And Berry Came Too by Dornford Yates, 1936.

My addiction to Dornford Yates is a guilty pleasure. The man appears to have been a bigot, a snob, pretentious, xenophobic, and more. The books are full of purple writing, sentimentality, offensiveness even beyond the norms of Britain circa 1920, tiresome monsters of self-regard (those are the good guys), and turns of phrase repeated until they become laughable cliches. For example, IMO no one over the age of 16 should use zeugma (“he took his seat and his hat”), which Fowler classified ten years earlier under the heading of WORN-OUT HUMOR:

–with all these we, i.e. the average adult, not only are not amused; we feel a bitterness, possibly because they remind us of the lost youth in which we could be tickled with a straw, against the scribbler who has reckoned on our having tastes so primitive.

So why do I like them? Because my dad did (a guilty pleasure for him too) and I got the habit from him as a teenager; because the world of the idle rich between the wars, driving around the Continent in their Lowlands and Rolls touring cars, is exotic (funny to think how at the time, it was the equivalent of today’s consumer porn—driving a Ford Explorer through South Beach); because the plots of the thrillers are gripping and the incidents in the “regular” stories are engrossing and sometimes funny; because they have a mysterious attractive quality I can’t put my finger on. Over the years I’ve bought every book Yates published (thank goodness for Bookfinder!), and when I pick one up, typically I end up on a binge and read all 30-40. My dad visited us in October and I pulled out all the ones he hadn’t seen, so I’m just finishing up my Yates kick with the dregs.

This one is actually not part of the dregs (I misremembered it as one of the late, pathetic mixtures of “Berry” stories and romanticized autobiography), but it pales in comparison with the best of the “Berry” books (Berry and Company, Jonah and Company, and Adele and Company). It’s a series of short stories featuring Boy Pleydell (narrator), his cousins Jonah and Jill Mansel, his sister Daphne, and her husband Bertram Pleydell. The cousins buy antiques, bet on horses, foil burglars, and the like. The two distinguishing features are first that Boy, serial flirter, is here linked throughout the book with one Perdita Boyte, instead of a different girl in each chapter or one of his future wives (Adele, then Jill). However, like all Yates heroines Perdita has pointed fingers, great grave eyes yet a child’s sense of fun, soft hair, slim ankles, blah blah blah, so it’s not really much of a change. Secondly, instead of the usual Sealyham terrier, the current dog is a German shepherd, The Knave. Enjoyable nonetheless. Part of the pleasure is these nice old Ward Lock editions, with their thick, soft, yellowing pages, heady old-book aroma, solid cloth covers, chunky proportions, and nice fonts…

Paying Guests by E.F. Benson, 1929.

I’ve loved the Mapp and Lucia series for years. Jonathan just recently read them too and got this book through InterLibrary Loan (thanks, Amy!). He recommended it to me and I loved it. Not quite up to Mapp and Lucia standards, but full of all Benson’s favorite caricatures. Pompous Colonel Chase is obsessed with how many miles he can bicycle and walk (if his pedometer breaks and he can’t say exactly how many miles he walked when he gets back to the boarding house, he’s in a temper). Miss Howard:

…and now at the age of forty, though she had parted with her youth, she had relinquished no atom of her girlishness. She hardly ever walked but tripped, she warbled little snatches of song when she though anyone might be within hearing in order to refresh them with her maidenly brightness, and sat on the hearth rug in front of the fire, even though there was a far more comfortable seat ready. It was not that she felt any profound passion for tripping, warbling, squatting, but from constantly telling herself that she was barely out of her teens she had got to believe in her girlishness and behave accordingly.

Then there’s Mrs. Bliss, Manual of Mental Science devotee, who can’t smile any more largely when something good happens than she does at all other times. Benson has the ability to build an enthralling plot on a tiny, petty incident like a lost pedometer or Miss Howard’s exaggerations about her “little place” in Tunbridge Wells, and to make me love reading about characters who have no redeeming qualities and whom I would never want to spend time with. Sheer enjoyment. I wish there were more books like this.

