Teaser Tuesdays: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

so we read on

I am quite over the moon for the latest book about The Great Gatsby, by NPR’s Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan. It’s called So We Read On. Please note that even the title of this book is a nod to the complexity of language. Presumably if we were to hear Corrigan speak about her book (as, since she works in radio, I hope we will), we would know what I am still wondering: does she say “so we read on,” rhymes with feed, current tense? or rhymes with head, past tense? I love this ambiguity.

But wait! There’s more. In the opening pages, Corrigan shows that she will have a sense of humor even while exhorting her audience about the importance of her topic:

When we make our first chain-gang shuffle into Gatsby, we spend so much time preparing for standard test prompts on the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the color of Gatsby’s car and – above all – the symbol of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that the larger point of the novel gets lost. It’s not the green light, stupid; it’s Gatsby’s reaching for it that’s the crucial all-American symbol of the novel.

One main premise of her book (which is very friendly and accessible, by the way) is that most of us, who read Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school, are too young or distracted to fully appreciate it on that first try. I rather liked it in high school (I was a pretty enthusiastic English student, believe it or not), but I am absolutely on board with her larger point.

Recommended! Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.

[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I'm referring to were living then. Plath's mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can't confirm Olwyn Hughes's status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]

Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.

Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.

The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)

Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)

Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)

It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.

Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:

The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.

I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.

Also, this:

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.

I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

veronaI had a pleasant reread of this early Shakespeare comedy in preparation for the Houston Shakespeare Festival this summer. Of course you saw my post the other day about what a special copy of the book this is…

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is an earlier and a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but I think it’s still excellent in all the usual ways: clever wordplay, mild bawdiness, romantic wafflings or confusions that may threaten our modern sensibilities just a touch, but overall, with the potential to be wildly entertaining in the right hands. I remember the performance I saw as a youngster being accessible (having read the play beforehand helps, of course).

The two gentlemen are Valentine and Proteus, and they are best friends. Valentine is prepared to leave Verona to seek his fortune in Milan; Proteus stays behind because he is in love with Julia, and determined to win her. Valentine finds his love in Sylvia, daughter to the Duke of Milan; and Proteus’s father is convinced to send his son away, separating him from Julia just as they declare their love for each other. Proteus is sent to join his friend Valentine, which should be a happy reunion; but fickle Proteus falls for his friend’s betrothed, betraying both his friend Valentine and his own love, Julia. Determined to win Sylvia away, Proteus reveals Valentine and Sylvia’s elopement plan. The Duke has Valentine banished; and the action of the play moves to the woods.

In what might be seen as a vague early shadow of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woods are host to a banished Valentine and his servant Speed – who are taken in by a host of bandits – and who are pursued by a grieving Sylvia and her faithful servant – who are pursued by a love-stricken Proteus, her father the Duke, and the Duke’s intended son-in-law Thurio – who are accompanied by Julia, serving as a page (in male drag of course) to Proteus, thereby in pursuit of her love. If you had trouble following that, all is as it should be.

You might recognize a few lines:

What light is light, if Sylvia be not seen?
What joy is joy, if Sylvia be not by?
Unless it be to think that she is by,
And feed upon the shadow of perfection.

Or:

It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Speed, servant to Valentine, and Launce, servant to Proteus, have their share of buffoonery, great scenes with wordplay and witticisms that are typical of Shakespearean comedy. All ends well (although we sniff at the treatment of certain female characters, and the slurs upon Jews. Time-typical Shakespeare, again); and the play is, indeed, funny.

I look forward to seeing this summer’s live performance.


Rating: 7 gift-dogs.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmOn my way out the door headed for the airport, I realized at the last minute that I might not have enough reading material for a medium-long flight to Seattle. I’m so glad I grabbed this slim volume – the closest appropriately-sized book to hand, off my TBR shelf. I did indeed finish the one book and start and finish this one on that flight; and I enjoyed it very much and found it thought-provoking.

Animal Farm is a classic, chilling allegory from the author of 1984, whose voice I most definitely recognized in this earlier novel. My 50th anniversary edition, from Signet Classic in 1996 (pictured), includes a preface by Russell Baker (new in 1996) and a 1954 introduction by C. M. Woodhouse of The Times Literary Supplement. I found these starting pieces noteworthy. I know a little about Orwell, have read 1984 several times, and am familiar with other early dystopian novels like Brave New World, which Baker refers to (he calls these authors pessimists), so I had a little background. Interestingly, Baker makes the very optimistic statement that the pessimists were wrong, that our current leaders (in 1996) did not resemble dictators, that technology has been a liberating force. I think there is some validity to the last argument; but there is plenty of room to criticize the power of the state today, and I find Baker a trifle breezy in his reassurances. To be fair, he is right to point out that the state has turned out to be less efficient than Orwell feared: drones and wiretaps today do not approach the effectiveness of Big Brother in 1984. At least, that’s what we think… I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the virtues of our government leaders.

