A Watery Dystopia:  ‘The Drowned World,” by J. G. Ballard

Book Review: The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – EcoLit Books

“Soon it would be too hot.” Thus begins J. G. Ballard’s cli-fi classic, The Drowned World.  And, indeed, soon it would be too hot.

Published in 1962, Ballard’s lyrical, if uneven, novel describes a world that is almost  entirely underwater.  The melting of the polar caps and glaciers have transformed Europe into a mass of lagoons and jungles, while the American midwest has become a gulf that extends to Hudson Bay.   And because of this redistribution of water, the median temperature at the Equator is 180 and rising. Ironically, the most habitable areas for humans are now the Arctic north and Antarctica.

The Drowned World is a strange read, full of lush description yet occasionally atonal.  Ballard’s style recalls the weirdness of Anna Kavan’s imaginative prose and the cynical perspicuity of W. Somerset Maugham’s tropical fiction.  Yet there is an undertone of the technicality of an engineering manual, passages that seem purely mechanical. One senses that Ballard approached this novel from a scientific hypothesis rather than plot or character.

Not all the characters are enthusiastic about the prospect of human survival.  The hero, Robert Kerans, a marine biologist, is languidly philosophical about the doomed world.  For years he has worked with a group of scientists on biological surveys of the world’s harbors. He thinks the work is pointless, and is sure that human beings cannot reclaim the cities.

At the moment the scientists are in London, where the primary inhabitants are oversized iguanas, alligators, basilisks, and mosquitoes.   But  the drowned, deserted cities are not without comfort. Kerans lives in a luxurious air-conditioned penthouse at the Ritz.  His charming girlfriend, Beatrice, has a sumptuous apartment in a high-rise.  They plan to stay behind when the scientists and military leave.

Why do Robert and Beatrice want to stay in the drowned world?  These two seem like characters in a D. H. Lawrence novel.  It seems right to them to stay;  they know how to handle themselves around the lizards, but they also accept the fact that the drowned city is their home.  And, though this is unstated, they feel that, now that the Earth is regressing into the Triassic age, humans have already done enough damage. 

And they see great beauty in London, despite the odorous water. Robert observes from his balcony:

In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the somber green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion broken when a giant water-spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.

 There isn’t much plot, but something does happen in the book:  Robert’s well-meaning military colleagues attempt to force them to leave London when they pull out. And immediately after their departure a brutal gang moves in.

But the plot does not matter much. The strange philosophical underpinnings and the occasional poetic descriptions are at the heart of the book.

Library Book Stickers: Do We Need This Security?

Once upon a time, a bookstore owner and  author of a bibliomemoir (possibly Shaun Bytell), complained about the stickers on discarded library books. “They deface the book,” he said bluntly.  I, a common reader, am also dismayed by the library-book stickers, which are taped onto the covers with tough plastic that is almost impossible to remove.  The texture of the stickers interferes with my reading: they also keep screaming, “I am a borrowed book!”

These stickers conceal, or perhaps are layered with,  purposeful electronics:  a loud siren is activated at the exit gates if the scanner technology detects an unchecked-out library book.  Personally, I have set off the screaming gates by simply browsing in the fiction section near the gate. 

Old-fashioned check-out with cards, pencils, and stamps.

 Am I the only one wary of too much exposure to electronics? Remember when we knew that phones caused brain cancer?  And when the Canadian study proved that computers could harm pregnant women?  How quickly everyone forgets. And so one wonders about the stickers and the scanner gates: are they bad for our health?  

The other day I was trying to read a mass market paperback library book.  Half of the back cover and one-quarter of the top front cover and the spine were covered with what I call scanner stickers.  I decided to remove the unsightly stickers, which actually were unpleasant to touch.  But removing the stickers was easier said than done.

First, I did not dare use a letter opener or knife.  One imagines little electronic bits flying around the room.  So I simply cut off part of the back cover and part of the front cover with scissors, and buried them in the trash. In other words, I cut off the scannable stickers.  I could not, however remove the spine stickers. Yet it gave me great satisfaction to read the book after the main stickers were removed. Though of course there is still the ISBN number stamped on the book.by the publisher.  Well, one cannot worry about everything.    And, yes, I will pay the fine for the book. I will say it is “lost.”

What was wrong with the old-fashioned system?

If only it were a better world….  All this security is a headache.  Do we really need it?   Perhaps the librarians could take a chance on  freeing the mass market paperbacks from stickers.  The mass market books are very cheap:  if they vanish, they are easily replaced.  But on the hardcover books, yes, they may need the stickers, because these books are more valuable.  I looked for stats online about stolen library books, but could find nothing helpful. 

I did learn, however, that the chips in the stickers are known as Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID).  They are ubiquitous in our culture  we use them in hotel keys, passports, library cards, store merchandise, etc.

