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.

The Grapes of Wrath & Four Other Links

Grapes of Wrath First Edition

Here are some links to interesting articles:

1.  Abebooks on the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

2.  Daniel Lefferts writes at Bookish about “The Brokest Fictional Characters: Charlie Bucket, Katniss Everdeen, and More.”

3.  Elmear McBride reviews Agota Christoff’s The Notebook and The Illiterate at TLS.

4.  Michael Dirda writes about the great American novel at VQR

5.  Tracie McMillan writes about organic food and the poor (Common Dreams).

The Off Your Meds Book Group

BookGroupIf a person with a background in literature leads a book group, it is usually fine.  If an amateur runs it, it is often terrible.

I’ve been to all kinds of book groups:  the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I used to run a book group for people with chronic illnesses.  I called it the Off Your Meds book group.  Friends of friends of friends got the word out and quietly recruited people.  Everybody in the group was ill with something, cancer, leukemia, heart disease, depression, bipolar disorder, HIV.  Most wanted to be off their meds, because the pills made them sick–some drugs were actually poisonous–and they wished for God’s sake they could use herbal remedies instead.  (Depending on how sick they were, sometimes that worked.)

I’m a lifetime reader, former teacher and book reviewer, and I can put together a discussion very quickly, and I must say this was a brilliant idea for a book group.  (I sent the list of books to somebody in Syracuse : I wonder if she ever did anything with it.)  We read a lot of obscure literary fiction and memoirs.  “Where do you find these books?”  said a woman who fell in love with Jonis Agee’s Resurrection.

I found books in bookstores, in the days when we still had bookstores.   If you have the time to browse, even at chain bookstores, you can still find some stunning new books.

And I loved the people in my book group.  They were of all backgrounds, rich and poor, all very smart, all very tolerant of each other’s frailties.  Book group only lasted an hour, and afterwards we went out for pastry.  There were usually ten of us, and though we didn’t have much in common, it was nice to get together every couple of months.  “I’ve been nauseous for a month now on this f—–g pill,” or “I’ve gained 50 pounds on X,” “This pill ruined my liver,” or “It does nothing for me.  But it’s even worse without.”

People came even when they were sick.  One woman’s mother brought her when she was very ill with bipolar disorder. She talked very fast, and though she didn’t make much sense, I think she had read the book:  she had been put on some very strong meds, and should have been in the hospital, but they don’t keep people in the hospital very long (which is fine if you have a mother, as she did, but maybe not so fine if you live alone on disability, as others did).

“I was damned if I was going to miss book group because of this f—-ing disease,” she told me later.

And I think it was damned fine she came to the group, I really do.

When I moved, I didn’t found a new Off Your Meds book group.  You only do that once in your life.

I agreed to lead a Midwestern book group at Borders, but I changed my mind.  I didn’t want to lead; I wanted to participate.

Some book groups are good, some are bad.

I attended a Great Books group, and it was the worst I ever attended

Most of you probably know about Great Books.

In 1947,  Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard, two University of Chicago professors, founded the Great Books program to teach the classics to adults.

Things get a little crazy when you attend public book groups.

Imagine going to a discussion of Plato’s The Crito where the leader declares Socrates was “backwards” and thank God we have progressed.

I have a master’s in classics, and once read the Crito in Greek.  If I’d known what the leader was like, I would have prepared a mini-lecture and whipped the group into shape.  Only one other person in the group appreciated Plato.  She said they never liked the books, but they were “nice people.”

I didn’t exactly see “nice” people there.  I saw a bunch of people who needed a strong leader so the Crito would make sense to them.

I have a history with the Great Books groups.  (So does my husband.)  Many years ago, when I was ten or eleven, I was kicked out of the Junior Books Group.  Well, the entire group was canceled, because the leaders were so angry at us.  The selections were too young for us:  Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Just So Stories, Treasure Island…   My best friend and I cut Junior Great Books regularly (it was held on Saturdays) and read the Betsy-Tacy books instead (real Midwestern classics) or Jane Eyre.

And then the leaders canceled the group because none of us had read Treasure Island.  Not a one!  And all of us were readers.

