Monday, November 29, 2021

Women Volunteers in World War: The War-Workers, by E. M. Delafield

 In my next life, I plan to gush less about books.

"I adore every word E. M. Delafield wrote,” I said effusively at a meeting of our Ladies of the Badlands book group.   I had just finished rereading The Diary of a Provincial Lady, a collection of her witty, charming columns about domestic life, originally published in Time and Tide magazine in the 1920s. (Delafield wrote four other Provincial Lady books.)  Never loath to try a new author, my obsessive friends scrawled her name on their hands, phones, and cocktail napkins.  At our next meeting, all were Delafield groupies intent on planning a Provincial Lady literary tour of England. 

"A pity about Omicron," our friend Janet said.  "I'd love to travel again."

"It's hard to imagine, isn't it?"

Ah, we'd like to visit a prototype of the provincial lady's village in Devon.  And we may add some details from the villages of Barbara Pym and Angela Thirkell, too. There are maps in Angela Thirkell's books.  Bizarrely, our geographical roots seem to be not so much in the Badlands as in middlebrow women's literature. 

 **************************************

 If you gush, you set yourself up as an expert.  After claiming that I adored every word Delafield had written, I read on and discovered that was not true. The Provincial Lady books are so charming that I expected sparkling wit in every sentence of her novels.  But her writing is very plain and uneven: Delafield's prose is a quiet backdrop for her sharp observations. 

But this weekend I tore through Delafield's lively second novel, The War-Workers, a worthy predecessor of the Provincial Lady books.   In this enjoyable novel, she sketches the daily lives of a group of women volunteers doing war work at The Midland Supply Depot in England during World War I. They toil long hours, mostly at clerical and secretarial work  - sometimes  till 11 p.m. - at the behest of Charmian Vivian, the 30-year-old director who insists she is too busy to eat lunch and must stay in the office hours later than her staff. It's hard to say exactly what she does, though we are assured it is necessary.  She writes business letters,  checks accounts, conducts interviews, meets trains, arranges tea and snacks for the traveling soldiers, meddles in military hospital administration, and even staffs a canteen with her own overworked volunteers because of a rivalry with her mother's friend, Lesbia Willoughby, whose idea the canteen was.  Char does not realize or care that her staff is exhausted on the nights they serve at the canteen after a full day at the office. Born with a silver spoon, Char goes home every night to her parents' posh mansion where her former nurse, Brucie, spoils her with lovely meals.  And her bedroom is blessedly warm and luxurious, unlike those of the volunteers at the hostel.


The women volunteers at the Depot thinks Char is "wonderful" - and they need this heroine-worship, because their lodgings at the hostel are freezing, the food is bad, and the Superintendent does not have the budget to run the house well. When Char has to stay there for a few days, you can imagine how little she likes it!  And it never occurs to her that her women employees suffer from the cold just as much as she does. 

The arrival of Miss Grace Jones, a young Welsh woman who has done secretarial work for her father, shakes up the staff.  Not that Grace is a troublemaker - quite the contrary. - but she often says what she thinks.  At one point, she suggests that Char would not skip lunch if she didn't get so much attention for it. And when Char's mother, Lady Vivian, takes a shine to Grace and invites her to visit, Char is indignant.  Dramatic mother-daughter issues are triggered. 

I was absolutely glued to this book, intrigued by Char's self-deception about her motives, and the difficulties faced by working women during the war.  Women were needed in the work force in the early 20th century, but there was much opposition.  And we see some of that in Char's home.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

At the Mall


 




D’yeh do the Facebook thing?
–Wha’ d’yeh mean?
(
Roddy Doyle’s The Guts)

“I’m having a hair emergency,” I told the young woman.
 

Usually I stick something in my desperately-in-need-of-a-haircut before I go out, headband, barrettes (it hardly matters), but I’d I’d hurried to catch the bus without bothering with my frizzy hair.
 

I went to the hair jewelry store at the mall.  I had never been in the hair jewelry store.  It is called something like Hair Jewelry.  It is full of hair ruffles, headbands, cheap jewelry, and various plastic gaudies.
 

I chose a plastic headband, nothing with ruffles, and went to pay for it.
 

A mom and daughter were at the counter in front of me.  The daughter tried to steal a pink thing with a ruffled flower.  Her mother made her put it back.


The clerk found them adorable.  There I am, less adorable.  Have I grown old overnight?  I think I have.


I smiled.  “Could you take the tag off this?”


She didn’t smile back.


The mall is a horrible place, but fortunately I didn’t spend much time there.  I rushed out to Barnes and Noble before the temperature dropped into the single digits again.  What a lovely day:  in the 30s, so the coat was open.


