Mirabile on Cold Pills, The Literary Life, & Five Literary Events in the UK

pop021Give me a white coat, put me in an exam room, and I can diagnose the common cold with the best of them.

A few years ago, there was much whining by newspaper columnists when over-the-counter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, a decongestant, were yanked from the shelves in pharmacies.  (Pseudoephedrine is used in meth labs, and the meth cooks were buying up the cold pills.)

Personally, I never found that pseudoephedrine helped my colds anyway.

And I ask myself:  can over-the-counter medication possibly get any stronger even without pseudoephedrine? I recently took two cold/sinus pills, and was knocked out for 15 hours.

Fifteen hours is a lot of sleep.

I was cured.

Was it the sleep or the pills?

Anyway, just in time for my trip to London… which is coming up.

Being an extremely boring bibliophile, I have wondered anxiously which books I should take with me on the plane.  Will my library book set off the security alarms?   Perhaps I should take a paperback.

I will doubtless acquire new books in London.

I cannot pretend my bookish idea of a good time would suit everyone.

“Are you getting a job in a second-hand bookstore?”  my husband asked.

That was my first plan.

My second plan was to attend a lot of literary events. Literary events are to me what jumble sales are to Barbara Pym’s characters. (I grew up in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and have a high tolerance for readings, lectures, etc.)   And if I do go to any literary events, I will be sure to wear a Pymish jumper/sweater, my thickest glasses, and my walking shoes.

So, literary London?  Why not?  It will get me oriented, right?  I  probably won’t have time to attend these events, since I plan to be thoroughly touristy in an unliterary way,  but, nonetheless, I have compiled a literary calendar.  See you there.  Well, maybe.

1.  Royal Shakespeare Company:  “Two special events with the award-winning writer Hilary Mantel over the weekend of 22nd and 23rd March at the Swan Theatre”.  I can’t get the information about this to come up now–does that mean it’s sold out?–but Mantel will talk about Cromwell: her novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have been dramatized.

2.  Oxford Literary Festival, March 22-March 30.  A week of writers, lectures, interviews, and other events. You can see Sebastian Barry, Jan Morris, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Alexander McCall Smith, Orhan Pamuk, Peter Stothard, Margaret Drabble, Eleanor Catton, and many others.  Yes, I should probably have simply spent the week at the Festival.

3.  Daunt Books Spring Festival, Thursday 27th and Friday 28th March, 2014, at Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High St, London W1U 4QW.  Although 10 a.m. is too early in the morning for me–what are they thinking?–some of you Virago fans might want to attend a talk on “Celebrating Virago Modern Classics” with writers
Deborah Levy, Maggie O’Farrell and Susie Boyt.

4.  Mad Man, Chris Goode’s new adaptation of Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.  A Theatre Royal Plymouth Production,
Thursday 20 March–Saturday 5 April

5.  WordFactory’s  Salon with 
Joe Dunthorne, A.S. Byatt, Will Cohu
Saturday, 29 March 2014, 6:00PM – 8:00PM

“An unforgettable evening of story-telling from internationally renowned AS Byatt, (Possession/ The Children’s Book) and rising stars Will Cohu and Joe Dunthorne (Submarine). Enjoy a warm welcome and free glass of wine at the UK’s leading short fiction salon.”

Is that enough to keep me busy?  I hope so!

Cheeseburgers, Smarter Than My Landline, & What I’m Reading: The Flight of the Silvers

I plan to break my "vegetarian fast" one day this spring at the famous Hamburg Inn in Iowa City.

I will eat one cheeseburger during National Hamburger Month.

This place is like Wal-Mart on acid,” Hannah said.  “It’s freaking me out.” –Daniel Price’s The Flight of the Silvers

When I became a vegetarian last fall, I was disgusted with meat.  You know that manmade chicken in David Lynch’s surreal movie, Eraserhead?  The  one with creepy parts that won’t stop moving?  I ate some chicken that tasted like that.

Many months later, I can tell you that I am definitely healthier on a vegetarian diet. One day, however, I became so so vegetable-mad that I almost made pasta out of thin strips of vegetables. (See Mollie Katzen’s The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.)

“That’s really sick,” my husband said.

So I made lasagna out of real noodles.

“Where’s the hamburger?”

All right, there was no hamburger.

And suddenly, very suddenly, I wanted a cheeseburger.  One of those at the local diner that are as big as the plates.  And I want everything on it.  Mushrooms, onions, special sauce…

I wasn’t tempted by a bacon festival on the State Fairgrounds.

No, it is the cheeseburger. The cheeseburger got me the last time I was a vegetarian. One night we were at a restaurant, and I thought, F— it, I’m having a cheeseburger.

My husband, seeing my desperation, recently bought some soy hot dogs. If you leave them in the boiling water for six minutes instead of two, they taste almost like meat.

