Only Notes: The Olympics, Tolstoy’s Resurrection, & Prostitutes in Literature

Yuna Kim, short program Olympics

Yuna Kim, Short Program Sochi Olympics

Before I write about Tolstoy’s Resurrection and prostitutes in Literature, here are some NOTES ON THE OLYMPICS.  Yes, I’m goofing around in front of the  TV tonight.  Loved the snowboarding, loved the Alpine skiing, adored the ice dancing.  I took a night off from the Olympics last night, and now I’m ba-a-a-a-a-ck!

Skip ahead if you don’t like the Olympics.

Women’s Bobsled:  We’re interested because of Lolo Jones, the track star/bobsled brakeman from Des Moines (Dead Moines, as it’s called in Iowa). Yes, we’re Midwesterners.  USA Teams 1 and 2 (not Lolo’s sled 3) won silver and bronze. Canada won gold, and I was impressed by their clean, perfect runs, but aren’t American silver and bronze as good?  USA, USA…

Alpine Skiing:  I muted it so I can blog.  Is Ted Ligety in medal position? Yes!  He’s in first place.  WHOOOOOO!  Ted just won the Gold Medal in the slalom.  The first U.S. Alpine skier to win two gold medals (or something something something). Feel like a drink?

Figure skating:  Yuna Kim, the defending gold medalist from South Korea, is more elegant and limber than anyone in her field .   She has speed and flow, and, as one narrator said, “She may be the greatest competitor I’ve ever witnessed.” Another said, “She totally owns the audience and that performance.”  American Gracie Gold had one wobble, the little Russian fell down, and the beautiful Italian is my favorite but still perhaps not as good as Kim.  More on this tomorrow.

On to Tolstoy:

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll know that Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers.  Last year I reread War and Peace  and Anna Karenina, and then immediately started rereading W&P again.

And now I’m returning to Tolstoy’s other work.  Rereading Tolstoy is like reliving your life.

resurrection briggsIn his beautifully-written novel, Resurrection, a prostitute, Katyusha Maslova, is accused, along with another woman and man, of theft and poisoning one of her clients.  She is innocent, having been told that the drink would make him sleep.

Then, unexpectedly, Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a man in his prime who seduced Katyusha years ago at his aunts’ house, recognizes her.  He is on the jury.  His life is in control, he might marry a rich woman (though he doesn’t like her much), and what if anyone finds out he was connected to the accused? But when a mistake on the jury condemns her to hard labor, he is conscience-stricken.  He does everything he can to help her and other prisoners, many of whom have been unjustly locked up.  He decides he will give up his estate, marry Katyusha, and follow her to Siberia.

But what if the woman doesn’t feel like marrying the landowner?  Katyusha decidedly does not.  She is angry about what happened long ago. She lost her position with his aunts (they had brought her up almost as a niece and even educated her) because of pregnancy.  One night, in the early stages of her pregnancy, she walked through a rainstorm to see him at the train station–he had telegraphed his aunts that he would pass through but not have time to stop.  Arriving a little late, she tried in vain to get his attention, running along beside the train.

He didn’t see her.  She is desperate, furious, and pregnant.

And then she is like Anna Karenina.  The scene boldly refers  to Anna’s suicide..

He’s there in that carriage with the bright lights, sitting on his velvet chair, joking and drinking, and I’m down here in the dirt and the darkness, in the rain and the wind, standing here weeping,” she thought ,as she came to a stop, threw back her head, held it with both hands and howled….

“The next train–under the wheels–and it’s all over,” thought Katushya…

She does not commit suicide, and in fact Nekhlyudov does renew her life by making sure she is put with the political prisoners instead of the criminals.  She gets a sort of education from these radicals.

And for Nekhlyudov?  Does he find resurrection?

It’s a complicated novel about prison reform, Christianity, and judgment.

Nekhlyudov asks himself, What right does a Christian have to judge the poor and the ignorant?

And on the final page:

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all the rest will be added on to you.”

Nana by ZolaPROSTITUTION IN LITERATURE.  I’m in notes mode.  This is just a list of books with prostitutes, guys and gals.

