Friday, October 29, 2021

Fabulous Fun: The Lifeline by Hugo Charteris


My generation was raised on comedy. We are nostalgic for what seems like a gentler time, but we feared the Atom bomb, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and life-threatening air and water pollution. From Aristophanes to William Wycherley, from Jane Austen to Kurt Vonnegut, we progressed to the satire of Kingsley Amis and the gentler comedy of Angela Thirkell.  It could be argued that comedy is even more necessary in the 2020s, between the pandemic and (probably) irreversible climate change. And so I was delighted  to discover the Scottish writer, Hugo Charteris, author of  The Lifeline (1961),  a hilarious novel recently reissued by the publisher Michael Walmer.  

The Lifeline is a cheering diversion, an unmitigated pleasure.  I relish Charteris's witty observations about life in a gossipy Scottish village.  His sharp intelligence is offset by a baroque style that borders on poetry. The characters are larger than life, drawn broadly but with a fine pen.

The hero, Tulloch Traquhair, a character actor who has been fired from his role as Little John in a Robin Hood TV series, retires to a Scottish village to run the Strathire Arms, a pub he plans to turn into a hotel.  When he debarks from his Rolls Royce, he hypnotizes the villagers with his charisma and a peppering of Gaelic phrases. He is a giant of a man, with a red beard and a flamboyant personality.  He even fascinates his enemies. His rival  pub owners, Brian Creevie and his vengeful mother, Mildred Creevie, are determined to take Traquhair down.  Traquhair, who is gay, gives them plenty of grounds for gossip. When asked to judge a beauty contest, he chooses a Teddy boy as queen.

Chartis's long sentences loop with effortless serpentine fluency.  For example:

All small places thrive on gossip, but in Fluach Presbyterianism gave it a special succulence.  The new tenants of the Strathire Arms would have enjoyed celebrity even if they had merely been new inhabitants. But that Traquhair should have taken the hotel direct from the ex-convict Johnny Stephenson (and boast as much), and that he should be a semi-celebrity in his own right, and look like a twenty-stone Robinson Crusoe disguised as  Lochiel, and have a secretary who made mothers call their children in close,... all added up to the  biggest local news since the previous marchioness was forcibly removed from the castle by a coloured butler acting under the marchess's orders.

The plot races along during the renovation of the rat-infested, filthy, long-untenanted pub, where grandiloquent Traquhair plans to house the prime minister of Canada on his visit to Scotland. Fortunately, Traquhair has reinforcements: his depressed secretary, Meldrum, does most of the work, while Tulloch drinks whisky and makes the rounds convincing a bank and construction company that he has money.  Meldrum also has a beautiful wife, Olivia, and several children.  And let us just say Traquhair and Meldrum have an offbeat method of acquiring barrels of illegal whisky.
Hugo Charteris

 I was reminded slightly of Anthony Burgess's Enderby novels: Enderby is a poet who composes his best work in the bathroom.  Enderby and Traquhair both have a certain scruffy integrity: neither man wants to prostitute himself to the "arts."Enderby's life goes down the toilet after he wins a poetry prize, and Traquhair refuses to do TV commercials.

The Lifeline is so much fun to read.  Has anybody read Hugo Charteris?  Fortunately, some of his other novels are in print. And I must read Scottish literature, which seems bizarrely little-read here. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Surprising Excellence of Rose Macaulay's "Non-Combatants and Others"


Those of you who are fans of twentieth-century women's literature will probably have come across Rose Macaulay's novels in old Virago editions. I love her comic masterpiece,  The Towers of Trebizond, a hilarious chronicle of the trek of a group of English travelers from Istanbul to Trebizond. I also vastly enjoyed Keeping up Appearances and The World My Wilderness. Yes, I am a Macaulay freak.  And now Macaulay's early books are having a comeback, due to publisher Kate MacDonald's efforts at Handheld Classics.   

