Friday, December 31, 2010

29 years ago

Twenty-nine years ago it snowed on Christmas day and I did not appreciate it one bit.

L. and I were getting married two days later and I was sure that neither our out-of-town bridesmaids and groomsmen or our out-of-town guests would be able to make it to the wedding.

Twenty-nine years later, we had no such worries because now we're the travelers. Despite the forecast of snow, we made it to within 10 miles of our home town before we saw our first flake. We ate a huge breakfast with the family, opened presents, and I showed my mother-in-law how to use her new laptop while the kids went outside to take pictures.

This is the house we lived in for five years before we moved to Charlotte.

This is the gut-shot snowman at the gun shop that's now across the road from our old house.

This is evil hunter Santa who's been culling the reindeer herd. Boo! Hiss!

We visited with my sister, popped back by L.'s parents to see how they were getting along with the new computer, and learned that L.'s younger brother and wife had gone off the road on their way home and hit a tree. Luckily, though, they were no more than badly bruised.

We drove back home in the snow which rather abruptly changed to rain about 20 miles outside Charlotte. A couple hours later it began to snow here and the next morning the trees were glorious.

And we dragged out the photo album from 29 years ago, to remember the last time we'd had a white Christmas.

2010 reading stats and favorites

This was the year I finally read Ulysses, which was enough of an accomplishment to mark this year down as an extraordinary one for reading no matter what else I encountered. And I encountered a lot of good ones.

Maybe one of these years I'll get better about blogging about them!

I completed 101 books this year, same as I did in 2009. In case you read offblog and never see my sidebar, you can find a list of all the books I've read here. And I read a total of 113 short stories, which you'll find listed here. I'd hoped to read 210, but failed to keep up the necessary pace to do so.

What I'm doing differently this year with my stats is providing, when available, stats for the last five or six years. I'm not trying to make any sense out of the stats yet (I'm still too feverish for that), but at least they're all nice and handy for me if I want to attempt an analysis later.
Books Total    101  /  101  /  78  /  81  /  74  /  77
Nonfiction        16  /   15  /  13  /    8  /  14  /  13
Novels              78  /   79  /  62  /  62  /  50  /  47 
Short Story Collections  7  /  7  /  3  /4  / 1  /  8
Library Books     26  /  48  /  27  /  14  / 31
Newly Acquired/Read  23  /  32  /32  /  31  /  24
Newly Acquired/Stockpiled  113  /  140  /  88  /141+  /  75+
E-texts Read  17  /  10  /  12
Free E-texts Read  9  /  5  /  7
Just-published books  36  /  55 /  41  /34  /  33
Classics              21  /  10  /  8  /  23  /  12
Pre-20th Century  9  /  7  /  4  /  12  /  11
Written by women  46  /  55  /  42  /  33  /  28

Authors with multiple books read: George Gissing (3), Anthony Trollope (3), Scarlett Thomas (2), Doris Lessing (2), Jonathan Franzen (2), Laura Lippman (2)

Rereads: Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle; James Thurber's My Life and Hard Times; Clyde Edgerton's Raney; Olive Ann Burns's Cold Sassy Tree; Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years; and Charles Portis's True Grit.

My favorites this year, in the order that I read them:

Can You Forgive Her? Anthony Trollope

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot

Cassandra at the Wedding. Dorothy Baker

In the Year of Jubilee. George Gissing

The Sweetest Dream. Doris Lessing

Ulysses. James Joyce

Our Tragic Universe. Scarlett Thomas

Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Pinckney Benedict

Composed. Rosanne Cash

Freedom. Jonathan Franzen

To the End of the Land. David Grossman

The Invisible Bridge. Julie Orringer

In Utopia. J. C. Hallman

December's new books

Truth be told, I didn't get any books for Christmas--just a single gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, which has already been spent, on a Chatham County Line cd and Bruce Duffy's The World as I Found It (not pictured).

Oh, but the Andrea Levy on the top of the stack which I ordered back in November didn't make an appearance in the mailbox until Christmas eve afternoon when I was frantically wrapping gifts, so its festive-red self wound up in a box with a pair of socks under the tree somehow, but didn't actually count.

The newbies are:

Small Island. Andrea Levy

Nightmare Alley. William Lindsay Gresham

Consider the Lobster. David Foster Wallace

God on the Rocks. Jane Gardam

Genesis. Stephen Mitchell, translator.

Since the photo op, I've also received Marcel Proust's Days of Reading and Charles Portis's first novel Norwood. I've pre-ordered Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, due out in February, and I'm going to do my level best not to order any more books between now and then. No, really!

I'm shoehorning everything in here at the blog at the last--I've got a couple more posts, including my yearly reading stats and my favorites, that I'll be working on between now and bed tonight--but right now I need to go take more cold medicine and determine if there's any way we can get the downstairs cleaned up in time for my son's birthday-eve party tonight (do all January 1sters wind up celebrating the night before?).

I'm enjoying everyone's end of the year posts!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Classics Circuit: Trollope's The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, a satirical attack on the "commercial profligacy"of early 1870s England , is regarded as one of Anthony Trollope's finest novels, if not his masterpiece. In the summer of 2009, Newsweek put it at the top of its list of works that "open a window on the times we live in," explaining "[t]he title says it all. Trollope's satire of financial (and moral) crisis in Victorian England even has a Madoff-before-Madoff, a tragic swindler named Augustus Melmotte."

The audience of Trollope's day was less appreciative of its portrayal. Reviewers took issue with and resented the title itself; they argued that Trollope had not created a novel that was an honest characterization of their world. According to Marion Dodd, who wrote the introduction the 1950 edition, Trollope had peaked in the 1860s: "Mercenary marriages, abuse of the wealthy and their ill-gotten gains, satirical treatment of the nobility bereft of money, morals, and stamina, were so different from the material in Trollope's other books that the result was first shock, and then indifference and weariness."

(illustrations: Lionel G. Fawkes)

Trollope had intended to focus the novel on Lady Matilda Carbury, his notes show:

Living in Welbeck with son and daughter, spoiling the son and helping to pay his debts -- clever and impetuous. Thoroughly unprincipled from want of knowledge of honesty -- an authoress, very handsome, 43 --trying all schemes with editors, etc. to get puffed. Infinitely energetic --bad to her daughter from want of sympathy. Flirts as a matter of taste, but never goes wrong. Capable of great sacrifice for her son. The chief character.