My husband also signed up for Junior Great Books in his hometown, and had a similar experience.  He didn’t read the books, either.  He wanted to be out playing baseball.  At the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, where we often see boxes of Great Books selections, we always laugh.  Most of the books are made up of excerpts.  As former teachers, neither of us approves of this approach.

Private book groups are really the best.  Then you’re with your friends, or at least with people who know how to read.

But I recently attended a public book group discussion of Pride and Prejudice at a local bookstore. Fifteen women showed up, which was certainly encouraging.

I expected the women to like Jane Austen, but they were oddly critical.  “We’ve progressed so much since Jane Austen’s day,” they told one another.


And one very nice woman had it mixed up with Jane Eyre.  She kept wanting to know if we had read Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen.

I’m always open to trying a new book group, though.  I belonged to a great science fiction group, but the leader moved away, and the group fell apart.  (Sound familiar?  Yes.)

And I simply can’t attend any classics book group anymore, because I f—–g know more about those ancient boys than the leaders do.

One of these days I’ll find another great book group, though.  Maybe at the tiny indie…

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

WeAreAllCompletely_paperback FowlerKaren Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves recently won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

It was on my reading list last year.

Finally I read it.

It is spellbinding.

Rosemary, a psychologist’s daughter who grows up in Bloomington, Indiana, is the narrator of this transcendent coming-of-age novel.   For the first five years of her life, Rosemary is raised with a chimp, Fern, whom she and her older brother, Lowell, regard as their sister.  One day Fern disappears; Rosemary never understands why. Finally, as a college student, she  explores the mystery of why Fern was sent away.

I love novels about apes, though most fall in the category of the romance-with-monster novels, i.e., Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape and one of the novels in Jane Gaskell’s Atlan series.  I am also very fond of Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets, in which a marine biologist falls in love with a dolphin.

Fowler’s book is not a romance: it is a novel about family.  It is also about animals and human beings and their similarities and differences (mainly linguistic). It could have been predicted that I would love this book.

It is one of the two best contemporary novels I have read this year, the other being D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice.

Fowler is an eclectic writer of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.  She is best known for The Jane Austen Book Club, but is also the author of a brilliant science fiction novel, Sarah Canary, and The Sweetheart Season, a charming literary novel about a women’s baseball team at a cereal factory in the wake of World War II.  Fowler is an SF celebrity:  she has won two World Fantasy Awards, a Nebula award, and is the co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr.  Award for science fiction or fantasy that “expands or explores our understanding of gender.”

And now the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Rosemary looks back over her life and tells her story.  In the ’90s, as a student at The University of California-Davis, she came to grips with the puzzle of the loss of Fern.  But not until page 76 (in the e-book) does she reveal that Fern was a chimp.

Some of you may have figured that out already.  Others may feel it was irritatingly coy of me to have withheld Fern’s essential simian-ness for so long.

In my defense, I had my reasons.  I spent the first fifteen years of my life defined by this one fact, that I was raised with a chimpanzee.  I had to move halfway across the country in order to leave that fact behind.  It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone.

Fowler has written a stunning novel. She tells us the history of cross-raised chimpanzees.  There were a few families in the U.S. in the 20th century raising chimpanzees with human beings.  In the 1930s, when the Kelloggs raised a chimp with their child, their purpose was “to compare and contrast developing abilities, linguistic and otherwise.”  Rosemary’s father says his purpose was the same, though Rosemary is skeptical, since the experiments ruined the Kelloggs’ credibility.  As a baby Rosemary was twinned with Fern, who came to live them when she was a month old.  They were constantly tested by graduate students, and both very much liked the attention.  Fern often out-performed Rosemary.

So what happened?  Their parents tell Rosemary and Lowell that Fern was sent to a farm.  When Lowell runs away at 18, he leaves a note:  Fern was not sent to a farm.  Lowell becomes an Animal Liberation Front activist, but he is not able to free Fern from a lab.