1.  Tolstoy’s Resurrection

2.  Zola’s Nana

3.  Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton

4.  Stephen Crane’s Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets

5.  Balzac’s A Harlot High and Low

6.  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind

7.  Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders

8.  Dickens’ Oliver Twist

9.  Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

10. Louisa May Alcott’s Work

Any more prostitutes in literature?  Let me know!

(Goofing on) the Trip to London

Do I want to go to London?  I ask myself.

Sure, I do.

I’m going soon.

Only I’d rather go now.

Except it’s raining in London.

Will winter ever end?

Why do I want to go to London?

I can’t remember.

I’ve planned a minimalist trip.  I’ve booked a flight and a hotel room.

Budget rooms do not have bathrooms en suite, the hotel website says.

Holiday Inn, I said to my husband.  Why not stay at the Holiday Inn instead?

No, we don’t often stay at chains.  In Bemus Point, New York, near Chautauqua, we stayed at the Hotel Lenhart,  a lovely hotel with rocking chairs on the porch and seven-course meals in the dining room…and we shared a bathroom with the people next door.

So I reserved a room at an English hotel, and pray we have our own bathroom. There is no way I’m walking down the hall at midnight.

I got the passport, and that was fun.  The clerk and I conferred about some of the odder questions on the application.  I  ended up laughing, and the picture turned out better than expected.

I’ve got two guidebooks.

I love the guidebooks.  Hmm…  I think I’ll skip the two-hour walk along the Regent’s Canal and head right to Starbucks.

No, I’m joking, though I did look Starbucks up, and there are two or three or six where I’m staying.

I hope I can find my way to an English coffeehouse.

And guess what?  There’s even Target!

All right, I’m not going to Target.

There are so many things I  want to do. The Portobello Road…museums…bookstores…the Portobello Road…museums… bookstores.  (Starbucks…)

I only know about the Portobello Road from Muriel Spark.

We’re going on a Dickens walk, provided the guide doesn’t wear a costume.

We’re going to Shepherd’s Bookbinders and get some handmade and decorative papers.

I’ll have to buy another suitcase just to hold the guidebooks.

And if I shop for books I’ll have to buy another suitcase.

Maybe I’d better not shop for books.

Online Life, Comments, & Not My Homeboy/Homegirl

It’s the wolf that knows which root to dig to save itself
It’s the octopus that crawled back to the sea”–R.E.M., “Country Feedback”

exhausted-woman with head down at deskI’m spending less time online and more time reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection.  (I just finished it, and it’s great.)

I still spend a lot of time online.

Here’s a checklist of what I do.

Read email.

Read my homegirl and homeboy blogs.

Read Michael Dirda’s reviews at the Washington Post.

Read the TLS.

Do you read Mary Beard’s A Don’s Life at the TLS?  Beard, a Cambridge professor, historian, classicist, TV celeb, and a classics editor at the TLS, is also a lively, popular blogger.  I very much liked her book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, which I used for a unit on graffiti in an adult ed Latin class I taught.

Oddly, Beard attracts a lot of negative attention.  People criticize her looks (why, I can’t say; she looks confident, which is half  the beauty thing), trash her ideas, and are often bizarrely malevolent in comments and on Twitter.

In her recent blog, she talked about a lead-up interview in the Times to a London Review of Books public lecture she was giving on “The Public Voice of Women”:  she talked about how “women play a higher price than men if they want to make their voice heard.”

Then The Mirror and The Mail apparently lifted and paraphrased the Times interview, and emphasized a few comments she made about the image of Kate Middleton.

The resulting comments at the newspaper were half  favorable, half not, she said.  But here’s the kind of stuff she quoted, which in general is the kind of thing she has to put up with.

