Books and Coffee in Oskaloosa, Iowa

The Book Vault

Now that my husband is out of his sling, we occasionally explore picturesque small towns on the weekend.  And so we went to Oskaloosa, Iowa, where the Book Vault is the cornerstone of Christmas shopping.

We had been looking for a copy of  Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it is an ecological novel that centers on trees.  Oddly, this well-reviewed book is sold out at the Bookworm in Omaha, Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Barnes and Noble in Des Moines, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids, and Amazon and barnesandnoble.com.

Lo and behold! The Book Vault had the book.

“It’s the last copy in the midwest,” we told the three women behind the counter.

The Book Vault really is one of the loveliest bookstores I’ve been to.  Located in a 19th-century bank building, it has three floors, an illuminated stained glass ceiling,  period light fixtures, a balcony, and two vaults full of books.  The store was founded by librarians Nancy Simpson and Julie Hansen in 2005.  It is owned by The Musco Corporation, a sports lighting company headquartered in Oskaloosa, which has also generously contributed money to the small local Quaker-founded university.

The Book Vault has a marvelous selection of literary fiction and nonfiction.  Honestly, you can find all the latest books there.  (The good ones, not the junk.). There is also a cookbook section and test kitchen in the back.

But we weren’t finished yet.  Next door is Smokey Row, a  coffeehouse and restaurant.  This is by far the nicest of the four Smokey Rows (the others are in Pella, Pleasantville, and Des Moines).  The one in Oskaloosa is by far the least hectic, and the coffee is excellent.

You can also buy Smokey Row mugs.  Yup.  All your shopping can be done in Oskaloosa (population 11,463, according to the 2010 Census).

 

The Blogging Scene in the Marketing Age

I’ve had at least six blogs, and deleted two of them.  I don’t remember the title of the first.  Blogging was THE trend in the early twenty-first century. It was an amateur effort, in the best possible way, in the true sense of the Latin origin,  amare, to love, and amator, lover.

It didn’t last.  It couldn’t.  The cowgirls and anarchists faded from the scene.  Publishing companies co-opted bloggers.  Blogging turned from a labor of love into a publisher’s marketing opportunity.  The naive bloggers became shills.

Mind you, there are many sophisticated bloggers.  My personal “circle” of bloggers, such as it is, prefers books published before this century, and  distinguishes between reviews and marketing.

But I miss the early blogs, which were an “alternative” to the media. I don’t see that anymore.  Remember when writers and editors of book reviews attacked bloggers for ruining criticism?  The review publications have terminated the blogs they established in imitation of saucy blogs, because the  new bloggers’ second- and third-rate imitations of their criticism provide no competition.  (And, yes, there are some brilliant bloggers, as I’ve said before.)

Overall, I haven’t seen so much brown-nosing in years.

Where do we go from here?  Words are disappearing faster than I can turn a page.

Was Clodia Catullus’s Girlfriend? & Uncommon Book Lists

I am chortling over Robert DeMaria’s Clodia, an entertaining historical novel set in Rome in the first century B.C.  All right, it’s mostly the jacket copy that makes me laugh.

The narrator is the poet Catullus:  he has a bad cough, which the doctor doesn’t take seriously, and is pining away in a villa at Sirmio after breaking up with his girlfriend Clodia.  And so Catullus is writing an account of his affair with  “wanton” Clodia, a charming, sophisticated woman who dominated Roman society in the first century.  She is best known today from Cicero’s character assassination in Pro Caelio (more about this later if it proves relevant).

Was Clodia really Catullus’s girlfriend?  There is a romantic tradition among literal-minded classicists that Clodia Metelli was the model for Lesbia, the  promiscuous woman who appears in some of Catullus’s poems.  There is, to my knowledge, no evidence for this connection. Sure, the name “Lesbia” scans like “Clodia” (dactyl –  long short short)  but it is primarily a literary reference to Greek lyric poetry, especially Sappho, who lived on the  island Lesbos.  Catullus  modeled much of his work on Greek lyric poetry, and translated a poem by Sappho into Latin.

Well, I’m not sure that I’ll read Clodia cover-to-cover, but it got a good review in Kirkus in 1965.  And I adore the jacket copy on the Signet paperback cover:

A spectacular novel of Rome in the last decadent days of the Republic–the story of one of history’s most exciting women, the powerful and wanton Clodia and her stormy affair with the love-poet Catullus.

