Friday, June 19, 2009

August Read: Dance Music

Dawn Powell's Dance Night it is. Discussion of the book will begin Monday August 31. Anyone is welcome to join in the discussion. If you're not currently part of the group but would like to join, please leave a note in the comment area (with your email address please) and an invite to post here on the Slaves Blog will be sent. Thanks!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Time again for a new book!

Iliana has asked me to select a few book choices to read next. I've been wanting to read more American authors this year, and I'm hoping these titles will be of interest to the Slaves as well. I had a hard time deciding--I wanted to choose books everyone would have access to and that were still in print. I also wanted to stick with early twentieth century women authors. I believe all these authors are respected but not much read these days. I had other authors in mind as well, but unfortunately some titles were out of print (or their books were simply too pricey). So I ended up with four choices:

Dorothy Canfield's The Home Maker

"Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles that they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife, parents and children, are both fascinating and poignant. The characters are brought to life in a vivid, compelling way in a powerful novel more relevant now than when it was first published. The Home-Maker is one of those 'time lost' novels whose recovery will entertain and intrigue whole new generations of readers." Persephone Books has reissued this title, but there is also an inexpensive American edition available as well.

Edna Ferber's So Big

"Winner of the 1924 Pulitzer Prize, So Big is widely regarded as Edna Ferber's crowning achievement.A rollicking panorama of Chicago's high and low life, this stunning novel follows the travails of gambler's daughter Selina Peake DeJong as she struggles to maintain her dignity, her family, and her sanity in the face of monumental challenges."

This was made into a movie three different times.

Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes began as a series of short sketches published in Harper's Bazaar. Known as the 'Lorelei' stories, they were satires on the state of sexual relations that only vaguely alluded to sexual intimacy; the magazine's circulation quadrupled overnight. The heroine of the stories, Lorelei Lee, was a bold, ambitious flapper, who was much more concerned with collecting expensive baubles from her conquests than any marriage licenses, as well as being a shrewd woman of loose morals and high self-esteem. She was a practical young woman who had internalized the materialism of the United States in the 1920s and therefore equated culture with cold cash and tangible assets. The success of the short stories had the public clamoring for them in book form." It was a runaway bestseller. Even Edith Wharton called it 'the great American novel."

Dawn Powell's Dance Night

"Dance Night portrays working-class Lamptown, Ohio, at the turn of the century. It's a hardscrabble place, filled with bitter factory girls whose dreams are unattainable. Every Thursday is dance night at the Casino Dance Hall, where residents escape their workaday lives, if only for fleeting moments."

Powell's novels had been out of print, but she was championed by the likes of Gore Vidal and Tim Page. Vidal wrote that Powell was a "comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens." Powell considered Dance Night her best work. It is one of her earlier novels based on her childhood and adolescence in small town Ohio and is a coming of age tale. Her later novels set in Greenwich Village are more satirical. I had a hard time deciding which group to choose from.

I'll count votes on Friday June 19. If there are no objections, would it be okay to move discussion back to the end of the summer? Would August 31st work for everyone? None of the novels are more than 350 (most far fewer) pages. This would give everyone time to get the book and read it in a nice leisurely manner.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Slaves of Solitude

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

I think I may be a new Patrick Hamilton fan. I found his novel The Slaves of Solitude (which is the latest Slaves of Golconda pick) really dark and sad, but in a satisfying kind of way, the kind of satisfaction you feel when you've faced something difficult head-on, without flinching. The picture the novel paints of life generally, but especially life during war-time, is of isolation, irritation, boredom, misunderstanding, and deprivation.

The novel tells the story of Miss Roach -- we learn in the middle of the novel that her name is Enid but the narrator never calls her this -- who is 39 and single and has moved from London to the outer reaches of the suburbs to escape the bombings of World War II. She lives in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a boarding house, and commutes to her secretarial job in the city. The atmosphere in the Rosamund Tea Rooms is depressingly claustrophic, and most of the novel is set here, or, when the scene changes, it's to take us to a nearby pub where people drink to escape or to take us out on the streets where Miss Roach walks, again, in order to escape.

