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!

Staying Home on Black Friday:  Books for the Consumers’ Fifth Column


Thanksgiving is a mellow holiday.  No fireworks, no presents, no hype, just a lot of food.  A buffet at a friend’s house…a short visit to the relatives…football…turkey and dressing…and then a walk on the trail.

Then there is the menace of Black Friday. 

Why, you may ask, do Americans turn into frenzied Bacchantes at the mall on Black Friday? Thanks for what we have on Thursday, then a dance of consumers.

Since I belong to the  Fifth Column (ha, ha) of consumerism, I wait to shop on Small Business Saturday.   Meanwhile, let me recommend some books you are unlikely to find at the mall.  Black Friday is a perfect day to read the dusty books that have sat on your shelves for years.

Many years ago, I read David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a wildly unconventional philosophical novel published in Lin Carter’s Ballantine Fantasy Series. It has been years since I read it, but found some of it lyrical, some passages overwritten.   Loren Eisley in the introduction called this underground classic “an amalgam of strange philosophies clothed in weird exterior forms that have taken shape in a fantastically gifted if somewhat elusive mind.”  Maybe it’s time to reread it.

I was more intrigued by David Lindsay’s neglected horror novel, The Haunted Woman, which is  wonderfully alluring if  you’re in the mood for something strange. Think of it as a cross between Sheridan le Fanu and George MacDonald. The jacket copy calls it “the story of a man, a woman and an extraordinary house, interwoven in a web of fantastical and inexplorable destiny.”  Staircases appear and disappear.  And women are more in touch with the supernatural.

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Unsuspected (1946) was recently reissued in Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series. If you admire the mysteries of Margaret Millar or Vera Caspary, you will be fascinated but creeped out by Armstrong’ssuspenseful novel about two young people who set out to prove the existence of an unsuspected crime.  A charismatic actor, Luther Grandison, has murdered his secretary after she discovered incriminating papers, and made it look like suicide. Rosaleen’s cousins, Jane and Francis, position themselves in the household so they can investigate.  The return of Luther’s shipwrecked ward, an heiress, and Francis’s deception of her, throws everyone into danger. 

Janet Kauffman’s Collaborators.  I thought this beautifully-written, spare novel had disappeared without a trace, but it is available as an e-book.  The prose is hypnotic, the events unexpected and moving.  The two main characters, a mother and daughter, are Mennonites who do not abide by the rules strictly.  When her mother has a stroke, Dovie feels angry and betrayed.  This is about coming to terms with love and tragedy.

Notes on Reading: In Transit, Library Books, and a Betsy-Tacy Revival

Is reading common or uncommon in the twenty-first century?  It is  difficult to know. Now that smart phones dominate people’s lives,  I cannot tell whether passengers on the bus are reading or doing some other activity.  I never see books anymore, and I rarely see Kindles or Nooks.  Although independent bookstore owners claim business is thriving, at least fifteen indies have closed here since the ‘90s—and I surmise that the one remaining  is a tax write-off.

Commuters used to read newspapers and books.  The best thing about riding the bus, besides the transportation, was feeling like a member of a secret reading society.  Women with disheveled wet hair (I was one of many who didn’t blow-dry) read novels, while  men in suits read immense biographies. Yes, that’s a sexual stereotype, but I swear it was true. When I wasn’t craning my neck to see what others were reading, I got so absorbed in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years that I read beyond my stop.  It was not embarrassing:  colleagues in the break room laughed about having the same experience.

Reading has always been my favorite activity, whether I was sedentary or in motion. When I was seven or eight, I was so absorbed in Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, a boarding school novel, that I continued to read it while walking home from school. My mother, in the parlance of the day, expressed surprise that I didn’t “fall down and break my neck.” Later, when I was older,  I got to walk to the magical public library:  scary Miss Westgate, the stern librarian, was crabby, but her wide-ranging collection of children’s books made the visits worthwhile.

At the library I discovered Maud Hart Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy series, which followed the lives of best friends Betsy and Tacy from age five through Betsy’s wedding.  They lived in Deep Valley, Minnesota (actually Mankato, Maud’s hometown). These are some of the best American novels about small-town life in the early 20th century. (Library of America, you should acquire these!  I enjoyed them much more than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.)  And  I’ve been to Mankato, a charming college town, surrounded by lakes, farms, and hills.  If the weather weren’t so cold, we might live there.  

Vera Neville’s Illustration of the Betsy-Tacy bench on the big hill.