One librarian at Quora, Brian Collier, commented: 

This is difficult to answer accurately because there isn’t an international or even national report on library loss rates from different countries (or states in the US). Most libraries track their own loss rates but don’t report them to anyone outside their institution, or perhaps their network if they’re part of a larger body.

That said, the ALA (the national library organization in the US) offers a brief answer on their Loss Rate page, mentioning studies collected in a 1986 book that concluded “there is a loss of .15% to .5% per year.” The same page also mentions the 1998 book Managing Overdues by Patsy J. Hansel that posits “a national ‘overdue rate’ of .7% pre-automation and .4% for post-automation to suggest a national loss of 6.28 million items…

One wonders what was wrong with the old-fashioned check-out system: cards tucked in envelopes on the endpages, with your name written in pencil and the due date stamped by the librarian? That was a simpler, quicker , much cheaper means of check-out. Mind you, I know we’re not going back to that. But all this to-do about security at the library! Have a little faith! People must have gotten much worse than the days when a simple card-and-pencil were adequate for check-out!

Charlotte Bronte’s Underrated “Shirley”: Allusions to Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” & Anne’s “Agnes Grey”

Everyone loves  Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her classic novel about an orphan who suffers at a charity school,  then becomes a teacher, then a governess, is engaged to her rich, middle-aged employer, Mr. Rochester – and learns at the altar that he has a mad wife in the attic.

Many readers consider this Gothic novel a romance: in fact, some wish Bronte had written Jane Eyre over and over.  But I prefer Charlotte’s searing last novel, Villette. The narrator, Lucy Snowe, is a brilliant, if unattractive, teacher who falls into unrequited love. Bronte includes many Gothic elements, including a specter in the attic, and a drug trip on laudanum, which was administered to her without her knowledge.

For a long time I forgot about Charlotte’s third novel, Shirley. And so this week I have been rereading it with pleasure. In this stunning industrial novel, Bronte examines the industrial revolution from different points-of-view:  that of a cotton mill owner, Robert Moore, who cannot remain competitive unless he introduces machines into the mill; unemployed workers, some of whom lost their jobs to machines ; and Caroline Helstone, Robert’s cousin, who believes in mediation and kindness.

Romance also plays a part in this industrial novel: in fact, some critics complain about a “lack of unity.” To me, Bronte’s smooth writing unites the industrial theme with the romance seamlessly. Caroline is in love with Robert, who is ambivalent about his feelings for her; and when Shirley, a feminist heiress who often refers to herself as “a gentleman,” because women have fewer opportunities than men, arrives in the neighborhood, Robert calculates that it might be wiser to marry an heiress for her money.

One of the cleverest aspects of the book is Charlotte’s subtle allusions to her sisters’ novels.  She began to write Shirley in the late 1840s, and completed it in 1849 after the deaths of her siblings, Emily, Anne, and Branwell.  No wonder she pays homage to Emily’s Wuthering Heights and to Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Perhaps she alludes to Branwell, as well. She and Branwell obsessively wrote their Angria stories together.

Charlotte’s style is milder than Emily’s, but she seems in Shirley to rewrite a few of Emily’s scenes from a different angle. For instance, there are vicious dog scenes in both Wuthering Heights and Shirley. In Chapter XV of Shirley, “Mr. Donne’s Exodus,” Shirley’s dog, Tartar, barking and growling,  chases  two terrified curates up the stairs.  This  recalls a more savage scene in Chapter 1 of Wuthering Heights, in which Mr. Lockwood, Heathcliff’s tenant, pays a visit to his landlord, only to find himself left alone in a a room with six savage dogs. 

Emily’s scenes are intensely savage, but there is also humor. Mr. Lockwood narrates:

Not anxious to come in contact with their fangs, I sat still – but, imagining they would scarcely understand tacit insults, I unfortunately indulged in winking and making faces at the trio, and some turn of my physiognomy so irritated madam, that she suddenly broke into a fury, and leapt on my knees.  I flung her back, and hastened to interpose the table between us.  This proceeding activated the whole hive.  Half-a-dozen four-footed fiends, of various sizes, and ages, issued from hidden dens to the common center….

Charlotte’s take on the dog scene is very different: it is wholly comical. Two impolite, unpopular currates, Malone and Doone, arrive at Shirley’s house and rush up the stairs, chased by her black-muzzled, tawny dog, Tartar. Shirley and Caroline know that his “growl, more terrible than the bark – menacing as thunder…” never lasts long. And so Caroline and her friend Shirley laugh quietly, but are gracious when they save the curates, until more comedy ensues.

Here is a paragraph from the scene of Tartar with the curates.

…a gentleman was fleeing up the oak staircase, making for refuge in the gallery or chambers in hot haste:  another was backing fast to the stair-foot, wildly flourishing a knotty stick, at the same time reiterating, “Down! Down! Down!” while the tawny dog bayed, bellowed, howled at him, and a group of servants came bundling from the kitchen.  The dog made a spring; the second gentleman turned tail and rushed after his comrade; the first was already safe in a bedroom: he held the door against his fellow – nothing so merciless as terror; – but the other fugitive struggled hard:  the door was about to yield to his strength.

