Sunday, May 29, 2022

Memorial Day Weekend: Two Balzacs and a Mystery


"The Reader," by Mary Cassatt

 It's Memorial Day Weekend!  And lest I forget, let me remind you that Memorial Day used to honor all the dead, not just the military.  Doctors, nurses, housewives, factory workers, construction workers, teachers, professors, writers, administrative assistants, bookstore clerks - any person once alive, of any or no profession.  My husband and I grew up in different parts of the country and heard nary a peep about the military.  We accompanied our parents to visit the graves of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. 

Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. 

And here are three books I recommend for holiday reading -  great, but very different, reads.


Balzac's Grand Illusions.  This magnificent novel, which centers on Lucien Chardon, a gorgeous young man and a talented poet,  traces his fall from grace - which involves bankrupting his family so he can live the high life in Paris. Balzac's vivid portraits of dozens of characters, and the detailed description of the history of printing and the corrupt power of journalism, make this an incredibly fast, absorbing read.

Balzac's A Woman of Thirty.  Romantic love ruins Julie d'Aiglemont, a beautiful young woman who, despite her father's warnings, marries the first man whom she falls in love with, Colonel Victor d'Aiglemont. Julie and Victor prove to be sexually incompatible, and she does what she can to avoid his caresses.  - She becomes a nervous, semi-invalid, while Victor takes a mistress. Determined to retain her status as his wife, Julie attends salons and parties, dazzles at parties and dresses exquisitely, sings enchantingly, and exchanges witty repartee with the most brilliant men.  Victor is proud of her, because she is a social star.

 But then, miraculously, she falls in love with an Englishman,  Lord Grenville, who is her match in every way.  But, as in so many 19th-century novels, adulterous women do not thrive - Lord Grenville dies a peculiarly ridiculous death, leaving her grieving and guilty.  At thirty, a more sophisticated Julie falls in love again - but this more sophisticated love also ends in tragedy, from which her daughter, Helene, never recovers. Balzac wanders here and there and scrambles a bit in the second half of the book,  but continues to debunk romantic love, as he portrays its stages in flux. Unlike Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Julie survives:  Balzac does not employ the 19th-century formula, "the-sexually-active-woman must die. No, but Julie is devastated by her cruel losses.


 Who Is Simon Warwick? is one of my favorite mysteries by Patricia Moyes.  Published in 1978, it has a modern twist that will surprise you (as well as your Congressmen, Senators, state politicians, governors, and the Supreme Court, to whom you may or may not send your underlined pages). Inspector Henry  Tibbits of Scotland Yard must investigate the murder of Simon Warwick - one of two Simon Warwick wannabes who have answered an ad and claimed to be the heir of a millionaire uncle. But which is the read Simon? And why does one of the Simons die?  This is a breathtaking whodunit, and, naturally, Henry's wife Emmy, who knows quite a lot about detecting,  gets into the act.  A brilliant crime classic, surely one of the best cozies of the 1970s.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Depilation Dilemma

Here's some news that will raise a few carefully shaped eyebrows:  books and articles on depilation are back! I read a review in
the TLS of a book called Hairless:  Breaking the vicious circle of hair removal, submission and self-hatred, by Bel Olid, and - here's what made me laugh! - translated by Laura McGloughlin.



Do we need a book in translation from the Catalan on the sexism of depilation?  It's not as though American and British women have not already read and written countless treatises on this subject in Ms., The Guardian, The New York Times, sociology books, and feminist anthologies. 

The New Yorker recently published a humor piece on the subject, "Find a Hair-Removal Technique That’s Right for You." I appreciate the irony of the following method:

Not Caring

Free and painless. Though be warned: your hairy legs might lead people to believe that you’re making some kind of statement against the patriarchy (and it’s, like, who needs the hassle, right?). Stay bald, friends!


 In 2017, The Atlantic published an excellent essay, "The Casualties of Women's War on Body Hair," by Nadine Ajaka.  She writes,

The regular removal of body hair is ubiquitous: More than 99 percent of American women voluntarily get rid of their hair. It’s also expensive. The American woman who shaves will spend more than $10,000 over the course of her life, and the woman who waxes will shell out more than $23,000. These habits cut across race, ethnicity, and region. They are also relatively recent.


I enjoyed a recent essay in The Guardian by Dhruti Shah, a young woman who spent thousands of pounds trying to control the excessive hair on her legs. Nothing worked.


