Can a Book Prize Controversy Sell “Ducks, Newburyport”? 

I have nothing against award-winning books, but I try to use my time wisely.

That said, I am considering reading Lucy Ellmann’s experimental novel, Ducks, Newburyport,  which won the Goldsmiths Prize recently and was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society literary Award in Scotland.  It is on my Christmas gift “shortlist,” mainly  because of Parul Sehgal’s dazzling review in The New York Times.

 A literary prize “scandal” has put me off, though.

Lesley McDowell, a judge for the Saltire Society literary award, resigned from a panel of five judges because Lucy Ellmann’s novel did not win.  Three of the judges voted against Ducks, Newburyport, two for it. McDowell believes it was a sexist decision.  According to The Guardian, she is indignant that the prize went to Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, a novel by a man writing from the  point-of-view of a woman.  She insists Ellmann’s Ducks is a “masterpiece” by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

And so the judges disagreed.  Is that a big deal?

Has any small-press novel garnered as much attention this year as Ellmann’s novel?  That indicates the book is well-respected, and that the writer has powerful friends.  This  1,000-page novel, told from the point-of-view of an Ohio housewife, apparently in only one sentence, is available at my local Barnes and Noble.  I glanced at it:  it is very accessble.

Our own favorite small-press author, the late Stephen Dixon, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 for his experimental novel, FrogThe Baltimore Press described the 769-page book as follows: “Composed of 21 chapters — each with the word “Frog” in the title — it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives.”  He did not win.  Sounds like Dixon and Ellmann had some things in common.

McDowell claims that not all the Saltire Society judges finished Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel.  Again, I may be in Cloud Cuckooland, but this sounds like a smart move.  If the judges dislike a book after, say, 30-50 pages, is it likely they will change their mind on page 1,000?  And how do the judges find the time to read all of these books?  Don’t they need a sane process of elimination?  (You see, I am far too pragmatic for the world of award politics!)

From what I’ve heard, Ducks, Newburyport is not for everybody.  I am interested in it, but I hate award “scandals”:  the Nobel Prize scandal last year, a judge for the International Booker Prize resigning when Philip Roth, our great American writer, won, and on and on.

 Perhaps literary prize scandals sell books.  Alas, they depress me.

The fact that Ellmann’s small-press novel won one award (the Goldsmiths Prize) is astonishing!

Neronian Times: Seneca on Self-Care & Hairdos

Did the ancient philosophers invent the self-care movement?

I am a fan of Seneca (c.1 BC-AD 65), the politician, orator, and Stoic philosopher whose writings included letters, philosophical essays, dialogues, tragedies, and satires.  Seneca unfortunately got in the emperors’ bad books:  Caligula was jealous of his rhetorical skill; Claudius banished Seneca after accusing him of adultery with Caligula’s sister; later, Seneca became Nero’s tutor and political advisor, but  Nero falsely accused him of conspiracy after his retirement and ordered him to commit suicide. 

In those mad times—madder than ours?—Seneca managed to write many calming essays that fit in with today’s self-care movement.  Instead of slaving at jobs for other people, or wasting all our leisure on trivial pursuits, we must take time to do the things  we’ve always wanted to.

In De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Seneca observes that rich and poor alike complain that life is too short.  (The quotes from Seneca below are my translations from the Latin.)

It is not that we have little time, but that we waste much. Life is long enough and is liberally provided for the accomplishment of the greatest things, if the whole is well spent; but when it flows away through luxury and negligence, and when it is devoted to no great thing, we feel that, driven by necessity, the life we did not understand was passing has passed.

Seneca can be whimsical.  He mocks the men who claim they are too busy to pursue their dreams.  He says that idlers who have “leisure” are just as nonsensically busy.  He writes ,

Do you call those men idle who spend hours at the barber’s, making sure that any hair grown in the night is plucked, conferring about each hair one by one, having their disheveled hair arranged properly, or a comb-over if they are balding ?  How angry they are if the hairdresser has been careless, as if he were shearing a “real man”!  … Which of these fops do not prefer their country to be disordered rather than their hair?

