Archive for October, 2011

Travels with My Aunt

The blog entry below was posted on Nov. 5, 2005, on  a diary blog long deleted.  It’s sentimental but I really loved my aunt.

One summer I took a road trip with my aunt.  She picked me up and we drove to Washington, D.C., where she had a conference to attend and I had two job interviews.  I was reluctant to leave the lovely university town where I’d spent an extra year teaching and waiting for my boyfriend to graduate. I would have liked to stay, work part-time, and drink coffee every day at the Runcible Spoon, but was inculcated with some crazy idea of my aunt’s that it was my duty to pass on my learning.  Did I want a real job?  I wasn’t sure.  Armed with a suit from Pappagallo and a padded resume,  I had no doubt I would find work.

My aunt was the chair of a department at a midwestern university.  Before that she worked in Washington for the Department of Agriculture for 10 years.  The only member of my family with a Ph.D.,  she was a refined, articulate woman who, like a Roman matriarch, devoted herself to work and family.   She spent thousands of dollars on the education of a couple of her poorer nieces, feeling they needed a boost in a male-dominated world.

On the trip she regaled me with family history. She told me that Gramma had insisted on sending her daughters to college.

“They’re not pretty, so they need all the education they can get.”

The boys were expected to find jobs without the benefit of a college education.  My dad was supposed to get the farm -a poor, run-down place – but he married up instead.

My aunt said, “He didn’t get as much education as he deserved.”

There are two classes on my dad’s side of my family: the women all have college educations, and none of the men do.  Hence the women are middle- to upper- middle (?), and the men lower-middle (?) class.   Yet I rather think the men make more money.

On the trip, we discussed our reading, but it was obvious we fell down on music.  She liked the easy-listening station.  It drove me crazy.

“What do you call this?” I asked.

“I call it beautiful music,” she said, smiling.  Growing up poor on a farm (she wore dresses made of feed sacks during the Depression), she was well-read but had received no musical education.
Perhaps of all my relatives I resembled my aunt most closely physically.  Both my aunt and I when young had reddish-blond hair, heart-shaped faces, and green eyes.

We both read enormous amounts.

And Charlotte Bronte’s Villette was our favorite book!

She was always very dignified.  I, alas, am not.  She waited till she retired to go gray though my own thought has always been that growing older gracefully means not dyeing hair.

It was horrifying when she got sick.  We drove 100 miles to see her in the hospital some weekends when there was no one else around to do it.  For a couple of weekends when she was in intensive care everyone bailed.  As soon as she was better she sat up in bed and tried to organize schedules for other sick relatives.  Like the women in Little Women, my aunt spent a lot of time doing good works.

Well, her birthday was in November and I’m thinking of her.  She was a good role model, and she certainly kept the family together.  We don’t have a matriarch anymore.

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Jeffrey Eugenides’s new novel,  The Marriage Plot, is a satisfying, if often terrifically sad, novel with a Victorian sensibility.   At first, the narrative couldn’t seem more post-modern.   Three Brown University students in the early 1980s struggle to fit their lives into the realm of sophisticated academic theories.  Madeleine is an English major, unstylishly preferring Victorian literature to semiotics; Mitchell is a religious studies major, a hipster nerd who wears old-man suits, is fascinated by Mother Teresa, and believes he is meant to marry Madeleine; and the beautiful Leonard, whom Madeleine meets in semiotics class, is a biologist suffering from manic-depressive illness. As Eugenides traces a year in the lives of these  characters, he presents their very different, confused points-of-view with a Victorian intensity and attention to detail.

When I began posting about this novel (here) earlier this week, I mentioned the secondary lit and semiotics that keep the three main characters at arm’s length from one another.  I said:

Eugenides’s new novel is about people who filter the world through books.   Of course books are not “about” anything as much as they are about the reader, as beautiful Madeleine Hanna, a senior at Brown, learns in her semiotics class.  Madeleine loves to disappear into a story, though.  She especially likes Victorian novels.”

