An Encomium for Short Books:  “The Diary of a Nobody,” “Another Part of the Wood,” “In the Act” and “The King in Yellow”

It is satisfying to read a book a day. I recently read several short books, among them The Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith, In the Act, by Rachel Ingalls, Another Part of the Wood, by Beryl Bainbridge, and The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.

Ingalls and Chambers clock in at less than 100 pages, the other two under 200 pages.

Another Part of the Wood, by Beryl Bainbridge.  Published in 1968, this early novel showcases Bainbridge’s subtle, haunting style.  In this dark, short novel, Joseph, a charmer who can turn it on and off, organizes a camping  trip to Wales with Dottie, his live-in girlfriend, Roland, his son by his first marriage, and Kidney, a mentally-challenged adolescent boy.

The campers stay in dark huts, which Dottie finds uncomfortable, and the boys sleep in a barn, which scares Roland. Dottie is not woodsy, so there is little to do  except smoke cigarettes and play Monopoly, or walk to the village to shop for food.  (Of course Joseph did not  pack enough food.) But Dottie is also annoyed that Joseph invited a couple they barely know, May, whom she knew at school, and Lionel, a former solider who brags  about his medal of valour, which is actually a train token.

The men seem content to chop wood and help the owner George and his handyman with other macho chores, while Dottie and May quietly seethe with rebellion.  Meanwhile, who is looking after the kids?

In the Act, by Rachel Ingalls.  Best-known for Mrs. Caliban, a short novel about a neglected housewife who falls in love with a monster who may or may not be imaginary, Ingalls wrote several edgy, funny short stories and novellas.  In her 1987 novella, In the Act, Ingalls writes a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the age of robots and sex toys.

Although Helen’s sons are at a boys’ boarding school, of which she does not approve, she keeps busy with adult education classes, so she isn’t lonely. Meanwhile, her husband, Edgar, works night and day in his laboratory on the top floor of the house. When the adult ed program is cancelled, she finds a key to the lab and sneaks upstairs to investigate.

  She shrieks when she sees the body parts.  But then she sees that the life-like limbs are not real, and there is metal in a broken skull. Apparently this is some kind of creepy invention of Edgar’s. And then the novella turns into a feminist comedy of blackmail and theft when she packs her husband’s docile quasi-human doll in a suitcase and checks it in a train-station locker. Everything would be fine if someone didn’t steal teh doll from the locker. The twist at the end is suitable for a feminist Frankenstein story.

The King in Yellow, by Robert W. Chambers.  In this collection of  short stories, Chambers proves himself a master of weird fiction.  The first four stories are linked by the existence of a banned, evil, hypnotic play, The King in Yellow, which destroys the lives of anyone who reads it.   In the best of these linked stories, “The Yellow Sign,” the narrator, a painter, looks out the window and sees a clammy, death-like figure. The picture he has been painting changes.  “The flesh tones were sallow and unhealthy, and I did not understand how I could have painted such sickly color into a study which before that had glowed with healthy tones.”  Later, his model Tessie, who is in love with him, climbs a ladder to look at the books on the highest shelf. She picks up the copy of The King in Yellow, and, terrified, he orders her not to read it, but she thinks he is teasing. She begins to read and falls into a swoon.  Furious with himself for even having the book around. the narrator feels compelled to read it.

Overall, I preferred the realistic stories. Some of them remind me of the work of Balzac or Zola.   In “The Street of the First Shell,” set in France during the siege of Paris in 1870, Trent, who volunteers in the ambulance unit, finds himself fighting at the front because so many men have been wounded or killed. It is eerily unreal, a nightmare of falling horses and men killed by bayonets. Bewildered Trent isn’t even sure he is at the front, but he miraculously survives. 

A splendid collection of stories! Many of the characters are artists: Chambers, too, studied art in Paris and worked as an artist before turning to writing.

The Diary of a Nobody,  by George & Weedon Grossmith.  Written in the form of a diary, this gentle comedy is a predecessor of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. Mr. Pooter, a “nobody” who works in the City and is known for his silly puns. He begins a diary after he and his wife, Carrie, move into the Laurels, a six-room house with a back garden that runs all the way back to the railway tracks.

“We were afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took 2 pounds off the rent.  He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience at all.”

