The 20-Minute Catch-Up Blog: Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave o'farrellThis is the first of a series of 20-minute blogs.

Who has time to blog in the springtime?

Usually I do, but I’m revamping my blog and my online life.  Less time online, more life!

It is beautiful outside, I am here and there on my bike, and I don’t do much writing except in the notebook I keep in my bike pannier.  The last long entry was a list of bookstores in London and their addresses.

I’m sentimental about keeping the list!

But I have been reading.  I started Maggie O’Farrell’s superb novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, on a plane last month, then forgot about it (it’s on my Nook, which makes it easy to forget), and finally finished it. I chose it on the basis of the title, and for once I chose well.   This graceful writer won a Betty Trask Award for her first novel, After You’d Gone, a Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us, and the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

Set during the heat wave of July 1976, Instructions for a Heatwave describes three siblings dripping with sweat and anxiety in the heat wave after their elderly father disappears.

O’Farrell’s lyrical writing is characterized by detailed descriptions of domestic life, vivid similes, repetition, and a wealth of adjectives and present participles.  Writers don’t seem to use participles anymore so it took a while to get used to O’Farrell’s style: in the first two paragraphs alone, we have the participles “propelling,” “filling,” “pushing,” “yanking,” “grimacing,” “scorching,” “steaming,” and “reminding.”

O’Farrell draws you into the story with her beautiful prose, and the participles add a rhythim.

The heat, the heat.  It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs.  It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome:  it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.  The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

In the opening chapter, Gretta is making soda bread, which she has done three times a week since her marriage. When her retired husband, Robert, goes out for a walk, she barely notices.  When he doesn’t come home, she doesn’t know what to do.  Soon her children are drawn into the scene. Although they are steady with their mother, all have their own worries.

Michael is an unhappy husband and father of two children:  he  dropped out of a Ph.D. program when he got Claire pregnant, and works as a teacher  with no hope of finishing his Ph.D.   Claire is becoming more and more remote as she rediscovers herself through Open University courses.

Then there is the good, best-loved daughter, Monica, whose life revolves around the two bratty children of her husband from another marriage. Her first husband left her after she had a miscarriage which is more complicated than I will reveal here.

The most interesting character by far is the youngest sister, Aoife, who has an unidentified learning disability (dyslexia?).  She works as a photographer’s assistant in New York and has desperately disguised the fact that she can’t read.  She has stuck bills, contracts, and check into a folder, hoping someone will help her.

I admired this novel very much, and though the poeticism is not always to my taste, O’Farrell is a bold, very accomplished writer.

Stand-up Comedy

I’m not ready to do stand-up comedy.

My delivery sucks.

But yesterday I was picking up on a strange “anybody-can-go-to-Oxford” vibe at The Guardian.

The Guardian book page is dumbing down to advocate genre fiction.

And Oxford alumnae are facilitating the process.

For instance, Elizabeth Edmondson, an Oxford-educated author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, wrote that Jane Austen did not write literary fiction and that her books today would not be considered literary fiction.

If you or I had written that, it would have been dismissed as nonsense, because it is nonsense, and because we went to the University of Mississippi, not Oxford.

Actually, we didn’t go to the University of Mississippi, but it is in Oxford, Mississippi.  (Get it?)

Edmondson’s was one of four articles adapted from speeches by Oxford alumnae who participated recently in a genre fiction debate at the Oxford Literary Festival.  The debate was chaired by Claire Armistead, the Guardian’s literary editor and an Oxford alumna.

Heavens, you can’t publish such egregious shit in the U.S. unless you sleep with someone.  Those Oxford girls have it easy!

Two of the four articles on genre vs. literary were good, one was hugely condescending, and Edmondson’s was just batty.  So I’m not saying all Oxford alumnae are idiots, just half of them.

Couldn’t the standards at the book page be raised again?

No, because it is about selling papers.

Have English Writers Gone Crazy on the Subject of Genre Fiction?

Have English writers gone crazy on the subject of genre fiction?

Are they genre-centric and campy?

Or is it simply that they no longer distinguish between literature and pop fiction?

I recently read in The Guardian two very odd articles.

1. Elizabeth Edmondson, an Oxford-educated author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, claims it is nonsense to say Jane Austen wrote literary fiction.


2.  Julie Myerson, an award-winning novelist and columnist, says Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is more than just genre fiction.