Tehanu by Ursula LeGuin, 1990.

Almost twenty years later, a fourth book in the Earthsea series, set shortly after the third. As I think I said earlier, each of the books is a favorite in its own way. Motherhood, one of the central themes, is particularly well-done, as we see Tenar adopt the abused child Therru. Therru is a very believable child, and yet the climactic revelation of her dragonhood is a perfect fit to what came before. I’ve accused this book of didacticism, which is a little shy of the mark. Rather, the cognitive dissonance with the unity of first three books is what I find unsettling. All of a sudden we’re seeing the world through a modern and feminist lens, and we’ve moved from classic high fantasy to a much more earthy plane. Although Ged as he aged in the trilogy was clearly in touch with the everyday, it all had an Arcadian glamour. Here the simple country life is shown both peaceful and brutal, and the psychological ramifications explored are more realistic. The loss of Ged’s magic parallels the switch to realism, I suppose, but it’s still a huge contrast.

But again I admire LeGuin’s desire to integrate issues like patriarchy and child abuse into this high fantasy universe she’s created, and in most ways she does succeed. There is nothing knee-jerk about her depiction of gender differences.

“Is [magic] different, then, for men and for women?”

“What isn’t, dearie?”

“I don’t know,” said Tenar. “It seems to me we make up most of the differences, and then complain about ’em.”

One of my favorite LeGuin quotes is about “making love, for love needs to be made over and over, like bread.” I thought it was from this book, but I guess not. Well, that’s a good excuse for re-reading all the rest of my LeGuin collection. I had a hard time getting through Always Coming Home, which is not so much a book as a hodgepodge, and I never finished any of her regular fiction—time for another try. One more quote:

A few [village witches], having wisdom though no learning, used their gift purely for good, though they could not tell, as any prentice wizard could, the reason for what they did, and prate of the Balance and the Way of Power to justify their action or abstention. “I follow my heart,” one of these women had said to Tenar when she was Ogion’s ward and pupil. “Lord Ogion is a great mage. He does you great honor, teaching you. But look and see, child, if all he’s taught you isn’t finally to follow your heart.”

Tenar had thought even then that the wise woman was right, and yet not altogether right; there was something left out of that. And she still thought so.

The SF Book of Lists by Maxim Jakubowski & Malcolm Edwards, 1983.

I used to read lots and lots of science fiction. Now I basically just re-read a few favorites (LeGuin, Heinlein, Vance, the short stories I loved as a teen). But I still like reading about science fiction from time to time, in the same way I enjoy most books about books and reading; I like the feeling of possibility, all those books I could read. The sense of wonder that was my main draw to SF I now get from non-fiction. I think that’s partly why I didn’t like the Franzen essays; where Wallace has sheer exuberance and Baker revels in the quiddity of the world, Franzen had only crankiness to offer. Anyway, I enjoyed flipping through this for the memories it prompted, but the only real highlight was “Ten Characters Who Have Promoted the Consumption of Coffee in Improbable Quarters of Space and Time” by Nick Lowe (as in Jesus of Cool Nick Lowe, I wonder? How many could there be?) He doesn’t even mention the Pern “klah,” which joined redfruit in my list of Anne McCaffery’s bogus earth substitutions (later lamely explained in the lousy tail-end of the “Dragonrider” series.)

How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen, 2002.

I love essays by David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker, so Franzen seemed like a good bet (similar demographic, similar niche). I did read this collection all the way through and enjoyed some of it. But overall, I was disappointed. Franzen writes well but not with the awe-inspiring mastery of Wallace and Baker, nor with the clear-as-water unobtrusive skill of the more common run of good essay writers. My main source of dissatisfaction, however, was Franzen’s grumpy, depressive personality. He just doesn’t seem to have much fun; he doesn’t like the world, and he doesn’t like himself. The most pathetic passage is where he reveals how he “doesn’t consider himself a smoker,” and yet finds “a small collection of cigarette butts” in a saucer at the end of every workday. Poor guy. I did sympathize with his depiction of exhaustion and foolishness causing the Oprah ruckus, and his embarassment at his younger self’s self-righteousness. But somehow I feel a misasma of unhappy snobbery and self-regard mixed with self-loathing, and it’s uncomfortable to read. (He also says idiotic things about the Internet, which is not unusual but is still annoying.) I still plan to read The Corrections someday, although the one scene I’ve heard the most about (the guy stuffing the salmon down his pants) does not fill me with anticipation.