So six soy hot dogs and 300 calories later…I should have had a cheeseburger (500 or more calories) and gotten it out of my system.

In May, National Hamburger Month, I will break my veggie “fast” for a day with a cheeseburger at the Hamburg Inn.  And then I’ll be all about the omelet again.


I haven’t flown away on my trip yet.

But in the meantime, I have discovered the perfect airplane book:  Daniel Price’s The Flight of the Silvers.

You might not think you like science fiction, but you do.  There are many SF classics, like John Brunner’s 1968 novel,  Stand on Zanzibar.  One of the characters is named Obami, and he is a president in an African country:  no kidding.  I’m also very fond of the work of Samuel Delaney, Kurt Vonnegut, Alfred Bester, and Karen Joy Fowler.

SF is perhaps the “brainiest” genre.  Although the quality of the writing varies, the writers often have brilliant ideas, and some academics of my acquaintance have written scholarly articles and books about science fiction.

And after a trying afternoon shopping for various items for my trip, I needed science fiction.  When a clerk suggested I  buy an app for my smart phone (my what?  I don’t even have a cell phone) instead of a travel clock, I realized I was living in a futuristic dystopian novel.  I am, thank God, still smarter than my land line.

Tom on "Parks and Recreation" makes a paper iPhone after barred by a judge from using electronics for a week.

Cyberaddicted Tom on “Parks and Recreation” makes a paper iPhone after being barred from using electronics for a week.

I am reading a new SF novel, Daniel Price’s The Flight of the Silvers.  This very long pageturner is the adult equivalent of the popular Y.A. novel The Hunger Games, only with a more complicated plot.  Price’s writing is sometimes quite good, and all of it is good enough, and it is absolutely fascinating.

Flight of the Silvers by Daniel PriceAs children, Amanda Given and her younger sister Hannah are saved by apparently supernatural beings from a car wreck.  Years later, when the sky literally falls and destroys earth, they are saved for the second time, silver bracelets clasped to their wrists that form bubbles around their bodies.  Along with other members of a group called the Silvers, they are transported to a parallel Earth where they are of interest because of abilities concerning bending time.

Here is a sample of the terrifying description of the Earth’s end.

Everyone froze as a thunderous noise seized the area–a great icy crackle, like a glacier breaking in half.  Bystanders threw their frantic gazes left and right in search of the clamour until, one by one, they looked up.  The eerie sound was coming from above.  It was getting louder….

Suddenly the tallest buildings in the skyline began to splinter at the highest levels, as if they were being crushed from above.  Metal curled.  Stone cracked.  Windows exploded….The sky wasn’t just getting brighter and louder.  It was getting closer.  The sky was coming down.

Price’s characters are vivid and believable, though I will not dwell on their confusing talents:  Amanda is a nurse who dropped out of med school, and finds she has a special power to extend her hands as if in long cement gloves and (sometimes) stop evildoers; Hannah is an actress who can accelerate her person to 90 miles an hour while time seems to stand still; Zack is a comic book writer and illustrator with the ability to turn back time (so far he uses it mainly to refresh old bananas); Mia is a teenager who receives notes from her future self through a portal; David is a teenage prodigy who works with ghosts; and Theo is an alcoholic whose talents so far aren’t clear to anybody but would love a drink… as we all would if were in their position.

The Silvers flee from the giant laboratory where they’re being studied, and so far it has been an exciting road trip.

This book is pure fun.  Where do these SF writers get their imagination?  It’s the best escape book I’ve read in a while.

It’s the first of a trilogy, and I just hope he doesn’t write it too fast.  That was the problem with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books.

The “Lunch in London” Trip, Fun, & How Nancy Drew Changed My Life

Bookbed by Ruth Beale

Bookbed by Ruth Beale

I am getting ready for my “Lunch in London” trip.

I call it “Lunch in London” because I see no reason to get up before lunchtime.

My plans are:

1.  Sleep till noon, lounge in pajamas, and then eat cereal out of a box, or possibly a sandwich.

2.  Rush out and embark on one of my many sight-seeing ventures. (I am the queen of tourism culture!)

And then do something vaguely fun.

Fun?  What is fun?  Do I ever have fun?  Have I ever had fun?  Google “London Fun” and you come up with the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum (I can come up with that kind of fun on my own), something called Bookbed (a solo exhibition by  artist Ruth Beale featuring a book-shaped bed), and the musical of From Here to Eternity.

The wrong "From Here to Eternity" (the movie)

The wrong “From Here to Eternity” (the movie)

Actually, I quite like the sound of From Here to Eternity.  Deborah Kerr!  Burt Lancaster!  Oops, that’s the movie.

Doesn’t  Bookbed look like something I should see?

