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.

and

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.

AND NOW HERE IS A LIST OF  SOME OF MY FAVORITE TWO-DAY NOVELS:

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

Cupcakes!

An ordinary cupcake.

An ordinary cupcake.

Cupcakes.

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.

Ingredients

1
box Betty Crocker® SuperMoist® lemon cake mix
3/4
cup water
1/2
cup vegetable oil
1/4
cup fresh lemon juice
3
eggs
Directions
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!)

MORE ON CUPCAKES LATER!

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:  mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

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.

What?

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.”