Experience often comes at second-hand to these three intellectuals.  But of course their lives are about more than books.  Emotions, desires, travel, and work get messy after graduation as the three pursue their dreams.  Both Leonard and Mitchell are in love with Madeleine, but Madeleine loves only Leonard.  Mitchell, who is less beautiful than they, is automatically out of the running.

Leonard’s manic-depressive illness defines much of what happens to all three of them in the year that follows.  Eugenides has thoroughly researched the inadequate, often cruel treatment of mental illnesses, which in the ’80s was even worse than now, and forthrightly delineates Leonard’s tragic loss of self, the repulsiveness of his medication-distorted body, and the effect of the drug and illness on his relationships.

At first the illness brings Madeleine back to Leonard.  She had broken up with him after he inappropriately, manically brought semiotics into the bedroom when she said she loved him (he showed her a quote from Barthes saying the sentence was meaningless).  She reconciles with him on Graduation Day when she learns that he had been hospitalized for manic-depressive illness.  She moves to Cape Cod with him, where he has a fellowship in biology.  She sees him change on lithium:  he gets fat, feels numb and complains that his intelligence is dulled, and is often sexually impotent. Madeleine hopes he’ll get well, while he’s furious that she doesn’t understand the illness is a condition that won’t go away.  Ghettoized with the other lab fellows’ wives and girlfriends, she is unhappy:  her role model at the lab is a Nobel Prize winner, a woman scientist who lives by herself.  What Madeleine discovers she wants is to study Victorian literature, and her paper on the marriage plot in Victorian novels is the key to her direction.  The marriage plot in life isn’t working out for her.

Meanwhile, Mitchell has no plans to apply to graduate school right away, though one of his professors encourages him to go to divinity school.  Instead, he travels to Europe and India, still hoping to marry Madeleine when he returns.   When his travel-mate, Larry, turns out to be gay, and possibly has sex with him (Mitchell isn’t sure, because he was drunk and he thinks he may have been dreaming), things get awkward.   Larry stays behind in Greece with a boyfriend, while  Mitchell goes to India and works briefly for Mother Teresa before discovering he does not want to bathe patients and bring them bed pans.  During his travels, he does learn some things about himself.  He does not see himself going to divinity school.

The long section from Leonard’s point of view was painful to read.  As for Leonard, his life is ruined.  He knows it’s ruined.  He has been hospitalized twice and the lithium makes him feel not like himself.  So of course he experiments with his medication.  Sometimes he succeeds in giving himself the right dose and is who he used to be before the illness; sometimes he becomes manically obnoxious.  Who has not known that perfect, lovely man or woman who has a breakdown in college(or later) and never quite seems himself or herself again?  But Leonard may get himself together.

Here is one of Eugenides’s passages about Leonard’s depression, after Madeleine tells him her mother dislikes him.

Leonard stood rooted to the floor.  His eyes were filling, but if he kept blinking fast enough, no tears fell.  As much as he hated his lithium, here it was his friend.  Leonard could feel the huge tide of sadness waiting to rush over him.  But there was an invisible barrier keeping the full reality of it from touching him.  It was like squeezing a baggie full of water and felling all the properties of the liquid without getting wet.  So there at least that to be grateful for.  The life that was ruined wasn’t entirely his.”

Very, very sad.

This very good, almost brilliant, novel is frustrating in one sense, in that it is so difficult to like the characters.  Eugenides always goes a little too far, stressing the flaws and foibles that keep Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard from being heroes and heroines of Victorian novels.  All three of them are annoying.  But we begin to empathize as we understand that they are not quite who they think they are and might not want what they think they want, i.e., to be sexually involved with one another.

N.B.  And there are also a couple of brilliant riffs on Anna Karenina.  I didn’t mark the pages–I was too busy reading to take notes–but they’re there.

