Archive for July, 2010


I say I don’t read enough contemporary fiction. Why I say it I don’t know. Didn’t I read enough new books in my  20s and 30s?  Didn’t I review for newspapers and little magazines? And haven’t I read the latest John Banville, Ian McEwan, and Connie Willis anyway?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But I was a little dismayed when I looked over my 2010 book journal and discovered I’ve read only 20 new books,  a small percentage of the number of books I’ve read.  As a chronic book buyer, I used to joke that I supported the industry. But now I’m supporting the publishers’ backlists rather than new writers, which is important but perhaps not enough.

So I decided I would try to read one new book a week (often from the library, I’m afraid, because my budget is slanted toward some other necessities this year). I’m still a woman of my time, despite my addiction to the classics, and it’s important to know what’s out there, good or bad. 


I just started Hilary Thayer Hamann’s  Anthropology of an American Girl. I’m already enjoying the mood of this delicate, well-written novel, set in the ’70s and ’80s, which follows the narrator Eveline Auerbach, an artist,  from her high school years in East Hampton through her early adulthood in  Manhattan.

Hamann self-published this novel in 2003 and then sold it to Spiegel & Grau, which published it in May.  She ran a design and print company, Vernacular Press, and a gallery in Soho,  published 5,000 copies of the beautiful book, sent it to reviewers, and sold out the print run.  

She told Publishers Weekly, “By 2007, I was exhausted, overinvested emotionally and financially.   That’s when we shut Vernacular, and I sent out the manuscript again.”

What a fascinating story! 

I’ll be checking in later with my reflections on this book.

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Tourists on the Maid of the Mist

We honeymooned at Niagara Falls–well, sort of.  We made a day trip to Niagara Falls, in the spirit of mythic honeymooners of the past, because we had just gotten married by a Justice of the Peace and were in a light-hearted mood.  Why not ride the Maid of the Mist?  I had never done it.  And it was such a fun experience, wearing the blue raincoats issued to the passengers, studying the magnificent view of the falls from the boat,  tourists from other countires all around us, the mist from the falls spraying our faces.

No wonder I couldn’t resist Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day the Falls Stood Still.  Once I started reading this elegant Canadian novel, I couldn’t stop.  Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, it tells the story of Bess Heath, a young woman whose life changes when her father loses his job as director of the Niagara Power Company.  Yanked out of school at the end of her junior year at Loretto Academy, she returns home to find her father a drunkard, her older sister Isabel bedridden and anorexic after a broken engagement, and her mother working day and night as a dressmaker.

Bess, who now sews and does housework, finally coaxes Isabel to sit outside in the garden while Bess reads aloud.  Day after day it is the same routine.  Life is made worthwhile by a chance acquaintance with Tom Cole, a riverman whose grandfather had been a local hero, saved many people from drowning, and hauled bodies from the river. Tom himself is based loosely on the historical character William “Red” Hill (1888-1942), said to predict the weather by listening to the falls.  Like Red, Tom also rescues people and drags bodies out of the river.   Bess temporarily breaks off their friendship when she discovers that he is not just a fisherman.  She doesn’t understand until a personal tragedy that his hauling the bodies for a pittance has value for the family.  

This beautifully-written historical novel has a strong environmental slant.  The power companies started to leech water from the falls in the early 20th century, and Tom protests the magnates’ pushing of electricity.  He insists that their advertisements for electricity are creating a hyperbolic need among housewives but Bess  has a more practical view:  she knows electricity is a timesaver.  She comes to side with Tom later when, ironically, he has to work at the Power Company after World War I, does research on the effect of power stations on the falls,  and is divided more and more.  

Buchanan has a muted but poetic style. In this brilliant novel, she ingeniously interweaves fictional newspaper articles about the Falls, Tom’s grandfather, and Tom with the fascinating narrative.   Raised in Niagara Falls, Buchanan knows the beauty of the falls and the attraction of its gorgeous perils to stunters who underestimate the power and lose their lives. She also knows the power plants’ devastation of the falls.  In the Author’s Note, she tells us:  “…the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty is still in use today.  With the drastically more lenient diversion limits set out in that treaty, the water plummeting over the Horseshoe and American falls now amounts to about 50 percent of the natural flow during the daylight hours of the tourist season and 25 percent otherwise.”  This is one of the most moving novels I’ve read this year.  I loved it!

I’d love to see the falls again.  They are beautiful.  Here’s a picture of me long ago, outdoorsy as ever en route to the falls (at a reststop?).

Here’s another picture we took of the falls.

The Canadian side is less touristy than the American side–at least last time I was there.  The American side is also gorgeous, and that’s where I embarked on the Maid of the Mist.

