Summer Giveaway of Comic Novels: Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack & Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing

It is the Mirabile Dictu summer giveaway!  Leave a comment if you would like either or both of the following books. You have an excellent chance of “winning,” especially compared to your very slight chance of winning a book at Goodreads!

trapido brother of the more famous jack 81BHcE98dPLBarbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack The winner of the Whitbread Special Prize for Fiction in 1982, this charming comedy is slightly reminiscent of the early novels of Margaret Drabble (The Millstone, etc.). The heroine, Katherine, is a very pretty girl who loves fashionable clothes.  When her “date,” a middle-aged bisexual man who picks her up in a bookstore, takes her for the weekend to the home of her philosophy professor, Jacob Goldman,she falls in love with the whole family.  After a disastrous affair with one of the sons, she moves to Italy.  When she returns a decade later, her circumstances have changed and so have the Goldmans’.  A poignant and witty novel.

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford d8a1517294ff3c39d083f040b78e0f36Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing.  I love Mitford’s novels, and while this comedy of manners is very slight, it is entertaining.  This is a 1951 Book-of-the-Month edition with a charming if sightly tatty cover.

The jacket copy says:  “Grace Allingham, a naive English rose, marries Charles-Edouard de Valhubert, a French aristo who doesn’t believe in fidelity. Both are duped, meantime, by their son Sigismund — the Blessing of the title — a juvenile Machiavelli who mixes Gallic cunning with Saxon thoroughness to become one of Mitford’s most memorable characters.”

Bona fortuna!  as we say in Latin.

Americans and Canadians welcome to enter!   I love the rest of you, too, but the postage is too high.

Feminist Art: Throw the Spaghetti Box

naughty-nice anne taintor Throw the spaghetti box!

It is pitch dark.

You throw it.

Did that little plastic thing just break off the camera?


It doesn’t matter.

This damned camera doesn’t work.

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”― Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin

Oh, Christopher, you were so dramatic!

There is no drama on the internet, except made-up drama.  Nothing is  “developed, carefully printed, fixed.”  All the hours we logged at online book groups may be stored in a cloud, but we will never recover them.

Two women stand in the wet grass trying to photograph a spaghetti box being thrown over and over into the recycling  bin.

No matter how often you throw the damned thing in the dark it’s  just a spaghetti box in a black rectangle.

IMG_3261It is a feminist symbol.

Spaghetti is what we cook when we’re rushed for time.

We serve it to friends who drop in.

We can stretch a meal endlessly with pasta.

Just toss it with spinach and cheese if you’re out of sauce.  Pasta is a source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, protein, iron, Vitamin B-6, and magnesium.

If it’s all there is in the house, you make do.

When the box is empty…

You have fed your family.

And you can be proud.

But you’re screwed because you can’t throw the box  away.

We daren’t throw the box in the trash.  We recycle it along with milk cartons, dish soap bottles, and cans.  I wonder how much of this cardboard and plastic and metal really makes it out of the landfill,  Mind you, I am an environmentalist:  I bicycle, ride the bus, and have never owned a car. I keep my carbon treadprint low.   But at this late moment in history, the future depends on the policies of oil companies, power companies, and car manufacturers  When we throw the spaghetti box, we are expressing our frustration.

Her husband is one of those trash detective types.  He got home very late at night and rebuked her when he found a spaghetti box in her trash. He likes to pretend he’s criticizing her for her own good, but the criticism never stops.  “It’s not good for you to eat spaghetti every night.”

“Every night?”  She was incredulous.

She spent four hours yesterday making a huge batch of delicious spaghetti sauce.  There were no complaints.

And so she is here, and the idea is to make a spaghetti box art installation.  Throwing the box over and over again. The idea is that throwing the box will make her feel the power of housewifery.  She cooks good food for her family and is breaking the cycle of …

We haven’t decided what  cycle she is breaking yet, but there are a lot of them.  Cycle of poverty, cycle of prayer, cycle of violence, cycle of economy, cycle of video addiction, cycle of letting go….

I like the cycle of letting go, except that really it’s the cycle of throwing the spaghetti box.

