Monday, April 30, 2012


Not only did the Girl Detective read As I Lay Dying and discuss it with two separate book groups, but she made the most fantastic diorama of one of the most memorable scenes.

Check it out.

Books Read in April

This month the same tile that's in the kitchen was laid in the family room. There was a great shifting around of furniture, resulting in the family room looking the best it ever has, and the living room becoming the depository of a sofa and two wingback chairs that desperately need reupholstering.

And the books went back on the tbr bookcase now situated a newly-created "study corner" of the living room. They'll have to come off once I decide what color the bookcase should be painted, but for now it's enough just to have the books off the floor.

This month I completed:

The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. Olivia Manning. Now that I've completed The Balkan Trilogy, I'm eager to continue on with Harriet and Guy Pringle in The Levant Trilogy. Has anyone watched The Fortunes of War?

The Beginner's Goodbye. Anne Tyler. If you want to know why I was thrilled when the main character in Tyler's latest checked his phone messages, read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant first. Luke Tull lives!

The Last Gentleman. Walker Percy. I'd been plotting to reread The Moviegoer this year, but Jeanne inspired me to pick up this one instead. And a good thing, too: I'd forgotten everything.

The Abbess of Crewe. Muriel Spark. A very short book that I had to force myself to finish. I think I just wasn't in the right frame of mind.

And three novels from the Some Dark Holler list:

The Cove. Ron Rash.

A Land More Kind Than Home. Wiley Cash

The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. M. Glenn Taylor

I'll have something more to say about the last three later.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Miss Brodie and The Finishing School

I bought The Abbess of Crewe earlier this year, just as soon as I learned that Muriel Spark had written a Watergate novel. I mean, how cool is that? Then I held off on reading it, waiting for Muriel Spark Week.

And while I've now read the slim little thing, dog-earing many pages, I find myself disinclined to say anything about it. I didn't particularly like it, but that may say more about my inability to stay focused the day I read it than the book itself. Maybe I'll try it again someday and find it utterly brilliant. This time round, we just didn't click.

So here's a review from six years back, when I read The Finishing School along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the Slaves.


“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or is you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write,’The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

So begins Muriel Spark's last novel, The Finishing School,
a satiric look at a private progressive institution that Miss Jean Brodie in her prime would have been quick to deem a “crank” school and would have been loathe to be associated with.

Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker operate College Sunrise, a school where parents with “dire wealth” consent to send their teenagers for a year or two to get them out of the way. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny colored brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismised as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.

When the novel opens College Sunrise is in operation on the lake at Ouchy after previously being located in Brussels and Vienna. Nina conducts “casual afternoon comme il faut talks” with the school’s eight students ("'Be careful who takes you to Ascot,' she said, 'because, unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.'") while Rowland teaches creative writing. In fact, one of the students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, red-haired, handsome, annoyingly self-assured, has enrolled in College Sunrise specifically so that he can write his historically inaccurate novel on Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rowland reads the opening pages of Chris' novel, finds them "quite good," and then experiences a debilitating case of writer's block where his own novel is concerned. Most of Spark's novel is thereafter concerned with the uneasy relationship between Rowland and Chris: Rowland's jealousy at first amuses Chris, who taunts Rowland with his hidden-away work-in-progress and thrives on reports that Rowland has been searching his belongings in a desperate attempt to find it. Later, after Nina is finally able to convince Rowland that his obsession with Chris' novel is bordering on insanity and he seeks a cure by temporarily checking into a monastery, Chris finds he requires Rowland's presence or else he is unable to write. Clearly, the madness goes both ways.

Nina wants Chris gone but realizes his tuition is needed less the school go under. She begins an affair with an art historian who lives in a neighboring villa. Rowland knows and doesn't care; he's busy attempting to sleep with the servant who is sleeping with Chris.

Nina, her lover, and the students all speculate whether Rowland's obsession with Chris' novel is actually a case of misplaced homosexual desire.

Finally, two of the publishers Chris has sent his novel to come to Ouchy and begin to offer a bit of perspective on Chris's talent and prospects. Chris' confidence is momentarily shaken, but he's quick to once again manipulate those around him, especially when he sees Rowland's chances at literary success wax considerably. I won't say who or how, but someone almost dies.