Then there are various literary events and festivals I can attend if I feel inspired.  I am such a fun person…

My husband wonders if I understand that the cats can’t do without me. Well, I’ll Skype them.  A typical conversation with a cat goes like this:  “Who’s the prettiest cat in the whole wide world?” and “Who wants crunchies?”   Maybe they’ll like Skype.  Probably they’ll be indifferent.

And now on to Nancy Drew.

I went to B&N and stocked up on paperbacks, including George Saunders’ Tenth of December, winner of the Folio Prize.

And then I also bought Nancy Drew, The Secret of the Old Clock.

Like countless other American women, I was raised on Nancy Drew.

My late mother, who really spoiled me, bought me possibly 20 Nancy Drew books.  Looking in the back of the book at the Complete List of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, I remember the first 10 titles and then must have  bought some out of order, because I recognize later titles like The Clue in the Old Album (# 24) and The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (# 36).

Nancy Drew The Secret of the Old Clcok

Three different covers.

You don’t really have to read The Secret of the Old Clock as an adult:  skimming tells you all you need to know.

In the opening chapter, Nancy saves a little girl who runs out into the road and is almost hit by a van.  Nancy returns the child to her great-aunts, seamstresses who are struggling to raise her. The great-aunts had counted on their cousin Josiah Crawley to leave money for their niece. Inexplicably he  left all his money to a rich family.

Nancy is sure something is wrong and intends to find a later will Josiah made.

Now when I was nine or ten I believed every minute of these mysteries.

Here’s an example of the exciting writing.

The elderly woman’s lips had begun to move.
“The clock!” she whispered.  “That was it!  The clock!”
Nancy gripped the arms of her chair in excitement.  “Josiah Crowley hit the will in a clock?”  she prompted.

Wow, the power of the verbs of saying!  Characters were always “whispering,” “exclaiming,” “prompting,”  and “screaming.  Their “eyes danced” a lot.  Throughout my childhood I happily wrote fiction using such verbs, and possibly it wasn’t till I was an adult that I noticed characters in novels mostly “say.”

I love it that Nancy rides around in a blue convertible “roadster,” and that her mind is on mysteries even when she picks out a dress for a country club dance.

Unfortunately, this book is one of the revised versions: the 1930s versions were censored so that words like “roadster” were deleted, and so that the books were shorter and cheaper to publish.

Alas, my mother, gave my Nancy Drew set to my nieces.

The nieces found my 1960s editions old-fashioned.  They wanted an SUV; Nancy drove a roadster.  As my mother pointed out, they didn’t read much: they were always being rushed around to classes and  sports.  “They can’t entertain themselves,” she said.

I grew up in a quieter time.  The only sport I liked was jumping rope.  Thank God no one ever made me play sports.

I do wish I had my old set of Nancy Drew, which they sold on Ebay. (I wonder if I could buy it back!)  The fiction writer Bobbie Ann Mason wrote a book about these mysteries,  The Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames.   I very much enjoyed Cherry Ames, though I didn’t know Judy Bolton.

My favorite sleuth of my childhood?  Trixie Belden.  Trixie’s ghostwriters, under the names of Julie Campbell and Kathryn Kenny, had a better sense of humor than the ghosts of Nancy Drew, who wrote under the name Carolyn Keene.

Ten Faves Self-Interview

Occasionally we take a day off at Mirabile Dictu.

Or perhaps a week off.

Or perhaps two weeks off.

Or perhaps a month off.

We’ve never done this before, but I plan to take at least the weekend off.

First, here is a Friday night post:  the Ten Faves Self-Interview.   If you have time to answer one or two or all, please leave a comment.

Are you ready?  Here is my Q&A.

Ten Faves Self-Interview

Q 1.  What is your favorite work of art?

Jean-Louis Forain, "Woman in a Cafe" (1885)

Jean-Louis Forain, “Woman in a Cafe” (1885)

Jean-Louis Forain’s “Woman in a Cafe” (1885). Forain liked to paint “the world of the café, brothel, racetrack, ballet and other aspects of modern Parisian life in the late nineteenth century,” according to the self-guided tour in the exhibition, “Renoir to Chagall:  Paris and the Allure of Color” at the Joslyn Art Museum.

Q 2.  What is your favorite band?


Q3.  What is your favorite classic of all time?

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Q4.  What is your favorite film?

Days of Heaven, directed by Terence Malick, starring three of the most beautiful actors of the 1970s, Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard.


Q5. What is your favorite novel?

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide.

too-dear-for-my-possessing pamela hansford johnson

Q 6. What is your favorite nonfiction book?

Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra

Alexandria peter stothardQ7.  What is your favorite poem?

Horace’s Ars Poetica

Horace epistles ars poeticaQ8. What is your favorite book review publication?


Q9.  What is your favorite TV show?

Parks and Recreation.

Q10.  What is your favorite Virago?

