Pacific view

Friday, April 22, 2011

Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman

 Lolly Willowes or The Loving Huntsman, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Another from the NYRB Classics list. First of all, there is something about that subtitle that intrigues me right off the bat. 
Sylvia Townsend Warner was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group. Warner and her lesbian lover, poet Valentine Ackland, lived together for decades, joined the Communist Party and went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Warner has found her way back onto the LGBT reading lists, so she may not be so underappreciated now as she once was.
Lolly Willowes was Warner’s first novel (published in 1926). The title character is  Laura (nicknamed Lolly), the pampered only daughter of a well-to-do Edwardian family living in London during World War 1 and its aftermath. Too docile to take the cause of women's suffrage, too conventional to be an artist and live in a garret, she chooses instead to live with her eldest brother's family and become the overlooked maiden aunt: useful to have around when you have a package to be tied or an errand to be run, and disappearing into the wallpaper when you don't need her. Suddenly in mid-life she rebels and to her family's shocked disapproval, she demands that her brother turn over to her what's left of her inheritance, and she goes off to let a room at a boarding house in the isolated country village of Great Mop. Perhaps there she can finally "have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread of life a day..."
Once she gets away from her family, she begins to undergo a change. She takes walks and falls asleep in a pile of dead leaves, and spends weeks puzzling over the other inhabitants of the village. Then she stops puzzling over them. “She admitted that there was something about them which she could not fathom, but she was content to remain outside the secret, whatever it was. She had not come to Great Mop to concern herself with the hearts of men.”
But her hard-won peace is almost lost when her nephew Titus arrives uninvited for a visit and then decides to stay and make his home in Great Mop, too. Lolly is beyond dismayed. “ In vain she tried to escape; transient and delusive had been her ecstasies of relief. She had thrown away twenty years of her life like a handful of old rags, but the wind had blown them back again, and dressed her in the old uniform…And she was the same old Aunt Lolly, so useful and obliging and negligible.”
Now this is where the story takes an unexpected turn, and a supernatural element is introduced into the plot, but it’s so deftly handled that it does nothing to jar or distract the reader.  I hesitate to reveal too much, but I will say that Lolly makes a pact with the devil in order to secure her independence. This development can be accepted on its face or not, as you choose. It works either way, because Warner writes so beautifully. 
Since the 1970's Warner has been considered a significant writer in the gay and lesbian community, but I don't see any real lesbian coding or subtext in her work. Not unless you think that the notion of women bonding with other women and maybe even preferring that situation to a male-female bond, is a "lesbian" notion. I don't see it that way and I'm a straight woman. But perhaps I'm naive.
I've read several other books by Warner after having first encountered Lolly Willowes, including "Summer Will Show" and "Mr. Fortune's Maggot", but Lolly Willowes is still my favorite.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A life in service of others: looking for and finding dignity

