Fat Women Don’t Look at Art


Ms Mirabile: “Fat women do look at art.”

“She’s massive,” a man says behind me at the British Museum.

Thank you, Britain.

He is talking to his kid. Talking about me. Setting a good example to his kid.

I am not particularly pissed off. I have high self-esteem.  He doesn’t know who I am. He doesn’t know anything about me.

My husband thinks I should go on The Biggest Loser.

Shut up!

But I would lose more weight than anyone on a reality show–I’d be the Katniss (love the name!) of the literal Hunger Games–because I’m very competitive.  (You’re looking at the winner of the Lowden Prize for Latin.)  And then the weight would come right back on.  Yes, that’s how it works.  Talk to anyone on a diet.  You lose, you gain.

I’ve got the dieter’s wardrobe: the size 8 schoolmarm/wedding dress (it doubled for both things) up to…you don’t want to know!

There are so many fat Americans in the Midwest that you don’t hear a lot of chat about fat.  Walk through the mall and you’ll see a lot of fat people.  Walk through a museum and the fat people vanish.  Do they feel good enough to eat a pretzel but not good enough to look at Rubens?

According to the CDC, more than one-third of Americans are obese, and 28.4% of people are obese in my state. Certainly no one in the U.S. is rude to me because of my weight.  People are very polite in the Midwest. It’s beautiful, it’s rugged, it’s windy, it’s cold, and we all give one another a lot of space.  There are eating disorder groups, but, alas, my doctor thinks it would be a bad idea to attend one, because most of the members have borderline personality: “They’re very self-centered and annoying.”  I guess it’s a compliment that I don’t have borderline personality.  I do remember when I taught composition the thin, sad students who suffered from anorexia and even struggled to eat yogurt for lunch.  They wrote their term papers on anorexia. As for obesity, the fat girls ignored it.  Not one of them ever wrote about it.  Is anorexia more acceptable than obesity?

And, as my doctor tells me, I am in better shape than most thin people. I used to be a runner. Well, I stopped 10 years ago, but I still bicycle.  My blood pressure is so low I’m almost not there. My pulse is low. My cholesterol is low.  I do have hypothyroidism, but in a general sense, I’m very healthy.  Being fat does not mean you’re unhealthy.  Much depends on diet (yes, I do eat healthy food) and exercise.

Fat can ruin your life, but only if you let it.

It doesn’t necessarily preclude your flirting, having relationships, or being married.

I did sense in London that a few people judged me because of my fat (most were very polite), but then I didn’t see any fat people anywhere.  Either there are no fat people, or they’re all too neurotic to go out of the house.

I loved London. A beautiful city, gorgeous museums, and it is possible to take a very cheap trip there.  Even with my book-buying and shipping of books, I spent very little.  I am stunned at how little I spent (aside from the hotel and flight).

But it was time to come home, because after being up for more than 24 hours on Saturday, I have been sleeping on every piece of furniture in the house.   But I will go back!  I will see the Tate Modern!  And do so much more…

The End of London and What to Read on the Plane

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”–Boswell, Life of Johnson

London is beautiful, fascinating, rich, poor, inspiring, tiring…and I wish I had walked around the neighborhoods of London for days like Martha Quest in Doris Lessing.

If, like me, you can go to museums almost indefinitely, you try to go to every museum twice.  I managed the British Museum and the National Gallery twice, and the National Portrait Gallery, the Dickens Museum, and the British Library once.

I will never forget Caravaggio’s superb painting at the National Gallery, “Salome receives the head of John the Baptist.”

"Salome receives the head of John the Baptist," Caravaggio

“Salome receives the head of John the Baptist,” Caravaggio

Look at the parallel figures of Salome and the executioner, both looking to the left, with their heads at the same angle, while Heroides looks down at John the Baptist’s head, whose eyes also appear to look downward.  The executioner (is it Herod?) looks regretful and separated from the women’s vengefulness.

The National Gallery website says:

“The subject is from the New Testament (Mark 6). Salome had danced so well for King Herod that he swore he would grant her any request. Her mother, Herodias, who sought revenge on John the Baptist, persuaded Salome to ask for his head. The old woman behind Salome may be Herodias.

