Mason's book was originally self-published.

Mason’s book was originally self-published.

An array of slightly too-shiny paperbacks with offbeat covers winks from a back shelf at the local bookstore.  These memoirs, mysteries, family histories, and science fiction novels are by unknown writers…and you have never heard of the publishers.

You know what that means.

The nouveau self-published.

Until a couple of years ago, self-publishing was frowned upon.

Writers who published in traditional venues, whether in the New York Times or the most lacklustre local magazines, tended to despise those who publish their own work.

The rest of us are not snobs, but we know that editors have probably rejected the books before the authors go this route.

And when people give us copies of their self-published novels or poetry chapbooks, we are polite, but do we read them?

Attitudes are changing as new technology, like self-published e-books formatted for free at  Lulu and Smashwords, makes self-publishing almost trendy.

Opus Print on DemandNot long ago, journalists wouldn’t have bothered to report on the self-publishing trend.  But in I recently read a story in The Washington Post about an Open Mike party for self-published authors at Politics and Prose, a Washington bookstore that has printed 9,000 books by self-published authors via an Opus Espresso Print-on-Demand machine.

It’s not just the Washington Post that is softening up.  Michiko Kakutani, a  tough book critic at The New York Times, chose  Alan Sepinwall’s self-published The Revolution Was Televised, a book of TV criticism, as one of her best books of 2012.

In Forbes last August, David Vinjamuri mused about the potential of self-published e-books in the midst of an Old Media publishing slump.  He wrote about breakthrough “indie” novels by Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, and John Locke.

But he says self-publishing raises the hackles of major publishers and writers.  He quoted Sue Grafton, who had told

“Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall.”

Yes,  we’ve heard this kind of criticism before.  Last year several well-known journalists said that bloggers, tweeters, members of GoodReads, social media users, and others they perceive as online cranks have wrecked the sovereignty of editors, critics, and writers.

Howard Jacobson’s novel, Zoo Time, centers on the death of publishing.  It’s very funny, and perhaps it’s true.

Bur as long as E. L. James, George R. R. Martin, and R. K. Rowling… writers with initials instead of names…and, oh, yeah, Stephen King…continue writing, publishing will survive.  That is, if the publishers stop and publish a literary book occasionally.

Self-published authors are only a threat to traditional publishers insofar as they are better able to distribute their work than they were, say, 20 years ago.

A self-published science fiction book.

A self-published science fiction book.

Naturally, some self-published writers get respect. Hugh Howey’s science fiction omnibus, Wool,  Amanda Hocking’s Y.A. books, Zachary Mason’s literary novel, The Lost Book of the Odyssey, and Collen Hoover’s romances have been picked up by major publishers.

Yet is this the point?  Do all self-published writers want money and celebrity?

I suppose it would be strange if they didn’t.

But perhaps some are doing it for fun.

Everyone in my family writes.  The older generation have been self-publishing books at Kinko’s for years, and I assure you that none of these books was submitted to a publisher first.  I have at least a dozen of their memoirs, poetry, family histories, genealogy (may I just say here I hated those trips to cemeteries off the interstate?), and The Kinfolk Cookbook, a collection of family recipes ranging from picnic hamburgers to peanut butter chicken (ugh!) to mustard pickles to crumb top rhubarb pie to Never Fail Syrup to soap.

I also have a book, kind of.  I wrote a number of light essays in my freelance days before I burned out and turned to blogging. The copyright reverted to me after three months.

Type them up and publish them in an e-book, my family says.


I described my  life without a car, how I lived in a rain forest of a leaky apartment, and bicycled long distances, even up mountains, on a fat-tired Schwinn.

If I self-publish it, I’ll let you know.

Poets are encouraged to self-publish their chapbooks.

Do you know a lot of poets?

Everyone’s a poet.

So many of my friends have self-published lovely chapbooks, small pamphlet-liked books, folded and stapled, with lovely covers.

Poets get respect.

They read their poems at Open Mike Night.

Some are good, some are bad.

I’ll stick to blogging.

The Jane Austen Workout

prideprejudice annotated shepard

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

This would be my desert island book, if I didn’t practically know it by heart.

I celebrate instead with my favorite Austen novel,  Emma.

Later, when I put down my book to stretch to an old Jane Fonda workout tape,  I absent-mindedly asked, “Does anyone know where the Jane Austen Workout  is?”

There was much laughter, but I’m sure if we developed the Jane Austen Workout we would get rich.

S0 I have developed some archetypal Austen workout activities in honor of the bicentenary.


Lizzie and Wickham

Lizzie and Wickham

1. There is a hell of a lot of walking in Austen.

Do Emma and Harriet ever sit still?  Does a day go by when the Bennet sisters don’t take a walk?

Take a walk when the characters in Austen’s novels do, and you will soon be physically fit.   If you read P&P, you may meet the cute, caddish Wickham, with whom giddy Lydia Bennet falls in love.  You may also meet sensible, dull Darcy, as Lizzie does when she walks through his park and decides he’s not so bad after all.  I would far rather converse with the delightful Wickham, though Darcy is the marrying kind.

And if you are Emma, and who wouldn’t rather be, you might meet Frank Churchill, so charming and funny, or Knightley, the stern advisor/friend with whom she is in love.  Frank is much more fun.