Every reader understands the adjustments needed to attain affordable housing . Also familiar are Pooter’s comical DIY attempts.  He develops a painting mania, and paints his boots and his friend’s cane black. Then he is inspired to  to paint the bathtub red but bathing in it turns his skin red.

They have an active social life, but have a slacker son. When Lupin arrives for the weekend, they are ecstatic, but wonder why he makes no preparations to leave. On Sunday he first boasts that he has quit his job, then admits that he has lost it. And so he moves in, lounges like an adolescent, and puts a financial strain on his parents.  (A very modern problem!)

A book for the Victorians and for us who live in the future.

NOTE: Do recommend your favorite short books. What a pleasure it is to read a book in a day!

Lawrence Durrell’s Comic Sketches: “Antrobus Complete”

Lawrence Durrell, best-known for The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy consisting of the novels Justine, Balthazar, Mount olive, and Clea, is an entrancing, lyrical stylist.  He is one of my favorite writers; he is also, in my opinion, one of the best writers of the 20th century.  Members of the anti-Durrell contingent claim  they were “going through a phase” when they read half of Justine and cast it aside. But it is unfair to judge a writer on the basis of half a novel.  Durrell was versatile: a novelist, poet, humor writer, and travel writer.

I am a fan of  Antrobus Complete, a collection of his comic short stories (really sketches, I think). It is  irresistibly funny, a bit like Saki crossed with Betty MacDonald.  Antrobus, a fussy retired diplomat, often has lunch with the narrator, presumably Durrell: they had served together in foreign capitals before Durrell quit to become a writer.  The narrator is fond of  Antrobus, who glumly tells stories about diplomatic faux pas and hair-raising misadventures that could have precipitated political crises. 

Title page, with illustration of Antrobus by Marc

I chortled and snickered over these stories. Durrell’s style here is  unlike the lyrical writing of The Alexandria Quartet.  It is spare and witty, gently satiric and charming.  I could have read these stories all day, if only there were more of them.

There is a cast of recurring characters, among them Polk-Mowbray, the chief of several embassies (later the Ambassador of a country called Vulgaria).  In one story, he adopts a devil cat who speaks English, sends malicious telegrams, and smokes cigars.  (I was reminded of The Master and Margarita),  Everyone at the office loves Smoke the cat, but he or she – they don’t quite know – causes trouble and scandals.  Polk-Mowbray is devastated when he must part with Smoke, who is sent to cat rehab and thence to a luxurious cat home.

 Antrobus does not altogether approve of Polk-Mowbray.  In Athens in 1937, Polk-Mowbray still “wrote good English,” according to Antrobus. (This was akin to Middle English, the narrator notes.)  But  Polk-Mowbray’s use of  language deteriorated after a brief stint in America, where he fell in love with  Carrie Potts, a  majorette in a Stars and Stripes parade. Upon his return to Athens, he adopted  American spellings, American slang, and loud American fashion.

Antrobus grieves, “I noticed that  he dropped the Latin tag in his drafts. Then he began to leave the ‘u’ out of words like ‘colour’ and ‘valour.’  … I found a novel by Damon Runyan in his desk-drawer one day.  I admit that he had the good taste to blush when he saw I’d found it… “ One day he came upon Polk-Mowbray dressed in “check plus-fours with a green bush cap with a peak.”  Worse, he drank a Coca-Cola with a straw. 

Antrobus’s other lugubrious musings are equally comic.  In “Frying the Flag,” he glumly reminisces about the Grope sisters, Bessie and Enid, two old women who were editors of the Central Balkan Herald.   The newspaper was riddled with typos and errors:  THE BALKAN HERALD KEEPS THE BRITISH FLAG FRYING, MINISTER FINED FOR KISSING IN PUBIC, QUEEN OF HOLLAND GIVES BIG PANTY FOR EX-SERVICEMEN.  At one point Antrobus, who is a bit of a misogynist,  grudgingly admits that the typos are not the fault of the sisters, but of the Balkan typesetters, who could not read English. Still, he fumes and scapegoats the sisters. Polk-Mowbrary finally gets rid of them by a clever yet humane scheme, which involves match-making.