At B&N the barista asked my name when I ordered a latte.
 

“Kat.”
 

“Excuse me?”
 

“Kat.”

 "How do you spell that?"

I claimed it was C-A-T.
 

When I told my husband later, he said, “Your name isn’t Cat.”
 

“It was just for a latte.”
 

Yeah, my name isn’t really Cat.
 

And then I shopped for books.
 

I found a copy of Roddy Doyle’s The Guts, a sequel to The Commitments.  We are big fans of The Commitments at our house.    I also bought Robert Harris’s new novel, V2. for my husband.
 

And then I realized that I hadn’t chosen a book by a woman, and  oddly I have read more books by men than women this year.  I picked up a historical novel about Edna St. Vincent Millay, Erika Robuck’s  Fallen Beauty.
 

What am I reading right now? you may wonder.    Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, a predecessor of E. F. Benson’s Lucia books. The heroine, Miss Marjoribanks, is very, very funny.  And this is a Virago, for those of you who like them.


And so, you all, I’ve stocked up on books.  I haven’t told my husband yet about The Guts, because he doesn’t like me to bring more books into the house. I’ll give it to him eventually.


Like Roddy Doyle's character, I've never done Facebook.  And so this is my idea of a faux Facebook entry.  But I understand that Facebook is considered very out-of-date and scandalous now, so I will stick to outdated blogging.
 

As Roddy Doyle's character says of Facebook,  

-Wha’ d’yeh mean?


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Etiquette of Prayer Requests: Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm"

 What should agnostics and/or atheists say when someone requests a prayer? "Pray for me," a self-centered friend asks on many occasions.  Sometimes it is to overcome her dread of dining with the ancient ballet teacher who once criticized her pas de bourré.   Other times she has lost her favorite socks. 

"How horrible for you!" we say sympathetically.  But we dodge the prayer question.  In the first place, to whom should agnostics and atheists pray?  Does Terpsichore, the Muse of Dancing, look after very old ballet teachers?  "O Terpsichore, hear my prayer."  The  god of the Washing Machine has never given back a single sock.  "O Washing Machine, please give us the socks."

Hal (Rob Morrow) asks Larry David to pray.


On a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 11, Episode 5), Larry David
attacks the subject of prayer hilariously and obnoxiously.  He is at the club when Saul Berman has a heart attack. Everyone stands awkwardly, waiting for the ambulance to come -  except Larry, who sits down to finish his lunch. Saul's son Hal glares at Larry.  But a few days later, when Larry asks Hal how Saul is doing, Hal says Saul is not doing well, and asks Larry to pray for him.  Larry refuses.

I found this transcript on the web, and it may be accurate.

Larry:  I can't do that. How do you even do it? Do you get on your knees? Do you put your hands together?

Hal:  No, you don't have to... Just say, "God, please make Saul Berman live."

Larry:  I can't do that.... I would submit it's as big a waste of time as watching The Kardashians.



Now that made me laugh.  Larry goes further and further with his impiety - way too far, and it is very funny.  He acts out and speaks up while the rest of us diplomatically hedge around the requested prayers.  I hope my sympathetic comments to friends are equal to signing a prayer contract - but I do not pray.  Nor does Larry David - or rather his persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm does not.

Addendum:  Our friend's ballet teacher did not recognize her - a good outcome.  Thank you, Terpsichore!  On the other hand, praying to inanimate objects is a waste of time. The socks are still missing.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Flair and Compassion: Marian Thurm's "Pleasure Palace: New and Selected Stories"


 I loved Marian Thurm's stories in The New Yorker, and faithfully read her novels and collections of short stories. Then, suddenly, she  disappeared.  One minute writers are beloved by critics, the next you wonder where they are. And so I was pleased to discover her brilliant new book, Pleasure Palace:  New and Selected Stories.

 These delightful short stories, published between 1979 and 2021, are graceful, witty, and vigorously engaging. Thurm has a novelist's eye for detail, and the stories are like mini-novels, filled with minute details about the characters' taste in furniture and showering habits as well as their problems in life and love.   In the early stories, characters in their twenties and thirties are anxious and self-absorbed, worried about their unfulfilling jobs and the dim possibilities of marriage.  In the later stories, they worry about aging parents and mourn the death of loved ones. Sometimes widows and widowers are lucky enough to find love again.

 In "Banished," Cliff, a widower, bonds with a retired English teacher over a comma.  Outside of Bloomingdale's, they stop in front of a homeless man who is holding a sign that says: HOMELESS, HUMILIATED VETERAN.  The woman says, "It's the comma that really gets to me.  ...  Plus, the word 'humiliated.' Retired English teacher that I am, I have to admit the comma between 'homeless' and 'humiliated' kinda breaks my heart." Cliff and Jessa become friends and fall in love but alienate Cliff's daughter.  The daughter's anger is unsurprising, but another loss for Cliff.