Now, while I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I remained largely indifferent to The Finishing School. I read it twice to see if I could put my finger on what kept it from being a more enjoyable, a more memorable read. The best I could come up with is that Spark’s natural inclination to omit all but of vital import undercut her efforts here. Chris and Rowland discuss whether they feel their characters take on a life of their own; Chris maintains that his are firmly under his control and can do nothing he does not will. Spark’s characters here definitely fall under strict authorial control; she pushes them about to advance her story without bringing them fully to life. And why she chose to have the character whose writing is called "actually a lot of shit" by a prospective publisher, who recognizes that Chris' approaching success is based on his youth, not his talent, be the one whose methods most mimic her own is definitely beyond my understanding.

I also thought that the use of flash forwards, which I am, in general, exceedingly fond of, and found most effective in Jean Brodie (and in The Driver's Seat, which I read last month), undercut my concern in The Finishing School. While knowing that Miss Brodie is to be betrayed, that Sandy will become a nun, that Mary will be killed in a fire (or that that strange Lise is going to be murdered before morning comes), heightens the suspense and keeps me engaged with how future events are to come about, foreknowledge here deflated my interest. Why should I care now about the state of Rowland and Nina's marriage when I know she's going to be much happier as an art historian married to someone else? Why should I care now that Chris' novel is no good if he's still going to manage to get it published? Why should I care now about any of the students at the Sunrise School when I know they all have enough money or family prestige to take the rough edges off their years to come?

Based on these two books, I'd have to say that if an author can't or isn't willing to vary her style and technique from book to book, she ought to take care that the stories she has to tell will work with her style rather than against it.

I do intend to read more by Spark. I'm going to chose titles for the most part, though, from the first half of her career when her style is economical, but not yet miserly. I don't have a problem meeting a writer halfway, but I'm not willing to do more than that.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I'd rather be in some dark holler

(cue the appropriate background music here)

I picked up the new Ron Rash, The Cove, from the public library this morning. Last week I ordered Wiley Cash's debut,  A Land More Kind Than Home, which I hope will arrive by the weekend. Earlier this year I bought three Wilkes County-centric books. I am officially kicking off a new reading project, although I am hard-pressed to find the appropriate heading for the thing.

Library of Congress prefers Mountain People and Appalachian Region - Southern  to Hillbilly (music can get away with the hillbilly designation, evidently; not literature). Western North Carolina is also an appropriate subject heading, although not one that's been used on any fiction in the university's library catalog, and one that would exclude books set beyond the state line. The public library here uses Mountain Life - North Carolina - Fiction for Sharyn McCrumb's The Ballad of Tom Dooley, but it's a dead end: clicking on that subject heading won't lead a reader to any additional titles. North Carolina - Fiction takes you to 373 titles at the public library; to 103 at the university, but it isn't a designation that's been used more than haphazardly: Cold Mountain's only in the catalog as United States - History - Civil War, 1861-1865 - Fiction and John Ehle's fiction, shelved in the North Carolina Room at the public library, receives no subject headings at all.

Suggestions? Will it make sense if I just call this my Some Dark Holler Project?

Initial proposed reading list:

Surreal South: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry. Laura Benedict and Pinckney Benedict, eds.
The Astronomer and Other Stories. Doris Betts (okay, so this is kind of a cheat. Only the northwest corner of  Iredell County's the least bit mountainous. Sue me; it's my list)
The Wettest County in the World. Matt Bondurant (Virginia)
A Land More Kind Than Home. Wiley Cash
Ancestors and Others. Fred Chappell
The Landbreakers. John Ehle
Thirteen Moons. Charles Frazier
The Ballad of Tom Dooley. Sharyn McCrumb (Wilkes County)
Rain on the Just. Kathleen Morehouse (Wilkes County)
We Are Taking Only What We Need. Stephanie Powell Watts (Wilkes-by God-County)
The Cove.Ron Rash
Serena. Ron Rash
The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart. M. Glenn Taylor (West Virginia)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

What was the point in being a second-rate writer?

Clarence listened to all this with an occasional murmur, then picked up the book she had been reading. It was one of the D.H. Lawrence novels on which Guy was lecturing that term.

"Kangaroo," he read out scornfully. "These modern novelists! Why is it that not one of them is really good enough? This stuff, for instance. . . "

"I wouldn't call Lawrence a modern novelist."

"You know what I mean." Clarence flipped impatiently through the pages. "All these dark gods, this phallic stuff, this - this fascism! I can't stand it." He threw down the book and stared accusingly at her.

She took the book up. "Supposing you skip the guff, as you call it! Supposing you read what is left, simply as writing." She read aloud one of the passages Guy had marked. It was the description of the sunset over Manly Beach: 'The long green rollers of the Pacific,' 'the star-white foam', 'the dusk-green sea glimmered over with smoky rose'.

