A “Shortlist”: We Need Shorter Books!

In an amusing essay atThe Spectator, Boyd Tonkin recommends that we turn to shorter books.  He writes,

If I had a rouble or a euro for every reader who fulfilled their lockdown promise to devour Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Proust my bank account would hardly grow by a single penny. Duty, guilt and pride never made the pages turn more swiftly, whatever a book’s length. Almost all vows to catch up on doorstopper classics from the global canon will have failed to outlast the fallen blossoms. Yet you might more realistically blend discovery and delight by exploring some of the smaller miracles of great fiction in translation.

Do read his essay:  you’ll enjoy his take on Colette and Calvino, as well as others whose work you may not know.

And let me recommend four of my favorite  shorter novels. (I consider anything under 375 pages “shorter.”)

Carmen Laforet’s Nada (244 pages), translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, an autobiographical novel about a young woman in Barcelona in the 1940s.  This atmospheric coming-of-age novel, set in  post-Civil War Spain, is narrated by a college student who moves into her grandmother’s apartment in Barcelona.  The cramped apartment also houses the narrator’s controlling Catholic aunt, two uncles, both painters, and one of their wives, a gambler, all slowly starving in poverty.  Life is a struggle, though there are moments of humor.

Fans of Olivia Manning will enjoy her tightly-plotted novel The Rain Forest (352 pages)published in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash. 

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier (352 pages). If you loved Rebecca, you’re bound to enjoy du Maurier’s lesser-known novel The Parasites,  an intriguing  portrait of an artistic family.  It begins with Charles, a country squire, calling his wife Maria, who is a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and  sister Celia,  a writer, “parasites.” Are they or not?  The novel explores the question.

Doirs Langley Moore’s charming 1948 novel, Not at Home (300 pages),has recently been reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow.  It is brilliant, funny, and bingeable, with a likable spinster heroine and an utterly believable plot.  And you will be rooting for the polite heroine all the way, though her too good manners sometimes get in the way of life.  This novel is about landlady problems!

The heroine, Miss MacFarren, a middle-aged botanical writer, must rent out part of her London house because of post-war money problems.  And, because she is so polite, she takes her bossy friend Harriet’s advice and rents to Mrs. Antonia Bankes, a manipulative American who will agree to anything–and then go her own way.  Mrs. Bankes slowly takes over the house…  Fascinating, funny, and unputdownable!

I am a fan of some long, very long books, but we need to mix it up!

Reading William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”

Faulkner statue in Oxford, Mississippi

To my knowledge, nobody has toppled the William Faulkner statue in Oxford, Mississippi, but residents, including Faulkner’s nephew, protested in 1997 when the Mayor ordered a magnolia tree to be cut down and replaced by the  statue. But there is certainly much in his grotesque, gorgeously-written novels to offend ultra-sensitive people.  In the comically grotesque short novel, As I Lay Dying,  Addie Bundren’s coffin falls off a wagon into a river. There is a one-sentence chapter:  “My mother is a fish.”  In The Hamlet, a mentally retarded man has an affair with a cow.  I stopped reading at that point.

Many of Faulkner’s  characters are poor white trash, like the unforgettable Snopeses, whom I sometimes wish I could forget, or the crafty, intelligent, immoral poor white, Thomas Sutpen, one of the main characters in Absalom, Absalom!, a man who claws his way to the top.  And of course the white characters of the Old South use the “n” word.

On this Fourth of July, I am reading Absalom, Absalom!, a  shocking but lyrical and brutal novel in which, as usual, Faulkner plays with narrative and point-of-view.   A wan old spinster, Miss Rosa, summons Quentin Compson, a young man about to go to Harvard, and recounts her grotesque family history. Then his father tells Quentin more of the grisly details.   Miss Rosa’s family is essentially destroyed by Thomas Sutpen, an ambitious outsider who arrives in Mississippi, builds a mansion with funds gotten who knows where, and then marries Miss Rosa’s older sister, Ellen, who is very keen until she gets to know him, and eventually takes to her bed and dies. Miss Rosa is left to look after her niece, Judith, who is older than she is. And her nephew, Henry, ruins Judith’s life.  The cycle never ends.

