Sunday, January 30, 2022

Life on the Surface: "Mrs. Bridge," by Evan S. Connell


Evan S. Connell's best-selling novel, Mrs. Bridge, set in the 1930s and published in 1959, is back in fashion.  Suddenly in the 21st century, people are reading it again. It began in 2018 when The New York Times published an essay about this quiet novel. Last year, Ploughshares published an essay on the power of the vignette in Mrs. Bridge.  Most recently the book popped up on Michael Dirda's Desert Island list. 

Some years ago I enjoyed Mrs. Bridge, so I decided to take a second look. The novel is very short:  a concise, understated, lyrical account of the life of Mrs. Bridge, a housewife in Kansas City.   Her husband is an affluent workaholic lawyer, too tired to have sex because he works late. Raising their three children, Ruth, Caroline, and Douglas, is Mrs. Bridge's occupation. Beyond this, she does not know what to do with herself, except attend card parties and lectures. On page 2, Connell informs us: "She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way - because she willed it to be so - her wants and her expectations were the same."

The unostentatious structure underscores her limits and non-linear consciousness. The novel unfolds in vignettes, quotes from the society column of The Tattler, scenes from Mrs. Bridge's social life, and occasional flashes of introspection.  

Mrs. Bridge is not a questioning Nora of A Doll's House, but she is charitable and sets a good example to her children.  Every Christmas, she "adopts" a poor family in the city and she and the children take them a gift basket.  Think of Mrs. March and her daughters visiting the Hummels on Christmas.  But while the March sisters are humbled and feel compassion, Douglas Bridge is traumatized.  He chooses to stay in the car, and is horrified when poor people reach in to touch the upholstery.

 There are a few realistic "bad mother" scenes:  clearly Mrs. Bridge does what she sees as right, though the reader may see it differently.  She alienates Ruth, who dresses artistically, stays out late with men, and does not give a damn what her parents say.  A failure at school, Ruth succeeds in New York as an assistant editor at a fashion magazine.   Caroline is conventional and fond of her mother, but at college she falls in love, and the marriage is disastrous.  Mrs. Bridge is on a '50s Freudian-ish path to emasculate Douglas.  Her creative son uses geometry to design and build a tower in the vacant lot out of trash  - and it is indestructible, because of its concrete base.  Mr. Bridge sees no harm, but Mrs. Bridge is embarrassed by Douglas's difference from others.  She  calls the fire department to complain and they destroy it. That way, she thinks, Douglas won't hold her culpable. She underestimates him:  he goes on to other projects.

As for Mr. Bridge, what I call "the tornado scene" illustrates his essential coldness.  One night at the country club, they are eating dinner when the waiter enters the dining room to say there is a tornado warning and invite them to the basement.  Mr. Bridge declines to leave because he wants to eat his steak.  Mrs. Bridge is embarrassed but stays in the dining room with her husband.  (I beg you, Mrs. Bridge, go, go, go!) She is terrified, but sits at the table.  And the tornado doesn't strike, so they are in luck.  And perhaps she is terrified of Mr. Bridge? 

Connell's writing is spare and poetic, almost a prose poem.  But I did not admire this novel uncritically.  It's a bit like the Stoner revival a few years ago. I enjoyed John Williams's Stoner, but did not consider it a great book.  (I much prefer his historical novel, Augustus, which won the National Book Award.) As for Mrs. Bridge, the writing is beautiful, yet I was impatient with the characters this time round.  Mrs. Bridge's only rebellious friend, the well-educated Grace Banner, unexpectedly commits suicide.  Now why did Connell kill off the only nonconformist housewife in the novel?  It seemed a little... well, dare I say misogynist?  I was shocked and depressed.

Connell aptly sketches the superficiality of characters in the country club set in Kansas City, his hometown. We have all met these people.  They are the same everywhere.   But I wonder:  isn't there a spark in Mrs. Bridge? Didn't Grace kindle that spark at times?  Perhaps I have become more  hopeful over the years.  There are many superficial people - and perhaps not enough Graces to make a difference. 

By the way, there is a sequel, Mr. Bridge, which I also enjoyed .  It is on the rereading TBR.

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 academics.  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

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Community of Electronic Frivolity



All right, you won't remember this. 