Tomorrow she’ll come back when it’s light with her iPhone and we’ll photograph throwing the box again.  We’re thinking we won’t be quite such good girls.  We won’t throw it into the bin at all.

But where?

Lois Gould’s Not Responsible for Personal Articles

Lois Gould

Lois Gould

I am always delighted to discover a splendid out-of-print book like Lois Gould’s fascinating collection of essays,  Not Responsible for Personal Articles (1978).

Lois Gould (1931-2002) was a popular literary writer of the twentieth century.  She is best known for her first novel, Such Good Friends, though I am haunted by her edgy novel,  A Sea-Change (which I posted about at my old blog here.)  She was also the original writer of the “Hers” columns for The New York Times.

Not Responsible for Personal articles Lois Gould 51gcfMN7gWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am thrilled by Not Responsible for Personal Articles (1978).  Most of the pieces were published  in The New York Times, New York magazine, McCall’s, and Cosmopolitan.  Some  are feminist essays, others are light humor pieces, others are journalistic pieces, and there is an agonizing personal essay about being the victim of violence.  Reading this book is like reading Joan Didion and Nora Ephron crossed with humor writers Cornelia Otis Skinner and  Jean Kerr.   (And, by the way, this book is out of print, but you can find it for a penny online.)

In most of the essays, Gould keeps her tone light while musing on feminist issues.  She writes about the difficulties of passing the ERA, of a jarring Norman Lear sitcom, All That Glitters, in which men and women trade gender roles, the difficulties of making a list of the ten most influential women (everybody mentions the First Ladies and then gets stuck), and why she does not support porn (it is defined by and marketed by men even when it is aimed at women).

Gould has a sense of humor, but she also knows how to make a  point.  In “All Hair the Conquering Heroine,” she writes about the daughters of feminists who are more enamoured of Farah Fawcett-Major’s hair than of a future career. Gould, the mother of two sons who are required to help clean the house and cook, assumed that even nine-year-old girls would be feminists. But it turns out they watch “Charlie’s Angels” and aspire to be cocktail waitresses with blond highlights or file clerks with raven curls.

Gould writes,

The cause seems to be a sudden and widespread cultural confusion about the difference–if any–between a role model and a hair model.  As I understand it, a role model is an adult person of your own gender whom you admire and want to be like:  a President, an astronaut, a nuclear physicist, a private eye.  Whereas a hair model is a stunning, raven-haired President; a luscious, red-headed astronaut; a blond bombshell of a nuclear physicist; a frost-streaked poster pin-up of a private eye.

She uses the Socratic method to persuade the girls to admit they would rather be the active Kate Jackson or Jaclyn  Smith than Farah Fawcett-Major, who has the best hair, but plays the “dumb” beauty and has the smallest role.

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “Women Have Stopped Taking Dictation,” a clever essay on fashion.  Gould writes about the eclecticism of women’s styles since the advent of Second Wave feminism.

“This spring fashion dictates…”  Remember that voice?  It had the ring of silken authority, if not the ring of truth.

Gould believes that women are no longer  “taking dictation” from designers.   She points out that the Cinderella days are over, and “people who wear glass slippers can’t run for Congress.” Women still like clothes, but they’re more eclectic in choosing their styles now.   In New York she sees fashion models in furs and ripped-up jeans, and  high-powered women dress in pastel knits at parties so as not to intimidate men.  And it is no longer the little black dress:  women experiment with peasant skirts, saris, you name it.  The mini-skirt is still there, but some women prefer the longer, more age-appropriate dresses.  There is something for everybody.  (N.B.  Fashion has had a resurgence, alas.  Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings reminds me in a comment here that the young today once again listen to the designers.)

I had my own fashion revelation in the early ’70s.   Bored with the lesbian teacher I lived with from age 16 to shortly after my eighteenth birthday (I was the second high school student  she had lured into her house), I whimsically bought a long floral-print dress and a very girlish pink raincoat.  I was hanging on to my heterosexual female identity by a thread, or threads.  That sudden longing for pink (not usually my color) and the long dress expressed my desperation to show my plumage.   It was an amalgam of my Jane Austen dreams to wear a long sweeping dress. I turned 18,  found a job, and moved into a rented room.