Some characters fall out of love.  In "Today Is Not Your Day," Lauren falls and breaks her kneecap after her fiance Alex breaks up with her.  Neither realizes that she will be incapacitated for months: she will even need his help to get out of bed and shower.  Lauren prolongs her stay by neglecting her physical therapy exercises.  But is that love?  A new bitter scenario awaits her.

In "Pleasure Palace," by far the bitterest story, the narrator mourns the loss of her husband, Jordan. The scenes at the hospital are excruciating:  when she makes the decision to have Jordan unplugged after a brain hemorrhage plunges him into a  coma,  she cannot bear to sit beside him while he dies.  But almost equally excruciating is the discovery that  the contractor Ron is botching his work on the new "pleasure palace" of a bathroom she and Jordan had planned.  Ron complains that he can't concentrate because his gay lover has left him for a woman.  She thinks, "... the love of my life has been transformed into ash and chips of bone while Ron's heartthrob is alive and kicking and heading back to the altar for another shot at it.  ... So cry me a river, Ron." 

Other stories are less fraught, dealing with ordinary problems of  divorce. In "Still Life," Brad's ex-wife, Nina, insists that he attend her parents' 35th wedding anniversary party.  Nina  has claimed she is sublimely happy with a new husband and baby, but her husband is not there. Nina's grandmother nabs Brad, and rebukes him for not keeping the marriage together.  The grandmother says that Nina's self-absorbed husband, a doctor,  treats her with no tinge of romance.  

These  stories are brilliant, funny, poignant, and never self-pitying.  "Yes, I've felt that," you will say, or "Yes, I know that person."  Thurm delineates the difficulties of everyday life with extraordinary flair and compassion.  Completely absorbing:  a good book to read on the holidays.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Delightful Weekend Reading: Molly Keane, Colette, and E. Nesbit

Oh, thank heavens! It's Saturday, our day to revel and relax. To me weekend reading means something published after the eighteenth century and before the twenty-first. (I haven't read a new book since September.) The following three are amusing, published in 1983, 1957, and 1899 respectively.

The Irish writer Molly Keane wrote novels under the name M. J. Farrell between 1928 and 1961. She finally achieved widespread success when she published Good Behaviour under her own name in 1981. The name and the book were lucky.


Perhaps my favorite is Time After Time, a sharp, wickedly witty novel about what happens to four elderly siblings, Jasper, April, May, and Baby June, when their vivacious German cousin Leda shows up uninvited. Everything is chaotic - the fashion-conscious April and her flower-arranging sister May vie for Leda's attention; even cynical Jasper, their brother, a brilliant cook, gets sucked in when she shares recipes. Only the horsy Baby June resists Leda's charms - but even she is a victim.  Keane's brilliant novel is reminiscent of Kingsley Amis's satires, especially Ending Up.  But she is not quite as harsh as Amis. 
 


My Apprenticeships
by Colette.  This fascinating autobiography concentrates on Colette's years with her first husband, Willy, the middle-aged "writer" who swept her off her feet and exploited her talent.  Although Willy didn't write, people thought he did: his ghostwriters turned out hundreds of articles and books.  Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels under his tutelage, and considered herself a worker in his "factory." She fought for the Claudine copyright later.


The Story of the Treasure-Seekers
by E. Nesbit.  The Bastable children make an appearance in E. Nesbit's uneven adult novel The Red House.  And so I read a few chapters of The Story of the Treasure-Seekers.  The Bastalbles heroically try to restore the family fortunes:  one scheme is to sell poetry to a newspaper. 
The narrator, Oswald, explains their method.

We thought for a long time whether we'd write a letter and send it by post with the poetry - and Dora thought it would be best.  But Noel said he couldn't bear not to know at once if the paper would take the poetry, so we decided to take it.

 And that might be the best way to sell poetry, don't you think? 


Friday, November 19, 2021

A Low-Stress Holiday: The Peace of Thanksgiving

 
"In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving."-- from History.com

 
Jewel Tea Company dishes

Thanksgiving is a low-stress holiday, a celebration of food and football.  The history books in school said that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrated the first Thanksgiving, eating a peaceful, abundant meal together in 1621.  This historic episode or legend may have been revised or reinterpreted since my schooldays.  But to me Thanksgiving embodies the spirit of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.  It is devoid of the capitalist pressure of buying, buying, buying for Christmas.