We’re not revolutionaries:  off to the hair salon we go!  But we agree that we could use our time better.  Seneca believed we need time to think, ponder, read, write, and do things for ourselves, even if we cannot answer the big questions. Mind you, I don’t see the Stoics’  recommending the coddling aspects of self-care–the manicures, massages, and so-on–but Seneca knew we had both more and less time than we think.

And, no, it isn’t a waste of time to read Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers series!

Lose Yourself in Genre Classics over the Lost Holidays

darling anne taintor christmasI wonder, Is it too early for the holiday blues?

We thought we’d solved that problem when we inaugurated the tradition of choosing one book each to buy for Christmas, instead of exchanging expensive gifts with “exchange” written all over them.  

And so Christmas Present is smooth: it’s Christmas past that shatters you. Here are some examples:  the year someone said you looked fat in your thrift-shop black velvet skirt (you were thin but you cried), the year an aunt wrapped up leftovers for everybody except your mother (it was a sister-in-law war), and the year your uncle gave you arithmetic problems to solve at Christmas dinner because he’d mixed you up with a “mentally challenged” niece–AND THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE GOOD FOR HER.  (You protected her, at least, poor thing!)

And so let’s break out the non-alcoholic eggnog and stockpile genre books to lose ourselves in.  


four lost ladies palmerStuart Palmer’s Four Lost Ladies (1948).  The tenth in Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers series, this charming mystery is fast-paced, humorous, and suspenseful. When Hildegarde Withers, an amateur sleuth, retires from her job as an elementary school teacher, she has too much time on her hands. She pores over statistics about missing women and theorizes that most  of them were murder victims. Her policeman friend is cynical about the stats, but Hildegarde is worried when she does not receive a Christmas card from her spinster friend, Alice. Hildegarde’s investigation links the disappearance of Alice to an apparent suicide of a wealthy spinster at a fancy hotel, and the disappearance of three other women who stayed there.  Hildegarde goes undercover, and with the help of her new sidekick, Alice’s niece, solves the crimes.

alas, babylon pat frankPat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959).  This gripping, realistic novel about a nuclear holocaust in the U.S. is a neglected American classic—and one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. If you were riveted by Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, you will find Alas fascinating, because it deals not with the knowledge of impending death but with nearly unsolvable problems of survival.  Randy Bragg, a lawyer in Fort Repose, Florida, receives a telegram from his brother Mark, who is a colonel, ending with the words Alas, Babylon.  This is code to alert Randy that a nuclear war is imminent, and that Mark’s wife and children are flying from Omaha to Florida, where they may be safer.  The bombing itself is horrifying, as the flashes and mushroom clouds explode in cities all over Florida and the rest of the U.S., and Randy’s niece is temporarily blinded.  Fort Repose is not hit, but the problems—which include the end of electricity, finding food after canned supplies run out, finding unpolluted water, a cholera outbreak in a hotel because guests keep using toilets that no longer flush, the death of diabetics because there is no refrigeration for the insulin, medical supplies running out, the prevalence of highwaymen and murderers, and the necessity to carry guns.  Randy and a small group of neighbors band together, but they don’t even know who won the war.  Russia or the U.S.?

These days we fear climate change, but we used to be terrified by nuclear war (I had recurring nightmares).  In the following succinct passage, Mark explains to Randy what we’d be up against.

“There isn’t any place that’ll be absolutely safe. With fallout and radiation, it’ll be luck—the size of configuration of the weapons, altitude of the fireball, direction of the wind. But I do know Helen and the children won’t have much chance in Omaha. SAC Headquarters has got to be the enemy’s number one target. I’ll bet they’ve programmed three five-megaton IC’s for Offutt, and since our house is eight miles from the base any kind of near-miss does it—” Mark snapped his fingers—“like that. Not that I think it’ll do the enemy any good—command automatically shifts to other combat control centers and anyway all our crews know their targets. But they’ll hit SAC Headquarters, hoping for temporary paralysis. A little delay is all they’d need. I’ll have to be there, at Offutt, in the Hole, but the least a man can do is give his children a chance to grow up, and I think they’d have a better chance in Fort Repose than Omaha. So if I see it’s coming, and there is time, I’ll send Helen and the kids down here. And I’ll try to give you a warning, so you can get set for it.”

