At the Mall

D’yeh do the Facebook thing?
–Wha’ d’yeh mean?
Roddy Doyle’s The Guts)

“I’m having a hair emergency,” I told the young woman.

Usually I stick something in my desperately-in-need-of-a-haircut before I go out, headband, barrettes (it hardly matters), but I’d hurried to catch the bus without bothering with my electric hair.

I went to the hair jewelry store.  I had never been in the hair jewelry store before.  It is called something like Hair Jewelry.  It is full of hair ruffles, headbands, cheap jewelry, and various plastic gaudies.

I chose a plastic headband, nothing with ruffles, and went to pay for it.

A mom and young daughter were at the counter in front of me.  The little girl tried to steal a pink thing with a flower.  Her mother made her put it back.

The clerk found them adorable.  There I am, less adorable.  Have I grown old overnight?  I think I have.

I smiled.  “Could you take the tag off this?”

She didn’t smile back.

The mall is a horrible place, but fortunately I didn’t spend much time there.  I rushed out to Barnes and Noble before the temperature dropped into the single digits again.  What a lovely day:  in the 30s, so the coat was open.

At B&N the barista asked my name when I ordered a latte.


“Excuse me?”


When I told my husband later, he said, “Your name isn’t Kat.”

“It was just for a latte.”

I thought it was hilarious. Yeah, my name isn’t really Kat.

And then I shopped for books.

I found a copy of Roddy Doyle’s The Guts,  a sequel to The Commitments.  We are big fans of The Commitments at our house.   I also bought Robert Harris’s new novel about the Dreyfuss affair for my husband.

And then I realized that I hadn’t picked out a book by a woman, and that oddly I have read more books by men than women this year, so I bought a novel about Edna St. Vincent Millay, Erika Robuck’s  Fallen Beauty, which I hadn’t heard of.

What am I reading right now? you may wonder.    Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, a predecessor of E. F. Benson’s Lucia books. The heroine, Miss Marjoribanks, is very, very funny.  And this is a Virago, for those of you who like them.

And so, you all, I’ve stocked up on books.  I haven’t told my husband yet, because he doesn’t like me to bring more books into the house. I’ll give him the books eventually.

And so I’m offline for the night.  This is a kind of faux Facebook entry.  I don’t have Facebook.

As Roddy Doyle says,

“Wha’ d’yeh mean?”

Not Quite a Midwinter Night’s Dream & Between the Acts

Fortunately we're not quite this bad off yet.

Fortunately we’re not quite like this yet.

People cannot get off the internet.

Except, oddly, I find that I can.

As life becomes shorter, I want more art. Ars longa, vita brevis.

I realize, depressingly, that life is finite.  My hair is gray, and the skin on my legs is crepey. (Can this be I?)  And I suddenly realize, You don’t want to spend the rest of your life sitting in front of the computer screen.

Does it matter if I tell you how much I love Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts?  Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. But if I do write about Between the Acts, I will have to think hard about the complex relationship between the audience and the play, and the intense language, and I realize that I would prefer reading Hermione Lee’s biography, or Quentin Bell’s biography, to blogging about Woolf’s work.

Some of the awe of  Woolf is about going to London.  I woke up in anxiety in the middle of the night, realizing I haven’t properly planned my trip, that I need to map my routes ahead of time, and that I should prepare a couple of self-guided literary tours, even if it only means looking at plaques on houses.  And so I went to the library and looked at some books about the Bloomsbury group.  And I remembered how wonderful it used to be to go to the library instead of look up everything online.  And I thought…

Perhaps I can do Barbara Pym’s suburbs!

It’s all about time.

I need more.

The cyber-’90s and the cyber-zips changed all of us and the way we interact and the way we research–and I have loved it, but I have also grown bored with it.  I miss going to the library.  The whole idea of Google Glass makes me want to puke.

