Monthly Archives: July 2019

What I’m Reading: Jeanette Winterson’s “Frankissstein”

I’m not quite a “Bookerhead”—I won’t read all the titles on the longlist this year—but I find the list fascinating.

And I do have a copy of one of the novels, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a strange, brilliant retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  As always, Winterson writes gracefully, and in this novel she philosophically and scientifically explores the future of AI. 

It begins like a historical novel.  In the opening chapter, during inclement weather, Mary, with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, their friend Lord Byron, her stepsister, and an obnoxious horny doctor,  John Polidori, compete to  see who can write the best ghost /horror story. Shelley’s Frankenstein is the winning result.

Winterson interweaves  the story of Mary Shelley with an intellectual present-day first-person narrative by Ry Shelley, an English transgender man. In the present, Ry (short for Mary, not Ryan), a doctor and journalist, is interested in the ethical issues of AI.  He has a relationship with Victor Frankisstein, a charming but ruthless AI enthusiast who gives TED talks and hopes to upload his brain into some AI form.  (Neal Stephenson also writes about this issue in his new novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell.)

But Ry’s interest in AI goes beyond  science.  He is also curious about the quotidian future of AI.  At a conference as a journalist, he interviews Ron Lord, a working-class manufacturer of sexbots:  Ron even hopes to make a deal with a rental car service, which will provide bots in the passenger seat.   His  pride in his dolls is comical but horrifying.

Women see these issues very differently from men.  They express concerns at one of Victor’s AI promotional lectures  that the future of AI may lower the status of women.  It doesn’t help that Ron Lord is now one of Victor’s investors. A female Vanity Fair writer is is very indignant.  Here is an excerpt from her conversation with Ry, whom she trusts because he is transgender, though she is surprise he won’t let her profile him for the magazine.

I don’t trust the way AI is being sold to us. People aren’t in the conversation, let alone the decisions. We’re going to wake up one morning and the world won’t be the same.

That morning could be any morning, I say. It could be climate breakdown. It could be nuclear. It could be Trump or Bolsonaro. It could be The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s just what I mean, she says. We think change is gradual, incremental, that we’ll get used to it, adapt. But this feels different. And I hate the fuckin’ sexbots!

Though not a fan of Alexa and Siri,  I had never considered the effect of AI on the future of women.  The award-winning Winterson combines lyricism with geek talk in this genre-bending literary-philosophical-SF novel.

Favorites vs. Long Shots: The Booker Prize Longlist

l  love the Booker Prize longlist, but I’m already behind the true “Bookerheads.”  These passionate bloggers and vloggers responded last week and doubtless have finished their reading.

Yet the Booker is my favorite prize.  And, to me, this is the most interesting list in four or five years, because the famous writers are back.  And it’s not American-dominated.

Under new sponsorship, the prize rules have changed to expand the geographic eligibility of nominees, if I understand correctly. All the books had to be written in English and published in the UK and Ireland this year.  And that means one Turkish and two Nigerian writers made the list.

I am happy to say I am familiar with six of the authors:  I have enjoyed books in the past by Margaret Atwood, Lucy Ellmann, Salman Rushdie Rushdie, Elif Shafak, John Lanchester, and Jeanette Winterson.

An award list should be as much fun as going to the races:  we might want to bet on a favorite, or we might prefer a long shot. And even if we can’t read the Racing Form, we can certainly decipher the Booker Form again–if we can only find the books.

My husband usually reads the whole list, but not all are available in the U.S. yet.  The Atwood, Ellman, Rushdie, and Winterson (and probably some of the others) won’t be published till fall.  I do have a review copy of one, which makes me feel like an insider, though it’s a coincidence.  I usually read the dead, but I’m perusing this book tonight…

Here’s the list:

Margaret Atwood (Canada) The Testaments (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Kevin Barry (Ireland) Night Boat to Tangier (Canongate Books)

Oyinkan Braithwaite (UK/Nigeria) My Sister, The Serial Killer (Atlantic Books)

Lucy Ellmann (USA/UK) Ducks, Newburyport (Galley Beggar Press)

Bernardine Evaristo (UK) Girl, Woman, Other (Hamish Hamilton)

John Lanchester (UK) The Wall (Faber & Faber)

Deborah Levy (UK) The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton)

Valeria Luiselli (Mexico/Italy) Lost Children Archive (4th Estate)

Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) An Orchestra of Minorities (Little Brown)

Max Porter (UK) Lanny (Faber & Faber)

Salman Rushdie (UK/India) Quichotte (Jonathan Cape)

Elif Shafak (UK/Turkey) 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking)

Jeanette Winterson (UK) Frankissstein (Jonathan Cape)

Let me know if you have any interest in these or have read them.

