Boxes and Boxes of Paper


Should I throw it out?

We have boxes and boxes of paper.

Notebooks, newspapers, diaries, journals, letters, cards, essays, and college papers.

Do you have this much paper?

There are boxes and file cabinets I haven’t looked at in years.

And so I am looking through them, weeding what I don’t need.  I’ve emptied one drawer of a file cabinet, and must sort through some boxes.

College papers:  I once thought, Yeah, someday I’ll  reread my paper comparing Aeschylus’ Prometheus with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Six-Million Dollar Man. It is funny and charming, and my prof told me it earned “an unusually high grade for a paper in this class” (and shouldn’t it have been higher?).  He drew a picture of a monster on the back.  I still laugh when I see it, but I don’t want to read it.  Can I possibly throw this out?  No.

IMG_2505_1Catalogues:  I found an old book catalogue,  A Common Reader, July 2003. This charming book catalogue  was in business from 1986-2006, and I still miss it.  There is a whole section called “Oceangoing” in this issue:  The Journals of Captain Cook, Dudley Pope’s Lord Ramage series, and A. J. Mackinnon’s The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.

IMG_2508_1Post-its.  These free Amazon post-its came with a book I ordered from Amazon maybe a decade ago.   (The note is not from Jeff Bezos:  Don’t be silly!)  My husband wrote, “I love you very much.  You are the best Latin teacher in the house.  Talk to you.”  ( I was the best Latin teacher in the house, and the only Latin teacher in the house.)

Never throw out a piece of paper that says, I love you.

Journal of 11-day bike ride in the 1980s:  Pedal and eat, eat and pedal.  I feel like some sci-fi heroine welded to her zinging, creaky Schwinn machine…

In Pennsylvania the hills are incredible. Sci-fi heroine be damned–I should braid my hair and call myself Heidi…

Am hiding in the tent from packs of killer mosquitos.  The hotel last night was like a refrigerator, but if we turned off the AC there was no ventilation.   The campground is gorgeous, but unfortunately a breeding ground…

Outside a small town in New York, a sign proclaims:  CANDY, A GOOD SOURCE OF ENERGY. 

I can’t throw this journal out.

Postcards.  I found an old Niagara Falls Maid of the Mist postcard.  We once spent an afternoon at Niagara Falls. We rode the Maid of the Mist and wore the blue raincoats, and the boat took us through the mist right up to the falls.

Maid of the Mist

Maid of the Mist

I can’t throw this out.

Newsletter, 2010:  I decided to write my blog as a “print” newsletter in 2010, thinking of some of my ancient relatives.  They said they’d rather read it online, so I never mailed it.  Should I throw it out?

IMG_2509_1Do you have trouble throwing out paper, too?

Finishing Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Alexandria peter stothardI have very much enjoyed Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra. (I wrote a little about it here.)  Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir about his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.

I can see the structure more clearly now that I’ve finished the book:  not only is he writing about Cleopatra, but also about the parallels between Cleopatra’s Alexandria in the first century B.C., and the Alexandria of 2011 when the chaos of the Arab Spring  begins.

Some of the same photos and art appear and reappear in the book, presumably as part of the arrangement of  the text (unless I am becoming Carrie in a manic stage in “Homeland.”).  George Scholz’s “Seated Nude with Plaster Bust” appears three times, and captures Stothard’s image of Cleopatra more closely than the other art.

Georg Scholz, "Seated nude with plaster bust."

Georg Scholz, “Seated nude with plaster bust.”

Stothard had gone to Alexandria in 2011 to finish his book; he arrived on what happened to be the eve of the Arab Spring. He had made seven attempts to write about Cleopatra, beginning when he was nine in Essex (“Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen”) and most recently in the 1980s when he was a business reporter for The London Times. And he writes so charmingly about his time at Oxford, his work for an in-house Big Oil magazine, and his beginnings as a business journalist at the Times ( mid-’80s?) that the book is worth reading just for that.

He has survived cancer, written two “diary” books, and is  no longer a working journalist (except in the literary sense).  He does not want to report on the bombings and riots of the Arab Spring. He kept his focus on Cleopatra.  Although there are few artefacts of Cleopatra’s Alexandria,  and little is known about her, he does not allow himself to be distracted from his goal.  And he absorbs the atmosphere of the city.