May I just say, Good God!

emma jane austen penguinIt has not escaped me in my eclectic reading life that Jane Austen is one of the greatest writers in the English language.  Reading Emma was a revelation in my teens.  I have never laughed so hard, nor so identified with a heroine.

Emma is appealing not just because she is “handsome, clever, and rich.”  I understood completely why she preferred doing girl stuff with her friend Harriet–drawing portraits and and chatting whimsically while walking past Mr. Elton’s house–to practicing piano like Jane Fairfax, the bright, prissy, good girl she is supposed to befriend.  (It was not until many years later, when I joined a women’s group online, that I discovered that many fans think Emma is bitchy.  She is far less bitchy than Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who falls for Darcy only after she sees his property.)

Edmondson dislikes the term “literary fiction,” which she calls “lit fic,” and insists Austen’s books would never have been classified “lit fic” list had she published s today.

Edmondson writes,

Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that – not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.

Some might contend that Austen did not write “lit fic,” and, indeed, she can be read on many levels.  But surely we maintain that her witty, harshly satiric, yet also conservative novels about marriage and money are classics, far superior to the books of her contemporaries, Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney?

Let’s face it:  Austen wrote literary fiction.

And then there is the other article.

Julie Myerson reread Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn just in time for her enjoyable article to be published in The Guardian before a TV adaptation.

Back in 1974, I’m sure I read this novel as an adventure yarn, a tale of smugglers, wreckers and the perilous exploits of a bold, shawl-wrapped heroine on a vast and desolate landscape. And it is, of course, all of those things. But the book I just re‑read is also something else much larger and darker: a disturbingly timeless evocation of domestic abuse, binge-drinking, criminality and the mass killing of men, women and children. Most startlingly of all, it sets out to explore evil in its purest and most chilling form.

Not the Virago cover...

Not the Virago cover…

This is all very well, but there is one problem: it’s trash.  I read it five or six years ago, when I still was starry-eyed over English bloggers, who, alas, I learned after reading several of their blog entries, were not necessarily working for Virago, but gave rave reviews indiscriminately to all books labeled VMC (Virago Modern Classics).

Rebecca is stunning, a classic,  but it is the only stunning novel du Maurier wrote.

And so it goes with The Guardian.  Always fun to read, but really…sometimes they go too far.

Men Don’t Read Novels, Novels in Northanger Abbey, & the Two-Day Novel


Man reading a novel

No idea who this is, but he’s reading Steinbeck.

Men don’t read.  That is according to a recent study of 2,000 readers by OnePoll for the Reading Agency in the UK.  Sixty-three percent of British men said they don’t read as “much as they should,” and 75% that they preferred the film or TV versions of novels to novels.

Similar studies have been done in the U.S.   Men not only don’t read much, but they don’t read novels.  Women make up 80 percent of the fiction market, according to surveys here.

Is this true?

I don’t know.

My husband reads a lot of fiction.

In my family, many people read. As far as I know, everyone on my father’s spottily-educated side of the family (only we women went to college) reads fiction.

My husband reads, and his father reads, but they read mainly award-winning novels. (My husband claims he has read only one mystery in his life, and that he has never read a science fiction book.)

I am addicted to fiction and have always been addicted to fiction.  I read it all:  classics, literary fiction, science fiction, and the occasional mystery.

I asked my husband if his friends read fiction.  He says he doesn’t know.  They never talk about it.

My guess would be that liberal arts graduates read more fiction than those who pursue more commercial degrees.  But is that in the data?  I might be dead wrong.

On the other hand, I know a surprising number of English teachers who never read fiction.  They majored in English because they thought it was easy.  I’ve never been able to understand this.

Is there a reading gene?

Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings, one of my favorite books last year, told The Nervous Breakdown that men don’t read women’s fiction.

What matters in a big way is subject matter and men with very few exceptions, won’t read books about women. Something nebulous and thought-based – a book of ideas – people seem much more willing to have that from a man than a woman.”

