Moyer Bell, 2000

Finished: April or May 2010

Genre: novel of manners

On the Scales: middleweight

A few months ago I ended up at the main library while I waited to pick Der Mann up from work.  I hadn’t brought any of my book lists along, so I started browsing the fiction stacks.  I was feeling rotten–the kind of rotten where you desperately want a book to carry you off, but know from experience that 99% of them won’t do it.  Light fiction is unbearably trivial.  Heavy fiction is too much work.  Science fiction is improbable.  Fantasy is overwrought.  Romance is fatuous.  Young adult and children’s books seem designed to make the reader squirm at the authors’ naïveté.  Not a good day to be without my lists.

I got together a stack I wasn’t sure I would read just to have something to take home.  There I realized my autopilot selections had been two Eudora Weltys, a Booth Tarkington, an Alice Thomas Ellis, and a couple of dystopic science fictions.  Why do I gravitate to Southerners and celts when things are grim?  It’s not on purpose; that’s just how it always seems to work out.  Gail Godwin.  Eudora Welty.  Kaye Gibbon.  Iris Murdoch.  Jane Gardam (not a celt, but North Yorkshire almost counts?).

And Alice Thomas Ellis is the greatest of these.

Or at least the witchiest.  Ellis was half Welsh and half Finnish.  A number of her novels take place in Wales.  The first I read, I hated.  “How can they?  How can she?  What a mean lady!” Then I went back for another.  And another.  Now I am just annoyed at her for dying about the same time I discovered her and for not writing fiction until the latter half of her life.

I came across the word “mordant” lately, and that is almost the right one, but not quite.  Reading one of her novels is like hearing the best joke you’ve heard in ages then stubbing your toe and getting a gin-and-tonic thrown in your face while you are still laughing.  No one is nice.  Some characters try to be, but even the well-meaning are too (pick one or more of the following:) stupid, abstracted, compulsive, self-absorbed, passive, or vain for it to do much good.  Or harm.  Ellis doesn’t write catastrophes.  For her, human nature is catastrophe enough.

I make a point of saving her for the right mood.  Also, most public library systems tend to own just one or two of her books.  Both moodwise and book-itself-wise I hit the jackpot with Pillars of Gold.

The setting is a gentrifying neighborhood of North London in the 1990’s.  The main characters are three women neighbors (one of whom never makes an appearance), and a teenaged girl.  The title is from William Blake:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.

–which makes me shiver even though I do not like the last line or the break before it, and which was quoted at the beginning of the book.

I puzzled over why she took her title from this poem, and maybe there is no reason except that Ellis liked it, but I think it has something to do with a dreamy, transfixed unreality hanging over the lives of the characters for the week or so in which the story takes place; and possibly (I’m not familiar with London) that frozen, golden moment in time when an old city neighborhood still has a faint grip on reality, before the final plunge into the hands of the very, very rich.  Like characters in a piece of existentialist theater, Ellis’ three women never exit the stage (or in the case of Barbs the New Age-y American everyone secretly loathes, never makes an entrance), only wander back and forth from each other’s kitchens, in and out of the garden.

And they talk.  They talk about their lives, and they talk about Barbs–who disappeared without a trace without taking her purse–but never quite manage to do anything about them.  Constance sells jewelry that she Frankensteins from antique costume pieces and reads widely.  She inherited her mothers’ house, in which her large family of gipsy entrepreneurs store cardboard boxes of dubious origin.  She has Cypriot lover who may not be–but probably is–cheating on her.  Scarlet is the depressed wife of a nouveau riche advertising executive.  Her teenaged daughter Camille cuts classes and wanders around sitting on curbs and cadging drinks in tapas bars with her friends, exquisitely disillusioned and bored.

None of which tells you how good the book is.  This passage might start to give you a clue:

“You’ve got me now, anyway,” said Memet.  I’d never see you short of money.  You know that.”

“Do I?” said Constance.

Memet looked at her, uncomprehendingly.  Being a man, he could not understand why she should sound so doubtful.

“I’d never let you go short of anything,” he said, “and if anybody hurt you, you know what I’d do.”

“Yes, yes,” said Constance.  “I know what you’d do.  Blood everywhere.”

Memet was wounded by this.  “Why do you say it like that,” he asked, “as though you didn’t believe me?”

“It’s not that, said Constance, “I believe you all right.  Only when you’ve got brothers like mine, what you want is a bit of peace.  All my life I’ve had brothers breathing down my neck, watching my every move, checking on who I’m going out with and what time I’m getting home.  If I ever got talking to some man in a pub, it was more than his life was worth.  My brothers’d be watching his every move, just hoping he’d put a foot wrong so they could jump in and scrag him.  It wasn’t so much my virtue they were worried about as their own standing in the community.  They’re very medieval, my brothers.  So what I mean is . . .,” she said after a moment’s thoughtful silence, “it’s very nice of you, but I don’t need any more bother.”

Memet was silent too: he was more deeply offended that he could permit himself to show.  Constance, in a few words, had insulted his dignity, his pride, his sense of exclusiveness, his manhood.  He was beginning to get annoyed.

After an unnaturally long pause Constance became aware of this.  She had been injudicious.  Her worry about his probable infidelity had led her to attack him in an irresponsibly dangerous manner.  If she had spoken truthfully and expressed her doubts about his faithfulness, he would have been flattered, gentle, and full of mirth.  She had felt she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction, but now she’d have to be clever, for by implication she had denigrated his power and his commitment to protect her.  Not, she thought, that she needed his or anybody’s protection.  She had been well able to look after herself since she had been about seven . . .  But physical victory was a poor thing to a woman and little to preen herself on: any fool could disable another with a judicious cast of fist or foot, a neatly wielded weapon, or a dirty trick.  Her real power lay in her knowledge of others, her awareness of the weakness of men, the destructive weight of a well-timed laugh.  Telling a man the simple truth could reduce him to wreck, so that, on the whole, she held her punches and her tongue knowing how deeply she could wound. . .

Constance and Camille are the most likable of Ellis’ characteristically unappealing characters.  At least their faults are the natural result of being in love and and being on the cusp of adulthood, respectively; and they are funny.  Camille, especially.  You can tell Ellis spent a lot of time around teenagers.

“You’ve got bags under your pretty little eyes, Mum,” she said in her normal voice.  “I’ll wring you out a couple of tea bags.”

“That’s kind,” said Scarlet.  I think I’ve got a touch of hangover.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Brian, “not after what you put away last night.”

Once upon a time Camille would have dipped her oar in here: she would have turned on Brian for attacking her mother or chided her mother in no uncertain terms for being a drunken slut.  Or possibly, she would have done a bit of both.  As it was, she smiled, rather falsely, for while laughter came naturally to her, smiling, as yet, did not, since only babies and adults can smile with conviction: she realized that her face felt uncomfortable wearing this expression and reverted to her habitual frown.

Scarlet was relieved, since Camille’s adolescent smile had reminded her of the expression on the face of some ancient, alien reptile.  “Don’t be late home, darling,” she implored.

Pillars of Gold also has a definite plot and structure–good ones–which it could almost have done without; I’d have been happy to eavesdrop on Constance and Scarlet’s drunken late-night talks for a whole book twice as long.

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!