In another scene in Shirley, Caroline Helstone, like Catherine Linton, née Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, is ill with a fever, and on the verge of death.  She calls out deliriously that she must see Robert Moore one more time before she dies.

“Oh, I should like to see him once more before all is over:  Heaven might favour me thus far!” she cried.  “God grant me a little comfort before I die!” was her humble petition.

There is nothing humble in Volume II, Chapter 1, of Wuthering Heights in Catherine’s brief clandestine reunion with her first love and soulmate,  Heathcliff. On her deathbed, she says that Heathcliff has killed her, and thrived on it.

“I wish I could hold you,” she continued, briefly, “till we were both dead!  I shouldn’t care what you suffered.  I care nothing for your sufferings.  Why shouldn’t you suffer?  I do!  W ill you forget me – will you be happy when I am in the earth? Will you say twenty years hence, ‘That’s the grave of Catherine Earnshaw.  I loved her long ago, and was wretched to lose her; but it is past – my children are dearer than she was, and, at death, I will not rejoice that I was going to her, I shall be sorry to lose them?’ Will you say so, Heathcliff?”

Passion kills Catherine in Wuthering Heights, but Caroline Helstone recovers, due to the bonding of women, one in particular. There is no female bonding in Wuthering Heights. Emily’s women rarely interact with one another.

Charlotte also alludes to Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey: Shirley’s governess is named Agnes – though Agnes Pryor is a middle-aged Agnes Grey. As a young woman, Agnes Pryor suffered like Agnes Grey as she tried to govern her charges; and she was desperately lonely, living in isolation from the adults of the family.

Now Agnes Pryor is a widow with a secret: we learn some of the nightmarish details of her marriage,though she is too discreet to reveal much. But they are not unlike the sufferings of Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and alcohol is implied, if not specifically mentioned.

Of course Anne wrote a happy ending to Agnes Grey. Grey married a gentle clergyman, and presumably lived with him happily ever. We want her to be happy, but was the curate always kind? Did something Gothic happen? People change. They have secrets, like Mr. Rochester. We hope Agnes Grey found bliss. We are not entirely sanguine. But that’s because I’ve also been reading Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which Catherine Morland adores Gothic novels and puts a Gothic spin on everything!

Jane Austen vs. the Brontes:  Does Anyone Still Read “Shirley”? 

 Jane Austen is the most popular writer in the world. We base this on intuition, not stats: the Janeites are rather like Star Trek fans. They go to conventions and dress up in costumes. They go to balls. One hundred Janeites think nothing of squeezing into folding chairs in a smallish room to participate in a discussion of Pride and Prejudice. Alas, in such a crowd, only the loudest and fastest prevail. “Next time I’ll try pantomime,” one woman commented.

Janeites are also glued to the British film adaptations of Austen’s books: a TV series of Sanditon, one of her unfinished novels, was spun out to last three seasons. And of course they read and reread the books (as do I). Some read nothing but Jane. And they love Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. And they love the film of The Jane Austen Book Club.

I adore Austen, but I prefer the Brontes. And I have noted that Bronte fans differ from Janeites in that they tend to be one-book fans: they may love Charlotte’s  Jane Eyre, but are lukewarm about Emily’s lyrical Gothic, Wuthering Heights, or vice versa.   Charlotte’s Villette, my own favorite, is often dismissed as too bleak, and though Anne Bronte is rising in popularity, her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, does not compare to her sisters’ work. Many will disagree!

But perhaps the greatest difference is the publishers’ approach to the two authors. Take the Penguin Clothbound Classics:  the Austen collection has seven volumes: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Love and Friendship.  The Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte collection is less inclusive. It has only four novels out of the seven:  Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte Collection

I wonder:  Where is Agnes Grey, my favorite of Anne’s?   And what about Charlotte’s  ShirleyShirley, which Charlotte finished after the deaths of her brother and two sisters, while still mourning, may be uneven, but it is a solid 19th-century factory novel. Charlotte worried because one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels, Mary Barton, was published before Shirley. She thought that it might affect sales and reviews.

Shirley begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But it is also a romance, and a study of women’s depression.  The heroine, Caroline Helstone, is raised by her uncle, a bossy, opinionated clergyman.  She falls in love with her Belgian cousin, Robert Moore, a mill owner, and it is the highlight of her day when, during her French lessons with her cousin Hortense, Robert appears.  For very inadequate reasons, her  uncle forbids her to visit the Helstones, and lonely Caroline becomes depressed and anorexic.  Then Shirley, an energetic heiress, arrives in the neighborhood, and becomes Caroline’s best friend.  The two are present when the mill workers strike:  the men become violent when Robert Moore awaits a delivery of new machines, they fear (rightly) that some will be replaced.  And if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, you will enjoy Shirley

If you want a complete hardcover set, I recommend the Everyman’s Library editions. They are not sold as a set, but they make a set.  Three volumes are devoted to Charlotte: one to Jane Eyre, another to Villette, and another to Shirley and The Professor;  one to Emily’s Wuthering Heights; and one to Anne Bronte’s two novels. These attractive books, have enjoyable, smart introductions by critics and novelist, but in general they are less scholarly than the  Penguins.