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I am not a fan of ghost stories.  I am still recovering from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, which I read over a year ago.

But I  recently discovered that E. Nesbit (1858-1924), the brilliant author of children’s fantasy classics, among them The Enchanted Castle and The Phoenix and the Carpet, also penned vigorous, exciting ghost stories for adults.  Wordsworth Editions has  published a collection of Nesbit’s ghost stories, The Power of Darkness:  Tales of Terror, edited by David Stuart Davies.

The stories are disturbing and creepy.  I find it fascinating that she was able to write not only upbeat children’s novels but grim supernatural fiction.  She wrote to make money, and she earned it.

In the introduction to Tales of Terror, David Stuart Davies analyzes her range.

“Most of Nesbit’s children’s books are in print today, but what is remarkable about this author is that she wrote the most chilling and unsettling tales of terror, which, surprisingly, have been neglected.  The fantastic elements she was able to weave into her children’s fiction took on a much darker and more frightening tone in her ghost stories.  The split in her creative personality–the sunny and whimsical children’s tales with their happy endings, and the unsettling and creepy narratives of death and haunting–is indicative of the strange and contradictory life which Edith Nesbit led.”

Her stories are well-written, tinged with horror, and mercifully short.  In “From the Dead,” a man’s discovery of a forged note blights his marriage and generates terror.  In “Uncle Abraham’s Ghost,” a miniature portrait of a beautiful woman reminds the lame Abraham of his only romance–in a graveyard.

My favorite is “The Violet Car,” narrated by a nurse sent to a Charlestown, run-down farm, on “a mental case.” Mr. Eldridge sent for her, saying his wife was mad;  Mrs. Eldridge says he is mad.  The grieving couple is haunted by the violet car that hit their daughter.

Here is a link to “The Violet Car” for your ghostly delectation.

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I am reading Charlotte Bronte’s second novel, Shirley.

It is not, of course, as great as Jane Eyre.  I first read Bronte’s romantic classic after seeing the 1943 movie of Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, in English class.  I still have my original paperback copy of the book (50 cents), which I rushed off to buy after seeing the movie and devoured in one day.  I have read it multiple times.

Villette is even better than Jane Eyre, of course, but I won’t write about that here.

On a gloomy autumn day, what can be more comforting than to draw the curtains and lose oneself in a Bronte novel?  Shirley is a Victorian Factory novel, which I added to my Factory Lit reading list after devouring Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton last summer, two sociopolitical novels examining the conflicts between cotton mill owners and striking workers in England in the 1840s.  In Bronte’s  Shirley, one of the main characters is a mill owner, Robert Moore, who, in the beginning of the novel, loses his new machines when unemployed workers destroy them.

I haven’t read much of this yet, but I plan to post conscientiously on my progress.

And  here is Charlotte Bronte’s radical Gothic romantic poem “Apostasy,”  to get you in the Bronte mood.  (I’m not going to analyze it, but it reminds me of Emily’s Wuthering Heights.)

“Apostasy” by Charlotte Bronte

This last denial of my faith,
Thou, solemn Priest, hast heard;
And, though upon my bed of death,
I call not back a word.
Point not to thy Madonna, Priest,–
Thy sightless saint of stone;
She cannot, from this burning breast,
Wring one repentant moan.

Thou say’st, that when a sinless child,
I duly bent the knee,
And prayed to what in marble smiled
Cold, lifeless, mute, on me.
I did. But listen! Children spring
Full soon to riper youth;
And, for Love’s vow and Wedlock’s ring,
I sold my early truth.

‘Twas not a grey, bare head, like thine,
Bent o’er me, when I said,
“That land and God and Faith are mine,
For which thy fathers bled.”
I see thee not, my eyes are dim;
But well I hear thee say,
“O daughter cease to think of him
Who led thy soul astray.

“Between you lies both space and time;
Let leagues and years prevail
To turn thee from the path of crime,
Back to the Church’s pale.”
And, did I need that, thou shouldst tell
What mighty barriers rise
To part me from that dungeon-cell,
Where my loved Walter lies?