Some of Macaulay's early books have a rushed air, as if she'd scribbled them in a wobbly taxi with ink blots flying. I rather like them anyway.  I'm thinking of Dangerous Ages (1921), a very short intergenerational women's saga.  And consider Macaulay's  pacifist novel, Non-Combatants and Others (1916).  Is it didactic? Is it political?  It wanders hither, it pereginates thither. Suddenly, about halfway through, I was  overcome with tears.  I understood the feelings of helplessness and anger of the "non-combatant."  Because here we are, 105 years after the  publication of her pacifist novel, with wars still a big business. 

This slight but moving novel centers on Alix, a nervous, irritable, not entirely likable art student and pacifist who considers herself a "non-combatant." While her mother lectures on pacifism in America, Alix stays with her patriotic aunt and cousins, who infuriate her with their war work and war talk: one cousin volunteers at a V.A.D. hospital, another is with the Women's Volunteer Reserve, and Aunt Eleanor is on the Belgian Committee.  Alix agrees with her mother's pacifist principles but believes her lectures are useless. What can you do when you're this young and cynical? 

And then her wounded cousin John come home for a visit. He rips out her heart.  He converses charmingly, tells war anecdotes, and sings popular war songs around the piano.  Alix is saddened and terrified by the effort he's making.   And she is horrified by the thought of her sensitive younger brother Paul fighting in the war.  Her quasi-boyfriend, Basil, an art student, has come back wounded and is in the hospital.  All the "combatants" are in danger.

 Later that night, she finds John sleepwalking and crying in his sleep.  She has a terrible night.

...Her forehead was hot and her feet were cold. She was tense, and on the brink of shivering. Staring into the dark she saw things happening across the seas: dreadful things, ugly, jarring, horrifying things. War—war—war. It pressed round her; there was no escape from it. Every one talked it, breathed it, lived in it. Aunt Eleanor, with her committees, and her terrible refugees; Mademoiselle Verstigel, with her round robin's eyes that had looked horror in the face so near; Uncle Gerald, with his paper and his intelligent city rumours; Dorothy and Margot with their soldiers, who kept coming to tea, cheerful, charming, and maimed; John, damaged and stammering, with his nervous eyes and his quiet, humorous trench talk; Basil, writing from his dug-out of Boche and shells ... little Paul out there in the dark ... they were all up against the monster, being strangled ... it was like that beastly Laocoon....

Alix decides to move to London, so her aunt arranges for  her to stay with a  distant cousin, Mrs. Frampton, and her two adult daughters, at their cozy house called Violette.  This lower-middle-class family is unsophisticated but cheerful and relaxing. 

But the news of the war and war talk is still everywhere.   She hears many complaints at Violette about the Belgian refugee neighbors, the flip side of her aunt's struggles to help them.  She escapes war talk in the company of her art school friends, and is head-over-heels in love with Basil, but he has lost interest n her, and she is devastated.  She is quietly depressed, then becomes ill. 

A moving novel about the emotional frailty of non-combatants as they cope with   loss  and combatants as they cope with horror and violence.  An excellent anti-war novel that will make you want to take action.  A sit-in or something.  With peace signs. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Haunted Bookshop and Elsewhere in The Athens of the Midwest


Iowa City, near the Hamburg Inn.

It was a crisp, sunny day in The Athens of the Midwest.

I shed my jacket immediately.  Was it warm, or was it the ambiance? I often wonder if I exaggerate the charm of Iowa City, but it is a nice place to visit.  Proud citizens plant boastful signs on their lawns:  THE GREATEST SMALL CITY FOR THE ARTS.  They are vain of its status as a UNESCO City of Literature, which, in practical terms, has led to a proliferation of commemorative sidewalk plaques on Iowa Avenue, with quotes from Wallace Stegner, Kurt Vonnegut, and Marilynne Robinson, and a book festival.

But none of that was the purpose of our trip.  We simply like absorbing the culture.  We walked to The Haunted Bookshop, a used bookshop named after Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, a novel set in a bookshop of the same name, and located in the Northside neighborhood.  Around the block is the historic Hamburg Inn, haunted every four years by presidential candidates in search of photo ops, which my mother frequented as a teenager.


I was worried about the fate of The Haunted Bookshop. According to the website, it was open only by appointment, and cost $25 to browse for an hour.  