Fowler’s moving novel is never sentimental, even as we learn terrible truths.  She lightens it up with a running gag about a suitcase misplaced by the airline.  In the suitcase are her mother’s journals about raising Rosemary and Fern; Rosemary does not want to read them.  The wrong suitcase is delivered to her, and in it is a ventriloquist’s dummy, Madame DeFarge, which Rosemary and her friend take to a number of bars.

Fowler also writes a catalogue of the fates of other cross-fostered chimps, and it is every bit as moving as the catalogue of the dead in The Iliad.

Maybelle (born in 1965) and Salome (1971) both died of a severe diarrhea that developed within days of their respective families’ going on vacation and leaving them behind.  No underlying physical condition for the diarrhea was found in either case.


After his return to a resarech facility, Ally (born 1969) also developed a life-threatening diarrhea.  He pulled out his own hair and lost the use of one arm, but none of these things killed him.  There are rumors, unsubstantiated, that he died in the 1980s in the medical labs, victim of an experimental but fatal dose of insecticide.

The lives of Rosemary and Lowell are eerily parallel at times to Fern’s in a lab:  Rosemary is jailed briefly with an impulsive friend, and Lowell is pursued by the FBI for animal rights “terrorism.”  In the end, while the detached father and angry brother prove ineffective,  Rosemary and her mother become heroines.  And so in some ways this is a feminist novel.

It is an utterly perfect little book.

There are still some gems in contemporary fiction.

Read this!

Fannie Hurst’s Back Street

Anything you want, we got it right here in the U.S.A.–Chuck Berry, “Back in the U.S.A.”

I’m ba-a-a-ack in the U.S.A.

We love London and are going back next year.

Meanwhile, I enjoy being an American because the coffee is just so damned good here.

Although I adore English literature, and you probably thought I was reading Dickens, I am reading American pop fiction of the ’20s and ’30s at the moment.  Vintage Movie Classics has reissued four books that inspired movies, Edna Ferber’s Showboat and Cimarron, Fannie Hurst’s Back Street, and Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams, which won the Pulitzer in 1922. And Ferber won the Pulitzer in 1925 for So Big.

So you can see, these are  good books, even if not quite classics.

Back Street Fannie HurstI recently read Fannie Hurst’s Back Street, published in 1930.  Back Street was adapted three times for the screen, the first starring Irene Dunne and John Boles (1932), the second starring Margaret Sullivan and Charles Boyer (1941), and the third starring Susan Hayward, John Gavin, and Vera Miles (1963).

In the opening chapter of Back Street, which is a fast, compelling read, Ray Schmidt, a beautiful young German-American woman in Cincinnati, is irresistibly attractive to men. She enjoys living on the verge of “fast” and has few qualms about the salesmen she allows to take her to dinner.  She flirts, but she doesn’t let the men go too far.

Still, she knows people talk about her.

Ray lets the boys get fresh with her” was the sotto voce indictment of Baymiller Street, even back in the days before she had lengthened her skirts, put up her hair and developed to its fullest sense that promise of ‘style’ which had already characterized her as a child.

The gossip hurts her, but she has a sense of balance.  She enjoys being sexy.  She likes the excitement of going out with men, eating and drinking beer at good German restaurants, gambling a little in the back rooms, and she doesn’t mind a little bit of spooning.  She isn’t just a flirt, though:  she has a good business head.  She works at her father’s ladies’ fittings emporium, and has been offered a job in New York.

Kurt, owner of a bicycle shop, wants to marry her, but then she meets Walter Saxel, a gorgeous Jewish man with whom she falls madly in love.  Because of the demands of her scheming, hysterical, supposedly pregnant stepsister, she is late for a date with Walter and misses the opportunity to meet his mother.  And because of the stigma of intermarriage, Walter marries the nice Jewish girl with banking connections his mother has picked out for him.

Six years later when Ray and Walter meet again in New York, they find they are still in love and she becomes his mistress.

Hurst describes Ray’s isolation in a back street apartment.  Although she goes to the races and plays cards with other women like her, she devotes her life to Walter, who keeps her on a tight budget even after he becomes a millionaire banker.  She is anxious about money many times over the years, and one summer when he goes to Europe she dares not contact him to tell him he forgot to leave the check.  The women she sells painted china to are on vacation, she cannot find a job, and she depends on winnings at the races.  She never has any security, because Walter has decided he wants her to live a simple life.