Shaving became a daily ritual, as did the cuts and blood and bits of tissue paper that came along with it. The excess growth meant seeking out small Indian beauty shops in west London to find the least painful but most affordable threaders and waxers. I must have spent thousands over the years, trying to be as smooth as women in magazine adverts. But that grooming didn’t make me attractive to the opposite sex or even make me feel at all comfortable. In fact, my arms started to become prone to scarring from ingrown hairs.

Finally she learned to accept herself during the pandemic and stopped shaving her legs.  The world didn't end.  She became comfortable with her body.

But back to the book, Hairless. Phoebe Braithwaite, the reviewer, makes it clear that this is a dialectic.

Olid’s argument is that depilation is a decisive, not a peripheral, issue. “By making out that it’s a banal decision we are robbing ourselves”, she writes of women’s potential power to affect these standards. Hair removal is made to seem an “unavoidable tax on womanhood” and its perception as ultimately a personal decision attempts to seal off the issue from the political webs into which it is woven.


Of course I agree, in theory.  I believe the body hair stigma for women is absurd and sexist  - but the issue of whether or not to shave or wax legs (and other parts of the body) is not high on my list of priorities.  I shaved my legs when I worked in an office.  I wore a lot of dresses back then. Now that I wear slacks it doesn't matter.


Many women- even those who are not feminists - are lax about shaving their legs. They shower and moisturize on a regular basis, but then do housework or collapse on the couch with a book.  They often wear light trousers till it gets very hot; they resignedly shave their  calves before wearing shorts on hot days; they might, before frolicking at the beach, shave thighs and underarms.  


Many TV sitcoms broach the subject of depilation.   In Season 3, Episode 14, of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) gets a Brazilian wax  - so that her vulva is hairless - and she makes it clear that it actually hurt.  But, if I recall correctly, she didn't understand what a Brazilian wax was, and said Yes absent-mindedly when the technician at the spa asked if she wanted one. 

On Casual, another TV comedy, a middle-aged divorced woman, Valerie (Michaela Watkins), dates a much younger man who has apparently never seen a woman with pubic hair. It is Valerie's brother who explains the fashion of the hairless pudenda.  (The things we learn on sitcoms.) I don't remember whether Valerie decides to wax or not.  She probably does. It's TV. 

On Grace and Frankie, a sitcom about two aging women and their families, Frankie (Lily Tomlin) leans across the table and yanks out a long hair growing on the chin of Grace (Jane Fonda).  Grace is horrified.  She had told Frankie to let her know if she sees one.  Witch-like, Frankie cackles.  Frankie doesn't take life too seriously.  Does Frankie shave her legs?  I doubt it!

And so, yes, this will be another summer when I may or may not shave my legs.   It may depend on what sitcom I'm watching.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Poetry Section: In Swinburne's Corner


Joanna Hiffernan in Whistler's "Symphony in White, no. 2"

At the Royal Academy of Arts in London, I recently saw the exhibition, Whistler's Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan.  Joanna, nicknamed Joe, was Whistler's lover and the model for several of his famous paintings, including the three "Symphonies in White." Gustave Courbet also painted her portrait.  These paintings are spellbinding.

I was also thrilled to see the manuscript of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne, who was a close friend of Whistler and Hiffernan, and was inspired by the painting, "Symphony in White, no. 2.)  I squinted at the manuscript in a glass case but could not make it out in the dimly-lit gallery. Perhaps with opera glasses...  I bumped my head against the glass trying to get closer to the poem. 

Why was I so distracted by Swinburne at a Whistler exhibition?  Well, I am besotted with Victorian poetry.  The rhymes and meter!  The mythological subjects! The gloom and the ghoulish obsession with death!  

I don't much like Swinburne's"Before the Mirror" (which I read after the exhibition), but here are two stanzas from "The Garden of Proserpina," in which Swinburne displays his hyper-gloom and obsession with death. 


She waits for each and other,
         She waits for all men born;
Forgets the earth her mother,
            The life of fruits and corn;
And spring and seed and swallow
Take wing for her and follow
Where summer song rings hollow
         And flowers are put to scorn.

There go the loves that wither,
         The old loves with wearier wings;
And all dead years draw thither,
         And all disastrous things;
Dead dreams of days forsaken,
Blind buds that snows have shaken,
Wild leaves that winds have taken,
         Red strays of ruined springs.

