Bicycling on the Chichaqua Valley Trail

Chichaqua Valley Trail

Chichaqua Valley Trail

I bicycled 70 miles this week.

That’s nothing for some people.  Some people do that in a day.

But I am no longer a long-distance rider, as I was when, bored and anxious about turning 30, I pedaled with my athletic husband on long camping trips.  (It was so tiring I crashed in the tent at 6 p.m.)  I am slow, but I  have excellent endurance, and I still bicycle for transportation.

Today we rode 27 miles  on the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a 20-mile rail-t0-trail between Bondurant and Baxter, Iowa.  We started in Valeria (population:  57), a tiny settlement 13.5 miles from Baxter.

This used to be one of our favorite trails, so lovely and scenic, through woods, prairie, wetlands, and farmland, but in 2011 flooding destroyed some bridges and washed out 12 sections from the trail.

It has never been quite the same.

It cost nearly a million dollars to repair, and they had trouble getting the money from FEMA.  The bridges are rebuilt, and the trail is still a very nice ride, but the pavement could use some work.  The trail also needs some good PR.

Take the five-mile section between Mingo (population: 300) and Ira (population: 58):   it is now mainly gravel, with a few strips of rough pebbles molded into the tar (cheap asphalt?).  It is very difficult to ride on gravel.  Fortunately, the rest of the trail is asphalt.

Ira tries to be welcoming, though:    in a picnic shelter, there is a Free LIttle Library, a tiny freezer turned into a bookcase.   Open the door, and you find mysteries and science fiction.  I was so surprised!

The trail from Ira to Baxter (population:  1,096) was as beautiful as we remembered it:  a long, but not steep, hill, everything very green, corn and soybeans just beginning to grow, some scrubby trees, lots of cows.

Parts of the trail are very pretty.  If you start in Bondurant, you glide down a two- or three-mile hill in the woods.  Of course then you have to go back uphill.

We got soaked in the rain coming back from Baxter, but it wasn’t a long downpour, thank God.  Our clothes dried by the time we got back to Valeria.

We saw few bicyclists.  Perhaps they got out of the habit of riding the Chichaqua  during the 16 months it took to repair it after the flood.  Perhaps they’re on the High Trestle Trail, with the lit-up pedestrian bridge, not to mention the Flat Tyre Lounge and restaurants along the trail at Madrid.

The Chichaqua is definitely one of the nicest trails in Iowa, smooth asphalt except for the five miles of gravel.  (I hope they resurface that.)

The Future of Self-Publishing: I Double-Dare Ya!

woman on computerSelf-publishing on the internet is undermining publishing, the professional writers say.

Sometimes I think this is nonsense.  Sometimes I think there’s something in it.

In 2010, Garrison Keillor wrote a comical op/ed piece for the New York Times  speculating on the end of book-publishing. He believes that his own child, with her skimming, surfing, and writing on little screens, is hastening the death of publishing.

And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

First, let me say I am a friend of the book. A very good friend of the book. I have spent my life reading books.  I also enjoy reading book reviews, book news, and book blogs.

But I recently took a week off from reading blogs, and was disconcerted when I returned to them.  I was dismayed by the poor quality of the writing at most. And I wondered if our bloggers’ mutual admiration society is a shadow world of the book review publishing world (almost certainly), or if it is a populist short cut to coaxing us to accept the second best (possibly).

Bring down the level of education (get people into business, not liberal arts), close down the publishers and newspapers, get everybody hooked on the internet (the giant conspiracy to interrupt our attention span by click-click-click), and people will stay inside and not interfere with the government clap-down on privacy.  There are no doubt grim days indoors ahead with the advent of climate change.

I am not completely sure that isn’t the plot.  Heavens, I read a lot of science fiction.  I read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar only last year.

Naturally, I have to stand with the bloggers here, not with the traditional writers.  The newspapers are shutting down.  Some book review publications and many book bloggers are, more or less, holding the line.  Many know the difference between good and bad books.  Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia?  A classic.  TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos?  Mediocre.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I write informally about books here.  I am not reviewing books. But book reviews, even in book review publications, can be scatty.  I’ve decided to read award-winning books and finalists again, because the judges are at least recommending books above a certain line (at least usually).