"That can't be right," my husband said, but I was gloomy.   He had no idea how deeply business owners in Iowa City dug in during the pandemic.  Iowa City has, unlike many places, taken Covid seriously.  Until quite recently, Prairie Lights, the other bookstore in town, was closed except for curbside pickup.

When we saw the bookstalls and tables of books on the tree lawn, I said, "Oh, thank God." 

But it was not quite open.  My husband went up the steps, only to find the sign on the door with the dreaded information about the $25 appointments.  

I wondered, "How do you pay for the dollar books?"

"You drop the money through the slot."

We burst out laughing.  Now that, you must admit, is funny.

We were not the only browsers on the tree lawn.  The other people seemed equally shocked.  Nobody wanted to pay $25 for an appointment.  We all browsed silently among the dollar books.  I  considered Frank Conroy's book about Nantucket, but I've never been to Nantucket, and can't say I ever will.   Nantucket attracts a different ilk of summer visitors, among them President Biden, President Obama, Ben Stiller, Kim Kardashian, and Woody Allen (my source, "e-online!",  may not be reliable, though).  Perhaps charming Frank Conroy stayed gratis with wealthy friends.  

I do hope the owner of The Haunted Bookshop is healthy, because the appointment for $25 doesn't sound like a good business practice.  Perhaps she has been ill, or her immune system is compromised in some way.  But let's hope that she is simply eccentric.   There are a lot of eccentrics, after all.

 A wonderful day trip, on a beautiful day, to the Athens of the Midwest, or perhaps The Shire.   My one complaint:  there are only two bookstores left.  That is typical of these times, but is disgraceful for a UNESCO City of Literature.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Weekend Reading: In Which I Recommend Books


I hope you're ready to read some "real" books this weekend because you're going to get text neck if you don't get off the phone. You only need the phone to call Uber and you know it. Meanwhile, books are bursting out of your bookcases or bricks-and-boards shelves.

You protest that you don't need more books.  

But perhaps you do need a few for the TBR list.

Anyway, here are three recommendations for perfect weekend reading.


Elizabeth von Arnim is a charming novelist. Her best-selling first novel, Elizabeth and her Garden (1898), is very slight,  but it was immensely popular, the meditations of a woman who flees to her country house and spends her days in the garden.  (The gardener does the actual gardening, though.)  I myself began with her more plot-driven novel, The Enchanted April, after seeing the movie adaptation.  It begins during a rainy spring in London.  An unhappy woman sees an ad for a villa in  Italy and organizes a house-share with a group of women.  Italy is warm, and the experience is  life-changing. 

I have enjoyed many of her novels over the years, and recently picked up Expiation (1929), published by Persephone.  I recommend this highly if you want an intelligent, fast-paced novel.  Von Arnim writes about the financial struggles of a middle-aged woman.  In this rather solemn comedy, Milly Botts, a lovely, charming widow, learns that she has been written out of her rich husband's will, except for a small bequest of 1,000 pounds. The rest goes to a Home for Fallen Women.

Obviously her husband had found out she was having an affair, and now everyone will know.  Humiliated, she runs away to London.  She stays in horrible lodgings, and there is one crisis after another.  Dependable people turn out not to be dependable. They need her help more than she needs help - perhaps.  One coincidence is so unbelievable that it actually seemed  credible, but overall there is a measured mix of bleakness and humor. 
Von Arnim doesn't mince words about what may lie ahead for Milly.


Are you psyched that the  movie Dune just debuted in the theaters and on HBO Max? It's time get out your copy of Frank Herbert’s ecological classic, which won the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966. 

is a desert planet.  The politics of water dominate. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines. (The valuable spice is addictive: it is Arakis's major export.) When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.  The new ruling family, the Atreides,  hopes for political stability and greater prosperity for the poor, as they struggle to balance the greed for the spice,  but alas there is a coup.  And then they, too, struggle to survive.



I'm always meaning to read Georgette Heyer, because she has so many fans.  People love her Regency romances. I did enjoy The Transformation of Philip Jetta, her first novel, which has been reissued by Dover and Modern Library Torch Bearers.  