As you can see, I am into the bad boys of Austen.

2. Ride a horse when an Austen character rides a horse.  Think of the rivalry between Fanny and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.  Pert Mary Crawford keeps borrowing Fanny’s horse, and Edmund, who rides with her, forgets that shy, sickly Fanny needs her horse for her workout.  Why does Fanny martyr herself?

We want Fanny to get her horse back.  That Mary!

3.  Read any Jane Austen novel at a club, and dance every time a character dances.  The very sight of you with a Jane Austen novel will attract every man in the place, or…   Oh, well…  I’m only joking. No heterosexual man I know has ever read Jane Austen except for a class.

The Jane Austen Workout!

The Jane Austen Workout!


Forget kickboxing!  The elliptical is for sissies!  Carry all six of Austen’s novels, which I’m sure you have, in a backpack or bike pannier, and if they’re the annotated editions, you’ll soon be exhausted. Add a couple of biographies to make it really tough.  Go uphill for a couple of miles, or climb a mountain with your Austen for a more strenuous workout.  DON’T DO THIS IF YOU’RE ON BLOOD PRESSURE MEDICATION.  Heck, I just made that up, but there has to be a warming with a workout.  For all I know, people with high blood pressure carry Jane Austen books up mountains all the time.

And then go home and go to sleep.

Now here are some links to a challenge and an article (not part of my workout).

1.  THE PRIDE AND PREJUDICE BICENTENARY CHALLENGE.  At Austenprose, a very good website, you can sign up to read P&P or related books and watch the movies during this anniversary year.  It is complicated, like all of these challenges, and involves putting a logo up at your blog, commenting, counter-commenting, and…but there are prizes.

2.  At The Guardian, several writers take a look at Pride and Prejudice.  (Some of them are men, which disproves my theory that men don’t read Austen.)  Sebastian Faulks says, “Mr Darcy may not be the first depressive to feature in an English novel, but he is almost certainly the first to be a romantic lead.”

Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s new novel, My Brilliant Friend, the first of a trilogy, has been much lauded.  Publishers Weekly ran an interview with Ferrante in November, The New York Times praised the book (albeit in brief) in December, and a long essay by James Wood was recently published in The New Yorker.  If you didn’t know who Ferrante is, and no one knows who she is because she writes under a pseudonym, now you know, or rather don’t know, who she is.

My Brilliant Friend ferrante

It is hard to imagine a more elegant stylist than Ferrante, at least in the translations of Ann Goldstein, an editor at The New Yorker. (I wish I could read the Italian, too, because the structure and sound of Italian are so different.)

I loved Ferrante’s 2002 novel, The Days of Abandonment, and described it (at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal) as “Kafkaesque, but crossed with the realism of Marilyn French and Doris Lessing.”  It is narrated by Olga, a housewife whose thoughts are tempestuous yet often comical after her husband of 15 years deserts her without explanation.  She had thought she and Mario were living happily ever after with their two children and dog, and cannot believe he is gone.  She stays up all night and writes letters to him.  She descends into sadness and craziness, and her cruel friends will not tell her for whom he left her.

I feel much compassion for Olga as she wonders what has happened.

“I spent the night thinking, desolate in the big double bed.  No matter how much I examined and reexamined the recent phases of our relationship, I could find no real signs of crisis.  I knew him well, I was aware that he was a man of quiet feelings, the house and our family rituals were indispensable to him. We talked about everything, we still liked to hug and kiss each other, sometimes he was so funny he could make me laugh until I cried.”

Part of the reason I liked this book so much was that she finally triumphs (well, in a way) over the man who leaves her for a much younger woman.

Ann Goldstein, Ferrante's translator.

Ferrante’s translator.

You will not necessarily love My Brilliant Friend if you appreciated the stream-of-consciousness of Abandonment. My Brilliant Friend is stunning in a very different way.  Rich in detail, it is a witty, moving, but very traditional chronicle of the friendship of two girls, Elena and Lila, who grow up in Naples in the 1950s.

Elena, the narrator, and her friend, Lila, are the two best students in school.  But Elena feels inferior to staunch, determined Lila, a prodigy who is always in trouble until the teacher finds she has taught herself to read.  Lila vanquishes everyone, even the older students, in academic competitions, initiates games, and teaches herself Latin from a library book. But ironically it is Elena, the second best, who continues in school, while Lila is yanked out after elementary school to work at her father’s shoe shop.

Life is violent in My Brilliant Friend, as it sometimes was in The Days of Abandonment.  Elena says she feels no nostalgia for her childhood in their poor neighborhood in Naples: parents beat their children, boys get into fights, someone gets murdered, and a fireworks competition ends in gunfire.

Yet Elena and Lila have rich imaginative and intellectual lives  apart from what happens in their neighborhood.  They are absorbed in their own world of study and play.

Lila is the leader.  At one point in their childhood, they trade dolls, and Lila throws Elena’s doll down a grate into a basement.  Elena does exactly the same, because she does not want to be outdone.  They cannot find the dolls, and Lila concludes that Don Achille, a man with a terrible reputation whom they are frightened of, has stolen them.  When they knock on his door and accuse him, he gives them money for new dolls.  But they don’t buy dolls:  they buy a copy of Little Women instead.