And the feast is one of my favorites. Roast the turkey in the oven, make a fruit salad, mash the potatoes, bake the green bean casserole, roast and stuff a squash for the vegetarians, and buy the pumpkin pies, for heaven's sake.  Before the big football game on TV, you can set the table with your grandmother's Jewel Tea Company china, which she bought with coupons in the '30s or '40s, and summon everybody to the table. Last year you retired the Pilgrims tablecloth, because someone found it politically incorrect and "offensive."  Heavens, it was not an heirloom, and I certainly was not attached to it. Let it go!  It's like that turkey centerpiece you made at school out of a potato and toothpicks. Not an heirloom. 

The great difference between Thanksgiving and Christmas, both celebrations of food and football, is the frantic gift exchange (and that Christmas is a religious holiday, of course).  After all,  Christmas is almost over by Thanksgiving, since Black Friday started in October and you've bought everything - or so you think, until you read in New York Magazine that a Kombucha brewing kit would be perfect for the men in your life.  ""Do you ever drink Kombucha?" you ask at dinner.  Aunt Florrie frowns and mouths a frantic NO!!!  None of the men have heard of Kombucha.  There will be no messy bottle operation in the basement.  No beer/Komucha bottles exploding.

Christmas is restless and boisterous, related to the wild Roman holiday, Saturnalia.  There is the trimming of the tree, the cheerful repetition of "Jingle Bell Rock" on the radio, carols at Midnight Mass, and the American obsession with Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Have you, too, accompanied your family to the community theater production A Christmas Carol?  Not again, you think silently.   But if you stay home because of a small cold, Aunt Florrie stays home, too,  and suggests listening to A Christmas Carol read aloud on the radio.

Are the British and Canadians this obsessed with A Christmas Carol? 

If you learn it by heart, you can drive everybody crazy and they'll let you watch The Bishop's Wife or Christmas in July instead.  

But I'll enjoy Thanksgiving first.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Eerie TV, Romulus's Ascension into the Heavens, and Where the Heck Is the Paper?

 On a retreat at a hotel, I enjoyed the luxury, It was clean and devoid of personality, as such places should be. The down comforter was like a cloud and the soft pillows invited sleep.  The only housekeeping flaw was a moldy baseboard in the bathroom.  (Scrubbing Bubbles won't get rid of it, I know. Painting over it might.) I would have chatted with the maid - but not during my short retreat, which was to be part Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, part Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, and lots of naps.



The TV greeted me eerily.  Hello, Kat, it said. I found it alarming. During other hotel stays, I have called the desk to aks how to turn off the TV, because I couldn't deal with screens. What if I was stuck watching Barney Miller for five hours because there was no off button?  My husband managed to turn it off.

Here's why we don't need TV.  During the pandemic, we have watched seven seasons of The Good Wife, five seasons of The Good Witch, a Jon Cassavetes movie with Geena Rowlands (I don't remember which one), Call Me Kat, a gory HBO mystery series with Kate Winslet, a couple of Scandinavian detective shows, and a rock documentary that confirmed Bob Dylan is the only rock star who doesn't take too many drugs.  Everybody else was incoherent.
 

Then I climbed into the luxurious King Size bed and spread out my books.  I am not a big fan of history - my degrees are in literature - but I brought my Livy, because I am fascinated by Roman myths of ascension into the heavens.  Some of these have political roots, especially the disappearance of Romulus. Livy relates the legend with great drama, some irony, and even dialogue. And of course he questions it.

 


The story goes as follows:  During an assembly to review the troops, a sudden storm struck, with much clashing of thunder and flashing of lightning, and Romulus disappeared in a dark cloud.  The rumor spread that he was snatched into the heavens by the storm.  Livy is no idiot:  he has an assassination theory, which he expresses via the thoughts of silent bystanders: "I believe there were also some who silently thought the king was torn to pieces at the hands of the senators."  But then the aristocrat Iulius Proculus proclaimed that Romulus had come down to him from the sky to exhort the  Romans to carry on:   the gods wanted Rome to be the capital, and the Romans should build up the military and pass on their force to future generations. Livy is such a clever writer - he had to be subtle to survive Augustus's reign.  Augustus thought Livy too plain-spoken, and of course he banished Ovid.  Julius Casar was deified after death - and later Augustus. 

I love Livy, but a little goes a long way.  I moved on to fiction:  Shena Mackay's novella, Toddler on the Run. (The "toddler" is a dwarf on the lam. I wrote briefly about it here.) Isn't there an event called Novellas in November? I decided to take a few notes, so I looked for the hotel note paper.  I checked all the drawers:  there was none.  So that was an excuse for shopping.  There must be paper somewhere.  But all I found were hardback journals, and I didn't want to pay that much, since I have many notebooks at home.  Well, was this an example of the paper shortage?  I ask you!