The book opens with Lady Carbury dashing off letters to the editors of the London papers with the intention of securing the necessary reviews for her just-published Criminal Queens, a book in which she's spread "all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book but was painfully anxious to write book that the critics should say was good." Lady Carbury, the narrator tells us, "was false from head to foot, but there was much of good in her, false though she was."

Lady Carbury's greatest desire is to marry her handsome son off to an heiress. Sir Felix Carbury at 25 has already run through all the money left him by his late father and has no compunction against demanding and wasting the little that his mother and sister have to live on keeping horses in the country and gambling at the Beargarden, the club where all the young wastrels spend their time passing IOUs back and forth (living within one's means is not the way anyone lives now).  Mother and son set their sights on Miss Marie Melmotte, only daughter of financier Augustus Melmotte, recently established in London and growing in prominence among the upper-crust despite a cloud of rumors.

It was at any rate an established fact that Mr Melmotte had made his wealth in France. He no doubt had had enormous dealing in other countries, as to which stories were told which must surely have been exaggerated. It was said that he had made a railway across Russia, that he provisioned the Southern army in the American civil war, that he had supplied Austria with arms, and had at one time bought up all the iron in England. He could make or mar any company by buying or selling stock, and could make money dear or cheap as he pleased. All this was said of him in his praise, -- but it was also said that he was regarded in Paris as the most gigantic swindler that had ever lived; that he had made that city too hot to hold him; that he had endeavoured to establish himself in Vienna, but had been warned away by the police; and that he had at length found that British freedom would alone allow him to enjoy, without persecution, the fruits of his industry."

Melmotte desires that his daughter marry well, in the upper rungs of society; Lord Nidderdale is willing "to take the girl and make her Marchioness in the process of time for half a million down." While the men are arguing terms, Marie, who's been developing a mind and opinions of her own, falls for the undeserving Felix, who at least is paying attention to her.

Melmotte refuses to consent to the match, telling his daughter that Felix is destitute and wants her only for her money. Undeterred, realizing that all men want her for is her money, Marie contrives to elope to New York with Felix, stealing money from her father and giving it to Felix to finance the trip. Felix, however, fearing that Melmotte will cut them off without a penny despite Marie's assurances that she has a fortune already signed over in her name, is too much of a coward to meet Marie in Liverpool as they've planned. He instead loses the money given to him gambling at the Beargarden while Marie is prevented from getting on the ship by men her father has sent to bring her back. Much to Lady Carbury's dismay, Felix gives up on the schemes to marry Marie.  Melmotte and Lord Nidderdale, however, continue their negotiations for a mutually beneficial marriage; Marie is but chattel to them and nothing she says or does really signifies.

There are several other affairs of the heart that thread through The Way We Live Now--Felix's sister Hetta is loved by both her much-older cousin Squire Roger Carbury, who Lady Carbury wishes her to marry, although not because he's the most moral man around, and Roger's close friend Paul Montague, who Lady Carbury disdains. Hetta loves Paul, but more difficulties arise when Paul's former fiance, the American Mrs. Hurtle, follows him to London and demands he keep his promises to her. Ruby Ruggles, whose farmer grandfather is one of Roger's tenants in Suffolk, doesn't want to marry the slow-witted but loving John Crumb, who's always covered in meal, when Sir Felix Carbury is willing to see her on the sly, especially when she runs off to London to stay with her aunt. And Georgiana Longestaffe, whose father can no longer maintain a lavish lifestyle, is so desperate that she condescends to engage herself to an elderly Jewish banker (anti-Semitism abounds in TWWLN, unfortunately).

But the engine at the center of the novel is definitely Melmotte's maneuverings through the artistocratic society that doesn't approve of his kind yet cannot resist associating with him due to his incredible ostentation and power. And, of course, his shady investments and financial skulduggery--buying property without paying a dime to the too-afraid-ask-for-it Longestaffe, for example--keep the reader attentive. Melmotte chairs the London board of directors for the Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, a railway proposed to run from Salt Lake City down to the port of Vera Cruz. There are no plans to actually build the railway; it is just a reason to float a company and engage in stock speculation.

Melmotte entertains the Emperor of China and  is elected a conservative member to Parliament before it becomes impossible for society to continue to condone his fraudulence.  Those who'd attached themselves to him earlier begin to break away and Melmotte is left alone -- his wife and daughter don't count -- to face a fast approaching arrest. Trollope provides a psychologically gripping portrayal of Melmotte's attempts to bully and bluff his way through, including a scene where he mortifies himself after showing up drunk in the House of Parliament.

What I found most disturbing in Trollope's depiction of Victorian England is its routine disregard for and mistreatment of women:

Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother's evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it altogether as if affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men in that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.

A daughter or wife who refused to accept this natural order, or was unlucky in who her care depended, could expect and did receive violent treatment. Lady Carbury's backstory contains a history of physical abuse which she as a matter of course attempted to hide from the world; she bore the brunt of the scandal when she separated from him for awhile. Likewise, the independence of the American Mrs. Hurtle, who dared pull a gun on her ex-husband to keep him from sexually assaulting her, is presented as the grounds that justify Paul Montague's preference for the meek and innocent Hetta Carbury: Mrs. Hurtle is "a wild-cat" and just won't do in polite society.

Marie Melmotte is horribly beaten by her father during the course of TWWLN and accepts such treatment: Melmotte had certainly been often cruel to her, but he had also been very indulgent. And as she had never been specially grateful for the one, so neither had she ever specially resented the other. . . she. . .had come to regard the unevenness of her life, facillating between knocks and knick-knacks, with a blow one day and a jewel the next, as the condition of things which was natural to her.

Beaten by her grandfather, Ruby Ruggles is on the verge of being raped by Felix Carbury when John Crumb shows up to save her. Small wonder Mrs. Hurtle and Ruby's aunt do their best to ensure Ruby marries John despite her belief that the man is beneath her: he'll keep her well-fed and won't beat her. Isn't that all a Victorian woman could want?

After making it almost 50 years without reading anything by Trollope, I read my first, The Warden, in the spring of 2009 and quickly realized the error of my previous ways. Since then I've read The Vicar of Bullhampton, The Bertrams, The Claverings, Can You Forgive Her?, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, making The Way We Live Now my seventh Trollope.

It certainly won't be my last.

This post is part of the Classic Circuit's Trollope Tour. Dwight at A Common Reader is currently blogging his progress through The Way We Live Now; his posts are most recommended.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Back again

So, after long last, I'm back, after never meaning to be gone more than a day or two.