Clarence groaned through it, appalled at what was being imposed on him. "I know!" he said, in agony, when she stopped. "All that colour stuff - it's just so many words strung together. Anyone could do it."

Harriet re-read the passage through to herself. For some reason, it did not seem so vivid and exciting as it had done before Clarence condemned it. She was inclined to blame him for that. She turned on him: "Have you ever tried to write? Do you know how difficult it is?"

Well, yes. Clarence admitted he had once wanted to be a writer. He did know it was difficult. He had given up trying because, after all, what was the point in being a second-rate writer? If one could not be a great writer - A Tolstoy, A Flaubert, a Stendhal - what was the point in being a writer at all?

Disconcerted, Harriet said lamely: "If everyone felt like that, there wouldn't be much to read."

"What is there to read, anyway? Rubbish, most of it. Myself, I read nothing but detective novels."

"I suppose you do read Tolstoy and Flaubert?"

"I did once. Years ago."

"You could read them again."

Clarence gave another moan. "Why should one bother?"

"What about Virginia Woolf?"

"I think Orlando almost the worst book of the century."

"Really! And To the Lighthouse?"

Clarence wriggled in weary exasperation. "It's all right - but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It's just like menstruation."

Startled by the originality of Clarence's criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect. "And Somerset Maugham?" she ventured.

"Goodness me, Harry! He's simply the higher journalism."

No one else had ever called Harriet 'Harry' and she did not like the abbreviation. She reacted sharply, saying: "Maybe Somerset Maugham isn't very good, but the others are. So much creative effort has gone into their work - and all you can say is 'Really!' and condemn them out of hand." She rose and put on her coat and fur cap. "I think we should go," she said.

--Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune

Monday, April 02, 2012

I don't know why using Blogger has to be such an ordeal.

These days I can't write a blog post unless I use Goggle Chrome, but I can't respond to a comment on my own blog unless I use Internet Explorer. And it took me awhile to figure out that solution.

My apologies to everyone who's tried to comment here and failed.

Classics Club Challenge

As much as I love contemporary literature, I love the old stuff--especially now that I'm, uh, a bit older myself. So I always get a thrill when other book bloggers decide to focus on classics instead of whatever the publicists and publishers determine to send our way. Maybe I won't be sidetracked from starting that Gissing I've been eyeing for a couple of years now that Jillian's started the Classics Club.

My objective will be to read 50 books from the list below by April 2, 2015. In addition to obvious classics like Dostoevsky, Trollope, Eliot, and Gissing, I'm calling anything published by NYRB, Virago, Persephone, Penguin or Modern Library modern classics. Science fiction classics count as well, no matter the publisher.

I'll be adding books to this initial list; we had a flood earlier this year and until the new floor is in place (finally ordered last week after weeks of agonizing over what to put down in place of the ruined carpet), an entire bookcase full of tbr possibilities is out of commission.

Really Old Stuff
New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha
The Book of the City of Ladies. Christine de Pizan
Coriolanus. William Shakespeare
Journal of the Plague Year. Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe
Candide. Voltaire

Nineteenth Century
The Adolescent. Dyodor Dostoevsky
The Eternal Husband. Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Adam Bede. George Eliot
Felix Holt. George Eliot
Bouvard and Pecuchet. Gustave Flaubert
North and South. Elizabeth Gaskell
Born in Exile. George Gissing
Eve's Ransom. George Gissing
The Nether World. George Gissing
Our Friend the Charlatan. George Gissing
Thyrza. George Gissing
Workers in the Dawn. George Gissing
Far from the Madding Crowd. Thomas Hardy
The Mayor of Canterbridge. Thomas Hardy
The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal
Orley Farm. Anthony Trollope
Phineas Finn. Anthony Trollope
The Eustace Diamonds. Anthony Trollope
Phineas Redux. Anthony Trollope
The Prime Minister. Anthony Trollope
The Duke's Children. Anthony Trollope
The Small House at Allington. Anthony Trollope

New York Review Book Classics
Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Norman Mailer
The Balkan Trilogy. Olivia Manning (April 2012; counts as three)
Letty Fox. Christian Stead

Persephone Books
The Winds of Heaven. Monica Dickens
The Wise Virgins. Leonard Woolf

Virago Modern Classics
Plagued by Nightingales. Kay Boyle
Sisters by a River. Barbara Comyns
A Touch of Mistletoe. Barbara Comyns
The Vet's Daughter. Barbara Comyns
The Beauties and the Furies. Christina Stead
Salzburg Tales. Christina Stead
At Mrs. Lippincote's. Elizabeth Taylor