It began in the days when everyone was on AOL.  We belonged to online book groups called The Book Band or Rowdy Readers, which was a bit like becoming a guitarist in a garage band.  We had finally found a community of readers, and the internet was all about community in those days, because idealists believed people could truly connect through the written word.

And connect we did briefly, though it was not "Only connect" in the sense of Howards End.  Book group friends e-mailed each other, hilariously complaining about prim clerks who refused to sell the new Maeve Binchy before the publication date; or of drunken poets who insulted the middle-aged faculty wives at a reading.  We were graphic artists in the suburbs, lawyers in small western towns where it snowed in May, retired chemists in Philadelphia, or cancer survivors in California.  Eventually we dropped out and returned to our in-person book groups, because a face-to-face meeting has advantages over a virtual meeting. 

Then everybody got Wi-Fi, and internet connections got much faster.  "There's so much on the web," we said feebly. Actually we didn't find much, except access to more newspapers and blogs.  But some people were addicted to Facebook, which has recently been brought down by an employee,  I understand, though none of the people I know are/were on Facebook.  And Twitter seems too "dumb"even to consider: it is also apparently a contentious medium.

The iPhone may have fueled the greatest addiction.  People walk down the street staring at their phones.  Or they sit on the bus, staring at their phones.   Real time is too slow, nay, too static for those hooked on electronic frivolity.  I mean, who would look at a tree when you can read a text that says, R u there?   

I have been reading Emily St. John Mandel's novel, Station Eleven (and this is one case where the TV series is actually better than the book).  In one chapter, the middle-aged character Clark is so annoyed that he deliberately jostles  iPhone users who block his way as he walks in Toronto.  After a meeting with a philosophical businesswoman, he has a revelation, though it doesn't seem quite plausible.

... he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for a while now, not specifically unhappy, but when had he lost found real joy in his work?  When was the last time he'd been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?  He wished he could somehow go back and find the iPhone people whom he'd jostled on the sidewalk earlier, apologize to them -  I'm sorry, I've just realized that I'm as minimally present in this world as you are, I had no right to judge...

I don't buy it, because Clark isn't sentimental, and this is the sentimentality of a younger generation.  He is more present than the iPhone people: he looks up instead of down.  One has to draw the line and come right out and say it:   an app won't solve their problems.  Tragically, the majority of American Millennials are so dependent on smart phones that they do believe there is an app for everything.  Their eyes sparkle as they talk about the app for brushing teeth, the fitness app, the banking app, etc. 

Sometimes it's good to put away the computer or the phone (a small computer) for a few hours or days. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

How to Plan Your Reading


The Ouija Board option!

At the beginning of the year, I perused several articles on how to plan one's reading.  I love these articles, because they have subheadings and bullet lists.  Subheadings I'd like to see:  "Color-Coded Genre Countdown!""The Ouija Board Option!" And I would enjoy a sidebar on essential oils to soothe the anxious reader.  The typical reader apparently passes out on the fainting couch while choosing between Jane Eyre and The Man without Qualities.       

On New Year's Eve, fretful readers pore over their book journals and spreadsheets, scribbling titles and authors in their planners, then crossing out Robert Musil several times, fiercely, because they do not want to read The Man without Qualities. (Nor do I.)
On New Year's Eve, many plans are made. But perhaps on New Year's Eve, you were partying at a literary bar or club - perhaps one mentioned in Jay McInerney's '80s classic, Bright Lights, Big City,  or Natalie Standiford's 2020 debut novel, Astrid Knows All.  I hope you didn't catch the virus.

Parties seldom go smoothly, planning one's reading goes even less smoothly.  A few years ago I bought a planner at Target.  I loved making checklists.   Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, 70 pages a day:  no checkmark.  Gun Island, Ghosh:  no checkmark. Lucky Per:  no checkmark.  I did cross off  Ludmilla Ulitskaya's 
Jacob's Ladder and Russell H. Greenan's The Secret Life of Algernon Pendleton.  But the books I read were rarely on the checklist.   


I loved this book.

The other day I  came across an old paperback copy of Antonia Fraser's  biography of Mary Queen of Scots. I wonder, if  I took a "Wikipedia refresher class" (depending on the quality of info), could I start in medias res?  But I won't add it to the checklist.

