Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Four-Book January

Here are the four books I read in January:

1. Green Dolphin Street - Elizabeth Goudge.  I wrote about my mixed feelings here.

2. Spark Joy - Marie Kondo.  Konvert, that's me. I am working on a fangirlish response to this book. Don't know if I loved it as much as The Life -Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but there are some ardent feelings there. Yes. Excuse me, I must now go fold some shirts. Domo arigato.

3. Hangsaman - Shirley Jackson. This was a reread from...I don't know when. Mid-nineties, I suppose. I'd forgotten what a strange book it is. Madness, the college experience...Sylvia Plath could have read this during her days at Smith. I wonder if she did. Something that struck me afresh was the ickiness of Natalie's father. He's not inappropriate in the conventional way, but the way he breathes his stale breath all over Natalie's life, ugh. There's also Tony, Natalie's friend. Read carefully. I did, and my brain hurts, but in a pleasurable way. This is my second favorite Jackson novel after We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

4. The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles. My second faux-Victorian novel in a month! (The other being Green Dolphin Street.) Fowles' book wins for authenticity (Arthur Hugh Clough epigrams!), even though he is so meta. He takes that authorial intrusion and kicks it up a notch. He even puts himself in a railroad carriage with the male protagonist. And the two endings! Meta, meta, meta! I was all squeeeee! and don't let this book end and gotta see the Meryl Streep/Jeremy Irons movie again. Speaking of Meryl, I couldn't get a read on the title character, because although readers hear her voice and see her actions, she's WTF? obscure (Sarah Woodruff makes Sue Bridehead look like Spock) and then further obscured by the author. I'm going to take it that she's some version of the Manic Pixie Girl we always hear tell about.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Florence King

While I was recovering from the shingles Santa put down my back, Mom fell ill with pneumonia, which turned into a plethora of other symptoms. She has been hospitalized since January 2, and is on her way to a short-term stay in a nursing home. While she recovers, family and friends will be orchestrating a move to a new home for the two of us that is set up more for her present needs.

With all of this tumult, I missed the sad news of Florence King's death on January 6, one day after her 80th birthday. For about three decades now, King has been in the top three of my favorite essayists. I am a devoted fan. How devoted? Her column, "The Misanthrope's Corner" ran on the back page of The National Review for many years. I subscribed to The National Review for just that one page and read only that one page and suffered the mailing lists I ended up on. I'm sure you can imagine.

Did I understand everything Florence King would rant about? Not always. Did I agree with her? Often I did not. Did I enjoy her writing? Yes, always. Am I going to miss her like hell? Again, yes, always.

 Oh my God, the writing! Brilliant, steel-sharp, honed to a fine and lethal edge. She has often been compared to H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker. I can see that, but Florence King had a perpetual wild hair, a contrarian streak the size of a football field. There was no one like her.

My favorite story about Florence King, which she told on herself in With Charity Towards None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy (my favorite book of hers, second only to her richly comic memoir Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady) is about the time she read a favorable review of her work, but found it so horribly written that she wrote to the author of the review, chewing her out for not writing a proper review. Although she said that her action raised eyebrows in the publishing world, she defended herself by saying that she was in good company, comparing herself to Carlton Fisk, citing  the time that he chewed out Deion Sanders (a player on the team playing against Fisk's) for not hustling to first base after a pop-up.

Although she was a proud and an avowed misanthrope (according to her obituary in The National Review by longtime friend Jack Fowler, after years of living alone, she only lasted one month in an assisted-living facility. I am not surprised for she remarked in With Charity Towards None:"I'd rather rot on my own floor than be found by a bunch of Bingo players in a nursing home." ) Florence King was gracious to her fans and if they wrote to her, she would sit down and reply. I was lucky enough to get two of these replies. In the first case, I wrote in response to one of her columns, talking about how much I agreed with her that Gone with the Wind was  masterpiece and Scarlett was jaw-droppingly bad. She wrote back on a blank postcard, thanking me for my note and saying that Scarlett was "...plagiarism's first cousin, once removed."

