Bicycling in Rags to Barnes and Noble & the D. E. Stevenson Giveaway

bicycle mine on trail

That’s my bicycle!

I received some Barnes and Noble coupons in the mail with my membership renewal.

You can imagine how pleased I was.  Twenty percent off one item…and then 20% off another item…and then 10% off each with my membership card…that’s 60% off!

Perhaps you think I’m a traitor to indie bookstores, but I support them when I can.  We have only two independent bookstores here, so tiny that they have no books I want.  In Omaha and Iowa City there are excellent independent bookstores, but those cities are a long way away.

Anyway, I decided to get DOLLED UP IN RAGS to bicycle to Barnes and Noble with my coupons.

White-haired women frankly look more dignified if they are well-turned-out when they are shopping.  So I put on capris instead of bicycling shorts.  I wore an old peasant shirt, which has been washed so many times that the ruffles now look like rubber bands.  (I wasn’t aware of that until I saw myself in a mirror at B&N.)  And it’s a pity I wore my helmet on the trail.  It made my hair stick up.  It completely ruined the effect.

Nobody particularly cared, though.  They let me have coffee, and they ignored me while I looked at books.

I decided to buy paperbacks today.  (I’ll let you know if any of them are good.)  Among them I saw many wonderful books I already read in hardback:

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

  • BARBARA KINGSOLVER’S FLIGHT BEHAVIOR.  In May I said: Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family.  Not only is Flight Behavior an impassioned novel about climate change,  it is  also a mad housewife novel. The 28-year-old housewife heroine is so desperate for fulfillment that she is willing to throw away her marriage for a powerful crush on a hot telephone man, a scientist, or almost anybody.  But on the mountain, when she is going to the rendezvous to meet the telephone man, she sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees.  …It turns out to be butterflies:  monarch butterflies have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change.
  • TOM WOLFE’S BACK TO BLOOD.  In March I said:  it is extremely entertaining, the kind of book you can inhale…  Set in Miami, Wolfe’s book interweaves the stories of many colorful characters, including Nestor, a Cuban-American policeman who dramatically rescues a Cuban refugee from the 70-foot mast of a yacht; Magdalena, a beautiful Cuban-American psychiatric nurse who wears very little clothing; John Smith, a Yalie who works for the Miami Herald and breaks a story about art forgery that upsets his editor, Edward T. Topping IV;  Norman, a sex addiction psychiatrist who has sex addictions himself; a rich Russian who donated millions of dollars worth of paintings to the art museum; and Igor, an art forger.
  • J. K. ROWLING’S THE CASUAL VACANCY.  In July I said:  It is a very dark, serious novel, not what I expected from the author of Harry Potter.  The writing is sometimes a little rough, but she plots the story well and the characters are mostly well-drawn.  Barry Fairbrother’s death causes a vacancy on the Parish Council, and the novel revolves around characters who are affected by the coming election.
  • I almost bought Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?  I’ve heard many good things, but it looked awfully light.  Did anyone read it?  Is it good?

And then there were the hardcovers.


I wanted to buy Meg Wolitzer’s  The Interestings, but they didn’t have a copy.  I was disappointed.  It was just published this spring.  Isn’t it too early to send it back to the publisher?

GERMAN LITERATURE IS BACK! I  found a contemporary German novel that looked very good:  Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light. Book description:  “Alexander Umnitzer, who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, leaves behind his ailing father to fly to Mexico, where his grandparents lived as exiles in the 1940s. The novel then takes us both forward and back in time, creating a panoramic view of the family’s history: from Alexander’s grandparents’ return to the GDR to build the socialist state, to his father’s decade spent in a gulag for criticizing the Soviet regime, to his son’s desire to leave the political struggles of the twentieth century in the past.”  In times of fading light eugen ruge

And now for the D.E. Stevenson giveaway.  Does anyone want my copy of D. E. Stevenson’s The Young Clementina (just reissued by Sourcebooks)?

The Young Clementina is a charming, light novel whose heroine, Charlotte, works in a travel bookstore in London.  She grew up in the country and longs to go back:  she always thought she’d marry Garth, her best friend, but her sister, Kitty married him instead.  Charlotte returns to the country after Garth and Kitty’s ugly divorce.  She takes care of their daughter, the young Clementina, while Garth travels to Africa. (Kitty has been found unfit for motherhood because of adultery.)

It’s an uneven novel, but I know there are lots of Stevenson fans out there.  Leave a comment if you’d like the book.

Google Glass and Horace

Google Glass, the wearable computer, is the latest device for geeks who embrace the ideology of 1984 and the N.S.A.

I read a few pages of Gary Shteyngart’s very, very funny article in The New Yorker, “Confessions of a Google Glass User,” but put it aside because I am nauseated by the concept of internet-connected glasses that blink, wink, and photograph everything you see.

Gary Shteyngart with Google Glass

Gary Shteyngart with Google Glass

Shteyngart, the author of Super Sad True Love Story, a dystopian comedy set in a near-future where attention is fragmented by the use of “apparati” (tiny computers), entered a Twitter contest for a chance to wear the glasses.  He is no stranger to tech.  He writes that he used the iPhone to research his novel.