I was admiring it, and then I got to a 50-page section in Italics–and the print was almost too small for me to read.

I do hate Italics, if they go on for more than a paragraph. And did the Italics  really have to be that small?  I soldiered on.

I need new glasses. But really, why so small?

My Covid-19 Summer: Reading Historical Novels

The Summer of Covid-19

It is not exactly that I am depressed. It is more that the world is in crisis.  The long game:  we wash our hands, wear masks in public, and stay home as much as possible.  Dr. Anthony Fauci says that a vaccine is unlikely to be more than 75% effective, and may not develop herd immunity in the U.S. because of anti-authoritarianism and the anti-vaccine movement.  And that’s where I’m living: in a country in denial.

I  am not depressed, but allowed myself a Doris Lessing-style mini-breakdown (see The Summer Before the Dark and The Four-Gated City), which took the form of not washing my hair, wearing pajamas, meditating, and treating myself to historical novels. There are so many good historical novels out there–and I’ve been missing out!

THE SUMMER OF HISTORICAL NOVELS.

In progress:   Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Book of Longings.

Sue Monk Kidd is a well-respected writer, best known for her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I got hooked on her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, the story of a mother-daughter relationship and the middle-aged daughter’s coming to terms with the past.

Kidd’s style is simple and spare, characterized by short sentences. Her intelligence and skilled storytelling make her novels a delight.   I don’t want to do anything at the moment but read her new novel, The Book of Longings, set in the first century A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

I have a weakness for novels set in ancient times, and I am thoroughly enjoying this one.  The fiery heroine, Ana, a young Jewish woman in Sephoris in Galilee, lives in unusual times.  And, though rich, she marries a poor man.  There it is, right on the jacket copy: Ana marries  Jesus. Yes, that Jesus!  If I had written the jacket copy, I would consider that a spoiler.  She doesn’t actually marry him until page 144.

Instead, we meet her as a rebellious, studious girl, the daughter of one of the top advisers of Herod Antipas (King Herod in the Bible). And her brother is Judas, a Zionist and an agitator.

The narrator, Ana, is a writer and a scholar.  Her father, an advisor of Herod Antipas (a ruler of Galilee and Perea), teases her that she should have been a boy when she asks him to hire a tutor to teach her languages. And so she becomes a scholar:  she is writing her own account of women in the Bible. Her mother disapproves, but Yaltha, her radical aunt, gives her the support she needs.

Monk deals with many women’s issues in ancient Galilee: women are threatened with rape, mutilated for speaking out (one poor girl has her tongue cut out),  and betrothed to men they don’t want to marry. Ana runs away when her father wants her to become Herod’s concubine; she filches the ivory tablets they tried to bribe her with, telling them it is her gift.  At the market, when Herod’s servant catches her with the ivory, Jesus saves her not only from being stoned , but says he and Ana are about to be betrothed. It’s an odd concept, the marriage of Jesus, one you’ve probably heard of and wondered about. Kidd’s research is meticulous, and though she is writing fiction, the characters are brilliantly-depicted and the details of life in the ancient world are mostly accurate.  Ana is more than a wife:  she is a writer and uses birth control because she is not interested in motherhood.

Entertaining and meticulously researched. It gets better as it goes along.  An enjoyable read, if not great literature.

I also enjoyed Crystal King’s entertaining novel, Feast of Sorrows, set in ancient Rome. I wrote in my book journal:  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and feuds. The pages fly.

Now I want to read her second novel, The Chef’s Secret, which sounds similar, except for the setting. The book jacket says: ” A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.”

And what historical novels have you been reading? I’m washing my hair again, but I’m still reading historical novels!

