Vampirically Preppy with Too Much Lipstick

Detail, "House of Fire II," by James Rosenquist

Detail, “House of Fire II,” by James Rosenquist

My mother briefly worked as a cashier.

One day I walked into the drugstore and there she was.

I ducked out.  Horrible of me, I know, but I was stunned to see her working a minimum-wage job.  I lived with my father, who had custody of me, and I had not realized she would need to work after their divorce.

She was no longer young, and despite her college degree, there was no suitable work.  Later she got an office job.  Still underemployed, but at least not humiliated.

And now we, too, are middle-aged, well-educated, and unsuitably, under-, or un- employed.

Retail could be our future.

I thought about this idly on Saturday when I was shopping for clothes.  Department stores employ quite a few middle-aged and older people.  Maybe I could hang up garments.  I once had a job where I sat outside the dressing rooms and gave out plastic hangers telling the number of garments people were trying on.

I don’t see anyone doing that job now.

On Saturday one helpful clerk, possibly in her sixties, was so charming and funny that one did not notice her age.

Another was ancient. She would not smile.  That is what made her seem old.  This unmannerly woman, with long, carefully-combed gray hair, was wrinkled and miserable. Perhaps in her seventies?   What was wrong?  I wondered.  She looked ill.  Was she ill?   I adjusted my face from smiling to sympathetic.  Still no reaction.   She wanted me to open a charge card.  I made a joke about cards.  No smile. She repeated the charge card offer.  No smile.

I gave up.  She hated me because I was shopping, not working.

If my mother had been there, she would have assured me that I was the best, most delightful, kind, polite woman in the world–yes, in the world?  Got that!– and that the cashier was mad or undeserving of sympathy.

We would have gone out for coffee or Diet Cokes.

As it is, I felt slightly worried about the rude woman.  What was wrong with her?

I missed my mother again today.

I was shopping at a box store. She loved box stores; I do not.  I was dressed in a “vampirically preppy” outfit (black sweater, blue turtleneck, and black jeans) of which she would have approved except for the black, which means she wouldn’t have approved.

And later I wore too much lipstick.

When I say too much lipstick, I mean too much lipstick.

It was new lipstick.  Two for one and a half.

I’ve never had red lipstick before.  Let’s face it, I’ve only owned three lipsticks in my life.  Would the red distract from the weathered look…?

That was my thought.

I smeared it on.

In the mirror it looked…red!

Hours later my lips were terribly red, and, worse, there was a puffiness.

Puffy lips!  No, I don’t want the puffy lips look!

It was a slight allergic reaction to the lipstick.

Again, my mother and I would have laughed about it, unsurprised, because I am allergic to most makeup.

I do miss her.  “Throw it away.”  That’s her voice in my head.

I threw the lipstick away.

Back to the crayon thing that barely colors lips (I’ve had it for years) and is perhaps just a fancy chapstick!

Interview With Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, novelist

Karen E. Bender, author of A Town of Empty Rooms, agreed to be interviewed by email.

In her remarkable novel,a Jewish family moves to the South after the heroine, Serena Hirsch, steals $8,000 worth of jewelry on her boss’s corporate credit card in Manhattan during a breakdown over her father’s death.  Serena is fired and blacklisted, and her husband, Dan, finds a job in Waring, North Carolina, which feels like a foreign country to them.

Mirabile Dictu:  What inspired you to write the story of Serena and her family?

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender:  To misunderstand someone and be misunderstood are such common human experiences; We all live with such different narratives and histories rolling through our heads, we all process our immediate interactions very differently, and it can be difficult to step back and think about what someone else is saying or feeling. How do we reach out through our solitude? I wanted to delve into the ways people don’t connect and also how they do, both looking at people who are very close to each other, and also between people who are mostly strangers.

Mirabile Dictu:  Religion is a refuge for Serena, though not for her husband, who attempts to be super-conventional and even disavows his Judaism. Was it difficult to write a novel “about” these different attitudes to religion?