I managed to miss my 6th blogiversary by letting the birthday aspect of that weekend in October take precedence; I had to become reacquainted with the judge's manual prior to the Nov. 2 election, then recover after the exhaustion of said election; I had to do much more thising and thating and the othering than usual, for the entire month, and I couldn't think of a thing worth blogging about in all that time.

Plus, I failed so fast at my book buying moratorium that I embarrassed myself there for awhile.

But I got over it.

Just a week after swearing off any new purchases, I got a whiff of good news at work, and couldn't resist celebrating by ordering Hannu Rajamiemi's The Quantum Thief. I blame it all on Pat D.

Then, a week later, after another hint of good news at work, I decided to treat myself to Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule and the first movement to Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. By the time the package arrived, I'd  come to doubt that dangle of good news ever actually coming to pass and had repented falling off the wagon; I tried to convince my son he wanted to give the books to me for Christmas, but he refused: "I want to get you something special this year." (Once Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award, I taunted him, saying he'd blown his chance.)

And I encountered the Lifetime Reader on Twitter, read her review of Ibrahim Fawal's On the Hills of God, and managed to justify an immediate purchase since it was the first novel from a Palestinian's perspective that I'd ever heard of.

Then there was a used book sale at the university library to raise money for the public library, and I couldn't resist a like-new copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer; the Library of America's collection of four Dawn Powell novels (My Home is Far Away, The Locusts Have No King, The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur; Tim Page's biography of Dawn Powell; Jennifer Egan's The Keep; and The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

By then I'd gotten over the shame of failure; I could start another moratorium next month. I fell in love with the cover of Joan Thomas' Curiosity, I ordered the book from Canada--a totally compunction-free transaction.

And when we'd successfully found appropriate attire for S.'s induction into the international honor society at his college, I made everyone drop by Border's as my own reward for surviving the, ah, experience of shopping with two males. The store was so dead (a Wednesday night) that I convinced myself that it needed my money more than I did. I came home with Gish Jen's latest, World and Town.

I was lucky enough to win a copy of Bruce Machart's The Wake of Forgiveness from David Abrams. Yay!

So that was my month away from blogging. I did read quite a bit, but that's fodder for another post.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stockpile, then stop (for awhile)

If you've been over at Stefanie's blog this week, you may have noticed that I mentioned in the comments a(nother) book buying moratorium.

As of today, this afternoon, in fact, after opening four book packages. Many of these books are in anticipation of an expected birthday check from L.'s mom this weekend, but still.  And there are a couple of books yet to come--Storm Jameson's None Turn Back and Mrs. Oliphant's The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow. Only one of these books is on my read-immediately list, which is the main reason I think I need to develop some restraint.

I don't think I can make it the full four months I've been mulling over, but I am going to do my best to make it until February 1--that's when Karen Russell's first novel, Swamplandia, is coming out and I'm dying to read that just as soon as I can get my hands on it.

The new books are:

Birdbrain. Joanna Sinisalo. Did anyone read Sinisalo's Troll: A Love Story from a few years back? I pre-ordered Birdbrain months ago, based on how much I'd enjoyed the earlier novel. A Finnish couple go backpacking down under taking along a copy of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Saint Augustine. Rebecca West. I'm going to give top priority to my Rebecca West project in the coming months.

Mistress of the Art of Death. Ariana Franklin.  From C., who thinks I ought to read it soon if I expect her to retain enought detail to discuss it with me.

The Aeneid. Virgil. A birthday gift from W., chosen from my wish list, but given with the plea that I please not make her read it with me when I attempt it next year.

Surreal South. Laura Benedict and Pinckney Benedict, eds. Contains unsettling works by a lot of Southerners, plus, somehow, Joyce Carol Oates.

Chalcot Crescent. Fay Weldon. A futuristic satire.

Troubles. J.G. Farrell. Had to return the library copy of this that I'd checked out over the summer and got tired of waiting for it to be returned.

Poison Penmanship. Jessica Mitford. Subtitled the gentle art of muckraking.

Aurorarama. Jean-Christophe Valtat. First in a steampunk series set in the Arctic.

Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak. For next month's group read at Nonsuch Books.

And yes, that is a new Kindle to the left of the bookstack, an early birthday present freshly loaded with Connie Willis's Blackout and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. He's my bus buddy and his name is Trey.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Pedigree by Georges Simenon

No doubt he would not remember everything. However henceforth, in the Rue Pasteur flat, there were two eyes and two ears more than before, and only time would make a final selection from all the sights, sounds and smells. Henceforth, when she threaded her way along the narrow pavements of the Rue Puits-en-Sock where so many tram accidents happened, when she went to buy fifty centimes' worth of chips, a couple of chops or half a pound of pudding, when she complained of this or that, or when, from the fruit market, she looked through the windows of the cafe for Felicie's bright, slim silhouette, Elise was no longer alone.

He wasn't playing. He was gazing at the wonderful mist of fine golden dust which was coming from the bedroom and which was as it were absorbed slowly, irresistibly by the damp air of the street. When his mother beat the mattresses, it was as if there were thousands of little animals spinning around, coming together and parting again, while there were some feathers which stayed for a long time suspended in space. Just now, there was also the circle on the ceiling, another sort of animal, a luminous, impalpable animal, which trembled in one corner of the ceiling and suddenly rushed across to the other wall when somebody touched the window, for it was just a reflection of the sun.

The universe grew bigger, people and things altered in appearance, certainties were born at the same time as anxieties, the world became peopled with questions, and a ring of chiaroscuro made contours less reassuring, extended perspectives to infinity.

In the days when the world had been simpler, Roger had questioned his mother unceasingly.

Nowadays, he kept quiet. When he was found with his thoughts far away, he pretended to be playing. He listened to what the grown-ups said among themselves; certain phrases, certain words haunted him for weeks, while others translated themselves as pictures which imposed themselves on him willy-nilly and which he later tried in vain to dispel.

His father, now that they were on their way home, knew so well what he was thinking that he murmured:

'You'd better not say anything, for your mother's sake.'

Then he added--and this touched Roger much more:

'She thinks she'd doing the right thing.'

That was all. There must be no more talk about that subject.

'What are you doing this afternoon?'

'I don't know yet.'

'Is there anything to read at home?'

'Some Eugene Sue.'

For Roger went twice a week to borrow some books from the municipal library in the Rue des Chroux (the one in the Rue des Pitteurs had gone up in flames the day the Germans had shot three hundred people) and from the lending library in the Rue Saint-Paul. He chose books he liked. In the evening, or on Sunday, Desire would read one of these books, haphazardly, and if his son took it back before he had finished it, he did not even say anything, just began another of which he might never know the end.