 But now that the Folio Society has published Venetia, I feel I should take Heyer more seriously.  Ironically, this is one of the few I've actually read, but I loved it. 

 Here is the Folio Society description:

Georgette Heyer is one of the world’s best-known and best-selling writers of historical romance, and Venetia is the perfect introduction to her work. This edition celebrates Heyer’s witty and clever Regency society novel with a dazzling new introduction by advocate Stephen Fry and six gloriously imagined and insightful illustrations by Sally Dunne. Lettering artist Jessica Hische completes the edition with a beautiful gold-blocked binding design that exudes both the glamour and formality of the period.

I admit, I would be more likely to reread this if I had the FS edition.  Mine has a bodice ripper cover!

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

2020-2021: Why I Can't Get My Head Around it


Life used to be perfect.  We did not know it. We quote Joni Mitchell:  "You don't know what you've got till it's gone."  What I mean to say is, our  lives were at the normal end of the "perfection" spectrum.  We lived contentedly in modest dwellings. In our leisure, we read or went to movies. Sometimes we took a walk.  Occasionally we saw a ball game (peer pressure).  Some of our peers aspired to a suburban house with a three-car garage, but we never understood the appeal of the three-car garage.  Then we met a man who drove straight from his heated garage to a heated underground garage downtown every morning.  He boasted, "I never wear a coat."

I couldn't get my head around it.  

A reverse homage to Gogol's The Overcoat?

What I'm really saying is that we used to be happy, in the limited form of happiness most of us know.  What we liked best:  there were normal boundaries between people.  It was not a stand-off between masked and unmasked. And we didn't worry about  people getting vaccinated.  I mean, we lined up at school and got the TB vaccine (in the form of a sugar cube?).   We didn't need permission slips.  Vaccinations wiped out diseases. 

But, you know, the pandemic is a big deal.  The personal disruption is one of the worst aspects.  Some of us badly miss the going-to-work economy.  Some are lucky to work at home, others have lost their jobs.   If only it were the fifties, or even the last decade, when the husband kissed the wife good-bye and went to the office and the wife worked from home. - or vice versa, in this slightly less gender-driven world.

Now that comfortable routine seems like a lost chapter in an out-of-print history book series: the template for Daily Life in Ancient Rome or Daily Life in Babylon has been converted into Daily Life in Pre-pandemic America.  

But, honestly?  I can't get my head around any of it.  

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Jane Eyre Meets the Sensation Novel: Mrs. Henry Wood's "Anne Hereford"


 Will the Summer of '21 be remembered as the Summer of Love?   We wandered freely through the world, ripping our masks off, peacefully riding our bicycles, taking walks with less fear, and, on one occasion, abandoning al fresco dining for the bugless indoors.

Back to caution and masks.  The Fall (Demise) of Love?


 Charlotte Bronte and Mrs. Henry Wood were stars in different genres. Wood, the author of 30 novels, including the popular East Lynne, was a master of the Victorian sensation novel.  There are sensational elements in Charlotte Bronte's Gothic classics, Jane Eyre and Villette, but they are subtler than Wood's ghosts, murders, screaming maidens, and vengeful villains.  Yet Wood's neglected novel Anne Hereford (1868) has much in common with Jane Eyre

Though Ellen Wood is an uneven stylist, I enjoyed this book.  I was interested in the parallels between Anne and Jane Eyre.  Both are orphans who become teachers and then  governesses. Both fall in love with rich men who are barred from marriage for secret reasons.  Mr Rochester deceives Jane, but the milder Mr. Chandros says openly that he loves Anne but can never marry.  (A family secret.)  Wood's characters tend to be nicer and milder than Bronte's. There is depression, but not unbridled passion.  Jane leaves in disgust when she learns Mr. Rochester's secret, walking for days until she faints on a minister's doorstep.  Anne screams more than once when she sees strangers - or ghosts? - in the woods.  She wants to leave after hearing rumors about Mr Chandros, but she must wait to be paid by her employer, Mr. Chandros's sister, who is in France.  (Of course money did not stop Jane.) 