But shouldn’t I revamp my blog and write more about books?  No. It is a small one-person operation.The book pieces I write here, even though they’re informal, take time.

But it’s wearisome predicting the future of books, isn’t it?  I wonder if Garrison Keillor is as exhausted by it as I am.

Summer Reading: Books Found on the Porch

the death of virgil by brochSince the summer of 2010, I have promised myself that I will read Hermann Broch’s modernist classic, Death of Virgil, a gorgeously-written stream-of-consciousness narrative about the last hours of Virgil’s life at Brundisium.

Oh, greatness of human diversity, amplitude of human yearning! And floating in his awareness, floatingly borne aloft over the shouting heads, floatingly borne aloft over the festival fires of uproarious Brundisium, floating, held high in the undulant movement of the present, he experienced the boundless contraction of…

I’ve given this four tries.  Starting over yet again from the beginning is pointless–I have already done that–so I plan simply to read on. Summary so far:   1.  Virgil is sick.  2.  He is carried off the ship.  (Nothing happens.)

There are also the Review Copies on the Porch. I no longer accept review copies (I have a backlog of books, people! and few of them are new), but I weeded the box on the porch and found three to read this summer (two from 2012).

The Memory Garden by Mary Rickert1.  Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden (2014). The publicist compared this to Alice Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, one of my favorite books this year.  According to the press release, “16-year-old Bay Singer never believed the local rumors that her mother, Nan, is a witch. But when two of Nan’s friends from the past appear at the door, their reunion summons haunting memories: of an oath the three women took years ago, a secret they promised to protect, and the small town whose distrust has already ruined more than one life.”  By the way, the author is a Nebula Award nominee and a multiple World Fantasy Award winner for short fiction.

The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant2.  Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer (2012).  According to the press release, “a suspenseful, modern gothic tale of a young American couple who win a pub on the southernmost tip of Ireland.”

3.  Adam McComber’s The White Forest (2012).  Another fantasy novel.  According to the press release, “Jane Silverlake is a lonely young woman with a strange, inexplicable gift–ever since her mother’s mysterious death she has been able to hear the souls of man-made objects.  The frightening sounds from the artifacts in her father’s crumbling estate…plague her constantly, but she finds solace in the peaceful silence she hears from nature.”

I hope I’ll enjoy one or two or all of these.  We’ll see.

Maleficent in London

maleficent-trailerWhen I saw the preview for Maleficent, I felt akin to Angelina Jolie.

She plays the snotty bad fairy in a new Disney movie of “Sleeping Beauty.” Only I look a lot more like the fairy-tale hag, as I tell my husband.

He doesn’t know the story.

I will explain shortly why I am like the snotty evil fairy.

When I was in London, I called my husband every night to chat mostly about the funny or charming things:  the euphoria of Starbucks after quaffing bitter “Americanos”at Costa; wondering if I’d been unfaithful to the TLS (I’m a subscriber) by shopping at the London Review of Books shop; my accidental walk by the beautiful Regents Park when I got lost on the way to a literary event; always getting a seat on the tube; and admitting that, after several rapt hours in the National Gallery, I had actually yawned over the portraits of the Tudors at the National Portrait Gallery. (Art burnout.)

But here’s why I am Maleficent.

On the Monday after my arrival, I discovered I had not been invited to a Virago group meet-up in London.

“I feel like the evil fairy,” I wailed to my husb.

He didn’t know what a Virago group was.

“You know.  The green books.”

“What are you doing in a fan group?”

Some months ago, I joined the Virago group at LibraryThing.  I have perhaps visited it five times.  I have perhaps posted twice.

The group had had a big blow-out party at Foyles for another American Virago fan who was in London at the exact same time I was.

Well, they met at Foyles anyway.  And then they went to Oxfam, the London Review of Books shop, etc.

I wondered, Was I not absolutely clear about the fact that I was coming to London?

I blogged about it so often.

Well, it’s water over the dam.

I went to LibraryThing recently and discovered a folder about the London trip, so presumably I would have been allowed to attend had I known about the event.