The device became a frightening appendage to a life of already sizable anxiety….Returning to the novel five years after its completion, I had the general sense that I had allowed technology to run me over. Now I was…an occasional rather than a voracious reader,  a curator of my life rather than a participant, a man who could walk through a stunning national park while looking up stunning national parks.”

Shteyngart is ahead of the curve in charting what has happened and what will happen in our virtual society.  I wonder how Google Glass is working out for him.  I can’t believe it is good to hook a computer up to your head!  Haven’t they said cell phones can cause brain cancer?

This weekend my husband and I had a silly argument about phones.  He criticized someone who came out of a restaurant checking her phone.  I pointed out that he had just checked his own phone and put it away in his bike pannier.

He denied that he was checking his phone. I don’t know or care what he was doing with it.  Staring down at it anyway.  I don’t have a cell phone myself.   I’m just glad I don’t have to field his calls anymore on our landline.  (I used to promise he would call people right back, and since he seldom did, I was blamed. )

If I had a cell phone I’d check my email even more than I do.  That’s why I don’t have one.


The-Odes-of-Horace-Horace- David FerryCulture isn’t dead yet.  I spent the evening reading Horace.

This is an activity a woman could have enjoyed any time since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

I curl up on my desk, i.e., the couch, and read Horace’s Ode I.15, known as “The Prophecy of Nereus.” The cats love to read Horace.  One cat bats the book gently.  Another sits on the big Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary and occasionally chews the scotch tape holding together the Allyn and Greenough grammar. (“No, no,” I say.)

I drink wine (no, actually lemonade) while I read Horace, and the cats drink ice water.  (They love to drink from a human’s glass.)  We are very civilized.

In Ode I.15, Horace intimates in just 36 spare, brilliant lines the horrors of the Trojan War.  When Paris, a prince of Troy, treacherously drags Helen, his hostess, away from Sparta on a Trojan ship,  Nereus, a sea god, stops the winds and the ships and prophesies the consequences of Paris’s actions.  He says, “Greece, sworn to break your nuptials and the old kingdom of Priam, will strike.”

Nereus emphasizes the extent of the destruction in the imminent Trojan War:   how great will be the sweat of the men and the horses, how many the Trojan deaths.

In the third and fourth stanzas, Nereus portends the destruction of transient love, sensuality, and music.  He threatens Paris twice with the word nequiqam (“in vain,” “fruitlessly”).  Here is a literal translation of these stanzas, certainly not meant to be read as poetry, but just to suggest to you the differences between Latin and English (skip to the next paragraph if you like):   “In vain, fierce in the protection of Venus, you will comb your lovely hair and sing songs pleasing to women and play the unwarlike cithara.  In vain, hiding in the bedroom, will you avoid the heavy spears and the arrows (of Cnossian reed) and the noise and swift Ajax following.  Alas, too late!  You will smear your adulterous hair in the dust. ”

Here is the graceful translation of the third and fourth stanzas by David Ferry, who substitutes “What good will it do?” for nequiquam.

What good will it do to sit in your lady’s chamber,
Venus’s hero, combing your beautiful hair
And playing a tune on the cithara, of the sort
that women like?  What good will it do to try,

In a palace room, to avoid the noise of battle,
The spears and arrows and Ajax in pursuit?
It won’t be long, although, alas, too late,
Before your beautiful hair gets dirty enough

Oddly, these stanzas made me think about our culture.  In vain you and I sit in our lady’s or gentleman’s chamber, playing a tune on the cithara.  What good will it do?

It’s all crumbling around us.

It’s not just the culture.  It’s Google Glass!

So comb your hair and play your cithara while you can.

But that’s a different ode.

Mary Hocking’s An Irrelevant Woman & Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark

An Irrelevant Woman by Mary HockingMary Hocking’s An Irrelevant Woman, a poignant novel about a woman’s mental breakdown, is concise, gracefully-written, and painful.  Published in 1987, this story of an older woman’s descent into psychotic depression when she loses her purpose is sympathetic, if not entirely realistic. This is one of several women’s novels of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s that treat breakdown as a feminist, sociological predicament rather than a psychiatric problem .  (Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark is by far the best of these.)  Drugs are not used to help the patients; the women must simply find their way out.

Mary Hocking’s razor-sharp perceptiveness about women’s lives has been compared to Barbara Pym’s comic clarity, perhaps because both writers are interested in religion (though that is not apparent here). Hocking’s smartness seems to me to be more aligned with Penelope Lively’s psychological acuity.  But I must say, Hocking’s An Irrelelevant Woman is a more serious novel than A Particular Place, which I read a few weeks ago.  I could see the Pymian whimsicality there.

In men’s novels of breakdown, there is often straightforward craziness, though in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,  Ken Kesey incisively describes the psychiatric hospital as a metaphor for a sick society ; in women’s novels of breakdown, women are trapped by others’ expectations of them.

In An Irrelevant Woman, a tramp’s visit on Easter precipitates the breakdown of the heroine, Janet Saunders, the wife of a writer and the mother of four adult children. The tramp looks in the window and sees her unraveling.