Gould also writes about fashion in “Guilty As Charged.”  She admits she was 20 minutes late for her own wedding because she was shopping for ‘something new” and “something blue” at Bloomingdale’s.  A hardcore Bloomingdale’s addict, she cannot imagine how a married friend who pretended to be shopping at Bloomingdale’s twice a week while having an affair “even made it [out of Bloomingdale’s] to the first assignation.”  How could she resist all those wonderful displays and free samples and the model rooms?

in “Uncivil Liberties,” Gould discusses the case of Penthouse publisher Larry Flyn sentenced to a jail term. for publishing a girly magazine.   One friend says, “That’s wonderful”; another tries to persuade her that it is a civil liberties issue and his First Amendment rights have been violated.   Her other friend, a lawyer who “escorted both Lady Chatterley and Fanny Hill to their triumphant American debuts,” just laughs at what he calls First Amendment junkies.  And then she realizes with relief that nobody can force her to sign a petition supporting Flynt, whose work is absolutely repulsive to her.

One of the last essays, “Letter to a Robber,” terrifyingly records the violence in their home after her son opened the door of their Manhattan apartment to a robber.  The robber tied up Gould and her two sons and made them lie down on the floor while he threatened them with a gun. Gould stayed very calm and passive and kept herself and two children alive. The burglar did not hurt them.   In Gould’s novel Sea Change, the heroine endures violence from a burglar in her home.  I had not realized the scene was taken from life.

What a wonderful book!  There is a flaw, though.  I must warn you that the first 20 pages, in which she deals with changing gender roles and etiquette, will seem dated. We no longer obsess about who opens the door or pulls out a chair.  Do we?

But the rest of the book is filled with gems.

I only wish there was more.  Where is the sequel?  Where are the rest of her columns?

I want more!

My Mother’s Wedding & 10 Weddings in Literature

Did you collect holy cards? The Feast of the Assumpiton.

Feast of the Assumption holy card.

It is the Feast of the Assumption, my parents’ anniversary.  A good day for a Catholic wedding.

The light drenched St. Patrick’s Church, and a few flies buzzed and the fans wafted a breeze as my grandfather walked my mother down the aisle. She wore a high-necked lacy dress, a white veil, and white high heels (not too high).  She carried a bouquet of white roses.  My sunburned father, in a suit she picked out, waited at the altar.

She threw out the wedding album after the divorce.

And the church was destroyed in a tornado in 2006.

There are two ways of looking at the marriage.

1.  It ruined her life.  (That was the popular view.)

2. She lived longer because my father left.  (That is the private view.)

Thinking about how much she enjoyed her wedding, I made a list of Weddings in Literature.

Cassandra at the wedding dorohty baker1. Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding.  In this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, a suicidal graduate student, drives from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding. Judith, a musician, will marry Jack, a medical student, in a private ceremony which Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and perhaps a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend. Their mother, a writer who was often absent, died of cancer, and Cassandra has not been the same since.  She tries to talk Judith out of getting married.  And disaster follows.

carson mccullers member of the Wedding2. Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.  Gorgeous, grotesque,  comic Southern fiction at its finest:  during a hot summer, confused  12-year-old Frankie fantasizes about her older brother’s wedding and hopes to go on the honeymoon. The African-American maid, Bernicee, has raised Frankie and tries to keep her imagination in check.  The action takes place in a few days.  Lots of beautiful description of twilight and cicadas.

3. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Last Resort.  Narrated by Christine, a happily married writer who often visits a hotel where her friend, Celia, a businesswoman, retreats, this novel is the horrifying story of a love affair gone wrong.  Celia is radiant as she tells Christine about her long affair with Aveling, whose wife, Lois, is an invalid dying in a hospital.  After Lois dies, Celia expects to marry him, but in a malicious twist Junius, a homosexual whose friends she has disparages, takes revenge by introducing Aveling to an attractive younger woman.  You will not believe the wedding at the end.