This is a late work by the artist, painted in the last three years of his life, perhaps in Naples where he resided from 1609 to 1610. No longer concerned with the incidentals of the narrative, Caravaggio focuses on the essential human tragedy of the story.”

If I lived in London, I would go back every day and look at one painting thoroughly.

Looking at art was my richest experience in London.  And it is only in very big cities that one has a chance to see so many masterpieces.

By the time I made it to the British Library (accidentally; suddenly I found myself there), I was too burned-out to do more than gape at a few manuscripts.  With my bifocals, I couldn’t see Charlotte Bronte’s or Dickens’ tiny writing in the dark space of the museum, so I quickly left and walked home.

My great regrets? I didn’t make it to the Tate Modern or to Peter Stothard’s interview with a writer at the Oxford Literary Festival (I was flying home). I would doubtless have enjoyed seeing Stothard, the editor of the TLS, whose Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra was my favorite book last year.

Next time I’ll do more in London.  Ha!  I’m not sure I can spend 17 hours waiting around in airports and flying again.

Flight is an amazing invention.

The plane is a chance to sleep, or to catch up on your reading.

I was so tired that I did sleep on the plane.  I also got a little reading done.  And so I will write very briefly about the reading.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the TubeI picked up a wonderful short Penguin, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube.  I loved the tube–only a couple of minutes from Russell Square to Leicester Square, and the same from Euston to Baker Street–so I was fascinated by this short essay about the history of the Underground.  He begins by writing about taking the first train on the Underground to leave the station before 5 a.m. (the District Line).  He writes from the perspectives of a passenger, and also interviews the drivers, who get there by minicabs, and sketches the history. He distinguishes between the Victorian Underground and the Tube of the 20th century (a deeper underground, in the form of tunnels).

Before he did his research, he pictured the first train as

populated by inhabitants of the secret Baudelairean London. The truth is more prosaic, and it becomes clear, not so much at Upminster, since, after all, Upminster is a relatively posh suburb, out past the East End where things are starting to feel vaguely, suburbanly rural.  No, it’s a few stops before you realize who these people getting on the train are, bone-tired but indefatigable:  they are cleaners.  By Dagenham East, a few minutes after 5 a.m., the first train on the network is already packed, and the people with whom it is packed are cleaners on their way to work.  That’s the unromantic truth about this version of the secret city.

This brilliant, entertaining book was the perfect length for reading on the plane.  Well, alas, I had hours left after that, but I do find nonfiction somehow easier on the plane.

I also read a classic mystery, Gerald Heard’s A Taste for Honey, one of the old crime Penguins with a green cover.  Did I really pay 7 pounds for this?  My husband was looking at the prices, and discovered this.   I was spending my British money madly at the end.  And I love this book.

Heard was a brilliant philosopher who also wrote mysteries, and this first-person narrative by Sydney Silchester, a timid man who has retired to the country, is both humorous and compelling.  He dislikes people, and becomes reluctantly involved with both a Sherlock Holmes-like detective and a gloomy mad scientist beekeeper who turns out to be a murderer.  There is a terrifying scene where a swarm of murderous bees are sent to Sydney’s house (it reminds me of The Birds) and he has to outrace the bees and shut himself in the bathroom to avoid a lethal sting.  (Hhe is stung, though, and cannot convince the doctor or the hired girl that the bees were set on him. )   Heard’s writing is superb, and it is the perfect book to read when you are miserable because you’re breathing plane air and your butt hurts.

This trip to London will have to last me for years.  I’m back to my quiet life in the Midwest, but do you know?  I really prefer it.:)

London with Coffee # 7: A Day off from Tourism

I took a day off from my tour of London.

Take a bus or tube … I wasn’t up for it.

I did my laundry.

It takes all day if you don’t know how to set the electronic switches:  wash, extra-wash, spin, extra spin…

Then I mailed some packages.

I shipped my books home.

It had reached the point where I could barely carry them.

But buying books in London is a good thing, is it not?  I supported the London Review of Books shop, Foyles, and Skoob Books.  I wandered into some other shops, but didn’t find anything of interest.  We have some first-rate used bookstores at home, and only Skoob measured up.

The selection at Daunt was very much like Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

If I can get it in the U.S., I don’t buy it.