I love this poem - though pretty much everybody criticizes everything by Swinburne.  According to Kenneth Haynes in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon,  the reception of Swinburne's poetry was often negative.  Robert Browning objected because the verses "combine the minimum of of thought and idea in the maximum of word and phraseology."  Swinburne's mother complained that her son didn't know when to stop....  and Matthew Arnold was offended by 'Swinburne's fatal habit of using one hundred words where one would suffice."   Some poets, of course, were in Swinburne's corner: Thomas Hardy, Yeats, A. E. Housman, and Ezra Pound.

Swinburne is often enchanting and unexpected:  He experiments with meter.  According to the Penguin introduction, he wrote in 420 different verse forms - more than any other Victorian poet. 


After the exhibition, I lookded for Swinburne in a London bookstore. My attitude was,  Well, you never know.

And there it was - in the first store I entered!

 It was the Penguin that I already have,
but put this in perspective:  where I live in the U.S. - let us call it the wilds - you do not walk into a bookstore and find Swinburne.  No, you order it from Amazon, Abebooks, eBay, The Book Depository, etc. 

Now this is the point where I realized I was probably not living the life I was meant to live. My lips may have quavered as I wrote the following humorous entry in my diary, "You mean -  Londoners can walk into a bookstore and find poetry in the poetry section ?" 

Instead of National Poetry Month, we should have a Poetry Shopping Day.  Wouldn't it be lovely if we all bought a poetry book on the same day and the bookstores had to replenish their poetry section?

The exhibition, Whistler's Woman in White:  Joanna Hiffernan, will be at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., July 3-Oct. 10.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Barbara Pym: The Gentle Art of Indexing


 In Barbara Pym's charming novel, No Fond Return of Love (1961), the whimsical heroine, Dulcie Mainwaring, attends an indexing conference. Dumped by her fiancĂ©, she needs to meet new people, though the conference may be prosaic.  And she cannot help but mock the the titles of the papers on the program:  one is simply called,  "Some Problems of an Editor."

 Though many conference-goers share Dulcie's comical views, the black-clad Viola Dace, her next-door neighbor at the dorm,  haughtily sets herself apart: she is here because she "knows one of the lecturers."  She does not, however, know him well:  she has  a crush on Dr. Aylwin Forbes, whose wife has recently left him.

That evening, Dulcie joins the ranks of Aylwin Forbes admirers.

"Who is that good-looking man?" Dulcie whispered to Viola, as they stood in the ante-room waiting for the final gong to sound for dinner.

"Good-looking man - where?" Viola had been lost in her contemplation of their fellow conference members,  who were not, on the whole, good-looking.  Indeed, she had been wondering what conference could possibly consist of good-looking people, unless it was one of actors or film stars.  But as soon as Dulcie spoke she knew who it must be, and was annoyed and disappointed that she should not have felt his presence in some mysterious way.

Dulcie and Viola become friends, sort of, mainly because of their Aylwin crushes.  And when Viola's landlady kicks her out, she asks if she can live with Dulcie in her big house in the suburbs.  Dulcie hesitates, because her niece is staying with her, but she is flattered that Viola likes her. And their Aylwin-mania continues:  Viola lounges in a park near Aylwin's house, Dulcie walks in his neighborhood and spots him on the Underground (he can't place her), and one night the two women walk past Aylwin's house, where, embarrassingly, they are seen and have to make an excuse. 

Even funnier, Dulcie does research on Aylwin's family:  she learns that Aylwin's brother is a vicar, and visits the church, where a woman is crying because of her crush on the too good-looking vicar.

I chortled throughout this rereading.  In the realm of love, Dulcie practices the gentle art of indexing.  And all turns out surprisingly well for everybody. Pym is just so funny!

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Friendship in Literature: Balzac, Cicero, and Barbara Pym


"You've got a friend." -  Carole King

"You're lucky if you have one friend."  - A relative

Years ago when my mother was in the hospital, one of her  friends came to visit.  Like my mother, she was very old.  Even though it was winter, she wore cropped pants and a short-sleeved shirt.  Both women suffered a certain confusion that may well have been the result of the many, many meds that keep people alive.

It was somebody's idea before a routine surgery that my mother should have extreme unction.   And so a priest was called in to anoint her with oil, which she fastidiously wiped off with Kleenex as soon as he left the room.  All three of us pretended it had never happened. 

But by the end of the visit, her lifetime friend was in tears.  The friend told my mother, "You're my best friend."

My mother said nothing.

So the poor friend had to revoke it.  "One of my best friends."