It was lovely to have a short retreat.  I can't quite do the Virginia Woolf/Doris Lessing thing at home, but am not sure I accomplished it at the hotel, either!

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Spitting out One's Tea: Cornelia Otis Skinner's "Excuse It, Please!"

 

Cornelia Otis Skinner

Cornelia Otis Skinner (1901-1971), the actress, playwright, and humor writer, is my favorite writer after Tolstoy and Doris Lessing.  I laughed so hard over her 1936 collection of humor pieces, Excuse It, Please!, that I spat out my tea.  This is not unheard of:  I guffaw uncontrollably over humor columns of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s.  But the lone cackle of a woman reading Skinner in a coffeehouse may be an eerie, even uncanny sound, like the macabre laugh of the first Mrs. Rochester - so I  read her at home.


Skinner is best-known for Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a jocular account of a trip to Europe after graduation from Bryn Mawr,  co-written with her friend  Emily Kimbrough. This is her only book in-print.  Kimbrough's, too.  But Skinner's humor pieces, published in The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Good Housekeeping, are even funnier, I think.  She was not a member of the Algonquin Round Table, like witty, sad, drunken Dorothy Parker, Who Might As Well Live, but a down-to earth humorist who, in Excuse It, Please!, ridicules the flaws "in this country's telephone system,"  wonders why horses are no longer named Gipsy and Rob Roy, instead of the wordy Blessington Parity and Castle View Surprise, explains the horror of acting at matinees in front of suburban coughers, and the stress of taking a literacy test in order to register to vote.

"Ya gotta take a lit'racy test," he said.
"A what?" I asked, stunned.
"A lit'racy test.  See if you can read an' write."
"Oh, but I can.  Quite nicely," I reassured him.
"Ya don't know till you've taken a lit'racy test.  Go in 'at room over there."

Cornelia is obliged to take a literacy test (illustration by O. Soglow)


 

She is always funny, but I especially love "The Wrong Party."  She muses on the fallacy that a gathering of famous artists, musicians, and writers will always make a glamorous party.  And then she provides examples that we can relate to, even though the artistic people we partied with may be on a lesser plain. 

"We were just discussing the Respighi.  What did you think of it?"  For a moment I thought he was referring to something they were eating; then the distressing realization came to me that this was a party following an important concert...

"What did you think of it?" I countered archly...

Thereat the conductor began a dissertation that for me had all the clarity of cuneiform.
 

Then there is "Med to Mum," a piece about the enthrallment of the encyclopedia.  When Cornelia and her husband argue about something intellectual, she checks the MED TO MUM volume.  Soon she forgets what she was looking for. 

If you are neither horsy nor athletic, you will relate to her essays on horse shows and football.  Guess what? She dislikes both!  Those were the days when women didn't have to pretend to be athletic.  I still don't care for horses, other than Black Beauty, nor do I know the rules of football, thank God. 

What I like about Skinner:  self-deprecation was an accepted part of comedy.  Women did not have to be role models every minute of the day, thank goodness.  Nor were they always networking and kowtowing. 

So much fun!  If only I'd lived then, everything would have been a laugh, and humor wouldn't have been censored.  Now on to another volume of Skinner.  I know I have one somewhere. 

Who are your favorite old-fashioned humorists?

Loneliness, Heirlooms, and "House of Mist"

Here is why wills should be watertight:  my relatives are fighting grotesquely over an estate. The conflict is infinite, like a long bad novel by David Foster Wallace; and anyway, the deceased had no money, which is bound to come out eventually. As far as I can tell, his greatest "asset" was his car.  I don't drive:  I don't want to pollute.  But the squabbles over money began before he died.  And that was about the time he ran out of money.
 

"He is the loneliest man I've ever met," a working-class poet once told me.  Yes, he was lonely. I am haunted by an e-mail from another relative:  "Given his age and numerous health issues, no autopsy is being done."  Oh, my God!  Would an autopsy be normal?  Surely not!  What did he mean?
 

Too much Agatha Christie?  



And much wearied, I turned to one of the most beautiful books I've discovered this year.  This charming novel, House of Mist (1946), by the Chilean writer Maria Luisa Bombal, proved to be a gentle Cinderella story crossed with Wuthering Heights.


Bombal's
style is simple but perfect, every sentence lean and luminous.  She begins on a humorous note.  "The story I am about to tell is the story of my life.  It begins where other stories usually end; I mean, it begins with a wedding, a really strange wedding, my own."