And D. J. Taylor, author of the Man Booker Prize-nominated Derby Day and Ask Alice, wrote in The Independent that women are the preservers of culture.  He said that a FiveThirtyEight survey on film (from which he concludes that women are better filmmakers)

merely confirms a truth that historians of literature, drama and music have suspected for ages. This is that, broadly speaking and allowing for certain kinds of genre differentiation, the flame of “culture” is pretty much kept stoked by women. The history of the British novel since the early 19th century, for example, is a perpetual triumph for Scheherazade and her handmaidens – written, increasingly, by women and, especially as the board school reforms of the late-Victorian age began to speed up the drive towards mass literacy, read by women as well. The early surveys of national reading habits that began to appear in the 1930s reveal a clear gender divide: women were found to read all kinds of different books; men tended to settle either for the classics or detective novels.

Obviously D. J. Taylor reads fiction.

Northanger Abbey jane austenAnd the men in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (or at least Henry Tilney) also read fiction.

Catherine, the heroine, reads a lot of novels.  She assumes Henry will think she’s silly.  “But you never read novels, I daresay?”

Henry replies,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

Even the silly John Thorpe, Fanny’s other suitor, likes Tom Jones.


Back Street by Fannie Hurst

Resurrection by Tolstoy

Emma by Jane Austen

Futility by William Gerhardie

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Ask Alice by D. J. Taylor

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

The Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver


An ordinary cupcake.

An ordinary cupcake.


I will eat cupcakes.

All right, we went to the cupcake store.

Today we ate cupcakes.

The cupcake has been around since the 19th century, according to a cupcake history site.  (Don’t hold me to it:  I’m not a cupcake historian.)  I love cupcakes, especially on my birthday, but I’m not interested in gourmet cupcakes.  In recent years, many gourmet cupcake stores have cropped up; I’ve always been doubtful that an entire business can be based on the cupcake.  The new cupcakes are oversized; I don’t need a cupcake with bacon in it, nor do I want a cupcake in the shape of a chocolate chip cookie.   I buy my cupcakes at the Hy-Vee, just ordinary chocolate and white cupcakes.

The gourmet cupcake has changed the supermarket bakeries.

Ask for a chocolate cupcake and “Would you like a chocolate cupcake, or the choco-mocha something something cupcake?”

“Just the chocolate.”

What is better than a chocolate cupcake?

It was a gorgeous day today, perfect for a cupcake date. We went out on our bikes with a thermos of tea and decided to stop at the cupcake store.

Each cupcake was labeled with tiny, tiny print.  Could it get any smaller?  My bifocals weren’t strong enough to read the tags at the back.

I looked doubtfully at a cupcake in the back of the tray.

“Does that say Betty Boop?”

I definitely didn’t want a French toast cupcake, an apple pie cupcake, or a cinnamon roll cupcake.  I don’t like cupcakes that look like something else.

Finally I got a chocolate cupcake.  Actually, it was chocolate something something.

“That cupcake was $3,” my husband hissed.

The chocolate cupcake wasn’t just chocolate.  It was a lot of something something.  And the frosting was disappointing.  Was there any sugar in it?  What was that?  An egg white?

It’s so hard to get a good cupcake these days!

And so I’ve decided to make my own.

I very much doubt that I can make cupcakes from scratch, but why not a cake mix and then my very own confectionary sugar frosting?

Chocolate or white cake mix would be the simplest.

I have found the most amazing cupcake recipes online.

I’m leaning toward Betty Crocker lemonade cupcakes with my own white frosting.


box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® lemon cake mix
cup water
cup vegetable oil
cup fresh lemon juice
1Heat oven to 350°F (325°F for dark or nonstick pans). Place paper baking cup in each of 24 regular-size muffin cups.
2In large bowl, beat all cupcake ingredients with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds. Beat on medium speed 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups.
3Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to cooling racks. Cool completely.

(There is also a lemonade frosting mix, made from a lemonade mix, which sounds awful .  And you’re supposed to put lemon gummy candy on the cake.  I’m really not keen on gummy lemon candy…  Oh, yeah, and straws!  Not on my cupcakes!)


Social Media at the Dieting Forum: No Comment!

We're big on the "f" word at Mirabile Dictu.

Does Mirablie Dictu “f—” around too much online & write too little?

I should prepare a balanced meal for my skinny husband, the only one in the family who lost weight on my diet last winter, but instead I waste time at an online dieting forum.

Me:  F—, f—, f—.  I ate a cupcake at B&N and gained 5 pounds.

Diet Pal:  That’s 480 calories.  I ate twice that for breakfast.

Me:  Did you lose weight?

DP:  Lost one  in Dec. and gained  5 back.