Leftist feminists should not comment on the looks of other women but should rather look themselves in the mirror.”, “Who is Mary Beard and who cares what she thinks ?”, “Mary Beard has very little grip on the real world, as reflected in many of her comments. She is cocooned in her safe world of academia”, “These two writers should stick to their typewriters. (They both have a typewriter vintage look.)”, “Mary Beard is to be pitied if she truly believes that she is making any contribution by being unkind for no reason other than envy”, “Cheap publicity for Beard (who does what exactly?)”,  “Mary Beard is a leftie professor who just talks nonsense like all other lefties”, “How I wish that Mary Beard would just shut-up!”

Horrible!  And for God’s sake, is she really that leftist?  I’ve never noticed, and, heavens, I’m an almost-socialist.

I am unlike Beard in all ways, but we also get negative comments here. At my old blog, I went a little over the top sometimes by nice-girl blogger standards, and some of the comments were hostile.

Mirabile Dictu has a similar traffic flow, but in general the comments are nicer.

Sometimes I delete a comment.

I can rarely think of much to say, but I try to support my fellow bloggers by leaving comments at their blogs.  I usually say something like “Nice review!”  which is true, or “I’d love to read this” (which is true), or, in the case of blogs about contemporary fiction, “I’ll skip this one, but good review!”  I wish I were a more fluent commenter.

I have many friends online, and had a wonderful three days last fall with my friend Ellen Moody, the blogger, in D.C.

Nonetheless, I discovered recently that some of my homeboy/homegirl bloggers aren’t entirely on my side.  Recently I discovered a nasty comment about me at a blog.

The truth?  If anyone had left an ill-natured comment about him/her, or any of my friends, at my blog, I would have deleted it.

When I was a freelance writer I never got negative mail. At blogs, however, you sometimes meet with a little craziness.

I must admit, I got my husband to read the negative comment at this blog (and since he thinks all blogs are stupid, he only did this as a favor).

He says, “You’re a better writer than both of these guy/gals and they want to stop you.”

He also said, “Get offline.”

Anyway, it’s good to have spouse support.

And now here’s an R.E.M. video of “Country Feedback,” because if we’re going to be online, we have to put up with some nastiness, and we might as well listen to some good music.

A Different Island & the CIA in Iowa City

I fell down twice on my walk.

“Are you okay?”

It’s just snow.

I was, however, upset that my coffee cup splatted into the snow.  Plus yellowish snow–we’re talking dog pee–suddenly covered the lid.

So there I was with a disgusting cup of coffee to get rid of.  I tossed it in the trash can at the coffeehouse.

When I fell down again while punching the button on a traffic light, I was miserable.  It’s just snow and ice but I’ve had enough of it.  I decided to go off my diet.  I’ve been dieting since November, not so I’ll lose weight, which is impossible, but so I won’t gain 10 pounds this winter.  So I bought a malt cup at the Git ‘n’ Go, and at the counter we talked about our favorite ways of eating malt cups.  I use a spoon.  Someone said she let hers melt and drank it.

At home I told my husband I had fallen down and was sick of living in the Midwest and wanted immediately to take a vacation and get away from winter.

I wailed, “Why am I going to England?  Why aren’t I going to an island?”

“You are going to an island.  Just the wrong island.”

And it is quite possible he’s right.

Next year, a different island.


I recently read the article,  “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, by Eric D. Bennett, an Iowa MFA, author of a forthcoming book called Workshops of Empire.  The subhead says, “With CIA help, writers were enlisted to battle both Communism and eggheaded abstraction. The damage to writing lingers.”

A quote on the "Literary Walk" in Iowa City

A quote on the “Literary Walk” in Iowa City

Growing up in Iowa City, we were proud of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA program in the nation, founded in 1936.  Whenever Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving or John Cheever or anybody who taught there published a book, there were big displays of the books in the window of Iowa Book and Supply.

As undergraduates at the University of Iowa my husband and I both took Fiction Writing multiple times (a fun, easy 3-credit course that could be repeated indefinitely).  One of the T.A.’s, T. Coraghessan Boyle, became famous, though most were never heard of again.  (What happened to Sara and Nancy?)  And I did take a course from Arturo Vivante, a doctor and fiction writer who seemed stunned and despairing to find himself teaching a summer course to undergraduates.  He was especially hard on two high school English teachers who were taking the course to learn to teach creative writing.