His friends from childhood and Oxford, Maurice, a gay writer in advertising who is dying of cancer, and V, the rebellious, questioning woman with whom he saw the movie Cleopatra in the ’60s when they were teenagers, have kept him focused on Cleopatra.  When Stothard visits Maurice when he is dying,  Maurice asks about Cleopatra.

So what did happen to Cleopatra in the end?  He asked the question again.  I was feeling defensive.  It was absurd that I had never finished my book.  I began a defence of how Big Oil, Mrs. Thatcher, the 1986 print revolution for the press, the editing of The Times and The Times Literary Supplement…and other books about Tony Blair and Spartacus, had all found a higher priority.

Peter stothard smiling in front of bookcase

Peter Stothard

This is strangely touching.  He knows he has accomplished a lot, but there is still this vulnerability with a friend who has always known him:  maybe this is not what he should have done?  He should have been writing a scholarly biography and editing a newspaper?  But it turns out Maurice isn’t interested in the book.  He wants to know about Cleopatra’s suicide (presumably not by an asp, probably a fast-working poison).

Stothard writes about the image of Cleopatra in literature and the arts:   Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor movie, H. Rider Haggard’s historical novel, Cleopatra, a Dutch painting.  He says Plutarch’s portrayal of Marc Antony (which I haven’t read, because I have the wrong book by Plutarch) is the most reliable. He also includes a version of Horace’s Cleopatra ode,  Nunc est bibendum (“Now is the time for drinking…”)  and I’m not sure whose translation this is:  I assume it is Stothard’s, but perhaps not.)

James Holladay, an ancient history teacher at Oxford, advises him to concentrate on middlemen.

Bureaucratic power was always essential.  Never forget that.  Look at the men in the middle ranks.  remember their names:  Hirtius, Plancus, Celllius, Canidius.  Study them closely.  Don’t give up when the going gets tough.  Nil desperandum, as Horace says.  Read the poem in which he says it.”

Stothard is fascinating especially about Plancus, who changed sides,  and “was the closest man to Antony and then abandoned him.”  He tells us  about Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium.  She tries to change the story, and to convince people there was no Battle of Actium.  Of course it catches up with her.

There is a rich texture to his language, and a frequent lyricism: sometimes I could almost scan the prose rhythms (possibly Carrie in “Homeland” again) when he  is in Khat Rashid for a few day, out of the way of the terrorists in Alexandria.

Look harder, till the eyes hurt.  In the vacant dark the site of the sometime lighthouse is shining too, many miles and two thousand years away.  The sky is the color of bruises, a punched cheek, a prayer-beaten forehead, an eye becoming black.  This is not where I wanted to spend the night.  But it is a fine place to look back at Alexandria and consider the last hours of Marc Antony, the time when he knew he had lost, when he was abandoned by the city’s gods.  Any biography of Cleopatra is now in its final stage.

He also eerily discovers at the new Alexandrian library an Egyptian dialogue in French, Mort ou Amour, “in which a historian in an Alexandrian hotel room struggles to write a book about Cleopatra.  The dramatic hero does most of the things that I have done here since I arrived ruefully recalling past efforts, weighing fact against fiction, realism against romance, ‘la politique ou le coeur’ as motivation for peace and war.”

It made me oddly anxious, and I thought, This must not be real. But the author does exist:  I looked him up.   Stothard dismisses it as a coincidence but is it?

This work of literary nonfiction is a great jumble of history, travel, biography, memoir, and literature, and it should please a diverse audience:  historians, classicists, general readers, and memoir lovers. ( I fall into the last three categories.)  I have seldom read a nonfiction book so fast.  I read 300 page one day.

What a great book. A classic?   One of my favorite books this year.  And, by the way–I can do recommendations well as the Amazon computer–if you liked Stothard’s book, you will like his other book, Spartacus Road, and  Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Too Many Books, Sorry, Publicists, & Susan Rebecca White’s A Place at the Table

Woman reading clip art vintage I have acquired approximately 60 books this year.