I recently read a good essay at, I think, the Huffington Post, about cyber addiction.  If I could find this again, I would quote from it, because it applies to so many people. The writer gave up checking Facebook (and other online features) on his phone and thus gained more time.

Cyber addiction can be a nightmare, almost as bad as drinking or drugs, though we don’t admit it. We check our email, read a couple of articles, check our social media, do God knows what, and then we do it all again, again, again, again, and perhaps again.

We think of social media as promoting freedom of communication,  but we are also being “tapped,”  staying indoors more (the U.S. is now a much fatter country that it used to e, between the internet and side effects of the prescription drugs taken by 70% of Americans), and advertisements chase us around the net.  Whatever site I go to, I am followed by sidebars ads from catalogues from which I’ve ordered.  I’m used to it.  But I will never, ever order an item promoted in one of those sidebars.  I have not quite lost my freedom.

And suddenly this winter, the coldest winter in years, I have grown bored with the internet. It happened very suddenly.  You would think I’d want to be online more in the winter.  But I got tired of the endless repetition.  I need less screen time.

Only a few months ago I wrote about Twitter addiction.   I thought Twitter was remarkably stupid, but I subscribed to 50, or was it 100?, book review sites and wasted a lot of time clicking on articles I didn’t want to read anyway, until I realized that I visited many of these sites several times a week anyway, and did not need the tweets to keep informed about books.  (And I was so sick of Tin House.)  I closed my Twitter account.

So it’s all about balance.  I love Woolf’s Between the Acts. And perhaps I’ll write about it someday.

And so this is my between-the-acts.

The Stories of Frederick Busch: “Reruns”

Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch (1941-2006), a critically acclaimed writer who won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award in 1986 and the PEN/Malamud Award in 1991, is surely one of our most underrated American writers.  Last winter I rediscovered his moving novel, Rounds, an exploration of love, loss, and broken families. And at Barnes and Noble I recently pounced on a copy of the new book, The Stories of Frederick Busch, edited and introduced by Elizabeth Strout.

In his moving, graceful short stories, Busch chronicled the everyday lives of uncomplaining characters who work at unglamorous jobs (doctors, professors, plumbers, and night watchmen), make bad jokes over dinner (they love good food and wine), repair and renovate their own houses (you can learn a lot about home repair), and grieve over lost love and shattered families.
 In her introduction, Strout writes:

Be Brave,’ Frederick Busch admonished aspiring writers in an interview he gave in 2003.  ‘Keep your knees unbent.’  Courage on the page mattered to this writer, and those reading through this collection of stories will find Busch’s writing to be relentlessly brave.

Although the story, “Reruns,” may not be his most perfect, it is brave. You know this kind of story:  though you have little in common with the hero or heroine, it moves you so utterly that you  become one of the characters while you read the story.

In “Reruns,” the narrator, Dr. Leland Dugan, a psychoanalyst, learns that his wife, Belinda, a sociologist, anthropologist, and journalist has been taken hostage in Lebanon.  He is dumbfounded, because his wife is not a middle-aged spy nor a political activist.  How could this have happened?  He tells the officer from the State Department:

“But she isn’t really a journalist.  Of course, she does journalism.  But she’s a sociologist.  On her tax return she calls herself a teacher.”

PrintAnd I must admit this resonates, because I know so many teacher-freelance writers. Metaphorically, most of us have been “taken hostage” at one time or another for accepting an assignment to write about sensitive issues for the glory of some scatty (probably bankrupt and long defunct) publication or other.  (Let’s not romanticize print publications too much.)

Leland’s exasperated humor colors this story–how on earth could this have happened to his wife?–but it isn’t funny for a minute, and he knows it.  He picks up his teenage daughter Linda at school, and she asks, “But who wants her?”    The youngest daughter, Lissa, cries, and asks,”But who kidnaps mothers?”