Karen E. Bender: I love writing about religion because people’s attitudes toward it can be so
particular and strange and interesting. Within my own family, I see an array of ways people connect to their Judaism and can find it comforting or disavow it. Religion evolved, partly, to help us process life cycle events—birth and adolescence and marriage and aging and death. Serena and Dan both experienced recent losses, and I thought it would be interesting to see how each used a different sort of religion or institution to comfort or distract them. For Serena, it was the Temple, and for Dan was the Boy Scouts; but each strategy had its own complications.

Mirabile Dictu:  When and why did you begin writing?

Karen E. Bender: I began writing when I was six years old, after a rock flew through the air and hit me on the head at a birthday party; writing became a way to process this rather upsetting event. Writing then became a way to release feeling, to shape an experience, to invent the world in a wholly new way. And writing is one of the few places in our culture where we can be completely honest, even (in fiction) while lying. To me, that is the most sacred element of great writing; the fact that honesty gives you a way to connect with another person; a good story is this amazing bond with someone. I find that so moving.

Mirabile Dictu:  Do you write on paper or on computer?

Karen E. Bender: I write on a computer.

Mirabile Dictu: Who are your favorite writers?

Karen E. Bender: There are so many! Some who I read over and over are Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Cynthia Ozick, JD Salinger, Stanley Elkin, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley. For A Town of Empty Rooms, John Cheever, Paula Fox, and Richard Yates were especially nourishing. I love those beautiful, dark realists.

Thank you for the interview, Karen!

Born in L.A., Karen went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, the writer Robert Anthony Siegel. She is the author of two novels, Like Normal and A Town of Empty Rooms, and is co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion.

She and her family live in Wilmington, North Carolina.

You can read more about her at her website:

Not a Sweater Girl

Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) in The Avengers:  Was that the idea?

Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) in The Avengers: Was that the idea?

Everything in my wardrobe is black or gray.

Because I can wear that little black dress anywhere and be au fait?

Because I’ll look like Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) in The Avengers?

The effect is, alas, nunnish.  I look pale.

I must replenish the wardrobe.  Just look at this sweater drawer.

  • Black turtleneck, with hole in shoulder.  How did it rip?  It’s not on a seam; it’s just a gap. Must make gap look intentional.  With scissors?  Bad idea.  Can’t wear black in house because it attracts cat hair.
  • Black cardigan, with strange little flower sewn at top button. So much cat hair clings to it that I will have to de-cat-hair with a whole roll  of masking tape.
  • Old black turtleneck, once size medium, now so stretched out and boxy it still more or less fits.  But can’t be worn in house because of cat hair.
  • Gray cardigan, with same strange flower as black sweater.  Thank God I have something to wear.
  • Then there are the thick Fair Isle wool sweaters that I’ll wear when it’s five below.  They’re too hot most of the time.

And so I go to the department store to replenish my wardrobe.

I tell my ride it will be five minutes.  I shop fast.

Oh, no.


Hundreds of baggy cardigan sweaters without buttons hang on hangers.   What is the point of a cardigan without buttons?  The point of a cardigan is to button up if cold, unbutton if warm.  I want a sweater, not a thing to wear over a silk top.

If I don’t want to wear a cardigan I can wear a…cat sweatshirt!  Or a pumpkin sweatshirt or a Thanksgiving sweatshirt.  My mother gave me many such comfortable sweatshirts.  But I have one rule:  NEVER WEAR THEM OUT OF THE HOUSE.  Last time we went out for pizza, a group of elderly women were wearing cat sweatshirts.  I desperately cling to middle age and have decided that even black sweaters with holes are better than cat sweatshirts.

All right, I find a few sweaters.

I try on a fuzzy shawl-neck sweater which gets tangled in my earrings.

I try on a fuzzy turtleneck that seems to be made of intentionally linked diamond-shaped holes, and it also gets tangled in my earrings.

I try on a vaguely ’80s-looking gray sweatshirt with studs sewn on the front.  It falls off the shoulder, not a good look for me.  I realize somebody in a heavy metal band might have worn it in the ’80s, or  Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.

