Thursday, January 27, 2022

Alias 68: Living in a Cold House

 "Baby, it's cold outside."--Song by Frank Loesser

Nobody likes a cold house.  Correction:  I do not like a cold house.  Our thermostat is a liar:  it says 68, but feels like 60.  When the temperature drops below zero outside, I add an afghan to my excessively sweater-ish ensemble.   I wrap it cocoon-meets-shawl-style, inspired by a photo of Kim Kardashian wearing a $200 fleece blanket.  Mine is shabby, strictly for indoors

It is a dilemma:  energy conservation vs. comfort.  We still heed  President Jimmy Carter's advice:  Keep the thermostat at 68 and wear a sweater.  He probably was the only president to be photographed in a cardigan sweater. After he was defeated by the Republican ex-movie star Ronald Reagan, Carter became a philanthropist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. 

Some people like it cold.  In English novels, many characters like it very cold. In Pamela Hansford Johnson's satire, Night and Silence Who Is Here?,  the hero, Matthew, a Visiting Fellow at an American college, complains about American overheated rooms.  And then there are the spinsters in 19th-century English novels who don't like the cold but don't light a fire unless they have visitors.  (Perhaps I'm thinking of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, but this is a Victorian trope: Little Dorritt and Oliver Twist could not have been warm, either.)  And sometimes in 20th-century English novels,  impoverished characters live in cold rented rooms because they lack the coins to feed the heat meter. I'm trying to remember titles:  Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me?  George Orwell's Keep the Aphidistra Flying?  Patrick Hamilton's Twenty thousand Streets under the Sky?  One of Philip Larkin's novels?  Do give me some titles if you think of any.

In a recent essay in The Spectator,  "The Joy of Cold Houses," the writer Olivia Fane declares that she likes a cold house.  She does not turn on the central heating unless the pipes are in danger of freezing.  She writes,

"Both my husband and I grew up in large, freezing houses when winters were truly cold and we had to regularly chip the ice off bedroom windows in the morning. We would feel a sort of moral victory over the elements and a delight in whatever warmth we might find, perhaps crouching over a tiny fire or leaning up against an Aga. My youth was chilly and happy. So winter, thrust whatever you like at me — I will survive. "

And having read that essay, I am happy that I grew up in a warm house.  It also makes me thankful for the 60-alias-68 thermostat. 

Fighting Climate Change: Neal Stephenson's "Termination Shock"


I picked up Neal Stephenson's new techno-thriller, Terminal Shock, because I wanted to lose myself in a page-turner. If you are fans of eco-fiction, such as Richard Powers's The Overstory or Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future, you will enjoy this genre-bending political novel about reversing global warming.

Set in the near future (circa 2030), it centers on the scheme of an eccentric Texas billionaire, T. R. Schmidt, Ph.D., to  reverse global warming with a gigantic rocket-gun that shoots sulfur into the air.  The technology is inspired by the 1991 eruption of the volcano Mount Pinatubo, which temporarily cooled the earth's temperatures because of sulfur emitted by the volcano. 

And so Schmidt throws an exclusive party for powerful guests whose countries are suffering from global warming and rising sea levels.  Among them are Saskia, the endearing down-to-earth queen of the Netherlands; her new friend Rufus, a Comanche hunter of wild boars who literally collides with Saskia on the airstrip of the Waco airport while hunting the wild pig that killed and ate his daughter; Saskia's savvy chief political advisor, Willem, a gay man from Papua; three glamorous but slightly sinister Venetian aristocrats; and the Mayor of the City of London and his Indian journalist wife.

Everyone is impressed by the tour of Schmidt's Flying Ranch, where they learn about the tech and see the giant gun.  But is it too soon to use it? Not in Schmidt's view:  it goes into operation right after the party disperses.  Texas is more or less its own country, and the U.S. government does not interfere.   The sulfur in the air will benefit much of the world, but will be disastrous for India, whose monsoons may be affected.  

Stephenson's style is unobtrusive.   He writes intelligently but simply, in a style reminiscent of Upton Sinclair's plain, impeccable prose in the political Lanny Budd series. Like Sinclair, Stephenson depends to a great extent on political exegesis in dialogue.  

Parts are talky, but there is plenty of action. There are two climate disasters in the Netherlands and one in London; we also spend a lot of time with an Indian-Canadian who practices a rare martial art in India.  The slightly sinister Venetians go rogue with their own gun, India forms a geoengineering resistance movement, and  China schemes to acquire the tech for nefarious purposes.