“The Plumed Serpent” by D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence is my favorite 20th-century English writer. Some of his books are masterpieces, others wildly uneven.  I loved them all in my teens, though some hold up better than others.   Recently I reread The Plumed Serpent, a lyrical but rather tedious novel, published in 1926, about the rise of a cult in Mexico (the cult is fictitious).  The cult centers on the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who takes the form of a plumed serpent.  Don Ramon, a wealthy Mexican landowner, claims he is Quetzalcoatl:  one of his goals is to drive Christianity out of Mexico.  He also likes to be worshipped.

 Fortunately, we observe Mexican culture from the point-of-view of Kate Leslie, an Irish tourist who is the only fleshed-out character in the book, and perhaps the only one Lawrence understands. She is ambivalent about Mexico, and the politically correct should not venture into these pages.  

The Plumed Serpent begins promisingly enough at a bullfight in Mexico City.  Kate, her American cousin Owen, and their young friend Villiers sit in the broiling sun because they did not pay extra for seats in the shade.  The crowd  is rowdy, snatching straw hats off heads and throwing  them into the air, and when Owen takes off his hat they throw oranges at his bald spot. Poor Owen.  Why does he stay?  But it is the violence of the bullfights that repulses Kate.  She walks out.  

Kate is not politically correct. Readers today who do not know Lawrence’s work might consider this novel racist, sexist, anti-Mexican, anti-American, anti-European, but Kate and  Lawrence are concerned mostly about individualism.  In the 1920s, Kate hates most places and people:  she can’t stand the the U.S., finds Americans “mechanical,”  loathes England, isn’t crazy about Ireland, finds some Mexicans “reptilian,” and on and on. Obviously, Lawrence would have perceived things differently had he lived in our culture, but this was written in 1926.  Kate is well-traveled but she is having a bad time.  Lawrence writes,

She was more afraid of the repulsiveness than of anything.  She had been in many cities of the world, but Mexico had an underlying ugliness, a sort of squalid evil, which made Naples seem debonair in comparison.  She was afraid, she dreaded the thought that anything might really touch her in this town, and give her the contagion of its crawling kind of evil.

Despite her ambivalence, Kate stays in Mexico after Owen and Villiers go back to the U.S.  (She hates the U.S. more than Mexico.) She is attracted to Don Cipriano, an Indian general who has introduced her to Don Ramon.  But it’s not until she leaves Mexico City and rents a house on a beautiful lake near Don Ramon’s house that she sees the beauty of Mexico.  I empathize with Kate:  I, too, hated Mexico City on a trip   with a boyfriend who spoke Spanish but was culturally illiterate.  Alas, no Diego Rivera paintings or Aztec ruins for me!  All he wanted to do was drink. And then we spent 12 nonstop hours on a bus (without a restroom) to a supposedly Edenic seaside village, where there was donkey shit on the beach and I got a blistering sunburn.  He spent his days in the bar getting drunk and talking to the bartender while I drank Manzanita (apple pop) and read.  I huddled in the cockroach-infested hotel room reading One Hundred Years of Solitude,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and  part of George Eliot’s Romola.  I gazed with longing at the posh hotel where the Americans and Germans stayed.  I  yearned for good plumbing and a bug-free space.  (And it probably wasn’t even expensive.)

 Eventually we got out of that hellhole and went to Veracruz, which I loved.  It is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever been. And that’s where I found The Plumed Serpent, the only English novel in the bookstore.   I adored the book back then.

I do enjoy Kate’s experiences, but the Quetzalcoatl cult, the dancing to drums, and the rants against Christianity  are endless.  There is also a horrifying military scene where the cult takes over the Catholic church in the village.  The narrative is interspersed with long hymns to Quetzalcoatl. If you like Lawrence’s poetry, you will enjoy some of the hymns perhaps.

I was looking forward to this reread, but, alas, this book is no longer for me. I prefer his realism in The Rainbow (which I wrote about here) and Women in Love to the symbolism of his later work.

Don’t Knock While Sloshed at Pliny’s Door!

Fresco of young man holding a scroll, 1st century A.D., Herculaneum

I am taking a break from the eloquence of Cicero to read Pliny’s relatively undramatic letters. Cicero’s court cases are almost too exciting. I am impressed and yet terrified by his bold prosecution of Verres, a gangster-governor of Sicily who stole both public and private art and  bribed the jury of the court in Rome.  I’d never had the slightest interest in Verres before.