Do you plan your reading or  wing it?  Everybody has a different system, or no system at all.  I have a system, but it is sometimes no system.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The 100th Anniversary of Sinclair Lewis's :Babbitt"



This year is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Sinclair Lewis's satiric classic, Babbitt

We have always been fans of Sinclair Lewis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith (1925) and was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize (1930).   Raised in the small town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis moved east at the first opportunity.  Though he graduated from Yale and worked as a writer, editor, and publicity agent in New York, he never got over his contempt for Sauk Centre.  In novel after novel, he satirized the rigid conformity and mores of small towns and cities in the midwest. 

On this rereading of Babbitt, we admired Lewis's colloquial writing and the clever structure of the book - the first 100 pages  take us through a day in the life of George Babbitt.  George is a successful realtor, a tireless booster, and a hearty member of the Elks, the Rotary Club, the Moose, and the Athletic Club.  He has the accoutrements of middle-class life -  a new house, a motor-car, a wife, children, and vacations in Maine - and yet he has lost his way. 

George is in full midlife-crisis mode: he is  bored by the office and the daily lunches at the club. Family life is also unfulfilling:  his "dumpy" wife, Myra, is preoccupied with domestic culture, his teenage son is rebellious, and his daughter,  a graduate of Bryn Mawr, has disconcerting liberal ideas. Without his sensitive best friend Paul, with whom George does not have to pretend to be full of "pep," he couldn't bear his life.  But Paul, who has a mistress in Chicago, goes off the rails - he shoots his wife, Zilla, and though she survives and all agree Paul was temporarily insane, he is sentenced to two years in prison.

This is unbearable for Babbitt.  Like Paul, George goes off the rails.  He has many regrets:  he wishes he had gone to law school, but his wife Myra announced they were engaged after a make-out session, and he ended up in business with her father.  (At least this is the way Babbitt sees it.) He and Paul once spent a week in Maine by themselves to get away from their families, but now Babbitt is on his own.

Babbitt is the archetype of an average businessman, suddenly searching for meaning.  He tries to expand his consciousness when he falls prey to a thirtysomething siren who introduces him to books (which he does not read) and leftist ideas.  And so he wonders when his friends mock The Inferno,  should he have read Dante? 

As I read this, I thought of John Updike's Rabbit books.  Rabbit rhymes with Babbitt, and Updike was one of the best-read critics of the 20th century.  Updike chronicles Rabbit's reluctant passage from rebel to family man and owner of a car dealership, while Lewis's Babbitt regresses from staid businessman to hard-drinking member of one of Zenith's youngish bohemian circles.  And vey uncomfortable Babbitt finds it.

Culture is unknown to George's business friends.  Let me quote Babbitt's friend Vergil Gunch's hilarious words on Dante.  "I suppose Dante showed a lot of speed for an old-timer - not that I've actually read him, of course - but to come right down to hard facts, he wouldn't stand one-two-three if he had to buckle down to practical literature and turn out a poem for the newspaper-syndicate every day,  like Chum does."

And here is Babbitt's explanation to his son why he has to read Shakespeare in school.

"I'll tell you why you have to study Shakespeare and those.  It's because they're required for college entrance, and that's all there is to it!  Personally, I don't see myself why they stuck 'em into an up-to-date high-school system like we have in this state.  Be a good deal better if you took Business English, and learned how to write an ad, or letters that would pull. But there it is, and there's no talk, argument, or discussion about it!  Trouble with you, Ted, is you always want to do something different!  If you're going to law-school - and you are! - I never had a chance to, but I'll see that you do - why, you'll want to lay in all the English and Latin you can get."
 Babbitt is briefly the Dante of Zenith, a man who as lost his way in the middle of his life.  He  denounces middle-class values and says the liberals are not bad guys, and alienates his business friends.  But he is ultimately bound to right-wing Republicanism, and appreciates family life after a few months of hard partying.  This stunning book, written in the most effective of colloquial language, shows us the depths of George F. Babbitt's muddled humanity.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Musings on Covid and Livy on the Plague


Here we are, in the third year of the plague, and for whole days I forget about the virus.  It is as though we poor humans do not have the capacity to hold too much in our minds. Vaccinated and boosted, I am now on automatic when I go out.  I wear a mask and still try to social-distance.

The headlines report a record number of cases in the U.S. I have  read that cloth masks are inadequate against Omicron, and that we should switch to three-ply surgical masks.  So, yes, all right, I'm ready to go surgical.   In 2022, with Covid still spreading and mutating, I am astonished by how little we knew, how much we still have to learn, how quickly a cure was found (vaccination), and how puzzling it is that people rage against the vaccine.

