I am the founder and sole member of My Mother’s Book Club. It’s nothing like Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine: it’s a way to commune with the dead. Once a month I plan to read one of Mom’s favorite old books. It’s not quite a seance, but it helps me feel closer to her.
As a young woman I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown. My husband and I moved to an ugly polluted city, where there were job opportunities. When we returned to the sunny midwest, I appreciated my willful, confident mom. It was she who raised me to be obstinate, imaginative, and an avid reader. She bought me books at the grocery store (remember Whitman classics?) and at downtown bookstores (Nancy Drew and E. Nesbit). She let me take a sick day from school so I could finish The Lord of the Rings.
She was a film buff, and preferred books adapted into movies. And so I thought I’d start with Sally Benson’s Meet Me in St. Louis, which she kept on a shelf in the storage room for years. (I was the only one with a bookcase.) But the book is out-of-print, and selling for $70 online. What’s with that?
Instead, I am reading Cid Ricketts Sumner’s Tammy out of Time, which inspired the movies Tammy and the Bachelor and Tammy Tell Me True, starring Debbie Reynolds. All right, I’ve never seen those two, but my mother took me at a very young age to see Tammy and the Doctor with Sandra Dee and Peter Fonda.
I’ve only read a few chapters, but the book is very well-written. Tammy has been raised on a shanty boat on the Mississippi, and has never even seen herself in a mirror (only in bucket of water). In the first few chapters, it’s Southern Gothic meets Our Mutual Friend. (Honestly, there’s an allusion to Lizzie Hexam and her father.) But I’m expecting comedy, because aren’t the Tammy movies about romance?
I was raised on the canon of Dead White Males. Not that this bothers me: in the Greek and Latin classics, which I read for the joy of deciphering the languages as well as the exquisite literature, women writers are rare. And few women writers were taken seriously until the 19th and 20th centuries.
But even in the 20th century, there was a paucity of women’s literature in translation. I am a Russian literature aficionado, and am always on the lookout for women writers. So I was fascinated to find the Soviet novella Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, published by Northwestern University Press.
Written in 1939 but not published till 1962, it is the story of a widow, Sofia Petrovna, who works in an office during the Great Purge. In the preface to the novella, the author Lydia Chukovskaya wrote, “The story now seeking the attention of readers was written twenty-two years ago, in Leningrad, in the winter of 1939-1940. In it I attempted to record the events just experienced by my country, my friends, and myself.”
Sofia Petrovna lives for her son Kolya, a brilliant student who becomes an engineer. But after her husband dies, she takes a typing course, and then finds work at a publishing company. She is smart and efficient, and soon she is in charge of the typing pool. She loves the administrative work. And she and the best typist, Natasha Frolenko, become fast friends: they gossip over meals at Sofia Petrovna’s home, which consists of one room in a large apartment occupied by multiple families.
Sofia Petrovna is a novel reader, not interested in the news. She is barely aware of the purge until the kind director of the publishing company is arrested. And then her son, who has moved to another province, is arrested and accused of being a terrorist. Sofia Petrovna is sure it is a mistake, but spends her days in long lines waiting to find out where her son is. She even writes three letters to Stalin, and is surprised that he doesn’t write back. And one day in line she meets the wife of her former boss, who is being deported with her daughter–and no one will tell her where her husband is, so she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again.
This sad and terrifying book is only 119 pages. It is all too easy to identify with the heroine.
I read this in a single afternoon.
It is translated by Aline Werth and emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose.
Six months after Jane Austen’s death, the first book EVER listing Jane Austen as its author was published. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey – a four-volume work – hit the market in late December 1817, although the title page lists 1818 as the publishing year. So here they were, two of Austen’s heretofore unpublished works, two completed novels by the master’s hand published together, and the first to ever openly name Jane Austen as their author. During her lifetime, all of Austen’s works were published anonymously, variously “By a Lady” or “By the Author of …”
In many ways, the novels are apt bookends to Austen’s authorship. Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s early works, a novel she’d already been working on during the 1790s, the same period that she was writing Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel) and Pride and Prejudice (her second published novel). In fact, Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen submitted for publication back in 1803. She sold the publishing rights to a bookseller, who never did publish it, just sat on it, refusing to return it and threatening legal repercussions should Austen seek publication elsewhere. Eventually, the publisher relented and said that Austen could purchase the rights back. In 1816, her brother did just that, and Austen edited it extensively before her death, including changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine.