Molly Keane’s Good Behavior

And optional Q11?  What is your favorite rock song? Driver 8

On Bicycling for Transportation & The Tragic Death of a Bicyclist

David Byrne on bike

David Byrne

I saw David Byrne on a bicycle the other day.

Actually I saw a white-haired man with a slightly bird-shaped haircut.

“He looked like David Byrne.”

“It probably was him,” my husband said.

After he performed here in concert last summer, he blogged about riding his bicycle on the trails.

Those of you who know how strongly I feel about bicycling–it is not only fun, it is a life-style–will understand why I like David Byrne.  I loved Byrne in the Talking Heads, and he is even better as a solo artist, but it is Byrne, author of The Bicycling Diaries, who has won my musical loyalty.

In an op/ed piece for The New York Times, “This Is How We Ride” (May 26, 2012), he wrote:

I’ve used a bike to get around New York for decades. There’s an exhilaration you get from self-propelled transportation — skateboarding, in-line skating and walking as well as biking; New York has good public transportation, but you just don’t get the kind of rush I’m talking about on a bus or subway train. I got hooked on biking because it’s a pleasure, not because biking lowers my carbon footprint, improves my health or brings me into contact with different parts of the city and new adventures. But it does all these things, too — and sometimes makes us a little self-satisfied for it; still, the reward is emotional gratification, which trumps reason, as it often does.

On my first bicycle, age four.  Watch out for Super-Environmentalist!

On my bicycle at age four. Watch out for Super-Environmentalist!

It is spring and we’re biking again.  I love the breeze in my hair, seeing the trees and gardens close-up, hearing the birds, and feeling part of the scene.  I like the  effect on my blood pressure (very, very low, to my doctor’s astonishment) and general health.  (Even if you’re overweight, bicycling, an easy sport, will improve your health.)   Three seasons of the year, I bicycle for transportation.  If there’s not snow, I ride in winter.

I got my first bicycle at the age of four and have cycled ever since.

Bicycling is more energy-efficient (really, you can’t get more energy-efficient) than driving and it is cheap.  I paid $500 for a bicycle in 2003.  I have had to replace the seat and pedals, but otherwise it’s still going strong.

I ride about 1,500 miles a year. Our city has bike lanes, bike trails, and a bike-share program (a rental bike program by which you can ride very cheaply from station to station downtown).

Many cars, alas, do not like to share the road with bicyclists.  One year a mad driver, possibly drunk, stopped his car downtown and yelled at my husband and me to get off the road:  it was Sunday and we three were the only people on a four-lane street.  Once I was pelted with a Coke can and another time with apples by passengers in a car.  I could have written down the car license, but let’s just say I preferred to live.

Horrifyingly, in accidents where a driver kills a bicyclist, the sympathy is often with the driver.

cyclist memorial rememberNot always, though.  Last year, when a 58-year-old bicyclist, Gerald Williams, was killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident in Lenox, Iowa, people were outraged when the killer, 33-year-old Jessica May Brown, was not charged with manslaughter.  She claimed later, after she was caught, that she thought she’d hit a deer.

Williams’ wife, who was out of town, had reported him missing when she couldn’t contact him. Twenty-four hours later, searchers found Williams dead in a ditch.

Brown had to pay a $500 fine for failure to stop at an assured clear distance, with a statutory surcharge of $175 and court costs of $60.

It sounds like manslaughter to us.

So ride (right) on, bicyclists!  But watch out for cars.  Some drivers hate bicyclists, runners, and pedestrians.

And here are the Red Hot Chili Peppers singing “The Bicycle Song.”  As they say, “How could I forget to mention the bicycle is a good invention?”

The Lazy Blogger: Monopoly Money, Project Women’s Almost-Classics, & Should Novelists Be Paid More?

The lazy blogger...

The lazy blogger…

THE LAZY BLOGGER CRISIS. Usually I exhaust people with my blogging. “How can you write so much?” A friend recently pointed out that I have published hundreds more blog entries than she has short stories.  It’s a blog!  It’s not a short story!  It can take a lot of time, or it can take almost no time.

But blogging pales beside preparing for my trip to England.   Will my carry-on luggage fit on the plane?  (We used to stuff our clothes in garbage bags.)  And most fun of all?  What about “British money”?  Perhaps I’ll practice with Monopoly money.  I can cross out the $ sign and substitute a £ and play the  game until I know the money.  I am so good at Monopoly.  I own Park Avenue always.

AM I READING?  Yes.  I am working on my “Women’s Almost-Classics” project, compiling a list of North American women’s novels.  A few people have already made excellent recommendations, and I hope you, too, will note your favorite almost-classics.

Here’s the list so far.

Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman1.  Diary of a Mad Housewife by Sue Kaufman.  An American almost-classic, still in print.  Here’s what I said on Sept. 22 at my blog (you can read the whole thing here.)  “It is a small masterpiece, a kind of female odyssey of the ’60s that ranks with early Philip Roth.  Like so many American women’s books of the ’60s, it literally is small:  306 pages, as opposed to the baggy monsters.  Tina, the narrator, a Smith graduate, housewife, and former aspiring artist, keeps a diary.  Her marriage is boring and…”

2.  Falling Bodies by Sue Kaufman.  An almost-classic, out-of-print.  Here’s what I said on (you can read the whole thing here):  “Her 1974 novel, Falling Bodies, is sad and often hysterically funny…  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…  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…  and she has a family crisis.  Her husband and son have fallen apart during her illness.”

Book of Eve Constance Beresford-HOwe3.  Constance Bereford-Howe’s  The Book of Eve.  A Canadian almost-classic, in-print as an e-book.  The blogger Buried in Print recommended this novel, and I very much liked it.  (I will write about it soon.)  A 65-year-old woman leaves her grumpy invalid husband and rents a basement on the “wrong” side of Montreal.  She spends her days picking up broken items to sell to a pawnshop, and gradually develops relationships with the people who live in her house.  Her relationship with a younger Hungarian refugee seemed very real to me and made me smile.

4.  Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.  Gina in Alabama recommended this, and I am very much looking forward to reading it.  The book description at Amazon:  “For this Bison Books edition, James Welch, the acclaimed author of Winter in the Blood (1986) and other novels, introduces Mildred Walker’s vivid heroine, Ellen Webb, who lives in the dryland wheat country of central Montana during the early 1940s. He writes, ‘It is a story about growing up, becoming a woman, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, within the space of a year and a half. But what a year and a half it is!'”

lantern_in_her_hand bess streeter aldrich5.  A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich.  An American classic, in print.  I wrote on July 22, 2010, at my old blog, Frisbee:  A Book Journal:  “Although Aldrich’s mother, a pioneer herself in Cedar Falls, Iowa, told her family stories, Aldrich also interviewed early settlers in Nebraska and studied historical documents and letters before she began to write this superb novel. Her heroine, Abbie Mackenzie Deal, follows her husband, Will, a Civil War veteran, from Iowa to Nebraska, where he struggles to farm on the unforgiving prairie. Droughts, onslaughts of grasshoppers, and blizzards plague them. One year the prices of grain fall so low that the farmers burn corncobs rather than trade for coal at a loss. Abbie suffers the agony of the displaced and misses the amenities of civilization–Cedar Falls, Iowa, her home, is an “older” settlement.  It is a tragedy that she never gets to develop her singing talent. The endless wave of grasses get on her nerves.  Yet she struggles to educate her children and create small joyous moments for her family. Aldrich’s understated style in this engrossing novel matches Abbie’s endurance and sadness.  Her children and grandchildren never have a clue that she’s unhappy as she struggles to farm after Will’s death.  And as we see her age, we’re awed by her story.”


SHOULD NOVELISTS BE PAID MORE?  In this week’s column, “N.B.,” in the TLS, my favorite book publication, the semi-anonymous writer, D.H.  (a lot of initials here!), mocks an article in the Observer by Robert McCrum, “From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life?”

D.H. writes:

Remember the death of the novel?  Of course you do, it was all the rage from about the 1920s to at least the 1980s, from Walter Benjamin to Tom Wolfe.  Then everybody noticed that people kept on writing novels and other people kept on reading them….But what’s this, In the Observer Magazine (March 3), Robert McCrum asks, not if the novel is dead, but if the novelist is:  “Is this the end of an author’s life?”

D.H.  thinks McCrum is hilarious for worrying that novelists are getting smaller advances. McCrum interviews a writer who has had to give up his rented office space to write at home.  He has hired someone to renovate his attic.  D.H. points out that most of us should be so lucky, since renovation costs money.

My personal feeling? ALL  writers are getting paid less these days.  A freelancer friend wrote me a few years ago that the local newspaper was a “bloodbath” as people tried to hang onto their jobs.  (About half have been fired.)  The newspaper here  simply includes a section of USA Today to make up for all the writers it has fired.  As for freelancing?  It’s much harder to get these days, and they’re paying 1980s prices. And perhaps that’s why so many of us are blogging.

I love novels, and of course my favorite novelists should be well-paid, though I gather they are not. I don’t know anything about the book publishing business.   In the U.S. many writers teach, and in the Acknowledgements they’re always thanking this grant and that grant and writer’s retreats and so forth…

McCrum interviews Joann Kavenna, who blames the internet for some problems.

Like many in this community, she also worries about the surge in social media, the rise of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, ie internet sites where anyone can put up “free content”, either for pleasure or self-promotion, or from a confused mixture of both instincts. Put these anxieties together and you have a picture of a way of life facing extinction. In summary, she says, “being a writer stopped being the way it had been for ages – the way I expected it to be – and became something different.”

