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It is just too cold to pull off a decent post this evening. It’s only 5F (-15C) with a brisk wind blowing making it feel even colder. My bus was late on my way home and I had to wait for close to half an hour. Brrr!
I thought I’d tell you about a fun book I just picked up at the library, Knitting for Nerds by Toni Carr. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned before that I knit. I don’t knit a lot, not as much as I used to because of the tendonitis in my wrist, but it is something I still very much enjoy when I can.
Knitting for Nerds is a hoot. It has thirty projects in it inspired by science fiction, fantasy and comics. There is a Doctor Who scarf, hobbit feet slippers, Star Trek Next Generation pullover, a Firefly inspired scarf, socks, and sweater coat, and space princess hats including Princess Leia’s iconic buns. I won’t be making the bun hat, but I do like the Firefly inspired coat and I am nerdy enough to make the Star Trek sweater too. However, given the rate at which I knit these days, it will be a very long time before either of these will be completed. But when they are I will be the coolest seventy-something old lady around!
I get that it is a compliment, to tell authors that you cry. And I get that we want books that make us cry. I do, anyway. Just not necessarily in front of dozens of strangers.
This is why I am proposing a new literary award. It is to be called the SNOT award. Given to STORIES NOT to be read ON TRANSIT, the SNOT shall honor and mark books that will make you ugly-cry while on a crowded cross-town bus.
The SNOT sticker will be gold and embossed, and will stand as both a ringing endorsement and a useful warning.
So, in November we reached out to our book critics and staff to ask which books they absolutely loved in 2013. We got more than a total of 200 titles in response from trusted names such as NPR's go-to librarian Nancy Pearl, Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan, Morning Edition host David Greene, and even Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! limericist Philipp Goedicke. Then the members of the NPR Books team locked ourselves in a small room for several hours to hash out how exactly to categorize titles ranging from Mr. Wuffles! and Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great to an 832-page biography of Woodrow Wilson.
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth we emerged with a taxonomy that allowed users to filter the list of our 200-plus favorite 2013 books in ways that felt both functional (i.e., or ) and fun (i.e., and ). Meanwhile, the NewsApps team was busy figuring out how this whole thing should look and work. After a couple of weeks of designing and coding and testing and editing, our books concierge was born.
And even though they aren't doing the list thing, THAT WON'T STOP ME. Here are the titles in their app-thingie that are tagged 'young adult':
Where did December come from? What happened to May? July? September? Did I do a Rip Van Winkle? The year can’t be almost done already!
So far setting monthly reading priorities has gone pretty well. I thought when I sat down to write this that November had gone terribly but looking back there is only one book I didn’t read, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. My excuse? A library book I had on hold came my way. That’s valid, right?
I am usually up to date with writing about books I have finished but there are two books from November I haven’t written about yet: Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse and MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. The Atwood was fantastic. The Hesse, I am still trying to puzzle it out. I think I should have read it while under the influence of mind-altering drugs and it would have made more sense. Write ups about each of the books are forthcoming.
Books for December. I am having trouble putting together my priorities. I have the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s off from work, that’s two full weeks, and I am inclined to cram it full with books. But I know I have a tendency to cram it too full so I back off and then worry that I haven’t planned enough. What the heck. Let’s cram!
So while others binge on food this month, I’ll binge on books. Here’s the meal plan:
Bicycles: Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni. She will be giving a reading at the public library on December 12th and I am planning to go. While I know who she is a search through my reading history revealed I have never read her. I began the book the other day and what a delight! I look forward to hearing her speak.
Burning the Midnight Oil edited by Phil Cousineau. The publisher offered this to me and I couldn’t refuse. It’s a little anthology of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction about the night. The book is being published on the winter solstice. It is one of those perfect dipping books that has so far been very enjoyable.
Vital Signs, this is a book of essays on psychological responses to ecological crisis. I am not planning on rushing my way through this and finishing by the end of the month. I am taking my time and plan on finishing in January so this one is a more long-term book.
Singing School by Robert Pinsky. This is a book about poetry. I am next up in the hold queue at the library and it looks like my turn will come around the 17th.
To the Letter by Simon Garfield is another book I am waiting for at the library. The library just purchased it and as soon as they have it cataloged a copy will be mine.
The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke. This is the book that came in from the library that kept me from reading The Bridge of Beyond last month. It is a chunkster but so far so good. It is a science fiction novel that involves time travel and climate change. Bookman decided to read it too. One book, two readers. Watch us juggle and negotiate!
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. I started this on my Kindle a week or so ago and am enjoying it very much. A nice antidote to the Hesse.
The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore. Another book of comedy, this time Christmas comedy. Bookman read it last year and laughed all the way through and then foisted it on me. Seems like a good time to read it.
And if I manage all of that, there will also be The Bridge of Beyond and Trojan Women to dive into. Also on the back burner is Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot and a biography about him by Peter Ackroyd.
It’s a good thing reading binges are calorie-free!
After reading a slim book of essays by Edward Thomas earlier this year I decided to try his poetry. Thomas, born in London in 1878, was, by the time he began writing poetry, an established writer of prose. It was only after Robert Frost became his neighbor that Thomas tried his hand at poetry in 1914.
Thomas was a great walker of the countryside and his prose about his rambles is beautiful and lyrical so it doesn’t seem like it would have taken a great leap for him to write poetry. And while his poems have a Frosty (Frostian?) feel to them, Thomas is also distinctly his own man. Sadly WWI broke out, Thomas joined up and was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in 1917. Nonetheless, during his short time as a poet, he managed to produce 140 poems. Pretty amazing when you think about how productive that is. Makes me wonder what he would have been like should he have survived the war. Would he have continued as prolific? Or maybe he had a premonition that his time was short and he needed to write as many poems as he could. Whatever the case might be, I am glad for Frost’s encouragement of him and I am delighted by his 140 poems.