The shipping costs were ridiculous, but even if I’d bought another bag, I doubt I could have lugged it into the airport.  And where ARE the porters these days?  I’ve seen them at O’Hare, but nowhere else.  And seldom at O’Hare.  I always drag my own luggage.

It was worth it to go to all the bookstores.  Thank you online for recommending them!

CULTURAL OBSERVATIONS.  Londoners don’t smile.  Can that possibly be true?  People are expressionless or frowning.  The area where I’m staying is over-crowded on the weekend, and tourists don’t know where they are or where they’re going.  (Finally I know where I’m going.  Huh!)

On the tube we’re all too cross to smile.

We don’t smile while we’re looking at art.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t take notes on the art.

People who work in bookstores don’t smile much, but they are friendly and competent.

People who work in service do often smile, and the smiling helps the communication.  My impression is that many with service jobs are immigrants, or else English is not their first language.

Londoners who give directions often smile.

And then there are some other helpful Londoners who don’t smile.

So I decided to practice my London scowl.

The problem is that when I squint, my mouth curves up into a smile.  I’m not smiling, but you can’t possibly know that.

I am reminded of the characters in Trollope who don’t smile because they have bad teeth.

Or is that in Trollope?

I wonder if we smile more in the U.S.?

SUITCASES.  This is a tourist area, or rather an area of suitcases.  If you lose your way to the tube, just follow the suitcases.  The hotel lobby is always full of suitcases.  And at museums sometimes tourists come in and try to check their suitcases.

“We’re out of room.”

Much gesturing, until the tourists understand that they have to park their suitcases on the free shelves.  They’re not happy about it.

FOOD.  There is some excellent food.  I had some gnocchi that was so wonderful I ignored the fact that there was bacon in it.  (In the U.S. we can’t eat pork right now because a terrible virus has hit the pigs.)

I had a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger, which was recommended by someone online, and it was delicious.

Shopping at the supermarket proved the best and cheapest, though.

I love Rachel’s Yogurt!   And the canned soup is better than that in the U.S.

You can find some good sandwiches.

At home it’s always easier to eat healthy, but there are always salads.

ACCENTS.  “Great,” I said.  I kept saying it.  I never say “Great” at home.

Everything is “gray-y-y-te” here.

I’ve never heard an American accent like mine.

I stepped off the plane and started talking like this.

Let’s talk a little quicker and narrow the vowels.

But it’s easy to say “good” or “great” when you have no idea what someone’s saying.

I almost talked with a Texas accent today.

It’s a good thing I didn’t go to the Oxford Literary Festival, because that might have been too Brideshead Revisited for me, and I can’t imagine what it would have done to my accent.

Too bad I didn’t get to see Sebastian Barry or Magaret Drabble (but she was not talking about her own books).  There really isn’t any reason to see writers though.  It’s their books I love.

COULD I LIVE IN LONDON?  A beautiful city, I absolutely love it, but it makes me appreciate our quietness.  I’m longing for the country!

London with Coffee # 6 & a Literary Event

Skoob Books

Skoob Books

Another lovely sunny day in London.

I had only one thing booked today:  a reading at the Daunt Books Festival by three short story writers, A. L. Kennedy, Helen Simpson, and David Constantine, from their new books, and then a very short panel discussion on the short story with K. J. Orr.

I left the hotel in plenty of time.

But let’s have some coffee first.  God, I’d been drinking tea all morning and it did nothing for me.

Today:  coffee at Costa.  I spilled it on my sweater.  Goddamit!

But the coffee did energize me enough that I went to Skoob Books, the most wonderful used bookstore I’ve been to in England.  A fascinating collection, old Penguins, old crime Penguins, Oxford classics editions, Loeb editions, and some newish Viragos I’ve never seen by contemporary writers.

Then I went out and thought briefly of buying a hairbrush, because I have been in London without a hairbrush.

Then I realized I was only going to a literary event, so it hardly mattered whether my hair was brushed or not.

I do have a way of getting lost, and the English have all been very good about getting me oriented.  I wanted to get in a good walk today, so I walked to a station that was a little farther away from my hotel.  I got turned around, and when I finally got off the tube, though I was headed in the right direction, I was on the wrong side of Marleybone to see Marleybone High Street.  So I went too far, and when I saw Regent’s Park, a beautiful green space, I realized what had happened and crossly crossed the street.