And, did I need that thou shouldst taunt
My dying hour at last,
By bidding this worn spirit pant
No more for what is past?
Priest–MUST I cease to think of him?
How hollow rings that word!
Can time, can tears, can distance dim
The memory of my lord?

I said before, I saw not thee,
Because, an hour agone,
Over my eyeballs, heavily,
The lids fell down like stone.
But still my spirit’s inward sight
Beholds his image beam
As fixed, as clear, as burning bright,
As some red planet’s gleam.

Talk not of thy Last Sacrament,
Tell not thy beads for me;
Both rite and prayer are vainly spent,
As dews upon the sea.
Speak not one word of Heaven above,
Rave not of Hell’s alarms;
Give me but back my Walter’s love,
Restore me to his arms!

Then will the bliss of Heaven be won;
Then will Hell shrink away,
As I have seen night’s terrors shun
The conquering steps of day.
‘Tis my religion thus to love,
My creed thus fixed to be;
Not Death shall shake, nor Priestcraft break
My rock-like constancy!

Now go; for at the door there waits
Another stranger guest;
He calls–I come–my pulse scarce beats,
My heart fails in my breast.
Again that voice–how far away,
How dreary sounds that tone!
And I, methinks, am gone astray
In trackless wastes and lone.

I fain would rest a little while:
Where can I find a stay,
Till dawn upon the hills shall smile,
And show some trodden way?
“I come! I come!” in haste she said,
“‘Twas Walter’s voice I heard!”
Then up she sprang–but fell back, dead,
His name her latest word.

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Lost and Found

Abandoned book.

At our house everybody reads.  We read in the bathtub.  We read at breakfast.  We read at work.  We read while we’re cooking.  We read while we’re on the phone.  We read on the veranda.  We read in bed.

Sometimes we abandon books, though.

“I feel really ripped-off by this one.” A family member on Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.

“Mm, I’ll get back to this one later.”  I on Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, wishing I’d stuck to Mrs. Oliphant.

“I just can’t believe Virago reissued this.”  Visitor on Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

I was sorting through books the other day, intending to give several away to a charity sale. I found my visitor’s trashy copy of Valley of the Dolls and decided it would make good Christmas reading if I take up drinking or barbiturates.   I also discovered several interesting books I began earlier this year and then lost, having absent-mindedly “filed” them on an end table under a dictionary, or under a chest of drawers with my favorite earrings. (N.B.  I don’t know how anything ended up there.)

Although I finish most books, some don’t quite make it.    Occasionally I misplace a book, though.  Here is a list of a few “found” books on my To Be Finished (TBF) list:

Emile Zola’s Abbe Mouret’s Transgression.

Lost:  after reading 160 pages

Found: on the floor of my study under Susan Howatch’s Scandalous Risks, the fourth book in her racy Church of England Starbridge series.

Response to Recovery:  Happy, yet also realizing I now must finish what seems to be Zola’s worst.

Although this novel should not be undertaken until you’ve read Zola’s classics, like The Earth, Nana, and The Ladies’ Paradise, it does have some merit.   I occasionally make my way through one of Zola’s more obscure titles.

In Abbe Mouret’s Transgression, Serge Mouret, a priest, has a nervous breakdown.  His uncle, Dr. Pascal Rougon, leaves him at Paradou, a derelict mansion in the country, where he is nursed by Albine, niece of the misanthropic caretaker.  The two have an innocent, idyllic love affair, because Serge has forgotten who he is.  He has no idea he was a priest.  They wander around eating fruit and making love all day.

Influenced by Rousseau, Zola did not pen the vivid naturalistic exposé
we expect from his books.  It’s very much a tale of the Paradise of Adam and Eve. The style is lyrical and baroque, and it’s a meandering dream of a book.

Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers.

