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>April’s Reads: Optical Cruise Control

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>Even though my participation in the Readathon was woefully minimal, I still got a lot of reading done during April.

11 books. Dang.

1. Little Women And The Feminist Imagination – Janice Alberghene and Beverly Clark, editors. I talked about it –a lot– here.

2. Jo’s Boys – Louisa May Alcott. The final chapter in the saga about the March family. I had to read this after so many critics in Little Women And The Feminist Imagination pissed and moaned about the way Alcott treated Jo, by not marrying her off to Laurie *and* marrying her off to Professor Bhaer. To hear them talk, she would’ve been better off wrapped in a shroud and lying in the graveyard next to Beth.
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In Jo’s Boys, we see Jo twenty years down the road, fulfilled as both a successful educator and writer. The boys (and girls) from Little Men that she helped raise are kind of boring but slightly flawed, and Jo (and Alcott) are there with a moral or two to ease them along into adulthood. The most compelling one of this group is the still-untamed Dan, who struggles for Jo’s love and approval, but can’t seem to shake the wildness that is so much a part of his nature. Dan is so well-imagined that he deserves a novel of his own. My heart broke for him, but I was glad that Alcott didn’t have a pat little ending for him.
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3. Rilla of Ingleside – Lucy Maud Montgomery. I wrote about it earlier, here.
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4. Mansfield – C.K. Stead. A slice of writer Katherine Mansfield’s short life — 3 years during World War I. Shifting points-of-view. Oddly, the novel seems most charged with power when the emphasis isn’t on Mansfield, except in the final chapter, when Mansfield comes to grips with what she’s been trying to block out, and realizes that she’s not going to live forever.

I was pleased to see a chapter from Frieda Lawrence’s perspective — in a private conversation with Mansfield, she has a few tart things to say about her husband’s quaint but wrongheaded ideas about sex that still manage to mess couples up, even today.

After reading about those left behind in Canada in Rilla of Ingleside, it was both moving and disturbing to read about the battlefield death of Mansfield’s younger brother, Leslie and her mortally wounded friend, Fred Goodyear.
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Katherine Mansfield’s on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry is a drag on the novel — someone who didn’t know her life story would probably have been shocked at the end note that she and Murry married a year after the events in this novel. Murry’s own story is a little bizarre; a year after Mansfield died, he married a woman who looked remarkably like her, and they had two children named after Katherine and himself. The new wife also died young from TB.
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I’m becoming a big C.K. Stead fan — let’s hear it for the Kiwis! I also recommend his novel My Name Was Judas.
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5. A Gentle Madness – Nicholas Basbanes. Ever since there have been books, there have been book nuts. Bibliophiles. Bibliomanics. Nicholas Basbanes pays tribute to these people in this highly entertaining look at book collecting, because without collectors, a great deal of history would be lost. Libraries are also grateful to collectors because they are the ones with vision that unify collections — libraries as a rule do not go out and purchase items with the idea of ordering a collection and also, they often get the collection as a gift after the owner dies or decides to place it somewhere in particular.

I’ll never really understand the need to put a second mortgage on a house just so I can own a first edition of Gulliver’s Travels or some great work of literature written on vellum, but I do understand the impulse to collect.

There are some terrific stories about bibliomaniacs and their libraries. Some are sad, like Harry Widener, a young (20-something) collector who was in England with his mother, buying books back in the early part of the 20th century. He shipped about eight rare volumes on the Carpathia, but decided to take his newly purchased 1598 Essayes by Francis Bacon with him when he and his mother boarded the Titanic. He reportedly told his mother as he was helping her into a lifeboat that “the little Bacon” was in his overcoat pocket and he was taking it with him. After her rescue, Widener’s heartbroken mother took his collection, added to it with great taste and zeal, and built a library at Harvard (his alma mater) named after him.