They tend to be on nature or humans in relation to nature, and while his voice is generally light and the verse sparkles along, an underlying feeling of darkness or death creeps in to remind us the birds might be singing and the woods bright and green but it is not always so. Take, for example, the last stanza of the poem “Old Man.” Old Man, also called Lad’s Love is a green herb. In the preceding stanzas he talks about his love of the plant and he imagines his child loving it too, and then:
I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray
And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;
Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait
For what I should, yet never can, remember:
No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush
Of Lad’s Love, or Old Man, no child beside,
Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;
Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.
Along with whole poems that are wonderful, he has many standout lines too that just grabbed me and made me pause to think about them and read them again and again. Lines like, “When Gods were young/ This wind was old.” And:
And she has slept, trying to translate
The word the cuckoo cries to his mate
Over and over.
And yet I am still half in love with pain,
With what is imperfect, with both tears and mirth,
With things that have an end, with life and earth,
And this moon that leaves me dark within the door.
Once the war starts Thomas begins to shift his focus away from nature a little bit. I take that back, shifting away is not accurate, broadening his view is more like it. He writes a few love poems, missing his wife and family perhaps. And of course the war enters in to some of the poems too. Even though he only wrote a handful of poems about war he is still better known as a war poet than a nature poet. There are some fine ones that made my heart sink with their utter sadness. But I don’t want to leave this on a sad note because Thomas is not a sad poet. So here is one of his love poems, “Some Eyes Condemn”
Some eyes condemn the earth they gaze upon:
Some wait patiently until they know far more
Than earth can tell them: some laugh at the whole
As folly of another’s making: one
I knew that laughed because he saw, from core
To rind, not one thing worth the laugh his soul
Had ready at waking: some eyes have begun
With laughing; some stand startled at the door.
Others too, I have seen rest, question, roll,
Dance, shoot. And many I have loved watching. Some
I could not take my eyes from till they turned
And loving died. I had not found my goal.
But thinking of your eyes, dear, I become
Dumb: for they flamed, and it was me they burned.
Isn’t that wonderful? I take that last line as a positive thing, burning with desire and love, but it could be read differently. It’s a glass half empty, glass half full line, isn’t it?
You can read more details about Thomas on his page at the Academy of American Poets where there are also four of his poems to enjoy as well.
This time of year, many of us hear cautions against over-eating. The cookies! The candies! The parties with melted cheese appetizers! But do we caution ourselves against over-reading? I have been on a reading binge this year. Next year my reading will be reserved for committee work, so this year, I have been a reading maniac. On Twitter, I have been part of a “50 Book Pledge”. It is a reading campaign put on by The Savvy Reader. Basically, you sign on to read at least 50 books in the year, and Tweet about your reading. For those of us who use picture books on a regular basis, 50 books is a breeze. But this year I’ve been wolfing down adult books, too! And my diet contains YA novels just for fun, in addition to all the picture books and middle-grade fiction. Just for fun! I am only 1 book away from my 200-Book goal – if you want to see my bookshelf, here it is.
Photo of book shelf by Angela Reynolds
How many books have you read this year? Do you keep track? If so, where and how do you keep track? I love having this online bookshelf, it is easy for me to go back and find a book that I read but can’t recall the title. I want to hear your over-reading stories – there’s lots of room in the comments…
There was a review recently on the Publisher’s Weekly blog on a couple of new collections of letters. I love reading collections of letters, there is something thrilling about snooping through other people’s mail. While I am not so very interested in the collections reviewed, the reviewer makes some interesting comments about letters as their very own genre:
Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally ‘to try.’ They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category ‘Letters & Correspondence,’ a subset of ‘Essays & Correspondence.’ Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.
I like the idea of letters as being a literary genre. Perhaps letter writing is the most democratic of all genres, something anyone can do and is guaranteed at least one reader. But while letters can certainly be essayistic, I wouldn’t call them a subset of the personal essay. A letter is its very own thing, encompassing many genres really if you want to get right down to it. Essay, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, diary even, they can all be there in letters.
I do love writing letters and reading them too. That might explain why I am excited about a new book by Simon Garfield, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. I disagree that letter writing is a lost art, there are still a good many people who do it and do it regularly. Nonetheless, Garfield’s book sounds like great fun, filled with anecdotes, letters and historical interest. The review of the book indicates Garfield takes a bit of an alarmist stance on the demise of the letter but it doesn’t sound so very off-putting that it detracts from the pleasure of the book as a whole. Which I hope is really the case because I requested a copy from the library. They are on order, I am number eight in line and the library system is buying 13 copies so as soon as they are received and cataloged, one will be making its way to me. I think the book will make for pleasant reading in what is already shaping up to be a very cold and snowy month.
So, here is a thing that could pass for a description of a book, or possibly a Hallmark Christmas movie, minus the Christmas:
A girl manufactures a fictional fiancé to show up her dismissive roommates. She tells them she’s getting married the day after their double wedding. When she gets on the train for the country retreat she’s planned for her “honeymoon,” she discovers that her friends and their husbands are on the same train, because the friend who lent her his farmhouse has also lent them houses on the same property. She talks the nearest man into impersonating her fiancé, only to find that he’s her crush, disguised in order to avoid the man who’s trying to serve him with a subpeona.
Weirdly, those are the parts of Wanted: A Husband that I didn’t like. Also, that is just the second half of the book. The first half is a makeover book, and I kind of love it.
The heroine is Darcy Cole, a graphic artist living in an apartment with two other girls, Maud and Helen, both of whom have recently become engaged. Darcy is the cranky, dull, disheveled one. She receives no male attention, ever, and doesn’t seem likely to, which is why the opening of the book finds her at the door of her friend Gloria Greene. Gloria is an actress, and a generally pretty awesome person, and, after warning Darcy that it’s not going to be easy or cheap, she offers to make her over.