Am I surprised to learn that the CIA funded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s International Writing Program during the Cold War?  I would be more surprised if it hadn’t.

Call me psychic, but I sometimes joke about how all the writers in Iowa are “locked up” at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.  I mean “locked up” in a lot of ways:  taught, controlled, and spit out into a network.

In the article Bennett talks a lot about the styles of writing that are encouraged and are not at Iowa.  He preferred Ethan Canin’s style to that of Marilynne Robinson and the late Frank Conroy, whom he deemed cold.

He writes,

At Iowa, you were disappointed by the reduced form of intellectual engagement you found there and the narrow definition of what counted as “literary.” The workshop was like a muffin tin you poured the batter of your dreams into. You entered with something undefined and tantalizingly protean and left with muffins. You really believe this. But you can also see yourself clearly enough: unpublished, ambitious, obscure, ponderous. In short, the kind of person who writes a dissertation.

My husband and I are laughing at this.  Muffin tins?  If they could get us all to write the same way, wouldn’t the world be a merry place?  Then we wouldn’t need workshops.

To write a whole book on this seems, well, perhaps revenge?

Perhaps the book is better than the article.

How to Be an American Woman: Sue Kaufman’s Falling Bodies

Sue Kaufman, author of Falling Bodies & Diary of a Mad Housewife

Sue Kaufman, author of  Diary of a Mad Housewife

Many onliners swear by Viragos and Persephones.

As I say often, I do not elevate name-brands to a cult.

But if I were going to pick one over the other, I would go with Viragos.  There are some real Virago classics.

Not always, though.  Anyone who has suffered through Mary Renault’s meritless, humorless, weirdly sentimental early novel, The Friendly Young Ladies (Virago), or Joanna Cannan’s equally meritless, poorly written and, by American standards, scandalously class-conscious novel, Princes in the Land (Persephone), will admit the fallacy of going for greens and greys.  (Okay, some of you will never admit it!  I getcha.)

American fiction is, alas, strangely underrepresented by Virago and Persephone, with sensational titles like the fun, trashy Valley of the Dolls and Beth Gutcheon’s mediocre best-seller, Still Missing. Of course, American fiction is not these publsihers’ forte.

We obviously have an advantage here in America in that we have access to more American fiction.

I am an Anglophile, but I do need to spend time with my homegirls: American voices are different.  In general I would describe American women’s fiction as grittier and sexier, closer to the raw work of Philip Roth than the elegance of Barbara Pym (Virago) or the sincerity of Dorothy Whipple (Persephone).

Falling Bodies sue kaufmanAnd if I had my own publishing company, I would instantly reissue the books of Sue Kaufman, the author of Diary of a Mad Housewife, an American classic.  Her 1974 novel, Falling Bodies, is a sad and often hysterically funny novel about a woman whose family is falling apart.  

I have been absorbed in Falling Bodies for two days, and I feel that Kaufman is writing about my own life, though the heroine Emma and I could hardly be more different.  I live a middle-class life in a house in the Midwest; she is the wife of a very well-off vice president of a publishing company in a huge apartment in Manhattan.

And yet… I understand Emma.

Every chapter starts with a day and time of day, like  Monday 8:21 a.m.  Sometimes we go through entire days, sometimes through just a few hours.

Emma has had a rough year.  Her mother has died of cancer, and she herself has been hospitalized for an FUO, a fever of unknown origin. (One year I almost died from blood poisoning from an insect or spider bite:  the doctors weren’t sure what.  And last year my mother died, and, like Emma, I was upset by the sub-standard care.)

In the hospital, she witnessed a suicide.  A man jumped out of a window and his body fell past her room.  Once home, she is  terrified that she will see another falling body crash on the sidewalk.

Slowly we go through Emma’s life from the time she gets out of the hospital and is so weak she can barely walk around the block; to encounters with a sexy, crazy friend from Radcliffe, Minda,who likes to talk about her analysis;  through a tense dinner party at which all the men fall all over Minda and the black caterer and Hispanic maid fight; through a huge blackout that affects the East Coast.