We accidentally took a Betsy-Tacy self-guided tour early in the 2000s.  My husband and I were riding a bike trail that went through Mankato, so we stopped at the library to pick up the tour pamphlet.  At that time, the Betsy-Tacy Society had acquired the houses  of Betsy/Maud and Tacy, I think, but they were not open yet:  we could only see the outsides.  We did climb the Big Hill, though, a landmark in the series, and sat  on the Betsy-Tacy bench.

Then an eccentric woman came barefoot out of her house and took our picture.  She chatted about Betsy-Tacy lore:  she wanted to know if we’d noticed that in one of the early books, an old man with a hookah in Little Syria is smoking hashish? (Well, perhaps she’s right:  there is a hookah!)

Of course I also love it that Betsy, an aspiring writer and lover of language, takes Latin in high school.  In Heaven to Betsy, a novel about her freshman year, one chapter is entitled “A Triumvirate of Lady Bugs.” After school, Betsy and her older friends, two sophomores, sit in Carnie Sibley’s yard stripping the porch of ivy leaves and making wreathes, which they wear askew like drunken Romans.   “O di immortales!” they exclaim.  Betsy, who has just started Latin, can only conjugate the verb to love:  “Amo, amas, amat.”

 Some boys tease the three girls.

“Hey! You’ll be a triumvirate!” What, Betsy wondered, was a triumvirate? 

“Girls, we’re a triumvirate!”cried Carney, flashing her dimple.“I want to be Caesar.He’s so cute in the pictures.You can be Crassus Bonnie, and Betsy, you can be Pompey.” 

“A Triumvirate for Lady Bugs!”jeered Larry.

“There are three of you boys, too,” cried Bonnie, soft giggles bubbling.“You’re a triumvirate your own selves. What’s the name of yours? Make one up, somebody.’’

“They’re a triumvirate of Potato Bugs!” said Betsy.

The Betsy-Tacy novels were reissued in four omnibus editions  not long ago (three in 2009, and one in 2011). And I learned that Betsy-Tacy fandom is shared by many writers.  The introductions to these books were written by Anna Quindlen, Laura Lippman, and Judy Blume, among others.   

Maud Hart Lovelace

All women should reread the Betsy-Tacy series.  These novels are entertaining, and they also illuminate women’s struggles and relationships.   Betsy wants to be a writer, and earnestly writes stories and poetry at her desk (actually her actor Uncle Keith’s old trunk), but in high school she neglects it for social life.  Year after year, she is chosen to compete in the high school writing contest, but because she doesn’t do any research, she tries to cover up with flowery phrases—and it doesn’t work. 

Dear Betsy!  Relationships and writing, boyfriends and family.  Can you do everything?  And when she gets married, she struggles with the same issues.

It’s in My Head: How Many Hours a Day Should I Read?

This afternoon I spent two hours reading a book.  You know how I know?  It’s the influence of the internet. Everybody tracks the numbers online:  calories, carbs, steps, and, most important, hours spent reading.  They use apps; I’m doing it in my head.

Since I got Wifi, I have read hundreds of thousands of book posts and professional reviews. Some are brilliant, most disappointing. I thought I would like being acquainted with all these readers.  But guess what?  It often turns into a challenge-by-the-numbers–a bit like paint-by-numbers.

Or is it all in my head?

This time of year, everybody calculates the numbers.  The New York Times posts “The 100 Best Books of the Year” and the critics’ “10 Best.” Before New Year’s Eve,  all of us bloggers will post our 10 Best of the Year.  At Bustle and Book Riot, writers  are also worked up about numbers.  They lament they may fail to meet their Goodreads Challenge goals, and urge each other to read The Grinch Before Christmas and other picture books to get their numbers up.

I spent a week reading and marveling over Dombey and Son (900 pages), while others read it (or perhaps skim it?) it in a day.

And if they say it on the internet, it must be true. 

The odd thing is that in real life I read more than most people.  I never thought, Oh no!  I only read two hours today!  The year I read 170 books, I glumly told my doctor it meant I no longer had a life. He told me to stop tracking the numbers.

The reading life has changed with the advent of Twitter and other social media. (That is hardly original, but true.)  Ten years ago, I looked forward daily to long old-fashioned narrative posts from Yahoo groups on Trollope, Dickens,  Austen, and other Victorians.  Some of the members were common readers; others were intellectuals; all were well-read.  The emphasis was on close reading, not facile reading.  But people got older and retired, or went back to work.  Some of these groups survive at, but the Goodreads and Twitter groups cannot replace those that folded.

But I do wish I were like Thomas Hardy, who read six hours every night, according to one biography.  Yeah.  I could do that!