Finally I buy three warm heavy cotton zip tops that are not fashionable but at least look warm and anonymous.

Then I wander through the handbag department and almost buy a $395 Coach bag, which I can’t afford, and then almost buy a $165 Sak Bag for 40% off, which I also can’t afford.  Neither bag suits my bicycling needs, so I get out of there before I’m hypnotized and open a new charge card so I can get 20% off and…


Twitter is, well, silly.

I am @MsMirabileDictu.  I don’t know why I am @.

I feel like Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy.

9:45 p.m.  Have got onto Twitter site but do not understand.  Is just incomprehensible streams of gibberish half-conversations with @this and @that.  How is anybody supposed to know what is going on?

I also like:

9:15 p.m.  Cannot figure out how to put up photo.  Is just empty egg-shaped graphic.  Is fine!  Can be photo of self before was conceived.

Spambots follow her, unfollow her, people she knows follow her, unfollow her, strangers follow her, unfollow her, and it is all very, very funny.

Twitter?  What’s it for?

I use it to “follow” (is that another word for “stalk”?) book review publications, writers, bloggers, and a couple of critics.  When the Washington Post posts a new book review–click!  I’m there.

Heavens, I was there every day before I went on Twitter.  The Wash Post and other review publications can confirm that by cookies.

So much for stalking!

I know very few people in “real life” who are on Twitter.  My role model cousin, who tells me about Amish general stores without electricity and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, where one can order vegetables directly from farmers), thinks Twitter is hugely time-wasting.  She is on Facebook.

I don’t actually know what Facebook is for, either.

I prefer Yahoo Groups, though some of those have become moribund.

And I have already looked at the blogs on my blogroll and discovered that only a couple of you are on Twitter (or at least you don’t list it if you are).

So why or why not are you on Twitter?

Aging Women in Horace & Bridget Jones

Horace loebToday, a perfect gray fall day for curling up with a good book, I read Horace’s Odes and Epodes and mused about the women in his poetry.

Horace dislikes older women, which is perhaps not unusual, though we don’t often read about it in poetry.

In the elegant, if angry, Ode I.XXV, Horace addresses an aging woman, Lydia.  He says that young men bang less often on her shutters than they once did; they no longer deprive her of sleep.  Does Lydia miss this, I wonder?   Now “the door loves the threshold, while before it often moved on its hinges.” That is a sexual metaphor in Latin poetry.  Whenever they talk about doors…

I wonder whether the windows and doors are really open for women today in the age of “hook-ups,” or whether choices are narrower and cause more anxiety.   In the late twentieth century men never banged on our windows, though they banged on the door sometimes. Once my boyfriend and I were sleeping when a strange man turned on the light.  Oh, sorry, he was looking for my roommate.

My roommate was really more the Lydia type than I. Men might have serenaded her, as the young men do in Horace’s Lydia poem, in the days before the Pill, if we had been adults then;  I was as far from Lydia as one could get, the type who hung out at the coffeehouse, chatted nonstop, sat through Days of Heaven again and again, and went jogging.   One day my roommate informed me that I “owed” her and must attend a champagne breakfast and go out on a boat with her and two of her men friends.

This spawned my famous dating advice, “Don’t get on the boat.”  Once you are on the boat, you are likely to be bored for hours, because there you are, with nothing to do but drink beer…  The champagne is gone.  You have little in common with the guys.  Sure, they are nice, and I appreciate the invitation, but…

Horace doesn’t give dating advice.  He complains instead about impotence with older women.  I would now, according to his calculations, be an older woman,  because I am  older than Lydia, who might not have lived to be very old back in Rome of the first century B.C.

In Epode XII, an early, rude poem, he complains about a woman’s wrinkles and smell.  This is David West’s translation.

The sweat and nasty smell get worse all over
her wrinkled body, as my penis droops
and raging passion cools
and all the while the powdered chalk
and crocodile shit run on her face as she ruts away…

And one can see why we didn’t read Horace’s early poems, the Epodes, in grad school.  About one-third of us were women, and we would have been terribly offended.  I am not shocked by poetry nowadays.   One can see the greatness of his poem about Lydia, the second-rate-ness of the Epode.  Did one come from the other?