Perfect Reading for the Pandemic: Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End”

I have found the perfect book to read during the pandemic:  Ford Madox Ford’s  Parade’s End, an elegant Modernist tetralogy set during World War I.  The four books, published during the 1920s,  are spellbinding:  Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post.   I blogged about the second book here.  I have just finished rereading the third book. 

There is no one in life like Christopher Tietjens, the hero of Parade’s End. Although he is awkward, he is the most honorable gentleman you will ever meet. He is courteous, gallant, awkward, fat, yet attractive, seemingly has a photographic memory, is probably Aspergers, quotes Ovid in conversation, and is a brilliant statistician. His society wife, the gorgeous, evil Sylvia, is determined to ruin his life, though she herself has left him to have affairs with various men.  Even her priest tells her how evil she is.  On her return to England, Tietjens declines to live with Sylvia, but is too much the gentleman to divorce her because she is Catholic .  He provides money for Syliva and their son (probably not his son) to live on his estate, Groby, but Sylvia  ruins his reputation by claiming he is the immoral adulterer. And so he enlists in the Army, though he is over forty (as Ford Madox Ford did), because he knows he can be a good officer, and because there is no life for him in England anymore.

In the second novel, No More Parades, we see the extent of Sylvia’s depravity and viciousness:  she hates Tietjens but wants him back so she can humiliate him.  She even visits him at an army base in France, to spread more calumny:  she lies about his politics (she says he is a socialist) and again claims that he is having an affair with a young woman Valentine Wannop, a virginal suffragette. With her lies, Sylvia gives her husband a death sentence.  A general who is infatuated with Sylvia’s beauty ships Tietjens to the front, believing and hoping he will die there. 

In the third novel, A Man Could Stand Up– (which I have just finished), Tietjens waits for the war to end so “a man could stand up.” He is tired of crouching in the trenches, but standing up can get people killed.  The account of a day in the trenches is harrowing.  He is first in command by default, much loved by the men, but he has shell-shock and is afraid of going mad.  But he wants to keep the command for the money.

…Damn it, he was going to make two hundred and fifty quid towards living with Valentine Wannop–when you really could stand up on a hill…anywhere!

Tietjens was in love with Valentine Wannop, but  he would not make love to her before the war, because she was the daughter of his father’s oldest friend.

A Man Could Stand Up begins in  Valentine’s consciousness, and ends by alternating her point-of-view with Tietjens’.   On Armistice Day Valentine hears from Lady MacMaster, a woman who is indebted to Tietjens and says Tietjens is back in London, mad from the war and asking for Valentine.

And so Valentine thinks about her relationship with Tietjens.

She had never–even when they had known each other–called him anything other than Mr. So and So… She could not bring herself to let her mental lips frame his name…. She had never used anything but his surname to this gray thing, familiar object of her mother’s study, seen frequently at tea-parties…. Once she had been out with it for a whole night in a dogcart!  Think of that!… And they had spouted Tibullus one to another in moonlit mist.  And she had certainly wanted it to kiss her–in the moon-lit mists a practicality, a really completely strange bear!

A Man Could Stand Up– is a remarkable, harrowing novel about love and war.  In a different, modernist style, Ford’s book is as moving as War and Peace.

Ford considered himself an Impressionist writer, according an article by Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, in The New Statesman (Sept. 7, 2012).  There is action, dialogue, and stream-of-consciousness punctuated with dashes, ellipses, and exclamation points.

A very fast read!  And you don’t have to read the entire tetralogy at once.

Sexism, Racism, & Deeply Flawed Human Beings: How Writers Alienate Readers

Somewhere in the house, I have a copy of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, a  best-selling collection of  essays about sexism in literature that was popular in the 1970s.  I was daunted by Millett’s intelligence, though I happened to like some of the writers she felt were ruining society.   Still, my heart sank when she decimated D. H. Lawrence, whose lyrical writing I still love, and whose ideas about sexual relationships seemed radical to me.   I concluded I must exile him from my bookshelves.  Oddly, it was the professor of a Women’s Studies class who gently changed my mind:  she embraced the work of all good writers, male and female, and admired Lawrence.  

