A 10-Minute Post: Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies

Two Serious Ladies Jane BowlesTen minutes is all I have tonight!  But I do want to catch up on writing about books.

Ecco recently reissued a paperback edition of Jane Bowles’ novel, Two Serious Ladies, which was first published in 1943.  The blurb on the cover is by Tennessee Williams:  “My favorite book.  I can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic.”

Are you in?

I loved her husband Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, and, as is so often the case, tI thought I might like the wife’s novel if I liked the husband’s, though that hypothesis is illogical.

In this case, could two styles be more different?

I do want to reread this, because there is so much there.

Jane Bowles’ short elegant novel is comically transcendent, weird, preposterous, and laced with Catholic symbolism.  She wrote very intensely about freakish characters who certainly do not inhabit my world.  According to the introduction by Claire Messud,  Bowles envied Carson McCullers, and though I consider McCullers a much better writer, certainly one can see the similarity in their obsession with grotesque characters.

Two Serious Ladies is essentially two short stories, slapped together a bit rawly, though Bowles’ style is elegantly minimialist.  The two serious heroines find self-knowledge through a downward spiralling through friendships with oddballs and dropouts,  sex and prostitution.  Christina Goering, a wealthy, eccentric, young woman, was so isolated as a child that, when she finally had a chance to play, she created a game called “I forgive you for all your sins.” As an adult, she supports a very odd menage consisting of her companion, Miss Gamelyn, Arnold, a chubby realtor, and, for a while, Arnold’s retired father.

When she first meets Miss Gameylyn, she asks if she has a guardian angel.  Miss Gamelyn doesn’t know what she means.

“Yours might be luck; mine is money.  Most people have a guardian angel; that’s why they move slowly.”

Her spiritual quest takes her from her parents’ enormous house to a small cold house with no central heating.  Miss Gamelyn thinks the move is ridiculous, but to Christina the move is necessary.  Then she begins to take trips alone at night into a nearby town, where she has sex with a stranger.

Her friend, Mrs. Copperfield, a silly woman who lacks Christina’s intensity, takes a trip with her husband to Panama. They stay in a hotel in the Red Light District, because Mr. Copperfield is cheap, and after she befriends a hotel owner and a teenage prostitute in another Red Light District, she leaves her husband.

By the end of the novel, Mrs. Copperfield is a drunk and so obsessed with her prostitute friend that she is almost sick.

I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.  I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Yes, my ten minutes is up.

This is a fascinating novel.

The Wedding

Call It Marriage pulp romance fictionMy cousin the librarian is getting married.

“Are you sure?” we keep saying to her.

It isn’t the best idea we’ve ever heard.

He’s gay.

She had a difficult year in 2013.  If you’ve ever been involved with someone with a substance abuse problem, you’ll know how hellish it is, and her boyfriend had a coke problem.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that she fell in love with the next handsome, charming man she met, a man with a degree in art and a successful law practice, whom we liked SO MUCH.  We didn’t know he was gay until a gay friend told us of his reputation.  Why he dated my cousin I’ll never know:  gay marriage is legal here, but it may take a few hundred years to detox some of the formerly-closeted, who, if they lived like The Boys in the Band, have a few issues.

And if I don’t sound as pro-gay as I should, it’s because a lesbian-pedophile junior high teacher in her 30s took me to a movie when I was a teenage hippie girl. She had lent me a book by Anne Sexton, and then called me up and sobbed on the phone that she was gay, and then insisted on taking me to a movie.  She hissed at an affectionate heterosexual couple in the audience, apparently because she couldn’t make out with me in public, since I was a minor and all, and they could make out.   The woman walked up the aisle and angrily said she was married and could kiss her husband if she wanted to–I couldn’t have agreed more.

But back to my cousin.

There were many tears.

And now she is marrying ANOTHER gay man.

They are getting married by a justice of the peace, then throwing a big party.  Their goal?  To buy a very big house in the suburbs.

“How will you feel when he brings home a man?”

