Archive for September, 2010

Rose Macaulay is a superb writer whose books are the very opposite of the “cozy” published by some women’s presses–the E. M. Delafields and Elizabeth Taylors we’ve all come to love.  Macaulay’s uneven novels of ideas have been rediscovered and boosted by Virago and NYBR, but overall she is a neglected writer.  In 1922 she won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais for Dangerous Ages, a brilliant novel about the narrowing of choices for women in middle- and old age. In 1956 she won the James Tait Black Memorial Award for The Towers of Trebizond, a satiric novel centering on travel in the Middle East.  

Keeping up Appearances, published in 1928, is so stunning when looked at as a whole that one wants to send it to a friend and say, “Here is an underrated tour de force!”  It is not a perfect book, but its very imperfections suit it.  Macaulay’s protagonist, Daisy Simpson, is not what she seems, and it is this foggy identity that makes Keeping Up Appearances so surprising and fascinating.  On the surface Daisy is an unconfident, diffident journalist who hides her feelings of inferiority by tagging along with her worldly, charming half-sister, Daphne.  But on page 101 we discover Daisy’s secret:  she and Daphne are the same person;  she has invented Daphne as a nonchalant, witty personality that can cope with the vagaries of upper-class society. Daisy is the illegitimate daughter of a lower-middle-class woman of whom she is ashamed; she was educated by her upper-class father’s sister, a friend of the Folyots.  Presenting herself as Daphne instead of Daisy makes the prospect of marriage to Raymond Folyot, an upper-class scientist, almost impossible.  Daisy hides all her accomplishments: he does not know she is a journalist, nor that she writes middlebrow novels under the name Marjorie Wynn.

Daisy’s cowardice, shame, and triple life do not always make her a sympathetic character.  Yet at the same time her nervousness and complications make her far superior to the horrible Folyots.  Mrs. Folyot has a thousand causes, all of them vague; her husband is a secret snob; Raymond undistinguished and unimaginative; and Cary a sharp 12-year-old who seems to discover all Daisy/Daphne’s faults.  

A very enjoyable novel, discovered accidentally.

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The Great Charity Book Sale

We rushed to the Great Charity Book Sale.  We sprinted around the building snatching up all the Viragos, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Nadine Gordimer, Alfred Musset, and Elizabeth von Arnim.  It’s a quiet but intense event, with readers invading each other’s personal space occasionally.  No one has ever actually grabbed anything from me, though. 🙂

“We’re tapped out.  We’ve got to go,” a bookseller from Nebraska said.  He was in the foreign language department, needed a smoke, and his assistant had to be torn away.  My reporter informed me that the assistant was doing most of the work.

There are also people with Blackberry-phone-looking things that seem to tell them whether or not the book is valuable or whether it’s in their store.  We don’t understand quite what the things do.  

Our greatest find this year?  The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (Viking Penguin 1994). 

We came home with many, many books.  Here is a photo of one small stack we bought.  

And here is a photo of the chicken on the side of the building.

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Checklist: So Much to Do



So much to do...

1. Two classes down.  Like a vampire, the class sucked every drop of blood out of me. Gathering up my 

books, my files, my tea, and my card (which must be handed over in exchange for the key to the classroom),  we sped down the freeway and I ended up dashing into class in my slippers.  Yes, I had everything else, though.Then, after two hours of teaching and prompting correct answers I realized that after four months off I might as well start over at the beginning.  I  have a feeling of accomplishment but I’m raising the rates next year.

2.  I am three-fourths of the way through Dead Souls, undoubtedly one of the best books I have read lately. Gogol is a  favorite satiric writer:  I love his tales, The Nose and Diary of a Madman.  Chichikov, the hero of Dead Souls, whose name sounds like the chirping of birds, as translator Richard Pevear points out, travels through the country to buy dead souls (dead peasants) from landowners.  Since the landowners must pay taxes even on the dead, they apprehensively agree to sell to Chichikov, who, for reasons of his own, believes he can make money off the scheme.  One landowner becomes his best friend, another wants to make a deal however shady and manages to cheat him by including a woman on his list, and a third complains about him in town and wonders if he plans to swindle her.  Rumors spread and pretty soon Chichikov is suspected of planning to abduct the governor’s daughter and being a bandit.   It’s hilarious to read about this unethical character’s rise and fall (and I’m not done with it so I can’t tell if he rises again or not). 

The translation by Richard Pevear and Lariss Volokhonsky is very readable. It’s nice to support new translations, though sometimes I prefer the old, as in the case of Tolstoy.  

3.  Cleaned the kitchen.  I’ve been meaning to do this for quite some time and finally scrubbed everything in sight except the oven.  I hate the fumes of oven cleaner.  Can somebody tell me a less toxic way of cleaning ovens?