And since Little Women is one of my favorite books, I was delighted.

After Lila returns the borrowed copy of Alcott’s masterpiece to Maestra Oliviera, the teacher, she

“regretted both not being able to reread Little Women continuously and not being able to talk about it with me.  So one morning she made up her mind.  She called me from the street, we went to the ponds, to the place where we had buried the money from Don Achille, in a metal box, took it out, and went to ask Iolanda the stationer, who had displayed forever in her window a copy of Little Women, yellowed by the sun, if it was enough.  It was.  As soon as we became owners of the book we began to meet in the courtyard to read it, either silently, one next to the other, or allowed.  We read it for months, so many times that the book became tattered and sweat-stained, it lost its spine, came unthreaded, sections fell apart.  But it was our book, we loved it dearly.”

As they grow older, Lila becomes conventional, busy working for her father the shoemaker.  Eventually she stops trying to keep up academically with Elena.  Lila has taught herself Latin and the rudiments of Greek from library books. But then she starts dating, older men with money propose to her, and she begins to dress like a movie star.

But she still has artistic aspirations.  She designs a line of shoes, which her father refuses to make until her fiance, Stefano, the owner of a grocery store, insists.  The shoes are elegant.

Meanwhile, Elena takes on Lila’s role at school.  She studies endlessly, manages to be the best student, and writes, as Lila used to.  She loves The Aeneid, which she reads in Latin (it’s my favorite Latin poem, too), and talks often about Dido and Aeneas.   But she always misses Lila, who was her most brilliant friend.

Ferrante records in a literary way the coming of age of a woman in a poor neighborhood, with humor and without sentiment.

It feels like an important book, but someone who knows Italian literature would have to explain why.

Loved the book!

A Cattleman’s Books, Sensational Book Sales, & Arthur Schnitzler’s Vienna 1900

A fabulous book sale!

Used booksellers depend on fabulous book sales like this.

I found A Cattleman’s Books by chance while wandering through a city I didn’t know.

One window was boarded up, and the other impossibly dusty.  A few books had been dumped  in the window, apparently by someone who had forgotten to shelve them.  If you wanted a coverless copy of The Oxford Book of English Poetry, out-of-print science fiction by David Lindsay, or a wacky 1950s Big Book of Games, which emphasizes  games that require passing an apple from under your chin to another’s, this was the place for you.

In the damp, unheated store, the aged cattleman sat watching TV.  He  did not take care of the books.  He owned “24 head of cattle” on a farm, and opened the store to have someplace to go in the city.

There was no order to the books.

I asked if I could arrange the books in alphabetical order in exchange for free books.

There were some finds, a few rare books, mostly books I just wanted to read.

He introduced me to the wonderful world of used book sales, book fairs, and estate sales that used bookstore owners mine.

Over the years, at wonderful sales,  I have acquired almost new copies of Mrs. Oliphant and Fanny Burney, books by Ruth Suckow, Booker Prize-winning paperbacks, old farm cookbooks, and an SF series by Roger Zelzany.

It often takes years for me to get around to reading the sales books, which I park in boxes.

Vienna 1900 SchnitzlerAnd so I have just finished a breathtaking collection of  stories  by Arthur Schnitzler, Vienna 1900:  Games with Love and Death, which was published as a companion volume to a Masterpiece Theater series in 1974.  The four stories, “Mother and Son,” “The Man of Honour,” “A Confirmed Bachelor,” and “Spring Sonata,”  are available free at Project Gutenberg under different titles.

Schnitzler (1862-1930), an Austrian  Jewish physician, was the most famous Modernist writer in  Fin de Siecle  Vienna, a sophisticated member of a circle of artists and writers who knew the writings of Freud.  Schnitzler graduated from the University of  Vienna School of Medicine, which Freud also attended, and was familiar with the work of the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing.  He also wrote a thesis on hypnosis and used it in his practice.

bertha-garlan-arthur-schnitzler-paperback-cover-artSchnitzler’s brilliant plays, stories, and novellas often recall the vivid, bold realism of Tolstoy and Flaubert.  Spring Sonata, published elsewhere as Bertha Garlan, is a pitch-perfect novella about a woman’s sexual blooming. Bertha, the heroine, is a repressed widow, a beautiful woman whose husband died after only three years of a loveless marriage.  She often visits the cemetery, though she did not love her husband, perhaps because there is so little to do.  And because the town is so small, lecherous men of her acquaintance hover around her, thinking her available, sometimes even flirting in the cemetery.  Her brother-in-law and nephew flirt with her.

Bertha has dignity.  She rejects the sexual overtures.  Her son is the center of her life.  She teaches piano to supplement her small income.  Hers is a world of women and children.

But when she learns that Emil Lindbach, her first love, a famous violinist, has recently returned to Vienna, her hometown, she feels restless.  She decides to go to Vienna with sophisticated Frau Rupius, the wife of a paralyzed man, who has beautiful clothes made for her in Vienna.

Schnitzler likes to write about art within art.  Herr Rupius shows his collection of engravings to Bertha, with no sexual connotations, because each is fixated on someone different.  But the engravings, one of which turns up in a museum, make an impact on her.