LOST:  After reading 191 pages. (How could I have lost this?  I just bought it a few weeks ago.)

FOUND:  “filed” in a stack on the night table.

RESPONSE:  Pleased.

This is Hoffman’s first foray from magic realism into historical fiction.  It is a good, well-researched historical novel, very different from her usual magical romances.  Set in 70 C.E., it is the story of four women who endure the siege of Masada, where 900 Jews held out against the Romans for several months.  Each woman narrates her own story:  Yael, the quiet, passionate daughter and sister of political assassins, hounded out of Palestine by the Romans; Revka, a baker’s wife who ends up at Masada with her grandsons after her husband and daughter in law are butchered by the Romans; Aziza, a warrior’s daughter raised as a boy; and Shirah, a kind of witch.

Oh, and if you don’t know what C.E. is, it’s Common Era (A.D.).

Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree. 

LOST:  after reading seven pages.

FOUND:  Under a chest of drawers with my favorite earrings.

RESPONSED:  Relieved, because this was a gift.

Set in India, this historical novel, according to the blurb on the back, is “two love stories, ninety years apart,” during the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857 and Partition in 1947.

Here’s the first sentence, since I don’t have much to say yet, obviously.

“Our train hurtled past a gold-spangled woman in a strawberry sari, regal yet sitting on the ground, patting cow dung into disks to dry int he scorching sun–her cooking fuel.  We barreled past one crumbling, sun-blasted village after another, and the farther we got from Delhi the more animals we saw trudging alongside the endless swarm of people–arrogant camels, humpbacked cows, bullock-drawn carts, goats and monkeys, and suicidal dogs.”

I’m looking forward to reading this.

Have you lost and found any of your books, or is this just a Frisbee thing?

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Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot arrived promptly on the publication date last Tuesday.  Of course I couldn’t start it immediately, so the pre-ordering was very silly.  I have several long, half-read novels to finish before the end of the year.  I could not begin The Marriage Plot until I finished Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a 900-page fantasy classic).  I thought about finishing Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere, but I have temporarily abandoned it in favor of Eugenides’s first novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex in 2002.

Once I started The Marriage Plot, I read nonstop.  My husband  lured me away for a bike ride only by a promise of Gummi Bears and an hour-long reading break in a picnic shelter in Linden.

I’m not done with the book yet, but I like it.

Eugenides’s new novel is about people who filter the world through books.   Of course books are not “about” anything as much as they are about the reader, as beautiful Madeleine Hanna, a senior at Brown, learns in her semiotics class.  Madeleine loves to disappear into a story, though.  She especially likes Victorian novels.

“In Week 4, Zipperstein assigned Umberto Eco’s The Role of the Reader.  It hadn’t done much for Madeleine.  She wasn’t all that interested, as a reader, in the reader.  She was still partial to that increasingly eclipsed entity:  the writer.  Madeleine had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature.  They wanted to demote the author.  They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions.  They wanted that to be the main thing.  Because they were readers.”*

When the novel opens on graduation day, Madeleine is not in very good shape, though she has finished her  honors thesis on the marriage plot in novels. She is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead, a handsome, brilliant biologist she met in semiotics class, who, when she told him she loved him, showed her a passage in Ronald Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse about the meaninglessness of this sentence.

Semiotics has killed the novel and the marriage plot (maybe).

Part of the novel is told from Madeleine’s point of view,  and part from that of her friend, Mitchell Grammaticus, a religious studies major who is in love with her.  Mitchell is an endearing nerd, a polite Greek-American from Grosse Point, who believes that he will marry Madeleine, even after she gets back together with Leonard. He goes home to Detroit and works as a bus boy to earn money for a trip to India, while Madeleine moves to Cape Cod with Leonard, who has a fellowship at a laboratory.  Mitchell, who is urged to go to graduate school and prepare for an academic career, filters everything through William James, Thomas Merton, Saint Theresa, and Pynchon.