…she pulled on a pair of oven gloves and stood poised. A look of uncertainty came over her face which, for no apparent reason, changed rapidly to one of dismay.  And worse.  In this unguarded moment the woman’s face betrayed the naked terror which might be occasioned by coming without warning, in a nameless place, to the edge of a precipice; or by being confronted in one’s own household with a forgotten, long-locked door behind which may lie chaos, a rotting human corpse, or an equally defunct mouse.  The woman opened the oven door and peered inside.  Whatever she saw did little to reassure her…

It is a bit clichéd, a woman’s breakdown in front of the oven door (are we to think of Sylvia Plath?); Lessing does it with a mirror. (I have always taken mirrors more seriously than oven doors.)  But Janet, the perfect housewife, attends to the tramp’s needs and makes him a sandwich before going back to her breakdown.   Later, she unravels during  Easter dinner and descends into a catatonic depression in front of her family.

Janet’s family’s egocentric response to her illness, however, turns the novel into a gentle comedy of manners. The family is perfectly and irritatingly depicted. The children have moved away and no longer need Janet; her husband can take care of himself.  But now that she has broken down, they all want her back in the kitchen.  Her oldest daughter, Stephanie, an overbearing, insensitive psychologist, understands nothing about Janet’s feelings; her son, Hugh, an attorney, is nonplussed and stays out of it, as does her younger daughter, Katrina, who is devastated by a romance with her professor; and her son, Malcolm, an actor, refuses to believe Janet incapable of taking care of him.  (Indeed, Janet does respond to him finally.)

Janet’s husband,  Murdoch, is sympathetic, but he wonders repeatedly if she still loves him.

Janet was sorry for him in a sick, irritated fashion.  She said, ‘I shall always love you,’ in the manner in which she might have repeated the Lord’s Prayer, without understanding a single word.

A long as Janet sees Dr. Potter, a psychiatrist who is content to analyze her benignly, Murdoch does not interfere. But when she wanders off to a homeless people’s abode and begins psychotically to garden in a rainstorm, Murdoch, who has followed her, finally understands the extent of her illness.

There is much in this novel about helping others that eventually heals Janet:  the tramp, an encounter with the homeless, Dr. Potter’s hostel for young women, and her insistent son Malcolm.

I must say that Janet’s comeback from psychosis is sudden, and entirely without drugs.  It doesn’t square with what I know about psychiatry:  people took antidepressants and other drugs before Prozac, and Prozac itself has been around since 1987.  It is cruel to deprive people of drugs that can cure , or at least help, with chemical imbalances caused by stress.   One of my greatest friends had a manic episode after taking a steroid for an ear infection: she tried to order a Jaguar, not her usual style, purchased a lot of very expensive china, and  began to wear her frilly bra over her t-shirt.  She hated the pills, but they got her out of the hospital and out of that frilly bra over her clothes. Another friend believed her child was Rosemary’s Baby; she had an untreated psychotic postpartum depression, and the last I heard, she was an Ativan addict, wandering from doctor to doctor to get more prescriptions.

No, the world of mental illness is not a feminist place.

Summer before the darkThe best of these feminist breakdown novels by far is Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark (1973). The following synopsis is from my old blog:   Kate Brown, 45, is alone for the summer.  She accepts wryly that her husband is having an affair in America:  middle-aged women put up with infidelity.  She had planned to stay home for her son, but when it turns out he will be away, she busies herself with a summer job as an interpreter for a food conference.  She wears fashionable clothes and has beautifully cut-and-dyed hair; she has an affair, which is nice, but ephemeral.  Later in the summer, she has a kind of controlled breakdown in a rented room in a young hipster’s house.   Kate lets her hair go and experiments with walking  in front of construction workers in different outfits. Naturally, they whistle when she looks young, and ignore her when she wears baggy clothes. By the end of the summer she knows herself and returns to her family.  This is not a “hen lit” book where the heroine finds a new man in the end.  When we are older, we lose our men.

In both Hocking’s and Lessing’s novels, the causes of breakdown are sociological rather than psychiatric. Although Lessing’s sophisticated heroine does not entirely lose herself, it is clear that Hocking’s Janet is is psychotic:  this is not just a feminist breakdown.  Her mental illness lasts for months, and I cannot imagine such a deep illness in a middle-class family untreated by psychiatric drugs or hospitalization.  Even the most old-fashioned of psychoanalysts know they cannot treat the psychotic with chat.

The world of mental illness novels today must be very different.  Or I hope so.

Beautiful Monsters

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, the first novel in her witty, occasionally erotic Atlan series, was recommended by Ms. magazine in 1977 as a feminist fantasy novel.

This comical, sexy novel, told in the form of a diary, is a predecessor of the paranormal romance, peopled with blue scaly men instead of vampires.  The lively heroine, a princess who rides a wild, violent bird and sometimes dresses like a boy, has a predilection for monsters.

The Serpent Jane GaskellRaised in a tower and taught that men are extinct,  Cija, a princess addressed as “Goddess,” is confused when her mother, the Dictatress, says she has lied about men to protect her:  a prophecy said that Cija must not come into contact with the world until she was of age.

Cija is exhilarated by the thought of men.

But men are extinct!  Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?”  Was wildly, wildly excited.  Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.

Her mother explains that there are men; in fact, more men than women. Now General Zerd, the enemy, has occupied their country and is taking Cija hostage.  She says Cija must assassinate him.

Cija already met General Zerd  when he climbed up the tower and briefly chatted withher:  she thought he was a huge woman with dark blue skin and a deep voice.