I wish Mother had at least said, "Thank you," but later she complained that her friend had never come to visit, that nobody ever visited.  I attribute this confusion to the illness, the morphine drip, and the strange surroundings. 

And, like me, she was sometimes too honest. 

Friendship is a complicated contract dependent on a web of love,  fondness, respect, need, and enjoyment.  According to Cicero's treatise, De Amicitia (On Friendship), you should choose friends who have strong character and are virtuous, not mere networking buddies.  Cicero praises friendship between noble, devoted men who see themselves when they see a real friend. (Not the way I've ever seen friends, but...)  He admits it is difficult to form a friendship that lasts till death.  People grow apart; their opinions change; they make other friends.

Cicero, the great orator, is not a very deep philosopher, but he is occasionally funny and does crack one joke.   A Roman nobleman named Laelius, who is an expert on friendship, makes what passes for a wisecrack as he recalls that his friend Scipio "used to complain that men were more diligent in all other things than in friendship; that they were able to tell the number of goats and sheep  a man had but not how many friends."


 Friendship is a complicated business in Balzac's brilliant novel, Grand Illusions.  When the hero, Lucien Chardon, moves from the provinces to Paris, he gives up poetry for the excitement of bad journalism.  He reviews books he hasn't read, accepts money for rave reviews of plays, and writes anonymous political articles on demand, adopting different views for different editors.

But then he is asked to betray his friend, Daniel d'Arthez, by writing a vicious attack on his great novel.  If he doesn't, his editor threatens to ruin the career of Lucien's mistress, an actress. And so Lucien goes to Daniel d'Arthez, sobbing, and shows him what he has written.  The wonderful d'Arthez then offers to write  the article for him.

Later, d'Arthez writes a long, kind, but honest letter to Lucien's sister, who has written a worried letter about gossip she has heard.  Of the vitriolic attack on his book, d'Arthez says, "I made your brother's crime easier for him by correcting the murderous article myself, and it had my full approval."

He goes on,

You ask me whether Lucien has kept my esteem and friendship.  That question I find it more difficult to answer.  Your brother is well on the way to ruining himself.  At the present moment I am still very sorry, but before long I shall be glad to forget him, not because of what he has done, but what he is bound to do..  Your Lucien is very poetic, but he is not a poet..., Lucien would always sacrifice his best friend for the sake of being witty.


And now on to something lighter!  The friendships in Barbara Pym's novel, No Fond Return of Love, are certainly familiar to women and provide light relief.  Two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, meet at an indexers' conference.  Both are infatuated with Professor Aylwin Forbes, their mutual crush.  (Why else go to an indexers' conference?)  Though the two women are not exactly friends, Viola ends up moving in with her and they do form a bond.  It is hilarious, one of her best.

And, let me add here, we are all grateful for our true friends.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Ovid's Poem to a Eunuch (Amores, 2.3)


Ovid's collection of elegies, Amores (The Loves), abounds with double entendres.  Although it is a stitch in Latin, it can seem dry in English even in the hands of an expert translator. On the other hand, Ovid's masterpiece, Metamorphoses, his epic collection of transformation myths, is vivacious and bubbly in translation.  But the elegies portray the pursuit of love in an ancient world that can seem exotic and foreign.

I have been rereading the charming Latin elegies, and decided to translate one of his shorter poems,  Amores, II.iii, to give you a glimpse of Ovid's world.   It is the second of two monologues addressed to a eunuch who is his mistress's chaperone. 

The persona of the poem tells the eunuch that, if he had been able to enjoy the "mutual joys of Venus," he would have sanctioned his mistress's affair with Ovid.  But Ovid also subtly derides the eunuch's sexual impotence:  he uses words like mollis (soft)  and facilis (yielding), similar to Catullus's slangy references to not being durus (hard). Ovid advises the eunuch to implere (fill) the mistress with kindness.  Will the eunuch yield or resist?

Here is my rough, literal translation of the poem - to give the sense, not the poetry.