Leland’s lover, Kate, a pediatrician, closes her clinic and comes to the house, bringing sandwiches, and that doesn’t make it easier for Linda, who in some ways is a younger more cyncial version of her mother, Belinda.  Lissa, who is only nine, accepts Kate and the broken family situation.  But they are all at a loss when they see Belinda on the hostage tape.

Leland doesn’t believe it’s happening.

I couldn’t have named one hostage.  That was when I realized how politics, history, and extreme distances had taken Belinda from our three traffic lights, the hour’s commute to her campus, the stores that stocked Sara Lee pound-cake and vitamin supplements, and the house where, upstairs, Kate embraced my daughters and waited for word.  Soon, I thought, people in so many lives will forget that woman’s name–the one who got snatched overseas.  Remember?

But as the story goes on, we learn Belinda was actually a very serious person, though characterized by Leland as “a pretty typical left-wing, feminist, institution-distrusting intellectual.”  We hear Leland’s resentment as he says that not shaving her legs was a political act for her.  It turns out she has been giving papers on women in misogynistic countries (like Lebanon) and has published an article in the New Republic. 

And as they watch the tape over and over,  Linda smokes cigarettes, without asking permission.  They all listen again and again to Belinda’s improvised addition of “It’s true” to her scripted “I’m safe.”  She also gives a personal message to her daughters.  She says nothing to Leland.

But think of those “L” names:  Leland, Belinda, Linda, Melissa.  They’re all closely related, whether they want to be or not.

What a poignant, clever story!

N.B.  Busch was the first writer to whom I ever wrote a fan letter, sometime in the early ’80s, and he wrote a lovely letter back. I taught Latin at a girls’ school, and was delighted to get his letter because the only man my students and I saw in the course of a day was a student’s bodyguard (and I had a rule, never flirt with a man with a gun).    I somehow managed to pair Busch’s letter with a letter by Pliny the Younger during a lesson.  It was a stretch, but you had to do things like that to keep their attention.    (I must say I was a charming, much-loved, incredibly bored teacher, and I think of my past self with affection.)

Are English Bloggers Nicer than Americans, or Do We Read Worse Books?

business-woman-writingSometimes I come up with a completely ridiculous idea for a blog.

If the above headline had any foundation, I’d have enjoyed writing a post about it.

“Are English bloggers nicer than Americans?”  I asked my husband one morning at breakfast. “Or do they read better books?”

He looked at me over his glasses.  He doesn’t read blogs, so he doesn’t know.

I enjoy playing around with my blog, and this was one of my wilder ideas.  Last week, I was appalled by attacks on the classicist Mary Beard in comments at English newspapers before her LRB public lecture on “The Public Voice of Women” (a subject apparently too radical for many readers). And I began to think how different English bloggers are from these cold-blooded commenters.  I wondered if English bloggers are so very nice to compensate for this viciousness.

English bloggers tend, in my experience, to be very positive. Often they seem nicer than American bloggers about books.  Tom at A Common Reader, a very intellectual reader and writer, reviews fascinating, little-known books in translation and contemporary classics by Kazuo Ishiguro and D. J. Taylor. Dovegreyreader, another good writer, has never lost it over a book except over J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (which we liked at our house).  Our friend Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings is enthusiastic not only about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but about Beverley Nicholson, whose books are not widely available here.

And then let’s look at my American friends.

Yes, we are zealous book lovers, but we occasionally bash books in our earnest American fashion.  Ellen at her three blogs (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, Under the Sign of Silvia, and Reveries under the Sign of Austen) was very critical of the beginning of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, though she loved it by the end; Tony at Tony’s Book World didn’t hesitate to admit he wasn’t keen on Richard Powers’ new book Orfeo; Nancy at Silver Threads didn’t care for Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum; and even my refined friend Belle at Belle, Book, & Candle, has been known occasionally to dislike a book (Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor).

As for me, well, I love books, but I have a tendency to write about the bad as well as the good.

But I had to throw out this thesis comparing English bloggers to Americans.  I’m not a sociologist.