Virginia Woolf- Flush: A Biography
This book is a departure from Virginia Woolf's groundbreaking style experiment. If you find yourself becoming a little bit restive or impatient while floating on Mrs. Dalloway's stream of consciousness, this book will restore your equanimity. Woolf wrote it as a way to “ease her brain” after the intense effort she put into writing “The Waves”. It was meant to be a light thing, and she predicted that it would sell in embarrassingly large numbers, and that she would “very much dislike the popular success of Flush”.  It did end up to be her best-selling book during her lifetime, but today it is largely forgotten. So Virginia's fears were groundless: Flush didn’t end up taking away anything from her reputation as a serious writer. I hope she’s pleased.
Flush was the name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, and Woolf relates the love affair and marriage of those two celebrated poets (Barrett and her equally gifted husband Robert Browning) through the consciousness of a dog. Flush was given to Elizabeth by an acquaintance who admired her poetry, and he spent his early years curled up on Elizabeth’s sickbed, keeping her company during her time as an invalid in her father’s house, throughout her courtship and elopement with Browning, and their subsequent life in Italy. For source material Woolf relied largely upon Barrett Browning’s letters and her own close observation of her pet spaniel, Pinka. She allowed her fertile imagination and prodigious intelligence to do the rest. The style of the book is straightforward and direct, very much how a dog would tell his story if given the opportunity. Woolf manages to make you inhabit the canine consciousness of Flush, not in a cutesy or trivial way, but with seriousness, keen insight, and with considerable wit.
The book opens with a brief history of the ancient origins of the Spaniel breed, and mockingly compares the “aristocracy of dogs” with that of humans, raising questions as to what constitutes “noble birth” in men and dogs—the curled tail, the light nose, or the coat of arms? Flush conforms to the strict guidelines of the British Kennel Club, so we know he’s sufficiently well bred to make a suitable companion for a lady. We note the change in Flush’s fortunes when he moves from the country to the elegant house on Wimpole St (“as long as Wimpole Street remains, civilization is secure”), where the smells of roast beef wafting from the kitchen combine with the scent of furniture polish & Oriental carpets to let his canine intelligence know that he is in a different world now. We learn about Flush’s new home the same way he does, through his senses.
We understand the rage and jealousy felt by Flush when that interloper, Mr. Browning, comes between him and his mistress, and we sympathize as he does his best to get rid of the usurper, even going so far as to bite him on the ankle. To no avail. Flush has to learn his place. We feel his terror and loathing on the occasion of his being kidnapped by “hairy ruffians” and held for ransom. And when Elizabeth and Robert go to Italy, we share in his joy at the foreign sounds and smells, and the newly discovered freedom of running off the leash with the Italian dogs, who, to Flush’s surprise, are all mongrels. No breeding or pedigree at all!  
A dog lover’s book if ever there was one, “Flush” is an amalgam of animal story and biography, but it’s better than both.

More on the subject of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Flush the dog has a supporting role in the next book, too, but he doesn't come off nearly as well.

Margaret Forster - A Lady's Maid, published 1991  
Told from the point of view of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid, who devoted her life to the invalid poetess' care, moving with her to Italy and caring for her until Barrett's death. The life of a lady's maid in the 1800's was without question a hard one. Being "in service" usually meant a lifetime of sacrifice and servitude. Enmeshed in a complicated relationship with Browning that at various times encompassed the roles of nurse, go-between, advisor, confidant, friend, and servant, Lily demonstrates her loyalty again and again, even helping Elizabeth defy her father's wishes and carry out her elopement with Robert Browning. Yet Lily (who is called “Wilson” by her mistress) is not permitted to pursue her own desires for love, a husband, and a family, but must sublimate all of her own needs in the care of a querulous and controlling employer, whom she nevertheless loves deeply.  
The aspects of the book that interested me the most were the love story between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the unyielding class divisions that existed in Victorian times, even among the intellectual elite.  I thought the author dealt with the latter very successfully. There was none of that smug and superior 21st century sensibility looking back at a less enlightened age, as is sometimes the case with historical novels.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thoughts about Diana Wynne Jones