And in Epode II, he again is impotent, and again complains.

You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
between your wizened buttocks.

Not quite the gorgeous language one would expect in poetry.

Ode I.XIII is another graceful poem about Lydia, or at least a Lydia (I’m not sure if it’s the same one, and I have no reference books about Horace).  Again, what a difference between the Odes and the Epodes.  The following literal translation is my own, and captures the shortness of the lines, though certainly not the grace.

When you, Lydia, praise Telephus’
rosy neck, Telephus’ wax-
white arms, oh, my
liver swells with angry passion.

And something else perhaps swells too.  That is the way Roman poetry works.  That is what the word tumet (swells) implies.  Catullus, Horace, and Ovid used it, as critics tell us.  The poets were  risqué.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting, quiet day of Latin, not answering the phone, and considering the way women live now and the way we don’t.

N.B. Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy is being trashed online by both men and women, partly a copycat effect, I think.  Bridget is condemned for being an older woman with a sex life.  This charming novel, which should be passed around instead of reviewed, is making me laugh out loud.

What do you think of views of aging women in our times?

Steve Yarbrough’s The End of California

Steve Yarbrough’s brilliant new book, The Realm of Last Chances, a novel about dislocation, is my favorite novel of the year.  (I wrote about it here.)

steve_yarbrough_the_end_of_california_300x448And so now I am slowly making my way through Yarbrough’s oeuvre, and I just finished The End of California, a compelling novel about family, relocation, and the meaning of fidelity.

Yarbrough writes from multiple points of view, centering on Pete Barrington, a doctor who moves back to his hometown in Mississippi with his wife, Angela, and daughter, Toni.  An affair with a patient resulted in his leaving his practice in California.

It is a traumatic move for all of them.  Pete, a former high-school football star who left for California on a football scholarship, never expected to return and practice medicine in Loring.   His best friend, Timothy, a depressed lawyer and part-time assistant football coach whose ex-wife and daughter live in another town, finds him a part-time job as an assistant coach.  Tim and Angela also connect, partly because she and Pete have not been able to reestablish a caring relationship.  And so we have a triangle here, but it is not the triangle that destroys the family.

Yarbrough’s description of Pete’s discovery of the affair is sadly realistic, in that he knows before he knows he knows.   He notices that Tim has lost some weight and is dressing better and realizes he must have a woman.  “There must be a damn good reason why his friend of more than thirty years hadn’t told him about something this important.”

And then he watches Angela and everything becomes clear.

That evening Angela sat at her vanity looking at her face, as she often did these days.  At first she’d been startled that her appearance had not changed.  Visible evidence ought to accompany a transformation of the type she’d experienced, but no such evidence existed.  At least not to her eye.

His eye saw what her eye missed.  Normally, she did things while she sat there, examining her skin for blemishes, squeezing a pustule if she found one, rubbing cold cream on her neck, plucking her eyebrows.  But lately she just looked.  Her movements around the bedroom had grown languid too, and she no longer guarded her nakedness.  Right now, for instance, she wore a white silk pajama top but was naked below the waist.  Last night she’d stepped straight from the shower and walked over to the dresser with water dripping from her pubic hair.  If she was still ashamed of her thin legs, small breasts or the fold of fat below the transverse scar from her C-section, she no longer showed it.

The slowness and heaviness of Pete’s observations as he attempts to repress his own knowledge is the kind of thing that happens in every marriage at some time.

Oddly, it is not the triangle that catalyzes violence, but their daughter Toni’s relationship with her boyfriend, Mason.   Mason’s father,  Alan, the Christian manager of a Piggly Wiggly store, hates Pete, because in high school his mother, Edie, had affairs with boys who were seniors in high school; Pete was one of them. Alan tries to stop his son from seeing Toni.

Violence changes the course of the book.  Although it is not a mystery, and we know who committed the crime,  the police are involved and evidence slowly comes to light.