If you’re interested in Niagara Falls, you might also enjoy Joyce Carol Oates’ The Falls and the 1950s movie, Niagara, a murder mystery with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton.

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Every year the UK bloggers go wild for the Booker longlist.  I LOVE this time of year!  Literary prizes are always fun, but the Booker is fascinating even to Americans. Thirteen books on the longlist in July!  Winnowed down to six in September!  I must admit, I don’t always like the winners, but I love checking out the authors on the longlist.  Usually I find at least one or two exceptional books. 

With the exception of last year.  Wow, what a bad year for literature!  Captain Nemo and I read four of the longlisted titles in 2009–or at least 100 pages of each of the the two we disliked–and rejected Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness.  Me, Cheeta was a breath of fresh air after those two.  But A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which made the shortlist, is one of her best novels.  We were rooting for it.

We didn’t read the winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.  What American could possibly be interested? No one in my family finished it.  I got through 20 pages. Even the family historian gave up.  And Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air critic,  said in an interview about the best books of 2009 that she didn’t finish it, either.

So the British went wild for something we frankly couldn’t read.  

A surprising number on this year’s longlist are available at the library.  I don’t read as much contemporary literature as I used to, but am always happy to be steered toward one or two good new  books.  (Can’t read the whole longlist, though.)

But, more important, will the UK bloggers continue to read the whole list?  Or are they fed up?  

 dovegreyreader said she might not read the longlist.  Oh my God, was she put off by last year’s list?  We rely on her to review them good-humoredly, sometimes dropping a book she doesn’t like.  But I suppose she may be tired of doing the same thing year after year. 

Other Stories says:  “There are some that I’ve been meaning to read for a while (Skippy Dies;The Long SongTrespass) and no doubt I’ll fancy one or more of the books I’m not familiar with. However, I’ve decided that list-ticking isn’t for me, so I won’t be embarking on any sort of Bookerthon this time around. I have enough to contend with! I will be keeping my ear to the ground, though, and will be interested in what everyone else has to say about the list.”

Many other UK bloggers, however, will read the whole list.  I checked on Google Blog Search. Kevin from Canada and Farm Lane Books say they’ll read it.  And of course there are more.

Anyway, the Booker longlist has been published elsewhere, but I’ve copied it for you:

“Parrot and Olivier in America” by Peter Carey 

“Room” by Emma Donoghue (coming in September)

“The Betrayal” by Helen Dunmore (not yet available)

“In a Strange Room” by Damon Galgut

“The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson (not yet available)

“The Long Song” by Andrea Levy

“C” by Tom McCarthy (coming in September)

“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ” by David Mitchell 

“February” by Lisa Moore  

“Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray (coming in August)

“Trespass” by Rose Tremain (coming in October)

“The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas  

“The Stars in the Bright Sky” by Alan Warner

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I found Janet Kauffman’s Collaborators at a sale for $1 (bookwise, this is a very good place to live).  A friend had recommended it repeatedly.  

She even lent me her copy.  “Have you read it yet?” she kept saying.  

I gave it back unread. Like many of us, I am interested in so many books that it’s hard to fit in all the recommendations.

Now I’ve finally read this luminous novel, published in 1986, and am sorry I waited so long.  This gracefully-rendered story of the relationship between an unconventional Mennonite mother and her daughter is as elegant as a prose poem.   The spare, rhythmical prose (it seems scannable!) does have a kind of ’80s feeling:  it reminds me of the style of other minimalist writers, but her perfect choice of words is unique. 

The narrator, Andrea Doria, called Dovie, has mixed feelings about her mother.   Dovie sketches childhood memories of her fascination with this strong, obstinate, intense woman:  of the words her mother loves scratched in the tobacco dust (they are tobacco farmers); of her swimming fearlessly in the ocean; telling Dovie never to buy from a salesman; and touting her belief that God had nothing to do with the world.

The strong swimming in the sea is typical of the mother, who also frequently volunteers with other Mennonites in disaster areas.

“…my mother’s shoulders are fleshed and rounded, the firm shoulders of a swimmer; and, for this, she is a scandal at family reunions when my Mennonite cousins and aunts sit on the edge of the pool at the Bucks County Park, their prayer caps rucked under strapped white rubber swim caps.  With her feet in the water, my mother takes the shape of a hometown mermaid, a renegade one–no dreamer–with short blond hair. “

She also confides in Dovie about love and sex, saying she has had sex with a grandfather, father, and son.  

This is astonishing:  we see the mother at her freest, most rebellious, and occasionally startling.  

The mother’s letters from her friend, Ruth, are among the most influential in her life and keep her mind alive.  Ruth escaped from the Mennonite life-style when she finished high school.  