The narrator, Helga, is a sweet, slightly bewildered Cinderella.  From childhood, her poetic imagination depends on a reversal of reality.  Flights of fancy are matter-of-fact to her. An orphan living with her Aunt Merdedes, she pores over her late mother's fairy tale books and fantasizes about being Eliza in "The Wild Swans," the princess who knits 12 nettle shirts to free her brothers from the witch's spell that turned them into swans. She also relives "The Little Mermaid." Her favorite story, however, is "The Snow Queen," in which faithful Gerda pursues Kay to free him from the snow queen's magic.  She imagines she is Gerda, and  her friend Daniel is Kay. 

Helga idolizes her gruff, handsome neighbor, Daniel, whom she calls Bear, because of his size and temperament. But Daniel does not reciprocate her feelings.  He has a crush on Helga's beautiful  cousin, Teresa.  Daniel tells  Helga she must cut off one of Teresa's blond braids to prove she loves him, and finally she agrees.  In a comical scene, Helga's scissors are blunt, and as she saws at the braid, cutting only a few hairs, Teresa wakes up.  Aunt Mercedes, who believes Helga tried to cut the hair out of jealousy, banishes  her to live with Aunt Adelaida, a spinster.  The servants say of the controlling aunt, "When she is not walking around with a broom in her hand, she is flying seated on top of it."  But Helga still lives within a fairy tale:  she learns to sew and embroider beautifully, and dreams while she sews her cousin Teresa's gorgeous trousseau. 

But how about Helga's marriage?  I don't want to give away too much.   Let me just say that she marries a brooding Heathcliff.  Will Helga find her prince? What is real and what is not?  We know no more than Helga till the end of this book.  And is the ending real?  Or a dream?


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Reading in a King Size Bed: Short Reviews

Swan's wing.
It was  my first vacation in two years, and I had my choice of rooms at the hotel (and beds). The King Size bed was swan-white with fluffy covers - it reminded me of a swan ride at a county fair.  It also made me think of the brothers from Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, The Wild Swans, who are transformed into swans by an evil queen /step-mother.  Perhaps after their sister knitted magical nettle shirts to change them back into men,  they shed their  feathers  on King Size beds. Of course, the twelfth brother's arm remained a wing, because she hadn't finished the sleeve of one of the nettle shirts - so maybe his feathers went into a Queen Size bed.

 
While I lounged in bed, I wish I could say I drank champagne, but it was actually Starbucks coffee. I sat there and read.  I hurried through Shena Mackay's ironic, surreal, horrifyingly violent novella, Toddler on the Run, and though I admired the style, disliked the book intensely.  The "toddler" is Morris, a dwarf on the lam, who is frequently mistaken for a little boy.  Men don't always like him, and one of his friends dies while trying to help Morris find a hiding place:  this friend falls off a wall onto piles of broken glass at a factory. Morris is decent enough to call an ambulance, but obviously he can't stick around.  


 

All women find Morris irresistible, despite his criminal record. He saves a schoolgirl from suicide - she overheard someone criticize her hockey skills, and hockey is her life - and then he parks her with his grandmother.  He runs away with his girlfriend, Leda, and they hide out in a shack at the beach. Alas, they quarrel over money:  Leda wants some decent food, and Morris won't part with his lolly stolen from a school swimming-pool fund. The writing is masterly:  Mackay's style is part Beryl Bainbridge, part Leonora Carrington, but the hyperbolic violence, which perhaps we are to view with irony, is overdone. This goes in the discard pile.

 I read three-fourths of a clever, well-reviewed fantasy novel about - yes - magicians. Why are there so very, very, very many fantasy novels about magicians? After Gandalf, why bother? What new angle could there be?  This plot has a twist:  a magician tries to lift  a curse from a layman tortured by a group of violent stupid magicians who are mistaken in thinking he knows anything about their plot.  Stupid they may be, but they cause a lot of damage.  Eventually the author segues from  scenes of nauseating violence into gay erotica (with less than 50 shades of gray).   Sadly, I threw this in the bin, because do we need another magician book, or another Fifty Shades of Grey?  (Now the latter was the worst book ever written, I swear.)

Classic crime


 

Finally, I read a brilliant Golden Age mystery.  I adored The Fashion in Shrouds, one of Margery Allingham's best Albert Campion mysteries.  Albert Campion, an aristocrat and amateur detective,  visits his sister Val at the upscale fashion house where she is the sole designer.  She looks forward to introducing Albert to the man she loves, Alan Dale, owner of Alandel Airplanes.   Alas, the meeting goes awry when Georgia Wells, the irresistibly beautiful actress, shows up for a dress fitting and turns her charms on Alan/  But Georgia is rather a strange person:  Albert has just found the skeleton of her first husband, who has been missing for three years.  Is this the right time for Georgia, whose second husband is alive and actually with her, to pick up a new man?  Campion forms theories, and lots of dead bodies pile up, but all violence, thank God, takes place off-stage.  How I love Allingham!   Allingham is witty, writes almost as well as Dorothy Sayers, and has created a slightly less silly detective than Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey - though in the early books, I recall, Albert Campion also plays the. fool 

I long for a king-size bed, but I'm afraid we'd have to put it in the living room...  where it could double as a bookshelf.