Daunt BooksI showed up at Daunt Books a little late.

I was there for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the event.

A. L. Kennedy was finishing her reading, and she was either too far from the microphone (did they have one?), or has a low voice, because I couldn’t hear.

She was reading a description of  a penis:  “Penis something something penis something.”

Everyone laughed, and I’m sure it was very funny, but I couldn’t hear.  I idly remembered something:  I just missed a book group discussion at home of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  (The penis in Chatterley is called John Thomas.)

After Kennedy finished the reading, K. J. Orr conducted a short panel discussion about the short story.  Very short.

I liked Helen Simpson the most, because I could hear her.  She said she started the day reading a short story, and that it got her out of bed.

Kennedy, whom again I couldn’t hear, said something about not liking anecdotes in short stories.  A man goes into the bar with a dog means nothing to her.  And then I heard no more.

I didn’t hear a word David Constantine said.

Next time I’ll get there early and sit in the front.

I do wish the discussion had been longer.  No questions from the audience were allowed.  Now that’s ridiculous for 5 pounds, and the writers could have spent more time if they wanted me to buy books.  I have never been to an event before with four writers in 45 minutes, and since the next event wasn’t till five, surely they could have accepted a couple of questions.  Note:   In the U.S. book festivals are free, readings always last at least an hour, and the writers give and give of their time, with the exception of Nobel winners.   Toni Morrison, who has obviously had too much of a good thing, was charming in the ’80s and actually met with students after an event.  But the  last time I heard her, after she won the Nobel Prize, she finished on the dot and did not have a signing or meet with us patrons after the event.

And am I going to the Oxford Literary Festival? No, I’d love to hear Margaret Drabble,  but she’s talking about Jules Verne, not her own books.

The writers’ event at Daunt Books (which admittedly I hardly even made it to) was the only disappointment in my trip, but my critique cannot be a real critique, except for that of the discussion and the Q&A.

I’ve been very touristy–this has been my first tourist vacation in my life–because in American cities, it has always been more about entertainment for me.  But I am unlikely to have a chance to see this city again, so am trying to make the most of tourism!

London with Coffee # 5 & Art

In Manhattan,  Diane Keaton says Van Gogh is overrated.

She pronounces it Van Gog.

Keaton is hilarious as an intellectual journalist.

At the National Gallery, I found myself skipping over the Van Gogh, though of course as a child I loved him and had a print of Van Gogh’s Chair.  I was more interested in other 19th-century painters like Monet, Manet, and Pissarro.

Such a good collection of Impressionists at the National Gallery.

I especially love Monet’s paintings of snow, because I am at home with snow.  It snows and snows and snows where I live.  Here is “Lavacourt under Snow.”

Monet's Lavacourt under Snow

Monet’s Lavacourt under Snow

And here is “Snow Scene at Argenteuil”:

Monet's Snow Scene at Argenteuill

Monet’s Snow Scene at Argenteuil

The colors are lovely and light after the dark paintings of the 16th , 17th, and 18th centuries.

STARRING VIVIEN LEIGH:  A CENTENARY CELEBRATION AT THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY.  The trip to London is my mother’s legacy, and Vivien Leigh was her favorite actress.

And so it is appropriate for me to see these photos of Leigh.  Gone with the Wind was my mother’s favorite book and movie.

Vivien Leigh in "That Hamilton Woman"

Vivien Leigh in “That Hamilton Woman”

Of course I know Leigh as Scarlett, but the photos of Leigh in other movies were even more intriguing:  as Cleopatra in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, as Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman, and as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Oh, Blanche!  What a brilliant movie that was!

So sad to be beautiful and mad.  Poor Vivien!  I remember reading long ago about her madness.  And did Laurence Olivier take care of her, or not?  There are always sad stories about mad women and their husbands.

My mother never went to a museum in her life.  Well, that’s probably an exaggeration, but close.  She had a bachelor’s degree, but she loved pop culture.  She could have been a pop culture critic.    Ladies’ Home Journal, movies (I saw every movie in the ’60s except Darling, which, inexplicably, I was not allowed to see), movie magazines, TV (we loved the fall edition of TV Guide), and musicals (we’d go to community productions).