When her mother has a stroke,  her personality changes entirely.  She loses her originality. The letters from Ruth, which keep coming, now mean nothing to her.  She even recommends that Dovie go out for cheerleading.

How Dovie deals with this change is a great part of the novel.

It’s an absolutely beautiful book.  I should go back and read this novel as a poem.  There are many different threads, and I  suspect there is  a lot of religious symbolism:  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? There is the paradox of the beauty of the tobacco and its uselessness; and the farm is located next to a penitentiary.  Prisoners work for them.

There is so much here!  

The book is out-of-print, but the Graywolf Press edition seems widely available.  Mine is a Penguin.  And then of course there is always interlibrary loan…

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My short story mentor, an enthusiastic leader of a book group on AOL, believed the short story was the most demanding and elegant of literary forms.  He insisted that we read The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories every year (this is how I know so much about T. C. Boyle and Alice Munro).   But though he was devoted to contemporary fiction, he was also very keen on classics.  I’ve lost touch with him since I left AOL, but am sure he would be proud of me for reading Guy de Maupassant’s On Horseback and Other Stories.  Yes, especially since I was supposed to read de Maupassant’s most famous story, “Boule de Suif” (“Ball of Fat”), for our group.  I rather think I did read it, but remember nothing about it.

Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), a prodigy of Flaubert and Zola, wrote over 340 stories.  The six entertaining stories collected in On Horseback and Other Stories are a perfect place to start.   The tone and voice of the stories range from the comic to the tragic, from the everyday to the shocking, from realistic to the supernatural.   And often these disparate effects are all mixed up.

My favorite story, “The Necklace,” is a rather sinister riff on “Cinderella.”  A beautiful young woman, Mathilde, longs above all to be rich. While her husband, a civil servant, is delighted with their modest evening stew, she thinks of “dainty dinners, of  glittering silverware, of tapestry that peopled the walls with mythical personages and with strange birds flitting in a fairy forest…” She cannot bear to visit a rich friend anymore because she is so jealous.  When finally her husband gets an invitation to the palace of the Ministry, she refuses to go unless she can have a new dress.  She spends her husband’s hunting money on the dress (well, that seems okay to me!).  But then she must have jewels. And after she borrows a diamond necklace from her rich friend, she is satisfied, and really is the belle of the ball.  But then something dark happens…I mean really dark.  

“The Horla” is positively Dostoevskyan, the partly humorous, partly sad diary of a man who is losing his mind.  He hallucinates, believes that some newly evolved post-human being form has taken over his life, notices his milk and water glass are empty every morning, and can escape this other’s terrifying possession only when he leaves home.  I’ll say no more about what happens.

In  the rambling comic story, “Madame Tellier’s Establishment,” the owner of a well-run house of prostitution takes a day off with her employees to attend her goddaughter’s first communion.  Her customers are furious and baffled when they knock on the door and see the incomprehensible sign, “Closed for first communion,” and violence breaks out.  But Madame Tellier and her girls are already traveling by train to her brother’s village, and on the journey meet a raucous, witty man who alternately entertains them by kissing a peasant’s ducks and insults them by recognizing their bright clothes as a sign of their profession.  In the village, however, they are treated like royalty, because the bright clothes signify wealth to the peasants, not prostitution.  Ironically they are ushered into the front row of the church.  But when one of the women starts remembering her own first communion, the emotion spreads like a plague, and…but I can’t reveal it.  There’s almost something South American about this story:  did Gabriel Garcia Marquez read it?

Anyway, they’re very good stories, usually compared to Chekhov, but I was also thinking of Dostoevsky and Turgenev.

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According to the Virago Books website, Pamela Frankau’s The Willow Cabin, A Wreath for the Enemy, and The Winged Horse are back in print. I made a point of buying these novels some years ago  (well, at the beginning of this century) and am very pleased they’re more widely available now.  Frankau (1908-1967) is one of those lost writers whose books I read with enthusiasm when I got my first adult library card. I was bringing home an amazing collection of books, chosen at random: Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (I can only suppose I thought this was about toys), Shena Mackay’s Old Crow,  and the novels of Pamela Frankau.  Although all of these books are available at a university library two hours away, my public library has none of them.  And–though this makes me sound cranky–I do believe these stylish, lively writers could influence readers in a good way:  their style is more individualistic, fuller, and more varied than that of the millions who have been taught that identical pared-down prose is good writing.  A teacher of mine–a writer–once told me he could tell which manuscripts were written on computer and which on typewriter.  It’s not that I suggest we go back to the pre-computer age, but we all know what he means.