I was truly saddened to read that Diana Wynne Jones passed away on March 26th.  I came across this news via the internet; as a matter of fact, I read about it on a book blog.
I first discovered DWJ about 15 years ago when my daughter asked me to buy her a copy of Witch Week. Of course I read it myself. It was right up my alley, being both a children’s book and one having to do with magic. This was around the time that Harry Potter was catching on in a big way, and I wondered if JK Rowling had read the Chrestomanci series. Both series have a few things in common. For instance, both are set in a world where magic is an accepted part of life. Some people are born with magical ability, while others are not. And those who do have it have to be carefully trained in its proper use, so they don’t endanger themselves or anyone else.
Anyway, I went on to read everything by DWJ that I could get my hands on, and I have re-read much of it many times.
Jones has been a major figure in the sci fi / fantasy literature world for a long time, and a lot of people are in mourning right now. The most emotional reminiscence / celebration of her life that I’ve seen so far was written by Neil Gaiman  .  Gaiman was a personal friend of DWJ for many years, and at various points she seemed to serve as his mentor, mother, critic and muse.
The Guardian published an obituary  ( that did a good job of putting Jones' body of work into its proper context. The obit also pointed out that Jones’ early life experiences contributed to her rare ability to convey the feelings of a child who has been abandoned, neglected, and left to fend for himself. Not because the adults in his life are evil or cruel, but because they’re too selfish and self-absorbed to remember that he is there. Despite the fact that many of her child protagonists are without an adult to care for them in the way that every child deserves to be cared for, they're still resilient and capable of figuring things out for themselves. Jones herself discussed this aspect of her life in detail in an autobiographical sketch that was published on her official website (here it is: )  It’s well worth a look, if you’re interested in how she came to write the kinds of characters she is famous for. She also talks about her childhood encounters with two legendary giants of the children’s literature world, Arthur Ransome and Beatrix Potter, both of whom apparently hated children!
I’m not going to review any of Jones’ books now because I’m about to go on a DWJ reading binge and I’ll probably re-read most of them, or at least my favorites. So I’ll save the reviews for later.
For right now I just want to do homage, so I'll simply list what  in my opinion are her best. 

And finally, here is another link, this one to an real live scholarly paper written by Deborah Kaplan and published in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. With footnotes and works cited. It's rather interesting in a geeky sort of way. 

But Diana didn’t take herself that seriously; she possessed humor and modesty and she was a down-to-earth person. You can tell this much from her writing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Be afraid, be very afraid

Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived in the Castle (published 1962)
I tried to get my book club to consider reading this but the cover design of the Penguin Classic edition put people off. The black and white line drawings have a silly, cartoonish look, and the slimness of the volume, only 146 pages, makes it seem like a children's book. But it is definitely not.
This book is both a whodunit and a masterful depiction of mental illness, conveyed with such economy of language and such a subtle tone, that I was floored. Jackson is another mid-century writer who has undeservedly dropped out of sight. When the New Yorker magazine published her short story, “The Lottery”, in 1948, it generated an unprecedented amount of hate mail, so you know she had her finger on the dark pulse of something. Aside from “The Lottery”, I had never read anything of hers previously, although I had heard about her funny housewife tales, so I thought she was an early version of Erma Bombeck, writing about fallen cakes and muddy paw prints on the linoleum. I quickly discovered what I had been missing.  
Castle starts out like a child's Halloween story...there is a creepy mansion on the hill whose inhabitants are never seen, except for Mary Katherine (Merricat), the 18 year old narrator. Merricat, herself a bit unhinged, trots into town every week to stock up on groceries and to demonstrate, through her presence, that the Blackwoods are still there. She has to put on a brave face as she encounters the unaccountably hostile attitude of the villagers, who torment her with nasty rhymes and cross to the other side of the street when they see her.  Merricat is a dreamer who defends herself with elaborate fantasies; she pictures the villagers with "their rotting hearts coveting our heaps of golden coins" and compares them to taloned birds of prey, "striking, gashing with razor claws". The Blackwoods have always been set apart from the villagers as a consequence of wealth and breeding, but that is not the only reason for this antipathy. Something happened at the mansion years ago-- an accidental death by poisoning, followed by a murder trial—that’s referred to obliquely, almost in passing. But this event has forever changed the way the Blackwoods are regarded by their neighbors. Shunned, they retreat into splendid isolation and utter reliance upon each other.
The members of the Blackwood family—virginal, motherly Constance; fragile Uncle Julian; and dear, strange Merricat--are highly sympathetic characters, and we feel for them. Their attitude of wounded dignity and downtrodden pride makes perfect sense given the harsh treatment doled out by the community. But over the course of the book, the reader is made increasingly uncomfortable as we become more aware of just how damaged and off base our unreliable narrator is.  Jonathan Letham in his introduction to the Penguin edition says Jackson is "perpetually underrated and persistently mischaracterized as a writer of upscale horror", when rather than say, the paranormal of a Stephen King, her great subject was the "wickedness in normality"-- the way that everyday evil manifests itself in our very hearts. Jackson is a brilliant writer; she lets things develop at a leisurely pace, never says too much when less will do, and she made me care so deeply about the Blackwoods that I never stopped reading, with my heart in my mouth, until at last I knew what would become of them.  
BTW, read the introduction after you finish the book, not before, if you don’t want to have the ending spoiled.     
I'm in the middle of reading Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"; it'll be interesting to compare the two when I'm finished.