Twentieth Century
The Aleph and Other Stories. Jorge Luis Borges
Death Comes For the Archbishop. Willa Cather
My Mortal Enemy. Willa Cather  (March 2012)
The Man Who Was Thursday. G.K. Chesterton
The Enormous Room. E.E. Cummings
Death in Venice. Thomas Mann
Doctor Faustus. Thomas Mann
Song of Solomon. Toni Morrison
The Discovery of Heaven. Henry Mulisch
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Iris Murdoch
A Dance to the Music of Time. Anthony Powell
Call It Sleep. Henry Roth
The Abbess of Crewe. Muriel Spark (April 2012)
Robinson. Muriel Spark
History of Mr. Polly. H.G. Wells
Kipps. H.G. Wells
Black Lamb and Grey Falcoln. Rebecca West
A Train of Powder. Rebecca West
Night and Day. Virginia Woolf

Science Fiction
Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
The Man Who Folded Himself. Gerrold
The City and the City. China Mieville
Perdido Street Station. China Mieville
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. James Tiptree
The War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells

Sunday, April 01, 2012

poets are like birds

poets are like birds
pulling words like worms from earth
singing poems
singing "fee-bee fee bee/chick-a-dee-dee"

pulling words like worms from earth
brown thrasher couplets on telegraph poles
singing "fee-bee fee bee/chick-a-dee-dee"
I lean on the kitchen windowsill, watching

brown thrasher couplets on telegraph poles
now the baby is awake
I lean on the kitchen windowsill, watching
the joyful bouncing flight of poets and birds

now the baby is awake
hungry and needy I hold her, seeing
the joyful bouncing flight of poets and birds
dishwater and soap clinging to my hands

by W.M. Kibler

Books read in March

The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides
I'm a little sad this didn't have a better showing in the Tournament of Books since I loved it from start to finish. Eugenides doesn't need a live rooster at this point in his career, though, and I am terribly happy that THE WESTERN ultimately took home the prize. Same as Teresa, I l found Madeleine very true to life and think she got a bum rap in the discussion. I should get around to Middlesex sooner rather than later, shouldn't I?

Searching for Caleb. Anne Tyler (reread)
Outside a few books from childhood, I've probably internalized more from this, my first Tyler, from way back in '79, than any other. I know many people who don't like Caleb, including a few who ordinarily count themselves as Tyler fans, but this one never lets me down. I'm rather scandalized that it had been 14 years since the last start-to-finish read, but then, I'd promised myself to read it back-to-back with One Hundred Years of Solitude so that I could conclude whether Caleb was consciously modeled on it, and that will make a person hesitate. Oh well, self, I lied, but I promise I'll reread Garcia Marquez one of these days.

And I am going to go on the record as saying yes, I realize I'm still cutting Duncan way more slack than he deserves. He's my bad boy and I'll always love him. So there.

The Sense of an Ending. Julian Barnes.
Why have I never read Barnes before? Wish this had done a little better in the TOB as well.

The Middle Ground. Margaret Drabble
I read this back in '82 when I was working my way through every Drabble I could get my hands on. I don't know that I'd recommend this as a starter Drabble, definitely not if the reader requires an actual plot to keep her turning the pages, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

Cora Glynn. Peter Cameron
I really like the way Cameron continually defied my expectations. I'd think I knew where he was heading, then the compass needle would whirl.

Arcadia. Lauren Groff
Loved this, even the section that takes place in the future that others don't enjoy. I need to go back and read Groff's earlier books.

The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins
First Wendy asked me the day the movie came out if I'd read the book. Then, no matter where I turned online that day, it was all #hungergames #allthetime. And it was only $5 for the Kindle. Read it in a day. Not opposed to reading the sequels.

Chronic City. Jonathan Lethem
This book cracked. me. up. Usually when I say I found something funny I mean I LOL'ed inside my head. Chronic City gave me a genuine outside-my-own-confines can't-stop-once-I-get-going laughing fit, one that had S. saying, "What?! What?!" and L. ignoring me with all his might (he works from home; he was on the phone) out of fear he might make my fit last even longer.

My Mortal Enemy. Willa Cather
A reread for the Slaves.

How We Got Insipid. Jonathan Lethem
A couple of short stories, one a science fictional They Shoot Horses, Don't They? kind of thing, and the other, a surreal fantasy with a grown-up but still sweatshirt-and-sneakers-wearing Harriet M. Welch as the main character.

Worth noting that Chronic City contains a minor character named Harriet Welk.

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...