Her fantasies of Emil are rich.  She yearns to fall in love again, and to persuade him to play music only for her.  As a piano student in Vienna, she, too, was once artistic and unconventional.  In Vienna, she walks around the city fantasizing about love.

And when she finally meets Emil, we see in a thousand ways that her fantasies are more sensual and intrepid than his.  Bertha likes walking in the rain; he prefers a carriage. He does not dare take her to his own apartment–he says because of the press–and they make love in rented rooms.  Bertha represses her knowledge of what this means.

The art in the room is an important metaphor.  There is nothing that could possibly be the choice of sophisticated Emil.   There are  portraits of the Emperor and Empress, framed photographs, and a painting of a naked woman.

“What is that?” she asked.

“It is not a work of art,” said Emil.

He struck a match and held it up, so as to throw the light on the picture.  Bertha saw that it was merely a wretched daub, but at the same time she felt that the painted woman, with the bold laughing eyes, was looking down at her, and she was glad when the match went out.

She does not want to see who she is for Emil.  The art tells us.

When the fantasy ends, it could be the end for her.  I won’t give it away, but let me say that Schnitzler’s take on women is different from Tolstoy’s or Flaubert’s.

A great novella.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson

“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.

Mirabile in 2000

I’d rather be reading middlebrow!

I  am a fan of middlebrow women’s fiction, and though I rarely write about it, I certainly read my share of popular novels.  With a cup of tea in the middle of the night and none of the men awake to tease me, I curl up with the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, Monica Dickens, or Mary Stewart.

I also try lots of contemporary women’s fiction.

Sometimes middlebrow contemporary fiction is a good fit for me, sometimes not.  I can’t for the life of me read Jennifer Weiner or Joshlyn Jackson.

I intend to be honest, and hope you will find some good books here, some by famous people, some barely known.

And so here’s the round-up of middlebrow novels for January:

Confessions of a Sugar Mummy1.  Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy.  This delightful “chick lit” novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age.  The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man.   She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.”  In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and immediately wants to sleep with him.

But she gives us very good advice.

“On no account rush to the loo and apply Touche Eclat or whatever the ruinously expensive foundation is called, the one that claims to remove your wrinkles and fill in the vertical lines down to your mouth, the result of a fifty-year nicotine habit.  You will look strangely different, it’s true, but not for the better, as they claim.”

She considers trying Botox, settles for a new facial creme, and then resolves to interest Alain by making  a fortune selling her flat in her gentrified neighborhood.  She thinks she can buy a house for herself, Alain, and possibly his wife.  He is very interested.

Yes, she’s out of control, but she’s very, very funny.  B+

An Available Man wolitzer2.  Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man.  You might think it is no coincidence that I  read a novel about a man in his sixties after reading a novel about a woman in her sixties, but I assure you I’m still clinging to my spry half century.   Hilma Wolitzer is the mother of Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite writers, and Hilma’s  light, romantic novels are usually quite good, so I picked up a copy.

When retired science teacher Edward’s children place a personal ad for him in NYR under the name Science Guy, he is annoyed, because he has not gotten over Bee, his late wife, and he doesn’t want to date.  But he goes ahead with it, and meets several women who are not quite right for him, among them a teacher who jilted him years ago; a beautiful older blonde whose extensive plastic surgery repulses him; and a widow whose insistence on showing him photos of her dead husband makes him feel he is at a bereavement brunch.

Edward is a kind, sensible, “nice” character, and this short entertaining novel is very “nicely” written. Occasionally an unpredictable moment redeems this novel as we see Edward change and grab life again.     B+.

Invitation to the Married Life huth3.  Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life.  This novel was compared to Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and though it was nothing like it, I very much enjoyed Huth’s shrewd observations of her characters’ rocky marriages and realignments of love.  My favorite character is Rachel, a charming woman who spends her days sleeping on 300+ count sheets in a beautifully redecorated bedroom, because there are certainly days when I, too, would like to dream all day.  Her husband, Thomas, who is quite nasty to her, has affairs with younger women and falls in love with an artist’s work and schemes to seduce her. Rachel embarrasses herself at a party making a pass at a man, but that is not the end of the world.

We meet other characters, among them unhappy Frances Farthingoe, who gives a lot of parties and decides she needs a custom-made gray awning at her ball, while her quiet husband takes refuge in studying badgers at night.

Marriage is not the end-all when you’re ill-suited, and that is what Huth shows us so charmingly.  Grade:  A-

Sherry Jones four sisters4.  Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens.  Sherry, a Friend of Our Blog , was kind enough to send me a copy of her historical novel, Four Sisters, All Queens.  As a  fan of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, and  Philippa Gregory, I knew  I’d enjoy this novel set in the 13th century about four queens.

I enjoy historical novels about queens to the point that I once considered spending a year reading only historical novels…but I did something else!

And I ended up racing through Sherry’s well-researched, deftly-written novel.  She spins the story of  the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy, the countess of Provence, who raised and educated her daughters as sons, ensuring that they would learn Latin, French,  history, and other subjects that would help them participate in the political process..  She was the “queen maker” though she would have preferred to make kings, and her four daughters were expected to make political marriages.  Indeed, Beatrice married them so well that it should have strengthened Provence.