You’ll say, She probably doesn’t read these.

You would be wrong.  I have read a third of them, and will get to the rest.

And thank God for Amazon, because bookstores are not the strong suit of this part of the country.

The problem is that we have no place to put all our books.  We have many double-stacked bookcases, a china cabinet full of books, and  books in chests of drawers.

Bookcase sagging.

Bookcase sagging.

Okay, this  bookcase is made of  cheap laminate wood, and that second shelf is beginning to sag from the weight of double-stacked books.

Guess how many books I’ve read on the shelf pictured below and you win… well, nothing, but it is a summer carnival game.

Picture # 1:


I’ve read all of these except Lynn Freed’s The Mirror

Picture # 2:

IMG_2502I’ve read all except Knut Hamson’ Growth of the Soil.

Picture # 3:

IMG_2500I’ve read only half of the Sofia Tolstoy and not read the Alan Garner yet.

We often talk about opening a used bookstore, but I would have to sell my own books.  I would probably be like the owner of a (now defunct) used bookstore who sometimes whisked books from the counter to his desk and refused to sell them.

I wanted to buy his copy of Abdelrahman Munif’s The Trench, the second book in a trilogy about the repercussions of American oil companies in a country “very much like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait,” as the book cover says.

The owner whisked it off the counter and told me I didn’t want to read that book.  “Cities of Salt is much more charming.”

No, I really did want to read that book, because I’d already read Cities of Salt.

I figured it was his book and he hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, so I finally gave up.  He wouldn’t sell the books unless he felt like it.

I ordered The Trench from Amazon.  The great thing about Jeff Bezos is that he SELLS books.

SORRY, PUBLICISTS.  Bloggers are wild cards. Publicists don’t know us very well.  Sometimes we are good matches for their books, most times not.   Very few seem to know what we actually write about at our blogs, or the kind of books we read.  Because they would rather have their books reviewed than not reviewed,  they give gifts to or exploit bloggers, depending on your point of view.

Bloggers are often flattered when publicists approach them;  I have  been flattered occasionally when  publicists approach me.  But the truth of the matter is I seldom blog about the novels they send me.  I would not in the course of my real life read these books.  It’s like Book Club:  if it’s assigned, I don’t want to read it, and so have reviewed no “free” books this year. (I received a sports book once; why?)

And that’s why I prefer to choose my own books.

The following charming novel is the sole review copy I’ve  read this year. It isn’t quite for me, but I do know some people who will love it.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow:  Susan Rebecca White’s A Place at the Table.  This novel appealed to me because Clyde Edgerton, a A Place at the Table Susan Rebecca Whitewriter of charming Southern comedies, wrote a blurb for the book jacket.

In this lovely, entertaining novel, White tells the stories of three characters whose lives intersect over their love of food. Alice, a famous African-American chef and cookbook writer, lost her brother in 1929 when he was sent away by his family because they were afraid he would be lynched.  He and Alice had cut down a boy who was lynched, and this precipitated his rebelliousness and impertinence to a store owner.  Alice later moves to Manhattan, and her cooking makes the reputation of a small restaurant patronized by famous writers.

Bobby is a gay man, the son of a Baptist preacher and housewife in Georgia, and he lives in the 1970s with his Meemaw (grandmother)  after his parents catch him having sex with another boy.  When she dies and leaves him a little money, he goes to Manhattan and finds work as a chef in the once-famous restaurant where Alice used to cook.

Amelia, a Connecticut housewife who loves to cook and has built a life around her daughters, misses them badly when they leave for boarding school and college.  Her husband begins to have tantrums:  he screams at her for getting fat and not having sex with him.  Then she learns he is having an affair.  Amelia has to put her life together, and her Aunt Kate, an editor, introduces her to Bobby.

All these characters have family secrets.  Bobby is the important, vulnerable, charming, sympathetic character whose lover has died of “gay cancer,” and he accepts both of these women when they are most depressed.

The writing is richly colored.  Here is a passage about Bobby and Memaw.