pamela hansford johnson the-last-resort-9781447216278014. Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage.  In this witty, light first novel,Sarah, the narrator, goes home from Paris to be a bridesmaid in her older sister Louise’s wedding.  The glamorous Louise gets drunk the night before the wedding and wears a dirty bra under her wedding dress.  Sarah has always had a distant relationship with Louise, but heartily dislikes the writer she is marrying.  Sarah has a wonderful time at the wedding reception, and is shocked to learn that her two favorite artist friends have gotten divorce.  .  What will happen to Louise?  she wonder.    You’ll have to read it.

summer bird-cage margaret drabble db977f612f2e6c45977773057514443415873435. Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy’s Wedding.  If you did not read  the Betsy-Tacy books l, you missed a great experience of growing up female  The series follows Betsy and her best friend Tacy in Deep Valley, Minnesota,  from age 5 through Betsy’s wedding. Betsy is an aspiring writer, and finally marries another aspiring writer, Joe Willard, whom she knew during high school but kept missing chances with.   There is a Betsy-Tacy Society, and, yes, I once visited the beautiful town of Mankato, Minnesota (the real Deep Valley)  and took a self-guided tour and saw Maud (Betsy)’s house, Tacy’s house, etc.  (We were there to take a very long bike ride on a trail that goes past many of Minnesota’s lakes.)

maud hart lovelace betsys-wedding6. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  Not what you’d call a happy novel, but Kitty’s wedding to Levin is perfect.

Anna Karenina Bartlett book_review7. Elizabeth Taylor’s The Wedding Group.  I haven’t read this in a very long time, so am putting this together from Goodreads:  The heroine, Cressy, at 19 rebels against her artistic family who lives communally with her grandfather.  She finds a job and flat in another village.  She falls in love with a journalist, David, who lives with his mother, and they marry.  But years after the wedding, his mother still dominates.

Anyway, read it and you can correct any errors!

Elizabeth Taylor weddinggroup8.  Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre portrays the worst wedding in history.  Since you’ve read it,you know what happens  to Jane and Rochester, but it is worth a reread.

Jane Eyre old penguin bronte9.  Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark.  Ross Poldark comes back from the Revolutionary War in America to Cornwall only to find that his girlfriend, Elizabeth, is about to marry his cousin Francis.  Very reluctantly, he agrees to attend  their fancy wedding.  Not as bad as Jane Eyre’s, but quite a trial.  Later he marries Demelza, a more interesting character, so it’s all for the best.

ross poldark graham 51NbqPxH4XL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_10.  Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?  Neither Alice Vavasour nor Lady Glencora is keen on the gentlemen they are expected to marry (John Grey and Plantagenet Palliser respectively), but there are wedding bells eventually, and you must read it to learn who the bridegrooms are.

trollope can you forgive her? 374371

Island Vacations, Beach Books, & Royal Lunch Crackers

The beach at Assateague, Virginia.

The beach at Assateague, Virginia.

At a summer writers’ conference in the 1980s, they  bused us for the weekend to the island of Chincoteague, Virginia.  It was bliss.  We collapsed in our motel rooms and regained our autonomy after a week with roommates in a dorm.  We strolled around the village and ate ice cream.  I bought a Mr. Chocolate t-shirt for my husband.  We rented bikes and rode across the short bridge to Assateague, a wildlife refuge where you can see birds in the wetlands and the feral ponies.  (You may know of them from Marguerite Henry’s children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague.)  There are signs:  “Don’t feed the ponies.  They kick and bite.”  I would never dream of feeding the ponies.

A wild pony at Assateague.

A wild pony at Assateague.

For many years afterwards, we vacationed on the Eastern Shore.  We have been there in March, when we freeze and huddle on the beach in our sweatshirts, and in September when it is  lovely and warm and most of the tourists are gone. We always read a lot on beach vacations:  it’s nice to relax with a novel by Susan Richards Shreve or Jane Gardam.  Here are some books with specific beach or island settings:  Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, Nora Johnson’s very weird but good out-of-print novel, Uncharted Places, and D. E. Stevenson’s The House on the Cliff.

A very weird out-of-print book, but I loved it!

A very weird out-of-print book, but I loved it!