And he is not very bright:  he could not have succeeded as a banker without her advice.  She even writes his speeches.

Her poodle, Babe, takes the place of the children she’ll never have, and, as in all dog stories, well, I won’t tell you, but… poor Babe!

I very much enjoyed this novel.  The writing is good enough, not great, but you read it for the plot and characters.  This is really a pageturner, like Valley of the Dolls without drugs.   Hurst also wrote Imitation of Life, which was adapted for a film.

And now here’s Linda Ronstadt and Chuck Berry, “Back in the U.S.A.”

Kathleen Raine’s “I Had Meant to Write a Different Poem”

Kathleen Raine

Kathleen Raine

April is National Poetry Month.

Here is a link to The Academy of American Poets’ “30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” which includes “Memorize a Poem,” “Organize a Poetry Reading,” “Visit a Poetry Landmark.” and “Write a Letter to a Poet.”

In the ’90s members of my online book group earnestly typed up and posted favorite poems during April. We even attempted to discuss Octavio Paz in a chatroom.  (Not quite the right venue, but it’s sweet that we tried.)

In the spirit of my poetry-loving book group, I decided to post one of Kathleen Raine’s poems here.

In college I enjoyed Raine’s three-volume autobiography, but it took me 30 years to find a book of her poetry.  I was lucky enough to find The Collected Poems of Kathleen Raine at the London Review of Books Shop.

The poem doesn’t look quite as it does on the page–it’s something about the blog format–but it’s a lovely poem anyway.

“I Had Meant to Write a Different Poem”

I had meant to write a different poem,
But, pausing for a moment in my unweeded garden,
Noticed, all at once, paradise descending in the morning sun
Filtered through leaves,
Enlightening the meagre London ground, touching with green
Transparency the cells of life.
The blackbird hopped down, robin and sparrow came,
And the thrush, whose nest is hidden
Somewhere, it must be, among invading buildings
Whose walls close in,
But for the garden birds inexhaustible living waters
Fill a stone basin from a garden hose.

I think, it will soon be time
To return to the house, to the day’s occupation,
But there, time neither comes nor goes.
The birds do not hurry away, their day
Neither begins nor ends.
Why can I not stay? Why leave
Here, where it is always,
And time leads only away
From this hidden ever-present simple place.



My Cousin & I Get Obnoxious As We Plan Trips on Our Computers

It’s a new day today and the coffee is strong
I’ve finally got some rest.–R.E.M.’s “Houston”

Pillow fight at Trafalgar Square.   I'm SO glad I missed this.

I’m glad I missed International Pillow Fight Day at Trafalgar Square.

My cousin and I try to figure out who’s going where when on vacation this summer.  We have a contest to see who is faster at calculating rates: she on her iPhone, I on my laptop.

Do we want to go to London, Lisbon, or Laredo?

I didn’t spend all my London money, so I see no reason not to take another trip to London.

I invited my husband, because it would be nice to travel with someone who can read a map, and I suspect that every place I went on the tube was just a brisk walk away if I’d known where I was going.

“I’m not going anywhere this summer,” he says.

I’m  disappointed.  I wonder if he’s willing to go later, or if he means he’s never going at all.  He hates to fly and says he’ll wait till Obama builds a Chunnel to England.

That will never happen, right?

While my cousin drank martinis and checked flights and hotel rates, she wondered why I don’t want to take her to London.   Uh, because she would rather drink in the hotel than go out?  Because the last time we traveled together we ended up camping in a park where it was rumored that her favorite band would play, and it was just a cover band?

“I’m kidding–what could be more boring?  But I would have got your five pounds back from that thing at Dabblers’ Books.”

“Daunt Books.”

“And, yeah, I would have shoplifted the book by A. B. Penis.”

“A. L. Kennedy?”

This is why it’s good to have a librarian in the family.  No electronic chip can defeat her, and the day my cousin walks into Daunt Books is the day they pay her to leave.