I love makeover books, I guess. And this — well, it’s Samuel Hopkins Adams. And there’s a grumpy trainer. And Darcy becomes nicer as she becomes more physically fit. The whole sequence is so deeply appealing to me that I don’t know what to do with myself. Mostly I just wish there was more detail.
Once Darcy’s new good looks and attractive personality are faits accomplis, Wanted: A Husband loses momentum. I mean, the fake engagement scenario is fun, for sure — see Patricia Brent, Spinster — and I understand that the whole first half of the book is setup for it, but maybe that’s not where the book wanted to go. And it’s not just my partiality for the makeover section — both halves of the book would have been better if they’d had more space to move. Almost every plot point would have been better for being expanded upon. Still, it’s a delightful, Samuel Hopkins Adams-y romp, and it’s full of bits that couldn’t have been improved upon, like Maud’s fiancé’s appreciation of Darcy, Gloria’s dislike of Maud and Helen, and Jack Remsen and Tom Harmon’s defeat of the subpoena-server. And honestly, I almost never think the second half of a book lives up to the first half, or that a book I like wouldn’t have been even better if it was more detailed, so maybe it’s just me.
This post is brought to you by my tendency not to think things through before I write about them.
So, the thing about Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey is that she was lousy at endings. Like, she’s so good at putting prickly characters in twisty emotional situations and still having everything be super charming, but then the end is always a cop-out, or rushed, or suddenly makes you hate all the characters you loved for most of the book. Anyway, I read a review of one of her books at Fleur in her World the other day, and Fleur had the same issue with the last 10% of the book, but her praise for the first 90% made me want to read something by Mrs. G. de H.V., because when she’s good, she’s very, very good.
Flaming Juneskirts the ending issue altogether, by…not having one, sort of. And I can’t decide how I feel about that. Mrs. G. de H.V. basically spends half the book turning tropes upside down, and the other half taking other tropes super seriously and I can’t tell whether she’s doing any of it on purpose. And the self indulgent part of me wants a sequel, and the critical part of me is pretty impressed with Mrs. G. de H.V. for leaving things unresolved, and then just about all of me wants a sequel that has almost nothing to do with the main characters, but follows the villainess as she carries out the plans the heroine lays out for her.
When I started Flaming June, I thought, “oh, this is Mrs. G. de H.V.’s L.T. Meade book,” because there’s a breezily unconventional American girl and a sweet, sheltered English one who become best friends. But Elma, the English girl, hasn’t got the depth that Meade’s more conventional characters have, and Cornelia, the American, has more of Mrs. G. de H.V.’s respect than Meade ever gave any of her characters. Cornelia has come to stay with her cranky spinster aunt in a quiet neighborhood, and of course everyone’s familiar with the narrative of the cheerful young person making over the stiff and uncompromising elderly relative, but Mrs. G. de H.V. passes that by — it’s a story, but it’s not this story. Likewise the story of the brash American and the proud English girl finding common ground — Mrs. G. de H.V. concentrates on Cornelia and Elma’s friendship only long enough to throw Elma into the arms of her longtime crush, Geoffrey Greville. And to introduce Cornelia to Captain Rupert Guest, who doesn’t like her at all, until he does.
Mrs. G. de H.V. structures her romances as problems, which I enjoy, except that she’s kind of too good at it. I think that’s where a certain amount of her lousy finishes come from — she creates problems that are actually insoluble, and has to do violence to her characters in order to resolve them. The Guest/Cornelia problem is that they’re nothing alike, have no common interests, and don’t always even like each other very much. Which, if you think about it, is a problem you see in romances all the time, only it’s waved away, and you’re assured that the characters are going to be very happy together. And if the author is good enough, you believe it.
So, yeah, I was kind of concerned. Because Mrs. G. de H.V. IS good enough, but she also has this tendency to write herself into a corner. And that’s what she does, and…that’s where she leaves it. My respect for Mrs. G. de H.V. has increased enormously.
I realize I’m neglecting the book itself to talk about my various Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey feels, but I do find her really fascinating. She’s so good at certain things, but I never trust her. She’s always doing icky things like shoving characters back into their strictly defined gender roles and/or destroying everything I liked about them with one action. So when I come to a book like Flaming June, and I can see Guest constructing a different version of Cornelia in his head, one that’s based mostly on her least characteristic actions, I’m apprehensive. And then Mrs. G. de H.V. explicitly recognizes that. It’s tremendously satisfying and not satisfying at all. But mostly I feel pretty good about it. Well done, Mrs. G. de H.V.
This summer my library offered a unique book club called READ Quest for the third year. READ Quest is for entering 3rd and 4th graders and focuses on genres–Fantasy, Mystery, Humor and Adventure in Fact & Fiction. The program encourages kids to read for the fun of it, discovering the enormous benefits of reading for pleasure. The children who participate don’t all read the same book, but choose a book for themselves from each week’s genre. In this way we are able to accommodate a wide variety of reading levels and interests. Kids can sign up for any one or more of the genres.
We decided to target 3rd and 4th graders because it is such a critical time in children’s development as readers–when they shift from learning to read to reading to learn. Focusing on genre and series fiction and non-fiction, providing reading choice and presenting a physically active program also helped encourage boys to participate. And they did–we sometimes had almost twice as many boys as girls! This format also makes the program attractive to both reluctant and enthusiastic readers.
This year we were awarded an $8,200 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant to expand the program, increasing the dates offered from 4 to 8, adding a community event, and buying additional copies of titles from our recommended reading lists. We also added one adult volunteer and 14 teen volunteers, both male and female, to act as reading role models. The inclusion of these volunteers turned out to have pretty magical results!