Our tradition was to go the Piggly-Wiggly and buy a package of Royal Lunch Crackers.  These delicious milk crackers have, alas, been discontinued by Nabisco.  People on the internet are frantically trying to duplicate the recipe.

Today I tried to recreate the beach vacation feeling with a recipe for milk crackers at  They were delicous, but cookieish:  I will roll the dough thinner next time.  Here is the recipe.

2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. milk
1 lg. egg
In large bowl sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Cut in butter until mixture is very fine. Add milk and egg. Mix to form a dough. Knead thoroughly and roll very thin. Cut into squares or rounds and place on lightly greased cookie sheets. Prick crackers with fork. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. To make soda crackers, follow basic recipe substituting sour milk for regular milk and add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda for baking powder.

Virago Month, F. M. Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter, & the Broch Project

Sorry, we make a lot of jokes about rehab here. I'm in iced tea rehab (three Arnold Palmer today!)

I’m in iced tea rehab this summer (three Arnold Palmers today:)!

I do want to have an online social life–sort of!

This is Virago month.   I belong to several online groups, but I neglect them.  Fortunately bloggers announced that the Virago group at Library Thing is sponsoring a Virago all-the-time reading month.    I dutifully have begun ONE  Virago,  F. M. Mayor’s The Squire’s Daughter (1929).   It is not quite as elegantly-written as The Rector’s Daughter,  her masterpiece,  but it intelligently dissects the interwar issues facing the aristocrats who enjoyed the Edwardian age and their children, the Lost Generation.

The Squire’s Daughter  begins at the turn of the century, a Golden Age for the the aristocracy.  Fast forward 30 years, and Carne, the DeLaceys’ Jacobean mansion, is too expensive, the servant problem is shocking, and the Squire is faced with selling it.  His two daughters gad about London, and his son is a dilettante who socializes with arty types.  But then there is their golden cousin, Rex, a brilliant, strong, attractive, athletic man  (like Jamie in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book–Jamie, Jamie!–I must try to finish Volume 1!).  If only Rex were the heir! Sir Geoffrey thinks.

All right, I’m enjoying this, but I do find the restless, “boyish” heroine, Ron, annoying.  She hangs out with the wrong set in London and alienates her parents’ friends and serfs (sorry, villagers and inferiors) with her sharp tongue at home.  She is reckless, gads about with the chauffeur, and hates herself after he kisses her and then resigns because she rebuked him.   Will she be a spinster like Aunt Violet, whom I quite like?   Actually, I know whom she’ll marry if she marries.  Could it be the 40ish v-i-c-a-r from a neighboring town?  Oh, I’m probably wrong.  More on this later (since I don’t know now).

Mayor, F. M. - The Squire's Daughter coverI must mock the servant problem.  In many interwar books, there is so much grief over this. (Our empire came later.)  On the farm my grandmother rose at dawn to make breakfast for the hired hands, did all the housework with the help of my mother, cooked two more meals, chauffeured her children to Catholic school in town, and played Bridge at night.  Eventually they moved into town.  My grandmother and mother vowed never to go outdoors again.  They hated nature!

But how do people do it?

I mean the servant problem!

No!  Keep up with their online groups.

Our pear tree is growing.

Our pear tree.

I’m sitting in the back yard listening to the cicadas.  The sky is overcast and  purple, getting dark.  Everything is green, green, green.  There has been too much rain.  The trees we planted a few years ago are growing, and I feel proud, because we  never planted trees before.  There are no mosquitoes at the moment, because we’ve had a few days without rain.

This time of year I  sit in the back yard and drink iced tea (“Want some iced tea?” I ask my cousin who is on the wagon).

The death of Virgil broch 27426And then there is the Broch project.  In May 2010  I vowed to read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Yes, it is hilarious that I am still reading it.  I read 50 pages in 2010.  Then I started over in 2011.  Then I started over in 2012.  Then I started over…

This year I have made it through 100 pages. And then I collapsed.   “That is probably the farthest anyone has ever read in that book,” everyone says.

But I must continue.

It is a difficult modernist novel.  It’s all stream-of-consciousness, the beautiful sentences go on for pages, Virgil is dying, he still has an eye for the boys (one accompanies him from the ship to Augustus’s palace), he wrote the poem The Aeneid and regrets it isn’t finished, sometimes it is clear, sometimes it is unclear, and starting around page 100 it seems to be arranged in verse.