The second time, years later, I wrote an excited letter, burbling about how I had finally FINALLY found a copy of The Prodigal Women by Nancy Hale, a 1940s novel that King claimed was her favorite. (I wrote about finding that book here.) King replied, and it was a two-page typewritten letter that time. I no longer have the letter, but it was warm and gossipy and included a juicy tidbit about an incident in the novel being based on an actual incident between Nancy Hale and novelist John O'Hara.

Florence King wrote about a wide variety of subjects in her column. This one about Lizzie Borden, from the early 1990s, is one of my favorites.

Goodbye, Miss (the appellation she preferred) King. I salute you, I thank you for years of entertainment as well as education about what it means to write well, and comfort myself with the thought that you and Herb and Mama and Granny are all together again.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Green Dolphin Street

The first book I finished in 2016 was Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge, a 1944 novel set in the Channel Islands, New Zealand and France. I had been looking for this book for years, even before I went to Korea, but I didn't cross paths with it until I discovered that it had been published in e-book form about six months ago. Why was I so attracted to this book? I don't even remember.

Although this book was originally published more than 70 years ago, in some ways it seems much older, a 19th century novel perhaps. I wish it were a 19th century novel, because some of the elements present would be much more forgivable if it were an older book...but I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll explain more below.

In summary, Green Dolphin Street is about two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, who love the same man: their childhood friend, William Ozanne. After William and his father (who once loved Sophie, the girls' mother) move to the Channel Islands, the three grow up together. William (who is strong and handsome, but not the sharpest tool in the shed) loves Marguerite, who is tall and blonde and tranquil, but he enjoys discussions and adventures with Marianne, who is somewhat plain but ferociously intelligent and ambitious. William begins a promising career as an officer in the Royal Navy, but after a misadventure in China, he flees to New Zealand. After ten years, he writes to the girls' father and asks for Marianne's hand in marriage. After a lengthy voyage, when Marianne gets off the boat (The Green Dolphin) at Wellington, William has a "D'Oh!" moment worthy of Homer Simpson. He had been drinking whisky while composing the letter and the liquor, coupled with his well-established faulty memory for names caused him to write for the wrong sister. He wanted Marguerite, who bravely sewed Marianne's trousseau, then went off brokenhearted to be a contemplative nun. Instead of admitting his mistake, he spends the next 40 years still in love with Marguerite but determined to make a go of it with Marianne.

I liked the old-fashioned quality of Green Dolphin Street, and even though I really don't care for pages and pages of description, Goudge did it so beautifully. I was also amused at the novel's hook; Goudge admits in her preface that getting the sisters' names wrong but going ahead and putting a good face on it seems highly improbable, but she insists that it actually happened. There's also more than a trace of mysticism in the novel (I suspected; the introductory quote is from Evelyn Underhill) and some interesting religious discussions among characters that are attractive in their complexity.

Now the awful part: As mentioned above, a good deal of the novel takes place in New Zealand in the 1860s-70s, and this part of the book shows the worst of colonialism and the depiction of the Maoris is offensive. To make matters worse, Goudge admitted in the 1944 preface that she had never even been to New Zealand. The way the Maoris are portrayed is so insulting and inflammatory, that the publishers of the 2015 e-book considered editing out passages. In the end, they kept the novel intact with an apologetic explanation: Goudge was shining the truth on the ugliness of this period of English history and also Green Dolphin Street casts a reflection on how insensitive 1944 readers, writers and publishers could be. It's like they were trying to have it both ways. But the insensitive part is true: there is not one bit of saving irony or anything that would let the reader know that the writer has any special discernment when it comes to the Maoris or the foreigners' attitudes towards them.

Although I was holding my nose while reading the despicable Maori part of the book, I have to confess that it was the best-written chapter. The main characters are offstage, and a fine bromance springs up between Samuel Kelly, a clergyman and Tai Haruru AKA Timothy Halsam, an older Englishman who left his native country and noble upbringing and gained acceptance with the Maoris. Tai Haruru's paternalistic attitude made me cringe. He finally leaves the Maoris, but at that point he exits the novel. What a waste, because in spite of everything, he was an attractive character.