“We’re just roommates who want financial security,” she said cheerily

A couple of my other cousins and I have tried to talk to her.  We’re all fond of her, because we “raised” her, as we say, since we’re almost old enough to be her aunts.

“You seem so depressed,” one of my cousins told her bluntly.

“I want a home and a husband.  Anyway, all men are gay.”

A few are heterosexual.

Although marriage isn’t about romance after a while, marrying without love–what is that about?

If we’re all going to end up like characters in John Updike novels, shouldn’t we at least have the romance?

Book-Buying, No Book-Buying, & Comments, No Comments

In Lydia Davis’s “Freelance” column in the TLS (April 23, 2014), she writes of her book-buying habits,

I would rather buy my books second-hand when I can, not only to take my trade to the independent dealers, but, more generally, like the grandmother in Swann’s Way, because I prefer something old to something new, when I have a choice–something worn and with character, and preferably, in the case of books, previously owned by another reader who has, if I’m lucky, identified him- or herself on a blank page of the volume.

Although I often buy new editions of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte–one cannot have too many copies of Emma or Villette–I find out-of-print hardcovers and old-fashioned Penguins equally satisfying.

As independent bookstores fail, or, that consummate sign of failure, display their shrinking stock with the covers facing out,  I seek books more often at used bookstores.  Whether I’m browsing at Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha or Skoob in London, I find out-of-print Loebs, treasures by H. G. Wells, or, indeed, even Lydia Davis’ translation of Swann’s Way.  And, though I don’t feel like the grandmother in Swann’s Way yet, I love not only old books, “worn and with character,” but books written in the previous centuries.

At our house, used books make sense because we so often read classics and out-of-print books. If I were on Twitter, I would tweet that this is the Year of the Nineteenth-Century Woman.  (Everything I’ve read lately is either by or about a 19th-century woman.) Such is the power of social media that popular bloggers and tweeters often convince others to read along.  (Often I try to read along, but at my age it is often a reread along, so I lose interest.)

My husband never reads what anybody else reads unless it wins an award.    We have tried  in vain to organize a reading of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo;  we both agree Conrad is great.  But now it looks as though it will be Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch instead, because he has heard it is the book of the year.   I am still waiting for our discussion of Book II of Caesar’s Gallic Wars–we’re all Latinists here–which I finished in 2009.

So let’s just say if we announce we will read a certain book, we are likely to break that promise.

I’m a middlebrow Midwesterner, and my habits reflect the habits of other middlebrow Midwesterners.  In our small city, online shopping is a godsend, though I’m very confused, as many are, about the consequences of shopping at Amazon:  have I somehow brought the book down by ordering online?  Does it matter where I shop now that Amazon (or possibly Jeff Bezos) owns Abebooks, The Book Depository, GoodReads, and The Washington Post?

Whatever happened to my hipster values?

At the moment I’m not buying new books.  I’ve resolved to read the 1,000 or so unread books on my shelves.  Ha!  We’ll see.


My friend Ellen says she is sorry I no longer allow comments at my blog.

At the moment I am experimenting with being “off” social media.  Commenting, like tweeting, is  often about trying to be interesting, or mischievous, or to link readers to their own blogs.  In theory, turning off the comments means I can be grittier in my posts because I’ll worry less about reactions.  Occasionally I have found myself back-pedaling in comments, trying to be a 1950s hostess and make all my readers comfortable.

I am, however, very grateful to all the commenters who recommended things for me to do in London.  I could not have found those bookstores in guidebooks.

Taking a break form social media gives me more time to do outdoors things in the spring and summer.

I’ve got to get in shape for next week’s bike ride…

Bicycling Chronicle with Coffee, # 1: Indianola, Iowa


Salem Court, Indianola

The 11-mile Summerset trail from Carlisle to Indianola in Iowa is perhaps the easiest trail we ride.

