…is Jo-Ann Mapson! Please send me your address at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Elizabeth Jolley, the award-winning Australian writer, published her first collection of short stories in 1976. I didn’t read it. I was perfectly happy with Victorian novels. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I began to read contemporary fiction: after being reduced to tears by a famous author (now dead) during an interview about his 1,000-page book (a freelance assignment I’d received the night before, along with the book, and he knew I hadn’t finished it), I vowed that nothing like that would happen again. I became an earnest reader of book reviews and contemporary novels. Oh, lord.
In the 1980s I read some brilliant books, among them Elizabeth Jolley’s very strange, well-reviewed comic novels. Persea has recently reissued several of Jolley’s novels, and sent me a few. (So I now have a backlog of 24 free books from publicists, down one, and read this because I like Jolley.).
Are Jolley’s novels comedies? Whimsically surreal? Modern or post-modern? It’s hard to know how to take them. In Foxybaby, an utterly odd and entertaining novel (which I reviewed here), Alma Porch, a writer, takes a job teaching drama at a “Better Body through the Arts Course”–an arts program with dieting– at an obscure college in an abandoned Australian town. The lesbian principal of the college, Miss Pyecroft, with her obsequious girlfriend, Miss Paisley, sabotages Alma’s teaching and invites Alma to an orgy. And part of the novel is the “film treatment” of Alma’s new novel, which the students will act out.
In Jolley’s dark comedy, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, she also mocks the domination of an unlikable principal of a school. The portly headmistress of a girls’ school, Doctor Arabella Thorne, is an intellectual but is also a lesbian lecher. She arranges bra-burning ceremonies for her students, loves to watch a student disco dancing, and invites a fat virginal student, Gwendaline Manners, whose father has ceased paying her tuition, on a trip to Europe, obviously with plans of seduction. Miss Thorne’s lover, the illiterate secretary Miss Edgely, is upset, and her friend, Miss Snowdon, matron of the Queens’ Hospital, also thinks it is unwise to bring along a student.
Many of us have at one time or another known a Miss or Mr. Thorne. Not Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, mind you, but perhaps an inhabitant of Thornfield, like Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre). The grotesque characters in Jolley’s novel have names that are faintly reminiscent of Victorian novels, though they seem not to have much relation to them: Miss Edgely (Maria Edgeworth?), Miss Snowdon (Villette?), Mr. Frome (Ethan Frome?).
Miss Thorne is a horrifying character, I am sure we will all agree. But then she doesn’t even exist, except as a comic character in the mind of Jolley’s character, the novelist Diana Hopewell. The novel begins with the line: “The nights belonged to the novelist.” And the narrative begins with Miss Thorne’s walk in a pine plantation, and her musings about the school.
After three pages, the narrative switches to Miss Dorothy Peabody, a naive middle-aged typist who devotes her nights to reading letters from the novelist, Diana. Their correspondence, which they embarked on after Dorothy sent a fan letter, is the highlight of Dorothy’s life. Diana sends her long sections of the novel she is writing about Miss Thorne.
As [Miss Peabody] lit the gas under the hateful little milk saucepan she let her mind wander pleasantly. Whatever would Miss Thorne do with Gwendaline Manners in Europe! What an idea to take a schoolgirl on an expensive holiday like that and to pay all the expenses! It was beyond Miss Peabody’s experience to understand why Miss Thorne should do this. What would the girl’s parents think? It seemed an impulsive thing for a woman in Miss Thorne’s position to do.”
Dorothy and Diana are very lonely women, as we learn as the book continues. But does Diana even exist? Well, yes, she seems to, but Elizabeth Jolley’s novels are so strange that at one point I wondered if Miss Peabody was imagining everything. The names: Diana/Dorothy (Diana = the goddess Diana, and Dorothy = god’s gift)? (I don’t believe any reviewers suggested this, but I often react thus to the unreality of Jolley’s novels.) Eventually Miss Peabody has a drunken breakdown and starts talking to herself.
Poor Miss Peabody. Her mother is an invalid, and her social life consists of office parties where she gets drunk and people ignore her. At home she reads Great Expectations to her mother and writes her letters to Diana.