In “Noblesse Oblige,” the new Third Secretary, Anthony De Mandeville, arrives with his chauffeur, Dennis Purfitt-Purfitt, in  a flamboyant Rolls Royce with the De Mandeville arms stenciled on it.  The two are a gay couple, and Polk-Mowbray, now an ambassador, is startled to be called “darling boy.” Antrobus is delegated to rebuke De Mandeville, and does so with fervor.  

As you can imagine, De Mandeville proves to be an imaginative social planner (his main task as the Third Secretary).   For the Italian Ambassador’s daughter’s birthday party, De Mandeville dresses the waiters in Roman togas and at midnight releases a flock of doves.  “They flew disspiritedly round and round the room involuntarily bestowing the Order of the Drain Second Class on us all.”  The Roman waiters must clean up with sponges and cloths and “remove the rather unorthodox decorations we all appeared to be wearing.”

Even the anti-Durrell contingent will enjoy this delightful book, which is enhanced by drawings by Marc (Mark Boxer).

The Early Bird Special:  “That We Should Rise with the Lark”

While I was dusting my books, I came across a tiny Oxford hardcover of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia.  It was behind the Doris Lessing books, where it has been lost in limbo for years.   It is a a mini-edition –  doll-size  – too big for Barbie (of the Barbie movie fame)  but perfect for the iconic Chatty Cathy, a talking doll that was de rigueur one Christmas. 

Bur I digress. I am not having an existential crisis – not exactly – but I am not ” happy as a lark,” either. When I began to reread Lamb, I chortled, relaxed, and admired.  These essays are as charming and thoughtful  as I remembered. I am presently reading the short-short “Popular Fallacies” essays  ( “That Home Is Home, though it is never so Homely,” “That a Bully is always a Coward,”  “That Handsome Is That Handsome Does,” etc.).   They are utterly delightful.

 My favorite:  “That We Should Rise with the Lark.” 

Like Lamb, I do not rise with the lark.

 Lamb writes,

At what  precise minute that little airy musician doffs his night gear, and prepares to tune up his unseasonable matins, we are not naturalists enough to determine.  But for a mere human gentleman – that has no orchestra business to call him from his warm bed to such preposterous exercises – we take ten, or half after ten (eleven, of course during this Christmas solstice) to be the earliest hour, at which he can begin to think of abandoning his pillow.

I agree whole-heartedly with Lamb. For a mere human lady, we also prefer to sleep in.   One morning last summer I rose at 6, took my cup of tea outdoors, and squished through the grass, determined to commune with nature. “Is that dew?” I had forgotten about dew. But the sunrise gave me a headache, and I couldn’t find my sunglasses. And where was the lark? It seemed that the lark had had a late night and not yet left the nest.

Lamb writes, “We are no longer ambitious of being the sun’s courtiers, to attend at his morning levees.”

Lamb is thoughtful, whimsical, satirical, and sometimes poignant.

The mini-Oxford edition has no introduction, but the copyright page reveals that Charles Lamb was

Born:  London     10 February 1775

Died:  Edmonton  27 December 1834

And the essays were published between 1820 and 1833.

Are There Aliens in Manhattan?  Evelyn E. Smith’s “The Copy Shop”

I thought I was reading a collection of humor pieces. I picked up Evelyn E. Smith’s The Copy Shop on a whim.  Published in 1985, it lacked a book jacket. The first pages were amusing.

It began with a rant.  The narrator (who I assumed was the author)  contends that the Upper West Side of Manhattan would be the perfect place for aliens to live, provided they could find an apartment, since they would blend in with the “joggers, muggers, bicyclists, beggars, shriekers in tongues, peddlers, pushers, flashers, winos, whiners, madmen, and the rest of that universe…” 

And then she laments the vanishing of the species of “the true New Yorker, born and bred within the 320 square miles that make up the city…, a wary, low-profiled person, apt to get a bit freakish in old age, but essentially reserved, well-spoken, intelligent; above all, courteous, which the outlanders are not.”

In the 21st century, the outlanders are everywhere. We all miss courtesy and intelligence. In Manhattan in the 1980s in The Copy Shop, the narrator snobbishly categorizes and castigates the outlanders : “the loud, rude barbarians, whom the rest of the world mistakenly regard as typical New Yorkers, are  aliens, arrivistes, cast out from other states, countries, why not worlds?”