The four sisters grew up to be Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Elenore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily.  Marguerite’s husband, Louis IX of France, is impotent.  His mother has a way of showing up in the garden as they are kissing.  Marguerite also has to contend with this evil queen politically, as she tries to edge Marguerite out of  meetings and sends Marguerite’s uncles home.

My favorite character, Eleanore, has to walk a treacherous path:  her coronation is crashed by a madman who claims the coronation is illegal because Henry is betrothed to his daughter. Henry was engaged to her, and broke it off, saying she was too closely related:  The Pope is  reviewing the document.   Marguerite tries to stay cool, and is astonishingly smart, managing to attract all the attention back to herself.

The other two queens, too, have problems, and as they grow older, the politics are even more complicated.

This novel is fascinating, great vacation reading, take it to the Caribbean (in my case the couch).  Sherry, a former journalist,  is an excellent writer.

Finding Casey

Grade:  B+

5.  Jo-Ann Mapson was kind enough to send me a copy of Finding Casey, the well-written sequel to her  award-winning novel, Solomon’s Oak. In Solomon’s Oak,  Mapson tells the story of Glory, a grieving widow who bakes pirate cakes and plans weddings to support her farm; Joseph, a retired wounded cop with pain management problems; and Juniper, a rebellious adolescent whose sister disappeared some years ago.  In Finding Casey, Glory and Joseph have married and adopted Juniper and moved to Santa Fe, and there isn’t at first much tension in their happy family life.  Glory is pregnant, Joseph volunteers on the board of a women’s shelter, and Juniper is in college.

But a new character is introduced, Laurel, a brainwashed young woman who has been horribly abused by a cult leader at “the Farm,”  and  when she secretly brings her daughter to a hospital against the wishes of the sadistic Seth, she finds help from a social worker.

Mapson has a calm voice and a simple, poetic style.  She understands suffering and describes it quietly.  I did figure out the plot almost immediately, but that isn’t a bad thing.  Though there is suspense, you know she will help her characters.

Finding Casey continues the story without much ado, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand alone.  Is is more loosely plotted, because we already know the characters.

So read Solomon’s Oak first. It’s just better to read them in a row.

Grade:  B+

Latin Unbound

couple_w_stylus ancient rome

A Roman pair with stylus and scroll.

I taught a Latin class through adult education.  Had I known how much work it was, I might not have done it.

I spent a full day each week typing worksheets.

If you’ve been out of the work force for a while, as a housewife or, God forbid, unemployed, you lose touch with the culture.  You don’t have the faintest idea how people think or talk . They walk down the street staring at their apparati (Gary Shteyngart’s word for phones/Blackberry/tablets/gadgets) and rarely look at the scenery.  But do they procure Clozapine secretly from their sister the doctor so the CIA won’t realize they’re bipolar (Homeland), or chat about squalid love scams to Dr. Phil (Dr. Phil)?

That’s just TV.

And do they say “awesome” all the time?

That’s real.

Latin is not a spoken language, so I don’t teach fun phrases like,  “Want a drink?”  I did, however, teach the phrase in vino veritas,  “There’s truth in wine.” Far be it from me not to prepare them to drink in bars in ancient Rome.

Mostly I kept the tone up with drills on Latin vocabulary and grammar.

They will never make a mistake about “who” and “whom” again.

We did exercises in Wheelock (our textbook), read Pompeiian graffiti (pages of which I photocopied from books), and studied English derivatives.

I explained that we studied Latin to read the literature, and brought in passages from different poets,  Virgil, Catullus, Ovid.

Then I had a problem.  My  books started to fall apart.  One day I was holding Wheelock when part of the cover fell off.  The pages were already smeared with the marker pens for the whiteboard.

Ovids-MetamorphosesOther books began to disintegrate.  Take my Lewis and Short Latin dictionary, which I bought long ago for $30 in a used bookstore, and which now costs $198 at Amazon.   I was telling my students lore about some of the rare words used in Latin poetry.  Ovid, for example, is the only Roman poet to use the word agitabilis, an adjective which means “light” or “easily moved,” and which he used to describe air.

The binding of Lewis and Short suddenly cracked.

Then I read them the passage in Rolfe Humphries’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  He translates agitabilis aer as “the moving air.”

“and shining fish were given the waves for dwelling
And beasts the earth, and birds the moving air.”

Then pages started falling out.


Fortunately we got kicked out of adult ed the third term when we didn’t have enough people for a class and the poltergeist didn’t follow us to the coffeehouse.

But seriously, my Latin books are old.  I have had to replace several of them.

If I lived in an ideal blog world, publicists would offer me copies of Latin books.  They would replace my mildewed Catullus, and send me Ciceror’s Pro Caelio.

Meanwhile, I am investigating ways of cleaning mildew, and am pretty darned good with tape.

Biking, Birthdays, and Barnes & Noble

It was the first spring-like day of the year.  I rode my bicycle.

I coasted in the bike lane down Ingersoll.

I stopped at the grocery store to buy a small birthday cake for my mother.  A  “slice” of sheet cake was enormous.  The cupcakes were almost the size of the cake.  The half-cakes had too much frosting.