That was what the two of them were like.

--Georges Simenon, Pedigree

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rebecca West was a Booker prize judge the first two years it was handed out!

There were perhaps 60 books, which seemed a lot, though modern judges are said to read twice as many. Getting through the 60 was made easier by our not daring to take on Dame Rebecca. "Miss Murdoch writes good and bad novels in alternate years," she said. "This is a bad year." Muriel Spark: "clever but too playful." And out they went.

40 years of Booker prize judges dish the dirt

Friday, October 15, 2010

For what it's worth and if you're reading this from elsewhere and haven't noticed the birdie in the sidebar, I am now, as of just this week, on Twitter.


This means Twitter has officially jumped the shark, right?

Part One, Madame Bovary: The Literary Habits of Fictional Characters

On the other side of the hallway was Charles' office, a small room about six paces wide, with a table, three chairs, and an office armchair. The volumes of the Dictionary of Medical Science, whose pages were uncut but whose binding had suffered from all the successive sales through which they had passed, by themselves almost entirely filled the six shelves of a pine bookcase.


She had read Paul and Virgina, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo house, the Negro Domingo, the dog Faithful, but most of all of the sweet friendship of a good little brother who goes off to fetch red fruit for you from great trees taller than church steeples, or runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird's nest.

At the convent there was a spinster who came every month, for a week, to work in the linen room. . . . Often the boarders would slip out of study hall to go see her. She knew by heart the love songs of the century before and would sing them softly as she plied her needle. She would tell stories, give you news, do errands for you in town, and lend the older girls, secretly, one of the novels that she always had in her apron pocket, and from which the good old maid herself would devour long chapters in the intervals of her task. They were always and only about love, lovers, paramours, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, gloomy forests, troubled hearts, oaths, sobs, tears, and kisses, skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in groves, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever is, always well dressed, and weeping like tombstone urns. And so for six months, at the age of fifteen, Emma soiled her hands with the greasy dust of those old lending libraries. With Walter Scott, later, she became enamored of things historical, dreamed of studden leather chests, guardrooms, and troubadors. She would have liked to live in some old manor, like one of those long-bodiced chatelaines who, under the refoiled ogives, would spend her days, elbow on stone sill and chin in hand, watching a white-plumed horseman come galloping from the depths of the countryside on a black horse. At that time she worshipped Mary Stuart and felt an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women. Joan of Arc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Belle Ferronniere, and Clemence Isaure, for her, stood out like comets against the shadowy immensity of history, in which there still appeared here and there, but less visible in the darkness and without any relation among them, Saint Louis and his oak, Bayard dying, certain of Louis XI's ferocities, a little of Saint Bartholomew, the Bearnis's plume, and alway the memory of the painted plates on which Louis XIV was extolled.

She took out a subscription to Corbeille, a women's magazine, and to Le Sylphe des Salons. Skipping nothing, she would devour all the reports of first nights, horse races, and soirees, would take an interest in a singer's debut, the opening of a shop. She knew the latest fashions, the addresses of the good tailors, the days for going to the Bois and the Opera. In Eugene Sue, she studied descriptions of furnishings; she read Balzac and George Sand, seeking in them the imagined satisfaction of her own desires. She would bring her book with her even to the table, and she would turn the pages while Charles ate and talked to her. The memory of the Vicomte would always return to her as she read. She would find similarities between him and the invented characters. But the circle of which he was the center gradually grew larger around him, and the halo he wore, separating from his face, spread father out, illuminating other dreams.

Finally, in order to keep up to date, he took out a subscription to La Ruche Medicale, a new journal whose prospectus he had received. He would read a little of it after dinner, but the warmth of the room, in combination with his digestion, would put him to sleep after five minutes; and he would stay there, his chin on his hands and his hair spread out like a mane as far as the base of the lamp. Emma would look at him and shrug her shoulders.

Sometimes, too, she would talk to him about the things she had read, such as a passage from a novel, a new play, or the high society anecdote being recounted in the paper; for, after all, Charles was someone, always an open ear, always a ready approbation. She confided many secrets to her greyhound! She would have done the same to the logs in the fire in the fireplace and the pendulum of the clock.

"I've read everything," she would say to herself.

And she would hold the tongs in the fire till they turned red, or watch the rain fall.

--Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Lydia Davis translation)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Madame Bovary - First, the memories

I've read Madame Bovary before, 30 years ago in a comparative lit class in college. I remember quite a lot about about that semester--I took my first journalism class; I fulfilled my math requirement and consequently threw my statistics notebook into the  trash as I left the classroom after completing the statistics final; I got an A plus on my paper comparing Hamlet and Faust despite my T.A.'s conviction that contrasting the men was the only logical approach; my mother had her first heart attack the week before spring break and my dad was hospitalized along with her since he was at that time incapacitated with back pain. And I spent what free time I had over that spring break plowing through Hard Times, which I hated, for my history class, only to be told in the next class that time was short, and we wouldn't have to read Dickens after all. Etc.

But Madame Bovary--I'm afraid it's not a book that's stayed with me through the years. Adultry, debt, poison, mainly it's the poison that I remember since L.'s mother's Shetland sheepdog puppy ate rat poison not long after I read this--Sunny survived, incredibly enough--so I had mental reinforcement for that portion of the book, along with little sidebar memories of a carriage ride, the fact that it was reading that led Emma astray, as well as a bit of a class lecture on shifting points of view--did Flaubert start a sentence alone with Emma playing the piano and then pull out far enough to bring in the entire listening village, or is that from some other book? I honestly don't remember.

So I'm very happy Frances arranged a group read to celebrate the new Lydia Davis translation and am very curious to see if any other memories come back to me over the course of reading the book a second time.

Edited to add:

I've found the paragraph about Emma playing the piano!

In the Davis translation:

She would draw, sometimes; and Charles found it most entertaining to stand there and watch her bending over her pad, half closing her eyes to see her work better, or forming pellets of bread crumbs on her thumb. As for the piano, the faster her fingers raced, the more he marveled. She would strike the keys with assurance and run down the entire keyboard from top to bottom without stopping. When it was thus assaulted by her, the old instrument, with its buzzing strings, could be heard as far as the edge of the village if the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, who was passing on the main road, bareheaded and in slippers, would stop to listen, holding his piece of paper in his hand.