The apple does fall far from the tree.  No human beings were ever more different than my mother and I.

I love museums, but even I admit you can have too much of a good thing.

There was so much to see at the National Portrait Gallery.  But this is all I have room to write about today.

COFFEE.  I had a cup at a bookstore:  excellent.

I went to Oxfam, a lovely bookstore, but the Virago Online Group who met in London last weekend seems to have wiped them out temporarily.  I had almost everything in the fiction and poetry sections, and I know that’s just not possible…:)  So maybe I’ll go again before I leave.  Oxfam is a favorite with everybody.

Foyles, however, is the best bookstore in the world.  (Well, I haven’t seen all of them.)

And I was out in the London rain today.  Very light, very easy.  I know you have floods here, but this was a spring rain.  And now I understand why English people go for walks in the rain.  At home it’s always a deluge.  So lovely and mild here (so far).

London with Coffee # 4 and Who Looks at Art?

Hahn/Cock, or, as I call it, the Blue Chicken

Hahn/Cock, by Katharina Fritsch

I love art.  I love museums.  And I very much enjoyed visiting the National Gallery.

I saw the blue chicken outside at Trafalgar Square.

The blue chicken is actually called Hahn/Cock, and is a sculpture of a cockerel by the German artist Katharina Fritsch.  It was installed in 2013.

I immediately felt at home with Hahn/Cock.  I’ve seen countless bright modern sculptures at various sculpture gardens, and I enjoy their humor and incongruousness.

What could be more traditional than Trafalgar Square? I love the lions.  I sat on a fountain for a while in a daze.  I shouldn’t have been tired, but I’m still on American time.

Inside the National Gallery, I didn’t take notes on the art for once.  It was so crowded that I didn’t feel up to whipping my notebook out.

My only note?  At first I thought the Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs was wearing glasses.

The painting is attributed to Anthony van Dyck, and was probably executed in Rubens’ studio.

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1620

Drunken Silenus Supported by Satyrs, Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1620

Silenus is just so fat and drunk, and the light was such that my weak eyes saw little wire-rimmed glasses.  I do have new bifocals, and they help, but I need brighter light than this. My friend Ellen Moody, the blogger with whom I went to the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., can vouch that I have to look close up.

And this was when it struck me.  Fat women don’t look at art.   Only thin women look at art (with, ahem, one exception).  And yet there are many fat women painted in art.  Even Juno, Venus, and Minerva are overweight in Rubens’ Judgment of Paris, 1632-65. Are fat women self-conscious in museums?

Judgment of Paris, Rubens

Judgment of Paris, Rubens

So who looks at art?  So many different languages!

I got the impression that most of us were tourists from elsewhere.  Thin Europeans looked at art.  Many thin Asians seemed very knowledgable about art as they looked at art.

Do some of us feel more comfortable looking at art than others?

Fat or thin, I’ve looked at art.

I wish I’d picked up a brochure (didn’t see any!) or bought an art book, so I could talk knowledgably about what I saw, but you’ll have to take it from me that a pop culture writer like me adores The National Gallery.

You are probably wondering what I did about coffee today.

I had a cup at a patisserie.  It was good.  I was in a hurry, so I gulped it down.  I still haven’t made it to an indie coffeehouse.

And then I got lost on the way to Foyles.

I love Foyles.  What a wonderful bookstore!  It’s very big, and as good as the LRB Bookshop in a different way.  Yes, I am afraid I bought some books.  I was even tempted to buy some nice editions of books I already have.  Isn’t that crazy?

I almost bought Sebastian Barry’s The Last Gentleman, but I have a rule that I can’t buy hardbacks.  It will be out shortly in the U.S.

Am I going to the Oxford Literary Festival, where, by the way, Barry is reading tomorrow?  Oh, you guys, I’d love to go, but I’m just so tired.  I very much admire the transit system, however, and know I could get there if I tried.

It was snowing at home, last I heard, and it’s just so wonderful to spend my “spring break” here.  A very beautiful city.

London with Coffee # 3

The British Museum--again?

The British Museum–again?

I am getting better at being a tourist.