Woodhouse’s introduction is more straightforwardly academic in its analysis of Animal Farm as literature and in culture and politics, and of Orwell as an artist. He considers him a prose poet, in fact. This article was informative and critical but still accessible, and I recommend it. (I recommend Baker’s preface, too, but with salt.) The most useful part, for me, was the specific placement of Animal Farm in time: it was published in August of 1945, the same month as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Orwell had begun writing it in 1943, following his disquieting experience in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s. As a criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Animal Farm was not particularly welcome in the Britain of the early 1940’s.

And now the novel itself. Orwell (or rather Eric Blair, who used a pen name) calls it a fairy story; but I find the allegory blaring through loud and clear. Mr. Jones is a drunken farmer who does not always treat his farm animals with great respect or tenderness. An elder statesman of a pig (no, literally) makes a speech shortly before his death in which he predicts to his fellow four-legged residents an uprising of the animals against the people. This prediction will be carried out by the animals of Manor Farm: they kick Mr. Jones off, rename their property Animal Farm, and begin working for themselves, cooperatively. Aside from the anthropomorphism of the animals, it’s a straightforward and absolutely real tale. The pigs are the smartest – are in charge – assisted by the dogs; horses & a donkey are thinkers as well, while the birds and the sheep are followers. They come up with a list of Seven Commandments: no animal shall wear clothes, no animal shall sleep in a bed, etc. and finishing with “All animals are equal.” They make committees and call one another “comrade.” Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, struggle for power; Snowball is a better speaker, but Napoleon marshals the power of a few big, strong, brainwashed dogs, and eventually runs Snowball off the farm. The pigs begin to relish their power and to take advantage. Gradually, the rules of Animal Farm change; the Seven Commandments are amended (“no animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”), but because very few of the subjects are literate, the pigs in charge have little trouble changing history too. Thus, it’s not that the state has changed its policies; these have always been the policies of the state. This is precisely the case in 1984 as well, where

Oceania was at war with Eurasias: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past of future agreement with him was impossible.

Chilling, I say!

Also, credit Animal Farm with the oft-quoted amendment to the final Commandment: “All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

This is a short book, just over 100 pages, and easily read in just a part of my flight. And in the “fairy story” about the animals on the farm, it’s fairly straightforward, too. But the underlying message, which doesn’t lie so far beneath the surface at all, is terrifying – and also fairly straightforward, in fact. From a historical perspective, that almost makes it that much more frightening, that these things really happened, right under people’s eyes, and not so long ago either. It’s disconcerting how easily people can be convinced to disbelieve their own minds and memories.

I continue to be a fan of Orwell, of both 1984 and Animal Farm, and despite Baker’s characterization of Orwell and Huxley as “pessimists”, I think these are important books to read today. (To be fair, he agrees: “Orwell left us a lesson about the human contribution to political terror that will always be as up-to-date as next year’s election.”) Also, the writing is pretty wonderful.

Shivers! And go read!


Rating: 9 readjusted rations.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe

This is one of Poe’s better-known short stories, “The Purloined Letter”:

I cannot remember now why I printed this story out (from here, and thank you) to read on my lunch break. I read a line about it in another book – Mr. Mercedes, perhaps? Heck. Sorry. Suffice it to say, a Poe recommendation is always worthwhile.

Now I will try to answer the question: What makes Poe so great?

His tales rely not on the solutions offered to the problems presented – which, while no pushovers, are not the mindbending puzzles of the century. Rather, his characters are so very clever, come around to things in such intellectual twists and turns that we are dazzled; and perhaps the best bits are the dialogue. I love his flair!

“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”

When the story opens, our narrator has stopped in to smoke a pipe with a friend, when the Parisian Prefect (of police) drops by to ask for help with a case. He is stumped, and wants to pick the clearly superior brains, in particular of the narrator’s host, Dupin, who we have met before (see the Murders in the Rue Morgue). A lady has lost a letter that will get her in great trouble if her husband finds out about it; and she knows exactly who took it, because he took it from under her very eyes – and those of her husband, which is why she couldn’t cry out about it. She has engaged the Prefect to recover this document, which has become an object of blackmail. He has had his men very very thoroughly search the dwelling and person of the thief, repeatedly and using microscopes, needles, and probes. The letter is clearly not in the home; clearly not on the man; and yet he clearly would keep it near to hand to help in blackmailing the lady. What a puzzler!