By the way, I'm not a science geek, but I pored over the diagrams on the endpages:  they minutely depict T. R. Schmidt's launch facility on the Flying Ranch and the workings of the gun.

A fast, fun, splendid read.  Is geoengineering real? 

After I catch my breath, I must read another book by Stephenson.  Any recommendations?

Sunday, January 23, 2022

An Academic Satire: Pamela Hansford Johnson's "Night and Silence Who Is Here?"


 I am fond of academic versatility.  In the late twentieth century, professorial friends slung quotations back and forth at the pub -  lines from Horace's drinking poems, Juvenal's satires, and once, inexplicably, from Caesar's Gallic Wars.  Amazed, I wondered if I would ever feel called upon to declaim.  Verdict:  unlikely. 

Much as I admire impromptu quotations and recitations, I am a great fan of academic satires.  Everyone enjoys Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe, because they reveal the farcical side of university life. 

 One of my favorites is Pamela Hanford Johnson's forgotten 1963 novel,  Night and Silence Who Is Here?  Johnson, a  respected writer of the twentieth century, the author of 25 novels, two plays, and a book on Proust, is neglected and underrated, despite the fact that she was the subject of two recent biographies.  The novel Night and Silence Who Is Here? is the middle book of her Dorothy Merlin trilogy. Each of these three books centers on a writer:  in The Incredible Skipton it is a novelist, in Night and Silence a critic, and in Cork Street, Next to the Hatter's, the poet Dorothy Merlin herself. 

Night and Silence is a feather-light but clever entertainment.  Matthew Pryor, a wealthy middle-aged English bachelor, accepts an invitation to spend a semester as a Visiting Fellow at an American college.  He is an expert on the poetry of his friend Dorothy Merlin, solely because she badgered him to write a few articles.  "Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labour was not demanding."

Matthew looks forward to being cosseted and coddled at Cobb College, but it is an inhospitable place:  at his boss's house, he is offered a glass of ice-water.  He spends much of his time foraging for food, because there are no stores in the hamlet, and the nearest town is 20 miles away.   (Matthew doesn't drive. ) He struggles to boil an egg - he wonders why there are no egg cups - and weeps when he realizes there is no servant to clean up after him.  His two English colleagues, Edith Corall and Miss Groby, are equally discouraged.  Miss Groby has given up eating altogether and taken to drink, while Edith is as helpless in the kitchen as Matthew.  Matthew spends his money on taxis so he can shop and go to restaurants in town. He scavenges breakfast and lunch at the student cafeteria.

Readers will guess that Matthew's scholarship does not flourish in this chilly atmosphere.  He does not want to be a scholar; he wants to be thought to be a scholar.  In fact, Dorthy's poetry looks more and more ridiculous now that he is at Cobb. And he has no social life to take his mind off his negligence.  The other Visiting Fellows are uncongenial - two engage in an internecine quarrel after the cat piddles on some papers.  And the tenured faculty ignore the Fellows.

The most gregarious character is Dr. Ruddock, who is very funny in an irritating way.   He is writing a book to prove that Emily Dickinson was a drunkard, and quotes her poems to back up his theory.  This is so silly, so apt a satire of the most desperate and weakest scholarship, that we have to say, Right on, Pamela!

There are many intrigues, misunderstanding, and blunders - and tropes blatantly borrowed from Lucky Jim.  Matthew may not be as engaging as Lucky Jim, but his experiences in New Hampshire are equally comical.  Perhaps Johnson and her husband C. P. Snow felt this way after their visits to American colleges. (I no longer have the biographies of Johnson, but I vaguely remember they visited some American colleges in some capacity - to lecture?)

This book is very slight - far from Johnson's best - but it is an enjoyable fast read.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Stella Gibbons's "The Matchmaker" & Other Comfort Classics


The last two years have been stressful and bewildering, as we endeavored to grasp the concept of a pandemic and were shattered by the realization that travel cannot take us out of Covid's bounds. Chronic depression has also set in:  many bloggers report a change in their reading habits due to anxiety.  If the book isn't a "comfort book," well, it may be simply beyond us at this point, they say. 

Comfort books are a wonder drug. I was recently ensorcelled by Stella Gibbons's excellent comic novel, The Matchmaker.  This charming book, set in the 1940s, centers on a nature-loving pre-hippie mother, Alda Lucie-Browne, who moves with her three daughters to Sussex while waiting for her husband to be demobilized.  She is endowed with the back-to-nature gene that drove people in the '60s to build geodesic domes in the country (one wonders what happened to the geodesic domes). When her husband Ronald visits, he is dismayed by the damp cottage in the country.