I admired this novel very much.  The Realm of Last Chances is a masterpiece; The End of California is merely brilliant.  Both are among the best novels I’ve read this year.

And you can read my interview with Steve Yarbrough here.

Ms. Mirabile Goes Earth Mother: Shopping & Bulgur with Savory Greens

Surrounded by vegetables clear copyMy blood pressure is so low I’m almost not here.

“So long as you feel all right,” the doctor said, startled.

I can’t explain; they can’t explain.  It’s always been low, but perhaps my new vegetarian diet has lowered it a few millimeters.

I switched from once-a-week meat to an all-vegetarian diet in September.  Although I certainly can’t see having Thanksgiving without turkey, I became repulsed by chemical chicken and meat.

You know the chicken?  The kind that’s all shot up with hormones and has a funny taste?

And we can’t afford free-range chicken.

My whole book budget would go.

So I have gone vegetarian, because vegetables and grains are cheaper and more nutritious, and though I allow my husband to eat meat in theory, I am throwing out his “bad-choice” prepared foods like Ramen noodles and Campbell’s soup.

“There’s not that much sodium in it.”  He yearns to eat Ramen noodles and Campbell’s soup, but his blood pressure is not as low as mine.

“No, we need to make homemade vegetable soup on the weekends,” I said.

I can’t imagine why I said that.  I don’t make week-long batches of vegetable soup on the weekends.  I’m not an Earth Mother.  On the other hand, I am no longer going on the crazy long bike rides, getting lost on the prairie while he speeds a dozen miles ahead, and having no idea which direction to turn, since I don’t know the name of the town where I’m headed.   “Umm, sir/ma’am?  Is there a town nearby to the north, south, east, or west?”  (N.B.  Wives don’t have to do this stuff.  It’s for chippies and chumps.  Why didn’t I realize that earlier?)

Yesterday I hopped on my bike and rode to Whole Foods.

We usually shop at the Hy-Vee.  It  is closer and cheaper.  Plus I grew up going to the Hy-Vee.

Whole Foods

Whole Foods

But Whole Foods has better produce, and the organic is the same price as organic at Hy-Vee.  Both stores sell the same brand of strawberries, but  they’re ripe at Whole Foods, never ripe at Hy-Vee.

So Whole Foods for me is about produce, though naturally I look at everything else, too.  I desperately wanted a new “organic” lipstick, as opposed to my lipstick with all the metals in it, but I said to myself:


I wandered around and thought of buying coconut milk yogurt, but I’m not a vegan. Anyway, shouldn’t I make my yogurt at home?  Where is my yogurt maker?

I considered goat cheese, but is there an advantage to goat cheese?  Is goat cheese dairy?

The baguettes were slightly too big for my backpack.

I have concluded brown lentils don’t exist, because I couldn’t find them and my husband says they don’t have them at the Hy-Vee.  And yet one of my cookbooks specifically says “brown” lentils.  Does it matter what color they are?  Help!

Anyway, I rode home and made a delicious dinner.  Really, I’m so proud of myself.  I’m an Earth Mother now.   We had Bulgur with Savory Greens, one of our favorite meals.   Here’s the recipe from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Cookbook:

2 1/2 cups chopped onions
4 garlic cloves
1 tbls olive oil
1 pound Swiss chard or escarole, chopped
2 tbls fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups bulgur
1 tsp salt
2 1/2 cups water

ground black pepper to taste
lemon wedges (optional)
fresh mint leaves (optional)

In a large skillet saute the onions and garlic in the oil for about 8 minutes, until the onions are clear. Add the greens and lemon juice, cover, and cook until the greens have just wilted. Stir in the bulgur and salt. Add the water, cover, and cook on med-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the bulgur is tender and most of the water has been absorbed. Sprinkle with pepper and add more lemon juice to taste. Serve garnished with lemon wedges and mint and sprinkle with vinegar if desired.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Oscar Hijuelos Died Saturday & My 1995 Interview with Him

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos:  “I consider myself a hip kind of guy with old-fashioned values.”

