finish, the addiction of many friends and ex-office-mates.  You leave work, stock up on mysteries at the library, flop down on the couch at home, and read your way through an Alleyn mystery or a Miss Marple or a Stephanie Plum in less than 24 hours.  (Our Mutual Friend, which is certainly mysterious, takes considerably longer.)  And then you go back to the library and check out a new bunch.

Frida Kahlo, one of the stars of Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna.

But I can’t read nothing but mysteries.  I need variety.  So I decided to return to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, the Orange Prize-winning historical novel.  It’s a genre book.  How ironic that Kingsolver won the Orange Prize for a well-researched, wildly uneven genre book instead of one of her literary novels, The Poisonwood Bible or Prodigal Summer.  She really won the Orange Prize for her past books–anyone can see that!

This has been the year of the well-researched historical novel:  Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with three wins and The Lacuna with one.  First Mantel’s Wolf Hall beat Byatt’s masterpiece The Children’s Book for the Booker Prize, much to my amazement. I began Wolf Hall and didn’t even think it was well-written.   Then Mantel’s book beat Jayne Anne Phillips’ exquisite novel, Lark & Termite, for the National Book Critics Circle Award (yes, I know.  The set-up stinks.  Somebody’s a little too impressed with research; a little too unimpressed with literary masterpieces).  mantel’s book also won the Walter Scott Award.  Thank God Kingsolver beat Mantel for the Orange Prize, because frankly it’s unfair to pretend only one good book had been published in one year.

 So here are my thoughts on The Lacuna:  sadly, it’s a very static novel.  Told in the form of a diary by Harrison Shepherd, Kingsolver’s fictional half Mexican, half American writer, it never really takes off.  Kingsolver sketches little vignettes in the diary, then never develops them into scenes.  It is as if she is too awed by her historical characters, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky among them, to subordinate them to a plot.  Through a series of coincidences, Harrison, once grown up, ends up in 1930s Mexico City, the cook for Frida and Diego.  Kingsolver stunningly portrays the vibrant Frida as an honest, passionate, political artist who insists on throwing parties that are artistic events, stirs up the servants into turmoil as she demands impossibly perfect meals in a tiny kitchen, a woman in constant pain who is frequently hospitalized for kidney stones, back problems, and eye infections  and whose paintings–one depicting a blood-covered murder victim–terrify and repulse the unwary, who assume Rivera’s murals are better.  in his diary, Harrison writes about cooking for a party and describes Frida’s wit and sultry temperament–but then what happens at the party?  Who knows?  We are told Frida has political friends, but learn little about them, even when Trotsky moves in with them.  Then the novel is all about bricking up windows and hiding him from the press.  But there’s little drama.

 So I’ve read 200 pages and, alas, though there’s some beautiful writing, I can’t keep reading these vignettes that lead nowhere.  The Orange Prize folks must have decided the award MUST go to a historical novel.  Well, ok. I haven’t read the others so I can’t judge.  But I CAN judge Kingsolver, since I’ve read ALL of her other books.  I’m happy she won the award–I hope her next book will be better.

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I love literary societies and occasionally yearn for the big city, where branches of the Jane Austen Society and the Dickens Fellowship flourish.   I could meet other enthusiasts and discuss Northanger Abbey or Our Mutual Friend over stewed tea and crisp cookies.  Of course, the one time I attended a Jane Austen Society meeting I found it really embarrassing. I scrambled out of there as quickly as possible, after sitting around for two hours reading aloud a play of Pride and Prejudice.   Found my own chapter?  I don’t think so. But when I was at Borders today, I almost said something about a Dickens Society. Both men and women love Dickens.  If I had to read the damned play of Nicholas Nickleby aloud, I’d do it.  It might even be fun. 

Borders is dying.  There are more employees than there are customers. They don’t need a new e-book reader–how can they compete with B&N ?–but new ways of luring customers into the store.  They need knitting groups, quilting bees, play-reading groups, & literary societies.  Maybe a combined Jane Austen AND Dickens Society!  

The Borders employees are trying really hard.  Today, when I bought a copy of Guy Gavriel’s Kay’s new book, Under Heaven (reviewed in The Washington Post), two employees talked about it with me.  Or rather they talked about Kay.  It’s a pity I don’t go there more often. Today I went in because of a coupon.  Both Borders and B&N seem to have cut back on coupons.

Perhaps Borders could host midwestern literary societies.

I do belong to the Ruth Suckow Memorial Society. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, Suckow  chronicled life in midwestern small towns in her simple novels, comparable to Willa Cather’s, which were popular in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.  My favorites are New Hope and The Folks.

So I paid my $15 membership dues to the Ruth Suckow folks last year and waited…and got nothing.  I e-mailed to see if they had received my check.  They had.  Then silence.  I knew they had an annual meeting every summer.  On the Saturday of the annual meeting this month, I finally received the e-mail with the details about the book discussion and the menu for the lunch.  A little late!

I then received an apology from the president, who apparently used last year’s e-mail list instead of this year’s.  And I don’t want to make a big thing about it.  I can pay $2.50 for a Ruth Suckow bookmark or $8 for a t-shirt.  But it doesn’t quite replace the annual meeting experience.

Maybe Borders could rustle up some Ruth Suckow enthusiasts.

The Willa Cather  Foundation, which maintains Cather’s beautiful home and other historical buildings in her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, publishes a glossy Newsletter & Review three times a year.  It arrived in the mail today and, as usual, I am fascinated by its eclecticism.  The lead article, “Not Stories at All, But Life Itself,”  is an essay by Frank T. Griswold, the presiding Bishop of the Episcopal  Church, on his encounters with Cather’s writing.  His reading of Death Comes for the Archbishop when he was in high school influenced his choice to go to seminary.  He also writes about two of my favorites, The Professor’s House and Lucy Gayheart.

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