Mildred Pierce - first book, then TV series

James. M. Cain – Mildred Pierce
This vintage classic (published 1941) pulled me in out of simple curiosity inspired by the recent television mini-series starring Kate Winslet. The old Joan Crawford film had a melodramatic, film noir feel to it that is very misleading as regards the original story. The book is atypical and stands apart from the rest of the Cain detective story oeuvre. Instead it is a psychologically probing character piece about a woman with a very definite set of values and motivations, indelibly set within a certain time and place-- early Depression middle America. Even though the book is so time-specific, it nevertheless resonates with today’s belt-tightening, pride-swallowing, recession-weary times.
The story opens with Mildred, driven by pride and humiliation, kicking her husband Bert out of the house. Bert is really a sweet guy, and he loves Mildred and their two children, but he’s disappointed her because he’s failed at business, failed to support his family, and is having an affair--hence the humiliation. She gets the house and the car, but she’s still beset by encroaching poverty. So she does the unthinkable and takes a waitressing job, a desperate move for which her social-climbing daughter never ceases to demean and punish her. Even after Mildred builds a hugely successful business and is earning enough money to support  all the slackers in her life, she still feels diminished, like she's being looked down upon by the world. She yearns for love, but when she holds it in her hand, she has a need to seek out and magnify its flaws. 
The one person in her life who Mildred cannot win over to her side is her daughter, Veda, who ends up being the most interesting character in the novel. Veda is a monster of manipulativeness, who manages to wrap everyone around her finger. Her singing teacher is the one who sees her most clearly and provides the most succinct analysis of her character; he says that she’s blessed with a God-given gift of a voice—one in a million-- but as a human being she’s a poisonous snake who loves nobody but “her own goddam self”. He’s so right there.
There are other fascinating characters, like Mildred’s snobby nemesis Mrs. Forrester; Lucy, the neighbor with both a heart of gold and her own self-interested motives; and Monty-- the man whom Mildred loves but can’t respect. Monty is a most interesting combination of rakish romanticism and pathetic nobility. The book is full of slang of the type that you find in hardboiled detective fiction from the 30’s and 40’s by authors like Cain and Raymond Chandler-- i.e., “That’s the trick, baby” and “Yee gods and little fishes”-- but I found this added to the fun, and was not at all annoying. The novel is not kind to any of its characters, and it is sad to the core, but it’s very, very good.

Having just finished watching the HBO miniseries, I really admired it from all was faithful to the tone of the book, without the soap. Kate Winslet portrays Mildred as clearly torn between her many competing roles and desires. The acting throughout was superb, and the set design and overall look of the film (director Todd Haynes is a genius!) was very detailed and true to the period. I loved the lingering shots of 1930's radios, automobiles, clothes, and a gleaming Vulcan commercial cookstove.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Richard Hughes - A High Wind in Jamaica (published 1929)