And from the Francis Steegmuller translation, which I orginally read:

She drew occasionally; and Charles enjoyed nothing more than standing beside her watching her bent over her sketchbook, half shutting his eyes the better to see her work, or rolling her bread-crumb erasers between his thumb and finger. As for the piano, the faster her fingers flew the more he marveled. She played with dash, swooping up and down the keyboard without a break. The strings of the old instrument jangled as she pounded, and when the window was open it could be heard to the end of the village. The huissier's clerk often stopped to listen as he passed on the road--bareheaded, shuffling along in slippers, holding in his hand the notice he was about to post.

Who's reading the original? Why don't the translators agree on who is closing their eyes, who is rolling the bread crumbs on their fingers?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Latest stack of books aka Mailbox Monday

I think it's time for a book-buying ban. Any day now it shall commence.

(Yeah, right.)

And while I usually never get my act together enough to join forces with Mailbox Monday, today is an exceptional day because I have.

David Sedaris. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk. I'm already two Sedarises behind, but I figured S. would like this.

Charles Yu. How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe. My husband started this the day it arrived. He suffers from 30-pages-or-so syndrome, usually setting books aside at that point, so the verdict is still out on whether he'll finish.

The Lydia Davis translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. A giveaway from Frances at Nonsuch Book, for her group read of Madame Bovary that begins on Thursday. I've already finished Part I.

Kim Wright. Love in Mid Air. A giveaway from Becca at Bookstack. Kim's local, and we were in a writing workshop together back in the early 90s, so I'm definitely looking forward to reading her first novel.

Rick Perlstein. Nixonland. Because I need more history in my life.

Ron Chernow. Washington: A Life. Can it top my favorite biography of all time, Chernow's own Alexander Hamilton?

Adam Levin. The Instructions. This book is humongous. It's supposed to combine "the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace."

And my download finger has evidently gotten a little twitchy. I still can't figure out how Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence was ordered for the Kindle--I want to read it, yes, but I ordinarily don't buy novels that are readily available at the university library. Plus there's the fact that it's been a few months since I've even glanced at any Pamuk pages at Amazon, so it's all very weird. Could the cats have ordered it on accident?

I consciously bought Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic, since I've been intending to read for several years, and I've also acquired James Patrick Kelly's The Secret History of Science Fiction and Craig Sherbourne's Muck: A Memoir. My mother-in-law wanted several books downloaded onto her Kindle, so in the future I'll have access to the latest Sara Gruen and Julia Glass novels, if I need them.

And I surely will.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Currently reading

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What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)

Let's see. Of all the books in progress right now, I'm furthest along in J.C. Hallman's In Utopia. I have maybe a chapter and a half to go, and I ought to finish it (this weekend, maybe?) and write my review instead of allowing it to languish any longer. Instead, I've started Hallman's earlier book, The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, and then stopped, out of guilt, because I haven't finished In Utopia. Whenever I do finish it, I'll be recommending it.

I've read three essays, the ones dealing with reading and writing, in Jonathan Franzen's How to Be Alone since the weekend. I've read the first story, the Steve Almond one on poker players and their tells, from Best American Short Stories 2010. Fun so far for the both.

I'm reading Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge with a friend. Three chapters in, just started it yesterday, and I can already tell it's a good one.

I'm reading Amos Oz's memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, because I was so impressed with David Grossman's To the End of the Land last month and wanted to read another book set in Israel, but it's kind of on the back burner right now. As is Georges Simenon's Pedigree, although it's in my book bag and I'm looking forward to getting back to it--if I don't just start from scratch all over again (only one chapter in).

And last, but not least, I'm reading Henry James's The Ambassadors, so that I can read and properly appreciate Cynthia Ozick's soon-to-be-released Foreign Bodies. Maria Gostrey has just joined Strether in Paris and Chad has yet to make his appearance. Sometimes I know precisely what's going on, and sometimes it's all a bit fuzzy. We won't get into the percentages of how much time I'm spending in either of the those two camps.

What are you currently reading? Do you think I'd like it?

Booking Through Thursday

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: St. Petersburg




Life wells up and alters and adds. Even things in a book-case change if they are alive; we find ourselves wanting to meet them again; we find them altered.

--Virginia Woolf, "Modern Fiction," 1925

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Freedom: The Reading Habits of Fictional Characters

Richard was wearing a black T-shirt and reading a paperback novel with a big V on the cover.


She ate stale doughnuts and turned some pages of Hemingway until it was eleven and even she could see that the math wasn't going to work.


She sat in Dorothy's favorite armchair, reading War and Peace at Walter's long-standing recommendation, while the men played chess.


She took War and Peace out to the grassy knoll, with the vague ancient motive of impressing Richard with her literacy, but she was mired in a military section and kept reading the same page over and over.


For sheer respite from herself, she picked up War and Peace and read for a long time.

The autobiographer wonders if things might have gone differently if she hadn't reached the very pages in which Natasha Rostov, who was obviously meant for the goofy and good Pierre, falls in love with his great cool friend Prince Andrei. Patty had not seen this coming. Pierre's loss unfolded, as she read it, like a catastrophe in slow motion. Things probably would not have gone any differently, but the effect those pages had on her, their pertinence, was almost psychedelic. She read past midnight, absorbed now even by the military stuff, and was relieved to see, when she turned the lamp off, that the twilight finally was gone.


"This is D.H. Lawrence," Richard said impatiently.

"Yet another author I need to read."

"Or not."


She cleaned the house, read half of a Joseph Conrad novel Walter had recommended, and didn't buy any more wine.


He sat down at his ancient enamel-top table to distract himself from the taste of his dinner by reading Thomas Bernhard, his new favorite writer.


Upstairs, in his corner room, he found Jonathan reading John Stuart Mill and watching the ninth inning of a World Series game.


"I'm sorry, this book? This book is ungodly boring."

He took cover behind a chair. "What's it about?"

"I thought it was about slavery. Now I'm not even sure what it's about." She showed him two facing pages of dense prose. "The really funny thing? This is the second time I'm reading it. It's on like half the syllabuses at Duke. Syllabi. And I still can't figure out what the actual story is. You know, what actually happens to the characters."

"I read Song of Solomon for school last year, " Joey said. "I thought it was pretty amazing. It's like the best novel I ever read."


He took out the novel his own sister had given him for Christmas, Atonement, and struggled to interest himself in its descriptions of rooms and plantings, but his mind was on the text that Jonathan had sent him that afternoon: hope it's fun looking at a horse's ass all day.