Amores, II.iii

Oh! You are neither male nor female
 who guard my mistress, and you cannot
know the mutual joys of Venus (love).
The man who first gelded boys
should suffer the wounds he dealt.
If your love had grown warm
in any woman, you would be soft in compliance,
you would yield to those asking.  
You were not born for the horse,
or useful with brave weapons:
A warlike spear did not fit in
your right hand.  Let the masculine men
 manage wars.  Put away virile hopes;
you must instead bear
the standards of your mistress.
 Fill her with kindness, and her friendship
 will profit you.  If you lose your mistress,
what use will you be? Her beauty -
these are years fit for sexual sport - and
figure are unworthy to die in sluggish abstinence.
She could deceive you, though you are troublesome
What two have wished for they will get.
But it is more fitting to have made a request :  
 we ask you while you still have
 an opportunity to place your favors well, with a good return.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Ovid on His Mistress's Abortion


In view of the Supreme Court's recent draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, I have reposted an adapted version of one of my former posts on Ovid's poems about abortion. 

Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14); he was the first Roman poet, to my knowledge,  to write elegies about abortion.  The first poem in Ovid’s diptych is sympathetic to his ailing mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong.  He begins the first poem (I cannot write poetry; this is very effective in Latin verse, but we have no comparable meters in English, so this is my quick, literal translation):  

While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her womb,
Weary Corinna lies in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or  so I believe.
It is often for me a fact because it can be.

In the next lines Ovid writes a formal prayer to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on the designated days. Then  he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He promises to bring gifts and incense.  “I will add the inscription, "Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.”  (Ovid's full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)

He is frantic about Corinna’s illness.  He wants above all for her to live.  But he ends the prayer - and poem - with a gentle rebuke to Corinna.

If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.

The second elegy in the diptych is a furious attack on abortion. He begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.”  He argues that Medea’s killing her children was comprehensible ble because she wanted revenge on Jason;  but he says the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?

 He attacks women who have abortions, saying that the first to do so should have died as a punishment. He accuses women who are exempt from military service of taking their own weapons and using them against themselves, rather than taking up those of Mars. And he argues that Corinna, the Roman population, mythological heroes, and he himself  would not have been born if their mothers had had abortions.   (N.B. He does not mention the cruel ancient practice of exposing babies, especially female babies, on a hillside.)    

But in the last two lines he relents somewhat, praying for her safety and echoing the last two lines of the first poem.

Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time.

But which poem does Ovid mean?  The first is gentler than the second.  The points of view seem different.   The name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem.  Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.

 Fascinating to read two contradictory views. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

"Would you like a Dove Bar?"


 "Would you like a Dove bar?" I ask.  It's all I've got.  No Advil.

And Lynn from California, the latest member of our book group, has been crying for half an hour.  She misses the ocean, she says.  I would, too.

"It's so bland here," she says in a wobbly voice.  "Target, Starbucks."

"Old Navy, Whole Foods?" Janet, a poet, says gently, handing  her a tissue.

At least it's not the book. Kingsley Amis's comic novel, The Folks on the Hill, is not the kind of book you cry over.

No, it's just the soullessness of our town.  

"We're all from somewhere else," Janet adds.

Comfort on eggshells.  Would sentence fragments help? I try.

"We've. Been there.  How do you get through your days?"

I wish I had a reporter's notebook.  Writers are such shits, aren't they?  But it is a good, relatable subject, the problem of moving from X to Y, following a spouse or moving for a job, and feeling lost in a new geography.  And now there's Covid on top of it. 

"I cried for three weeks,"  says Lynn, crying.  

"That's nothing," I say cheerily. "I used to walk to the mall and back every day. That killed four hours.  Five if I shopped at Borders."

"I made a $1,000 phone call to an ex-boyfriend," added Janet.   "I tried to get him to fall back in love with me."

You adjust, but you never really adjust.  The small art museum is uninteresting.   The community orchestra is always slightly off-key.  The town's favorite park is ugly. In the fall, the homeless camp nearby.   

You know what?  I would like a Dove bar!  

You have to become an artist or a writer or a scrapbooker or have your own YouTube channel or something.

But you can't tell a newcomer that.  It's too daunting.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Courtesy of Booksellers, Barnes and Noble Redux, Books about Bookstores, and a Documentary about a Bookstore


Foyles in London

The cafe at Foyles, a stunning bookstore in London, was impossibly crowded, so I descended to a lower floor with my iced tea and asked a bookseller if there were any place to sit.  Rather apologetically, he indicated the benches by the elevators.  "Is there really no place upstairs?"  "No, there's nothing."  "The wrong time of day," he speculated.  "I don't know what the right time would be," I said, laughing.  "Not Saturday,"  he suggested.

It was a relief to sit and sip iced tea.   When you've been springing up and down for an hour - thank God I wore springy sneakers - so as to examine the shelves as thoroughly as possible,  you are grateful for a bench and the kindness of strangers, as Blanche Dubois said. 