Everyone in this book is a reader.

I haven’t read the reviews yet, but if they’re good, I agree.

So back to reading.

*Thank God they didn’t make us study semiotics in classics.

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In college we read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.  I haven’t read many novels in verse since.

But last summer I discovered a book I love dearly, Sonya Sones’s The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus.  This witty, poignant novel in verse is not quite a classic, but it is beautifully-crafted and entertaining, inhabiting the realm between chick lit and poetry.  Middle-aged readers will identify readily with the narrator, Holly, who humorously faces menopause, is saddened by her daughter’s move to college, worries that her husband may be having an affair, and is shocked when her mother across the country suddenly has a health crisis.

This novel is very original but was not widely reviewed, as far as I can see.  Sones has written several Y.A. novels in verse and this is her first adult novel.

There is so much good in this novel that it’s too bad that the ending shifts to safe terrain, and in a way betrays the novel’s beauty and Holly’s voice. I imagine it’s hard to get away from that Y.A. formula.  I very much look forward to her next adult book.

So I’ve looked for other new women’s novels in verse since then and found:

Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia:  A Novel in Verse Published in 2003, Jane Rawlings’s The Penelopeia is new to me.  I found it in a random internet search.  I love reading novels about mythic characters and admire much of this.

It is a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, written from Penelope’s point of view.  In case your Homer is rusty, let me remind you that Penelope is the wife of Odysseus and remained faithful to him for 20 years while he first fought at Troy for 10 years and then struggled to come home to Ithaka for the next 10, delayed by Poseidon.

In Rawlings’s poem, Penelope reveals to Odysseus that she gave birth to twin daughters after his departure.  She hid them at her father-in-law’s to keep them safe from the enemies and suitors who invaded Odysseus’s palace.  Their son Telemachus, as well as Odysseus, was kept ignorant of the twins.  Both men feel betrayed.

To complicate things further, she and her daughters must take a journey to consult the Pythia, the oracle priestess at Pythos.

The Penelopeia is ambitious, but it is a hard act to follow Homer.  Parts of Rawlings’s verse are excellent, parts awkward.  There are beautiful passages, and then clumsy similes.

Rawlings tells us in her acknowledgements that she has written in the style of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey.  I guess that is safer than saying that it is in the style of Homer.  Lattimore’s translation is most similar to the Greek, I would say:  concise and an almost literal translation.

The Penelopeia is very enjoyable, but then I’m an Odyssey freak.  It would be unreadable without knowledge of Homer.  But Rawlings also does some quirky modern things:  this poem is narrated by the heroine, and first-person narration is not done in Greek epic.  She is giving voice to mythic women in a contemporary way.

Ellen Hopkins’s Triangles Does the cover look a little trashy?

Yes, it does, doesn’t it?

Watch out, girls.  This is not just a novel in verse.  It’s a romantic novel in verse.

Is the novel in verse a trend in women’s novels?

Hopkins, like Sones, is a Y.A. writer and this is her first adult book.

This enjoyable if shallow novel is the story of three women:  Holly, a desperate housewife married to a successful lawyer and a mother of three who has lost 60 pounds so she can attract men (yes, that’s her main ambition); Andrea, a single mother who works at the DMV and wishes she had a husband like Holly’s; and Marissa, Andrea’s sister, the mother of a gay son and a daughter with SMA (spinal muscular atrophy, a terminal disease)  and the wife of an alcoholic husband who has pretty much opted out.

Marissa is the most authentic and interesting character, but as the novel continues Andrea has more opportunities for good relationships and even the superficial Holly grows.  Holly begins to write erotica and attends a writers’ group.  (The writing is secondary to romance, though, and she’s attracted to a guy in her writer’s group.)

I would not be reading it if it were not in verse.  This is not to say it’s a bad book.  It’s just not my kind of book.  Some of the poetry is surprisingly good (and some bad), but I’m not really a Desperate Housewives kind of person.

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