I do love my cousin.  She never reads a book, except for classic pulp fiction by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but she does know good literature from bad, and is a good librarian.

“You’re too soft on Persephones,” she says when she reads my blog.

She will read neither Persephones nor “the latest NYRB classic by a Polish-German Catholic-Jewish Gypsy Socialist whose 26 unpublished books have just been found in Berlin.”

Yes, she’s brutal, if very very funny.

Since I had nothing else to do while I drank my Starbucks molto but wait for her to calculate the cost of a trip to Tokyo, I realized idly that bloggers could and should developSelf-Guided Junkets for Tokyo, London, and every city.  The London guidebooks were helpful, but the information I got from people who commented at the blog was crucial.

It would be much quicker and easier, however, to go to Houston than to Europe.

Houston is filled with promise
Laredo is a beautiful place
Galveston sings like that song that I loved
Its meaning has not been erased

An American Classic: Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness

Laurie Colwin

Laurie Colwin

Those of you who have read Laurie Colwin’s wonderful fiction and charming cookbooks will understand what brings me back again and again to her masterpiece, Family Happiness. This slender, quirky novel is a comic version of  Anna Karenina, as might have been written by Jane Austen, with  many comic twists, much confusion, and ultimately triumph for the heroine.

People aren’t perfect. Colwin knows this.

In Family Happiness, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest is tired of being perfect.

Polly Solo-Miller Demarest was the perfect flower of the Solo-Miller family.  this family had everything:  looks, brains, money, a strong, fortified sense of clan, and branches in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as London.

Can’t you already feel the pressure?

Everyone takes Polly for granted. Her lawyer husband pays no attention to her, and her finicky mother gives unconditional love to Polly’s two odd brothers but is critical of Polly.  Polly is the mother of two children, and her mother thinks she shouldn’t work.

Family Happiness by Laurie ColwinPolly does get respect at work.  She is coordinator of Research in Reading Projects and Methods for the information arm of the Board of Education.

She leaves Sunday brunch at her parents’ early to go to a reading seminar.  A reading seminar on Sunday? you ask.

She is actually meeting her painter lover, Lincoln, “the friend of her heart.”

Polly is conflicted about the affair, but this friendship with Lincoln keeps her going in hard times. She knows she couldn’t run away with him:  he loves her but needs solitude.  What should she do?  She is in agony.  Her husband Henry comes home late night after night and barely talks to her.  She feels she has to beg him for sex.

We feel for her predicament, but  it is Colwin’s wit and the understated description of Polly’s confusion that make us love Polly so.  We can feel her frustration as she walks home in the snow,  unable to find a taxi,  trying to balance “her briefcase, her handbag, and two large shopping bags containing her ten baguettes, the cheeses, salted almonds, a box of cigars, a large box of her family’s favorite chocolate, two bottles of champagne, and a bottle of brandy….  She felt like throwing herself and everything else into the street.”

And then she mentions Anna Karenina.

Polly had had her adolescent swivets, her bouts of nerves, her small heartaches.  She had read, good student of literature, novels in which great unhappiness and emotional tragedy unfolded.  She knew these states of feeling existed.  She had sat on the deck of an ocean liner going to France on her honeymoon and read Anna Karenina.  Heroines in literature fell from grace little by little.  Did nice people ever feel this miserable?  Lincoln said they did, but Polly did not really know many people outside her family; and no one in her family, she was sure, had ever felt the way she did, or if they had, they had triumphed over it in secret.  Her distress frightened her.  It was not because she had fallen in love with Lincoln.  It was what allowing herself to fall in love revealed:  that everything was wrong.

The love affair allows Polly to reach for happiness.  She doesn’t leave her family; she loves her family; but she starts demanding more.  And the ending is unexpected.  I won’t tell you what happens to Polly, but you will be surprised, too.

The New York Times ran a story last week on Colwin, whose cookbooks, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, both collections of her Gourmet Magazine columns, are still very popular.  (I have both of them, and the recipes are excellent.)  Here is a link to  he NYT article, “Laurie Colwin: A Confidante in the Kitchen.”