Cija rather crossly travels with Zerd’s army, socializes with silly girl hostages and forward young men (she soon gets used to them, though), and is told repeatedly by her nurse Ooldra that she must seduce and then kill Zerd.  Since she never sees Zerd and knows nothing of seduction, it will be difficult.

But we can’t kill beautiful monsters, can we?  Suddenly Cija sees him as he really is.

His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms.  Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!

(Oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God–and to think people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey!)

The thing about beautiful monsters is that you must look at them.  Once you’ve seen them, It is very difficult not to love them.  You don’t know they’re monsters, if they are monsters, till later.

If I had seen this cover, I could never have bought the book!

If I had seen this cover, I would never have bought the book!

And Zerd finds her very funny, though he is involved with the Beauty (who is really a beauty) and a tribal woman he “marries” so he can travel through foreign territory.

Cija doesn’t like other women much. The female hostages are silly and coquettish; Ooldra, her nurse whom she loves, turns out to be a traitor; and Zerd’s wife beats her.

Men are safer.  They like Cija.  She likes her independence more than romance.  when she is on the lam (she kills a brutal governor), her best friend is Lel, a “transgender” boy (or girl?), who helps her get away from a mob;  later, he establishes himself in the big city as a soldier’s mistress (whether the soldier knows he is a boy isn’t clear to Cija) and saves Cija’s life by pretending she is his brother.  (It’s all a bit confusing:  girls as boys, boys as girls, but you get used to it.)

One of the funniest, most authentic scenes is when she risks her life to save her diary.  She doubles back to the house after escaping from the police.

I could not leave my diary.

This is probably the most stupid thing I have ever done in all my not particularly brilliant life.  For a book, pages between two covers, I stayed behind when I could have run to freedom….  I knew this compulsion was suicide but the Diary is by now my inmost friend, it is almost a sense–and to be severed would have been impossible pain.

Cija’s diary is everything to her.

In science fiction, paranormal romances, and literary fiction, monsters are often more human than the humans.  In Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, the depressed heroine, a housewife, falls in love with an escaped sea monster who may or may not be real. In Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, the heroine falls in love with an escaped 300-pound ape.  In Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets, a marine biologist  falls in love with a dolphin.  In Twilight, Bella falls in love with a vampire.

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent is charming: Cija is bold, saucy, and self-mocking.  She is one of my favorite heroines of SF/fantasy, and I have very much enjoyed my rereading of this entertaining book.

City Cookies & Slowing Down

Victorian The Ferrett women bicycling

Comic Victorian illustration.

Do you ever ask yourself, Why don’t I say No?

I am very proud of my friend Janet, who finally said no to the Tartarean six-day cross-state bicycle ride she had absent-mindedly agreed to go on with her boyfriend.   She got rained and hailed on first, and it might have been better to say no before the ride, but she isn’t a masochist.

There are elements of Janet in me.  Most of my life I have gone on long bike rides because that’s what my husband does.

I love to ride my bicycle.  I don’t necessarily love to ride it 40 miles.

Yesterday was tough.  A 40-mile bike ride.  I had no idea I was going 40 miles.  That was his idea.  If I’d known I was riding 40 miles, I would have stopped at 30.

First, it was cold.

Have you ever had to dash into a store and buy jeans because you were wearing bicycling shorts and it is still freezing at midday?  Do you find anything in your size?   Do you end up with a choice between jeans that fit too snugly and jeans that are a little big in the waist but otherwise fit well?  So I went with the bigger jeans. (Little did I know.)

Bundled up in jeans and a sweatshirt, I was still shivering.

The first twenty miles were easy.  Downhill.  Woods, bluffs, corn fields, and farms.

I  enjoyed the scenery, but would have enjoyed it more at a slower pace. There are two kinds of bicyclists:  serious and casual.  The serious bicyclists are intent on mileage and hardly turn their heads to admire the scenery.  The casual bicyclists ride more slowly and stop to look at, or even photograph, the green spaces, and listen to the hot-weather bugs and birds.   I tried to keep my husband in sight, but I lost him after a while.  Where was he?  Where was the town?  Had I made a wrong turn?

Then something happened with the jeans.  They seemed to be falling down, down…  I am a big woman, but the jeans were growing, and it wasn’t because I was shrinking.  I hitched them up and yanked my sweatshirt down.  Because I was sitting on a bike, I could kind of keep them up.

Finally I found the town, but I wasn’t absolutely sure where my husband was.  I took a couple of turns around downtown, hitching up my jeans frequently, and  found him sitting on a rock in front of the Visitors Center.

Then we had to find a snack.

After 90 minutes of moderate riding, you need glucose to refuel your muscles.  In small towns, it’s hard to find the right food.  We are not morning people, and the cafes close early.  There are usually convenience stores:  Kum and Go, Git ‘n’ Go, and Casey’s.

The available food at convenience stores–cookies, ice cream sandwiches, and candy –does not renew my energy very well.   When I was younger, anything was fine.   I probably need healthy snacks now.

There are city cookies and small town cookies.

In the city you can get a big, delicious oatmeal cookie that is almost healthy.  It is made of flour, oatmeal, butter, sugar, and eggs.  It will taste good, and you’ll feel energetic afterwards.  Sort of.