I raced through this well-written, distinctly American dystopian novel, and highly recommend it.

Any recommendations of other brilliant genre books?

For History and Biography Buffs: Daisy Dunn’s “The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny”

Daisy Dunn’s brilliant literary biography, The Shadow of Vesuvius:  A Life of Pliny,  is a delightful read.  Although it may sound unlikely, this well-researched book is light and charming.

Actually, there were two Plinys, both influential Romans in the first century A.D.  They were Pliny the Elder, best known for his 37-volume encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis (Natural History), and his nephew Pliny, the author of nine books of literary letters.  In these letters,  Pliny (c. A.D. 61-c. 112)  chronicled historical and political events, ghost stories, court cases, a legend about a dolphin, senatorial scandals, and his interests in poetry and Stoic philosophy. He included his correspondence with the emperor Trajan.   

Pliny the Younger, known to us just as Pliny, is still popular today. (The letters translate well into English.)  Pliny’s hero was Cicero, but Pliny is a much less demanding writer.  His style is simple but elegant, and the letters are short, pointed essays.  His two letters to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. are perhaps his most famous.  Pliny stayed home to study and read Livy when his uncle, Pliny the Elder, decided to sail from their home in Misenum to investigate the phenomenon of a strange cloud (like an umbrella pine) rising above a mountain.  (They did not know it was Vesuvius.)  Pliny the Elder died after going ashore to attempt to rescue terrified friends.  

In the second letter, Pliny describes his own observations and experiences during the volcanic eruption.   When the tremors increased and the sky grew pitch-black, he and his mother fled in terror, and finally went off the road to escape a panicky crowd. When the sun finally appeared, the earth was pillowed with ashes.  But twenty years later, many of the towns destroyed by Vesuvius  had  been rebuilt and flourished

The British edition.

Dunn is fascinating on the subject of Pliny’s love of writing and the quiet life. During the festival of Saturnalia, a week of wine and banquets, he retired to his country villa and lived in sound-proof rooms. He was a lawyer and politician who preferred the quiet life; while at the villa he wrote poetry as well as letters. Later, he was was elected consul, the highest office in Rome, and served as governor of Bithynia, where he attempted to create a just system by which Christians could be tried.  (Nero had persecuted the Christians; Pliny and Trajan were more lenient.)

There is also much about Pliny’s side business in wine!

This book is so short you could easily read it over the holidays (240 pages of text, the rest notes).  One effortlessly absorbs history through anecdotes mixed with information, accounts of sizzling political scandals, vivid characterizations of Pliny and his uncle, explications of Stoic philosophy, and a lively consideration of contradictory interpretations of historical details.

I recommend you read it along with Pliny’s letters.   The two together would make a great gift.

A 1920s Classic:  Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counter Point”

huxley poingOver Thanksgiving, I reread Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point.  It was the fashion to read this classic in my twenties, and I see why.  Huxley’s novel is a detailed portrait of the society of the 1920s, a novel of ideas, and a sharp satire of almost everything.  What’s more, it is easy to pinpoint characters based on D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Nancy Cunard, Sir Oswald Mosley, and John Middleton Murray.  

Published in 1928, this book is unremittingly witty. I chortled over the dialogue and was fascinated by the idea-driven plot. The first 150 pages revolve around a musical party, where the guests are alternately charming and bored, and an after-party at a restaurant.

point penguin huxleyWalter Bidlake, one of the more sympathetic characters, is a writer at a literary journal, who is based partly on Huxley himself.  In the first chapter, he is about to leave for the party, while his pregnant lover, Marjorie Carling, whom he lured away from her husband, stays home. She pleads with him to come home early, but Walter is now in love with Lucy Tantamount, a strikingly fashionable woman who has had dozens of lovers and doesn’t particularly seem to want Walter.  Walter feels guilty, but he now despises Marjorie, who has nothing to do since she quit her job at a small decorating shop.  And the cynical Lucy, who finds Walter tiresome but loyal, wonders later, “Why did he look so like a whipped dog sometimes?”