This was the first novel I have read by Elizabeth Goudge, who had a long and prolific career, and I think it will probably be my last. I was amused and entertained and disgusted and dismayed, sometimes all at once. It's been a long time since I've encountered such a mixed bag of a book.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

I Would Like

Resolutions seem to bring out the surly teenager in me, so this year, instead of strong Puritan words like "resolve", I will be a bit hippy-dippy and make a list of bookish things I'd like to do or accomplish this year.

 Oops, accomplish. Strike that. Gotta think of another word.

Can't think of one...brain hurts already.

No matter, just get on with it. Throw these...things? wishes? out the way you'd throw a clean sheet over the bed. The flat sheet, not the fitted one. But I digress. Get on with it!


The following list is airy and very much random and so should be read in that tone of voice:

I would like to read 85 books in 2016.

Actually, I would like to read 99 books in 2016.

I would like to read more audiobooks. I had a great time last summer when I went on that audiobook surge. Sunlight and walking and words in my ears. Yes, I would like that again.

I would like to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte.

I would like to read Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton.

I would like to read more graphic novels.

I would like to complete my Pulitzer Fiction collection. Only ten to go!

I would like to read three novels in my Pulitzer Fiction collection.

I would like to read the new Shirley Jackson biography when it's published.

I would like to finish reading all of Stewart O'Nan's novels.

I would like to have an even split of fiction/nonfiction.

I would like to read that biography of Alexander Hamilton, then listen to the musical. Or vice-versa.

I would like to stick to the TBR Dare until April. Read my own damn books.

I would like to start the day with reading.

I would like to end the day with reading.

I would like to have a certain time of day that is cordoned off from life and meant only for reading.

Edited to add:  I would like to read The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. Done! Enjoyed.

Friday, January 01, 2016

I Resolved THAT? A Look Back at 2015 Bibliolutions

1. Read 100 books this year.  84

2. Book Blackout Bingo.  Oops. Sorry, Unruly Reader!

3. Log my location with Goodreads.  Oops, again.

4. Read something by Joseph Conrad.  Joe, Joe, Joe. No, no, no.

5. Join or start a book group when I get to the USA. Didn't work out, but I'm still dreaming on it.

6. Get the NaNoWriMo Project up and going.  Finally, a bibliolution I kept! On February 20, 2015, my first and hopefully not only novel, Even If the Sky Falls Down, went up on Kindle.

7. Work on the Pulitzer shelf -- both reading and procuring. Reading, not so much, but I procured like a boss this year thanks to a nifty bookstore in Tulsa called Fine Books!

8. Better blog. Blog better. Better blog better. Always an ongoing struggle, but after almost 12 years, I'm still here!

9. TBR Double Dare. I think I kept my hands to my shelf for a record-breaking two weeks.

15 Favorites in '15

Between Sound and Silence - Chang-su Ko (Korean poetry)

Off the Grid - Nick Rosen (nonfiction)

The Talented Miss Highsmith - Joan Schenkar (biography)

Farewell, Dorothy Parker and Dorothy Parker Drank Here - Ellen Meister (novels)

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy  (novel)

A Game of Thrones - George  R. R. Martin (novel)

West of Sunset - Stewart O'nan (novel)

Hissing Cousins - Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer (biography)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - Marie Kondo (nonfiction)

Better than Before - Gretchen Rubin  (nonfiction)

True Grit - Charles Portis (novel, audio book read by Donna Tartt!)

So We Read On - Maureen Corrigan (nonfiction)

Collected - Fritz Karch and Rebecca Robertson (nonfiction)

Pop Sonnets - Erik Didrikson (poetry)

Bent Objects - Terry Border (art, humor) 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

That Time Nancy P. Wished Me A Bookish Little Christmas

I can't believe that I almost forgot to post about this.  My book friend right here in the old hometown,  Nancy P, slipped the little treasure pictured above into a basket of homemade Christmas treats for Mom and me.

 It's a 1918 copy that was slightly and skillfully edited for middle elementary students, with the original Tenniel illustrations. I squealed when I found it.

What a charming and thoughtful gift. It is on the shelf next to my Little House collection, and will be one of my first reads for 2016.

Thanks, Nancy!