Richard Hughes – A High Wind in Jamaica (published 1929)
This book was the first title in the NYRB Classics series. I had read this many years ago and the only part I remembered was something about a very sad and touching relationship between a little girl and a pirate. I was curious to see how it would strike me on the second reading.
This book is remarkably odd and original, especially considering its date of publication. The opening chapter is like a fever dream… a ruined, falling-down sugar plantation in Jamaica, in the mid 1800’s, after the Emancipation has destroyed the reigning economic system with its basis in slavery. Nature is run amok. The birds and bats and swarming insects have reasserted their dominion over the place; the vegetation grows so rampant that it has smothered entire buildings. This disquieting setting is the home of a family of English children who are barely civilized; they behave like little savages while their preoccupied and clueless parents make half-hearted attempts to keep them in line by making them wear shoes. We are barely into the first chapter when a series of cataclysmic events takes place, in rapid succession. Without warning, God’s own paradise is transformed into a seething mess, “hell’s pandemonium”. And all of it is described beautifully, evocatively, and yet so matter-of-factly that for the moment we put aside the question of whether or not it’s plausible. This chapter sets the scene for the remainder of the story, most of which takes place on the high seas, after the parents decide that the children should return to England for their own safety. But of course they don’t accompany them. No, they put them on a merchant ship bound for England in the care of an incompetent captain and his drunken crew, who are somehow expected to take charge of the children during the voyage. This proves to be a very bad idea, when shortly thereafter, the ship is set upon by pirates.  The narrator confidentially explains: “Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago; but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form.”  The pirate vessel, having looted the merchant ship of all its valuable cargo, sets sail with the children accidentally still on board. The pirate captain would really love to get rid of them, but he can’t figure out how to accomplish it. It quickly becomes a question of who are the more savage—the children or the pirates?
The tone of irony and emotional detachment in recounting a tale of death, cruelty, and sexuality makes for a very interesting perch from which to view the action. We recoil at the corruption of innocence and the evil done on both sides. The author displays an impressively deep insight into the psychology of children’s minds, how they can be damaged and yet resilient; and also how they think so differently from adults. A brief excerpt from the book deserves quoting here: “Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child; and children are human…but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby; and babies of course are not human—they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes… Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes they are animals—why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.”  This rings true for me; I have a clear memory of my own children when they were newborn, and they seemed far closer to slippery, mewling animals than they did to immature human beings.
I think this book must be an early example of that odd little subgenre: children left on their own. Other examples of which are “Our Mother’s House” and  “The Cement Garden.”  Many reviewers have also compared it to “Lord of the Flies”, but in that case the kids-as-amoral-savages theme is used as a prop; whereas in Hughes’ book the children have been tragically misunderstood and abandoned by the adults in their lives, and their behavior never feels allegorical; it feels nothing if not real. Because they feel real to us, they break our hearts, we want them to be happy, and we wish we could save them.

Why blog?

Why I’m writing a blog.  I started perusing book blogs on the internet because I wanted to see both what other people were reading, and what they thought about what I was currently reading. Most book bloggers, I discovered, are would-be writers themselves. I’m not a writer; I am more an appreciative and devoted reader. I read a great deal and I always read for enjoyment. Pure enjoyment is almost the sole motive behind my addiction to reading, except, occasionally, when the spirit moves me, I will read in order to learn about a subject I’m interested in. But only if a book can give me actual pleasure, in the sound of the words and the way the sentences flow together, and the images the words conjure up in my mind; otherwise, I might as well be slogging through a swamp. The experience is without sound or color. It leaves me empty, and I read to feel full. Certain books appeal to me and others don’t, and lately I’ve begun to think more about these preferences, and what they stem from.  So that is something I’d like to explore in this blog as well.

As I said, I’m not a writer. It’s also true that I’m even less of a talker. I belong to a wonderful book club—the members are all lovely, charming women who are very smart and articulate, and once a month we get together to talk about books. I have belonged to this group for years.  I always have definite opinions about the books we read, and I really do try to express them during book club, but I rarely succeed. I become tongue-tied and at a loss for words when trying to explain what I like or don’t like, or why a particular author’s words made me feel perturbed or angry or ecstatic. I think this is due to the fact that my brain works slowly and I need time to sort out my thoughts before I can verbalize them. I think more clearly when I’m writing than I do when I’m talking.