The courteous booksellers at Foyles are like magical beings who will not disturb your biblio-trance but can summon up any book at will.

I would like to see a cozy chair or two.  Otherwise it's perfect.


Daunt Books, Marylebone High Street

 LONDON REGRETS.  I didn't make it to Daunt Books, an Edwardian bookshop founded by James Daunt, who is now CEO of Barnes and Noble in the U.S., which he has turned around financially, and CEO of Waterstones in the UK, a huge, wonderful chain bookstore which he also  saved. 

You can read more about Daunt in a fascinating article in The New York Times, "How Barnes & Noble Went From Villain to Hero." 

  I look forward to seeing Hello, Bookstore, a documentary about an independent bookstore in Lenox, Massachusetts, called simply The Bookstore, owned by Matthew Tannenbaum, who saved it during the pandemic by a Go-Fund-Me drive. 

Michael Dirda at The Washington Post  reviewed Marius Kociejowski's  memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade, as well as other new books about books.  

The TLS reviews Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef.  

Dear Readers, What are your favorite bookstores in the U.S.,  Canada, the UK, and other countries? 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Reading Life: Budi Darma's "People from Bloomington" and Mary Essex's "Tea Is So Intoxicating"


 I highly recommend the Indonesian writer Budi Darma's People from Bloomington, a collection of short stories newly translated by Tiffany Tsao.  Like Darma, I attended graduate school in Bloomington, a beautiful, idyllic college town in Indiana, so I was curious about this book.  Although as a midwesterner I "assimilated" effortlessly, and loved the culture so much I would never have left had there had been any jobs, Darma, a student from Java, was isolated and lonely.  I am horrified by the descriptions of xenophobia in some of the stories: even when  Americans are friendly, there is a distance between cultures.

 In the preface to this book,  first published in Indonesia in 1980, Darma writes,

After the close of August 1974, I left Indonesia for Bloomington - a town in Indiana, in the United States.  Once there, I began to feel anxious- what if I didn't have any time to write?  Indeed, this proved to be the case.  I had to deal with an enormous amount of work for my studies, which afforded no time for my own writing. 

Ironically, he was getting a master's in creative writing at the time.  He finished his Ph.D. in English in Bloomington in1980.

Darma's stories are remarkable, poignant and comical.  In "The Old Man with No Name,"  the narrator rents a cheap room in the house of a mean-spirited old woman, Mrs. MacMillan, who insists that he communicate with her only by phone, and that only when necessary.  The neighborhood is far from campus, and farther still from College Mall, which the narrator deems the center of social activity.  When a strange old man with a gun rents a room in their neighbor's house, the narrator regards him as a potential friend. He stalks the old man, interrogates the owner of the neighborhood store about his habits (the old man likes doughnuts), and pathetically leaves  notes and phone messages asking him to be his friend.  One day, he sees the old man racing around Dunn Meadow pointing a gun at people and saying Bang-bang.  This is disturbing, and things don't end well.  A story of incredible loneliness.

In "Joshua Karabish," an accidental plagiarist's identity merges with a dead poet's.  The narrator's roommate, Joshua, a slightly grotesque, unattractive student poet, dies of a rare disease whose symptoms include bloody noses and smelly mucous exuding from his ears.  Joshua had longed to be a great poet, but had speculated that his poems would have a greater chance of posterity if he pretended they were newly discovered works of Keats or another dead poet.  And after Joshua's death, the narrator is surprised to discover the high quality of the poems, and submits them under his own name to a poetry contest sponsored by the Modern Language Society. Almost immediately, he begins to suffer symptoms of Joshuas's disease.  Is he sick, or is it guilt? 


On a lighter note, I enjoyed Tea Is So Intoxicating by Mary Essex.  Like E. M. Delafield's Tension, this is a title in the British Library Women Writers series.

I love tea, and could not resists a super-light novel about the struggle to start a tea shop.  David Thompkins, a Second World War veteran, has eloped with  Germayne, who was dying of boredom with her dull husband and impossibly bumptious daughter, Ducks. David and Germayne have bought a fixer-upper, Cherry Tree Cottage, formerly known as Higgins-Bottom, in a village in Kent, and they think it is wonderful, despite the plumbing problems.  David decides to open a tea shop there.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Arbroath, the richest woman in the village, campaigns against the tea house, because there is a rumor is that the couple are not really married.  Indeed, they do get married in a civil service as soon as Germayne's divorce comes through.  But Mrs. Arbroath does not approve of divorce, either.