Monday, November 8, 2021

From Vita Nova: "Relic" by Louise Glück

 


The Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück can take apart a classical myth and reassemble it exquisitely.  In "Relic," Eurydice expresses subtle anger at Orpheus's narcissism.  "How would you like to die/while Orpheus was singing?"  In Glück's collection Vita Nova, there are other references to the myth and a few poems from Orpheus's point-of-view.

"Relic" (from Louisa Glück's Vita Nova)

Where would I be without my sorrow,
sorrow of my beloved's making,
without some sign of him, this song
of all gifts the most lasting?

How would you like to die
while Orpheus was singing?
A long death; all the way to Dis
I heard him.

Torment of earth
Torment of mortal passion--

I think sometimes
too much is asked of us;
I think sometimes
our consolations are the costliest thing.

All the way to Dis
I heard my husband singing,
much as you now hear me.
Perhaps it was better that way,
my love fresh in my head
even at the moment of death.

Not the first response--
that was terror--
but the last.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Embezzlers, or Life Is a 19th-Century Novel



I try to lead a peaceful life in a post-apocalyptic world. Avoid the crowd, Seneca advises. And do not engage in combat over a will, says Gandhi.  Or wait, maybe that wasn't Gandhi.

As they say in comic books: "!@%!!!~*&A!!" 

The chaos began when the will arrived in the mail.  I thought it was junk mail. It did not resemble a legal document.  On the respectable side of our family, wills are written in crisp legal language, so there are no doubts as to who gets what. On the other side, all is chaotic.  To be honest, I avoid these "trashy" people and their mayhem.  Peace on earth, good will to men, but that does not mean one must visit!

The will commenced with the news of who would not inherit. I tsk-tsked: why had the lawyer allowed this?  In a sidebar, I was briefly mentioned as one of the imaginary heirs to a non-existent estate. I wish I were happy to be remembered, but it has been a source of exasperation and turmoil. The "fortune," as I well remembered, consisted of the relative's flashing hundred-dollar bills at Long John Silver's.  "You don't want a hundred-dollar bill, do you?" he asked often in public. I was most displeased and never answered. And now people are suing.  Unbelievable.

 

Why is my life patterned on 19th-century literature? In George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I first read at an age when the whole inheritance scene seemed fantastically unreal, relatives hover in the house of Mr. Featherstone, a rich man expected to die soon. And Mr. Featherstone is not without a horrible sense of humor:  he plays them. At one point he destroys the expectations of his supposed heir, Fred Vincy, by changing his will.  Then on his deathbed, Mr. Featherstone begs his attendant, Mary Garth, to burn the new will so Fred will inherit.  Mary refuses because it is not in her job description, and she thinks it might be taking illegal advantage of a dying man. (Now that woman has a keen legal mind.  I mean it.  She is my heroine.)  N.B. Fred's behavior is so bad - he nearly ruins Mr. Garth, Mary's father - that he and Mr. Featherstone deserve each other's poor judgment.  The difference:  Mr. Featherstone regrets; Fred has time to change his life.

In  Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, there is a similar drama, with a different outcome. Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetsky, an impoverished aristocrat who wheels-and-deals for a prestigious job in the army for her son, learns that wealthy Count Bezhukov is dying.  She cannily discerns that Pierre, his favorite "natural" son, might be the heir.  She bustles Pierre to the house and physically wrests the most recent will from one of the Princesses, who has extracted it from under the Count's pillow to destroy it. And so Pierre inherits, unaware of the machinations of Princess Anna Mikhaylovna Drubetsky. Prince Vasili Kuragin, who had hoped to be the heir, manipulates Pierre and embezzles huge amounts of money from his estate. 

Oh, dear. This present-day situation is, well, similar but trashier. I can't believe there is a lawsuit!  The executor is occasionally charming but bossy and manipulative, and comes from quite an irregular background. I am not a fan: he quoted the greeting card slogan, "Don't forget to have children," to me when I was an infertile young woman, and another time referred to a hostess who was not related by blood and whom I barely knew as my "wished-for mother."  (My mother and the hostess might have bonded over the surprise.)  Later, after he meted out the leftovers to everyone except the hostess, who confided in tears she had hoped to get another meal out of it, I drew my conclusions about this chaos-inciting person. Dysfunctional family politics:  deliberate, or not?
 