Radicalism was sometimes puritanical back then, and it seems even more so now.  These days, if a writer doesn’t have politically correct ideas, he/she ought to be banned or protested, they say on the internet.  And yet I must remember that in the ’70s I saw a radical feminist confront Betty Friedan at a lecture for joking about women.  The sense of humor is apparently the first thing to go.

Nowadays the list of potentially banned books includes the novels of the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder, whom I remember as an insipid chronicler of the pioneer days (but apparently Pa is in blackface somewhere in those boring books); Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning  Gone with the Wind (so poorly written I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter a few years ago, though I’m sure there are stereotypical black characters). And wasn’t there a ruckus about The Vagina Monologues?

And now the brilliant critic Paul Elie has written an article for The New Yorker with the title, “Everything That Rises: How racist was Flannery O’Connor?”  My first impulse was to HIDE my books by Flannery O’Connor, one of the most important Southern writers of the 20th century, so no one can take them away from me. 

Most of her racism seems to be expressed in her letters, which I have no intention of reading.  O’Connor really, really hated James Baldwin. Writerly jealousy ?  One wonders.  In one of her letters to a friend in New York who was an enthusiast about the Civil Rights movement, she wrote her nasty feelings about Baldwin. Brace yourself for Baldwin-bashing!

About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind.  Very ignorant but never silent.  Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too.  M. L. King I don’t think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do.  Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all.  My question is usually if this person would be endurable if white.  If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him for a minute.  I prefer Cassius Clay.  ‘If a tiger move into the room with you,’ says Cassius, ‘and you leave, that don’t mean you hate the tiger.  Just means you know you and him can’t make out.  Too much talk about hate.’  Cassius is too good for the Moslems.

I’m sure you’re all scandalized, but this was Georgia, and I sense she wants to be outrageous.  PLUS SHE HATES JAMES BALDWIN.  The thing is, there would be no one to read if we had to approve of writers’ views and character, especially in their letters. I don’t care if you ban Laura Ingalls Wilder from the canon, though it’s very silly; and Jonathan Franzen says he likes Gone with the Wind, so let him defend it:   I find it unreadable. 

But please let us have our Flannery O’Connor. She was a brilliant writer, but a flawed human being.  

The Quarantine of Books & A Charming Fantasy Novel

Books displayed back to front at Waterstones.

This is a tragically strange time.  Some of us stay home as much as possible to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus, while others have perhaps been too much out and about.  Although 120,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 as of this week, the reopening of many states has tragically driven the number of cases up among people under 45, who make up 55% of new cases.  This is largely, I suspect, because the initial education about the virus emphasized the vulnerability of older people with underlying health conditions.  In reality, all of us are vulnerable.

But today I will talk about the relatively light issue of the quarantine of  books.

When libraries opened for curbside pickup, or in some cases just plain opened, librarians emphasized  that returned books would be quarantined for 48 hours.  Bookstores have also been careful,  offering curbside servide, and now some are  cautiously reopening.  Prairie Lights in Iowa City is still closed, but Barnes and Noble is open. And  B&N has rearranged the bookshelves to allow for better social distancing, and certainly a greater feeling of safety.  

What I have noticed is that English bookstores seem to be stricter than the U.S. about the handling of books.  I was fascinated by an article in The Guardian about Waterstones’ displays of books back-to-front.  They hoped people would read blurbs on the back and decide to buy books without picking them up.

This would be impossble for me.  I am so often drawn by the cover, and I also read a few pages before I buy books.  Blurbs are fun but are not enough.

At Barnes and Noble, where I confess I have only hovered around the books in the front of the store, I  constantly sanitize my hands.   But of course one cannot sanitize the books.

Later, as I was leaving, I noticed a sign above a small shelf asking us to put books there.  I’m not sure if that applies to all books we touch, or only to those we carry around and then decide not to buy.   In the old days, some people read books in the cafe and then obnoxiously parked them on top of the trash can next to the dirty dishes bin.  Now those needed to be quarantined!