This converted rail trail is smooth and mostly flat, and it is pretty in a demure Iowa way.  You ride on the prairie past a marsh (frogs croaking), Summerset Park (a small park which has a lake where people fish), and a private menagerie (llama, goats, and ponies),  and then uphill perhaps three miles.  The good thing?  On the way back it’s downhill.

I was so happy to be out in the sunshine, though it was very windy, and it was horribly dusty every time a car passed.  Still, it’s green and the trees are budding, and it should be greener soon, since rain is expected all next week.  The rainy days have made me think of Ray Bradbury’s famous short story, “All Summer  in a Day,” about rain on Venus and a rare day of sunshine.   I love light, and once, when I was in the hospital, I threatened to yank out the IV if they didn’t allow me to go outside. So there I was in my hospital gown with a coat thrown over it, and the damned IV on a pole.

Uncommon Grounds IndianolaBack to the trail…At the top of the hill you’re in Indianola, a small, pretty town with a lot of green space.   Our favorite hangout is Uncommon Grounds, a coffeehouse and restaurant downtown on the square.  We got there ten minutes before closing, and  were in time to grab scrumptious muffins (one double chocolate and one blueberry ) and coffee.

We devoured our muffins at Salem Court, an alley which has been converted into a lovely, bright space where you can have lunch or just hang out, furnished with very comfortable iron tables, chairs, and benches, and its walls decorated with charming murals that represent the town’s history.

What else is there to do in Indianola?

It’s mostly a place to enjoy the quiet, but you can also

1.  Eat at the Crouse Cafe, which has delicious homestyle specials:  I have loved the rigatoni covered thickly with cheese (yum!) and my husband recommends the chicken and noodles.

2.  Visit Lake Ahquabi State Park, a gorgeous 770-acre state spark with very tough, hilly hiking trails and many picnic sites.  You can take your camping equipment on your bike–it’s been done!–and enjoy the beauty.

3.  Strongly recommended by others (I have not yet been there) is Summerset Winery, which is a few miles off the trail approximately halfway between Carlisle and Indianola.  In Iowa, there are bars on the trails, but the winery adds an elegant note, and has concerts every Sunday afternoon.

In reality all we do is ride our bikes and have coffee, but the aforementioned are for variety.

Please Don’t Make Me Go to the Opera!

"Spokes and Leaves Full" by Mia Nilsson

“Spokes and Leaves Full” by Mia Nilsson

Don’t make me say it.

Eric Clapton is as good as it gets.

I don’t want to go to Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutti, the Met Live in HD.

I don’t want to be indoors.

I’d rather listen to Eric Clapton’s “Let It Rain” on the boombox in our rainy back yard.

Let it rain, let it rain,
Let your love rain down on me.
Let it rain, let it rain,
Let it rain, rain, rain.

My cousin, who is visiting from Montana, complained about the rain while she watched The Talk.

“When the f—k will it stop?”

It’s not that I didn’t wonder that.

But I had to get out of there.

I thought she’d be better off biking with me than listening to Sharon Osborne chatting with Steven Tyler.

He’s not Eric Clapton.

A little rain.  So what?

I would bicycle to the library, pick out a Jane Austen DVD (I just read Northanger Abbey), get back on my bike, and spend the rest of the afternoon watching the movie.

Yeah, a little rain.

It was cold!  The wind ripped through my L. L. Bean rain jacket.

I pedaled on.

The library was closed.  I was stunned.   Honestly, this is the biggest city in the state, and I swear the branch library is closed more often than it’s open.

I decided to bike to the suburban library, maybe three miles away.

My hands were so cold that I pulled the sleeves over them like gloves.

After I checked out my books and movie, I drank coffee in the cafe.

When the rain stopped,  I biked as fast as I could and had almost warmed up when it started raining again.

My cousin was watching Ellen.

“Time for Northanger Abbey.

“No no no no!  I hate Jane Austen!”

“But if we watch Austen all weekend we won’t have to go to Cosi fan Tutti.

“Educational TV?” she guessed.

Certain family members like to go to every Met HD opera.

Darn, looks like we’re busy!