There seems to be a fine line between sensation novels and Gothics. In Bronte's Jane Eyre we have a mad woman in the attic; in Villette we have a ghost and an opium-fueled dream; in Wood's Anne Hereford we have murders, ghosts, mysterious strangers, a vengeful woman plotting character assassination, and the strange seclusion of Lady Chandros in the west wing of the house.  Is it a matter of quantity?

There are ghostly facets in Anne Hereford.
I recommend this for fans of Jane Eyre and 19th-century sensation novels.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Real Estate Is Not Proust's Madeleine


 In Hilma Wolitzer's witty short story, "Sundays," the narrator has to coax her depressed husband Howard out of bed every Sunday morning.  To cheer him up, they drive from Queens to the suburbs to tour model homes. 

Wolitzer writes,

Not that we want to live in the suburbs. How we laugh and poke one another at the roped-off bedrooms hung in velvet drapery, the rubber chickens roosting in warm refrigerators. The thing is, places like that confirm our belief in our own choices. We’re safe here in the city, in our tower among towers. Flyspecks, so to speak, in the population.
I love the Paulie and Howard stories, and I know the feeling of looking down on the suburbs.  It is unlikely that I will ever live in a development.  Nonetheless, I am enthralled by real estate. "I would love to live there," I exclaim as I pass a Victorian house with a wraparound porch, or a Mid-Century Modern Home from the '60s.  Even if the house is for sale, it is just a fantasy, though.


I see myself living here in an alternate life.

Every Sunday the newspaper publishes a pictorial feature on a glamorous house for sale.  By glamorous, I mean shockingly expensive.  One week they highlighted a suburban house that appeared to be a group of angular out-buildings stuck together with rocks. It reminded me of a Middle Eastern compound on the TV show Homeland.  (The price: $1,000,000.)  

Looking at real estate online is more entertaining than the newspaper. You can find the perfect
pied a terre in San Francisco or a cottage near Niagara Falls. You can even take a virtual tour of your grandparents' house, though it is not for sale at the moment.  "What have the new people done to the sunroom?" you lament.  "Why did they paint Mom's room black?  Who would rip out built-in bookcases?"   

A virtual tour of your childhood home is even less satisfying.  The style has changed from maximalist '70s kitsch to play-it-safe minimalist: wooden floors as slick as a roller rink, wooden kitchen cabinets inexplicably replaced by white particle board,  a futon in every bedroom - and no trace of the nuclear family.

You can disapprove of change, but you cannot recapture the past by real estate. 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Reading When You're Sick: Colette's "Break of Day" and "Letters from Colette"



 Is it a cold?  Or is it the flu?  How do we get through it? 

During a horrendous illness, I turned to Colette, the lyrical French writer best-known for the autobiographical Claudine books. She ghostwrote the series at the bidding of her rakish first husband, Willy, who ran what Colette called a "factory" of  ghostwriters.  The Claudine books were so popular they were adapted for the stage and heavily "merchandised." (The Claudine quintet consists of Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, Claudine and Annie, and Retreat from Love.)  

Colette was a celebrity writer, an actress, a music hall artist, and a bisexual beauty, married thrice, who had many affairs.  After her separation from Willy in 1906, she wrote some of the most brilliant novels of the twentieth century. Would that more of her books were available in translation.  Just a handful are still in print by Farrar Straus Giroux and Vintage. 

Two of her books kept me alive during this illness, Break of Day  and Letters from Colette.  Written in her fifties, Break of Day is a meditative novel, a record of the rich experiences of daily life at her house at Saint-Tropez on the Cote d'Azur.  She also muses on her changing attitudes toward love and sex in middle age.  Her sulky, charming 35-year-old neighbor, Vial, is in love with her, and she certainly likes him.  But does she want to go through the agonies of love again?  She studies the letters of her self-sufficient mother, who in her seventies gardened, tended to the poor, and slept in an out-building because she could no longer bear to sleep next to a human being.  Colette, recently divorced from her second husband,  wants to follow her mother's example.  She writes,

Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the possibility that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bite,  I can still hold my head up and say to myself:  "I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter - that letter and so many others I have kept."