By the time everything has been squandered by the lawsuits and petty pilfering (one of the combatants was an embezzler and the other went to jail for drugs),  I predict that only a couple of hundred-dollar bills will be left.  

There are NO expectations.  It is a chimera. 

I plan to turn on (the TV), tune in, and drop out. 

Who knew life was a 19th-century novel? 


Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Daily Book Shortage: Something New to Hoard!



 

This fall, newspapers and book blogs declared the following weird news to shoppers:  "October is the new December."  What, I wondered, does that mean?  The augurs explained that there is likely to be a shortage of books in December. 

That sounds unlikely.  Maybe a microchip shortage.  There might be a shortage of robots.  But USA Today, NPR, and The New York Times warn us about the book shortage.  Constance Grady at Vox claimed the supply of books is low, but added, perhaps with a twinge of conscience,  that the best-sellers are still plentiful.  It is the "surprise best-sellers,"she says, that may be hard to find. May I say, as a bookstore customer, I have never seen a "surprise best-seller" in December. And James Daunt, CEO of Barnes and Noble, seems dismissive of her prediction, saying,  “There is no book shortage as such at the moment because the nature of the publishing cycle is that these books are planned many months ahead.” 

I understand the holiday angst. It is the panic of Christmas somehow going out of control.  Tears over the wrong gift.  Could a book be the wrong book?  There might be a run on the poetry section.  Where is Shelley, you might ask.  Try the used bookstore, since there is seldom a Shelley shortage there.  

One member of our book group - somebody's niece in Burlington - has another form of holiday stress.  She said, "Couldn't we meet every week in December?  I'm so bored."  I do understand boredom in Burlington - there is not much to do in Cedar Rapids, Bettendorf, Boone, Riverside, or DeKalb,  either, where the rest of us live.   But expecting a long-distance book group to meet in person every week in December is like expecting us to write a book during NANOWRIMO in November (National Novel Writing Month).  We don't recommend such measures, because then we would be a writers' group, not a book group.  

Vaccinated, and with flu shots, we will try to meet in December on the heated patio of a friend in semi-hip DeKalb.  It will be a long trip, involving car-pooling and a night in a motel, and of course it depends on good health. Because if it's not Covid, there's always something unnamed going around, one of those typical things in the fall and winter. But let us hope that we can get together before Christmas.  We need the support, as the silliness of the season swells and the dark nights lengthen.

By the way, has anybody encountered a book shortage? 

Monday, November 1, 2021

The Book Journal Verdict: Ruled, Squared, or Dot?

 

My retired Nava Notes book journal

Book journals are like madeleines:  they can recall your reading history.  How much you loved Wuthering Heights, and how much you disliked Nikolai Leskov's The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales

In recent years, I have kept my book journal in an oversized Nava Notes paperback notebook. Now it is grimy, with bubble-shaped cysts on the back (from outer space; I can't account for them otherwise), and a peeling binding.  

Paperback journals are frail.  If you write in them often, they take on the look of a tattered hiker who has braved a 10-mile hike with a park ranger. On such a trip - but never mind, I stopped at Mile 3 - Nava Notes turned (briefly) into a travel journal:   "July 28:  Saw a possum" and "Shoe got stuck in mud." 

It has been mainly a book journal, though.  I make a list of books.  I tried mini-reviews, but they seemed pointless, also illegible. Of Rachel Cusk's  Outline:  "A beautifully-written nonfiction novel about (indecipherable) writer in Greece at a writers' conference." 

Some bibliophiles have a very involved connection with their book journals.  Anne Bogel, the author of The Modern Mrs. Darcy blog,  has published an elaborate  journal for book lovers.  The ad says: "This stylish journal created exclusively for book lovers includes custom reading lists, charming literary quotes, and plenty of room to record what you’ve read and what you’d love to read next." 

Bogel's journal is cute and complicated. In addition to space for what I can only admire as MLA-style bibliographical information, it includes a "reading habits tracker" (but do we want to "track"?), TBR lists, and questionnaires to "determine what kind of reader you are."
It is reminiscent of Goodreads, transferred to paper. 

Many bloggers have written accounts of their intricate book journals. I am impressed by a woman who describes her tools:  brand of notebook, pens, markers,  something called "book" tape, and so on. Her journal categories include:  Title, Author, Star rating (the highlighted ratings are 5 stars), Format (audio, hardcover, paperback, library borrow, or publisher-gifted), Reviewed on Instagram and/or Goodreads, Genre, and Dates read.  She also keeps lists of series to finish, mystery series to try out, books not finished, TBR, and backlist.  

She is artistic. Half the fun is in the coloring, I swear.  

Well, what next for me then?  A simple 50-cent composition book, or a fancy notebook?  Should the journal be ruled, dot, or squared?