Over the years I’ve met so many kind American friends from online groups, and I spent a very pleasant couple of days  with the lovely Ellen Moody in D.C. last fall.

I’m happy to have coffee with any of my online friends next time you’re in town.

I’m only Maleficent in London.

D. J. Taylor’s Trespass

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor

D. J. Taylor, an English writer, is very popular with American critics.

He was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize for his 2011 novel, Derby Day.  He also won the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

I just finished Taylor’s brilliant 1999 novel, Trespass, which is set in the 1950s through the ’70s, and tells the story of the rise and fall of George Chell, the hero and narrator.

Or is he the hero?

TresspassHe has lived “a vagrant life” since his eccentric uncle’s financial crash six years ago. He is, with the help of a freelance writer, writing a book about his uncle, who died shortly after the collapse of his financial empire.  As he muses on his uncle’s past, he also analyzes his own rise from working-class Norwich to the City in London to the financial crash. The past and present chapters alternate, usually with a Q&A chapter between.

In the prologue he tells us:

Some instinct took me east.  Not to Norwich, where I’d grown up–which would have been a rather symbolic admission of defeat–but to the coast.  Enough money had survived the bust to allow me a competence, and for a couple of years I lived a frugal, solitary kind of life in bed and breakfasts and cheap flats.  The oddest things kept me in one place or sent me on my way again:  the way a cat sauntered across a farmyard in the early sun; the slant of a line of trees from a railway embankment.  I couldn’t explain these sensations, or the contradictions they produced–the wish to settle down countered by the need to be moving on…

George’s sense of place is vivid:   place defines his struggles with the  English class system (about which I am certainly not qualified to write).   During his childhood in West Earlham, his single mother, suspicious of church, school, and most of their neighbors, hates to dole out money for gym shoes, believes that charitable societies are a racket, and thinks tinned salmon is the thing to serve to her friends at high tea:  crab is ostentatious, and frankfurters are simply low-class.  His mother, who, George tells us, has no sense of narrative, will tell George nothing about his father until he reads a sentimental novel and asks her when “Father” will return.  (She says he’s dead.)  She has nothing to say about his uncle, either.

After George loses his first job at a newsstand, he is banished to London, where he works indifferently at various numbers-crunching jobs.  In his spare time, he reads a lot and explores London with a friend.  But his sex life with various women is terrible:  he insists on marrying Carole, a woman with whom he fights constantly and is obviously incompatible. He describes their honeymoon as “a fortnight of low-spirited sight-seeing and dismal semi-intimacy.”  (All too easy to imagine, isn’t it?)

His life changes dramatically when his uncle, a former toy salesman, becomes a City tycoon through a complicated financial scheme and takes George under his wing.  George doesn’t quite understand the scheme, nor does anyone else.  His funny, charming uncle is faintly reminiscent of chacracters in H. G. Wells’ comedies about class and money.

His uncle says,

What do people want, George?  Money, of course.  But they want security as well.  Now how do you get security?”  And he paused for a moment to look reprovingly above the tops of his eyeglasses.  “In my day it used to be savings. But what good’s savings with all this inflation, eh?….You want a guarantee on your money, that’s what you want.”

George lives very high for a while. He is briefly entangled with the very upper-class Helena, a lovely, rich ditz, who is very, very funny.   Later, after the crash, he befriends the freelance writer, Frances, who helps him with the book:  an eccentric, well-educated woman, she conducts many interviews on the phone, reads books about Iris Murdoch, and is obsessed with Mr. Archer, the strange owner of the hotel.  But romance is not a possibility.

It is a stunning, very dark, often comical, novel about “trespassing” in different strata of society.  Taylor’s style reminds me of Anthony Powell’s, laced with H. G. Wells.

P.S. In recent months, I have blogged about four of Taylor’s brilliant novels, The Windsor Faction, a counterfactual history about what might have happened in World War II if Edward VIII had not abdicated the throne in the 1930s; Derby Day, a historical novel about the Epsom Derby; Kept, a kind of prequel to Derby Day; and Ask Alice, the story of a Midwesterner who runs away to England and becomes an actress and society hostess.  Taylor is an eclectic writer:  his style is flawless, and it changes with genre;  he can write Victorian English in his pseudo-Victorian novels, or lucid contemporary English.