And is it possible that I did absolutely no research?  And is it possible that there was no evidence whatsoever to support it?

And is it possible that I rejected the idea very, very fast?

Yes, indeed.

This thesis goes out the window 10 minutes after formulating it.

One more thing I’m wondering about:  Is there a difference between English and American newspapers?

The Guardian often seems to take a more negative stance on book news than does The New York Times.  Take the recent VIDA statistics on women reviewers and women authors at book review publications.  The New York Times published a traditional article reporting on the stats.  The Guardian published an article along with a blog entry attacking the London Review of Books for its poor stats (and, by the way, the blog mentioned Mary Beard).

But in general, generalizing doesn’t work, even if one compares American book reviews.  Take Lorrie Moore’s new story collection, Bark.  Heller McAlpin in The Washington Post gushed, while  Michiko Kakutani in New York Times found it “disappointing,” “heavy-handed and forced.”  Obviously there is no national consensus.

So, everybody, what is the best, and what the worst book you’ve read this year?  Mine?  Best book:  D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.  Worst book:  Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies.

Comfort Reads: Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek

Bad Girl Creek Jo-Ann MapsonSometimes I think I should read more women’s popular fiction.

It isn’t necessary to finish every day with Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day.

Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek is entertaining and sometimes heartbreakingly lyrical.

My husband checked it out from the library for me and makes fun of me for liking a book with a cute title, but I pay no attention. (I married up, people:  Nobody in his family reads anything that hasn’t been reviewed in The New Yorker.)

It is a charming read, and I find myself fascinated by the four main characters, who have both physical and emotional obstacles to overcome.

Mapson is known for creating feisty, fiscally-challenged heroines who love horses, dogs, and birds.  In Bad Girl Creek, four women come together to save a farm.  Phoebe, a paraplegic artist who makes a bare living off her mobiles and sculptures of women, inherits a flower farm and needs to grow a record crop of poinsettias to keep it.  She acquires three housemates who go into the business with her:  Ness, an African-American farrier who is HIV-positive and who arrives at the farm looking for a place to stable her horse, Leroy; Nance, a beautiful freelance photographer who has broken up with a journalist and has had difficulty finding a place to live with her big dog, Duchess; and Beryl, a battered woman who served time in prison for the accidental death of her husband and who now works in a bird rescue shelter and has adopted a parrot that constantly swears.

Mapson shifts point of view from chapter to chapter, and so we get inside the heads of all four women:  Phoebe, self-reliant and solitary in her thirties, is both apprehensive and happy about embarking on her first sexual relationship with Juan, the UPS man who delivers her book club packages; moody Ness is terrified of being tested for HIV; Nance, a fast talker and brilliant businesswoman with good Southern manners can tweak any suggestion into a business plan; and Beryl, a gentle, addicted reader certainly does not have the prison taint on her personality.

As a bibliophile, I identify with Beryl, who has a relationship to die for with the owner of a used bookstore.  He is even moderately cute.

Beryl,” he says, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses up his hawk-like nose.  Earl’s dressed in his usual faded flannel shirt and blue jeans.  His gray hair’s pulled back into a neat ponytail that is secured with a beaded leather thong.  He’s about fifty, cute in an intellectual hippie sort of way.  “Thought when you moved away you’d forgotten about this place.”

He has saved some books for her that he thinks she might like.

Now is that romantic or not?

I can’t pretend any bookseller has ever saved any books for me.

She describes the rare book he keeps in a glass case.

One of them is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, priced at fifteen hundred dollars.  One day when it was rainy and nobody else was int he store, he took it out and let me see the illustrations.  Then he read to me, with different voices for all the characters.  At that moment, I thought to myself, Earl was so good he could have been an actor.