Fun with Books
The group (~ 25 kids, ~ 5 volunteers, 1 librarian–myself) met
once a week for 75 minutes. Kids registered ahead of time. Booklists with suggested reading were on our website. I sent an instructive email to parents to help the kids prepare.
We encouraged kids to read a book from the featured genre before the program so they had the opportunity to book talk it in a small group. Some created a project ahead of time (book review, drawing, sculpture, short film, etc.) which was shared with the group and displayed in the library all summer.
The weekly programs looked like this:
I read aloud from the featured genre (picture book or single chapter). This was enlivened by puppets, live music, and other techniques to add what Jim Trelease calls a “third dimension“.
Brief discussion of the reading.
Lively activity such as a drama game to explore the reading’s characters, plot or theme.
Small breakout groups, led by myself and the teens. Kids and teens book talk what they’ve read.
I book talk from the genre.
Kids descend on the books set out on tables–many kids check out a stack of books they’ve just discovered from all of the book talking!
Kids enjoying read aloud
To determine the program’s effectiveness we administered 2 surveys to the children who participated and their parents–one before the program and one soon after, with a 3rd to come at the end of the school year. Parents and children reported that:
Entertaining and active elements of the program really engaged the children.
Teen helpers inspired the kids to read.
Exposure to a variety of genres broadened the children’s reading interests.
Children fell in love with new series and read more during the summer as a result.
Besides this, I noticed that children returning week after week became increasingly comfortable in the library and felt a stronger connection to it. I believe that this was a result of being known by name (they wore name tags), having a great time and the opportunity to talk and listen and get to know each other, as well as the teen helpers and their librarians.
Teens greet participants
In our community we have a program called Project Cornerstone which promotes children’s and teen’s healthy development through the Search Institute’s developmental assets approach. One of the reasons I became so excited to work with the teens was that I realized, as the program progressed, just how beneficial the inclusion of the teen volunteers was for the children, and how much the teens were gaining as well. The teens were reading right along with the children and were eager to share with the kids what they had read. And they loved talking with the children about favorite books they had read when they were younger, and recommending stories they had great affection for.
A few of the developmental assets that READ Quest cultivates in teen volunteers are:
Community Values Youth: Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
Youth as Resources: Young people are given useful roles in the community.
Caring: Young person places high value on helping other people.
Reading for Pleasure: Young person reads for pleasure three or more hours per week.
One of my favorite pieces of feedback from our after-program survey was from a 7-year-old who had just arrived from another country:
“I liked that you got to take some books and share what you read. I liked that you had big kids helping and they were really kind. There were fun stories and games.”
Much of what we do in the library promotes kindness, but inviting teens to contribute in a significant way to a valuable program draws the best from our teens, and has a marvelous impact on the children. The teens’ sense of self-worth and leadership skills increase as they experience being role models and small group leaders. And for the children, reading’s cool factor grows as they hear the teens’ enthusiasm for books–a benefit that’s hard to overstate.
Seeing wonderful outcomes, such as what resulted from the magical mix of fun with books + kids + teens, keeps my job continually fresh and gratifying.
There was a wonderful article and review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about poetry and a new book by poet Robert Pinsky.
The book Singing School: learning to write (and read) poetry by studying with the masters sounds like an easy going guide to poetry intended for adult, nonacademic readers. The book is so anti-academic according to the reviewer, that one can’t help but wonder what the university where Pinsky works must think of it. I am so intrigued that I have requested the book from the library. I am fourth in line for it so I’ll probably get my turn sometime in the middle or end of December. If it turns out to be as good as the review of it makes it out to be, I will have to buy a copy of my own.
The article mentions something about poetry that irks me to no end. That is the idea that some poets and poetry critics hold that poetry should be difficult and belong only to the initiated. To call a poet “accessible” is an insult. Billy Collins is lumped into this category which means, easy and not serious. But for all the regular, common readers who love Billy Collins, myself included, we don’t care. We love him for his humor and “accessibility.” I have to wonder if poets and critics who look down their noses at Collins and others like him (I’ve heard Mary Oliver so accused too as though it is a crime to be readable by someone outside the clique) are not really jealous because Collins has a larger readership. They must justify their small audience by placing themselves in the starry aether where the air is so much more refined and selective. Gag.
And here is Pinsky with his new book saying you don’t need a Ph.D and reams of notes covering every allusion and metaphor in “The Waste Land” in order to enjoy the poem and the experience of reading it. In fact, the untutored reader just might find things in the poem that the “expert” has overlooked. I must say I agree with Pinsky and I look forward to reading his book when my turn comes up.
“Mommy,” asked Rilla, “how do illustrators make books?”
She knows how the writing part happens, or at least the part of it that involves someone stalking down the hall into the kitchen, muttering, staring abstractedly into the open fridge, oblivious to questions, and then disappearing back behind a closed door in a room with books piled all over the place. She wants to know about the important part, the pictures.
I start to answer with words, as is my way, but I think better of it and, on a hunch, Google “Eric Carle interview video.” As I hoped, treasure awaited us at the other end of the search button.
ThingsI didn’t know: that Bill Martin Jr (author of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?) couldn’t read until he was twenty! And he wrote the rhythm of his stories first, then put in the words? Astonishing.
Eric Carle speaks of his own struggles in school under a strict disciplinarian teacher. “Back then, they didn’t recognize whether you were learning disabled or whatever. But I’m sure I was.”
And all the while we’re watching him make a bear in collage. I love how he cuts out circles for the bear’s eyes and turns them into ears.
After last week’s post, I think Bookman has resigned himself to me putting in a little pond in the spring. At least, he hasn’t said anything about it. Possibly he is instituting countermeasures. But if there is one thing Bookman is truly bad at, it is keeping a secret, so if he is planning pond-evasion maneuvers, I will winkle it out him eventually.