Complicated affairs run in the family.  Walter’s father, John Bidlake, a famous artist, and Lucy’s mother, Hilda (Lady Edward Tantamount), were once as wanton as their offspring.  They had an affair, because Hilda’s much older husband, Lord Edward, a scientist with Dickensian ideas about women, made love to her like a “fossil child.” The horrible John Bidlake is now old, but does not realize it: he is repulsed by the fat old women who were once his lovers and models.  Yet he is truly hilarious when he mocks latecomers who arrive during the concert.  One woman mimes embarrassment,  blows a kiss, puts her finger over her lips, and then tiptoes to a vacant seat.  

Bidlake was in ecstasies of merriment.  He had echoed the poor lady’s every gesture as she made it….

“I told you so,” he whispered, and his whole face wrinkled with suppressed laughter.“It’s like being in a deaf and dumb asylum.”

Huxley’s dialogue is sometimes intellectual, other times racy and hilarious.   Rampion, a painter and writer based on R. H. Lawrence, rants about the horror of mechanical society and says that “Jesus, Newton, and Henry Ford have pretty much killed us.”  Sir Edward, the scientist without social skills, intelligently warns of the dangers of fossil fuels, and predicts the human race has 200 years left.  Spandrell, a mama’s boy who never got over his mother’s remarriage, has a program of seducing women and teaching them to accept degradation.  Philip Quarles, a novelist, cannot relate to people without the assistance of his wife Elinor, who encourages his relationships with his crushes; he does not realize that she has fallen in love with Everard, the leader of a fascist group.  

Baed on vivid characters and intellectual discussions, this entertaining novel shows the 1920s were just as “modern” as our own time. 

As Lucy says,

“Living modernly’s living quickly.  You can’t cart a wagon-load of ideals and romanticisms about with you these days.  When you travel by airplane, you must leave your heavy baggage behind.  The good old-fashioned soul was all right when people lived slowly.  But it’s too ponderous nowadays.  There’s no room for it in the airplane.”

The Old Novel: “Voting”

I recently came across Uncertainty,  a novel I wrote in 2007.  And you know what?  It’s okay, though a bit static.  So I am posting a chapter called “Voting,” because I was concerned back then about the same political issues then as now.

“Voting,” from Uncertainty, by Kat (2007)

Rose’s Prozac restored her to her old self, a woman who believed in suffrage and citizenship. She could scarcely remember her depressed decision earlier not to vote.

She read the newspaper and made a checklist of candidates. She talked them up to her colleagues. She persuaded her boss Kent to vote. He was “independent.” They notoriously didn’t make it to the polls.

I’ll go on strike if you don’t vote, she said. Vote for anyone.

She could still recite the intro to the Declaration of Independence if she concentrated. She threatened to recite it to him.

Our father who art in heaven…

No, wait. That was the Lord’s Prayer. Catholicism doesn’t matter here. It isn’t a Kennedy world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

Rose and Ben had been voting at the Catholic church for years. They were glad to vote because, if nothing else, they got away from Rose’s sister Megan for a while. Megan didn’t leave the house. Rose felt guilty about leaving her alone. But tonight she and Ben had an excuse to go out and Megan as usual refused to accompany them.

In the darkness one of the nuns hurried past them up the steps and said hello. Startled, Rose started to fall. She muttered that she felt a little dizzy.

Panic attack? Ben asked.

No. Nuns scare me . I still remember kneeling in school, when a nun wanted to see if my skirt hem touched the ground. She made me kneel because my skirt was too short.

They sat on the damp steps of the church until she recovered. She enjoyed going to Mass, but she didn’t want to go into the church. She had to go into the church. Voting. Got to vote. Too many bad things had happened since 2000. The twenty-first century was going down. That’s what it was about. The dollar was worthless, though economists lied and said the economy was in good shape. The U.S.A. was just a country that fought with Iraq. Crazed SUV drivers intimidated people in parking lots. Oil wars, fought even in parking lots. Who can drive the biggest vehicle? Right-wing nuts picketed plays.

Ben said he hated voting in a church.

I believe in separation of church and state. Should we genuflect at the voting booth?

The elderly women at the tables checked their names on a list and gave them voting cards. They went into the booths and voted.

