Recycled plastic bottle flower.

Recycled plastic bottle flower.

Within one-fourth of a mile on a popular wooded trail, two memorial benches made of recycled plastic have recently been installed.

I love recycled plastic benches.

A bench would not have suited my mother, though.  She liked the indoors.

My mother died a few years ago and is buried next to my grandparents in the Catholic cemetery in her hometown.

Graves mattered to my mother. On Memorial Day for forty years, she decorated my grandparents’ graves. She used plastic flowers.

If she liked plastic flowers, she liked them.  Who cares?  She bought them at Ben Franklin’s and Hobby Lobby.  They were everywhere in her house for a couple of years.  She needed to collect things after my father began to cheat.

It is not easy to find plastic flowers in my hometown anymore.  First we tried the Hy-Vee.  The garden center had some beautiful plants.

We found plastic at Flowerama.

Someone had already decorated my grandparents’ grave.  My poor mother’s was bare.

I wiped off the bird shit.

I stuck the vase of plastic flowers  behind the gravestone.

Oddly, I felt her presence as I honored her with petroleum products.

Pulvis et umbra sumus.

Next year:  recycled plastic flowers!

“The Bookseller” by Dave Morice

Dave Morice in the 1070s or '80s.

Dave Morice in the 1970s(?)

The poet Dave Morice used to frequent the Donut Wagon, where I had my first job as a teenager.  (I remember him as a kind, smiley man.) I  highly recommend his new book, Poetry City:  A Literary Remembrance of Iowa City, Iowa, which you don’t have to be an Iowa Citian to enjoy.

Here is one of the poems.

“The Bookseller”

Worked 12 hours today and polished
the shelves till they sparkled. Slow evening
few customers. All day long I
began, for the first time, to really enjoy
the job of bookseller, tuning in to
half-hour lunch with pay, bean soup
and salad with fellow workers
from Iowa Book & Supply, Debi, Maria
and another, whose name remains a mystery
Student asking for “Donkey’s Inferno”
& Paul telling him to write his paper
with help from a manual called
“The Elephants of Style.” Worn edge
of Wallace Stevens, torn page of
The Riverside Shakespeare, bent spine
of the quarter moon over the roofs
Here, this city, houses, like books
I ride my bike past their covers


Diversity in Summer Reading

book at the beach Grown-Up-Summer-Reading

It  is a slow week in Literary Wonderland.  Everyone has bashed Janet Maslin’s May 21 New York Times article, “Cool Books for Summer Days.”  She has recommended 17 books by white men and women.

No books by people of color.

I am going to discuss gender again.

Female literary critics are a minority in literary journalism.  More books by men than by women are reviewed, according to the VIDA stats.  The majority of reviews are by men.

So isn’t Janet Maslin a minority?

When Jonathan Yardley, one of three male critics for the Washington Post, retired last winter, they hired Carlos Lozada.  Nothing against him, but do you get my drift?  There are still three male critics at the Post.

Janet Maslin is a hard-working critic who often gets the bubbly stuff to read. I don’t mean she isn’t smart.  She is smart.  But she reviews the new best-selling novel by Ann Packer, The Children’s Crusade, while Dwight Garner reviews Mat Johnson’s new novel, Loving Day, a comedy about being biracial in America.   My impression has been that Maslin is assigned the best-sellers to review.

In her summer reading article, she does a lot of work. She recommends 17 books, ranging from Stephen King to literature in translation to women’s fiction that might usually be ignored to a biography of Joan Didion.

Is it or is it not diverse to recommend books by women?

Yes, the race stuff is very important. But attacking is fun, work is not.  At The Gawker, a gossip blog, Jason Parham attacks Maslin’s list.  He gathers some race stats for Maslin’s summer reading lists from 2012 to 2015.    Then he lists seven new books by “people of color,” but does not indicate by even a sentence that he has read them.  He ends the article, “See, that wasn’t so hard Janet.”  (He uses no comma before “Janet.”)

An article at Quartz by Divya Guha draws on the Gawker’s stats and then lists some books by Indian writers with, thank heaven, a few sentences about each.

Now I don’t mean this as a big defense of The New York Times. But I do believe Maslin  should be judged on something besides a summer reading article.

Maslin is retiring in July.