You can also make your own set with Penguin and Oxford World Classics paperbacks.  If you’re a Bronte girl, there are plenty of copies – even of Shirley.  There is also a boxed complete Wordsworth paperback Bronte set, which one blogger raved about. I am not a fan of the Wordsworth covers, but there is nothing wrong with the books.

Do you have favorite editions of Austen or the Brontes?

What to Read under the Heat Dome:  T. C. Boyle’s “The Terranauts”

August 24, 2023: We are living under a heat dome. It is 100 degrees, and the heat index is 107.

So what better book to read than T. C. Boyle’s gripping novel, The Terranauts, about eight scientists, including a marine biologist, ecologist, and a doctor, who are chosen to participate in E2, a scientific experiment that requires them to live in Arizona for two years in an enormous glass dome? Inside the dome there is a mini-earth: a rain forest, a savanna, wetlands, a farm, and an ocean, the waves simulated by a wave machine. The terranauts will plant their own crops and raise chickens, pigs, and goats for milk.

Cllimate change is destroying the habitat on Earth, and humankind may one day have to live on Mars in domes. That is the reasoning behind E2, an experiment in self-sufficiency. The terranauts’ motto is “Nothing in, nothing out.” That’s because the first mission, E1, became a joke, after an injured woman was let out to be treated and returned inside with two more bags of supplies.

Boyle based his novel on the Biosphere 2 experiment in 1991. He was fascinated by the potential of the experiment, but  disillusioned when he read in the newspaper that Space Biosphere Ventures had broken “closure” because one of the terranauts was injured.  After a year, they further cheated by having oxygen pumped in.

Boyle’s E2 terranauts are determined not to break “closure.”  Set in 1994, the novel is narrated  by  three of the sixteen E2 trainees, one of whom did’t make the team.   Only eight exhilarated competitors made the final cut, while those who were rejected are disappointed, depressed, and, in one case, borderline psychotic. 

Boyle is a gifted writer who gets the three narrators’ voices exactly right. Dawn Chapman, a beautiful, charming, young ecologist, who has the reputation for being the hardest worker on the team,  understands the politics of the mission:  she and her best friend, Linda Ryu, are equally qualified, but  Dawn understands that she herself is more likely to be chosen, simply because she is pretty.

Linda Ryu, a chunky, abrupt, almost friendless Asian-American woman, the overachiever daughter of two M.D.’s, doesn’t make the team, and is incredulous that the racial prejudice is so blatant.  The four chosen women are not only white but blondes.  And so Linda, furious and resentful, morphs into a wicked witch in a fairy ale, pretending to be Dawn’s friend, but hoping to sabotage the mission.

And then there’s Ramsay Roothorp, a slick, charming PR man who, from inside the dome, creates story ideas to hook the press and create an audience for their brand.   Ramsay’s relationships are usually tactical. While training for E2, he had an affair with Judy, the gorgeous dragon lady administrator at Mission Control, which he admits did not hurt his chances of being chosen for the mission.  (Ironically, Linda had sex twice with a sleazy, promiscuous administrator for political reasons, and it did not help her in the least.) And in the Dome, Ramsay is a satyr, first having an affair with Gretchen, who is in her forties, and who initiated the affair; then with Dawn, with whom he falls in love, or at least as close to that state as Ramsay is capable of. 

Relationships in the dome are strained, but sexual intrigues are the tipping point. Ramsay’s dumping of Gretchen causes an uproar.  Now Dawn has two female enemies:  Linda on the outside and Gretchen on the inside. Gretchen makes scenes, screaming at Dawn at the dinner table; Gretchen also confides in Linda (they have contact by phone). 

In Gretchen’s new version of the affair, Ramsay all but raped her.  This is a version of the Potiphar’s wife story, of which there is a version in every culture. Ramsay’s account, which we read first, credible: his more had never thought of sex with an “older” woman, until Gretchen seduced him. And indeed he is constantly ogling beautiful young women in short skirts and high heels, and Gretchen does not fit this profile. Finally, Ramsay could not stand her clinginess, and told her to get out of his apartment.

In addition to the sexual dramas , the terranauts are slowly starving, as they produce less and less food (this was expected; E1 also had this problem).  And during an uncharacteristic spell of sunless days and bad weather, the oxygen is insufficient, and they have trouble breathing. They think about breaking closure, but vote to wait it out. Fortunately, the weather changes, and the problem resolves itself.