High on my triumph I went to the urban farm store yesterday to bring home something that Bookman had also said no to. Alas, they do not keep them in the store. I had to pre-order and I will be able to pick them up when they arrive at the store on Friday or Saturday. What am I getting? You’ll just have to wait and see! I am very excited about it, however, and Bookman, well, not so much. I think after this I need to leave the poor guy alone for a bit before springing anything else on him like how we might go about installing a gray-water system that diverts the dirty water from the washing machine and dishwasher out into the garden in the summer to water the trees and shrubs (planting the seeds my friends, planting the seeds!).
A few garden posts ago Cath left a quote in a comment from an essay in a book called Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis. The public library did not have this book but the university library did, so I borrowed it. The book is made up of essays by psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, specialists in education, ecologists, human geographers, and others. It is broken up into six sections each with a different focus moving from context to what to do in response to the crisis both as a layperson and as a clinical professional.
I’ve just finished reading part one today, “Context.” The essays here set the stage for ways of thinking about the environment/nature and humans. Viola Sampson in her essay “The darkening quarter” suggests one of the greatest difficulties with climate change is not knowing. We don’t know what to expect or when to expect it. We know things are changing but even with all the models and projections climate scientists offer, when it comes down to it, we still don’t know what the outcome will be. The uncertainty and unpredictability makes us feel powerless and vulnerable. She also talks about grieving for the things we are losing and will lose, honoring that grief, but then also using it to create a new relationship and understanding of our interconnectedness with the environment.
It is interconnectedness that is stressed in the other essays of the section, how we as humans are part of ecosystem even if we refuse to acknowledge it. We have always been part of it. Paul Maiteny in “Longing to be human” argues that our consumerist society and our constant search for meaningfulness by buying more things is because we have mentally set ourselves apart from the environment. In fact, he says, our desire to consume is a pre-human biological biological need; the more resources you have, the likelier you are to survive. Instead of getting back to nature by asking what we have in common with other species, Maiteny wants us to look at how we differ. The biggest difference, we have the ability to consciously choose what we are going to do with this planet. In order to feel interconnected with other humans and the environment and to get off the mindless cosumerism treadmill, he advocates a return to the basic ideas contained within all spiritual practices, the idea of the sacred, of divinity within and without, of contemplating the wonders of creation and our place in it.
Lots of interesting food for thought in these essays so far. Section two is called “Other-than-human and more-than-human” and looks to to be just as interesting and thought-provoking. I happen to also be reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, talk about an interesting reading conjunction!
So, I think The Miz Maze might be the best collaborative novel I’ve read. The authors are:
Christabel Rose Coleridge
Mary Susanna Lee
A.E. Mary Anderson Morshead
Frances Mary Peard
Eleanor C. Price
Charlotte Mary Yonge
Nine authors is a lot, and I want to know more about them and about the dynamic between them. But all I’ve got is the obvious textual evidence that they weren’t as acrimonious as The Whole Family‘s lot. Beyond that, I’ve got nothing but a page of signatures, a few Wikipedia pages, and a random selection of facts about Charlotte Yonge. And that’s okay. It’s a pretty self-sufficient book, I think, and the authors seem to agree.
The information they do and don’t choose to give is so interesting. First, the authors’ names appear only as facsimile signatures, and they don’t specify who wrote what. Second, they provide a list of characters, and it’s crazy. See, for example, “Sir Walter Winkworth, Baronet of the Miz Maze, Stokeworthy, Wilts, age about 64, residing, when the book opens, at High Scale, a small property in Westmoreland, which was his in right of his second wife, Sophia Ratclyffe, recently deceased.”
I mean, all else aside, that’s a hell of a lot of commas.
On the scale of literary parlor game pretension, these women fall somewhere between the authors of The Affair at the Inn and William Dean “Control Freak” Howells, progenitor of The Whole Family. Instead of, “hey, let’s write a story,” or “hey, let’s be super deep together,” they’re saying, “hey, let’s write something realistic.” And, I mean, it’s still a sentimental novel, so a Venn diagram with circles labeled “People who don’t think Italians are entirely respectable” and “People whose relations married Italians” would encompass most of the characters, with significant overlap. But the governing principle seems to be the idea that everyone has a different point of view, and that people rarely understand each other. And…well, a) that is obviously my favorite thing, even more than secret insane wives and people falling in love with their spouses, and b) they are so amazingly committed to this principle that I can’t help but kind of love them, even when the story doesn’t do a whole lot for me.
Let me tell you, for example, about Algernon Bootle. Algernon Bootle is the son of the vicar and his busybody wife. Sir Walter Winkworth (of High Scale and Miz Maze) hires him to tutor his eldest son, Miles. Aunt Dora, Sir Walter’s sister, says she wouldn’t have thought any real person could sound so much like Mr. Collins. All the Winkworth kids kind of hate him. And yet Miles, writing to his twin, says “He isn’t such a bad fellow at bottom. I told him the other day that you would have been a more creditable pupil, and he became natural on the spot and said: ‘I wouldn’t have undertaken him for a thousand pounds.’”
I thought Algy was the one character who was only ever going to be the butt of jokes. But no, the authors of The Miz Maze are committed to everyone’s humanity, and it’s awesome. Which is not to say that Algy’s not still continually the butt of jokes. But he’s not just that.