Emma’s family problems are paralyzing, partly because she cannot go back to her social worker job until she has fully recovered from the illness.  Since her hospitalization, her husband and son both seem to be having a nervous breakdown.  Harold, the vp of a publishing company, has a terror of germs and contamination.  And her son is bringing home mechanical parts he finds in trash cans.

Harold and Benjy think Emma is the one who has gone crazy. And she is upset:  her mother-in-law has hired a maid from Colombia.  And talk about crazy…

When she has finally recovered, she goes to a Laurel and Hardy revival.

She was striding briskly along, considering the comic aspects of Tepp’s telling her to pick off where she’d left off and to resume a ‘normal life’ (whatever that was)–when she passed a neighborhood theater , with a marquee announcing ‘LAUREL AND HARDY FESTIVAL–LOTSA LAFFS,’ and without a moment’s hesitation, bought a ticket and went in.   And for the next three hours sat, not thinking, not smiling, not laffing, watching Stan Laurel’s every move, watching every expression that crossed his Silly-Putty face.  Stan Laurel was, she realized, from the first moment he came shuffling and dipping onto the screen, her spiritual twin.  Her Doppelganger–to use the overworked kind of in-voguey word that drove Harold-the-ex-editor crazy.  That sad and infinitely rubber face….  That genius for flapping and stumbling and unfailingly doing the absolutely wrong thing….  The real Emma, the one hiding behind the “cool” blond facade everyone saw.

Who hasn’t felt like that?  Though in my case I might identify more with Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation amd Jean Squib in Nebraska.

Parts of the novel are told from Harold’s and Benjy’s point-of-view.  Maria and Benjy deliver some entertaining monologues during the blackout.

This is a novel for any woman who has had a rough year. If, like Emma, you’ve told the nurse that your mother says she has not received her medication and the nurse has denied it, it is a short step to the doctor’s telling you that you are crazy and banning you from the hospital room for the night.  Emma’s mother reacted negatively to opium, as mine did.  And while no doctor told me off–there was no doctor, as far as I could see– she died before  the delivery of the medication that would have relieved her stertorous breathing.

I really loved this book,  My guess is that it’s more a women’s book–I can’t see my husband’s reading it–but it is a deftly-consctructed, often funny story of what happens to a woman under a lot of stress.

Happier Olympics & Blimey!

Torah Bright, silver medalist in half-pipe Sochi

Torah Bright won silver medal in the halfpipe, Sochi.

I love the internet.

Sometimes I tire of looking at the screen, though.

I was happier before the internet.

This evening I turned off the computer  to watch the Olympics.  I was waiting for the figure skating pairs.

First there was the snowboarders’ halfpipe.

“Torah Bright with a 93 sets the standard here,” a reporter said.

Torah Bright, 27, the Australian defending gold medalist, won the silver tonight.  There is always a story about a defending gold medalist: Bright crashed during her first halfpipe run in Vancouver four years ago, then came back in the second to win gold. This time she crashed and came back to win silver.  So many news segments about defending gold medalists–and then we’re despondent if they don’t win, as in the case of Shani Davis, the American speed skater.

I wish I were a snowboarder.  It looks like fun.

I am not athletic.  I can do your basics:  walk, bicycle, run.  My husband gave me cross-country skis and snowshoes.  I could not even stand up on the skis.

And I couldn’t even stay upright when I walked to the library this afternoon.  I was reasonably warm in my parka, I was carrying a big cup of coffee, I had actually left the house without R.E.M. on my portable CD player, so I could think my own thoughts…

…and then I fell on the ice.

I  was very annoyed that I spilled my coffee.  I brushed the dirty snow off the top, washed the lid at the library, and went home intending to transfer the contents to another cup.

Fortunately my husband was driving home and stopped to pick me up so I didn’t have to fall on the ice again.


anna-karenina-leo-tolstoyI found a mistake in a scatty article, “The 10 Worst Couples in Literature,” in The Guardian.