2. If you’ve ever encountered readers who refuse to finish a classic because they disagree with a fictional character, you’ll want to read Brian Morton’s essay at The New York Times, “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!” His brilliant approach to opening readers’ minds to the literary past involves (mental) time travel.
…The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.
…I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
Morton points out that we readers are the ones doing the time travel. Do read the essay!
I am a great fan of the Victorian writer Margaret Oliphant. Her Carlingford series, set in a country town, is as brilliant as Trollope’s Barsetshire series. But somehow she doesn’t get her dues. Critics used to complain that Oliphant was too prolific to write well. Few of her books are in print.
Fortunately for us, Broadview has published a new edition of Oliphant’s superb novella, Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamond. In the introduction, the editor explains that by the 1930s Oliphant’s work had fallen out of favor. Her prolificacy was rooted in the need to support her family of three children, a terminally ill husband, her two older brothers, and two nieces and nephews. Both J. M. Barrie and Virginia Woolf regretted Oliphant’s need to be so productive. In the introduction to a posthumously-published collection of her stories in 1898, J. M. Barrie wrote with equal parts admiration and condescension about the uneven quality of her books: “…but whether they would have been greater books had she revised one instead of beginning another is to be doubted.”
In this stunning novella, Oliphant takes on the subject of bigamy. She has written a clever 19th-century retelling of the legend of Rosamond, whom Eleanor of Aquitaine allegedly murdered after learning she was King Henry II’s lover.
The heroine of this novella, of course, is not murderous: Eleanor Lycett-Landon is a devoted mother of six children, and the supportive wife of an easygoing, upper-middle-class businessman who works mainly in Liverpool. Oliphant writes, “She had money enough to help him in his business, and business connections in the West of Scotland (where the finest people have business connections), which helped him still more; and she was a good woman, full of accomplishments and good humour and intelligence.”
And shouldn’t that be enough for any man?
But at the age of 50, Robert claims the London branch of the company is in trouble. He spends months in London, seldom coming home to visit. When Eleanor offers to move the family to London, Robert adamantly refuses. Eventually, an old family friend gives Eleanor a tip: something is amiss, and she must go to London.
As you can imagine, Eleanor’s trip to London with her oldest son, Horace, is devastating. Imagine a quiet, contented woman discovering that her husband is living with a young wife in the suburbs. Imagine her experiencing compassion for the young woman.
She is devastated, we are devastated. But it is not the kind of drama we are used to in the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. (Excerpts from their novels are quoted in the back of the book.) It is the subtlety of Oliphant’s writing that most impressed me.
A fascinating novella, and the material in the back of the book about the reception of the book, bigamy laws, and other versions of the legend is invaluable.
We’ve been reading Good Poems, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor, and were thrilled to find “in celebration of surviving,” by Chuck Miller, a poet who lives in Iowa City.
in celebration of surviving
by Chuck Miller
when senselessness has pounded you around on the ropes
and you’re getting too old to hold out for the future
no work and running out of money,
and then you make a try after something that you know you
and this long shot comes through on the stretch
in a photo finish of your heart’s trepidation
then for a while
even when the chill factor of these prairie winters puts it at
you’re warm and have that old feeling
of being a comer, though belated
in the crazy game of life
standing in the winter night
emptying the garbage and looking at the stars
you realize that although the odds are fantastically against you
when that single January shooting star
flung its wad in the maw of night
it was yours
and though the years are edged with crime and squalor
that second wind, or twenty-third
is coming strong
and for a time
perhaps a very short time
one lives as though in a golden envelope of light
And here’s a brief interview with Chuck Miller on his thoughts on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (He’s an alumnus.)