No, I’m not enjoying it.

I should go back to Virgil.  I mean the real Virgil, not the novel.

The Latin is much more fun than this novel translated from the German.

As someone said at Goodreads, “So, I finished. What I want to know is, where is my prize?”

That’s how I’m feeling at the moment.  But I must finish.

Are your summer reading projects going well?

Doris Lessing’s A Ripple From the Storm

lessing a ripple from the storm 9780586090008Some books are so deep on the backlist that discovering them is like digging up a rare fossil.

Take the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing.  Everybody reads (or pretends to read) her experimental masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, but few boast of cognizance of her stunning political novel,  A Ripple From the Storm.  There are even statistics of to prove this:  at Goodreads, there are 11,983 ratings of The Golden Notebook, but only 397 ratings of A Ripple From the Storm.

The third novel in the Children of Violence series, A Ripple From the Storm, is a brilliant, layered study of the rise and fall of a small communist group.  Here is a quick recap of the COV novels:  the heroine, Martha Quest, is a true “child of violence” in that she is born after World War I, the daughter of a wounded shell-shocked veteran and a nurse. She comes of age at the beginning of World War II. The first four novels are set in Africa; the last in London, where Martha finally moves. Like Martha, Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia (called Zambesia in the novels) and then moved to London.

Lessing writes beautifully, but one doesn’t read her for style. In A Ripple From the Storm, Lessing brilliantly portrays Martha’s struggles to escape the deadening conformity and tenets of a provincial, racist, sexist society.  Martha has traded in suburban marriage for independence in a rented room.  She naively hopes the radical political meetings she attends will break down the “colour bar” and create world peace.

ripple from the storm doris lessing 41X9C5yPgeL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_At the end of the second book, A Proper Marriage, Martha left her civil servant husband and their daughter Caroline to live on her own.  (You can read my post on the second book  A Proper Marriage, here.)

In A Ripple From the Storm, Martha works as a secretary to earn a living, is active in several leftist groups, and has no time to think. Her mother writes a letter “casting her off”  but then proceeds to pester and criticize her as usual.  Martha’s estranged husband, Douglas, makes sentimental scenes and threatens to cite her RAF boyfriend, William, in the divorce case.  Ironically, Douglas was unfaithful first.

None of the suburban hysteria and hypocrisy affects Martha intensely, except the loss of her daughter.  And Martha learns not to think of what she can do nothing about.

Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline.  Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl.  the sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected.  She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.

Martha pours her passion into politics, and Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion:  the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action.   Martha types, does mailings, lectures, does social work in the “coloured” community, sells the communist newspaper, and never has time to sleep.

The political atmosphere of the small African town has become more liberal with the influx of  British Air Force personnel. RAF and townspeople alike attend the meetings of  “Save the Allies” and  other political organizations. Temporarily, everyone loves the ally, Russia.  A radical core of activists, including Martha , form a small communist study group, while remaining active in the other groups,. There are frequent clashes between Anton Hesse, an intellectual communist who is a refugee from Germany, and Jackie Cooper, a charismatic pilot who is often late and “undisciplined” but without whom there would be no group. Anton makes pompous statements like, “Yes, the development in this country accurately reflects the development in the Union of South Africa, and it is proof of the necessity for a Communist party.”  Jackie makes jokes.

And then William, Martha’s boyfriend, is posted elsewhere, and Martha is alone.

Even when Lessing is writing about politics, it is her talent for interior monologue and analyzing Martha’s feelings that give us the feeling we are there.

…she was not so much lonely as self-divided.  Her loneliness, the moments when she said to herself, ‘I am lonely,’ had a pleasurable pain:  her old enemy, the dishonesty of nostalgia, was very close, and the ease with which she succumbed to it made her irritated with herself.

Lessing a ripple from the storm hardback 2154316In her loneliness, Martha makes a terrible mistake.  She marries Anton so he will not be interned in a camp or deported. Martha does a good deed, but it is a disaster.   Once again she finds herself married to a man she doesn’t love.  And he is terrible in bed, so it is worse.