And there’s more!  In the back the publisher advertises an eclectic list of titles.

I am a fan of  Darling by Frederic Raphael, who also wrote the screenplay  and won an Oscar for it!  And I have  also read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Country Girls, and  The Group.

Do you know any of these books?

ANOTHER LIST:  1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich.

My husband and I are poring over this book with fascination.  It was a Christmas gift to ourselves!

James Mustich, the co-founder and publisher of the great catalogue, The Common Reader, compiled this list of 1,000 books and wrote accompanying mini-essays.   He recommends not just classics, but loads of quirky books.

Have you heard of  Shirley Robin Letwin’s  The Gentleman in Trollope:  Individuality and Moral Conduct?   Another one for the TBR.

In Praise of Pronouns

I admire a beautifully-turned sentence. It doesn’t have to be decorative but it must be clear. Alas, grammar errors proliferate on the internet and spill over into the publishing industry.

You can’t imagine how boring it is to find yourself silently editing a novel you’re reading for fun.  Writers and editors seem especially perplexed by pronouns.  Mind you, a grammar workshop could cure the problems.

I am reading an advance copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel, The Dreamers.   (It’s a good read.)  Alas, in Chapter 3, the relative pronouns, who and whom, are confused.

“…two of the girls reconcile by phone with the faraway boys who they loved so much in high school and who they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.”

Of course the correct form is whom, because the relative pronoun is the direct object.  Who is used only as the subject.

It should be:

…whom they loved so much in high school…

…and whom they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.

In the first relative clause –  every clause has its own verb –  they is the subject, loved is the verb, and whom is the direct object.  In the second relative clause, they (they’d) is the subject, [had] outgrown is the verb, and whom is the direct object.

Here’s a chart:

who – only used as subject!
whose —possessive
to or for whom – indirect object
whom – direct object
whom – object of prepositions, by, with, after, about, etc.

It’s too late to send a friendly correction but I hope the editors found the errors in time!

AND NOW ANOTHER PRONOUN ERROR.   Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja has received enthusiastic reviews.  I ordered this retold fairy tale because it sounds rather like Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, one of my favorites of the year.

In the very first sentence I found an error.

Everyone has their own way of telling our story.”

It’s never good to lead with an error.

Their is the pronoun error.

The subject, everyone, is singular indefinite pronoun, and of course the verb,  has, is singular, too.  The subject and verb must agree in number.   But then the writer switches to their, the plural possessive personal pronoun,  to refer back to the singular everyone.   The possessive pronoun should agree in number with the noun it refers back to.  In other words, it should be singular here.

Here are three correct versions of the sentence.

Everyone has his own way of telling our story.

Everyone has her own way of telling our story. 

Everyone has his or her own way of telling our story.

And if you don’t like the use of “his” or “her,” you can substitute “All” for “Everyone.”

All have their own way of telling our story.

I have seen nothing else untoward in the  few pages I’ve read.  Do I give the book a chance, or return it to the bookstore because of a grammar error?

Do you, too, silently correct grammar?

Two Great Books & a Pair of Reading Socks

Let me recommend two remarkable new books.

Deborah Eisenberg’s brilliant collection of short stories, Your Duck is My Duck, is my favorite book of the year. (It is also a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year.)  I’ve been an Eisenberg  fan for decades:  I  pore over The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2011,  when I need humor, sanity, and gorgeous sentences.   Your Duck is My Duck, a collection of six new stories, is another classic.

I plan to write about it later, but  meanwhile here is a brief witty excerpt from the title story.  When the narrator consults a doctor about sleeping problems, he offers her a prescription for sleeping pills.  She declines, so he advises her to try to figure out why she’s not sleeping.

“What’s to figure out?” I said. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figute out is why everybody else is sleeping.”

“Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” he said.

So witty, so true!  Does anyone describe the world’s problems better than Eisenberg’s narrator in that brief paragraph? N.B. The narrator reluctantly tries the pills, but throws them away because she doesn’t like the way they make her feel.