Dupin sends him on his way, but he returns some time later, having given up; the considerable reward he’s been promised will clearly have to go unclaimed. It is an unsolvable mystery. This is when Dupin speaks up: for a portion of that reward, he will happily hand over the letter. The Prefect pays; the letter is produced from a drawer in Dupin’s desk. The Prefect goes away again, mystified but triumphant. And our narrator asks for the explanation, which of course is… I won’t spoil, but simplicity is always the answer.

This entire story is set in Dupin’s “little back library.” The action is all removed, told in narrative; if this were a play, it would be done with the single setting, that darkened book room filled with pipe smoke, and two or three men talking. That in itself is kind of an attractive feature to me. Poe’s mysteries are cerebral; it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, Poe’s detective stories are credited with (at least in part) birthing the genre; but some modern-day versions follow him more closely than others.

The plot is lovely because it offers room for plenty of debate, being intellectual in nature. It is clever. But my favorite part is definitely the dialogue and the intricacies of the very clever players.

Poe’s cleverness is on display as well; I had to look up several terms & lines.

First, pardon my ignorance, but I had to look up what was meant by “the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum” – what the heck is that?? It’s a pipe, of course. The Sherlock Holmes type, one assumes.

Others:

Procrustean bed: “an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.”

recherche: “unusual and not understood by most people.”

And then the French! I copied out “Il y a parier que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre” and Google Translate gave me the (very rough) “there a bet that any public idea, any agreement received is nonsense, because it agreed to the largest number.” Okay, I think I can follow that: what the masses easily buy is not necessarily the best solution, hm? But then in closing:

Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atree, est digne de Thyeste.

Again, my rough Google translation gives me “if a fatal design is worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.” I am totally charmed by anybody who invokes the Greek myths to close a mystery story. Although I could take a pass on the reference coming to me in French.


Rating: 9 ravens, how about.

Next up, I would like to read Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People, inspired by (what else?) my recent read of Shirley. Short stories referenced in novels, moving forward.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

crossing to safetyIn the fine tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Of Mice and Men, Crossing to Safety borrows its title from poetry – in this case, Robert Frost. I find this an interesting tradition; it does not always necessarily yield greater meaning, at least not for me (perhaps if I were better with poetry!), but I’m sure it does say something about the author and his tastes, and maybe about the book itself as well.

Crossing to Safety is a novel of four people, told in first person by one of them. At the beginning, our narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally have just traveled to Vermont to visit old friends; it becomes clear fairly quickly that Charity Lang is dying, attended by her husband Sid. These four have been best friends for decades, although they haven’t always been as close (especially geographically) as they’d like. Before spending much time in the Vermont of the present, Larry begins remembering their youth together.

Larry and Sally were newlyweds and new graduates during the Depression, when Larry got a one-year post teaching English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It’s not much – not much money, and not much security for the future; but they’re young, Sally is pregnant, and this is the Depression; they will take whatever they can get. Larry is determined to produce as much writing as possible. He wrings every moment out of every day: eating, sleeping, teaching, prepping for his classes, and writing. They meet another young couple, the Langs, and are impressed with Charity’s warmth and 1000-watt smile, Sid’s open heart and intellect, and not least, their money. Both Sid and Charity come from backgrounds entirely different from Larry’s and Sally’s; but despite being very wealthy, Charity’s ambition for Sid’s academic career makes the Langs no less dependent upon the university’s approval than the Morgans are. Strangely, despite vastly different financial circumstances (and during the Great Depression, when these things matter possibly more than ever), the foursome is able to form a singular bond. The Langs are generous without seeming to be; they honestly take pleasure in sharing, or need to share, and the Morgans receive gracefully and understand that they are giving a service, as well.

In fact, one of the main messages of this novel is that of this uniquely strong and loving friendship, which while it does contain some jealousies and insecurities, handles them with such grace that they don’t seem to matter; but another of its main messages, for me, was about class. It’s every bit as rare and surprising to me that such a wealthy couple and one that needs to work so hard for its money could be so close, and I think that’s at least as powerful a point as the first one.

Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel, in terms of having relatively little action. Arguably the greatest challenge faced by our foursome – certainly, by the Morgans – is Sally’s near-death from polio, which cripples her permanently; and yet this action takes place off-screen, as it were. Where many of the past memories are presented in flashback form, Sally’s experience is merely referred to. In other words, while there are certainly evocative, moving events in the lives of the Langs and Morgans, Crossing to Safety is overwhelmingly contemplative and rearward-facing: quiet, more than anything.

And yet, as Terry Tempest Williams quotes in her introductory piece to my edition, and as Stegner writes as Larry Morgan, this story is not dramatic in the sense of big reveals, cheating spouses, or large conflicts. And that’s okay – it’s beautiful, in fact, as a celebration of friendship (even while acknowledging flaws and hiccups) and life itself. The latter part of the book deals with end-of-life issues, and perhaps because I work in a hospital for a living, I found this section particularly thought-provoking. Here, as throughout, none of our foursome handles things perfectly, but we can still love them all.

Crossing to Safety is quiet and loving and lovely as a representation of marriage, friendship, ambition, contentment, and end of life. Stegner is a beautiful writer; I’m won over.


Rating: 9 picnics.

The Gods of Olympus by Barbara Graziosi

For novices and enthusiasts alike, a comprehensive and absorbing study of the gods of Olympus and how their cultural roles have changed over the centuries.

gods of olympus

From Homer and Hesiod, we know that Zeus has a large sexual appetite, that Athena is noble and warlike, that Aphrodite is the goddess of love and sexuality, that Hermes is a messenger with a sense of humor. But how did these myths and the personalities they depict survive to the present? Barbara Graziosi is a professor who’s written several academic works on the classics. In The Gods of Olympus, she directs her expertise to a more general audience for the first time, following the 12 gods and goddesses of the classical Greek pantheon from their first appearances in antiquity through our continuing modern awareness of them. Readers benefit immensely from her proficiency, which comes with a sense of humor: Graziosi occasionally appears in her own narrative, with an endearingly wry, self-deprecating tone.

The history of the immortal Olympians begins in Greece, where Graziosi explores their role in myth, ritual and cultural events. The Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle reconsidered the value of the gods, in literature and in life, and when Alexander the Great expanded his empire toward the ends of the earth, he advertised his ability to travel even further than Dionysus. By gauging his own accomplishments against those of the gods, he sought to make himself like a god even as he reconfirmed the supreme importance of the deities.

Under Alexander’s rule, much of the “known world” was Hellenized, taking on Greek–and therefore Olympian–customs and culture. During the Roman Empire, the gods’ strong personalities were merged with the traditional Roman gods’ rule over matters of state, surviving in slightly different forms that best served those in power. As Graziosi demonstrates, this is the model through which they have come to us over millennia: the rise of Islam and Christianity likewise preserved the Olympians, though it transformed the gods into demons, allegories and cautionary figures. Their original worshippers are long gone, but the Olympic gods survive, flexible and changeable but continuing to inspire art and literature.

Graziosi’s knowledge is obvious, and easy to trust, accompanied by thorough notes and a helpful appendix to the original 12 gods and their corresponding Roman identities. Her writing is accessible and entertaining, her passion for her subject obvious; The Gods of Olympus will equally thrill longtime lovers of the classics, and appeal to readers seeking a friendly, engaging introduction.


This review originally ran in the March 10, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 centuries (just for starters).

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell

New research and new angles on The Great Gatsby and its place in history.

carelesspeople

Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) takes on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythically proportioned masterpiece in Careless People, an expansive study of biography, history, literary criticism and cultural connections. Her inquiries focus on a double-murder involving a socially ambitious lower-class woman and a respected rector, both married but not to each other, found shot to death in each other’s arms. The case captured national attention in 1922, the year Scott and Zelda returned to New York–and the year in which The Great Gatsby is set.

With an appealing, freshly curious manner, original research and newly discovered resources, Churchwell explores the possible connections between Fitzgerald’s experiences in 1922 and what happened at the same time in his most highly regarded novel. She also compares the plot of The Great Gatsby to the real-world action of 1922. In the book, which alternates between the Fitzgeralds’ lives during the period The Great Gatsby came to life with the unfolding of media coverage of the murder case, Churchwell incorporates Fitzgerald’s correspondence, including delightful poems exchanged with Ring Lardner, and lists of slang (including some 70 ways to say “drunk”).

With elements of fun and tragedy–like the lives of its subjects–Churchwell’s study of the Fitzgeralds, The Great Gatsby and the world that birthed it presents new perspectives on a literary icon.


This review originally ran in the January 28, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 unattributed clippings.
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