Politics or marriage?  What matters to Martha?

This can be read as a stand-alone novel.  If you have ever been involved in a leftist political group, whether it be a food co-op or feminist  consciousness raising group,  you will very much admire Lessing’s pitch-perfect mimicry of political jargon, the insistence on criticism and self-criticism, and  the characters’ idealism:  Martha really does  believe in her twenties that communism will save the world.

The story continues in the fourth novel, Landlocked.

Reading Catching-Up: Brian Kiteley’s Still Life With Insects & Carolina De Robertis’s The Gods of Tango

light summer-readingI have read so many remarkable books this summer that I haven’t had time to write about them.

If you keep a book journal, you know the feeling.  You’re in the middle of a great book, or perhaps two great books, and you mean to write a blog entry but decide to read a few more pages instead.  Pretty soon you’re six or ten books behind in your journal.  You decide to switch to keeping a cat blog.

It has been an astonishingly good summer for reading. The two books I am writing about today fell into my hands by chance.   Brian Kiteley’s 1989 classic, Still Life With Insects, reissued by Pharos Editions, is one of those small gems I will be loudly recommending for the rest of my life.   Carolina De Roberti’s’s The Gods of Tango , a well-crafted, entertaining novel, tells the story of a female  immigrant in Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century who disguises herself as a man so she can play the violin in a tango band.

Still Life With Insects Brian Kiteley 51nH+eMjhNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Kiteley’s spare but dazzling Still Life With Insects  is one of the best books I have ever read. Reissued by Pharos Editions, a small press that is reissuing out-of-print American books, it was selected and introduced by the novelist Leah Hager Cohen.  (Other Pharos Books have been chosen by Sherman Alexie, Diana Spiotta, and David Guterson)

This masterly, layered novel is written in  the form of an amateur entomologist’s journal. Each brief entry is headed by a note with the date and place of the insect finding.  For instance,

Sifted out of wheat taken from corners and behind liners of empty boxcars.  New Prague, Minnesota.  July 22, 1950.

The narrator, Elwyn Farmer, a “cereal chemist” for a flour company, writes about insects, but also describes scenes at work and home.  Gradually we get to know his family, his kind wife, Ettie, his oldest son, Henry, his colleaguef, and his need to collect insects. Elwyn matter-of-factly mentions his nervous breakdown.  It was the doctor’s idea that he relax with a hobby.

The doctor asked if I had any hobbies.  Something easy plus cutting down to a ten-hour day might help.  I don’t know why I told him about my unfinished Ph.D. in entomology; it might get back to the company.  The man they fired when the boss discovered his M.A. still pops up in my wife’s late-night chatter.  I should never have told her.

Insects save Elwyn.  He finds beetles on his travels around Canada and the U.S. , whether inspecting wheat or vacationing with his wife.  He finds them  in the rotting floorboards of an outhouse, in dry riverbeds, in fallen trees, in fermenting oranges in a dump.   During a spot inspection of Robin Hood Flour sacks in boxcars,, he checks for seed beetle infestation.  The FDA agent says, “If you ask me, we were getting more nutritious flour when all those beetle parts were ground up into it.”

One of the most stunning novels I have ever read.

One of the most stunning novels I have ever read.

Once, when Elwyn has been on the road for weeks, his son, Henry, who is getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, calls him at the phone booth from which he has just called his wife. Elwyn has no intention of going home, though he is nearby, because he wants to check the woods for insects, but Henry insists that he must come home and see his wife.  Elwyn explains to his wife Ettie that sometimes he can’t come home:  just looking at the house gives him the feeling he is having a breakdown.   But after he learns that Henry phoned him as an excuse to call his ex-fiancee at the phone company–she gave him the number of the phone booth–he laughs and decides he will go home, after all.

I can’t capture the beauty of this novel.  The artistry is reminiscent of a perfect novella by Tolstoy.