 On a different note, there’s  1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich.  This isn’t just a reference book.  Mustich, the co-founder and publisher of the charming book catalogue The Common Reader from 1986 to 2006, has always been a promoter of great old and new books. If you had the pleasure of reading the catalogue, you’ll know how captivating his writing is.  In this attractive, long, but unintimidating book, he has written a mini-essay about each book on his list.  The book also comes with a checklist on a poster!  We are poring over this book with pleasure at our house, and making a new list of books we want to read.

Reading Socks!

We saved up Barnes and Noble coupons–one 25% off, one  20% off, and one 15% off–and went to B&N to pick out the books for our Christmas book exchange.  And my husband also bought me Reading Socks!

  They are SO  comfortable and warm:  a pair  of long socks lined with faux sherpa fleece.  And they come in different styles and colors.  Below are some short reading socks.

Having warm feet makes a difference !

A Giveaway: “Asymmetry” by Lisa Halliday

This is one of the Best Books of the Year, according to The New York Times critics. And  I’m giving it away to anyone willing to reimburse me for the postage!

Halliday writes beautifully, and yet I found Asymmetry gimmicky.   It consists of two novellas, the first about Alice, a twenty-something wannabe writer who has an affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous American writer in his seventies. Coincidentally,  Halliday in her twenties had an affair with seventyish Philip Roth.  Every reviewer gossips about this, so I assume the tittle-tattle was part of the publicity package.

As a Second Wave feminist, I eventually tired of Alice and Ezra.    It’s not that women who f— their way to fame don’t have talent, but it’s the f– part that cements the deal.  Fortunately, in the second novella, “Madness,” Halliday  casts aside  Alice and Ezra to delineate a truly interesting character, Amar, an upper-middle-class  Iraqi-American researcher who is detained at Heathrow Airport in London on the way to Iraq.  This is the truly brilliant part of this novel.

Alas, in the final section Ezra is back!  He gives an interview on a BBC radio show,  “Desert Island Discs.”   And, not surprisingly,  Ezra mentions an interesting young writer he is helping.  Just as we thought, Alice has benefited from Ezra’s patronage.

Somebody will love this novel, but I want it out of my  house!  When will women get out from under men?

How I miss Second Wave feminism!

The book is beautifully written and critically acclaimed.  Leave a comment or email me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com if you want the book.

Retro-chic Gifts for the Common Reader

Common readers are chic.

If you’ve been to a reader’s fashion show, you know what I mean.

On the runway you will see a bespectacled model dressed in a Jane Austen sweatshirt and composition-book print yoga pants. She holds a copy of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and sips from a mug that says, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.”

But, dear reader, you can have a chic Christmas without the latest fashions! JUST TREAT YOURSELF (OR FRIENDS) TO ONE  ITEM BELOW.

A reference book.  A good reference book has the advantage of being written by experts and researchers. Wikipedia is fun, but there are mistakes.  I recommend an old set of encyclopedias (cheap at used bookstores), James Audubon’s Birds of America, or anything else that interests you.

A dictionary (the biggest you can afford).  You will enjoy the detailed entries, love the etymology, and when you look up “ineffable,” you will see  pages and page of words beginning with “i.”  (On the internet you see only what you look up.)

A thesaurus.  So many synonyms!

4.  A slim volume of poetry.  Everyone should have one.  You might read A. E. Stalling’s new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin, 33 pages) but you will never open that huge anthology of classical poetry.

5.  A used copy of a novel by Balzac (preferably a Penguin).  “This old thing? I’ve read it, like, 100 times.”  Pere Goriot…Cousin Bette…  You’ll  be late for work  BECAUSE YOU WERE READING but who can fire you for that?

6.  A new book journal.  Forget the spreadsheet and return to paper when you write your book journal.

7.  Reading socks (Barnes and Noble).  They’re just socks, but you want them!  You can also write your own label, Reading Socks, on an ordinary pair of socks and give them as a gift.

8.  An old-fashioned Rolodex to keep track of characters in Proust.  Experience the 20th century! It’s fun to write the information on cards!

9.  A mug with a bookish slogan. They’re frivolous, but we all like a Jane Austen mug.

10.  A totebag  doesn’t need a literary slogan, but everyone needs a totebag!

DO LET ME KNOW YOUR FAVORITE RETRO-CHIC BOOK GIFT IDEAS!