That means I wake up, I leave the hotel, I get lost.  And today I was so lost that I didn’t have coffee till noon.

Why would I get lost?  There is no reason to get lost.  I have guidebooks, maps, an A/Z, a computer.

There I was in the hotel room, planning my trip to the Dickens Museum.  There are Dickens walks, but I was far too tired to go on a Dickens walk.  I was in the Dickens mood, though, because I fell asleep last night reading Bleak House.

I started out at 10 a.m.  I had written everything down, but I hit a dead end.  Buildings.  On the other side I suppose the street continued.

I don’t know where I was, but suddenly I recognized a street and knew the British Museum was there.

Later I’ll go to the Dickens Museum, I promised myself.

I wandered briefly among the Greek and Roman exhibits.  I want this diadem and the ball-shaped earrings:

Diadem, decorated in relief with palmette flanked by leaves.


Yes, it is a terrible picture, but I like the idea of wearing a diadem decorated in relief with palmette flanked by leaves.

And I saw two lovely bronze statuettes of Venus loosening her sandals.  My pictures didn’t come out unfortunately.

Okay, then I made it to the Dickens Museum.

Dickens Museum

Dickens Museum, Bloomsbury

At first I walked right past it because the sign was so discreet and I was on the wrong side of the street.  Then Doughty St. turned into John St. (Why is this always happening in London?)  I retraced my footsteps on the OTHER side of the street and found the museum.

All right, I paid what I paid and then I was in the museum.  First, the dining room.  I thought it was a bit corny.  I didn’t need the settings at the table with the names Dickens, Walter Ainsworth, Forster, etc., on the plates.  I liked the mahogany sideboard, though, which I think Dickens bought himself, though I don’t quite remember that part. And what the f- was that soundtrack in the background?  Street sounds?

I thought, Oh God, this doesn’t compare with Willa Cather’s house in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Well, in a way it doesn’t.  But so many people love Dickens that they want to make it more commercial, I suppose.

I got hooked upstairs in the drawing room and study.  Then I felt the writer “near me.”  In the drawing room I admired the rosewood leather-topped table, and the rare reading desk he had designed and built for his readings and performances.  A podium?  Very exciting, isn’t it?  I would have loved to hear Dickens read.  And there was a tape (a CD? whatever you call it?) of someone reading Dickens aloud.  I’m afraid I don’t know what was being read.

And then in his study there was his desk from Gad’s Hill.  What is it about writers’ desks?

Dickens' desk.

Dickens’ desk.

And there were Dickens’ books in the glass bookshelf:  Shakespeare, Robinson Crusoe, and Specimens of English Sonnets.  Also a page or two of his original manuscript of Oliver Twist.  And then in another bookcase were sets of Dickens’ own books.

The rest of the house was quite nice, too.  Kitchen, bedrooms, etc.  And then I did buy a few books.  Not a Dickens mug, but it was necessary to buy a copy of A Walk Around Dickens’ London.  It’s really a sweet little pamphlet.  I’m unlikely to take the walk, but I like reading it.

I loved the Dickens Museum.  I love Dickens!

COFFEE NOTES.  Today I had to go to Starbucks.  I passed two of them, and honestly I needed my grande. One Starbucks coffee and that’s all you need.   The coffee is so good:  Costa was a little strong for me yesterday.  Will I be able to find an indie coffeehouse tomorrow?  Everybody advertises cappucchinos–but can they make coffee?

London with Coffee # 2

Book shopping, that is.

Book shopping, that is.

I realized while browsing in the Greek and Roman life room at the British Museum that my late mother would have enjoyed the tiny terracotta and bronze figures.  She collected ceramic figures and dolls, so how could she not like these “figurines?”  There were tiny figures of sacrificial animals–a ram (from Syria), a pig (near Rome), and a bull (I think it was Etruscan)–and figures of gods and even comic actors.  I loved a diminutive bronze figure of Mercury, a terracotta woman in a bath, and a bronze figure of a satyr playing double-pipes.

Perhaps they have some adorable Greek and Roman figurines at the museum store.  But these stores are always expensive, and you never like the stuff that much when you get home.  I have many souvenirs of the Chicago Art Institute, all tucked away out of sight.