They walked to the restaurant. They were glad to get away from Rose’s sister, Megan, who was having a nervous breakdown in their house. Megan wouldn’t see a doctor. She wore a bathrobe and clogs she had borrowed from Rose. Every day Rose came home to find the mail had been opened by Megan: bills, junk, letters, and packages. Rose didn’t like to scream at someone who had gone nuts, but she said, Are you the CIA or what? and they quarreled. She felt like getting stoned with Megan to get away from worrying about her. But she didn’t. It was against her principles. She had her Prozac. And she didn’t think marijuana was doing Megan any good.

The bed in the spare room was now covered with Look and Life magazines Megan had bought years ago in a store in Cape Cod when her husband was still alive…Rose wondered how the Kennedys felt about this crap being sold near their summer home. Spread out across the bed were biographies of the Kennedys, SOUL ON ICE, Beatles biographies, Edward Gorey books, journalism by Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe, novels by Brigid Brophy,William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey. She took notes in Mead marbled composition notebooks in all sizes, filled with writing….some of it quite good. But it was all in note form. Nothing really got done. Megan sat in bed, writing occasionally, stoned, then read POLDARK half the time.

And then there was the Ben problem. Rose waited up late to spend time with Ben. Megan didn’t like Ben much. At a late dinner the night before Megan urged Ben and Rose to vote socialist, just to agitate Ben, though as far as Rose knew Megan always voted Democrat. Ben got very upset.

Ignore her, said Rose to Ben. To Megan she said, Leave him alone. You’re so perverse. Why do you do it?

He’s so despotic. I can’t take it.

Well, take it. Everybody likes Ben.

Oh, then I’m jealous. I don’t have a husband anymore. I miss my husband. He and I voted socialist when we were in our twenties. I was just reminiscing really.

Well…that wasn’t clear, Meg. Now we’re just trying to hold the country together.

With votes? How naive.

What else do you suggest?

Drop out. Have a garden.

Megan had actually tried that for a while. In a commune.  No voting there.

Am I Still Bookish? A Glut of Lists & Carol Shields’s “The Box Garden”

I wondered, Am I still bookish? 

Every year, the “Best Books of the Year” lists become less reliable.  Yes, they make good Christmas shopping lists—what to give Aunt Betty in What Cheer, Iowa, is a problem—but publishing the lists before Black Friday is just giving in. The daily critics used to be so classy that their “Best of” list did not appear until a week or two after Black Friday.   I am not sure this is still the case—Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, has enfolded them into her operation.

A masterpiece

Needless to say, the New York Times’ “Top 10” is not for me, because I read older books. But I did expect to find Tess Hadley’s masterpiece, Late in the Day, and possibly Ludmilla Ulitskay’s Jacob’s Ladder,  among the New York Times “100 Notable Books”—and instead found Cathleen Schine’s bubbly chick lit novel, The Grammarians, and  Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything.   

O tempora!  O mores! 

I had better luck with “The Best Books of the Year” at the Washington Post. Tessa Hadley made the list, and Schine and Weiner did not.  Actually, the reviews at the Washington Post are usually brilliant.  The reviewers have distinctive voices.   

And I enjoyed the “Best of” at the TLS:  several critics write about their favorite reading of the year, so it is more than  a list.  I always scribble down a few of the titles, but do giggle over some of the more pompous ones that are not in my field.

WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING?   I loved Carol Shields’ superb second novel, The Box Garden, a sequel to Small Ceremonies (which I wrote about here).  (Yes, I’ve been back in the ‘70s.)

Shields’s style is deceptively simple. She breezily treats family problems and spiritual aches within the context of a domestic comedy.  The likable narrator, Charleen, a poet and part-time assistant editor at a botanical journal, is depressed about the impact of divorce on her family life.   Her husband left her and their fifteen-year-old son to live in a commune and raise organic food five years ago.  Meanwhile she is dating an orthodontist—whom her  friends think very unhip—and corresponding with a man whose philosophical essay on grass (not marijuana) was rejected by the botanical journal.  And now she must go to her 70-year-old mother’s wedding—and that will be a trial, because her mother never liked her or her older sister, Judith, a biographer (who is the narrator of Small Ceremonies).  Resonant, riveting, and often humorous!