Yup, we’re here, we’re (not) queer, and we’re not going away.   Is Mirabile Dictu changing publishing?   Or Goodreads (which I’m not familiar with)?  Yes, Amazon has changed everything, and it seems to me that every book gets only two or three stars , and I have no idea how much that influences bookselling.  I read between the lines, and a bad Amazon review or a bad professional review can often persuade me to buy a book if there are elements that appeal to me.  But if this problem is about marketers preying on amateurs, which I suspect is more widespread in the UK than the U.S., we need to hear it so we can address the problem. If marketers shape the way novelists write their books now based on online reviews,  this is a publishing problem.  Perhaps that’s why so many of us read classics or just plain “old” books.

Back to Book Blogging: Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Summer House

"Reading in the Garden," by Susan Ricker Knox

“Reading in the Garden,” by
Susan Ricker Knox

It is a gorgeous spring day.

And so I am writing outside.

I went for a long walk…had two cups of coffee…am  delighted to hear the birds sing…discovered that no one at the Free Little Library wants the books I’ve donated, a Dover edition of Edith Wharton’s short stories and an excellent “Darkover” book by Marion Zimmer Bradley….. and I found it is too puddly to take a bike ride.

With the warm spring day, I have renewed enthusiasm for book blogging:  those who come here strictly for the book chat will be gratified.  You may have wondered, What the f— , as I rambled about travel, the humanities, and other non-bookish topics.

But now I’m back.

Summer Houe Alice Thomas EllisI can’t decide if ALICE THOMAS ELLIS’S’S gorgeous trilogy,  THE SUMMER HOUSE, is quite a classic, but it is very good indeed.  Ellis, a Catholic writer, has the relentless intelligence of Flannery O’Connor:  there is zero sentimentality in these bold, dazzling comedies of  sin, sacrifice, and redemption.

In each of three very short  novels, the same events before a wedding are observed by three different women (who form a kind of unholy female trinity).  In The Clothes in the Wardrobe, we meet the bride, Margaret, a passive young woman who has been stupefied into agreeing to marry Syl, a middle-aged Englishman, after a love affair in Egypt with a young man who commits a murder.   In The Skeleton in the Cupboard, Mrs. Monroe, Syl’s mother, has doubts about the impending wedding as Margaret’s lack of enthusiasm for her son becomes apparent.  And in The Fly in the Ointment, Lili, the Egyptian femme fatale at the center of the action, is admired, loved, and sometimes feared.  Lili, who identifies with Lilith, the mythic first wife of Adam in the Bible, is determined to help Margaret (and herself) by doing whatever it takes.

Ellis’s prose is wickedly superb as she sketches the portents against the wedding in brief, powerful sentences.  The wedding dress doesn’t fit; Syl embarrasses Margaret and her friends;  and her mother decides for her and Syl to cancel the honeymoon in Egypt because she thinks Margaret is ill.

Every observant phrase and word of dialogue fits Ellis’s spare prose as smoothly as Margaret’s wedding dress does not.

“It doesn’t fit,” I said with satisfaction.

My mother couldn’t deny it.  The wedding dress hung loosely on me and I appeared to myself, reflected in the cheval mirror, gratifying ridiculous.

“It looks silly,” I said more positively.

My mother irritatedly seized two handfuls of old brocade and dragged them behind my back.

“You’ve lost weight,” she observed in a tone which indicated she could have expected nothing else of me.  “It’ll have to be taken in at the seams.”

Already the tiny triumph had withered in me.  I thought the dead whiteness of the dress made me more of a corpse than a bride but hadn’t enough energy to infuriate my mother by telling her.

In the second book, the elderly Mrs. Monroe looks forward to Syl’s leaving home.  At the same time, she knows Margaret is even less suitable than Syl’s last fiancée.  And she dislikes Lili strongly, because she caught her late husband long ago having sex with Lili in the summer house.

There was nothing too terrible about my life, no need to turn away from it or pretend it was other than it was.  The truth is I was bored.  I had not been bred to suburbia.

And in the third book, we are both shocked and fascinated by Lili’s schemes.

I seemed to leave my body as a ginnee leaves a bottle and floats above all the people, invulnerable, omnipotent and–not to be trusted.  Everybody knows that the jann can’t be trusted.  They share with man the promise of salvation but they go round at night doing bad things.

summer-house-movie-poster-1994-1010265552There is a kind of unholy female trinity, mother, daughter, and jinn.

It was a real pleasure to read this:  Alice Thomas Ellis is one of my favorite writers.

And there is a very good movie version of The Summer House, starring Jeanne Moreau, Joan Plowright, and Julie Walters.

How the Humanities Wrecked My Life (Not Really)

One of my Latin gigs...