I am inconsistent about quarantining new books, but bloggers have made me more aware of this practice.  I did put away my latest new book for 48 hours.  Is it decontaminated? Tell me what you’re doing about this issue!

A NOVEL FOR LOVERS OF ANCIENT CULTURES.  I recently picked up a brilliant fantasy novel by Marie Brennan, Turning Darkness into Light. In many ways, this offbeat novel is about the difficulty of translation from an ancient language and the ethics of the sale of archaelogical relics.

In Brennan’s charming novel, set in a fantastic society that resembles English society in the 19th century,  the wealthy lords and ladies want to buy archaeological artifacts from the ancient Draconean civilization. The Draconeans are basically winged human beings,  with some characteristics of dragons, and there is widespread prejudice against them.   And when Lord Glenleigh, known to be prejudiced against Draconeans, acquires a set of ancient Draconean tablets, he hires Audrey Camherst to translate them.  This savvy linguist discovers it is an ancient epic and recruits  Kudshayn, a Draconean priest, to help her and put the epic in context. 

If you like books about books, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Book, you will enjoy thiis splendid, sophisticated novel, told in the form of documents such as diaries, letters, translations of the epic, and amusing footnotes.

A fantasy classic?  I think so.

Cool Summer Nights & Dorothy Van Doren’s “The Country Wife”

This lovely summer matches our parents’ descriptions of mid-twentieth century summers.  Although it is hot by day, it actually cools off at night.   We’d heard that could happen.

Tonight we even wore sweaters. Oh joy!  How wonderful not to need the air conditioner. 

Summer is more relaxed than spring, fall, or winter.  It is a time for fun dinners.  I recommend pancakes with berries and whipped cream.  The pancake mix is one thing I have mastered.  

There are many summer tasks I never get around to, like making jam and canning vegetables.  If I did these things,  I’d have to write bright posts about runny jam and over-cooked veggies.  Kitty in Anna Karenina makes excellent jam. Tolstoy doesn’t give us the recipe. 

And so I am rereading  Dorothy Van Doren’s The Country Wife (1950), a charming collection of light essays about summers in a Connecticut farmhouse. Dorothy does all the tasks I never do.   Summer is the highlight of the year for Dorothy,  her husband Mark Van Doren (the critic and poet), and their two sons.  She gardens, endures her husband’s carpentry projects, gets scratched-up picking blackberries, learns to eat puffballs, cans vegetables, and entertains guests (some welcome, some not).  I love the idea of being “a country wife.”

And yet Dorothy never mentions that she was also an editor of The Nation.  In the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, domestic columnists didn’t say they  had jobs.   Think of Shirley Jackson and Alice Thomas Ellis.  Like Dorothy Van Doren, they were high-powered women. You wouln’t guess it from their columns.

But the point of domestic columns is domesticity. Here is an excerpt from The Country Wife.

Time, as it has a way of doing, passes.  The corn is silking, the tomatoes are large and green, the roses and delphiniums are over, and the annuals are beginning to bloom.  It is pretty hot in the daytime and we are thankful for our cool nights.  And on one of those nights, when it is not so cool and I am wakeful, the calendar comes home to me with rude force:  next Wednesday will be the first of August!

The times may be bad, but at least there’s summer!

Hilariously Inappropriate:  John Barth’s “Chimera” & Preferring Press Releases

chimera barthMany years ago, at my first teaching job, I tried to interest my Latin students by interspersing historical novels and retold myths with their Latin grammar and translations. 

The class was reading Ovid, and I had a brilliant idea.  “They would love John Barth’s Chimera.”  At least I had loved it when I’d read it 10 years before.  It consists of three retold myths, the Dunyazadiad (narrated by Scheherazade’s sister in The Arabian Nights), the Perseid (narrated by Perseus himself), and the Bellerophoniad (narrated by Bellerophon). I happily spent a Saturday going from bookstore to bookstore to buy cheap mass-market paperback editions.  I distributed them to my students, but when I began rereading Chimera…  Oh no!