So a book blog seemed the right forum for conveying my thoughts about the books I read and what I actually get from them…what it is about them that either fills me with delight and makes me want to scribble notes in the margins, or makes me want to rip the pages out and hurl the book across the room.

Is anyone going to read this blog? I really don’t know, and it probably doesn’t matter. My daughter writes a food & diet blog that she doesn’t want anyone to read so she’s only told three people about it. As for me, I would be tickled pink if someone were to read my blog and respond with comments of his or her own. But who knows if anybody else will see or know or care? Maybe I’ll end up just talking to myself.

I mostly read fiction, and I have some favorite genres that I go back to repeatedly: 20th century fiction, the Victorians, historical fiction, memoirs and diaries, science fiction, fantasy, and children’s literature. I have a soft spot for Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, E.M. Forster and Anthony Trollope, but I also like more muscular prose—Wallace Stegner and Graham Greene come to mind. When it comes to non-fiction I have certain favorite authors—Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Oliver Sacks,  and Mary Roach, but I think I want to stick to fiction ( at least in the beginning).
When I think about the books that I’ve been reading over the last few months, most of them fall into a category I think of as 20th Century Forgotten and Neglected Works. These consist of books by authors who have fallen out of fashion, or minor works of well-known authors that just aren't read anymore. The way this started was that a few months ago I read  “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham (a choice made by my book club).  Razor’s Edge was my first exposure to Maugham, and it was a revelation. It was so remarkably good that I’m still thinking about it months later; it spurred me on to read more of him (more on that later) and yet I suspect Maugham doesn’t get much traction these days. He's one of those forgotten authors whose books gather dust on library shelves. Authors fall in and out of fashion, and I guess that's to be expected, and yet...isn't it a shame? Maugham is a fantastic writer; he's just not very modern.
We (collectively) are always lusting after the latest fashionable thing, whatever's new. This is an aspect of society that irritates me a great deal. My favorite article of clothing is a cashmere sweater I bought in 1979. When I see similar sweaters in the department stores today, there’s absolutely no comparison in terms of fit, feel, sturdiness, thickness, softness…where am I going with this metaphor?  Maybe I just feel more at home in the past than the present. I get impatient with meta-fiction and experimental fiction, or writing that is too obsessed with its own cleverness. Some current day authors are so self-satisfied and clever that they make me want to light a bonfire under their books. Not that there aren't wonderful, skilled storytellers of the current era whose work I enjoy: Michael Chabon, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, Junot Diaz. Maybe it's a false, old, whatever. The most basic requirement of a good book is the ability to be transport the reader to another time and place. The human condition is timeless and unchanging, but so is the need for a change of scenery now and then. Maybe that's why I gravitate toward books that are a generation or two removed from the present. I also tend toward books with a strong female sensibility, some of which tend to get categorized by the publishing industry as “women’s books”. (Or that loathsome term, “chick lit”, which is such a misnomer and does a horrible disservice to writers everywhere.) But I need to backtrack for a minute here and clarify that by “women’s books” I am not talking about romance novels, books about chocolate and shopping, or 99% of the Oprah canon. Women's books do not have to be written by women, and they don’t even necessarily have to be about women. They do usually tend to be about the things that women are interested in, which frequently but not always, means life, families, and the insides of people’s heads-- as opposed to metallurgy, bomb making and mountain climbing. Above all, they must be well written—that is, with clean, sharply worded, intelligent writing as opposed to attention-grabbing, overly stylized prose.  Many of the books I have been reading lately are part of the NYRB Classics series and the list put out by Persephone publications. I will confess that I was drawn initially by the gorgeous artwork on the covers, partly by the idea that their lists contain undiscovered gems waiting to be unearthed and some nice person has already done the digging for me.