Meemaw always ices her chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting.  It’s my favorite kind because Meemaw and me can dye it whatever color we want.  I like pink, but I can only color it that way if it’s just Meemaw and me eating it.  One time I brought home a batch of pink cupcakes for my family.  Hunter asked, “Why’d you choose that sissy color?’  Daddy said he bet I’d tried to make them ref for the Georgia Bulldogs but just hadn’t added enough food coloring.  ‘Isn’t that right, son?’  Daddy asked, and I answered, ‘Yes, sir,’ knowing that was what he wanted to hear.

White, an Atlanta native, has an MFA from Collins and teaches at Emory University, and this light, but moving, novel is her third book.

Mirabile Does Laurie Colwin’s Roast Chicken

Housewife and husband eating illustrationAfter a long bicycle ride, sweating and smudged with dead bugs that flew into your sun block, you don’t feel like going to a good restaurant.

You dash into a fast food place hoping no one will notice your frizzy freak flag hair flying.

A McWrap.   Coffee and a cookie at a coffeehouse.  Anything at a downscale restaurant not actually run by Norman Bates.

Good food is for home.

So tonight I made Laurie Colwin’s roast chicken.

More Home cooking colwinColwin, a novelist and short story writer whose Happy Families is one of my favorite books, wrote Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, collections of her entertaining food columns written for  Gourmet magazine.

Her roast chicken is foolproof.

I can’t find the cookbook, but the recipe is something like this:

Stuff whole chicken with half a lemon.  Sprinkle chicken with paprika (I tend almost to coat it.)   Roast chicken at 325 degrees and baste (with chicken broth, in my case) every 10 minutes.  It should be done in three hours or so.  Keep an eye on it.

It is delicious.

Usually we eat it with rice and a salad, but the cupboard is so bare we had side of plain spaghetti sprinkled with  parmesan.

Eat in front of movie, Cedar Rapids, with Ed Helms, Anne Heche, and John C. Reilly.  An insurance agent heads to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids after the kinky death of a colleague.  Very funny.

Here is the trailer:

City Park Underwater

City Park in Iowa City underwater.

City Park in Iowa City is underwater.

My husband and I intended to walk by the Iowa River.

I love the river.  My defunct high school, now the site of the Iowa Center for the Book, is on the river. The University of Iowa Library is on the river.  The English-Philosophy Building where I took so many classes is on the river.

The Russian professor used to walk by the river in his Gogolian Overcoat and tall fur hat.

My kind T.A., T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose class I illicitly took as a freshman (sophomore status was required]), and who had recently published a story about Lassie in Esquire, used to walk by the river.  (Did he say, “Friends call me T,” or have I misremembered?)

Three of the five of us in Age of Cicero met in the Wheel Room in the Union on the river twice a week to celebrate having made no mistakes in the presence of our mocking professor.

We have come back to Iowa City over the years to visit my mother, go to bookstores, and walk by the river.

The river is flooded again.

The first flood was in 1993.  The second was in 2008.  Iowa City was declared a federal disaster area.

And now it is flooding again, and what happens may depend on the rains in Northern Iowa and how the rivers swell that run downstream into the Iowa River.  A Disaster Preparedness Fair, part of the “Living with Floods” program, will be held Saturday, 2 p.m to 3:30 p.m., at The Center.

The water is as high as the bridge at Dubuque and Park.  Construction workers flocked on the bridge, but I don’t know what they were doing.  The Upper Level of City Park is open, but we walked down a closed trail to take a closer look at the flooded lower level of the park, almost entirely underwater.

City Park

City Park

This is usually roads, picnic tables, and baseball diamonds.  It is hard to take in that this disaster area is where I grew up, where nothing ever happened, thank God.

I remember riding my bicycle to the park (at 11?  12?) with my copy of Harriet the Spy and my notebook.  Harriet wrote down everything in her notebook, until her friends got hold of it, and there were repercussions.  Didn’t we all love Harriet the Spy?  Didn’t we all want to write everything down?

It was kind of a dull park, not where I usually spent time, but my husband and I occasionally walked here when we were students.  And we did attend a company picnic here once.  I can’t remember whose company it was.

Obviously Shakespeare at the Riverside Theatre will not he held in the park this summer.  It will be at West High School Auditorium instead.