Gods of Tango 51TOT0nOHLL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_I was browsing when I found  Carolina De Robertis’s third novel, The Gods of Tango.  I have a weakness for novels set in South America,  and I became so caught  up in De Robertis’s  smooth, workmanlike prose that I had to buy the book.  I agreed to God knows what Faustian bargains of  housework and vegetable-chopping for lasagna before my husband kindly granted me an entire weekend to read this book.  The author, who has a Uruguayan background, explores the roots of tango in South America, and follows the fortunes of a tango band that plays in brothels and cabarets. She spent a year and a half in Uruguay and Brazil researching and writing the book.

I loved this book, guys.  It is well-written and it makes me hear the music.  The heroine, Leda, has always loved playing the violin, and when she travels from Italy to Buenos Aires to join her cousin/husband, Dante, whom she has married by proxy, she carries her father’s violin as a gift.    But when she arrives, she  discovers Dante has been killed in a riot.

And so she has to make a way for herself.  She  lives in a tenement with 60-some people who share one bathroom.  She sews all day with the other women but barely makes any money.  When she hears tango for the first time, she is enthralled, and annoys some of the women by playing her violin along with the men.  She knows she can be a musician if she is given a chance. The problem is that women are not allowed to play tango.   And so she runs away and disguises herself as a man. She calls herself Dante, after her  husband.   She is a stunning violinist, but where to live?: she cannot share a crowded room or undress in front of male roommates in a tenement.  Finally, she rents a tiny room, actually a closet,  so she can be alone.  She can practice the violin and bathe without being outed as a woman.

Cross-dressing frees Leda:  she gets more respect as a man.  But she has a sexual crisis.  She discovers she is a lesbian who cannot reveal that she is a woman.  She takes a crash course  from a whore in pleasing women,  but when her lovers want to touch her, she cannot allow it.

I loved Leda’s story, and the story of the music.  The musicians ask, Is it still tango when you add instruments, the piano, the bass, and vocals?  Of course tango is all about change.

There is violence at the cabarets.   Band members fight, drunks attack each other,  good friends get stabbed.  Careers are made and lost.  When a woman singer joins their band, Leda feels defensive.  What was her work for if this woman gets to join  as a woman? Like Leda, she cross-dresses, but doesn’t bind her chest or hide her curves.  Everyone knows she is a woman dressed like a man.

There are many sexual and gender issues as well as tango scences.

Sure, it wasn’t nominated for the Man Booker Prize, but perhaps that’s a good thing.  Anyway, there’s always the Baileys Women’s Prize next year, right?  De Robertis is a very good writer, and this is an excellent read!

The Best of Packaging: Cat in a Box!

IMG_3247I love it when books arrive in the mail.

But there is a LOT of packaging. From an environmental point of view, that is bad.  From a reader’s point of view, it is exasperating.  Some boxes and mailers can opened with ease, others require scissors and swearing.  And what to do with the packaging?  When DH is away, I smuggle it out to the recycling bin, à la I Love Lucy.  Why?  He thinks everything should now be on the e-reader.

But there are others who revel in book mail days.

The white cat comes first to investigate.

IMG_3249Why would anyone throw that box out?  Hm, I could use that.

IMG_3250 Fascinated by a book mailer, the black cat wonders if she can tear off the tab of paper at the top.

The white cat continues her investigation with the black cat’s help.IMG_3251Oh, lord, they say of the smushed cardboard mailer in the middle.  That is  completely useless!

IMG_3252A black kitten joins them and pushes her way into the box..  She doesn’t know there is a hierarchy.

IMG_3253They watch with amazement as she hops into the box.

IMG_3257She is just adorable!

IMG_3258The big black cat walks away while the black kitten sits in the box and the white cat goes back to the other packaging.

IMG_3259Then the white cat lies down to take a nap.

IMG_3260Nothing has been recycled yet!  How could it be?  This is the only mailer not in demand at the moment!  (By the way, this one was easy to open.)

Bill Moyers’s Tribute to Doris Lessing

I plan to write soon about the superb third novel in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, A Ripple From the Storm.  Meanwhile, here is a video of Bill Moyers’s “Tribute to Doris Lessing,” with excerpts from his fascinating 2003 interview with her. She speaks of being a child of World War I, of becoming a writer , of the compulsion to write, and the politics of war in Africa.