4.   Watched another bicycling movie, The Flying Scotsman.  You can watch the whole movie at IMBD.  Not quite as enjoyable as Breaking Away, but very exciting and touching.  Based on the life of Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree, it tells the story of how he won the world record on a bike made of parts of a washing machine and his subsequent troubles with judges who took away his title out of sheer malevolence.  He suffers depression, an unusual illness in sports movies, but overcomes his problems.   Here’s the trailer:  

5.  Investigated the bicycle trail completely wiped out by the flood.  The asphalt has been wiped off large chunks of a popular trail–miles and miles were wrecked.  We simply wheeled our bicycles past the bulldozers and workmen and pretended we didn’t see the closed signs.  It’s very sad that this flood should have happened twice in two years and I hope they’ve finally got the money from FEMA.  Unfortunately I didn’t take my camera with me but here’s what it looked like two months ago in July; you can see the water is almost up to the top of the trail sign.


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Bloggers Reading Bloggers

There’s always some kind of reading challenge  online.  Read some ghost stories–thank God Ellen gave me M. R. James–or a bunch of Y.A. books or some reissued British women’s novels. I don’t know how people find the time to do all this.  Enthusiastic bloggers, and I tend to think they must be very young, love to read along.  But it’s a bit like being a Democrat and attending a political rally you support but intend to cut out of as soon as possible. Sure, Obama has my vote and I admire his summer reading list–Franzen’s Freedom, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, and Brad Leithauser’s A Few Corrections–but I’m not going to read along with him.  And much as I love to read blogs, I have so many books on my own list.

This week it’s not a reading challenge, though.  It’s Blogger Appreciation Week.  The challenge seems to be to mention as many blogs as possible in a post and provide links.  No, it’s not a blogroll.  It’s something different.  Yes, there is a self-referential-blogger-celebration in progress. Here’s how it works.  Bloggers mention their favorite blogs. Then other bloggers comment on how great these blogs are.   Then everybody comes back and congratulates one other.   

What the f—?

I’ve only seen a couple of posts on this, but the commentators are familiar.  I’m sure some of these comments are by non-bloggers, but I can’t for the life of me find any.  

Here’s what I’ve noticed:  nobody is mentioning Dovegreyreader.  And, though I’ve had my ups and downs with her, I really enjoy her blog and would have to say it’s at the top of my list.  

So why isn’t anybody mentioning it?

At my house the whole Dovegreyreader thing is akin to a novel. I tell my husband about her and have made him look at a few videos on her blog.   She reads, she sings, she has a Barn Owl, she’s at the Village Fair, she’s winning prizes or giving them out, she knits, she’s at the book fairs, she’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s in a book group, and she’s going to speak at PEN.

Let’s face it!   It’s fiction.  And she is one of my favorite characters.  And I’m NOT mocking her.  This is one of my favorite blogs, she’s fun to read, and she never complains about anything.  

I’ve occasionally made my husband read Dovegreyreader.  He doesn’t care for her blog, or my blog, or anybody’s blog. He thinks this blogging thing is a waste of time.  He does, however, know that blogging makes me feel better.  And presumably it makes others feel better, too.

If you’ve had a bad, really depressing day, and are upset by the city’s coverup of the destruction of the trails by this summer’s rains, sometimes an antidepressant isn’t enough.

You need total escape.   

So blog!

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Classics on Wheels


Classics on Wheels


Books, books, books.  You would think there’d be plenty of room for the classics after weeding hundreds of books recently for the charity sale and giveaways. But this weekend several textbooks for my courses moved into plastic boxes on wheels. I don’t have time to catalogue our Greek and Latin books, which are double-stacked in a built-in china cabinet.  So I chose a selection and threw them into these teaching boxes.  

Need to get ready for Greek?  Wheel the pink box into the living room.  Latin?  The blue box with the Wheelocks on top.  Of course to find anything special I have to dump 20 or so books out of the box.

Here’s a photo of some of my double-stacked books, so you can see we actually have bookshelves:

My double-stacked classics.

I love photos of other people’s books:  they’re so tidy.  I’m afraid I’m pretty cavalier about my shelves and piles.  These books come out for an airing at least once a week.  I wish I could figure out a way to shelve them all together, but unless I start lining up bookcases in the middle of the room with aisles between them it’s not going to work.  There’s simply no room.

There arealso  many “problem” books:  the big three-ring binders of photocopies of out-of-print books.  What do I do with this?

I’m trying to remember if I ever knew a classicist who could keep her office tidy.  The answer?  No.

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Mysteries were never exactly my thing.  I was bored as a girl by whodunits though I had friends who read them by the sack. We used to frequent a used bookstore, really a kind of low-ceilinged shack  on the highway, where we could trade paperbacks or buy them for 25 cents.  My dad would drive us there and we’d come home with sacks of Gothic novels and popular novels like Up the Down Staircase, The Chosen, Diary of a Mad Housewife, and A Death in the Family.  