I want to talk about Miles, too, but I don’t quite know what to say. He’s shy in that way that comes off as dullness, and Aunt Dora says, “Miles will be better looking by and by, when he has overcome the heaviness that clings about fine young men in the undeveloped stage.” He’s desperately in love with his sister Zoe’s best friend Emily, but she’s not interested. His more outgoing twin is in the Army, and also Canada, and it makes sense for Miles to be the steady, stay-at-home one. But when Aunt Dora tells him that he and his brother had their initials written on their feet as babies so their folks wouldn’t get them mixed up, he says, “I think it’s rather a pity they didn’t.” He’s sort of inarticulately, endearingly young.
And then, Aunt Dora. You may have already noticed that I can’t describe other characters without help from Aunt Dora. That’s because she’s the best. She’s one of Sir Walter’s two spinster sisters, and while the other one, Bessie, has a tragically dead fiancé in her past, Aunt Dora is happily single. She’s also kind and intelligent, funny, and a little bit intimidating to the younger women before they know her well. And she’s awesome at gently taking Sir Walter down a peg when he deserves it, in a very realistically sibling-like way.
The family relationships in this book are fantastic all around. Or, the Winkworth family ones are. Other families don’t get the same amount of attention. But there are plenty of Winkworths, and I can’t decide which I like best. There’s Sir Walter’s fraught relationships with his eldest children, and the way his obvious love for them doesn’t lessen the weight of his expectations. There’s Miles and Clyffe — short for Ratclyffe, which ouch — who have been the most symbiotic of twins, and now have to learn to be apart from each other. There’s Miles and Zoe, who are so much alike and so different, and confide in each other and bully each other in equal measure. And there’s Sir Walter and Aunt Dora, whose teasing, open affection was my first sign that the characters in this book were going to closely resemble real people. I think this is what William Dean Howells wanted for The Whole Family, and that The Miz Maze happened 15 years earlier makes me feel even better about Howells’ book being a hilarious train wreck instead.
It gets a little worse toward the end, as books often do. There was a point at which I felt like everything had been wrapped up to my satisfaction, but the romances had yet to be resolved, so the book had to keep going, and I just didn’t care as much anymore. Also there was a while there where I thought Algy was going to be converted to Catholicism, and it would have been so funny, and I wish he hadn’t been rescued. Still, I kind of love The Miz Maze, and its authors, who clearly made an effort to agree instead of undermining each other. I think it’s because they were all women.
Sometimes you just want a book that makes a kid belly laugh. From the moment Baby Billy makes his appearance, mustachioed from the get-go, Huck and Rilla were in stitches. As Billy grows, his mustache makes it easy for him to assume a variety of roles: cowboy, cop, painter, circus ringleader. But beware the toddler with a long, twirly, Snidely Whiplash mustache: you might have a wee villain on your hands. The surprise ending generated the biggest guffaw of all from my small fry. When Huck discovered the book had gone back to the library, he very nearly grew a bad-guy mustache on the spot. Don’t worry—just like Billy, he recovered his good-guy wits before any dastardly deeds were done. Mustache Baby will be making a repeat visit very soon.
The historical fiction course I’m taking at Coursera continues to delight me, and this week’s Geraldine Brooks seminar on her plague novel, Year of Wonders, pretty much knocked my socks off. The professor, Dr. Bruce Holsinger of UVA, posted a long excerpt from what was also my favorite part of the seminar–Brooks on how she writes characters from other eras, how she forms their consciousness.
“And as a foreign correspondent in the contemporary world, I would hear people all the time saying, ‘They’re not like us.’ One side saying about the other—white South Africans about black, Palestinians about Israelis—‘Their values are different, they don’t love their kids, they’re willing to sacrifice them, they don’t have the same material needs that we have,’ and it’s all BS in my view. You know, the sound of somebody keening for a dead child, is exactly the same, no matter if they’re in a…New York apartment, or an Eritrean refugee camp. There’s a fundamental belief that the human heart hasn’t changed that much. … At a time when you couldn’t expect to raise your kids, when death was ever present, there would’ve been a different approach to loss. But I don’t think it felt any different, I don’t think the emotion of loss felt any different, and I don’t think hatred felt any different, and I don’t think love did. And so, that for me is, where you start, with believing that human beings have these strong emotions in common.”
There’s more, well worth the click-through. And if you sign up for the course (free), you can watch the videos. Such a treat to hear smart people talk about their work. Author Jane Alison’s seminar on her Ovid novel, The Love Artist, was also fascinating and thought-provoking. I haven’t yet watched the Katherine Howe videos (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane)—greatly looking forward to it. Dr. Holsinger’s lectures have captivated me, to a one. Lots of peeks at rare first editions from UVA’s special collections library (swoon) and really excellent, meaty discussion of various historical fiction novels in their own historical context: Tale of Two Cities, Clotel, Anna Katharine Green‘s detective novel The Forsaken Inn (new to me, and the genesis of a subgenre, historical mystery). Dr. Holsinger even has me wanting to give James Fenimore Cooper another shot, which is saying something.
Looking forward to upcoming seminars on Mary Beth Keane’s Typhoid Mary novel, Fever, and Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride.
You probably don’t know who Mary Mallon is but I bet you have at least heard of Typhoid Mary. Mary Beth Keane’s novel Fever aims to tell Mary Mallon’s story.
Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She came to the United States as a girl. She lived with her aunt and took work in service. She began doing laundry but, already having some skill at cooking, soon learned enough to become a very good and in demand cook for rich families. At seventeen she met Alfred Briehof, a German immigrant and they moved in together, living happily (more or less since Alfred was an alcoholic) for years unmarried. In March 1907 she was taken into custody by the Department of Health and held in a New York Hospital while doctors did tests. Mallon became identified as the first healthy carrier of typhoid and people who ate her cooking were in danger of coming down with it.
Not everyone became ill who ate Mallon’s cooking but there was enough of a trail that the DOH found her. She never had typhoid but she carried the bacilli in her body. The doctors had no idea how this was possible. They decided she was too much of a threat to allow her freedom so they moved her to North Brother Island, a quarantine hospital for tuberculosis and other diseases off the coast of Manhattan. She was not allowed visitors and she was forced to submit to frequent humiliating tests.
