Dress Like an Anarchist & Other Challenges

 

“In 2017, despite getting married, vacationing in Maine, and remodeling three rooms in my house, I managed to read 137 books.”

This is not a skit: it’s a quote from an article about finishing the 2018  Goodreads Reading Challenge. Four bibliophiles who read over 100 books a year talked about their reading habits and their challenge tips.

Goodreads is a fun site, where I’ve found excellent books, like Grace Dane Mazur’s brilliant novel, The Garden Party.  And I enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge.  And yet every year women bloggers and women writers publish articles about anxiety about the Goodreads challenge. Is this sublimation for other anxieties in the 21st century?  Or does the internet foster discontent?

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

Do we consume more books by participating in reading challenges?  Of course.  There is the Women in Translation challenge, the Pop Sugar challenge, the historical novel challenge, the TBR challenge, Japanese lit, Italian lit, German lit, and hundreds of others.  The problem is, if you do all these, you  won’t have time to achieve your personal goals.

I’m not a particularly political person, but after reading some 20th-century articles on anarchism and feminism, I started thinking about how the internet shapes our consumerism.  Marketers stalk us.   We are encouraged to consume more commodities. We must do more book challenges, post cuter selfies, read more books, get more followers and “friends,” and buy those adorable soft lounging clothes I now see at lifestyle blogs and crave, and why is there still a void?

In one of the articles I recently read, a feminist anarchist reminds us of what I used to know.

It is difficult to consume people who put up a fight, who resist the cannibalizing of their bodies, their minds, their daily lives. A few people manage to resist, but most don’t resist effectively, because they can’t. It is hard to locate our tormentor, because it is so pervasive, so familiar. We have known it all our lives. It is our culture.

I  told my husband that I might become an anarchist.  He said, “You’ll have to show people you are and dress like an anarchist.”

Well, I can’t afford a new wardrobe…

Happy Reading Challenges, People, and remember, you control the number—it doesn’t control you!

A Satire and a Servant Problem: Peter De Vries’s “The Mackerel Plaza” & Winifred Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”

Have you heard of Peter De Vries (1910-1993), the New Yorker staff writer who was the author of numerous satiric novels? I wasn’t crazy about De Vries until I read The Mackerel Plaza, which was a Black Friday special.

This hilarious novel centers on Andrew Mackerel, the intellectual minister of the comically-named People’s Liberal Church of Avalon, Connecticut. Andrew, a recent widower, wants to remarry, but can’t even date, because his parishioners keep dedicating memorials to his late wife.

How can he meet women? Well, easily enough. He meets Molly Calico, an aspiring actress who works at the zoning board, when he files a complaint about a “Jesus Saves” billboard. He tells her he cannot write sermons with this monstrosity in view. Molly agrees it’s tacky, but thinks the common people need an easily comprehensible moral philosophy.  And she wonders what the Apostle Paul would say.  Andrew replies,  “I have no idea, but Oscar Wilde reminds us that while crime is not vulgar, vulgarity is a crime. ”  And that gives you an idea of the witty repartee.

The plot complications begin when he asks Molly out to dinner.  Because his parishioners are watching, they must sneak around bad neighborhoods.  And Hester, his sister-in-law, who moved in to be his housekeeper after his wife died, won’t let him forget her sister.  Andrew is astonished when Molly suggests Hester is in love with him and trying to scare off other women.  Is she right?

I very much enjoyed De Vries’s portrayal of the outrageously funny, conservative Mrs. Calico (Molly’s mother),  who reminds Andrew of Beatrix Potter’s Tabitha Twitchit.   She primly drinks tea and talks about the importance of roots, says the family is coming back (Andrew asks, “Are you expecting relatives?”), and announces, “Poetry went to the dogs under the Taft administration.”

De Vries reminds me vaguely of David Lodge–so funny!

DO YOU HAVE A SERVANT PROBLEM?

I recently read Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, a charming novel in the form of the diary of a vicar’s wife.  It is one of those earnest, slightly comic English novels about a Brave Englishwoman Who Has Only One Servant and Too Many Committee Meetings.

Bewildering Cares is a cross between E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver. I also kept mixing it up with another cozy novel I read this month, E. M.  Delafield’s The Way Things Are.

In Bewildering Cares, the heroine, Camilla Lacey, describes her life during the spring of 1940.  She tells us her husband, Arthur, is the opposite of the stereotypical bumbling vicar:  Arthur is a tall, dark, clean-shaven, brilliant man who took a First in Greats before World War I. The Laceys live in a manufacturing town, where they deal with people of all classes.

Camilla’s work as vicar’s wife is divided between visiting the poor and sick, lunching with the nouveau riche, committee work—and the women in the committees are  difficult—and managing the enormous cold vicarage.