It wasn’t till page 9 that I cottoned on that this was a  novel, possibly science fiction or a thriller. The narrator, it turns out, is Ted Bogard, a handsome young man who is finicky about protocol and etiquette.  He deplores the noise of an ongoing construction site, the ubiquity of copy shops (why are they everywhere and what do they copy?), and the violent news blasting constantly from the TV night and day.  He lives in a huge rent-controlled apartment, but has installed his girlfriend, Candace, in his studio in the Village, where his mother and Aunt Magda used to run their fortunetelling business.

Ted is not a fortuneteller. The less said about his business the better. But soon he learns that there are aliens in Manhattan.  His alien father contacts him via the computer, because he is in the neighborhood. He gives Ted bad news. And what can Ted do about it?

Yet Ted might not be quite the most reliable narrator in the world. Is it possible that he…. No, I cannot give the details.

A comical, entertaining, uneven, unsettling book. Is it a rant, is it a satire, is it SF, is it a thriller?

According to Wkipedia, Smith (1922-2000) was a prolific writer of science fiction and mysteries and a crossword compiler.

The Annotated Georgette Heyer (An Instagram Satire)

Do you wish that life was all roses, gypsy shawls, Starbucks lattes, classy spectacles carelessly tossed down on a table, and a trashy-looking paperback heavily annotated with color-coded sticky tabs? 

You, too, can live this life.  All you have to do is pretend that you have an Instagram account!

A pseudo-annotated copy of Devil’s Cub!

I have a history with Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub.  You may remember that I keep finding it at the Little Free Library.  I keep bringing it home because everyone recommends Heyer.  I keep taking it back because I don’t want to read it. The cover proclaims that it is the story of “a bewitching beauty and a dangerous masquerade.”

Lotsa stickies!

On Instagram and YouTube, some enthusiastic readers annotate nearly every page of their books with color-coded sticky tabs. The tabs are so colorful and decorative!

I wickedly decided to satirize this charming trend by “annotating” Devil’s Cub. At least, you might assume it was annotated by the number of sticky tabs applied to the pages.

I confess, I found no reason to read the book. This is not, after all, Regency Buck or Faro’s Daughter, both of which are listed on the “England’s ‘Mistress of Suspense’ Georgette Heyer” page at the back of the book. No, probably better not to read Devil’s Cub.  “As she gazed defiantly into those smouldering grey eyes, Mary Chalmer’s heart melted.  Against her will, against all her plans, the Marquis of Vidal had won her love forever.”

And finally, here is my satiric diary entry!

Has anybody read Devil’ Cub? I do recommend Heyer’s The Transformation of Philip Jettan and Venetia. But she is not my go-to comfort read, as she is for many.

John O’Hara and Me

“Is there anything I haven’t done?  Is there anyone I haven’t offended?” – Julian English in John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra

In John O’Hara’s bracing first novel, Appointment in Samarra, the anti-hero Julian English’s self-destructive bender and depressed musings are typical not only of Julian, but of the brilliant, brash O’Hara. According to Fran Lebowitz, O’Hara was an underrated writer “because every single person he knew hated him.” Though Appointment in Samarra is considered his best novel, his second  novel,  BUtterfield 8, is almost equally brilliant, despite its exasperating, sexist ending. These two well-written, fast-paced Depression novels, published in 1934 and 1935 respectively, deserve a revival.

Appointment in Samarra  takes place during the Christmas season, which involves much partying and a lot of drinking. O’Hara is a shrewd sociologist as well as a novelist: he comments on his characters’ religious affiliations, social clubs, and family origins. He subtly probes the class strata during the Depression and Prohibition. The characters are residents of Gibbstown, Pennsylvania, which is based on Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where O’Hara grew up.

Class and sex drive the plot. The novel opens with a middle-class couple, Luther and Irma Fliegler, having  happy sex on Christmas morning. Afterwards they discuss their prospects of acceptance at the most prestigious club in town.  Everyone in Gibbstown is obsessed with class and clubs; or if not, and if they are of a lower class, they are knowledgable of the class demarcations. The well-paid gangster, Al Grecco, is a nice, sentimental guy who works for Ed Charney, because Al can get no other job during the Depression. His job description varies from day to day. On Christmas he is asked to guard Ed’s mistress,  a hard-drinking singer at a bar, from the attentions of men, while Ed stays home with his family.   But Al ’s main job is to drive to different towns to buy bootleg gin and whisky, and then sell it to private customers and speakeasy owners. There is an undercurrent of violence in Pottstown: Al can get violent if Ed insists. And some of the Gibbstown residents are smouldering.