Mallon was not a retiring and compliant woman. She was angry and combative. Doctors thought she should willingly do whatever they wanted her to and not complain but Mallon had other ideas. When she finally found a lawyer who would help her and got a court hearing, her uncooperativeness would come back to haunt her. She was denied release.
Eventually she did attain her freedom when other healthy carriers were found. None of these people were forced into quarantine. One of them, a dairy farmer, was allowed to continue working on his farm he just couldn’t come into contact with the milk. At this news, Mallon’s lawyer once again pursued her release and this time obtained it under the condition that Mallon never cook for anyone again and check in with the DOH every three months when she was also required to provide bodily fluid samples for the doctors.
She was given a job at a Chinese laundry, a huge step down in status and wages from what she had obtained from her skill as a cook. Working in a laundry day after day is back breaking and exhausting work and Mary was desperate for something else but there was no other work for her besides the cooking she was not allowed to do.
She kept her promise not to cook for as long as she could but eventually broke it, taking work at a bakery. She got caught, escaped, went into hiding. Eventually she got work again as a cook in a maternity hospital by using a fake name. The pay was good, she loved the work and things seemed to be going pretty well. Until typhoid broke out at the hospital. This time she was not able to escape. She was taken back to North Brother Island where she lived out the rest of her life as a “guest” of New York City.
Mallon’s is a fascinating story and I will never joke about Typhoid Mary again. Unfortunately the book could have been so much better. There were good parts though. It is a question whether Mallon knew in the beginning that she made people ill. And then later, whether she understood about her condition. Mallon often questions whether what the doctors told her is true especially since most people who ate her food didn’t get sick.
Then there is the uppity female thread. It does seem likely that she was treated the way she was because she was a woman. It was also clear the city did not understand what it meant for Mallon to not be able to work as a cook anymore. She had to earn her living, she and Alfred spilt for some time and even when they were together Alfred couldn’t keep regular work because of his alcoholism. Working at a laundry she had barely enough to get by and she knew the work would eventually wear her down physically to the point she would no longer be able to work at all. She did not have a man to take care of her and it seems like the city assumed that she should in placing her in such a difficult position.
But in spite of all these interesting things, the book was far too long at only 304 pages. Less than halfway through the book it felt like the best part of the story was over and there was a very long and very saggy and dull middle in which I kept wondering why I was still reading. Part of the trouble is that the middle of the book turns into a love story. Or it tries to. Mallon and Alfred together and not together. They still love each other but can Alfred quite drinking? And it just went on and on. Finally, when Mallon gets caught at the maternity hospital it gets interesting again but by that point it is too late to recover and the book comes to a limping conclusion.
Fever is not a terrible book, but it is flawed. There are good bits and not so good bits and it balances out to be an ok read. I bet it would make a good vacation book when you want an interesting story but something that isn’t mentally taxing, a book you don’t have to pay close attention to. Take that as you will. I read this for my historical fiction MOOC and the author will be making an appearance in class. I suspect she might have some interesting things to say.
I’m not in a book club at present, but I’ve been entertaining myself with thoughts of what books I would suggest to my book club if I belonged to one. This is because I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s sweeping, sad, thoughtful The Signature of All Things, and naturally I’m yearning for a nice long discussion of it, preferably involving baked goods. (I’m also wanting to start a moss garden, which in San Diego would be no mean feat.)
Other books I would throw into the ring:
1) The Diamond Age, Or: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. I read it a year or two before the advent of the iPad, and when that magical device appeared, all I could think of was the Primer. I enjoyed the book’s exploration of a ‘best’ education—what that might look like, what its aims might be, and the unpredictability of outcomes. And the mind-stretching nanotechnology permeating and altering society: this is a richly layered and sometimes difficult book, with much that made me uncomfortable (something I appreciate in a book), but also a compelling page-turner of a narrative. It’s one of those books I think about in the context of daily life quite often (and not just in connection to the iPad). It would be fun to dig into with a really lively, argumentative group of readers.
2) The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I’ll be drummed out of my own imaginary book club if I keep suggesting these mammoth tomes, but there it is. I’ve read The Children’s Book twice (three times? I’m losing track) in four or five years (also losing track; can’t be bothered to check my log now) and like The Diamond Age (and, I suspect, The Signature of All Things), it’s a book I find myself pondering in many a stray moment. A curling fern frond, a strand of seaweed, a beautifully glazed pot, the Nesbit books on my shelf, a reference to William Morris, a pre-Raphaelite painting, a sinister undercurrent in a fairy tale—any number of things send me straight back into the pulsing green world of this Fabian family and their troubled, talented, struggling circle of artist-friends. Downton Abbey was full of reminders (Lavinia’s clothes, Sybil’s causes, Branson’s political activism, the devastation and radical shifting of relationships and ways of life during and after WWI). No work of fiction in recent years has sent me on more rabbit trails, nor hounded my thoughts so relentlessly.
3) Feed by M. T. Anderson. It’s been several years; I’m due for a reread. Every year this book feels more prescient. We may not have the Feed implanted in our brains quite yet, but we’re closer than we were the first time I read it. Won’t it be fun to fumble for words about how alarming we found the notion of a society so dependent on an advertising-driven stream of information piped directly into their minds that people can barely form a coherent thought anymore, much less an original one? And then we can all post photos of our desserts to Instagram.