The English couple grabbed the next two seats, and Joey found himself sitting toward the rear with the mother and her daughter, who was reading a young-adult horse novel.


He got his best friend, Mary Siltala, to drive him down to the lake house with a duffel bag of clothes, ten gallons of house paint, his old one-speed bike, a secondhand paperback copy of Walden, the Super-8 movie camera that he'd borrowed from the high-school AV Department, and eight yellow boxes of Super-8 film.

--Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Friday, September 17, 2010

Latest book stack

I'm trying my best to limit the new books coming into the house, but I'm not living up to expectations (my husband's). The stack looks decidedly shorter than usual this month, but that's simply because I'm stockpiling them on the Kindle.

From the top:

Georges Simenon. The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. Because I couldn't wait until I'd finished Pedigree to buy another Simenon reissued by NYRB.

Carla Damron's Death in Zooville. Third in the Caleb Knowles mystery series by Columbia, S.C., writer.

E.C. Spykman's Terrible, Horrible Edie. I've already squeed about this one.

Alison Johnson's The Eleventh Hour Can't Last Forever. Review copy. A memoir about growing up with a gold-hoarding father.

Karen Joy Fowler's What I Didn't See and Other Stories. Includes a Shirley Jackson Award and  two Nebula Award winners.

Frances Osborne's The Bolter. Biography of Idina Sackville,  who inspired the creation of "the Bolter" in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love. From the book exchange in the staff lounge.

Not pictured: Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, deep in the recesses of my book bag. For book club.

And for the Kindle:

Edith Wharton's The Children. A Slave of Golconda suggested title from a few months back.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. For next month's book club--my choice. (Bet they'll never let me choose again.)

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story. Someone on a message board wrote about attending a Shteyngart reading and he came across as someone I'd really enjoy.

This weekend I'm going to focus on finishing China Mieville's Kraken. I've been parceling it out all week in little bits of time here and there. I think it's time to get serious with it: it's the end(s) of the world, afterall.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Forgotten Treasure - Mary Lee Settle

. . . he wondered in the dark if it was only he, and men like him who were fated to be the know nothings, to question, to see beyond their attitudes, but not to speak.


"Oh, I am a lady and I'm not supposed to know anything. Ladies and slaves, look after their wants and rule their minds and keep them innocent. You men!"

She laughed again. "It's a woman's joke. Ladies always know the father of the mulattos on the next plantation. Never their own. How do you think we feel?" She waved her hand, pushing at him blindly. "I don't care for your fine ideals. I reckon women are more consarned with the facts. Lord God"--she sighed--"we have to be. You. . ."

--Mary Lee Settle, Know Nothing (1960)

Know Nothing is an antebellum novel written by the National Book Award-winning and PEN/Faulkner Award-founding author Mary Lee Settle who--get this--dropped out of college and auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind before moving to New York to work as an actress and model.

Despite a writing career that spanned 50 years, she appears to be a relative unknown in the book blogging community. That's unfortunate. Several years back I read more than 200 pages in her I, Roger Williams before setting it aside--too much Williams in Jacobean London, not enough colonial New England as I'd expected. But I gave her another chance in 2006 with The Scapegoat, which I thought a fantastic book. I've seen no mention of any Settle novel in the blogs since.


Know Nothing, just as fantastic as The Scapegoat, proceeds it in The Beulah Quintet, the series of novels, written out of order (and which I'll most likely continue reading out of order), focusing on the families who settle in the Alleghenies of West Virginia. It begins in 1837, with an eight-year-old Johnny Catlett, thrown in the river by his father as a means of teaching him how to swim. It ends in 1861, with Johnny, now fatherless and a captain in the confederate army, "swept up as a swimmer by the sudden flood of fear, but still with his head above water." In between Settle shows us what it was like to be a slave owner, a slave, a poor relation or a wife treated as a perpetual outsider by her husband's extended live-in family. Any resemblance to "Gone With the Wind" is an ironic one.

Settle regarded herself as an "archaeologist of language," one who researched primary sources to learn exactly how each of her characters should speak. Is it socially acceptable to use the word "ain't"? Who has more social standing--the woman who refers to her "pin money" or to her "egg money"?

And getting beyond language into the nuances of behavior, can a genteel mother survive the tackiness of a daughter approaching the mourners' bench during a tent revival? Is having new furnishings instead of hand-me-downs a sign of social inferiority? Can a man be both an abolitionist and a gentleman? (And why will a reader such as myself find it harder to forgive a character for a single witnessed act of abuse against an animal (a cat) than for that perpetuated by the same character over the decades against his fellow humans?)

If I'm making it all sound too academic, I apologize. It really isn't. Know Nothing is at heart the story of thwarted love--Melinda, the penniless orphaned cousin, is raised by Johnny's family, who won't be particularly happy if the two wind up together. And when Johnny is reluctant to commit-- "Cain't you give me time, Melinda?"-- Melinda, who knows the typical fate of an unmarried aging extraneous woman in the house, allows herself to be persuaded into marrying besmitten fourth-cousin Crawford, whose fatal flaw is to have no flaws. Can good come from it?

I've just received a used copy of Settle's Choices, a novel not in The Beulah Quintet but one whose main character bears the same name, and no doubt the same lineage, as Melinda in Know Nothing. That's my next Settle before I delve back into the Quintet.

(This post originally ran on August 19, but seemed too appropriate for today's BBAW prompt not to repeat. Since then, Danielle has begun reading Choices, which makes me very happy.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And then there was a flash of light

So I got up this morning, turned on the computer, and it exploded.

Or rather, there was a flash and then a big nothing that wouldn't stop.

L. suspects the motherboard. I suspect I won't be finishing my BBAW post for today later this evening since our other computer has issues involving internet connections: it's opposed.

Feel free to go to Terri's blog and read my interview with her. I admitted to being a commie slacker, among other things. 

Now I have to go to a meeting.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An interview with Terri of Book Speak


I had the pleasure of plying Terri from Book Speak with questions for today's interview swap portion of BBAW. Terri lives in Memphis, is a self-described hardcore reader, and a book blogger who recently celebrated her first anniversary. She's frugal and green, a homeschool mom and one of the founders behind Books And, a virtual touring company that promotes authors of color.

Our e-mail conversation:

Could you tell us a bit about yourself. About your blog.

I'm a mom, wife, student, vegetarian, and a bunch of other boring stuff. My book blog is the anchor of my website BrownGirl Speaks. I read and blog about works of literary fiction predominantly by authors of color.