Xenophobia thrives on the net. Well, it’s not always chauvinism: sometimes it is mere mischief. I don’t do social media, so I don’t encounter much hostility. What I detect in comments is often in the mischief category. Sometimes I let it pass, sometimes I delete. Do you know who is exasperated by my blog? English bloggers!
Yes, this makes me laugh, too. I am an anglophile. I have taken four trips to London, where I spent my time in awe at Ai Weiwei exhibitions and on self-guided tours written up in my guidebook. Yup, I’ve been to the art museums, the Dickens Museum, Buckingham Palace, strolled in very green parks, shopped at bookstores, eaten fish and chips, and been impressed by the efficiency of Heathrow security. (In Chicago I was patted down for holding a Kleenex!)
In spite of the fact that I venerate English literature, English bloggers sometimes complain in comments. And that, I conclude, is because of my flippancy. So here are the
TOP FIVE WAYS TO ALIENATE THE BRITISH.
Be flippant about Virago Week or Virago Month. I am a Virago fan, but I once wrote, “Every time I turn around it’s Virago Week.” That did not go over well.
Suggest that a line be drawn between marketing and reviewing. English bloggers informed me that of course they were promoting books. Yeah, I knew that.
Write a post about correct usage of indefinite pronouns. Who got angry? You guessed it, the English. The U.S. and Canada seem to be on the same page: many Americans and Canadians added their own pet grammar peeves.
Suggest that Anne is the worst writer of the three Brontes. Wow, what an outpouring! Okay, one American was also angry.
Suggest that the British should “deal with” the fact that Americans are now contenders for the Man Booker Prize. It’s not that I personally like it, it’s that the writers’ petitions and letters have been ignored.
So are the English xenophobic? Or am I a xenophobe? Honestly, at this point, who knows? At least I’m not leaving mean comments at their blogs!
But don’t we all agree that the British writers of the nineteenth and twentieth century are incomparable?
On a social media break a few weeks ago, I started musing about book journals.
I kept a journal in a notebook, but I also enjoyed a Goodreads account. Goodreads is fun but, well, there’s too much data. Did my “friends” (whom I don’t know at all!) really want to know the percentage of an e-book I’d read, or that I’d voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards? Plus I had a TBR list of at least 300 books. I get carried away.
I’m not a Luddite… but I decided I prefer paper. (At least for a while.)
I do love a pretty notebook!
I started my first book journal in 1995 or 1996. I read fiftysome books. It seemed a great number, but meaningless out of context. So many ephemeral books… but some great ones, like Wright Morris’s Plains Song.
And then there was a hiatus until the 21st century.
Fast forward to book journal fidelity. My journal takes the simplest form: I record the title, author, and the date finished. I have used a Paperblanks journal, a Moleskine, a Miquelrius, a Nava Notes, and something offbrand from Walmart.
I enjoy looking at the journals. In the first decade of the 21st century, I read Trollope and middlebrow novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith, Hugh Walpole, and Rose Macaulay. Many of these “forgotten” writers are back in print now.
But when I asked a friend, Didn’t she find it strange I had finished 174 books?, she said, “What’s strange is that you keep track.”
Keeping the book journal may have been the most normal thing that year. The feat of reading 174 books reflected a high boredom index. Very high. I love to read, but I’d felt exhausted all year. Turned out I had a health problem. Wouldn’t you know?
Still, it is satisfying to look back at that long, long list. Two of my favorites were Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’ and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front, 1939-1942. The former is a fascinating diary written by Nella Last for the Mass Observation Archive in England; the latter a charming novel in the form of the heroine Henrietta’s letters to a friend during the war. (It’s a bit like Diary of a Provincial Lady, only epistolary.)
My reading has changed in the last few years. I’ve become a damned scholar. All right, I’m joking. I’m an enthusiast. But I do read more classics. Read enough long books and you don’t have the embarrassment of reading 174 books. This year I’m down to 138. That’s a LOT of books, but not ridiculous.
How do you feel about electronic data vs. notebooks?
REVISITING GEORGE ELIOT’S DANIEL DERONDA. In December I reread Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel. In this strange novel, Eliot inverts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and describes a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.
At my blog Mirabile Dictu, I wrote last year:
The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied. She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana. When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.