Me:  I lost 5 pounds in London and regained them the minute the plane landed in the U.S.A.

DP: Good eating there?

Me:  Maybe less additives in the croissants?

Obviously this is the “free” dieting forum.  If we were paying, we would diet, not eat cupcakes.

It’s easy to waste time on social media.

I don’t have a Facebook page.

But I had a Twitter account for six months last year.  I hopped from links in tweets to book reviews and even articles about non-bookish things that didn’t interest me.  A literary magazine tweeted about several authors I’d never heard of, and I’ve still never heard of them.

Twitter can be addictive.

Seriously, it cut into my reading time.

Finally I deleted my account.

And I started to feel better.

I love being online, but am cutting back again on social media.  I am turning off my comments at the blog, perhaps just for a few months.  We’ll see.

It’s complicated.

I’ve just decided it’s hard to conduct a discussion in a format that isn’t a forum.

I’ve got my dieting forum.

And then there’s the Dancing with the Stars forum.  It’s more fun than Dancing with the Stars. 

The brief “highs” from likes at Facebook, or, in my case, positive comments at my blog, illumine the reward center of  the brain and can lead to addiction to social media, according to  study by Dar Meshi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Is that why we’re spending so much time online?

According to Jonathan Salem Baskin in his article, “Social Media Are Junk Food for Our Brains.  Why Are the Nutritionists Silent?”  in Forbes last year, many people are going on a social media diet.  He points out,

… much of today’s social media experiences amount to little more than tasty bags of mental potato chips. There’s a powerful and mostly-unquestioned lobby that tells us to have another one, and then another one, so institutions and brands happily up their chip production and then wonder why consumers aren’t happy with what they get.

I’ve got to get back to the garden, literally, and you can spend so much time leaving silly comments on the internet that you don’t have time to plant the flowers…

Or something like that…

Anyway, if you need to write to me, I am at:

The Goldfinch & Literary Prizes

The Goldfinch Donna TarttIt was just a matter of time before Donna Tartt won an award.

I haven’t read The Goldfinch. Everybody else has.  Much as I enjoyed The Secret History (snobbish classics majors as anti-heroes), her second novel, The Little Friend, made no impression, and I have no interest in The Goldfinch, her “Dickensian” best-seller.  When I read something long, I like it actually to be Dickens.

I’m always reading Dickens.

But I am not surprised that The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer.

A few years ago, after the VIDA Count statistics proved the dearth of women’s books reviewed in book publications, journalists kept asking, Why doesn’t The New York Times promote great women writers?  Who is the American female Jonathan Franzen? Who are the great women writers?  And so it was decided that Tartt was Franzen’s equivalent–they’re both brilliant, both popular and both write a novel every 10 years.

Hell, Tartt even wears a man’s suit.  What’s with the suit?  Is she on the way to a butch lesbian dance in the 1950s?  Or is it a statement about something I can’t even imagine?

The pre-publication hype for The Goldfinch was incredible.

Some of Tartt’s most zealous fans belong to what I call my “opposite” numbers.  Ron Charles, excellent critic and deputy editor of the Washington Post Book World, called it “a rare treasure,” and the popular blogger Dovegreyreader said that she became the mother of Theo, the hero.  Although I enjoy their reviews and musings, their tastes rarely coincide with mine.  I read Ron and Dovegrey for their voices, not their judgment.

The Pulitzer for fiction is often a safe award. It is often awarded to classics, but they are usually very traditional books. Our dull English major relatives read the Pulitzer winners.  They may dismiss the brilliant PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, as “just too weird,”  but they are always comfortable with the Pulitzer.

Remember in 2012 when the Pulitzer board decided not to award the prize for fiction?  The board disliked the three books recommended by the fiction committee; they decided no book deserved the prize.  Did that strike you as just a little bit crazy?   If they didn’t like those three books, couldn’t they find a book they did like?  (Or was it not about the books at all, but about blacklisting somebody on the fiction committee?  Or have I been reading too many mysteries?)

Now that The Goldfinch has won the Pulitzer, will it go on to win the prizes in the UK?

It is shortlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize.  And we still have the Man Booker Prize award ahead.

If a book is over-hyped, I wait at least two or three years before I read it.   Perhaps The Goldfinch will turn out to be one of my favorites, but I won’t know till 2016.