Yet there’s something to be said for simplicity.   Pliny (61 A.D.- 113 A.D.) favors  a plain, minimalist style.  This wealthy Roman lawyer and successful politician was best-known as a writer of polished letters composed for publication. 

Among Pliny’s most famous letters are a brilliant account of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.;  a trio of ghost stories ; a charming story of a boy who swam with a dolphin; and a letter asking the emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians while Pliny was governor in Bithynia.

But I’ve especially enjoyed a witty poem by Martial quoted in a letter written on the occasion of the poet’s death.  Pliny writes that he has a whole volume of poems Martial wrote for him.  (He was one of Martial’s patrons.)

Below is my prose translation of Martial’s playful Latin poem. Here, he advises the Muse not to knock on Pliny’s “clever” or “eloquent door” while drunk (literally in an “inebriated time”). I would love to preserve  the fun of Martial’s  “transferred epithets,” i.e., adjectives transferred from persons to inanimate objects, but it doesn’t quite work in English.   Instead of changing the “eloquent door”to “eloquent Pliny,” I prefer a magical talking door. When you’re drunk, mightn’t you hear a talking door?  But it is too wordy in English.

Here is Martial’s advice to the Muse.

Don’t knock while sloshed at Pliny’s door.  He devotes whole days to harsh Minerva, while he prepares a case for the ears of 100 men (the centumviral court where wills and property cases are heard).  Posterity and the ages will compare this to the writings of Cicero.  But it’s better to visit when the evening lanterns are lit:  this is your hour, when Bacchus (god of wine) maddens, when the rose rules, when the hair drips with unguents.  Then let even the severe Catos* read me.

*Cato was a stern moralist

Are You a Print Junkie?

Are you looking for an obscure novel?  Did the out-of-print Oxford World Classics edition of Mary Augusta Ward’s Robert Elsmere have minuscule print?

I ended up reading the e-book, but I am still a print junkie. And so I ordered a nice, if expensive, print-on-demand copy of Robert Elsmere  (Victorian Secrets, $30.00) with a scholarly introduction, footnotes, and appendixes.  I need this for a reread.

I love Robert Elsmere (1888),  which deals with the  religious crises caused partly by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.   The subject sounds dry, but Ward’s well-drawn characters and expert plotting keep you turning the pages.  The hero, Robert, a clergyman who loses his faith, transports his family from a country vicarage to a poor neighborhood in London. While he does social work, his wife Catherine, a devout Christian, must bear the brunt of urban poverty.  The women characters, including Catherine’s sister, a violinist, are especially striking in this 19th-century best-seller, which sold  30,000-40,000 copies in England and 300,000 copies in the U.S. by 1889.

I have made another foray into print-on demand.  I look forward to reading  Charlotte M. Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (Norilana Books Classics, $19.95), which has an introduction by Diana Birchall, whom you may know as the author of two witty Austen sequels and the blog Light, Bright, and Sparkling.

I loved Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family (Virago). And  Diana mentioned in an email or at an online group (I think it was Diana!) that The Daisy Chain is a bit like Little Women.

Free e-books are available for many obscure books and have, I imagine, replaced POD.  The POD editions are not quite as nice as “real” books, and one has to return the ones with tiny print and no margins. Has anyone here had good or bad experiences with POD?  Is it completely out-of-fashion?

The Anthony Powell Costume Drama: Do You Need to Read the Books?

I wish I had this set.

I asked two weeks ago, “What costume drama do you recommend?”  I decided to watch A Dance to the Music of Time, which is based on Anthony Powell’s 12-book masterpiece.  I keep resolving to reread the books first, so I’ve never made it through the entire TV series.  (I’ve already read Dance thrice.) This time I’m jumping ahead to the next disc.  Whyever not?

I first came across Anthony Powell’s novels at a used bookstore in Silver Spring or Bethesda.  I had a  prestigious low-paying job, intended for rich men’s wives, and I could barely pay the bills.  My single colleagues and I huddled in shared houses and dined on Happy Hour snacks at Houlihan’s.  Powell’s characters went to Casanova’s Chinese Restaruant or The Merry Thought, and had never heard of Houlihan’s.  

A Dance to the Music of Time is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past,  but I just don’t see it:  it’s too humorous. It reminds me more of  Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honour.  As I get older, I see the Proustian poignancy of Powell’s work, but I really enjoy it for the wit and satire.

The TV adaptation is close to the books:  both chronicle the life of the narrator-writer, Nick Jenkins, from his interwar boyhood through the 1960s.  Powell introduces Nick in his interwar schooldays, follows him to the university (Oxford or Cambridge, I can’t remember), then through a whirlwind of society parties, and  into the army during World War II.  I don’t remember what happens after that:  hence the need for a rereading, or at least the TV series.