It’s not much of a life, but she begins to make things happen after the excitement of Diana’s letters. It’s not much–but it’s something. Especially when she conceals the fact that her key is in her handbag and… But it’s really nothing much, and I won’t give it away.
This preposterous, quirky novel is not my favorite by Jolley, but it is spare, gracefully written, and eminently readable.
If you would like a Penguin copy of H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (which I wrote about here), leave a comment. I read a copy on my Nook, then found the paperback, and now I don’t need it. It’s a well-thumbed copy, with an introduction by Margaret Drabble.
Any takers? We’ll hold a “drawing” Saturday or Sunday if more than one person wants the book.
Doug, a longtime employee of Borders, died recently of prostate cancer. Whenever I pass the old Borders, now a Babies R Us, I think of him. He was in my Latin class, and, unlike some of my students, knew my name.
When I saw him at Barnes and Noble last fall, he was sitting in a comfortable chair reading Neal Stephenson’s Reamde. He looked thinner and older, but still wore his hat. (He wore it even when he bicycled.)
“You’re not into hard sci-fi, are you?” He asked. He told me Stephenson was from Ames, where Doug had lived for many years.
He confided he had dropped out of our class abruptly because he was diagnosed with cancer. I was shocked, didn’t know if this meant he was dying, said I was sorry.
Couldn’t I have bought him Stephenson’s book? Seemingly not.
He described the last days of Borders, the changing book culture, how Borders stopped selling Loebs and reduced its stock, and then began hiring young beauties to replace the bibliophiles who hand-sold books.
He knew the whole history of Borders.
I thought he was the manager. No.
Over the years he quoted the first line of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, chatted about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic (still on my TBR), and guaranteed I would like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (so maybe I’ll read that this weekend).
He also read history.
One of my favorite moments in class was when we were talking about Wolf Hall and another student said he’d bought it for his Kindle.
“Traitor!” Doug said.
He was adamantly leftist, so I’ve posted his picture on the left.
At a caucus in 2004, he told Vote for America,
To me, democracy has always been neighbors and fellow citizens getting together face-to-face to talk about it. In a sense, the actual amount of commitment you have to have to come out here makes you think about it and makes you value it more.”
I will vote early and often for Obama on his behalf. (I am joking: I will vote once on his behalf.)
I will now read George R. R. Martin.
Luv ya, Doug! You were the most enthusiastic bookseller in town.
There are days when I miss going to the library.
Our city has cut public library hours. Funds were available to build new beautiful branch libraries, but then jobs were cut, self-checkout machines installed, and the library hours reduced. They say we can do most of our research online, but some of us still need books.
The library clerks were quirky, but they were employed, and that was a bonus. The machines are also quirky, but their performance is more erratic. One machine knows I owe $14.50 in fines–the limit is $15–but asks me again and again if I want to pay now. (No. No. No.) One machine won’t read my card and says I don’t exist, and that’s a bit of a drawback. Another machine flirts with me: it tells me I’ve checked out the books, lets me through security without beeping or clanging, but when I return the books weeks later I learn there’s no record of their being checked out.
Is the machine set on STEAL THIS BOOK?
The machine is in love with me. It is set to: Give these books free to her.
Today I could not go to the library, because it was closed, so I decided to check out the Little Free Library.
You may have seen these things in your neighborhood. They look like birdhouses, with little signs saying Little Free Library.
On an island at an intersection in a quiet neighborhood of brick houses, a small house sits on a stick. Only it is not a house, it is a Little Free Library. At the back is a hinged window that reveals a bookshelf holding perhaps 20 books.
Take a book. Return a book.
It’s a charming idea. You can build your own library or order a kit from The Little Free Library, a nonprofit organization founded in Wisconsin “to promote literacy and book exchanges.” Plant it on your lawn, fill it with old books, and neighbors can borrow, trade, or steal.
Cute as the library was, I saw nothing I wanted: there were best-sellers like Mary Higgins Clark’s The Shadow of Your Smile, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and several by James Patterson.
Some Little Free Libraries have remarkable collections, but this was not one of them. The book in my bike pannier may have been the only good book in the neighborhood. (I photographed it in my bike helmet.)
Will Ferguson’s 419 (not available in the U.S.)