Oddly, Dawn, the kindest, most caring terranaut, the one who was most concerned about Linda, loses empathy as she metamorphoses into an E2 fanatic.   Dawn has  star power and influence: she makes a choice that alienates the crew and yet manages to “sell it” to the chief of Mission Control, known as GC (God the Creator), for PR value.  Not to spoil the plot, but we are kind of on her side, yet we see the burden of her decision on others. Later, she is so fanatical that it is possible (probable?) that she has gone mad.

And so we can hardly blame Ramsay for having a meltdown when the experiment ends and he is outdoors for the first time in two years – and away from Dawn. Dawn has proved to be more of a player than he anticipated, and her demands temporarily intimidated and defeated him.

As Dawn’s dedication blurs with narcissism,Linda becomes a smouldering quasi-psycho.  Jealousy and malice send her over the edge. The motto should not be only “nothing in, nothing out,” but “Watch your back!”

What I like about Boyle is that he never writes the same book twice. He mines his material from many different sources, and is an expert storyteller. This summer I have read three of his novels: Talk to Me, Blue Skies, and The Terranauts.

And The Terranauts seems particularly relevant during this summer of 2023.

A Neglected Classic:  George Orwell’s “A Clergyman’s Daughter”

When you think of George Orwell, you do not say, “Oh, yes, he wrote my favorite novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter!”  In fact, you’ve probably never heard of A Clergyman’s Daughter. His dystopian novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, dominate the Orwellian canon.  And yet A Clergyman’s Daughter is truly a neglected classic, a realistic character study as well as a political analysis of women’s secondary role in society. Published in 1935, it is partly an exposé of the exploitation of poor single women, partly a portrait of a hard-working woman who is repulsed by the idea of “romance,” and partly an account of dire poverty and homelessness.

Having recently read Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell’s comic novel about an impoverished anti-establishment bookseller, I was enraptured to discover A Clergyman’s Daughter, which is even more brilliant. His portrait of the heroine, Dorothy Hare, the rector’s daughter, is sympathetic and poignant. And one-third of the way through the book, the narrative takes an astonishing turn that, despite the political subtext, teeters on the edge of fantasy. Orwell, however, gently brings us back to earth.

Kind, dutiful Dorothy is her father’s unpaid curate, as is clear even to Dorothy. In addition to managing her father’s household, she devotes herself to the church and its parishioners. She listens to the village schoolteacher’s endless lectures about “the real Catholic worship,” which, in his view, should feature lots of incense, fancy vestments, and processions; she makes complicated costumes for the children’s pageants, including armor and jackboots made of paper and glue; she reads Girl of the LImberlost aloud to the ladies’ knitting circle (Gene Stratton Porter is their favorite author, and she wonders what on earth to read to them next); she visits the poor and rubs the rheumatic legs of an old woman – an unpleasant task; organizes the Harvest Festival; organizes the Girl Guides; tries to convince her father they must pay the butcher’s bill (he prefers to “invest” his money and let the tradesmen wait); and pedals 20-30 miles every day “on her elderly  bicycle with the basketwork carrier on the handlebars” on her errands. Dorothy never has a moment to herself.

Because Dorothy has no real power or money, she spends her days deflecting other people’s legitimate and illegitimate worries. How can she raise money for church repairs? It is impossible. She listens to Mr. Progett’s complaints about the condition of the bells, which have been lying on the floor of the bell tower for three years, and may soon fall through the floor. She agrees that he is right.

“Well, I don’t know what we can do,” Dorothy repeated.  “Of course there’s the jumble sale coming off the week after next.  I’m counting on Miss Mayfill to give us something really nice for the jumble sale…. We must pray that the jumble sale will be a success, Proggett.  Pray that it will bring us five pounds at least.”

Exhausted from making jackboots for the children’s pageant, she accepts an invitation to visit the charming, if slightly lecherous, Mr. Warburton:  he has asked her especially to meet “Ronald Bewley, the  novelist.  Author of Fishbones and Concubines.  Surely you’ve read Fishbones and Concubines.”  Well, Dorothy hasn’t read it, but she wants some time off from making Jackboots, so she arrives on her bicycle, looking forward to a nice chat. 

Regrettably, Ronald Bewley doesn’t show up.  That’s because Mr. Warburton made him up.  But they have a nice chat, and after she fends off Mr. Warburton’s embraces – which is very easy, because she nimbly puts her bike between them – she goes home with the sick knowledge that she must stay up all night making costumes. 

And then … she disappears.  Vanishes. No one knows where she is. All the newspapers run stories about the missing rector’s daughter. What terrifies Dorothy when she finally regains consciousness is that she does not remember who she is. SShe finds herself in London, almost penniless. Not knowing what to do, she joins a cheerful young ex-con, Nobby, who tells her he became a widower at age 20 (and this is typical of the sad stories Dorothy hears on her travels), and they go to the country to pick hops – which turns out to be blissful work, being outdoors all day. But after Nobby is arrested for stealing fruit that has fallen off trees and that the farmers don’t bother with anyway, he winks at her, swears at the police, and is taken away to jail. At the end of hop-picking season, Dorothy returns alone to London and is homeless, freezing at Trafalgar Square. 