Most bibliophiles hung on to their collections until death, but composer Jerome Kern began to feel enslaved by books and auctioned off his whole library in 1928. Basbanes wrote that Kern’s play, Show Boat was sold out on Broadway, but bookish New Yorkers were scrambling for a seat at that auction. The sale of Kern’s books garnered almost two million dollars. Nine months later, the stock market crashed, and books dropped significantly on many “to buy” lists.
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Another bibliomaniac was actually a bibliokleptomaniac named Stephen Blumberg. Beginning in the 1970s, Blumberg travelled to university libraries all around the United States, stealing precious and priceless books and ephemera. He was a master at breaking into special collections rooms, dismantling alarms and demagnetizing books so he could sneak them through the security systems, then cleaning the pages of any identifying marks. Although he could have sold the ill-gotten objects of his desire, he instead stored his collection in a house in Ottumwa, Iowa, which is where they were when the FBI caught up with him. When the FBI contacted the libraries about returning the stolen material, (Blumberg cooperated fully in helping the police by identifying which pieces came from where) many expressed surprise that they had things that had gone missing!
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In a couple of cases, book madness was heroism. In the late 1970s, college student Aaron Lansky wanted to collect Yiddish writing and preserve the language, which was dying. Jewish leaders were not impressed and told him he was wasting his time and that he should just go to Israel. Lansky persisted, often digging Yiddish books and papers out of dumpsters. In time, he was awarded a “genius grant” and Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature, both of which furthered his cause, and today there is a National Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts. In the 1950s Charles L. Blockson played football for Penn State alongside Lenny Moore and Rosey Grier. Along with his teammates, Blockson had a chance to go pro with the New York Giants, but he declined and instead focused on becoming a “black bibliophile”. According to Basbanes, he had already been collecting since he was a child and his grade-school teacher told him that black people don’t have a history. His collection has been housed at Temple University in Philadelphia since 1984.

I’d love to see those collections, plus a few more that made my mouth water: Actor John Larroquette’s first editions of contemporary authors, including Anne Tyler; Chicago restaurateur Chef Louis Szathmary II’s culinary arts collection; the children’s literature collections of Betsy B. Shirley and Ruth Baldwin; Louise Taper’s Lincoln collection and Louis Daniel Brodsky’s Faulkner collection at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
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Please read this book. Pretty, pretty please.

6. Slam – Nick Hornby. Young Adult fiction always feels a little phony to me — like the authors are trying too hard to display their hipness quotient, or they’re straining to shoehorn in a natural-sounding moral. I shouldn’t be surprised that Nick Hornby (in all his awesomeness) managed to avoid those pitfalls and got the YA novel exactly right. As another reviewer pointed out, his characters are usually boyish men enjoying an extra-long soak in adolescence, so it’s not that much of a stretch to introduce a boy careening on greased wheels into the adult world long before he’s ready. I love the role Tony Hawk plays in this novel.
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7. Shanghai Baby – Wei Hui. Should I be nice and say that this 1990 Chinese novel is a homage to the novels of Erica Jong, or should I be absolutely blunt and say that she blatantly ripped off the author of Fear of Flying? Everything — the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, the copious but unsatisfying sex, the mention of masturbation and menstruation, the nod to Henry Miller as a kindred spirit, the agonizing about writing — just cries out Erica! to me. Except Jong can actually write, and when she’s occasionally clumsy, her humor more than makes up for it.
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I could blame the bad writing on the clunky translation, but I’m not going to, except for one part where our heroine, Coco (whose real name is Nikki, which made me think of the Prince song and I didn’t really want to) begins a sentence talking about a handbag and by the end of this (short) sentence, the item has strangely turned into an item of clothing.
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Coco’s English name should have been Katrina (as in Katrina & The Waves, not Hurricane), because Wei Hui has Coco referencing sunshine in practically every scene. If she could have, I’m sure she would’ve had Coco dribbling a ball of sunshine down court and shooting it into the net for a 3-pointer.
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Also, there’s too much tell and not enough show. Wei Hui cuts corners by having Coco rush to tell readers how cool and artistic her friends are right before their cameo at a party where we really don’t see enough of them to be impressed or otherwise.

Nobody has compared this book to Fear of Flying, but they have compared it to Less Than Zero. Valid comparison, yes, but so NOT a compliment.
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On one occasion, Wei Hui tries to be socially and culturally relevant, when an American and a Serb end up at the aforementioned party. Of course there’s a row, but it’s brief, almost obligatory. Worse yet, the reader was already tipped off a couple of pages before when Coco worried that there might be a scene between the two. Cringe.
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I would mention how Coco is torn between two lovers — an impotent, drug-riddled but oh-so-sensitive Chinese guy named Tian Tian and a virile, healthy, rich German guy who’s an SOB named Mark (like Deutsche Mark, right?) — but I’m typing with my head hung over the wastebasket at this point, so never mind.

