My Tortoiseshell

My cat, Helen

My cat, Helen

My cat Helen is very sweet, but like most tortoiseshells, she has a strong personality.

She would like to be the only cat.

She doesn’t like her “sisters.”

We live in a multi-cat household.

She purrs sitting next to me, but hisses at the cats.

Yet they are fascinated by her and she is their role model.

She is a survivalist who drinks water from the tap.  She leads the other cats into the bathtub.  It is necessary to wipe out the tub before we take a bath.

It is her bathtub, her couch, her books, her TV…

She also decides when it’s time to dine.

She stares and taps me with her paw.  She rushes meowing into the kitchen. Then she decides who can dine with her.

One  of our cats must dine in the living room, because she is not in Helen’s clique.

If Helen went to an addiction meeting (she loves humans too much), she would have to say she loves me too much.

Her favorite activity?  Staring at me while I watch TV.

She is essentially a Kat-aholic.

If we take her to the vet, she doesn’t bond with anyone.

“She doesn’t show much interest in us,” they say when she has to be there overnight.

And now poor Helen has a thyroid problem.  She has to take pills.

For a week I hid the pills in huge amounts of wet food.

Then she got smart.  She knows the pills are there.  Today I fed her three servings  and she pushed the pill aside repeatedly.

She is very contented because she now eats several times a day alone.  This is her dream.  Today she tried three flavors of pâté.  (And she still wouldn’t take the f—g pill.)

Both my husband and I tried tonight to give her the pill.

If she could write, her letter would say,

Dear Kat-Mom,

I won’t take my thyroid pills!  You are completely crazy to think that you can hide a pill inside a cat snack and I won’t find it.  I can see through tricks like that.

Luv ya, XXXXX, OOOO,


Anybody have any tips?

I take my pills, but she simply won’t take hers.

D. J. Taylor’s From the Heart

There comes a point when your life begins to resemble your job.”–D. J. Taylor’s From the Heart

From the Heart by D. J. TaylorD. J. Taylor’s novella, From the Heart, has recently been published as a Kindle Single.

Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is one of my favorite contemporary writers.

This fascinating, complex novella is a fictional consideration of work, love, and loss.  It is told from three points-of-view:  Anthony’s, Alison’s, and Lucy’s.  The main character, Anthony, is an Oxford alumnus, age 38, dissatisfied, as so many are in their late thirties, with the direction his life has taken.  Although he is not nostalgic about Oxford, he is morose about his work and marriage.   Anthony is an insolvency practitioner who works on the liquidation of bankrupt companies. He married Alison, a PR director, because she “liked” him.  They have two children.

But he has long been in love with Lucy, his fantasy woman, an Oxford friend who has, unbeknownst to him, become a researcher-writer-interviewer for a BBC history show.  He hasn’t seen her in 17 years, but often illicitly examines what he calls the “Lucy file” (photos and papers) when Alison is busy.

Anthony’s soulless occupation is balanced by his bookishness and  his obsession with the heart.  He still has Lucy’s copy of Silas Marner from college; he admires her marginal notes (she has written an essay on goodness).  And he muses fascinatingly on the image of the heart in literature and art and its differences from the actual muscle.  As a student he saw a photo of a heart from the dissection lab.   The heart was

…simply a slump of muscle and sprouting, hacked-off tubers….Had any of the poets who wrote so blithely of the stirrings of the human heart, compared it to singing doves, arrows, anvils, india rubber, stone, said that it was clogged, aching, timorous or sullen, ever seen one?

His very nice, ordinary wife Alison (who did not, by the way, go to Oxford) knows Anthony is discontented.  She thinks:

Even now, at an age when most of us can barely remember what we did at university, he still wishes he was sitting in a set of panelled rooms, telling a sofa full of nineteen-year-olds about George Eliot and Anthony bloody Trollope.

Elsewhere in London, Lucy is also discontented with her life. Her bookish boyfriend, Mark, who in situation and interests in similar to Anthony, also has a complicated life in the City.  Their relationship is unraveling.  He charms her parents in the same way that Anthony charms Alison’s parents.  (Both women are annoyed by this charm.) She wittily, cynically observes,

In her decade-and-a-half in London, Lucy had never known a man who hadn’t left for work by 7:30.

Insolvency practice in the city is changing, becoming more sophisticated and global. Things are falling apart for the upper classes: Ian Kennedy, a beefy Oxford graduate who has gone bankrupt, cannot believe his company will be liquidated. At the same time,  Kwanko, an African educated in Paris, is on his way up, part of an international exchange at Anthony’s firm.  When Kwanko moves in to Anthony’s basement to avoid the ambassador’s wife, who has a crush on him, we learn that, like Anthony, he reads Victorian novels.  The life of the well-educated African aristocrat is not that different from Anthony’s, as long as the political life is stable.