Since these are comfort reads, we needn’t worry too much about the heroines’ futures, though they certainly have their problems.    Unlike the women’s fiction the popular novelist Jennifer Weiner complains about, Mapson’s books are reviewed and esteemed:  she won the American Library Association’s RUSA Award for best women’s fiction in 2011 for her superb novel Solomon’s Oak.

Bad Girl Creek rambles a bit, but I love Mapson’s graceful style and the details about the flowers.  What a well-researched novel!    (Has she lived on a flower farm?) And it is the first of a trilogy, so that means I can spend more time with these characters.

We all love a trilogy.

If you want a more tightly structured book, start with Solomon’s Oak.  But Mapson’s charming characters are always people you want for your friends.

Ms. Mirabile Does Short-Shorts: Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Inn at the Edge of the World

Alice Thomas Ellis

Alice Thomas Ellis

I don’t read a lot of Catholic classics.

Raised a Catholic, I am no longer even sure how to do the Sign of the Cross. At my mother’s funeral last summer, my brother, an atheist, prayed loudly.  My father, another atheist, was disconcerted by my brother’s prayers. As the agnostic only daughter,  I decided I had as much right to pray as anyone.  I  took a deep breath, crossed myself (perhaps backwards:  I’m not sure), took Communion (my brother didn’t dare go that far), and said the Lord’s Prayer without the Protestant addendum that has been adopted as an interfaith gesture.

Alice Thomas Ellis, the English writer, was a real Catholic, a Catholic convert.  She wrote remarkable novels that I consider both women’s classics  and Catholic classics.  Her  books are not widely known in the U.S, except for The Summer House, which was made into a movie with Jeanne Moreau, Julie Walters, and Joan Plowright.  But most of Ellis’s books have been published here, in paperback by A Common Reader, a defunct book catalogue and publisher, and in hardback by Moyer Bell, a small publisher.

Inn at the edge of the world alice thomas ellisHer 1990 novel,  The Inn at the Edge of the World, begins with the innkeeper’s thinking of murdering his sexy wife.  He is fascinated by Mabel, but she treats him badly.  He has lost his faith in his work, and decides to advertise a Christmas holiday at the inn for people who want to skip Christmas.  When Mabel makes fun of his ad, they fight, and she accuses him of deliberately hitting her as he pushes back his chair and the armrest hits her stomach.

It was guilt, thought Eric, that made her so determined to blame him for the occurrence.  She had been particularly bad that day, taunting him as he had struggled all by himself to perform the multifarious tasks of a small innkeeper; asking him if he were satisfied that he had dragged her away from the comfort of their modern luxury home in Telford and dumped her here in the teeth of the Atlantic gales with no one to talk to and nowhere to go.

“It was partly because of the people she had talked to and the places she went that Eric had resolved to realize a vague ambition and buy himself an inn at the edge of the world.”

Mabel takes off for a party on the mainland, leaving Eric to cope with Christmas.

And five people respond to the ad:  Jessica, an actress who does commercials;  Jon, an actor who, unbeknownst to her, is her stalker; Harry, an ex-soldier who wants to die, because his wife and son have died, but who cannot commit suicide because of his faith; Anita, a lonely single woman who has promised herself not to think about her work in a retail store during her vacation, and Ronald, a psychoanalyst.  All are in a spiritual crisis.

But they cannot leave their pasts behind.  And their inability to recognize Christmas leads to a bigger crisis.  It is only Harold, as he works on a book about Gordon of Khartoum, who understands Christmas.

The novel has a fairy tale feeling:  there are ghosts and selkies (seal people with webbed hands and feet) in the characters’ peripheral vision.  The couples who form on the island simply aren’t meant to be, and they often end up walking around in groups of three.  Two of the island’s inhabitants, a professor and a faithless wife, show a level of spiritual bereftness none of the guests, except for Jon, has quite reached.

It’s a beautiful book, well worth reading.

I cannot tell you how much I miss the Common Reader catalogue and publisher.

Off to binge on more Ellis.

P.S.  I had meant to write a very short post here, but it’s not as short as all that, is it?