I would… if I could sit still that long.

A History and a Haunting Novel:  Orlando Figes’s “The Europeans” and Guy Gavriel Kay’s “A Brightness Long Ago”

It is a rare experience to read two brilliant books in a row: a perfectly-imagined or well-researched book tends to be followed by the reading of a string of mediocre books.  Perhaps our brains cannot deal with too much excellence?

But I have been thrilled by Orlando Figes’s The Europeans:  Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s haunting new novel, A Brightness Long Ago.  

Fans of the great Ivan Turgenev will love Orlando Figes’s The Europeans, a sparkling, exuberant  history of the development of European culture in the the 19th century.  The book focuses on the relationship between the Russian writer Turgenev and Pauline Viardot, the opera singer he loved for most of his life, and her husband, Louis Viardot, a theater manager and writer.  This trio was influential in promoting the work of their peers, international writers, musicians, and artists .  (N.B. I  adore Turgenev and binge-read his  books in 2017 .  I blogged about it at Mirabile Dictu, if you’re interested.)

Whether or not the lovesick Turgenev and the controlling Pauline consummated their relationship–some vote for the Platonic theory, Figes gives evidence for a sexual relationship–Turgenev followed Pauline around Europe and rented apartments near the Viardets in Paris, Baden-Baden, and London. (Sometimes he lived with them.) As international commerce was facilitated by the building of railroads, Turgenev and the Viardots promoted the arts throughout Europe, Russia, and England. 

The craze for novels in translation became a big business for publishers, especially in France and Russia.  (The English were content with their own novels.)  Turgenev championed the Russian translation of Flaubert, the French translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Russian translation of Zola, to name a few of his more famous projects.  Pauline,  one of the most powerful stars of the opera world, influenced the taste of composers (she sometimes helped them with their operas) and concert-goers.  And Louis Viardot, who for a time had managed his wife’s career, also wrote about radical politics.  (The French police  found them suspicious and spied on them.)

Turgenev became a beloved writer, especially in Europe, but had his emotional ups and downs, complicated by what often seemed like a one-sided love affair, bouts of gout, and being a considered a dissident in Russia.  (He was arrested in Russia after writing Gogol’s obituary.) I loved reading about Turgenev’s artsy social circle, the rise of art museums, the influence of critics on popular taste, and more.

Guy Gavriel Kay is in top form with his new novel, A Brightness Long Ago.  This gracefully-written historical fantasy, set in a world that parallels the city-states of Renaissance Italy, is a ripping-good read, brimming with politics, warfare,  and intrigues. And in the Acknowledgments, Kay recommends a staggering number of books that helped him with research, and explains that one subplot of the novel is based on the feuds between the Montefeltro and Malatesta families in 15th-century Italy. 

  A Brightness Long Ago is not quite in the same class as my favorite of Kay’s novels, Under Heaven,, but if you need a good cry, this is the book for you.  (I rarely cry over books, but I cried excessively over this one.)

What if you want to be a bookseller but the world takes you elsewhere?  That is the plight of Danio Cerra, a tailor’s son who, after seven years at a prestigious school,  found himself working as a court assistant, and, later, as an influential political advisor.  As an old man looking back over his life, he aches for his youth.  He especially misses Adria Ripoli, an aristocratic feminist whom he met when she assassinated a tyrannt, known as the Beast, for his exploitation of the people and frequent killings.  Danio saved her life after the assassination, finding her wounded, and  they had a short relationship.   Despite their separation due to class and circumstances, he remained in love with her after her tragic death.

Even Danio’s simplest descriptions of sadness moved me.

Adria is an absence.  No one living knows what that means, how often I remember her, even now.  It is foolish, I concede it. Sometimes we are foolish.  But isn’t it also true sometimes that the only way a person survives after they die is in the memories of others?

And Kay eerily writes lyrical passages of stream-of-consciousness from the perspective of the newly-dead  hovering over their bodies.

But it not all weeping.  Kay also tells the dramatic stories of others connected to Adria:  Adria’s uncle Folco, a renowned mercenary commander, and his rival from a neighboring city-state.  Their feud is ongoing. Then there is a healer, a woman who can see ghosts.  And we read of the fall of a city.

Sad, often beautifully-written, and a good read.

Rediscovering Carol Shields’s “Small Ceremonies”

Carol Shields

The American-born Canadian writer Carol Shields became popular in the U.S. after her novel The Stone Diaries won the Pulitzer Prize.  (It also won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award.)  