The Picnic by James Tissot

The Picnic by James Tissot

It’s the long weekend.  It’s the picnic.  I had to make potato salad, because there were complaints last year about the readymade stuff from the HyVee.

This year I made the mayonnaise.  Just the Joy of Cooking recipe.

This is my brain on mayonnaise.

What will get my brain working?

The TLS?

The TLS is definitely brainy.

No matter how many reviews I read at the TLS, I cannot keep up with the books.

I read Nigel Smith’s review of John Leonard’s Faithful Laborers:  A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667–1970 with fascination. I love Milton so much that I took two Milton classes, one as an undergraduate and another just for fun 20 years later.  Although I prefer Paradise Regained to Paradise Lost, I am quite sure I would appreciate Leonard’s “comparative, analytical summary of the chief critical concerns and debates that Paradise Lost has generated since its first appearance in print in 1667.”

But I still haven’t gotten around to that volume of Thomas Hardy’s letters I also read about in the TLS.

Read Hardy first.  I have more in common with him

Sometimes there is a “fun” article:  recently Peter Stothard, the TLS editor and author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, wrote a light, entertaining piece about the classicist Helen Morales’ Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip through Tennessee.  (Dollywood is the Dolly Parton theme park.)

The New Yorker is brainy, but not that brainy.  I don’t read James Wood:  sorry, I’m not interested in what he writes.  Often female critics write about the kind of middlebrow fiction so popular with many of the English bloggers.  (That, I think, is what female critics are allowed to review.)  In 2005, Cynthia Zarin wrote a long article about E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady books.  Immediately all of the women in my family read these charming books and loved them.

How about The American Scholar?  There are some charming essays, and there are some very serious essays.  Priscilla Long’s “What Killed My Sister?” explores the tragic death of her beautiful, talented sister from schizophrenia.  Did you know that people born in flu season are more likely to develop schizophrenia?  Or that a parasite in cats’ feces, Toxoplasma gondii, can cause it?


And so I’ve read some very smart stuff online.

And now I’m off to read Thomas Hardy’s letters, or, more probably, something by Laurie Colwin.

Doris Lessing’s Stories

Doris Lessing Stories everymanDoris Lessing, one of the best writers of the 20th century, was a bold, brilliant chronicler of women’s lives. Many years ago, when I first read The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, the fifth in her Children of Violence series, I felt, absurdly, that she was writing my life.

Last fall l read half of Doris Lessing’s Stories, a 655-page collection of short stories with an introduction by Margaret Drabble. Although I prefer the later stories, I also admire an early story, “The Other Woman,” about a working-class woman, Rose, who works first in a bakery, then in a munitions factory during World War II.  Her pleasure in her work, and her obsessive care of the basement apartment she shares with her father are more important to her than her relationships with men.  Then the house is bombed, and she becomes involved with a married man.  But there is a twist.

Lessing’s later stories are more eclectic, and many are perfectly-crafted,  Some of the stories in the latter half of the book anticipate such science fiction novels as Memoirs of a Survivor, the Shikasta series, and Mara and Dann.

In “Two Potters,” the narrator knows a potter, Mary Tawnish, who never dreams.  The narrator begins to dream about another potter in a village on a great plain of reddish earth “that looked as if it were hastily moulded by a great hand out of wet clay, allowed to dry, and left there.”  After she writes a letter to Mary about her dream, an interactive relationship between the dreams and Mary’s work develops. In each successive dream, the narrator sees the settlement and the potter’s work develop and change.   Finally, Mary makes a clay animal for the potter in the dream world.

In “Report on the Threatened City,” a group of intelligent aliens observe that a city on an Earth-like planet is “due for destruction.”  They visit the planet to warn the people, and make the horrifying discovery that they already know, and have known for years of the impending disaster, but have done nothing, and will do nothing, about it.  Stating the problem is enough for them.