How will she survive? Will she recover her identity? Finally, she sees a tabloid with her picture in it and an article about how she went missing. She realizes she must have blacked out.

This is not the end of her adventures, though both Orwell and Dorothy are aware of the fact that women without money have remarkably few choices.  Orwel is passionately leftist, but he can’t quite make Dorothy into a political sacrifice. She is an ordinary 28-year-old woman who makes a choice that not everyone will empathize with.  The important thing, Orwell seems to say, is that she is able to make a choice, not have it made for her. And certainly we admire her bravery, as she makes a difficult choice with her eyes wide open to the future.

Collectible Classics:  Why We Need More Jane Austen

Penguin Clothbound Classic

If you watch Booktube, you have seen ecstatic vloggers opening a box to reveal a new set of collectible classics. In order to perform this task, it is necessary for these dedicated souls to practice long hours with a letter opener or scissors.  We evaluate their technique:  it is precise and clean; they have not stabbed the box or tried to cut the tape with blunt scissors.  To be honest, we are mesmerized by this ritual. And yet we already know what the box will contain:  Jane Austen’s beloved novels.

These vlogs are fatal, like glossy catalogues or the shopping channel.  I often must buy a new hardcover edition of Austen to add to my already adequate paperback “collection.”  Mind you,  I have no interest in collecting valuable books.  These hardbacks, thank goodness, are “reading copies,” in the $15-$30 range.

Penguin Clothbound Classics are the most popular and accessible brand, with their attractive covers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, high-quality paper, and ribbon bookmarks.  Like the paperback Penguins, they have extensive notes and appendixes.  I rationalized buying Penguin hardbacks of Sanditon and Love and Friendship because I did not have them in paperback. And it is a pleasure to read these beautifully-designed hardcovers.

Let us move on to more obscure brands.  Have you seen the Austen editions with illustrations by Marjolein Bastin?  After seeing a vlogger hold it up FOR LESS THAN A MINUTE and praise the design, I found a copy of Sense and Sensibility at a reasonable price .  The  cover, with Bastin’s floral design, is gorgeous, but the illustrations, alas, do not portray Eleanor and Marianne. Instead, Bastin has chosen a nature theme:  she depicts flowers, birds, and butterflies.  And tucked within the pages are small envelopes and folded papers with titles like “The World of Sense and Sensibility.”  I found these a bit distracting, so I removed them.

For years bloggers (though not vloggers so much) have raved about the Thomas Nelson editions of classics These have laser-cut covers, and whole pages devoted to  quotes. Because these classics are out-of-print, they are insanely expensive.  But here is good news:  Harper has published the Harper Muse Jane Austen Collection with the original  laser-cut covers, quotes, and ribbon bookmarks.  These are sturdy and have a good amount of space between the lines, which makes them very readable.  I am very fond of these books, and wish I had the whole collection. Caveat: the print in Pride and Prejudice is, for some reason, much larger than the print in the other books in the collection.

How do I rate these editions? 

  1. Penguin Clothbound Classics
  2. Harper Muse Jane Austen collection
  3. Editions with illustrations by Marjolein Bastin

Any favorite editions of Austen, hardback or paperback?

On the Lake:  City Air & Reading at the Beach

In our twenties, we moved to a city by a lake. The lake was dead, or perhaps in the final stages of reincarnation. The river was so polluted that it was legendary. And the city was the subject of jokes on late-night TV, which left the residents chronically depressed .

It was a bit like living in one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels. The air was hazy and the sky a dismal  gray, but we tried to ignore the ring of factories around the city.  We ignored the stacks, which emitted smoke and particulate matter.  The Clean Air Act in 1970 had lessened the pollution, but it was still an environmentalist’s nightmare.  It infected  lungs with asthma,  bronchitis, emphysema, and cancer.  URBAN LEGEND:  there was an exceptionally high incidence of cancer in the city.  Still, an elderly friend told us that the air used to be much dirtier, that  his mother had to clean smuts off the door, windows, steps, and curtains, sometimes twice a day. 

In the epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Lucretius explains physics, the swerve of indestructible atoms, and Epicurean philosophy.  I can’t help but think that if he lived today he would love the excitement of doom.  He would write with gusto about the nature of particulate matter and air pollution,  perhaps as an addendum to his intellectual epic.

 Okay, so the lake was dead and the air was polluted.  We still had the scruffy urban park. There were dead fish on the beach,  but we sat far away from the water.  A few mad men and women splashed around in the lake, which seemed unwise. If we got to the beach early enough, we could luxuriate on the sand and read the newspaper in peace, or  the Village Voice, which truly had the best book review section. 