The narrator of Break of Day is called Colette, but she reminds us that her double in the novel is much stronger and has more integrity than the real woman.  In old age, Colette was still attractive and had a young husband.  So much for giving up love.

I am also reading Letters from Colette, a new discovery, though it has been on my shelf for years.  Selected and translated by Robert Phelps, this charming collection covers half a century, 1902 to 1952.  Colette is witty, original, and impish about her "adorable bulldogs, with faces like frogs," business contracts for her stage career (she played Claudine in some productions), her love affairs, wartime experiences (her husband Maurice Goudeket spent six weeks in a concentration camp), and the tragic death of her friend the poet Helene Picard.  "Like the most romantic of poets, she died in the hospital, unknown, unrecognized....  For ten days I have been working on a little study of Helene's work, which the Revue de Paris has asked me to do.  But I have never tried anything quite like this, and I'm making no progress... "    

Colette is the subject of several biographies.  The biographer Judith Thurman writes in the introduction to the 2001 FSG edition of Break of Day: "Colette has always been admirable for reasons that have nothing to do with political correctness... Accessible and elusive; greedy and austere; courageous and timid; subversive and complacent; scorchingly honest and sublimely mendacious; an inspired consoler and an existential pessimist - these are the qualities of the artist and the woman.  It is time to rediscover them."

Colette is not PC - she despised feminism and the suffragists - and we can only imagine what she would have said about twenty-first century cancel culture.  I believe her emphasis on the personal life brings us back to our own feminine longings.   I am a feminist, but haven't we forgotten that personal experiences are as important as careers? 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Twentieth-Century Classic: Elizabeth Bowen's "Friends and Relations"


 One of my favorite reads this fall is Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations, a twentieth-century masterpiece, and for that reason I was reluctant to "review" it.  I felt I should reread all her books and a biography or two before I put pen to paper.  But  my job as a blogger is to appreciate or grumble without unnecessary research, thank goodness.

The book begins with a wedding, and what better way to start? Laurel Studdart, the bride, is radiant, while her younger sister, Janet, hovers on the edges of the reception. The groom, Edward Tilney, is little more than a woman's accessory, but his flamboyant mother, Lady Elfrida, complains about his choice of bride.  She prefers Janet, who is also in love with Edward, she claims.  

And it seems possible:  shortly thereafter Janet gets engaged to Rodney Meggatt, the nephew and heir of Considine Meggatt, who was Lady Elfrida's correspondent in a divorce case. The news  causes an uproar.  Lady Elfrida doesn't care, but Laurel does not want Edward to be unhappy.  Edward, a spoiled child-like man consumed with hatred of Considine, condescends to allow the marriage, on the grounds that Considine is never present when they visit the Meggatts at their great house, Batts. 


Bowen's style is subtle and her dialogue so witty and precise that she accomplishes more in 158 pages than others do in twice that.  Every brief sentence provides stunning details. Bowen's formidable portrait of the sisters, so strongly attached yet so temperamentally different, reveals the skeleton of the relationship.  Laurel is conventional, none too brainy, and absorbed in her marriage and children, while Janet is concerned with "home economics," making gooseberry fool and gardening rather than showering affection on her daughter and husband. Rodney is refreshingly balanced, but doesn't every family have a spoiled child-man like Edward, who makes silly ultimatums based on his likes and dislikes?

And then there are the "bad" friends of the family, the ones who are jealous of the sisters.  Evil fairies at the weddings?

All in 158 pitch-perfective pages, beautifully done. I admire it immensely. You will want to read it again.

Nobody Bought My Viragos! And a Look at "The Caravaners" by Elizabeth von Arnim


The Book Sale

We went to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale on Half-Price Day. Surely we would find one or two books, we thought. And yet... we did not.  If your book club wants to discuss Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair,  this is the place to get multiple copies.  You read them years ago? I thought so.  Too bad they did not have Sue Monk Kidd's latest, The Book of Longings. a fascinating historical novel about a rebellious Jewish woman who is a writer and a scholar during the first century A.D., in the reign of Tiberius.