Oscar Hijuelos, winner of the Pulitzer for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), died at age 62 on Saturday.

When I interviewed him in 1995 during his book tour to promote his novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, I found him charming, kind, generous, and intense.

Here is the interview.

It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and Oscar Hijuelos hasn’t had lunch.  Passing through town on a tour to promote his novel, Mr. Ives’ Christmas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author skipped lunch to tour the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

“A good friend of mine is the singer Lou Reed,” he says.  “I hang out with him every now and then.  I just saw a bunch of photos at the rock hall.  He looks like such an innocent in his photos.”

Hijuelos, who won the Pulitzer in 1990 for The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love, talks nonstop as he pores over a room service menu in his hotel suite.

With Mr. Ives’ Christmas, “I wanted to write a book that was a meditation, partly on the meaning of the holiday through the filter of one character’s consciousness.  The very same people that get teary-eyed over A Christmas Carol sometimes have a very cold outlook in the underprivileged of the world.  That made me think it would be really nice to do a book about New York here and now at Christmas.”

This quiet novel may surprise those who expect the rapid-fire action of Mambo Kings. Mr. Ives’ Christmas is largely a reflective work, focusing on the hero Edward Ives’ crisis in religious faith.

Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos In the novel, a Catholic printer adopts Ives from a foundling home and he is transformed into a middle-class, all-American boy.  He becomes a successful advertising illustrator, and meets his wife, Annie MacGuire, a substitute teacher who loves the books of Dickens and D. H. Lawrence, in a drawing class.  After a passionate courtship, they settle down to raise two children.

But when their teenage son Robert is gunned down after choir practice in the streets of New York, Ives suffers a religious crisis.  His healing comes about through a meditation on past Christmases and attempts to forgive his son’s murderer.

This novel is a homage to Dickens.

“I really wanted Dickens to be a quiet presence in the book and, in fact, in an earlier version I actually have this apparition of Dickens appearing, but I decided it was a little much.”

He also tried to draw a parallel between Dickens’ London and contemporary New York.

“A lot of people walk around feeling frightened and contemptuous of the poor,” he says.  “In fact we are living in Dickens’ London with certain updates–like we’re much more technological, as with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I think Dickens would have fainted if he saw that museum.”

The son of Cuban immigrants in Manhattan, Hijuelos grew up a devout Catholic.  Although he knows it’s not fashionable to write about religion, he has considered the possibility for several years.  He has read extensively about world religions, in part because his mother mixed Afro-Cuban spiritualism with her practice of Catholicism.

Hijuelos explains that to this day his mother practices the laying on of hands when he is sick.

“She does this thing with her hands”–he flutters them up and down–“if I’m not feeling well.  It’s like she makes me start to feel better and it’s like a spiritual energy thing.  It probably psychologically works because your mother cares about you.  So I grew up in a wildly improvisational kind of household in terms of religiosity.”

This improvisational quality of religiosity is reflected in Ives’ visions in the novel:  he sees God on Madison Ave., for instance, and dreams of his dead son.  Hijuelos thinks that believers like Ives were perhaps more common in the “Ozzie and Harriet” era of the 1950s and ’60s during which much of the novel is set.

“I just wanted to capture an era of devoutness I grew up around and also try to say something about certain questions that are pretty eternal and constant…I somehow got this idea of writing about [religion] directly, which no one really does anymore.”

HIjuelos says he is very different from Ives.  Although Hijuelos, like Ives, worked in an advertising agency for eight years, he is single and has no children.

“I consider myself kind of a hip guy with old-fashioned values.  I believe in God, but I don’t always believe in the official proclamations of the churches.  Ives is nobler than I am, he’s better than I am, but he’s as troubled as I am in many ways.  He’s a filter through which I could tap into energies that normally, as Oscar walking down the street, do not have access to.”

Hijuelos has undergone some transformations in recent years.  He boldly left his advertising job in 1984 to write on meager grants and fellowships.  Since winning the Pulitzer in 1990, he has gone from living on $7,000 a year to a life of financial security and international fame.