One of my Latin gigs…

When I was a student, I fell in love with the humanities.  All I wanted to do was read, day in, day out.

“Such a cliche!  You should go into engineering.  There aren’t any women in engineering,” my friend said.

She was very bright, multi-talented, and loosely affiliated with many political groups; she eventually moved West.  (Almost everyone in the Midwest moves West.)  But what did I care if there were or weren’t women in engineering?  I didn’t know what engineers did, but I hated math and I didn’t like those guys with the pens in their shirt pockets.  Engineers, med students, dental students…they didn’t read books.  (Okay, I’ve known some VERY bright engineers.)

And so I continued to read.  Dorothy Richardson’s Dawn’s Left Hand (Xeroxed, because I couldn’t get the book), Faulkner’s Light in August, Bleak House (the best book I’ve ever read)…

Most readers have some hobbies…like drinking, drugs, or listening to Lou Reed….but not I.  I liked three things in school:  reading, reading, and reading.  If asked about my illustrious career as a classics student, I would say, “I’m going to be a Civil Liberties lawyer.”  I didn’t mean it, because I didn’t want any kind of job at all, but as long as I pretended, they left me alone.

It seemed very unlikely that I would become a lawyer since I could barely tear myself away from reading  long enough to grace such required classes as Archery and “Rocks for Jocks” with my presence.  (And, yes, I believe I still have bruises from where the bow hit my hyper-extended arm.)

Though I would have preferred to live in the beautiful university town after finishing my master’s, I had to get a job.

And so I did what every woman in classics does.  I taught.

All around me women in classics were having teaching breakdowns.  They had Ph.D.’s and a series of one- or two-year Visiting Professor  jobs.  They hated it at Muncie State or Wayne State.  They hated it at any school with “State” in the title.  They had written their dissertations on beautiful, obscure subjects that would never be mentioned by their bosses at these schools.  We had all enjoyed teaching Latin as grad students at a University of,  but somehow these one-year gigs at X States were horrific.

And then I had, not a teaching breakdown, but a teaching boredom.  Those of us with M.A.’s taught at private high schools.  We had no idea how boring it would be to teach teenagers.  They are not always mentally there in the classroom.  They’re writing notes to their boyfriends or girlfriends, or they have a hacky-sack at the back of the room.  (You can ignore the notes, though occasionally you must swoop upon the hacky-sacks.)  The most beautiful and patient of my classics friends hit a student on the head with a catalogue.   Another of my friends was reduced to tears by a heckling student.  I love Latin and was a very conscientious and commonsensical teacher, but I couldn’t wait till 3:30 so I could leave.

I simply imagined my way into other jobs because I couldn’t bear to spend my life teaching. But was I financially successful?  No, all the jobs I have liked have been marginal, and I have always preferred part-time jobs.  None of my friends in classics made money unless they went back to school for practical degrees.

Oh, I’m sure the success stories are out there, but I’m talking about MY friends.  Kind, quiet, very smart women who went to the APA meetings and published papers nobody cared about.

They married, Dear Reader.  Their husbands made money, and they did something else.

Or, they married, Dear Reader.  Their husbands didn’t make money, but they managed somehow.

I married too, Dear Reader.

Here’s the thing, Dear Reader: We are meant to be in the humanities.  And the ones who are not in the humanities should pay us to be in the humanities so we can be their intermediaries in the humanities and they’ll miss us when we’re gone…

I really think so.

A Literary Vacation

The Bobbsey Twins at Oxford, or Kat on vacation?

The Bobbsey Twins at Oxford, or Kat on vacation?

Since I am a bibliophile, I idly planned a “literary vacation” in London.  Will I go sight-seeing?  Well… maybe.  Buckingham Palace? No, no, no.  Westminster Abbey?  God, no. I saw the wedding of William and Kate, though.

No, I don’t do much of anything when I visit cities.  My plans? I’M AN AMERICAN ON VACATION.  I’m going shopping.  Then I’ll sit in a tearoom and rest my feet, like the middle-aged heroine of a Monica Dickens novel.

My other plans are literary.  There are a couple of bookish things to do:   Visit the Dickens Museum (£8.00). Go on a Dickens walk (£10.)  Go to a bookstore (God knows how many £.).

Now I did make one solid literary plan.  I excitedly decided to go to one event at the Oxford Literary Festival.  Why not?  I love literary festivals.  But here’s the thing:  in the U.S. literary festivals and readings are free.  In the UK you have to pay.

“And that’s why America is a better country,” my husband said.  “Literature is free.”

“Only in a literary sense.”  It didn’t make sense, but I said it.