 The protagonist, Julian, is sui generis in Gibbstown. He is a successful, Yale-educated, moody, cynical, sometimes charming, yet pugnacious owner of a Cadillac dealership, with a beautiful wife and a lovely house, and a group of friends he has known since childhood. And yet he manages over a period spanning 36 hours to alienate everyone he knows after he throws a drink in the face of Harry Reilly, simply because he hates him.

This quickly becomes a scandal and Julian is the talk of the town. Caroline is exasperated: she points out that Harry Reilly will make a bad enemy.  For one thing, he has invested a lot of money in the Cadillac dealership.  For another, he is Catholic, and all the Catholics stick together.  And, indeed, Harry refuses to see Julian when he goes to apologize.

Yet privileged Julian gets into deeper and deeper trouble as he continues to drink.  The next day he gets into a fight at the club with his childhood friend, a one-armed war veteran, who needles him about throwing a drink at Reilly, and says he has always hated him, and despises him for being at Yale during the war.

Julian is an unsympathetic character, and yet his downward path, disturbing as it may be, gives him a kind of pathos.  We dither: If only he hadn’t been so drunkenly belligerent… If only he hadn’t come on to three different women in a short time span (though nothing happens)… And if only he had listened to his charming wife Caroline, who adores him but becomes increasingly annoyed as Julian becomes more self-destructive during his bender.  His whole life is threatened because of the falling of social dominos.  And yet he goes on drinking.

So why do I love this novel so much when Julian is such a wreck ? He is unlikable, but tragically depressed, as O’Hara must have been. I don’t want the things Julian had or the things O’Hara wanted. O’Hara was obsessed with Yale and lobbied to get an honorary degree.  They wouldn’t give it to him. They were too snobbish. He also wanted the Nobel Prize. Did O’Hara set his sights too high? Hubris? No, I don’t think so. Clearly he was a great American writer. A pity he is underread.

O’Hara has the record for publishing the most short stories of any writer in The New Yorker:  247. In 1955 he won the National Book Award for Ten North Frederic. Even then he didn’t feel he got the respect he deserved. A funny thing about writers: they need more and more praise. They can be obnoxious and narcissistic. And yet their books can be brilliant. Read on.

Picks & Pans: In Which I Learn There Are No Terrible Books on My Shelves

I’ve always enjoyed Picks & Pans, the short, saucy reviews in Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and other smart magazines.

So why not have my own Picks & Pans section?  This is it, people!  I don’t have any pans today, because I’m not out to murder books.  And, face it, I have good taste. There are no bad books on my shelves.

Bask in the recommendations!

Golden Age Bibliomysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This anthology of short stories and novellas is a bookworm’s recreational drug.  There are stolen manuscripts, murders at the public library, and other crimes of bibliomania. In Anthony Boucher’s “QL 696.CN,” a librarian with ‘the soul of a cataloguer” is murdered while typing a seemingly innocuous list of books. In Lawrence G. Blochman’s “Death Walks in Marble Halls,” the librarian Phil Manning rushes to the scene  of the murder of H. H. Dorwin, a library trustee; he is determined to protect his innocent friend, Betty Vale, a ballet dancer and possible suspect who had an appointment to meet Dorwin at the library.  There is e a ven story by Lilian de Torres featuring Boswell and Samuel Johnson as detectives.

Something Happened Yesterday, by Beryl Bainbridge.  Many of us read Beryl Bainbridge’s novels, but did you know she was a columnist for the Evening Standard  in the late eighties and nineties?  Something Happened Yesterday, a charming collection of her columns, is a hodgepodge of witty, sometimes poignant, slices-of-life.  She writes about her exhilaration when she is persuaded to be the fortune-teller at the annual neighborhood carnival (her hunches are so spot-on that she oversteps boundaries);  she gently satirizes a university literary festival (an old woman wants help with a story that so far is three sentences long); and is horrified when her neighbor’s builder knocks down the party wall at the end of her garden (the council told her to pull herself together and she regrets “wasting several months agonizing over [the] wall.” ) This collection is perfect for reading on the bus or when you sneak out for a smoke at your mother-in-law’s Sunday brunch. I’m not a smoker, but Beryl was.  Cheers!