One of the most famous stories, “To Room Nineteen,” is  the story of a suicide.  It begins:  “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence:  the Rawlingses’ marriage was grounded in intelligence.”  Matthew Rawlings works; Susan stays home and raises the children. Over the years, she loses herself; when her children are all in school, she does not go back to work as an illustrator for an advertising firm.  Instead, she rents a hotel room, Room Nineteen, under the name of Mrs. Jones.

What did she do in the room?  Why, nothing at all.  From the chair, when it had rested her, she went to the window, stretching her arms, smiling, treasuring her anonymity, to look out.  She was no longer Susan Rawlings, mother of four, wife of Matthew, employer of Mrs. Parkes and of Sophie Traub, with these and those relations with friends, schoolteachers, tradesmen.  She no longer was mistress of the big white house and garden, owning clothes suitable for this and that activity or occasion.  She was Mrs. Jones, and she was alone, and she had no past and no future.

In “An Old Woman and Her Cat,” Hetty, a widow with four adult children who ignore her in her middle age, grows to love a cat more than any human being.  She deals in second-hand clothes, which she buys from householders and sells  to owners of shops and stalls.  Her beloved cat is her best friend.   In old age she moves to a room in a house.  When it is scheduled for demolition, she and the cat begin to live in abandoned houses. Finally she becomes desperately ill.   This is a terrifying story of something that could happen to any of us.

This is a fascinating collection of short stories, and it is always a pleasure to read Lessing.

A Kind of Narcissism: Trigger Warnings Defining the Curriculum

A decade ago, a professor told me she was no longer able to teach Aristophanes’ Lysistrata without getting student complaints.

I was skeptical.

I doubted that any student at a Big Ten school would be shocked by the f-word in Lysistrata, a comedy in which the women protest war by refusing to have sex with their husbands.  This particular Big Ten school, of which I am very fond, has a reputation as a party school.  Trauma from reading Aristophanes doesn’t go with the Jell-O shots.

But I just read Jennifer Medina’s article in The New York Times, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” in which she says that students at The University of California in Santa Barbara, Oberlin, Rutgers, and other schools are demanding “trigger warnings” if books, movies, or other material in a classroom “might upset them or…cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

On the trigger warning list are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

My guess is that students who demand trigger warnings are not readers.  When I was an adjunct, students read very little, and when they did it tended to be violent thrillers or mysteries.  (Nowadays it might be Fifty Shades of Grey.) Presumably the Greek tragedians, the Roman poet Catullus, Dante, Christopher Marlowe, Rabelais, Henry Fielding, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Nadine Gordimer, Harold Pinter, and Doris Lessing are no more graphic than the students’ usual reading material, and yet these would doubtless come with trigger warnings.

Isn’t it narcissistic of students to assume that a novel or poem that deals with, say, war or rape will send them spiraling into trauma?  Literature challenges readers and illuminates subjects outside  their comfort zone, but can also be surprisingly therapeutic. Antigone has been taught to vets with great success, I understand, and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, a contemporary version of Antigone, set in Afghanistan, would certainly fit on that syllabus.

A  group of my students in an elementary writing class appreciated Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Parker’s Back,” in which a down-and-out man with a dishonorable discharge from the Navy gets a tattoo of a Byzantine Christ on his back to woo a Christian woman.  In retrospect, the grotesque details in this story would have required a trigger warning, but they actually sympathized with the bizarre main character.  And, honestly, they didn’t need a trigger warning.

Medina quotes Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates free speech, as saying,

Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives. It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”

The students’ demands are not, as they were in the ’60s and ’70s, to read the literature of war because they were protesting the war and wanted to understand the history of war, or to read more books by women because they wanted to read great literature about women’s experience.  “Trigger warnings” restrict the students’ universe rather than expand it. And one can’t help but cynically feel that if a student doesn’t want to be bothered with reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, he or she might protest.  (Of course, many of these students are sincere.)

We read literature for the style, craftsmanship,  content, and emotional satisfaction.  Studies show reading fiction helps people feel empathy.

Teaching is always hard, but I now understand why my friend said she couldn’t teach Lysistrata.