Alix Ohlin’s Inside (available in the U.S.)
Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride (available in the U.S. Jan. 29, 2013)
Kim Thuy’s Ru (not available in the U.S.)
Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away (not available in the U.S.)
It takes determination for Americans to keep up with the Giller Prize. As Ron Charles said last year in The Washington Post, “It’s a sad fact of American publishing that a literary award given in Canada is like a tree falling in the forest.” He was writing about the Governor General’s Award, but the same principle applies to the Giller Prize. Although we know when Alice Munro wins, none of the above names means anything to me.
Canadian bloggers are earnest about the Giller Prize. Kevin from Canada runs a very nice operation called the Shadow Giller Jury, whereby he and other bloggers diligently read and review all the titles on the longlist and shortlist.
Canadian literature is certainly kept in the shadows here.
By chance I learned that the American comic novelist, Gary Shteyngart, author of the dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story, is one of the judges this year. I certainly will pay attention because he’s one of my favorite American writers. Is that why he was asked? To get Americans’ attention? Irish writer Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize winner, is also a judge. There is one Canadian judge, Anna Porter.
In general, prizes mean less and less to me every year. People online go crazy over these prizes. They read longlists and shortlists, and by the time I’ve read a couple on the longlist I’m too tired to read the prizewinner. I still haven’t read the winners of last year’s National Book Award, Booker Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, or Pulitzer (they didn’t give the Pulitzer to a fiction writer, proving my theory that journalists don’t value fiction). I have (sort of) read Will Self’s Umbrella, a finalist for the Booker Prize this year, but not with the attention it deserves. I used to read all the prize winners, and am trying to catch up: I have begun Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Booker Prize.
And now for the Gossip about What I’m Reading and How I Flunked the Rock and Roll Test.
1. Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. This may be the best American novel of the year. It is funny, gorgeously written, and, like Zadie Smith’s NW, a novel about a neighborhood. I can read novels about neighborhood almost indefinitely, but since I said I would read only the dead this month I am cheating by reading a new book.
2. Apuleius’s The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses. A few years ago, when we had a “Latin club,” i.e., class, which was mostly sitting around drinking coffee and translating the dialogue into American idioms, we read Book 3 of The Golden Ass or Metamorphoses in a Bryn Mawr Commentaries edition by William Turpin. There are very few Latin editions of Apuleius’ novel (and you do need commentaries), so if you want to read the other chapters, you have to do it with the Loeb (low-ebb, as we used to call them), and it’s not as much fun.
The Golden Ass is the only Latin novel which survives whole. If you haven’t read it, you will doubtless find it hilarious: as Apuleius says in his “Address to the Reader” (Robert Graves translation):
If you are not put off by the Egyptian story-telling convention which allows humans to be changed into animals and, after various adventures, restored to their proper shapes, you should be amused by this queer novel, a string of anecdotes in the popular Milesian style, but intended only for your private ear, which I call my Transformations.”
HOW I FLUNKED MY HUSBAND’S ROCK AND ROLL TEST.
My husband is appalled by my lack of knowledge of rock and roll. I am supposed to be reading a history of it, but you can forget that. Not only did I miss the reference to the Kinks’ “Apeman” in Will Self’s Umbrella, I was not even able to identify Mike Stipe singing on an R.E.M. album.
So I was forced to take a test.
Did you know who the singer with the high voice in Led Zeppelin is? Of course you do. Do you know why? Because I’m going to tell you. It’s Robert Plant. I didn’t know before I sat down and took the quiz.
I have never listened to Led Zeppelin in my life. It turns out this is not true. Do you know what their most famous song is? “Stairway to Heaven.” I had never heard this song. It turned out not to be true. I had to watch this on YouTube, and was not allowed to turn it off until I admitted I recognized the opening chord.
It’s like being deaf on “Name That Song,” or not recognizing people you’ve been introduced to at parties when you see them in the street. I’ll share other Rock and Roll Quiz questions here, if you email me the answers.
H. G. Wells was not John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, or Ford Madox Ford, one of the Victorian/Edwardian writers whom I happily read and reread. I spend far more time than is necessary poring over The Forsyte Saga (I’ve written about it often here), Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, and Parade’s End, which, now that it has been dramatized for British TV (and doubtless will be on Masterpiece Theater soon), I have an excuse to reread.