What she's escaping, besides the general claustrophia, are her fellow boarders, one of whom, Mr. Thwaites, is an absolutely horrible person. He terrorizes Miss Roach and intimidates everybody else. Here's how the narrator describes him:

In his large, flat, moustached face ... in his lethargic yet watchful brown eyes, in his way of walking and his way of talking, there could be discerned the steady, self-absorbed, dreamy, almost somnambulistic quality of the lifelong trampler through the emotions of others, of what Miss Roach would call "the bully." That steady look with which as a child he would have torn off a butterfly's wing, with which as a boy he would have twisted another boy's wrist, with which as a man he would have humiliated a servant or inferior, was upon him as he now looked at Miss Roach; it never entirely left him.

Miss Roach hates Mr. Thwaites, but it never does her any good; he can always win any argument they have and can always get a reaction out of her and force her to answer his questions even when it's the last thing she wants. He's a nightmare -- the kind of person you wouldn't mind strangling, and who knows you feel that way and enjoys it.

Into this situation come two new people who offer a chance for some diversion and change, and possibly even improvement. Given the darkness of the initial scenes, though, we should be suspicious. One of these is Vicki, a young woman born in Germany who has lived in England for many years now, but who is still under suspicion because of her accent and her origin. Miss Roach stands up for her and befriends her, and then brings her into the boarding house, thinking that not only can she help Vicki, but Vicki might help her by changing the atmosphere in the the Tea Rooms.

The other is an American soldier who flirts with Miss Roach and soon enough becomes "her" soldier, implying that he wants her to return to America with him and help him run his laundromat business. Miss Roach is uncertain what she thinks of all this, but so little has happened to her of any interest at all, that she goes along with it in a bemused kind of way, just to see.

But her hopes are dashed as she figures out what kind of people Vicki and her American soldier really are. The rest of the novel charts just how bad these relationships can get.

What I particularly loved about this book is the way Miss Roach is such a careful observer of the people around her and the way the narrator takes time to describe the characters' words and emotions so closely. It's a story told through small scenes and little conversations, the kind of novel where tone of voice and word choice and facial expressions carry most of the plot. It's a novel about war, but not about battles and armies; in fact, Miss Roach avoids hearing war news whenever she can. Rather, it's about how war infects everything, right down to the words people use in everyday conversation and to the words on street signs:

To the endless snubbing and nagging of war, its lecturing and admonitions, Miss Roach was subjected from the moment she left the Rosamund Tea Rooms in the morning to the moment she returned at night, and these things were at last telling upon her nerves and general attitude.

Immediately she stepped forth into Thames Lockdon ... the snubbing began with:

No Cigarettes


in the window of the tobacconist opposite.

And such was Miss Roach's mood nowadays that she regarded this less as a sorrowful admission than as a sly piece of spite. The "sorry", she felt certain, had not been thrown in for the sake of politeness or pity. It was a sarcastic, nasty, rude "sorry". It sneered, as a common woman might, as if to say "Sorry, I'm sure", or "Sorry, but there you are", or "Sorry, but what do you expect nowadays?"

This passage indicates the book's sensitivity to language, which is another thing I loved about it. Miss Roach is always thinking about the language other people use and how that language tells her something about who they are. This is especially true of Vicki, who irritates Miss Roach horribly by using out of date slang in an effort to keep from sounding too German. And Miss Roach is very sensitive about the language people use to describe her, hating it when people imply she is an "English Miss," too prim and proper and uptight to have any fun. And she can't stand it when people make fun of her name. One of the book's worst moments is when Mr. Thwaites says,

"Enter Dame Roach! ... Dame Roach -- the English Miss! Miss Prim. Dame Roach -- the Prude ... the jealous Miss Roach."

The thought that Vicki might have overheard this horrible string of words is enough to make her sick.

So, no, this is not a happy book, but it captures the hardships of wartime, and also of loneliness and sadness and solitude, beautifully, brilliantly well.


I'd like to say ditto to everything Stefanie said. I, too, found Slaves of Solitude a little difficult to get into, but once into it I found it to be a very engaging character study and a good read. Hamilton spent a lot of time developing his characters and was obviously very masterful at it. He wanted us to relate to and empathise with Ms. Roach, which I did, and despise the self-absorbed Vicki and the school yard bully, Thwaites, which I also did. As for Lieutenant Pike, I feel certain he was destined to return to America and open that laundry, but I'd be willing to bet money that the future Mrs. Pike (if there was to be one) would soon sadly discover that she was saddled with a boozy womanizer, and so become yet another Slave of Solitude. As often happens, one can be quite alone even when surrounded by people.