But it could be noisy on weekends.  That’s because people would bring their boomboxes and blast them at nine in the m0rning. Once I was utterly absorbed in Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, the first of a quartet of lyrical literary SF novels,  when R.E.M. (the best disbanded rock band in the world) nearly broke my eardrums with one of my favorite songs played at top volume:

Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk                                                                      
I’ll see you in Heaven if you make the list

And then Tears for Fears:

In violent times
You shouldn’t have to sell your soul
In black and white
They really, really ought to know  

I felt intense exasperation.  “Let’s move up the hill.”

“It will be crowded.”  

The hill was pleasantly populated with picnic tables and trees. There was usually room for readers.  Not today. Groups of people in too-revealing swimsuits crowded the picnic tables, snapping open cans of beer, grilling chicken, and listening to terrible music = so bad I could not identify it.. 

We were much better off with R.E.M. and Tears for Fears!

We strongly felt it was our park, though, because we lived nearby. When we sat under a tree, it was our tree.  We sat under a tree on the edge of the parking lot -hardly ideal – and read happily enough for half an hour…

And then- oh no- Queen.  Déjà vu:  a neighbor had driven us insane playing this song over and over:

We are the champions, my friends
And we’ll keep on fighting till the end
We are the champions
We are the champions
No time for losers
‘Cause we are the champions of the World  

And this is why people read at home!

Audiobooks vs. Humans:  Do You Read Aloud?

I must confess, I do not listen to audiobooks.  Years ago, I rented an audiobook of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, and thought I would listen to it while I washed the dishes.  I opened the box and was astonished to find 25-30 cassette tapes.  I spent only 10 minutes each night on the dishes,  so I made little progress with the tapes.  Eventually, I read the book myself.  It was faster and more enjoyable that way.

Although I am not a fan of audiobooks,  I do remember fondly the days when my husband and I read books aloud to each other.  We would walk to a scruffy urban park and sit beside a dead lake.  Neither of us ventured into the lake.  We were not suicidal.  Instead, we amused ourselves by reading to each other.  We enjoyed the humor books of Betty MacDonald, who is best known for The Egg and I, a comic memoir about life on a chicken farm. 

Of course our fondness for Betty MacDonald got us into trouble at the library.  One day we received an overdue notice for Anybody Can Do Anything.  “We took this back ages ago,” we insisted.  The cross librarian (yes, they used to be cross) had records, but we had our memory. The system had made a mistake, we said. We were a sweet young couple, so she couldn’t really find fault, though she looked as though she wished to banish us.

Months later we found Anybody Can Do Anything under the couch.  “How did this happen?”   The cats couldn’t have done it.  They sit on books, but they don’t move them around. We didn’t do it.  We don’t kick our books, so knew we were innocent.   The whole thing was a mystery.  Every old house has a ghost, yes?  It must have been the ghost. Laughing, we returned the book to the library.

We have known people who make their way though Trollope or George Eliot by reading aloud.  We tended to read aloud lighter books.  When you’re sitting by the lake under a scruffy tree, I Capture the Castle makes a charming read.  “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator, writes in her vivid diary. She describes her family life as practice for the days when she will write novels. The fascinating Mortmains live in a chilly, dilapidated castle: there is even a moat. Her father is a blocked writer; her stepmother, a former artist’s model; her older sister Rose has practically never seen a man so she flirts a inappropriately, batting her eyelashes like a character in a romance, and alienates her prospects; and only the younger brother, who is still in school, seems normal.  But life becomes more interesting at the castle after an American woman and her two eligible adult sons befriend them. It helps that they love Mr. Mortmain’s book (which is compared to Ulysses).

Kurt Vonnegut is good to read aloud.  For one thing, his books are blessedly short, and are also very funny.  John Dos Passos’s U.S.A is a great book, but perhaps better read to oneself.   My husband read half of it aloud to me when I was hooked up to IVs in an infectious disease ward. I was comforted by his voice but so groggy I didn’t take much in.  Still, we kept up the custom even at the hospital.

Some years ago, Edward Gorey in a Christmas interview at Amazon recommended Sylvia Waugh’s morbidly comic novels, The Mennyms series.  To quote Goodreads: ” A family of life-sized rag dolls live quietly and happily in a British village, secure that everyone takes them as human, until a letter from their landlord’s relative in Australia threatens their existence.” We read all five of them aloud. They were published as children’s books, but they are definitely for adults – we think so! Edward Gorey had excellent taste.

When did we stop reading to each other?  We truly enjoyed it, but it became difficult to fit in everything once we got “real jobs.” And yet what a good habit it was, and it brought us so much joy. 

Audiobooks are wonderful in their way, but it is not quite the same.

The Reinvented Bildungsroman: Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark” & “Children of Violence”; George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”; and Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Girl”

 Like many avid readers of the bildungsroman, I have noted that coming-of-age novels never go out of fashion.  Not a week goes by that there is not a review of a new coming-of-age novel.  I often reread my favorites, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Mill on the Floss. My preference is for the nineteenth century novel; perhaps they did it better. Yet as I grow older, I appreciate the modern reinvention of the bildungsroman as a form that focuses on a transitional period, such as the beginning of middle- or old age.  