Another park picture.

Another park picture.

On June 13, 2013, it is especially a shock to see Normandy Drive, a tony street near City Park, sandbagged and flooding.  As Donnarae MacCann, who rebuilt her house after the flood of 2008, told Iowa Public Radio, “I remember people saying to me, it’s so risky how can you stay, but I say how can you leave? It’s the most beautiful place on the planet.”

Such a beautiful quote, and I do know what she means.  This is her home.  You stay as long as you can.

swander the girls on the roofRecommended flood reading:  Mary Swander’s The Girls on the Roof, a poetic novella about the Flood of 1993.  Set in Pompeii (pronounced Pom-pee), Iowa, the poem tells the story of Maggie and Pearl, a mother and daughter who get stuck on the roof of Crazy Eddy’s Cafe during the flood. And when the corpse of Mike Fink from the junkyard washes up, they realize he was the lover of both mother and daughter.

Here is a description of Maggie in a cottonwood tree:

She dangled above the flat roof of Crazy Eddy’s,
the flood waters gurgling below.
Why me? she wailed to the wind,
the leaves and twigs brushing her face.

Our motto is:  WE’RE HERE TO HELP!  List your flood literature here.

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Peter Stothard, a classicist, the editor of the TLS, and a former editor of The London Times, has written a brilliant memoir, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, centered on his lifelong fascination with Cleopatra.

Alexandria peter stothardStothard traveled to Alexandria in 2011 when an ice storm prevented his flight to South Africa. He wanted to finish a book about Cleopatra; he had made seven attempts to write about her over the last 50 years.  He rents a room at the Metropole Hotel in Alexandria.  It is so small that he stands up to write in his notebook.

He looks over the  yellowed old papers he has brought with him and explains “the first efforts [were] of an Essex schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a classicist finding some sort of success as a journalist.  Between these beginnings and ends, which show uneven patterns of progress, there are pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in 1976, and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what were the offices of The Times.”

Much of his writing about Cleopatra is lost, but he feels confident that he can fill in the lacunae by writing a diary in Alexandria.  Much of the history of Cleopatra has been lost, too, though recently something new has been found, the ginestho papyrus.  Cleopatra had written, ginestho , “Let it happen,” in Greek, approving Mark Antony’s general’s export of 300 tonnes of wheat  and 130,000 litres of wine without taxation.

Stothard arrived in Alexandria on the eve of the Arab Spring.  There is a bombing, and everyone is jittery.  He spends time with two Egyptians, who befriend him, take him sightseeing, decide what he can and can’t see, and speculate about the terrorists.

Stothard writes about what is happening in Egypt, but doesn’t report on it.  He brilliantly zeroes in on bits of his life that are connected to Cleopatra.

Much of the book is a memoir of his classical education and his working life as a journalist.

Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

He grew up in Essex, the son of a radar engineer:   Stothard adds ironically that his father was “a designer of military machines that made us safe.”   There were only five books in the house, one of them the Loeb edition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Books VII-XII. (This is the only book he has brought with him to Alexandria.)  Stothard’s first attempt to write about Cleopatra was when he was nine,  a story, “Professor Rame and the Egyptian Queen.”

He studied Greek and Latin in the ’60s at Brentwood School in Essex, and then studied classics at Oxford.  Many of his teachers at Brentwood were war veterans, some unstable.  Miss Leake, the headmistress of his first school, idealized Brentwood: she thought the teachers were “earnest, slender, slightly socialist young men who visited her from time to time, asking if she had anyone who might excel at soccer or Cicero.  This was an honest mistake.  Behind Brentwood’s Martyr’s Memorial many eccentric instructors lay hidden including Mr. G, an ex-soldier of cement-mixer voice and stature, a survivor of a war which had been unkinder, it seemed, than the one experience by my father and his floating radar engineers.”

Stothard got a great education at Brentwood, but the students also paid a price for some teachers’ post-traumatic stress disorder.  One teacher  beat them with a rubber hose.  One of Stothard’s  lifelong friends, Maurice, had to sit cramped under the teacher’s desk with another boy for some infraction of the rules; a friend at another school, an outspoken girl called V, thought the punishments so horrifying that they ought to revolt.  Yet Peter and his friend take the punishments for granted.  It is a part of their boys’ school world.  (One hopes such schools have improved since the ’60s, but most men I know who have gone to boys’ schools have told such stories).