Camilla divides the housekeeping with her only servant, the loyal Kate.  They share the housework and cooking, but cooking is challenging because it is difficult to find good ingredients during the war.

Camilla writes,

I often wonder if other women who are taking to their own work in war-time are filled with the same stupefied admiration for domestic servants which I feel now. Unruffled, they seem to be able to leave milk on the boil while they answer the Laundry and oblige with 3s. 6 ¾ d., wipe the flour off their hands while they respond to the Rubbish, break off in whipping up an egg to polish and take up the shoes, and keep a kindly eye on the soup even while, at the basement gate, a gentleman is imploring them to view the writing-paper in his attaché-case.

There is a  plot:  when the curate, Mr. Strang, a pacifist, preaches against the war, everyone is up in arms.  The Laceys wish he’d be more tactful, but they manage to soothe ruffled feathers.  Plus Mr. Strang gets dangerously ill—that, in fact, is what saves him from the witch hunt!

This slight novel, published by Furrowed Middlebrow, is very entertaining, and is available as a very cheap e-book.

You’d Rather Be Reading, or Would You?

Or would you?

There used to be an online community, we idealistically thought. The internet was the best thing since the counterculture. Remember Readerville and the forums at Salon?   I  also belonged to several online book groups, and was delighted to meet fellow readers at book festivals.   We saw the best of the internet, because we spent little time there.  Our slow dial-up barely loaded webpages.

With the rise of social media platforms, everything has changed. Language has declined (think Twitter), and fake news and misinformation proliferate.  Online book discussions have dwindled from mini-essays to a sentence or two.  I often feel I’m on a long, reckless drive on the back roads of blogs, book clubs, and book reviews.  Occasionally I find something good.

Goodreads is one of the better book sites, though I didn’t appreciate it at first.  I couldn’t see the point.  One blogger says she moved to Goodreads so she could lose the trolls. (Something to think about.)  Personally, I like the consumer reviews, and  I also enjoy the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which is a simple matter of stating the number of books you hope to read. Every time you note that you’ve finished a book, a picture of the book cover pops up. It is very cute.

Weirdly, many writers at online publications have written lately about their anxiety over their Goodreads Challenge.  And they advise other worried readers how to meet their goals.  (Let me sum it up : read shorter books!) What saddens me is this evidence of how social media can depress people.  That number bugs them, and they feel distressed that others read more.

My favorite of these articles is Angela Watercutter’s light, witty take, “Goodreads and the Crushing Weight of Literary FOMO,” at  Wired.  She does read books, but feels she doesn’t read enough. “How do I know this? Fucking Goodreads.”

Watercutter joined Goodreads in 2010.  She didn’t participate, but got updates about what her “friends” were reading.

Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed. Not only did I feel uninformed and slow, I felt somehow left out. I like talking about books, and thanks to Goodreads I had a constant reminder of all the great books I hadn’t read and all the conversations I couldn’t yet join. It was pure literary FOMO. (A point of clarity: I was also that sucker who tried to participate in Infinite Summer, the challenge to complete David Foster Wallace’s behemoth Infinite Jest. That summer ended in nothing but infinite regret.)

Keep track in a notebook: it doesn’t announce the percentage!

Yes, I, too, follow people who read a book a day.  And I get notes on their Kindle progress.  Should I be reading more and faster?  It’s hard to obsess about a number on a website, though.

I’m a pragmatist. I would never challenge myself to an unrealistic goal.   And since this “challenge” is just for fun (I like the pretty pictures of the book covers!),  it’s  one of the least stressful things in my life!

If you are upset about your Goodreads Reading Challenge, I have three solutions: (a) read short books, (b) change the challenge number, or (c) or keep track of your reading in a notebook, which doesn’t announce the percentage!

Famous People We Don’t Know

 

 

When a friend or acquaintance gets  famous, or even sort of famous, we are delighted. Absurdly we feel connected to them.  Not that we don’t love living in the low-key midwest, but few celebrities come through, except touring rock stars like Fleetwood Mac or Paul McCartney. And we don’t know them.

We are incurably bookish.  I grew up  in Iowa City, now a UNESCO City of Books, and attended the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. For years I was a journalist, and interviewed dozens of famous writers, among them Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason, Karen Joy Fowler, Margot Livesey, Frank Conroy, Oscar Hijuelos, Robert Hellenga, Peter Stothard, Karen E. Bender, and Michelle Hunevan.

John Leggett

Over Thanksgiving dinner, we invented a game whose goal was to rattle off our famous “friends” who once lived in Iowa, or even visited here.  My cousin claimed she’d partied with Ashton Kutcher at the University of Iowa (possible) and had sex with Keith Richards in Des Moines (certainly a lie!); my husband took a writing class from John Leggett, who was reputed to be a mean bastard  (I don’t know why my talented husband gave up writing); I also claimed Leggett because I lived around the block from him (and the noise from his parties kept me up all night); we absurdly claimed Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who got her Ph.D.  from the University of Iowa and taught for years at Iowa State, because we’ve attended two of her readings; and I took a writing class from T.C. Boyle when he was a T.A. (Do read his hilarious Iowa City short story, “A Women’s Restaurant,” in which the hero desperately wants to break into a Grace and Rubies, an actual women’s restaurant/club I belonged to in the ’70s!)