Why bother with a trivial article?

But look at this line:

“…Anna and Vronsky would have had life a lot easier if they had just stuck to their marital partners – Anna especially.”

Yes, Anna especially, because Vronsky wasn’t married.

Now perhaps the writer is an idiot, or perhaps it’s the copy editor, but it is a good idea to read Anna Karenina before you decide both Anna and Vronksy have “marital partners.”  Do they mean spouses?

The Nook and Fashionistas

Barnes and Nobles EarnsI read in PW Daily that Nook sales are down.  Barnes & Noble will continue to manufacture e-readers like the GlowLight, but they are no longer designing new tablets. A spokesperson said,

The new Nook management team is focused on managing the business efficiently so that it becomes financially strong while at the same time aggressively moving to drive revenue growth.”

Whatever the f— that means.

And in January The New York Times reported that digital sales at B&N during the holiday season in 2013 dropped 60% from the year before.  In 2009 the Nook had 25% of the e-market.  Now it holds 20%.

The Nook is a very fast, good machine.

We have Nook HD tablets at our house. We deliberately didn’t buy Kindles, because we wanted to throw some of our business to B&N, our bricks-and-mortar store.

I have found so many books at B&N over the years:  Peter Stothard’s On the Spartacus Road, Karen E. Bender’s A Town of Empty Rooms, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, and, most recently, William Gibson’s Zero History.

And I wouldn’t necessarily find these books at Amazon.  I’m not saying I couldn’t, but they probably wouldn’t come up on the screen.

If they stop making the Nook , will another company take it over?

But on another note, I buy too many e-books.  Do you ever miss real books?  I recently bought Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling as an e-book.  It has the original paintings by N. C. Wyeth, and I was excited that I could see the illustrations on the Nook.  But wouldn’t it really be nicer to have the book?  I also recently purchased D. J. Taylor’s Kept as an e-book, and very much wish I’d bought the real book because I will reread ait. The same with Elizabeth Spencer’s  novels:  I should have bought the real books.

I wonder if others are feeling the same way.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman's Life & the Amanda Cross mysteries

Carolyn G. Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life & the Amanda Cross mysteries

Angela Neustatter vs. Carolyn G. Heilburn.   At 50something, I am hardly a fashionista.  If I want to wear trendy baby-doll frocks, I assure you I will, but if I do you’ll know I’ve gone insane.  I’ve already worn low-cut t-shirts for the last decade (inability to find others with higher necks), and my dermatologist does not care for the sunburn.

One lovely thing about the turning point of fifty is the independence from fashion.  You can grow your hair, stop dyeing it, throw out your designer dresses (since mine were from Younkers, they don’t qualify as designer), and wear whatever you want.

In other words, you can still have orgasms (have them daily, according to a very funny book I read on menopause),  but you do not have to spend as much money to earn them.

Independence is the key word.

So I was annoyed to read an article in The Observer, “Forget beige – meet the women who are ageing with attitude.”

If we can’t wear beige, can we at least wear black?

Angela Neustatter, the 70ish author of The Year I Turn…: A Quirky A-Z about Age, does not believe in aging gracefully, i.e., growing gray, etc.  She does look very young in her picture.

The article says, “Apart from a few “frumpy years” in her 50s, when she lost confidence in her right to wear leopardskin tights, author Angela Neustatter says she has never let age define her.”

And I thought,  So I have to look ridiculous at 50, 60, and 70, too?  Leopardskin tights do not look good on anybody.

Neustatter apparently believes aging women’s invisibility is caused by not following fashion.

Although, like all women, I suffer from fashion insecurity, I very much disagree that youth is the ticket to growing older.  I prefer the philosophy of Carolyn G. Heilbrun in The Last Gift of Time:  Life Beyond Sixty.

Trying to develop a crossroads–the point at which a woman has lived thirty years of adult life in one mode and must discover a new mode for the second thirty years likely to be granted her–I wanted to suggest, to (if I am honest) urge women to see this new life as different, as a time requiring the questioning of all previous habits, as, inevitable, a time of profound change.”