Stothard also writes about Oxford, and I thought of Brideshead Revisited, which Stothard mentions in passing. It is the late ’60s and early ’70s, so less glamorous, presumably, than Waugh’s Oxford, but there are many fascinating, eccentric characters, and  his old friend Maurice, who turns out to be gay, asks him to write a play about Cleopatra in which Maurice can play all the parts. (Cleopatra is to be deconstructed.)  They end up instead putting on a short version of Aristophanes’ The Frogs.

Stothard’s writing is both fast-paced and lyrical, his voice tough and often humorous, and it often reads like fiction, which is the highest compliment I can pay.  I still have 100 pages to go:  his hilarious description of his work for an in-house oil magazine reminds me a bit of the office scenes in William Cooper’s Scenes from Metropolitan Life.

I will write more about this book later, because there is much more.  I, too, had a classical education, and am thrilled by his unique perspective on history and the classics.

Spartacus Road A Journey Through Ancient ItalyIn April I read his remarkable book, Spartacus Road:  A Personal Journey through Ancient Italy.  In it he fuses journalism, history, memoir, travel, biography, and reflections on the classics as he travels the Spartacus Road, the route Spartacus and his slave army traveled when they escaped from the gladiator school near Capua.

A great writer:  this is literary nonfiction.

Summer Reading

Is it time to reread Emma?

Is it time to reread Emma?

I mock Summer Reading articles.  I don’t know why I do.

The lists are usually of good new books.  This year Alan Cheuse at NPR has recommended poetry for summer reading: three books by Robert Pinsky, Sharon Olds, and W. S. Merwin, and two by poets I don’t know, Brenda Shaughnessy and David Rakoff.

Janet Maslin at The New York Times goes pop with Stephen King’s Joyland and Carl Hiassen’s Bad Monkey, but also includes books I’ve never heard of, Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat, a collection of stories, and Wilton Barnhardt’s Lookaway, Lookaway, “a novel about a status-conscious North Carolina family.”

I never particularly want to read the summer reading books.  Some are good, some are bad, most reviewed aren’t as good as they say.

I prefer to choose my own books.  I’m sure most of you know what I mean.

This vacation I am doing my share of summer reading.  We bicycle in the rain every day because this is it, summer, and when else can we take long trips?  But I find that when we arrive at the diner,  I cannot read Anna Karenina.  I finished it at home.  Short books are best for the road.

And so here is a little bit about my Summer Reading.

book-atownofemptyrooms Karen E. BenderI finished a wonderful Southern novel,  Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, which I found by chance at Barnes and Noble (and that’s why we need bookstores:  I read no reviews of this book).   Bender, who teaches creative writing at The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has won two Pushcart prizes for her short stories.  There is a rich texture to her observant, intense, lyrical writing.

If you liked Kent Haruf’s Benediction, you will probably enjoy A Town of Empty Rooms.  It’s not that the plots are the same, but they are both stylishly written, with intelligence.

Bender’s poignant novel about a Jewish family who moves to a small town in the South begins:

She did not intend to steal anything that day.  Serena Hirsch was walking through midtown Manhattan on her lunch break; it was one week since her father had died, and it was her first day back at work.  It was a bright April afternoon, and people were gathered in loose, happy groups outside, sitting on concrete walls and benches, turning faces to the cool pale lights.  Others seemed relieved, released from the confines of winter, certain of the damp promise of spring.  Serena walked with the crowd marching down the sidewalk, hoping she would feel she was one of them again, but now the clear sunlight, the blaring cabs, and the groups gathered on the sidewalks all seemed to exist in some world that she did not inhabit.  Her father was not part of this world anymore…

Her father had moved with his family from Berlin to the U.S. in 1936 when he was six:  he told her she should always have something she could sell:  he gives her jewelry. After her death she has a mini-breakdown and steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate charge card.