“Don’t you know anyone who isn’t a writer?” someone asked.

“Greg Brown?” we hazarded.

Yes, we have all heard the musician Greg Brown at the Mill or on Prairie Home Companion.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre

But then I had a flash! Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre! This brilliant comedy group, founded by five University of Iowa students in 1975, is famous. Their performances and radio sketches were broadcast on NPR, and they had finale show a couple of years ago . All right, I don’t “know” them, but Leon Martell  was the T.A. for my Drama in Western Culture class. I  do vaguely remember him perched on a desk in our discussion group.  And was there another T.A., Jan, who founded the Haunted Bookshop, or was that the second semester?  And  I think Leon may have directed the college production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, or perhaps he played Oberon. And were the fairies on swings?

The Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre skits are hilarious:  I love their performance of “When I Get Rich” and “More Than a Box.” And you can watch their finale performance in San Francisco online.   Actually, there seems to be a lot online.

WHAT FAMOUS PEOPLE DO AND DON’T YOU KNOW?

 

 

Dickens’s Dark Side in “Martin Chuzzlewit”

It is easy to lose oneself in Dickens’s baroque prose and enchanting, lightning-past plots.  He is one of my favorite Victorians, just behind Charlotte and Emily Bronte; Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are two of my favorite novelsAnd yet I complained bitterly this month while reading Dickens’s picaresque novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.  This weird, asymmetrical novel proceeds haphazardly and  plotlessly, until it finally comes together in a sentimental, fantastical ending.

The loose plot centers on the separation of old, rich, cantankerous Martin Chuzzlewit from his grandson, also named Martin Chuzzlewit, after a quarrel about the young man’s determination to marry Mary Graham, old Martin’s companion. The youthful Martin ends up traveling to America to make money and almost dies  in a swampy settlement called Eden, saved by Mark Tapley, a working-class Englishman who wants to prove he can be” jolly” under any circumstances.  (He does.) Meanwhile, old Martin falls under the thrall of a creep named Mr. Pecksniff.

It is undoubtedly the villains who drive this  book. I  could not tell you who the hero  is, or if there is a hero.  But it will be a long, long time before I forget Mr. Pecksniff and Jonah Chuzzlewit.  I wish I could!

The sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff, a fraudulent architect, hypocritical churchgoer, and windbag of an orator, swindles, plagiarises, and schemes to acquire money, including the fortune of old Martin Chuzzlewit.  And Jonah Chuzzlwit, who courts both of Mr. Pecksniff’s daughters, and abuses Merry Pecksniff after he marries her, is willing to commit murder if it will advance his financial dreams.

Mr. Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit, illustration by Fred Barnard

Eventually good prevails, and evil is punished. The dead even come back to life. (I’m not making this up.) But even though there is a happy ending, it does not end altogether happily for Tom Pinch, one of my favorite minor characters.  Even the good can live in darkness in Dickens.

Dickens sketches Tom as a kind, merry, and moral character who does good deeds and will never get what he wants—and yet must feign happiness.

Mary Graham tells Tom Pinch of Mr. Pecksniff’s harassment of her.((llustration by Fred Barnard)

Tom is the one loyal apprentice of pseudo-architect Mr. Pecksniff.  Tom thinks the best of everyone.  And as, one by one, the other apprentices discover Mr. Pecksniff’s true character and are driven from his employment, Tom tries to persuade them that they are mistaken. Martin, who has briefly been an apprentice, underestimates Tom, whom he thinks simple.  Fortunately, others esteem Tom highly despite his credulousness. It  is only after Martin’s departure that Dickens reveals Tom’s true depth.

Tom is not a sentimental Dickensian stick figure, though it may seem that way at first.  We learn he is musical and transported through music. He is enraptured when he plays the organ at church, and when Mary Graham, who is staying with her employer Martin at a nearby inn, comes into the church for solace and listens to his practicing, he begins to play music she especially enjoys.  It is his way of courtship/worship.

Tom even saves Mary from Mr. Pecksniff, after she confides that he has tried to bully her into marrying him.  Mind you, Mary is grateful to Tom and loves him as a friend, but it never occurs to her to think of him as a lover.  Martin is handsome and Tom plain, so there is no rivalry. But actually, Mary has a very small role in the book, so we know very little of her.  She IS one of the stick figures in the book.