David is determined, despite many business mistakes, and also insists on hiring the seductive Mimi, a Viennese refugee, as cake cook.  Germayne is so  exhausted by David's dithering about the tea shop and annoyed by Mimi that she can hardly keep up with everyday demands.   But a visit from Ducks, Germayne's rambunctious teenage daughter, shakes everything up, and is a blessing in disguise.  In fact, I couldn't help but think of Nancy Mitford's The Blessing, though Ducks certainly did not intend to cause the unforeseen ending.

And so how's the reading life going?   Any recommendations?  Any summer reading plans? 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Monica Ali's "Love Marriage" & Bookstore Withdrawal



I am loving every minute of Monica Ali's beautifully-written, smart new novel, Love Marriage, published by Virago in the UK and Scribner in the U.S.  I discovered her in 2003, when Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and I wonder if Love Marriage will be longlisted for the Booker this summer, or for the Women's Prize in 2023. 

There is a joyful quality to Ali's flowing, effortless writing, and her clever twist on the Victorian marriage plot is delightful.  The comic beginning is priceless.

 In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned.  If the television was on and and a kissing-with-tongues scene threatened the chaste and cardamom-scented home, it was swiftly terminated by a flick of the box. 

Sex is at the center of Love Marriage, though there is more confusion about sex than sex. The heroine, Yasmin Ghorami, a doctor in training and the dutiful daughter of Indian immigrants, doesn't quite get sex, though she is engaged to a likable doctor.  People at the hospital seem to define her in terms of race and sex, which annoys her more and more, even though her father tells her to ignore it. 

Yasmin lives at home with Ma, a devout Muslim housewife, Baba (her father, a doctor), and Arif, her rebellious computer nerd brother.  The atmosphere at home is stormy, because Baba and Arif are constantly fighting.  Ma  coddles her son and persuades him not to move out, while Yasmin distracts Baba by discussing rare diseases and diagnosing hypothetical cases.  Ma and Yasmin both fall into the role of comforter and peacemaker.   

Yasmin is not happy.  She has doubts about her engagement to Joe Sangster, a charming, seemingly perfect obstetrician, whom her family loves - what could be better than another doctor in the family?  But Joe's famous radical feminist mother, Harriet, is derailing Yasmin's family by talking feminist theory to Ma.  Suddenly Ma is a feminist and everything is upside-down!

And unbeknownst to Yasmin, Joe is a sex addict who has tired of dating sites and decided to start over with inexperienced Yasmin (with whom he is not particularly interested in having sex).  When he confides that he has cheated on her once (not bothering to give her the history of having had five sexual dates a day in the near past), she is hurt. And so Yasmin cheats - and discovers good sex.   And not only does she doubt Joe - she begins to doubt that she wants to be a doctor, because senseless rules in the geriatric ward interfere with care of the patients, and she is required to sign a letter of apology after a racist encounter with a visitor who wanted to talk to a "British doctor."

In the course of this surprising novel, Yasmin gets to know herself and learns the meaning of family. Perhaps some readers will mistake this novel for "women's fiction," but this gentle comedy is a polished gem.



Woman goes to London - woman goes to bookstores.  Woman goes to two or three bookstores, then spends hours trying to stuff books into suitcase.  Woman puts some in a carry-on bag, which is cumbersome (and uncheckable). Woman staggers around airport with shoulder bag.  Woman encourages Husband to take both bags after they embrace at the airport. 

Woman now has enough books but suffers bookstore withdrawal!

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Weekend Reading: "French Braid," Tension," & "But Soft: We Are Observed"


I plan to read something appropriately light this weekend to celebrate spring.  Perhaps you're digging your garden, or putting a few pots of flowers on the stoop, but either way gardening is thirsty work, and you might reward yourself with a book, too.  You can pair iced tea with Anne Tyler's masterpiece, French Braid, hot tea with E. M. Delafield's fraught novel, Tension, and  a 1920s cocktail with Hilaire Belloc's absurd farce, But Soft:  We Are Observed


1.  French Braid by Anne Tyler.  Anne Tyler's beloved novels, set in a whimsical version of Baltimore, focus on characters who, for one reason or another, are slightly off-center.  Sometimes the characters are unaware of their eccentricities, though their lives shift slightly during the course of the novel.  My favorite is The Accidental Tourist, the story of Macon Leary, a travel writer who paradoxically doesn't like to travel.