And this quiet novel created a mild sensation among suburban readers in the early 1990s, when book clubs were becoming popular.  Picture these women, ladylike in slacks and sweaters, balancing cups of teas and paperbacks as they lauded Shields’s poignant portrayal of the ordinary life of Daisy Goodwill Flett.  

The other day, I came across Shields’s books while reorganizing my bookshelves. And  so I picked up her first novel, Small Ceremonies, and sat down and reread it. I marveled at her clarity and humor. This beautifully-written domestic novel is of a kind that was popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Shields goes beyond domesticity.  The narrator, Judith Gill, a critically-acclaimed biographer, is the wife of Martin, a university professor, and the mother of two children, Meredith  and Richard.  While her husband and children are at school, Judith is working on a biography of Susanna Moodie.  (Shields also wrote a biography of Susanna Moodie.)

Judith is a natural snoop:  she loves private papers, letters, and journals.  She does a lot of reading between the lines to try to pin down Susanna Moodie’s personality.  Had Susanna loved her husband, whom she called by his surname? And why did she became so cranky and judgmental in old age?   The frustration is that no biographer can ever figure out the puzzle of another person’s life. 

Judith extends her snooping to family and friends.  During Martin’s  sabbatical in England, where they lived in the “cold, filthy flat” of Professor John Spalding, also on sabbatical with his family, Judith reads  his seven unpublished novels (all badly-written, but one has an original plot).  Back in Winnipeg, Judith plagiarizes the plot for her own novels. And she realizes she does not have any talent for fiction.  She must stick to biography, which, if not the truth, is the product of her own research.

There are many writers in this novel, and writerly problems at the center. Indeed, the difficulties of writing well are just as important as the domesticity.  Judith’s sister is a poet:  both girls come from a home where no one could tell a story.  And then there is Judith’s creative writing professor, Furlong Eberhart, a family friend and the author of successful novels of the “loam and love-child” variety.  Judith mocks his melodramatic writing, but he is her daughter Meredith’s favorite writer. 

So what makes a good writer? And what is good writing?

Let me share one of Judith’s many comic observations about women’s lives.  She hears on the radio that a group of women are organizing a “glass blitz.” The idea is to sort the bottles by color, and take them to stations which will send them to a recycling center.  (Ah, yes, the days before the recycling was picked up by the garbage men!)

Imagine, I thought, sitting with friends one day, with Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, and someone suddenly bursting out with, “I know what.  Let’s have a glass blitz.”  And then rolling into action, setting to work phoning the newspapers, the radio stations.  Having circulars printed, arranging trucks.  A multiplication of committees, akin to putting on a war.  Not that I was unsympathetic to the cause, for who dares spoof ecology these days, but what I can never understand is the impulse that actually gets these women, Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, moving.

All of us  know Gwen, Sue, Pat and so on, and wish we had the energy to join them in such exhausting organizations!  A fabulous novel!

A Tragedy at the Library

des-moinesDes Moines, the capital of Iowa, is unknown to the outside world.  People whoosh past it on I-80 and don’t give it a second look.  Actually, Des Moines is a lovely small city, though no one would call it a tourist destination—and some even call it “Dead Moines.”  Perhaps you know it as Bill Bryson’s birthplace from his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Bibliophiles prefer Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, but regional literature experts occasionally check out the Des Moines Public Library’s special collection of Iowa Writers, which includes books by forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners MacKinlay Kantor, Susan Glaspell, Margaret Wilson, Hamlin Garland, and Edna Ferber. 

Here is why I have crossed the Des Moines Library off my list:   I am a coward.

On  September 17, a homeless man, David Franklin Smith, entered the atrium of the Des Moines Public Library, poured a flammable liquid on himself, and set himself on fire.  The staff put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, and Smith was airlifted to the burn unit at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City,  where he died.  The police concluded he committed suicide.

des moines libraryThe world is so dangerous these days—random shootings, terrorism,  global warming, xenophobia, insane politics—and now a mentally ill man setting himself on fire.  We’re terrified by the things that happen day after day. 

Somehow, it is taken for granted that libraries must double as unaccredited centers for the homeless.  Libraries in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have hired social workers to deal with the homeless and mentally ill patrons. 

Bravo!  I exclaimed when I read about these initiatives.  

But this problem has fallen in the laps of the libraries and should not be their responsibility.  It is terrific that they have stepped up—but what choice do they have?  Why doesn’t the govenment provide  halfway houses, more homeless centers, and even apartments for the homelesss?  Surely the streets–and the libraries–aren’t a good solution!  

What a tragic world!