So what exactly do we mean by this term?  Doris Lessing insisted that her five-volume Children of Violence series was a bildungsroman.  The first four are naturalistic novels minutely documenting the life of the heroine, Martha Quest, up to the age of 30. But the fifth is problematic.

Many 20th-century women readers  identify with Martha’s desperate struggle to escape the limits of the family and geography that defined their parents’ generation.  The last book in the series, The Four-Gated City, is so experimental that it stands apart as a separate entity, and redefines the novel:  I love it, some hate it. it is the story of Martha in London from age 30 to old age, set against the history of radicalism and sexual politics in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Lessing also explores the wobbly definition and treatment of madness, and ends with the kind of apocalypse that will doubtless happen, where all is confusion, and no one knows the origin. So is this novel part of the bildungsroman?  I’m not sure.

Lessing’s short 1973 bildungsroman, The Summer Before the Dark, is much more conventional. She focuses on one summer, the transition in Kate Brown’s life from busy, youngish wife and mother to middle age and independence.

That summer, her husband and grown-up children will be out of the country. So Kate is coerced into taking a job as a translator.  Soon she is translating not only Portuguese into English, but the conference-goers’ needs and insecurities into information and services.  And so she is upgraded to a manager, and realizes ironically that she is making a living out of her mothering skills.

Lessing, as well as Kate, wonders, Is this how Kate wants to spend the rest of her life?  As a professional mother?  And after the conference, during a month in a rented room in a hippie girl’s apartment, she changes her expectations, reads, and experiments with clothes: how do her looks affect how people see her?

Most important, she learns how to be middle-aged:  you learn to adapt and move on or are trapped in a role that no longer fits.

Needless to say, George Orwell has little in common with Lessing. I recently reread Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, because I remembered that it is set partly in a bookstore. I did not recall, however, that the raging hero, Gordon Comstock, quit his advertising job to avoid the “money stink.” This novel is essentially a comedy, but it is also about working for poverty wages in a used bookstore and the demands of money in our materialistic culture.  

In this mini-bildungsroman, Gordon is confronting (or avoiding?) the crisis of turning 30.  What do you do when you quit your well paid job in your late twenties and take a job at a second-hand bookstore, because you are too idealistic for the “money stink”?  Now he can barely afford to go out for a drink with his editor friend, Ravelston,  or take his girlfriend, Rosemary, to dinner, and he refuses to let them pay his way.   

Gordon is also a poet, the author of a slim volume of poetry, reviewed by prestigious publications.  He glares at the bookshop’s poetry section.  “His own wretched book was there – skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable.  Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob.”

Gordon has lost his inspiration, and his new manuscript is a crossed-out, inky mess. Orwell comically describes Georges desperation for cigarettes, his inconvenient lodgings, and a drinking spree that gets him fired. – so he falls down even lower on the social ladder.  The question is:  can Ravelston, Rosemary, and his sister Juilia, who lives in genteel poverty, persuade him to take a job that pays?  His biological clock, or do I mean time bomb, is ticking:  what does one do at age 30

And now I will end on a lighter note. I am a fan of a little-known bildungsroman by Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl, which is a kind of unraveling of a Vanity Fair, which the heroine radically rejects and shoots down. (Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying would approve.) Alcott, who had a contract to write girls’ books, is often criticized for her tendency to “moralize.” Yet this criticism  reflects either ignorance or denial of her upbringing and idealism.   Her father,  Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist philosopher who socialized with Thoreau and Emerson,  not only  founded a vegetarian commune but  started a radical school open to students of all races – which, alas, was shut down.  In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Alcott pits the values of friendship and hard work against materialism and slavery to fashion. 

The impoverished  heroine, Polly, a lively country girl, is used to hard work and is close to her family.  On a visit to  the the Shaws, a nouveau riche family in the city, she is appalled by her worldly friend Fanny’s affectations.  Money drives the family’s inappropriate actions and shallow manners, but Polly quietly smooths the relationships among Fan, her “fractious” younger sister, Maud, and their neglected grandmother, who has marvelous stories to tell. 

As you can imagine, the lives of Polly and Fan differ in adulthood.  Polly become a hard-working music teacher, while Fanny is still absorbed in parties, fashion, and love. Polly introduces Fanny to her bohemian circle of artistic friends, a struggling group of  New England women striving to be taken seriously.   And Fanny is impressed.

Becky Jeffrey, a sculptress, lives with an engraver, Lizzie Small, in a small studio; Kate King is an authoress, struggling with her new novel; and Fanny’s landlady, Miss Mills, a philanthropist,  instead of living alone, rents rooms at low rates to impecunious people.

And Polly and Fanny do have to struggle to survive: they undergo radical changes and unforeseen difficulty. There is also romance.

And of course Alcott moralizes, but that doesn’t bother me in the least.

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