You homeschool. Has this made it easier to turn your son into a reader? Were you a hardcore reader from an early age or did you have to develop the taste for books over time? Do you come from a family of readers or is reading something that set you apart?

My son is a reluctant reader. He reads very well once I can get him to do it. I hope that he eventually finds himself unable to function without books in his life like myself.

I, on the other hand, have always been a book fiend. Ironically, I don't come from a family of readers. When I was four I would read the signs at every business we'd pass whenever in the car so, my parents started buying books and taking me to the library and I've had a book in my hand ever since. It's just an innate passion for me.

Let's talk book selection. You read a lot of authors I've never even heard of. How do you find out about them? And, since you're frugal, how do you get your hands on them? Are you more a library user or a buyer of books? How have your tastes in books changed over the years?

I discover my book selections in a variety of ways. I get recommendations from Amazon and other bloggers/readers. I check Publishers Weekly's upcoming releases and sometimes the author or publisher will contact me for a review. Since I became a book blogger, I acquire books from publishers or authors for reviews and when I purchase them it's mainly from used book stores or getting them free on BookMooch. Occasionally I use the library, but I've found myself buying some of those books second hand as well.

My taste in books got a complete makeover in college. I went from solely reading English classics like everything by the Bronte sisters to solely reading Black authors to solely reading all authors of color. And my reading taste is still evolving. . .

Did you read other book blogs before you started or discover them afterwards?

Actually I did not. I thought there might be a few out there but was in for quite the surprise to find this whole subculture of book bloggers. I felt silly for not spending my first four years of blogging about books like I was constantly nudged to do. So, I discovered all of my fellow book bloggers after I started.

Do you enjoy participating in reading challenges?

I do enjoy reading challenges and decided to start one of my own on the fly this year. I'm already planning for what I'll do next year. I like giving myself a goal and focusing on a theme or genre, especially ones that make me expand.

You seem much more adept at social media than me. I managed to set up a Twitter account a year or so back and I've never even signed on. I don't remember the password. Am I missing out?

Social media has its place. I've got my Twitter on auto pilot most of the time because I have so much going on with being a homeschool mom. I think it can definitely help expand your audience and retain the one you have. It's good to check in sometimes on Twitter to do some real time chatting. It can be as time consuming as you'd like and this I know is a concern for those hesitant about getting into social media.

Are you pro-marketing and branding?

I am for marketing and branding but done lightly. I don't care for hardcore marketing. Just let it happen organically in its own time. Those pushy blogs/websites seem insincere and are not looking to build a following because they have something to say but because they want to build revenue.

Are there some favorites, or simply some books you wish you could convince/require everyone to read? How much influence do you have over what your friends read?

One book that I've found myself recently recommending over and over is Marlon James' The Book of Night Women. It's set on an 1800's Jamaican sugar cane plantation. He beautifully reveals the status of women both enslaved and seemingly free and their often unknown power. Some others I frequently push are Let the Lion Eat Straw by Ellease Southerland, Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

I think my book recommendations carry quite a bit of weight with my friends. I've always been "the" reader in my circle and I've yet to recommend a dud.

Any controversial subjects out there that make you want to rant?

Yes, I'm turned off by e-readers and audio books. I've been called a book snob because of it. I get the convenience of them and that e-readers are space savers. However, I love the tactile experience of books. I need to feel and SMELL those pages.

Describe your dream library. How does reality compare to it?

My books are organized in some quirky system only I can understand and is an aversion to those thinking they'll just come into my sanctuary to rummage through and poach my books. There's a nice sized window for natural lighting and an oversized chair and ottoman covered in organic cotton or bamboo. I haven't nailed down a color scheme for my retreat.

My reality is not in the same galaxy with books stacked on two sets of bookshelves two rows deep, on the floor, and under tables with no rhyme or reason other than "have read" and "tbr". And forget about a comfortable, quiet spot to read.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Worldwide Freedom Giveaway

As part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I'm giving away a paperback UK-version (NOT Claudius's very own 10th birthday copy) of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. And, because my daughter waltzed through customs in the Moscow airport without any difficulty Friday afternoon carrying her own just-purchased copy of Freedom  (which kinda blows my raised-during-the-Cold-War mind), the drawing for this one's worldwide.

Contest runs through September 24. I'll draw a name on Saturday, September 25. The winner will have until October 1 to send me his/her address, or else this Freedom's forfeited.

Happy BBAW, everyone!

". . . maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts.  . . . That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else."

--Jonathan Franzen, interview with Gregg LaGambina

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Random little reading details

I don't think I've mentioned it, but I joined the brand new staff book club back in the spring. So far the group's discussed Indemnity Only, Rich in Love, Cold Sassy Tree and Ladder of Years. Since I'd read the Josephine Humphreys a couple times already, I mistakenly thought it'd be okay to skip another reread, but it turned out I'd forgotten everything anyone else wanted to discuss, so I spent a great deal of the hour at that that month's meeting wondering why my mind will latch on to some random, irrelevant little detail, like the fact that sheets with Lucille's menstrual stains circulate freely throughout all the beds in the household, which will then remain with me forever instead of clearing space for a memory of something more useful. What's that all about?

I particularly enjoyed rereading the Anne Tyler. Up until Ladder of Years, I'd reread all my Anne Tylers, some of them many times. I loved them, yes, but part of my incessant rereading up until then was due to other factors--limited funds for buying new books, awareness of new books dependent only on the local newspaper, Book of the Month and a couple of catalogs, pre place- an- online- hold- on- any- book- in- the- system- and- it- will- be- brought- to- the- branch- closest- to- you libraries. I might as well have reread my Anne Tylers and Margaret Drabbles to the point of internalization as bother finding anything new.

So, anyway, it was good to finally reread Ladder of Years. And it was fortuitous to reread it not long after reading Manservant and Maidservant because otherwise I would not have noticed that Tyler had a minor character named Horace Lamb, a strange guy, a traveling salesman of some sort of storm window or insulation product, and I had to wonder if she had Ivy Compton-Burnett's Horace Lamb in mind when she wrote him, no doubt laughing hysterically inside all the while. I think I mentioned this to a book club member outside the actual discussion, but not having read Ivy Compton-Burnett, she didn't know whether this was likely yea or nay.