Fired from her job in marketing from PepsiCo and blacklisted, she moves with her husband, Dan, and two children to Waring, North Carolina.  Everywhere there are signs like:  If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats.

They are one of 100 or so Jewish families in town, and Serena is drawn to religion when she drives by the Temple.  But Dan, who doesn’t want to be viewed as Jewish, longs to be accepted and won’t go ro Temple.  He becomes a Boy Scout leader.

Things are crazy in the South for everyone.  Their next-door neighbor, Forrest, a fulltime Boy Scout director, has quarreled with everyone in the neighborhood.  Suddenly he becomes obsessed with their tree.  There is nothing wrong with the tree, but he insists it is about to fall on his shed.  And Dan is so worried about being ostracized and driven out of town that he cuts down the tree while Serena is at work.

At the temple things are crazy, too.  The Rabbi, who is a mesmerizing speaker and wonderful to have on your side when Forrest starts a Bring Back Christmas to the Schools campaign, is also slightly manic, and alienates many of the old women in the congregation.

This beautifully-written novel is a pageturner, but it is also painful.  Most of the characters are emotionally crippled in some way.  One is sorry for the eccentricities that hurt them.  One also realizes the life-affirming power of religion (for some, not for all).

Another new novel I’d like to recommend is Laura Lee Smith’s Heart of Palm.  I wrote about it here.

Blogger Gets Back on Her Bicycle

Back on the bike.

Back on the bike.

We got back on our bicycles.

We rode 38 miles today, 20 in the rain.

We sang rain songs.

“If the rain comes they run and hide their heads/They might as well be dead if the rain comes.” (The Beatles)

We aren’t dead.

We made up our own lyrics.

All the bicyclists disappeared.

We found the depot in a small town.

We kept going.

We stopped here to get out of the rain.

We stopped here to get out of the rain.

We stopped at the Mars Dairy Bar.

We ordered milkshakes.

Only one size.


We shared.

He wanted to get going because of the rain.

I said, “It’s not so bad.”

I was wrong.

We left the dairy bar and rode through the town.

We got on the trail.

It rained harder.

We were in the country.

There was no shelter.

A soapy water appeared strangely on my sandals and my toes turned brown.

Our hair was wet and our glasses were wet.

An ink stain spread on my favorite shirt.

My sweatshirt weighed five pounds with rain.

We got to a small town and I didn’t feel I could go on.

I huddled under a pine tree.

I sat on a wet bench.

My husband stood.

He said he could ride to the car and come back for me.

“I’ll keep going.”

We rode on.

I felt genuinely sick.

I’m genuinely tough.

We got home.

Hot baths and scrambled eggs.

I read nothing today.

Off to read.

Nursing Home Lit: From B. S. Johnson to Clyde Edgerton

B. S. Johnson:  Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

B. S. Johnson: Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

As Baby Boomers explore “eldercare” options and help their parents move into assisted living facilities and nursing homes, some have written novels about the lives of the elderly.

Nonfiction is crucial for research, but fiction helps us emotionally understand the hidden culture of old age.

I felt the need to read about others’ experiences after a relative nearly died twice in two months in an assisted living facility.

And somehow I began to collect fiction about old age.  There is quite a lot of it.  Here are a few titles.

1.    Pre-Baby Boomer Nursing Home lit:   B. S. Johnson’s 1971 experimental novel, House Mother Normal.

house-mother-normal-  b. s. johnsonI read about this reissued novel recently in the TLS (part of my self-improvement program is to read literary criticism:  actually, the TLS is  fun to read, or I wouldn’t bother).

Johnson’s House Mother Normal consists of  interior monologues by the eight residents of a charity home for the elderly and the house mother.

The book is very short, and can be read in a couple of hours.  If you like Beckett or Joyce, you’re in luck.

But honestly this is a very easy “experimental” read.  Although the residents’ accounts of a  Social Evening at the home at first seem fantastic, their memories of the past are realistic.

You know things are not as they should be at the home, but it takes a while to put it all together.

Each monologue begins with some stats from the patient’s file.

Sarah, a 71-year-old widow, one of the most agile and alert of the residents, is concerned about the strange work assignments and the games organized by the house mother.  After dinner Sarah is put to work scraping labels off bottles, while some of the others roll paper to make Christmas crackers.