Here’s the thing.  If you go to a reading at Prairie Lights, it’s free.  If you go to a book festival, it’s free.  We’ve seen (for free) over the years:  Borges, Updike, Jane Smiley, Sherman Alexie, Nathan Englander, Joy Williams, Joyce Carol Oates (twice), Toni Morrison (twice), Derek Walcott, Grace Paley, Karen Thompson Walker, David Malouf, Galway Kinnell, Tom Wolfe, Marge Piercy, Jill McCorkle, Susan Choi, Margaret Atwood, and…I can’t begin to list them.

So, all right, I spent £11 for a ticket to an event in Oxford, and getting there will be a hassle.  I’ll get up at dawn.  I never do anything at dawn, though. It will cost me £24.10 to get to Oxford on the train, and then “the station is a 20-minute walk or five-minute taxi-drive from the festival. There is a taxi rank at the station.”  OK, so the taxi will cost…

So I’m doing all that to hear a writer talk for one hour!

Suppose I go see two more writers (though I haven’t heard of most of them).  Well, okay, so then I’ll pay $55.22 if I go to three events.  But my mind wanders at readings and interviews, so is it worth it?  One minute I’m listening, and the next I’m wondering if I can find a really good cup of coffee (not something ghastly in an urn, as one so often gets at university events).

So I’ll be paying $100, more really, and I should probably be touring London instead.

Anyway, am I on the same wave length with anyone at Oxford?  Hell, no.  I’m a Big Ten School grad, and proud of it.  I got an excellent education.   To me Oxford is Brideshead Revisited.   Gorgeous place, but maybe not for my vacation. 🙂

What I’m Reading Now: Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things

I knew I was supposed to have sympathy for the main character, the orphaned Jane, who was near my age and all but friendless and whose name I took for myself on the nights I wandered off on my own.  Yet it was the madwoman locked in the attic who held my interest and compassion.–Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things

I haven’t been blogging much about reading lately.

One word:  reading.

I go through phases where I read and read and read.

My husband wonders why I don’t write my blog.  Who is that woman curled up on the couch with a book?  He thinks I should write something more important than a blog–like what?–but he knows this is my routine.

museum of extraordinary things HoffmanCall it winter.  All I want to do is read.  And I am reading what is surely a contemporary women’s classic, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

Oddly, this got trashed in The New York Times Book Review. Katharine Weber, the author of Triangle, a novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, seems disgruntled by Hoffman’s fairy-tale-ish portrayal of the same events.

Weber writes:  “Hoffman’s depiction of the Triangle fire only vaguely conveys the pathos and urgency of that historic disaster, which took the lives of 146 garment workers in a matter of minutes.”

Hoffman has a dreamy, poetic style that is completely different from Weber’s solid realism–and I also admired Weber’s novel.    This is a strange instance, I think, of a bad pairing of a reviewer and a novel. How could there not be competitiveness here?

In The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Hoffman interweaves the stories of two protagonists, Coralie and Eddie, who eventually meet and fall in love.   Coralie is the daughter of the cruel owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a museum of “freaks” (Siamese twins, dwarfs, giants, and the butterfly woman, who has no arms and fake wings attached) and gruesome artefacts he has collected or fabricated.  He forces Coralie, who has webbed hands, to swim long distances in the Hudson River to prepare for a mermaid act in a tank.  She is kept at home,  so she will keep his secrets.  The only people she knows are his employees; especially influential are the housekeeper who has raised her, Maureen, who has burns on her face from acid; and Maureen’s lover, the Wolf Man, a man born with hair all over his body, who was imprisoned for years in an attic by his family in Richmond, Virginia, and finally escaped, inspired by Jane Eyre.

The other protagonist is Eddie Cohen, a Russian refugee, tailor’s son, and ex-factory worker who becomes an artistic photographer.  He is also a photojournalist who pushes past the barriers when the Triangle factory is on fire and women trapped in a locked room jump from the windows.  He eerily photographs this tragic scene.

At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds.  Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats.  But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed.  Their bodies were broken, dashed to their deaths right before those who stood by helpless.  A police officer near Eddie groaned and turned away, his head in his hands, for there was no way to save those who were already falling and no way to come to terms with the reality before them.  The life nets being held out were worthless; bodies soared right through the netting.  Many of the desperate leapers barreled onward, through the glass cellar lights embedded in the sidewalk, to the basements below.

Eddie and Coralie meet because of a drowned woman who was employed at the Triangle factory and mysteriously not among the survivors or the dead.  This is a kind of mystery, and I don’t want to give away too much.  (Anyway, I’m not finished with the book yet.)

At her best, Hoffman writes gorgeously.  The depth of her research about Coney Island and the Triangle factory, combined with her lyricism, makes this one of her most fascinating novels.  Before this, my favorite was Second Nature, about a suburban woman who rescues a man raised by wolves.

Don’t be surprised if this makes my Best of 2014 list (see sidebar).   It’s one of those occasions when picking up a best-seller is worth it.