This week we're discussing Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. There had been a copy of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress on the book exchange shelves for most the summer and I hadn't touched it because I am not partial to books with covers showcasing little black dresses and high heels. Fortunately, the cover wasn't pink, and it also didn't showcase hair, which is another book cover staple I usually manage to keep a healthy difference from, so I didn't have to deprive myself of an altogether pretty relatable read as a matter of principle or neurosis. I did have to buy my own copy, however, as someone else had claimed the free copy by the time the book club chose it.

Last night I started Henry James's The Ambassadors since I'm dying to read Cynthia Ozick's Foreign Bodies, a retelling of The Ambassadors, when it comes out a couple of months from now. Considering the number of sentences I'm having to read multiple times to halfway understand them, it may well take me all of the two months until Foreign Bodies's release date to make my way through it.

I've also started J.C. Hallman's The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe, which seemed appropriate to read right now with so many Americans insisting upon their right to go bat shit, instead of finishing up the final pages of In Utopia, which would probably be even more appropriate since I need to review it before I forget all but a few random details that won't matter to anyone even me.

And I'm trying to get in the spirit for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. I signed up for an interview buddy, something I haven't done in the past, but mine hasn't been in touch, hasn't blogged in a couple of weeks, which leads me to worry more that something untoward may be happening in her life than that she doesn't want to partner up with the likes of me.

Tune in tomorrow morning for a BBAW-inspired book giveaway--the hype's right, it's a good one!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bookish Mad Libs

It's Friday! Let's go with something brainless.

Mad libs, based on this year's reading:

In school I was: The Possessed

People might be surprised I’m: In the Year of Jubilee

I will never be: To the End of the Land

My fantasy job is: Composed

At the end of a long day I need: Private Life

I hate it when: The British Museum is Falling Down

Wish I had: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My family reunions are: Things We Didn't See Coming

At a party you’d find me with: The Little Stranger

I’ve never been to: The Big Rock Candy Mountain

A happy day includes: Freedom

Motto I live by: Memento Mori

On my bucket list: Overhead in a Balloon

In my next life, I want to be: Orlando

Monday, September 06, 2010

Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass

Montanan Rick Bass went to Nashville a few years back, angling for an interview with country music star Keith Urban. The interview, intended primarily to impress his then Urban-smitten young daughters, proved elusive, as might be expected, since Bass has a reputation for award-winning literary fiction, for nature and environmental writings, instead of celebrity puff-pieces.

But it wasn't a wasted trip east. PhotobucketBass soon found himself sidetracked into talking with former country-pop crossover star Maxine Brown, who'd achieved chart-topping success in the 1950s and early '60s as part of the singing trio the Browns. Bass would wind up writing Nashville Chrome, his just-released novel, based on the lives and careers of Maxine, the eldest, her brother Jim Ed, and her middle sister Bonnie.

The Brown children grew up poor during the Great Depression, helping out in their father's sawmill in a hardscrabble swamp in Arkansas.

The secret to his lumber's quality lay in his children's ability to discern pitch. At the end of almost every lunch break, the Brown children would be summoned to the saw-sharpening table, where the newly honed blade would be placed on an axle with a motor and then spun rapidly, as if being made ready for a cut. . . . The sound they listened for -- the perfect blade -- held an eerie resonance, the faint sirenlike echo of a high harmonic that was little different from the tempered harmony the Browns were already learning to achieve with their voices.

The children could imitate any performer heard on the radio. When Maxine  secretly records Jim Ed imitating Hank Snow and sends a tape to the local radio station, he's invited to sing in a talent show; within a couple months, the children have formed the trio the Browns and are performing regularly. Fabor Robinson presents them with a contract after a show; they naively sign away all their rights, soon making their exploiter a multimillionare and leaving themselves with only what he deigns to pass on to them, which isn't much.

They may be Fabor's slaves, but success-wise they're equal to, and usually above, the likes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Bonnie has a sweet romance with Elvis before fame changes him. A pre-Ringo Starr quartet of Beatles spends a week with the Browns in an effort to learn how to duplicate their sublime harmonies (they can't). Jim Ed is as popular with the ladies after the shows as Elvis is, and Maxine falls first into the bottle, a predisposition she's inherited from her father, then, an unhappy marriage. And, too quickly, their star sinks below the horizon. Bonnie marries, happily, eagerly, a man with damaged hearing. Jim Ed goes solo. Maxine plots a come-back and drinks a lot.

It's unfortunate then that Bass seems as enamored with the Browns and their "no accident of circumstance" musical ability as his daughters undoubtedly were with Keith Urban; I grew weary of the repeat-play cosmic beat of fate and destiny to explain their extraordinary talent. Bass's style keeps us back, at a remove from all the interesting stuff that's happening, distancing us from these mythic performers he admires so much when he could have shown them to us up close.

Because, even more unfortunate than that repetition, is the fact that Bass too often gives short shrift to the rudiments of fiction. The language in Nashville Chrome is lovely, but comes across as that of a finely-crafted essay. Where's the dialogue, where're the actual scenes? Why write a novel if you're not going to put your characters (performers all!) in action, let the reader hear them speak, or think in their own words? I will admit to often appreciating a writer's connective tissue (as I think of it) between the scenes more than the actual scenes themselves, and heaven knows I'm not that interested in plot, but I don't think fictional trappings should be dispensed with nearly altogether--unless a writer's working in the experiemental or meta realm-- if you're going to call it a novel.

Perhaps Bass set out to do no more than to polish his prose until it shone like chrome, a literary counterpart to the Browns' own smooth sound. Perhaps it simply was a marketing decision to publish Nashville Chrome as a novel instead of putting it out as creative nonfiction. He mentions in the afterward that he has a new editor. I wonder.

I've been reading Rick Bass for a good 20 years -- "Wild Horses" in The Watch, his first collection of short stories, is still one of the most affecting stories I've ever read. Frankly, though, if it hadn't been for my previous experiences with Bass, I'd have left Nashville Chrome unfinished -- a shame, since the novel hits a late stride in the final third when there's less telling and more showing. An elderly Maxine, living on Social Security, alone and in poor health, wants to assure her musical legacy by locating a filmmaker willing to make a movie about her life (all country stars get a movie, she reckons). She places an ad on the Piggly Wiggly bulletin board and before long a young man with a vision as big as her own -- if not quite in synch with it -- enters the picture and expands Maxine's narrowing life.

If you're new to Bass, I'd start anywhere but here; try The Ninemile Wolves for his nonfiction, or The Lives of Rocks or The Watch for his short stories. If you're interested in the Browns, Maxine Brown has written an autobiography.

And I hear she's on Facebook.

(I reviewed a pre-pub e-galley of this book.)

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...