Hello, world, do we need such huge cupcakes?

cupcake chunky monkey

Could a cupcake get any bigger?

She has a tiny appetite.  The problem is she makes faces at any food bigger than a morsel.  I figured I would buy the slice and tempt her with a small portion.  Of course I would have to use a fork to cut it, since knives are not allowed at the nursing home.

You don’t ask about the rules after a while.  If they’re all on suicide watch, you don’t want to know.

I carried the cake in a huge knapsack.  I didn’t want it to get smooshed in my bike pannier.  I took off happily on my bike again.   It is my primary form of transportation five or six months of the year.

I was halfway to the nursing home when the back tire rumbled.

Flat tire.

I tried to keep going.  Sometimes I can ride on it flat.  No, it was totally deflated.   I parked the bike at a bike rack and hurried to the bus stop.  I had no idea if it was the right bus stop.   It used to be, but the routes have just been revised.  Finally a bus came, though not the one I was waiting for.

“Do you go to…?  And how much is it?”

The bus did, and charged me only 75 cents. And then it was another 10-minute walk.  I was late.   I wanted to jog.  Careful, careful, don’t shake up the cake.

I got there, and, as usual, most of the residents were sitting in their wheelchairs in front of the elevator.   I found my mother sitting in her room with a towel on her head,  just out of the shower.  The blinds were drawn.

“Happy birthday!”

“How old am I?”

I quickly opened the blinds.  We ate cake.

“It’s awfully sweet,” she said.  Nonetheless she ate about one-fourth of it.

The nursing home has taken good care of her, but it is not a nice place.  Her room is tiny and narrow.  There’s barely space for the bed, her chair, and the chest of drawers.  One has to move the walker to scootch the “guest” chair out of the corner over to her tray table.

We ate cake and played cards.

Growing up on a farm, she played gin rummy, whist, bridge with her parents in the evening.  After they moved to town for my grandfather’s business,  she joined many bridge clubs.  When she owned her own house, she often gave bridge parties.  Two or three card tables would be set up in the basement, snacks of nuts and mint, and coffee in the percolator:  she hated to make coffee, because she never knew whether it was good or bad.  She didn’t drink it.

I am bad at cards, but we played for a couple of hours, and she did pretty well until she obviously got tired and couldn’t remember how to play.

Then we put away the cards and turned on the TV.  That’s what it’s for.

No, she hates the news, and it did seem to be about something horrifying in the Middle East, and whatever that dismal show was on Lifetime, I wasn’t going to let her watch it.   Seinfeld, yes.  It’s the one with the cantaloupe and George’s break-up with Marlene.

I guess it was a happy birthday, considering.

I gave the rest of the cake to the nurses.



my bicycle on bridgeOn Saturday I biked to Barnes and Noble.

Another lovely day.  Sun and wind. Well, riding into the west wind was hard.

Barnes and Noble is the last real bookstore.  Our city is big by wide-open-spaces standards, but 12 bookstores have closed since the ’90s.  Two diminutive indies remain, but I cannot support them.  They stock nothing I want, and if I have to order I use Amazon.

Barnes and Noble, the last big chain, is struggling.  I recently read at knowledge@wharton:  “The company said its holiday sales for the nine-week period ending December 29 were $1.2 billion, down 10.9% from a year ago. Same-store sales for the period were down 3.1% due to “lower bookstore traffic.” Nook product sales fell 12.6% from a year ago.”

Some experts suggest B&N needs to hire help that knows books.  They also need to make it a “destination,”  like Starbuck’s.

You would think the closing of Borders would have spurred Barnes and Noble to greater excellence.  Instead, the eight comfortable chairs have been removed and replaced by wooden chairs.  There are no more book groups.  One wall of  literature and science fiction is now devoted to teen lit.  There is no longer a new paperbacks table.

My student, Doug, a bookseller who died of cancer last year, predicted this would happen. “It’s a different culture from Borders.  Barnes and Noble discourages its employees from talking to customers.  And they don’t want people to hang out there.”

Most of the people who work here are nice, but you have to watch out for a few of them.  The new cashier was bitchy to my husband:  she wouldn’t acknowledge him, and just kept chatting on the phone when he asked a question about whether she needed his signature.

And then I looked over and…

If I’m not mistaken, she was the manager several years ago. The store was dreadful then, and improved under the next manager.

She’s a big genre person, and I like genre books, too.

But she’s an enemy of literature.

And now…

She’s ba-a-a-ack.

She must be here to reduce the literature section.

She must be here to close the store.

I hope not.

I hope it’s not she.


Beyond Gender

“Mirror, Mirror on the wall,
Who’s the fairest of them all?”

I often use the phrase “beyond gender.”  I originally did it to be funny.  I hoped as I grew older to inhabit a genderless world. I would be the equal of all human beings.

I would no longer be Snow White or the Evil Queen.  I would be both.

snow-white-mirror mirror

The women in my family are spectacularly pretty for a short time and then lose their looks completely.

What’s a mirror?  It’s not who we are.

Since we’ve been plain for so long, aging is easy.

I had an early menopause.  Such prettiness as I had faded into gray hair, wrinkles, and weight gain.