The small-town cookies at the convenience store are made of flour, corn syrup, and chemicals.  You don’t want to eat those.  They will make you sick.

So there you are.  Sitting on the cement with your cookie, potato chips, or Slurpee from the convenience store.

Here is my resolve:  to bring my own good food on the next bike ride.  Dried fruit, bagels, and possibly sandwiches, if I can find a little cooler or something that fits in my pannier.

I also intend to ride more slowly and listen to the birds.

I also intend to wear jeans that fit me next time.

This excerpt from a poem by Linda Gregg says what I want to say.

I will never give up long.
I will let my hair stay long.
The rain proclaims these trees,
the trees tell of the sun.
Let birds, let birds.
Let leaf be passion.
Let jaw, let teeth, let tongue be
between us.  Let joy.
–From  “Let Bird” by Linda Gregg

Where Do Things Go?

Carrie Snodgrass and Dick Benjamin in "Diary of a Mad Housewife"

Carrie Snodgrass and Dick Benjamin in “Diary of a Mad Housewife”

I am not a mad housewife.  I do not drink or operate heavy machinery on Advil (or coffee). I am a big believer in bottomless cups of tea.  I do not clean much, but by the time I’ve cleaned up enough to have a maid in, the house is clean.  I cook great vegetarian dishes.  I do not care about pretty Kate Middleton’s son.

But I do love a good mad housewife in novels.  My mad housewife role models are the heroines of Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, Sheila Ballantyne’s Norma Jean the Termite Queen, and Faith Sullivan’s Mrs. Deming and the Magical Beast.

I will pretend to be a mad housewife for the duration of this post.   THINGS ARE DISAPPEARING. (This is SO  Mrs. Caliban.)

You know the kind of thing.  I’m organized (sort of).  Pens go in the mug that is really the wrong size for all-day tea, the shopping list is on top of the refrigerator, post-its by the phone, the t-shirt and bras are in drawers, costume jewelry in the papier-mache box, and James Wilcox’s novels together on the same shelf.

Things are missing!

Not quite a still life:  "things" have gone missing!

Not quite a still life: “things” have gone missing!

First, the pens.  Bics don’t write.  My space pen, which supposedly astronauts can write upside down with, is lost.  And so I bought a box of 24 Precise V5 Rolling Ball pens. I was very happy to buy a box of Precise V5 Rolling Ball pens.  It meant I would not have to buy pens for another year. And a person needs something to write with.  I transferred them to the zebra mug.

Two pens and one pen cap are left.  Where did they go?

My husband says he didn’t take them to the office.  Hmmm.



I can’t imagine where the magnetic shopping list and post-its went.  The magnet broke, so I put the shopping list pad on top of the refrigerator.  The post-its are obviously by the phone.  They’re gone.

Nobody took them.

So I have to write notes in that huge green notebook.  The pages are just too big.

Junk jewelry!

Junk jewelry!

THIRD, MY EARRINGS.  I keep my earrings in a “darling little papier-mache box,” to quote my mother.  My earrings were once rejected by a burglar.  Yes, he dumped them out on the bed but didn’t take them. They are junk jewelry, thank God.

I like to wear my earrings when I go out, but I have no longer have any pairs. When I put them in a box, they are in pairs.


FOURTH, MY PURPLE T-SHIRT THAT DATES BACK TO 1989.  I do not have a picture of my purple t-shirt, because half a t-shirt does not disappear:  it’s the whole thing.  If you paid $8 for a t-shirt in 1989, it would last three years; if you paid $24, it would last a lifetime.   Where did it go?

Is it in with my winter clothes? Did the washing machine swallow it, as it does socks?

IMG_2602LAST, THE FIRST BOOK IN MY JAMES WILCOX COLLECTION.  I love James Wilcox’s humorous novels, set in Tula Springs, Louisiana, which are often compared to Anne Tyler’s books, though of course they are Southern.  Where is Modern Baptists, the first one in the series?  All the others are together.  Modern Baptists has gone missing!

MY SUSPECT.  Yes, I have a suspect.

Here she is!

My suspect!

My suspect!

She is adorable!

Sometimes she darts around the house with an earring in her mouth.

“No, no,” I say, but it doesn’t impress her.

She loves to play with pen caps, though I have never seen her with a pen.  She may have playfully knocked the shopping list off the refrigerator or ripped up the post-its.  I don’t think she took my t-shirt, bra, or socks.  James Wilcox’s book?  HMMMMM.

What have you lost and do you have any suspects?

Bicycling and Mollie Katzen’s Green Beans and Tofu with Crunchy Thai Peanut Sauce

painting of woman bicycling in Paris, Sharon Rusch Shaver

“Woman Bicycling in Paris,” painting, by Sharon Rusch Shaver

My friend Janet lasted two days on the cross-state bike ride.

After her tent was flattened by rain and hail Monday night, she did what anyone would have done:  she called her mother.

Her querulous little old mother called me.

“Could you pick up Janet?”

Janet’s mother is the kind of person who asks you to come over and pluck the whiskers out of her chin.  Once she asked me to pick up Chinese food for her, which exploded in my bicycle pannier.

“Sorry, I don’t drive.”

I really don’t.  I ride a bicycle.