Julie Schumacher’s The English ExperienceIn this witty academic satire, James Fitger, chair of the English department at Payne University, is bullied by the Provost into escorting a group of students to England in January for the “Experience: Abroad” program.  The students are a varied bunch:  Wyatt Franklin packed only shorts and flip flops because he thought he’d signed up to go to the Cayman Islands; identical twins Andromeda and Cassiopeia Wagner-Hall are witty art students who hand in multi-media  projects in lieu of essays; Felicity Babinec has never been away from her cat Mrs. Gray ;  and on the first day the students finish their itinerary early and send him  texts saying they are tired of the British Museum (they’ve been there 55 minutes ) and would he pay for two or three cabs for them? But the group bonds with Fitger when he rebels against a tour guide.

A Watery Dystopia:  ‘The Drowned World,” by J. G. Ballard

Book Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – EcoLit Books

“Soon it would be too hot.” Thus begins J. G. Ballard’s cli-fi classic, The Drowned World.  And, indeed, soon it would be too hot.

Published in 1962, Ballard’s lyrical, if uneven, novel describes a world that is almost  entirely underwater.  The melting of the polar caps and glaciers have transformed Europe into a mass of lagoons and jungles, while the American midwest has become a gulf that extends to Hudson Bay.   And because of this redistribution of water, the median temperature at the Equator is 180 and rising. Ironically, the most habitable areas for humans are now the Arctic north and Antarctica.

The Drowned World is a strange read, full of lush description yet occasionally atonal.  Ballard’s style recalls the weirdness of Anna Kavan’s imaginative prose and the cynical perspicuity of W. Somerset Maugham’s tropical fiction.  Yet there is an undertone of the technicality of an engineering manual, passages that seem purely mechanical. One senses that Ballard approached this novel from a scientific hypothesis rather than plot or character.

Not all the characters are enthusiastic about the prospect of human survival.  The hero, Robert Kerans, a marine biologist, is languidly philosophical about the doomed world.  For years he has worked with a group of scientists on biological surveys of the world’s harbors. He thinks the work is pointless, and is sure that human beings cannot reclaim the cities.

At the moment the scientists are in London, where the primary inhabitants are oversized iguanas, alligators, basilisks, and mosquitoes.   But  the drowned, deserted cities are not without comfort. Kerans lives in a luxurious air-conditioned penthouse at the Ritz.  His charming girlfriend, Beatrice, has a sumptuous apartment in a high-rise.  They plan to stay behind when the scientists and military leave.

Why do Robert and Beatrice want to stay in the drowned world?  These two seem like characters in a D. H. Lawrence novel.  It seems right to them to stay;  they know how to handle themselves around the lizards, but they also accept the fact that the drowned city is their home.  And, though this is unstated, they feel that, now that the Earth is regressing into the Triassic age, humans have already done enough damage. 

And they see great beauty in London, despite the odorous water. Robert observes from his balcony:

In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the somber green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion broken when a giant water-spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.

 There isn’t much plot, but something does happen in the book:  Robert’s well-meaning military colleagues attempt to force them to leave London when they pull out. And immediately after their departure a brutal gang moves in.

But the plot does not matter much. The strange philosophical underpinnings and the occasional poetic descriptions are at the heart of the book.

Library Book Stickers: Do We Need This Security?

Once upon a time, a bookstore owner and  author of a bibliomemoir (possibly Shaun Bytell), complained about the stickers on discarded library books. “They deface the book,” he said bluntly.  I, a common reader, am also dismayed by the library-book stickers, which are taped onto the covers with tough plastic that is almost impossible to remove.  The texture of the stickers interferes with my reading: they also keep screaming, “I am a borrowed book!”

These stickers conceal, or perhaps are layered with,  purposeful electronics:  a loud siren is activated at the exit gates if the scanner technology detects an unchecked-out library book.  Personally, I have set off the screaming gates by simply browsing in the fiction section near the gate. 