Widmerpool (Simon Russell Beale) and Nick (James Purefoy) in “Dance”

In the TV series, I am most impressed by the actor James Purefoy, who is perfect as Nick. We see him outgrowing the snarkiness and cruelty of school friends; his crushes and complicated love affairs; his eventual professional success; and his ambivalence toward Widmerpool, once shunned at school for wearing an unfashionable raincoat (called “a Widmerpool”), but now rising in the world.  Ironically, Widmerpool climbs the social ladder while Nick’s witty rich friend Stringham descends into alcoholism and poverty. 

The main difference I’ve noted in the TV series is that some of the wittiest dialogue is given to Nick rather than to the characters who speak it in the books.

By the way, the title  A Dance to the Music of Time is a reference to Poussin’s painting of the same name.  The painting reminds Nick of the seasons of life and of his connection to people through time:  he meets the same old friends over and over as the years pass. 

You get the feeling that London is a small town.

The E-Snoopers: Is Your E-Reader Safe?

We know that marketers track us on the internet. We’re not concerned. And yet when B&N sends an email to remind us we “left” something in our “cart,” it feels like an intrusion.

And people track people, too. 

I left the e-reader on the picnic table.  A relative checked it out while I was grilling vegetables.  Then, during dinner, she informed me jocularly that I was not reading much.

Now that startled me. “What?”

“Well, I looked at your e-reader.  I didn’t see much reading being done.”  She paused.  “I mean I didn’t check the status or anything…”

I was unable to follow her.

“I just mean…hardly anything is marked ‘read.’”

“That feature doesn’t work very well,” I snapped.  (It’s true:  it’s erratic.  And since I keep a book journal, I don’t need it.)

But what’s with this e-snooping? I’ve heard of people tracking their husbands on phones, or reading their texts—with appalling results, since phones are an adulterer’s worst enemy. I suppose this nosy relative had to check my e-reader because I don’t have a Facebook account or a cell phone.

This does, however, give meaning to all those warnings we’ve had about the loss of privacy.  I’m a little hazy about e-readers—they shoot data to the big corporations, Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo (if that’s still around), etc. —but the data doesn’t seem to be meaningful, or even accurate. 

My cousin the cataloguer says this kind of snooping goes on all the time at libraries, and that it’s more secure to do computer searches at home than at a library.  (Homeless people, beware!)

I mostly read book reviews online… and, yes, I do intend to read the Anne Tyler in paperback.  Happy, everyone?  Nonetheless, I now have a glimmer of how someone can attempt to twist your data.

It makes you want to throw out your electronic devices, doesn’t it?  But there just aren’t enough places to “recycle” all of them.

That’s living in the 21st century…

The Best Beach Book Ever? Mrs. Humphry Ward’s “The Marriage of William Ashe”

There’s no point in complaining about the heat wave.  You go out the door and it’s a blast from hell.  I sat outdoors in the “cool” of the morning (87°), but soon had sweated-up my t-shirt and went in to change into a camisole/pajama top.

Fortunately, I lost myself in what may be the best beach read ever:  The Marriage of William Ashe, by Mrs. Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward).   Like Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Humphry Ward was prolific and popular,  but only a few of her novels are read today.  The most famous is Robert Elsmere, a classic, but The Marriage of William Ashe is the better beach book.

Ward writes surprisingly well, clearly and simply.  She’s no George Eliot, but she’s impeccable in her way, and she’s an expert plotter. At first glance, The Marriage of William Ashe is an entertaining society novel, but it goes deeper than that.  About halfway through you realize it is a political novel. Ward examines the problematic marriage of an ambitious politician and an impetuous woman who mocks Parliament and cares nothing for conventional society.

The characters, Sir William Ashe and his wife, Lady Kitty, are loosely based  on Sir William Lamb and his flamboyant wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, who was the author of a roman à clef; she also had an affair with Lord Byron.  Ward’s  Lady Kitty similarly causes Sir William a lot of trouble: she is far from an asset to his career in politics, as Kitty herself bluntly warned him before their marriage.  Kitty is wild, flirtatious, and exasperating, but William is laid-back in the social arena and indulges her. 