It was at the end of a British tour to promote Mambo Kings that he learned he had won the Pulitzer.

“It was like being shot out of a cannon.  Suddenly I had more friends than I ever knew I had, but many of them false friends, I might say.”

He wishes that his father, a cook at the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan, had been alive to see him win the prize.  His mother, however, is enormously proud:  she recently took a bow for him at church when the priest plugged his book at Mass.

Although HIjuelos’ mother tells reporters that he wrote as a child, he says he didn’t start writing until his early 20s.  He earned a master’s degree in writing at City College of New York, where he studied with Donald Barthelme and other writers.  He wrote his first novel, Our House in the Last World, before and after hours at the advertising firm.

He realizes that the Pulitzer was a definitive moment in his career.  It was also “like having a wall of bricks fall on you” in terms of the pressure to achieve, he says.

But friends, family, and religion keep him grounded.

“I don’t do readings for money.  I only do them for charity.  I always try to do the right thing.  You don’t change as much when you win the Pulitzer as people around you change toward you.”

Waiting till Midnight for Bridget Jones

Helen fielding bridget jones mad about the boyI am fiftysomething.  I’ve been married 20 years.

I never dated my husband.   We just hung out at my apartment.

All right, I’ve been married two, maybe three, times.  But I assure you we didn’t date first.  We hung out.

I am, however, an expert on dating because I went on one date in 1992. I walked out on him after he said, “There sure are a lot of Jews around here, aren’t they?”

It wasn’t polite of me.  I know.  I just couldn’t stand it.

So I know how you feel if you’re stuck with somebody like that, even for half an hour.

And in your fifties it’s worse.  It’s bound to be.

And so I’m looking forward to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy, her third book in the series (the publication date is tomorrow).   Reviewers are no longer keen on Bridget, now a 51-year-old widow.  And I wonder if they dislike the book because they are uncomfortable about Bridget’s sexual activity in middle age.  She dates a man of 30.

In your fifties, if you’re single, you should at the very least  be like Bridget Jones, I say.  Or perhaps like Lea in Colette’s Cheri and The End of Cheri, who also dated a younger man.   And how about the sixtysomething narrator of Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy, who wanted to “date” a 40-year-old?

Reviewers expect Bridget to be less shallow.  They think she should be more interested in her children than her sex life.


They don’t expect this of men.

Here’s Janet Maslin of The New York Times:

Bridget Jones, R.I.P. You’re not dead yet, but you might as well be. In “Mad About the Boy,” Helen Fielding’s latest installment in this once-lovable series, there is a page that lists the things that have mattered to Bridget, now 51 and struggling mightily to take an interest in her two young children. They are: her weight, her number of Twitter followers, the number of texts she has exchanged, her difficulties writing a screenplay, a household infestation of lice and a head count of her boyfriends. The only conceivable reason to read about all this is that old habits die hard.

I share all Bridget’s interests.  Sure, I would rather not know my weight; sure, I have no Twitter followers; sure, I don’t do texts; sure I don’t write screenplays; sure, I don’t have lice in my household; sure, I don’t have boyfriends.

But other than that, we’re just the same.

So here was my plan for today.

  1. Read Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy.
  2. Hope I  find Bridget entertaining, because I liked the first book.
  3. Hope I find her dating life entertaining, because I’m not prim at all.
  4. Hope I don’t hate it that her boyfriend is 30.
  5. Point out that 50-year-old men often date women who are 30.
  6. Post about it.
Helen Fielding, age 55

Helen Fielding, age 55

The publication date is tomorrow, so I have to wait till midnight.

I have read five reviews, because editors no longer bother to wait till the book is published to publish reviews.

The Washington Post review was even stuffier than The New York Times. Jen Chaney in The Washington Post called Bridget

a self-involved flake. Is Bridget’s experience supposed to be relatable, as it was in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” a book that critiqued society’s expectations of women as much as it fell prey to female stereotypes? Or is her ability to have sleepovers with a hot guy while relying on a nanny to scoot the kids off to school and day care supposed to serve as a form of chick-lit escapism for today’s working moms? It’s never clear.