Tyler's new novel,  French Braid, is a tour de force, a brilliant study of family awkwardness.   It takes us from the Garrett family's summer vacation in 1959 to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Every sentence is exquisitely crafted as Tyler captures the family's inability to be close - best exemplified by the retreat of the gentle matriarch, Mercy Garrett, a loving mother of three children and the thoughtful wife of Robin,  owner of a plumbing supply store. After the children leave, Mercy moves into her art studio a few blocks away without ever formally leaving Robin. In her art, Mercy tries to discover the essence of different houses, focusing on tiny details that others may not think important.  Mercy needs space to breathe and be herself - and an incident during a summer vacation in 1959 is at the root of the family's problems.


2.  Tension by E. M. Delafield.  We all love E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930), a novel in the form of a housewife's witty diary entries,  which was originally published as a series of columns in Time and Tide.  Delafield's other novels are generally disappointing, but I was riveted by Tension (1920), a study of character assassination.  

Lady Edna Rossiter, a snob and busybody, sets out to destroy the reputation of Miss Marchrose, the vibrant, popular new superintendent of at a secretarial college. The only woman on the board of the the secretarial college, Edna is used to being the center of attention, and deeply resents Miss Marchrose, whose office the men now visit for tea after board meetings.  Edna  starts a  smear campaign by spreading a rumor that distorts an incident in Miss Marchrose's past.  Delafield brutally depicts the damage of this cruel gossip.  Delafield's writing is uneven, but the plot will keep you reading.  You will be horrified but transfixed.


3.  But Soft:  We Are Observed, by Hilaire Belloc.  Published in 1928 and set in 1979, this silly farce begins with a British spy's mistake, which results in a comedy of errors.  A naive young man is mistaken for a criminal mastermind who controls a large deposit of Eremin, a rare substance that is now necessary for powering trains, etc.  Parts of this are very funny, but it is not the lost classic I had hoped to find!  In other words, it is not quite funny enough. But it is very light!

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Tired Tourist Finds Some 1930s Penguins


Whether a 1939 Penguin copy of Hilaire Belloc's But Soft:  We Are Observed is a collectible I do not know.  All I can say is that it was collectible by this tired tourist!  

 I paid  £1 in the UK for this.  Good price, yes?  I was stunned by the cheapness.  I bought it because I vaguely knew of Hilaire Belloc, having read The Bad Child's Book of Beasts as a child.  And so I was willing to give this satiric adult novel a try.  A blurb from The Daily Telegraph on the book jacket says, "In the main the story is a burlesque on the crime story." Now you know I cannot resist a comic crime story!  And it is illustrated with  37 drawings by G. K. Chesterton. 

 It also has a book jacket.  I've never seen this with a Penguin.


The jacket cover is exactly like the orange book cover.


I am also a fan of ads in the back of books, and here we have a two-page ad for bookcases designed for Penguins. They were available in Plain Plywood, Plain Cedar, Flat-Painted Plywood, and Glossy-Painted.  And there were 20 colors.  I've decided on orchid, but I may to time-travel to get it.  I imagine myself in a tiny flat in the '30s, gazing through a lorgnette at my orchid bookcase.   

Here's the ad copy for the bookcase:

In response to hundreds of requests from readers who find their Penguins outgrowing their shelf space, we have designed a special Penguin bookcase on the unit principle:  in four different sizes and three different styles.  The construction is simple but well-finished:  the corners are dovetailed, avoiding the use of unsightly nails or pins.

I purchased another 1939 Penguin for
£1, Helene by Vicki Baum, an Austrian novelist best known for Grand Hotel.  I chose Helene because  I had heard of Baum.  When I got back to my room and discovered  it was also published in 1939,  I realized the bookseller probably had a fabulous collection of old Penguins (though some were in poor condition) and I should have searched more thoroughly.  I really was a tired tourist, though. I lay down in my room for just a few minutes... you know how that goes... and the next thing I knew it was 2:00. 

This copy (pictured on Google) is more pristine than mine!

Many paperbacks advertise books on back pages.  On the back of Helene, there is a list of Penguins published in January 1939, Pelicans of March 1939, and Penguins of March 1939.  On the back of the Belloc, the Latest Edition are September 1939 Penguins, October 1939 Pelicans, and November 1939 Penguins. 

Do you suppose this bookseller also sells the old bookcases?