I almost want Raych to read Shanghai Baby because she gives such good insult, but on the other hand, I don’t like to be cruel to my book blogging buds. In spite of everything, I’m glad I read it because my Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm can use it for bragging rights when we tally our international reads at the end of this year.
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8. The Classic Era of Crime Fiction – Peter Haining. According to Haining, who is English, crime/detective fiction all began with Edgar Allen Poe, and the spy novel began with James Fenimore Cooper. Go, Americans! This is a gorgeously lovely book that meticulously traces the history of these genres and is brilliantly illustrated with reproductions of illustrations and book covers from Haining’s extensive collection. I read this book with pen and paper at the ready, so I could jot down ideas for future reading. I want to find books by: (this is just a sampling) Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, E.W. Hornung, Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, W.R. Burnett and Jim Thompson.
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9. Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver – Raymond Carver, Bob Adelman, Tess Gallagher. Adelman’s photos didn’t really rock my world, but coupled with Carver’s poetry and prose, they reawakened an ache. Gallagher’s lengthy introduction provides good insight into Carver’s last years, but she seems a little too self-congratulatory about how good she was for Carver, and when she talks about Carver’s mother, first wife and children, there’s a hint of a cat scratch via reminiscence. To be fair, this was in 1990, when the sadness of Carver’s passing was still relatively fresh.
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10. The Hidden Flower – Pearl S. Buck. This is the story of an interracial romance, but it’s so much more. In fact, it’s too much more. Buck has a world of interesting characters and ideas here, but it’s too much for this one slim novel — it can’t bear up under the weight. Still, missing-the-mark Pearl Buck is better than a lot of things you could read.
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11. The Benchley Roundup – Robert Benchley. This compilation of Benchley’s writing was compiled in 1954 by his son, Nathaniel. I’m a little put out with the younger Benchley for not including the humor piece “How To Sleep Anywhere”, which is the one that made me fall in love with Bob all those years ago in 11th grade American Literature class with Mrs. Lucille Huffine at Lawton High School. I was also slightly annoyed with Nathaniel Benchley for not arranging the pieces in chronological order and putting dates on them, but some of the later work is a little uneven — he was definitely phoning it in, so it was probably a good decision to scramble them a bit and finish with some stronger pieces.
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This compilation is a sign of younger Benchley’s times as well as his father’s. For example, at the end of a piece called “Whoa!” (which fancifully chronicles Paul Revere getting on his horse for the famous midnight ride, suddenly getting a vision of America and Americans in the future, and deciding to steer the horse back to the stable) there’s an acidic little note: This piece was first published in 1924, when derision was not confused with disloyalty.
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Blissful sigh. What can I say about Benchley’s writing? He was sweet, he was funny, he was crazy. He had a wonderful vocabulary; I learned so many new words reading this book (“chivvy”, “mux”, “footpad”). He played with language like it was Silly Putty, all the while charmingly dropping apologies to the proofreaders and typesetters before madly scampering on.
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Choosing my favorites in this volume has been a difficult task. I liked “Kiddie Kar Travel”, which begins with my all-time favorite quote: “There are two ways to travel — first class and with children..”; “Take The Witness!”, in which Benchley imagines himself on the witness stand breaking down his cross-examiner instead of vice versa and “How To Get Things Done” (‘I’ve refined this theory over the years; now I’ll have to start coarsening it up again’).
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I was delighted to see Benchley the bookworm make an appearance in “Mind’s Eye Trouble”. Benchley apologetically admits that he has a problem visualizing scenes in books and for him, great works of literature and history are set in his birthplace of Worcester, Massachusetts. For example, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire all take place under the “porte-cochere” of his future wife’s house, every tale out of Dickens (except A Tale Of Two Cities) is set in his own boyhood home, his side yard is the American South, his aunt’s side yard is the Wild West or Australia and Venice is simply King Street flooded with water. The school playground can be seen from Clarissa‘s room, and is also “the scene of Tom Sawyer’s evasions of Aunt Polly and Katherine Mansfield’s garden party.”
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In the last piece in this book, “Do I Hear Twenty Thousand?”, I encountered a second mention of the 1928 auction of composer Jerome Kern’s library. Written in play form, Benchley wickedly imagines the “shades” of the giants of literature, Poe, Keats, Shelley, Lamb, Wordsworth, Swift and others drinking several rounds at their ghostly literary gentlemen’s club and looking on Kern’s auction and expressing amazement at the prices their work went for. Shelley is particularly shocked that Queen Mab was sold for $68,000, (“It wasn’t my best work by a long shot”) and he’s indignant on Keats’ behalf that one of his original manuscripts went for a “measly $17,000”. Tennyson affects boredom, but when he learns that his Maud drew down only $9,000, he gets testy and remarks that auctioning off literature cheapens the beauty of it. Poe orders another round, can’t pay for it, and a new member of the club, Avery Hopwood, (a Jazz Age playwright who died at 45 in 1928) offers to pay the bill.

This blog post is waaay too long. Oh well. Too late now. Next month, I’ll divide my fiction and nonfiction reads into separate posts. If you’ve stayed with me till this point, I owe you one!

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