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael, & Three Literary Links

Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart

On May 9, the novelist Mary Stewart, author of romantic suspense novels and an Arthur trilogy, died.

All my life I’ve enjoyed her elegant Gothic novels, as we called this genre when I was growing up in the ’60s: Stewart’s are probably the smartest Gothic mysteries ever written.   Her charming, witty, well-educated heroines quote Shakespeare, Milton, and Sophocles as they travel around Corfu, Austria, France, Greece, Crete, Damascus, and other exotic locations.  These intrepid narrator-heroines, who were my role models when I was a child, all have jobs: they are actresses, veterinarians, and Latin teachers on vacation. They stumble upon a mystery and fall in love with the hero or villain or both, and once they’ve distinguished which is which, they risk their lives to  find clues and solve the crime committed by the smugglers, thieves, or killers..  And they’re all so cool about it.

Mary Stewart My Brother MichaelAs an homage I decided to reread one of her early novels, My Brother Michael, not because it’s the best, but because the heroine, Camilla, is a Latin teacher.  Is it possible  Camilla inspired me to pursue classics?

As the novel opens, Camilla is alone in Athens in a cafe writing a letter to the woman who was supposed to travel with her (she broke a limb).  She writes,

“Nothing ever happens to me.”

That said, things begin to happen.

At the cafe, a strange man approaches her,  insisting she is “Simon’s girl.” He is delivering keys for the car she hired to drive to Simon in Delphi.” Camilla explains she doesn’t know Simon and she did not hire the car, but the man insists on leaving the key anyway.  So she pluckily decides to drive the car herself, since she had planned to go to Delphi anyway.  She will deliver the car to Simon and go back on the tour bus.

She has some difficulties:   along the way she gets stuck behind a bus which accelerates every time she tries to pass, denudes a cockerel of his tail-feathers, and cannot reverse her car.

At Arachiva, Simon, who is English, takes over: he insists he is not the Simon she is looking for, but he, too, is staying in Delphi, and will drive her there, and find her a hotel.

It turns out that Simon is a classics teacher at a boys’ school (small world) but is here not for the antiquities but to learn what happened to his brother Michael during  World War II when he was working with a guerilla group.

Camilla visits various Greeks with him. Who were Michael’s friends or enemies?   The novel proceeds quickly, with its glimmer of glamour and sex.

My favorite book by Stewart is This Rough Magic, which, as you will guess, plays with the theme of Shakespeare’s  The Tempest.  Among Stewart’s best mysteries are The Moon-Spinners, This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds, and Airs Above the Ground.

If you like Daphne du Maurier, you are likely to enjoy Stewart.

Stewart also wrote a King Arthur trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.

You can read her obituary in The New York Times.

2.  In The Wall Street Journal, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is recommended as a commencement gift.

A Confederacy of Dunces” draws so heavily on its locale, in fact, that Louisianans have wondered how—or if—the novel’s peculiar charms might appeal to readers in other places. They needn’t have worried. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, and more than 3.5 million copies of the novel have been sold around the world. It’s been translated into more than two dozen languages. A stage version of the book is reportedly in the works.

3.  Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post Style Blog about Karen Joy Fowler’s acceptance speech for The PEN/Faulkner Award for her stunning novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I wrote about here.

4.  If you’re in Chicago June 7-8, you can attend The Printers Row Book Fest.   The line-up includes James Patterson, Lidia Bastianich, Stuart Dybek, Barbara Ehrenreich, Joseph J. Ellis, Bill and Willie Geist, Jon Langford, Lorrie Moore, Walter Mosley, Justin Roberts, Mavis Staples, Cal Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Colson Whitehead and Andrew Zimmern.