I had forgotten how bawdy it was.  And so I collected the books next day, saying I’d decided to assign George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra instead “because it was shorter.” As you can imagine, they were enthralled to read something shorter.

This summer, I have finally returned to Barth, one of the great post-modern writers.  And Chimera, which won the National Book Award, is a witty, playful experiment in  the art of storytelling, with marvelously clever and crafty mythic characters,

Here are the opening lines of the Perseid.

Good evening.

Stories last longer than men, stones than stories, stars than stone.  But even our stars’ nights are numbered, and with them will pass this patterned tale to a long-deceased earth. 

Stunning, yes?  

PREFERRING PRESS RELEASES.  I have been trying to read more new books, and some are excellent.  Alas!  I must tell you that some… are… not.   I recently wondered,  “Why does everybody at Goodreads like this??”  I found this particular novel boring, precious, and way too whimsical. (I won’t mention the title, out of courtesy.)  And yet the publicist had sent an intriguing press release.  She writes very well. Where is her book?  I would read it!

Classics to Take Your Mind off Dystopia: Doris Lessing, James M. Cain, & D. H. Lawrence

Inside a coronavirus ward in California.

I am trying to cut back on reading the news.  I hate to say it’s all bad, but it  is, as you know, because you’re living through it, too.

Perhaps, I thought, as I sat in an Adirondack chair looking at the stars, it would be BETTER if I read dystopian novels rather than the news.  I  recently reread Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the fifth in her Children of Violence series,  the last part of which segues into a dystopian  collection of documents that record the experiences of Martha and her familly after a catastrophe destroys the world as we know it.  Oddly, it felt cathartic to read about a catastrophe that isn’t happening here.  The  hopeful note is:  some people do survive.

Martha Quest and her employer/sometime-lover Mark believe the inception of the disaster was in the ’60s, when suddenly nothing worked.   New items were broken when you bought them, and it was nearly impossible to report a problem to the telephone company or a store.  A freezer door would fall off a new refrigerator, and you would spend months calling the company, which would refer you to the parent company, which would eventually send an incompetent repairman who would say you should buy a new one . Or something as simple as a loose bolt or an improperly attached bit of plastic would be responsible for blowing up a  manned space craft. And the air and water had long been  poisoned (like ours), people are shattered into mental illness by noise pollution, and there are unreported  nuclear plant disasters.  And after the final catastrophe, many are born mutants.  Mark’s son Francis grimly works in a refugee camp in Africa where children are  born two-headed .  But Martha, somewhere on an island where the community has a hard life, reports their  children look normal, but are often born with different kinds of brains–psychic abilities, for instance.  And she hopes they never get rescued, because she mistrusts the scientists.

Well, that’s very Doris Lessing.  The book was published in 1969, and her disaster takes place in the late ’70s. Let us hope that we never have such a disaster.

Alas,  record numbers of Covid-19 cases have been reported in Southern states and California now that things are reopening.  At the end of last week in Oklahoma, the number of cases skyrocketed, and there was a new wrinkle:  54% of the cases were among people age 18-34.  The number of new cases among older people was, bizarrely, down.  

CLASSICS TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF DYSTOPIA.

I adored James M. Cain’s masterpiece, Mildred Pierce (1941), a psychological novel that dissects the dynamics of work and surviving the Depression.  Mildred Pierce, a  young woman in her late twenties, is raising  two daughters alone after her husband’s business crashes and he has an affair with another woman.  She is determined not to lose the house and to keep up the middle-class lifestyle, but bitterly discovers she is qualified for nothing. So she becomes a waitress, a  job she conceals because she doesn’t want to embarrass her daughters.  But after she  starts selling her pies to restaurants, she opens her own fried chicken restaurant. Her climb to wealth–a woman who had been  told her housewife skills would get her nowhere–is  fascinating.  Alas, she has one problem:  she worships her sociopathic daughter Veda, a cold, calculating girl who  actually co-opts Mildred’s upper-class polo-playing boyfriend.