Five Literary Links: A Biography of Barbara Pym, a Pickwickian Novel, Literary Festivals, Common Reader Books, and Diana Gabaldon Fandom

I have been meaning to post a list of literary links, and since I accidentally deleted a whole sheet  tonight, I’d better post what I’ve got.   Enjoy!

Barbara Pym A Passionate force 61GUgbZEFzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_1.   In the Spectator, D. J. Taylor has reviewed Ann Allestree’s new biography, Barbara Pym: a Passionate Force.  Taylor says that the rejection in the 1960s of her novel A Suitable Attachment was devastating to Pym.  (It was published posthumously.)  He writes,

There seems little doubt that this throwing over was the great trauma of Pym’s life, far more upsetting to her than the various relationships that punctuated her half-century of wistful spinsterdom, and a kind of King Charles’s Head to which she infallibly reverted in conversations with dinner guests or letters to literary chums.

I love all of Pym, but An Unsuitable Attachment was not her best novel.  ( I wrote about it at my old blog.)  I am also a fan of Taylor, and blogged here about his excellent new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck (published by the small press that published the Bailey Women’s Prize winner Elmear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing).

death and mr. pickwick 9780224099660-large2.  Fans of Dickens will be interested to know that Nicholas Dames at The Atlantic recommends Stephen Jarvis’s Death and Mr. Pickwick, a novel that explores the relationship of Dickens and the illustrator Robert Seymour, who committed suicide.  Seymour was collaborating with Dickens on The Pickwick Papers.  (I haven’t read The Pickwick Paper so this book is not for me–yet.)

3.  Susanna Rustin wonders at The Guardian if literary festivals are getting too big.  Some events are  too large and too expensive events.

It can be brilliant simply to see up close the authors whose work you admire or love – appearances from Don DeLillo and Toni Morrison from years ago are still fresh in my mind. Readings by poets, novelists, or comedians and actors who are also writers, can also be dramatic performances, as Charles Dickens’s famously were. I’ve also come away from expensive, ticketed events infuriated by chairs who appeared more interested in their own opinions than in the audience…

4.  Here is a list of books published by the great Common Reader catalogue  before it went out of business in 2006.

5.  Are you an Outlander fan? At She Reads, the novelist Ariel Lawhon writes about her passion for Diana Gabaldon.

outlander gabaldon 1322638297Outlandertpb3wide

This Book Belongs to…

vintage book plate from 1940s:50s tumblr_nl14rfHBE61srvsa9o1_500There are good librarians and bad librarians, my cousin says.

The library discards the strangest things.  Viragos, for instance. Her boss recently cottoned on to the fact that the fiction librarian was hanging on to the Viragos.  With a few exceptions, they are required to discard a book after five years.

“Next goes Mary Stewart,” says my cousin glumly.

may sinclair the three sisters 2455799Naturally my cousin saved May Sinclair’s The Three Sisters for me.  This novel, which I read long ago, is loosely based on the lives of the Brontës.  Sinclair also wrote the critical biography, The Three Brontës.

I rode my bike over to my cousin’s house to pick up my Viragos.  She lives way, way out in the suburbs.  In fact it is in a different county.

It is a long bike ride.

We have three seasons here:  There is snow,  there is brown season, and then there is the green.  We have to get out in the green.

IMG_3152My cousin was wearing her old Super Librarian t-shirt, and believe me you don’t want to see it.  She was drinking the biggest cup of Formosa Oolong I’ve ever seen.  (She thought tea would go with Viragos, you see.  We’re very English–ha ha!)

She had a couple of other Viragos for me, too.  One of the best finds was Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve.  I love Carter, and was so saddened by her death of cancer in 1992 that I remember mentioning it at work, to utter silence.

On the way home it rained, and suddenly my jeans began to suds.  Really!  Is it my washing machine, or is it some peculiar form of acid rain?

The constant rain is the down side of green season.

Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

…she liked to learn, but hated to teach.”–Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor

the professor charlotte bronte penguin 2d75c63740421e9f9973990a553df465 Teachers seldom express a distaste for teaching.

It takes the Brontës to say what you shouldn’t say.

Certainly the Brontë sisters had mixed feelings about teaching.  Anne wrote a hair-raising novel about the experiences of a governess, Agnes Grey.

And Charlotte wrote two novels about teachers, The Professor and Villette, based on her two years spent teaching in Brussels.

Charlotte’s The Professor, her strange little first novel, is not an anti-teaching novel.  In fact, the hero is an inspired teacher.  The autobiographical material in this simple, sketchy book was later reworked and polished in her last novel, Villette.  Charlotte’s characters are very competent teachers.  It is their morbid romances that create the Bronte mystique.

the professor charlotte bronte 64577The romance in The Professor is not, however, morbid.  The plot is wan compared to that of the racy Villette, which is enlivened by ghosts, drugs,, and cross-dressing. In Villette, the narrator, Lucy Snowe, moves to Villette (Brussels) and becomes a stellar teacher, but her students are dull and unimaginative.  She needs relationships outside the repressive Belgian school, and by chance her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her son Dr. Graham have moved to Villette. Alas,  Graham, whom she loves, fails to notice her except as “a friend.” Lucy attracts only the least attractive of men.  Her eventual love for  M. Paul Emanuel, a fussy, often unpleasant little man,  seems to be a rebound thing, though  he is supposedly based on her great crush, M. Heger, the owner of the boarding school where she taught.  (I cannot love him.)

The Professor is a  novel about work.   The narrator, William Crimsworth, an orphan (like Lucy Snowe and Jane Eyre), does not know what to do after Oxford.  His father was in trade and his mother was an aristocrat, and his aristocratic relatives wish him to go into the church.  He is not religious, and decides togo into trade.  He works briefly for his vicious mill owner brother as a clerk.  This is a waste of his abilities.  He is stuck translating German and French correspondence.  And his brother hates him.

No man likes to acknowledge that he has made a mistake in the choice of his profession, and every man, worthy of the name, will row long against wind and tide before he allows himself to cry out, ‘I am baffled’ and submits to be floated passively back to land.  from the first week…I felt my occupation irksome.

After a brutal scene in which  his brother whips him, he quits and very happily decides to move to Brussels, where he becomes a professor of English and Latin at a boys’ school;.

He also teaches at the girls’ school next door, where he is attracted to the headmistress .  Her morals, however, are bad:  this is a problem with Belgian women in Charlotte’s books.   What woman does he fall for instead?  Frances, a sewing teacher who is taking his English class .  She is not a good teacher, though she is a great student.

Poor Frances is only 19 and bad at discipline!  She is very unhappy.  William writes that the young are merciless.

…a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over the instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare.  Frances, I fear, suffered much.

Villette is a masterpiece, so if you have a choice between that and The Professor, please read Villette! But The Professor is interesting for those of us who love the Brontës.

P.S.  What biography of the Brontës do you recommend?  Juliet Barker’s?  (But it’s so long.)

Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

 The telephone is a modern symbol for communications which never take place.”–Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

These are first editions.  I wish I had these...

I wish I had these first editions.

Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet is not for everybody.  In his gorgeously-written, percipient tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush.  The narrative is psychologically-oriented and fragmented. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt.  Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed.  Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery.   In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.

I first read The Alexandria Quartet in my student days in Bloomington, during a typically humid, hot Midwestern summer, with oversized verdant plants climbing and blowsy flowers blooming. I spent most of my time sweatily reading in the back yard.  And I fell in love with the lyrical voice of Durrell/Darley, the schoolteacher-novelist narrator who falls in love with  Justine, the exotic, promiscuous, mysterious woman no man can apparently resist:  she is a kind of Cleopatra.

Before Darley met Justine, he was involved with Melissa, a frail, hashish-smoking exotic dancer. Darley, Melissa, Justine, and her husband Nessim develop a complicated relationship afterwards.

I have had many such glimpses of Justine at different times, and of course I knew her well by sight long before we met:  our city does not permit anonymity to any with incomes of over two hundred pounds a year.  I see her sitting alone by the sea, reading a newspaper and eating an apple; or in the vestibule of the Cecil Hotel, among the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, holding her magnificent fur at her back as a peasant holds his coat–her long forefinger hooked through the tag.

When I am in a certain mood, I can read this kind of prose forever.  And so here I am, many years later, rereading Durrell.  I recently treated myself to a used Folio Society set.  (Yes, I know!  What am I thinking?)  They were replacements for paperbacks falling apart.

Justine folio society 22073In the Folio Society edition of Justine, there is a brilliant introduction to the quartet by Peter Porter, which has enhanced my enjoyment of the books.

He writes,

The shape of the Quartet suggests a musical analogy–that of the Theme and Variations.  Justine introduces not one theme but a plethora of them as the lovelorn but unconfident Darley, seemingly a displaced person in the turbulent city, meets one after another of the people who are to be the actors in his story.  Justine binds them all together…  Perhaps she is Durrell’s version of Virgil, seconded to guide Dante through the Inferno.

I have finished Justine and am halfway through Balthazar, which clarifies many of the mysteries of the first book (or at least seems to).  Balthazar, a homosexual doctor who is a close friend of both Justine and Darley, has read Darley’s manuscript about Justine.  He returns the manuscript” crosshatched” with his own observations, and it changes the text of Justine for Darley and for us.  He learns that Justine had not been in love with him:  she was in love with the novelist Pursewarden, and used Darley so her husband would not be too jealous.  (Poor Darley!)

There are frequent references to Cavafy, who wrote of Alexandria: “There’s no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city will follow you, / In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly …”

The four-volume novel is all ambience, I promise you, though there is some plot. I did love this more when I was young, but perhaps I was more susceptible to lyricism then.  When we are young we all have our “Alexandria,” and that mine was the academic but gorgeous Bloomington sounds ridiculous, but, as far as it goes, it is true!  And so I loved The Alexandria Quartet.

And here is a picture of the paperback set I had then.

alexandria quartet durrell b32916

Why I Love to Reread: The New Brontë Craze

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
― Robertson Davies

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffeeThere is a secret bloom that arrives in late middle age.

It has to do with books.

Rereading a book for the first time in decades is an entirely new and delightful experience.  You remember your first reactions, and add new impressions from years of reading history and reviews.

I always have my nose in a book.  From Virgil to Virginia Woolf, from Catullus to Colette, and from Gogol to Edward Gorey.

Below is a humorous image of Rory (Alexis Bedel) on The Gilmore Girls, with her nose in a book at the Harvard Library.

For a couple of decades after graduate school, I had little time to reread the classics.  In my free time I reviewed contemporary fiction for newspapers and (now defunct) literary journals. I was remarkably well-informed on the trends of the 1980s:  the minimalist stories of Ann Beattie, the gritty working-class fiction of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, John Updike’s suburban adulterers, the  bizarre humor of T. C. Boyle (then known as T. Coraghessan Boyle), and the magic realism of Louise Erdrich.

The bad thing about reviewing is that you don’t get to choose the books.

The good thing about not reviewing is that there is no longer pressure to keep up with the latest books.

And so I have been free to reread the classics.

I have reread all of Austen’s novels several times.  Emma is my favorite.   But, yes, you can read too much Austen.  I am on an Austen break at the moment.  But never fear, I’ll be back.

anne bronte tenant of wildfell hall 51Sp7PW34wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My latest craze is rereading the Brontës.  I just reread Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Is Anne as interesting as Charlotte and Emily?  No, but she is very good indeed.

Although her style is not  as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love.  The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights.   We get to know the heroine, Helen, through the narrator’s intense  letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter.  She marries an attractive man who turns out to be a dissolute drunk.  She escapes with her son to live in the run-down Wildfell Hall.

I wish Anne had written more.  I like Agnes Grey less than the intense Tenant. 

Are you or aren’t you a rereader?  What are your favorite books to reread?

Diary of a Pelvic Exam

doctor health-drs-swscan01630-copy-copyI grew up on Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I understand the importance of looking after one’s health.

Recently I wrote what I call a diary-in-a-list when I found a pea-sized bump under my skin in an awkward place.

Here is what I did.

1.  I tried to find a mirror to do a self-exam.

2.  I finally used the one in my compact.

3. After looking at my lump, I Googled health care sites.

4.  I diagnosed my lump as a benign cyst.


1.  My doctor barely knows who I am, because I am a very healthy person. (And that is a good thing.)  He/she knows me only from the records on his/her tablet.

2.  He/she confirms my diagnosis, but wants to know the date of my last pelvic exam. I do not have that data in my memory.

3.  The doctor asks if I have all my “lady parts.”  I do wonder why none of this is in my records!

4. But I have no qualms about putting my feet in stirrups, because I have had, of course, many pelvic exams.


1.  The speculum, an ice-tongs-like instrument that is used to hold open the vagina so the doctor can examine the cervix, is not a one-size-fits-all device.  The type of speculum used for a menopausal woman is different from that used for a menstruating woman.  (I learned this after the exam.)

2.   He/she tried to shove the speculum in.  I was in such pain that I instinctively shot up into a half-sitting position and told him I couldn’t take the pain.  I have never had this kind of pain before.

3.  He/she said he/she was almost done.  The nurse looked concerned.

4.  Instead of screaming, I endured the pain.  I was sure something was wrong with ME.  It wasn’t till later that it occurred to me the speculum was the wrong size.

5.  I went home and wept.  I had a burning sensation in my vagina and cramps.

6.  And then I went online and learned from Our Bodies, Ourselves that new guidelines from the American College of Physicians say pelvic exams are unnecessary for most healthy women.
The article says,

There are no data supporting the effectiveness of the screening pelvic examination (including speculum and bimanual examinations) in the asymptomatic average risk woman for any indication other than periodic cervical cancer screening. The procedure causes pain, discomfort, fear, anxiety, and/or embarrassment in about a third of women and can lead to unnecessary, invasive, and potentially harmful diagnostic procedures. …

There are also potential procedure–related harms. For example, researchers report that heavier women are more likely than women of average weight to report more disrespect and embarrassment during a pelvic exam. Women with a history of exposure to sexual violence are also more likely to report fear, embarrassment and anxiety.

So this was an unnecessary procedure for me.

I guess we have to research everything before we go to the doctor.  But we can’t.

I’m sure family doctors have only a two- or four-week gynecology rotation during their residency.  This is not their expertise.  And perhaps they don’t treat many post-menopausal women.

Next time, I’ll go to a gynecologist.

A Few Words on Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words

Lost for Words St. Aubyn 9781250069214Who doesn’t love satires?

I am a fan of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

I recently purchased a paperback of Edward St. Aubyn’s novel, Lost for Words.  Why?  Because I liked the the cover art.  This slight novel is a satire of the politics of a literary prize–and what could be better summer reading, I thought, what with the Man Booker longlist coming up soon?

St. Aubyn is witty, but he is much more savage than he is comical. (In fact, the savagery is almost frightening.)  This glitteringly malevolent novel reads like a writer’s revenge.  And, no, in case you’re wondering, he has never won the Man Booker Prize.  Parts of his novel were obviously inspired by the 2011 Man Booker Prize debacle, when the chair of the judges, Dame Stella Rimington, former Director General of M15 and author of thrillers, made a gaffe:  she upset critics and readers by saying she was looking for readability.  (It doesn’t sound so bad in retrospect, does it?)

The British take the Booker so seriously–for months I am agog over a surfeit of information about the drama of the judges and the longlist and the shortlist.

The Elysian Prize is the name of St. Aubyn’s thinly veiled Man Booker Prize, which his stick-figure writer characters would kill to win.  Sonny, the wealthy Indian author of a self-published novel, very unamusingly plans to assassinate the chair of the judges when his book doesn’t make the longlist  Katherine, a  beautiful writer with multiple lovers, dumps two boyfriends over the prize:  the first, an editor whose  assistant mistakenly submitted a cookbook instead of her novel, and the second,  a boyfriend whose novel makes the shortlist.

Most comical are the unlikely  judges.  Unpromising and unliterary, but funny!  The chair of the judges is a Scottish M.P., who accepted the chairmanship “out of backbench boredom.” The other judges are Jo Cross, an outspoken newspaper columnist who values “relevance”; Tobias, a charming actor whose favorite is a pseudo-lyrical historical novel about Shakespeare; and Penny, who has retired from the Foreign Office and is writing bad thrillers with the help of software called “Ghost” which suggests hackneyed phrases like “ice water running through his veins” when you type in “assassin.”

Vanessa is the only literary judge, an Oxford academic.  Here is Malcolm’s reaction to her:

In the last analysis, Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public.

Now I admit that is funny!

Reading this short, uneven book is a bit like watching a Road Runner cartoon.  Will Wile E. Coyote explode the dynamite or not?  Only who IS the Road Runner?  And is it racist that the Indian writer is Wile E.?  Can you deconstruct it?   Although St. Aubyn is a highly-praised writer, there is no way I can recommend this book.