On the way to the British Museum, the quest for coffee continued.  How could it not?  Starbucks, Costa, Nerro’s…  I’m on my Size Epic two.

It is beautiful here in London.  Though the spring is not far advanced, it is very green and there are some flowers. It is mild, in the 50s here, though at home it is still cold and windy–the wind never stops blowing on the prairie.

I sat outside the British Museum and soaked up the sun. I didn’t have a book in my bag, except a guidebook, so I decided to go to the LRB (er, London Review of Books) Bookshop. It is just south (or possibly east or west; God knows where I was) of the British Museum.

LRB bookshopNow I don’t read the LRB, because I already read the NYTBR, the NYRB, the TLS, and the WSJ (I made that last up:  I don’t read the WSJ), so I can’t really add anything else with initials at this time. But what a good bookstore this is! I considered a book of literary history, not usually my kind of thing, and several novels I’ve never heard of.  The whole Bailey’s Women’s Prize list seemed to be there, but I already have The Goldfinch, and must read that before adding more to my “queue.”   I was looking more for the obscure, for something I couldn’t get in the U.S.

Nothing hardback, I decided.

No problem.  Look at this haul:

IMG_2843I know, I know.  This is my whole budget for books.

Now I must get much more touristy tomorrow.  Seriously, you know how it is when you arrive:  it’s midnight, it’s only 7  at home, so you wait till 2 or 3 to go to bed, then you wake up early and turn off your alarm because you’ve only had a few hours’ sleep.

The secret:  coffee.  I’ve drunk so much coffee today.  Caffeine, caffeine!

Tomorrow:  must find really GOOD non-chain coffee in London. (I already drank all the Pickwick tea in my room.)

Airport with Coffee # 1

Cathy, my favorite cartoon.  You can read these like a graphic novel.

Cathy, my favorite cartoon. (You can read these like a graphic novel.)

At five-thirty a.m., I was having a miraculous good-hair day at the airport.  I was absolutely convinced that everyone was admiring my drip-dry hair.  And then suddenly I had my personal security line.  There was only one of me, and there were at least eight security people to look at my stuff.  While my husband made faces at me on the other side of the glass (he thought it very funny that I couldn’t be rushed), I put the ziplocked bottle of mouthwash they are so fond of x-raying in one bin, shoes and coat in another bin, and almost had to part with my sweatshirt.

“What about that jacket?”

I gave them that inimitable schoolmarm look.

I got to keep the sweatshirt.

Let’s realize something. I’m a matron.  I’ve waited all my life to be a matron.

I didn’t hustle either.  It took me a while to regather my stuff.  “Do you need help, ma’am?”

“No, I’m just slow.”

I needed coffee very badly, and I have no memory at all of how those coffee-less hours passed. Later, at another airport, I passed a Starbucks.  But I was wandering around looking for my gate, and my so-called carry-on luggage was so heavy that my back ached, and how could I carry a coffee while dragging a barely-regulation-size suitcase and balancing an unbalanced laptop bag?

The only option was coffee at the McDonald’s by the gate. There was no sleeve!  It was too hot!  I couldn’t even sip it.   And if you, like me, thought an Egg McMuffin was an English muffin with an egg on it, you are wrong.  It also has a piece of ham and two yellow rectangles of cheese.  I threw it away.  It was utterly disgusting.

Now I’m sure you all know the answers to this airport dilemma.  BRING YOUR OWN GOOD FOOD.  There was no reason I couldn’t have made myself a little sandwich, if I’d thought of it.  Well, they would have x-rayed it, and that would have been no good.  But I certainly shouldn’t have been eating McDonald’s.

They did feed me later on the plane, unexciting but all vegetarian, and I did have coffee, but it’s not real coffee, if you know what I mean.

TOMORROW:  one good cup of coffee must be found.

D. J. Taylor’s Ask Alice

AskAliceThe Midwestern landscape can be eerie.  Thousands of empty miles of flat or gently rolling fields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and prairie grass.  There are more hogs than people in the Midwest.  I mean that literally.

Not much Midwestern literature is published.  Though Willa Cather’s sagas of loneliness and resilience on the Nebraskan prairie are widely known, few Midwestern writers have made it into the canon.