There were advantages.  I no longer had to rush out of meetings because my sticky period had started.  I no longer had to use tampons.   All those boxes and boxes and boxes of tampons!  Thousands of tampons!   Tens of thousands of tampons!

All that bleeding.  Gone.  Dried up.  Years of too-frequent periods.  Stopped.  No hot flashes.  No transition.

My friends would say they hadn’t reached menopause yet.

I would say, Thank God I have!

Why are we so proud of menstruating?


I have always been  in favor of zero population growth.

With climate change spitting in our faces, we hope Z. P. G. will again be proselytized.

W. C. Drupsteen, 1885, snow white

Illustration by W. C. Drupsteen, 1885

In middle age, you can take extra good care of your looks or let them go.  At a certain age I desisted from the “blonding” process.  Friends who blonded their hair had  insisted it would give me an advantage.  I’m not sure what they had in mind, but it didn’t keep me young.  Certainly I had little concern about wrinkles, but apparently there were things I could do to prevent them.  If only I still bought Elizabeth Arden or Clinique and went on a diet…well, I’d look better!

My emphasis is on health, bicycling, and eating lots of vegetables.

With age, I rather hoped my relationships with men would be on a par with my friendships with women.

I hadn’t counted on the invisibility factor.

The other day I found myself at the grocery store striding up to the counter with my two items.  Just as I was about to put them down, a man rushed past me with his three items.

“Sorry,” he said.


Were they emergency items?  Wine, cake, and a carton of chocolate milk?

Was I invisible?

Why did he cut in front of me?

When I was young and briefly pretty, they were falling over themselves to let me go first in line.  I guess it wasn’t a courtesy thing.  It was sex.

Are people ruder now?  Or is it to do with aging?

Most say I have avoided this extreme rudeness by not going to the store at peak times.

I don’t expect etiquette, but I do expect manners, yes.

Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land is a beautifully-crafted novel.

It would give Michael Chabon’s stunning novel, Telegraph Avenue, my favorite book of 2012, a run for the money had I read it last year.

Picture a world of snow.

It was snowing again.  Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve.  The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin.  Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go.  And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place.

Joyce’s lyrical descriptions of snow are gorgeous.   Every snowflake is perfect as it falls onto Zoe’s husband’s eyelashes.  Zoe truly loves Jake, is charmed by everything about him from his beautiful eyes to his big ears, and describes his breath in the cold as “a faint oyster-colored mist.”  The nature of love shapes this luminous novel.

But the plot is as uncanny as that of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a fable about the afterlife.   Zoe and Jake are on an expensive skiing holiday.  One morning they are on the mountain before anyone else when the powder of the snow is undisturbed.  It is Paradise.

Then there is an avalanche.  Zoe is buried upside down and there is only a small pocket of air.  Jake made it to the trees and clung to one.

silent land by graham joyce ukWhen Jake digs her out, they find themselves alone.  The hotel is empty.  The village is empty.  They believe everyone has been evacuated because of the avalanche.

But they cannot leave the village.  They reach a certain point in the road and the car stubbornly stops working.

They have all the food they want at the hotel.  They have all the things they want in the village stores.  But their phones do not work.  They cannot find other people.

So there they are, in the Golden Age of Ovid and Hesiod turned nightmare, when all they want is their Iron Age back.  They think they are dead.  Joyce’s version of the myth, and allusions to the Golden Age, is fascinating.

The question of what to do with their time was a pressing one.  It seemed to both of them that they had landed the ultimate dream of affluence, one that they weren’t sure they wanted…. What’s more, they didn’t ever have to work to maintain this dizzy standard of affluence.  Death had delivered to them an idle abundance.

Joyce writes not just about snow, but about the nature of silence.  What does  silence mean?  Under a clump of trees in the snow, the couple hears true silence.  “The freezing of all sound.”  There is only real silence in death.

It is Zen-ish.

Then Zoe hears the snow singing to her.

Zoe is terrified of separation from Jake.   Every time he goes out of the hotel without her, she is frightened.  She fears there will be another avalanche.

I couldn’t help but cry over Zoe’s nightmare of separation.  Don’t mistake me:  I am well beyond the age of romance. I am gray-haired, sensible, and see love from an older, more experienced point of view.  But as a young woman, deeply in love as only women can be who put their relationships ahead of careers, I had a recurring dream in which the detonation of a nuclear bomb separated me from my husband.

And then there was an actual slight earthquake. I was teaching Latin when the rumbling began, and I thought it was a nuclear power accident.  (Perhaps it’s my generation:  I have always been terrified of nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs.)   And I couldn’t leave, my duty was obviously to my students, and I had to stay calm.

Not a very dramatic incident, but always the fear of separation.

This is a deeply romantic novel.  Every word of it is for a reason.  If you know what to look for, which you don’t until the end, there is much foreshadowing, even in the imagery.  This is a classic.

Graham Joyce is an amazing writer.  He has won the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award five times.  His novels “cross over” from literary fiction to science fiction to fantasy, and I am pretty sure this one was shelved in the literature section.  The Guardian calls his work “dark fantasy.”

He grew up in a mining village, failed his “eleven-plus,” and got a degree in education in Derby, and eventually a master’s in English and American Literature at Leicester University.  He wrote his first book, Dreamside, during a year on Lesbos and in Crete with his wife.