I was very picky about mysteries until I discovered Dorothy Sayers. We all watched Masterpiece Theater and as soon as I saw my first Peter Wimsey mystery–no idea which one–I became mad about them and read one after another. The Five Red Herrings, Sayers’ seventh mystery (1931), is my favorite, probably because of the art angle.   I love the observations of missing tubes of paint, the timed painting competitions to determine how long it would have taken to fake a painting by the victim, and the frenetic study of train time-tables and stolen bicycles.  Campbell, the murder victim, had infuriated all the other artists in Galloway, a village where “one either fishes or paints.” The eccentric Lord Peter Wimsey, who had witnessed Campbell in a bar fight the night before, investigates the six painter suspects and, with his usual debonair, silly percipience, manages to solve the mystery.

Sayers is really the best of the Golden Age writers and changed my mind about mysteries.  I’d love to read Sayers exclusively for a while but have to read others on my list, too.

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The Academic Character


A great teacher movie


We all have our sulky moments when we go back to school.  I  stood up for an hour and a half the other night  conducting a review of grammar, writing declensions and conjugations on the board.  I had an out-of-body moment of despair when I looked down on the group and desperately wanted to smoke a cigarette–a piece of chalk would have done– and ask them to write on the board for me .  Next week we’ll make the transition.  They’ll have homework so I’ll be able to sit down and watch them translate part of the work themselves and then they will write some of it on the board.  They’re good students and do very well but I must discipline myself not to stare into space because I might miss an error while drifting in the sea of distracted thoughts.  SO I MUST STOP IN THE COFFEESHOP FIRST AND GET A STRONG CUP OF ESPRESSO.  I must look as though I am absorbed only by the passage by Cicero.  

Teachers and students are frazzled this time of year yet love to return to their houses to read fiction and memoirs about the lives of teachers, governesses, & professors. Haven’t we all been inspired at some time or another by a knowledgeable teacher who loved her subject and her work?  Don’t we devour satires about their eccentricities and the administration’s absurdities?  I’ve read academic novels endlessly over the years,  laughing, sympathizing, and admiring.  Here are ten of my favorite teacher books, some of which were passed around my family, three generations of whom have been teachers at one time or other.  We do, however, have the “Get out” gene.  

1.  I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam.  This was one of my favorite Virago novels, but, alas, I’ve lost it somewhere on my shelves and don’t trust my memory to write about it.  It’s the unsentimental story of an elementary school teacher who does not idealize her work.  I found it at a bookstore.

2.  Teacher by Sylvia Ashton Warner (1963).  A beautifully-written memoir-diary of a New Zealand teacher who inspired her Maori students by respecting their language and tracing the origin of words. First introduced to me at age 14 by my aunt, a professor at a state university and the only member of my family to have earned a Ph.D.

3.  Villette by Charlotte Bronte.  A complicated Gothic autobiographical novel about a woman’s experiences teaching in Belgium.  Bronte’s best, in my opinion.  First introduced to me at age 14 by the aforementioned aunt.

4.  To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield.  A World War I veteran teaches history at a private school.  One of my favorite books–okay, a bit sentimental, but very well-written.  First introduced to me by the Masterpiece Theater series.   

5.  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  by Pamela Hansford Johnson.  One of the funniest satires I’ve ever read.  An English playboy is offered a job at a New England college where he spends most of his time foraging for food, as there are no stores or restaurants and he can’t drive.  He is also determined to do no work.  I found it by chance at Amazon.  

6.  Deaf Sentence by David Lodge.  One of the funniest of academic satires.  A retired linguistics professor who dislikes wearing his hearing aid makes endless faux pas, alienating everybody.  Then he agrees to advise a compulsive liar on her dissertation and life gets much more farcical.  I discovered this novel through reading a review in some traditional paper.

7.  The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan.  Can’t remember this one very well, but the hero teaches at the same college where he went to school and there are various difficulties.  Loved this!  I read it in an Everyman edition of Narayan’s work, which I learned about through a review (somewhere).  

8.  The Human Stain by Philip Roth.  An aged classics professor proves irresistible to a young illiterate gorgeous female janitor.  If you’re saying, “Oh, really?”, well, all I can say is Roth writes well, though it is incredible.  I found out about it through buying everything Roth ever wrote.

9.  Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.  Poison pen letters at Shrewsbury College lead Harriet Vane to investigate.  One of Sayers’ best books.  Found out about it through Masterpiece Theater series.

10.  Moo by Jane Smiley.  One of my favorite academic satires, set at Moo U, a mainly agricultural and engineering school.  Smiley used to teach at Iowa State University.  I found this novel by buying everything Smiley writes.

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