Janet dropped over yesterday after her mother drove her back from the campground at “about  ten miles an hour.” She cares, but not that much, about leaving her boyfriend to bicycle with her not-very-trustworthy fitness freak sister, who, when last seen, according to Janet, was “making cow eyes at him and looking like a cow, too.”

“Janet, have you actually ever seen a cow?”

mollie-katzens-vegetable-heaven-over-9492l1As she points out, she has plenty of other men, since her boyfriend lives in Milwaukee and only sees her twice a month anyway.  Other men take her to concerts, take yoga with her, and even attend her poetry readings.

“Any other man would have dropped out of the ride and taken me to Canada or somewhere after that dreadful experience.”

I agree!

And so I did the nicest thing I’ve ever done for her:  I cooked her the best vegetarian meal we have ever had, Green Beans and Tofu with Cruncy Thai Peanut Sauce (from Mollie Katzen’s Vegetable Heaven).

We have green beans in our garden.  Absolutely delicious!  Here is the recipe, and below it are my improvisations, which makes it slightly easier.

1 1/2 cups peanuts (unsalted or lightly salted)
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 pound firm tofu, cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 pound fresh green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Red pepper flakes to taste

Place the peanuts in a blender, and grind briefly until they form a coarse meal. Set aside.

Heat a medium-sized heavy skillet. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil, and the ginger and garlic. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the crushed peanuts and the lemon zest. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often, until the peanuts are lightly toasted. Remove from heat and set aside.

As the peanut mixture is cooking, heat a large, nonstick wok or deep skillet. Drizzle in a little oil. When it is very hot, add the tofu and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook over high heat for 10 to 15 minutes to let the water evaporate, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with lemon juice, reduce the heat, and cook for a few minutes longer. Transfer the tofu to the pan containing the peanut mixture, and set aside.

Scrape out the wok or skillet if necessary, and return to the heat. Let it get very hot, then add the remaining scant tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the green beans. (The pan should sizzle when they hit.)

Stir-fry over high heat for about 5 minutes, then sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and a small amount of red pepper flakes.

Stir-fry just a few minutes longer, or until the beans are divinely tender-crisp (mostly crisp, but just tender enough). Add the peanut-tofu mixture and toss everything together. Serve right away, over rice.

IMPROVISATIONS:  My tofu always falls apart in the wok, so I skipped that step, and added it to the peanut mixture without stir-frying first.  Then after the green beans had been stir-fried for four or five minutes, I scooped the tofu with a slotted spoon out of the peanuts and added it to the wok.  I stir-fried a few minutes longer till the beans were done.  The tofu didn’t fall apart!

It all turned out wonderfully.  Every bite was eaten.  I can’t recommend this dish too highly.

You should probably try Mollie Katzen’s recipe first, but my improv worked for me!

Literary Mediums & Politics: Rhian Ellis’s After Life and J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

Storm, July 22, 2013

Storm, July 22, 2013

I meant to write my monthly “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” post last night, but I haven’t read many middlebrow books this summer.

I’ve read quite a few classics instead:  Horace, Balzac, and Elizabeth Spencer.

On Monday night I had a middlebrow novel in the car, but we got caught in a storm that precluded my reading anything:  flashing “disco-light” lightning lit up the sky, high winds crepitated, and dense pellets of rain fell.

“Don’t you want to pull over?” I asked.

“No!  I’m concentrating.”

I am seldom frightened of storms.  I am the kind of person who goes casually down to the basement only if the sirens go off, and then only if the TV forecasters take cover.  I read during storms.

But when we got home, I was shaken.  I got into bed and hoped to get lost in a novel.  I read part of a novel by Vita Sackville-West that wasn’t good but wasn’t bad enough to be middlebrow.

That is the way it’s been all summer.

Books are splayed on the Adirondack chair.

Don’t take me literally.

I don’t leave books out in the rain.

Sometimes I am a reading snob, sometimes I am not a snob.

I haven’t read any Viragos this summer.  (I know:  the 40th anniversary.)

I read 22 pages of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance (recommended by The Wall Street Journal).

And so I have decided to write about one literary novel and one “high” middlebrow novel:   Rhian Ellis’s After Life, a brilliant novel about a medium who kills her boyfriend; and J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, a novel about the town of Pagford and several characters who are affected by a vacancy on the council caused by a death.

I was hoping to find a third, but these will have to do.

After Life by Rhian EllisAfter Life by Rhian Ellis.  This remarkable literary novel slipped under the radar when it was published in 2000.  It has been reissued in the Nancy Pearl “Book Lust Rediscoveries” series published by Amazon.

The narrator, Naomi Ash, a medium, killed her boyfriend 10 years ago.  The novel begins with her painful memory of dragging the body into a boat, rowing on  the dark lake, and finally burying the body in a grassy clearing.

The dark, lyrical prose is of such transcendent beauty that literature fans will admire it as well as mystery fans, and in fact I’m not sure this is a mystery:  it is more a story about mediums and fakery.   Born in New Orleans, Naomi and her mother, who is also a medium, have lived for years in Train Line, New York, a town known for spiritualism and mediums.  Train Line is based on Lily Dale, New York, a town near Chautauqua (I have been there).

After her boyfriend’s death, Naomi represses her psychic skills.  She is suicidal.  She works at a convenience store, and she is a person who has never imagined herself working at a mundane job.