They had now arrived at the house,  and its square little face, with windows reflecting the yellow remnants of the day, stared aloofly above them.... The front garden was primly enclosed by a wooden fence, and every bit of it was filled with thick, strong, bushy laurels whose branches pressed against the small front windows.  Even on a bright day Pine Cottage never seemed full of light - the pine trees saw to that - and this evening in the eerie owl-light it actively breathed out darkness; the porch was a cave; the room beyond the laurel-shadowed windows might have been filled with squid-juice, so black was it, and every shadow from the surrounding woods seemed drawn into the circle of those sighing pines.

Country life might challenge those of us who are coddled by modern conveniences, but Alda is surprisingly tough - she is not bothered by the dark or the cold, and takes long walks with her daughters in inclement weather.  But most important, her old friend Jean, who has recently inherited a fortune, visits Pine Cottage, so Alda has a companion. 

Happily married people want everyone to be happily married.  And so Alda mischievously decides to do some matchmaking, which doesn't please Jean, because Alda has been matchmaking since they were at school. Alda decides her handsome neighbor, a chicken farmer, might do for Jean.  But this confirmed bachelor is not at first interested in marriage, nor is he Jean's first choice.

Although Gibbons's novels seem to be relegated to the middlebrow pile, her prose is flawless and her characters are so finely-etched that we feel they are our dearest friends.  Her elegant writing transcends the middlebrow, I think.  She won the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a satire of "loam-and-lovechild" novels by Thomas Hardy and Sheila Kaye-Smith.  Oddly, this was the only one  of her novels widely known here until Vintage Classics and Furrowed Middlebrow began to reissue her books.

And here is a list of 10 other comfort books, complete with links to the Goodreads descriptions.  Because I know your need them!

  1. The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale (a memoir)
  2. Angel Pavement by J. B. Priestley (novel)
  3. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (novel)
  4. How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (novel)
  5. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick (novel)
  6. The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith (novel)
  7. Fashion Is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes (a memoir)
  8. The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (novel)
  9. The Perpetual Curate by Mrs. Oliphant (novel)
  10. Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber (short stories)

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Rarity of Snow & the Resolve to Find Good Books


After the snowstorm.

Twitter taught us the rules of engagement: Apologize, apologize.  If, like me, you're not on Twitter, you do not know which subjects are controversial.  But in 2012 or 2013, a commenter complained, "You're so negative.  There's always something wrong."

Well, usually there is something wrong. Negativity can be a catalyst for change.  And yet I thought I was, comparatively speaking, Betsy in the Betsy-Tacy books.  I may have lamented the decline of the use of the subjunctive, a bad novel, climate change, or a businessman's fulminations against the liberal arts.  But I was astonished less by the offended commenter than I was to learn that anyone read my blog.

So, Dear Offended Ones, let me tell you I am feeling happy about the snowstorm. The snow is deep and gorgeous. I like crunching through knee-deep snow.  I am not making snow angels - I prefer to stay inside with a good book.  But now that we have snow again, I am reminded that our new alternate reality, spring-like winters, diverges significantly from the norm. You wail, "The glaciers are melting, the seas are rising!"  Yet the human response has been disorganized and insufficient.  Scientists collaborated to fix the ozone layer; they know how to slow climate change.  Deadline: 2030.

Two quotidian memories of snowstorms:  My parents, tired of being cooped up after a blizzard, decided to take us to a movie. My young, immature father swerved the car from side to side on icy streets,  which we thought very funny - but my poor mother! 

Another time, my husband and I layered up when it was 15 below zero and JOGGED a mile on icy snowbanks to go to the movies.

Anything to get out after a snowstorm.

THE TEMPTATION OF "MOST ANTICIPATED" BOOK LISTS.  Many favorite bloggers have posted "Most Anticipated Books of 2022" lists.  I love looking at the pretty covers, but honestly?  The publishers' blurbs don't tell me much. Big books are big business, and I favor funding the publishing industry!  But how does one find the lesser-known literary novels that appeal more?  It's the chance of reading a review or stumbling upon the books at a bookstore.

Great Snowbound Weekend Reading: Books by Penelope Lively and Marian Thurm


The first winter storm of 2022 dumped 14 inches of snow - just like the snows of wild winters past, before global warming.  I'm cozily reading this weekend and recommend two excellent books:  Metamorphosis:  Selected Stories, by Penelope Lively, and The Blackmailer's Guide to Love, by Marian Thurm.