Adultery is a complicated issue for all these numb readers of Victorian novels. They do not just jump into bed, like the characters in a film.

Morality matters.  Changing lovers is complicated.  Is it worth it?   There are a couple of endearing married sex scenes that show Anthony still finds his wife attractive, even though he’s restless.  “Outward primness and secret lack of shame is a failsafe combination.”

From the Heart is compelling, astute, and witty.  Real life can be dull, and even those of us who didn’t go to Oxford sometimes burn out and wonder why why why…  We’ve all had our Anthony /Lucy moments.  I enjoyed this very much, and consider it a great book to read indoors.  Definitely not a beach read.

Power Outage 2

A tree down a few blocks away.

A tree down a few blocks away.

What they don’t tell you is how exhausting power outages are.

The storms are extreme now.  On Monday night there were 70 mile-per-hour winds.

We woke up Tuesday morning to find a tree down in our back yard and  wires down and snaking.

The result of global warming, as my husband says.

We live in a smallish city.  You can call a tree removal company at 2 a.m. and somebody actually answers the phone.  The tree company crew removed the tree, and the electrician showed up promptly to fix the wires.  And then the power company guys, who were taking care of more live wires across the street, casually sauntered over and turned our power on.

Power company trucks, city trucks, and tree removal trucks were all over the neighborhood.  It was like seeing a military force on the move. (Not that I’ve ever seen one.)

Thank God I don’t have to do that.

And then I slept 10 hours.

I made jokes to the neighbors, but I found it all exhausting. Aren’t whining and  tears a good outlet for exhaustion, and aren’t we women allowed to complain?   But now I always tell myself, I’ve been through so much worse.  So I just whine online.

Mom, why did you raise us to be such Stoics?

Tonight, another power outage.  Fortunately this one didn’t last long.

Power Outage


Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”–George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, Gravity

I slept through a thunderstorm.  I woke up to a power outage.

Three trees down on our street.  Around the block, I saw a tree tangled in telephone wires.

As I foraged for coffee and batteries, I felt like a character in a postapocalyptic science fiction novel.  In one of my favorite books, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator describes the disintegration of society caused by power outages and food shortages.  This stunning novel is a “memoir” of a future of regression and barbarism, but also a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. (Gangs, barter, and flea markets are important.)  The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.

How will we cope?

No internet, no interrupted thoughts, no ads appearing in the corners of webpages.

What is off-the-grid survival anyway?

Being off-the-grid can be a good thing.

We are so used to looking up information online.

The phone book works just as well.

While I waited for power, I got a lot of reading done.  I am absolutely loving Karl Ove Knausgaard’s nonfiction novel, My Struggle, which I read with the same voracity I do Doris Lessing’s autobiographical Martha Quest novels.  Knausgaard doesn’t change his character’s name.  The narrator is Karl Ove.  The events in the book mirror the author’s life.

Later, when the power came back, I read an interview with him at Amazon.  He says definitions are the enemy of the novel.

I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn’t a documentary or a memoir either: it’s a non fiction novel.

I really recommend getting off the net to read this fascinating modern classic.

Less screen time is more reading time.

But thank God the power is back on.  How lucky we are to have electricity!

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford

Ms. Mirabile:  "Often middlebrow novels are better than the minor classics. "

Ms. Mirabile: “Often middlebrow novels are better than the minor classics. “

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I read two books by “Elizabeths” last week.

Odd how these things happen, isn’t it?  I’m a fan of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose The Caravaners and The Enchanted April I am happy to read over and over, and I am also a devotee of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

During my vacation I took Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Pastor’s Wife and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford off the shelves and immersed myself in reading.

Often the best middlebrow novels are  greater than the greats’ second-rate. I recently finished Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is well-written and comical, but not a work of comic genius, and the best chapters–shades of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone–are plotted like a mystery.  The novel rambles, though, all too obviously a three-volume book, and some of the characters are scarcely developed, like the “good girl” Lucy Morris, and the nondescript Mrs. Carbuncle, who wants to marry off her niece to a rich man.  And so I spent a lot of time almost liking Lizzie Eustace, the bad girl who refuses to return the diamonds to her late husband’s estates (the first theft of the diamonds?) and then tells lies. She is unlikable, but at least interesting.

All right, I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t Trollope’s best.

The Pastor’s Wife, however, is one of von Arnim’s best books, and, in fact, Deborah Singmaster, the author of the introduction to the Everyman paperback edition, says,

The Pastor’s Wife is Elizabeth’s most ambitious novel.  It is also her richest because it incorporates not just one, but all her characteristic modes:  satirist, nature lover, feminist.”

This is the Virago.  I have the Everyman (can't find a big enough image online!).