Those were terrible, dark months.  I worked at the Ha-Ha, a convenience store in Wallamee during the day, and plotted my suicide at night.  Every morning I rode my bike the five and a half miles around the north end of the lake, past groups of kids with lunch boxes waiting for the school bus, and past flocks of ducks flapping through cattails, and past gas stations and real estate offices opening for the day.  I rode through most of the winters, too, thought when there was a lot of snow I got a ride from Teeny Lawrence, my neighbor, who worked similar hours as I did at a doctor’s office not far from the convenience store.  I preferred to ride my bike, though.  I wasn’t very good at small talk.

Her mother works as a “material medium”:  Naomi describes “the floating trumpets, the ectoplasm, the spirit rappings:  all this she said was theater.”  Naomi herself started working as a medium in high school, trying mainly to get attention from her peers. But then she had real visions, and eventually registered as a medium.  She shares a house with two other mediums.  She gives readings, and now has a job in the spiritualism library.

When Naomi’s boyfriend’s body turns up, her mother get involved as a psychic with the police.  Terrified, Naomi works with her.

Fascinating book.  I loved it!

200px-The_Casual_VacancyJ. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy Like everyone else, I was riveted by the news that Rowling has written a mystery under a pseudonym. I decided, however, to read The Casual Vacancy instead, because it has been sitting around the house since last fall.

It is a very dark, serious novel, not what I expected from the author of Harry Potter.  The writing is sometimes a little rough, but she plots the story well and the characters are mostly well-drawn.

Barry Fairbrother’s death causes a vacancy on the Parish Council, and the novel revolves around characters who are affected by the coming election. Barry was regarded by some as a radical who was trying to save The Fields, an area council estate, and who advocated the rehab clinic funded by Pagford. The conservatives want to see the Fields incorporated into the nearby city of Yarvil, because they do not want addicts and criminals in their town.

There is a huge cast of characters, some likable, others smug and callous: Howard Mollison, the scheming overweight deli owner, wants his son, Miles, to be elected so they can defeat the liberals; Howard’s wife, Shirley, who takes delight in malicious gossip and in the “ghost” messages that are hacked into the Parish Council website, doesn’t delete the messages that ruin lives until she is informed they are libelous; Colin Wall, a deputy headmaster with OCD,  decides to run for the council to save Barry’s work in the Fields; his smart, overtaxed wife, Tessa, a guidance counselor, wishes Colin understood his unpopularity, and is tired of their son Fats’ rebelliousness; Parminda Jawanda, a council member and doctor who is discriminated against as “a Paki,” misses Barry the most, and is appalled that Howard wants to shut down the rehab clinic; and Simon Price, an abusive husband and father, wants to run for the council seat so he can benefit from bribes from contractors.

The question:  Can you save the very poor?

“Nuke the inner city,” a Republican friend once said to shock me.

“Fund the programs,” I said.

Tessa, the guidance counselor, and Kay, the social worker, are the most believable characters. They are involved with the poor, but they do not overestimate their effect.

The Weedon family is at the heart of the Fields.

Tessa, who works in guidance with Crystal Weedon, an addict’s daughter and champion of the school’s rowing team, keeps her in school and from menacing and beating up other students, but on the other hand she can’t turn the life around of Crystal’s mother. (Crystal is fond of Tessa, so she steals her watch.)  Kay, the social worker who has moved from London to be with a man who exploits her sexually, makes a difference when she takes over the Weedons’ case as a substitute:  she persuades Terry to get back with the rehab clinic program, talks to Crystal, and gets the toddler, Robbie, who might have to be put into care, back into pre-school.   She does everything she can to keep the family together.

But after the other case worker comes back to work, things spin out of control.

This is a good book, perhaps a little too controlled:  we have a lot of stock characters, and I wondered if there was anything beneath the surface of the most hypocritical.

I am sure Rowling’s next adult book will be better.  This is a very fast, entertaining, albeit very, very depressing, read.

Mirabile Considers the Reading Life, Balzac’s Ursule Mirouet, Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, & Nook Discrimination at “Web Proof!”

Woman Reading by Gyula Bencz

“Woman Reading” by Gyula Bencz

I have a very odd reading life.

I usually have six books on the go. This eclectic style of reading seems to go with blogging.

I call it  “reading like a bookseller.” The best booksellers have the “multiple reading” habit so they can chat to customers about the latest books.

My most cherished ambition is to own a bookstore and sit around and chat like the charming Linda in  Nancy Mitford’s  The Pursuit of Love.  When she takes over the Communist bookstore every weekend so the Comrade who runs it can get drunk,

An extraordinary transformation would then occur.  The books and tracts which mouldered there month after month, getting damper and dustier until at last they had to be thrown away, were hurried into the background, and their place taken by Linda’s own few but well-loved favorites.  Thus for Whither British Airways? was substituted Round the World in Eighty Days, Karl Marx, the Formative Years was replaced by The Making of a Marchioness, and The Giant of the Kremlin by Diary of a Nobody, while A Challenge to Coal -Owners made way for King Solomon’s Mines.

I can imagine a similar transformation if, say, Leonard Riggio became my best friend and I worked at Barnes and Noble.  My charming, humorous, eclectic favorites would sit on a shelf labeled “Charming, Humorous, Eclectic favorites”:  Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred, H. G. Wells’ Kipps, Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, Julie Hecht’s Do the Window Open?, Nora Johnson’s Coast to Coast:  A Family Memoir, and Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year.