Ward has a lot of sympathy for Kitty, though I myself prefer the company of William, who reads classics in the original Greek and Latin, and his intelligent, fascinating mother, Lady Tranmore, who understands politics as well as William does.  Kitty is clever and charming, with the talent to enthrall  party guests with her moving recitation of French poetry and scenes from plays, but she also deliberately alienates important people —and indeed she has no women friends,  since she flirts with their men, and in one case ruins a woman’s life thus.  And Kitty’s actions interfere with William’s career….  Kitty herself says she is mad, and her wild mood swings do indeed make a reader think she has bipolar disorder.  What is she thinking, when she sends the roman à clef she has written to a publisher?  She satirizes the Prime Minister based on his behavior at her own party; all the characters in the book are recognizable.  And as for her attraction to an unattractive poet…

Ward’s The Marriage is not like Trollope’s political Palliser novels, where Lady Glencora reluctantly marries Planty Palliser but eventually supports his political ambitions. Ward’s couple is tragic:  they are in love but in almost every way incompatible.  And Kitty, who takes after her sophisticated, unconventional mother (she has “bad blood”), has the power to ruin lives–sometimes vindictively, often completely out of control.  

Can You Slow Down Time?

Summer goes too fast.

 Time seemed slower in, say, my twenties and thirties. After a day at work, I’d change into gym shorts, take a run, come home, make a cup of tea, and retire to the air-conditioned bedroom.  I read intensely in the evenings:  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita,  Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories, the latest Updike…  The hours sometimes dragged, but there were a lot of them.

Now I feel I’ve lost control of time.  There should be more time, and yet there’s less.  We live for summer here. So why is it speeding by?  I loved the long days in an unusually cool June. But during this hot July, where DOES the time go?

Well, I know one magic trick.  If you sit very still outdoors in the shade and read your book, you can achieve what I call the Queen of the Desert effect (not actually going to the desert, just watching the movie with Nicole Kidman looking cool as Gertrude Bell.) It’s just so damned hot that you transcend the heat and disappear into the world of your book.  Of course sometimes you’re miserably hot and have to go indoors.

Here’s another way to extend time: read short books.  If you read more books, you feel you’re using your time better.  (It’s an illusion.) I’ve raced through a couple of novels by Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively, one of Josephine Tey’s mysteries, and am thinking of hunkering down with Gene Wolfe’s The Claw of the Conciliator, the second volume of The Book of the New Sun

This weekend it’s supposed to get up to 100 degrees. 

“The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton” by Russell H. Greenan

If you’re looking for an offbeat comedy, try  Russell H. Greenan’s  genre-crossing novel, The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton.  I’d call it a cult classic, except I’d never heard of it before this summer. Published in 1973 and recently reissued by Dover, it’s not quite horror, not quite a mystery.  Think Shirley Jackson crossed with James Thurber.  

I was spellbound by the quirky humor.  The middle-aged narrator, Algernon Pendleton, lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, which he describes as “an overstuffed town (50,000 souls) which is enclosed on three sides by the city of Boston.” His great-grandfather A. Edward Pendleton was an eminent Egyptologist who  looted treasures from the Pharaohs’ tombs–and not everything ended up in museums.  Al lives alone now in Great-grampy’s house, surrounded by antiques and invaluable Egyptian artifacts.

When Al needs money, he nips over to Boston to sell one of the treasures.  The Turkish antique dealer Mahir Suleyman wants the Egyptian funerary statuette, but quibbles about documentation and fakes:  where is the tag?  Al gets a good price after he says he’ll try another dealer.  

When Al gets home, Eulalia, his “friend,” nags him about money.  Al will lose the house if he doesn’t find a lot of cash soon. She advises him to “throttle” 89-year-old Aunt Beaty, who owns a few miles of the Maine shoreline.  And she says he’s “a child” not to understand the efficacy of this act.

Does Eulalia seem insane?  Turns out she is a talking Worcester porcelain pitcher.  Yes, Al is completely loco.  After suffering a brain concussion as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II, he developed the “gift” of understanding the language of inanimate objects.   The philodendrons in the yard scold him, and that gets on his nerves…

Al is genial, but he’s not what you’d call trustworthy.  His old college friend, Norbie Hess, arrives with a suitcase full of money and a fatal heart condition. Eulalia thinks a mercy killing would be a good idea. And then there’s Madge, “a lady archaeologist” who arrives one day wanting to read all of Great-grampy’s papers and snoop around the house.  Al is very attracted to her, but Madge defends herself ably from his advances.

Like Shirley Jackson, Greenan has a gift for creating horrific characters in outlandish situations.  Greenan’s narrator Al isn’t quite as eerie as Cassandra in Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but let us just say they have one or two things in common.

Greenan owned an antique shop in Boston before he became a full time writer.  And turns out The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton was adapted as a movie in 1997.  He is apparently best known for his first novel, It Happened in Boston?, reissued by Modern Library in 2003.   Let’s hope I can find it at the library.