One happy note:  I found at least 10 Viragos, all of which I have read.  Oh, how wonderful, I thought.  Someone will love these.   Then I realized they were my books.  I HAD  DONATED THEM.  I hastily arranged them attractively at the front of the table, so somebody might find them.    

The volunteers ran hither and thither, but did not stop to neaten the books.  As a result, by this fourth day of the sale, there were leaning hardcovers with cocked spines and paperbacks with bent covers.  Old book club editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham dominated the classics section.  I did see  some very nice annotated University of Nebraska editions of Willa Cather, but we have annotated Library of Americas of Willa at home. 

When the only book you consider is a 25-cent first edition  of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, you know it's time to go home.  Valley of the Dolls is one thing.  I suspect The Love Machine is going too far. 

SPEAKING OF VIRAGOS.  You may have read Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, a delightful novel about a group of women who share a house on vacation in Italy.  But have you read The Caravaners,  Elizabeth von Arnim's charming feminist novel about a vacation in England?

Here is a short precis of this delicious book.  A  German couple decide to take a caravanning vacation in England with a small group. Cheapness is the operative motive of the pompous narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, a Prussian officer who keeps his wife Edelgard on a tight rein.  Although the travelers have their own horse-drawn caravans, the weather is wet and dispiriting: it rains every day and  is  muddy.  Instead of sitting inside the caravan in relative luxury, the Baron must trudge through the mud beside the horse. He also finds himself holding umbrellas over the cooking pots and washing up.  And he does not at all like the English. 

 Meanwhile, Edelgard blossoms.  She loves walking through woods and fields, despite the rain, and is stimulated by the  conversation of her progressive Anglicized German sister, Mrs. Menzies-Leigh, and Jellaby, a socialist.  Edelgard shortens her dresses so she can move more freely.  The freer she becomes, the more the Baron sulks. 

A light, lovely, humorous book, my favorite by von Arnim.  I have an old Virago edition, but  Handheld Press has also reissued an edition with an introduction by Juliane Römhild.   

What is your favorite book by von Arnim?  I have read quite a few of her books, but more and more keep being reissued by small presses.  

Friday, October 8, 2021

The Planned Parenthood Book Sale Goes Modern


The Planned Parenthood Book Sale, Oct. 7-11, 2021

 Founded in 1961 and located at the 4-H building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds, Oct. 7-11, The Planned Parenthood Book Sale is a gathering for collectors and common readers, who squeeze between church supper-style tables to compete with book scouts for obscure Mrs. Oliphants and omnibus editions of Bess Streeter Aldrich.  

We were nostalgic for the sale when it was canceled last year. But, honestly, the appeal of the sale has faded in recent years.  The emphasis has shifted from the sale of old books to newish best-sellers.  As early as 2011, my book group was reminiscing about the Days When the Sale Was Still Great.  

This year I didn't feel like being disappointed, so  I sent my husband with a list of books.  He found none.  "No John Dryden? No Quincunx?" And he says there is no longer a section for early-twentieth-century books.  I am dumbfounded.

He brought me gifts,  a Penguin of Wilkie Collins's Armadale and a Dover edition of Trollope's Miss Mackenzie.  Brilliant books.  I already have them.

So you see my dilemma.  At this point, I'd rather write a check to Planned Parenthood than do pity buys.  Most people seem to prefer newer books, and you can always find something light.

My New Favorite Book: J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Rose and the Key"


For years I thought I was the only fan of the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who is best-known  for his ghost stories and Gothic novels.  As an adolescent I discovered his masterpiece, Uncle Silas, and decades later I enjoy it just as much.  But until I got Wifi, I never met anyone who had heard of Le Fanu. Most of his books are out-of-print in the U.S.

Having raved about Uncle Silas, you will hardly be surprised to learn that my new favorite book is Le Fanu's little-read The Rose and the Key. Mind you, I do not claim it is a great novel.  Parts are brilliant, parts are draggy and dull. And yet I loved it from the beginning, with its ornate description of "a summer sunset, over a broad heath." Maud, the impulsive heroine, and her good-humored elderly cousin, Miss Max, are enjoying a sketching tour.