Wells was different. In my view, he was a popular writer whose books didn’t last, except for a couple of mediocre science fiction novels. During my ’60s childhood, I associated Wells with Rock Em Sock Em Robots, Classics Comics, and boys’ endless tolerance for a science fiction puppet show called “Thunderbirds.”
I am the last woman in the world who would be expected to fall for H. G. Wells.
Women did, of course, fall for him in his lifetime: he had affairs with the American birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger, and English writers Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim, E. Nesbit, and Violet Hunt. His socialist pacifist politics are attractive to those of us who are liberals in this benighted century, but politics aren’t enough for a good read.
When I reread War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man in middle age, I thought the prose was wooden. But Wells’s comic realistic novels about class and love are livelier and better than you’d think. At the top of my list is Kipps, a socialist fairy tale classic about the rise of a draper’s assistant, and then The History of Mr. Polly, a charming novel about the rise of a draper’s assistant who gets stuck owning a shop and his inevitable rejection of his bourgeois life.
Wells is not a great writer, but he is a surprisingly consistent writer. I recently finished and very much enjoyed Ann Veronica, a gently satirical romantic novel about a woman who tries to find identity through the study of biology, suffrage, and love.
At 22, Ann Veronica is a middle-class college student living in the suburbs with her father and unmarried aunt. She is not content with her education, however, and tries to persuade her father to send her to a more challenging college. Women do not need that kind of challenging education, he says. She must stay where she is. When she mentions that she is attending a costume ball with the neighbors, he prevents her from going, with violence.
Of course, she runs away to London. There she rents a room and searches for a job; she cannot get a job, so she borrows money from the middle-aged Ramage, a suburban neighbor who has ulterior motives, which Ann Veronica doesn’t understand, partly because she is naive, partly because she doesn’t want to .
With this money, she continues to attend college, finds the lab a sanctuary, and falls deeper and deeper in love with one of the teachers, Capes, who is separated from his wife, but not divorced. In her spare time, Ann Veronica goes with friends to suffrage and Fabian meetings, though she dislikes the bellicosity of the slogans.
The lab is like a church, and she is grateful to Ramage for money that allows her to concentrate and work. Wells goes on for a couple of pages describing the sanctity of the lab. Here’s an excerpt.
It was long and narrow, a well-lit, well-ventilated, quiet gallery of small tables and sinks, pervaded by a thin smell of methylated spirit and of a mitigated and sterilized organic decay. Along the inner side was a wonderfully arranged series of displayed specimens that Russell himself had prepared. the supreme effect for Ann Veronica was its surpassing relevance; it made every other atmosphere she knew seem discursive and confused…. Contrasted with the confused movement and presences of a Fabian meeting, or the inexplicable enthusiasm behind the suffrage demand, with the speeches that were partly egotistical displays, partly artful manoeuvres, and partly incoherent cries for unsoundly formulated ends, compared with the coming and goings of audiences and supporters that were like the eddy-driven drift of paper in the street, this long, quiet methodical chamber shone like a star seen through the clouds.
Half in a state of mental breakdown, she insists on an errand for the suffragists that will end in prison, and in prison she breaks down completely. Wells quotes crazy monologues that go on and on for days because she cannot sleep. Once out of prison, she goes home, and the whole drama is played all over again. Studies, love, politics, and independence: she replays patterns until she suddenly takes control.
There is love, there is sexuality, but there is also great unhappiness. The sadness when Ann Veronica is reunited with her father and aunt, and realizes that they don’t feel much, is both shocking and tragic. She had almost given up her great love for her husband for them. And she realizes it would not have mattered to them.
The writing is sometimes clumsy, the love speeches between Ann Veronica and Capes become annoying, but there is such authenticity about the situation that this novel would bear rereading.
Quite a bit of this is autobiographical, I think: Wells was married, and then fell in love with a student: I think the wife let him go. I don’t have a biography of Wells, though, so this last is just speculation.
I do have a copy of David Lodge’s outstanding historical novel about Wells, A Man of Parts, and if I can find it, I’ll write more about Ann Veronica in the comments.