Sarah thinks,

“Good deed indeed, she must make something out
of all this, though it’s not sweated labour by
any manner or means, I will say that for her, it’s
not arduous, and she can’t get much for
these Christmas crackers they make…”

They are forced to play games.  When they play Pass the Parcel and the parcel is opened, Sarah tells us it’s shit.  You think, What is it really?  It can’t be shit, can it?

Then they play a game where the mobile residents push the ones in wheelchairs and they have a “tourney” with mops.

You keep thinking, Wait, this can’t be right.

What’s going on?

Charlie, a 78-year-od pianist, has been told after dinner to pour some liquid into bottles.  He thinks:

“Suppose this must be liquor of some sort.  My sense
of smell is nearly gone.”

He wonders if the house mother is selling it to clubs.

A few of the residents are so bewildered that their monologues are blank pages or only a few words on a page.

The abusive house mother’s monologue brings everything together.

“They are fed, they are my friends.  Is this not enough?”

The horrors of this home are endless.  The residents’ perceptions are surprisingly accurate.

But it ends with a metafiction.

Excellent novel, but now back to the traditional.

2..  At the heart of Clyde Edgerton’s  Lunch at the Piccadilly, a humorous, moving novel about residents in a nursing home, is Carl, the kind, dutiful, unexciting, unmarried nephew who visits Aunt Lil and drives her and her cronies to the Piccadilly for lunch.  Driving represents freedom for the residents, who are otherwise stuck gossiping on the porch. Lil hopes one day to drive home to her apartment.

lunch-at-the-piccadilly-edgerton3.  Tessa Hadley’s stunning novel, The London Train, begins with the death of  Paul’s mother in a nursing home.  He mourns her, but is relieved that her life in the home was not prolonged.  The administrator explained she had wandered out into the garden on the night of her death, making “one of her bids for freedom,” and was found 20 minutes later. The death seemed unrelated to the escapade.  (It is not nursing home fiction per se, but it is on my list anyway.)

london train tessa hadley4.  Jill McCorkle’s new novel, Life After Life, tops my Nursing Home Lit TBR list.  The description says it is about the residents, staffers, and neighbors of a retirement home.

Let me know if you have other recommendations for Nursing Home Lit.

John Mellencamp’s Rain on the Scarecrow

John Mellencamp

John Mellencamp

When you take away a man’s dignity he can’t work his fields and cows
There’ll be blood on the scarecrow–Mellencamp’s Rain on the Scarecrow

It has been a joy to rediscover the songs of John Mellencamp. His lovely, rather earnest songs record Midwestern daily life, the history of small towns, and the death of the family farm.

Many years ago, when we lived in Bloomington, his drummer helped us move a desk we bought at a garage sale,  and we helped him move a chair.  I remember being surprised that a rock band lived in Bloomington, but in retrospect I am  surprised that more bands don’t live in Bloomington, one of the most beautiful towns in the U.S.

The clarity and plainness of Mellencamp’s lyrics remind me of the simple diction of Bess Streeter Aldrich, Booth Tarkington, and Ruth Suckow, three Midwestern novelists in the early 20th century who wrote about small Midwestern towns and farms.

Here is a video of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” and below the video are the lyrics. (I copied the lyrics off the internet, and the spacing doesn’t look right, but oh well.)

Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn
Four hundred empty acres that used to be my farm
I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land
When I was five I walked the fence while Grandpa held my hand
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
And son I’m just sorry there’s no legacy for you now
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loan
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed
Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land
He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand
Well calling it your job ol’ hoss sure don’t make it right
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight
And Grandma’s on the front porch with a Bible in her hand
Sometimes i hear her singing, “Take me to the Promised Land.”
When you take away a man’s dignity he can’t work his fields and cows
There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard
Ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms
I think about my grandpa and my neighbors and my name
And some nights I feel like dyin’ like that scarecrow in the rain
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud
And son I’m just sorry they’re just memories for you now
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
THis land fed a nationk this land made me proud
And son I’m just sorry they’re just memories for you now
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow