Ms. Mirabile On Bookishness & Elizabeth Savage’s The Last Night at The Ritz

smart women read between the lines woman reading tumblr_m4bw1ln3kR1rnvzfwo1_400I am too bookish.

I came out of the womb and started reading.

No, you could not read Edward Lear’s alphabet books too often.

My mother got stuck reading a book called Baby Farm Animals again and again.

It was a huge relief  when I could read.

Recently I thought of sending  a thank-you letter to my  fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. W.,  a charming woman who loved children’s literature and took over the formation of our literary taste after our mothers decided we were old enough to read to ourselves.   This lovely, enthusiastic young woman with a ’60s beehive hairdo and lots of mascara on her already-thick eyelashes  read to us daily from such classics as  Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (recently reissued by NYRB), Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast (one of my favorite books of all time!), Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Borden Deal’s A Long Way to Go, and Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman.

Of all my teachers, I think Mrs. W. would have been the best book blogger!  Still, I am sure some would have surprised me with their secret reading.

I’ve been so busy reading that I haven’t blogged much about books here lately.

So here’s a catch-up post.

last-night-ritz-elizabeth-savage-paperback-cover-artI adored Elizabeth Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz.  If you’re not familiar with Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries, you should check out this Amazon-published reprint series.   Nancy Pearl, a famous librarian, author, and NPR book commenter, has selected the novels for the series.  These books, which were originally published from 1960-2000, had fallen out of print and were revived by Pearl.  She has exquisite taste, and the four I’ve read in this series are brilliant.

Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz, set in the late ’60s, was published in 1973.  The action takes place in one day, and centers on a reunion of four  friends at the Ritz in Boston.  The unnamed narrator has stayed in touch for decades with her college roommate, Gay.  Long ago,  she briefly dated Len, Gay’s husband.  Wes, the narrator’s former lover, is the fourth at the party.

In the course of one boozy day, the friends have lunch at the Ritz, take naps  afterwards (they rent one room for the guys and one for the gals), and drink and dine heavily into the night. Unsuspected secrets are revealed and there are some twists we don’t see coming.  As the narrator delves into the past and reveals the seeds of the present, it morphs into a college novel.    Gay, a hardworking student, obsessively read, wrote, and kept note cards because she wanted to go to a good graduate school, but the narrator’s own approach was more casual:  her academic career was undistinguished, except for winning the poetry prize.

When the narrator thinks she might be pregnant, she tries the gin and hot bath thing generations of women used to try in lieu of an abortion.  Savage makes the escapade humorous, whereas Marge Piercy would make it intense and overwrought.

The gin was horrid.  I had taken the precaution of bringing a Coke to cut it with but naturally I hadn’t thought of a glass.  And didn’t dare to waste any of the gin–it might be just that one swallow that would make all the difference–so I slugged the first of it down straight and then tried to pour the Coke into the gin bottle.  The warm Coke didn’t help the warm gin all that much and after a while it got harder to pour, too; a lot of the Coke went into the tub, which seemed to me exquisitely funny.  I giggled and eased the Coke bottle down upon the floor.

Naturally, it is Gay who finds her in the tub and helps her out of the tub and back to their room.  Later, she has her period.  Obviously, she was never pregnant.

The two girls are so close that they share each other’s text books “because neither of us could afford them all, which was fine until it came time to divide them up.”

I love the narrator’s sense of humor.

“Now that we can buy anything we want we seem to read detective stories.”

Gay and Len, now an editor, seem reasonably happy, though they worry about their oldest son Charley, a draft dodger in Canada.  The narrator was happy with her first husband, but since his departure and subsequent death, she has been less happy.    She never had children, nor did she miss them, because she has always thought of Gay’s son Charley as partly her child.  When Gay was in the hospital having a second baby, she helped cover up an incident of violence–Len’s striking Charley out of terror after the child got lost.  She observed that the violence was unacceptable but she understood the love and fear it came from.

Pearl’s introduction is not scholarly.  She muses on her own emotions about the book when she first read it, and how much it meant to her when she met someone else who loved Elizabeth Savage.   I especially like her thoughts on the close friendship between the narrator and Gay.

It’s a friendship that began in college and now, more than a quarter century later, still continues as strong as ever, having withstood distance, secrets, time, and betrayal.  Tolerance, disapproval, forgiveness, and understanding are all woven into the close connection of between these two characters; indeed, without those the friendship likely wouldn’t have endured.  Perhaps it is the kind of friendship that only exists in novels, though I don’t really think so, although I’ve not been fortunate enough to have (or have had) that sort of friend myself.

I feel that way myself.  I did have close friends in college, but the friendships ended a few years after, because we were all too “geographically challenged” to keep them going.

Savage is a bold, yet vulnerable, writer, and I very much enjoyed this beautifully-written novel

If you like Viragos, you will very much like this series of reprints.  Perhaps Nancy Pearl is our American Carmen Calil, and these are our Viragos.

Bless Our Bookish Hearts: Book Festivals!

Iowa City Book Festival

Iowa City Book Festival

I’m a bookish soul, bless my heart, and autumn is Book Festival time in the Midwest.

Book festivals give us common readers a chance to hear star novelists and new writers discuss their work.

A book festival can be a low-key vacation. You can attend free events all day, and then hole up in your hotel room and read.

There are several festivals coming up in October.

Next weekend at the Iowa City Book Festival, you can hear Marilynne Robinson, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for  Housekeeping, the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, and the  Orange Prize for Home, and Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer prize for A Thousand Acres, discuss their work.   Their new novels are on the longlist for The National Book Award:   Robinson’s Lila is a prequel to Gilead, and Smiley’s Some Luck is the first in a trilogy about a farm family in Iowa.  There are several events I’d love to attend:   I am particularly interested in the public reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground (October 2, 1-5 p.m..)

Then there’s The Twin Cities Book Festival on Oct. 11, where Katha Pollitt, Ann Hood, and Steven Pinker, among others, will speak.  It’s all in one day, and that’s attractive.

Or you might like to go to the Wisconsin Book Festival (Oct. 16-19) and see, among others, Anthony Doerr, Gail Sheehy, and Deborah Crombie.

What kind of people go to book festivals?

Readers, writers, bloggers, tweeters…

The best and biggest I’ve attended is the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville (Oct. 10-12).  Members of an online book group I belonged to met there “face-to-face” one year.  If you had the stamina and the ability to be in several places at once, you could see 100 writers in three days.  My favorite event was a talk by Kaye Gibbons, the author of several Southern classics; she  essentially did stand-up comedy.  I also saw Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Susan Choi, Daniel Wallace, Chris Bojalian.  I remember rushing up to chat to Gwen Hyman Rubio, whose wonderful novel Icy Sparks I’dd read before it was an Oprah book.

I don’t make it to literary events as often as I used to, but I do like to travel this time of  year.

Below is a  video chat (a kind of advertorial) by John Kenyon, the executive director of Iowa City, the UNESCO City of Literature, about the Iowa City Book Festival.

The Nightstand Problem, or Piles of Books

Pile-of-BooksOnline life has changed our reading habits.

There are fewer bookstores.

The indies crumble.

Amazon is dominant.

And the nightstand bulges with more books than ever.

Before the internet was invented, I was so busy reading books that I seldom bothered reading criticism, except on Sunday mornings when I luxuriated in The New York Times Book Review.  Due to the glory of the internet,  we can now read about books  all day without actually reading the books. I know what Ursula K. Le Guin said about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, though I haven’t read The Bone Clocks.  I peruse articles about books in translation at  the TLS, savor the tough reviews by the daily critics at The New York Times and Washington Post, and try not to be gobsmacked by incendiary book news.

There are  superb blogs that concentrate on older books and classics as well as the latest publications. I try to catch up with blogs a couple of times a week.

The problem is, the more reviews we read, the bigger the book pile grows.  Everybody asks, What’s on your nightstand? I don’t  have a nightstand; I have piles of books. Chances are if I’m reading War and Peace, I also have a Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscovery and an Agatha Christie on the go.  My bet is that many  of you also are dealing with your nightstand problem, and your non-linear book-reading problem.

The book pile or nightstand problem is a common trope at blogs.

Danielle at A Work in Progress expresses it perfectly.

The state of my reading pile has really been bothering me for some time now.  Things have shifted about somewhat since this photo was taken–a few new books added, a few removed, maybe even a few have been finished (though not many at the rate I seem to be reading this year–what’s going on with that anyway. . . ).  With the year completely speeding by I feel I need to take serious steps to reduce the piles and try and get them under control before a new reading year is upon us (and no plans at all in mind as of yet–may have to keep it that way, though I know it is unlikely to happen).  I know we are still months away from 2015, but (scarily) it’s not as far off as it seems.  And already we are midway through September.

Dovegrey reader recently mentioned a pile of books.

The very first book from my Fifty ‘Unread’ Books shelf, The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard, started in early July, when I really was deep into Port Eliot preparations but in need of some space from this big pile of books that I seemed to have been tripping over for months, and some respite from looking at all those Martin Parr photographs…a quick armchair trip to sunny Naples, that’s what I needed.

Thomas at My Porch wrote a blog about acquiring 31 books in five days.

I tweeted this morning that during the five days that Simon Savidge (@SavidgeReads) stayed with me here in Washington, DC, thirty-one books managed to find their way into my apartment. Borrowed, bought, given, and free, I somehow managed to acquire thirty-one books in five days. Sue Parmett (@SueParmet) wanted a list of the titles. That is just the kind of pesky question I would ask and it seemed liked a great topic for a blog post.

Aren’t you relieved that someone is acquiring even more books than you are?

What has caused so many of us to go in this direction?  Is it something to do with the internet?

How many books are on your nightstand?  I have six on my bed, and don’t dare count anything else .

Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast: A Rediscovered Classic

Chocolates for Breakfast Pamela Moore 51XR+EweyRL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A narrow banner across the back cover of Pamela Moore’s Chocolates for Breakfast proclaims it is “A REDISCOVERED CLASSIC.”

Not every rediscovered classic is a classic, but this sharp, melancholy, often humorous, book is a small masterpiece.  Published in 1956 when Moore was 18, it was briefly a best-seller and compared to the work of Francoise Sagan.

In this  gorgeously-written novel, the heroine, Courtney Farrell, is the precocious 15-year-old daughter of a Hollywood actress and a New York publisher. At Scaisbrooke Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut, she has only two friends:  Janet, her debauched roommate, who has been expelled from every school she has attended, and Miss Rosen, an intense, probably lesbian English teacher.

I imagine these girls from a teacher’s perspective, because my first job out of grad school was teaching Latin at a “Country Day School” kind of place.   The faculty fumed about the nouveau riche students, who drove Mercedes and BMWs, were excused from exams for flying lessons, and reputedly spent their vacations in Europe with boys in hot tubs.  Although I liked my charming, smart, if sometimes overly-sophisticated, students, I found it best to ignore their vaguely repugnant life-styles.  Later I taught at a Catholic school, where the girls were smart but the values and discipline were, in my view, superior.  (N.B. It is difficult for a teacher to compete with flying lessons, and a surprising number of teachers left and found jobs at Catholic schools.)

Moore begins her novel with a lyrical description of a very traditional boarding school.  All is so peaceful that we are unprepared for the agony of the characters.

Spring at Scaisbrooke Hall was clearly the most beautiful time of all.  All the alumnae said so as they remembered the apple blossoms in the quadrangle, and the grass growing long and fresh beside the brook, where illegal Cokes were placed to keep them cool  for clandestine drinks before the evening study hall. …Scaisbrooke had been founded sixty years ago on the pattern of English public schools, and its high-beamed halls were dark and heavy with tradition.

Much of the novel is told in dialogue. Through her conversations with Janet, we understand that Courtney  has spent so much time with adults that she is uninterested in her peers. The erratic, boozy, sophisticated Janet thinks Courtney should spend more time with boys.

“Oh, I don’t mean to say that you’re naive or anything.  I just think you ought to make out with boys a little.”

“But prep school boys are so grubby.  They have bad skin, and they press your hand and their palms are all wet, and they are so awkward!   I mean, I like these actors who are so charming and put their arms around you with a Martini in one hand and all that.  I like men who are older.”

Pamela Moore Bantam edition chocolatesCourtney is devastated when Miss Rosen, who has lent her Finnegan’s Wake, breaks off their friendship  (probably ordered by the headmistress).  Janet gives her a drink and urges her to get to know some other students, but Courtney sleeps and sleeps until she is taken to a psychiatrist.   Then Sondra, her mother, decides to make a home for her in Hollywood.

The Hollywood scene is mostly drinking and sex, just as we would expect.  At 16, Courtney is allowed to drink, and spends most of the day doing just that. Soon Sondra is on the skids, and they are living in a dark one-room studio on a strip on the edge of Beverley Hills.  Courtney is so desperate that she seduces a friend of her mother’s, a homosexual actor in his late twenties.  As she later tells Janet, it doesn’t matter that he is “a fag,” because he can perform in bed anyway.

But after they break up, she cuts herself and ends up in a mental hospital.  Things have gotten out of hand, her father, long-divorced form Sondra, realizes:  he brings them back to New York and pays their rent.

New York is no healthier than Hollywood.  Did we expect it would be?   Courtney and Janet become friends again, and drink from morning to night, attend all-night parties, and have sexual relationships with older men.

They live like the most dissipated alcoholics, and have no interest in anything outside of their party life.  I won’t describe their downward spiral, but it is horrendous, realistic, and tragic.

Moore wrote a few more books, but, alas, committed suicide at 26.  In the Harper Perennial paperback, there is an introduction by the writer Emma Straub, a  fascinating essay by her son, a 1997 article about Moore from The Baffler, and a comparison of the three texts of Chocolates for Breakfast.  (The French edition was racier than the American edition.)

Alas, Moore’s other novels are out-of-print, but I will look forward to reading more Harper Perennial Rediscovered Classics.

The 75th Anniversary of Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind MV5BNDUwMjAxNTU1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzg4NzMxMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_It is the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind.  On Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, the movie will be screened in more than 650 theaters in the U.S.

My eccentric mother loved Gone with the Wind.

It was her favorite book and movie.

“My life is Gone with the Wind crossed with As the World Turns,” she said dramatically after her divorce from my philandering father. (As the World Turns was a soap opera.)

Shortly thereafter, she began collecting Gone with the Wind memorabilia.

Without a doubt, it got out of hand.  Like many collectors, she was probably compensating for something.  Eventually there were five cabinets of Gone with the Wind figurines in her small living room.  Move too quickly and you would break something.

She gave me a Scarlett doll and a Rhett doll.   They are in a box somewhere. What was the mystique of the coy Southern belle/brilliant businesswoman and the dashing blockade runner?  What did it say to her?

She identified with Scarlett.  I know, because one year I excitedly tracked down a Melanie figurine on the internet for her Christmas gift.

She informed me that she only liked Scarlett.

That was typical of my relationship with my mother.

In my adolescence, we had a falling out after my parents’ divorce.  Many years went by when we barely communicated.  There were the painful Christmases when we exchanged unwanted gifts by mail.  (Christmas has always reminded me of the break-up of my family.)  When my husband and I moved to a lovely Midwestern city not too far from my hometown, my mother and I tried very hard to reconcile. She finally realized that I hated shopping (I used to get almost physically sick at the mall), and so we began to go to movies together, as we had in my childhood.

But our relationship was dysfunctional.  She was afraid of my sibling, who very oddly accused me of having moved back to the Midwest to get my hands on whatever little money she had.  He warned my mother that if  she ever visited us, he would cut her off from seeing his family.  She was as horrified as we were by his edict, so she cheated by allowing us to visit her.

I remember GWTW as a re-creation of Vanity Fair, only set during the Civil War.  Scarlett is an amusing opportunist who slept with men for power, tried to steal the sappy Ashley from the lovely, charitable Mellie, and exploited Rhett, the charming rake who loved her madly.   My mother was obviously more like Mellie, a gentle woman who did charitable deeds and helped out her friends.

I do have her copy of the book, and maybe I should reread it.

I won’t go to the movie in a theater, but I am still thrilled by its revival.  When I opened the newspaper today and read about the 75th anniversary, I felt that it vindicated my mom.

Breaking Bad & Marisha Pessl’s Night Film

I recently declared this my “Unintellectual Autumn.”  I’m in the middle of a month-long binge on contemporary literary fiction and award-winning TV shows.

I may not have known what was going on in the culture before, but now I have a better idea.

I’ve read books by wannabes literary stars, and I’ve read books by the masestros.

Jesse and Walt in "Breaking Bad."

Jesse and Walt in “Breaking Bad.”

I’ve also been watching Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning series about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth to support his family after he is diagnosed with cancer.  The writing, directing, and acting are brilliant, and the characters are vivid and intelligently-portrayed. As the series develops, there is an odd twist:  Walt’s sometimes drug-addicted partner, Jesse, becomes the more ethical and less psychopathic of the two.

In both contemporary novels and the better TV shows, the dialogue is smart and ironic, the double standards of the economy are apparent, and society is crumbling.

Sometimes contemporary literary fiction is rather like watching TV, so I’ve been cheating on my Unintellectual Autumn with Tolstoy.

Luv ya, Tolstoy!  (I’m saying this for anyone who took my “Unintellectual Autumn” too literally.)


night film 18770398I very much enjoyed the first two-thirds of thirtysomething Marisha Tessl’s literary horror novel, Night Film.  Though it is overlong at 600 pages, and the writing is uneven in the last lap,  it is one of those books often described as “a roller coaster ride.”  I like the tough, ironic voice of the narrator, Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter whose career and credibility were ruined after he verbally attacked Cordova, a cult art-horror film director, on the basis of a phone tip.  (Any journalist can tell you how fast this kind of thing can happen.) Now, with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s daughter Ashley, who for reasons of her own was stalking McGrath, he reopens the investigation.  And a quirky trip it is.  Middle-aged McGrath sounds more like a P.I. than a reporter, and the horror novel is also a mystery.

In the course of his investigation, he acquires two young assistants, Hopper, a hard-drinking, pill-popping  friend of Ashley’s; and Nora, a homeless girl who worked briefly as a hat-check girl at a restaurant and rescued Ashley’s coat from the lost-and-found.  These two unstable young people, who have survived rocky childhoods, are characteristic of the nightmarish, futureless culture from which Ashley was a refugee.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its structure.  The narrative is interwoven with fake newspaper and magazine articles about the Cordovas.  I just wish there were more of these in the last half of the book.

If you like a fast pace, detailed descriptions of edgy art films, histrionic confessions of retired actresses and antique dealers, and trips to the witchcraft store,  this is for you.

A  great airplane read!

Eight Thousand and Counting

mentally ill person iStock_000003209413SmallEight thousand patients recently went begging for mental health care.

That’s because a large nonprofit hospital and clinic system shut down its psychiatric hospital and outpatient clinic.

“Christ, we should do a march,” my cousin says.  “Karma Health Services doesn’t have a psychiatrist.”  (The mental health clinic gave her a list of mental health services, and, yes, Karma was actually on it.)

By all means, discontinue treatment for people with brain disorders and then be surprised by the consequences.  The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) said that 13.4 percent of adults in the United States in 2008 received treatment for a mental health disorder.  SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that only 58.7 percent of adults in the United States with a serious mental illness (SMI) in 2008 received treatment, usually outpatient services and prescription medication.

This cartoon shows how it sometimes is:

mentally ill cartoonMy cousin is having a small breakdown.  She is usually fine, she has a good job, and her chemical imbalance is controlled by psychotropic medications.

But she can’t get one of her prescriptions filled this week because she hasn’t been able to see a psychiatrist since last spring. And the only psychiatrist her insurance covers can’t see her until next week.  (There aren’t enough psychiatrists in the region now.)

Having seen my cousin in a state of very painful psychosis in the hospital, I believe it’s better for her to have the meds than not.

Without access to the meds, the level of illness can go up a notch.  I was recently contacted by an “ex-” (“Hello” after 30 years) who seemed to be having a breakdown.  He said he had survived an experience of extreme violence, and his disturbing emails led me to suggest he see a psychiatrist.   Given the lack of mental health education and the stigma of brain disorders, I shouldn’t have surprised when he replied that he was the last person who needed mental health care.

My cousin hasn’t slept in four days and is obviously very anxious, so she stayed here last night.   “What are you watching, Shoah?”  I asked when I found her crying at 3 a.m.  Now I am prescribing rom/coms with Sandra Bullock and Meg Ryan.

We have an appointment with my GP, who is more knowledgeable about mental health medication than some.  I am going with her to explain her mental health history.  She has a more serious problem than “Put this woman on Prozac.”

So all will be well, but it’s kind of touch-and-go.

In Which I Go “Alternative”: Trashing Books

U2:  commercial for a free album at iTunes

U2’s new commercial for a free album at iTunes

“U2, you sluts, you’re supposed to be giving your money to an AIDS charity in Africa,” I said to U2 on the new iTunes  commercial.

There’s always something slightly slutty about an alternative rock band’s doing commercials, don’t you think?

I have a thing about slutdom.  I also have a thing about “alternative.”  Call me old-fashioned or call me an “ordinary radical,” because I think there is something radical about quotidian bloggers in our marketing-driven  society.

I am a middle-aged housewife, a reader, a feminist, a bicyclist, and a Latinist.  What I’m not is a marketer.  I recently promised to trash some books here, because I am a little tired of all the positive posts I’ve written.

joshlyn jackson pretty 10960383

Nothing could persuade me to finish this.

I have rejected as many contemporary novels as I’ve read recently.   Nothing could persuade me to finish Joshilyn Jackson’s rather Oprah Club-ish Southern novel, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, in which the daughter of an unwed mother finds a buried baby under a tree. (What are the f—-g odds?)   I also gave up on  Edan Lepucki’s best-seller, California, a bittersweet dystopian novel, liberally peppered with details of pregnancy in the post-apolyptic age. (Can there BE any more dystopian novels? )  I also struck out with Laline Paull’s The Bees, a much-touted science fiction novel about a rebel bee and, yes, rogue pregnancy where only the Queen is allowed to breed.

Come on, women, birth control has always been my thing.  I’m also pro-abortion.  What’s with all the pregnant lit?

As I’ve become more connected to people on the net, my “criticism,” particularly of women’s books, has, become less strident.   A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about Mary Beard, a celebrity classicist  I consider overrated, I didn’t stress the extent of her self-promotion.  After all, the poor woman has received death threats on Twitter.   But it’s really her writing that is overpraised:  her work is aimed at a popular audience, probably undergraduates, and I question how interesting it is to scholars or even ordinary Latinists like myself (it’s not very).

Should I  be quiet about my opinion of these successful women writers?  Probably.  They ARE my sex, after all,.

Yes, it might be nice of me, but I am proceeding with this blog from now on as though the writers won’t read this.

I promise I’ll post very soon about a contemporary woman’s novel I have hugely enjoyed.

Because there is the bad, but there is also the good.

Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life

“Just aMcCarthy a charmed life 80057 minute!”  I said.

I didn’t really want to go on a bike ride on Sunday.

I was addicted to reading Mary McCarthy’s  A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village.

“I’m coming!”

But how could I tear myself away from  the exploits of the heroine, Martha Sinnott, an actress and writer who has also breezily taken graduate courses in philosophy?  (I took it with me in a bag, in case we rode to a cafe.)

If you are under the impression that McCarthy was a schlock writer, let me say that A Charmed Life is nothing like her best-seller, The Group.  I very much enjoyed her literary beach book about eight Vassar graduates, and it obviously paid McCarthy’s bills, but I consider it a highbrow hybrid of Peyton-Place-meets-Valley-of-the-Dolls.

But A Charmed Life really is a dazzling book, and I now have a new level of respect for McCarthy.  Many have said she is a great underrated American writer, and now I see it.

A Charmed Life focuses on John and Martha Sinnott, an unconventional couple with an idiosyncratic relationship to the village of New Leeds.  Martha used to live here with her violent first husband, Miles, but ran away from him seven years ago after he locked her out of the house in her nightgown.  Now she and her second husband, John, are back in New Leeds.

McCarthy’s eloquent description of the attractive couple piques our interest.  Not only are they bright, they are beautiful.

The Sinnotts were a romantic couple.  Strangers still glanced after them on the street, wherever they went:  waiters smiled; butchers beamed; as if they were morganatic, said Martha, who had begun to find their position ridiculous.  It was partly their appearance.  Martha was a strange, poetical-looking being, with very fair, straight hair done in a little knot, a quaint oval face, very dark, wide-set eyes, and a small slight figure; she had been on the stage.  John, also, was quite remarkable-looking, tall and small-boned, with high coloring, neatly inscribed features, and dark-brown, stiffly curling hair; he was the son of a military family and was often taken for English.

Martha is a minor artist herself, writing a play at the insistence of her husband.  But here’s the catch:   she feels like a charlatan, because she dislikes writing the play, but doesn’t dare tell  John, who keeps her to a schedule, more or less locking her in the study every day.  (N.B.  This reminds me of the writer Colette’s  husband, Willi, locking her up in the attic to write the Claudine books.)

Martha is not impressed with New Leeds, a hub of mediocre artists.  She confides in her old college roommate, Dolly, an artist who has come to New Leeds on vacation,

“This horrible bohemian life you see up here, with lily cups and beards and plastics–it’s real leveling, worse than suburbia, where there’s a frank competition with your neighbors, to have the newest car or bake the best cakes.  I can understand that.  I’m like that myself.  But here nobody competes, unless there’s a secret contest as to who can have the most squalid house and give the worst parties.  It gives me the strangest feeling, as if I were the only one left in the world with the desire to excel, as if I were competing, all alone, on an empty stage, without  judges or rivals, just myself–a solipsistic nightmare.”

The scenes that highlight the wild seesaw emotions in Martha’s relationships with men are templates for some of the more intense work of the ’60s.  McCarthy’s book can be read as a predecessor of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? or  John Updike’s fiction about suburban adultery.  Did Albee and Updike read McCarthy?  I wouldn’t be surprised.   Martha’s meeting with Miles ends in disaster.  Although he has remarried, he and Martha are a good intellectual match, who talk about Shakespeare and Kant at a play-reading at a neighbor’s house.  They also talk about the unities of tragedy.

Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  Miles drives her home, and their drunken attraction ends in a rape.  Martha does not want to have sex with him, but John is away, and Miles is so insistent that Martha finally laughs and realizes it doesn’t matter, so often have the two already had sex, and anyway she can’t stop him.   But when she gets pregnant, she wonders if the child is Miles’s.  The doctor insists that it is statistically impossible, since they had sex right after her period, and she had sex many times with John, but Martha’s ethics lead her to insist on an abortion.

This decision, in my view, makes it one of those odd Catholic novels turned on its head, the kind of think Walker Percy always manages to pull off.

I am looking forward to reading McCarthy’s other novels.  So many to choose from.

By the way, everybody of my generation, or everybody who watched Dick Cavett, witnessed Mary McCarthy’s  faux pas on the Dick Cavett Show in 1980, when she said that Lillian Hellman was a dishonest writer.  She added, “I said once in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

Lillian Hellman sued her.  The lawsuit went on for four years.

Two fascinating women.  I’ve read a good biography of Lillian Hellman, A Difficult Woman.  Does anybody know any good biographies of McCarthy?