America’s Mom: The Life, Lessons, and Legacy of Ann Landers by Rick Kogan, 2003.

I read a lot of stuff like this out of general curiosity & because they’re typically quick & easy reads. Sometimes I discover ones I think are also great books (like Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone), but this wasn’t one.

1. Amazing how influential one person can be.

2. The Friedman twins (Eppie aka Ann Landers, and Popo aka Dear Abby) were born and lived in wealthy, influential circles, so it’s not that much of a coincidence that they both became extremely successful.

3. “Friendly, uninhibited” Eppie would pepper everyone she met with questions, and her genuine interest led to being generally loved and confided in. Wish I could be like that!

4. Funniest bit: Eppie’s dad did not believe that her future husband was Jewish. “Say something in Yiddish!” he demanded. “I vanna go for a valk” said the suitor.

The Anorexia Diaries: A Mother and Daughter’s Triumph over Teenage Eating Disorders by Linda M. & Tara M. Rio, 2003.

  1. (pp. 1-66) Most people’s diaries are boring and badly-written. (This makes me feel better!)
  2. (pp. 67-200) Except when really bad things happen to them; then they become fascinating. A very brave book to have written, and probably genuinely helpful to families in that kind of situation. A striking example of how very differently two people interpret the same incidents.

Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip Dayton Duncan & Ken Burns, 2003.

In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson made a bet that he could drive a car from San Francisco to New York in under 90 days. With pots of money and determination, he did it. Amazing to think how difficult long-distance travel was in those days, when roads weren’t marked because the only people who used them either lived there or knew them as part of their job (like stagecoach drivers, I imagine). The coolest part of the book are reproductions of old guide books which had photos of unmarked crossroads with big arrows showing which way to turn, and lists of directions (very much like the turn-by-turn descriptions from Mapquest). I also like the photos of the mascot bulldog wearing his goggles. Jackson got charged up to $3 a gallon for gasoline!

The Farthest Shore, Ursula LeGuin, 1972. 3rd in the Earthsea trilogy.

To my surprise, this time through I thought that the beginning was quite weak; it gets off to a very slow start and it wasn’t until Lorbanery, almost half-way through the book, that I felt gripped. Arren’s character isn’t very distinct initially and since it’s really told through his eyes, that’s a big drawback. Once they’re on the rafts of the Children of the Open Sea, it’s a great book. The Children of the Open Sea for me echo both the floating lands of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, and the gray geese of T.H. White’s Once and Future King—an idealized culture free of many of the trappings of civilization, a respite for the narrator, a period out of time.

The Earthsea Trilogy and this one in particular I think helped shape my feelings about death. The images of the low stone wall, the slope that goes downwards into darkness in the dry land, and the dead as emotionless shades—all have stayed with me. The Taoist feeling, the emphasis on balance, the importance of being a part of the whole, still feel deeply right to me.

“There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

“That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself–safety forever?…That is the message that those who know how to hear have heard: By denying life you may deny death and live forever!

Wow, although I had been thinking about how non-Christian this book is (Philip Pullman, eat your heart out!), not until I transcribed it did I specifically notice the reference in “those who know how to hear.”

How to Survive Work & Wedlock, by Jilly Cooper. 1977, compilation of How to Survive 9 to 5 and How to Stay Married, 1969 and 197

Skimmed & decided to get rid of. Boring, obvious, weird mixture of “humor” and advice. But: “If you have a spin dryer, remember to put a bowl under the waste pipe or you’ll have a kitchen awash every time.” There used to be a spin dryer in the basement of our apartment building, which people still used for sheets and towels even though electric dryers had come in. It was scary—vibrating as though it would pull its bolts right out of the floor—but fascinating.