Second Copy

Pretend you didn't see this:  books on the bedroom floor.

Pretend you didn’t see this.

I am a bookworm-housewife who looks up once or twice a week from a book to dash around the house swiping everything with a dust rag and Murphy’s soap.

Occasionally my housewife friends, appalled by my Bean-cum-Target wardrobe and laissez faire attitude toward housework, have a chat with me.  If I would just color my hair, then blow-dry it, then never wear jeans again, then wear that cream… what do I mean I’m allergic to it?…then buy that special Swerf, or is it Smurf, duster, and vacuum every day, I would feel much better.

And what do I mean I can’t apply eyeliner?

And don’t I want to get rid of a few books?

You can see by the picture above that there is an overflow of books from the shelves on to the floor.

You don’t have to own every book you read, people say.

When we moved here I gave away 250 books to the library and sold 300 to Half Price Books.  We’ve filled our shelves again, and one thing  I’ve learned is that you end up buying new copies of everything you give away.

I had to buy a second copy of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, because I adore the hero Tietjens and  realized I wanted to spend more time with him.

Did I know that I’d want to reread The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford?  Hell, no.  I don’t much like her stories, but I wanted to reread “The Echo and the Nemesis” last summer after I read Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, so I bought a second copy.

I can hardly tell you how I feel about losing my autographed copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It must have been put in the giveaway box by mistake.  NOTHING CAN REPLACE THIS.

Today I read an essay by Michael Dirda in the TLS that reflects how we feel about our bookish house.

He writes,

My wife would claim that we actually do live in a second-hand bookshop, except that there isn’t a sign on the door and nobody ever comes to buy anything.

My husband and I laughed very hard about this.  (You have to subscribe to the TLS to read this essay, but who knows?  Maybe they’ll post it at their website someday.)


Taming of the shrewI’m not a termagant, am I? Or do I mean a harridan?  I’m not a harridan, am I?   I’m NOT.

Am I a termaharr?  A gantidan?

I am actually very, very nice.

My parents were very outspoken and sometimes funny.  And a nun once told me I was too honest.

Humor plus too much honesty means termagant-harridan misunderstandings?

Anyway, we’ll all throw up if  I’m too nice, right?    We’re not online to network, are we?  Or are we?  Did we know how to network when we were in a network?   Or didn’t we?  (I’m fooling around.  I am certainly not networking here.)

I love the classics and read mostly books by dead people.

This year I am trying to read more 21st-century books.

But, you know, most of the new books are mediocre.  I now reject anything not of obvious classic status (in its genre, I mean) that doesn’t grab me after 25 pages, because I am not a book reviewer, I don’t have to hang on to the end, and there are so many other good books.

I’ve only read seven new books so far this year, and none of them is bad.

In the excellent range are:  D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day (great!) and Kept (great!) and Elizabeth Spencer’s collection of short stories, Starting Over (great; haven’t written about it yet).

In the good to very good range are:  William Gibson’s Zero History (very good, but haven’t written about it), Jo-Ann Mapson’s Bad Girl Creek (very good, and I’ll write about it soon), and Carol Anshaw’s Lucky in the Corner (good). 

In the okay range is: Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? (I tried to convey in my “review” that some will like this more than I did; the humor just wasn’t for me.)

I can’t count the wonderful new book I’m reading as new,  Frederick Busch’s Collected Stories, because of course Busch is dead.  I wrote a fan letter to him in the ’80s, and he sent me a very nice letter in return.  Unfortunately I lost the letter in one of our moves.

And I have read about 100 pages of D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice, a brilliant, fast-paced novel which ranges from the plains of Kansas to England, and pays (so far)  quick homages to The Wizard of Oz and J. B. Priestley.  It’s a fast and clever read.

Any recommendations of good new books?  I’m sure I have some  in that pile on the floor somewhere (though most of them look old, don’t they?).