Penelope Lively's Metamorphosis:  Selected Stories. Penelope Lively, who won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger,  is one of my favorite English writers, and her new collection of short stories,  Metamorphosis, which spans 40 years of her career, is superb.

 Lively's voice is detached yet sympathetic, and the distance increases the effectiveness of her style. She also takes chances.  In the whimsical story, "The Purple Swamp Hen," the last days of Pompeii are described by a purple swamp hen who lived in the garden of of rich family and meticulously observed their decadent life-style.  In  "A Long Night at Abu Simbel," a tour guide abandons her party of querulous travelers, who hardly notice she's gone. In "Marriage Lines," a couple unites over a counselor's misunderstanding.  In "Abroad," an English couple are held hostage by Spanish peasants in the country when their car breaks down:  the two artists must work for the family until the costly repairs are finished.

 I especially admired the novella-length title story, written in 2019.  In the 20th century, cool-minded Harriet defies gender taboos to carve out a career in a man's world.  She becomes a formidable editor at a prestigious publishing company and later a nonfiction writer who takes her inspiration from transformed objects, like the ribs of her mother's old parasol (from a humpback whale). Unexpectedly, she is transformed in middle age by falling in love with another writer.  Their marriage is happy, but it is not the last metamorphosis.

Overall,  I preferred the longer stories, where there is more room for Lively to develop one of her perfect narratives, but then I am primarily a reader of novels.

2. The Blackmailer's Guide to Love, by Marian Thurm.  This delightful novel is told from two main points-of-view, that of Mel (Melissa) Fleischer, an aspiring writer happily married to Charlie, a psychiatrist; and that of Julia, an unstable former patient who seduces Charlie and begs him to leave his wife.  Mel is tranquil and happy, writing stories at home and working at a glossy magazine on Madison Avenue. It never occurs to her that Charlie is unfaithful.  She and Charlie celebrate when she sells  her first story to The New Yorker.  But Julia, as you can imagine, is a trouble-maker, and Mel finds out about the affair. 

This novel is also a roman à clef about the New York publishing scene in the late '70s and '80s.  Thurm herself worked at Esquire when Gordon Lish was editor, and, like Mel, she sold her first story to The New Yorker.

Have a good weekend!  Happy reading!

Friday, January 14, 2022

Chaos Theory: How to Choose Your Book by Mood


After posting a snappy piece on the complications of planning a reading year, I stumbled upon more innovative methods of choosing books and facilitating their reading.  Enjoy!

1.  Do you crave a salad or salted caramels?

In the salad category:  George Eliot's Romola.  I tried this several times before I finally fell under the spell of Eliot's intelligent historical novel.  I loved it, but will probably not reread. A more challenging "salad":  Vasily Grossman's Soviet novel, Life and Fate, which reduced me to tears and sent me in search of chocolate.  To quote from the book description: "Life and Fate is an epic tale of a country told through the fate of a single family, the Shaposhnikovs. As the battle of Stalingrad looms, Grossman's characters must work out their destinies in a world torn apart by ideological tyranny."

 In  the salted caramel category:  anything by Angela Thirkell, the mysteries of Elly Griffiths, Chekhov's plays and short stories, middlebrow novels by Dorothy Whipple, all of Jane Austen and the Brontes, art books, and tell-all memoirs. (I had to slap my hand to keep from buying a memoir of Natalie Wood by her sister, who speculates that Natalie's death was not an accident.) 

2.  There is nothing like a book about a bookstore to give you ideas about what to read next. In Louise Erdrich's charming new novel, The Sentence, set in the bookstore Erdrich owns in real life in Minneapolis, the narrator, Tookie, keeps a Lazy Stack and a Hard Stack by her bed.  She explains,


The Hard Stack... included Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, two works by Svetlana Alexievich, and other books on species loss, viruses, antibiotic resistance, and how to prepare dried food.  These were the books I would avoid reading until some wellspring of mental energy was uncapped....  On top of my lazy stack was Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, which I was reading again because I liked Rebecca - bad Rebecca - better than the goody-goody shrinking narrator....
A cloth book jacket Nancy sent me.

3.  What if you want to read an old paperback with acidic paper that hurts yourhands? Try cloth book covers.  Nancy, the wonderful blogger known as Silver Season or Silver Threads, sent me a cloth book jacket designed to cover small mass-market paperbacks.  Without this book cover, I could not possibly have read my tattered paperback, Marry in Haste by Jane Aiken Hodge, or Trio by Dorothy Baker, a book that peeled in my hands.  Thank you, Nancy!  We do miss her.  She died in January, 2020.

Ave atque vale, Nancy!  - Catullus