At the happy ending, characters marry left and right, but Tom stays single.  He finally has a good job as a librarian, but his fate is to live with his sister Ruth and her new husband, and to be a happy uncle.  Dickens’ final portrait of Tom–the last few pages are about Tom–disturbed me.  Yes, the writing is sentimental, but Dickens doesn’t spare us the reality of the life of a man who lives through others.  Dickens writes,

And that mild figure seated at an organ, who is he! Ah Tom, dear Tom, old friend!

Thy head is prematurely grey, though Time has passed thee and our old association, Tom. But, in those sounds with which it is thy wont to bear the twilight company, the music of thy heart speaks out—the story of thy life relates itself.

Thy life is tranquil, calm, and happy, Tom. In the soft strain which ever and again comes stealing back upon the ear, the memory of thine old love may find a voice perhaps; but it is a pleasant, softened, whispering memory, like that in which we sometimes hold the dead, and does not pain or grieve thee, God be thanked.

There are a few more pages of this.   Tranquil?  Happy?  Maybe.  Dickens goes overboard.  He is not this mawkish in his later books.

I am haunted by Tom!  I cannot think this a happy ending.  I can’t think Dickens does.

Dickens can be very dark, but maybe I’m reading things into this  because it is NOT one of his best books and I am floored by this ending.

Watch Your Back! Online Return Rip-offs

I’ve had good luck  buying books online from Amazon, Abebooks, Barnes and Noble, and Alibris.  Amazon has remarkable service and the best selection of books.

So what do you do when the Returns department rips you off?

I don’t think I’ve ever returned books before–if I did, the service was prompt, meticulous, and honest.  But recently I returned some books.  In one case, the paper quality was  poor.  And the return forms indicated that I would receive  a FULL refund, minus a few dollars for shipping.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered.

So today I looked over the refund emails and was horrified to learn I had received:

$7.05 for a $23.29 boxed set of mass market paperbacks.

$4.62 for an $18.95 Everyman’s Library copy of Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge.

Ye gods!  This wasn’t Half Price Books.  Why was the Returns department ripping me off?

I told the customer service rep I would like  the books sent back to me if I couldn’t have the refund. She explained an item had been marked “damaged.”  Does removing the cellophane from a boxed set count as “damage”?  And what was wrong with the Dickens book?  She  gave me the refund.

Watch your back!  It’s Christmas time, ho ho ho!

The “Alternative” Black Friday & Best Books of Year Lists

Even if you watch only one TV show–say, The Good Place or Mom-the Black Friday commercials are discombobulating.  They drum it into you that deals are the point of Thanksgiving, and Black Friday now begins on Thursday.

The shopping ritual dismays me, and a dark cloud descends till I turn off the TV, though I see the appeal of leaving the guests if things aren’t going well, or doing a female-bonding thing by announcing,  “Let’s go shopping!” Still, I suggest that everybody take a walk instead.

The Bookworm, Omaha

Kerri Jarema at Bustle reminds us that there’s an alternative shopping day, Small Business Saturday.  She says, “…and for readers, this year’s indie bookstore line-up of events will have you more excited than ever to stack your shelves with new reads.”

She even mentions The Bookworm, where I sometimes shop. She writes, “Stores like The Bookworm in Omaha will be having special readings and signings, along with the chance to win a freebie tote bag and enter a raffle for a $50 gift card.”  And if you’re in Omaha, be sure to go to Jackson Street Booksellers, though I doubt the hipsters at that used bookstore have ever heard of Small Business Saturday.

Kudos to Jarema, because few New York writers mention the Midwest!

BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR LISTS.

The Best Books of the Year lists are published earlier and earlier.  It’s annoying, but it’s a shopping ritual thing.  And I do enjoy perusing the lists, so here are a few links.

1. The New York Times 100 Notable Books.  They call them “notable” rather than “best,” which is wise. I have read five and a half on the fiction list, which is pretty good for me.  I liked two of them: Joan Silber’s Improvement, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, a collection of linked stories about a group of New Yorkers, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Recreation. a satiric novel about a woman who decides to sleep for a year.

The others I’ve read were just okay:  Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning The Friend, basically an essay about the  narrator’s  best friend, a professor who seems to have died because he could no longer sleep with his students, and the Great Dane he leaves her;  Lionel Shriver’s Property, a collection of two novellas and some short stories (a couple of these are gems, the others so-so); Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, a metoo novel; and Rebecca Makkai’s well-researched historical novel about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, The Great Believers.

2.  The TLS Books of the Year.  Intellectuals recommend the best  books of 2018. They seem a little stuffy this year. Thank God for Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey, who got a laugh over Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and RecreationThe new Penguin translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days is also my kind of thing, but I don’t remember who recommended it.

3 . The Washington Post Best Books of 2018.  I haven’t read any of the top 10 and couldn’t access the rest!

4.  Barnes and Noble Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018.  The B&N SF blog is very good.

If  you know of any other lists do tell me!