 But Le Fanu is an expert on withholding information. He teases us with the question of Maud's identity.  Early on he asks whether the shabbily dressed Maud might be a governess or an artist.  Maud idly wonders aloud if she could earn a living by sketches and water colors.  Miss Max is wildly indulgent and laughs at Maud's whimsy. 

Nothing is as it seems, and the idyll is interrupted.  They are shadowed by a stalker, an "odious, ill-looking" old man who follows them from inn to inn.  Miss Max angrily confronts him on the heath, but they cannot stop him.  And a romantic young gentleman, Charles Marston, pursues Maud after falling in love with her at first sight.  She chides him and challenges him with the information that she is poor and must earn her living.  Miss Max thinks Maud is much too hard on him.

Le Fanu has postponed telling the truth about Maud's identity.  He is a tease.  We soon learn that she is not poor.  She is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Lady Vernon, a cold, pale woman who hates her beautiful daughter.  This is a mother-daughter relationship we seldom see in 19th-century novels.  (But tell me if you think of others.)

There are many twists and turns - you are in suspense till the very end, because Le Fanu withholds information and we are misled as to motives.


This is one of several 19th-century novels, among them The Woman in White, in which  a sane woman is committed to a lunatic asylum.  There are some terrifying scenes.

Since I read two eerie 19th-century novels with this trope almost back-to-back, I wonder how many other such novels I've missed out there.

Let me know if any come to mind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

What Are Your Favorite Obsolete Expressions?


I am not quite H. Rider Haggard's She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,  but I have my magic powers.  "Get me a pop, please," I said to Mr. Nemo yesterday.


"You know, soda."

He obeyed.

I'm bilingual:  We called Pepsi and other soft drinks "pop" when I was growing up. Sometimes I tease Mr. Nemo by reminding him of my midwestern roots.  Everywhere else it's soda, which sounds more elegant. I would not dare request "pop" east of Indiana.  It might be code for something dangerous.

There are hundreds of obsolete words, expressions, and slang.  They come and go, and you barely miss them.  At some point every person is old enough to wonder, When did that change?  A kind of Standard English has evolved because of our communal watching TV, Netflix, and other live-streaming services.

When I was growing up there was actual dialect.  We said "warsh" for "wash," until a teacher corrected us.  And how about "garsh" for "gosh?" But no one says "gosh" anymore, ergo there is no "garsh." 

Then there's the "Kleenex" vs. "tissue" issue.  Smart teachers keep a box of Kleenex on the desk, because schools are pestilence pots even when  it is not a Covid year.   From November to April, every student has a cold, bronchitis, or walking pneumonia. If you think you are immune, you are wrong. You will sniffle with the best of them.

And so providing free Kleenex encourages a minimal practice of hygiene.  They will raise their hands and ask, "My I have a Kleenex, Ms Blah-blah?" And then they walk to the front of the room,  pluck a Kleenex, and amble back to their desk.  On the east coast, the phrase is "May I have a tissue?"  That is more accurate, since not every tissue is Kleenex, but it doesn't sound right to my ear.

Do you xerox or photocopy?  Probably neither anymore.  But I still use xerox as a verb, though doubtless the copy machines at the UPS Store are some other brand these days.

Did your mother say "washcloth," "washrag,"or just "rag"?  The latter two dropped out of my mother's vocabulary after years of watching The View.

Here are some obsolete slang expressions, most of which are similes.  We used these cliches often once upon a time.

Hot as Hades (but did I actually hear Haiti as a child?) 
cool as a cucumber
To do something "like it's nobody's business."
raining like cats and dogs
high as a kite
wouldn't be caught dead
ugly as sin
beautiful as the dawn (my friends and I got that one from literature)
quiet as a mouse
slow as molasses in January
crooked as a dog's hind leg
crazy as a loon
laugh like a hyena
thin as a whistle. (This one stumps me.)
"could care less" (for the more proper "couldn't care less." I thought the less proper "could care less" was kind of a cool thing.)

What are your favorite out-of-fashion dialect words or slang words? 

Do tell!