Old-fashioned check-out with cards, pencils, and stamps.

 Am I the only one wary of too much exposure to electronics? Remember when we knew that phones caused brain cancer?  And when the Canadian study proved that computers could harm pregnant women?  How quickly everyone forgets. And so one wonders about the stickers and the scanner gates: are they bad for our health?  

The other day I was trying to read a mass market paperback library book.  Half of the back cover and one-quarter of the top front cover and the spine were covered with what I call scanner stickers.  I decided to remove the unsightly stickers, which actually were unpleasant to touch.  But removing the stickers was easier said than done.

First, I did not dare use a letter opener or knife.  One imagines little electronic bits flying around the room.  So I simply cut off part of the back cover and part of the front cover with scissors, and buried them in the trash. In other words, I cut off the scannable stickers.  I could not, however remove the spine stickers. Yet it gave me great satisfaction to read the book after the main stickers were removed. Though of course there is still the ISBN number stamped on the the publisher.  Well, one cannot worry about everything.    And, yes, I will pay the fine for the book. I will say it is “lost.”

What was wrong with the old-fashioned system?

If only it were a better world….  All this security is a headache.  Do we really need it?   Perhaps the librarians could take a chance on  freeing the mass market paperbacks from stickers.  The mass market books are very cheap:  if they vanish, they are easily replaced.  But on the hardcover books, yes, they may need the stickers, because these books are more valuable.  I looked for stats online about stolen library books, but could find nothing helpful. 

I did learn, however, that the chips in the stickers are known as Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID).  They are ubiquitous in our culture  we use them in hotel keys, passports, library cards, store merchandise, etc.

One librarian at Quora, Brian Collier, commented: 

This is difficult to answer accurately because there isn’t an international or even national report on library loss rates from different countries (or states in the US). Most libraries track their own loss rates but don’t report them to anyone outside their institution, or perhaps their network if they’re part of a larger body.

That said, the ALA (the national library organization in the US) offers a brief answer on their Loss Rate page, mentioning studies collected in a 1986 book that concluded “there is a loss of .15% to .5% per year.” The same page also mentions the 1998 book Managing Overdues by Patsy J. Hansel that posits “a national ‘overdue rate’ of .7% pre-automation and .4% for post-automation to suggest a national loss of 6.28 million items…

One wonders what was wrong with the old-fashioned check-out system: cards tucked in envelopes on the endpages, with your name written in pencil and the due date stamped by the librarian? That was a simpler, quicker , much cheaper means of check-out. Mind you, I know we’re not going back to that. But all this to-do about security at the library! Have a little faith! People must have gotten much worse than the days when a simple card-and-pencil were adequate for check-out!

Charlotte Bronte’s Underrated “Shirley”: Allusions to Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” & Anne’s “Agnes Grey”

Everyone loves  Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her classic novel about an orphan who suffers at a charity school,  then becomes a teacher, then a governess, is engaged to her rich, middle-aged employer, Mr. Rochester – and learns at the altar that he has a mad wife in the attic.

Many readers consider this Gothic novel a romance: in fact, some wish Bronte had written Jane Eyre over and over.  But I prefer Charlotte’s searing last novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a brilliant, if unattractive, teacher who falls into unrequited love. Bronte includes many Gothic elements, including a specter in the attic, and a drug trip on laudanum, which was administered to her without her knowledge.

For a long time I forgot about Charlotte’s third novel, Shirley. And so this week I have been rereading it with pleasure. In this stunning industrial novel, Bronte examines the industrial revolution from different points-of-view:  that of a cotton mill owner, Robert Moore, who cannot remain competitive unless he introduces machines into the mill; unemployed workers, some of whom lost their jobs to machines ; and Caroline Helstone, Robert’s cousin, who believes in mediation and kindness.

Romance also plays a part in this industrial novel: in fact, some critics complain about a “lack of unity.” To me, Bronte’s smooth writing unites the industrial theme with the romance seamlessly. Caroline is in love with Robert, who is ambivalent about his feelings for her; and when Shirley, a feminist heiress who often refers to herself as “a gentleman,” because women have fewer opportunities than men, arrives in the neighborhood, Robert calculates that it might be wiser to marry an heiress for her money.