Austen or Cosi?  It’s a no-brainer.

There’s much more time outdoors with Austen.

The 20-Minute Catch-Up Blog: Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave o'farrellThis is the first of a series of 20-minute blogs.

Who has time to blog in the springtime?

Usually I do, but I’m revamping my blog and my online life.  Less time online, more life!

It is beautiful outside, I am here and there on my bike, and I don’t do much writing except in the notebook I keep in my bike pannier.  The last long entry was a list of bookstores in London and their addresses.

I’m sentimental about keeping the list!

But I have been reading.  I started Maggie O’Farrell’s superb novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, on a plane last month, then forgot about it (it’s on my Nook, which makes it easy to forget), and finally finished it. I chose it on the basis of the title, and for once I chose well.   This graceful writer won a Betty Trask Award for her first novel, After You’d Gone, a Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us, and the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

Set during the heat wave of July 1976, Instructions for a Heatwave describes three siblings dripping with sweat and anxiety in the heat wave after their elderly father disappears.

O’Farrell’s lyrical writing is characterized by detailed descriptions of domestic life, vivid similes, repetition, and a wealth of adjectives and present participles.  Writers don’t seem to use participles anymore so it took a while to get used to O’Farrell’s style: in the first two paragraphs alone, we have the participles “propelling,” “filling,” “pushing,” “yanking,” “grimacing,” “scorching,” “steaming,” and “reminding.”

O’Farrell draws you into the story with her beautiful prose, and the participles add a rhythim.

The heat, the heat.  It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs.  It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome:  it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.  The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

In the opening chapter, Gretta is making soda bread, which she has done three times a week since her marriage. When her retired husband, Robert, goes out for a walk, she barely notices.  When he doesn’t come home, she doesn’t know what to do.  Soon her children are drawn into the scene. Although they are steady with their mother, all have their own worries.

Michael is an unhappy husband and father of two children:  he  dropped out of a Ph.D. program when he got Claire pregnant, and works as a teacher  with no hope of finishing his Ph.D.   Claire is becoming more and more remote as she rediscovers herself through Open University courses.

Then there is the good, best-loved daughter, Monica, whose life revolves around the two bratty children of her husband from another marriage. Her first husband left her after she had a miscarriage which is more complicated than I will reveal here.

The most interesting character by far is the youngest sister, Aoife, who has an unidentified learning disability (dyslexia?).  She works as a photographer’s assistant in New York and has desperately disguised the fact that she can’t read.  She has stuck bills, contracts, and check into a folder, hoping someone will help her.

I admired this novel very much, and though the poeticism is not always to my taste, O’Farrell is a bold, very accomplished writer.

Stand-up Comedy

I’m not ready to do stand-up comedy.

My delivery sucks.

But yesterday I was picking up on a strange “anybody-can-go-to-Oxford” vibe at The Guardian.

The Guardian book page is dumbing down to advocate genre fiction.

And Oxford alumnae are facilitating the process.

For instance, Elizabeth Edmondson, an Oxford-educated author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, wrote that Jane Austen did not write literary fiction and that her books today would not be considered literary fiction.

If you or I had written that, it would have been dismissed as nonsense, because it is nonsense, and because we went to the University of Mississippi, not Oxford.

Actually, we didn’t go to the University of Mississippi, but it is in Oxford, Mississippi.  (Get it?)

Edmondson’s was one of four articles adapted from speeches by Oxford alumnae who participated recently in a genre fiction debate at the Oxford Literary Festival.  The debate was chaired by Claire Armistead, the Guardian’s literary editor and an Oxford alumna.

Heavens, you can’t publish such egregious shit in the U.S. unless you sleep with someone.  Those Oxford girls have it easy!

Two of the four articles on genre vs. literary were good, one was hugely condescending, and Edmondson’s was just batty.  So I’m not saying all Oxford alumnae are idiots, just half of them.

Couldn’t the standards at the book page be raised again?

No, because it is about selling papers.