Is he the only writer in the UK who didn’t graduate from Oxford or Cambridge?  Sometimes it seems that way!

You can read all about him at his website:

I also recently read his stunning new novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which, if possible, is even better than this one.  His books are overwhelming, so I will write about it another time.

I find it interesting that, after years of reading women’s literature, I have added two male writers, Joyce and Michael Chabon, to my canon.

Have I finally moved beyond gender?

More on that later!

Angela Thirkell’s High Rising

high-rising-angela-thirkell-paperback  Moyer bell-cover-artI have an almost complete set of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series.

It started when a friend shrieked,  “Pomfret Towers!” 

We were at a bookstore.

She wanted to know if I had read Angela Thirkell.

“Yes,” I said vaguely.

I had tried something by Thirkell when I was about fifteen, expecting a cross between Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.  Her style was too prolix for me.

In 2000, however, I read and enjoyed Thirkell’s interwar novels, though I found her later novels badly organized and disappointing. (True Thirkellites don’t think so.)  The American publisher Moyer Bell reissued many of Thirkell’s books In the ’90s and the early 21st century, and Virago has just reissued the first two of her Barsetshire series.

Thirkell’s unique sensibility occupies a zone between the sharp wit of Nancy Mitford and the silliness of P. G. Wodehouse.  Her world of upper-class England is sympathetic, if snobbish, and she paints her endearing characters with a kind of droll detachment. She thrills us with witty dialogue about peculiar subjects like folk-dancing, bad poetry, and “why on earth headmasters’ wives in novels fall in love with assistant masters, or assistant masters with them, for that matter.”   Thirkell, the granddaughter of Burne-Jones, and a widow with children, wrote her humorous Barsetshire series, set in a fictional county based on Trollope’s Barsetshire, to support her family.

In a recent rereading of High Rising, the first novel in the Barsetshire series, I enjoyed Thirkell’s verbose, artificial, but engaging style.  After a few pages, I was hooked on the fascinating intrigues of her eccentric characters.

high rising VMCWriters have fun writing about writers, and Thirkell’s heroine, Mrs. Morland, is her alter ego.  Laura Morland, a widow with four children, writes thrillers about a fashion designer named Madame Koska, who is forever finding cocaine, or worse, in her shop.  Laura’s hairpins fall out as she tries to plot her novels, or, indeed, does any kind of thinking, and people are forever picking them up for her.  Her secretary, Anne Todd, who also cares for a mentally ill mother with a bad heart, loves to read about fashion, and when Laura is overwhelmed, Anne sometimes writes the fashion magazine articles for her from Mrs. Morland’s notes.

It is a good secretary-bad secretary kind of novel.

Anne is the good secretary, but Una Grey, the evil, dominating, neurotic, perhaps  lower middle-class  (anyway, she’s not acceptable) secretary of George Knox, the biographer, is trying to seduce and marry her boss.  Laura, Anne, and even the servants are up in arms, and are terribly worried about Sibil, George’s silly daughter.

And I must say Una is very unlikable, though she is portrayed as competent, and even sometimes charming.

Thirkell is brilliant here.  The juxtaposition of good secretary-bad secretary is fascinating.  Does it have something to do with class?  The secretaries rule behind the scenes. Anne is Laura’s equal, though poor:  they were friends before she began to work for her.  But Una is nobody’s friend, and is much condescended to.

There are, of course, other subplots.

Family is a very important theme.  Three of Laura’s four sons are grown up, but Tony, the youngest, is at boarding school.  When she fetches him from school for Christmas, he jabbers for hours about his model railroad, and asks repeatedly if he should buy the Great Western model engine for seventeen shillings, or the L.M.S. for twenty-five shillings.  Confident Tony is unperturbed when his mother finally snaps over his moving his railroad into the main part of the house, but Thirkell shows how characters should behave:  adults should have their own lives, and children should not be allowed to impinge on them.  Laura oes to Tony’s prize-givings at school, makes sure he washes his hands, and listens to his poems, but she is not a soccer mom.

Weddings take place in all of Thirkell’s books.  People are always proposing to Laura, but she doesn’t want to get married.  Laura’s publisher, Adrian Coates, who published a volume of poetry as an undergraduate and still shudders when anyone mentions it, is a frequent visitor at Laura’s house in the village High Rising, and at one point he proposes marriage to her.  At another point, the voluble George also proposes, and this strikes Laura as ridiculous:  he is as loquacious as Tony.

Anyway, Adrian is really in love with Sibil, George’s daughter.  She has been throwing them together.  And George is interested in…you’ll never guess!

I love all the gossip about publishing.  Here is Laura on her books, when she first meets Adrian at a dinner party and he asks to see her book.  She says,

“It’s not highbrow.  I’ve got to work, that’s all.  You see, my husband was nothing but an expense to me when he was alive, and naturally he’s no help to me while he’s dead, though, of course, less expensive, so I thought if I could write some rather good bad books, it would help with the boys’ education.”

I know exactly what she means.  I love good bad books!

Anyway, these are very light novels.

Don’t worry. I don’t read just good bad books. I’ll write about a classic soon.