Edgy on Pop & Reviews of Julia MacDonnell’s Mimi Malloy, At Last! & Tarashea Nesbit’s The Wives of Alamos

I recently concluded after reading several articles by literary journalists that women have to be edgy to get attention. Do women write even more about pop culture now than they did in the days of the Women’s Page?  In The Guardian, Elizabeth Edmondson, an author of historical novels and historical and contemporary romantic comedies, recently claimed it is nonsense to say Jane Austen wrote literary fiction.  In the entertaining but also very literary Washington Post Book World, Sarah MacLean, a romance writer, picked the best romance novels for May.  (Is this a Post  first?)  And Rebecca Mead, a New Yorker staff writer and author of My Life in Middlemarch,  wrote a long feature in The New Yorker on Jennifer Weiner, an author of pop women’s fiction who has urged book review publications to review more fiction by women.  (Weiner also wants her own books to be reviewed, but she is not a very good writer.)

Although I am edgier than some bloggers, I truly am not trying to be edgy here:   I am not the only reader who believes it is a waste of time to write such articles let alone read them; is this the only way women can get published?  (Probably.)  Why should we waste time pretending Jane Austen is pop–is it so more will read her?–or give space to a long article about Jennifer Weiner instead of, say, Elizabeth Spencer?

Mind you, I used to be a pop culture writer, and I am all about taking chances.  Yes, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is brilliantly funny and even vulnerable as the vice president in Veep, especially in an episode that gently satirizes Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program.  (Turns out Selena hates fat people, and she might be pregnant.)  I would rather watch Battlestar Galactica than go to Le Weekend, though I do like Jeff Goldblum, or The Railway Man (God, no, nothing to do with World War II, please), even though Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman doubtless are wonderful.  Am I pop enough for ya? Sometimes pop and art overlap, I know.

There also appears to be a bit of a literary-pop overlap going on in book publishing.  “Doesn’t this look good?”  I’ll say about a book I picked up by chance, and then before I know it I’m curled up in chair reading TaraShea Nesbit’s debut, and 70 pages later wondering simply if I should bother to finish it.

Mimi MalloyI recently read Julia MacDonnell’s Mimi Malloy, At Last!  Although it is pop fiction, it is more successful in its genre than some literary fiction is in its “genre.” It borders on literary fiction.

I picked up Julia MacDonnell’s book because I am interested in reading about older heroines: Mimi, 67, has lost her job, and is now at home in the apartment all day, smoking. One of her daughters wants to put her in an assisted living facility, but Mimi, even though an MRI shows black spots in her brain,  is  humorous,  sensible, and damned if she is going to let her six daughters take over her life.

Mimi has had a tough life–divorced after she lost her looks–and I love her observations about her hysterectomy.

All women lose their looks.  Sooner or later.  It’s inevitable, like sun in morning, moon at night.  No female escapes, no matter how much time or money she’s got to spend on herself.  Most women, though, lose their looks in bits and pieces, a wrinkle here, an extra pound or two there, then the drooping boobs, the sagging bottom, the thinning hair and thickening waist.  But me, I lost them all at once–here today, gone tomorrow–the same way I once lost a good watch and then a pair of rosary beds Jack had given me, no clue about their worth until I realized they were gone for good.

Her six daughters are pretty much alienated from her, but when they get together with Mimi and  her sisters, and explore their Irish-American past , they solve the problem of what happened to their sister, Fagan, who was sent away by their violent stepmother.

It   brings them together.  Mimi also gets a boyfriend.  And they no longer try to pull them apart.

The Wives of Los AlamosOn the other hand, Tarashea Nesbit’s debut, The Wives of Los Alamos, is a big disappointment.  I’m fascinated by the history of Los Alamos, the town where families had to be secretive about their location, and Nesbit tells the story of the wives of the scientists and engineers who developed the atom bomb.  Nesbit writes from the first person plural perspective (“we” did this; “we” did that), but she certainly doesn’t do this as  well as Joan Chase in During the Reign of the Queen of Persia.  The first 70 pages  of The Wives of Los Alamos are very moving,  but then it becomes wildly uneven, and I never could keep the characters straight.  There is not much text on the page, and a space between almost every very short paragraph, and there are lots of pedestrian, trying-to-be-poetic statements like:

Like many moving toward an unknown future, we clung to the beliefs that had carried us this far–about people, the world, our husbands, the war–until that strategy could no longer assuage our fears.”

Not very good poetry, and quite repetititive.  This could be a book club selection, but would the average book club put up with first-person plural?  We’ll see.