What are your favorite Laurie Colwin books?  I’m sure that many of you, like me, read them in the ’80s.  She died at 48:  so sad.  Her books should be in the Library of America.  (Another selection I’m happy to make for them.:))

Feminine Wiles

A male acquaintance suggested I try “feminine wiles” to persuade my husband to take a trip with me to London.

“I think I’m a little beyond feminine wiles.”

“How old are you?”

I laughed.

Yes, I’ve belonged to the “girls’ club of life” for a long time, but I’ve never been one for wiles.  Life is wonderful if you’re not a wily woman.  And wiles don’t matter one way or another when someone doesn’t want to get on a plane.

In a strange way, I feel that I belong not only to the “wileless” girls’ club but to the “wily” boys’ club, too.

It has something to do with defying gender expectations.  Women are expected to have children.   If you don’t become a mother, all your friends who are mothers, even/especially those who are bad at it, try to persuade you to become one (presumably equally bad).  They’re dropping with boredom and letting their kids watch Sesame Street twice a day, but they feel you, too, should drop with boredom and let your kids watch Sesame Street twice a day.  They send you greeting cards with a picture of a woman with a briefcase and the slogan “Oh my God, I forgot to have children.”

“I didn’t forget, I planned,” I say.

Then, in my late thirties, I finally got pregnant, bled, got pregnant, and bled, and after I charted my cycle, the doctor said I needed to take fertility drugs.

If I couldn’t have a baby naturally, I wasn’t interested.  I certainly wasn’t going to take hormones.

And then the lecture.  Apparently if I did not take fertility drugs, I was somehow betraying middle-class women everywhere.  My education would be wasted if I didn’t have a baby!

I don’t think a classics degree is necessarily the best qualification for motherhood.

The doctor was a woman, and women can be really hard on women who don’t conform.  In the ’70s sisterhood was powerful, but standards for sisterhood have narrowed over the years.  She saw no reason why a healthy woman shouldn’t spend months taking hormones that no doubt cause cancer in women and babies.

She was like a Stepford doctor.  She had to be in control.

Here’s the thing about men.  They may be hard on their girlfriends or wives and expect conformity, but they honestly don’t care much what a non-related woman does.  At work they seldom bore you with pictures of their children, and they simply run in the other direction if you show them a picture of your latest bicycle trip.  Many workplace women’s conversations revolve around motherhood.   At book group some poor harassed mother will always show up wild-haired with a crying baby in a carrier, and if she does manage to leave the baby with her husband, she will assume you all want to see the latest pictures on her phone anyway.

Women bosses behave more like men in these situations:  when they’re trying to manipulate you, they use strange sports metaphors like,  “If you want to play with the Big Boys, you’ve gotta play ball!”

That doesn’t quite make sense, so I’m sure I’ve misremembered the phrase, but she simply believed I would want to work overtime after she said this about the Big Boys.

Heavens, if I wanted to play with the big boys, I doubt I would have been working for her.

The great advantage to working for men?  They leave you alone.  They don’t talk to you about the Big Boys, they don’t make you do overtime, they’re just so glad that anything at all gets done without their help.  They’re always in a meeting, so you only see them once a week.   And they’re so reasonable it only takes you about one week out of a month to get all your work done.  The rest of the time you do whatever you want.

So does that mean I prefer to be in the boys’ club?  Huh.

On my last day in London, when I was supposed to go to the Tate Modern, but just did laundry and went to bookstores instead, I finally went to the Ultimate Women’s Club.  This would prove to be the test of my  sympathies.

Having been given  perfect directions, I could not mistake the Persephone bookstore, tiny though it was.  In a minuscule room of gray-covered books and giggling young women, I felt I had wandered into the wrong club.  Some places you’re at home (Skoob), some places not.   I saw the Dorothy Whipples and the Mollie Panter-Downes, but didn’t see anything I really wanted.   I wasn’t in the mood to do a pity buy, so I fled back to Skoob and bought Penguin crime classics.

So I either passed some glorious test (like I may be too old for most Persephones!) or flunked one (my glorious American dollars might have saved the store!)

No, I passed the most important one.  DO WHAT YOU WANT!