Pamela Frankau


Frankau’s Sing for Your Supper, the first in a trilogy, Clothes of a King’s Son, is a vivid, compelling, beautifully written novel.  Set in 1926, it begins and ends with Blanche Briggs, called Brigstock, a middle-aged nanny who is needed only in summers now.  Briggs’ life still revolves around the itinerant Weston children, who follow their father, Philip, the director of a troupe of Pierrots, to a different boarding house in a different seaside town every summer.   

The three children are more sophisticated than most of their peers, because of their roving theater background.  Gerald, a charming, urbane 16-year-old, who rarely acts boyish, banters with Brigstock and tries to hide his obsession with saving money (obviously traced back to his father’s poverty).  Fourteen-year-old Sarah, an imaginative, witty girl, temporarily the product of a girls’ school, develops a crush on Shirley Ormonde, one of the actresses in the troupe.  Entranced by her own  reflection, Sarah daydreams about herself in the third person, as though she is the heroine of a romantic novel.

“That’s the girl I want for the part,” said the great actor to the great actress, “that girl over there, do you see?  Wait till you hear her read.  Voice like a cello.  She could be another Meggie Albanesi.”

The youngest, Thomas, age 10, is kind, absent-minded, and easy-going,.  But he is the champion of the weak, the sad, and the abandoned, and can be pushed to fury when they are attacked.  He is also psychic, like his grandmother.  This is a talent ignored by his family, who like to think it is simply “tricks.”  When he shows up a magician at the Moonrakers’ show, the magician knows Thomas’s magic is for real.

In the following paragraph, Frankau deftly describes the writerly Sarah’s perceptions of the three children’s differences. 

“She can see how maddening it is when Thomas does that, thought Sarah; now he doesn’t bawl any more, she takes his side.  The thought of Thomas bawling led to the Moonrakers because of the fat, jelly-wobbling Pierette called Maisie Something who had made them choke with giggles at Eastbourne three summers ago.  They had behaved quite badly and Thomas had bawled afterwards and kicked Gerald and said, ‘I liked her the best’ all the way home.  He was only seven; it was the first time he had seen the show.  (Not the Moonrakers, then, of course:  not their father’s own company, but Philip Adair had written many of the songs; old numbers from Hi Jinks or The Gay Cavaliers were still inclined to show up in the Moonrakers program.  By special request, Philip Adair will sing…)”

It’s a fascinating novel–not exactly a theater novel–but it centers on the children, who grow up early because of their experiences, connections to the theater,  and knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes.  Philip, their father, is also a fascinating character, doomed to be unsuccessful, but suddenly come into money–and the secret reason introduces some other unusual characters.

Next up:  Slaves of the Lamp, set 10 years later, when the children are grown up, the second in the trilogy.  After rereading SOTL last winter, I decided to go back and reread the books in order.  It certainly enhances the pleasure!

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Capuchin Classics

Last year I became obsessed with Capuchin Classics.  This small English press, which bills itself as a  publisher of “Books to keep alive,” has quite an eclectic catalogue–and to readers of neglected out-of-print books, this is a godsend.   Sometimes they reprint famous classics like Wuthering Heights; other times they publish forgotten novels, like Micahel Arlen’s The Green Hat or Julian Mitchell’s The Undiscovered Country.  

It occurred to me the other day, while I was discussing Capuchins in an e-mail, that I haven’t read any since I moved my blog to WordPress.

So, because it is quite a good small press, let me refresh your memory of the seven outstanding books I reviewed at my old blog (the original Frisbee):

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s How I Became a Holy Mother and Other Stories , Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, Hugh Walpole’s Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country, L. P. Hartley’s The Hireling, Rose Macaulay’s Non-Combatants and Others, John Galsworthy’s The Dark Flower, and Tom Stacey’s The Man Who Knew Everything.  I was very excited to discover these novels, and was especially thrilled to read Jhabvala’s short story collection (one of her best:  some of you may know her as the screenplay writer of the Merchant-Ivory films).  

Now I have a confession to make.  I have several of the more traditional titles which I should read, but probably won’t.  I had vague ideas of giving them to nieces and nephews, but somehow I’ve held onto them.  They’re such beautiful editions.

Here are a few I plan to read, or at least want to mention while I’m weeding my bookcases:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.  The story of David Balfour on his quest for a long-time relative.  He “is plunged into a world of infamy and violence.”

Messer Marco Polo by Donn Byrne.  “A short love story based on the visit of Marco Polo to the court of Kubla Khan.”

Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling.  His first published collection of short stories, set during the British Raj.

Dracula by Bram Stoker.  The original vampire novel.

These editions are gorgeous!  

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