Oh, please. Boyfriends/girlfriends are important at any age, and if she were a lesbian would reviewers react this way?  Who wouldn’t let a nanny take care of her kids so you could have a sleepover with a hot guy?

Do you have to be puritanical because you’re 51?

I’ll find out at midnight when I read the book.

I’m an Art Geek!

Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha (we have to go to Nebraska for art)

Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha (we have to go to Nebraska for art)

Iowa is 10 years behind in fashion and urban sprawl.  (We consider both good things.)

We have bicycle trails (2,000 miles of), viable downtowns in Iowa City, Des Moines, and Ames, organic farms, the writer Ruth Suckow’s birthplace, the Raptor Resource Project (eagle cams), the Bix Biederbecke Jazz Festival, Paglai’s Pizza Palace (an institution in Iowa City and Des Moines), the State Fair, and the World Food Prize.

It is a lovely place to live.  I was raised in Iowa City, a university town.  I grew up chatting to artists, poets, radical feminists, co-op organizers, anti-war protestors, professors, linguists, waitresses, janitors, Renaissance men and women, and “hippies.”

When we moved back to Iowa, we were delighted by the calm and quiet of daily life.

But is there art?

Not much.

Yes, I’m an art geek. Sort of.

This weekend we wanted to be art geeks.  So we went to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha (we have to go to Nebraska for art), where we saw a wonderful exhibition, “Legacy: the Emily Landau Collection.”Landau gave her collection of post-war American art to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2010, and part of it is traveling around the country.

Detail, "House of Fire II," by James Rosenquist

Detail, “House of Fire II,” by James Rosenquit

I particularly liked James Rosenquist’s “House of Fire II,” a mural-size work in which lipsticks fly like missiles through a window with pink Venetian blinds.  On the left, a tan glove rests above cans and fruit.  On the right, cogs of a wheel turn.  The placard says it reflects Rosenquist’s “anxiety over American obsession with consumerism.”

It certainly made me realize I had forgotten to wear lipstick (or any other makeup).

“Oh, God, where is my lipstick?”

But it is supposed to make us hate consumerism.

If you like Jasper Johns, you’re in luck.  From the 410 pieces of the Landau Collection, somebody picked several of Jasper Johns screenprints.  “Flags I” is a screenprint of two flags side-by-side, and “Flags II” shows the same image in black.

Jasper Johns, Flags I

Jasper Johns, Flags I

Andy Warhol’s “Myths,” synthetic polymer and screenprint ink on canvas, shows vertical rows of photos of American myths  (we couldn’t identify all of them, but we tried):

  1. The Man of Steel
  2. Howdy Doody
  3. actress playing Cleopatra (we’re not sure)
  4. Mickey Mouse
  5. Uncle Sam
  6. Aunt Jemima (we’re not sure
  7. Dracula
  8. Wicked Witch of the West
Andy Warhol, "Myths," 1981

Andy Warhol, “Myths,” 1981

Feeling bookish?  See Allen Ruppersberg’s drawing, “The Gift of the Inheritance (Strike and Succeed by Horatio Alger).”

Allen Ruppersberg, "Gift of Inheritance (Strike and Succeed)"

Allen Ruppersberg, “Gift of Inheritance (Strike and Succeed)”

We very much enjoyed Ed Ruscha’s “Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It,” which I call the pencil bird.

Ed Ruscha, "Give Him Anything and He'll Sign It"

Ed Ruscha, “Give Him Anything and He’ll Sign It”

There was also a lot of word art.  Take Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled Pledge.”

Barbara Kruger, "Untitled Pledge"

Barbara Kruger, “Untitled Pledge”

The placards gave minimal information, which was disappointing, because usually they’re very thorough at the Joslyn.

And there were very few works by women.

It’s fun to be an art geek for a day, though, and I highly recommend the exhibit.

Afterwards:  Starbucks, The Bookworm, and Jackson Street Booksellers.