So you may be surprised when I categorize the English writer D. J. Taylor’s novel, Ask Alice, as an honorary Midwestern novel.  Though most of this novel is set in England, it begins in the Midwest in the early twentieth century, and we first meet the heroine, Alice, traveling on a train through Kansas with her Aunt Em.  And, yes, if you’re thinking of Oz, so you should. This is the beginning of Alice’s journey from sweet Midwestern girl to successful English actress to London society hostess in the Jazz Age.

After Aunt Em and Alice part, a charming salesman, Mr. Drouett, picks up Alice.  Thrilled by his tales of travel, she half dreams of escape from the emptiness of Kansas.  He persuades her to go to dinner with him at a hotel, then seduces her.  They live together near De Smet in South Dakota, until Drouett deserts Alice during a terrifying blizzard.  After a few years of marriage to a strict young Scandinavian minister, she steals a church relief fund and absconds to England with her child, Asa.  Eventually she ends up on the stage.  She has to farm out Asa to caretakers.

Taylor pays homage to several writers in this complex, beautifully written novel, among them Dreiser, Laura Ingalls Wilder, H. G. Wells, and J. B. Priestley.  He deftly depicts Alice’s naiveté and theatrical dreams: her friendliness and unselfconscious beauty ensure her success first on the stage and then as a society hostess.  There are multiple story lines in this intricate novel:  much of the book is  narrated by the gently witty Ralph, an English orphan who does not know who his parents were, and who vividly describes his life with his eccentric “uncle,” a brilliant inventor of a new red dye, called hogpen.  And it is not spoiling anything to say that Ralph is actually Alice’s son Asa–you will realize this immediately–though this is not officially revealed till the end.

Taylor fashions Alice’s sexual and theatrical adventures along the lines of those in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a naturalistic novel in which Carrie, a country girl, meets a traveling salesman on a train to Chicago, where she will eventually become an actress. Taylor’s Alice is likable and kind, except when it comes to men, and then she is cold and calculating:  can they be of use?   When her husband, Guy Keach, won’t allow her to perform in a charity theatrical, she is annoyed but has an epiphany.

He coughed his cough and it occurred to her again that there would come a time when he would not be there to read her letters and refuse her invitations, that she might look forward to a future in which she could do what she liked, write as many letters as she chose and have whoever she pleased to live with her.  Shortly after this he went away, the sound of the axes rose up again from the distant wood and the letter Alice had thrown towards the fireplace burned itself to extinction against the glowing coals in the grate.

Ralph, on the other hand, is very much enjoying his life with his uncle, who, now that he can hobnob with the rich, is even happier than he was as a mad inventor.  Ralph is now a gentleman, with friends who are Jazz Age socialites.  His  observations are astute and witty but also very kind.

My uncle was very great in those days.  I have said that the mark of his genius was a willingness to adapt himself to whatever environment in which he happened to fetch up.  He was as at home on the prow of Atry’s yacht as it tacked desultory across the Solent as he was slaughtering grouse on Lord Parementer’s Aberdeenshire estate, as happy dispensing seedcake to the Dowager Duchess of Southerland in Pont Street as parading in the Ascot Enclosure.  I have a memory of him from this time at some reception on the House of Commons terrace, with a charged glass in his hand and Mrs. Stanley Baldwin on his arm.  It was the look of an athlete who, having breasted the tape of some long and arduous race, glances over his shoulder at the flotsam of the finishing line straight behind him.  He was, or so it seemed, always seeking out new territory even as it colonised the ripped-up earth beneath his tread.

All goes well with Alice and Ralph in their separate spheres until Drouett, the salesman, shows up in England in search of Alice.  Then the lives of all three dramatically change.

The journal of the novelist, reporter, and ghostwriter Beverley Nichols lightens up the last chapters of this novel, though I won’t reveal the context.

This is a dazzling novel, with a huge cast of fascinating characters, most in search of some quality that eludes them, even when they acquire money (though money helps). Taylor is a brilliant writer, and this book fascinates me so much that I want to reread it in tandem with some of the books Taylor mentions or alludes to.

In the past few months, I have read three other stunning novels by Taylor, The Windsor Faction, Derby Day, and Kept.  They’re all remarkable, but this is my favorite.