The Virago edition

The heroine of this comic, partly- autobiographical novel, Ingeborg, the bishop’s daughter, is in London because of dental problems.  After the tooth is pulled, she is miraculously well for the first time in months–no more ineffective “stoppings.”  When she sees an ad for a tour of Lucerne, she decides to go, as she is not expected home for a week.  This is her first independent act in many years:  she is her father’s secretary:  she is expected to organize his life.

On the trip, she meets Robert, an unconventional German pastor who scandalizes the other women  by talking about manure for his experimental rye crops. (Experimental farming is his vocation.) He and Ingeborg talk nonstop, and are unaware that they have committed social gaffes and are being ostracized by the others.

When Robert decides he will marry Ingeborg, he won’t take no for an answer.  He puts little notes under he doors of all the ladies’ rooms, because he doesn’t know Ingeborg’s room number.  In the note, he requests that she meet him in a lounge at 9 a.m.   All the curious spinster ladies show up, and when Ingeborg arrives and sees the proposal cake, she simply is too delicate to turn him down.

And when she goes home ,her family ostracizes her for her engagement, and she has all the more incentive to leave the bishop’s house.

We do not expect Ingeborg’s marriage to be happy after what we’ve seen of Robert.  And yet it is.  Von Arnim’s writing is lyrical as she describes Ingeborg’s first joyous months.  In Germany, she can be independent.  She is in charge of the house.  She makes one-pot meals.  She walks in the woods.   And we feel she is as responsive to nature as von Arnim herself.

It is true Robert, when he scanned the naked heavens the last thing at night  and peered at the thermometer outside the first thing in the morning, said it was the Devil’s own weather, and if there was not soon some rain all his fertilizers, all his activities, all his expenditure would be wasted; but though this would throw a shadow for a moment across her joy in each new wonderful morning she found it impossible not to rejoice in the light.  Out in the garden, for instance, down there beyond the lime tress at the end, where you could stand in the gap in the lilac hedge and look straight out across the rye-fields, dipping and rising, delicate grey, delicate green, singing in sunlight, dark beneath a cloud, restlessly waving, on and on, till over away at the end of things they got to the sky and were only stopped by brushing up against it…

This is also very much a feminist book, and addresses issues of birth control.  Ingeborg is pregnant six times, and only two of her children live.  Motherhood almost kills her.  She almost dies after the first birth, when an abscess develops and is not treated; after later pregnancies she becomes anemic and a little crazy (post-partum depression?), taking refuge in Christianity.  And finally she cannot get off the sofa.

At last the doctor insists she go away with a nurse.  When she comes back, she tells Robert she will no longer have sex.

And there is another man in her life, an artist, who, once you get to know him, is not much different from Robert.

Von Arnim knows all too well that a new man is not necessarily the answer to family problems.  In some ways, The Pastor’s Wife is a predecessor of Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.

Very worth reading, one of my favorite von Arnims.

cranford penguinElizabeth Gaskell’s second novel, Cranford (published in 1853) is charming, humorous, and entertaining, narrated by Miss Smith, known as Mary.  The town is “in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of the houses, above a certain rent, are women.”

I am going to write very briefly about this, because I have very little to say.   It is an episodic novel, almost a collection of short stories, and Cranford is based on Gaskell’s hometown, Cheshire.

The narrator often visits Cranford, and is especially close to the rector’s elderly daughters, Miss Deborah Jenkyns, an imperious, rigid woman, who is kind to the poor, but bosses around her younger, sweeter and gentler sister, Miss Matty.  Eccentric women and men populate Cranford:  they include Miss Barbara Barker, who sews pajamas for her cow; Captain Brown, who loves Dickens and openly talks about his poverty, a lapse of manners that horrifies Miss Deborah; and Mr. Holbrook, who courted Miss Matty in her youth, and who now reminds Miss Smith of Don Quixote with his non sequiturs about poetry.

The women of the town play cards, fight crime (yes, there are robbers),  and muse endlessly on fashion, though their clothes are long out of date.

The most moving part of the book occurs after Deborah’s death, when Miss Mattie’s bank goes bust. She loses all her money, and…  Yes, I did cry!

Gaskell beautifully describes the characters, we know that nothing too terrible will happen, and though this is not as sophisticated as her later novels, it is fun.


stock-photo-writing-notes-5822 writer with pencilI went to Iowa City to d0 research at the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Library.

You are not allowed to bring in your knapsack.  You are not allowed to write with a pen.  You are allowed to borrow a pencil.

Every visitor must fill out a form.   The questions are about identity and purpose.

Who am I?  I thought, amused, as I filled in my name and address.

In answer to the question about my reason for research, I eliminated the first several possibilities and checked the box,  “Other.”

A good reason, I think.

I was there to read Ain’t I a Woman?, a feminist newspaper published in Iowa City by a collective, 1970-74.

Where will my research go?

Perhaps I’ll write an essay.