4) Hmm, we’ll need something by Muriel Spark. A Far Cry from Kensington, I think, but perhaps I’m leaning too much on my own favorites. Certainly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would provide fodder for hours of discussion. Actually, Miss Brodie would make a tremendous follow-up to Feed and The Diamond Age: all of them exploring ways of educating (even shaping) young minds. Oh, what am I talking about—Signature and The Children’s Book fall right into that category as well. Education isn’t by any means the only theme of these books, but it’s a dominant thread in each, one way or another. You’d almost think this was a pet topic of mine, or something.
5) Well then, let me throw something entirely different into the mix: how about American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields by Rowan Jacobsen. I can brag about how he’s a friend and former classmate of mine, and of course we’ll have to have a tasting party to accompany our discussion of this book, a fascinating exploration of how terrain affects flavor (in many subtle ways), and why certain regions are famous for specific foods. I’ll bring the chocolate, you bring the maple syrup.
6) Now here I go reverting back to favorite books about unconventional upbringings, but when’s the last time you read Midnight Hour Encores? It’s one of my favorite YA novels, right up there with Emily of Deep Valley (though utterly unlike) and…hmm, that’s a different list, my favorite YA. Anyway: Encores features one of my favorite dads in all of literature, and an ending that takes my breath away every time.
7) But it isn’t quite fair of me to stack the deck with books I’ve already read, most of them more than twice. How about something new? I’ve got Donna Tartt’s latest, The Goldfinch, on hold at the library. I’m #70 in the queue, but since this is an imaginary book club, I’ll just imagine myself next in line.
How about you? What’s up next in your book club—real or imagined?
First published in 1912, Alexander’s Bridge was Willa Cather’s first novel. She had been publishing short stories for years and even had a couple of collections, but this novel, novella actually, was her first long work.
Cather has such an easy, beautiful voice that carries a reader pleasantly along. And even though this is not even close to the wonderful complexities of her later stories, her voice made it so I really didn’t care.
The story is about Bartley Alexander. Alexander
stood six feet and more in the archway, glowing with strength and cordiality and rugged, blond good looks. There were other bridge-builders in the world, certainly, but it was always Alexander’s picture that the Sunday Supplement men wanted, because he looked as a tamer of rivers ought to look. Under his tumbled sandy hair his head seemed as hard and powerful as a catapult, and his shoulders looked strong enough in themselves to support a span of any one of his ten great bridges that cut the air above as many rivers.
Aged forty-three, married to a beautiful woman, at the height of his career, he seemingly has it all. But something is making him start to feel a little dissatisfied. A mid-life crisis awaits!
On a business trip in London a friend takes him to see the play that is currently all the rage. The rage is more about a beautiful actress than the play itself. It turns out Alexander knows the actress, Hilda Burgoyne, quite well. In fact he had a youthful fling with her while he was studying in Paris a very long time ago. Seeing her again reminds Alexander of his youth and all its freedoms and suddenly the vague dissatisfaction crystalizes and he feels overworked, trapped, bogged down by tiny details he has no interest in:
He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honors and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of middle life which confronted him,—of that he was afraid. He was not ready for it. It was like being buried alive.
He goes to Hilda’s flat and discovers that while she has plenty of admirers, she has never committed herself to any man. It doesn’t take long for Alexander to discover that Hilda still loves him, and, because she is the bridge to his past, his youth, all the things he no longer has and wishes he did, Alexander rekindles their long ago affair.
Of course the clock cannot be turned back. While Hilda returns Alexander to his youthfulness, he realizes he does not want to abandon his success or his wife whom he loves. The transatlantic affair goes on for a number of years. Each time Alexander makes the trip to London he determines to break off the affair. He is feeling like he is living two lives and the deception is getting in the way of everything, keeping him from being happy with either life. But even though he feels “as if a second man had been grafted into me,” he cannot break off with Hilda.
And here is where Cather’s youth shows through. Instead of making Alexander face up to his situation and forcing him to make a choice, he gets an out. I won’t tell you what the out is in case you haven’t read the story; I don’t want to spoil it for you. Then after Alexander escapes having to make a decision, we get a sort of moral:
No relation is so complete that it can hold absolutely all of a person.
While this may be true, it is done a bit clumsily. Two novels later Cather writes Song of the Lark where there is barely a slip, no easy outs, and no obvious moralizing.
But even here in Alexander’s Bridge, you can see Cather’s interest in a certain type of character, in music, in strong women. It is still an enjoyable read because even when the story falters, there is still that marvelous Cather voice carrying everything confidently along.
Today seems like a good day for a poem. To my mind every day is a good day for a poem, but I thought I would share an Edward Thomas poem with you to whet your appetite for when I finish the collection. This one was written in 1915, a very prolific year for Thomas.
There’s nothing like the sun
There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
The stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,
Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,
Or January’s, or February’s, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said –
Or, if I could live long enough, should say –
‘There’s nothing like the sun that shines today.’
There’s nothing like the sun till we are dead.
I recently learned that an Indonesian publisher has purchased the reprint rights for my Martha and Charlotte books. The first two books in each series came out in 2011, and the rest of them are coming out this year, is my understanding. The website is a bit puzzling: the entry for “Mellissa Wiley” shows the three books above, but seemed to be missing Little House in the Highlands. Then I realized Boston Bay‘s cover was there twice, with different titles. Here’s Highlands:
My publisher says I’ll be receiving copies sometime soon. It’s awfully fun to see one’s work in a new language.
I recently learned that an Indonesian publisher has purchased the reprint rights for my Martha and Charlotte books. The first two books in each series came out in 2011, and the rest of them are coming out this year, is my understanding. The website is a bit puzzling: the entry for “Mellissa Wiley” shows the three books above, but seemed to be missing Little House in the Highlands. Then I realized Boston Bay‘s cover was there twice, with different titles. Here’s Highlands, courtesy of Google Books:
My publisher says I’ll be receiving copies sometime soon. It’s awfully fun to see one’s work in a new language.