I read a short account of the plague in Livy's History of Rome (Ab urbe condita libri), and am sure the Romans would have run to line up for vaccination. But Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome, was in complete denial at first.  

When the plague struck Rome, the people were keen on social distancing and staying home, but the king, Tullus Hostilius (672-641 B.C.), thought they should carry on.

Below is my rough translation of the excerpt Livy.  I've tried to leave out the neverthelesses and indeeds, but have kept the passive voice.

Not long afterwards Rome was ravaged by the plague.  And though the men were reluctant to serve in the military then, they were given no leave by the warlike king, who actually believed that men of military age would be healthier in the army than at home, until he himself was struck by the plague.  Then his fierce spirit was so broken that he  became a slave to superstitions, great and small, and bombarded the people with religion, which he had previously dismissed as no concern of kings.  Now the Romans generally wished to return to the old traditions of King Numa, and believed the only remedy for the disease was to plead for peace and forgiveness from the gods.  

They say that the king himself unrolled the scrolls of Numa's commentaries, where he learned of occult sacrificial rites once performed to  Jupiter.  The king secretly devoted himself to these ceremonies.  But the rites were not properly begun or prepared, and not only did no god appear to him,  but by the rage of Jupiter he was struck by a thunderbolt and consumed by fire at home.  

Tullus ruled with great glory for 32 years.  
So what happened to end the plague?  Livy switches to an account of the next king's reign. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

A Cult Classic: Apuleius's "The Golden Ass"


Apuleius's dazzling novel, The Golden Ass, is classic and a joy to read.  Yet it is unknown to the majority of readers of the Western canon,  because they have been taught that the novel was not invented till the eighteenth century.

Fans of the classics will be intrigued, but not surprised that the Greeks and Romans preceded the Europeans in novel-writing. And  The Golden Ass, written in Latin in the second century A.D.,  is a masterpiece that has achieved the status of a cult classic.  Hilarious, wild, bawdy, and religious, it is too politically incorrect to appeal widely these days; at least that is my assumption.  Yet one imagines John Barth and Ursula K. Le Guin poring over this strange mix of comedy, magic realism, eroticism, philosophy, religion, and metafiction.


Does it sound too weird? Apuleius tries to prepare us in his Address to the Reader.  "If you are not put off by the Egyptian story-telling convention which allows humans to be changed into animals and, after various adventures, restored to their proper shapes, you should be amused by this queer novel, a string of anecdotes in the popular Milesian style, but intended only for your private ear, which I call my Transformations."  

 It centers on the consequences of curiosity: Lucius, the narrator, is transformed into an ass for spying on a witch - beware of witches!   Lucius relates his adventures while he is a beast of burden, in the form of the animal most hated by the goddess Isis - and we wait with bated breath for him to escape his captors and be transformed back into a human.  Apuleius interweaves many mesmerizing tales in the narrative, including a long, beautifully-written version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  

Apuleius was born around 125 A.D. at Madaurus in Africa Proconsularis, and educated in Carthage, Athens, and Rome.  He traveled widely, became a professional orator in Rome, and a priest of the imperial cult in his province.  Unfortunately, magic did not happen not only in books:  it was widely believed in and practiced. After agreeing to marry an ex-student's mother to keep the money in the family, Apuleius had to defend himself against charges of magic from relatives who believed he had used magic to become the heir.  His defense speech, the Apology, is extant.

Apuleius's Latin style is convoluted and archaic, a challenge to English translators.  Robert Graves explains that he did not attempt to imitate it. He writes: "paradoxically, the effect of oddness is best achieved by writing in convulsed times like the present in as easy and sedate an English as possible. " And Graves's translation is fascinating, if a bit subdued.

There are many adequate translations, and a few excellent ones.  I enjoyed Jack Lindsay's lively translation, and  of course Robert Graves' is superb. 

So now I shall put on my bifocals and get back to my book.  I look forward to reading the Cupid and Psyche myth again. 

Six Books Set in Winter

 I'm taking advantage of the cold weather to peruse books set in winter.  It warms me up, because I realize winter is colder in Nebraska or Antarctica.

Here are five favorite wintry books and one perennial TBR possibility. 