I couldn’t put this down!  Cain’s style is spare and elegant, his portrait of Mildred unforgettably realistic, and his dialogue pithy and slangy.  This is my favorite book of the summer so far.  Somehow I never thought I would enjoy a book by the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  (Hated the movie.)

D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.  This brilliant, lyrical novel was banned–it just kept happening to Lawrence, whose novel Lady Chatterley’s  Lover is famous mainly because it was banned.   WIL has particularly vivid portraits of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, who are teachers in a coal-mining town.  They don’t particularly want to get married, but they are curious about different kinds of love with different men.  Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, falls for Ursula, but has a strange idea of love:  he doesn’t think it will be complete unless he also loves a man, though this love is supposed to be beyond sex.  And Ursula, like me, a has a difficult time understanding why she is not enough.  

But their relationship is very healthy compared to that of Gudrun and Gerald.  Gerald owns the coal mines, is sadistic to horses (there is one horrible scene where Gudrun screams at him to stop beating his horse, which he is determined should stand in front of the railroad tracks as a train passes), and is drawn to Gudrun’s beauty and talent as a sculptor.  But these two clearly shouldn’t be together, as we discover when the four take a trip to the Alps.  

In a way, this is a sequel to The Rainbow, much of which is devoted to Ursula’s early experiences. but you can read WIL on its own.  Somehow it is more famous, though The Rainbow is a better novel, I think.  You can read my post about The Rainbow here.  

Two Summer Reads: “A Burning” and “American Dirt”

Thank God for summer books.  They are a distraction from the events of 2020.

I am proud to recommend two of the most hyped new novels of the year, Jeanine Cummins’s controversial American Dirt and Megha Majumda’s critically-acclaimed A Burning.  Both deal with politics, class, and minority commuinites, and both are page-turners. But despite the fact that both have been book club picks, their reception has been very different.   

For those of us on the literary fiction side, A Burning is the first pick.  It is the darling of the American critics, compared by James Wood to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying  and early V. S. Naipaul; and it is also a “Today Book Club Read with Jenna” pick.   American Dirt, a heart-rending pop novel about a  migrant journey to the U.S. by a mother and son escaping from a cartel in Mexico, was an Oprah Book Club pick.  It became controversial when a group of Latinos  condemned it for “cultural appropriation,” i.e., a white woman wrote it.

In my post on Dirt last winter before the controversy,  I admitted I had reservations about Cummins’s too-emotional style, but it  educated me about the issues of Mexican migrants.  I dubbed American Dirt “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of migrant-journey fiction,” which is a compliment: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic  was a seminal 19th-century best-seller that changed American attitudes toward race and slavery. 

Let us turn to the equally absorbing political novel  A Burning.  Megha Majumda, born and raised in India, need fear no retribution for the success of A Burning, set in India.  This political novel hinges on the arrest of Jivan, a Muslim girl, for a terrorist bombing she did not commit. We’re all aware of racism and classism these days, and it is only too believable that the police would arrest Jivan  because of a comment she left on Facebook. The right-wing politicians also want to pin the crime on her; and, ironically, they pay her former gym teacher to testify against her.  Jivan’s trans friend, Lovely, an aspiring actress, testifies on Jivan’s behalf, which ironically catapults her to stardom.

Is Majumda in the class of Faulkner or Naipaul?  Well, I noticed no resemblance, but Majumda writes spare, elegant sentences, and if you like lean prose, this is for you.  The book goes at warp speed, so I paid little attention to the style, but I would call her a minimalist.  And I do see this smart novel as a potential prize-winner.  

Although American Dirt is pop fiction, and A Burning more  literary, really both are pop:  you can tell by the marketing.  Both have  been  Barnes and Noble Discover picks, and A Burning now dominates the tables at Barnes and Noble, just as  American Dirt did a few months ago.

But who cares about the classification?  Both are good summer reads.