One of the cleverest aspects of the book is Charlotte’s subtle allusions to her sisters’ novels.  She began to write Shirley in the late 1840s, and completed it in 1849 after the deaths of her siblings, Emily, Anne, and Branwell.  No wonder she pays homage to Emily’s Wuthering Heights and to Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Perhaps she alludes to Branwell, as well. She and Branwell obsessively wrote their Angria stories together.

Charlotte’s style is milder than Emily’s, but she seems in Shirley to rewrite a few of Emily’s scenes from a different angle. For instance, there are vicious dog scenes in both Wuthering Heights and Shirley. In Chapter XV of Shirley, “Mr. Donne’s Exodus,” Shirley’s dog, Tartar, barking and growling,  chases  two terrified curates up the stairs.  This  recalls a more savage scene in Chapter 1 of Wuthering Heights, in which Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s tenant, pays a visit to his landlord, only to find himself left alone in a a room with six savage dogs. 

Emily’s scenes are intensely savage, but there is also humor. Mr. Lockwood narrates:

Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still – but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury, and leapt on my knees.  I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us.  This proceeding activated the whole hive.  Half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes, and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common center….

Charlotte’s take on the dog scene is very different: it is wholly comical. Two impolite, unpopular currates, Malone and Doone, arrive at Shirley’s house and rush up the stairs, chased by her black-muzzled, tawny dog, Tartar. Shirley and Caroline know that his “growl, more terrible than the bark – menacing as thunder…” never lasts long. And so Caroline and her friend Shirley laugh quietly, but are gracious when they save the curates, until more comedy ensues.

Here is a paragraph from the scene of Tartar with the curates.

…a gentleman was fleeing up the oak staircase, making for refuge in the gallery or chambers in hot haste:  another was backing fast to the stair-foot, wildly flourishing a knotty stick, at the same time reiterating, “Down! Down! Down!” while the tawny dog bayed, bellowed, howled at him, and a group of servants came bundling from the kitchen.  The dog made a spring; the second gentleman turned tail and rushed after his comrade; the first was already safe in a bedroom: he held the door against his fellow – nothing so merciless as terror; – but the other fugitive struggled hard:  the door was about to yield to his strength.

In another scene in Shirley, Caroline Helstone, like Catherine Linton, née Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, is ill with a fever, and on the verge of death.  She calls out deliriously that she must see Robert Moore one more time before she dies.

“Oh, I should like to see him once more before all is over:  Heaven might favour me thus far!” she cried.  “God grant me a little comfort before I die!” was her humble petition.

There is nothing humble in Volume II, Chapter 1, of Wuthering Heights in Catherine’s brief clandestine reunion with her first love and soulmate,  Heathcliff. On her deathbed, she says that Heathcliff has killed her, and thrived on it.

“I wish I could hold you,” she continued, briefly, “till we were both dead!  I shouldn’t care what you suffered.  I care nothing for your sufferings.  Why shouldn’t you suffer?  I do!  W ill you forget me – will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, ‘That’s the grave of Catherine Earnshaw.  I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past – my children are dearer than she was, and, at death, I will not rejoice that I was going to her, I shall be sorry to lose them?’ Will you say so, Heathcliff?”

Passion kills Catherine in Wuthering Heights, but Caroline Helstone recovers, due to the bonding of women, one in particular. There is no female bonding in Wuthering Heights. Emily’s women rarely interact with one another.

Charlotte also alludes to Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey: Shirley’s governess is named Agnes – though Agnes Pryor is a middle-aged Agnes Grey. As a young woman, Agnes Pryor suffered like Agnes Grey as she tried to govern her charges; and she was desperately lonely, living in isolation from the adults of the family.

Now Agnes Pryor is a widow with a secret: we learn some of the nightmarish details of her marriage,though she is too discreet to reveal much. But they are not unlike the sufferings of Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and alcohol is implied, if not specifically mentioned.

Of course Anne wrote a happy ending to Agnes Grey. Grey married a gentle clergyman, and presumably lived with him happily ever. We want her to be happy, but was the curate always kind? Did something Gothic happen? People change. They have secrets, like Mr. Rochester. We hope Agnes Grey found bliss. We are not entirely sanguine. But that’s because I’ve also been reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine Morland adores Gothic novels and puts a Gothic spin on everything!

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