Perhaps I’ll write an e-book.

I would self-publish an e-book rather than go through a mainstream publisher.

For one thing, I am doing this for fun.

I also have no contacts in publishing.  My few writer friends were dropped from publishers’ midlists long ago.

Old editors out, old writers out.  New editors in, new writers in.

I am due to self-publish an e-book next year, says my family.  Yup.  They scarcely care what it is about.  My parents’ generation self-published memoirs of small-town Iowa,  tedious books of genealogy (did we really have such splendid ancestors?), and cookbooks.

Now it’s time for our generation to take over.

Our experiences differed from those of our parents.  We taught Latin, traveled around the world, worked in retail, became computer techs, rode RAGBRAI, and worked in halfway houses. And is it my imagination, or do an unusual number of us work out of our homes?

Will I interview family for an e-book?

Will I write a memoir?

Will I write a novel?

I will not be writing a vampire novel.  Sorry, no werewolves, angels, centaurs, or mermaids either.

Of the otherworldly types listed above, I prefer mermaids.

“Iowa City has always been a death trip for me,” a woman told me back in the ’70s.

Not for me.

No vampires.

The ’60s?  Great.  The ’70s?  A little rocky at the start, but mostly good after that.

I won’t actually be writing about Iowa City.

Or at least not much.

I haven’t lived there in years.  I no longer know anyone.

The town was flooded in 2008 and Hancher Auditorium and the Music Building are being rebuilt.  The Art Museum is (temporarily, I hope) housed in the Student Union.  I don’t know what has happened to the Art building.

My city is gone.

It may not be my town anymore, but, nonetheless, it is fascinating, and I have great affection for it.

Ain’t I a Woman, Part 2: The Iowa City Haircut

Ain't I a Woman?  nov. 19 1971Recently I visited the Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa Libraries and read old issues of Ain’t I a Woman?, a feminist newspaper published by a collective in Iowa City (1970-74).

This well-written radical newspaper published articles on sexuality, class, race, health care, day-care, abortion, rape, self-defense, lesbianism, and other serious topics.

The AIAW collective also published some thoughtful personal essays, among them “Notes on Cutting My Hair”  (Vol, 1, No. 11, 1-29-71).

The anonymous writer of “Notes on Cutting My Hair” was not quite s Second Wave Feminist Delilah, but she analyzes the meaning of the length of women’s hair.  She begins by describing her own sensual waist-length hair, worn in three braids pinned up on her head.

Then feminists in Iowa City began to experiment with very short hair, changing their trademark look from feminine “freak” (“hippie” is the media word) to a bold statement about feminists defying fashion. Impressed by a friend (housemate?) who dared to cut off all her hair, the narrator had hers cut to her shoulders.  Then she attended a conference in Grinnell and noted, “Ann’s hair was really short,”  and everyone was talking about the “Iowa City haircut.” Then the scissors came out.

Her very short hair changed the way she related to others.  A male professor whom she disliked no longer counted on her half-flirtatious deference.

She wrote,

When I walk through the commons, I feel much less on display.  I’m freer to look for people I know, walking through is now more my business than the business of people who are looking at me, and if people watch me I don’t care.  I’m not touched by it…  Much less do I see myself as others see me, and operate either in agreement with that image or defensively against it.

I knew so many women with Iowa City haircuts.

I had an Iowa City haircut, too.  One day I was eating dinner with friends when a strip of fly paper fell from the ceiling into my hair.  It was agonizing, all that goop in my hair.  I had it trimmed to my shoulders.  Then, a few months later, when I noticed some stylish feminists wearing short hair, I  had it cut very, you know, pixieish.  Did I read this essay in AIAW?  I can’t remember.

I had very mixed feelings about my short hair.

My women friends approved of the new look:  both heterosexual and lesbian feminists understood the significance of flouting fashion.  Why should we spend all that time on our hair and clothes?

Sometimes I loved my short hair, sometimes I hated it.

Ssometimes, missing my long hair, I wondered if this fashion was a throwback from dyke- (a word the lesbians used a lot) to bulldyke-.

I didn’t say that aloud.

The anonymous writer of the article felt more confident with short hair, but I felt more vulnerable with men. One man told me, frowning,  “You really changed yourself.” On the other hand, a boy at school said he’d never noticed me before and now thought I was beautiful.  And when I told my husband about this AIAW essay, he speculated that the short hair might have backfired and men paid them more attention.  Well, I think in general not.  Confronted with a woman with long  hair and a lot of makeup, and a woman with an Iowa City haircut and no makeup, guess whom they’re more likely to pick?

I have grown and cut my hair and grown it back and cut it many times in my life.

Every woman, whether feminist or not, knows her hair can define her, and “Notes on Cutting My Hair,” about a specific moment in Iowa City women’s history, provides a feminist perspective.