A former student was the most personable bookseller at Borders and was also a “multiple reader.”  The Borders culture, he explained, was based on staff interactions with the customers:  he recommended George R. R. Martin’s novels, though I never got into them, and quoted the opening sentence of The Shadow of the Wind to persuade customers they ought to read it.  (“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”). When I bought the new translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, he said he’d always intended to read it.  (I told him he might prefer The Master of Hestviken.)

My fellow bloggers sometimes complain about the strain of multiple reads (i.e., reading like a bookseller). I ask myself, Where is the pressure coming from? Why are we reading so many books?  Are we reading to blog?  Are we blogging to read?  Are we reading for our readers?

It occurs to me we are readers of the 21st century:  we have grown used to interruptions and juggling many tasks at a time. And so we organize our multiple readings in our online writings.  Mirabile Dictu is the equivalent of the journal I used to keep.   I write a few bookish posts every week, but I positively discourage readers from expecting me to “review” books every day.

Ursule Mirouet by BalzacDespite the fact that I am plugged into the internet, despite the fact that my Nook now interrupts me when I have a new email, despite the fact that I have read hundreds of book reviews this year, I go through long periods when I ignore modern life and contemporary books altogether.  I have read many books by Balzac this year, though I have blogged about only a few of them.  Ursule Mirouet is the oddest of his novels I’ve read to date, and definitely the worst.  It begins, as is typical with Balzac’s novels, with a long, rambling exposition of the town, Nemours, and the many branches of an anxious family who worry that the wealthy agnostic Dr. Minoret will leave all his money to his goddaughter Ursule.  At the beginning of the novel, when the non-believer Minoret accompanies Ursule to Mass, the incident triggers malicious gossip about her power over his money.   But  we learn that Minoret converted to Catholicism after a friend challenges him to open his mind to mesmerism: a medium in a trance was able to describe exactly what Ursule was doing back in the village, and when he checked with her, every detail of was correct.

Balzac was a believer in spiritualism and mesmerism, and this very odd novel combines the typical inheritance and thwarted love themes with elements of supernatural communications and interventions.  Donald Adamson says in the introduction to the 1976 Penguin:

To those who poke fun at Balzac’s belief in animal magnetism it should equally be stressed that Mesmer’s theories produced a sensation toward the end of the eighteenth century and commanded the support of many intelligent men.  Balzac merely echoes the opinion of his many contemporaries when claiming in Ursule Mirouet that Mesmer’s findings would revolutionize therapeutic medicine and that ‘rationalist’ methods of healing were ill-founded.

Ursule is fascinating as an example of Balzac’s belief in the supernatural, but it is not a very good novel.

This summer I reread Cicero’s beautifully-written philosophical treatise on the immortality of souls, Somnium Scipionis (Scipio’s Dream) .  Honestly, despite the rhetorical beauty of the language and the utter simplicity of the doctrine, it is trite:  the New Age ’70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Plato’s Republic.

But even if you read it in English–I read it in Latin, but have copied a few English paragraph from the Fordham University site below–a little of the power of Cicero’s graceful, deftly balanced prose comes through.  Scipio Aemilianus, military tribune of the fourth legion, spends an evening with King Masinissa, an old family friend, in Africa, who reminisces about his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, hero of the Second Punic War.  This dialogue inspires a dream of a conversation with Scipio Africanus.

 And during all this time the old man spoke of nothing but Africanus, all whose actions, and even remarkable sayings, he remembered distinctly. At last, when we retired to bed, I fell in a more profound sleep than usual, both because I was fatigued with my journey, and because I had sat up the greatest part of the night.

Here I had the following dream, occasioned, as I verily believe, by our preceding conversation—for it frequently happens that the thoughts and discourses which have employed us in the daytime, produce in our sleep an effect somewhat similar to that which Ennius writes happened to him about Homer, of whom, in his waking hours, he used frequently to think and speak.

Simple and down-to-earth, but you really need the Latin.

I promise to catch up with “bookish writing” soon.  Summer is winding down.

And now for my experience with contemporary books.

There is a certain  website where you can sign up and request digital advance copies of new books from publishers.  I will refer to this site as “Web Proofs!”(its real name is something similar, and many of you bloggers probably know it).

This summer the Web Proofs! publicist sent me a catalogue.  Before I knew it, I had requested seven books to review at Mirabile Dictu, figuring I would be okayed for one.  I was astonished when I was okayed for all except for the one I wanted, Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming novel.

But do you think it was easy to download these free books on my Nook?  No, it was impossible!

If you have a Kindle, you can download the books directly from Web Proofs!  If you don’t you have to download Adobe Digital Editions.  Fine.  Then you have to plug in your Nook and download from Adobe Digital Editions.

Transatlantic colum mccannIt didn’t work.  Both my husband and I tried repeatedly.  A message appeared saying that I was not approved to copy the contents.

I tried to read Colum McCann’s beauitfully-written novel  Transatlantic on Adobe Digital editions on my computer, but it gave me a headache.

I went out and bought the book.

All the books I was approved for expired on their expiration dates.  Sorry, publicists, I’ve failed you again!