1   A Lost Lady, by Willa Cather.  Cather’s descriptions of winter are grand:  they make you feel the cold of the terrible Nebraska winters.  The charming Marian Forrester tolerates Nebraska as long as she and Captain Forrester can winter in Denver.  But when the gallant captain, an investor in a  bank that fails, gives away their money to cover the customers' losses, the Forresters are suddenly poor.  Marian, stuck in Nebraska, is not admirable, but we do feel empathy.  This is one of Cather's best. 

Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher.  Known for her best-selling romance novels with pink covers, Pilcher was a beloved and prolific writer - not to my taste, though.  Then I discovered  Winter Solstice, a delicious middlebrow novel about five people who gather in Scotland, not to celebrate Christmas, but because they are grieving or recovering from some loss.  The setting is the part I remember best.


3.  The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare.  Gorgeous language, fascinating plot, witty dialogue - and I love the following stage direction.

Exit, pursued by a bear.
(Stage direction, Act 3 Scene 3)

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin. Magic realism is my kind of thing, so I have long meant to read this book set in a wintry New York City.  But 748 pages is long.  Is it worth reading?  Or should it stay on the perennial TBR?


5.  Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem.  Set in an alternate New York City where it is always winter,  this comic masterpiece bubbles over with originality, and is one of my favorite books of the twenty-first century.  It revolves around an unlikely friendship between  Chase Insteadman, a former child star who lives off residuals from his sitcom and does voiceovers,  and brilliant, paranoid Perkus Tooth,  a washed-up pop culture critic who seldom leaves his apartment and has strong opinions on Marlon Brando.

Here's a quote that will win you over:

If anything epitomized Perkus’s curious disadvantages, his failure to find traction in the effective world, it was the state of his computing. Perkus was the type to be Web-delving on some sleekly effective Mac, I’d have thought. Instead his lumpy Dell looked ten years old, Cro-Magnon in computer years. He connected by his phone line, which he transferred by hand from his living-room Slimline, and which bumped him offline if anyone rang, but also, it seemed, intermittently and at random. Watching that Dell painstakingly assemble a page view, images smoothed pixel by pixel, was agony. Perkus was enchanted - he’d just discovered eBay...

6.  The Birthday Boys, by Beryl Bainbridge.  My favorite book by Bainbridge, a historical novel about the Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott in 1912.  Scott narrates one section,  four team members narrate the others.  I love this book, and it's time for a reread.



All right, people, confide!  What are your favorite books to read in winter?  Perhaps you're reading Nancy Campbell's Fifty Words for Snow? Or perhaps you're reading books set in summer.

 Recommendations welcome!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

I Cannot Find My Fingerless Gloves


Finally it got cold enough to snow.  We had forgotten snow. Soft, white flakes fell all morning, and blanketed the ice we'd slipped on yesterday.   And, oh joy, there's not too much snow.  We're not snowbound; we're only cold-bound.The temperature is 3 degrees.  Definitely very cold.

It is also cold inside.  And I cannot find my fingerless gloves.


Bob Cratchit with fingerless gloves in "A Christmas Carol" (2019)


 Fingerless gloves were not in my childhood repertoire.  My mother kept our "modern" ranch house warm and cozy:  it was energy-efficient. It wasn't till we moved into an old house that we felt the cold indoors.  Those who live in old houses will empathize.

I first noticed fingerless gloves in a film adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It doesn't matter which film version:  Bob Cratchit is always perched on a stool in the office wearing fingerless gloves.  One gathers that Scrooge doesn't feel the cold. But those of us with beating hearts do feel the cold, and we adopt the Dickensian costume. 

Finally I ordered a pair from Urban Outfitters. The catalogue models wore the gloves OUTSIDE in the snow.  (They'd get frostbite here.)  I like the look of these fingerless gloves, green wool with a Fair Isle pattern.  But the wool is scratchy, so I wear them rarely, on very cold days like this.

I searched for them in the socks-miscellaneous drawer.   It was a daunting task.  Not only is this a repository of currently worn socks, but of ancient threadbare Miss Havisham camisoles, old snapshots, powder compacts, a pair of cat earrings, and is that my passport?

No fingerless gloves!


If only I were the seamstress Little Dorrit!  I would make my own fingerless gloves.   But I cannot improvise and cut the fingers off my winter gloves, because they are made of indestructible man-made fabric.

I must end this post abruptly, because I need to add a muffler to my ensemble. Happy New Year!